Archive for February, 2011

Last US WWI Vet Dies

February 28, 2011

The Washington Post, reports that Frank W. Buckles, the last surviving Doughboy, died at the age of 110 on Sunday. What I find amazing is not his long life, per se, but the fact that he was also a civilian prisoner of the Japanese in WWII. I knew a military POW, a US Army enlisted man captured in the Philippines. He was in his mid forties when I knew him, and he looked 80 — shrunken, shriveled, nearly toothless. Of course, he was a Bataan Death March survivor, but that was a mere instant in time compared with the next three years of deprivation. By all reports, the conditions that Buckles had to deal with were only slightly less horrific. The fact that Buckles could survive that, and still make it to 110 is the real miracle.

Twitter in Japan

February 25, 2011

According to reports, Japanese has become the second most used language on Twitter, after English. I suspect one of the reasons is that written Japanese can be much more compact than most languages. In English, “secondhand book” takes up fifteen characters, including the space. In standard Japanese hiragana, the word is ふるほん (, four characters, and in the borrowed-from-Chinese kanji symbols, it’s one reading of 古本, only two twitter characters. If you can pack an entire word into one character, 140 of them become a useful way to impart information. Of course, there’s a lot of context that’s needed to pick out the meaning of the words. Depending on the kanji, the Japanese word さんか (sa.n.ka) can mean participation, obstetrics, mountain villa, or a specific group of mountain tribes that were resistent to pacification. Since Chinese is the source of kanji, you’d expect Chinese to be a major player in the Twitter arena. It isn’t, probably because there are …ah… political …um… implications … that make China not a tweet-friendly nation. That may change.

HBGary, Wikileaks, and Anonymous

February 18, 2011

I don’t normally post links to stuff unless I think I have something useful to say on my own. I am still mulling these events over, but I wanted to set a marker, to refer to later on.

It all started when Visa, and Amazon, et al. cut off services to Wikileaks, claiming criminal activity (which, of course, they haven’t even been charged with, let alone convicted of). 4chan’s infamous Anonymous struck back

Then the FBI reportedly hired HBGary to help find Anonymous, which irritated them. I mean really irritated them.

And this is how they did it, and HERE is the scary part — HBGary’s government links and the pervasiveness of their methodology….by an interesting author

How will this roll out? I’m not sure. The government seems to be willing to sacrifice American citizen’s personal freedoms in order to pursue their agenda, and it doesn’t seem to matter which party is in power. Even if we were to assume that HBGary’s presentations to government were aspirational (as DHS is wont to say about many terrorist plots) and were not adopted by any agency, the fact that they felt such presentations might fly is troubling — and smacks of the abuses we saw back in the sixties. In addition, we see many non-government actors mentioned in these discussions. Actors who operate under no constitutional restraints.

Update (19 Feb): That “aspirational” thing? Maybe a better term is “response to a sources sought request

Update (7 Mar): Here is another analysis, by a security website, about HBGary’s mistakes.

Update (17 Mar): Yeah, it’s not ‘aspirational’. DoD really does want to develop these capabilities. To the tune of $2.6 million.

Why I’m Staying With Linux — A Valentine’s Day Story

February 18, 2011

OK, the week after Valentine’s day. A post-Valentineism. Look on this as a sequel to the Christmas Story.

It all started with an update. Linux updates more often than the other OS’s, because bug fixes are released as they are completed. Also Linux updates everything. You don’t have to go check each product to see if there’s an update (or worse, have one pop up when you open your app because need to use it right now!). Every few years, something goes wrong.

As I said in an earlier post, there was an update that broke my system. GRUB went away. Wouldn’t boot. Best I could get was a message from the Intel boot genie that no-one had given it a bootfile name. Turned on one of my backup machines and went onto the Ubuntu forums. I had a useful answer within an hour.

Let me say that again. Within an hour of posting, I had a response from someone at the company that had built my computer. Nobody gave me a runaround. Nobody accused me of piracy. Nobody pointed a finger and said I should talk to some other company. They didn’t laugh when I downloaded the wrong fix (twice). They just provided good, solid help. If it hadn’t been for the timing, my schedule, and slow internet connection, I’d have had it fixed that day.

Linux. Yeah. I’m keeping it.

Highschool of the Dead (HOTD) – the anime and manga

February 18, 2011

What on earth am I doing writing about this kind of thing, a high school horror “fanservice” title, with zombies? Not only that, but doing it from scanlations of the manga, and unofficial YouTube subs of the anime? Well, yes, it is all of those genres, with all the clichéd flaws of all of those genres, but you know what? At some level, darn it, it’s a pretty good story — although the unrelenting gore and death make it not suitable for those under, say, 16, and the unrelenting fanservice makes it less interesting for those over, say, 20.


As stated, it’s a high school horror flick, except that only the first part takes place inside the school, but it’s about high school students, so it has that going for it. It’s a zombie flick, with some speculation that the instant, world-wide plague is a failed biowarfare scheme. And it’s fanservice-heavy. So let’s get that part of things out of the way early. Yes, there’s fanservice there, complete with bouncing sound effects. Yes, it’s over the top (leading one reviewer to describe it as a “fanservice train wreck”). Remember the dodge-the-bullet scene from The Matrix? Replace Keanu Reeves with boobs. If you don’t like fanservice, stop reading now and save your time, then go buy Girl Who Leapt Through Time and save some money. (more…)

Bad Boot Blues

February 16, 2011

So, I come home from my morning class, and my Ubuntu machine says it has an update for me. I install the update, because one must keep up with the security patches, and it asks for a reboot. This is moderately unusual. Unlike Windows or Mac, only about one in five or six Linux patches requires restarting the machine. [begin rant] and why does Mac need so much rebooting? Mac OS X is Unix, and doesn’t need it, unless they are doing something nefarious with iTunes. [end rant]

At any rate, I rebooted. The machine beeped once, flashed the Sys76 logo, and went blank. Required a power-cycle restart. When I booted with F12 I got:

DHCP …with spinner, for a while, then

PXE-E53 No boot filename recieved
PXE-M0F: Exiting Intel Boot Agent

Doubleplus ungood.

Now, I have most of my current files backed up, but I don’t have my …bookmarks, wand passwords, Twitter, Skype, Facebook stuff backed. Until this is resolved, I am thrown back on online resources, like gmail, and the school machines, plus any old boxen I can dig out of the closet [See, Mrs, there’s a reason to keep all that stuff]. Thank ghu I live most of my life off a USB stick.

Absent expert advice, which I am soliciting on the fora, either my hard drive chose this moment to fail-without-warning, or something in the update overwrote my boot sector.

Watch this space.

UPDATE: 1352/17/02/2011
Looks like it’s a problem with the GRUB bootloader. Easily fixable if I can find my live CD.
LATER UPDATE: This had a happy ending

Cringely on Egypt

February 13, 2011

I’ve been following the Robert X. Cringely columns since the 1980’s. He’s a well-connected and astute observer of the technical scene. This week he has an interesting take on the use of technology in the Egyptian revolution. He notes that most of the tweeting was about the protesters, not from the protesters. His position is that, like Europe in 1848 (Le Mis‘ anyone?), the regimes in the Middle East are corrupt and sedentary and ripe for revolution, and technology isn’t a major driver in the events.

Europe of the mid-1800’s was frozen in the form defined by the Congress of Vienna of 1815. After the paroxysm of the Napoleonic Wars, the rulers were all for peace and stability – and no-one worried about what the peasants and bourgeoise wanted. Things simmered quietly for over thirty years before exploding. Fast forward to the mid-1900’s and we find the world of the Middle East frozen in the form defined by agreements made after the paroxysms of the two world wars. Regimes were imposed, not elected, and the resulting corruption and peasant discontent may finally have cooked off sixty, not thirty years later. The delay is likely due to the impact of the Cold War.

So, in the Middle East and North Africa today, technology is an enabler and a recorder, but it may not be a driver. Revolutions are happening because the time for revolutions has come. As Heinlein said “when it’s time to railroad, people start railroading.”

Wednesday Wii — Wii Game Play(s)

February 9, 2011

Here is a review, not by me, of The Wii Plays, an off-Broadway performance that’s a series of playlets that are based, too loosely it would seem, on various games in the Wii repertoire.

If I read the review correctly, any budding playwright or high school drama group can do something like this. The trick is to rummage around your playchest until you find a brief verbal passe d’armes between two actors (a scene cut from a previous play, a scriblet of what might be a future play, a weekend writing assignment), and then change the setting so that it can be construed to be associated with the Wii. Set it in a Wii location (the bar in the Wii Resort?). Give the characters Wii game identities (Link as a high school boy asking Zelda for a date?). As long as you do more than just paint the set white with blue-green trim you should be OK.

Closing down the Internet

February 6, 2011

Egypt’s Internet connections were down for five or six days last week, as part of the government’s response to threats to stability. ReadWriteWeb reports on studies indicating that the shutdown cost Egypt about three to four percent of its Gross Domestic Product. That same week, people were talking about a bill to give the President the ability to do the same thing here. Only he’d be able to do it with one phone call, instead of the six or eight the Egyptians needed. Of course, the proposed legislation isn’t really about killing the whole US Internet, only those parts declared critical infrastructure, like Hoover Dam. And the bill’s sponsors have said they would never, ever, approve legislation that would shut down the entire Internet.

What worries me is that even if this version of the bill is innocuous-but-flawed, it establishes a precedent and a tool, and future legistlators might not be so careful of American freedoms as is Senator Lieberman. Once such legislation is in place, it’s merely a matter of amending an existing law, not doing something new and scary. It looks to me like one of those slippery slopes that we are always being warned about.

It’s hard, of course, to calculate the economic impact of a shutdown of the US part of the Internet. Egypt is a less well connected country, but Internet driven services may well be a significant part of a small economy. I don’t know, and my schedule won’t let me take the time to find out. If, and it’s a big if, the impacts are similar — a one work-week shutdown drops GDP 3% — then it’s interesting to note that the cost of the 2008 recession is thought to be a GDP that was 16% smaller than it would have been. Just think, we’d be giving the politicians the ability to recreate the entirety of the Great Recession in just six weeks. I’m sure we’d be happy to do that, so that the government can protect us from, you know, threats to stability.

Viruses and DRM

February 4, 2011

Other folk have picked up on this already, but I thought it interesting enough to throw out my thoughts (which, admittedly, are not that different from the others). In an article in the NYT, author William Gibson derides the unprofessionalism behind the stuxnet code, and gives a brief account of the first PC virus “Brain”. I knew some of the history of Brain, but the article made me think of it in a whole new way. The first computer virus, the start of the malware hell we have been through for the last quarter of a century, was also arguably the first attempt at digital DRM.

To avoid NYT link-rot, here is what Wikipedia says about Brain:

Brain was written by two brothers, Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi, who lived in Chahmiran near Lahore Railway Station, Lahore, Pakistan. The brothers told TIME magazine they had written it to protect their medical software from piracy and it was supposed to target copyright infringers only.

Now, I am sure that someone would have come up with the idea, out of pure meanness, sooner or later, but this tells me that the evil influence of digital DRM has been around a lot longer than one might think. The damage done by the brothers Alvi was inadvertent. Well, not inadvertent inadvertent, because they fully intended harm to those who used their product without paying them. Call it collateral damage. Like in the bad old days when you had to carpet-bomb a city in order to take out the telephone exchange. As the Sony/BMI rootkit disaster showed, that attitude is still around. Worse, the people who control some kinds of content have been working tirelessly to attack our freedoms by shifting from technical measures to more draconian legal ones. The result will be the same — massive collateral damage to the freedoms of Americans as the emergent consequences roll on for decades. The brothers Alvi were reportedly horrified by what happened. The present crowd don’t care.