Monday, January 01, 2018

At the start of 2017 I made a resolution improve on last year's 53 books, setting the target at 65. For most of the year I seemed to be ahead of target, but the last few months have been quite tough for a number of reasons and I really didn't think I'd make it. However, a late sprint during the Christmas holidays has seen me cross the line.

As last year, here are some highlights:

Most interesting: John Wright A Natural History of the Hedgerow (Profile Books 2016)
I had never really stopped to think about how hedgerows were constructed and was surprised to discover that there is such variety in methods and to understand how a hedge is laid by partially cutting through the stems and pushing the young plants over. I think a good non-fiction book is one that opens my eyes to see the world in a new, more detailed way. A little while ago I read Blockley's Bridges (OUP 2010) and that had the same effect - I can't now pass a bridge without trying to work out how it works and why that design was chosen for the situation.

Saddest to finish: Herbert Uncommon Law
A colleague had lent (and eventually gave me) this wonderful compendium of stories highlighting the absurdity of the law. I read one story (there are 66) each day whilst eating lunch at work and they were such a joy.

Most thrilling: Graves  I, Claudius (Penguin)
I read quite a lot of thrillers, but I found re-reading this very sleep-depriving because I just couldn't put it down. Whilst Robert Harris's Cicero trilogy are also very gripping there's something about Graves's writing that makes it even more compelling.

Most heavy going: Hofstadter Goedel, Escher, Bach and eternal golden braid (Basic Books, 1999)
I have to admit that I really found this hard and nearly abandoned it several times. I'm not sure I really got to grips with the incompleteness theorem but I enjoyed the parallels with Escher and Bach and it has inspired me to study The Art of Fugue. I've been lucky enough to receive both a recording (the Radio 3 building a library recommendation to add to the two I have already - one orchestral, one organ) and a score for Christmas, so that's definitely a project for 2018.


My target for 2018 is going to stick at 65, but I want to read two quite hefty volumes in amongst that. The first is Press and Siever's Earth - a book I used to dip into when I was a sixth former, but have never read cover to cover. I was so pleased to find this on Amazon for a not too eye-watering price as I thought it was out-of-print and difficult to obtain. When I started teaching back at my old school I was devastated that the librarian had weeded it out whilst I was up at Oxford and have been looking for it ever since. The second is Eliel's magisterial Stereochemistry of Organic Compounds. This was one that I used to borrow from the Hooke library in Oxford and again dip into. It was also the volume that finally exasperated me with Blackwell's in Oxford, their "expert" telling me the book didn't exist and was therefore unobtainable, not 20 minutes after I'd returned my library copy! Eliel's prose style is beautifully readable but it's not really a book that you can keep on a bedside table!

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Steam day

Today I took T to the Malden and District Society of Model Engineers' steam day. An excellent afternoon out and well worth the queuing for the train rides.

Here's a video that gives a flavour of what it's like



I thoroughly recommend it!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Guildfordian Dream

Last night, M and I went to a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream given by the Guildford Shakespeare Company.

An open air, promenade performance, they used the space at Racks Close to separate the scenes, with the audience following the characters into the wood for the middle section of the play. The production is set in 1967 Guildford, and makes extensive and very effective use of 60s music throughout. We really, really enjoyed it, despite some quite intense rain during the second half (the BBC weather had said "showers dying out through the evening" - we evidently got caught in their death throes). I strongly recommend it, if you can still get tickets!

I'm not much of theatre critic, but see some reviews here

https://www.londontheatre1.com/news/174557/review-guildford-shakespeare-companys-a-midsummer-nights-dream/

http://www.guildford-dragon.com/2017/06/20/review-midsummer-nights-dream-guildford-shakespeare-company/

And the GSC have a trailer on YouTube:





Saturday, June 10, 2017

New Build

It had been becoming increasingly clear to me that my 2010 Windows 7 desktop was getting slower and slower and slower. Boot time (from POST to Anti-Virus finishing with the machine and allowing me to use some system resources) had become three minutes!

After looking around at the fairly limited range of desktops, both in the shops and online, I was unimpressed. I didn't want an all-in-one or a mini-tower because they lack expansion capability and, already working on a two-screen set-up I didn't want an asymmetric all-in-one-with-second-monitor set up.

I'm not into computer gaming, so really really fast or overclocking was not on the shopping list, but I really wanted a machine that would boot fast, handle multitasking office-type applications, but not cost the earth. Whilst I've done a lot of messing about inside computers before, I'd never built one from scratch before. I thought it was about time I did!

This was what I settled on.

Hardware
In a Corsair 100R case
ASUS prime 250-PLUS  ATX motherboard
Intel G4560 Pentium, 3.5 GHz (dual core, with multi-threading)
8GB 2133 RAM (Kingston Hyper-Fury)
AMD Radeon HD 6450 (recycled out of my old machine)
Corsair VS550 power supply
Sandisk 256 GB SSD for OS and applications
WD 1TB HDD for documents
WD 4TB HDD for photos and videos (recycled out of my old machine)
ASUS DVD-writer
PCIe USB expansion card (5 external + 2 internal)


Software
Windows 10 Home 64 bit
Avast Free Antivirus
Google Chrome
Mozilla Thunderbird
MS Office Professional 2010 (I had a licence for this on the old machine and have uninstalled it there to use it on the new machine)
Adobe Acrobat DC Reader
iTunes
VLC Media Player
Speccy (for system monitoring within Windows)
Syncback Free
ACD ChemSketch
Chemdoodle
Zotero Standalone

Total cost (including Windows) £556.10

It proved to be a fairly straight forward build. There was just a moment before I turned it on for the first time that I worried nothing would work, but it was all quite smooth. The few issues I encountered were:


  • Aligning the motherboard with the i/o panel - it just seemed a very tight fit and the spring-sections of the cutouts tended to catch on the HDMI and USB ports.
  • Connecting the front panel switches - the motherboard manual was useless at showing what went where, but carefully looking at the tiny labelling on the motherboard itself and a bit of Googling for reassurance enabled me to get that right first time. 
  • Cable management was more problematic that I'd anticipated. The power supply for the CPU should ideally have run up the back (rhs) of the casing, but once the motherboard was in place it was impossible to get it back through. Given the trouble I'd had with the i/o panel I decided I would sacrifice beauty for ease. Once the machine is in place, no one will see the cabling anyway. Power to the USB card also cuts across the case, which is a shame. The real difficulty though was in the SATA cables to the HDDs. I had bought one and was recycling one from my old machine, but they were too tight to the case to get the side panel on and I've had to order some right-angle ones before I can finally close the case. I think I'll be able to neaten it all up somewhat once its finalised. 
  • Windows install was very fast, but it immediately wanted a 4GB update and that took a long time.
So far (at the end of the first day) I'm very pleased with it. It is certainly fast to boot and fast to use, but it will be its performance when used in day-to-day work that will be the real test. I think the case is well-designed but a bit tight with a full-sized ATX motherboard.



Still to do / possible additions

  • I need to replace the SATA cables, tidy up inside and fit the remaining case panel!
  • At present I have only one case fan. The CPU seems to be hovering around 32-38 deg C, but I haven't got the second case panel on yet, so I might add a further 120 mm fan at the top of the case to be on the safe side.
  • The onboard audio supports 2.1/5.1/7.1 surround sound. My current study isn't really suitable for that sort of audio, but I might add 5.1 speakers at some point in the future.
  • I'd really like a front panel card reader with USB charging capabilities, but I haven't yet found one I like.
  • I've looked at interface cards for electronics projects and that might be something I'd like to develop in the future. 




Friday, January 27, 2017

An energetic read ...

Yesterday night I finished reading a biography of James Joule, by Donald Cardwell. (Manchester UP, 1990, 0719034795)

Scientific biography can be a difficult thing to achieve, striking a balance between describing the man and his science, and can be quite dry reading. There's lots of contextual material in this biography and that largely diverts it from this danger. In particular, Cardwell is at pains to explain the development of Manchester and the role of its Literary and Philosophical Society (often just called the Lit and Phil). He also makes extensive use of Joule's correspondence, especially with Thompson, Tyndall and others.

Joule's generation were perhaps the last non-professional scientists. As he grew into old age, the universities were beginning to proliferate and the professional academic scientist was beginning to be a recognised profession. We see his obsession with precision and his range of interests, as the individual disciplines of science were still beginning to be distinguished.

There is certainly much in this volume to commend. Whilst Dirac, Feynman etc. perhaps make more exciting and intriguing subjects, Joule nonetheless has something to teach all of us about perseverance in the pursuit of scientific truth.

I've also finished Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett. This is only the second of the Discworld series that I've read, but I enjoyed it very much, so I think more will be following during the course of the year!

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Quantum Biology and hard-boiled detectives

Earlier this week I finished reading Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden's Life on the Edge - the Coming Age of Quantum Biology.

This clearly-written and thoughtful account describes ways in which quantum mechanics is, or is at least postulated to be, involved in biological systems. It gives an overview of both the fundamental ideas of quantum mechanics (without the maths) as well as explanations of intracellular chemical processes.

The book opens with a description of the epic migration of the European robin and weaves a carefully crafted tale of the way that quantum mechanics might be involved in animals apparent magnetic sense via a radical pair mechanism. A whole chapter later in the book considers magnetosense more generally.

Other areas that are considered include quantum tunneling of protons as part of enzymes' mechanisms, quantum superposition of DNA base tautomers as an origin of mutation and hence as a driving force for evolution, and the nature of consciousness.

An exciting book with a highly engaging and readable prose style, I most wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone interested in Biology, Chemistry or Physics - if you are a scientist sensu lato, I think you will enjoy this!


I've also read one of Raymond Chandler novel's - The little sister. This is the fifth in the Philip Marlowe series and is, as always, a dark, complex and fast-paced story. In the early volumes the similes seem to drip off the pages like rain drops over the top of gutter full of leaf mould. Ahem. But in this volume I was struck by the style being more tight and controlled and less like the many parodies and pastiches of the Marlowe books.