Monday, December 24, 2012

A Geek Christmas Quiz–The Answers!

Thanks for everyone who had a go at my Geek Christmas Quiz. The response was fantastic with both Iain Holder and Rob Pickering sending me emails of their answers. I’m pretty sure neither of them Googled any of the questions, since their scores weren’t spectacular :)

So, now the post you’ve all been waiting for with such anticipation… the answers!


  1. G.N.U stands for GNU is Not Unix. A recursive acronym, how geeky is that?
  2. The A in ARM originally stood for ‘Acorn’ as in Acorn Risc Machine. Yes, I know it stands for ‘Advanced’ now, but the question said ‘originally’.
  3. TCP stands for Transmission Control Protocol.
  4. Paul Allen founded Microsoft with Bill  Gates. I’ve just finished reading his memoirs ‘Ideas Man’. Hard work!
  5. F2 (hex) is 15(F) * 16 + 2 = 242.  1111 0010 (binary)
  6. Windows ME was based on the Balmer Peak theory of software development.
  7. The first programmer was Ada Lovelace. Yes yes, I know that’s contentious, but I made up this quiz, so there!
  8. UNIX time started in 1970 (1st January to be exact). I know this because I just had to write a System.DateTime to UNIX time converter.
  9. SGI, the mostly defunct computer maker. You get a mark for Silicon Graphics International (or Inc).
  10. Here’s monadic ‘Bind’ in C#: M<B> Bind<A,B>(M<A> a, Func<A, M<B>> func)

Name That Geek!


  1. Bill Gates – Co-founder of Microsoft with Paul Allen.
  2. Tim Berners-Lee – Creator of the World Wide Web.
  3. Larry Ellison – Founder of Oracle. Lives in a Samurai House (how geeky is that?)
  4. Linus Torvalds – Creator of Linux.
  5. Alan Turing – Mathematician and computer scientist. Described the Turing Machine. Helped save the free world from the Nazis.
  6. Steve Jobs – Founded Apple, NeXT and Pixar.
  7. Natalie Portman – Actress and self confessed geek.


  1. The four ‘letters’ of DNA are C, G, T and A. If you know the actual names of the nucleotides (guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine), give yourself a bonus point – you really are a DNA geek!
  2. The ‘c’ in E = mc2 is a constant, the speed of light.
  3. The next number in the Fibonacci sequence 1 1 2 3 5 8 is 13 (5 + 8).
  4. C8H10N402 is the chemical formula for caffeine.
  5. According to Wikipedia, Australopithecus, the early hominid, became extinct around 2 million years ago.
  6. You would not find an electron in an atomic nucleus.
  7. Nitrogen is the most common gas in the Earth’s atmosphere.
  8. The formula for Ohm’s Law is I = V/R (current = voltage / resistance).
  9. A piece of paper that, when folded in half, maintains the ratio between the length of its sides, has sides with a length ratio of 1.618, ‘the golden ratio’. Did you know that the ratio between successive Fibonacci sequence numbers also tends to the golden ratio? Maths is awesome!
  10. The closest living land mammal to the cetaceans (including whales) is the Hippopotamus.


  1. The second (and third) stage of the Apollo Saturn V moon rocket was powered by five J2 rocket engines.
  2. Saturn’s largest moon is Titan. Also the only moon in the solar system (other than our own) that a spaceship has landed on.
  3. You would experience 1/6th of the Earth’s gravity on the moon. Or there about.
  4. This question proved most contentious. The answer is false, there is nowhere in space that has no gravity. Astronauts are weightless because they are in free-fall. Gravity itself is a property of space.
  5. A Geosynchronous spaceship has an orbital period of 24 hours. So it appears to be stationary to a ground observer.
  6. The furthest planet from the sun is Neptune. Far fewer people know this, than know that Pluto used to be the furthest planet from the sun. Actually Pluto was only the furthest for part of it’s, irregular, orbit.
  7. There are currently 6 people aboard the International Space Station.
  8. According to Google (yes, I know) there are 13,000 earth satellites.
  9. Prospero was the only satellite built and launched by the UK. It was launched by stealth after the programme had been cancelled, that’s the way we do things in the UK.
  10. The second man on the moon was Buzz Aldrin. He’s never forgiven NASA.

Name That Spaceship!


In this round, give yourself a point if you can name the film or TV series the fictional spacecraft appeared in.

  1. Red Dwarf. Sorry, you probably have to be British to get this one.
  2. Space 1999. Sorry, you really have to be British and over 40 to get this one … or a major TV space geek.
  3. Voyager. Difficult, interplanetary probes all look similar.
  4. Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). You can have a point for ‘Lunar Module’, but no, you don’t get a point for ‘Apollo’. Call yourself a geek?
  5. Skylab. The first US space station, made out of old Apollo parts. Not many people get this one. A read a whole book about it, that’s how much of a space geek I am.
  6. Darth Vader’s TIE fighter. You can have a point for ‘TIE Fighter’. You can’t have a point for ‘Star Wars’. Yes yes, I know I’m contradicting myself, but, come on, every geek should know this.
  7. Curiosity. No, no points for ‘Mars Rover’.
  8. 2001 A Space Odyssey. Even I don’t know what the ship is called.
  9. Soyuz. It’s been used by the Russians to travel into space since 1966. 46 years! It’s almost as old as me. Odd, when space travel is so synonymous with high-technology, that much of the hardware is actually ancient.

Geek Culture

  1. ‘Spooky’ Mulder was the agent in the X-Files, played by actor David Duchovny.
  2. Kiki is the trainee witch in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, one of my favourite anime movies by the outstanding Studio Ghibli.
  3. The actual quote: “Humans are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” by Agent Smith. You can have a point for Virus or Cancer too. Thanks Chris for the link and clarification.
  4. Spiderman of course!
  5. “It’s a Banana” Kryten, of Red Dwarf, learns to lie.
  6. My wife, who is Japanese, translates ‘Otaku’ as ‘geek’. Literally it means ‘you’ and is used to describe someone with obsessive interests. An appropriate question for a geek quiz I think.
  7. The name R2D2  apparently came about when Lucas heard someone ask for Reel 2 Dialog Track 2 in the abbreviated form ‘R-2-D-2’. Later it was said to stand for Second Generation Robotic Droid Series 2, you can have a point for either.
  8. Clarke’s 3rd law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
  9. African or European? From Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
  10. Open the pod bay doors please HAL. 2001 A Space Odyssey. Or on acid here.

So there you are. I hope you enjoyed it, and maybe even learnt a little. I certainly did. I might even do it again next year.

A very Merry Christmas to you all!

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Geek Christmas Quiz

God rest ye merry gentlemen! Welcome to my 2012 Geek Christmas Quiz. Every Friday morning at 15below we have a ‘DevEd’ session. Usually this is a presentation about some interesting tech, or a new way we want to do something at the company, but today I thought I would try to gauge the true geekiness of our development team with a quiz. The winners, and therefore crowned top geeks, were Toby and Linda who got a total of 32 points. See if you can do better dear reader.

You get one point for each correct answer. The quiz is split into six sections:  Computers, ‘Name That Geek’, Science, Space, ‘Name That Spaceship’, and Geek Culture.

Update: The answers are here.


  1. What does G.N.U. stand for?
  2. What did the A in ARM originally stand for?
  3. What does TCP stand for?
  4. Who founded Microsoft with Bill Gates?
  5. What is F2 (hexadecimal) in decimal?
  6. Which operating system's development was based on the 'Balmer Peak'?
  7. Who was the first programmer?
  8. What year does UNIX time start?
  9. What did SGI stand for?
  10. Write down the type signature of the Monadic Bind method.

Name that Geek



  1. What are the four letters of DNA?
  2. What does the 'c' in E = mc2 stand for?
  3. What is the next number in this sequence: 1 1 2 3 5 8 _ ?
  4. What is C8 H10 N4 02 ?
  5. When did Australopithecus become extinct? (in millions of years ago)
  6. Which of the following would you not expect to find in an atomic nucleus (electron, neutron, proton)
  7. What is the most common gas in the Earth's atmosphere?
  8. Write the formula for Ohm's law.
  9. If, after you fold a piece of paper in half, the ratio between its longest side and its shortest side is the same, what is that ratio?
  10. What living land mammal is the closest evolutionary relative to Whales? (cetaceans)


  1. What rocket engine powered the 2nd stage of the Saturn V?
  2. What is Saturn's largest moon?
  3. What fraction of the Earth's gravity would you experience on the moon?
  4. Astronauts are weightless in space because there is no gravity. true or false?
  5. What is the orbital period of a geosynchronous satellite?
  6. What is the furthest planet from the sun? (now that Pluto has been demoted)
  7. How many people are currently living aboard the ISS?
  8. To the nearest thousand, how many satellites are currently orbiting the earth?
  9. What was the name of the only satellite launched by the UK?
  10. Who was the second man on the moon?

Name that spaceship


Geek Culture

  1. Who was Spooky Mulder?
  2. Was Kiki a trainee witch or an evil princes?
  3. "Humans are a _____" (Agent Smith)
  4. Who is Peter Parker?
  5. "It's a b... It's a b... It's a small, off-duty Czechoslovakian traffic warden!" What is it really?
  6. What does 'Otaku' (Japanese) mean?
  7. What does R2D2 stand for?
  8. What is Clarke's 3rd law?
  9. What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
  10. Open ___ ___ ___ ____ please H.A.L

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Super Simple Node Twitter Re-Tweeter

I’ve been having a lot of fun writing a little ‘re-tweeter’ this morning. We basically want to monitor our user stream and then re-tweet any status with a particular hash tag. I thought this would be an excellent little project for node, and indeed it proved to be extremely easy to do. I used the node-twitter library which worked fine for what I wanted to do.

If you want to use this code, you’ll need to do the following:

First you’ll need to go to and register a new app. You can then copy and paste your consumer key, consumer secret, access token and access token secret into the ‘xxx’ fields.

Next install node-twitter with npm:

npm install twitter

Then just run the code with node (I’m a poet and I didn’t know it):

node twitter-retweeter.js

Here’s the code in the twitter-retweeter.js file:

var util = require('util');
var twitter = require('twitter');

var twit = new twitter({
consumer_key: 'xxx',
consumer_secret: 'xxx',
access_token_key: 'xxx',
access_token_secret: 'xxx'

var hashtag = '#iloveprog'

function write(data) {
if ( typeof data === 'string') {
else if (data.text && data.user && data.user.screen_name) {
console.log(data.user.screen_name + ": " + data.text);
else if (data.delete) {
else if (data.message) {
console.log('ERROR' + data.message);
else {

function testForHashtag(data) {
if(data.retweeted) return;
if(data.text.indexOf(hashtag) != -1) {
twit.retweetStatus(data.id_str, function(){
console.log('retweet callback');

function reconnect() {
setTimeout(startStreaming, 1000);

function startStreaming() {'user', function(stream) {
console.log('starting stream');
stream.on('data', write);
stream.on('end', reconnect)


console.log('lisening for tweets');

It’s all really straight forward. The startStreaming function kicks of the callback on the twitter user stream. Each time an event occurs it calls the write function which checks for the given hashtag and then retweets the status if there’s a match.


Wednesday, December 05, 2012

WebRequest Throws On 404 Status Code

WebRequest, or rather HttpWebRequest has the annoying behaviour or throwing a WebException when the server returns 404 ‘not found’ status, or in fact any unexpected status number. It would be much better if it didn’t do this and simply allowed the application to decide what it should do on different status codes. At the very least there should be some way of turning this behaviour on or off. In fact it would be nice if the whole WebRequest class wasn’t a monolithic black box, but a toolbox of components that allowed you to tailor an HTTP client to your requirements. I was a little surprised when I did some Googling earlier and couldn’t find a nice open source alternative to WebRequest; it’s the sort of thing that the community is usually quite good at coding around. Oh well, I’ll add that to my ever growing list of potential future GitHub projects (that will never happen).

My quick and dirty fix for this problem was an extension method that catches WebException, checks if the type of the exception is a protocol exception – this seems to be the status for status code exceptions, and then returns the response from the exception’s Response property. It’s horrible, but it seems to work:

public static HttpWebResponse GetHttpResponse(this HttpWebRequest request)
HttpWebResponse response = null;

response = (HttpWebResponse)request.GetResponse();
catch (WebException exception)
if (exception.Status == WebExceptionStatus.ProtocolError)
response = (HttpWebResponse) exception.Response;

return response;

It conveniently returns an HttpWebResponse instead of a WebResponse.

You could use it like this …

var response = request.GetHttpResponse();
if (response.StatusCode != HttpStatusCode.NotFound)
// handle appropriately

Of course, if you want to handle the response asynchronously, you’ll have to write an extension method for EndGetResponse as well.

… or, if you’re using .NET 4.5, you could use HttpClient. It wraps WebRequest internally, but it does return status codes rather than throwing it seems.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Onion Of Compromise


I love little phrases that sum up large scale behaviours in software systems and the organisations that produce them. One of my favourite is “The Onion Of Compromise.” I first heard this gem from my excellent friend Iain Holder. Iain doesn’t claim to be the author, that honour goes to a mysterious third person named ‘Mike’.

Being a programmer is all about making decisions. Lots and lots of little decisions. In fact every line of code is a decision; a little cog in the wheel of a grander machine. The simple thing that separates a good programmer from a poor programmer is that they tend to make relatively more good decisions and less bad ones.

Incidentally, that’s why it’s a mistake to think that you can hire an experienced ‘chief architect’ who ‘designs’ your system, while rooms full of junior/cheap developers churn out the code - and expect anything other than a disaster to occur. The decisions are just too granular to be  made by one person on a large project.

Good decisions are ones which aid the evolution and stability of an application. They are summed up by epithets that describe general good practice, such as ‘Don’t Repeat Yourself’, ‘Open Closed Principle’ and a hundred others. An experienced programmer will employ a range of these rules-of-thumb to ensure that they don’t get tangled up in needless complexity as their application grows. You can tell a project where good decisions have been made; it’s easy to add new features and there are few bugs.

A bad decision often doesn’t seem like a bad decision at first, merely a way of implementing a feature or fixing a bug with the least possible impact on the code. Often the bad decision will introduce a constraint on further evolution of the software or a special case given a particular combination of factors. If a bad decision isn’t rolled back it can quickly lead to further bad decisions as the programmer works around it. Soon layers of poor design wrap that initial poor decision. This is ‘The Onion of Compromise’. That initial first mistake (or compromise) leads to a cascade of poor choices. Another name for the layers of the onion is ‘Technical Debt’.

It’s easy to spot software that has suffered from The Onion of Compromise; it’s brittle, you change one thing and it breaks seemingly unrelated parts of the system; it seems to take ages to implement new features; and there’s a high bug count.