Do we need astronauts?

How Science Brought Down the Shuttle (Free NY Times registration required).

bq. Scientific experimentation in space can be safer and more cost effective using long-duration remote controlled orbital spacecraft.

This is true, but there are many other reasons why we are in space. My favourite set of videos from the recent ISS mission are the four-part series on eating (with all sorts of cool surface-tension physics hidden inside a mundane task), and the water film experiments by Don Petit. In both cases, an astronaut combined his love of science with a little spare time and came up with something entirely new, something that probably would never have made it off the ground otherwise.

bq. The idea of using the space shuttle as a scientific laboratory actually came about after the shuttle’s design was already in place. The shuttle program was conceived in the waning days of the Apollo program as the best option to continue a manned space program at the lowest cost. However, without a place to shuttle to, and not nearly enough satellites that needed a shuttle to launch or repair them, the shuttle program succeeded in doing little beyond creating a human presence in space. The idea of the shuttle as an in-orbit lab was used as a justification for investment in its future.

So? I think it is important that we have people in space. Switching the focus of the shuttle program in order to keep people in space is a good thing.

OTOH, I think it’s a travesty that the ISS crew has been cut from seven to three (and now, temporarily, two). The whole point of building the thing was to get a permanent presence in space; cutting the crew to the point where ISS cannot be effective (science drops from 120 hours/week to 20 hours/week) kills the whole program.

It’s important that we do more science on orbit without astronaut involvement; it is cheaper and more effective. It can also be done commercially at a fraction of the cost of NASA missions :-). But I think we _also_ need a manned presence in space, _just because_. NASA (or an organisation like it) is probably still the best way to do that.

If we get a bunch of intelligent, capable people into a space lab and then let them play, and all sorts of interesting (and useful!) things will happen.

posted at 9:50 am on Sunday, June 29, 2003 in Rants | Comments (1)
  1. Rusty Barton says:

    From 1958 through 1969 the U.S. spent $ 34.8-billion on the NASA budget and achieved the moon landing.

    From 1970 through 2003 the U.S. has spent $ 304-billion on the NASA budget. For what? I would like to see more results for my tax dollars. We seem to be just going in circles.

MP3 Players

(Disclaimer: this is not a formal review, just my personal notes from reading the ‘net).

In a recent discussion on the misterhouse-users list, I saw three networked MP3 players mentioned:

* “Turtle Beach AudioTron”: ( “Review”: )
* “SLIMP3”:
* “Barrix Exstreamer”:

Some differences from reading about the products on the ‘net:

* The Audiotron has HPNA support. The Exstreamer comes in 802.11b or ethernet-only versions. The Slimp3 is ethernet only.
* The Audiotron has optical audio; the other two are analog-only. Several people have commented, however, that the Audiotron’s analog audio is lower quality.
* All three have an internal webserver, and several network-based remote control protocols. The Audiotron also has an I/R remote and front panel controls/display. The Slimp3 has an I/R remote and a local display. The Exstreamer has no display, can only be controlled over the network, but they’re working on adding I/R in a future version. On the other hand, this makes it the smallest of the three.
* The Slimp3 requires special (opensource) server software. The Audiotron reads files from windows file sharing (and samba). The Exstreamer (with the latest firmware upgrade) apparently does both. (Turtle Beach mentions the problem of having to go back to your PC to control “other products” several times in their feature list :-). The slimp3 and Exstreamer use the same server protocol, but the Slimp3 comes with a Perl version while the Exstreamer comes with a Java version. Both can be problematic with long-running servers :-)
* The Extreamer has a small internal buffer (64K); this may cause problems on busy networks.

Rough prices ($US) (You can probably find all of these products cheaper with a bit of searching):

| Audiotron ethernet + HPNA | 350 |
| Audiotron ethernet | 300 |
| Extreamer wireless | 280 |
| Slimp3 | 239 |
| Extreamer wired | 160 |

Looks like a pretty clear price/feature trade-off :-)

I have two requirements. I want a component to add to my stereo system to allow access to my MP3 collection. Either a slimp3 or an audiotron would be best for that, because of the local control; I’d have to add local control to the Exstreamer (maybe with an old Pilot?), which is too much like work :-)

I also want a source of music etc. for a whole-house audio system. In that case, the amplifier and computer would both be in the same equipment rack in the basement, so the easiest solution would be to simply connect the PC’s audio out to the amplifier’s audio in.

Still, the Exstreamer is a pretty cool device, for the price…

posted at 11:18 am on Saturday, June 28, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments (1)
  1. Jeff K says:

    Most DVD players play .mp3’s from CD-Rs these days.

In Law We Trust

OrionOrion MagazineMark Dowie – In Law We Trust: Can environmental legislation still protect the commons?

An interesting essay. The concept of “the public trust”, and especially preserving public natural resources, has been under assault up here in Ontario as well as in the US. Our beloved Mike Harris has turned Ontario into a profitable toxic waste dump for American business; He’s been busy selling off all sorts of public assets to private interests; and so on.

Where does one draw the line between the legitimate exercise of a free market, and the State’s sovereign duty to protect public assets from abuse? It’s a hard question, but I’m positive the Ontario Conservatives have the wrong answer :-)

[ via Philip Greenspun; see also his entry Why the stock market keeps going up. ]

posted at 10:34 am on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 in Politics | Comments (2)
  1. Harald says:

    Interesting; Movabletype doesn’t email me when someone uses trackback, the way it does when someone adds a comment…

  2. ReidNews says:

    Trackback testing
    I just wanted to try out Movable Type’s “trackback” feature. So I’m writing this and putting a trackback URL from Harald’s blog in the “URLs to Ping” section of the entry form for MT….

High Availability is not Cheap

Jeremy Zawodny’s blog: High Availability is NOT Cheap

bq. The system will fail at some point, no matter what, even if it’s only for a few seconds. That’s reality.

Well said, bro. The context was discussions on the MySQL mailing list, but it applies to my areas of expertise (networks and security) just as easily.

Networks are fun because they can fail in surprising ways. The most obvious example is an expensive, redundant network connection that, at some geographic location, shares the same copper or fibre bundle as its primary. The backhoe takes them both at the same time! There are many less obvious failures, too. The host that starts transmitting garbage packets on a network; the network is still _up_, just unusable…

High Availability is not just expensive, it’s also _hard_…

posted at 2:17 pm on Monday, June 23, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on High Availability is not Cheap

Train Station Security

A friend of mine need to do two things: change trains at the station near my office, and give me an attachment for his digital camera. It made perfect sense for us to combine the two.

So I wander down to the station, and walk over to the escalator for the appropriate track. “I’m sorry, only passengers are allowed on the track level. It’s for safety, and it’s a policy. You can meet your friend over there at Arrivals”. As a regular commuter, I probably spend more time on train platforms than he does, but whatever. Sadly, I understand droid mentality, even if it makes me cringe.

Still trying to be lawful, I went to the security desk to see if someone there would be kind enough to escort me upstairs, but there was no one around. Time is running out…

I wandered over to the Arrivals area for that track. Hey, the escalator is going _up_ instead of _down_. “Aha!” says I, “I now have an excuse for being on the platform if anyone stops me”. I waited for his train to arrive, went up the escalator, and joined him as he got off the train. He handed me the cable then went over to his other train, and I went down the other arrivals escalator (just as though I were an arriving passenger).

Several train and station staff saw me walking around on the “wrong” part of the train platform; nobody even looked at me twice. Which just proves, as always, that you can go pretty much anywhere as long as you look like you know what you’re doing…

posted at 4:19 pm on Monday, June 16, 2003 in Rants | Comments Off on Train Station Security

A good weekend

This was a good weekend.

Saturday was GeoffCon, part of a weekend of gaming celebrating Geoff’s 30th birthday. (His actual birthday was back in March, but he decided he wanted the actual party later in the year).

Geoff (and Rob) played both “Titan CE”: and “Nippon Rails”: at the same time; I was only in the Nippon Rails game. I won, I think partly because they weren’t paying as much attention with two games going simultaneously. It also helped that I lucked out on all of my cards…

The Nippon Rails crowd then tried “Unexploded Cow”:, but we were all too brain-dead to appreciate its strategy, so switched to the mindless Uno Boomo. The guys downstairs apparently had a fabulous time with “U.S. Patent #1”:, so I’ll have to find an excuse to play it sometime. As always, there were several games of “Settlers of Catan”: and its variants throughout the day.

Every once in a while I miss being able to play games until 3AM every night; then I shake my head in disbelief :)

Sunday was a nice relaxing day. Breakfast in bed (well, ok, I had to go _back_ to bed for it), an eye test, a bunch of shopping (including my kids buying me a bicycle), and a nice quiet dinner.

I didn’t get any housework done, though…

posted at 10:22 am on Monday, June 16, 2003 in Gaming, Personal | Comments Off on A good weekend


Fifteen years ago, we said “I do!”.

Fifteen years later, I wouldn’t change a thing.

I am _happy_.

posted at 1:17 pm on Wednesday, June 11, 2003 in Personal | Comments Off on Fifteen

Bicycle Theft

Well, we had a bit of excitement today! My neighbour knocked on the door at about 4PM to tell us that a couple of kids had walked into our open garage and taken my son’s brand new bicycle. He’s had it for a week, and thanks to the weather he hadn’t even taken it for a ride yet! The garage had been open for about five minutes; my wife opened it and then went to the back yard to use the hose.

We immediately called the police, and I went out to try to find the kids. I explored a bit on foot, but then came back and got the car. I was politically correct; I drove the streets around my house first, before heading into the Ontario Housing project nearby. There were probably a 100 kids on 50 bikes there, but I did eventually see a kid on my son’s bike in a playground. He saw me at about the same time that I saw him and took off (on a footpath) with the bike. That’s when the first police car arrived, so I flagged it down instead of chasing the kid.

A very nice gentleman sitting on his front step told us that he had seen a couple of kids ditching a bike behind some garbage cans in the next housing development over. Sure enough, there was my son’s bike leaning on a parked car. I took it home, where I gave the police a description of the kid I saw on the bike. Strangely, the kid I saw didn’t match any of the kids my neighbour saw at the house; I wonder how that works…

So score one for the forces of good; my son’s bike was recovered. The kid abandoned his _old_ bike in front of our house when he took the new bike; the police now have it, and (if we’re lucky) some 12 year old has to explain to his parents why he no longer has a bicycle).

The kids were falling over each other thanking the nice policeman, and they baked brownies for the neighbour across the street to thank him for being alert and ringing our doorbell. I should go back and thank the gentleman who pointed out the hiding spot for the bicycle, too.

I’m sad that I now have to teach my seven year-old that he has to keep his bicycle locked all the time, even when it is in our garage or when he’s visiting the neighbour’s house. I’m sad to have my prejudices against Ontario Housing reinforced. I’m sad that a kid would feel entitled steal a bicycle (when he already has one!). I’m sad that a kid would be confident enough to steal from a garage, in broad daylight, and then ride around in the open; was he really so sure that he wouldn’t get caught?

There was an impressive police response; three cars for a stolen bicycle! I believe this was because the theft was so recent, and because the police really want to catch these kids. The nice policeman told me that they like to catch kids young; that gives us a change to scare them straight. Otherwise, they soon escalate from bicycles to money and jewelry. This would have been a good case; because they entered my garage, the charge is Break and Enter, not just Theft. He also said that they all get caught sooner or later. Sooner is just better, both for the neighbourhood and for the _kids_.

Kids who grow up in subsidized housing have enough trouble in life without buying more by stealing. I know it must be hard living right next to “the rich people”, and having to walk past them every day to get to school, but that’s not an excuse. Right now they’re young, and any crimes they commit will disappear. A few years older and any arrests will be part of their permanent record, and then what? Landlords all do background checks these days; good luck getting an apartment. Ditto many employers. That’s a whole lot of bad karma because a kid felt entitled to upgrade his bicycle.

posted at 6:30 pm on Sunday, June 08, 2003 in Personal | Comments (2)
  1. crooks says:

    That sure is one heck of a generalization about poor kids in public housing!

  2. Harald says:

    Which one? Because frankly, I was trying very hard not to generalise…

Kid’s Books I Really Like

It suddenly hit me today to do this. There are many more books, and I’ll add them as I remember them :-)

* “Manjusha Pawagi, _The Girl Who Hated Books_”:
* “Thomas King, _Coyote Sings To Moon_”:

posted at 3:39 pm on Wednesday, June 04, 2003 in Books | Comments Off on Kid’s Books I Really Like