Sat - September 30, 2006

Tangled Web Syndrome

Following up my post from earlier this week , SecureWorks has announced that the presentation David Maynor was supposed to give today, the one that would give "the complete story" of his Wi-Fi hack and Apple computers, has been cancelled.

Surprise, surprise, surprise.

SecureWorks also announced they're working with Apple now and won't comment anymore, which will give the conspiracy minded something to theorize about for a while. However, I think the simplest explanation is that Maynor and Ellch's hack simply wasn't what they eventually implied it was, and the publicity got away from them.

Posted at 10:20 AM        

Fri - September 29, 2006

Foley, we should have known it was you!

Congressman Mark Foley of Florida resigned his seat today because of a breaking scandal involving a variety of sexually suggestive e-mails and instant message conversations he had with underage Capitol pages. It should go without saying that Foley was the leader of the House caucus on missing and exploited children. I remember him once making a big deal about how "we track library books better than we do sexual predators." We now know he was speaking from experience.

Posted at 11:30 PM        

Tue - September 26, 2006

The Tangled Web Syndrome

As someone interested in all sorts of hoaxes, frauds, and weird claims, there's a pattern of events I've seen over and over again.

- It starts when someone makes a sensational but unlikely claim. Said claim will be buttressed with some minimal concrete evidence.
(Note that when I say "unlikely", I'm using the term very broadly. Anything from "mentos dropped in Diet Coke will make a 10-foot tall geyser" to "My baby's father is a space alien.")
- Believers will rally around the claim, usually because it fits with some well established worldview.
- More skeptical minds will point out obvious problems with the evidence presented.
- The believers will respond by spinning conspiracy theories, or parsing criticisms of the original evidence for the slightest error, no matter how inconsequential.
- The original claimant, or a prominent believer in communication with the claimant, will admit that the original evidence may appear lacking, but that final irrefutable proof exists and that it will be revealed "soon."
And generally that's where the active part of the process ends. The believers and skeptics may argue on for a while, but the promised proof will remain tantalizingly the stuff of the near future. The original claim is either destroyed when the original claimants are proven frauds, or it just kind of fades away. In rare cases it becomes the basis of a new religion.
I bring this pattern up because I'm watching it being played out in every particular right now on the web. Back in August David Maynor & Jon Ellch, two researchers for the computer security company SecureWorks, claimed at a conference that they had found a Wi-Fi exploit that would let them hijack just about any computer with a Wi-Fi card. They showed a video demonstrating the process, and the machine they hacked was an Apple MacBook. The next day Washington Post tech writer Brian Krebs wrote about the demonstration under the headline "Hijacking a MacBook in 60 Seconds or Less." Obviously, the idea here was gain maximum publicity by suggesting that Mac OS X's rock-solid reputation for security was in jeopardy.
However, Maynor and Ellch's demo had problems. Most obviously, the hack was supposed to work on any Wi-Fi card, but for some reason Maynor and Ellch had a third-party, external Wif-Fi card attached to the MacBook. All MacBooks have a Wi-Fi card (what Apple calls an Airport card) built in, so what was the purpose of the extra card? Maynor and Ellch later claimed that they used the external card in the demo because Apple "leaned" on them to not do the demo on a completely stock MacBook, but they've offered no further explanation or proof of this claim. (It probably also didn't help that Maynor gets defensive about being accused of fraud at the end of the short video that people were seeing for the first people. Only the magician about to cut a woman in half actually says, "What you're about the see isn't a trick.")
The most fanatical believer in the Maynor and Ellch hack would probably be ZDnet's columnist George Ou. Ou has been picking apart Apple's statements on the subject, trying to prove that the company's non-ambiguous statements on the hack still have enough wiggle room to "prove" Maynor and Ellch were right. He's also been claiming to have "sensitive information" and that "soon things will get really interesting." It's the old claim that proof is just around the corner, but really, at this point it's too late. If Maynor and Ellch could do what they claimed to Krebs, they should have been able to prove it by now. Easily. They should be able to walk up to any Apple Store with their Dell laptop and restart the machines inside remotely. Ou and the others like him have an amazing ability to ignore this, and expect us to await the "better" evidence that will prove their claim, rather just having the claim demonstrated for all to see. Now Maynor and Ou are saying the final, definitive, ultimate, gooey, proof will be unveiled this weekend. We'll see.

Posted at 10:57 PM        

Tue - September 12, 2006

Dragon*Con 2006, or Geekstock (Part 2)

- Apparently the copyright cops were out in force, so for the first two days of the con there weren't many bootleg DVDs around. Some of the usual suspects had their racks full of PD titles from Alpha Video. By Sunday it must have been decided that the coast was clear, because the bootlegs spontaneously generated on several tables. Over the weekend I picked up Diskotek's release of War in Space (1977), as well as bootleg releases of Turn A Gundam, the new Timeslip, a hopefully upgraded version of Battle Royale, and First of Legend (a really crappy version as it turn out -- when is that going to come out on DVD in HK?).

- The biggest draw at the con for me this year were the Mythbusters. Grant, Tori and Kari (sigh...) were there. At least all of them were there on Sunday. Grant and Kari weren't able to make it on Saturday because the plane they were flying in on caught on fire. You can imagine how many times they had to swear they had nothing to do with it. The 'busters brought a couple of "blooper reels" to show. A big part of one of those was a whole semi-produced segment for the show about fart myths, or as they called them because Discovery didn't like the word "fart," "flatis myths." This segment included testing the myth that pretty women don't pass gas by putting a hydrogen sulfide sensor and a microphone down Kari's pants, and high-speed footage of Adam lighting his own "flatis" on fire. For some reason Discovery opted to not show any of this. In terms of things we will see, Tori promised that next season they'll have a blast twice as big as the concrete truck. It wasn't really clear to me what myth that would in aid of investigating... but I guess it doesn't really matter.

Posted at 11:09 PM        

Sun - September 10, 2006

Dragon*Con 2006, or Where the Nerdy Things Are (Part 1)

For more pictures, click here.

Is that an obsessively accurate costume based on an obscure reference that appeared on one episode of a cartoon that aired three years ago? It must be Dragon*Con time!

As always Dragon*Con was held over Labor Day in Atlanta. I went up there a day early, mainly because I wanted to see the Georgia Aquarium. It's a huge aquarium, and they have some pretty impressive creatures in their collection, like some young whale sharks, but there is much in the way of education going on there. Every animal is identified by a plaque, and described with only one sentence, no matter how majestic or complicated. Beluga whales are 16 feet long and live in the arctic? Who knew?

There's no way I could recount a blow by blow version of events that happened at Dragon*Con. Hell, it's taken me a week to get my head together enough to even write about it. So here's some random thoughts on what happened at the Geekiest Place on Earth.

- Has anyone ever seen a picture of George A. Romero, George Carlin, and Stan Lee at the same time? I think they may all be the same person. Romero was at the con, though he didn't seem to have the temperament for it. During his talk he appeared to be little dismayed that people only wanted talk about his zombie films, which he made pretty clear were not his favorite. He was also put off the wide profusion of costumes. After one person who had asked a question turned around to walk away Romero declared "He has a tail!", which by Dragon*Con standards is nearly button-down conservative. Later when I shook his hand and got his autograph on a copy of Martin (1977) he seems absolutely amazed that my real name was on my name badge. He said that was the first time he'd seen that.

- This was the first year there were official Lost panels, though for some reason they scheduled on the X-Files track. The only featured guests were Mira Furlan (who plays the French Woman), Paul Dini (writer of Detective Comics, former story editor of Lost) and Javier Grillo-Marxuarch (former writer on Lost). I sat in on one of Grillo-Marxuarch's talk. It was packed and I ended up in the back. Then I realized I was sitting next to Paul Dini and his wife Misti Lee, a magician who dresses like Zatanna. He spent the whole time playing with sock monkeys, while she texted into two cell phones at the same time. About the only significant information Grillo-Marxuarch imparted was that ABC wouldn't let him even mention "the Lost Experience" by name and that he helped develop the back story of the island.

I'll have some more thoughts tomorrow, including the definition of "flatis" and the effects of the copyright cops.

Posted at 10:50 PM        

Fri - August 25, 2006

Mortality: It's Not Just for Goldfish

Today is my birthday. Here is an actual artist's rendering of what I look like now that I'm 34.

Just about the closest thing I have to birthday tradition is listening to certain of my friends (and you know who you are) complain about my Amazon Wishlist. Apparently 281 items is too many for some people to conceive, and people with less... refined tastes than mine have trouble identifying things on my list when they go shopping in a brick and mortar store.

Posted at 11:42 PM        

Sun - August 13, 2006

Who are you that can create fire without flint or tinder?

I recently came to a realization.

If you watch the Survivor you're familiar with how much trouble the contestants have starting fire. You know the drill. One of the guys will tell everyone else on his tribe that he spends 200 hours every week camping in the wilderness, that he brings nothing but a loincloth, a knife, and length of rope, and that he only does so when the the temperature is below freezing as a matter of honor. Then the camera will cut to that same guy after 15 hours of trying to make a fire by rubbing random sticks together, tears streaming down his face while he explains to his tribe-mates he was sure that he read somewhere that kerosene grows on trees. What always befuddled me about this is that it never seems to occurs to anyone going on the show to practice simple survival skills like lighting a fire without modern equipment.

Now I understand that being knowingly stranded in the middle of nowhere and not even doing the minimal to prepare is a proud American tradition. I've about a third of the way into Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, and it's amazing how unprepared the Pilgrims were for being colonists. They left England without enough food to get through the winter thanks to a unforeseen delay, they didn't have proper equipment or seeds, and they even rejected the help of the famous John Smith (the Pocahontas guy) as their captain and went with someone who knew nothing of the New World instead. It's a miracle they survived at all, and most of their problems were their own damned fault.

I've also learned that Squanto had testicles the size of basketballs, but that's another post.

Posted at 10:40 PM        

Sun - August 6, 2006

Snow Crash and... The Future!

I've been rereading Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, one of the most important cyberpunk novels, and almost certainly the most entertaining. As with any speculative science fiction, it's interesting to see what Stephenson got right, and what he got wrong.
The big concept in Snow Crash is the Metaverse, and in particular The Street. It's a VR community, where people are represented by customizable avatars. It sounds a lot like a MMORPG such as World of Warcraft, and there is even a program on The Street that allow for sword fighting between people.
The huge difference The Street and any real massively multiplayer game (or environment) is that the most important development that attracted people to The Street was the ability for the avatar's faces to reflect the emotions of the users. So far, that's the exact opposite of how online VR has been developing. Using the example of Warcraft, essentially all communication is still done with text. As the years have gone by internet text chat has developed its own protocols and customs for expressing emotions. Warcraft does have some primitive avatar emoting, based on simplistic triggers in the text chat. For example, if you type something that ends in a question mark, your onscreen character will shrug to signify asking a question. It isn't very realistic, mainly because the timing is way off. However, I suspect that the technology won't get much more advanced than the Warcraft model for a good while. We still don't have the bandwith to connect hundreds of thousands of people via audio to one server, let alone the kind of face-scanning Stephenson was postulating.
In the somewhat more amusing category, I'd be very surprised if Google Earth wasn't directly inspired by the Earth program Hiro uses in the novel. Though Google Earth is 2D and not updated live (or very often at all, judging from the 3-year old pictures of my neighborhood), but the concept is the same and it includes the same interface trick that results in you "diving" into the locations you're selecting.

Posted at 09:25 PM        

Tue - August 1, 2006

And the New Joker is... Heath Ledger

That's what Warner Bros. announced today, along with the fact that Christopher Nolan will be back to direct. I'm not sure how Ledger will play the role, but I assume Nolan must have seen something good in his audition. It's not like Ledger was cast because he's a huge box office draw.

What kills me is that it took WB a whole year to figure out that it would be a good idea to make another Batman film. Batman Begins had tons of potential, even if wasn't a mega-blockbuster. The fact that Warner Brothers is part of the Time Warner media conglomerate, which owns DC Comics, was supposed to mean that that will-o-the-wisp of modern corporate culture, "synergy," was supposed make it easy for the movie studio to capitalize on some of the greatest super heroes ever created. (And Aquaman.) Instead WB has constantly been one or two steps behind whatever studios Marvel has decided to partner with. Even Marvel's crappier movies, like Elektra (2005), look good compared to Catwoman (2004).

Posted at 11:24 PM        

Sun - July 23, 2006

New Godzilla Ornament

It's July, so that means the new Christmas ornaments are out at places like American Greetings. Last year they did a rather excellent Godzilla ornament based on the original 1954 Godzilla, complete with sound and light:

This year they have another Godzilla ornament:

It's a pretty excellent representation of Godzilla circa 1994, in the movie Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla, complete with the golden eyes. You press a button on the back and it plays the most Ifukabe Godzilla theme.

If you're really interested there's also a new King Kong ornament, with appropriate screaming and roaring sounds:

Posted at 09:46 PM        

Sun - July 16, 2006

Pride Goeth Before Spinal Injuries?

Today were driving down MLK Street in St. Petersburg and we happened to turn around in the parking lot of a chiropractor's clinic. This was the kind of clinic that tries to cater to Christians, with a crucifix instead of a caduceus by the door. The clinic also has presumably inspirational sayings up on their big street sign, including "Faith is never without risk." Am I the only one who thinks they may be having trouble getting malpractice insurance, or if they aren't, they should?

Posted at 10:06 PM        

Mon - June 26, 2006

Giant Penguin Terrifies St. Petersburg

Here’s an interesting story from the St. Petersburg Times today:

Man, Not Beast

I remember reading about the Clearwater tracks, and in particular Ivan Sanderson’s theory that they were caused by a 15-foot-tall penguin, many years ago. I’m not sure in what book, though. One by Loren Coleman, maybe.

I’ll be keeping as eye on some of the cryptozoology lists I lurk on to see how they respond to this news. Here we have the definitive solution to a minor mystery that’s garnered some ink over the years, but generally speaking the cryptozoology community is extremely hostile to any news that something was a hoax, in particular when that hoax involves faked footprints. Maybe I’ll reprint some of the best responses here.

Posted at 10:14 PM        

Fri - May 26, 2006

Best Buy or Don't Buy?

When does a retail chain get to big? Around the time something like this happens.

A few weeks ago Amy and I was in the market for a computer chair. Best Buy had a pretty good one on the floor with a $150 price tag. It was a “PC gaming” chair from AK, but I liked the rubber wheels and the way the arm rests were infinitely adjustable. The price wasn’t ridiculous, and it was even the right color for my study. In short, I wanted to buy the chair.

We found a Best Buy employee and asked them to buy the chair. It wasn’t in stock, we were told. He checked his computer and found that no Best Buy within a two hour drive had it in stock. I asked when they would get it back in stock in this store. I don’t know, he said, but it didn’t look like they were planning on getting any more soon. Fair enough, said I, sell me the floor model. I can’t do that, he said. Apparently the policies of Best Buy stipulated that that particular chair had to stay on the floor.

No chair for you!

So there was a floor model with a price tag to encourage people to buy the chair, but Best Buy wouldn’t actually sell the chair. I was at Best Buy last week and that chair is still sitting there, an inviolate reminder of what isn’t available at that Best Buy.

Posted at 08:27 PM        

Fri - May 19, 2006

Retail Cubed

I'm sure that someday Steve Jobs will get over the failure of the G4 Cube. Someday.

Posted at 11:05 PM        

Mon - May 8, 2006

Another Bite at the Apple

So today the ruling came down in the current trademark infringement lawsuit between Apple Corps and Apple Computers. Gist is, Apple Computers won. You can read about it here.

Really, isn't about time Apple Corps gave up on this? Does it seem even remotely possible to anyone at this point that people would buy an iMac thinking that it's actually endorsed by the Beatles? If the Beatles' catalog of songs were to go online under the Apple Corps name most people would assume it was the work of the computer company, not the music label that has produced a total of two new songs in the last thirty years.

Posted at 11:07 PM