Friday, June 27, 2008

Why do spreadsheets suck?

I had much frustration trying to plot those handy graphs in the post below. What I wanted was a line graph with the points unevenly spaced on the x-axis. Is that so much to ask?

I tried Google Docs to begin with, to find that it can't seem to do scatter graphs properly. And it's slow, because it's an AJAX application.
So I tried Apple Numbers, which can do scatter graphs, but can't put a line between the points. Also it's so slow! Unbelievable. Quad-processor machines shouldn't struggle like this with a simple spreadsheet.
Then I installed Microsoft Office 2008 and tried Excel. This is able to produce the graphs I want in theory, but it crashed when I tried. And, get this, it's even slower than Numbers!
Another thing about Excel for Mac is, in the values for the maximum and minimum values of a graph axis, I can't paste or type anything other than decimal numbers. Which means I can't set the graph to start at "11/06/2008  10:00:00 AM", but I have to enter "39610.4166666667".
How is that useful?

What a crock of shit these spreadsheet programs are.
In the end I had to resort to using Excel 2003 for Windows at work, even though it produces the same ugly graphs it was making in 1995. To slightly un-uglify them, I printed to a PDF and rasterised that, to get the nice anti-aliasing.
Next time, I'll try something open-source like Gnuplot, which should make a good job of it.

Apple, Microsoft: You fail at making spreadsheet programs. Go and stand in the corner.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bath Accommodation Applications: Nerdy Analysis

Two weeks ago, on Wednesday the 10th of June at precisely 10:00, the University of Bath opened the floodgates on its accommodation applications system.
If you're going to Bath, you'll have applied already (or should have!), and you'll know that getting a room in the most popular halls is competitive. Popular theory has it that those applying sooner will have a better chance of being allocated the place they want. I don't know if this has ever been confirmed. I intend to ask the staff all about the process when I get there. Regardless, everyone rushes like crazy to get their applications in as soon as it opens.

With the help of some posters on The Student Room, I have managed to plot the progress of these applications. The results are dramatic (if you're a nerd like me).

Around 2,500 applicants make Bath their first choice every year. Within 8 minutes of the form opening, 500 have applied for their halls. After half an hour, 1,000 have applied. By 8PM, the number of applications has reached 2,000. By the next evening, almost everyone has applied for their room.

I have (inexpertly) calculated the rate of applications based on the rough data gleaned from TSR. There is a huge spike, approaching 300 applications per minute, at T+7 minutes. This suggests to me that the form takes an average of 7 miutes to complete, and that by completing it in less, you will get a much better place in the queue.

It is notable that the first few minutes are relatively slow as everyone is filling out their forms. In the first two minutes, only 14 people had finished (one of them being me!). I suspect that most of these 14 had read all the information on the TSR Wiki and were very well prepared! I had a list of all the answers the form asked for, so I could just copy-paste them in.
In fact, I completed the form in about 1 minute, but I missed the opening time as my work computer's clock was wrong! Disappointing, I wanted to be first, (if just for bragging rights on TSR) :P

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Gap Year Fair

Today brought me some more business in Bath - this time, manning the Year in Industry's stand at a gap year fair – a collection of gap year organisations in the hall of a fancy school, all selling their stuff.

Strangely, whenever I come back from Bath, I feel really chilled and elated. I have no idea why. Today, I caught the train back, chatted briefly to a nice Indian lady, went to Asda, bought vegetables, walked home and listened to Northern Kings all the way. Then I ate two excellent cheese toasties and posted some stuff on my local Freecycle group. And it was awesome.

I wonder if Bath's really that nice that just going there gets me high? It is certainly a nice place, and I plan on testing the theory by making excuses to revisit the town.

The gap year fair itself was a bit of a dead loss in terms of getting students involved. I can count the number of students who really sounded interested on one hand.
The Year in Industry are in a difficult position at these events, as they are surrounded by people offering students the chance to spend a year snowboarding, swimming with dolphins or saving starving children in Africa. And along comes the YinI  saying "How would you like to get a job instead?" Doesn't sound so attractive now does it?
In order to deal with this, the YinI have started to offer an option called 'YinI Combo', on which students spend part of the year working like usual, then spend some of the money they earned to go off on a typical volunteering project abroad.
That's all well and good, but it's still called a Year in Industry. Countless times today, I heard students saying "Industry?" in a disgusted tone as they walked past the stand. The idea of working on a gap year is not one that appeals to the average 17-year-old.

I think that while the YinI is badly placed to sell its own YinI Combo, its partners that offer the volunteering part of the year are perfect for it. They can say "You can do all this stuff, and over here are the YinI who will help you to work up the funds to do it too!". Not only that, but the YinI looks great on a CV and it will help you prepare for your time at uni. Sounds a lot more interesting now, you see?

I'm not suggesting the YinI should stop attending these fairs. On the contrary, I think it should invest more in its involvement, and also be a bit smarter about how it does it. For a start, they should make sure that the people representing the partners understand the YinI and the Combo option. I spoke to representatives of the four partners today and three of them knew nothing about the YinI, even though they were giving out our leaflets!
I think they should also co-ordinate with the partners to ensure that the stands are physically close together and can refer students to each other easily.
Also, there was a lack of strong YinI branding on our stand. Almost all of the exhibitors had some sort of large-format backdrop with their name and an indication of what they do. Not so with us – we where the second-worst equipped of all the exhibitors there. It turns out that people are scared or simply uninterested to go up to a stand and find out what it is for, if it is not immediately obvious.

So yes, I have a lot of criticisms of the way the YinI represents at these events, but they can improve and I will tell them how!

And I am still in love with Bath!

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Student Room

I mentioned yesterday that I'm banned from TSR. This is not through any fault of my own, but because TSR is such an addictive forum that my productivity at work had dropped almost to nil.
So I asked the mods to ban me for my own sake, before I was disciplined for missing too many deadlines and abuse of company bandwidth.
I have achieved a great deal in the two weeks since I was banned, but the ban expires on Wednesday… I don't know what will happen then!

Bacon Butties

I just have to say, that Bath University is home to the best bacon butties in the world. I would post this information on the TSR Wiki, however I am banned from the site. More on that later.

I was there on business (wow, it sounds great to say that!) last week. Anyway, the café known as Dol•cHe Vita (why do café franchises have such pretentious names?) serves a beautiful bit of grilled bacon in a fresh-from-the-oven French loaf that only costs 90p! I have a feeling I'll be eating a lot of these when I get there in September!

Having done a brief bit of research on the topic, it seems some underworked and overfed postgrads at Leeds have done a "serious study" into what makes a perfect bacon butty.
Apparently, the most important variable is the crunchiness of the bacon, and they have developed an equation to evaluate it:
N = C + {fb(cm) · fb(tc)} + fb(Ts) + fc · ta
N=force in Newtons required to break the cooked bacon
C=Newtons required to break uncooked bacon
fb=function of the bacon type
cm=cooking method
tc=cooking time
Ts=serving temperature
fc=function of the condiment/filling effect
ta=time or duration of application of condiment/filling
Now this looks very dubious to me. There are so many significant variables not considered - for example, the quality of the bread is completely ignored!

Obviously, tensile strength is not a measure of crispness, so the equation is bogus from the start. A bit of deeper searching, and I find out that our own Bath University has produced a study into the perception of crispness, and found it statistically analogous to hardness.

Clearly, the study is incomplete and a great deal of further research is required. I would like to take this opportunity to volunteer myself as a human guinea pig for any further live trials that may need to be conducted. I believe we must all make certain sacrifices for the benefit of society, and this shall be my contribution.

Engineering Judgement?

If you care why I named this blog what I named it, I'll explain. Well actually I'm going to explain either way, so there!

"Engineering Judgement" is a skill used by pro engineers to make decisions based on a combination of information and intuition. It's a poorly defined and often misunderstood ability - hence why I like it!
When I hear the words “engineering judgement”, I know they are just going to make up numbers.
Richard Feynman, 1988

I thought the term was a fine blog name, because of its double meaning - I am also a Judgemental Engineer!

From the get-go

Welcome, traveller. How you arrived here is a mystery, but won't you stop for a cup of tea and a slice of cake?

This blog will soon become a receptacle for random thoughts of all sorts.
Some of this will be related to the fact I'm going to uni soon (I'M GOING TO UNI! DID I MENTION THAT YET‽) Yes, I'm ridiculously excited about that.
Some of it will be the type of random thought that occurs to me sometimes when I'm bored; dead interesting but far too geeky to mention in polite conversation. So I'll put it here just to free up some space in my brain.

From the get-go
…is a stupid bit of management-speak that gets thrown around a bit too much in the office.