Dec 292008

… and CBC Radio 2 is not faring well. After the cultural vandalism by its bureaucrats last September, the ratings of Radio 2 here in Ottawa are down by a full one third compared to the same period last year: in 2007, the market share of CBOQ was 5%, now it’s down to 3.3%.

The theory behind the revamping of Radio 2 was that by going for the lowest common denominator, pop music, Radio 2 will attract a bigger audience and will better represent Canada overall. What was forgotten was that it is not the mandate of a public broadcaster to be popular… commercial radio already does that. The public broadcaster should be the guardian of high culture (and if that sounds elitist, maybe it should be) not a promoter of pop culture.

The ratings prove my point.

Ratings of CBC RAdio 2 in Ottawa

Ratings of CBC RAdio 2 in Ottawa

By the way, some people argue that it’s wrong to promote music written by middle aged white men. (Not that the CBC was exclusively about music written by middle aged white men. I learned a lot about jazz, Canadian folk, South American music, African music, and more on the “old” CBC.) Anyhow, when I hear that argument, I feel the urge to respond by asking, are you also upset that science classes teach the physics or math of middle aged white men? That engineering schools teach the engineering of middle aged white men? For better or for worse, much of our world’s science and technology was developed by Europeans, and until recently European civilization was very male-oriented (some argue it still is.) This doesn’t change the validity of, say, Boltzmann’s thermodynamics, Einstein’s gravity, or Feynman’s QED. Why should it be different when it comes to music? Is the music of Beethoven less valuable because there weren’t that many symphonic orchestras in the 19th century (or even today) in sub-Saharan Africa? I don’t think so. In any case, if we think that an area of science or culture is dominated by middle aged white men, the correct solution is not to banish their contributions, but to make sure that they become accessible to others… which is precisely what the CBC is no longer doing. Now that’s real “elitism” in the most pejorative sense of the word.

 Posted by at 4:56 pm
Dec 292008

Sometimes, programmers do physics, for better or for worse. Sometimes, physicists do programming, and the result is not always disastrous, sometimes quite the contrary. Bruce Allen, for instance, is a gravitational physicist who developed an extremely useful set of programs for Linux, allowing one to monitor the health status of a hard drive using the drive’s SMART (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology) capabilities. He certainly needed it… his cluster has several hundred disk drives in operation. I only have a few, but nevertheless it is reassuring to know that they’ll send me an e-mail, presumably before a catastrophic failure wipes out all my data.

Which of course can still happen. I’ve seen hard drives die a sudden death, with no advance warning whatsoever, becoming an expensive but useless boat anchor.

 Posted by at 4:18 pm
Dec 292008

A candidate for the leadership of the US Republican party sent to several politicians a Christmas CD that contained, among other things, a song called “Barack the Magic Negro.” Many people are outraged, and many are surprised.

I’m not. After all, isn’t this precisely the kind of behavior one expects from Sarah Palin’s party?

 Posted by at 3:45 am
Dec 222008

This is not what I usually expect to see when I glance at CNN:

CNN and integrals

CNN and integrals

It almost makes me believe that we live in a mathematically literate society. If only!

The topic, by the way, was a British Medical Journal paper on brain damage caused by a dancing style called headbanging. I must say, even though I grew up during the disco era, I never much liked dancing. But, for what it’s worth, I not only know how to do integrals, I actually enjoy doing them…

 Posted by at 1:25 pm
Dec 222008

The other day, David Letterman had a segment called The Ten Most Hated Christmas Songs. They were well known Christmas tunes with twisted lyrics. All of them were funny, but two I found especially memorable. The first said,

“Joy to the world, George Bush is done.”

The second one was really creepy:

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,


 Posted by at 12:48 pm
Dec 212008

No, it’s not the name of a heavy metal group or a German curse word, just an appropriate way to describe the cats in our house, now six in number, given that we have a guest cat again. Poppy is back with us for a month.

Poppy in August

Poppy in August

 Posted by at 4:16 pm
Dec 192008

CNN has a report about health care workers’ right to refuse to provide services, or information about services such as abortion, if it goes against their conscience. Not unreasonable, but it is also not unreasonable for patients to expect services according to their own beliefs, not the health care workers’.

Yet there seems to be a simple solution: health care workers should be obliged to disclose to patients their beliefs and the fact that they may be withholding specific information as a result of those beliefs. Health care workers may have a right to refuse to provide services or advice that they consider unethical, but patients also have a right to know that they are not receiving objective advice.

 Posted by at 3:31 pm
Dec 192008

Sad news today: at the age of 76, Majel Roddenberry, aka. Nurse Christine Chapel from Star Trek and Lwaxana Troi from Star Trek: TNG, has passed away today. My she rest in peace.

Her husband, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, passed away over 17 years ago, on October 24, 1991. That date is memorable to me for another reason: it was on the morning of that day that I became a wizard of Richard Bartle’s classic multiplayer computer game, MUD (Multi-User Dungeon), aka British Legends, a game that I have ported to modern 32-bit platforms nearly a decade later and that I have been hosting ever since.

 Posted by at 1:27 am
Dec 172008

… two days and several scraped fingers later (after I also lost, no doubt, many braincells to aggravation, not to mention hours of useful operating time of my heart muscle measured by a number considerably greater than the 48 or so that have elapsed since I first discovered that my computer is in trouble) I am finally back in business. All because of a bleeping 10 cent capacitor. But before I complain too loud, I quickly remind myself that during these 48 hours or so, tens if not hundreds of thousands (or millions?) of people around the world were killed, died of starvation, lost their most loved ones, lost their freedom, lost their possessions, you name it… and I am complaining because I had to replace a stupid motherboard and bring my computer back to life?

No, I am not complaining. Still, the last two days were a time I could have done without.

 Posted by at 2:28 pm
Dec 162008

That’s all it took. One faulty capacitor, worth about 10 cents, to put my computer out of commission for nearly two days.

The capacitor in question sits on the motherboard and, judging by its placement, it regulates power to the main I/O chip (which explains why, among other things, the failing motherboard had trouble accessing disks.)

Other than this, my experience qualifies as a comedy of errors. After replacing the motherboard with an identical model, the system didn’t boot; it turned out that I inserted the processor incorrectly, bending (but fortunately, not breaking!) some of its pins. Then I found out that the BIOS of the replacement motherboard, which I purchased second-hand, was password locked. After I reset the BIOS, the system didn’t boot at all, it turned out it needed a PCI graphics card to come back to life. Then, the operating system didn’t boot… it turned out that the partition table and boot sector was damaged on the hard drives. Meanwhile, the floppy drive in this machine died, just when I needed it to boot from a Windows XP CD (extra drivers needed for the RAID controller in my computer come on a floppy.)

But now, the system is rebuilding the RAID mirror, and when that’s done, I’ll reconnect everything and try to resume where I left off two nights ago. Groan.

Oh, but I forgot: I also need to upgrade this motherboard’s BIOS, to ensure that it recognizes the dual-core CPU (which it presently doesn’t).

Which reminds me, I’ve been using this motherboard for years, and it’s been working well (apart from a failing chip fan and now, this failing capacitor.) But when I tried to install VISTA on a test machine with the same motherboard, VISTA didn’t work in its “enhanced” AERO mode… or, it did, but only recognizing one CPU core. According to ATI, it’s NVIDIA’s fault, as their AGP implementation is not fully multiprocessor compatible and VISTA has problems with that. But, I ask naively… how come XP worked so well on this motherboard for years? AERO may be pretty, but it’s still just bits that are being moved between motherboard and graphics card, is it not?

 Posted by at 9:23 pm
Dec 152008

What a bloody joyful day. My main computer is dead this morning. It now even fails to boot. Annoyingly, I don’t have any external SATA enclosures that would allow me to hook one of its drives up to another computer to check for signs of trouble, verify data integrity, and last but not least, make a backup (my last backup is a few days old.) So it’s a trip to the nearest computer store. And once I’m done, my main computer will still be dead, it’s just that I’ll no longer need to worry about what was stored on it (except for the numerous applications, configuration settings, etc…) This is NOT going to be a fun day. Miserable outside, too.

 Posted by at 3:10 pm
Dec 142008

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but there is something magically beautiful in vintage 1960s high tech. Take JPL’s Space Flight Operations Center, for instance.

JPL Space Flight Operations Center

JPL Space Flight Operations Center

Sure, wall-size LCD or plasma screens are nowadays a dime a dozen, and as to the computing equipment in that room, hey, my watch probably has more transistors. Still… there is something awe-inspiring in this picture that is just not there when you walk into a Best Buy.

 Posted by at 2:08 pm
Dec 112008

Ottawa U. and Carleton U. are running shuttle services to help students get to exams. OC Transpo’s union leaders are now suggesting that they will attempt to picket these services, too. In other words, they’re now openly declaring the citizens of Ottawa their enemy, as opposed to the bus company. What next, blocking private cars, too? Locking citizens in their homes, lest they compete with the bus service by trying to walk to work?

The more they do this, the less sympathetic I feel towards the strikers, and the more I hope that the city will have the guts to stand firm and wait until the union runs out of money and stamina.

 Posted by at 11:11 pm
Dec 112008

Yes, they are nice. I spent several hours (!) today on the phone with Microsoft, and they really tried to help. In the end, my issue with installing KB958624 remains unresolved but they acknowledged the problem, suggested meaningful ways to deal with it, and promised that it will be researched and that I will be notified.

More importantly, they listened to my comments concerning Activation. This young, very polite engineer from India with impeccable English listened intently and took notes, appreciating my basic concern: Activation (and copy protection in general) will not stop piracy, but it alienates a company’s best friends, namely its paying customers.

 Posted by at 1:34 am
Dec 102008

So, OC Transpo is going on strike. Yes, I support the principle of collective bargaining. But I don’t support a bunch of selfish unionists who think they can hold a whole city hostage by taking things to the bring and beyond. The strike doesn’t bother me personally… if anything, I am looking forward to quieter mornings. But the fact that they do this just weeks before Christmas and during a snowstorm speaks volumes. And it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who suffer. If there was justice, a student missing an exam or a single mother of three who is unable to go to work tomorrow morning would spit in the face of every OC Transpo employee who voted for the strike.

No wonder I didn’t like communism, I guess.

 Posted by at 4:09 am
Dec 102008

Microsoft is really pissing me off these days. While necessary, their updates suck.

I’m restarting a VISTA machine about the seventeenth time already, because if I try to install all available updates, all of them fail with an undocumented error, even though I can install them one-by-one.

I’ve installed several updates on an XP laptop, and four of them failed; I tried again, then they succeeded. No apparent reason for the difference.

I’ve installed a bunch of updates on another XP machine, but a few were left out. I installed those, too (Root Certificates and Office 2007 Help updates.) Windows didn’t ask for a restart, but the browser went half-dead afterwards anyhow, so I had to restart.

Meanwhile, I’ve just restarted that VISTA machine again.

You’d think that after all these years, Microsoft would be better at this. But they aren’t. One of these days, they’re going to release a patch that will shut down three hundred million computers around the world and cause more economic damage than the current recession. Then, they’ll call it “behavior by design” and charge us more for support.

Update: I’ve narrowed down the problem to a single update, KB958624. It fails to complete installation after reboot, and upon this failure, the system reverts other updates as well. I have attempted to contact Microsoft about this using their Web based e-mail form; I dutifully completed all the requisite fields, only to be informed after I clicked the last Continue that the requested page is not available. Congratulations, Microsoft, for a professional job well done.

 Posted by at 2:55 am
Dec 082008

The prevailing phenomenological theory of modified gravity is MOND, which stands for Modified Newtonian Dynamics. What baffles me is how MOND managed to acquire this status in the first place.

MOND is based on the ad-hoc postulate that the gravitational acceleration of a body in the presence of a weak gravitational field differs from that predicted by Newton. If we denote the Newtonian acceleration with a, MOND basically says that the real acceleration will be a‘ = μ(a/a0)a, where μ(x) is a function such that μ(x) = 1 if x >> 1, and μ(x) = x if μ(x) << 1. Perhaps the simplest example is μ(x) = x/(1+x).

OK, so here is the question that I’d like to ask: Exactly how is this different from the kinds of crank explanations I receive occasionally from strangers writing about the Pioneer anomaly? MOND is no more than an ad-hoc empirical formula that works for galaxies (duh, it was designed to do that) but doesn’t work anywhere else, and all the while it violates such basic principles as energy or momentum conservation. How could the physics community ever take something like MOND seriously?

 Posted by at 7:01 pm