All quiet on the Gimboland front.

All quiet on the Gimboland front.

I had a “big oops” type event on my hard drive a couple of weeks ago, and I managed to recover from it badly enough that I destroyed my weblog data. Last backup was in December, so I’ll have to reconstruct since then by reverse-engineering from the archived HTML pages. Shite. This has not been done yet, so please bear with me.

Gimbo’s book reviews

Phil wrote to tell me his own tale of flammable living, which also happily ended well, and while he was at it he pointed out that according to my sidebar, I’d been reading American Gods for quite a long time now. Well, of course, he’s right to be knowing and mildly sarcastic in such an assertion – I’m a slow reader, but not that slow. Since American Gods I’ve enjoyed Schismatrix, and the His Dark Materials trilogy, and I’m currently in the very early throes of what looks like being a passionate affair with The Moor’s Last Sigh.

Schismatrix was excellent – suitably grand and epic in its sweep, and I think it’s always a Good Thing for me, an avowed Arthur C Clarke fan, to read a solar-system spacefaring sci-fi novel in which everything isn’t just fine and dandy, and in which politics is as important, if not more so, than science. Maybe it’s just a side effect of growing up and becoming cynical, but I get a kick from that these days.

I also really enjoyed His Dark Materials, but not, perhaps, as much as I thought I was going to. I think I’d over-hyped it in my own mind, and of course it is a children’s book ultimately, and as sophisticated as it is, and as readable by adults too, it was still a bit simplistic, compared to what I was hoping for/anticipating. I realise that this is entirely my own fault for having that expectation, and I don’t mean to detract from Mr Pullman’s achievement with the books, which really are very good indeed, but there it is. Still, I look forward to the days when my children read them, and we can have deep discussions about challenges to authority, and then they can steal the car keys and go shoplift some alcohol. Bless ‘em.

And as for The Moor’s Last Sigh, well, I’ve hardly started it, maybe twenty pages in, but it’s got me captivated. A little slower than The Satanic Verses, which had me in its grip from the very first paragraph, but impressive nonetheless. I am settling down for a long, slow, sumptuous, treat.

Rumsfeld poetry.

A Confession, by Donald Rumsfeld.

Once in a while,
I’m standing here, doing something.
And I think,
“What in the world am I doing here?”
It’s a big surprise.

More superb Rumsfeld poetry here [bash].

(Also, many thanks to Mark Hughes for pointing out that I’d said Ronald, not Donald, above – d’oh!).

Flammable living.

Hey, the house nearly caught fire on Saturday night!

We had some beloved buddies over for a “good dhal” night (ie I was cooking curry), and prior to adjourning into the library, one of our number, who shall remain nameless (the goon!), volunteered to set the fire in there. Go for it, we said, seeing as how this person had done such a good job on the fireplace in the living room.

So there we were, in the kitchen and the living room, when the smoke alarm went off. “Oh ho,”, thinks us, “the firestarter’s going to appear in flames and tell us they’ve got the fire lit, ho ho ho.”

Well, we were wrong, but only somewhat.

Firestarter and Firestarter’s Accomplice were in the hall, with the front door open, looking sheepish/worried, announcing that all the smoke was coming into the room instead of going up the chimney. Well, this has happened before, when the wind was wrong, and yes, the room can get quite smokey in the fire’s early stages (once it’s really “going” it’s never a problem). So I went in to have a look.

Blimey, that really is incredibly smokey, thinks I. Let’s open the window. Good. Now, ah, hang on, I think I see what the problem is.

“You’ve left the chimney door shut!”, I shouted.

“Chimney door?”, shouted they in response, their voices tinged with panic and ignorance.

Yes indeed, there’s a little door at the bottom of the chimney, which you shut when the fire isn’t in use, to keep the cold air out, and which you (should) open when the fire is in use, to let the smoke out. Our good volunteers had simply neglected to open it.

Now, before we point our fingers and laugh in ridicule, I’d just like to confess that I’ve done this as well: started the fire and left the door shut, only to realise what the problem was when the room filled with smoke. Being unfamiliar with the fireplace’s configuration and management, our venerable firestarters hadn’t made the final connection. They can’t really be blamed, can they? Well OK, just a bit, but be nice.

So, seeing what the problem was, I went up to the fire, and kicked the door open. Only it didn’t kick open – there was resistance. What the hey? Kick again. Nope. Leave the room, take a deep breath, dive back in, and kick really fuckin’ hard. The doorway fell away from its place (it just sits there, there’s no hinge or latch, ie no damage done), into the logs, to reveal the open chimney, up which the smoke could now escape, and into which the flames were now licking.

Oh. Fuck. It’s full of twigs.

Fuck. It’s a bird’s nest.


“Get me some sand! We need sand! Or earth! We need to put the fire out! Where the fuck’s the bucket!?”. Julie handed me the bucket (containing embers from the last time the fire was used – would probably have done the trick), and I ran outside, emptied it, and headed into the garden to get some earth. Only there’s no exposed earth in the garden: all the beds are some weird low-maintenance thing the previous owner installed: gravel, sheets, wood chips (“try those!”), etc. and no mud or sand.

“How about water?”, suggested Simon, intellectual titan that he is.

“Water! Yeah!”. I had initially dismissed water due to the mess it would cause, but time was of the essence and I didn’t see any mud or sand appearing any quicker than water. To the kitchen! Fill the kettle! To the library! Put the fire out!

Now, by this time the smoke was clearing, partially up the chimney but mainly out through the (now open, thank you guys) door, so extinguishing the fire was no hard task. A couple of old towels to mop up the dirty water, and all was well.

Once everything had cooled down, I got to work pulling the twigs out. There were, to put it mildly, a shedload of them. They just kept coming. We took a couple of photos, but it’ll be ages before I get them developed and scan them, so I’ll just have to say that there was definitely a bin-liner’s worth of twigs there. No birds and no eggs, thankfully. A fair but of mud and assorted plant matter, but mainly twigs.

Not being aware of any vertical take off birds (except perhaps harriers – geddit?), we can only presume the nest started its life at the top of the chimney and collapsed in at some point. Either that or some remarkably persistent and stupid avian decided that if they just kept dropping twigs down the chimney, sooner or later they’d have a nest. I don’t know.

However, stupid avian’s loss is stupid human’s gain: we’re sorted for kindling for a while, at the very least.

Algebraic Specification + Process Algebra = Fun Fun Fun

I need to find/choose some research to do soonish – just haven’t had time to think about it yet. It has been suggested that process algebra and algebraic specification are areas in which there may be some work to do, so here are a couple of preliminary bookmarks for me to check out, possibly in conjunction with Dr Fokkink‘s book. Well, not possibly, given that I’m reading it right now. :-) Anyway.

An Introduction to the Algebraic Specification of Abstract Data Types, and Introduction to CSP. Rob van Glabbeek’s note on process algebra.

Why am I telling you this? I’m not. I’m telling myself. This is me remembering that Gimboland started out as a bookmarks collection, before I succumbed to the conceit that anybody was listening. :)

Conference Frenzy

If I thought that the students being on holiday would mean I was less busy, boy was I wrong.

On Tuesday I went to Cardiff for a seminar hosted by the Welsh e-Science Centre (caution: website gratuitously resizes browser windows) on Grid Computing. It was fairly interesting, but a little geared towards corporate types rather than being technically deep. It was enough to whet my appetite, I guess.

But Wednesday… Wednesday was something else altogether. I got up at 04:30, drove for four hours, attended the Python UK Conference 2003 from 09:00 until 19:30, then drove home, getting into bed about 11:30. A long, full, and highly enjoyable day.

For one thing, it was so cool to be surrounded by people who are as into Python (or more so!) than me – others who “understood”. :-) And yes, I did talk to Guido (heh – top hit when you google for “Guido”), and was pleased to put some faces to some names I know from the mailing list.

It was also somewhat frustrating in that respect – this time last year I was a regular on the mailing list, asking and answering questions, and starting to feel I was part of the community. Then I had less and less time for that, and of course I started this new job and haven’t had time for anything other than writing notes and teaching. So although I knew who Alex Martelli, Andy Robinson, Chris Withers, and Laura Creighton were (for instance), I really didn’t think they’d know me and I was shy of approaching them. Having said that, I did collar Chris and talk about rock-climbing briefly, but it wasn’t a pythonic conversation. :-)

But it wasn’t just a Python fanboy event: the content was excellent. Guido opened with his keynote on the history and background of Python, after which I basically stuck with the first “track” of the conference: Chris Withers on Extreme Programming, Duncan Booth on Design Patterns and Python, then a somewhat improvised panel discussion involving the great and the good. In each of these cases, it was the questions and answers that got really interesting – really mentally stimulating stuff.

The main reason I’d actually made it to the conference was because of a discussion at the end of the day, “Programming For Virgins”, on the subject of teaching programming to, well, people who’ve never programmed before. My colleague Chris Whyley was particularly interested in this, and since he was going and he knew I was into Python, invited me. The discussion was really interesting, not to mention inspirational – one of the prime movers was Russel Winder, formerly head of the Computer Science department at King’s College, London. We came away from that with lots of ideas and opinions.

Oh yeah – the other thing that was really cool was that I met (without realising it at the time), PyTex developer and Knuth lookalike (I hope he won’t mind me saying that), Jonathan Fine. Which was nice, given that I was raving about PyTex just last week.

I’d like to write more, and maybe even try to write something more interesting than the above, but I just don’t have time. So that’s your lot. I firmly resolve, however, that next year I’m going for both days of the Python conference, and staying over. :-) See you there?