Friday, August 25, 2006

Canis Non Gratus

My dog is an Australian yellow Lab, almost eleven years old. He is a happy, easy-going character (pretty much the only one in our house!). He is happy to adjust to differing schedules, doesn't mind changing his meal times, walks himself when we are very busy and doesn't demand much. Even people who don't like dogs generally come to get along with him.

Unfortunately, he has been exhibiting a strange new behavior in the last three weeks. Every morning at around 5:30 AM, he puts his paws on my side of the bed and pants loudly. Even after I make him get down, he stares at me and pants heavily. He doesn't want to go outside, doesn't want a pet, doesn't want water, doesn't want to play. He is just suddenly quite uncomfortable. Unable to figure this out, we have taken to making him leave the room so we can sleep.

I took him to our local veterinarian. No problems. Healthy as a, err, larger quadruped.

After a couple of days, it occurred to me that he might be hearing an ultrasonic sound from our lawn's sprinkler system. It starts at about that time. So I did the obvious thing: I changed the time that the sprinkler started. No luck. At 5:30 AM I had paws on my arm and doggie breath in my ear. We were at a loss. How could my old friend suddenly become canis non gratus?

Separately, we began to suspect that the sprinkler was going off twice. The manual was unclear regarding the operation of a three-positin slider switch. Was the switch to select which of three programs would run? Or to select which of three programs you could adjust with the other controls? I had presumed the first. It was the second. Creating another program simply ran both. The sprinkler was still starting at 5:30 AM. I cleared the first program.

We waited with bated breath the next night. Would we sleep through or be jarred into full activity by our canine interlocutor? It worked. When we awoke, our dog was still sleeping peacefully. We had found the problem.

Now, what do we do with a sprinkler system buried in our yard at great expense which distresses our dog?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Apple Recalling Laptop Batteries

Apple Computer is recalling batteries for the iBook G4 and Powerbook G4 sold between October 2003 and August 2006.

The form to request a new battery is here. Unfortunately, the site is being hit so hard right now that they are rejecting users. That happens either with an HTTP error, or upon form submission stating that your serial number is invalid. Just wait your turn and it will work out :)

Planet Status Resolved

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has made its decision on the definition of a planet. Resolution 5A: Definition of 'planet' states:

The IAU therefore resolves that "planets" and other bodies in our Solar System be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:

(1) A "planet" is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

(2) A "dwarf planet" is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape , (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects except satellites orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as "Small Solar-System Bodies".

Thus, Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Similarly, Charon, Ceres and 2003 UB 313 (which is not called "Xena" by the IAU) are not classified as planets. The proposal to do so was rejected.

I note that they begged the definition of "satellite", but that's fine with me. Categorization can easily be taken too far.

The eight planets in our solar system are now Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

I am pleased to see that the IAU made this decision carefully. Although my suggestion for a resolution was never considered, the end result is similar. We are safe from the possibility of discovering hundreds of new "planets" in our system.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

webMethods buys Cerebra

webMethods has announced that it has bought Cerebra. That is almost assuredly a fire sale, in spite of the positive spin put on it by analysts.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Mulgara v1.0.0 Released

The Mulgara project is pleased to announce Mulgara version 1.0.0. Binary and source distributions are available for download now. This is the initial release for this fork of Kowari and marks the reestablishment of a development team capable of continuing the project.

Thanks to all who participated in this release. New developers and users are actively encouraged to contribute!

Northrop Grumman Drops Tucana References

Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems has dropped the Tucana pages from their Web site. No explanation has been offered.

David Watanabe Fixes the OS/X Desktop

OS/X is pretty great. Still, Joy's Law ("No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.") assures that innovation will occur outside of Cupertino. David Watanabe has done that for Internet searching and news summaries with two great products: Inquisitor and NewsFire.

Inquisitor is a search completion and suggestion tool for the Safari and Camino browsers, sort of like a built-in Google Suggest. I have been using the Safari version since 1.0.0 and it really does make my life easier. It saves time, which I never have enough of.

NewsFire is by far the best RSS news reader for Mac OS/X. Just buy it. No kidding. Safari's RSS reading cannot compare.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Rick Brant Electronic Adventures

In the early 1970s, my parents found part of an old juvenile book series in a garage sale and bought them for me. They turned out to be fourteen of the Rick Brant Electronic Adventure series and they literally set me on fire. I loved science and engineering even as a kid and dreaded the day I would finish the last one. Now my son is eight and my parents gave me the books which were still in their basement. We started reading them straight away. That let me to Amazon, Powell, Google and the very handy Abebooks to see if I could buy a few more. Happily, a reasonable sum and a bit of research netted 23 of the 24-book series plus the interesting Science Projects.

The last book in the series, The Magic Talisman, goes for a cool US$1500 these days. Only 500 were printed. That is strange, considering the series sold into the millions of copies. Publishers are certainly fickle. Fortunately, OCLC's WorldCat service shows that four US libraries have the book, so it should be available via inter-library loan.

Hal Goodwin, a US government journalist who involved himself in radically different aspects of science during his varied career, wrote the series under the pen name John Blaine. He was amazingly prolific, writing 43 books, including some children's non-fiction.

I was pleased to find that other fans of the series banded together to get some books reprinted. Spindrift Books, a reference to the island home of Rick and his family, has recently reprinted three hard-to-find books. The main fan site even has detailed errata for the series.

My son is thoroughly enjoying the series and I am pleased that he won't suffer the loss of many of the books as I did. I am enjoying reading them, especially the ones that are new to me. They provide a wonderful opportunity to talk about science, geography, cultures, logic, observation. We are looking forward to making some of the Science Projects, especially after seeing the warning, "Note: These experiments have not been written with the modern reader in mind. Some may be dangerous and should not be undertaken." All right! That reminds me of the time I showed some friends at a dinner party how to make ozone by splitting a lamp cord and shoving it into a sink full of water while it was plugged in. (You can smell it.)

I highly recommend these books to anyone with a boy between the ages of 8 and 12.

Mulgara v1.0.0 Coming Any Day Now

Paul and I are on the last bits of documentation and legalities to release Mulgara v1.0.0. It should happen really soon.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

New Planets Proposal

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is considering a proposal that would finally define a planet. The proposal is:

- The object must be in orbit around a star, but must not itself be a star
- It must have enough mass for the body's own gravity to pull it into a nearly spherical shape

Ceres, Pluto (and Charon) and 2003 UB 313 will all qualify under the new definition.

Personally, (and the IAU didn't ask me!), I'd rather add a criterion like:

- It must have sufficient gravity to sustain an atmosphere if conditions would support one.

I think that would eliminate the silly little bodies and still offer some way forward. Do we really want a hundred "planets" in our solar system?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Multitouch Computing

If you are the least bit interested in human-computer interface designs, you owe it to your self to check out Jeff Han's talk at TED 2006. My vote for best quote goes to "There is no reason in this day and age that we should be conforming to a physical device". Thanks to Brian for the pointer.

Application of the Anthropic Principle

Island, over at Science in Crisis, asked me to comment on his post Global Warming too?... what next, politics? after reading my thoughts regarding Critics of Global Warming. I am going to duplicate my thoughts here for archival purposes:

Island was kind enough to invite me to comment on this discussion. I am pleased to do so, since we can all learn if we all talk.

It would seem at first reading that Island believes in the strong anthropic principle, whereas I believe in the weak anthropic principle. The two are very different, indeed. The strong version insists that everything will always work out because we are meant to be here. I think that is a great way of burying one's head in the sand.

I am an evolutionist, for the simple reason that the evolutionary algorithm is testable and, further, I have tested it with computer models. It is a simple and elegant theory which explains much. The evolutionary algorithm has ramifications for this discussion because it can explain our likely future if we continue to "piss in our rice bowl". I once created a small agent model to show what happens to a human society when they overreach their environment's capacity to support them. Try it. Read the text under the applet and then try running the model with the default settings. Then try varying the settings. Download the source code and look at the algorithms I used. In many, many cases, humans simply starve to death. All of them. The environment eventually recovers. Unless you can find a reason to dispute the underlying presumptions of the model, the result should cause you to agree with David Suzuki: The Earth is not in trouble. We are.

The weak anthropic principle, on the other hand, states that, of all the possible ways the universe could have evolved, at least one of them had to allow us to evolve. No hand of God is implicated, in spite of Island's suggestion to the contrary. The weak anthropic principle makes no claim about our future at all. It does not guarantee our safety. It does not suggest that the universe is not a dangerous place. It leaves room for us to become just another evolutionary dead end. It is up to us to stop that from happening. We have a better chance of manipulating the situation for our own survival than any species before us, but we have to work for it.

The economic principle the Tragedy of the Commons illustrates our situation best. Humans have become the undisputed top predator in our environment. No other species threatens us now. As we compete with each other, we fall into the Tragedy of the Commons, where the common good is subsumed by short-term greed. That was not critical to the entire species before, although we certainly saw the effect when the Greeks destroyed their farming centers through poor irrigation, Rome devastated Libya's fields and China began its cycle of spasmotic famines. Now the Commons stretches across the globe. We only have two choices: Allow the Tragedy of the Commons to play out once again, collapsing our civilization the way it has collapsed others or agree that the common good really should take precedence this time.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

More on Faith and Reason

Weeble had an interesting post on Faith and Reason. It is an endless topic for our generation, but I'll wade in again anyway.

Readers interested in the relationship between intelligent design and science may be interested in my post on refuting irreducible complexity, a cornerstone of the current intelligent design concept.

My wife, a thoughtful woman wishing to find a way of thinking which encompasses spirituality and science, recently suggested that I read The Language of God. Unfortunately, I think upon review that author and scientist Francis Collins violated the useful thumbrule of Occam's razor. William of Occam, himself a Christian friar, said in the 14th Century that "the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory." Collins may also have confused the strong and weak versions of the anthropic principle, but I haven't read enough to confirm that yet. Certainly the strong version is used as an argument for intelligent design and the weak version is a common scientific belief.