Don't Drop the Alien Baby and Other Awkward Moments During First Contact - Larry Niven's Mote In God's Eye

Mote in God's Eye is written by sci-fi authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It is often described as "hard science fiction" due to its rather realistic depiction of the rigors and strains of space flight. And in this regard it is indeed notably different from Asimov's Foundation series and a vision of an almost immediate and painless traversal of vast distances throughout the known galaxy. I chose to read this book due to its claim to "hard science" and sci-fi author Robert Heinlein's exclamation that the story was "possibly the finest science fiction novel [he had] ever read".

The primary topic of the book is humanity's first contact with sentient alien life. Undoubtedly, a "hard science" approach to this topic would be fascinating, with all its inherent mysteries, potential dangers and history altering implications. 

But apart from the book's references to the mechanics and limitations of space flight, I found the story and narrative to be far less "hard" than I had hoped, and in many instances felt it achieved a level of unintended goofiness which caused an eye roll or two. I won't be divulging any spoilers here (you can head to Wikipedia for that if you wish) but I'll mention a couple things I found as (major) shortcomings.

The story commences in the year 3017 AD and humanity has spread to other planets. They have experienced the rise and sudden collapse of an age of galactic Empire and are now rebuilding and restrengthening themselves toward a new cycle of galactic stability. Now in my own mind, I cannot but help imagine what this setting would look like. And that image is vastly different from the one presented by Niven/Pourelle. The authors present us with planets named things like "New Scotland" and "New Ireland" - where the entire populations speak in heavy Scottish or Irish drawls. There is even a planet called "New Chicago" with a moon named "Evanston". Admittedly, the fact that I actually live in a town called Evanston immediately north of Chicago does not help my credulity in this aspect of the story line, but it nevertheless seems lacking in imagination to present planets as nothing more than larger versions of existing countries (or cities), even down to the details of their currently existing dialects and suburbs.

The use and borrowing from contemporary scenarios permeates this book to the point of approaching political parody. The galactic military is undeniably  British Naval procedure and etiquette aboard star ships. There's a gruff Russian admiral who still falls into his Russian accent while sipping tea from the bridge and enjoying traditional folk cossack dances. (I kid you not.) And the engineer, a native of New Scotland, speaks in such a heavy Scottish drawl that I am confident no one can help but envision Scotty from Star Trek as he pleads with the captain for more time to fix the engine. (Mote was written in 1974, eight years after Star Trek was already on the scene.) It was all simply too much for my suspension of disbelief. 

It is well known that Niven/Pourelle set this novel within the "CoDominion" world already conjured up by author Pourelle's earlier novels. The aim in Mote was simply to explore the topic of first contact, and so the grunt work of developing a unique setting and vision of human civilization was skipped and deferred to something already written. So in essence, the majority of goofiness here is likely due to the conditions already set up in Pourelle's earlier imaginations. But that does not absolve Mote from being sorely undercut by its decision to rely on this setting/vision.

And then there are the aliens. Again, in terms of "hard science" I was expecting something at least thought-provoking if not downright mind blowing. But alas. My guess is that Niven/Pourelle strove to make their aliens physiologically quite different from humans and chose a couple key characteristics of humans to differentiate from. They chose our being vertebrates, symmetrical and smooth skinned. Thus the aliens lack vertebrae as we know them, are asymmetrical and are covered in hair. But the critical differences basically end there. Within a week's time, the aliens speak Standard Anglic perfectly, so the whole communication thing is out of the way. They think within the same logical confines as we and subsist on their planet doing the same stuff we have always done. Their homes have standard doors and windows. They have vehicles on roads and walkways for pedestrians. They have zoos and museums and farms, etc. All in all, there seemed to be less existential dissonance here for the humans than for Alice when she fell into the Rabbit Hole. 

I just didn't buy any of it and soon found the whole enterprise rather laborious. I kept waiting for something new and conceptually jarring, but ended up with a love story between two British aristocrats. This is nowhere near "Hard Science Fiction" in my estimate, regardless of how well they attempt to explain space ship engines realistically. The rest of the nitty-gritty, "hard" details are either disappointingly shallow, comically simplified or bypassed altogether.

I am currently reading Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space which is described as "Dark, Hard Science Fiction" and I am finding it much more to my liking. Perhaps i simply wasn't in the mood for fuzzy talking aliens with an itching libido. Go figure.

Mote in God's Eye is the first novel in what is sometimes referred to as the Mote series. The same authors penned a sequel entitled The Gripping Hand which picks up where the tale above leaves off. The authors authorized a third novel entitled Outies written by Pourelle's daughter. Admittedly, I could not bring myself to read beyond the first of these.

Diagnosis: HTTP Error 500.19 - Internal Server Error: The requested page cannot be accessed because the related configuration data for the page is invalid

I've encountered this error twice in the past month, with the second time being too far into development to start over with a clean slate. So after looking into the cause and solution, I thought I'd post my findings here.

I was configuring a web server with multiple sites on it, ranging in technologies from .NET to ColdFusion to straight html. The content was moved to the server and then the various IIS sites were set up. During this second step (IIS configuration) IIS7 places a web.config file at the root of each site. The web.config file is basically a skeleton file which will contain any unique configurations you choose for the specific site (such as special Handler Mappings, etc.). 

IIS will access this file whenever the web site is requested, regardless of whether the site is .NET or not, and regardless of whether the web.config contains any relevant settings for the site or not. (For example, the web.config is created even for ColdFusion sites which have their own "config" files, and IIS will consult this web.config *prior* to reading any other config files.)

Since IIS creates this web.config file, certain permissions are assumed and implemented by IIS. The 500.19 error above occurs when subsequent site configurations conflict or overwrite these permissions.

In my particular scenario, after setting up the sites in IIS and assuring that all the sites were working correctly, we began to set up the permissions we intended for user groups. The first step in this is creating Shares on relevant folders/directories. You can initiate this in one of two ways, both through the Right-click context menu. Right clicking on the target folder/directory will display both a "Share With" menu option (we'll call this option C) and the "Properties" option.

Let's first talk about the folder Properties option. Within the "Sharing" tab there are actually two ways of creating shares, the seemingly "default" option (option A in the graphic) and the "advanced sharing" option (B in the graphic). If you take a moment and go back to the "Sharing" option C mentioned above, you'll notice that it is the same as option A here, the "default" method.

In a nutshell, if you use option A or C to create a share on a root directory of an IIS site, certain permissions are automatically removed (unbeknownst to you) which make IIS unable to read the web.config file it created. In particular, these Share creation methods remove the "Creator Owner" and "Users" groups from the folder's security list (pictured below). If the folder in question is a subdirectory of the root (in which the web.config resides) the removal of these permissions may not cause any problems. But if the security items are removed from a parallel or parent directory of the web.config, the entire site will become inaccessible and the dreaded 500.19 error will display. 

And of course, simply removing the problematic share will not restore the removed permissions. If you are lucky, your OS will place a tiny lock icon on the folder, indicating that certain shared properties remain in place even though all other indications suggest there is no share. That lock icon occurs *because* the Creator Owner and Users groups have been removed, and these removals will continue to block IIS's access to the web.config file.

So at this point, the only remedy (other than to remove and then recreate the site and its web.config through IIS) is to restore the security permissions for the Creator Owner and Users groups. If you have googled this problem, you will find recommendations to *add" permissions on the web.config file for the IUSR and IIS_IUSR groups. This will only partially restore what the Share creation removed, since IUSR and IIS_IUSR are members of the removed groups. 

In my scenario, I opted to restore the original permissions rather than pursue a more fragmented solution of adding specific rights to specific files. Since my sites are load balanced across several servers, the more uniform (and basic) the site configurations, the better. 

So this is how you can solve the problem once it occurs. But what about the inevitable situation when more shares must be created in the future? Well, fear not.

Using Share creation option B above will NOT result in the removal of these security permissions. And will not interfere with existing IIS permissions (unless you explicitly remove them).

So in the future, just remember to use the Advanced Sharing option to avoid potential headaches and wasted time.

Here's the actual error:

HTTP Error 500.19 - Internal Server Error

Description: The requested page cannot be accessed because the related configuration data for the page is invalid.

Module: IIS Web Core

Notification: Unknown

Handler: Not yet determined

Error Code: 0x80070005 

Config Error: Cannot read configuration file due to insufficient permissions

Config File: \\?\ C:\Inetpub\wwwroot\web.confi

Requested URL: http://localhost

Physical Path: C:\Inetpub\wwwroot

Logon User: Not yet determined

Logon Method: Not yet determined

Error code 0x80070005 can be translated to mean: "E_ACCESSDENIED - General access denied error"

Load Balancing Servers with Multiple Sites

The past couple weeks I have been migrating our dev, test and prod environments to new servers. The new test and prod environments are load balanced, whereas dev is not. We have 34 web sites, each with their own domain. I ran across a difference in the way these are set up on load-balanced versus non-load-balanced scenarios and thought I would mention it here.

On the non-load-balanced scenario (dev) the external DNS records for the various domains all point to the server's external IP address. Within IIS, however, each site is set up to point to the server's single internal IP address with the Host Name corresponding to the sites domain (url). Within IIS7, this is all accomplished within the "Bindings" options.

For the load-balanced systems, I intiially set out to do the same thing: External DNS records pointing to the external IP of the load balancer, with the separate sites on each load-balanced server pointing to the internal IP address of their respective server.  For example, let's say the load balancer is assigned IP xxx.100. It balances three servers assigned xxx.101.xxx102 and xxx.103. The external DNS records for the various site domains all point to xxx.100. Under the non-load balanced scenario above, each collection of sites would bind to the IP of it's respective server. One collection to xxx.101, another to xxx.102 and so on.


The discovery was that under the load balanced scenario, each collection (each site on every server) must bind to the external IP of the load balancer. So whether an IIS site exists on balanced server 101 or 102 or 103, the IIS binding must point to xxx.100. All differentiation amongst domain requests are handled via the IIS Host Header Names. This actually makes the maintenance of multiple (mirrored) servers less of a hassle, since it allows the IIS settings from one balanced server to be exported and implemented on the other servers handled by the load balancer. Each server's IIS configuration is identical to the others. 


Things Growing in My Yard - Part 2

More things growing in my yard...

Filipendula [species?]

Type: Perennial herbaceous

This particular plant was/is quite difficult to identify with specificity. I am confident it belongs to the filipendula genus, but the exact species eludes me. The closest species I can find is the "Red Umbrella" which looks identical to this, but rather than dark green tones along the leaf veins, the Red Umbrella has slight crimson tones (only along the veins). The Red Umbrella is a hybrd of Filipendual palmataand Filipendula multijuga by a Japanese botanist. Neither the palmata normultijuga has a compelling resemblance to my plant. This can grow to about three feet and apparently blooms in small pink flowers at its top, though I have not seen any blooms during the two weeks I have observed thus far (mid-to-late July). This is definitely intentionally planted and is a common offering at nurseries throughout the Midwest. It can also go by the common name "Meadowsweet", but that name seems to apply to various species of Filipendula, most of which have completely different leaf shape and flowers.

Japanese Maple
Acer palmatum / Japanese: Momiji

Type: Deciduous tree

This is undoubtedly my favorite tree/plant in the yard. It is currently bright green and flourishing, but I am expecting some very nice colors when Autumn arrives. Japanese Maple usually grow to 25-30 feet, and eventually take on a dome-like shape. They can appear radically different from one another, to the point that saplings from one tree can differ in color an d leaf size from the parent. My neighbors, for example, have a couple shrub-sized versions which appear purplish throughout the summer. Mine stands much taller and is exclusively light green at this point. There is only one in the yard, but this is definitely something I'd like to add more of once the time and energy makes its debut.

Things Growing in My Yard - Part 1

I have set out to identify the many and varied plants which are creating a jungle-like atmosphere in my yard. At this point, I haven't a clue as to which plants are undesirable weeds, which are desirable/tolerable weeds and which are intentionally planted yard flora. Here I will attempt to identify them one by one with as much detail as I can gather. I assume at some future point, I will decide what to do with this information, but in the meantime, let's learn about some plants!

Creeping Charlie
Glechoma hederacea
(aka Nepeta glechoma or Nepeta hederacea)

Type: Broadleaf Perennial

Creeping Charlie is a creeping ivy in the mint family. It grows to 4 inches tall and in patches of several feet wide. Originally found in Europe and southwestern Asia, it now permeates North America (with the exception of the Rocky Mountains). It has been historically used for tea, medicine and food (salads) and thus was intentionally brought to the New World by early settlers. It spreads like wild fire and so is often considered a weed, though many plant it intentionally for decorative ground cover. It blooms in blue or purple funnel-shaped flowers and grows in large patches which can take over portions of the yard. It survives mowing and grows will in either shade or full sun. It is unusually sensitive to boron (or borax) should you wish to attack it.

Chenopodium berlandieri
(aka Pitseed Goosefoot)

Type: Broadleaf Annual

Lamb's-Quarters is a herbaceous plant in the goosefoot family. It generally grows to 4 feet tall and 18 inches wide, but can be found up to 9 feet tall. There are several strains of this plant, but it is generally recognizable through its scalloped leaves and its whitish hue at the plant's apex and leaf underside. It is widespread throughout North America and found in every state except Hawaii. It is said to have been among the domesticated crops of the prehistoric and Woodland eras in North America and continues to be grown in Mexico for its roots. Lamb's-Quarters is considered by many to be a "weed" while others intentionally cultivate it in their gardens for salads and what-not. It blooms in small white flowers along a broccoli-like stalk. It is an "annual" plant which means it generally dies in winter. It persists due to the seeds dropped during its flowering cycle.

Coleus - Lime
Solenostemon scutellarioides
(aka Coleus Versa Lime)

Type: Broadleaf/Ornamental Annual

This "coleus" plant is quite a strange bird. The entire "coleus" genus is now defunct, with its various species redistributed in theSolenostemon genus and elsewhere. Solenostemon comes in a vast variety of mixed colors and relatively differing appearances. "Scutellarioides" means "shield-shaped" and refers to the shape of the plant's variegated leaves. It is native to south east Asia and Malaysia where is blooms colorfully as a perennial. There are several species which can grow in the colder climates, such as the one pictured here. In colder climes, these are considered annuals. Mine is obviously singular in color - lime green to exact, and remains so throughout its life span. There are "coleus life lime" and "coleus versa lime" sold in nurseries nearby. I believe mine is the latter. Coleus generally grows to about three feet high but can reach upwards to six. It is basically the no-brainer of garden plant, requiring very little effort from the gardener. This and its vibrant green color are apparently its only redeeming values. As the local nursery's site says: "Neither the flowers nor the fruit are ornamentally significant". On the upside, certain varieties of solenostemon scutellarioides (in particular Coleus blumei) are said to have hallucinogenic effects when ingested and were apparently used by the Mazatec Indians of southern Mexico to talk to the wolves, as Carlos Casteneda used to say. (Or as I say, "Coleus Blumei Mind!")