Category Archives: Technology

Patrolling Space In the Spaceship Orion

I have mentioned the spaceship Orion previously in my post about Living Under Water. The German science fiction TV series Space Patrol (Raumpatrouille) follows the crew of the space ship Orion on their adventures through the galaxy.

Orion landed on a desert planetI remember waiting very excitedly for the première of the series and then every next week’s show. It came out at about the same time in 1966 as the original Star Trek, but it was much later that I finally watched my first Star Trek episode and it confirmed the German arrogance that we (the Germans) are better at creating things but it also confirmed the other stereotype that America is much better in marketing. Orion lasted seven episodes with a remastered movie version in the early 2000s, while Star Trek is still going strong after nearly half a century. Sets and special effects were so much more creative than the original Star Trek even though some people dared to make fun of some of the props, like the electric iron used to do some mysterious tuning task on the navigation console. In my mind then, those people just didn’t get it.

I do have the whole series on DVD and it is about time to watch it again, but today I enjoyed running into another fan of the series who took his admiration for the show a bit further than just buying the DVDs – he created stunning illustrations of the adventures of the star cruiser Orion.

I discovered Crossvalley Smith through a post on Facebook that featured one of his illustrations from the Perry Rhodan universe, another sweet memory of mine, a science fiction series published as weekly pulp novellas.

A scene from a landing of the Orion on a desert planet has for now replaced an anime illustration as my computer wall paper – go check out Crossvalley’s site, maybe you find something you enjoy.

All About UFOs

I have (probably) never seen one and I don’t remember being ever abducted by one.

Still, it makes sense that they are around and all the evidence is hard to ignore. Additionally, I ran into a web page today that has lots of video footage of testimonials of rather credible witnesses. What I like about these witnesses is that they just report their observation and don’t try to mix it with their own interpretations and opinions.

Take a bowl of popcorn and a beer because some of that stuff is long…

adamski_type_ufo(click on picture)

Why do I love space so much?

I really wonder why I’m such a sucker for all things space.

From early teen-hood on I looooved science fiction, I still miss anything in this genre to this day and would really like to become one of those space tourists to the international space station, even though, looking over my finances, I’m a bit short at this time.

For quite some time I was sure the reason was simply experience – that I had lived all that space opera stuff in previous, long past, life times, but currently I am not so sure anymore. It might still be true, but I wonder if this explanation might have been a bit too easy and obvious.

Still, I enjoyed these two time lapse videos from the International Space Station, even though low earth orbit does not compare to some proper hyperspace travel or inertia free space drives (yes, I am re-reading Doc EE Smith’s Triplanetary right now.)

X11Forwarding But DISPLAY variable not set

x11-logoSerious programming in the olden days mean to deal with Unix – the father of today’s ubiquitous Linux running bigger part of the internet.

The first bigger project I was involved in was still the good old DOS with Turbo Pascal – anybody remember that?

As soon as I could, and we had to build something less of a hack but more of a software-engineered application, I steered my client into Unix, first the X86 version of Xenix, which turned out to be too flaky, and then a nice hundred thousand dollar HP Workstation. As it was an application involving graphics, an important order of business was to get familiar with the principles and techniques of the X11 windowing system.

This was not a very long-lived project and with the advent of more powerful x86 hardware and a finally decent piece of software from Microsoft – Windows NT – the develoment was moved to that new platform. The fact that the port from X to NT was not terribly difficult was a nice testimonial for proper application of software engineering principles. Hacking mentality as promoted by something like Turbo Pascal would have required a complete rewrite.

System administration, I had become familiar with during that time, was helpful when I started to maintain a few linux web servers years later. I always considered X11 far superior to all the other graphical windows software but I really had never anything to do with it any more – until a point in time a few days ago.

First of all, I finally succeeded in getting Ubuntu running on an old laptop. A flaky DVD had never gotten me through an installation properly and the machine was so old that it could not boot from a memory stick. I ultimately succeeded when I found a utility I could burn on a CD and boot from that made my USB bootable. Now I could load Ubuntu from the USB stick.

So, there I finally was again with a computer with a proper graphical user interface. But that computer was tucked away somewhere with little physical access. It serve as a local testing machine for web development – did not really need that X Windows for that!

But it was sitting there, teasing me, so I finally got XMing – an X Server running on MS Windows – installed on my main computer where I sit all day and I could finally connect to that old laptop remotely with a graphical user interface. In my early days of X11 there was not too much concern about security – it was all on the local network – yes, a coax ethernet cable – and to have an application display on an xterminal you just had to set the DISPLAY environment variable to the IP address of any X-Server, like a xterminal, and authorize its use.

That is all different now. I learned that from a remote machine you start an ssh connection on my workstation (windows 7) to the remote host (old linux laptop) using putty. If the putty session had X Forwarding enabled then a secure tunnel for all the X traffic was created. This tunnel could even go through a router with NAT without a problem. Initially I had wondered why I saw the value of the DISPLAY variable set to strange things like localhost:10.0 – but I finally understood that this was how the ssh tunnel worked: the ssh server on the old laptop pretended to be a local X server on display number 10; then it transported all the X traffic it received securely to the machine I was sitting on and fed it into XMing. It all worked perfectly.

Two weeks later I received my first Raspberry Pi and that little wonder did behave the same way as the old laptop, a bit slower I have to admit, so the old laptop is still a bit more powerful than the miniature linux box sitting over there on my speaker. Both are full LAMP systems and are even accessible from the rest of the world through the magic of DynDNS and port forwarding.

But then my trouble began.

As I had all this so nicely and easily set up, it was suddenly not enough any more that I logged into my real web servers only with putty, SCP, and DirectAdmin. Nostalgia had me in its grip and I just had to get X running on them as well.

First of all there was no X-stuff installed on those servers as they were web servers in some remote data center. But a “yum install xterm” got this handled. Still no go – starting xterm from the ssh login gave me the error message that the display was either not there or could not be opened.

The next step, I found out, was to enable X11Forwarding for the sshd on the remote server – but still no go – the DISPLAY variable was still not set. Lots of Googling around but no solution – everything I tried made no difference.

But I learned about the -vvv parameter to ssh. It would give me insight into what was happening during the establishing of the ssh connection. Unfortunately, putty does not have it! But I found that it has a logging function and after turning this on and comparing the logs from connections to my local old laptop and the remote web server I finally saw the light:

xauth

After I had it yum-installed and run to generate a new .Xauthority file for a local X server my quest for the xterm running on that web server and displaying on my local machine behind a NAT router in my office had come to a successful conclusion.

Not that I will use that much – putty and SCP have done the job for me for years – but I now could, potentially, install firefox on that server and start browsing through that server located at a very different place on the planet.

Hmmm  – why don’t I just try that: yum install firefox……………………….
finally, after installing a gazillion dependent packages, the installation is – complete!

Now: firefox& – wait – wait – wait…

ff-on-linux

But it is clear that I have to file this away under ‘education’ as it is so slow to make it more or less unusable.

Seeing the Future

When I was in my late teens, starting to read science-fiction, I was sure that by now we would regularly traveling to other planets and had settlements on the moon, and the flying car was a given.

But many of these things are still only subject of science-fiction, but something totally unimagined has materialized – a network that did make the world’s knowledge accessible from the palm of my hand. I knew there would be talking robots but that I would be able to access all data with just a query – I just hadn’t thought of.

Found this interesting video of visual thoughts of how the future might look like…

But with that last experience, what’s really going to happen, will be something totally different altogether.

Google in the 60s

My first encounters with computers were through the medium of punch cards and line-printers.

Thus, finding the Google60 art project made me a bit nostalgic. The project tries to show how you would interact with the all-pervasive Google through the mediums of the 60s.

Click on the image to experience it yourself…

Google60-inout

Google 60 Art Project

The Good Old Trash 80

I ran into a web site today showing the 1980’s Radio Shack catalog of the TRS 80.

My very first computer had been a Trash-80 and I remember having a lot of fun with it. One of the most difficult tasks for me to understand, at that time, had been the idea of an interpreted language, like that TRS-80 Basic.

Before that computer I had been mostly exposed to assembler and some high level language like Fortran  and PL3 on an IBM mainframe. This the idea of typing in human readable code and directly running it – without compiling and linking – was a strange concept to grasp.

The TRS-80 I had was far less sophisticated than the one shown in the above catalog, so I looked around and found a picture that matched better what I remembered:

I believe that I had the 16kB model but certainly no floppy disks – I saved my programs and data on cassette tape. With my difficulty to grasp the concept of interpreted languages the first program I bought was an assembler. I was quite some work to get anything done with this setup:

  • Insert the cassette with the assembler and load the program
  • Edit and assemble the code, keeping source and assembled program in memory
  • Insert a new cassette into the recorder and save the source file
  • Insert a different cassette into the recorder and save the assembled program
  • Load the assembled program (overwriting the assembler in memory)
  • Running, testing the assembled program and writing down errors
  • Rinse and repeat

This lengthy procedure trained you to really think ahead and consider all possible errors – it took too long to ‘just try’ something. In this regards those interpreted languages are much easier and train programmers to be much sloppier.

Bigger part of the internet now is based on such sloppy work – whenever you have a php file it is more or less interpreted like the old Basic in my Trash 80. I once read – and it made a lot of sense – that we would do a lot to avoid global warming if we would compile all those billions of lines of php code into machine code once and then execute that on the server. All data centers around the world could be scaled down considerably if each line of php code would not have to be compiled over and over and over again, thus saving energy for the processors of the web sewer and the energy for cooling them.

Maybe, then the web could run on  a couple of TRS-80s.

Slow-mo, 3D – all the good stuff

Sometimes we might not realize that we are standing at the cusp of a new world.

Looking back it is easy to see that something new and exciting had been happening at a specific time, but while you are in the middle of it, it might not be so obvious.

Watching the slow motion video, Louie Schwartzberg presented at his TED talk, drove it home that this is similar to the wonder people experienced when they watched the first ‘movies’ around the previous turn of the centuries (the one from the 1800s to the 1900s), especially when the subject was either so far away that the chance of experiencing it oneself was minimal or total creative fiction like a trip to the moon.

Movies really allow you to experience a different reality, either far away in term of location of far away in terms of speed of time as in this example…

If you want to see more from Mr. Schwartzberg, you can check out his Youtube channel and dig out your 3D glasses because he has some really good 3d videos to show.

Triumph of the Nerds

Now that all those nerds that created the computer revolution are getting to an age where we might lose them – see Steve Jobs – documentaries like Robert X. Cringley’s Triumph of the Nerds become more of a history text book (book understood more figuratively).

In the old InfoWorld magazine/newspaper Cringley’s column “Notes from the Field” was always my favorite – your’s too, Max, right?

So, I just had to stop and listen (and watch) when I ran into his documentary “Triumph of the Nerds” on Youtube.