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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Gizmos: iPod Nano repeatable freeze-up bug

I have an iPod Nano which I use to listen to podcasts and audiobooks on my regular walks around the village. The detalis of this gadget are as follows:
Model: MA497
Software version: 1.1.3
Capacity: 7.45 Gb
Format: Windows
This unit is configured with a “smart playlist” in iTunes to update only podcasts and audiobooks from my library; the About page lists a total of 51 “songs” in its memory. I am using iTunes under Windows XP to download and install data on this iPod.

Ever since I first started using this iPod, every single time I download new podcasts, the next time I start to play a podcast or audiobook, even if previously downloaded and already in progress, the iPod freezes in the process of scrolling from the selection screen to the in progress screen for the chosen recording. The only option at this point is to reset the iPod by holding down both the centre and Menu buttons until the Apple logo appears—this does, however, always seem to work and afterward there are no problems until the next download. (Apple's documentation claims that in order to reset a frozen iPod with a click wheel you must first move the “Hold” switch to the hold position, then back to the normal setting. This is, in technical terms, a bald-faced lie. They so instruct their “consumers” to avoid customer support inquiries from folks who have simply put the iPod in hold mode either accidentally or deliberately and then forgotten about it. For a vendor so sanctimonious about their dedication to the customer experience, you'd expect more of a commitment to honesty.)

This crash appears to be specific to the iPod Nano. I have a 60 Gb video iPod (Model MA147FD, Version 1.2.1) which is updated from the same library (although in “update everything” mode as opposed to a playlist), and I have never experienced the lock-up with it. As far as I know, the firmware version on the iPod Nano is current.

Posted at 22:09 Permalink

Friday, June 29, 2007

Humour: Delightful lip-sync video of Tom Lehrer's New Math

This marvellous video clip (which I can't embed here because YouTube's Flash player invocation doesn't pass XHTML validation, and all attempts to rewrite it to do so render it inoperative) is a lip-sync of Tom Lehrer's New Math with the “visual aids” lacking when those of our generation first heard it on a vinyl disc and doubled up laughing around “How did sixty-four get into it?”.

The audio track appeared on the 1965 album That Was the Year That Was; as this video doubtless oversteps the bounds of fair use (although wonderfully) it may be taken down, so view it while you can.

Hat tip: Captain's Quarters.

Update: Hear the man himself at the piano. (Thanks, Mark Ziemba.)

Posted at 22:15 Permalink

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Reading List: The Scientist as Rebel

Dyson, Freeman J. The Scientist as Rebel. New York: New York Review Books, 2006. ISBN 1-59017-216-7.
Freeman Dyson is one of the most consistently original thinkers of our time. This book, a collection of his writings between 1964 and 2006, amply demonstrates the breadth and depth of his imagination. Twelve long book reviews from The New York Review of Books allow Dyson, after doing his duty to the book and author, to depart on his own exploration of the subject matter. One of these reviews, of Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, is where Dyson first asked whether it was possible, using any apparatus permitted by the laws of physics and the properties of our universe, to ever detect a single graviton and, if not, whether quantum gravity has any physical meaning. It was this remark which led to the Rothman and Boughn paper, “Can Gravitons be Detected?” in which is proposed what may be the most outrageous scientific apparatus ever suggested.

Three chapters of Dyson's 1984 book Weapons and Hope (now out of print) appear here, along with other essays, forewords to books, and speeches on topics as varied as history, poetry, great scientists, war and peace, colonising the galaxy comet by comet, nanotechnology, biological engineering, the post-human future, religion, the paranormal, and more. Dyson's views on religion will send the Dawkins crowd around the bend, and his open-minded attitude toward the paranormal (in particular, chapter 27) will similarly derange dogmatic sceptics (he even recommends Rupert Sheldrake's Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home). Chapters written some time ago are accompanied by postscripts updating them to 2006.

This is a collection of gems with nary a clinker in the lot. Anybody who rejoices in visionary thinking and superb writing will find much of both. The chapters are almost completely independent of one another and can be read in any order, so you can open the book at random and be sure to delight in what you find.

Posted at 00:35 Permalink

Monday, June 25, 2007

Switzerland: Analogue television broadcasting ends

At high noon Universal Time today, all analogue television broadcasts in the French-speaking region of Switzerland went permanently dark. From now on, homes without cable or satellite service (which amount to only about 8% of households in this highly wired market) will have to attach an external DVB-T receiver box to each existing analogue television receiver. In French, the new digital broadcast service is called “TNT”, for “Télévision Numérique Terrestre”.

I installed this receiver, which cost CHF 79.95 including VAT, on the Fourmilab illuminatus. With the little 13 cm metal antenna included stuck to the top with a magnet, reception is absolutely perfect. Since the digital broadcasting is in the regular UHF television band (specifically 754 MHz/channel 56), a regular rooftop antenna can be used, but in this case with line of sight to the transmitting tower on the Chasseral, there's no need for an external antenna.

Posted at 20:11 Permalink

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Switzerland: English loses one

L'Express, 2007-06-20 p. 5

Postboxes in Switzerland have traditionally been yellow and marked with the name of the post office in the predominant local language: “die Post” in German, “La Poste” in French, and “La Posta” in Italian. With deregulation and the breakup of the once monolithic PTT, the spun-off mail service has re-branded itself “PostMail” opting, PostMail logo like many Swiss business and government entities, to solve the problem of multiple languages by choosing the “neutral” alternative of English. (Some opt for the more historically justified and classy Latin, but that is increasingly rare.) Rather than maintain three differently labelled postboxes for the linguistic regions, the post office decided to use their new “PostMail” logo on all of them.

They didn't reckon on a popular uprising of defenders of the national languages, many in the canton of Neuchâtel, who clamoured, “Don't mess with our mailboxes!”. Chastened, PostMail capitulated, according to this story in L'Express for June 20th. Although the new logo will continue to be used for the enterprise, the postboxes will continue to bear the original language-specific labels, at least until 2010. One of the ringleaders in the campaign not only deplored “PostMail” as a “nasty anglicism” but pointed out that it was also a pleonasm. You know you're living in a place with more than a pretension to cul-chah when you encounter the word “pleonasm” in the daily newspaper—look it up!

Posted at 00:24 Permalink

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Reading List: While Europe Slept

Bawer, Bruce. While Europe Slept. New York: Doubleday, 2006. ISBN 0-385-51472-7.
In 1997, the author visited the Netherlands for the first time and “thought I'd found the closest thing to heaven on earth”. Not long thereafter, he left his native New York for Europe, where he has lived ever since, most recently in Oslo, Norway. As an American in Europe, he has identified and pointed out many of the things which Europeans, whether out of politeness, deference to their ruling elites, or a “what-me-worry?” willingness to defer the apocalypse to their dwindling cohort of descendants, rarely speak of, at least in the public arena.

As the author sees it, Europe is going down, the victim of multiculturalism, disdain and guilt for their own Western civilisation, and “tolerance for [the] intolerance” of a fundamentalist Muslim immigrant population which, by its greater fertility, “fetching marriages”, and family reunification, may result in Muslim majorities in one or more European countries by mid-century.

This is a book which may open the eyes of U.S. readers who haven't spent much time in Europe to just how societally-suicidal many of the mainstream doctrines of Europe's ruling elites are, and how wide the gap is between this establishment (which is a genuine cultural phenomenon in Europe, encompassing academia, media, and the ruling class, far more so than in the U.S.) and the population, who are increasingly disenfranchised by the profoundly anti-democratic commissars of the odious European Union.

But this is, however, an unsatisfying book. The author, who has won several awards and been published in prestigious venues, seems more at home with essays than the long form. The book reads like a feature article from The New Yorker which grew to book length without revision or editorial input. The 237 page text is split into just three chapters, putatively chronologically arranged but, in fact, rambling all over the place, each mixing the author's anecdotal observations with stories from secondary sources, none of which are cited, neither in foot- or end-notes, nor in a bibliography.

If you're interested in these issues (and in the survival of Western civilisation and Enlightenment values), you'll get a better picture of the situation in Europe from Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe. As a narrative of the experience of a contemporary American in Europe, or as an assessment of the cultural gap between Western (and particularly Northern) Europe and the U.S., this book may be useful for those who haven't experienced these cultures for themselves, but readers should not over-generalise the author's largely anecdotal reporting in a limited number of countries to Europe as a whole.

Posted at 14:58 Permalink

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Reading List: Interstellar Travel and Multi-Generation Space Ships

Kondo, Yoji, Frederick Bruhweiler, John Moore, and Charles Sheffield eds. Interstellar Travel and Multi-Generation Space Ships. Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, 2003. ISBN 1-896522-99-8.
This book is a collection of papers presented at a symposium organised in 2002 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. More than half of the content discusses the motivations, technology, and prospects for interstellar flight (both robotic probes and “generation ship” exploration and colonisation missions), while the balance deals with anthropological, genetic, and linguistic issues in crew composition for a notional mission with a crew of 200 with a flight time of two centuries. An essay by Freeman Dyson on “Looking for Life in Unlikely Places” explores the signatures of ubiquitous vacuum-adapted life and how surprisingly easy it might be to detect, even as far as one light-year from Earth.

This volume contains the last published works of Charles Sheffield and Robert L. Forward, both of whom died in 2002. The papers are all accessible to the scientifically literate layman and, with one exception, of high quality. Regrettably, nobody seemed to have informed the linguist contributor that any interstellar mission would certainly receive a steady stream of broadband transmissions from the home planet (who would fund a multi-terabuck mission without the ability to monitor it and receive the results?), but that chapter is only four pages and may be deemed comic relief.

Posted at 23:47 Permalink

Monday, June 11, 2007

Reading List: The Government Manual for New Superheroes

Brozik, Matthew David and Jacob Sager Weinstein. The Government Manual for New Superheroes. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2005. ISBN 0-7407-5462-9.
(Guest review by The Punctuator)
The Government of the Unified Nations has done a tremendous service to all superheroes: whether alien, mutant, or merely righteous human do-gooders, by publishing this essential manual filled with tips for getting your crimefighting career off to the right start and avoiding the many pitfalls of the profession. Short, pithy chapters provide wise counsel on matters such as choosing a name, designing a costume, finding an exotic hideaway, managing a secret identity, and more. The chapter on choosing a sidekick would have allowed me to avoid the whole unpleasant and regrettable business with Octothorpe and proceed directly to my entirely satisfactory present protégé, Apostrophe Squid. The advantages and drawbacks of joining a team of superheroes are discussed candidly, along with the warning signs that you may be about to inadvertently join a cabal of supervillains (for example, their headquarters is named “The whatever of Doom” as opposed to “The whatever of Justice”). An afterword by The Eviliminator: Eliminator of Evil Things but Defender of Good Ones reveals the one sure-fire way to acquire superpowers, at least as long as you aren't a troublemaking, question-asking pinko hippie egghead. The book is small, printed with rounded corners, and ideal for slipping into a cape pocket. I would certainly never leave it behind when setting out in pursuit of the nefarious Captain Comma Splice. Additional information is available on the Government's Bureau of Superheroics Web site.

Posted at 22:17 Permalink

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Base64 Encoder/Decoder Updated

Version 1.5 of the Base64 encoding and decoding utility has just been posted. This update corrects a flaw which caused lines in Base64 encoded data written on systems such as Windows which distinguish text and binary files to be written with an end of line sequence consisting of two carriage returns followed by a line feed instead of the prescribed carriage return, line feed pair. While this posed no problem when decoding the file (since white space, including carriage return and line feed characters, is ignored), some text editors would display the encoded files as double spaced, and the redundant carriage returns wasted storage. The update corrects this problem, ending each line with a carriage return and line feed on all systems.

The ready-to-run Windows binary has been re-built with Microsoft Visual C 7.0 (Visual Studio .NET) and, for the first time, the “solution” and “project” files used to build the program are included in the source distribution. The extract from RFC 1341 which documents the Base64 encoding format has been updated to validated XHTML 1.0 and reformatted to improve readability.

Posted at 23:11 Permalink

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Reading List: The Physics of Christianity

Tipler, Frank J. The Physics of Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 0-385-51424-7.
Oh. My. Goodness. Are you yearning for answers to the Big Questions which philosophers and theologians have puzzled over for centuries? Here you are, using direct quotes from this book in the form of a catechism of this beyond-the-fringe science cataclysm.
What is the purpose of life in the universe?
It is not enough to annihilate some baryons. If the laws of physics are to be consistent over all time, a substantial percentage of all the baryons in the universe must be annihilated, and over a rather short time span. Only if this is done will the acceleration of the universe be halted. This means, in particular, that intelligent life from the terrestrial biosphere must move out into interstellar and intergalactic space, annihilating baryons as they go. (p. 67)
What is the nature of God?
God is the Cosmological Singularity. A singularity is an entity that is outside of time and space—transcendent to space and time—and it is the only thing that exists that is not subject to the laws of physics. (p. 269)
How can the three persons of the Trinity be one God?
The Cosmological Singularity consists of three Hypostases: the Final Singularity, the All-Presents Singularity, and the Initial Singularity. These can be distinguished by using Cauchy sequences of different sorts of person, so in the Cauchy completion, they become three distinct Persons. But still, the three Hypostases of the Singularity are just one Singularity. The Trinity, in other words, consists of three Persons but only one God. (pp. 269–270.)
How did Jesus walk on water?
For example, walking on water could be accomplished by directing a neutrino beam created just below Jesus' feet downward. If we ourselves knew how to do this, we would have the perfect rocket! (p. 200)
What is Original Sin?
If Original Sin actually exists, then it must in some way be coded in our genetic material, that is, in our DNA. … By the time of the Cambrian Explosion, if not earlier, carnivores had appeared on Earth. Evil had appeared in the world. Genes now coded for behavior that guided the use of biological weapons of the carnivores. The desire to do evil was now hereditary. (pp. 188, 190)
How can long-dead saints intercede in the lives of people who pray to them?
According to the Universal Resurrection theory, everyone, in particular the long-dead saints, will be brought back into existence as computer emulations in the far future, near the Final Singularity, also called God the Father. … Future-to-past causation is usual with the Cosmological Singularity. A prayer made today can be transferred by the Singularity to a resurrected saint—the Virgin Mary, say—after the Universal Resurrection. The saint can then reflect on the prayer and, by means of the Son Singularity acting through the multiverse, reply. The reply, via future-to-past causation, is heard before it is made. It is heard billions of years before it is made. (p. 235)
When will the End of Days come?
In summary, by the year 2050 at the latest, we will see:
  1. Intelligent machines more intelligent than humans.
  2. Human downloads, effectively invulnerable and far more capable than normal humans.
  3. Most of humanity Christian.
  4. Effectively unlimited energy
  5. A rocket capable of interstellar travel.
  6. Bombs that are to atomic bombs as atomic bombs are to spitballs, and these weapons will be possessed by practically anybody who wants one.
(p. 253)

Hey, I said answers, not correct answers! This is only a tiny sampler of the side-splitting “explanations” of Christian mysteries and miracles in this book. Others include the virgin birth, the problem of evil, free will, the resurrection of Jesus, the shroud of Turin and the holy grail, the star of Bethlehem, transubstantiation, quantum gravity, the second coming, and more, more, more. Quoting them all would mean quoting almost the whole book—if you wish to be awed by or guffaw at them all, you're going to have to read the whole thing. And that's not all, since it seems like every other page or so there's a citation of Tipler's 1994 opus, The Physics of Immortality (read my review), so some sections are likely to be baffling unless you suspend disbelief and slog your way through that tome as well.

Basically, Tipler sees your retro-causality and raises to retro-teleology. In order for the laws of physics, in particular the unitarity of quantum mechanics, to be valid, then the universe must evolve to a final singularity with no event horizons—the Omega Point. But for this to happen, as it must, since the laws of physics are never violated, then intelligent life must halt the accelerating expansion of the universe and turn it around into contraction. Because this must happen, the all-knowing Final Singularity, which Tipler identifies with God the Father, acts as a boundary condition which causes fantastically improbable events such as the simultaneous tunnelling disintegration of every atom of the body of Jesus into neutrinos to become certainties, because otherwise the Final Singularity Omega Point will not be formed. Got that?

I could go on and on, but by now I think you'll have gotten the point, even if it isn't an Omega Point. The funny thing is, I'm actually sympathetic to much of what Tipler says here: his discussion of free will in the multiverse and the power of prayer or affirmation is not that unlike what I suggest in my eternally under construction “General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena”, and I share Tipler's optimism about the human destiny and the prospects, in a universe of which 95% of the mass is made of stuff we know absolutely nothing about, of finding sources of energy as boundless and unimagined as nuclear fission and fusion were a century ago. But folks, this is just silly. One of the most irritating things is Tipler's interpreting scripture to imply a deep knowledge of recently-discovered laws of physics and then turning around, a few pages later, when the argument requires it, to claim that another passage was influenced by contemporary beliefs of the author which have since been disproved. Well, which is it?

If you want to get a taste of this material, see “The Omega Point and Christianity”, which contains much of the physics content of the book in preliminary form. The entire first chapter of the published book can be downloaded in icky Microsoft Word format from the author's Web site, where additional technical and popular articles are available.

For those unacquainted with the author, Frank J. Tipler is a full professor of mathematical physics at Tulane University in New Orleans, pioneer in global methods in general relativity, discoverer of the massive rotating cylinder time machine, one of the first to argue that the resolution of the Fermi Paradox is, as his paper was titled, “Extraterrestrial Intelligent Beings Do Not Exist”, and, with John Barrow, author of The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, the definitive work on that topic. Say what you like, but Tipler is a serious and dedicated scientist with world-class credentials who believes that the experimentally-tested laws of physics as we understand them are not only consistent with, but require, many of the credal tenets which traditional Christians have taken on faith. The research program he proposes (p. 271), “… would make Christianity a branch of physics.” Still, as I wrote almost twelve years ago, were I he, I'd be worried about getting on the wrong side of the Old One.

Finally, and this really bothers me, I can't close these remarks without mentioning that notwithstanding there being an entire chapter titled “Anti-Semitism Is Anti-Christian” (pp. 243–256), which purports to explain it on the last page, this book is dedicated, “To God's Chosen People, the Jews, who for the first time in 2,000 years are advancing Christianity.” I've read the book; I've read the explanation; and this remark still seems both puzzling and disturbing to me.

Posted at 02:39 Permalink

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Reading List: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2

[Audiobook] Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 2. (Audiobook, Abridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1788, 1789] 1998. ISBN 962-634-122-X.
The “Volume 2” in the title of this work refers to the two volumes of this audiobook edition. This is an abridgement of the final three volumes of Gibbon's history, primarily devoted the eastern empire from the time of Justinian through the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, although the fractious kingdoms of the west, the Crusades, the conquests of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, and the origins of the great schism between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches all figure in this history. I understand why many people read only the first three volumes of Gibbon's masterpiece—the doings of the Byzantine court are, well, byzantine, and the steady litany of centuries of backstabbing, betrayal, intrigue, sedition, self-indulgence, and dissipation can become both tedious and depressing. Although there are are some sharply-worded passages which may have raised eyebrows in the eighteenth century, I did not find Gibbon anywhere near as negative on the influence of Christianity on the Roman Empire as I expected from descriptions of his work by others. The facile claim that “Gibbon blamed the fall of Rome on the Christians” is simply not borne out by his own words.

Please see my comments on Volume 1 for details of the (superb) production values of this seven hour recording. An Audio CD edition is available.

Posted at 01:12 Permalink

Monday, June 4, 2007

Reading List: The Devil's Horn

Segell, Michael. The Devil's Horn. New York: Picador, 2005. ISBN 0-312-42557-0.
When Napoléon III seized power and proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1851, his very first decree did not have to do with any of the social, economic, or political crises the country faced, but rather reinstating the saxophone in French military bands, reversing a ban on the instrument imposed by the Second Republic (p. 220). There is something about the saxophone—its lascivious curves and seductive sound, perhaps, or its association with avant garde and not entirely respectable music—which has made it the object of attacks by prudes, puritans, and musical elitists almost from the time of its invention in the early 1840s by Belgian Adolphe Sax. Nazi Germany banned the sax as “decadent”; Stalin considered it a “dangerous capitalist instrument” and had saxophonists shot or sent to Siberia; the League of Catholic Decency in the United States objected not to the steamy images on the screen in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, but rather the sultry saxophone music which accompanied it, and signed off on the scene when it was re-scored for French horn and strings; and in Kansas City, Missouri, it was once against the law to play a saxophone outside a nightclub from ten-thirty at night until six in the morning (which seems awfully early to me to be playing a saxophone unless you've been at it all night).

Despite its detractors, political proscribers, somewhat disreputable image, and failure to find a place in symphony orchestras, this relative newcomer has infiltrated almost all genres of music, sparked the home music and school band crazes in the United States, and became central to the twentieth century evolution of jazz, big band, rhythm and blues, and soul music. A large and rapidly expanding literature of serious and experimental music for the instrument exists, and many conservatories which once derided the “vulgar horn” now teach it.

This fascinating book tells the story of Sax, the saxophone, saxophonists, and the music and culture they have engendered. Even to folks like myself who cannot coax music from anything more complicated than an iPod (I studied saxophone for two years in grade school before concluding, with the enthusiastic concurrence of my aurally assaulted parents, that my talents lay elsewhere) will find many a curious and delightful detail to savour, such as the monstrous contrabass saxophone (which sounds something like a foghorn), and the fact that Adolphe Sax, something of a mad scientist, also invented (but, thankfully, never built) an organ powered by a locomotive engine which could “play the music of Meyerbeer for all of Paris” and the “Saxocannon”, a mortar which would fire a half-kiloton bullet 11 yards wide, which “could level an entire city” (pp. 27–28)—and people complain about the saxophone! This book will make you want to re-listen to a lot of music, which you're likely to understand much better knowing the story of how it, and those who made it, came to be.

Posted at 00:16 Permalink

Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Analytical Engine Overhaul Complete

The collection of historical documents and Java-based emulator for Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine were originally posted in early 1998 and were beginning to show their age. I have been revising at least one document per week for several months, upgrading them to XHTML 1.0 with CSS style sheets, remaking mathematical formulæ with higher resolution, and using Unicode text entities for opening and closing quotes and other special characters. This upgrade is now complete—all of the documents in The Analytical Engine Web tree are now validated XHTML and, I hope, easier on readers' eyes than the original edition.

Posted at 15:08 Permalink