20090522

WolframAlpha

I’ve been trying to use the computational “search” engine WolframAlpha for several days now. The short version is that the overwhelming majority of my “requests” and inquiries come back with the dreaded “I do not know what to do” response. Alpha is not ready for prime time. It does know how to turn 0.06V*e/(h-bar) into 91.2THz, but that ain’t gonna cut it. It was supposed to be so much more. It does know how to answer all sorts of cutesy questions like “what are you?”, but try to use it for real work and you will be disappointed.

Let me know when WolframBeta is ready to test.

20090416

Taxes and Entitlements

I’ve recently read a couple of stories on the web that had a common element to them. This one from John Feehery CNN is one I’d like to comment on. Not knowing just how long CNN will keep this link live, I’ll summarize his points here. The title of the piece is “Commentary: What’s driving the U.S. over a cliff?”. In it he addresses 4 questions which he claims are relevant. With one underlying theme being that most people want the government to spend less on everyone and everything other than the benefits they personally rely on. (well Duh! Welcome to America – home of Created Equal, as long as I’m first.)

First, why do we let people retire too early and then expect them to live so long without working? He points out that long ago, before real antibiotics, most people simply died before they retired. They died on average around the age of 52 and those that made it to 72 typically retired. Nowadays, people retire 10 years earlier and live significantly longer. So, how is it that people have come to expect that they should retire so early only to be carried by the government entitlement programs?

This is a very sensitive subject. Quite frankly I think 30 years of service is enough. I’m not talking about the 40 quarters spread over 30 years that qualifies folks for Social Security either – 30 years of work. If you put in 30 years I believe you are tired of working and entitled to retirement. The real rub comes in when you talk about inflation, especially in the cost of medicine, and the fact that folks will continue to live longer and longer. Right now we (the US) live 3 months longer for every year that goes by. Soon, we will be seeing life extension that exceeds 1 year per year. When that happens, a whole lot of people are not going to die except by accident. Tinkering with the Social Security taxes, ages, and benefits will not be able to handle that problem. There needs to be a different solution altogether.

Second, why do most Americans spend so much of their health care expenditures in the last three months of their life? His statistics show that 27% percent of medicare costs are incurred by people in the last 3 months of life. Rightly, he equates this to services that do not work. Medical treatment that does not change the outcome.

What he did not say is that in the old days people simply died rather than do everything within their (or the government’s program’s) means to get a little more time. At what level of quality? Is this linked to the decline in morals – which are certainly linked to the decreased importance of religion and the associated increase in the fear of death? We certainly need to have an open discussion/debate of how much effort/expense is appropriate, but once again it is not really the effort, just the expense.

Third, why do so many people pay nothing in federal income taxes? The numbers are pretty shocking. A third of the people in the US pay no federal taxes – at all. The new tax changes working their way through congress could potentially raise that to nearly 50%! This indicates one of two things: either we have a lot of very poor people or some folks aren’t pulling any weight (I won’t get into a discussion of what “their fair share” might mean – you’ll find some of that over at Hooda Thunkit although I’m not quite clear where he stands on the issue).

I think the income and inheritance taxes, both personal and corporate should be scrapped – completely. In its place I would propose a Value Added Tax (VAT). This VAT would also include the costs to government for things like infrastructure (roads & bridges) and other uncovered costs (tobacco and alcohol taxes as well as a carbon tax – not a cap and trade system) so, it would have different VAT levels depending upon the product. This assures that those who spend support the system and those that save/invest provide the growth. Things will and should cost more in many cases – we’ve been living a false sense of wealth or a false low rate of inflation for too long. If you think the projections are bad now, just consider the fact that these same non-tax-paying demographic groups are also those that rely heavily on entitlements and are proliferating more quickly than those that pay the taxes. They vote too so, any change had better come pretty quickly.

Fourth, why is it more profitable to work in the government than to work in the private sector? His fourth and last point is that the statistics show that the average wage/compensation of a public worker is much higher than that found in the private sector. He concludes that public servants are simply over paid.

Show me how many public servants work in fast food restaurants, wash cars, clean houses, or answer phones for a living. Otherwise, make your case for why police, fire, military workers are on the same level and should be paid the minimum wage. Let’s also take the salaries of the president and those in other leadership positions in government and compare them to the CEOs of major corporations. You guessed it. This is simply a case of comparing apples to oranges. No firm conclusion can be drawn from those averages he sites and draws his outrageous conclusion from.

Since I agree with the basic premise of the title of the article – that we are indeed driving off of a cliff – what is the real problem and is there a solution? In my biased view, the problem is that we have shipped a lot of the work out of the country. It has taken a good 20 years to do so, but we have stopped being a producer and become simply the market for the goods of others. The theory that supported this switch was that we needed to send our money overseas so that those folks could raise their standard of living and buy more of our stuff. The problem is that they don’t want our stuff. If you doubt that just look at the trade deficit for the past 20 years. A lot of that money just never makes it down to the average person, but they also do not have the same style of living that we do. They aren’t going to buy a CD or rent a movie or get on a plane built in the US and take a vacation in Las Vegas. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Instead of raising their standard of living we are and have been lowering ours. Some of that is in hidden inflation, but as we are now beginning to see a lot of that will simply be realized through decreased valuations of property (of all types) and a loss of jobs -  for good. The cliff we are driving off of is built out of high expectations. We are not entitled to very much let alone living so well at the expense of others. I had a discussion at lunch recently with a renowned economist, Jeffery Sachs. I had just asked him whether inflation was required to keep the economy functioning – basically whether it was just a giant ponzi scheme. He dodged the question I asked, but said that it was much easier for folks to accept inflation than it was for the system to absorb rapid decreases in prices. I read between the lines of his reply to my unanswerable question and saw that I may have hit the nail on the head. The cost of a lot of things is going to have to come down. Whether this is by inflation or deflation does not matter. The result is that the value in producing those things will require that wages in those related industries to come down or jobs be completely eliminated through automation.

It is a tangled web especially when you, for example, look at the intertwined industries of medicine, insurance, and lawyers. Who could possibly put a price on life? The balance of a market economy is not relevant in this instance. Looking at the long-term budget of the US, the cost of entitlements and their growth is dominated by the growth in medical costs. I seriously doubt whether congress can come up with and pass a plan that will solve this problem. It is our problem only, because we expect too much from the system. We need to change, personally, and not push the problem over to Washington for congress to solve. We must accept the fact that we are spoiled and expect too much.

Except for me that is. (and so it continues)

20090410

Micro$oft must think we’re all idiots

The computer I built for my In-Laws died this week and I no longer had the parts to repair it. The trusty old Windows 2000 computer that had served so well for so long was toast. They needed a windows computer to run their genealogy software (otherwise I would have bought them an iMac) so, I went shopping in search of a replacement. Dell had a 2 week wait on a system that I thought would fit the bill, but 2 weeks was too long to wait. Best Buy does not sell just a computer – they want to sell you a monitor with it. The same goes for Costco. I did find a nice little computer, sans monitor, at Walmart made by eMachines and bought it.

I have now had my first taste of Micro$oft Vista – What a joke! They have added transparency to all of those annoying, pop-up, ‘Are you really sure you want to do this?’, click-happy confirmation dialogs and they have artfully moved all of the the tools and configuration GUIs to places where they are hard to find. Oh, and they now dim the rest of the screen so you can tell what little pop up you need to pay attention to. There appears to be more wide spread use of pop ups and they have restricted what I am allowed to do  – even though I am a frackin’ administrator! All of the ‘power tools’ I need to quickly configure/fix things are now either completely hidden or hard to get to. They have been replaced with wizards that perform inanely simple tasks. Micro$oft must think we are all idiots! Aside from the rearranging of the locations of the tools, there is really very little  – other than eye-candy & fluff – to Vista. I was really happy that I could make almost everything appear in ‘Classic’ form so as not to shock the In-Laws with the new computer. That alone tells me that Micro$oft knows that nothing in Vista is really that different from Windoze 2000 – other than fluff. Those stupid Wizards aren’t that helpful either. I had copied all of the user stuff from the old system over to the new one’s D: drive. Importing the email settings, address book, and mailboxes was a real pain. Apparently, you need to import things in a particular order. Once I imported the address book, I could then import the mailboxes – not the other way around. I never did figure out how to import the Favorites in Internet Explorer – it appeared to want to import them one link at a time(!!!) – so, I just copied them over to the proper location – which had not changed in Vista. I still have no idea where the email mailboxes are hiding though.

I just hope that damned Genealogy software runs under Vista.

20090405

MSI Wind upgrades

Well that took longer than it should have, but I managed to upgrade the memory and hard drive in my MSI Wind. The memory was easy – open the case and insert the SIMM – Done. The hard drive was a bit more difficult primarily because I wanted to clone the existing drive with all of the software I had already installed on it and had to do so without the aid of an external CD/DVD drive. I tried a lot of things and this is what ended up working for me. Planning for this upgrade I did buy a Thermaltake BlacX SATA to USB “adapter” which made this process easier since the drives just plug into the top of the BlacX. My target drive is a WD Scorpion 320GB 7200rpm SATA drive that uses slightly less power than the original 5400RPM 160GB Fujitsu. I partitioned the new drive with 3 partitions using my iMac and the OS X disk utility. The partitioning scheme was MBR. First partition was 39.5GB, slightly larger than the Wind’s C: drive. The second is an 80GB HFS+ for OS X – eventually. The third partition is a 200GB FAT32 partition I’ll share with whatever OS is booted. I moved the disk over to my XP notebook and (re)formatted the first partition. I had to do this after trying several other ways to clone the drive. I then downloaded Acronis True Image Home 2009 which has a fully functional 15-day trial. It is nice software and is reasonably priced at $50 – although it did not quite do everything it needed to do as you will see. I put the original Wind HD in the BlacX and made a full backup (including MBR) to an image on my notebook HD. This was a pretty fast process. I then swapped out that drive for the new Scorpion and restored the image to the first partition and replaced the MBR. OK good to go now, right? Wrong. After reassembling the Wind with the new drive I got a little bit further than I had previously using other tools, but came to an abrupt stop with a “Non-System Disk” error during boot. After a little reading I had concluded that the problem was probably the assigned drive letter (D: instead of C:) that True Image gave the clone (you can’t have 2 C: drives on a system). It appeared that there was no way around this. Just for fun, I decided to have a look at the disk using XP’s Disk Manager. So for the umpteenth time I disassembled the Wind and hung the HD on my note book. Naturally I could not change the drive letter to C, but I did notice that the third partition on the drive was marked active. Could it be that simple? I marked the first partition as the active one and reinstalled the disk in the Wind, again. It Booted! … and the drive letter of the boot partition was now C: -  just like I had hoped. So my Wind now has 2GB of RAM and a fast 320GB HD – it is also overclocked to 1.8GHz and is stable. For those who may wonder, it is just as quiet as the original. Oh, and it boots in under 30 seconds.

I hope this is of help to someone out there.

Autoguiding with the MSI Wind

One of the reasons I purchased the MSI Wind was for use in my observatory. Tonight I ran a successful auto-guiding test. The guiding setup consists of an Orion Star Shoot Auto-Guider (SSAG) on a William Optics Zenith Star 66 (focal length 388mm). The SSAG has a guide port that I connected directly to the auto-guider port on my AstroPhysics 900GTO mount. Despite its name, the SSAG is not a stand alone auto-guider and it requires a connection to a computer. The guiding software that came with the SSAG is PHD Guiding. It is a very simple, very effective, and free piece of software. PHD Guiding worked for me right away, no fiddling with parameters, no involved calibrations. You select the camera and the mount, click on a star, and it calibrates itself in a minute or so, and that is it. It is guiding from that point forward. The Wind was not struggling at all and the image downloads from the camera were very fast. It looks like this is going to be an excellent machine to run the mount. Next, I need to get ASCOM set up so I can test out Maxim DL and PEMpro. Then I can redo my periodic error correction and dial in the polar alignment of the mount.

20090329

Is Apple losing control of OS X?

Hopefully within the next week I’ll have a new Netbook in my possession. This device is compatible with the hardware requirements of Apple’s OS X. I purchased the 5-pack license for Leopard for my two iMacs and still have 3 unused licenses so I am considering installing OS X and dual booting the netbook. In doing some advanced research on the process of installing OS X on non-Apple hardware, it has become obvious that this is a trivial process. I wonder what implications this has for Apple and the way they enforce their licensing for the OS.

The Netbook I selected is the MSI Wind (U100-432US) 10″ system. I’ll be adding 1GB of memory and upgrading the HD to a 320GB 7200 RPM Western Digital Scorpion 2.5″ SATA HD. My goal is to have a tiny computer to run my observatory – freeing my other notebook to run the camera and deal with the high data rate processes. I do not need OS X to run the observatory, but I would also like to have a small netbook for other reasons. I only run windows when I am required to and prefer OS X for “normal” computing, hence the desire for dual boot.

Does Apple’s financial future require that they artificially tie OS X to their Hardware? If so, are they doomed?

20090318

WD My Book External HD

Since I can’t wait for the BluRay writers to come down in price (for both the drive and media) and I’m running out of space on my tini tiny 750GB OneTouch III, I picked up a 2TB External. I decided to go with the Western Digital My Book Studio (Striped RAID array). A coworker has 4 of these and they are very quiet. They are cooled convectively – no fans. I’m 140GB into my first copy and the drive is putting out a bit of heat and you can hear the faint whine of the 7200RPM drives – but only if you put your ear next to the drive. I moved my iTunes library (80+ GB) to the Maxtor and I can hear the drive running when I play the music. I suspect I’ll be moving the library over to the new drive soon.

20090228

A Quick Peek at the RegiStax 5 beta

Well the beta is out on a 30-day trial and I downloaded the beta this afternoon to do a little testing. I first tried it with my current test subject – an AVI from a night of good seeing. I fired up RegiStax v5 and selected 64×64 alignment boxes and then let it pick how many and where to place the boxes. The area of the Moon was near Walter so there were many features to choose from. RegiStax decided to put down 230 alignment points and distributed them pretty uniformly. It also avoided the area beyond the terminator. It took 24 minutes for the initial alignment, 1 minute to make a reference from the 50 best frames, 2 minutes to optimize, and 1 minute to stack the best 200 out of 1300 frames in the AVI. Total run time 30 minutes for 230 alignment points. Not Bad. I had just run the same AVI through AviStack on the same machine the night before with 2500 alignment points. That took 36 minutes. I reran the AVI through AviStack using only 230 alignment points ( I had to manually delete nearly 160 points because I could not get AviStack’s auto placement routine to lay down fewer than 390 points). AviStack ran through that case in 20.5 minutes. So, RegiStax is faster than AviStack except when you force AviStack to use the same number of points. When I looked at the RS version compared to the AviStack result using 2500 alignment points – after wavelet enhancement (using the same tool), I could easily tell where the RS processing could have used more alignment points. The problem boils down to this – when you use 10 times as many alignment points, the distance between points is 3 times smaller. This results in 3 times less distortion (on average) from seeing within any single stacking polygon. If your skies are like mine this will make a noticeable difference in the result. The quality of the final image with RegiStax v5 is still not as uniform as with AviStack. One other thing to know about RegiStax. It aligns and stacks to sub-pixel accuracy and so if your images are not properly sampled you will lose some resolution.

My next test was my old test AVI of the region near Aristarchus. This was an AVI where RegiStax had a tough time tracking some features in the darker areas of the Mare. I could not get v5 to complete the optimize step. The program would simply crash. I did not, however, try some of the new settings – this is after all a Quick Peek of the Beta on the day of release. It also decided that only 32 alignment points were needed. I’m going to have to spend some more time on this test case and learn some of the new controls that are supposed to help in these situations.

Here are a few problems I noticed in the beta which I assume are going to be easy to fix in the final release:

The status bar along the bottom has a place where RS reports Time Used and Time Left. For some reason that line is split in two – one above the other – but the single line height of the status bar cuts the top off of the top line and the bottom off of the bottom line.

I was running RS on Win XP under Parallels in coherence mode on my Mac. The first time I ran RS, it kicked Parallels out of coherence mode into a small window with scroll bars. It had apparently changed the screen resolution from 1920×1200 to 1900×1182!!! After restoring everything back to the way it was, RS did not repeat this the next time I ran it.

Here is one thing that I think is going to remain a problem:

One of the problems the previous versions of RegiStax had was that the reference created after setting the Limit frame count still had slight geometric distortions which only really became apparent when you tried to build a mosaic from multiple AVIs. I compared the RS result to the AviStack result using the difference mode in PhotoShop. AviStack reported that the seeing in this AVI was never greater than 2-pixels of relative shift – so this is a very quiescent sky I was imaging through. The comparison between the two results showed that only one alignment point had a slight relative shift. It was an area of sharp contrast around a 40×40 pixel crater. Not a definitive test, but given the problem I had around Aristarchus I suspect RS is still going to have problems with astrometric accuracy.

So, my quick peek tells me the following. RSv5 is faster than v4. There are more features to learn that should help with problem AVIs. If you are fortunate to live in a place where your sky provides excellent seeing or you are shooting at shorter focal lengths – you are going to like RegiStax v5 and can use most of the automated features. If you are like me with a sky that rarely cooperates – the jury is still out. I will learn the new features and report back here within a week.

DISCLAIMER: I am now contributing some post processing code to the AviStack program. You may feel that this limits my ability to remain objective. Fair enough. Try these tests out for yourself and report your results here. I’d love to hear from you.

New iMac and M$ Office 2008

The day finally came when my not so old government owned computer at work was replaced by a contractor owned computer. The process we lovingly refer to as being ODINized was happening in my office. My ‘old computer’ was only two years old (a nice white iMac) and worked for what I needed it to do. I often ran OS X along side Win XP under Parallels and thought I could probably use a little faster CPU and more memory. So, I was looking forward to the new system which improved both aspects. I won’t get into the details of what works and what doesn’t other than to say that I’m not a happy camper yet.

What I do want to talk about first is the new iMac. I like the aluminum finish. I never really thought the white with thick clear casing was all that attractive. Distinctive? Yes. Attractive? No. This system has the glossy screen. A lot has been written just on the switch to glossy screens, but I have to say that I liked them when I first used one on my 17″ MacBook Pro and I love it on the new iMac. I also now understand why Steve Jobs likes to wear black shirts. The reflectivity is high, but not distracting to me. The reason is that when you are focused on the screen the background reflections are out of focus. It is even more true with my old eyes which have a very limited depth of field. I simply do not see the background when looking at screen content. The machine is fast(er) and the doubling of memory from 2 to 4GB really helps with Parallels and Win XP – but I knew that from using my MacBook Pro. What really sucks on the new iMac are the speakers. They sound terrible for anything other than the Beeps, Boops, and Groans of the system event sounds. For music just don’t bother – they suck completely. The sound on the old white iMac was not this bad. I wish there was a headphone jack on the front, sides, or bottom of the iMac. Since I have to use headphones for quality sound I hate having to turn my monitor slightly so I can reach the back where the headphone jack is. For some reason I can’t quite do this by feel (it is the the outermost hole on the back and I can feel where it is) while it is nestled in with the other things residing on my desk.

The new iMac also came with the standard ODIN software load which included Office 2008. I have a lot of documents, spreadsheets, and powerpoint presentations built with Office 2004. There is a lot not to like about office 2004, but I really dislike Office 2008. Two things in particular really stand out for me. First was the fact that Office 2008 decided it needed to reformat the column widths and row heights of my 2004 spreadsheets. Now I know that all of my 2004 sheets had a different geometry and that moving one of them to a windows version of office caused problems with fonts and cell sizes, but I cannot afford to resize all of the spreadsheets I’ve created in the last 5 years. I do not even know whether the new column/row geometries are even compatible with the windows version of office now. The second thing I do not like about Office 2008 is all of that useless crap at the top of the screen. With the old system I could put all of the tools I need in my own custom single-line tool bar and use most of my screen area for content. With Office 2008, I have to have some tools in a tool bar and some in that header area where the title and menus are located. Then there is that worthless bar of buttons (I think it may be called the Elements Bar) that helps the brain dead with their access to tools I never use – forms, styles, … . The elements bar cannot be turned off. You can collapse it, but you can’t make it go away. The amount of wasted space at the top of the work area has easily doubled (with the bar collapsed). If I wasn’t before, I certainly now am convinced that Micro$oft is hell bent on writing software for the most idiotic user. They shun the needs of normal competent users (let alone power users) because they fear that an idiot and potential new customer might stray across a product of theirs that has been customized by a person who can think independently and has customized the GUI to suite their needs, likes, and habits. They worry that this chance encounter might scare the new customer away. As you might guess, I ripped Office 2008 out by its tonsils and reinstalled Office 2004. … And then spent the next hour patching the patches to the patches that were patched by the previous patch.

I guess this is why I stilll write my own software.

20090227

digg

I’ll be short and to the point. Someone submitted one of my flickr photos to digg and it made the front page. Holy Moses! I’m glad I was not serving that from here. It ended up getting 70+ thousand hits on flickr in 3 days. Most of that came on the first day. But that is not the point of this post.

Boy has digg turned into a bunch of whiny self righteous negative nincompoops! I guess digg is old enough now to have turned into just another /. So where is the next digg? I need a new home for tech stuff where the tech still outweighs the stuff.

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