* Posts by David Harper

187 publicly visible posts • joined 20 Nov 2006


Oracle reels in Sun Microsystems with $7.4bn buy

David Harper

What now for MySQL?

By an odd coincidence, the MySQL user conference opens today in California. I would love to be a fly on the wall there today!

Playmobil Bible faces wrath of lawyers

David Harper

Not as funny as The Brick Testament

The Brick Testament (http://www.thebricktestament.com/) is much funnier.

Councils clamp down on Strategy Boutique Newspeak

David Harper

Beacons of Bollockosity?

Please can we also replace the linguistic abomination "Human Resources" with "Personnel"? I'm not a human resource, dammit, I'm a person!

UFO wind turbine prang site: Exclusive photos

David Harper

But where's the crash-landed Airbus A320?

Wot, no Captain Chesley Sullenberger III?

Shame on you!

Astronomers view heavens through Galileo's eyes

David Harper

Thomas Harriot was the real pioneer of telescopic astronomy

Galileo was *not* the first person to point a telescope at the heavens. That honour goes to an Englishman, Thomas Harriot, who made drawings of his telescopic observations of the Moon in July 1609, several months *before* Galileo.


Oracle tripped up by 'leap second'

David Harper

Ask an astronomer

@Anthony Wood:

"I thought the reason why we had to add the extra second is because the Earth's rotation is slowing (i.e. the days are getting longer)"

That's correct, up to a point. When the length of the second was standardised in the early 1970s (as part of the SI system of units) in terms of the oscillations of a caesium atom, the value was chosen to match the previous international time standard called Ephemeris Time, which was based on the orbital motion of the Moon and planets.

Unfortunately, that timescale had been defined in such a way that 86,400 seconds were a very good approximation to the length of the day circa the the early 19th century. The Earth's rotation had slowed somewhat in the intervening 150 years, so a day in 1970 was several milliseconds longer than a day in 1820. Those milliseconds add up over the course of a year to give an excess of a whole second, and hence the need for a leap-second every so often.

@John Savard:

"But actually making every second longer ... would seem very unobtrusive, if managed right."

High-precision timekeeping now pervades our lives to such an extent that it would be utterly impractical to adjust the length of the SI second.

In any case, the Earth's rotation will continue to slow down, so even if we re-defined the SI second to match 1/86,400 of the current length of the day, we would only be making trouble for the future.

NASA warns of 'space Katrina' radiation storm

David Harper

Interesting historical precedents

Solar flares have disrupted power grids and communications here on Earth before, of course. Back in the mid 19th century, telegraph operators discovered that their equipment often became inoperable whenever there was a strong auroral display. During major solar flare events, the currents induced in the long-distance telegraph cables generated dangerously high voltages which could stun telegraph operators if they were unwise enough to touch their equipment.

There's an fascinating and very readable account of scientific efforts to understand the connection between solar activity, terrestrial magnetic storms and aurorae in Stuart Clark's excellent book "The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began".

Max Planck Institute punts 'hot, young housewives'

David Harper

Is that a Planck in your pocket ...

... or are you just pleased to see me?

M42 closed by marshmallows and beer

David Harper

It could be worse

A friend of mine is a police officer. He was on traffic duty when a truck shed its load of frozen prawns all over the A14 near Cambridge on a hot summer day. It took the clean-up crew several hours to shovel up the spilled crustaceans, and by lunchtime, the stench was appalling.

BBC relives The Day of The Triffids

David Harper

Yet another f*****g re-make

So apparently it's not just Hollywood that doesn't have any original ideas. The BBC, too, has taken the lazy option and decided to re-make yet another 1970s series.

What next, a re-make of Monty Python with Cleese et al replaced with CGI figures?

Stob latest: It was a cunning trick, says Open University

David Harper

In defence of the OU's computing courses

Between 2003 and 2006, I studied seven modules from the same OU postgraduate computing programme as the module taken by the redoubtable Ms Stob, and with only one exception, they were excellent, intellectually challenging and entirely devoid of gibberish. Several of them involved reading and analysing research papers, which is entirely appropriate for graduate-level courses.

The exception was T853 "Information Systems Legacy and Evolution", which was the final course I took for my postgraduate diploma. It felt much more like a social sciences course than an I.T./technology module. The course material included references to Jurgen Habermas, a social theorist, for example.

I managed to pass the course, although my exam mark was substantially below anything I'd achieved in the six previous courses, and also well below the mark I'd obtained in the assessed coursework for T853. I felt a good deal better when I discovered that 86% of the class had scored 54 or lower (out of 100) in the exam. More than half of us fell in the 40-54 band, and nobody had an exam score above the 55-69 band.

Gay sheep romp turns Tyneside blue

David Harper

Completely raddled

The dye is properly known as raddle, which means that all of the boy sheep are completely raddled.

And if you ask me, the rams in the BBC photo are all looking distinctly sheepish.

Marketing body condemns 'draconian' Olympic law

David Harper

The whirring sound you hear ...

... is Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, spinning in his grave.

Alas, the International Olympic Committee is notorious for persecuting anyone who dares to use the word "Olympic" without its consent. Rather like Stelios Haji-Ioannou and "easy". Or the RIAA.

EU slaughterhouses may get animal welfare officers

David Harper

No more halal and kosher then?

Can we hope that this will mean the end of halal and kosher slaughtering of animals whilst they are still conscious?

Berners-Lee backs web truthiness labelling scheme

David Harper

He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy

Quoth Sir Tim: "On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable. A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging."

Like Christianity, maybe? That started with 12 blokes who thought their leader was the Messiah, and look how much misery that's caused in the past two thousand years.

Educating Verity

David Harper
IT Angle

My experience of OU postgrad IT courses was much better

I took the OU's postgraduate diploma course in computing several years ago, before M885 was introduced, and I found all but one of the seven modules to be excellent. I especially enjoyed M873 "User interface design and evaluation", M865 "Project management" and the superb T852 "Learning from Information System Failures", which looked at reasons why large IT projects fail -- a subject close to the hearts of Reg readers.

I only found one module disappointing, T853 "Information Systems Legacy and Evolution". I guess I should have smelled a rat as soon as the course text started quoting from the works of Jurgen Habermas, a philosopher and sociologist who specialises in "critical theory", a subject which Wikipedia summarises as "the examination and critique of society and literature, drawing from knowledge across social science and humanities disciplines."

And this was in a course from the Engineering and Technology section of the OU! I'd already paid for the course, so I stuck with it and eventually managed to bullshit convincingly enough to pass the exam, but it left a sour taste.

Still, one dodgy course out of seven is a better average than my undergraduate degree, and I'd recommend the OU's postgraduate IT courses without hesitation.

Saatchi to promote foreigners' ID cards

David Harper

@ Johan Hartman

According to the table on page 11 of the PDF document linked from


non-EU foreign nationals who are already settled in the UK with permanent leave to remain won't receive their ID cards until 2012/13.

With a bit of luck, by that time, the entire ID card project will have imploded.

Ballerinas and fish-gutters beat techies in UK immigration race

David Harper

@Evil Graham

Look on the bright side, there are people who would probably pay good money to see you in a tutu. Your employees for a start. Go on, cheer them up tomorrow morning with a quick pas de deux.

Academic wants to 'free up' English spelling

David Harper

What next, simplified maths?

What can we expect once this truly half-witted idea has been adopted?

How about Simplified Maths, in which we only teach the little darlings to count up to 10, because that's how many fingers they have and anything larger will only confuse the poor things ...

Burned by Chrome - Fire put out

David Harper

Chrome is already banned where I work

Our sysadmins have already circulated an email this afternoon forbidding anyone from installing Google Chrome, citing clauses 11.1 and 11.4 of the EULA as the reason, and adding: "The issue of information rights and the protection of information is important and cannot be over-emphasised."

Cloud computing: A catchphrase in puberty

David Harper

pressflip.com appears to be titsup.com

"Ted Dziuba is co-founder and CTO of pressflip.com."

So I visited pressflip.com but all I got was:

"502 Proxy Error

The proxy server received an invalid response from an upstream server.

The proxy server could not handle the request GET /."

Very Web 2.0, Ted :-)

Suicide squirrel knocks out Swiss TV

David Harper

@ Cooked?

It's pining for the fjords.

Network Solutions falls off the web

David Harper

@Trace Route

Yes, traceroute fails for me too, both from Cambridge, England and from my web hosting provider in beautiful downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I get "* * *" from hop 12 onwards. They seem to have lost their routes from both Level3.net and xo.net

Network Solutions is an ex-parrot. It has ceased to be.

Joint Committee gets it (mainly) wrong on human rights

David Harper

572 words

The U.S. Bill of Rights is 572 words long, excluding the preamble, and it guarantees basic freedoms such as freedom of speech, religion and assembly, and the right to a fair trial, and it forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Moreover, it seems to have stood the test of time.

Why are our legislators unable to frame a guarantee of basic human rights as succinctly as that?

(We could probably drop the second clause, though.)

Verizon faces 65,000 worker walkout

David Harper

Re Are we in America now?

Read the by-line, AC: "By Cade Metz in San Francisco"

Last time I was in San Francisco, it was still part of the United States, where they rather endearingly spell labour without a "u".

Just be thankful that the strike doesn't involve Kaiser Aluminum.

UK BOFHs face psychometric dissection

David Harper

University of where?!?

I'd be more worried if this study were being conducted at a proper university. One that's been around for more than three and a half years, for example.

The return of Killer Chlorine

David Harper

The original study is shows no correlation

I'm looking at the paper from the journal Environmental Health which is the basis of the Torygraph news article.

Out of almost 400,000 births, only 43 suffered from anencephalus, so we're dealing with a very tiny sample to start with.

If we look more closely, we find there is zero correlation between the number of cases and the level of trihalomethanes in the mothers' drinking water.

The same is true of cleft palate and the other birth defects in the study.

The authors are clearly not statisticians, and Roger Highfield no longer deserves the title of science correspondent.

NASA: The Moon is not enough

David Harper

Re 19 or 39

Austin did say "a full score and 19 years ago", which is 20+19.

It was meant to echo the opening lines of the Gettysburg Address.

We must allow our colonial cousins a little poetic licence now and again.

Home Office classes openness review a secret

David Harper

Re Stow-cum-Quy

Have you tried Stow-ejaculation-Quy?

I bet the Disney smut filters allow that one through.

David Harper

Not just in Sussex

"That’s good use of blocking software, almost on a par with the direct marketing company that invented its own processes for handling rude words, and rejected all addresses containing the word sex.

readers in Sussex, Middlesex, etc. will instantly spot the flaw in that algorithm."

As will readers in Scunthorpe and Cockermouth, not to mention the residents of the village of Twatt in Shetland.

Tech woes threaten NASA's Moon plan

David Harper

A pale shadow of past glories

The Apollo programme solved far greater challenges in the 1960s, including heat shield design, shaking during launch and hatch doors that were hard to open (remember Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White?).

It's a far cry from NASA's heroic answer to Kennedy's "before this decade is out" challenge.

Putting a mule on a cloud: one man's battle with Amazon S3

David Harper

Computing is a gerund, Dave

Actually, "computing" is a gerund in the sense that the author uses it in the opening sentence of the article, so "cloud computing" is a noun and a gerund.

-- David the Amusingly Pedantic

Google and the End of Science

David Harper

QM and GR

Anton, I'm sorry for putting Anderson's words in your mouth.

However ... you did say "But if QM is inconsistent with general relativity, it must be false if GR is true. No-one needs to know anything about QM or GR to hold that."

No, no, thrice no.

Quantum mechanics and general relativity are both accurate and consistent models in their specific domains.

We may currently be unable to formulate a model which applies GR at a quantum level, but physics has faced similar problems in the past and found a solution. GR itself was the solution to shortcomings in Newtonian mechanics, but we can still use Newton's laws to send a spacecraft a billion miles across the Solar System with sufficient accuracy to fly it through a narrow gap in the rings of Saturn. Even a scientific model that has supposedly been superseded can still be useful.

As to the "Science. It works, bitches" point of view, it applies at several levels.

At a pragmatic, everyday level, it means that the electronics inside your computer and the laser in your DVD player were made possible through our understanding of quantum mechanics, whilst both quantum mechanics and general relativity provide the scientific basis for the satnav system in your car.

At the level of scientists at CERN and Jodrell Bank, the fact that science allows them to model the universe consistently and accurately from the sub-atomic scale all the way up to clusters of galaxies justifies the vast amounts of money, time and effort that go into these major publicly-funded science projects. Do you suppose that the government would hand over £2bn to British physicists and astronomers each year if it thought that they were no better than woo-merchants such as homeopaths?

David Harper

The bottom line

There's an awful lot of BS written by so-called philosophers of science about whether the scientific method is valid, and whether we can trust sense experience, and whether there's such a thing as causation.

The bottom line is that science has proven spectacularly successful in producing a coherent model of the way the universe works, using three simple tools: observation, reason, and Occam's Razor, which tells us to always favour the simplest explanation.

When someone like Anton Wylie suggests that quantum mechanics is "wrong" and says that it "caricature[s]... a more complex underlying reality", I wonder whether he actually knows anything about quantum mechanics. Some people may be uneasy with its underlying laws, such as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, but the fact remains that quantum mechanics models the sub-atomic world with astounding accuracy. Branches such as quantum electrodynamics have yielded theoretical predictions which experiments have subsequently verified to accuracies of one part in a trillion. If that's a caricature, it's one that would make Rory Bremner green with envy.

I leave the last word to Randall Munroe, author of the excellent comic strip xkcd:


Science. It workls, bitches.

File system killer leads police to wife's bones

David Harper

Plea bargaining

That reminds me of the old joke about the guy who is convicted of murdering her parents, then asks the judge for clemency on the grounds that he's just a poor orphan!

Would a data notification law improve UK data security?

David Harper

Nationwide fine

Yes, the Nationwide was fined almost a million pounds, but since it is a building society, it was the customers who ended up footing the bill -- the same customers whose data had been lost, which added insult to injury.

The answer is to make the senior executives peronally liable. That, and only that, would focus their attention on the importance of data security.

Warning sounded over black hole in UK physics teaching

David Harper

Not surprised in the least

University physics departments are closing down due to lack of students because physics is (rightly!) perceived as a difficult and intellectually challenging subject. Students are now paying customers, and the universities respond by offering courses in surfing, golf course management, media studies and quackery, where it's much easier to get that all-important first-class degree.

But don't worry. India and China are training thousands of new maths and physics graduates each year. I for one welcome our Chinese physicist overlords!

Cambridge congestion charge plans shelved

David Harper

Cambridge public transport sucks

Bus services in and around Cambridge are expensive and infrequent, and they pretty much stop running after 6.15 p.m., so if you live in one of the surrounding villages and work in Cambridge, your options are limited.

Stagecoach has a near-monopoly on running buses in Cambridge.

I wonder if these two facts are connected ...

Ex-Logica boss to teach UK.gov how to identify crap IT

David Harper

Or they could take an OU course

A couple of years ago, I took an excellent six-month Open University course called "Learning from Information System Failures". It taught methods for analysing why a large IT project has failed.

Some of the case studies were Government IT fiascos, such as the UK Passport Agency cockup of 1999, but others were from outside Government. My personal favourite was the disaster surrounding CAPSA, Cambridge University's accounting system.

The course textbook was " Information Systems: Achieving Success by Avoiding Failure" by Fortune and Peters. Yes, it's a naff title, but it's a great read for connoisseurs of IT disasters.

The war on photographers - you're all al Qaeda suspects now

David Harper

It's happening in the U.S. as well

Bruce Schneier, the security guru, has blogged about this idiocy several times, most recently on June 5:


He includes a link to a web site which provides a handy two-page guide to the rights of photographers in British law, written by a legal expert:


US school cheat hack suspect faces 38 years jail

David Harper

More like Dumb and Dumber

I have no sympathy with Khan. Cheating is deplorable. Using spyware to cheat is despicable.

US woman sues over exploding thong

David Harper

This can only end one way

Manufacturers of thongs will now be forced to print a warning on the outside of the packet, just as take-away coffee cups carry a warning that "this beverage is hot, so don't dump it on your crotch!" for the benefit of customers whose IQ is less than their shoe size.

Pluto awarded celestial consolation prize

David Harper

Got a nasty case of Plutoids? Try Preparation H!

Or should that be Preparation P?

Qinetiq rolls out 'third party' SDK for killer robot lines

David Harper

Only one problem

I bet the SDK only works on bloody Windows though.

Once again, those of us who aspire to total world domination through Linux are cruelly thwarted.

Blighty admits 'national shortage' of nuke engineers

David Harper

Look on the bright side

We may not be training anyone in nuclear physics or engineering these days, but our universities are producing plenty of people with degrees in hip subjects such as media studies, marketing and homeopathy. That'll show all of those smug foreigners that we mean business!

RSPCA calls for dog chipping

David Harper

Re Licences?

They were scrapped because the money they brought in didn't even begin to cover the administrative costs.

If they were brought back, the government would contract out the collection and enforcement to a private company such as Crapita, like they did with TV licence collection.

The newly-created DPLA (Dog and Puppy Licensing Agency) would assume that every household in the country has a dog, and send threatening letters to cat owners: "Dear Mrs Jones, Your so-called tabby cat Tiddles is the size of a Jack Russell. Pay up. We know where you live, if you get our meaning!"

David Harper

The next logical step

Make the mutts carry ID cards!

US Reapers get satnav bombs, deploy on Canadian border

David Harper

Do bears shit in the woods?

Yes, if they're Canadian bears and they hear a Predator drone coming.

UK Carriers safe: Other war-tech ripe for the chopper

David Harper

A modest suggestion

Britain could always apply to become the 51st state of the United States. Then we'd instantly have the biggest, meanest navy in the world, just like we did in the good old days.

Mind you, it would also mean that Tony Blair would be eligible to run for President.

Maybe not, then.

World economy group gives IPv6 big push

David Harper

We've been here before

Weren't IPv4 addresses meant to run out sometime before the end of the last century? And again sometime early in the present century?

In any case, many large organisations now shield their entire internal network behind a very small number of gateway public IPv4 addresses, and use the 192.168 or 172.16 private netblocks internally. The public netblocks are allocated using CIDR, so the days are long gone when an organisation gets an entire class A or B block.

I'm guessing that this story will keep on re-appearing at five-year intervals, and we'll still be using IPv4 when the Unix Timestamp Armageddon comes round and the world really does come to an end in 2037 :-)