Larry’s Book: To be published April 2016

Originally posted on Revise, Revise, Revise:

Eighteen months ago I set out to tell a story, a story I thought was important and becoming more so with every passing day; a story about palliative care. My idea for this story was to show palliative care physicians at work with their dying patients. I wanted to illustrate, in a piece of long-form journalism, the immense difference palliative care can make in the quality of life of dying patients. Because it’s one thing to be told that palliative care can make a difference, it’s quite another to see it demonstrated for yourself. That’s what I was hoping to do: demonstrate that difference, by showing readers that difference.

Life, as it often does, had other plans for me, and other plans for my story.

One of my first instincts, when I set out to tell this story, was to contact Dr. Larry Librach. Larry co-founded the Temmy Latner Centre…

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Bands with similar names

I have been noticing this phenomenon for many years. When a particular band becomes popular, often there are other bands who are popular at the same time with similar names. Some examples:

Yazz | Yazoo – both popular in the 80s

U2 | UB40 – both big 80s bands

Steeleye Span | Steely Dan – late 70s

Radiohead | Portishead – both became popular in the mid-nineties

Hot Hot Heat | Hot Chip – rose to fame early 2000s (followed closely by Hot Club de Paris!)

Blur | Pulp | Cast – there are a whole heap of 90s bands with 4 letter names

Kasabian | Klaxons | Kieser Chiefs – all in the mid 00s.

Wheezer | Wilco – formed mid nineties

There are many others who I can’t remember right now. I’ll come back and add them when I remember, but you can add them in the comments.

I have two theories to explain this, both of which probably have some truth to them:

  1. There is a fashion to band names. There are a lot of bands from the early 00s who had “the” in their name. This probably explains a lot of the similarities.
  2. I also think there might be some cases where one band name is confused for another, so that one band becomes famous on the back of another because people get confused about which ones are being hyped. I have no evidence for this!

Another interesting thing to consider is that bands of similar genres have similar names – most of the bands above share genres.

Can you think of other bands who have similar names? What about similar named songs popular at the same time?

Chav

In England there is a word “chav”, which according to Google means:

a young lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of (real or imitation) designer clothes.

Interested in the origin of this word I did some research. The word comes from the Romany words “chavo” and “chavvy”, which mean boy/child. There is also a suggestion that it links to the place name “Chatham” (in Kent). Wikipedia says:

 There is no connection between its current use and its historical use in Romany history

quoting this article as its source. The article, published on the BBC, doesn’t in fact support the claim in Wikipedia, it merely suggests that it has been:

reactivated it in recent times

The OED lists the first reference as a Usenet forum in 1998. I grew up in Kent (not that far from Chatham) in the 90s and I am sure I remember this word being around before 1998. I remember having a conversation with my mother about my indiscriminate use of the word “chav” and the word “pikey“; she was keen to point out the difference: A pikey is a gypsy.

To me (and my brother) the difference between a chav and a pikey wasn’t obvious – they looked the same, they dressed the same, they spoke the same, which is undoubtedly a sign of our ignorance, but perhaps it also explains how this Romany word made a leap from the Romany word for boy, to its modern usage.

Let me try to paint the picture in more detail, which trying to avoid defaming gypsies, who I have a lot of respect for. The modern day “chav” seems to take a lot of things from what is perceived to be gypsy culture; lots of gold jewelry, a big brash attitude, a very strong regional accent, a lack of education and a disregard for the law.

Please note at this point that I am giving my understanding of some of the prejudices that existed in the culture I grew up in, I am not saying that these things are true.

It is really interesting that the word chav was misappropriated from the Romany word for boy, in order to describe a new culture that was in many ways trying to imitate. Firstly, many gypsies are of a Romany origin, so it is likely that they would know this word and use it among themselves. I wonder if the word actually comes from its use as an adjective – “chavvy”, which may have been used to mean “childish”. I can see it taking a leap from this use by gypsies themselves, to others like myself, taking it on but misunderstanding it to mean “gypsyish”. I certainly remember “chavvy” being used as a pejorative term, although by the time it reached me it definitely had connotations of “poor” and “classless”.

Another interesting detail – I met my wife in 1998, and she grew up in the West Midlands. She had never heard of the word before meeting me, which leads me to suspect that this word had its origins in Kent.

What’s the earliest you remember this word? Did you grow up in Kent?

Wood burning stove

When we moved into our new house, the thing we were most intent on adding was a proper wood burning stove. We had a log burner or fireplace in most of our previous house; I get cold easily, and since warmth is one of Maslow’s fundamental needs I like to be able to provide it.

I believe in burning wood as a sustainable and renewable fuel; it can be carbon neutral and it is very low tech, which makes it a good step towards self-sufficiency.

The house came with this “delightful” gas fire:

IMG_6393

I removed this with help from my son, and managed to get a fair price for on ebay. We also removed the block-work around the fire to make the wall flat.

The gas fire out, the next step was to fit the stove and install a twin wall flue.

For the stove we chose a Clearview Solution 500. As we live in a smoke control area, our choice of stove was limited to the list of DEFRA approved stoves but I think we’d have chosen this stove even if we weren’t in a smoke control area.

For our flue installation we worked with Dean at Warm Knights; he did a really great job, as the photos testify!

The finished result:

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The stove outputs 8kW, which is on the large side, but the convection casing and the eco fan means that the heat is distributed nicely around the house. We don’t need to use our central heating at all any more.

The flue has an excellent draw, so it is easy to light a fire, and quickly gets hot. The stove is very easy to control with independent up-draft and down-draft controls. This is a really nice change from previous stoves we have had, which have been hard to light and impossible to control.

tl;dr: get one.

Writing code is like solving a Rubik’s cube

It struck me today that solving problems by writing code is a lot like solving a Rubik’s cube.

When you attempt to solve a Rubik’s cube, doing one side is pretty easy. It can often appear that you are making good progress: it’s already 1/6th complete! As you try to solve another side, you realise that in order to complete the second side, you have messed up the side you have already completed. These unintended consequences are very common when you write code. If you manage to complete 2 sides you feel like you are making significant progress – 1/3rd of the puzzle is now solved, you might think.

As you progress to the next side you become aware of the increasing complexity – how making changes in one place has ‘knock on’ effects in another. With each side you attempt, the difficulty of completing it becomes harder until you realise that you need to take a different approach.

At this point it becomes clear that what appeared to be fast progress at the beginning was deceptive – that, in fact, it wasn’t progress at all, because you were taking the wrong approach. The reality is that, if you had estimated how long it would take to complete the puzzle, an estimate made after one or two sides were complete would be wildly inaccurate – completing one side of the puzzle does not make the puzzle 1/6th complete.

The most common technique for solving a Rubik’s cube is to think of it in rows – starting with the top row, you work down each of the three rows, and finally complete the base. Of course the same principle applies here as with faces approach – the first row is the easiest to complete, and each successive row gets harder.

Solving problems in the right order is critical for success in a Rubik’s cube. If you have a block in the wrong place, but you decide to leave it and come back to it later, once the rest of the puzzle is complete, you will be setting yourself up to fail. Once the rest of the puzzle is complete, going back to fix the piece you skipped will break all of the work you have done since you made the decision to skip a step.

A cube can appear to be 90% solved, but still be a long way from completion, if there are critical issues with certain pieces in the wrong place. Conversely a cube can appear to be a long way from completion, but in fact be only a few steps away, given that you know the steps.

In fact, solving a Rubik’s cube can always be completed quickly: the solution for any combination will only be <a href=”http://www.cube20.org/”>at most 20 steps</a>. This is because computers don’t make changes that have unintended consequences – they are aware of the side effects of every change they make, so that all of the changes work together:

However humans don’t think like machines. We have to approach the problem in a way which minimises the complexity of each operation – we have to make small changes so we can understand what the implications of each one are – so we don’t mess up the other parts of the system.

By making small incremental changes we can see the implications of every change we make, and slowly chip away at the problem until it is solved.

This is a lot like writing code (especially code that isn’t orthoganal) – where changes made in one place can have unexpected consequences in another. There are two obvious outcomes of this:

  1. When working on complex systems, try to make your changes as small as possible, so that you can understand the consequence of every change. This will make it easier to see when things go wrong
  2. It’s really hard to estimate how long it will take to solve a problem you have never solved before.

The second point is really important, and worth elucidating on. With the Rubik’s cube, what appeared at first to be quick progress was in fact deceptive. Also, if critical parts of the problem were left until last, the effort to complete the remaining parts would still be large.

So it is when writing (and particularly modifying) code. A programmer that appears to be making good progress can soon find that they will need to make changes which will have implications beyond the scope of the system they are currently working in. The task which on the surface seemed simple suddenly becomes more complex.

Also, if a developer ignores one of the key problems with the system they are creating, hoping to find a solution later, this final issue can end up causing a big delay to a project. This may sound like a stupid mistake that a good developer would avoid, but the fact is that it is often not apparent which these critical pieces are, until a long way into a project.

It could be argued that once you have solved a few Rubik’s cubes you would start to get a sense of how long it would take you – you’d have a system in place and some experience to call on. This is true, but the fact is that the problems that developers tend to face are not ones they have solved before, so, unless they know the code they are working on well, each problem is like a new Rubik’s puzzle.

This is why I dislike estimating how long it will take to make changes to code. Maybe next time someone asks me I will give them a Rubik’s cube to solve.

Redwood Canopy Zipline

A fun day zipping through the California Coastal Redwoods!