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April, 2014:

Jiminies, Like Dust

Just about everybody in the free world was disgusted by this news story, which describes a 15-year-old Pennsylvania boy with learning disabilities who was arrested and threatened with a felony for recording a video of several bullies who were taunting him. Go back and read that again. The school did nothing to discipline the bullies, but wanted to make a felon of the victim. The Wrath of Net then fell upon the worthless school, and without admitting what they’d done, they were kind enough to let the vicious, special-needs student slide. For filming the bullies who were tormenting him.

What the hell is going on here?

My first thought was that the bullies were school sports heroes. We inexplicably idolize jocks, and cut them a great deal of slack even when they’re being insufferable jerks. Ending team sports in schools would go a long way toward eliminating this problem, as I’ve suggested before. Well, I thought about it a little more and changed my mind. No, there’s more at stake here. Much more. And this is one time where I could have predicted it 22 years ago, but didn’t. My bad.

Back when I was editing PC Techniques/Visual Developer I wrote a number of editorials describing my vision of the computing future. I scored a few hits and a fair number of misses. I pretty much predicted Wikipedia in 1994. In 1992 I also predicted wearable computing, in the form of the Jiminy, a lapel-pin computer with 256 cores and 64 TB of storage. The Jiminy has imagers, and enough storage to record literally weeks of video. And all I could think to do with it is create a P2P network for passing queries around.

Silly boy. Readers tut-tutted my failure of imagination, and in the next issue of PC Techniques I went far beyond the Jiminy, and in an essay called “Computers, Like Dirt” I postulated free-range imaging nanocomputers the size of dirt particles. I don’t have that editorial OCRed and laid out yet, but here’s the last 200 words:

“Naked” nanocomputers will certainly have their uses. Imagine a device the size of a particle of dirt with one face an image sensor. The rest of the device is a bucket-brigade image storage system that stores millions of images, clocking in a new one every second, or minute, or hour, in effect taking “movies” lasting hours, days, or years. Now imagine untold trillions of these little camcorders released into the environment and carried by the winds to every corner of the earth.

No matter where you go, the very dirt on the street is taking your picture. Even in your own home, the dust that Mr. Byte tracks in watches your arguments, your deceits, literally your every move, at 5000 X 5000 resolution.

Want to solve a crime? Go back to the murder site and dig a thimbleful of dust from several points, and you’ve got millions of movies of the murder as it happened. Rob a bank and the dirt on the floor convicts you. Cleanliness is statistical; no matter how clean an environment, the dust is there somewhere.

Nanocomputers could make it impossible to commit crimes of any sort undetected…or to keep secrets of any kind at all. Virtue imposed by the dust on the wind: How’s that for an endpoint to the evolution of computing?

Scared yet? I wasn’t back in 1992…probably because I assumed I’d be dead long before anything like this came about. But now we’ve got Google Glass, dashcams, copcams, and lots of other mechanisms that basically do nothing but sit around taking pictures all…the…time.

This is what the schools are afraid of. And as much a critic as I am of knuckleheaded public school administrators, I can almost feel their pain here. Nearly everybody has some bitch about our schools and colleges, all of them different, but every one a complaint. The schools are afraid we’ll sue them for doing something, or doing nothing, where “nothing” and “something” embrace everything. Nor are lawsuits necessary. If thousands of students each with hundreds of friends begin to engage in Internet vigilantism, the schools cannot help but lose, and lose big. If every student has a Jiminy on their lapels and a legal right to take pictures of everything that goes on around them, there will be no dodging administrator or teacher misfeasance or malfeasance. Even if the schools get such things outlawed (which they will desperately try to do, and in some places like Pennsylvania they already have) illicit videos of bullies and misbehaving admins or teachers will reach the Net and thus become eternal. Education as a whole would change radically.

As would a lot of other things, few of which I (or anyone else) can predict. I may leave it to your imagination. I will go out on a limb and postulate a quieter, more deliberate, and much more polite sort of world, because no behavior could ever be reliably hidden. I doubt it’ll happen while I’m still around, but by Jiminy, we’re moving slowly but inexorably in that direction. Better behave, guys–because everybody will be watching.

Odd Lots

  • This exploit isn’t new, but may be the most devilish thing I’ve seen in a couple of years: Using the Unicode “right-to-left override” character in a filename to make a .exe file look like a .pdf, a .jpg, .txt, or anything else. Double-click on that PDF, and you’ll get pwned…because it isn’t a PDF.
  • Working 16-hour days and sleeping a couple of hours under your desk may contribute to the high percentage of failures among startups. Basically, people who short on sleep think dumb thoughts and chase dumb ideas. They seem to wear their wilfull sleeplessness like a badge of honor, even as it kills their startups. Or themselves.
  • Note the near-obligatory Ekirch reference in the above article. I’ve still not found much evidence for his theory of “divided sleep” outside of his own book, but the guy gets citations all over the place.
  • This article on food myths is less interesting than the comments, which generally confirm my conclusion (having seen lots of similar comment sections) that nobody really knows what healthy eating is. (Thanks to Roy Harvey for the link.)
  • My own advice runs like this, with no apologies whatsoever to Michael Pollan: Eat food. Not too much. And sometimes plants.
  • Much activity in this realm recently. Bruce Baker sends this link from the New York Times . Comments section very similar. The whole field, in fact, is a virtual food fight. Proving you’re right by insulting your opponents is very in right now, especially on Facebook.
  • Neil Rest sends a link suggesting that exposure to bright light in the morning lowers BMI. Now, I think BMI itself is bogus–the metric doesn’t differentiate between fat and muscle, sheesh!–but if morning sunlight does indeed goose metabolism, getting out in the sun is a good thing. We should be cautious here: It’s been established that losing sleep does promote weight gain, and it’s mostly night people who lose sleep.
  • Name brand diet soda sales are in free-fall. I think that this is less about health and more about cost: People are probably reacting to price hikes from Big Soda over the past couple of years by moving to house brands from Wal-Mart and the major grocery chains.
  • House brands are a fascinating business, and there’s very little out there on how this titanic but virtually invisible industry operates. Who makes the Cheerios that aren’t Cheerios?
  • Is the Internet taking away religious faith? Hardly. What it’s doing is providing secular religions (like political ideology) to satisfy the tribal hunger of the 50% whose disaffiliation from organized religion can’t be explained in other ways. Tribal ideology is cheap (no churches or clergy to support) and once you’ve given yourself permission to hate others who differ from you, it provides the perfect excuse.

Ask the Man Who Has One. Or Seventeen.

Used Keyboards 500 Wide.jpg

Computers suck. Ask the man who has one. Or seventeen.

You haven’t seen much from me lately because I began the XP rampdown a little too late to be calm and systematic about it. It wasn’t evolution, nor upgrading. It was demolition. I will probably be tinkering with the rubble for a good long while, but the explosions have for the most part occurred where and how I intended them.

Before I get into that, take a look at the photo above. I use the Dell SK-8135 keyboard everywhere I don’t need one of my precious Northgates, and I destroyed one a couple of weeks ago by literally dropping a computer on it. (I don’t know if the SX270 got hurt. It’s now in somebody’s recycle pile, and will not trouble this world again.) That left me with no spares, so I ordered a couple of used ones from a surplus house. Both arrived the other day…with logins and passwords taped to their undersides. Heartbleed? We don’t need no steeking Heartbleed…

So we return to the XP crater. The smoke is clearing. Both of Carol’s machines are now used but spotless Optiplex 780s running Win7. My GX620 USFF upgraded to Win7 without a whole lot of argument. My quadcore now has a newer and much larger SSD, plus a new card reader and four new USB ports on the front panel. My new Dell e6400 laptop was a Win7 slab from the outset. I got rid of four SX270s, plus a couple of old Pentium 3 mini-towers that followed me home years ago and refused to leave. I was about to recycle my dead 2001 Thinkpad X21, then plugged it in, scratched my chin, shoved the hard disk solidly into its slot, and boom! Windows 2000 said hi to me for the first time since early 2005. The X21 remains my favorite laptop of all time. Still not sure what to do about that.

There were driver problems, not that that came as a complete surprise. Both my HP 5370C flatbed scanner and my OpticBook flatbed edge scanner came with drivers that refused to install. (Interestingly, my even older HP PhotoSmart S20 slide scanner installed without any grumbling.) HP’s 5370C driver was an abomination even when it was new. The 5370C is a freaking scanner, for cripe’s sake. Why does it need twenty-five assorted DLLs, OCXs, and other dubious squidlies in order to function? Well, I’m in the thick of scanning a lot of paper records for offsite storage, and I needed that scanner bad. What I ended up doing turned out to be a bit of a wonder: I bought the Pro version of VueScan. It rankled me a little at first to have to spend $80 to reclaim a scanner I paid for twelve years ago. That said, what VueScan gave me was marvelous: A common UI for every scanner in the house. (VueScan supports the S20 as well.) The product is well worth the money. It comes with a reasonably literate 111-page user guide, and there’s a book about it too. The book’s on order, and so far I’ve been able to find my way around by (gasp) reading the manual, with less head-banging than I expected. The list of scanners supported by VueScan is boggling. If I ever need to get another scanner, I won’t have to screw with psychotic vendor drivers, nor learn any needlessly different vendor UIs.

Win a program, lose a program. I have a little utility called Jasc Image Commander that’s been with me since the midlate 90s. All I use it for is to crop, resize, rotate, and adjust color on pictures for Contra. Alas, Win7 will have no part of it. Bummer. I installed FastStone and IrfanView and am trying to decide which to keep. Both are more complex than I need, but I’ve used them both before and the jump won’t be too traumatic. So far, IrfanView has the edge.

Win7 itself wasn’t that big a deal. I still have a couple of head-scratchers on the list. The e6400 simply will not join my homegroup. I’ll come back to that once I study up a little on homegroups. I have a weird impression that Win7 is dropping keystrokes on me when I type quickly–and as most of my friends are aware, I type very quickly. This may in part be due to the PS/2-USB keyboard converter that allows me to use a 1991 Northgate on a machine without a PS/2 keyboard connector. Don’t know. Will continue to research it.

I may put XP in a VM in case I need it for something. I’m also keeping one XP-based SX270, not for the sake of XP but because it’s the only machine in the house that can read floppies and Zip disks. Who still has floppies and Zip disks? I do. And they wander in sometimes carrying interesting things.

Still, for the most part, it’s done. Sure, I should have begun sooner. Yeah, I’ll miss XP a little. I won’t miss the boxloads of old hardware that the switchover finally motivated me to dump. And boy, am I looking forward to moving on to more entertaining projects than this!

Odd Lots

  • Hats off to T. C. Chua, who figured out how to make Zoundry Raven work with IE9+. Raven uses IE’s WYSIWYG editor, and changes made to the editor with IE9 breaks the program completely. Zoundry is open-source and hasn’t been updated since 2008. Mr. Chua traced through the Python code, found the problem, fixed it, and built an .EXE out of the Python code. He’s made it available here. I’ve used Raven to edit and post Contra entries since 2008, and didn’t feel like chasing down some new blog editor now that I’ve moved to Win7. Bravo!
  • Vegetarian diets are not as healthy as we’ve been led to believe. Make sure you scroll down to Table 3 and get a look at the figures for cancer. Now, some thrive on vegetarian diets and many don’t. What the research doesn’t appear to take into account is “lifestyle panic,” which is severe anxiety that some (usually minor) aspect of your life will kill you. If worry about your diet turns your life into a cortisol thrill ride, your diet won’t help you, and it certainly won’t be what killed you.
  • Mars reaches opposition on April 8, and the best day for observing it is April 14. Actually, any time within a week or two of those dates will provide a pretty good show, especially if you have even a smallish telescope. Such opportunities happen roughly every two years, so catch it now or wait until 2016!
  • Wearable computing has never really set the world on fire, and here’s a reasonably honest assessment as to why. I already have one computer in my pocket, and that’s plenty.
  • A GoPro-packing RC flying wing. Makes kites look kind of lame, but lame is what I have on hand, and lame is how I’m going to fly my GoPro this spring. If we ever get a spring. (6″ of sloppy stuff this morning; would have been 15″ had it been ten degrees colder.)
  • Cores (the other kind of cores) like dust.
  • My instance of the Gallery photo server is pretty much dead, and I’ve begun migrating photos to Flickr. Here’s my photostream link, and my three sets so far. I’m not yet an ace at the system by any means, but with some practice I’ll get everything interesting up there.
  • Ok. Precision marshmallow toasting is cool. Just don’t get nuts and melt the mallow into the machinery.
  • I study climate, in general to support a fiction concept I’m working on, but I don’t talk about it here because I don’t like to trigger the sort of slobbering tribal hatred that any such discussion invariably involves. This is an interesting (if depressing) psychological phenomenon all by itself. (Thanks to Trevor Thompkins for the link.)
  • This turned up on April 1, but like all the best hoaxes, it is nowhere clear that it’s actually a hoax. So is it? (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)
  • The world’s smallest volcano was maybe just a little easier to suss out…

Cranking Up the GRC-109 R-1004


While everybody else yesterday was running around looking for foot bras and the world’s smallest volcano (more on which in the next Odd Lots) I was tidying up my shop/shack, and pulled down my AN/GRC-109 Special Forces radio system. I’ve had it since the mid-1990s, but hadn’t fired it up literally since we left Arizona in 2003. I don’t have the full list of accessories so I had to do a little lashing-up to get the R-1004 receiver connected. It didn’t disappoint me.

I have the CW-only T-784 transmitter as well. I don’t use it because I’ve largely lost my CW chops and the only guys still pounding brass are whistling along at 20+ WPM. Not having an antenna that won’t set off my security system is the other issue. (Shielding the heat sensor it triggers it is not an option due to insurance regs.) My outdoor dipole will go up as soon as we have a few leaves on the tress, whenever that actually happens.

So. What we have here is a vintage all-tube spy radio, where the spies either have stealth jeeps or very strong backs. The design came out of the CIA in the late 1940s, and was adapted for more general use in the 1950s. It was used until the end of the Vietnam War. The receiver weighs 8.75 pounds all by itself. The PP-2684 power supply will weigh you down another 25 pounds or so. (There’s a lighter, smaller power supply, the PP-2685, that I don’t have.) The receiver uses conventional 7-pin miniature battery-filament tubes in a fairly simple superhet circuit. The only glitch there is the 1L6 converter tube, which is hard to find and costs a small fortune when you find it. The 1L6 is scarce enough so that people have designed solid-state replacements for it.

The R-1004 tunes from 3 MHz to 24 MHz in three bands. Selectivity is good, hardly single-signal but a reasonable compromise for a set designed to receive both AM and CW. I had to grin at how spoiled I’ve gotten by modern digital rigs like my IC-736, which can tell you to a single cycle where you are. The dial is pretty accurate, reading bang-on for WWV at 5 and 10 MHz, but it’s a wide dial, and lacks a vernier. Sensitivity seems lower on the 12-24 MHz band. No matter; in the evenings all the action is at 12 MHz and down.

SSB was still pretty exotic when the R1004 was designed, and yet its BFO is solid enough that I didn’t have to “chase” sideband signals on 40 and 75 meters with either the tuner or the BFO knob. AM quality was good, considering that it has caps to roll off audio response past 3 KHz. I tuned the entire range from 12 MHz down to 3, stopping at the ham bands or anything else unusual. I used to do that a lot before I was licensed as WN9MQY in 1973. I was hoping to find a numbers station (are there still numbers stations?) or one of those long-extinct semi-musical beacons that I used to hear in 1965. SWBC hasn’t really changed much since 1970: Christian stations, national stations, some German and French, and a lot of things too far down in the noise to quite make out. Canadian time station CHU is no longer on 7335 KHz, but a quick Google check pointed me to its new location at 7850 KHz. I listened to an AM net on 7290, and was startled when K5MIL’s big signal came up and forced me to turn down the gain–he’s only 5 miles north of me, and running a fair bit of power.

Talk about old times, whew.

My R-1004 hasn’t seen much hard use; I’d almost call it pristine. Serial number 25. By contrast, the power supply has been around the block–or maybe the world–a few times, and when I bought it I had to do some fussy needle-file work to get the corrosion off the power connectors. It sounds goofy, but I love how this gear smells: bakelite and black rubber, with undercurrents of oil and perhaps solder flux. (Radio terroir!) If ever there were a canonical Dieselpunk radio, well, here it is. My only gripe is that my high-Z “cans” headset gave me a headache after squeezing my ears for an hour, and I really need to lash up an audio transformer to take the R-1004’s 4000 ohm output impedence down to whatever my cushy padded headset likes. I’ve done this before, but alas, the adapter unit (built into a 70s contacts case I got from Carol) is hiding somewhere.

No matter. You’ve seen my shop and my collection; it will be done. When we can manage a nerd party here sometime this summer, I’ll put it out on the deck and drop a wire over the edge if I haven’t done so already. Put the black thing up against your ear, young’un: That’s what the Internet was when I was mowing the lawn and not chasing you off of it!