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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Reading List: The Geography of Thought

Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought. New York: Free Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-5535-6.
It's a safe bet that the vast majority of Westerners who have done business in East Asia (China, Japan, and Korea), and Asians who've done business in the West have come to the same conclusion: "Asians and Westerners think differently." They may not say as much, at least not to the general public, for fear of being thought intolerant, but they believe it on the evidence of their own experience nonetheless.

Psychologist Richard E. Nisbett and his colleagues in China and Korea have been experimentally investigating the differences in Asian and Western thought processes, and their results are summarised in this enlightening book (with citations of the original research). Their work confirms the conventional wisdom--Westerners view the world through a telephoto lens, applying logic and reductionism to find the "one best way", while Asians see a wide-angle view, taking into account the context of events and seeking a middle way between extremes and apparent contradictions--with experimental effect sizes which are large, robust, and reliable.

Present-day differences in Asian and Western thought are shown to be entirely consistent with those of ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, implying that whatever the cause, it is stable over long spans of history. Although experiments with infants provide some evidence for genetic predisposition, Nisbett suspects that a self-reinforcing homeostatic feedback loop between culture, language, and society is responsible for most of the difference in thought processes. The fact that Asian-Americans and Westernised Asians in Hong Kong and Singapore test between Asian and Western extremes provides evidence for this. (The fact that Asians excel at quintessentially Western intellectual endeavours such as abstract mathematics and theoretical science would, it seems to me, exclude most simple-minded explanations based on inherited differences in brain wiring.)

This work casts doubt upon Utopian notions of an End of History in which Western-style free markets and democracy are adopted by all nations and cultures around the globe. To a large extent, such a scenario assumes all people think like Westerners and share the same values, an assumption to which Nisbett's research offers persuasive counter examples. This may be for the best; both Western and Asian styles of thought are shown as predisposing those applying them to distinct, yet equally dangerous, fallacies. Perhaps a synthesis of these (and other) ways of thinking is a sounder foundation for a global society than the Western model alone.

Posted at 16:01 Permalink

Monday, December 27, 2004

Comet Machholz vs. the Full Moon

Last night I managed to spot Comet Machholz (C/2004 Q2) for the first time. There are many nice things about spending one's Christmas holidays in the British Isles, but clear skies rarely figure among them. On the last hour of Boxing Day (December 26th), however, bright stars were visible through the glare of the full Moon between scattered clouds, so I decided to give it a try.

Waiting until Orion and Eridanus were unobscured by clouds, I swept the sky with 8×25 binoculars starting from Orion's belt toward the West and quickly located the comet, which appeared as a fuzzy coma with no visible tail nor particularly obvious nucleus against the bright moonlit sky. Zooming the binoculars to higher powers (up to 24) darkened the sky background and made the coma somewhat more evident, but didn't render the nucleus any more visible. Under these conditions, spotting the comet with the unaided eye would be a futile undertaking. Still, a comet which is easily swept up with modest binoculars in a rather murky sky thirty-odd degrees from the full Moon is impressive, and augurs well for its spectacular passage only 2° from the Pleiades under Moonless skies on the night of January 7-8; if the skies co-operate, I'll try to photograph this event.

Here are orbital elements for the comet ready to be pasted into Your Sky and Solar System Live to make your own custom charts.

COMET C/2004 Q2 (Machholz)
  T = 2005 Jan. 24.9127 TT       Peri. =  19.5064
  e = 0.999473                   Node  =  93.6239  2000.0
  q = 1.205035 AU                Incl. =  38.5894
  Orbital elements derived from MPC 53304

Posted at 14:23 Permalink

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Reading List: Wilt in Nowhere

Sharpe, Tom. Wilt in Nowhere. London: Hutchinson, 2004. ISBN 0-09-179965-1.
Tom Sharpe is, in my opinion, the the greatest living master of English farce. Combining Wodehouse's sense of the absurd and Waugh's acid-penned black humour, his novels make you almost grateful for the worst day you've ever had, as it's guaranteed to be a sunny stroll through the park compared to what his characters endure. I read most of Sharpe's novels to date in the 1980s, and was delighted to discover he's still going strong, bringing the misadventures of Henry Wilt up to date in this side-splitting book. The "release the hounds" episode in chapter 13 makes me laugh out loud every time I read it. A U.S. edition is scheduled for publication in June 2005. There are numerous references to earlier episodes in the Wilt saga, but this book can be enjoyed without having read them. If you'd like to enjoy them in order, they're Wilt, The Wilt Alternative, Wilt on High, and then the present volume.

Posted at 22:19 Permalink

Monday, December 20, 2004

Reading List: Double-Edged Secrets

Holmes, W. J. Double-Edged Secrets. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, [1979] 1998. ISBN 1-55750-324-9.
This is the story of U.S. Naval Intelligence in the Pacific theatre during World War II, told by somebody who was there--Holmes served in the inner sanctum of Naval Intelligence at Pearl Harbor from before the Japanese attack in 1941 through the end of the war in 1945. Most accounts of naval intelligence in the war with Japan focus on cryptanalysis and use of the "Ultra" information it yielded from Japanese radio intercepts. Holmes regularly worked with this material, and with the dedicated and sometimes eccentric individuals who produced it, but his focus is broader--on intelligence as a whole, of which cryptanalysis was only a part. The "product" delivered by his shop to warfighters in the fleet was painstakingly gleaned not only from communications intercepts, but also traffic analysis, direction finding, interpretation of aerial and submarine reconnaissance photos, interrogation of prisoners, translations of captured documents, and a multitude of other sources. In preparing for the invasion of Okinawa, naval intelligence tracked down an eighty-year-old seashell expert who provided information on landing beaches from his pre-war collecting expedition there. The total material delivered by intelligence for the Okinawa operation amounted to 127 tons of paper. This book provides an excellent feel for the fog of war, and how difficult it is to discern enemy intentions from the limited and conflicting information at hand. In addition, the difficult judgement calls which must be made between the risk of disclosing sources of information versus getting useful information into the hands of combat forces on a timely basis is a theme throughout the narrative. If you're looking for more of a focus on cryptanalysis and a discussion of the little-known British contribution to codebreaking in the Pacific war, see Michael Smith's The Emperor's Codes (August 2001).

Posted at 00:51 Permalink

Friday, December 17, 2004

Valve and Venting

I've just posted the initial release of Valve, a Unix (Linux/etc.) program which copies binary data while adaptively inserting pauses between blocks to enforce a specified limit on the data transfer rate in bytes per second. This can be used to keep bulk data transfers (for example, mirroring a large filesystem on a remote backup site) from eating your disc or network bandwidth alive. You can think of valve as nice for I/O.

This is something I've been thinking of doing for some time, but the immediate motivation was as a means of working around the catastrophic "bulk data transfer hang" in the "3Con" 3CR16110-95 firewalls used at this site. Installing these devices was the worst technology purchasing decision I have made in the last decade, which I redoubled down by buying two of them (for about CHF 7000 a pop--USD 6000 now, although 'twas less when I bought 'em) to run in "high availability" mode--yeah, right.

It turns out that this ill-engineered pile of crap can repeatably be made to cease doing what I paid a fortune to have it do and instead, go into a snit, stand in the corner, and suck its thumb simply by asking it to copy a large amount of data at the network's maximum transfer rate. Even worse, catastrophically so, is that this failure does not cause the active firewall to cease sending heartbeats, which would cause the backup firewall to preempt it and take over. So, this CHF 14,000 investment in "high-availability", "lifetime guaranteed" firewall hardware becomes an emulator for a cut network cable between the local network (LAN) and the private network on which the servers live (DMZ). Now, perhaps, one of the firmware updates issued since I purchased these junk network appliances may have corrected this design deficiency, but I know not, because notwithstanding the "lifetime warranty" (which they no longer mention to present-day victims-to-be), they refuse to provide these firmware updates to victims past unless they pay for a "support contract" which they make almost impossible to purchase, as if I'd send these crooks and morons any more of my money. After reporting this problem, with complete documentation, compiled at the cost of dozens of firewall reboots with attendant downtime to my site, a 3Con employee based in the United Kingdom with minimal competency in the English language called me to claim that since the new firmware was an "upgrade" and not a "fix", it was not available to me. Since that conversation, I vowed never to buy another 3Con product, and I never have.

Posted at 22:14 Permalink

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Reading List: The Bush Betrayal

Bovard, James. The Bush Betrayal. New York: Macmillan, 2004. ISBN 1-4039-6727-X.
Having dissected the depredations of Clinton and Socialist Party A against the liberty of U.S. citizens in Feeling Your Pain (May 2001), Bovard now turns his crypto-libertarian gaze toward the ravages committed by Bush and Socialist Party B in the last four years. Once again, Bovard demonstrates his extraordinary talent in penetrating the fog of government propaganda to see the crystalline absurdity lurking within. On page 88 we discover that under the rules adopted by Colorado pursuant to the "No Child Left Behind Act", a school with 1000 students which had a mere 179 or fewer homicides per year would not be classified as "persistently dangerous", permitting parents of the survivors to transfer their children to less target-rich institutions.

On page 187, we encounter this head-scratching poser asked of those who wished to become screeners for the "Transportation Security Administration":

Question: Why is it important to screen bags for IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices]?
  1. The IED batteries could leak and damage other passenger bags.
  2. The wires in the IED could cause a short to the aircraft wires.
  3. IEDs can cause loss of lives, property, and aircraft.
  4. The ticking timer could worry other passengers.
I wish I were making this up. The inspector general of the "Homeland Security Department" declined to say how many of the "screeners" who intimidate citizens, feel up women, and confiscate fingernail clippers and putatively dangerous and easily-pocketed jewelry managed to answer this one correctly.

I call Bovard a "crypto-libertarian" because he clearly bases his analysis on libertarian principles, yet rarely observes that any polity with unconstrained government power and sedated sheeple for citizens will end badly, regardless of who wins the elections. As with his earlier books, sources for this work are exhaustively documented in 41 pages of endnotes.

Posted at 03:08 Permalink

Monday, December 13, 2004

Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat Now Online

The fourth novel in the Tom Swift series, Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat, originally published in 1910, is now available for on-line reading or downloading in E-text, PDA eReader, PDF, and HTML formats from our Tom Swift and His Pocket Library archive.

Posted at 01:44 Permalink

Friday, December 10, 2004

HotBits in Science News

Our HotBits radioactive decay random number generator is mentioned in the December 4, 2004 issue of Science News, Vol. 166, No. 23, p. 362. The article is also available online. Scroll down to the subhead "Quantum Randomness" for the mention of HotBits. Thanks to Rudy Rucker for the heads-up about the article.

Posted at 16:10 Permalink

Reading List: Interior Desecrations

Lileks, James. Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes from the Horrible '70s. New York: Crown Publishers, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-4640-8.
After turning your tastebuds inside out with The Gallery of Regrettable Food, Lileks now tackles what passed for home decoration in the 1970s. Seldom will you encounter a book which makes you ask "What were they thinking?" so many times. It makes you wonder which aspects of the current scene will look as weird twenty or thirty years from now. Additional material which came to hand after the book was published may be viewed on the author's Web site.

Posted at 16:05 Permalink

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Reading List: A Few Good Men from Univac

Lundstrom, David E. A Few Good Men from Univac. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987. ISBN 0-262-12120-4.
The author joined UNIVAC in 1955 and led the testing of the UNIVAC II which, unlike the UNIVAC I, was manufactured in the St. Paul area. (This book uses "Univac" as the name of the company and its computers; in my experience and in all the documents in my collection, the name, originally an acronym for "UNIVersal Automatic Computer", was always written in all capitals: "UNIVAC"; that is the convention I shall use here.) He then worked on the development of the Navy Tactical Data System (NTDS) shipboard computer, which was later commercialised as the UNIVAC 490 real-time computer. The UNIVAC 1107 also used the NTDS circuit design and I/O architecture. In 1963, like many UNIVAC alumni, Lundstrom crossed the river to join Control Data, where he worked until retiring in 1985. At Control Data he was responsible for peripherals, terminals, and airline reservation system development. It was predictable but sad to observe how Control Data, founded by a group of talented innovators to escape the stifling self-destructive incompetence of UNIVAC management, rapidly built up its own political hierarchy which chased away its own best people, including Seymour Cray. It's as if at a board meeting somebody said, "Hey, we're successful now! Let's build a big office tower and fill it up with idiots and politicians to keep the technical geniuses from getting anything done." Lundstrom provides an authentic view from the inside of the mainframe computer business over a large part of its history. His observations about why technology transfer usually fails and the destruction wreaked on morale by incessant reorganisations and management shifts in direction are worth pondering. Lundstrom's background is in hardware. In chapter 13, before describing software, he cautions that "Professional programmers are going to disagree violently with what I say." Well, this professional programmer certainly did, but it's because most of what he goes on to say is simply wrong. But that's a small wart on an excellent, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable book. This book is out of print; used copies are generally available but tend to be expensive--you might want to keep checking over a period of months as occasionally a bargain will come around.

Posted at 21:14 Permalink

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Arachnid Ice Art

arachnid_art.jpg The cold and ground fog season has arrived at Fourmilab's altitude of 806 metres above mean sea level. One compensation is the surreal beauty of everyday things when decorated by hoarfrost (please, no moronic Slashdot "Score:5, Funny" cracks)--accretion fractal ice crystals grown from moisture in the air. This is a spider web spun in front of the Fourmilab doorbell--you can see how few visitors we get! Ice has encrusted the web, making it glisten in the light. These icy works of natural art are extraordinarily beautiful when the fog clears and the Sun comes out--they reflect light like eldritch strings of diamonds. Today, the weather didn't co-operate, but even under grey skies it was still a pretty sight.

The frost prefers certain kinds of material, which makes for interesting contrasts. As you'd expect for an accretion fractal, sharp points and surfaces with large curvature in one or more dimensions are particularly favoured, just as they are for corona discharges and St. Elmo's fire. A large conifer tree frosted with ice is an exquisite sight.

This isn't one of my better photos. When I discovered the web, it was flexing in the wind and visibly shedding ice, so time was of the essence. The movement meant I had to use a short shutter speed to avoid motion blur, which in turn required a relatively large aperture which reduced depth of field--that's why the bottom right of the web is out of focus (if I shot coplanar with the web, its centre would be lost against the white of the stealth nametag above the doorbell button). This is a handheld shot at f/3.5 and 1/40 second with a Sony DSC-T1 with sensitivity set to ISO 400.

Posted at 23:00 Permalink

Sunday, December 5, 2004

Reading List: Freedom 7

Godwin, Robert ed. Freedom 7: The NASA Mission Reports. Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, 2000. ISBN 1-896522-80-7.
This volume in the superb Apogee NASA Mission Reports series covers Alan Shepard's May 5th, 1961 suborbital flight in Freedom 7, the first U.S. manned space flight. Included are the press kit for the mission, complete transcripts of the post-flight debriefings and in-flight communications, and proceedings of a conference held in June 1961 to report mission results. In addition, the original 1958 request for astronaut volunteers (before it was decided that only military test pilots need apply) is reproduced, along with the press conference introducing the Mercury astronauts, which Tom Wolfe so vividly (and accurately) described in The Right Stuff. A bonus CD-ROM includes the complete in-flight films of the instrument panel and astronaut, a 30 minute NASA documentary about the flight, and the complete NASA official history of Project Mercury, This New Ocean, as a PDF document. There are few if any errors in the transcriptions of the documents. The caption for the photograph of Freedom 7 on the second page of colour plates makes the common error of describing its heat shield as "ablative fiberglass". In fact, as stated on page 145, suborbital missions used a beryllium heat sink; only orbital capsules were equipped with the ablative shield.

Posted at 17:18 Permalink

Fourmilab Framed!

A few days ago I received a feedback message complimenting me on Earth and Moon Viewer but wondering why I saw fit to include pornographic banner advertising on my site. Well, seeing as there is neither advertising nor pornography at this site, this occasioned some head scratching. My first guess was that the user's machine was infected with spyware/adware of some kind which caused the offensive material to pop up when navigating to various sites, and suggested the usual remedies.

After exchanging a couple more messages, I finally twigged as to what was going on. The user had not navigated to Earth and Moon Viewer directly, but rather had found it through a search engine--a particularly sleazy one. When the user clicks on a link in the results from a search, rather than taking the user directly to the destination site, it returns an HTML <frameset> defining a top frame into which it injects a banner advertisement and a bottom frame in which the destination site appears. The frameset specifies frameborder="0" which suppresses the border usually drawn between frames, so what the user sees appears for all the world like the destination site with a banner advertisement specified by (and the proceeds credited to) the search engine at the top.

How would you like your site to show up with somebody else's offensive advertising at the top? Well, I don't like it one bit, so here's what I did about it. First of all, in the Earth Viewer main page (the one they link to), I added:

    <base target="_top">
to the document header. This guarantees that when a user clicks any of the links in the page (assuming it doesn't specify its own "target="), the destination will replace the entire contents of the browser window, getting rid of the banner. This is stone standard HTML and should work in any frame-enabled browser, which is the only kind we need worry about.

This doesn't, however, keep the banner from appearing on the initial page the search engine linked to at your site. The only solution I could find for this involves JavaScript, but that's not as severe a restriction as you might think since many of these slimy sites don't work unless JavaScript is enabled, because they need it for their revenue generating pop-ups, pop-unders, etc., etc. so they don't allow users with JavaScript disabled access to the "content", such as it is. Anyway, I added the following JavaScript code right after the start of the document <body>:

    <script language="JavaScript">
        if (top != self) {
            top.location.href = self.location.href;
    // -->
What this does is test whether the current window (in the JavaScript sense, denoting a browser window or a sub-frame thereof) is the topmost browser window. If it isn't, we've been "framed" by another site--embedded in a frame surrounded by other content of unknown provenance. If so, we replace the URL of the top frame with our own. I have tested this with Firefox 1.0, Internet Explorer 6, and Netscape 4.7 and it works fine with each browser.

I am deliberately not identifying the offensive search engine because when I was experimenting with it, it attempted to pop up multiple advertisement windows, several of which appeared to try to install spyware/adware. I'm sure most readers of this site are well-protected against such attacks, but why put people unnecessarily at risk?

Posted at 02:58 Permalink

Friday, December 3, 2004

Hello, Dali

APC UPS batteries This is a picture (click the thumbnail for an even more frightening enlargement) of a pair of batteries removed on October 10th, 2004 from the American Power Conversion Smart-UPS 1000RMI which had been mounted in the Fourmilab communications rack since 1996, providing power protection for the leased line modem, router, firewalls, hubs, and switches, as well as the Alcatel phone central. The original set of batteries which came with the UPS lasted four years and were replaced in August 2000 after the self-test began to fail. Those batteries were, in turn, replaced by those you see here, a genuine APC RBC-6 set bought new from an authorised APC dealer, with a manufacture date within a couple of months of when I installed them, August 13th, 2002. (I don't know why the first set of batteries lasted four years and the subsequent sets only two; I usually get four years or more from UPS batteries, and this UPS is only trivially loaded and we rarely have more than momentary power outages. Perhaps the short life is a clue.)

Anyway, I'd never had any trouble with previous battery replacements in this UPS or any other of the dozen or so installed here, apart from two minor acid leaks which were easily cleaned up, but this time when I tried to extract the batteries, they wouldn't budge more than a centimetre or so. The battery compartment in the rack-mount Smart-UPS is a really tight fit, and it was hard to see what was going on in there, but close examination with a bright light made it clear that the top of the batteries bulged upward, apparently enough to jam them in the compartment. However, other than the UPS displaying the "Replace batteries" light and squawking daily to get my attention, everything continued to function perfectly.

I tried lots of stratagems to dislodge the batteries without pulling the UPS. Over the years, its nice, cool, flat top surface had been a convenient place to stack lots of gear that wasn't rack mountable (or I didn't feel like mounting), and below the UPS was a pile of ISDN terminal adaptors sitting on the floor of the rack which would be instantly crushed if I unbolted it from the rack. Finally I concluded there was no alternative and swapped over everything to a new Smart-UPS 1500 tower model behind the rack (after this experience, I will never again rack mount a UPS), and re-cabled everything so I could install a shelf above the UPS and transfer the gear sitting on top of it to there. Then I gingerly teased the ISDN adaptors out onto the floor in front of the rack, placed a pile of books beneath the UPS to support it when I unscrewed it from the rails, dropped it, and removed it from the Batteries before removal from UPS rack. When I tore it apart, this is what I found in the battery compartment. (The fuse in the series connection between the two batteries was disconnected during my attempts to get the batteries out through the front access door.) There is clearly no way whatsoever I could have gotten those batteries out of the UPS without removing the top and dismantling most of the internal structure of the battery compartment.

Have you ever seen anything like those batteries? They're something right out of a Salvador Dali painting! I certainly haven't, and to me it's a total mystery why one or more of the caps didn't pop and spew acid all over--there was no leakage whatsoever. There were no indications of heat, and the batteries in this model are well-separated from the transformer and circuit board. None of the other components in the rack emit any significant heat. Since I'd already bought a new set of batteries for this UPS, just to see what would happen, I re-assembled the UPS, installed the new batteries, and it's been working just fine ever since, powering a retired laptop I'm planning to use to test bleeding-edge Linux kernels and the like. I stuck elastomeric feet to the bottom, and it's sitting on the concrete floor where I can occasionally feel the top for, as they say, "excess heat", of which to date there has been no evidence. The UPS passes self- and plugs-out tests with flying colours.

It's a rule of engineering that whatever you don't understand is sure to bite you again, so this is one of those inscrutabilities I'd very much like to unscrew. But for the moment I haven't the remotest clue what happened to those batteries. (They have now been recycled because I was uncomfortable with something like that sitting around the shop, so further forensic examination of the batteries is not possible.)

Posted at 16:41 Permalink

Thursday, December 2, 2004

Reading List: La Force de la Raison

Fallaci, Oriana. La Force de la Raison. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2004. ISBN 2-268-05264-8.
If, fifty years from now, there still are historians permitted to chronicle the civilisation of Western Europe (which, if the trends described in this book persist, may not be the way to bet), Fallaci may be seen as a figure like Churchill in the 1930s, willing to speak the truth about a clear and present danger, notwithstanding the derision and abuse doing so engenders from those who prefer to live the easy life, avoid difficult decisions, and hope things will just get better. In this, and her earlier La rage et l'orgueil, Fallaci warns, in stark and uncompromising terms verging occasionally on a rant, of the increasing Islamicisation of Western Europe, and decries the politicians, church figures, and media whose inaction or active efforts aid and abet it. She argues that what is at risk is nothing less than European civilisation itself, which Islamic figures openly predict among themselves eventually being transformed through the inexorable power of demographics and immigration into an Islamic Republic of "Eurabia". The analysis of the "natural alliance" between the extreme political left and radical Islam is brilliant, and brings to mind L'Islam révolutionnaire by terrorist "Carlos the Jackal" (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez). There is a shameful little piece of paper tipped into the pages of the book by the publisher, who felt no need for a disclaimer when earlier publishing the screed by mass murderer "Carlos". In language worthy of Pierre Laval, they defend its publication in the interest of presenting a «différent» viewpoint, and ask readers to approach it "critically, in light of the present-day international context" (my translation).

Posted at 02:27 Permalink