The technology writer for the New York Times has a story in this morning’s paper that describes a service called OpenDNS. There is a DNS (Domain Name System) service which translates the alphabetic characters in a web address into the actual IP numerical address, but the new guy is said to have certain advantages. For one thing, it is said to be crash-resistant. At those times when you can’t get to the Web, it is probably the DNS machines that are having trouble. Crashes are very inconvenient, but OpenDNS says it hasn’t had one in five years. Anti-phishing protection is offered as well, so you shouldn’t get any more messages claiming to be from your bank, saying that there’s a problem with your account and if only you give them your id/password they’ll fix it in a jiffy. And there are parental control features to block certain sites. It’s worth a few minutes for you to read it.
Patricia Fara’s new book Science: a four thousand year history was well reviewed in the American Scientist just about the only place you can find lengthy and thoughtful reviews of books about science. The section in the magazine called On the Bookshelf is where you can find these chewy items, and if you haven’t consulted this trove, I recommend strongly that you do. Anyway, back to business. Professor Fara has undertaken what many would consider a superfluous or even an impossible task: to write a one-volume history of science. This might be superfluous because we have enough of these to fill a railroad car as it is. And some might judge the job to be impossible, because, well, come on! ALL of Science, in one book, at less than 500 pages! No can do. Well, the reviewer disagrees, and gives the author good marks for her clear writing and for her willingness to avoid some traps, such as too avid a liking for “great man” approaches when she stresses that nobody works in a vacuum. There had to be an intellectual substrate out of which the new ideas developed. And she is at pains to point out that continuity can be just as important a factor as sudden change. Scientific ideas, in this view, are not immediately displaced by new ones. They can live on in new forms often for a long time. And, crass influences such as the love of profit can influence what happens in science as much as love of discovery for its own sake. The author is mildy criticized for talking (a little) too much about physics (her specialty) and using a few too many British examples. Wester science was born out of a desire to understand and predicit what goes on in the world. And this book does a good job of telling how that came about.
Hugo Gernsback was born on this day in 1888. That may not mean much to you when you see it just like that, but when you realize that Hugo was one of the big deals in early SciFi publishing, in fact, THE big deal, the perspective changes a bit. In fact, he was the guy who came up with the term â€œscience fictionâ€. We dip into this genre every once in a while, because a lot of people in our readership are SciFi fans, nuts even. And, that type of storytelling has become a very important segment of the publishing industry, and we like to keep an eye on publishing, so it all fits. Or, at least I tell myself that it does. HG came to the â€œland of opportunityâ€ in 1905, but was already a convert to highly imaginative writing with a scientific atmosphere. As kid, he came across Percival Lowellâ€™s descriptions of â€œcanalsâ€ on Mars, so his imagination took off. Here in the States, he edited a mag for radio enthusiasts, and remember, this was at the infancy of that technology. HG moved into magazine publishing, which was at the time, a growth industry, and in 1926 he kicked off AMAZING STORIES, the premier issue of which had tales by worthies such as H. G. Wells, Tolkien and nobodies such as H.P. Lovecraft. But, Hugh added the authorsâ€™ addresses to their by lines, as a marketing gimmick. Lovecraft felt that Hugo had cheated him on his payments, but, on the other hand, Amazing Stories readers were soon contacting the writers directly, in a kind of postal fan club. So, maybe the exposure balanced out the low pay. Maybe. HG was around for a long while, one of the scrappiest in a very tough business, winning this one and losing that one. He died in 1967. His name lives on in the Hugo Award, given annually to worthy authors.
We are all familiar with it. People born before the advent of word processors suffered with it. It’s not the best method, but we can’t get rid of it because scores of millions who hate it would have no alternative. It’s QWERTY, the common keyboard layout for teletype, typewriters, computer keyboards and other data entry devices. QWERTY was born shortly after the end of the American Civil War, introduced by a bright young spark named Stephan Sholes, from the city of Milwaukee, who wanted to come up with the best layout for keys on the mechanical typewriter which was the hot item back then. He tried various layouts, and found that certain ones, which seemed obvious at first glance, gave poor results in practice. Commonly used keys placed near each other would clash as the typist worked, slowly things down, or in the worst instances, damaging the machine. He tried this and he tried that but the common layout we have today seemed to be the one that combined the ability to work rapidly with the freedom from jammed up keys. That layout was QWERTY. When the inventor teamed up with the Remington company which produced a line of good quality machines which sold well, QWERTY became pretty much a de facto standard. It spread around the world, with some modifications for use in other languages. So a keyboard in German doesn’t look exactly like similar one in English, because the two languages have different frequency patterns. But, by and large, QWERTY “straight” or modified, dominates. The BBC news blog has an item about the history of the QWERTY layout, as interpreted by author and actor Stephen Fry who is hosting a BBC series on the English language and its pleasures and perils. The piece notes that ergnonmics experts agree that QWERTY is far from the best. But the size of the installed user base…hundreds of millions… makes any shift to a simpler or more efficient system pretty much out of the question. Some contenders have come forqard. The Dvorak layout has been around since before WWII, and you can buy computer keyboards set up in it, but it’s definitely a minority preference. Court stenographers use a very simple keyboard that can work very rapidly, but the learning curve is pretty steep, since it uses syllables instead of letters. So QWERTY continues to rule, not as the best, but as the best of a bad bargain. Changing to something else is too much trouble, so we stay where we are.
“Cheez it! The cops!” or its Korean equivalent rang out in Google’s office in Seoul as the constabulary raided the place in an effort, somewhat heavy-handed it seems to me, to find out whether Google had captured and stored personal information during the work-up of its StreetView feature for Maps. A police raid would seem to be well down on the list of available options, but for some reason, it was booted to the top. Maybe the Koreans don’t trust Google to level with them, despite the “don’t be evil” motto. Dunno. But the company said it would cooperate with the investigation. StreetView was what got Google in wrong with authorities in Germany, as you may recall. Google is planning to launch the service there, limiting it to the twenty largest cities in the country. In both countries, the problem seems to be that, while cruising around in their little cars and bicycles, the Googlers are picking up all kinds of transmissions from the buildings they pass, including passwords, email addresses, bank information and other things that are not germane to the task of making maps. Maybe the picking-up isn’t so bad but hanging on to it for no obvious reason raises suspicions. Google keeps getting burnt on this point, so, maybe it’s time for them to have a staff meeting or something.
The honorable detective is Charlie Chan. And the scrutiny comes from an academic who has devoted a good part of his life and career to the study of the character created by novelist Earl Derr Biggers back in the 1920s. Hollywood, always on the lookout for a good story, got hold of CC and launched the character onto a movie career resulting in the 47 films, many of them starring a heavy drinking Swedish actor named Warner Oland. But the role was filled by two others after Oland died from his excessive interest in the bottle. Charlie Chan was supposed to be a lieutenant on the Honolulu police force, who solved cases, in the movies at least, with a combination of Holmesian powers of observation and keen analytical logic. The character spoke slowly, in measured pidgin-English, omitting articles and prepositions, and laced with semi-Confucian oracular pronouncements. The plots were often ridiculous, and got more so as the series progressed and writers strained for ideas. Today, many view the whole Chan corpus as hopelessly insulting to Americans of Oriental descent, and not too thinly veiled racism. An attempt a few years ago to revive the character foundered quickly. In my time, the series was enormously popular, especially with us kids. It was big news in Kid-dom to find out that a new Charlie Chan movie was playing, almost as big news as a new Bowery-boys movie. The Chan movies were certainly not authentic depictions of Chinese-Americans, but, when I think about it, nobody, kids or grown-ups, was laughing at Charlie Chan. His reputation was world-wide. When he traveled to New York, London, Paris or wherever, and encountered the inevitable dead body, people of all nationalities deferred to his authority, accepted his conclusions, smacked themselves on the head for not having seen what CC caught right away, and followed his advice. He was a venerable figure, sage and dignified. Comic relief came from the antics of his thoroughly Americanized sons, at least one of whom was on hand to “help” Pop and, who got into scrapes trying to solve the crime on their own, forcing a rescue by their exasperated father. And that itself provides an interesting sub-text, as the cultural critics say nowadays: Respect authority, obey, going off on your own can be dangerous and causes problems for others, prepare yourself by discipline and study, wait till you’re ready. None of these ideas would fly very high with producers today although parents might like to see them underlined.
In today’s New York Times, there’s a story about all this and the work of Prof. Yuante Hwang, the self-confessed Chan freak, who has an interesting personal odyssey, and who has dug up all you ever wanted to know about this, including the interesting fact that the character was based at least in part on a real person, Chang Apana, who was in fact a detective on the Honolulu PD. He also tells us that the Chan movies were extremely popular in China, maybe for some of the reasons I mentioned.
The fact that Chan movies were popular with kids probably tells you all you need to know, but if you’re up some night, sleepless or just restless, and there’s a CC on the SuperLate show, you might give it a try.
OK, we’re all getting a bit tired of this Blackberry business. It’s an interesting and important story, but in this age of highly limited attention spans, we want to say “enough, already!” Before we go, however, here’s a little note of warning. The writer in the article linked below wants to point out that the much valued security of BB is intended for coporate clients, not for the employees carrying the gadgets around. In fact, that little guy has some interesting features, such as the ability to record and track every keystroke its schlepper makes, and forward this possibly quite amusing information to corpoate HQ. Apart from key logging, the BB has a tracker built in so that They could, if they wanted to, track the carrier anywhere and everywhere. No more stopping into Moe’s for a little lifter when you are supposed to be in the company library doing research. “It sees you when you’re sleeping, it knows when you’re awake, it knows if you’ve been bad or good”…. you get the idea. Talk about Orwell. I think the same thing is probably true of cell phones, a lot of them at least, and probably the ones that are issued by the company as a “perk”. Yeah, right. You can’t go to the jakes with management’s knowing. And the consumer Blackberry is about as secure as the ordinary cell phone, which is not much at all.
This morning’s New York Times has a long story in the Business section about the recent dust-up between Research In Motion, the group running Blackberry and several governments, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, over access to the content of messages sent on the system. It seems India is on the list as well, with concerns stemming from the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that were so deadly. The piece gives a little more background, and I don’t mean technical details. For one thing, the Gulf states and India are saying the Western nations seem to get what they want, so what’s the problem? It may not be the case that RIM is releasing material, but that courts are issuing warrants making ISPs and other service providers cooperate, leaving RIM out of the picture. Or, security services in western countries may have figured out a way to decrypt Blackberry traffic as needed. They might settle for traffic logs to link message senders and receivers, without being able to read the actual messages, a kind of traffic analysis technique, which can be very useful even in the absence of readable text. BB is being mum and saying it hasn’t given anything away to anybody, period. The piece notes that there is little evidence that US law enforcment find BB’s encryption troublesome. That could mean that the NSA can decrypt BB traffic or it can mean that they’re getting what they need some other way, that allows RIM to say, with strict accuracy, that the company has not released any content.
The Board of B&N has decided that maybe it’s time for the company to go on sale. You have to be a business type person to get all of this, but there is some concern among investors about the stock, while the Board members are saying the stock is too cheap and that the company has a lot going for it. One of the people supposedly looking at a purchase is the chain’s founder Leonard Riggio. B&N has a lot of very good property, but sales are moving to an online basis, and nobody is really sure about the impact of digital versions that one can secure almost anywhere. Is it possible that the big chain book stores will go under? Sure. Is it possible that there is life (as we know it, Jim) on other worlds? Sure. The big book chains wiped out the community bookstore and now electronics are going to wipe out the big chains? I would miss the B&N. That quiet, and all those people sitting there reading.
The CEO of Research In Motion, which created and now operates the Blackberry system is quoted in this morning’s New York Times as telling, very nicely, the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to buzz off and leave BB alone. The nations in question told RIM that they wanted access to the messages sent over the Blacberry system and if they didn’t get it, they would shut off access to BB in their countries. But, this morning’s article shows the CEO taking a tough line: we can’t do this, or we’ll comprise security of bank records, online purchases and lots more besides. Strong encryption is one of the features that makes BB attractive to users. The fact that the system runs on its own network is also a draw. The Saudis and UAE have problems with terrorist and separatist movements, and BB says its sympathetic. But, allowing access to secure traffic would be to give the store away and the company can’t do it.