Satellite Of Luck

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Something weird happened today.

I was doing an electronics job, replacing the LNB on a satellite dish. That’s the receiver bit at the focus there; it’s much more than just an antenna though. Controlled by the set-top box, the LNB is actually re-tuned to the particular frequency you’re looking for. The microwave signals are too tenuous to bring down a wire to a tuner, so it has to be done right here. Which is why you can’t watch one satellite channel while recording another, and have to find something on RTÉ to watch instead.

Before I understood this I’d tried to split the signal from a dish into two boxes, with predictably unpredictable results. What you need is an LNB that has multiple outputs. Here we went with four, so you can record two satellite channels while watching two others. Say.

A word of warning if you’re considering doing this – I got the LNB in Maplin. Don’t do that. Maplin are well known to be on the pricey side for some things, but in the case of the LNB I paid at least double what I could’ve got this for online. They provide a great service and I like to patronise them, but that’s a bit much.

Especially as it wouldn’t fit. The current LNB (pictured) has an integral bracket, The new one doesn’t, so I had to go back for one. Also – now that I’d actually done research – some silicone grease and self-amalgamating tape. The former is a jelly-like waterproofing agent in a tube, the latter a strange sort of rubbery tape that melds with itself to make seals for the cable connections. And if the LNB was overpriced, these accessories were eye-watering. The bracket, a small piece of plastic that bends into shape, fetched €16.49. Here’s the same thing for a fiver. The job could have been done for half nothing with a little planning.

But anyway, armed with all the right bits today I climbed the ladder, undid the cable and pulled off the old LNB, pushed in the new one with its bracket, did up the cable, came inside and turned on the TV. And this is where the weird thing happened.

It worked first time. No hitches, no inexplicable problems, no wasted hours figuring out what I did wrong. Swap the units over… TV pictures. I didn’t have to alter the positioning of the LNB, futz with its polarisation angle, re-scan the channels, nothin’. The job was just done.

It’s a strangely uncomfortable feeling.

Second shoe, where are you?

Finally Fixing That Calendar

The phases of the moon: the golden part shows ...
An earlier, failed attempt at calendrical simplification

In many ways today is already the first day of a new year. Christmas is the de facto midwinter festival after all, and we’re already a week into the actual solar year. I wonder aloud, was December 25th chosen because it was the halfway point between the logical (but pagan-associated) solstice and the incorrect but well-established Roman new year?

So to start the year I will deal with some unfinished business. I’ve been promising to return to the topic of calendar reform since… January, gawd. As you’ll no doubt remember, I reached the conclusion that it would be nice if we could have one that keeps time with both the sun and the moon. The obvious problem here is that in reality, the periods of day, month and year just don’t divide into one another evenly. Why should they, after all? They’re just rocks spinning around in space.

The trick then is to find approximated versions of these periods that fit together neatly enough. Many civilisations have tried only to give up. Islam settled on a fully lunar calendar, which is why it is about 11 days shorter than the solar Christian one. That itself still has a vestigial lunar element; its months were originally in time with the moon, but various reforms have broken this almost beyond recognition.

Not though, beyond repair. They managed to square the solar cycle by adding an extra day every four years; we just need a similar idea to fix the months, so that the waxing and waning of one moon fits precisely into each. Because that would be cool. I put a lot of work into this, and figured out that it could be done quite easily. The real month is very close to being 29.5 days long, so we could simply have alternating calendar months of 29 and 30 days. No problem!

OK, months of that length don’t fit evenly into a year. There will be twelve and a bit between every winter solstice. But that’s the whole point – there aren’t an even twelve months in a real year, and trying to make it be that way has wrought a world where we all have to memorize a stupid rhyme. We just need to accept that and then we can move on.

But what we do want is for the months to stay, at least approximately, at the same time of the year; April will always be Spring, September Autumn, and so on. And as it turns out, just two “leap months” in every five years is sufficient to keep them aligned with better than 98% accuracy. Add a couple of minor rules and the cycles can be kept in time for thousands of years. I checked this out thoroughly, even using spreadsheets to painstakingly project the cycles centuries into the future. Incredibly, it stays in time. It seems almost too simple. Why had no one thought of this before?

Well of course, someone had – quite some time ago. After several days of calculations, I realised I’d basically just reinvented the Jewish calendar. It’s a fine piece of astronomical workmanship with roots going back to the very beginnings of civilization, and has been successfully keeping sun and moon in harmony for a very, very long time. Why don’t we use it, or something like it? I strongly suspect, simply because it is Jewish.

We should though.

A Christmas Tree In Sunlight

Christmas2012

Well you know, the exams. And then all the things I had to put off because of the exams. But it came together in the end. To be honest I was so hopped up on exam adrenaline that I got shopping done before I knew it. Oh and there was a side project – of which more anon.

Anyway, this year’s tree ended up being modest but respectable. Though I should point out that the picture shows a miniature pine, not giant presents. We got one in a pot as this is more eco-friendly, and also easier. Assuming it survives it’ll be brought in at Christmas for years to come. Biggest problem will be resisting the temptation to leave the lights on it.

Well I hope all of you who celebrate Christmas – whether you’re actually Christian, or merely see it as an opportunity to give things to people you care about – had a lovely day. I’m going to sleep now.

Three Billion In Change

Bank Dance

All This Needs Is a Soundtrack By Loituma

Are we not the sharpest-dressed protesters you have ever seen? We’re at the launch of a new commemorative coin – face value, €15 – an event we found more than ironic on the day that the Dáil debates a budget designed to exact from the poor the money promised by the rich to the rich. Unemployment benefit is being cut. Children’s allowance is being cut. Respite support for carers is being cut – this last so obscenely cruel to the vulnerable protectors of the even more vulnerable that I strongly suspect it was put in the budget just to make the other cuts seem politically acceptable.

All of this, basically so that we can make the latest €3.1 billion of payments to the people whose reckless lending destroyed our economy. Yes seriously, we continue to reward the rapacious, wilfully short-sighted, knowingly unsustainable lending that led to 2008. Though we cannot afford it, though we will never be able to pay back the enormous sums our banks went bust owing, we continue to try – by means of attacking the unemployed and impoverished. This is not the function and duty of a state.

Ours was a restrained, even polite protest today. The only real way to tell us from the people who were invited was that we wore less make-up. I’d come directly from an exam in project management. There my wearing a suit had been cause for comment, but I think it gave me a real psychological advantage. No one else did the management exam dressed like the manager.

Whether it was this or the intense preparation I put in, my least-favourite subject turned out be probably my best exam. If it had a fault it was that I spent more time than I really should have on a favourite question. This concerned people issues in “Agile programming”, a modern approach that requires the code-trolls to closely interact with clients. The people issues, they abounded; for the rest of the exam I kept going back to the answer to add new ones I’d thought of. Mixing people with coding skills and interpersonal skills together is not a business methodology, it’s the premise for The IT Crowd.

And that, incidentally, concluded my first semester. What a short strange trip it’s been. That in six months I could end up actually enjoying questions of personnel management theory… It’s some change all right.