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.

Standing at my Varidesk

The last time I tried standing at my desk was a bit of a makeshift affair. I piled up books on either side of a plank of wood for my keyboard and mouse to rest on, with another pile of books for the monitor. It worked, but it wasn’t pretty, it was a bit unstable, and it wasn’t flexible. When I got tired later in the day or evening I couldn’t sit down and type without lugging around a bunch of graphic novels and copies of National Geographic.

So, last December I bought a Varidesk Pro Plus. There aren’t many sellers in Ireland but I bought mine here. Prices are expensive compared to the US but they’re imported from there I think so there’s VAT, import duty and all the associated costs of bringing things across the Atlantic.

Varidesk Pro Plus

The desk can be raised and lowered easily, that’s the best thing about it. It also rests on your existing desk so you don’t have to get rid of that. I can fit my office chair under the desk when I’m standing, which is great because my office is a tiny home-office. I was worried about the space for my keyboard and mouse because I use a split Microsoft keyboard but I shouldn’t have. It fits comfortably. The mouse has plenty of room too. The area for that is about 24x19cm, or large enough to rest a 9″ iPad. I’ve never had a problem with my mouse bumping against the keyboard for want of more space.

The only negative I can think of is that you need to take care of cables when lowering or raising the desk. Sometimes my monitor cable will get caught between the desk and a raised portion of my original desk at the back, and I have an old USB2 hub for my keyboard and mouse that occasionally gets caught under the desk. Those are very minor issues. I also use foldback clips to secure cables on to the desk which really helps too.

It does show the dust badly sometimes, especially when caught in sunlight like the photo above. In reality the dust is a lot easier to ignore, especially when you have a load of documents or stuff sitting on top of it. :)

There are a few video reviews of the desk out there, here’s a good one. It’s well worth buying if you’re sitting at a desk all day!

What colour do you see?

colour of the dress

It’s odd how this picture has gone viral. I saw it on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and even on a blog, which just goes to show. Blogs are still hip.

Anyway, I see blue and black, but some people see white and gold. My son looked at the exact same screen I was looking at, but at an angle and said he saw brown and white. When he moved around he said he saw some blue but it was still mostly white. Odd.

Steven Novella has written a good post on this and explains why our brains see this difference. Wired have a good article too. It’s an optical illusion. Just like these:


The two objects are the same colour. Cover the middle join with your finger.
The two objects are the same colour. Cover the middle join with your finger. (Thanks Davide!)
Are Squares A and B the same colour?
Are Squares A and B the same colour?

At least we can all agree on one thing: The people who see the dress as white are utterly, completely wrong.

Man on the Mun

man on the mun

Finally, a Kerbal stands on the Mun in Kerbal Space Program. Well done Corkin Kerman! Unfortunately the lights go out each night as the rechargeable battery runs out of power around 3am. That upsets poor Corkin as he’s engrossed in David Nicol’s new book, Lament for the Living. He printed out the Kindle version you see..

I would like to say I did it without any help but Mechjeb 2.0 played a part in getting Corkin there. The Smart A.S.S is invaluable for landing and a great help lining up for a manoeuvre node. Thanks TalenTaylor for your asparagus engine layout and moon lander tutorials. With 7 Jumbo fuel tanks I reached orbit with a tank that was almost 75% full! Good thing too as I burned that getting to the Mun and cirularizing my orbit. Efficiency? Bah, I laugh in the face of efficiency!

ksp minor glitch

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Once or twice the moon lander never even reached orbit. Ooops.

TCPEye: Windows network software to list Internet usage

If you use Windows and you’re curious about what’s using your Internet broadband then the free TCPEye tool will probably help you.

I used it a few weeks ago when something was sucking down gobs of data and making everything else slow. Turns out it was Windows Update, but not on my desktop machine, a laptop on my network was updating.

The odd thing with TCPEye is that CNET Downloads is in the number 1 place when searching for this tool. Reviews even link there instead of the author’s homepage!

US and Canadian Area Codes

So, I needed a list of US telephone area codes for a project I’m working on but it turned out to be harder than I thought to find such a list. I did find one here but then had to create an account there to download it. Bah!

To save your fingers from extra typing I created a pastebin of the list which you can find here.

It’s interesting to note that Wikipedia has a page for each area code. I had a look at a few in my attempts to verify the list was good and 985 caught my attention:

Area code 985 is the telephone area code for southeastern Louisiana, excluding New Orleans and St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. The area code was created in 2001 when it was split off from area code 504.
Area code 985 also originally included areas southeast of New Orleans. However, after Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005, much of this area switched back to 504. These communities are now being served with dialtone from telephone switching facilities in New Orleans following near-total destruction of local switching facilities due to flooding from Katrina. Permissive use of 504 alongside 985 to reach these downriver communities began on July 29, 2007. Mandatory use of 504 to “again” reach these communities began on May 1, 2008. These communities are on both sides of the Mississippi River in “lower” Plaquemines Parish, including Pointe à la Hache on the east bank, with Port Sulphur, Buras, and Boothville on the west bank.

The list of Irish area codes is much shorter and 021, the area code for Cork shares it’s page with a number of other regions.

The tech that caught the Higgs Boson

Peter Higgs, who first theorized the existence of the Higgs Effect in 1964.

My understanding is that the higgs field is like a net, the “heavier” something is the more it interacts with the net. And the higgs boson is an excitation of this net, like if someone flapped the net and caused one of the knots to jerk arround. Physicists have equations and they have predictions to what the propertires of this excitiation, or of this “knot” (higgs boson) should be, and the properties of this new particle are very similair to the predicted properties of the higgs boson. So the net itself has no weight but when it’s excited it does, the rest of the net pulls on it. (reddit comment)

So, CERN announced that they found evidence of the Higgs Boson yesterday. I imagine the theory of this particle and the Higgs Field will be taught in schools in years to come and it’ll be just-another-thing-to-learn for hard pressed students preparing for exams. Today, it’s exciting in that “Oh, this is great news! The LHC found something! I wish I understood what!” sort of way. It’s not going to mean much to most people but it’s still a remarkable discovery.

The technology that detected the short lived Higgs Boson is amazing too. We’ve all seen photos the LHC, the long tunnels and gigantic machinery but the BBC Discovery Podcast interviewed Tejinder Virdee a few weeks ago about the project. He’s responsible for the CMS detector in the LHC, and likens it to a 100MP 3D digital camera that can take 40 million photos a second. Well worth a listen.

In other news, Steven Hawking is out of pocket today after the discovery!