Archive for May, 2009

Why Are Norton Products So Terrible … Now?

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

I have fond memories of many old Norton products … the Norton Utilities, Norton Desktop, even Norton Antivirus in its early Symantec incarnations. But somewhere around the time that Norton/Symantec introduced Product Activation, things turned sour.

Norton Antivirus for Windows 95

Not that that’s the problem – even though I once had to pay for Symantec’s Antivirus suite twice on my wife’s computer because of an unresolvable error with the antivirus subscription. The problem wasn’t so much the Product Activation per se, but that the software got into an unstable state which prevented it from accepting the subscription – which I could prove that I paid for – and eventually the only way to fix it was to nuke the site from orbit, reinstall everything, and pay again.

Maxtor and Iomega External Hard Drives

And therein lies the kernel of the problem: it’s so easy for Symantec (née Norton) products to get into an unstable state, activation or no. There’s the antivirus issue I mentioned. I once installed Norton Antivirus on a PC with Zone Alarm installed, and the two products got into a death match over which one was the “real” firewall even though I was not trying to install Norton’s firewall features. There have been several other instances, most with Norton 360 Premier Edition, and now this:

Norton Freezes on Configuring Backup

You can’t see it in the picture, but Norton 360 is frozen like a Canadian lake in winter. Recently our main backup drive for our Windows workstation died, and I replaced the old Maxtor with a larger Iomega drive. However, when I went to change the backup to point to the new drive, Norton locked up trying to determine … what, I don’t know. Files to back up? Looking for backup locations? It isn’t clear. On the first try of this, it appeared to be frozen checking backup schedules:

Norton Freezes on Finding Backup Schedules

It stayed there the whole time I was working on this article (up to this point). Right around the time I wrote that sentence, I finally killed Norton and restarted … no dice. Now it can’t even find the backup locations:

Norton Freezes on Finding Backup Locations

There is no excuse for software to be written this way by a professional company with collectively over 30 years experience. This is the kind of crap I write the very first time I whip together a utility for a new operating system, before I learn where the blocking calls are. A program should never block on a dialog finding something as simple as a list of backup schedules, much less files or anything else. Modern computers have millions of cycles a second available to realize a call is taking a long time, present the list of items found so far, and give the user the opportunity to do something – which, in this case, would be me telling it to forget the old backup location and to try the new one. Instead, I get this, still frozen trying to find a list that could be easily cached, interpolated, discarded, supplanted, SOMETHING:

Norton Freezes on Finding Backup Locations

This goes to my overall rant on what’s wrong with disk and networking software. Modern web applications like GMail have vast abilities to cope when servers are offline. Networking and disk operations, in contrast, are either blindingly fast, or pause for minutes or even hours, obviously befuddled but never bothering to pass that information on to the user. Someone, I can’t remember who, wrote an article about this a few years back, pointing out that it was all related to design decisions we’d made early on in computing that are wrong. He sketched out how you could design a computer to never effectively lose data, even if you powercycled in the middle of writing an essay, by changing how we think about saving data. I’ll dig up the essay, but for right now, we STILL have THIS, frozen in the same place:

Norton Freezes on Finding Backup Locations

At the time of this writing I’ve spent almost THIRTY MINUTES waiting on Norton to perform what should have been a two minute operation: changing a backup disk and starting the new backup. This makes my problems with Apple’s Time Capsule look trivial. By the way … Time Capsule is working perfectly now. Time to switch my wife to the Mac?

-the Centaur

Postscript: we went and worked out, and this window was still up, an hour and a half later. I took the pictures I needed for this article; then, I did what I hate to do: asked my wife to log out (in her session, she was working on proposals and had half a dozen windows open) and rebooted the machine. When we returned, Norton worked just fine. I started this article feeling nostalgic for Norton/Symantec’s older products; well, Norton gave me what I wanted, and took me all the way back to 1995, when you had to reboot to do anything.

Norton Antivirus for Windows 95

It’s all right, Peter. We still love you. This isn’t your fault, nor is it necessarily something that the hardworking people at Symantec could have fixed in this instance. But if I don’t complain, you’ll never know anything was wrong.

The Singularity is Now

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Amazing presentation…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpEnFwiqdx8]

Did you know?
-the Centaur

The Ogre Mark … 0.1?

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Ogre T-Shirt

As a teenager I used to play OGRE and GEV, the quintessential microgames produced by Steve Jackson featuring cybernetic tanks called OGREs facing off with a variety of lesser tanks. For those that don’t remember those “microgames”, they were sold in small plastic bags or boxes, which contained a rulebook, map, and a set of perforated cardboard pieces used to play the game. After playing a lot, we extended OGRE by creating our own units and pieces from cut up paper; the lead miniature you see in the pictures came much later, and was not part of the original game.

Ogre Game

In OGRE’s purest form, however, one OGRE, a mammoth cybernetic vehicle, faced off with a dozen or so more other tanks firing tactical nuclear weapons … and thanks to incredible firepower and meters of lightweight BCP armor, it would just about be an even fight. Below you see a GEV (Ground Effect Vehicle) about to have a very bad day.

Ogre vs GEV

OGREs were based (in part) on the intelligent tanks from Keith Laumer‘s Bolo series, but there was also an OGRE timeline that detailed the development of the armament and weapons that made tank battles make sense in the 21st century. So there was a special thrill playing OGRE: I got to relive my favorite Keith Laumer story, in which one decommissioned, radioactive OGRE is accidentally reawakened and digs its way out of its concrete tomb to continue the fight. (The touching redemption scene in which the tank is convinced not to lay waste to the countryside by its former commander were, sadly, left out of the game mechanics of Steve Jackson’s initial design).

Ogre Miniature

But how realistic are tales of cybernetic tanks? AI is famous for overpromising and underdelivering: it’s well nigh on 2010, and we don’t have HAL 9000, much less the Terminator. But OGRE, being a boardgame, did not need to satisfy the desires of filmmakers to present a near-future people could relate to; so it did not compress the timeline to the point of unbelievability. According to the Steve Jackson OGRE chronology the OGRE Mark I was supposed to come out in 2060. And from what I can see, that date is a little pessimistic. Take a look at this video from General Dynamics:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCAiQyuWfOk]

It even has the distinctive OGRE high turret in the form of an automated XM307 machine gun. Scary! Admittedly, the XUV is a remote controlled vehicle and not a completely automated battle tank capable of deciding our fate in a millisecond. But that’s not far in coming… General Dynamics is working on autonomous vehicle navigation, and they’re not alone. Take a look at Stanley driving itself to the win of the Darpa Grand Challenge:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZ3bbHTsOL4]

Now, that’s more like it! Soon, I will be able to relive the boardgames my youth in real life … running from an automated tank … hell-bent on destroying the entire countryside …

Hm.

Somehow, that doesn’t sound so appealing. I have an idea! Instead of building killer death-bots, why don’t we try building some of these instead (full disclosure: I’ve worked in robotic pet research):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKAeihiy5Ck]

Oh, wait. The AIBO program was canceled … as was the XM307. Stupid economics. It’s supposed to be John Connor saving us from the robot apocalypse, not Paul Krugman and Greg Mankiw.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Various shots of OGRE T-shirt, book, rules, pieces, and miniatures, along with the re-released version of the OGRE and GEV games. Videos courtesy Youtube.

I figured out why my computer’s not working…

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

“Now that’s what we call a computer crash…”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXUIlULqUGQ]

More seriously, this is why when you really want to film something you need two or three different cameras. This really cried out for three: one closeup on the computer, one long shot on the shooting range to see it fly in the air, and one on the shooters.

-the Centaur

UPDATE: I had a discussion with friends, and there are at least two things the people in this video are doing that make them a hazard to themselves and others:

  • They’re TRAP shooting with RIFLES!
    From one friend: “This will probably surprise everyone, but in my opinion these guys are complete morons because they are endangering others. They are “trap shooting” with rifles! I think I saw one shotgun in the whole video. I’m sure my gun enthusiast friends will agree with me that unless these guys are at least 3 miles from any other people (and even in the deep woods of Tennessee, you can’t possibly be sure of that) they are endangering others by firing high-powered rifles into the air. As an example, a 30-06 rifle aimed at a high elevation can fire a round about 2.5 miles. Interestingly, the maximum range occurs at about 35 degrees elevation, not 45 degrees as one might think. When the round returns to earth, it’s still moving at around 500 fps, which is fast enough to kill someone.”
  • They have NO IDEA of EXPLOSIVE SAFETY:
    After reading that, I remembered something else bugging me and I went back and found it. Watch the video again closely for the following gem around 1 minute in: The guy fills the test chamber with explosive and a fuse, he tamps it in with a stick and wooden hammer, then he puts his body over the chamber when putting the books on it. Now, the first time that I watched this, I thought he tapped the whole wooden shaft into the hole, but you can see it lying on the ground later. Regardless, he’s putting himself in the line of fire with no thought of what might go wrong. From the other poster: “Yeah, I noticed that one too. I bet if it blew and tossed him into the air, his buddies would instinctively start firing until the smoke cleared and they realized it was him!”

Another of our gun enthusiast friends chimed in:

I certainly would agree about the trap shooting and with the care needed with black powder and fuses. There is no way to know, of course, but the woods in the background look pretty dense. If it’s all private property it could go for miles. Still I wouldn’t do that stuff with my rifles.

Ok, it’s all fun until someone loses a loved one. Be safe, all.

Friday, May 29th, 2009

You can blog from your mobile phone with a text message. HFS!

UPDATE: But if you mistype something in your smartphone, Blogger does something weird with it … I accidentally typed an upside down exclamation point after the “HFS” above (not sure why) and it translated that to “HFS?”, which should have been “HFS!”. Probably this is a language encoding issue or something similar.

monorail squirrel

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Ah, LOLcats. They ease the pain…

a squirrel on a fence rail

… and turn random pictures taken out my window into found art.

-the Centaur

P.S. Confused? Look here.

Pictured: a squirrel outside my window, resting to beat the heat.

This is Xeriscape

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Xeriscaped Succulents in Bloom

My wife and I are xeriscaping our lawn – transforming it from a green sucker-of-water into a still-green landscape of native plants that require little or no water. Lawns consume a lot of water, and this is one way we can make a difference that both saves the environment and saves money.

But a xeriscaped lawn isn’t always just dirt, or just brown, or even just green. Here you see the succulents we’ve planted in fantastic bloom, which require almost no watering during the course of the year. During the day their flowers open in a brilliant polychromatic display; at night they close up.

Xeriscaped Succulents and Path to Olive Tree

We’ve also used low-water plants and trees, either existing ones or new ones planted that will require little to no water. Unfortunately new trees require some water to get started, and so the grass that would not grow before has come back with a vengeance (as you can see in the upper left).

Xeriscaped Succulents, Olive Tree and Gardener

We’ve made the problem a little harder on ourselves by using reclaimed materials as much as possible, letting plants grow out to fill the space rather than buying more, planting from cuttings, using no artificial fertilizer, and using almost no artificial pesticides (other than slug pellets, which we could not avoid using as they love succulents). So it’s taking some time … we’re in the start of the second year of our front yard landscaping.

But after that first year, it’s starting to bear fruit. Already the result is a wonderful Seussical landscape that requires little to no watering. Who knows what it will look like after another year.

-the Centaur

Pictured: our front lawn, with closeups of the flowering succulents (grown into the space on their own), a medium shot of the path (made from reclaimed wood chips), and a long shot of the tree (saved from death with a little mulching), the path and the gardener.

The Layman’s Guide to the Fanboy View of Star Trek

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009


There’s been some confusion recently about the “fanboy reception” of the new Star Trek movie – some people going so far as to say “fanboys will hate it because they changed everything”. Well, speaking as a fanboy who recently was seriously arguing with my high school friends about whether J.J. Abrams shitted or pissed on our childhoods (and no, I’m not joking, those literal words were used), I beg to differ: my problems with the movie are with the movie as a movie, and particularly with its plot logic, not with its degree of Trekkiness.

I’ll deal with the problems the movie has as a movie later (e.g., Nero is mad at Spock because … Spock tried to save Romulus? WTF?!), since the movie is so good on an acting/directing level I don’t want to give it too much bad press. (No, really, if good acting is your bag, run to the theater, baby; similarly if you like humor, excitement, action or adventure you won’t be disappointed. If you care about a movie making sense … eh.) Right now I want to show that it is indeed a good Trek movie. To see why, let’s go through the Fanboy’s Official Star Trek Movie Checklist and see how J.J. Abrams fares.

Oh, wait. One thing. SPOILERS AHEAD. Ok, moving on…

First off, the big three that we need in any Star Trek movie:

  • Kirk makes bold command decisions. Taking a shipful of cadets toe-to-toe with a Romulan war machine that’s already wiped out Klingon and Federation fleets? Check.
  • Spock is conflicted about logic and emotion. Face it: this is is Spock’s movie, and we get this quintessential Trekkiness in two flavors, old Spock and young Spock:
    • Old Spock: “Trust me, I’m emotionally compromised.” Check.
    • Young Spock: Oh, where to begin, there are so many – I’ll take the Vulcan Science Academy and his neat little speech where his voice says “The only emotion I wish to express is gratitude” and his face says “you stuck up racist prigs.” Check.
  • McCoy gets Kirk and Spock working together: Well, this one doesn’t happen, but it is a prequel, and he does act as a counselor to both of them. We can see where this is going, but still … Miss. But a near miss.

So we’re two for three, but if we give them two points for Spock they’re batting 1000. Now let’s look at the fan service angle:

  • Kirk bangs a hot alien chick. And she’s green. Check.
  • Spock does something brilliant. See “Stupid Transporter Tricks” below. Check.
  • McCoy says “I’m a doctor not a…” Check.
  • Sulu buckles some swash: Check.
  • People make fun of Chekov’s fake Russian accent: Check.
  • Uhura contacts an alien life form: You know who I mean. Check.
  • Scotty saves the day with some engineering fu: “If we eject the core…” Check!
  • They pull a Stupid Transporter Trick: We get this not one, not two but THREE times:
    • Chekov: Beams up someone falling. Check.
    • Scotty: Beams three people on two ships to one platform. Check.
    • Spock: Gets the grand prize for beaming two people onto a ship in warp, using only what looks like the transporter system on Scotty’s dilapidated mobile home. Check.

Now, what about the other things, the fanboy nonsense? The phasers and transporters are off, and we see starships with odd numbers of warp nacelles, but those are nits – the special effects get redone in every movie and every show, and if Enterprise can believably portray a Vulcan ship with a donut-shaped warp nacelle then J.J. Abrams can have the one-warp-engine Kelvin.

Now, I admit I think some of the changes J.J. Abrams made undermined himself – for example, I think the change of the phasers both made them harder to see visually as well as disconnecting them from Star Trek’s heritage. But those are minor nits. Get over it – I did, and I’m probably a bigger fan than almost all of you.


On the broad scope, Star Trek was Star Trek. No two ways about it.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the first pic is my desk at the Search Engine that Starts With a G, including a model of the original Enterprise from TOS. The second is my bookcase, including a model of an original hand phaser and a model of the U.S.S. Prometheus from Star Trek: Voyager. The blue box USB hub and the salt shaker with the plunger and ray gun are both from Doctor Who. For those who are confused by the horse without a head, it’s a centaur from Narnia.

Dakota Frost

Monday, May 18th, 2009


That’s Dakota Frost, in the flesh, penciled and inked by me, based on my own sketches, internet references for the Mohawk and tattoos, and the body of my lovely wife, who was kind enough to model for me.

I had to do some promotional flyers for Frost Moon, have talked to the publisher about a frontispiece; this may be it.

-the Centaur

More on why your computer needs a hug

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Thanks to the permission of IGI, the publisher of the Handbook of Synthetic Emotions and Sociable Robotics, the full text of “Emotional Memory and Adaptive Personalities” is now available online. I’ve blogged about this paper previously here and elsewhere, but now that I’ve got permission, here’s the full abstract:

Emotional Memory and Adaptive Personalities
by Anthony Francis, Manish Mehta and Ashwin Ram

Believable agents designed for long-term interaction with human users need to adapt to them in a way which appears emotionally plausible while maintaining a consistent personality. For short-term interactions in restricted environments, scripting and state machine techniques can create agents with emotion and personality, but these methods are labor intensive, hard to extend, and brittle in new environments. Fortunately, research in memory, emotion and personality in humans and animals points to a solution to this problem. Emotions focus an animal’s attention on things it needs to care about, and strong emotions trigger enhanced formation of memory, enabling the animal to adapt its emotional response to the objects and situations in its environment. In humans this process becomes reflective: emotional stress or frustration can trigger re-evaluating past behavior with respect to personal standards, which in turn can lead to setting new strategies or goals. To aid the authoring of adaptive agents, we present an artificial intelligence model inspired by these psychological results in which an emotion model triggers case-based emotional preference learning and behavioral adaptation guided by personality models. Our tests of this model on robot pets and embodied characters show that emotional adaptation can extend the range and increase the behavioral sophistication of an agent without the need for authoring additional hand-crafted behaviors.

And so this article is self-contained, here’s the tired old description of the paper I’ve used a few times now:

“Emotional Memory and Adaptive Personalities” reports work on emotional agents supervised by my old professor Ashwin Ram at the Cognitive Computing Lab. He’s been working on emotional robotics for over a decade, and it was in his lab that I developed my conviction that emotions serve a functional role in agents, and that to develop an emotional agent you should not start with trying to fake the desired behavior, but instead by analyzing psychological models of emotion and then using those findings to design models for agent control that will produce that behavior “naturally”. This paper explains that approach and provides two examples of it in practice: the first was work done by myself on agents that learn from emotional events, and the second was work by Manish Mehta on making the personalities of more agents stay stable even after learning.

-the Centaur

Pictured is R1D1, one of the robot testbeds described in the article.