Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A Compiler, A Bug and Nanosecond Wires

Being a female in a male dominated environment has never daunted me. I have always got along well with guys and, truth be told, generally prefer working with them. However, I always get excited when I hear about women who have played pivotal roles in Engineering and Technology, so when I was going through a free computer science course from Udacity and the legendary Grace Hopper was mentioned, I just had to find out more about her and her contribution to computer science.

In my quick searches, I came to find out that this incredible woman was a pioneer in the computer sciences and was always striving to achieve more. She was born in New York City on December 9th, 1906 and was encouraged by her father from an early age to pursue her passions. 

You can read more about her incredible history in the sources below if you're interested (I won't repeat what is already out there). I will however, highlight a few things from Grace's life:

  • As a child, took apart all the clocks in her house to see how they worked
  • PhD from Yale University
  • Associate Professor at Vasser College
  • Joined the United States Naval Reserve in 1943 at the age of 37
  • Designed the first working compiler for computer programs
  • Was part of a team that designed one of the first programming languages, COBOL
  • Credited with popularising the use of the word 'bug' in reference to computer programs
  • Was awarded the position of rear admiral in the US Navy
  • Used to walk around with Nano-seconds and hand them out to people
The reason that I'm so excited about this woman, is due to the fact that, by designing and creating a working compiler, she made programming accessible to the man on the street. If you think about how much of our daily life involves something that is programmed (think of microwaves, washing machines, cars, computers, gate remotes, cell phones...), it's mindblowing! She really has helped to shape how our world today works.

For those of you who don't know much about computers - a compiler is something that takes a programming language that is easily written and understood by humans and translates this language into another language that is easily understood by machines. 

You can almost imagine a compiler as a translator between two people at a dinner party who can't speak each others language, but who both need each other to perform and react to certain pieces of information. As long as your compiler doesn't translate like this guy here, you'll be able to do incredible things with your programs! 

It took years for her ideas on compilers to be accepted by the wider computer science community, but once they were accepted they really did revolutionise the way that computer science progressed!

For those of you who image an actual creepy-crawly creature when you think of the word bug when someone is speaking computer-geek to you that you don't quite understand, rest assured that your imagination is actually correct! The term was used to reference the root cause of an error in the Mark II computer, when a moth was found inside one of the relays (an electronic component) of the computer.

Lastly, I'm sure you've been wondering what in the world a Nano-second is?! It seems that Grace wanted to be able to refer physical references to abstract concepts. This 11.8 inch wire is the distance that the speed of light can travel in 1 nano-second. It is also the maximum distance that a signal can travel in a vacuum! Grace used to keep a bunch of these wires in her handbag and hand them out when she was lecturing, to help illustrate her point more clearly.

I'm only at the beginning of my search for more information on Grace Hopper, if anyone has any interesting books or websites to recommend, they would be most welcome. And I will post updates on other interesting sources of information to this inspirational lady as I find them!

Yale Website
Navy History 
Cyber Heroes

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Friday, 25 April 2014

Pipe Trail Walk

Are you looking for something to do in Cape Town that is outside, somewhat active and has a beautiful view of the sea the whole time? Luckily I have just the thing for you!

A few weeks ago, we took a gentle stroll along the pipe trail. This is the second walk we've done of Mike Lundy's Walks. We had our friend, Michelle, join us and we spent a really relaxing afternoon strolling along the mountain contours, with the pipes occasionally peeping through the ground to keep up company.

These pipes were the first pipes to bring fresh, clear water to Cape Town. Before the installation of these pipes, the water was apparently brown and I, for one, am very glad to live in a time where we are supplied with clear drinking water!

I really loved this walk and judging from the number of people on the trail, it's a very popular trail that gets done by families, friends and those out to enjoy the beautiful views from the mountain! 

To find this walk, drive to the parking lot that is below the Table Mountain cable car. As you turn off the Kloof Nek Road, you'll see a parking lot on your left hand side - park there, walk across the road and you see a grassy patch, as you get to the grassy patch, you'll find a trail and that is the start of the pipe track.
Walk until you get bored, then turn around and walk back again. In total, you could probably walk for about 1.5 - 2 hours (if I remember correctly) to walk all the way.

Frosty and Shells at the start of our walk

old pipes
Some cool pipes that peeked out to say hi

view of sea through trees

With a view like this you barely notice you're going for a walk!

spider web covered in dew drops
Spider web and dew drops
Air Valve 17 - one of the many valve housings we passed on our walk

Windblown trees Cape Town
Even though it wasn't windy while we were walking, you would think it was by
these trees that have been blown into shape by the almost incessant wind!

A beautiful protea, getting ready to flower

The first walk was this one which was lovely. 

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Thursday, 24 April 2014

Wine Diaries

Remember that time when we went to the Grape Escape and won lots of wine? Well, the stores in the wine cupboard are slowly depleting - here's what we've drunk so far:

Like Father Like Son
Like Father Like Son (Bon Courage) Chenin Blanc 2013.
Loved the sand-blasted-type bottle that the wine came in
and found the wine very refreshing and drinkable!

My friend, Sos, invited us to dinner one night, so we
took this bottle of wine and a yummy Aubergine and Pomegranate
dip along to keep our tummies full while dinner was cooking 

Chenin Blanc
Ashton Kelder Chenin Blanc 2013. Another easy drinking wine,
perfect for a summers evening after work!
Frosty's photographic skills are improving too!

Another Bon Courage wine, this time the Chardonnay Prestige Cuvee.
I can't remember what this wine tasted like, but I haven't actively disliked
any of the wines we've won so far, so I think I'll need to get
another bottle to try it again!

Cab Sav
Another wine that we took along as a gift to another dinner and I think we
have another one in the cupboard that we'll taste at a later stage - I'll let
you know! Bon Courage Cabernet Sauvignon 2011.
Sumsare Chardonnay 2012. I can never know if I like chardonnay or not,
but I definitely enjoyed this Sumsare Chardonnay!

Three Rivers Wine
Three Rivers 2013 (Bon Courage) Andre's Fame.
This time it was my turn to cook when Sos and Marek came
around for dinner. Made from the Colombard grape, it's had a
great combination of slight sweetness and dryness.

This poor Bon Courage bottle jumped out of our fridge and saw it's demise on the
kitchen floor before we had a chance to sample it. I debated briefly about sticking my fingers into the spilt wine to test it, but the thought of splinters in my throat was enough
to deter me from the act. As such, this is another wine that I will try and find
so that I can feed back to you at a later stage!
(Hillside Red, Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz, 2012)
Stonedale Chenin Blanc 2013 - none of that sharpness at the back of
your throat that you get with some other types of white wines, I could
definitely drink a lot of this wine in one sitting!

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Thursday, 17 April 2014

What Do I Do? Factory Job

My dad asked me a question recently. 

"Chick, what is it, exactly, that you do?". 

This was in reference to my new job, which I'm still settling in to and figuring out, so I couldn't give him a proper answer right then and there. But it did get me thinking about what I did in my previous job...

When I was in varsity, my folks asked me a similar question:

"Chick, your degree is a very good degree, but once you're
finished studying, what, exactly, will you be able to do with it?"

There is pretty much no straight answer to these questions. As students we were told by our unforgettable Maths lecturer that as engineers, we are taught to think and solve problems.* I think that sums up pretty well, what engineers do. But it's also incredibly broad and still leaves you with no idea of what I would do on a daily basis. 

So, in a nutshell, here are some of the things I did in my previous job:
  • Learnt something new most every day
  • Helped to look after and maintain the software that controlled our factory operations
  • Debugged code (and either fixed it myself or got others to fix it for me) when it was causing issues in factory operations, for example when:
    • Valves stayed open/closed and tanks overfilled/didn't fill up - incorrect mass set points in the code
    • A software sequence was stuck on a step - it was waiting for another sequence to end so it could use the same device
  • Helped process engineers to optimise code by testing and monitoring proposed sequence changes with them and noting if it was physically possible or not
  • Co-ordinated weekly maintenance planning meetings and followed up on planned maintenance activities carried out by the artisans
  • Tracked breakdowns that occurred in the plant and put together action plans to improve the ICE (instrumentation, control and electrical) issues
  • Attended project meetings
  • Got called out a lot, in the middle of the night, when my team were battling to solve a software related issue or troubleshoot on the code (definitely the worst part of the job!)
  • Worked on stabilising our control systems by facilitating the upgrading of our servers, sorting out licences and ensuring future projects took the control systems into account
  • Helped to co-ordinate a supply chain graduate induction program in my second year (not exactly engineering, but such fun!)
  • Maintained and kept track of any software change requests that needed to be sent to our 3rd party software guys
  • Helped to commission some projects
This device is one of many that I had to learn to troubleshoot
on at the factory
The key is learning how to interpret the
error messages (and knowing when it's
time to replace the entire unit!)
It was a pretty stressful job, but I learnt so much from it and got to work with the most incredible team. This is just one of many types of jobs that engineers end up in. My current job will be very different from this and once I get my teeth into some proper work, I'll update you on what else an engineer does!

So, now, I hope that you have a better understanding on possible jobs that an engineer can be involved in. 

And, if you're an engineer, what does your day-to-day job involve?

*He also told us that the only three things you need to remember in life are:
1. Your wife's name. 
2. Your wife's phone number. 
3. Where you left your car keys.
And the rest of the things can be worked out if you think about them carefully enough. 
(This is difficult if you're a straight female...but I think it illustrated his point quite well:) ) 

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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Karoo Wedding

Nestled away in the Karoo is a place that takes you by surprise at it's beauty. I once spent the night there on a road trip with a friend, from KZN to Cape Town and didn't have much of a chance to see very much of the city, other than the beautiful NG Kerk, which dominates much of the town. Named for the Cape Town Governor at the time, as well as his wife; Graaf-Reinet is definitely worth a visit if you haven't been there before.

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to go back and spend a bit more time in this lovely town for a friends wedding. It was such an honour to celebrate the beginning of a new chapter with them - and getting to see a few faces that I hadn't seen for a while was a great bonus!

Over the weekend we also tried to fit in and see as much of the town as possible. We stayed at a great place called Villa Reinet, and were extremely grateful for the small plunge pool that we were able to use to cool down after a long day of driving. We were advised by our host to visit The Valley Of Desolation for sundowners, which we did and I would definitely recommend this to anyone who visits this historical town! Contrary to it's name, the views are magnificent and if you're a rock climber, you will probably spend your time being distracted by all the beautiful rocks in the area!

Nqweba dam in the middle of the Karoo
Nqweba Dam (I think) which is situated just above the town, on the way
to the Valley of Desolation

Kim, Steve and Frosty, admiring the view

Beautiful greenery

Camdeboo National Park overlooking dam
Our first lookout point in the Camdeboo National Park

Camdeboo National Park mountain view
Camdeboo National Park

Sunset over rocky mountains
Camdeboo National Park

Steve and Kim - Camdeboo National Park

Rock formation
Camdeboo National Park - Remember those rocks I was talking about? ...

This picture reminds me of our travels in the USA when we decided to see sunset and sunrise in the new places we visited. 

Steve enjoying his sundowners

Kim and her delicious plums that saved us from starvation

Guess who's the rock-climber of the bunch?

Camdeboo National Park - Sunset

Camdeboo National Park

Camdeboo National Park Sunset
Camdeboo National Park
We're so lucky to live in a country of such contrasts and beauty!

Camdeboo National Park Sunset
Camdeboo National Park

Graaf Reinet NG Kerk
The NG Kerk in Graaf-Reinet Town

Graaf Reinet NG Kerk clock tower
NG Kerk (Church, for those who don't understand Afrikaans)
Kim and Frosty

Me and Frosty

Railings with church in background
I loved this repeated pattern that the fence outside the church made, as you looked
down the length of it!

We felt the heat of this sun as we spent the morning trying to find the largest Cactus Nursery in the World 
(or so they say)...unfortunately we were unsuccessful, but we did get to see pretty much the whole town! 

Steve giving the Organ at St James Anglican Church a bash

Playing the organ
Music in action at St James Anglican Church

Steve at St James Anglican Church

Flowers ready for the wedding service

Jess (proof that you were indeed at the wedding ;) )
Unfortunately I didn't get any good pics of the other bridesmaids :(

Lou and her mum - even though this pic is a
bit fuzzy, don't they both look beautiful!

Glen and Lou - what a privilege to be at your wedding and share your special day with you both. Seeing your relationship develop and grow has been incredible to watch and I hope that the years make it stronger and richer!

Bride and Groom

First Dance

And the dance floor is open!

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