Archive for the ‘Geeky Pursuits’ category

GOP senators to feds: Leave the Internet alone

January 28th, 2014

12217_large_neutral-bits.pngIt’s this sort of thing that really pisses me off. The intention is exactly right. The Internet should be free of interference. It should continue to be accessible by anyone, empower content and service creators, and foster innovation. Yet excluding all government regulation of the Internet is exactly contrary to achieving that goal.

In fairness, the issue of Net Neutrality is a bit complicated.  Most people don’t know how the Internet works. And this leaves open the opportunity to exploit that lack of understanding through politi-speak gems like this

“There are exceptions of course, but far too often, when you hear someone say, ‘We need regulations to protect the Internet,’ what they’re actually saying is they don’t really trust the entrepreneurs and Internet technologists to create the economic growth and to increase public welfare.”

Net Neutrality regulations don’t stifle entrepreneurs and technologists. Rather, they keep the network available for them. Net Neutrality reigns in big ISPs from exploiting their effective monopolies for increased profit and offering preferential treatment for other large companies who can afford to pay to play. It protects the consumer and the entrepreneur from big business.

In a very real way, keeping the government from regulating the Internet is simply paving the way for a few large private business to regulate it. There’s no way that ends well for small businesses and consumers.

All regulations are restricting someone else’s freedom. That doesn’t make them all bad. Net Neutrality regulations are all about preserving the freedom of the Internet. If you would rather trust AT&T, Time Warner, Verizon, and Comcast to keep your network a free and open egalitarian network… you’re more than a little naive.

Did Snowden Execute the NSA’s Corbomite Maneuver?

June 12th, 2013

TheCorbomiteManeuver

Star Trek’s episode “The Corbomite Maneuver” teaches the value of a high stakes bluff.

The NSA debacle gets more weird by the minute. First, the NSA get “outed” for doing what pretty much everyone thought they were doing anyway. Government officials promptly and predictably lose their collective shit, because apparently they were the only ones in the dark.

Then the whistleblower/traitor outs himself as the highly skilled tech with the keys to the information kingdom who couldn’t live with his conscience any longer. Sounds noble. But he’s quickly unmasked as a man who by all accounts was dramatically unqualified for the position he apparently held. Okay, maybe he’s a tech savant of sorts. At this point I was still trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.

However, Snowden then starts giving interviews claiming the NSA has lots of capabilities, that to many of us in the technical community, just seem damned unlikely. Are they collecting data? Sure. Are they trying to analyze and mine it? Sure. But reconciling and normalizing zetabytes of heterogeneous data is damned hard, and most often yields digital gludge. Their data repository is likely way more plentiful than their information repository. Then along come companies like Google to start piling on, indicating how the NSA Prism program really works with them. And frankly, Google’s story is far more technically plausible than Snowden’s.

For added measure, Snowden’s latest interview asserts that the NSA isn’t just snooping on US citizens, but is actively hacking China’s networks as well. Ummm… duh. Does anybody really hope that’s not happening? Especially since they’re beating on our firewalls every day like a jockey on an indolent donkey? But what has this got to do with Fourth Amendment rights, the privacy of American citizens, or the overreach of government? Did he not understand the mission of the NSA when he took the job?

And finally, the boy genius is hiding out in Hong Kong, a place with an extradition policy so friendly to the U.S. that jaywalkers are frequently remanded to the States for unpaid tickets.  This dude is no rocket surgeon.

So what gives? Why is this guy talking? And why is anyone listening?

Fair warning: what follows is pure unadulterated speculation. But someday I aspire to become a pundit on a network news channel, so I need the practice.

I think Snowden is the key operative in the NSA’s version of “The Corbomite Maneuver”. As you may recall, Corbomite was the substance Capt. Kirk claimed the enterprise was coated in. Kirk claimed Corbomite reflected any attack back on the attacker, and thus bluffed Balok into backing off despite his superior power.

I think Snowden is touting the powers of the NSA’s Corbomite. He’s a patsy—promoted beyond his capability, given access to staged capability, and indirectly urged to “blow the whistle”. He’s disclosing the capability the NSA wishes it had. Capability that would send our enemies into a technical paranoid frenzy. The goal? Forcing Al Qaeda to resort to old school postal mail and coded classified ads to communicate. Starting a cyber cold war with China by convincing them there would be technological Mutually Assured Destruction. This is a game of hacker-poker, and we just raised.

Either that, or Snowden’s an ego fueled blowhard. It’s hard to tell.

To Boldly Go…

May 15th, 2013

Star Trek Captains

Original Series (Shatner), Next Generation (Patrick Stewart), Deep Space Nine (Avery Brooks), Voyager (Kate Mulgrew), Enterprise (Scott Bakula), new movies (Chris Pine) From left to right, top to bottom: NBC/Paramount; Paramount; Paramount Television; Braga Productions/Paramount Network Television; Paramount Pictures/Skydance Productions

Matt Yglesias provides a delightful, yet long winded, romp through the history of the Star Trek franchise. It’s a must-read for any serious Trekkie. For the rest of you, suffice it to say that what made Star Trek great was its vision of a somewhat utopian future.

Trek envisioned a world not based on economics and acquisition of stuff, but a world where people were motivated by a desire to learn more, to better themselves. It was more about cooperation than competition.

This didn’t mean the Star Trek universe didn’t have its share of bad guys, but success was often about diplomacy and respect of alien culture. Blowing stuff up was a last resort.  Granted, it wasn’t an uncommon last resort, but it wasn’t the primary point of the show.

Yglesias also observes that the new rebooted movie franchise, while great fun, has sort of lost this vision. It’s become more a series of sci-fi adventure flicks than the morality tales that defined the 5 TV series.  It’s great popcorn entertainment, but it’s not really what Trek was all about. Yglesias blames this on the medium—that feature length films don’t lend themselves to the same type of storytelling as the small screen.  Maybe he’s right.

All this got me to thinking about why I’ve always preferred Star Trek to Star Wars. While I’ve enjoyed the Star Wars movies, they simply aren’t as personally compelling to me. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says for him it’s because Trek stays more true to science as we understand it. Phasers just seem hard to build, while light sabers seem to require different laws of physics. As a science geek myself, I like the bad science explanation, but I don’t think that’s it.

In the end it’s rather simple. The universe of Star Trek is a place I’d like to live.  Star Wars? …not so much.   And it’s not even that Star Wars is always centered on, well, wars… and frankly, war zones aren’t appealing places to live. But the overall culture is maybe too familiar.  In some ways it’s too similar to the world we live in. Governments are corrupt. Power struggles and armed conflict are rampant. Everyone is constantly angling for an advantage. Thanks, I can turn on CNN and see that.

Yet in the Trek world, I can explore, learn, grow, and I still occasionally get to blow something up. It may still have dangers, but it’s an inviting and appealing culture. It emphasizes the best in humanity while recognizing that the worst still lurks.

It’s not clear this difference is because Star Wars was spawned from feature films rather than television.  Each writer built their universe to suit their vision and the story they wanted to tell. Roddenberry was an optimist. He believed the best in people would always prevail and projected a future where it truly blossomed. Lucas was more of a realist. He reprojected the culture of man onto a different galaxy and gave them hyperdrives and blasters.

Bottom line: If the Enterprise (any of them, NX, NCC, A, B, C, D, E, or Q for that matter) drops into orbit and offers to take me on as a crewman, I’ll be texting Kim from space that I will be out of town for awhile. I will be boldly gone. Hell, I’ll even agree to wear a red shirt. But if the Millennium Falcon  drops by, I may well go for a joy ride, but I’ll be home for dinner.

Firefox v17 Upgrade Causes Desktop Icon Problems in Win XP

December 12th, 2012

FixFFiconThis is one of those annoying but minor problems that can spoil an otherwise good day. It seems that the most recent Firefox release (v17) added some support for using a website’s favicons when creating desktop shortcuts.

This supports the new Windows 8 live tiles, and also means that when Windows 7 and Vista users drag a URL from the top bar in Firefox to their desktop, they’ll get a shortcut that uses the tiny little favicon supplied by the website, rather than the traditional default Firefox file icon.

However, for anyone still running Windows XP, your desktop shortcut is assigned to an incompatible image file and hence you get the very ugly default Windows icon instead.  The shortcut will look like it’s not assigned to an application, but it still works and will open in Firefox just fine. But it’s butt ugly and not how it’s supposed to work.

There’s a current thread on the Mozilla forum on this problem and there are a couple of workarounds offered up. Ultimately, the hope is that Mozilla will fix this and not just abandon the 40% of users still on XP. But in the meantime, I developed my own workaround, which I like better.

Using my method, you’ll just need to right-click the “broken” icon on your desktop and select the new Send To destination. It will repair the icon so the behavior of Firefox is the same as on Vista/Win7.

  • Simply download the FixFFicon.zip file from here.
  • Inside is a single FixFFicon.exe file. Move it to your Firefox profile\shortcutCache folder.
  • Next, right-click the FixFFicon.exe file and “Create Shortcut”
  • Then find your Windows “SendTo” folder (Help available here ) and add the new shortcut you just created to it.

Now, when you drag and drop a URL from Firefox and get the ugly default Windows icon, just right-click the icon and select FixFFicon from the Send To menu. Then, presto-chango, the icons look the same as they do in Win7. Which, IMHO, is still ugly, but it’s better than default Windows icons.

Note: on 1st execution this will extract 2 additional files to the shortcutCache folder (an image file and the image conversion utility). No other files are installed, no registry changes, or changes made to any other folder. The utility will perform image conversions on the Firefox favicons in the shortcutCache folder. No other files anywhere are modified. To remove, delete the 2 FixFFicon files and the nconvert.exe file from the shortcutCache folder, and delete the Send To shortcut from the SendTo folder. No other traces will be present.

If you have a problem with this, just post in the comments and I’ll try to help. Remember, we’re all in this together.

Why Blubberella, Why?

November 25th, 2012

Blubberella_CoverThe movie trailer sounded so promising. “A plus-sized superhero takes on Hitler’s Nazis.” “She’s half vampire and two and a half women.”  “She will kick ass with her big ass.”  This sounded like B-movie cinematic gold.I mean look at that movie poster!

It was Saturday evening. The fire was crackling, and the 6 months of free Showtime service we’d just received beckoned from the flatscreen. My baby, who usually is only willing to share watching such drivel with me if she’s asleep, actually suggested we watch together. She knows I’ve always had a fondness for so-bad-they’re-good movies—something she’s never shared, but she was up for a taste.

You see, this genre of flicks come in two flavors. The classics are the films that tried real hard to be serious movies. “Glen or Glenda” or pretty much anything by Ed Wood falls in this category, as do most of the vintage sci-fi creature features like “The Creeping Terror“. But there’s also a world of campy comfort to be found in films that never intended to take themselves too seriously. “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” or even the more recent “Mars Attacks!” are in this vein.  All are worthy of a couple hours on the couch calling out one-line quips at the TV in the finest tradition of “MST3K“.

Blubberella tries to be in the second category, but it doesn’t try real hard. And now, this is the point in the article where I should recap the plot for you… ummm… fat girl… Nazis… cotton candy… dead Nazis… fat joke… blood… hero sandwich… evil doctor… gay joke… look, I have a sword!… Jewish joke… hey, remember I’m a vampire, okay?… Holocaust joke…  It’s entirely possible there was some narrative thread that held these elements together, but that will have to be someone’s Film Appreciation class thesis to discern. I am not watching it again to try and figure it out. Although, in fairness, I didn’t watch it all the way through the first time. A half-hour in I voted to go back and watch Homeland on the On Demand channel instead.

I wonder if director Uwe Boll truly appreciates how monumentally bad a movie needs to be to get me to turn it off?  After all, I’ve watched “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” to the end, and I even enjoyed “Battlefield Earth“.  I can’t help but wonder what Ron Howard thought of his baby brother Clint’s featured role in the film. Did he call him afterward and remind him that he should never be too proud to call and ask for rent money? Or at least take him out on a Tranya-fueled weekend bender to forget the horror of the 36-hours it took to produce this mind-numbing waste of photons?

Worst of all, does Boll realize this has forever tainted my lady’s view of the genre? She may never again suggest we watch such a thing. And when I wish to, she will roll her eyes so far up she’ll actually be able to see how dumb she thinks the idea is.

It’s all ruined. Why Blubberella, why?