Semester Two at the OU

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So my materials for my next Open University modules have finally arrived, and considering I’m doing two modules this semester, I’m really rather gutted with what turned up, or rather, the lack of what turned up.

Now, the modules are half what TU100 My Digital Life was, i.e. TU100 was a 60 point module, whereas these two are 30 points apiece, but still. With TU100 I got lots of books, plus the senseboard. With L185 English for Academic Purposes Online, I got a single resources book of test text. All the rest of the module is online, and not even in epub form, which is a bit naff.

TM129 Technologies in Practice has given me marginally more, and with the long-awaited I Robot novel I received a Windows Networking Essentials textbook, and a DVD of James May’s Big Ideas: Man-Machine. But I’m rather peeved that I get no textbooks on robotics, as that was the main topic that made me pick the module, but at least I can download all the online material as epubs for easier reading and future reference. Also, the DVD is a bit of a cop-out. Not because the subject matter is crap (I watched it the other night and quite enjoyed it), but because my mate has exactly the same video, as part of a box set that he got from The Works (a cheapo UK arts/crafts/bookstore), which meant it probably cost him less than a fiver, meaning the single DVD likely only cost him a quid or two.

I get that the OU can keep their fees low by producing less printed material, but like I said, I find it rather disappointing. However, I should count myself lucky. As I live in Wales, my university fees are a third what they would be if I lived in England, so I can only imagine how hard-done-by my fellow English students may be feeling.

Anyway, despondence aside, I have decided to crack on. The term doesn’t officially start until October 7th, but as all the material is live on the website, I figured I may as well get ahead. Especially as I’m having to juggle two modules, and you never know what’s around the corner disruption-wise. That and I couldn’t wait to learn about robots!

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Monthly Reads – August 2017

Bit of a late posting for this one as the last book I read took me into September….

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August kicked off with me reading the novella Social Engineer (Brody Taylor Thrillers #1). I got it free for signing up to the author’s (Ian Sutherland) newsletter, mainly because, as an ICT student and social media fan, I was intrigued by the premise of the book, and who doesn’t love a freebie?

As a novella, it’s a short read, but that being said, it was a very good read. My reading of it happened to coincide nicely with the section in my Open University studies covering online security, and several times I nodded in understanding at the narrative.

The Novella is a pre-cursor to the main Brody Taylor Thrillers series, and introduces the main hero/protagonist; white hat hacker Brody Taylor, who uses a combination of hacking and social engineering to gain entry to companies as a means to ‘pentest*’ them. Ian Sutherland (himself an IT man) name drops the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn, and how important information can be gleaned from them for nefarious (or in the case of Brody, slightly more honourable) purposes. There are certainly some ideas included in the story to bear in mind next time you’re casually making those holiday snapshots public!

Overall, I found the story to be well written, enjoyable, and there was a good twist in it that I didn’t see coming. As an introductory novella, it’s certainly done its job, and I’m seriously considering reading the rest of the series in the future.

* “Penetration testing (also called pen testing) is the practice of testing a computer system, network or Web application to find vulnerabilities that an attacker could exploit.” [Definition via WhatIs.com]

Although I had my eye on some other cyberpunk novels, I decided to save some cash this month. Also, allegedly, I get a copy of I Robot with my Open University module on robotics, so I have that to look forward to in September. In the intervening time, I decided to work through my Kindle backlog and read some of the free fantasy books I’d downloaded onto my old 3G.

17696116Using a random number generator gave me Bubba and the Beast (Maven’s Fractured Fairy Tales, #2). I had not read the first book. Turns out, this was even shorter than Social Engineer, and I polished it off in two nights. To be honest, it wasn’t that great. The story basically revolved around a disgraced fairy having to find a troll a boyfriend. The writing was chaotic, I had a hard time following the narrative at times, and it ended rather abruptly. I will not be bothering to read any more of the series.

17406473Next up, the Fates gave me Earthchild, by Allie Bates. This was a full-length novel, and it kept me occupied for the rest of the month and then some. It was fair to say that I didn’t know what I was about to read (again, I had downloaded years ago when it had been free). What I found myself reading was akin to a novel-length wet dream whose every other sentence seemed to focus on hyped-up sexuality and eroticism, specifically with a focus on the two main characters. There was some plot in there, something to do with Scotland, missing lairds, and castles, but the rest was pretty much erotica, and TBH a little bit rapey at times. That being said, it was an ok read, and it kept me gripped enough to finish it, but I’ll be glad when I get my copy of I Robot.

Bits, Birthdays, and Bobs

Yes, I know, I haven’t posted in nearly a month, my bad. It’s been a bit of a busy month, but also a fairly uneventful month; lots of little things going on, but not things that warrant a posting on their own.

I haven’t even been to the cinema since seeing Spiderman. Seriously, what happened to all the summer blockbusters? School holidays are normally jam-packed with films, but there’s been nothing worth seeing this year. September looks promising with Kingsman, and possibly American Assassin (yay Keaton!…swoon), but until Thor comes out in November, there’s bupkiss. Actually, there’s also Blade Runner 2049 as a possible see in October, but yeah, 2017 has been a bit thin on the ground film-wise.

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I had a birthday, but as there was nothing worth watching on the big screen, I made do with going blackberry picking on the Anglesey coast (I sure know how to live life to the fullest) followed by a meal at my local(ish) vegan restaurant. The place is called Voltaire, in Bangor, and the food at the place is a-may-zing! I had a huge burger, filled with chilli beans, nachos, and sour cream, which came with a huge side of fries. Honestly, the photo doesn’t do justice to the burger’s size. Its circumference was about three hand spans!

I then stuffed down the best choc-fudge sundae ev-er! It had ice cream, topped with whipped cream and choc and fudge sauces, and in the centre was a large chunk of a choc-fudge brownie with even more sauce.

I was so full I was in pain, but boy, it was sooo worth it! Not sure my coastal walk put me in enough of a calorie deficit for all of this, despite my glutes aching like crazy the next day. Looks like September is going to be a work-those-lbs-off month.

The bigger news is that I’ve finished my first Open University module. Yep TU100: My Digital Life is done and dusted. I did the final online test (got about 96%) and turned in my final written assessment a few days ago (10 days early!), and now I have a month to kill before I officially start my next two modules. Although, as the material gets posted this month, I can always make an early start on things. In the mean time, I’m filling the gap with OpenLearn courses (doing one on the Internet of Everything at the mo) and job applications. Exciting stuff I know! I won’t get my degree module result until mid-October, so fingers crossed for a distinction grade. Fun thing, the OU Student Union got in contact with me asking to use my material unboxing photo from last year in some social media posts for the next intake. Which was cool.

I wonder if I’ll ever use the SENSE board again🤔….

Flu and Film Reviews

Despite an encroaching cold, I managed to go to the cinema a couple of times this past week.

giphy-downsized.gifFirst I caught up with Despicable Me 3 (which is probably where I picked the lergy up from). To be honest, the film wasn’t a patch on the previous two films. I laughed, but it was usually at the minions. There was one moment that got me thinking, and not about the story line. [non-spoiler alert]. There’s a moment when Dru and Gru are on a beach, talking, and Dru is sat, playing in the sand. It was just a small action, but the fact that they included this random little detail (who hasn’t sat on the beach and absent-mindedly dug a hole?) and the detailing of the sand itself, made me realise just how far and how intricate animation has become. It was a cool little revelation, but it couldn’t elevate the film above its mediocre delivery.

spider-man-2319337_1280Then, with a scratchy throat, I went and saw Spider-Man: Homecoming. The cinema was packed, which surprised me, considering how long the film’s been out, and I ended up getting a cricked neck in one of the front rows. Thankfully, the film was a hoot and a half, and I hardly noticed the fact I was sat practically horizontal in my seat. Bringing Spider-Man into the MCU’s fold was a good move in my opinion. The action was fast, the dialogue was funny, and there was a much lighter tone to the whole thing (a key ingredient to Marvel’s big-screen appeal over DC). I can’t honestly fault the film, and I’m actually looking forward to more Spidey films. Oh, and the Marvel end credit scene was also incredibly trolley! *Bravo!*

So, to sum up, if you haven’t seen either film, I’d say go see Spider-Man on the big screen, and wait for Despicable Me 3 to come out on DVD … or on the TV.

Summer of Code, aka Computer says, “No”

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So I thought I’d test myself with the Open University’s Summer of Code. Each day, a new problem is set, requiring participants to write a script to solve it. It’s mainly for transitioning second to third years, but as I’ve done a bit of coding in my spare time in the past (using Python) I thought I’d give it a shot.

For my uni course, I’ve been using Sense to do assignment scripts, though not by choice. Sense is a basic programming language using command ‘blocks’, as opposed to having to write out the commands yourself. The OU uses this programming language to teach coding. Sense is ok, but it does ignore certain principles that Python uses, such as the first character in a string in Sense is at position 1, not 0 as it is in Python. It’s also pretty limiting … as I was to find out.

I managed, with a few hiccups, to do the first two day’s tasks using Sense. However, the third task highlighted how basic Sense is. There’s no easy way to convert from letters to the equivalent alphabet numbers. Or rather, not without using a hell of a lot of if-elseif-else blocks that would grind my laptop to a halt. It also didn’t help that it took me half an hour to actually figure out what the problem entailed, as it was written in a rather unclear fashion. After two hours of struggling, and realising I’d left my Python course notes several 100 miles away in Amsterdam, I had to give up. I was rather irked, to say the least. Especially, considering I’d aced the previous two tasks.

Day four wasn’t much better, but by this point, I was getting the impression it was because the questions were overly complicated, rather than the coding itself. If I couldn’t figure out how to do them on paper, how was I expected to do them in code? The tasks were supposed to take two hours to solve, but most of that time was taken up with me going, “WTF??” It also didn’t help that the questions would sometimes have mistakes in their convoluted explanations, making things even less clear.

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I gave myself a break from day 5, and tried afresh on day 6. This time, I did progress a little further in answering the question than I had the previous couple of days, but again, I got stymied, so I decided to call quits on the whole thing.

It wasn’t an entirely defeatist move. As it is, I’m also doing a free Open Learn badged course on “English: skills for learning“, which is designed to help “develop the English reading and writing skills needed to succeed” with university work. As I have my final module assignment to do (it’s a doozy), and as one of my next modules will be “English for academic purposes online” I prioritised, and figured out of the two time-sinks, learning how to write a proper assignment was more important than goofing around with unintelligible questions, and contrary scripts.

The past week or so has also made me realise I’ve pretty much forgotten all the Python I’d learnt. Though, in fairness, I haven’t touched the language since 2015. So it looks like I’m going to have to shoe-horn in some refresher learning. Codecademy do a lot of free programming courses, and I’ve already covered jQuery, HTML, CSS and Java with them. However, I did my Python with Coursera (when it used to be a good MOOC provider), which means I can do some Python refresher with Codecademy. I just need to find the time!

Monthly Reads – July 2017

So, I kept up my 1+ chapter a day reading (usually just before going to bed) and I’ve finished reading Snow Crash. In addition, I’ve played catch up with my X-Men reading, and have finished off the third volume of Death Note (a series that’s still keeping me gripped).

I need to get into better practice at writing book reviews so, with that in mind, I shall review Snow Crash….

July reads

Hiro Protagonist; hacker, pizza delivery driver for the Mafia, and soon to be the saviour of the US … or what’s left of it. Brace yourself for Sumerian and Samari swords!

I won’t go too much into the story. If you want a summary, you can read the book blurb, or check it out Wikipedia. Basically, there’s a virus that can affect hackers by rewriting their brains, it’s about to be let loose on the US’ general populous, and only our ‘Protagonist’ can stop it.

I suppose you could say that Snow Crash occurs in an alternative reality. The America of the 21st century in Snow Crash is a hell of a lot different than what we actually see, with much of America having been taken over by sovereign territories and franchises. Yet some of the ‘futuristic’ tech seen in the narrative can be seen around us today (or is in development). Take the Metaverse. It speaks of a mashup between Second Life and virtual reality; an immersive virtual world entered via customisable avatars. The wheels on Y.T.’s skateboard? They sound very similar to the idea shown in this video.

So, despite the landscape being very different, the tech aspects of the story are actually quite believable.

Snow Crash was, as I’ve mentioned previously, my first foray into cyberpunk, and overall, I found it to be quite an enjoyable read, however, I do have a couple of gripes.

Firstly, the story rests on the idea of an ancient virus being transmitted either visually (in the case of hackers), physically (via drugs), or verbally. Ignoring whether this would actually be possible (it is fiction after all), the hows and why of the ‘virus’ lead to some rather intensive, theology-driven chapters, incorporating Sumerian history, myths and legends, and at times, I felt I was reading a religious education textbook, as opposed to cyberpunk. I’m guessing Hiro had a background in R.E., because I was completely lost at times.

My other grumble is with the developing backstory of Hiro and Y.T., or rather, the lack of it. The two characters become a team, hunting for information to sell to the CIC, yet this part of their narrative wasn’t covered very much. I guess quite a bit of time passed with them working together, yet what they did seemed, for the most part, not worth covering, so this meant their closeness as friends came across as quite forced.

It also took me a while to get to grips with the tech-derived lingo, and settle into the narrative, but once things got going I enjoyed the story. Would I recommend it to other readers? Hacker-infused theology reading aside, as a first delve into cyberpunk, it was entertaining, so I’d say, “give it a go!”

Next up … Social Engineer (Brody Taylor Thrillers, #1)

Kawaii: Embracing the Cute

calico-cat-1732371_1280Does it have big eyes?
Does its cuteness overwhelm?
That’ll be Kawaii
Kawaii, a haiku, by me.

Following on from my previous Kawaii post, I’ve come across a few more Kawaii pieces to cheer up my existence.

I found a couple of bargain Kawaii-like pieces in Shoe Zone of all places. I’m not sure the bag constitutes Kawaii, I think it’s more pretty than Kawaii (what do you think?), but the owl wallet definitely gets my approval.

Now my ‘Soot Sprite’ has a place to hang.

I got these adorbz stickers from Amazon. They were pretty cheap, so they were just an add on to my main order. What I didn’t realise was they were getting shipped from Asia. It took them nearly a fortnight to turn up!

I also splurged (inadvertently) on a Pusheen reusable bottle. I say inadvertently because I bought it from Claire’s Accessories and there was no price on it. It wasn’t until it got tilled through that I had the “how much???” moment. But hey, if it helps cut my use of disposable plastic bottles to help save the planet then its worth it. And actually, in the end, it pays for itself via tap refills.

That’s pretty much all I’ve collected so far. With university module payments coming up (ugh!), I’m gonna be cutting my expenditure back for a few months … unless I see something I simply can’t live without.