Author Archives: Matt

“The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.”

– Arthur C. Clarke

Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, former CSA astronaut Chris Hadfield shares a variety of tales from his extensive career both on and off the planet, as well as the personal philosophy that helped him through it all.

Hadfield is the kind of individual that you want as role model your children. His work ethic is exemplary, and he emphasizes the critical nature of ongoing personal education and development as key to his success. Don’t determine your self worth based on where you end up, he says, but on the effort you will put in to get there. If something is worth doing, it is worth committing to and doing well, regardless of the payoff. Perhaps not revolutionary ideas in and of themselves, but backed by the life story of someone who has embraced these principles and embodied them. Hadfield’s career is a feel good story for anyone who believes in the power of hard work and education.

While An Astronaut’s Guide spends a lot of time on the author’s attitudes and ethics, it’s by no means a self help book. The text is also a candid biography, giving great insight into the years of development that went into building the career of a star (no pun intended) astronaut. Hadfield reminisces on his youth, his time as a military test pilot, and his many additional years training at NASA before ever reaching space. We learn how the intense commitment involved can affect personal relationships and family dynamics. It becomes clear that today’s select few astronauts represent, in many ways, the pinnacle of humanity: it’s a lifestyle that demands levels of intelligence, dedication, and both physical and mental training that very few of us could hope to successfully achieve.

Chris Hadfield first reached fame several years ago through a series of educational and entertaining social media postings made from the ISS. We learn that these were motivated by his love of the space program, and, with the help of his son back on Earth, he wanted to do his part to boost public awareness and interest. The videos became a hit and internet stardom followed. I’m the kind of person who finds any story about life beyond Earth hard to pass up, simply for the curiosity and wonder they evoke. From the vastness of the cosmos to the minutia of how to brush your teeth successfully in zero gravity, it’s all fascinating stuff, and Hadfield, who flew on three separate occasions, brings these anecdotes in spades. The same attitude that lead him to educational social media carries through in his writing, and we’re gifted with numerous stories that run the gamut from the profound and enlightening to the humorous. The author is consistently candid about the astronaut experience, and these sections proved particularly hard to put down.

All in all, it’s difficult not to recommend this book. If you’re already a fan of space travel, or the space program, you will receive a bevy of stories and insights from a man who spent decades at NASA and commanded the ISS. And if you aren’t a space enthusiast yet, you might just be one by the end. But even without all of the fantastic anecdotes, Chris Hadfield is still an eminently likable and admirable personality with a lot of unique life experience to share. Worth reading whether you’re an aspiring astronaut, or just aspiring to become a more enlightened human being.

Rating: 5/5

MSI Hacking: Intel SDK for OpenCL Installed on Windows 10

In doing a bit of spring cleaning on my home PC, which was upgraded from Windows 7 to 10 several months back, I came across one particular application whose installer was refusing to behave.  The product name was Intel® SDK for OpenCL* Applications 2013, and I had installed it several years ago under Windows 7, for reasons that are both mysterious and unimportant.

Normally, removing an application is as simple as opening the Add/Remove Programs dialog and clicking Uninstall.  But in the case of this particular tool, the (un)installer refused to function at all under Windows 10.  Any attempt to invoke it produced the following unhelpful little popup:

Intel® SDK for OpenCL* Applications 2013 designed to work on Microsoft Windows Vista* x64, Windows* 7 x64, Windows* 8 x64, Windows Server* 2008 R2 x64 operating systems only. The installer detected that you're trying to install the SDK on a different version. Aborting installation

At this point I had a few options.  Walking away and leaving it to sit on my hard drive forever was the obvious one, but a true nerd never turns down a challenge.  Downgrading to Windows 7 was right out, so I decided it was time to earn my stripes for the day.

1

First things first, let’s see what we can learn about the application.  Most traditional apps register their uninstallers in the registry, or we can query WMI from the command line.  I chose the latter.

wmic
wmic:root\cli> product where "name like '%opencl%'"

The output gives us an important piece of information: the location of the installer MSI in the package cache.

2

Installers are basically glorified zip files that include additional layers of features: instructions for where on the system to place the files, dialogs to present to the user, etc.  An Uninstaller is basically just an installer in reverse; it tells the system where the files are that need to be removed.  Now that we know where the (un)installer is stored, we can work on it.

MSI installers can be invoked from the command line, so we can try that option next.

msiexec /x C:\WINDOWS\Installer\1d2d2be.msi

No luck… same failure.

We could also enable debug logging with msiexec to gather more information, but at this point it’s pretty clear that the installer’s logic is broken.  It’s fairly common to prevent people from installing on an unknown version of Windows, but it’s a bit less sensible to prevent an uninstall, and it seems like whoever wrote the installer routines just never planned for this scenario.

Fortunately for us, unlike some install systems, MSI files are fairly easy to edit.  There are lots of tools you could use for this, but I chose one that is free, relatively light weight, and provided by none other than Microsoft (meaning it’s hopefully fairly safe too).  The tool is called Orca and it’s part of the Windows SDK.

Note that you don’t need the SDK for your version of Windows; any version that contains Orca will do.  You also don’t need everything in the SDK installer, which can be quite large.  In the case of the Windows 7 SDK, Orca is part of the Win32 Development Tools.

3

Frustratingly, the SDK doesn’t actually install the Orca application, it installs the Orca installer.  (We must go deeper!)  So, once the SDK is installed, pull up the SDK installation directory and locate Orca.msi.  Install that, and then you’re good.

Before launching Orca, make a copy of the installer MSI that you’re going to edit.  Always have a backup!  If anything goes wrong during the editing process, we’ll want a pristine copy to fallback on, or we may never get this app removed.

Now we launch Orca, and open up our edit copy of the problem MSI.  We can now browse (and modify) the MSI tables right from this tool.  In this case, I looked for the error message that I knew appeared when the installer failed.

And there it is…

4

The LaunchCondition table lists, as the name suggests, conditions the installer checks for before allowing the installation to proceed.  Or in my case, the uninstallation.  I select the offending condition in the menu, and Delete.  Save the MSI, and exit Orca.

Now all that remains is to put the new MSI where Windows expects to find it: the location named in WMI, where we originally found the file.  (For installed MSI products, Windows will use the installer from the cache, even if you launch a different installer with the same ID from somewhere else on the filesystem.)

5

Success!

Review: Coral Castle: The Mystery of Ed Leedskalnin and his American Stonehenge by Rusty McClure and Jack Heffron

Coral Castle: The Mystery of Ed Leedskalnin and his American Stonehenge by Rusty McClure and Jack Heffron is part biography, part history lesson, and part guide to the present day tourist attraction.

The book opens with a small biography of the life of Edward Leedskalnin, covering his origins in Latvia and his eventual immigration to America. We learn that he traveled the North American continent, holding various jobs before making his way to Florida, where he would dedicate the remainder of his life to building his masterpiece. From the point of Ed’s arrival in Florida City, the text changes focus to the construction of the Castle.

The story continues after Ed’s passing, with the authors tracing the ownership of the property up to the present day. We discover that, pursuant to Leedskalnin’s death in 1951, the subsequent owners saw fit to collect affidavits from surviving guests and acquaintances regarding the unusual nature of the Castle’s construction. These same statements now provide valuable insights into both the man and his creation.

The text concludes with a guide to the features of present day Coral Castle.

The authors incorporated a variety of color and black and white photographs throughout the book. On the whole they serve to enhance the text, although there are some stock images mixed in among the more interesting and relevant shots of Ed and the Castle.

While I found the majority of Coral Castle enjoyable and informative, I was disappointed with the manner in which the authors covered the possible methods of construction. One of the biggest draws of Leedskalnin’s work tends to be the mystery of how one small, frail man managed to build the entire complex unaided and in secret. There are several popular theories, ranging from basic mechanical physics to alien intervention. The authors only dedicate a single chapter to this topic, touching on every possibility in quick succession, and with minimal critical analysis. The coverage seems insufficient considering that the construction mystery is probably the foundation of most people’s interest. Given the length at which others have speculated on the topic, and that the authors seem to have so much insight into the rest of Ed’s life, it felt as though there should have been more to say here.

All in all, Coral Castle is an approachable and enjoyable treatment of Ed Leedskalnin’s life and most famous creation. Its strengths lie more in presenting the man than the mystery, but in that regard it’s worthy of the attention of those wanting to learn more about the history of this Florida landmark.

Rating: 4/5

Review: Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home by Rupert Sheldrake

Canines anticipating the arrival of their owners is only one small facet of the phenomena covered by author Rupert Sheldrake in Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Others include animal empathy and illness detection, calls and telepathy, the sense of direction, and premonition. Each topic is supported by data collected by Sheldrake, either via public survey, solicitation of reports, or in a few cases by direct experimentation. While common pet species are the most frequently discussed, a variety of other animals are also included in cases where information was available.

Sheldrake’s approach is to present the data, which suggests the presence of unexplained abilities in some animals, as evidence of previously unrecognized natural phenomena. While qualities such as telepathy are widely denounced by mainstream science, the author does not promote the paranormal. Rather, he claims (by way of his own background in the sciences), that a true scientist’s duty is to follow the evidence, even when it disagrees with established modes of thought. If studies produce statistically significant outcomes in favor of telepathic ability, they must be explained rather than disregarded. If experiments can be reproduced which show seemingly impossible senses of direction, premonition, or communication, they demand further investigation. I find this attitude both logical and agreeable.

The book is easily readable and is written in a way that should be accessible to most everyone, regardless of background. Pet owners and those who work with animals in a frequent capacity will make an ideal audience. Readers may discover that they already have a peripheral awareness of the material from news articles, television, or life experience, and that the text expands on these. As just one example, I was already familiar with the way many species navigate the globe via some sort of “sense of direction,” but before this book I had never really appreciated just how mysterious or genuinely unexplained this ability is.

The author takes a breadth vs depth approach in this work, which may or may not be of concern depending on initial expectations. None of the behaviors are covered in the detail of a scientific paper, and in fitting so many topics into approximately 300 pages, what we are left with amounts to more of an overview. In fact, the chapters become fairly predictable in structure: Sheldrake presents the theme, gives some statistics about why the material seems to be legitimate, and cherry picks a few of the best case reports as examples. It’s a good approach for the layperson, but the detail may be insufficient for the scholar or the committed skeptic. (In fairness to the author, the chapters are thoroughly referenced for those who want to go farther.)

The aspect of the text that I found myself the most disappointed with was Sheldrake’s invoking of “morphic fields” as his best explanation for much of the observed phenomena. Presenting anomalous data is one thing, but to take an explanatory stance, even an openly speculative one, is highly risky, and tends to have a nasty way of discrediting the rest of the work. At any rate, what most troubled me was the lack of any context for morphic fields outside of the subject matter at hand. Supposedly these fields are some sort of natural…thing…that can be used to neatly explain animal telepathy, sense of direction, etc, but more detail is never really given. It’s not even made clear whether morphic fields are some existing and well established element of modern physics, or if they’re just a word Sheldrake invented for lack of a better explanation. In either case, I found them far too insufficiently supported to add value to the discussion, and the result was a net detraction from the otherwise scholarly qualities of the work.

Finally, there is an appendix to the main text which addresses skeptical “controversies and inquiries.” As a reader of fringe science topics, it’s not uncommon to see an author weigh the material down in combative language against hardline skepticism. By placing his responses to these challenges in an appendix, Sheldrake left the other content mostly unburdened, which is an approach I personally appreciate.

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home was, on the whole, an eye opener. Well before the conclusion I found myself compelled to examine my own pets behavior in greater detail, wondering if I had overlooked any of these mysterious qualities. Sheldrake makes a highly compelling argument that there is more to our animals than most of us give them credit for. And what may be most interesting is that many of us, simply by assuming such faculties to be impossible, may be unwittingly downplaying or ignoring our own very real experiences with them. Humans are animals too after all, and what is true of our pets, may very well be just as true of us.

Rating: 4/5

New GitHub Project: trustymail

I’ve been running private mail service @theplante.net for years.  Spam filtering has long been one of the most difficult (impossible!) issues for small-time mail operators, but I usually enjoy the challenge, and using the various white/black listing and heuristics tools makes the experience manageable.

Still, I never entirely trust that important messages will survive the spam filtering process as intended, so I will occasionally whitelist senders that I know I want to hear from.  In my setup this usually means some combination of Postgrey and SpamAssassin configuration.

I finally decided to sit down and spend a few minutes scripting the configuration process so I could maintain one whitelist instead of multiple.  The script will format each config file as needed, and I don’t have to worry about my lists getting out of sync anymore.

The results are available on GitHub:  https://github.com/ThePlante/trustymail

Review: The Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt by Christopher Dunn

Christopher Dunn is an American engineer who has some serious questions about the technological history of ancient Egypt. He has spent many years traveling to Egyptian temples, pyramids, and archaeological sites in his spare time, examining the remains of this once great culture. In The Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt, Dunn presents his latest findings, many of which challenge the teachings of establishment Egyptology.

Alternative histories of Egypt (and elsewhere) have been popularized as of late by the Ancient Aliens crowd, often suggesting that extraterrestrials had a hand in early human accomplishments. Rest assured, ET makes no appearances here. The author remains wholly down to earth, and gives no suggestion that any species other than mankind was responsible for the pyramids. The text is strictly analytical, and only sensational in so far as it disagrees with the more popular academic views on the technology used by the ancient Egyptians.

While most Egyptologists are archaeologists or historians by trade, Dunn is a lifelong engineer, with an in-depth knowledge of manufacturing processes. Rather than studying artifacts in terms of the people who created them, Dunn wants to know what we can learn about how they were created. Where an archaeologist might see a coffin or a statue of an old god, Dunn sees manufactured objects exhibiting subtle errors and tool marks that can speak to their means of creation.

The author takes tools for precision measurement and a digital camera to each location. He singles out individual objects which he feels exhibit particularly telling features, and uses a combination of physical inspection and computerized analysis of his photographs to complete the evaluation. He attempts to determine, based on the various shapes and surface features, what tools may or may not have created the artifacts, and what mathematical calculations would have gone into their design. The book contains numerous black and white images in line with the text (often marked up to indicate points of interest or measure), as well as a series of color panels to further illustrate key findings. Dunn makes frequent references to geometric principles throughout his work, and an understanding of these is somewhat critical to following along.

The pace of the text varies, in some places feeling a bit dry, as scholarly works are prone to do. The only real intrigue is in the mystery of the artifacts themselves, and how the story presented to tourists and the media, of armies of Egyptian slaves with hand tools of wood and copper, fails to jive with the reality of mathematically precise, seemingly machined, stonework. My biggest complaint is probably that the black-and-white photos were rather small and low resolution, and were in some instances hard to reconcile with the corresponding discussion in the text. There were certainly a few times where “I’ll take your word for it” was as likely a result as “oh, I see it!” for me, but I don’t feel it significantly damaged the case the author was trying to make.

By the end though, the arguments really do pile up, leaving one to wonder what the true history of Egyptian technology could be. The evidence seems convincing, based on all the apparent signs of advanced mathematics and mechanical processes currently unaccounted for, that more complex technology must have been available to somebody, at some point. I have no less difficulty believing Dunn’s claims, given the reasonable degree of photographic and analytical proof, than any other historian claiming the same miracles were worked with much less. It’s a shame that so many scholars would seemingly rather argue amongst themselves than reexamine the evidence, when the truth shouldn’t be a matter of opinion. Maybe the field of Egyptology could use a few good engineers in its ranks.

Recommended for anyone with an interest in Egyptian history or ancient technology; no aliens required.

Rating: 4/5