More Junkmail from Bob!

Tuesday, December 17, 2002
Important Stuff.


A Boston area software company named Ptech ( was raided by the FBI beginning 4:00 am a week ago Friday morning. Man, those guys get up early! The FBI seized files and computer equipment because Ptech and/or its investors are suspected of having terrorist links and financing terrorists.

Over the past four years, the U.S. government has hired Ptech to work for organizations including the FAA, the Department of Energy, the Navy, the Air Force, and, ironically, the FBI.

As a result of paying more than $3 million to Ptech and in turn funding terrorist organizations, the U.S. government appears to be in violation of the USA Patriot act, the Homeland Security Act, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The FBI intends to seize the White House next week. When asked about the logic of this, since the FBI is a part of the executive branch of the government, FBI Director Robert replied, "Our offices are getting kind of dilapidated, and we like the idea of flying into the White House lawn in a Marine helicopter."

However, the Justice Department may have to battle the Supreme Court over possession of the White House. Chief Justice Bill said, "This is definitely a constitutional matter. Working in the White House could cut my commute time in half."

Aimless Rambling

About 25 years ago or more I programmed a game of nim on the computer. Nim is a simple game where you lay a row of 3, 5, and 7 cards, take turns picking up cards, and try not to pick up the last card. Each turn a person picks up one or more cards out of only one row. When I wrote this, I put a response for each possible combination of cards into the program. It was a simple matter to say, "if there are 3, 4, and 6 cards, then do this."

If I was going to write a chess game, I'd need to come up with a better technique. There are too many possible combinations in a chess game, and I don't know what the best moves are for each situation so I couldn't tell the computer which move to make even if I did live long enough to program each possible combination. And, if I programmed individual responses to each of the billions of situations, I would inadvertently make some mistakes.

The solution for this is to let the computer determine what the best move is by testing each possible move in the current board configuration and evaluating the game after each potential move. You program the rules and the desired result and the computer chooses the best move by testing all the possibilities from the current situation. This is a much more complex process than my game of nim, but it can handle a very much more complex situation.

In 1999, the Mars Polar Lander crashed into Mars. Probably what happened was that when its legs unfolded, the sensors falsely signaled that the lander had landed. This caused the engines to shut off, and the lander fell from about 120 feet. I said "probably" because nobody knows for sure -- the lander folded its antenna for landing and was never heard from again. The Mars Lander encountered a situation outside the software's "expectation". There was not a case programmed for an early touchdown reading.

Also in 1999, the spacecraft Deep Space One had a power switch stick, which took power away from some essential components shortly before a maneuver toward and asteroid. The software on Deep Space One had not been programmed specifically for this scenario either. But the software was more like the chess program -- it had a set of rules and goals. It took the current status, evaluated the possibilities, and made the turn using some alternate configuration.

The general idea is that in some cases, instead of programming a specific response for each possible situation, it may be better to program the rules and goals, and let the computer choose the best response for a particular situation. This seems particularly suited to spacecraft, where reprogramming can be time consuming or impractical.

Another case where this goal-oriented program can be useful is in swarm programming. Suppose I have 3 small robots I'll call ants. These can communicate with each other, and have a common goal -- to find food. The ants can share inputs and decide from that what the best course of action is. Now consider the same thing with 500 ant robots. The individual programming doesn't have to be as complex as you would think, just clever. That's the way real ants work. Here's a good article.

This swarm programming may be useful for searching and surveillance. Sandia Labs did some experiments on searches for avalanche victims.

Avalanche beacons transmit a signal. When someone is buried, you walk around until you find the strongest signal and then start digging. This can take time, and time is pretty important when someone is buried in the snow and can't breathe.

Suppose a few people are conducting an avalanche search. If the avalanche beacon receivers could communicate their location and received signal strength to the others, they could direct each user for a more efficient search using a swarm algorithm. In this scenario, the humans provide the function of a "dumb robot" directed by the intelligent avalanche beacon receivers. This method would work four times faster than other search methods.

Michael Crichton's new book, Prey, is about some swarms of nanobots that got out of control. He makes a few technological (and maybe logical) stretches, but it's pretty interesting anyway.

More Aimless Rambling

At Comdex last month I heard Stephen Wolfram speak about his new book, "A New Kind of Science." It's a huge book, and to condense it into a few words would be ridiculous, particularly since I haven't read most of it. So naturally, I'll do it. He talks about how very simple programs can produce very complex results, sometimes seeming random. Some of the examples he uses are cellular automata. He says simple programs (conceptual programs, not programs that run on silicon CPU's) such as these make up a lot of the natural world we live in. It makes sense, to some extent. Think about how a single DNA molecule contains the program required to build a person. He goes on to theorize that time, space, and matter are composed of connections defined by relatively simple programs. That's not so obvious to me.

The thing that really impressed me about Wolfram is his ability to take an utterly inane question and come up with an intelligent response. It's kind of like the inverse of politics.

One response was to a question about making artificial brains for humans. Wolfram said that on his computer he has years of emails, and he has forgotten the contents of most of them. But they can be considered part of his memory because he can go to them any time and read them. I guess you would call this offline storage. Eventually, he said, there will be an interface for artificial memory directly into the nervous system and the brain. It will be an extension of what we have today.

I guess the offline storage concept also applies to knowledge and research. Since the printing press was invented, books have been available to a lot of people. The press made books cheaper to produce, and that made knowledge more available to people. Since then, the number of books published has grown more or less geometrically, making a lot of knowledge available to almost anybody.

Personal computers and the internet have made that knowledge a lot easier to get at. This is significant. It makes research in almost any subject much easier. If a researcher's work is more efficient, more research gets done. This, in turn, causes more discovery, more knowledge, and more progress.

When I was in grade school I used to spend hours looking through the encyclopedia, reading things that interest me. Now I can look through the internet and find a million times more information on any topic imaginable. With an efficient search engine I can access this material in a reasonably organized manner, and I can find something on almost any topic. I can search google for "McClelland Ferry" and find that the remote ferry across the Missouri River was built in 1915 and is still in operation, or "swarm algorithm" and read any of dozens of articles about it.

So many people rely on Google and other search engines for so much information, it's surprising that the government or someone else wanting to exploit it has not stepped in to mess things up. The internet has changed a lot of things, but the huge amount of information immediately accessible by anybody with a computer and a phone line has been the biggest boon to research since the printing press. And computers are cheap! $199 from Walmart:

TIPS, TIA, and Admiral John

The Terrorist Information and Prevention System has disappeared. The government was planning to enlist millions of Americans to spy on millions of other Americans.

The web site is gone, with no explanation! Terrorist? Hackers? No, just politicians in action.

Here's a copy of the web site that used to be there:

Here's a clause buried in the Homeland Security Act:

SEC. 880. PROHIBITION OF THE TERRORISM INFORMATION AND PREVENTION SYSTEM. Any and all activities of the Federal Government to implement the proposed component program of the Citizen Corps known as Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) are hereby prohibited.

Some politicians haven't caught on yet. TIPS is still advertised by a couple of people in Congress.

The Total Information Awareness project has not been cancelled (see the last Junkmail for details: Some privacy advocates are not happy about it. In fact, some of them are trying to make a point of privacy with Admiral John Poindexter, personally. They are spreading his personal information all over the internet.

It all started when a guy named Matt published John Poindexter's home address and phone number in San Francisco.

From there it spread like wildfire, and people added whatever personal financial information they could gather. I just did a search, and google found 132 occurrences of (301) 424-6613. I didn't call John.,1283,56860,00.html

Potassium Iodide, Smallpox, and Truffles

Get your anti-radiation pills on the internet -- buy now!  Terrorists are coming!!!

What's an anti-radiation pill? How could that work? It can't, actually. If you happen to ingest enough radioactive iodine to be dangerous, your thyroid gland can absorb it and this can result in thyroid cancer. If you have previously eaten enough iodine to saturate your thyroid with iodine, then it won't absorb much of the newly introduced radioactive iodine.

In a uranium or plutonium nuclear fission explosion, iodine 129 and iodine 131 are given off, among a lot of other lethal things such as neutrons and fire. Three fourths of the radioactive iodine goes away in a few days. The iodine 129 hangs around for a few million years. It tends to collect in milk. So if you plan to drink milk that came from an area than enjoyed a recent nuclear explosion or radioactive fallout, taking some potassium iodide pills beforehand would be a good idea. Otherwise, some exercise and fruit will probably do a lot more to extend your life.

The U.S. Postal Service is offering 1,600,000 potassium iodide pills to its employees.

Post Office spokeshuman Sue said, "It's a proactive approach regarding the safety, health and well-being of employees nationwide." She said the pills are being offered much like free flu shots were offered in the wake of the anthrax scares after the Sept. 11 attacks. At least the flu shots prevented some illness, although they had nothing to do with anthrax.

When asked about the cost, Sue replied, "Heck, we lost $676,000,000 last year. Money is no object," or something like that.

Federal Express will not be providing iodine pills to its employees. They made $759,000,000 last year.

I personally recommend a new drug called "placebo."  For me, it does great with colds, flu, and back problems. I pretty sure placebo helps me at least as much as potassium iodide and a smallpox vaccination would.,1286,56691,00.html

I still don't understand why people want smallpox shots. Smallpox was "officially eradicated" in the 1980's. The only strains left are supposed to be held by the U.S. and Russian governments. Why is that such a big threat all of a sudden? This couldn't be something to keep people stirred up so they'll back anything Bush asks for, could it? In this day of hypermedia, it's tough to hold a nation's attention for months on end. You've got to be creative!

Now I would like to say something good about Dubbya and the government, lest I be branded a whiner. I think Bush has very nice hair. I also think it's a good idea to have anti-missile missiles. I think the U.S. or Europe is more likely to get hit by some kind of missile than smallpox in the next few years.

By the way, there's nothing about truffles in this section.

Worldcom is Hiring!

What does a bankrupt telecom company do to turn around? Spend $20,000,000 on a new boss! Worldcom just hired a guy named Michael. He got a $2 million signing bonus, $1.5 million annual salary, and a bunch of other stuff totaling $20,000,000 over three years. No wonder they're broke!

Some Assembly Required

I was going to write about some terrorism stuff, but there were too many things that I thought were either funny or ridiculous. So read this stuff and then pretend I wrote something about it that was quite nice. Or skip it.

Freedom of Jokes

Be careful what you say -- make a bad joke in the wrong company and you could be jailed for 3 years!

I'm not sure what ever happened to the First Amendment.

Freezing Rain

A guy decided to fly is single engine Cessna from Liberal, Kansas to Oklahoma City. On the way he collected some ice on the airplane. That's a very bad thing to have on an airplane, particularly one not equipped with anti-ice equipment. He wisely landed in Woodward to remove the ice. He unwisely took off again for Oklahoma City. He ended up upside down in a wheat field, after he collected so much ice that the plane wouldn't stay in the air. He wasn't hurt.

Circular, Dude!

Need a round circle? You can now use pi accurate to 1,240,000,000,000 digits. Let's put that into perspective. If you have that uncompressed in text form, that single number is enough to fill ten 120-gigabyte hard drives. If you print it, it will take more than 500,000 large boxes of computer paper.


Got a spyware problem? Some programs you install are nice enough to install other programs on your computer without even asking. These additional programs give you valuable information, such as where to go on the internet to gamble, get a cheap mortgage, find porno, or get rich quick.

There are a lot of ways to get rid of this stuff. The best way is not to install a program that installs the spyware. If you download a free game, be careful. If it says it's ad-supported, it's likely to have some spyware included at no extra charge. The spyware runs in the background and lets advertisers send you ads. They pop up on the screen at various times, usually when you're in a hurry.

A popular program to get rid of these is AdAware.

Radlight is a program that's similar to Windows Media Player, as near as I can tell from their web site. It says it's ad-supported. In addition to loading you up with ad software, they are nice enough to uninstall AdAware for you! That takes a lot of gall. I won't be using anything from that company.

Sinking Satellite

The largest communications satellite ever built crashed into the ocean. The French-made satellite was launched on November 26 by a Russian Proton rocket. The upper-stage booster failed, and the satellite was stuck in a low orbit where it was useless. They used the satellite's rockets to take it out of orbit and into the Pacific Ocean.

North Korean Nukes

A few years ago in 1994, North Korea agreed to stop construction on two nuclear power plants and shut down a third. In exchange, the U.S. and Japan agreed to build two new nuclear power plants in North Korea. The U.S. and Japan didn't like the North Korean plants because weapons grade plutonium could be extracted from them. The U.S. also agreed to ship North Korea 500,000 tons of fuel oil until the new plants are finished.

Today, the new plants are years behind schedule. North Korea admitted having a nuclear weapons program. Bush decided to freeze the fuel oil shipments beginning in December.

North Korea shipped some missiles to Yemen, who paid for them a few months ago. The U.S. followed the shipment, and a few days ago Spanish ships intercepted the ship with the North Korean missiles in international waters when they were getting close the Middle East. U.S. people came in to check it out and found the missiles. A day or two later, they all said, "Oops, sorry. We violated international law. You can take the missiles to Yemen."

North Korea decided to reactivate the mothballed nuclear power plant and resume construction on the other two. They said the seized ship had nothing to do with the decision.

Reports that Dubbya was seen driving by the North Korean embassy shouting out the window, "Remember the Pueblo!" are unconfirmed.

'Tis the Season

The Nigerian scams must have been getting stale. They've become more imaginative. There's a new variation, involving eBay and other online auctions.

The scam guys are buyers. They agree to send you a cashier's check, and ask you to wire some money back to them for freight. A few weeks later, the cashier's check bounces. You just lost the money you wired them, plus the value of whatever you shipped them. It doesn't seem right that a cashier's check can bounce after it clears your account, but that's the way it works.,1284,56829,00.html

There's another popular eBay scam going around. In this one, the seller requires the use of an escrow firm to make sure everything is legitimate. However, the escrow firm is not legitimate. When you wire the money for the merchandise, you get nothing.

Party Time

Sometimes I get irritated about the way politicians vote for their party, regardless of whether the party is right or wrong. Today's politicians can't think for themselves! Then I read a quote from John Quincy Adams, 1803:  "The country is so totally given up to the spirit of party, that not to follow blindfold the one or other is an inexpiable offence."  Maybe that problem's been around a while.

Wind Farm

I was flying over Kansas a couple of days ago near Montezuma and I saw some windmills. Windmills are not unusual in Kansas, but these were BIG windmills. And there were LOTS of them. I had flown over the area before but had never noticed them. Here's a bad picture of some.


I looked it up on the internet, and found out that it's the Gray County Wind Farm. It has 170 windmills. The 77-foot blades are attached to 207-foot towers. Together they produce 110 megawatts, about a tenth of the power produced at the GRDA Chouteau power plant. They wind farm cost about $100 million to build. The farmers who own the land get paid $2000 per windmill per year, a pretty good price. They were built in 2001, which explains how they escaped my attention, and started producing electricity last December.

Pictures of Today!

The Space Station is the largest artificial satellite ever to orbit the earth.


Near the center of this picture you can see an astronaut working.


Some Colorado Mountains last weekend:

       Img_9581.jpg     Img_9583.jpg

(-) 1915, no rights deserved. All unauthorized copying, duplication, replication, and xeroxing is no big deal.

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