Stephanie Shirley: Software Pioneer

Stephanie Shirley: Software Pioneer

I’d never heard of Stephanie Shirley until I heard this BBC interview with her. As a five year old she escaped the Nazis in Germany, escaping to Britian in a Kindertransport. She founded a software company in 1962 that only hired women. It allowed employees to work from home, a practise that is much more common now than it was then. At the time women were not always welcome in the workplace, especially after they married or had kids, so this was an exceptional change. Ironically, equality legislation years later forced them to hire men!

In her personal life, her son Giles was autistic. Caring for him caused her to have a nervous breakdown as she tried to run her business too but she has poured huge sums of money into autism research and in her retirement has given away most of her £150m wealth.

To help Giles and others like him, she first established the Kingwood Trust to support young adults with autism, and more recently started the Prior’s Court School in Berkshire. “It is actually the biggest single project,” she says. “It took five years of my life. That’s the one I dreamed about.” It aims to help autistic children into mainstream education or some form of employment by using innovative techniques in art, music and sport.

The Shirley Foundation has spent or allocated around £50m in recent years – putting it among Britain’s top grant-giving foundations – with 70% going to autism-related work, from the first online conference on autism to yet another start-up, the Welsh support network Autism Cymru.

She also spoke at TED which she talked about her life.

If you want to hear about a remarkable woman, listen to this podcast and watch her on the TED stage.

How New Horizons flew to Pluto

Pluto

The last week has been quite an amazing one in human history. We have photographed up close all the planets (and ex-planets) of our solar system. What our ancestors saw as mere points of light in the sky are now full colour images that anyone can see. It’s really amazing.

Pluto the Death Star

Still, there were surprises in the form of a death star. George Lucas must have been there already!

Pluto the dog

And of course there is that heart shaped landmark on the surface of the dwarf planet that looks suspiciously like Pluto the dog, but I think Snoopy would have loved to go there ..

snoopy astronaut

Clyde Tombaugh was the man who discovered Pluto in 1930. He died in 1997 before this mission launched and a portion of his ashes were carried by the New Horizons craft. His are the first ashes to be carried to Pluto, and the first to eventually leave the solar system as New Horizons is on an escape trajectory!

In typical Scott Manley style, he has produced a video using Kerbal Space Program explaining how New Horizons was launched by NASA. He has lots of background information on the rockets used and he’s as interesting as always.

Here’s another, more cinematic, depiction of the launch by Youtube user “winged”. This one is shorter and visually more interesting but lacks the narration of Scott’s video so you should definitely watch both!

If you’re interested in the cameras on board, you should read Photographing Pluto: This Is How New Horizons Works and The Camera Behind The New Pluto Photos.

There’s two cameras that more or less operate in visible light: a color camera which is a medium resolution camera (Ralph), and then there’s a grayscale or black and white telephoto camera (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI).

Our long range pictures of things that are going to give us our highest resolution images will be taken LORRI. And the color pictures will be taken with Ralph. We can actually combine the colors from Ralph to colorize LORRI’s pictures.

And then there is an imaging infrared spectrometer that will also makes pictures of a sort. But they’re mostly compositional information, like what Pluto and its moons are made out of.

Another constraint on the mission was that Ralph had to take photos using only the sun’s dim light that reaches Pluto. During its flyby, New Horizons will photograph the side of Pluto that’s turned away from the sun. This side is lit solely by the sun’s light reflecting off Charon. This is like taking a photo using just the light from a “quarter moon” on Earth, a lead optical engineer for the mission told me in an email.

So Hardaway and her team designed Ralph for the exact light conditions that New Horizons would have to operate in. “This camera isn’t adjustable. It’s designed very specifically for conditions at Pluto,” she says.

The craft has successfully passed through the Pluto system according to signals received earlier today. It’s going to take months for all the scientific data collected to be transmitted back to Earth but hopefully we’ll see more detailed photos of Pluto and it’s moons over the next week. I’ll update this post with more when I get it!

Finally for now, New Horizons took many photos on it’s way to Pluto including this stunning montage of Jupiter and one of it’s moons, Io. Check out the mission homepage for more!

Jupiter and Io montage

Update at 2015-07-15 21:00 UTC+1: NASA have release two new images. One of Charon, one of Pluto. The close up of Pluto shows mountains 3,500m high. Both images show a lack of craters meaning the landscape is relatively young in solar system terms. Certainly less than 100m years old which is young compared to the Earth at 4.5b years old!

New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. The mountains likely formed no more than 100 million years ago -- mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system -- and may still be in the process of building, says Jeff Moore of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI). That suggests the close-up region, which covers less than one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.
New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.
The mountains likely formed no more than 100 million years ago — mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system — and may still be in the process of building, says Jeff Moore of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI). That suggests the close-up region, which covers less than one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.
Remarkable new details of Pluto’s largest moon Charon are revealed in this image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), taken late on July 13, 2015 from a distance of 289,000 miles  (466,000 kilometers).
Remarkable new details of Pluto’s largest moon Charon are revealed in this image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), taken late on July 13, 2015 from a distance of 289,000 miles (466,000 kilometers).

I found my first computer: Telesport SD 050C

Telesport SD 050C

Many years ago I mentioned the first computer system that came into my family home. I couldn’t remember what it was called and it had been thrown out years before. I had searched retro console sites, looking through “history of computing” Youtube videos, and more but I couldn’t find it anywhere.

That was until Saturday afternoon while out on a photowalk in Cork City! In the window of the retro gaming shop on North Main Street was a sight I had last seen more than thirty years previously. I couldn’t believe it!

Now that I have a name, the Telesport SD 050C I could look it up and I found out that it was one of a number of Pong clone machines released in the late 1970’s. The 050C family aren’t very rare and aren’t worth much but it was a strange nostalgic feeling looking at it there after all this time.

It’s a Pong clone. The screenshots above are basic but in the early 80s it was a lot of fun. I don’t remember the model we had having that many colours. Must have been an earlier model I guess. Here’s a brief history lesson:

The world was undergoing “PONG Madness”. It seemed only natural that developers would create advancements to the original AY-3-8500 chip to incorporate color and even more games. This explains the amount of PONG systems since each machine contained a different chip. However things were handled different in some areas particularly in Europe.

Europe did not see the release of the Intellivision and Atari 2600 till the early 1980s. This allowed Pong to have a longer success. Rather then creating a new machine for each new chip, developers took the General Instruments popular line of chips and slapped them into cartridges. These carts were not like ROM carts used in later systems. They simply housed a specific General Instruments processor chip with pin outs to interface with a console. These were the PC-50X line of cartridges (see the Games section for specifics).

With the PC-50X cartridges available, console manufacturers were able to produce a machine that could play several games and market them at a low cost. The units were made in various countries and were marketed by Creatronic, Hanimex, ITMC, Rollet, GrandStand, Soundic and lord knows how many other manufacturers. There are literally over two hundred console variations that utilized this technology.

The initial model SD-050 varied in terms of outward appearance (colors, etc), manufacturers names and slight modifications. However each unit had the same overall design with two detachable controllers with 10 buttons located on the top of the machine. These 10 buttons, which clearly identify a PC-50X based console, were used to select the different games available on each cart. The SD-050 model only produced black and white video.

New models such as the SD-070 and SD-090 appeared and sold well into the 80s since the units were far cheaper then the newer consoles making waves in the US and Japan. These newer models played the same carts, but added additional settings, sound and SECAM color (4 colors).

There were far too many PC-50X cart accepting consoles and it is difficult to list them all.

More links to read up on the PC-50X cartridge and related machines:

I found one video on Youtube featuring this machine!

I resisted the urge to buy that machine last weekend. I may have a CRT TV in the attic but the games are so simplistic it’s best to leave them in the past where they belong. The machine architecture isn’t emulated but the games could be remade easily by anyone interested. Hmm, maybe..

The Irish Research and Development Centre

That was bizarre. The phone rang twice. I picked it up but they had hung up. It rang again. A woman with what I presume to be an Indian accent spoke:

‘Good morning Sir. May I ask you three questions that will only take up a moment of your time?’
‘Eh. Sure.’
‘When purchasing goods is the price or quality more important?’
‘OK, before I answer that, who do you represent?’
‘Oh, The Irish Research and Development Centre here in Dungarvan.’
‘Sorry, what was that? The Irish Resea..’ (I started typing the name into a browser, my keyboard is noisy)

CLICK. They hung up.

Weird. Was that some sort of scam?

Justice League: Gods and Monsters Chronicles

Wonder Woman

Batman

Superman

This is an alternate universe where the Justice League use lethal force to maintain order on Earth. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are not who you are familiar with. An animated movie is expected at the end of the month and will shine an altogether darker light on these super heroes.

In an alternate universe, the Justice League is a brutal force that maintains order on Earth. Superman is named Hernan Guerra and is the son of General Zod, who was rocketed to Earth as a child and raised by a family of Mexican immigrants. Batman is Kirk Langstrom, a scientist who has inadvertently transformed himself into a vampire in an attempt to cure his cancer, feeding on criminals to satisfy his hunger. Wonder Woman is Bekka, who is the wife of the New God Orion.[2][3] The Justice League’s unaccountability is ultimately challenged by the world’s governments following the suspicious deaths of renowned scientists. (Wikipedia)

There’s a series of comic books too. Here’s a sneak peek at the first Superman one. Looks great!

Justice League Superman

Sounds of the Irish Smoking Ban

The Irish Smoking Ban

It’s hard to believe that smoking was banned in the workplace in Ireland in 2004. It was a huge change but very welcome (by most) and the best thing a Fianna Fail government ever did.

Listen to this Witness podcast on the subject here to be brought back eleven years.

Since the ban it became clear that a bunch of dancing sweaty people consuming alcohol are a smelly lot but the increased ventilation that some nightclubs have installed has helped. :)

Learn to program with Minecraft

ComputerCraftEdu Turtle

I’ve long been interested in messing around with Javascript in Minecraft courtesy of ScriptCraft but I never got around to it, partly because it required using an external program to edit code but something always stopped the code running. I gotta go bug Walter about it! :)

Anyway, I recently discovered ComputerCraftEdu which is a mod for Minecraft that has both a drag and drop and text mode code editor to program turtles that do anything the player can do. It’s a different beast to ScriptCraft and necessarily more limited but I think it’ll make it easier to teach the basics of programming to my eight year old son. Loops, conditions and functions are all possible here and will hopefully give him a taste for what’s possible. He’s already hooked on command blocks but that single line interface is awful!

ComputerCraftEdu drag and drop editor

ComputerCraftEdu code editor

Installing ComputerCraftEdu is fairly easy, but we experienced some odd problems:

  • Minecraft would crash as soon as we started a map saying it was “shutting down internal server”. The problem was the draw distance. Set that to 16 blocks and it fixes it.
  • One of our machines had weird graphical glitches. Blocks were see through, or corrupted, the icons of the drag and drop editor disappeared but showed the text hint when the mouse hovered over them. Setting Mip Mapping to 2 (from 4) fixed that.

There are a whole series of tutorial videos and a programming section on their wiki to explain the commands available. There are example maps, guidance for parents and tools for teachers available so it’s definitely worth looking into.

Thanks Alex for telling me about this mod. Here’s what r/FTB had to say about it. They’re enthusiastic too! :)

Kick Off World

kickoffworld

I’m not a huge fan of football or spectator sports but there’s a certain charm about Kick Off World or “The Player Manager 2016″ (I can’t decide what it’s called). It’s a remake of the Kickoff/Player Manager games of the 90’s on the Amiga. Graphics are simplified of course. The view of the playing field is overhead like in Kickoff or Microprose Soccer but still manages to be interesting, at least for the first few matches. You can also skip the game and go straight to the results if all you’re interested in is the managerial side of the game.

There’s loads to see in the game, lots of players and teams as well as options to set tactics. Go get it on Windows, Mac, Linux or even Android. They’re all linked from their homepage including a (slightly out of date) Flash version you can play in your browser! Watch out for updates on their Facebook page.

set -o vi FTW

The Bash command line can be edited using the cursor keys but for the real power user you need to enable Vi mode:

$ set -o vi

Or add it to one of your Bash startup files.

Now, instead of the slow interactive editing you’ll get the command and insert mode of Vi! Users of Vi or Vim will feel right at home. You start in insert mode by default so it feels the same as before. You can type new text, move left and right with the cursor keys and delete text but press ESC and you can do all the things Vi command mode allows you to do.

Check out this extensive cheat sheet with examples or jump directly to the ascii version here!

Ten Years at Automattic

Working

I still remember the day in 2005 when Matt asked me to come work for him. I still remember the exact spot I was standing where I took that call. It was only a couple of metres from where I sit typing this now.

Ten years, time has flown. I work for an absolutely amazing company with great people. It’s hard to believe there’s well over three hundred people there now. Remember when you needed an invite? It’s a far cry from WordPress.com today.

I wish I could provide an insightful comment on the challenges and rewards of working remotely but it’s late and I just wanted to get this post out there to mark the day. If you want to experience the remote work lifestyle for yourself, come work with us!