Losing Faith

NPR’s Planet Money (which I have been known to describe — without hyperbole — as “the best journalism on any topic in any media, in the entire existence of journalism”) published an interesting blog posting. A reporter goes to the Treasury Department to find out that the US government is going to lend billions of dollars to the IMF, but will do it in an off-books deal (you know, like Enron).

The killer is the last two sentences:

So why not pledge a trillion dollars to the fund? I asked. No good answer.

I think it must be that at some point people would lose faith in the financial soundness of the U.S. government. 

Hmm.

Anathem

I’ve finished Anathem, and I’m happy to report that it’s not just Hogwarts with math. There’s a whole lot of other stuff going on in there, and it’s fun. You have to like Stephenson’s style, and you have to enjoy learning and thinking about a whole new planet. Luckily, the planet is based on principles of cultural evolution familiar to anyone who has studied the history of technology, media, and religion on planet Earth. So it’s not too hard to understand what’s happening.

Another fun thing about the book is that it plays with language, introducing Orth (the language of the characters). Instead of forcing the reader to learn Orth, Stephenson chooses words from Latin, French, and English roots. There is a fair amount of wordplay at play, which is fun for someone like me who enjoys words.

Finally, I’m pleased to tell you that Neil Stephenson has finally solved his “ending like a crash test” problem. The end of the book ties up enough and sets up enough of a future for the characters that you feel satisfied. The love interests even manage to get married, which might be taking things too far. I mean, Neil, come on, really… were you just trying to cynically give the critics everything they asked for, just to mess with their minds?

As I mentioned before, Anathem is a book that panders to its audience. If you are not in it’s audience, it will turn you off. If you are in it’s audience, you’re REALLY in it. I’m in it. Are you?

PS: Here’s a nifty marketing thing from the book’s publishers:

Bad Passwords – problem or opportunity?

This article includes some interesting analysis of passwords found in the wild. A reasonable first impression would be, “good god, those people are sure stupid”. But I had another idea… isn’t it interesting that a lot of people prefer pattern-based passwords, i.e. pressing the buttons in a certain order, without respect to the semantic meaning of the password. That means they are thinking visually, storing their password as a picture of the keys, and a mental model of the shape and direction their fingers will go to enter the code.

So why not take advatage of that? Here’s how it would work: anyplace there is a “enter password” box, the UI would say, “or, if you prefer remembering shapes, click here and we’ll generate a shape for you”. When you click on it, the password generator chooses a password based on a markov chain of key adjacency. It would be trivial for a cryptographer to figure out how much entropy is in a given shape (IANAC, so don’t ask me). You adjust the length of the key-path to the desired entropy. You show the user a little diagram of their new “password” to help them see the shape in it and program it into their memory.

There are some gotchas, of course. First, you have to give the user a chance to practice the password a few times, perhaps best done with some kind of highly visual Flash app (think Guitar Hero — Password Hero!). Second, the key-adjacency info is keyboard specific, as anyone who has ever left the United States will tell you (hello? French people? You really like AZERTY? Are you crazy?)

I have no intention of actually doing anything like this. I have a system for picking my passwords, and it works for me. Frankly, I don’t care about people too stupid to understand entropy and pick good passwords. This is why they don’t let me do UI: Left to my own devices, I’d just give everyone a PDP-11 console and let the UI itself weed out the idiots. 🙂

But, patent trolls: beware. This is prior art. I thought of shape passwords first, don’t bother patenting them suckers. I’ll open a can of patent-busting whoopass on you.

Stop reading this right now: Go read 512 Words!

My friend Curtis writes 512 Words of fiction every week, then posts both the story and a reading of the story every Friday. Today’s story was his best ever, even better than Ghosts of Earth my previous favorite (though hard to choose, really…)

Be sure to listen to the reading of this week’s story, entitled “Better”. Today’s story really profits from the ambiance of the great music Curtis chose and his deep voice.

Go. Listen. Think.

The (confusing) State of Streaming Video in England

Something really amazing happened to me the other night. Marina was brain-fried from a long day at school, and she said, “I wish I could just sit in front of the TV and zone out to TSI1 (Italian Switzerland’s public TV station)”. I said, let me see what I can find…

I searched on the net, and struck out pretty thouroughly finding a live stream for TSI1, but I did find some British TV on Zattoo. My laptop was booted in Linux at the time, so as I was grumbling about rebooting, I noticed they have a Linux player. So then I grumbled about how nothing ever works right in Linux while it downloaded and installed. It told me it wanted some more codecs, so I grumbled about how the state of video encoding is so complicated that nothing ever works without 1000 plugins while they automatically downloaded and installed with no intervention from me (save the grumbling).

Then it just worked.

I’m going to repeat that, since I don’t even believe it myself: We watched 1 hour of straming video on Linux (via wifi, no less) and it just worked. Even the commercials came through just fine. Thank you Zattoo!

Marina asked, “Why are there so many commercials? It’s not like this on Swiss TV.” And that made me start thinking about public TV, private TV, and TV licenses. When the threatening TV license renewal form came in the mail and accused me of commiting a serious crime (punishable but a GBP 1000 fine, no less) because I’d failed to renew my TV license, I just threw it away. The only BBC that Marina and I ever consume is BBC Leeds by FM radio, and a page or two on the Intarweb from time to time. I fail to see how I could possibly need a TV license for that.

But then I got paranoid. We were watching a TV stream that shall remain nameless, lest I incriminate myself. But I went and searched to find out if all those commercials Marina was complaining about meant that I didn’t need a TV license to watch this stream. And the answer that came back was completely nonsensical and useless. Go ahead, you go try and figure out the rules for watching streams in England.

What it boils down to is this… a TV license is required if you are watching a live stream (i.e. you cannot choose what’s on it when it starts). If you watch only video on demand, you don’t need a TV license. But the place I found that was on the BBC’s website. And it is not clear at all if that applies only to BBC content or to all British media. I used to think the TV license was simply a fee-based tax supporting the BBC. But it’s not. Because private broadcasters in England are subsidised using a part of the TV licensing revenue. Which means that probably the rules BBC clarified on their website apply to the commercial infested dreck we watched the other night. We won’t be doing that anymore… the commercials sucked, and I can’t afford the GBP 150 TV license, let alone the GBP 1000 fine.

What’s interesting is that, once again, I am on the forefront of lifestyle change caused by technology. I have not willingly* owned a land line since 2001. Now I haven’t had a TV since 2005. But the BBC’s website hilariously indicates that you don’t really need to worry about the specifics of licensing for online video since your home TV license (which you undoubtedly have) covers it anyway. When you walk through our poor neighborhood (poorest in Leeds!) and see a satellite dish on every single house, you realize that it really is true that everyone (else) must have a TV license.

Bread and circuses, indeed. All it takes to keep British subjects, er, subjugated, is an endless supply of chips and satellite TV 24×7.

* I have a phone line right now because England’s broadband market is so fucked up you cannot get cable Internet without having a BT land line. Let me repeat that: you cannot buy cable Internet unless your cable company pays the telephone monopoly for the right to not use their network. And of course, the cable company passes the fee right on to you. When I think about it, it makes me so pissed off, I want to leave the phone off hook (thereby consuming a port on the switch) just to spite BT. But then I would need to make a special curcuit to defeat the dialtone timeout they use to protect their switch from people like me.

Anathem

I am reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson, and it’s pretty darn good. I can’t shake the feeling that it’s basically “Hogwarts with Math”, but that’s not Stephenson’s fault… he’s telling a perfectly good story, it just happens that Rowling was also telling a perfectly good story and the two seem a bit the same.

There are some really excellent one-liners, and some great “no one understands my audience like I do” things in the book. This is something Stephenson is really good at, and though it is pandering, it is pandering to me, and that’s OK, of course.

If you’ve liked any of his other books, you’ll like this one too. Have no fear, buy it and read it!

An interview with an insurgent

The Guardian carried a really scary article recently about the new face of the insurgency in Iraq.

One quote that surprised me was this one:

Black soldiers are a particular target. ‘To have Negroes occupying us is a particular humiliation,’ Abu Mujahed said, echoing the profound racism prevalent in much of the Middle East. ‘Sometimes we aborted a mission because there were no Negroes.’

Wow. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me to find racism here too, as I’ve found it in Europe and the US too.