Boing Boing 

Glenn Fleishman

Glenn is a veteran technology journalist based in Seattle who regularly contributes to the Economist, Macworld, Boing Boing, Six Colors, TidBITS, and other publications. He's been blogging since 2001 at his Glog. In October 2012, Glenn won Jeopardy! twice. He tweets @glennf.

Why People Think Cell Phones Cause Cancer

cell1.jpg Images: Shutterstock (1, 2) Siddhartha Mukherjee deftly tells you everything you need to know about the current state of knowledge of the risks to human health from use of cellular phones. Mukherjee, a doctor and professor of medicine at Columbia, does so in a few thousand words in the New York Times without dismissing concerns, and while explaining why this issue is so fraught with interpretation bias and confusion. Mukherjee's key points are well understood in epidemiological circles, and typically misstated in the mainstream press. They are: • Rates of cancer types expected to be associated with long-term mobile phone use have declined in America during the rise of cell calling. • The low incidence of such expected cancers in the general population makes it nearly impossible to conduct prospective longitudinal studies: find a large cohort of people with no disease and follow them for 5, 10, or 20 years to see in which groups normal and abnormal rates occur. • Retrospective studies that ask people to remember past usage of cell phones are deeply flawed due to recall bias. • Cellular tests examining DNA after exposure to phone emissions were found in a meta-review of papers and research to have no provable link. (Mukherjee also explains that the recently reported "cell phones make your brain light up" study showed unexplained brain activity when a silent cell phone was active in areas adjacent to the phone, which was near one or the other of a subject's ears. However, the brain activity wasn't harmful--it was similar to activity from other routine activities--just inexplicable. And the study only involved under 50 people.) I've been reading cell-phone and RF exposure studies for a decade, starting at a point where I was convinced that the industry must have known of a link and was trying to hide it. Who trusts multi-billion-dollar corporations with everything to lose, where executives might even be sent to prison as a result? Of course, they might hide evidence or fund fake studies.

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Oh, Qrap

qrapping_paper.jpg I've been obsessed with QR Codes, those 2D tags that encode URLs and other information, for the last 18 months, having penned a couple of Economist pieces, and this item about bookmarkleting QR Codes here at BoingBoing. The inflection point in Seattle, at least, appears to have hit: I spotted six at a burger joint this lunchtime. My friend Ren Caldwell knows my horrible interest in this matter, and she IM'd me a link (via several intermediate sources) to QRapping Paper. $19.95 buys you two 20-by-30-inch sheets of paper with codes that link to 50 different online videos. This includes videos like Harry Truman in Heaven, and one in which a gingerbread man torches his foreclosed gingerbread house. It's a pricey novelty gift, but clever. I'm going to co-opt this idea. This sanctioned holiday period, every one of my gift recipients is going to get an empty but suspiciously heavy box wrapped in plain white paper with a QR Code pasted on top. The code will link to Never Gunna Give You Up. That's right: I'm gunna rickroll Christmas, all y'all! (Ren's officemate Dan asked, "All I want to know is: is it pronounced 'crapping paper'?") And with that, here on my guestblog gig! Thanks for the love, BoingBoing readers.

Clay Shirky's Nuanced Position on WikiLeaks

clay_shirky_by_joi_ito.jpg I've been unable to nail down precisely why I don't like how WikiLeaks is releasing hidden, secret, classified, and other categories of U.S. government information. I don't believe the United States deserves the shroud of secrecy that protects incompetent, illegal, and malicious acts; neither do I trust Julian Assange's motives, presentation, or redaction. Every time I try to talk about the issue, it's like a life-or-death game of "paper or plastic bags" at the supermarket. Thankfully, Clay Shirky has laid bare the cognitive dissonance and teased apart distinctly different ideas that are being lumped into single categories:
As Tom Slee puts it, "Your answer to 'what data should the government make public?' depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government." My personal view is that there is too much secrecy in the current system, and that a corrective towards transparency is a good idea. I don't, however, believe in pure transparency, and even more importantly, I don't think that independent actors who are subject to no checks or balances is a good idea in the long haul.
I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here's what I'm not conflicted about: When a government can't get what it wants by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is to accept that it can't get what it wants.
Photo by Joi Ito via Creative Commons.

Always Look on the Bright Side of the Fence

A routine peeping-tom/self-pleasuring report in a hyperlocal blog in Seattle is enlivened by the following detail:
According to witnesses, the man looked like he was in his 30's, white, with slicked-back dark-blond hair and was said to resemble Eric Idle.
Lemon curry?


hanuchristmastree.jpg I suspect this photo will not appear odd to any of us celebrating mixed families, traditions, religions, cults, vanilla extracts, syncretic faiths, unionism, or pure unadultered atheism with presents this year. My wife erected the Christmas tree last night with my full approval (I'm recovering from hernia surgery, and thus was unavailable to help, ahem ahem), and I lit the Hanukah candles this evening. A happy juxtaposition in our home. A friend in college, on discovering I was Jewish, asked, "So you don't celebrate Christmas?" No, I said. "Not even commercially?" Photo by yours truly.

We Liked Your Earlier, Funnier Interviews Better

object_of_beauty.jpgSteve Martin isn't the same wild and crazy guy he used to be, according to Manhattan's 92nd Street Y. The New York Times reports that the Y offered to refund all 900 attendees their $50 entrance fee to an interview of Martin by Times writer Deborah Solomon. Why? Because they talked about his new book, Object of Beauty, and about art. Martin has been collecting art in a studious and intelligent manner for decades. According to the story, the Y sent up a note asking for less art talk, apparently responding to emails from those watching a remote broadcast. This is odd, because the 92nd St Y is known for bringing damned intellectuals together to talk about damned intellectual stuff. Go figure. Martin noted in Twitter,
So the 92nd St. Y has determined that the course of its interviews should be dictated in real time by its audience's emails. Artists beware.
Extra points for identifying the headline's paraphrase. Update: A number of people who say they attended the event, including some commenters on this post, explain that the problem wasn't Solomon and Martin talking about art and the new book, but Solomon making a hash of her role as interviewer. Martin Schneider wrote in with a link to his lengthy analysis of the evening, which concludes with a fascinating paragraph that encapsulates the broad issue of spectatorship and reporting:
A counter-narrative has arisen that is in complete conflict with this picture of events, a narrative that serves Solomon and Martin's agenda. It would be a disgrace to let that counter-narrative become the final word on this fiasco. Do not believe it.

Letterpress A-Go-Go

Kyle Durrie, a letterpress printer, wants to put a portable press in the back of a bread truck, travel the country, and teach about printing. It's a charming idea, and she's already beat her Kickstarter fundraising goal.

Black and White and Read All Over

Who is the most-read person in the world? It's not Dan Brown nor J.K. Rowling (or God): it's likely Matthew Carter, the designer of the Georgia and Verdana typefaces, Bell Centennial used in phone books, and a host of others. I interviewed the 73-year-old type maven about his recent MacArthur Foundation Fellowship award, unusual at his age, and his continuing passion at the Economist.

Twitter, Where's My Car?

Seattle police use a dedicated Twitter account to report the details of verified car thefts. It's crowdsourcing police work! Police in other cities have tried this, but Seattle has a bizarrely high car theft rate, partly due to a logistical problem in the courts in which car thieves are routinely charged with misdemeanors and released.

One Degree of Kevin Bacon

Kevin Bacon plays his own superfan in creepy verisimilitude in this ad for the Google TV-based Logitech Revue. It's like Being John Malkovich crossed with Misery crossed with a Fargo-like sense of wonder (before the woodchipper comes out).

I Am a Bicycle Tire Tube

operation.jpg I went in for surgery yesterday morning to repair a small umbilical hernia. Mildly graphic material follows. My belly button done did me wrong. Having only had a few minor surgeries before, the most recent about nine years ago, I was surprised by a number of changes in procedure, the kind of clinically tested improvements we all hope are going on behind the scenes, and we often doubt are. The operation itself was quite simple, and took under an hour. I received a mild general anesthetic, and a local was applied liberally to my belly. I don't even recall being asked to count backwards from five. The surgeon cut a small slit in my belly button and cleaned up protruding material. Then he took a small circle of polypropylene and stitched this with permanent stitches inside the muscle, a neat trick. This is relatively new: a few years ago, small umbilical hernias were merely stitched, but the recurrence rate was unacceptably high. I joked to my kids that I was being repaired like a bicycle tire tube: the doc would put a plastic patch on me and glue it on. And that was true: the incision was glued shut, and scarring, if any, will be invisible. In the future, we are all bicycle tubes.

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Seattle Streets Are Gangsta

electrocution_signage.jpg The streets of Seattle are no longer safe--for cute little dogs and fiber-optic cables. First, The Seattle Times reported today on the strange case of a dog being electrocuted as it walked down the street. A privately and legally installed street light lacked proper grounding, and the dog was zapped walking over a metal plate on the sidewalk. My condolences to Lisa Kibben, who lost her 68-pound German shorthair pointer, Sammy, in this bizarre event. The utility dispatched a crew immediately, fixed the problem, and apologized, trying to reassure the public that we (and perhaps our sub-70-pound children) are not in danger. This reminded me of the peculiar death of Jodie S. Lane in Manhattan (East Village) in 2004, walking down the street with her two dogs when one apparently received a severe shock, and Lane, unaware of what was happening, attempted to help the dogs. The dogs survived. Jodie's father, Roger M. Lane, received a massive amount of information about electrified Con Ed objects and shocks caused to people as part of a settlement. He created a Web site which showed the 31,900 objects found to cause electrical shocks between 2004 and 2009. Seattle has no such history, but you can imagine that Emerald City denizens will be skipping metal panels for a while. Second, local Seattle business site TechFlash reported that a bullet was fired into a fiber-optic cable owned by Comcast, severing access to 2,500 customers. The motivation is unknown, and the company isn't asking for a police investigation. Oddly enough, this is not the first time. A Comcast spokesperson told TechFlash, "About 13 years ago, someone shot a bullet into a main fiber line in Tacoma on New Year's Eve, knocking out service to about half the city." Man, I guess people are really angry about Comcast's attempting legal contractual modification of a peering agreement with Level 3. First they came for the fiber-optic cables, and I tweeted nothing. Photo by Photocopy, used via Creative Commons.

Harry Potter and the Potboiling Podcast

The Incomparable podcast features a bunch of serious geeks talking in alternate weeks about recent and classic sci-fi and fantasy movies, novels, comic books, and television shows. Our gang is led by Jason Snell, Macworld magazine's editorial director, and über-geek. The latest episode is available, covering Harry Potter, its borrowings from one Mr Tolkien, why Pablo Picasso and Magnum P.I. never met, and the words exegesis and tmesis.

Level 3 Says Comcast Wants Fees to Transfer Movies to Users

cables_sampson.jpg Level 3 has accused Comcast of demanding fees to transfer data from Level 3's backbone to Comcast customers. Level 3 describes this as "Internet online movies and other content," which would mean everything, even though it's calling out movies. Level 3 signed a deal on November 11th to act as one of Netflix's primary network providers. In October, Internet monitoring service Sandvine said Netflix streaming represents 20 percent of all U.S. Internet non-mobile bandwidth use during prime-time hours. Far be it from me to defend Comcast's policies, even while I am generally happy with its service. I subscribe to Comcast cable broadband service at home and at work, and it performs quite well in my parts of Seattle. I don't have much choice--Qwest has limited availability of an "up to 20 Mbps" service--so I'm lucky cable performs. And Comcast caps my 15 to 25 Mbps downstream service to 250 GB per month, with no-appeal threats of cutoff after two broken caps in a year. Nonetheless, this may not be quite what it seems. The Internet is a syndicate of different networks that agree to interconnect on various terms. There are quasi-public meet-me network rooms in which providers all pay to connect in and traffic passes among all those present. Networks can also choose to create peering points between each other when traffic demands it.

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Do Androids Dream of Fragmented Sheep?

android_bites_apple.jpg The Google-backed Android phone platform has a huge problem with fragmentation, or the number of different releases and adaptations of Android for different phone platforms over its history. Or this is no problem at all. It depends on who you ask. Ken Segall, a former branding chief at Apple--branding as in marketing, not burning flesh, although with Apple, it may be necessary to clarify the difference--wanted to help his 13-year-old son buy an Android phone. The results are illuminating. Segall took his son to an AT&T Wireless store, looked at two phones of interest that ran Android 2.1, and tried his darnedest to get a straight answer about whether either model was upgradable to 2.2. The 2.2 release includes tethering (phone as modem) and mobile hotspot (phone as Wi-Fi/cell router) options, among a number of other well-received improvements.

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Glif Available to Public

The Glif, an iPhone 4 tripod adapter, can now be purchased by anyone. The little adapter that could came into being in part through a Kickstarter crowdfunding effort designed to raise as least $10,000, but which pulled over $130,000. I've already received the rapid-prototype or 3D-printed version of the Glif promised to donors at a higher level; the mass-produced injection-molded item will be out soon to supporters, followed by anyone ordering from the Web site.

Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Co-Lo, Do

cory_brain_mold_small.jpg I'm not ashamed to admit that I harbor unnatural feelings towards my servers. If programming and writing are both expressions of one's personality, then the content and systems on a server are a piece of you. Where it gets complicated is when you can transplant the ticking heart of a server--its logical brain--into another piece of hardware. You've transmigrated the soul without any of the messy ethical considerations. This is a common theme in modern sci-fi, because the notion of where the essence of who we are lives (in wetware or hardware) fascinates us. I wrote today at the Economist's Babbage blog about my move from owning several rack-mounted servers to a couple of virtual private servers (VPSes), virtualized computers running on computers I'll never see or touch. The move was moving, and I'm hard pressed to understand why.
I couldn't understand why I was near tears. It was only a computer server I was shutting down, not pulling the plug on a life or saying goodbye to faithful pet. Nonetheless, my eyes were moist. ... Virtualisation is the classic brain-in-a-jar scenario. If you, dear reader, were a brain in a jar with all your sensory inputs mapped into a simulation program a la "The Matrix," how would you know? As long as the illusion were perfect--and no Agent Smiths intruded--you could live your life in blissful delusion. So, too, do virtual servers perform: unaware.
Photo by...what the hell! Cory Doctorow? I swear, I just did a search for brains. Via Creative Commons.

Wi-Fi Causes Forest Fires

The latest on the breaking story about Wi-Fi killing trees ups the ante! A reputable news source reports that Wi-Fi's effects are far worse than Dutch researchers originally stated: trees petrify within months of exposure. Wi-Fi also causes forest fires. (Thanks, Weekly World News!)

I Am The WiMax and I Speak for the Trees

pripyat_landscape_sm.jpg A breathless report from IDG News yesterday spread like a forest fire: Wi-Fi kills trees! Kills 'em dead! Oh n03s!!
Radiation from Wi-Fi networks is harmful to trees, causing significant variations in growth, as well as bleeding and fissures in the bark, according to a recent study in the Netherlands. All deciduous trees in the Western world are affected, according to the study by Wageningen University.
Hurray for credulity! Thousands of media sites and blogs picked up the story, adding new details, and rarely questioning the bizarre claim, despite the statement later in the same news item that only 20 trees were tested in one city, that researchers were not named, and it wasn't noted whether or not the study was published or peer reviewed. I turned, as I always do, to Gawker's Valleywag to bring sense and perspective to an issue. Wait. What? No, seriously. Valleywag's Adrian Chen found a public statement from the Dutch spectrum regulator (translation). The study took place indoors for three months with a variety of plants exposed to six Wi-Fi devices. Previous studies showed no harm. The work hasn't yet been published. I suppose BoingBoing readers are used to hearing sensational claims based on small-cadre studies issued in advance of peer review. Nonetheless, this one seemed particularly strange. Perhaps it was the combination of environmental harm, the fear of radiation (electromagnetic or otherwise), and the imprimatur of a university. Urban trees, which were apparently part of the focus of this study, are under tremendous stress, and tree cover in cities worldwide has been drastically reduced, although efforts in many places are underway to counter this. My hometown of Seattle has a loosely organized plan to plant hundreds of thousands of new trees in the coming years, for instance. Remember what happens when the trees get pissed off. fall_leaves.jpgUpdate! A commenter warns that all Northern hemisphere deciduous trees are currently undergoing some sort of chromatic die-off producing vast amounts of ground pollution and decay. Top photo from Pripyat near Chernobyl by Timm Suess via Creative Commons. Yes, that's Suess, not Seuss. Photo of leaves by mksfly via Creative Commons.

The Modern Face of Letterpress


Meet Stephanie Laursen. She's a letterpress printer, who wants to set up her own shop one day. She's already apprenticed at three locations. She's practical about what she needs to make it work. As far as I can tell, she didn't fall through a wormhole from 1930. Stephanie is fully rooted in 2010.

stephanie_in_letterpress_shop.jpgStephanie was assisting in the letterpress shop today at the School of Visual Concepts (SVC) in Seattle, where I'm attending the two-day Type Americana conference and seminar. The event is one day of history and one day of hands-on sessions. This isn't a tech conference: half the attendees and speakers are women, only two people have laptops out (I'm one of them), and everyone is paying attention. The subject matter requires a reasonably intimate knowledge of the last 140 years of type design to follow the speakers; I'm stunned by how many young people, SVC and other students, are nodding along.

Today, I've heard about Frederic Goudy, the Bentons (père et fils), and W.A. Dwiggins, as well as the life of Beatrice Warde, the collapse of a preeminent type foundry after a hundred years, and a wood-type museum's resurgence. Sumner Stone (Adobe's first type design chief) reminisced about the history of fonts before and at Adobe.

The school has a beautiful letterpress shop, the cleanest one I believe I've ever stepped foot in, with a full panoply of flatbed and platen presses, metal type, wooden furniture (the blocks used to space elements in a locked-up page), leading (mmm....delicious lead), and the like. It smells marvelous. Jenny Wilkson assembled and runs the shop.

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Exoflood an Exoyawn


The exaflood was the catchy name wrapped around a prediction that exabyte-scale demands for data would destroy the Internet, making it unusably slow and erratic. Year after year, Internet doomsayers make the same tired prognostication. Karl Bode of notes that mainstream media is finally starting to get the message. The two leading prognosticators of doom, Nemertes Research and the Discovery Institute, seem to be driven by an interest in battering the concept of network neutrality and broadband regulation. I wonder why? (You may best know the Discovery Institute for its support of schools teaching sloppy magical thinking.)

Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet's inventor, famously and literally ate his words in 1997 because of a promise he made of a gigalapse in 1996 that failed to come to pass. No word yet from the current Cassandras Bhagwan Shree Rajneeshes on swallowing their pride and their continuously inaccurate doomsaying.

The Internet turns out to be resilient, not brittle, partly because money funds growth, and companies are dying to take our money. While broadband providers may try to spend the least amount to bring us passably usable service, the Internet's backbone is driven by service-level agreements, steely-eyed technologists, and filthy lucre. We may put up with "up to 15 Mbps* (*as little as 768 Kbps)" connections, but Comcast, Verizon, et al., don't play that game with their network interchanges.

The analysts who make these predictions also fail to account for dynamic feedback. Once you start engaging in behavior on the Internet that fails, you stop. When I'm watching Hulu or Netflix, and the video becomes choppy and unwatchable, I stop watching. What a concept.

Photo by yours truly.

God Watches Mad Men


One might be tempted to ask: Can God make a signboard so big that even He can't illuminate it? Spotted in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, otherwise known as the Center of the Universe.

I am the photographer, and I approve this use of my image.

Password Doesn't Shear Firesheep


Firesheep sniffs unsecured connections with major Web sites over local networks and lets a user with the Firefox plug-in installed sidejack those sessions. A trope has spread that the way to solve this problem is to password protect open Wi-Fi networks, such as those run by AT&T at Starbucks and McDonald's. The technical argument is that on a WPA/WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) network in which a common shared password is used, the access point nonetheless generates a unique key for each client when it connects. You can't just know the network password and decode all the traffic, as with the broken WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) encryption that first shipped with 802.11b back in the late 1990s.

Steve Gibson, a veteran computer-security writer and developer, suggested this the moment Firesheep was announced. A blog post at security consultant Sophos makes the same suggestion. But it won't work for long.

Gibson notes the key problem to this approach in the comments to his post: every user with the shared key can sniff the transaction in which another client is assigned its unique key, and duplicate it. Further, if you join a network with many clients already connected, you can use the aircrack-ng suite to force a deauthentication. That doesn't drop a client off the network; rather, it forces its Wi-Fi drivers to perform a new handshake in which all the details are exposed to derive the key.

Thus, you could defeat Firesheep today by assigning a shared key to a Wi-Fi network until the point at which some clever person simply grafts aircrack-ng into Firesheep to create an automated way to deauth clients, snatch their keys, and then perform the normal sheepshearing operations to grab tokens. I would suspect this might be dubbed Firecracker

The way around this is to use 802.1X, port-based access control, which uses a complicated system of allowing a client to connect to a network through a single port with just enough access to provide credentials. The Wi-Fi flavor of choice is WPA/WPA2 Enterprise, and the secured method of choice is PEAP. Even if every 802.1X user logs in using PEAP with the same user name and password, the keying process is protected from other users and outside crackers. Update: Reader Elmae suggests "Little Bo PEAP" instead of Firecracker.

Even though 802.1X is built into Mac OS X since about 2004, Windows starting in XP SP2, and available at no cost for GNU/Linux, BSD, Unix, and other variants (as well as for older Mac/Win flavors), it's got just enough overhead that hotspots haven't wanted to use it.

While hotspots aren't liable for people sidejacking with Firesheep or simply sucking down and analyze traffic on their networks (disclosure: IANAL), 802.1X is cheap and easy to implement when there's a single user account and password. It's possible we'll see some uptake. The long-term solution is for all Web sites that handle any data to encrypt the entirety of all user sessions.

Update: Commenter foobar pokes a hole, pun intended, in my suggestion for using 802.1X with a single user name/password: Hole196. This vulnerability, documented by AirTight, afflicts 802.1X networks. It allows a malicious party to spoof the access point for sending broadcast messages, and allows ARP and DNS poisoning. Thus Firecracker could become fARPcracker, and, once again, Firesheep emerges victorious. (I wrote about Hole196 for Ars Technica; it's not that big a deal for the enterprise, but it's perfectly easy to use in a hotspot.) Thus, sites securing all their connections with SSL/TLS becomes the only practical method to ensure privacy and prevent sidejacking.

Photo by Magic Foundry, used via Creative Commons.

Knocked Up in Lieu of Alarm Clocked


The things one learns, when one has children. Many facts about fire trucks, planets, geography, tiny people who live in one's house, faeries, and...knocker-ups or knocker-uppers.

We brought home from the library this delightful book, Mary Smith by A. (Andrea) U'Ren, riffing off Mary Smith, a knocker-up who woke people in the early 20th century in East London. She ran about with a short rubber hose shooting dried peas at the windows of subscribers who needed to be awoken at a certain time in the morning. The indefatigable Daniel Pinkwater discussed the book with Scott Simon on NPR, and read it aloud back in August 2007.

Knocker-ups (knockers-up?) are part of the panoply of professions that popped up between the Industrial Revolution and the Golden Age of Technology, when people crowded into urban centers, and labor was remarkably cheap. The army of specialized professions dealing with excrement before central waste treatment, documented in Stephen Johnson's The Ghost Map, is a study in evolutionary niches in employment. Large-scale industry ultimately required shifts of labor, and needed people at particular locations at relatively precise times. Alarm clocks weren't yet both reliable and affordable; even an accurate watch was expensive in its own right. (Tea was also a key component, providing antibiotic properties, alertness, and avoiding the consumption of small beer. See Tom Standage's tour de force, A History of the World in Six Glasses, for more on impact of beverages on human society.)

Such odd professions persist in places where cheap labor is in abundance, and slums sit toe-to-toe with skyscrapers. India has the best known of these--the wallahs of all stripes and varieties, who carry out tasks that in the so-called developed world are too expensive to conceive of (the dabbawallahs who deliver meals from a home to an office mid-day in the tens of thousands in Mumbai alone), engaged in largely by high-priced professionals (street barbers, doctors, and ear cleaners), or automated or motorized (dish- and clotheswashing).

Mental Floss compiled a list earlier this year of seven pre-alarm clock waker-uppers, including the knocker-upper. But I have children: I haven't needed an alarm clock since my first was born.

You Have the Right to Repair


Master disassembler iFixIt is promoting the Self-Repair Manifesto. The slogans are music to the ears of anyone who believes in the joy of discovery, whether you're learning about nature, abstract properties, or technological artifacts. They're giving away 1,500 posters of the above image at no cost; you can also download it as a PDF. The theses:

Repair is better than recycling.

Repair saves the planet.

Repair saves you money.

Repair teaches engineering.

If you can't fix it, you don't own it.

I've repaired a number of my devices in recent years, from washing machines to Apple laptops, and felt that I've learned, saved, and greened, all with the smug little pleasure of defeating The Man. Whoever That Man is.

iFixIt has a vested interest in this campaign worth noting: the company sells spare parts and upgrades, mostly for Apple equipment. On the flip side, iFixIt is assembling a giant directory of free repair manuals for all manner of manufactured goods. The company also publishes near-instant dissections of popular new electronics, like Microsoft Kinect and the iPhone 4, as a combination of promotion and exploration.

Explosion in Web 2.0 Factory Leads to Rockmelt


Tragic news today from the browser mines. An explosion rocked the Chromium operations, resulting in the death of good taste, simplicity, and utility. The resulting slag mixed together social networking, a form of RSS, and browsing into one giant, still smoking blob. Web 2.0 teams were immediately dispatched, but recovery is unlikely. We're going to have to live with Rockmelt.

rockmelt_screen_cap.jpgRockmelt is a social-networking and most-visited site dashboard wrapped around a browser. The notion is that instead of performing separate tasks in separate places, such as different tabs, windows, or programs, we're going to want to see what the hell all our friends are up to constantly, while watching streaming crap flow up both sides of the screen along with updates to Web sites we frequently view. Yeah, that's how I like to roll, yo.

I can see why the idea behind Rockmelt is appealing. It's why Flock was released over five years ago. As the number of social networks to which we belong grows, and the kind of activities we can perform is ever more tightly tied into Web behaviors, there's an obvious conclusion to draw: perhaps all of this could be in one place, making it more efficient and seamless. But that assumes that multitasking isn't a myth, and that people are incessantly in need of communication. I'm probably well outside the target demographic for this kind of software, but the target demographic is already using apps on smartphones, so they're not going to be interested in this browser, anyway. Rockmelt may be too hip for its waistline. Should I point out that Marc Andreessen is an investor?

I haven't used Flock, for the same reason Rockmelt isn't appealing: I actually have work to get done, and I'm not sitting constantly in front of a browser during my soi disant "idle time." (Idle time needs air quotes and double quotes around it, since I have two small children.)

Earlier in the year, I became fascinated with tools like Freedom, software for Mac and Windows that lets you save yourself from yourself. Freedom disables network access for a period of time you set. Other tools remove distractions by clearing the screen of apps except the one you're working on; several word-processing programs give you a blank sheet of paper and wipe the slate clean. The iPad has the same effect writ medium-large: whatever you're doing fills the screen, and it takes a conscious act to shift to another activity; you can't casually swap. (I wrote this up for the Economist in June as "Stay on target," complete with some neat comments from Peter Sagal of NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.)

If you don't have a prescription for Adderall already, just show Rockmelt to your physician, and he or she will be happy to oblige. I'll be in my unlit basement, viewing pages with lynx.

NASA image by Robert Simmon, using ALI data from the EO-1 team via Creative Commons.

Baa, Baa, BlackSheep, Have You Any w001?

Firesheep, meet BlackSheep. The Firesheep Firefox extension makes it a simple point-and-click operation to hijack the unsecured Web session of anyone on the same unprotected Wi-Fi hotspot network using any of a couple dozen popular sites. It was created as a demonstration of poor user data protection, but can be used maliciously, too. BlackSheep is a strange rejoinder. While I recommended here at BoingBoing that people consider using a VPN, encrypting communications with specific services, or using a secure Web proxy, Zscaler's free BlackSheep uses jiu-jitsu. It creates fake tokens and transmits them over the live network in a manner that Firesheep scans for. Then it alerts you if another system on the same network attempts to resubmit the same credentials. What you do next, I don't know. Stand up, start pointing your finger around the coffeeshop, and yell, "J'accuse!"?

Eight Days a Week

A press release arrived in my inbox a couple days ago in which a CEO, facing a major change in his line of business, promised to continue to work for his customers 24x7x365. I was impressed. It's not every day that a company vows to accelerate its customers to a high fraction of the speed of light relative to the Earth to squeeze seven years into the space of one. What's more, many companies have the same capability. I worry about the fabric of reality, already stretched by firms impacting operations and effectuating paradigms. Our frame of reference will be stretched, snapped, and broken. For details on repair, consult How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

Turn Lemon Bars into Lemonade

lemon_bars_janet_hudson.jpg The Cooks Source brouhaha has turned into at least one positive outcome. One advertiser in the publication, 2nd Street Bakery in Turners Falls, Mass., quickly contacted Cooks Source to pull its ads. Kudos poured in on Facebook on the bakery's page and the Cooks Source discussion area. Several people suggested sending cash to or placing orders with 2nd Street to offset the loss in business due to people calling them and emailing them to complain about Cooks Source, and the potential loss in business from halting these ads. Owner Laura Puchalski suggested redirecting the effort via a Facebook reply to those wanting to help her business out:
Ok Ok! If you are all set on showing some love for our local charities, my recommendation would be The Food Bank of Western MA. They serve over 7 million pounds of food PER YEAR to hungry families and elders in my county and surrounding areas. Pay it forward and fight hunger! We really are not looking to benefit directly from any of this, so do please just send your good will to a charitable cause!!
Image by Janet Hudson via Creative Commons.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Bandwidth


Cellular carriers' competing claims as to what constitutes 4G (fourth-generation) cellular data networks got me to thinking about how speed is only one part of the story about why allegedly faster networks are being built. I've been writing about Wi-Fi since 2000, and that informs my thinking, because Wi-Fi has matured to a point where raw speed doesn't have the same marketing value it once did, because networks are generally fast enough. Instead, multiple properties come into play.

I want to talk about bandwidth, throughput, latency, and capacity, and how each of these items relates to one another.

Let me start all folksy with analogies. For simplicity's sake, let's consider a medium-sized city that serves water to all its residents through one central reservoir. The reservoir's capacity represents the total pool of water it can deliver at one time to residents through pipes of varying sizes and at different distances.

The diameter of the pipe, of course, determines how much water can pass from the reservoir to your particular tap. All of the pipes are from somewhat to very leaky, so the diameter only represents the potential water you could receive at any given time (under the same pressure), while the leaks reduce that. You receive your raw diameter's water after those leaks take their toll. For people who live far away from the reservoir, I turn the pressure way down, because too much water leaks out. Thus, they receive less water with taps wide open than their pipes' diameters would suggest.

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