Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty years ago

Forty years ago today, the Apollo 11 Luna Lander touched down on the surface of the Moon. NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two people to walk on another astronomical body.

View of the Earth from the Moon

We could do this forty years ago. Today, would we have the passion or the technology?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Ankh-Morpork in the Jungle

There are some amazing parallels between Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork and Papua New Guinea. Jim Austin's tales of being an active member of the Royal Papua New Guinea Police Force in the 1980s attests to that.

We have the old, pre-'Guards Guards' Night Watch in action:

To call their procedures non-confrontational was an understatement. Both cops stood on the road and began hurling gravel on the roof.

The roofs were all corrugated iron in our neighborhood so the racket was deafening. The idea was to alert the criminals to the presence of the police and then leave them a convenient escape route. In this case they could run out the back door, scamper over the fence and be gone. It worked. After ten minutes of rock throwing the police entered the house in a tentative manner and sure enough, no criminals. Now was my chance to join this cadre of crime fighting professionals.

And a touch of the old Night Watch, when it was run by street monsters:

When I finally climbed up the bank I saw Andy with his shotgun about halfway up the nose of the evil driver's passenger. The driver himself was in a fetal position on the road where four of PNG's finest were vigorously putting the boots to him.

It was sort of like a Rodney King deal without the caring gentility of the LAPD. Eventually the cops tired of stomping our suspect and tossed him and his pal into a waiting paddy wagon. On the way home I advised Andy to have an ambulance waiting for us at the station as I was sure our man was severely injured if not dead.

PNG highlanders still retained a strong element of traditional dwarfish clang:

[I] returned to see Andy in heated discussion with the head man. He was demanding that all of the men leave their spears behind before they entered the town.

The head man argued that the spears were merely ceremonial and were necessary to complete their tribal dress.

Traditional Ankh-Morpork activities are a big part of life in the PNG highlands:

The road was blocked with oil drums, logs and boulders. On the other side of this barrier were about 1000 screaming people and two flatbed trucks whose beds were crammed with so many people that the tire were virtually flat and going nowhere. We all stepped out and Appelis, our regular force member parlayed with some of the more prominent members of the mob.

The problem was that everyone wanted to board a PMV to get to town to see the dead politician and take part in the traditional rioting and sacking of the town. By the time the PMV's got to their part of the highway they were already full and just sped by the growing crowd.

And my favourite line in the story?

Most PNG mechanics know that six lug nuts on a rim is a waste of four


If you like that story, there are more by the author here.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Looks like April Fools but aren't

Wikipedia's "In The News" for April 1st looks like it's nothing but April Fools pranks, but in fact all the stories are true -- despite Faux News' usual quality reporting:

Every item on the home page of the user-generated site Wikipedia is fake. The featured article is about the "Museum of Bad Art" in Boston. The headlines include such stories as NASA monitoring diamonds falling from the sky and the Irish prime minister streaking in public — both of which barely stretch real recent news events.


In fact every one of those is a legitimate, real news story. The April's Fools prank was to fool people into thinking the stories were pranks:

  • Ireland's Taoiseach [President], Brian Cowen... is seen publicly naked in Dublin, following months of economic uncertainty.

  • NASA reports a shower of diamonds from the sky.

  • German scientists unearth a row of suckers belonging to an ancient order.

  • A revolutionary new online tanning service receives one million hits within two months of being established.

  • Henry Allingham of the United Kingdom credits cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women for his seemingly impossible longevity.

  • A newspaper discovers that pay-per-view porn is amongst a number of unusual things being purchased by British MPs on their claimed expenses.

  • The merging of Hartford and New Orleans is found to have severe environmental consequences.

For those who don't know their US geography, Hartford, Connecticut is about 1424 miles away from New Orleans, Louisiana.

The real stories:

The nekkid Taoiseach: an artist snuck naked portraits of Brian Cowen into two of Ireland's most prestigious art galleries.

The NASA shower of diamonds: a meteor that exploded over the Sudan included nano-diamonds in the fragments remaining.

Row of suckers: the discoveries of three ancient extinct octopus species.

Online tanning service: a viral PR campaign to alert people of the dangerous of tanning salons.

Cigarettes 'n' whisky: Britain's oldest man, and the oldest surviving World War One veteran, really did credit his longevity on cigarettes, whiskey, wild women... and a good sense of humour.

Politician claiming pr0n expenses: Come on now, are you really surprised?

And the merger of Hartford and New Orleans actually refers to the collision of two ships.

Wikipedia's "On this day" for 1st of April are amusing too. Go check them out here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Conan versus the Copyright Lawyers

Copyright was invented to encourage the production of works of art and literature (not necessarily fine literature -- even pulp novels have their place in a society). Well, technically the original copyright law was intended as a form of censorship: it was a bribe from the British government to the book publishers guild, giving them a monopoly on books so long as they didn't publish anything that the government and church didn't like, and were vigorous in stomping hard on anybody who did. But putting that aside, modern copyright law was created with the motive to promote the useful arts and sciences. The intention is that since the creation of a work of art is of doubtful profitability, since an author could spend months or years creating a work only to have some other publisher copy it and make the profit, society as a whole is better off if we grant that author a limited monopoly on the publishing of said work. The good to society (more works of arts and sciences) was the intention, the author's profit, if any, merely the mechanism to get that good.

An admirable intention, but over the centuries, it has become corrupted by the involvement of corporate interests. Copyright law is now, de facto, treated as a method for the promotion of profit. The emphasis is on the copyright owner's profit, rather than the benefit to society. The historical record is unclear on whether copyright ever really did lead to more works being produced, but it seems clear to me that today copyright is a barrier to be overcome rather than a tool for the promotion of useful arts.

From New Zealand comes an example of how copyright law is used to reduce rather than increase the amount of useful arts available to society. Copyright law in New Zealand lasts for fifty years after the death of the author, and consequently Robert E. Howard's Conan The Barbarian stories are in the public domain. The New Zealand non-profit, all-volunteer website BrokenSea Audio produces audio dramas based on Howard's work.

Alas, the Conan stories are not in the public domain in the US, where the monopoly on Howard's work is owned by a corporation, and they see New Zealand's volunteer, non-profit Howard fan as a threat to their bottom line:

All Conan audio dramas and audio books produced by its volunteers have been removed from the website, and a major project — a production of Howard's only full length Conan novel, Hour Of The Dragon, which Mannering had adapted into a full cast audio drama script — has been cancelled.

We see this over and over again: copyright law being used to reduce the amount of useful arts produced, instead of increasing it.

The inhuman Flash vulnerability

A reliable security exploit for Flash is big news, or at least it should be big news, because Flash is on nearly every graphical browser on nearly every operating system, and there's only one supplier. (Sure, there's Gnash, but that's not yet ready for prime-time, and may never be.) A good exploit against Flash could allow Bad People to p0wn nearly every desktop everywhere. So even though this is a year old, this is still important.

Cyberdyne Systems, er, sorry, IBM researcher Mark Dowd demonstrated an incredible vulnerability that allows a single Trojan to exploit Flash in either IE or Firefox while leaving the Flash runtime operating normally. And it can bypass Vista security. Although Dowd doesn't explicitly mention other OSes, I see no reason to believe the same technique wouldn't work on Linux as well.

Start with the vulnerability.

It’s an integer overflow, but not a simple one.
...
The net result of this silliness is that it’s hard to do what attackers normally do with a write32 vulnerability, which is to clobber a function’s address with a pointer back to their buffer, so that their shellcode is called when the clobbered function is called. So Dowd’s exploit takes things in a different direction, and manipulates the ActionScript bytecode state.
...
Clobber the right value in the length table, and you can make an unused bytecode instruction that the verifier ignores seem much longer than it is. The “extra” bytes slip past the verifier. But they don’t slip past the executive, which has no idea that the unused bytecode has trailing bytes. If those trailing bytes are themselves valid bytecode, Flash will run them. Unverified. Giving them access to the whole system stack. Game over.

Security is hard.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Early morning walk

I'm normally a night-owl, but once in a blue moon I wake up unassisted at a very early time. Today was such a day: I woke before daylight, read my email, and just after first light decided to go for an early morning stroll around the neighbourhood.

It had been raining just before I went out, so everything was damp, the air was clean and moist, the temperature was just perfect -- not too hot, not too cold. To the west, the sky was completely covered by the sort of grey rain clouds that I love, with a double rainbow appearing over the houses: a broad but short rainbow with clear pastel colours, and a second, fainter, narrow rainbow by its side. To the south I could see three hot air balloons serenely floating off in the distance. To the east, the sun was barely peeking out from behind the clouds, just enough for there to be patches of blue and yellow visible against a backdrop of grey-and-white clouds. Flocks of random birds wheeled across the sky, and right nearby a half-dozen or so brilliantly coloured wild parrots of some kind feasted on a fig tree. If only I could have reached the figs myself :(

The only downside is that it was the start of peak-hour traffic, so the main roads were busy busy busy, and even the side-streets had traffic going by. Can't you people telecommute or something? But apart from that, it was glorious.

I must do it again next year.