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Newsletter

I send out a sort of semi-regular newsletter with, well, news of what we're up to at the moment as well as funny, interesting, saddening tidbits… stuff that somehow tingled my imagination (which is, admittedly, rather easy to tingle). See further down on this page for some of the things I've sent so far.

As long as Vero and I don't travel there should be one such email in the pipeline perhaps once or twice a month (although there can be long silences as well: we had so much on our plate during 2007 that I simply skipped the newsletters). However, while we're on the road I do send stuff much more regularly: normally I post a message for every seven to ten days worth of travelling. All these messages are archived by year of travel in the travel section.

Anyone who wants to receive either the newsletter or our travel messages should just head to the Contact page and fill in the form, stating that he or she wants to subscribe to newsletter and/or the travel mails, not forgetting name and the email address.

Copies of Past Newsletters

Following are the newsletters I've sent since August 2006. You might also have a look at the stuff from the first half of 2006 or the archive for 2005.

Newsletter 24.09.2006

Dear all:

some ideas are so simple and yet at the same time so ingenious that I am literally left speechless. Here is one of these ideas: building a reliable and cheap tsunami warning system. This was considered impossible because it's an extremely complicated business. A tsunami is much slower than the waves of the earth quake that precipitated it -- but the amplitude of the tsunami wave in the open water is too small to be measured or observed directly.

Well, Michael Stadler, an Austrian, had an inspiration which is nothing short of marvellous. He knew that all over the world there are millions and millions of PCs with hard disks in them. He also knew that most modern hard disks can measure the vibrational stress their heads are subjected to. Now most of these movements are purely random and of no further consequence. But think of how the wave front of an earth quake moves through the mass of the earth and shakes the ground...

So he imagined (and later wrote) a simple program, called Tsunami Harddisk Detector, that would read out these vibrational measurements. This program, available free of charge, could then be installed on many PCs across the world, but especially in tsunami-prone areas, and all these PCs would then share the vibrational data of their hard disks via the internet, in a huge peer-to-peer network. A few strategically placed computers would act as supervisors and consolidate the data into a coherent picture.

This means that if there is an earth-quake front advancing, the system will be able to find the epicentre and warn, perhaps many hours before they actually arrive, of possible tsunamis. All that with a few million hard disks, a freeware program and the internet: an A M A Z I N G piece of lateral thinking. See here for the details: http://www.ninsight.at/tsunami/index.shtml

* * All of Silicon Valley, that's about 4000 square kilometers with 42 towns and 2.4 million people, will become a huge hotspot in the next few years... which means that wherever you are in the valley you will have wireless high-speed internet access, one megabit literally everywhere. This is one of the first tentative steps towards a development I am awaiting eagerly and yet with some trepidation: that the whole earth will be one giant hotspot, a wireless surfers' paradise. Broadband speed wherever you are, whether in the scorching heat of the Gobi or floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean...

This will come, no doubt. It's only a matter of time and resources. The whole thing is a bit like mobile phone coverage that's reaching ridiculous places these days (in Iran and especially Turkey we saw the locals use their mobile phones in all sorts of out-of-the-world places with a matter-of-course attitude we found rather mind-boggling. Well, the phones always worked!) See http://www.wirelesssiliconvalley.org/

* * Some of you may remember that I wrote about the 43. Mersenne prime number (M43) some months ago. For details see: http://www.mersenne.org/

Well, M44 has just been found. The funny thing about this is that there is prize money ($100.000... a tidy sum) to be won for the person or institution that finds the first Mersenne prime number with more than 10 million places (the money comes from the Electronic Frontier Foundation). No 44, alas, falls just short of this limit: it has "only" 9.808.358 places. Here's the actual number, though in its much shorter exponential form:

2 ^ 32.582.657 - 1

If you want to print all 9.808.358 places of M44, here is a fast program that does exactly that for all Mersenne prime numbers (see the part called "Compiled executables for printing Mersenne numbers and associated perfect numbers are also available for download"): http://www.apfloat.org/apfloat/

* * The hard disk just turned 50. It is nearly unbelievable how this piece of hardware has developed over the decades. The first HDs more resembled washing machines or fridges and they had tiny capacities, in the low megabyte (10^6) range. Today we are approaching one terabyte (10^12). That's almost a factor of one million! Not to talk about physical size and the speed of these things (or that they can be used as tsunami warners...).

The first real hard disk I ever saw was for an Apple ][ and it had a five megabyte capacity. This was 1981 and the marvel (back then, it *was* a marvel) cost about 2500 dollar. Nowadays, a tenth of that, 250 dollars, buys you a 20 GB MP3 player that you carry around in the palm of your hand.

If airplane and rocket technology had developed with the same awesome speed, our space ships would easily break the speed-of-light barrier by now and we would routinely visit strange creatures near alpha Centauri or other otherworldly places. Hm...

A US computer magazine, PC World, has produced a nice timeline about the 50-year development of the hard disk: http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,127105/article.html

* * Speaking about otherworldly stuff, astronomers in Utrecht have analysed traces (and photographed them as well) of a huge super nova (nicknamed RCW 86) that they think took place about 2000 years ago. It seems probable that this is the very same super nova Chinese astronomers wrote about in 185 AD... this was the first super nova ever that was recorded by human beings. Speak of old acquaintances:-)

Well, that's the last mail for September. I wish you a nice Sunday evening and a calm and happy week.

Thomas

PS: The short and sweet philosophical inquiry that follows will probably *not* endear me to the female readers of my newsletter, but I found it irresistible. And sometimes men just have to defend their ground... So here goes:

"If a man stands in a forest and speaks out and not a single woman is in earshot... is he still wrong?"

Newsletter 10.09.2006

Dear all:

today's newsletter is a bit shorter than usual... two days ago I have received the replacement for our Creative Muvo2, the MP3 player that died on us in Iran. This is a 20gb player from a French company called Archos, a nifty and amazingly tiny piece of high-tech wizardry (it's touted as the smallest 20gb player in the world and I think that's true). For those interested in these things, I will soon put a short description of the player (XS202S) and some photos online. But for the time being I am playing with my new toy!

* * Google offers a zillion services nowadays and even for someone like me who is using many of them and tries to follow the new things as they come up, this is not always obvious. So here is something for the book lovers among you: Google books.

This service gives access to an incredible number of books, many in the form of scans, a lot also downloadable as full-text, printable and everything (if you want only these, click on "Full view books", just below the search box). The sheer number of things one can find and browse with that service is indeed amazing; I can already see how this will develop into another HUGE productivity killer:-). Go here: http://books.google.com

(If you search for "Thomas Lauer" and "All books", for example, the first book that pops up is the US edition (alas the only one I ever did: books travel easier in the other direction) of one my German computer books, about Windows programming. You can actually browse through the text... though it's a rather dry and technical read.)

* * Here's another small helper for parents with small kids (or cats, for that matter): ToddlerKeys v 0.97. This disables mouse and keyboard input and just shows another picture or plays a sound whenever a key is pressed (yes, it's indeed for toddlers:-)): http://tk.ms11.net/

(By the way: I found this while searching for a utility that switches off the keyboard and mouse... for whatever strange reason I only think of cleaning them once my computer is switched on, never when it's off.)

* * If you need a joke program, perhaps to tease a naughty colleague or to baffle your kids (so that for once it's *you* baffling them and not the other way round), go here: http://www.rjlsoftware.com/software/entertainment/default.cfm?v=l

The site carries a rather large collection of all sorts of useless programs that have one thing in common: they are pranks. Some are simple and funny, others are sophisticated and even more funny and a few border on the insane and can be *extremely* funny -- for the perpetrator, that is. Use with moderation.

* * What is Googlefasting? Well, fasting means to abstain from consuming something, food, drink, whatever, for religious or other reasons. And Googlefasting means to refrain from using Google services (search, mail, books etc.) for a period of, say, two weeks. I tried it and found it impossible. I M P O S S I B L E.

I am not sure whether this says more about my addiction to Google services or the quality of their offerings. But this was, in a way, a scary experience. (That is also one of the reasons why I like travelling: I completely forget all that computer crap.)

* * If you want to make history (well, at least a small part of history), this site may be for you: http://www.new7wonders.com/index.php

The guys behind this try to find what they call the "New Seven Wonders of the World". The contest has now boiled down to a short list of 21 candidates, among them the usual suspects: Taj Mahal, Sydney Opera, Acropolis, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower etc. But there are also a few surprises. I didn't vote yet (I am not such a fan of these things), but if I were to do so, my vote would go to the Aya Sofia.

Check it out... and if you want, send me a short message with your own top three or so; if there are enough answers, perhaps I can produce a sort of super short list with the top three or four. Would be interesting to compare this list to the actual winners, which will be announced 07.07.07.

* * A short note about the book reviews I update regularly. The stuff for July and August is now online. See this page: http://thomaslauer.com/books/Book_Reviews

Well, that's it for today; I hope you have a good time...

Thomas

PS: Maths... just a quick reminder: the volume of a pizza of radius 'z' and thickness 'a' is given by pi*z*z*a.

Newsletter 30.08.2006

Dear all:

no mail last Sunday which means we were indeed in the Brecon Beacons. The weather on Saturday was mixed (let's sound upbeat:-)), but we still managed a six-hour walk (and got drenched twice) on the Fforest Fawr side: Forest Lodge, Fan Frynych, Fan Llia, Sarn Helen (for those who know the Brecon Beacons). Sunday, by contrast, was a beautiful day, and of course we did one of our big rounds: up Pen-y-Fan from the Brecon side, then over to Cribyn, Bwlch, Fan-y-Big, southeast to the far edge of the plateau and then northwards along the ridge until we met the path coming up from Llanfrynach, finally back to Fan-y-Big, Bwlch and down to the car. Seven solid hours of walking and not a single drop of rain.

On Monday we drove up to Hay-on-Wye (a famous "book village") and as usual I couldn't stop myself: at least I only bought nine books (sometimes the count's in the twenties). Afterwards we went to Hay Bluff, a local mountain, climbed that, and continued driving south, through one of the most beautiful valleys of south Wales (the Llantony route). We were back in B'stoke by yesterday evening.

It was a fine trip and we were happy that we could show our French friend the beauties of the Welsh countryside. As an aside, she was amazed how cold the British mountains can be: it was relatively warm in Brecon, but up there, with the constant wind, it was much, much colder than the 600 or so metres of height gain would suggest. The British mountains are perhaps are not very high but they are pretty cold.

* * This is a funny one. Imagine a young guy (Mr Amin, 29, an Iraqi) who accompanies his mother on a trip to Turkey. Airport security being what it is nowadays, staff (Chicago O'Hare) ask him about a "small, black, squeezable rubber object" in his backpack. Well, Mr Amin stands next to his upright, innocent mother and whispers, out of the edge of his mouth, that this is just "a pump" (no need to explain what the thing is good for).

The female security staffer mishears him and thinks the guy has just admitted that he is carrying "a bomb". This in turn means Mr Amin is in very deep waters now: he is taken away and brought before a judge. So Mr Amin explains the (pretty obvious) situation, shows Exhibit A (his (in-)famous rubber pump), but the security staffer insists that the actual words she heard were "a bomb". So the judge goes ahead and now poor Mr Amin faces a possible three years in jail: http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/cst-nws-pump24.html

* * The 7th Mobile Phone Throwing World Championship in Savolinna (Finland), was won by Lassi Etelatalo, a local. He took the gold medal against competition coming from Belgium, Canada and Russia: he threw his mobile (a high-flyer from Nokia) a full 89 metres. See: http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20060826/wr_nm/finland_phones_dc

* * My very efficient mother just served us nine pizzas. Well, it seems we have just lost the pizzas. As some of you may have heard already, Pluto is no longer a first-class planet: the poor thing has been downgraded to the status of a so-called dwarf planet. A pity... I thought we would get a few more planets and instead we've lost one! More is here: http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/08/24/news/pluto.php

* * While we're in the astronomer's section, here is a truly spectacular photo of a supernova (Cassiopeia A) taken by the Hubble telescope: http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/html/heic0609a.html

There are many more photos of a similar Oh-Ah effect on-site, see the Hall of Fame or the Top 100.

* * Speaking of photos, I have put the first set of pics (much more modest ones than Hubble's, to be sure) from our Middle East trip on my website. They deal mostly with the Turkey and Iran bits. Please check this page: http://thomaslauer.com/travel/Middle_East_2006

That's it, but more will follow later next week. A pleasant weekend to you all!

Thomas

Newsletter 20.08.2006

Dear all:

In yesterday's Guardian, in the travel section, was a long article about the Middle East and why NOW is the best time to go there. I have to agree wholeheartedly: whatever venom the regimes and autocrats in the region may spit towards each other or the US of A or the West in general... the actual people on the ground have *always* been so warm-hearted and grateful that I can only wonder where the idea comes from that these Arab countries are in any way a dangerous region. And given the fact that many of the big sites and cities (Palmyra, Petra, Damascus...) are now practically tourist-free, this surely must be the time to go and to have the holiday of a lifetime.

* * Well, here's a taster for the region: in my Kitchen section on the website I have posted the recipe for Baba Ganoush. I can almost hear you ask now... what the heck *is* Baba Ganoush? Well, check it out: http://thomaslauer.com/diy/Baba_Ganoush

Over the next few weeks I'll put some more Middle Eastern recipes online.

* * Tibet... what Tibet? For a funny expose of (the otherwise amazing) Google Earth and some nice aerial pictures of Tibet visit this page: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/08/18/google_tibet/print.html

* * Diigo a is new collaboration service on the web. It does what the other social bookmarking and interaction sites do and much more. It's a must-have for all those who browse and consume a lot of content online (as I do). Among other things you can annotate any or all web sites (you make one or more notes on, say, an Amazon page and whenever you visit that web page again, diigo shows you all your notes); you can clip and save web pages (or parts); bookmark pages locally and online, so your bookmarks are synchronised and you can see them wherever in the world you happen to be; and last but not least diigo integrates with all important blogging tools.

But the most interesting thing about all this may be the fact that, if you want, you can share your notes, clips, bookmarks (all or just a selection) with friends and other people (a little like del.icio.us on steroids). All in all a very nicely done web service, available for Internet Explorer users as well as the Firefox line of browsers (ie Flock etc.): http://www.diigo.com/

* * Having mentioned the Firefox browser: this is now my web browser of choice and I can't imagine going back to Internet Explorer, even if version 7 does finally support tabbed browsing. Firefox is an extremely "tweakable" application... much more so than IE: http://getfirefox.com

However, I am currently evaluating another free browser: Opera 9.01, from the Arctic circle (well, at least from Norway:-)). I will report.

* * The Economist declares Mr Nasrallah the "winner of the war". He certainly looks like the winner and helpfully Iran and Syria are making all the appropriate noises. However, I am not so sure. For one thing, it's now clear that Hezbollah is a dangerous organisation that can do what it pleases in Lebanon: the Lebanese government (not to talk about its army) is far too weak to deal with them. If even Israel's famed military could not crack that nut after a month-long war...

I think that if the world does not want to end up in an even worse situation than with Iran's "energi atomi" Hezbollah has to be brought to book. Alas, the West is reluctant to do anything significant, beyond the one thing our helmsmen are very good at: talking.

The UN promised the Israelis and Lebanese to send in a big force and engineered a shaky truce with that promise (all very welcome, of course)... but now, where are the soldiers, the forces, to keep that promise, to sustain that shaky cease-fire? Funny, there are not even rules of engagement: so much for the clearsightedness of UN diplomats.

I imagine the whole sordid business will in the end, and once again, fall to the Israelis. They will, once again, have to get their hands dirty while Western politicians and media chiefs sit on the fence and talk about human right violations.

And somehow, I can't blame the Israelis. I believe their treatment of the Palestinians was and is scandalous, that their handling of that crisis has been a complete disgrace for years, if not decades. But they are still right to insist that *someone* has to deal (and rather sooner than later) with the far bigger threat that emanates from Hezbollah, backed by an Iran that sports a Uranium-enriching president who so eloquently can talk about wiping Israel off the map.

* * Engineers are a dry, calculating, boring bunch of geeks. And computer engineers are even worse. Well, that's the cliché anyway. Like all clichés, it's not completely wrong but it distorts the picture beyond recognition. Here is a nicely done website which proves beyond doubt that computer engineers *do* have a heart, even -- dare I say it? -- a romantic side: http://microscopy.fsu.edu/creatures/index.html

On this page, dubbed Silicon Zoo, there are explanations and dozens of links to photos shot through the ocular of a microscope. Photos of what? Mostly of animals... but not of animals in the wild. No, these amazing beasts are tiny, yet elaborate graphics etched into the silicon layers of CPUs, memory controllers, sound chips etc. There are other images as well (one of the supersonic Concorde, another of a three-towered medieval castle, a third of a Rolex watch...). And these images are *really* tiny: some are only third of the breadth of a human hair, in the 20 to 50 micrometer range.

It's really unbelievable... all the stuff these supposedly stolid engineers have put onto their chips. There's even a Snoopy and an ancient Pepsi commercial around! Plus on the site, there are Windows wallpapers and screensavers to download. Do have a look: highly recommended!

* * Next weekend we will be gone to southern Wales (Brecon Beacons, climbing Pen-y-Fan and other assorted summits), weather permitting. So if there's nothing in your inbox next Sunday, it means the weather was good:-) But I will send something later, perhaps on Tuesday.

Have a good time

Thomas

Newsletter 13.08.2006

Dear all:

Not really a fully-fledged newsletter, this -- more an announcement that from today I will recommence my weekly mutterings... until we run off once again.

* * We have put all the emails from our Middle East 2006 trip on the website, have a look at http://thomaslauer.com/travel/ME2006_Mails_French si vous êtes français, or http://thomaslauer.com/travel/ME2006_Mails_English otherwise.

(In case you have received none of our mails, although you are on our mailing list: we are probably in your spam filter. PLEASE send me a note, so I can figure out what's going on.)

Photos, of which we have toooooo many (and then some), will come later.

* * Bill Gates is one of fifty foreigners the Chinese think have shaped their country (there's one -- yes: one -- woman among the otherwise wholly male congregation: Marie Curie). And who might be the other 48? Makes for interesting reading, the list (and also sports quite a few surprises): http://ht251.blogspot.com/2006/07/50-foreigners-influenced-china.html

* * Do terrorists need actual bombs these days? They have crept into our heads and that's enough. The severe disruption Heathrow and the other British airports suffered this week shows how vulnerable we've become. Flying will become more and more difficult.

Not to talk about living in big cities: I believe we will see an attempt to explode a dirty bomb in New York or another iconic American city this side of 2012. A few kilograms of explosives mixed with a little Uranium (Plutonium would be much worse) will finish off any city. (Marie Curie learned a lot about the devastating power of radioactivity: she died of leukemia because she handled Radium with her naked hands.)

What a fortunate thing then, that George Bush's brave war on terror in Iraq, his unwavering fight against "Islamic fascists" (oh, what presidential eloquence), his focused efforts to pacify the Middle East, have made the world a safer place... imagine the dangers we would face without President Bush at the helm.

* * On a more positive note, HP has new digital cameras with built-in image processing capabilities: you take a snap and these high-tech miracles make sure it's picture perfect. They can remove red eyes, for example. There are other automatic functions, one of which I found especially engrossing: an automatic slimming option. This means you take a picture of, say, Nero Wolfe (or your boy/girlfriend) and the camera optimises the photo so that he (or she) looks more like Twiggy.

(Folks, if you think that's a belated April fools' joke, it's not. http://www.gizmodo.com/gadgets/slimming/ has more.)

I imagine the next big thing will be a camera that does away with crow's feet and gives me back my once pitch-black hair.

I hope you have a good week, even without a slimming camera!

Thomas

PS: An excerpt from a song on The Beautiful South's new CD (sorry if you're a Mancunian):

Lovely, innit?


$updated from: Newsletter.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:12:47 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$