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Amazing eclipse at Enewetak, Marshall Islands

The total eclipse of the sun is the most visually stunning natural phenomenon there is. It leaves the other natural wonders like the Grand Canyon far behind. Through an amazing set of circumstances I got to see my 4th on Enewetak, an isolated atoll in the Marshall Islands. Enewetak was the site of 43 nuclear explosions including Mike, the first H-bomb (which erased one of the islands in the chain.)

The eclipse was astounding and we saw it clearly, other than one cloud which intruded for the first 30 seconds of our 5 minute and 40 second totality in otherwise generally clear skies. We were fortunate, as most of the eclipse path, which went over hundreds of millions of people, was clouded out in India and China. After leaving China the eclipse visited just a few islands, including Enewetak, and many of those were also clouded.

What makes the story even more dramatic is the effort to get there, and the fact that we only confirmed we were going 48 hours before the eclipse. We tracked the weather and found that only Enewetak had good cloud prospects and a long runway, but the runway there has not been maintained for several years, and hasn’t seen a jet for a long time. We left not knowing if we would be able to land there, but in the end all was glorious.

I have written up the story and included my first round of eclipse photos (my best to date) as well as photos of the islands and the nuke craters. I will be updating with new photos, including experiments in high-dynamic-range photography. An eclipse is so amazing in part because it covers a huge range of brightnesses — from prominences almost as hot as the sun, to the inner corona (solar atmosphere) brighter than the full moon to the streamers of the outer corona, and the stars and planets. No photograph has ever remotely done it justice, but I am working on that.

This eclipse had terror, drama, excitement and great beauty. The corona was more compact than it has been in the past, due to the strange minimum the sun has been going through, and there were few prominences, but the adventure getting there and the fantastic tropical setting made up for it.

Enjoy the story of the story of the jet trip to the 2009 Eclipse at Enewetak. You’ll be a bit jealous, but it was so great I can make no apologies.

Can you be merely "influenced" by God?

Discussion of yesterday’s mega-review of the ending of Battlestar Galactica included much focus on my negative view of the rule of a god as an intervening character in fiction. Many readers feel that the God of Galactica (Gog) did not so much control events as influence them. This suggests the following sidebar on religion:

Many religions struggle with the concept of a god that is so omniscient, it knows the future. This sometimes is described as being eternal, existing outside of time. The problem is the conflict between this, and free will. I find the two to be contradictory, especially when it comes to the concept found in many Christian sects that free will is most important with respect to your choice about whether to believe in god or not, or whether to be good or evil. The religions say you were created by god, who knew what choices you would make before creating you, but you are also punished for those choices. Even though, if asked, “can I choose another future than the one god knows I will choose, making him wrong?” they will say no.

However, the religious often do not see the same contradiction. We will not resolve this conflict here. I want to address the more direct question of a god who talks to people, and intervenes directly in the mortal world, as Gog does.

Gog appears in the minds of Baltar and many other characters. Gog also directly affects physical events, doing things like returning Starbuck in a new Viper.  read more »

Battlestar's "Daybreak:" The worst ending in the history of on-screen science fiction

Battlestar Galactica attracted a lot of fans and a lot of kudos during its run, and engendered this sub blog about it. Here, in my final post on the ending, I present the case that its final hour was the worst ending in the history of science fiction on the screen. This is a condemnation of course, but also praise, because my message is not simply that the ending was poor, but that the show rose so high that it was able to fall so very far. I mean it was the most disappointing ending ever.

(There are, of course, major spoilers in this essay.)

Other SF shows have ended very badly, to be sure. This is particularly true of TV SF. Indeed, it is in the nature of TV SF to end badly. First of all, it’s written in episodic form. Most great endings are planned from the start. TV endings rarely are. To make things worse, TV shows are usually ended when the show is in the middle of a decline. They are often the result of a cancellation, or sometimes a producer who realizes a cancellation is imminent. Quite frequently, the decline that led to cancellation can be the result of a creative failure on the show — either the original visionaries have gone, or they are burned out. In such situations, a poor ending is to be expected.

Sadly, I’m hard pressed to think of a TV SF series that had a truly great ending. That’s the sort of ending you might find in a great book or movie, the ending that caps the work perfectly, which solidifies things in a cohesive whole. Great endings will sometimes finally make sense out of everything, or reveal a surprise that, in retrospect, should have been obvious all along. I’m convinced that many of the world’s best endings came about when the writer actually worked out the ending first, then then wrote a story leading to that ending.

There have been endings that were better than the show. Star Trek: Voyager sunk to dreadful depths in the middle of its run, and its mediocre ending was thus a step up. Among good SF/Fantasy shows, Quantum Leap, Buffy and the Prisoner stand out as having had decent endings. Babylon 5’s endings (plural) were good but, just as I praise Battlestar Galactica (BSG) by saying its ending sucked, Babylon 5’s endings were not up to the high quality of the show. (What is commonly believed to be B5’s original planned ending, written before the show began, might well have made the grade.)

Ron Moore’s goals

To understand the fall of BSG, one must examine it both in terms of more general goals for good SF, and the stated goals of the head writer and executive producer, Ronald D. Moore. The ending failed by both my standards (which you may or may not care about) but also his.

Moore began the journey by laying out a manifesto of how he wanted to change TV SF. He wrote an essay about Naturalistic science fiction where he outlined some great goals and promises, which I will summarize here, in a slightly different order

  • Avoiding SF clichés like time travel, mind control, god-like powers, and technobabble.
  • Keeping the science real.
  • Strong, real characters, avoiding the stereotypes of older TV SF. The show should be about them, not the hardware.
  • A new visual and editing style unlike what has come before, with a focus on realism.

Over time he expanded, modified and sometimes intentionally broke these rules. He allowed the ships to make sound in space after vowing they would not. He eschewed aliens in general. He increased his focus on characters, saying that his mantra in concluding the show was “it’s the characters, stupid.”

The link to reality

In addition, his other goal for the end was to make a connection to our real world. To let the audience see how the story of the characters related to our story. Indeed, the writers toyed with not destroying Galactica, and leaving it buried on Earth, and ending the show with the discovery of the ship in Central America. They rejected this ending because they felt it would violate our contemporary reality too quickly, and make it clear this was an alternate history. Moore felt an alternative universe was not sufficient.

The successes, and then failures

During its run, BSG offered much that was great, in several cases groundbreaking elements never seen before in TV SF:

  • Artificial minds in humanoid bodies who were emotional, sexual and religious.
  • Getting a general audience to undertand the “humanity” of these machines.
  • Stirring space battles with much better concepts of space than typically found on TV. Bullets and missiles, not force-rays.
  • No bumpy-head aliens, no planet of the week, no cute time travel or alternate-reality-where-everybody-is-evil episodes.
  • Dark stories of interesting characters.
  • Multiple copies of the same being, beings programmed to think they were human, beings able to transfer their mind to a new body at the moment of death.
  • A mystery about the origins of the society and its legends, and a mystery about a lost planet named Earth.
  • A mystery about the origin of the Cylons and their reasons for their genocide.
  • Daring use of concepts like suicide bombing and terrorism by the protagonists.
  • Kick-ass leadership characters in Adama and Roslin who were complex, but neither over the top nor understated.
  • Starbuck as a woman. Before she became a toy of god, at least.
  • Baltar: One of the best TV villains ever, a self-centered slightly mad scientist who does evil without wishing to, manipulated by a strange vision in his head.
  • Other superb characters, notably Tigh, Tyrol, Gaeta and Zarek.

But it all came to a far lesser end due to the following failures I will outline in too much detail:

  • The confirmation/revelation of an intervening god as the driving force behind events
  • The use of that god to resolve large numbers of major plot points
  • A number of significant scientific mistakes on major plot points, including:
    • Twisting the whole story to fit a completely wrong idea of what Mitochondrial Eve is
    • To support that concept, an impossible-to-credit political shift among the characters
    • The use of concepts from Intelligent Design to resolve plot issues.
    • The introduction of the nonsense idea of “collective unconscious” to explain cultural similarities.
  • The use of “big secrets” to dominate what was supposed to be a character-driven story
  • Removing all connection to our reality by trying to build a poorly constructed one
  • Mistakes, one of them major and never corrected, which misled the audience

And then I’ll explain the reason why the fall was so great — how, until the last moments, a few minor differences could have fixed most of the problems.  read more »

Two wheeled robocars and the Twill

I have mostly written about 3 and 4 wheeled Robocars, even when the vehicles are narrow and light. Having 3 or 4 wheels of course means stability when stopped or slow, but I have also been concerned that even riding a 2 wheeled vehicle like a motorcycle requires a lot of rider participation. It is necessary to lean into turns. It’s disconcerting being the stoker on a tandem bicycle or the passenger on a motorcycle, compared to being a car passenger. You certainly don’t imagine yourself reading a book in such situations.

On the other hand 3/4 wheeled vehicles have their disadvantages. They must have a wide enough wheelbase to be stable because they can’t easiliy lean. In addition, for full stability you want to keep their center of gravity as low as you can. The extra width means a lot more drag, unless you have a design like the Aptera Motors entrant in the Progressive 100mpg X-prize, which puts the wheels out to the sides.

I recently met Chris Tacklind, who has a design-stage startup called Twill Tech. They have not produced a vehicle yet, but their concepts are quite interesting. Their planned vehicle, the Twill, has two wheels but uses computer control to allow it to stay stable when stopped. It does this by slight motions of the wheels, the same way that pro cyclists will do a track stand. They believe they can make a 2 wheeled electric motorcycle that can use this technique to stay stable when stopped, though it would need to extend extra legs when parked.

This is intended to be an enclosed vehicle, both for rider comfort and lower drag. The seat is very different from a motorcycle seat, in that you do not sit astride the vehicle, but in a chair similar to a spacecraft’s zero-G chair.

In addition, the vehicle is designed to have the rear wheel on a lever arm so that it can stand almost upright when stopped and then slope down low, with the rider reclined, at higher speeds. The reclined position is necessary for decent drag numbers at speed — the upright human creates a lot of the drag in a bicycle or motorcycle. However, the upright position when slow or stopped allows for much easier entry and exit of the vehicle. As everybody knows, really low cars are harder to get in and out of. Twill is not the first company to propose a vehicle which rises and lowers. For example the MIT CityCar plan proposes this so the vehicles can stack for parking. Even without stacking, such designs can park in a much smaller space.  read more »

Tales of the Michael Jackson lottery, eBay and security

I’ve been fascinated of late with the issue of eBay auctions of hot-hot items, like the playstation 3 and others. The story of the Michael Jackson memorial tickets is an interesting one.

17,000 tickets were given out as 8,500 pairs to winners chosen from 1.6 million online applications. Applicants had to give their name and address, and if they won, they further had to use or create a ticketmaster account to get their voucher. They then had to take the voucher to Dodger stadium in L.A. on Monday. (This was a dealbreaker even for honest winners from too far outside L.A. such as a Montreal flight attendant.) At the stadium, they had to present ID to show they were the winner, whereupon they were given 2 tickets (with random seat assignment) and two standard club security wristbands, one of which was affixed to their arm. They were told if the one on the arm was damaged in any way, they would not get into the memorial. The terms indicated the tickets were non-transferable.

Immediately a lot of people, especially those not from California who won, tried to sell tickets on eBay and Craigslist. In fact, even before the lottery results, people were listing something more speculative, “If I win the lottery, you pay me and you’ll get my tickets.” (One could enter the lottery directly of course, but this would increase your chances as only one entry was allowed, in theory, per person.)

Both eBay and Craigslist had very strong policies against listing these tickets, and apparently had staff and software working regularly to remove listings. Listings on eBay were mostly disappearing quickly, though some persisted for unknown reasons. Craiglist listings also vanished quickly, though some sellers were clever enough to put their phone numbers in their listing titles. On Craigslist a deleted ad still shows up in the search summary for some time after the posting itself is gone.

There was a strong backlash by fans against the sellers. On both sites, ordinary users were regularly hitting the links to report inappropriate postings. In addition, a brand new phenomenon emerged on eBay — some users were deliberately placing 99 million dollar bids on any auction they found for tickets, eliminating any chance of further bidding. (See note) In that past that could earn you negative reputation, but eBay has removed negative reputation for buyers. In addition, it could earn you a mark as a non-paying buyer, but in this case, the seller is unable to file such a complaint because their auction of the non-tranferable ticket itself violates eBay’s terms.  read more »

A standard OS mini-daemon, saving power and memory

On every system we use today (except the iPhone) a lot of programs want to be daemons — background tasks that sit around to wait for events or perform certain regular operations. On Windows it seems things are the worst, which is why I wrote before about how Windows needs a master daemon. A master daemon is a single background process that uses a scripting language to perform most of the daemon functions that other programs are asking for. A master daemon will wait for events and fire off more full-fledged processes when they happen. Scripts would allow detection of connection on ports, updated software versions becoming available, input from the user and anything else that becomes popular.

(Unix always had a simple master daemon for internet port connections, called inetd, but today Linux systems tend to be full of always-running deamons.)

Background tasks make a system slow to start up, and take memory. This is becoming most noticed on our new, lower powered devices like smartphones. So much so that Apple made the dramatic decision to not allow applications to run in the background. No multitasking is allowed. This seriously restricts what the iPhone can do, but Apple feels the increase in performance is worth it. It is certainly true that on Windows Mobile (which actually made it hard to terminate a program once you started it running) very quickly bloats down and becomes unusable.

Background tasks are also sucking battery life on phones. On my phone it’s easy to leave Google maps running in the background by mistake, and then it will sit there constantly sucking down maps, using the network and quickly draining the battery. I have not tried all phones, but Windows Mobile on my HTC is a complete idiot about battery management. Once you start up the network connection you seem to have to manually take it down, and if you don’t you can forget about your battery life. Often is the time you’ll pull the phone out to find it warm and draining. I don’t know if the other multitasking phones, like the Android, Pre and others have this trouble.

The iPhone’s answer is too draconian. I think the answer lies in a good master daemon, where programs can provide scripts in a special language to get the program invoked on various events. Whatever is popular should be quickly added to the daemon if it’s not too large. (The daemon itself can be modular so it only keeps in ram what it really needs.)

In particular, the scripts should say how important quick response time is, and whether the woken code will want to use the network. Consider an e-mail program that wants to check for new e-mail every 10 minutes. (Ideally it should have IMAP push but that’s another story.)

The master daemon scheduler should realize the mail program doesn’t have to connect exactly every 10 minutes, though that is what a background task would do. It doesn’t mind if it’s off by even a few minutes. So if there are multiple programs that want to wake up and do something every so often, they can be scheduled to only be loaded one or two at a time, to conserve memory and CPU. So the e-mail program might wait a few minutes for something else to complete. In addition, since the e-Mail program wants to use the network, groups of programs that want to use the network could be executed in order (or even, if appropriate, at the same time) so that the phone ends up setting up a network connection (on session based networks) and doing all the network daemons, and then closing it down.

The master daemon could also centralize event notifications coming from the outside. Programs that want to be woken up for such events (such as incoming emails or IMs) could register to be woken up on various events on ports. If the wireless network doesn’t support that it might allow notifications to come in via SMS that a new task awaits. When this special SMS comes in, the network connection would be brought up, and the signalled task would run, along with other tasks that want to do a quick check of the network. As much of this logic should be in the daemon script, so that the full program is only woken up if that is truly needed.

The daemon would of course handle all local events (key presses, screen touches) and also events from other sensors, like the GPS (wake me up if we get near hear, or more than 100 meters from there, etc.) It would also detect gestures with the accelerometer. If the user shakes the phone or flips it in a certain way, a program might want to be woken up.

And of course, it should be tied to the existing daemon that handles incoming calls and SMSs. Apps should be able to (if given permission) take control of incoming communications, to improve what the regular phone does.

This system could give the illusion of a full multitasking phone without the weight of it. Yes, loading in an app upon an event might be slightly slower than having it sitting there in ram. But if there is spare ram, it would of course be cached there anyway. An ideal app would let itself be woken up in stages, with a small piece of code loading quickly to give instant UI response, and the real meat loading more slowly if need be.

While our devices are going to get faster, this is not a problem which will entirely go away. The limiting factors in a portable device are mostly based on power, including the power to keep the network radios on. And applications will keep getting bigger the faster our CPUs get and the bigger our memories get. So this approach may have more lifetime than you think.

Review of Downfall / Der Untergang

Last month I released a parody video for the film “Downfall” (known as Der Untergang in German.) Having purchased the movie, I also watched it of course, and here is my review. At least in my case, the existence of the parody brought some new sales for the film. There are “spoilers” of a sort in this review, but of course you already know how it ends, indeed as history you may know almost everything that happens in it, though unless you are a detailed student of these events you won’t know all of it.

The movie, which deals with Hitler’s last days in the bunker, is dark and depressing. And there is the challenge of making some of the nastiest villains of the 20th century be the protagonists. This caused controversy, because people don’t like seeing Hitler and his ilk humanized even in the slightest. Hitler in this film is in some ways as you might expect him. Crazy, brutal and nasty. He’s also shown being kind to some friends, to Eva, to his dog, his secretaries and a few others. He has to be human or the film becomes just caricature, and not much as a drama. Goebbels gets little humanity, and his wife, who has the most disturbing scene in the film, has a very twisted sort of humanity.

While we have only a limited idea of what Hitler was like at this time, I feel the movie actually still made him a madman caricature. The real Hitler must have been highly charismatic and charming. He inspired people to tremendous loyalty, and got them to do horrible things for him, including taking their own lives at the end as we’re shown several times. The Nazis who were recruited by Hitler in his early days all spoke warmly of his charm, but none of this comes through in the film. We don’t like to think of him that way.

The movie is told in large part from the viewpoint of Frau Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s private secretaries, who escaped the bunker and died a few years ago. The real Junge appears in the film, apologizing for how she just got caught up in the excitement of being Hitler’s secretary, and how she wished she never went down that road. Like all the people who were there, she says she was unaware of what was really going on. Considering she typed Hitler’s last testament, where he blames the Jews for the war, and other statements he dictated to her, it’s not something she could have been totally unaware of. Junge asks Eva Braun about Hitler’s brutality as a contrast to his nicer moods and she explains, “that’s when he’s being the Führer!” suggesting she compartmentalized the two men, lover and dictator, in two different ways.

During the movie the Soviets are bombing Berlin, and Hitler refuses surrender, in spite of urging from his generals and pleas for the civilians. Even Himmler, whose dastardly evil side is not shown in this film, is the “smart one” encouraging Hitler to leave Berlin, and who “betrays” Hitler in trying to negotiate a surrender. As in any war movie, when you see people being blown up by bombs and shot from their point of view, your instinct is to sympathise, and it’s easy to forget it is the allies who are doing the bombing, and the people dying are the ones who stuck with Hitler to the end. Some of them are “innocent,” including many of the citizens of Berlin, but many are not. Their loyalty may seem redeeming but they are giving that loyalty (and have reached a level of trust from Hitler) in a world where many in Germany wanted him out, where a number had been executed for plots to be rid of him.

A few Nazis get favourable treatment. Speer, for example. A scene from his memoirs, which is probably false, has Speer telling Hitler that he has disobeyed his “Nero” scorched Earth orders. This scene appears in Speer’s later memoirs but is denied in earlier ones, making it likely to be an invented memory. To give Speer credit, of course, he did disobey the orders, and he was the only top Nazi to own up, even partially, for what he did. Junge herself comes off as perfectly innocent and loyal. General Mohnke and SS Doctor Ernst-Günther Schenck (both of whom died moderately recently) get positive treatments.

The most disturbing scene involves Frau Goebbels executing her own children. There are conflicting stories on this, though the one piece of documentation, her last letter, makes it somewhat credible. Movie directors “like” such scenes, as they are incredibly chilling and nightmare-inducing. While Hitler was losing his grip on reality, the others were not, and these horrors are all a result of how much they embraced their bizarre ideology. Frau Goebbels could have sent her children to safety, she felt there was no point in them living in the world that was to come. Still, this scene will give you nightmares, along with a number of other gruesome suicides, even if you know in your mind that the people suiciding have done such incredibly nasty things.

But this is a part of history worth understanding. And it is worth trying to understand — though we may never do so — how human beings not as different from us as we would like to believe —could have been such monsters. The movie is well made, and powerful, if depressing and disturbing at the same time.

Design for a universal plug

I’ve written before about both the desire for universal dc power and more simply universal laptop power at meeting room desks. This week saw the announcement that all the companies selling cell phones in Europe will standardize on a single charging connector, based on micro-USB. (A large number of devices today use the now deprecated Mini-USB plug, and it was close to becoming a standard by default.) As most devices are including a USB plug for data, this is not a big leap, though it turned out a number of devices would not charge from other people’s chargers, either from stupidity or malice. (My Motorola RAZR will not charge from a generic USB charger or even an ordinary PC. It needs a special charger with the data pins shorted, or if it plugs into a PC, it insists on a dialog with the Motorola phone tools driver before it will accept a charge. Many suspect this was to just sell chargers and the software.) The new agreement is essentially just a vow to make sure everybody’s chargers work with everybody’s devices. It’s actually a win for the vendors who can now not bother to ship a charger with the phone, presuming you have one or will buy one. It is not required they have the plug — supplying an adapter is sufficient, as Apple is likely to do. Mp3 player vendors have not yet signed on.

USB isn’t a great choice since it only delivers 500ma at 5 volts officially, though many devices are putting 1 amp through it. That’s not enough to quickly charge or even power some devices. USB 3.0 officially raised the limit to 900ma, or 4.5 watts.

USB is a data connector with some power provided which has been suborned for charging and power. What about a design for a universal plug aimed at doing power, with data being the secondary goal? Not that it would suck at data, since it’s now pretty easy to feed a gigabit over 2 twisted pairs with cheap circuits. Let’s look at the constraints

Smart Power

The world’s new power connector should be smart. It should offer 5 volts at low current to start, to power the electronics that will negotiate how much voltage and current will actually go through the connector. It should also support dumb plugs, which offer only a resistance value on the data pins, with each resistance value specifying a commonly used voltage and current level.

Real current would never flow until connection (and ground if needed) has been assured. As such, there is minimal risk of arcing or electric shock through the plug. The source can offer the sorts of power it can deliver (AC, DC, what voltages, what currents) and the sink (power using device) can pick what it wants from that menu. Sinks should be liberal in what they take though (as they all have become of late) so they can be plugged into existing dumb outlets through simple adapters.

Style of pins

We want low current plugs to be small, and heavy current plugs to be big. I suggest a triangular pin shape, something like what is shown here. In this design, two main pins can only go in one way. The lower triangle is an optional ground — but see notes on grounding below.  read more »