How not to salt your popcorn!

Apparently someone thought it would be fun to synthesize NaCl (Table Salt) directly from a bowl of molten Sodium bubbled with Chlorine gas. Imagining that this would be photogenic, they decided to have both still and video cameras at hand for the demonstration. The link is to the story at PopSci.com, the web version of Popular Science Magazine.

Lots of white smoke consisting almost entirely of NaCl evolved, engulfing a net full of popcorn and presumably salting them nicely.

Then the net holding the popcorn melted...

The photo they got for the mag is impressive enough, but the video is scary.

Now you are going to wonder how I found this... I was looking for a source of interesting looking math puzzles and found www.mathpuzzle.com, where a recent posting mentioned this exercise in absurdity. Lots of good stuff to be found on line ;-)

Just don't even think about trying to duplicate this at home!


More RFID Madness

I noticed this on the MAKE blog... Johnathon Westhues has designed an inexpensive device based on a PIC microcontroller that implements everything needed to clone a VeriChip. As built, he needs to get the antenna into close proximity, but that is just a matter of social engineering; the sort of social engineering that pickpockets have been good at for as longer than pockets have been common.

VeriChip Corporation is pushing for adoption of their implantable RFID technology in hospitals (if every victim had a chip, the ER could have their medical records as the gurney arrives), for child protection (some blue-sky idea about tracking lost or kidnapped kids), for elder protection (similar to the kid tracking, but for the elderly with a tendancy to wander away).

Their web site says: "And unlike conventional forms of identification, the VeriChip™ cannot be lost, stolen, misplaced, or counterfeited. It is safe, secure, reversible, and always with you."

Right. It has been successfully cloned (read "stolen") by under $30 of commonly available parts. There are companies (and an agency of the Mexican government!) out there that are using these things as a security token... but they contain nothing more secure than a 16-digit unencrypted identifier. Publish the identifier belonging to a specific individual and what security it had is now lost.

They even claim that their readers work up to 10 feet away. That means that chipped individuals can be logged at public locations by simply requiring that the general public pass through a choke point (say a door or hallway) no more than 10 feet across. And if a 10 foot range was commercially viable, then it is obvious that a hacker with a nose for antenna design can build a suitably sensitive device to read the chip at 100 feet or more.


Where's the Candle and Where's my Crayon?

Avi Rubin provided a detailed account of his experience as an elections judge in the Maryland primary last Tuesday. His polling place used systems provided by Diebold, and although they managed to keep the precinct open through the entire election, it wasn't due to high reliability or ease of use of the voting systems.

He provides the whole account in his blog.

Thanks to Dr. Rubin's blog, I can also note that a reasearch group at Princeton has had a chance to examine the Diebold "AccuVote" system in detail. Their abstract reads in part:

"Analysis of the machine, in light of real election procedures, shows that it is vulnerable to extremely serious attacks. For example, an attacker who gets physical access to a machine or its removable memory card for as little as one minute could install malicious code; malicious code on a machine could steal votes undetectably, modifying all records, logs, and counters to be consistent with the fraudulent vote count it creates. An attacker could also create malicious code that spreads automatically and silently from machine to machine during normal election activities — a voting-machine virus. We have constructed working demonstrations of these attacks in our lab."

Hardly something you could call "AccuVote".

I renew my earlier call for it to be possible for the polling place itself to be operable with no technology more advanced than a candle and a crayon. I'll allow an umbrella or tent if its raining, and a lantern after dark. Sure, a climate controlled comfortable room with working lights, safe parking, and easy access for all voters is the goal, but the voting itself should not depend on any utility, and the whole process must be transparent and verifiable to any observer.

A paper ballot with marks made directly by the voter is transparent and verifiable by each voter. When dropped in a locked and numbered box, it is easy to rest assured that those boxes of votes can be observed in their progress to a central counting facility. An observer (from any party or even interested citizens or the press) could easily understand that the physical ballots are controlled and tracked from the polling places to the counting facility. And the whole process is subject to audit, review, and recount all without needing to trust anything that cannot be seen and understood by people of ordinary intelligence and education.


Cell Phone Hysterics

Today, our Governor of the great state of California, is set to take another step in the direction of pandering in an election year. He is taking time to make a public show of signing into law a ban on the use of cell phones while driving.

I'll certainly be the first to claim that driving while distracted is not a good thing.

However, I wonder where the data is to support the notion that cell phones are a significant source of real distraction and damage on our highways.

It seems like everyone has one, and a lot of people are talking on them a lot. And, especially in public places like waiting rooms and restaurants (let alone theaters or theatres), other people's phones are certainly capable of providing a lot of nuisance noise. But if using a cell phone in a car was really that bad, where are the dead bodies?  Or at least where is all the crumpled steel?

The Cato Institute back in May of 2001 described a study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center that analyzed over 32,000 traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers. They looked at the sources of the distraction that appeared to have caused the accidents. Their list of causes is intriguing. The number one factor seems to have been "outside objects, persons, or events" at 29.4%, and "using or dialing on a cell phone" fell at second to last at 1.5% of surveyed accidents.

That puts the cell phone ahead only of fiddling with a cigarette, but well behind the CD and radio, other people in the car, loose objects, adjusting the A/C, and eating.

The Cato article also raises questions about the practicality of enforcing a ban in general terms. I haven't read the bill, so I don't know if it makes just holding your hand to your head a valid reason for a traffic stop...

The bill does permit headsets (whether wired or wireless), but the promoters have promised to come back for more legislation to ban headsets too. But before they get around to that I suppose some future model that fits the entire phone into a wearable object the size of a current bluetooth headset would become a source of revenue for lawyers as it is argued what really constitues a "headset".

It just isn't practical to legislate that people not be idiots, and distracting law enforcement with anti-idiocy laws takes them away from investigating real crimes.



I don't know if there is anything to really add to the great blogosphere about the film Snakes on a Plane, and yet here I am.

We saw this B-Movie gem the other night. As B-Movies go, it was exactly what you want out of the genre. Screams, slithers, laughs, and bad acting raised to a level that can only be reached by really good actors enjoying themselves. The audience screamed at the right moments, and then laughed at themselves for screaming.

Naturally almost nothing about the plot (there is one?), the situation, the snakes, or the resolution is plausible.

But it shouldn't be. This is a B-Movie, not grand cinema.

To the critics that reviewed it as art, hissss.

The paying audience wasn't hissing.

 (Well, except possibly in an Arizona theater where some pranksters let loose two live diamondbacks during a screaning, which quickly was shut down by screaming but luckily not by any snakebites.)


π (pi)

We watched a very strange film tonight. Pi. It was released in 1998 after winning awards at Sundance.

It has a surreal, stark, grainy, high-contrast black&white look with gritty sets and locations. It was shot in a lot of New York subways and streets.

Its billed as a SciFi/Thriller, probably based on the heavy math content mixed with two independent groups attempting to get inside the head of our anti-hero. Alongside the elements of a thriller, it is also a chance to watch a mathemetician descend into insanity while getting involved in the stock markets, kabala, go, computer hardware seemingly inspired by Brazil, and quite a few ants.

I liked it. But then I liked Ishtar....


Zillow, Your Edge in Real Estate

I don't know how to react to this.

I have just discovered Zillow, the latest project from the people who created Expedia.

This is a blend of Google Maps with every tax assessor's database to produce an easy to browse view of home values. Zoom out and it shows aggregate prices by region. Zoom in and the regions get more precise. Zoom all the way in and get detailed estimates of the values of individual homes.

I'm not sure if any privacy lines have been crossed. Everything is based on public databases. The value they add is all in the accessibility and aggregation. And they appear to have resisted any temptation to include the (also public record) legal owner of the parcel in their reports.

They claim their estimates are within 10% of the actual selling price (by checking historical estimates against actual sales) 66% of the time for LA metro, and better than that nationally.

They also claim my home is worth 50% more than I thought it was....



Glowing Ears

I really have nothing to add. I just thought she would fit the color scheme of the page, and wanted to test the layout settings for Blog This from Flickr.


Long time with no ranting

I have no excuse.

Sometimes, the real world just has to have its share of attention.

Lately, it seems I've been spending a lot of time with photographs (both my own and others) shared at Flickr. Haven't heard of Flickr? Well, you should check it out over at www.flickr.com/photos/rberteig/. Ok, so I am engaging in a cheap plug for my own photos, but hey, this is my own blog which no one else reads anyway!

Flickr is an interesting object: a purpose driven site with emergent purpose. On the face of it, it is just a place to host and share photography. But if you get immersed in it, it becomes so much more. It is also an opportunity to learn, and to teach others. It is a place to find interesting images, many of which are available for reference from blogs just like this one.

In fact, that is exactly how I came to Flickr in the first place in what turns out to be Flickrs early days. I needed a place to drop the occasional photo for a club's blog, and Blogger doesn't provide hosting for anything more than the text you are reading. But they recommended this new thing from Canada whose price and policies seemed to be a good fit.

About a year and a half later, Flickr hosts over 96000000 photos from over 1000000 members. Members post photos for a wide range of reasons, but most seem to make their work freely searchable and viewable. Many even use license terms from the Creative Commons that encourage reuse (with credit) of their work.

The group discussions operate like a traditional BBS with pictures to support interests as wide ranging as cats and sunsets, not to mention photography technique and specific cameras. Groups serve to gather photographs by topic across a broad range of users. They also serve to collect people with common interests and can be more social than photographic.

More important than groups, however, are the interlinked systems of metadata about the photographs. Flickr provides a great deal of support for EXIF, IPTC, and XMP metadata stored directly in the JPEG files by your camera and software. It also provides tags which can be added by you and by people you designate to describe the photo. Tags can be searched across the whole site, for specific groups, and for specific users. This makes finding all photos that were rated exactly 73/100 by the 100 points group as easy as finding square format pictures of circular clocks. In addition, photos have a title, a description, and an unbounded number of of comments from other users.

In short, I like Flickr. I like it a lot.