The Adventure Looms – and the Goodbye

It’s Wednesday night; on Saturday morning my pilgrimage to Kansas begins. I look forward to this time every year—my chance to hang with the Kansas Bunch, to revel in pure writing energy. This year is dramatically different, mainly for the journey.

I’ve never needed the company of the Kansas Bunch more dearly than I do this year. My first time I was living in Prague and I chose maximum intensity for the workshops and learned an enormous amount. Chuck was my roomie that year, and I hope to hell he’ll be back this time around. He always leaves me with a massive reading list.

I won’t go through the whole litany of names. It’s the Kansas Bunch, and I’m one of them. There’s a special slot for people like me, a sub-bunch called repeat offenders. I rejoin the ranks of the repeat offenders this year with an edge of despair. I’m still working on the same story as last time. And the time before that. That’s not the recipe for success.

And how am I preparing for the workshop? I’m tweaking the first novel I wrote, long ago, getting it ready to shop around (again) to people who pay for stories. The Monster Within still chokes me up at points. Kind of embarrassing when you’re editing at a sports bar. It’s petty intense at points. However, that’s not the story I’ll be asking the kansas Bunch to help me with. That story is rusting in the weeds.

But this year, it’s not just a trip to Kansas. I’ll be taking the most wonderful dog in the world to her new home. I’m not good at goodbyes, and fortunately the ritual is lost on the canine of our species. At least I have the honor of several days in a small car with the best dog in the world; my sweetie must go cold-turkey.

The pup herself is enthusiastic about any activity that involves a motor vehicle. Chiquita loves the road. She’s a dog that way. As am I. But somewhere in Oklahoma I’m going to say goodbye to a good friend. I’m going to fight not to blubber in front of strangers. I’m going to hand over Squeaky Fuzzy Monkey and a little piece of my heart will follow along.

It’s vanity, I know, but I hope that someday when I’m down Texas way I’ll see the girl again, and that she’ll remember me. It’ll be hard to tell; she loves everyone she meets.

1

A Brief Word to the Folks Who Make Firefox

“Firefox is dead to me,” my sweetie told me this morning. She’s had plenty of bad things to say about it in the past, but yesterday the frustration of her computer completely freezing up more than once put her over the edge. “I thought of calling you to vent,” she said, “but I figured you didn’t need that while you were at work.”

Had she called, she would have heard me complaining about Firefox as well. The latest release broke one of my sites at work, in a really stupid way. You see, one of the Web tools I work on has a time chart. I keep all the times in the system using the Unix epoch timestamp, which is simply the number of seconds since 1970. It’s a big number, but not unreasonably so, easily managed by any modern computer (and most of the old ones as well). It’s simple and it’s a standard.

Somewhere in the last few releases, Firefox broke my chart. It worked fine in Firefox 7, but not at all in Firefox 13. After some head-scratching, I discovered that the latest Firefox’s SVG code can’t handle numbers that big. Seriously, WTF? I added code to arbitrarily reduce the numbers and things started working again, only now my code is slower and more complex.

Though, to be fair, the only reason I have to support Firefox at all is because Safari sucks at printing tables.

Things We Take for Granted

I drove several miles today, and none of my wheels fell off. No bearings seized. Around the world, billions of miles were covered by automobiles, and I’m willing to bet that damn few wheels came off those vehicles. That just doesn’t happen anymore.

Think about what that means. Up until 100 years ago, wheels came off vehicles all the time. Now such an event would be freakish (or terribly negligent on the part of the owner of the vehicle — I do have a story or two).

But I’ve had the same car for well over a decade and while I’ve had to attend to a few issues, by my rough estimate each wheel has turned about 85 million times. And that’s nothing. It’s something that doesn’t even occur to us to worry about anymore. Wheels last longer than we do.

The only actual failure of a wheel in my lifetime that I know about (other than alluded stories of negligence above): One evening my dad and I replaced the bearing in the front right wheel of “my” Opel Kadett. I called it “the heap”, but it was a mighty little car. How that front right bearing came to be cracked is a story I’ve only told to select audiences. Until now.

I grew up in a small town in steep territory, seven thousand feet above the sea. One day I had an hour to kill before I was expected at the pizzeria where I worked. I got an idea. Drive this gutless little car up into the mountains as fast as I could for thirty minutes, and take a relaxing thirty back down to work.

Brief aside: The 1967 Opel Kadett was a vehicle far ahead of its time. It was a practical, economical car produced when American factories were vomiting up land yachts. Don’t tell mom that I once got ten people home in that car.

Speaking of don’t tell Mom, off I went up the hill. There are motorcycles with larger engines than the 1.1 liters boasted by the Kadett, and the bikes are better-tuned for power. But that day I wasn’t competing against any of those other vehicles. It was me and the road.

Another quick aside here: I love driving. Always have. I love hitting the curve just right and feeling my suspension flex perfectly. Maybe my tail drifts and I bring it back in line and hit the next curve perfectly.

The above is actually pretty funny, if you picture me in a 1967 Opel Kadett.

That day, I was pretty surprised by how far I got in 30 mins. There was a dicey moment, though. I was roaring up (as much as the heap could roar) on a horseshoe corner, and looming ahead was a cement truck.

It might have appeared to an outside observer that I had two options:

1) back off, and pass the cement truck on the other side of the curve
2) pass the sumbitch

I chose the latter. Pedal flat to the floor I swung out around the cement truck (who the f needs cement out there anyway?), dove back in to my lane and hit the hairpin with gusto. I’m pretty sure that’s when I cracked the bearing on my front right wheel. High five to the tires able to exert that force!

Later, back in the real world, Dad ordered a new bearing (can you even do that now?) and we installed it into the heap. That was a good night. It didn’t go smoothly; the old bearing resisted all our entreaties, until the entreaties involved a hammer. Finally it let go.

It’s not like we were rebuilding the transmission or anything, but that night we touched one of the most fundamental parts of the machine. One of the parts that simply doesn’t break anymore. I was deeper in the machine than most people get, into the parts that we take for granted, and my tour guide was my father.

A little late for Father’s day, but thanks, dad. Sorry about breaking the car.

2

Oh, eBay, how would I know what to covet without you?

There will always be the Next Toy, but this one will probably never grace my camera bag. You might recall me writing about my Totally Awesome® 85mm f/1.2 lens. Man, I love that lens, though it definitely gets the best of me sometimes. That’s what practice is for.

But 85mm is a pretty long lens. It’s for zeroing in on one thing and making the rest of the world fade away. I’m starting to get some good results with it. But it’s not a lens for capturing a street scene, or for holding up over the windshield and grabbing a landscape while driving.

I’ve been mildly curious about the 85’s little brother, the 50mm f/1.2 lens. I looked on eBay last night and found them going for quite a bit more than I was ready to pay. Whew! No new lens lust.

Until I saw…

The Canon 50mm f/1.0 lens. It doesn’t seem like much, that difference of 0.2, and most of the time it isn’t. But the scale is logarithmic, so a difference of .2 down at this end of the scale can be huge in extreme circumstances. (Compare to other lenses that go down to f/2.8 or so and are considered pretty fast. 1.2 is way small, and 1.0 is nuts.) I read reviews from people taking pictures when it’s so dark they can barely even see. Street scenes coming to life at night. Ridiculous control of depth of focus.

Heavy. Not manufactured anymore. Very expensive. The lesser lens will handle almost as much, and even then it’s hard to justify paying less than half as much for the almost-as-good lens.

Still, a guy can dream (of spending thousands of dollars for a piece of glass he doesn’t need).

A guy can dream.

2

Say Watt?

While moving to our new home, many of my hard-won good health habits fell by the wayside, including getting on the trainer several times a week. Yesterday I got back on at last. Hooray! I’ll be doing it again today, you can be sure.

I’ve mused in the past about the physiological effects of burning 500 calories at a stretch, but I’ve been wondering just how accurate the readout is on the exercise machine. Do I really burn more than 500 calories each time, or is the number inflated to make me feel good? Well, let’s do a little math and see what comes out, shall we?

A calorie is a measure of energy. The first thing to do is convert that to a unit that’s easier to work with, the joule. Several conversion factors from calorie to joule exist (the calorie changes depending on conditions), but they all fall in the ballpark of 4.2 joules per calorie, or 4200 joules per dietary calorie. Multiply by roughly 500 and you get in the neighborhood of 2,000,000 joules. (We’re rounding things off aggressively here, because we are dealing with estimates anyway.)

Is that a reasonable number? It’s harder than ever to tell, but now we can figure out how many watts I’m generating. A watt is a joule per second. It takes me half an hour to burn the alleged 500 cal, so if we take our 2 megajoules and divide by the number of seconds, we get 2000000/(30*60) ≈ 1100 watts. Now there’s a number we can check.

I found this interesting article which has a lot of facts but no references. It seems to borrow (without attribution) from this wikipedia article which in turn cites “lab experiments”. Wherever the original source, we get that an in-shape person can sustain 3 watts/kg of body mass for more than an hour. So if we take what I would weigh if I was in shape and multiply by 3, that would be a reasonable output.

And that’s… 220 watts at the heaviest definition of “in shape” for me. Not even close to what the machine says.

OK, I could never sustain that rate for a full hour, so let’s fudge the number upwards a little and call it 250 watts.

That’s still less than a fourth of what the machine says I’m burning. Could it really be so far off?

Well, there’s another factor in the muddle. The articles above talk about the energy I’m producing, not the calories I’m burning. this article gives a once-more-unattributed (“has been measured”) number of 18-25% for the efficiency of human muscle. So, every joule a cyclist produces requires burning at least four joules of stored food energy.

By that estimate, if I’m producing 250 watts of power, I have to be metabolizing at a rate of about… 1100 watts!

Which is to say, 500 dietary calories in half an hour is probably a reasonable estimate, as long as we don’t forget the “estimate” part.

BONUS! Here’s another interesting article, in which the author actually cites his sources. Hooray!

1

The Integral Trees

I joke sometimes about the maps in the first pages of fantasy stories. When I opened The Integral Trees by Larry Niven, what I found were schematics. Niven, never one to shy away from building unusual worlds, outdid himself on this one. How can you create an atmosphere dense enough to breathe without a planet? Well, one way to do it is to create a donut of gas around a neutron star. Then, to make the region warm enough to support life, get that system captured by a nice yellow star.

So now we have a world that is an enormous volume of space, filled with tufts of plant life, spheres of water, and trees. The trees are vast, potentially hundreds of kilometers long, held by tidal forces with one end pointing “in” at the neutron star, the other “out”. The ends of the trees are swept by the winds of the “smoke ring” – the region of the dust torus dense enough to support life. The wind-swept ends of the trees make them resemble integral symbols from mathematics.

There are Earthlings living on the trees and in the floating puff-balls of jungles. They came in a ship long ago, but while the ship remembers them, it’s been a few hundred years and science is steadily being lost.

One thing I really liked: Language has drifted. Kilometers are klomters, which if you ask me is a way better word. Cursing and euphemisms have changed as well to match their new surroundings. A few good curse words can really frame a society. The people in the story would never, ever, use the phrase “integral tree”, and I don’t think Niven should have, either.

The biggest danger to our tree-dwelling humans is simply falling off. Humans are the only creatures in the system unable to propel themselves through the air. Everything else can — and I mean everything. If you drift too far out and don’t have a rope or pressurized seed pod to propel you back, well, you’re out of luck.

There are some interesting people in the story. Times are lean for the Quinn tribe, and they send out their cripples and dissidents on an “expedition” up the tree trunk looking for water and food, a transparent attempt by the leadership of the tribe to reduce the number of mouths to feed. The tree’s position has been disturbed and now it’s too far in. The tree is dying, though few of the tribe accept that.

The expedition reaches the midpoint of the trunk about the time we learn how it is the trees adjust their course. This does not go well for many of the people living on it, and our expedition finds itself clinging to an enormous piece of bark, drifting through the void and dying of thirst. They survive that adventure, of course, and more hardship follows.

This isn’t grand literature; while it touches on deeper themes it is first and foremost an adventure of life and death in a world more alien than most. If you like that stuff, do give this one a try.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a 15 ct Round Diamond Tennis Bracelet), I get a kickback. The version I chose to link to includes a sequel which I have not read.

Venus!

I knew that there would be lots of people taking pictures of the sun as little Venus crawled across its face, and I knew that I could never hope to match the pros. I decided instead to emphasize the surroundings of the shoot instead. I happen to live near a city with a distinctive skyline, so I thought I might try for a dramatic sunset that just happened to have the little black spot of Venus on the sun.

But where could I stand so that the sun would set right behind the Transamerica tower? I fretted over maps and even drove up the coast on an unsuccessful scouting mission, but in the end I discovered that the ruler tool in Google Earth made the job ridiculously simple. I knew the sun would set at 300° azimuth, so I just had to click on downtown San Francisco and draw a line at 120° over to the other side of the bay. The ideal spot was right at the end of the runway at Oakland International Airport. I didn’t quite get to the ideal spot, but darn close.

As you can see in the pics, I was not the only one who did the math. All that was left was for the gods of photography and those of meteorology to shake hands.

I had a problem with stupidity for a while; fortunately I got over it before the critical period. Also, nothing makes dirt on your sensor show up like shooting at really high f-stops. Should have cleaned diligently before a last-chance-in-this-lifetime photo op. There were light clouds on the horizon, so my dream shot was not to be, but as the sun passed through a gap just above rooftop-level I shot like crazy. In retrospect, I should have shot even more, and exposed some of them far less, to give Venus a chance. As it is, however, I got about sixty nice sunset shots to choose from for this gallery. Not bad for an evening’s work.

3

Building the Web of Trust – the First Baby Step

A few weeks ago I wrote about the way secure connections on the Web are set up and why the system as it stands is vulnerable to abuse — or total collapse. I’d like to spend a little time now devoted to specific things we can all do to make the Web safer for everyone. This attempt to turn the ocean liner before it hits the iceberg may well be futile, which will inevitably lead to governments being the guardians of (and privileged to) almost all our private conversations and transactions.

So, I have to try.

Security and privacy are related and a key tool for both is encryption. A piece of data is scrambled up and you need a special key (which is a huge number) to unscramble it. Modern systems use two keys, and when the data is scrambled with one, it can be unscrambled with the other.

When I get a message from Joe, I can use the public half of his pair of keys to unscramble it. If that works, then only someone who has Joe’s secret key could have sent the message. Joe has effectively “signed” the message and I can tell he wrote it and that it hasn’t been tampered with since.

The catch is, if someone gave me a bogus key and said it came from Joe, then all those messages that supposedly came from Joe actually came from someone else. These days most of the certificates (the files that contain the keys) out there are created and confirmed by a handful of companies and governments, and the software we use trusts these certificates implicitly. You are not even asked if you think Comodo is trustworthy, diligent, and none of its subsidiaries has been hacked (which happened), the decision has been made for you.

It is conceivable that we can replace this centralized authority system, but so far it’s not simple. Practically speaking, nothing big is going to change until things are much more obvious. Still, one of the first stepping-stones is in place, so we may as well get that part into common use, which would accelerate the rest of the process.

Here’s my thesis: With technology today, all emails should be signed, and any email to someone you know should also be encrypted. I look forward to the day I can reject all unsigned email, because it will be spam. As a side effect, jerssoftwarehut.com won’t get blacklisted in spam filters because some other company used that address in the “from” field of an email they sent. Email is fundamentally flawed, the big companies are too busy arguing about how to fix it, and it’s time to do it ourselves.

How do we get to this happy place? It’s actually pretty simple. It takes two steps: create a pair of keys for yourself and turn on S/MIME in your email program. If everyone did those things, the Internet world would be a much happier place. Plus, once we all have our keys, the next phase in revamping Web security, building the Web of Trust, will be much simpler (once the software manufacturers realize people actually want this — another reason we should all get our keys made).

If it’s so easy, why isn’t everyone doing it already?

All the major email programs support S/MIME, but they don’t seem to think that ordinary folks like you and me want it. All the documentation and tools are aimed at corporate IT guys and other techno-wizards.

I’m going to go through the process in general terms, then show specific steps for the operating system I know best. I borrowed from several articles which are listed at the bottom, but my process is a little different.

Step 1: Get your keys. Some of the big Certificate Authorities offer free keys, and while that route is probably easier and absolutely addresses our short-term goals, it does nothing to address the “what if the CA system breaks?” problem. So, for long-term benefits, and getting used to our new “I decide whom I trust” mentality, I recommend that we all generate our own certificates and leave the central authority out of it.

The catches in Step 1:

  1. It’s not obvious how one generates a key in the first place, gets it installed correctly, and copies the key to all their various devices.
    1. For Windows, it may depend on what software you use to read your email. Here’s an article for Mozilla (Firefox and Thunderbird): Installing an SMIME Certificate.
    2. For Mac, read onI’ll be publishing instructions soon.
  2. I’ve read (but not confirmed) that Thunderbird (the Mozilla email app) requires that certificates be signed by a CA.
    1. You can create your own CA – basically you just make your certificate so it says “Yeah, I’m a Certificate Authority”.
    2. If I know you personally, you can use my CA, which I created just yesterday for my own batch of certificates. If you’re interested let me know and I’ll tell you how. It’s pretty simple.
  3. When you generate your own keys, they won’t be automatically trusted by the world at large. That’s the point. The people you interact with will have to decide whether to trust your certificate. In the near term, this could be a hassle. It’s something people just haven’t had to deal with before. You can:
    1. Educate them, get them on board, and not worry too much if people get an “untrusted signature” message and don’t know what to do about it. That way they’ll at least notice there’s a signature at all.

For all those catches, there’s an alternative: go back to using a trusted Certificate Authority like Comodo to generate your certificate, and at least get used to signing and encrypting everything. Maybe later you can switch to a self-signed certificate.

Ironically, in the case of these free certificates from the big companies, they’re probably less trustworthy than one you generate yourself. All the CA confirms is that they sent the cert to the associated email address after they made it. But, our software trusts them for better or worse, and if that makes adoption of secure communication happen faster, then I’m good with that.

The catches in Step 2:
Really, there aren’t any. Somewhere in the preferences of your email reader you can turn on S/MIME (on Mac, installing your certificate seems to do that). You can probably set it to sign everything — and you should. The next step is to learn how to interact with the signed messages you receive. Do you trust the signature? (Don’t take this lightly – if possible confirm the email you got through another means. You only have to do this once.) If so, you can tell your computer and it will save your friend’s public key. Now you can send an encrypted message back to that person, and they’ll be able to trust your key, too. Between you two, you’ll never have to think about it again. Your communications will simply be secure, with no added effort at all.

Note:
I intended to put the step-by-step instructions for Mac here, but it’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon and even though I’m sitting outside, I have the urge to go do something besides type technical stuff into a computer, prepare a list of references, and all that stuff. So, that will have to wait a day or two. It’s time to let this episode run free!

Pretty Sure the Cyberspace Open is Dead

It’s too bad; the contest had a lot going for it. One of those things that worked great in theory but not in practice. It’s easy to calculate the cash the organizers reaped (rather a lot), but even though the contest was about meeting deadlines, they could not hit their own.

I once ran a contest at writing.com, and as with Cyberspace Open, I promised a thoughtful review to each entrant. Let me tell you, that’s not trivial. Though my reviews were much more detailed, I still only had to do a few of them, and it took forever.

I bitched about the contest even as I participated, but I’m sorry to see it gone. It really was a fun challenge that helped me develop as a writer.

Cyberspace Open had a good run for a few years, before getting crushed by its own popularity. The organizers then added a new marketing element—they got mediocre actors to read the top three entries and let the public vote. Perhaps the contest was already doomed, but that killed it sure. That, and a failure to enforce adherence to their own rules.

I miss the contest. It was right for me. Should it come back, I’d jump in in a heartbeat.

Howdy, Neighbor!

As the Information Age plunges on, we find the definition of “neighbor” changing. We have our geographic neighbors, but more and more our closest neighbors are people who might be thousands of miles away. It’s kind of cool.

One of the great things about neighbors is that they watch out for you. When bad things happen, your neighbors are there to help. The people who live near my house seem like a good bunch; ol’ George sits at the top of the list (based on charisma) but Lois is not far behind. If they need a hand I’ll give it, no questions asked.

I’d like to extend that to my online neighbors. I have a big-ass hard drive (well, medium-ass) and I can back you up. CrashPlan makes it easy and it’s free. Your data will be strongly encrypted so I can never figure out what it is I’m backing up for you. But if a meteor (or a power surge) strikes your home, at least your data will be safe.

Don’t think too hard about this. Just say, “Yeah, Jer, I wouldn’t mind having my most important stuff backed up outside these walls.” There’s really no reason not to.