Friday, May 27, 2005

x-ray vision coming to airport security near you

OK, I usually try to keep it toned down around here, but let me just say that the Department of Homeland Security has now officially flipped its wig. From the New York Times via Slashdot: the DHS intends to deploy scanners in airports that can see through clothes. You remember that scene from Airplane II where people are going through security, and then the camera pans around and the screeners are getting a peep show? Yep, that's what this stuff does, except in black-and-white instead of color. And with averge people like you and me instead of a constant stream of hot bodies.

It may be that we're coming to the end of an era, that privacy is going away. Science fiction author David Brin argues that a universal lack of privacy is a good thing because it's an equalizer: if there is no privacy, then all citizens are on an equal footing. I'm not convinced. Brin's argument seems to rely on an assumption that transparency applies equally to everyone, but we've regularly seen examples throughout history where people who have more money or power get privileges that people with less money or power don't: after all, that's one of the main reasons people bother to acquire money and power beyond their basic needs. I don't see any reason why a "transparent society" should be any different. There may be cameras on all the streetcorners, as Brin suggests, but they're not going to be in every room of the Whitehouse. Future Presidents are well aware of the role the Nixon tapes played in the Watergate scandal. They're not going to repeat that mistake if they can help it. And cameras around the city might be able to track my shopping habits, but do you think they could track Bill Gates'? How much of his own shopping to you suspect Bill Gates does?

In any case, let's hope we get some balance eventually. There is often a trade-off between security and liberty. If you want perfect security, you're probably looking at zero liberty. The sooner we realize that fact, the sooner we can make some intelligent decisions.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

criminal trespass of an entire state

Via NPR this morning. A New Hampshire police chief has charged illegal immigrants with criminal trespass . . . of the entire state. The statute in question is N.H. Rev. Stat. § 635:2 which reads
I. A person is guilty of criminal trespass if, knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, he enters or remains in any place.

II. Criminal trespass is a misdemeanor if:

(a) The trespass takes place in an occupied structure as defined in RSA 635:1, III; or
(b) The person knowingly enters or remains:
(1) In any secured premises;
(2) In any place in defiance of an order to leave or not to enter which was personally communicated to him by the owner or other authorized person; or
(3) In any place in defiance of any court order restraining him from entering such place so long as he has been properly notified of such order.

III. All other criminal trespass is a violation.

IV. As used in this section, "secured premises" means any place which is posted in a manner prescribed by law or in a manner reasonably likely to come to the attention of intruders, or which is fenced or otherwise enclosed in a manner designed to exclude intruders.
The chief's reasoning: they entered the state, which is a place, and they had no license or privilege to do so because they're illegals. Viola: criminal trespass. I am not familiar enough with New Hampshire law to know the difference between a misdemeanor and a violation, but it seems likely that the chief's objective is to get them deported for breaking the law.

Much sound and fury has erupted, but the actual legal battle looks like it'll be more over preemption: because the federal government regulates immigration, has it preempted the state's ability to do what effectively amounts to the same thing?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

what is syndication and why do I care?

I'm procrastinating a bit. I should be writing right now, but finals just ended, I'm trying to taper off the caffeine, and it's taking a while to get focused. In the meantime, if you're a blog reader, what is syndication and why do you care?

Let's start with the important thing: why do you care? If, like me, you read more than one blog, it can be a pain to keep checking their web sites. It's especially a pain if, like the Gazette, the people who write the blogs don't post something every day. To deal with that problem, there are programs out there called "news aggregators" that watch the blogs for you. If there's anything new, they'll tell you about it. That way, you can keep up with more blogs in less time.

Syndication is how the blogs tell your aggregator that someone has posted a new blog entry. Most blogs have a link variously called a "news feed," "syndication feed," "RSS feed," or "XML link." For example, for any blog on, that link will be the name of the blog followed by "/index.xml". For this blog, it's "". Other blogs have different names for the link. Most will put the link on their main page.

To use syndication, you plug the link into your news aggregation software. If you're looking for news aggregation software, I have a few suggestions.

My favorite is built into Thunderbird, which is an e-mail program. I use Thunderbird to read e-mail, so this makes it easy to keep up with blogs, too, all in one place. Other e-mail programs might understand aggregation as well: check the help files.

If you don't want to change e-mail programs, you might consider the web browser Firefox with the Sage plugin. Firefox is my current web browser of choice. Sage turns it into a news aggregator as well.

Otherwise, you can run a Google search to turn up several stand-alone aggregators. If you click on this link, you'll get software for Windows. Here's a link for Mac users. Unix folks: y'all can enter your own search strings. :-) I haven't played with any of these programs, so you'll have to experiment to find one you like.

Correction: the correct URL for Blogger blogs ends in /atom.xml, not /index.xml. For this one, it's

Monday, May 23, 2005

so THAT's where the male/female ratio comes from

From the WTF? department: the Sunday Times is reporting on a study that indicates that people in traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering are more likely to have boys than girls, while people in traditionally female-dominated fields like nursing are more likely to have girls than boys. The study apparently describes people as "systemisers" or "empathisers" (yes, with an "s" -- it's a British paper) with the result that "systemisers" tend to produce male children and "empathisers" tend to produce females.

The article also includes this gem:
A study published in 2002 by the University of Auckland, found that assertive women had a higher chance of having a son because of their testosterone levels — indicated by long ring fingers. Meanwhile, Copenhagen researchers have found that smokers are more likely to have girls than boys.
Much teasing ensued around the household regarding the length of one's ring finger.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

ten thousand feet

1115, 10,000 feet. The fog's lifted and flights are going out. There's something magical about the way airplanes hang in the air. It's not that there's anything strange about the physics. After all, an airplane flies because of its shape: as long as it has that same shape, an airplane pretty much can't fall out of the air. The physics simply doesn't work that way. It's just that you can't normally see the air flowing over the wings, or the downwash coming off the trailing edge, and you have some idea of just how big and heavy that chunk of aluminum is. My first reaction is that the thing has no business being in the air. It sometimes hits me while I'm flying, and it almost always hits when watching a 747 on final approach.

metropolitan wireless

0930, still sitting in the airport. We're fogged in so badly that nothing's landing right now. They've closed security because the gate area's full. An announcement just came over the P.A.: "Hello? God? Can you lift the fog please, so we can have an airplane? Are you there, God?" Everyone got a good chuckle out of that one. Anyway, there's not much to do at the moment except blog.

Here's a question for you: should cities provide municipal wireless services? I'm thinking the answer is yes, by analogy to the public interstate system. It used to be that we relied on a network of small highways and toll roads to get places. Then, during the Cold War, we created this new thing called an interstate so we could get troops quickly from one side of the country to the other. Turned out they had an interesting side-effect: suddenly, commerce increased a whole bunch because people could get places cheaply and easily. When commerce increased, so did the tax base, so the interstates paid for themselves and then some.

Right now, I'm hanging in the airport. If I want to get on the Internet, I can use the local toll service to connect. Honestly, I fly rarely enough that it's not worth my money to pay for the thing. On the other hand, it would be worth some of my tax money to have a fairly low bandwidth municipal wireless service that I could use from anywhere in the city. (I can get occasional access to high bandwidth networks for downloading large files. The big advantage to wireless would come from its always being available for IM, checking flight times, e-mail, that sort of thing.) And, while I haven't seen any studies, I'm willing to bet that the side effects on commerce would more than pay for themselves.

where is everyone?

0830, sitting in the airport. Still waiting for the coffee to sink in. I don't much like big crowds, so I'm a bit on the grumpy side this morning. I'm writing this offline to post later.

There's a fairly famous equation, the Drake equation, that tries to predict roughly how many advanced civilizations are hanging around in the galaxy at any given time. The basic idea is you take the number of stars, and multiply by the probabilities that a star has planets, that a planet can support life, that life will evolve, that evolved life will be sentient, that sentient life will forma civilization, and that the civilization will be able to communicate. No-one actually knows those probabilities, of course, and the estimates are all pretty low, but there are a huge number of stars in the galaxy. So, at the end, you get somewhere between two and a few thousand civilizations. SO then you have to ask how come no-one's dropped by to say "hello"? Or, at least, how come we're not picking up someone else's equivalent of Gilligan's Island or As the World Turns , 'cause we're sure as heck pumping those broadcasts to the rest of the galaxy right now. (Some time when you're in a meditative mood, flip through the broadcast channels and consider the impression we're making on the neighbors...)

Anyway, different people have different answers to the "were is everyone?" question. One of the most optimistic is Vernor Vinge's answer from Marooned in Real Time, where he borrows an idea from Freeman Dyson that technology improves at an increasing pace: if you chart the technology over time, you get this curve that goes up, up, up and eventually goes vertical. That point's called an asymptote. At the asymptote, our models break down, and you can't predict what happens afterwards.

I hope Vinge's right, but there's another theory that comes back to haunt me every so often. It has to do with the Ted Kaczynskis of the world. Every civilization has its crazy people. As technology gets better, so do the opportunities for the crazy people. In a paleolithic society, the best Ted could do is bop someone else on the head with his club or poke them with a pointy stick. In a 19th century civilization, Ted may be running around with a black powder bomb or maybe a stick of dynamite: same number of crazy people, more damage per person. In an early 21st century civilization, maybe Ted grabs a box cutter and hijacks a 747 into the World Trade Center. One crazy (or 19, as the case may be) kills a bunch of people right away and triggers one or two wars. What happens in a late 21st century civilization? A 22nd? Maybe the reason no-one's dropped by to say hello isn't that they're all at a great block party and didn't invite the wierdo neighbors who watch Fear Factor and leave trash in the yard. Maybe it's that every civilization has its crazies, and eventually its technology gets good enough for them to make everything go boom.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

next step in solar water purification

This is another experiment for cheap solar water purification. Previous post here.

In this attempt, our hero put the cup on a stand, to get the mouth closer to the top of the bottle, and also taped a small aluminum foil reflector around the back half of the bottle. I adjusted the reflector to re-point it at the sun periodically throughout the day. Weather conditions: severe clear and 80-85F.

  • The bottle with the reflector and the cup on the stand distilled 2-3/4 tsp of water.
  • The control bottle with just a plain black cup distilled... 2-3/4 tsp of water.
Doesn't look like the reflector or stand did a whole lot.

Still to try:
  1. a larger, external reflector made of aluminum foil taped over cardboard
  2. adding a wick to the cup to try to increase the surface area and speed the evaporation rate (thanks to John Galt for the suggestion)
  3. possibly sealing the gap where the top of the bottle fits into the bottom in case we're losing water vapor through there
I'm not so sure about #3: I haven't noticed that the level of liquid in the cup has dropped all that much, so I think it's more a problem of low evaporation rate than losing water vapor.

The next post in this series is here.


Let's talk for a sec about the web and podcasting.

In '94 or '95, I was working for CompuServe. We had this great software called WinCIM (the “Windows CompuServe Information Manager”) that could talk to CompuServe and give you menus, images, downloads, and so forth in a nifty graphical format. About that time, though, I heard about this new thing called the World Wide Web. I downloaded some free software called Mosaic and had a look, and I was blown away. Mosaic crashed a lot, the web pages out there weren't visually as sophisticated as our WinCIM stuff, and they were so totally disorganized that you needed an indexing service (read: search engine) to find pretty much anything, but this unruly upstart had a few things going for it. For one, the web could put links anywhere in the page, not just in neatly-defined menus. And adding links was so easy you could do it with a text editor. And, most importantly, the web was decentralized: pretty much anyone could put up a web page anywhere on the Internet as long as they had the network bandwidth.

Nowadays, of course, the web's taken off and WinCIM is no more.

So, late last year, I hear about this thing called “podcasting.” Think of podcasting as being sort of like web radio. Podcasters put together radio shows as audio files. Then they publish them. Other folks download the shows and listen to them either on their iPods or MP3 players, or on their laptops. Now, notice some things about this stuff that are potentially tremendously powerful. First, anyone with a microphone and a laptop can publish a podcast and can say pretty much whatever they like, because the FCC doesn't regulate podcasts. Also, it doesn't stream like web radio: with web radio, you have to tune in at the same time they broadcast. With podcasting, you can download the show and listen to it when it's convenient for you, which has an important side benefit for the podcaster: they don't have a bazillion people trying to hit their web site all at once, so their bandwidth costs are lower. So we have the potential for people to put together their own regular radio shows without needing an FCC license, or a transmitter, or huge amounts of bandwidth, or any of that stuff.

Right now, the shows are disorganized, decentralized, and the production quality can be hit or miss. But this podcasting thing feels like it just might take off, like that web thing did.

Here are a few podcasts if you want to check it out. You can find more in the directory tree at

To just get the flavor of it, you can click on the "mp3" links to download a copy of the show.

If you want to try tuning in on a more regular basis, go to and download the ipodder software. It knows how to watch a podcast's web site (look on the site for a button marked "RSS" or "XML", or you can go through the ipodder directory) and will download the latest episodes as they become available.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

ad astra per aspirin

I hate finals. And I'm not alone. Law school finals bring with them their own particular brand of suckage because your entire grade for the semester comes down to, essentially, one 4-5 hour long test. The stress can be -- literally -- a killer.

Best advice I've heard this entire finals session was from a Lutheran pastor: "Just remember: Breathe in . . . Breathe out . . . Repeat."

Best line so far: "I didn't know it was possible for someone to be annoying even when they're giving a test."

Right now, I have classmates who are ticked at each other, some are depressed, some are bouncing off the walls, and there's been at least one report of someone reenacting the books-flying-off-the-shelf scene from Ghostbusters. And I've personally been most of the above (except for the being ticked or Ghostbusters parts.)

Hang in there, folks. One test to go and we're done with this mess. It's for the class with the smallest number of credit hours and, shockingly, we know the prof's testing style. And remember to keep it in perspective: this is two (hellish) weeks out of a long life you've already had and many more years to come.

Breathe in . . . Breathe out . . . Repeat.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

check . . . and mate

Back in April, I wrote about the new passport standard and its possible implications for privacy. Well, the other shoe has now dropped: today Congress passed an emergency spending bill for the war in Iraq that includes a provision called Real ID which, essentially, establishes a national ID card. What the bill purports to do is set nationwide standards for state-issued driver's licenses, but effectively it's the same thing: every state-issued driver's license must have certain information on it, including "A common machine-readable technology, with defined minimum data elements".

To get a driver's license, you will need to present, at a minimum, the following information at your local DMV office (sec 202(c)(1)):
  • A photo identity document, except that a non-photo identity document is acceptable if it includes both the person's full legal name and date of birth.
  • Documentation showing the person's date of birth.
  • Proof of the person's social security account number or verification that the person is not eligible for a social security account number.
  • Documentation showing the person's name and address of principal residence.
It also makes it a matter of federal, not state, law that someone must present proof of citizenship or legal alien status to get a drivers license. (Sec 202(c)(2)(b).)

You can read Bruce Schneier's excellent article on the many reasons why this law is a bad idea here. They include the fact that it's an expensive unfunded mandate that won't increase security significantly, but will increase the chances of identity theft.

Assuming a "common machine-readable technology" is an RFID tag, it's probably not long before police cars get long-range RFID scanners that can read the tags from a distance. At that point, it becomes possible to drive by someone's house and determine who is in that house, or to log who's attending a meeting at the local church or synagogue.

Also, sec 203 requires states to link databases, and that the databases contain all information on the driver's license. So, your state driver's license number plus the state itself gives you a globally unique identification number that someone can use to track you.

How is this constitutional? Well, the federal government isn't ordering the states to do it. It just says (sec 202(a)(1)) that it won't accept a non-complying driver's license for any federal purposes. That would presumably include getting on an airplane.

Since the bill that contains the provision is a spending bill for the war in Iraq, Mr. Bush will, of course, sign it. You can thank Rep. James Sensenbrenner for this new law.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Iraq build-up memo

The Times of London is reporting a memo dated 7/23/02 summarizing a meeting with the Prime Minister several months before the Iraq invasion. The memo's purportedly from Matthew Rycroft, a British ambassador. The memo suggests the Bush administration intentionally manipulated intelligence to match its policy goals:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.
. . .
The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.
Now, this is a British memo relaying a British diplomat's interpretation of a meeting with people who'd met with U.S. officials, so I disagree with a number of bloggers who call it a "smoking gun": it's too far removed from the source to be that. However, it suggests that more investigation could stand to happen in the U.S. It might be a good starting point for a Freedom of Information Act request.

It's also interesting that the memo hasn't gotten more air play through the mainstream U.S. media.

Clarification: According to Mr. Rycroft's bio, he was "Private Secretary to the Prime Minister Tony Blair, for Foreign Affairs" on 7/23/02. He became an ambassador in 2005.

Sunday, May 08, 2005


The May 2005 edition of IEEE Spectrum (available in the reference section of the nearest engineering library) has a interesting article on sonofusion: using focused sound waves to produce nuclear fusion. The experimental apparatus uses a flask of deuterated acetone, acetone where the molecules use deuterium instead of hydrogen, at 0 deg. C. They first remove all the dissolved gasses. Then, they use a piezoelectric element to set up an extremely powerful standing sound wave in the container. The sound wave oscillates between extreme low pressure and extreme high pressure. Finally, they spray it with neutrons that are carefully timed to match the low pressure of the sound wave. The neutrons make tiny little bubbles, which immediately expand to 100,000 times their original size. Then, when the high pressure rolls around, the bubbles slam back together and some of the deuterium fuses. They know it's fusing because they can detect the neutrons it gives off (at a different time and energy than the neutrons they're feeding in), and because the level of dissolved tritium increases over time.

According to the article, they've published results in Science (8 March 2002) and Review E (March 2004). Initially, there was a lot of skepticism, but there are reports of other labs being able to reproduce the results.

This process is a ways from producing more power than you feed it, but at least one company, Impulse Devices, is trying to create a commercial version of it. Online resources are pretty scarce, but you can find some PDFs here, and there's a PDF version of a power-point presentation here.

Much of the Spectrum article talks about the difficulty of scaling the technology to the size of a nuclear power plant. What I find intriguing is its potential compactness: instead of trying to supply an entire city, could we create generators small enough to power a neighborhood, a city block, or a house?

Friday, May 06, 2005

bendable concrete

Slashdot reports that researchers have developed bendable concrete. Any suggestions for applications? Bouncy-houses for fault zones?

Thursday, May 05, 2005

28 USC 1332

This is the final salvo in the posts on the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 series of posts. They published the final version of the law on 15 April (happy tax day!). This is an attempt to figure out what's changed.

28 USC 1332, which controls when many cases can go into federal court, has changed somewhat. Most of the changes are in 1332(d), dealing with class actions. There are two things here, "class actions" and "mass actions".

For class actions the basic requirements are that:
  • you have at least 100 people in the class (1332(d)(5)(B))
  • the amount in controversy is now $5,000,000 (1332(d)(2))
  • to get that amount, you aggregate the claims of both named and unnamed plaintiffs (1332(d)(6))
  • you must meet at least minimal diversity requirements (at least one named or unnamed plaintiff is from a different state from any defendant)
If so, D can try to remove it. However, there are some things that'll still keep it out of federal court.

If 1/3 to 2/3 of the named and unnamed plaintiffs are from the state where the action's been filed, the district court has discretion to decline jurisdiction based on analyzing some factors:
  • is it a matter of national or interstate interest
  • which state's law governs
  • did the plaintiffs plead the action to try to avoid federal jurisdiction
  • did they sue in a forum with a special connection to the plaintiffs, defendants, or harm
  • does a substantially large fraction of the plaintiffs come from this state
  • have the same people filed a similar class action within the last 3 years
If 2/3 or more of the named and unnamed plaintiffs, and all the primary defendants, are citizens of the state where the action's been filed, the district court must decline jurisdiction.

The district court must also decline jurisdiction (1332(d)(4)(A)) if
  • 2/3 or more of the named and unnamed plaintiffs are from the state where the action's been filed, AND
  • there's at least one "significant" defendant from the state where the action's been filed (where "significant" means the plaintiffs want significant relief from the defendant and the defendant's alleged conduct is a significant basis of the claim), AND
  • no-one's filed a similar class action against these defendants in the last 3 years
Mass actions are cases where they consolidate the claims of 100 or more people on the grounds of common questions of law or fact. For mass actions, the individual plaintiffs have to meet the old $75,000 amount-in-controversy value. Mass actions are also removable, with some exceptions. (See the statute for details.)

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Microsoft working on the car that can't crash

From Slashdot, this article discusses a joint venture between Microsoft and Ford heading toward a car that can't crash. I'll forego the obvious jokes and simply suggest a few ideas for your consideration:

(1) The idea of an uncrashable car sounds a lot like the idea of an unsinkable ship. It's probably wise to bear in mind that, no matter how big, strong, or fast you are, the universe can almost certainly dish out something bigger, stronger, or faster.

(2) Computer engineering probably needs to advance quite a bit before we field millions of vehicles that have the capability of deciding, in the interests of (what they perceive as) safety, that they're going to ignore the driver's suggestions and do their own thing. To some extent flight control systems do it today, but they're dealing with a much less complex environment, far fewer sensory inputs, and distances of hundreds to thousands of feet rather than units to tens.

(3) If you thought cruise controls made things tricky, with this stuff civil and criminal liability issues are going to get really, really funky. If your car decides to make an illegal left turn, or speed through a school zone in the interests of safety, who gets the traffic ticket? If it hits someone, who's on the hook for it?

walking through the fog

Milton wrote
Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate--
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and apathy, and glory and shame:
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy!--
Yet, with a pleasing sorcery, could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope, or arm th' obdured breast
With stubborn patience as with triple steel.
-- Milton, Paradise Lost, chapter 2
The passage comes just after the fallen angels have reached Hell. (I hope I'm not spoiling the book for you.) The fall has shattered their vision of the truth, so they're reduced to argument, trying to recapture what they once knew by piecing together shards.

I've been thinking about these words a lot lately, as I read court opinions, blog entries, and columns. Are we making progress towards some greater understanding, or are we simply adding more shards to a puzzle?

Monday, May 02, 2005

Slow Cooker (Crock Pot) Marinara Sauce

I've promised this recipe to a couple folks, now. So I decided to share it with the world. Or at least the subset of the world that reads the Gazette...

The night before, chop

1 onion
8 cloves garlic (or buy the pre-chopped kind in the jar)

and put them in your crock pot. Add:

2 cans (28 oz) crushed tomatoes, undrained
1 can (6 oz) tomato paste
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
2 tsp sugar
3 tsp dried basil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

The next morning, cook on low all day (at least 8 hours). Then serve over pasta. It also freezes and re-heats well.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

found a black cup

This is a follow-up to the solar water purification project.

I found back plastic cups at a discount party supply store. They're a bit smaller than the blue ones, 12 oz rather than 16 oz, but I tried a head-to-head comparison. It turns out that a black cup with a white liner seems to roughly double efficiency over a blue cup with white liner, though it's still too low to be useful.

Weather conditions: broken overcast at 11:17 when the test started, becoming clear by 13:15. The stills became shaded at around 18:00.

It was difficult to accurately measure the fairly small amount of water they produced, but the blue cup produced just over a teaspoon of water, while the black one produced about two teaspoons. One of the difficulties is that I measured only the water that accumulated in the bottom: there were still a fair number of water droplets around the inside of the bottle.

The next things to test will be adding a reflector and raising the cup nearer the top of the bottle.