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21-31 December 2002

31 DecWhen Christmas Is a Wednesday, 2 Workweeks Can Evaporate
31 DecSite updates; human cloning
29 DecDesert Blue
29 DecThe Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
29 DecThe Moons & the Stars
29 DecChopin's Waltz in B minor
29 DecWhither the next Star Trek movie
26 DecUSP
25 DecComputer troubles resolved, sort of
25 DecI am an Atheist-Leaning Agnostic
21 DecComputer problems
21 DecNew Traffic Lights, Follow-up

When Christmas Is a Wednesday, 2 Workweeks Can Evaporate

31 December 2002 1:18 AM SGT

This article from the New York Times (F.R.R.) applies equally well to Singapore this holiday season :-)

Site updates; human cloning

31 December 2002 12:27 AM SGT

I've fixed some of the lingering old formatting in the Star Trek pages (sorry no new content yet) & added a Links page which for now includes the blogs of my ex-JC classmates Johnny (Always Look on the Dark Side of Death) and Yix (Illumnae.com). I've been doing a bit of blog-surfing (sites by Singaporeans) but I haven't found any other blog/personal site that really interests me, i.e. something that I would regularly check back on.

DC asks about what thoughts I have on the cloned human (I've decided to put it here since it would clog up the tag board). Not very substantial ones, I'm afraid (I am not a scientist), but the consensus of the scientific community is that the technology is not sufficiently mature enough to be safe for humans, even for couples who want to conceive and have run out of options. But we, as the Raelians, all know that their real motive is publicity; the issue of whether the clone, when he/she does emerge, is a clone or not will probably be something they aren't in a hurry to independently verify.

Desert Blue

29 December 2002 11:56 PM SGT

Desert Blue Saw this on cable (Star Movies). The tale of how a small town, Baxter, California (population: 87, a sign says helpfully), attracts a professor (John Heard) and his TV star daughter Skye (Kate Hudson) to visit the world's "biggest ice cream cone." They then have to stay in town longer than expected when a truck carrying the secret ingredient of Empire cola overturns and the ingredient is suspected to be hazardous. The Baxter residents have their own idiosyncracies: Blue Baxter (Brendan Sexton III) is hoping to fulfil his father's dream of a beachside resort in the middle of the desert, Ely (Christina Ricci) is a girl who loves to blow things up; Pete (Casey Affleck) is very upset as can't go for his all-terrain vehicle race; the sheriff's deputy is a megalomaniac who tries to pretend his work is very important (in a funny way, when he gets into his police car and turns on the sirens to drive all of a couple of metres), & more.

I loved it! A madcap comedy that piles on the absurdity steadily but never degenerates into craziness (not something you can say for Being John Malcovich). There is a constant semi-serious theme of opposition to everything big & Establishment, from the FBI & EPA to the "evil" Empire cola factory down the road, and the mysterious ingredient spilled that may kill them all. Every character is an individual by him/herself, gets around on "all-terrain vehicles" and spends their evenings drinking & pondering their future in a gold-rush town that has literally lost its purpose for existence. By the end Skye wishes she needn't leave. Me too.

Oh, & Kate Hudson is fabulous - she steals every scene she's in. This is her first movie, by the way. Also, look out for her performance in Almost Famous.

This is a movie I can't really describe well enough; it must be watched (the same is true of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, for different reasons). I'll end on a wise comment from Roger Ebert:

A movie like this depends on tone more than anything else. Moviegoers who don't like the rhythm may grow impatient. It's not a romance, a drama or an adventure, but the evocation of a time and place.

- Roger Ebert's review, 3/4 stars

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

29 December 2002 11:49 PM SGT

Yes it was great - Gollum/Sméagol, the battle at Helm's Deep, the Ents' attack on Isengard, and more. My colleague emphatically called it much better than the Fellowship because the latter, he complained, was all buildup. Seen in that way, TTT is better.

A minor quibble: In 2001 the media mentioned Peter Jackson's upgrade of Arwen's role, and her part in rescuing Frodo from the Ringwraiths, as a move to placate critics who would complain of women's lack of important roles in the affairs of Middle Earth. With minor appearances of Arwen and Galadriel in TTT, that tactic seems to persist. But in TTT (I do not know if the book has the same scenes), Éowyn brandishes a sword and her skill is praised by Aragorn, but as the 10,000-strong army of Uruk-hai descended upon Helm's Deep all men and boys, even those who have "seen too many winters, or too few" are enlisted for the battle, while women and children are ordered to hide. Well, some things you just can't hide.

Digression: when Saruman goes to his balcony with Gríma Wormtongue to see his army of Uruk-hai in formation, I couldn't help but think of the equivalent scenes in San Guo Yan Yi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), which had armies of hundreds of thousands. I wonder if that's Luo Guan Zhong's embellishment or because it's China & they can fight on a bigger scale.

The Moons & the Stars

29 December 2002 11:14 PM SGT

Another held-over post: numerous updates on the situation in space. Plenty of food for thought too.

Earth's Moon: 30 Years Since Last Man on the Moon (Slashdot) and barely anyone noticed. That would be the Apollo 17 mission, which also had, for the first (and last) time, a geologist on the surface of the Moon. I don't agree with the view that we have to solve the big problems with our world, like hunger, the AIDS pandemic, or world peace, before we are "fit" to roam the solar system on manned spacecraft. First, it's not like NASA's taking money away from those notable causes (military spending, and general hesitation to try, are the bigger culprits), and second, but more importantly, if we do wait then we might as well forget the idea, because humanity will always have problems, but we should never let them hinder advances in exploration and knowledge. Going to the Moon, or Mars, or developing new propulsion technologies that get us further, requires the attention of everyone, not just Americans or Europeans, which it is just not getting now. Just my two cents.

Jupiter: Galileo: Galileo Gets a Long-Distance Repair Job. Controllers on Earth managed to coax Galileo's tape recorder back to life in order to transmit data recorded in a period where the probe was near Jupiter (& its electromagnetic radiation caused the recorder to shut down). Galileo was launched in 1989 and arrived at Jupiter in 1995, and so far it has withstood "more than four times the cumulative dose of harmful radiation it was designed to withstand", giving us even more information on Jupiter and its satellites. The Galileo mission page.

Saturn, and Titan, its largest moon:

Our view of the solar system has changed drastically in the last few decades. Take moons, for instance. The word moon implies something small and insignificant, at least compared to a planet. But so many of the moons, especially those around the outer planets, are fascinating and complex worlds unto themselves. Many of the most dramatic environments we know of, as well as some of the best chances for life outside the Earth, exist on the moons of our planetary family.

- Christian Science Monitor, Titan: Exploring the origins of life

Besides, Galileo, NASA's probe for Saturn, its rings and its moons is Cassini (also named after an Italian astronomer), together with a probe called Huygens which will be sent down into Titan's thick atmosphere, analysing its chemical structure along the way. This will be a tantalising set of results to receive. For now Cassini-Huygens is chugging along at around 27,000 km/h (!) and will reach Saturn in 2004 - something to look forward to. The Cassini-Huygens mission page.

& Beyond: Pioneer: If you thought Galileo was a survivor, wait till you see Pioneer 10. More than 12 billion kilometers (taking radio signals travelling at the speed of light 11 hours to reach it) from Earth, it has sent a signal back this month (CNN, A distant Pioneer whispers to Earth). This probe was launched in 1972 to explore the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn) and is on a course that will take it beyond the solar system to interstellar space. More on the Pioneer mission and current status. From an earlier CNN article:

... Pioneer should stop sending transmissions in the coming years.

But having used planetary gravitational assists to reach escape velocity from the solar system, it will continue to drift into interstellar space for millions of years. It is headed at 27,380 mph for the red star Aldebaran, which makes the eye of Taurus, the Bull. Pioneer will need more 2 million years to reach it.

It will probably still be chugging through the galaxy 5 billion years from now when the sun expands into a red giant and obliterates Earth.

Should other sentient life forms find Pioneer, however, they may learn about humans. The ship carries a plaque, designed in part by the late Dr. Carl Sagan, engraved with pictures, solar maps and elemental symbols to describe civilization on Earth.

- CNN, Pioneer 10 gets new lease on life in outer solar system

That is our species's shot at immortality, if someone out there retrieves the probe. Or at least, the chance to have somebody know of our existence. More information regarding the plaque.

Question: How does Pioneer still have power after more than 30 years, and at greater distances from the sun (thus ruling out solar panels)? By their proper name: radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG). Basically, nuclear energy.

More links: information, with tons of pictures made possible by the space programme, on our solar system: The Nine Planets: A Multimedia Tour of the Solar System, Views of the Solar System.

Chopin's Waltz in B minor

29 December 2002 10:34 PM SGT

I'm learning to play an abridged version of Op. 69, No. 2 (the last of 3 melodies has been taken out), and it's tough but immensely satisfying. I mean, I'm not trembling at the prospect of playing Chopin's music (now a more substantial piece than the Prelude earlier) - the whole idea behind this is to be able to attain that kind of accomplishment, not shirk from it! - but it feels good that I've at least got the melody. Now the hard part, the polishing, begins. Anyway Chopin Files has sheet music and sound clips of the waltzes, preludes, études and scherzi, as well as introductions to them.

Addendum: Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata in C sharp minor (Op. 27 No. 2), first movement is the ultimate holy grail. Just getting the notes right makes my right hand ache from the stretching. Either I need a few more years of piano playing under my belt, or a bigger hand.

Whither the next Star Trek movie

29 December 2002 10:18 PM SGT

For this holiday period the media is somewhat less active (excluding the news on the twin "Axis of Evil" confrontations), so I'm posting some stuff I meant to post earlier if not for events like the computer breaking down (see this and this for the ugly details).

Data indicates Trekkies not weird (CNN): about the unfair reception Trekkies get from the rest of the world. I wonder if the title's "Data" is referring to the Commander or to factual information derived from somewhere. If it is the latter, then it's strange, for the article quotes for its defence of Trekkies the actors playing Data, Picard and Troi. Anyway they are very nice to Star Trek fans: Marina Sirtis, who plays Troi, calls them "knowledgeable and ardent". But really I think this is preaching to the converted; people who don't get Trek won't be convinced by this.

Star Trek Captain Ready to Go Boldly Elsewhere (Yahoo! News): A brief interview with Patrick Stewart, Shakespearean actor, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, & also recently Professor X of X-Men (that would be, ahem, the "elsewhere"). He talks about the fear of being typecasted after 15 years as the captain (which has been the bane of people like William Shatner), and whether Nemesis is indeed the last movie for the Next Generation crew:

"When the party comes to a close, it is best to leave before you are the last guest. I think the events of this film are very appropriate as a sort of closure for Next Generation," [Patrick Stewart] said.

- Yahoo! News, Star Trek Captain Ready to Go Boldly Elsewhere

It's inevitable that the Next Generation crew has to go eventually (the biggest problem would be Brent Spiner's aging, because Data's wrinkles are much more obvious on the big screen than on TV), but after 3-and-a-half movies (all together now: Generations, First Contact, Insurrection and Nemesis) there hasn't been a movie I can consider great. First Contact was the best of the first three (I haven't watched Nemesis yet) but in order to get there it had to deploy the workhorse of science fiction and bane of logic - time travel, while reduce the Borg to nothing more but the villain-of-the-month (I winced at any scene involving the Queen and Data). I've pondered on which movie is closest to the ideals of Star Trek, & it turns out to be Insurrection, but as a movie it felt more like a TV two-parter. We'll probably never have a perfect Trek movie, I admit, but if the writers had the spark of inspiration & genius that they displayed in TV episodes like Yesterday's Enterprise (an alternate universe with the Federation as a militaristic empire), The Best of Both Worlds (the first Borg attack on the Federation), or even The Game (crew is hypnotised by an addictive "game"), or more generally, in TNG story arcs like the emergence of the Borg as a grave threat, the Klingon Civil War or the tentative peace with the Cardassians, then there would have been such a movie.

The alternative explanation for my apprehension: I'm a fanatic who will never be satisfied with what Paramount dishes out, and always thinks that the franchise is doomed. Sigh.

USP

26 December 2002 12:32 AM SGT

The emails say it all:

To: usphelp@nus.edu.sg
Subject: Applying for the USP (Academic Year 2003/2004)
Date: 21 Dec 2002

Hi,
I am currently serving my NS and will be admitted to the Faculty of Science in the Academic Year 2003/2004. When my A Level results were released in Mar 2001 and I submitted my application to NUS, I did not apply for the USP as I thought that NUS was not my "first choice".

Since then I have changed my mind, and I eagerly want to be considered for the USP when I enter NUS in July 2003. I heard from a friend that he was invited to apply for the USP again before he matriculated this year. I would like to know whether this will apply to my cohort, and if not, how I can apply for the USP otherwise, if possible.

Thank you very much.

Regards,

Ziyuan.

--

Dear Ziyuan,

You may apply to the Scholars Programme somewhere in mid of March 2003. For more information, please visit our website at: http://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg.

Regards,

<name>
www.scholars.nus.edu.sg
University Scholars Programme

Funny, I expected more bubbly & positive PR from them. But never mind, my question's answered.

Computer troubles resolved, sort of

25 December 2002 10:42 PM SGT

I've survived a long period where it seemed nothing could go right, and the biggest problem was the computer. On Saturday the motherboard started beeping once the system was turned on, and I did nearly everything imaginable to find out what the problem was - took out the network card, sound card, DVD drive, hard disk (!), the various pieces of RAM, flashed the BIOS - but nothing worked. The strange thing was that the computer was otherwise fine - the beeping was like an irritating bug (pun unintended) that wouldn't go away. Normally these sounds arise to warn you that something's wrong with the system, but in this case it seemed the sensors were lying.

On Sunday I bought a new motherboard, RAM, CPU & power supply, as this post suggested (if you're interested: ECS K7S5A motherboard, Kingston 256 MB DDR RAM, AMD Athlon XP 1700 - the cheapest available). I backed up everything into CDRs & prepared to begin anew. But as you might have guessed, Windows 2000 refused to load properly after installation.

By Tuesday I was in a state of anguished surrender, having gone beyond "pissed off" (please excuse the language) - I had tried both Windows 2000 and Windows XP (which my friend dropped off in the mailbox on Monday); formatted the boot partition in FAT, NTFS and FAT32 (using a Win95 OSR2 boot disk, in a moment of desperation); tweaked some BIOS settings; and otherwise went through more crazy options 99% of computer users would never need to consider. Windows XP was installed properly but could not load (a file had a "bad image checksum"). Windows 2000 was installed properly but the system freezed at the "Starting Windows" screen at around 40%. As a joke I would threaten (nobody in particular) to buy a $888 Dell, something that had been advertised in the papers.

In the end the solution was somewhat ridiculously simple - I installed Windows ME, & the system has given me no problems since. There is evidence to show Windows XP doesn't conflict with the motherboard I bought (people have installed it successfully) but heck, I have a working system now, & even though ME is theoretically less stable than 2000/XP, it's OK for me. After all the mental and physical torture (I carried the case to my friend's house to fix, and back), a working system is a good enough outcome.

Incredibly, we still don't know what caused the problem - BIOS? motherboard? RAM? incompatibility with the hard disk? - & my friend's computer now refuses to boot (like I passed the suay-ness to him). After testing my RAM with his system on the theory that it was the RAM that was spoilt & he inadvertently exchanged his good RAM with my bad one, it seems his motherboard's the culprit. I have to thank his good patience, especially now when it looks like he's suffering in my place.

The SAF has taught us the importance of asking this question in the aftermath of major screw-ups: whose fault is it? I don't know - buying parts separately at Sim Lim & installing it oneself is generally trouble-free, if the person who does it is experienced, but sometimes the security of just having a number to call when something - anything - goes wrong is hard to beat (but it is, because it's more expensive). Windows might have all sorts of mysterious problems (as I've seen from this experience), but let's face it, Linux is hardly a walk in the park itself. Macs? I'm curious, interested maybe, but the Switch is not something you decide to do on impulse - it's almost like a religious conversion. Besides, the monopoly of Apple means that everything is more expensive & you're at their technological whims & fancies.

Bottomline: Windows sucks, but some of us have had to wrestle with it for years, maybe even a decade if you count Windows 3.x, so we've learnt a few things or two, so it isn't going away despite Big Brother Microsoft's faults.

Suay-ness conquered: I fixed my cousin's IE

I went for a Christmas party organised by my extended family today, & I also took a look at my cousin's computer whose IE was not loading popup windows properly. It would be difficult to explain to them, so I didn't, my line of reasoning: that Javascript was client-side, that the code in question was elementary (open()), & it was working for other people, so the problem probably lay with IE 6, although I thought it unlikely that it would be picky over Javascript. I searched Google for "ie6 Javascript [problems]" & the general advice was (1) repair IE 6 & (2) reinstall IE 6. I tried the first, naturally, & it worked - suddenly the popups worked. Again one of those mysterious problems only 10 people at Redmond would understand.

Now for some superstitious speculation - my patch of bad luck began with the beeping computer, and ended with my computer working (but on Win ME). For the past few days, even buses would arrive only 10-15 minutes later: I even waited half an hour for one on Sunday, at the interchange. But today it was OK. Somebody could make an extremely lousy geek movie on how Christmas was saved for me, but what the heck, I feel things are looking up.

I am an Atheist-Leaning Agnostic

25 December 2002 1:39 AM SGT

In keeping with the festive season, Slate has the Atheist Christmas Challenge: Can you prove God doesn't exist? It nicely illustrates the point that some of these public atheism advocates tend to confuse it with anti-religious feelings - not directed against any particular religion but the trappings of religion:

Of all the public-intellectual atheists, the most stalwart and lucid is probably Christopher Hitchens. "I'm an atheist," Hitchens said in a recent interview. "I'm not just neutral about religion, I'm hostile to it. I think it is a positively bad idea, not just a false one." Being anti-religion, however, is not intellectually equivalent to affirming the nonexistence of God. Bertrand Russell, who occupied the same ground as Hitchens, was careful to stress that he was agnostic, not atheist: "An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. ... The agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or denial."

- Slate, The Atheist Christmas Challenge: Can you prove God doesn't exist?

That's why I tell people I'm an atheist-leaning agnostic, as Russell probably was too: I don't think we can strongly prove that there is no God or gods, but I tend towards believing that there aren't any. In normal conversation, though, I use the Singaporean shorthand for agnostic, a freethinker. I like the word, even if it's less precise & doesn't convey the part of atheism I have: it has such a liberating feeling about it! (of course, I'm not saying religious people are unfree - I'm saying that they lack the "speculative" part).

Freethinker
(n.) One who has rejected authority and dogma, especially in religious thinking, in favor of rational inquiry and speculation.

- Dictionary.com

Computer problems

21 December 2002 9:51 PM SGT

My motherboard is making weird beeping noises - at first it was only when booting up, but now it's happening all the time. & since I've tried almost everything, like flashing the BIOS & testing the internal hardware, I suppose I have to change the motherboard, which entails changing the CPU and RAM, which entails changing the power supply, which entails changing the casing, which entails changing almost the whole computer. Ugh I'm disgusted with the PC.

New Traffic Lights, Follow-up

21 December 2002 12:22 AM SGT

Wired has a small article on Why LEDs Are Everywhere, nicely complementing the MIT Technology Review article I talked about in New Traffic Lights.

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