technology

Pirate radio on the rise

From the "the more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers" department:

In Internet age, pirate radio arises as surprising challenge (hosted.ap.org)

In the age of podcasts and streaming services, you might think pirate radio is low on the list of concerns of federal lawmakers and broadcasters. You'd be wrong.

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Helped along by cheaper technology, the rogue stations can cover several blocks or several square miles. Most broadcast to immigrant communities that pirate radio defenders say are underserved by licensed stations.

You can still send telegrams stop How cool is that stop

I guess most of us thought the telegram died when Western Union shut down their service. But it lives! Now I shall be looking for an excuse to send one.

Technology You Didn't Know Still Existed: The Telegram (Atlas Obscura)

But a handful of companies are carrying on the tradition. Principal amongst them is the International Telegram Company who inherited and still operate Western Union’s former telex and cablegram network. They are well aware of their own anachronism: “Most people are pretty surprised to learn that telegrams still exist, and in fact are still pretty widely used in some parts of the world,” says Colin Stone, Director of Operations. Overall, he says that about 20 million telegrams are still delivered every year.

...[W]hen it comes to urgent hand-delivered messages, the telegram is still the gold standard. “People use them for canceling contracts and sending legal notifications because a copy of the message is retained in our files for 7 years and can be legally verified,” explains Stone. Everything from legal notices to social correspondence for births, funerals and weddings are being routinely sent by telegrams. In the U.S., Stone says that people still send telegrams for a simple reason, echoing the famous quote about why humans climb Mount Everest—"because they can."

odd recyclables

Some interesting ways to recycle stuff, from old CDs to coffins.

20 Recyclable Objects That Might Surprise You (Mental Floss)

According to the EPA, Americans send 250 million tons of trash to the landfill each year. That’s 40 percent of the world’s waste. Here are a few things you may have been throwing out that, with a little effort, you can actually recycle....

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Filabot Turns Your Plastic Junk Into Material for 3-D Printers | Wired Design

3D printing has been getting a lot of hype, but the question of obtaining all the plastic always seemed a huge limitation. Just what we need, more plastic, right? But now (or coming soon), there's Filabot, which recycles many household plastics into filament for 3D printers. So that soda bottle, or clamshell from the deli, could take on a whole new life. This could get interesting.

Filabot Turns Your Plastic Junk Into Material for 3-D Printers

Filabot promises to help turn your plastic crap in to 3-D printed fanciness, alleviating one of the biggest sustainability problems for 3-D printing.

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Unlike some of the more outlandish promises about how 3-D printing might save the world, McNaney’s project has a point. The world is awash in disposable plastic containers like soda and water bottles. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that junk could be re-used on site?

magic in the history of C

On the lighter side: from http://cm.bell-labs.com/cm/cs/who/dmr/chist.html, something I stumbled across a while back about the history of the ubiquitous and important programming language "C". It seems it may be descended from something named after Tibet's native religion/magical practice:

Challenged by McIlroy's feat in reproducing TMG, Thompson decided that Unix—possibly it had not even been named yet—needed a system programming language. After a rapidly scuttled attempt at Fortran, he created instead a language of his own, which he called B. B can be thought of as C without types; more accurately, it is BCPL squeezed into 8K bytes of memory and filtered through Thompson's brain. Its name most probably represents a contraction of BCPL, though an alternate theory holds that it derives from Bon [Thompson 69], an unrelated language created by Thompson during the Multics days. Bon in turn was named either after his wife Bonnie, or (according to an encyclopedia quotation in its manual), after a religion whose rituals involve the murmuring of magic formulas.

Akihabara and Roppangi

Happy Beltane! No Maypoles here in Tokyo, at least not that I've seen -- but, today I found an electronics store in Akihabara with a corner devoted to Tarot decks, occult books, and the like. So the universe still has surprises in store. That's good to know.

This morning I checked out of my tiny (even by Japanese standards, I think) room at the Chisun Inn in Nagoya, got my JR rail pass (after bouncing around the station for a while trying to find the right office), and got on the shinkansen train to Tokyo...only to find that I'd gotten on to a type of train ("Nozomi") that wasn't covered by my rail pass. Oops. I gave the conductor my best "sorry, I'm just a dumb gaijin" routine (which had the power of truth behind it) and he didn't demand I pay. I just got off at the next stop and caught a "Hikari" the rest of the way. Checked into my less tiny but still small room at the Horidome Villa, hit the ATM at the 7-11 (protip: Discover cards work as JCB cards here, making them pretty widely accepted and you can use them at many ATMs to get a cash advance on your account), rested and caught up on e-mail for a bit, then threw myself at the city to see what sticks.

First, the aforementioned Akihabara. A tech geek mecca. I did some window shopping in a few of the big stores and picked up a few small things, and also found a drum shop, a guitar shop, and an astounding telescope shop, with the largest scope having an aperture I could stick my head into; but my favorite discovery has to be CompuAce, the place with the Tarot decks and a noren (door curtain) with Ganesha on it, crowded with all kinds of computer and electronic accessories in addition to Pagan-y goods. Some sort of technopagan power spot.

Now, the infamous Roppangi. Full of hustlers, lots of Carribean or African guys trying to get me into clubs. Finally found a veggie burger, and then the "Cross Over" bar which seems a decent place to have a few beers, the sort of place that attracts both gaijin and Nihonjin. I found an Indian restaurant nearby, might hit that for dinner tomorrow. Indian is a good bet for vegetarian food plus an English menu. (Yes, there's probably ghee so it's not completely vegan, but we do the best we can in circumstances -- I'm a lot less likely to get fish stock in Indian food than I am in most practical alternatives...)

Twitter and the Line-Eater (assassination, dirty bomb, anthrax)

Back in the glory days of USENET, we would half-joke about the "NSA Line Eater", a (hypothetical?) program that scanned posts for keywords like "cocaine", "nuclear materials", or "Palestinian". It was a standard practice to deliberately include these words in one's .sig or in a header, to overwhelm the (supposed?) spooks.

Well my friends, everything old is new again, and history repeats itself as farce. According to our good friends at EPIC, DHS is using fake accounts to routinely monitor Twitter and Facebook for key terms. And they're serious about it: two unfortunate British tourists were denied entry to the U.S., arrested, and had their passports confiscated after joking on Twitter that they were going to "destroy America" and "dig up Marilyn Monroe".

Now, here's the thing about our confused fans in domestic surveillance: they've actually given us a partial list of what they're looking for. Page 17 of this Department of Homeland Security memo tells us that terms like:

  • assassination
  • drill
  • national preparedness
  • dirty bomb
  • domestic nuclear detection
  • militia
  • shots fired
  • hostage
  • explosion
  • state of emergency
  • breach
  • anthrax
  • nerve agent
  • ricin
  • H5N1

-- well, the list goes on for a bit -- will get their attention.

So, in the spirit of the old NSA Line Eater, and to show that broad snooping, arresting tourists for Family Guy-inspired jokes, and security theater are not the ways to keep us safe, I suggest we start incorporating these terms into our tweets and posts. Have fun.

(nerve agent ricin H5N1)

multi-billionaire Steve Jobs, RIP

So Steve Jobs has died. I was never a member of the cult of Jobs -- anyone pro-censorship hits a ratings ceiling pretty quick in my book -- but I don't care to badmouth the guy right now. Instead, in the spirit of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement, I'd like to point out a few things that his story illustrates about corporate capitalism and the concentration of wealth.

Perhaps first should be the fact that we are talking about his death now, rather than two years ago. Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004, and had a liver transplant in 2009. The questionable circumstances around this transplant, including the fact that he was able to obtain the transplant surgery on the other side of the country from his home, are a perfect illustration of how the concentration of wealth is a matter of life and death. "Multiple listing" for a transplant is not something you or I would be able to do in Job's place

So Jobs's fantastic wealth -- estimated to be $8.3 billion as of 2010, making him the 42nd wealthiest American -- gave him a few extra years of life. Well, didn't he earn it? Look at his contribution to technology, after all!

But Jobs is getting a lot of credit right now for things he did not do.

He did not "invent the personal computer", as some headlines are putting it. There were PCs before Apple, going back to 1973's Micral N. The original Apple hit the market the same time as the Commodore PET and the TRS-80, with Commodore getting the nod as "the first successfully mass marketed PC", according to the wik. The technical genius behind the original Apple/Apple II was Steve Wozniak, Job's contribution was more on the business/marketing side. (According to Woz, Jobs "never programmed in his life, though that's a bit of an exaggeration.)

The Macintosh GUI was based on work from Xerox PARC. The iPod was far from the first personal digital music player around. Job's genius was in polishing existing ideas, and making designs that captivated people -- branding and marketing.

The "genius lone inventor" myth contributes to both our screwed-up patent system and our "winner take all" economics. I'll bet you some right-wing talking head has already used Jobs as an example of someone who "deserved" to have the wealth of 8,300 mere millionaires, or of 89,000 average American families. Allowing Jobs to have credit for the work of many, many others distorts important truths about the concentration of wealth in our society.

Finally, I ought to note that unlike Bill Gates (for whom I have no great love!), Jobs was noted for a lack of philanthropy during his life, including cutting corporate philanthropy programs at Apple. It will be interesting to see how Jobs directed his wealth to be distributed after his death.

a salute to the timezone database and its maintainer

Computers have a simple way of keeping time: generally, they count seconds. Real Computers -- those running Unix-like operating systems -- count the number of elapsed seconds since midnight January 1 1970, UTC. As I write this, it's about 1299218806 in this system. That number, often called "Unix time" or a "time_t", is the same in Baltimore, London, or Tokyo. Simple.

But as experienced by us biological organisms, trying to keep our activities somewhat in sync with the diurnal light-dark cycle and the lengthening and shortening of the day over the seasons, time is much trickier.

Most of us only have to think about that when we change the clocks in the spring and fall, or when traveling to a new time zone. But on the internet, a computer in Baltimore might be connected to one in London, several timezones away; and those computers might be analyzing data containing timestamps -- not time_ts like 1299218806, but human-meaningful times like March 4 2011, 1:06:46 am -- from months ago, when daylight savings time was (or wasn't) in effect. Or even from years ago, when the very rules governing daylight savings time were different. Trying to convert from, say, October 31 1985, 7:00 pm Eastern Time to a pure number, or even to UTC time, requires being able to figure out if daylight savings time was in effect in the Eastern time zone at that moment -- a fairly complex question, as the rules have changed twice since that date!

Timezone information is used in such important Internet protocols as DHCP (the protocol that lets your laptop get an IP address -- as well as the local timezone -- from the WiFi service at the airport) and iCalendar (which is what lets you coordinate your meetings via Google Calendar -- or if you're stuck in hell, Outlook).

To keep it straight, since the early 1980s a group of volunteers has maintained the "TZ Database" -- a.k.a. the Olson Database, after its founder, Arthur David Olson. It's an amazing document, as Jon Udell reports -- rich with bits of history and politics.

Now Olson is preparing to retire, and IANA (the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) is considering how to hand off maintenance of the vital bit of infrastructure to someone new.

It's a good opportunity to stop and reflect on how much of this Internet that we take for granted relies on volunteer efforts -- cyber-Tzadikim Nistarim, if you will.

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