Tag Archive: review

Dec 29 2013

Review of the year: 2013

Liverpool Metropolitan CathedralMy blogging is much reduced this year, at least on my own blog. This is a result of my new job with ScraperWiki and child care, Thomas is now nearly two years old.

I started the year with a couple of posts on my shiny new laptop; working for a startup I’ve escaped from the corporate Dell. One post was on the beast itself – a Sony VAIO, and Windows 8 – Microsoft’s somewhat confusing new operating system offering. The other post was on running Ubuntu on the VAIO. In the past this was a case of setting up dual boot but various innovations make this difficult and there is, in my view, a better solution: a virtual machine.

There wasn’t much ranting this year: I only managed one little one about higher education, and the reluctance amongst lecturers to take any teaching qualifications. The only other marginally opinion piece was on electronic books, where I muttered about DRM limiting the functionality of ebooks.

I managed to read a few books which ended up on my own blog: The Eighth Day of Creation, about the unravelling of the genetic code was a dense, heroic read. The Dinosaur Hunters was light and fluffy. Empire of the Clouds and The Backroom Boys were largely wistful rememberings of Britain’s former greatness in jet aeroplanes and in technology more generally. Chasing Venus and a History of the World in 12 Maps returned to the themes of geodesy and mapping which I’ve explored in the past. Finally, a bit of London history with The Subterranean Railway and Lucy Inglis’ Georgian London. I’ve been following Lucy on twitter since Georgian London was a twinkle in her eye. It’s difficult to choose a favourite amongst these, it’s either History of the World in 12 Maps or Georgian London.

Over on ScraperWiki’s blog I’ve been knocking out blog posts at a great rate, you can see them all here. I did a good deal of book reviewing over there too, my commute into work on the train means I get an hour or so of reading every day – which quickly adds up to a lot of reading! I read about machine learning, data visualisation (this and this), Tableau (this and this), natural language processing, R, Javascript and software engineering. I’m currently ploughing my way through Data Mining: Practical Machine Learning Tools and Techniques. I think my favourite of these was Natural Language Processing with Python. I’m beginning to see the value of the more expensive, better established publishing houses in terms of book quality.

Alongside this I did a few blog posts on new tools for my trade. I’ve long programmed to do scientific analysis but ScraperWiki is a company which sells software, and the discipline of writing software for others to use is different from writing software for yourself, particularly important are testing and source control.

I spoke at a couple of events: Data Science London, and Strata London where I gave an Ignite talk. Ignite talks follow a special format, they are five minutes long and you get 20 slides which advance automatically at the rate of one every 15 seconds – a somewhat frantic experience. My talk is captured on video.

I also did some bits of data analysis; #InspiringWomen was a look at a response to the online bullying and abuse of women. A place in the country was about data on house prices which we had collected for a campaign by Shelter.

Back on my own blog I managed to do a couple of photographic posts, one on Liverpool. The rail loop under Liverpool was closed which meant I had to walk across town to work, and I suddenly realised that Liverpool is rather spectacular architecturally. This led me on to getting the Pevsner Guide to Liverpool. The ScraperWiki office might be a bit unusual in that a quarter of the company owns this book! I also went on a business trip to Trento, which turns out to be a very attractive city, unfortunately I only had my phone with me to take photos.

The last year has highlighted to me what a privilege it was to have so much time to spend on my blogging, photography and garden shed fiddling in the past. It’s what got me my new job but for many, equally able, people this investment of time simply isn’t possible with the other responsibilities they have. Something to consider the next time you’re recruiting, and so highly rating that extra-curricular activity.

Also I realise I have a great deal of theoretical knowledge about a whole pile of technologies but I have spent rather less time on actually doing anything with them, so maybe this coming year there’ll be less reading and more coding on the train.

Happy New Year to you all!

Dec 28 2012

Review of the year: 2012

IMG_1236It has become a tradition for me to review my posts at the end of each year, OK I’ve done it twice before and now I find myself sounding like a teenage diarist.

Clearly the main event of this year has been The Arrival; Thomas was born on 4th February, as I write he is systematically throwing all his books on the floor whilst muttering to himself, it is 6am. I haven’t written much about Thomas but he fills my real life, looking after a small child is very much like conducting an experiment at a central facility.

I’ve managed to keep reading although at a somewhat reduced rate. I read about geodesy in “The Great Arc” and “Measure of the Earth”, both tales of considerable derring-do conducted in the jungles of India and Ecuador respectively. I read about scientific instruments, in Stargazers, “Decoding the Heavens”, "A computer called Leo" and "The History of Clocks & Watches". The subjects of the last two of these are obvious, the first is on telescopes and the second on the Antikythera mechanism, an astoundingly complex mechanical model of the heavens. I read about Alan Turing, Christiaan Huygens and Benjamin Franklin.

If I was forced to pick a favourite book I think I would go for Arthur Koestler’s "The Sleepwalkers" which traces the development of cosmology from the ancient Greeks to Isaac Newton with its focus on the journey from Copernicus, still obsessed with celestial circles, to Kepler who started to sound like a modern physicist. Keplers’ attempts to identify elliptic orbits takes on a pantomime air at some points… “They’re right in front of you!”. Or perhaps my favourite should be Stargazers since after reading this I bought a telescope – more of which below.

Slightly more miscellaneously I read Tim Harford’s "Adapt" about trial and error as an approach to public policy and management, "The Geek Manifesto" on science and politics and "The Etymologicon" – a casual journey through where words come from. Finally, I also read "Visualize This", capturing the essence of my data twiddling and cluing me into tidying up my plots using Inkscape (or Adobe Illustrator if you have the cash).

Another new thing this year was a telescope, rather than appear some sort of dedicated follower of fashion, rushing out to buy one in the wake of a celebrity astronomonothon, I delayed until May. This turned out to be a bad idea: it doesn’t get properly dark until two hours after sunset and starts to get light two hours before dawn difficult at the best of times, impossible when combined with childcare responsibilities. Consequently I got little star viewing action for quite some time, except for the Sun. My telescope review post (including video) was my most read post of the year. It has been magical though, my first view of Saturn with its rings had me hopping up and down like a small child! More recently I got Jupiter and the four moons discovered by Galileo. I’m still trying for a deep sky object, I don’t count my pictures of the whole Milky Way taken through a normal camera lens.

Not much else in the way of photography this year, obviously I have an enormous collection of photos of Thomas but I won’t bore you with them but I’ll say to expecting parents who are also keen photographers that a 50mm f/1.4 lens is ideal for photographing small children since you are often indoors operating in relatively low light. I also took some pictures of Chester Cathedral, Beeston Castle and in the area of Harlech, where we took our first holiday with Thomas.

I did a little bit of fiddling with data this year, plotting the spending of the Board of Longitude, finding that they did a great deal to support John Harrison through his life, and looking at how quarterly GDP growth figures are revised – basically they’re all over the place!

I also pottered around a little with science policy and politics. “I am Dr Faustus” was an oft-read post, in which I disagreed with Ananyo Bhattacharya’s assertion that basic research in the UK had been corrupted by the idea of showing some application. “GCSE results through the ages” also got a lot of hits, it showed the changes in grades for GCSE and A levels over the years. 

And as the year came to an end I handed in my notice to go to a new job – starting in March. I used some of my blog posts in support of my application!

May 07 2012

Celestron NexStar 5Se – a 125mm reflecting telescope

CelestronNexStar5SEThis is a brief overview of my shiny new purchase: a Celestron NexStar 5SE telescope. As an experiment I have also embedded a video review (here), I should also point out that so far cloud cover has meant the only celestial object I have observed is the sun (using the appropriate safety measures).

I bought my ‘scope from Sherwood’s, who I am happy to recommend for their good prices, and quick and efficient service. My purchase list was as follows:

  • Celestron NexStar 5SE (with mains adaptor)
  • SLA AstroPower station 12v 7Ah battery pack
  • Piggyback mount for my Canon 400D SLR
  • Universal camera adaptor and T-mount for similar
  • Moon filter
  • Baader solar filter film

The mount is powered, the add-on battery pack seemed like the best option for providing that power conveniently. I have a Canon 400D SLR camera which I wanted to use with the telescope, the piggyback mount lets me put the camera on top of the optical tube and simply use it to point the camera at the sky. The T-mount assembly allows me to use the telescope as a camera lens, albeit without auto-focus and aperture.

The solar filter is essential if you want to look at the sun, and I got the impression a moon filter was useful for dimming the brightness of the moon, photographers will know that when photographing the moon the exposure time is as if for a rock sitting in full sun, which is exactly what it is!

The 5SE is a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a 125mm (5 inch) primary mirror, a focal length of 1250mm and an overall F/ratio of 10. “Schmidt-Cassegrain” means that the open end of the tube has a corrector plate (Schmidt’s contribution) and light is focussed by a large concave primary mirror and a smaller convex secondary mirror in the centre of the corrector plate. The image is viewed through an eyepiece in the back of the optical tube, behind the primary mirror. In practical terms it also means the telescope has a very short tube length making it more portable than similarly specified telescopes. The whole assembly is easy to pick up and carry in its deployed state, and the optical tube in particular was well-packed on delivery forming the basis of a useful carrycase.

The telescope is supplied with a 25mm focal length eyepiece which gives a magnification of x50, the maximum useful magnification of the telescope should be x300 with appropriate eyepiece. Focus is achieved by turning a knob on the back plane of the telescope tube, which moves the primary mirror. The eyepiece is attached to a periscope (Star Diagonal in Celestron’s parlance) to give a more comfortable viewing position. The finderscope is a Celestron Star Pointer, which is a non-magnifying window with an LED spot projected to the middle for guiding, it took me a little while to get the hang of this but I can see the benefit of a low magnification finderscope.

The telescope is on a computerized alt-azimuth mount which also includes an equatorial wedge (like the equatorial platform), meaning that the rotational motion of the mount can be made co-axial with that of the earth – allowing un-rotated tracking of objects through the sky for astrophotographic purposes. The controller is a handset device on a cord, in night time operation the telescope can be aligned to the night sky by pointing it to three different stars, after which it will goto any one of a huge catalogue of celestial objects selected using the handset.

The optical tube feels nice and chunky, although the finderscope is a bit plasticky. The piggyback mount attaches using the same mounting holes as the finderscope, the finderscope then bolts back on top, I did a bit of tweaky of the screws along with adjustments on the finderscope to get it aligned. I have achieved fine views of my neighbours chimney pot!

There is a battery compartment in the mount which takes 8xAA batteries, reading on the internet I understand the lifetime for this set is about 30 minutes in operation, which is why I got both a mains adaptor and a 3rd party battery pack. I suspect I’ll mainly use the add-on battery pack for the convenience of fewer trailing leads. The mount doesn’t operate without power, which is a bit of a drawback, the telescope can be tilted but not rotated. The mount sits on top of a nice chunky tripod, to which it is attached by three screws, so in principle you could make yourself a “manualised” version by sitting the scope on a turntable. I have the slightly spurious desire to see a graduated scale on the mount movements. I’m used to using research grade optical equipment and whilst the optics have that feel about them the mount, although functional, does not.

The telescope comes with TheSkyX (First Light edition) planetarium software, and also an application called “NexRemote” which seems to allow you to control the telescope using a virtual version of the handset on screen – this seems a bit pointless to me! Other telescope control software is available, and it appears there is an interface standard. The programmer in me is hankering to write my own controller software!

Overall I’m pleased with my new purchase but desperate for a slightly less cloudy night to try it out properly – no doubt more blog posts to follow once I’ve done this! Even at £650 for the telescope it is cheaper than many lenses for my Canon SLR, although it is a little chastening that John Hadley’s 1721 reflecting telescope had a larger primary mirror.


After a few weeks of twilight use I thought it might be useful to add a couple of further comments which don’t really make a full new blog post:

1. You can get and set the telescope azimuth and altitude directly using the appropriate entries in the Utilities menu, without alignment these values are based on an assumed initial position of 0,0. During the hours of daylight, when only a very limited number of celestial bodies may be visible, you can carry out a “single body” alignment using the “Solar System Align” option in Alignment. This allows you to enable tracking, and to Goto specified absolute coordinates – useful if you want to survey heights of neighbouring obstructions.

2. The 5SE does not support autoguiding whilst the 6SE and 8SE do. The NexStar range does seem a bit confusing in terms of the facilities available across the range, the 5SE for another example is the only one to have a built-in equatorial wedge.

Here is a video tour, which covers much of what I’ve written above but includes the sound of me tripping over the cat’s water bowl:


Dec 31 2011

Review of the year: 2011

Scan1At this time it is traditional to review the year just past, I struggle to be timely in my blogging but this is a target big enough to hit (preceded by some holiday, so I have time to do it). As always my efforts are partly for my own amusement but I’m also a desperate observer of my site traffic stats. If you ever feel the need to make someone happy, for very little effort, just randomly click onto a few pages!

I heroically continue on my chosen path as a Liberal Democrat. I made a few posts about the AV referendum, maybe the less said about that the better. I read “The Orange Book”, I found this more entertaining than I thought I would – it’s nice to see policy discussion beyond the length of a newspaper article. The rest of the year I satisfied myself with the odd, not particularly party political, rant. I also made a few posts on the House of Lords, both statistical and political. In this area the thing that affected me most was Terry Pratchett’s programme on assisted dying, which I wrote about here. That, and going on strike (here). The most read of my sort-of-political posts was on the New College of the Humanities, offering degrees for £18,000 per year, which seemed to induce a great rage in academics.

I still find the economy interesting: firstly, I wrote on looking at debt-deficit figures to find economies similar to that of the UK (here) – our neighbours in the phase diagram look distinctly unwell. Secondly, on deficit reduction by growth (here) – it 0.5% on growth per year is worth about £7bn, or a couple of pence on basic rate tax. I also read Niall Ferguson’s “The Ascent of Money” which gives a handy background for our current economic difficulties and also highlights the benefits of a well-functioning economic system.

This year the focus of my reading has been on the history of science, particularly in the late 18th century. This has included books on the Lunar Society, Erasmus Darwin and Edmond Halley. My favourite books of the year were Jean-Pierre Poirier’s biography of Antoine Lavoisier (Lavoisier: Chemist, Biologist, Economist) and Ken Alder’s book: “The Measure of All Things” on the measurement of the meridian from Dunkerque to Barcelona to define the length of the metre at the at the time of the French Revolution. For me science is a route into a more general appreciation of history.

A review of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot is my most read post of the year, it’s about the woman whose cells were used to create the first immortal human cell-line. It’s a fine book, quite unlike any other science related book I have ever read – I suspect the popularity of the post is because it is timely (the book was published a year ago) and I can’t help thinking an awful lot of students have been sent to read it and are looking for a summary. The same goes for “In Defence of History” by R.J. Evans, which is a defence of the study of history against the post-modernists.

I had some fun writing about the French Académie des Sciences and lead mining in the Yorkshire Dales, without the support of a book to review.

A spin-off from my reading about maps, in particular Ken Alder’s book, was a rather obsessional quest to put the locations of all the triangulation points into a Google Map (here). Another enjoyable bit of programmatic fiddling was in playing with the catalogue of objects for the National Museum of Science and Industry (NMSI) which I called “Inordinately fond of bottles…” because it turns out the NMSI is home to a huge number of bottles of all descriptions. And there was also the Javascript timeline of British Wars, it’s always good to know when your scientist protagonists are being distracted by a war.

I still do some photography, on holidays in Hinterglemm, the Yorkshire Dales and the deep South Coast, which is where I grew up; on our expedition down the Sandstone Trail and on a photo tour of Chester, utilising some software for straightening photos of buildings taken with a very wide-angle lens. I also wrote about the Lytro re-focusable camera which takes an array of images meaning the focal plane of an image can be shifted in post-processing (here).

In July I moved my blog from Blogger to self-hosted WordPress. This was driven in part by Mrs SomeBeans for whom I made a website (Blue Poppy Garden Design) – on seeing what I had wrought I wanted one for myself! I made some notes on the process (here). Mrs SomeBeans is still ahead though – she has rather natty business cards.

Leaving the best to last; the most significant thing to happen for me this year is that Mrs SomeBeans is pregnant! The new arrival (codename Beetle) is due on 22nd February. It’s been an odd sort of time, we have prepared for the new arrival by getting a media server, replacing the patio, decorating and attending NCT classes. I haven’t written very much about it, perhaps for fear of a jinx and perhaps because it is very personal. I did do a bit of blogging, the dating scan (here) and the anatomy scan (here), I also got interested in ultrasound scanning (here).

I regret not writing more on current affairs, the earthquake in Japan and the various elements of the Arab Spring have been completely absent from my blog. I have a suspicion my blogging for the coming year will be replaced by nappy changing and other childcare activities.

Happy New Year!

Mar 08 2011

Book review: Doomsday Men by P.D. Smith

DoomsdayMenMy next book review is on Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by P.D. Smith. I arrived at this book via the comments on my earlier post about the Manhattan Project, the Allied project to develop the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. I also wrote about science fiction, which is relevant to this book too.

Doomsday Men brings context to the Manhattan Project, it shows the early imagining of what radioactivity could bring in terms of weapons of war, it shows science fiction writers foreseeing the applications, politicians considering the practical use of weapons of mass destruction and scientists working towards them. Alongside atomic weapons the potential for war from the air had been well considered before it was implemented.

The book starts with the conception of a genuine doomsday superweapon, that’s to say one that would wipe out all life on earth. This had been a theme of science fiction in the past, but in the early 1950’s it became plausible. Essentially the trick is to set off a fusion explosion in the presence of a large quantity of a particular element, cobalt, which would pick up neutrons becoming intensely radioactive whilst being vapourised and cast up into the atmosphere to settle the world over providing a lethal dose of radiation. The amount of cobalt required is about 10,000 tonnes which is only a cube with sides 10 metres long. There’s an open question as to whether the dust would be distributed uniformly enough to wipe out all life.

Leo Szilard is a central character through the book, along with fellow Hungarians John Von Neumann, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, known collectively as the Hungarian Quartet. They arrived in the US, fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe and were to play an important part in the development of nuclear weapons. It’s very striking the number of European Jews who migrated to the US in the period after the First World War, including Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi. In the first instance many of them were keen to help in the development of nuclear weapons as a response to Hitler’s rise in Germany: a state they believed had both the technical ability to make such weapons and, with Hitler, the will to use them in war. Towards the end of the Second World War many of them felt less enthusiastic about their use against the Japanese, despite Japan’s hideous development and use of biological weapons against the Chinese in the 1930’s. Following the war, Von Neumann and particularly Teller continued to be involved in further developments now driven by anti-Communism sentiments.

The route to the doomsday weapon started with the discovery of radioactivity towards the end of the 19th century, and in particular the discovery of radium by Pierre and Marie Curie at the turn of the century. Around 1902 Frederick Soddy and Sir William Crookes both highlighted the huge amounts of energy was bound up in matter. Crookes saying: “one gram could raise the entire fleet of the British Navy several thousand fleet in the sky”. By 1913 H.G. Wells had very explicitly written about a nuclear weapon in “A World Set Free”. The use of chemical weapons, tanks and aeroplanes in war had all been imagined well before they were used too. Clearly there are big technical issues to address in going from a science fiction idea to a real system in battle, but the point here is that these ideas had serious public currency well before they were realised: there could be no “we’ll keep this quiet and no-one will think of it”. In a sense the key theme of the book is the interweaving of fiction with fact through the first half of the 20th century.

It was during the First World War that “scientific” superweapons started to be used, and the importance of science in waging war started to be recognised explicitly. Fritz Haber, a chemist, Nobel prize-winner for his commercial synthesis of ammonia, contemporary of Einstein, was instrumental in bringing chemical weapons to war, he was a German nationalist and felt the development of such weapons a duty to his country. He seemed quite enthusiastic about his work, writing:

“Chlorine: easy to liquefy, disastrous to the human organism, very cheap, mind you! Phosgene: ten times as strong as chlorine. Mustard gas: the best fighting gas of all”.

Once the Germans had used chemical weapons the British and French quickly developed their own. Research and manufacture of chemical weapons was to involve up to 75,000 people by the end of the war – this is about half the number involved in the Manhattan Project. A minority of scientists considered chemical warfare as a blessing compared to the conventional equivalent, for many others it was utterly abhorrent. The military had mixed feelings. Chemical weapons were banned by a variety of treaties, practically they seemed something of a double-edged sword with the first British use of chlorine at Loos causing 2000 casualties on their own side which perhaps explains why they’ve been so rarely used since. With the rise of Nazism Haber, a Jew, was to flee Germany and die shortly thereafter.

The First World War also saw the foundation of the British Board of Invention and Research in 1916, tasked with finding science to fight wars – it sought ideas from the public, one of the which was to train cormorants to peck out the mortar between bricks!

Biological weapons were to be developed by the Japanese whilst at war in China during the 1930’s and the Second World War, in an effort led by Shiro Ishii. During this period thousands were to die through his work, many in a range of human experiments to match those carried out by the Nazi doctors. Following the Second World War Ishii was given immunity from prosecution in order that the US could obtain information on biological weapons from him.

So chemistry and biology produced rather unpleasant weapons but they could not be described as decisive: for that you need physicists.

Szilard was first to realise (in 1933) that an atomic bomb might be made via a chain reaction: the fission of an atomic nucleus producing two or more neutrons which would drive further fission. He made some effort to keep the idea secret, at least from the Germans, via a patent held by the British Admirality. This was a very unusual move for a scientist in an area of pure science. In 1939 he was to visit Roosevelt with Einstein to warn him of the potential for an atomic bomb and the possibility that the Germans would make one. Ultimately this contact led to the Manhattan Project and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: killing at least 200,000 people.

One of the recurring themes in fiction was the idea of a scientist discovering the doomsday weapon and then holding the world to ransom for peace with the new “system of the world”: a world government led by scientists and technocrats. This sort of idea is better described as left-wing rather than right-wing. And I can say, as a scientist, that it has a certain appeal! Perhaps this explains something of why scientists are more often perceived as left-wing rather than right-wing.

Doomsday Men ends with the story of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film “Dr Strangelove: or How I stopped worrying and learned to love the Bomb”. The title character appears to have been based on a combination of Teller, von Neumann and perhaps Werner von Braun – the German rocket scientist captured by the Americans who went on to found the US space programme.

Overall a rather good read: providing good context to the Manhattan Project and the Cold War, and the importance of science fiction in seeing into the future.

Footnote: one of the drawbacks of reading on a Kindle: I reached the end rather unexpectedly since the footnotes, bibliography, and index take up a third of the book!

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