Monthly Archives: August 2006

GM car of the future

Check out this BBC video of a test drive in the GM Highwire. This experimental car has a few interesting tricks up it’s sleeve. In fact, if I was in marketing I would call a production model the “GM Chameleon”.

Where do we go from here?

Scott Bradner’s recent NetworkWorld column “What’s to become of the Internet?” pointed me towards two reports (1992 and 2006) by internet arcitect Dave Clark discussing how he feels a new, better Internet should work. Yet I disagree with some of the primary changes he proposes.

For example, Clark would like to see a basic security architecture that includes authentication of internet users. Certainly, this could bring about great changes such as the tracking and prevention of worms, viruses and spam. At what cost? Perhaps the cost of anonymity. While some would argue the benefists outweigh the costs and security requires authentication I would argue that much of the success of the Internet is based in our ability to be anonymous (or at least have the feeling of anonymity) when we choose. By building authentication into the architecture it would be much easier to track just where each user goes and what they do on the Net. It also legitimizes such tracking “in the name of security”. Just as importantly, how would people’s use of the Internet change if their identity was tied to their activities. Would the Internet be as successful or pervaisive as it is today?

Thoughts on the TSA liquid ban

In a recent post to Dave Farber’s Interesting People email list by Perry Metzger makes a number of good points about the current ban on carry-on liquids during air travel. I share many of his sentiments and encourage you to give it some critical thought as well.

First they came for the nail clippers, but I did not complain for I do not cut my finger nails. Now they’ve come for the shampoo bottles, but I did not complain for I do not wash my hair. What’s next? What will finally stop people in their tracks and make them realize this is all theater and utterly ridiculous? Lets cut the morons off at the pass, and discuss all the other common things you can destroy your favorite aircraft with. Bruce Schneier makes fun of such exercises as “movie plots”, and with good reason. Hollywood, here I come!

We’re stopping people from bringing on board wet things. What about dry things? Is baby powder safe? Well, perhaps it is if you check carefully that it is, in fact, baby powder. What if, though, it is mostly a container of potassium cyanide and a molar equivalent of a dry carboxylic acid? Just add water in the first class bathroom, and LOTS of hydrogen cyanide gas will evolve. If you’re particularly crazy, you could do things like impregnating material in your luggage with the needed components. Clearly, we can’t let anyone carry on containers of talc, and we have to keep them away from all aqueous liquids.

See the elderly gentleman with the cane? Perhaps it is not really an ordinary cane. The metal parts could be filled with (possibly sintered) aluminum and iron oxide. Thermit! Worse still, nothing in a detector will notice thermit, and trying to make a detector to find thermit is impractical. Maybe it is in the hollowed portions of your luggage handles! Maybe it is cleverly mixed into the metal in someone’s wheelchair! Who knows?

Also, we can never allow people to bring on laptop computers. It is far too easy to fill the interstices of the things with explosives — there is a lot of space inside them — or to rig the lithium ion batteries to start a very hot fire (that’s pretty trivial), or if you’re really clever, you can make a new case for the laptop that’s made of 100% explosive material instead of ordinary plastic. Fun!

No liquor on board any more, of course. You can open lots of little liquor bottles and set the booze on fire, and besides, see the dangers of letting people have fluids. Even if you let them have fluids, no cans of coke — you can make a can of coke into a shiv in a few minutes. No full sized bottles of course, since you can break ’em and use them as a sharp weapon, so no more champagne in first class either, let alone whiskey.

Then, lets consider books and magazines. Sure, they look innocent, but are they? For 150 years, chemists have known that if you take something with high cellulose content — cotton, or paper, or lots of other things — and you nitrate it (usually with a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids), you get nitrocellulose, which looks vaguely like the original material you nitrated but which goes BOOM nicely. Nitrocellulose is the base of lots of explosives and propellants, including, I believe, modern “smokeless” gunpowder. It is dangerous stuff to work with, but you’re a terrorist, so why not. Make a bunch of nitrocellulose paper, print books on it, and take ’em on board. The irony of taking out an airplane with a Tom Clancy novel should make the effort worthwhile.

So, naturally, we have to get rid of books and magazines on board. That’s probably for the best, as people who read are dangerous.

And now for a small side note. It is, of course, commonly claimed that we have nitro explosive detectors at airports, but so far as I can tell they don’t work — students from labs I work in who make nitro and diazo compounds for perfectly legitimate reasons and have trace residues on their clothes have told me the machines never pick up a thing even though this is just what they’re supposed to find, possibly because they’re tuned all the way down not to scare all the people who take nitroglycerine pills for their angina.

Now, books aren’t the only things you could nitrate. Pants and shirts? Sure. It might take a lot of effort to get things just so or they will look wrong to the eye, but I bet you can do it. Clearly, we can’t allow people on planes wearing clothes. Nudity in the air will doubtless be welcomed by many as an icebreaker, having been deprived of their computers and all reading material for entertainment.

Then of course there is the question of people smuggling explosives on board in their body cavities, so in addition to nudity, you need body cavity searches. That will, I’m sure, provide additional airport entertainment. By the way, if you really don’t think a terrorist could smuggle enough explosives on board in their rectum to make a difference, you haven’t been following how people in prison store their shivs and heroin.

However, it isn’t entirely clear that even body cavity searches are enough. If we’re looking for a movie plot, why not just get a sympathetic surgeon to implant explosives into your abdomen! A small device that looks just like a pace maker could be the detonator, and with modern methods, you could do something like setting it off by rapping “shave and a haircut” on your own chest. You could really do this — and I’d like to see them catch that one.

So can someone tell me where the madness is going to end? My back of the envelope says about as many people die in the US every month in highway accidents than have died in all our domestic terrorist incidents in the last 50 years. Untold numbers of people in the US are eating themselves to death and dying of heart disease, diabetes, etc. — I think that number is something like 750,000 people a year? Even with all the terrorist bombings of planes over the years, it is still safer to travel by plane than it is to drive to the airport, and it is even safer to fly than to walk!

At some point, we’re going to have to accept that there is a difference between real security and Potemkin security (or Security Theater as Bruce Schneier likes to call it), and a difference between realistic threats and uninteresting threats. I’m happy that the police caught these folks even if their plot seems very sketchy, but could we please have some sense of proportion?

Making STEM work with public/private partnerships

Those teachers involved with Technology Education, at least in the United States, are bound to be familiar with the STEM (Scient, Technology, Engineereing & Mathematics) acronym/movement. What you may not know is that the National Science and Technology Partnership (NSTEP) is an education/private partnership designed to create a bridge between educators and electronics companies.

One of their initiatives aimed at Technology Education is called TechXplore which is a research based mentorship and competition designed to improve the science and technology skills of students.

Repairing MySQL tables with myisamchk

About the only time I have a problem with one of my MySQL database servers is if the power goes out at just the wrong time during a database write. Luckily for me MySQL comes with a handy utility called myisamchk which can be used to repair corrupted database tables. Instructions for how to use this utility can be found on this page in the MySQL documentation.

Experiments in backyard ballistics with Mentos and Soda Pop

Perhaps he’s not the first to experiment with it but Steve Spangler has a great deal of information about the now popular (at least with the YouTube and Google Video crowd) sport of creating geysers out of soda pop and mentos on his website. From science teachers looking for an eye-catching and engaging demo for the first day of school to crazy teenagers looking to make “cool stuff” happen in the backyard this experiment is bound to be a crowd pleaser.

Ross Anderson’s Security Engineering Book Free Online

Author Ross Anderson has convinced his publisher (Wiley) to let him make his book, Security Engineering, available for free online. I’ll let his reasons speak for themselves:

My goal in making the book freely available is twofold. First, I want to reach the widest possible audience, especially among poor students. Second, I am a pragmatic libertarian on free culture and free software issues; I think that many publishers (especially of music and software) are too defensive of copyright. I don’t expect to lose money by making this book available for free: more people will read it, and those of you who find it useful will hopefully buy a copy. After all, a proper book is half the size and weight of 300-odd sheets of laser-printed paper in a ring binder. (My colleague David MacKay found that putting his book on coding theory online actually helped its sales. Book publishers are getting the message faster than the music or software folks.)

If more authors and publishers felt this way the world would be a better place. If I’m going to read an interesting book I’m going to buy it and carry it around in dead-tree format but for searching quickly for something that “I know I’ve read somewhere” it’s hard to beat a digital format.

Low cost electronics lab equipment

In the past I’ve had good luck purchasing inexpensive elecotronics lab equipment such as autoranging digital multimeters from and would still recommend them but another option has come to my attention. In reviewing some of my literature from the January Consumer Electronics Show (read: working on the backlog of work on my desk) I stubled across the website. To be sure these folks specialize in meters and a few power supplies, not the broader range of equipment that Circuit Specialists has, but if you need to outfit an electronics lab, shop or just yourself with a handy digial multimeter they may be just the ticket.

Canon Rock Guitar Video

If you haven’t seen it yet be sure to check out the “Canon Rock” guitar video by funtwo. This electric guitar version of Pachabel’s classic “Canon in D” was arranged by JerryC in the style of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (another great group). While JerryC has his own version I prefer the cover by funtwo. The arrangement apparently requires that you have mastered the skill of sweep-picking, something easier said than done. The video has gotten popular enough that New York Times reporter Virginia Heffernan did some research published in this article about just who funtwo is and, after discovering at least one imposter, ended up concluding it is Jeong-Hyun Lim a 23 year old from Korea who studied at Auckland University in New Zealand where he mader the now famous recording. For those interested you can still download a copy of the original WMV file from the site where it was originally uploaded by funtwo, the Korean music site

Have you seen the light?

I don’t know about you but I’m still waiting for fiber optic connectivity to my house. If you’re one to dwell in the past you could check out “The $200 Billion Broadband Scandal” aparently written by someone with a strong dislike for the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) but that’s unlikely to change where we are today.

Perhaps it’s time for a paradigm shift in communications facilities. Telephone companies are whining that it’s simply too expensive to install fiber connectivity to the premises and the payback is too slow. Of course these are the same companies trying to extort money from web service providers such as Google and Yahoo claiming they aren’t paying their fair share and the same companies which have scammed us in the past (see above). But what if the telephone companies didn’t own the fiber network? What if your local municipality installed the fiber from your house back to a central point, leased it to you and allowed you to make a service agreement with any ISP who would be responsible for “lighting up your fiber”, maintaining the circuit and providing access?

This is just the proposal made by Bob Cringely in a recent column. It appears that someone may have been listening too as the Register (and later Cringely) pointed out the Berkley, California city council tabled a proposal for citywide WiFi to expore a fiber optic proposal instead. If the council moves ahead with the fiber plan and it is sucessful this could result in a string of such projects nationwide, speeding fiber deployment from coast to coast.

It’s worthwhile to look at where this idea originated and some of the details. It seems Bob got the idea (via Bob Frankston one of the VisiCalc inventors) from Bill St. Arnaud, a Canadian researcher. In this presentation St. Arnaud outlines a proposal for muncipal fiber leased to customers. SUch proposals have existed in the past but are often fiercly fought by incumbant carriers worried about loosing marketshare. What makes this proposal different is that the city only installs the fiber loops from a common access point to individual subscibers, they do not provide any services. Customers are responsible for contracting with a seperate service provider to receive voice, data or TV service over the fiber. The idea is that incumbant companies, along with startups, would provide these services and have little to loose as they have not made the large invenstment in running cable to individual subscribers. Another benefit is that the local loop would not be owned by a company removing the need for an incumbant to lease local lines to a competitor as is now common practice in the telephony industry and increasing competitve choice by reducing the barrier to entry.

St. Arnaud further suggests that the customer’s contracted service provider would be responsible for maintaining the fiber (either itself or, more likely, subcontracted out) removing ongoing maintenance expense from the municipality. In addition, the municipality would be able to use fiber connectivity itself to connect various city, county and school buildings to a high speed data network. The presentation suggests that a fiber system such as this using either optical ribbon fiber or micro-conduits would cost only about $1000-1500 per subscriber at 25-40% take up. St. Arnaud also points to a similar installation in Sweeden which he claims has been extremely successful.

I would love to see how this idea would play out in the real world, and would love for my community to be the one to try it yet that seems unlikely. In the meantime I’ll monitor resources such as the Fiber to the Home Council and FiberFirst Minnesota for details about fiber connectivity proposals in my neck of the woods.