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March, 2010:

Odd Lots

  • I’ve been thin on Contra entries this month for a number of reasons, mostly because I’ve been putting the bulk of my creative energy into finishing “Drumlin Wheel.” Nailed the first draft (after nine years!) about an hour ago. Originally scoped out at about 11,000 words (like “Drumlin Boiler”) it ended up at 14,500. As always, when something major emerges from my subconscious I tend to hate it for a couple of weeks, after which I can fix what’s wrong and like it again. More on this at some point.
  • While in Hawaii recently, we heard whale songs through a hydrophone that the tour boat crew had tossed into the water, and I immediately wanted one of my own. (We hope not to wait another five years to go back to Hawaii.) Here’s an article on how to make your own hydrophone, which is nothing more than a waterproof mic on a (long) cable.
  • I finished reading Fat and Cholesterol Are Good For You by Dr. Uffe Ravnskov shortly after we got back from Hawaii, and was about to write a review when I realized that Tom Naughton had already done it–and written just about what I would have.
  • Somebody put a window in the side of one cylinder of a 4-stroke engine, and took a slow-mo video of the action inside the cylinder during actual operation. An amazing thing, even though some frames are missing from the exhaust stroke.
  • Oh, I’ve seen sillier things than this…but not recently.
  • And finally, CNN reminded me that the original Xerox copier, model 914, was fifty years old yesterday. The article is marginal and doesn’t even include a color photo of the gadget, of which I repaired many many many between 1974 and 1977. There’s a better photo of the Brown Beast here, along with numerous other Xerox goodies.

Report: EntConnect 2010


The first thing you see is an unattended and otherwise empty folding table holding a Sharpie marker and a roll of duct tape. A strip of tape reads “Nametag Station” and there is an example. Remember that this is a conference for people who learn fast, do things their own way, and use what they have on hand.

Welcome to EntConnect 2010.

I briefly described the conference in my February 22, 2010 entry. It was a piece of early community building by the founder/owner of Midnight Engineering magazine, the other Bill Gates. Bill originally pitched it as a ski outing, but it grew from there into go karting, skeet shooting, and ultimately conference sessions–and has long outlived Bill’s poor magazine, which like my own has been gone for a number of years. The 2010 gathering was the 19th, and I was no more than ten minutes into the first session when I was kicking myself for not having attended years ago.

It’s not a huge group. I’m guessing 35 people came out, and an amazing number have been there for most and sometimes all of the previous conferences. Nor is it an especially young crowd; I’m guessing a median age of 45 or 50. Nearly all of them own their own technical businesses, and some have owned (and sold) several. That’s the core mission of the conference: to leverage the collective experience of the attendees in working on their own and making a living thereby. The presentations were a good balance of technical and life-experience descriptions. (Here’s the schedule with the names of the sessions.) I shared a table in the conference room with Jack Krupansky, who was a long-time advertiser at PC Techniques and very much a kindred spirit, and met a great many others cut from the same rugged and mostly self-organizing cloth. The dinner conversation was dumbfounding, with ideas and insights whizzing past my ears far faster than I could internalize them.

The sessions were superb, and some were so high-energy that I felt a little drained when they were over. The keynote session from Dave Grenewetzki was like that. Here’s a guy only a little older than me who has lived life at a dead run, having had careers in aerospace engineering, early computer software (back to the CP/M era) and computer games, with several startups to his credit and a longish stint at the helm of Sierra Online. He’s also one of the world’s most accomplished geocachers. His message: Follow the fun. Well, I try, but most of the time the fun runs a lot faster than I do.

Lee Devlin presented a technical and economic overview of 3-D printing, which was not all new news for me, having loosely followed the field since I began studying nanotechnology fifteen years ago. It was, however, the first time I was able to hold in my own hands and examine some ABS parts created on a professional 3-D printer. The parts were much less “fuzzy” than photos I’ve seen online, granting that they were produced on a $32,000 machine (the Stratasys Dimension SST1200es) and not the $1000 Cupcake CNC gadget we’ve been seeing on the Make Blog recently. I have been hoping to learn 3-D CAD for many years, and seeing the Alibre Design parametric CAD software pushed that item up my personal priority list a few dozen spots. Lee persuaded me that this technology is coming into its own (I had been thinking it was still a sort of stunt driven by mechasmic Extropian dreams) and I would love to give it a shot in the reasonable future.

Some of the sessions presented topics worthy of their own entries here, and I’ll come back to them eventually–especially Bill French’s presentation on auditing your own Web site for customer accessibility. I saw some things I probably won’t pursue (like the Flash-based presentation software) but think may be useful to others; certainly take a look. Digital photography loomed large (several of the attendees are professional photographers) and a great deal was said about the practical challenges of starting businesses, running businesses, and (courtesy Jeff Schmoyer) getting free of them when you have to move on.

The intensity of the conference was remarkable. Everybody who spoke spoke with the kind of passion that makes problems run screaming. I recall that passion from my early days with Keith launching The Coriolis Group and PC Techniques, and I miss it. The passion didn’t end with the sessions, and in fact I don’t know precisely when it ended because I had already collapsed into bed long before the lights in our conference room went out.

The next EntConnect will take place March 24-27, 2011, at (as best I know) the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Denver, right off the famous 16th Street Mall. It’s already on my calendar, and I’d love to see you there.

Odd Lots

  • Here’s a great article from NASA on the unexpected success it’s had with the WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) spacecraft in spotting previously unknown asteroids in the infrared spectrum. WISE is detecting hundreds of new asteroids every day, which is unnerving, since a rock no bigger than a Motel 6 could cause regional devastation greater than any nuclear weapon yet produced.
  • From Larry Nelson comes a pointer to the AirStash, an interesting $100 USB Wi-Fi gadget that can accept up to a 32 GB SD card and act as a content server over Wireless b/g. Anthough nominally a thumb drive, the USB plug also charges the internal battery, and (though it’s not screamed from the rooftops) the thingie works all by itself, no computer connection required. This suggests “wearable file sharing”: Drop one in your pocket and nearby people can download files from the device without having any idea where it actually is. Little by little, the jiminy (an AI wearable computer I thought up in 1983, and figured would be mature by 2027) creeps toward realization. The AI is actually the tough part; everything else already exists, if not in as small a package as I imagined 25 years ago.
  • And if you ever wanted to run Linux on one of your fillings (ok, one of your elephant’s fillings) this would be the solution. (Thanks to Bill Cherepy for the link.)
  • Here’s a gadget that builds you an external USB storage device by dropping in (literally) a naked SATA hard drive. I may not need it, but I admire the elegance of the concept.
  • I’ve been arguing in favor of dual-screen reader devices for years, and this one is a good start. Sounds like the user interface software needs work…but when has that not been an issue for a first-gen device? We’re closing in on it, though.
  • Nice status update on some of the current non-Tokamak fusion research approaches, link thanks to Frank Glover.
  • Also from Frank comes a reasonable article on how people would die in a vacuum and how they wouldn’t. I had heard of lung shredding; heart failure was new to me. But take, um, heart: Your blood wouldn’t boil.
  • If you ever wondered why you cry when you slice onions, well, it’s the sulfuric acid released by cells in the onion when they’re cut open. Supposedly living things evolved this mechanism (or at least key parts of it) half a billion years ago. Onions evolved their chemical weapons to avoid being laid on hamburgers in slices–but we evolved Vidalias to prove that we were smarter than onions, and that fast food will prevail against all threats.
  • Interestingly, the Canon G11 camera reduces the size of the image sensor to 10 megapixels, down from the 12.5 on the G10. The new sensor gives you fewer pixels but better ones, and faster, which is all for the best.
  • Burger King is testing a new retailing feature in Brazil. When you order a burger, they take your picture and print your face on the burger wrapper.

The Longest Day

The longest day of any vacation is generally the last day, and that goes triple for Hawaii vacations. (More on this shortly.) We got packed up and checked out of the hotel by 11, and went down to Kihei for lunch and some browsing-of-shops. That done, we cruised up the west coast of Maui to Lahaina for more of the same, plus a ride on the Sugar Cane Train, also known as the Lahaina & Kaanapoli Railroad.

It’s a narrow-gauge live steamer that once hauled workers and tonnage between the now-defunct Maui sugar cane plants and downtown Lahaina. Investors bought the line when its longtime owners put it up for sale in 1969, and for 40 years it’s been hauling tourists at ten miles an hour along a six-mile run that cuts through an exclusive golf course where the grade crossings are for golf carts. We waved at a lot of Japanese golfers who didn’t seem particularly annoyed that we interrupted their game. This may be because the train is a huge attraction for Japanese tourists, to the point where all the signs in the station and on the train are in both English and Japanese.

The track is a little rough, and it’s a clattery, noisy run that I suspect beautifully captures the atmosphere of most short lines in the steam era. Alas, the locos are not original, since a well-heeled locomotive collector (specializing in 1:1 scale!) bought whatever the line had been using prior to the sale. What’s there now is a cute little oil-fired Porter 2-4-0 that (sans tender) could fit in my garage. (The Web site does not picture the Porter, which is not as glitzy-glam as the other loco, which was in the shed getting some work done.) There’s a Baldwin 0-6-0 on display on the grounds outside the station, but whether it ever ran on the line is unclear.

We spent the rest of the afternoon prowling the shops in downtown Lahaina and watching the crabs frolic on the rocks along the ocean. After a slightly late supper downing some estimable sliders at Cheeseburger Island Style in Wailea, we picked up our bags at the hotel for the long flight home.

People who don’t go to Hawaii much may not have heard that most flights from Hawaii to the mainland are redeyes: You take off circa 10:30 PM and fly for six or seven hours across three time zones, making for a landing at 7 or 8 AM. This is done for the sake of making connecting flights in Dallas or Phoenix or Denver; otherwise, the plane lands after most of the day’s connecting flights to smaller cities are gone.

I’m an insomniac even in my own bed; sleeping while sitting upright on an airliner is a wistful fantasy. Carol, by contrast, puts on one of those foam sleep-collars and is out like a light. So I sat and read Thomas Cahill’s marvelous Mysteries of the Middle Ages for two and a half hours until I realized that I was no longer taking notes in the margins, which for me generally means that my higher brain functions had shut down and I was now merely scanning words. For the rest of the flight I tried to put myself to sleep via several meditative methods, none of which worked at all. I was mighty glad at the five-hour mark, when the crew put the coffee pot on and I could wake myself up chemically to the point where I could think again.

We changed planes in Phoenix for the 90-minute hop to Denver, where we discovered that a huge blizzard had struck the previous afternoon. Over a foot had fallen (up to 21″ in some places) and the roads were a mess. By the time we got to Denver, I was staggering, and after lunch Carol took the 93-mile drive home in the slushy right lane, while we looked apprehensively at all the cars in the ditch, among them plenty of four-wheelers. Here in the Springs it was a mere matter of two or three inches, and today’s bright sun will melt most of that. More significantly, I slept for eleven hours last night, and thus life finally returned to normal after twenty-odd hours of continuous awakeness.

Much to do here. EntConnect in fact began today, but I will not be heading up to Denver until tomorrow afternoon for the 6 PM happy hour. I’ll try to post updates while I’m there, so stay tuned.

Papaya, Not Popeye

To paraphrase myself paraphrasing George Carlin: What do editors do on their day off? They can’t just lay around…

Oh, you bet they can. In fact, Carol and I had the wisdom to declare at least one day of our impromptu Hawaii vacation a “lay around” day when there would be no scheduled activity whatsoever. None! Nada! Zilch! Eat when we want, get wet when (and where) we want, and leave the car keys in the hotel room safe.

And we made it work. We ran around in the surf, sat in the hot tub, read Thomas Cahill books, and probably ate a little too much, though I can’t imagine (at this point) eating too much papaya.

The weekend just past was another matter entirely. We got up at 5:30 Saturday morning to catch a two-hour whale-watch cruise. As I mentioned in my last entry, the whales were evident from our ocean-view window. The cruise was to see them up close, and we certainly got closer than we did from the hotel balcony. We got to see something else up close, too: big waves and a stinging wind that were (we heard) the remnants of a storm that had scoured the north part of New Zealand ten days ago. I took one look at those wine-dark seas (for wine colored blue-green with streaks of sandy brown, at least) and popped a Bonine nervously. I have warm feelings toward the Navy: As I related here some years ago, when I was 17 the Navy believed in me (and pestered me for weeks to accept a full college NROTC scholarship) for personal enthusiasms that my first two girlfriends considered deranged. (My third girlfriend sat patiently while I explained the fourth dimension to her, and that’s when I knew I wanted to marry her.) All that said, Popeye I’m not, and I gripped the stanchions tightly while watching the bounding main for breaching whales.

We saw a few, and I considered the day a success, even though the berserk surf got bad enough to wash away significant portions of Polo Beach and cause the rest of the day’s cruises to be canceled. I was hours trying to get the wine-dark wobble out of my gait, and I haven’t had any wine for two weeks.

Sunday we got up at 4:30 AM for a snorkel cruise to the collapsed caldera island of Molokini, where the visibility underwater can reach 150 feet. We were smart enough to rent wetsuit tops from the cruise operators and glad of it, as the water was a chilly 72 degrees and the air none too warm either at 8 AM. Temps were the least of it, however: The reduced but still formidable swells had us bobbing like corks and struggling to stay steady enough to watch the fish, who had the sense (and the gills) to remain well beneath all the action. The fish were great to see, but after fighting the rolling water for twenty minutes, people started to bail and climb back onto the 36-foot catamaran. I lasted a little longer (maybe 45 minutes) but Carol stuck it out for over two hours. No surprise there: She’s the daughter of an imperturbable Navy marine engine mechanic; I’m the son of a excitable Army radio operator who was sick the entire trip across the Atlantic on his way to Italy in 1942.

Like I said: Papayas, yes, Popeye, no way.

On the trip back to Maui, the cruise people did an interesting thing: They dropped a hydrophone into the water on 50 feet of cable, and patched the mic into the boat’s PA system. And for fifteen minutes we listened to the whales. It was eerie, and perhaps beyond eerie. We’re not used to thinking of animals as volitional the same way we are, but those guys were clearly doing something down there. Whale songs change a little every year, but generally only one phrase at a time. And thinking about a pattern in which only one element changes at a predictable interval, I can’t help but speculate that they’re counting something: years, generations, intervals until the saucers come back; who knows? There’s a story in there somewhere, though I’m not the guy to do it.

There is a permanent hydrophone in the water near Kihei, less than a mile from where we were at the time, and you can listen to it live. The whales will be around until they begin to migrate back to their feeding grounds in Alaska at the end of March, and will be gone by the end of April.

The boat’s naturalist said that the whales were very close, and almost in answer, two of them surfaced just to one side of the boat. It was a cow humpback and its calf, followed shortly after by an “escort” male. They were less than 100 feet from the catamaran, and the captain killed the engine instantly, as required by law. We watched them play around for another fifteen minutes until they got bored and left.

The remainder of the trip back was like a second (and more successful) whale watch cruise. The water between Maui and Molokini was lousy with whales, and we saw two dozen or more in the hour’s passage. In the shallower water near shore we spotted ten or twelve green sea turtles, which eyed us apprehensively as we cruised slowly past.

So it was a busy and bobbly weekend, followed by a lazy day that I consider entirely successful. What do editors do on their day off? They lay around–so that, when they get back home, they can stand to be editors again. Mission accomplished. (Now I have to research how to build my own hydrophone for our next trip…)

I Plum Forgot…

…to tell you that we’d gone to Hawaii. Sorry. Actually, not sorry. But after five years without a real vacation (and by “real” I mean “with a salt-water beach and palm trees”) we just packed up and went, no regrets and little time spent packing. I mean, they have Wal-Marts in Hawaii, so whatever we might fail to bring can be had without much anguish.

No anguish necessary. We brought everything we had to have (like, how badly does anybody need socks in Hawaii?) and Maui suits me just fine: Ten minutes after we got into our room overlooking Polo Beach, Carol was out on the balcony staring at the blue ocean, when she yells, “A whale!” And by cracky, one of them 40-ton bass yodelers had just thrown itself out of the depths and most of the way up into the sunlight. For another half an hour we watched, and they were out there in force, frolicking, flapping their flukes, and finding it all a fine, fine time.

Didn’t expect whales. And after five years, I’d forgotten a certain amount of beach discipline. That blue water looked so damned good after a deep frozen winter that simply won’t end (and still hasn’t) that I just waded in, forgetting I was wearing my expensive titanium-frame prescription sunglasses until a seven-foot wave crested over my head and knocked them off, simultaneously sending twin columns of high-pressure saline solution up my nose. Once I could breathe again I realized that my sunglasses were nowhere to be seen, and Carol and I spent another half an hour examining the ocean bottom during the wave troughs. We found a hotel key card and then somebody else’s sunglasses, as well as a heavily corroded penny and a sea urchin spine, before Carol sang out that she had them. That was a helluva break, considering how the waves were stirring up the sand on the bottom. The lenses picked up a few pits and scratches but are otherwise intact, and that is a mistake I doubt I will make again any time soon.

To celebrate our unlikely victory, I returned to my hard-drinking ways at dinner that evening, and had not one but two margaritas with my grilled walu.

Not much more to report. You all know what Hawaii looks like, and if I had had the presence of mind to install a photo editor on my new laptop before we left, I might have been able to post a picture or two here. The weather has been perfect, if a little windy. The food’s good, the bed’s great, the company sans pareille. I vacation as men might choose, though if I do get to choose, I choose not to wait another five years to do it again!

Odd Lots

  • It happens all the time, but it’s rare that we actually watch it happen: a comet falling into the Sun. (It’s unclear to me what the brief tiny streaks are, since SOHO is a spacecraft and the image was not taken through Earth’s atmosphere, where meteors would look like that. Meteors in the solar atmosphere?)
  • The SOHO spacecraft may also be shedding some light on why the recent solar minimum was so deep.
  • We’ve identified what may be a much better proxy for ancient climate: clam shells. Unlike tree growth rings, which may be affected by several factors like rainfall, sunlight, soil chemistry, and so on, clam shell growth (and the mix of isolotopes, particularly oxygen) seem very closely correlated to the temperature of the water in which the clam lived out its life.
  • Intel’s Nehalen-based Gulftown CPU has been officially announced, with six 3.33 GHz cores and 32 nm traces connecting a boggling 1.2 billion transistors. They’re calling it the Core I7-980X Extreme Edition, and it fits the LGA 1366 socket, which implies than it can be swapped in as an upgrade. (No confirmation on that yet.) You may be able to get an overclocked desktop system running all six cores at 4.3 GHz by April. And if that’s not enough cores for you (four is way more than enough for me, if this past year’s experience is any guide) we’ll be seeing the eight-core Nehalen-EX (with 2.3 billion transistors) later this year, nominally for the server market.
  • I know, I know, AMD has its Magny-Cours 12-core Opteron server CPU, but the cores only run at 1.7 GHz–and more to the point, exist on two separate side-by-side six-core dies, which may be cheating a little. I’m sure they’re very good chips, but sheesh! We still don’t know how to do parallelism in general terms. Even AMD is puzzled, so they launched a contest titled, “What would you do with 48 cores?”
  • And if you don’t believe me, open Windows Task Manager, click the Performance tab, and watch all your cores but one do nothing. To paraphrase George Carlin: What do cores do on their day off? They can’t just lay around…that’s their job!
  • Frank Glover put me on to an interesting hand-drawn animated movie that I hope to see fairly soon, if I can find anywhere playing it. (Distribution in the US is inexplicably a problem for them.) The Secret of Kells is about the Book of Kells, and (more intriguingly) is drawn in the style of medieval manuscript illumination. It took a few seconds watching the trailer to catch on, but eventually I had the feeling that I was watching manuscript illuminations come to life. Damned cool.
  • And 229 years ago today, Sir Frederick William Herschel first spotted Uranus.

The Pulps Reconsidered, Part 2


Back in my Febrary 23, 2010 entry, I began a series about the pulp fiction mags of the first half of the 20th Century. Because most people would assume I’ll be talking about SF, I deliberately went elsewhere, to a category most of my readers have probably never even heard of: railroad fiction. I bought and have been reading some 1930s issues of Railroad Stories magazine, published by the Frank A. Munsey Company, which in 1882 basically invented pulp fiction mags as we know them.

I can give you a good flavor for the genre with a single 300-word excerpt, from a story called “Bakehead Hennessey,” by Ed Samples, in the August 1935 issue:

Barney softly coupled his two engines into the head car. An “air” man connected the hose. The compressors on the head engine cut in, racing, clicking, thumping, forcing the train line pressure up to ninety pounds. Barney glanced at his gage, then out toward the yard office, where Conduc­tor Gardner was running to the plat­form with two sheaves of green and white tissue in his hands. Behind him waddled stout Superintendent Moran. A second later Old Tom Ryan was climbing down upon the brick plat­form to meet Gardner.

Barney watched him, glanced once more at his air gage, then toward the rear. An inspector’s light was saying: “Set the air.” He opened the valve, watched the needle swing back, then closed it; and wiping his hand on a piece of cotton waste, went striding toward the men who were comparing watches and reading train orders.

The conductor handed him his set of flimsies in silence. There were only three: two slow orders and the running order. He glanced at the latter.

“Running us as Second Seven?” he asked, looking at Gardner.

Gardner nodded. Barney read the order through. He knew that never in the history of the road had such a task been laid out for an engineer: to clip sixty minutes off the time of No. 7, the fastest train through the Rockies on any line.

Air pumps were racing. The pop valve on the 3775 opened and white steam climbed skyward. A dozen lights darted hither and yonder about the steel mail cars. Superintendent Moran came panting up to the group.

“We want action on this run tonight,” he began.

“What the hell’s the use uh puttin’ out a fast schedule for that sizzlin’ bakehead?” snarled Old Tom. “He’s got you fellers all buffaloed into thinkin’ he’s a hoghead. Hoghead! Bakehead! Bakehead Hennessey!”

‘Nuff train talk for ya? I’m the son of a passionate railfan and have researched railroads more than most people, but I still had to look some of this stuff up. A “bakehead” is a locomotive fireman, who stokes the engine manually or maintains the stoking machinery. A “hoghead” is the engineer of a freight train. “Flimsies” are train orders, often printed on something just a hair better than tissue paper. Nonetheless, if you know the jargon, this scene will be utterly clear to you, and back in 1935, this was not nostalgia but the way the railroad industry actually worked.

Nor is this unusual within the genre. In the two issues I’ve read so far, all the writing is precisely like this, in that what matters are the trains. The people are types, which isn’t to say they didn’t exist in the real world or are somehow badly drawn in the tale itself. (Not everyone is an American Original.) But descriptions of their internal conflicts and personal growth were not what the reader was paying for. In a way very much like the Tom Swift books I read in the early 60s, the railroad pulp stories (and I’m guessing all pulp stories) were created to help people imagine themselves in certain roles and in certain situations. The people (thinly) depicted in the stories were like halloween costumes, in a way, to be put on by people who wanted to imagine themselves as railroad engineers and brakemen, or perhaps remember being railroad engineers and brakemen years ago.

This should be obvious, and it may be obvious to you, but I’m amazed at how some people just don’t understand why pulp fiction was ever popular. A lot of people would consider the railroad pulps bad fiction because they focus on technology (railroad tech, such that it was in 1935) rather than inner conflict and growth. Swap in “spaceflight” for “railroads” and you’ll have pulp SF of the same era. The railroad pulps had their share of adventure and fistfights and gunplay, but I was amazed at how close the action stayed to the tracks. And just as superb writers like Robert A. Heinlein stepped aside from the action to teach lessons on orbital dynamics, the railroad pulp authors sometimes taught lessons about their beloved technology. Read this excerpt from “When Destiny Calls” by E. S. Dellinger, the cover story in the August 1935 issue. It’s dense, but if you love trains you’ll understand the frightening energy contained in a boiler full of steam (enough to lift a 100-ton locomotive two and a half miles into the air) as well as how the devastating boiler explosions common during the steam era actually happened. I’ve ridden behind a couple of steam locos on tourist lines. That excerpt gave me chills.

Which, of course, was part of the package. The firms that published pulp fiction knew exactly what their customers wanted: a sense of being somewhere else, somewhere vivid and colorful, somewhere better and more exciting than a boarding house during the Great Depression, after a twelve-hour day at a mindless job in a sweltering factory that paid a quarter an hour.

The pulps were hugely successful for quite awhile. The writing wasn’t great, but it was nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be. Much of its “badness” was the focus on action, setting, ideas, and a certain sort of culture. The words could be carelessly arranged, but words can be fixed, and there is a particular skill in creating vivid settings and action scenes that few people understand until they realize that they don’t have it. The concept of pulp fiction deserves better than it’s gotten in recent decades. It didn’t even completely disappear, though the psychology is a little different these days. More in Part 3.

Odd Lots

  • Never fear; I’ll return to the pulps discussion shortly. I’m way behind on a lot of projects right now.
  • One of the few things I remember about the old 40s Flash Gordon serials (which played incessantly on Saturday morning TV in Chicago circa 1960) are the Rock Men, who could blend into the rocks to escape giant lizards with poison breath. They talked weirdly, and eventually we figured out that they were talking backwards, but none of us had a tape recorder in 1960 to reverse it and see what they were actually saying. Finally, somebody has done it.
  • Popular Science has posted the entire 137-year run of its back-issue archives on the Web via Google Books, and you can read it all for free. The whole mags have been posted, including the advertisements. Maybe this time I can find one of those weird ads for the Rosicrucians.
  • Gizmodo is beginning a series on Microsoft’s Courier project, which is starting to look more like the ebook reader I’ve always wanted.
  • A link on the Make Blog concerning the Vacuum Tube Radio Hat (which I’ve seen before, on Wikipedia, with schematic) led me to Retro Thing, which has just eaten a goodly portion of my morning. Be warned.
  • BTW, the model in the Radio Hat cover story above is Hope Lange at age 15.
  • I had plum fergot about Boeing’s X-37 spaceplane (and this is probably just what the Air Force wanted) but it will apparently be launched on April 19. Don’t get too excited; it’s a robot and won’t carry humans. (Of course it won’t. It can’t. Impossible. They said so. The subject is closed. How ’bout those Blackhawks?)
  • I’ve seen this time and again among the Pack here, but I never knew it had a name: The Nose of Peace. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Be careful how you talk in front of very small children, even (or especially) girls. (Thanks to Mary Lynn Jonson for the link.)
  • I have no idea what to think about this: A site that creates techno music from…Web sites. Read the algorithm description under “About.”

A Viral SSID

First of all, you can stop worrying about me–Carol and I took an intense week-long trip to Chicago tending to family business, and I just couldn’t summon the energy to post while I was there.

But I was reminded of an interesting thing on the trip home, while we waited at the gate for our plane at O’Hare. I opened my new laptop to check for connectivity, and in addition to the airport’s Boingo network, I saw the oft-encountered but poorly understood “Free Public Wifi” SSID. I’ve seen that SSID in airports on almost every trip I’ve taken in the last three or four years, well-aware that it’s not anything like free connectivity. I’ve always assumed that it was a virus running on somebody else’s close-by laptop, because it’s not an infrastructure node like an access point, but an ad-hoc (peer-to-peer) node instead.

Well, it is a virus, but one of a truly fascinating sort. And that may be a little unfair. It’s not malware in the sense of adverse execution on the machine, but a consequence of some Windows foolishness in XP and (possibly) more recent versions. The “Free Public Wifi” SSID spreads virally without the help of anything except Windows itself. I never completely understood the mechanism until I looked it up yesterday. There’s a great writeup here, and I’ll summarize:

Wireless Zero Configuration (WZC) is the part of Windows that manages Wi-Fi connections. When enabled, it will do the following when the machine is booted:

  1. It looks to see if one of your preferred network SSIDs is present in the list of detected infrastructure networks, and will connect if present. Failing that,
  2. It attempts to connect “blind” to infrastructure networks on your preferred list that are not detected, to cover the possibility that your network’s SSID beacon is disabled. This is the Wi-Fi implementation of “security by obscurity,” and no one really uses it anymore. Having failed to connect to a hidden infrastructure node,
  3. WZC will look to see if one of your preferred network SSIDs is present in detected ad-hoc networks, and will connect if it finds one.
  4. Now the weirdness begins: If none of your preferred network SSIDs is present as an ad-hoc node, and if there is an ad-hoc SSID in your preferred networks list, WZC sets your system up as an ad-hoc network with the first ad-hoc SSID it finds in your preferred list.

Hoo-boy. Read that again: If you’ve ever connected to an ad-hoc node and no networks in your preferred list are available, your machine becomes an ad-hoc node. This may not be the worst wireless idea ever, but it’s right up there. Basically, you’ve opened a door to your machine, and (depending on your firewall situation) if somebody connects to your laptop through the ad-hoc node that WZC has created, they can browse your shares.

It didn’t take malware to make this happen. Windows did it all by its lonesome. Here’s a likely scenario explaining why this SSID is so commonly seen in airports:

  1. Somewhere, somewhen, there was a mesh (peer to peer) network named “Free Public WiFi.” It was probably legitimate. I don’t like mesh networks for various technical reasons, but they have their uses, and there’s nothing necessarily scurrilous about them.
  2. An XP user logs into this original “Free Public Wifi” network and connects to the Internet. The SSID is added to their preferred networks list as an ad-hoc node, where it remains. When finished using the mesh network, the XP user breaks the ad-hoc connection and life goes on.
  3. Later on, which could be months or even years, the same user (“User #1”) goes to an airport and while waiting for a plane, boots his or her laptop to do some local spreadsheet work. No connectivity is found, so Wireless Zero Configuration happily establishes an ad-hoc node called “Free Public WiFi.”
  4. A nearby XP user (“User #2”) boots a laptop, looking for connectivity. He or she sees “Free Public Wifi” as an available network, and (naively) clicks to connect. An ad-hoc connection is established to User #1’s laptop. Nothing happens, since neither user is connected to the Internet. However, the “Free Public Wifi” SSID is added to User #2’s preferred networks list. User #2’s plane eventually comes in, and he or she shuts down the laptop, disappointed that no free connection was found.
  5. Later on, User #2 is again at an airport and boots the laptop. WZC establishes an ad-hoc node, and this time, two users see the “Free Public WiFi” SSID and connect. Again, nothing either good or bad happens, but the “Free Public WiFi” ad-hoc SSID is added to the preferred networks list of both User #3 and User #4.
  6. User #3 and User #4 (neither of whom have any idea what’s going on) boot their laptops at other airports, or at conference centers, or some place where laptops tend to congregate. Similarly naive users connect, looking for a free Internet connection, and add “Free Public WiFi” to their preferred networks list.
  7. Contagion continues, as road warriors spread the SSID as explained above.

Although malware isn’t involved, this is far from harmless, since an ad-hoc connection is a door to your machine. Your firewall will probably stop any shenanigans…if you have it working and configured correctly. Some people won’t.

Note well that this only happens if your system has the WZC service running. If you have vendor-specific software installed to manage your wireless subsystem (as all newer Dell laptops do) this craziness won’t occur. Only if Windows and WZC are in charge of wireless are you vulnerable. The solution? Limit your connections to infrastructure networks. There’s a step-by-step at the end of this article.

Other such viral SSIDs exist; I’ve seen “hpsetup” and “default” myself, and others have been reported. Any ad-hoc network SSID can go viral with the help of Windows Wireless Zero Configuration. The “hpsetup” SSID was “contracted” from certain HP printers that connect to laptops via ad-hoc connections. I’ve only confirmed this on XP; the issue may have been resolved with Vista and 7. It’s a fascinating example of unintended consequences in system design, and should become a textbook case in CS coursework. (Why don’t I think that this will ever happen?)