Archive for December, 2014

I did not post on December 23rd, 2014, but nevertheless I am a bit proud that I managed to keep this blog / website alive for 15 years. Although started as an experiment, this site soon became important to me. Not because my readership is that large or important, but because it helps me reflect on what goes on in my life and in the world. Bacause it helps me think about the best way to formulate my opinion.

Anyway, the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. Don’t expect any surprises (except, perhaps, the number of countries that sent visitors to this blog!).

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Yesterday evening we visited the Antwerp Zoo. Normally, we do that a few times a year but never on crowded holidays. These days, however, the Zoo is not just a garden with hundreds of animals, but it’s also the stage for the China Light Festival. Chinese technicians have placed hundreds of figures large and small all over the garden, and the figures are lighted from within. Visits start after dark, of course.

I’m not a great fan of such displays, which have a tendency to resemble cheap toys. However, I had my Nikon Coolpix AW110 camera with me… just in case. The pictures I took with it turned out great, and they hardly needed editing. I like the photos a lot, more than the objects themselves.

Lights in the pond - Antwerp Zoo China Lights festival - (c) 2014 W.Van daele

Lights in the pond – China Lights Festival – (c) 2014 W.Van daele

The word ‘photography‘ means ‘writing with light‘. That is literally what my camera and I were doing yesterday, even more so than in other conditions. Enjoy the pictures; they’re in a Flickr album.

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There isn’t a lot of snow in the Alps at the moment. For skiers and mountaineers alike, it is a good thing there are no active volcanoes in the region – unlike on Kamchatka, where vulcanologists made a short movies of lava flows interacting with snow: “Watching lava fight with snow in Kamchatka“. Impressive, don’t you think?

I find it remarkable that snow does not melt instantly when the lava approaches: I always thought that 900 (and more!) degrees Celcius would be sufficient to melt snow even before coming into contact with so hot a material. This movie proves me wrong ;-)

Pahoehoe lava on snow. Picture by Benjamin R. Edwards

Pahoehoe lava on snow, by Benjamin R. Edwards.
(Click the picture to see the movie on Youtube)

What’s more: perhaps this study will even be useful in space.

…the pahoehoe flows wound up with a unique texture where they interacted with the snow, the researchers say. That’s pretty neat, because it could allow geologists to recognize old lavas that flowed over snow. If that volcano is not snow-covered today, you’ve learned something about past climate. The researchers point out it’s even possible we could recognize this texture in lava flows on Mars, where it’s thought that lavas may have flowed over ice in the past.

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I never studied the projects proposed on Kickstarter and similar crowdsourcing sites – mostly because of a lack of time. But I do think crowdsourcing can be useful to get a product or an idea off the ground, without having to convince a banker of your solvency.

A few weeks ago, I somehow stumbled upon Flio, a collapsible wooden laptop stand, designed and to be produced not far from where I live. I like the idea of using a natural resource as raw material for a simple but practical design. So I pledged my contribution to the Dutch team.

Just today I got the confirmation: my bamboo laptop stand will be delivered in January. I’m looking forward to that day. I’ll let you know how I feel about the real thing, once I have used it a bit.

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You will need more than an hour to see this through from start to finish, so I’ll just point you to the interview, without comments: “Adam Interviews John Cleese” (on Tested). Adam, of course, is Adam Savage of MythBusters fame.

UNCUT John Cleese - Monty Python Actor and Comedian (11/17/2014)

UNCUT John Cleese – Monty Python Actor and Comedian (11/17/2014)

Just make sure your laugh muscles are in good shape – you’ll need them!

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In 1985 or 1986, I advised my erstwhile employer to buy a Macintosh SE-30 and a laser printer, to allow us to prepare the travel brochure we were putting together in-house. I bought my first Mac, a Macintosh IIsi in 1990 or the beginning of 1991. In total, I owned at least 15 Macs, and I still have 6 in working order in my office. In all those years, I haven’t had much trouble with Apple material – a malfunction in the display of the first iBook model and trouble with a (second-hand) Power Mac G4 sums it up.

2014 however has not been so kind to the Apple hardware in my possession, however. First, my Power Mac G5 (dual PowerPC processor) from started freezing its operation – while still displaying the screen contents – in the spring: since replacing hard disks and memory did not solve the problem, it is likely the motherboard that is somehow broken. The lack of recent Mac OS X versions for the PowerPC processor is a strong counter-indication for repairs! And let’s face it: a computer that has served me well, on a daily basis, during almost a decade is allowed to cause a bit of trouble…


The iPad Mini, however, was only a couple of days in my hands when the home button refused to work. Except when I did a complete reset of the machine and presented it to the store where I bought it, of course! That’s why it took me a couple of weeks to work out a way to demonstrate my problem in the shop, without having to divulge all my personal details.

In the end, this story ended happily: after a bit of haggling with the Apple desk in the store, a telephone consultation with someone at Apple and a bit of waiting at the repair desk, I finally got hold of a replacement Mini – and it works well. Now I can make the screenshots I need for my workshops… and my blogs, of course.

The first screenshot on the new iPad 2 Mini

The first screenshot on the new iPad 2 Mini ;-)

In the end, I am a bit disappointed by Apple. I guess a certain measure of failure is unavoidable when production numbers run in the millions.

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I remain strongly interested in science in general, and physics in particular (don’y ask me why). I enjoy reading books by luminaries like Richard Feynman (“Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!“), Stephen Hawking (“A Brief History Of Time“), and others. Writers like Carl Sagan, Gary Zukav, John Gribbin and Brian Greene helped me build up a basic understanding of modern physics and quantum dynamics. But I still find it hard to explain even some of the most basic principles of these domains in my own words, and that’s a good test to see if you really understand a subject.

FQTQ: Understanding Space, Time, and Spacetime

FQTQ: Understanding Space, Time, and Spacetime

Here’s an example of how to explain “spacetime” in a way that clearly surpasses my capabilities, by Andrew Pontzen and Tom Whyntie on the TedEd channel on YouTube:

Thank you, FQTQ, for pointing me to a simple illustration of Lorentz Transformations and Time Dilation. And thank you, Internet, for making it easy to access great educational resources.

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Now this is a Kickstarter project that I simply have to mention: “1000 BEES“. In their own words:

1000 Bees is an App that showcases and celebrates the diversity of bees across the globe.

1000 beautiful, high-resolution images of individual bees have been taken from some of the most acclaimed museum and research collections in the world, including the Natural History Museum, London, the Hope Entomological Collection at Oxford University, and the Linnean Society of London.

Although often used by scientists, many of these specimens have rarely been seen by the general public. 1000 Bees takes these specimens out of their cabinets and puts them on display, making them available for anyone to discover, view and explore on an iOS device.

… 1000 Bees will be freely available to download as an app for anyone with an iPad or iPhone.


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Slowly perhaps, but steadily nevertheless, web applications get better at protecting our data against hackers. HTTPS is a no-brainer (when correctly implemented, of course), two-factor authentication is another one, but there is more. Here are a few examples.

In “Now your LinkedIn account can be better protected than ever before“, ‘We Live Security’ explains the September additions to the LinkedIn website: a tool to check the sessions logged-in to your account; more info about when and where your password was changed; and a way to export all the data in your profile.

Last month, Google introduced a “Devices and Activity dashboard“, to help you ascertain that only your own devices have access to your data.

Source: http://abhinavpmp.com/2013/06/03/two-factor-authentication-comic/

Click the image to go to the
source: http://abhinavpmp.com/

In the (near) future, functionalities such as those mentioned will become mandatory for any web app that wants to be taken seriously by enterprises and smart individuals alike. Of course, if we don’t use those functions they will not help us to guard our own data and privacy… As Google puts it: “Security in the cloud is a shared responsibility“. Two-factor authentication in available for a ever increasing number of mainstream sites/applications, including Google, LinkedIn, WordPress, Facebook, Dropbox, Microsoft, Yahoo, Evernote and eBay; activating TFA is a good way to start tightening your accounts.

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In the supermarket, at the checkout:

Man: I can tell you are going to be a baseball player when you grow up.

Son: *Pauses, tilts his head and gives a closed mouth grin* Actually, no. Baseball isn’t really my thing.

Man: Well, I can tell you are going to be a ball player.

Son: No, I don’t even play baseball.

Checkout lady: Oh, I bet you’re going to be a basketball or soccer player then!

Son: No, I don’t play any sports. It’s just not my thing. There’s nothing wrong with sports or anything, I just have other interests.

Checkout lady: (in a befuddled nearly astonished voice) WHAT!?!? I have NEVER met a kid that looks(!!!) like you that doesn’t play sports.

Man: *chuckling* Right?! never. They all do!

Son: Well, of course you’ve never met a kid like me. I’m one of a kind. There’s not another person like me.

Man: Well, what do you want to be when you grow up?

Son: I’m here to help people. I’m here to inspire. Now.

Man: Oh, so you’re going to be a doctor? *laughing*

Son: No, I’m not.

Man: Well, being a doctor is the best way to help people. What are you going to do to help and inspire people?

Son: (putting the last of the bags in the cart) I’m going to be myself. No matter how much people try to make me something I am not. Have a great night! *flashes ginormous smile*

According to the Paper Trail website, the above conversation is not part of a theatre play or a novel about a twelve year old black boy. It is part of the story of Devonte, “the little boy with a big heart“, who also stars in the story about a picture of a black boy and a white police officer (via Boing Boing).

Photo (c) Johnny H. Nguyen - See more of his work at http://www.chambersvisuals.com/ by clicking this picture

Photo (c) Johnny H. Nguyen – See more of his work at http://www.chambersvisuals.com/ by clicking this picture

It’s heart-warming to see that this encounter is possible; but it does not change the fact that the world (including the US) has to eradicate racism.

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I have mentioned Dave Winer’s motto “We make shitty software. With bugs!” before. And I have pointed you to Robert Martin’s mantra: “We will not ship shit“. This article by David Pogue (on the Scientific American website) is another take on the same idea:

Nowadays software is a living, constantly evolving entity. Consider phone apps: nobody seems to mind that new versions pour out constantly, sometimes many times a year. Or Web sites: they’re software, too, and they’re perpetually changing.

Software is indeed an evolving entity, because it is immaterial and because the Internet makes it easy for us to distribute and upgrade software. Do note that this is’t true of all software – just think of embedded code, or code in non-connected devices, etc.

Jeff Atwood' proposal for IDE's

Jeff Atwood’ proposal for IDE’s

Still, while I can understand the need to “ship” unfinished software – “unfinished” meaning “not yet having all the originally intended features” – I don’t think it’s a good idea to ship buggy software. If you have to choose between adding functionality and correcting bugs in existing features, please correct the bugs first. If a limited set of features already does (part of) what I need, then I’ll use the product and look forward to newer versions. If a buggy tool makes me lose time – or worse: data – then I will throw it out and look for a another tool. As a software developer/vendor, which scenario do you prefer?

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Past November saw a solar electricity production level largely above the average (51.220 KWh) for that same month in the previous four years: it was 126% of that average, if my calculations are correct. Unfortunately, December 1st added nothing to the counter – it was misty and clouded and grey, the whole day long. Just look at the European weather image from Meteosat SG (visible spectrum) at 11:00: Belgium is outlined in white.

Extract from the MSG image (visible spectrum) of 2014-12-01 at 11:00 - Source: http://www.kmi.be

Extract from the MSG image (visible spectrum) of 2014-12-01 at 11:00
Source: http://www.kmi.be

PS. I’m using an Hewlett-Packard HP-67 emulator app on the iPad mini to do my calculations. I know that there are more powerful calculators available, but I am quite fond of the HP calculator family, having owned both an HP-21 and an HP-34C – and I still have an HP-42S in my closet!

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Yesterday was a grey and misty day in the lower parts of Belgium, but all in all we can’t complain about the sun in past November – just check our solar electricity production numbers.

Picture of a sunrise over a wintery landscape


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