More Junkmail from Bob!

October 31, 2011
Important Stuff.

Google Drivers

Google has been developing self-driving cars for a few years. They have really come a long way. They've logged over 190,000 miles on public roads. They do have safety drivers on board who can intervene, but they rarely have to. They recently drove a car 1,000 miles in the San Francisco Bay area without human intervention. They didn't do it non-stop because they prefer the safety drivers to be conscious.

Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson

I think this will be a big deal in the not-too-distant future. Actually, I think it's a big deal now, but I can't have one yet. But before too long we'll be able to buy a car and put it on autopilot instead of just cruise control. A lot of people will be relieved when I do that.

Here is a good article on the cars. The video is well worth watching.

Speaking of Google, the plus operator is gone from their web searches. You have to use quotes now.


HP Labs announced a replacement for flash memory and SSDs, expected in 2013. The memristor was formulated and named by Leon Chua in 1971. Three years ago, a team at HP Labs announced the development of a switching memristor based on a thin film of titanium dioxide. Earlier this month they announced the availability of commercially applicable memristor technology within 18 months, as a replacement for Flash and SSD, and potentially DRAM and SRAM.

An array of 17 memristors built at HP Labs, imaged by an atomic force microscope. The wires are about 50 nm, or 150 atoms, wide. Electric current through the memristors shifts the oxygen vacancies, causing a gradual and persistent change in electrical resistance.

This will be a huge deal if it really happens. Memristor memory should take around 100 times less power than Flash memory to switch a bit. The thin film technology memristors can be stacked in an arbitrary number of layers with 5 billion memristors per layer at 5nm.

HP said "The plan is to license this technology to anyone who wants it, and we’ll teach them how to make it."

Solar Eclipse is Coming!

Be ready. On August 21, 2017, there will be a solar eclipse in North America. If you play your cards right, you can predict an omen and impress your friends.


In the late 1800's some people decided that electricity was pretty useful, mainly for light bulbs and electric motors. Being a traditionalist, I use light bulbs and electric motors even today.

Thomas Edison started a business that generated and sold electricity. In 1882, the first central power station in the U.S. started producing electricity on Pearl Street in Manhattan, NY.

Pearl Street Station

Edison used DC, or direct current. This is what a battery produces. By 1887, Edison had 121 power stations, most of them using steam turbines to power the generators.

The power stations produced about 110 volts, and 110 volts was also used in the transmission lines. Edison could only string power lines about a mile from the power stations because of the voltage drop due to resistance in the wire.

Electricity will flow through a copper wire (also aluminum and silver) fairly easily, but there is a little resistance. Electricity will flow through a superconductor with essentially no resistance, but Edison did not have any room-temperature superconducting wire.

In case you weren't paying attention in 7th grade science, amperage is current and voltage is power pressure. Current is kind of like the amount of electricity flowing, and voltage is the power pressure pushing the electricity along the wire. It's a little like gallons per minute and pressure in a water hose.

The amount of resistance voltage drop in a wire depends on the current passing through the wire. In fact, resistance voltage drop is proportional to the amperage squared, so it makes things quite a lot more efficient if you use less amperage in power lines. You can do this by using a higher voltage. [Thanks to Earl Massoth for these corrections. I wasn't paying attention in 7th grade science.]

For example, you can get enough electricity for a light bulb (similar brightness) using 1 amp at 110 volts, or 10 amps at 12 volts. But the 12 volt circuit will need thicker wire because it has 12 times the amperage, which causes 144 times the resistance as the 110 volt circuit. The thicker wire will handle more amps with less resistance.

The same way, a power line can carry more wattage using lower amperage and higher voltage. You could convert 100 volts and 100 amps to 5000 volts and 2 amps using transformers. (Practically, there is a little loss in the conversion, but we'll ignore that since the conversion loss is less than the transmission loss would be.) Then we can send the 2 amps and 5000 volts along a power line to a house. At the house we'll convert it back to 100 volts and 100 amps so the people in the house can use the electricity without worrying about 5000 volts causing the toaster to send bread through the ceiling.

Edison's problem was that you cannot use a transformer with direct current, and Edison was committed to direct current with a bunch of power stations, patents, and equipment. George Westinghouse, however, didn't have these problems. He started selling AC power.

Edison didn't like this, so he explained to people that high voltage AC is dangerous, and if its use spreads, hundreds of people will be killed. To demonstrate the point, Edison started electrocuting small dogs and the occasional elephant in public demonstrations.

Practicality and economics won the battle of the currents and we use AC today, brought to our homes on high voltage power lines. And Edison was correct. Hundreds of people have since been electrocuted.

Now we have come full circle. It is more economical to use high voltage DC in long transmission distances (400+ miles) and long undersea cables. At either end it is converted from and to AC which generates some loss, but the DC has some efficiencies over AC.

AC current looks like a sine wave. It goes up and down in a wave.


The wires carrying the sine wave have to be able to handle the peaks in the current, at the top and bottom of the humps. With direct current, the current is always at the max, so there the wires are at full capacity all the time. With AC, the wires have to be able to handle about 30 percent more than the average voltage. AC also has some capacitance loss in undersea cables because of the sea water and the metal cable jackets.

If you want to send some hydro-generated electricity from The Dalles, Oregon (home of Meredith Van Valkenburgh) to Los Angeles, you could do it with a stretch of 500,000 volt DC power lines more efficiently than AC power lines. In fact, they did this and called it the Pacific Intertie.


It can carry 3,100 megawatts, about three times the capacity of the GRDA coal power plant at Chouteau, OK.

Here is the converter station at the Oregon end:


With High Voltage DC power lines, they use grounds at the terminals sometimes instead of (or in addition to) a return cable in the transmission lines. This is how the Pacific DC Intertie works. It cuts the number or size of cables in the transmission line, but the stray voltage caused by all those electrons piling up on one end occasionally causes some environmental problems.

As you might guess, the grounding system for these power lines is a more than a pipe hammered into the ground. The grounding system at the Oregon terminal consists of 1,067 cast iron anodes buried in a two foot trench of petroleum coke, arranged in a circle over a half mile in diameter. This structure at nearby Maryhill may have been a very early attempt:


On the Los Angeles end of the Pacific Intertie there is a line of 24 silicon-iron alloy electrodes in the Pacific Ocean, suspended in concrete enclosures about 3 feet off the ocean floor. Maybe this is where all the glowing phytoplankton come from.

If you'd like your own Ultra High Voltage Direct Current (UHVDC) transmission line, Siemens can help you out. All you have to do is provide the electricity. Some assembly required. Not responsible for Stuxnet.

Patently Absurd

I've used the term "patently absurd" before regarding patents, but it is so ideally descriptive I'll use it again. It seems someone else might agree with me. A google search for "Patently Absurd" and "Patents" got 163,000 hits just now. I imagine that number may be growing.


I doubt if anybody wants to read it, so I'll save time and not write it. But pretend there is an insightful, 4-page, well written rant here on the stupidity, ignorance, and arrogance of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, complete with twenty-seven 8x10 color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one. I'll put some links here instead with some limited commentary.

By the time I was done with this, it was still more than 4 pages!

It's a good thing I didn't start in on stupid copyright claims...

Acta, Protect-IP, and e-Parasites

The government is protecting us. They have negotiated and signed the trade agreement ACTA, the treaty that is not a treaty. The Obama administration says it doesn't need Congressional authorization, because it is strongly backed by the Recording Industry (RIAA) and the Movie Industry (MPAA). At last that's the way I understood this.

In the US, there is no plan to constitutionally ratify the agreement. Indeed, this will likely be the main focus of the US signing statement. The document will be an argument to Congress that the executive can pass this agreement alone – legally binding the US to a trade agreement without no congressional authorization – because, according to the Executive, ACTA is fully consistent with current US law.

It was negotiated in secret by some government workers, some Recording Industry representatives, and some Movie Industry representatives. The content of Acta was not disclosed in the U.S., not even to Congress, until it was leaked in Europe. The government said this was due to national security concerns. It's interesting to read about:

Some people in Brazil don't like Acta:

Protect-IP includes some things that were left out of Acta after a moderate online uproar resulted when the contents of Acta were leaked. This is a law being passed by Congress, and is public. Some people don't like it at all.

The members of the House of Representatives were catching a lot of flack from their constituents for supporting the Protect IP act, so they did the sensible thing. They renamed it to the e-Parasites act. You might think, with this name, that it goes after copyright trolls and the RIAA, but it doesn't. It's more about allowing the recording industry to censor the internet.

After the fun and games with the Acta trade agreement, the government decided to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, also in secret. This time the negotiations are being held in secret, too. And this time they intend to keep the negotiations secret until four years after the agreement is signed -- only the final text will be made public.

Naturally, there are leaks from the negotiations. This is government we're talking about.

Here is a summary of the controversial "features" of the TPP (from Wikipedia):

Overall, the USTR proposal for the TPP intellectual property chapter would: (1) include a number of features that would lock-in as a global norm many controversial features of U.S. law, such as endless copyright terms. (2) create new global norms that are contrary to U.S. legal traditions, such as those proposed to damages for infringement, the enforcement of patents against surgeons and other medical professional, rules concerning patents on biologic medicines, disclosure of information from ISPs, etc. (3) undermine many proposed reforms of the patent and copyright system, such as, for example, proposed legislation to increase access to orphaned copyrighted works by limiting damages for infringement, or statutory exclusions of "non-industrial" patents such as those issued for business methods.

Elementary Statistics

If you select an answer to this question at random, what are the chances of being correct?

a. 25%
b. 50%
c. 75%
d. 25%

Facebook Privacy

Facebook has gotten a lot of flack over it's privacy policies lately. They track user browsing habits, and they used to do this even when users were not logged on. But they say they are innocent.

Facebook, September 25, 2011: "Facebook does not track users across the web"

Facebook, September 25, 2011: "Generally, unlike other major internet companies, we have no interest in tracking people"

It's odd that they applied for this patent, though.

Facebook Patent Application, September 22, 2011: "A method is described for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain"

I stole this from Uncrunched:

Global Warming

Guess what? The earth is getting warmer. Arctic ice is melting. And there is a good chance it won't stop in my lifetime or yours. People will not be willing to do what it takes to stop it, and nobody knows at this point how much warming will occur. It's not the end of the world, despite what some politicians claim, and it is definitely happening, despite what other politicians claim.,8599,2096055,00.html

The average surface temperature on earth rose about 2 degrees (F) in the 1900's. By 2100, it is expected to go up another 3 to 11 degrees.

We hear a lot about sea level rise, but that has not been much of a problem to date, in spite of photos of eroded beaches and houses washed into the ocean. In the past 100 years, sea level rose 7 or 8 inches.  By the year 2200, sea level is expected to rise somewhere between 4 and 30 inches. Sea level is expected to keep rising over the next few centuries. Beaches have been eroding and filling since there have been beaches.

If all the ice in ice caps and glaciers melt, most of which is in Greenland and Antarctica, it will cause a sea level rise of about 220 feet. It will also take well over a thousand years for this to happen.

Here's an interested graph about the earth's water distribution. It doesn't have much to do with global warming (except that's where I found out how much ice there is), but it's pretty interesting.

Sea ice coverage in the Arctic has been decreasing by about 12% per decade for the past 2-3 decades. In September, the annual minimum, the Arctic sea ice coverage was about 2/3 of the 1979-2000 average. Since the Arctic ice cap is floating, it does not affect sea level much when it freezes or melts.

You can now take a boat or ship across north of North America and Russia (in the late summer).

As in recent years, northern shipping routes opened up this summer. The Northern Sea Route opened by mid August and still appeared to be open as of the end of September. The southern "Amundsen Route" of the Northwest Passage, through the straits of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, opened for the fifth year in a row. Overall, sea ice in the wider and deeper northern route through Parry Channel reached a record low, according to Stephen Howell of Environment Canada, based on Canadian Ice Service analysis. Parry Channel had a narrow strip of ice that blocked a short section of the channel, but it did appear to open briefly in early September.

The U.S., Canada, and Russia are posturing for negotiations on who gets to drill where for oil and gas in the offshore Arctic. Shipping companies are crossing the Arctic in the summer on shorter routes to Asia.

Travel companies are offering cruises in the Arctic, and even to the North Pole (on an icebreaker).

There was a group of physicists who were skeptical of modern climate data, so they did their own research. It turns out that their conclusions, using varied data sources, were an amazingly close match to those generally accepted in the climatology field.

The project was started by physicist Richard Muller, who had previously expressed doubts about the mathematical rigor of climate science. It was funded by the Department of Energy, Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, and some others.

My baby daughter Melinda spent a few weeks on the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy last summer, allegedly doing research.


Princeton University Open Access

Princeton University recently adopted a new policy of open access for Princeton-produced scholarly publications. Princeton faculty members can now post their published articles on their own websites, an online University repository or other free archives for the general public. I like it.

Public Service Announcement

NBC Universal recently put on a contest, through the City of New York, for students to make Public Service Announcement (PSA) videos explaining how copyright infringement is damaging NBC Universal and other movie companies. Some people thought this was not a good idea, and that NBC was getting the students to write corporate propaganda. To add insult to injury, the winning video creator loses the copyright on the video, but gets $500.

Techdirt decided to put on a "counter" contest, for people to create a PSA video showing the impact of technology on creativity today. They're offering $1000 to the winner, and the winner gets to keep the video copyright. I think that's pretty funny.

Time Zone Ownership

What time is it in Phoenix? Nobody really knows, but you can get a reasonable estimate from a public database maintained by two guys named Arthur and Paul. The time zone database is hosted by the NIH and UCLA. It is used by nearly every Unix and Linux platform to set clocks to local time. The database just tells where the time zones are and the offset from UTC on any particular day.

An astrology company called Astrolabe bought the rights to a time zone data base from American Atlas, which is cited as the source in the one maintained by Arthur and Paul. Then Astrolabe sued Arthur and Paul, saying they own the time zone data. Of course, the time zone data cannot be copyrighted, but that would never dissuade a hungry lawyer and a mad fortune teller.

Since the lawsuit, Icann, the international organization in charge of top-level domain names such as .com, has taken over the time zone data base. The mad astrologer has not sued Icann.


The world's population has more than doubled since I was born.

German Trojan

Weren't the Trojans from Greece? Or was it Turkey?

A new trojan (of the malware variety) was discovered recently in Germany. It monitors traffic from applications such as browsers and instant messaging applications (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Skype, Opera, ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, Low-Rate VoIP, CounterPath X-Lite, and Paltalk.)

The thing that makes this trojan different is that it is used and distributed by German police. Here are some details on the trojan:

Some people in Germany did not like this at all, calling it unconstitutional.

The German government said "That's too bad, we're using it anyway. We've got the Pirate Party ( to contend with." The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said, "Who cares whether it's constitutional? We're at war! We want a copy of that trojan."


111 people were charged and 86 of them arrested for stealing a total of $13 million. They stole credit info from people and then used the cards for cash and buying stuff. That's must be a lot of credit cards!  I suppose that most of the $13 million was lost by the banks, and they probably recovered some of it.

That seems like a lot of money, but 11 people were charged for faking disability claims in New York. They raked in 77 times more money than the amateurish credit card thieves, a cool billion dollars.

I wonder how much it would help the federal budget deficit if all the fraudulent disability payments in the country were cut off.


If you make a black background in a .pdf file, you can copy and past the text into another application and read it just fine. It works like this: "Redacted Text"

If you want to hide the text, you need to do more than that. Adobe is happy to explain how (

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is famous for its ability to send out redacted .pdf files that aren't.

The U.K. Department of Defence learned the same lesson a few months ago when they thought they redacted some secret information on nuclear submarines.

Well, maybe they didn't actually learn anything. They did it again this month with some air defense data.

Homeland Security Searches

The TSA (part of Homeland Security) is now searching people (without search warrants) on trains, ferries, busses, and trucks. That's OK because we're at war. They want a 50% budget increase for this program in 2012. I guess they haven't heard about the budget deficit. I think Homeland Security is just trying to expand their empire so they can eventually take over Google.

Homeland Security is also spending your tax pennies on a program (called Fast) to predict whether a person will commit a crime in the future. Fast program manager Robert said, "Who cares whether it works? We've got to keep spending money or they'll take it out of our budget!" Or maybe he didn't. It seems like I've seen that movie.

Homeland has a new Public Affairs policy. They refuse to give out the phone numbers of their public affairs people because of "privacy concerns". I suppose that's better than their normal "national security" excuse. I am not sure what the public affairs people do at DHS since they can't talk to the public.

The Air Force is not afraid to disclose phone numbers to their public affairs people. But then, the Air Force is not run by politicians.


Derek Deville and some other people built a model rocket. Then they launched it. It went up pretty fast, peaking out at almost three times the speed of sound. It went up pretty high, too. Almost 23 miles high, 121,000 feet. The rocket was 8 inches in diameter, almost 14 feet long, and weighed 320 lbs at liftoff.


The engine generated 4,000 lbs of thrust for 8 seconds, then the rocket coasted upward for more than a minute, and hit 121,000 feet after 92 seconds of flight. It hit the ground 7 minutes later, 3 miles from the launch pad.

7 minutes is not very long for a 23 mile trip down to earth. The rocket reached 600 mph on the way down, even with the parachute. But there is only 1% as much air at 121,000 as there is in Pryor, Oklahoma, so the parachute didn't generate much drag for a while.

Here are some pictures:

And it carried video cameras. This is worth watching.

In other rocket news, Iran tried to launch a monkey into space a few weeks ago. The monkey was launched, but the mission failed. It sounds as if the monkey is no longer with us.

New Oil in the Western Hemisphere

Williston, North Dakota is a boomtown. There is at lot of oil around there, in western North Dakota and eastern Montana. The Bakken formation was discovered in 1951, but they didn't get much oil out of the ground because of low porosity an permeability of the rock. Sometime around 2008, better fracking techniques and horizontal drilling started an oil boom in the area.

The Bakken formation probably has about 10% of the "undiscovered technically recoverable" oil in the U.S. at between 4 and 5 billion barrels. There may be 5 times that much oil that is not recoverable using current technology.


The U.S. uses over 6 billion barrels of oil per year, more than double that of any other country.

There are some new oil reserves in Canada and Brazil. Actually, these are prehistoric. But they're new in terms of being technically recoverable.

The Tupi oil field off the coast of Brazil was discovered in 2006. It eluded discovery for a long time because a mile-thick layer of underground (and underwater) salt limited seismic exploration below. The oil is under a mile of ocean and 3 more miles of salt, sand, and rocks. There is somewhere around 13 billion barrels of oil in the offshore sub-salt oil fields of Brazil.

The Athabasca Tar Sands, or more correctly the Athabasca Oil Sands, are in northeastern Alberta, Canada.


There is no tar in the tar sands, only bitumen. Bitumen is extra heavy crude oil, with the consistency of tar. About 10% of the bitumen deposits can be recovered using current technology, but that still is a lot of oil -- about 170 billion barrels. That makes Canada's proven oil reserves the second largest in the world, after Saudi Arabia.


The Google Transparency Report lists the number of requests from governments to remove data from its sites, and the reasons. I think all sites should make this information public.

Here's the transparency report:

      Number of government requests for content removal:  zero.

In news of government transparency, a federal appeals court has issued a ruling in the case of a Gitmo detainee, but the ruling is classified so the public cannot read it.

Secret court rulings go well with secret interpretation of the law by the federal government.

The Bush administration was famous for refusing to release information under the Freedom of Information Act. The U.S. Attorney General told employees in 2002, "When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions."

Not to be outdone, the Obama administration is proposing that federal employees can deny that records even exist, when they actually do. That will save all the time they used to spend making up excuses to withhold embarrassing records.

Snakes in the Everglades

The Florida Everglades always looked to me like a good place for snakes. Now there is apparently a decent breeding population of Burmese Pythons in the Everglades. A few days ago a couple of state workers killed a 16-foot python with a shotgun. The snake had just eaten a deer.

Mars Rovers

The Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been tooling around Mars since early 2004. They are finally winding down. I think Spirit is finished, and Opportunity has slowed down quite a lot.

Here's a photo of the first two Mars rovers. The smaller one is from the 1997 Pathfinder mission. The big one is either Spirit or Opportunity.


The newest Mars mission is called Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled to launch on November 25. An Atlas V rocket will carry a new, larger rover to Mars. It's called Curiosity. Curiosity is twice as long and five times heavier than the rovers Spirit and Opportunity.


Curiosity can travel 200 meters per day over the Mars landscape. It will have a lot more power than the Spirit and Opportunity rovers because it uses a 110 watt plutonium powered Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) instead of solar panels. This should last for at least a Martian year, or close to two earth years. The power capacity of the generator will decrease over time.

The primary communication with earth will be relayed by Mars orbiters.

The Mars Science Lab, MSL, or Curiosity (whatever they end up calling it) will use a color camera. The previous mars rovers had black and white cameras with filters. So in a few months, we'll find out how close I was with the Mars color from Spirit and Opportunity:


There are naturally some Luddites who are against anything that uses plutonium or radiation, especially in a pristine planet such as Mars. They apparently don't realize that there is much more natural radiation on Mars (from the sun) than the 110-watt RTG power supply could ever produce.

Others worry that if the rocket crashes, it will kill a bunch of people by radiation poisoning. They don't seem to realize that there is far less radioactive material in an RTG that in the nuclear weapons that have been wandering around the globe for years. Furthermore, RTGs have been used in space for 40 or 50 years. Some are designed to burn up on re-entry and some are designed to contain the radioactive fuel in case of a crash. Both have happened without the release of radiation.

But even NASA says there's a chance of failure. In fact, they say there's a 1 in 420 chance of a failure resulting in the release of plutonium in the launch area. What happens then? A person exposed to this radiation would only get 2% more radiation than the average person does from normal background radiation on earth.

In Search of Mediocrity

It always makes me wonder when a big company has an awful web site. The most common problem is a painfully slow site because all the people who test the site are apparently on a local network and have no clue how slow the site is for the customers.

Another very common problem is searching. A lot of companies provide searches for products. Some executive apparently says, "We need a lot more products to turn up in our searches." The developer solves the problem by searching for any word instead of every word specified in the search.

So when I search for something like HP Printer Ink, I get HP computers, Epson printers, and Canon ink. I have to page through a dozen pages before I can find HP print ink, and then there's only one color because the others are buried even further down in the search.

This may sound far-fetched, but I believe this is the main reason and are nowhere nearly as successful as Amazon. used to have an and search, but they changed to or and made it just about impossible to search for anything on their site. They have since fixed this, but not before a lot of serious financial problems. did this for a while, but they came to their senses fairly quickly and have a decent search now. A lot of other companies still have effectively useless searches if you're looking for something with more than one word. Ideally, a site has an option on whether to select all words, any words, or the precise phrase.

There are other things you occasionally run across that make you wonder who's running the company. The other day I tried comparing a Yamaha P85 and P95 electric piano on their site. The result? A 7-page comparison with nothing appearing in both the P85 and P95 column. For example, there is a weight for the P85 and a blank space for the P95. A few pages down there's a weight for the P95 and a blank space for  the P85 weight.

NASA used to have a great web site that was searchable with real information. Now they turned loose someone to dumb it down, add changing pictures, limit the search, and hide the detailed information in obscure places. They should have put that money into research. They seem to have no interest in the efficient transfer of information from the web to people, and instead have opted for something flashy and highly limited. In my opinion.

Boston News

The Boston Subway Green Line was almost blown up with a portable coffeemaker a few weeks ago. Luckily the subway was evacuated and nobody was killed.

The Governor of Boston is distressed because he can't keep the extra $15 million from a federal transportation project that came in under budget.

Boston is famous for the Big Dig project that cost $14.6 billion, almost one thousand times more than the measly $15 million they're whining about now. Those people could flat outspend a budget.

The TSA has decided to spend some excess dollars at the Boston Airport. To make sure nobody can get into the airport wearing LEDs they are interviewing every passenger before they get onto a plane.

Last month a federal appeals court ruled that a Boston College student has to pay the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) $675,000 for making 30 songs available for download. The criminal! The Obama administration argued in support of the award.

David Hewett caused all of this.

Giant Prehistoric Intelligent Kraken

Stories of a giant, prehistoric, intelligent squid are not true.

AWS Load Balancing

Amazon Web Services is a cloud computing provider. This web site (or at least the photos, if you're reading the email) are on the Amazon cloud. It's a very complex problem to be able to allow thousands of people generate and delete their own instances of computers, hard drives, and operating systems in a giant data center with tens of thousands of servers.

When the load balancer gets confused, it's liable to send a couple million Netflix API requests to the wrong customer.

Flash Cookies

A computer cookie is a small file with identifying numbers or data. Web sites can store cookies on your computer so they can remember you've logged in, or, in some cases, so they can track which web sites you visit.

Some people like to keep their computer clear of cookies from sites they don't approve of, for obvious privacy concerns. You can do this with browser settings. Some companies don't like you deleting your cookies because it costs them money. Marketeers will pay cash for information on your browsing habits, after all.

So companies figure out other ways to put cookies on your computer. Adobe Flash can store a cookie and keep it on your computer even after you tell your browser to delete all your cookies. Some other software does this too, but Flash is the most common offender.

If you care to, you can tell Flash not to save any cookies on your system:

More info:

Black Plague

It's official. Yersinia pestis caused the Black Plague.

Galileo GPS

Europe is launching their own GPS system. The first two satellites went into orbit on October 21, launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket. It will be a few years before all 30 satellites are in orbit. The Galileo system is a civilian system and will be available to everybody worldwide. It will have a little better precision than the U.S. GPS system.

The U.S. GPS is military controlled, and the U.S. reserves the right to limit access to the GPS system. Europe decided they didn't want to rely on a system that could be blocked by the U.S. military on a whim.

In the past the military has expressed concerns that the Galileo system could be used by other countries for weapons guidance against the U.S. I think this will be less of a concern in the future because mapping technology will allow more precise weapon positioning than GPS, just like the Google self-driving cars.

Photo courtesy of Thilo Kranz/DLR

Seeing Through Walls

Can "they" really see through walls? Yes, but not very well. Yet. MIT has developed a phased radar system that can "see" people behind 8-inch solid concrete walls.

Spy Phones

iPhones have a built-in accelerometer. The iPhone 4 has an electronic gyro that cleans up the accelerometer data. The combination is so sensitive, it can detect small vibrations. In fact, if you lay it on a desk, it can detect someone typing. If you get some good software, you could even figure out, through timing, vibration signatures, and statistical analysis, which keys are being pressed.

Georgia Tech has developed an iPhone app (research only -- you can't buy it) that will eavesdrop on someone typing, with an 80 percent word recognition rate. Pretty cool.

Stuxnet and Duqu

The Stuxnet virus was used to attack some Iranian centrifuges used to enrich uranium last year. I promptly poo-pooed the news reports as hype, guessing that it's nothing more than an ordinary virus and some political spin. I was wrong.

The Stuxnet virus is large for a virus, at half a megabyte, and fairly complex. It is designed to spread quickly and indiscriminately. It uses four previously unknown Windows vulnerabilities to spread and load itself into the kernel and also the user mode of Windows. That is unusual for a virus.

It uses device drivers that were digitally signed so they don't generate a warning when installed, using private keys from two certificates stolen from separate companies in Taiwan. Two websites, in Denmark and Malaysia, were configured as command and control servers for the malware.

The ultimate target of the Stuxnet virus is a Siemens  controller that can be used to drive a number of different industrial machines, or PLC systems. It installs itself on the controller and intercepts the communications between the controller and the device. If the PLC system has a Vacon (Finnish) or Fararo Paya (Iranian) variable-frequency drive, and if that drive operates between 807 and 1210 RPM, then Stuxnet goes into action. These parameters happen to match those of the uranium centrifuges in Iran.

When Stuxnet attacked the Iranian centrifuges, it caused the motors to run periodically at overspeed and underspeed, while feeding normal data back to the monitoring system. This happened over a period of a few weeks. This overstressed the centrifuges, and destroyed about 1000 of Iran's 10,000 centrifuges.

The Stuxnet virus is a fairly complex piece of software. It is definitely not something that only a nation-state could do, as the New York Times claims, but it probably did take several people a few months to develop. It would be possible but harder to write it without testing on a Siemens control system and a PLC device.

A new variant of Stuxnet called Duqu was discovered on September 1 of this year. It does not have the payload to attack the Siemens controller. It is designed to collect keystrokes, login information, and security information from infected systems.

Duqu was written by someone who had access to the Stuxnet source code, probably one or more of the same developers. The targeted companies seem to be those that make industrial controllers. It looks like whoever wrote this is trying to accumulate information to write viruses for attacking industrial systems.

Technical Info:

1883 Comet Near Miss?

A comet did not come close to hitting the earth in 1883, despite some recent news reports. Phil Plait explains it very well.

The Middle Man

Amazon is signing deals directly with some book authors, cutting the occasionally unruly publishers out of the deal.

This makes a lot of sense. As more and more people buy more and more of their books in digital form, there is less reason to go through a publisher.

Some book publishers don't like this and are punishing the authors who go to Amazon.

The same is true for the music industry. I will be happy when recording artists can bypass the record producers and sell directly to Amazon, iTunes, Google, and other online sellers. And I believe that day will eventually arrive.


10,000,000,000,000 digits of pi have been calculated in Japan. You can download the first 5 trillion digits here:

Here's how to compute it. In Japanese. Google will be happy to translate this page for your. Go to Google, click on "More" at the top of the screen, and click "Translate." Then enter the URL in the Window and select Japanese to English, Slovenian, or the language of your choice.

If you would like to hear some traditional Slovenian folk music while you peruse Pi, click here: (warning - bikinis)


A day in the life of privacy.


Did you ever wonder how bones end up forming in the proper place from just two cells of an embryo? Some researchers have discovered the mechanism for part of this.


Photos from 50 years ago.

Bad Lip Reading

This is a pretty funny web site.

Naturally, someone claimed copyright violation.

Shoes on Airplanes?

I may be able to keep my shoes on when I fly commercial!  I'm so happy, I may volunteer for strip searches. As long as I can keep my shoes on.

Washington DC

A few weeks ago I took the our sailboat to get its bottom painted, in Chesapeake Bay. On the way there, I stopped at George Washington Ditch. I saw a spider.


I also saw a bear in George Washington Ditch. I was on the bike, very close to the bear, and we both decided to leave. Right then. So you'll have to settle for the picture of the spider.

After the bottom of the boat was painted, I went up the Potomac river and parked it in Washington DC. That was pretty neat.

Hains Point and the Washington Monument

Fort McNair and the Capitol

Mount Vernon

As soon as I got to Washington, I took a bicycle ride around town. Then the police blocked the road. I thought the President was coming to see me, but he drove right on by without even stopping to say hi.

There were two identical Cadillacs with the same license tag, 800-002. You can find a lot of hits on Google for that tag number.


Last time the President (a different one -- LBJ) was in Pryor, he shook my hand and was very friendly. Probably because it was his birthday. Dad's Band played Hail to the Chief and some other stuff. Anita Bryant and the Kilgore Rangerettes were there, too. The band accompanied Anita Bryant while she sang happy birthday to the President. She did a lot better job than Marilyn Monroe. But she sang in a different key than the band, so the band played very softly.

A little farther down the road, I found this guy riding his motorcycle across a big lawn. I wanted to ask him if I could ride my bicycle across it too, but I don't think he could hear me with that helmet.

A few days before I got to Washington, 100 or 200 protesters tried to crash the gate at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The guards pepper-sprayed a few people and then the police arrived and things calmed down.

Normally I don't like police beating up on protesters, but in this case I think the guards did exactly the right thing. If that mob had come inside the museum, they would likely have damaged some irreplaceable, historical airplanes and some of the protesters would have ended up hurt or dead.

The really dumb thing is that they were protesting the use of the predator and reaper unmanned aircraft. At a museum. They picked the museum because there is a Predator MQ-1 on display there.

Predator MQ-1

That's like killing the messenger. The Smithsonian certainly doesn't make any kind of defense policy, and the Air and Space museum has, in addition to the civilian, experimental, and non-combat aircraft, ICBMs, battlefield nuclear missiles, the Enola Gay, and lots of things that have done and can do more damage than UAVs.

German Buzz Bomb

German V2 Rocket

Little John Battlefield Nuclear Missile

Enola Gay

Tomahawk Cruise Missile

Soviet and U.S. ICBM

This UAV delivers nuclear anti-submarine weapons. It was built in the 1960's.

UAVs are already a part of history, and they're going to become a major part of aviation in general in not too many years. It would be ignorant not to have UAVs at the Air and Space museum.

Graphing Calculator Application

Pacific Tech has an application called Graphing Calculator that runs on the Mac and Windows. It's got an interesting history.  " I decided to uncancel my small part of the project. I had been paid to do a job, and I wanted to finish it. My electronic badge still opened Apple's doors, so I just kept showing up."

Pictures of Today!

I didn't take this picture, but I thought it was pretty funny.

This ship is out in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, used for target practice.

Bridges across the Chesapeake.

The bridge in colored pencil.

Nice satellite dish.

A praying mantis and a monarch, Cape Charles, Virginia.

A real All Terrain Vehicle, at Fort Eustis, Virginia.

Some bugs, Hains Point, Washington.

A deer and a big pot, Teddy Roosevelt Island.

A Presidential Helicopter.

A UAV helicopter for nuclear weapons, 1965 vintage.

The End