Contractor Diary: Holy Thursday Edition

We don’t think it’s because they’re particularly devout, but as of now — 1500 local time — the Client office is nearly deserted. Good Friday is a holiday. Many of the resources we depend on for project information will also be out on Monday, presumably also due to religious fervor.

Britain hates privacy

The ongoing conversion of the UK into a surveillance society took another large step this week, as some jurisdictions are adding speakers to the video cameras in public places so that minders can scold miscreants in real time.

Home Secretary John Reid told BBC News there would be some people, “in the minority who will be more concerned about what they claim are civil liberties intrusions”.

“But the vast majority of people find that their life is more upset by people who make their life a misery in the inner cities because they can’t go out and feel safe and secure in a healthy, clean environment because of a minority of people,” he added.

W. T. F? Seriously, what the hell is wrong with Britain?

What they mean by “supporting the troops”

How Specialist Town lost his benefits:

Eventually the rocket shrapnel was removed from Town’s neck and his ears stopped leaking blood. But his hearing never really recovered, and in many ways, neither has his life. A soldier honored twelve times during his seven years in uniform, Town has spent the last three struggling with deafness, memory failure and depression. By September 2006 he and the Army agreed he was no longer combat-ready.

But instead of sending Town to a medical board and discharging him because of his injuries, doctors at Fort Carson, Colorado, did something strange: They claimed Town’s wounds were actually caused by a “personality disorder.” Town was then booted from the Army and told that under a personality disorder discharge, he would never receive disability or medical benefits.

Town is not alone. A six-month investigation has uncovered multiple cases in which soldiers wounded in Iraq are suspiciously diagnosed as having a personality disorder, then prevented from collecting benefits. The conditions of their discharge have infuriated many in the military community, including the injured soldiers and their families, veterans’ rights groups, even military officials required to process these dismissals.

They say the military is purposely misdiagnosing soldiers like Town and that it’s doing so for one reason: to cheat them out of a lifetime of disability and medical benefits, thereby saving billions in expenses.

If we’re going to call these men and women into harm’s way in a war, we’d damn well support them when they come home broken.

Things we didn’t build, and why

Via MeFi, we learn of the Pluto Project, a Cold War era weapon program. Sweet Christ, what a scary idea.

a locomotive-size missile that would travel at near-treetop level at three times the speed of sound, tossing out hydrogen bombs as it roared overhead. Pluto’s designers calculated that its shock wave alone might kill people on the ground. Then there was the problem of fallout. In addition to gamma and neutron radiation from the unshielded reactor, Pluto’s nuclear ramjet would spew fission fragments out in its exhaust as it flew by.

Fortunately, it never got built; here’s part of why:

But what drove the last nail into Pluto’s coffin was a question so deceptively simple that the wizards at the lab might be excused for deliberately overlooking it: Where do you flight-test a nuclear reactor? “How are you going to convince people that it is not going to get away and run at low level through Las Vegas — or even Los Angeles?” asks Jim Hadley, a Livermore physicist and Pluto alumnus who now works on detecting foreign nuclear tests for the lab’s hush-hush Z Division. There was, admits Hadley, no way of guaranteeing that Pluto would not become a nuclear-powered juggernaut beyond its inventors’ control — a kind of airborne Frankenstein, a flying Chernobyl.

Every so often, it utterly blows our mind that we didn’t all end up dead during the nuclear brinksmanship era. Duck and cover our ass.

Dept. of Moleskine Archeology

We found an amusing phrase — “sheer apian ebullience” — on a marked page in an old notebook recently, so we plugged it into Google, and got a single page back, which was of course the article from which we copied the phrase. We still like it a lot:

It was well known that a bee that had located a source of food habitually returned home and performed an elaborate “waggle dance” that contained information about the direction and distance of the food from the hive. The vast majority of scientists assumed that conveying this information was the purpose of the dance: that the dance was, in effect, a form of bee language. Chomsky, however, disliked the notion that such a minimally evolved creature as a bee could have language, because language was, to him, distinctly human; he also disliked the implication that language in humans was, like the waggle dance, a skill that had evolved because it was useful. Chomsky had, accordingly, seized on the work of a maverick scientist, A. M. Wenner, who claimed that although humans could detect information from the dance, the bees themselves did not: they found their way to food using only odor.

“You can’t just assume that because something’s there it is functional, or has been adapted for,” Chomsky pointed out. “It could just be there. Crickets don’t chirp so you can enjoy the summer evening.” Crickets were a useful example for Chomsky, because scientists had managed to extract a lot of information from crickets’ noises, but there was no evidence to suggest that crickets themselves could interpret the noises, or showed any interest in doing so. Despite the cricket example, however, nobody seemed convinced. It seemed very unlikely that bees might perform an elaborate dance for no reason other than sheer apian ebullience.

(The New Yorker, “The Devil’s Accountant,” 3/31/2003, by Larissa MacFarquhar)

It’d be a good name for a band.

Contractor Diary: Hotel Affinity Program Fuzzy Math Division

The wild variance in point awards for our 5-night stays at our hotel confuses us. The last 3 weeks have been in the same room type, but have resulted in very different point awards.

  • 3/11 – 3/16: 9,950 pts (3,950 base + 3,000 random bonus * 2)
  • 3/18 – 3/23: 10,675 pts (4,250 base + 425 10% Gold bonus + 3,000 random bonus * 2)
  • 3/25 – 3/30: 7,675 pts (4,250 base + 425 10% Gold bonus + 3,000 random bonus)

Each includes at least one large bonus award, which we presume to be due to our greater-than-4-night stay (especially in light of an earlier 4-night stay with a drastically lower point award), but obviously the bonus is inconsistent. We think there must be a random number generator involved here somehow.

We cannot decide if it’s sad or not that we’re eagerly anticipating hitting platinum status, which should occur in about 3 weeks, whereupon our point award rate will increase dramatically due to the “rich get richer” clause common to affinity programs (at Platinum, you get a 50% bonus on base award points). Of course, if they stop giving us the 3K extra points, it’ll take longer, but who can tell?

How to tell how big a gadget/technology geek you are

Review PC World’s list of the Top 50 Technology Products of All Time, and figure out how many you had or used.

Of the 50, we have or have had most of them, especially if you count descendent products (*).

  1. Netscape Navigator
  2. Tivo (* our is a DirecTV/Tivo combo box)
  3. Napster
  4. Lotus 1-2-3 for DOS
  5. Apple iPod (yes, an original one)
  6. Hayes Smartmodem (* though ours was 2400 baud, not 300)
  7. Moto Star-TAC (* we had a digital version)
  8. WordPerfect 5.1. Wow.
  9. Tetris.
  10. Photoshop (* We had a copy a little later, around 96)
  11. Thinkpad 700C (* We had a 560Z)
  12. Atari VCS/2600
  13. Mac Plus (* We’re Powerbook people, but we’ve damn sure used old-skool Macs.)
  14. RIM Blackberry 857 (* We had a more recent iteration in 2004)
  15. The first digital Elph
  16. Palm Pilot 1000
  17. Doom.
  18. Win95
  19. iTunes 4
  20. Iomega Zip drive
  21. WOW
  22. PageMaker (* The version we used was in 1990)
  23. HP LaserJet 4L (We only recently ditched it)
  24. OS X
  25. Nintendo NES
  26. Eudora
  27. Airport
  28. Print Shop (* but on a PC, in 1987)
  29. McAfee VirusScan
  30. Sound Blaster
  31. Hypercard
  32. Epson MX-80 dot matrix printer
  33. PC Tools (* our copy was verison 5)
  34. Red Hat Linux
  35. PC Talk
  36. Excel. (Every Windows version since 1991.)
  37. Northgate Omnikey Ultra. We wish we knew where ours was.

Dept. of Stuff That Will Send Magoo Into Fits

Serenity beat out Star Wars as best Sci-Fi movie ever in an SFX magazine poll. Of course, Whedon’s flick is actually a Western, but that’s ok since Lucas’ saga started out as a remake of a Japanese picture anyway.


(Rounding out the top ten: Blade Runner; Planet of the Apes; The Matrix; Alien; Forbidden Planet; 2001; The Terminator; Back to the Future. We were with them right up until the teen movie at the end.)

Things that suck.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

Joe Warmbrodt was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He was struggling with a lower-GI problem when I knew him that was misdiagnosed for years; even with it, he was never negative or down. Having Joe in the room was always a net positive. I didn’t know him well, but I knew him well enough to know I liked him, and that I wished I had time to get to know him better.

Bye, Joe. We’ll miss you.

Contractor Diary: Frequent Flier Security Checkpoint Idiot Rage Division

You don’t fly much? Really? That’s great. Lots of people don’t fly much, or ever. It’s not a crime, and it doesn’t make you stupid.

However, if you don’t fly much, and you expect the airport to coddle you through the whole process, and you further fail to read any of the VERY prominent signs explaining the [bullshit, useless] security checkpoint protocol, well, that’s when you’re stupid. It’s not fucking hard. The web site has lots of guidelines, but all you really have to do is READ THE SIGNS IN THE AIRPORT before you get in line.

Yes, the whole thing is bullshit security theater that probably makes us LESS safe, but right now it’s the set of rules we have to tolerate. Learn how to get through quickly, and THEN write your congressman.

First: Check your damn suitcase. If you haven’t read, or can’t understand, the rules for what can go aboard with you, check your suitcase and be done with it. You’re scared about TSA riffing through your crap? You’re afraid your bag might go to Hoboken instead of Honolulu? Not my problem. Check your bag and get out of the fucking way. Keep a carryon by all means, but don’t slow me down because you’re confused about what “gel or liquid” means.

Second: How is it possible that you’ve gotten all the way to the front of the line without emptying your pockets into your carryon bag, at least loosening your shoes, and having your boarding pass ready? Seriously, what the fuck, man? Just because the TSA is stupid doesn’t mean YOU have to be.

Third: No, 18-eyelet high-heeled boots are NOT reasonable security checkpoint shoes. I don’t care how good they make your legs look. Dumbass. (This goes for men, too, but that seems to be a smaller problem.)

Fourth: That said, I travel in frickin’ WORK BOOTS, and I still manage to be completely ready before I’m at the head of the line. Use the time in line, genius, and you can wear whatever the hell you want without incurring the ire of the road warriors behind you.

Fifth: Look, if you’re flying with a laptop, how can you POSSIBLY not know to take the damn thing out of your bag? No, it doesn’t make any sense, and has no bearing on our security, but you know good and damn well that Cleetus is going to need to check your bag individually if you don’t follow the rules — which, by the way, are POSTED ON VERY BIG SIGNS ALL OVER THE DAMN PLACE — and that means you’re slowing me down.

Sixth: Ask Cleetus McTSA NO questions. Read the signs. Follow the simple directions. Do not engage the slackjawed drones in white shirts. They do not know the answer. If they give you an answer, it will be wrong. In either case, you’ve slowed down the line, and have therefore irritated me and the hundreds of people like me behind you in line.

What’s hard about this, people?

It Begins

EMI has announced its intention to offer DRM-free downloads of its “entire digital repertoire” via the Apple iTunes Music Store.

EMI is one of the “big four,” along with Sony BMG, Universal, and Warner, though they are the smallest by marketshare of that crowd (Universal: 31.71%; Sony/BMG: 25.61%; Warner: 15%; EMI: 9.55%, via WP). We’re betting this gets interesting.

(More at BoingBoing, where Cory Doctorow is so happy he may have a seizure. The really odd part is that they’ll still sell the DRM versions, which are lower quality, for less money. Gee, which would you have? DRM’d crappy files for $X, or DRM-free high-quality files for 130% of X? It’s a no-brainer.)

More followup: Techdirt has more details: the higher-quality files will be 256Kbit AAC, which is both good and bad. AAC is undeniably a better algorithm than MP3, but so far it plays pretty much only on Apple equipment (it’s an adopted standard, though, not something Apple has locked up — other folks can use it if they want. (It’s the DRM, not the format, that Apple has refused to license in the past (HDANCN?).)). Techdirt also brings up something we didn’t catch: the new tracks are priced higher, which means Jobs backed off his “one price” mantra — or, rather, traded it for no-DRM. Furthermore, this “charge a premium for a more flexible offering” puts iTMS at odds with the usual RIAA play of “charge more for less” (ringtones still cost more than online tracks, for example). Guess who we think will win?

What you need to know about the GOP candidates

Via Josh, we find this from Glenn Greenwald:

Two of the three leading Republican candidates for President either embrace or are open to embracing the idea that the President can imprison Americans without any review, based solely on the unchecked decree of the President. And, of course, that is nothing new, since the current Republican President not only believes he has that power but has exercised it against U.S. citizens and legal residents in the U.S. — including those arrested not on the “battlefield,” but on American soil.

What kind of American isn’t just instinctively repulsed by the notion that the President has the power to imprison Americans with no charges? And what does it say about the current state of our political culture that one of the two political parties has all but adopted as a plank in its platform a view of presidential powers and the federal government that is — literally — the exact opposite of what this country is?

The computers of our lives

Via BB, we find this, which is totally Geek Nostalgia Central.

Extra points if you can tell us which occasional members of Heathen Nation owned which computers. Double extra points if you can name the onetime owners of Tandy Model Ones.