Archive for March, 2008

We get signal. Main transceiver turn on

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

First of all, accept my apology for the groan-inducing title of this post. It popped into my head and I couldn’t not run with it.

Last night I was idly chatting away on a 2 meter band repeater in Rockville, MD (frequency 146.955 MHz) when someone by the name of Fred (callsign K3CSX) broke in at the end of the conversation and said he had a radiogram for KB3QNZ, aka me. He proceeded to read off a message, which I copied. Here it is:

Greetings via amateur radio. Congratulations on your new callsign, a most worthy and deserved achievement. Welcome to the amateur radio world. We are glad to have you with us and hope you will enjoy the fun and fellowship of the organization.

The message came from Gil (callsign W1GMF) out of Massachusetts. Of course, I immediately had some questions, such as: What is a radiogram? Who is Gil? How did this message get to me from Massachusetts? Luckily, Fred stuck around long enough to answer my questions.

My radiogram was transmitted using the National Traffic System, a nationwide, hierarchical message-passing system relying solely on amateur radio links, and thus not dependent on the phone system, the Internet, or any other communications infrastructure. The nodes in the traffic net have backup generators for use in emergencies, so the National Traffic System isn’t even dependent on the power grid. If everything else goes down, it will still be there. Think of it as a safety net for society, silently chugging away unnoticed in the background of everyday life, ready and waiting for a mega-disaster to spring into action at full speed and save many lives when all other means of transmitting emergency communications go down.

However, the NTS just isn’t used all that much in non-emergency situations (it used to be, but then email came along), so people like Gil routinely put messages into the system just to keep everyone in practice. And what better messages to send than greetings to new hams? He tracks down the new hams to send messages to by looking for recently published callsigns in the FCC’s database of licensed ham radio operators.

Read the rest of this entry »

Another reason Tor isn’t just for criminals

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

Tor (The Onion Router) is an incredibly useful large scale automatic proxy network that is mainly used for anonymous web browsing. Tor has taken a lot of heat from critics alleging that it facilitates criminal activities and that no one who isn’t doing anything illegal has any valid need for it (boy, does that argument sound curiously familiar). Well, here’s a good reason to reconsider. A U.S. District Judge has ruled that merely clicking on a hyperlink set up as part of a sting operation is probable cause for the FBI to bust down your door and confiscate all of your computer-related equipment.

That’s right, merely being unfortunate enough to click on the wrong hyperlink can now merit an FBI raid. Heaven help you if one of your online enemies has knowledge of such a link and tricks you into clicking it, kind of like a Rick’Rolling except with a SWAT team in place of a fresh-faced, carrot-topped, trenchcoated British crooner. Using Tor could protect you from the FBI intruding into your home when you’re doing absolutely nothing wrong. Still think there are no legitimate uses for it?

PZ Myers is expelled from Expelled

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

Notable atheist blogger and professor PZ Myers was prohibited from attending a screening of the movie Expelled tonight. Expelled is a piece of abominable dishonest creationist propaganda dreck produced by Ben “Bueller” Stein that plays the “Ohh, big bad science is persecuting us poor little honest religious folk!” card. Naturally, they’ve been hypocritical about it at every turn, excluding people from commenting or seeing their work much like they accuse the scientific establishment of (really, it’s just a case of projection). They secured an interview with PZ Myers by completely lying about who they were and what the movie was about, then carefully edited what he said to put science in the most negative light possible. Yes, that’s right, they prohibited PZ Myers from attending a movie that he appears in! So much for creationist honesty.

Oh, but that’s not the best part of the tale, not by a long shot. You really have to read PZ’s account for the punchline. It had me laughing out loud. Talk about shooting oneself in the foot!

How words bring down economies

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

One of my pet peeves is when people misuse words. I put a lot of effort into making my language as correct and precise as possible because I know I get distracted when I run across errors in others’ work. There’s a certain critical threshold of errors beyond which I am so irritated that I find myself unable to concentrate on or consider the central thrust of the writing (for example, blog posts written in IM speak). I don’t want to give readers of my work any excuse to dislike it beyond a real disagreement with my ideas.

But still, misuses of words are still pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. I would never dare write a blog post about how I get annoyed when people write “your” when they mean “you’re”, so what misuse of a word could possibly be prompting this blog post? It has to have greater ramifications than simply causing annoyance. And thus, it does. Misuse of the this word is partly responsible for the terrible financial situation the United States is currently in. Of course, I’m talking about the word “invest”. Follow along as I explain the power of words, and how co-opting of them can cause huge problems.

The United States is awash in bad debt. Aggregate consumer debt has grown larger than our Gross National Product. The housing bubble and economic growth of the past few years have all been predicated on an illusion of economic growth that simply wasn’t there. The personal savings rate is negative. You can only go so far with an economy that is built upon people spending money that they don’t have, and we’ve now reached that limit. All you have to do is look at the advertising right now encouraging people to borrow against their tax rebate checks to buy big screen televisions to know that there’s a problem.

And some of this can be traced back to the intentionally misleading ways in which the word “invest” is used, both by the advertising campaigns designed to make you feel better about frivolously parting with your hard-earned money and by people themselves rationalizing unnecessary purchases. But first, a definition. An investment is a purchase that can be reasonably expected to increase in value in real terms over time. For instance, the purchase of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc., is an investment. Even the purchase of fine wine can be an investment if you know what you’re doing (and over the past decade, the growth in value of cellars full of fine vintages has significantly outpaced the S&P 500). But keeping cash in a checking account (or burying it in coffee jars in your backyard, pretty much the equivalent) is not an investment, because its value will depreciate in real terms over time as its purchasing power is eaten away by inflation.

It’s very simple. Investment is the act of purchasing an appreciating asset. The act of purchasing a depreciating asset is, by definition, not investment. Yet so many people use the word “invest” when what they’re really describing is the purchase of a depreciating asset, for instance: “I’m going to invest in a new car” or “I’m going to invest in a new set of speakers”. People only started using this deceptive terminology because companies ran slick advertising schemes that perverted the meaning of the word. They rely on the word’s positive connotations persisting even when it’s used incongruously. It joins a long line of propagandist double-talk like “fighting for peace”, “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, and “freedom is slavery” (alas, there’s no better place for an Orwell reference).

I even heard a talking head on the local news refer to the purchase of a $5 lottery ticket as a “good investment” for the people who won the recent $270 million PowerBall jackpot. Gambling is not an investment! The expected payout of a lottery ticket is less than the cost of the ticket, so it is not an investment. Don’t confuse luck with financial prudence. For everyone who wins a PowerBall jackpot, there are millions of people whose “investment” in the lottery tickets didn’t pay off, and the total amount of money they threw away far exceeded the pay-out to the few lucky winners.

So the next time you hear someone refer to the purchase of a depreciating asset as an “investment”, please slap them with some common and fiscal sense. That poor innocent word has been perverted beyond all recognition into a synonym for “purchase” even though it absolutely does not mean the same thing. The best way out of our current financial mess is to promote real saving amongst the American populace to dig ourselves out of this debt hole. And to accomplish that, we need to wage a war of words and reclaim the true meaning of the word “invest”.

Arthur C. Clarke heads off to that great Rama in the sky

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

It is with much sadness that I learn of the death of Arthur C. Clarke at the age of 90 in his country of residence, Sri Lanka. Arthur C. Clarke was the last surviving member of the trio of great golden age science fiction writers affectionately known as the “Big Three”, which also included Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. Arthur C. Clarke’s work was hugely influential in the genre of science fiction. In particular, he co-wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick (and a novel of the same name), yielding a groundbreaking science fiction film that still stands on its own decades later.

Arthur C. Clarke was also hugely influential on a very personal level to me. He was my first introduction to the amazing genre of adult science fiction (up until that point I had read a lot of Tom Swift novels, but that’s more adventure than true scifi). I still remember, as an elementary school kid, finding a mysterious slim black volume amongst my dad’s book collection entitled Rendezvous with Rama. I don’t know what drew me to it, but I know I wanted to read it, and once I cracked that cover, I couldn’t put it down. It was unlike anything I had been exposed to up until that point. It had fantastic concepts, a ridiculously huge enigmatic alien spaceship, a vision of the future in which travel to space was becoming commonplace, forward thinking, and philosophical questions about how first contact would affect humanity. It even had a little bit of sex in it, something my young mind wasn’t quite ready to grasp but found fascinating nonetheless. I didn’t even realize something that awesome existed up until that point. I was enthralled.

From Rama I began branching out into other works by Arthur C. Clarke (2001 amongst them). Then I discovered Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Stephen Baxter, and other greats of the field. I have read dozens, perhaps hundreds, of speculative fiction novels since then, but I will never forget my first. It affected me in a profound way. Within short order at school I was writing stories about spaceships for class assignments. I lacked the skills to come up with a setting of my own that even came close to rivaling that of Rama’s, my gold standard at the time, so I shamelessly ripped it off, writing a story about a hollowed-out, rotating spaceship with a four letter name that came unannounced to Earth, exactly like Rama, except only bigger: I multiplied all of the dimensions by two. Surely that made it even better than Rama?

I will go to bed tonight sadder than when I awoke this morning, knowing that the world is a little poorer off for seeing the passing of one of its great creative minds. You may never have read any of his works, but Arthur C. Clarke touched generations of people, filling their minds with wonder and their hearts with hope. I know not how many people like me were introduced to science fiction through his works, but I do know that all of us, however many there are, will be mourning his death tonight. Rest in peace, and may your singular works continue to inspire for generations to come.

My first night of amateur radio

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

I got my dual-band transceiver earlier today (a Yaesu FT-7800R, if you must know) and I just spent several hours tonight playing with it. I made my first contact in short order after listening in on some local repeater bands and getting the hang of how a typical ham radio conversation works. The nice thing about being a ham in the Washington D.C. metropolitan region is that there’s no shortage of people to talk to, even at weird hours of the night. As I type this it’s just before midnight and I’m listening to three people out of Virginia talking about guns and the military (yeah, stereotypical, eh?).

As I listened to a conversation earlier in the evening I heard one guy identify himself as KB3QNY. I immediately had to break in and point out the coincidence, because my callsign is KB3QNZ! How often do you meet one of the two people who’s off your callsign by a single character? And what were the odds of running into said person within my first hour of ham radio? He was talking with a ham veteran trying to get his antenna set up correctly (apparently setting a bacon pan underneath the antenna indoors helped to establish a ground plane). Callsigns are handed out sequentially, so I know he got his license on the same day I did.

Then I called up my friend Greg, who I took the ham radio exam with, and within very short order we were talking to each other on a 2 meter band repeater out of Bluemont, Virginia. We needed the repeater because he only has a handheld radio, so while he might be able to hear me in simplex mode, it’s unlikely I would be able to hear him back. And then, as we were talking, a young woman named Stephanie broke into the conversation. She was transmitting mobile from a car her grandmother was driving. She has a bit more experience than us, so she got us into a simple round robin order after Greg and I accidentally transmitted over one another.

Thus, one of the most important distinctions between ham radio and Internet chat was immediately made clear to me: with ham radio, at least on the UHF/VHF bands, you’re only talking with people in the nearby area. Even if you never end up meeting those people in person, it’s still significant that they’re nearby. You can talk about the same places, the same local events, even that old standby of boring conversations, the weather. You simply don’t get anything like that in global Internet chat rooms (be they text or voice chat). The Internet has brought the entire world together, but at the expense of so many of the meaningful realities of place. I’m told that ham radio has a much similar feel to the local BBSes of yore than to today’s Internet. I believe it. There’s something pretty unique in this hobby that I’m only just discovering. I can see why so many people like it.

And you thought our legal system was bad

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

In 1396, a dispute between two rival clans in Scotland was settled with armed combat. Thirty men from each side fought in the crown-sanctioned battle. Only twelve survived.

Just be thankful we don’t have the judicial concept of trial by combat anymore.

In the 1940s, one woman’s dilemma

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

Ponder this situation, if you will. It is the 1940s. A young woman who has recently graduated college has been offered a full scholarship to a good law school. If she accepts the scholarship, she will become one of America’s first female lawyers (the profession was just barely opening up to women in the 1940s). Yet she’s also met a man and has fallen in love, and they want to start a family. She knows she will not be able to handle children and attend law school at the same time, because in those days, women stayed home and took care of the children and their husbands were the breadwinners. Becoming a lawyer would mean putting off kids for at least a decade. So she has to make a difficult choice: start a family or attend law school? What do you think she should do?

A lot of you are probably thinking she should choose to become a lawyer. After all, she would become one of the very first female lawyers, an accomplishment not to be taken lightly. She would be breaking through gender barriers and possibly become an inspiration to generations of women to come. Starting a family is so mundane and commonplace; how could you ever choose that over an excellent career?

But I’m in no position to judge. The woman in question is my maternal grandmother, and had she chosen to become a lawyer, I wouldn’t be here. She certainly doesn’t regret the choice. She’s gotten a lot more satisfaction out of her children and her grandchildren than she ever would have gotten out of a career as a lawyer. So the next time you ever consider a situation in which a woman is forced to choose between career and family, don’t judge too harshly. Having a family can be a lot more meaningful than anything else.

Blogging and writing, a dichotomy?

Friday, March 14th, 2008

Robin Hobb wrote a very thought-provoking piece on why she thinks blogging is evil, at least for writers. The argument goes that there’s only so much creative output one person can produce in a day, so any creativity going into a blog post isn’t going into writing a serious work. Blogging is easy; posts are written in bite-sized chunks and can be dashed off in thirty minutes. Compare that to writing a novel, which takes months if not years. Blogging also offers instant gratification and feedback, whereas serious writing involves toiling alone in the dark with no immediate reward.

Blogging is thus kind of like the fast food of the writing world. Sure, it tastes good and it’s quick and convenient, but overall, it’s not good for you. John Scalzi, another author, agrees with this argument. I reluctantly have to agree as well. Since I wrote my novel for National Novel Writing Month in November, I haven’t touched any serious writing. Why? Because any time I’ve had the urge to write, which is often, I’ve simply come to this blog and dashed off another post. It’s like fast food for the creative mind. There’s a stark dichotomy that I must face: Do I want to be a blogger, or do I want to be a writer? I cannot decide.

Unfortunately I don’t have the luxury afforded to me of being both writer and blogger like John Scalzi, because he generates enough income from his writing to not need a full-time job. I’m not anywhere close to having that kind of freedom. My time outside of work is limited enough that I do have to make careful writing decisions, and I can easily see that all of this blogging is cutting down my time for other writing to non-existent levels.

I don’t know what I’ll end up doing in the long run. But for now, I am going to consciously decide to take some of my blogging time and use it for writing instead. Writing makes me happy, and if I ever am going to try to make a go of it, I will need some works. Thanks to Robin Hobb and John Scalzi for jolting me into awareness of the situation. I wouldn’t have wanted to go another three months without writing, but that’s the path I was heading on.

If you have a laptop, install TrueCrypt today

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

One of the greatest strengths of the laptop, its portability, is also its greatest weakness, as you’ll realize if it’s ever stolen. Even if you maintain good physical security practices, like never letting your laptop out of your sight, there’s always the possibility it can be stolen. If nothing else, there’s the old armed robbery stick-up. And if that happens, all of your valuable personal data is in the hands of the bad guy — stored passwords, saved login sessions, proprietary company secrets, your naughty personal photos, etc. Having a laptop stolen can be worse in terms of your safety from identity theft than having your wallet stolen or your postal mail intercepted.

Luckily, there’s a simple solution to prevent all of this. It’s called TrueCrypt, and it’s Free Software. TrueCrypt supports file, volume, and system level encryption. I’m using system level encryption on my work laptop right now. What that means is that when you first turn on the laptop, you’re presented with a password entry prompt that must be successfully answered before any of the data on the disk can be decrypted. And after you’ve typed in your password, your system appears to be running the same as it always was, except that now all transactions to and from the hard drive are encrypted and decrypted on the fly. As soon as you turn off the computer, nothing on it can be accessed without entering the password again. Just set it up once and forget about it (except when turning on your computer, of course); you don’t have to worry about specifically making sure your data is safe because all of it always is.

Installing TrueCrypt was a breeze. I chose pretty secure settings and it still only took four hours to encrypt my whole drive. The hardest part is choosing and remembering a >=20 character passphrase. It being a passphrase is the key part — trying to remember twenty random characters is hard, but if they have some secret mnemonic meaning that only you know, it’s not bad. And that’s all there is to it. I haven’t noticed any degraded performance caused by TrueCrypt, and I can go on work travel secure in the knowledge that if anyone manages to steal my laptop, all they’ll end up with is the hardware, because there’s no way they’re getting any of the data off it. Unless they steal it while it’s on, of course. That’s what you would use file or volume level encryption for: protecting specific files so that they are only decrypted explicitly when you want them to be and they are safe at all other times, even when your laptop is turned on.

Of course, you can use TrueCrypt on your home desktop as well, but laptops are much more likely to be stolen, so it’s more important that they have TrueCrypt installed on them. If you are reading this and you have a laptop, install TrueCrypt right now. It’s simple to do and safeguarding your private data is worth the effort.