Wilkommen, Bienvenu, Welcome... Sziasztok!

Welcome to The Lotus Position, an intermittent collection of extempore navel gazings, ponderings, whinges, whines, pontifications and diatribes.

Everything is based on a Sample of One: these are my views, my experiences... caveat lector... read the Disclaimer

The Budapest Office - Castro Bisztro, Madach ter

The Budapest Office - Castro Bisztro, Madach ter
Ponder, Scribble, Ponder (Photo Erdotahi Aron)

Guest Nutter/Kindred Soul: Bill Bailey


Wednesday, 31 December 2008


You may be paranoid, but are you paranoid enough?

A tough question, but in the context if IT (that's Information Technology for a change) the answer is usually Probably Not.

Today, because I was let in early and the Netgear router that provides wifi here at Castro Bisztro has been flaky for several days I decided to restore the settings - call it a public service with a hint of self-interest.

I saved the current configuration yesterday, saved another copy today, and read the instructions carefully. I disconnected everything (as instructed) and - just in case - saved the web-pages of the configuration screens in case I had to restore the Factory Defaults and rebuild the configuration.

So... I attempted to restore yesterday's config file. No dice. Odd. Tried today's backup. Ditto: zip, nada, zilch. Took a peek at the files: there's stuff in there that doesn't look as though it should be... they're corrupt all right.

OK then, restore Factory Defaults and rebuild... I reset the system, and one by one loaded the saved web pages to read the data and manually reapply the settings... only to find that there is a bug somewhere that resulted in not being able to view the MAC address that the router presents to the Cable modem.

Oh dear. I've just fucked Castro's entire internet connection.

Fortunately, it turned out that data had been saved, but wasn't where something (Firefox or the Netgear web page) thought it should be and I did find the MAC address, so the interweb sprang back to life.

But what didn't I do? I didn't check that I could read the saved config web pages before I relied on them. If I'd done that I could have written things down and saved myself time and panic.

Remember: Be More Paranoid. Let's see if I remember that when I try to install the replacement DOM module for my Thecus N5200Pro tonight...

By the way, that advice applies to everyone... except those who already know the Government/The Masons/The Aliens are already after them - they should relax: The GovMasAliens know where you are - even I know where you are - if They/I wanted to get you I/They could, so if We haven't, We probably don't want to.

Yet. Don't upset me.

Mind Bending Stuff

Monday, 29 December 2008


I was won over watching Crout's KazooKeylele - Ukulele - The final countdown (hmmm... there's creativity for you) on YouTube, so I followed up... and watched Dorkbot Alba's Waldflöte vs Kazookeylele - dueling banjo's only to spot that Roundest Objects in the World Created was a "related" video. The latter is about incredibly precise spheres of silicon intended as possible replacements for the standard metric kilogram.

And the relationship is?

Friday, 5 December 2008

One Large Cognac

is (14:11 local time) being enjoyed in celebration of another milestone... I have now written just over a quarter of a million words (250,025 to be precise). Working on the penultimate chapter, 40 pages from the end of the 423 page draft I printed out so long ago I can't remember when exactly, which printout was then marked up over the course of quite a long time and, at the beginning of September 2007 started to work my way through.

Back then, there were only 150,000 words... and that seemed a lot!

Seems it has taken me fourteen months to revise, interpolate and develop 90%, so - being unjustifiably precise about the whole thing - it should only take another two and half months to conclude the major revision... then only the final polish to do?

We shall see!

IT - the book - is getting there...

Tense Stuff

Monday, 1 December 2008

What a fool!

Having heard that FQXi (The Foundational Questions Institute) was running a prize essay competition on the subject of "Time", and having previously mused on the issues I perceived with wormhole time machines (see here) I thought the competition would provide an opportunity to think the problem through properly...

So I did, and late yesterday submitted "Time. On. Essay. An."

And then I felt a bloody fool as I looked at the author list: top of the commented pile was an essay by Carlo Rovelli no less. I don't think I would have bothered if I had thought that essayists of such stature would pitch in (it's nice to think one might at least have chance).

Oh well, if you don't fail you're not stretching yourself, I thought. It's not the winning, it's the taking part, etc. etc. So I had a good laugh at myself and (sort of) forgot about.

But then I was checking the site to see when it actually appeared and out of curiosity started going through the other submissions (in chronological order). Now, whilst it has to be said that my submission is somewhat lacklustre, and showing clear signs of late editing (in pruning it to 5,000 words the meat in the sandwich became a bit thin) it is at least mediocre, middling, median...

Rovelli may be waaay up above me, but take a look at some of the others.

Average (but respectable) Stuff

Saturday, 29 November 2008


Just stumbled across this, which I thought I would share.

It was apparently written circa 1997 "to purge the irritation" arising from wholly unjustified criticism of my (probably extended use) of metaphor and analogy in describing certain computer algorithms for optimisation. [If I recall correctly, I probably described a piece-wise linear optimisation as a Darwinian Ecosystem... at length, with examples, and possibly diagrams]

The original Sonnet XVIII by the Swan of Avon

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

The alternative version, as preferred by computer scientists with no poetry in their hearts:

Can I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thy beauty is not an objective fact!
Beaufort defines the strength of wind in May,
Not buds that subjectivity must rack!
Always the sun by Stefaan's law does shine
Though sometime is his colour index low,
But comfort is by human mind defined
And how to speak of it I do not know.
Knowing summer, and his mean duration
Why worry whether it be long or short?
Who can hold with idle speculation,
When analogy is with danger fraught?
So long as facts are facts that men can see
I'll have no truck with subjectivity.

Emetic Stuff.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

And the 240,000th word is....


Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Obama - McCain: 349 - 162 (Approximately)

I stayed up till about 04:10 last night watching the BBC's Presidential Election results broadcast, just long enough to hear Ohio called for Obama, at which time I think he he had 207 electoral college votes to McCain's 95 and the outcome seemed clear.

This morning it is all over - perhaps not technically a psephological landslide but a dramatic result nonetheless.

And the speeches... how different it might have been: it was said last night that the voice of the true McCain, the voice of the independent maverick, had been sacrificed to the perceived need to grab "the Republican base" (the base which Sarah Palin so memorably "energized") - certainly I found the negativity and, at times, nastiness of the later stages of the Republican campaign unedifying in the extreme - but in defeat John McCain seemed to have refound his voice.

I thought his conceding speech simple but powerful. McCain in defeat was a far, far better man than McCain the candidate: patriotism verging on jingoism is almost de rigueur for candidates to high office, but in his unnecessarily gracious acceptance of defeat, McCain's simpler and humbler patriotism shone through, particularly when he referred to Obama as "my president" when he could have referred to him by the formulaic phrase "next president of the United States" without ungraciousness; I warmed to him then, even as I shuddered at the contumeliousness of the response from the Republican faithful.

Had it been possible for McCain to retain his authentic voice I think the outcome could have been considerably closer.

As for Barack Obama. I'm no fan of political speechifying, but I was impressed by the powerful balance he struck: it was a speech that inspired by calling upon those qualities the American people define themselves by - strength, industry, honour, inclusiveness - without for a moment sounding like a platitudinous roll-call. He speaks well and thoughtfully, and at times movingly.

A remarkable election indeed... I feel America re-awakening, as if from a troubled sleep. America is beginning to believe again.

Historic Stuff.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Fireball over Budapest

Breaking news...

22:22 Nov 1, heading East-West a brilliant fireball (well, brilliant compared to most meteors)... duration 1-2s. It started as a bright point of light - which I thought was an aircraft light at first - but then immediately developed a sparkling orange trail... and then went out. (from Central Budapest looking North East, elevation about 45 degrees, trail length 10-15 degrees).

Haven't seen a meteor like that since... oh, maybe a couple of months ago - could have sworn I saw a daylight meteor streaking South-North (ish) to the West of Budapest in the evening glow...

Rare Celestial Stuff!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Let's get political...

BBC news...

On Tuesday, the second day of a swing through Florida, Mr Obama accused Mr McCain of making "stuff" up in the last weeks of the campaign.

My preferences in the US Presidential Election are irrelevant, but I have to say to Senator Obama that Stuff really does exist... unless of course he was implying that McCain had a bag of ready-mix Stuff and was merely adding the other ingredients (water, egg, etc.) for e.g. some Republican roly-poly.

However, since we are here and thinking internationally, it would seem that a couple of apologies are in order:

To Iceland and Icelanders, for the gratuitous and inappropriate application of "anti-terror" legislation to matters arising from the ubiquitous financial crises. I would just say though, by way of mitigation, please don't take it personally - the UK government does or permits the same sort of thing to be done to its own citizens; whenever some expresses concern that the executive is garnering too much power and it might be used in appropriately we are always reassured that such will never happen.... there will be safeguards... etc. etc. I can only hope that criticising the application of anti-terrorism legislation is not itself a terrorist offence... otherwise it could be no more blogging for 28 days (and the government still wants 42 days' detention without charge, despite, as far as I can tell, neither the police nor the security services supporting the idea!)

To the Chagos Islanders: I was really angry to read of the Law Lords overturning the previous decision that they had a right to return home - mostly because the potential cost was considered as a factor in determining an entitlement whose justice seems to me completely independent of the issues that might entail cost. The only heartening aspect of the report was that it was a 3:2 decision - at least two Law Lords leaned the right way. Good luck in Europe.

Mixed Stuff

(...bake at gas mark 7 for 35 minutes and leave to stand)

Friday, 17 October 2008

Scribble, scribble, scribble...

17th October, 230,000 words (admittedly we've slowed down... only 555 words per day since the last announcement).

Yesterday was a bit of a wipeout on account of Patch Tuesday's various Windows (in my case Vista HP) and other updates (Office etc.) being applied Wednesday night - leading to catastrophic failure of special goodies I've written to add functionality to Word to help me with navigating it...

To be specific, the ActiveX killbits patch not only prevents vulnerable ActiveX controls from being used by Internet Explorer it does so (via the "killbit") by stopping anything from running them... in my case MS Word - the Office XP Web Component I had on a userform simple wasn't there, which also meant the VBA code fell over "Cannot compile module" because the code referenced a now non-existent object.

However, lest you think it has been all work and no play (oh what fun to have to rebuild and restore one's work PC?) maybe I should share the news that traversable intra-universe wormhole mouths can not be charged! Took me a while to work it out (think: Gauss/divergence theorem + lack of horizon = lack of inside/outside distinction for a surface surrounding a wormhole mouth: think of the two types of circles that go around or though the hole in the middle of a torus/doughnut - they don't divide the surface)... but then I found confirmation in a footnote on p1200 of Misner, Thorne, Wheeler's Gravitation, which was nice. Still don't see how they can have mass either, I mean, come on...

Also worth mentioning, just in passing, something that occurred to me over a nice Lamb Madras at Indigo last night (a line of thought prompted by discussion of a recent New Scientist article on why the mind encourages superstition) which is that according to Your's Truly's theory of mind two contrasting styles of meditation (defocussing (e.g Zen ) vs. e.g. focussing (e.g. Tibetan though e.g. chanting)) lead to two different (but of course, the same) states of non-being, which we may summarise as:

If you know what I'm taking about, you know what I mean; if you know what I mean, why aren't you laughing?

We are in a jolly mood, aren't we?

Enlightening Stuff, eh?

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Woah! IT

14th August 2008 - 200,000 words
24th September 2008 - 220,000 (the 220,000th was, by the way, "pleas")

33 writing days, 20,000 words = ~606 a day. Not bad.

Still haven't budged from the 86% of the way through the marked up copy - this is all new, extra, but important stuff... the current chapter (Arcturus) is already ~41,000 words (that's almost half an average paperback) on its own, so I suppose I (and eventually you) should be glad that they are not all that long, otherwise IT would be about half-a-million words and I'd probably be 2.5 years away from completion (that's working 11-6, Mon-Fri, every week... we don't do holidays when we're not earning) even if I could maintain the recent furious rate of scribbling - which I doubt I could.

Fortunately though the dénouement of this chapter is approaching... should be all done in another couple of weeks LOL!

Finally, for no reason other than the fact that my fingers are still on the keyboard here's a little bit more about IT, though I shall try to make it sound much duller than it really is ["A real page turner" (to quote my sister)]

It is, almost correctly speaking, an epic in prose poetry, intertwining narrative action, philosophy and mythology (world-spanning astronomical mythology and much, much, more!) in a timeless, placeless world. The questions are: what is it to be human, what is humanity, what are "human rights" (sort of), what is right, what is choice, the role of law, the administration of justice, social organisation, and probably quite a few other things I've already forgotten.

It's a journey - two journeys - traversing the ages of man, tales of love and tragedy, valour and cowardice, illusions and dreams, of seeking and finding and losing.... and so on.

The answers are... in there somewhere. I think. You may have to look for them.

It began a long time ago... soon it will be at and end.

IT. The Book. MY STUFF

Monday, 22 September 2008

Runaware? Runasleep!

6th August 2008. For some reason I was thinking about trying another online trial of Microsoft Office 2007 and found myself here at a site apparently belonging to "Runaware" - except that it looks like Microsoft. It looks good... maybe I should trust it. Ha! I wasn't born yesterday. We shall check the site identity...

Except that "This website does not provide any identity information" according to Firefox, and when I think about downloading I am offered "TestDriveWizard-v1.4.4.exe" from http://a4156g.akamai.net.

So... someone who can't establish who they are thinks that because they have "Microsoft" slapped all over their webpage I am going to allow some random download (from yet another site)? (Yes, I know who akamai are but so what?)

No thanks... but feeling decidedly suspicious, I think... phishy people are sloppy people... let's see what else there is to reassure or raise further doubts.

Checked the "Privacy" link... where I find such beauties as...

Control of Your Personal Information
Except as otherwise described in this statement, personal information you provide on the Site will not be shared outside of Microsoft and its controlled subsidiaries and affiliates without your permission

Insert description of any mechanism available for users to excercise [sic] choices regarding secondary uses of personal information. These include contact preference questions, the inclusion of unsubscribe language in promotional e-mail, etc.


Changes to This Privacy Statement
We may occasionally update this privacy statement. When we do, we will also revise the "last updated" date at the top of the privacy statement.

...of course there is no "last updated" date at the top...


"Microsoft" may also "collect information about" "the pages that you access while at the Site"

Notice not "pages on this site" that you access, but "pages you access while at the site" - which is carte blanche to go snooping around my browsing. No thank you. I Object - none of your damn business! Keep out of my browser except for the purposes of the "testdrive".

So, like a decent chap, I do send an email to the offered email address in a suitable tone (suitable for dealing with an idiot or a phisher - or both) saying basically...

Insert statement of deep suspicion about data collection and the need to run an executable from a site that does not provide any identity information (and hence cannot be verified) and hence decision to completely ignore the test drive. So, Runaware is an (unsubstantiatable) "Microsoft Vendor" - what does that mean? All very phishy…

Insert statement of intention to publicly humiliate by any means including but not limited to blog, email etc. whoever Runaware may be unless appropriate action taken immediately

And guess what - 6 weeks later absolutely nothing has changed (and there was no reply either)

See? They really are well organised, efficient, professional, caring Microsoft affiliates/providers/whatever after all!

If after 6 weeks you can't correct your mistakes once they have been pointed out for you, you don't deserve to be in business.

And if having incompetence, stupidity, negligence implied is not enough to send you shame-faced to your website, then just wait till either Microsoft notice and choose another partner or your own shareholders take notice and bring a class action suit for the all business you have thrown away.

Mind you, don't know why I bother... look at these shoes, only had them three weeks and already they're falling apart...

Pointless Stuff

Thursday, 28 August 2008

A Big Apple

Friday the 22nd August. We notice that the street parking on Revay utca has been taped off - but the tapes don't look terribly official... nonetheless, something is clearly afoot. We wonder what it will be.

Saturday morning it's a bit noisy a bit too early. Music and a strange tinnily nasal Hungarian voice fill the street. Roused unnecessarily early from slumber I take a peek outside and discover that they are making a film. Closer inspection reveals that Revay has become W45th St in New York and in the middle of the street, in front of the stationary yellow cabs, the flatbed truck with a grand piano on the back (how does that fit into the story?), the NYPD police car and behind NYPD barriers a man is dancing to the aforementioned music... in the spray of what is obviously supposed to be a high pressure water leak (but in best Hollywood style is merely a fire-engine powered fountain).

The pneumatic drill has no hose and the man with the pickaxe is being very careful not to dig up the road - and the dancer really seems to be enjoying himself; it's clearly refreshing in the spray - or it would have been had they been shooting on one of those days when it was 38C here. Today it's a bit chilly and I suspect that there is more acting going on than there might have been.
But the man with the comic-book hero face just keeps on dancing. I wonder what sort of film it is - obviously some sort of feel-good flick. Except that I doubt he does. In and out of the cold water he goes. Action. Happy dancing. Cut. Cold shivering and a vigorous towelling down and maybe a shudder of relief as he steps into the warmth of the hot-air blower specially provided. Over and over and over again. Art hurts.
By early evening the poor chap has been done in long shot, tracking shot, and close up from so many angles they finally have whatever they want. What do they want? What is this "feel-good movie" going to be about? The presence of the green-screen and through-the-windshield camera work suggests some gritty dialogue and tense action in and around the police car. Perhaps dancing-man was a water-terrorist who deliberately sabotaged the water supply and was only dancing in celebration at his success and New York's finest have nabbed him at last.
I'm dying to know what this is all about and grab the big camera and very long lens to take a peek at the shooting script. The grand piano clearly plays a significant role in the story but I am none the wiser.
At long last I spot another copy of the script on a table about50m away... a tricky shot this but there it is. It's an ad, a Diet Coke ad.

I still have no idea what the piano's about, but the rest of it makes sense now. In the sweltering heat (of about 20C) Coke refreshes, although side effects may include St Vitus' dance...

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Fermi/GLAST First Light All Sky Map

If you are having trouble finding the images (and the animations that belong with them) that many sites have reproduced they are here.

If there are links buried at the NASA GLAST portal or at Stanford I couldn't find them...

Gamma Rays - Cool Hot (Obscure) Stuff

Monday, 18 August 2008

A Man, A Plan, A Camera

Yes, it's time for an update on that serious event on the Budapest calendar... Sziget!

This year I shall be mostly not going to Sziget (if it's not already over it will be shortly) - at least compared to other years when Sziget was a week-long festival: this year it is only 5 days and we only went for two... but it was 14 hours the first day and ~11 hours the second. We get our money's worth!

So, off we go... first the natty sunglasses courtesy of Iguana...

Then a nod to the strong European influence everywhere these days... the "European Urban Art Centre..."

But, what I really came for was the music. Thank you Dylan for observing - indirectly - that I have the musical tastes of a paleontologist as the bands I wanted to see - the Sex Pistols and R.E.M. - were "dinosaurs".

A well preserved fossil is shown below, a specimen of Rottenus Johannii, if I am not mistaken

Way back when Mr Rotten was vociferous in his belief that there was "No future" - 30 years on the failure of his initial prediction does not deter him from its endless repetition. Is it perhaps post-ironic nihilism - with a twist? Are we still vacant? Did god only save The Queen because the Pistols asked him to? We shall never know. It's been a fun 30 years... punk, war, new romantic, war, retro, war, other stuff, and more war. And through it all, Johnny Rotten - a veritable icon of stability and the establishment.

And then, a propos of nothing much, there is the strange, but so typically French attitude to dogs to report... "If your dog is lost..." it says beneath the "Found-again Dogs" headline [Query: if "lost and found" is "objets trouves", why do dogs get to be retrouve'd? eh?]

But that's a side issue. Note the phrasing beneath the headline. Not, you notice, "If you have lost your dog" but if your dog "is lost"... as in "temporarily uncertain of position" to use the aviator's euphemism, or bewildered by the absurdity of a world in which people stand on sticks (see below) instead of fetching them. If either of these apply to your dog - or other companion animal - I suggest you buy it a satnav and/or discourage it from reading Sartre and Camus.

This next snap sequence began with "Does the moon look odd to you...?" (and went on, obviously, to "Ooh! Look! Something is eating the moon! Maybe Ragnarok is coming!"

But it's not all linguistic and astronomical fun here at Sziget; when walking on the ground is just too easy why not stick yourself three feet above the ground (~1m). Takes some getting used to but there is more than a little satisfaction in this generally pointless exercise... it's just fun! Must think about a unicycle sometime.

But now, back to the music...

The REM main-event on the main stage - enhanced by the coincidental partial eclipse of the moon - was somewhat diminished for me by the cold. Friday it had been scorchingly hot (38C) and so on Saturday (despite 60% chance of rain... which never materialised) I went again in shorts and short-sleeved shirt in expectation of hot-wet and occasional sheltering in marquees and other beer dispensing locations; as it happened it was cold-dry, and by 22:30 my teeth were chattering.

Still, got to sing "Losing my religion" with 20-30 thousand others.

We did branch out into other musical genres. Apocalyptica is a fine upstanding Finnish, er, band of some description - three long-haired, Finnish rock-gods playing cover versions of Metallica (and Grieg) on cellos. Damn good actually - go and see them if you get a chance. And then Punish Yourself a fine upstanding French group with bare-breasted fire dancer cum angle-grinder workbench. Then there was Mass Hysteria - also French (Ah! Que les francais adorent Le Rock!) - with lots of energy and a willingess to take on all comers... Bush, Sarkozy, the EU etc. etc. etc.

What else?

Oh yes - bungee-cord ballet courtesy of a rather spectacular show called Carillon 3. It begins with a bungee-monolith...

Dancers arrive dangling from the large crane I had noticed parked suspiciously nearby and then proceeded to do all sorts of contortions on, in and around the monolith...

occasionally with umbrellas.

And that as they say, is nearly all there is to say apart from the fun to be had on the rock-your-own-boat thingie (no pics yet)... the Vietnamese water-puppet-theatre... the outsize table & charis and crib (thanks to the anonymous Frenchman for the show...), hats (of course), and last, but not least, the kinetic sculptures near the Luminarium (which we've seen before so didn't bother to endure the enormous queue for this year - but if you get a chance, go see it...)

Thursday, 14 August 2008


Sometime in the last five, ten, fifteen minutes I guess, "IT" passed the 200,000 word mark.

That's two hundred thousand words.

Two hundred thousand.

Two Hundred Thousand!


(don't worry, I'll get over it shortly - and no, the 200,000 isn't made up of 66,666 repetitions of "Oh My God!")

The Book - Big, Beautiful, Wordy Stuff!

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Wormholes, Warp Drives and Time Machines - Part III

[You have read the Disclaimer, haven't you?]

The assiduous reader (that's you, O Sister Mine) who has been following the theme of Wormholes, Warp Drives and Time Machines has of course read Parts I and II - everyone else may wish to catch up...

So, dear Sister, take nieces Scarlet & Em on your knee and read on... I'm sure they'll enjoy this!

The story so far: many who probably know better than I am claiming to, say that one can construct a time machine by moving one mouth of a wormhole at very high velocity relative to the other (the closer the velocity is to the speed of light the better if we want a significant time machine). Time dilation - as per Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity - will then cause a time difference to occur between the two ends, but because the two ends are linked this makes a time machine (see Part II for how this is supposed to work).

My naive objection to this is that a separation in time is in fact a separation in spacetime - and the key words here are in and spacetime. The implied rhetorical question is: can one apply things like the Lorentz transformations to spacetime itself rather than to the separations of things and events in it. To which the unequivocal (but possibly wrong) answer has to be: No!

But' it's time for a diversion. Let's get practical - another little experiment will help illustrate the concepts. For this you will need a lump of some malleable substance, such as dough (e.g. pizza dough - in which case, make plenty in anticipation of pat IV) ; some superglue, and a finger.
  • Take lump of dough and make a hole in it, slightly larger than your chosen finger

    Look at it for a moment - you've got a torus, a thing with a hole in in it. Now, flatten and stretch it slightly to make a fat pancake - but don't close the hole (it's still a torus - they don't have to be doughnut shaped: anything with one hole in it is topologically a torus) and then imagine that the dough is spacetime.

    You can go from one side of the pancake to the other one of two ways: you can either avoid the hole and go to the edge and round, or you can go through the hole. The hole is our experimental wormhole because, if you happen to be closer to the hole than to the edge, the distance you need to travel to get to the "same point" on the other side is less if you go through the hole. Note however (for future reference) that whether you go around or through, if you keep going you can get back to where you started - and are still facing the same way.

  • Now, apply superglue to your chosen finger in a narrow ring around the first joint
  • Insert finger into the pre-pared hole and squeeze the dough onto the ring of superglue
You should now be superglued to the dough. And since the dough represents spacetime and the hole in the dough the wormhole, we can simulate moving the wormhole by moving our finger. Try it - gently.

As you move your finger, dough piles up against the forward edge of your finger and gets stretched everywhere else. If a real wormhole is going to move, it will do something similar - or we will have find a way to stop dough piling up in front and stretching thin behind.

The reason for saying that spacetime "piles up" or "stretches out" and that a moving wormhole has to deal with such things is that one cannot create and destroy spacetime - there's no such thing as "Cut and Paste" spacetime", no "delete" let alone "insert" (unless perhaps you are a theoretical cosmological topologist. Don't be shy in coming forward). However, one can stretch and squeeze space(time), thereby changing the separations between things, which, strangely is all that gravity is about really.

So a small digression is in order, and without reproducing and trying to explain the Einstein field equations... Oh what they hell, there are are, courtesy of Wikipedia (see Einstein Field Equations) - because it is one of the most beautiful equations in physics.

What this this says is this. The left hand side of the equation, the "G" thing, is The Einstein Tensor - it is a (nonlinear) function of the metric, which is that thing that tells us how bendy and twisty spacetime is at every point. The right hand side of the equation, the "T" thing, is the Stress-Energy Tensor, which describes the density and flux of energy due to everything at a point except gravity. So the bendiness and twistiness of space(time) is determined by the matter and energy in it, or as I believe John Wheeler so beautifully put it "Space tells matter how to move, matter tells space how to curve".

Without matter etc. spacetime would be flat, but put in some ordinary mass and it bends in just the right way to produce what we previously thought of as the mysterious force of gravity. The usual analogy for this is a bowling ball on a trampoline: the big heavy ball causes a dent towards which any peas, marbles, or other small round objects therefore move (don't overthink the analogy, it will just make your head hurt). A nice little animation from YouTube shows the Sun denting spacetime, earth circling around and the way that light also gets bent by the gravitational dent - until the sun "disappears", at which point, there being no "T" thing, all the curvature disappears...

The key point here is that without the "T" thing to keep spacetime bent and/or twisted it will flatten out, thus, returning finally to our wormhole, we need some T in the wormhole to squeeze stuff up on the leading edge and some effectively "anti-T" to stretch it out behind.

Now, I have previously drawn an analogy between this stretching and squeezing with that of the Alcubierre "warp drive", which also squeezes up the space in front (so you have less to travel across) and stretches it out behind (so that space overall doesn't get an overall pinch in it.

At that time and rather unfortunately for the eternal optimist, it occurred to me that the Alcubierre drive couldn't work, because I had assumed that the whole point of this Faster Than Light warp drive was that you could point somewhere, intone "Engage!", and then be off, and that therefore the warp bubble was somehow propagated from its initial position just like a wave. This clearly wouldn't work, I thought, because when the metric does change the effects propagate at the speed of light (speed of gravity = speed of light) and what would be the point of an "FTL" drive when you had to wait four years to sail across the four light years that had then been reduced to a mere, say, centifurlong.

And indeed it seems I was not the first to raise an eyebrow in Alcubierre's direction - but since they know better, it seems the experts never for a moment thought the metric change would be propagated... so they said it wouldn't work because you'd have to traverse the entire route in advance in order to deposit suitable amounts of T and anti-T along the way. It turns out that the Wikipedia article on the Alcubierre drive makes this point (see "Difficulties), quoting Krasnikov and Dr David Coule's work to the effect that "there's no warp drive without warp drive" (and thanks to DHC for providing a copy of his original paper).

Or, to spoil a rather nice line, if we do ever get any sort of warp drive we will only be able "To boldly go where at least one other has been before."

However, at least my intuition is not clearly leading me astray, so maybe the dénouement (when it arrives) will be worth the wait, though if I have not in fact drifted a long way off track the geodesics of Mr Stuff's idea space have clearly been severely bent bythe abnormal density and flux of... well, I suppose, Stuff, so I should probably let you digest this properly before going on...

Spacetime - Bendy, Twisty, Wavy Stuff

Thursday, 7 August 2008


I said I would try to work out why privacy is important, so here's a brief answer. It's overly simplistically expressed but this is a blog, not "An Essay Concerning..."

The distinctive quality of sentience is the capacity for choice; to interfere with another's choice, where that choice affects none but the individual concerned is, in general, wrong. "Privacy", being shorthand for the freedom of the individual to choose what information about themselves is known to others, is important and must be defended because what we choose to tell reflects and shapes our relationships to others and affects our vulnerability to exploitation by others.

Failure to respect another's privacy is therefore wrong insofar as it takes away this freedom to choose.

You'll find it spelled out in more detail in "IT"... eventually.

Ethical Stuff. Political Stuff.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

That's all right then...

Some time back BT ran what some consider an illegal trial of Phorm, a system that carries out "deep packet inspection" of internet traffic, i.e. it looks at what you are sending or receiving, not merely who you are sending to or receiving from, as a way of "targeting" advertising - i.e. telling you about things you are more likely to be interested in.

Now, although the European Commission has told UKgov to deal with the issue, there is question of what we might expect - and the answer is "Not a lot" I fear.

According to this BBC news item "...the Information Commission ruled in May that no action would be taken against the telco due to the difficult nature of explaining to consumers what it was doing."

What??? I can conceive of many things, but imagining greater stupidity on the part of the IC is difficult... the "difficulty of explaining" has nothing to do with the ethics of the action in the absence of consent; if it was "too difficult" to explain, then under no circumstances whatsoever could informed consent be obtained and so it should never have happened.

Consider the ramifications of this irresponsible pronouncement: a financial advisor, a medical practitioner, your local garage etc. would be given carte blanche to do whatever they like if it could be argued that what they intended to do with your money, your body, your car etc. was beyond your poor, limited powers of comprehension. Perhaps the government could pass an Enabling Act to introduce complex rules and regulations on anything they like without further Parliamentary scrutiny on the basis that what they might want to do would overtax our poor representatives brains.

I'm not a great believer in conspiracies, I am however utterly convinced that sheer stupidity on the part of officialdom is the bane of the 21st century, and the more power placed in the hands of the stupid, the more likely it is that something will go seriously wrong. I shan't even mention how much personal data the UK government has lost in the last year or two...

I propose a principle: anything anyone may wish to do that affects another and which a reasonable person might reasonably anticipate an objection to is expressly forbidden without consent. [I'll tidy that up later... just aiming to get it off my chest for now.]

Would the man on the Clapham Omnibus (including but not limited to Kekule) be happy to know that as soon as he got on the bus, he was bugged and that his subsequent conversation with his wife, mother, mistress, bank manager... would be used to "provide him with more relevant advertising" on the LCD ad panels in the bus on the way home? I think not.

I shall work on a more fundamental philosophical reason why privacy is important - the usual "Get Out of Jail Free" card of "if you've done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear" is deeply offensive... all I have to do is to work out why...

Infuriating Stuff

Monday, 28 July 2008

Calling All Planets

The New Scientist Space Blog pondered here the possibility that the International Astronomical Union might change the definition of planet yet again - promoting Pluto back from "Dwarf Planet" to full planet again. (I confess I'm one of those who don't like the current definition of planet, in particular the criterion of "neighbourhood clearing")

The side effect of one proposed redefinition would be that other objects, such as the asteroidal dwarf planet Ceres and the trans-Neptunian objects Charon (Pluto's "moon" - or one half of the Pluto-Charon double dwarf planet), Makemake and Eris would also become planets, giving us 13 (thus far), and then the blogger Stephen Battersby oh so casually solicited mnemonics for the set of the 13 - and I succumbed, as I have done in the past... (c.f. Googlewhacking which wasted days of... days)

So here they are:

First attempt: nothing special , but a musical theme.
My Violin Exudes Music - Concertos Jostle Sonatas Unborn - Never Played - Charming Melodies Effortlessly
Second attempt: preserves the first two letters of each "planet" name in the mnemonic to help remember which is which (helpful if you are confused by the thought that Eris - the goddess of Discord - would be a better name for the 3rd Rock from the Sun).
Merciful Vera, Eagerly Manipulating Cerebro-spinal Junctions! Sacral Urgences Necessitated Placid Chiropractic Manipulation Erenow!
I am resisting, as best I can, the urge to do one that preserves the 1st three letters of each planet's name.

Mnemonics - Memories are Made of Stuff

Friday, 25 July 2008

Rocketship Dean (Wormholes, Warp Drives and Time Machines - Part II)

In anticipation of the dénouement (what a lovely word!) of the Wormhole-Time Travel thread (see Part I here), I have to describe how one is supposed to construct a time-machine using a wormhole. You may wish to follow the instructions at home...

You will need:
  • One Traversable Wormhole (preferably macroscopic) about 1m in length (distance between the wormhole mouths)
  • One Human-rated rocket ship capable of v~c speed (with supplies and fuel and suitable shielding of course)
  • One Wormhole Grapple (ah... yes... how's that work then? Dunno), to be attached to the rocket ship
  • One set of Inertial Damp(en)ers - lest the pilot be squashed
  • A willing friend - ideally one who likes travel, for which reason I have selected Dean as Pilot to the Stars (please bring me back a hat from Alpha Centauri...)
  • [Yoghurt pots and sticky tape are not strictly necessary, but you never know...]

Ensure the Wormhole Grapple is working and grab one end of the wormhole. Wish Dean luck and launch towards Alpha Centauri at high acceleration so that he very rapidly achieves 0.999998c... At this speed, and assuming the turnaround is quick at the other end (and that he doesn't spend too long haggling for the hat) Dean will be back in what seems to be about a week by his "clock" (just enough time allow him to catch up on some report-writing...) while 8.6 years pass on Earth (but... he'll miss the deadline, won't he? Not necessarily... read on)

Yes, we see the effect of time dilation as we look out of the window at Rocket ship Dean's tail-light... it was blinking once a second before launch, now it is flashing only once every seven and a half minutes.

But wait! Dean's got the wormhole with him... let's take a peek through that! Now, the wormhole is travelling with Dean... there is no relative motion and so, according to most authorities, Dean does not appear slowed down by a factor of 450 when seen through the wormhole. That's not lethargy - it's just intense concentration!

Half way through day 3 Dean looks up and says "I'm here!", nips out, buys a hat, and sets off home again. Three and half days after that he lands. We can see through the wormhole that he is indeed back - but wait! Looking up into the sky in the general direction of Alpha Centauri we see a very, very slowly blinking light. He's still on his way there!

How can this be? Is he indeed the Kwisatz Haderach? No... he's in the future. If he should so wish though, he can step back through the wormhole and as far as friends, family and deadlines are concerned he has been away for only a week, rather than, disappearing without trace for 8.6 years (c.f. "A Quick Trip to Budapest to do some Scribbling")

Likewise, we can go the other way and step 8.6 years into the future (bring back info on the future, clean up on long term investments and the lottery etc....)

No, I'm not making this up (well, not all of it...) here's a respected Professor outlining the same thing [NB I offer this link as it's the only one I know of that has a nice story - the same underlying principles are outlined all over the place]

Well... if you thought quantum mechanics was confusing now you can try getting your head around time-travel and all the attendant paradoxes...

But wait! Is it true? Er... no... or at least I don't think so. The problems are these (and I'm actually neglecting most of the practicalities):

Firstly, relativistic effects - Special or General - apply to separations in spacetime; they do not, as far as I know apply to spacetime. In fact I can't see how they could meaningfully apply.

Secondly, the effects as described would appear to be asymmetrical and suggest that in multiply connected spacetime (that's spacetime with holes in it) most conservation laws go out the window (e.g. if Dean sends me a pencil through the wormhole what 4-momentum (energy +3-momentum) does it have???)

Thirdly, even if a wormhole can move, how does it?


Thirteenthly, I forgot to supply a loo for Rocketship Dean.

These and other points will be addressed in due course. Is there a way of restoring equivalence to our inertial frames even in multiply connected spacetime... perhaps - in which case, no time machine can be formed in this way.

Warped space, warped thinking... Paradoxical Stuff.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008


Some time back, while extolling the virtues of an old Black Sabbath CD I said "This is a great CD - each track is even better than the last." To which my witty other half replied "Yes, and when it's finished it will be perfect!"

In light of which, when she said, "You know, when you're not around I think how lucky I am to have you," I couldn't help expecting "- but when you come home..."

"I wish I'd said that....", "You will, you will..."

Funny Stuff

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Wormholes, Warp Drives and Time Machines - Part I

Just a quickie, just putting a marker down, a public reminder to do this all better another time.

Don't get me wrong: I would love it if there were such things as traversable wormholes, faster-than-light travel and any way of getting the better of currency fluctuations (such as by going back 12 months and transferring all the money I didn't think I'd need then) but...

It's a big but, and unusually (for this type of casual blog-musing) it's predicated on the idea that Einstein was right... and the "but" in question is...

I don't think so.

Let's do the easy one first: Warp Drive - particularly the Alcubierre drive. The Alcubierre drive is a lovely idea, perfectly in keeping with the idea of a Warp Drive because it does exactly what it says on the tin, it warps space(time). In front, it squeezes it up, behind it stretches it out. But unlike the fictional drive of Zefram Cochrane it's "real" in the sense that it's not just a load of hand-waving and muttering - there's serious maths at work for the Alcubierre drive, which modifies spacetime distances by tinkering with the "metric" - that function of spacetime that says how far apart things are.

This so called metric-engineering is neat and, if one puts aside the "minor problems" ahem of the energy requirements, dealing with incoming photons etc. (apparently another metric tweak will deal with them though) and how one gets into or out of the "warp bubble", it is very, very straightforward: as many light years as you want in front get squeezed up into as little as you'd like, across which you can then wander at local sub-light speed and still arrive rather quicker than going through the "unsqueezed space".

My problem is this: how does the metric modification propagate? Surely it can't move forward faster than light? So, whilst you could bring Alpha Centuauri as near to your backyard as you might like (and then step across the picket fence in the twinkling of an eye) I can't help thinking it's going to take ~4 years to get there.

And on a practical note, what about all the Stuff between here and there? Pile it all up (not forgetting perhaps the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation in addition to bits of real, solid stuff - large and small) and I can't help wondering what it will do to metric on its own.

However, the basic issue - you can't exceed the speed of light in spacetime - remains.

The problems with Wormholes and Time-Machines are related... but that'll have to wait for Part Deux (but in a nutshell: how do you move a wormhole without squeezing and stretching space like the Alcubierre drive (there might be a way - with interesting consequences for time-machine (non) creation - give it a twist... Kerr Metric like), and how in the name of X can Lorentz transformations/boosts be applied to spacetime itself rather than separations within spacetime - i.e. how does time-dilation apply to a moving wormhole mouth? NOT!)

During the interval, if you can explain the fault in the reasoning re the Alcubierre drive above, and how metric modifications propagate FTL do let me know... it will save me making an ass of myself twice (or at least, one more time than I'm going to anyway).

Remember! Einstein was right! (and even if we improve on him, Special/General Relativity will always be suitable approximations for some things..., just as Newtonian gravity still is)

Boldly taking Stuff where no Stuff has gone before.


Windows Cannot Find... Resolved!


Recently, whenever I double-clicked a Microsoft Word (Word 2002/Word XP) document, Word would start but I would also get an error message from Windows that ""Windows cannot find..." and then the full path to the file I just double-clicked . Naturally I was able to open the file perfectly well once Word was running.

I don't think the general cause or symptoms are application or Windows version specific, so the hint should be good across the board... Vista, XP...

So what gives in this particular case? It could have been a shortcut whose target no longer exists, a missing registry entry perhaps, or if it had been an Excel document (Excel ~20020 ) it might have happened if Excel had been set to ignore other applications - but it wasn't, though the Excel thing a clue (it's a DDE - Dynamic Data Exchange - thing in the end... (or Automation (as they call it now, I think)).

In this case it was all to do with "AutoExec" - which was taking too long to run (lots of Programmatic Stuff). Microsoft has a knowledgebase article for Word2000 that says if AutoExec includes a "Wait" this error can arise, but it's really not the waiting that's important it seems, it's how long the AutoExec takes to complete before Word can respond to the Windows instruction to open the file.

So, the message "Windows cannot find..." is, not unusually, completely misleading: Windows can, has found the file - but the application requested to open the document hasn't responded in time.

And that's it really... to work around the issue I simply took all the long winded stuff out of AutoExec, put it in "delayedAutoExec" and put in this line in the leaner, slimmer, more responsive AutoExec. The delay is short but just long enough for Word to OK the document open request.

Application.OnTime when:=Now + TimeValue("00:00:05"), Name:="delayedAutoExec"

I expect it's also going to cure the bizarre error that was "Application.Activate" failing (during the AutoExec code) because there wasn't, as far as VBA was concerned, any Application to activate!

et voilà, the file is no longer not found.

Pie/Cake Stuff.

Friday, 11 July 2008

"Klum" - A Vital Vista Update

I may need to restart my machine after this - they are clearly tinkering with deep OS code in the update KB955020... it is marked as "Important" - which usually means it fixes something that causes crashes or let's some teen bit-racer leave his hack-tracks all over your disk drive.

What is it about, I hear you ask?

"The words "Friendster," "Klum," "Nazr," "Obama," and "Racicot" are not recognized when you check the spelling in Windows Vista..."

Oh My God! How could they be so stupid?

Or [irony off]... WTF? Is the built in dictionary supposed to know every proper name under the sun? And more to the point, is it not supported by a "Custom Dictionary" to which new words can be added?

When I think of all the little things that Microsoft should be attending to, such as, including but not limited to:

The File Delete/Copy dialog that stays on screen muttering about Zero Seconds to deal with Zero Items after I hit the Cancel button, instead of just disappearing?

The way the Sound Volume, Network and Battery icons disappear from the Sys Tray a.k.a. Notification Area and require a Registry Edit to get them back (hardly beginner stuff, mucking around in the registry).

That folders - and things like the Add/Remove Progams control panel - still forget what columns you chose; that you can't set "File Preview" on a per folder basis.

That if you use 3rd party gadgets in the Sidebar, you get two instances of the Sidebar process - each using up valuable resources - instead of just adding all gadgets to one instance.

That shortcuts to mapped network drives still don't correctly indicate whether or not they are connected/mounted.

[Yes they are getting progressively more trivial... I trust I am making my point]

That if you use the Start button search facility, you don't always get an "Open File Location" option.

No... much more important to ensure that "Klum" is recognised (I suppose that is Heidi Klum), and in all fairness I suppose, Racicot - whoever he/she/it may be. On second thoughts the dictionary should be updated - because unless it is sentences such as "In lieu of serious functional updates, Microsoft has recently taken to issuing turdbright updates in order to better fulfil 'customer expectations'." would get seriously annoying little wiggly lines in them...

Turdbright: chrome-plated faeces. Crap Stuff.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Norwegian Dwarves

Thanks to Runar Larsen, the Norwegian with the Macunian accent from Oslo (or at least one of his mates) en route from Denmark to some Serbian music festival the list is as follows:

Blygen = Shy One = Bashful
Brille = Glasses = Doc
Minsten = Smallest One = ...must be Dopey by elimination
Sinnatabben = Angry Bloke = Grumpy
Lystig = Happy = Happy
Sovnig = Sleepy = Sleepy (should be the o/ thing...)
Prosit = "Bless You", "Atichoo" = Sneezy

[How do you make nice little tables in blogger?]

And now I've thought of somewhere to remember this for me I might put the rest up here too... Farsi, Maori, Swedish, Hungarian, South American Spanish etc. etc. and nary a click within a million miles of a Disney site... all charmed from the natives.

By the way - the list is in the order I was given it. Notice anything odd? Yes, it's in alphabetical order - English Alphabetical Order!Bloody foreigners, come over here with their perfect British accents... learn all our dwarf names.... Oops! I'm not "here" either now.

Dwarves. The Stuff of Fairytales

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Earth Devouring Black Hole "Pure Fiction"

Are you worried about the Large Hadron Collider? Are you worried that you aren't worried about it? Should you be worried?

Think about it. If The Large Hadron Collider Produced A Microscopic Black Hole, It Probably Wouldn't Matter at least so says UC Santa Barbara Physics Professor Steve Giddings and his co-author Michelangelo Mangano of... wait for it... the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN - it's French) - who are about to turn the LHC!

Do I detect a conflict of interest here? Well, do I?

The idea of particle colliders producing black holes that could devour the Earth might make a good film script but according Steve Giddings, it's just "pure fiction".

Well, They would say That, wouldn't They?

(Am I getting the hang of this conspiracy style thing?)

Junk Stuff (because I can't figure out how to finish the other post on Wormhole time machines, mostly because I haven't the faintest idea how to re-write the metric for a twisted wormhole in Kerr coordinates instead of the customary Schwarzschild coordinates...)

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

A Grammatical Conundrum

Not the first, but I'm dealing with them one at a time - hence the absence of the word "conundra" in the title.


"they would then have kept with you until such time as there were cause for you to be confined or, for want of proper cause, an escort were unwarranted"

"they would have" - past, conditional... "until" and then, er, the past subjunctive of "be" to convey the (unreal past) but future looking implied secondary condition?

Is that right, or is there a better way?

I would that English were simpler sometimes!

Monday, 9 June 2008

The Computer Is Dead

Long Live the Computer!

By the way - much to my surprise [the story thus far: dodgy Hungarian electrics, tripped circuit breakers, blown desktop PC power supply, internal fuse replaced, reconnected - 5th Nov 5th/4th July/20th Aug fireworks inside, ergo dead computer] I replaced the power supply in the old desktop and it still works.

Of course the disk drives were both warning of imminent failure so they got replaced too (nothing to do with the electrical mishap however, they were just tired and shagged out after shuffling bits for years). Alas a brand new Seagate 160GB drive is also moaning in an electronic "I'm dying!" sort of way (though what the IDE equivalent of "It is a far, far better thing I do now..." might be I don't know).

Just ungluck or is there something else going on?


Let's see what they say at the nice PC shop (15m away diagonally down from the window) where I bought them....


Why So Long?

Because if it were any shorter it wouldn't reach the end!

The Book has moved another step forwards: on Friday I finished the complete rip-it-up-and-start-again re-write of Chapter 10, which meant throwing away the 9,155 words already written. The ideas were OK but the prose/poetry was just a little bit purple (think: that horrible magenta highlight colour that makes your eyes water just by looking at it) so it had to go... all of it, unfortunately.

Now it's done - all 26,625 new and improved words later - I discover that it took four and a half months - which is rather a long time for a single chapter. But then 26k words is about a quarter of a standard paperback, so that means if "IT" were an ordinary book of about 100k words it would only... ah, slight difficulty with tenses here - what's the right tense for a hypothetical future conditional relative to a contra-factual prior state, as in "if I were to have been writing an ordinary book (which I'm not), the estimated time to forthcoming completion would have been likely to be..."? - would only be taking about 18 months to write, which isn't that bad.

Anyway, just so you know, including the 10k words lurking in the "Excised for re-use" and the "Under Development" sections, the whole thing is now about 189,234 words (as of Friday). There are still some gaps I know I need to fill in (a couple of back-story characters for The Trial, a bit more political intriguing and skulduggery, the description of the - newly invented - low-tech transparent-but-fair-and-anonymous jury voting system, and a few other bits and pieces) but we are back on the trail of making the corrections and amendments... The end is, if not nigh, then at least speculating on the possibility of nighness - all ~700+pp of it.

So! Onwards and upwards to Chapter 11

Must dash...

...Stuff To Write

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Just a quickie....

English - weird, wonderful and almost omnipotently expressive.


If the verb "to pass" has as future perfect "will have passed", what is the future perfect of "to come to pass"? Not "will have come passed", not "will have came to pass", not "will come to have passed", not "will came to pass"... it seems as though it can only be "will have come to pass", which - dang it! - I find more than merely mildly unsatisfactory.

I dare say though that you couldn't give two hoots about such conundra, but now I think about it, maybe a single hoot would suffice.

Tense Stuff.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

A Bug! Fie on it!

I know it's putting one's head in the lion's mouth to adopt a new operating system as soon as it's released, but my old previous machine - a pathetic HP Pavilion [ab initio defective DVD, crashy, screen died at 1 year warranty + 1 day, etc. etc. etc.] - just had to be replaced and I hung on as long as I could...

In the end I was actually very pleased with Vista (Home Premium) - the Rock Xtreme CTX pro has plenty of horse-power and elephant-memory to support Vista and everything was absolutely fine. Some things omitted from Vista Home Premium were absolutely ridiculous omissions, I thought , but it ran nicely and very solidly (even allowing for the fact that it has nVidia Go 7950GTX graphics - and we all know about nVidia drivers now, don't we?).

There were a few hiccups along the way (VS2008 for instance) but the basic system was Rock solid...

And then along came SP1 - after which every day was a Blue Screen Day! Yes - every day a STOP ERROR "DRIVER_POWER_STATE_FAILURE" 0x0000009F error when I moved the laptop from home to the cafe where I write. SP1 actually installed OK, but it was after I had fixed the newly introduced nVidia drivers issue that the real problem became apparent.

I've now been in regular touch with Microsoft Technical Support for over a month now (though I haven't heard from them for a week), emailed other technical types who run blogs and so forth but the issue is still not resolved... though I hasten to assure you, dear reader, that my system no longer crashes.

Eh? Issue not resolved but not crashing? How come? Simple - turn off the offending piece of Microsoft software - the issue hasn't been resolved but it can be avoided. As of this moment the system has been running continuously for 958,054 seconds (that's 11 days, 2 hours, 7 minutes and 34 seconds). Not bad.

But what is this obscure issue that has so far apparently defeated Microsoft. Obscure - of course.

As noted here I had added a little bit of extra storage (1.3TB of RAID5 to be precise) and set up a persistent iSCSI connection (for technical reasons I shan't bore you with this was Necessary... couldn't do what I needed to do with a simple drive mapping, etc.) It was absolutely fine - until...

SP1. It seems something changed: if an iSCSI connection is set up as persistent, it seems that even an Administrator cannot log-off a session (if it's not persistent logging on and off works just fine). But! If - post SP1 - the laptop is put to sleep, disconnected from the network, moved, woken and reconnected to another network something goes very badly wrong... with the iSCSI port, the Virtual Disk complains and it all goes titsup. I didn't change how I worked, but one day Vista was happy and the next day it had developed epilepsy.

Took me a while to figure this out...I had to download a Microsoft debugging tool (windbg); I had to learn how to use it; I had to decipher the dumps, I had to learn all about IRP's (I/O Request Packet)s... (I know... me me me me me) - and then I had to communicate with various people and still largely do the job for myself (I hasten to add however that all of the people I contacted have been surprisingly willing to help - I'm surprised easily by helpful email support- although unfortunately unable to help... thus far).

It took me three weeks - losing at least half an hour a day to nail this - and I'll go so far as to say, dear Mr Microsoft, that I really wouldn't object to some tangible expression of sympathy (e.g. free upgrade to Ultimate or license to run the existing system under Virtual PC which would have been/may be handy for debugging purposes)

[Suggestion: MS should do this automatically anyway once an incident crosses a certain threshold of severity - no one wants to be without a primary work tool, so clean installs, etc. etc. are (they were for me) completely out of the question... but a lot could have been achieved in a virtual machine and it would go some way to compensating users without actually costing MS anything really. If you are tempted to mentioned e.g. System Restore, please don't.]

The bottom line is: if you are experience regular BSOD's with bccode 0x9F and you use iSCSI and you move the machine just before each crash - check to see if the iSCSI is a persistent connection... if it is, turn it off and see if the problem goes way. (There are similar issues recorded in the MS Knowledgebase for Windows Server 2003 but nothing for Vista)

The sad thing is that Microsoft has still been unable - or unwilling - to acknowledge this issue, and I think a month is perfectly adequate to get that far - a fix might take longer but such a reproducible BSOD should be gently squeezing someone's gonads... just cos you don't log off a connection the whole damn machine shouldn't crash!

And now, some Mozart...

Classic Stuff.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Long Thing Shortened

I just wanted to point out that after approximately two hours of concentrated effort and much contorted thinking this morning (in an endeavour to re-examine the underlying concept from a more illuminating angle) I have come to the conclusion that there is no single word in English for a "Long thing that is now much shorter than it was... but still quite long."

Nor could I think of any short and elegant way of referring to the long, but relatively short, remnant of something that was once much longer.

These are, I feel terrible omissions.

Likewise I have on occasion felt the need for - and been disappointed in my search for - a single word for:
  • The back of the hand, and
  • The hollow on the inside of the elbow
No doubt some things don't need to be referred to very often and so don't get their own word (inside elbow hollow for instance) but that can't be the whole story otherwise historians would be scouring the records of French history in search of a hitherto unrecorded plague of one-eyedness leading to the french word "borgne". Eh? I think that last bit was the wine talking.

Anyway, at least we have a word for Stuff.

Vista SP1 - BSOD, Bugs and Aggravations Part Deux

Does your system seem sluggish? Do you have one of those dashboard gadgets that says how much memory you are using and its seems to be saying "A Lot!"?

Or more specifically, have you checked the Processes tab of the Task Manager and seen row after row of taskeng.exe processes... tens? Hundreds? Thousands?

It pays to check occasionally. I only had a few hundred taskeng.exe processes, but that's more than enough to say WTF!

Quick Summary...

Taskeng.exe is the process that shows up for tasks created by the Task Scheduler. In Task Scheduler you can see which process belongs to which task by showing the Preview Pane and selecting a task event on the History tab and looking at the info on the General tab just below, where you will see something like

Task Scheduler launch task "\Start AVG Control Centre" , instance "C:\Program Files\Grisoft\AVG7\avgcc.exe" with process ID 2424.

But, if you have the particular problem of taskeng overload you won't find any corresponding tasks or events unless you select "Show Hidden Tasks" from the View menu... and then voila!

What you should probably be looking for is a task in Task Scheduler Local Library called "User_Feed_Synchonization... This task takes care of RSS feed collection, so if you don't use RSS feeds at all you will probably never have this problem, but if you do, look at its History... lots of failures? Yep, "UFS" is spawning another instance of itself every 5 minutes by default, and if they don't also terminate automatically that's an accumulation of 288 a day, each consuming a bit less than 1MB. Leave your machine on for a few days without restarting and >95% of the processes will be doing nothing helpful at all.

To resolve the problem - which is that the task has been corrupted - delete all existing "User_Feed_Synchronization..." tasks and then open a Cmd window.

Type "MSFEEDSSYNC DISABLE" (belt and braces approach) and then "MSFEEDSSYNC ENABLE", which will create a new feed collection task. The default task runs Once at 01:45 and then every 5 minutes until the next midnight... and then every five minutes thereafter so feeds won't be collected until either 01:45 or you kick start the task...

But at least you will own (a bit more of) your PC again

More info on checking the RSS User_Feed_Synchronization task, registry entries etc. from a Cmd window can be found on the Microsoft RSS blog, and my thanks to the guys, especially Andrew208, in the Technet forum who initially sorted this out in the post Re: Solved: 1055 spawned taskeng.exe threads... WTF? It seems this is an SP1 RC1 bug that didn't get stomped properly.

One of the few occasions on which one finds a problem and almost immediately a full answer... Nice Stuff.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Vista SP1 - BSOD, Bugs and Aggravations

I'm fed up with this particularly useless piece of "assistance" from Microsoft. Nice idea the "Problem and Solution Centre", especially since this Vista HP laptop is BSOD'ing every day now, so I thought I'd check to see what it had to say about the current state of my somewhat poorly system...

Aha! Let's follow that link and follow those obviously helpful steps...

What driver? Which device? How about a link to the Knowledgebase?

I have lost count of the times I have clicked the "No" brackets- this-was-not-helpful-at-all-quite-the-reverse-thank-you-very-much- if-you-want-to-add-my-blood-pressure-to-the-list-of-problems-now- close-brackets button and conveyed my displeasure (in decreasingly moderate terms of course) in response to the helpful question "Was this information helpful?", so maybe, just maybe, a little humiliation is in order.

Yes, it's in order - but whether it will help or not is another issue.

(BTW, the laptop manufacturer reliably informs me that the BIOS does not need to be updated and rather wished that MS would stop suggesting this as it creates an inordinate amount of completely unnecessary work for them...)

And, just to round things off, in case you are ever worried about whether your Drivers are properly signed and aren't entirely certain, please be aware that neither is Vista, so don't expect much help there either...

So, as you can see snapman.sys (of which there is only one on the system) is both signed and not signed... maybe Acronis signed for the fact that they weren't signing it? Who knows, but I see the imprimatur of MS behind it all.

By the way... the BSOD's are all 0x9F "DRIVER_POWER_STATE_FAILURE" errors and I suspect MS again with regard to the USB drivers: instead of just dying some 10-20 minutes after plugging in my Lexar JumpDrive Lightning II drive when I plugged it in today Vista refused to acknowledge the existence of the device at all then crashed when I took the non-existent device out again...

Of course everything was just dandy before SP1... but, 'tis true - plus ca change...

As as I saw in a forum sig recently "The mouse has been moved - please restart your system to apply the new settings"...

Annoying Stuff

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Keep taking the molybdenum?

It's an interesting piece of work. Apparently "scientists" (quotes allude to my irritation with the increasingly vapid use of the word scientist) - including at least one proper biogeochemist, Prof Timothy Lyons) - have reconstructed some aspects of Earth's ocean chemistry between 2GY and 0.5GY BP (see Science Daily) and infer that a lack of oxygen and molybdenum during this time was responsible for delaying animal evolution. [University of California - Riverside (2008, March 27). Reason For Almost Two Billion Year Delay In Animal Evolution On Earth Discovered; paper due to appear in the March 27 issue of Nature]

Whilst intrigued that, according to the (online press) article the diversity of early single-celled life forms remained low from the beginning of oceanic surface oxygenation circa 2.4GY BP, and that "their multicellular ancestors [sic], the animals, did not appear until about 600 million years ago" the point is generally well made: molybdenum is essential in to the nitrogen fixation process in modern nitrogen-fixing bacteria - too little molybdenum = too little fixation, and eukaryotes deprived in turn of accessible nitrogen cannot thrive.

A neat explanation, but 2 billion years is an awfully long time and I can't help thinking that evolution would have rapidly favoured any organism that found another way to fix nitrogen.

So the proposed molybdenum solution to the question "Why was multicellular life so slow to get going?" actually raises an even more significant question: why is molybdenum so indispensable that nothing else would do?

I find it very hard to believe that Darwinian micro-evolution couldn't have fixed things (excuse the pun) in the available time so I have to doubt that the dearth of molybdenum was the fundamental limiting factor. Besides which, diversity does not equate to quantity - so early nitrogen-fixers may have been few in kind but more than plentiful enough to support the needs of eukaryotes... given the molybdenum available, what biomass was supportable?

Of course the rest of the findings on oxygen levels, obtained by using molybdenum as a proxy for oxygen concentration, remain valid but the point about molybdenum as an essential and evolution-limiting micronutrient seems a bit wobbly to me.

Geochemical-Stuff Rocks nonetheless

Friday, 29 February 2008

Part II of The Case of the Disappearing System Restore Points in Vista Home Premium

The Scene: a variety of rooms around the globe. People are gathered at the PC's reading "The Lotus Position".

The Story So Far: Vista Home Premium is throwing away restore points; this led to a messed up PC becoming unrecoverable except by the good fortune of an external Acronis backup. It seems that Vista's Shadow Storage system is taking copies of everything not just System Restore points; as a result the storage space is quickly consumed and old restore points are lost... The question is, is it a bug?

Enter: Inspector I-Do-Stuff....

You may be wondering why I have asked you here... the answer is that this is the denoument - all is about to be revealed...

[A subtle piece of code injection locks the electronic doors...]

One of you works for Microsoft. One of you - you know who you are - is responsible. One of you is going down...

Yes, I have the answer. It is not a "bug", it is not something that has recently changed so as to render my System Restore functionality totally and absolutely bloody useless, it was a cold, calculated decision by Microsoft to remove the "Restore Previous Versions" feature from Vista Home Premium and Vista Home Basic.

I don't mind that there are backups I can't access; if I had really wanted that I could have upgraded to Ultimate. What I do mind, what I do mind very, very much is that I am left with no control over this system... Vista is deliberately - wasting time, space and resources - taking shadow copies of everything that changes on my C drive and putting them in ShadowStorage where

a) I can't get at them, but so what
b) So rather a lot, they are taking up the space that I want for System Restore Points.

Apparently this "feature" is not quite as obscure as I had thought - it was written about some time ago (see The Vista backups You Can't Have, and The Illusions of Vista, or here for example, to give but a few examples once I knew what I was looking for).

I am however absolutely furious about this.

System Restore is a major feature - under XP I used to have a restore point history going back weeks, now I am lucky if I have 5 or 6 restore points spanning less than a week.

This is catastrophically useless. But what are the chances of Microsoft doing anything about it?

Negligible I expect.

However, I remain on my high horse until hell freezes over if necessary to get this fixed.

We have ways you know...

Stuff moves in mysteriousways...

The Case of the Disappearing System Restore Points in Vista Home Premium

I should be writing but this could be of use...

Since at least Windows XP, many (esp XP and now Vista) Microsoft OS's have had a rather useful feature called System Restore that allows the user to restore their system to a previous point in time, thereby undoing the accidental removal of good software or the deliberate installation of something less helpful. System Restore doesn't touch data files, only the operating system and applications, however...

In Vista this facility is supported by "Shadow Storage" - a hidden area of a partition where Windows keeps copies of things for future recovery - and the use of Shadow Storage now includes keeping copies of data files so that users of high-end Vista systems (Business/Ultimate) can even restore previous versions of data files too.

Having recently encountered a bizarre problem (certain key services not starting automatically and completely un-re-enable-able - my finger points suspiciously as Visual Studio 2008 as the culprit) I naturally went to do a System Restore... only to find that I had only one restore point from midnight that day when whatever actually caused the problem (aplication, Windows Update, whatever) had probably been installed several days ago.

I was a bit miffed (he said understatedly), but to cut a very long and anguished story short I eventually recovered my system thanks to my Acronis True Image Home backups on my Thecus storage server.

But since then I've been rather keen on keeping track of my restore points because, well, shit happens and it's nice to be able yank the chain and flush the system with System Restore.

Alas the System Restore history never seemed to accumulate more than 5-6 restore points before all but the latest suddenly disappeared - and since they were scheduled by Vista to be created every midnight and at Startup, useful restore points were disappearing in a matter of days - which is so short an interval as to make System Restore effectively useless: unless a system is very unstable I wouldn't expect to notice and identify a problem requiring a system restore within a week of it arising.. Under XP the restore point history used to go back months...

I used the Event Viewer and watched SR (System Restore) create points regularly, only to have them cleaned out just as regularly by volsnap because ShadowStorage was filling up. Could restore points really be so big as to make the whole system effectively useless. On the one hadn that seemed utterly stupid, on the other hand... well, there's no fathoming MS sometimes.

The questions were: is a System Restore point the ~2GB it seemed to be... or was something else going on - which actually seemed more likely.

Why should a Restore Point be much less than 2GB? Well... I unthinkingly thought that restore points ought to be only differences in system state, and if not much is being installed, uninstalled, updated etc. the changes should be relatively small. But as Rick Rogers pointed out this is (my words, not his, seems like a nice chap) bollocks: there can't be a "full backup" to reference "differential" backups to because it might get thrown away as the system manages shadow copies to keep the total space under the nominal 15% - and I now see that my flash idea that somehow they were referenced to the current state isn't any better. (But - if my Windows folder is ~10GB and a Restore point is say ~1GB what is being saved and what isn't - and how are the choices being made?)

Anyway, I eventually turned up the Cmd window command "vssadmin" (Cmd needs to be run "As Administrator" for access to this command) which allows me to see how much ShadowStorage space is available and how much is in use. ShadowStorage can be up to 15% of the partition size and a quick check showed that indeed my 83.5GB C partition had 15% available for ShadowStorage - and most of it was used, but I only had 5 restore points.

I kept a very careful eye on Shadow Storage usage and did some experiments: I tagged a large number of photos... shadow usage went up (thought not by the total size of all the files tagged - it was about 25%); I forced certain other files to change (Outlook.pst) and it might have changed a bit, I created a System Restore point and it went up by 2-400MB. Generally however ShadowStorage usage seemed to be creeping up continuously whether I was making Restore points or not.

At which point, "Mark" directed me to a new piece of 3rd party freeware called ShadowExplorer (at http://www.shadowexplorer.com) which would allow me to take a peek into ShadowStorage and see what was there.

The application is only at V0.1, but after a virus and malware scan I installed it and took that peek...

Woah! It looked like my whole C drive was there - specifically including all my music, which hasn't been touched in months. Of course it couldn't all be there, but there was enough to apparently account for the lack of space. I restored one music file just to establish it really was in ShadowStorage and the file played perfectly, so I have no reason to doubt that everything else that appeared to be there really was filed away (and of no use to Vista HP users whatsoever)

So, I have an answer to why I have so few restore points - Vista HP is eating ShadowStorage space with copies of files that Vista HP itself would never let me get at!

Which leads to the Great Unanswered Questions of the day: why?, and how do I stop it?

I'll let you know when I find out - and in the meantime, thanks to Mark and the currently unknown author or ShadowExplorer.

And Mr Microsoft, if you are reading this - could you perhaps explain what is going on?

More Stuff later... perhaps.