December 29, 2012

PostScript

I bought a laser printer four years ago, and it's served me well. Today I wanted to print something on it, but because I've moved it to a different location I had to re-configuring it to connect via WiFi rather than USB. While doing so, I realized I'd never checked if it had a firmware update available. Turns out it was using firmware version 24, and there was a version 68 on the manufacturer's website.

When I had it upgraded, it's built-in webserver configuration system now offered a "telnet" option. I've never telneted to a printer before! But Windows 7 Ultimate doesn't have a telnet terminal, so I quick downloaded PuTTY and connected. It offered a rather boring configuration menu. Which was cool, but, well, boring.

But looking at the configuration menu reminded me that it offered a "Raw TCP/IP" printing option. That, I suspected, means one could just connect a terminal (like PuTTY) to the port the printer is listening on, and send it raw PostScript and whatever other languages the printer understands. It's been shown that PostScript is Turing complete; while it was invented as a way of describing documents to be printed, it's really a fully-fledged computing language. So I sent off a "Hello World!" program to my printer, and I could hear it printing, but I apparently missed the command that would cause it to eject the newly-printed page. So, off to the language reference to check what the relevant keyword was, when I suddenly realized that I'd originally turned on the printer with the intention of printing a document, and here it was an hour later and I hadn't printed that document, because I was having so much fun playing with my printer.

This is the same mental quirk that caused me to start with reading an assigned book on pirates and end up with a MA project on whaling that includes side sections on intellectual property law in mid-ninteenth century America and the career of actress Clara Bow.

UPDATE: When I telneted into my printer, the welcome message included the following line:
System Up Time: 0000:00:00:00:19:11 (YYYY:MM:DD:hh:mm:ss)
Note the four digits for years of uptime. Really? Who honestly expects that a printer is going to have more than 999 years of uptime? I assume that the telnet server code was copy and pasted from elsewhere, but who assumes that a computer of any type is going to have more than 999 years of uptime?

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December 25, 2012

Read All the Way to the End

Merry Christmas everyone! Yesterday Hil admitted that she had forgotten to get any stocking stuffers, so I stopped by a grocery store and bought a bunch of candy plus a few fruits to assuage my guilt at all the candy.

This morning, though, Hil baked up a fabulously complicated french toast and cheese confection, so we didn't even get to the stockings until early afternoon. That made me feel old.

We were going to do a Christmas dinner at Hil's parents' place, but there was a problem with the turkey, so we went to the casino's buffet instead. Hil's sister carpooled along with us. Getting to and from the buffet required passing through the gaming floor thrice. People under 18 are not allowed in those sections, so there are guards at every entrance. All three times, the guard nodded at me, then told the two ladies I was with to produce ID. That made me feel very old.

After our supper at the quite decent buffet, the family trouped back to Hil's house, where we did a mighty gift exchange, sipped tea, and ate homemade cookies and fudge.

Hil's parents left, but Hil's sister stayed for a few more hours. I tried to stay out of the way while the two of them caught up. While casually glancing in a mirror, I noticed my first gray hair. That made me feel really old.

Then, once everyone had finally left, I asked Hilary to marry me. She said "Yes."

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December 23, 2012

Back in the Day

Driving home from a holiday party, I tuned the car radio to the local classical station. They were playing Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, followed by Francis Poulenc's Gloria. I swear I am not exaggerating when I say that those two works were my two favorites out of the four Christmas concerts I did back in high school.

Ah, nostalgia.

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December 19, 2012

Ratiocination

When my siblings and I were young, a favorite game this time of year was "guess the present". I think we were inspired by my father doing it. Peeking inside the box or damaging the wrapping paper was strictly forbidden, but one could shake the gift, weigh it, determine its center of mass, etc, all in hopes of figuring out what was inside.

Today I got a package from Amazon with a wrapped gift inside. Curiously, the shipping package had a big ORM-D sticker on the outside. For those that have never worked in shipping, the ORM-D label means that the package contains a hazardous material that is exempt from most of the rules governing the carriage of hazmat, because it is packed for sale to an individual consumer. These are usually things like perfumes, cleaning chemicals, and lighters. Now I'm really curious as to what's in there.

UPDATE: It was a bottle of bicycle chain lube. Specifically, "dry" style, meaning it's a volatile oil with suspended waxes and some teflon bits for good measure.

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December 01, 2012

Nukes for Peace

Here's something interesting. All previous NASA radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) were based on plutonium cores and generated electricity by using thermocouples combined to form a thermoelectric generator. But NASA's got two problems with the current generation of RTGs: the Department of Energy is getting stingy about handing out plutonium; and thermocouples are only 5-10% efficient, making the units heavier than they'd like.

Enter the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator. That prior Wikipedia link shows the ground-based prototype, while this news article has pretty pictures and video of the final design. It uses uranium, which is more easily available and also not as dangerous in case of a problem.[1] Intriguingly, it generates the electricity with Stirling engines, which are piston and cylinder technology invented in the early 1800s as an offshoot of steam engines. The great thing about the old RTGs was the total lack of moving parts, making them very durable; the new ASRG has a moving control rod in the center of the uranium, and the Stirling generators have pistons and flywheels and whatnot chugging back and forth, meaning lots of moving parts to get stuck or broken. I guess NASA is confident they will keep working as long as necessary.

Anyway, I just think the whole thing is very cool, and I wanted to let my nerd flag fly.

Video of the whole thing, copied from the news link above:



[1] Environmentalists have been complaining for years about the potential hazards of plutonium being released into the atmosphere by an old-style RTG if it exploded during launch. With uranium, there is already a huge quantity of it in the atmosphere, because uranium is found in trace quantities in coal and thus goes up the smokestack in every factory and power plant that burns coal. Note that I don't expect this to calm down certain environmental groups, specifically those that don't realize that a typical large coal plant releases more atmospheric radiation than did the Three Mile Island power plant during its accident.

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