Bulletproofing Sea Shepard's IT

A couple of years ago I began a fantastic journey with Sea Shepard, and now with their permission I can tell the story of some of the things we have done to help bulletproof their shipboard IT.

In 2011 I read a great account of life on a campaign. Shortly after this I learnt that Sea Shepard were setting up their Southern Ocean Headquarters nearby in Williamstown, Australia, and I lived a mere 10 minutes away.

I did a weekend tour of the ships and as well as the mission I loved the energy, warmth and wildness of them and what they were doing. After considering various ways of getting involved I simply decided to take direct action.

I had in my shed a bunch of technical outdoor gear from my past life as a field ecologist that I realized I was never realistically going to use again. I loaded them in my car, drove down to the ships and donated it all. It turned out the waterproof cases were used to store the radios on the ships smaller rubber boats.

On a later visit I learnt that our tour guide - Rolf - was the ships Comms Officer. I had been doing some professional work with devices known as solid state disks. These replace hard disks and have no moving parts. Disk failure from vibration was a big problem on the ships, so as I was walking off the ship I asked Rolf if they could use solid-state drives.

Rolf was extremely enthusiastic, so we began systematically renovating all the hard disks. These devices work at lower temperatures, use less energy and are resilient to vibration.

It turned out their ship the MV Steve Irwin had a bunch of IT problems at the time. Among them was the state of the ship's IT infrastructure. As the other ships joined the fleet they typically had similar issues, and I got to work with the other Comms Officers, including Tim and Tux.

Most of the mobile phones were second-hand. The computers were ancient PC's. Laptops were rare and personally owned. Networking was primitive, unreliable and wires were actually sticky-taped together. There were no routers, switches or uninterruptible power supplies. PC's were operating as network servers. There was no wireless networking.

I made it my mission to fix that, and was blessed to have the support of an anonymous donor who after learning what I was doing financed pretty much whatever we asked for.

We made a running list (spawning the Amazon wish lists in use today), prioritised the items on it and just got on with doing whatever we could whilst the ships were in port. A slew of donations were made, including UPS's, networking hardware, cabling, a big bunch of slightly second-hand laptops with SSD's, iPods for social media posting and iPads for visitor email collection.

One outcome of which I am particularly proud is that media files are now transmitted wirelessly between ships, replacing dangerous small boat transfers of USB devices at sea.

I had the honour of having my photo taken in the Captains Chair of the Steve Irwin.

Thanks Sea Shepard.

iPad donations

My takeaway's from the YOW Conference

Late last year I attended the YOW software developers conference here in Melbourne.

My takeaways include:

* AI 2.0 - Using principles of the brain to computationally detect anomalies. www.cept.at and numenta.org

* the movement to stream vs batch processing (exemplified by real-time music programming and algoraves, but things like StreamInsight)

* the rise of JavaScript (Linux and Amiga OS emulation in JavaScript within a browser) and functional programming

* Polyglot data storage (Graph databases, MongoDB) 

* Visualisation

* Natural interfaces

* Agile coaching

* Mobile

What I laughed the most at were many precious moments in Scott Hanselman's keynote.

Unfortunately, I still don't know what problem Lambda's are meant to solve.

Thank you Dave Thomas (no relation) for bringing us YOW yet again.

First fire alert via Meerkat

Today the first live voice notification about a neighbourhood fire was sent via Meerkat.

Meerkat is a Node.js API with Twillio integration. You send the API a message and it fires a collection of calls to Twillio to ring the landlines of a collection of neighbours to tell them something (in this case a fire threat) is occurring. It sends notifications MUCH faster than formal alerts via the FireReady app, etc. 

Being developed voluntarily with a work colleague who has a house in a fire-prone area.

More to follow ... 

Using Processing and Arduino for the Gertrude Street Projection Festival 2013

The Gertude Street Projection Festival 2013 is on between Friday 19th and 28th July 6pm - Midnight. It includes an installation at Rose Chong Costumes (disclaimer: family business) in which I used Ben Fry's Processing to project various fabric patterns onto clothes hanging out in the street, and a Freeduino to synchronise the lighting of corresponding buckets of fabric.

The projection uses an Apple Mac Mini running the visual art programming language Processing 2.0.0.

The display randomly selects from a pool of six JPG files that are scans of fabrics from the costume shop. The scans are significantly larger than the resolution of the projector, and are animated using an algorithm that slowly moves the image in a random direction until it hits the boundary of the file, then begins moving it randomly in another direction. It does this for a fixed period of time, then loops through with another unique image.

The fabric design imagery is projected against cutouts of garments suspended in a tree outside the shop window.

When the image changes it drives a custom Arduino-based lighting rig that illuminates a bucket of the corresponding fabric located in the front of the display.

The Arduino board is the Australian-made Freeduino (purchased from Jaycar), and some big white LED's, with plug-in leads and encased in a box.

There is more to the display than described, but the full description, code and photos will have to wait until the festival is launched.


Only zoologist/SQL Server DBA known to have performed on stage and film with Nicole Kidman, whilst dressed as a camel

I am the only known zoologist to have performed on stage and film with Nicole Kidman, whilst dressed as a camel. That's me who was dressed as a camel. Not Nicole Kidman.

I am also the only known certified SQL Server database administrator to appear on stage and film with Nicole Kidman.

OK. The story is that a very long time ago I was 'Assistant Stand-by Wardrobe' on the film 'Wills & Burke' (or as it was released in the US 'The Wacky world of Wills & Burke').

I was roped into being an extra, and had my moment-of fame as the lead actor was the proto-famous Nicole Kidman. As I was young and foolish I was indignant that as a crew member I had been roped into being an extra. In hindsight it was clearly my crowning professional achievement.

The two screenshots show 1) the credit, and 2) a still from the exact scene (albeit I am only shown from behind) and 3) a 14-sec clip from the movie.

Screen grab of credits to 'The Wacky World of Wills & Burke' that show Alex Thomas as Assistant Stand-by Wardrobe.
Screen grab showing Alex Thomas performing on stage and film whilst dressed as a camel, with Nicole Kidman.

A Guide to Stream-dwelling Frogs of the Wet Tropics Rainforests

Image In the mid-90's I helped Dr Jean-Marc Hero produce this booklet to aid in finding the missing (now extinct) stream-dwelling frogs of the Wet Tropics Rainforests.

The document was published using Adobe PageMaker on an 8MHz Macintosh SE with 4Mb RAM (I think) and a billion disk swaps (this was before affordable hard disks).

It was the first time the James Cook University printer had ever used waterproof paper, and the ambient humidity caused havoc as the pages didn't have time to dry as they came through the press.

I arranged sponsorship from Cadbury's, and the booklet was freely distributed.

I don't have any copies to distribute and doubt if any are available now other than possibly the James Cook University library.

Contributing to Open Source GIS

I have made a donation to the open source GIS program QGIS. http://qgis.org/en/sponsorship/donors.html

GIS is a key enabler for understanding so much of our world and life, and I can distinctly recall my frustration in the late 90's when GIS investments were the only technology specifically excluded to community-based environment organisations. In fact, I threw the application booklet across the room at the time.

This is a more positive response.