Ex Bibliotheca

The life and times of Zack Weinberg.

Thursday, 31 October 2002

# 11:05 PM

Tonight, the ICSI Movie Committee (of one) screened "Dark City", which is a beautifully disturbing movie about memory and identity. I can't really describe the movie without spoiling it; for this reason I am not linking to any reviews. But go rent it, you won't be disappointed. (It is not a horror movie.)

We were invited to come in costume. I had all of ten minutes to put mine together, so I pulled some old clothes out of the back of my closet and went as a 1992 grunge rocker. This costume worked only because of the wonderful hat which my mother made for me this summer: it's all black and brown and blue wool, in a sort of pointy cylinder shape. I don't think any grunge rockers actually wore such a thing, but it is definitely something one can imagine seeing on a grunge rocker.

This makes two movies in one week, which is a personal record for the entire year: I see a movie about once every three months, on average.

In other news, the British Standards Institute has reissued the original C standard, ISO/IEC 9899:1990 (commonly known as "C89"): a hard copy can be yours for only £30. Just punch "9899" into the search box on that webpage. C89 has been superseded by the newer C99 (ISO/IEC 9899:1999) but it's still good to have it available; backward compatibility will be important for years to come.

# 3:45 AM

Just got back from seeing Seven Samurai at the Castro Theatre with friends. It was an amazing movie. I'm not going to try to review it in detail, there's plenty of commentary on it available elsewhere; let's just say it's worth seeing in uncut form, despite the length (more than three hours).

Walk into the Castro Theatre and you step right back into the Roaring Twenties. The place is as spectacular as any of Los Angeles' remaining Deco theaters — and none of them have a real live pipe organ which is played before every nightly show. It is apparently the largest fully operational Wurlitzer organ remaining on the West Coast.

I got to Castro Street by taking the Muni streetcars from a downtown BART stop. In downtown SF, the streetcars run underground; it reminded me strongly of the New York City subway experience, even to the crowdedness. It is utterly lame how difficult they make it to transfer between BART and Muni. You have to exit through the BART turnstile, cross the station, and enter the Muni turnstile, paying a second time, and woe betide you if you haven't a dollar in coins. At some stations, there are change machines that will break a dollar bill, but none that will break a five... too bad that BART's change machines will only give you fives for larger bills.

Wednesday, 30 October 2002

# 4:45 PM

They're putting in new network wiring here at ICSI. Current practice for this seems to be to run separate cables from the wiring closet to each and every ethernet jack on the floor. I find this bizarre. It's harder to do, it's not at all extensible, it uses far more wire than it should, and it'll have to be done all over again when they want to bump from 100baseT up to whatever replaces it. I would have thought that the appropriate tactic was to put a fiber optic loop all the way around the building, with fanout hubs to each cluster of offices.

Tuesday, 29 October 2002

# 6:50 PM

from the greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread department

Replay Gain is a specification for adjusting the gain on audio tracks encoded in several popular formats (MP3, Vorbis, etc) so that when you play them back they all sound about the same volume. You can average over individual tracks (good for shuffle play) or entire albums (good for listening to several albums in sequence). The MP3 support is not really there yet, but Vorbis players have snapped it up.

This is a thing of beauty. I can now set up background music for a party and not have to touch the volume dial once, even if I put Enya immediately before Rammstein. And it doesn't distort, or suddenly slew the volume a couple seconds into a track, the way the XMMS "volume normalization" plugin did.

# 2:35 PM

knives

A couple weeks ago I bought a sharpening stone, and yesterday I sat down and sharpened all the kitchen knives. This has needed doing for some time. I have not yet achieved daver-sharp, but 'tis only a matter of practice. And chopping vegetables is so much easier even with a mild improvement to the edge.

daver sharp: There's razor sharp, then there's scalpel sharp, there's the kind of sharp a monomolecular whip is, and then... There's daver-sharp. Where the edge of the blade planes down to the ninth dimension and goes away.

From Undocumented Features.

pasta with minimalist sauce

  • ¼ box pasta
  • 2 large mushrooms
  • 2 large green onions
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • Enough hard cheese

Set the pasta on to boil.

Chop up the onions, mushrooms, and garlic. Fry them in olive oil. When they are mostly done, throw in the balsamic vinegar and fry a bit more. Then set them aside on a cutting board so they don't burn while you're waiting for the pasta to be done.

Grate the cheese.

Drain the pasta, mix in the veggies and the cheese. Serves one. Should scale linearly, except you probably don't want to be putting in more than two or three tbsp of vinegar, no matter how big you go.

Compare to the other, rather more elaborate pasta sauce I make.

nifty thing

The Left Foot Living Review is "an irregular journal of style, trend, fashion, and innovation" ... which happens to have fallen through a time warp from several centuries in the future. It'll make you laugh, wince, and occasionally scream "I want one of those."

fun with javascript

You may have noticed the nifty effect of clicking on the hyperlink above ("daver sharp"). This feature is brought to you by the W3C Document Object Model. (If you got the annoying alert box, consider upgrading to Mozilla.) It seems quite appropriate to use it for an UF reference, considering how many fine undocumented features one must be aware of when writing JavaScript to work reliably cross- browser.

Wednesday, 23 October 2002

# 5:10 PM

Leonard reports the creation of a nifty utility. And I'd like to say that I don't get why people like putting spaces between the parentheses and the argument list, either.

# 2:55 AM

commentary

My mother points out that I misspelled bain Marie earlier — the first word has an I in it. This is no doubt why I couldn't find Maria the Jewess's history online. She wasn't French at all; she lived in Egypt in the third century BCE, or possibly the first century CE, sources differ.

In the "why didn't I think of that?" category, a chap name of Tkil suggests that the way to prevent your car's wheel from turning when you're trying to loosen the lug nuts is not to jack it up until they're already loose.

# 2:10 AM

more "trusted" computing

Seth responded to my earlier comments on his owner override concept.

Let's back up from the technical details and talk about goals. The status quo is that if you've got a computer and a chunk of data in a computer-readable format, you can do whatever you want with the data. In particular, you can make an unlimited number of perfect copies of that chunk of data, and transfer them to other people, without any effect on the original. There are people who would like this not to be the case, and they have designed technological measures such as Palladium which could prevent it in the future.

I am perfectly happy with the status quo. In fact, I prefer the status quo to the alternative. However, it is possible that a system similar to Palladium could be designed which I would prefer to the status quo. I'm the customer; the people pushing Palladium and/or other "trusted computing" initiatives have got to convince me to buy new hardware that implements it. (Let me remind you that most corporations can be prevented from doing things by not fucking paying for the product.)

So, on the hypothesis that we are going to design a new computer architecture incorporating something similar to Palladium, what functionality should it have, and equally what functionality should it not have, to make me consider it something worth buying? Here are some examples of both categories. Features that would be useful:

  • Store data such that only I can read it, where I am authenticated to the system by some mechanism more secure than a username+password pair.
  • Transmit data to a remote server for storage, and retrieve it later, without practical risk that the operators of that remote server will be able to read it.
  • Transmit data with an assurance that the intended recipient, and only the intended recipient, will initially be able to read it. (This mechanism must not prevent the intended recipient from relaying the data to a third party.)
  • Issue an unforgeable authorization to transfer a specific sum of money from my bank account to someone else's bank account, with assurances that the money will be received by its intended recipient, and that the intended recipient will get only as much money as I wanted them to.

Features that would be undesirable:

  • Store data such that it can be read by only one physical computer.
  • Transmit data such that only its intended recipient will ever be able to read it (i.e. such that intended recipient cannot pass it along to someone else).
  • Transmit data with an assurance that at some future date I can render any or all extant copies of that data unreadable.
  • Receive data and force me to honor any sort of sender-imposed restriction on its use or distribution.

Now, can we design devices and primitive operation sets that permit the implementation of the desirable features, while preventing the implementation of the undesirable features? I suspect we can. However, I suspect the result doesn't look much like Palladium; I suspect it's more like a normal computer with a smart-card interface.

In this vein, I'd like to point out Richard Stallman's opinion piece on "treacherous" computing (as he styles it), and also his much earlier essay The Right to Read.

other political items of interest

The organization Transportation for a Livable City has released a roadmap for improving transportation in San Francisco.

This open letter encourages the FCC not to bail out failing telecoms companies.

Thirty-five questions that haven't been answered, but should be.

Thursday, 17 October 2002

# 3:40 PM

Seth's in top form today. Go read him.

The concept he proposes, "owner override," bears reexamination in the context of the other Seth's point (which Seth linked to at the bottom of his entry). To wit: even if an action is possible, it may be so difficult as to be impractical for most people, and this is generally good enough for the people who don't want the action taken. Owner override makes it technically possible to break many (I hesitate to say "all") of the noxious applications of "trusted computing," but the mechanism is not terribly practical for the average user; you have to have a second computer available, and specialized tools for grovelling through a total memory dump to extract the information you actually want.

Consider remote document revocation, which is one of the most noxious applications: you have a data file on your hard disk which is encrypted. The viewer application consults a remote server over some sort of secure channel, passing it a cryptographic hash of the file and some authenticator; the server chooses whether or not to reply with the decryption key. A "trusted computing" mechanism ensures that the viewer will not reveal the decryption key to the user or allow the decrypted document to be written to permanent media. The document's author can thus decide at any time to deny the key to people who possess the document. To break this mechanism using Seth's owner override, you would need to trigger a memory dump at precisely the right moment, so that the decryption key was in memory, in cleartext (it has certainly been transmitted encrypted). The viewer application can be designed to make this arbitrarily difficult.

I think there's the germ of a good idea in here, though; the concept is the right one, it just needs to be more deeply integrated into the system.

# 3 AM

a partially successful experiment

One of the biggest problems with candle making with molds is uneven cooling. As I described earlier, the candles shrink as they cool, and set up from the outside in, so you risk getting voids in the middle of the candle. It occurred to me that this problem could be alleviated by insulating the upper half of the mold. The wax would then solidify from the bottom up, and there would be no voids; you'd have to top up the mold after awhile, but no more.

So I slapped together an insulating jacket for one of my molds, using one of those cardboard tubes you find at the inside of a roll of paper towels, some foam rubber from the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, and a buttload of duct tape. It did have the desired effect - the wax started solidifying from the bottom up. Unfortunately, it slowed down the solidification process bigtime. Worse, the duct tape wicked up some of the wax from the open top of the mold and spilled it down the outside, ruining the jacket.

The concept is sound, but the implementation needs more work.

Wednesday, 16 October 2002

# 1:45 AM

further to previous

The difficulty with the ban Marie, at least the cheapass one I bought specifically for candlemaking, is that it boils over at the slightest provocation. To melt the wax, you want the water in the bottom level just barely below the boiling point. The stove setting that achieves this, once the thing's reached working temperature, is just barely above the point at which the burner goes out. Note that this is not "off." Small amounts of gas continue to leak out of the burner once this happens, which is Not Good.

The hardest part of candlemaking is actually cleaning up. Wax sticks to everything and dissolves in nothing. The best approach I've found is to pour gallons of boiling water over all the dirty equipment. Even this doesn't work very well.

A number of operations would be easier if I had a heat gun. I wonder how much they cost.

# 1:10 AM

being an explanation of the previous entry

I was making candles last night. And I decided to be totally perfectionist about them. I'm not sure why, but possibly the fact that one of the molds had its sealing gook come off, thus spewing molten paraffin all over the stove, twice, had something to do with it.

The thing about casting candles is, paraffin shrinks when it cools. Since it cools from the outside in, unless you're careful you'll get a huge air bubble in the middle of the candle, with a narrow channel connecting it to the exterior. Care, in this case, means re-melting the skin on the top of the candle and pouring more wax in at regular intervals. Normally one does this a maximum of twice, with about half an hour in between pours, which makes them come out with dips in the bottom but otherwise fine. I was poking holes in the top and putting in half-tablespoons of wax at ten-minute intervals from about midnight until about 3:30 AM.

Of course, this means I had to have a supply of molten wax. It is extremely dangerous to melt wax over an open flame, so one uses instead a ban Marie, which is a fancy name for a double boiler. The water in the lower half acts as a thermal buffer, preventing the wax from getting hot enough to flash over. "Marie", it is said, was the French alchemist and witch who invented this technique; I cannot, unfortunately, find any reference to her history online.

I've linked to the Alarm before. The song I quoted is from the album Raw, although it seems to have been written much earlier. The title is The Wind Blows Away My Words.

In the dirty towns, on the dirty streets
There's a violent wind that blows
Across the generations, men like me
have been swept to these crossroads
Blown out of house, blown out of home
Blown down the road

On the wind that blows away my words
Blows away my reason
Blows away my soul
Taking my existence
Oh the wind blows away my words

There's a rushing sound that is sometimes heard
When your mind won't let you sleep
It's the flickering sound of a thief
Who's come to tear up all these dreams
Stealing from the heart, stealing from the soul
Stealing from the future

On the wind that blows away my words
Blows away my reason
Blows away my soul
Taking my existence
Oh the wind blows away my words

(repeat from "Blown out of house" to end of chorus)

Despite the rather grim lyrics, I find this song cheers me up immensely.

Tuesday, 15 October 2002

# 5:15 AM

Late night ... listening to the Alarm, waiting for the candles to stop shrinking. Hoping I've found the right setting on the stove so the burner won't go out and leak gas into the kitchen, nor will the ban Marie boil over.

I'm blown out of house, blown out of home
Blown down the road
On the wind that blows away my words

Monday, 14 October 2002

# 6:40 PM

renfaire

Yesterday I went to the "Heart of the Forest" Renaissance Faire with a bunch of friends. Sights! Sounds! Clothes which have been out of fashion for centuries! ...Five hours in miserable heat with no sunglasses. The site was by no stretch of the imagination in a forest; there were a few big oak trees, but not nearly enough to provide adequate shade to make it pleasant to wear medieval garb (designed for a much cooler climate).

However, it was great fun. The high point of the day was probably the various performances, including a demonstration of falconry, an Irish dance (I didn't know they had tapdancing then!) and an authentic Punch and Judy puppet show.

The low point of the day was the shop selling a remarkably malicious set of magical charms. Either the shopkeeper doesn't believe that they work, in which case they're a fraud and a charlatan to sell them in the first place, or they do believe that they work, in which case selling e.g. a "charm to break up an existing relationship" with no strictures or conditions on its use is highly unethical. And the whole concept of openly selling magic charms is out of period. If I'd been properly roleplaying the honest merchant type that my costume implied, I should have gone straight to the constabulary and denounced them for witchcraft.

niftiness

This biological taxonomy web site.

Saturday, 12 October 2002

# 8:15 PM

worth your time

Two articles in Forbes by John Perry Barlow: The Pursuit of Emptiness and Why Spy?. (While you're reading Barlow, take a gander at his The Economy of Ideas.)

An article in the New Yorker about the trouble with being the world's only superpower.

And a lengthy rant about the apparent motivations for invading Afghanistan.

Wednesday, 9 October 2002

# 5:05 PM

automotive blues

Last night one of the neighbors knocked on my door. "Hey, did you know your car has a flat tire?" "Uhh... no..."

This morning I went downstairs and sure enough, flat tire. So I got to have the fun of taking the wheel off and mounting the spare. It turns out that the hardest piece of this is getting the lug nuts off. Since the flat was on one of the front wheels, the only way to prevent the wheel from turning when I tried to wrench the nuts would have been to put a brick on the brake pedal — and start the engine, so that the brake assist would kick in. This struck me as a bad idea. Instead I wedged a crowbar between the wheel and the ground, which worked well enough.

Of course, once I got the spare on, it proved to have gone soft over two years of sitting in the back unused. It worked well enough to drive to the tire dealers, though, and even as I type this a new tire is being installed.

There was a big honkin' gash in the sidewall; I must have scraped against something sharp. (It wasn't clean enough to have been done with a knife.)

overheard

"So you hit a tree and the light changed?"

"Yeah. It was fantastic!"

Sunday, 6 October 2002

# 9:15 PM

a little story for you

From Ftrain: How Google beat Amazon and Ebay to the Semantic Web.

comics

I sold all of my Preacher graphic novels, and then went and got the latest two Transmetropolitan bound volumes and an Usagi Yojimbo collection.

I can't recommend Transmetropolitan highly enough. It's brilliantly written, and the story one that needs telling; for all its futuristic trappings, it's just as much about right here and now. It is, however, rated R.

Usagi Yojimbo ("Rabbit Bodyguard") is just fun.

Preacher was a nice concept but did not live up to itself, alas.

psychology of html tags

I find that it looks wrong to write "a <a href=..." even when I know perfectly well that in the rendered version the word after the "a" will begin with a consonant.

in closing

a sticker.

Saturday, 5 October 2002

# 6:15 PM

I'm pleased to report that the handymen showed up and are repairing the doorframe that got kicked in last night. They haven't gotten to the outer door yet, but I'm guessing that's only a matter of time.

# 8:55 AM

Someone just broke into my apartment building. He smashed a pane of glass in the front door to get in, and then came upstairs and tried to kick in one of the apartment doors — not mine. The door frame is wrecked but it didn't actually break open. Then he seems to have just left. Unfortunately, no one got a look at him, so the cops are not too sanguine about being able to catch him.

What surprises me is that he didn't do anything else. My bike is still parked in the hall, he didn't try to kick any other doors down, and so on. The people who live in that apartment are shook up but unhurt.

# 1:30 AM

Today, I gave the client three hundred megabytes of almost-working source code, and they gave me nine hundred cubic inches of printed manuals. (That's a 1'x9.5"x8" rectangular prism.) I'm not sure which of us got the short end of the stick.

I also discovered that if I turn my monitor around so it faces the other way, it has to be degaussed. Not sure why.

Friday, 4 October 2002

# 3:20 AM

anticlimax

Couple weeks back I got a notice instructing me to report for jury duty. "Call this number after five PM the day before for instructions." So I call, and the tape recording says we don't need anyone in the morning, call back tomorrow to see if we need you in the afternoon. I call back in the morning — thanks, we don't need you this afternoon either, you're done.

raccoons

Driving home from the grocery store yesterday at twilight, as I pulled into my parking space, I saw a pair of raccoons on top of the adjacent wall. They looked at me for awhile, then startled and ran away when I opened the car door.

invader zim

Invader Zim is a fine work of animated cartoon fiction from the twisted mind of Jhonen Vasquez. It ran for two seasons on the Nickelodeon network, but seems to have been cancelled now. Some of my friends have been raving about it; I just now got to see the first few episodes. I like it — particularly Gaz — however, it disappointingly suffers from History Eraser Syndrome, that is, each episode has no connection whatsoever to the previous. For instance, the "Walk of Doom" episode ends with Zim and Gir lost in the barrio, with no obvious way to get home; the following episode begins with them at home, just fine. Grrr.