Category Archives: General

Science Books

Recently I’ve read a few books by Bill Bryson who does comical travel books. His African Diary is particularly good because it has a political edge as he describes the problems of a slum in Nairobi or a refugee camp, a whole town in the middle of a desert where generations have lived unable to return to their homes in Somalia due to war or move in Kenya outside the camp because the Kenyan government has enough problems of its own.

His current big work is A short History of Nearly Everything which is what is known as a best seller. It gives a very good overview of the state of modern science and knowledge. If this is a best seller the public obviously has better taste than they are often given credit for. Actually most of it should be old ground for anyone who did the three main sciences at higher level but it’s always worth refreshing your knowledge and many things are explained a lot better than at school. The geology parts are very interesting since I never did that at school.

For example, those cross section diagrams of the earth, just how do people know what the earth is made of? It turns out they don’t for the most part, the couple of attempts at digging thought the earths crust have failed miserably but measuring echos from earthquakes means the density of the earth at different depths can be calculated, and by measuring the contents of lava we know what’s in there. Fascinating.

Less of a best seller is The Collapse of Chaos. This also covers (in it’s first half) an overview of basic science used to demonstrate how scientists explain our complex world as being made of smaller simpler items. Complex molecules are made of about 100 basic molecules. They are made of a smaller number of sub-atomic particles. It all results in a very complex universe. Except that much of the universe isn’t complex says the second half of the book, just ignore the first 300 pages. Whole galaxies are in simple formations and the solar system is no less complex than the structure of an atom. There may be a unifying theory for physics to join together the theories of relativity and of quantum but it would be useless since objects on different scales need different rules to be understood. Yes you may be nothing more than lots of very complex chemicals to a chemist but that doesn’t help us to understand how humans work in many parts, that’s why we have Biology. Lots more fascinating incites within.

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ScotLUG Meeting September

Very rough notes from the meeting last night

Started with a question and answer session because the ones at the end just mean people go to the pub.

Why is Glasgow in Lanarkshire? It hasn’t been for many a year but we don’t know which database keeps getting this wrong.

KDE t-shirts and badges were for sale. Riddell had a bunch of leaflets for the Linux Expo next week showing KDE and Gnome.

mrben says he is doing a talk next month on video editing. In November someone from the Blender conference is doing a talk. December will be a Christmas party. January is a talk on Linux from scratch. February he is hoping for a talk from a company called Linux Factory about Linux in the business world. March will have an easter quiz. Anyone with things to talk about should ask mrben.

Big Kev Talk on BSD

BSD and Linux are not quite intimate with each other. Berkeley Software Distribution. Unix started in 1970 version 4 in January 1974. AT&T were banned from selling Unix due to anti-trust issues. Bill Joy was one of the founders of Sun and later devloped Java etc but at the time was working on a Pascal compiler, the main language for applications in those days (we normally think of C just because that is what Unix was written in).

By 1977 they released a tape which was effectivly BSD 1 with Pascal and ex editor (vi without all the good things vi has!). Sent out around 30 copies including one to UCL in London. Mid 1978 2BSD was released with better Pascal and vi. About 75 copies sent out. Termcap was written by Bill Joy to learn how to progam vi. AT&T did continue to develop Unix but about 1979 they stagnated and did not do much with it because it was seen as a research tool. 3.0BSD was in March 1980.

3.0BSD and 4.0BSD were performance enhancement issues. 3 was also a Unix distribution rather than just a bunch of patches. Delivermail was in 4.0BSD, a precursor to Sendmail. 150 copies of 4.0BSD were shipped.

4.1BSD in June 1981, 400 copies shipped, tuned to win the DARPA TCP/IP contract. AT&T were realising commercial potential of this and prevented them from calling it 5.0 to prevent confusion with their System V.

BSD was first with paged memory for swapping (because of the very small memory machines had at the time), TCP/IP networking, the C shell, vi, a fast file system, still used as the primary file system on current BSDs it knows about the multiplatered nature of disks and was tuned to be optimised for this, and was freely available.

CSRG was the Computer Systems Research Group. Kev shows us a book which explains everything about how BSD works. Formed in 1980 with a contact from DARPA to implement TCP/IP. Keith Jostic was one of the people who wanted to rewrite all the Unix tools to free it from the requirements to have a System V license (RMS was first though).

Sun Microsystems formed February 1982 as an early BSD adopter. Employed Bill Joy from CSRG. Sun OS 1.0 was BSD based.

Current times, we have NetBSD, OpenBSD and FreeBSD. Started roughly 1992. There was a big legal dispute similar to the current SCO case. AT&T sued Berkely for giving away their source code. Berkely said everying was public domain and not trade secrets. Story is that there was 5 header files left over from AT&T Unix. What AT&T failed to mention was that they had been using BSD changes for years.

NetBSD and FreeBSD are almost siblings from the code that was released which was two sets of source code in an attempt to remove AT&T files called BSDLite.

NetBSD set as its goals to provide a well designed, stable and fast BSD system. Avoids encumbering licenses (so can be incorporated into Linux and other GPL’d projects), provides a portable system which runs on many hardware platforms (it runs on lots of platforms). It is similar to the origional BSD, quite research orientated (and quite slow too).

FreeBSD goals (taken from website) are lengthy and talks about how nice a finantial contribution is but not necessary. They want the code to be as widely used as possible and provide the widest benifit so it can be used in proprietry software.

OpenBSD goals is to be openly developed (FreeBSD and NetBSD are too). No license restrictions, GPL is acceptable as a last resort but not in the kernel. Pay attention to security problems and fix them before anyone else does, this is their most famous goal but also their third goal. Lots more goals including integration of cryptographic software. It is developed in Canada to get around the US restrictions on encryption. They aim to not let serious problems remain unresolved, the firewall software is an example of this, it had to be taken out because of license problems (restrictions on the beta versions). They also want to provide a good cross compile and development platform and sell their 6 monthly releases on CD.

NetBSD Platforms: more than I wish to copy down but it still runs on Vaxes which shows how well decended it is on origional BSD. FreeBSD has 8 platforms. OpenBSD has plenty enough, about 20. Compared with Linux for which he lists 14.

Where does Coherant fit in? It is a System V derivative that died in about 1995.

Why BSD? At home Kev runs two machines, a Slackware box and a NetBSD box. Unlike (GNU/)Linux BSD has… the ports system. Most applications are written for GNU/Linux but BSD downloads the software and the patch to make it BSD happy and puts them together. It lacks some drivers. NetBSD was the first with USB drivers though. Linux took the ATA/IDE drivers from BSD.

Which one? Firewall stuff use OpenBSD, easy to set up with PF and includes stateful connection tracking. Difficulty with OpenBSD is that lots of things don’t run on it, e.g. his e-mail server wouldn’t work. FreeBSD is desktopy, very similar to GNU/Linux capability wise. NetBSD the development one. OpenBSD lists are also fun for flames.

Any big commercial backers? Wind River, they took over FreeBSD development and found it wasn’t much use so abandoned it 6 months later. DARPA were funding OpenBSD but then had a disagreement with Theo. FreeBSD is also the code for Mac OS X.

What is DragonflyBSD. It is a micro version of FreeBSD.

What do you need to run it? Anything. Really? Well. 540Meg hard drives are fine for a NetBSD and OpenBSD install. 64Meg RAM can work depending on what you’re using it for.

What about older hardware, like Gentoo you have to spend days compiling everything. You can also download binaries of everything which is a lot faster to install.

FreeBSD is developed by a core group, NetBSD is similar, Debian takes the opposite approach.

CVSup lets you download the entire FreeBSD tree and do a Make World and everything is compiled. FreeBSD has current which has big beasties (similar to Debian unstable he recons), FreeBSD 5 series with 5 stable and current and FreeBSD 4 series stable and current.

There is no Oracle for BSDs, although you can run the Linux ABI emulation.

Does FreeBSD support distributed update with CVS updates? There is a port of distcc, he doesn’t know if you can build the kernel with that, no reason why not.

Boot loader is more like Grub than Lilo, is can understand the filesystem more.

Can we go to the pub? Yes.

Big applause for Kev.

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BCS

Arriving in the post today was this certificate from the BCS saying I had been elected a member, which is somewhere (low) on their scale of being a chartered professional. It came in a nice envelope addressed to “Jonathan Riddell MBCS”. I find this curious because I havn’t paid my membership fees for the BCS in protest for well over a year. The BCS is all about business and not at all about technology, there is simply no reason to be a member. When they published an article in their glossy magazine about how software patents were so important I wrote a letter saying that they were evil. They didn’t publish the letter but their next edition did mention that they had got it and here was an article about why actually they’re not evil and and are very important. So I joined the AFFS.

I think I’ll rip this up and send it back to them.

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World Gathering of Young Friends

The World Gathering of Young Friends is a gathering of young adult Quakers from all over the world due to happen in 11 months time. It’s very exciting.

Quakers in Britain do what Quakers have always done and sit around in silence waiting for the spirit to move them to say something. That’s how we do our meeting for worship and how we do our business meetings. Many Quakers in Britain and especially younger Quakers are not Christians although that is where the movement very much came from. We have unwritten but lived testimonies to peace, truth, simplicity and equalilty, so in general we don’t like wars, don’t lie, don’t live exuberant lives and are happy for men to wear skirts. There is a lot of variety in how much people follow these testimonies.

When, in days or yore, the English powers decided they didn’t much like this sect who were against the inequalities of the monarchy they locked them up and tortured them and so many emigrated to North America. Back then Quakers were very evangelistic (at one point it is believed that 1/3rd of the English were Quakers) but at some point they found that it was easier to evangelise if you dropped the silly silence stuff and had a good hoe-down. So they split and evangelised and now you get quiet Quakers, happy clappy Quakers, quiet Christian Quakers and the odd homophobic militaristic Quaker, all spread over the world. But in Europe we remain in blissful silence.

The plan with the World Gathering is to get 400 of these very different young Quakers to the North of England where it all started 350 years ago. This is a very big challenge because it takes lots of money, lots of efforts for visas, lots of organising programming, lots of organising travelling and all the organising being done in a Quakerly manner. Except that just what is a Quakerly manner is different for all the worldly parts of Quakerism. Many of the more happy clappy ones just employ a “paster” e.g. a minister to organise them, in Britain we prefer to sit around quietly until the right way jolly well makes itself apparent.

However it may just work. The site it booked, the programmers and programming, the applications are being applied for and lots of people have things to do. The year ahead event, the only planning meeting with all the organisers from around the world in one place just took place and despite a slow start worked out quite well. Year Ahead Photos. Total Fox.

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Recommended Music: Sigur Ros, Manu Chao, Zum, Martyn Bennett

Having a laptop to carry your music collection around with you, and the convenience of files on a computer over on disks means I’ve been listening to more music than I used to. Here are some recommendations.

Sigur Ros are an Icelandic band who produce great symphonies of music from a typical keyboard and guitar setup. The lyrics are sometimes in Icelandic and sometimes in a made-up language but don’t be put off by that it’s great music to chill out to. I saw them at Glastonbury last year and they were superb but the show would have been better if I’d had a deck chair to relax on.

Manu Chao is one of the most popular Latin American musicians, behind Shakira (I have a cousin named Shakira after the pop singer, don’t know if that’s a good sign or not). Lively music that’s great fun to listen to.

Zum I heard on some radio show and bought their CD through their website. Sadly you can’t download their music (I’ll make an entry on that topic one day). Eastern European Gypsy music mixed with Argentinian Tango makes this another under-marketed genre (or two).

Finally Martyn Bennett, a Skye based musician mixing traditional Scottish music with modern beats. Grit is his best album yet and features recordings from Scottish and Romany folklorists. Various bits to download on his website.

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Olympic Slalom Course

This is the canoe slalom course in Athens for the Olympics. It looks exceedingly nice, I think I can even see a conveyer belt going from the bottom to the top to bring paddlers back up. I would be happy to have the French build one in my back garden if I had to promise to give them a gold medal or two in return.

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Travels to Dublin

I went to Dublin for a meeting of the World Gathering of Young Friends. I might add an entry about WGYF at some point because it’s a very exciting event. I took a train to Stranrar, which is a bonny town but not that well signposted, and boarded the high speed catamaran. The polis gave me a hard time boarding, who was I, where was I going, what for, had I been before, give me your bags so we can search them. Maybe I looked suspicious or maybe they just had too much time on their hands. Stena’s high-speed catamaran is a lovely ferry but you can’t get out of deck which spoils the fun of going on a ferry. They show second rate Disney films on all the TV screens which is surprisingly enjoyable if you’re in the mood. I stayed with my Great Aunt in Belfast which was nice since I’ve hardly ever seen her.

The train to Dublin takes two hours and costs 33 quid, the trip to Belfast also cost 33 quid so the total is about the same as a trip to London. Dublin is a very nice city but seriously overloaded. It’s full. More full than London. The traffic is in gridlock, also the River Liffy is often called the River Whiffy because it smells. Dublin also has a large pointy structure called the Millenium Spike or something similar.

The WGYF meeting went well enough, I think I’m now incharge of pre and post events which is a bit scary. I couldn’t find any open wireless internet in Dublin but I’m sure it’s there. They have a National Gallery which looks suspiciously like the Museum of Scotland. They also have a groovy new tram line which everyone seems very proud of.

The train back to Belfast turned into a bus because the Irish are just as bad at railways as the British (which as fast as I’m concerned isn’t as bad as everyone complains about). Then I got the most dodgy taxi ride to Belfast Harbour, the guy didn’t have a metre, shoved four of us in the same taxi all going different places, took me through an area of town with a lot of “No Surrender” graffiti and Union Flags to stop and fill the cab up at his company’s pump without turning his engine off. I’ll take a private hire cab next time.

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Books I’ve Read Recently

The best book I’ve read this year is Quicksilver by Neil Stephenson, a hefty 900 pages of amazing history, a blend of science and adventure that works well. I hope to read the sequels soon.

I went through a Scottish phase and read Rob Roy by Walter Scott which was disappointing because it wasn’t about Robert MacGregor at all but about an English banker who runs into Rob a few times, plus the verbosity of novels from that age annoys me. I read some of
Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains because I’ve met Al Kennedy at Faslane nuclear weapons protests but it was completely uninteresting to me, a bunch of short stories that just arn’t exciting. Lanark by Alasdair Grey is a classic with an imaginative version of hell and a two book autobiography stuck in the middle but essentially not that much fun and very bleak. But-n-Ben a Go Go on the other hand is fun and well worth a read, a Scots science fiction novel set in a world where Scotland has been submerged by water and everyone lives on ships.

Darwin and the Barnacle seemed like the most interesting book on the shelf of my friend who works for Faber and Faber. A very detailed biography into the decade that Darwin spent investigating barnacles (forget the Galapagos islands, barnacles have a dozen different ways of reproduction) it ultimately failed to link into his evolution theories.

Finally I gave up on the Silmarillion by Tolkein. On this third attempt I got to chapter 3 and decided the whole thing was just silly. I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit but this is written in the style of a bible with characters you can’t follow or care about. (‘And then Vlobadobadob spoke to the Elven king Thingy etc etc.’)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon is excellent. It also has a lot of sentences started ‘And then’ but in this case it’s because the narrator really does have a mental condition (a form of autism) which prevents him having emotions. A great story seen from the point of view of someone who can’t understand what is happening, very enlightening.

On my to read list is the second Maus comic from Art Speigelman (second world war story with mice as Jews and cats as Nazis). The Garbage King by Elizabeth Laird and A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (which is meant to explain scientific thought up to the present day in a fun way). Currently I’m reading The Collapse of Chaos which is about complexity and simplicity.

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Maisie MacKenzie the Morningside Cat

I’ve always had a secret desire for Maisie MacKenzie the Morningside Cat. That lovely smile, the red hair, just the name is enough to make anyone agree she’s the sort of lass you should get to know. The Internet doesn’t know very much about my other favourite country teuchter but Eilidh bought me a couple of Maisie posters from the bookshop in Morningside, so here they are.


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Dublin

I’m going to Dublin next weekend for the World Gathering of Young Friends, it’s annoyingly difficult to book train tickets to Belfast (never mind Dublin), the Scotrail site insists none exist so I had to cycle to the station and put up with the moody woman selling tickets.

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