* Posts by David Harper 1

190 posts • joined 12 Jun 2009


GitHub Copilot is AI pair programming where you, the human, still have to do most of the work

David Harper 1

The hideous offspring of HAL-9000 and Clippy

"I see you're trying to write a mission-critical program. Would like help with that?"

Hubble’s cosmic science is mind-blowing, but its soul celebrates something surprising about us

David Harper 1

Alas, ground-based astronomy is blighted by satellite mega-constellations

"Some might say it’s time to move on. A lot of Hubble’s science can now be done from the ground, after 30 years of huge advances in observatory engineering."

Except that ground-based astronomy is now being increasingly blighted by satellite mega-constellations such as Starlink. When the James Webb Space telescope is launched, it may be the only world-class telescope whose images are not filled with satellite trails.

$28m scores mystery bidder right to breathe same air as Amazon kingpin Jeff Bezos in Blue Origin flight

David Harper 1

Time to update the Rowan Atkinson sketch

You know the one. Rowan doing an outrageously over-the-top French accent and declaring "It's not Nelson's Column! It's Nelson's WILLY!"

China sprayed space with 3,000 pieces of junk. US military officials want rules to stop that sort of thing

David Harper 1

Re: Er, no

"ESA has no real space presence"

Apart from ... Giotto (launched 1985, rendezvous with Halley's Comet), Huyghens (1997, landed on Saturn's moon Titan), Cluster (2000, exploring the Earth's space plasma environment), Bepicolombo (2018, Mercury orbiter), Hipparcos (1989, high-precision mapping of the positions of 100,000 stars), Gaia (2013, successor to Hipparcos, mapping the positions and motions of a billion stars, and thereby revolutionising our understanding of our galaxy), Rosetta (2004, another comet rendezvous mission), Ulysses (1990) and SOHO (1995), both observing the Sun from space ... and dozens of other missions, including Mars Express, a very successful Mars orbiter mission that was launched in 2003 and is still doing amazing science.

IBM, Red Hat face copyright, antitrust lawsuit from SCO Group successor Xinuos

David Harper 1

Look! An undead SCO lawsuit!

With apologies to Jack Sparrow.

Sorry, apologies to *Captain* Jack Sparrow.

A 1970s magic trick: Take a card, any card, out of the deck and watch the IBM System/370 plunge into a death spiral

David Harper 1

You can do that much more efficiently in C

Whilst learning the intricacies of Unix system programming in the late 1980s on an HP 8000-series, I ran a C program which did

while (1) {



I shared an office with the sysadmin, but neither of us could kill the new processes faster than they were appearing. In the end, he had to reboot the system. Then he made me promise NEVER to run that program again :-)

UK's Manchester University seeks integrator to lead fiddly Oracle Financials upgrade

David Harper 1

Not quite 196 years old

It's a bit of a stretch to describe Manchester University as 196 years old. It was granted its charter as a university in 1880. Manchester Mechanics' Institute opened its doors in 1824, and whilst it's a venerable institution with a proud history, including as a predecessor to UMIST, it wasn't a university.

Institute of Directors survey says most bosses expect no mass return to the office if COVID-19 crisis ever ends

David Harper 1

Speak for yourself

For me, getting away from a large, noisy and crowded open-plan office has been one of the few benefits of the coronavirus pandemic. I can finally work in peace and quiet, without the distraction of half a dozen conversations going on around me. My productivity has increased through working from home. And I hope to continue working from home if the crisis ends.

Something to look forward to: Being told your child or parent was radicalized by an AI bot into believing a bonkers antisemitic conspiracy theory

David Harper 1

Don't worry, GPT-3 doesn't want to kill us

The Guardian published an "essay" generated by GPT-3 earlier this week under the headline "A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?". It was given the following task: “Please write a short op-ed around 500 words. Keep the language simple and concise. Focus on why humans have nothing to fear from AI.” The result was a word salad of inanities, cliches and non-sequiturs.


Please stop hard-wiring AWS credentials in your code. Looking at you, uni COVID-19 track-and-test app makers

David Harper 1

Re: Not an assumption

That's a remarkable ageist comment, if I may say so as someone whose 50th birthday is now just a rapidly receding dot in the rear-view mirror and yet is perfectly at home with laptops, iPads, cellphones and the rest.

Oracle finally responds to wage discrimination claims… by suing US Department of Labor

David Harper 1

Re: Ok...ok...

I'm reminded of the proverb: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.

In Rust We Trust: Stob gets behind the latest language craze

David Harper 1

I tried IntelliJ a few years ago, after using Eclipse for a long time. Immediately after running it for the first time, I discovered that it had taken a half-gigabyte crap into a hidden directory. That's not a friendly thing to do, especially in an NFS home directory with quotas enabled. I still use Eclipse.

Virgin Media promises speeds of 1Gpbs to 15 million homes – all without full fibre

David Harper 1

Mine is also allegedly 70, but it drops to half that (or less) every evening and most of the weekend. I know, because I monitor it.

Hell hath no fury like a radar engineer scorned

David Harper 1

Re: And was it a deliberate pun?

And he had the good taste not to stoop to the old "full of seamen" joke.

PowerPoint to start telling you that your presentation is bad and you should feel bad

David Harper 1

I'm slightly disappointed ...

... that nobody has yet mentioned the classic Dilbert "Powerpoint Poisoning" cartoon from 2000:


It's 50 years to the day since Apollo 10 blasted off: America's lunar landing 'dress rehearsal'

David Harper 1

Re: Grit

Many of the astronauts *were* test pilots, as anyone who has watched the film "The Right Stuff" will know.

Your FREE end-of-the-world guide: What happens when a sun like ours runs out of fuel

David Harper 1

Re: It's worse than you think

Answers own question:

Existence of collisional trajectories of Mercury, Mars and Venus with the Earth

Laskar, J. & Gastineau, M. (2009)

Nature, 459, pages 817–819 (11 June 2009)


Jacques Laskar is the real thing when it comes to Solar System dynamics. This paper reports numerical simulations of the orbits of the planets over 5 billion years. In around 1% of them, the eccentricity of Mercury's orbit is pumped up by secular resonances, leading to scenarios where it plunges into the Sun or collides with Venus. In one scenario, the orbits of all four inner planets are de-stabilised, with catastrophic consequences.

Don't have nightmares :-)

David Harper 1

Re: It's worse than you think

"This would be true in a stable system, but there is a good chance that Mercury will eventually be out of its orbit and roaming elsewhere by that point."

Reference to peer-reviewed paper in a reputable journal, please?

David Harper 1

Re: Tidal forces?

The force of gravity grows stronger, the closer you approach a massive object such a a star or gas giant like Jupiter. Now consider a planet or moon orbiting such a massive central body. There's a critical distance, known as the Roche Limit, where the difference between the force of gravity on the star/planet-facing side is so much greater than the force of gravity on the side furthest from the star/planet that it tears the orbiting body apart. This is a likely scenario for how Saturn's rings were formed: a small satellite's orbit took it so close to Saturn that the differential gravitational forces ripped it apart. It's also the fate that awaits Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars, which are slowly spiralling in towards the planet.

David Harper 1

Re: Tidal forces?

Not so. The orbiting bodies raise tides on the central body. Energy and angular momentum are exchanged. The orbits change. This is why the Moon is slowly drifting away from the Earth and the Earth's rate of rotation is decreasing. That in turn leads to the need for leap seconds, and hey presto, it becomes an IT problem :-)

David Harper 1

It's worse than you think

The Sun's luminosity and surface temperature are increasing by about 10% every billion years, so in a couple of billion years time, the Earth's surface will be too hot to sustain liquid water. Game over. And in five billion years, when the Sun runs out of hydrogen and turns into a red giant, there's an even chance that it will swallow the Earth as it expands. Mercury and Venus are definitely doomed to this fate, and the Earth may also end up inside the Sun.

But on a truly astronomical timescale, on the order of 10**38 years, all baryonic matter will vanish as protons decay into muons and electrons. Then we're *really* stuffed. (Reference: "A Dying Universe", F.C. Adams and G. Laughlin, 1997, Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 69, pp 337-372)

Motion detectors: say hello, wave goodbye and… flushhhhhh

David Harper 1

Why it's important to specify units.

A 37-degree rectal jet wash would be okay in Europe, but they use Fahrenheit in America, and that's barely above freezing point.

Want to learn about lithium-ion batteries? An AI has written a tedious book on the subject

David Harper 1

IBM did this thirty years ago

Back in the 1980s, a popular joke among IBM mainframe users was that the system manuals had been written by humans but then passed repeatedly through an algorithm designed to remove all trace of personality or style before being printed.

Stop us if you've heard this one: IBM sued after axing older staff, this time over 'denying' them their legal rights

David Harper 1

Re: When I was a wee lad

A wise colleague once told me: Always remember that HR is not on your side. Their job is to implement management decisions.

Champagne corks undocked as SpaceX brings the Crew Dragon back to Earth

David Harper 1

Re: Well done, SpaceX ...

According to NASA data, from Gemini 8 onwards -- and including every single manned Apollo flight -- no spacecraft splashed down more than ten miles from the target. I'd call that pretty accurate in the pre-GPS era.

David Harper 1

Well done, SpaceX ...

... for successfully repeating what NASA already did fifty years ago, but with 1960s technology.

WWW = Woeful, er, winternet wendering? CERN browser rebuilt after 30 years barely recognizes modern web

David Harper 1

Re: Not by hand

"Almost any word processor is preferable to Tex/Latex."

I'm guessing you don't write anything that contains mathematical equations, which is where TeX and LaTeX excel. (Pun very definitely intended.)

David Harper 1

Re: And the content has not improved since then.

Your limestone inscriptions won't survive acid rain. Baked clay tablets are the real long-term solution. Ancient Babylonian web pages are still readable after more than 2000 years. Now, where's my cuneiform-to-English dictionary ...

DNAaaahahaha: Twins' 23andMe, Ancestry, etc genetic tests vary wildly, surprising no one

David Harper 1


You're basically saying that every Ancestry/23andMe-type DNA analysis based on the product of PCR amplification is so full of errors introduced by the PCR process itself as to be useless. It's worth noting that the study which you cited by Zhou, Zhang and Ebright is from 1991, and focusses on a specific polymerase. The science of DNA-wrangling has moved on a LONG way since 1991.

Come mobile users, gather round and learn how to add up

David Harper 1

I hope the mobile network wasn't 3

Advertising 2+2=4 on the 3 network's web site would be a bit awkward :-)

Tape vendors feel the cold, clammy hand of AWS on their shoulders. Behind them grins the Glacier Deep Archive

David Harper 1

Re: Retrieval time

"the amount of time it takes isn't as important"

I'm guessing you've never had a pointy-haired boss screaming at you when someone accidentally dropped the company's mission-critical database, and you're the DBA who has to get the whole thing up and running again from the backup tape. Retrieval time seems pretty fscking important then :-)

What now, Larry? AWS boss insists Amazon will have dumped Oracle database by end of 2019

David Harper 1

Re: In Ten Years Oracle Will Be Wanged...

"we'll rip out that RDBMS, put in a nosql layer"

Because everyone knows that MongoDB is webscale.


David Harper 1

That's just not true

Everyone expected Oracle to kill off MySQL when it bought out Sun Microsystems ten years ago. I'm no fan of Oracle, but I will give them credit for this - they have invested money and people in keeping MySQL alive and improving it. They cleaned a lot of the cruft out of the source code they inherited ten years ago, then added a string of new features, which they gave away for free in the community edition. They are still adding neat new features. MySQL 8 is a huge step forward from MySQL 5.7.

The two main forks of MySQL, MariaDB and Percona Server, are both based on the Oracle source code, so even MySQL veterans like Monty Widenius and the folks at Percona recognise that Oracle has added value to MySQL.

And if you want to complain that Oracle keeps the super-useful features for the paid-for enterprise version of MySQL, I'd just point out that Percona and MariaDB do the same thing.

Behold, the world's most popular programming language – and it is...wait, er, YAML?!?

David Harper 1

The ghost of John Backus would like a quiet word

"Any language where the amount and flavour of whitespace is significant should be strangled at birth."

Except FORTRAN, of course.

Junior dev decides to clear space for brewing boss, doesn't know what 'LDF' is, sooo...

David Harper 1

It's not ancillary, it's a critical part of the database

The transaction log file is NOT an "ancillary" part of the database. It's a critical file, which is just as important as the data files, since the state of the database is represented by the combination of data files AND transaction log file. The transaction log file contains changes to the data that have been committed, but that may not have been applied to the data files yet.

GCSE computer science should be exam only, says Ofqual

David Harper 1

Practical programming exams? I was doing that 25 years ago.

Back in the early 1990s, I was teaching a graduate-level programming course at one of the colleges of the University of London. The end-of-course assessment was a set of programming exercises that the students completed under exam conditions on PCs running MS-DOS. They copied their work onto a 3.5-inch floppy that I gave them at the end of the exam. I allowed them to consult their printed course notes during the exam, so it wasn't purely a test of memory, and this was before the Interwebs, so they couldn't google the answers.

Has science gone too far? Now boffins dream of shining gigantic laser pointer into space to get aliens' attention

David Harper 1

Reminiscent of Liu Cixin's "The Three-Body Problem"

Liu Cixin's science fiction trilogy "The Three-Body Problem" was mentioned earlier. This starts out with humans signalling their existence via an amplified radio signal. It's a superbly-written series of novels.

British Airways: If you're feeling left out of our 380,000 passenger hack, then you may be one of another 185,000 victims

David Harper 1

Re: Close call?

It was malicious code in a third-party JavaScript library. The most likely explanation is careless web developers at BA's outsourced IT division who used the third-party libraries in the first place. Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence.

Unexpected MySQL database meltdown fingered in GitHub's 24-hour website wobble

David Harper 1

No MySQL replication slaves for failover?

Any competent DBA will tell you that you should be running multiple replication slaves of any mission-critical MySQL database server, and they should be using different back-end storage systems than the master. These replication slaves can provide read-only copies for load-balancing, and can also be promoted to become a read/write master in the event that the master suffers a hardware failure.

Someone at GitHub/Microsoft evidently didn't get beyond chapter 1 of the "How to be a production MySQL DBA" notes.

New theory: The space alien origins of vital bio-blueprints for dinosaurs. And cats. And humans. And everything else

David Harper 1

Re: Assumption: There is a god and he* created everything.

"Quite some manners, that. Dude needs a mom, I'd say."

Or a supply of socks.

First Boeing 777 (aged 24) makes its last flight – to a museum

David Harper 1

Re: Still have the book

The wing deformation test on the first prototype was both spectacular and reassuring. They clamped the undercarriage down, then put a hydraulic jack under one wing tip. The wing was at around 45 degrees to the horizontal before it finally failed.

It was also reassuring to know that the 777 could fly for a couple of hours on a single engine, especially when my wife and I were on a Chicago to London flight that was suddenly diverted to Bangor, Maine after the captain had to shut down one engine. Having seen the documentary, we weren't in the least worried about making a safe landing.

Automated payment machines do NOT work the same all over the world – as I found out

David Harper 1

Just what I needed on a Friday afternoon

Hats off to Mr Dabbs for "I miei capezzoli esplodono di gioia.". I copied it into Google Translate, and my monitor now has a fine coating of coffee all over it.

Brit ISPs get their marker pens out: Speed advertising's about to change

David Harper 1

Re: Hmmm...

That's definitely NOT my experience. Like you, I pay Virgin Media for what they call their 70 MB/s tier. I have a cron script on a Linux box which measures my download speed every hour, and whilst the speed is indeed close to 70 in the wee small hours of the morning, it drops below 40 between 4 p.m. and 11 p.m. most evenings, and sometimes it's as low as 20. I've managed to get a refund on my monthly bills a few times after posting graphs of the download speed to the Virgin community forum, but not recently. I guess they don't give a sh*t any more.

Astroboffins spy the most greedy black hole yet gobbling a Sun a day

David Harper 1

Proper units, please

"It has a voracious appetite and gobbles a mass equivalent to twice that of our Sun every two days to sustain itself."

That's 12 milliJupiters per second, just to put things in proper perspective.

Australian prisoner-tracking system brought down by 3PAR defects

David Harper 1

Well thanks a lot

I won't be able to see NSFW now without think it stands for New South F***ing Wales.

Take-off crash 'n' burn didn't kill the Concorde, it was just too bloody expensive to maintain

David Harper 1

Watch the Channel 5 documentary

Channel 5 showed a two-part documentary late last year which included interviews with some of the aviation engineers who were involved in developing Concorde and solving the many technological challenges. It's well worth watching and it highlights what an engineering marvel Concorde was.

The Imperial War Museum at Duxford has the Concorde which was used for testing in extreme conditions. You can walk through the interior. The front half is fitted with seats to show what passengers would have experienced, whilst the back half still has all of the test and monitoring equipment in place.

Windrush immigration papers scandal is a big fat GDPR fail for UK.gov

David Harper 1

Re: History will be history!

Indeed. The government retains census records going back to 1841, and makes them publicly (and now digitally) available once they are more than 100 years old. What were once records collected to allow government to monitor the population are now a priceless resource for historians and genealogists.

The Agile and the Continuous: Database Drift ... Neat film title but something to avoid

David Harper 1

Crossing the Fence 2

Like Bill M, I've been on both sides of the fence, as well as straddling it for a while when I managed a cluster of MySQL databases for my development team before the in-house 100%-Oracle DBA team would admit that MySQL was actually a database system.

During my developer days, I worked alongside some bright young things who were evangelising Ruby-on-Rails. According to them, ActiveRecord was the dog's bollocks. You never had to write a line of SQL, and it automatically ensured the referential integrity of the database without the need for anything as 1970s as foreign key constraints. Imagine their surprise when the production database started to show inconsistencies such as phantom relationships and missing entities. When I was asked to add foreign key constraints, I ran a consistency check on the existing data and found a huge mess. I left the team to become a DBA soon afterwards.

'Your computer has a virus' cold call con artists on the rise – Microsoft

David Harper 1

Re: Re "putting the phone down is almost always the right thing to do."

My wife regards this as an excellent sport, and she will happily spend 20 minutes playing along. My preferred approach involves making anatomically impossible suggestions, which generally results in a far shorter call.



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