February 27, 2011

Wiretapping Net Neutrality

Came across an interesting article the other day on NPR. The article talked about the difficulty in implementing a wiretapping law in the age of the communication capabilities of the Internet. The audio is embedded below.

Tapping Neutral Networks

In the old days of wired telephony, communication happened when a fixed wire carried voice from the speaker to the listener. Wiretapping during this era was literally tapping a wire. The fact that communication took a pre-determined route between the participants made wire-tapping technically simple.

It was this pre-determined route for communications that, during cold-war, led to the development of the Internet. Ironically, the original requirement for the internet (having no fixed path, and therefore no single failure point) makes intercepting communications that much more difficult.

Communication on the Internet is a vague concept. Anything can be, and is, communication. Sending email, downloading files, instant messaging, viewing websites, watching video or having conversations via Skype - it is all a form of communication. Not to mention the continuous chatter of all the devices on the network, constantly talking to each other. Hence any law that deals with eavesdropping is challenged by a target that is designed to withstand the very thing that is required of it. The NPR article does a great job of identifying the problems of any intercept solution - loss of security, misuse, and the loss of privacy.

Network Neutrality

I think there is another aspect, that links back to the idea of network neutrality. The nature of network neutrality means that anyone can build a tool that can use the Internet to communicate. With the widespread availability of communication and encryption libraries, means that building a small tool that can only communicate with copies of itself is trivial. The only way to prevent this would be to prevent the user of the Internet by applications that are not explicitly authorized.

In other words, a neutral network, makes successful eavesdropping extremely difficult, if not impossible. The only way to have an "Intercept Solution" that works is to have a network that is directly involved in what is flowing across it. Forget corporate greed stratifying the Internet. In the long run, it might still be the need to eavesdrop that might trump the case for network neutrality.

February 22, 2011

The True Lord of the Rings

We had recently re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in its extended cut glory. All 11 hours of it. One of the advantages of the extended edition is that you not only get extra scenes, but you also get time to reflect on what you just saw. One thing that stood out for me was Galdalf's insistence at having his way, and his petulance when things were not according to his machinations. In that he was remarkably similar to Saruman, except for the fact that they were on opposing sides in the war for Middle Earth.

"The old world will burn in the fires of industry. Forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machinery of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fist of the orcs."

The above quote from Saruman struck me not as evil, but as the exact same thing that we have all been doing since the dawn of the Industrial age. Or consider this, from the point of view of the Ents.

"There was a time, when Saruman would walk in my woods, but now, he has a mind of metal and wheels.
He no longer cares for growing things."

Tolkien's dislike for industrialization is well known. Within that context one could argue that the LOTR series is basically a re-write of history by the victors. Not convinced? Consider this. The men from Harad, were no different from Numenoreans, but for their appearance (tall, dark and fierce looking) and their choice of allies. For that Harad is portrayed a strange land and their people as barbarians. Xenophobia anyone?

One Kirill Yeskov, took this idea of LOTR as a victor's view of history to its logical conclusion. His russian book, The Last Ring-bearer, is the LOTR story told from the point of view of the vanquished. The English translation is available for free, in text, PDF formats. I converted the text to .MOBI format for use on my Kindle.

For the record, I am delighted Aragorn won. But unfortunately that also means we we will never quite know what Sauron was like. Did he like his beer cold? Was he a soft or hard taco guy? And what exactly was his purpose behind trying to decimate all humans from the face of Middle Earth?

Image is screen shot from lordoftherings.net

February 18, 2011

What is behind my Kindle?

I had gotten used to having a couple of cryptic symbols on the back of my electronic devices. But when I recently got my new Kindle 3, there were two whole rows of ant-like hieroglyphics. What exactly was my Kindle telling me? Naturally, I had to go figure out what they were.

The symbols were so faint that multiple rounds of sharpening were required.
Click image for more detail.

Starting from the left on the top row, G.O.S.T. is the part of the federal regulation standard in Russia. Certificate of Conformity in GOST R system affirms that the goods delivered in Russia, and/or production line where they were manufactured, conform to the Russian Safety Standards. Haven't been able to figure out why the certification still says PCT, and I suspect the pages that may hold clues to that, on the Federal standards site are not in English.

Edit: As pointed out by anonymous below, that is not PCT but RST (in Cryllic alphabet), which stands for Russian Standard.

Anatel is the Brazilian regulatory authority, that has evolving and stringent guidelines around standards that are to be followed by all electronic devices to be sold in Brazil. The different thing about Brazil's standards authority is that it mandates testing in Brazil and does not accept results from external testing.

This squiggly guy took a little effort in tracing down. Turns out this is the National Communications Commission of Taiwan. Established in 2006, it is responsible for regulating telecommunications, information and broadcasting sectors.

KCC is the next C-infused icon on the back of my Kindle. KCC stands for Korea Communications Commission, which as you can surmise is regulatory and policy making body for Korea. KCC certification covers three schemes, namely EMC, Radio, and Telecom. As as it turns out they may be getting a new icon shortly.

Other than looking like part of a circuit diagram, this logo refers to Japan's telecom and radio certification authority. Certification is required before the device can be used in the country. Certification is no longer issued only by the government affiliated JATE, but also by private certification bodies. Testing to Japan's technical requirements may be conducted by many laboratories around the world.

This unnamed numerical double arrow took a while. Apparently this is a regulatory requirement for China RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances). Apparently anyone shipping a product to China, that contains hazardous substances, should also specify how long the product can be used before the hazardous products, umm, leak out. In other words, Kindle 3 is designed to be obsolete in 20 years. Note to self: do not plan on bequeathing books to grandchildren. Bequeath book collection to enemies.

I am not quite sure why C is such a favored letter in these telecom regulatory insignia. Nevertheless, the next authority with three of the letter C in their logo belong to China. Effective 2003, the China Compulsory Certification mark is required for a wide range of manufactured products before being exported to or sold in the Peoples Republic of China market.

FCC - Federal Communications Commission is the US Government org that regulates devices which use wireless antennae. Without FCC approval no devices can be sold. You can search details of any device by using the FCC ID. The ID for Kindle 3 has the following parts:
Grantee Code: "X7N"
Product Code: "-0610"
The FCC submission, beyond its regulatory requirements is an interesting collection of technical details of the device, including its SAR.

UL is shortened from Underwriter Laboratories Inc. UL Laboratory is a non-governmental organization in the field of security test and appraisal. It is independent, non-profit and professional institution that performs the test for the public security. UL is mainly concerned with production attestation and business security certification. The purpose of UL is to ensure products are safe for public use.

The next icon takes a break from National Telecom regulatory authorities. WEEE is a EU regulation that imposes the responsibility for the disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment on the manufacturers of such equipment. Also, the companies are compelled to use the collected waste in an ecologically-friendly manner, either by ecological disposal or by reuse/refurbishment of the collected WEEE.

The Normas Oficiales Mexicanas (NOM) Mark is a mandatory consumer protection program requiring that certain products such as cellular devices be certified before they can be sold in Mexico. NOM safety approval in Mexico requires in-country testing in order to create an appropriate safety report accepted by the Mexican safety agency NYCE.

ACMA is the compliance authority for Australia. EMC and radio communications compliance is labeled using the C-Tick mark. The compliance label indicates that the product complies with the applicable standard and establishes a traceable link between the equipment and the manufacturer, importer or their agent responsible for compliance and for placing it on the Australian market.

The CE Mark is a EU requirement that states that the product is assessed before being placed on the market and meets EU safety, health and environmental protection requirements. Kindle is categorized as a radio device and therefore needs to comply with requirements of the R&TTE directive

Last but not the least. And I really mean it this time. Of all the symbols, this is among the most cryptic, and actually needs you to do something - not use the device in Switzerland. This is called a class identifier, which is a graphical symbol intended to indicate that operation of the radiocommunications equipment to which it is affixed is subject to restrictions.

So kids, what have we learned so far? Use the Kindle 3 now, before lead starts leaking out in 20 years (pity future generations that can never discover books in the attic). Regulations do not really help a consumer (who in their right minds would try to do what I did above). Our design for the dump philosophy is alive and well. And finally, you cannot use your Kindle while skiing in the Alps.

February 15, 2011

Kindle for a skeptic

I like the smell of books. I like the carefree grip of a paperback, and the sense of accomplishment as the lighter side gets progressively heavier and vice-versa. I love having a bookshelf, with a solemn procession of books with shiny covers, adding to a collection of fond memories. Which is why the e-book revolution was, like Facebook, part of the technology basket that I stubbornly refused to embrace.

Until the wife broke our no-gift pact to buy me a Kindle 3 on Valentines' Day.

Notwithstanding my personal misgivings about ebook readers, the Kindle is a gorgeous gadget. The third iteration of this iconic reader is practically calling out to be held, switched on, and just be read. Everything about it seems natural somehow - the weight, the matte finish, and even the color of the print on the device (it is a dull brown and not a bright white which could potentially interfere with the eye). I couldn't wait to get started.

But about five minutes into exploring the new device, I felt a familiar sense of foreboding. Everything about the Kindle was designed to sell me ebooks from Amazon.com and I wasn't yet ready to ditch their dead-tree cousins. All I wanted to do was upload some of the pdf files I had with me onto the reader and test it out. Instead I had to spend time figuring out the difference between the @kindle.com and @free.kindle.com addresses. Then understand formats, and what could be converted and what couldn't. And most irritatingly, what I was going to be charged if I used Whispernet as opposed to a USB cable to throw files into my Kindle. This precisely is what I intensely dislike about these ‘simplified’ approaches to using something I just bought. I bet the idea was beautifully designed by an engineer, monetized by a suit, stratified by a marketer and documented by someone that did not give any hoots. Yes, in the end it works, but it is not pretty trying to get answers to silly questions when all you want to do is take it for a test read.

There are other, less annoying idiosyncrasies that take a little getting used to. The biggest is the screen refresh when you flip a page. The entire screen goes black, then the letters first appear as holes, and then the holes and print are reversed. Sounds annoying? Well it actually is. And then there is the interface. For the abnormally large number of keys on a reader, any navigating feels clunky. Think blackberry style interfaces without a similar unity of purpose. As I said, these are annoyances. And once you manage to suppress the reflex action of reaching out with the second hand to flip pages things look up quickly.

The screen though quirky, is wonderful for reading. The choice of font (Caecilia) is very eye friendly. You can customize the font size to your heart's content. And it really can be read in direct sunlight, as long as you are not holding it to directly reflect the sun itself. As a reading device, the Kindle is astonishingly well suited.

For me however, the value of Kindle is not in replacing the books on my shelf, but in extending my own sphere of reading. I am and will continue to be nostalgic about my paperbacks. But there are things that a Kindle can do that no dead-tree book can - be alive. Sign up to Instapaper.com and set it to send you daily reading digests makes Kindle the perfect way to read those long articles. Get Calibre and stop fretting about formats. And most importantly, I can now get to services like getabstract.com, click a button and actually have the ability to catch up on the thousands of books people seem to write everyday.

Now if only I could tweet about all the reading I do. Oh wait, I can.

February 13, 2011

The _why_ tales

Some of the coolest recent research stories about why some things are the way they are. These stories have appeared in the news over the last year or so. The synopsis: blame evolution, society, genes and your unnaturally large heads.


If you thought tickling served no purpose other than to cause social faux pas, you were underestimating its significance. Turns out there is a purpose to tickling. And funnily it is self defense. According to people that spend time thinking about this, the parts that make you tickle are the same one that need to be protected the most. And tickling between kids is a way to develop and hone self defense skills. Which is why when someone goes for that ticklish spot, you cannot help but react like you are being hunted.

Pruney fingers

I had always interpreted the wrinkling of fingers in water as a sign to stay clear of prolonged exposure to water - one of the many reasons I never learned to swim. However, research suggests that the real reason is way cooler. Wrinkled fingers are our own all-weather tires. If our fingers didn't wrinkle, we would have to learn two sets of actions, one set for when our hands were dry and another set of actions for when our hands were wet and slippery. The wrinkles do away with that need. Instead we grab onto stuff the same way, and our fingers take care of the rest.

Body Clocks

Body Clock

Your internal clock is the reason you feel drowsy at late night parties, and annoyingly awake during lazy weekend mornings. Till recently lab coats had associated this 24-hour circadian cycle to our DNA. Turns out the truth is cooler, or redder. The clock is a protein in your blood whose quantity rises and falls (like tides) in a 24 hour cycle, that tells us what time it is. This happens in all living things, including algae. What is scary is that, the body clock keeps running even if genes are not active. And that, kids, is why zombies are able to maintain a perfect 24-hour clock hunting cycle.

Snakes and Spiders

So you have had it with these mutter-feeling snakes and these manner-fearing spiders. Guess what - you are not alone. Of all earthly creatures, snakes and spiders are the least helpful and most dangerous (poisonous) to humans. Which is why even though it is not (yet) in our DNA to fear these slimy and leggy buggers, we are inherently biased when it comes to hating them. One man's phobia is basic common sense for the rest of us. And guess what happened to that one man. He was bitten to death by a slithering pile of venomous snake-iders.


Body Clock

Don't you hate it when the IT guy glances at your browsing history and you have to blush? How we blush is well known. The why is linked to evolutionary social adaptation. Blushing is a way of saying sorry when one is guilty of a social infraction. Unlike other animals, our primary defense was not speed or strength, but in numbers. Being kicked out of a social group was generally considered a life-limiting move. Blushing and apologizing could be the difference between life and death. So next time you bump into someone - apologize. Unless you like being eaten by wild animals.


At the cost of sounding flippant, cancer is apparently just your inner monkey expressing itself (ugh, there is so much wrong with this sentence, that it stays). In other words it, allegedly, is our unicellular selves deciding to ignore billions of years of evolution to decide that we are little more than rotting logs in shallow water. If this is true, the bad news is cancer is not something mankind can inoculate into oblivious. The good news is cancer has as much intelligence as moss growing under a rock. Maybe now "curing cancer" will stop being the sarcastic benchmark for overzealous committees.

February 12, 2011

Average Human

We humans have the propensity to group and classify the world around us, including people. But it is not often that we get to put a single face to the group, a representative if you will. That is, until now.

The Postnational Monitor is the blog of a well traveled American, that struck upon an interesting idea - find out how the average person from a country looks like. So the blogger culled photographs of several people from each country, and ran them through an algorithm that produces an average face, representative of the people of that country. Here are a few excerpts:

The original blog has more, including countries in east-southeast Asia, middle Eastern, African, Americas, and Europe. This page has a good, well-attributed, summary.

This naturally got me thinking, how do these averages work. While I did not find much on the site itself, a bit o' Googling led me to faceresearch.org. These are the boffins that think about these things and make tools that help you make average faces. And turns out, in the world of faces, average is not a bad thing. Average is what makes a face more attractive.

Looking back to the list above, in addition to good looks, what is common between all the pictures above is that they are all average humans.

February 03, 2011

Seeing NPR

For a while now, we have been big fans of NPR, so much so that all of our radio dials - car, receiver, clock - are set to FM 89.7 WUWM. Unlike the TV however, none of the radio receivers have a screen. So we hardly, get to see how the voices on our radio actually look like. So when we came across these couple of videos, I had to figure out a way to share. The first one features voices from the Milwaukee station - WUWM.

The second one features voices from NPR. NPR is the national service that produces most of the programs that run on the local stations like WUWM.