A Disappointing Way To End An OU Computing Degree

I’ve been doing an Open University degree in Computing for the past 4 years now. It’s definitely had its ups (writing my first line of code, introducing me to Java) and downs (that team working module) but on the most part it’s been pretty interesting and I’ve been happy with most modules I’ve done. In fact, after doing three modules of Java I got myself a job writing Java full time.

The problem is that fact that the quality of the module choices drops off dramatically at level 3. Last year I did the only module that sounded interesting and had decent reviews (Developing Concurrent, Distributed Systems) which was dated but still useful.

This has left me with a pretty poor choice this year. I’ve ended up doing The Fundamentals of Interaction Design which is a six year old course that feels dated and any useful material is lost in the plentiful, dry reading. I’m also doing Software Engineering With Objects that is just a lesson in UML and actually just seems to be rehashing material from a module I did last year.

I think I’m just disappointed because I expected level 3 modules to cover more meaty subjects as the level 2 ones had laid down a good foundation of language skills. We could be writing a compiler to better understand what’s going on when we hit build or building a game engine with basic physics and AI. I know that’s all stuff you can learn independently but so it everything else on the course so why not offer advanced students something a bit more computer sciencey.

It also doesn’t help that these two modules still take up a good chunk of my time. I’d rather be doing something a bit more interesting like learning Angular.js or building something with an Arduino.

After these I have one more proper module, Algorithms, data structures and compatibility (using Python) which actually sounds pretty fun, and then it’s final project time.

 

Good Energy

After over two years of renovating our house my girlfriend Jordan and I finally moved in at the start of December. There’s still an enormous list of things that need to be done but I’ve just finished sorting out something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

As always at winter there’s been a lot talk in the news about energy companies and price rises. Luckily at the moment price isn’t an huge issue for me (although I’d obviously prefer prices not to rise much more for everyone’s sake) but being a bit eco I’m concerned about how the energy I use is produced. I like to have a warm house too much and have far too many electrical devices each sucking up lots of electricity for me to think seriously consider using less energy so having the energy I use produced from renewable sources seems to be the way to go.

At first I started looking at Ecotricity. When I checked their website they were claiming that 80% or thereabouts of their energy was produced from renewable sources. I’ve just checked now and they are saying it’s 100%. The other big green energy supplier, Good Energy, was claiming 100% back in October when I first looked so that’s who I signed up with. I was also recommended by a friend so we both ended up with around £50 credit from their recommend a friend scheme. Their prices are a little lower than the big six suppliers I’ve checked against and they didn’t raise their prices this winter.

The switching process has been a bit of a ball ache all in all. I phoned up and requested a switch over sometime in October. I didn’t receive the direct debit forms so had to phone up and get them to send them out. We then received letters with provisional switchover dates saying direct debit would be taken for gas would start in January and electricity would be in February. In January both direct debits came out and when I called about it they said they’d been supplying our electricity since December and they had taken an estimated meter reading to determine what we owed e-on. It’s a bit rubbish for a company to take money before they say they will. If I hadn’t had enough in that account I would have been charged. Apparently they reckon they had a new letter generation system but in in November and have been having problems with that but I’m sure that’s what companies always say!

So overall the switching process was rubbish but hopefully things will be better now. At least now I don’t have to feel guilty about only half watching a program on my big TV and surround sound while I dick around on my laptop.

New Years Resolutions

Happy new year!

I don’t usually bother with new years resolutions. Most are doomed to failure and I’m not usually the most committed person when it comes to doing things I don’t want to do or not doing things I want to. This year though I’ve got a couple of things that I actually really want to do so I’m hoping I should be more successful. I should also hopefully have a bit more free time as the big project of renovating the house I bought in 2011 is finally over.

The first one is to program more in my own time. I got a job as a developer in November 2012 so I do spend five days a week programming. I’m also lucky enough that my team gets to work on some really interesting projects so I do get a lot of variation in my day job.

The reason I want to work on more projects at home is to do stuff that’s completely different like simple games or use tools I don’t get to use at work. For example we use use the Javascript framework Dojo at work instead of JQuery. This means my knowledge of JQuery is woefully inadequate. When I come to looking for another job this is going to really harm my chances. The last reason is that I don’t really have many examples of my code on the web. Again when I’m looking for another job this is going to bite me in the arse. Checking a candidate’s Github page is pretty standard practice when recruiting a developer I imagine.

I’m hoping that doing small achievable projects will mean I’ll actually finish things and keep my interested. Now I need to just think of something (suggestions welcome!).

My other resolution is to blog more. I hardly posted anything last year and very little the year before. I should have been writing about my experiences working on my Open University degree or technologies we’re using at work. Writing about stuff tends to solidify knowledge so I’m sure it would help with work and studying. Again this should help my chances when looking to move jobs as my blog comes up as one of the first results when you Google my name. Hopefully if my first resolution works out then the projects will give me material to blog about.

Anyway, here’s to a good one!

Books read in 2013

I didn’t read nearly as many books this year as in previous years. This was mainly due to reading all of the remaining A Song of Fire and Ice books back to back. I also read all of the Douglas Adams Hitchhikers books that I hadn’t read.

Probably one of my favourite books of the year was Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. It was very weird but very fun. I wasn’t too fussed with The Trial by him though. I also really enjoyed The Outsider by Albert Camus. As a huge Cure fan it’s surprising that it has taken me this long to read it.

An honorary mention for most disturbing book of the year goes to The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum. It wasn’t a very fun read at all. It was made worse by it being based on a true story.

  1. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
  2. The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe by Dougas Adams
  3. Life, the Universe and Everything by Dougas Adams
  4. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Dougas Adams
  5. Mostly Harmless by Dougas Adams
  6. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  7. With a Little Help by Cory Doctorow
  8. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Vern
  9. The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
  10. The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
  11. The Trial by Franz Kafka
  12. A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
  13. A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin
  14. A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin
  15. A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin
  16. The Postman by David Brin
  17. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
  18. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  19. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  20. The Outsider by Albert Camus
  21. The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Living in the future

A few years ago I was walking home from work and as I walked through the front door I thought to myself ‘wouldn’t it be really cool if I could continue listening to the song I was listening to on my iPhone on the stereo in the house as I walked through the door?’

Well, today I walked home listening to music on my phone through my headphones. I walked through the door and swapped the output from headphones to the stereo in the kitchen. I made some toast and then changed the output to the stereo in the living room and sat down to write this. The music didn’t stop once.

Isn’t living in the future grand?

Pacific Rim review

I’ve just got back from watching Pacific Rim and I felt the need to put down some thoughts.

If you’re looking for an unbiased opinion on this film then you’re not likely to find one here. I’ve been a fan of giant robots and monsters my whole life. I grew up watching Transformers, Ultraman, Power Rangers, Godzilla, Gunbuster, Guyver (not quite giant and not quite a robot), etc. I’m also a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro. I think he’s one of most talented directors working today. I love how he’s as at home making big Hollywood movies (Hellboy) as he is making his small Spanish films (Pans Labyrinth, Devil’s Backbone). His big movies still have the same atmosphere, character development and look as his smaller ones.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that I absolutely loved Pacific Rim. It’s a love song to Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, mecha anime and I like to think there’s a fair amount of influence from everyone’s favourite 80s movie Robot Jox. The film gets straight to the point but manages to not feel like two hours of brain dead violence. The characters are likeable and nicely developed. Even the two doctors (the comic relief characters) come across well.

The monster/robot fight sequences are really something. There are some really crazy moments that had me laughing out loud. The fact there are two pilots in each robot gives a dose of camaraderie and humanity so it’s not ‘just’ a robot and a monster beating the shit out of each other.

It’s great to see a big hollywood movie that’s not backed by a soft rock soundtrack by bands like Nickelback. There are very few big actors, no product placement, no romantic subplot and definitely no US army recruitment propaganda as seen in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. I’m glad to see it’s managed to do pretty well at the box office. Hopefully it’ll get a better result next week due to good word of mouth. Obviously all you are going to see it right?

Unfortunately I had to go to a 3D showing as there weren’t any convenient 2D ones. I still dislike 3D. It’s distracting, it makes the picture dark and confuses things when there’s a lot of fast action on screen. I’m tempted to go again in 2D to get the most out of it.

Make sure you show support and see it at the cinema. If Pacific Rim is  success then Guillermo del Toro will be given the freedom to work on more projects like this which is definitely a good thing. Oh, there’s also the voice of Portal’s GlaDos for that little extra nerd-on.

My first WTF

A couple of months ago I managed to get myself a new job as a programmer. It was a pretty great feeling achieving what I had been working towards for the past three years. I’m a couple of months in and I’m starting to get the hang of things and feel more comfortable. However, it’s quite a shock to the system going from the nice, well thought out examples of code seen in textbooks and blog posts to a giant code base  filled with fixes, patches and rushed code.

The culprit that made me write this post was a real corker. Whenever anyone checks in code changes all of the tests are run automatically so everyone can see if the changes broke anything. If a test fails after you’ve changed something then you generally know that you’ve done something wrong. I say generally because today I checked in some changes and was faced with a failing test in a completely unrelated project. It’s a horrible feeling seeing your name next to a bright red test failure.

So I went to investigate the test. It didn’t look like it used anything I changed but you never know. The test was checking some date validation. A date is valid if it’s between 90 days old and 90 days in the future. The test expected the result to be valid however it was using a hard coded date as input. The input date was valid yesterday but today was over 90 days on. This meant that the test would fail at least every 180 days unless someone changed the hardcoded date. It also meant that the sap who happened to check in code the day the test date was suddenly invalid was blamed for the test failure!

I did what any self respecting programmer would and fixed the test to use the current date as a seed and then wrote more tests to check 90 days before and after the seed date as well as the other boundary values.

So today I learnt that wild code is very different from textbook code.

Books read in 2012

This year’s reading achievement definitely has to be finishing all of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. I had them all downloaded on my Kindle so whenever I finished a book and couldn’t think of what to ready next I would randomly choose a Vonnegut book and ready that. They also make a nice change after epics like Game of Thrones and Hyperion due to their short length and light heartedness.

The standout book of the year is probably Ready Player One. I didn’t really know what to expect beyond the geek and 80s references everyone talks about so the engaging story and likeable characters were a nice surprise.

Next year I want to start reading a bit more horror. I love horror movies but I’m not very knowledgeable on horror novels at all so I think I’ll try and change that. I’ve just finished The Rats so that’s a start.

  1. Slapstick (or Lonesome No More) by Kurt Vonnegut
  2. Batman Year One by Frank Miller
  3. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  4. Neuromancer by William Gibson
  5. God Bless You Mr Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
  6. Mass Effect Revelation by Drew Karpysyhn
  7. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  8. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
  9. Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke
  10. Foundation by Issac Asimov
  11. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  12. Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
  13. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  14. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
  15. A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
  16. Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut
  17. Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan
  18.  M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman
  19. Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
  20. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
  21. Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut
  22. The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  23. Death by Black Hole by Neil Degrasse Tyson
  24. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut
  25. The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
  26. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  27. The Hammer of God by Arthur C. Clarke
  28. The Rats by James Herbert

Roman Holiday

So better late than never I thought I just post something about my weekend in Rome back in September. My girlfriend Jordan and I spent two and a half days wandering around the city looking at old things, eating nice food and resisting the temptation to stroke the many stray cats.

Our flight out ended up being delayed by two hours (yay Easyjet!). We had already arrived at the airport nerdishly early so we ended up with a four hour wait. We then missed the train into Rome by a minute due to a weird ticket machine so the journey ended up feeling a lot longer than it should have been.

The morning of the first day was spent looking around the Colosseum, Forum and Palentine Hill. We were given a great tip for buying tickets to the Colosseum. If you walk 200 metres up the road and you can buy a combined ticket for all three sights at the entrance to Palentine Hill. You can then straight into the Colosseum skipping the massive queue.

I won’t list everything we saw that day otherwise we would be here all day. That evening we found a small family run restaurant for dinner called La. Vecchia. Conca . It ended up being some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had. Even the simple bruschetta starter was amazing.

The next day was mainly spent trudging around the Vatican Museums. I’m sure they would have been very beautiful and quite interesting if we were able to actually stand and look at anything. We were swept along in a huge group of tourists until we got to the Sistine Chapel where everyone stood around taking photos and talking loudly (two things explicitly forbidden).

We ended the day by finding a small pizzeria in town and having some decent (although not fantastic) pizza. We walked back to the hotel past the Forum and Colosseum all lit up as the sun had gone down which was a rather breath taking sight.

Our flight home wasn’t until the afternoon of the next day but we didn’t really do anything productive.

Rome is a stunning city and I would definitely recommend that everyone visit. You can’t quite believe the amount of Ancient Roman stuff they still have lying around everywhere.

 

Freedom of speech (or hassling your MP)

I’ve been watching in horror over recent months as people are fined and jailed because they’ve made an offensive comment or joke online.

This is a worrying direction in which we are heading. Freedom of speech should be protected at all costs. I decided I would write to my MP expressing my worry and asking if this subject could be raised. I think you should do the same. If I get a response I will update this post or make a new one.

Dear Iain Stewart,

I hope this e-mail finds you well.

I am writing in response to the recent spate of heavy handed sentencing in regards to statements and jokes made on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

I hoped that the overturning of Paul Chambers’ conviction in the ‘Twitter Joke Trial’ would set a precedent in regards to to this subject but instead it seems that judges are continuing to hand out sentences that are grossly out of proportion with the supposed crime as a knee jerk reaction. Sentencing should not be affected by ‘public outrage’.

For example, I refer you to the recent case of Matthew Woods whereby a tasteless and insensitive joke has landed the 19 year old a custodial sentence. This sets a dangerous precedent. Should we really be legislating against bad taste humour? Who decides when the line has has been overstepped?

I also refer you to the recent sentencing of Azhar Ahmed. A young man who expressed an unpopular opinion regarding several dead British soldiers on Facebook. A comment on a website has got him a fine, 240 hours community service and a criminal record. Would the sentence be as tough had the soldiers been foreign nationals and the defendant white?

I can quote several other similar cases from the past year if required.

I am not defending the view points of these people. I am, however, defending the right to express a view that others may dislike or be offended by. Surely you agree that free speech should be a basic right of any British citizen? On a related point, is this seriously an appropriate use of police time in this era of austerity?

As my member of parliament I would greatly appreciate it if you could discuss this subject with fellow MPs and raise the debate in the house of commons.

Thank you for taking the time to read this e-mail.

Yours sincerely,

Louis Houghton