Thursday, December 31, 2009

Not Thinking in Years

I've noticed that a lot of other bloggers are posting year-end summaries. Top ten news stories of 2009, favorite books of 2009, New Year's resolutions for 2010, favorite blog posts of 2009, favorite 2009 blog posts by the owner of the blog. This is all fine, except maybe the last, which is kind of like one of those episodes of a sitcom that's nothing but clips from previous episodes strung together by a tenuous plot, showing you what good times you've had in the past, and what a good time you might be having right now if the sitcom writers weren't so completely out of ideas.

Anyway, you won't be seeing any of that here. Not because I'm any less lazy than any other blogger, but because I don't think in years.

I don't think in months or weeks, either. I've pretty much got a handle on days, except for days of the week, which are always a little vague.

It's probably because of my job. If you're at home writing, one day is more or less like the next. And because I write every day, pretty much, there's no distinction between weekends and weekdays. (Except on weekends, Kathy's here a lot more often.) What was Wednesday? It was the day I stayed home and wrote. Tuesday? Stayed home and wrote. Sunday? Same thing.

I've been doing this for thirty years. What was 1990? The year I stayed home and wrote. (And what was I writing in 1990? I dunno. Something. I hope it was good.)

Some years are memorable enough that I'll very likely keep them sorted out in my memory. 2009? The Year I Went to Turkey and France. 2005? The Year I Went into the Hospital, Twice. 2000? The Year I Was Invited to be Guest of Honor at a Convention in a Foreign Country, Then Got Stuck with the Bill.

I am sufficiently firm in my habits that I can indulge in one of those other predictable end-of-the-year rituals: making prognostications for the years to come.

2010? The year I stay home and write.

2020? Stay home and write.

2030? Stay home and write.

2040? Stay home and write.

Unless of course I'm too old and senile to work any longer, in which case it will be the year I stayed home and drooled.

And yourselves? Any other predictions out there?

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Where's Jesus? (A Holiday Game)

I picked this game up from Boing Boing, and discovered that it's a perfect way to waste a cold winter afternoon, particularly during the holiday season.

Go to Wikipedia. Click on "random article" (on the left side, under the globe). Of the various links on that random page, click on the one most likely to lead you to the article on Jesus. Then continue following the links until you actually find Jesus.

My best attempt so far is 3, and with an unpromising start. My random article was Maurice Doyle, an English footballer. If Mr. Doyle has a religion, it was not mentioned in the article. But I was able to click from Doyle to England, from England to Anglican Communion, and from thence to Jesus. Three clicks, damn good. Well below par, particularly if you start with a soccer player.

One of the surprising discoveries I made in this game is how many articles on Christian churches, offices, personnel, and history do not mention Jesus in any way. Take for example one attempt, which began with the article List of States in the Holy Roman Empire (beginning with the letter R). Which, as the link attests, actually exists.

I knew that the HRE included prince-bishoprics headed by a bishop, so I clicked on one of these, the Bishopric of Regensburg. No mention of Jesus. I clicked on "bishopric," which unfortunately did not lead to an article on bishops but an article on the Roman Catholic Diocese of Regensburg. Again, no mention of J.C. I kept hoping that "bishop" would lead me to Jesus, somehow, so I clicked on the current bishop, Gerhard Ludwig Muller. While there are mentions of Jesus in the article, none of them are linked, but I was able to click to "bishop" from there.

Apparently it is possible to write a lengthy article on Christian bishops without actually mentioning Jesus, so from there I had to go to Apostle (Christian), which does in fact have a link to Jesus.

Holy Roman Empire => Bishopric of Regensburg => Gerhard Ludwig Muller => Bishop => Apostle (Christian) => Jesus = 6. Rather a poor score.

I didn't fare any better with the Orthodox church. My random page was the McLeod Residence, an art cooperative in Seattle. My search went McLeod Residence => Seattle => St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church (Seattle) => Greek Orthodox Diocese of America => Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople => Greek Orthodox Church => New Testament => Jesus. My score was 7, which is perfectly dreadful.

So can you find Jesus? Try it. It's fun.

Still, if you're looking for Him, my experience suggests that you avoid looking anywhere in the established Church.


Monday, December 28, 2009


Beaker's Ode to Joy.

Note that it would be illegal for students at Danvers High School in Salem to attempt this.

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Black Hole Created! Sorta.

Scientists have created a black hole in a Bose-Einstein condensate.

Well, an acoustic black hole. Not a real black hole.

But they may get some perfectly genuine Hawking radiation out of it, so it's still cool.

One of the many curious properties of Bose-Einstein Condensates (BECs) is that the flow of sound through them is governed by the same equations that describe how light is bent by a gravitational field. That sets up the possibility of all kinds of fun and games: in theory, physicists can reproduce with sound and BECs whatever wicked way gravity has with light.

Today, Oren Lahav and his mates at the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, say that they've created the sonic equivalent of a black hole in a BEC. That's some achievement, given that physicists have wondered about this possibility for some 30 years, and various groups with the ability to create BECs have been racing to create acoustic black holes.

The general idea is to set up a supersonic flow of atoms within the BEC. Sound waves moving against this flow can never make any ground. So the region where the flow changes from subsonic to supersonic is an event horizon. Any sound waves (or phonons) created inside the event horizon can never escape because the flow there is supersonic. That's the black hole . . .

One reason why sonic black holes are so highly prized is that they ought to produce Hawking radiation. Quantum mechanics predicts that pairs of "virtual" phonons with equal and opposite momentum ought to be constantly springing in and out of existence in BECs.

If one of this pair were to cross the event horizon, it would be sucked into the black hole, never to escape. The other, however, would be free to go on its way. This stream of escapees would be the famous, but as yet unobserved, Hawking radiation.

As with a lot of articles in the arXiv, the comments section is at least as interesting as the text itself.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

We Caught the Terrorist, So Let's Have More Restrictions!

Some goofy terrorist wannabe named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab set off an incendiary device in his own lap on an aircraft, and scorched the living fuck out of his thighs. (Of course "thighs" may be a euphemism here.)

(He was on a watch list, apparently, so I have to wonder why he and his thighs weren't checked out before he got on the plane.)

According to the FBI, Umar is in custody and singing like a canary, which is what people who have inadvertently burned off their parts tend to do.

As a result of Umar's action, we will no longer be allowed to hold things in our laps during the final hour of a plane trip. For fear that we might burn ourselves. Or something.

“Among other things,” the statement in Air Canada’s Web site read, “during the final hour of flight customers must remain seated, will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage, or have personal belongings or other items on their laps.”

("You can take away my John Grisham doorstopper, sonny, when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.")

Note the genius move here. It screws with the passenger's comfort, stokes air rage, makes us hate the government, and doesn't increase our safety by a single iota!

Because, y'know, Umar can still set fire to himself 65 minutes before landing, and these new regulations won't stop him.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Bollywood Christmas

It's beginning to look a lot like a Bollywood Christmas. [via Ellen Datlow]


Can You Do the Fandango?

This isn't a holiday video, exactly, but it should put you in the holiday spirit.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Saw a couple of films noir recently, one a classic, the other more recent.

Gun Crazy (1951) was the classic, and was a pure example of the film noir--- or, as we called them in America, B pictures. Made on the cheap, full of actors you don't remember ever seeing before, and filmed on the streets in natural light because it's less expensive than using a sound stage. Lots of gritty action, because that's cheap, too, and scenes where the actors are improvising, because rehearsals cost money.

More importantly than any of that, the story followed Matthew Sweet's First Rule of Noir: "Choose a dame with no past and a hero with no future."

Other than this crucial element, the story rather lets the film down. There just isn't enough of it. So the first part of the film is loaded with unnecessary flashbacks documenting the hero's obsession with guns; and the last half hour is one long chase scene in which nothing happens but the chase scene. Gun Crazy could have been a one-hour TV episode, and maybe been better for it.

The plot: a marksman with no job, moderately bad, meets a markswoman who's completely evil, a psycho killer. The two go on a crime spree--- inspired by the careers of Bonnie & Clyde--- and then there's a manhunt, and the law takes them down. That's sort of it.

The screenplay was by McKinley Kantor, who wrote the story on which it was based, along with blacklisted Hollywood communist Dalton Trumbo, using one Millard Kaufman as a front. I don't think Trumbo had much control over this one, because it's not as front-loaded with ideology as a lot of Trumbo's dramas (in his romantic comedies, Trumbo gave a happy ending even to the bourgeoisie).

What you watch this one for is the direction. Joseph H. Lewis was forced by the lack of a budget into all sorts of expedients--- where a normal director would use a number of cuts to give us information, Lewis would use deep focus to pack as much information into a single frame as possible. He'd use long, long takes, both because they were cheaper and because that meant the editor couldn't screw with the final product. (And sometimes he did this to the point of absurdity--- there's one long talky scene where we mostly see the back of the actors' heads, probably because the director hadn't time to do a proper setup.)

And now and again Lewis takes us for a ride--- he just puts a camera in the back seat of a car and follows his heroes as they go on a bank job. All one long take--- maybe seven or eight minutes long, nearly a whole reel--- with the actors frantically improvising dialog as they go. When one of them says, "I hope we find a parking spot," he probably really means it.

The stars are Peggy Cummins and John Dall--- and because they're not big stars, Lewis can really screw with them. In the final scene, after the fugitives drag themselves up and down a mountain and through a swamp, they actually look like they've been in a swamp. You can't imagine any actors with clout allowing themselves to be photographed looking so ugly and wretched.

Gun fetishism. Sex. Thrill killings. Who said it was the Boomers who invented this stuff?

If you're hungry for a night of noir, and you've already seen Kiss Me, Deadly, this will suit you down to the ground, though you may be tempted to fast-forward through the final chase.

The new noir was Circus (2000), which was more of a thriller-noir-caper movie hybrid. It had all the bleakness and nihilism of noir, and all the intricate plotting of a caper movie. And it follows the rules of film noir--- filmed cheaply, on the streets, with no big stars (John Hannah, Famke Janssen, Fred Ward, Eddie Izzard)--- and with no expensive effects, other than a lot of squibs filled with fake blood. This is a film about English gangsters that's bloodier than the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. (Do Brit gangsters really get that extreme?)

Hannah plays a con man, who's married to a con woman, Janssen. He works for an evil psycho gangster who wants to get rid of him. He'd kind of like to get rid of the gangster, too, but he's awfully preoccupied since he owes a lot of money to a violent bookie and he's being set up for a murder that he actually committed, but which no one was supposed to know about. And maybe his wife wants him dead. As does the hit man boyfriend of the woman he killed. As does, apparently, everybody.

In this post-Tarantino world, all movie gangsters are required to have hobbies and eccentrities. For instance, in this movie Izzard is always expressing himself through 80s pop songs. It's okay but you really don't want it to go on too long.

Circus is one of those films where everyone's playing everyone else, like House of Games or Bound or The Last Seduction, all of which I liked. And it's a writer's movie, which I like on principle.

The writer in question was David Logan, who doesn't seem to have a lot of credits, but who manages to keep the threads of an incredibly complex plot from getting too tangled. If I worked out the ending ahead of time, it's because I do this for a living. (By the way, I just wrote "threats" instead of "threads." That works, too.)

But the best part is, this never stops being a B movie. You'll never mistake it for Pulp Fiction or Body Heat. You get your cheap thrills, and then it's gone, vanished into the night like the Woman in Red.

By the way, there is no circus in Circus. Go figure.

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Noam Scheiber blames the decline in manufacturing on . . . business schools.

A lot of people talk about reviving the domestic manufacturing sector, which has shed almost one-third of its manpower over the last eight years. But some of the people I spoke to asked a slightly different question: Even if you could reclaim a chunk of those blue-collar jobs, would you have the managers you need to supervise them?

It’s not obvious that you would. Since 1965, the percentage of graduates of highly-ranked business schools who go into consulting and financial services has doubled, from about one-third to about two-thirds. And while some of these consultants and financiers end up in the manufacturing sector, in some respects that’s the problem. Harvard business professor Rakesh Khurana, with whom I discussed these questions at length, observes that most of GM’s top executives in recent decades hailed from a finance rather than an operations background. (Outgoing GM CEO Fritz Henderson and his failed predecessor, Rick Wagoner, both worked their way up from the company’s vaunted Treasurer’s office.) But these executives were frequently numb to the sorts of innovations that enable high-quality production at low cost. As Khurana quips, “That’s how you end up with GM rather than Toyota.”

Instead of just moving money around, put people in charge who know how to make stuff. Maybe then the money will just take care of itself.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

The Pentagon Does a Good Thing

I occasionally use this space to talk about the military or the government, usually to point out their errors.

Seems only fair that I congratulate the Pentagon when it does something right.

The Pentagon used a multimillion-dollar grant to fast track the burgeoning art of face transplants, in hopes of helping the 200 or so veterans who came back with injuries too severe to benefit from conventional surgery.

Here's one government program that I hope succeeds beyond expectation.

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The Army Times reports that Iraqi insurgent militias supported by Iran seemed to have early warning of U.S. actions, apparently because of their ability to hack U.S. drones.

"We noticed a trend when going after these guys; that sometimes they seemed to have better early warning” of U.S. actions, said the officer briefed on the raid. “We went and did a raid on one of their safe houses and found all of this equipment that was highly technical, highly sophisticated. It was more sophisticated than any other equipment we’d seen Iraqi insurgents use.”

The militia, known as Kata’ib Hezbollah based out of Sadr City, Baghdad, has long been suspected of being a surrogate for Iran’s Quds Force, the wing of the Iranian Army responsible for conducting clandestine warfare outside of Iran via various insurgent groups.

“It was the technological know-how to make the antennas, computers and software go together and pick up the appropriate bands that was impressive,” the officer said.

Soon after the raid, top commanders in Iraq convened a task force to identify the extent of the threat and how best to deal with it, according to the officer. Initial findings showed the threat was isolated to Kata’ib Hezbollah.

“They knew that we were flying Predators over their heads 24/7, so it’s easy to say, ‘yeah, I know that I’m going to do a signals analysis search for [the drone] and take advantage of it,” the officer said.

The laptops loaded with the SkyGrabber software also had footage filmed by smaller Army UAVs as well as the Predators.

Meanwhile, over at Danger Zone, Nathan Hodge opines that the problem isn't just that the signals from the drones aren't encrypted, but that they would be decrypted the second they hit terrestrial networks like the Defense Information Systems Network.

“The disadvantage is that the encryption is stripped off at the [DISN] ground terminal,” he says. “So you get direct interception protection (which is what this exploit appears to be). But you don’t get any protection for the YouTube effect — wiretapping the terrestrial internet.”

Now, this is heading more into theoretical territory: The immediate threat is from insurgents who can use cheap, readily available tools to spy on poorly protected video feeds, not a state adversary who can tap into the military’s secure fiber optic networks. But what Buddenberg is arguing for is a more comprehensive solution: Encrypting the data “at the camera” so it is protected as it travels across the network, regardless of what datalink is used to haul bits. It’s an “end-to-end” approach, versus an approach that looks at communications security as an afterthought to aircraft design.

Still waiting for that Cyber Security Manhattan Project, guys.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009


Some years ago Kathy and I were in Munich, and we found ourselves in the giant walk-in safe that holds the Wittelsbach family's personal collection of holy relics, almost all of which were neatly labeled. (The Wittelsbachs, you may remember, included [in chronological order] Mad King Ludwig I, Mad Max, and Mad King Ludwig II. So you can believe that the eccentric family that built Neuschwanstein could afford to collect all the old bones they wanted.)

I'm afraid we behaved badly. Or I did, anyway. I kept jumping around pointing to bones and saying, "Look! It's St. Matthew's femur! It's St. Luke's tibia!"

The only mystery was a kind of lacy gold house, in which were placed the mummified bodies of two infants wrapped in cloth-of-gold. There was no label. I finally decided that the house held the bodies of Jesus as a child and John the Baptist as a child.

Which brings us to today's Happy Holidays post. If you're getting bored with the same old holiday traditions--- the cards, the lights, the trees--- you could try something new. Try worshiping holy relics!

Here's the Smart Set guide to the Top Ten Relics! These include the Holy Umbilical Cord, Holy Breast Milk, and the Holy Foreskin. (Which seems to have disappeared mysteriously. Perhaps it failed to resurrect along with the rest of the holy remains, and the oversight has now been corrected and the foreskin has been translated to heaven to rejoin its original owner.)

Or you could spend the holidays the way I do, calling upon the Divine to witness my martyrdom as I try to assemble brand-new consumer products, none of which ever, ever live up to their promise.


Meepery in the First Degree

The word "meep" has been banned in a high school in Salem, which I'm sure I don't have to remind you was the home of the famous witch trials.

Bob Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University, said he first heard students meep about a year ago during a class screening of a television show.

"Something happened and one of them said 'Meep,'" he said. "And then they all started doing it."

The meeps, he said, came from all of the students in the class in rapid-fire succession. When he asked them what that meant, they said it didn't really mean anything.

"It's almost like they look at you like it's a silly question," he said.

But meeping doesn't seem to be funny to Danvers High School Principal Thomas Murray, who threatened to suspend students caught meeping in school. In an interview with the
Salem News, Murray -- who did not respond to e-mail or voice mail messages from -- said automated calls were made to parents, warning them of the possible punishment after administrators learned that students were conspiring online to mass-meep in one part of the school building . . .

Now that Principal Murray is old school! He's like the principals I remember from my own midschool and high school . . . clueless, pompous, assured of his own righteousness, and totally missing the point.

Next he'll be banning LOL, GNSD, and GD&R.


ICE Castles

I haven't commented on the Peter Watts thing, partly because I've never met Peter Watts and don't know whether or not he's capable of trying to strangle a border agent after being pepper-sprayed in the face. (I know I am. If someone pepper-sprayed me for no reason, I'd do my absolute best to crush his trachea no matter how many of his friends were piling on.)

Anyway, feel free to catch up with Peter Watts and his story here.

Friend of the blog al-Zorra used the Watts story to link to another, far more frightening story about how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has created a Gulag of 186 secret detention facilities within the United States, in which people are held indefinitely without trial, without legal representation, and apparently without toilets, showers, or other civilized amenities. The organization's leaders go so far as to boast about it in public:

"If you don't have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he's illegal, we can make him disappear." Those chilling words were spoken by James Pendergraph, then executive director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Office of State and Local Coordination, at a conference of police and sheriffs in August 2008. Also present was Amnesty International's Sarnata Reynolds, who wrote about the incident in the 2009 report "Jailed Without Justice" and said in an interview, "It was almost surreal being there, particularly being someone from an organization that has worked on disappearances for decades in other countries. I couldn't believe he would say it so boldly, as though it weren't anything wrong."

Pendergraph knew that ICE could disappear people, because he knew that in addition to the publicly listed field offices and detention sites, ICE is also confining people in 186 unlisted and unmarked subfield offices, many in suburban office parks or commercial spaces revealing no information about their ICE tenants--nary a sign, a marked car or even a US flag. (Presumably there is a flag at the Veterans Affairs Complex in Castle Point, New York, but no one would associate it with the Criminal Alien Program ICE is running out of Building 7.) Designed for confining individuals in transit, with no beds or showers, subfield offices are not subject to ICE Detention Standards. The subfield office network was mentioned in an October report by Dora Schriro, then special adviser to Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, but no locations were provided.

I obtained a partial list of the subfield offices from an ICE officer and shared it with immigrant advocates in major human and civil rights organizations, whose reactions ranged from perplexity to outrage. Andrea Black, director of Detention Watch Network (DWN), said she was aware of some of the subfield offices but not that people were held there. ICE never provided DWN a list of their locations. "This points to an overall lack of transparency and even organization on the part of ICE," said Black. . .

It is not surprising to find that, with no detention rules and being off the map spatially and otherwise, ICE agents at these locations are acting in ways that are unconscionable and unlawful. According to Ahilan Arulanantham, director of Immigrant Rights for the ACLU of Southern California, the Los Angeles subfield office called B-18 is a barely converted storage space tucked away in a large downtown federal building. "You actually walk down the sidewalk and into an underground parking lot. Then you turn right, open a big door and voilà, you're in a detention center," Arulanantham explained. Without knowing where you were going, he said, "it's not clear to me how anyone would find it. What this breeds, not surprisingly, is a whole host of problems concerning access to phones, relatives and counsel."

It's also not surprising that if you're putting people in a warehouse, the occupants become inventory. Inventory does not need showers, beds, drinking water, soap, toothbrushes, sanitary napkins, mail, attorneys or legal information, and can withstand the constant blast of cold air. The US residents held in B-18, as many as 100 on any given day, were treated likewise. B-18, it turned out, was not a transfer area from point A to point B but rather an irrationally revolving stockroom that would shuttle the same people briefly to the local jails, sometimes from 1 to 5 am, and then bring them back, shackled to one another, stooped and crouching in overpacked vans. These transfers made it impossible for anyone to know their location, as there would be no notice to attorneys or relatives when people moved. At times the B-18 occupants were left overnight, the frigid onslaught of forced air and lack of mattresses or bedding defeating sleep. The hours of sitting in packed cells on benches or the concrete floor meant further physical and mental duress . . .

According to Aaron Tarin, an immigration attorney in Salt Lake City, "Whenever I have a client in a subfield office, it makes me nervous. Their procedures are lax. You've got these senior agents who have all the authority in the world because they're out in the middle of nowhere. You've got rogue agents doing whatever they want. Most of the buildings are unmarked; the vehicles they drive are unmarked." Like other attorneys, Tarin was extremely frustrated by ICE not releasing its phone numbers. He gave as an example a US citizen in Salt Lake City who hired him because her husband, in the process of applying for a green card, was being held at a subfield office in Colorado. By the time Tarin tracked down the location of the facility that was holding the husband when he had called his wife, the man had been moved to another subfield office. "I had to become a little sleuth," Tarin said, describing the hours he and a paralegal spent on the phone, the numerous false leads, unanswered phones and unreturned messages until the husband, who had been picked up for driving without a license or insurance, was found in Grand Junction, Colorado, held on a $20,000 bond, $10,000 for each infraction. "I argued with the guy, 'This is absurd! Whose policy is this?'" Tarin said the agent's response was, "That's just our policy here."

Rafael Galvez, an attorney in Maine, explained why he would like ICE to release its entire list of subfield office addresses and phone numbers. "If they're detaining someone, I will need to contact the people on the list. If I can advocate on a person's behalf and provide documents, a lot of complications could be avoided."

. . . ICE agents are also working in hidden offices in one of the grooviest buildings in one of the hottest neighborhoods in Manhattan. Tommy Kilbride, an ICE detention and removal officer and a star of A&E's reality show Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force, is part of the US Marshals Fugitive Task Force, housed on the third floor of the Chelsea Market, above Fat Witch Bakery and alongside Rachael Ray and the Food Network. Across the street are Craftsteak and Del Posto, both fancy venues for two other Food Network stars, Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali.

. . . Natalie Jeremijenko, who lives nearby and is a professor of visual arts at New York University, pointed out the "twisted genius" of hiding federal agents in the "worldwide center of visuality and public space," referring to the galleries and High Line park among these buildings.

Wow! It's one thing to be hiding your secret jails in strip malls and office buildings, but in the trendiest building in the Big Apple? That's style! (Or maybe they're building a case against Mario Batali, and will be sending him back to Italy where he came from! Who knows?)

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What Were They Thinking?

So it seems that our Predator drones, on which we depend for so much intelligence and air-to-ground support in Afghanistan, have been using unencrypted communications. Which have been intercepted by Serbs, Iraqi insurgents, and probably the Taliban and al-Qaeda. (Because, y'know, a Western-educated multimillionaire like Osama just couldn't possibly understand how a satellite dish works.)

The fact that a sophisticated, multi-million-dollar aerial surveillance system could be compromised so easily because of a fundamental security oversight is stunning, several security analysts said.

"Frankly, this is shocking to me," said
Ira Winkler, president of the Internet Security Advisors Group. (Winkler is also the author of Spies Among Us and a Computerworld columnist.) "You have one of the most critical weapon systems in the most critical regions transmitting intelligence data unencrypted," Winkler said.

In order to intercept these communications, you require (1) a satellite dish [now I have a use for my old one!], and (2) a copy of a $26 Russian software tool called SkyGrabber, which is designed to help people in remote Russian locations (there being few other kind) to access satellite TV and Internet.

"Those sorts of assumptions always get us in trouble," said Lewis, who earlier this year led a group that developed a set of cybersecurity recommendations for the White House. "You can be sure that the insurgents weren't the only folks watching the feeds," he said.

The insurgents have not, so far as we know, actually succeeded in seizing control of a Predator. (Though of course you always have to wonder when a Hellfire supposedly targeting the al-Qaeda leadership blows up a Muslim wedding instead.)

The Air Force has known about this for ten years! And done nothing! (The CIA drones flying out of Pakistan apparently encrypt all transmissions, showing that the CIA know at least a little about elementary communications security.)

But wait! There's more! Not only are the Predator drones vulnerable, so are all our fighters and bombers!

military initially developed the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver, or ROVER, in 2002. The idea was let troops on the ground download footage from Predator drones and AC-130 gunships as it was being taken. Since then, nearly every airplane in the American fleet — from F-16 and F/A-18 fighters to A-10 attack planes to Harrier jump jets to B-1B bombers has been outfitted with equipment that lets them transmit to ROVERs. Thousands of ROVER terminals have been distributed to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But those early units were “fielded so fast that it was done with an unencrypted signal. It could be both intercepted (e.g. hacked into) and jammed,” e-mails an Air Force officer with knowledge of the program. In a presentation last month before a conference of the Army Aviation Association of America, a military official noted that the
current ROVER terminal “receives only unencrypted L, C, S, Ku [satellite] bands.”

So the same security breach that allowed insurgent to use satellite dishes and $26 software to intercept drone feeds can be used the tap into the video transmissions of any plane.

Sure is lucky we're fighting a bunch of unsophisticated tribal know-nothings, because otherwise, y'know, we could be in trouble.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs

Fake Steve Jobs speaks with AT&T's Randall Stephenson:

Randall, baby. we’ve got a hit on our hands . . . And when I say that “we” have a hit on our hands, I’m really giving you way too much credit, because let’s be honest, the success of iPhone has nothing to do with you. In fact, iPhone is a smash hit in spite of your network, not because of it. That’s how good we are here at Apple — we’re so good that even you and your team of Bell System frigtards can’t stop us. You know what it’s like being your business partner? It’s like trying to swim the English Channel with a boat anchor tied to my legs. And yes, in case you’re not following me, in that analogy, you, my friend, are the fucking boat anchor.

So let’s talk traffic. We’ve got people who love this goddamn phone so much that they’re living on it. Yes, that’s crushing your network. Yes, 3% of your users are taking up 40% of your bandwidth. You see this as a bad thing. It’s not. It’s a good thing. It’s a blessing. It’s an indication that people love what we’re doing, which means you now have a reason to go out and double or triple or quadruple your damn network capacity. Jesus! I can’t believe I’m explaining this to you. You’re in the business of selling bandwidth. That pipe is what you sell. Right now what the market is telling you is that you can sell even more! Lots more! Good Lord. The world is changing, and you’re right in the sweet spot.

While I’m ranting, let me ask you something, Randall. At the risk of sounding like Glenn Beck Jr. — what the fuck has gone wrong with our country? Used to be, we were innovators. We were leaders. We were builders. We were engineers. We were the best and brightest. We were the kind of guys who, if they were running the biggest mobile network in the U.S., would say it’s not enough to be the biggest, we also want to be the best, and once they got to be the best, they’d say, How can we get even better? What can we do to be the best in the whole fucking world? What can we do that would blow people’s fucking minds? They wouldn’t have sat around wondering about ways to fuck over people who loved their product . . .

And now here we are. Right here in your own backyard, an American company creates a brilliant phone, and that company hands it to you, and gives you an exclusive deal to carry it — and all you guys can do is complain about how much people want to use it. You, Randall Stephenson, and your lazy stupid company — you are the problem. You are what’s wrong with this country.

I stopped, then. There was nothing on the line. Silence. I said, Randall? He goes, Yeah, I’m here. I said, Does any of that make sense? He says, Yeah, but we’re still not going to do it. See, when you run the numbers what you find is that we’re actually better off running a shitty network than making the investment to build a good one. It’s just numbers, Steve. You can’t charge enough to get a return on the investment . . .

The rest here.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Ceci N'est Pas Une Update

Coming in February from Editions l'Atlante!
(Translated by our own Jean-Daniel Brèque)


Oops! Dropped the Palantir!

It's the 6 Lord of the Rings Characters Who Totally Dropped the Ball.

Gandalf's leadership in The Fellowship of the Ring exemplifies the perils of on-the-job training. Let's test your knowledge of the trilogy with the following questions:

1. How many horses did Gandalf insist the Fellowship bring?

2. What would Gandalf have done if Frodo didn't just happen to figure out the password Gandalf had forgotten at the Mines of Moria? (Okay, so I'm disappointed that this question is about the movie, not the book.)

3. What was Gandalf's game plan once he saw that everyone in Moria was dead?

4. How many times did Gandalf hitch a ride with his giant eagle friends?

And now for the answers:

1. Zero (save one brave pony).

2. That giant squid would've eaten everyone.

3. "Into the mines!"

4. Twice - first when Saruman traps Gandalf on top of a tower; and then when, uh, Bilbo finally throws the Ring in, err, Mount Gloom (sorry, we felt bad spoiling the series for our 20 internet-less readers who are somehow viewing this site on a cave wall.)

That there's a laundry list of botch jobs. The sheer fact that Gandalf forgot to outsource the trip to Mordor to the eagles is unforgivable, but what's more heartbreaking is that he's even more useless when comes back from the dead.

When Gandalf is resurrected in The Two Towers, his main job is to not use magic and just gallivant around on his horse, staring at the the planetarium light show ensconced in his disco stick.

In short, everything would've come out mostly the same for the Fellowship of the Ring if they simply dumped Gandalf with a dimebag of wizard weed at the first gas station they passed. Come to think of it, his "smoking habit" explains his memory problems rather aptly.

And the other five here.

Friday, December 11, 2009


So here we have two views of the intact medieval walls of Aigues-Mortes, in southern France near the coast. Aigues-Mortes, which means "dead water" in the old local dialect, is built in the marshland of the Camargues, a perfectly flat stretch of wetlands that forms the Rhone delta. Aigues-Mortes isn't on the sea, but is only a canal and a large lagoon away.
The Camargues is famous for its wild horses, its flamingos, and its bulls. "Bull" is much featured on local menus--- it's food for poor folks, tough but flavorful. Though we had a couple bad restaurant experiences in Aigues-Mortes, neither had to do with bull--- one was a bad restaurant with broken sewer pipes that filled the restaurant with an unmistakable fecal odor, and the other was a waiter who gave us a wine that was much cheaper than the one we ordered, doubtless intending to pocket the difference. (The fact that he kept his hand over the label was a clue: I made him bring the correct wine.)
The medieval walls are completely intact and you can walk clean around the town on the battlements if you so desire. (I walked for a hundred or so yards, then decided that one battlement was more or less like the next.)
The reason the walls have remained unchanged since the 13th Century has to do with the reason the walls were built in the first place. At that time in history, the Kingdom of France had no port on the south coast. They did, however, have the Camargue, and Louis IX--- later canonized--- ordered the little village of Aigues-Mortes made into a proper port, with a proper port's walls. It was from Aigues-Mortes that Louis launched his disastrous Seventh Crusade, which ended with the king a prisoner in Egypt, to be ransomed by a sum equal to the entire French yearly budget. By the time Louis left on the equally-disastrous Eighth Crusade, which ended in his death, he had acquired the port of Marseilles, and left from there.
Which explains why Aigues-Mortes is so untouched: history passed it by, and moved to Marseilles. Aigues-Mortes never had the money to tear down their walls and build skyscrapers. Louis XIV later used the keep to house the Protestants that he was persecuting: one pious Huguenot lady stayed there for 29 years.
There is a statue of St. Louis in the town square, looking martial and rather dim, which apparently he was in life. There is a nice, smallish romanesque church. The buildings in the town look 17th Century to me--- at any rate they aren't medieval.
The Camargue is quite lovely, in its desolate way. It's a noted place for birdwatching, but in November there didn't seem to be many birds around.
I did nearly plow my car into one of the famous Camargue wild horses, but it decided at the last second not to bolt across the road in front of me.

I wonder if Louis' crusaders had to cope with the same kind of scamming waiters that I encountered.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Solar For the Home

Lowe's now sells solar panels that you can install yourself.

Lowe's has begun stocking solar panels at its California stores and plans to roll them out across the country next year.

This shows how far the highest of the high-tech alternative energy technologies has come. Solar power is now accessible to anyone with a ladder, a power drill, and the gumption to climb up on a roof and install the panels themselves . . .

Professional installers typically handle all the necessary paperwork, like clearance from the local utility and applications for a bevy of government subsidies that can make the system a whole lot cheaper.

"You put solar panels on your roof without a permit, bad things happen to you," said Jeff Wolfe, CEO of solar installer groSolar. "The utility could shut off the power."

Lowe's will staff a kiosk near the panels that provides information on how to apply for rebates . . .

One panel packs nowhere near the punch of a full solar system.

A typical solar system installed by a professional usually has 20 panels. Each Akeena panel will generate about 175 watts of electricity, about enough to power a flat screen television.

If you want more solar power, you can snap another panel to the first, kind of like Legos.

"People might want to put up one, see if it works. Then with their next paycheck, they may buy four more," Cinnamon said.

Lowe's is offering software that allows the homeowner to monitor the performance of each panel through the Internet. The panels are designed to withstand rough weather including hail storms, and they're backed with a 25-year warranty covering defects.

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Is it Live, or is it HD?

Here is Charlie, our younger cat, watching the nature documentary Winged Migration, which features a lot of eye-croggling footage of birds on the wing.
Our cats normally ignore the TV, but Charlie found the film irresistible. He sat in front of the set and watched it for at least twenty minutes.
Of course during his excursions outside he sees a lot of birds, including sandhill cranes, snow geese, and ducks, all of which winter in this area. (He also thinks birds are tasty and eats them whenever possible.) So maybe he thinks he's seeing old friends.
Score another success for HDTV.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Idea Cool and Insane

Friend of the blog Michael Ruppen pointed me at this article, modestly titled "Blueprint for a Quantum Propulsion Machine."

In recent years, a new way of thinking about the quantum vacuum has emerged which has vastly more potential. And today, one physicist describes how it could be used to create propulsion . . .

The new approach focuses on the momentum associated with these electromagnetic fields rather than the force they exert. The question is whether it is possible to modify this momentum because, if you can, you should receive an equal and opposite kick. That's what rocket scientists call propulsion.

Today, Alex Feigel at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center, a government lab in Yavne Israel, suggests an entirely new way to modify the momentum of the quantum vacuum and how this can be exploited to generate propulsion . . .

. . . As Feigel puts it: "mechanical action of quantum vacuum on magneto-electric objects may be observable and have a significant value."

The beauty of Feigel's idea is that it can be easily tested. He suggests building an addressable array of magnetoelectric nanoparticles, perhaps made of a material such as FeGaO3 which has a magnetoelectric constant of 10^-4 in a weak magnetic field.

These nanoparticles simply have to be rotated in the required way to generate a force. Feigel calls it a magnetoelectric quantum wheel.

Of course, nobody is getting a free lunch here. "Although the proposed engine will consume energy for manipulation of the particles, the propulsion will occur without any loss of mass," says Feigel. He even suggests, with masterful understatement, that this might have practical implications.

This may be the coolest thing since the Dean Drive!


Monday, December 07, 2009

Who's Tricking the Watchmen?

Got all confused about the stolen emails from the British climatologists? Suddenly wondering whether the entire scientific establishment is involved in a conspiracy to conceal the truth in order to brainwash us into becoming their Marxist bitches?

Here's science journalist potholder54--- who actually knows what the scientific terms mean and who actually knows how to do research--- to answer some of your questions.

And, for more insight into scientific scandal, check out Newtongate: the final nail in the coffin of Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking.

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More Scenery

For the last few days I was involved in graduating a new crop of karate black belts. I always get the warm fuzzies watching them pound each other (and themselves) into hamburger, the more so because, as a judge, I didn't lose any skin myself.
I still feel as if I'm on vacation, for all that I'm involved in a rewrite of Deep State. I guess I'm chiefly on a vacation from the Internet.
So here's one of my vacation pictures, the Plus Beau village of Gordes in Provence.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009


There is some kind of French Cuteness Authority that rates villages. At the top are the villages rated Plus Beau, then villages of Character, villages of Charme, and finally (I guess) the dreaded Unrated.

This one is Saignon, which is Plus Beau in my book.

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Alternate Alexanders

Thanks to an alert on io9, we present a startling piece of alternate history--- the failed pilot for the mid-Sixties TV series Alexander the Great, starring William Shatner as the King of Macedon and Adam West as his henchman Cleander. (Also featured are Joseph Cotton and John Cassavetes, both of whom look embarressed to be seen in this piece of crap.)

Imagine how the history of our genre would have changed if this series had been picked up by a network. Alternate Batmans! Alternate Kirks! The mind boggles.

The writing is truly dreadful, but at least fans will see what Shatner looked like in a short skirt and some rather endearing white drawers. The sight doesn't do much for me personally, but your mileage may vary.

Only the first third of the episode is presented here. You can find the
rest of this alternate history over at io9.

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