Tuesday, May 30, 2006

How To Cheat Good

This eponymous essay by Alex Halavais contains a fund of good advice for academic plagiarists. Sample:

If you are in a class of several hundred people, and you share an unusual family name with another student in the class, it is best if your reply to an open ended short-answer question is not identical, word-for-word. This is particularly true when the answer is wrong, and when it is wrong in an idiosyncratic way. Many profs, as I do, grade “blind,” without reference to the names of the students, but still, it’s easy enough when you find something like this to track back to the names. My suggestion, in this case, is to continue to cut and paste the answer, but to legally change your name. A convenience marriage may do the trick.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Former NSA Analyst Excoriates Data-Mining Program

Ira Winkler, in Computerworld, puts forth three strong arguments: The NSA program invades privacy, it's illegal on its face, and by its very nature generates thousands of "leads" with such a low signal-to-noise ratio that critical investigative resources are wasted:

This scattershot attempt at data mining drags FBI agents away from real investigations, while destroying the NSA’s credibility in the eyes of law enforcement and the public in general. That loss of credibility makes the NSA the agency that cried wolf -- and after so many false leads, should they provide something useful, the data will be looked at skeptically and perhaps given lower priority by law enforcement than it would otherwise have been given.

Worse, FBI agents working real and pressing investigations such as organized crime, child pornography and missing persons are being pulled away from their normal law enforcement duties to follow up on NSA leads. Nobody wants another 9/11, of course, but we experience real crimes on a daily basis that, over the course of even one year, cause far greater loss of life and damage than the 9/11 attacks did. There are children abused on a daily basis to facilitate online child pornography, yet I know of at least two agents who were pulled from their duties tracking down child abusers to investigate everyone who called the same pizza parlor as a person who received a call from a person who received an overseas call. There are plenty of similar examples.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Wired Writer Prefers Rental Cars

Rental cars these days also have buttons all over the steering wheel, which makes me very happy. This is because like all rational, mature adults, I want to be Speed Racer. All I need is a child and his chimp in the trunk and I'm ready to rock. It's not precisely totally 100 percent the same, though, because Speed's buttons transformed the car into a boat and launched a robot homing pigeon, while my buttons engage cruise control. In all honesty, I'm about 400 times more likely to use cruise control as I am to need a robot pigeon, but it would be nice to have both.

I think the point of having the buttons on the steering wheel is that it's supposed to be safer, but it's actually more dangerous for the first 15 minutes, because that's when I'm experimenting. I'm pressing all the buttons to see what they do. I'd make a terrible James Bond. Two minutes after I pulled into traffic the streets would be covered in oil slicks and smoke screens, and I'd be trailing a grappling hook.

There's more, but that's the heart of it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Perhaps the Dustbin of History is Just What We Deserve

Ladies and gentlemen, this month's winner in the Unintentionally Ironic Ad Sweepstakes:

Friday, May 19, 2006

The headline alone was enough to make me roar

I love The Register:

Telcos wish to deny mass snooping

'Compassionate totalitarianism' proves tricky for the private sector

We Got The Blues

Chris Bowers, on the Direct Democracy site, has posted an interesting graphic analysis of Bush's approval/disapproval ratings. Remember all those red and blue maps around the time of Presidential elections? Here's a state-by-state map:

The county-by-county map is a little less cruel, and likely more accurate. Note that this says very little about the 2006 midterm elections, or even the 2008 campaign. Disapproval of Bush does not imply some kind of progressive sweep; after all, as some commenters on Bower's posting noted, part of Bush's trouble is that he's lost support among the seriously whacked-out portion of his base. He's not fascist enough for them.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Breathes there the cat owner who hasn't thought this?

From a digg.com discussion on hacking the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner:

Roombas suck, just like all vacuum cleaners.

Seriously though, pretty cool flash diagram they have of it there. Makes me want to go buy one if they weren't still so relatively expensive ($200+ when spending my time to clean my carpet is much cheaper). My friend has one though, they are fun to watch (and toss objects in front of (and watch it try to eat cats)).

New search engine with interesting interface

Try www.snap.com. Very slick -- uses auto fill-in on the search-term box, then shows your list of hits in one pane and thumbnails of them in another. Click on a thumbnail, and that pane jumps to the site; your hit list remains scrollable and visible in the other pane, so you don't have to muck with the "Back" button and can maintain your mental context list.

I'm surprised that they managed to get such a simple domain name at this late date.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Shocked. Shocked! Bush and Co. would never use phone records for anything but rooting out terrorists!

The CIA is this close to catching known terrorist organziation ABC News in the act:

Federal Source to ABC News: We Know Who You're Calling

May 15, 2006 10:33 AM

Brian Ross and Richard Esposito Report:

A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we (Brian Ross and Richard Esposito) call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

"It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told us in an in-person conversation.

ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.
From ABC News' blog

Friday, May 12, 2006

Excellent Flash animation of FedEx radar tracks during Memphis thunderstorm

Thanks Dennis!


One of the Astronomy Picture of the Day authors responded to my request for an RSS feed with the gentle suggestion that I use Google. Duh, I feel smart now!

Anyway, just add http://www.jwz.org/cheesegrater/RSS/apod.rss to your RSS feeds, and Bob's your uncle.

Commercially Viable Biodiesel from Algae

The New Zealand Herald reports that a company there has successfully created biodiesel from excess algae from a sewage treatment plant! Algae-to-biodiesel has been demonstrated before, but only under laboratory conditions with specially grown algae. This is a production setup, using cruft skimmed from the real world!

They're Probably Worried About That Saddam/Al-Qaeda Link

Prepare to be depressed. Again. I'm hoping that these dreaming sheep get a clue, and soon. This makes me wonder if Bush's doleful approval ratings are just because Americans feel he's not killing enough Iraqis, not turning the U.S. into a police state fast enough.

The Washington Post and ABC News ran a poll on the NSA monitoring program:

A majority of Americans initially support a controversial National Security Agency program to collect information on telephone calls made in the United States in an effort to identify and investigate potential terrorist threats, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The new survey found that 63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, including 44 percent who strongly endorsed the effort. Another 35 percent said the program was unacceptable, which included 24 percent who strongly objected to it.

A slightly larger majority--66 percent--said they would not be bothered if NSA collected records of personal calls they had made, the poll found.

Underlying those views is the belief that the need to investigate terrorism outweighs privacy concerns. According to the poll, 65 percent of those interviewed said it was more important to investigate potential terrorist threats "even if it intrudes on privacy." Three in 10--31 percent--said it was more important for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.

Half--51 percent--approved of the way President Bush was handling privacy matters.

Alan Simpson from a speech on "Humor in Public Life"

"About 15 percent of the people in America are screwballs, lightweights and boobs," he said, "and you don't want people like that not represented in the Congress."

Odds-On Favorite in the "Best Headline of the Month" race

The Register:

"Please Don't Floss With Screwdrivers, Dentists Beg"

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Oh, THERE'S a surprise!

As Iago the evil parrot says in Aladdin, "I'm gonna have a heart attack and DIE, from that surprise!"

Diebold Voting Machines: It's Even Worse Than We Thought

This one sounds like more of a f***up than evil intent. Still, the end result is the same: With basic knowledge of the machine and "a piece of equipment available in any computer store", a hacker can essentially own a Diebold touch-screen voting machine if left with it for a few minutes, by using the software-upgrade feature.

It's Even Worser Than We Thought It Was Bad

Sheesh, how many times do we have to say "Nope, even worse."?

NSA again. Please: If you love your country, read this note on Schneier's blog. USA Today broke the story, for cryin' out loud!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Blue Marble: Hi-Res Drop-Your-Jaw Earth Photomosaics from NASA

Very appropriate for Mother's Day.

See more at

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

McAfee: OS X Increasingly a Target for Malware

Mac users have historically nestled comfortably in "security by obscurity": Not only was BSD-based OS X starting from a more-secure base than Windows, the installed base was so much smaller that crackers passed by looking for easier pickins.

Now...not so much. Mind you, this is a security firm talking, one who is probably rubbing its collective hands over a juicy new Mac market. Still...(from The Register)

Anti-virus software firm McAfee has identified Mac OS X as a growing target for malware attacks.
According to McAfee Avert Labs, Mac platform vulnerabilities increased by 228 per cent in the past three years alone, from 45 found in 2003 to 143 in 2005. McAfee didn't say how many of these bugs were critical, preferring to let the numbers speak for themselves.

Microsoft's products saw a 73 per cent increase in security bug discovery over the same three years. While admitting that Windows remains the principal target for hackers, McAfee argues that its findings are enough reason for Mac fans to get protection.
"Many believe that using an Apple operating system is a form of security in itself, believing that they are far less susceptible to malware than Windows users," McAfee senior veep Stuart McClure said. "And while the threats targeting the Mac operating system are low in volume, the use of Apple products does not provide an invisibility cloak from malware, and users need to be more vigilant about security as adoption rates soar and attacks on Apple operating systems increase."

Friday, May 05, 2006

Come Again?

More from the New York Times:
"As you know, I'm a strong believer of democracy and free elections, but that does not mean that we have to support elected officials who are not committed to peace."
W was talking about Hamas. But I couldn't agree more with the architect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We don't, do we?

Of course, one might argue that he wasn't exactly elected. "Installed" would be my term.

Al-Qaeda's Version of "Mission Accomplished"

Ahh, the banality of evil. Our side, their side, idiots either way.

Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, released a propaganda video that, among other things, shows him firing an automatic weapon. Very macho.

But the U.S. DoD found and released out-takes from the same video (or so they say).

As the camera rolls, Mr. Zarqawi is flummoxed by how to fire the machine gun until an aide walks over and fiddles with the weapon so it discharges. Another scene shows Mr. Zarqawi hand the weapon off to several other insurgents, who absent-mindedly grab it by its scalding hot barrel.

And after his shooting scene, Mr. Zarqawi walks away from the camera to reveal decidedly non-jihadist footwear: Comfortable white New Balance sneakers.

Here's the New York Times article.

Improv Group Puts 50 Blue-Shirted "Agents" in Best Buy

An excellent prank. Of course, the security folks went apesh**.

Title Says It All

Foolin' Folks

An interesting commentary on ruses and theft--including theft of virtual geld in online games--from The Register.

Demonic Bear for sale on eBay

I am not making this up:

All I know is that I want this damned thing out of my house. Something is dreadfully wrong with this bear. I never used to believe in powers of darkness, but now I do. If you are willing to buy it, please let me know. I take no responsibility for what may happen afterwards and for god's sake don't keep it anywhere near children. The lingering presence is still in my house to some extent and I need to get the source out. THIS IS A LONG READ AND I AM SORRY BUT IT WAS THE ONLY WAY I COULD POUR IT OUT.

There are indeed things in this world that are best not meddled with or even thought about, because sometimes all they need is an opening. I'll start from the beginning, it's the only way to tell the story [...]

Original eBay posting
(which you'll need to read to see why the glowing red eyes are significant)

Huh. Maybe weather-radar data are moot.

At Soil Science, we offer a variety of weather and modeling products. Many of the models require precipitation data, which is hard to supply because it's so localized--the ASOS at the airport knows precisely how much rain fell, but that says nothing about your farm 5 miles away.

Radar data would probably help; it's possible (though not trivial) to extrapolate precip estimate from weather radar. Trouble is, what with the Great Privatization Movement, brought to you by the a party which I won't name (but it's the one with the elephant), these data, collected by the government at taxpayer expense (for unassailably good reason), are extremely hard to get for free, because the private sector thought there was a revenue opportunity there. "Give us the data for free", they whined to their lobbyists, "and we'll sell it to the rubes!".

Now a paper in Science posits that simply tracking the signal qualities for 3G cell networks can yield decent atmospheric data. Clever!

I can't dig up a ref to the original paper; the team leader's publications page doesn't have it yet either. I saw a ref in The Register.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Schneier on Who Owns Your Computer

Thought-provoking reading. Anger-provoking, even.

You own your computer, of course. You bought it. You paid for it. But how much control do you really have over what happens on your machine? Technically you might have bought the hardware and software, but you have less control over what it's doing behind the scenes.

Using the hacker sense of the term, your computer is "owned" by other people.

There are all sorts of interests vying for control of your computer. There are media companies that want to control what you can do with the music and videos they sell you. There are companies that use software as a conduit to collect marketing information, deliver advertising or do whatever it is their real owners require. And there are software companies that are trying to make money by pleasing not only their customers, but other companies they ally themselves with. All these companies want to own your computer.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

One Less Bullet in Climate-Change Deniers' Guns

From The Washington Post (again):

A government study released yesterday undermines one of the key arguments of climate change skeptics, concluding there is no statistically significant conflict between measures of global warming on the earth's surface and in the atmosphere.

For years some global warming critics had pointed to the fact that satellite measurements had recorded very little warming in the lower atmosphere, while surface temperature readings indicated that the earth is heating up. Now the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, an interagency body, has concluded the two data sets match
"The bottom line is there are no significant discrepancies in the rates of warming," said Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a telephone call with reporters. Karl said reconciling the two sets of temperature readings is "really a major step forward" in understanding climate change.

The report also concluded that humans are driving the warming trend through greenhouse gas emissions, noting in the official news release, "the observed patterns of change over the past 50 years cannot be explained by natural processes alone, nor by the effects of short-lived atmospheric constituents such as aerosols and tropospheric ozone alone."

Canadians Leak on Kyoto

OK, so it was basically dead anyway. But still.

From The Washington Post:

TORONTO, May 2 -- Canada's Conservative government on Tuesday slashed funds for environmental programs designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, a move that critics said gutted support for the Kyoto accord on global warming.

Environmental groups said Canada, one of the early signatories and a high-profile proponent of the 1997 pact, is now in line with the Bush administration, which has dismissed the international agreement and expressed doubts about humans' contributions to climate change.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

ABC television episodes available for streaming

Yep, you can now watch Lost on the Web if you missed it on the air:


Squiggle Duel

Two artists challenge each other to a "squiggle duel". One makes a doodle, and the other has to riff on it.

Ah, the Web...


My favorite so far:


Squiggle -- art