Jeff's Home Page
Jeff's Resume/Bio
Photo Gallery
Contra Home
About Contra
Contra on LiveJournal
Diary Topic Index
Diary Photo Index

Link to an Entry

Sam'l Bassett
David Beers
M. Covington Loren Heiny
Harry Helms
Jim Mishel
Bill Roper
David Stafford
Scott Smith




December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004



February 28, 2005: A Rant on Things to Avoid in High School

Rant time. Paul Graham has written another stunning essay (which was aggregated on Slashdot some time back) addressed to high school students, and basically addresses the issue of knowing what to do with the rest of your life. For the most part he's right on: It's less important to know what your life's work will be in high school than to just cast about, read lots, work on projects, try to answer interesting questions, and most of all, don't waste time.

Among his discussion of what can motivate high schoolers, this one stood out for me:

Closely related [to wanting to do things you're not supposed to do] is the desire to do something audacious. Sixteen year olds aren't supposed to write novels. So if you try, anything you achieve is on the plus side of the ledger; if you fail utterly, you're doing no worse than expectations.

I was a contrarian even in grade school, and certainly by high school. A friend razzed me all through junior year as I sketched out the details of my 10" telescope. I estimated that it would weigh 200 pounds. (The truth was closer to 300.) He drew a cartoon of me as a mad scientist in front of this amazing fantasy contraption (which bore little or no resemblance to a telescope) with the underlying note that "YOU CANNOT BUILD 200-POUND TELESCOPES!"

And novels, heh. I wrote one when I was 15, another when I was 16, and a third when I was 17. I didn't write another until I was 48. I didn't know back then how hard it was, so I just did it. I didn't do much with my teen-era novels, or the ideas they contained, because I was taught that writers are beatnicks. I wrote them because I was good at it. If I didn't do it for a few days, I got seriously twitchy—something still true to this day.

What Graham does not address in the essay is why kids don't do this sort of thing anymore, as they did when he and I were high schoolers. I have two answers to that, both of which I've touched on here in the past, and both of which are among my nastiest rants:

  • Cynicism. Our culture is cynical, and much of that is due to our morally/spiritually bankrupt intellectual class, especially liberal arts professors. I used to say they should all be ground up for dogfood, but that would be animal cruelty. (I mean it either way you could take it.) There have been a couple of recent articles in The Atlantic about how it's possible to go through a complete Harvard liberal arts curriculum without learning anything at all, and this doesn't surprise me, though it's not quite true: What students are learning is the Big Existential Lie that nothing matters, so why break a sweat on anything?
  • Overmanagement. The other biggie is that we are exhausting our children by forcing them to do idiotic things every moment of their days. Sports is the biggest time-waster of anything we foist on our children. Some families insist that kids play at least organized sport, and sometimes two. Sports teach nothing—absolutely nothing—but that winners can and should stomp on losers. That's what the whole pitiful, sadistic business is for. In many sports, there is little or no exercise involved, especially for spindly little kids who mostly warm the benches while the big kids get to play. (And when spindly little kids try to play and do badly, because they're spindly or clumsy or whatever, they are taunted and laughed at and often physically abused. Ask me sometime how well I did—or, more to the point, how long I lasted—on the 8th grade softball team.)

There are other minor issues, including the seductive nature of video games, but most of it cooks down to our cynical culture and berserk time-management. Some parents of teen boys try to keep them busy every minute of their day out of a terror that they'll join a gang or do drugs. This kind of imposed-from-without discipline prevents the development of the sort of imposed-from-within discipline that allows young kids to do remarkable and sometimes unprecedented things. Kids need a little slack time to wonder a little, and try things, without parents nagging them that they have to go play football, or worry that they'll hurt themselves. In all my inquisitive nerd's life, I have never broken a bone or even injured myself badly enough to require stitches. I built my own 300-volt DC power supply when I was 12, to power the tube projects I was creating out of torn-up TV sets, and I'm still alive to talk about it. (Still have the power supply in fact, and still use it.)

I think that it's basically this simple: If you teach a child some basic common sense and allow him or her the use of tools and a little time to use them, and if you make it clear that creativity and ambition are valued in your house, and if you then have the guts to stand back and let them roar, marvelous things will happen. Maybe not instantly, but the process matters more than perfection or immediate results. I know it's still possible; the seven-year-old son of my friend George Ott is always out in the backyard, stitching inventions together out of boards and rope and other junk, which I think everybody but his parents and me considers a mostly harmless nuisance. Not so. It's the last best hope of humanity, and if we succeed in stomping this impulse out of our children, we might as well hand the world over to the roaches.

February 26, 2005: Earth 1, Psychics 0

Well, I think we've given SilverJade enough time on her predictions of a catastrophic California earthquake on February 23. (See my entry for February 14, 2005.) California is still there—which is good, because Carol and I were still in Orange County on the 23rd. The note on the site now says "Her dates and steps are not accurate." Duh! And if California does suffer a nasty earthquake six months from now, fersure people will point to this prediction and say, "She was just off by a little."

Sheesh, this has happened again and again and again...and people are still standing there panting for the next addle-pated prediction. It annoys me because I'm pretty sure that there's a pony inside the paranormal bag somewhere, and this sort of thing makes people roll their eyes and refuse to do any serious research, or even take seriously the serious research that some people actually have done. (See Jahn & Dunne's The Margins of Reality.)

February 25, 2005: Live Windows?

Several people wrote to tell me (which I knew) that there are now many versions of Linux that boot from CD and never even touch the hard drive. I'm familiar with such "live CDs" and use Knoppix as a "rescue disk" to get data off unbootable Windows hard drives. What I was actuallly talking about was something baked into ROM that would boot the Windows kernel (not necessarily the whole shebang) and thus prevent a rootkit from hiding itself by modifying the way the Windows kernel works. As George Ewing pointed out, some primordial personal computers like the Commodore 64 put the whole OS in ROM to avoid the need for a hard drive. I can't imagine, if we can create a Flash drive with 2 GB capacity, that we couldn't create a relatively cheap board with the Windows kernel in half a gig of unalternable ROM. Everything else (drivers, GUI, IP stack) could be installed on the hard drive. It would prevent Windows piracy (mostly) and might also be faster than booting entirely from hard disk. I don't mind paying for Windows plus an upgrade every year or so (it's really very useful, if buggier than we'd like) and this would be one conceivable way to prevent threats to the kernel itself.

It's interesting to ponder whether there could be a Live CD version of Windows that would boot and run but not install. My guess is that it's technically feasable, but Microsoft would never do it because the CD could be easily copied and used (in a cheap optical drive) in place of Windows on a hard drive in the conventional fashion. "Right Men" like Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer want to stamp out piracy even if it kills them or Microsoft itself. Linux is getting scarifyingly good, and while it's not at parity with Windows yet, it could be in another ten years or perhaps sooner. That's when all the real inteeresting stuff starts, and if the rootkits thing gets really bad, a rootkit-proof on-ROM version of Linux could look a great deal better.

February 23, 2005: How Many Could We Lose?

Having read The Great Influenza and the link mentioned in yesterday's entry, I was thinking a bit on what a worse flu might do to humanity. There have been SF novels about some mysterious disease basically wiping out all but a handful of us (see George R. Stewart's classic Earth Abides) but nothing I've ever seen about a plague wiping out a third of us, or half of us, while leaving the human infrastructure undamaged. It's an intriguing question: How many humans could you pull from the Earth and still have anything like a society? Could things still work with only two out of three people alive and functional? And if so, what sort of society would that become? Reduce that to one out of two and what would we have?

Such depopulation has happened in isolated areas before, especially after the Black Death in Europe and the ravages of "the companies." (See my May 14, 2004 discussion of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror.) Interestingly, the Black Death shook loose a lot of wealth held by old families and drove the last nail into the coffin of feudalism, and the Europe that emerged was in some respects more prosperous (if not necessarily more humane) than what had been before. My intuition is that human society is not quite as fragile as we might guess. Such a plague might limit the reach of national governments for a period of years (they would have to prioritize with a vengeance) but at the local level, life would probably go on, and over time society would reassemble in a slightly different form. Would that form reflect collectivism or individualism? What would we lose? What would we gain?

That's yet another line in my (ever-longer) list of novels-to-be-written. I'd better get to work, heh.

February 22, 2005: Odd Lots

A few odd lots while I'm working through some difficult issues here:

  • Michael Abrash sent me this link, which indicates that we may be having some trouble with flu next year. Pay no attention to that 72% mortality figure. Things like that are never accurate. Almost never. We hope.
  • Michael Covington made a suggestion with a lot of merit: That Windows (or any OS, really) should boot its kernel from some sort of read-only medium. To avoid rootkits (See my entry for February 18, 2005) I would certainly be willing to buy Windows with the kernel on ROM, perhaps as a small add-in board for one of those right-next-to-the-CPU expansion sockets. I wouldn't mind if it took a few more seconds to boot. Nor would Microsoft, I would guess, mind the strong antipiracy protection that this would provide. Nonetheless, I don't think it will happen—unless a popular version of Linux began to be distributed this way. (There are rootkits for Linux too.) Let's watch.
  • Carol and I visited a wonderful Old Catholic community this past Sunday (yes, I'm traveling right now): St. Matthew's Old Catholic Church, in Orange, California. The church is in the shadow of a monster freeway interchange called The Orange Crush, so it's relatively easy to reach it from almost anywhere in Orange County. St. Matthew's is a member of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, and is relatively liberal theologically without being over-the-top in any sense. The liturgy and music are very close to those used in the Roman Catholic Church, and we found the people there tremendously welcoming. I spoke a bit with Bishop Peter Hickman, the pastor, and found him to be a wonderfully empathetic man. He's also a spectacular preacher. If you're looking for an alternative to the Roman Catholic Church in Orange County, I don't think you're ever going to do better than this.

February 18, 2005: Windows Rootkits

Slashdot aggregated a disturbing piece about "kernel rootkits" for Windows, which allow the bad guys to create spyware and trojans that melt into the Windows kernel, take control of how Windows discerns their presence, and as a result become both undetectable and impossible to get rid of— except, perhaps, by keeping a ghost image of your fully configured Windows partition offline somewhere, and rolling back to your standard configuration on a regular basis.

I don't know Windows internals well enough to understand why rootkits are even possible. Certainly this sounds like a terrific reason not to run as administrator all the time, though I'm far from sure that that's complete protection against such things.. More on the technical side is here. This is a truly ugly business, and if anything begins running people out of Windows territory to the Mac or Linux, this may be it. More as I learn it.

Note that I may be posting irregularly or sparsely the next ten or twelve days. I'll do my best, but sometimes things happen.

February 17, 2005: More XP Wi-Fi Weirdness

Reader Bill Dillon had the same problem that I had with Wi-Fi and Windows XP Service Pack 2 (see my entry for February 11, 2005) and he solved it by rolling back SP2 and then reinstalling it. It's unclear to both of us why this should matter at all, but there you have it. The problem I may have with the brand-new PC that I described in the earlier entry is that I'm not sure you can roll back SP2 when SP2 wasn't an upgrade to an earlier version of XP. I'll have to look into this, and if I have further useful adventures you'll hear about them.

February 16, 2005: The Romance of Vacuum Tubes

I'm a sucker for tube-based electronics, not because I think it's better somehow than solid state (it's clearly not) but simply because it has a certain mad-scientist aura that little plastic squares full of silicon simply lack. Tubes (and their associated discrete components) are big enough to grip with your fingers, unlike surface-mount components, some of which are barely big enough to distinguish from dandruff. And they look cool. Years back I built an all-tube high-voltage power supply that contains three gas-filled regulator tubes as well as the canonical 5U4 rectifier. Gas inside a tube will glow when electrons are moving around inside of it, and while with most tubes this is a bad thing, with gas regulators it's what makes them work—and each variety of gas regulator tube glows a different color, depending on the mixture of gases inside it. (I've tried to capture this in a photograph and it just hasn't worked.)

I've begun posting information on playing around with tubes (see my 12V "space charge" tube page here) and hope to do more in the future. For a look at some of the variety of form in the tube universe, check out the National Valve Museum. (Tubes are called "valves" in the UK.) Once you're in the "exhibits" section, browse the "construction and technology" pages to get a sense for the breadth of design of these things. Now that I have a workshop again, I have various tube projects underway, and I'll post photos here as things progress.

February 14, 2005: Odd Lots

A few odd lots while the snow melts on this beautiful Colorado Springs day:

  • All the psychics who missed the Christmas Tsunami are trying to play catch up. Here's one that's pretty specific: An earthquake for February 23, 2005. Lots of maps, calculations (including references to C structs, egad) and plenty of objective stuff that we can wave at poor SilverJade if she misses. I'll post something soon after 2/23; we can probably give her a day's grace.
  • And while we're talking psychic powers, several people sent me a Slashdot link about a random number generator that supposedly predicts the future. This is about the Global Consciousness Project, spearheaded by Drs. Robert Jahn and Roger Nelson. The random number generators used by the project are based on "quantum indeterminate electronic noise," and there is some technical information (though not enough) here. It would be interesting to build one of these. At some point they should publish circuits, or even sell PC boards. The more people are watching these things, the more defensible the Project's position would be.

    After a quick scan, I still have a lot of doubts. I admit that I'm in a little deep, but my understanding of electronic noise is that it's not a quantum phenomenon, but if any physicists out there can clarify what they're talking about, I'd appreciate it. I have some respect for Dr. Robert Jahn based on his 1989 book The Margins of Reality, which summarized his experiments on psychokinesis and seemed to be reasonably good science. If I get a better sense for what these guys are doing, I'll post a more detailed entry here.

  • Many people took time to explain the date problem with Pepys Diary. (See my entry for February 6, 2005.) There was an English tradition at that time to begin the year on March 25, and end it the following March 24. So dates between January 1 and March 24 could be in two years, and are often given with the two years separated by a slash, as 1728/29. The custom was officially dropped in 1752 and the January 1 New Year made legal across the board, so English dates between 1/1 and 3/24 prior to 1752 are often given in that dual form. Thanks to all who wrote with clarifications.

February 13, 2005: Delphi Is Ten

Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of Borland's release of Delphi 1.0. How could it be? I admit, I haven't done much programming lately, but if it hadn't been for Delphi, I don't think I would have done much at all, especially under Windows. The Delphi Programming Explorer, a book I did with Jim Mischel and Don Taylor, was one of the first out on Delphi, and was the #1 moneymaker for Coriolis Group Books in 1995. And although Delphi remains a strong contender in parts of Europe, here in the US the C bigots have won, even though C and (especially) clib are at the root of a great many security issues with modern software. Nothing makes a C bigot howl like any suggestion that C is to blame for anything, and behind all that howling I sense a lot of very uneasy consciences.

But I'm tired of fighting that battle. I may learn C# someday, but for the moment I'm working on other things, and when I need to gen up a simple utility, I still turn to Delphi 6. I'll do no howling, but I will re-state my constant premise that if Delphi were to replace C in the programming universe, things like buffer overflow exploits would become almost extinct. (Yes, you can write exploitable code in Delphi, but you have to work at it. When you use clib, such exploits happen by default, unless you consciously opt out of using certain fundamental library routines.)

It was interesting that I saw nothing on the main Borland site about the 10th anniversary; all I got was a simple email from David Intersimone. Delphi thus gets almost no honor even in its own house. I'll continue to use it and hope it survives, but at this point I've begun to worry.

February 12, 2005: An It Harm Not? Yeah, Right.

It's not every day that you realize that St. Augustine agrees with the born-again pagans. But today was that day, when I again happened across Augustine's epigram: "Love, and do what you will." Wiccans and pagans and others of that sort have a saying too: "An it harm not, do what thou wilt." I laughed out loud over that one. (It's always stated in something like Middle English, where "an" means "if".)

But it brought me to a more serious topic: Does law trump love, or does love trump law? Most of the great divides in the world today, in religion as in secular life, have roots in that question. Conservatives feel that love, to be genuine, must operate within a system of predefined (and ideally Divine) law. Liberals feel that law is invalid unless, in all things, it respects the requirements of love. And here I am in the middle, watching them duke it out and trying to decide which side I'm on. It's not as simple as it sounds.

I've heard it said that love is self-validating, and law is not. Those who create law can make it say anything they want, including selfish and destructive things, all the way up to idiocies like prohibiting pigeons from gathering in a park, or rounding off pi to an even value of 3. Love, on the other hand, has some boundary conditions that are universally understood. The kicker is that law can be made as precise as it needs to be, whereas the definition of love is always a little fuzzy. The question I have for the Wiccans (and what I think what Augustine had in mind in stating his epigram) is this: How do you know that you will do no harm?

All actions have consequences. Even the so-called victimless crimes are not always without victims. If doing drugs makes you nuts or incompetent, somebody is going to have to take care of you. Quite apart from the risk of STDs, casual sex can leave behind psychological trauma that may not surface for years afterward. ("Casual sex" is rarely as casual on both sides of the transaction.) My point here is that love can fool itself into thinking that no harm is being done, when in fact it requires great care to live without harm to anyone or anything.

As a liberal religionist, I'm more than willing to state that love trumps law. But love without deception is much harder to maintain than law without corruption. Law has to constantly examine itself to be sure of its motives, and love has to constantly monitor itself to be sure of its honesty. Divine love (which is what Augustine was talking about) implies the Great Law: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Don't fool yourself into thinking that this is easy.

In other words: Love, and do what you will. Dare you!

February 11, 2005: The Dialog That Contradicts Itself

Windows XP Service Pack 2 threw me a curve the other day, and I can only assume it's a bug of some kind. Note the screen cap at left, and read it carefully: Up top it says "Not connected," and in the middle of the same item says, "You are currently connected to this network." I've certainly never seen Windows contradict itself within a single pane before. I guess there's always a first time. The truth was that the PC had not connected to the network. Associated with the AP, perhaps, (my router gave it an IP) but not connected to Windows networking in any meaningful way. (For the curious: The unprotected network listed at the bottom is my next door neighbor's.)

The circumstances behind the message were peculiar. I was here at home configuring a new system for someone else, and the first time the Wi-Fi client in the new PC connected to my WRT54G router, everything was fine. I then changed the router's SSID to reflect the router where the PC would be installed ("yttrium") and got the message in the screen capture above. When I changed the router SSID back to my own SSID, it connected fine. Puzzled, I swapped in my old BEFW11S4 Wireless-B router, and it connected fine...because the SSID of both of my routers is the same. When I changed the SSID on the Wireless-B router to "yttrium", it again refused to connect.

It seems like the copy of Windows in the new PC somehow fixated on the first SSID that it saw (which was mine) and after that first connection wouldn't connect to any other SSID. I still haven't figured out how to fix this, and may have to do a system restore (basically, reinstall Windows from the hidden partition using the PC vendor's recovery software) before taking it to its new home. If you have any suggestions, I'm listening—but it only hardens my conviction that Service Pack 2 is a very nasty thing. Beware.

February 10, 2005: Louis "Bud" Maday, Requiescat in Pace

The past wasn't always better than the present—but sometimes, and in some ways and places, it was. I learned from several people in the past few days that Louis "Bud" Maday died this past Monday, and I threw a prayer his way, for he was a small but important part of my childhood. More than that, he was emblematic of a way of life that few of us ever appreciated until it was gone.

I've mentioned Bud a couple of times on this site, in my entry for June 9, 2004, and also in my larger essay on Hi-Flier kites, which in my own personal history always came from Talcott Hardware. Founded by Bud's parents Lou and Julia about 1950 and owned by Bud for many years after their passing, it's now owned and still operated by Bud's daughter Julie. I hope Julie can continue to make it work, but if she can't, Lord knows it won't be her fault.

It's difficult to understand Talcott Hardware without understanding a little about about a remarkable corner in Chicago: The intersection of Talcott Road and Canfield Road. I've been around the country some, and recently I realized what a rare thing that corner was: A perfect microcosm of the massive big-box "commercial strips" that we all now depend on for shopping. At least up until the mid-1960s, at one intersection just three blocks from where we lived were:

  • Talcott Hardware
  • Certified Groceries
  • Perlin Drugs
  • Louie's (and later Bill's) Barber Shop
  • The Pink Poodle Beauty Salon
  • Pikul's Restaurant
  • A Citgo gas station with a very cold Coke machine
  • A small men's clothing/tailor shop, which I think may have been called The Sheik
  • A bakery that smelled like cookies even when the cookies were all sold out
  • A medical office where our dentist and several doctors were

plus one or two other small shops, the nature of which I've forgotten, though one might have been a women's clothing shop, and another a gift shop. Note that this mix includes in miniature almost every category of shopping we now drive endless miles for: Food, prescriptions, hardware (and hobbies; Bud's store was part hobby shop) baked goods, gas, clothes, a restaurant, hair care, and medical care. My parents and our neighbors made good use of it, and lord knows I spent plenty of time (and money) there, either on kites, model airplane kits, and pipe fittings at Talcott Hardware, or ice cream cones at Perlin Drugs.

Nearly all of the shops are now gone; Talcott Hardware is perhaps the only business there that hasn't changed ownership since the corner was built about 1950. Bud knew hardware like no one else I've ever met, and significant to geeky kids like me, he was willing to talk to us about it. When I was 13 and designing my first big telescope, I asked Bud if he could put 6" worth of threads on a length of 2" pipe, thinking of pipe threads like threads on a bolt—and he very patiently explained to me that pipe threads were tapered and thus could only go for an inch or so, and even pulled a 2" pipe elbow out of a bin for illustration. He special-ordered odd pipe fittings for me (I still have the 2" cross he sold me, still working as the main joint between the two axes on my big equatorial mount) and fixed screens for my mother. And it wasn't until I was old enough to drive to farther places that I came to understand that few hardware stores sold model airplane kits and engines, or refills of sodium ferrocyanide for our chemistry sets. Like, um, none.

Back in the mid-1960s, Bud Maday was a cornerstone of a certain way of life, which seems in retrospect to have been living small, but in a sort of gentle and unappreciated equilibrium with our surroundings. Today we're willing to frantically drive fifteen miles to endure limitless abuse and neglect in big-box stores where everybody works for minimum wage and nobody knows anything. The older I get, the less I enjoy wandering around lost at Lowe's, looking in vain for a couple of odd bolts that Bud could have laid hands on in fifteen seconds. The comfortable and close-in life we lived around Canfield and Talcott was something we gave up willingly, for a couple of bucks' discount and dizzying product choice. We came upon it accidentally, we lost it without realizing it, and I wonder if anything like it can ever happen again.

In the meantime: Thanks, Bud, and Godspeed. You will not be forgotten.

February 8, 2005: Hoarfrost

We have a phenomenon here in Colorado Springs that I haven't experienced before: Hoarfrost. Yesterday morning we woke up to its second occurrence this winter. It happens when the temperature is above freezing when fog rolls in, and then, as the temperature drops below freezing, the moisture in the fog begins to crystallize out everywhere. When we woke up yesterday it was 22 degrees, and the fog was still so thick I couldn't see Villegreen St. off the back deck, and it's only about 200 feet away.

The above photo (of an ornamental cap on our back deck railing) gives an impression of some of hoarfrost's peculiarities: It grows whiskers on things, and the longer the fog remains with below-freezing temperatures, the longer the whiskers grow. The fog hung around all day yesterday, growing whiskers on everything. The trees looked snow-covered after awhile, but it didn't look quite right for snow, and I failed to get any photos that did the effect justice. However, you can get a general idea of below-freezing foggy weather from this photo, looking across the street from our front porch. I'm still not completely clear on the physics of why the fog didn't precipitate out as snow when the temps got cold, though I've seen notes that fog can be supercooled to far below freezing without precipitation.

However it happens, it was beautiful and strange, and I like that sort of thing!

February 7, 2005: Battling the Spam Zombies

Yes, I've learned a little about the sea-change in the spam-zombie problem that I described in my February 5, 2005 entry, thanks largely to long, thoughtful notes from Rick Widmer and Darrin Chandler. (Many thanks, guys!) I can probably cook it all down to a few bullet points:

  • The "trick" of sending spam through the ISP's SMTP servers is no trick at all—and certainly not a technical one. (The only trick for the zombie is figuring out whose network they're on, which isn't much of a trick.) They used to do it that way at the dawn of spam time, and the ISPs used to catch them and cut them off. They're doing it now because they have no choice: With Port 25 blocked by nearly all major ISPs, there's no other way to get the spam out.
  • Detecting spam zombies is extremely difficult and getting worse. The newest spam relay engines don't listen on any ports at all. Instead, they periodically visit an obscure Web site or IRC channel somewhere and download instructions. So port scanning will only catch the older zombies, and soon will catch none at all.
  • The only way to catch zombies now is to monitor mail volume through the ISPs' SMTP servers. It's still a bit of a puzzle why ISPs aren't spending more effort on this. Some ISPs throttle outbound email volume from dynamic IP accounts right now, and more are likely to do it in the future.
  • Some ISPs have hindered the zombies a little by requiring mail clients to log in to their SMTP servers with a password. This is a good idea, but the response by the zombies is obvious: Dig around in any detectable email clients on the PC for logins and passwords.
  • There is only one more possible spammer trick in the bag: When you've got 10,000 spam zombies by the tail, you don't have to send half a million messages from any single zombie. You can make it a parallel process and send 500 copies of the message from each zombie, if 500 messages per day becomes the ISP touchstone for spamming. We haven't seen this happening yet, but it's almost inevitable.
  • I had one idea, but I don't know how tenable it is: Building something into Windows that "registers" an email client, and can somehow reliably tell whether an email stream is coming from Outlook, Thunderbird, Poco Mail—or something else that hasn't been registered. Mail would be passed on to the TCP/IP stack only when it comes from a registered mail client. Could a system like that be designed and implemented well enough to prevent a zombie from spoofing the system and passing itself off as Outlook? (Do I lose points if I doubt it?)
  • Finally, SpamHaus generated the report that triggered all this uproar, and they are already protesting that they were misquoted by an interviewing journalist—read to the end of the link above—but they got the publicity, which I suspect is what they wanted. I do feel that they are still dead wrong in assuming that ISPs will not respond to spammer traffic through their SMTP servers. It's going to happen, and it's going to happen reasonably soon. When it does, the spam zombie game will mostly be over.

February 6, 2005: Pepys the Blo...I Mean, Web Diarist

Rich Rostrom pointed me to a very clever project: Presenting Pepys' Diary as...a Web diary. (Ok, a blog. I still hate that word.) I read the whole Diary when I was an undergrad, and enjoyed it, mostly because Pepys was a typical (if not necessarily ordinary) educated Londoner of the 17th century, and his Diary gave us a good look at what big city life was like in the 1660s. He was obsessed with women and the arts and all manner of diversion, and wasn't especially religious. Sounds like Seattle! My guess is that if Pepys were to be brought back to life today, he'd require a month's course on using modern technology (especially Movable Type) but after that he'd fade into big city liberal culture and be indistinguishable from any of his culture-homogenized colleagues.

My only puzzle is that in the posted entries, the year is given as 1661/1662. I don't have my college paperback edition of the Diary anymore, but I don't recall any calendric confusion as to the years during which he wrote. I'll have to take a closer look at that.

February 5, 2005: Port 25 Blocking Is Working!

Suddenly the ether is vibrating with a new warning that email as we know it is doomed, because spammers have figured out how to make their legions of compromised home PCs send spam through the ISPs' SMTP servers.

Huh? This is a bad thing? Am I missing something somewhere?

As I read it, this can only mean that port 25 blocking has been more successful than anyone wants to admit at curbing the activities of spam zombies, which have since their inception included their own SMTP servers. Block port 25, and spam zombie SMTP servers can't connect to SMTP servers elsewhere on the Net. Their only recourse, then, is to use the ISP's SMTP servers. But that allows the ISPs to monitor mail volume, and cut off residential customers whose accounts are sending, oh, half a million messages per day. This sounds more like the end of spamming as we know it than the end of email. I suspect I'm not understanding what the new trick is (and the non-technical articles aren't helping) but I'll research it a little more and report back in a few days if I learn anything.

In the meantime, this is a good time to wonder why we seem completely unable to do anything about spam zombies on residential broadband customer machines. Back when I had a cable modem account at my in-laws' in Chicago, I used Black Ice Defender as a firewall, and it logged several HTTP port probes per day from the ISP. They didn't want people running Web servers, and the probes allowed them to spot people who weren't following the rules. Ok, that's cool. Now, if the zombies are following Internet protocols, they will respond to a port probe. I can only assume that we've reverse-engineered the zombie software to discover what port or ports they're using and what, (if any) custom handshakes they're expecting. (If not that, then let's at least pretend to be spammers, buy a utility, and rent a list of zombies so that we can capture the connection packets and figure out the protocol.) Why aren't the ISPs running zombie probes, and suspending accounts of customers whose machines are infected?

I've heard estimates of 100,000 new zombie infections per week, and if that's really true, the ISPs should be mounting Manhattan-class projects to develop software to identify zombie infections on their networks. But I see nothing about this on Google.

Again, what am I missing?

February 4, 2005: Separated at the...Barber

Every so often, somebody sends me a note (accompanied by a newspaper clipping) telling me that my ringer is working at the Chicago Sun Times, being the radio and TV critic. This has been going on now for eight or ten years. This is the only photo I've found of him online; he actually looked a little more like me a couple of years ago, when we both had the same "big glasses" I wear in the front-page photo I've posted since 2000. But I'll leave it for you to decide how much I look like Robert Feder of the Sun Times. You can stop sending me clippings, heh.

I do need a new publicity photo, though. That one is now almost seven years old, and I do really believe in truth in labeling. The boy ain't 45 anymore.

I now have a link to a nice Metric-English calculator in my Firefox bookmark bar. Works well, and I'm amazed at how often I use it.

Oh, and I'll stop here before I make a complete mockery of my time-honored odd lots format: Brook Monroe pointed me at this. Completely useless, but what a wonderful hack! Hey, I have microwave diodes too, but my 1N21s are basically the size of the whole damned mechanism. (Wi-Fi detectors will become useful when they tell us the SSID of nearby hotspots, and not before.)

And so (as Pepys—the first blogger—used to say) to bed.

February 3, 2005: The Great Influenza, Concluded

Concluding my review of John Barry's The Great Influenza, which began here.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I like it when a book tells me more than I had expected it to. In his 500-odd pages of text and notes, the author put forth four themes, of which three were interesting:

  • He explained how American medical education was utterly transformed between 1890 and 1910. Before that, medical doctors were trained a lot like barbers. They didn't even need a high school diploma to be admitted to med school. Basically, anyone who could pay tuition was admitted, and at many schools, students never saw a patient or even examined a cadaver, but were only lectured to, often by physicians who found practice distasteful and chose to teach instead. In some respects this didn't matter, because we knew so little about medicine before 1900 that treatment basically cooked down to a handful of folk remedies and the inevitable, "Stay in bed and drink lots of fluids." The Johns Hopkins medical school changed all that, and (having been shamed by an upstart institution in a hick town like Baltimore) the Ivies and other major universities got with the program and began the reforms that made medicine a true profession by 1925.
  • He explained how we basically lost all our constitutional freedoms when we entered World War I, and that a great deal of what we today call paranoid or intrusive government was born about that time. (The FBI, for example, was formed in 1910. Zoning laws and the Federal income tax also first appeared about that time.) The author clearly hates Woodrow Wilson, and it was obvious enough in the text that I feel compelled to look for another view on the man. The story that Barry didn't tell is what it took to get our freedoms back, and that is a story I'd like to have heard.
  • The third useful theme was, of course, the Great Influenza itself, on which the bulk of the book is focused. Apart from killing 700,000 Americans and countless people in the rest of the world (though perhaps not the 100,000,000 that the author claims) H1N1 galvanized medical research and turned big city public health departments from political sinecures to real, functioning organizations. Barry clearly points the finger at military logistics for enabling the virus to spread as quickly as it did (and blames most of that on Wilson and his immediate reports) but I object to that emphasis, since H1N1 traveled just as quickly to parts of the world where American troops had not been for years, if ever. Had it not broken loose in overcrowded military training camps, it would have broken out in the hearts of big cities, in movie thaters, in overcrowded slum housing, and many other places. The big lesson here: Even in 1918, there was constant and relatively rapid travel to almost every part of the world. It took about three months for H1N1 to reach the farthest corners of the globe in 1918. It would take less than a week today—with all that that implies.

The fourth theme was that the researchers who struggled to find the causes of the Great Influenza were dedicated, energetic, brilliant, frustrated, and very human. Well, so were the people who invented radio, and the people who invented electrical power distribution (Edison! Tesla! Westinghouse!) and a lot of other scientific and technological breakthroughs. The flu researchers were no different from other cadres of driven, brilliant men, except that they completely failed to do what they set out to do. Neither the cause of nor any preventive or curative treatment for influenza came out of the research of that era. We were literally decades identifying the virus and developing vaccines after the Great Flu came and went. I admire their energy and their persistence, but the hundred-odd pages that Barry spends on them really cast no light on anything. 25 pages would have been more than enough.

That, however, is a quibble. Overall, this was the most thought-provoking book I've read since Jared Diamond's seminal Guns, Germs, and Steel. Highly recommended, especially if you're young and vigorous and believe your health will carry you through. Sometimes health isn't enough. In fact, sometimes the glow of health can kill you, in eighteen hours or less.

Read it.

February 2, 2005: The Great Influenza, Continued

Continuing my review of John Barry's The Great Influenza, which began here.

The book wastes a considerable amount of time early on explaining the parentage of the Johns Hopkins institution, along with the lives of the toffs who got together to create it as a challenge to the superior medical schools of Europe. In general, Barry spends more time than he should on the lives of the researchers who chased the cause of The Great Influenza (which was a virus we now call H1N1) especially since it was pretty much a futile effort at the time. Indeed, he spends a huge amount of time describing the career frustrations of flu researcher Paul Lewis, which might have been more interesting in a biography of the man himself, or a detailed history of 20th century medical research. I'd hazard that about a fifth of the book is a distraction from Barry's primary mission, which is to give us a understanding of the almost incomprehensible havoc that the virus left in its wake.

Although Barry does an excellent job describing the situation of the common people, especially in hard-hit big East Coast cities like Philadelphia, his best—and most frightening—material explains the virus itself and how it kills. One of the great mysteries at the time was why the disease killed so many of the young and healthy, and killed them in as little as ten or twelve hours. Flu routinely kills the very old and the very young, but in general healthy people from 20-35 shake it off with little more than a bad cough, fever, and some weakness.

This time it was different. It took over seventy years for medical science to figure it out, but the answer lies in a chilling, five-page blow-by-blow description of the battle between an aggressive pulmonary virus like H1N1 and the human immune system. The immune system is complex, and it calibrates its response to infection in terms of how serious the infection is, and especially how rapidly it proceeds. The more aggressive a pathogen, the more aggressive the immune system's response. The immune system takes special care of the lungs, because they are in intimate and uninterrupted contact with the outside world. This care works so well in healthy people that the lungs are normally sterile.

In response to infection, certain white blood cells release proteins called cytokines, some of which are used in coordinating the immune response, but many of which are directly toxic to pathogens. What happened with H1N1 is that, unlike most pulmonary viruses, it didn't slowly infiltrate the lungs from their upper reaches downward. It attacked virtually the entirety of the lungs at the same time, which in turn triggered a response from the immune system that modern researchers call a "cytokine storm." The immune system is not an intelligent entity; evolution has made it exquisitely versatile, but it still operates automatically. The massive quantities of cytokines released in the immune response basically destroyed the virus in the lungs, and destroyed the lungs themselves in the process. The delicate tissues of the alveoli just can't handle that sort of toxic warfare, and what cells were not destroyed by the virus were destroyed by the immune response, in a sort of fatal collateral damage that evolution (which doesn't often see anything like H1N1) has not had a chance to moderate.

This is why young, vigorous people died in huge numbers, and quickly: The stronger their immune systems, the more aggressively their own bodies waged war in their lungs against H1N1—and the more rapidly their lungs collapsed into a mass of blood, cell fragments, and pus.

At that point, I had to put the book down, take a deep breath, and go for a walk.

The condition triggered in young people by H1N1 in 1918 has come to be called ARDS: Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. Even today, with all the high-tech care that a big-city intensive care unit can bring to bear, the mortality rate from ARDS is 40-60%. Without that sort of high-tech care, ARDS is still 100% fatal, just as it was in 1918. That gives us something unsettling to think about, in case anything as aggressive as H1N1 rises from the seething, ever-changing viral vortex we still say is..only the flu.

I'll sum up tomorrow.

February 1, 2005: The Great Influenza, Continued

Continuing my review of John Barry's The Great Influenza, which began here.

It's impossible to understand the Great Influenza without understanding a little bit about the American role in WWI, and especially Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was an idealist, and not an especially practical man. He resisted European calls to join WWI for a long time, but after it came out that Germany was promising Mexico a huge chunk of the American Southwest if it would go to war against the US, Wilson went what we would consider a little nuts. For him the Great War became a crusade, and he would let absolutely nothing stand in the way of the war effort.

Wilson basically set aside the Constitution, and instructed the Federal Government to take over the US economy almost entirely—and prosecute anyone who published opinions not favorable to the War. Apart from the Europhiles on the East Coast, the War was bitterly unpopular with Americans, but newspapers were intimidated into publishing nothing questioning the effort, or even factual news that did not indicate that US forces were winning. Wilson became obsessed with American morale, and gave the Attorney General the power to arrest and imprison anyone who did anything that would negatively affect morale. The Librarian of Congress was to secretly report anyone who requested books on a long list deemed subversive. The FBI created a volunteer spy force called the American Protective League, with the mission of secretly listening for "sedition" and looking for "slackers and food hoarders" and people who didn't buy—or didn't buy enough—Liberty Bonds. The APL harrassed German immigrants and members of the International Workers of the World, sometimes descending to the tactics of a lynch mob. Wilson created the Committe on Public Information, the purpose of which was to feed the newspapers information on the War that they were required to publish unedited. The Federal Government, whipped on by an increasingly paranoid Wilson, used the CPI to control public opinion about the War. What the CPI did was lie, lie, and do almost nothing but lie.

And we gripe about the Patriot Act, heh.

The upshot was that Americans lost any means to hear the truth about anything. When the Great Influenza broke out in September 1918, little or nothing on it was published in the press, for fear of affecting morale. The flu began in massive, overcrowded Army encampments filled with new draftees from every part of the nation. Little or nothing was said. It was only the flu. The newspapers could not publish the names or numbers of the thousands of soldiers who were dying, sometime in less than a day, literally drowning in blood that filled their lungs and poured from their ears, nose, and even eyes. Americans were not informed about the flu at first, and learned nothing except rumors and furtive gossip.

The advice in the press did not align with what people in the big cities began to see toward the end of September 1918. Hospitals filled, people died first by the hundreds, and then by the thousands. Still, the official government line was that it was "only influenza." And the official government line was the only line there was.

This is why so little was published about the Great Influenza while it was happening—to do so was essentially illegal. And so a great deal of hard information was lost. Then again, once the Great Flu kicked into high gear in October 1918, one could reasonably wonder whether Americans had any desire at all to remember what was happening all around them.

More tomorrow.