Saturday, January 28, 2006

global warming and ostriches

Ostriches don't stick their heads in the sand when they're afraid. That's a myth. If they really did stick their heads in the sand, they'd have long since all been eaten by cheetahs, and we'd be talking about "the extinct ostrich" with that same tone of voice we use when we talk about the dodo bird.

In this New York Times article, Dr. James Hansen, NASA's top climate scientist, has charged the Bush administration is trying to keep him from giving warnings about global warming. The article also says there have been similar restrictions on scientists at NOAA.

If this is what's really going on, it needs to stop. I've written before about Philip Cooney, the administration official who resigned over allegations he was watering down reports about global warming. (Here and here.) The cheetah's coming. How we react is up to us, but if we stick our heads in the sand, some day someone will be talking about us with that same tone of voice they reserve for the dodo bird.

Friday, January 27, 2006

thank you, Word

The article was finished. 60 pages, a couple hundred cross-referenced footnotes, table of contents. I printed it out, flipped through, and noticed "Error! Bookmark not Defined!" Many, many times. Apparently, Word trashed all the cross-references among the footnotes just before printing the file, so there went 60 pages of paper, ink, and the time to print them. Happy, happy, joy, joy. I checked the help system to see if there was anything useful. There wasn't. (And the help system crashed.) So I reverted to an earlier version of the file and found out Word had messed up the formatting there. Another hour went down the drain while I fixed the formatting, rebuilt a few broken cross-references, and re-added the table of contents.

It's unfortunate this program has such a lock on the market. I much prefer Writer from, which has generally been quite solid. I'm only using Word now because the people who are getting this article accept only Word format, and I need to make sure the formatting they get is exactly what I see on my screen. (There are painfully specific formatting requirements.)

The folks are now pushing a new file format called Open Document format. It's supposed to be a sort of universal file format for word processors. It doesn't seem like Microsoft or the WordPerfect people have much incentive to adopt it right now, but it'd sure be nice if it caught on. Then you could use the word processor of your choice to produce a file that any other word processor could open.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

random thoughts

Here are a couple random thoughts before I head off to bed.

First, have you noticed that books exhibit flocking behavior? Especially reference books. I get one out to look something up, which leads to another, and pretty soon a good sized flock has accumulated on the desk. If one of them moves, like if I relocate to the dinner table, the rest soon follow. Not all of them, of course -- the flock can split -- but a "fair number" depending on the topic.

Second, what do you suppose the market value of canned time would be? We already sell time: Whole Foods makes a tidy profit selling preprepared dinners, for instance. People who buy those meals pay a premium for the ability to transfer time from cooking to doing something else. So we know time has market value, and it's not infinite. But is it consistent from one product to another? Could you look at the price differences in products and calculate a consistent market value for time? Also, the way we sell time today has a limit: you don't get more than 24 hours in a day, you just get the ability to reallocate those hours. Pure time in a can, that could add more hours to your day, might be a lot more valuable.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Do you want to eat a hamburger?

It’s been a while since I wrote the last blog. I have been preoccupied by other stuff like job search. There is the news catching my eye recently; Japan halted American beef imports again.

Japan resumed importing American beef while ago because the US agreed to prevent spinal column and other bone tissue from being shipped to Japan. Japan considers that these parts are likely to contain the material causing mad cow disease. Recently, Japan found spinal column in a shipment from a US beef supplier and decided to close its market to American beef again.

The tissue Japan found, spinal column from veal, is allowed in the American food supply because it comes from animals younger than 30 months of age. The US meat industry pointed out that mad cow disease has never been found in an animal that young. The industry also emphasized Americans eat the same product with confidence.

I wish we are as confident as the US meat industry believes we are to eat the spinal column of a young cow. I think we just don’t know what part of meat we are eating when we are munching a hamburger. We might be even eating a mature cow’s spinal column and bone tissue when we believe we are enjoying juicy-cooked-ground beef.

Friday, January 20, 2006

California in the morning

I'm spending the day in Sacramento for a meeting. It's not as glamorous as it sounds -- fly up early, meet all day, fly back late, but it's had an unexpected benefit. We're cruising at 34,000 feet over inland California with the sunrise behind us. The sky's mostly clear except a few cirrus clouds, building as we head north. Visibility at this altitude is pretty much unlimited as the sky fades from a powder blue horizon to a deep blue overhead. The orange sun's just skimming the mountain peaks. The fog-filled valleys are still dark. Some of the peaks this time of year have snow on them, while others look as arid as photos from Mars, with erosion gullies to match. It's good to be reminded just how spectacularly beautiful this state can be.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

the source of spam

Like most people, I get really annoyed by spam. Unlike most people, I have access to a mail server that lets me give myself as many e-mail addresses as I want. For several years, now, every time I've registered for a new service or signed up for an e-mail list or had to give a company my e-mail address, I've given out a unique address keyed to that company, web site, or what-have-you. That way, when I start getting spam, I can tell where the spammer got the address.

I think I'm starting to see an interesting pattern.

Most of the spam does not seem to be coming from companies that sell e-mail lists. Now, I need to qualify that a bit: I'm usually very careful to look for and un-check any "send me e-mail" boxes when I register, so that might have something to do with it -- some companies might figure if I'm willing to get e-mail from them, I'm willing to get it from other people too, and pass the address along.

Instead, most spam seems to come from two sources. One is e-mail lists. I'm on several e-mail lists. Those lists usually archive their messages on a web site. Spammers seem to be either going through the web sites trolling for addresses or subscribing to the more active lists and collecting them that way.

The other source is people pulling addresses out of the WHOIS database. This source won't affect people who haven't registered a domain name. (If you don't know what that is, don't worry about it -- you won't get spam from this source.)

Bottom line: what's it all mean for you? If I'm right about this pattern, you might be able to avoid most of your spam by using a google, hotmail or yahoo address when subscribing to mailing lists, but you can safely use your regular address when registering with most companies or corresponding with friends. The nice thing about this approach is when you start getting too much spam, just abandon your old list address, create a new one, and re-subscribe.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

anonymous internet annoying is illegal

I left one out. This article notes a recent Congressional act that makes it illegal to intentionally post an annoying message to the Internet without using your real name. H.R. 3402 (now Pub. Law. 109-162, which you can find here ) modified 27 U.S.C. § 223.

The old language of 223(h)(1), which governs definitions, reads
(1) The use of the term “telecommunications device” in this section—
(A) shall not impose new obligations on broadcasting station licensees and cable operators covered by obscenity and indecency provisions elsewhere in this chapter; and
(B) does not include an interactive computer service.
The new law makes these changes to the section:

(a) IN GENERAL.--Paragraph (1) of section 223(h) of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 223(h)(1)) is amended--
(1) in subparagraph (A), by striking "and" at the end;
(2) in subparagraph (B), by striking the period at the end and inserting "; and"; and
(3) by adding at the end the following new subparagraph:
"(C) in the case of subparagraph (C) of subsection (a)(1), includes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet (as such term is defined in section 1104 of the Internet Tax Freedom Act (47 U.S.C. 151 note)).".
(b) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION.--This section and the amendment made by this section may not be construed to affect the meaning given the term "telecommunications device" in section 223(h)(1) of the Communications Act of 1934, as in effect before the date of the enactment of this section.
Section 223(a)(1)(C) says it's illegal if someone
(C) makes a telephone call or utilizes a telecommunications device, whether or not conversation or communication ensues, without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person at the called number or who receives the communications;
One comment writer to Boing-Boing said that this change is really just surplus language because the courts have already given the Communication Decency Act this interpretation in ACLU v. Reno, 929 F. Supp. 824, 829 n.5 (E.D. Pa. 1996), aff'd, 521 U.S. 824 (1997). I haven't yet read the opinion to see whether or not I agree.

Schneier's Jan 2006 Cryptogram

Bruce Schneier’s latest issue of Cryptogram is out and, as usual, it’s a treasure trove of interesting stories. (It’s also very popular – the link above might not work right now since the issue came out today.) I’m just going to hit the highlights here. I’ll probably go into more depth in future posts.

FISA and Survillance
Schneier devotes a lot of time to discussion of FISA and the President’s decision to conduct surveillance without going through the court system. One of the most interesting essays suggests the President’s purpose was probably not to speed up getting warrants but to use a different style of surveillance. FISA is organized around the idea that you conduct surveillance of a particular person, but the NSA, through systems like Echelon, has the capability to “vacuum” up billions of messages daily and mine them for interesting patterns – something you can’t get a warrant to do. Mr. Bush may have wanted to be able to do that with communications going to and from the United States. A follow-up article discusses Project Shamrock, a 1950’s and 60’s project in which intelligence agencies did exactly that by intercepting all telegrams going to and from the United States and argues Congress’s reaction to that project is what gave rise to FISA in the first place. There’s also a rather extensive article describing the Bush administration’s legal justifications in lay terms, with links to the Yoo memo containing the legal reasoning. Finally, if you really want to live on the edge, here’s a suggested test to find out if your e-mail’s being snooped, though it might wind up landing you on the no-fly list.

Browser Vulnerabilities
A group’s run a study on security and web browsers. For each browser, they looked at the number of days out of 2004 when there was a known vulnerability in the browser but no patch to fix the vulnerability existed. The results? Firefox: 15% unsafe (with the Windows version of Firefox being 7% unsafe.) Opera: 17% unsafe. Internet Explorer: 98% unsafe.

RFID Tag-related Stories (Wallet article, Zapper article)
RFID tags are (still) creating a lot of stir on the Internet among people with both professional and amateur interest in security. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but apparently effective, are these plans to make an RFID-blocking wallet out of duct tape and aluminum foil. There are also plans to make an RFID-zapper, a device designed to burn out RFID chips permanently by generating a small electromagnetic pulse. The FCC’s gotta frown on that.

Vehicle Tracking in UK
Looks like the UK is set to implement a system to track the movements of every car and truck in the country and keep those records for two years. They’re going to use a network of cameras to read and record license plates. I wasn’t able to determine what the system would do if Bad Guy used electrical tape to change the numbering on his plate to be the same as Good Guy’s numbers and then went tooling around. One of the comments also raises an interesting point: if police cars have mobile plate scanners, you can use the logs to track the movements of the police cars as they scan plates, since you’ll know “cop car X scanned plate Y at location L and time Z.”

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

why you should never clean your fridge

I took the compressor to see the doctor today. The compressor, you see, has been ailing. As it heats up, it starts to bind, the lights dim, and breakers eventually blow. Unfortunately, the compressor is also quite big and heavy, full of oil, and not supposed to be tipped over, my car has a trunk that won't open wide enough to hold 43" of upright compressor, and the doctor's a small engine repair shop 3.6 mapquest-miles away, so getting it to the doctor is something of an accomplishment.

My first thought was to hitch it to the back of a bike and tow it. Which is not as crazy an idea as it sounds. The compressor has wheels and route's mostly flat terrain. The wheels, though, are small, and there's no shock absorption, so the first good bump would probably shear them right off.

Plan B was to take it in the car, which meant draining all the oil, laying it down in the trunk, and hoping the trip in the prone position wouldn't break anything else.

When you drain oil, you need something to put the oil in. Glass jars work great because the oil can't attack them, so I went looking for glass jars. And then realized that, in a fit of insanity, I'd recycled all of them. No ancient bottles of salsa or jars of pickles in the fridge to cannibalize, either.

The second problem is protecting the car's trunk from any possibly leaking oil. But in an extension of the aforementioned cleaning insanity, I'd thrown away the old plastic shower curtain that could've lined the trunk. D'oh!

Fortunately, the cleaning insanity stopped at the door to the workshop. There I found a couple empty compressor oil containers and an old container of motor oil. Now, when you drain oil, you want a container big enough to hold it all, because switching in the middle can get really messy. So I transferred the motor oil to the compressor oil containers and then drained the compressor oil into the bigger motor oil container. The shop also provided old cardboard to line the trunk and soak up any drips. One wrestling match later and the compressor was at the doctor's office. (Which was full of all manner of machinery -- they were welding the back of a truck back together when I got there -- a good sign.)

The moral? Be wary of the urge to clean. You never know when you might need some of that stuff.

Monday, January 09, 2006

back to the world of the living

I turned in this vacation's third, and last, paper this morning. Woo-hoo! Finally the schedule's loosened up a bit. Maybe I'll hit the beach tomorrow.

So, what's the deal on this AT&T / SBC merger? Ma Bell has a monopoly for nearly a century, the government breaks them up, then AT&T and SBC (both fragments of the breakup) start clumping together again. They apparently claim the breakup isn't working and it was a question of national security.