Friday, February 12, 2016

Do you like persimmons?

Do you like persimmons?  If you do, try Trader Joe's unsweetened, unsulfured dried California persimmons.  They are hands-down the best I've ever had.  They actually taste like persimmons!

Nic Lewis...

Nic Lewis ... writing at Climate Audit, demolishes another Thermageddonist paper...

Music video in weightlessness...

Music video in weightlessness...  Pretty darned cool!  This was done inside an aircraft flying a parabolic arc.  I'm amazed how long they can keep that up!

I have a dream!

I have a dream!  Via my pistol-packing, woodpecker-sighting mama...

Why do people go to emergency rooms?

Why do people go to emergency rooms?  Man, there were a lot of surprises in here for me, starting with #1...

Sawed off in Paradise...

Sawed off in Paradise...  For about three hours this morning, we were cut off from the Internet  (“sawed off” in IT lingo).  Quite a bit of my morning routine revolves around the Internet (mainly email, Twitter, and news), so this was quite ... unsettling ... for me :)

The views outside our windows were quite beautiful this morning.  At right is the view to the north, toward our friend and neighbor Tim D.  I particularly liked the way the mountains looked, filtered through the haze.  Not ten minutes after I took this photo, that fog bank you can see in the background came down and engulfed us.  Now we're living in a sea of gray, with visibility down to under 100'.

Now I'm going to go catch up on things, as we have the Internet back.  Yay!

Oh, yes...

Oh, yes...  A thousand times yes!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A rimey morning in Paradise...

A rimey morning in Paradise...  It's cold this morning, but it's also foggy.  That combination means that rime is forming on any surface that's below freezing.  Since it was well below freezing (air temperature) last night, that means just about everything is covered with rime, some so thickly that it looks almost like it snowed.  Some photos from around our yard:


Like all the photos I've taken in the past few months, these were taken with an unmodified iPhone 6s Plus using the built-in camera app.  As usual, the only processing I've done is color-correction (for white balance) – for some reason, my iPhone wants to make outdoor shots have a bluish cast...

Paradise Porcupine ponders...

Paradise Porcupine ponders...  That's Porcupine Reservoir, which we took a short drive up to last night.  We'd heard from a fellow wildlife gawker that the road up to the reservoir had been plowed, and that there were elk to be seen up there.  Well, we got to the reservoir, but no further than the north edge of the dam – and that road had not been plowed.  Furthermore, we saw just one cow elk on the entire trip.

On the other hand, we saw quite a few deer, and a bald eagle soaring overhead.  And lots of beautiful winter scenery:


Sneezes...

Sneezes...  More than you ever wanted to know, or (especially) see...

They're counting on you being stupid...

They're counting on you being stupid...  The American political parties, I mean.  There's a form of corruption that is, so far as I'm aware, uniquely American.  The two major organized political parties in the U.S. (the Democrats and the Republicans, if you've just emerged from under a rock) both have a vested interest in not letting you (the American voter) select the candidates that you want in the Presidential primaries.  They have two main methods of taking this power away from you:
  1. The power of the “Party Purse”.
  2. Superdelegates.
The parties have other tools as well, some of which you can read about here.  If you do, you will likely emerge disillusioned about the state of democracy in the U.S.  Short version: your vote isn't as important as you think it is, despite the parties' attempts to convince you otherwise.

The “Party Purse” is easy enough to understand.  The two parties collect a lot of money through campaign contributions.  This money gets spent in various ways.  Some of it promotes the party in a way that is not specific to any candidate.  Most of it is eventually spent in support of a single candidate, though the means may be slightly subtle.  For instance, if the Republican party were to spend money on ads promoting one particular point of view on, say, immigration – that will be seen as supporting some candidates and not others.

The superdelegate system, on the other hand, is something the parties (especially the Democratic Party) would rather you didn't know about.  Certainly they don't go around bragging about it, and the media says remarkably little about it.  However, consider this: in the primary election just held in New Hampshire, Sanders took 60% of the vote, and Hillary less than 40%.  So Sanders should have 50% more delegates than Hillary, right?  Wrong.  Hillary has the same number as Sanders, because of superdelegates – party insiders – choosing her, despite the votes of New Hampshire party members.  The theory is, you see, that the superdelegates know better than the voters.  That's American democracy in action, folks.

What's the answer for the corruptions of the American two-party system?  Every once in a great while, a new political party emerges – when the voters have had enough, and want better.  That last happened with the emergence of the Republican party in the 1850s, and their first big success with the election of Abraham Lincoln.  It's been too long now – 160 years! – and the corruptions of incumbent power have long been a problem.  It's long past time for us to have another ballot box revolution, though I don't see one anywhere in the predictable future.

Maybe we need the equivalent of term limits for political parties :)

    Things we have never seen before...

    Things we have never seen before...   The image at right is a screenshot I captured from APOD at 2:55 am this morning.  They're teasing us!  But I think it's also a tell – an announcement of failure from LIGO could hardly be construed as “exciting”, but success certainly would.  On this flimsy premise, I'm assuming that LIGO is going to announce that they have conclusively observed gravitational waves.

    For those of you who aren't followers of physics and cosmology discoveries :)...  This is a big deal, confirmation of a theory that originated with Einstein that has stood unproven for decades, despite many, many previous attempts to do so.  Physicists have spent their entire career trying – and failing – to actually observe gravitational waves...

    Wednesday, February 10, 2016

    First page!

    First page!  I had a bit of a milestone here today, in my current programming efforts.  I'm calling it “first page”, which is a bit like the “first light” that astronomers talk about when they first look through a new telescope.  In my case, it's the first page served up by the blog server software that I'm writing.  The screenshot at right preserves it for posterity, or something :)

    I got hung up today on a silly, stupid problem that took me an inordinately long time to track down.  It came on a piece of Java code like this:
    Integer x = test() ? 0 : null;
    When that code executed, and the function test() returned false, it generated a NullPointerException.  Can you guess what the problem was?  It turns out to be the zero!  Apparently the type of the result of a conditional expression is determined by the first operand after the "?".  In this case, that's an int – so when test() returned false the program ended up trying to assign null to an int, and of course that isn't going to work all that well.  I'm a little surprised that the result was a NullPointerException instead of some more illuminating exception, but whatever.  All I had to do to fix the problem was to change the zero to either new Integer(0) or (Integer) 0.  After that change, all was well.  I'm not the first to run into this problem, of course.

    I'm very glad to have that stupid little bug behind me!

    Paradise ponders...

    Paradise ponders...  We had a lovely excursion up to Hardware Ranch late yesterday afternoon, after a great lunch at Jack's.  We both had their Teres Major pizza, which is made from a beef cut (teres major) I'd never heard of before.  Debbie had peppadew peppers with hers, and I had roasted red peppers.  Yum!

    Our excursion was a memorable outing for several reasons, but most especially because we had four moose sightings – by far the most moose we've ever seen on one day!  One of them was an injured bull that we've spotted a couple times before, quite close to where we saw him yesterday.  His left rear leg (or foot, we're not sure) has something wrong with it; you can see him avoiding putting any weight on it.  Despite the crippling injury, he seems to be getting enough to eat, and otherwise he looks like he's in good shape.  We were only 40' or so from him, so we had a great viewing.  The other three moose were partway up the side of the mountain to the south of Blacksmith Fork River.  I've never seen moose foraging so far from water before; a couple of them were at least a quarter mile up that mountain.  All three of them were munching away on the already-struggling deciduous bushes that grow on those steep slopes, probably some sort of scrub oak.

    Another memorable sighting was an American Dipper, like the one at right (not my photo), doing his little bobbing thing in the creek not 30' from our parked truck.  He didn't seem to mind the fact that there was ice all along the edges of the creek, or that the water was 32.0001°F (at most!).

    We also saw about 12 bazillion deer, littering the canyon's bottoms and sides.  It was really kind of crazy how many deer there were.  Then there were the elk – about 10 bazillion of them.  Most of the elk were in the fenced enclosure up at Hardware Ranch, but we also saw some outside the enclosures, ranging the hills.  Once again we saw the group of bull elk on the hills just outside of Hyrum, right at the mouth of Blacksmith Fork Canyon.  Awesome!

    Why would you vote Democrat?

    Why would you vote Democrat?  An oldie-but-goodie, via my lovely bride.  It's fake, of course, but still entertaining (if you're not a Democrat :):
    Ten reasons to vote Democrat by Letterman

    #10. I vote Democrat because I love the fact that I can now marry whatever I want. I've decided to marry my German Shepherd.

    #9. I vote Democrat because I believe oil companies' profits of 4% on a gallon of gas are obscene, but the government taxing the same gallon at 15% isn't.

    #8. I vote Democrat because I believe the government will do a better job of spending the money I earn than I would.

    #7. I vote Democrat because Freedom of Speech is fine as long as nobody is offended by it.

    #6. I vote Democrat because I'm way too irresponsible to own a gun, and I know that my local police are all I need to protect me from murderers and thieves. I am also thankful that we have a 911 service that gets police to your home in order to identify your body after a home invasion.

    #5. I vote Democrat because I'm not concerned about millions of babies being aborted so long as we keep all death row inmates alive and comfy.

    #4. I vote Democrat because I think illegal aliens have a right to free health care, education, and Social Security benefits, and we should take away Social Security from those who paid into it.

    #3. I vote Democrat because I believe that businesses should not be allowed to make profits for themselves. They need to break even and give the rest away to the government for redistribution as the Democrat Party sees fit.

    #2. I vote Democrat because I believe liberal judges need to rewrite the Constitution every few days to suit fringe kooks who would never get their agendas past the voters.

    #1 reason I vote Democrat is because I think it's better to pay $billions$ for oil to people who hate us, but not drill our own because it might upset some endangered beetle, gopher, or fish here in America. We don't care about the beetles, gophers, or fish in those other countries.

    Remember when Nancy Pelosi said, "We have to pass Obamacare, to find out what's in it."  A physician called into a radio show and said: "That's the definition of a stool sample."

    "The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits"… Albert Einstein

    The perils of a connected world...

    The perils of a connected world...  This story is about a GPS glitch that caused some GPS satellite clocks to broadcast a time that was 13 microseconds (that's millionths of a second) off.  That doesn't sound like much, but it's more than enough to cause major errors in GPS' major function (locating oneself on the planet).  That 13 microsecond error translates into a (roughly) three mile location error, if the broken satellite was one of three you're using.  The problem is less awful if your receiver is using more satellites, as is most often the case.

    But ... that's only the beginning of the problem.  GPS satellites contain an atomic clock that keeps time accurate to billionths of a second (actually much better than that in the current generation of satellites).  Each satellite is broadcasting the time it has, continuously.  The position of each satellite is known to a fantastic degree of precision.  If you know the time that the satellite thinks it is (which it's broadcasting), and exactly where the satellite is (easy to get), then you can put a receiver anywhere on earth and use that to keep time that's almost as accurate as the clock on the satellite itself.  That receiver and the necessary electronics and software are (currently, at least) far less expensive than having your own atomic clock.  Because of that, systems on earth that require extremely precise timekeeping often rely on the GPS satellites as their time source.

    I know of two such systems, but I'm sure there are more. 

    First there's the global network of cell phones.  I won't go into the technical details here (that's a whole post on its own!), but here's a site that explains how cell phones work if you want to know.  The main point I want to make here is that the cell phone systems are utterly dependent on incredibly accurate time keeping – and they depend on the GPS satellites for that time.  That 13 microsecond error would translate directly into cell phones failing.

    Then there's the global electronic trading systems, especially those for stocks, options, and currency exchange (probably others as well, but those are the ones I know well).  The exchanges for these electronic trading depend on knowing the exact order that trades take place.  That may seem like a trivial problem, but it's not – because (a) there are sometimes many thousands of trades occurring in a single second, and (b) the trades can originate anywhere in the world, (c) multiple exchanges that are simultaneously open must synchronize their trades perfectly.  The system can recover if an error occurs (and they sometimes do), but the process of “unwinding” erroneous transactions is expensive and painful, so the exchanges go to great lengths to avoid such problems in the first place.  Key to that is requiring a very high precision to the timekeeping used by all the components of that system.  That required precision has increased over the years, and it's now at the point where only atomic clocks can provide it.  Once again, that means a dependency on GPS clocks (except for a few big organizations that have sprung for their very own atomic clock). 

    So when the GPS clocks suffer from a problem like the one described in the article, the consequences can be far more serious than you might expect!

    Maybe it's not such a bad thing...

    Maybe it's not such a bad thing ... that our trip to Hawai'i got delayed.  Yikes!

    Tuesday, February 9, 2016

    Supernova 2015F...

    Supernova 2015F...  Awesome series of photos turned into a movie, courtesy of a South Korean observatory using an Australian telescope.  Via APOD, of course...

    It's hard to wrap one's brain around the scale of this thing, but ... I sure wouldn't want to be anywhere within a few light-years of that thing when it blew!

    Curioser and Curiosity...

    Curioser and Curiosity...  The Mars rover has found another fascinating rock.  I'm guessing this is an inclusion of salts formed by water evaporation.   Look at the upper left side, partly obscured by soil (click to embiggen)...

    A walk though the morning's political headlines...

    A walk though the morning's political headlines ... neither inclines me to be proud of my country's political process, nor to be more engaged in it:

    Trump calls Cruz a “pussy”  Classy, isn't he?

    Hillary to shake up her campaign staff  Her poor showing can't be her fault!

    Bloomberg eying a run for President  Because we need another old white guy!

    Jeb! would eliminate Citizens United  Because conservatives hate free speech!

    Sheesh...

    Artur Fischer, RIP...

    Artur Fischer, RIP...  You have almost certainly used some of this man's 1,000+ inventions.  I've used many of themHe died on January 27th, at his home in Germany, at the age of 96...

    I did a lot of work on things like this...

    I did a lot of work on things like this ... back in the early 2000s, when I worked for an electronic stock and options company.  “Algorithmic trading” was just coming into its own back then, and some companies were making a lot of money with some relatively simple algorithms.  For instance, “pairs trading” was a common strategy.  The notion behind it was very simple: by examining historical stock pricing data, someone would identify a pair of stocks where the price on one of the pair (call it "AAA") change before the price on the other (call it "BBB") changed, and in a predictable way.  In that case, you could write a program that watched the price of "AAA", and automatically bought or sold "BBB" on the assumption that it's price would change sometime later.

    We built a pairs trading platform, and sold it as a service to hedge fund traders.  It didn't take us long to observe a problem: soon after someone started using a particular pair of stocks, the correlation between the pair's prices would decline and disappear.  Why?  With some investigation, it was obvious: other people would soon start using the same pair, and after that, the market erased any benefit (when lots of people see such a correlation, the price automatically gets adjusted by market forces to eliminate the benefit – it gets “priced into” the trailing stock).  How did these other people know to trade in the pair?  That's also easy: with a simple algorithm like pairs trading, you can figure it out from the trades that someone makes – and those trades are public information.

    So our CEO decided that what we needed was an algorithmic trading platform that used an algorithm so complex that nobody could reverse-engineer it.  Personally, I thought that was crazy – with all the trading data available, it seemed really unlikely that such an algorithm existed.  I thought a more sustainable route was an algorithmic trading platform that depended on something more reliable: that computers are always going to be faster than humans.  We had a series of contentious management meetings on the subject, with the result that we sent off to build that complex algorithm platform.  Shortly afterwards I was laid off.  I have no idea if my skepticism was even part of why I was laid off. 

    I note with some belated satisfaction, however, that the high-speed trading is in fact the way the industry has gone – albeit with far more fanaticism than I'd ever have thought.  For instance, there are now point-to-point radio links in place between traders and the markets in New York (and similarly in other parts of the world).  These links exploit the tiny advantage in the speed of electronic communications that a straight-line route has over the traditional wired route.  That tiny advantage justifies many millions of dollars in cost to set up those radio links.  Amazing!

    You may have seen this story...

    You may have seen this story...  A hacker published (on Sunday) the names and other information about 20,000 FBI agents.  When I first read the very superficial and (of course!) breathless news reports, I had two immediate questions:
    1. Are there really 20,000 FBI agents?  That seems like an awfully big number.
    2. Did the hacker get this information by exploiting technology vulnerabilities, or some other way?
    The first question turned out to be easy.  The FBI says it employs roughly 35,000 people, and this estimate from the son of an agent estimates that 21,000 of them are “Special Agents”.  So, yeah, it seems likely that there really are that many of them.  Sheesh.  My own math: their average salary is around $100k, so the FBI Special Agent payroll is something like $2 billion a year.  By the time you add benefits, expenses, office space, cars, training, guns, ammunition, etc., it's likely something like $4 billion a year.  I wonder what benefit U.S. citizens get for that expenditure?  That's not a complaint, I'm really wondering.  I don't actually know what the FBI does that would justify that magnitude of expense.  That's a lot of money!  Do they really need that many Special Agents?

    The second question is answered by this article.  Assuming that information is accurate and complete (and I feel foolish even considering that, given it's sourced by a news organization), the information was obtained by good old-fashioned Kevin Mitnick-style “social engineering”.  The hacker tricked someone into giving him access to a classified account.  No special technical knowledge required.  This is very often the case – the very best, most perfectly maintained security technology can easily be bypassed if a hacker can trick an authorized user into letting him in.

    Not long ago I read a version of this social engineering that involved something else altogether: a way to steal valuable cars.  It seems a gang of car thieves realized that customers of a restaurant with valet service were voluntarily handing the keys of their cars to the valets.  So they paid the real valets at a fancy Boston restaurant to take a night off – and they paid them very well.  Then the car thieves too the place of the real valets, and parked customer's cars for about an hour.  Then they simply drove off with the eight most valuable customer's cars, using the keys that the customers handed them.  At the time the news story I read was written, they had not been caught.

    Often the social engineering approaches that succeed at hacking into things like those FBI records are just as plausible as that car example.  Most of the time, if you poke into the details, you'll come away thinking “That could have happened to me!”  It doesn't take particularly stupid or foolish people to be tricked...

    Well, this is encouraging...

    Well, this is encouraging...  Note, though, that it's not happening inside our school system...

    That moment...

    That moment ... when you realize that you didn't know how to use that object you've been using for 40 years.  This happened to me a couple days ago, when I got frustrated (for about the 40,000th time) that my moccasin-style slipper fell off my foot.  I've been wearing this style of slipper for something like 40 years now; sometimes when I buy one they fit well – snugly enough to stay on my feet.  Most of the time, though, they were too loose.  The heel would slip off my foot as I walked.

    I'd often wondered why nearly all of these slippers had that decorative shoelace in front.  So far as I could tell, the only thing it was good for was entertaining cats (and that it was very good for!).  But this time I got to looking closely at that shoelace, and noticed that it wrapped all the way around the opening for my foot.  Somehow in all these years I'd never noticed that.  I thought it was just sewn into the front top of the slipper, a useless decoration. 

    So I tried an experiment: I yanked hard on those laces and ... it made the foot opening smaller.  In fact, with just a little trial-and-error I was able to adjust the opening to precisely the right size to keep the slipper both comfortable and secure. 

    Dang.

    I could have done that on the 30 or so other pairs of slippers I've owned.  And I never knew it...

    Now we'll see if I can remember this little lesson :)

    Monday, February 8, 2016

    Paradise ponders...

    Paradise ponders...  This morning we took little Konani (our new kitten) in to the vet to be neutered.  As we left, one of the girls who works there called out to us: “There’s a moose!”  Sure enough, about 100' away was a cow moose, young looking, and both frightened and confused.  We helped chase it away from the highway, but we're hoping it will head for the (nearby) mountains.  The staff at the vet were all very amused by the presence of a moose – that was the first time they'd seen one there.  We choked that it was coming in for a checkup!

    This afternoon I was helping my brother Scott scan in some of his important papers (so that no matter what happens, he can't lose them).  Right in the middle of that effort, the power dropped out – and about 5 seconds later, it came back up.  Our backup generator had kicked in!  I poked my head out the window to see if I could hear it, but I could not.  So I threw on my boots and jacket, and ran out to the outbuilding it's next to.  At first I thought it wasn't running, but it actually was – I just couldn't hear it until I got to within about 20' of it.  Standing on the back porch of our house, about 100' away from it, I couldn't hear it over the ambient noise.  It ran for 37 minutes until the power mains came back on.  That's the first time we've lost power since we put the generators in, so now we know: they work!  Yay!

    Artemis, the field spaniel...

    Artemis, the field spaniel ... from Canada (Russell, Ontario, just SE of Ottawa) will be the only non-champion competing at the Westminster Dog Show this year.  I know not why, but I do know that that's one beautiful dog – and apparently possesses the same butt-wiggle that we cherish in our field spaniel Miki...