Is ISS really unsafe?

New Scientist

bq. Minutes of a meeting held at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on 10 September, obtained by the The Washington Post, reveal that two NASA medical experts refused to sign flight certificates authorising the current mission to the ISS.

How much of this was due to a genuine safety concern, and how much was paranoia over lawsuits and the current blame culture surrounding NASA? For example:

bq. Cintron and Langdoc were especially concerned that sensors used to monitor the space station’s air supply for dangerous trace elements is currently broken.

As opposed to the normal, everyday air on earth, which is chock full of “dangerous trace elements”? This strikes _me_ as CYA activity…

posted at 7:34 pm on Friday, October 24, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on Is ISS really unsafe?

Technology, Unintended consequences, and security

[ Catching up on old news. ]

So over in Detroit, “officials are worried”: about a new gadget for sale that can change traffic lights from red to green.

It makes sense to create green lights for emergency vehicles, because they respond faster when they don’t get stuck in traffic. Right? So, a long time back, several cities (including Detroit) installed sensors on traffic lights, and transmitters on emergency vehicles, that would allow the emergency vehicles to change red lights to green.

Now consumer versions of the transmitters are available for sale, so legislators are scrambling for a solution.

It occurs to me that this is a common theme. New technology arrives, available to a restricted few (however necessary that restriction may be). Then someone comes along and breaks into a system, or clones a new technology, or whatever, and now it’s available to all (with undesirable consequences).

The light changers work with infra-red transmissions, and are apparently quite simple. In my opinion, it would have been only slightly harder to install a lower-cost version of military IFF gear instead of an expensive version of a TV remote control.

But security is too expensive to install up front, and we don’t really need it anyway, right?

I’m not being completely fair here; I’ve done my fair share of cutting corners over time. But the point here is that, in our modern, unrestricted marketplace, it really does only take _one_ person to figure out a loophole and exploit it…

posted at 8:22 pm on Saturday, October 11, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on Technology, Unintended consequences, and security

Multiple Monitors Increase Productivity

According to a study by NEC-Mitsubishi, ATI, and the University of Utah, “Mutliple Monitors Increase Productivity”:

I wonder if we can liberate some funds from IT based on this study? <grin>

Read more at “Tom’s Hardware”: and “EE Times”:

(via “/.”:

posted at 8:38 pm on Thursday, October 09, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on Multiple Monitors Increase Productivity

PaperClip for Cell Phones

“Digital Convergence”: went away, probably because they had to give away millions of free barcode readers in order to make their “connect bar codes to the internet” solution work. Handheld, cabled-to-the-computer barcode readers were too clumsy for everyday use (although mine works great attached to an old PC in my library :-).

“NeoMedia Technologies”: has the right idea: “PaperClick”: for Cell Phones lets you take a picture of a barcode with your camera phone, and have information about that barcode appear on your cellphone’s browser.

The example everyone’s talking about is “displaying the Amazon price for a book”:, but I think there are other interesting (if more mundane) uses, like bringing up nutritional data or competitive pricing while browsing supermarket shelves…

The big winners are the cell phone providers, who now have a “killer app” for the high-speed data networks they’ve been building :-)

[ I wonder what’s up with DC’s patents on this technology? ]

posted at 9:38 pm on Friday, October 03, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments (4)
  1. joy says:

    If I remember it correctly, the problem with the cue cat wasn’t that it was cabled, but instead because all of your scans were monitored by Digital Convergence.

    There was a way to neuter the cue cat and turn it into a normal bar code scanner.

    Oh, and I still have mine sitting in an odds and ends box somewhere around here….

  2. Mike says:

    I have a Nokia 3650 phone and would like to try the bar code scanning software from NeoMedia. I could not find the software to download from the PaperClick site. Does anyone have the link?

  3. em-brof says:

    Bar Code Reader in Every Man’s Hand
    Soon, very soon, given the progression of camera phones, we will all have a bar code reader in our pocket….

  4. Palm and Java combo
    WebSphere Micro Environment (WME) Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) certified runtime environment will be available on Palm handhelds (good for them!).

    Now Java developers can use Tungsten devices to create Palm handheld Java applications (competition

Carrots, Eyesight, and Radar

Speaking of information warfare…

I can’t find a primary source right now, but Google certainly asserts that carrots aren’t as good for your night vision as we’ve been taught.

During the Second World War, the Allies didn’t want the Germans to find out about radar (but see update). They needed a way to explain how RAF pilots could “see” in the dark. Someone came up with the story that the pilots had a diet high in carrots, and this allowed them to see in the dark…

*Update:* Propaganda, propaganda everywhere, and nary a drop to drink :-).

As with all stories, the truth is a little muddier. The Allies, Germans, and Russians all had radar before the war (as Jeff comments). However, for the usual political reasons, only the Allies developed it for tactical use, building a network of radar stations blanketing the coast. Intel from several sources, including the radar net, was relayed “within minutes” to fighter squadrons. This rapid use of intel, combined with a tight command and control structure, is what tipped the balance in favour of the Allies during the Battle of Britain; radar was a relatively small component of this system.

Germany had better technology at the start of the war, but failed to capitalise:

bq. Hitler and Göring disdained [radar] as a mainly defensive weapon. Besides, they harbored a deep mistrust of scientists and engineers. Interservice rivalries and the hidebound traditions of the officer corps also hampered progress. It was not until 1944 that an air defense system as effective as Dowding’s went into operation in Germany.

There are ironies in the situation, too. The Germans tried to determine the purpose of the giant radio towers on the British coast, but since German scientists had discounted HF as “useless for radar”, they never figured it out. On the other hand, the Allies lost far more planes than they should have during the late part of the war. The Germans had finally started using radar defensively, but the Brits continued to deny German radar capabilities, and sent unescorted bomber squadrons straight into German defensive radar…

The fact remains, however, that the whole carrot story was deliberate mis-information to protect the secret of the British use of radar…

Some more references:

* “A Radar History of World War II: Technical and Military Imperatives”: (actually a book review, not primary source material).
* “Deflating British Radar Myths of World War II”:

posted at 12:25 am on Monday, September 29, 2003 in Random Thoughts, Science and Technology | Comments (2)
  1. jok says:

    That’s total and complete hogwash. The Germans were heavily into radar before and during WWII.

  2. jok says:

    If you search for “carrots” you will see that it was a story concocted for fooling Brits, not Germans. There’s probably more to this story, but off to work I go…

Word Recognition

In “Boom Bouma!”:, we read that:

bq. There are:
1: Word-shape is critical in word-recognition
2: The reader recognbises each letter in turn (serially) and then assembles a word
3: The reader recognises each of the letters at the same time (in parallel) and assembles a word.

bq. Kevin presented the evidence which supports and undermines or falsifies each of these propopositions, on the way addressing most of the objections which typographers are likely to raise.

bq. The bottom line: on the weight of evidence, Kevin supports the ‘parallel letter recognition’ model. People don’t he says, recognise whole-word shapes. Instead the recognise each of the letter components and then make a series of best-guesses on the information returned to assemble, first, phonemes and then words.

I, on the other hand, believe that we still have no idea how it works :-)

posted at 1:00 pm on Sunday, September 28, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on Word Recognition

More on Can you Raed Tihs?

From “slashdot”:

A Slashdot article appearing last Monday, which reported on the claim that scrambled words are legible as long as first and last letters are in place, was circulated to the University of British Columbia’s Linguistics department. An interesting counter-example resulted:

bq. Anidroccg to crad cniyrrag lcitsiugnis planoissefors at an uemannd, utisreviny in Bsitirh Cibmuloa, and crartnoy to the duoibus cmials of the ueticnd rcraeseh, a slpmie, macinahcel ioisrevnn of ianretnl cretcarahs araepps sneiciffut to csufnoe the eadyrevy oekoolnr.

As demonstrated, a simple inversion of the internal characters results in a text which is relatively hard to decipher.

posted at 12:56 pm on Sunday, September 28, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on More on Can you Raed Tihs?

Workweek Causes Climate Changes

Fascinating; researchers have found that diurnal temperature ranges are different between weekdays and weekends, and suggest that maybe atmospheric aerosols are to blame. More evidence that we really do affect the environment, and not always in predictable ways.

The effect is largest in North America, of course (remember we have more cars than licensed drivers now).

I’d like to see if the effect shows up on holiday mondays, too…

* “Scientific American News Blurb”:
* “Abstract”:
* Purchase PDF of “Observations of a "weekend effect" in diurnal temperature range. Forster and Solomon PNAS.2003; 0: 203403410-0.”: from the “PNAS website”:

posted at 10:25 am on Friday, September 26, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on Workweek Causes Climate Changes

How Ravenous Soviet Viruses Will Save the World

Wired 11.10: How Ravenous Soviet Viruses Will Save the World

In a nutshell:

Bacteria are becoming antibiotic resistant. Casual antibiotic use in people and animals has created several “superstrains” that are killing people (mainly in hospital surgical wards, but still).

Antibiotics are expensive and take a decade or more to develop, and bacteria are adapting faster all the time. Meanwhile, nature already has a perfectly good solution: for every bacteria out there, there exists a bacteriophage that eats it. Phages evolve with their bacterial counterparts; no complex scientific escalation required. Phages can be harvested from nature (by dropping a bucket into the Chesapeake Bay :-).

An interesting part of the article is how capitalism is getting it the way…

posted at 10:19 am on Saturday, September 20, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on How Ravenous Soviet Viruses Will Save the World

U.K. phone retailer bans e-mail

U.K. phone retailer bans e-mail | CNET

bq. John Caudwell, CEO of High Street mobile retailer Phones 4U, announced Thursday that he’ll ban all employees from using e-mail across the business.

bq. The reasoning behind the total ban is apparently to improve productivity by reducing the time Phones 4U employees spend unnecessarily on e-mail–which Caudwell estimates will save the company around $1.6 million (1 million British pounds) a month.

(1 million pounds/month on e-mail? Surely not!)

This seems a little drastic. Sure, e-mail can “chain you to your desk” if it is used poorly, but it has significant advantages over face-to-face communication in important areas:

* it’s not an interrupt: I can deal with e-mail on my time, not at the beck and call of the sender as with a telephone call or office visit.
* e-mail is high-bandwidth; It can transfer useful information much more effectively than a phone call. On the other hand, sometimes there is no substitute for getting two people together in front of a white board…
* e-mail crosses timezone boundaries. This isn’t an issue for a local phone retailer, perhaps, but is very useful when you are in Canada and have customers in Europe (plus 5 or 6 hours) and Australia (+12 to 14 hours)…

I think the better answer would be to train employees, instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater…

posted at 10:01 am on Saturday, September 20, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on U.K. phone retailer bans e-mail

Bluetooth DOA?

From “InfoWorld TechWatch: Bluetooth reality check”:

bq. Bluetooth isn’t going away, but the original idea that it would be ubiquitous as a cable replacement technology is pretty much dead in the water.

Well that sucks. I still think there are applications for short-range, low-cost wireless connectivity; 802.11 doesn’t fit the bill in many ways. It would be great to drop my camera, cell phone, and printer on a table next to my laptop and have them all communicating without a snake’s nest of USB cables…

Maybe that new personal server from Intel will revive the idea.

posted at 9:19 am on Saturday, September 20, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on Bluetooth DOA?

IBM Compatible

“Teal Sunglasses”: → “Daring Fireball: IBM Compatible”:

bq. the irony is this: the new PowerMac G5 is, in a literal sense, more “IBM-compatible” than a Wintel PC from Dell or HP.

Well said…

posted at 4:30 pm on Friday, September 19, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on IBM Compatible

Comfort Foods Reduce Stress

“Perverse Access Memory”: → “Comfort Foods Switch Off Stress, Scientists Find”:

Bad news for those of us that turn to food when we’re stressed out, and thus tend to be overweight…

bq. Eating calorie-rich food seems to calm the nerves, but eating too much can lead to obesity, depression and more stress.

bq. This is the first time it has been shown that the tendency to overeat in the face of chronic stress is biologically driven…

And the kicker:

bq. “If you use sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll instead of high-energy food to get stress-reducing pleasure, you miss out on the metabolic feedback,” he said. “You don’t shut down the chronic stress system. You just seek more cocaine. Things like saccharin won’t cut it. You need the real thing or the system won’t stay in balance.”

posted at 8:05 pm on Thursday, September 18, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on Comfort Foods Reduce Stress

Ordering of Letters doesn’t matter

Fascinating. As soon as I figured it out, I read the rest of the paragraph as fast as I could, which was pretty close to normal speed.

bq. Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, olny taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pcleas. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by ilstef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

The implications for my son are, well, frustrating. He’s seven, and he’s left handed, so learning to read and learning to spell are both slightly harder for him than for righties (according to unspecified research :-).

There was other research recently that shows that dislexia doesn’t manifest in other languages the way it does in English; I wonder if this spelling result holds true across languages, or if it too is a property of English?

(I got it from “Joi Ito’s Web”:

posted at 1:15 pm on Sunday, September 14, 2003 in Personal, Science and Technology | Comments (3)
  1. Hi, I just discovered your blog. I think your unspecified research might be incorrect. I am left-handed and have never had any worries about spelling. My handwriting is crap though, but that’s a whole different story altogether. In my experience, after meeting quite a few left-handed people, the lefties tend to be smarter and more analytical thinkers than righties.

    That’s just my two cents. please don’t give me change.

  2. jok says:

    Hey, I think you just discovered a neat scrabble tool.

  3. Harald says:

    The claim is that left-handed children manifest some of the same symptoms as dyslexic children; specifically letter reversals (b vs d, p vs. q) and letter transpositions (the classic god vs. dog :-). Lefties eventually grow out of this, and catch up with everyone else, but it does make learning to read a bit harder.

    Of course, since I’ve only seen this manifest in one person, I’m hardly qualified to support or refute said unspecified research…


“pykrete”: sounds like cool stuff. It’s a slurry of wood pulp and water that when frozen becomes very strong (unlike pure ice). I’ve seen it mentioned somewhere before, but I can’t remember where…

posted at 10:14 am on Wednesday, September 10, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on Pykrete

Subsonics cause anxiety

“Soundless Music Shown to Produce Weird Sensations”:

bq. British scientists have shown in a controlled experiment that the extreme bass sound known as infrasound produces a range of bizarre effects in people including anxiety, extreme sorrow and chills — supporting popular suggestions of a link between infrasound and strange sensations.

bq. “Some scientists have suggested that this level of sound may be present at some allegedly haunted sites and so cause people to have odd sensations that they attribute to a ghost — our findings support these ideas,” said Professor Richard Wiseman.

Cool research. I must admit that I’m slightly surprised, only because I knew a long time ago that subsonic sounds caused anxiety in people. We even experimented with them in our university residence… <grin>

posted at 7:05 pm on Monday, September 08, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on Subsonics cause anxiety

CD-R reliability questioned

An article in a Dutch computer magazine shows that CD-Rs can degrade in as little as a few months; the article has been getting a lot of weblog and media attention; See, for example, “this Register article”:

Scary news, although I’ve seen somewhere a comment that the CD-R shown in the graphic pictures was from a bad manufacturing run that has been recalled.

I have several old CD-Rs that are still readable, but I only just acquired my own CD writer, so I’m somewhat nervous about reports like this one…

posted at 10:28 pm on Tuesday, September 02, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on CD-R reliability questioned

Wireless ad-hoc networking

Way back in 1999, the 802.11 people added a new ‘flavour’ of wireless access: bridging via intermediate access points. Ths allows you to place several 802.11 access points in strategic locations without having to connect them all via wires. Manufacturers are apparently (finally?) adding support to their products; LinkSys and Apple have both done so; see this “O’Reilly Network article”: for more information.

At the same time, MIT is experimenting by building a _routed_ network using 802.11 access points and new routing algorithms that build an efficient topology across a cloud of wireless links; See “The Grid Ad Hoc Networking Project”: for more information.

Interesting stuff; we may yet be able to get rid of wires and maintain high-speed connections…

posted at 10:13 pm on Tuesday, September 02, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on Wireless ad-hoc networking

Failure is Always an Option

“Failure Is Always an Option”:

bq. But engineers do know that nothing is perfect, including themselves. As careful and extensive as their calculations might be, engineers know that they can err — and that things can behave differently out of the laboratory.

bq. If engineers are pessimists, managers are optimists about technology. Successful, albeit flawed missions indicated to them not a weak but a robust machine.

The constant struggle between engineering and management, in a nutshell. We see it in the software world, too, where marketing schedules and “first to market” pressures clash with our desire to create well-designed, well-coded, defect-free software.

It’s a healthy struggle. “Perfect is the enemy of good”…

posted at 10:45 pm on Friday, August 29, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on Failure is Always an Option

The Tyranny of Email

Critical Section – The Tyranny of Email

bq. Email is one of the greatest things the computer revolution has done for personal productivity. Used improperly, it can also hurt your productivity. This article discusses ways to use email effectively. Then it goes beyond that and talks about how to be productive, period.

A good read. When I’m concentrating, I often ignore my e-mail, and I’ve encountered incedulity from some of my coworkers.

His comments on “warping-off” are good too :-)

posted at 4:44 pm on Wednesday, August 13, 2003 in Science and Technology | Comments Off on The Tyranny of Email
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