Showing posts with label rant. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rant. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

It's *not* rocket science

The start-up debacle -- about which I'll spare you my political thoughts -- has been of late (hah!) a major topic in the mass media.

Said fiasco has also provided fodder for late-night comedians and, not surprisingly, the Onion: "New, Improved Obamacare Program Released On 35 Floppy Disks." And fodder, too, for tech speculation, as in this from IEEE Spectrum: "The Obamacare Rollout: What Really Happened?"

Rather than become the zillionth-plus-first commenter on the botched roll-out, I decided instead to vent re the problems more generally encountered in software. My opinion is, I shall maintain, an informed one. I have an MS in computer engineering. I once programmed for a living. For many years after I stopped coding (other than, on occasion, recreationally) I managed software- and systems-development organizations, both in the private sector and under contract to several federal agencies (most notably, NASA). Several of those systems were Internet-based, very large, distributed -- or all three.

So what about the state of modern software bemuses (but not amuses) me?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

An open letter to (a few) ebook shoppers

It happens all too often ... an online shopper looks at an ebook at Amazon or or ... and disagrees with the vendor's price. That's fair.

And proceeds to give that book a one-star review, "justified" with a rant about greed and/or the evils of ebook pricing. That's often quite unfair, and that bit of venting claims the author as collateral damage.

First, the background: opinions differ on ebook pricing. Some shoppers feel that ebooks should be far cheaper than any physical book because an ebook can be replicated for free. Authors, editors, cover artists, distributors, and publishers expect to earn something for their contributions to a book -- and that requires a nonzero price on books, even ebooks. (Especially ebooks, as that format claims more and more of the book market.) Ebook reader vendors, meanwhile, sometimes use ebook content as a loss leader. The device vendor's short-term motivation is to lure/lock customers into a particular content ecosystem.

Publishers and etailers have long tussled over these issues. Even as I type, a major antitrust suit about ebook pricing is at trial between Apple and the Department of Justice -- the big publishing houses having settled out of court.

Do I know the "right" price for an ebook? No (other than nonzero, in the belief readers want authors to continue writing). Do I know how the tussle among publishers, etailers, and the DoJ will come out? Again, no. 

Here's what I do know ...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Poisoning, throttling, and otherwise killing the goose

You know the goose I mean -- the one that lays the golden eggs

DVDs (in which category I'll include Blu-Ray discs) are a big market. In 2011, the last year for which I've found data, movies on disc represented an $18 billion business. Lots of after-theater money for movie producers.

A vanishing breed?
But it's a business that's shrinking -- and all too often, the purveyors of DVDs are bringing it upon themselves.

I enjoyed DVDs. I used to buy lots of DVDs. The picture quality is fantastic. I can watch a DVD movie even when my Internet service is interrupted. But in recent months, almost exclusively, I stream video content.

As a consumer, videophile, and technologist, what's gone wrong with DVDs and (especially) Blu-Ray discs? Let me count the ways.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hacked off

Time and again I believe that I've posted for the last time on the topic of Internet insecurity, that there is nothing more to be said on the subject ... only to have events show me otherwise. So what's gone wrong recently?

The hacking of Bush family email accounts at AOL likely didn't entail any great technical skill. What shocked me is how news outlets considered excerpts from the Bush family's email archives to be fair game.

Yes, the family includes two former presidents -- but not everything they do is news. We're not discussing the Pentagon Papers. Does the public deserve access to personal emails in which George W. Bush collects information from his relatives for a eulogy for his ailing father? Isn't the family entitled to any privacy? As the Washington Post comments, "Publication of hacked George W. Bush e-mails raises journalism ethics questions."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Techie tesserae

The crafting of believable futures -- a big chunk of my job description -- entails considering the many ways in which a society can change. Any science or technology experiencing a major advance -- and when is just one so fortunate? -- generally has many consequences. Consider the myriad myriads of impacts of ever faster, ever cheaper, ever more efficient electronic chips.

The better to imagine fictional futures, part of my routine involves keeping my finger on the pulse of science and tech (and other changes!) in the real world. Alas, another part of my routine is tearing myself away from all the fascinating stuff and getting back to writing. Not everything interesting can make it into a story. That doesn't mean I can't share.

Let's start with the endlessly proliferating cameras in public spaces. If those cameras are used to identify terrorists, bank robbers, and red-light runners, that's keen. But will cameras in public be used only for such purposes? (Note the wording: cameras in public, not public cameras. In Baltimore alone, one repo company captures 10 million license-plate photos per year.)

And will license-plate snapshots be combined with other databases, such as GPS-tagged cell-phone records? Is the mere fact of driving down a public street sufficient reason to make a permanent record of your travels? From IEEE Spectrum, see, "License Plates, Cameras, and Our Vanishing Privacy."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

While we wait ...

A very consequential election. The ongoing Superstorm Sandy mess/clean-up in the Northeast (with a nor'easter en route). Though today is my weekly day to post, my mind isn't on blogging -- and I believe that's understandable.

Sharing thought-provoking (or offbeat) science, technology, and SF items from my grab bag won't demand much concentration on my part (kinda essential today) and they may divert you.

Remember last year's tsunami in Japan? It caused shutdowns at, and radiation releases (but, to date, no radiation-related deaths) from, the four Fukushima nuclear power plants. It led several countries to move toward the complete elimination of nuclear power from their national grids. Remember the hyperventilating concern about US nukes in the event of natural disaster?

Almost lost in the coverage of Sandy's impacts is this: "Problems at Five Nuke Plants." What sort of problems? Amid countless storm-related grid disturbances, these nuclear plants responded as designed. One of the five "problems" was a plant dialing down its output to 91 percent of capacity. That seems (IMO) pretty tame compared to "ConEd Explosion During Hurricane Sandy Rocks Manhattan's Lower East Side" and "Outages, floods hit two New Jersey refineries; others restart." Nukes are a robust part of the national energy system. I'd like to see more of them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Curiosity ... an endangered commodity

First things first: kudos to the NASA/JPL team -- including Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and other contributing contractors -- for pulling off the recent successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, aka the Curiosity rover. The flawless flight and landing mark a great technological achievement. The MSL seems poised to discover many interesting things about Mars.

Curiosity about to land
But Curiosity arose from a NASA solicitation in 2004: during the George W. Bush era. Where does curiosity, lower case, fit in the current administration's agenda? Nowhere, as far as I can see. Even as NASA takes its victory lap, the US has recently pulled out of the ExoMars program. So much for the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative signed between NASA and ESA in July 2009. During this administration.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Higgs (of course)

The week's hot news (beyond the literal heat in this part of the world) is the discovery of a "Higgs Boson-like particle" by two research teams at CERN. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was built for Higgs hunting more than for any other purpose.

A Higgs (in theory) falls apart
I've mentioned the hunt for the Higgs Boson on many occasions (IIRC, back to "Thanksgiving appetizers" where I put a Higgs discovery on my 2009 holiday wish list).

Most regular readers of this blog will already have read and seen many of the reports. (If you've been at the beach, sans iPad, beating the heat, here are a couple. From Slate, via physicist Lawrence Krauss, "A Quantum Leap: The discovery of the Higgs boson particle puts our understanding of nature on a new firm footing." And from The Wall Street Journal, "How to Be Sure You've Found a Higgs Boson.")

These are two of the more careful, thoughtful pieces I've seen. Krauss is in the minority even to hint at the sad fact this discovery could have come much sooner -- and been a triumph of American science -- if Congress hadn't killed off the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993.

Monday, May 28, 2012


Without intention, I've been on hiatus from a topic of personal interest. To wit: computer-centric security, privacy, and hacking. Diverted by other topics of note -- among which: yea, Dragon! -- I see I haven't written a post dedicated to (in)security since January ("Viruses: not just for PCs anymore").

Let's get caught up ...

Bad fortune ...
Google has been caught with their hand in the, ahem, cookie jar. As in, slipping in cookies despite users' do-not-track settings. From Computerworld last February, see "Google's tracking of Safari users could lead to FTC investigation."

Apple has long had the reputation of offering secure platforms -- if only because until Apple products began to get a decent market share, malware writers couldn't be bother to attack Apple products. Enter the Flashback Trojan, which quickly infected 600K Macs. As Cnet noted last April, "Apple's security code of silence: A big problem."
Apple has cultivated a myth about security on the Mac platform. The myth goes like this: Apple users don't need antivirus software. We're more secure than anything out there. Security worries are overblown.
In reality, Apple practiced security by obscurity with the Mac.
 But wait! Sadly, there's much more!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tech dispatches from the Department of "D'oh"

As Japan slowly recovers from last year's natural disaster ("It's the tsunami, stupid"), that country -- by popular demand -- is about to inflict more hardship on itself.

Nothing but a bit of steam ...
How so? Via the shutdown of all nuclear power in the country. That's fifty reactors, which not long ago provided almost thirty percent of the nation's electrical power. IMO, that's quite the overreaction to the (unprecedented) earthquake-plus-tsunami damage to a cluster of four reactors.

Oddly enough, it happens that choices have consequences. And so "Nuclear-free Japan braces for severe power shortages" (a Reuters report) and "As Japan shuts down nuclear power, emissions rise" (from Yahoo News).

Speaking of Yahoo ...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Move 'em on. Head 'em out. Rawhide!

You got it: a round-up post. Three newsworthy (not to mention, eclectic) observations on matters of science and technology ...

Circuses (we're out of bread)
Last May I ranted about the slow, lingering death of any American space program (see "Crocodile cheers"). In particular, I admitted, "I've progressed from bemused to troubled to angry at the spate of breathless headlines heralding some 'final' activity of a space shuttle." Last week saw new breathless coverage about the Washington DC flyover bringing the shuttle Discovery to its final resting place at the Smithsonian.

Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer gets it. From his essay last week, "Farewell, the New Frontier," here is the opening passage:
As the space shuttle Discovery flew three times around Washington, a final salute before landing at Dulles airport for retirement in a museum, thousands on the ground gazed upward with marvel and pride. Yet what they were witnessing, for all its elegance, was a funeral march.
The shuttle was being carried — its pallbearer, a 747 — because it cannot fly, nor will it ever again. It was being sent for interment. Above ground, to be sure. But just as surely embalmed as Lenin in Red Square.
Is there a better symbol of willed American decline? The pity is not Discovery’s retirement — beautiful as it was, the shuttle proved too expensive and risky to operate — but that it died without a successor ....
The full essay is spot-on, eloquent, and well worth the read. 

And now on to a completely different topic ...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


From Through the Looking Glass:
Alice meets the twins
"I know what you're thinking about," said Tweedledum; "but it isn't so, nohow."

"Contrariwise," continued Tweedledee, "if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."
And so to publishing, economics (aka, "the dismal science"), public policy, and Through the Looking Glass (aka, world-class) examples of  (il)logic.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Physics: nothing to sneeze at

For me, the early spring is definitely something to sneeze at. Pollen count is through the roof. (It must be, because it's getting to me indoors.)

Pollen. I'm not a fan.
But today's musings are neither a paean to pollen (say that quickly five times) nor a jeremiad. It's a collection of physics news -- all Really Neat Things -- well within the ambit of this blog. While my head does its best to explode (my free advice: don't watch ... especially if you've ever seen Scanners), here's some fare of likely interest:

Beginning with a second result from CERN -- independent of last September's startling report -- measuring neutrino speed. This time the elusive neutrinos were clocked at light speed (as expected), not a hair above. See "The Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos Debate Rages On" and "Adagio, OPERA."

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Space-y program

Post-shuttle, the US manned space program requires NASA to buy seats on Russian flights to the International Space Station (ISS), until crew-rated US commercial launchers and capsules come along. (I carefully don't call this NASA's manned spaceflight program, because I doubt anyone in NASA truly wants things to be this way. Congress and two successive administrations have been mucking up the works.)

Let's see how that plan is going ...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Much idiocy, the occasional triumph of common sense, and a look ahead

So: a virologist decided to investigate how to make the avian flu (aka, H5N1) more contagious.

It apparently wasn't enough to know that the disease -- transmitted through contact with the feces of infected birds -- has killed 600 people and has a 60% human fatality rate. Now there's an airborne strain. Pleased at punch with his accomplishments, said virologist wanted to get the details published. Because, you know, no one could possibly abuse this research.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Where credit is due

Unless this is your first visit -- in which case, "Hi!" -- you likely know that I'm a onetime physicist and computer engineer, and that I remain interested in science and technology.

It continually amazes me how few people I meet have any interest in either subject area.

Admittedly, seemingly esoteric things can fascinate me. (Like whether, as recent experiments suggest, neutrinos can travel faster than light. Like the nature of dark energy: a label of convenience for our present state of ignorance, not an explanation for the accelerating expansion of the universe.)

But my fascination with the cutting edge of science isn't why others' disinterest in science and tech surprises -- and, yes, saddens -- me. Come. Travel with me to my youth.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Worrying about the right things?

What brings eyeballs to many a website (or, in Ye Olde Days, sold printed newspapers) is trouble. Something that has, or might, or inevitably must, Go Wrong.

The retractions (if any) or stony silence when disasters don't come to pass are less obvious. Is it any wonder that anxiety is the natural mood?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tweeting with fire

Tweets, Blackberries, cells ... they connect us, build communities, and are literal lifelines in emergencies. In ruthless dictatorships, these services help oppressed populations organize to present their case for freedom.

These are Good Things.

But are they Unmitigated Good Things? Is freedom of speech an absolute right, no matter what idea is being expressed and what the consequences? What about when the idea being expressed is "Quick! Let's loot a store here -- the police are busy there"?

Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously pointed out that there is no First Amendment right to falsely shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. (He also pointed out that, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins.") And thus I segue into the issue of competing rights having  -- I hope -- established my libertarian bon fides in prior posts, most recently "Privacy? We don't need no stinkin' privacy."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Metaphor alert

Black swan events.  That's the au courant metaphor for an unlikely situation that -- because of its seriousness if it does happen -- merits our preemptive consideration. Because, the theory goes, when one assumes something won't happen, one is wholly unprepared when it does.

Never mind that since the Roman poet Juvenal began all this black-swan stuff with his comment, "rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno," it's become known black swans do exist -- image at left (thanks to J J Harrison and Wikipedia). Keep that irony in mind.

(And bear with me. I will get to a technology matter, something well within the purview of this blog. And to another metaphor.)

I won't dwell on the current market crack-up, because people with far more qualifications than I have already weighed in on the topic. All you can bear to read about this mess is only a googling away. That said, one thing is clear: the present global financial panic originated in a black swan event.  (Or two. We have both the once unthinkable S&P downgrade of US sovereign debt and the unraveling of the Eurozone to thank.)

It is a panic. As one trader observes in "Why markets are melting":

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Danger, Will Robinson

For my non-gray-haired readers, that subject is a tag line of the campy Sixties TV series Lost in Space. We will not discuss the 1998 movie version. Not ever. You have been warned.

Today's subject is more modern dangers. Let's begin with the sadly not shocking observation that "Private browsing: it's not so private." Among the problems, browser plug-ins often fail to respect private mode.

Omitted from the discussion: no matter how robust your browser's privacy mode, your ISP knows by IP address what data goes to and from your home. (Your browser may warn you of this risk -- for example, Firefox pops up an advisory at the start of every FF private-browsing session.) Perhaps you choose to route your web accesses through an anonymizer service. If so, why do you suppose that service is any more likely to respect/protect your privacy than your ISP?

Are you unhappy that someone might poke around your Internet activities? How about foreign powers poking around inside your nation's IT infrastructure? We've already seen cyberwar incidents involving Georgia, Estonia, and Iran, and many incidents of Chinese hackers poking about inside US networks. (Last January I posted here about cyberwar.) Conventional wisdom has it that the country which would be most at risk in a full-blown cyberwar is the US -- we are, after all, the birthplace of the Internet, and so have become the most dependent on it. So: it's good to finally see that "US Cyberwar Guidelines Officially Signed." Hopefully implementation will entail less dawdling than did drafting and signing ...

As a US military official is quoted by the WSJ in "Cyber Combat: Act of War":