Geekery and literariness

Harvestbird’s writing talent has been recognised with the inclusion of one of her essays in Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015, which had its Christchurch launch last night.  She invited me along to the launch, where she and a few of the other included writers read teasingly short excerpts from their essays.  It wasn’t a huge event, just a couple of dozen people, but I still managed to feel completely overwhelmed being surrounded by all those super-clever literary types (you’d think having worked in the English department for so many years I’d be used to it by now, but I still sometimes get intimidated – at heart I feel much more like I belong on the sciencey side of the campus).  Probably didn’t help too that I was feeling tired after not having slept well the night before, so the whole “make vaguely intelligent small-talk with people I only vaguely know” thing was feeling a lot more challenging than usual.  Still, despite not being a glittering success socially, I did enjoy the readings, and of course bought myself a copy of the book.

Oh, and I discovered that I know the editor! I thought she looked vaguely familiar when she was introducing the writers, and later she came over and asked me if we’d met. It turned out she and her partner had flatted with Ornot, and I recognised her the minute she’d said it – I spent so much time hanging around that flat that year (it was the year I was at Teacher’s College, and I was terribly bored) that they might as well have put me on the lease. Her partner was at the launch too – so strange to see them again after so many years.

I’ve been playing round with Javascript some more, and I’m feeling quite proud of my latest achievement.  It was inspired by stumbling across a mention of the Mandelbrot Set, a famous fractal that I had a passing fascination with back when I was studying maths.  I was reminded of one of my teaching colleagues in the early 90s having managed to programme a computer to generate the graph, a programme which took about 12 hours to run.  I wondered how much faster a similar programme would run on today’s computers, so I decided to see if I could write something in Javascript to generate the graph.  And the answer was, yes I could (I cheated a bit on the maths bit and looked up the algorithm – it’s a long time since I played with serious maths!), and it runs much much faster – less than a second to test the first 20 iterations of the points in a 500×500 graph.

I still want to play round with the programme a bit to add a function to zoom in on an area (which is part of the fascination of fractals, that being able to zoom in infinitely closely and see the new patterns that emerge), but in the meantime here’s a pretty screenshot:

Of course, it’s a completely pointless exercise, but it’s a fun way of stretching my Javascript skills and learning things that I might be able to actually apply to my real work.

More experimentation

This is the second time I’ve written this post.  This morning I wrote a long (and, of course, incredibly witty and entertaining) version of it, but when I hit publish WordPress just laughed at me and ate it. And I didn’t have time to re-write it straight away, because I had to run off and catch a bus. So this will be a much briefer and nowhere as good version.  As you read it, just imagine you’re actually reading the much better original.  You would have enjoyed it…

Anyway, having read all of the projects in Free Motion Quilting for Beginners and wanting to try all the things, I decided I’d do just that – I’m going to work my way through each of the patterns in the book, and quilt a square in each (the actual projects in the book are for simple little objects to create using quilting, the idea being that you can practice on them rather than diving straight into a full sized quilt.  But you know me, why start with something simple when the deep end looks so much more fun?).  And anyway, this quilt is all about being experimental and trying new things, so what better than to turn it into a library of patterns (ok, a library of attempts at the patterns – based on experience so far, some will be more successful than others).

So, first up is a combination of “loop de loop” and “handwriting”.  Hanson suggests starting with handwriting because you’re already familiar with the movements involved. Yeah, except I’m terrible at writing in proper joined-up script (which of course you have to do when you’re “writing” with a sewing machine – you can’t exactly lift the pen off the paper between letters) – my natural writing style is a very not-joined-up printing. But I gave it a go, and it didn’t come out any worse than my writing on paper does 🙂

I bet you can’t guess what word I chose to incorporate into my quilt 😉

The next pattern was “stippling”. Of course, I’ve already tried this one out on a couple of other projects, but I decided to include it anyway, for completeness (and because I definitely still need a lot of practice at it – my stipples keep getting confused and turning into loops).  It turned out to be a lot trickier on a big quilt, with all that fabric to move around, not just a little cushion cover.

Then “pebbles”. This pattern was fun, and had the bonus effect of forcing me to slow down, because you have to retrace your steps quite often. My quilting definitely improves when I slow down, but I’ve noticed a tendency that the more I’m having to concentrate, the harder my foot goes down on the pedal (I think because I’m tensing up), so I start speeding up just when I should be slowing down (this is why it’s a very good thing that I don’t drive!). It uses a HUGE amount of cotton, though – I think I went through an entire bobbin’s worth on this square alone.

But I love the 3D effect it produces.

Finally, “chain of pearls”. Similar to pebbles, but for me it was a total fail – I just couldn’t manage to keep the spacing and size consistent. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have sewn them in the same direction as the stripes of fabric – they were too distracting. Oh well, the overall effect looks ok from a distance… if you squint your eyes a bit… and hold your head on just the right angle…

Things I have learnt so far:

  • Quilting on this scale is very different to the little mats and cushions I’ve been doing so far. Moving all that fabric around is hard work! (And this isn’t even a big quilt – I can’t imagine how hard it would be to work on something big enough for a bed!)  I’m starting to understand why all the blogs recommend using grippy quilting gloves and a super-slidey mat thing between machine and fabric.
  • I am much better at random freehand designs than anything that requires structure and consistency (big surprise there – not).
  • I’m going to have to buy a lot more cotton before I get this quilt finished – quilting (especially the denser patterns) just eats it up.
  • Google knows everything, including exactly where to oil your 30-something year old sewing machine to stop it squeaking through overuse. I even found a maintenance diagram for exactly this model.
  • If you leave an unfinished quilt alone for more than 10 seconds, it becomes a cat magnet. Said cat gets very angry when you try and move her off her comfy new bed just because you’d like to keep the quilt at least slightly free of cat fur – just until it’s finished, anyway.

Programming success?

The two main programming languages we use at work to build helpful little tools to speed up the tedious jobs are Javascript and Python.  I’ve been making reasonably good progress at learning Javascript, but the Python stuff I’ve been leaving to Lucy-Jane, who is a much more skilled programmer than me.  On Friday afternoon, she had built me a quick little Python tool to help download a load of files from a website, and save them with logically-structured filenames that I’d then be able to use to automatically generate most of the metadata.  It took a lot of back and forth of testing against all the possible conditions it might encounter, but we thought we had it right.  However, as I was running it this morning, it hit a snag – there was one condition we hadn’t allowed for, and it was stopping the download from running correctly.  And Lucy-Jane was working off-site for the day, so I couldn’t just hand it back to her to fix.

So I tried fixing it myself.  Even though I don’t know Python, I do understand the general logic of how programming languages work, so I was able to read through her code and figure out roughly where the problem was, and (with a combination of Googling and guesswork) add in the extra few steps it needed to deal with the extra condition.  And it worked!

I was incredibly proud of myself …for the few minutes that it kept working for, before it hit another problem and failed again.  But after a bit of help from Chris (who’s our other resident Python expert) I managed to add in some diagnostics, and discovered that the problem wasn’t with my coding after all, it was a problem with the website.

So I’ve written (kind of… ok, *contributed to*) my first Python programme!

Between this and yesterday’s server wrangling, I’m feeling like a serious IT expert 😉

Introducing myself

Tēnā koutou katoa,
Ko Kopuwai te maunga,
Ko Mata-au te awa,
Ko Ngāti Pākehā te iwi,
Ko MacMillan te hapū,
Nō Ōtākou au,
Kei Ōtautahi ahau e noho ana,
He CEISMIC Production Coordinator taku mahi,
Ko FutureCat taku ingoa,
Nā reira, tēnā koutou katoa.

Greetings to you all,
Kopuwai (the Old Man Range in Central Otago) is my mountain,
Mata-au (the Clutha River) is my river,
Pākehā (i.e. non-Māori) is my tribe,
MacMillan is my sub-tribe (or in my case, my clan),
I come from Otago,
I live in Christchurch now,
My job is CEISMIC Production Coordinator,
My name is FutureCat,
And so I greet you all.

That’s the mihi I wrote (with a huge amount of help!) yesterday, to be able to properly introduce myself.  Even though I was born in Dunedin, I chose Central Otago landmarks for my river and mountain because the landscape of Central is where I feel the most connection to, and the Old Man Range and the Clutha define what Central looks like to me.  Putting MacMillan in there as my hapū is a bit cheeky, but it’s in tribute to my Grandda’, who was proud of his MacMillan ancestry (and no, Lytteltonwitch, we don’t try and claim any castles ;-)) – and reflecting your whakapapa is what that part of the mihi is supposed to be all about.  So I reckon it’s appropriate.

Now I’ve just got to learn it (and practice my pronunciation a lot more – some of those diphthongs are tricky!)


Our team spent the day out at Kaiapoi, at the Tuahiwi Marae, learning about the history of the Ngāi Tūāhuriri hapū and a bit of tikanga Māori.  As it was being held on a marae, we started off with a pōwhiri, then after morning tea we broke into groups to learn how to put together a basic mihimihi, some history of the hapū and the region, and a bit more detail about the tikanga we’d been introduced to via the pōwhiri.

And given that I’ve almost worn out my ctrl key copying and pasting in all those macrons (one day I really must learn the keyboard shortcuts!), it occurs to me that the non-NZers among you will have only understood about half the words in that paragraph!  So, a bit of translation (with apologies for over-simplification of some concepts):

marae: Meeting area (you sometimes see it interpreted as “meeting house”, but actually the word applies to the whole bit of land, not just the building).  Think community hall crossed with town square.

hapū: Sub-tribe.  Ngāi Tahu is the iwi, or main tribe, covering most of the South Island, and is broken up into a number of smaller hapū.  Ngāi Tūāhuriri is the hapū local to the area just north of Christchurch, and most of Christchurch itself.

tikanga Māori: Protocols and traditions of polite behaviour.

pōwhiri: The formal ceremony welcoming you onto a marae.  Marae are sacred places, so there is a lot of tikanga involved in visiting one – you can’t just walk in. Pōwhiri are also often used in NZ to formally welcome people to other spaces – for example, new staff to the university are usually welcomed with a pōwhiri, as a symbolic way of saying “we consider you one of us now”.

mihimihi: A speech introducing yourself.  It may seem strange, but your name is the least important part of your mihimihi, and is left right until the end.  What’s more important, and comes first, is where you come from (usually expressed in terms of what mountains and rivers you have a connection to) and who your ancestors are.

 Clear as mud?  🙂

It was a great day, anyway.  Learnt loads, and had a bit of fun too.  Plus it was a beautiful day, so it was just nice to be out in the countryside enjoying it!

I was going to write some more about the pōwhiri, for the benefit of the foreigners, but I’ve just noticed the time, and I’ve got to have dinner and get out to my Toastmasters meeting, so that’ll have to wait until another post.