Archive for April, 2010

Thoughts on Thoughts on Flash

April 29, 2010 22 comments

imageSteve Jobs’ recent blog post; Thoughts On Flash has been raising kudos and hackles all over the web.  Many people have commented that Apple is the king of closed systems and they have a point, inside the Apple box itself.

But Jobs really is thinking outside that box here: he is making points about Flash as a data standard, and about its reliability, compactness, and hardware compatibility that everyone involved with producing for the web should know about.  It is a closed data standard: you can’t make your own Flash encoders without paying a license fee to Adobe.  Flash seems to be a big fat security hole.  And anyone in computer support can tell you that the Flash crash isn’t confined to digital fruit.

If you think keeping up with Flash’s constant updates is a chore with one computer, try it on 500 computers where the users can’t run the upgrade on their system rights.

The point about battery life is enough all by itself.  Flash must be decoded in software, where h.264 can be done in hardware.  This is crucially important in mobile devices.

I’m sure Adobe will end up suing Apple over this.  But I can’t think of a single Adobe product that I really like.  Photoshop is a high-end image manipulation standard, but I often find it frustrating to use. If you’re thinking; “Acrobat is good!” try one of the competing .pdf rendering utilities, like Foxit.

In the Flash vs. Apple war, I’m siding with Apple.  If you create web content, consider alternatives to Flash.


  • Yes, Steve Jobs is arrogant.  When you’ve revolutionized how the world uses computers and created a company with a market cap somewhat north of Microsoft’s (really!) it may be entirely warranted.

  • I have actually seen computers brought to a standstill in the middle of a meeting because Adobe Acrobat decided that was a good time to update itself.  Often this even requires a reboot – for a document reader! – and on more than one occasion I’ve seen that update skotch the machine, with a rebuild required.
  • That image is a screenshot fragment from Linux, edited in Gimp.
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The same spot in Spring

April 27, 2010 4 comments

Click the picture to visit the photo album; below it there’s a link to the same spot in Winter.  I’ll try to get a picture of this spot in the Fall too.

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They are predators, after all…

April 25, 2010 1 comment

I heard MrsDoF screaming and got up from my chair to investigate.  Then I stopped, put down my reading glasses and put on my regular specs.  No telling what I might need to see up there.

It was a baby bunny, looking for a place of refuge in our kitchen while two cats competed for the honor of recapturing it.  Oscar had brought it in and Holly wanted some of the action.

The terrified animal ran into a pile of junk in the breakfast nook while Diane collected the cats.  She tossed them into the bathroom and shut the door.

Easiest bunny-capture I’ve ever done: the little creature ran directly into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag that contained a coiled-up 50-foot Ethernet cable.  I just picked up the bag, carried the little bunny outside and let it go. 

The cats will be staying in tonight, but I doubt the little bunny will survive.  I don’t know where the nest was.  What are the chances for a lost, possibly injured baby bunny on a cold, rainy night?

Baby humans have disproportionately large eyes, so we think they’re cute.  Adult cats have large eyes too, but then so do most nocturnal predators.

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Accepting change

April 25, 2010 9 comments
From my photo album; Notes

Libraries have “used book sales”, in which donated used books are sold to other voracious readers, thus generating needed funds.  I’m sure this drives publishers crazy (awww, too bad) but it’s a great source of interesting stuff.

In their donation rules, they always say; “no moldy books from your basement, no encyclopedias, and no National Geographic magazines.”  They say it right up front, so that if you found the donation dates and places, you found that too.  But for several weeks afterwards, their dumpsters will look like this one. (The dumpster next to it was full of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books – a concept that was ahead of its time if ever anything was.)

They’re not setting those rules to be big ol’ anti-encyclopedia meanies; it’s because they know what sells at book sales.  The chances that anybody will walk out of a book sale with eighty pounds of encyclopedias from 1981 are very slim.  National Geographics are wonderful too but anybody who will buy them, already has shelves full of them.

Why do people donate them?  Probably because they’re not in the habit of dumpster diving; they don’t know the reality.  But just as likely, it’s an emotional reality they can’t face.  A weighty compendium of organized human knowledge; what’s cooler than that?*  And National Geographics… they’re just too good to throw away!  It seems wrong.

Once upon a time my dad bought me a set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas.  Even with his college perfessor’s discount, they were a substantial chunk of change, but I made good use of them.  Decades went by, the Internet broke out of Darpa and begat The Web, and gradually I found them less useful. Eventually, two years went by and I hadn’t consulted them at all.  Since I’m trying to get my library down to 500 volumes (don’t hold your breath), I decided to get rid of them.  Aware of the book-sale rule, I threw them out myself, a couple volumes a week so the trash truck crane would be able to lift the bin.

If it had been practical for me to wrap them in plastic and put them in a cave in the desert somewhere, I certainly would have.  I wouldn’t be surprised if a dozen people a year around the world do just that when they can’t bear to throw them out.  But in any case their disposition had fallen to me; I couldn’t ask anyone else to do it.  And as I did so, I thought about my father, and about information, and about the future.  It was a contemplative task.  It felt like a slow, Viking funeral pyre.

National Geographics, and indeed all my magazines, I handle differently. I put stickers on them that say; “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle: you can keep this magazine if you want” and donate them to the hospital auxiliary for waiting rooms.  I’ve spent enough time in hospitals to know how valuable a long, interesting article that you can take with you to the next room, or even to take home, can be.  (Of course I asked first, to be sure I wasn’t making wrong assumptions, and the auxiliary volunteers tell me they’re very happy for the donations.)

In the long run they still get thrown out, but after more people read them, which seems fitting.


  • What’s cooler than a weighty compendium of organized human knowledge?  A searchable, weightless, nearly limitless compendium of human knowledge, plus videos of cats in boxes.

  • I’ve been avoiding library book sales too for the last several years. 
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“Roads?  Where we’re going, we don’t NEED roads!”

April 23, 2010 Comments off

Let’s face it; exercise for its own sake is boring.  Especially “cardio”, whose purpose is to get my flabby modern heart to hit a specific stride for a predetermined number of minutes.  And it has to be something I can do every day regardless of the weather. 

That’s the reason for my fabulous “Cardio-Theater Emporium”, which consists of a treadmill, a little folding DVD player, and a pair of headphones.  Movies make the time fly by, and give me a reason to exercise again the next day.  Lately I’ve been working through a box set of Batman; the Animated Series, a Bender-Head set of Futurama, and for a change of pace, one of my favorite movies from the ‘80’s:

One theme of the movie is Marty’s struggle to avoid this fate:

The actual song begins at 1:58.  And if you don’t know who Tom Lehrer is, here’s an introduction.  History simply does not provide enough examples of the “Harvard mathematician + musical satire” genre.  What’s amazing is that, while “not inhibited by good taste” he was still successful in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.  Get thee to YouTube!

And yes, my copy of Back To The Future is part of a box set with all three movies.  Awesome!

And just because I’ve always liked Huey Lewis & The News…

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Earth Day: looking at the horizon

April 22, 2010 10 comments

I thought it was Earth Day a few days ago, but maybe it’s today.  Thing is, we’re living on Earth every day. 

Each day the bluefin tuna population goes down.  Each day more atrazine leaches into groundwater.  Each day more CO2 builds up in the atmosphere.  Not a day goes by that more coal isn’t burned.

Coal.  I remember an article years ago extolling the virtues of coal as America’s energy future.  We had enough coal for hundreds of years.  Isn’t that great? Much better than that nasty old nuclear!  Even then, scientists knew that was wrong; coal plants put out far more radiation than nuclear.  Coal ash is full of heavy metals, including mercury, and so much uranium that the Chinese have begun to process it for commercially useful quantities at lower cost than digging pitchblende out of the ground. 

Think about that for a minute: those metals are in the coal ash because they were in the coal. Which we burned, and sent the smoke up really tall smokestacks because presumably, what goes up never… comes down?  I wonder what the reasoning is there.

Energy is all over the place but we want it in dense packages.  This is like saying we want to live on low-hanging fruit instead of having to climb ladders or even plant vegetables.  Our industry lobbyists whine; why does everything have to be so hard?  You’ll destroy our competitiveness if we can’t keep doing things the old way!

It’s difficult to make the case that we even deserve to pull ourselves out of the eco-spiral we’re in. We have an entire (very popular) television network devoted to denying that we should do anything at all to keep our environment livable.  We’re a society full of people who don’t want to take the slight extra effort to recycle their aluminum cans, but Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial airline fleet every three weeks.  Aluminum that is, for the most part, refined from bauxite in an energy-intensive process that begins with coal-generated electricity.

But the Earth isn’t conscious, so we can’t bargain with it.  Our planet doesn’t give a damn about our treaties or our excuses.  It isn’t deciding who’s naughty or who’s nice, and it isn’t mad at us.  We can destroy all the species we want, acidify the oceans and screw up the global food chain from the ground up, and if by fortune the survivors start acting more responsibly, the planet will just start making new species and going about its business.  Or if there aren’t any survivors, same result; it makes no difference to the 588 quintillion tons of iron and rock that we’re riding in an orbit around our star.  But either way the transition promises to be a giant humanitarian suckfest that would be well worth avoiding. 

So what difference does it make to refill a water bottle, or recycle a single can?  I don’t know; there could be a “donut effect”, in which a person who exercises starts to realize; that donut is a half an hour on the Stairmaster.  Next thing you know, it starts to affect other dietary choices.  The same thing could happen with small acts of environmental responsibility.

There’s also an Overton Window effect; the more people who openly do small things for the environment, the less socially acceptable it is to put politicians in office who are quite so transparently in the pocket of dirty industries.  In short, we’ve got to stop being so short-sighted, and the more people looking at the horizon, the more people who will.

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The McAfeepocalypse

April 21, 2010 6 comments

Around 9am I got to looking at a user’s machine which was being particularly obstinate.  Nothing was working right – network access, file management, device connection, even login.  A virus, I thought, and set about trying to figure out which one and how to counter it.

And thus was our whole day consumed, as one computer after another bit the dust.  Classrooms cracked up, offices went offline, and faculty computers freaked out.  Not all machines, just some of them.  It was too widespread to be from a specific website; this had the mark of network distribution on it.  It acted oddly for a virus, though, disabling the network cards and USB device drivers.  Seldom does a virus cut off its own means of spreading.

Turned out it was network-distributed though.  The campus virus-ninja came to investigate and found that svchost.exe (a vital Windows file) had been “zeroed out”, which meant it was just an empty file name with nothing in it.

Our network admin Pete Juvinall and our brilliant student tech Nick Friedel found out that the nefarious program in question was… (drumroll please) McAfee AntiVirus.  That’s right, the program meant to protect the machine was damaging the machine.  It’s a digital auto-immune disease; the latest .dat file mis-identified XPsp3 svchost.exe as a virus.

Pete was interviewed by AP and just got called by CBS Nightly News, so he’s famous.  (MrsDoF says; “I bet he’d rather be rich.”) And here’s the thing: McAfee’s website, all the tech websites and forums were useless on this fast-breaking crisis.  Nick and Pete found the answers on Twitter.

I hope Twitter can find a way to monetize its operations, because it is quickly becoming a global nervous system.  A flu outbreak?  The CDC can track it on Twitter.  Terrorist attack?  Get advance information on exactly what kind of attack to coordinate the response.  Earthquake?  Tweets actually move faster than S- and P- waves.  Blackouts, food poisoning, apple Danish just out of the bakery oven, you name it, Twitter moves information about it.  It can even help a network administrator in the MidWest become the celebrity hero of a… um, anti-virus attack.


  • Read that AP article for some idea of the mayhem this caused in law enforcement, medicine, etc.

  • Nick said he’d post his fix procedure on his website in the next hour or so. 
  • Briefly, the procedure is as follows: start up in safe mode, rename mcshield.exe to something else.  Copy a good svchost.exe into your \windows\system32 directory.  Restart.  Start up McAfee Antivirus Console and either roll back or forward to get off .dat 5958.  Restore the name of mcshield.exe and restart.  It’s a miracle!
  • Oh, and McAfee?  Best you lay low for a while.  We’re not happy with you.
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Lines of force: Monday Morning Mystery

April 18, 2010 3 comments
From my photo album; Beautiful Evidence

Not really a mystery – click through for the explanation.  But first, any guesses?

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Contractual nonsense

April 15, 2010 12 comments

The Tea Party types have a new political meme called “The Contract From America”.  It’s hard not to admire their daring, reminding us of anything with Newt “Mister Morality” Gingrich’s name on it.

Anyway, they are gleefully proclaiming a bunch of stuff that basically adds up to “Government bad!  Raauuuugghhh!” and “If Verne cain’t unnerstan’ it half drunk, it too complikated!” 

You think I could be exaggerating?  One of their provisions is a flat tax.  Sure, that makes a LOT of sense in a country where half the population has 2.5% of the wealth.  In fact, I bet a flat tax would be very attractive to the top 1%, who own 34% of the wealth, because they know the actual rate would be chosen by populist assent among the people who hardly have anything compared to them.

Waaaaaiiit a minute…  Do you suppose that richest 1% (and their neighbors on the next rung or two down the ladder) could actually be the ones promoting this flat-tax nonsense?

Nahh… couldn’t be.  Could it?  “Cui bono?”

Anyway, tax day seems like as good a day as any for ***Dave to take the “Contract From America” apart piece by piece, while actually suggesting a few good ideas to replace it as a side dish. A sample:

5. Restore Fiscal Responsibility & Constitutionally Limited Government in Washington

Create a Blue Ribbon taskforce that engages in a complete audit of federal agencies and programs, assessing their Constitutionality, and identifying duplication, waste, ineffectiveness, and agencies and programs better left for the states or local authorities, or ripe for wholesale reform or elimination due to our efforts to restore limited government consistent with the US Constitution’s meaning. (63.37%)

Yes, if only a Blue Ribbon taskforce were appointed (like every other such task force that every administration has appointed) to do a “complete audit” of the billions of dollars of programs and the entire government top-to-bottom, we could doubtless save massive amounts of money and shift most of Washington back to the states where, because the programs are duplicated 50 times over, I’m sure they will be more economical.

Again, everyone wants government to be more efficient.  But waving of hands, summoning of a “Blue Ribbon Commission,” and assuming that these folks will be able to (a) properly judge what’s wasteful, (b) what’s best left to the states, (c) what’s actually constitutional, and (d) actually get their recommendations enacted is both naive and, probably, unconstitutional itself.

This is very complete and masterful deconstruction that should (if they had the sense*) leave any Tea Partier cowering in the basement afraid to come out.  It’s also excellent ammunition, because we’re going to see this “Contract From America” all over the place and it deserves a very public humiliation.  Enjoy!

* (Of course if they had the sense, they wouldn’t say stupid stuff like that in the first place.)

As long as it’s tax day, when you get done at ***Dave’s, go over to Ed Darrell’s place and find out what Oliver Wendell Holmes really said about taxes.  It’s short and powerful, and apparently, historical (as opposed to apocryphal). 

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“What is on the list of things you can do today?” an evening with Ed Begley, Jr.

April 14, 2010 10 comments

MrsDoF and I walked two-thirds of a mile this evening to hear Ed Begley, Jr. speak about his experience in learning about and protecting the environment.  It was a show put on by the Milner Library and the university Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology.  He came out on stage wearing a red Illinois State University sweatshirt.  “What do you think,” he asked, pointing to the sweatshirt; “too much suck-up?”

From my photo album; Notes

Ed’s a science geek from way back, and he said his major inspiration was his father; “a conservative who liked to conserve”.

I can identify with that.  My dad always liked to brag about the gas mileage he’d get.  His ‘53 Mercury – a very heavy car – got 22mpg on the highway.  Who else back then cared about mpg, when gas was seven gallons for a dollar?  And I can tell you why I don’t litter; it would have disappointed my father.  It was simply unthinkable to throw a piece of trash anywhere but in the trash can.  Today I see kids dropping trash all over campus and wonder who raised them.

Ed’s father died just before the first Earth day, around the time the Cuyahoga river caught fire and Richard Nixon signed the EPA into existence.  And thus began the central message of the evening’s message: “do what you can, do the cheap and easy stuff now.  It’ll save you money and you can do the expensive harder stuff later.”

And that’s what he did.  In 1970 he began recycling – and actually made money at it.  He bought a Taylor-Dunn electric car (really a glorified golf cart) for $950 and discovered it was a LOT cheaper to drive than a regular car.  This appealed to his natural frugality.

He was motivated by smog – so bad that you couldn’t run a block in 1970.  I’ve never visited LA but I did visit DC around then, during a “pollution event”, and became very ill from the smog.  After a full day and night, I must have adapted and only felt like crawling in a hole and dying. 

He noted that with four times the cars that they had in 1970, LA now has half the pollution – an amazing accomplishment from good technology.  If you want to see real air pollution, go to Bejing or Mexico city and see why the clean air act was such a good idea.  “It’s not all about the view”, he said; “Ask the American Lung Association!”

Emphasizing over and over that conservation is good for your wallet, he said “There’s more at stake than money”.  You’ll clean up the air, the water, reduce our dependence on foreign oil – $500bn to $800bn every year.  Imagine the effect on our economy if all that money stayed here.

He was a Boy Scout, and inspired by the conservation ethic of scouting.  How, exactly, did that fall out of fashion in our country?

Today, he lives in a modest home, off the grid, but it took him a long time to build up to that.  He buys recycled products, telling the story of a fence he put in made of recycled plastic.  His wife complained about the price.  “You’ll never make your money back,” she said.  Five years later, he called her out in the yard to watch the neighbors painting their fence.  Five years after that, to watch them replacing the 4×4 supports and rails. His fence still looks new.

There was a lot more, but I love the idea of conservation as a conservative ideal.  People who identify as conservatives but waste energy and resources… confuse me.  That simply isn’t how I understand the term.  What are they conserving? 

For people who think that liberal Hollywood is all about the environment, Begley went through some lean years in the 90’s because, as his agent told him, “you’re freaking people out”.  He had some funny stories to tell, and he’s been getting more work lately as directors find out he’s very easy to work with.  It took them a while to understand that he drove an electric car because he liked it, and wasn’t going to confront anyone on the set.  “If I judged people by their houses or cars,” he says, “I wouldn’t have any friends.”

Start here: recycling, save gas, use efficient lighting, change your diet to get lower on the food chain.  Bike.  Use public transportation, and pick your next car for efficiency.  As you save money, ratchet up.  Consider solar hot water, solar electricity, wind energy, a solar oven, or just some attic insulation.

“I get that there’s a list of expensive, difficult things, like solar electric and grey-water systems.  But what’s on the list of things you can do today?  Do those.”


  • He drove here in his Toyota Prius, from LA.  Got over 50 mpg most of the way.

  • Begley lives right down the street from Bill Nye the Science Guy – his “arch-nemesis and rival”.  Well actually, they’re good friends, and compete with each other on home environmental projects.  He said; “I called Bill this evening and said, You were at this university ten years ago.  They finally traded up!”
  • The official title of his talk was a Ghandi quote; “Live simply so others can simply live”.  I used the other quote for the title of this post because it was original to him and because it was more accurately the theme of his talk.
  • On being an actor and speaking out: “When there’s a real danger, it’s irresponsible to just shut up and perform.  And you shouldn’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.”  (I wondered if he was referring to Jenny McCarthy here.)  “But you should tell people the peer-reviewed science.  That’s being responsible.”
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