Archive for April, 2008

Penetration testing the TSA

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Last week I traveled from Washington, D.C. to Hartford, Connecticut and then back again on a business trip. I’m also really annoyed at recent Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regulations prohibiting liquids in carry-on luggage, as it’s inconvenient to have to separate everything out into a clear plastic bag, and even then, the total amount you can carry is heavily limited (not even a normal sized tube of toothpaste, for instance). For a business traveler who’s only gone for four days and doesn’t want to risk losing anything in checked luggage, these restrictions are limiting. And they’re not making us safer by any means; it’s really just yet another way in which we’re letting the terrorists win by making us afraid.

So on the return trip, I decided to check out just how stringent the liquids regulations were. Would they really know if I tried to bring a tiny little bit of liquid through the scanner? So I grabbed a single 1 oz bottle of shampoo from the hotel and put it in my luggage, then confidently strode through security.
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Unfortunately, they did pick up the shampoo, leading to a hand inspection of my luggage. I just played dumb, acting like I didn’t know both that it was even in there and also that it wasn’t allowed. The TSA woman, who wasn’t much older than I am, let me through with the shampoo immediately after finding it (I guess because I’m white and was wearing business attire, hardly the stereotypical terrorist). Funnily enough, the woman in front of me was stopped trying to take back half a dozen mini bottles of shampoo from a hotel. Obviously this kind of thing happens all the time at TSA scanning stations, while as far as we know, no one has ever tried to bring through liquid explosives.

So, yeah, the X-ray scanning machines are indeed good enough to pick up even a tiny bit of liquid, and if the TSA employee manning it is going their job “properly”, you will get your luggage searched. Having abandoned that avenue of search, I don’t know where to proceed next, as there’s no way to get through while wearing shoes or leaving a laptop in a bag (the one time I tried the latter, I ended up getting the laptop swabbed for traces of explosives). And I dare not try to bring a knife through security, both because I don’t want to be arrested and because I don’t want to lose a good knife.

The answer to “Where do people find the time?”

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Clay Shirky, who I saw at Wikimania 2006, has recently given an excellent speech that answers the question “Where do people find the time?” that is oft-asked to people with techie inclinations. I’ll let his own words speak for themselves. Click through to read the rest of it; his main thrust is dead on.

So I tell her all this stuff [about Wikipedia], and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

His point is dead on. Watching television is a completely passive, dead activity, yet the average American spends several hours a day attached to the tube. So don’t look down on the techie who’s enamored with the Internet; at least he’s doing something. Even playing World of Warcraft is better than watching television.

I’m happy to say that I’m down to just a few hours of television a week (I watch Battlestar Galactica, The Deadliest Catch, The Office, The Big Bang Theory, Doctor Who, South Park, and Mythbusters regularly). And I download everything I watch even though we pay for cable, just because I can’t stand wasting time on the ads. What have I done with all of that extra time that I don’t spend on watching television? I think my work speaks for itself.

A long, exhausting week

Friday, April 25th, 2008

My four day business trip to Springfield, Massachusetts ended up morphing into a five day trip when things didn’t quite go as intended, and now I’m completely exhausted. I’m off to bed. Tomorrow I’ll get a chance to seriously write on this blog.

A pilgrimage to bibliophile heaven

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

On Saturday, in between picking up parts at a hardware store to mount the large antenna I recently purchased on the roof, I went to a local used book store called the Book Alcove in Gaithersburg, MD (and don’t bother looking for them online; they don’t even have a website). It’s a great place with an amazing bibliophilic atmosphere.

The entire store is packed wall-to-wall with custom-made shelves full of books. Over time they’ve added braces made of 2x4s above the overstuffed bookcases to prevent them from falling over, so as you explore further into the depths of the shop that are hopelessly invisible from the front of it, you feel like you’re walking through a literary labyrinth, with books rising above your head to either side of you and crude arches above you.

The neat thing about this used book store that distinguishes it from the other used book stores around here is that they only buy directly from the public, not from libraries. They thus have a much older collection of books, and you can find all sorts of out-of-print, decades-old books that you would never find in library surplus. For example, I bought Vol. 11 of the 1909 Harvard Classics, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (given my love for the topic, how could I not?).

It’s very impressive looking what with its Harvard insignia on the front and everything, so this will make a great coffee table book, and at only $4, quite reasonable. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to regale how out of the 51 volume 1909 Harvard Classics set (the book store had most of the rest), Darwin’s work took up two entire volumes (his Voyage of the Beagle is Vol. 29). That’s 3.9% of the set, or more coverage than any other author.

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Biofuels: not just a bad idea, but pure evil

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

When I last tackled biofuels, my opinion of them was pretty much uniformly negative. So, what’s changed in the interim? Not much, just even more evidence that biofuels are evil (and I don’t use that word lightly). The New Statesman published an article on Thursday titled How the rich starved the world, and as soon as I read it I knew I had to discuss it here.

The article contains some pretty stunning statistics that I didn’t have in my previous post. Between 2004 and 2007, global corn production increased by 51 million tonnes, while the consumption of corn-based biofuel increased by 50 million tonnes in the United States alone. Add to that all of the corn used for biofuels in other countries and you can plainly see that, in the past three years, the amount of corn available for consumption worldwide has actually decreased. No wonder food prices are rocketing, and no wonder starvation is becoming a bigger problem worldwide.

If that were the sole extent of the problem, though, it wouldn’t be terrible. But it’s not. Next year the US consumption of corn for biofuels will rocket up to a ridiculous 114 million tonnes, which is one third of the entire production of the US. Using corn for biofuel doesn’t even save money and it doesn’t help fight climate change either — the only reason for it is the criminally myopic laws recently enacted by Congress. And hope isn’t on the horizon either, as all of the current presidential candidates are paying lip service to Big Agribusiness. This issue represents too much Midwest money and too many Midwest votes to pass up, even though burning food to power SUVs while millions starve verges on a stereotypical mad scientist level of evil.

So here’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to continue burning our food for use as fuel in what is easily the worst decision in decades. Food prices will get more expensive here, but we’ll mainly just hear lots of grumbling from the lower class who don’t really get much political representation anyway. But these effects will pale in comparison to what will happen in developing nations. Millions of people will starve to death as food prices continue to rise. Can any politician who’s voted in favor of biofuel subsidies and mandates really live with the knowledge that they’ve caused the deaths of millions of people? Is securing Midwest influence more important than doing what is right?

The sensible side of the barefoot walking movement

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Last year, I read a bizarre article (sorry, I don’t remember where) that ridiculed modern man for wearing shoes when millions of years of natural selection have designed us to walk best on our bare feet. I will admit I saw some appeal to that argument, but the article was written by a complete loony who recommended barefooted “fox walking” as the correct alternative to the “cow walking” he chides the rest of us shoed folk for employing. Fox walking involves landing on the balls of your feet, which just looks ludicrous and is also energy inefficient to boot.

But the article “You Walk Wrong” by Adam Sternbergh, published in New York Magazine, outlines a vision of barefoot walking that I can definitely get behind. The people he talked to aren’t advocating anything nearly so silly as fox walking. They don’t even advocate barefoot walking in many circumstances, because while not wearing shoes may lead to a more natural stride, they recognize that shoes provide vital protection in many urban environments. So by not being wacko, I find myself actually agreeing with most of the things they’re saying.

The article also talks about the Vivo Barefoot shoe, which sounds like such a neat shoe I think I may have to get a pair. The shoe provides a thin layer of outsole as foot protection, but is otherwise very flexible and provides no support or padding. It’s supposed to be almost like walking barefoot, except the added protection from sharp or abrasive surfaces, hot asphalt, etc., means you can wear them in many situations you wouldn’t even consider going barefoot. Also, they look for the most part like normal shoes, while going barefoot has all sorts of social stigmas attached to it.

Planning out a science fiction short story

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Last week I tried out a new ideation technique I sort of figured out on my own. Basically, I developed the shortest possible summary of a story, and then continued asking myself questions about more details of the story. As I asked more questions, some of the parts of the story became pretty fleshed out, while other parts of the story remain unresolved. So asking the questions is step one.

Step two is actually going back through and answering all of the questions, which is a bit more difficult (and will require more careful thought, because I actually have to come up with clever ideas that all fit into a cohesive whole). I haven’t done step two yet. But here are the unedited, flow of consciousness results of step one (and please, nobody steal my story idea, I plan on turning it into a full story). And, in the comments below, tell me if you think this method for coming up with story ideas is any good. Or, I suppose, if you think the story idea itself is any good.

Two main characters:
Jocques, a deserter soldier who has fled war not because he is a pacifist, but for more pragmatic concerns: he didn’t think the war was worth fighting for, and he did not want to chance his life.
Mehrit, a hermit living alone high up on a forested hill. His past is a secret and society simply seems to have forgotten about him. [And yes, the name is an anagram of Hermit, and yes, that name probably isn't final.]

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Heading out to Massachusetts

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

I’m traveling up to Massachusetts tomorrow for a week for my job. I don’t know the status of Internet access in the hotel I’ll be staying in. I suspect it might be costly, in which case I’ll just refuse to pay. So you probably won’t see me writing anything for this blog until Friday at the earliest.

But that’s okay. In anticipation of not having Internet access for the duration, I’ve written and queued up a few blog posts to appear while I’m away. Just don’t expect any coverage of breaking news or timely responses to your comments. If this starts becoming a regular occurrence it may get to be a bit tiresome, because writing lots of blog posts in one day is kind of exhausting.

Yet another reason to quit Facebook (YARTQF)

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

I know I know, me harping on quitting Facebook is old news. But now there’s yet another reason to quit Facebook. Some police in the United Kingdom are now harvesting user information via a Facebook application. And keep in mind that third party applications on Facebook are vetted poorly and often have much more access to your data than is required. But that’s not all …

The privacy settings on who gets to view what data about you only matter for other users, not applications. So even if you have your privacy settings set so that no one can see your uploaded pictures, with this application, the police can see them anyway. Best yet, even if you don’t install the application, if one of your “friends” does (and keep in mind it’s not uncommon to have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook), the police still get a nice deal of information on you. Feel like tracking down every one of the friends in your list and verifying that none of them is running, knowingly or unknowingly, a 3rd party application that is violating your privacy?

I could tell which way the wind was blowing back when Beacon was first announced, and so I decided to quit immediately. That was a good decision on my part. In the intervening time, Facebook has only gotten worse and worse. How many privacy violations are you going to put up with before you too decide that it’s time to log off for good? It’s just the police in England who are doing this now, but once other police departments realize this is possible, how will they resist?

Sin city (College Park, to be exact)

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for the three semesters prior to my graduation. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have an idea of my writing in college. Here is my 19th and final opinion column, Sin city, originally published May 4, 2007.

My bad luck with letting the editor choose the column title struck once again.


This is my last column for The Diamondback. I am graduating this semester, and I hope at least some of you out there enjoyed reading my columns these past three semesters. One thing that has stuck with me during my entire stint as a columnist is the utterly dysfunctional love/hate relationship between the city of College Park and the university. The city owes so much to the university yet seems to think it can get away with making no compromises.

I went to Maryland Day last weekend and saw the booth set up by the city of College Park. It had two bullet points on a large poster bragging about the city’s selling points: “Home of the University of Maryland” and “Cradle of Aviation.” As for the second bullet point, this may be news to some of you, but College Park does have a civilian airport that is pretty ancient. Without the university, this would be the city’s only bragging point: “We have an old airport.”

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