Thursday, November 30, 2006

last day of classes

Today's the last day of classes. First final is Monday. It's sobering to go back through my notes and realize I've typed the equivalent of a book for each of them. I haven't done all the work of writing a book, of course--the person teaching did the research, which is the real work--but it's still tempting to send the files to a site like for binding.

Now I just have to somehow absorb all this info.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

now that's something you don't see every day

As I was driving home, I saw something odd in the sky. At first, it looked like a motorglider and something else nearby. By the time I got home and pulled out the binoculars, it became clear: a sailplane, or glider, was quite low over the city with a police helicopter hovering above. It looked like the sailplane was hunting for whatever thermals it could get to stay aloft and working its way north. We have an aircraft band scanner--listening in helps to keep your radio skills from getting too rusty--so I turned it on and heard them land at Montgomery field a few minutes later. It should be interesting to check out tonight's news for an explanation of how they wound up so low over the city, though it might have something to do with winds aloft: they were predicted to be out of the northeast at 22-38 knots, so maybe the glider got blown into the city.

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last night's fortune cookie

"All generalities are false, in general."

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Monday, November 27, 2006

this week's candidate for overuse of technology

Here's this week's candidate for overuse of technology. What to do when your pot of pasta threatens to boil over? Why, grab the spritzer-fan, of course!

Free from a booth at the Miramar Air Show, powered by two AA batteries, and no spritzing needed. It has one big advantage over the old "blow on it to make the foam go away" approach: you can sample the pasta at the same time!

Silly as it is, the gizmo works suprisingly well. Well enough that it's now in our kitchen tools drawer. Posted by Picasa

great Thanksgiving, minus the flu

We had a great Thanksgiving long weekend with the extended family. We all converged on Los Angeles and spent a few days at my sister's house, where she and her husband cooked a fantastic feast.

The only drawback was a stomach flu that swept through, knocking out different folks at different times. Coppertop got it friday and is bouncing back pretty quickly. I was flat on my back much of Saturday and all yesterday. Today, I'm recovering but weak and am trying to psych up to work on Administrative law (not one of my favorite classes this semester.)

Oh, and welcome to new blogger, poet, visionary, and computer guy Wataru.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

a joke web site

It’s been a long time since I posted something last time. With a new job, a few times of moving, settling in a new place, a new life style, and so on, it’s been a bit difficult for me to pull my mental energy together to write a blog in a second language.

Here is the web site that a friend of mine sent to me the other day. It is a joke site making fun of MS Explore and other big-name-software. It is well done and I wonder whether someone may actually take it serious. Check it out.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Textualism is a popular way to interpret laws today. As I understand it, the approach assumes you can apply standard dictionary meanings and rules of English grammar to determine the meaning of a statute. One difficulty I have with the approach is that, when people write laws, they strive for a level of precision that goes beyond the normal, every-day situations where English usually operates. For example, consider this gem, 11 U.S.C. § 547(c) (2000), which you can get by searching GPOAccess. (I haven't provided a direct link because I'm not confident it would stay stable). It's part of the federal bankruptcy code:

(c) The trustee may not avoid under this section a transfer--
(1) to the extent that such transfer was--
(A) intended by the debtor and the creditor to
or for whose benefit such transfer was made to be
a contemporaneous exchange for new value given to
the debtor; and
(B) in fact a substantially contemporaneous

(2) to the extent that such transfer was--
(A) in payment of a debt incurred by the debtor
in the ordinary course of business or financial
affairs of the debtor and the transferee;
(B) made in the ordinary course of business or
financial affairs of the debtor and the transferee;
(C) made according to ordinary business terms;

(3) that creates a security interest in property
acquired by the debtor--
(A) to the extent such security interest secures
new value that was--
(i) given at or after the signing of a
security agreement that contains a description of
such property as collateral;
(ii) given by or on behalf of the secured
party under such agreement;
(iii) given to enable the debtor to acquire
such property; and
(iv) in fact used by the debtor to acquire
such property; and

(B) that is perfected on or before 20 days after
the debtor receives possession of such property;

(4) to or for the benefit of a creditor, to the
extent that, after such transfer, such creditor gave new
value to or for the benefit of the debtor--
(A) not secured by an otherwise unavoidable
security interest; and
(B) on account of which new value the debtor did
not make an otherwise unavoidable transfer to or for
the benefit of such creditor;

(5) that creates a perfected security interest in
inventory or a receivable or the proceeds of either,
except to the extent that the aggregate of all such
transfers to the transferee caused a reduction, as of the
date of the filing of the petition and to the prejudice
of other creditors holding unsecured claims, of any amount
by which the debt secured by such security interest
exceeded the value of all security interests for such debt
on the later of--
(A)(i) with respect to a transfer to which
subsection (b)(4)(A) of this section applies, 90 days
before the date of the filing of the petition; or
(ii) with respect to a transfer to which
subsection (b)(4)(B) of this section applies, one
year before the date of the filing of the petition;
(B) the date on which new value was first given
under the security agreement creating such security

(6) that is the fixing of a statutory lien that is
not avoidable under section 545 of this title;

(7) to the extent such transfer was a bona fide payment
of a debt to a spouse, former spouse, or child of the
debtor, for alimony to, maintenance for, or support of such
spouse or child, in connection with a separation agreement,
divorce decree or other order of a court of record,
determination made in accordance with State or territorial
law by a governmental unit, or property settlement
agreement, but not to the extent that such debt--
(A) is assigned to another entity, voluntarily, by
operation of law, or otherwise; or
(B) includes a liability designated as alimony,
maintenance, or support, unless such liability is
actually in the nature of alimony, maintenance or
support; or

(8) if, in a case filed by an individual debtor whose
debts are primarily consumer debts, the aggregate value of
all property that constitutes or is affected by such transfer
is less than $600.

Eyes glazed yet? Notice that that entire block of text is all one sentence. which in itself means it's broken a normal rule of good writing and limiting sentence lengths. It seems odd to expect that anything written this way conforms to the normal conventions of English writing. It resembles English, but once you get below the surface, you're in a different world.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

ms word feature: insert ink drawing and writing

I've been on the lookout for better ways to take notes in class. For the last couple years, I've been using OpenOffice for a couple reasons. First, it has a powerful macro generation language: I can easily create new commands, so on my copy ctrl-shift-E is "insert an empty case brief into the document", and ctrl-shift-C is "open a small box where I can type a comment or question to remember later." There are a few others as well, mostly organized around the ability to take notes quickly and efficiently. Second, OpenOffice has the Navigator, a small window that knows all your headings and keeps track of them hierarchically, like an outline. Through the navigator, I can easily move, for example, a heading 2 and all the sub-headings under it to a different spot in the document, or promote a particular heading and all its sub-headings by a level. Even having a little side-window that just shows headings is useful for knowing where I am in the document.

Unfortunately, OpenOffice has some drawbacks, too. The most serious is that the 2.0 series has crashed on me in class at least three times this year, losing some notes in the process.[1] Also, its support for tablet PCs is lacking. Often the prof will draw a diagram on the board that I'd like to capture. I have ctrl-shift-D bound to a macro that pops open a small drawing canvas, but trying to use OpenOffice's clunky drawing editor is much too slow when all I really want at that point is the equivalent of a pencil and paper (but that will also scroll with the surrounding text.)

So I just discovered MS Word 2003 has a very interesting feature: Insert Ink Drawing and Text. Configure your toolbar to add the button, click it, and up pops just the sort of drawing canvas I've been needing. If I can figure out how to do some of the other things I need, like inserting an empty case brief through a keyboard command, I may end up having to switch.

[1] I've already taken Microsoft to task on this blog for losing some of my work through poor design. The only reason I've been more patient with OpenOffice is that it's a volunteer project and free software. However, I'm now in the habit of frequently hitting ctrl-S to save the document, and I'm willing to consider switching.

Monday, November 13, 2006

spam, spam, spam, spam

As I wrote earlier, the spam level is getting to be pretty amazing: I'm getting 3-4 spam messages per real message, and that's counting only the spam that makes it past spamassassin. Unfortunately, legally, there doesn't seem to be much I can do about it even though California has a rather nice anti-spam law on the books, so I'm stuck using technological band-aids. The problem, you see, is that the Federal CAN-SPAM act preempts state spam laws, apparently including the California law's private cause of action. Which means I'd have a hard time taking these people to small claims court over the spam they're sending. (Heck, at this point, they're sending enough I ought to be able to take them regular old state court for some impressive statutory damages .)

So I got to wondering who is responsible for preempting the state law. It turns out, the initial version of the CAN-SPAM act, as introduced in the Senate as bill S. 877, includes the preemption clause. Check out section 7(b)(1):
In general.--This Act supersedes any State or local government statute, regulation, or rule regulating the use of electronic mail to send commercial messages.
There are some exceptions, but I don't have time to really dig in and understand them now. So at least for the time being, the folks who introduced the bill are the prime suspects:
Mr. Burns (for himself, Mr. Wyden, Mr. Stevens, Mr. Breaux, Mr. Thomas, Ms. Landrieu, and Mr. Schumer) introduced the following bill;
Maybe someone out there who understands this law better than I do can offer some insight, because I'm running out of technological band-aids.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

birthday, focus, and the news

Tomorrow's my birthday. Coppertop surprised me this morning with a birthday bouquet, which she made herself. I'm looking at it now as I type: orange marigolds and a crimson flower I don't know the name of but that looks like it's in the same family that includes daisies and black-eyed susans. She also kept a few flowers out so I have one in my buttonhole now and she has one in her hair.

It's gotten late enough in the semester that focusing is getting to be a challenge. I'm procrastinating on an editing assignment right now. Ah well, almost over.

Also, there was a news story this morning that's all over the British press but is so far being covered only lightly by the American papers (the Chron being one exception): British Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman has said the U.S. military isn't cooperating in British investigations into some friendly fire incidents. I haven't yet been able to figure out whether this is an official policy, but if it is, then it seems likely to be politically motivated from either the top military levels or from the Whitehouse. Given the emphasis the military (usually) puts on candor, my money would be on cabinet level or higher.

Friday, November 10, 2006

leaf blowers

I'm still trying to understand this phenomenon of leaf blowers. The folks next door are running theirs right now, with the usual racket and dust flying around. The usual pattern seems to be to carefully blow the whatever-it-is into a pile and then blow the pile away, scattering it again. Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems like a case of over-application of technology. If you're cleaning the driveway, which they are, why not use either a broom? Not only are they quiet and cheap, but brooms have the added feature of being compatible with a fantastic invention known as a "dust pan" that lets you collect the whatever-it-is you're cleaning up. Even better, the dust pan is fully compatible with a "plastic grocery bag" into which you can place the whatever-it-is and throw it away so it doesn't blow back into your driveway later. Now, if the blower were a sucker, a sort of outdoor vacuum cleaner, that seems like it'd actually be an improvement on the broom, especially if it could deposit stuff into the plastic grocery bag or trash can directly, avoiding the dust pan intermediate. But blowing things around, only to have the wind blow them back, seems more like a waste of time and energy than anything else. Maybe it's that the noise gives a sense of accomplishment? Hmm. Perhaps there's a market for noisemaking driveway brooms with a push-button "power sweep" feature.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

the clicky keyboard rides again!

Finding a good keyboard is more trouble than I really want to go to right now. So picked up the hardware to make the old IBM clicky keyboard work. For those who might want to follow this path, I'm using a Q-Stor USB to PS/2 adapter (model QUPCBL). Because I've heard these old keyboards can draw a lot more power than the modern ones do, and the USB port on my laptop takes nigh forever to charge an iPod mini, I've run the adapter into an Inland USB 2.0 hub that's rated to supply 500ma per port. Finally, an optical wheelie mouse and a gel-filled wrist wrest complete the set-up. Ah, much nicer typing. And by spinning the tablet PC's screen half-way around, I can get it close enough to still be able to see at high resolution. I may still sound like a machine gun, but at least my wrists are thankful.

I'll probably wait till the Das Keyboard folks announce the model with the key legends and then consider whether to buy one of theirs, with it's quieter key action. In the meantime, if I'm making too much of a racket, changing to the maxi-switch is always a possibility.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

civic duty

I've done my civic duty. Has Diebold done its?

The electronic voting machine was clunky but mostly straightforward. I had a bit of trouble with the touch screen when checking through the summary of my votes: it didn't want to scroll. I eventually figured out you had to press long enough for it to register, unlike my laptop's touchpad which it looking for a sharp tap to signal a click. The local machines also use a printed copy of the vote to allow for verification.

Hmm. Interesting thought: California has enough items on the ballot, and few enough voters in a precinct, that you might be able to uniquely associate a vote printout with a particular voter's combination of votes.

In any case, I'm curious to know if other people have lost confidence in the Diebold machines, or if I'm in a small minority here.

the search for the ultimate keyboard

One occupational hazard I've had to deal with is being on the edge of carpal tunnel. My typing technique is pretty good, so I've been able to avoid it so far, but the laptop keyboard I've been using is doing me no favors. So I've started looking for a good external keyboard.

Trouble is, (a) I'm picky about keyboards, and (b) this machine requires a USB keyboard. I learned to type on manual typewriters, so I really like a keyboard with fairly long travel and a solid feel. My absolute favorite keyboard is an old IBM Model M (mine was made by Lexmark for IBM) that uses buckling spring technology. A co-worker described the feel as "crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside." It weighs a good 5 pounds, is designed to last a lifetime, and sounds like a machine-gun when I'm typing full blast, noisy enough to annoy those around me. It's also a PS/2 interface, so it would need an adapter. My second favorite is an old Gateway model Coppertop bought for me that was made by Maxi-Switch. It feels similar to the Model M but uses a different technology that's quieter. It's also PS/2.

What I really want is a full-sized keyboard that's quieter than the Model M, has a similar key feel, and has a USB interface so I don't have to go through large numbers of adapters and such. I haven't found it yet. comes close, but they don't seem to combine their "enhanced quiet touch" stuff with a USB keyboard for United States use. (They also have one with a built-in mouse/track-point, but it's also buckling-spring only, or quiet touch but PS/2 only, with no indication they've quieted the buckling spring technology down any.) Cherry has a possible contender, but I'd definitely want to try it before buying it. Das Keyboard has an interesting "quiet" mechanical key switch technology, but not printing the letters on the key caps is, well, a little extreme for my tastes.

OK, I know it's weird to spend this much effort on a keyboard, but I expect to keep the thing for at least the next 20 years and use it for a lot of keypresses. It will probably go into the office with me as well (or I'll buy a second one). Anyway, the search continues.

Update: I got e-mail from the Das Keyboard folks saying they plan to sell a version with key labels. Also, Cherry indicated the Das Keyboard is a customized version of Cherry's G80-3000LQCUS-2, though I'm not sure how customized.

Update #2: see this follow-up post: the clickly keyboard rides again!

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Friday, November 03, 2006

my favorite apocolypses

There's nothing like the combination of global warming news, the general drumbeat of world events, and a semester starting to wrap up to put me in an apocolyptic mood.   It's time for some perspective, so I've decided to document a few favorite apocolypse dates, many drawn from Alma Geddon's absolutely amazing collection.

2012.  I've had a soft spot for 2012, when the Mayan calender cycles, for a few years now.  There's something nice and round about it.  "Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold'" as Yeats wrote.  2012 ties in nicely with his idea of gyres, cycles in the world.

2038.  As a computer geek, 2038-01-19 03:14:07 GMT has a special place in my heart. You see, Unix systems traditionally express time as the number of seconds since midnight, January 1, 1970, and they typicaly express it as a 32 bit value.  On January 19, 2038, that 32 bit value gets so large that it wraps around from being a positive number to a negative one.  Which means Unix computers may get confused.  (What am I saying.  Anyone who's looked at the source code of most Unix apps will tell you of course they're going to get confused.) Even worse, lots of Internet protocols express time the same way Unix computers do, so the Internet might get confused, too.  Sort of like Y2K but without the millenial hysteria.

Either 24.92 billion years or 100,000 years, depending on the prediction:  At this point, the accumulated weight of the National Geographic magazines people insist on saving will depress the east and west coasts of the North American continent, raising the middle two hundred meters into the air, causing nasty climate problems and turning the Rockies into an island chain.

5 billion years, give or take.  In five billion years or so, the sun goes nova.  As the inimitable Sam Hughes, who's studied such things and should know, so eloquently pointed out, "The Earth is built to last. It is a 4,550,000,000-year-old, 5,973,600,000,000,000,000,000-tonne ball of iron". As apocolypes go, melting every piece of ice on the planet and turning the Rockies into an island chain is peanuts to a stellar nova.

I encourage you to check out Alma Geddon's list and a useful meta-list here.  If I've left out an apocolypse date that's near and dear to your heart, feel free to comment about it.

article on why linux is having trouble with the desktop

ZDNet's carrying an article, "The world just isn’t ready for Linux," which raises some good points about why Linux is having trouble in the desktop world. Slashdot picked it up here. I particularly agree with a couple points. First, Ubuntu is a promising step in the right direction. And second, hardware support on Linux can be a real pain, at least for new hardware:
The one area of Linux ownership and use where it becomes apparent that there's an assumption that everyone who uses Linux is an expert is hardware support. Your average user doesn't have the time, the energy or the inclination to deal with uncertainty. Also, they usually only have the one PC to play with. Hardware just has to work. There's a very good reason why Microsoft spends a lot of time on hardware compatibility - it's what people want.
To clarify a bit, Linux does quite well for older hardware, but new hardware often requires new device drivers, and finding them can be a royal pain. Things like web cams are often not plug-and-play, for instance.

Part of the reason is resources. Device drivers, the part of the operating system that talks to the hardware, are specific to the operating system. That means a company is less likely to throw developers at writing device drivers for operating systems with smaller market share, like Linux or OS X. Also, you can't use a device driver written for Windows on a Linux machine, or vice versa. Why not? Partly technical, but mostly because of ideology. Many of the people who program for Linux feel strongly that the source code for software should be available to the public, but many hardware makers want to keep the source code secret for business and intellectual property reasons. As a result, you don't see attempts at writing, say, adaptor software that would let one operating system use device drivers meant for the other.

If you read the article, skim through the comments at the bottom. They support the author's point nicely.

sleepless night

I'd love to be able to blame it on the neighbors' loud-voices-and-music-till-2-a.m. Thursday night party, but truth be told the real culprit was my own stupidity.  I've been sick, which means I was dragging as it is, and needed to be alert for a three hour class that starts at 6 p.m. So I had a rather large cup of coffee.  Which turned out to be potent stuff, potent enough to keep me up till 4.  Needless to say, I'm extra dragging today.  Lesson learned, I guess.

Still have no idea what the neighbors were thinking cranking the stereo at 2 a.m. on a weeknight, though.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

lost in translation

From a box of Japanese green tea:

"The aroma from the foot of Mt. Fuji"

Somehow, the beauty of the image seems to have gotten lost in translation.  Oh well, at least it wasn't the aroma of Mt. Fuji's old gym socks. 

(It's actually pretty good genmaicha--tea with brown rice--though every time I drink it the aroma of the brown rice reminds me of puffed rice breakfast cereal.)

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the recent rise in spam

I thought I'd noticed a recent increase in the amount of stock spam I was getting, stuff that punches right through the spam filters. It turns out, others have noticed it, too. From the article:
Estimates of the magnitude of the increase in junk email vary, but experts agree that an uncommon surge in spam is occurring. On the low side, Symantec, the owner of SecurityFocus, has found that average spam volume has increased almost 30 percent for its 35,000 clients in the last two months. Others have seen much more significant jumps: Spam black list maintainer Total Quality Management Cubed has seen a 450 percent increase in spam in two months, and the amount of spam filtered out every week by security software maker Sunbelt Software has more than tripled compared to six months ago.
The article goes on to say the spam's been coming from botnets, groups of compromised computers, which matches what I've seen in my own much less scientific sampling. It sure would be nice if we had secure operating systems, wouldn't it?

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total information awareness

The award for scariest Halloween story goes to Schneier on Security, which is reporting that the DOD's Total Information Awareness project is back.  Like a character in a bad slasher flick, you just can't keep it down.  T.I.A. II, now a classified program called Tangram, "A Fully Automated, Continuously Operating, Intelligence Analysis Support System," actually returned in a DIA Presolicitation Notice on November 23, 2005.

Since this question often comes up in conversation, it seems fitting to address it here: why is this thing scary to honest citizens?  After all, if you don't plan to do anything illegal, what would you have to worry about?  The danger is that ordinary citizens don't get to define what is legal or illegal.  You can scrupulously avoid doing anything you would consider bad or wrong, but you can still wind up doing something illegal because someone else changes the definition of a crime to include whatever it is you're doing, or simply makes the definition fuzzy enough to plausibly cover you.  That someone else might be a political opponent (remember COINTELPRO?) or someone who just doesn't like you very much, say if you were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other person was J. Edgar Hoover.

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