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I just had to open a new package of Nihon Rikagaku chalkboard chalk because I used up the previous package earlier today. I am at home. The professional grade chalkboard is in my bedroom. I am a colossal nerd.

40 hours until the exam that will decide whether I graduate or not. I am studying as fast as my writer's cramp will allow me to (I'm redoing all the problem sets as a study tool and correcting any mistakes I had made as I go). I'm on question 4 of 5 on problem set 3 (quantum perturbation theory) of 6. From problem set 1 to here has already been 26 pages of dense equations, and there's a similar amount to go. I hope to get done today (I figure there's a 50/50 chance), so I can go over my notes and the (shitty... Gasiorowicz 3rd. Ed.) textbook and flag important stuff tomorrow (it's an open book, open notes, open assignments exam... which means it's going to be hard, hard, hard).

Just in case you want to play the home game, here ya go: Quantum Mechanics on The Theoretical Minimum by Leonard Susskind. It's surprisingly easy to follow with a bit of high school math and an open mind (and maybe some alcohol so you're sitting in a Balmer Peak or some such... I've inflicted it on a mathphobic English major friend and they made it quite far).

And, while we're on the topic (nerds, not quantum mechanics)... this is lots of fun!

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I have purchased all of FKA Twigs' albums (even imported one from the UK on vinyl because that was the only way I could get it in a physical format). I am quite engaged by her music and videos (much of which is fairly transgressive and unlike most other music). I have sometimes gone looking for live performances to see if she can perform her stuff live (some people are just studio artists, which is fine, I'm just curious). Most of the footage I have run across has been shot by fans in the audience (<flame>put down your fucking phones and experience life through your own senses, and stop shining your accursed screens in my face as you record you self-centered ... umm, dweebs ... and, ummm, get off my damned lawn! ... Seriously, I went to a fireworks competition and over half the crowd were watching it through their phones and I could barely see the night sky because of the blinding glare of hundreds of backlights ... it was one of the saddest, most pathetic things I have ever seen and sure sign we have lost our way as a "civilization"</flame>), and the audio sucked so hard I couldn't bare to listen, much less watch.

Anyway, I ran across this just now (still studying for my exam on Tuesday) and thought I would share. It was fascinating to see and hear how they brought the sounds of the music to life in a live setting. It was also really interesting to hear her talk (I think this is the first time I've heard her speak in an interview).

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I am poking around my music collection (as a DJ, it's sometimes daunting) and I was fixing a few albums that I purchased as FLAC (I use ffmpeg to convert to MP3 if they don't come in both formats because I like having MP3 versions of everything for portability but listen to FLAC if I can)... sometimes the file name formats provided are not the way I keep my collection (<artist>--<album_title>/<track_number>-<artist>-<song_name>.mp3), so I have to change them to the correct format (for i in *.mp3; do mv "$i" `echo "$i" | sed 's/<before>/<after>/'`; done ... thank goodness for regexp ... also one of my favourite quotes: "Some people, when confronted with a problem, think 'I know, I'll use regular expressions.' Now they have two problems" ;-).

Anyway, all to say that I settled on listening to Josie Charlwood's album "Pieces of Me" as I start to study for my final exam in advanced quantum mechanics on April 25th (whether I pass it or not determines if I graduate or not... no pressure O_o). Gods but I love this album! Equal parts evocative, technically brilliant (her live looped covers are stunning), and heart-rendingly beautiful from start to finish. As the description states, "This is the debut solo album from Josie Charlwood, recorded in 2011/12. All songs were recorded live in front of video cameras. No click tracks, no overdubs, no headphones, just solo live performances." You can see videos for all of her songs on this album on her YouTube channel, or listen to the album (and her other stuff) on her Bandcamp site. For all that she was very young when she did this album, her original compositions (all but two tracks are originals) stand out in a field of those with much more experience. Again, the whole damned thing is played live (with loops for some songs for layers... she also uses a TC-Helicon VoiceLive for live vocal harmonies and effects). There are so many turns of both lyrical and musical phrase that I find captivating it's hard to pick favourites, but two that get me every time are "Just One Look" and "Famous Green Eyes" (I have green eyes too fwiw). And yes, the fact I like this music tags me pretty hard as a hopeless romantic, heh. The one song that she does (a live-looped cover) that I wish had been on the album was her cover of Magnetic Man's "I Need Air"... but I present it here for your enjoyment (I hope):

(Most people are blown away by her cover of The Gorillaz's "Feel Good Inc.", which is here if you are so inclined: I still like her original stuff the best though)


Apr. 17th, 2017 04:31 pm
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As I delete my LJ entries from earliest to latest (don't worry, it's all saved to PDF), it is certainly bringing back memories and I do run across the occasional amusement.

A little something from the 2003 "Washington Post Style Invitational" contest. Readers were asked to submit "instructions" for something (anything), written in the style of a famous person. The winning entry was The Hokey Pokey as written by W. Shakespeare:
O proud left foot, that ventures quick within
Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
To spin! A wilde release from Heavens yoke.
Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
The Hoke, the poke -- o banish now thy doubt
Verily, I say, 'tis what it's all about.

— by Jeff Brechlin, Potomac Falls

<grin> that kind of thing makes living worth it don't ya think?
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I think this sums up the generally accepted Canadian approach beautifully: "freedom of speech protects your right to an opinion, not your right to an opinion left uncontested". I would love to imagine that the same applies elsewhere, but people do seem to argue otherwise (which fairly obviously stems from a culture of privelege and kleptocratic principles [where if someone isn't losing something then you're not winning]). Every time I read more about this story, the phrase "stupid is to the bone" comes to mind.

The opinion article that the above is based on, is here: Senator Beyak can complain about free speech all she wants. Fact is, she earned her demotion. It is subtitled, "Beyak is not being silenced. She is instead being made to endure something known as 'consequence'". There is a lot more on Beyak's intransigence if you care to go look. It's people that refuse to face consequences for their actions (or inactions) that pose an existential threat to society, civilization, and life on Earth as a general catetory (I don't even feel I'm engaging in hyperbole when I say that, fyi).

In other news... I ran across this really messed up music video two days ago and thought I should share it with all y'all.

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Most people have heard about the famous quantum physics thought experiment "Schrödinger's Cat": one places a fictitious cat into a sealed box with a quantum random number generator (a radioactive source that decays very slowly, for instance) and a means to kill the cat should some quantum event happen (e.g. that a radioactive decay happens). The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics states that the cat, whose state of being alive or dead depends on a quantum process, is therefore both alive and dead at the same time until someone opens up the box and observes the cat, at which point the universe must decide whether the cat is alive or dead (but not until then). No cat has ever been subjected to this "experiment", but it has been done with subatomic particles and particles do exist in superposition (in many states at once) until an observation is made and cause "the wavefunction to collapse" into one state that, if we observe a short time later, will still be in that one state (presumably if we keep looking, it will stay in that state forever unless disturbed somehow). We are trying to build computers based on this principle now (with some success).

Here is one interpretation of that experiment... things... things don't go so well for Schrödinger or the Cat. Wow, this is pretty messed up stuff... but is great animation and storytelling (and a great and amusing, and kind of terrifying, soundscape)!

Dead or alive? Not Dead or Alive...
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You know times have gotten bad when government decisions can drag scientists out of their labs and onto the streets. I participated in the "Death of Evidence" march in Ottawa in 2012 and the scientists that participated were fairly consistent in saying that they'd rather be doing their research than marching publicly through the nation's capital. I just got this email from the President of the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) calling for global solidarity with scientists in the United States now. For a professional society like CAP to state that it "strongly endorses these marches" is exceptional language for exceptional times (and a stance that I both agree with and support, fyi). At the same time, there are those in Canada (and elsewhere) that stand ready to poach the best talent as it attempts to flee both the USA and the UK. Here is the whole email:

April 22, 2017 designated March for Science Day

The 2017 U.S. budget proposal submitted to Congress by the White House on 16 March 2017 contained some very bleak news, including a whopping 31% reduction to the Environmental Protection Agency, with smaller but nonetheless damaging cuts to the Department of Education, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science. The National Science Foundation did not even garner mention in the budget proposal.

A march in support of science entitled the Scientists' March on Washington, that had been organized prior to the budget announcement, has blossomed into a much wider March for Science to be held on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. There will be over four hundred marches held in locations across the globe, including seventeen cities in Canada. The number is likely to grow as that date approaches.

The CAP strongly endorses these marches. I urge you to consult the March's URL to find out details of the event nearest you, and to get out and show your support for science!

I will be participating in the march in Montreal; if you are in the area and plan to attend, let's participate together; send me an email at the address below to let me know. CAP Past President Adam Sarty will be participating in the march in Halifax, while CAP Vice-President Stephen Pistorius will be participating in the march in Phoenix, Arizona, alongside our APS colleagues as he is representing the CAP at meetings of the American Physical Society in Phoenix at the time.

We hope to see you this coming April 22, marching for science.

Richard MacKenzie, P.Phys.
CAP President
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It has been a while since I have run across a "dance" performance on YouTube that has truly wowed me, but this really got me excited! It's such a simple concept that could easily be lame, but the dancer's precision and feeling for the "stage" made it a transcendent experience for me. If you click on the video below, there's a brief intro that shows some of the more dramatic moments in the piece. If you would rather skip the spoilers and jump in at the 42s mark, click here.

And then there are FKA Twigs' dance videos, many of which I find quite transgressive in addition to standing out artistically. In the videos, there is often a theme of implied violence or raging passion that somehow remains contained/under tension despite obvious desire to take it further. Her stuff definitely floats my boat!

Ache is one of her earliest works... note the societally ubiquitous "23" ;).

Wet Wipez is more recent and has a larger scope for sure.

I love her music for both as well!
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Well, I am finally back up to a basic operational level with Verilog coding... only to find out that the project I will be working with has been done in VHDL. While one language versus another is usually no big deal for me (okay, I hate C++, but I've been using it since the 80s when I worked on what was, at the time, the largest C++ project in the world and I'm good at it, but that doesn't mean I have to like it), VHDL has its roots in the Ada programming language D:. Why the grumblings? Ada was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense and is one of the most notorious Bondage and Discipline languages in existence. While B&D might be fine, it needs to be consensual and nobody ever asked me if I wanted the flagellations VHDL/Ada will entail ;).

It does remind me of an interesting side path in processor technology development from way back when... the Intel iAPX 432 system. By any measure, this was a complete failure for Intel (and the industry as a whole), but it introduced a number of features that we now see in most modern processors. I'm not going to go into it here, except to say that it supported object oriented data access and security control models at the hardware level, supported explicit hardware fault tolerance and multi-dimensional data busses, had superscalar processing elements, and so many other features that were too far ahead of their time (and thus made the system intolerably slow and cumbersome, and thus uncompetitive). I remember that the instruction set was actually a bitstream read into the processor in 32-bit chunks and parsed, and that instructions could be anywhere from 4 to 111 bits in length! It really was an engineering masterpiece, but I often mused that the people that worked on it must have been locked up in the loony bin afterward en masse (I think one of them went on to be CEO of Intel or something... maybe the same thing? Heh). Anyway, why I bring this up is the 432 was never meant to be programmed in assembly language or even "system" languages like C, but rather was designed such that Ada was essentially its assembly language. Perhaps that is another reason (maybe even moreso) for its demise ;). Sadly, VHDL is widely used in the electronics design sector, so it was inevitable that Ada would eventually catch up with me... I took two textbooks on VHDL out of the Carleton library on Wednesday and have started reading them. I am determined to progress, if equally resigned to my fate.

I'll make sure to leave a tube of lube on my desk as I work... it might make the proceedings a little more comfortable to me ;).

On a completely separate note, I am currently listening the heck out of Floex's album "Zorya" (Floex is the project of Czech composer, musician, artist, producer, etc. Tomáš Dvořák, who also did the gorgeous soundtracks for the delightful games Machinarium, which is where I first heard his work, and Samorost). The music on this album successfully pulls from so many different styles: prog, classical, industrial, pop, etc. and puts them together into what I find a very pleasing whole, blending acoustic instruments/sounds with synthesizers and samples. In particular, on one track (Forget-Me-Not), he plays piano and a clarinet without a mouthpiece that I can listen to over and over again... melancholy and evocative, it really floats my boat right now. The clarinet played like a trumpet has a very distinctive sound (to say the least) that makes that song stand out for me. There are many different moods throughout the album and even within the songs that keeps it interesting all the way through. It also features the best Yes song not by Yes I've heard in a while ("Precious Creature" featuring the vocals of James Rone), heh. You can listen to it free on his Soundcloud page (or listen to and potentially buy it at his Bandcamp site):

(the Soundcloud page is nice because it talks about some of the intruments and credits the other people that performed on the album... just click on "Show more...")

Edit: I started reading Douglas L. Perry's book "VHDL Programming by Example", Fourth Edition, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-140070-2. It bills itself as "the hands-down favourite user's guide to VHDL"; but good lard, what a disaster! I made it as far as page 4 and had already picked out typos and plain wrong information... the cruftiness was continued on page 5... and I have given up and tossed the book aside (gently, it's a library book). On page 4, they refer to the "counter device described earlier", but the only thing described earlier is a multiplexer (there's nothing else earlier in the book, this is the start of the book!). On page 5, it reprints a fragment of code from page 4 and says it's from the "architecture behave" code, but the code it is referring to is clearly "architecture dataflow". What a crock of shit (and it hasn't helped my opinion of VHDL any either, I might add, ugh). There does not appear to be any errata for this hunka-hunka-burning-turds. Let's try the other book I got from the library, sigh.

Second edit: I am now digging in to Peter J. Ashenden's book "The Student's Guide to VHDL", Second Edition, Morgan Kaufmann, ISBN 978-1-55860-865-8. I now know one of the reasons why VHDL has always seemed somehow wrong to me (while Verilog seemed a sensible approach in contrast). Quoting from the Preface: one pervasive theme running through the presentation of this book is that modeling a system using a hardware description language is essentially a software design exercise. And there you have it... VHDL became popular because it views hardware design as an exercise in software design. Since there are so many programmers in the world (thousands per hardware designer), it is a seductive statement that anyone who can write a program can design an integrated circuit. However, that is like saying that giving someone a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) will allow them to effectively compose good music. Yeah, anyone using looping composition software can create something quite pleasing and often interesting, but it is not crafted in a way a trained composer or musician can do it. It is also much harder to innovate (music or hardware design) without deep training in the art in question. I find it interesting as well to note that there are thousands of folk musicians for every trained musician (I consider most rock, etc. kinds of folk music... and before you think I'm being snooty, I only do "folk" music myself in one form or another, and I have no pretentions about where my music fits into the spectrum of musical sophistication). I have done both serious hardware and software development (and I can do me a mess o' software... I've been programming complex and sometimes mission critical software for decades and I'm very good at it), but the two skillsets are radically different. Anyone with a VHDL compiler in one hand and an FPGA in the other can probably get something to work that'll do the job, but it is going to be sub-optimal in many potentially important ways (if not subtly buggy). This explains a lot of what I have seen lately with a number of ASICs, hmmm. The medium (VHDL) is the message.

I am starting to regret that I wasn't telling the truth when I said I'd keep lube by my side as I worked...
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While much in the way of "music videos" are purely promotional, lack any form of imagination, and remain utterly forgetable; they are sometimes masterworks of visual engagement and storytelling — poetry in and of themselves on top of the music they were produced to live alongside. I have been interested in music videos my whole life (I used to watch the show "The Monkees" when I was young, which featured what can only be called music videos each episode), but for the most part, I saw them as a curiosity rather than a medium for short stories or as a means to engage with the watcher on an emotional level.

Back in the 1980s, I used to go to a club called Barrymore's in Ottawa, Canada that brought in some of the best acts of the day (from Rough Trade to Dread Zeppelin to Gwar... I even saw Hawkwind perform there, and that's another story in itself). At the time, they were one of the only places in Canada that showed music videos on a gorgeous and glorious huge screen with a state of the art (for the time) video projection system. It was revolutionary at the time and while waiting for concerts, I got to see the best videos available (they were curated for merit rather than for commercial purpose). I later made friends with Jeff Green and found out (years after we started hanging out) that he was the one responsible for this presentation that was so ahead of its time (years before MTV or Much Music or such), as he often is. Two videos in particular really changed my view of music videos and what they are capable of: "Age of Loneliness" by the German music project Enigma, and "Shock the Monkey" by UK artist Peter Gabriel.

"Age of Loneliness" took my breath away the first time I saw it, and opened my eyes to the potential of what became an artform to me in that moment. I still watch it often today, and it makes me feel the same way now as it did then. It tells a slice-of-life (death?) story, but more impressively it visually conveys emotion in a way that I associated more with poetry than film or video. For some reason when I see it, it reminds me of one of my favourite movies: "Wings of Desire", probably for its emotional tone. As for "Shock the Monkey", again it tells a story of sorts of spiritual awakening (a more violent and disruptive echo of the same message conveyed in his beautiful and powerful song "Solsbury Hill") as a deadly battle between Gabriel's conscious and unconsious minds. What is particularly interesting about Gabriel's video is that I hated, hated, hated the song! It has been overkilled on the radio and it sounded like so much more pop-infused claptrap to me after about the millionth time hearing it. But... when I saw the video, my mind was officially blown and I had to re-evaluate the song in light of what the video said about the song (that it had meaning that had been inaccessible to me the way I had been exposed to it by that point). I love the song now and consider the album with that song on it one of Gabriel's best (so fsck'ing intense!). I have since gone on to gather collections of innovative music videos — sometimes by musician, sometimes by director — and rummage YouTube and such looking for innovative music videos as time and patience allows (so. much. crap. ugh.). If you have any suggestions for stuff I should look at, please slide it my way :).

And... here they are. Note, the Enigma one is probably a bit NSFW due to near nudity; and the Gabriel one is probably the same due to extreme paganism and psychology, lol ;).

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I ordered a little 12VDC vacuum cleaner from AliExpress (stuff direct from China... if you haven't looked at the site yet beware, it can be addictive). I thought that maybe I could use it to suck chalk dust as it claimed to have a HEPA filter (it most assuredly does not... another lesson for AliExpress: buyer beware... some stuff has been wonderful, some total junk). I figured that worst case, when it arrived, I would use it for what it was for: cleaning the inside of my car. It does have a wonderfully long cord.

The reason for this post is the instructions sheet included with the vacuum. Oh, my. I have faithfully reproduced the text, including punctuation. The last note is perhaps the best, but it needs a proper build-up to truly appreciate. My comments are intersperced in italics...


1. Please confirm access the switch have all;

illustration shows power plug being inserted into 12VDC receptacle in car

2. Difficult to clean it can be used to clean up his mouth;

illustration shows a tiny hand holding a tiny crevice tool (a Canadian "classic", fyi) next to a huge version of the vacuum

3. Clean up garbage bags please ensure that connection, the switch have;

the vacuum has a cup with a cheap filter glued into it to catch cruft... the illustration shows the button [not switch] to press to open the front and remove the "nose" and cup insert... oh, and there are no "bags"

4. Every time after using the front cover;

not sure what this illustration is telling me... there appears to be some sort of white splotch on a surface next to the nose "part" with the other bits of vacuum sitting next to it


Please use a soft cloth lightly polishing machine, a thorough cleaning vacuum

a distant 1880s wash tub and modern dish soap bottle, a proximate vacuum being wiped by a hand holding, I guess, a cloth


1. Avoid a direct the sun in the sun or a hot place to avoid being melted;

no illustration

2. Every time after its use should be thoroughly cleaned before. If a clear for a product will decrease power;

illustration shows vacuum rattling or vibrating with smoke coming out of it with a superimposed X... I presume it is about to blow up?

next, there is an illustration with no text that suggests to me that one should not open the vacuum while it's running... I'm not quite sure, it's very confusing

3. Do not use vacuum cleaner to suck cigarette butts, which may block the cleaner (vacuum cleaner) and even cause fire due to it's high temperature

I'm pretty sure they stole this piece of text from somewhere else... there is an illustration that kind of makes sense with the text with a lovely X through it

4. Do not use the vacuum cleaner

Wait... what?
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A book. What even... I just don't know...

P.S. Did you know that when you eat a banana it produces antimatter (positrons) inside of you which annihilate with your body's own electrons to produce high energy gamma ray photons (through the well-known relationship E=mc2) that fly out of you (and probably the building you're in... they're way more powerful than x-rays) to radiate the surrounding environment? Now you know.
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I found out something "interesting" Friday evening: my cat Crookshanks flies into a rage when I play bagpipe music on my turntable. She usually runs from the other two cats, but she went right up to both Bob (Bobba Ho-Tep, the feral Egyptian Mau) and and Snowball (the black and white loco gato) and clubbed them each in the face in turn before I shouted at her to stop. Bob especially was gobsmacked (if you'll pardon the pun) because Crookshanks never lets herself get within half a metre of him. She doesn't react the same way when I play it on CD. I don't know whether she is emboldened by the bagpipes (a battlefield instrument) or whether she is driven insane by it, but she started caterwauling as well. We have actually never been able to figure out whether her bleating (she doesn't meow) is a happy noise or an angry noise, so it was impossible to tell whether she was expressing displeasure or joining in with the music. Eventually she settled into the chair beside me and demanded neck scritches and started purring up a storm, but it still didn't clarify her position on the matter. It was a terrifying experience for all concerned ;).
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Crap, how did I miss this one??? A free online course on Future Learn: "How to Survive on Mars: the Science Behind the Human Exploration of Mars" from Monash University in Australia. It is subtitled "Learn the basic science needed for humans to survive on Mars, with this free online science course". Sadly, it has come and gone (it's a 4 week thing that started in October of last year), but hopefully it will be offered again some time. Either way, there's a cool introductory video to watch at the above link.
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I have had a special fondness for the FORTH language since I first encountered it many, many years ago. There is an elegance, and dare I say beauty, to it that other computer languages lack. It was its own operating system, integrated development environment, and programming runtime from the early 1970s and a powerful paradigm for software development in the 1980s with the advent of microcomputers (I did one actual application in it professionally, but used it a lot to play with different ideas I had on my own as well). There is something about the way of approching application development with FORTH that is different than pretty much any other language: that you basically write a new language, based in FORTH, for the application rather than a series of functions or objects to implement the needed funtionality to support the application. It's a fundamentally different way of approaching problems, and one that I find very satisfying. The only other language that comes close to it for me is Tcl (the Tool Command Language, pronounced "tickle"), which is an odd duck of a computer language as well (and one in which I have developed some very sophisticated application software for "electronic data interchange" and such), but that's another story.

One of the things that differentiated FORTH as well is a famous book on the language called "Starting FORTH" by Leo Brodie. It was illustrated with little cartoons to act as mnemonics to learning and covered everything one needed to know to get going and even get good with FORTH, along with a bunch of "under the hood" stuff for those doing serious programming. I think I was mumbling something about it to a friend and I was thinking... I wonder if that book is online anywhere? Sure enough, it is, but it is in a form that is a little challenging to try to read (it was only allowed in HTML, a PDF was not permitted by the copyright holders). I had been hoping to show my friend a little bit about it using the fun (but in depth) introduction done by Brodie, but I figured if I recoiled from the online version, my friend (who has only done a bit of programming) would be flummoxed by it entirely. The FORTH user's group or fan pages or whatever they were, said that "if you ever see a copy of Brodie's book for a reasonable price, buy it! They can be rare and expensive!". So, at the suggestion of my friend, I went online and did find a copy of the book for a very reasonable price, and went ahead and ordered it. It arrived a few days ago and I have been casually reading through it. I am falling in love with FORTH all over again, but also realize the serious limitations it had back then (the book was based on the FORTH-79 standardization, and there have been two rounds since then, with the latest in 1994, called "ANS FORTH"... so modern features have been added for sure).

Anyway, I just wanted to share one "adorable" quote from the book... a true time capsule of the state of the computing world back in 1981 (at least the microcomputer computing world):

Disk memory is divided into units called "blocks". Many professional FORTH development systems have 500 blocks available (250 from each disk drive). Each block holds 1,024 characters of source text. The 1,024 characters are divided for display into 16 lines of 64 characters each, to fit conveniently on your terminal screen.

Awwww... so cuuute! :)
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Nothing to say except "blub, blub, blub...".

Since there's a new Goldfrapp album on the way (March apparently), I'm listening to their stuff as I work (a brand new audio track from the upcoming album has been officially released here in case you are a fan/interested). And in case you haven't seen this particular Goldfrapp video... here you go. I love short films, and this succeeds so well in telling a story — but also in leaving so many questions unanswered to ponder.

It reminds me of this video from the band Árstíðir, based on an Icelandic folklore. Note: like many folk tales, this is creepy as fuck and more than a little gory, so be warned if you watch.

If you aren't completely breathless from that one (presuming you watched it), you had better get lots of oxygen into your system before watching this one (if you decide to go for the full triple bill). I'm going to go so far as to call trigger warning on this one... what trigger? No idea what your triggers might be, but there's probably one in here for you that you might not even know about (it is a brilliant video, but I can't say it's a particularly pleasant video). You have been double warned. From New Zealand, Sheep, Dog & Wolf (actually the solo project of Daniel McBride... written, performed, and produced by said same):

Need a palate cleanser or just want to skip to something less intense? Here's some Computer Magic (aka Danz aka Danielle Johnson... from Brooklyn, NY). She's a youngin' but has a great grasp of synthesizers and minimalist electronics/composition (that I'm a huge fan of in general, but she does it very well). Side note: she's big in Japan... the song is "Grand Junction". Lastly, the Árstíðir song/video above is not typical of the band, so here's another side of them (their more typical side), covering Simon and Garfunkel's version of "Scarborough Fair" live at Fríkirkjan. Beautiful stuff.
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Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

— Emma Lazarus
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Just emailed...

The Honourable Ahmed D. Hussen,

Given the deplorable behaviour of the government of the United States of America with regards to the targeting of those with Muslim religious, ethnic, or national ties, and the unconsionable rejection of refugees (many of whom can trace their plight to actions on the part of the United States), it would seem prudent in both the short and long term at this point in time to immediately repeal the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement. The situation to the south of the border is just going to get worse and if Canada is truly committed to mitigating the terrible situations that refugees find themselves in, especially now that they are being abandoned or even demonized by such a major world power as the United States, we must be proactive in sending a message that there are still humanitarian countries left in the world that are concerned with the ongoing refugee crises happening in so many places.

As many have said since the executive order was signed, the basic premises that the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement was signed under have been substantively undermined, and it now presents a grave risk to refugees and exposes Canada to potentially unwelcome scrutiny if it fails to take timely action. I, and others, recognize that the government in Canada must be cautious in its actions such that they not be viewed as directly attacking the administration in Washington, D.C.; however, for Canada to accept refugees rejected by the United States for ideological and political reasons (and who are in danger of having their rights trampled because of their religion, ethnicity, or country of birth or origin), would send a signal to the citizens of the US, Canada, and the world that (strongly) oppose this latest turn of events that there are international repercussions to such small-minded, mean-spirited, and potentially deadly policies against the most vulnerable populations in the world. While we cannot count on rational behaviour from the leaders of our largest trading partner, we can at least make the right choices in those areas where we have some autonomy and disentagle ourselves from the dangerous course being set by the US administration. Repeal the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement now.

Yours sincerely,

Phelonius Friar
Ottawa, Ontario

cc: The Honourable Maryam Monsef, Minister responsible for the Status of Women (since the executive order will disproportionately affect women all over the world), and The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau (because he is the face of the Canadian government and is talking the talk, but Canadians and people all over the world need to see him walking the walk too).
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I’m not sure if I mentioned it a while back, but I had been searching for a chalkboard for years... a real chalkboard... heavy, porcelain, professional grade. It was certainly a fool’s errand to find something affordable (they kind of started at $600 and the cost of shipping implied they were warehoused on Neptune or some fucking thing). They were plainly out of reach financially for me, not to mention the difficulty in justifying such a purchase to myself. At one point a year or so ago, I went to the physics department admin and asked if they knew of a source of chalkboards. Their only suggestion was to talk to the facilities folks at the university because chalkboards are still used throughout the institution and probably need to be replaced from time to time (plus the university seems to be building new buildings all the time, so they have to outfit the classrooms and labs therein). I never got around to talking to them, but a couple of months after that conversation, the admin pinged me and asked me if I still wanted a chalkboard. The cost? Haul it away! Suweeeet! It turns out the post-docs sardined into a room together wanted to ditch it in favour of a whiteboard. Their loss (whiteboards are terrible things that are smelly and hard to maintain, and proceed from nice to suck over the course of a year or two in my experience). I checked it out and it was, in fact, a real (and startlingly heavy) one and I said I would certainly take it. Life does work like that for me on a regular basis, and I try not to depend on it, but part of how it works is just to recognize opportunity when it pops up and to take a chance on the outcome.

For over a year now, I have had a lovely 4’ × 4’ professional green chalkboard on the wall in my bedroom (I think there may be some pathology associated with such behaviour, heh). It’s a real pleasure to work with and I find it allows me to be very creative with my ideas (and not just for math or stuff... scribbling on a chalkboard helps me think and focus). When I brought it home (I had to get a friend with a pickup truck to help, it’s crazy heavy and way too big for most cars), I picked up a starter set of Prang chalk from the local office supply store and a standard felt eraser. Well, I was pretty underwhelmed with the feel of the Prang stuff and the felt eraser worked but left a lot of residue. I did some research on chalks and found that the ultimate chalk company, Hagoromo, had just folded after 80 years in business. One mathematician stated the following:
There have been rumors about a dream chalk, a chalk so powerful that mathematics practically writes itself; a chalk so amazing that no incorrect proof can be written using this chalk. I can finally say, after months of pursuit, that such a chalk indeed exists.
So that wasn’t going to work for me... at least not in the long run. More research and enter the Nihon Rikagaku company of Japan. I read several articles that stated they have a great product; but when I researched the company, I found that they were interesting in other ways as well. In particular, 70% of their employees have “intellectual disabilities” (about half of which have severe impairments), and they have been employing people that were seriously marginalized in Japan for the past 57 years. There’s some interesting stuff on their web site on the topic, and I’d recommend it as reading if you’re into disability rights and such. So, I ordered a few packages of chalk to try them out and I can say that they are much nicer to use than the first box of chalk I brought home! They are also made with calcium carbonate (calcite limestome) rather than gypsum (calcium sulphate) which most modern chalks are made from, which gives it a nicer feel and makes the dust a little gentler if breathed in ;). The stuff was available from Amazon, but it did take a couple of months to travel across the ocean from Japan, so be patient if you want to go that route as well!

All well and good, of course, but I had this crappy eraser see... I mean it was okay, but... not great. Again, I did some research and ended up back at Nihon Rikagaku. They make a corduroy chalk brush that I know I’ve seen in manga that I have read (they are, apparently, a major brand in Japan... although I cannot attest to that having never been there). The shipping was just about the same and took two months to arrive, but it showed up a couple of days ago... and prompted this post today :). Compared to the felt eraser, the new one is a dream and leaves barely any residue on the chalkboard! What residue that remains is a lot finer and fainter than the best I’ve been able to do with the felt eraser.

So, chalkboard, chalk, and eraser... life is good right? If we are only looking at the experiential dimension of writing on walls, it is hard to imagine more joy than this (heh). But all is not well. Late in 2015 I became ill with some sort of crud. Turns out it was antibiotic resistant crud and it took until March of 2016 to get it under control (3 different antibiotics later). This did a lot of damage to my lungs and sinuses (mostly my sinuses, my lungs are mostly fine by now), and I am now extremely sensitive to many environmental factors that didn’t phase me in the slightest before then. One of my sensitivities? Yup. Chalk dust. So much so that I won’t be able to use the board in my room unless I set up some sort of dust filter/vacuum thing while I use it or wear a mask or some ridiculous thing. Argh. I may also move it to the basement if I ever get that sorted out, but it’s definitely a bit of a bummer. Another “environmental sensitivity” I developed? Coffee. I cannot drink coffee anymore as it causes near instant inflamation of my sinuses (it does not cause breathing problems with my lungs, but it can affect my hearing). Piss. Me. Off. But, I did survive... and I have an allergist appointment in March to see what we can figure out. I’m seeing a good ear, nose, and throat specialist as well (yay Canadian healthcare!) and think the whole fiasco is behind me (new sensitivities notwithstanding). I have only been using the chalkboard infrequently, but I am going to need to use it a lot over the next couple of months while I finish up my undergraduate degree(s) (freakin’ finally!). This obviously presents a challenge, but at least I have some idea of what I'm up against.

And I leave you with a followup dance performance by “The Agents”... I’ve watched it dozens of times since it came out and my mind is still blown every time!

pheloniusfriar: (Default)
This is the first real academic research and writing assignment I ever did, back in 2010. There were a few short essays I had to do earlier in the first year (year long) Introduction to Human Rights course I was taking at the time, but they were just a few pages and leveraged the analysis and integration and writing skills that I had apparently developed over the years (the writing skills were a big surprise to me since I assumed from my high school experiences decades before that it was not something I was good at). They were also not huge jobs. This, on the other hand, was a semester-long 3rd year independent study project on a subject I had no idea about previously (I knew what muons were, and had heard of cosmic rays, but that is about the extent of it). To have been presented with this opportunity in my first year of studies was quite the honour (especially because it would lead to employment over the summer of 2010 and possibly beyond), but it rapidly became clear that I was deeply in over my head both from a subject and skillset point of view. Specifically, writing an academic report is very, very different from any research and writing I had done before, and I was woefully unprepared for what it would take. Needless to say I learned a lot (and got an A-), but it definitely took a toll on my well-being (it ended up being 45 pages and cited 29 works, ugh). I do think it's a good first attempt at something like this, but it does contain some inaccuracies and is missing some fairly important stuff, however it is a good introduction to the topic and I've always wanted to post it here some day (it would have been better if I had MathJax, but I'll just post the images inline as there are relatively few). There are a few bits that I thought turned out quite well, and I can at least be proud of those parts.

Don't let the physics scare you away, I'm coming at the subject generally and mostly in plain English because that's all I had at the time (I do try to do that still, fyi, but I have a bit more knowledge to draw from now and can avoid some of the mistakes I've made here). As a note, completing this project did land me a gig that lasted from the summer of 2010 through the summer of 2013 on three projects related to cosmic ray muons (tomography and solar weather analysis), and formed the foundation for the work I've been doing since with upgrades to the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland (I've never been there myself, but I've been to TRIUMF, Fermilab, and DESY as part of all of this... and maybe SLAC this coming spring or summer?). A very good friend once claimed that they saw me “living a life of small adventures”, and that does seem to be an ongoing thing.

The Use of Cosmic Ray Muon Tomography in the Detection of Concealed High-Z Materials


A. The need for screening

It is becoming ever more important to monitor the flow of goods and people as a deterrent against state, criminal, or ideological organizations that may wish to wage war or cause serious disruption through the use of various asymmetric weapons systems within the territories we wish to consider secure. To that end, increasing surveillance and intrusive inspections have been implemented at points where the greatest risk exists, for instance at airports and border crossings. For an effective deterrent, all traffic through these key points of commerce and travel especially, as well as the appropriate measures for points between, require 100% screening to be maximally secure. For historic and economic reasons, this strategy of complete coverage presents an extreme challenge to even the most affluent and security conscious of societies. Furthermore, any onerous impediment to the efficient movement of goods and people elicits an economic cost of its own that can destroy the very prosperity that such security measures wish to protect.

While it can be argued that the smuggling of conventional weapons poses the greatest chance of occurring and resulting in harm being inflicted through their use, all but the largest of instances of such smuggling into otherwise stable countries are dwarfed by the already existent availability of these items within those countries. Where the national government of a country needs to protect its citizens against all forms of weapons smuggling, it has a special obligation to prevent the use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons against its population, infrastructure, services, and legitimate foreign interests: “Asymmetric CBR threats provide an adversary with significant political and force multiplier advantages, such as disruption of operational tempo, interruption/denial of access to critical infrastructure and the promulgation of fear and uncertainty in military and civilian populations. [...] Proliferation will continue to dramatically increase the threat from the use of CBR agents by states or terrorist organizations against unprotected civilian populations. Proliferation also poses an asymmetric threat against non-combatants outside the immediate theatre of conflict, including Canadians at home.”1 As such, most functional nations have embarked on integrated strategies to minimize the chances of CBRN related incidents. In general, those efforts can be categorized in five ways: supporting or directing the improvement of foreign CBRN control, detection, and enforcement; border CBRN detection equipment and domestic law enforcement training; the securing of legitimate CBRN materials within the country’s borders; improved intelligence operations to detect potential smuggling operations before they occur; and various domestic and international research and development projects to improve overall control and detection capabilities.2

Furthermore, of the CBRN threats, there are emergency measures and possible mitigations that can be taken to minimize the impact to the population and infrastructure of a successful attack with chemical, biological, or radiological weapons; however, the damage that would be inflicted should a nuclear device be detonated in a populated area would be devastating beyond measure to both the fabric and spirit of the country, its operation, and its people. Such results make special nuclear materials3 (as could be used in a nuclear bomb) particularly attractive targets for terrorists4 (“independent” or state sponsored): “Nuclear smuggling is an increasing concern for international security because creating a viable nuclear weapon only requires several kilos of plutonium or highly enriched uranium. The International Atomic Energy Agency has documented 18 cases of theft of nuclear [weapon grade] materials within the last decade, and probably more instances have occurred without report. This is especially prevalent within the former Soviet bloc, where large amounts of nuclear materials are insecurely guarded and inventories are often faultily kept.”5

Of particular concern is the realization that the view, held since World War II3, that the effort required to build a nuclear weapon was prohibitive, is no longer valid. This opinion had been based on the American experience of creating two small nuclear weapons, but it is now widely accepted that the expertise and technical capability to build a viable nuclear weapon is no longer the exclusive purview of large, economically advanced nation-states. In fact, the knowledge and infrastructure required is potentially within reach of any well-organized and funded group with sufficient long-term determination and resourcefulness: “The only real technological barrier to the clandestine construction of nuclear weapons is access to fissionable material itself. There is a growing black market for this material, and eventually demand will result in enough material reaching as-yet unidentified buyers to produce a nuclear weapon”3. In addition to the smuggling of processed special nuclear materials, given that uranium is roughly 40 times more prevalent in the Earth’s crust than is silver6, the smuggling of uranium ore or low quality extracted uranium from such ore is also a more likely possibility.

While it is widely acknowledged that “most known interdictions of weapons-useable nuclear materials have resulted from police investigations rather than by radiation detection equipment installed at border crossings”2, the asymmetric nature of the threat calls for exceptional measures in the effective detection of smuggled special nuclear and radiological materials that might make it past the intelligence operations to a port of entry into the country. Per the U.S. Container Security Initiative Strategic Plan: 2006-2011, “the cost to the U.S. Economy resulting from port closures due to the discovery or detonation of a weapon of mass destruction or effect (WMD/E) would be enormous. In October 2002, Booz, Allen and Hamilton reported that a 12-day closure required to locate an undetonated terrorist weapon at one U.S. seaport would cost approximately $58 billion. In May 2002, the Brookings Institution estimated that costs associated with U.S. port closures resulting from a detonated WMD/E could amount to $1 trillion, assuming a prolonged economic slump due to an enduring change in our ability to trade.”7 While this is a U.S. figure, it can be scaled appropriately to reflect the impact of such an event on any trading nation, or the domino effect such an act would have on global commerce if it happened anywhere.

B. Screening technologies )

1. Radiation sensors )

2. 2D imaging systems )

3. Tomographic imaging systems )

C. Muon Tomography Systems )

D. Outline of Thesis

Because of the sensitivity of Passive Muon Tomography (PμT) systems to high-Z materials (versus lighter elements) they are a much more targeted solution than more indiscriminate imaging systems, and the lack of an active radiation source eliminates the potential health concerns associated with x-ray and gamma ray imaging systems. While PμT systems only address a particular class of risk, specifically the threat posed by the trafficking of special nuclear materials that could form the basis for a bomb or large well-shielded shipments of radionuclides that could be used in a “dispersal” device, the asymmetric nature of the threat justifies the commercialization of this technology to compensate for the serious limitations of existing technologies in this area of detection. Carleton University’s proposal to use large-area drift chambers for muon detection will result in a device that will provide excellent spacial and temporal resolution with very cost effective readout electronics and data processing requirements; however, the initial requirement for a flowing gas in the first generation solution presents a negative offset through higher infrastructure and ongoing maintenance costs that would need to be mitigated as part of a widespread deployment of this particular solution.


A. Overview

Primary cosmic rays are very high energy charged particles (into the range of many TeV24) that originate mostly outside of the solar system, from astrophysical sources, and are comprised primarily of protons (~80%) and helium nuclei (~14%), with the remaining being heavier nuclei such as carbon, oxygen, and iron. These can also interact with interstellar gasses to create a much lower flux of secondary cosmic rays comprised mostly of anti-protons and lithium, beryllium, and boron nuclei23. When cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s atmosphere at high altitudes, they produce showers of thousands of “secondary” particles, usually also called “secondary cosmic rays”. Most of the particles so generated decay or interact with atmospheric atoms before they can reach the surface of the Earth; however, a shower of gamma rays, electrons, neutrons, and muons24 (due to relativistic time dilation) do reach the lower altitudes of the atmosphere and the surface itself. Of these, the cosmic ray muons are of primary interest in this application due to their high energy, penetrating power, and the relative ease that their path and momentum can be precisely determined.

B. Spectrum and properties )

C. Multiple scattering and tomographic analysis )

III. Detectors

A. Overview )

B. Drift Chambers )

1. Basic Operation )

2. Specific Topology )

3. Readout Electronics and Data Processing )

C. Scintillation counters )

IV. Implementation

A. Description of prototype project )

B. Readout Electronics )

V. Further exploration

In addition to the use of the proposed muon tomography systems in border security and container/vehicle inspection, the basic technology can be useful in other applications as well. Furthermore, with appropriate research and development, enhancements to the basic technology are possible that will reduce the total cost of ownership and operation.

A. Use as a scientific instrument

With the possibility of large area muon detectors being deployed along borders and in key strategic locations, it should be noted that each one of these devices can be used as an element in a larger cosmic ray observatory. The information on incident angle and momentum of incoming cosmic ray muons could provide a wealth of data to astrophysicists and particle physicists alike (who can analyze the data against various models developed for subatomic phenomena to support or discard various hypotheses). One major issue is that data on the contents of scanned targets cannot be shared with the general public due to security concerns. This can be addressed by sending data only when a scan is not in progress. Alternatively, if the initial momentum (before interaction with cargo) is reconstructed by projecting the final momentum backwards through the gathered tomographic data when cargo is present, there will be no way to determine anything about the contents of the scanned cargo from the data. In any case, the angular information from the top pair of detectors is gathered before any interaction with cargo and should not present any security risk as it is a purely astronomical data source at that point.

B. Developing a sealed chamber (no gas flow)

The major disadvantage of the drift chamber solution proposed by Carleton University is the need for a flowing gas mixture. If it were possible to seal the chamber and operate it for long periods without needing service, then it would be both cost effective from a readout electronics perspective and from the longer term operational cost and complexity perspective through the elimination of the need to manage gas supplies and disposal. Much work has been done over the years on sealed gas ionization based detectors, and research and development in this area could have a large impact on the cost of muon tomography systems in the field.

C. Use of active muon source system

One of the issues with using cosmic ray muons as a source of radiation for tomographic purposes is their relatively low flux (1 muon (cm2 min)-1). This low flux means that it takes at roughly a minute for a basic scan to determine whether there is any high-Z material of concern. By using an artificial source for a higher muon flux, it could be possible to do the scans faster or to build a more complete tomographic image of the contents of a shipping container or other target of interest. The issue is, of course, that this introduces a vary dangerous ionizing radiation source to the situation and the lack of any additional radiation is one of the attractive elements to using cosmic rays muons as the probe.

D. Use in sealed-container inventory determination and management

There are many installations, for instance Chalk River in Ontario, where there are sealed containers with unknown quantities of potentially dangerous materials in them. There are also situations where contents of containers are claimed to contain certain materials, but need to be verified as part of nuclear control treaties. In those cases, cosmic ray muon tomography could provide an excellent tool for cataloguing and monitoring the contents of these containers. Since this is more of an audit application, the lower flux and time to acquire the necessary level of data are not as much of an issue as for applications that impinge on commerce.

VI. Conclusion

Passive cosmic ray muon tomography systems present an excellent solution to the issue of deterring and detecting the trafficking in nuclear and radiological materials – in the first case through direct detection of high-Z materials, and in the second case, being able to detect high-Z shielding that might be hiding lower-Z radiological materials. The system further distinguishes itself by not introducing any new sources of radiation, thus sidestepping any potential health or safety concerns from the public or business. Carleton University’s proposed drift chamber muon detectors build upon decades of experience in implementing high resolution muon analysis systems, and can be used to determine to a high degree of accuracy both angular and momentum data on the muons passing through a detector system for analysis by the tomographic software. The low cost of readout electronics compensates for the higher cost due to the requirement for gas-filled chambers, and will result in a competitive solution for field-deployable systems.

VII. References )


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