Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Perfection vs Excellence

The love of my life once told me, strive for excellence, not perfection.


Perfection is unattainable, whereas excellence is achievable.

Oxford’s defines perfection as the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects” while excellence is defined as “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good”.

Perfection and excellence both are human concepts, so naturally we use these as tools in our interface with the universe. Myriad examples of the application of either concept abound, so to narrow the focus to one, consider a sword made of diamond versus a sword made of Damascus steel.

The hypothetical diamond sword.
The diamond sword is perfect. It’s been crafted out of pure diamond, one of the hardest known substances on earth consisting of a crystal lattice of tetrahedrally bonded carbon atoms, and has a razor-sharp edge that can slice a piece of tissue paper falling across its blade cleanly in two with the help of gravity alone. Against an unarmored opponent, this sword would likely slice their flesh to ribbons in the hands of an adept duelist.

However, lurking within this flawless weapon is a fatal shortcoming. The carbon atoms of a diamond are bound in a relatively brittle lattice configuration, which many practitioners of diamond cutting will attest is easily fractured. Indeed, transforming uncut diamond into precious jewel-quality stones relies on this inherent crystalline structure.

In contrast, there is the sword crafted of fine Damascus steel. Although the physical shape of this sword is the same as its crystalline counterpart, its molecular structure is vastly more complex and variable.

Closeup of a Damascus steel blade.

Research on Damascus swords crafted in ancient times has revealed that impurities in the steel ingots used to craft these swords led to the formation of what we describe today as nanowires and carbon nanotubes, structures which lend unique variability and resilience to the metal at the molecular level. In addition, Damascus steel blades have been found to contain a variety of elements as impurities, including carbon, manganese, vanadium, calcium, lead, and others.

Now envision these two blades, each executing two basic techniques of sword combat, the slash, and the parry.

The slash involves using the sharpened edge of the blade to slice the flesh of an opponent.


Given the sharpness of the flawless diamond sword’s blade in this example, as well as that of the Damascus steel blade, and the target, say a pork belly, it seems clear that both blades will perform this straightforward task well. Indeed, perhaps the diamond will edge out the Damascus steel to some extent, similar to the way obsidian, a similarly brittle but remarkably sharp material exceeds the sharpness of surgical steel, reducing the extent of scar tissue in flesh.

The parry, however, is a bit more interactive. Rather than simply connecting the leading edge of a blade against flesh, a parry may involve blocking or deflecting a strike using the flat of the blade.


Whether the diamond blade is giving or receiving the parry, it’s highly likely that the blade will break. Given diamond’s relatively inflexible crystal lattice, the odds are very much in favor of any impact fracturing that lattice and causing the blade at best to crack in two, at worst to shatter into the proverbial million pieces.

What does this say about the efficacy of striving for excellence in favor of perfection?

Perfection has honed the diamond blade to razor sharpness, given it crystal clarity, and made it capable of slicing flesh with the greatest of ease. The focus, and utility, of the blade are as uniform as the pure carbon it’s composed of. For the specialized task of slashing, it is masterfully suited to this role.

Excellence has granted unique characteristics to the Damascus steel by virtue of the impurities infusing its molecular structure. It may result in an incision which under a microscope appears more jagged, but the relatively flexibility and resilience of the blade enable it more likely to withstand a powerful blow.

The diamond blade illustrates simultaneously the appeal and the danger of embracing perfection. Perfection is flawless, sublime, but inherently fragile, whereas excellence, though not flawless, may better endure the onslaughts of the unexpected by virtue of the very imperfections which define it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Windows Wallpaper Woes

After installing Windows 7 service pack 1 (build 7061), I inexplicably was unable to change the wallpaper, it allowed me to only change from one solid color to another.

I found a fix that worked for me, it involved simply opening the following folder and deleting the TranscodedWallpaper.jpg file contained within. 

Once I did this, I closed the Personalize screen and reopened it, and then I was able to once again change wallpaper to something considerably less drab than one of the various solid colors.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"Unknown Hard Error" BSOD and CI.DLL

My Windows 7 64-bit laptop suffered a BSOD with "Unknown hard error". A reboot resulted in Windows immediately going into Startup Repair mode, and the log showed that the file ci.dll had been corrupted.

I tried booting into Safe Mode, tried a Last Known Good boot, neither option worked, each time the system jumped back into Startup Repair. Finally, I chose the option Disable Driver Signature Enforcement, and was able to successfully boot into normal mode. This option bypasses the functionality in Windows which checks for system or driver file corruption and thus far it seemed like perhaps some software or driver I'd recently installed or updated might've led to this boot issue.

Days prior I'd been noticing some strange behavior in Windows. I had been unable to access my GMail and Live accounts. GMail would forever remain at the initial progress bar, eventually timing out and asking if I wanted to use basic HTML mode; Live would load the initial screen showing my email but just sit there, any clicks on my Inbox or Sent Items or other folders did nothing. Once I booted in this Disable Driver Signature Enforcement mode though, a new twist; it appeared my Google search results were now occasionally being redirected to advertising sites.

It turned out to be malware, a rootkit to be specific.

I ran a full scan with the latest SpyBot as well as Symantec Endpoint Protection, installed on all our workplace PCs, but these found nothing.

However, in tracking down other reports of apparent ci.dll file corruption, I discovered Kaspersky's TDSSKiller tool. I downloaded and ran the tool, which performed a concise scan that took roughly a minute to complete. Lo and behold, a rootkit, a member of the notorious TDSS family.


I ensured the Cure option was selected, then clicked Continue, and allowed the tool to initiate a reboot and hopefully clean out the rootkit.

Following the removal, I could once again boot into Windows normally, and the anomalous behaviors described above no longer occurred.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Vaccines: Unnatural Selection

Whether or not to vaccinate children from infectious disease is a hotly debated topic.

Bordetella pertussis, the bacteria responsible for whooping cough.

I encountered a discussion where some parents discuss their choice not to vaccinate their kids. The author cites various factors justifying this choice; that vaccines may compromise the body's ability to fight infection, may cause an allergic reaction, or hinder the healthy development of the immune system; that the ingredients of many vaccines, among which may be chicken, monkey, and aborted human fetal cells, aluminum, and various others, are undesirable to have injected into the body; that there is insufficient research to justify the use of vaccines to prevent disease.

Child receiving an oral vaccine for polio.

Evolution is an ongoing process, and the evolution of the human race is in many ways insulated from the process of natural selection. Medical science has insulated sufferers of type 1 diabetes like myself from being selected out of the population by providing synthetic insulin, an artificial means to adapt to a challenge thrust onto me by circumstance. Without this development, I would be dead, and my unique genetic heritage obliterated.

Similarly, vaccines enable the human body to compensate for many an infectious disease. No longer for a disease such as polio or measles or whooping cough need the body be completely unprepared for the onslaught; rather, a vaccine enables the unique signature of these and other contagions to be recognized by the body as pathogens, and enable it to produce an army of antibodies and other agents to systematically eradicate it.

Collection of poliovirus.

What if the entire human race stopped using vaccines altogether?

Many people would die. The science that goes into creating and refining vaccines would be absent, leaving the body to fend for itself against the elements, taking on from the environment whatever pathogens stray into its path.

However, many others would live. Sexual reproduction shuffles the cards of our genes between individuals, resulting in novel combinations of genetic traits, some of which will open the door to certain pathogens and slam them shut to others. For those who would survive, over long spans of time across many generations of human beings, the survivors would conceivably refine their immune systems to compensate for whatever pathogens their environment presents.

Of course, microbes also evolve, as evidenced by the emergence of MRSA; an antibiotic which is highly effective against one species of bacteria may prove ineffective against another, enabling the latter to thrive in spite of our best efforts to eliminate it. In the short term, it would seem that ideally vaccines provide relief from suffering by "tuning" the immune system to respond to pathogens. In the long term, however, the utility of vaccines is in my mind questionable.

Let's say we have a bacteria that causes the flesh to rapidly waste away and die, an uncompromisingly lethal, supercharged form of leprosy

Man aged 24 suffering from leprosy.

Science develops a vaccine which tunes the immune system to recognize and destroy this bacteria before it can take hold. Irrespective of whether your DNA already imparts a natural resistance to this bacteria or not, without fail a person who takes the vaccine will resist and survive. 

Now, remove the vaccine from the equation. Current and future generations must fend for themselves, and some will inevitably die, while others will suffer no consequences, having survived the bacteria by virtue of their natural immunity.

In the short term, we can dispense with vaccines and let children and adults contract diseases, suffer, and die. In the long term, diseases we fear today might be silently eradicated by our immune systems such that they no longer pose a threat. Vaccines today may indeed insulate us from suffering, and keep natural selection at bay by allowing those with insufficient immunity to withstand disease that might otherwise kill them.

"River of Time 2" by Scott Boden.

Question is, do we choose to take on nature without the benefit of safe, effective, rigorously-researched vaccines that do as they claim and prevent disease, or shrug our shoulders and keep a stiff upper lip as time marches on, serving as the ancestors of people in the far future who will benefit from our suffering in the form of immune systems tuned through the generations? 

I'm in favor of vaccines, provided that they are researched extensively so that they enable us to safely, effectively augment our ability to combat infectious disease. No offense to any of my future relatives, but if we can combat human suffering in the here and now, we should.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Solar Pool Heater DIY Leak Repair

Mighty Putty is one of the last products sponsored in part by the late Billy Mays.

Boasting the ability to bond numerous materials with the holding power of epoxy, including water pipes, I wondered whether this stuff could tackle a problem with some leaking HiTec solar pool heating panels.

Some years ago, I had a HiTec solar system installed to heat my swimming pool with solar energy. Consisting of a series of black panels of tubes which convey pool water up and onto the roof, given enough sunlight the system makes an otherwise chilly pool very swimmable.

Made of a rigid, ultraviolet-resistant plastic, the panels can be damaged by, say, falling tree branches or, as my contractor claimed, squirrels. The contractor who installed the system claimed that leaks that had developed in a couple of the panels recently were attributable to "squirrel damage" which conveniently for them is one type not covered by the manufacturer's limited warranty. 

Aside from the fact that no plastic-hungry squirrels nor squirrel spoor laden with plastic shavings had been discovered on my property, making determining the actual cause of the damage a difficult enterprise to say the least, this also meant that the contractor would be able to collect a roughly $135 service call fee to service the system for an out-of-warranty repair. How convenient that the contractor could fall back on these dastardly, elusive squirrels as the cause and not something actually covered by the warranty!

Commonly found, uncommonly evil, or so the contractor claims...

I wondered whether Mighty Putty might be able to save me some money.

I had basically two types of defects that had arisen in one of the panel arrays. One was a section of one of the tubes that appeared to have cracked off, a structural defect about 2" long.

Before application... a huge chunk of tube is missing.

Another consisted of pinhole leaks caused by abrasions to the plastic tubing, whether by falling tree branches impacting the panels, or the aforementioned scrabbling squirrels. Generally, since a solar system benefits from as much sun exposure as possible, installation under trees is inadvisable, but sometimes unavoidable. Unfortunately, a pine tree, a few of whose branches overhang the roof, probably were the culprit, both as a result of falling debris and as a squirrel habitat.

Following the instructions, I sliced about a 1" wide section of Mighty Putty, and kneaded it thoroughly for several minutes until it became a uniform, grayish consistency indicating that it's ready for use.

I roughened the area around the breach with some sandpaper and blew the resulting dust away. Then, I molded the putty into roughly the shape of a drinking straw cut in half lengthwise, large enough to encompass the hole and replace the missing plastic. Finally, I molded the putty patch onto the empty area and took care to apply even pressure all along the seam to ensure maximum contact with the plastic.

After application, covering the gap.

The pinhole leaks required slightly less putty to fix, but a similar process. To these I applied small dabs of putty sufficient to completely cover the holes.

For plumbing repairs, the makers of Mighty Putty boast a cure time of as little as 30 minutes before pressure is restored. HiTec states that their panels are pressure tested up to 90 psi, but that typically a swimming pool solar heating system will hover around 20 to 40 psi. I figured that this pressure is probably less than that of household plumbing. I would soon find out for sure. I climbed the roof, applied the putty, and allowed it to set for a full 24 hours just to be safe. The result? 

Success! The putty stopped the leaks in their tracks. 

It remains to be seen whether the putty will stand up to daily exposure to sun and chlorinated, pressurized pool water, but for now, the putty fully filled my expectations for far less than the cost of a service call, as well as saving me the time and trouble that would necessitate getting the perforated panel replaced outright.

Well done, Billy Mays. R.I.P.