Saturday, May 30, 2009

Google Wave

Yes, Wave is here!

I'll have more to say later.  I've been using it some.  They hit nearly all of my concerns square on target!  (See Email should die, classifying communication, sender stored, and ideas).  

I'm a little concerned about the complexity of the interface and the fancy features  I'm sure it's significant.

It's number two on Twitter (last time I looked).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I just signed up for to use it to cast my Google Reader shares onto Twitter.   Since Twitterfeed uses OpenID it was very easy to plumb everything together.

Logging in with OpenID

Google accounts have OpenID automatically.  Here's the URL to sign in:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bose-Einstein Condensate NOVA

A friend at work told me about this NOVA show about Bose-Einstein condensates.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Famous Fonts

This is an interesting site with famous fonts from various sources listed.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek

Well, last night I finally saw Star Trek.

Here are some initial impressions.

The movie is good.  I think that message has been pretty consistently communicated from every direction.  If anyone had any doubt about going to see it, they should definitely go!

The movie treats the Star Trek mythology well, particularly the original series and (maybe with even more focus) the following movies.

The casting was pretty good.  The Spock character is probably the best cast, in my opinion.  McCoy may be the next best.  The Kirk character is good and well-played but, looking at him, I can't see the William Shatner Kirk.  Uhuru, Chekov, and Scotty were farther off the mark but all well-played.  Chekov's role in the movie was surprising to me and entertaining.

I have to say, though there were many old, familiar aspects and plot mechanisms (approaching cliche) throughout the movie, the story never stopped surprising me.  It was delightfully unpredictable.

There were many tributes to Star Wars and I wonder if they were intentional or unconscious.  Hm, J.J. Abrams was born on 27 June 1966 and Star Trek first aired on 8 September 1966, when he was a bit over two months old.  Fascinating.  Star Wars was released on 25 May 1977 when Abrams was nine years old.

Anyway, I couldn't help expecting to see Kirk to look out over the Iowa landscape and see twin suns setting.

The space craft were beautiful and the space scenes were nicely done.  I've heard the problem posed before:  How do you make a modern Star Trek about technology that predated the original series without everything looking better.  In this movie, they didn't worry about that problem even a little.

In contast to other aspects of the film, the interiors of the Enterprise paid only the slightest tribute to the original shows.  Everyone was sitting in the usual positions on the bridge, there was a captain's chair, science station, navigation console, etc., transporter room, sick bay, but the similarities pretty much ended there.  The interiors were completely believable and certainly well done.  I kept wishing for more of a nod to the past onboard the ship.

The bridge was particularly cold and hospital white.  (Okay, the way hospitals used to look!).  At least that's the impression I took with me.  The instruments and techology served it's function but there was nothing delightful, notable or nostalgic about them, and I find that a little disappointing.  Abrams' take on the engineering decks gets credit for being quite interesting and different, but almost seemed over the top in some ways.

One notable exception was the shuttle deck.  It was very well done, a joy to watch, and was a nice tribute to the past.

The movie moves fast and the visuals are also fast so it will take multiple viewings for most of it to sink in.

I do have this specific complaint about the technology.  Every filmmaker feels compelled, it seems, to completely reinvent the transporter effect from scratch.  It's almost like a rite of passage.  Again, I didn't see the need to depart so far from the look of the original series.  I'd like to have seen more of a nod to the old show there, mixed in with the obligatory updating.

On the other hand, Abrams payed wonderful tribute to the sound effects of the original series.  They were included in subtle ways but you couldn't miss them if you knew them.  That's what I'm talking about.

And there in the credits, Majel Barrett for the ships computer voice!  She died in December of 2008.  I wondered if she had already recorded voice parts for this movie, or if they lifted them from stock or other movies.  Anyway, that was a delightful surprise.

Finally I'll note this.  Most plot lines introduce a series of tangles and then work to unravel them all by the end.  This story left a big tangle unresolved.  Big.   I'm interested to see whether they simply use it as the canvas for an ongoing series of stories, or if they devote the next movie to fixing it.

Speaking of the future, as my old friend and I got up to leave after the credits  ended, I couldn't help thinking about how Star Trek has been going strong for 43 years and wondering what would be done with it over the next 43 years.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wolfram Alpha

Okay, this morning I'm trying out Wolfram Alpha for the first time.

About Alpha

I've read about it already and I've been a Mathematica user over the years.  I've also heard Wolfram speak (I think at Georgia Tech a few years ago), so I already think I get what Alpha is supposed to be.  I think search engine is not the most descriptive name for Alpha.  I notice it calls itself a “computational search engine.”   It's really more like a very intelligent calculator connected to a very specific knowledge base or encyclopedia of sorts.  As I understand it, the Wolfram folks have carefully compiled the knowledge base.

Alpha is to a calculator or computer (in the traditional sense of the word) as Google is to the encyclopedia or library.  That's my first approximation to describing it.  Alpha will be good at answering questions that would, in the past, have been answered by an expert if the expert would probably take out a calculator to answer your question.  That means it should be great for the physicist, astronomer and computer scientist in me.  It will initially be confusing to folks in general, but I think they'll catch on over time.  Students will probably pick up on it's usefulness pretty quickly.  

Any rumours of Alpha replacing Google are simply wrong.  It's a different kind of information from a different source.  Both will be interesting sources of information.

That said, there is some overlap between them.


The first thing I typed in was the name of the city I live in.  That worked well.  It listed the population, showed it as a dot on a world map, listed the current temperature and weather, and the nearest cities.

I tried Macon, GA and it said it's only 77 miles from Atlanta.  That's a surprise.  Having grown up there, Macon was always from 85 to 95 miles to Atlanta, depending on starting points.  I'm surprised at 77.  Maybe that's city limit to city limit and they've changed that much.


The next thing I tried was Saturn.  Good again.  It showed a lot of nice information as well as a solar system diagram (to scale!  Extra points for that!) with the planets in their current positions.  Very nice.

I tried Orion and Ursa Major.  Then I thought I'd pursue a question that's been bothering me.  I'd swear that, when I look up at the Big Dipper, the star Delta Ursae Majoris looks dimmer than I remember.  I recall that it's a variable star  so I wonder what type of variable it is, what it's period is if it's periodic, and where in the period it is.  In other words, is it getting dimmer?

The Ursa Major page on Wolfram Alpha looked nice enough.  But finding out about this individual star was hard.  The star wasn't labeled on the constellation diagram.  The mouse pointer turned in to a hand/finger meaning it was something that could be clicked on, but clicking on it made nothing happen, as far as I could tell.  And I tried it several times because the hand/finger insisted that something would happen.

So there was no way to figure out what the name of that star was.  There were a number of stars listed below, by name, so I thought I'd just click on some of them, guessing, and maybe a diagram would pop up so I could tell when I chose the right one.

But clicking on any star in the list simply popped up a window of selectable text representing the whole list.  That's weird, IMHO, and way less then useful, at least to my current way of thinking.  I certainly wasn't any closer to finding the star.

So I went back to Google which went to Wikipedia which had a better diagram with Delta labeled.  Okay, I went back to Alpha and typed in Delta Ursae Majoris.  That certainly worked and a page with basic star info popped up.  It definitely listed it as a variable and magnitude at about 3.3 I think, and even noted it's the dimmest star in UMa.  However, there was no more detailed information.  Nothing like you might get from the old Burnham's Handbook.

At this point, going back and searching on Google and going to several sources including Wikipedia yielded pretty much the same, in some cases the same verbatim, i.e., from the same source, information.


My next question was a major failure.

I wanted to know how long it would take to travel to Alpha Centauri, in relativistic terms, with an acceleration of one g, one Earth gravity.  What I really meant is that you accelerate for half the distance, then turn around and decelerate the rest of the way.  That's the only practical way we know of to travel to another star system.  That would be for extra credit, but I would have accepted the less sophisticated answer of simply accelerating the whole way and watched Alpha Centari streak past at high speed when you got there.

It's also a perfectly simple problem if you know special relativity and requires little bits of knowledge like the distance to Alpha Centauri, the value of one g, etc.  It should be a perfect problem for Wolfram Alpha to solve.  Alas, I couldn't find any form of my question that Alpha could understand.  I finally resorted to terms like simply “relativity” and “delta-t” but I got no where.  Granted, the problem is hard to express and maybe I just never hit on what Alpha was expecting, but I don't think it should be too hard for Alpha to handle.

So I was hugely disappointed in that failure.  It would have been nice to be able to go on and ask Alpha about how much fuel would have been required for the trip, what percentage of light speed would have been reached at mid-point, etc.  The usual follow up questions for that interesting problem.

It's good at Math

Okay, I have to give Alpha credit for being good at math.  I typed in  “sin(x) / x” and “sin(1/x)” and  it spewed out more than I ever saw about those two expressions.  I'm sure it exceeds my CRC Mathematical Tables book.  Of course Mathematica pretty much already did that.

What about statistics?

Since I've been dealing with them at work lately, I tried “hazard function” and “failure rate” but to no avail.  Alpha didn't understand them.

A better calculator?

So, Google already functions as a calculator (most folks probably don't know that), but where it is less than useful is in building up results.   I'd like to use my previous result in a new computation, and that's hard to do.  The best you can do is to put parens around your previous expression or cut and past the previous answer.

I wondered if Alpha would do better.  So far, it doesn't.  It outputs the results in many different forms, enough to make any math teacher happy, but I don't see a way to get them into the next computation.

Here's my simple example.  What is the period of one rotation for the frequency 33 1/3 RPM?  As weird as it sounds, that was a question on my mind when I woke up this morning.

So, I'd like to take 3 and invert it to get 1/3, then add 33, then invert that.  That's simple and it's easy to do on my RPN caculator (which is now a Python program I wrote).  Alas, I could only do this in Wolfram (like Google) via  (1 / ((1/3) + 33)).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Twitter Responds to #twitterfail and #fixreplies

Twitter has responded.

On Mashable

Original Twitter Blog post
Whoa Feedback! post
We Learned a Lot Post

Remembering Distributed Name and Directory Services

Since it came up in conversation today, I'm trying to remember the distributed naming and directory services that have gone by. Some are still with us.

  • Novell NDS
  • NeXT Netinfo
  • Sun NIS
  • Sun NIS+
  • LDAP
  • DNS
  • Active Directory

I'll add more as I think of them.

What's All This About Twitter Failing?

What's all this I hear about #twitterfail…on Twitter?

Everyone is up in arms about a feature change.  This article at Read Write Web by Marshall Kirkpatrick explains what's going on and this comment really clarifies things.  (Give the comment part of the page a few seconds to load).

First of all, I didn't realize the difference between a reply on Twitter where the @userid appears at the beginning of the tweet, e.g., 

@otherguy I absolutely agree with you!

and a mention on Twitter, where the @userid appears somewhere else in the Tweet.

I have to say that @otherguy seems to have a handle on this.

It seems all of the brouhaha is over replies appearing on your home page.

As the above articles point out, this is a feature that I don't think I ever had turned on in the first place and I was already confused about why I wasn't seeing replies on my Twitter home page.

I had sort of punted and was relying on Twitter Search to find posts and replies, but that is a more awkward, per-user-target type of approach.

Why they would remove a feature that only 2% of their users have turned on in the first place, at the cost of such an uproar (even if it's misplaced) is unclear to me.  At least a lot of us are learning more about how to use Twitter in the first place.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cosmological Dark Energy

Sigh.  Supernova observations leading to the conclusion that the cosmological expansion rate is currently increasing instead of decreasing has lead to models of so-called “dark energy,” sometimes called “quintessence.”

There's a new paper by Dutta, Hsu, Rreb and Scherrer outlining a new dark energy model that has observable results, both in the astronomical-cosmological domain and in the particle-physics, collider domain.

Quoting directly from their paper:

In this paper we present a quintessence scenario in which the dark energy field can be coupled strongly enough to Standard Model particles to be detected in colliders, and which allows for a significant time variation in the equation of state. This time-varying w = w(z) has a characteristic form which depends on only a single parameter, and can thus be excluded by cosmological observations in the near future. Our model only requires a singlet scalar field (or, alternatively, a small gauge sector like SU(3) Yang-Mills theory; other possible realizations are also briefly outlined at the end of the paper) and a new energy scale on the order of milli-electron volts.

Here's my current question:  These symmetry-breaking ideas as an explanation for “dark energy” with a false vacuum and such sound exactly like the same types of models for inflationary cosmology from the 80s.  How does symmetry-breaking as an explanation for “dark energy” fit with symmetry-breaking for inflation?  I guess the answer will be something similar to:  Since this is a new form of energy, it's a different phase transition from the one that's typically associated with the currently known forces and inflation.  Maybe?


My old Motorola bluetooth head set was becoming harder and harder to hear and didn't handle car noise very well.  After looking around I finally settled on a Jawbone-2 which was the current Jawbone head set until the Jawbone Prime was just released.

The best price I found, at the time I ordered, was at

So far it works well from my side.  While I'm in the car I've left voice mail messages with car noise including the AC on high and the radio on.  I listened to the messages later from home and they seemed clear enough.  It seems to work well.  

I selected the replaceable pieces (ear loop and ear piece) that gave the best fit.  I'm trying the (leather?)-covered ear loop now.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

MFT Records in Windows NTFS

While scanning a hard drive (which contains a damaged NTFS) I'm seeing the errors “Unexpected MFT record” and I wondered what that was.

The MFT is the master file table in NTFS which is described in the web page Master File Table is being like a relational database with an entry for each file (and directory).

This page and the accompanying ones seem to be an excellent resource.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Twitter Tech Talk at Google

This was an interesting talk on Twitter at Google last Thursday by Laura Fitton.