Archive for the Tech Category

A monstrous white Y in the sky

Posted in neverbeengood, Space, Tech with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by badhex

So, it can’t have escaped everyone’s notice that last week was the final touchdown of Shuttle Discovery on STS-133, the third-to-last mission for the Space Shuttle program as a whole. As readers may know I’m very interested in space, and in particular the human exploration of (read: manned missions to) space – but I’m a little worried about the future of these missions.

I love Shuttle. It’s brilliant. Liftoff is just as good every time I see one, and I watch as many as I can. It’s particularly impressing these days when we can sit at our computers looking at websites like NASA HD TV or Spaceflight Now, and watch realtime as Shuttle takes the first precarious, powerful step on the latest sojourn into orbit.

The craft itself is truly awesome – beautiful, graceful and a sheer feat of humankind’s ingenuity and perseverance in our many scientific endeavours (no pun intended). Watching it in action is a pleasure, and things like the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver, it looks almost unreal. Thousand of minds and man-hours have gone into creating and maintaining one of our greatest achievements, a craft that “can launch like a rocket, go into orbit, change into a spacecraft and then land as a hypersonic airplane” – and the only craft which can do so.

But just because we can do it, does not mean that we should.

When I was a kid, I happened to be in Florida when Shuttle Discovery took off on mission STS-48. At that time, to me the shuttle was a thing of true, flawless wonder, and in my head that’s what I thought of when people said ‘NASA‘. Of course I had read about past missions, regardless of which nation had undertaken them, and had obviously heard Neil Armstrong’s famous words, and seen pictures of the various Apollo vehicles – but Shuttle was the spacecraft of my generation. As I grew older I learnt more about space, and the other methods by which we have travelled there, and still Shuttle remained to be an awesome thing. Then, one day, everything changed for me. A drastic turnaround of my thoughts and opinions occurred, and my heart sank.

The Shuttle program was a failure.

You’ve probably guessed that I’m talking about the terrible Columbia disaster, and indeed I am – but it was not that fated day on which my thoughts occurred, it was some time later, after the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board had been published. I read an amazing, eye-opening article in a broadsheet (I can’t remember which one) which had a detailed synopsis of these findings, and it was this that made me change my mind. I have since read a lot more on the subject and watched numerous programs and documentaries, and all of these sources say the same thing: the disaster was caused by an initial problem with the technology, and furthermore massive organisational failings in NASA management – and this cause rings true for both Columbia and the Challenger disaster as well.

Now, I could go on for hours about the various findings of the reports in terms of the managerial failings that should have been dealt with or should never have happened, but I’m only going to touch on these. There are many many books, articles and documentaries which cover the minutiae a lot better than I can. If you want to (and I suggest you do), go and look it up. Read the various Wikipedia (and other) articles I’ve linked to, watch the documentary, or read Richard Feynman’s book What Do You Care What Other People Think? (which I haven’t read but is on my list).

I’m going to talk about the technology, because that is where the fundamental problem lies. This excerpt from David ‘Doc’ Searls blog is actually an article written by him in 1986, and was sent to me by my good friend Pete Sigrist. If you only read one of the links in this post, read this – it inspired the (admittedly rather grotesque) title of this blog post and gives a good summary of what I’m talking about:

Consider for a moment that the shuttle program is, after all, the bastard offspring of a dozen competing designs, and constrained throughout its history by a budgetary process that subordinates human and scientific aspirations to a variety of military and commercial interests. And consider how, as with most publicly-funded technologies, most of the Shuttle’s components were all produced by the lowest bidder. And consider the fact that many of the Shuttle’s technologies are, even by NASA’s admission, obsolete. If we had to start at Square One today, we’d probably design a very different program.

The Shuttle is brilliant, but ultimately flawed – a technology so precariously balanced and tightly strung that in the words of many NASA engineers, scientists and both shuttle disaster investigations, it is a genuine surprise (albeit a welcome one) that there have been so few accidents. What your average person does not realise – and what I didn’t realise as a child – is that most shuttle launches have been far from problem free, and this is not unknown by NASA management either. Both the O-ring failure in Challenger and the ‘foam shedding’ which saw the demise of Columbia and its crew had been categorised by NASA as “normalization of deviance” – acceptable risk – despite the fact that this conflicted with supposedly stringent design and safety specifications. Ultimately, in many cases one single failure in myriad vastly complicated, intricate systems, all depending on each other to work, would be the undoing of any launch. This is unavoidable with such a complex machine as the Shuttle – it is simply too complicated to be considered a truly safe mode of transport into space – and astronomically expensive to run.

Of course, the reason we don’t think about any of this is because of the way shuttle has been portrayed over the years, as day-to-day, routine – and this portrayal is by no means accidental. Physicist Richard Feynman played a large role in the Rogers Commission Report and was aghast at the disparity between the reality of the perilous balance in which Shuttle sits, and the view of NASA management that the Shuttle was almost infallible:

“It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask “What is the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery? It would appear that, for whatever purpose, be it for internal or external consumption, the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product, to the point of fantasy. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Feynman’s beef was mostly and rightly with NASA which is well illustrated in that quote – but the most salient point for me is that the technology is not as reliable as we have come to take for granted.

Of course there have been major advances and changes in both Shuttle design and NASA strategy; there have been multiple contingencies devised for crew rescue in case of disaster and from STS-114 onwards (the return-to-flight mission two years after Columbia) procedures implemented to safeguard against the ‘foam shedding’ problem, such as the R-Bar or Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver I mentioned earlier, but ultimately these are just patching holes  in a too-flawed system. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly glad to see it go and I revise the thinking that Shuttle is a failed experiment; but an experiment it is, and it has proved not to be the correct path.

So we move unto the future, and Shuttle is simply not what we need any more. However, in the wake of the cancelled Shuttle program, we have very little in place for our next move, and a lot of questions as to what that move will be. The NASA pilots themselves seem to be asking the same questions. I’m no qualified scientist so I can’t say what is the best course of action, but Medium and Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles (MLLV and HLLV) as an initial method seem to be the best option. Cheap, reliable, and proven. The Soyuz rocket is the most frequently used, and most reliable launch vehicle in the world – over 1700 launches since the mid sixties with a tiny percentage of failures – and is very low cost. I might also add that it was the only thing we used to resupply and perform crew changeovers for the International Space Station during the time when Shuttle was grounded after Columbia.

Breaking out of Low Earth Orbit – a hitherto unaccomplished task for humans – is what most people (including myself) seem to think we should be doing, and there are some plans afoot for a manned mission to Mars. But how are we going to get there? The cancelled Moonbase plans leave us without a, well, base of operations from which to launch longer duration missions, which would seem to be the sensible thing to do;  the ability to construct, or at the very least refuel craft outside Earth would help us a lot on our outward journey as it would be much easier to launch from the Moon than Earth itself. This of course is easier said than done, and creates a whole load more questions, like how we get the raw materials up there in the first place. Still, I would have really, really liked to see a Moonbase in our time.

So, finally, we find ourselves on the edge of space in need of a method for the next step – but I’m glad it’s not Shuttle – lest we end up with another monstrous white Y in the sky.

She’s the last of the G5s!

Posted in Computing, Projects, Tech with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2011 by badhex

“Kick it in the guts Barry!”

Okay, okay – so some of you won’t know what I’m on about, and some of you will – but I’ll explain.

I have just recently acquired and set up… wait for it… another machine.

This is probably not that surprising – but what might be surprising to people who know me is that this machine is a Mac. A PowerMac G5 2.5GHz Quad Core: the last of the G5s, in fact.

I’m a big fan of Mad Max – at least, the first two films anyway – so upon hearing myself say to Clare that it was “the last of the G5s”, I immediately thought of that great piece of dialogue referring to the iconic black Pursuit Special in the first film.

I love the naming process for new acquisitions, and I always try to think of something that is in some way apt; thus, the obvious choice for a name had become clear – the Pursuit Special.

After sticking in as much PC2 4200 DDR RAM as I have spare (5GB), I’ve given it fresh install and updated it to OS X 10.5.8 which is the highest version PPC based Macs can handle. I’m currently pissing about with SSH access and tunnelling VNC protocols, and have it set up in such a way that I can use Wake On Lan via the Internets to remotely wake it up using this great utility, which is fun. Sweet magic packets. I’ve gotten hold of a few nice free utilities, plus a nice chap has given me a paid copy of TechTool Pro which comes with the AppleCare support plan. I also plan to put in a second-hand airport card if I can get my hands on one for a few quid.

Of course, this is not entirely necessary as it has a wired gigabit connection, but I want to pimp it out as much as possible. It’s an old machine and has undoubtedly been worked very hard during its life, but despite this I want to make the best of it. No point having a Mac if I’m not going to soup it up as much as possible, right? Just like the (real) Pursuit Special.

As I have previously written, I currently dual-boot my netbook into Ubuntu and WinXP. The point really of all these OS shenanigans is that I need to work on my Mac and Linux/UNIX skills. OS X uses Darwin as the UNIX underbelly of the beast, so ever the fan of the humble CLI, I hope that it will help me with both in a sort of two-pronged learning attack. I’ve been working more and more with the Macs at work in an attempt to become the sort of go-to guy for Mac support, as previously it’s always been a hole in my knowledge. My career in standard Windows desktop support looks increasingly bleak, so it’s high time I did something about that.

So, that leaves us with just one question:

When do we go for a ride?

I Love Being A Geek: New Techy Projects

Posted in Computing, General Chang, Projects, Robots, Space, Tech with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2010 by badhex

Being a geek is sweet. I get really excited about often quite simple stuff, and moreover stuff that most other people really don’t care about. This usually prompts me to start some sort of techy project, but, alas,  I’m the first to admit they go on a seemingly never-ending, possibly never-completed wishlist. I’d like to change that, and I reckon blogging about stuff might just give me more impetus to make good on my thoughts – if not less time to do them. Irony.

Anyway with that in mind, here’s a couple of mini projects I have on my mind, some in various stages of completion, some merely seeded. Hopefully I’ll do something about them, if I haven’t already.

Reappropriating a LaCie FireWire CD-RW

This little project is now complete, and although really quite simple in the end, it was exactly the kind of thing I love doing.  You can read the full post about the process here.

Telescope Refurb

As per my previous post, I’ve been donated an old Charles Frank 6″ Reflector telescope, which needs a little work. I find any sort of techy work really fun, but don’t get as much opportunity to do much other than computer work, and even that is more limited than I like. This should be a fun little project, once I’ve persuaded my parents to ferry it 200 miles form its current location to my house.

Fitting a hard drive to my old Amiga 600

I’d been thinking about cracking out the Commodore Amiga 600 I’ve owned since being a kid and never got rid of (I still have all the disks!) at some point, possibly looking into a few things I could do to it upgrades wise. I always, always wanted a hard drive for it when I was younger (it was something like 100mb, I think, and external), so I had a little delve. Fortunately for me, it turns out there’s actually a hard drive bracket and IDE connector for a 2.5″ IDE hard drive, ready and waiting inside the thing. Bonus. Thanks to some fantastic resources such as Amiga.org, The Extreme Commodore A600 Upgrading Page and English Amiga Board I’ve prepared an old 1.2gb drive I had kicking around using the awesome but complicated WinUAE and a nice preconfigured Workbench setup called Classic Workbench and now I’m just waiting for the 2.5″ IDE cable, which is taking approximately 17 years to arrive.

[UPDATE: Between writing this bit and posting, the IDE cable arrived – it’s now installed and working. I will write a post about the whole thing soon]

Finding a purpose for new kit

I’ve just acquired a Dell Poweredge 1750 blade server, plus a really gorgeous, well-engineered case with an Intel SE7505VB2 motherboard and dual Intel Xeon 2.4gHz chips, either Prestonia or Gallatin flavour, and I need a purpose for them. I probably need to get a bit of thermal paste for the processors, as the heatsinks had been removed and although I did my best with the paste that was left on, one of the chips is running a good 5°C hotter. I’m really not a  fan (heh heh) of re-using paste anyway, it’s not exactly expensive stuff.

Building a home-made NAS

Easier than you think. I’ve come across a lovely Linux distro called FreeNAS which is brilliant. Extremely easy to install, can live on a bootable memory stick and after a minimum of setup, you can configure the whole thing through a web interface. I’m not really sure why they have a little devil thingy on their logo.

Unfortunately, I’m now of the opinion it might have to wait. Realistically, I can’t really house another box. I’m up to my eyeballs in tech – but then again, I am a kit monster!

Setting up an OSX Server

I acquired a Mac XServe G5 blade some time ago and have been looking for something to do with it. Lovely piece of kit, really just bit too nice to get thrown away. I’ve been thinking of getting some sort of internal web server up and running, at some point – this may be the ideal candidate.

Setting up a Windows Server

See above. Most likely on the Dell, I think. I want to play with/learn Microsoft’s WDS for work, and this would be a great opportunity. I have a couple of spare machines kicking around to act as client machines as well, so I can get the hang of it.

Hackint0shing my Samsung NC10

The original section I started writing here turned into a massive rant/homage to my Samsung NC10 netbook so I ‘ve actually split it off into a new post here. Anyway basically at some point I plan to hackint0sh it. For those of you who don’t know what I’m on about, it means to install Mac OSX on a computer not normally supposed to run it – i.e. not a Mac. Although it’s strictly speaking a bit naughty, I actually own various genuine copies of OSX, so it could be worse.

I’ve done it before to an old Dell, and the principle is the same, so it shouldn’t be too hard. The major issue was that the wifi/network adaptors will not work once OSX is on there, which makes it pretty pointless, but I’ve fixed that by buying and installing a Dell wifi card, which is compatible with OSX.

I currently dual boot it into WinXP Pro and Ubuntu 10.04, and I’ve come across a couple of great articles (gotta love the Tinterweb) about triple booting and hackint0shing the NC10, so with a bit of lateral thinking I think I can meet them in the middle somewhere (read: hope).

Right, that’s it for now, I’ve rambled on for ages, 952 words is enough for today.

Peace out technophiles!

😉

My Samsung NC10 Is Frickin Awesome

Posted in Computing, General Chang, Tech with tags , , , , , on September 13, 2010 by badhex

A year or so ago I bought my lovely little Samsung NC10 netbook and a 2gb RAM stick for it,  and I have to be honest, it is  basically the best £300 I’ve ever spent; I take it almost everywhere and use it most days (and on which I have composed most of this post). It’s amazing.

But  – let me give you a precursor, if I may. When I was at secondary school about 10 or 15 years ago, the first tiny Sony Vaios came out, the one with the separate floppy/CD drive (which infuriatingly Wikipedia and google image search won’t let me find) and I immediately knew what I wanted from a portable computer. Of course, they were incredibly expensive, and there was no way I could have afforded one. (Side track, because I’ve just been reminded – my first computer was a Pentium 133mHz with 16mb RAM, 1gb hard drive and a 1mb VGA card. It was 1996 and it cost just under £1000. Madness.)

So, the principle was there all that time ago, exactly how I wanted. A small, very portable computer that just computes. Seriously, how many times do you actually use a CD drive on a laptop these days, unless it’s the only computer you have? Most applications are either downloadable or can go on a memory stick and let’s face it, the humble floppy disk (sweet, noble floppy disk) – as lovable as it is – was always going to be replaced by something (Zip Disk anyone? No, didn’t think so). So, all you really need is the computer itself and some sort of network connection, and a USB port or two – and it only took 10 years for my wishes to become commonplace and affordable.

Anyway, it’s brilliant, and as far as the variety of netbooks I have seen on the market are concerned, it definitely feels like it’s one of the better ones. It feels sturdy and well manufactured, the keyboard is a joy to type on (although Clare is positively disgusted that the keys are italicised. See what I did there?), the screen is clear, and I much prefer the matt screen to a shiny one. The biggest improvements to be made would be the touchpad being made bigger and a longer battery life (although I am actually more than happy at around 6 hours) – both of which were addressed in subsequent revisions. As far as upgrading goes, it was as easy as you’d expect to pop in a new 2gb stick, and in anticipation of possibly hackint0shing it I’ve also swapped out the MiniPCI-express wifi card for a Dell one. Might even stretch as far as an SSD one day.

So yeah, netbooks are awesome. Love using it, love having the ability to compute on the go, or just crack it out to watch a film on long journeys.

Owning a netbook really is absolutely, totally and utterly joyous. Go out and buy one, you won’t regret it.

Peace

🙂

Reappropriating a LaCie D2 FireWire CD-RW

Posted in Computing, Projects, Tech with tags , , , , , , on September 9, 2010 by badhex

Greetings, fellow Earthlings!

I had a couple of old LaCie FireWire D2 CD-RWs knocking around which had been thrown out from work, and I had put them to one side on the basis that they might prove handy at some point, mainly with a view to cannibalising or reappropriating them. A couple of weeks ago, I finally found a use.

Separately I’d had a growing concern of late about backing up some of my data, and had finally installed my old data drive, a 750gb SATA Samsung Spinpoint F1 HD753LJ, into a Maxxtor USB caddy I had acquired (What?! I’m a kit monster!) and set up my backup schedule, but it occurred to me that I could probably combine the LaCie caddy with the previous previous data drive, a 320gb IDE (not sure of the model without looking, to be honest), and donate it to Clare. What with her having a Mac, the FireWire made perfect sense.

I set about stripping down the caddy, searched through my bits and bobs to find a 3.5″ to 5.25″ mount and put it all back together again. The drive immediately fired up in Windoze, but unfortunately, as a CD-RW. To be expected, I suppose. This rendered the setup useless, as writing to or formatting the disk was impossible. Never happy to be a quitter,  (and secretly excited by the prospect) I decided there may be some way to reprogram the ROM to stop it thinking it was a CD-RW. In this respect I was really lucky.

A couple of searches later, it transpired that the particular FireWire – actually, sorry. I have to stop there to make a point. Okay, quick sidetrack.

FireWire, if you don’t know, is the Apple name for IEEE1394. I’m always torn between giving it what I see as it’s ‘proper’ name, IEEE1394 or even just ‘1394’, and FireWire. I’ve no overt love for Apple, but I do have love for standards, and they did do a lot of the pioneering work for said standard, and paved the way for its creation. Kudos. It’s arguably better than USB in many ways. Anyway, back to the plot.

A couple of searches later, it transpired that this particular FireWire to IDE bridge (which as a generic component, are not that common) utilised one of the most widely used chips of its kind, an Oxford Semiconductors 911FW. Some instructions and a nice utility found in this brilliantly helpful post allowed me to reprogram the configuration information within the ROM to read any IDE device. Bingo. I duly changed the neccessary settings, uploaded them to the ROM, and restarted the system.

It worked like a charm. The drive was up and running, and after formatting it to MacOS Extended, now serves as an external backup drive.

Awesome. Fun, and useful!

Scrublet Droid

Posted in General Chang, Robots with tags , , , , on July 2, 2010 by badhex

I don’t know if you seen the advert for some L’Oreal product, but in the long-running tradition of inventing bullshit to sell more product, they’ve now created something called Scrublet.
Yep. You heard me.

Scrublet.

Ridiculous as this is, it has led to Clare doing me a little drawing of the Scrublet Droid, which I can only assume is the next step in the never-ending march of face-cleaning technology.
It’s awesome having a graphic designer for a girlfriend.