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July, 2010:

Classmates: Hacked, or Poor Proctoring?

Quick update: Either Classmates.com was hacked, or nobody over there is paying the least attention to user activity. Textual obscenities and dirty pitchers abound; those with strong stomachs may see it for the time being here.

I’m divided as to whether I should alert them to it. There are 17,000 Lane alumni in the system online, and I can’t imagine that at least one of them hasn’t complained about it yet. (Lane is a big school, and has been around for a very long time.)

I’m definitely watching it, and am still interested in reports from people (especially from other schools) who have gotten forged emails from Classmates lately, containing obscenities or not.

Was Classmates.com Hacked?

Something very weird is going on here: I’ve gotten a scattering of emails in the last 18 hours from Classmates.com. Nothing new in that, except that these are obviously fakes, albeit very convincing fakes. The subject line for the first is:

“You are invited to the Naked Fest with Lane Technical High School.”

The From: field contains a multi-word obscenity that I won’t even try to repeat. (You know what dash characters look like.) The body of the message is pure Classmates, but in the Received: field in the headers is a bogus domain and an IP that doesn’t match classmates.com:

Received: from mta10.prod.iad1.cmates.com (va-in-svc-lb1-mip.iad1.cmates.com [10.12.208.10])

It’s not malware, came in with no attachments, and contains no scripting whatsoever.

One of my friends from Lane got the identical messages about the same time that I did. So: Did anyone else get anything like this? Or is it just the two of us who are being scammed? I don’t see anything about this online, which suggests that somebody is having some fun with him and me and not with Classmates.com as a whole.

Do let me know. Thanks!

What Dogs Gave Us

We domesticated dogs. And dogs, in return, made human civilization possible.

Work with me here. A lot of my recent reading has been about human origins, stemming from my fascination with Homo Neanderthalis and what became of him. Two books of note: The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond (1993) and Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade (2007.) Jared Diamond is always a good read, and even though the book is showing its age I strongly recommend it. Wade covers much of the same turf, but does so with the tools of DNA analysis that simply didn’t exist twenty years ago, when Diamond was doing his research. By counting mutations and working backwards through Y (male) chromosomal DNA and mitochondrial (female) chromosomal DNA, we can infer a great deal about human populations, where they came from, how they changed, and when. Of some of it I’m dubious–the extrapolation about the sources of human language, for example, seems a stretch–but most of it is no longer controversial, nor even exotic.

Both authors draw on anthropological research of stone-age peoples who survived into the 20th century. (Diamond did a lot of that research himself, in New Guinea.) The picture they paint of early humanity is grim: We are not fallen angels. We are risen apes. The hallmark of early humanity was deliberate genocide: New Guinea tribesmen told Diamond straight-out that their overall tribal goal was the extinction of other tribes. The homicide rates among such tribes are many times that of the homicide rate in Detroit; men who cannot claim to have killed another man often cannot persuade women to marry them. This seems to have been the pattern for hunter-gatherer societies as far back as we can see via the fossil record. Many Neanderthal skeletons show the marks of multiple healed bone and skull fractures, and a couple of them evidence of spear impingement on bone. Constant warfare was the pattern, and the method (judging from modern stone-age peoples) was the dawn raid: Raiders would stealthily draw close to a rival tribe’s encampment, and wait for the rivals to turn in. Then, when there was just enough dawn light to move well, the attackers would fall upon the sleeping rivals and spear them where they lay.

This worked, and worked well. People have to sleep, so the attackers had the advantage. Then one day about 15,000 years ago, something unexpected happened: Animals around the rival encampment sensed the attackers creeping in for the kill, and set up a huge and unfamiliar racket. The rival group, awakened by the animals, grabbed their spears and gave chase. The attackers had been up all night waiting for just the right moment. The defenders had just had a good night’s sleep. They could outrun their sleepy-eyed assailants, who had a ways to go to return to their home turf. More than a few attackers probably took a spear through an eye socket, and once enough of your dawn raiders take a spear through an eye socket, dawn raiding becomes a lot less compelling.

All because of some previously unknown animals who looked like wolves but made noises that wolves did not make–and appeared to consider the rival camp to be friends rather than food.

As best we can tell, dogs were first domesticated about 15,000 years ago, which was just about the time that Homo Sapiens was moving from wandering hunter-gatherer societies to settled societies that eventually became agricultural and pastoral societies. Just how they were domesticated is still unknown, but the work of Belyaev and his silver fox suggests simple selection by temperament: Ancient wolves became camp followers, and ancient humans tossed them scraps. Wolves who could stand to be near humans ate better without working as hard and had more pups. The few stone-age tribes we’ve been able to study sometimes captured wild animal juveniles and kept them as entertainment until they became grouchy on maturity. Dogs need to be handled as puppies to be fully at peace with humanity as adults; perhaps those wolves-in-transition descended from adult wolves who were handled by humans as pups and remembered: Those two-legged whatchamacallits handled me without hurting me–and they toss me aurochs bones!

15,000 years ago, that was a helluva deal if you were a wolf.

Explaining the bark is tougher, but group selection suggests that if some quirk in the genes of certain wolves allowed those two-legged whatchamacallits to survive and thrive, there’d be more aurochs bones and more yappy wolf/dog pups. Evolution works fast: Belyaev turned wild fox into peculiar (if not completely domesticated) pets in only 40 years, simply by selecting fox who were most willing to be handled when young and least snarly and aggressive when mature. A fox who will lick your face instead of biting your nose off is most of the way to a dog anyway; in another hundred years, he’d be sleeping at the foot of your bed and fetching tennis balls.

The bottom line is this: Without dawn raids, settled living rather than wandering became possible, and settled living fostered the development of villages and agriculture and trade and writing and all the other precursors of the lives we live today.

The Neanderthals had bigger brains than we do. What they didn’t have were dogs. And, lacking dogs, the unfortunate louts dawn-raided one another to extinction, leaving homo sap and his faithful yappers to pick up the turf and eventually take over the world.

Raise a glass of Laughing Lab Ale to canis familiaris: Everything we are we owe to him. Good dog!

Odd Lots

  • Everyone’s talking about a recent Copyright Office ruling that jailbreaking of smartphones is no longer illegal, but few have mentioned that several other significant exceptions to the DMCA’s anticircumvention provisions have been issued in the same ruling. Most interesting to me are limitations on ebook DRM where they prevent audio interpretation of texts from working.
  • Could Popular Electronics be returning? Let us pray. (And thanks to Don Lancaster for the link.)
  • Carol and I have begun avoiding movies in 3D. They give her headaches and they make me seasick. I thought it was just us being weird, but there’s some evidence that 3D isn’t the crowdpleaser that everybody (especially in Hollywood) thinks it is. Here’s some explanation.
  • And even the 2D movies we’ve seen recently seem excessively loud. We may not be imagining things.
  • A new dual-core Android-based tablet by an otherwise unknown German firm is really calling to me. We may not see this one here for awhile (if ever) but if it’s evidence of an evolutionary explosion in Android tablets, I’m good with that. Ours will arrive eventually.
  • I’ve always been taken aback by the near-psychotic venom with which certain people treat an informal, likeable little font called Comic Sans. Scan the Internet and you’ll get a sense for what I mean. From ten steps back it looks like a tribal identity thing: You must slander Comic Sans to prove that you’re a member of the tribe, especially if you’re insecure about your membership. Secure people just keep their mouths shut and use something else.
  • The little red guy running with a hatchet (see my entry for June 27, 2010) appears to be the logo of Psychopathic Records, not the Insane Clown Posse band itself, granting that the label was founded by the Insane Clowns and is probably owned by them. (Thanks to Ricky C on LiveJournal for the tipoff.)
  • I solved another band logo question with the help of Google’s new output format for their Images search. Carol and I saw a band logo that resembled a bright red ballet dancer, apparently headless. I typed “red dancer band logo” into Images and there it was, an emblem of the Dave Matthews Band. I’m starting to like the new Google Images search output because it allows me to scan more images at once, rather than page repeatedly through a more limited matrix. This isn’t always useful, but I’m guessing it’s useful more often than not.
  • Bicyclists in NYC seem to be preparing early for the coming Ice Age.

Loren Heiny 1961-2010

LorenHeiny.jpgLora Heiny sent me a note this morning to tell me that her brother Loren had died during the night, after a four-year struggle with cancer. He was 49. Loren was an early expert on Tablet PC technology, and most of what I learned about it after I got my X41 in 2005 came from his blog.

We went back a lot farther than the Tablet PC, though. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Loren was a charter member of a small group of literate programmer nerds who hung out together at Keith Weiskamp’s townhouse as the Coriolis Group coalesced out of primordial chaos in the North Scottsdale desert. Keith, Loren, Bryan Flamig, Ron Pronk, and Rob and Lenity Mauhar were packaging books for John Wiley at the same time that Keith became my lead author for Turbo Prolog at Turbo Technix. After Borland let me go, Keith and I decided to create a more formal corporation for the book operation and PC Techniques. I handled editorial for our new magazine, while Keith and the others continued to package books for Wiley and later other publishers as well. Loren did a fair bit of technical editing and wrote several books on his own and with others in the group, including Power Graphics Using Turbo Pascal 6, Advanced Graphics Programming Using C/C++, Object-Oriented Programming With Turbo Pascal, Object-Oriented Programming with Turbo C++, and Windows Graphics Programming with Borland C++.

Keith Weiskamp (L) and Loren Heiny at the Gray Road offices of The Coriolis Group, February 1990

Although never a formal employee, Loren was always there when we needed him, and in the spring of 1990 he helped us clean out and paint a hot, ratty, cricket-infested office on Gray Road for the fledgling Coriolis Group. His sister Lora also helped out in those heady early days, sorting mail, doing data entry, and other odd tasks as needed.

Loren combined a passion for technology with a nature as sweet as it was imperturbable, and although I hadn’t seen him in person for quite a few years, I checked into his blog regularly to see what was going on. Damn, I’ll miss him. The world will never know what it didn’t get by losing him so young, and that’s the only comfort we can take in his passing.

(An agonized sidenote: Loren is my fourth friend to die in the last sixteen months, all but one of them younger than 60. Um, could we stop this now? Please?)

Review: Despicable Me

gru.jpgOne reason I let my subscription to National Catholic Reporter lapse in 2001 was that they reviewed Shrek. C’mon: Space I would prefer to see covering Catholic issues like Papal authority and women’s ordination was spent reviewing cartoon movies of no religious significance. Worse yet, the reviewer just didn’t get it. He was furious that Shrek was obviously skewering Disney-style storytelling and assumed that it was indicative of laziness. Dude, that was the idea.

I thought of that review last night when we left the theater after seeing Despicable Me. Shrek changed cartoon movies forever by its wholesale embrace of sly cultural references that shoot right past the kids but make the adults chuckle. A bush that looks like Shirley Bassey? How many eight-year-olds have ever even heard of Shirley Bassey? I was half an hour into Despicable Me when I realized what was wrong: No cultural references. An entire genre of humor was simply missing from the film. (Ok, two turned up later on, but given their rarity I won’t spoil either here.)

After recalibrating myself away from the Shrek humor setting, I managed to enjoy the film a great deal more. What we have here is still a sort of sendup, but a much subtler one: of the whole idea of comic-book supervillains. Somewhere looking suspiciously like San Francisco, in an oversized Gothic bungalow, lives Gru the supervillain. He steals things, and competes for supervillain cool points with other supervillains who also steal things. The stakes have been ratcheting up lately, and a younger supervillain across town manages to steal the Great Pyramid of Giza and hide it in his backyard by painting it blue with little white clouds. The glove has been thrown, and vaguely middle-aged Gru knows he is being shown up by an upstart punk in a warm-up suit. Hence his audacious plot to re-seize the high (low?) ground: Steal the Moon! What could be bigger than that?

Everything else builds upon this remarkably silly premise, and the kids all around us in the theater laughed almost continuously. Gru himself is beautifully done, if a little derivative at times. To me he suggested Gomez Adams, especially given the d├ęcor of his house, which is replete with iron maidens, cannons, and Viking flails. (Others have pointed out a certain resemblance to the food critic in Ratatouille.) His nerdy younger rival supervillain, Vector, is a lot more high-tech and was clearly intended to channel Bill Gates. Gru has a backstory: He craves his indifferent mother’s approval, and has always wanted to go to the Moon. How could he not be a little bit nuts?

Deep under his suburban backyard, Gru has a supervillain hideout and research facility where hundreds of little yellow guys do his heavy lifting and (once the bank won’t offer any additional R&D loans) fund his supervillainy. He calls them Minions, and they have both of the essential characteristics of minor cartoon movie characters: They are very cute, and eminently injection-moldable. (They reminded me of squeaky dog toys. But when you have four dogs, a lot of things remind you of squeaky dog toys.)

The real story begins when Gru adopts three orphan girls as part of a plot to steal a reducer-ray from Vector. Although he finds the idea of small children barely tolerable, little girls are like puppies: Once you have them for awhile, it’s very hard to give them up. The girls work their magic on Gru and against his will slowly redeem him from supervillainy.

The rest of the action is silly sight gags, Minion antics, and humor targeted squarely at eight-year-olds. The voices (primarily Steve Carell, Jason Segal, and Julie Andrews) were skillfully deployed. I felt that the script could have done a lot more with the rich visual vocabulary offered by the animation, but I’m a writer and I’m hard on movie scripts, especially when I get the sense that the scriptwriters assumed that superb animation would carry the story.

Still, the kids loved it, and that’s who it was for. Cynics looking for snarky humor will cringe at the sweetness displayed toward the end, and the (mostly extinct) cynical side of me wondered if the sweetness was tacked on simply for commercial reasons. Doesn’t matter; it’s not a major classic and shouldn’t be compared to things like The Incredibles or Shrek. My inner eight-year-old loved it. (And as soon as I can find one, Dash will be chewing on a squeaky Minion.)

Recommended.

There Goes My Banner

I know that my custom banner’s gone; I upgraded to the latest PrimePress theme here a few minutes ago, and the damned thing is too stupid to check if custom graphics exist before overwriting everything. Alas, I don’t have time to fix it right now, as I’ll be out the door in a couple of minutes. Will try to get to it by this evening.

Meerkats. This thing was written by meerkats.

UPDATE 7/16: All fixed. And really, I like meerkats. They’re cute and I’m sure they mean well. But we shouldn’t let them get near PHP or CSS.

“Click the Word That Describes Them…”

ClassmatesLaneTechGirl500Wide.jpg

How about… “imaginary”?

As I’ve said before with respect to fraudulent pitches like this, there were no girls in Lane’s Class of 1970. And I’ve heard from others who have paid up for the service in response to Classmates’ endless emails, only to find that no one had signed their guestbooks, and no one was looking for them. Once I’d call a mistake. But this is actually the third such pitch I’ve received (I mentioned the second back in January) and three’s a pattern. I suspect I will get another every so often.

Simple lesson, put bluntly: Assume that everything you receive from Classmates.com is a scam.

App Inventor for Android

AppInventorBlocksEditor.png

Whoa. Yesterday morning Google took the wraps off App Inventor, a visual development environment for the Android mobile OS. I’m still trying to slurp from the firehose, even though I’m finding that all the hoses have basically the same information, and in truth not a great deal of that. But I’ll tell you right now: It stopped me in my tracks on the iPad decision. As of yesterday morning, I wanted something that runs Android. The new search is on.

You know me. I’m the Visual Developer guy, and the fact that my magazine’s been dead for ten years doesn’t change that. I still believe that visual metaphors for programming are not only useful but necessary, if certain kinds of software development are to happen at all. (More on this below.)

If you haven’t looked into App Inventor at all yet, a very good place to start would be Jason Kincaid on TechCrunch. He’s got a good overview and some screenshots (including the one I show above) that will give you a sense for what Google’s cooking up. I’ll summarize here. App Inventor has two major subsystems:

  • The Designer is basically a form designer, not conceptually different from that in Delphi, VB, and many other more recent environments. You drag UI components from a palette and arrange them on a form.
  • Far cooler (if less proven in its approach) is the Blocks Editor. Here’s where program logic happens, and it happens by snapping together logic blocks that look literally like jigsaw puzzle pieces. Clusters of blocks become event handlers. You connect a cluster to an event generated by a component on the form, and the blocks in that cluster execute.

(This may not be the correct jargon. Please understand that I don’t have an instance to play with yet, so all I can do is relay what I’ve read from the fortunate few who were given early copies.)

I knew what the major problem was going to be before Jason told me: In any system like this, you’re limited by the selectable elements on your palette. He didn’t mention where the blocks come from (I assume they’re written in Java using some relative of the MIT Open Blocks technology) nor whether user-created blocks will be importable into the product as shipped. I’m a lot less worried than he seems to be about this, because Google isn’t stupid, and they know damned well that the system lives or dies by the richness of the set of available logic blocks from which the apps are generated. If it’s anything like an open system, there will be an explosion in third-party blocks once a few Java guys get the system and figure out how to do it.

Jason provides some screenshots with his article, and I borrowed one above to get your attention. Here’s another page with a description of a more complex app, with a much more representative Blocks Editor display.

There’s not a lot more that I can say about App Inventor itself, at least until I can get a workable instance installed here. But it’s been interesting seeing all the dorks in the comments to the news stories, dumping on the system for its simplicity, and for the (frightening) possibility that the hoi-polloi will be able to use it to write their own software. They scream the obvious: You can’t write a word processor with a tool like this!

Fersure. And that’s not what it’s for. I’ll respond with something that should be equally obvious: The mobile phone environment is fundamentally different from the desktop environment. From the beginning, it’s been about smallish apps that do one or two things of interest, and no more. Mobile phone computing for the most part is about getting in, doing something with a few quick clicks, perhaps reading the screen, and getting out. The apps are very focused and often extremely specialized. Some are obviously going to be a lot more difficult to write than others, but a useful mobile app does not necessarily require man-years of development time.

And if it ever did, it won’t anymore once App Inventor hits its stride.

I think that I’ll use App Inventor for the same reasons that I use Delphi: To play with ideas, see how things work, and gen up one-time test apps that may lead in useful directions. I’m guessing that App Inventor will enable people to create apps for an audience of one–themselves–and not have to spend six months of free time to do it. Companies may experiment with different approaches to mobile computing without having to commit millions of dollars in dev costs to any one approach, just to see if it’s useful or even doable.

I have never had a smart phone, and I’ve been waiting for my current cell provider contract to expire early next year before getting one. I may have to accelerate the schedule a little. This thing’s making me itch in places I haven’t itched in for a long time.

Millard Fillmore in the Rivervalley

FillmoreBuck.jpgI finally got a Millard Fillmore dollar at the bank today. I’ve been meaning to ask for one for a long time, but I hate to bother the poor tellers for silly things like that when there’s a line. Today, for whatever reason, the Wells Fargo branch at Safeway was empty and staffers were standing around BSing, so I asked. And I got.

It’s a ridiculous coin in a lot of ways, none of them involving poor President Fillmore. Nobody uses dollar coins, and the government only issues them as a means of making something out of a nickel’s worth of metal and selling it to collectors for a dollar. The coins don’t suggest “money,” (and certainly don’t suggest “dollar”) and after only a little while in circulation they darken up and look like big ugly old pennies.

But I like Millard Fillmore, and have wanted to work him into a story for thirty years. I got closest in the fall of 1984, when someone in my SF group told me that Philip Jose Farmer was allowing people to write stories set in his Riverworld universe, as long as the yarns didn’t conflict with anything in the novels themselves. I have a collection of such stories, which were far better than what we now call fanfic, and are worth reading if you enjoyed Farmer’s epic even a little.

So I read up on Fillmore a little, and began a story. That was 26 years ago. I dug around in my two moving boxes full of old manuscripts downstairs just now, and found it without a great deal of trouble. Some quick OCR, and I can give you a sample:

It had been a quiet night, and the late night rains were past. Nicky was close by, too close: Through the merest wisp of thatch Fillmore heard female giggling. Soon, too soon, he suspected he would hear Nicky say something like, “I’ll do that again if you’ll go next door and be good to President Fillmore…” When the line worked, he felt wretched. When it didn’t work, he felt worse.

Fillmore had died an unhappy old prig at age 74, and even after thirty years on the great River, where everyone had been resurrected a healthy, glowing, eternal twenty-five, he had never gotten the knack for seducing young women who seemed more suitable to be his granddaughters than his paramours. Telling them he was Millard Fillmore virtually always produced a shrug–telling them he had been President of the United States usually brought forth a belly laugh.

For five years he had lived with a woman who had heard of him: Phyllis Swoboda, a twentieth-century American from Chicago. She had been a psychologist and was fascinated by what she called a “self-persecution complex manifested in a claim to be an unimportant historical figure.” She was clearly the one who was insane, but she had a magnificent memory, and she was from the future of America.

America! Phyllis told him tales of Apollo’s conquest of the Moon, the Panama Canal, Hoover Dam, personal computers, television, Chevrolets, and Space Shuttle Columbia. The most powerful, noble nation in the history of planet Earth, and he had led it for a little while. Wasn’t that worth something?

When Phyllis Swoboda couldn’t cure him of being Millard Fillmore, she moved on. Soon afterward, a tall, muscular blond man in a Panama hat approached him on the beach, set down his grail, and shouted, “You’re Millard Fillmore!” He had almost fainted.

The man was Nicky Daniel Scroggins, who had died of polio in 1955 at twelve years of age. Nicky had collected stamps, and his favorite series of stamps had been the “Prexies,” issued in 1938, including every deceased President up to that year. On the 13-cent issue was the face of Millard Fillmore. “I had a whole sheet of you!” Nicky had shouted, and it was the beginning of the longest friendship Fillmore had enjoyed in either of his two long lives.

I doubt I would have sold it anywhere, but the story had some promise: Fillmore and Nicky trudge on along the River, where they find an “America” every three or four hundred miles. Each of these ersatz Americas boasts a charismatic leader who claims to be someone like John F. Kennedy, FDR, or Andrew Jackson. In no case is this true, but in every case the phony Presidents tell Fillmore to hit the road. After having adventures and being insulted by Sam Clemens (“Millard Fillmore! The man who proved that no one can grow up to be President!”) they happen upon yet another America, a small enclave led cooperatively by three men who claim to be Franklin Pierce, Chester A. Arthur, and Warren G. Harding. Conceding that there was little point in falsely claiming to be Millard Fillmore, the three obscure former presidents welcome Fillmore and make him the fourth partner in ruling the cooperative. (Somehow I flash on a Victorian steampunk epic entitled The League of Unexceptional Presidents.)

I got a few thousand words down, but the story had started to wander when I set it aside. Shortly afterward, I took the job with PC Tech Journal, and my SF career went into near-immediate eclipse. Still, I’m glad I tried: It was the only time I had ever attempted to write a story set in someone else’s world, and that whole challenge gave the project a very weird feel. I had to be careful not to be too imaginative, for fear of violating the fabric of the Riverworld saga, and I wasn’t used to putting artificial limits on my inventiveness. That, of course, is a core skill of a really good writer, and anyone who claims to be a master of his/her craft should try it.