Ex Bibliotheca

The life and times of Zack Weinberg.

Monday, 30 December 2002

# 2:55 AM


I can get five days' worth of clothes, a towel, and a sleeping bag into my new suitcase, and that's without using the "unzip this zipper to make it five inches thicker" option. It's light, it has wheels and an extensible dragging handle, and it's pretty much indestructible. And it fits in an airplane overhead luggage bin.

(The hyperlink above is brought to you by the Don't Put Pointless Crap In Your URL Foundation.)

Sunday, 29 December 2002

# 10:05 PM

unsuccessful experiment

You ever read one of those novels in which someone steams open an envelope so that the recipient won't know it's been tampered with? Such as Bagthorpes Abroad (if my hazy twelve-years-ago memory is accurate)? I'm here to tell you it doesn't work. Or anyway it doesn't work with modern envelope glue and very little care taken over the operation.

The full story goes, I wrote out this month's rent check early and put it in an envelope to be mailed at the end of the month. Then I got a note stuck under my door saying "please deduct $30 from your rent this month, as compensation for interest earned on your deposit." So I had to change it somehow. Rather than just destroy the envelope and make out a new one I thought I'd steam it open and put a new check in. The steam did indeed soften the glue -- but only in the center of the envelope, where it also softened the paper to the point where it tore at a touch. Meantime, water condensed on the edges of the envelope where it was touching the pot, ruining it.

After some thought, I did the sensible thing, which was to make out a new check and envelope, cut the stamp off the old envelope, and glue it on the new one.

weather musing

In Seattle, the weather was consistently in the low forties. Here, the weather is consistently in the low fifties. Yet I am much colder in this apartment than I was in my aunt's house. I suspect the apartment's lack of central heating and insulation has something to do with this.

political tangent

On some blog or other, I read an entry which points out that Clinton's "Clipper chip" proposal, if implemented, would have provided us all with more privacy than we do now; it would have made all network traffic secure against eavesdropping by anyone other than law enforcement officials with legitimate warrants. The status quo is that almost all network traffic is cleartext and can be eavesdropped upon with relative ease by anyone.

This is true on the face of it, but misses three points: one technical, one sociological, one political. The technical point is simply that the chip would not have become universal, because that would have required revisions to every protocol and every operating system in use today. Right now, when you fill in your credit card number on that secure web page, no one can read the dialogue between your browser and the remote server, but there's a decent chance your transaction will be lumped with a whole bunch of others and emailed somewhere in cleartext. And it's actually easier to intercept that message than the original.

The sociological point is that the crypto is never the weakest link in a security perimeter. It is always easier to steal information by social engineering tactics: for instance, call up the helpdesk and claim to be someone with access to the data you want, who has forgotten their password. This attack has been successfully carried out in the wild; and it can be made a lot more subtle. Consult your friendly local con man for ideas. Or read Secrets and Lies.

And the political point is that it wasn't just a Republican smear job that sent Clipper down in flames. The people in the computer security community who would have needed to approve of it, for it to go anywhere, tend to be of the opinion that the presence of a back door — any back door at all — in a cryptosystem renders it totally worthless. Furthermore, they generally have a deep-seated, considered distrust of government proposals, and the Clinton administration did two things which ruined its credibility on the issue. The design and implementation of the chip was classified, so it could not be reviewed. Contrast the process leading to the promulgation of the AES cipher, which was open to the public; that algorithm is now in wide use. Also, at the same time that the government was pushing Clipper, it was stifling development of secure protocols by preventing the code from being exported from the USA or even discussed with researchers outside the country. (This policy has now been relaxed but there are still awkward bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and active court cases challenging what remains.)

So I don't think it's correct to blame Republican dirty politics for the failure of Clipper, and I don't think it would have been as helpful as the blog-author suggests.

(If anyone knows which author and which post I am responding to, please tell me.)

Friday, 27 December 2002

# 9:30 PM

Back home in Berkeley. The trip wound up with a visit to the Seattle Space Needle and a visit from my aunt and uncle's friend Scott Freeman, his wife Susan, and their children. Scott is a lecturer at the University of Washington and has written an introductory biology textbook. I taught everyone to play Telephone Pictionary, which was a great success.

Telephone Pictionary is a party game for an odd number of people sitting in a circle (or around a table); it works best with seven to eleven players. Each person needs a sheet of paper, a pencil, and a writing surface. To start, everyone marks their sheet in the lower right-hand corner with their initials, writes a sentence at the top of the paper, and passes it to the person on their left. (Or to the right. Doesn't matter, as long as the same convention is followed for an entire round.) That person is to draw a picture which conveys the same meaning as the sentence. When finished, they fold the paper so that only their drawing is visible, and pass it along. The next person is to write a sentence conveying the same meaning as the drawing, fold the paper, and pass it along. Continue until everyone gets back the sheet they started with.

When the sheets have returned to their original authors, then everyone takes a turn reading out the progressive evolution of their sentence. Describe the drawings, too. Much hilarity will ensue.

Take care that everyone agrees on which way to fold the paper, and try to make drawings small enough that one won't run out of page before the sheets make it all the way around. (If this does happen, it can work to continue on the back, if you're careful about folding so that no one sees what's on the other side.)

All this happened yesterday. Today I got up at 0415 to catch my plane at 0600. Ugh. But the flight was uneventful (or so I assume; I was asleep for most of it) and there were only three hundred-odd email messages waiting for me at this end.


The Av is next to the University of Washington Seattle campus, not USeattle.

Thursday, 26 December 2002

# 1:40 AM

I'm writing this entry from Seattle, where I'm visiting my aunt and her family for Christmas. Seattle is cold and rainy this time of year, but still a fine-looking city to spend some time in; I would like to see more of it than is possible over a three-day visit. But that's okay.

Trip highlights: Yesterday, drove around town with my cousins Sam and Travis. Sam has just started college, Travis is in high school. We went to "the Av" (University Avenue, near USeattle) and to the Pike Place Market. That evening, we all got in a car and drove around a nearby neighborhood almost all of whose residents compete to decorate their houses in the gaudiest possible manner. Thus, e.g. six-foot-high inflatable snowmen. Most awe-inspiring.

Today, all of us went to the Woodland Park Zoo for an afternoon stroll. Most of the animals were hiding from the rain, but we did see some friendly elephants and monkeys. There were only a few other humans present.

I'd like to give a shout-out to the fine folks developing the Bash Debugger, which is slow and somewhat buggy itself, but nonetheless saved my butt last week; and also to Isometric Space Ninja, fine web comics about skateboarding cubes. Finally, Powell's has a review of Baudolino, Umberto Eco's new novel (which I have a copy of, waiting for me at home).

Merry Christmas; catch y'all on the flip.

Sunday, 22 December 2002

# 12:55 AM

Yesterday I had lunch at Restaurant Peony with a bunch of people from Wind River. This is a dim sum place, or at any rate that's what we had (they serve other stuff too) — really good food, but it's necessary to bring someone who speaks Chinese, because the staff are all fresh off the boat, as they used to say. (I suspect this is why the author of the linked review thought the service was spotty.)

Then that evening Shweta and Nathaniel and I rented some videos: Yes Minister episodes, and Labyrinth. Yes Minister is a thoroughly British sit-com about a member of Parliament who's newly Minister for Administrative Affairs and must confront for the first time the dreaded Civil Service; it's brilliant. Labyrinth is a Jim Henson fairy tale starring Jennifer Connelly as the teenage girl trying to find her baby (step?) brother, who has been taken away by the Goblin King to his palace at the center of a labyrinth. She's cardboard, unfortunately; the baby (Toby Froud) and the goblin king (David Bowie) steal the movie. It is not brilliant, but it's quite funny, and has a wonderful variety of muppets as the goblins. I liked it, even though I think a much better movie could have been made on the same theme. Perhaps with a more believable protagonist, or by having the baby and David Bowie literally steal the movie.

Thursday, 19 December 2002

# 6:40 AM

your dose of role playing gaming for the month

The Random Grimness Tables. (May not make much sense if you are unfamiliar with Earthdawn.)

# 1:05 AM

Got to the office just as the sun was going down, today. It's the classic joke about nocturnal computer programmers. Of course, when the sun goes down at 4:30 PM, it's easier to achieve this than it might be. But I do expect to be here quite late. Never mind that I got quite a bit done from noon to two, on my laptop, sitting in the laundromat. I still feel nocturnal.

In other news, my new glasses came. They're rimless and they have an antireflective coating, which is nifty, but most importantly they don't have two years' worth of scratches from falling off my head on a regular basis. At present, they don't fall off my head like the old pair did, but that may not last. The old pair used to fall off because I'd mangled the earpieces until they almost stopped pinching my head, at which point they no longer held the glasses in place. We'll see if this pair can manage to not pinch my head.

Antireflective coating for glasses is a nice example of just how scary advanced our technology is. The coating is several layers of silicon and titanium dioxide with their thicknesses carefully controlled such that visible light reflections interfere with each other and cancel out. This requires being able to lay down a coating only a few hundred nanometers thick, with essentially no variation over the surface. They can do this, and they can do it cheap enough to be only about fifty bucks extra on the cost of one's glasses. (Here's how.)

After picking up the glasses I went to the laundromat, and was somewhat relieved to see that washing machines are still simply rotating drums with various hoses attached to fill them with soapy water, drain it out again, etc. (But perhaps not for long.)

Sunday, 15 December 2002

# 8:45 AM

so close and yet so far

$ ls x-* xm-* */x-* */xm-*
alpha/x-vms       i386/xm-djgpp.h    mips/xm-iris5.h
alpha/xm-vms.h    i386/xm-mingw32.h  pa/x-ada
i386/xm-cygwin.h  i386/xm-vsta.h     x-interix

Two years ago there were 249 of these little monsters. Now only nine remain. One day they will all die, oh yes, and then I will tear out the logic that uses them, so that they will never ever ever come back. Alas, that day is not in sight.

Saturday, 14 December 2002

# 11:25 PM

water water everywhere

The rainy season has begun, only two months late for this locale. Been raining more or less continuously since Thursday. Which leads to a rant, on the subject of public transportation.

I've been having to go to Alameda for on-site consulting for the past week-anna-bit. I can drive there in fifteen minutes when it's dry, if I avoid rush hour; when it's raining it takes a bit longer, but still less than half an hour.

There is also a bus which goes from right near my house to within bicycle distance of $CLIENT's office. This is an order of magnitude less stressful than driving myself. However, it takes between an hour and two hours, depending on traffic and weather. The time eaten more than compensates for the stress reduction. And driving myself is not terribly stressful to begin with.

And people wonder why public transport in the Bay Area doesn't work. Clue phone: Successful public transportation systems tend to be called "rapid transit" systems, and the "rapid" is there for a reason. BART, for instance, is not only less hassle than driving to San Francisco, it's faster than driving to San Francisco, especially when one considers time wasted trying to find parking. Not to mention time wasted getting lost in the city's maze of incompatible street grids. Unfortunately, BART only helps if one is going to or from San Francisco.

Wednesday, 11 December 2002

# 6:30 PM

web logs and search engines

These days there's a lot of good content out there in the form of web logs. Unfortunately, it's not indexed well by search engines. The trouble is, the webcrawler comes by and records whatever's on the front page of the log at the time, but by the time you go to make a search, a whole bunch more entries will have been added, pushing the entry you searched for off the front page. Entries in the archives may not be indexed at all.

This despite the fact that most weblogs have 'permanent links': the little blue hashmark at the beginning of this entry is an <A> tag pointing to a URL which will always and forevermore reference this article. (Unless Panix goes belly up or something.) If the search engines knew about the permanent links, they could use them in their indexes, and it'd all work.

Here's how I would implement this. Suppose we invent a labelling scheme which will allow a webcrawler to tell that an <a> tag is a permanent link. I'd use the class attribute, like this:

  <a class="permalink-above" href="...">
  <a class="permalink-below" href="...">

"permalink-above" means that the tag precedes the text it is a permanent link for; "permalink-below" means that it follows that text. (Both styles are used.) We also need a way to indicate the block-level element that contains all the permanent links, so that navigation and page header boilerplate don't get sucked into the permalink indexing mode. For this, we define another class attribute, "weblog-content". This is to be put on a block-level element that contains (in the DOM sense) all of the permalink tags. The ambit of each permalink tag then runs as far as the next such tag in the appropriate direction, or to the boundary of the weblog-content element, whichever comes first. Permalink tags outside the weblog-content element are ignored. If there is no element explicitly marked weblog-content, the body element gets the job.

Search engines then should record each chunk of text in the ambit of a permalink tag as a separate logical document. However, links to the base URL for the weblog should count as links to all of these chunks, for scoring purposes. (This corresponds to the intuitive interpretation of a link to the base URL, which is "I like everything this author says.") Links to individual permalinks count only for that chunk.

Your comments are requested.

Wednesday, 4 December 2002

# 6:30 AM

Systems of magic, in roleplaying games or otherwise, all have in common that magic spells are comparable to verbs. A magician casts a spell, which has an effect on the universe. So I was wondering, what sort of magic would be comparable to other sorts of words? Nouns, for instance. If a spell is a magic verb, what's a magic noun?

Magical artifacts, at least the normal variety, are not nouns; the most common sort of artifact is just a spell trapped and preserved for future use, so that's a verb too. Shadowrun has "foci" that make certain kinds of magic easier (i.e. give the player bonuses on their die rolls). But that's still the same sort of thing: the spell trapped inside that sort of focus is a "make it easier to do magic" spell.

A genuine possibility, however, is a meditative mantra or mandala. Many forms of real-world mysticism have these. Their function is to be contemplated, which may bring some insight. As such, you can make a case that they are objects, and therefore nouns. But in a high-mana world unlike the one we live in, perhaps such things would be "confer enlightenment upon user" active spells and therefore verbs.

Thoughts, anyone?

Tuesday, 3 December 2002

# 7:40 AM

thanksgiving in brief

Had dinner with parents, sister, and grandmother on both Thursday and Friday. Friday being the first night of Chanukah, my parents gave me a rice cooker. Ate far too much. Made salad.


  • 1 head red endive
  • 1 head yellow endive
  • 1 red onion
  • 2 green apples
  • 1 cup pecans
  • ¾ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • ½ tsp mustardseed
  • ½ tsp garlic powder (or 2 cloves garlic)
  • ½ tsp dried basil leaves

Chop up the red and yellow endive into squares about 1" on a side. Slice the onion into rings, then section the rings into fourths. Throw all of this in a bowl and mix. Roast the pecans lightly, then throw them in the bowl with the veggies.

While you're waiting for the pecans to roast, pour the vinegar into a small mixing bowl. Add the garlic powder and basil leaves. (If you're using fresh garlic cloves you'll need to chop them up really fine first.) Mash up the mustardseed and add that too. Wait five minutes, then add the oil very slowly while stirring like mad with a wire whisk, or better yet, an electric eggbeater. You're trying to make an emulsion of the oil and vinegar. It should come out opaque and yellowish-orange.

After you've got an emulsion, taste it. If your wine vinegar is like mine, it'll be way too sour. This is what the honey is for. Add it in small globs, mixing thoroughly and tasting, until it stops being too sour. Now chop up the apples into chunks about ½" on a side, and mix them into the vinaigrette. (This last is not necessary if the salad will be served immediately, but if it will sit for awhile you need to stop the apples from turning brown.)

Just before serving, combine the two bowls of ingredients and toss thoroughly. Assuming your endive is the same size as mine, this will serve four people with enough left over for the next day.


Another thing I did last weekend was go buy more furniture. I needed another bookshelf, and I also picked up a clothes-drying rack. This is in hopes of not having to trust my clothes to the dryer downstairs or the clothesline on the roof anymore. It's not big enough for sheets but should do for everything else. I am not sure how long it will take for stuff to dry; there's currently a load of laundry hung over it and we'll see how dry it is tomorrow morning.