And since I seem to be posting cat pictures today, here is an “artistic creation” of Google Photos’ AI bot, depicting our youngest cat, Rufus:
I think this picture clearly explains why we often address this feline as Master Rufus.
And since I seem to be posting cat pictures today, here is an “artistic creation” of Google Photos’ AI bot, depicting our youngest cat, Rufus:
I think this picture clearly explains why we often address this feline as Master Rufus.
OK, I published a picture of Pipacs yesterday, so here is our oldest cat, Kifli, who turned 16 earlier this year.
I think he is a very respectable fellow, but he is also very playful, especially considering his age. I hope he remains this way for many more years to come.
It may not be obvious, but this amorphous thing in this picture is a cat.
This is Pipacs (Hungarian for Poppy), our smallest cat. He is a little over ten years old (exact age unknown, as he was a stray.) He was diagnosed with a bone tumor a couple of years ago, but after the doctor explained that for cats, bone tumors rarely metastasize, we decided to take a risk and not have the leg in question amputated. The main reason is that Pipacs is a very skittish kitty, and we were deeply concerned that such a drastic operation (not to mention multiple, often painful vet visits) would have traumatized him.
So far, so good. That was two and a half years ago. Fingers crossed, but although the growth is there and quite noticeable, accompanied by a small limp, it does not seem to bother him. He remains active, with no signs of pain or discomfort, and no indication of any trouble. We just hope he will stay this way for many more years to come.
Here is something my wife spotted yesterday on the back of a garbage truck that was collecting garbage in our courtyard:
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.
Here is our oldest cat Kifli. He will turn 17 in April.
A true gentlecat, I think that much is obvious.
Here is a short segment from a piece of music that I am trying to identify:
For the life of me, I cannot. It is especially annoying because I heard this piece of music on SiriusXM Symphony Hall earlier this morning, but I didn’t get the title and cannot find a playlist.
This music was played during the end credits of the main evening newscast in the 1960s, perhaps the early 1970s, on Hungary’s state owned television network.
Update (Dec 3, 2017): Mystery solved. It is the Scherzo from Schumann’s 2nd symphony:
The other day, I bought a cantaloupe for my wife.
Today, as she was about to cut it in half, she noticed that it had two sticker labels. Not only that, but held just the right way, the thing looked just like a character from South Park:
OK, so today was a Sunday, I have recently finished some projects, so I had a bit of time to work on long overdue things around the house. Actually, it had to do with an attempt to repair an old TV, which needed to be vacuumed first, as it contained more than two decades’ worth of accumulated dust. But quickly, my attention turned to our vacuum cleaner instead.
It is a Kenmore vacuum cleaner, one of the house brands of soon-to-be-defunct Sears Canada. It is reasonably decent. But…
Well, it has a HEPA filter. It is supposed to filter the exhaust of the vacuum, to ensure that it contains no microscopic particles. The HEPA filter is a small rectangular piece made of cardboard and other materials that fits behind a cover on the back of the vacuum. The vacuum was barely a few weeks old when this cover first fell off. Putting it back on didn’t help; it fell off increasingly often. Taping it on didn’t do the trick either. Eventually, I affixed it with two screws, and it seemed to hold afterwards. Even then though, I had a nagging suspicion that there is something odd about this vacuum cleaner…
But first, let me digress. Let me mention a building, a six-story apartment building in the Hungarian city of Pécs, which is the building where my wife grew up. This building is odd, as its stairwell and elevator shaft are housed in an entirely separate building, connected to the main building on each level by a hanging corridor. Rumor has it that the original architect simply forgot to include a stairwell and elevator shaft in the design. Kind of hard to believe but…
Anyhow, back to my vacuum cleaner. My nagging suspicion was this: after the air goes through the HEPA filter, where does it go? It is surely not going to exhaust through the solid plastic filter cover (the one that kept falling off.)
Lately, our vacuum cleaner was making weird noises. When I looked at it more closely today, I noticed that one of the screws that I used to affix the HEPA filter cover was gone, and that the filter cover was slightly off. The weird noise was the air whistling through the resulting gap. Well… this did it. Hard as it is to believe, I was forced to conclude that whoever designed this vacuum cleaner forgot to include an exhaust in the design.
Out came my trusty drill (bought at a Sears store eons ago when Sears was still the best source for quality tools) and a few minutes later, the filter cover had a bunch of holes in it:
I put the cover back on, affixed it with screws again, and tested the vacuum cleaner. It was working just fine, running more smoothly than ever, and significantly cooler to the touch than ever before. And when you put your hands over the holes that I made, you could feel the tremendous outrush of air… air that previously had no place to go other than exhausting through cracks between plastic bits. No wonder the pressure was high enough to push off the HEPA filter cover even when screws were holding it in place.
Before writing this blog entry, just to be sure, I double checked. I don’t want to make a fool of myself after all. But no… there truly is no exhaust, none whatsoever, on this vacuum cleaner.
What engineer in his right mind designs a vacuum cleaner with no exhaust?
Hmmm. Maybe an engineer from the same school that trained the architect who designs buildings without stairwells.
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.
In case anyone is wondering why my blog has been sitting idle for the past two weeks…
It’s a damn cold.
I haven’t had a cold or a flu in years. In fact, I was beginning to think that I might have become immune.
Nearly two weeks ago, my wife began to feel sick. The usual: a bit of a cough, a bit of a runny nose, and a fairly high temperature, actually. The next morning when I woke up, I felt perfectly fine. Until I coughed a little, that is. And it felt like a sharp knife stabbing me in the middle of my chest. “Damn,” I said to myself, “I caught it.”
And caught it I did. I was sick for many days. Something that has not happened to me in decades: I even stayed in bed for half a day a couple of times.
OK, now I am on the mend. I still don’t have much of a speaking voice, I still get coughing fits, and my stomach is still a bit queasy, but I feel generally okay.
My wife recovered a little more quickly than I, but even she is still coughing occasionally.
I hope that we both paid our dues to the demons of the common cold or the evil spirits of the flu for several years to come.
Meanwhile, I already had a lot of catching up to do before I fell ill… now, my TODO list looks bad enough to make me feel desperately, depressingly sick again. Will I ever catch up?
One of the blessings of working at home is that I rarely drive. For which I am grateful.
Today, I did drive, because I had to meet someone. And I ended up in an unexpected traffic jam due to a lane closure.
It appears that they were doing emergency (?) traffic light repair at the intersection of Vanier Parkway/Riverside Road and the eastbound Queensway off-ramp here in Ottawa. What is incomprehensible is why they had to close a lane of Vanier parkway on the bridge, long before the intersection, and before the on-ramp lane splits, thus causing a close to half-mile long traffic back-up.
[Sorry, no audio. I was swearing too profusely.]
PS: Yes, I know. First world problems.
In the last few days, I’ve been spelunking in our basement and crawlspace.
I was looking… for many things. Old computer hardware. Boxes to be thrown out. Boxes to be kept, preferably original retail boxes, for packaging things in them that I no longer need.
And finding the unexpected.
For instance… I’ve had an unused old MSI motherboard that has been lying around in my study for ages. Now I don’t recall ever using MSI motherboards. For quite some time, my manufacturer of choice was Gigabyte (no, not married to them, it’s just that whenever I was searching for motherboards, their offerings came closest to what I was looking for.)
So then, during my spelunking, I found the cardboard shipping box of a computer case, and inside it, several parts boxes. Including the retail box for the aforementioned MSI board.
But wait. I had another, identical computer case shipping box, also filled with parts boxes. Including a second box for an MSI motherboard.
So perhaps I did use MSI motherboards after all? Maybe in my server and backup server, around 12 years ago? But if that’s the case… where is the second motherboard, which goes with the second box?
Hmmm… maybe it’s in this test machine? No, the test machine has a Gigabyte board. But let’s double check… Gigabyte branded internal cabling alright… but the board is the second MSI board!
Mystery solved. Except that I still do not remember ever purchasing a pair of MSI motherboards or build computers from them.
But my truly prized finding was something else altogether. (This, I did know about.) Here it is, in its fully functioning glory:
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is my first ever server for the vttoth.com domain, decommissioned approximately 22 years ago, in 1995.
The machine has a 386SX motherboard with a whopping 4 megabytes (yes, mega) of RAM. It also has two MFM hard drives: a MAXTOR XT-1085 with about 68 megabytes (yes, mega again) of storage space, and a Magnetic Peripherals 98205-051, with 43 megabytes. Together, about 110 megabytes of storage space.
This machine began its life as my first ever PC-compatible computer that I owned, purchased from a small local company (MICS Computers, no longer in business as far as I can tell) in late 1989 or early 1990 I think. About three years later, I bought another system from them: A powerful monster indeed, with a 486 processor, maybe 16 MB of RAM, but most importantly, a gigantic 500 MB SCSI hard drive, a 525 MB tape backup drive, and, yes, a SCSI CD-ROM, complete with CD caddies. Double speed, too, which means it could read an entire data CD in a mere 30 minutes! My old 386SX system was thus retired.
But it didn’t stay retired for long. Later in 1993, I was asked to serve as the sysop of the UNIX forum of the short-lived National Videotex Network, a service provider that tried to compete with the likes of CompuServe just as the Internet put an end to that business model. I took over from someone who already began creating content, including a brand new upload of the Softlanding Linux distribution, complete with version 0.98pl12 of the Linux kernel. I figured that as a brand new sysop, I ought to know what I was going to be in charge of, so I downloaded the SLS distribution myself and set it up on my old system. It ran beautifully. It was, for all intents and purposes, the same real UNIX that I loved and enjoyed. I was hooked.
Just a few months later, I signed a contract with UUNet Canada, my first commercial Internet service provider. From that point onward, I had a dial-up connection for e-mail, Usenet news, and on-demand Internet. More importantly, UUNet arranged for me a so-called Class C block of 256 portable IP addresses, a block that is assigned to me directly, and which I still use. As the shortage of IP addresses loomed, the powers that be stopped issuing such individually assigned IP address blocks just a few months later.
But when I signed up, the Internet was still mostly non-commercial. So much so that I had to sign the NSFNet Acceptable Use Policy, promising never to use the NSFNet backbone for a commercial purpose! Fortunately, this nonsensical, unenforceable policy was discontinued not long thereafter, but for me, it remains a reminder of just how different the Internet was back then.
Anyhow, this server ran flawlessly for several years, although its limited power and storage capacity were both rather constraining. So it was a relief when I was able to retire it finally in 1995. When we moved to our current home, the machine came with us, only to settle down in the basement for good, where it mostly remained, though I recall powering it up once about a decade or so ago.
So tonight, I dug it out, cleaned it, hauled it upstairs, and powered it up. It came on just fine, along with the monitor, but then an unexpected snag happened: Its BIOS backup battery long dead, the machine asked for the hard drive parameters. You see, ladies and gentlemen, back then there was no plug and play. You needed to know things like the number of cylinders, heads, sectors per cylinder, and precompensation cylinder for your drive. I had to look them up, but fortunately, the Internet knows (almost) everything. Soon, I was booting Linux. Then, another snag: I could not for the life of me remember either the root password or the password to me personal account on this system. Finally, I reminded myself that back in those innocent days, I used much simpler passwords than today… and I was in.
Not much to see, mind you. There isn’t room for much in a mere 110 MB of disk space. But I did see some old e-mails from 1995.
This machine is a keeper. It has history. I just need to find a nice place for it in the house. Oh, and I might want to vacuum its interior, as I noticed a few spiderwebs in there.
Before shutting the machine down, I noticed its performance rating: 2.57 of Linux’s infamous BogoMIPS. In contrast, here is what my current server, built early last year, reports:
Calibrating delay loop (skipped), value calculated using timer frequency.. 4199.71 BogoMIPS smpboot: Total of 16 processors activated (67195.42 BogoMIPS)
Yup… a machine built about 26 years later, roughly 26,000 times faster. How about that.
Here is a belated picture of yesterday’s solar eclipse, taken by my friend David in New York City:
His equipment is (semi-)professional but the solar filter that he used wasn’t. Still, it is a heck of a lot better than anything I was able to see (or project with a makeshift pinhole camera). I suggested to him to obtain a quality solar filter by 2024. Who knows, we may meet in Watertown to watch totality.
There is a brand new video on YouTube today, explaining the concept of the Solar Gravitational Telescope concept:
But the biggest challenge… this would be truly a generational effort. I am 54 this year. Assuming the project is greenlighted today and the spacecraft is ready for launch in ten years’ time… the earliest for useful data to be collected would be more than 40 years from now, when, unless I am exceptionally lucky with my health, I am either long dead already, or senile in my mid-90s.
Thirty years ago today, I stepped off an airplane at Montreal’s Mirabel Airport and presented my immigration papers to a Canadian border protection official. Some half an hour later, I formally entered Canada as a freshly minted landed immigrant.
I almost forgot that today is that anniversary. When I suddenly remembered and mentioned it to my wife, she suggested that we have some chestnut puree (a popular delicacy for many Hungarians) after dinner. She then presented me with a bowl:
Yup, that’s the number “30” in whipped cream.
An old friend showed up on our doorstep a short while ago, just as I was getting ready to call it a day:
This is MJ the cat. He has been visiting us for more than 12 years already, but tonight was his first visit in 2017.
We know where he lives, and we have seen him in recent weeks, so we knew he was okay. But he is getting a bit old. So we were not surprised that he wouldn’t come this far (his home is several hundred meters from here, across Cobourg street, which is not free of traffic even late at night.) But lo and behold, tonight we noticed him peeking through the vertical window pane next to our front door.
He stayed for a while. He gobbled down some cat food so vehemently, it’s as though he has been starving. (For the record, we know that he is treated well by his owner.) He even got some cat treats and a little bit of catnip. Then finally, once he had enough of our company, he just turned around and left.
Good old MJ. I hope he will keep coming back for many more years to come.
Slava Turyshev and I just published a paper in Physical Review. It is a lengthy, quite technical paper about the wave-theoretical treatment of the solar gravitational telescope.
What, you say?
Well, simple: using the Sun as a gravitational telescope to image distant objects. Like other stars, the Sun bends light, too. Measuring this bending of light was, in fact, the crucial test carried out by Eddington during the 1919 solar eclipse, validating the predictions of general relativity and elevating Albert Einstein to the status of international science superstar.
The gravitational bending of light is very weak. Two rays, passing on opposite sides of the Sun, are bent very little. So little in fact, it takes some 550 astronomical units (AU; the distance between the Earth and the Sun) for the two rays to meet. But where they do, interesting things happen.
If you were floating in space at that distance, and there was a distant planet on the exact opposite side of the Sun, light from a relatively small section of that planet would form a so-called Einstein ring around the Sun. The light amplification would be tremendous; a factor of tens of billions, if not more.
But you have to be located very precisely at the right spot to image a particular spot on the exoplanet. How precisely? Well, that’s what we set out to figure out, based in part on the existing literature on the subject. (Short answer: it’s measured in tens of centimeters or less.)
In principle, a spacecraft at this distance, moving slowly in lateral directions to scan the image plane (which is several kilometers across), can obtain a detailed map of a distant planet. It is possible, in principle, to obtain a megapixel resolution image of a planet dozens of light years from here, though image reconstruction would be a task of considerable complexity, due in part to the fact that an exoplanet is a moving, changing target with variable illumination and possibly cloud cover.
Mind you, getting to 550 AU is costly. Our most distant spacecraft to date, Voyager 1, is just under 140 AU from the Sun, and it took that spacecraft 40 years to get there. That said, it is a feasible mission concept, but we must be very certain that we understand the physics thoroughly.
This is where our paper comes in: an attempt to derive detailed results about how light waves pass on both sides of the Sun and recombine along the focal line.
The bulk of the work in this paper is Slava’s, but I was proud to help. Part of my contribution was to provide a visualization of the qualitative behavior of the wavefront (described by a hypergeometric function):
In this image, a light wave, initially a plane wave, travels from left to right and it is deflected by a gravitational source at the center. If you squint just a little, you can actually see a concentric circular pattern overlaid on top of the distorted wavefront. The deflection of the wavefront and this spherical wave perturbation are both well described by an approximation. However, that approximation breaks down specifically in the region of interest, namely the focal line:
The top left of these plots show the approximation of the deflected wavefront; the top right, the (near) circular perturbation. Notice how both appear to diverge along the focal line: the half line between the center of the image and the right-hand side. The bottom right plot shows the combination of the two approximations; it is similar to the full solution, but not identical. The difference between the full solution and this approximation is shown in the bottom left plot.
I also helped with working out evil-looking things like a series approximation of the confluent hypergeometric function using so-called Pochhammer symbols and Stirling numbers. It was fun!
To make a long story short, although it involved some frustratingly long hours at a time when I was already incredibly busy, it was fun, educational, and rewarding, as we gave birth to a 39-page monster (43 pages on the arXiv) with over 300 equations. Hopefully just one of many contributions that, eventually (dare I hope that it will happen within my lifetime?) may result in a mission that will provide us with a detailed image of a distant, life-bearing cousin of the Earth.
Microsoft broke my Skype device, and I hate them for it.
It’s one of these:
But we really liked it. It worked very well. It is a dual-line phone: landline + Skype. And while it has no video, chats, teenage chatbots and such nonsense, it performs the basic function of Skype flawlessly: It lets you make bleeping voice calls.
Or rather, it used to perform that basic function flawlessly. Today, the device signed itself out of Skype forever, it appears, if online news sources about the demise of Skype devices can be believed.
Damn you, Microsoft. If this is how you are “improving the user experience”, please stuff your improvements where the Sun doesn’t shine. I don’t want smileys. I don’t want chatbots. I want good old, solid, reliable Skype that, among other things, lets my wife and I call our aging parents overseas, lets me talk to clients, and lets me talk to colleagues. And, well, just plain works.
Sure, we can use Skype on our smartphones. And we do, when the occasion warrants it. But this device was convenient, too. And I really cannot understand why support for it had to be killed by Microsoft. Perhaps pure spite?
One of these days, I’ll start compiling a list titled, How can you tell that a company hates its customers? If I ever get around to doing it, this thing with Skype will certainly make that list.
I just finished watching a 2016 Hungarian documentary film about the early days of the computer game industry in Hungary.
I was also interviewed via Skype for this film, albeit not much of my conversation with the filmmaker remained in the final cut. But that’s okay… it is, in a sense, fitting, because after the first few “heroic” years, I was no longer taking part in games development, whereas others continued and produced some amazing software.
Anyhow, I enjoyed this film. I met familiar faces (though I admit I would not have recognized all of them on the street after 30-odd years) but I also found out details about those days that I just didn’t know. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that was said in the film, but by and large, I think it paints an interesting, reasonably complete, accurate and balanced picture of what computer game development was like, what it meant to us in the early 1980s behind the Iron Curtain.
For what it’s worth, I bought my downloadable copy. (No DRM.) I think films like these deserve our support.