Thursday, February 28, 2008

Advanced Degrees without exams or classes!

There's nothing special about a SPAM email that offers advanced degrees without exams, classes or textbooks. But the ad I got made one claim that really caught my eye. This is not an oxymoron; it's the opposite:

Academic Qualifications available from prestigious NON-ACCREDITED universities.
I didn't put NON-ACCREDITED in caps. They did. Now how does a non-accredited university get to be prestigious?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ghostly Glow:

I hope the world's not rushing too fast to replace standard light bulbs by compact fluorescents. Aside from the mercury issue (disposing of the mercury in hundreds of millions of CFB's is not trivial), the world has to change to accommodate these new bulbs. Unless, that is, the world truly has to change to accommodate LED lights, or to accommodate some other technology to be named later. Here's a case in point:

We just bought a new lampshade for the nicest lamp in our house. We choose a thin, light-bearing shade with plenty of style. The previous shade was falling apart from the inside. The store lady told us the problem was that we were using hot bulbs (the lamp takes 50-100-150 bulbs), and she suggested we keep the wattage down to 100. No problem! I put a 36Watt CFB in the lamp, the equivalent of about 120 watts in standard. (I don't think there are multi-wattage CFBs. You can't "dim" them either.) Now let's face it: there may be an equivalence in Lumens, but the CFB light is just different, and some bulbs are better than others. (My favorites, for brightness, are the expensive CFBs that are color-balanced for daylight. I wouldn't want to pay to buy a lot of them.)

Today's real issue is that the CFB clashes with a hundred years of lampshade technology. A lampshade can look beautiful and transmit a lot of light. Not necessarily CFB light. In the daytime, our beautiful lamp with its new shade gives off a barely visible, eerie glow. At night. It gives off a stronger eerie glow. How many year will it take to develop nice lampshades for CFBs?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Ian Lumsden (speling approximate) wrote to the Daily GizWiz podcast (#508) to explain the rather appealing concept of "retronyms". A retronym is necessarily (but not inclusively) a qualified noun that has had to replace a generalized noun to refer accurately to some older technolgy. Before your eyes glaze over, examples are: acoustic guitar, analog clock, hard disk, and dial phone.

Before the electric guitar, we just called those objects "guitars", but now we must distinguish. Once, all disk drives were "hard", but we did not acknowledge that until there were floppies. And so on.

Perhaps you've come across this old puzzle: someone digs up a coin with the numeral five on it, a picture of a regal figure, and the inscription: In the reign of King Henry the First. Is it a fake? Of course! During his reign he was just King Henry, not "the first." Retronyms.

Monday, February 25, 2008

More than I want to know (HD TV will probably suck):

Douglas Hofstadter, in Gödel, Escher, Bach, imagined trying to analyze a novel at the "dot" level: you would make a computer scan of every page in high resolution, perhaps a million dots per square inch. Then you would run statistical analyses on these dots, perhaps even on recognizable aggregate patterns of the dots, and so on. You might write an essay on artistic variations within the letter 'A'. Chances are, no matter how detailed your work, you would have trouble deciding whether the book was a romance or a comedy, or whether the writing was good quality.

When I was young, people enjoyed a little joke that, I think, has fallen out of favor, because in this modern world, it's not funny. But let me tell you about it: A girl, about ten, is asked to read a book about penguins and review it. Her review "This book tells me more about penguins than I wanted to know."

The people who make pornographic movies looked forward to HD TV with excitement. But when they sank into his medium, they discovered that they may have gone too far. They now devote time to excessive makeup beforehand, and excessive post-processing, because the inquiring camera picks up previously unnoticeable body defects that detract from the organs in question: tiny warts, moles, blotches and scratches.

Pardon me for seeming to wander all over, but here's where I'm going: In my motel yesterday, the lounge TV displayed the High Definition Weather Channel. The screen was about 18" by 30", rock solid images. To what point? It takes real intelligence to compose video that needs all that clarity. And the weather channel, which also broadcasts in low def, is not going to make the effort. TV moguls have long been aware of this issue, and they tremble before the legislative fiats and technology that drive them all into HD. They barely had the creativity to fill the tiny B&W screen. Color diverted us for a while, but most TV programming is dull beyond words. How is HD, in its awful revealingness, going to help that?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another Byte of Computer History:

A friend told me that the clever group at Princeton that works on security issues, including Ed Felton and the brilliant Alex Haldeman, has figured out how to break hard disk encryption, based on an understanding of how DRAM works. Hard disk encryption is important. It tries to solve a critical problem: that someone can steal your data without breaking your login password, by removing your disk drive and putting it in another computer.

Some hard disk encryption uses poor algorithms, but even if the data is encrypted well, there's encryption info in the drive's DRAM memory that makes it easy to break the code. But not to worry! When you turn a disk drive (or a computer) off, its DRAM loses data, hiding its secrets.

Well, actually, it doesn't, and that's what the Princeton group exploited. DRAM is unreliable after it loses power. Every programmer who made the transition to DRAM (nearly 30 years ago) learned not to trust what you see in DRAM after you reboot a computer. The computer may not even have lost power, but if its normal operation has been upset, it may fail to "refresh" the DRAMs, and some or all of that memory is now false.

The Princeton group stood this principle on its head, and in doing so, they reminded me of long-ago days, programming on DRAM-based machines. The attack on hard disk encryption went like this: Let's power the disk up quick and see what we find in DRAM. Maybe some of it will be useful, among the garbage. And it was.

Now a little bit of history: Hardware designers welcomed the advent of DRAM. It was faster, better, denser and cheaper. Its only downside was this business of losing its data if not continually accessed with power. Software developers hated it. We muttered darkly about long bootup times while everything was reloaded in memory (we were right about that!), and we asked how we could possibly debug a system crash. That question has been brilliantly solved over time, but in those first DRAM years, we did what the Princeton team does: we restarted the crashed computer as soon as we could, and looked through the DRAM for hints of the cause of the crash. We saw many locations that now contained only power-loss garbage, but usually there was enough good info left for some serious debugging.

It's all in the point of view, you see. Since DRAM without power is unreliable, you either regard it as useless, or useful.

Update: Ed Felton reports his team has found that DRAM chips preserve their contents longer if you cool them. At -196 degrees C for example, you can take hours to transfer the chips to another system and read their contents. His team has utterly defeated the common disk encryption products used with Mac OS, Linux and Vista. Engineers will have to design a new kind of memory that REALLY loses its data if disturbed, to make disk encryption work. But even then ...

If you're brave, you can move the AC power supply of a computer to a portable supply and steal the entire computer without powering it down. (I saw that somewhere, on the web.)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Two Swimming Stories:

I sat in the steam room with an old man, and told him this story: I came to the club to swim. After I parked my car, I realized I had left my swimsuit home. Eighteen minutes later I returned to find that the pool was closed for emergency maintenance: the acidity wasn't right. I had to wait five minutes, but if I'd brought my swimsuit in the first place, I would have had to wait twenty.
"Let me tell you a swim story," the fellow said. "I came here to swim one day. I was coming out of the locker room, and I felt strange, some strange feeling in my skin. I couldn't place it, so I went on out into the swim complex. I got half-way to the pool, and people were yelling at me, 'Here, you can't do that, Hey, stop, go back!' I looked down ... I was naked. There were women there, too. I hurried back into the locker room."

Now I know what you're speculating. That second story really happened to the old man, not to me! I'm very careful not to be absentminded in that particular way, that's why his story resonates for me. Oh, what an embarrassment!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tax Problems with Lindens:

Two years ago, I blogged about an IRS proposal to tax in-game profits, in games like WoW and Second Life. I haven't heard much about this trial balloon lately, and I hope it's good and dead, because there's no way to tax such gains, or even estimate their fungible value, fairly. But there is hope ... for me at least. A spammer found my entry and posted a comment beginning "You need us if you have any of these tax problems:". (I've deleted the comment, don't go looking for it.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Red Tag Sale:

I've been driving past a new automobile dealer who's offering red tag sales. Some cars in his lot fronting the street have enormous red tags on them that say "Red Tag sale" and a price. I don't know about you, but I would never buy a car that had a big red tag on it. The only cars I've ever seen "red-tagged" were abandoned claptraps on parkways, waiting to be towed.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Doubles, 2-Person Shooters:

I was daydreaming about one of my favorite computer experiences. Suddenly I realized that what happened then was not just my story; it's also an exciting new pathway for you. So here goes:
In 1966, working at Princeton, I discovered the Dec PDP-1. (If you follow the link, you'll see the graphical display sitting right next to the computer.) This machine was a revolution! Small by mainframe standards, it cost only $250,000. (In today's dollar terms, considering computer prices, that's about $27.75.) A friend explained to me how DEC managed to make a computer so inexpensively: it was simpler. He made this comparison:
When an IBM mainframe wants to send data to a peripheral, it sends a signal saying “I want to send you data!” The peripheral replies, “Who are you?” The computer says, “I'm the main processing unit!” The peripheral says, “Are you sure?” The computer says, “I'm sure. The peripheral says, “You can talk to me.” The computer says, “I really want to send you data.” The peripheral says, “When?” (and so on, and so on). In comparison, on the PDP-1, the if the computer wants to send data to a peripheral, it says, “Herecomesthedata!”

The PDP-1 was purchased with a federal grant to use in particle-tracking experiments. Images of particle tracks were recorded in a “bubble chamber,” and PDP-1 programs determined what kinds of particles they were. Occasionally. Because, really, the PDP-1 was very busy.

Most of the time, the PDP-1 played the game of “Asteroids.” Two people piloted space ships that could accidentally fall into the sun, bump into debris, or shoot each other. It was a very nice implementation. If you kept playing for 30 minutes without crashing, the stars in the background completed one revolution around the sun.

There were no computer mice in those days, but there were toggle switches that were normally used to patch data into memory. Programs could read those switches. In Asteroids, each player operated four toggles, to: turn left, turn right, accelerate, and shoot. It was a very exciting game, especially since, for most of us, it was the only known computer game in the Universe.

One day the powers that be decided to make us stop. They moved the graphical display, and bolted it into a rack where it could not be seen from the toggle switches. And that was that.

Only it wasn't. And this is the exciting part that you must take to heart! From then on, we played “doubles”. Each team had a navigator who sat in front of the screen and desperately shouted commands; and a pilot who operated the toggles. The doubles game was much harder to play, and it was ten times more fun.

What modern computer game can be played this way? Just think of one of those shoot-em-up games, where you might play doubles: you'd work the mouse, and your friend would scream at you where to move and where to shoot.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Science Fiction, Fantasy: Which is which?

You might assume that there's a clear demarcation between science fiction and fantasy, but in fact, the dividing line is fuzzy. When I was young, I satisfied a lot of my taste for both genres by reading the Fantasy and Science Fiction mag. That magazine's very name suggested that there was a common audience for both types, and perhaps it also reflected the editors' desire to avoid deciding which was which. Today, it appears that there's a much greater audience for science fiction, and so the question of which is which becomes more relevant.

Now here's an obvious way to decide, but for me, it often fails to work: Science fiction deals with the future, with modes of science, transportation, robotics, communications and gunnery so far uninvented or uninventable. The rest of fiction, if not realistic, is fantasy. I recently read what is clearly a marketed as a fantasy novel, but after awhile, it became science fiction for me. In this novel, the great conceit is that the Horn of Merlin lies at the bottom of the sea and works its magic on all around it, giving the plants, creatures and even nearby humans a sort of immortality. You can see this immortality in the way their DNA has changed, giving them the ability to always heal themselves. On this matter, and several related magical ones, the author bores me to tears by trying to explain how, scientifically, these things could REALLY HAPPEN.

Here's a my dividing line: In science fiction, the author tries to persuade you that no matter how outlandish matters are, they are just a few scientific breakthroughs from what we know today. In fantasy, the author introduces some preposterous concepts and requests your “willing suspension of disbelief.” And please notice, my definition dovetails nicely with the words “science fiction:” This is a field of fiction that pretends to base itself on science.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


When I started swimming last May, I bought a digital lock for the locker room. I chose a lock with four digits rather than three. (Three-digit locks were $5 cheaper.) I knew that no one was going to open my lock in any case. I'm using it in a locker room where many people use no lock at all, even to protect their wallets. But ... I wanted never to waste a moment of anxiety over my stowed gear.

I initially set the combination to a familiar, memorable number. But over the months, I occasionally changed the number, for reasons that utterly escape me. When we came home from vacation in November, I realized I hadn't a clue what the number was. I had a completely useless lovely lock.

I bought a much cheaper and smaller 4-digit lock. This one has been a bitch too use. It barely fits, and in order to fit, it has bent just enough to make it hard to close. Last December I set about figuring out the combination of the original lock. I was pretty sure the first digit was 1, 4, 5, or 8. That meant testing at most 4,000 combinations. I figured, a few each day, I'll eventually get it. I started with the five thousands. (By the way, all the numbers in this story have been changed, to protect: me. I'm a touch paranoid about my lock.)

As I worked on the old lock, I began to lose some respect for it. My routine was to move a digit, tug; move a digit, tug. I noticed that I could tug a little further before meeting resistance, when the lock was set to any odd number, and it tugged even better if the last digit was a 3. When I got to 5533, my tug moved the handle a lot. I decided to try all the numbers ending in 33!
5633, 5733, and the lock opened!

What a relief, I can use my good lock again. But really, it's too easy to figure out the combination.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Public Address System Distractions:

Our fitness Center has a Public Address system. A typical announcement goes like this: “Attention all staff. Attention all staff. Alex, please pick up the phone.”
All messages are for staff, but I always listen to them. I used to work at a company that had a PAS and almost never used it. The managers felt that every announcement would cause at least 150 people to lose their train of thought for a few minutes, a productivity cost of over $1,000 per message. I don't agree with them, but I do agree that public announcements ARE distracting.

In the current case, part of the distraction, for me, is a recurring question: why say “Attention all staff”? when the message isn't for all staff, it's just for Alex Hepplemonger? Why not just say, “Alex Hepplemonger, pick up the phone!” But we know that wouldn't work. Alex H. would miss his name, not paying attention, and meanwhile, some new customer, Alex Oberlander, would rush to the desk to ask if the call was for him. I've decided to assume that, in effect, these PAS announcements really mean the same as this: “Alex Allstaff, Alex Allstaff, pick up the phone.”

Monday, February 11, 2008

I tried to negotiate the terms of a website EULA and lost. Or did I win?

I'm going to warn you about an awful “Terms of Service” (ToS) term that you might not want to agree to. And I'm going to tell you how I tried to negotiate that term with a big website. I'll tell you the whole story, but first I want to mention that the day I received a form letter from, refusing to negotiate their ToS, I felt really bummed out. Hours passed before I realized I had won, not lost. Here's what happened:

NING provides software and facilities to operate social communities and forums. They wrote me that over 150,000 have accepted their terms of service. The ToS contains this amazing paragraph:

You must be a registered User to create Networks on the Ning Platform. Networks and their Network Creators, in turn, determine whether Users need to be registered with Ning to contribute Content in that Network. That is up to the discretion of the Network Creator. As a User, you are responsible for keeping your password secure. Names of Social Networks and Ning IDs are non-transferable. You will be solely responsible and liable for any activity that occurs under your Ning ID.

I am not a lawyer (my father was!). But I believe that if you agree to this ToS, you have unlimited liability, possibly in the millions, if some hacker figures out how to log in as you and damages Ning. That's true even if you have selected an abstruse password and kept it very secret. Can you imagine 150,000 agreeing to this term? I admit that the risk could be very small, but if they get you, you may lose every dollar you have. And you've agreed in advance not to fight them when they blame you. What is worth that risk? I wouldn't agree to that ToS, and neither would security expert Bruce Schneier. (Here's Schneier's blog.) I asked him about this term, and he wrote to me:
I wouldn't accept it. And my guess is that over 150,000 people didn't bother to read their ToS.

Ning is not the only website to use this term. Here's a search for the offending words.

Now let me ask you: are you one of those people who have blithely agreed to this ToS term? Is the risk that important to you? Please think about it. Lawyers who write ToS's can put in anything they want, as long as we're willing to sign anything they want.

I faced this term a few years ago at a different web site. I'm a software consultant, and I was looking for work. A friend told me to join a website that listed work openings at his company. He said that several were just right for me. “Pick one,” he said, “And I'll help you get the work.” But I could not agree to that ToS clause, so I never saw the job openings and never got the work.

This time I really wanted to join a NING community at I was having trouble producing some audio, and I knew their forums would have the solution to my problems. So I tried a crazy scheme. I edited my own version of the NING ToS. I joined NING, “agreeing” to their ToS, but I immediately wrote them and told them that I had agreed to my own version of the ToS. My change was to add one sentence to the poisonous paragraph. Again, let me emphasize, I am not a lawyer:

You must be a registered User to create Networks on the Ning Platform. Networks and their Network Creators, in turn, determine whether Users need to be registered with Ning to contribute Content in that Network. That is up to the discretion of the Network Creator. As a User, you are responsible for keeping your password secure. Names of Social Networks and Ning IDs are non-transferable. You will be solely responsible and liable for any activity that occurs under your Ning ID. Except that you will not be responsible and liable for any activity that happens under your Ning ID, having kept your password secure, if another person or computer or computer program logs in as you, without your assistance or authorization, and performs any activity.

I must stress that I did this in good faith. I wondered if they would respond to me. I considered that they might accept my change, since their own ToS is so unfair. During the three days it took for NING to respond to me, I consulted the podiobooks forum, asked questions and got answers. I solved my immediate problem. Then I got this message from NING, which I believe is a form letter:

Thanks for your note. Unfortunately, we do not negotiate our Terms of
Service. These are the "rule of the road" that all of our Members and
Network Creators have agreed to without exception on over 150,000 Social
Networks. If we had to negotiate our terms with each and every one, we
would never be able to keep up or get any sleep, for that matter. If you
don't agree to the Terms of Service as they are posted on our website,
you can discontinue your use of the Platform. We would be really sad to
see you go, but unfortunately that's the only choice here. Thanks.

You can't negotiate with a form letter, so I had to leave. I'm no longer a member of NING.But the bottom line is. I did get to use their system, to solve my immediate problem at Podiobooks! I wasn't locked out of their website, and I did NOT bind myself to NING's terms! I will do the same thing in the future, the next time another company tries to force terms on me that I cannot accept. I won't be locked out by some totally unfair ToS. At least, not for a while, so that I can get my work done.

(This has been the full story of my adventure with NING. See my Jan 22 and Jan 30 entries of this year for the beginning of the story.)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Staying in Sync:

As we entered the Lincoln Tunnel tonight, I recalled a lovely memory of my father. We listened to Bach's sixth Brandenburg concerto all the way through the tunnel. But it was not always thus. When I was a kid, entering a tunnel meant losing the radio station until you came out. In the tunnel, my father's great game was to continue to sing – or whistle – the music, trying to stay in tempo and not to forget an iota of the piece. When he did this perfectly, then, when the radio came to life again, he would be in sync with the broadcast. He did rarely achieve this challenging goal, and he often came close.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

I'm Cringing about this!

On Tuesdays, I get up early for my radio show. I get dressed, and then I check out the electronic stuff that hangs on my belt. One recent Tuesday, my cell phone showed me I had missed a phone call. I called back. It was 5:30 A.M.!! Fortunately I realized at once that I was an idiot, and killed the call before it rang. I hope. I almost woke some poor friend in the middle of the night! I must be more careful about this. I must be more careful about this. Really, I must.

Actually, it's the phone's fault. It shouldn't be so easy to return missed calls.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Microsoft Windows, Shut Up! (1)

Microsoft Windows has a terrible behavior. I cannot believe this annoyance has survived for years. I'm sure the person who wrote this bit of software never had the slightest interest in using it.

I refer to the Windows audio volume control. If you move the slider to change the setting, then OF COURSE you want some response, to know the computer has done what you asked, right? Do you think it would be too much to ask the slider to move, to show you that the volume is changing? No, of course it wouldn't be too much. Unfortunately, it's not enough! Windows BEEPS to tell you that it has obeyed the volume change command.

Any idiot can tell you that we change the volume in order to hear better. We do not change the volume to hear something inaudiblized by a BEEP!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Too many choices:

I understand that I'm lucky: most health clubs do not provide towels for members. Near the showers, there's a set of four shelves, like a book case. Each shelf is heaped high with three piles of towels. They're all the same: white terrycloth. Now do you see where I'm going? When it's time to shower, I have to decide which of TWELVE piles to reach for, to grab a towel. The top piles are sometimes too high. The middle piles are sometimes squashed in under the next-higher shelf, making them hard to take. The bottom piles are too low, but if the other piles are depleted … the point is, I have twelve choices, so I have stop to think, when I'm already tired and exhilarated from whatever. This is unfair.

But now, it has gotten worse. Or maybe better, I'm not sure. These days, the towels are not all the same. The nap varies, from practically flat, to thick and efficient. That thick nap gets you dry a lot better and faster, and it just feels more luxurious.

So now I have to look at TWELVE piles to find the one that clearly has a thick-nap towel on top. Or near the top, if I can bear to increase my pool of choices to, forty-eight, say. This, also, is unfair.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

That damn, blinking "12:00":

We still use our VCR. If you don't, then please allow me to remind you that most of the time, most VCRs blink "12:00" at you. The reason they blink is to remind you to set the time in the VCR. The main reason you don't is that you don't need to set the time unless you plan to setup a VCR "record in advance" command. Every time you unplug the VCR, it forgets the time anyway.
The other reason you let it blink (if you're like me), is that you know how Murphy's Law works: if you set the time on the VCR, you'll soon have a power outage -- yup -- and it will start to blink again.

The Blinking 12:00 on VCRs has been called one of the worst user interface blunders of all time.

But it's fixed now. I covered that 12:00 with black electrical tape. Let it blink, I'll never see it.