Condensed knowledge for 2007-05-14

Today’s calorie-free serving:

  • Clive Thompson from the NYT has a detailed write-up of what’s involved if small bands want to get their name out there these days. The almost-requisite MySpace page is a given… But while the web makes it easy for them to get their names out there, keeping up with the fans becomes a full-time computer job — just what they were trying to avoid when they became musicians. And at some point, the relationship reaches a plateau. A single human being can only keep up with a limited number of fans before they are overwhelmed. But the fans don’t care, they each want personal interaction. Sounds like a very non-fun experience for the musician.
  • Mandy Sellars in England suffers from a very rare condition called Proteus Syndrome. She will likely lose her legs. The article talks about her desire to experience life, and daily struggles.
  • This is good reading for us IT geeks: Top 7 things system administrators forget to do.
  • The NYT has a great profile of Walt Mossberg. The article not only talks about his career, but also about where things are going in terms of journalism when you factor in this “new media” we keep hearing about…
  • Mental_floss talks about the world’s most wanted (and expensive) poo. It’s ambergris. Yuck.
  • Look At This has posted a full-length movie called “When the Wind Blows“. It’s about an elderly couple who build a bomb shelter. When nuclear war breaks out, they survive, but unfortunately succumb to the fallout radiation while waiting for the government to help them. Here’s a direct link to the video.
  • According to this article, Bill O’Reilly uses old propaganda techniques to bias his listeners toward those he doesn’t agree with. Interesting stuff.
  • A pair of falcons has made their nest in the building of the San Jose City Hall, and they’ve installed a falcon cam for us web visitors. Neat!
  • Some charlatan who claims he’s Jesus Christ incarnate is fooling plenty of people down in Orlando. Don’t these people bother to read the Bible?
  • A brave little terrier saved 5 New Zealand kids from being torn up by violent pit bulls. Unfortunately it ended up so injured they needed to put him to sleep, but the children weren’t hurt.
  • Apparently ceiling height can affect how people think and act. A taller ceiling can make you more creative and artistic. Very interesting stuff!
  • Weirdomatic has a post with examples of old, creepy ads. I don’t know, Max Factor’s beauty micrometer seems reasonable enough, given the need to look fairly perfect on screen. Have a look and decide for yourselves.

Condensed knowledge for 2007-05-10

Like chicken soup, but full of plump bits of juicy data:

  • The Cellar is running a few shots of a nasty deer accident in IotD. Kinda graphic, but thankfully the driver was okay. Watch for those deer, folks! Drive slower when you’re in wooded areas. You never know when one of them will jump out in front of you.
  • There’s a city called Raoul in Georgia (State of Georgia, that is). Funny to me.
  • I’ve posted a Star Wars “Mahna Mahna” mashup yesterday. I’ve also been driving Ligia crazy singing the song at home. I’ve even IM’d her with links to that video. 😀 Now it’s time to post the original video. Ah, good old Mahna Mahna! Jump down to see the video directly, or use the link to view it over at YouTube.
  • DailyMotion’s got a neat video called L’image parfaite (the perfect image). It’s packed full of visual illusions that peel away to reveal sad truths.
  • has a nice compilation of videos and images about and from Romania. I blogged (separately) about those images and videos here and here, some time ago, but it’s nice to revisit them.
  • New Scientist has a great post about spying on other people’s computer displays by tuning into the radiation emitted by the monitors themselves (CRT) or the wires (LCD). Interesting research.
  • Dark Roasted Blend has some really neat photos of newborn hedgehogs. Cute!
  • Urologists have approached the study of erectile dysfunction with engineering tools. The results are… interesting. [via]
  • BlogCritics is running a post on the proposed gas boycott of 5/15. I got news of this via email from my mom a few days ago. It sounded silly from the get-go. Remember that far-fetched idea of last year, when some people suggested we not buy gas on a certain day? What did that do? Absolutely nothing. Now they propose we stop buying from the two largest corporations: Exxon and Mobil. They say it’ll drive prices down. Not only is this silly, but it’s very short sighted. Even if it works, and I’m not saying it will, it’ll only be a short-term patch. Gas prices will still rise. I for one am happy about that. Let them rise. It’ll force people to purchase more fuel-efficient cars, and will provide a much-needed market drive toward the production of even more fuel-efficient cars. Incidentally, it’ll also encourage people to drive less and plan their trips better. I might also mention that it’ll provide added incentive for the oil and energy companies to explore new fuel alternatives, many of which are not financially viable unless the price of gas rises to match the production costs for the other fuels. So forget the boycott, and focus on the long-term solutions instead. It’s smarter and more effective.
  • I had no idea that Bill Gates was a bully at the office. But that’s his management style apparently. And, he curses, too. Who’d have thought? An ex-product manager at MS serves up the goods on his blog. [via]
  • This is absolutely awesome. If you haven’t heard of the movie Baraka, you should watch it. It uses time lapse sequences to explore life. This 10 minute segment published to Google Video is fantastic. You can also watch it below. I could write a whole essay about that segment alone. No wonder they say an image speaks a thousand words. The director looks at modern life and its dehumanizing aspects with a fantastic eye. Just watch the video and you’ll understand. [via]
  • Mental_floss has a post about a new re-telling of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in modern terms. It features striking paintings by Sandow Birk, and it’s animated in a very captivating way using cutouts. There’s even a trailer you can watch, and I’m making it available below as well.


Want to watch your recorded shows and movies over the Internet?

OrbWith all of the media hype surrounding Slingbox, and the Sony LocationFree Player, an easy and inexpensive (as in FREE) solution is getting overlooked: My Orb. But that’s to be expected. They haven’t advertised heavily, and they’re fairly unassuming. But don’t think that their product is underrated, because it’s not.

To use it Orb, all you do is install their software on your desktop system (only works with Windows XP machines), and it’ll let you access your photos, music and movies right through the Internet, right away. It’ll even stream your music in Windows Media Player or Quicktime streams, depending on what computer you access your files with (PC or Mac).

I wouldn’t have known about it myself, except that I bought a Creative web cam for my laptop, and found the software bundled onto the install CD. I tried it, and it really works like a charm! I simply installed the software, set up my account at My Orb, and logged in. All of my photos, music and videos were listed right in my account. I was able to stream my movies from my home machine, and watch them over the internet, at work. And if you’ve got a Media Center PC, it’ll even let you access your recorded TV shows, or the live TV stream. Cool!

And, what’s even cooler is that they’ve got this service called Orb Secure, which they make available for free to Creative web cam buyers, that’ll let you use your camera as a surveillance device. You can access the camera’s video stream at any time to see what’s going on at home, or even better, use it as a motion sensor, and set it to record video for a pre-set amount of time whenever movement is sensed. What’s more, this service will even email or SMS you whenever motion is detected. You can then watch either the live video stream, or the recorded video portions, right on the Orb site, and take action if needed (i.e., call the police). How cool is that!

So why spend your money on yet another piece of hardware? Use what you already have, and get your money’s worth. Look into Orb.


Dictionary of Information Security by Robert Slade

Dictionary of Information SecurityHave you ever wondered just what the jargon of information security specialists really means? What are all those arcane words they throw around to scare us into submission as they lock down our computers even tighter? “What do you mean, we can’t even install a screensaver now?! Can I at least use the bathroom without your permission?”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of dumb Information System Security Officers (ISSOs) at corporations and organizations. I’ve known a few myself. These are the folks that barely know what they’re talking about, and go by the latest article they read. Their reaction to a new piece of software is to lock down the system and disallow it even before they research it properly. Case in point: was Skype shut down at your place of business or at a friend’s workplace? That was a dumb ISSO in action. They also know so little that they simply throw words around, and anyone with a little knowledge of computers can tell when they mess up. “No, ROM is not RAM, and no, it’s not a 300 Gigabit hard drive, it’s a 300 Gigabyte hard drive.”

That’s why books like this Dictionary of Information Security really help. We can educate ourselves, and know when they’re wrong. We can tell when they’re BS-ing, and when they’re telling the truth. My experience has been that they BS for 80 percent of the time, and don’t know what they’re talking about for the other 20 percent. “No, RSS doesn’t stand for Really Scary Stuff, it stands for Really Simple Syndication. And yes, it’s okay for us to subscribe to RSS feeds. Really.” Or, “No, this is a perfectly harmless screensaver. It’s not a RAT (Remote Access Trojan). You’re a rat, for all I care.” I could go on and on…

I love this book. Robert Slade did a great job putting it together, and the terms are explained in language that anyone possessing a cursory knowledge of computers can understand. I’m amused by the forewords, acknowledgments and preface. They’re abnormally long for a book this small, but that’s to be expected. This is, after all, the first Dictionary of Information Security, and a precedent has to be established, so to speak. But once you get down to the terms, you forget about all of the beginning sections, because if knowledge is power, this book packs a wallop.

Get it, and read it. I know it’s hard to believe, after all, who’d read a dictionary, but I’d read this one. And keep it around for reference. And when your ISSO gets on your nerves, start encrypting all your emails with PGP if he doesn’t stop scanning them. Or, if he doesn’t stop blocking access to your webmail account, set up a VPN connection to your home network and do all your web surfing through that. That’ll knock his SOCKS off! Let the fun begin!

How To

Mechanical locks on the way out?

At least their current iterations, anyway. Turns out a $1 bumpkey – a key whose every notch was cut to its lowest setting can easily open any lock of a given brand. (You need a bumpkey for each brand/kind of lock). Basically, this bumpkey then becomes the master key for all of the locks that use a particular kind of key. Since there are about a dozen kinds of locks on the market, all a thief needs to carry around is a dozen or so bumpkeys, and he can get into your home in less than a minute.

It gets worse: insurance companies don’t reimburse for theft due to bumpkeys, because no damage is done to the door. They can’t determine that someone forced their way into your home, and they’ll simply assume that you left your door open, or are trying to scam them.

Both Make and Engadget are talking about this, and there’s a video as well. You won’t believe your eyes!

Lest you forget, you can open “tough” bicycle U-locks with a BIC pen.


The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Wired News picked up an interesting article from the Associated Press about the NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), which describes the purpose and capabilities of this youngest of government intelligence agencies. Its director, Lt. Gen. James Clapper (Ret.) is stepping down next month, and he is proud of the work NGA is doing.

Their capabilities are rumored to far exceed those of commercial satellite imagery, and they’ve become very useful in the aftermath of last year’s hurricanes. That’s when they set up mobile stations in the backs of Humvees and provided displaced and worried people with satellite images showing the condition of their homes.

They also work together with security staff in public places, like hotels, to tap into lobby cameras and combine that footage with mapping and graphical data to help secure events or take action in case of a hostage situation or other catastrophe.

My reaction to this is mixed. On the one hand, it’s nice to see a government agency actually helping out when a natural disaster occurs, and on the other hand, I have to wonder about people’s privacy given their serious capabilities.


The NSA wire-tapping scandal

I wrote about the wire tapping issue back on the 8th of April, and it looks like the it’s resurfaced big time. Just today, I read this USA Today article. Senators Leahy and Specter picked up the stoy, then CNN picked it up as well. Now the Washington Post published the results of a telephone survey that says most americans (60% or so) support the NSA’s collection of information on telephone calls.

It seems like all that’s happening is that massive amounts of data are getting crunched at the NSA, for statistical purposes, in an effort to try and determine patterns in terrorist communications, but the NSA (including Gen. Hayden) and the Bush administration have been going about it all wrong. As the USA Today article details, they used strong-arm tactics on the phone companies in order to get them to cooperate. When Qwest wouldn’t, they accused them of compromising national security and told them they wouldn’t get any more classified contracts… Is that the way to treat someone who has legal and understandable doubts about its customers’ privacy? I think it’s shameful.

So let me see if I get it straight. The government gives you classified contracts if you jump through their hoops, and once you get used to the taste of steady government money, threatens to yank them from your plate if you won’t compromise on your ethics. It looks to be a pretty good tactic, which works great on most executives. After all, every one of the phone companies but Qwest capitulated and handed over their data.

It’s all very sad. The NSA’s methods are classified, but I for one have a hard time seeing how one can gather real data about terrorists (people who are, for the most part, already flagged and monitored) by crunching through the phone calls of the average law-abiding citizen, unless you’re trying to make sure this same average citizen isn’t a terrorist.

Maybe it’s about establishing a “noise floor”, and that’s why they need a statistically-relevant mass of data? Once they’ve compiled a database of the common conversations of regular folks, anything out of the ordinary will spike above the “noise floor”, raising a flag for further examination. Just my uneducated guess. The method sounds good, but the manner in which they’re going about securing the data is, as I’ve said above, wrong.


Too many passwords equals less security

Found an article on CNET News which details a survey done in Britain. It showed that there is a directly proportional relationship between the number of passwords one has to remember for work, and the number of unauthorized accesses on the company’s networks. Here’s the link to the CNET article.

Having been a director of IT twice in my career, this is a no-brainer to me. And here’s another thing I’ve found: the more inane the password rules are, the easier you’ll make it for your users to write their passwords down on a sticky note, which they’ll store either right on the screen, under their keyboard, or in the top desk drawer. If you’re going to use passwords, you need to strike the RIGHT balance between password security and real-world usability. Sadly, many companies fail in this area.

Seems the way to go is single sign-on, with added proximity devices if needed.


Mozes: secure your keyword

From TechCrunch:

“Mozes is a Palo Alto based startup founded by Dorrian Porter that is tapping into the U.S. SMS (phone text) market.

It allows you to do all sorts of things via sms. Hear a song on the radio that you like and want to bookmark? Text the radio station (ie, KROQ) to 66937 (which translates to “Mozes”). Mozes will note the time and station name and bookmark the song title in your Mozes page (and sms you the song information). Meet someone who has a Mozes keyword? SMS their Mozes keyword to 66937 and store whatever personal information they’ve elected to share. And online advertisers can use a Mozes keyword to give you more information on the product…”

This promises to be pretty cool! Here is the link.


Photos as passwords foil hackers

I can’t believe how simple, yet incredibly useful this is! Instead of using silly passwords, with even sillier password rules that give you headaches, just use this! Choose a familiar picture as the password, have the system pixelate the heck out of it, then pick it out from among a group of pixelated photos every time you want to log on. How cool is that? Also, kudos to Tracy Staedter from Discovery News – just about every time I stumble on a cool article at Discovery News, it’s written by her. 🙂