Category Archives: Technology

Approaching a record on Mars

Opportunity and Spirt are still hanging in there, despite a major Martian dust storm causing the lowest power levels seen on the (solar-powered) rovers to date. Opportunity, in particular, has been having a tough time of it:

More details at Planetary.org’s fresh article: The 2007 Martian Dust Storm: Crisis for Some, Opportunity for Others.

I read a forum comment that we’re approaching breaking the on-surface record for one of the Viking landers. Let’s hope the MERs pull through this latest obstacle as well as they have in the past!

Sols on surface of Mars:
Viking 1 Lander: 2245
Viking 2 Lander: 1281
Spirit: 1261
Opportunity: 1241

Mozilla on the Nokia N800 Internet Tablet

Yesterday at GUADEC, Nokia announced and released a Mozilla-based web browser for the N800. Combined with the Flash 9 update in the most recent firmware, this makes for a very capable handheld device. Yay!

Initial Impressions:

Considering that this is a pre-beta application built on the pre-beta Mozilla 1.9 trunk (where Firefox 3 work is also ongoing), it’s very impressive… I’ve encountered a few quirks and glitches, but nothing major. Performance wise, it’s a little slower to launch than the default browser (Opera), although browsing feels about the same. Not bad for a 330Mhz system with 128MB of RAM.

Major kudos to the Nokia folks for this work, and for making this early-release available!

Down in a hole, feelin’ so small

Opportunity, one of the two Mars Exploration Rovers NASA is (still!) operating, has been in the news a bit this week as it prepares to move down into the biggest crater of its mission — Victoria Crater. I ran across this image, taken last week by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it passed overhead. The zig-zagging tracks from the rover’s wheels are clearly visible… Amazing. (NASA’s press release has the full-resolution image)

For a bit of scale, here’s the same crater, with a football stadium superimposed.

Confluence of thoughts…

I read Gerv’s post from earlier today (“Choice considered harmful”), as well as the predictable replies to it. It’s a rich topic to debate, but one thought that particularly strikes me is that with computers running billions of instruction per seconds (and increasing), software (un?)naturally grows in size and complexity to keep those CPUs warm and toasty… So we, as software engineers, need to continually increase the instructions-per-user-decision ratio, or else things spiral out of control. And just breaking even isn’t good enough if you’re interested in improving usability.

Unfortunately that’s often perceived as “removing features” and “limiting what users can do.” Done improperly, that can be the case. But I think more often it’s… Well, let me avoid that rathole and instead run off on a tangent. 🙂

In my last blog post, I had mentioned having problems last year getting Solaris working right in a Parallels VM. Alfred Peng (from Sun) commented that pre-installed VM images are now available from Sun, which would have certainly saved me some time. 🙂 But that’s a great idea for other reasons — it makes it MUCH easier to try out the software, by avoiding the whole hassle of having to install it. Linux also ran with this idea by making “Live CD” images available, so you could try Linux by booting a CD and not having to commit to installing it over your current system. I think some distros are making VM images available now, and there’s a VMWare appliance available with the Nokia N800 development platform pre-installed, which is an interesting idea in lowering the threshold to starting development.

Now, let’s swerve this post back towards Firefox…

Somewhere, recently, I caught part of a discussion with Mike Beltzner talking about improving the first-run experience with our browser. It’s been a while since I installed Firefox on a fresh new system, but as I remember it you’ve got to run the installer, click through a bunch of installer wizard screens, confirm importing your IE bookmarks, decide if you want to make FF your default browser, wade though security dialogs the first time you enter and leave an SSL site, etc. That’s not a terribly pleasant experience (especially for someone just curious about what this Firefox thing is all about), and doesn’t give a good impression of what using Firefox is really like.

We can fix a lot of the first-run issues with tweaking how things are done. Shipping a VM image with Firefox pre-installed isn’t really needed. 🙂 But I do wonder if there’s a way to eliminate, or at least minimize, the install process. OS X is nice in that you can just drag Firefox.app to the Desktop and run it, so there’s a minimum of hassle in “installing” an application. I’ve run across people hesitant to try Firefox because they don’t want to install it over IE, not really realizing you can just try it. I wonder how many users bail out of the process before Firefox loads a single web page.

Solaris redux

Allow me to hoist my suspenders and stroke my scruffy gray beard for a few moments…

I’ve been a Solaris user for a long time now. I started with SunOS 4.1.3 in college, hacked on a Solaris 2.5.1-based proxy firewall (ANS InterLock, w00t!) for a few years, helped get that product working on Solaris 7, and then ended up at Sun Microsystems during the development of Solaris 9 and 10. On my own time I began working on Linux, as it matured and Solaris’ future became dim. And now, at Mozilla, I’m happy with OS X (aka unix with a sensible interface).

But more recently, I’ve had a Solaris itch growing. Solaris x86 — once the unloved bastard step-child — has clung to life through some rough times, and today is an entirely usable desktop OS. Kudos to the folks who have made it compatible with lots of hardware and Linux apps. My return to Solaris has had a few false starts, though… I struggled to get it working under Parallels (on OS X) last year before losing interest, then got it working on a spare PC until the dying video card made is unbearable. Then when Fred finished his internship at Mozilla, I swiped his PC and scrounged some spare parts to get a respectable system built. [Dual Xeon @ 2.2 Ghz, 1 GB RAM].

One reason I’ve been interested in Solaris again is that they’ve got some really spiffy technologies, some of which should be appearing in the next OS X release as well. Most prominently: ZFS and DTrace.

I’ve already got ZFS working on my “new” box… What a joy! If only the rest of Unix was this slick to use. Here’s what I did:

 

1. Dug though a box of old hard drives, and found 3 old-but-serviceable 9.1GB drives. Tossed into case, hooked up cables, and booted.

 

2. Created a ZFS storage pool named “build”:

# zpool create build raidz c0t2d0 c0t4d0 c0t8d0

# zpool status -v build
  pool: build
 state: ONLINE
 scrub: none requested
config:

        NAME        STATE     READ WRITE CKSUM
        build       ONLINE       0     0     0
          raidz1    ONLINE       0     0     0
            c0t2d0  ONLINE       0     0     0
            c0t4d0  ONLINE       0     0     0
            c0t8d0  ONLINE       0     0     0

errors: No known data errors

 

3. Not strictly needed; but created a ZFS filesystem in the pool for Firefox builds, and mounted it in a convenient place…

# zfs create build/firefox

# zfs set mountpount=/export/home/dolske/ff build/firefox

# zfs list
NAME                   USED  AVAIL  REFER  MOUNTPOINT
blob                  88.7M  60.9G  24.5K  /blob
blob/home             88.6M  60.9G  88.6M  /export/home
build                 1.92G  14.6G  32.6K  /build
build/firefox         1.92G  14.6G  1.92G  /export/home/dolske/ff

And that’s it! As far as command line based filesystem administration goes, that’s dead sexy. No formatting or partitioning needed. Just a few simple commands, and I’ve got a fast filesystem that’s striping across 3 devices, fault-tolerant, with error detection and correction. And that’s just the beginning of what ZFS can do.

You can also get some nice stats as the pool in use… Here I’m starting a build, with stats dumped every 15 seconds:

# zpool iostat build 15
               capacity     operations    bandwidth
pool         used  avail   read  write   read  write
----------  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----
build        821M  24.4G      0      0      0      0
build        821M  24.4G      5      0  70.0K  8.53K
build        821M  24.4G      1     28  35.4K   128K
build        824M  24.4G     57    149   148K   181K
build        827M  24.4G     90    147   182K   227K
build        828M  24.4G     31     43   188K   211K
build        839M  24.4G     16     38   115K   663K

 

I’m not really maxing out the drives during a build, but it’s fun to watch. The surprisingly-readable ZFS Administration Guide has more info on what goodies ZFS provides.

“We shred every day.”

Erring on the side of security can sometimes be a little frustrating…

A few months ago I junked my aging paper shredder. I had purchased it for about $25 some years prior, but it had become rather cranky and instead of shredding paper it mostly just… mangled. When it wasn’t busy jamming itself. So, I appended a “buy new shredder” task to my To Do List and diverted various home office trash to a To Be Shredded Pile… Paid bills, legal documents, bank statements, etc. [No juicy secrets here, I’m afraid. Just a sensible precaution against identity theft.]

Fast forward to last week, and I was still sans shredder but with a sizable stack of records awaiting destruction. I had been shopping around, but hadn’t found a model I liked.

The most basic (and cheapest) models are “strip cut” shredders. They work by — wait for it — cutting the page into long strips, usually 1/4″ wide. I think these models are just about worthless, as reassembling a page from such strips isn’t any more difficult than doing a jigsaw puzzle. A large producer of shredded waste (like a corporation or government agency) might be able to get away with this, since the overwhelming bulk is low-value bureaucratic paperwork. Finding a needle in such a haystack requires a lot of work. But even then, when there’s a will there’s a way… After the US Embassy in Tehran was seized in 1979, the Iranians reconstructed many documents that had been hastily shredded. And after East Germany fell, the Germans got busy processing 33 million shredded documents from the Stasi’s archives.

Here’s a random Flickr shot to illustrate the size of shredder strips:

For a shred with greater security, “cross-cut” models are the way to go. Instead of a 1/4″ wide strip running the length of the page, cross-cut shredders additionally chop up the strips into chunks that are usually 1-2″ long. They thus produce a lot more pieces for every page. Plus, this method provides some protection against user mistakes… If you feed a document sideways into a strip-cut shredder, the strips are just easily-readable lines from the page (a cross-cut shredder would only have a word or two per piece). Apparently some of the folks at the Enron shredding parties made this goof, and recovering those documents was much easier as a result.

So, then, buying a shredder should be a simple matter, right? Well, ugh, not so much… There are a zillion brands available, each with different capacities and shred size. And to make things worse, all but the most basic models seem overpriced to me; the $500 shredders do the same thing as the $25 shredders. Sure, the motor is bigger and beefier, but $475 bigger?!

I got the better of my indecision by throwing fiscal responsibility to the wind and buying Staple’s 770M “Microcut shredder”. $150, but at least it was on sale. It has the smallest shred size (2mm x 8mm) of any shredder I could find, so I figure if I’m going to buy an overpriced shredder I should at least get some better security out of it. Here’s the results:

In the end, consumer-grade shredders — even cross-cutting microshred models — don’t offer ultimate security. There are now companies such as ChurchStreet Technology, who use optical scanners and sophisticated software to automatically reassemble shredded scraps. But these services are very expensive (up to $10,000 per cubic foot!), and I think the process of scanning lots of little pieces of paper likely to always remain relatively expensive and slow. In other words, someone snooping is much more likely to go after an easier target. Security, as always, is relative.

More info:
* Wikipedia’s Paper shredder page
* “Back Together Again”, article in the New York Times discussing shredders, document recovery, and more.

GPS satellite SVN-15 retired

[From SpaceflightNow…]

Frank Czopek, the GPS Block II and IIA project manager, recalled SVN-15’s rocky start before it got off the ground as well as its history once it became operational in 1990.

The satellite earned the nickname “Firebird,” as well as other nicknames such as “Old Smokey” and “Sparky II,” after the vehicle caught fire one Friday afternoon, Mr. Czopek said.

Oops!

Ceci n’est pas une iPhone

Last week I got a new gadget, a Nokia N800 Internet Tablet. I’ve been yearning for a device like this for some time, but hadn’t found anything I liked… I’ve looked at cellphone-type devices, but they all seem to suck. The long-rumored Apple iPhone had seemed like a possible contender, but it’s still months away and carries a hefty price tag. I first saw the N800’s predecessor (the N770) at the Firefox Summit a few months ago, and after some research decided it was the kind of device I wanted to try.

This is not an iPhone.

More info and my impressions after the jump… Continue reading Ceci n’est pas une iPhone