Monday, September 08, 2008


I have... moved?

I am trying to expand my blogging abilities in my very copious spare time (cough). To that end, I have imported this blog to a new home (same name, different domain) over at Come visit me there and, if you subscribe, switch to that one as future posts will happen there, unless I decide I totally hate it (or get off my lazy ass and get a personal domain).

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Large Hadron Collider to Destroy the Earth!

Well, not really.

However, it amazes me-although it should not-just how many folks apparently believe it will. Miniature black holes, strangelets, vacuum bubbles and more are expected by doomsayers to pop out and obliterate our world (and, occasionally, the universe).

It is all nonsense.

Even at full power, which the LHC won't get to until next year, the power of the large hadron collider pales in comparison to the experiment the universe performs on us every single day. So far, cosmic rays striking the earth have performed the equivalent of about one hundred thousand lifetime runs of the LHC on us and, unless I missed a memo, we have not gone poof yet.

A blog on today mentioned that now LHC scientists, including a Nobel laureate, are receiving death threats against starting up this marvelous machine. Dr. Brian Cox, as usual, has the perfect response. There are many sources explaining how not-at-risk we are here, although Wikipedia, as usual, has a good summary page on it.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Song of the Elements

George Hrab from Geologic Records (and frontman for the Philadelphia Funk Authority) also puts out a weekly podcast. He is also an excellent skeptic and freethinker. His music and references are frequently beyond me (I guess I am within the "hopelessly behind the times" part of life now), but I still find much of it enjoyable.

In any case, his July 3rd podcast #72 was awesome. For some time he had been writing little ditties about various elements but finally took the time to finish the entire periodic table. It's a very humorous listen and some of the songs are very well done! (Others are just plain silly.)

I have only listened through it a single time so far (more times will happen), so I don't have a favorite yet, although zinc's response to an earlier song was funny as were the tunes for silicon and uranium. Generally SFW, although a couple cuss words here and there. Would be great for children if not for those!

Speaking of NSFW, below is his video for "Out of My Mind" off his Interrobang album. The song is very good and the video is... technically very interesting. Get over any hangups you have and watch the whole thing.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Hardware Hell

Still attempting to recover from my MacBook's harddrive crash a couple weeks ago (to the - hopefully temporary - loss of all the vacation pictures from the summer), I began the process of setting up a backup system for our data this weekend.

The basic concept, stolen in its entirety from Mike Fischer, is that a Fedora server running in the basement will pull incremental data backups, using rsnapshot, from our laptops and sundry other machines onto a 1TB drive every four hours (one month expiration). That server, via CrashPlan, will copy the latest incremental snapshot across the street to the similarly-setup Fischer server (and possibly other locations) every day.

That is the basic plan. Simple, right?

So, first thing to do is create an install disc for Fedora. That should be easy. Except, apparently, my DVD-RW drive in the desktop no longer can write DVDs. (It writes CDs just fine, but this installer is 3.3GB in size.) In frustration, I head over to the old game machine (which will become the basement server) and turn it on to check for various functionalities. First thing I see is a drive failure notice. ARGH! No solutions found and cannot get past the message (found out today it is possible to get by it - it's not a catastrophic failure, just a S.M.A.R.T. warning). Much time lost through nearly 2 am until I give up for the night. Next day, I try the DVD writing again with predictable continued failure. So I move to my Mac. Unfortunately, that doesn't have a DVD-writeable drive, only CDs.

Time for Plan B - use the NetInstaller CD for Fedora and keep the entire image on my MyBook (the only USB device I have that's big enough). Except... after a couple more hours... I finally realize that my Mac's DVD drive is essentially hosed and won't write anything. During all the retries, I cart all the hardware into the basement and set it up (hoping for magic to happen and make it all work). Eventually, thanks to Mike's brilliant idea, I try burning the disc on Sue's machine and finally succeed in creating a net install disc.

Now I head back to the basement server and plug things in to try to install and reach the next barrier - the machine (or the installer) is not recognizing the MyBook. Now what?

More angst. Heading to Plan C - set up the DVD disc image on a web server on my Mac. Fortunately, this option actually works pretty simply. The installer starts, I select the proper options, it announces it has found a disc image (yay) and heads off into install land.

After quite a bit of time (a bunch of options selected, the existing working HD reformatted into linux mode, etc.), it finally gets around to failing again - this time it cannot find some important files. After a bit (and another failed try at burning a DVD, this time with a DVD+R disc), we realized that I had not specfically pointed it to the actual Fedora directory but to the one immediately above it. Why did it then say it found a disc image? No idea. Once I redirected it, the install continued without issues (albeit taking a few more hours to finish installing the 1176 applications and then getting all the updates).

Now I have the bad HD removed completely and the new 1TB drive installed physically. However, it is a SATA drive which that machine does not support natively, so I have a PCI card installed which provides SATA ports (thanks again, Mike) and SATA power converters (makes me think of Luke Skywalker). However, I have no idea how to access that drive for formatting and mounting - I will need to wait until morning when I can ping the expert again.

I probably forgot a few more PITA moments, but that should cover the lot of them in principle. I implied but did not mention explicitly that Mike was my IM Expert during nearly the whole process today (including virtual handholding during the actual install process). It is not pushing things at all to say it would not have happened at all without his help. Thanks, Mike! Let me know when you want that steak dinner.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

One Week Down

The first week of my last undergraduate semester didn't go so badly, although it did give me a slight taste of what is to come for the rest of this year.

I am taking two physics courses for credit and sitting in three others unofficially. That gives me Sr. Physics Lab, Astrophysics, E/M Theory, Astrobiology and Quantum Mechanics to worry about (total of 11 lecture hours and 6 lab hours per week), plus a weekly meeting with my research advisor (more below) and bi-weekly meetings for astrophysics journal club, physics club and physics club officers (I'm the VP). Plus occasional seminars here and there. Oh, and research to do.

When I stopped to talk with my research advisor, he told me he had come up with not one, but two (unrelated) projects for me to consider. One deals with NASA's AIM mission and the other with exoplanets. Both are way cool, but I suspect I will be going with the exoplanets one because it fits my interests and (very basic) foundation a bit better. So now I have another hundred or so pages of research papers and presentations to read plus some online work, preparatory to doing a lot more IDL coding. His hope is that the introductory work would keep me busy for the next two semesters (I'll have a lot more time after this one, since I'll have no classes at all this spring, most likely) and we would submit an official PhD thesis proposal(!!) next fall.

Of course, we've ignored (so far) the fact that I actually have to prepare for, take and suitably pass both the general and physics GREs to get into GMU's graduate program, but at least I have a direction in which to travel.

And some time during all this (3 days!), my darling children head back to school, so I probably should pay attention to them occasionally as well (plus their mommy).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Atheist Quotes

Normally, I would have just "shared" this in Google Reader, but it's too far back to point so, so I'll do it the old fashioned way and link to it.

Back in February, The Atheist Blogger posted a great list of 101 Atheist quotes, including many from such entities as Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, Edison, Gene Roddenberry, Mark Twain, Robert Heinlein, and many other famous (and a few not as famous) folks from the past and present.

Monday, August 25, 2008

School Bell's A-Ringing

First day of the fall semester today.

I started it off with a visit to my research adviser, who has not one, but two different PhD thesis-level projects in mind for me. Gift horse, anyone? One of them involves an active NASA mission. One is related to (but not directly involved with) my Charon work. The first one comes with funding, wherein I would draw a stipend (plus, presumably, funding for conference travel). The second has no funding itself, although Dr. Summers said he could probably spring for a couple conferences.

Now I have to decide between an interesting project I get paid for and a (somewhat more interesting) project that I won't necessarily get paid for. And since I could conceivably be working on whichever one I choose for the next 6-8 years (although presumably I would eventually find some funding for the latter project - except in the current anti-science administration, that's pretty well impossible), I need to choose pretty carefully. However, it's a good problem to have - rather too many projects than not enough (or an unhelpful research adviser).

After that meeting, and some chatting with various friends in the hallways, I headed to Senior Physics Lab. This promises to be quite an interesting class, with two half-hour lecture periods followed by 3-hour lab periods each week. Additionally, we can always get a key to the advanced physics lab to work independently whenever we wish. We each have to work solo (with a couple exceptions) on four different experiments throughout the semester. My first is a study of the Zeeman Effect on mercury vapor. On Wednesday, we have an oral pass/fail exam on our individual experiments which we must pass before we're permitted to begin work, then it's radiation safety education and quizzing next week and finally we can begin work.

Following lab I sat in on the first Introduction to Quantum Mechanics course. Although this course is packed to full (every seat taken), I have permission from the instructor to sit in on it unofficially. It is now a required course for all new Physics undergraduates. However, since I am running under an older catalog, it is only optional for me (I'm taking Astrophysics instead), but it is still a good idea to know the contents since a significant part of the physics GRE uses the knowledge. My main surprise in the class is the number of physics majors in there whom I swear I have never seen before. You'd think I would know (at least by sight) all the junior/senior level physics students by this point (since there are only a few dozen total physics undergraduates).

Tomorrow - three more classes (two audits, one for credit)!