Sunday, April 29, 2007

Integrity of Science Blog, and whisteblower status for scientists

While it does not get the traffic Pharyngula gets, the Integrity of Science blog is well worth a read every now and again. Take a look, for example, at this interesting nugget of information regarding the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (in particular the bit about Bill Sali's (R-Idaho) proposed amendment to said act), which is intended to allow federal scientists and contractors to expose political interference in their research without fear of retribution.

The HORROR, part I (or how not to upgrade your windows hard drive)

Every year or so I forget just how awful Microsoft's Windows XP operating system can be if it starts going wrong. Its fine when it works, but diagnosing any problem turns into hours of web searching and installing round after round of obscure utilities, with almost none of them actually created by the damn company that actually created the operating system. By comparison Linux administration and system repair is trivially easy. But sooner or later something happens and I end up spending multiple nights and/or weekends slaving away with only a growing sick feeling of frustration to keep me company.

You might think that replacing your primary drive with a new one containing the original data would be easy - in fact it is trivial with Linux alone, but if you're dealing with windows as well, its not. I'll discuss how to do this (The Horror, part II) when I've solved the basic problem I have which is that the new drive doesn't have what Windows thinks is a valid Master Boot Record despite it working fine for Linux (I suspect the real problem is that the FAT32 partitions were created by Linux, and although they're technically true FAT32, Windows is deliberately refusing to acknowledge them as it can see an XP installer didn't make them).

But in the mean time a piece of MS crapware totally mangled the partition table for my third disk drive that contained non-backed-up a FAT32 partition (with a variety of important documents and my music collections), my Linux /home partition and my local /data1 drive. So now I had an even bigger problem than my original upgrade problem.

How could this happen? Well, for reasons that will become apparent in The Horror part II, I ended up trying to use a Windows 98 boot floppy to repartition the new drive and create the FAT32 partitions I planned to reinstall Windows to (the XP Recovery disk I'm using would only allow me to create NTFS partitions for some annoying reason). Both the XP CD and the W98 floppy were listing my drives in an odd, non-BIOS, order and with odd letters (e.g. the first drive they claimed to be D:), but as the drives are all different sizes I tried to select the correct drive to repartition using MS's FDISK based on its size. However, all of them were reported with incorrect sizes, presumably because Windows 98 simply can't conceive of a drive larger than ~130 GB or so.

I thought I had selected the new drive to repartition and proceeded with FDISK, but eventually gave up without writing the partition table because FDISK kept reducing its estimation of the drive size any time I did anything with it. Today I discovered that in fact it had written some garbage FAT16 partition onto a totally different drive, erasing two Linux partitions and my largest FAT32 partition. None of them backed-up, by some monumental oversight of mine.

Windows now saw the drive as needing formatting, and I had to use a rescue CD just to get into FC6.

Frantic searching on the web found DiskInternals free Windows program called DiskInternals Linux Recovery. This found some of the directories on one of the Linux partitions (the /home partition, which happened to be /dev/hdc1 before the partition wipe), but not my /data partition. Nor did it find the important files on the missing FAT32 partition. The software claimed to be able to repair damaged or corrupted partition tables, but in fact did not seem to have this facility. Instead, DiskInternals has another utility (free demo, $140 for full version) called DiskInternals Partition Recovery. The free demo found the FAT32 partition, and could even very slowly get a few files off it, but this still was not a solution. Eventually I found another Windows program called Partition Table Doctor 3.5 (free demo,$40 full version). This time the free demo found the ext3 and fat32 partitions quickly as well as determining whether they were primary or extended (the fat32 partition was a logical partition in an extended partition, for example), and I could even verify the names of the base directories in the fat partition. The trial demo won't write the partition though. I tried using the cylinder/head etc data given by the trial version with fdisk under Linux to rewrite the partition table, but this resulted in un-mountable (i.e bad) partitions.

Feeling tired and defeated I bought the bullet and purchased the full version of Partition Doctor online, which I then downloaded and ran. Despite my messing with the partition table in Linux it still found the original partitioning scheme and after hitting save I rebooted into FC6 to find it had actually worked. The FAT32 drive turned up fine in Windows too.

So I'm back to were I was a few days ago, still unable to boot Windows off the new drive, still running Windows from the aged and soon-to-fail drive, and \$40 poorer, all thanks to Microsoft.

If there were a decent selection of games for OS X (and if Apple's desktop hardware wasn't so horribly over-priced), I'd switch to OS X for my home system in an instant.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

AGILE (a gamma ray and X-ray telescope) successfully launched by India

I haven't blogged for a while, primarily because of being busy with work and also preparing for our trip to England, being in England, and recovering from various cold caught on the flights.

One thing worth noting is that the Indian space agency successfully launched the Italian-made AGILE gamma ray and (hard) X-ray telescope yesterday (23 April 2007). As of now (24th April) all appears well, according to the AGILE website.

India and Italy both have surprisingly active space programs that, while currently smaller than NASA in the US and Europe's combined effort in ESA, are really impressive even compared to other G8 countries.

The UK, which briefly dallied with its own space program before scrapping it (for one perspective on its ill-fated history see here), now operates its scientific space program within the confines of the ESA program. Sir Martin Rees, once Astronomer Royal and currently President of the Royal Society, is calling for the UK to adopt a more pro-active national space program (even while possibly still acting within ESA), which sounds like a good thing to me.

[changes from 1st edition: edits for typos]