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Sunday, April 25, 2004

Iraqi Ghosts, Puritans, and Geeks
Just a few interesting things I've stumbled across recently:
  • Baghdad Journal Part 10: Yet another installment in Steve Mumford's excellent series. As always, it's an eye-opening look on the ground in Iraq. Great if you're looking for a different perspective. If you like it, check out all of Mumford's other articles. This time around, Mumford describes more of the interactions between American commanders and Iraqi leaders and people. This is, as always, fascinating reading. He even finds time to mention some ghost stories:
    You can still walk through the long empty corridors between companies and feel like there's not a soul around. Except ghosts. One evening, Lt. Jack Nothstine takes me up to the second floor to poke around with flashlights. The miles of burned rooms and corridors are empty of anything other than broken glass, plaster and the hulks of old medical equipment. Wires are dangling from the ceilings. "One night I was coming up the stairs to take over guard duty on the roof. Just when I was passing the second floor I clearly heard children's voices, speaking in Arabic, like they were playing. It was completely distinct. This base is in the middle of nowhere -- there are no kids around for miles. I just ran! "A lot of guys have seen ghosts here. The medics have seen some of their patients that died on them."
    Spooky. Read the whole thing.
  • Neal Stephenson Interview in Salon: A long and detailed interview with Neal Stephenson about his new book, The Confusion (the second in the Baroque Cycle, the first being Quicksilver). It's at Salon, so you'll need to sit through a commercial to get it, but it's worth it... A short excerpt about Stephenson's sympathetic treatment of the puritans in his novels:
    I have a perverse weakness for past generations that are universally reviled today. The Victorians have a real bad name, and the word "Puritan" is never used except in a highly pejorative way, despite the fact that there are very strong Victorian and Puritan threads in our society today, and despite the fact that the Victorians and Puritans built the countries that we live in.
  • I usually hate internet quiz type things, but I took the Polygeek quiz and the resulting paragraph described my life much more accurately than these things normally do:
    You are a geek liaison, which means you go both ways. You can hang out with normal people or you can hang out with geeks which means you often have geeks as friends and/or have a job where you have to mediate between geeks and normal people. This is an important role and one of which you should be proud. In fact, you can make a good deal of money as a translator.
    Normal: Tell our geek we need him to work this weekend.

    You [to Geek]: We need more than that, Scotty. You'll have to stay until you can squeeze more outta them engines!

    Geek [to You]: I'm givin' her all she's got, Captain, but we need more dilithium crystals!

    You [to Normal]: He wants to know if he gets overtime.
    Wow. I was 32% geek, which sounds awfully low to me, but that paragraph is dead on:P
  • As you may have noticed, the random best entries picture is up (over there on the right). I'm still working on making images for several entries, but there are enough there for now... I've also updated my Links section of the website. It's not perfect and I'm still missing lots of stuff, but it's a start and it's much better than what was there before.
That's all for now, stay tuned for the unglamorous technology post (it's coming, I swear!)
Posted by Mark on April 25, 2004 at 11:14 AM .: link :.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Shields Up!
Steven Den Beste has a fascinating post about the critical characteristics of space warships. He approaches the question from a realistic angle, mostly relying on current technology, only extrapolating reasonable advances. He rules out the sci-fi stuff ("hyperspace," "subspace," "leap cannon," etc...) right from the start, and a few things struck me while reading it.

This post will deal with one of the things that he has (reasonably) decided not to include in his discussion: energy shields. I'm doing this mostly as a thought exercise. I've found that writing about a subject helps me learn about it, and this is something I'd like to know more about. That said, I don't know how conclusive this post will be. As it stands now, the post will raise more questions than it answers. Another post will deal with a subject I've been thinking about a lot lately, which is how unglamorous technological advance can be, and how space battles might be a good example. It sounds like a battle using the weapons and defenses described would be punctuated by long periods of waiting followed by a short burst of activity in which one side was completely disabled. There is a reason why science fiction films flaunt the rules of physics. But that is another topic for another post.

Once he discards the useless physics-defying science fiction inventions, Den Beste goes on to list a number of possible weapons, occasionally mentioning defense systems. Given that I'll be focusing on defense systems, it's worth noting the types of attacks that will need to be repelled. Here is a basic list of weapons for use in a space battle:
  • Lasers
  • Masers (Similar to lasers, but operating at microwave frequencies)
  • Particle Beams
  • Missiles (with a variety of warheads)
  • "Dumb" Projectiles
Strangely enough, I recently came across the concept of cold plasma, which may be able to shed some light on how to defend against the weapons Den Beste laid out. Cold plasma in the quantities and density required to repell attacks is not yet technologically feasible, and articles like this aren't always reliable (sometimes exaggerating the effects of new technology).

Plasma is basically a collection of molecules, atoms, electrons and positively charged ions, and it makes up 99% of the known universe. Hot plasma is present in the sun - at high temperatures hydrogen nuclei can fuse into heavier nuclei despite a mutual electric repulsion. When these particles collide in the sun, they aquire enough energy to fuse, and release a tremendous amount of energy. Unfortunately, hot plasmas are not of much use for defensive purposes, as the temperatures are too high, and would be destructive.

Colder plasmas, however, would do the trick. A plasma's charged particles interact constantly, creating localized attractions or repulsions. An external energy attack, from weapons such as lasers, high powered microwave bursts, or particle beams, would theoretically be caught up in the plasma's complex electromagnetic fields and dissapated or deflected. If the plasma could be made sufficiently dense, it could even deflect missiles and other projectiles. The process of absorbing and dissapating energy could also go a long way into defeating radar... but as Den Beste noted, IR detectors would be the primary sensor used in space, so this sort of "cloaking" ability would be of limited use.

Interestingly, such a cold plasma shield could also be applied to projectiles such as missiles, shielding them from the defensive measures Den Beste thinks would be used against them.

Unfortunately, cold plasma requires a lot of energy to produce. And since I can't seem to find an adequate explanation of what cold plasma really is or, rather, how it is produced, the use of cold plasma brings up a number of questions. My primary concern has to do with the energy needed to produce cold plasma, and how the excess heat would be dissapated. Den Beste notes:
Warships will be hot and will have to shed a lot of heat in order to avoid destroying themselves.

There are lot of ways of getting rid of waste heat, and convection is by far the easiest and most convenient. It's what cars use, and what nuclear power plants use, and what our bodies use. A fan moves air past the radiator of a car, and since the radiator is warmer than the air, it is cooled and the air is warmed. The cooling tower of a nuclear reactor sheds heat into cold water, boiling it and turning it into water vapor which is dispersed into the atmosphere. Our bodies shed heat in expelled breath, and through our skins into the air, sometimes aided by sweat.

Unfortunately, in space there's no atmosphere to convect heat into, and you have to rely on radiation.
Now, you've created a cold plasma force field around your spacecraft that could theoretically deflect electromagnetic attacks from weapons like lasers, masers, and particle beams, but what about the heat produced on your own ship? How would heat interact with the cold plasma? Would the plasma absorb the heat? If it did, wouldn't you saturate the plasma shield (after all, you'd be producing an awful lot of heat even without the massive amount of energy needed to set up the plasma field, and when you add that, couldn't you overload it)? If you surrounded your ship, how would the heat escape? Exposing the radiator would defeat the purpose of having a shield in the first place, as the radiator would be one of the primary targets.

Well, perhaps I've figured out why Den Beste ruled out energy shields in the first place. Sorry if this seemed like a waste of time, but I found it at least somewhat interesting, even if it wasn't conclusive. And I've also found a new respect for the type of theoretical discussions Den Beste is so good at... Stay tuned for a more general (and hopefully more interesting) discussion on the unglamorous march of technology.

Update: Buckethead has an excellent series of 4 posts on War in Space (one, two, three, four). I am clearly outclassed. One of these days I'll crank out that post about the unglamorous side of technology advancement, but for now, I'll leave the technical aspects in the capable hands of Den Beste and Buckethead...
Posted by Mark on April 21, 2004 at 08:21 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Judging a Movie By Its Cover
It's conventional wisdom that you're not supposed to judge books by their cover, that it's what is inside that counts. In general, this holds true. Appearances can be misleading, and our perception of looks also tends to depend on the characteristics of a subject. Our perception of a person or thing is usually altered after closer inspection and interaction with them. But the first impression does count for something - it is often useful to quickly assess something, and then revise that assessment as new information becomes available. While we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, the cover is useful in catching our eye and indicating which books call for further investigation.

For example, the other day, I was wandering aimlessly through the video store looking for something to rent when a movie cover caught my eye (see it on the right). The movie was called Samurai Fiction, and the cover featured a striking red and black grid with two silhouetted figures holding swords. I read the description on the back, which read something like this:
Feudal lord Kanzen Inukai receives a precious sword from the Shogun, but it is stolen by the samurai Kazamatsuri. Kanzen's young son, Heishiro, insists on retrieving the sword himself to protect the family from the shame of losing such a precious gift. Heishiro's two friends, Shintaro and Tadasuke, accompany him, ostensibly to assist him, but in reality to compete for the glory that will go to the one who defeats Kazamatsuri. After Kazamatsuri wounds Heishiro and kills one of his friends, however, the young lord no longer cares about the sword, only revenge. He recovers from his wounds in the small forest house of a rogue samurai and his daughter. The older swordsman tries to dissuade the youth from fighting, but is himself drawn into the conflict.
It's a fairly conventional plot, but I rented it anyway. Overall, I'm glad I did. It is a black and white film with a visually stunning artistic flare. Its themes are complex, but it also has a hard-to-place lighthearted silliness to it. There are some nice comic touches, but they're not going for belly laughs. It makes for an interesting and quirky mix. A great example of this is an old and clumsy ninja who insists on constantly sneaking up on people (his scenes are great, and the closest thing to pure humor in the film). There appear to be a lot of inside jokes and homages as well. For instance, the use of black and white can be seen as an homage to Kurosawa's Samurai films. Interestingly, this allows the filmmakers to play with style by introducing breaks in the black and white scheme, when the screen suddenly takes on a red tint (to denote an on screen death). It is quite effective. One reviewer notes another homage:
It may or may not have been coincidental, but Fukikoshi bares a certain resemblance to John Belushi and a scene where he raises one eyebrow is a dead on reference to Belushi's '70s era samurai parody of Toshiro Mifune on Saturday Night Live.
Also worth mentioning is the soundtrack. It has a very upbeat rock and roll soundtrack (almost jazzy at points) that contrasts sharply with the traditional visual style of the film. I'm not sure it rubbed me the right way, but it was an intriguing choice nonetheless. This is one of the things that contributes to the film's quirky feel. It's also worth noting that the composer also did some work on the excellent Kill Bill soundtrack (including the music for the first trailer, entitled "Battle Without Honor or Humanity"), though I think his work better suits Kill Bill than Samurai Fiction.

Unlike others in its genre, it is not a violent film, though there is some swordplay and action sequences, those who are expecting an action packed film would be disappointed. Indeed, the action is mostly top-heavy, giving the impression that the film runs out of steam midway through the movie. My attention was beginning to dwindle a bit towards the end, but there was enough there to leave me with a good impression of the film.

Overall, it is a good film, though it has some flaws. I'm glad I rented it though, and I did so based almost entirely on the cover of the film. Interestingly, I like the cover now more than when I first saw it, indicating that I must have liked the contents of the films enough to alter my perception of the cover... So it seems that judging a movie by its cover did not lead me astray... this time, at least.
Posted by Mark on April 18, 2004 at 03:05 PM .: link :.

Quick Updates
Sorry for the lack of updates recently. I've been exceedingly busy lately, with no end in sight. And since my chain-smoking monkey research staff, emboldened by the Simpsons voice talent, have gone on strike, I don't have a whole lot of stuff to even point to. However, I'd like to make a few quick updates to some recent posts:
  • Thinking about Security: At one point in this post, I mentioned this:
    ...in order to make your computer invulnerable to external attacks from the internet, all you need to do is disconnect it from the internet. However, that means you can no longer access the internet! That is the price you pay for a perfectly secure solution to internet attacks. And it doesn't protect against attacks from those who have physical access to your computer. Also, you presumably want to use the internet, seeing as though you had a connection you wanted to protect. The old saying still holds: A perfectly secure system is a perfectly useless system.
    Not too long after I wrote that, I recieved a notice at work saying that they were shutting down internet access due to a security vulnerability in some of the software we use. A week later, patches had been installed and we were back up and running. It was an interesting week, however, as we realized just how much we relied on internet access to do our jobs (us being a website and all!). So in cases like this, the pefectly secure but useless system can be acceptable for short periods of time. As a permanent solution, it simply wouldn't work though...
  • Inherently Funny Words, Humor, and Howard Stern: I got to thinking after writing this about politically correct terminology, and I realized that one of Stern's true strongpoints is his willingness to be politically incorrect, because the very act of railing against what is politically correct is funny in itself. A lot of humor is based on this sort of concept: it's not funny because of what it depicts, it's funny because it flies in the face of censorship. One of Stern's funniest bits from his movie, for instance, was one in which he played a "complete the sentence" game with things like "blank a doodle doo", which technically allowed him to say "cock" on the air. That's funny, not because "cock" is funny, but because he wasn't allowed to say it. In a world where we are forbidden to have blackboards in schools (because they're racist!), it's no wonder that people find political incorrectness funny. Personally, I try not to hurt anyone's feelings when referring to them, but this stuff does get out of hand, and when people intentially break from the norm, it can be funny. Again, it may not be your thing, but it was just a thought...
That's all for now. Hopefully, in a month or so, things will be slowing down and I'll have more time to write. I still seem to be sticking to my schedule of posting every Sunday, but the weekday posts may be a bit scarce until things calm down.
Posted by Mark on April 18, 2004 at 12:46 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

The Way of the Blog
One of the most frustrating things about blogging is that even when you're really happy with what you've written, it eventually gets pushed off the main page to languish in the obscurity of the archives. Since I have certain recurring interests, I do occasionally link back to them myself, but I doubt people go perusing the archives and one can hardly blame them. This is the way of the blog; your best work gets buried in the archives.

Some bloggers have attempted to combat that by publishing lists of their best entries, so taking my cue from them, here is a list of my best entries (it's also in the navigation to the right). I'm not done with it yet, but it's a good start. Unfortunately, I doubt taking this step would really show tangible results. It is, after all, just another link in the navigation.

A while ago, I checked Jonathon Delacour's blog and a picture at the top of his left-navigation caught my eye. It links back to one of his older posts (which I assume he likes or is otherwise proud of). In true internet fashion, I'd like to steal that idea and implement something like that here. You can see a preliminary version of this on my archive page (at the top of the right-navigation). Some entries are difficult to come up with images for, so it might be a while before this feature really gets going. Given the eye-catching nature of this feature though, I think it would be a lot more effective than just a list.

This is a work in progress, so expect some changes. If you have any favorite entries, feel free to post a comment or drop me an email and let me know (and thanks to those who've already chimed in!)
Posted by Mark on April 11, 2004 at 11:59 PM .: link :.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Flack jackets, helmets, rifles, a radio, a camera and art supplies
It's that time again. Yet another exceptional Baghdad Journal installment from Steve Mumford. As always, his thoughtful article provides a useful perspective on what's going on in Iraq. Some choice quotes:
Two American reporters for AP are going back to Baghdad the next day, leaving a Russian, a Frenchman, a Romanian and an Australian. Surprisingly to me, they're generally impressed with the friendliness and professionalism of the soldiers.

Sasha, who films for AP, had his lost satellite phone returned by some soldiers. The only call on it, to London, was to the number on the phone, to find out who it belonged to. "If Russian soldier picks up sat phone, it's goodbye phone. Some Americans pick up sat phone, give to PAO!" he says wonderingly.

"Good mentality, good people." says Jean-Claude.
Damn straight. At one point, he describes following a two-man sniper team around town (emphasis mine).
We cross through a dozen homes like this, avoiding the street so that people won't be able to figure out where we're going.

The sight of three men in flack jackets and helmets, with rifles, a radio, camera and art supplies, seems to elicit little surprise.
The reference to the camera and the art supplies made me laugh, and that it wouldn't be that unusal for such a mix to occur also seemed appropriate (even if it wasn't intentionally called out that way).

As always, the entire column is worth reading in its entirety. If you're not familiar with Mumford's Baghdad Journal, I highly recommend checking out all his past columns, which I collected here. Good stuff.
Posted by Mark on April 05, 2004 at 08:57 PM .: link :.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Thinking about Security
I've been making my way through Bruce Schneier's Crypto-Gram newsletter archives, and I came across this excellent summary of how to think about security. He breaks security down into five simple questions that should be asked of a proposed security solution, some obvious, some not so much. In the post 9/11 era, we're being presented with all sorts of security solutions, and so Shneier's system can be quite useful in evaluating proposed security systems.
This five-step process works for any security measure, past, present, or future:

1) What problem does it solve?
2) How well does it solve the problem?
3) What new problems does it add?
4) What are the economic and social costs?
5) Given the above, is it worth the costs?
What this process basically does is force you to judge the tradeoffs of a security system. All to often, we either assume a proposed solution doesn't create problems of its own, or assume that because a proposed solution isn't a perfect solution, it's useless. Security is a tradeoff. It doesn't matter if a proposed security system makes us safe. What matters is that a system is worth the tradeoffs (or price, if you prefer). For instance, in order to make your computer invulnerable to external attacks from the internet, all you need to do is disconnect it from the internet. However, that means you can no longer access the internet! That is the price you pay for a perfectly secure solution to internet attacks. And it doesn't protect against attacks from those who have physical access to your computer. Also, you presumably want to use the internet, seeing as though you had a connection you wanted to protect. The old saying still holds: A perfectly secure system is a perfectly useless system.

In the post 9/11 world we're constantly being bombarded by new security measures, but at the same time, we're being told that a solution which is not perfect is worthless. It's rare that a new security measure will provide a clear benefit without causing any problems. It's all about tradeoffs...

I had intended to apply Schneier's system to a contemporary security "solution," but I can't seem to think of anything at the moment. Perhaps more later. In the mean time, check out Schneier's recent review of "I am Not a Terrorist" Cards in which he tears apart a proposed security system which sounds interesting on the surface, but makes little sense when you take a closer look (which Scheier does mercilessly).
Posted by Mark on April 04, 2004 at 11:09 PM .: link :.

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