In Front of Prudential

I’m sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Prudential Tower in Boston, working on my laptop. In front of me are a bunch of computer components, including a CPU and two large monitors (I’m waiting for a car to cart all this away). I suppose I look a little like a homeless computer nut.

There are eleven open hotspots from where I’m sitting. As I’ve been working, I’ve gotten the following comments:

  • “Now that’s a blackberry!”
  • (patting the CPU) – “Buddy, it doesn’t work anymore, it’s okay.”
  • “He’s got Internet!”
  • (weird combination moan and groan—like a toned-down Howard Dean scream)

Broken MBTA

There’s something about malfunctioning mass transit that really gets to people. Or at least really gets to me. It’s a feeling of powerlessness like few others—at least in a car when you’re stuck in traffic you still feel (albeit erroneously) “in control.”

I had allotted myself half an hour to get from Downtown Crossing in Boston to North Station—about a-mile-and-a-half. Normally the train would take less than ten minutes, and the trains come every five to ten minutes. Instead, I waited fourty minutes for a train, then we crawled to North Station, where I had long since missed the train I was trying to catch, disrupting all the rest of my plans for where I was trying to go tonight.

We expect this kind of thing with air travel. It’s tolerable because we don’t do it everyday. But daily commuters reach a breaking point pretty quickly when they get to their destination two hours later than expected.

My only hope is that there is some one in charge who is agonizing over the inconvenience when this happens. Kind of like when the web/email/mail-list server I administer goes down—every minute is a minute when my users are banging up against a broken door with their web browsers and ssh clients, and I feel the pain. I’m just not so sure the MBTA is feeling the pain these days.

Next time maybe I’ll walk.

Devils and Dust

As I sit on the MBTA commuter rail train, hearing the n-th “watch out for terrorists” warning of the day, I’m reminded of the chorus from the title track to Bruce Springsteen’s new album (short ogg sample):

We’ve got God on my side,
We’re just trying to survive,
but if what you do to survive
kills the thing you love—

Fear’s a powerful thing,
it will turn your heart black you can trust.

(full lyrics)

The verse works so well, I think, because it doesn’t answer what happens “if what you do to survive kills the thing you love…” He just leaves it hanging.

I hope this song can reach some people who are otherwise completely captive to irrational fear. This album is going to be discussed later tonight on On Point (a locally produced National Public Radio show).

I also want to clarify a point I made yesterday about intelligently predicting attacks rather than blindly protecting against the identical attack that just happened. It’s not going to do much good, even if we figure out that the last attack was on a subway and the next one is planned for a shopping mall. So long as any security measure acts just to shift a planned attack to a new target, there’s no net benefit to society and a huge waste of resources. We need deterrent and preventive measures that reduce attacks overall, not ones that just protect particular targets.

A good example of this, described by Bruce Schneier, is The Club versus the LoJack system for protecting your car from theft. The Club makes the attacker move on to the next car that doesn’t have one; with LoJack, the attacker can’t tell whether the particular car he is looking at it is protected or not, and his risks increase considerably. Apparently LoJack has reduced car theft in Boston by 50 percent, while presumably The Club has had only a negligible effect if any. The Club might be effective if 100% of cars used it, but that is a lot less efficient than having LoJack selectively and secretly implanted in a sufficient number of cars to make a car thief think twice about his line of work.

I don’t know what the national security equivalent is of LoJack, but I’m sure there is something more effective than covering our subway and commuter rail systems with a heavy police presence. There are a finite number of police, and concentrating them in one place means they aren’t somewhere else. This seems like classic “shifting” rather than “deterring.”

London Bombing

A few thoughts about the attacks in London this morning:

  • After September 11, people in every part of the world observed a moment of silence. After the March 11 attacks in Spain, there was no such response in solidarity in the United States, even though per capita the impact on the country was similar. Although the sheer death toll in London may not be the same order of magnitude, it is the worst attack against people in that country in half a century.

    There should be some gesture that people around the world can join to indicate their opposition to any sort of indiscriminate attack on civilians, regardless of their politics otherwise. The overwhelming majority of people who oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also vehemently oppose violent retribution, and there should be a way to make that clear. Moreover, the United States is not the only country that deserves the sympathy of the world after tragedy—the whole world should stand together no matter who is the perpetrator and who is the victim.

  • Do people really believe that the goal of the terrorists is to destroy our freedom? Or that they hate our way of life? (E.g, Tony Blair’s remarks). I’d be interested to know the origin of this theme—at some point, the cold war anti-Soviet rhetoric was somehow adapted to the war on terror.

    I don’t think there’s any credible evidence that the terrorists want to impose a militant repressive fundamentalist Islamic regime on the United States or the Western World. They don’t care whether American women are forced to cover their faces in public. They don’t really care about “our most deeply held beliefs.” My understanding is that they are concerned almost exclusively with the United States and Western presence in the Islamic world. If anyone has evidence to the contrary (e.g., samples of terrorist propaganda), I’d be interested to see it.

    Whether there ought to be militant repressive fundamentalist regimes in the Islamic world is a separate question—but if that’s what this is about, let’s at least say it.

  • In the United States, security was immediately increased after the bombings, although apparently only for mass transit systems. Is there really any reason to think an attack is more likely on mass transit in the United States now, a few hours after the London bombings, rather than a week from now, or two months from now, or against a bridge or a mall rather than a subway or a bus? Are the authorities afraid of “copycat” attacks, or attacks planned in coordination with the original attacks? If the former, is it really plausible that the copycats would be able to get their acts together in just a few hours? If the latter, why would the attackers design their attack so that the authorities had notice and time to prepare for them? It seems to be that now is probably the safest time to take a subway in the United States or really anywhere else in the world.

    I’m sure there is a brief period of time—say a few minutes after an initial attack—when extremely heightened security measures might accomplish something. For example, the time between the two airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center, or the several bombs on the London underground. But after that, doesn’t the chance of another identical attack just go back to complete random chance?

    Similarly, there are concerns that tourism to England is going to take a huge hit from this event. But why should we expect the next attack to be in England? Given one dot, you can draw a line in any direction you want. First, Spain; then, England; next, — France? Norway? Back to Spain? Las Vegas?

    It seems to me that we need some kind of analysis—and intelligence—that isn’t founded on an expectation that the next attack will be identical to the last one. Otherwise, we’re just “doing something” because “something is better than nothing,” which isn’t necessarily true.

Finding Hardware That Doesn’t Suck

I’m sure I’m not the first one to have this complaint, but I really wish there was a list somewhere of the Best (x) that Just Works under GNU/Linux, where (x) is a device or card. Right now, I just want a good analog video capture card (for editing and converting VHS home videos to DVD). I keep coming across webpages that say, “I’ve gotten this to work under kernel 2.2…”

I’d just like for every hardware buying experience to not be a four or five hour expedition. Just tell me what I want, and I’ll find just choose the lowest price from pricewatch and call it a day.

And, hey, while I’m complaining: does anyone have any idea why tcextract locks up vim for several seconds at a time even when run at nice 19?

Update: I should clarify if anyone actually wants to answer my video capture question that it is for a laptop, so it either needs to be a USB2, Firewire, or PCMCIA device.


Free software hack discovery of the day: Blinkflash, the unofficial winkflash commandline client.

Competition in the web-based photo printing business is heating up, and Winkflash is the best priced I’ve found so far. With an introductory coupon code, 4×6 prints are only 6 cents each; and normally they are 12 cents each, with $0.99 flat rate shipping. We just made our first order, so we’ll see how the quality is, but these days most of these services seem to provide comparable results.

The main problem is that the two bulk upload systems winkflash provides—a Java applet and an Internet Explorer “drag and drop” control—don’t work under GNU/Linux. So you’re stuck uploading photos one by one with a web form.

Enter Blinkflash—now you can upload your photos right from the command line, with Unix-ish efficiency. Blinkflash just submits the photos to the web form upload system, but it saves an awful lot of time.

Hopefully Winkflash doesn’t mind this program—it can only generate more revenue for them. I suppose they might have trademark concerns, but I don’t think that is fatal.

I think I’ll package it for Debian and make a few tweaks. For one thing, it only works with the UK version of Winkflash, but that can be fixed with an extra command line switch. Also, you have to enter your username and password on the command line—there should be a way to store that in a .rc file. But it’s in fairly legible python (isn’t all python code legible?), so I think I should be able to take care of these things quickly.

At the Beach

Yesterday was the most beautiful beach day this summer. The air was just around 80 degrees, and the ocean was almost bath temperature. A couple of weeks ago I was at this same beach and my feet went numb after about 30 seconds in the water. I didn’t know the ocean could change so quickly!

Here I am, looking like a bit of a goof, on the beach. That pink circle at the bottom is my 3 month old daughter’s hat.

I should mention that this is a self portrait.

O’Connor Resigning

Semi-surprise of the day: Sandra Day O’Connor announced her resignation from the United States Supreme Court — not William Rehnquist. Unfortunately, this means a swing Justice will likely be replaced by an ultraconservative, if the administration gets its way.

No Need For The GPL?

Interesting interview with Eric Raymond where he claims that the reciprocity provisions of the GPL are now unnecessary and are slowing down open source adoption. I don’t think I agree, but it’s an interesting argument, and the first time I’ve seen esr attack the GPL so directly.

Update: this article was apparently slashdotted. I try not to link things that have been slashdotted under the theory that they’ve already gotten enough attention, but in this case I read the article before I saw the slashdot link.

I am a Statistic

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

(yeah, just following the flock, but I think it’s a good cause.)