The Cost of Human Error

It's been said "To err is human.  To forgive, devine."  In many cases, I'm forced to agree.  We're all prone to making mistakes from time to time, and some of them can be costly.  Lord knows that I've made mistakes in the past that have cost tens of thousands of dollars.  It happens.

But I'm curious to know what the final results for the sinking of the Queen of the North ferry last March.

The jist of it is this:


  • untrained person was at the helm of the Queen of the North during the middle of the night

  • said person failed to make a turn at a regular course change location

  • 14 minutes later, the vessel grounded on some rocks off Gil Island, flooded and sank


Of the 101 passengers on board, 99 managed to get off safe.  Two were unaccounted for, and are presumed dead.

The two people in charge of navigation at the time was the second and fourth officer.  They were not on the bridge during this scheduled course change, and by the time they noticed something was wrong, it was too late.  To add insult to injury, the second officer outright lied to the captain when he made it to the bridge by saying they tried to "avoid a fishing vessel".

It's been known that there was a romantic affair between the second and fourth officer, but this seems to bear little weight in the matter.

Why was an untrained person left on the bridge to navigate the vessel?  Where were the two certified navigation officers?  Did they escape from their duties for a few minutes in the hopes of a quickie?

The loss of this vessel has cost the tourism industry an incredible amount of revenue.  While there are other ships in service, they have been forced into working harder and longer than before.  The ship itself cost millions, and what of the two people lost?  Two lives were extinguished all for the sake of human error.

I don't think that these two officers need to be brought out to the town square and lashed for their lapse in judgement, but I would like to know what the end result of this tragedy will be.  Some people have waited a whole year for resolution on this matter, and it seems that it will be several months to another year before this chapter can be closed for BC Ferries.

[email protected] WordPress Plugin

I've had a few requests for this in the last 24 hours, so here ya go.

[email protected] is a distributed computing project with the goal of better understanding protein folding, misfolding and related diseases.  I recommend anyone that has some extra clock cycles on their computer to contribute towards this and other worthy distributed computing projects.

[email protected] Stats is a WordPress plugin that displays just what is promises.  Currently, this plugin will display your total score, overall rank, number of processes completed in the last 50 days, number of processes completed in the last week, and the last time any of your computers reported a complete work unit.

You can download the latest version of [email protected] Stats here.

Requirements:

This plugin has been tested on versions 2.0.4, 2.0.5, 2.0.7 and 2.1.  It should (technically) work on anything from 1.5 up, but I can't promise this.  PHP 4.0 to 4.3 or 5.0+ is required.

Installation:


  • upload the contents of the zip file to your “wp-content/plugins” directory (be sure to write them to the folding-stats directory)

  • ensure your folding-stats directory is writable (required for caching)

  • go to the “Plugins” main menu and find “[email protected] Stats”, then click “Activate”

  • go to the “Options / Folding Options” menu and enter your account id, and set the number of hours between stat refreshes


Usage:


  • modify the theme file where you wish to display your SETI stats (usually sidebar.php) and type in the following line:


<php get_folding_stats(); ?>

Uninstallation:


  • go to the “Plugins” main menu and find “[email protected] Stats”, then click “Deactivate”

  • delete the files from your “wp-content/plugins” directory


Change Log:

0.1 - Initial Release

Bug Reports:

As always with initial releases, I’m sure there will be one or two things that I forgot to check.  If you happen to find a bug, please let me know.

Enjoy!

Will ChaCha Give Google Some Competition?

There's are some new search engines online, and they seem to think that humans are better at finding relevant information than computer algorithms.

For the last decade, Google has come from being an obscure mix of letters to a multi-billion dollar company and a new verb in the english language.  Altavista, Yahoo, MSN, AskJeeves and other search engines that were once relatively known have become secondary sources for people who might not find what they're expecting out of the first few pages in a Google search.  But all of these engines have something in common; software algoritms.

Most of the major search vendors have used complex, comprehensive and exhaustive algoritms on the seemingly endless number of pages online in an effort to index/sort/prioritize sites based on their content (or lack thereof).  Three newcomers think that while the algoritms are nice, a more human touch is needed to help people find the information they seek.

PreFound.com">Home">PreFound.com feels that humans know what they're looking for much better than any computer algoritm could ever hope to achieve.  To that end, the site uses people rather than systems to rank search results according to relevance.  Users group similar links together for sharing within a community.  This method turns humans into the engine's new bots, which reminds me a little of the Wiki idea, where the community provides for itself.

ChaCha.com">title="ChaCha.com">ChaCha.com is another engine that uses people to help users find information, but they do it on a whole different level.  The company uses "guides" to help users find information in real-time through instant messaging.  To make things even more interesting, ChaCha is trying to bring their search to cell phones.  If these people can offer a multi-platform search capability with fast and reliable real-time assistance, then Google might just need to start hiring people to keep their Google Talk windows open and help Ma-Barker find a new casserole recepie.

The third engine I've heard talked about recently is hosted by snap.com.  My first impression of this site was "It looks like a blog".  They offer a preview of search results on one side, with a list on the other.  It also compares your searches to prior ones, looking for which sites you visted most often and how long you stayed there.  This sounds a bit like Amazon's data mining practice, though I don't see any chance of Snap somehow charging you more to view a site just because you showed some interest in it previously….

Looking at these engines, I am curious to know what their futures will be like.  I see definate markets for each of them, especially the community-based PreFound, considering the rather large movement towards the social internet technologies.

[email protected] WordPress Plugin

SETI Stats is a WordPress plugin that displays your current [email protected] Stats.  This was put together in a short amount of time, so it's a little light on the features.  Currently, the plugin will display the total credit and average credit values, as well as your team name (if applicable).

In the future I hope to add the number of units completed and number of computers in use.

You can download SETI Stats here.

Requirements:

SETI Stats has been tested on WordPress 2.0.4, 2.0.5, 2.0.7 and 2.1.

Installation:


  • upload the contents of the zip file to your "wp-content/plugins" directory (be sure to write them to the seti-stats directory)

  • go to the "Plugins" main menu and find "SETI Stats Display", then click "Activate"

  • go to the "Options / SETI Options" menu and enter your account id, and set the number of hours between stat refreshes


Using:


  • modify the theme file where you wish to display your SETI stats (usually sidebar.php) and type in the following line:


<php get_seti_stats(); ?>

Uninstallation:


  • go to the "Plugins" main menu and find "SETI Stats Display", then click "Deactivate"

  • delete the files from your "wp-content/plugins" directory


Change Log:


Bug Reports:

As always with initial releases, I'm sure there will be one or two things that I forgot to check.  If you happen to find a bug, please let me know.

Enjoy!

The End of Palm?

PalmTXWord has it that Palm is looking to sell.  Quite frankly, I'm surprised they waited this long.

I was an ardent Palm supporter for many years.  My first unit was a $350 Palm IIIe in 1999.  This bad boy came with a whopping 2 MB memory, a 160x160 monochrome screen that could be backlit on command, and required two AA batteries every 6 days (I was a heavy user).  I loved the machine and saw enormous potential for the mobile computing sector.

At the time I was a customer service rep at a major appliance repair shop, and this device was perfect for storing customer information as they called on the phone.  Gone were the days when I would carry one or more books with me all over the shop in the event the phone rang while I was in the back and someone wanted information on an order.  The Palm could find any of the 4500 customer records I had accumulated each year in the space of 20 seconds!

Great times, indeed.

From this device I went to the IIIxe (two of them), the Sony Clie SJ-33, the M505, the Tungsten-T, and finally the Tungsten-T2.  Aside from the Sony (which ran the PalmOS), I had owned six Palms over the span of seven years.  Aside from the T2, the reason for the turnover was often the same … I broke the device at work thanks in part to gravity.  The T2 was replaced because I had grown weary of Palm's poor management decisions and opted to buy a PocketPC device.  Two and a half years later, I'm still using the very same HP iPaq 2210 that replaced the Tungsten-T2.

I loved the Palms for the six years that they were in use.  These machines could do everything I ever asked of them, and were perfect for a business setting.  I never tried to use these for recreation, really … but I will admit that I've been an avid eReader since 2000.  What really upset me was the direction management was following for their hardware.

WiFi was booming on PocketPC devices.  Dell had their Axims with built-in WiFi-b.  HP had some high-end iPaqs with WiFi-b.  Heck, Sony even offered an add-on for one of their stupidly expensive Clie models (selling for $800 at the time).  But Palm decided with the release of the Tungsten T3 that WiFi was an extravigance that people didn't want, and that was the end of the subject.

They weren't listening to what consumers wanted … they were telling consumers what they wanted.

Within days of Palm's upper management passing their verdict on WiFi, I (and many others) made the switch to other devices.  We didn't want WiFi to surf the internet on a 320x320 screen resolution.  Lord knows how unsightly that would have been in 2005 before sites started supporting mobile devices better.  We wanted WiFi so that we could sync our devices with our mail servers, and communicate remotely through these powerful machines.  At the time, I was really pushing to write a mobile application that would be used by the warehouse staff at my work.  What better way to find the products and stocks they needed without ever getting off the forklift!  Small and versatile, these little units would have been cheaper than a tablet PC and just as powerful considering the actual requirements of the day.

Unfortunately, Palm didn't immediately see things that way.  It wasn't until the fall season that they released an SDIO WiFi card for the T2 and T3, and later integrated WiFi-b into some of their high-end devices.  But by then it was too late.

This was also during the time when Palm split their organization in two divisions.  One for their hardware, the other for software.  This was really just the beginning of the end.  Now, after two years, the company is re-conglomerated and looking for options.  One option is to sell.  Nokia and Motorola are salivating at this prospect.

It's really unfortunate that things turned out this way.  At the start of the century, Palm was poised to take the world by storm.  Instead, they let Microsoft and RIM pass by without a fight.  With nowhere else left to go, they seek to merge and eventually fade into history.  No matter how much I think about it, I can only think "it didn't have to end this way."

Blocking The Sun For $100 Billion a Year

The graphic shows the 2 foot-diameter flyers at L1. They are transparent, but blur out transmitted light into a donut, as shown for the background stars. The transmitted sunlight is also spread out, so it misses the Earth. This way of removing the light avoids radiation pressure, which would otherwise degrade the L1 orbit. (Illustration: Courtesy of UA Steward Observatory)I was reading an article in a local paper today about possible temporary solutions to global warming when I was reminded of something I had seen late last year from a professor at Arizona University.  We've all heard some decent ideas over the years about how we can combat the global climate change that many scientists are warning us about (anybody else remember the Global Cooling scares in the mid-70's?), but I think this one is the most subtle of dangerous plans.

Dr. Roger Angel has proposed the deployment of a large sunshade for the Earth, made up of trillions of small free-flying spacecraft about a million miles from Earth in what's referred to as the L1 orbit.  This would create a sort of cloud that would block approximately 2% of the sunlight that reaches the planet, which would in turn cool the globe due to the reduced solar energy.

I'll admit that blocking the sun partially will help reduce the warming that has gone on for the last quarter century, but will this actually help buy the citizens of Earth some time to adopt cleaner industries and practices?  I think this would create a few problems:


  1. fast moving debris in our orbit (already a problem for our Low Earth Orbit equipment)

  2. objects that block ground-based or LEO (Low Earth Orbit) scientific instruments aimed in the general direction of the sun

  3. another reason why humans can ignore the damage we cause to the environment (the hotter it gets, the more little filters we send up)


This would also create a nightmare for anyone that had to clean this up if our technology ever progressed to the point where we could terraform the planet and remove any unwanted elements from our atmosphere (and reconstruct the ozone, of course).  The initial design calls for these machines to be about 1/5000 of an inch thick, so they could be directed to fall back towards our atmosphere where they would burn up … but then this might cause some ecological damage depending on the materials used.

I agree that we humans need to have a more active role in preventing drastic global climate change (be it warming or cooling), but I fear that temporary band-aid technologies such as this will only make matters worse.  We are a very industrious, but lazy people.  If we can leave the hard decisions to our children, or our children's children, we will.  That's just the nature of the beast.  All over the world we see examples of governments making seemingly poor decisions about our future while lining the pockets of big business and personal aquaintences.

If Dr. Angel's plan could truly be performed as a temporary solution (no more than 50 years or so), then it's a valid option that we could employ while industry and the world in general switches to cleaner technologies and the atmosphere is scrubbed of damaging chemicals.  My fear is that world governments would decide to continue sending more of the shields into space until they almost completely block our sky.

Game Over, Sun's ZFS Wins

The other day I had discussed how we would soon be storing more data than we can theoretically handle.  This, in turn, made me think about all the different technologies that we have to store and contain data, as well as their finite limitations.  As hard drives continue to grow, we will soon reach the end limits for some of our file system capacities.

Hitachi will be releasing their 1 TeraByte drive in the first quarter of 2007, and other manufacturers aren't far behind.  As it sits, most people using Windows XP are using a NTFS File System.  This is a pretty solid method, but there are some finite limitations which may pose a problem to some people in another 10 to 15 years.  Limits such as a maximum file size of 16 TeraBytes and a volume size of 256 TeraBytes, with date ranges from January 1, 1601 to May 28, 60056.

Now, people will likely say something like "Who is going to have files larger than 16 TB or require a single volume to be more than 256 TB?" or "Unless time travel becomes a reality and we go back in time with a Windows notebook, why worry about the date limitations?".  To these people I'm forced to ask "Was 640KB memory really enough?" (quoting the famous line by Bill Gates in the early 80s.

Corporate databases are huge.  Personal storage is just now reaching the point where most households have at least half a TeraByte of data.  In the next two decades, these numbers are poised to explode to numbers that are unimaginable by today's standards.  To that end, a better future-proofed file system may be in order.  And the people at Sun have that system.

I really like the ZettaByte File System (ZFS) that is found in Solaris 10 as nothing else today comes even close to what this platform offers.  Data corruption is non-existant thanks to a 64-bit checksum on all data, with silent background corrections.  File capacity is 16 quadrillion times that of any 32 or 64 bit file system (like NTFS, Ext3, ReiserFS, etc).  And if that's not enough, the file system is endian-neutral.  This means that if you were to change your servers from a SPARC sytem to an x86 system, no data migration would be necessary.  Plug and play.

I've used ZFS on my personal file servers for some time now, and still find the speed and reliability of this platform to be amazing.  Of course, I don't have massive databases or hundreds of TeraBytes to store (yet), but with everything I've seen so far with my data needs, this is the system of the future.  As more storage space is needed I can easily add another hard drive or six and expand the volume as required.

For anyone looking to build a great file server at work or home, Solaris 10 is the way to go.  No steep learning curve, and seemingly unlimited potential make this the platform of choice.

Why Nobody Takes Activists Seriously

In the past few years, the amount of activism in the Vancouver area has been steadily increasing.  People seem to protest everything from affordable housing, to poverty, to the olympics, to everything in between.  Since winning the bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics, it seems that this is the key focal reason for all the problems in British Columbia … so many activists would have us believe.

The protests recently held by members of the Anti-Poverty Committee against the Olympic Clock and the Olympic Flag baffle me.

I understand the reason for using these symbols as rally locations.  Both are tourist draws, and both are in areas large enough to hold sizable groups of people.  At the same time, these appear as symbols denoting wealth and prosperity; two things that Canada's poor have none of.  While the city tries to keep these areas clear of protests, demonstrations and the homeless, there is only so much they can do.

What I don't get, though, is the methods these activists are using to make their statement.

On Thursday night, approximately 50 members of the Anti-Poverty Committee made their way from Victory Square to the Vancouver Eastside, wearing masks and destroying private property.  One protestor attacked a TV Cameraman, knocking their camera to the ground and trying to set it on fire with some crude accelerant.  Police were attacked, some throwing eggs at the officers, others throwing punches.  An officer was even swarmed by five losers, and it's a shame they got away.

Whatever subject they wanted to demonstrate against was nothing more than a trojan horse.  These people came to cause damage to anything and everything.

Carrying out peaceful demonstrations and protests are not illegal in Canada.  Heck, these can be powerful symbols when done properly (anyone remember how Mahatma Ghandi led demonstrations against the British Salt Tax?).  Causing undue destruction to private property and inciting violence against the police is a great way to get your message ignored and your ass in jail.  Who is going to listen to someone who thinks it's okay to destroy something that's not yours?

I am willing to bet a year's salary that many of the people who took part in this farce-demonstration are against the war in Iraq.  Tell me the difference between destroying a country and destroying private property?  The answer is "scale".  These small scale violent protests are no better than walking into another country and turning buildings into rubble.

Although there was no official referendum on the 2010 games (VANOC feared a large "No" vote would look bad for the city), unofficial polls showed that 64% of people in the Lower Mainland were for the games.  The games bring lots of jobs to the community and opportunity for all, while at the same time promoting the bounty of BC.  The 36% that don't want the games have lost their vote.  That's how democracy works.

If people are really not happy with the games coming to the Vancouver area, perhaps they should start doing something more intelligent with their time.  Throwing things at cops is a great way to get yourself labelled an idiot and your ideals ignored.

Why not get in to politics?  You can't win your battles with petty violence.  You can't win your battles in the space of a few days or weeks, either.  The system just doesn't work that way.  If you really want to make a difference for people who struggle with affordable housing, steady employment and readily available health care, put your head to work and start playing the game of politics.

There are dozens of things that infuriate me to no end (shark finning is one of them).  Rather than hold up a sign voicing my protest for this inhumane slaughter of magnificent creatures, I'm looking for logical and sustainable alternatives to the problem.  Once an answer is found, then it can be brought to the representatives in power.  If they cannot (or will not) do anything regarding the issue, then I could get into politics myself and begin to push my agendas.

Is this easy?  No.  But in order to win the battles that matter, we have to play the game.  It's not a perfect solution, but it's much better than what options people have in other parts of the world.

Another Blah Apple Product

AppleTV Set Top BoxApple is slated to release their AppleTV box any day now, and I'm curious to know what kind of fanfare this item will receive.

The TiVo has been out for years.  Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition has been available for years.  The incredibly versatile Cedia has been out for years.  What value will Apple bring to the table?

Personally, I don't think this will catch on as much as some media hype outlets want us to believe.  Apple is notorious for building closed systems, and not working with existing industry standards to make a truly superior product.  When the iPod was first released, it would only work on Macs.  A year later a Windows version of iTunes (the application) was released and the other 95% of all computer owners could go and buy a sleek little device for playing their digital music.  And then shortly afterwards the iTunes store was brought online, but you must have an iPod in order to make use of these services.  Heaven forbid someone owns some other music device and wants to give Apple some business on iTunes, because they won't be able to use any download.

Microsoft and Tivo have had years to get their foot into the living room.  Most of the people that have wanted to have some sort of digital device for their television have already picked up media computers and integrated them into the home networks.  These machines are customizable and run on standard equipment with easily replacable and upgradable components.  Should a video card or hard drive fail after a few years, most people could bring this in to the neighbourhood computer store or repair it themselves.  What will Apple offer?  More closed hardware that appears to be little more than an over-glorified mATX motherboard?

Apple had a hit with their iPod, I'll certainly admit that.  But their MacBook is nothing to write home about.  Their iPhone is nothing more than a Treo, CrackBerry or iPaq with a bigger video card, happier graphics and no thumb keyboard (which is the only thing I like about it).  AppleTV is just another "blah" product.

If this box is going to stand out from the rest, then it should have something truly powerful and worthwhile.  I could see this being far more desirable if it had some sort of home automation program like Lifeware.  It's built right into Media Center and can control your house lights, appliances, etc (when configured).

Unfortunately, Apple does not believe in the word "partners".  Everything they do, they do alone.  This is one of the reasons AppleTV will likely flop, and the iPhone will be exposed as a ridiculously expensive personal accessory that is not worth half it's weight in plastic.

Yawn.

A ZetaByte By Any Other Name Would Be Just As L33t

According to a study recently completed by research firm IDC, the amount of data stored by computers and media has reached 161 ExaBytes (161 billion GigaBytes, or 272,340,572,418 CDs).  According to this report, the world's data will soon surpass our storage capacity for the first time in history.  By the end of this year they expect 255 ExaBytes to exist despite our theoretical global capacity of 246 ExaBytes.

Words cannot describe how vast this amount of binary data is.

If that's not enough, we can expect the world's data to increase by a factor of six over the next three years.  As a software developer and database engineer, this is absolutely incredible.  I am curious to know just how much of this information is "unique data", though.

In the world of peer-to-peer downloading, a single 200 MegaByte episode of some TV program could be found on 50,000 computers.  That single file would be using 1,000,000 MegaBytes of storage across all the machines.  Of course some of these files could be stored on CD or DVD (or any number of other storage mediums), but it is still a massive amount of duplication.  Corporations make backups of their databases on a nightly (at the very least, I hope) basis, and these archives can easily reach tens of TeraBytes (1 million MegaBytes) of storage in the span of anywhere from a week to a year.

Of course this does raise a question … how long until we stop being so wasteful with our storage?

Right now, storage is cheap.  I happened to see a 320 GigaByte hard drive on sale for $99 CDN at a local computer retailer, and recordable DVDs are also very inexpensive and superb for longer-term storage.  Personally I have almost 3 TeraBytes of storage on my network and archived DVDs.  Much of this data is stored in several other places on the planet.

So this makes me wonder about the potential of some centralized storage area that everyone has access to.  Of course, the word that comes to mind is "Google", but I really hope this is not the company to take over the world's data.  There are several constraints to having a central globalised data storage system, of course.  Bandwidth would certainly be a problem, as would copyright restrictions.  Lord knows that quite a bit of the 161 ExaBytes of data is pirated material.

For the moment, I don't think we'll see such a rise of global centralized storage, though.  But home network storage systems are starting to catch on, and this is a great tool for households and communities to share common data.  Transmitting something over a personal network is a heck of a lot better than downloading the same information to several computers.

By 2010, IDC expects the world's data to reach a ZetaByte.  I hope to reach 6 TeraBytes before then.