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Archive for May, 2007

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Clemson University and The New York Times Comment on the Five-Second Rule

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

More proof that nothing is beyond scientific study:

Prof. Paul L. Dawson and his colleagues at Clemson have now put some numbers on floor-to-food contamination.

First the researchers measured how long bacteria could survive on the surfaces. They applied salmonella broth in doses of several million bacteria per square centimeter, a number typical of badly contaminated food. On surfaces that had been contaminated eight hours earlier, slices of bologna and bread left for five seconds took up from 150 to 8,000 bacteria. Left for a full minute, slices collected about 10 times more than that from the tile and carpet, though a lower number from the wood.

What do these numbers tell us about the five-second rule? Quick retrieval does mean fewer bacteria, but it’s no guarantee of safety.

Next up for Dr. Dawson: “Liar, Liar, pants on fire.” Volunteer test subjects may contact Dr. Dawson directly. Qualification involves a weak sense of morality, a high tolerance for pain, and flammable pants.

(Hat tip: Will Fenton, Penn Band Alum)


Categories: The World Wide Weird | 2 Comments »

Old Symbols…New Meanings

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

The family and I were at the University of Pennsylvania this weekend, enjoying the annual Alumni Day festivities. We spent Saturday evening at the Marriott Hotel near the Philadelphia airport (accomodations during Penn’s alumni weekends are typically “grab what you can get,” given the number of people there for both the weekend, as well as the commencement excercises on Monday).

In any case, I’m in the hotel room and I look up at the wall, and see this by the fire alarm / sprinkler system:

A coat hanger with a red circle and line through it? Back when I was a student at Penn, that was the rather macabre symbol of the Pro Choice movement, signifying the “back-alley” abortions that would take place with coathangers if abortion were illegal. Was Marriott making a political statement? Or maybe a previous guest went around putting stickers on hotel room walls to publicize their views? A closer look cleared it up:

Just an electrical warning. I guess the symbol no longer carries the meaning it once did…

Categories: Random Acts of Blogging | 1 Comment »

Pun of the Year goes to ABC News…

Saturday, May 12th, 2007

Dateline: Seoul, South Korea. 18 high-wire artists compete for a $15,000 prize by trying to set the best time for crossing a half-mile long high-wire strung across the Han river.

ABC’s Headline?

Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo

Bravo, ABC. Bravo…

(hat tip: Mike Starr)


Categories: News and/or Media | 1 Comment »

Another blow to privacy…

Friday, May 11th, 2007

Google Analytics just revamped their interface to provide more (and easier to understand) results about the way people interact with your web page. Based on this data and a little bit of deductive reasoning, I can make this statement with reasonable confidence (if not reasonable grammar):

Yesterday, my wife’s mother’s brother’s wife’s brother googled his sister (that would be my wife’s mother’s brother’s wife), and then clicked on this page, the third result on the list he received, which, sadly, currently contains her old, non-working e-mail address.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: God Bless Google.

Now, I’m off to update that e-mail address…

Categories: Family Matters, Tech Talk | No Comments »

Where’s the Civil Rights Discussion?

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Yesterday, we learned about two violations of our civil liberties, the latest evidence of a much publicized trend that has earned the Bush administration their reputation as constitution shredders. Ironically, these particular offenses seem to have gone largely unnoticed.

The first involved a group of six friends, including three brothers who owned a simple roofing business, a Philadelphia taxi driver, and a convenience store clerk. The brothers are illegal aliens, two others are here on green cards, and the taxi driver is a U.S. citizen. In January of 2006, one of these men brought a video cassette into a local video store and asked to have it copied onto DVD. The video happened to be footage of arabic men shooting assault rifles and yelling “Allah-o-Akbar” and “Jihad!” and the customer happened to be of muslim descent. Based on this purely circumstantial evidence, the FBI infiltrated this group of friends and tracked them for sixteen months, including putting them under video surveillance during trips they took to the Pocono mountains.

We only learned about it yesterday when this came to light:

The suspects conducted surveillance of Fort Dix and other U.S. military installations in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, plotting attacks inspired by an international call for holy war against the West, officials said.

“My intent is to hit a heavy concentration of American soldiers, light up four or five Humvees full of soldiers,” [a U.S. attorney] quoted one of the suspects as saying.

They also discussed attacking two U.S. warships when they docked in Philadelphia and staging an attack on the annual Army-Navy college football game, prosecutors said.

[The FBI] obtained computer files [including] the wills of at least two of the 19 hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks [and] images of Osama bin Laden urging viewers to join their movement.

Fascinating that no one is complaining about the FBI’s egregious actions in this case.

The other event we learned about yesterday involves the data mining of U.S. citizens to determine what news articles they are reading, in order to “determine hidden patterns of uses.” You’ll recall the public outcry over this kind of analysis by the TSA for no-fly lists, by the federal government over Microsoft & Yahoo’s search results to prosecute online pornography, and by the NSA for obtaining phone records of known terrorists. Eric Lichtblau and James Risen of the New York Times even won a Pulitzer Prize in December, 2005 for their investigative reporting on the subject.

But this time, the New York Times is silent on the issue. Why? Because it’s The New York Times that’s doing the data mining. Janet Robinson, the Times’ president and CEO calls the R&D department, who came up with the idea, “a concept unique in the industry.”

Jeff Porten and I had several long debates on the subject back in May of 2006. His argument at the time was that searching the entire population for patterns is invasive because it gives them the ability to search for a particular individual. Specifically in the search engine case, the concern was not so much about the Yahoo checking up on what I was searching for, but about the government one day requiring that data via subpeona to make a case against an individual. Surely the same concern applies here, no?

Categories: News and/or Media, Political Rantings | 4 Comments »

ISBS Tech Guide: Windows Vista Security

Sunday, May 6th, 2007

Quite a lot has been written about Vista’s security features, and it basically sums up to this: Vista is more secure than XP, but the security features are so annoying that you’ll hate them instantly. So Microsoft still sucks and everyone should buy a Mac.

Allow me to elaborate a little:

It’s become obvious to the folks at Microsoft that most of what has made Windows behave badly in the past (i.e., security breaches and/or the dreaded “Blue Screen of Death”) has been poorly or maliciously written software running on Windows, and not the operating system itself. The complexity of the Windows architecture, while allowing great flexibility and control in most cases, makes it damn near impossible to plug every potential hole someone might stumble upon or intentionally exploit to do damage to a machine.

Vista represents a significant untangling of the architectural spaghetti, but the basic components (e.g., the registry) are still there, so the problems are not completely going away. The solution therefore, has become one of greater transparency to the end user. For the novice user, this works as a great safety net. For the more advanced user, it works as a CYA move for Microsoft, which will annoy some people.

Here’s how it works: If you launch a regular application within Vista, the application runs with no questions asked. However, if you run an application which, in turn, wants to run another application, Vista tells you that’s happening and asks for your permission. I call it the “Grey Screen of Fear.” The entire screen goes dim, and a single message box appears which says, “Windows needs your permission to run the following application: <blah>. OK?” In my experience, this most often happens when a web page wants to run an ActiveX control, or some other non-visible component. Also, some of the more in-depth Control Panel functions cause it to happen (basically, anything that writes directly to the registry).

If you say yes and then Windows proceeds to crash, the perception is now that this particular application is a bad actor and has crashed your system, as opposed to the typical “F*^%(#ing Windows!” reaction that dominates many blogs and message boards.

My advice for the novice user would be to take the Nancy Reagan approach: Just Say No. Sure, they may miss out on some high-end web content, but if they’re truly novices, that’s probably worth the benefit of not watching their machine melt down when the content turns out to be some Adware package. That, or they’ve wandered into the control panel too deeply and probably shouldn’t be there in the first place.

For the advanced user (and here I’m arrogantly lumping myself into this category), the whole thing hardly ever happens, unless you’re working through a specific problem, in which case you might come across it over and over again as you debug something, or work through a tricky install. This is the only time I found it annoying. And while you can turn it off, I’ll admit that despite my annoyance, I didn’t bother. In the typical case, though, when I click a link on a web page and get the GSOF, I’m typically thankful for the heads up. And, in the true test of whether a warning is useful or not, I have actually said no in some cases.

So color me pleased with Vista security thus far. My system has not crashed since I have it (roughly 3 months) despite being on 24/7. The closest I’ve come to a problem was a memory leak after processing some long movie files with Acrobat Premiere Elements, and that was solved with a simple reboot.

One other quick thing about Vista security: the “Run as Administrator” function. In previous versions of Windows, a typical install created one account that had administrator rights on the system (basically, the right to do anything it wanted), and then other accounts could be created with more restrictive rights. In Vista, even the default account isn’t truly an administrator. Some functions (in my experience, installs for software written before Vista was released), will give you an error message saying, “Administrator rights required for this action.” In that case, all you need to do is right-click on the app, and choose “Run as Administrator.” This enables whatever rights have been turned off by default, and provides a nice two-step process for high-security items that is both easy to remember and easy to do. Again, color me pleased.

The major implication for Vista security is often tied heavily to compatibility issues with software written for Windows XP or earlier. Since Vista is stricter about security than its predecessors, things that were allowed in Windows XP are now prohibited in Vista. In next week’s Tech Guide installment, I’ll discuss Vista’s compatibility issues and how I solved (or didn’t solve) the ones I encountered.

Categories: Tech Talk | 2 Comments »

Ladies & Gentlemen – Welcome to the 3,437,560th most popular site on the internet!

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

This is a cool site. It ranks web sites by popularity, and tells you what number you are.

With hundreds of millions of sites out there, I can’t say I’m that disappointed with 3,437,560…

Categories: Tech Talk | No Comments »

ISBS Movie Review: An Inconvenient Truth

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

There have been two movies in my lifetime that people kept insisting I must see. The first was Schindler’s List, which Spielberg expertly released right before the Jewish High Holidays, so that every rabbi in America would entitle his sermon, “You must see this movie.” Pretty powerful marketing strategy. As it turned out, I didn’t see it until years later, half out of defiance (I’ll see or not see whatever movie I damn well please, thank you very much…) and half out of the fact that I’ve really seen enough Holocaust movies to understand how awful it was, and really didn’t need another. They eventually put it on network TV, uncut and with no commercials, so I saw it then.

The second “must see” movie was An Inconvenient Truth. This one also waited about a year. Again, half out of defiance, but now half out of the fact that if my wife and I get a babysitter on a Saturday night, we’re going to see something more entertaining than Al Gore. Yes, even if it means destroying the planet. If you have young kids, you understand. This week, though, brought a business trip and a stop at Blockbuster (not in that order). So I watched the movie while sitting in a plane which flew up near the atmosphere and spit nasty, harmful chemicals at it. Take that, you green-niks!

I’m just kidding. In fact, the movie pleasantly surprised me. See, here’s the thing: Gore is working very, very hard to prove something that has already been proven true. And as anyone with any public speaking experience knows, when you’re backed up by the truth, you can speak for hours and make many compelling arguments in favor of your point of view. The result is a presentation that convinces everyone in the audience of something they already believed when they walked into the room. And as silly as that sounds, the communal “YES!” that comes along with it is very powerful.

What surprised me about the movie was how, well, moderate it was. Gore’s only point is that the earth is getting warmer, and that this is being caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide, and that this is being caused by the presence and activities of billions of additional humans, who generate carbon dioxide while doing everything from breathing to driving their cars. Gore does not advocate shutting down the airline industry, outlawing gasoline, or limiting the amount of toilet paper available per…um…sitting. (Note to Sheryl Crow: Yes, I know it was a joke. If you’re going around the country to clarify an issue that has been intentionally muddled by political opponents, how about you lay off the jokes, ‘kay?) All Gore wants us to do is understand that the problem exists, and do basic things to mitigate it. Things like conserve energy, use less gas, learn how to work your thermostat, etc.

Based on that message and that message alone, I think an objective view of the facts would suggest that he’s succeeding. Hybrid cars are appearing everywhere, major cities and large corporations alike are “going green,” and being personally enviro-friendly is becoming as chic as being anti-aerosol or anti-apartheid used to be. But an entire industry has developed around the cause, and the stakes have increased. In the movie, Gore quotes Upton Sinclair as saying, “It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.” Given the current state of the Global Warming debate (and, by the way, Gore refers to it exclusively as “Global Warming.” He never utters the term “Global Climate Change”), I think we can also agree that this is true: “It is difficult to make a man believe that a problem has been solved when his salary depends on him working to solve it.”

If I had any problem with the film, it was Gore’s pathological need to be more than just right. He needs to be dramatic as well, even to the point of twisting the facts to do it. This, I believe, is what ultimately sunk him in his 2000 election bid, and it’s presence here is palpable. First, there are the truly inexplicable asides about the hardships he has endured in his life. We cover the near death of his son at the age of six, his controversial loss in the 2000 election (Yes, he lost. Please spare me the snark), 9/11, and the death of his sister, daughter of a tobacco farmer, due to lung cancer. All of these things, he says, made him dedicate his life to solving the global warming crisis. Of course, these things happened over a period of 30-40 years, during which time he was consistently advocating for global warming anyway, so we can only conclude that these scenes are in the movie purely to tug at our heartstrings. They are sad, yes, but I found them distracting. Also, I had to laugh at the various scenes of Al Gore “studying” global warming data on his laptop. A closer look at the machine clearly shows that he’s working in whatever the Mac’s equivalent of PowerPoint is, and he’s editing slides, not studying data. Setting aside the fact that he says he’s given this slide show over 1,000 times, so the slides are probably already set, I’d be willing to bet a large sum of money on the fact that Gore didn’t create any of these slides himself. Once again – dramatic effect over substance (or even honesty).

Turning more toward content, I noted the order in which he presented his data. First, the carbon dioxide levels, then the temperature, then the polar ice caps, drying river beds and horrific floods, and then the population explosion (for those who haven’t seen the movie, he points out that it took thousands of generations for the earth’s population to reach 2 billion, but in only three or four generations, it will go from 2 billion to 9 billion). It occurs to me that if he had shown this slide first, the entire argument changes dramatically. Everything else becomes a function of how many of us there are, and since no one is advocating for killing off 7 billion people, we almost have to look at ways to adapt to this new reality, rather than ways to stop/reverse it.

Also on the questionable content side was the much-previewed simulations of the highly populated areas going under water if nothing is done. Two examples caught my eye: Holland and the World Trade Center memorial site (note that it’s not Manhattan that goes under water, it’s the WTC memorial site – much more dramatic that way). These are ironic because both sites are currently below sea level, and both have been protected by technology that was invented decades ago. Holland has a much heralded system of levees that protects its sub-sealevel cities, and the World Trade Center was built inside a concrete “bathtub” that kept the water from rushing in. In fact, the land excavated to build the WTC was appended to Manhattan island and now supports the World Financial Center, all despite the fact that the water level around the WTC site is higher than the ground.

There are other, smaller things too (his citation of escalating insured damage in storms, which depends as much upon the value of the property in the storms’ path as it does on the strength of the storms, his criticism about our rejection of the Kyoto treaty, despite the fact that the economic impact on the US was so severe that the Senate rejected it by a vote of 99-0, and his criticism of an economic impact slide which he claimed weighed the desirability of gold bars against the entire planet, when clearly the graphic was meant to discuss economic impact vs. environmental impact – a legitimate topic no matter what side of the issue you’re on).

But again, these are minor criticisms, and speak more to Gore’s affinity for hyperbole than his overall point, which is that global warming exists, and we need to react to it. On that point, he was very convincing to just about everyone who watched the movie, except perhaps those who adamantly didn’t believe it going in, and who likely walked away unconvinced.

What’s important now that the movie is out there, is how we respond. The current strategy seems to be purely political – disparaging everyone who disagrees with anything Gore says, rather than discussing reasonable alternatives (or even, heaven forbid, market opportunities) for how to deal with the issue.

I’ve compared global warming to Y2K before, and I remain convinced they are similar. In the coming years, steps will be taken to address the issue. These steps will prevent the predicted calamities from occurring. And fifty years from now, someone will look back at the movie and call Gore an alarmist who predicted massive flooding, population displacement and death that never came. And like the thousands who worked so hard to address Y2K, he will have provided an invaluable public service that will go largely un-thanked.

Such is the way of things, I guess…

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Movie Talk | 1 Comment »

The FBI gets cyber-tricky…

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

OK, so there’s a nutcase out there writing threatening letters to the TV networks because they’re only televising cheerleaders who are not dressed provocatively:

The FBI had decided it was time to go public with its investigation into a series of bizarre, threatening letters — some laced with insecticide — that complain about the way television networks depict college cheerleaders.

[FBI Agent Fred Gutt] said investigators want the public’s attention and help in locating a person whose tirades appear unique: The author says sports broadcasters give more coverage to cheerleaders who show the least skin.
“It does seem the opposite of what you’d associate with exploitation,” Gutt said.

I guess nothing should surprise us at this point. But here’s what I found most interesting:

Investigators had hoped that the letter writer would surface during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, when television coverage peaks.

“There were things we were attempting to do to identify people,” Gutt said. Gutt didn’t elaborate, but one OSU source said that a fake cheerleading Web site was created to try to trap the letter-writer.

The source said the Web site address was put on the side of an Ohio State cheerleader’s megaphone, and the FBI got the television network to show the megaphone for 3 seconds. Those who visited the Web site got an error message, which was intentional. The source said the FBI was looking for hits from the northwestern United States. The site got about 1,000 total hits, the source said.

I think this is as fascinating as it is creative. A weirdo like this would seem almost guaranteed to visit such a site. First of all, he’s probably watching the games intently, especially when the cheerleaders are on camera. Second, the website seems like a perfect outlet for him to rage against the machine, so to speak.

But then my mind wanders back to the discussions we had during the whole wire-tapping, bank-record-tracking, Google-search-history-subpoenaing craze of 2006. About 1,000 people were investigated by the FBI without their knowledge and for doing something completely legal and totally harmless. One would assume that the FBI captured their IP addresses and endeavored to find out more about them: where they live, where they send/receive mail, what other sites they visited, etc. Is this warrantless wire tapping? An invasion of people’s privacy? Or is it a smart way to build your case against a potentially dangerous individual, in hopes of making your case for a warrant and/or arrest? Certainly the other 999 people weren’t harmed in any way by the investigation (unless of course they were caught doing something else illegal at the time). I find myself uttering the phrase that automatically loses this argument: “innocent people have nothing to hide…”

All in all, I’m glad the FBI does things like this. If I’m one of the people they’ve investigated for something over the past few years, that’s fine with me. As long as they don’t accuse me of a crime I didn’t commit, inconvenience me in some way, or damage my reputation by implying that their interest in me implies some guilt, I honestly don’t care (or even want to know, for that matter).

But I can see how others would. This line is grey and will remain grey until some bright lawyer out there figures out a way to codify it into a law people can agree on…

Categories: News and/or Media | No Comments »

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