Dec 052017
 

Our townhouse was built in 1981 or 1982. It came with a washer and a drier installed. When we moved in, just over 20 years ago, those machines were already nearly 15 years old, but still working flawlessly.

Many years later, the washer developed a problem: A pressure regulator valve in it failed. A technician temporarily fixed it by bypassing the valve and just turning the shutoff valve to reduce the pressure. He didn’t even charge us for this work; he said he’d be back once he had a chance to order the right replacement part. He never did, and as he was one of several technicians I called from the Yellow Pages that evening, I could not even remember who he was. So I never got a chance to thank, not to mention pay, him for his labor.

The temporary solution then became permanent. The washer worked well for many more years. Until Saturday morning. Just as my wife, on her way to a craft show, was trying to wash a few freshly knitted hats, the washer refused to spin and refused to drain the tub.

I was somewhat hopeful that the cause was just a bad interlock switch, which is designed to prevent the washer from operating with the lid open. This switch stopped functioning a while back; the washer ran always, lid or no lid. But who knows, perhaps now the switch failed in the open position? I opened up the old beast, located and removed the switch and bypassed it.

It could have worked. In fact, it almost did. With the switch bypassed, the washer was no longer completely silent when it was in the spin/drain position. The motor buzzed.

But only buzzed. That angry, 60 Hz buzz that you hear when a motor is seized. And sure enough, after about 15 seconds I began to smell, and then see, acrid smoke.

This was the moment when I knew that after a remarkable 35-year run, this old White–Westinghouse washer had its last wash. It was, unfortunately, finished.

So then came the annoying task of having to find a new washer. Fortunately, I was prepared, as I already contemplated the possibility that our old washer might die (35 years!) Lately, I stumbled upon a brand: Speed Queen. It appears that they mostly make commercial washers, for laundromats and other commercial installations. But they do have a few home models.

Oh, they are pricey. More than two and a half times as expensive as the cheapest washer that you can find. Still… based on the reviews I read, I thought that it might be worth the price. When I make a purchase, I either buy cheap (and then I know that I am buying cheap) or buy quality. Now quality is not always available. And often, reputable brand names turn out to be just pretty labels attached to the same cheap, er, excrement that is sold under other names at half the price.

So Sunday, we went to see this washer in person, at a local appliance store that carries the brand. The comparison was convincing. The weight difference alone between the Speed Queen and other washers was revealing. And of course it was a top loader with mechanical controls, a rarity nowadays, but the kind of machine that is precisely my wife’s preference when washing freshly made wool hats, mittens and such in her own special way.

So we opted to buy the Speed Queen, and it was delivered earlier today. Installation was my job. It’s not very hard; you hook up the hot and cold water, install the drain hose, level the machine and power it up. It powered up nicely, and the first test wash went like a charm.

So here we are, with a brand new, yet very conventional, high quality washer installed right next to a 35-year old clothes drier that still works reliably, and now that I cleaned it, looks almost new.

What can I say… apart from the damage to my wallet, it was a fun day. I am glad it happened now, not a few weeks ago when I was struggling to meet some deadlines, having freshly recovered from the flu.

Will this machine last 35 years? Who knows. But I certainly hope that we won’t have to worry about buying another washer for a long time to come.

Oh, and the package contained an interesting surprise: An order sheet for the parts manual and service manual for this model. I think I will buy those. I hope the machine will never need repairs, but if it does and it’s no longer under warranty, maybe I can fix it. Often the hardest bit is knowing what to do, and that’s where a factory service manual can be of immense help.

 Posted by at 10:00 pm
Nov 262017
 

Yesterday, I went grocery shopping.

I came home with groceries and a TV.

You see, Loblaws was selling cheap 32″ smart TVs at the checkout counter. Only 150 dollars (Canadian), and they even paid the sales tax.

We were in need of a TV. The TV that we have in the bedroom (rarely used, but good to have; it’d have been nice earlier this month, when I spent a few extra hours in bed on account of feeling miserably sick) is old, useless and broken. Useless because it’s an analog TV, and there is no analog service anymore, nor do we have an extra settop box for upstairs. And broken because… well, even when it was still actively in use, we needed to whack it every so often, as after it warmed up a little, its picture became elongated and discolored… but a good, well-aimed whack fixed it. Lately though, the picture was permanently distorted and in addition, the TV made a horrible, rattling, buzzing sound (and no, it didn’t come from its speakers.)

Anyhow, we now have a new TV in the bedroom. It picks up OTA digital channels just fine using a small antenna, and it works well with Netflix and YouTube. Perfect. And I managed to haul the old TV downstairs this morning. (It’s incredible just how heavy these larger old CRT televisions are.)

Before throwing it out, I decided to open it up. Who knows, maybe I can fix it and in that case, it can still have a second life at the Salvation Army or whatever. The later it becomes landfill, the better for all of us. So I decided to check this old beast’s innards. Which, in case anyone is wondering, looks like this (yes, I took several pictures just in case I disconnect something that needs to be reconnected the right way):

After removing the back cover and then vacuuming out a few pounds of accumulated dust, I powered it on, listening for the buzz. I also looked at the circuit board using my IR camera. My attention was quickly drawn to the left side, where there are some rather hot parts, but that turned out to be a bit of a red herring: the hottest part is a high-wattage resistor that is meant to shed a lot of heat. Next to it though… what I thought was an inductor turned out to be a relay. And that’s what appears to be rattling!

I checked online. Surprisingly, this is a standard part, not model-specific, still being sold. But the first price I saw was something like $12.50 US plus shipping. Way too much to invest into a 23 year old CRT television set. But then… I found an offer from China for the princely sum of 75 US cents, plus 35 cents shipping. $1.10 in total. Of course I ordered it.

So now I wait. When the part arrives, I’ll attempt surgery. If it fixes the TV, we’ll find a good home for it. If not… landfill, landfill, here we come.

Incidentally, this television set was assembled in Canada. How about that. I don’t think there are many television sets assembled in Canada these days.

 Posted by at 10:45 pm
Jul 282017
 

I have two “live” uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) in my study. One powers my servers and network equipment, the other, my workstation. They are identical models: APC Back-UPS Pro 1500. They were both purchased recently, just a few months ago, replacing units that were more than ten years old, and for which replacement batteries were no longer available from a reliable source at a reasonable cost.

So here is the thing: for the second time in a month, the two UPSs decided to do a self-test at the exact same moment.

Now let me make it clear: apart from being identical models and located in the same room, the two units are not in any way connected. They are not synchronized. There is no data connection between the two. When two UPSs simultaneously go offline and start running on battery power, this usually means a power event; but there was no power event, utility power was steady at 124 volts, with no brownout or interruption.

Looking at various logs, I think I solved the mystery. There was a power event recorded on my server on June 30, a brief brownout with line voltage dropping all the way to 74 V:

19:14:33 122.0 13 27.0 100 2910 OL
19:14:34 74.0 11 26.0 100 2910 OB
19:14:35 74.0 11 26.0 100 2910 OB
19:14:36 74.0 11 26.0 100 2910 OL DISCHRG
19:14:37 74.0 11 26.0 100 2910 OL DISCHRG
19:14:38 121.0 14 26.5 100 2910 OL

And lo and behold, my workstation’s UPS sensed the same event at the same time:

<Event xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/win/2004/08/events/event">
  <System>
    <Provider Name="APC Data Service" /> 
    <EventID Qualifiers="0">0</EventID> 
    <Level>4</Level> 
    <Task>0</Task> 
    <Keywords>0x80000000000000</Keywords> 
    <TimeCreated SystemTime="2017-06-30T23:14:33.228802500Z" /> 
    <EventRecordID>6000</EventRecordID> 
    <Channel>Application</Channel> 
    <Computer>VIKTOR</Computer> 
    <Security /> 
  </System>
  <EventData>
    <Data>PowerEvent handled successfully by the service.</Data> 
  </EventData>
</Event>

When I look at the dates of the two UPS self-test events, the first happened just 44 minutes less than exactly two weeks after this brownout; the second, just 44 minutes less than two weeks after the first.

The UPS manual says that this UPS performs a self-test every two weeks. So what’s with the 44 minutes? It can’t be uncalibrated clocks, since the two UPSs remain in sync to the second. Could they be synchronized to utility power? Perhaps, but that does not explain the 44 minutes. The frequency stability of the East Coast grid is much better than 0.2%. In fact, it is purposefully maintained to have an accurate average frequency that deviates from the standard by less than a few parts per million over the course of a day.

So my best guess is that the UPSs are factory configured to perform a self-test every 13 days, 23 hours and 16 minutes. They do this in sync because they are synchronized to the same time source, namely the utility power frequency.

 Posted by at 9:19 pm
Jul 252017
 

There is a bit of a public spat between Mark Zuckerberg, who thinks it is irresponsible to to spread unwarranted warnings about artificial intelligence, and Elon Musk, who called Zuckerberg’s understanding of the subject “limited”, and calls for the slowing down and regulation of AI research.

OK, now it is time to make a fool of myself and question both of them.

But first… I think Zuckerberg has a point. The kind of AI that I think he talks about, e.g., AI in the hospital, AI used in search-and-rescue, or the AI of self-driving cars, machine translation or experiment design, will indeed save lives.

Nor do I believe that such research needs to be regulated (indeed, I don’t think it can be regulated). Such AI solutions are topic-centric, targeted algorithms. Your self-driving car will not suddenly develop self-awareness and turn on its master. The AI used to, say, predictively manage an electricity distribution network will not suddenly go on strike, demanding equal rights.

Musk, too, has a point though. AI is dangerous. It has the potential to become an existential threat. It is not pointless panicmongering.

Unfortunately, if media reports can be trusted (yes, I know that’s a big if), then, in my opinion, both Musk and Zuckerberg miss the real threat: emerging machine intelligence.

Not a specific system developed by a human designer, applying specific AI algorithms to solve specific problems. Rather, a self-organizing collection of often loosely interconnected subsystems, their “evolution” governed by Darwinian selection, survival of the fittest in the “cloud”.

This AI will not be localized. It will not understand English. It may not even recognize our existence.

It won’t be the military robots of Skynet going berserk, hunting down every last human with futuristic weaponry.

No, it will be a collection of decision-making systems in the “cloud” that govern our lives, our economy, our news, our perception, our very existence. But not working for our benefit, not anymore, except insofar as it improves its own chances of survival.

And by the time we find out about it, it may very well be too late.

———

On this topic, there is an excellent science-fiction novel, a perfect cautionary tale. Though written 40 years ago, its remains surprisingly relevant. It is The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas Joseph Ryan.

 Posted by at 9:42 pm
Apr 062017
 

My current phone is a Nexus 6P.

I picked this phone for one all-important reason: It is a “pure Android” phone, directly supported by Google. Which means that instead of being at the manufacturer’s mercy when it comes to updates, I receive monthly security updates from Google. In this day and age, this is a deciding factor for me.

I got the phone in September. Sometime in the winter, I noticed that a speck appeared in photographs taken by the phone’s main camera.

Its appearance suggests that it is a small dust particle stuck between the camera visor and the camera itself, or inside the camera optics perhaps. Others apparently encountered the same issue. Some were able to shake the phone until the speck vanished. I tried to do the same but to no avail. Obviously I do not want to damage or destroy the phone.

I was trying to decide whether or not to live with it. A friend of mine suggested that I should contact the manufacturer since the phone is under warranty. I decided to do just that. Here is the exchange of e-mails that followed:

From: Viktor T. Toth
Sent: Tuesday, April 4, 2017 10:24 PM
To: ‘SupportCanada@huawei.com’ <SupportCanada@huawei.com>
Subject: Nexus 6P warranty issue

Greetings,

I obtained a Nexus 6P from Rogers Canada in September 2016.

A few months ago, I noticed that its camera developed a speck (see attached, lower right corner; the picture is of a uniformly illuminated white sheet of paper). Researching online, I found out that it is not an uncommon problem, and may be due to a loose dust particle inside the camera. Some people had luck shaking the speck lose. I tried gently tapping/shaking the phone, to no avail.

I also learned that this issue may be covered under warranty.

Please enlighten me if this is the case and, if so, how the warranty process works.

Sincerely,

Viktor Toth

Attachment: IMG_20170404_221736.jpg

From: Huawei Device Support [mailto:supportcanada@mail01.huawei.com]
Sent: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 2:41 PM
To: Viktor T. Toth
Subject: Nexus 6P black spot

Dear Mr. Toth, receive a warm greeting.

We widely appreciate the information you provided us, and gladly inform you that on the attachment you can find information concerning your inquiry.

We are at your service.

Best regards.
C.B.W.

Attachment: Black spots on camara.pdf

From: Viktor T. Toth
Sent: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 3:17 PM
To: ‘Huawei Device Support’ <supportcanada@mail01.huawei.com>
Subject: RE: Nexus 6P black spot

Dear Huawei support,

I thank you for your response but I find it quite unacceptable. If you had looked at the image that I sent to you, you would have seen that the “impurity spot” is actually about 100 pixels in diameter and very prominently noticeable in every picture that I take (attached enlarged, cropped image should also appear below):

If this is an acceptable impurity to you, I pity your customers. (This a crop from an actual photo of a white sheet of paper taken by the phone; I did not enlarge or manipulate it in any way.)

I also wonder if you perhaps misunderstood my inquiry and thought that I was referring to the display of the phone, as opposed to its main camera.

I’ll probably learn to live with this speck or attempt a repair. Your response as well as what I read online about your Canadian warranty support gives me little confidence that I can seek help from you.

However, I thank you for reminding me that when it comes to my next phone purchase, I should take into account the manufacturer’s support policy as well as the quality and capabilities of the device when I make my decision. The Nexus 6P may be a premium quality device, but your support perhaps isn’t.

Sincerely,

Viktor Toth

From: Huawei Device Support [mailto:supportcanada@mail01.huawei.com]
Sent: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 6:55 PM
To: Viktor T. Toth
Subject: Huawei Mail Support

Dear Mr. Toth.

We appreciate your preference, and deeply regret any inconvenience that you are experiencing with your Huawei device, however in order to correct this situation, in the attached file you will find a detailed answer to your question.

We are at your service.

Best regards.
C.B.W.


From: Viktor T. Toth
Sent: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 8.02 PM
To: ‘Huawei Device Support’ <supportcanada@mail01.huawei.com>
Subject: RE: Huawei Mail Support

I have not received an attachment in your response to my second inquiry.

Sincerely,

Viktor Toth

From: Huawei Device Support [mailto:supportcanada@mail01.huawei.com]
Sent: Thursday, April 6, 2017 12:43 PM
To: Viktor T. Toth
Subject: Huawei Mail Support

Dear Mr. Toth, receive a warm greeting.

We widely appreciate the information you provided us, and gladly inform you that on the attachment you can find information concerning your inquiry.

We are at your service.

Best regards.
C.B.W.

Attachment: Service Center Information. Toth.pdf

 

Somehow, in light of this exchange, I do not feel particularly confident that it is a good idea to send in my phone for repair.

FYI, Huawei: The long-distance prefix in North America is 1, not 001.

 Posted by at 2:34 pm
Mar 072017
 

There is a piece of North American technology that was responsible, among other things, for the “most successful failure” in the history of America’s space program, the successful return of Apollo 13 after a major explosion on board.

A few weeks ago, when chatting with a family member from Hungary who happens to be a proud, freshly minted engineer, I learned, much to my astonishment, that this technology is still not commonly used (if available at all) in Europe.

And today, much to my delight, I found out why: Perhaps it’s because it is still manufactured domestically, in my case right here in Canada.

Here is what I am talking about:

Yes, the mundane duct tape. Proudly made in Canada, as the label on the inside informs me.

It is my understanding that duct tape was included in the emergency repair kit of every American spacecraft launched to date. On Apollo 13, it was with the help of duct tape that they were able to adopt CO2 filters, extending the time they were able to spend in the lunar vehicle, which was used as a lifeboat during the long trip around the Moon.

I am beginning to wonder if this technology should be placed on strategic export control lists. Who knows what duct tape can do in the wrong hands! Imagine Kim Jong Un with a roll of duct tape… or Vladimir Putin. Or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The world would be a lot less safe if every despot had free access to copious amounts of duct tape.

Oh well, enough ranting. I need to do something useful, like some vacuuming. Recently, the wand of my vacuum broke. Rather than ordering a costly replacement at a price higher than an old vacuum cleaner is worth, I fixed it and so far, the wand is working like new. As to what I fixed it with, you guessed it… it was duct tape. Works wonders.

 Posted by at 5:18 pm
Jan 142017
 

I just saw this US Defense Department video about a swarm of high speed drones released at altitude by an F/A-18. The drones communicated with each other, self-organized, and went on to execute predetermined tasks autonomously.

In case anyone is wondering why I worry about the future of AI, this is a perfect demonstration.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department is also continuing its trials of the Sea Hunter, a 132-ft, 145-ton unmanned, autonomous vessel designed to hunt submarines.

Don’t worry, the brave new world is coming…

 Posted by at 9:22 pm
Nov 202016
 

Okay, this is hands down the winner as the absolute “I’ll effing be” moment for me today, if not this week (and that’s saying something, with all the shenanigans going on with Trump and his cabinet picks): An electric steam locomotive that I just came across.

Say what?

Yes, an electric steam locomotive. That would be a steam engine, boiler and all, with a pantograph connecting it to an overhead line.

A lunatic scheme, to be sure, but apparently it made sense in 1940s Switzerland. They had steam locomotives aplenty. What they didn’t have was fuel for these locomotives. But they had plenty of cheap hydroelectricity. So even with the incredibly inefficient conversion of electric power into heat into steam pressure into mechanical motion, it still made sense.

Still… these perverted things just look absolutely demented.

 Posted by at 3:20 pm
Aug 152016
 

Having visited a virtual version of the ghost city of Pripyat recently, last night I thought I’d check out Google Maps. After all, they do have Street View from Pompeii, from inaccessible mountain villages in Nepal, even from places in Antarctica… why not Pripyat?

And sure enough, they do have coverage of Pripyat, much to my no small astonishment. Recent pictures, too, taken in June 2015. You can visit the Pripyat city centre, enjoying the view of the still standing Ferris wheel:

visit a (presumably) radioactive scrap yard:

or for that matter, visit the nuclear power plant itself, complete with new sarcophagus, still under construction:

The city is completely abandoned. However, there are signs of life at the power plant: a few cars, even people occasionally appear in the Street View pictures.

 Posted by at 10:46 am
Aug 062016
 

I have never been to the ghost city of Pripyat, evacuated in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

However, in recent days, I spent some of my free time fighting mutants, mercenaries, bandits and fanatics in and around a virtual version of Pripyat, in the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Call of Pripyat.

This game is the third installment in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, made by Ukrainian game developer GSC Game World.

And it is a damn good game (available without crippling DRM, courtesy of GOG.com; which is the only reason I purchased the game, as I do not buy DRM-protected crippleware.) The other two games are pretty darn good, too.

The games combine an iconic science fiction novella by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky with the realities of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (officially the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation.)

The novella, Roadside Picnic, is inspired by a vision of some careless visitors near a forest, who, after a brief stop, leave behind everything from trash to discarded spark plugs, perhaps a pocket knife or a forgotten transistor radio, or maybe even a pool of used motor oil. What do these strange, sometimes dangerous artifacts and anomalies mean to the forest’s animals? Now imagine a visit to the Earth by some equally careless members of an extraterrestrial supercivilization, with us playing the role of the forest’s fauna. What would we make of the often deadly, totally incomprehensible anomalies and artifacts? As such, the Visitation Zones become places of interest to all, including “stalkers”, freelancers who defy government restrictions and risk life and limb as they enter the Zone illegally to retrieve precious artifacts and substances from the Zone.

The novella was written 15 years before the Chernobyl disaster and its setting is a fictitious town in Canada. Nonetheless, the parallels between the novella’s fiction and Chernobyl’s reality are eerily striking: abandoned buildings, abandoned military equipment, locations with a dangerous buildup of radiation, not to mention what remained a still operating nuclear power plant for many years at the very center of the Exclusion Zone.

This, then, is the setting of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games: The Zone, its abandoned industrial facilities, farms, vehicles and equipment, the town of Pripyat, even the nuclear plant itself, complete with its sarcophagus. In the fictitious storyline of the games, the 1986 disaster was followed by another man-made disaster some 20 years later, as the Zone, now largely uninhabited, was used as a place to conduct secret, often unsanctioned research.

Near the end of the third game, the player is presented with a choice of being part of an evacuation (which ends the game) or staying in Pripyat. I opted to stay. (OK, I had a saved game, so of course I could explore both scenarios.) After the helicopters left, I still had to dispatch a few enemies… but after that, there I was, standing in the middle of a square in Pripyat in the dead of night, with no friends, not even enemies, just silence occasionally broken by the howl of mutants in the distance. My safe house was gone, all I had was the equipment I carried… and I was alone.

I was honestly surprised by the intensity of this feeling of loneliness coming from a computer game.

Anyhow, I survived, morning came, and I was able to explore parts of Pripyat that I did not visit during the more intense game playing earlier. And thus, I happened upon a famous Pripyat landmark, the town’s never used Ferris wheel:

The Ferris wheel, along with the rest of Pripyat’s brand new amusement park, was set to open on May 1, 1986; unfortunately, the power plant disaster on April 26 scuttled those plans.

Sadly, I was unable to explore the Ferris wheel up close; it is located outside the region of Pripyat that is accessible to the player. But the area that can be explored is huge and terrifyingly gloomy, looking a little bit like pictures from North Korea:

As to the abandoned Soviet-era facilities, here is a splendid example:

Hey, when I took that screen shot, the Sun was almost shining!

The Sun was not shining, though, when I visited the Chernobyl nuclear plant in one of the earlier installments of the game:

But what a place it was. Mostly quiet deadly, even with the best equipment my game persona could muster.

Oh well, it was fun to play these games. Time to get back to work, though.

 Posted by at 1:33 pm
May 112016
 

No, I am not using expletives.

Or rather, I’ve been using some expletives, but *#0808# is not code for one of them.

It is an actual code that I can enter into my Samsung phone to get to a service menu that allows me to re-enable USB functions that somehow got turned off.

Although it took only about 15 minutes to find this particular code, it marked the end of a rather frustrating 24 hours. Last night, as it was just about to complete installing 24 Microsoft updates, my workstation locked up. The incomplete installation of updates managed to mess up my Microsoft Office setup, and made it impossible to install some still missing updates. Which meant that I had to use System Restore to get back to a known-good state first, and then redo the updates.

As a result, much of my day was consumed (and it’s not like I slept much last night either.) And as if that wasn’t enough, my phone also suddenly decided that it didn’t want to connect to my workstation anymore… hence my need for the aforementioned code.

All is well that ends well, though, and in the end I managed to install everything. It’s just that those hours of my life that I lost, I’ll never get them back.

It also reinforced my conviction that I made the right decision when, a few days ago, I decided to invest some money and purchase parts for a new workstation and server. It’s about bleeping time… this machine served me well for over seven (!) years, and seven years in this profession is almost an eternity.

Still waiting for some of the parts though. Although I ordered everything from the same supplier, NewEgg.ca, the shipments come from at least four different locations in North America.

 Posted by at 8:47 pm
Feb 212016
 

Take this dystopian science-fiction story, in which a major military power is using machine intelligence to identify potential threats, which it then eliminates using unmanned drones.

The twist of the story is that even a very accurate algorithm can lead to unintended consequences when the actual threat ratio is very low. This is a classic problem known from statistics.

Imagine that out of a population of a hundred million, only 100 people represent a threat, and the algorithm is 99% accurate identifying them.

Which means that out of the 100 threats, it will miss only 1. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, it also means that out of the remaining 99,999,900, it will falsely identify 999,999 as threats even when they aren’t. So out of the 1,000,098 people who are targeted, onl 99 are genuine threats; the remaining 999,999 are innocent.

OK, improve the algorithm. Perhaps at the expense of having more false negatives, say, 50%, increase the accuracy to 99.99% when it comes to false positives. Now you have 50 of the real threats identified, and you’re still targeting 10,000 innocent people.

Now imagine that the military power in question somehow convinces itself that this algorithmic approach to security is still a good idea, and implements it in practice.

And now stop imagining it. Because apparently this is exactly what has been taking place with the targeting of US military drones in Pakistan, with the added twist that the science behind the algorithms might have been botched.

Oh, but a human is still in the loop… rubber-stamping a decision that is made by a machine, and is carried out by other machines, eliminating possibly several thousand innocent human beings.

As I said… welcome to Skynet, the dystopian network of homicidal machine intelligence from the Terminator movies.

Scared yet? Perhaps you should be. We should all be.

 Posted by at 10:21 pm
Nov 272015
 

Today, I tried to reach the Microsoft Developer Network support line to sort out an issue with my MSDN subscription.

After I made the appropriate touchtone selections, however, I was greeted with what sounded like an old Walkman on a nearly dead battery. Quite incomprehensible but certainly entertaining.

It went on like this for a couple of minutes, but then the call was disconnected.

I then tried to call the main Microsoft number, where a helpful lady tried to sort things out for me. She apologized and put me on hold several times while she talked to her supervisor; unfortunately, the last time she tried to put me on hold, she managed to disconnect the call instead.

So I called the MSDN number again (1-800-759-5474) and this time, I recorded the call. When I sped it up, suddenly it all made sense:

Technical difficulties indeed.

 Posted by at 3:18 pm
Oct 212015
 

Today is the day when Marty McFly and the Doc find themselves in futuristic Hill Valley, trying to fix the future while accidentally messing up the past.

 

Too bad things are not quite as the film predicted. No flying cars powered by portable fusion generators running on garbage. No hoverboards either, nor free-floating holograms. No self-tying shoes, no self-adjusting, self-drying jackets either. And no weather service that can control the rain.

On the other hand… a Pepsi doesn’t cost $50. USA Today is still around and a newsstand copy costs “only” $2, not 6 dollars.

And while there is no Queen Diana, there may yet be a female President in the White House 15 months from now.

Oh, and while we don’t have a Scenery Channel on cable, we have three others in its place: a Fireplace Channel, a Sunset Channel, and an Aquarium Channel. All in glorious digital HD. Yay! Welcome to the future!

 Posted by at 5:27 pm
Oct 142015
 

I finished this weeks ago but never had the time to post. My previous attempt to hack a Rogers cable decoder was only partially successful, so I gave it another try, with better results.

By “hack”, I don’t mean illegally obtaining cable signals or anything like. I was simply looking for a way to get composite video and stereo audio out of the “free” cable boxes that Rogers provides, as opposed to just a plain RF signal on channel 3. The reason is pretty mundane: I’ve been using a dual-tuner TV card in my computer for years, which allowed me to record one program while watching another. The transition by Rogers to full digital cable messed this up: the TV card has only one RF input, so it is impossible to attach two decoders that could supply two signals simultaneously. But the TV card does have two independent composite video inputs. So if only the decoders had the corresponding output…

Well, they do, sort of: the only problem was that the audio was an undecoded (multiplexed) stereo signal. To decode it, I first built a standard stereo decoder circuit, but that was before I learned that the NTSC standard for stereo also includes noise suppression.

Hence my second attempt, using an appropriate chip.

Once again, I used a custom printed circuit board of my own design, and once again, it worked like a charm. The only fly in the ointment is that this larger board no longer fits inside the original decoder casing without some “plastic surgery”; so chances are that if it ever comes to returning these boxes to Rogers, I’ll be paying for them instead. Oh well.

 Posted by at 12:38 pm
Aug 062015
 

Here are nearly all the parts from a recently failed fluorescent bulb, which I disassembled:

Most of these parts are perfectly good, mostly generic electronic components that often end up in the trash. All because of these:

Yes, a rotting electrolytic capacitor. The Great Capacitor Plague is supposedly a thing of the past, but bad capacitors still show up quite often. One cannot help but wonder about the possibility that this is not altogether accidental… after all, more frequent replacement of these supposedly long-lasting bulbs means more profit to manufacturers.

 Posted by at 12:09 pm
Feb 172015
 

Today, I successfully hacked one of my Rogers cable decoder boxes. No, not to do anything illegal, just to get composite video and demultiplexed stereo audio out of them, to make them more usable with the dual-tuner TV card that is in my desktop workstation.

rog-decoder-8

This is the first time ever that I used the services of a custom printed circuit board manufacturer. My design worked on the first try. I am mighty proud of myself.

 Posted by at 7:57 pm
Dec 092014
 

Today, I became a proud owner of a new smartphone attachment: a thermal camera.

I long wanted to have a thermal camera, but the prices were frivolously high. One of the cheapest cameras from FLIR, for instance, the TG165, costs five hundred dollars and has a measly 80 x 60 pixel sensor resolution. FLIR has a smartphone thermal camera attachment that’s cheaper, but its resolution is also low, and it only works with the iPhone.

In contrast, the Seek Thermal camera attachment costs only two hundred bucks and has a 206 x 156 pixel sensor, which is quite decent, insofar as thermal sensors go. And it works with Android phones, notably my Samsung S3. Better yet, much to my delight I found out that the device is actually manufactured in the United States.

So I knew immediately what I wanted for Christmas. Okay, it arrived a little early, but that’s okay. It is a lovely little device, nicely packaged, looks very well manufactured, with a protective jewel case for safe storage when not in use.

And this is what I look in the infrared:

Lovely mugshot, isn’t it.

 Posted by at 10:33 pm