If you have five minutes and 48 seconds to spare, it’s worth watching the clip of CBS News reporter Lara Logan’s interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources late last week. Journalists have been getting a lot of crap from the Bush Administration about being singlemindedly focused on the negative in Iraq; Logan does an amazing job of ruthlessly smacking down those claims, and doing so in a way that really highlights how everything truly is about the awful state of security in the country right now.
I would have done nearly anything to be at the Supreme Court for yesterday’s Hamdan v. Rumsfeld oral arguments. Alas, since I wasn’t there, I’m content reading Dahlia Lithwick’s recap of the discourse, and happy knowing that if her portrayal is correct, even the Justices are growing weary of the Executive’s attempts to create a new set of rules that require no checks or balances.
Since it’s not in Amazon’s database yet (and thus not available for me to add to my wishlist), let me make a global announcement: I want the new Lego Mindstorms NXT set. Wired published a story recently about the upgrades that are being introduced with the new Mindstorms set, including a 32-bit processor, a new cross-platform programming language, USB and Bluetooth, and new sensors; it’ll be a fun toy to have in my office someday, as a diversion for kids and adults alike.
Congrats to Columbia University, the ol’ triple-alma-mater, for the receipt of a $200 million gift to create a center devoted to the study of the brain. It’s the largest private gift ever for the creation of a single institution, and will be headed by the esteemed threesome of Richard Axel (Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2004), Eric Kandel (Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000), and Thomas Jessell. I had the fortune of being taught, at various stages of my education and training, by all three men; it’s entirely unsurprising to me that they’d be the ones tapped at leading the effort to better understand the way we think and behave. (And the picture of Eric Kandel that graces his Nobel bio is the perfect representation of him — a happy, old-world guy with a passion for his work!)
Now this is cool: a video of yesterday’s controlled demolition of the Landmark Tower, a 30-story skyscraper in downtown Dallas that is one of the tallest buildings ever imploded. According to a description that accompanies the Star-Telegram’s simulation of the implosion, a 20-foot trench was dug at a corner of the lot, and the tower was purposely brought down with a slight lean so that it would fall both into its own basement and into the trench. Pretty damn keen.
Oh no! Spirit, one of the two Mars Exploration Rovers, has a bum wheel, and now has to use its five other wheels to drag itself to a position where it can gather enough sunshine to continue doing its thing through the coming Martian winter. Of course, today was day number 779 of what was planned to be a 90-day mission — meaning that the folks at NASA are rapidly approaching the point of a 900% return on their investment with the Rovers.
(Yep, I freely admit to anthropomorphizing the two little guys toodling around on the surface of the red planet… which means that right now, I’m envisioning Spirit dragging a bum leg behind it, or at least limping around with a walker. Get well soon, buddy!)
Sorry about the complete silence from the Land of Cheese lately — Real Life™ intervened (a dying patient, a push to secure my post-fellowship future, a semi-urgent need to upgrade the lifeblood of the Queso network, and a baffling attempt to understand the world of home financing). Things are slowly returning to normal, though, and I hope to be as chatty as ever soon!
In the mean time, I have to say that one recommendation I got over the past week that’s served me incredibly well is Matt telling me to give reBlog a shot. It’s a website syndication aggregator, built on the codebase of one of my favorite (but increasingly neglected) apps, and it’s just frickin’ amazing. (Matt authored a review, complete with a screencast, over at Lifehacker today.) Because of the aforementioned system upgrade, I actually uncovered a wee little bug in reBlog, but the code was easy enough to read that I banged out a fix for it over the course of a night and I’m now pretty much sold on the app. If you’re in the market for a web-based aggregator, go set up an account on the online demo app and see what you think.
Am I alone in thinking that the user interfaces of the next generation of Microsoft Office applications might be the very textbook definition of overengineered? Looking at them, the Office team appears to have done away with the File menu entirely (perhaps it’s hidden underneath the little floppy disk icon in the upper left?), and moved nearly all functionality into the toolbars, renamed “command tabs” and “ribbons” in the new UIs. What’s more, the ribbons appear to flow out of (and be entirely dependent on) choices made from the few menubar options that remain, making the interfaces even that much more confusing. Hell, in the Outlook screenshot, all the various bits of chrome appear to take up nearly a third of the window — talk about needlessly de-emphasizing the most important part of the interface, the part in which the user actually writes a message!
Years and years ago, Apple was praised to the rafters for its strict guidelines on how a program should present its functionality (known as the Apple Human Interface Guidelines). Over time, the folks in Cupertino began breaking a lot of their own rules in the interfaces of apps like QuickTime and iTunes, but there’s still a good core of consistency in the Mac interface that stretches all the way back to the Lisa in the early 1980s. Looking at these Office screenshots, it’s clear to me how important that consistency is — and how totally and utterly confused a lot of Office 2007 users will be when they’re faced with apps that don’t behave anything like their old ones. I’m not looking forward to that at all.
If you want to be a wee bit depressed, head over to the Anderson Cooper 360° weblog at CNN.com, specifically to the comments on Dan Simon’s post about the connections eleven women have made to each other after each underwent artificial insemination with the same donor’s sperm. In that comment thread, you’ll find such gems of wisdom as “these procedures rationalize polygamy,” “it totally ruins the very definition of a family,” “I guess these women have have little common sense or spiritual background,” “God designed marrige [sic] and families for a specific purpose,” and “how despising that humans have come to this” — all from a bunch of readers who can’t even lay claim to knowing how each of the eleven women came to her decision to undergo artificial insemination, but are damned sure that the decision was wrong. A bunch of the comments are enough to highlight what is, in my mind, a pretty big division in this country, a division between those who are willing to accept ways of living life that differ from their own, and those who feel not just that their beliefs are unquestionably correct, but feel the need to impose those beliefs on the rest of their communities.
I swear to you that when I saw the title to this TiVo Blog post in my syndication aggregator, I immediately wondered how my wife and I got roped into contributing… and it took a good 10 or 15 seconds for me to realize that there are probably other “Shannon & Jason” pairs that might exist out there on the web. Perhaps I should take this as a good reminder that it is possible for my life to be less wrapped-up in the online world…
This is the time of year when I get a little sad that I’m not going to be traveling to Austin to attend SxSW. I put in a good few-year run of making it to the conference, but last year and this, my work life here in Boston (and my two-week honeymoon in October!) has made it impossible for me to make it down to the great state of Texas. (Having spent two formative decades of my life 70 miles south of Austin, I actually mean that, at a minimum because of the chile con queso, breakfast tacos, and margaritas.)
Being that my training as a pediatric hematologist/oncologist has taken precendence over the web-geek side of my life for the past little bit of time, moving SxSW onto the back burner makes good sense — hell, when I went two years ago, my professional focus had already shifted enough that the talks and interactive sessions played a clear second fiddle to having the chance to see a bunch of old friends and meet a slew of people in-person that I only knew via email and instant messaging. And while it still makes sense that I dedicated my conference time this year to the annual American Society of Hematology meeting, I’m nonetheless sad that a sizable chunk of my friends will be getting together in Austin over the weekend, listening to great talks about the world of interactive media, eating amazing breakfasts at Las Manitas and lunches at Guero’s (I’m looking at you, Alison!), going bowling late into the night, and generally having fun.
I’ll miss you guys — have a big bowl of queso and a margarita (on the rocks, with salt) for me!
Hmmmm — I wonder how many of these credit card holders are going to call their card issuers to find out whether their accounts have been compromised. “Hi, I’ve made a bunch of online porn purchases over the past few years, but I just heard that the company which billed me went and released information about millions of credit cards onto the internet… am I affected?”
Jonathan Corbet, the Grumpy Editor over at LWN.net, has a reasonably good review of the current offerings in the world of Bayesian spam email filters. His tests hinted that SpamAssassin remains difficult to beat in terms of accuracy, but that it’s still the slowest and most computing-intensive of all the solutions out there (in part because SpamAssassin does a lot more than just act as a Bayesian filter). It’s the system I run all my incoming mail through, but I definitely feel the processor crunch at times — and it’s definitely the kind of service I’d love to offload if there were a reasonable and inexpensive way to do so.
(For those of you who aren’t hip to the lingo of internet system administration, Bayesian spam filters are “trainable” applications that scan incoming email and make predictions about whether any given message is spam, predictions that are based in part on the content of prior legitimate and illegitimate messages to the same users. Back in 2002, Paul Graham wrote an article which posited that applying Bayesian probability theories to email might help alleviate the growing spam problem, and since then the notion has established itself as one of the cornerstones of email administration.)
There are times when I’m disappointed in our nation’s leadership, and then times when I wonder how we, as citizens, can allow our current batch of leaders to remain in office for even one second longer. Today is one of the latter times, specifically after reading that Bill Frist has threatened to restructure the Senate Intelligence Committee if it deigns to vote to hold hearings on the Administration’s use of warrantless wiretaps. The Intelligence Committee has been unique since its inception in that the rules establish a much more balanced distribution of power between the two political parties, all in the name of establishing as nonpartisan oversight as possible of our government’s intelligence activities. In a letter yesterday to Harry Reid, the Minority Leader of the Senate, Frist threatened to rewrite those rules to prevent the investigation of Bush’s eavesdropping policy:
If we are unable to reach agreement, I believe we must consider other options to improve the Committee’s oversight capabilities, to include restructuring the Committee so that it is organized and operated like most Senate committees.
To me, this feels like another example of our current ruling party changing the rules to better allow their continued lawless and unethical ways. From mid-decade redistricting in Texas to protecting Tom Delay by changing the House ethics rules to redefining such basic notions as who is a prisoner and what comprises torture, the Republican party is showing that it’s willing to do literally anything it can get away with to perpetuate its goals. You’d figure that with Bush’s approval ratings swimming in the sewer, there would be more of an effort within the party’s ranks to behave better, but I guess that there are some addictions that are too difficult to give up cold-turkey.
Boston Dynamics, an engineering company spun off by MIT to develop robots with human-like abilities, is currently developing an engine-driven, pack mule-like robot named BigDog that you have to see in action to believe. (That link is to a Windows Media Player-format video, which plays just fine in the OS X version of WMP.) The movement of BigDog’s four legs is amazing and a bit creepy all at the same time, but the whole package works well enough that it looks like you can actually kick the robot in the side and it’ll recover and continue moving without a problem. DARPA is sponsoring the development of BigDog, which looks like it could someday be a useful military tool for carrying heavy loads alongside troops on foot.
I run a web-based email application on my domain, and it’s coming up on time for me to renew the SSL certificate that keeps people’s email sessions secure. For the past four years, I’ve used Thawte to issue the certificate, mostly out of inertia, but looking at their offerings today, I noticed that the price for my type of certificate has somehow increased 20% since the last time I renewed (from $299 to $349 for a two-year certificate). Given that I can’t imagine the actual cost to Thawte of issuing a certificate has increased one cent during that time period, it’s time for me to do a little comparison shopping.
In the past, I’ve stumbled across a few alternatives to Thawte (and Verisign, the questionably-trustworthy company which owns Thawte) when it comes to issuing SSL certificates. There’s InstantSSL, which currently is offering a two-year cert for $100, but which only issues chained-root certs (requiring the installation of additional layers of trust in order to get the whole thing recognized by a web browser as truly secure). It’s a bit cumbersome, and there are a few webservers out there that don’t support chained certificates, so if you’re interested in this route you’ll want to make sure that you check into this. (The certs issued by GoDaddy and DigiCert suffer from the same issue.)
RapidSSL looks like a very reasonable alternative ($70 for one year, $121 for two years), and they’re running a free one-year promotion right now for people switching from Thawte. Their certs are single-root, and provide up to 256-bit encryption, and appear to be well-supported, so they might be getting my business soon.
I have a few weeks to mull all this over; does anyone have any other specific recommendations (or warnings of companies to avoid)?
As promised, part two of the conversation between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell is online over at ESPN.com’s Page 2.
Today, ESPN.com has an awesome conversation between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell that’s well worth a read. Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy, is (in my estimation) the best and funniest sports writer alive today — reading him during a Red Sox pennant run or just after a fantasy football team draft is something that has the potential to make a person laugh hard enough to asphyxiate. And Malcolm Gladwell is the very well-known author of Blink and The Tipping Point, a staff writer for New Yorker, a nascent weblogger, and an incredible sports fan. Happily, ESPN promises us part two of the conversation tomorrow!
(I actually recalled that Gladwell had contributed to Page 2 before; turns out that he was interviewed back in 2000, but the article is locked up in ESPN.com’s pay archive.)
Reason number 2,143 that our government shouldn’t be in the business of wiretapping people without warrants: Iyman Faris, a defendant who pled guilty to plotting to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, is now seeking to reverse his plea based in part on the fact that he was the target of warrantless wiretaps. In our current political and judicial climate, I doubt that the case will go very far, but it certainly feels plausible enough that authorities might have used evidence obtained in extralegal means to pressure a plea from Faris. To me, it all feels like an episode of Law & Order, with the corrupt cop leaving in his wake a trail of criminal appeals based on the invalidity of his testimony…
There’s no question that I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about claims that cellphones can cause problems with airplane guidance and control systems; I’ve always seen it as existing in the same class of claims as ISPs claiming that voice-over-IP might “disrupt their networks,” claims that are as much about protecting control as they are about ensuring safety or quality. This month, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are publishing results of a study of in-flight cellphone (and GPS receiver) use that validates their continued furtive in-flight use, and reviews a sizable chunk of retrospective data about interference, and the editorial board of IEEE Spectrum has referenced the article in a call for a systematic study both of portable electronic use and interference aboard airplanes before any changes are made to the current use bans. (Sadly, as is generally the case, most news reports and weblog posts about the article aren’t doing a good job of explaining the findings; most of them either make the direct claim or appear to want readers to make the conclusion themselves that the study found clear evidence of navigation or control system interference, something the study very definitively did not do.)
Sure, my personal stake in this is that I don’t want to be on an airplane that crashes as a result of someone’s need to stay on their cellphone for the duration of the flight — but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m also very interested in any finding that might prevent having someone screaming details about their personal life into their cellphone in the seat next to me.