Took the bike out for a spin

Got my bike back from the repair shop and went out for the first outing of the season (yeah, it's late, but I just haven't felt like it). I decided I would bike down to work and see how long it took me. At a fairly leisurely pace I was there faster than public transport would have gotten me, but was also nauseous and seeing spots.

I rested a bit and then tried an alternate route back. It seems that bicyclists are supposed to go from Hornstull to Slussen by Söder Mälarstrand. Well, that's not so bad, you could say it's the scenic route, but I noted that even if you carefully followed signs and traffic rules you found yourself after a while realising the bicycle lane is in fact on the other side of the road. This is a not uncommon trick played by the bike-haters that have planned the bike lanes in Stockholm. Eventually I found a crossing where I could get over to the other side and then continue to the really scary bit behind Riddarhuset with the right-angle turn around the corner of a house.

Indeed, biking is a constant adrenaline thrill and an excellent chance to get killed.


I get all ostalgic

As evidence of the undying friendship between the two great workers' republics and the correctness of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thinking, we offer Russian songs sung in Chinese.


I feel your pain

Here is a sad bunny that at least should get a Rory award for the most clever use of "pedipalp" in a rock song.


I will be hoarse tomorrow

Spent the evening at Råsunda with some 11000 others, cheering on Sweden against England to a creditable 2–2 result. Admittedly football is a lot better live than on TV, but it was great fun anyway. Perhaps the most impressive was all the people getting on the tube afterwards in good order, everybody happily chanting. I guess all the football hooligans are on holidays or something.


Thnidu, you were so right

I started this blog at Blogspot because I was so impressed by the cool black look of Salto Sobrius. Now Martin too has gone for a beige background…

Come on you Blues!

Disgraceful. Ipswich gets whipped by Norwich in a Google Fight. As well.

We expect better for the coming season.


Research bias

I just read the transcript of a debate on the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus between professors Craig and Ehrman. (Haven't we progressed further than this? What next, debates on the number of angels on a pinhead?) Craig is committed to the literal truth of the Bible and uses the old trick of presenting a huge (Bayesian) equation in support of his position, because, you know, it's Math and anyone who calls Math first in a debate is automatically right. It wasn't much of a surprise to find that Craig works for the Discovery Institute, well-known obfuscators of the truth. Ehrman makes a brave attempt to keep the discussion rational, but it's water off a non-drinking horse's back.

In passing Ehrman makes a point that perhaps shouldn't be surprising but still took me aback: Almost everyone who are researching New Testament history are doing it because they are believing Christians. In other words, they are committed to certain results even before starting. That just can't be a recipe for good research. Ehrman himself apparently had the intellectual integrity to follow the evidence where it lead him and dropped out of Christianity.

Looking awful

Scotland, as most other European countries, has an ageing population (which I think is a good thing), which they are trying to come to grips with at the Sharing Experience web site. There you can try software which will age your face. You upload your mugshot, they transform it and mail you back a link. They warn that it may take a few moments before you get your link—in fact it took four weeks for me… Heaven knows what kept it, and then I look not so much olded as folded up, I think.

There are strange ghost images, giving the effect of a third nostril, a severe case of cataracts, an epicanthic fold on one eye only, a halo around the head and strange stripes on my clothes.

Now, digging a bit, one will find that this software is developed by the Perception Lab at the University of S:t Andrews (no, I have no idea why they use a .com address). It turns out that what they do is that they start from an averaged image of aged people of your approximate ethnic group and then morph your features towards that average. Apparently whatever there was in the background of those images return as ghost images in the morphed image. They have an applet which lets you play around with face images without a four week waiting period (but it does take a bit of time to download the applet, be patient). This applet not only lets you age your picture, but make yourself younger, change your ethnicity (or even species—there is a manpanzee option) or render yourself as if painted by one of several well-known artists.

Several interesting things can be noted: Clearly you are expected to supply a picture from straight ahead, but the algorithm will do its best to work even for three-quarter views (I had no full profiles) but then there will be very strange artefacts outside the facial borders. For reasons not entirely clear to me, some pictures will let themselves be transformed with much higher quality than others. It may be that the contrast level of the image makes it less or more difficult for the algorithm to locate noses, cheeks, etc and match up against the template images. I used a photo of a friend and got almost entirely artefact-free pictures of him—I thought of sending him the manpanzee version which looked particularly good, but suspected he might get offended. I on the other hand looked terrible in all the pictures I tried, apparently I cannot be helped.


I dream of stardom

Being an engineer (as well as a doctor), I of course think engineers need more fame, public recognition and groupies. Perhaps De lyckliga ingenjörerna was an attempt to describe what engineers do and why, but ultimately I thought it was a failure—the producers just went around and were perplexed at these strange and unintelligible engineers and never really managed to catch the essence of the work. There was one scene, though, which I strongly identified with: One of the aerospace engineers in the film has just realised vital components on the satellite do not conform to spec. Phone discussion with the crew outside the cleanroom, ending with: "Vi får räkna på det här." (I'm not sure what the idomatic Engineering English would be, but something like: "We'll have to work through the numbers.") That symbolises to me all that engineering is about: there is a problem, we'll apply our knowledge and figure out how to solve the problem. It's not very dramatic in action, but the results can of course be impressive.

Back when I was involved in academic research (and therefore staying in hotel rooms with TV sets), I happened to see a few episodes of Airport on BBC. I thought this was docusoap at its best, just showing people doing their work, handling whatever problems they ran into, from big to small. As it happened we had a television production company in the project and I suggested that we could do something similar to Airport on our work in the project, but nobody took my suggestion seriously.

I've still been thinking about how fun it could be to make a film or perhaps a TV series about engineers, made as intentionally low-key as possible. The proposed title is: If you saved the world, it means nothing really happened.

Basic plot premise: A large near-Earth asteroid is estimated to have a 1/10 chance of hitting the Earth within the next hundred years. A department head at ESA decides that something should be done about this. We never find out whether he is genuinely concerned about the threat or if he is mainly attempting to build his own empire, and perhaps it doesn't really matter in the end. He lobbies and writes proposals and eventually manages to gather enough political clout to get the required funds of initially 250 million euros (yes, it's too little, but so it goes) to fund ADE—the Asteroid Diversion Effort. They will develop and attach an ion engine (with lots of propellant) to the asteroid that over a period of many years will push its orbit such that it will stay well clear of Earth. Events play out over a period of fifteen years from the initial forming of the working group.

What happens? People will sit in meetings a lot. Coming from within ESA are many experienced people who have worked with each other for a long time, but now they will have to expand their ranks, bringing in new people with all kinds of backgrounds, materials engineers, software developers and administrators. There will be frictions, misunderstandings, conflicting goals, unspoken assumptions and private agendas. There is also political opposition to such a high-risk and costly project and certainly NASA are better qualified to handle the issue? There are public protests against the environmental impact of the large number of rocket launches necessary to get all the toxic propellant into orbit and indeed there are various fringe cults that await the end of the Earth and predict an impact every time the asteroid comes close to Earth—typically at a distance over five times that of the moon.

The camera is there and occasionally people will acknowledge it and explain what just happened, what kind of interdepartmental rivalry was just successfully exploited, why the choice of purveyor of certain alloys is important (or not important, according to other participants at the same meeting) and how they feel the project is going. We will meet the Czech control systems expert who could solve the persistent feedback shock problems in the fuel system but no-one listens to due to her feeble grasp of English, the young German programmers who impatiently wait for meetings to end so they can go on pub crawls, the brilliant Italian rocket scientist with an idea for a new efficient nozzle design, but which eventually backfires and sets back the project several months while the nozzle is redesigned, and the ultra-geeky Finnish astronomer with the holographic fractal T-shirt (growing steadily fuzzier over time as it is washed out) and the brand new iScarf™—it dies during a January meeting in Kiruna causing a number of acrid comments about stupid Californians who've never seen ice outside their drinks.

This is a film about the working life of these people, so we just get uncommented hints about their private lives—the photograph of the principal investigator's husband on his desk, concert T-shirts popping up on team members, the senior propulsion engineer suddenly going on an extended leave after a project party, a legal expert apparently always talking agitatedly with his family in Poland on the phone, the well-liked French aerodynamicist and flutist dying in a mountainbiking accident and what's the matter with the CAD engineer with the obvious hygiene problems—rumours are rife.

As noted, this is a project that continues for a long time and initial enthusiasm is difficult to keep up, not least among governments and funding authorities, there are problems with financing and running the project, retaining the most experienced workers, handling slipping deadlines and of course, technical problems, always. Some are easily solved, some dog the project through the entire process and constantly have to be worked around. Computer don't just work, there is staff that spend all their days just keeping everything running. They don't worry much about the actual project, but they don't like people installing their own software becasue it means they have to keep hunting for viruses—at one point we find out that ADE is one of the largest reflectors of spam mail in the world after somebody with root access accidentally installed a trojan on her laptop. Computing operations are halted for almost a week while systems staff purge all computers.

A high point is when the probe with the ion engine is launched from Kourou to the asteroid rendezvous. Yet, this is just the end of the beginning. Some people leave, their task apparently finished, others join up. There is a long wait while the probe coasts out to the asteroid. The nagging question is: is the asteroid coherent enough to a) allow the ion engine to attach to it, and b) not to just break up into pieces when the engine starts accelerating the asteroid? The probe will have to shoot spikes into the asteroid to find out its composition, centre of gravity and rotational behaviour.

There are no fancy computer-generated animations of the asteroid in space, just the telemetry data and grainy images on people's computers as they plug the data into their computational models to work out the necessary parameters. There are strange readings—are these due to faulty sensors or unexpected properties of the asteroid? Several sensor designers have to be called in from their current employments (at considerable expense in consultancy fees—the budget is strained to the breaking point) to try to figure out what is going on. In the end some reasonable guesses have to be made and the engine anchored and started. First the asteroid has to be spun down so that it later on can be moved in the right direction. The acceleration is just a few mm/s, so it will take a long time before the effects can be ascertained. A number of adjustments are made but a long while later the asteroid indeed spins around the same axis as the main engine and the big push can start. Irregularities in the acceleration suggest that the asteroid is shedding mass, but none of the presumably lost chunks should be large enough to be a problem.
This is mentioned in one of the regular press releases and as there are no other major news right then (just half a dozen third world wars, famines and epidemics), this item is picked up by the media and grows into a series of sensational accusatory pieces. The project press officer has to work hard for a while. As no disasters attributable to meteorites happen within the next few weeks, the furor eventually dies down.

Years later the asteroid is ascertained to be in an orbit that will not intersect that of the Earth for at least the next hundred thousand years and the project is gradually closed down. There is a bid to keep a skeleton crew to continue reading telemetry data from the probe for scientific reasons, but in the end that is also turned down. So, the still remaining people (of which only very few have been on the project since its inception) go on to other work, or into unemployment as the case may be. Certainly they have all participated in averting a disaster on Earth, but y'know, that was only ever a potential disaster and in the end nothing really happened and anyway there are other potential disasters to worry about.

There it is, potentially a very boring film, but I'd really like to do it.

Coarsely pixellated girls and robots

Another of these bizarre webcomics: Diesel Sweeties. "Clango! Did you eat my last pair of candy panties!?"


Tempus fugit, sed non pro omnis

I met a childhood friend today. He had to ask if I really was me, he on the other hand looked exactly the same as twenty years ago. sigh


Mortal danger as a career

In this Guardian article about British forces in Iraq, the story of Flight Commander* Abbott jarred me. After four tours of duty in Iraq he has decided that enough is enough and wants to start a "second career". What would that be then? Well, joining the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

Aaah, what's going on here? First he joins the military. Then he ends up in a war, realises it's no fun and resigns. But he intends to join another military, somewhere where he is unlikely to have to go to war. So, apparently military life has its good sides, but they have nothing to do with reluctantly doing whatever is necessary to protect your nation, at least not if you yourself run the risk of getting killed or injured.

Once I too wanted to be an air force pilot and get to fly fast jets**, but with time I realised that this did carry a non-zero possibility of having to kill other people and that I would have to choose between enjoyment and morals. I made my choice. Abbott on the other hand, wants to keep the cake while eating it. I wish him luck.

*An appointment, not a rank.

**Abbott is a helicopter pilot, which is fun too, I'm sure.

Proud to be of help

As shown, I have now racked up over 5000 points at Folding@home, letting my computers spend their free time folding proteins. This places me (or rather the computers) in the top 25% of contributors, not that it is a competition or anything :-)


Weird and Wonderful

Max Udargo does surreal 3D graphics, writes a blog for Noah and many other things that are really, really strange and very, very funny.


I have been cultural

Nils-Erik suddenly called and had an extra ticket to a concert with Peter Carlsson och Blå Grodorna. I hadn't heard them before and was happy to tag along. It was a very interesting experience—a concert that nominally is Evert Taube-themed and yet manages to fit in both the "Pathetique" sonata by wonderful, wonderful Ludwig van and a blues-rock version of "Ett gammalt bergatroll" is ah…eclectic. All very well done even if the Dalecarlia-accent jokes were old enough to be fossilised. Thanks, Nisse!

Don't make room!

I think Isaac Asimov's 1969 SF&F essay "The Power of Progression" should be mandatory reading for everyone who thinks "sustainable growth" is anything but an empty phrase. The essay points out with simple mathematics that a positive population growth cannot be kept up forever, indeed not even for particularly long, since with time the entire mass of the Earth would consist of humans. Obviously this is not possible, what this means is that either we voluntarily curb population growth or famine, war, pestilence and death (and kaos) will do it for us.

In spite of this, almost all parliamentary parties seem to agree that we need more population growth in Sweden ((s) (mp) (c) (fp) (kd) (m)— interestingly enough (v) does not seem to follow this trend from what I've been able to find). And indeed, this idea of hte need for more people is not restricted to Sweden. The reason, when anyone bothers to come up with a semi-rational one, is that we need more people to take care of the elderly in the future. It then strikes one as strange that we already have quite a few elderly people and yet we have unemployment. So, perhaps making more babies really has nothing to do with whether the elderly will be properly cared for or not, but indeed quite a lot with resource consumption.

Indeed, a newborn baby in Europe or North America will put a strain some tens of times greater on the world's resources than a newborn baby in the third world. So, it seems quite reasonable that fertility restriction should primarily be aimed at Europe and North America. It seems that most people have realised this and are voluntarily restricting the number of children they have, so this seems an area where governments should not go meddling to try to push up the number of births again. If anything, we should award those without children.

Recently, I mentioned these points to my partner at a dinner. She said with obvious distaste that she didn't agree and wouldn't talk to me anymore. Such refusal of reality probably is what is going on in our good government as well.

Sow and ye shall reap

I sent a funny link to Thnidu and he saw even more in it than I had noticed, to wit: Dr McNinja! Current story: Dr McNinja investigates the Mexican bandits on velociraptors.


I'm so out of shape

OS X has made me soft. I suddenly had to install and configure FreeBSD on an Intel box and found myself without any graphical administration tools, but had to navigate the system entirely by command-line, and with the wrong keyboard mapping to boot (haha). I'd left all my convenience scripts behind at NADA and it took me an awful while before my fingers started to get the hang of it again.

Finally I had the most important stuff in place. Now for the web application development I got the box for to begin with…


How boring can you get?

"Karey" is upset by teachers who sleep with students. I'll say, I've occasionally had students fall asleep during my lectures, but at least I've always managed to keep myself awake.