Saturday, September 19, 2009

10 most dangerous plants in the world

This is a cool article from Popular Mechanics on the 10 most dangerous plants in the world.  The pictures are very good, too. 


Friday, September 18, 2009

Happy birthday, Dr. Johnson!

Today is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Samuel Johnson, possibly the most important man to the English language who ever lived.

Dr. Johnson's most notable accomplishment among dozens is the creation of the the benchmark English dictionary. This was not the first English dictionary by any means, but it was so profoundly superior to the ones that had come before it, that it was a benchmark for English dictionaries until the first Oxford English Dictionary appeared 173 years later. What set Dr. Johnson's dictionary apart from earlier dictionaries was the size--the first edition of the dictionary contained a 42,773 word list, which was equaled by only one other previous work--and Johnson's use of 114,000 literary quotations to illustrate the the meanings and use of the words featured. Most importantly, though, his dictionary described English as it was used rather than merely as a lexicon of technical or obscure terms.

Dr. Johnson was a prolific writer, an exceptional critic, an essayist, and a biographer. My favorite quote has to do the with business of writing, as follows:
No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.


Cheese or font?

The name of this game, Cheese or font?, reminds me a lot of the SNL game show, "¿Qué es más macho?" from decades ago. ("¿Qué es más macho? ¿Fernando Lamas o Ricardo Montalban?" "¿Fernando Lamas?" "No, Fernando Lamas is macho, si, pero Ricardo Montalban es muy macho.")


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Flame on!

Someone has built the Pyro 2.2, a wrist-mounted flamethrower.

I realize that this makes you think immediately of the potential for a Darwin Award--I sure was thinking about that--but watch the video.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Being a hack

Donna Barr posted a few things on Facebook recently about being a hack, which she says is a good thing. I tend to agree. Work is work, after all, and 99% of what we all do is not Great Art or Great Literature, as the case may be.

Decades ago, Harlan Ellison wrote the introduction to a short story in a collection of short stories. He said that he'd hated the character, hated the story, hated the resolution, and sold it to a magazine he didn't normally do business with... but he made 3x as much money for this as he would've otherwise. His final paragraph of this brief exposition was "Moral of the story: I may prostitute my art, but at least I'm not a cheap whore."

John Ciardi once wrote:
"Dear Virginia:
See the poet.
The poet is fat.
The poet is fifty.
The poet is making a living."

There is no sin in hackwork. It pays the bills. Sometimes, rather handsomely.


A tale of bad security

Back in 1987, I was working at a branch of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. The FHLBB was an organization (now defunct) described to me when I was there as holding roughly the same place w/r/t US savings and loans as the Federal Reserve did for US banks. [Insert half a dozen jokes that write themselves here.]

One of the things the 12 FHLBB branches did was to gather all the information on mortgage paper from their constituent S&Ls and transmit it at the same time every day to the mainframe in DC. This was done with a 2400-baud modem, which was a perfectly reasonable way to transmit data in 1987. What concerned me was that this was done with no data compression, no encryption, nothing. It was a clear, uncompressed flat text file with info on hundreds of millions of dollars of mortgage paper every day. PC-based compression and encryption was in its infancy back then--PKZip 2.0 was kind of the standard for this at that point--but that would've been a heckuva lot better than the nothing they were doing. Even worse, there wasn't anything that prevented someone from logging into the mainframe themselves. The password for logging in was "superman" and had been unchanged for over 2 years.

I figured I'd talk to the DP manager and suggest there was a problem. I don't recall his name, but he was a forgettably vague man who looked baffled by the things going on around him. I said that there was a problem with transmitting all this data at the same time every day in the clear on an unsecured line. "I see...." he said, looking confused. "Why would that be a problem?"

"Well," I explained, "if someone wanted to, they could monitor the data flow and get the mortgage numbers a month before they're released by the Fed and know what's coming. They could even go so far as to inject their own phony data stream into the system and artificially inflate or deflate the numbers by adding bogus mortgage paper numbers of their own."

"I see," he said again, slower. There was a slight pause and I could tell he was really trying to keep up with this but he was in way over his head already. "Why would they want to do that?" he finally asked.

"Well," I said (thinking "The natives really can understand you; they're just pretending they don't to be difficult, but if you keep speaking louder and slower, it should get through eventually!"), "if they inject their own numbers, they'll be able to affect the movement of interest rates on mortgage paper and then make money by making investments that reflect their advance knowledge of how the market is going to move."

"I... see...." he said again. I was dreading what he was going to say next, but sure enough, there it was: "Why would they want to do that?"

"It'd be a really bad idea!" I said. (You just can't help some people.) "You should change the password regularly to something secure, consider changing the time you transmit data, and maybe go for a secure line." He clearly had no understanding about why he needed to do any of this, but he said he'd take care of this. Okay, fine.

A few days later, I asked the guy who did the data transfer if he'd changed the password. "Yes," he said proudly, "I changed it to 'batman'."

The best you can hope for some people is that they'll just forget to breathe some day, y'know?


Monday, September 14, 2009

National Punctuation Day!

There's not a lot more to say about this.  Go check out the activities for National Punctuation Day on September 24th: bake the breads, do the educational activities, celebrate your colons! 


I'm not the only person who thinks Dan Brown's a horse's petoot

I read three of Dan Brown's other books and was thoroughly disgusted. Any book where I can predict the heavy-handed deus ex machina the author's going to use in the antepenultimate chapter to get himself out of the corner he's written himself into is pretty poor. ("Hey, Dan, I really like this new book. Especially the part where everyone gets killed by a bus!")

Having read three books that were basically the same book and a bad book to boot, I had no burning desire to read The Da Vinci Code, nor could I even care: "Jesus was married??!?" gasp! "The Vatican has been responsible for sleazy behavior and hidden the truth at times?!?!?" Quelle horror!! I couldn't be impressed nor interested nor shocked. To quote Elisabeth Knottingham, my apathy was palpable.

BTW, there are many things that Dan Brown is no good at that contribute to his overall suckiness. One of them is cryptography, which is kind of a pity for him because it's the foundation of a lot of his plot. (He's really got just the one.) He's also a duffer when it comes to non-English languages. Actually, both links address both topics to an extent; you'll enjoy them unless you think Dan Brown actually can write, in which case, get yourself to a library and read something good so you understand why he's so bad.

So, with this really crappy attitude about Dan Brown, I was pleased to discover that I'm not the only person who finds Dan Brown tedious and hackneyed: Slate magazine just published the Dan Brown Plot Generator, with which you can generate the Dan Brown book plot of your choice. And it'll be at least as good as anything he's ever written.

Here, for example, is a plot for a new Robert Langdon book involving Philadelphia and Major League Baseball:

A long-forgotten cipher whose key is somewhere in Philadelphia.
A murderous cult determined to protect it.
A frantic race to uncover Major League Baseball's darkest secret.

The Hallowed Enigma
by Dan Brown

When renowned Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is summoned to the Liberty Bell to analyze a mysterious ancient script—drawn on a calling card next to the disemboweled corpse of the head docent—he discovers evidence of the unthinkable: the resurgence of the ancient cult of the Auxofori, a secret branch of Major League Baseball that has surfaced from the shadows to carry out its legendary vendetta against its mortal enemy, the Vatican.

Langdon's worst fears are confirmed when a messenger from the Auxofori appears at Citizen's Bank Park to deliver a grim ultimatum: Deposit $1 billion in Major League Baseball's off-shore bank accounts or the exclusive clothier of the Swiss Guards will be bankrupted. Racing against the clock, Langdon joins forces with the statuesque and quick-witted daughter of the murdered docent in a desperate bid to crack the code that will reveal the cult's secret plan.

Embarking on a frantic hunt, Langdon and his companion follow a 1100-year-old trail through Philadelphia's most venerable buildings and sacred libraries, pursued by a peg-legged assassin the cult has sent to thwart them. What they discover threatens to expose a conspiracy that goes all the way back to Babe Ruth and the very founding of Major League Baseball.