Mock-up testing on another scale!

As a programmer, I often need to test code that interacts with other code. In the ideal universe, that testing would be done by interacting with the actual code. When this is not feasible, mocks and stubs are used as stand-ins.

Today, I had occasion to see mocks and stubs on a slightly different scale:

100_0582

The reactor mock-up at the Darlington Nuclear Power Facility.

I was lucky to have a tour of the the reactor mock-up at the Darlington Nuclear Power Plant near where I live in Ontario, Canada. The power facility is due for some tender loving care over the next decade or so and it turns out that similar maintenance projects  on similar (CANDU) class nuclear facilities have a poor track record for going over budget and time. When it comes to saving time and money, I understand mock-ups.

The idea of a mock-up reactor is to allow testing of tools and procedures, and training of personnel in a safe, low pressure environment, with the clock (or geiger counter) NOT running. This is an excellent idea and I was reminded of the training methods used by NASA in preparing astronauts for work to be done in the vastly more dangerous environment of space.

Now for dollars! The mock-up facility has a (hefty) price tag of $40 Million, but is expected to return savings benefits of $100 Million during the course of the reactor work. This does not count its value for on-going operations or the possible sale of training time to other operators who need to prepare for their refurbishment projects.

All in all, the visit to the power plant was an interesting diversion from my normal routine. It was good to take the opportunity to see test and maintenance engineering on a scale I normally never deal with. As engineers, I feel we owe it to ourselves and our art to keep an open mind and broad horizons.

As always, comments and suggestions are invited!

Yours Truly

Peter Camilleri (aka Squidly Jones)

Wow! Did they really do that?

I once heard that the intelligence of any group of people is that of the person with the lowest IQ divided by the number of people involved. A recent case seems to be a supporting data point for this point of view.

Consider if you will the company FTDI. This company is (was?) the world leader in the area of USB bridge chips that make it easy to add USB access to all sorts of gadgets that would otherwise be difficult, expensive, and problem prone. The FTDI chips work well and come with easy to use software distributed for free with Windows, Mac, Linux, and many other sorts of computers. The chips and the software drivers were so good that many customers chose to go with FTDI rather than other vendors. The result of this is that these chips are expensive and often hard to find.

So FTDI gets to laugh all the way to the bank and otherwise all is well right? Well not quite. Counterfeits! With the real mccoy so hard to get, many legitimate vendors were tricked into buying fake chips. Do these fakes work? Mostly, it’s not as if the USB bridging function is that hard to do. FTDI however was not amused. They were losing some sales and lots of that delicious money! They had to do something and they did!

To stem the loss of revenue, a new software driver was released that detects some subtle difference between genuine and fake chips and then erases a vital data entry called the PID (Product ID) if a fake is detected. After that, the fake chip and the product it was embedded in will no longer function. The consumer is now the proud owner of a new paper weight or brick as it is sometimes called. The new driver was released through the Microsoft Windows update mechanism where it was incorporated into countless millions of computers all around the world.

So; Is this a nasty thing to do? Consider this bit on computer trespass (my emphasis):

In Virginia, computer trespass consists of, with malicious intent, copying, altering, or erasing data from a computer, causing a computer to malfunction, causing an electronic funds transfer, etc.[Wikipedia]

Yes this IS a very nasty thing to do! It hurts consumers at random. Some have gone so far as to label it cyber-terrorism! While I am not sure about that, one thing is certain, this action has caused serious, if not fatal, damage to the faith and value of the FTDI brand. Engineers chose and specified FTDI chips over others because they were trusted, reliable and dependable. That perception is gone and it will be very difficult to recover that goodwill.

I cannot even begin to imagine the legal fall-out from what would happen if a large number of products suddenly stopped working and the victim decided to let loose the dogs (lawyers) of war in revenge!

I am a big fan of the EEVBLOG and this posting does a good job of summarizing people’s feelings about this issue and the lameness of the company’s responses:

EEVblog #676 – RANT: FTDI Bricking Counterfeit Chips!

As for me, I am looking for other vendors. This sort behaviour is so unacceptable that it makes me seriously wonder what kind of crazy people are in charge at FTDI.

What do you think? I’d really like to hear what you think about this issue!

Best regards;

Peter Camilleri (aka Squidly Jones)

Backspace means Backspace!

RANT PART 1

I like the Google Chrome Browser. In fact, I like it a lot! Still, Google, through Chrome, seems bent on propagating the myth that there are two distinct groups of web users:

  1. Content consumers, the vast and huge majority who watch videos, blog pictures of their cats, and tweet about shoe sales. People in this group are not expected to type or think or have to deal with information in any useful way.
  2. Content creators, the teensy tiny minority who create the interesting content by slavishly entering vast amounts of data on antiquated desktop machines running a custom Linux distro they created specially for their needs.

The myth adds that the two groups are fully distinct. A person is either in group one or group two. No mixins! The myth goes on to say that since group one is huge and group two is tiny, focus on group one and ignore group two; they don’t matter.

OK; We’ve heard from Apple, Google and friends, so, what’s really going on? The truth? Almost everyone belongs to both groups! Anytime you fill in a form, you are creating content on the web! Writing a blog entry involves the creation of new content. Even emails, tweets and instant messages require typing (even if not using human language grammar). The time has come to stop this pointless discrimination (and I chose my words very carefully here) and treat all web users fairly!

RANT PART 2

So how is it that my beloved Chrome browser is the target of these rants? Backspace! This harmless little key has a simple purpose in life: “Oh please delete the stuff I just typed”. That’s all it does, that’s all it’s supposed to do. If there’s nothing to delete, the backspace key should do NOTHING! Nice and simple!

This simplicity was not good enough for some though. Since the majority never need to type, they had a higher purpose for this key. They reasoned that if there were nothing to delete, the backspace key should take on the new and unrelated role of navigating back to the previous web page. So that’s text deleting AND web navigation on one key. More is better; right?

Wrong! Imagine you are filling in a complex form with a lot of data. You type away at a field and change your mind, the easiest way to erase the old data is to backspace. Now if you are VERY careful all is well, but if you accidentally hit backspace ONE time too many, you are whisked away to the previous page and all your data entry is LOST!

Now in most browsers, this odious behaviour can be turned off, but not in Chrome! The kind folks at Google are so committed to treating all web users as mindless sheep that this behaviour is mandatory. Not to worry, the Backspace means backspace plugin restores sanity to the world, except for one teesny problem. The Chrome super-brains decided that this freedom to choose was too dangerous and removed it from there app store. Further, if you try to download the plugin from somewhere else, Chrome gives you a nasty message saying “No, no, no… you can’t do that you rambunctious toddler!” No choice, no “Are you sure?”, nope, just NO! I was faced with this absurdity and frustrated by it! I tried several times from several web sites. No, no, no! I ended up downloading the file with Internet Explorer and copying it to the desktop and then ordering Chrome to install the file! This finally worked. I would never have figured Microsoft as a beacon of internet freedom, but there you are.

Since I do not like knuckling under to pointy haired managers, bullies, tyrants, and dictators of ANY kind, and since this valuable plugin is hard to find, I am including a zip of it below:

BackspaceMeansBackspace_v1.21

The file is zipped for two reasons. One; WordPress is too cautious to allow a plugin to be uploaded and Two; Chrome is too ornery to let it be downloaded. The zip file should side-step both of these issues. A further FYI, the plugin file include is the one I am running right now! It works, at least for me. END RANTS!

Note: The readers of this web site will surely have noticed that this blog has gone silent lately. Quite simple, my interests have taken me elsewhere for the last year and I have not had the time to devote to further content creation. This issue however, bothered me SO much that I just had to speak out and ACT!

As always, your thoughts and suggestions are welcomed.

Peter Camilleri (aka Squidly Jones)

 

Making Sense of Static

From time to time, I come across a little gem on the internet, in this case on YouTube. While not normally part of this blog, it seemed a good idea to share on this occasion. Consider the summary:

GPS receivers are a part of everyday life, you probably own several already and use them everyday, in your phone or in your car. Its really pretty amazing that you can find your position anywhere on Earth with just a small device you can fit in your pocket, but how does it actually work? In this talk we would like to guide you through the amazing technical journey that makes this possible and to open it up to the hacker community to explore.

What followed was a video with a clear presentation on the principles of GPS operation and how these technologies can be hacked (or not) to create new and innovative systems and products. While the presentation narration is a bit rough in spots, especially near the start, persist and you will be rewarded with many insights.

As always, your thoughts and suggestions are welcomed.

Peter Camilleri (aka Squidly Jones)