Archive for December 2007

Snow   5 comments

Snow in New Mexico

The Kids Enjoyed.

Posted December 27, 2007 by padraic2112 in noise, parenting

On Vacation   2 comments

In case you actually visit regularly and wonder where my posts have gone.

We’re in New Mexico, visiting the in-laws.  Having a great time.  The luminarias are always fun to see.  Jack was very enthusiastic about presents this year, Hannah was a little overwhelmed and basically quit when she had three presents left.  Heading off for The Snow tomorrow, which ought to be as much fun for the adults as the kiddies.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, or just best wishes to the agnostics and atheists.  May you and yours be well.

Posted December 25, 2007 by padraic2112 in newsflash, noise

Isn’t this Old News?   Leave a comment

I remember peeking at the traffic jam problem when I was an undergraduate in college.  It’s pretty basic queuing theory.

Researchers at the University of Exeter have published a paper with a new model explaining traffic jams.  From an article in Physorg:

Drivers and policy-makers have not previously known why jams like this occur, though many have put it down to the sheer volume of traffic. While this clearly plays a part in this new theory, the main issue is around the smoothness of traffic flow.

Is this actually news?  I thought this had been done already.  Admittedly, I’ve just been dabbling in math since I graduated, but I’ve explained this exact solution to people in Los Angeles for years when they complained about traffic jams with no apparent cause.  This might be a case of faulty memory, maybe I was basing my understanding on a theoretical model that was only just now simulated?  Or maybe this is bad reporting?  Or there’s some subtle nuance in this paper that I’d have to actually read to get as new stuff.  New models always crop up in queuing theory (a brief glance at the wikipedia article does a good job of explaining why if you’re not a math geek), there must be something new about this particular model.

One of my problems with academia is that I just can’t keep up with everything that is interesting.  There’s just too much learnin’ goin’ on.

Posted December 20, 2007 by padraic2112 in math, news

Personal Surveillance   1 comment

Occasionally I’ve heard (or muttered myself), “If only I had a tape recording running during that conversation.”  Sometimes it is due to a complaint with customer service, sometimes it is due to a conversation someone had with their boss, or their exit interview, or any one of a number of other conditions.  I was asked recently, “Hey, is it actually okay for me to record a phone conversation with someone else?”

Turns out this is a pretty complicated question.  Making audio recordings of conversations with other people, whether in person or on the phone, is legally restricted in most states.  You can see guidelines at this web site from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.  Since I live in California, I’ll quote their reference on my home state here:

Cal. Penal Code §§ 631, 632: It is a crime in California to intercept or eavesdrop upon any confidential communication, including a telephone call or wire communication, without the consent of all parties.

It is also a crime to disclose information obtained from such an interception. A first offense is punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and imprisonment for no more than one year. Subsequent offenses carry a maximum fine of $10,000 and jail sentence of up to one year.

Eavesdropping upon or recording a conversation, whether by telephone (including cordless or cellular telephone) or in person, that a person would reasonably expect to be confined to the parties present, carries the same penalty as intercepting telephone or wire communications.

Conversations occurring at any public gathering that one should expect to be overheard, including any legislative, judicial or executive proceeding open to the public, are not covered by the law.

An appellate court has ruled that using a hidden video camera violates the statute. California v. Gibbons, 215 Cal. App. 3d 1204 (1989). However, a television network that used a hidden camera to videotape a conversation that took place at a business lunch meeting on a crowded outdoor patio of a public restaurant that did not include “secret” information did not violate the Penal Code’s prohibition against eavesdropping because it was not a “confidential communication.” Wilkins v. NBC, Inc., 71 Cal. App. 4th 1066 (1999).

Anyone injured by a violation of the wiretapping laws can recover civil damages of $5,000 or three times actual damages, whichever is greater. Cal. Penal Code § 637.2(a). A civil action for invasion of privacy also may be brought against the person who committed the violation. Cal. Penal Code § 637.2.

The full Penal Code citation is here.  There are a number of exceptions for various reasons (law enforcement personnel, people with restraining orders, etc.)

By my reading (usual disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer), it seems perfectly reasonable for someone to record a conversation if they’ve already been notified the conversation may be recorded, since the other party has no reasonable expectation of privacy.  So if you’re calling tech support, or a customer complaint line, and before you get a representative you hear those all-so-common words, “This conversation may be recorded for quality control purposes”, you can start recording yourself, if you want your own record of the conversation (I do this if I’m in a dispute).  If not, however, you need to inform the party at the other end of the line that you’re recording.  Also, if you’re not interested in having a recording, you are perfectly within your rights to refuse your consent; just because they inform you that they might record a conversation doesn’t give them the right to record it unless you consent.

Oh, and if you want to tape an in-person conversation, have it in a public place.  So if you think you’re about to be fired without cause, it’s better to go to lunch with your boss than it is to join them for a meeting in their office.  Jerry Maguire should have known that, it would have given him some ammunition.

Posted December 18, 2007 by padraic2112 in security

Quote of the Day   Leave a comment

“Avoid black holes when you can” — Neil deGrasse Tyson

What to do when your neighboring galaxy decides to blast yours with a 24,000 light-year long death beam of radiation: not much.  This is officially on my list of “Disaster Scenarios unsupported by our Disaster Recovery Plan”.

Posted December 17, 2007 by padraic2112 in news, noise

Google Calendar and Gmail are Quietly Sneaking Up on Exchange   4 comments

I work for a university, and more and more of the incoming kids are arriving with Gmail accounts. They now generally forward their university mail straight to Gmail, and read all of their mail there.

Aside from the one glaring fact that Gmail is still officially beta, and there is no service guarantee so if all of your mail up and disappears into the ether you’re basically out of luck, this isn’t a terribly bad idea. For one thing, Google’s anti-spam filtering appears to be right up there with the best in the business. Having access to Google’s giant honking search database and crawler technology must be an advantage here. Gmail’s web interface is going to rock the pants off of any home-grown webmail service, performance-wise, and if you’ve ever used SquirrelMail you’ll know how big of a plus that is.

There are of course major privacy considerations here (Bruce and Marcus were talking about just this sort of “handing over your data” problem recently), and again as a technical professional I can’t really recommend something that comes with no guarantee. On the other hand, you can now have Thunderbird have the same sort of access to your Google calendar that Outlook has to Exchange.

Step 1: Install Thunderbird

Step 2: Install Lighting as a Thunderbird Add-On, or just use Sunbird

Step 3: Install Provider for Google Calendar as a Thunderbird Add-On

Step 4: Hook up your Google Calendar in Provider. There are step-by-step screen-shot directions blogged here.

Step 5: If you’re hooked on your Palm, you can get a Palm plugin for Google Calendar here or here.

The nice thing about this is that when you sync your Google Calendar to Lightning/Sunbird, you have a local copy of your calendar, so if worst comes to worse and Google accidentally deletes your calendar, you still have a copy*. And since you can share your Google Calendar, you get a bunch of the functionality of Exchange, all with freely available software. More importantly, if you want to have a public calendar shared among a group of people, they can all get in on the ride without having to pay for the E ticket.

Considering the cost of setting up and maintaining Exchange (and the platform lock-in), this seems pretty much like a no-brainer unless you’re already in the Exchange game, or maintaining fairly private info.

And even if you are… all of those incoming kiddies with their Gmail accounts and their iPhones and their buy-in to Google Apps… as time passes, the Google Calendar network is going to include a substantial chunk of the young nerds.

As every networking nut knows, the value of your network goes up as the number of nodes increases…

* looks like not, actually, the calendar app doesn’t maintain a local cache.

Posted December 16, 2007 by padraic2112 in social, software, tech, web sites

The Body is a Temple   2 comments

Mine is occasionally desecrated. I drink too much coffee, I don’t exercise enough. We eat marginally well at my house; Kitty is great at keeping vegetables a routine part of the dinner plate, and I’ve fallen into the habit myself… but I had bacon for breakfast this morning, and that’s not very rare.

Really, I weigh 20 lbs more than my fighting weight, and in all honesty I don’t see that getting substantially better for a little while yet. I’m 6’1″, and 205 on good days, which puts my BMI at 27. This puts me over the official “overweight” line but my cholesterol is good, my family heart history is great, and I quit smoking a while back, so (knock wood) I can stay in this low orbit until I finish grad school and the kids get old enough to function a little more independently, at which point taking 30 minutes or an hour out for a workout won’t be a big deal.

Tangent – this table seems crazy, though -> in order to be considered underweight, I’d have to come in at *under* 144 lbs. Now, when I was 170 my waist was a 28. If I dropped to 144 at my height I’d look like a skeleton.

As usual, I’m digressing – the reason why I brought this up is that my buddy Marc, who has been a friend of mine since 4th grade, is training for an Iron Man. Of course, being Marc, he can’t just train for a freaking Iron Man, he has to do it for charity. Geeze, some guys. As if swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and then running a full marathon (26.2 miles) isn’t enough.  How many calories do you burn in an Iron Man, anyway?  I’m guessing somewhere about 5-6,000?

I’ll go so far as to link to his donation site. Now, where did I leave my donut…?

Posted December 14, 2007 by padraic2112 in noise

Cringley’s Shootin’ For The Moon   Leave a comment

Bob Cringley has put together a team for the Google X-prize, and I have to give him kudos for his project mission. Quote:

If you have 20 shots at hitting the Moon for $5 million versus one shot for $100 million, it changes your whole day.

And the idea is appealing to more than just giddy amateurs. Without making any effort to recruit them, Team Cringely has begun attracting real rocket scientists who are drawn by the simple idea that winning this prize at a profit could change completely the way entrepreneurs and governments look at space. The symbolism of what we are doing is as important as the work, itself.

Good luck, Bob. You don’t even need to win, you just need to come close enough to change the focus of space travel. It might be an incredible pipe dream, a wild-ass waste of money, and it might not, but either way it’s magnificent.

Posted December 14, 2007 by padraic2112 in tech, x-prize

FDEWiki   Leave a comment

Saqib Ali, a regular contributor to the FDE mailing list, has set up a wiki for collecting information about full disk encryption products.  If you’re interested in the topic, or have deployed or designed such a system, feel free to contribute.

Posted December 14, 2007 by padraic2112 in hardware, security, software, tech

Personal Computing   2 comments

I’m going to take some time here to talk about personal computing.  Not just any old personal computing in the “PC” sense, but personal computing in the “Me/You” sense.  Your computing.  The device you use when you’re doing something other than doing work.  Oftentimes, this can be a “work” computer (my employer paid for the computer I’m using to write this post).  It can be your iPhone, or your Nokia Internet Tablet, or your Alienware Area51 M9750, your MacBook Pro or your Dell XPS 720 H2C.

Maybe you’re a h4rd-k0r3 gamer.  A video blogger.  Business-oriented road warrior.  A graphics designer, a programmer, a small business owner, a MySpace addict, a college student.  A parent of triplets with a HD-camcorder, a DVD burner, and a large mailing list of relatives.  You’ve got a permanent addiction to techno, a midi board, and you’re not afraid to use them.  Maybe you “just surf the web and send email” (I hear this more than any other use case for computer users, and have yet to meet anyone who actually *only* surfs the web and reads email).

Whoever you are, someone just like you has walked into my office at one point and asked the question *every* IT person dreads, “I’m thinking about buying a new computer… what do you think I should buy?”  The only possible response from my end is, “What are you going to use it for?” which inevitably results in one of four responses:

  • A huge description that indicates you’ve already thought about this as thoroughly as possible
  • A blank stare (which usually represents them channeling something along the lines of, “Duh, it’s a computer, IT guy, what do you think I’m going to use it for?”)
  • The previously aforementioned, “Just surf the web and send email”
  • The most dreaded response of all, “It’s not for me… it’s a gift for my [brother, daughter, husband, wife, mother, grandfather, etc.]

If you’re the first type, you don’t need to be in my office.  Sure, we can talk geek for 15 or 30 minutes, but it’s unlikely I’m going to tell you anything you don’t already know.  You know how much battery life you’re going to need, how often you’re going to travel, whether or not you need the giant honkin’ display, and how you’re going to carry it around.  You’re here for one of two reasons, really.  First, because you’re like me (and most other geeks) and you want to talk shop about your computer the way we would have talked shop about the supercharger in a customized ’68 Camero 35 years ago.  If that’s why you’re here, let’s go get some coffee and do some geek bonding, I’m ok with that.  The second reason is that you’ve heard somewhere on the order of three dozen religious cultists talk trash about the manufacturer and tell you that you’re making a mistake.  I’ve heard them all… “You’re thinking of buying a [Hell/Deathbook/Portajohn]?  I used to own one of those and it was a boat anchor!”  Here’s the thing.  I’ve dealt with hardware from every manufacturer.  Rackmount servers, portables, desktops, portables-that-are-workstation-replacements, you name it.  Every single manufacturer has produced a bad product line, or a bad model in an otherwise good product line.  Every manufacturer has also produced a genius product that was such a giant slam dunk that everyone that bought that genius product thinks the manufacturer is the greatest thing since the integrated chip.  Unless I’ve personally handled a dozen or so of whatever *precise model* it is you’re thinking about buying, I’m not a reliable expert witness.  We can go do the coffee thing and I’ll tell you what I’ve heard through the grapevine, but when it comes down to it, caveat emptor.

If you’re the second or third type, we can do one of two things.  One, you can sit down with me for the next 45 minutes or so and answer a lot of personal questions so that I can figure out how you’re actually going to use this.  I need to know who is going to use it, how often they’re going to use it, whether or not you travel, have children (or a spouse) who has a tendency to break things, and how much data discipline you have.  If you have a giant collection of music files (please don’t tell me if you downloaded them all illegally) for god’s sake tell me how many you have.  If you stopped taking pictures with a non-digital camera and have 100 kabillion pictures .jpgs of your two kids but no backup, I’m going to *make* you buy something with redundancy.  If you don’t have the time for this conversation or you’re not the type of person who is willing to share all that info with a coworker, I can’t help you, and it’s probably a bad idea for me to try -> I’m going to give you bad advice based upon incomplete data.

If you’re the fourth type, you had better know all the answers to all of those questions for the person lucky enough to have someone giving them a computer.  Knowing someone is a college student isn’t enough information.

“Oh, come on, Pat,” you say, “it’s just a computer!”  To some people, I suppose.  Some people out there really do just do a half dozen things with a computer.  They read email, they surf the web, post to a blog, organize their photos, and listen to music.  If that’s really all you do with your computer, and you’re really never going to do anything else, buy a Mac and surrender yourself to having an iLife.  Generally, get the second-fastest processor that’s available (that’s usually the highest on the bang-for-the-buck scale).  If you’re buying a laptop, get the warranty, and shell out the extra $$$ for the screen repair option – if your screen breaks, you’ve got a very expensive, underpowered desktop computer, or you’re shelling out more money to fix the computer than it is worth.

My biggest piece of advice for people in the market for personal computing devices is be coldly honest with yourself about how much data discipline you have, and buy a backup solution that works for you.  If you only have one copy of your data, you are absolutely 100% guaranteed to suffer.  You’re going to lose all of the photos of your children.  You’re going to have to re-rip your entire CD collection.  You’re going to lose every personal email you’ve ever received.  Buy an external drive, use it religiously.  Get space online, and put copies of everything there.  Consider your privacy implications carefully, but do something that makes copies of your important stuff.

I’ll post about my own personal computing soon…

Posted December 13, 2007 by padraic2112 in hardware, tech