Saturday, August 30, 2008

JavaScript slide show app from 1997 still works

Today I ran across a noteworthy example of technological continuity. I was surprised!

A recent transition in hosting and registrar services caused me to review ancient web pages largely created in the mid to late 90s -- during the heyday of the personal web site. Among the dusty collection were a set of Internet Tutorials for my fellow family physicians.

The tutorials used a home grown JavaScript slide show applet that let me draw ordered sets from a collection of (spartan) "slides" -- a feature that was killed off by PowerPoint's dull dominance. I wanted to have a dynamic cross-platform (IE 2/3 and Netscape 3) resource.

Today I tried the applet. I had to enable pop-ups but, incredibly, it still works in Firefox 3 (I didn't try Safari or IE 7, no need to push my luck).

There's more continuity on the net than we typically assume.

Friday, August 29, 2008

iPhone push pulled: was it the revenue hit?

Apple pulled a highly desirable feature from the September 2.1 iPhone update:
Apple Seeds 4th Beta of iPhone firmware 2.1; Pulls Out Push Notification Service - iPhone Hacks

Apple has seeded developers of its iPhone Developer program with the fourth beta version of iPhone firmware 2.1. The latest update again consists of more bug fixes.

However, Apple has strangely pulled out the Push Notification Service APIs in this release for "further development".

The Push Notification APIs is Apple's solution for one of the features that we have been asking for, ability for native iPhone apps to run in the background especially for applications like Instant Messenger, Facebook etc...
The most likely explanation is that there are a lot of major bug fixes being packed into 2.1, and it's entirely reasonable to push features out to 2.2.

On the other hand, Push Notification will also kill a lot of 40 cent SMS transactions. I've used Google Talk on my iPhone, and if were able to use push notification I'd use it all the time.

Those SMS transactions are a significant piece of AT&T and Apple's iPhone revenue. A $30/month tethering solution would make up for some of the loss, but not all.

So if I were Apple, all things being equal, I'd pull the Push and push the Tether.

Happy day: Palin

It could have been our Governor Pawlenty -- a smarter, smoother version of George Bush with an evil gift of copiously and covertly rewarding his base.

Instead McCain picks someone with a built-in scandal:
Talking Points Memo | Palin's the One

... So now we've learned that Sarah Palin is McCain's choice for vice presidential nominee. I have to say, it's a daring pick but I think a very weak one. I'm perfectly happy with it. Palin is in the midst of a reasonably serious scandal in her home state. Her brother-in-law is a state trooper who is in the midst of an ugly custody battle with her sister. And she's accused of getting the state police to fire him. Recently she was forced to admit that one of her aides had done this, though she insists she didn't know...
Maybe McCain decided Pawlenty couldn't deliver Minnesota? Was Alaska ever in play?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Standards for chargers: Thank you China

An innocent question about organizing chargers produces and surprisingly good Slashdot discussion of power adapter standards.

Did you know China mandated USB only charging for cell phones (so is that why iPhone 2.0 dumped firewire)? Did you know there are people representing the charger industry who actively campaign against an EU standard? (Ok, so that was predictable.)

The ecology and economics of physical connector standards are fascinating; the irresistible force of consumer desire meets the immovable object of proprietary advantage and lock-in (the physical analogue of data lock). Consider the interesting examples of HP's printer cartridges, Apple's iPod connector, and the "authenticated" NEC battery.

Even though I wish the USB connector supported 12V instead of 5V, I am very grateful for its emergence as the de facto universal charger interface. I make USB charging support a very high priority -- which is why the RAZR's quasi-USB support drove me bats (yay BlackBerry, half-yay iPhone/Palm).

All very well, but what about China? This USB standardization is the kind of thing Singapore would do (smart, tyrannical), but when China does it they do it for the world -- much as California's emission standards become the North American rule.

Those anti-standard lobbyists will need bigger offices in Beijing.

Thanks China.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Leahy on McCain's dementia

I've always admired Senator Patrick Leahy.

Today he clearly states something that the GOP prefers to forget -- Reagan was severely cognitively impaired during his second term. During that term Baker governed the US; fortunately for us that was an improvement.

Leahy also draws a rather obvious comparison ...
Talking Points Memo | Leahy Goes There

...Leahy told Vogel yesterday the media has given McCain a free pass on flubs including mixing up Middle East geography, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and referring to Russia's relationship Czechoslovakia -- a country that hasn't existed for 15 years.

'It was the same way with Ronald Reagan in the last few years he was president,' Leahy said, referring to the belief that Reagan experienced early signs of Alzheimer's disease late in his presidency....
McCain used to be cognitively stronger.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

An artificial cat-level brain within 10 years?

I’ve long said that they day we create an artificial mind comparable to a hamster’s we’re toast. I have hoped this thesis wouldn’t be tested in my life-span …

It’s plenty devious, but we still can’t get it to follow orders worth a damn | Good Morning Silicon Valley

DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, is quietly creeping toward its goal of creating an artificial brainHRL Laboratories, a joint venture of Boeing and General Motors … will spearhead the effort to build a chip with the “function, size, and power consumption” of a cat’s cortex within the next 10 years ..

… According to the news release, spotted by Wired’s Noah Shachtman before it was pulled, the goal is to build a chip with “neuroscience-inspired architecture that can address a wide range of cognitive abilities — perception, planning, decision making, and motor control.” “The first nine-month phase of the program will focus on designing, fabricating, and characterizing synaptic and neural elements and combining them into a high-density, interconnecting microelectronic ‘fabric,’ which will be incorporated into a more complex system-level fabric design,” according to the release. “In the following 15-month phase, HRL will combine the synaptic and neural elements to fabricate and demonstrate ‘cortical microcircuits’ that can model various lower-level brain functions and actually ‘learn’ by interacting with the environment…

Thank Google the partners are GM and Boeing. If they were, say, Google and Intel I’d be more concerned.

There’s a less than 1% chance they’ll succeed at this.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

My first Wikipedia page: Data Lock

I've edited several pages, but this is the first I've created ...
Data lock - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

... Data lock is the planned or accidental strategy of retaining customers by holding data captive.

Data lock is a common outcome of proprietary file formats. It is a particularly common occurrence in cloud computing, but it is also commonplace in personal information managers and in commercial IT systems in every industry.

Customers rarely make data mobility a priority, so it can be difficult even for well intended developers to invest in data freedom. Google has shown recent moves away from data lock through the creation of APIs and new public export formats for blogs...
Update 8/27/08: Well, that was a short lived article! Wikipedia removed it, apparently because it was too much of a definition, and not enough of an encyclopedia article.

Cosmology and Complexity - almost understandable

This Aaronson lecture is surprisingly readable. Thank you scribe!
PHYS771 Lecture 20: Cosmology and Complexity

...But that's only one thing that's wrong with the simple "spherical/flat/hyperbolic" trichotomy. Another thing wrong with it is that the geometry of the universe and its topology are two separate questions. Just assuming the universe is flat doesn't imply that it's infinite. If the universe had a constant positive curvature, that would imply it was finite. Picture the Earth; on learning that it has a constant positive curvature, you would conclude it's round. I mean, yes, it could curve off to infinity where you can't see it, but assuming it's homogenous in curvature, mathematically it has to curve around in either a sphere or some other more complicated finite shape. If space is flat, however, that doesn't tell you whether it's is finite or infinite. It could be like one of the video games where when you go off one end of the screen, you reappear on the other end. That's perfectly compatible with geometric flatness, but would correspond to a closed topology. The answer, then, to whether the universe is finite or infinite, is unfortunately that we don't know....
Very fun topic. I finally have a personal story for the limits of information -- when bits become a black hole.

Curious relationship between computation and the cosmological constant.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Microsoft’s love for Firefox is limited – the Windows Live Writer plug-in example

I was surprised that Microsoft management let the superb Windows Live Writer team create a plug-in that supported Firefox.

WLW is unequalled as a blogging tool. Why not use it to drive geeks towards IE?

Well, reality has set in.

The WLW plug-in has never been updated for FF 3.

There’s a way to make it work: Make Firefox 3 beta accept the Windows Live Writer Blog This extension, but FF users expected an update in June.

Microsoft’s FF love has its limits. It’s reassuring to see economics still works!

Update 9/15/08: News comes via comments that an update is in the works - from one of my favorite Microsoft development teams. See the comment from Joe C. I understand corporate bureaucracy all too well. I suspect Microsoft customers would be happier today if Bush hand lost and the DOJ had split the company into more agile components.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Yes, you do want a mongrel

Humanity should be brought up before the Canine High Tribunal ..
Pedigree dogs plagued by disease

... Scientists at Imperial College, London, recently found that pugs in the UK are so inbred that although there are 10,000 of them, it is the equivalent of just 50 distinct individuals...
We should treat our symbiotes with more respect. I don't expect breeders to reform themselves, so we really ought to be adopting mongrels.

Problem is, in Dog City USA mongrels are darned hard to find. There just aren't that many fertile females available these days, and the boys don't get to wander free.

The demand for mongrel pups here is so great that two years ago we had to register for notification across 10,000 square miles -- and to call within hours of a birth notice.

Maybe it's time for breeders to start breeding long lifespan mongrel dogs ...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Biological warfare attracts some troubled scientists

Perhaps Bruce Ivins was responsible for the anthrax attacks.

On the one hand, the Bush FBI's credibility is negative. That is, if the FBI told me the sun was shining I'd get an umbrella. In that vein it's noteworthy that they keep tweaking their leaks...
Doubts over the anthrax case intensify -- except among much of the media - Glenn Greenwald -

... What did the FBI do in response to that rather devastating hole in its theory being pointed out? It just leaked a completely different story to the Post about when and how Ivins mailed ...
On the other hand there are supposed technical developments ...
The Anthrax Case: From Spores to a Suspect -- Enserink 2008 (812): 1 -- ScienceNOW
By Martin Enserink

The scientific evidence against Bruce Ivins, the 62-year-old Army scientist who killed himself while about to be indicted for the anthrax murders, is finally emerging. Last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) laid some of its cards on the table. One key document, scientists say, now enables a reconstruction of the trail that led the FBI from the deadly letters back to Ivins's lab at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland...

... The key to understanding the investigation is that the anthrax used in the attacks didn't have a single, uniform genetic makeup, a source close to the investigation says. Each of the envelopes likely contained many billions of spores; within such a population, there are always subpopulations of cells bearing mutations that set them apart from the majority. The same minorities would presumably have been present in the "mother stock” of anthrax from which the spores were prepared.

However, standard sequencing--which would require the DNA from thousands of spores--would have resulted in a "consensus sequence" for the spores, in which such rare mutations were simply drowned out. To find them, researchers used a different technique: They grew spores from the envelopes on petri dishes, generating hundreds or even thousands of colonies per dish, each the progeny of a single spore. They then searched for colonies that looked different from the majority; the affidavit mentions variations in "shape, color, texture."... Next, they set out to find the mutations that made those colonies different.

To do that, the FBI used a brute-force approach: It had the entire genomes of the bacteria in the minority sequenced. TIGR--which merged into the J. Craig Venter Institute in 2006--sequenced "probably somewhere between 10 and 20" such genomes in the years after the attacks, Salzberg says. TIGR could not handle live anthrax cells itself; the FBI gave the lab purified DNA ...

Comparing the sequence of the variant colonies to an original B. anthracis strain called Ames, widely used in research, identified a number of mutations, says Salzberg; they included single-nucleotide polymorphisms, a change of a single base pair, and tandem repeats, in which a short piece of DNA is repeated a variable number of times.

The FBI then had scientists at other labs develop tests that allowed them to screen any anthrax sample for four of these mutations....

... with the four tests, the FBI examined more than 1000 anthrax isolates, collected from 16 labs that had the Ames strain in the United States and several more in Canada, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In only eight of those samples, they found all four mutations seen in the envelope samples; and each of these eight, the affidavit says, was "directly related" to a "large flask" of spores, identified as RMR-1029, which Ivins had created in 1997 and of which he was the "sole custodian."

... It's also unclear how many of the 1000 samples had fewer than four, but more than zero, of the mutations. "If a whole bunch of them had two or three," that would increase the odds that the perfect match at USAMRIID was just a false positive...

... Science aside, the affidavit relies heavily on circumstantial evidence...

One of the weak points in the affidavit is Ivins's motive, says Gregory Koblentz, a biodefense specialist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia... A glaring omission, meanwhile, is any evidence placing Ivins in Princeton, New Jersey, on any of the days the envelopes could have been mailed from there...
I'll take the skeptical side of things. The FBI has shown a nasty combination of incompetence and aggressiveness over the past decade. There's no evidence that they've reformed.

On the other hand, there's some reason to suspect that biological warfare attracts troubled scientists. The innocent Steven Hatfill was a convenient FBI fall-guy because of a murky past and questionable judgment. Bruce Ivins probably suffered from lifelong mental illness, perhaps a variant of paranoid schizophrenia.

Maybe we ought to be doing a better job of evaluating people who want to work with bioweapons?

Just saying.

Reason without science - the music of the spheres

Fifteen hundred years of fascinating nonsense. That's what I think as I listen to In Our Time's "The Music of the Spheres".

It's all rather like Freudianism - but he only lasted about 70 years.

What drives these examples of unreal reason?

I think of the underlying memes as attractive antigens that bind to our cultural and biological "memetic receptors" (it's hard to escape those immunology lectures). They're hypnotically interesting, and in age of scholarship without science they flourish like metastatic weeds.

The greatest cultural invention of the 2nd millennium, science, pulled the weeds. The Music of the Spheres became astronomy, mathematics, physics, neuropsychology, literature and art.

Science deserves more gratitude.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Microsoft's auto-lobotomy

In a longish article that seems designed to put Cringely on the witness stand, he outlines Microsoft's more recent alleged crimes.

It's an impressive list. Reading it I again wonder about the deal Gates made with Rove to drop the justice department suit against Microsoft. I wonder if we'll ever hear the details.

The part that really caught my attention though, was a small bit about Microsoft's policy on archived email:
I, Cringely . The Pulpit . What Goes Around Comes Around | PBS

... Months after the Microsoft/Burst settlement I received e-mail from a former Microsoft contractor:

“Now that Burst v. MS has moved out of the courts, I thought that I might add a little to what you know about this case. Back about two years ago when the judge told MS to cough up the rest of the emails that was supposed to have floated around between MS execs that discussed the Burst relationship, the team that I was on (Corporate tape backups) was asked to gather all together all of the tapes that were used during that time. Even though there was a corporate policy in place that any *.pst was to be excluded from backup capture, the effort failed. Not only did the Backup Exec software fail to filter out those pst files, but some of the involved blue badges (Microsoft employees) intentionally disguised their mail files so that they would not be recognized and included in the nightly backups. This last effort was even prohibited by policy from the VP level. As I was the one tasked to gather the tapes together from Arcus/Iron Mountain, I know exactly how many tapes were recalled for the involved servers. They filled several 240 tape trunks and were stored in the Building 11 tape vault....

I recently did an internal lecture on using Windows Search to enhance the value of email archives, to make them a part of working memory. Microsoft, as a part of a guilt-induced policy, excludes these files from backup.

The price of crime is an auto-lobotomy.

iPhone remote multiple libraries - what it means

The iPhone Remote app supports connections to multiple libraries.
Macworld | iPhone Central | Remote lets you control iTunes from iPhone, iPod touch

...There is, however, support for multiple libraries. When you start up Remote after associating with a library, it’ll take a second to reconnect, during which time you can change which library you want to use (you can also tap the Settings button in the top left corner of any list screen). That’ll give you the option to add multiple libraries, delete existing associations, and toggle a “Stay Connected” preference (not precisely sure what that does at present)...
The implications are left as an exercise to the reader.

Ok, some hints:
  1. iTunes is designed for a single user. It belongs to a user account.
  2. iPod and iPhone binding is not to a user, and not to a computer, it is to a user account on a single computer. Unless everyone wants to share apps, contacts, calendar, etc a single iPhone syncs with a single iTunes library.
  3. DRM contracts are to a single user's Apple identity (formerly .mac), they can be applied to > 1 computer (the number is shrinking over time).
  4. DRM is far from dead. If the music industry succeeds in toppling Apple by allowing only Amazon to sell without DRM, then they will terminate Amazon's DRM-free privileges and assume the throne of Sauron. (You knew that, right?)
It's a complex world. Looking at the way the iPhone works, it's possible that we could move to a family account that all devices would sync to -- since iCal supports multiple calendar overlays and Address Book supports multiple subsets. Gives a whole new meaning to "all for one and one for all", a meaning of particular interest to teens.

Consequences, intended and otherwise ...

My brutal Palm to iPhone migration - lessons from refactoring a geek workflow

Sometimes it's tough being a geek.

I'm a "market of one" -- when I adopt a technology I push it to the limits -- and beyond. When it dies, I have a heck of a transition to make.

My Palm to iPhone/cloud migration has been particularly tough.

Gordon's Tech: My Palm to iPhone migration challenge -- summarized

Google Docs - Palm migration is a spreadsheet that captures in a glance how very hard the Palm to iPhone migration is. There's a feed for change notification...

... Of the 10 core functions I have identified migration strategies for exactly 3 of them.

Suggestions are most welcome, but I need suggestions that allow me to migrate my
data as needed. Data lock is not acceptable for this material.
Ok, not "brutal" as in the things life routinely does to us, but tough in terms of lack of sleep and exercise. So far I've more or less migrated my personal calendar - by starting over.

Consider the tasks problem. Of the many, many solutions I've looked at, only ToodleDo (bad name) and come close, but ToodleDo allows operations on only one task at a time (web 1.0). That's a long, long, way from what I've grown accustomed to.

So I have to backtrack. I feel like I've moved into an alternate reality, a "past earth" where the printing press has yet to be invented but millions live on Mars. I can't migrate on a functional basis, I have to refactor what I do into different solutions.

So the combination of Palm and Outlook let me keep a large catalog of ideas and potential actions as tasks, but that workflow won't fit into my iPhone world. All the iPhone can handle as tasks are things I might actually do in the next few weeks. So I'll have to split my data stream, moving 15% forward as tasks and finding new homes for the rest (Evernote, would you please show me you don't want to lock my data?)

There are interesting lessons here that relate to my real-world job. I develop what we like to think of as "advanced" healthcare IT knowledge rich solutions. They all change what people do. Those changes have costs, costs like my Palm to iPhone transition. Even if it's for the better, the near term pain is pretty extreme.

It's good to get a reminder of what that feels like.

Splog war friendly fire - Google whacks me for the sins of others

I think I now see why the indexing speeds of my pages wax and wane...
Gordon's Tech: The hidden curse of spam blogs - collateral damage

I've noticed an unhappy correlation.

Periodically spam blogs (splogs) will start harvesting my posts.

When they do that, email from begins to be filtered into Gmail's spam folders, my Google PageRank falls, and the site is indexed less often.

When the splogs move on to another victim, things reverse.

I'm just collateral damage.


What hurts the most, really, is the decreased indexing. I like being able to search my memory collection.
Splogs fraudulently assume a part of my "data signature", so Google assigns a part of their reputation to me. Google knows "me", after all, only by my data.

It's a new form of identity theft, one that biologists would readily understand.

In the end I'm collateral damage; splog wars between Google's and the parasites are damaging my reputation -- and my memory.

Cyberwar is heck.

So, what do I do about it?

Update 8/18/08: Here's one view of the splog effect -- it's a list of splog posts generated in the past few hours from recent Gordon's Tech articles

Google is not yet omniscient. All it knows is that these posts are found here -- and in some very bad neighborhoods. We are the reputation of our data.

Friday, August 15, 2008

David Brooks - caught again

Incredibly, David Brooks is paid to write nonsense. I do it for free

Happily I can read James Fallows, who is a superb journalist. He points us to the Language Log's annihilation of Brooks. 

In addition to the obvious blunders, pay attention to the basic structure of the experiment. It's insane that people are able to publish this junk, and hilarious that Brooks transcends the junk ...
Language Log David Brooks, Social Psychologist

Those who've followed our previous discussions of David Brooks' forays into the human sciences ("David Brooks, Cognitive Neuroscientist", 6/12/2006; "David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist", 9/17/2006) will be able to guess what's coming.

In this case, Mr. Brooks has taken his science from the work of Richard E. Nisbett, as described in his 2003 book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why, and in many papers, some of which are cited below. I was familiar with some of this work, which has linguistic aspects, and so I traced Brooks' assertions to their sources. And even I, a hardened Brooks-checker, was surprised to find how careless his account of the research is. ...
... Is it correct that if you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing, while if you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim?
Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all, it wasn't a representative sample of Americans, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at the University of Michigan; and second, it wasn't Chinese, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at Kyoto University in Japan; and third, it wasn't a fish tank, it was 10 20-second animated vignettes of underwater scenes; and fourth, the Americans didn't mention the "focal fish" more often than the Japanese, they mentioned them less often.

The research in question was reported in T. Masuda and R.E. Nisbett, "Attending holistically vs. analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans", J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 81:922–934, 2001.

The subjects were 36 Americans at the University of Michigan and 41 Japanese at Kyoto University, who "participated in the experiments as a course requirement"...
Who's more absurd - Maureen Down or David Brooks? It's a tough contest.

What does it say about America that both are very influential and widely read?


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Spooky action 10,000 times FTL. Yawn.

On the one hand, completely boring. Another test of QM is in complete agreement with theory.

On the other hand, this is almost as creepy now as it was when a 2007 Wired magazine article on a 1999 entanglement experiment casually noted that observer-independent reality was up against the possibility of free will. That set me off on my extended review of quantum mechanics; along the way free will seems to have come out ahead of reality.

Not quite as creepy though, because I'm getting used to living in a universe that's infinitely weirder than it seems. Here's the latest edition ...
Quantum weirdness wins again: Entanglement clocks in at 10,000 times faster than light: Scientific American Blog
No matter how many times researchers try, there's just no getting around the weirdness of quantum mechanics.
In the latest attempt, researchers at the University of Geneva in Switzerland tried to determine whether entanglement—the fact that measuring a property of one particle instantly determines the property of another—is actually transmitted by some wave-like signal that's fast but not infinitely fast.
Their test involved a series of measurements on pairs of entangled photons (particles of light) that were generated in Geneva (aerial view at left) and then split apart by optical fiber to two villages 18 kilometers (11 miles) apart where the team had set up photon detectors. (In 2007, researchers transmitted entangled light 144 kilometers between two of the Canary Islands.)
The idea in the new experiment is that the photons in each pair of entangled pair are hitting the distant detectors simultaneously, so there's no time for them to exchange a signal. By comparing results from the two detectors, the researchers determined whether the photons were entangled or not, using a test known as Bell's inequalities.

The photons were indeed entangled, the group reports in Nature. But in reality, no experiment is perfect, so what they end up with is a lower limit on how fast the entanglement could be traveling: 10,000 times the speed of light....
.. It's always conceivable that quantum mechanics might break down (read: show some signs of everyday normalcy) if experimenters could test it the right way. In a 2007 study, researchers in Vienna tested the idea that maybe the instantaneous-ness of entanglement (called nonlocality) was consistent with hidden "variables" that can explain the randomness of quantum measurements. But no dice for that idea...
... Rudolph says we're probably stuck with instantaneous entanglement, which seems impossible to us because we're stuck in everyday space and time. "We need to understand how quantum mechanics sees space and time," he says. "I think there's probably much deeper issues.
Yep, we're stuck.

I recommend Gribbin for a layperson explanation of how bad things are, though his preferred model for understanding entanglement is currently out of fashion (and incompatible with free will).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Slate reviews swim goggles

This is a surprisingly useful review. I'm tempted by fixed optical correction goggles, but otherwise ...
The best swim goggles. - By Juliet Lapidos - Slate Magazine

Speedo Speed Socket, $24.99

This pair is roughly like the Swedish goggles in that the eyecups are exceptionally well-designed to match the bone structure of the socket and it's possible to custom-fit the nosepiece. But they're better for nonprofessional swimmers, because the soft eyepieces rest more comfortably against the skin than the hard-plastic Swedes, and because they're much easier to customize. Speedo sends along three ready-made nosepieces, each slightly different in size, and it couldn't be easier to clip them on and off.

My friends and I agreed that the Speed Sockets look sleek and professional. And for just $5 more you can get a pair with mirrored lenses, which keep out sunlight and give your face a certain T-1000, liquid metal je ne sais quoi. Because the suction isn't too aggressive, I didn't experience any pain, and the raccoon effect was minimal. These goggles deserve high marks in every category...

Ease of Use: 5
Comfort: 9
Visibility: 10
Aesthetics: 5
Value: 5
Total: 34

Obama as the Antichrist - now from McCain

We weren't suprised by the Obama is the Antichrist meme. Heck, Clinton was accused of the same role.

Now we aren't suprised that the GOP is embracing Obama as Antichrist:
An Antichrist Obama in McCain Ad? - TIME

... includes images of Charlton Heston as Moses and culled clips that make Obama sound truly egomaniacal — taps into a conversation that has been gaining urgency on Christian radio and political...
McCain/Rove and the GOP will make this the ugliest campaign in modern history. They will do anything and say anything. They'll incite paranoid schizophrenics to violent action -- whatever it takes to win.

Don't assume it won't work. America is perfectly capable of falling for this.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Need some reading? Hugo nominees online

2008 Hugo Nomination List includes links to novellas and shorter works that are now available online.

I think that's really neat.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

My Peak Oil Call

On 3/10/08 I wrote:
Gordon's Notes: Oil price speculation: is it rational investment or a bubble?

...So here's my proposal for deciding if Peak Oil is on the way.

If the price of oil craters ($65) in the next 6 months then we're living in an energy bubble today and Peak Oil is more than 10-15 years away.

If the price of oil is above $105 a barrel in August of 2008 then Peak Oil is on the sooner rather than later, and the world I grew up in is shuffling away -- sooner than I'd expected....
Today a barrel of oil costs $115 or so.

I believe that's above $105/bbl. True, the price is falling, but that doesn't matter. I'll stick to my criteria.

I say Peak oil is here.

I say that despite, in my 1979 chemical engineering class, being told that peak oil was coming in the late 1980s (I think we reviewed the 1957 Rickover speech back then). I say this despite remembering Jimmy Carter's peak oil prediction in the 1970s.

Of course I'm really talking about Peak sweet light oil, and I don't mean "Peak" in absolute, or even demand > supply, I mean Peak in terms of rational market expectation of a > 70% probability that demand > supply within 5-8 years.

Basically I'm claiming that the price increases of this past year were due to praiseworthy speculation on the fundamentals rather than salacious speculation on psychology.

This means I'm expecting oil to go to Dyer's $200/bbl limit at least once in the next five years, though may transiently fall back to $80 along the way. After 5-8 years it will be very apparent that oil will be a shrinking percentage of our energy supply, and that in the absence of a severe carbon tax (or the equivalent) we'll be baking the plane with burning coal and burning tar sands.

It also means that it's now rational to invest in conservation, and to expect real estate prices to reflect increased commuting costs.

More on Peak Oil later, but I was overdue to make my promised call. (It's been a busy month!)

Friday, August 08, 2008

People didn't used to laugh when we said these things

This would be funnier if Russia weren't invading Georgia:
BBC NEWS | Europe | South Ossetia clashes intensify
...US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Russia to pull its troops out of Georgia and respect its territorial integrity...
She probably says it without irony.

The value of GrandCentral

GrandCentral is a VOIP service that gives users a phone routing service. Google bought 'em, and I signed up.

Problem is, I couldn't figure out what they were good for. Until today ...
Gordon's Tech: GrandDialer: will this help my phone bill?
But what if I could use my GrandCentral account to call Canada, then GrandCentral connects me in?
GrandDialer would make that easier:
GrandDialer, an iPhone app for GrandCentral - The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW)
...GrandDialer (iTunes link) allows you to use your iPhone to call people using your GrandCentral telephone number....
This is using the GrandCentral "Click2Call" feature.
Briefly, it works. For most people this is a curiosity, but free AT&T cell calls to Montreal will pay for my iPhone.

Which explains this mysterious meeting transcript I found in my junk mail today:
... AT&T guy: "Thanks for joining us today. We really admire the work you've done at Google. We know you appreciate the fiber services we provide, and you understand why it's only fair that Google pay a bit more for the quality of service only we can provide."

Google guy's phone starts playing The Rolling Stone's "Under my Thumb".

Google guy: "Sorry about that. It's the ring tone I use for my GrandCentral calls. You understand ..."

AT&T guy: Would a 5% volume discount be ok?
AT&T is living off the big bucks they charge me for long distance calls. If they lost their long distance service they'd fall over dead.

GrandCentral could take a lot of that away -- if Google ever opened it up and created a GrandCentral widget like GrandDialer for every cell phone on the market.

In the meantime, GrandCentral is paying its way without earning a penny. They can afford to pay for my calls to Canada ...

Net security, the end of the password, and human evolution

The signs of the end are at hand.

First, this completely asinine alleged (a misquote I hope) comment from someone who must, really, know better:
BBC NEWS | Technology | Net address bug worse than feared

... Mr Silva at VeriSign said even though patches have been put in place, this doesn't mean users can sit back and relax.

'The biggest gap in security rests between the keyboard and the back of the chair,' he said.

'The look and feel of a website is not what a consumer should trust. They should trust the security behind that website and do simple things like use more secure passwords and change their password regularly...
Of course they should. They should also lose 50 lbs, run ten miles a morning, study a new language every month, and master levitation.

I really hope that was a misquote.

Next, I lose my last remaining gasket when the complexity of modern life leads to a security breach, and the need to change my 2 year old high quality primary Google account password:
Gordon's Tech: How to steal my Google account

... Yes, to steal my Google account, my primary digital identity, all you need to know is my first phone number...
  1. Passwords are a complete fail. Schneier has been saying this for years. We are now into the realm of madness. We need multi-factor authentication devices that handle our secondary authentication for us. Yeah, it's not perfect, but, really, this is s#$!@# insane.

  2. We live in the age of the tyranny of the mean. Even the vast majority of geeks aren't going to figure out how to sync 1Password with an iPhone. Regular folks are going to use one password everywhere and then forget it. Google, like everyone else with these asinine security question is bowing to the reality that humans didn't evolve to live in a digital world. We're maxing out right now.
This madness has to stop. The stupidity is hurting my brain.

Really, none of us evolved for this. We either need to reengineer the human mind or we need to implement better security measures.

This is going to need real help from an Obama administration, we've seen decades of banks failing to deal basic with security issues. This won't get fixed by libertarian emergence; the current system is simply providing endless prey for hungry predators.

Oh, and remember, sooner or later, we're all prey.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

An unusual view into Apple, and why MobileMe may be fixed before January

Chuqui has almost as many typos as me, and that’s saying something. Read around ‘em though, because he’s written a very unusual post about how Apple does business. Shockingly, Apple is not Steve Jobs, though he is an amazingly hands-on CEO.

For the first time I’m actually thinking MobileMe might be get fixed before January 2009. That would be very good – especially Apple is also able to add calendar publish and subscribe features. I especially would like to see CalDAV sync with gCal (not entirely far fetched since CalDAV is built into OS X iCal).

Software reviews and the App Store: We do have a problem

It's well known in geek circles that the iPhone App Store doesn't allow "try before you buy" distribution. It's less well known that app sales have been less than some had hoped.

I think slow sales and the lack of demo versions are connected.

I "terminate with cause" at least 75% of the desktop software I try -- and I only try products that I want to buy. In most cases the software is either seriously buggy, or it fails a critical test (such as the ability to export and import data).

Reviews should help with this, but they don't. It's not just that reviewers need to be kind to keep getting software, it's also that readers don't like negative reviews. Illogical, sure, but this is humanity we're talking about. We're hard wired to mix the state of the product with the state of the reviewer.

I'm not just making this up! I've been writing Amazon reviews for many years. My positive reviews are always more highly rated. Sure, it could be a retailer rating effect, but my recollection is this effect has been seen in cognitive psychology studies as well.

This human glitch means that a rigorous software reviewer would soon lack for readers. Even amateur reviewers generally like to have an audience, so those that survive learn to be gentle.

The inevitably weak state of the product review marketplace, and, yes Andrew, the fact that I push the limits of software, means I have to test personally. The App Store doesn't allow this. So geeks like me are slow to buy, and that means we're slow to talk about the software. Even if we're few in number, lack of geek chatter impacts sales.

There's an obvious solution.

The App Store should show two buttons for every item. One is "demo", it downloads the demo version. The other is "buy". The demo version would follow the usual practices of desktop demo software: limited lifespan, some carefully chosen feature limitations, use of watermarks etc.

I expect Apple will do something like this soon (it is kind of obvious, after all). Then App Store sales will improve -- at least for quality products.

Interesting lesson about the limited utility of product reviews however ...

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Progress is non-linear: Palm vs. iPhone Address Book

My iPhone Address book, with about 400 entries, is pretty darned slow ...

Gordon's Tech: iPhone notes you won't read elsewhere

... The Address Book is very slow to launch (4 secs on my phone), but Google Mobile search also searches the Address Book -- and it's fast...

My Palm address book, with about 600 entries, launches instantly. There's no perceptible delay.

Time to select an address on the Palm? Maybe 1-2 sec. On the iPhone? Maybe 6-7 seconds. (Faster if you use Google Mobile.)

The iPhone has, of course, at least fifty times the processor speed and more than 1,600 times the memory capacity of the original Palm.

The Palm had essentially instantaneous responsiveness from day one. It was one of the design goals of the original team. The Palm was to have instant on, no user waiting for a system response, and no crashes. Incredibly, the original Palm team met those goals. Later ... well, that's a sadder story.

Apple will one day fix the iPhone Address Book problems. Heck, Google Mobile already has. It is a good example, however, of the random walk aspect of progress.

The iPhone does a lot that the Palm never could, but the original Palm did a lot of things well that the modern iPhone does poorly or not at all. Technological progress is squirrelly.

The Domain Registry Support fax scan is still in business

I received a cell phone call from a blocked caller ID today. The caller, a woman with a youngish Indian accent, said she was with "Domain Registry Support" and needed to send me a fax number regarding "changes in the Internet" that would affect one of my domain names.

I asked for their phone number so I could google it. The funny thing is that they've used 800-591-7398 in their scam since at least 2006. It's some kind of domain name transfer fraud. I assume they then resell the domain to someone else, or hold it for ransom, or use the personal information for an identity theft project.

I didn't have time to follow it up of course. I get at least 3 non-trivial phishing attacks every week, if I followed up on every fraud attack I'd have no sleeping time. Still, this is the first phone call attack in a while.

It's hard to remember when fraud wasn't a part of everyday life. It all feels like something out of a Charles Stross novel.

Never talk to the police ...

I'd come across multiple references to this talk, but I didn't f/u until Schneier recommended it:
Schneier on Security: Why You Should Never Talk to the Police

This is an engaging and fascinating video presentation by Professor James Duane of the Regent University School of Law, explaining why -- in a criminal matter -- you should never, ever, ever talk to the police or any other government agent. It doesn't matter if you're guilty or innocent, if you have an alibi or not -- it isn't possible for anything you say to help you, and it's very possible that innocuous things you say will hurt you.
It's very persuasive. In particular, there's a funny kink in American law. Whereas "anything you say may be used against you", the converse is not true; exculpatory statements are inadmissible hearsay.

The other lesson that stuck with me is that non-videotaped statements are very prone to being remembered differently by different people. These are the majority of statements made to police.

In comments there's a reference to an ACLU guideline for persons stopped by police. Two of the frequently repeated items are "don't say anything without a lawyer" and "be clear you do not consent to search".

In practice I'll speak with police if I think I can help with law enforcement -- though that's rarely come up in my life. Most of my non-casual conversations with police ended when I bought a car with cruise control.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Paris Hilton responds to the wrinkly white guy

Quick check: how many times have I referred to Paris Hilton?

Phew. Just a few times. Once to defend her poor choice in phone passwords, another time to connect her and Paul Krugman to America's deeply dysfunctional journalists.

So I'm still under quota; I can point to Brad DeLong's take on Paris Hilton's presidential campaign video. This is her response to a typically juvenile McCain ad that tried to connect Barack Obama to Paris Hilton, and thus to debauchery, celebrity and hot sex with young blond women.

Paris' comeback is funny, and oddly endearing. I thought she looked a bit nervous, but my celebrity interpretation skills are fairly minimal. In the video battleground she wipes McCain.

She refers to Senator Obama by first name, but his opponent is only a "wrinkly white guy".

I'm guessing she won't be voting for John "wrinkly white guy" McCain.

Ho hum. Another 40 million credit cards stolen

Yawn. The Webtel, Netfill, MJD Services credit card fraud of 1998 (ten years ago) netted about $40 million, so this $60 million + fraud is simply more of the same. I'm guessing Schneier has covered about 3-4 similar scans in the past decade....
11 Charged in Theft of 40 Million Card Numbers -

BOSTON — The Justice Department said on Tuesday that it had charged 11 people in the theft of tens of millions of credit and debit card numbers of customers shopping at major retailers, including TJX Companies, in one of the largest reported identity-theft incidents on record.

TJX, of Framingham, Mass., which owns the Marshall’s and TJ Maxx chains, was the hardest hit by the ring, acknowledging in March 2007 that information from 45.7 million credit cards was stolen from its computers.

The charges focus on three people from the United States, three from the Ukraine, two from China, one from Estonia and one from Belarus.

The authorities said that the scheme was spearheaded by a Miami man named Albert Gonzalez, who hacked into the computer systems of retailers including TJX, BJ’s Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, Forever 21 and DSW Inc. The numbers were then stored on computer servers in the United States and Eastern Europe.

They then sold the information to people in the United States and Europe, who used it to withdraw tens of thousands of dollars at a time from automated teller machines, the authorities said...

... TJX has agreed to pay more than $60 million to credit-card networks Visa and MasterCard to settle complaints related to the incident, which is one of the largest on record based on the number of accounts involved.
It's only the largest based on the number of accounts involved, sounds like a lot of the accounts haven't been hit ... yet.

The $60 million only represents losses from people who noticed the transactions and then complained. The article doesn't describe the size of the per-person losses, but typically these scammers will hit an individual for $40 to $100 bucks.

I probably wouldn't even notice the hit, we long ago ran out of time to audit our credit card statements for petty thefts (big thefts are another matter). As long as the crooks don't get to greedy we're better off bleeding than fighting with Visa.

I suspect the basic Visa/Master Card security infrastructure is about as pathetic as it was in 1998, and that AMEX is still the best alternative (though not invulnerable).

The only way this will be addressed will be if we make the banks liable for cost plus punitive damages.

It's going to take a fortune to improve our credit card security infrastructure, and no bank can afford to make that investment if it has any plausible alternative. Making the banks pay more for security breaches is the only way to make change possible.

Update 8/12/08: The NYT has more details on the crime.

The Fermi Paradox in science fiction: a review

There's nothing new for me in this review of the Fermi Paradox in Science Fiction, but it's a good start. Read the comments for additional examples.

If you read good science fiction the future always feels familiar.

PS. The review includes a link to a delightful short story.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Why the undead Palm is great news for my Palm to iPhone conversion

It's a movie cliche.

The demon
is dead and the popular kids have returned to their debauched ways, partying by the demon's grave.

A hand thrusts out of the fresh grave ...
Palm sells 2 million Centro’s - John at

So why isn’t this getting much press? The Apple cult media sure played up all the iPhone sales right? Why isn’t Palm getting the same recognition for selling 2 million Centro’s?

Palm, Inc. (Nasdaq:PALM) today said it has sold its two-millionth Centro smartphone, confirming the $99 [jf: bogus new-contract price] product's growing momentum with traditional mobile phone users who want to move up to a phone that offers more functionality.(1) Palm is now offering Centro in more than 25 countries in North America, South America, Europe and Asia Pacific....

Palm Centro growth has been particularly strong among a demographic Apple wants to own - women.

Now why would that be? What does the Centro do that's particularly interesting for women? What can the Centro do with a core OS technology that was old in 1990?

Is it the pretty colors?

Well, my daughter likes pretty colors, and I suspect she'll still like them twenty years from now. Personally, I like lime green -- it's easy to find.

Obviously it's not the pretty colors. The connection is the other way. Vendors with a product women buy always offer more color choices.

So what does the Centro do that's particularly appealing to women?

To answer that question, let's go back before the Palm.

Those were the days, before Palm and BlackBerry and Windows CE/whatever and Getting Things Done, when the Franklin Planner ruled. Emily and I had a matched set -- burgundy and navy.

Back then, the The Franklin Co sold planners, books and courses to mid-level managers (ie. people without admins) - a mix of men and women. They also sold to millions of non-managers, mostly women, who all had one thing in common.

Complex lives. Lives involving lots of people and tasks and things to plan and coordinate. People who needed to plan -- and who couldn't keep it all in their head.

That's why Franklin Covey's front page still features a collection of purses (bags). Most men have simple lives, most women have complex lives.

Now jump to the 1990s, and the PalmPilot. Unlike every other gadget before or since, it was popular with women -- because it was designed to help manage complex lives. Emily used one until Palm began making very unreliable devices, and blew away its market [1]. (She's been back on the paper Franklin Planner ever since, though she uses a BB Pearl for email and map services.)

Fast forward. In 2008 middle-managers use Outlook and a Blackberry, so there's no opening there for the iPhone or Palm device.

That leaves the non-corporate complex life market -- which is largely female.

So what do these women see when they go to buy a phone? They see the iPhone, which is a $500 technological wonder and a completely brain-dead PDA. On the other hand, there's the Centro, a $300 phone that inherits 1980s technology and the skeleton of a once brilliant PDA design. (With a kb, so the horror of Grafitti Two is irrelevant.)

Sold by Franklin Covey, by the way.

The Centro is the only logical choice.

Two million smartphones is a pretty a nice bit of the growing market. It's probably enough to keep Palm on life support. It's also enough to put a crimp in Apple's sales targets.


I like most things that make Apple miserable and worried.

Maybe Palm's dead-man-walking act will make Apple decide that they need to add 1980s-class functionality to the iPhone (hint: tasks? memos?), fix their broken-everywhere synchronization, and enable multi-calendar publish-subscribe on MobileMess.

Thank you Palm Centro customers. Thanks for making it conceivable that I'l really be able to one day migrate from my Palm to my iPhone.

Keep up the good work.

[1] Palm set some kind of capitalist record for self-inflicted wounds. It's a credit to the astounding work of the original PalmPilot team that the company still exists.

When McCain sold his soul

I haven't been surprised by McCain/Bush III's embrace of Rove.

Why wasn't I surprised? He once had a reputation for integrity. I couldn't remember when he'd thrown that away, when I realized what he was.

Joe Conason reminded me: "By the time McCain spoke up feebly against the Swift boat campaign, the damage had been done -- to him as well as to Kerry."

Yes, that was it. That was when McCain sold his soul, the day he realized he'd betray anyone and anything to win the presidency.

The day he became George Bush III.

Bringing laptops across the border

As a young traveler I had mild run-ins with the occasional border official. That's when I was told that they have extraordinary legal authority - judge, jury and executioner basically. Understanding that helped my patience, and gray hair eliminated most of the hassles.

This is something to remember if you're a young man traveling with a laptop:
Crossing the line at the border | Good Morning Silicon Valley

...Without explanation, we can seize your laptop or any device capable of storing information (including cell phones, thumb drives, video tapes, and old-fashioned analog paper). We can keep it as long as we want. We can look through the contents, and we can share them with other agencies or private entities. And we can do all this whenever and to whomever we want...
This is Bush appointee policy, so if you really don't like it you might consider the voting implications. The obvious recommendations are:
  1. Don't carry any sensitive data or apps across the border
  2. If you want a seized laptop back quickly don't encrypt anything. If you must encrypt, then be ready to provide keys.
  3. Have a current backup - you may never see your data again.
  4. Be very polite to border officials. They have their share of dull, troubled, and resentful people [1], but they're all very good at detecting sarcasm.
  5. Don't carry or wear anything that insults any GOP officials or christian deities.
[1] There's a legislated and institutional preference for veterans in the customs service. Since untroubled veterans have a broad choice of employment, there's a bias for troubled veterans to end up in customs (and the post office too).

Update 8/5/2008: Schneier has an essay on how to carry a laptop across the border. In a later article however, he simplifies his advice, and recommends storing sensitive data in an encyrpted file on a secure server back home. The data can then be retrieved from the server after crossing the border. Don't bother carrying the data with you.

Strange loops: Google custom and customized search - and a memory blog

This is a strange loop story.

It began unremarkably. I was finding my own blog posts when I searched on various topics. I felt a bit chuffed -- the GGG (great god google) liked my sacrifices. Often I chose my own posts; since I write in part to extend intracranial memory they worked for me.

Then things got odd. I was getting back more and more of my own results -- often at the very top of a search. GGG likes me alright -- but not that much.

Around the same time, as I discovered new ways to use search against my extended and interconnected memory, I changed my home page to my Google custom search page. Using this page my blog search results were not sorted by date, but rather by GGG assigned value -- the "best" posts came first. Now my extended memories were being organized by Google, searches were more effective, and I leveraged more of my old posts.

The Solipsistic Strange Loop was strengthening, for I was seeing Google's customized search results. The combination of my Google Custom Search Page, my extracorporeal memories (blogs), my use of Google's web history, my location information and my default digital identity have been building a recursive loop of public-private interconnectivity.

As a fringe benefit these web-of-one searches are making a mess of sleazy search engine optimization hacks. It's hard enough to game one set of search results -- really hard to game millions of different result sets.

Where will it go next?

My iPhone lets me take geo-tagged pictures, and it lets me bookmark my location. Inevitably I'll be able to combine the images, locations, time stamps and annotations, and weave them into my extended memory. Custom search means they'll live in a neural network that merges into the GGG metamind.

Interesting times.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Alzheimer's disease: 70 genes?!

This doesn't sound like one coherent disease:
Alzheimer's disease | A tangled tale |

...The Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, a charity, also had an important finding. It announced that its mapping of the disease’s genetic basis has found 70 genes that may be involved, far more than expected...
70 genes?! This sounds like schizophrenia -- lots and lots of mutations.

I've long felt that "Alzheimer's" wasn't a disease, but was the normal destination of the aging brain. Not so bad when it hits at age 105, but genuinely horrible when it hits at 55. A "70 gene" story fits with the theme that
  1. It's really quite tricky to build a functioning human brain out of the flotsam of primate evolution. The current model has a lot of hacks and glitches.
  2. Any one of hundreds of faults will derail the train early. To get to 105 without full dementia takes a perfect performance.
  3. We ain't going to cure this anytime soon.

Consumer safety bill: whiplash

What planet am I on again?

The new consumer safety bill seems to be a very positive development.

It passed the House 424-1 and the Senate 89-3 -- and the WSJ doesn't like it. The toy industry seems in favor.

Even Bush probably won't veto it.