I Covered LIGO Before It Was Cool

Back in 2005 when I was an undergraduate in Physics at LSU, I tried to cover LIGO for the weekly campus newspaper I freelanced for, Tiger Weekly. You may have heard of LIGO in recent days with the discovery of gravity waves. Well, I knew what they were trying to do over a decade ago and how cool and monumental a thing it would be. I just had trouble convincing others of this fact.

The problem was things were tumultuous at the paper with a new editor and an attempt to adjust the content to appeal to a broader readership. And the way things worked was a writer would propose a story idea, the editor(s) would give it the green light or not, and then the writer would go to work on the story for the next issue. Well, this process did not guarantee the story would ever be published and the writer paid.

I was considered the news guy at the time and was often tasked with some of the more difficult subjects and stories we covered, especially the technical ones. This was not necessarily a good role to have to play at a paper more focused on drug use, student’s sex lives, sports, selling beer and bar ads, and covering whatever the controversial flavor of the month was, but I played it. I enjoyed it, usually. I actually learned about LIGO while covering some other stories coming out of LSU’s Center for Computation for Computation and Technology (CCT), like the hiring of a former NASA JPL computer scientist, Dr. Thomas Sterling, that went by the nickname “tron.” It was cool stuff.

Well, LIGO fascinated me when I learned about it for a few reasons. First, I love reading stuff about black holes and gravity and I got to speak with people using supercomputers to model the collision of spiraling neutron stars. Nerd heaven.

Second, LIGO is based in Livingston, Louisiana, which is about an hour from LSU’s campus, and it seemed shocking that such research was being done in the state. It was like learning they were testing a warp drive down the road. And the folks at the CCT were always nice and cooperative and more than happy to discuss their work with me

And third (this is completely geeky), my sci-fi theory for faster than light travel revolves around gravity waves.

My thinking goes (and I was told this was the case) that gravity waves behave like regular waves, meaning they can interfere with one another. I’ll just link to the wiki article on the phenomena to save time. So if gravity waves can interfere with another another like regular waves then you can do one of two interesting things: neutralize a wave or cause it to resonate. Just like how a singer can shatter a champagne glass by producing the right tone, we might be able to do something similar to space-time itself without needing a pair of black holes. That’s what’s great about resonance patterns and standing waves. They let you keep contributing tiny bits of energy to a wave to keep increasing its amplitude. It’s like pushing someone on a swing to get them higher and higher. So, let’s do the same with gravity and significantly smaller masses to see what happens.

I even emailed Michio Kaku once asking if this was possible, but never got a response. I’ll put it in a wildly popular book one day and then he won’t be able to ignore me any longer! Geek rant (fail) over.

So, I brought the story to the attention of the editor and dove right into setting up interviews and doing research. After many hours of work, I produced a 900 words feature story on the facility and sent it to the editor for review. She rejected it on the basis it was too technical.

I was really upset with this at the time and it even irks me a little now, given the recent breakthrough. I had been so excited about the story and put a lot of time and effort into it, as well as taking up other people’s time. And well, I didn’t get paid. It might have only been like $25 or $30. I can’t remember for certain, but it was my money. But looking back now with the benefit of experience and reading the original story (which I pulled off a laptop older than the story), the editor wasn’t completely wrong. The story was in need of some dumbing down.

Fortunately, I wasn’t finished with LIGO. It took another year and a new editor (managing editor), as well as developing my own abilities and reputation as a writer. We got one of those overly complicated press releases about the facility “reaching design sensitivity,” and the managing editor at the time (who kept things running through Katrina), Samantha Morgan, brought it to my attention. Well, I jumped at the chance to do another LIGO story and be paid for it this time. Samantha, who remains a good friend and has moved onto much bigger and better things, was a lot more open-minded about story ideas, thankfully. And I felt that was to the benefit of the paper. So, when I got in touch with old contacts, reused some stuff from the original story I wrote, and updated things with the news in the press release, she published the story. It took a year, but I got it done.

I wish I could link to the story. Once upon a time, I could have, but the original website that hosted all of my freelance stories from those days died when the paper re-branded itself, DIG. It’s kind of sad and I wish the publisher would post those old stories in an archive format or something, assuming copies of them still exist.

Nevertheless, I like to hold onto things that might become important later, so here’s a scan from one of my old copies of the original issue of Tiger Weekly, March 22-28, 2006. You can click on them to enlarge them for the sake of readability. And yes, there is at least one typo. I think I have a typo curse or something about my writing style screws with people’s brains. Even when my stuff goes through professional editors, its weird how artifacts escape notice. And I’m not faulting Samantha. Tiger Weekly had a shoestring (if your shoestrings are made of dental floss) budget and reliable copy editors were hard to come by. The one or two we did have time to time were usually just overwhelmed trying to edit a dozen stories on a Sunday afternoon.

LIGO Story 2006_0001 LIGO Story 2006_0002

And for comparison sake, here’s the original 2005 version of the story. It’s more general, more technical, was never published, and never passed before the eyes of a copy editor. But I’m still a little proud of it. It’s cool being able to say that, yes, I covered what LIGO was up to ten years before the big boys even deigned to notice it. I bet the relevant Wikipedia entries got slammed with traffic when word got out.

Continue reading “I Covered LIGO Before It Was Cool”

Oculus Rift and Beer at the Tin Roof Tap Room for Tech Tuesday

A little over a week ago, I went with a couple of buddies to enjoy some free beer at the Tin Roof Brewery and a demo of an admittedly older version of the nifty VR headset, Oculus Rift. And after my house being broken into, a lot of my stuff stolen, and all the insurance paperwork that comes with that, I needed the night out.

I had been to the Tin Roof Brewery’s Tap Room before for a beer dinner, so I was already familiar with their beers. The first beer I had was the Rougarou, named for the mythical shape-shifting, swamp monster that haunts South Louisiana. Despite being rated at 108 IBU’s, I didn’t find it nearly that bitter. After some party snacks, I followed the Rougarou with the Perfect Tin Amber Ale. I wanted something lighter on flavor and alcohol content with a bit of maltiness to it and this beer hit the spot.

If you’ve never visited the Tin Roof Tap Room or the brewery, it’s worth checking out at least once if you find yourself in Baton Rouge looking for something to do.

Beyond the beer, I got to try out the Oculus Rift as part of a tech demo organized by the Louisiana Technology Park. LSU Digital Media Arts & Engineering Director Marc Aubanel was on hand to give a little presentation about the technology and its applications for gaming and learning. Marc was a cool guy and an old fan of the Ultima series. You can learn more about him in this interview on YouTube here.

Oculus Rift
Oculus Rift demo running on a nondescript Intel-powered laptop. The two images shown on the screen are what is displayed to each eye when the headset is on. The motion tracker mounted on top of the laptop follows your head movements.

I admit I was a little disappointed with the demo, but only because my expectations were higher than they should have been. As an AMD fan and stockholder, I’ve been keeping up with the graphics card maker’s virtual reality efforts and had read about crazy custom PCs boasting a pair of Fury X graphics cards running Oculus Rift headsets with modern survival horror game demos at high resolutions and the necessary 120+ fps frame rates to prevent motion sickness. What I got instead was an older, simpler version of the headset running off an Intel mobile iGPU. Yeah, it was kind of a bummer, but I got free beer and food out of it.

I did put the headset on and I could clearly see the potential for gaming (and business and training applications galore!), despite the resolution of the little space flight simulator being akin to smashing my face against the screen of an old Pac-Man arcade machine. It sensed my head motion and could track where my eyes were focused to fire lasers at various targets. It was also relatively light and comfortable, but I couldn’t see myself wearing it for an extended period of time if not just to keep from sweating all over it. It was in full color and a little blurry at the edges of my vision/the googles. What really hurt it, however, was the lack of sound—any sound. With some decent headphones and a good sound card pumping out directional audio, it would be ideal for a turret-based shooter. Think a 21st century rendition of the old Atari classic, Missile Command.

But still, the Virtual Boy this was not, and I was glad someone thought it would be cool to set up such an event for a Tech Tuesday. I mean, you can’t go wrong spending an evening drinking free Tin Roof beer and demoing Oculus Rift.

 

My Writing Quirks

My writing process has it quirks. I’ve become aware of some of these while working with other writers in journalism, technical, and creative fields, so I thought I’d share a few of the things I did and continue to do while writing Divergent Chill: Fall of Night. Maybe you haven’t considered doing some of these things or even realized that they might be abnormal.

Burst Writing

I’m rarely able to write on a daily basis. My full-time work generally requires that I sit in front of a computer screen most of the week writing or editing or whatever else I’m asked to do. But it almost always involves sitting at a desk and working on a computer. That burns a guy out, especially as the week progresses, and the last you thing you want to do on a Thursday night is to come home to another computer on another desk and write.

My solution to this seems to be that I’ll do meager bits of writing for weeks at a time until I have a really free night (or day), where I can really turn loose. I’m talking, I need a day where there’s nothing I need to concern myself with for at least eight hours except feeding myself and seeing to my biological needs. When I get such a day, I’ll write 10,000 words easily. At full tilt, I’m generating 2,000 words per hour. When I was trying to finish up Fall of Night, I did the bulk of the writing in one week. The work contains roughly 150,000 words. I wrote about 90,000 of it in a week’s time while recovering from surgery. I was out of work for a few weeks and once I finished my pain pills and got to switch to OTC stuff, I got serious.

It was a great experience in retrospect. I lived and breathed my art for a solid week. And while I sincerely would wish to avoid another complication to my health that sidelines me for weeks, I missed the uninterrupted time I had. And it made me realize what my primary writing habit was.

Listening to Music

From the moment I got my first CD player and album on CD (Metallica’s Black Album), I’ve been writing while listening to music. This extends into my professional life as a reporter and technical writer. I jack some ear buds into my desktop, netbook, phone, etc. or use my stereo or desktop speakers when I’m at home and play some tunes. I used to just shuffle whatever I was listening to, but learned over time that some albums or more enjoyable when listened to in their proper order. And I started making playlists with titles that described the writing stage I was in, e.g., Revision List.

What strange about this is I’ve found there are plenty of people, especially from generations before mine, that just can’t write and listen to music at the same time. And there are others that require music that doesn’t contain lyrics. And there are fewer still that require pure silence. Some claim it to be a concentration issue–that the music distracts them–while those writers I see with their earbuds on all the time claim the music helps them focus by blocking out other distractions.

For me, it’s neither. I’m perfectly able to write, even amidst newsroom-level cacophony, but I just enjoy it more with music. It lets me zone out while zoning in, I guess, so I feel what I’m writing more. It also helps me think, by letting me be less conscious of my own thoughts. The music, when it’s grooving, keeps my mind moving forward, even when I’ve hit a stop.

I can’t list everything I listened to while writing the Divergent Chill books, but I’ll list some of the tracks from my Revision List. I linked to those that I can find official videos for. Heed the NSFW warnings.

Dual Monitors and Brute Power

When I get serious about writing, I do it on my self-built desktop where I have a pair of monitors, an 8-core processor, 16GB of RAM, and a (embarrassingly old) graphics card.

Why?

Because, I can multitask like my life depends on it. I can have multiple Word docs open, while researching multiple things with multiple browser tabs, listening to music on my computer or streaming it from Amazon, checking email, etc. and not cause my desktop to slow down. It keeps up with me. I almost never have to wait for it to do anything, even some of the trickier Word-stuff, or when I move among applications. This something I first experienced a computer do (ever) in the early 2000s with Windows XP and an old Athlon XP 2000+ processor. But time and updates gradually slowed the machine down and later off-the-shelf machines and versions of Windows were never quite able to keep up with me until I began building my own computers.

Anyway, I do all of this stuff across a pair of monitors, a mismatched 23″ and 19″ pair of wide, LED flat panels. I cannot espouse enough the joy, pure utility, and efficiency of having a pair of monitors. At it’s most basic level, it allows you to do side-by-side visual comparisons of documents. At a more functional level, I can check something on Wikipedia or make notes in an accompanying Word document without having to minimize the Word document I was working in and then having to find it and select it, again. Or, if you want to copy one section of text from one document into another and want to verify that you’re pasting it into the correct place and copying everything that you’re trying to copy, two monitors is the way to go. This used to be much more burdensome an issue with older versions of Windows, but has gotten better. I still wouldn’t trade any improvements to the task bar for having two monitors, though.

There is also a physical sense to it, to being able to move an application or document to the side so you can focus on what’s in front of you, while knowing the other stuff is just a glance to one side. Once you’ve tried it, even by just hooking a laptop up to an extra monitor, you’re going to find it tiresome to work on a single screen, again, except for the most basic tasks.

In Conclusion

I’m certain I have some other writing quirks and if I think about them, I’ll write another blog about it. In the meantime, feel free to share your own writing quirks  by commenting. I need to get to work on my next book!

1,792 Stream Processors and a Couple of Beers

 

I got the Gigabyte R9 380 4GB graphics card in the mail last Friday. The box was pretty slim and didn’t contain anything other than packing material, a quick install guide, and the card. I kind of thought there would be a disc with some Gigabyte utilities, but nope. I installed the card in the desktop with no problem. See the picture below. The “Windforce” text lights up blue when the fans come on and that’s pretty cool and fits with the blue LED fan in the front of the case.

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The only tricky part of the install was I didn’t uninstall the old AMD drivers, because I didn’t want to uninstall the A10-7850k’s graphics. I was hoping the Catalyst utility would have detected the new card and prompted an update, or even Windows, but both seem satisfied that the A10-7850k was installed and didn’t care about the new card that was currently running everything. So, I went to AMD’s website and manually selected the drivers and installed them.

For the price, it really is a powerful and relatively low power card. It kept prompting me to run Windows with Virtual Super Resolution turned on, but I passed. I made a few more tweaks, like capping the FPS at 60 with Frame Rate Targeting and adjusting the desktop size to get it to fit on my TV screen properly.

As far as gaming, I tried several different games, but I don’t have a benchmarking tool and the most graphically strenuous game I have is either Alien Isolation or Civilization Beyond Earth. I ran Alien at 1080p with everything I could turn up to max up to max. It looked great, but I think the character model teeth, lips, and tongues could have used some more work. And there is so much dust floating around in the air! Do none of these spaceships or space stations have dust filters on the air intakes?

Civilization Beyond Earth doesn’t look much better than when I run it on my other desktop with an old Radeon 6850, but I also didn’t play more than a few minutes. There was a lot of screen tearing whenever I panned map, too. I suspect I need to play around more with the frame rate targeting, vsync, and my TVs refresh rate.

To sum up, it’s a great card. It’s quiet, seems to run cool, has some nice power saving features, and can max out any game I currently own. If the price on this card creeps down with a holiday sale or the release of a 380x, it’ll totally be worth picking up. There are plenty of benchmarks out there now if you want to see some hard numbers.

As far as the card being bottlenecked by the APU, I haven’t experienced it, yet. And I’m not sure I would know if it did happen. With Windows 10 dropping soon, I suspect if the problem does it exist, it will be mitigated somewhat by DX12.

After installing the card, I felt the need to do a little celebrating. Below is an 18% ABV stout by Mikkeller that I got on sale at my usual pirate-themed haunt. I think it’s just called “Black,” but the site seems to indicate it’s called “Black Fist.”

Whatever it’s actual name, it does hit hard up front and finishes a little bitter and smokey on the back. It’s not an every weekend beer. I’m not sure it’s even a once a year beer. Best just to split a bottle with a friend or three.

 

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Since discovering Hitachino Nest’s beers, I’ve been working through their offerings as I’m able. I got to try XH and didn’t want to pass up the chance, despite putting down the above mentioned monster. While I love me some sake, this one just didn’t measure up to my expectations. I could catch a hint of the sake–the dryness of it–but not much. Just stick with the Red Rice Ale.

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Closing this one with a shout out. Check out Dirty Coast. It’s a locally-owned clothing and art store in New Orleans. They have some pretty neat stuff and also sometimes run events to benefit local charities. Check out their website or visit one of their stores in the Crescent City.

Video Card Prime Day

It’s not something I talk about much outside of certain circles, but I really do enjoy building a computer. I put together my last one a few months back. It’s function sits somewhere among HTPC, gaming PC, work PC, and lab rat. I’ll use it to watch a Spoony, a Channel Awesome, or an AVGN episode on my living room TV and then switch over to playing one of the various Steam Games I scooped up on the cheap during the summer sale. Mainly, I’ve been playing (and enjoying) some Defense Grid 2. I’m a sucker for turret defense games. And when the rare mood strikes, I can pop open Word, zoom in to like 150%, and do some writing from my couch.

As far as the lab rat role, let me list the basic specs first.

  • AMD A10-7850K “Kaveri”
  • Gigabyte GA-F288XM-D3H FM2+ MB
  • 2 X 4GB 2133 MHz G.Skill DDR3 RAM
  • Samsung 850 Evo 120GB SSD
  • WD Blue 1TB HD
  • Asus 24X DVD-RW
  • Corsair Builder Series CX 600 Watt ATX/EPS 80 Plus
  • Sentey Ss6-2440 Mini Computer Case
  • Windows 8.1

The more savvy PC building enthusiasts may question some of the components or the lack of them. For example, I’ve yet to add a third-party CPU cooler and there’s no graphics card, as I’m relying on the APU graphics of the Kaveri. Others will questions why I didn’t get a better Intel chip for around the same price. Well, that’s thing. This PC is my lab rat and I really wanted to see just how functional the Kaveri is as a CPU and GPU and what it’s like to manage an SSD and an HD in Windows. This is also the first time I’ve ever used an SSD and it’s been a little bit of a learning experience. I’ve installed only the OS, the MS Office Suit, and Chrome, so far to the SDD, excluding a couple of GOG games I installed to the SSD by accident. I couldn’t find a way to configure the GOG downloader install directory, but I didn’t look very hard. And it’s not as if installing Master of Orion I and II will take years off the life of the SSD, even if playing them has used up a couple years of my own life.

As far as performance goes, everything I do is smooth, including the games I’ve been playing on my 1080p TV. Granted, I’ve yet to seriously play anything more taxing than Diablo 3 and League of Legends, but I haven’t really been up for playing much else lately. So as the Kaveri goes, I’ve no complaints at all, and the temps seem to be well within acceptable levels, based off the AMD Overdrive utility, Gigabyte’s EZTune application, and the BIOS, on just the stock cooler. Noise is not an issue either. If not for the snazzy LED fan lights, I probably wouldn’t know the thing was on.

The Sentey case was the first of its type I’ve ever used before and it really was a pleasure to work with. The case can open from the sides, like your usual tower-type case, but the case can also tilt open like a car hood, letting you work directly above the motherboard, which sits horizontal rather than vertical in the case. I did have an issue with installing the DVD-RW drive, but the Sentey customer service answered my email within hours about how to safely remove the case’s front panel so I could install the drive.

I’m going to wait until Black Friday comes around and see if I can’t get a really good deal on the CM Hyper 212 Evo CPU cooler. I don’t really have an interest in overclocking the Kaveri; I just like to be thorough.

Despite the fact the PC resembles a futuristic-looking bread maker, I really like using it for everyday type stuff and don’t regret building it. If you need to build an inexpensive rig for general computer usage that can handle some light gaming at 1080p, the A10-7850K (or the 7870K now) is the way to go. If you’re planning to go UHD, require high FPS, or want to pick up a $300+ graphics card down the road, then you’ve probably already bought a high-end Intel i5 or i7 so you can play [Insert AAA Title] here at 1440p+ with 60 fps.

But let’s be honest, when it comes to light gaming, “light” is NOT a bad thing. There are some amazing, wonderful games you can play for hours and hours that require minimum specs. Go check out Transistor, the enhanced Baldur’s Gate Games, FTL: Advanced Edition, XCOM, League of Legends, Child of Light, Diablo 3, Starcraft 2, Divinity: Original Sin, Homeworld Remastered, Strike Suit Zero, Skyrim, or just about anything else more than a couple years old.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do own some AMD stock, which I bought just prior to the big console win announcement. I kind of regretting not dumping it when it reached the $4 level, but I have high hopes for the Zen architecture, the coming GPU shrinks, and Windows 10. I should also mention I built a gaming PC for my brother last Christmas with the Kaveri. On the minimal budget I had and by taking advantage of seasonal sales, the Kaveri beat every configuration of components I could come up with as far as power to cost goes. Considering my brother had been playing Blizzard games and League of Legends at minimal settings on his Intel Quad Core Duo, 32-bit Windows Vista-powered Gateway and the crumby Geforce 240 graphics card he dropped in it to play Starcraft 2, the Kaveri was a massive improvement.

I confess, too, to being fascinated by the idea of HSA at the time, but even a year and a half later there hasn’t been any significant implementation of it, which is kind of a bummer.

With all this background out of the way, I can get to the point of this post. I want to boost my lab rat PC, but I’m aware of the limitation of my 600 watt PSU. So, I want to get my hands on AMD’s “tock” line of graphics card, the R9 380, specifically. It features some pretty impressive specs and benchmarks at 1080p for just $200 to $240 depending on the brand and the amount of RAM. I have my eye on Gigabyte’s 4GB offering. I have no special loyalty to Gigabyte by the way. I just haven’t had any issues with their products and I figure a Gigabyte card should get along well with a Gigabyte board.

NVIDIA has some really good cards, too, but nothing with this much power in this price range at the moment. Despite the 3.5GB issue with the 970, that card is a real beast, but it costs about $150 more than I’d like to spend. No, the R9 380 card just screams value to me, as I have no designs on upgrading my monitors or TV anytime soon to UHD. It has one of AMD’s newer graphics architectures, is compatible with DX12 and Windows 10, supports the new frame rate targeting feature to save on power and heat, and it won’t require a PSU upgrade.

I almost ordered the card last week from Amazon when it was in stock for a brief couple of days. I haven’t seen it in stock on Newegg ever so far. My plan is to wait for the fabled Prime Day that Amazon is promoting for July 15. I’m hoping I can get a bit of a discount on the card, but I’ll have to see. If not, I can wait a little longer for a price drop of one sort or another. While I’m itching to see what Alien Isolation will look like with the graphics settings turned up, I really, really want to see how DX12 will handle the R9 380 and the Kaveri’s integrated GPU when Windows 10 and DX12 games come out.