Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Memorial for my Refrigerator

When she was born, I was a boy.  I walked three blocks to my neighborhood school every day to attend the sixth grade.  My teacher's name was Ms. Skaros.  The Rubik's Cube had just been invented, and the hot new teen fashion style was "preppy."  My voice hadn't broken yet.  My "girlfriend" was Anne Schultz.
"The Wall" was still hugely popular, although "That Wall" had not yet been torn down.   The military action of the day in Afghanistan involved the U.S.S.R., not the United States.  Rambo had just tasted his First Blood.  The Officer was just becoming a Gentleman.
James Rockford could have put his $0.79/lb steak in this refrigerator.  The Muppet Show could have had one of these refrigerators in their green room.  The Talking Heads hadn't started making Stop Making Sense yet.
A handful of computers existed on the "Internet," although the web was still a decade to come.  The hot new computers were from IBM and the software was from Wordstar.  Microsoft Word hadn't been invented.  Pac Man was the video game craze.  Apple's new Lisa computers were a flop.
The big Packer's "B" was Bart, not Brett.  The Milwaukee Brewers took their only trip to the World Series.
Pioneer 11 had encountered Saturn three years before, paving the way for Voyager 2's first real close-up and color pictures of this ringed planet and its moons.  The controversy over how fast our universe was flying apart was starting to rage.
This is the world my refrigerator was born to in the year 1982.  Someone else purchased this refrigerator then to keep their vittles cold, and I inherited it.  Now it is time to move on to a more efficient and useful one.  May she rest in pieces at the landfill.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Parallel Theories

I happened to see "Parallel Universes," one of those History Channel shows where they bring together a bunch of astronomers and glitzy graphics to expound on some exotic topic. In this case, the topic of parallel universes. As usual, they pull out stacks of stock animations for fill, and interview real life astronomers to enhance the credibility of the show. Most of the water is carried by Michio Kaku, Max Tegmark, and History Channel mainstay Alex Filippenko. There are parts of the show which are quite interesting, and I grant that the show's producers have done a workman-like job of explaining very difficult topics.

Along the way they give a lesson on string theory of all things. More amazing to me is that they basically claim that string theory is accepted and is a wonderful description of the universe. Back in reality-ville, I can't think of an prediction by string theory that has been verified by observation. Strike that, I'm not aware of a single clear observational prediction made by string theory PERIOD! For that matter, many of the theories of the parallel universes described by the program ("level 1", "level 2", and so on) are described with such absolute certainty that the viewer might be fooled into believing that we already know they exist. We don't. The entire show is really on the borderline with fantasy science fiction.

These kinds of shows are cute, and at some level they build awareness of science in the general public, which is a good thing. On the other hand, their focus on the exotic and extreme topics is disappointing. Our universe is wonderful and beautiful enough by itself that it doesn't need to photoshopped and video toasted to death.

By taking marginal theories and pretending they are mainstream, History Channel is not really doing the public a service. And the professional astronomers who offer sound bites come out looking a little kooky. I wonder if they knew how much their interviews were going to be edited they would have done the show in the first place. There are several places where comical visual effects are used to make them look somewhat like buffoons.

(Except perhaps for Max Tegmark who comes off looking very serious but a little sickly.)

Putting snarkiness aside, I have this request:
Dear History Channel, overall the quality of your "Universe" shows is very high. Keep it that way by sticking to facts, and at the very least, noting where the show dips into speculative territory. Thanks.
(image credits: History Channel, excerpted for the purposes of commentary)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pioneering Misinformation

Slashdot is running a story about a physics experiment to be performed with the Rosetta spacecraft,

...but the slingshot itself will allow ESA scientists to examine the trajectory for unusual changes seen in several other probes' velocities. An unaccountable variation was first noticed as excess speed in Pioneers 11 and 12, and has since been called the Pioneer Anomaly.

Uh, no, sorry, that would be Pioneer 10 and 11, not 11 and 12. I should know, I've done a little work on the subject.

The so-called flyby anomaly that would be measured with Rosetta is quite distinct from the "Pioneer Anomaly." Both are unexplained discrepancies between measured Doppler shift data and currently understood theory, but the Pioneer Anomaly pertains to unexplained gradual velocity shifts of spacecraft cruising through deep space, while flyby anomalies pertain to sudden impulses as a spacecraft swings by the earth. Both discrepancies have been observed. In all likelihood, these experiments are telling us that our models of the classical physical forces affecting these spacecraft are not complete. Perhaps, on the odd chance that there is "new physics" involved, both anomalies are related somehow. But they definitely not the same observed effect.

Thankfully the original ESA press release gets these points correct. The more subtle points seem to have gotten lost in translation on the way to publication in Slashdot.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Thunderbird 3 Beta Review

  • Thunderbird version 3 is a significant upgrade and improvement to the Thunderbird line
  • The application is faster and more responsive
  • The new search capabilities are impressive
  • The user interface has gotten more cluttered and difficult to use, especially in regards to the message pane and "gloda" search results
  • Indexing and re-indexing seem a little clunky still
  • The Dock icon on the Mac has become next to useless for me now

I've been using the Thunderbird email client for the past 2-3 years, and it has been pretty good. It hasn't received a real refresh in that time, but that is about to change. Thunderbird version 3 will be coming out soon. I've been using the "beta" versions (beta's 2, 3, and 4) to see how it works.

The first very noticeable thing is that the client is much faster. Thunderbird 3 is now using underlying libraries which are faster (and the basis of Firefox version 3). The speed is most noticeable at start-up. Also, accessing messages, which often used to require a long pause, are now available much more quickly.

Another big change is the new "gloda" search engine. The engine basically indexes all of your messages, regardless of mailbox, into a giant database that you can search. Where before, you had to choose which mailbox to search ("inbox" or "outbox"?), now you just search everything. The resulting display is actually quite cool: you see a little time history of all your messages with your search terms, and you can click on a particular month, year, or person to zoom in on something more specific. It seems quite handy.

A final big change relates to the user interface. In previous versions, the "toolbar," which appears at the top of the main window, provided a lot of actions which you could apply to the message or messages you were viewing. Now, these tool icons appear attached to the message itself, not on the main toolbar. If your muscles are used to clicking in a certain position for "reply" or "delete," they will now be quite surprised because most of the tool icons are gone.

I think this is one area where Thunderbird as started to derail. The user interface appears to be getting cluttered and unpolished. Some icons are still sitting in the main toolbar (such as "tagging"), but others are relegated to the message pane. How these choices were made is unclear, but it makes for a tacky and confusing appearance. Thankfully, you can customize your toolbar, and bring back many of your favorite icons if you want.

I'm also unhappy with the layout of the message pane in another respect. In early betas, the message header was nice and compact, occupying a few lines of screen real estate showing the most important properties of the message such as the sender and send date. In beta version 3, this option was removed, and the message header occupies an enormous part of the screen, usually with irrelevant stuff that most people simply will not want to see. This is a big step back in the usability of the client because it forces you to scroll more, or to open the message in full screen mode just to see its contents. Thankfully, there is an extension called CompactHeader which brings back a more compact look, and also allows you to choose which "action" icons are visible for each screen. The mainline developers should look at putting this feature back in.

There's another area where polish is not quite up to snuff yet. The new gloda search can be quite handy, but the search results appear cluttered and a bit unreadable. The results are mostly message text with very tiny separators between each message. Search terms should be highlighted but are not, which makes it harder to determine the relevancy of the message to your search. For that matter, it's unclear how search results are ordered, and it's difficult to wade through all of them when you get a large number of hits. Some effort needs to be expended to make the presentation a little better in order to fully exploit this feature.

A bit more on performance. The first time you start up Thunderbird 3, it will spend a long time indexing your mail folders. This is more or less a one-time operation, but it will consume a significant amount of time and CPU while its happening. The upside is that once it's complete, you get all of those great search features. The downside is that the program seems to want to re-index quite often. Re-indexing doesn't try to do everything at once, but it's unclear what it's actually doing since there appears to be a bit of fumbling around by the program before it declares itself done.

I have a few peeves. This new version of Thunderbird no longer shows the number of "new" messages - messages I have just received - in the Dock icon. Instead it shows the number of "unread" messages. For someone like me who has thousands of unread (but useless) messages, the unread message count is next to useless. I want the icon badge to show me when new mail has arrived!

The new index files consume a significant portion of disk space (a few gigabytes). In this day and age, that's not a big deal, and we should use disk for these kinds of conveniences. However, every time any one of your messages changes, or if you get a new message, the index file changes. If you have a regular backup schedule (you should!), then you will find that it is now backing up a huge monolithic index file every time. This is a recipe for exhausting your backup space that much more quickly than before. There is not much the developers can do about this, but I would recommend that the new index files be placed in a separate directory. Most backup programs like Apple's Time Machine, allow you to exclude directories from the backup operation. If my hard drive crashes, it's no big deal that I wouldn't have a backup: I'll just reindex my mail.

Overall, this is a significant improvement, and it's nice to seem some activity in the Thunderbird line. There's some creative work going on there, especially regarding the message search functions. On the other hand, the usability of the application has taken a hit, which is unfortunate.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Double Whammy

Imagine that you are a young person that had a file sharing application on your computer, and that you shared 24 songs with other people.

Now we can debate if song sharing is bad or not, but basically it's against the law, and there are penalties for breaking the law. And there's a civil lawsuit brought against you by the music industry, and you lose. Twice actually.

You might imagine that the penalty is somehow related to the cost of the songs, maybe the number of files shared. How much is that, 99 cents per song on iTunes? Oh wait, maybe because of iTunes shenanigans, most of those tracks cost $1.29 now. So what is that, $31? OK, so even with treble damages, the total penalty should be less than $100, right?

Could you imagine that the penalty is actually $80,000 PER SONG? So that your actual total penalty for all 24 songs is close to $2 million!!!

You, the poor defendant, argue that the penalty is so unconsionably high that it could not be constitutional. After all, you are but a poor individual, not a money making song pirating outfit. $2 million is nowhere near the value of the songs shared, nor the amount of damages, nor what you could even pay.

But guess which administration has just filed a legal brief that $2 million is absolutely constitutional. In fact it is "carefully crafted." Yes, you guessed it, the Obama administration Department of Justice. This is a government agency intervening in a civil trial on behalf of the music corporations, against an individual, claiming that a $2 million damage award is just fine.


In reality, these penalties were established by Congress, at the urging of the music industry, to prevent industrial-scale music "piracy." The large fines were intended to deter business enterprises from entering the illegal music copying business. And yet, here this law is being used to destroy a young person.

The young person in question, Jammie Thomas, admitted she did share the songs, and her trial is part of a larger strategy by the music industry to file lawsuits against their own customers because file-sharing. Thomas definitely was not a saint. But there's no way that $2 million is in any way comparable to the amount of actual damage done. Or that she deserves her own government to go to bat for the other team.

It's a double whammy really. The law with an $80,000 penalty was "crafted" at the urging of music industry lobbyists, and Congress and the (then) president were happy to sign off on it. So already the deck is stacked once against the little guy. But then -- and here is the second whammy -- the government's lawyers intervene on behalf of the music industry during the trial to say that this law is great. Indeed it was finely crafted! How can Ms. Thomas have any chance at all? I don't doubt that this intervention is actually more payback for political contributions. Department of Justice lawyers know who butters their bosses' bread.

If music file sharing were a rare and extremely damaging thing, there might be a point to having extraordinary penalties. But in fact, there are tens of millions of file sharers, and in surveys, most people considering some file sharing to be morally acceptable. The actual damage is small. As noted above, sharing a few songs with others would cost the music companies at most a few hundred dollars in lost sales. The actual punishment, $80,000 per song, is so usurious it is absurd. The fact that tens of millions of people may be liable for such huge penalties just shows how arbitrary the whole process is. Whether you get caught in the music industry's dragnet or not is the difference between sharing a few songs and sure bankruptcy. The fact that the administration's "Justice" department is intervening in favor of wreaking such personal destruction is very dismaying.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Dark Little Secret

All these years I've been trying to keep my true citizenship a secret.

Darn you, for finding my birth certificate!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Noctilucent Emissions

There's a new study suggesting that "noctilucent clouds" are caused by the plumes of space shuttle launches, which is somewhat ironic for me. For those that don't know, noctilucent clouds are the highest clouds found in the Earth's atmosphere. They are ice crystals floating high in the mesosphere, where large amounts of moisture are not typically found, and are usually only seen in twilight when the setting sun illuminates them against the dark sky. There is also evidence that these clouds are a modern phenomenon, within the past century, and so they may be related to human activity, or perhaps climate change.

Noctilucent clouds over Lake Saimaa. Photograph taken by Mika Yrjölä. Permission by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License (from Wikipedia).

Early studies have suggested that noctilucent clouds were caused by space shuttle launches. The space shuttle exhaust plume is composed mostly of water vapor. As the shuttle launches into orbit, it can dump significant amounts of water vapor into the upper atmosphere as it passes through it. More recent studies by Dr. Michael Kelley have added credence to that idea: shuttle launches in 2003 and 2007 produced corresponding noctilucent clouds.

NASA launched a satellite called AIM in 2007 to study noctilucent clouds. AIM stands for Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere. AIM continues to study the phenomenon using several instruments, including two imagers and a meteoric dust measuring device.

The part I find ironic is that NASA launched a satellite to study a phenomenon caused... by the launch of NASA satellites!

OK, there are far more noctilucent clouds than can be entirely explained by shuttle launches, so this is not a complete exercise in navel-gazing. The shuttle-noctilucent connection was known before AIM was selected by NASA.

Update 2009-07-30: Added noctilucent cloud image from Wikipedia.