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February 27th, 2022

Tell Us Without Telling Us What Your Voting Patterns Are Likely To Be

This came across my newsfeed just now…

If you won a life time supply of the last thing you drank, what are you stuck drinking?

I was sorely tempted to reply “The tears of data miners”, but even that would have probably told them something.


by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Tell Us Without Telling Us What Your Voting Patterns Are Likely To Be

July 2nd, 2009

From No Macs In My Life To A 100 Percent Apple Household In Just Five Years…

[Geek Alert…]

My life with computers started with a Coleco Adam, and was not auspicious.  It was 1983, back when consumer home computers had just started to appear on the store shelves, not just the back page advertisements of the hobbyist magazines.  Apple, Atari, Commodore, Texas Instruments, Radio Shack and Heathkit all had one you could buy, most still horribly expensive.  They had only text based user interfaces, and if they had graphics capabilities at all, they were very crude and slow.

Initially I saw little use for them, but I had a ColecoVision game console I played constantly and one day Coleco announced it was coming out with a home computer that would do it all, and play the same ColecoVision cartridges.  A Commodore C64 could be had for around the same price, but I already had a big investment in ColecoVision game cartridges.  Plus, the Adam came bundled with its own printer: a really nice (in theory) daisy wheel printer which would make good letter quality output, as opposed to most of the consumer dot matrix printers of the day.   My typewriter skills were tragic.  Worse, though I had a huge vocabulary for my age (due to being such a bookworm), I reliably failed to correctly spell a lot of it.  When I saw a word processor demo…I think it was on an Atari…and discovered I could compose words on a computer screen…backspace, erase, correct, rearrange all of it before printing out a single page of paper…I was floored.  Then I saw it spell check.  That did it.  I had to have one.

But like thousands of others I had to return my Adam the day after I bought it because it was defective.  Not a good beginning to my entry into the world of computers.  But because of all the hype from Coleco about what the Adam could do, I turned around and with the refund bought a Commodore C64.  And my love of computers took wing almost immediately.  In retrospect, it was probably a given that I’d get my hands on a computer eventually.  I was always a little techno nerd, and had built my first Heathkit radio when I was a fifth grader (my teacher at the time refused to believe I’d built that radio myself when I brought it to show and tell and insisted I’d had help, which made me furious…).  Computers and I were going to get a thing going eventually.  We just were.

So now I had my first…well…second one.  There was a kit you could buy for the Commodore that let you decode teletype traffic.  It included a software cartridge and a box that converted the signals from the radio to something that could be fed into the Commodore’s serial port.  I’d been hooked on shortwave radio since I discovered at eight or nine that I could listen to broadcasts from around the world on mom’s old one.  So that kit was high on my list of things I wanted to try out.  As soon as I got the Commodore home I ordered up one and when it came I connected it the really nice ICOM shortwave receiver I’d bought a few years previously with some inheritance money.  Finally I could listen in on some of those mysterious beeping-clicking-chirping sounds I kept hearing on certain frequencies. 

As I look back, this was oddly enough the real beginning for me.  From my studies of radio I was already familiar with the concept of bandwidth…a thing the expensive ICOM receiver was able to adjust to better capture a signal.  But with the RTTY converter kit I started becoming familiar with the basic concepts of electronic communication systems…how to work the serial port…bits, words, baud rate, and eventually also packets and protocols, concepts that would later be useful in understanding computer networking.

But the Commodore had one other thing that intrigued me.  When you started it up without a software cartridge in it, the initial screen you got was its Basic interpreter.  I began playing with that and right away the discovery that I could make the computer do stuff by feeding it instructions in Basic became an absorbing curiosity. 

I could make it display words and shapes and colors on the screen…move them around and…ohmygosh, calculate the answers to complex math problems!  Sweet!  Algebra was my downfall in grade school, so this last really got my attention.  With one of these things I could solve problems I simply could not cope with.  Or so I thought.  How I wish back then that someone had told me that algebra was just another kind of symbolic logic, because I actually did have a head for solving logic problems.  I was doing it right there on the Commodore, every time I wrote a simple Basic program, although I didn’t realize it then.

I still needed a word processor.    I checked around and found a program called PaperClip that ran on the Commodore.  It did it all on that little machine.  But it required one of the Commodore disk drives to run it.  Which made sense.  Even if they’d sold it on a cartridge, which a lot of software for the Commodore came on in those days, you still needed a place to store your written text while you were working on it.  So I got the money together somehow and bought one.  I quickly discovered I could store my Basic programs on that drive too.  Good.  Now I didn’t have to key my programs in every time I wanted to run them.  Now I could write big ones, that did more things.  This was when I really started learning how to compose software code, and test and debug it.

As time went on I began to bump into the limits of my Commodore’s horsepower.  IBM came out with its PC and some friends of mine had one in their household.  The thing awed me whenever I came to visit.  Then I learned that some enterprising folks were selling parts you could put together to make one of your own.  I’d been building Heathkit electronic gizmos for years, so the notion I could build my own IBM-PC from parts immediately took wing in me and I ran with it.  When the next county HAM Fest came along I went with a list of parts and came home with the makings of the computer that would change my life. 

And I knew after I had it together and working that something big had happened.  I can still remember vividly sitting on the edge of my bed, just staring at it, amazed.  It had a 16 bit microprocessor.  It had 1 megabyte of ram, 648k available for user program space.  I’d installed two double sided 5 1/4 inch Teac floppy drives, the best most reliable drives made, that could each hold a whopping 360k of data.  I’d bought a Hercules Graphics card, one of the most powerful and sharpest monochrome cards made.  And I’d installed a 2 megabyte expanded memory card, from which I could create a 2 megabyte ram disk.  This was serious business.  And so it was.  That computer, and what I learned to do with it, eventually got me my first job as a programmer.  Which led me, eventually to my first apartment of my own, then to a new car, and then to my first house, and to working on the Hubble Space Telescope.  Wish I’d held onto it now, but you only see these things clearly in retrospect.

Had IBM not started to immediately lock down the PC platform I’d have been more grateful to them.  But my love turned mostly toward Microsoft.  They’d developed the operating system the PC ran on.  But more importantly to me and my new career, they’d developed and extended the Microsoft dialect of the Basic programming language I’d begun to earn a really nice living with.  And their professional developer’s tools were easily affordable, compared to the stuff the big computer companies sold. Even after IBM entered the microcomputer market they still didn’t get what it was about.  One story I heard was that while IBM was hawking it’s new OS/2 operating system at tech conferences, they’d sell you the driver development kit for about ten grand if you asked.  That was pretty typical pricing for software from the big iron crowd.  Microsoft on the other hand, working its competing NT operating system, would sell you their driver development kit for fifty bucks…but if you gave them a nice song and dance at the conference about the really cool thing you were working on, they’d just give it to you for free. 

That was then.  In those days I viewed Microsoft with something like revolutionary ardor.   They had taken on the big establishment corporate behemoth IBM and won.  They had brought the power of the computer out of the big corporate data centers and into the hands of the people.  They had made tools available to everyone, at prices most of us could afford, to create software that ran rings around anything the big iron mainframes could do, other then by raw horsepower.  I can still remember demonstrating my DOS Basic IDE to several Baltimore Gas and Electric mainframe programmers, how their jaws simply dropped when I showed them that I could run and debug my program right there in the editor, and how the editor would even check my syntax for me as I typed.  This was back in 1993 and these were simple DOS programs, but they danced rings around what anyone was doing on the mainframe.

Microsoft practically gave me my career as a software developer, and all the perks that came with it: a good income, a place of my own to live in, and a new car.  Just a few years before I’d been living in a room in a friend’s basement, mowing lawns and doing Manpower jobs to make ends meet.  I’d had to scrounge up a junker car from a friend to travel to Baltimore for my first job as a programmer.  Now I had a new car, and my first apartment that was all my own, and enough money at the end of the week to think of buying things like…well…like a better computer.  I soon graduated from that first IBM PC compatible I’d built to other more powerful ones.  But I always kept building my own.  That way, I could get exactly the hardware I wanted in it.

Which was so unlike the other kid on the block back then…Apple.  Apple computers were there right from the beginning of the personal computer revolution.  The Apple II was the first consumer PC that came complete in the case with a keyboard.  It was the Visicalc spreadsheet, mated to that early Apple II computer, that brought the PC into the workplace, and made IBM finally take notice of the market for those little "toy" computers.  But the Apple was hugely expensive and even then, was its own world.  Especially after struggling with all the non-standard ports and software quirks of the Commodore (even it’s character set wasn’t standard ACSII…) I wanted nothing more to do with closed systems.  At the time I thought Microsoft didn’t either.  At the time I thought Microsoft was all about the freedom the personal computer brought down from the corporate heights to everyone.  Go ahead…laugh at me.  I can laugh too.  Now.

Time passes…the universe expands…  I got the job of my dreams at Space Telescope, largely for the skills I’d developed writing business applications in Microsoft Visual Basic.  But by then I’d become massively disillusioned by Microsoft’s highly predatory nature.  Bill it turned out, wasn’t a revolutionary after all.  He was just another robber baron, willing to betray every ideal of the personal computer revolution for power and money.  Software was just a means to an end.  He’d realized that the future world would be driven by software, and he wanted to be the John D. Rockefeller of software.  By comparison, Steve Job’s little Cult of Macintosh didn’t seem so egregious, although I still didn’t want any part of it. 

I gravitated to Linux and the Open Source movement.  At work, most of the systems were Unix based, so learning to run and maintain Linux at home helped me greatly with my working skill set.  I eventually took on the task of maintaining the Linux test center for our engineering branch.  I tested and ran various Linux distributions at home too, in the hope that I could wean myself off of Microsoft systems.  By that time, two things had permanently soured my relationship to Microsoft.  First, they’d trashed their Basic development platform, replacing it with a pathetic .NET bastardization.  Second, they’d implemented software branding in the OS, which made it nearly impossible for me to experiment with building new hardware at Casa del Garrett.  But as time went on, and my responsibilities at work grew, I needed more and more to have computers around me that didn’t have to spend a lot of time fixing and tweaking and fiddling with and Linux is a lot of things but not that.  And in my personal private world the story was much the same. 

The computer had entered parts of my life I’d never dreamed of.  My photography hobby was now thoroughly tied to the computer, as were the cartoons I was now putting up on my web site.  I was starting to get really, really tired of how often my Microsoft workstation at home, or the Linux ones, were blowing up on me because some software update had broken everything right as I was trying to get some work done.  And now the hardware for them seemed to also be going down in quality.  I was always having to rebuild a machine because some part of it had failed.  My closet was full of computer parts now, that I was relying on more and more to be able to swap around until I got something fixed.

At work, the Macintosh was gaining more and more ground, largely because the Mac OS then was based on a Unix kernel.  In 2004 I bought my first one, a 12" PowerBook G4 laptop, to take with me on a trip to a software developer’s conference.  I bought it mostly to explore the Mac OS for the first time, and to familiarize myself with it enough that I could be useful to the Mac users at work, and to the Mac users in our external user community. 

Macs had by then evolved greatly since that first Macintosh came out in 1984.  The operating system as I said, was now based on a Unix kernel and was now truly preemptively multi-tasking and powerful.  There was an actual terminal window in the Mac now…a thing that had once been considered heresy…so now a developer or a power user could get inside of the file system and the OS and dig around a bit.  This was something that previous Macs had been determined to keep you out of.  And Macs lived in much better harmony with third party hardware now.  They even worked with two-button mice!  And though the Mac was still a highly closed ecology, let it be said that Microsoft, by way of stabbing so many of its software and hardware partners in the back, was working mightily it seemed to shrink its own ecology.  How many viable commercial non-Microsoft word processors are still in production for Windows?  How many alternative compilers and software development platforms?  At least Apple’s ecology worked.

And that was the thing.  That little Mac laptop I bought was a pure pleasure to use on that first trip, and on every trip thereafter, business or vacation. It took a little while to get use to the Macintosh way of doing some things, particularly and annoyingly regarding the keyboard mapping inside of text editors.  But it got to the point where I simply took for granted that the Mac would work when I started it up, and that the software updates wouldn’t break it.  That was a new experience for me. 

So much so that a year later I bought a second one, and dedicated it to the art room.  Macs had always held on to their reputation in the arts and publishing businesses and I felt the Power Mac G5 I’d bought would fit perfectly into my art room workflow.   And so it did, becoming both a darkroom and a virtual drawing board.  I still develop my own black and white film, still do most of my artwork with the traditional tools on my drafting table.  But I don’t bother with silver prints anymore, I just scan in the negatives and go to work in the computer.  The results are so much better, and there is no mess to clean up afterward.   And now I also do a lot of post production work on my cartoons in the Mac after scanning them into Photoshop.  It’s mostly just touching up things here and there, and the lettering, which my hand was never good at.  And once they’re in the computer, I can publish them on my web site, for the world to see.  Having a worldwide audience for my cartoons was something I could only dream about once upon a time.  Now, thanks to the computer, it is a reality.

Those two household Macs, Akela (the laptop) and Bagheera (the G5 tower) have become staples of the household network.  So rock solidly reliable that over the years I have come to take them for granted.  They just work.  I don’t sweat the software updates.  I don’t sweat the hardware upgrades on the G5.  There is something to be said after all, for control-freaking the hardware and the software ecology.  Users chaff at Apple’s tight control…I still do…often.  Yet, it all just works.  Time and again when Mowgli, my Intel Windows/Linux box would break down for some reason, either a hardware or software failure, I would have to attach its data drive to one of the Macs so I could keep working.  The Macs have never given me any problems.  I can rely on them. 

So now I had two Macs that I came to utterly rely on.  Then came the iPod.  Years previously I’d bought a second generation Sony Walkman and then later a Walkman CD player.  When I saw that I could put almost my whole CD collection on an iPod, and carry hours and hours of music with me wherever I went, I had to have one. Naturally when I got it home I mated it to one of the Macs instead of the Windows box.  It all just seamlessly worked together.

Then along came the iPhone.  Once I carried around a Palm Pilot to help me manage my calendar and other personal information.  Then when the Kyocera smart phone came out I could combine phone and PIM and then I had my contact information with my cell phone where it made some sense for it to be.  I began to hope the someone would intergrate an mp3 player with a cell phone/PIM.  But the first few tries I saw were less then wonderful.  The Kyocera could play music, but it didn’t do it well, didn’t hold much, and the interface was cumbersome.  The I saw my first iPhone.  Cell phone… PIM… iPod… eMail… Web Browser… Road Atlas… Video player… Application Platform…  Computer…  In the blink of an eye that little touch pad device swept away everything I ever thought about what a smart phone could be. 

You see where this is going, right?  The computer had become an integral part of my life.  Probably yours too, and probably you take that for granted.  But for nearly half my life computers were something only big corporations had the money, let alone the room for.  So I have witnessed some amazing changes in how computers are used, and I am still taken aback sometimes at how ubiquitous they’ve become, and how radically they’ve changed the way we live.  Listen to music…on a telephone…?  Why the hell would I want to do that?   Now most of my time is spent using computers in one form or another.  And at home, whether it’s working on some photographs on Bagheera, or listening to the iPod while doing household chores…most of the time I’m running something made by Apple. 

It was insidious.  I had no plans whatsoever to join the cult of Steve Jobs.  I wanted nothing to do with it actually.  He got me anyway.  By making a better computer.  And then by doing what was never in Bill Gates to do: make them liberating. 

People smirk at Job’s relentless focus on making his products "cool".  But it forces him to think outside the box.  Bill just wants to put the world into his box.  The difference really shows not on the desktop, but all the places nobody in their wildest dreams would have thought back in the 1970s to put a computer in.  That IBM executive who once wondered why the hell anyone would want to use a computer to write a memo…I wonder what he would have thought to hear someone say that one day they’d be putting computers into telephones. 

Bill had Windows on cell phones long before Steve got MacOS on them.  But when Bill brought out Windows Mobile he was about putting Windows into cellphones and adding cellular technology to his items of world conquest.  See…you can even open a Word document in one and read it…You can read Outlook Mail…share your calendar with other Microsoft Exchange users…  It was Windows on a cellphone.  When Steve brought out the iPhone he was about reinventing the telephone.  There’s the difference between Bill and Steve.  Yes, MacOS is at the heart of the iPhone.  But the iPhone is not about MacOS.  The iPhone is about what you can do with the technology now, that you couldn’t before.  Not an incremental step from familiar territory into well explored territory, but a grand glorious crazy leap into the future. 

That kind of thing still has appeal to those of us who got into the personal computer revolution at the beginning.  So I have this little cell phone now…a thing I can hold in the palm of one hand…and I’m feeling like a kid again, beholding the world of tomorrow.  I love that feeling.  This little gizmo would make that first IBM PC compatible I built tremble in awe if it had feelings.  If I could have foreseen my iPhone 3Gs back when I was sitting alone in my bedroom, staring amazed at the PC I’d just successfully built, I’d have known that the future really was going to be everything I’d ever dreamed it would be.  Had I seen a Zune…not so much.

So I’m writing all this because a few days ago Mowgli died…again.  This makes the fourth major hardware failure I’ve had with Mowgli since I bought the Mac Laptop back in 2004.  And I can’t count the software glitches that kept him down for days at a time until I could work my way through it.  And with Microsoft’s new Windows license enforcement code, I can’t just simply fire up my copy of XP once I put a new motherboard in Mowgli.  This will be that XP install’s third motherboard and so I’ll have to phone Redmond and convince them I am not stealing their software so they will kindly unlock my copy remotely.  Fuck that.  I have had too many problems with Windows and Windows updates and Windows applications and Windows drivers and Windows this and Windows that to be begging them allow me to run software I have bought and paid for.  If my Windows platform was as reliable and as pleasant to use as my Macs I’d grit my teeth and bear it.  But it isn’t.  It never was.

So I’m replacing it.  With a Mac.  I’ll still be able to fiddle around with Linux since the Macs will boot off of external drives and most Linux distributions have always produced a version that ran on Macs too, whether they be PowerPC Macs or the new Intel based ones.  I could even run Windows on a Mac now, via one of the enabling VMs such as Boot Camp or Parallels, although Redmond restricts which versions of Vista and presumably Windows 7 you can do that with.  Which is the other thing I hate now about Windows…all the idiotic flavors of it. 

The office is running on Akela for the moment.  I put Mowgli’s data drive in a IDE to USB converter box and hooked it up to Akela, then copied its contents over to an external Firewire drive I’d partitioned and formatted in the MacOS file system.  My plan is to eventually move that data to a network drive, probably off a new router like the Apple Airport, that all the household computers can access.  I connected Akela to Mowgli’s ViewSonic monitor, the Altec sound system and the router and turned off it’s wireless for now.  I bought an Apple keyboard since I wanted a standard layout, not the laptop layout, to work on and all my spares are IBM PS2s and I don’t have any PS2 to USB connectors.  With the external keyboard I can run Akela with its lid closed and it’s almost like I’m working with a Mac desktop computer instead of a laptop.  I’m tempted to just run the office on a laptop forever now, since Akela has plenty of horsepower for it.  But it’s good to keep a laptop that is separate from your day to day home office so that when you take it anywhere it has no sensitive data on it.

I haven’t decided yet, but I’m leaning towards buying a Mac Mini for now, since it’s just straight pluggable into the peripherals I already have gathered about Mowgli, and now Akela.  I don’t really have the money now to replace Bagheera with a newer Mac Pro or Mowgli with an iMac.  My plan ideally would have been to replace Bagheera possibly next year and then move the older PowerPC machine upstairs to the office.  I need the more powerful Mac to be in the art room, where the graphics intensive work is.  But for now I need a new Office machine and it will not be another Windows box.  I am done with Windows.  I’m just not fucking with it any more.  Five years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed I’d be an all Mac household.  Now I am. 

It happened that fast, after the first one came into the house.  I am amazed.  But happily so.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on From No Macs In My Life To A 100 Percent Apple Household In Just Five Years…

April 16th, 2009

Nice Idea…But You Need To Think Bigger

Via Slashdot…

Florida To Build Solar-Powered City

Posted by samzenpus on Thursday April 16, @07:57AM
from the sunny-side-of-the-street dept.
Mike writes "The sunny state of Florida just announced that they will begin construction this year on the world’s first solar-powered city. A collaboration between Florida Power & Light and development firm Kitson & Partners, the 17,000 acre city will generate all of its electrical needs via a 75 megawatt, $300 million solar-powered generator. The city will also use smart grid technology to manage its power and allow all inhabitants of the community to monitor their energy consumption."

Nice idea.  Sounds…vaguely familiar…


It’s not just about how the energy is produced.  It’s about how it is used. 


by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Nice Idea…But You Need To Think Bigger

April 3rd, 2009

How Little Glitches Kill Your Cool Technology

My iPhone keypad started behaving strangely yesterday afternoon. It would randomly stop responding to key hits and I assumed that was because the touch screen had become a tad smeared with many, many finger prints. So I cleaned it off with a wipe cloth. That fixed the random key miss issue, but then the bottom row of the keypad stopped working correctly. It would respond to touch, but only as if I’d pressed a key in the row above.

Maddeningly, applications such as my third party notepad app that have a landscape keyboard are immune to this. But the Facebook app doesn’t do a landscape keyboard. At least the version I have. As if to torment me, the App Store icon notified me while I was fussing with the problem, that there is a new version of the Facebook app out there. But I can’t get it because the app store asks for a password and mine is, in good practice, both alpha and numeric and the keyboard problem prevents me from accessing the numeric keyboard.

I’m reading online that the problem is not fixable via a reset or anything else you can do. It has to go back to the Apple Store. Rather then spend my time here finding and going to an Apple Store here in Orlando I’m just going to save my replies for when I get back to the hotel and my laptop computer.

Because the spacebar row on the keyboard isn’t working, I can’t do anything with most iPhone apps that use the keyboard. This includes mail, Facebook, Notepad and Notebook, Calender, SMS Text Messaging (the send row at the bottom won’t even open up the keyboard), my third party ToDo app, the Contacts app. Oddly, the bottom row works just fine in the Photo Library. I can’t even update the apps I have because I can no longer enter a password.

So until I can get it fixed…my iPhone is just a phone now, mostly. I have a feeling since it’s almost two years old now, the fix will be to buy a new one and I was hoping to skip over generation 2 to generation 3. Unless they can give me a replacement first generation phone, which I doubt.

As I said on Facebook, it’s a good thing I grew up before most of this stuff even existed…cell phones, the Internet, email, personal computers, text messaging…in that I don’t completely loose my wits when it stops working.  I’ve seen people get completely irrational when they loose their email service. 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on How Little Glitches Kill Your Cool Technology

March 23rd, 2009

Will My iPhone Kill My Blog?

Probably not.   But I haven’t been blogging as often as I have previously and it’s because I’m not sitting in front of a computer nearly as much.  As I said previously, I’m finding I get a lot more done around the house when I’m not sitting down at my computer.  But something else is happening.  Something I was sort-of hoping would happen, though I hadn’t taken into account what it might mean for my blogging patterns.  Slowly, but inevitably, my iPhone is becoming my all purpose communication – entertainment – information widget. 

When it first hit the streets, the iPhone was lacking a couple of really important items in my personal information management toolkit: a sync-able notepad and ToDo tracker.  But I have really great third party iPhone apps now that fill those slots.  And as I get more comfortable with using them, I use Mowgli, my main household computer, less and less. 

Last weekend, I had Mowgli off almost the entire time.  I ran Bagheera, the art room Mac, to finish a couple of photography projects that I’d left on my plate for far too long.  But Mowgli is slowly being relegated to finances and work related projects.  I am keeping in touch with the world, and with my daily life, more and more with just the iPhone now.   

And…there is this:  My little patch of the good earth is on the cusp of spring, and I don’t want to be angry all the time.  I read the news, in particular the continuing culture war on gay people, and I get angry.  So I am avoiding the news.

This Saturday, I’m going to Disney World again, for a week.  Mostly to just spend some more time in a place where it’s a small world after all, there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day, and dreams really do come true.  Better there, then driving across the mid-west and listening to hate radio the whole way.  My brother said they still have their YES ON 8 campaign signs planted in their front yards of houses all over Oceano, Pismo Beach and Arroyo Grande.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Will My iPhone Kill My Blog?

December 21st, 2008

Why Police Can’t Let Technology Do Their Work For Them

Via Slashdot…

High school students in Maryland are using speed cameras to get back at their perceived enemies, and even teachers. The students duplicate the victim’s license plate on glossy paper using a laser printer, tape it over their own plate, then speed past a newly installed speed camera. The victim gets a $40 ticket in the mail days later, without any humans ever having been involved in the ticketing process. A blog dedicated to driving and politics adds that a similar, if darker, practice has taken hold in England, where bad guys cruise the streets looking for a car similar to their own. They then duplicate its plates in a more durable form, and thereafter drive around with little fear of trouble from the police.

Nice.  Identity Theft takes to the streets.  Notice how there is no human involved in the process.  I’m guessing that some sort of OCR software finds the license plate in the photo and gets it’s numbers off it.  Then a ticket is software generated and dropped in the mail.  Nobody has to so much as touch the system for it to rake in the violators and their bucks.  But any software system can be gamed.  It’s all a matter of having the right numbers.  That’s all the computer knows you by.  If you give the right numbers to the computer, it assumes it’s you.  But you can at least take steps to protect your credit card and bank account numbers.  Your license plate is supposed to be clearly visible to everyone. 

Montgomery County Council President Phil Andrews said that the issue is troubling in several respects. "I am concerned that someone could get hurt, first of all, because they are speeding in areas where they know speeding is a problem," he said.

Andrews also said that this could hurt the integrity of the Speed Camera Program. "It will cause potential problems for the Speed Camera Program in terms of the confidence in it," he said.

He said he is glad someone caught it before it becomes more widespread and he said he hopes that the word get out to the people participating in this that there will be consequences. 

Idiot.  The more word gets out about this, the more people will do it.  Yes speed kills.  Yes running red lights gets people killed.  But there is a reason why human judgment is a necessary part of administering justice, even when it comes to seemingly trivial matters as traffic court.  Technology is a tool, not a substitute for thinking.  It can provide you with data.  It cannot tell you what to make of the data.  You cannot shrug responsibility for interpreting the data off onto it no matter how cleverly you try.  My most frustrating moments as a contract software engineer were with corporate managers who wanted me to write software that would tell them how to do their jobs.  It doesn’t work that way in this life.  Computers can do a lot of things, but taking responsibility isn’t one of them.  The humans are always responsible.  Even when they don’t want to be.  Especially then.

by Bruce | Link | React! (1)

October 15th, 2008

This Is Your Captain Speaking…Abort, Retry, Fail?

Tech columnist Robert X. Cringely once wrote that "If the automobile had followed the same development cycle as the computer, a Rolls-Royce would today cost $100, get one million miles to the gallon, and explode once a year, killing everyone inside."  I don’t know about costing one hundred dollars, but the explode once a year killing everyone inside part is on the way…

Computer error behind Qantas midair drama

Authorities have blamed a faulty onboard computer system for last week’s mid-flight incident on a Qantas flight to Perth.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) said incorrect information from the faulty computer triggered a series of alarms and then prompted the Airbus A330’s flight control computers to put the jet into a 197-metre nosedive.

At least 51 passengers and crew were hurt, many suffering broken bones and spinal injuries, when the plane carrying 313 people from Singapore to Perth climbed suddenly before plunging downwards on October 7.

The plane was cruising at 37,000 feet when a fault in the air data inertial reference system caused the autopilot to disconnect.

But even with the autopilot off, the plane’s flight control computers still command key controls in order to protect the jet from dangerous conditions, such as stalling, the ATSB said.

"About two minutes after the initial fault, (the air data inertial reference unit) generated very high, random and incorrect values for the aircraft’s angle of attack," the ATSB said in a statement.

"These very high, random and incorrect values of the angle attack led to the flight control computers commanding a nose-down aircraft movement, which resulted in the aircraft pitching down to a maximum of about 8.5 degrees."

The pilots quickly regained control of the jet, issued a mayday emergency call and requested an emergency landing at the Learmonth air force base in remote Western Australia where passengers received medical treatment.

"The crew’s timely response led to the recovery of the aircraft trajectory within seconds. During the recovery the maximum altitude loss was 650 foot," the ATSB said.

The plane’s French-based manufacturer has issued an advisory on the problem and will also issue special operational engineering bulletins to airlines that fly A330s and A340s fitted with the same air data computer, the ATSB said.

Oh…your aircraft needs our $230,000.00 per seat service upgrade patch 3b_06-A…

Like that Airbus, my Mercedes-Benz is fly by wire.  Seriously.  There is no direct linkage between the accelerator pedal and the engine.  I push down on the pedal and the onboard computer decides what to do, depending on how fast I’m already going, what gear I’m in, whether I’m driving up or down an incline, the road conditions as judged by the traction control system and I’m sure a zillion other variables it’s evaluating from one instant to the next. 

The gear shifter is also more of an electronic control then a direct linkage, although it will lock the transmission in Park.  I can press a button next to it to choose between two pre-programmed automatic shifting patterns, "Sport" and "Comfort".  And it learns your driving habits and adjusts the pre-programmed shift patterns accordingly.  There is a fairly complex set of steps you have to perform to reset the transmission program back to the factory default if you don’t like how its adjusted itself to the way you drive.

Mostly, while driving Traveler, I don’t really notice any of this.  The car responds to me very sure and certain.  I was driving in a sudden torrent of rain several weeks ago and never, Never have I felt so confident in the car I was driving, so solid and sure was the feel I had for the road while the skies had opened up all around me.  I could barely see more then a few feet in any direction at times and the traffic was slowing to a crawl, but the car felt absolutely tight and sure.  I never felt the slightest bit of skittishness or uncertainty in the car.  The Mercedes was just There.

It’s easy to forget driving that car, that I am not nearly as much in control of it as I was my 1973 Ford Pinto.  It just feels like I have more control.  It’s a way better engineered automobile.  It is much more a driver’s car then anything I have ever owned.  But there is a computer, that’s trying to be as invisible as possible, between me and the car.  This technology has been working its way into modern automobiles for quite some time now.  You may already be driving a car with an adaptive transmission.  Fly-by-wire is in the new 2008 Accords, so I was told when I went shopping last year.  It’s probably in a lot of other cars by now too.  The new hybrids would pretty much have to be fly-by-wire.

It’s nothing to be afraid of, so much as Aware of.  All technology can fail.  It’s just that computer technology is scary because it works invisibly.  You can see the failure mode of an engine.  You can take it apart and look at it and see where it broke and reconstruct the sequence of events from all the broken pieces.  Software is like a ghost in the machine, running spirit-like inside hardware with no moving parts, just a lot of silent, miniature black monoliths on a green circuit board.  When a program crashes, it vanishes like the soul from a corpse.  You may know the instructions it was executing at the time it crashed, but it’s unlikely you’ll still have access to the state the system was in just prior to the crash.  You have to debug it with whatever state it was left in After the crash…assuming you can get that out of it…and whatever other traces of itself it left behind before it died.  It may take days or weeks or months to figure out what it was doing in those final moments, and why the fuck it was doing it. 

This is why most cars these days have "black boxes" in them…just like airplanes.  For those cases when…you know…the whole thing just blows up…

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on This Is Your Captain Speaking…Abort, Retry, Fail?

August 23rd, 2008

Don’t Tell Me There Are More Then One Of Those Things…

Via Fark.Com, via Wired.Com…  This is actually kinda creepy…



The skull of a…thing…that seems to be all mouth and teeth.  The  description is as follows…

The fleshless skull of a blind eating machine, its huge gnashing maw a surreal irony, for it has no stomach. It feeds voraciously… not out of hunger, but out of murderous instinct. Luckily, you can easily escape it, since it has no legs…

But it can roll.  If it really gets itself going you could be absolutely fucked.  Picture this thing rolling down a hill toward you, teeth flashing in the sunlight with each turn…

…this is the avatar of Death himself, also known as…

…Pac Man.  I used to love playing that game.  Now I’m going to get the creeps every time I see one of those things in an arcade…


by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Don’t Tell Me There Are More Then One Of Those Things…

February 15th, 2008

Why I Spent Eleven-Hundred Dollars To Install Backup Sensors

I had just been hired for a job as a contract programmer after a dry spell of well over a year where I couldn’t get any other work besides low paying temp jobs, and the occasional lawn that needed mowing.  The pay was great, absolutely great, better then anything I’d ever made before.  But the job was in Baltimore and I was still living a friend’s basement in Rockville and I had no car.  At the time I couldn’t afford insurance on one, let alone buy one.  So I was making due with various forms of public transportation, and my own two feet.  I’ll say this much…all that walking kept me in good shape.

So, with the help of a friend, I bought an old Ford LTD  station wagon.  It was a big tank of a car, with a huge 450 cubic inch V-8 motor, that had belonged to the mother of a friend of his, who used it for her gumball machine business.  She drove it all over West Virginia servicing her gumball machines.  The car had over 240 thousand miles on it. But at least it ran.  I named it The Great White, as in Great White Whale.  For over a year The Great White got me from Rockville, and then from Wheaton, to Baltimore and back, until I was confidant enough in my new line of work, that I bought myself a brand new 1993 Geo Prism.

One day shopping at the Rockville A&P grocery store.  As I walked out to the wagon I saw, on the other side of my car, two young women slowly walking in my direction, chatting idly with each other and taking very little note of their surroundings.  I had other things on my mind just then, but as I saw them I noted that I’d probably have to watch out for them as I drove away.  They were walking at a very slow pace, and chatting with each other like they were having a stroll in the park instead of walking through a busy parking lot.

I got in the car, closed the door, and started the big V-8.  Then I turned in my seat and looked back down that long tunnel of glass (the car was huge, even for a station wagon) and watched as the two young women walked just past my tailgate, and away from the car.  I turned around, put my foot on the brake, released the parking brake and put the car into reverse.  The transmission settled into gear with a loud ‘Clunk’. 

I heard the most hellacious scream I’d ever heard in my life, turned, and saw one of the women rushing back to the tailgate of my station wagon.  I saw her reach down as if to pick something up.  Then I saw her walk away again, leading a little toddler by the hand.  The kid couldn’t have been more then my own knee height.  The woman was chattering at the kid, scolding him I guess for not sticking by her side.  Meanwhile I was about having a heart attack.  I put the car back in park and had to just sit there for a few minutes and calm down.

I never saw the kid.  I was looking.  I was watchful.  I was paying attention to the area around my car.  I was being careful.  And I still didn’t see the kid.  I could have killed him.  You could argue that it would have been more the woman’s fault then mine….but so what?  I’d have had to live with knowing that I killed a little kid.

Flash forward to now.  When I bought the Mercedes I saw that there was a dealer installed option to have a backup sensor installed.  I opted out at the time of delivery, because I wanted to investigate it some more.  It was a lot of money, but I figured it would be well worth it if it did what they claimed.  So I checked things out here and there, and to cut to the chase, instead of buying one of the other aftermarket ones, I bought the Factory Authorized system instead, because in the end I just didn’t want anything installed in that car that wasn’t approved by Mercedes-Benz.  I was lead to believe by my dealer that there was a version of the system that had visual, as well as audible indicators, but that turned out not to be the case after all.  I really wanted something with a visual indicator too, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.  But I have the system installed now anyway, and just a little while ago I gave it the acid test.

The system consists of four small round sensors they install into your rear bumper.  When you put the car into reverse the system activates and you hear a single beep to let you know that it’s working.  It only starts beeping at you when you begin to approach some obstacle and the beeps increase in frequency until you are about a foot away from it, when they turn into one continuous tone.  For the past week I’ve been using it to gage how close I am to the other cars on the street, or the back of the parking garage at work.  As a parking aid it’s fine.  But that’s not what I bought it mostly for.

Today is my usual telecommute day, which means I’m home and most of my neighbors are at work.  Which means the street out front is pretty empty.  Just right for my acid test of the system.  I have several twenty pound sacks of bird seed down in the basement (I stock up on it for the winter months), that are about the size of a toddler.  Just a while ago I took one outside and placed it just behind the rear bumper where I couldn’t see it from the inside of the car, but I’d hit it almost at once if I backed up.  Then I got in, turned on the engine, and put Traveler into reverse.



Immediately the backup sensor started yelling at me.  Good.  I placed the sack at various spots around and near the bumper, trying to find a spot where I could put the sack, couldn’t see it, and my sensor wouldn’t detect it, which would allow me to hit it upon backing up.  I couldn’t find one.  The sensor always complained that there was something back there.  Nice.

Since it’s an electric gizmo I expect at some point the cost of these will come down and they’ll be available for all makes and models.  As you can see from the photo above, you don’t have to be driving a big SUV to miss seeing something that’s right behind you.  Eventually I think, these sensors should become standard safety equipment.  In the meantime, this wasn’t a cheap add-on by any means.  But better you feel it in your wallet then you hear it screaming in your dreams.



by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Why I Spent Eleven-Hundred Dollars To Install Backup Sensors

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