Sep 252011

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who lately.

Many of my friends asked me about the faster-than-light neutrino announcement from CERN. I must say I am skeptical. One reason why I am skeptical is that no faster-than-light effect was observed in the case of supernova 1987A, which exploded in the Large Magellanic Cloud some 170,000 light years from here. Had there been such an effect of the magnitude supposedly observed at CERN, neutrinos from this supernova would have arrived years before visible light, but that was not the case. Yes, there are ways to explain away this (the neutrinos in question have rather different energy levels) but these explanations are not necessarily very convincing.

Another reason, however, is that faster-than-light neutrinos would be eminently usable in a technological sense; if it is possible to emit and observe them, it is almost trivial to build a machine that sends a signal in a closed timelike loop, effectively allowing us to send information from the future to the present. In other words, future me should be able to send present me a signal, preferably with the blueprints for the time machine of course (why do all that hard work if I can get the blueprints from future me for free?) So, I said, if faster-than-light neutrinos exist, then future me should contact present me in three…, two…, one…, now! Hmmm… no contact. No faster-than-light neutrinos, then.

But that’s when I suddenly remembered an uncanny occurrence that happened to me just hours earlier, yesterday morning. We ran out of bread, and we were also out of the little mandarin or clementine oranges that I like to have with my breakfast. So I took a walk, visiting our favorite Portuguese bakery on Nelson street, with a detour to the nearby Loblaws supermarket. On my way, I walked across a small parking lot, where I suddenly spotted something: a mandarin orange on the ground. I picked it up… it seemed fresh and completely undamaged. Precisely what I was going out for. Was it just a coincidence? Or perhaps future me was trying to send a subtle signal to present me about the feasibility of time machines?

If it’s the latter, maybe future me watched too much Doctor Who, too. Next time, just send those blueprints.

 Posted by at 12:43 pm
Sep 222011

I’m back from a week-long trip to Hungary. We had our 30-year high school reunion last Saturday; it was very enjoyable. All in all, everything went well, so well in fact that it leaves me worried; am I missing something?

 Posted by at 3:20 pm
Sep 132011

Now is the time to panic! At least this was the message I got from CNN yesterday, when it announced the breaking news: an explosion occurred at a French nuclear facility.

I decided to wait for the more sobering details. I didn’t have to wait long, thanks to Nature (the science journal, not mother Nature). They kindly informed me that “[…] the facility has been in operation since 1999. It melts down lightly-irradiated scrap metal […] It also incinerates low-level waste” and, most importantly, that “The review indicates that the specific activity of the waste over a ten-year period is 200×109 Becquerels. For comparison, that’s less than a millionth the radioactivity estimated to have been released by Fukushima […]”

Just to be clear, this is not the amount of radioactivity released by the French site in this accident. This is the total amount of radioactivity processed by this site in 12 years. No radioactivity was released by the accident yesterday.

These facts did not prevent the inevitable: according to Nature, “[t]he local paper Midi Libre is already reporting that several green groups are criticizing the response to the accident.” These must be the same green groups that just won’t be content until we all climbed back up the trees and stopped farting.

Since I mentioned facts, here are two more numbers:

  • Number of people killed by the Fukushima quake: ~16,000 (with a further ~4,000 missing)
  • Number of people killed by the Fukushima nuclear power station meltdowns: 0

All fear nuclear power! Panic now!


 Posted by at 3:45 pm
Sep 122011

The other day, I bought some new undershirts. It was my wife who noticed something on the label that escaped my attention: Made in Canada/Fabrique au Canada. It has been so long since I last saw such a label, I almost forgot what it looks like. The undershirts were made by Stanfields, in Nova Scotia.

I also got two books from my wife. They were both printed in the USA. What can I say… neat.

 Posted by at 7:51 pm
Sep 062011

It has been a while since I did anything in machine language. Until this past weekend, that is, when I spent a fair bit of time starting at disassembled code with a debugger.

Last week, I upgraded my Sony Ericsson smartphone to the latest version of its operating system. The upgrade process failed on my main computer when, after updated USB drivers for the phone were downloaded, they failed to install. The problem was not specific to the phone: all driver installations failed, with a not very informative code (0xC0000142, which just means that the application failed to initialize.)

Using the very helpful ProcMon utility from sysinternals (now owned by Microsoft) I managed to identify that it was a process named drvinst.exe that failed. This process is invoked automatically by the system every time a USB device is inserted, and also during device driver installations. So why did it fail?

I downloaded the latest Windows debugger (windbg.exe) from Microsoft; this debugger allows me to do things like debug child processes spawned by a parent process. (I later learned that drvinst.exe actually has a feature whereas it waits for a debugger after startup, to help with driver installation debugging; but chances are that I would not have been able to make much use of this feature, as the failure occurred before drvinst.exe actually started to execute its own code.) I attached the debugger to the DCOM service process (which is the one that spawns copies of drvinst.exe.) I was able to determine that it was during the initial process setup stage that this process failed, when it was attempting to attach to the gdi32.dll system library.

I still have no idea why this happens. But with the help of the debugger, I was able to tinker with this process, changing a processor register’s value at just the right spot, allowing it to continue. This inconvenient but workable process allowed me to install drivers for my phone and also updated drivers for my wireless mouse from Microsoft Update.

Perhaps the most incomprehensible bit is that the same thing works fine on an essentially identical computer. The actual failure occurs inside a kernel subroutine (undocumented system call 123Ah, called from GdiDllInitialize in gdi32.dll) that I cannot debug without a kernel debugger (and since I am trying not to mess my machine up too much, I opted not to do kernel debugging). That subroutine does not appear to be doing anything particularly magical. I checked and all relevant files and Registry settings are identical on the two machines. So it remains a mystery for now… nonetheless, it was educational. I learned a lot about driver installation in Windows 7, about process startup, and incidentally, about the ReactOS project whose open source equivalents to the relevant system components helped me a great deal to understand what was going on.

 Posted by at 8:13 pm
Sep 032011

I am reading an article in Science about the efforts of people like planetary scientist David Morrison to allay fears concerning a prophesied collision between the Earth and the mythical planet Nibiru. Apparently, some folks are taking this pseudoscientific hogwash so seriously, they are even contemplating suicide. Good people like Morrison are trying to talk sense into them.

Perhaps they shouldn’t. Here is my message: go ahead, kill yourself. That means that for the rest of us, 2013 will be a happier year, because fewer idiots will roam the Earth.

But just to demonstrate that I am not all arrogant and cruel, here’s another option: you can always choose to come to your senses before December 21, 2012, realize that stuff in Hollywood movies should not be confused with real life, and go on living.

 Posted by at 2:28 pm