May 302010

After six weeks of non-stop gushing, an oil spill that is already several times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and numerous failed attempts to stop it, I am beginning to wonder if it might have been a good idea after all to follow a Russian suggestion and just try to nuke the well. Then again, had that failed, too, the Gulf coast would now have to deal with a spill that is not only poisonous but also radioactive.

 Posted by at 5:30 pm
May 292010

If killing a motherboard was a criminal act, I guess it’d have a fancy Latin name, too, like matrotabulicide or something.

Fortunately, it is not criminal to murder a computer motherboard just yet, at least not if it is one that you own. Today, sadly, I managed to accomplish just this, prematurely ending the life of a computer I only recently put together for my wife. No, it was not first-degree murder, more like man-, or rather, motherboardslaughter: I did not set out to do damage, on the contrary, I was hoping to get rid of an annoying little problem (no keyboard after the system came back from hibernation) by upgrading its BIOS.

The consequences of the attempt are, sadly, known to many: after the BIOS upgrade program happily reported success and attempted a reboot (I did everything by the book, and there were no signs of any trouble), the system became completely non-responsive, suggesting a failure of the BIOS boot sequence.

Now usually, there are ways to recover from a failed BIOS upgrade. Many BIOSes recognize a corrupt image and drop into an emergency boot flash mode that allows recovery from, for instance, a floppy disk. I’ve done this before, more than once. However, in this case the process did not work: even when I manually “forced” a boot into the boot flash mode by shorting some of the BIOS pins, it just stubbornly refused to attempt to read anything from a floppy, the hard drive, or a CD-ROM. I even tried booting using a POST diagnostic card, but I became none the wiser.

So that’s it. It is time to move on. It wasn’t a new motherboard, but it still had plenty of useful life left in it, so I am sad to see it go. But investing further effort into it is just pointless. I could order an identical motherboard off eBay for about $80 total, including shipping from China, but why would I want to spend that kind of money on 7-year old technology, when I can buy a decent current motherboard, dual-core CPU, and 2GB memory for less than three times that amount?

The said thing is that it means not only junking this motherboard, but also the accompanying Socket 754 single-core CPU and 1 GB DDR memory, as I have no other Socket 754 or DDR motherboards. I hate contributing to the world’s landfills. I wonder just how much otherwise still flawless electronics ends up in those landfills because of BIOS failures?

 Posted by at 11:47 pm
May 282010

This Homer Simpson is one smart fellow. While he was trying to compete with Edison as an inventor, he accidentally managed to discover the mass of the Higgs boson, disprove Fermat’s theorem, discover that we live in a closed universe, and he was doing a bit of topology, too.

His Higgs mass estimate is a tad off, though. Whether or not the Higgs exists, the jury is still out, but its mass is definitely not around 775 GeV.

 Posted by at 4:36 am
May 272010

What can a billion dollars buy?

Well, a space shuttle cost about a billion dollars new back 25 or so years ago. It might be more expensive to build one now, but a billion dollars can still buy something like three to four robotic missions to Mars. Or one deep space mission to, say, Jupiter or Saturn.

Back here on Earth, it can probably buy food and basic medical care for many millions of people in impoverished countries. Could help a great deal with the recovery in Haiti. Or, closer to home, it could cover nearly half the cost of Ottawa’s planned urban light rail system.

Or, it can buy you security for three days, while Canada hosts the G8/G20 leaders.

Forgive my language but have these assholes not heard of videoconferencing? Can’t they just use e-mail? Or, if they really must meet face to face and smell each other, can’t they meet somewhere like, say, the North Pole, to keep security costs at a minimum and not inconvenience thousands and thousands of citizens in the neighborhood? (I hope seals and polar bears forgive me for this suggestion.)

 Posted by at 3:28 am
May 262010

This is going to remain a memorable picture for some time to come:

It’s not every May, after all, that we measure 35.8 degrees Centigrade in what is supposedly the world’s second coldest capital city.

 Posted by at 8:01 pm
May 262010

I don’t think I ever watched the unscrewing of a screw with as much anticipation as last night, staying up way past my bedtime, glued to the BP live stream bringing video from the bottom of the Gulf.

I watched as a robot was struggling to remove a screw by “hand”, and failed. I watched as another robot approached, handing this robot a T-shaped tool that turned out to be a screwdriver of sorts. I watched as this robot used its two manipulator “hands” to position the tool just right, approach the problem screw, and try again. I watched as, every once in a while, the oil plume hit the scene, making everything murky for a while. I watched as the robot finally unscrewed the screw, and I realized that I was holding my breath.

Amidst the environmental tragedy, I continue to remain amazed by the astonishing robotic infrastructure that can operate and carry out complex industrial operations a mile beneath the surface of the sea,

 Posted by at 12:18 pm
May 252010

Sometimes, CNN uses a “picture-in-picture” format to show an important live feed while they are reporting on something else. It is important to make sure that the resulting composite picture does not convey the wrong impression. Otherwise, you might end up like this poor gentleman, who was talking on CNN about a new portable power source, but ended up appearing as if he was getting a chest X-ray on live television.

 Posted by at 7:24 pm
May 242010

Sitting on the surface of Mars, a space probe that was not designed to survive the Martian polar winter did not survive the Martian polar winter. Not exactly a surprise.

The surprising bit is that another space probe orbiting Mars, designed to operate for two years but still working fine after four, has been able to snap high resolution pictures of Phoenix, which tell us what likely happened: the weight of carbon dioxide snow and ice broke Phoenix’s solar panels.

It is amazing that we have this kind of infrastructure around Mars.

 Posted by at 8:05 pm
May 232010

Recently I joined the Facebook group, “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!

No, I am not an intolerant SOB (at least I hope I am not) who thinks that Islam is the root cause of all evil. (I do consider religion in general to be the root cause of many evils, but in that sense, Islam is not in any way special.) No, I don’t think that Muslims “hate us and hate our freedoms”, to quote my least favorite US President. No, I don’t look suspiciously at people on the street just because they wear traditional Middle Eastern clothing.

On the contrary, I respect and cherish the freedom of religion: the right to believe (or not believe) in the deity or deities of your choice. This is a right that I would be willing to risk life and limb to defend. (Mind you, we’re all in real deep trouble if the world goes so badly haywire that a country like Canada suddenly needs the services of a 47-year old programmer in general infantry.)

But, as a devoted atheist, I also believe in another right: the right of freedom of speech, which includes my right to mock, insult, disrespect and belittle religion. Every religion, including Islam. I may not win any popularity contests by doing so, but I have the right to ridicule any adult who needs imaginary friends to feel happy and secure, or to live ethically.

Some people want to take this right away. Some people believe that their religious freedoms go beyond freedom of conscience, and grant them the authority to interfere with my rights, even using the threat of physical violence to intimidate us into submission.

Hell, no. I may not start drawing Mohammed cartoons right now, but if anyone thinks that they can deny me the right to do so, think again. (NB: The drawing above is not Mohammed. I have no idea what Mohammed looked like, and in any case, given my limited abilities as a graphic artist, I doubt I could produce a faithful rendering. No, it’s just some bearded guy with a turban carrying a flag with the crescent-Moon-and-star symbol.) My only hope is that the voices of those who assert their right to be free will not be drowned out by the voices of hatemongerers who use this Facebook group as yet another forum to express their fear and loathing of Islam and Muslims. The intent is not to promote hatred, but to end self-censorship.

 Posted by at 1:43 pm
May 162010

Recently, news have been circulating about a new form of phishing attack that doesn’t rely on some unpatched vulnerability; rather, it uses a legitimate feature of Adobe Acrobat to hijack users’ computers.

Sophos Labs offer a detailed description of how it works. (Basically, it’s the ability of Acrobat to open non-PDF attachments that is abused, tricking a user into running an executable program.) They also offer advice on how to disable this feature. I think it’s a darn good idea to follow their suggestion: most of us never deal with PDF documents containing non-PDF attachments anyhow.

 Posted by at 2:21 am
May 152010

It seems that the German news magazine Spiegel  managed to do the impossible: provide an impartial, balanced assessment of the story behind Climategate.

And by “balanced”, I don’t mean balanced in the American journalist’s sense, giving equal weight to both sides, no matter how ludicrous one side happens to be compared to the other, but balanced in the sense of not taking sides, not assuming guilt, and assessing the faults of all the participants regardless of which side they represent.

What I am reading is very discouraging. Climate science should really be called climate politics, with a little bit of science thrown in just to provide fodder for arguments. Meanwhile, both proponents and opponents of climate change sometimes fail to get even the basic physics right; as a minor example, recently I felt compelled to write a short paper about the proper use of the virial theorem in a planetary atmosphere, after reading way too much uninformed discussion by supposed experts online.

Of course way too much is at stake. Trillions of dollars, for starters, and quite possibly the future of our planet. Could it be that this compelled some good people to embellish the truth a little? If that is the case, they did a huge disservice to the very cause that they champion. By compromising the one currency science really has, its objectivity, they increased the likelihood that the public won’t listen to them just when it matters most, should it prove to be the case that real sacrifices are necessary to keep the planet habitable.

That is not to say that taking climate scientists to court is the right answer. If that’s the cure, it’s worse than the disease. Worse yet, it will only ensure more entrenched positions and more secrecy, justifying the hostility towards “deniers”. That is not the way to do science. Informed skepticism should be welcome, but skepticism should be about questioning methods and deductions, not the honesty and integrity of researchers. Will climate science ever be like this? I sure hope so, otherwise we’re all in very deep trouble.

 Posted by at 4:41 am
May 142010

I was watching the noontime local CTV news today. At around 12:39 (!), in three consecutive reports, the number 39 popped up. First, a report about a youth who is charged with vandalizing 39 tombstones. This report mentioned the number 39 several times, which is probably why I noticed that in the next report, one about the recent terrorism-related arrests in the US, footage shown in the background included the front door of a house bearing the number 39. At this time, I began paying attention. The next report was about Ottawa tourism advertisements in American newspapers; it didn’t seem likely that the number 39 would pop up there until the official being interviewed answered a question about funding and mentioned their 39 member hotels. That’s when I told my wife that this is getting a tad creepy.

The other day, I was watching a Stargate Universe episode in which one of the protagonists was reliving a part of his life while his brain was connected to an alien computer, and a particular number kept popping up as a clue. That number was 46, the number of chromosomes in a human cell. So that’s what makes 46 special. But what about 39?

Or perhaps all this was just a clever form of subliminal advertising for a Web site called The 39 Clues, which happens to be the first hit on Google when one searches for “39”?

 Posted by at 5:19 pm
May 062010

Here’s an idea that only Dr. Strangelove, Edward Teller, or the Communist Party of the Soviet Union could come up with: nuke that oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, it has been done before, and only one out of five attempts was unsuccessful. So how about that, folks? What’s a bit of radioactivity when you have an 80% success rate?

 Posted by at 7:54 pm
May 032010

OK, I don’t usually play the geek game and look for nits to pick in television science programs. But…

Today’s gem comes courtesy of the Canadian History Channel and their Aftermath series, the first episode of which I just watched over the Internet. The show had many eyebrow-raising moments (and I don’t mean the implausible concept itself, about the Earth’s rotation slowing down to zero in a mere five years; I could get over that if the science had been right otherwise). This particular gem of a sentence, complete with fancy animation, especially caught my attention:

“The rotation of the Earth creates constant patterns of east-moving winds in the Northern hemisphere, and west-moving winds in the Southern. This is called the Coriolis effect.”

Oh really. I wonder if pilots flying in the Southern hemisphere know this.

 Posted by at 12:31 am
May 022010

It was not a virus after all. I have no idea what made my old workstation unstable, but after a monster 30-hour scan of its hard drives, all I found was 4 potential threats, none of which was an actual infection. One was a malicious Java applet that never had a chance to do harm because it relied on an old version of the JVM, and I tend to keep my software up-to-date. Another was a 20-year old joke program, pretending to hijack an unsuspecting victim’s computer, which for some reason Microsoft Security Essentials marked as a threat. The third was the user registration program in an old Iomega installation kit, whereas the fourth was the remote control software VNC, which can be harmful if someone puts it on your computer without your knowledge, but that wasn’t the case here.

So then, what was it? My guess is ailing hardware, perhaps the video card. But… it no longer really matters anymore. I’ve done the deed, swapped computers, and successfully set up my new quad-core system to work with essentially all of my peripheral hardware (no mean feat, considering that peripheral hardware, in this case, includes instruments like spectrum analyzers connected via GPIB.)

Now, I can actually get back to work…

 Posted by at 12:23 am