JOHN MEANEY

21.9.17

Absolute Fave


In lieu of announcements on forthcoming books, but in keeping with the cyber-related theme of the titles that I will be announcing, I would just like to mention my favourite TV show. It's been decades since I enjoyed a programme as much as Halt and Catch Fire, currently in its fourth and final season.



I was hooked by the end of Episode 1, Season 1, when serious-faced IBM executives poured into the offices of the fictitious Cardiff Electric, clearly meaning business. That show got so much right, and never mind the little glitches here and there, like the glimpse of a mainframe terminal running the wrong OS in Season 3. Like the show, one of my forthcoming books includes an incident that owes a serious debt to Soul Of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It's been over 30 years since I read it, but I remember it clearly.

Perhaps I should mention that when I wrote my first program, dinosaurs roamed the Earth and pterodactyls were flying overhead. As a physics student at Birmingham, I coded in BASIC on an Open University Univac and the physics department's DEC PDP-11. (There might not have been real dinosaurs, but my jeans had flares and my friends were wearing platform shoes.) My first commercial programming job involved maintaining RPG II applications with data in flat files and program-described I/O on a System/34, while working on the really exciting stuff: the redesign, recoding and migration of the entire enterprise onto the RDBMS and other cool features (for the time) of the System/38. Those were the days.

(Check out my free story, Whisper of Disks. If you'd ever been in an old-school machine room with banks of disk drives, especially alone at night, you'd know exactly where the story's title came from. They whisper like ghosts. I remember them still.)

The terms "IT" and "software developer" did not exist. If you'd said you were cutting code for a web app using a full technology stack, employing continuous integration on build servers, or spinning up new servers in the Cloud, no one would've know what you were talking about.

I wonder what kind of jargon the software engineers of 2057 will be using...

30.6.17

At Our Peak


Al Reynolds and I on the summit of Pen y Fan, the highest point in Southern Britain, June 2017.

21.6.17

THAT BLASTED ENTROPY

Anne McCaffrey used to tell me: "Growing old isn't for the fainthearted." I'm trying to pretend that I still don't know what that really means. Leading up to my 60th birthday, I did feel as if the world was going to end. But I got through the day in question - it was a while back - and the world is still here for the time being.

So what did I do on my 60th birthday? 500 Hindu push-ups and 1000 Hindu squats (as 10 supersets of 50 push-ups and 100 squats). Plus 6 minutes of neck bridging and some other stuff.  Seven days later I did it again (as 5 supersets of 100 push-ups and 200 squats), along with all 27 kata from the shotokan system. Well, you know me by now.

I'm old school on the weights these days, too. Two or three full-body training sessions per week. Dumbbells for chest and back (i.e. the heavy upper-body stuff), which has been my preferred approach for decades. For lower body, I've reintroduced barbell squats and deadlifts, though I revert to goblet or dumbbell squats some days. And if I'm away from home - as we were for a week either side of my birthday - then my trusty Bodylastics bands substitute nicely for the weights.

Although if you're looking for someone with superior cardio endurance, Yvonne is way ahead of me. And older than me, too...

13.7.16

HOUSEWORK?

I blog as an author, with occasional reference to my other professional world, where I'm an IT training consultant, these days specialising in intensive graduate programmes in the corporate world. One of the many joys of the latter is this: I get to enthuse and inform about deeply technical stuff (therefore combining show biz, applied psychology and computer science/software engineering) while staying on my feet all day long.

I leap around a lot. And drink coffee a lot. These facts may be related.

Then there are the months-long blocks of time when I'm working from home on a book (or doing computer research). Despite my modest back-garden dojo/gym and a lifelong exercise habit, I've not found that home-based lifestyle conducive to optimum health. Not at all.

If you can find it on YouTube or iPlayer, it's worth checking out Dr Michael Mosley's excellent science documentary called The Truth About Exercise (a Horizon episode) which tells you everything you need to know about exercise, especially if you're not an inveterate gym user. Since Dr Mosley made the documentary a few years ago, its message has become far more widely spread, so most of this won't be new to you.

There are two main recommendations.

First, sit as little as possible. Keep on your feet and keep moving. Like many people, I've been shifting more and more towards working in a standing position even when I'm at home. Right now, I'm using my laptop in the living-room, due to needing to keep an eye on the cat. (He's been wearing a buster collar (lampshade collar) to stop him licking inflamed areas, but I've given him a break from that, so I have to watch him.) Upstairs in my study/office, I've been raising the height of my laptops from time to time by propping them on boxes. Seriously, why fork out money for special furniture?

So a few minutes ago, thinking about how I could work standing while in the living-room, it occurred to me that there was already something in the house that allows for exactly the working position I desired.

The apparatus is known as an "ironing board".

I'm using it right now, and it seems perfect. (A proviso: whenever I mention some exercise or piece of training kit that I've found useful, I will have used it for at least two years. This has been a matter of minutes.)

Perhaps I should buy a few thousand of the things, paint them with go-faster stripes, add a motivating motto - WORK LIKE A WARRIOR - and sell them as the Next Best Thing for fitness. (BLOWTORCH THE FAT FROM YOUR BODY. AWAKEN YOUR PRIMAL SPIRIT.)

Or maybe I won't.

Dr Mosley's documentary showed the marvellous health benefits of being on your feet and walking, but he didn't stop there. He also explored the benefits of performing High-Intensity Interval Training on an exercise bike for only 3 minutes per week. (My fellow athletes will be familiar with the 4-minute Tabata protocol.) Combine the two approaches to exercise, and you have a winner. He also makes clear that my habit of sitting for long periods and then performing a hard daily workout is not enough for good health.

So, I was doing it wrong.

A detail about High-Intensity Interval Training: Dr Mosley, who is always willing to make himself the guinea pig for his documentaries, made vast improvements in his insulin/blood sugar response after only four weeks of HIIT (for a total of twelve minutes exercise), but zero improvement in his VO2 Max, the key measurement of aerobic fitness. This was as predicted by researchers who had performed the appropriate genetic analysis beforehand. Other exercisers would have shown a huge improvement, as much as if they'd performed long, traditional endurance sessions. That's in the genes.

But of course, the state of your DNA is not static. The sequence of base pairs is fixed, but control genes possess dynamic state. The reason that keeping on your feet is good for you is that a control gene is switched on simply by walking.

The state of my books isn't static either, but things move slowly in the summertime. Two completed books are out in the publishing marketplace, and I've a first draft awaiting work at some point in the future.

Okay, I'll come clean - the first draft is called TRISTOPOLIS REQUIEM.

You heard that here first, too.

There are no ironing boards in the book.

9.3.16

DEEP THOUGHT

Today's AI news is that DeepMind's AlphaGo has won the first game against the Go world champion. As it happens, DeepMind's CEO gave a lecture at Oxford recently, and although I couldn't get there in person, the ubiquitous magic of tech allowed me to watch it streamed live. (I did manage to physically attend the first Ada Lovelace Memorial Lecture given by the awesome Barbara Liskov, a little while back.)

There's something missing from today's news reporting, which I happen to believe is significant.

Playing Go at this level requires a more "intuition"-based approach than chess, which is a significant difference between AlphaGo and Deep Blue (which beat the chess world champion back in the *gulp* last millennium). That's in the news reports, and correctly so.

The other distinction is that AlphaGo is not designed purely to play Go. It has learned the game, and an earlier project learned to play dozens of other games (all the old Atari games!), based only on an input of numbers, the ability to recognise patterns, and a goal of maximising its score. In other words, even that earlier software could adapt to a new game with new rules, something that DeepBlue could never achieve: it would require rewriting by its developers to cope with anything besides chess.

Although the overall constraint is game-playing, within that constraint the DeepMind AIs employ general learning algorithms (so-called "DQL"). And that, I suspect, is the most impressive part of all.

Meanwhile, I shouldn't be blogging... I've a book to write. Hence my vast silence for months now.

Cheers, all!

P.S. It belatedly occurs to me that my VERY FIRST STORY concerned an AI challenging its creator's father to a game of Go. That appeared just the other day, in 1992... Bloomin' heck!