Friday, October 29, 2004

Prop 71

Jeff and I were talking over lunch about Proposition 71, a bond measure that would provide $3B of funding for stem-cell research in California.

The latest issue of the Metro had this article which covers some of the basics, and gives some background info.

One of the cons to the measure is something that came up in our discussion: the funding is tied to stem-cell research, which may end up being a research dead-end. The other, of course, is the price tag. With California being in a budget crisis, is now the right time to rack up $6B in debt?

Summary of prop 71 from

Still haven't decided which way I'll vote on this issue, but I think it's worthy of consideration.

Free Software in Brazil

This Wired article talks about the free software movement in Brazil, and the underlying political and social reasons that Brazil has become the strongest national proponent of free software. Brazil is using what I call the "Captain Kirk Rule" -- if the rules of the game are set up so you can't win, then change the rules.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Grace sent me a an article onDiscovery about using rat neural cells to fly an F-22 flight simulator. Over time this tissue network learned to fly the plane straight and level through a variety of weather conditions.

This is fascinating research, leading into man-machine interfaces, smarter neural networks, and all sorts of other fun stuff. The big ethical question, however, is at what point do we consider these devices "alive"? At some point, do we need to talk about what ethical treatment of your computer is?

Digital Crack

I knew I shouldn't have, but I just couldn't help myself. I read that the new "Grand Theft Auto" game, San Andreas, hit stores yesterday, and so I stopped by Fry's on my way home. After a quick, nutritious meal from Taco Bell, I fired up the game and started driving around the streets of San Andreas.

For those not familiar with the series, each recent "Grand Theft Auto" game has had a theme and is loosely based on a real location. GTA happened in Liberty City, which is based on New York City with a kind of "Sopranos" atmosphere, in an unidentified time which feels like the late 80s or early 90s.

"Vice City" takes place in I-can't-believe-it's-not-Miami, and not surprisingly feels a lot like Miami Vice, complete with neon lights, polyester suits, and big old "brick" cell phones.

So the latest installment, San Andreas, is a fictional area that's pretty much California crammed into a 20 mile x 20 mile square. You start out in "East Los Santos" as a black gang member, and it tracks 90s gangsta movies. Most of the early missions give little or no cash, but you get "respect" points as you try to acquire more territory for your gang, and gear up to heavier hardware for an eventual takeover of East S.A.

The game is a lot grittier and more realistic than Vice City or GTA, in keeping with the setting. The cars have more detail, are usually damaged when you get them, and the camera is moved closer to the car so you can see it better. The handling on the cars is more realistic, and the big, American cars you're driving in the beginning of the game drive like the beasts they are. If you get one sliding it happens slower than in GTA, but it's not nearly as easy to recover from.

Combat on foot is better than in GTA or Vice City, but it's still annoying because the camera never seems to track where you want it to, and you spend a lot of time trying to find the bad guys while they're shooting at you (because, naturally, they have no trouble finding you). A nice change is that your fellow gang members back you up in a lot of these conflicts, so you don't have to carry the whole load. Still, the best answer in most conflicts is, like in previous versions, to run everyone over with your car.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Abuse of Patriot Act

Jeff said he hadn't heard of any abuse of the Patriot act since it was enacted, whereas I read it as more of a wholesale removal of checks and balances to give the FBI carte blanche to do whatever it wants to someone as long as they call them a "terrorist" first. So, in search of some hard data, I did a Google search, and found the following interesting items:

FBI and MPAA use the Patriot act to obtain financial information about the operator of an SG-1 fan site: link

Internal DOJ report cites Patriot-act related abuses: link

ABA Summary of changes in Patriot act, including defining most computer-related crimes as terrorism: link

Money quote:
There is nothing new or shocking about the fact that many of the provisions in the Patriot Act have no direct relevance to terrorism, cyberterrorism, or protection of the government or individuals from future acts like those experienced on September 11. It is common that congressional acts include provisions with no relevance to the main purpose and title of the act. What may be unique here are the speed at which the Patriot Act was passed and the purpose for the haste. One wonders whether it was necessary, in light of these extenuating circumstances, to include provisions with far-reaching effects beyond terrorism.

L.A. judge rules part of Patriot act unconstitutional: link

Cato institute gives Patriot act a nay: link

And, just for giggles, here's the complete text of the bill.

Recent article on the Register about part of the Patriot act being overturned.

FBI threatens to throw journalists in jail using the Patriot Act

WOPR Comes to Life

Those of you who are old enough will remember the movie "War Games," one of the first movies to give geeky guys who like computers the idea that they could some day get a date with a real, live woman. It also gave them the mistaken impression that the way to do this was by impressing her with how much you know about computers, but we all know better than to take dating advice from Hollywood, right?

The other part of this movie revolves around a computer (complete with flashing lights on the front) called WOPR that runs military simulations of potential conflicts. According to this article in Wired, yet another part of science fiction has become reality.

This simulator allows the military to model a city controlled by hostile forces and determine how to shut down and contain those forces, while also modelling the effect of actions on the civilian populace. (Gosh, I wonder what conflict inspired this direction of research?)

Although this beats the hell out of "The Sims", it looks like it won't be coming to Fry's any time soon -- the program runs on a Linux-based supercomputer. In that part, at least, SciFi was true to form.

Jurisdiction on the Internet

The Register, one of my favorite online news sources, has this article about some servers that got siezed in the UK. The interesting part about this is that the UK government claims to have had no part in the seizure.

Lemme explain... No, is too complicated -- lemme sum up. The Italians wanted some information on Indymedia's servers regarding possible terrorist activities. They send a request to the U.S. to seize the servers, presumably because they're hosted by Rackspace (the "why"s are quite fuzzy). The servers, which actually reside in the U.K., are seized by some mysterious entity which is neither (by denial) the UK Home Office or the FBI.

Then one week later the servers are given back, and there are more denials flying around than there are fake boobs in a strip club.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Reverse Engineering Under Attack

Found a link on Groklaw about a recent legal case, where Blizzard sued a group of open-source developers for reverse-engineering their network protocol for their network games. They did this through a combination of the End-User License Agreement (EULA) and our favorite law, the DMCA.

The basis of their case is that the game's EULA, like every EULA made since the late 90s, contains a provision forbidding any reverse engineering or disassembling of the source code, for any purpose whatsoever. It was widely understood that while these EULAs claimed the moon, most of the provisions of them were unenforceable. Even the DMCA has provisions within it that allow reverse-engineering for purposes of interoperability.

The worst thing this ruling says is that there is some merit to any claim made in an EULA, which opens the door to nuisance lawsuits any time one is violated. Also may be time for the tech industry to wake up and realize that IP laws can hurt as much as they can help -- every company I've worked for has done significant reverse-engineering of other companies devices in order to build competing products.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004


Last night, the heavens opened up and the rain fell down in a torrent. The south bay is now getting throroughly soaked. I woke up to this when my phone started ringing at 9AM, because Awais called me to ask if I was going to dial in to the 9AM meeting.

So I hop out of bed, take a quick shower, and zip off to work as fast as I can. See, there's a reason to have a 300hp, all-wheel-drive car. Because it might be raining outside and you need to get to work in a hurry. It could happen.

My last turn before work goes over a small overpass, and as I pull up to the light, the traffic has just gotten a green and is starting to move. So, naturally, I gas it through first around the corner, and the car nicely power-slides around the corner until I drop it into second and power out of it. Nothing terribly dramatic, just a little monday morning commute fun. Oh, and after that I had to dodge the downed tree.

As I pulled into my parking space, another Subaru pulled up behind me to compliment me on my commute driving. Apparently he wanted to do the same thing, but didn't have the right turn on the way to work.

Got to work at 9:35, in time to catch the tail end of the meeting. STi saves the day.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Municipal Wireless

This CNN article talks about a city in Minnesota setting up a municipal wireless network, so residents can get broadband access for about $16/month.

This sounds like a smart move on the city's part, and a number of cities are looking into this sort of deployment. I find it encouraging because they're treating network access like a utility, which I think is the right model.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Cost of Liability

It's always unclear how much liability insurance for doctors costs. It's come up in the recent election campaign, as part of Bush's platform. There are reports in some states that doctors are moving out of the state because they can't afford to practice with current liability law.

It's hard to get a grip on how much liability and such cost, but snippets like this one on implantable ID chips give a clue (full article here):

In pets, installing the chip costs owners about $50. For humans, the chip implantation cost would be $150 to $200, said Angela Fulcher, an Applied Digital spokeswoman.

So, with the same device and the same procedure, it costs 4x as much...

Monday, October 11, 2004

Happy Birthday, Dad

My dad just turned 70 this year, and so my sister and I wanted to get him something special for his birthday. The problem is that, like his son, if my dad wants something, he buys it. So finding something that my dad wants but hasn't bought is impossible -- you have to find something my dad doesn't know he wants yet. An exercise in mind-reading, so to speak.

This year, my sister had a flash of genius, and managed to find a place in the U.S. where you can get a ride in a real WWII tank. Only problem is that it's in Minnesota. Fortunately, it turns out that my parents, on one of their rambling U.S. tours, swung through Minnesota, so my dad got a tank ride for his birthday.

Very cool, I must say.

Unfortunately, nothing ever goes as planned. While the T-34 was one of the best-designed tanks of WWII, it is still a 60-year old piece of equipment, from an era where you were expected to tear down engines on a yearly basis. So, on the day of the ride, the tank wouldn't start.

Fortunately, the ride was only half the attraction for the day, the other half being allowed to shoot a variety of fully-automatic weapons, including an Uzi, an M-16, and an MP-40. I think he was happy with the day even without the ride in the tank.

And I'm wondering if I need to take a little field trip myself.

Corporate Amnesia

Just read an article on The Register about Microsoft's e-mail retention policy. Apparently, through several means, they have "encouraged" their employees to delete all e-mail older than 30 days.

As a working engineer, this policy seems barely short of insanity. I archive all project-related email I have, and I have email dating back 3-4 years for some projects. This is invaluable in many cases, when you want to find out what requirement somebody e-mailed you 9 months ago about such-and-such. Many of these issues and requirements are never tracked anywhere outside of e-mail.

Now, it's possible that Microsoft simply has much better project management than where I work, and that they track all of this externally, so retaining this isn't required. You've used their software, you make the call. Saving disk space? Google is willing to give you a gigabyte of mail storage for free -- deleting mail older than 30 days seems overzealous even for corporate frugality.

On the other hand, if someone sues you for anticompetitive behavior, all the e-mail evidence they would use against you is now, conveniently, gone. Oops! Sorry. This is not a company that was convicted of anticompetitive behavior and reforming -- this is a company that got caught and is making sure it doesn't get caught again.

Update: Bob Cringely has an article with some details as to how this curious document retention policy came to light.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Attack Your Lawyer

Quote of the day:

"I've contended all along that this guy is nuts, and to be honest, this pretty much confirms it," Garraway said late Wednesday. "... what kind of rational person would attack his own lawyer?"

Original article on CNN

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Where Oh Where Has My IT Support Gone?

One of my coworkers forwarded me this video clip from the Conan O'Brian show. Those of us with global tech support can feel for this guy, who finds it a bit difficult to walk over and chat with is IT person, since they're in Hyderabad.