My Blog

The I.T. Conundrum

Well it’s a little to sad to make my first post without anything to show for it, but there you go. I’m afraid for the last two weeks I have been waiting on an upgrade of the computational fluid mechanics software I am using, starccm+, from version 4.02 to version 5.02. Unfortunately the simulation I wish to undertake requires I use this version as all attempts with the previous version have failed. CD-Adapco (who make starccm+) have had their tech support trying to aid me with this simulation for the last six months and the best advice they can offer at the moment is an upgrade with the possibility that it may produce better results than the current version we are using. They may be right, but unfortunately I am powerless to test this hypothesis.

The problem I am having with getting the version updated stems from the primary use of the software within the engineering department, a desire to save funds, and an immature research group for undertaking this sort of application of CFD. To clarify the last point, this is no slight on the academic abilities of those within the research group, more that we lack any “research dedicated” facilities to do some of the tasks that we have chosen to undertake. Some of this is a lack of in-house bespoke software for wave and tidal problems (software that takes years to develop and test properly) and a lack of dedicated resources for external software and machines to run it on.

These issues are particularly highlighted by the research problem I am investigating – the effect of current on wave energy devices. In order to numerically simulate this problem I need software, yet I have no in-house software available which is capable and reliable enough to do it. Thus we must use external software. Unfortunately external software is expensive so, in order to reduce costs, we have attempted to use software we already have licences for, such as the software used for teaching. We are fortunate to have 50+ licences for starccm+ which gives significant processing power on some of the 8 node boxes in our cluster. Still, the use of this software has revealed a number of issues.

Firstly, the software, although superficially capable, has never been used for such problems as the ones we are using it for now. It has been used for some ship science calculations, but the outcomes of such simulations are somewhat different to wave energy devices (I believe) and the quality of waves are maybe not so important. Anyway, in general I have found the range of motion of a wave device somewhat challenging for the software so far, although I have some hopes that the new version will fair better. Other software on the market has been better applied to this type of problem, but it appears that financial constraints have hindered us from applying this software from the start.

Another problem arrises from the software being used for teaching. This means the version on the majority of machines can only be changed once annually. This problem is made worse by the institute having no dedicated research machines for which we could run the latest version at all times. Thus, my research is at the mercy of the academic year, which is not an efficient approach. A more mature group would have dedicated computing facilities, but, as yet, we do not.

So, annoyingly I have to just wait. I have been tidying up older pieces of work (some of which I shall speak about more in future) but now I have nothing left to get on with other than correcting my Ph.D. thesis. Oh well.

The other three things that make me happy

Like any good bit of writing I shall steal the first paragraph from myself. That’s academic writing, you understand. I’m not suggesting all writers are as devoid of imagination as the great thinkers of our country. Anyway, in a sappy moment, some time ago, I wrote this,

Someone once asked me for a top 5 of the things I loved in life, and to be honest with you I was unsatisfied with the answer I gave (even though it took me ages to think of). But, at last, now I have the first two. Firstly, I have a thing for rain, I find it very comforting, but one of the most beautiful sights to me is a city illuminated in the rain: the reflections, the feel of the air, it really floats my sensory boat. Second is a fond memory of mine, from not so long ago when I paid a visit home and went to our local pub to get drunk. Upon staggering back into the house one of our dogs, Cassie, was waiting patiently for me and as I entered I fell to the floor in a heap and she lay down next to me and we had a big cuddle and then I just stared at the ceiling for a bit, blissfully happy. So there you go, judge me by those if you please, and when I experience the other three I will let you know. :)

In fact, I think I’ve been drunk and upside down with other dogs, so you should see Cassie here as an example, rather than the rule. Oh God! The cat is on me! What she doesn’t understand is that there is a time and a place for this kind of thing and mostly it should be on the floor and late enough for my parents to be in bed. Phew. The look of depression she shot me there definitely put some weight behind the theory of transonic human cat communication OR it may have been the location of my finger. I’m not getting any brain-vibes from the cat, so I guess we’ll never know.

The real reason for the stream of bile currently hammering into my keyboard is to add to those 2 things I love in life? Two things? My mother is right, I am morose. Those have been sitting there for three years or so and I haven’t been able to think of one more to add to it, either. Well, no more. This is part of my therapy. I shall add more. Where to start?

I actually had the inspiration for one more a few months back and it was a moment of pure sensory delight. I was just about to cross the road at the Newington end of Melville Drive and then into the meadows when I got it. Hanging on the air was the smell of freshly cut grass. In that moment I was transported back to so many happy places I had been before, I can’t fix a location or a time, just a feeling. Thinking about it, was a beautiful day, and if I had thought that the almighty was in a good mood, it was confirmed to me as, just at the moment of recognition of the (green) grass smell, a delicious perfume was added to the mix by a girl walking by me. This was truly a moment of love, and appreciation for my nose.

I have two more responses that define life for me, but I am sure they are not uncommon and sadly, also, incredibly passive. In fact, all of my things are passive aren’t they? Oh dear. I shall have to recall some that I can influence. Ok, I can’t avoid it anymore… I love crying over movies. Right, before you get ideas, I’m not talking about Bridget Jones or Failure to Lunch or any of that tat. I’m talking about Finding Neverland, Schindler’s List, Spirited Away, and, recently, Benjamin Button. It’s pure emotional connection for me. I love losing myself in a story. I love to feel the emotion, the heart.

The last one, I shall dedicate to a great band I saw by accident. They’re called The State Broadcasters and they’re based in Glasgow and they’re fabulous. And this is the last thing for now. There is a moment when a piece of music is so special to me that it will send a tingle down my spine. These guys were the last band to do this to me, as I sat on the floor in front of them in that tiny cellar, and I must thank them for the moment.

So there you go - five. Enough to see me through a happy life? Well, I hope so. Surely there must be other things? There aren’t just five things in the world that make me happy? Well, I hope not. I’m looking forward to the next moments of recognition. Of the smile and the little rush of blood. As they come, I shall try to write them down, because five in thirty years is too low a ratio, in which case I must have a very bad memory.

Philosophical rantings brought on by an early morning train journey

The 6.15am from Kings Cross to Edinburgh may seem like a strange place to be inspired into writing about the nature of our existence. Looking back on it now, I was thinking big in the presence of my own company on issues that, well, could only be confirmed by those that I’m unlikely to meet for a few years, I hope. Anyway, whilst staring out of the window at the fields of green and wondering why solar panels are not also green combined with some musing on how different man’s invention is compared to that of nature, I had a small epiphany about what was going on. It goes a little like this:

The human race is nature’s most risky experiment. I say this because DNA, the building blocks of all things living, has a generally conservative attitude to survival. It is my understanding that DNA has, as its sole purpose, the object of replicating itself. This replication, in the wide and fantastic form that it often takes, ensures DNA’s sole objective, that of survival. Its need to survive demonstrates the rawest form of purpose for any living creature and the forever replicating driver within our own cells fulfils this purpose. Replication as a form of survival, however, can only be described as incredibly conservative – nature has taken millions of years producing millions of species with the hope that some will survive pretty much anything the world can throw at them. In an apparent contradiction to this bet-hedging behaviour on nature’s part, the human race was born.

The achievements that the human race have engineered and the challenges that it has endured in such a small amount of time truly demonstrate some of our most non-conservative tendencies. Humans are willing to risk, willing to sacrifice, we are ingrained with the ability to experiment without the outcome being a certainty. Nature, has never taken such big risks before. For the first time, DNA has created a being that has the power to destroy the whole experiment, but it also has the power to extend it beyond the realms of Earth and long into the future. We are natures most high-tech, most risky experiment. Our collective wisdom will define the outcome of that experiment.

The collective wisdom of the human race is, at this moment, at a cross roads. We are in the age of diagnoses. We are measuring our impact on the environment that has nurtured us for so long and we are beginning to understand that our response to it must change. We are, naturally, in disagreement about how this should be done. Economists would call it supply or demand side options, however, I would prefer to describe it as a risk or risk-free debate.

The risky side wants to keep pushing the envelope, to enhance technology, to drive forward the planet in a low carbon economy that can still continue to grow in population and become wealthier as the years go on. The risk here is that we can not deliver the technologies to meet these challenges and that the world is overwhelmed and likely us with it.

The less risky approach is to take stock. To say that enough is enough and economic growth is an unnecessary and unsustainable risk. By turning off our machines and caring for the planet the same outcomes can be achieved as with new technology without the risk of failure. This more conservative approach is appealing in a society that seems to be changing at whirlwind pace. A return to better days of small communities and more caring societies. The challenge is that stopping the juggernaut of progress is incredibly hard, if not impossible in a world as complex as ours. It may be that such a conservative attitude will not fulfil the human need to risk and innovate that has governed our progress to date; nature itself may not provide such stability for us, especially in the wake of man made climate change.

The solution must surely lie in cooperation between both philosophies. It must be recognised that our risk taking has gained us much, but also at great cost. Now we can take account of our own impact on the planet and it is up to us to take care of it. Without innovation and progress to supplement a more reserved attitude to the natural environment it is unlikely that we will survive the predicted population growth over the next 100 years. If risk and conservatism can be implemented together as we continue our own great experiment then perhaps we have a chance. Perhaps we can take DNA to places it’s never been before (or back where it came from???). We have the ability to do both and I believe we must do both.