Category: Technology

25

A Jingle from the Lockheed Skunk Works

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There's no confusion!
We aim to implement fusion!
It's a tougher catch than lightning in a bottle.

But we can do it!
We made the Blackbird and flew it,
And we circumnavigated at full throttle.

Yes, some are skeptical
That our receptacle,
For holy fire might be a mayonnaise jar.

So we'll assure 'em,
Our R&D is kosher for Purim,
And this'll be our best result by far!

Hedge funds: don't short us!
Federal watchdogs: don't report us!
It'll take a while, so journalists: rake some muck!

Still, we're not kidding.
We're doing DARPA's bidding,
And soon we'll ship reactors on a truck!

(WaPo on Lockheed)

Who the what?

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A. Suppose there's a standard recipe for people who want to make coffee: harvest and prepare (or simply buy) some coffee beans, grind them up, boil them for a few minutes, and serve.

B. Suppose a company — let's call it Feurig — declares a patterned approach toward following this recipe:

  • Provide penetrable cups of a certain size containing prepared, ground beans.
  • Provide a ring sized to hold the cup, a mounted pin to puncture the bottom of the cup, a mounted injection nozzle to penetrate the top of the cup, and a hinged apparatus to automate these penetrations when a cup is inserted into the ring and covered by depressing a handle.
  • Provide an encompassing container capable of heating water, detecting its temperature, and injecting that water into the cup at a rate suitable for cooking the bean dust.

C. Suppose Feurig then implements this patterned approach toward following the recipe by making cups and a device to accommodate and process them.

D. Suppose further that a competing company with an interest in making coffee notes Feurig's success in the marketplace and creates a different machine — made from different materials, employing a different heating, monitoring, and injection facility, and penetrating the cup differently.

E. Suppose even further that yet another company makes a cup different from Feurig's but consistent with the scale of the holding ring  on Feurig's machine and capable of being refilled with arbitrary contents (such as tea or sympathy).

What is the API?

The API is not the standard recipe (A) for making coffee: that's an obvious practice deeply embedded in the common culture and widely exercised in industry and among hobbyists.

The API is not the device that Feurig made as an implementation (C) of the patterned approach that Feurig had declared, and it is not the competing machine (D), and it is not the alternative cup (E).

The API is B: a patterned recipe-following approach capable of being realized in a concrete implementation.

F. Suppose now that a complex culture of innovation and competition has arisen around the API defined in B, and that a company — let's call it Deploracle — comes along and buys Feurig.

Deploracle argues that its newly acquired intellectual property extends not just to the physical brewing device its wholly owned subsidiary invented, but also to the abstract pattern to which that device and its successors (and many knock-off devices) conform to ensure interoperability, substitutability, and some other seven- or eight-syllable word.

That's sort of like claiming IP rights not only over the particular car you manufacture, but also over the general idea of exposing a latch to open a door, providing access to a seat, and presenting a wheel, some pedals, and a feedback display to enable intentional control of a driving machine– a contingent set of conventions that declare a patterned approach to the general recipe for driving a car. (Adherence to those declared conventions of capability and method ensure that many automobile manufacturers can make a car, that many people can learn to drive a car, and that people who learn to drive a car can thereby drive any car that conforms to the expectations implicit in that training.)

So Diabetes-Benz lays claim not only to its actual line of cars, but also to the very idea of doing a car in that way, simply because they declared that convention when implementing their car.

Does that seem right to you?

seemright

Does The Internet Need A United Nations When It Doesn't Have A First Amendment?

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The Department of Commerce has announced that it will soon abdicate its responsibility for maintaining the internet's Domain Name System, the directory that allows translation of a plain English (or Russian, or Turkish) term like popehat.com into the string of numbers and periods that are this site's actual address. DNS is the internet's central nervous system, to analogize crudely.  If a site is removed from DNS, it may as well no longer exist.

The goal, we're told, is to spread governance of the internet from a United States agency to set of "stakeholders" from across the "global internet community." And that's what should worry everyone in the "global internet community" who is concerned with free speech. Unlike the Department of Commerce, the "global internet community" and its "stakeholders" are not constrained from abridging the freedom of speech.

Readers may recall the case of American talk radio host Glenn Beck, who in 2009 sued the owner of the parodic website GlennBeckRapedAndMurderedAYoungGirlIn1990.com, in the World Internet Property Organization (a United Nations body), arguing that the site's name was defamatory, and that it infringed Beck's trademark in the name "Glenn Beck." (The parody countered Beck's style of argument in which he demands opponents prove a negative: "Barack Obama must prove he wasn't in Indonesia on August 4, 1961!") How do we know Glenn Beck didn't rape and murder a young girl in 1990, after all? Beck hasn't proven he didn't. We have only his word to rely upon. The World Internet Property Organization, to its credit and thanks to the commendable advocacy of defense attorney Marc Randazza, denied Beck's claims, finding the assertion contained in the site's name to be an obvious parody that only a dipshit would credit as true.

What's telling about the Beck case is that Beck, for all his professed faith in the United States Constitution, chose not to file his claim in an American court. Beck certainly could have done so: the defendant, like Beck, was an American citizen and subject to the jurisdiction of United States courts. But the First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides broad protections to free speech, some of the broadest in the world, constraining courts and government agencies alike from infringing speech. And a website's name, just like its text, is speech.

No, Beck, or his attorneys, assumed he'd get better treatment from a United Nations agency in his efforts to quash free speech than he'd get in an American court. And for good reason: United Nations agencies are not constrained by the First Amendment.  And so, coming back round to the "stakeholders" of the "global internet community," to what legal constraints will they be subject? And to whom will they answer? The Constitution of the People's Republic of China, for instance, promises that:

Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration. … Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.

Under the new internet order, Sina Weibo is undoubtedly a major "global stakeholder" in the internet. Does anyone believe that a representative of Sina Weibo, which already censors its users at the behest of its government, would not vote to obliterate a website glorifying Tank Man?

tank man

Of course China is not the only global stakeholder. There are plenty of European nations which also have a stake in the internet, such as the Russian Federation. Perhaps the most distinguished Russian holding a stake in the internet is Evgeny Kaspersky, the famed security expert, whose products are used worldwide. Another famed Russian on the internet is Garry Kasparov, grandmaster of chess and political dissident. For all of Kaspersky's integrity, does anyone doubt that if Kasparov created a website parodying Vladimir Putin, perhaps one called VladimirPutinOrderedTheMurderOfAnnaPolitkovskaya.com, Kaspersky would face intense pressure to vote that it be deleted as defamatory, an offense against the majesty of the Soviet Union Russian Federation?

Of course there are plenty of enlightened non-European countries whose citizens are global stakeholders, such as Thailand. Guarantors of international human rights, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

The Department of Commerce assures us that only private global stakeholders will be nominated to hold a stake in tomorrow's internet, and therefore to make decisions on who (if anyone) gets to have domains ending in suffixes such as .bible or .gay or .wine. We're assured that the new regime will be run much along the lines of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (which coincidentally is holding its annual meeting for 2014 in Istanbul). But each of those stakeholders is, at least until we have anarchist floating cities, also a stakeholder in some government or state.  In a lot of those states, the government considers itself a "stakeholder" in its citizens, who'll know doubt vote accordingly. And while Commerce promises us that it won't support government involvement in the new DNS regime, once control has passed beyond Commerce, who's to say conditions won't change?

None of this is to suggest that the United States is somehow "deserving" of internet governance, that the internet is American property, or the American government's hands are clean. They're not. I could be reasonably content with an internet whose administration was controlled by other constitutional democracies, such as Australia, Costa Rica, Japan, or even the United Kingdom.

But it won't be. We've seen the others, and they're worse. The system isn't broken, and at least now there are some free speech constraints on the entity ultimately responsible for global DNS.

If you care about free speech on the global internet, not just your provincial American corner of it, consider writing or calling your Congressman and Senators, and asking them to assert their authority against this ill-advised decision.

Houdini Now and Then – Caught on the Web

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This article originally appeared in The Mandala Magazine (2:5), April 2012

Houdini Now and Then
:
Caught on the Web

It’s tough being a fan of the Great Houdini. Your non-magician friends quickly grow tired of hearing you say “Watch me escape from this” or “Tie me up! Tighter!” The patience of your significant other wears thin as you beckon “Look at this photo of the fourth milk can!” And your magician friends who are not fans of HH (a defect we fans describe with the phrase “just doesn’t get it”) are likely to respond with “You know, he wasn’t really much of a magician” or “You know, Vernon fooled him with a double” or “You know, he was sort of an arrogant bastard to… well… everyone.”

Houdini, Germany, ca. 1902 (John Cox Collection)

Houdini, Germany, ca. 1902 (John Cox Collection)

OK. Yes, we know. Even so, there’s just something about Houdini the man and the myth. And being a fan is no longer about becoming Houdini (though for some it once was). Nor is it about defending Houdini. (Well, maybe a bit.) It’s about appreciating two interwoven themes in the life of Ehrich Weiss: a tragically imperfect pursuit of the American Dream and a splendidly perfect example of magical theatrics. The actor lived a life, not always well, but the character he played projected a fiction, always magnificent. (more…)

Puff the Magic Dragnet

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Talking around the edges of what's classified is all the rage these days. See, for example, the commercial for the NSA that ran on 60 minutes tonight.

In that vein, a former employee of Tailored Access Ops explains (within Info Assurance guidelines) what he did at the NSA and why he's ok with it.

Insufficiently discussed in most rants about the NSA is this question: if the only way to find the needles in a haystack is to store the entire haystack, and if you're against storing the entire haystack, and if you insist that it's vital to find the needles, then given the size and growth rate of the haystack, how do you propose doing that?

Some are ok with storing the haystack. That's the status quo.

Some are against the haystack and also don't think finding the needles is all that important. After all, more die at the hands of swimming pools and ladders, etc….

But for those who think proactive action against malevolent actors is desirable, how (apart from surveilling a subset of exhaustive data) shall we winnow them out of an ever-increasing crowd and discern their voices in an ever louder din?

If not this way, then how?

Mickens, A Systems Carol

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If you've been hangin' around here lately, and you're lookin' to cleanse the computer fakery, mistakery, and opaquery from your palate, look no further than the brilliant and hilarious essay The Night Watch, by the hilarious and brilliant James Mickens of Microsoft. Bonus: he's a good writer. Here's his self-blurb from the MS research site:

Excellence. Quality. Science. These are just a few of the words that have been applied to the illustrious research career of James Mickens. In the span of a few years, James Mickens has made deep, fundamental, and amazing contributions to various areas of computer science and life. Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest scholars of his generation, James Mickens ran out of storage space for his awards in 1992, and he subsequently purchased a large cave to act as a warehouse/fortress from which he can defend himself during the inevitable robot war that was prophesied by the documentary movie “The Matrix.” In his spare time, James Mickens enjoys life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, often (but not always) in that order, and usually (almost always) while listening to Black Sabbath.

The Necrogenomicon

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Msgr. Falda: The language of the Necrogenomicon is arcane; its meaning recondite. If we give it, in its many variants, into the hands of the people, there's no telling what they may do with it!

Bro. Laxman: But, with respect: it already resides in their hands, and hearts, and indeed in all parts of them. It lives in them, and through them, and they in and through it. Most literally.

Msgr. Falda: But it requires interpretation. Trusted interpretation. Authoritative interpretation….

Bro. Laxman: To be sure, many details of life benefit from the wisdom and insight of experts. But nobody wants to do away with authorities and experts. It's merely that the people want to read the language of the text themselves, and perhaps consult with others who know more than they.

Msgr. Falda: This cannot be! If the people read for themselves a text they do not, and probably cannot, comprehend– and if they follow the guidance of whomever they will rather than that of a rightful shepherd of the flock– then they may go astray, not only in understanding but most certainly in action as well!

Bro. Laxman: But the people may already consult whomever they will, and go as they choose, and understand according to their lights, and act, possibly, in manners untoward.

Msgr. Falda: Precisely! And uncovering these truths to them all at once, in bulk, and without appropriate commentary may mislead them further! What if one of them comes to a false understanding and seeks to cut off his right hand?

Bro. Laxman: We already govern the chirurgeons, my lord.

Msgr. Falda: But… but what if one of them seeks to foment rebellion?

Bro. Laxman: We already regulate the militia, my lord.

Msgr. Falda: And what if one of them, for want of understanding, annoys a deacon with babble and the ill-gotten fruit of a meandering mind?

Bro. Laxman: Then he will tell him to stop, my lord. And perhaps help him to understand the limits of his own horizon. Knowledge is seldom fatal, and even a false understanding will seldom bring about grievous harm….

Msgr. Falda: But we are the gatekeepers, Bro. Laxman! We are the gatekeepers.

Bro. Laxman: And each of the people, my lord, is the gate. Shall we keep it closed and guarded as for war, or open as for peace, its perimeter defended?


The FDA reckons that the product provided by 23andme is medical equipment, and that some subset of the corresponding service constitutes medical advice. So the FDA wants a piece of the actionto be sure that the people are protected from the dangers of possibly false or misleading information coming through unauthorized, unregulated channels. 23andme has been draggin' its feet in response to FDA demands, perhaps because of disagreement about whether personal genomics, a new application of new technologies, actually falls squarely within the current regulatory regime.

BoingBoing provides a cartoon and a cluster of links to articles that offer a fresh and useful overview of the issues at hand.

A bunch of dead people gave me their chromosomes. Ever since, I've been trying to figure out to how organize and use them. Not too long ago, I sank a Frank' into the "Health and Ancestry" personal genomics kit from 23andme. Just in time, since the FDA has asked them to stop making sriracha until the neighbors' complaints can be mollified. Last I heard, 23andme is making nice in words about compliance and cooperation but declining actually to comply… for now. "Can't we all just get along? I'm sure there has been some sort of misunderstanding. We've made a hash of it with our tardy replies, but we do, genuinely, truly, from the bottoms of our heart, love and respect you. It's not you; it's us."

(BTW, feel free to use me as a referral once they sort things out! That'll add $5 to my book-buyin' fund. ;) )

Did the results of my test solve any deep mysteries? No, although I learned some things about my ancestry that I hadn't previously known and have since confirmed genealogically. Did health information spur me to bum rush the medical staff at my PCP's office and demand that they do X, Y, and Z forthwith? Not at all. Was it entertaining and informative? You betcha! And did it prompt me to try to learn more about genetics, genomics, and gymnastics? Indeed, it did. I was floored by the exercise, which set a high bar, and I wouldn't call my efforts so far a ringing success, but that's ok since I'm just horsin' around.

Herewith, some observations. First, 23andme takes a conservative approach to analysis; if you download your genome info, upload it to GEDMatch, and run some alternate analyses offered as freeware by genetic hobbyists or rogue professors, you may see more– or different– information about haplogroup classifications and ethnic origins. Using a different commercial service, such as FamilyTreeDNA, may likewise provide more granular results. But for 99 clams, 23andme delivers the essential and allows some speculative tweaking to see alternate results. That's good enough for the casual consumer; those on a mission may need more.

Second, the community forum at 23andme.com is fairly primitive. For example, email notification for followed discussion threads is an all-or-nothing affair. Searching is non-existent. Redundant threads occur because there's no fast, non-awkward way to find out whether an appropriate thread already exists.

Third (and this is probably true of all personal genomics communities at present because this industry is larval), the points of light are far outnumbered by the blobs of smog. To phrase it with greater diplomacy, the discussion forum is overrun by understandbly curious and uninformed users whose questions, and whose answers to others' questions, are flat out wrong. In the midst of all that noise, a few valiant and well-informed hobbyists (plus the occasional professional) who have dedicated themselves to the task try to set things right. Sadly, the forum software sees those contributions fade rapidly into undiscoverability.

I trust the quality of discussion will improve there, and elsewhere, as education improves and interested parties take advantage. Indeed, 23andme provides a number of informative introductory videos and simple essays that lay out the basics while identifying some of the limitations and nuances. But reading and watching videos are homework, and nothing guarantees (nor should guarantee in that sort of forum) that everyone who speaks has done that homework.

Do you have some experience with personal genomics services? What was your experience? Did you learn anything surprising or interesting that you'd like to share? What do you think of the policy issues underlying the FDA's attempt to regulate 23andme?

Size Matters

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Qióng: Shīfu Shíjú! Shīfu Shíjú!

Shīfu Shíjú: Qióng, what do you want?

Qióng: Please, tell me why size matters?

Shīfu Shíjú: Idiot! Go finish your chores.

Qióng: I have done them, Shīfu! I am ready to know!

Shīfu Shíjú: Very well. Sit down. Now, first I will show you the way of integers. What is the next digit in this series? 12345…

Qióng: The next digit is '1', Shīfu!

Shīfu Shíjú: How can you say the next digit is '1'? Have you never brought Shīfu a six-pack?

Qióng: The next digit is '1' if the series is 1 through 5 repeating: 1234512345123–

Shīfu Shíjú: Idiot! If you introduce complexities such as grouping and blocks you will never understand! To follow the way of integers, you must not think in cliques and tribes; you must ask yourself what one, all on his own, can contribute.

Qióng: Thank you, Shīfu. Now I will go and rake the yard.

(more…)

Screwtape Embraces The Internet

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My Dear Wormwood,

Your suggestion that I "sign up" for something called "Twitter" is noted, and rejected. I gather from your rapturous description of the thing that "tweeting" is one of the ephemera through which the humans chatter with one another using their internet. Having been promoted from the front lines to a policy-making position some centuries ago, I no longer have interest in corresponding with the vermin through physical means. On the occasions when I do desire the society of humans there is no shortage of them here in Hell, where one can communicate with them in terms rather more frank than is possible on Earth.

In your enthusiasm for the nuts and bolts of the humans' technology, you seem to miss the opportunities it offers.  For example, you boast that your patient, in discussing the most recent controversy occupying the humans' fleeting attention, rebuked another of the beasts in terms profane and sacrilegious, as though this was some great sin. While it is always pleasing to Our Father Below when the man utters a sacrilege, we long ago degraded their speech, particularly in America, to a level barely more articulate than the hoots and grunts of the apes from which they claim to descend.

The great sin, which your patient failed as thoroughly as you to appreciate, was that he entered the discussion in the first place. Think of it, Wormwood, at the moment your patient "clicked the upvote button" in the expectation that his demand would grant the girl a long life, he arrogated to himself that power which belongs solely to the Enemy. In his pride, the fool presumes that he is as qualified to decide the best use of the lung as a transplant surgeon, when in fact he has no medical training and his sense of ethics is limited to parroting platitudes he was taught by older parrots in his half-forgotten school days.

This misplaced pride is particularly common among the American humans. Make no mistake: The idea on which their republic was founded, that all men are born equal in the Enemy's sight, is a noxious and pestilential notion which, if the humans properly understood and followed it, would be the ruin of many of our plans. We want every man to think of himself as better or worse than his brother. If a man thinks himself his brother's superior (whether he actually is or not is of little concern to us), we can foster the pleasing sins of pride, wrath, tyranny, and at the best of times the mass murders and genocides which brought so many to Our Father's House in the last century. If he knows himself to be his brother's inferior, we may reap a crop of envy, resentment, false humility, deceit, despair, and suicide.

But as to equality, under the guidance of the Low Command we have largely nullified the meaning of the word, as the Enemy understands it. Rather than the (self-evident) truth that before the Enemy all men are fallen, and so low in His sight as to deserve none of the gifts He has given them through grace alone, in modern parlance equality is understood to mean that each man is actually the equal of his fellow. Thus the fool thinks it virtuous to blather in the company of the wise man, and the ignorant feel it an injustice when rebuked by their betters for empty-headed prattle. This trend has only accelerated since humans created the internet.

And so we come to the events of yesterday, when a herd of cattle, your patient among them, lowed so loudly at being shown a picture of a young girl denied an organ transplant that it now appears the girl will receive the cast-off lung, whether or not she was of suitable age to receive the organ, and in disregard of longstanding rules on which others of the vermin based their expectations. You can be sure that not a one of the brutes considered that in "giving" life to the object of his fancy, he was just as surely taking it from another. In the Roman colosseum, the plebs knew full well that their roars condemned Christians to death. In the modern arena, the plebs dupe themselves that their roaring is righteous.

Thanks to seeds planted long ago by the Lowerarchy, we can expect more such harvests in the future. As the number of the humans increases, their competition for finite resources will grow keener. We have taught mankind to believe that such resources should be allocated arbitrarily, to she who is most popular or to he who cries most loudly of his need, rather than according to rules, laws, or anything approaching such rationality as their little minds can muster. The so-called leaders of their societies, whom we have well in hand, will be only too happy to appease the mob.

Finally, I concur with your facile observation that it benefits our cause for the girl get her lung (the death of a child, while pleasing to the senses, does us no good since we probably cannot get her soul), but the disposition of a piece of dead tissue is of no importance in the long run. What matters is we are fast approaching the day when, by showing the humans a picture of a wounded puppy or a homeless kitten, we can provoke in them such squalls of outrage that they will abandon their laws, their morals, and their reason.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

You say you want a convolution

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Why bother with artificial intelligence when we're still pretty incompetent with natural intelligence? And yet the fact that a venture is ill advised has never stopped us before.

We aspire to control others without being able to control ourselves.

We judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves.

We take more readily than we give.

Let's talk for a moment about our brain. No, not "our brain" as in us, the crosier of Popehat. (Some blogs have a staff; we have a crosier.) I mean "our brain" as in us, the species homo sapiens somewhat laughably sapiens.

What I want to say is this: we're certainly not going to let the fact that we're baffled by our real brains impede us from trying to build fake ones, right? Perhaps aiming for artifice in matters brainial will help us grasp things actually intracranial.

Of course, if we really knew how to exercise the natural contents of our collective brainboxen, then faced with the prospect of artificial intelligence, we'd all be running around screaming, "No! Stop! Skynet! Nexus!" (Of course, some of us would be doing it with the intonations of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, but hey.) We'd all recognize that if we can so easily rationalize our own hypocrisy, then even if we had an anthrobotic system that was tweaked to honor the n laws of robotics, someone somewhere would hack hypocrisy and rationalization right into it. Next stop, SHODAN.

Anyhow, we are blissfully oblivious to risks. And thanks to functional MRI and kindred advances in technology, such as electron microscopy and laser-scanning light microscopy, we (as a species) now stand at the threshold of understanding the brain's architecture and adaptability. We have begun to recognize that "neural circuits tell activity how to propagate, and neural activity tells circuits how to change". It's a great time to be alive, if only for the advent of much better sci-fi.

So what would a computer program based on the way our brains actually work be like? Not one inspired by cheesy 1980s intuitions about fuzzy logic, but a rigorous adaptation of principles actually embedded in our wetware?

Happily, thanks to Jeff Hawkins (the dude who founded Palm and Handspring) we can now begin to understand the answer to that question.

There's Only One Topic That's Absolutely Off-Limits At This Blog, And That's Birth / Adoption Conspiracy Theories

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Effective immediately, I'm resigning from this place. I've appreciated the many opportunities I've received here and the chance to cover some important stories, but there are too many constraints on my writing. Now don't get the wrong idea. This is an amicable parting. Readers who've enjoyed my work here are welcome to follow me at my new site, where I'll address issues that really matter, to me and I suspect to most of you. Why in the past couple of days, I've written my best work, on topics I could never have covered here. Just look at the most recent post titles!

Our planet is doomed.

That rich plutocrat is a successful businessman and inventor, but is he really qualified to be President?

Exactly what does that other rich plutocrat mean when he says he's "experiencing the nightlife of this city"?

I will not kneel before you.

I dreamt that the Sun turned red.

The iPhone 5? Not for me! When you really need it, a payphone is still the way to go.

This will be a deeply personal blog, yet one of interest to readers across the globe. I'll be applying my unique insights to problems of interest to all humanity and beyond, in the insightful and penetrating way you've come to expect from my work here, but with no holds barred and no subject out of bounds.

Won't you join me?

What's the Frequency, Flik?

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The internet is pretty slick. Every attached computer has a unique address sort of like a phone number. (Sometimes, entire sub-networks lurk behind a single address through the miracles of IP and routing and such, just as entire switchboards of phones may lie behind the phone number of a main switchboard, but that's another story.)

Thanks to Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), files can be sent from one address to another with amazing efficiency. The brilliance of TCP's design lies in this: the rate at which stuff is sent automatically throttles up or down in response to network latency as measured by response time!

The Office – S5/E9: The Surplus from Vimeo.

Let's break it down. TCP is cool because "transmission control" sounds like "mission control" and that sounds like something NASA would have. But TCP is also cool because of how it works. Grossly simplified, it works like this:

  • You want to send that document requesting a pony to someone who has sent you a blind solicitation.
  • The networky stuff in your computer breaks the document into a bunch of "packets". Just like real parcels sent through UPS or Fedex or that other service, each packet is wrapped with a label explaining where it came from, where it's going, and so forth.
  • The packets follow various routes to their destination. As they arrive, the recipient (i.e., networky stuff on the other guy's computer) sends a receipt (called an "ack") to the sender. Meanwhile, the recipient uses the wrapper info to figure out whether all the packets have arrived, to put them in their correct order, and finally to reassemble the document. Transmission Accomplished!
  • The best part is the flow control. The sender starts by spraying out some packets and timing how long it takes to get a receipt for them. If the receipts come quickly, the sender sends more packets at a time. If the receipts come slowly, the sender sends fewer packets at a time (even stopping cold, if necessary). And since there's an ongoing flow of shipments and receipts and timing, the sender can avoid flooding the network but can also avoid letting bandwidth go to waste! Faster and faster! Slower and slower! No, faster! Slower! Strike that! Reverse it!

Flik, from Pixar's A Bug's Life

Now, here's the trippy science factoid du jour: researchers at Leland Stanford Junior University have discovered that Harvester Ants (including, apparently, the most venemous insect in the world) have been using TCP all along… behind Vint Cerf's and Bob Kahn's backs! Says the press release:

the rate at which harvester ants – which forage for seeds as individuals – leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability.

A forager won't return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.

They also found that the ants followed two other phases of TCP. One phase is known as slow start, which describes how a source sends out a large wave of packets at the beginning of a transmission to gauge bandwidth; similarly, when the harvester ants begin foraging, they send out foragers to scope out food availability before scaling up or down the rate of outgoing foragers.

Another protocol, called time-out, occurs when a data transfer link breaks or is disrupted, and the source stops sending packets. Similarly, when foragers are prevented from returning to the nest for more than 20 minutes, no more foragers leave the nest.

Further research into what these critters might teach us will be undertaken at the newly funded FourmiLab. Meanwhile, I leave you with a meditation on Proverbs 6:6 by e. e. cummings: go(perpe)go from his 1935 manuscript No Thanks (in George James Firmage, ed., E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-1962, Revised, NY: Norton, 1994, p. 403 or thereabouts).

¡Órale, Cisco! ¿Eres mi amigo?

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About 2 months ago, Cisco pushed to its consumer-grade routers a firmware upgrade that stripped away the ability to log into and configure the routers locally. Instead, consumers thus upgefirmed were treated to a Cloud Connect signup page where they could establish an account that would centralize management of consumers' routers in Cisco's servana.

By the fifth of July, Cisco had backpedaled. "Did we say mandatory? Did we push that firmware? Oopsie. Our bad." They then made it clear that any consumer could opt out and maintain local control of his consumer-grade router by simply following the friendly instructions, which begin "We are sorry to see you downgrading to our Classic software (non-Cloud)…."

Now, via Ars Technica, comes word of the latest fad in centralized management of the people's resources.

…wireless researchers in Germany proposed a way to improve the communications abilities of first responders…: creating an “emergency switch” that lets government employees disable the security mechanisms in the wireless routers people have set up in their own homes. This would allow first responders to use all the routers within range to enhance the capabilities of the mesh networks that allow them to communicate with each other.

…The residents’ wireless traffic would still remain private, in theory…..

This even though bandwidth is already set aside for that purpose.

I, for one, regret that I have but one subnet to allocate for my country. But just to hedge, I'll be printing up a selection of bumper stickers and t-shirts featuring salient slogans:

Think globally

Killswitch locally

Government is Just a Name for the Things

we relinquish to nonaccountable bureaucracies

It Takes a Village

To Distributively Deny a Service

We Don't Need To Show You No Stinking Passwords

since you already have root

Anyhow,  I'm all for it. First Defenders, after all. And The Children.

What could possibly go wrong?

Your Friday Afternoon Brings A Smile To Robert Heinlein's Ghost

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One hesitates to suggest that there could be a good higher than threatening to bomb one's political opponents, but human survival off this planet, indeed, human expansion into and conquest of the galaxy, may be one of those things.

As I type this, the SpaceX Dragon capsule has just docked with the International Space Station.  And you can watch it on the internet.

This is one small step for free enterprise, one giant leap for mankind.  The government won't ensure that humans escape this planet before the comet hits, giant tsunamis strike, the core reverses polarity, or the Daleks arrive.  The government couldn't find a clue if Colonel Mustard was appointed head of Homeland Security.

Private enterprise will save us, even if it has to destroy the earth to do so.