More Junkmail from Bob!

Monday, December 11, 2000
Important Stuff.

Today's Junkmail is pretty long and boring. I'm sitting in a hotel room in Rochester, MN, where it's below zero outside. They claim a wind-chill factor of -30, but I contend that wind-chill is something that weather people made up to make the weather more exciting, bringing in more viewers and more job security. Wind-chill is the effect of the wind on exposed skin, and since I don't generally expose much of my skin outside when it's this cold, I can ignore the wind-chill.

Fathoming a Micron

Quote of the week:  "A micron, which is the width of a human hair, refers to the width of the lines used to etch circuits on a silicon wafer." This is from today's Wall Street Journal.

A micron does not refer to the width of lines used to etch circuits on a silicon wafer. It's just a unit of measurement like an inch or a light-year. In fact, a micron is a millionth of a meter, or about .000000546806649168854 fathoms. It is 50 or 100 times smaller than a human hair.

This article was about Intel's new transistor. A microprocessor, like the CPU in the computer you're reading this email with, is made up of a big mess of tangled transistors. When I say a big mess, I mean millions. Yep, your Pentium III processor (if that's what you have) has about 9,500,000 transistors in a single chip. Then Pentium IV is out now and will be pretty widespread in a few months. It is made up of about 45,000,000 transistors.

The transistors are connected to one another in a way as to process lots of instructions really fast. Seems impossible to comprehend this well enough to build, doesn't it? Maybe it is, without tools. They use software to do it.

How can they ever get that many transistors on a single chip? They make 'em small. I think the Pentium III has transistors about .35 microns wide. The Pentium IV, about .13 microns wide. Today Intel announced a prototype transistor that's only .03 microns wide.

Intel is showing the .03 micron transistor at the International Electronic Device Manufacturers show in San Francisco this week. Unfortunately, nobody can see it. The wavelength of light is larger than the transistor! You won't get transistors this small on your computer until about 2005, but they're on the way.

Incidentally, there are lots of other microprocessors in your computer besides the CPU, and each of these has lots of transistors. In fact, you own lots of microprocessors outside your computer -- your car, telephone, digital clock, microwave, TV, etc. all have microprocessors. The microprocessors are getting cheaper and more powerful.

In the future you can expect the "intelligence" of these appliances to be limited by marketing rather than technology. For example, you could have a blender that can beat you at chess, but they won't program that unless it will help them sell blenders.

Ambiguity Reigns

For some extra entertainment, the Florida Supreme Court sent this order to the court clerk at Leon County, Florida, ordering him to ship his ballots.

"This Court has received an order from the United States Supreme Court to transfer the record to it. In view of this order, we direct the clerk ... to immediately transmit the record, including the ballots, to this court."

This is a good example of the ambiguous sentences we learned about in junior high. Or at least we should have. Or at least the Florida Supreme Court justices should have. But we didn't learn not to begin a sentence with a preposition. The Leon County court clerk was packing up his ballots and sending them to Washington DC before someone stopped him and explained that the Florida Supreme Court didn't do so well in English class.

Public Medicine

Someone broke into the University of Washington Medical Center computer last week and had access to about 5000 cardiology patient records. This was national news. If someone had broken into the room where the paper records were stored and copied them on a copier, would that have made the news? What's the difference?

"Health-privacy advocates say the incident is one of the most serious intentional breaches of patient privacy reported to date and shows the need for enforceable federal standards protecting electronic medical data."

It sounds to me like the health-privacy advocates want to make some money in the consulting business. I don't like people copying my medical records, but I would rather the government spend it's time and my money stopping a house burglar that a medical record burglar.

This was probably just a stunt to show lax computer security at the medical center anyway. Otherwise the hacker wouldn't have been so public about it. He sent the medical info to news organizations to show what he had done.

Bug? It's a Design Consideration

Speaking of security, Charles Schwab has a problem. In August, a security guy named Jeff figured out that Charles Schwab had a security hole that could allow a nefarious scoundrel to get onto someone else's account and buy and sell stocks. He told Charles Schwab about it, but they never fixed the problem. Last Monday he posted the problem on bugtraq, a computer security list server:

Last week Schwab said they didn't ignore him, but they don't have the problem fixed yet. I guess they're just slow. Now that the technique is public, I'll bet they're faster.,1367,40599,00.html

Iridium Rebounds.

In Junkmail just over a year ago (, I talked about the Iridium satellites and their 6'x3' antennas. You can see them in the sky, really bright, for a few seconds at a time.

The Iridium satellite phone system was shut down last Spring and they planned to crash them into the earth starting in February because nobody could operate the satellites profitably. That would narrow the playing field down to dotcoms and the government.

The government's the winner! A guy named Dan and some other investors are planning to buy the 70 satellites for $25 million. The U.S. Defense Department is planning to lease unlimited time on the satellites for $3 million a month. However, I suspect the Defense department's time will in fact be limited to 24 hours a day.,1283,40600,00.html

If the deal goes through, the satellites will hang around for a while longer and you can continue to see the Iridium flares. Since the satellites are in a predictable orbit around the earth (about 14 times a day) and the earth is in a predictable orbit around the sun, the Iridium flares are predictable. Check out this web site to find an Iridium flare near you!

The government says one of the reasons they want to keep the satellites from crashing down is to prevent "anxiety" for us earthlings. I think maybe they could to a better job on that by lowering taxes. Another reason is that the defense department already has 1600 Iridium satellite phones and the state department has another 2000.

The funny thing is that if the satellites were turned off and left alone, they'd stay in orbit another 108 years.

Space Pioneers

Thirty-five years ago NASA launched Pioneer 6 into orbit around the sun. It's still flying around, and it still works! Last Friday NASA contacted the space probe and received data from its powerful 8 watt transmitter at an amazing 16 bits per second. That's about 2000 times slower than your modem. Pioneer 6 generates 79 watts of electricity with its solar cells. That's 8 or 10 thousand times less than the power produced by the solar cells they installed on the space station last week.

All the instruments on Pioneer 6 have been turned off, and NASA didn't send or receive any important information. But it was pretty neat for them to be able to contact it after 35 years at a distance of 80,000,000+ million miles. The last time they talked to Pioneer 6 was in 1997. It takes a big dish to communicate with it, and it's hard to find unused time on one for extracurricular communications.

The second oldest spacecraft still in operation is Pioneer 10, launched 28 years ago. It may not be contacted again though, because it's 7,000,000,000 miles away and getting farther every day.

Free for a While

Last weekend, if they went through with it, Altavista cut off free internet service to about 3,000,000 if their users because the ISP they were using went out of business. Most of the free internet service providers are finally figuring out that they can't stay in business unless they get money from someone.

Cell Phones

The U.K. Chief Medical Officer says that cell phones could be bad for you. He recommends that we all keep our calls short, and children under 16 should us cell phones for essential purposes only and to keep all calls short. Liam went on to say that beef is good for you, and mad cow disease is nothing but an urban legend. Or something like that. I think he could check with for details.

I think cell phones are, in fact, dangerous. Mostly to the people around me when I'm driving and talking on my cell phone.

Ask Jeeves: "Should we make money?"

Ask Jeeves is a dotcom search engine that takes normal language questions and searches the internet or their database for the answer. They've been advertising on TV. At Comdex they rented a BUNCH of black PT Cruisers, put their name and trademark on them, and drove them around Las Vegas. I'm not sure if they were actually being used for anything. They might have been taxis. At any rate it must have cost them a lot of money. I mistakenly assumed that in order to waste that much money they must be at least a little successful.

Friday Ask Jeeves announced bad financial results, their boss resigned, and today their stock is at $3.28, down from $190 in November of last year. Their employee stock options might not be worth much today.

Government Dotcom

The U.S. Government is getting into the dotcom business! FirstGov is supposed to be a web site where government employees can go and find places to buy things. All the government contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, and hangers-on were supposed to flock to get registered on this site.

In traditional dotcom success, there have been 31 takes since last summer. Some potential FirstGov clients said there's a lot of expense and paperwork needed to get on the site, and it's just not worth it. In traditional dotcom denial, FirstGov's manager, Marty, says this doesn't mean there's a problem. It just means it's slow getting started. I wonder how much money has been spent so far.,4164,2661248,00.html

Here it is!

After looking at the site, I have to admit that it is at least a little useful. Inktome donated a search engine and the labor to index about 27 million government documents. Now you can go to this site, enter the agency and form number, and bring up a copy to print off most of the time. For example, I just looked up "8130-6 faa" and it found what I was looking for. It's nothing that google couldn't to, but this probably has more in the way of online documents.

Picture of Today

Here's a picture of a Boeing 777, 757, and 737 flying over Lake Michigan.

You can read an article by the guy who took these pictures here:

The Other Pictures of Today are from Yosemite. In 1994 I took a hike from Tuolomne Meadows to Half Dome and back. I took these on a 35mm point and shoot. I think the digital camera pictures are a little better quality. Some are a little dark and some are a little grainy. You can brighten them up using photo software, and you can blur out the graininess, but I'm too lazy. Either that or I'm a purist and want the original photo quality.

These three are Cathedral Peak I think, the location of the first documented technical climb in Yosemite by John Muir.

        IMG0021.jpg      Img0005.jpg      Img0013.jpg13.jpg

Other pictures:

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Half Dome from the side:


Glacier sculpting:

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Half Dome from behind

        IMG0043.jpg      IMG0044.jpg

...and a broken tree.


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