Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Mimas and Saturn in cool blue

As reported in several places, the Cassini probe has recently captured an incredible image of Saturn's moon Mimas.

Saturn's moon Mimas is seen against the cool, blue-streaked backdrop of Saturn's northern hemisphere. The bright blue swath near Mimas is created by sunlight passing through the 'Cassini division'. The rightmost part of this distinctive feature is slightly overexposed and therefore bright white in this image. Shadows of several thin ringlets within the division can be seen here as well. The dark band that stretches across the centre of the image is the shadow of Saturn's B ring, the densest of the main rings. Part of the actual Cassini division appears at the bottom, along with the A ring and the narrow outer F ring. The A ring is almost transparent so that, from this viewing angle, the atmosphere and shadows cast by the inner C ring are visible through it.

Monday, November 29, 2004


I was in Leeds over the weekend and, amougst other things, ended up at the German Christmas Market a "..little piece of Germany in the heart of Leeds" according to Leeds City Council.

Amougst the beer, bratwurst and fried potatoes there was also the odd carnival ride. I hadn't seen a Merry-Go-Round like this for years...

It was actually an excellent market, with much present buying potential. The mulled wine and pretzels weren't bad either...

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

NASA goes to the Hill

After many years of coming away from the Hill with less than they asked for, this year NASA received all of the $16.2 billion they sought for 2005.

Not only will this money will cover the return to flight programme, but it will also provide funding for them to start designing a shuttle replacement and planning future manned moon missions.

However all did not go to plan. There were some cuts demanded by Congress, and one of the most severe came at the expense of robotic exploration of the moon.

Congress cut all but $10 million from the planned Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, which was to map the moon and attempt to find water ice that could be critical to human missions.

Of course, despite the extra funding, what NASA's new priorities mean for its ongoing science programme is an open question.

Shoulders of Giants

With little fanfare, except a short post on the Google Blog last Thursday, your friendly neighbourhood scearch engine has launched Google Scholar.

After playing with it for only a few minutes I'd found an interesting paper that I'd otherwise missed in the literature, and several recently published articles about eSTAR that I hadn't know about. I'd obviously even given an interview for one of them, and then forgotten about it afterwards. I vaguely remember saying all that...

Never talk to journalists, they have the horrible habit of reporting what you tell them, and in your own words no less.

Mobile trojans

With the arrival of the the so called smart phones the software market for mobile devices is starting to resemble the MS Windows market, in more ways than one. Unfortunately one of these ways is the appearance of viruses and malware on the new platforms. The problem seems especially severe for the Series 60 platform, due to it's use by the major handset manufacturers like Nokia and Sony Ericsson, it's acheived an near ubiquity in the smart phone market.

While I'm going to keep clear of the overused term virus, trojans are starting to appear. While they aren't in general self-replicating, worryingly some of them do display worm like properties.

The BBC is reporting the latest trojan on the Series 60 platform, while they're (at the moment) reporting it as a Nokia 7610 problem I don't see why it would not be able to infect other phones based on the Series 60 platform.

Copyright © 2004 F-Secure Corporation
The screen from a Nokia 7610 infected with SymbOS/Skulls. If this happens to your phone it's important not to reboot the phone. This will overwrite the Symbian ROM images with the malicious code and complicate disinfection. Follow the disinfection proceedures before rebooting.

On the face of things the new malware doesn't seem too worrying, until you sit down and have a serious think about things.

The combination of a piece of malware which sends illicit text messages, in a similar manner to the SymbOS/Mquito trojan, with one which propogates using the bluetooth functionality of your phone, similar to SymbOS/Cabir.A or SymbOS/Cabir.B is a troubling thought. It's especially troubling considering the security flaws which seem to be inherent in the Bluetooth protocol. If a flaw is found that lets the malware propogate without user intervention, like a true virus or worm, then there could be a some very large phone bills landing on people's door mats.

This is the dark side of the peer-to-peer messaging concept I discussed in an earlier post. The world is flat, it can be a curse as well as a blessing it seems...

Monday, November 22, 2004


SWIFT, the joint NASA/ESA γ-Ray Burst Obsevatory mission, was successfully launched on Saturday. Spacecraft separation occurred sucessfully about 80 minutes after launch, as expected.

CREDIT: Carleton Bailie/Boeing
SWIFT, launched on a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral

With the launch of SWIFT the eSTAR alert network should hopefully be able to go into full time operation quite soon. This means that override observations of γ-Ray Bursts will automatically be scheduled onto the available telescopes within moments on the alert being recieved ground side...

Saturday, November 20, 2004

The VOTech Kickoff Meeting

I'm back from the VOTech Kick Off meeting...

On the first day there were over thirty 10 to 20 minute talks scheduled. Like a lot of people I thought this was total madness and we'd be running hours late by lunch time. Suprisingly perhaps, we weren't! There were several good talks, especially interesting was Giuseppe Longo's talk about neural tools for data mining in massive datasets and Norman Gray's talk on intelligent access to foreign data.

Snow, in Cambridge, in November? Most odd!

The second day was dedicated to workshops to discuss the previous days presentations, and where the VOTech project should be heading. The three eSTAR talks the day before had certainly attracted a lot of attention. So despite feeling that at times I was saying the word "agent" every second sentence, I spent the day waving my hands and explaining agent architectures.

For those of you looking for a good background book on agent architectures, I'd point you towards one of my earlier posts.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

In Transit

On my way to the VOTech Kick Off meeting at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge along with the rest of the Exeter eSTAR team.

In transit through London at rush hour, not pleasant

The world's first solar sail...

The Planetary Society has begun the count down to the launch of the world's first sola sail vehicle, Cosmos-1. It is currently scheduled for launch at the start of March next year.

CREDIT: Louis Friedman/The Planetary Society
Engineers watch a zero-gravity simulation of the sail deployment and test its mechanical configuration. This photo was taken in January 2001 at NPO Lavochkin.

If all goes to plan, Cosmos-1, which will be launched from a Russian nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea using a converted SS-N-18 Soviet ICBM (Volna), and operate for up to a month in low Earth orbit.

An attempt in July 2001 to launch a pervious version of the vehicle on a suborbital flight, designed to test new technology for unfurling solar sail blades, failed due to a malfunction in the Volna launch vehicle.

For those not familar with solar sails, you could do worse than having a look at my article for an introduction to the subject.

X-43A flight sucessful

The delayed flight of NASA's scramjet test vehicle, the X-43A has been completed sucessfully.

Pegasus booster rocket, during the test flight yesterday, accelerating the X-43A to a speed where the scramjet can operate

Tuesday, November 16, 2004


The BBC is reporting that the ESA SMART-1 probe has sucessfully completed it's first lunar orbit. The probe's experimental ion engine will run almost continuously during the next four days to stabilse its orbit, allowing the probe to commence it observations sometime in mid-January.

CREDIT: ESA/Space-X, Space Exploration Institute
The Moon as seen by SMART-1 on 12 November, at a distance of about 60 000 kilometres. The slightly illuminated part at the top of the Moon shows a 'slice' of the Moon far side at about the latitude of the lunar north pole. The far side is seen for the first time by a European spacecraft, and ESA is only the third organisation to do so in the history of lunar exploration. This image is the last shot that the AMIE camera could take before SMART-1 prepared for the burn that will stabilise the spacecraft in lunar orbit.

X-43A flight delayed

The BBC is reporting that the test flight of the X-43A has been delayed till later today as the vehicle failed some of it's pre-flight checks.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Scramjet test flight

In a couple of hours time the last scheduled flight of NASA's X-43A scramjet test vehicle will take place over the Pacific test range off the coast of Southern California.

The previous sucessful X43-A test flight in March 2004

Despite this upcoming flight, future US led research into this technology looks to be unlikely. Funding for the Hyper-X long term research programme was cancelled following Bush's announcement in January that America would revive plans for manned missions to the Moon.

It's happening again...

Nine days after the crash where seven people died in Berkshire when the high speed First Great Western London to Plymouth service ploughed into a car on a level crossing, a Central Trains Lincoln to Peterbourgh commuter service has struck a level crossing gate which was in the wrong position. This time there were no fatalities, and the train was not derailed.

The Berkshire crash, where all seven carriages were derailed

After the Potters Bar crash in 2002, the rail network more or less ground to a halt after speed restrictions were imposed due to safety fears. But like anyone who routinely uses the railways, I've noticed that recently things were actually starting to get better.

We were actually on our way back towards a working rail network again. But with two similar accidents so close together we're in danger of it all happening again. The question that surely has to be asked is why doesn't the government give the rail network the cash it so obviously needs to resolve the problems? What happened to an integrated transport policy?

Mars Express

ESA's Mars Express has just returned the first high resolution images of the Martian moon Phobos. Taken from a distance of less than 200km, these images have a resolution of 7m per pixel.

The latest image of Phobos

Phobos is thought to be in an unstable orbit, slowly spriallying towards the Martian surface, its eventual fate to be torn apart, or to impact on the surface. The Mars Express images places Phobos 5km ahead of its predicted position, providing evidence to support this theory.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The world is flat...

The BBC is reporting that Italians have reacted poorly to their government's plans to tax text messages. Amusingly this new tax was put forward as a way to fufil the Italian government's election pledge, to cut taxes. Only to a politician does this make sense...

You can see it coming can't you? I wonder how long before the UK government has a similar idea. A penny hike on all text messages perhaps?

Text messages used to be free. Back when GSM phones were first introduced into this country nobody thought anyone would want to send 140 odd character messages to each other, so there wasn't any way to bill for them. Text messages traffic was part of the network overhead, originally designed into the system for things like SIM updates. The networks were suprised when we started using them, it didn't make sense to them. But when they finally realised there was money to be made, and introduced a billing scheme, we all paid and started sending even more. Although even today, most people still don't understand that text messages aren't guaranteed delivery. They're still part of the overhead.

Perhaps the government could get away with it then? After all, we're used to paying for text messages now...

In the long term it's unlikely. Unsuprisingly the politicians don't really understand the technology, or the culture behind its use. Let's face it text messages could be replaced, every handset sold in the UK these days has GPRS. At least, every handset that anyone would be caught in public with, and that means ubiquitous access to packet data. Which means, in the long term, text messages are yesterday's technology.

They could tax packet data then, a few pence for each Mb of data sent form your mobile phone? Perhaps, but it's a lot harder to work out how to do this than it is to tax text messages which have a central choke point. How do you go about taxing bluetooth, or wireless?

Not relevant? Perhaps not today, but convergence devices with GSM, Bluetooth and WiFi support are already starting to appear. You could imagine sending a message which hops from your phone to a nearby phone, via Bluetooth, as that phone happened to be going in the right direction. The message would then hop to another phone, and another, until it was in range of an open wireless access point, and from there onto the Internet. As we all know, once you're on the internet, you can go anywhere, and at the far end the same process happens. At no point during this process does your message pass some centrally regulated network choke point. The networks would have a hard time charging you for the traffic, and it's almost certainly totally untaxable. Interestingly, it'd also be quite hard to trace the originator of the message in such an ad-hoc scheme.

You could probably implement the above scheme with today's technology, I can think of a couple of ways to do it, although there are obvious problems with both my off the top of the head solutions. But it's going to get easier, a lot easier...

Peer-to-peer networking is coming, anyone thinking about trying to implement centrally managed network solutions should think seriously about what they're trying to accomplish with their project. The real world doesn't work in the same way as the traditional network topologies do, the real world is small and flat.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The last thing you'd want

If you'd just started a new company and shipped your flag ship product to a waiting world, then the last thing you'd want to happen would be that there was a problem with it...

Soon after registering Delicious Library it stopped working with a Beta 4 Expired error. Mailing the support address on the website got me a email back, one minute and eleven seconds later in fact, from Mike Matas telling me that they'd "forgot to pull the expiration stuff out of [the] final release" and promising that it'd be fixed soon. Twenty minutes later I got another email saying that it was fixed and that a new disk image was available on the website.

You can't really argue with that level of support.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

More Delicious Monster

I've had a serious play with this application now, and I must admit to being very impressed. I pulled the disk image from the Delicious Monster website and within a couple of minutes of running the application I'd scanned the barcodes all the books I could conveniently reach from my desk, without standing up, using my iSight. There was only one failed lookup out of about twenty books, I added it manually, and funnily enough this was the most impressive bit...

The Delicious Library, using my iSight to scan barcodes

I typed in a title and an author by hand, clicked on the link to do a quick Amazon search, and then dragged and dropped the Amazon.com URL directly from the browser onto the library shelf, at which point it just added it to my collection with all the associated meta-data. Nice...

Am I impressed enough to buy it?

Yes, it looks very much like I am. I just used the licensing popup to pay my $39.95 for a full license, and this was also a seamlessly impressive experience. A popup appeared, I typed my credit card number into it, which was dispatched (encrypted) to the company's website and verified (and presumably billed). The application then automagically acquired a license. No cut and paste from the verification email, it just worked. Again, nice...

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow...

Well, for now at least, the ongoing problems with mail seem to be solved. You should be able to reach me at all the normal places once more...

The Delicious Monster

So like a lot of other people I was going to talk about that most Macintosh of companies, Delicious Monster, a creation of Will Shipley and Mike Matas. However John Siracusa, from Ars Technica, has more or less said what everyone else was trying to say, but with a lot more style...

Copyright © 2004 Delicious Monster
The Delicious Library, how software should be...

John's article may initally appear to be a normal software review, but he ends up talking about how and why Mac software differs from software you find on other platforms. If you develop software, even for other platforms, this article is worth reading.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Mail problems

Of course with my machine about three floors and a couple of hundred feet from it's normal location, and spread across a workbench, I'm having email problems. If you want to reach me urgently I'm told my telephone still works...

An actual fault!

Ah, it looks like we have an actual identifiable hardware fault with my desktop machine. When my machine was gutted, and then reassembled, the PSU failed. It looks like it's got the bulging capacitor problem. That could explain why the fault was very intermittent at least.

dastardly's dead PSU

There is a new PSU going into the machine now, although I doubt I'll get the box back today looking at the time, so we'll see...

Dastardly's still poorly

To poorly paraphrase Twain, "Reports of my recovery have been greatly exaggerated". It looks like my ailing desktop machine is still exactly that...

I was out of town over the weekend, and by late Saturday night when I got round to checking my email, it had shuffled off the mortal coil again. I'm currently getting kernel: no vm86_info: BAD errors in /var/log/messages, which vaguely suggests bad memory to me although I'm not entirely sure at this point.

My machine has been unplugged, put onto a trolley, and rolled away into the bowels of the department. I must admit to a feeling of vast unease as I watched it getting taken away, almost as if I was loosing a child. We really do invest far too much anthropomorphism in our machines. Or is it just me that talks to my computer?

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Google & VOSpec

Since coming back from ADASS I've been trying to find more information about VOSpec and it looks like a lot of other people are doing the same, my post about it is getting a good number of hits.

What's scared me is that my post is, at least according to the Google PageRank algorithim, the most useful piece of information about the tool on the web at the moment. It's very odd that these guys have talked about this software at several conferences and yet there isn't any information about it, let alone a beta or even alpha release of the tool, on the web.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Proposition 71

Something I saw a lot of during my recent trip to California was literature trying to persuade me to vote for, or against, something called Proposition 71.

For most of my time out there I couldn't figure out what everyone was going on about, but it turns out that this was a vote to decide whether, "The state would establish a new state medical research institute and authorize the issuance of $3 billion in state general obligation bonds to provide funding for stem cell research and research facilities in California". Interestingly, in a break from the party line, the Yes on 71 Coalition included the Republican California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I was pleased to see that this measure was approved by a decent margin, it looks like someone out there is actually thinking about the future.

Kerry admits defeat...

Kerry has conceded, despite the outstanding issues with Ohio. Strange, but in the UK we count all the votes before deciding who has won, and then if the result was close, we count them again.

Anyway, this time around Bush apparently wins not only enough electoral college votes, but also the popular vote. Something that will, perhaps, suprise the people watching from out here on the sidelines...

The US election result

For a while it looked very likely that we'd ended up with hanging chad again, this time in Ohio. But as time passes it's only looking mathematically, rather than actually, possible for Kerry to win. Bush currently has a lead of around 137,000 votes in Ohio, and with only 146,000 provisional ballots awaiting counting, Kerry would have to win almost all of them to gain the Presidency.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Dastardly lives!

Well I'm currently installing Scientific Linux onto dastardly, my ailing desktop machine, as we're not entirely convinced we know what's wrong and therefore don't really know what else to do with it. Like any intermittent technical problem I'm going to have to put up with it something fails dramatically and we can figure out what is actually going wrong with the hardware.

Scientific Linux is, more or less, Red Hat Enterprise Linux rebuilt from the source code by Fermilab. You can immediately tell it's not a "commerical" offering as, rather than the more normal advertising, the pictures it puts up during the installation are of tranquil landscapes, small fluffy animals and flowers. It's actually quite disconcerting...

Monday, November 01, 2004

Dastardly is dead

Well it looks like the problems with dastardly, my desktop machine, are slightly more extensive than a failed hard drive. While the hard drive is definately dead, it looks like the motherboard may be having problems as well. This is not good news...

Time for a nice new shiny PowerMac G5 perhaps?