Misc: August 2007 Archives


August 28, 2007

OK, you've all heard that some Hash House Harriers were arrested for laying down flour trails in New Haven:
Just before 5 p.m., the police received a call that someone was sprinkling powder on the ground. The store was evacuated and remained closed the rest of the day.

The incident prompted a massive response from the New Haven police and authorities from surrounding towns.

Dr. Salchow was at home waiting for the others who took part in the four-mile run to arrive for an after-party when his wife called to say there was a problem. He biked to Ikea and tried to explain to the police that the powder was just flour.

The club's tactics have caused problems elsewhere.

In 2002, a trail of flour caused a mall in Fayetteville, N.C., to be evacuated for two hours. A few months earlier, two runners in Oxford, Miss., were arrested after using piles of white powder to mark a route through a downtown square.

Dr. Salchow said that after the 9/11 attacks, club members started using chalk to mark courses. But as fears eased, they went back to flour because it is biodegradable. He said they would start using chalk again or find somewhere else to run.

Jessica Mayorga, a spokeswoman for Mayor John DeStefano Jr., said the city planned to seek restitution from the Salchows, and will meet Monday to decide how much.

Ms. Mayorga said they should not have used the flour if they knew it had caused scares in the past.

"You see powder connected by arrows and chalk, you never know," she said.

It's true, you never do know. In fact, I understand that arrows and chalk is the preferred method of bioweapon dispersal.

Seriously, say I had a weaponized bioagent in some sort of power. I can think of probably twenty different methods to use for distributing it that would be better than this (explosives, ventilation systems, just blowing it into the air with a leafblower, spreading it on food at the grocery store, water supply, etc.) Leaving it in a pile on the stret with an arrow pointing to it strikes me as one of the worst possible ways. Given the actual number of terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11, it's probably time to stop going to full panic mode whenever something the least bit out of the ordinary happens.


August 23, 2007

Mark Kleiman argues against the arguments against a fast withdrawal from Iraq:
More Iraqis will probably die of violence just after a U.S. withdrawal than are dying violently now. That will hand the pro-war forces a rhetorical "I told you so." Anyone who can blame what happened in Cambodia on U.S. doves is clearly shameless enough to blame the civil war in Iraq on the people who opposed the invasion rather than those who carried it out and then bungled the occupation.

But that's not a good enough reason to hang around, unless at some point it stops being true: that six months, or a year, or two years, or five years from now we would be able to withdraw and not have civil war and massacre follow. If all we're spending blood and treasure on is postponing a catastrophe we can't prevent, the "humanitarian" argument against a fairly rapid withdrawal collapses.

I don't have a good enough understanding of the situation to do a real cost/benefit analysis, but this general form of reasoning is clearly untrue. You wouldn't tell someone with a treatable but otherwise fatal illness that there was no point in treating him because he'd die of old age eventually anyway. Cost-benefit decisions need to be made at the margin and if in any given year vastly more people in Iraq would die if we withdraw than if we didn't then all other things being equal, there seems to be at least some humanitarian argument for us staying that year, even if there's no reasonable possibility that the situation will ever improve. After all, that's another year of life that those people who are not dead got to enjoy.

Obviously, this is just the beginning of the analysis, not the end, since you then have to ask where else we could be spending our bloor and treasure and would that other place have, as seems likely, a better cost/benefit ratio? But the simple argument that we're just postponing the inevitable doesn't seem to do the job.


August 22, 2007

I was going over my first iPhone bill this morning and noticed something interesting: they don't seem to be reliably billing in-network calls as mobile-to-mobile. One of my friends has an iPhone and so of course he has AT&T and we should be getting free mobile-to-mobile minutes, but we're not.1 I've called AT&T customer service and they say they're working on it. You may want to check your own bill.

1. Note: you have to be careful reading your bill because on nights and weekends, the minutes get billed as NW, not M2M. But I'm getting these minutes billed as daytime minutes as well.


August 21, 2007

Slate's shopping column always struck me as a little weird, but typically I don't know anything about the products they're reviewing. However, this week, they decided to cover a product I do know: water bottles. Like Nalgene users everywhere, Laura Moser discovers that the widemouth is a bit too wide:
Even without my prompting, audience responses were overwhelmingly negative. The mouth was judged impractically wide, and the bottle itself doesn't fit in most bike cages and car cup holders. Cheaper than most options, yes, and definitely a cinch to wash either by hand or in the dishwasher. But after a day in the sun, the water tasted flat and stale.

Is it really that hard to find out that Nalgene bottles come in multiple sizes? In particular, they come in smaller sizes and narrow-mouth bottles. You can also buy an insert that fits in the mouth of the bottle and stops it from spilling. I don't have any special brief for Nalge bottles, but I do wonder what the point of doing a consumer review is if you're not going to really survey the space.

Oh, and BTW, I don't have an informed opinion on Bisphenol A. I do, however, own a number of Nalge bottles and use them on and off.


August 16, 2007

Bike Snob NYCCilogear makes packs:
Trek engineers were finally liberated from the crippling constraints of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, whose irrational demands for a durable, comfortable, and practical road racing bike long prevented them from implementing the types of design improvements we real cyclists all long for--most important among them being larger head tube bearings, the elimination of pesky bottom brackets, and proprietary everything. The Madone is their ultimate achievement in fulfilling the new Trek mandate--to create a bicycle that cannot and will not accept any components manufactured by a company other than Trek.

Thanks to the wealth of diagrams and photographs that have accompanied the introduction of the new Madone, it was completely unnecessary for me to ride it, because it's abundantly clear the carbon fiber construction and layup yielded a frame that was laterally stiff yet vertically compliant. More important though is the fact that Madone riders will no longer have to go to the bike shop when they have a problem with a noisy, rough, or sloppy bottom bracket. Rather, they will only have to go to the bike shop when they have a problem with their noisy, rough, or sloppy proprietary bottom bracket shell. And if you've ever owned a bike that takes a more-or-less standard seatpost size, you can relate to the frustrating and time-intensive process of choosing from among the vast array of posts available to you on the market. With the Madone, Trek have taken the choice away from you, so instead of agonizing over seatposts you can spend more time riding. But enough of all this technical jargon. The fact is that this bike climbs like a fever on a dumbwaiter, descends like a German U-boat, cuts corners like a UAW welder, and accelerates like a Fiat strapped to an ICBM. Overall, just knowing that you're riding a bike that puts a pair of pedals, a seat, and some handlebars under you in a completely revolutionary way is enough to make you drive that much faster when you've got this baby strapped to the rear rack of your Honda Pilot.

Cacaolab, home of the world's most secure chocolate:

The store carries a range of truffles and other chocolate candies, but he also sells bars of chocolate, some of them single origin. In the middle of these bars, in a silver package that sets it apart from the dark packaging of the other more "ordinary" Marcolini bars is the Limited Edition, made from his own private stash of Mexican Porcelana Criollo. And, it's a $15 for 2.5 oz of chocolate. Yikes.

Being a complete chocolate fanatic, and admitted sucker for status items, this (and an assortment of the other single origin specialities) was a clear must-have. (In the most effective sales pitch ever, the clerk explained that they only had 9 bars left, and would not be getting any more for a year.) Got to give Marcolini points for designing a great retail experience!

Outside of the theatrics, this is one monumental chocolate. The Porcelana bean is known for being a very light, fruity bean. Latin American beans, in general, have a chocolate taste that builds more slowly and is less powerful than the more monochromatic, more directly "chocolatey" African beans. In Marcolini's Limited Edition, he's roasted and conched these sophisticated little seeds into a baroque wonder. One of my favorite things about tasting really quality chocolate is how the taste can play out and elaborate over time. Different cocoa butter fractions will melt at different points, and cocoa solids will release different flavors as the chocolate melts on the tongue. In a good Venezuelan or Madagascar chocolate, this shows up as a pleasant fruit or floral note that typically plays out after the initial chocolate and nutty flavors. This chocolate is sophisticated enough that it carries at least three distinct fruit notes that play out sequentially on the tongue. It's full of pineapple, apple, and banana notes that blend seamlessly into the bready and nutty lower flavors. There is very little bitterness or astringency to distract from this little taste melody. The Limited is clean and light enough that the middle flavors actually are quite similar to the softness of a milk chocolate. The typical punchiness of a lower end dark chocolate is almost entirely absent. The Marcolini has a complexity evident in very few dark chocolates, with a gentle character that makes milk chocolate seem redundant. Extraordinary.


August 15, 2007

MSNBC has a fairly disturbing article about how abusive spouses, *-friends, etc. are using tracking technology (GPS, spyware, etc.) to keep tabs on their victims:
Leah lived for seven years with an abusive man. The bruises, the bleeding and the isolation were only part of his strategy to control her, she says. He turned technology on her, too. He installed spyware on her computer, read her e-mail, tracked her cell phone calls, spied on the Web sites she visited, even attached a GPS locator device to her car.

One day, after she visited her college Web site, he accused her of trying to contact a former boyfriend. The punishment was severe.

"He beat me all weekend after that," she said.

There's nothing new about abusive spouses using technology to terrorize, said Cindy Southworth, technology director at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. What is new is that now nearly all abusers use high-tech spying tools to try to extend their domination, she said.

I'm a bit skeptical of the "nearly all" claim (though without any evidence against it) but it's certainly very straightforward to do any of this stuff. This also seems like a case where the attacker has an enormous advantage. Just to take the GPS case, a GPS unit can be stuffed into a unit the size of a large watch. It's pretty easy to hide something like that in a car. It's true that GPS has trouble getting a fix without clear access to the sky, but you don't need it to work all the time to get a pretty good idea of where someone has been.

On the other hand, one could imagine a victim of abuse using this kind of communications technology in a positive way: microphones and cameras are now incredibly small so gathering evidence of abuse has gotten a lot easier. You can also get a cheap prepaid cell phone which your abuser doesn't know about and use it to call for help. You could even put a GPS in your abuser's car so you know when you had time to get away. Hard to know where the tradeoffs are here.


August 13, 2007

Minnesota resident Dale Underdahl got busted for DUI and decided that requesting the source code for the Intoxylizer 5000EN would be a good way to get off:
During a subsequent court hearing on charges of third-degree DUI, Underdahl asked for a copy of the "complete computer source code for the (Intoxilyzer) currently in use in the state of Minnesota."

An article in the Pioneer Press quoted his attorney, Jeffrey Sheridan, as saying the source code was necessary because otherwise "for all we know, it's a random number generator." It is hardly new technology: One criminal defense attorney says the Intoxilyzer is based on the antique Z-80 microprocessor.

A judge granted the defendant's request, but Michael Campion, Minnesota's commissioner in charge of public safety, opposed it. Minnesota quickly asked an appeals court to intervene, which it declined to do. Then the state appealed a second time.

What became central to the dispute was whether the source code was owned by the state or CMI, the maker of the Intoxilyzer.

Minnesota's original bid proposal that CMI responded to says that "all right, title, and interest in all copyrightable material" that CMI creates as part of the contract "will be the property of the state." The bid proposal also says CMI must provide "information" to be used by "attorneys representing individuals charged with crimes in which a test with the proposed instrument is part of the evidence," which seems to include source code.

I have no informed opinion on whether Underdahl has a legal right to get a copy of the source code, but from a technical perspective it's not clear what he's hoping to find. It's certainly possible that the source code contains a random number generator or incriminating comment that says "insert .10 BAC reading here", or "this sensor doesn't work" but that doesn't really seem that likely. More likely it will be that it's just typical embedded software. I certainly don't see any problem with it being old technology. The Z80 is old, but it's a perfectly reasonable piece of hardware. Heck, I had one in my TRS-80 Model 3 back in the 80s.

If I were trying to call a breathalyzer reading into question, I'd probably be looking for a different angle: the measured accuracy of the system. This isn't really an issue of the source code but rather of the accuracy of the sensor. You might be able to learn something from the source code—for instance if there was some explicit fudge factor in the code—but more likely you'd need to actually examine the hardware or at least have access to studies done by someone else.

Obviously, if the vendors aren't willing to give up their source code, then subpenaing them may be a useful angle for now, but it's not likely to be a long-term effective strategy. It's not like states are going to give up on breathalyzers and even if CMI refuses to produce their source, some manufacturer eventually will. According to this article, some already do.


August 12, 2007

War Czar Lt.-General Douglas Lute just put the draft back on the table:
Washington -- A top U.S. military officer in charge of co-ordinating the U.S. war effort in Iraq said yesterday that it makes sense to consider a return of the draft to meet the U.S. military's needs.

Lieutenant-General Douglas Lute, said the all-volunteer military is serving "exceedingly well" and the administration has not decided a draft is needed.

But in an interview with National Public Radio, he said, "I think it makes sense to certainly consider it, and I can tell you, this has always been an option on the table."

I'm having some trouble figuring out what's going on here. I guess this could be a Kinsley gaffe, but I'm pretty skeptical that (a) a draft could get passed in the current environment or (b) the American people are going to tolerate having their teenage children conscripted and sent to Iraq. Of course, I could be totally misreading the current environment, but if I were the Democrats, I'd be hoping that the Bush administration would propose a draft.


August 4, 2007

I recently renewed my driver's license. Normally you can just renew my mail but after you've had two renewals by mail you have to go back into the DMV (carrying the form they send you). There seem to be two purposes here:
  • Make sure you can still see.
  • Get an updated picture.

Here's the weird part: they didn't check my current license (though as I remember, the form they send you say you need to bring it). They just took my money, checked my vision (in that order, which is also kind of weird) and then gave me the provisional license printout. You then walk over to a different window where they take your thumbprint and picture.

Assuming this is standard practice, and not just an error by the clerk, then attacker who pulled the form out of your mail, could just walk in and complete this process. In theory, they might catch you by comparing your existing biometrics (photo, thumbprint) against the newly captured biometrics. I don't know if they do that or not, but it seems like it would be relatively easy to bypass: people's looks change a lot in 15 years and while thumbprints don't change, there are also known techniques for cheating thumbprint scanners--assuming they check this stuff at all.

Obviously, if you went to the DMV and found someone else had already renewed your license, that might be something you'd notice, but it's not clear what the State would do about it. The wrong person would still have an ID in your name. There's no normal procedure for revoking driver's licenses. This isn't catastrophic, of course, unless you have some system that depends on positive identification of people, like say, a no-fly list.1

1. And of course if the person who's identity you were stealing was cooperating, then they wouldn't even have to report it. This doesn't make sense ordinarily, but you could use it to exchange the identity of someone who was on a no-fly list for a plant who was not.


August 3, 2007

Until today I had been unaware that the Canadian Dollar had passed parity with the US Dollar. The Canadian Dollar is now at 0.946074 US Dollars. Maybe I'll have to take back those peso jokes I made a few years back.

UPDATE 20070804 OK, this post was completely wrong. Someone had told me that the CAD had passed USD and then I somehow misread the results from the exchange site. Still, we're getting scarily close.