Older blog entries for steve (starting at number 91)

It's been a busy month but I can't let the month get away without posting at least one news update! A lot of my time lately has been sucked up helping a variety of local groups with computer issues.

Susan completed an update of the website for the Frisco Association for the Arts. It looks a bit more artsy than the old, interim site. We're just starting some work on the Arts of Collin County site but it's got a ways to go before it's ready for prime time.

I also helped set up my first foal cam recently. Barry Jordan has a couple of horses out at his ranch and wanted a webcam so everyone could watch the birth of a foal that was due this month. He's limited to a dial-up link and MS Windows so it presented a number of challenges. Barry and Eric Yundt (both fellow DPRG members) had been working on it for a while and they actually did 99% of the work but I got drafted to help out and provided a windows binary of wget that solved the last remaining roadblock to getting the image from the webcam to the windows box and then up to the server. The dial-up link limits the refresh rate of the image but it's still kinda cool.

Speaking of DPRG stuff, I've been spending a good bit of time helping get the new DPRG computer lab up to speed. Using a couple of Linksys routers I picked up on eBay, we've now got high-speed Internet access. I've got a Red Hat 7.3 box set up to act as the LAN server and it's also going to host development environments for several of the microcontrollers commonly used in the group. So far, I've built GCC cross-compilers for the Atmel AVR and Motorola 68k chips. I've also installed Pete Gray's Linux port of Small-C for New Micros' IsoPod (these are really cool little boards). More to come as I get time.

I upgraded my workstation at the office to Red Hat 9 a couple of weeks ago and was pleased with the results. It really should have been called 8.1 as it seems very much like 8.0 but without a lot of the bugs. The GUI looks great; anti-aliased fonts, professional looking icons, I can run the occasional KDE program without it looking all goofy like it did on previous versions of Gnome. Overall it looks way better than Windows XP but not as good as OS X (yet).

After a week or so of playing with 9 on my workstation, I got brave enough to upgrade one of our servers this week. The biggest problem I ran into on the server was that wu-ftpd is gone and there was no explanation of why or what replaced it. There was just no ftp service, no wu-ftp entry in the xinetd directory, and RPM -q indicated wu-ftpd wasn't installed. I eventually found that vsftpd replaced it but isn't running by default. My initial impression is that vsftpd is a piece of junk. The first problem is that it has some sort of problem running under xinetd so you have to run it as daemon. Once I got it running, I started getting complaints that it was corrupting files. A little investigation revealed that vsftpd pretends to support ASCII transfer mode but really ignores ASCII mode requests and just sends everything in binary mode resulting in corrupted text files. After a bit of poking around, I found a setting in the config file that turns off this bizarre behaviour. I suppose it was the frequent security issues with wu-ftpd that prompted Red Hat to make the switch but I'd much prefer they'd picked something else to switch to (and it would have been nice if they could mention this sort of drastic change in the documentation somewhere)...

Stephen Hawking Lecture Report

Susan and I drove down to Woodland Hills Friday to hear a public lecture by Stephen Hawking. He has been in Texas most of this month working with the new Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics at TAMU. The lecture was held at the outdoor Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavillion (yes, the same Mitchells that paid for the TAMU physics institute).

The lecture, titled A Brane New World, gave a nice little introduction to M-theory, an offspring of string theory that attempts to unify Quantum Mechanics with General Relativity. It also covered the structure of the universe and why we seem to be able to perceive only 3 spatial dimensions when most modern theories of space-time say there should at least 10 spatial dimensions.

Having shown up early, we waited in line to get in for a half hour and then sat for about 45 minutes before the lecture started and observed the audience. There seemed to be three major groups represented: physics students and faculty, a contingent of wheelchair-bound disabled, and a spectrum of geeky regular folks like us. The place was packed and it's actually nice to realize there are enough people interested in a public lecture on science to pack a place like that.

Eventually, our wait was over and the lights went down. There followed a series of introductions including one by George and Cynthia Mitchell. George noted, among other things that, we should thank his wife Cynthia "'cause she owns the damn pavillion and gave me permission to hold Stephen's lecture here". After the last introduction left the stage empty, Hawking emerged from backstage, rolling much slower than I expected. I suspect the slower speed is required to give him time to operated the controls and steer. He made the entire 30 second trip to the microphone at center stage to the sound of a standing ovation and at least one enthusiastic shout of "GO HAWKING!" (at which Stephen showed a really big smile - something I've never seen him do in interviews).

An attendent showed up briefly to move Stephen's hand from the wheelchair controls back to his computer input paddle. He immediately began composing and seconds later said "Howdy!", much to the delight of his Texas audience. One thing you don't realize from seeing edited TV interviews is how long it takes for him to compose each sentence. He talks with a roughly 50% duty cycle. For each sentence he speaks, he spends about the same amount of time selecting words and building the sentence. This time is reduced somewhat when he is giving a public lecture because he has pre-composed much of his talk. Most of the time it appeared he merely needed to queue up the correct sentence or paragraph which took only 10-15 seconds of silence. But when he wanted to add a spontaneous statement or change something there was a more significant time delay.

The brief periods of silence punctating the lecture gave it a very unusual quality. I wonder if it was not unlike hearing R. Buckminster Fuller speak - he was also known for punctuating his public lectures with long periods of silence during which he would appear lost in thought.

The actual content of the lecture mostly consisted of describing M-Theory and the brane model of multi-dimensional space-time. The way the theory goes, there are 10 or 11 spatial dimensions but we see only three of them because most are curled up so small that we can't detect them. One of those extra dimensions, however, may be as much as 1cm in size and allows multiple 3-dimensional "branes", one of which is this thing we mistakenly call "the universe". The next brane along the way might have some other total different 3D "universe" on it. The interesting thing is that while most of physics is limited to the 3D branes, gravity can pass beyond into adjacent branes. If we were able to detect gravity from matter in an adjacent brane, it would appear to have the qualities of matter without being matter - dark matter. The term "shadow" was used to describe contents of adjacent branes. Shadow worlds, shadow civilizations, etc. Lots of good fodder for SF writers in there.

He pointed out a couple of ways in which these theories could be proven by observations of tiny black holes or other phenomena (and mentioned that he'd really like for one of those phenomena to be observed because, if it were, he'd probably get a Nobel prize. ;-)

Anytime I hear these modern, multi-dimensional space-time theories, I can't help thinking back to R. Buckminster Fuller, who believed in 12 dimensional space way before it was popular. Using only some string and a ping pong ball, Fuller concluded that there were four (not three) observable spatial dimensions, each composed of 3 lesser-dimensions that did not allow spatial movement but only tiny rotational movements (I've forgotten the term; "turbining"?). He believed that where we went wrong was in the arbitrary decision that spatial dimensions had to be at 90 degree angles to each other. In a Universe with 3 dimensions at 90 degree angles, he reasoned, a cube should be inherently stable - but it isn't. A tetrahedron is inherently stable, however, because it has four planes, each of which is in one of the four basic spatial dimensions. Unfortunately Fuller has almost joined Tesla in being so obsessed on by nuts that many scientists tend to discount his work these days. one has to wonder what a modern physicist like Hawking could do taking Fuller's 4D space as a starting point.

One of Hawking's descriptions of the structure of the real universe was a hyperspatial bubble. The bubble's surface is the 3D brane that we think of "the universe" but, in reality, it may simply be a side effect of all the hyper-dimensional fun going on inside the volume of the bubble. Everything we known may just be a reflection or shadow of reality. He noted that his is somewhat analogous to a hologram and explained that he was an expert on holograms because he had played one on Star Trek:TNG. This segued into a brief video clip from the Descent episode with Hawking, Newton, Einstein, and Mr. Data playing poker on the holodeck of the Enterprise.

He closed with a mention of the Large Hadron Collider Project and the hope that it could create artificial black holes that might help prove or disprove M-theory. It struct me as ironic that he was here in Texas, home of the ill-fated Super Conducting Super Collider, talking about the need for a giant collider. If it weren't for politics, we probably could have presented him with some home-grown Texas black holes (no doubt they'd have been twice as big as those puny European black holes).

10 Mar 2003 (updated 11 Mar 2003 at 04:40 UTC) »

Sinus update

It's been about one week since the surgery. I'm off all but a few of the drugs, I'm back to my usual routine at work, and I feel great; better than I've felt in a year. I can breathe, taste, and smell. I feel a few years younger...

ODP/dmoz update

The latest RDF dump error report shows no XML character errors for the third week running. Invalid UTF-8 sequences are down from hundreds to just two this week. It's definitely the best dump ever and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this week's dump will be 100% error-free at the character encoding level. In anticipation of that, I've started compiling an ODP RDF ToDo list of other bugs and optimizations that need work. I've made some progress with one of the oft-requested features for the dump which is to break the full 1GB dump into smaller, category-specific dumps. While testing things out, I'm hosting the smaller dumps locally but if they start seeing a lot of use, hopefully they'll get moved to an ODP server with enough bandwidth to handle them.

The day of surgery arrives

Susan and I showed up at the hospital outpatient area Friday morning at 8:30am. For 15 minutes or so, I signed permission and disclaimer forms. Then we were given a map showing the route to the outpatient waiting area. We sat there watching TV for another 15 minutes. Then, about 9:00am a nurse escorted me to a private room while Susan stayed behind. I had to strip and put on one of those crazy hosptial gowns that were designed to fit some non-human species of creature. I also got a little pair of blue hospital slippers; essentially socks with little diamond-shaped, rubber traction areas stuck on the bottom.

Then I waited. And waited. At one point a phone began ringing loudly. After a little investigation, I discovered the ringing phone to be one of several phones underneath one of the two beds. It rang for a good five minutes. (I've noticed that anywhere you go in a hospital, phones are ringing but no one ever answers them). I went back to waiting.

About 9:40am, a couple of nurses showed up and started in with all sorts of preparations and testing. One of them went through a list of questions about my medical history and had me sign more disclaimers while the other took two blood samples, my blood pressure, temperature, an EKG, and finally a urine sample. Interestingly, neither of them had any idea why I was there or what sort of procedure I was going to get. They gave me a Vioxx tablet (a heavy duty pain killer) and then griped that I drank too much water to swallow it. This progressed into a more general complaint that I wasn't supposed to drink any water for 12 hours prior to surgery. I said I'd been told not to eat any food for 12 hours, but nobody said anything about water. They said water was food and I said it wasn't. I convinced them I hadn't had much water and they eventually dropped the matter and left me alone again.

10 minutes later a nurse showed up with Susan in tow. I gave Susan a bag with my clothes and turned over my glasses to her. Then she was sent to a different waiting area (the "day surgery waiting area"). I was taken to a surgery prep room. The nurse who escorted me there asked what I was in for (I still hadn't run into anyone who knew what sort of surgery I was supposed to have - very reassuring). When I told her I was having sinus surgery, she started telling me how brave I was because sinus surgery was unbelievably painful and she would never let anyone do surgery on her nose because she didn't think she'd be able to bear the pain. Great... I told her it couldn't be too bad if I was getting general anesthesia; I shouldn't feel anything. Yeah, but wait until after you wake up, she said.

Crazy light show

Once in the prep room, the anesthesiologist showed up and started hooking up all sorts of tubes and hardware to my bed. Eventually she stuck a needle in my arm and gave me some sort of drug that she said would relax me. Wow, the drug hit me pretty quick. I don't know if I was any more relaxed but I spent the next 10 minutes or so trying adjust the vertical hold on my vision because my feet and the rest of the room were slowly revolving around my head. Things started getting a bit fuzzy here but the doctor showed up briefly and talked to me while the room rotated. He said he'd done more than 1500 of these procedures and never had any problems. Many of the patients he did were "revisions" - that is, he was correcting screwed up procedures done by other doctors. I asked him how my condition rated among the 1500 or so he'd seen. He said it was definitely going to be one of the more memorable ones he'd done. I lay there a while longer watching a clock precede my feet up the opposite wall and over the top of my head. It was about 10:45am.

The room had slowed from complete revolutions to simply bouncing up and down several feet when two nurses came in, got my bed and rolled it down a series of corridors and through some operating room doors. The anethesiologist was waiting and said, "you may feel a slight burning sensation" as she adjusted something outside my range of vision. I asked something to the effect of, "so this is it, I'm going out now?". I don't recall an answer...but about that time I ceased to exist.

There followed some disjointed memories of lying in a bed with various people standing over me. At one point a nurse was asking if I was feeling okay...someone was asking me if I had any relatives waiting for me at the hospital...it was about 4pm...the doctor was telling me that my sinuses were as totally screwed up as he thought from the CT scans and that they'd sent stuff off to the lab for testing to see if it was baterial or fungal...Susan and someone else were standing over the bed talking about pharamcies and how I was taking a long time to wake up.

Susan apparently decided to go to a nearby pharamcy to pick up some of my drugs while I continued to phase in out of reality. Eventually, she was over my bed again and I seemed to be going through about 15 minute cycles of relative coherence and unconsciousness. During one of my waking cycles, I decided we'd better get out while we could and convinced Susan I was ready to go. I don't remember much after that but we did eventually make it home where I slept for quite a few more hours.

Ending the day in the ER

The good news is that I'd awakened several hours later at home and was not in much pain at all. I felt a bit like someone had punched me in the nose. I also have a vast array of drugs to take. Zyrtec, liquibid, prednesone, augmentin, amoxil, hydrocodone, and some sort of nasal spray. Now for those who haven't been reading my weblog and don't know me, I should preface the following by telling you that I suffered from reflux fairly badly some years ago and have some scarring and strictures in my esophagus that cause it be a bit narrow. My esophagus was dialated to about 6mm and for all practical purposes works fine again. However, I can't swallow things larger than 6mm, obviously.

An 875mg Augmentin is 21mm long, 10mm wide, and 7mm thick. It's a big pill. There is no way it's going to fit down a 6mm esophagus. This would have been perfectly obvious to me any other time so I suppose I was still spaced out from anesthesia. I popped one of those in my mouth and swallowed it. Big mistake. There are two major tight spots - one at the top and one at the sphincter where the esophagus attaches to the stomach. The pill hit the strictures at the top and I knew instantly I was in trouble. After some major gagging, it move passed the top strictures and was now in the middle section of my esophagus. Having something stuck there is both fairly painful and debilitating - your brain sort of shuts off and you get tunnel vision and go into some sort survival mode where all your awarness is focused on trying to swallow.

I told Susan it wasn't going down and wasn't going to come up now that it had passed the halfway mark. And I knew from past experience that the pain was going to be fairly intense when it hit the sphincter. We decided help would be, well, helpful, at this point and Susan called 911. An ambulance showed up fairly quickly and dragged me off to the Irving hospital ER. They had looked at the Augmentin pills at the house and were fairly impressed that anyone could swallow what they termed "those horse pills". Most of the ambulance trip was spent trying to explain that my nose bleed had nothing to do with the problem at hand and that the pill was stuck because of scar tissue from reflux. One of the ambulance guys spent the whole trip trying to figure out how to spell my name.

I then had to explain all the same stuff to the ER staff. This was not the busy ER you see on TV. This was a big empty ER with a lot of bored doctors and nurses hanging around. They didn't really seem to have much of an idea what to do with me other than stand around, watch, and tell each other that I'd swallowed a really big pill.

All this time the pill had been slowly moving down my esophagus and finally hit the sphincter. There were several moments of really intense pain and I had a couple of stomach convulsions and then... nothing. I told them that I thought the pill had made it into my stomach. I asked for some water so I could test my theory by trying to swallow. And, indeed, all was okay again. It tooks us another half hour to get out of the ER and back home. I got a replacement prescription for the Augmentin - they don't have pills small enough to swallow, so I ended up getting a liquid version that tastes pretty nasty instead.

Despite my ER adventure, I've spent the last two days resting and actually feel pretty good now.

The day of reckoning for my sinuses has arrived. I check into the hospital tomorrow. Nearly every one of my sinuses is a solid mass, so the doctor will be doing several types of endoscopic surgery to get things working again. Even though it's an out patient procedure, my case is complicated enough that it's estimated to take 3 hours or so. Because of the time involved, general anesthesia will be used. I don't know yet if the doctor is using the latest laser hardware or the older rotating burr gizmo. I believe the imaging data from my earlier CT scans will be used for live tracking of the endoscope location during the procedure.

So, what are the actual procedures, I'm sure everyone is asking. Well, the first is a Total Ethmoidectomy. The posterior and maxillary ethmoids are sinuses located between the eyes. They have a honeycomb like structure made of thin bone. The goal of the procedure is to destroy and remove the honeycomb of air cells, leaving a single cavity that will drain more easily.

Then we have a Bilateral Frontal Resection and Bilateral Anterior Resection which seem to be nothing but fancy medical talk for, "we're going to blast some holes in both sides of the front and back" of something. (In this case, the something is more of my sinuses.)

And, finally, a Bilateral Sphenoidotomy. This involves enlarging openings in the sphenoid sinus. The sphenoid sinus is very close to the optic nerves and the carotid artery - let's hope I don't sneeze in the middle of this one!

Why does this whole thing remind me of the scene in Total Recall where Quaid removes the tracking device from his nose...

ODP RDF Exports

The RDF exports seem to be coming out like clockwork again from ODP. The first was riddled with errors but the second is much, much better. No illegal XML characters in either file and only one had UTF-8 errors. With luck, the next one will be error free. I'm going to attempt to create smaller RDFs of ODP subcats for those who only need one or two categories and don't like downloading the full 1GB RDF.

Gecko to music conversion using 3 bit tuples

I was driving home from work recently after a particularly stressful day when some random synapses fired in my brain (or perhaps just burned out from stress) and an idea formed...

Standard diatonic musical scales have eight notes, a power of 2 that can be represented by a 3 bits. We're used to thinking of our data primarily in terms of 8 bit bytes. But any file on your computer is just a stream of bits and could be processed in 3 bit chunks rather than 8 bit chunks. So, I thought, that means every file on my hard disk is potentially a piece of music.

I was up late playing with the Perl pack and unpack functions and eventually cranked out a simple byte to note converter that will take any arbitrary file as input and produces MIDI note data as output. After re-attaching a somewhat disused Yamaha keyboard to my Linux box, I picked a file to test the program with. I started small with a 1478 byte plain text file that contained a Backus Naur diagram of the Ring Tone Text Transfer Language. The result, while a bit odd, could be described as music of sorts. With seeming success at hand, I looked for more interesting data.

Next, I took a 24Kb JPEG photo of Nimon, one of our Geckos, and converted it. The resulting music had a Danny Elfman-like urgency to it and was a bit of an improvement over the RTTTL composition. However, the MIDI file was 500Kb and creating it consumed nearly all available memory on my box. It was at this point that I realized the MIDI::Simple module that I'd grabbed from CPAN wasn't really designed for stream use or for large volumes of data. For some reason it wants to hold the entire collection of notes in memory before writing the output.

More interesting though, was that the real Nimon seemed to take an interest in the music created from her image. She came out from under the hollow log she usually sleeps under and stood on top of it holding her head up in the air as if listening. Who knows what a Gecko hears - maybe she was just feeling the vibrations from the sounds and thought an insect was around that needed eating.

No data is lost in the conversion and it should be trivial to convert the MIDI file back into the the original data. In fact, since the music uses only one timbre and is not polyphonic, it shouldn't be too hard to convert from the music itself back to the original data. It's not an efficient data transfer medium, however. Music usually plays at around 96 or so beats per minute, each beat is just 3 bits of the original data. So a 24Kb JPEG becomes an 11 hour musical work!

Despite the inefficiency of music as a data storage or transfer mechanism, tradition says that when a new way of encoding data is found, one has to encode the decss.c file. I present decss.mid, an illegal circumvention device in C Major, Opus 3.

17 Feb 2003 (updated 17 Feb 2003 at 06:45 UTC) »

We received another BSA threat-letter at NCC Friday. That's two in as many weeks. It was the usual collection of vague threats that if we didn't rush out and buy some Microsoft, Adobe, and Macromedia software the BSA might have to search our office for unlicensed software and fine us a few million dollars. This time I called their toll free number and told them to remove us from their mailing list because we were tired of getting lame marketing letters disguised as legal threats. (feel free to call them yourself and let them know what you think of them - hey, it's a free call! 1-877-536-4BSA) I also told them we'd instituted a company-wide policy to discontinue the use of all software products made by BSA members in favor of Free/Open equivalents because of the marketing-by-extortion methods of the BSA. The girl I was talking with claimed they removed our address from their list and, after specifically asking her twice to do so, claimed she had made a note in our file about our new policy. So, will they really remove us from their list or will they put us on the list of companies to target with audits? Time will tell.

ODP finally solved the problem with RDF generation and a new RDF dump showed up on the 13th. The downside is that the dump is still riddled with invalid UTF-8 sequences and illegal XML characters. On the last RDF, I provided offsets of a lot of the errors by waiting for an XML parser to bomb-off and then looking for the problems with a hex editor (which is time consuming when you have to start over on a 1GB file after each error). This time I decided to be lazy and wrote some quick C code to do it for me. Strangely, a search on the net had failed to locate any UTF-8 or XML checkers that would work on arbitrarily large files. And most XML validators don't check for illegal XML characters or invalid UTF-8 sequences, they simple fail unrecoverably when the they hit one. Anyway, I processed the RDF files and posted a list of errors in the latest dump. So with a little luck, the next RDF dumps will be much cleaner.

6 Feb 2003 (updated 6 Feb 2003 at 06:34 UTC) »

On Sunday, Susan and I decided to go hunting for shuttle debris. I had been inspired by a fellow-DPRG member, Eric Yundt, who reported having seen a tile fragment less than an hour from Dallas in Rice, Texas. We picked up a paper and looked for any references to comfirmed debris sightings but most were too vague. And most of the debris hit in Nacogdoches and Hemphill which were too far away to make the round trip in one day.

So we decided to head for Rice, Texas. We easily found the site Eric saw on the I-45 frontage road near the Rice High School. The debris was marked by orange traffic cones and yellow crime scene tape. A local policeman was guarding it. Sometime after Eric was there on Saturday, orders were apparently issued to cover the debris. In most cases, this meant a 5 gallon plastic bucket had been placed over the item.

The police officer in Rice was not allowing anyone close to the debris and would not remove the plastic cover so we could see it. He also was not forthcoming about any other debris locations. Since the newspaper hadn't been much help in pinning down exact locations either, we were momentarily afraid we'd have to give up right there. But I noticed a van from local TV station KTVT and walked over to talk with one of the technicians. He said he'd been in Keren a little earlier. There was a lot of debris scattered around there and the Keren officials were much friendlier, too.

A half hour later, we arrived in Keren. We shortly arrived at an intersection with a police car and a whole lot of orange cones and crime scene tape. On one side of the street was a large dirt field with dozens of orange cones scattered through it. The state trouper guarding this site said we couldn't go into the field because they weren't sure that all the debris had been identified yet. However, on the other side of the street, were two pieces we could look at. He offered to remove the plastic containers so we could see and photograph them.

The first was a partial heat shield tile. The serial number was still visible but the tile was pretty badly damaged. The second piece was a completely intact tile. Small portions of the black, glass-like exterior had been damaged and the white color of interior could be seen. While we were looking at these, a couple of locals came by and started talking about debris that had landed in their yards or at other locations nearby. Most of it seemed to be tiles. However, they said they knew of one aluminium fragment that hit between two nearby churches. We got directions and headed that way.

We found a local policeman sitting in his car near the usual barrier of traffic cones and crime scene tape with a plastic can in the center. Like the state trouper, he happily removed the can so I could take some photos. This piece was a triangular shard of metal. One side had been painted and was now badly charred. The other side was bare metal and had an assortment of broken fasteners on it. The policeman said he'd seen a lot of the debris land. His description was not the view of the white contrails moving across the sky but of white contrails coming down out of the sky towards their town. Considering how much debris there was, it's amazing no one was injured.

By this time, we decided to start for home again. There was more debris in Kerens but it was all very similar. Mostly tile fragments and a few bits of metal so it didn't seem worth more time. Have a look at the photos if you're interested...

Yesterday morning, just after I woke up, I heard a loud rumbling outside. I assumed this was just a plane coming into DFW airport. The weather occasionally causes them to take a flight path right over our house that can be fairly loud. About half an hour later, I turned on the television and saw the first video of Columbia breaking up. I immediately went outside but it was far too late to see anything. The news commentators kept repeating over and over that the shuttle carried the first Israeli astronaut, implying some connection to Islamic terrorists but I seriously doubt there are many weapons that could track and hit a vehicle at 200,000 feet traveling at 12,000 mph.

I couldn't help recalling memories of the Challenger from 1986. I had been driving home from classes at UTA when I heard the news on the radio that Challenger exploded shortly after take off. I kept thinking that it couldn't possibly be correct - the reporters must be making some sort of mistake. By the time I got home and saw the video of the explosion I realized it was true. But yesterday, I knew instantly what had happened. Without the sound turned on, just looking at the words "breaking news", "Columbia" and the contrail breaking up, I knew.

The worst part back in 1986 was that I was young enough that I still believed there was some chance I'd get off this rock in my lifetime. When the Challenger accident occured, I lost that hope and knew it wouldn't happen. We'd be stuck here on Earth for my lifetime. Within days of the accident luddites everywhere were trotting out the same tired, irrational arguments against space travel and science in general; "Space travel is too dangerous for humans", "The space program is a waste of money", "Man shouldn't travel to other worlds until he can sort out the mess he's made of this one"... I've seen several of those pop up again in less than 24 hours after Columbia's demise.

Watching the contrail on CNN, I also thought back to July of 1999 when Susan and I stood in our front yard and watched Columbia cross the night sky over Texas, leaving a golden, sparkling trail of ionized plasma. I wonder how long it will be before we see a shuttle re-entry again?

The DPRG mailing list was buzzing with activity about the Columbia all day yesterday. DPRG members are located all over Texas (and beyond). They always managed to come up with stuff you don't see on the news. Eric Yundt noticed that the shuttle debris trail was visible on a National Weather Service weather radar near the Texas Louisianna border and began archiving the images. Ed Okerson assembled the images into an animation that shows the debris trail expanding and descending across the state. A later message from David Anderson, a geologist, indicated the SMU infrasound station in Lajitas had recorded the sound waves generated by the shuttle's breakup. Rather than a normal N wave, the recorded pressures waves were like nothing the geologists had ever recorded before. David said it looked more like the sounds from a ripple fired mining explosion. David has put up a web page with images of the sound waves that were recorded. (he contacted NASA as well, since his data covers a time period after NASA lost telemetry data)

One last thought is what Richard P. Feynman said in his controversial appendix to the Challenger report, "The shuttle flies in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure on the order of a percent (1 in 100)". If you ever get the chance, read "What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character" which has the full account of his investigation of the Challenger disaster.

30 Jan 2003 (updated 30 Jan 2003 at 06:24 UTC) »

Medical Mysteries

"You have the sort of sinuses an ENT dreams about" - not what you want to hear from your doctor after a CT scan. About four months ago I had a cold. A month later I still had it and began to suspect it wasn't a cold. My ENT thought it might be an allergy. This was a depressing thought as I've never had allergies before and didn't look forward to being unable to breathe through my nose for the rest of my life. He put me on Zyrtec and Allegra. Another month later and things were worse, not better. The doc ordered a CT Scan. That part was actually pretty cool; lying face-down on a platform that moved linearly in and out of a rotating ring within a huge, pivoting mass while red targeting lasers lit up my head.

The result of the CT scan was a series of about 35 cross sectional views of my head. It was a coronal view, so it only covered the front third so of the head. But it was enough to show that all my sinuses, which should contain nothing but air, were solid masses. At least one was begining to calcify. So the fix is to perform, lets see, a total ethmoidectomy, a bilateral frontal resection, a bilateral anterior resection, and a bilateral sphenoidotomy. Three hours or more of nasal roto-rootering.

The immediate next step is trying to get the insurance company to approve the procedures...

When I get time, I plan to scan the CT images and maybe try to assemble them into a nice 3D view of my head.

ODP News

RDF export is still broken. Overall performance is still degrading rapidly - a lot of folks haven't been able to access the public site at all lately. Since the ODP software isn't designed to scale beyond one physical server and there's nothing faster than the 16 CPU Sun 4500 handy, they decided to give priority to the editors by throttling back public access. So we can edit to our hearts content but you can't see the site or use the RDF exports. The one developer who maintains the entire dmoz/ODP system and codebase is doing all she can but AOL won't allow outside help because it's proprietary code. So we're keeping our fingers crossed that she'll get things fixed but I have to admit that I'm not too optimistic at present. Not a happy situation.

There's been a lot of talk about starting a new directory project to fill in the ODP gap with something new that's not controlled by AOL and that's not just Open Content but Open Source/Free Software as well. I've gotten email from several interested editors who want to work on the project and have been talking with two other programmers who've been working on a clone of the ODP software for a while. If anyone else is interested, or has some ideas feel free to contact me.

The Dangers of Blogging

Someone I know just lost her job for saying the wrong thing about the wrong person in her weblog - yikes!

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