Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wikileaks and leakers

Wikileaks has posted an incredible amount of classified reports from Afghanistan. This mass of stuff reveals names and home villages of interpreters, and much demoralizing information about Afghan allies which hurts the US cause and aids the Taliban. There have been loud calls to censor Wikileaks.
Actually we ought to focus on the leaker. Who is it that got their hands on 90,000 secret documents ? Did he have a clearance? How could any one individual have a need to know that many things. Did he/she take advantage of the gaping loopholes in Windows security to make his haul? Were the computers holding this mass of classified properly secured? Like no connection to the public internet, autorun disabled, Long and strong passwords changed every 60 days, virus protection up to date, removable media devices (CD, floppy, thumbdrive) removed.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Whither NASA?

Or, how to get men into space. NASA wanted to scrap the Space Shuttle and build a new booster and space capsule, kind of an enlarged Gemini system. Reason, the shuttle is expensive and dangerous and old. The new booster (Aries) was going to be able to loft as much weight as the Shuttle, about 24,000 kilograms or 24 metric tons. The NASA people were all kinds of enthusiastic about doing a new rocket design, and they pushed ahead as fast as possible and actually flew the first prototype before the Obama administration cut off the funding.
NASA should have simply bought either the Atlas V or the Delta IV boosters from SpaceX. These boosters have been launching communications satellites for years and have as much lift capacity as Aries or the Shuttle. NASA kept saying that Atlas and Delta were not "man rated" and thus unacceptable and dangerous. This was a smokescreen intended to let NASA have the fun of doing a new design, in house. "Man rating" is a paperwork exercise to document every single part that goes into the rocket on the idea that after doing a load of paperwork, the part wouldn't dare fail.
Now the Congress is getting into the act. Their plan is to keep the Shuttle flying and avoid laying off the 10,000 man Shuttle workforce. Which was the major reason for ending the shuttle program, all those bodies cost a lot of money. Senator Bill Nelson, D-FLa. is spearheading that effort.
Then, scenting a chance at a contract, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne is proposing a pair of new booster designs, one using LOX and liquid hydrogen, the other using LOX and kerosene (jet fuel).
So what is really going down? Probably a struggle between the cost savers who want to reduce NASA to a tourist attraction at Cape Canaveral, and pork processors who want to keep the massive shuttle workforce on the payroll.

Chevy Aveo roadtest

So I selected "economy" as the renta car type, and sure enough, I get a Chevy Aveo sedan (not the hatchback). Drove it for a week. A singularly unimpressive little econobox. Not that there is anything truly wrong with it, it seats four grownups and has a trunk big enough to take four "fit-in-airline-overhead-rack" bags. The radio and the air conditioner work.
On the down side, the styling is somewhere between utilitarian and downright ugly. It's tall, and feels tippy on the highway. The engine is puny and loud. Gas mileage was 27 in mixed thruway city driving. My Caddy Deville used to get 27 on the highway, the old VW Beetle would do 30, and a Subaru will do 32. Seems a shame not to get world class gas mileage in return for giving up size and comfort. In daylight it is difficult to impossible to tell what gear it's in. After dark the tranny shifter is illuminated and you can see whether you are in R for reverse or D for Drive, but in daylight, forget it.
Upon return, my Mercury Grand Marquis felt so quiet and so comfortable after a week in the cramped and noisy Aveo.
Chevy is asking $12K base for this thing and $15K with options. For less money than that you can get a much nicer used car.

Monday, July 26, 2010

If you have time to spare, go by air....

Just returned from a flight to Seattle. The pleasure started at check in where the TSA is waging war on men's toiletries. They objected to toothpaste, aftershave, and shaving cream. Lethal they are. Bring down the whole plane with a can of Barbasol. And they still make you take off your shoes and Xray them.
Once on board, less those dangerous toiletries, we find the airlines have been studying up on cattle cars. Seat pitch is down to 27 inches. Load factor was up to 100% on all four legs of the trip. There was a time when the planes flew with 60% load factors. Not any more. And the middle seat is still crowded. And the seats are hard and lumpy, especially after flying across the continent. They don't serve food anymore, and they whine if you bring your own. United, once a major carrier, is now specializing in puddle jumpers rented from no name carriers and painted in United colors. And they don't fly non stop. Any trip requires a stop and a plane change and a wait in the middle of the country. And the airports are so big you have to ride a subway to get from gate to gate. I love schlepping my bags onto the subway. And the air[ort prices. Beer is $6 a glass. I can get a whole six pack for less at Mac's Market.
I'll drive for anything less than a clean across the country trip, just to avoid the hassle and the discomfort. And I don't travel less it's absolutely necessary any more. Travel used to be a leisure time activity, now it's just painful.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Blogging may be light

I am flying out to Seattle tomorrow morning and won't be back until Monday. I may or may not have Internet access out on the left coast, so blogging may be light to non existent for this week.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

WWI, or how to wreck a civilization

Blurb for "The Lions of July" by William Janner. A "Guns of August" kind of history book.
"In the days before World War I all of the Princes of Europe, all its nobles, all its educated and cultural elites saw a storm on the horizon. A storm that could lay all they had built low. Yet not one of them, not one, could muster the strength or the courage to do anything other than what they had always done before and what had brought them all to the brink of disaster. "

Tom Clancy had a character express similar feelings in "Debt of Honor".

I don't buy it. WWI occurred because the Austrians wanted it to. Austria was a poly-national empire, full of unhappy subjects (like Serbs) who wanted out of the empire. The Austrians, who ran the place, wanted a nice brisk little war to show the imperial subjects that bad things would happen to them if they jumped ship. The Austrians feared breakup of the empire and loss of their privileged position unless they cracked the whip, hard.
What should have happened, is the Austrian's major ally, Germany, should have told the Austrians to cool it. Only Germany was run by an incompetent loser with a withered arm, who told the Austrians he was 1000% behind them. With that kind of support, the Austrians pushed and kept on pushing, and got their war. The other players tried to put a damper on things, but lacked the power to stop the German backed Austrians.
The terrible disaster could have been avoided with a little luck. If the German Kaiser had been a reasonable man, or, had Germany evolved it's government beyond one man rule WWI would not have happened. Germany was a brand new country, just got put together in 1870, so it was only 40 odd years old in 1914. They hadn't had the time to work out systems of government and checks and balances to prevent one highly placed turkey from driving their country over a cliff. Or, if the Germans had won the first Battle of the Marne, France would have sued for peace in the fall of 1914. Would have been rough on France, but the civilization wrecking war would not have happened.

An Attaboy for Stupid Beast

Or perhaps an attabeast. Stupid Beast is a city apartment raised cat suddenly transported to the wilds of northern NH. She started out flinching from everything, but soon the genetic hunting instincts came to the fore. She learned to catch field mice and the smaller and slower birds. She would trot proudly into the house, limp prey dangling from her mouth, and receive praise from her humans.
Soon her technique improved, and was able to catch the larger and speedier chipmunks. Unfortunately, the chipmunks could play dead to perfection. Several came back to life inside the house and led a Chinese fire drill until they dived under major appliances. Stupid Beast spent quite some time patrolling the washing machine and the refrigerator. Her humans stopped praising her, and in fact refused to let her in doors with hunting trophies.
Worse, Stupid Beast used to devour her kills. Unfortunately she ate them too fast, upset her digestion, and would barf on the rug. He humans began to ban her from the house for a half an hour or more after a kill and a chow down.
Stupid Beast's confidence has been crushed. Last night she caught a fine fat chipmunk and didn't even bring it onto the deck. She left the body on the side lawn. I discovered it while mowing the grass today. This negative response to hunting trophies by the humans has made her stop bringing trophies home at all.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Forbes Magazine concerned about NSA surveillance

NSA's internet surveillance program bothers Forbes too. I posted about this problem not too long ago right here.

Ed Markey opines on the BP spill

Ed Markey, D-Mass, was on NPR this morning. He was castigating BP for "non transparency" and low ball oil spill estimates. He didn't say a word about BP's manager aboard the drill rig who ordered skipping the leak tests which caused the well to blow in the first place. If you are gonna trash BP, trash 'em for causing the well to blow out. That was the bad thing they did wrong. Don't waste airtime whining about poor public relations after the blowout.
Speaking of which. We really ought to issue BP one attaboy for plugging the leak. Lotta BP people out on the water worked really hard to get that cap in place.

US Military Procurement

So what's wrong with US military procurement? How about a 8819 page bid on the USAF tanker job? That's the size of the Airbus bid. Who could read 8819 pages of government gobbledegook without loosing their mind? Let's hope Airbus used computers to shovel on the boilerplate, the avoid cruel and inhuman treatment of engineers.
Far as I am concerned, the bid should fit a single page. Number of aircraft, delivery date[s], price. A description of the aircraft ("standard A320-whatever, fully equipped, less airliner interior and with xxxx gallons fuel tankage, refueling boom, and drogues.").
Spare parts policy: "Spares shall be furnished thru commercial channels at market prices".
That's all that's necessary. We could save a lot of manhours and dollars if we gave up on 8819 page bids.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Silence gives assent

Karl Rove in yesterday's Wall St Journal admitted to finally learning this one. The occasion came when no WMD were found in Iraq. One of the reasons for doing Iraq was, do Iraq before Saddam gets nukes, cause doing regime change on a nuclear power is much more dangerous than doing it on a third world cesspool.
When no nuke were found, democrats accused the Bush Administration of lying to the public and starting the war under false pretenses. In the op ed Rove confesses to urging the Administration to just ignore the charges rather than confront them head on. The "Bush lied, people died" sound bite did great damage to the administration.
Welcome to the real world Mr. Rove. Silence gives assent. If the the accused does not deny the accusations, people tend to think they must be true. We the people expect the accused to deny all charges, 'cause we have seen so many clearly guilty bums deny they did anything wrong. If someone doesn't even bother to deny charges, he must be guilty, 'cause an innocent man would have denied them vigorously.
Want another example? Mike Dukakis failed to respond to the Willie Horton ads. Willie Horton, as you may remember was a Massachusetts convict that Dukakis paroled. Willie committed some awful crime while out on parole. The republicans ran a TV ad showing a big ugly convict, and a revolving door and a voice over accusing Dukakis of being soft on crime. Dukakis didn't respond at all. There were a lot of things Dukakis could have said, but he just didn't bother, hoping the thing would blow over. It didn't and Dukakis lost the presidency.
I'm surprised the political mastermind Karl Rove is just wising up to this fact of life now in 2010.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Duh. Electric cars don't use gasoline.

And if they don't use gasoline, they get infinite miles per gallon. If the car has serious battery capacity like the Chevy Volt, it can get you to work and back on pure battery power. You recharge and off you go the next day.
As a publicity stunt, Chevy ran the Volt (or a computer simulation of the Volt) thru the EPA mileage test, and reported that the Volt was good for 230 mpg (pretty damn close to infinite compared to the 20 mpg a minivan gets). The number attracted attention, and then denunciation. As a publicity stunt it was good.
Now, comes a long serious discussion about how to assign an mpg rating to electric or hybrid gas/electric cars.
The real answer is, it depends. Depends upon how long a trip you are talking about. Short trips, where the battery can make the entire trip show infinite gas mileage. Longer trips beyond the range of the battery will show about anything you like. A trip of twice battery range will use less gas than a trip of 4 times battery range. The real answer, is miles per gallon doesn't mean much for electric cars, or at least electric cars with serious battery capacity.
The current hybrids have tiny batteries, just large enough to hold the energy created by braking and feed it back upon acceleration. The "pure battery range" is a few hundred feet or less. For reasonable trips of miles, the car is running on engine power nearly all the time and mpg has some meaning. But for future electrics with serious battery capacity, that can do a daily commute on battery power, mpg doesn't mean much.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Obamacare brings more red tape to all of us

Hidden in the 5000 page Obamacare bill is a requirement for every business in the land to report all purchases over $600 a year to the IRS. In this day and age damn near everything costs $600 over the course of a year. So, the IRS will be able to track nearly every dollar spent thruout the economy. And be able to audit income tax returns in greater detail. Lots of small providers work for cash and don't keep much in the way of records. They will be toast.
Those that attempt to stay in business will be swamped with extra paperwork. It's bad enough paying the bills. Having to report every bill paid to the IRS will make it a lot worse.
The unions loved this one. All those pesky non union small operators who have been taking bread from the mouths of good union workers will get chopped off at the ankles.
There ought to be a law against 5000 page bills.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It ain't the deficit that's the problem

It's the spending, or the lack of taxes. Since WWII US federal taxes have yielded a revenue of about 20% of GNP. In other words one dollar out of every five dollars goes to the government. That's a LOT of money. Up until Obama, the federal government spending was about the same as revenue, maybe a touch more.
Now that we have Obama, spending has jumped up to 25% of GMP, and due to Great Depression 2.0, federal revenue has dropped and the deficit is now 7-8% of GNP and getting worse.
Obama hasn't quite dared ask for more taxes (yet). He'll get around to it sooner or later. He hasn't said a thing about cutting spending. Right now the federal government is paying its bills by borrowing money, and since the it has the best credit rating on the planet, it has no trouble borrowing all it needs. That cannot last. When the unpaid US debt gets too high, lenders will stop lending to us. Then to pay its bills the government will print new money. Which will destroy the value of the dollar. Everything we have saved up for college, retirement, the new house, will turn to wastepaper.
Conclusion. We have to cut spending, cut it down to 20% of GNP, or, jack up taxes to cover the spending. Trouble with that is spending rises to meet income. Raise taxes, the Congress will spend more.

BP gets lucky

Preliminary reports on web & TV say that BP has capped their wild gulf well and the cap is holding, oil tight. Thank the good lord. These are preliminary reports, based largely on underwater video. As of this writing, BP hasn't come right out and said they got it capped. This may be an excess of caution, plus fear that the cap won't hold, but, so far it's looking good. Lets hope every thing stays together.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Winston's War Churchill 1940-1945 by Max Hastings

"And never was heard, a discouraging word". This WWII bio/history gathers up all the discouraging words passed around during the war and prints them. It's all there, British ruling class appeasement, military defeats, labor unrest, anti Churchill members of parliament, and military adventures that either didn't pan out or never got out of committee. The author is a Brit, and he is out to reinterpret the hell out of WWII history.
Despite the load of dirt, the book is unsatisfying. It does not get to the meat of the great wartime controversies. For instance the great Anglo American debate over "2nd Front Now" versus the North African landings is glossed over. It's mentioned, but the author glosses over the issues, assumes the reader is familiar with them which is a little much really. WWII buffs like me know the story but at this remove in time, it is unreasonable to expect the general reader to remember this level of detail. And he omits key details, such how the British view point (do North Africa) carried the day.
The author trashes the British Army for loosing repeatedly, but he never really gets to the root of the matter. Len Deighton did a much better job in his "Blood, Tears, and Folly". Deighton blames a British school system that allowed the bulk of children to drop out in middle school, whereas the German school system prided itself on getting its students high school diplomas. According to Deighton German troops were nearly all high school graduates whereas the British troops were largely high school dropouts.
The book is interesting, but it isn't going to become a favorite due to its downer material.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Toy STory 3

I saw it last night. Charming. This sequel is every bit as good as the preceding Toy Stories were. Gotta hand it to Pixar, they can do good sequels. Their technique improves, the scenes are more and more realistic. The story is a heart breaker, Andy is grown up, 17, and going off to college. Andy's toys are in dire straights, given to a day care center run by a sadistic teddy bear. Escaping from daycare, they wind up in a packer truck headed for the dump. There is a happy ending. By a miracle they escape the dump's incinerator and make their way back to Andy, who boxes them up and donates them to a very little, very cute, girl. Brings a lump to your throat.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

NSA to monitor internet

"US plans Cyber Shield to Utilities, Companies" read the headline in the Wall St Journal. Fearful of cyber attack that might shut down the electric grid or other critical infrastruction, NSA is running a secret surveillance program that gathers who knows what information to "protect" critical infrastructure from hackers.
The article went on to say that electric companies are using the public internet to remote control generators, switches, tranformer banks and other equipment. NSA claims that their top secret internet monitoring software can protect against cyber attack.
Trouble is, it won't work. If the hacker knows equipment internet addresses he can monitor traffic and decode it, learn the passwords, and then take control by transmitting perfectly genuine command messages. No way NSA can tell the difference between legitimate command messages from the electric companies and dangerous messages from hackers. Bits is bits, and they all look alike, ones or zeros.
Real fix. Command and control of critical infrastructure shall NEVER go over the public internet. Electric companies must be required to buy private circuits to operate the electric grid. The public internet is just too vulnerable. Unless we want the lights to go out all over the country just before the next Al Quada atrocity, we must harden the command and control network.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

How far should the Nanny State go?

Table saws. Old power tool, the most essential power tool in the wood shop. I started out using my grandfather's Walker Turner 8 inch saw more than 50 years ago. That saw went to my brother, and I moved on to a radial arm saw.
These things are dangerous, no doubt about it. They will sever any body part coming in contact with the blade. I still have all ten fingers, but my brother, who is at least as careful as I am, got cut badly a few years ago.
Some years ago, a safety device was invented. Electronics sense contact between flesh and blade and a clever mechanism stops the blade so rapidly that fingers survive with minor scratches. They do an impressive demo, running a hot dog into the spinning blade. The hot dog emerges unsliced. The inventor has raised capital, started a company to make tablesaws incorporating his "SawStop" technology.
The trial lawyers are moving into the field. One of them sued a leading maker of tablesaws for selling ordinary saws, lacking the "SawStop" technology, after an accident. The court agreed with the trial lawyer, and ruled the maker liable for selling an ordinary tablesaw. The case is under appeal.
The trial lawyer found a sympathetic reporter at NPR to did a piece on All Things Considered advocating his position. The NPR piece advocated federal regulations requiring the new, and costly, "SawStop" technology to be made mandatory on all new tablesaws.
Is this wise or fair public policy? Today conventional tablesaws and SawStop tablesaws compete in the market place. Consumers largely buy the conventional saws because they are considerably cheaper. Most people are deciding that the extra safety of the "SawStop" isn't worth the substantial extra cost. Should federal regulation prevail over the wisdom of the market place? Is the extra safety worth the cost? Who should make this decision, the individual or the government?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

NASA to make the Muslim world feel good ?

Damn, that's new. I thought NASA was about space travel, not touchy feely relations with a hostile culture. I mean we have the State Dept and the Peace Corp, and a raft of non governmental organizations all just so eager to improve US relations with the whole world. I think NASA should concentrate on space exploration and let the touchy feely stuff go to agencies that do that sort of thing full time.
Kennedy started up NASA to get the the moon, ahead of the Russians. NASA was supremely successful in this task. Once accomplished, NASA turned to building and then operating the Space Shuttle, Hubble Space Telescope, and a bunch of interplanetary missions. Shuttle being the big end of the stick. Trouble is, Shuttle turned out to be dangerous to fly, and expensive to boot. So the Shuttle is going away, and NASA doesn't have anything to do.
NASA tried to build a new ground to orbit system based on a brand new rocket and a great big capsule. They could have bought working rockets from Space X, Lockheed and Boeing, but instead squandered their funding on a brand new design. Obama hasn't decided what NASA should do in the space exploration business, so he has drafted them into the world wide PR campaign.
I liked it better when NASA did space travel.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Firefox; fix for "server not found" error.

The Firefoxers have been "improving" Firefox. One "improvement" which has been causing trouble since version 3.5 is "network prefetching". This software glitch tried to think ahead and go out and open websites before you need them. Unfortunately, it doesn't work right, and you draw a lot of "server not found" error screens. PITA.
There is a fix. You can turn network prefetching off and the bug goes away. I just did it, and it works like magic.
Just add a boolean variable named network.dns.disablePrefetch, with value "true" to firefox's config file. This file is named prefs.js and lives way down in Documents and Settings on the C drive. In principle you could merely edit this file with a text editor, but there is an easier way. From within Firefox go to pseudo-website about:config. Just put "about:config" on the address line as if it were a website you wanted to visit. Firefox will open prefs.js and display it in ASCII, in alphabetical order. Right click on a blank spot and Firefox will allow you to change values or add a new variable. Select "new" and enter network.dns.disablePrefetch as the name of the value. Assign it a type of Boolean, and a value of true. Fixes the problem.
Why has this bug persisted from Firefox 3.5 and into 3.6? The Firefox software people claim the problem comes from bugs in network routers and not Firefox. They may be technically correct, but that doesn't help us users much.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Firefox 3.6

Firefox 3.6 isn't as good at connecting to web sites as previous versions. You keep getting to the "Server is unavailable" error window.
Small work around. Try the "refresh" button in the toolbar. It's a blue curled up arrow, right next the the red X "stop loading" button. Works better than the "try again" button on the error window.

Sunday Pundits (again)

ABC had Paul Krugman calling for yet another stimulus bill. Last one wasn't big enough. Krugman is a NY Times op ed writer and a Nobel prize winning economist. Listening to him this morning makes you wonder why this turkey won the Nobel. He starts out explaining than another $500 billion or so makes no difference in the budget deficit. Then he claims that there is a difference between "long term" deficit and "short term" deficit. I don't see that, deficit is deficit.
What Krugman doesn't understand is the US economy is the biggest in the world, by a lot. We have a debt approaching 100% of US gross national product (GNP). That's more money than there is in all the world. We are too big, and need too much money to be able to borrow it all. Little dinky place like Greece can borrow 100% of its GNP, and because their GNP is tiny, the money is there. The US GNP is too huge to finance. The Obama budget runs trillions and trillions of dollars in debt, for ever. Today we can sell T-bills at 3.5% interest, mostly because the US government is considered the soundest investment on the planet. Tomorrow that won't work. Today the Chinese are raking in more money than their economy can handle, so they are parking it in a safe place, namely T-bills. Tomorrow their economy will be big enough to absorb all their earning and they will stop buying T-bills. Look for interest on T-bills to jump up from 3.5%.
In short, Nobel prize winning Krugman thinks he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. He doesn't realize that it is the headlight of an onrushing train.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Economic recovery depends upon real jobs.

Real jobs in manufacturing, mining, logging, trucking, farming, air transportation, construction and power generation produce real goods, with a real market value. And the workers get paid, which stimulates demand in the economy. Government jobs do not produce anything with real market value. The wages of government employees come from money taken away from real workers. Creation of a government job does nothing to stimulate the economy because the reduction in real worker's wages is exactly equal to the extra spending power given to the government employee.
The Obama administration has been increasing the number of government employees and disrupting the real economy with uncertainty over health care, taxes, fuel costs, credit availability and green regulations. The $850 billion "stimulus" (porkulus) bill has largely gone to subsidizing state governments. Here in NH, the state budget would be much farther in the red without federal handouts from the porkulus bill.
Obama should work on foreign trade treaties, making credit available, financing research and development, reducing federal red tape, and increasing domestic energy supplies. In actual fact, he has been doing just the opposite.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Firefox Themes

I upgraded to Firefox 3.6 and found it supports "themes". I scanned thru a bunch of them and selected a winter ski mountain theme that put a soothing background behind the Firefox tool bar, menu bar and the rest of the screen hogging bars at the top of screen.
It looked kinda cool. Except it did something to the color of the text in the menubar making it harder to read.
So themes are gone now. And the menubar is readable again.

Reviving Firefox

Some months ago my Firefox got flaky. Screens showed in odd colors, or just black and white. Some buttons (reply) on some websites stopped working. Printing became erratic or came out in strange colors.
Fix. Create a brand new user account and use Firefox from the new account. All the colors came back, the invisible buttons re appeared and print worked right.
Of course I had to re apply all the fixes I had to apply to Windows XP to get the new account to look right. (show classic start menu, show classic Explorer, and more).
Why does this work? Windows must store some customization information in each user account ("loading your personal settings") which gets corrupted and cannot be fixed. It is NOT a firefox problem per se. I executed the procedure to refresh firefox's "profile" (private, per user status file in which things like passwords and bookmarks are stored). No luck. I had to create a whole new Windows user account and then do the Firefox "create new profile" bit in the new account.
I love Windows.
PS. It rained on the newly stained deck today. The water beaded up nicely on the new stain.