More Junkmail from Bob!

Sunday, March 26, 2000

Important Stuff.

Quantum Computer

On January 28, 1950, my parents got married. On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Some nice people were killed. As politicians are apt to do, they had some hearings or meetings or investigations or something called the Rogers Commission. They needed to find out why the shuttle exploded and prevent it from happening again.

The shuttle launch had been postponed several weeks into late January. It was cold that day, below freezing in fact. The shuttle launched. Shortly after the launch the whole thing exploded. NASA thought this was a bad thing, and most of the country agreed with them.

There was a guy on the Rogers Commission who had an idea why the shuttle exploded. I happened to be watching the hearings that day on C-Span, which was pretty new at the time. I think it was about the first or second day of the hearings. A guy named Richard, who I didn't recognize, was quizzing a NASA expert on the effect of cold temperatures on the rubber o-ring seals of the solid rocket booster. The NASA guy explained two or three times that a temperature of 32 degrees, which was the air temperature at the time of the launch, would have no effect on the sealing ability of the o-rings.

I was thinking that Richard might be kind of dense, not to understand that the rubber they used didn't get stiff in the cold. But it turned out that Richard knew what he was talking about. He had a two pieces of an o-ring there at the table with him, both with a clamp on them. One was in his glass of ice water. He proceeded to show the NASA guy how the cold o-ring material wouldn't spring back to its original form after being cooled to about 32 degrees in his ice water. He went on to explain how that could cause a leak so the flames could burn through the booster wall and into the hydrogen tank of the shuttle, causing a big explosion. That's exactly what had happened to the Challenger.

Richard's last name was Feynman. He was famous for proving to his friends in college that it is possible to urinate standing on your head. He did a couple of other notable things in his life, like work on the Manhattan project and teach physics. He also got the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965.

Feynman did a lot of work in quantum electrodynamics. That's more or less the study of how things smaller than atoms behave. In 1982 he came up with the idea that you could use subatomic particles instead of semiconductors for bits and gates in a computer. This would be called a quantum computer. I'm not sure if he was the first person with this idea, but he's given credit for it pretty often. He's also given credit for the most of the tourist industry in Tannu Tuva, although he never got to go there because of the politics of the time. (

Physicists make the ridiculous claim that it's impossible to know or detect both the position and momentum of some (all?) subatomic particles at a given time. They say if you measure the momentum then it's not possible to find the position of the particle, and vice versa. They said observing the particle changes its behavior. Largely to save face after coming out such a crazy theory, the physicists of the world have provided enough proof and experimental evidence supporting quantum theory that even I think there must be something to it.

Now they're working on computers based on quantum mechanics. I'll spare you the Volkswagen joke. A quantum computer uses qubits instead of bits. Qubits are kind of like several simultaneous, parallel bits. A quantum computer has the potential of doing lots of operations in parallel because of this. A quantum computer has the potential of being very small also.

18 months ago at Los Alamos National Laboratory, they came out with a 3-qubit quantum computer that really worked. Last Wednesday, Emanual, Raymond, and Rudy, who work at Los Alamos, and Ching-Hua, who works at MIT, published a paper describing the world's first 7-qubit quantum computer. The computer works using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) on a liquid (trans-crotonic acid). I don't understand it completely -- I think there must be a certain amount of magic involved.

There are some other quantum computer designs, too. One way is to trap single ions in magnetic pocket or superconductor pit or something like that. (If I sound a little vague it's because I don't know what I'm talking about.)

A 30-qubit quantum computer will be about 5 times faster than today's fastest supercomputer. Among other things, quantum computers are ideally suited for decryption. That explains why this work is being done at Los Alamos, I suppose. Raymond said, "You realize, of course, that if we had a operational quantum computer today, nothing on the Internet would be safe. Our current methods of encrypting secret or personal data, like the RSA public key encryption algorithm currently used in web browsers, would be nearly worthless." But he also said, "On my optimistic days I think we will have quantum computers in 20, 30, 40 years maybe. On my pessimistic days, I think quantum computing is crazy."

Here's the press release.

Pictures of Today!

The Pictures of Today are from Spring Break. Some kids took me skiing last week, and I had to climb a mountain while I was there. There are some from the drive back, and Cathy took a neat storm picture this afternoon.


Stupid Patent Tricks

Here's some more anti-stupid-patent press, from the Washington Post. Maybe the US Patent and Trademark Office will catch on before long.

But here's an interview with the head of the patent office. It looks like he doesn't want anything that would reduce the strength of any patent he issues. In fact, before long you can be liable for infringing on a patent that hasn't even been issued yet. There's a new law that they're implementing now -- the American Inventors Protection Act.

Microsoft will Assimilate

Microsoft is in trouble with the government for unfair monopolistic competition. By coincidence, Microsoft is giving LOTS of money to politicians. In 1999 they donated $1.2 million dollars to political campaigns. That's 6 times more than in 1996, and 1996 was an election year. Microsoft's largest contribution was $60,000 about a year ago when it was trying to settle the antitrust stuff with the justice department. I suspect they've donated a lot more money in 2000 that doesn't have to be reported yet.

Now, Judge Jackson says if Microsoft and the justice department don't settle by Tuesday that he'll settle things for them. The government is backing off demands for a breakup of Microsoft and will probably go along with some limits on what Microsoft is allowed to do. I wonder if the money had any effect.

Cyber Patrol

Last week I mentioned that a guy from Canada and a guy from Sweden figured out how to get around Cyber Patrol. They had posted a pretty good description of how it was done, but they took it down the day before I sent out Junkmail because the Cyber Patrol lawyers were after them. I found a copy of it, though. Here's how it was done.

The anti-Cyber Patrol people say they're fighting censorship and that a lot of non-offensive sites are included in the "dirty list." Here are some of the non-offensive censored sites:

Here's a list of some places you can get the "banned" programs. I guess people aren't listening to Microsystems Software lawyers:

There's one other thing that's pretty funny with all this mess. The Microsystems Software lawyers talked Judge Harrington into allowing email service of subpoenas. I think that's a first. So they're bulk emailing subpoenas to anybody and everybody they can find, trying to track down and eradicate the last copy of cphack. Sounds a little like book burning, doesn't it?  Here's the story. Here's another.

Aside from the lawyers and lawsuits, I think Cyber Patrol and similar web filters are a good idea for schools, libraries, and Jamie Dotson. In Michigan they recently voted down a law requiring web filters for some public places. In Utah they voted it up.

The site is handled buy Declan McCullagh. He writes, takes great pictures, and discovered the pseudo-inventor of the internet.

Gamma Emitters

Last week NASA announced the discovery of a new class of celestial objects. With the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory spacecraft they've found 170 or so unidentified gamma ray sources inside our galaxy. They're not sure what these are. They might be black holes with gamma ray jets or large stars.

The Compton Gamma Ray Observatory is going to crash into the ocean soon, probably in June. It's been up since 1991, and was only expected to last 5 years. One of its 4 gyros recently died, so they're going to de-orbit it while they still have good control. It weighs 17 tons or so.

The Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope will be launched in 5 years, Congress permitting, and it should shed some light on the subject. Or some Gamma Rays, anyway. It's about 50 times more powerful than the Compton observatory.

Here's more info.

Plane Stuff

Sometimes airports close. When that happens, it's theoretically possible to find out about it before you get there. However, a lady learning to fly flew into Death Valley a few days ago. She was on a "cross country" flight. When she landed, she was told that the two Death Valley airports were closed because the police were chasing someone in a BMW who had shot and disabled a Highway Patrol helicopter. I guess the park rangers didn't know exactly how to close the unattended airports, because they asked the lady how to get in touch with the FAA to let them know. Here's a picture of 3251X at Death Valley International:


And there was yet ANOTHER midair collision a few days ago, about 50' over a small airport in Pennsylvania. A Bellanca was totaled, a Piper Pawnee was severely damaged, and the two pilots sustained minor damage.

In other aviation headlines, Steve Wilkinson is leaving the Claremore, OK Airport for the Ocala, FL Airport. Something about the weather I think.

Iceland Medical Record

In Iceland, most of the people can track their genealogy for a long time. There are only about 275,000 who live there, and most of their parents and grandparents lived there. This provides an excellent opportunity for medical studies. So the Iceland government sold its medical genealogy records to a U.S. funded private company for this purpose. Now a lot of Icelanders are worrying about their privacy:


Speaking of medical privacy, SelectQuote had a minor problem last week. When you went to to get an insurance quote, your data was left on the site for the next visitor to see. It didn't happen to very many people, though, according to the company.

Hackers are Politically Incorrect

There have been a lot of hackers in trouble lately.

Max (Vision) Butler, 27, appeared in court in San Francisco for breaking into computers owned by NASA and the U.S. departments of energy, defense and transportation:

Jonathan Bosanac (the Gatsby) was sentenced to 18 months for breaking into primarily phone company computers:

A 14-year old was charged with extortion after he took control of a company's computer in Toronto. He emailed the owner and demanded cash before he would release the accounts.

Here's the best one: A London teenager was arrested for stealing Bill Gates' credit card number and turning it into NBC:,4586,2473689,00.html?chkpt=zdhpnews01

2600 Broadcast

A loose-knit hacker group called 2600 Australia is getting back at the motion picture industry over the DVD / DeCSS stuff. They're broadcasting on TV the "secret codes" to DVD players. They've bought a 15-second spot and are displaying the information at 12 frames per second. This won't look like much, so don't buy a plane ticket to Australia unless you intend to record it. And your U.S. recorder won't work very well there. This is all legal in Australia. Here's their web site:

Speaking of DVDs, if you buy an Apex AD-600A DVD player, you can access the secret menu to allow you to play DVDs from all over the world. It's also got some other "hidden" features that the MPAA is upset about. The AD-600A was developed in China and released a few weeks ago.

Here's how to use the secret menu:

Tux Protest

If you're in Washington DC on Tuesday, you can join the protest against the Digital Millennium Copyright Act!  Linux users of the world are getting excited because of the DVD controversy.

Here's their press release, and here's information for protesters.

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