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
Mar 272014
 

It was less than 24 hours ago that I wrote about the death of a friend and now I have to do it again: I just learned that Palmer Hanson died a few days ago, after a prolonged illness.

Palmer’s name was well known to the calculator enthusiast community ever since the days of the friendly rivalry between owners of high-end Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard calculators in the late 1970s. Palmer was famous, among other things, for writing one of the fastest calendar printing programs for the TI-59 calculator. Though I never met Palmer in person, over the past decade and a half I corresponded with him many times, on account of my Web site dedicated to programmable calculators, rskey.org, and the archival material that I publish there.

It was only a few weeks ago that I received an unexpected parcel from Palmer, with a batch of rare newsletters that he sent to me for scanning and Web publication. I gladly complied. Another batch of newsletters followed shortly thereafter; this batch is still sitting on my desk, as I’ve been busy with work lately and have not had the time to do the scanning.

Therefore, I knew that Palmer was gravely ill, but I was nonetheless hoping that he would stay with us for a little while longer. Unfortunately, when our time comes there is not much we can do, and Palmer’s time came after a long and, I sincerely hope, happy life.

Googling his name just now, I came across a video of a presentation he gave less than two years ago, at HHC2012:

Good-bye, Palmer. I feel privileged to have known you, even if it was just online.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm
Mar 112014
 

So there was this whimsical invention in Futurama, the Smelloscope, created by the eccentric Professor Farnsworth.

Who’d have thought that something like this would ever enter the realm of reality.

But it did.

Apparently, police are now using smelloscopes, pardon me, nose telescopes, er, I mean, olfactometers (sounds more respectable, doesn’t it?) to sniff out cannabis. Or, to be more precise, to measure the pungency of the smell of cannabis plantations, as it has apparently become a nuisance to residents of Denver and other cities.

smelloscope

Life imitating fiction, I guess.

 Posted by at 4:51 pm
Sep 172013
 

This has been making the rounds on the Internets in the past few days: a modular mobile phone concept, with swappable parts.

Except that (with apologies to its inventor and supporters) I don’t think it will ever work. And no, not because conspiring corporations will torpedo it. (For what it’s worth, I am a free agent: I am not on the payroll of any conspiring corporations.)

The first reason is mechanical. For the phone to be robust, the backboard would have to be really strong and bulky. The connectors would have to be rock solid. Yes, it can be done, but only by using expensive materials, and the backboard itself will be half as thick already as a modern phone like a Samsung Galaxy.

The second reason is power and signaling. The placement of components on a modern phone mainboard is not accidental. Signal paths matter when things run off a multigigahertz clock. Power matters when some components can momentarily draw significant current. The placement of antennas matters, to maximize efficiency and minimize interference from the phone’s own components.

Third, the design will inevitably prove too constraining. Take modern PCs as an analogy. Yes, they are modular (it is much easier, of course, to make a desktop PC modular.) But only to a point. Try shoving an old ISA extension card into a modern PC. Even if it were perfectly functional (e.g., an old modem, serial/parallel or low-speed communication card that never needed more than ISA speeds) you can’t use it anymore, as no modern motherboard supports ISA slots. Many modern motherboards don’t even support PCI slots. Processor sockets change. Memory module standards change. Even power supply standards changed a surprising number of times. (You’d think there are only so many ways to supply 12VDC, 5VDC, and maybe 3.3VDC, but you’d be wrong.)

Still, Phonebloks is a neat idea. In fact, it’s one of those ideas that may never work as intended, but may still inspire other useful inventions.

 Posted by at 7:27 pm
Apr 082013
 

Here is a beautiful military relic, a gift from a family friend who knew that I was a sucker for old technology:

It is a very conventional compass, floating in oil in a non-magnetic brass casing. Our friend was concerned about the radiation symbol on the cover: as it turns out, this particular compass had fluorescent markings that were illuminated by the presence of small amounts of radioactive tritium.

As tritium is a low-energy beta emitter, it poses almost no health risk (unless you happen to inhale or consume some quantities of it) and thus it is safe for use as a form of “permanent illumination”. Unfortunately, tritium is also used in thermonuclear weapons, so its possession and sale are often regulated. In any case, this old compass is long past its “use before” date; I don’t know how old it actually is, but its inspection sticker dates back from 1994. The tritium appears to be long gone (not exactly a surprise, given tritium’s relatively short, 12.3 year half life), as the marking are completely dark.

Still it is a beautiful device, and I am very grateful to our friend for offering this to me as a gift. It will be cherished.

 Posted by at 4:23 pm
Jan 122013
 

One of the reasons why I was eager to ditch my “old” (barely over two years) Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 smartphone is that its battery started to misbehave. Or at least I assumed it was the battery: under heavy load (e.g., recording video) the phone shut down prematurely. I bought an off-market replacement battery that seemed to solve the problem for a while but eventually that battery, too, started to show the same symptoms.

Now that the X10 is no longer a “mission critical” device, I feel free to experiment with it. Once I was done rooting the phone, I was able to initiate calibration of its battery (really, just deleting the battery history file). After repeatedly discharging, calibrating and recharging the battery, I tried a simple test: to see how long the battery lasts under a minimal load (valid “in service” SIM card, no real use other than occasionally getting a GPS lock and checking the battery voltage.)

What happened was astonishing. Previously, the longest time I was able to keep this phone running was a tad over two days. But now? A record FIVE days and 24 minutes. Frankly, I wouldn’t believe it if I had not seen it with my own eyes.

Now I am curious. How long will it take to recharge the phone? Will it give the battery a full charge? Will it still shut down prematurely afterwards if I start recording video?

I am also wondering… a voltage drop is not an uncommon symptom for an aging Li-polymer battery. But I should also see diminished battery capacity. A smartphone running for five days… that does not sound diminished to me! Could it be that the problem is with the phone itself, its power regulating circuitry? How can one tell without purchasing an expensive battery, preferably not from an off-market Hong Kong reseller?

 Posted by at 9:31 pm
Dec 212012
 

I spent some of my time today building a calculator.

I still know how to handle a soldering iron, but this time around, the design is not of my own. The credit goes to Michael Berger, a calculator enthusiast in Germany who decided to resurrect a classic East German desktop calculator, the Robotron K-1003 in the form of a microcontroller-based kit.

And thanks to Michael, I had some pre-Christmas fun. But now that the calculator is up and running, I feel compelled to find its original German-language manuals and understand its programming model.

 Posted by at 10:22 pm
Dec 022012
 

I came across this picture on Facebook the other day, a photo of the cheapest car radio made in Hungary back in the 1970s. It was a very basic radio manufactured by Hungary’s dominant electronics manufacturer Videoton. We had the exact same type of radio in the exact same model car (a Lada 1200 if I am not mistaken) when I was in grade school.

Funny thing about this receiver is that it wasn’t an AM-FM radio. It was an AM + shortwave radio, with a single shortwave band tuned to 49 meters.

The same 49-meter shortwave band that was the preferred band used by Cold War era propaganda stations broadcasting in Hungarian, including Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, even The Vatican.

We lived in the town of Visegrad at the time, only 40 km north of Budapest but separated from the capital by some hills. Because of the terrain, reception of Budapest stations was often spotty. Which may explain why this little car radio had trouble tuning to the 2 MW transmitter of Radio Kossuth, located in central Hungary, but had no trouble at all with the reception of the aforementioned propaganda stations; those were always crystal clear.

As to why a communist-era state-owned electronics factory was manufacturing a car radio with such excellent short wave sensitivity, I have no idea. Perhaps, in an early experiment with capitalism, they were trying to respond to market demand?

 Posted by at 3:17 pm