Total solar eclipse in far north Queensland, 14th Nov 2012

Donna and I travelled up to Trinity Beach, about 20 minutes north of Cairns, for a holiday with a total solar eclipse in the middle of it.

We were really lucky as firstly we nearly didn’t make it up there at all as Jetstar cancelled our flight up and couldn’t get us another seat until Wednesday which would mean missing the eclipse and losing the accomodation we’d booked. Fortunately we were able to get a flight up with Virgin instead on the same day as our cancelled one, but it cost more than the refund from Jetstar. Then there was the weather; we arrived on a nice sunny Sunday and it looked quite promising, but Monday and Tuesday were both pretty cloudy and wet at times, so it wasn’t looking good.

Wednesday morning rolled around and we were up early (with three different alarms, just in case) and it was clearer than the previous days, but still plenty of broken cloud around.

First Contact, Obscured By Clouds #1
First Contact, Obscured By Clouds #2

There were probably a few thousand people around on Trinity Beach…

An audience for an eclipse, Trinity Beach, QLD

…who watched the partial phases nervously, but with growing excitement, through the cloud.

Peek-a-boo #1
Peek-a-boo #2

We were getting close to totality, but a large cloud was looming, and we wondered if we might miss the total eclipse phase!

Audience anticipation - eclipse or cloud?

Our luck held though, and we managed to see totality through broken cloud. 🙂

Totality through the cloud!

Of course, after third contact and the end of totality the cloud started to clear and we had a good view for once.

After third contact - in a clear sky

The folks down in Cairns (including my friend Ian Grant from the Bureau of Meterology who lent me a 1976 solar eclipse filter) were not so lucky, they saw the partial phases but missed totality due to cloud. An American in front of him told him that was the third time in a row it had happened to him!

Video of Total Solar Eclipse, Trinity Beach, QLD – 2012/11/14

This is my attempt to capture the view of the total solar eclipse as seen from Trinity Beach in Queensland, Australia with my D90 DSLR, uploaded to YouTube with a CC-BY license.

Our tripod wasn’t usable unfortunately so this was taken resting on my knee and, as you’ll see, I got distracted by totality so it wandered off target a couple of times. I stopped filming so I could try and take a still photo as it looked like we were about to get clouded out, hence stopping short. We did manage to see the diamond ring just after though!

Mars Science Laboratory Safely on Mars

MSL is safely on Mars, now to go a roving!

News Corporation – the new face of piracy

According to Panorama from the BBC in the UK it appears Sky TV in the UK had a subsidiary involved with people cracking On Digital’s smartcards and also with people running a website to share the keys from those smartcards.

Of course News Corporation is a multinational, so it wouldn’t surprise you to know that there are now allegations that they were involved in similar antics here in Australia:

News Corporation is alleged to have used a security division known as Operational Security to encourage hackers to pirate the smart cards of rival pay TV operators including Austar and Optus, thereby draining them of revenue and devaluing the businesses.

Perhaps FACT, AFACT. MPAA, etc should adjust their “piracy funds terrorism” to warn that by supporting piracy you will be supporting Rupert Murdoch, News Corporation, Sky, Fox News, etc.. That would put a lot more people off..

The 2012 Hoax

It’s sad that such a site is even necessary, but if you find yourself trying to explain to people why the world won’t actually end in 2012 (which I’ve found myself doing a couple of times) then the 2012 Hoax website (run by astronomers and others around the world) has a heap of info that should help. Please give the Mayans a break, they didn’t predict this..

Hopefully this blog will also lend some of my Google-fu to them (though they are doing pretty well so far!).

Recovering 5.25″ Floppy Disks

When I was at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth they were just starting to supplement their serial terminals connected to X.25 PAD’s with some PC’s (Viglen I think), complete with hard disks and 5.25″ floppy drives. So I have had two boxes of 5.25″ floppies which dutifully came out to Australia with me when I emigrated from the UK back in 2002. These floppies are now well over 20 years old so I reckoned it would be about time to see whether they were still readable and, if so, what was on them. Labels like “Honeywell Backup Disk #1” only say so much.. 😉

The first problem was that I didn’t have a 5.25″ floppy drive. Luckily my boss at VLSCI was able to lend me one. The second problem was I didn’t have a floppy cable with the 5.25″ connector on it. Fortunately Bernie at work had an old PC that was in bits which did have one, so I was able to borrow that. Then I found that the old Dell PC I was thinking of using had a really weird connector and wasn’t going to be that useful. My even older Olivetti Netstrada (a quad processor Pentium Pro monster) did have IDE, but the cables were going to be rather hard to get to as it has a bunch of SCSI drives and the cables for them were going to make it hard.

My final box was an VIA EPIA V box (originally from EverythingLinux back in 2003) which did have an easily accessibly floppy connector on the mother board, but only a single power connector for a drive. So it was either the internal IDE disk, or the floppy, but not both. I could have gone and bought a power splitter, but I thought I’d take the cheaper way and netboot it (the onboard ethernet chipset has PXE support) – it should be pretty easy.. Hah! 🙂 This is what the box looked like after some careful assembly..

Resurrecting 5.25" floppy disks - hardware

The first test was to see if the 5.25″ floppy disk drive worked. Luckily I had a floppy labelled as “system boot disk” and after some mucking around in the BIOS (it turns out you can set it to boot from floppy without having enabled the floppy controller, which results in it not booting from floppy and much cursing until you discover it) it booted first time – a 23 year old DOS boot disk complete with partly bilingual Welsh/English welcome screen from 1988!

UCW Aberyswyth 5.25" floppy system disk from 1988

This was very promising – the first disk had worked first time and a quick test of swapping it out for another and doing a “DIR” also worked. Now to get the data off these before they went to the great /dev/null in the sky..

My plan to recover the info was to netboot this machine as a Mythbuntu diskless front end box – Mythbuntu makes that easy to set up and with a little fiddling of the DHCP server to make sure it would only every try and serve this box, and do so with a static address, it worked. Or at least it would load the kernel. Which then complained that it couldn’t boot as it needed a CPU which had PAE support. 🙁

This VIA EPIA V has a low power (5W) 533MHz VIA Eden CPU (appropriately the kernel detects it as a VIA Samuel 2) and whilst it is IA-32 it doesn’t have some of the newer features which are selected for Pentium class processors in the current Linux kernel.

Oh well, that’s fine, I knew I could use Debian instead, so I used the ltsp-build-client (creating an /etc/sysconfig/ltspdist file first containing the line VENDORDEF="Debian" first so it would use the right set of scripts), thus:

ltsp-build-client --chroot sid --mirror --dist sid --purge-chroot --arch i386 --accept-unsigned-packages

Problem was that all the various kernel command line options for specifying the NFS server for the root filesystem just didn’t seem to work, it would just sit there saying something like “Waiting for root filesystem” and eventually give up and drop me to a busybox shell prompt, and a simple cat of /proc/cmdline showed the options were being set correctly. A little more thought and an examination of the config file for the kernel showed that Debian doesn’t ship kernels with CONFIG_NFS_ROOT set, so it was never going to work. 🙁

Whilst I could have rolled my own kernel I decided to instead have a look to see if I could find a Linux distro that included PXE booting as an option and a Google search for “linux distro pxe” turned up PLoP Linux as the first hit.

PLoP Linux is a small (75MB) distro aimed at data recovery operations that comes as an ISO, tar.gz or zip file for i586, x86-64 and (crucially for me) i486 processors. They even have a separate tar file for the PXE files. It was easy to set up and so I booted the PC with high hopes. Then I got the same error about the kernel requiring PAE support in the CPU that I got with Ubuntu. Whilst there was an i486 tar file there wasn’t an i486 PXE tar file! That was easily solved by grabbing the i486 ISO, doing a loopback mount of it and stealing the kernel and initrd.img files from it instead.

This time it booted, and I found that it had just what I was after – a Linux shell prompt, working networking, mtools (for mcopy and mdir) and (most importantly) ddrescue to let me create complete images of the floppies. I created a directory for each floppy disk and then did ddrescue /dev/fd0 floppy.img to make the image. I created another directory called Contents and from there did mcopy -vms a: (yes, I ordered the options that way deliberately) to copy all the files and subdirectories off complete with their last modification times (from 1987 and 1988 generally).

In all I was able to recover 20 of the 21 floppies with no errors at all, which amazed me as I was expecting them to have degraded over time (especially as one box was just a flimsy cardboard box). I was hoping to have original B source code from HoneyBoard (the bulletin board that Alan Cox and others I knew there wrote) and AberMUD from the Honeywell L66 but sadly that doesn’t appear to be the case. There are 3 B programs but one is just just 3 lines (calling a drl) and the other two appear to be two versions of some sort of shell which I didn’t write as the first has a btidy timestamp from April 1987, before I arrived at Aberystwyth.

The 21st disk was completely unreadable – the drive didn’t seem to want to acknowledge its existence and ddrescue couldn’t see anything as the floppy driver in the kernel couldn’t get the drive to provide any data. I might try ddrescue’s mode of copying data in reverse to see if that manages any better..

Japan knocks China off the #1 spot of the Top500 by 3X – a GRAPE machine ?

According to the NYT the new Top500 list (due out in the next few hours) will list the Japanese ‘K’ machine at the #1 spot of the Top500 at 8.2 PF.

The computer, known as “K Computer”, is three times faster than a Chinese rival that previously held the top position, said Jack Dongarra, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who keeps the official rankings of computer performance.
K is made up of 672 cabinets filled with system boards. Although considered energy-efficient, it still uses enough electricity to power nearly 10,000 homes at a cost of around $10 million annually, Mr. Dongarra said.

The research lab that houses K plans to increase the computer?s size to 800 cabinets. That will raise its speed, which already exceeds that of its five closest competitors combined, Mr. Dongarra said.

The excellent @HPC_Guru on Twitter said:

K Supercomputer Technical details: 80k+ SPARC64 VIIIfx CPUs, 640K+ cores, 1PB+ RAM, 6-dimensional Mesh/Torus interconnect

But I have a reliable source who claims that this is using GRAPE cards as APUs to reach its performance without causing (another) meltdown in Japan..

The press release for the new Top500 says:

Unlike the Chinese system it displaced from the No. 1 slot and other recent very large system, the K Computer does not use graphics processors or other accelerators.

A Video for Earth Day – Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”

For Earth Day, here is a video of images of Earth accompanying Carl Sagan reading his Pale Blue Dot text.

Here’s the text, courtesy of the Planetary Society which Carl Sagan helped found.

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Have a good Earth Day.

“SuperMoon” Over Cardinia Reservoir

So according to NASA:

Full Moons vary in size because of the oval shape of the Moon’s orbit. It is an ellipse with one side (perigee) about 50,000 km closer to Earth than the other (apogee): diagram. Nearby perigee moons are about 14% bigger and 30% brighter than lesser moons that occur on the apogee side of the Moon’s orbit.

Saturday 19th March was meant to be one such and whilst a difference of about 14% isn’t that much to the naked eye I thought it’d be interesting to try and get some photos of the moon anyway. I looked at Google Earth and saw that the moon would be rising over Cardinia Reservoir as seen from the wall of the dam, so that seemed a perfect spot to go. I’d already been there that morning for a walk and got this shot of the early morning sun over the water with my Nokia N900 cameraphone:

Early morning sun over Cardinia Reservoir

So that evening Donna and I headed over to the reservoir with cameras and a tripod and got some nice shots of both the sunset (using the Nikon D90’s “LiveView” mode to avoid looking through the viewfinder) and the “supermoon” itself.

Sunset from Cardinia Reservoir Sunset from Cardinia Reservoir

The "SuperMoon" through trees at Cardinia Reservoir "SuperMoon" over Cardinia Reservoir

VLSCI: Systems Administrator – High Performance Computing, Storage & Infrastructure

* Please note: enquiry and application information via URL below, no agencies please!
* Must be Australian permanent resident or citizen.

Executive summary

Want to work with hundreds of TB of storage, HPC clusters and a Blue Gene supercomputer and have an aptitude for handling storage and data ?


VLSCI currently has in production as stage 1:

  • 2048 node, 8192 core IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer
  • 80 node, 640 core IBM iDataplex cluster (Intel Nehalem CPUs)
  • ~300TB usable of DDN based IBM GPFS storage plus tape libraries
  • 136 node, 1088 core SGI Altix XE cluster (Intel Nehalem CPUs)
  • ~110TB usable of Panasas storage

There is a refresh to a much larger HPC installation planned for 2012.

Both Intel clusters are CentOS/RHEL 5, the front end and service nodes for the Blue Gene are SuSE SLES 10. The GPFS servers are RHEL5. Panasas runs FreeBSD under the covers.

Job advert

Position no.: 0022139
Employment type: Full-time Fixed Term
Campus: Parkville

Close date: February 3rd, 2011

Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative, Melbourne Research

Salary: HEW 7: $69,608 – $75,350 p.a. or HEW 8: $78,313 – $84,765 p.a. plus 17% superannuation.

The Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI) is a Victorian Government project hosted at The University of Melbourne which aims to establish a world class Life Sciences Compute Facility for Victorian researchers. The Facility operates a number of supercomputers and storage systems dedicated to High Performance Computing. The VLSCI wishes to recruit a Linux Systems Administrator with knowledge of file systems and an interest in working with technologies such as GPFS, TSM, HSM, NFS.

This position is an opportunity to become involved in leading science and computing fields and work as part of a small but self-contained team. Expect to find yourself learning new skills and developing new and innovative solutions to problems that have not yet been identified. You have every opportunity to make a real difference and will need to contribute to a high level of service and creativity.

More Details

Selection criteria and more details are in the Position Description (PDF) here:

Apologies for the URL shortener, the original URL is a horribly long one.. 🙁