Technology and Science

Roomba positioning challenges

The Roomba iRobot looks like an incredibly fun product, though it’s reviews as a vacuum cleaner have been mediocre. I love, though, that the same technology has military uses: “The Army has deployed PackBot, a reconnaissance robot from iRobot, to scope out caves and other dangerous locales in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Clearly, someone has not read enough science fiction/horror, or they would worry about mixups between the vacuum cleaner firmware and the blow up the Taliban firmware.

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The coolest map ever

I collect maps, although just prints so far. One of my favorites has been this universe map from National Georaphic.

20040126universe.jpg

One of the authors of that map has collaborated to develop a map of the entire universe where essentially all interested features of space, from specific satellites in Earth’s orbit to the edge of the Milky Way and the limit of the visible universe, can be easily viewed on one flat surface. The trick was to to follow the same perspective as Saul Steinberg’s famous “View of the World from 9th Avenue”:

20040126steinberg.gif

Here’s a great NYT essay describing their accomplishment. And their paper itself is quite readable.

Here is the actual map. On Internet Explorer, push F11 to display it full screen.

And here are a bunch of other formats, in case you want to print it out and frame it, as I plan to do.

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Outlook/Exchange using RPC over HTTP with Wi-Fi

Like most people I know, I spend a huge percentage of my day in front of email. Because I’m in a corporate environment where scheduling and shared contacts are important, I use Outlook with Exchange. I have a very light laptop (Toshiba Portege 2000 at 2.1 pounds) with built-in Wi-Fi, and so I’m generally either working on it or suspending it temporarily by closing the lid.

Outlook XP couldn’t automatically move from connected to disconnected mode, so suspending the laptop would regularly hang the program requiring a Ctl-Alt-Del to kill Outlook. Outlook 2003 could move back and forth from connected mode, but required a PPTP VPN connection for connecting over Wi-Fi. (Besides needing a VPN from my home, we place our corporate Wi-Fi outside the firewall to avoid security issues and make it easier for visitors.) This meant that on opening the lid, I needed to wait several seconds for the Wi-Fi to get set up, and then click the VPN icon.

Well, thanks to Skymoon’s sysadmin Jim Murdoch, I now have Outlook 2003 (beta 2 technical refresh) running with Exchange Server 2003 (RC2), which supports RPC over HTTP. That means that Exchange’s proprietary Remote Procedure Calls get encapsulated to look like the regular back-and-forth of viewing and submitting a form to a secure web page. Not only does this obviate the requirement for the VPN, but it also enables me to use Outlook at several corporate offices which allow public Wi-Fi access but who’s firewalls block standard PPTP VPNs.

Of course, this is a horrible bastardization of Internet standards, since HTTP is supposed to only be for web pages and the firewalls were (possibly) intentionally configured to block VPN access. Anyway, I don’t care, as I want my mail to work, and doing it over HTTP should make it much more reliable. Those who believe in the “hard, crunchy outside with a soft, chewy center” firewall security model deserve what they have coming to them. (The quoted phrase comes from RFC 1636.)

The trick, in case you’re having problems with the same beta software, is that first, you need to install an obscure hotfix from Microsoft (thank goodness for Google groups which provided the pointer). Then, you need to know that you can check the status of the connection by right clicking the Outlook icon in the taskbar notification area while holding the control key and choose Connection status. Finally, the trick was to install the right certificate from the Exchange server to enable the SSL encryption to work under with HTTP. FYI, if your exchange server is yourserver.com, you can probably install the certificate from http://yourserver.com/certsrv. This was a standard Microsoft install experience.

Of course, I’m only back to what POP and IMAP have offered for a decade with regular Internet mail, but it’s still a huge improvement. Seconds after I open my laptop from anywhere with Wi-Fi connectivity, my new mail has downloaded (using RPC over HTTP over SSL over TCP/IP over Wi-Fi). It works quite well.

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SCO and the Scopes Monkey Trial

The Economist pulls off an unlikely analogy between the SCO Linux lawsuits and the Scopes Monkey Trials . How can you not love an article summary like: “Darl McBride, capitalist crusader against the commie horde of Linux users.” (Darl, cast in the fundamentalists role, is in fact a devout mormon.) Or a sentence like: “Microsoft and SCO vehemently deny that they are in league, but most open-sourcers assume that the evil Redmond giant is bankrolling a mercenary.”

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Bee hives

The most fascinating article you’re likely to read about how bee hives are like police states, and how they descend into anarchy if you breed in new characteristics. From Nature.

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Computer Voting Is Open to Easy Fraud (duh)

The NYT reports what should have been obvious, that closed, proprietary election systems are certain to have undisclosed bugs, and that those bugs can endanger our democracy (think Florida).

The solution is an open source effort to make a CD-ROM that drives a reference platform touchscreen PC, so that the code is open to all to verify, every CD-ROM can be check against the public code, and every voting machine can be confirmed to run the CD-ROM. Most important, such a system needs to have a voter-verifed paper trail with those paper ballots being the actual deciding record.

I would like to start a 501(c)3 to sponsor such an initiative, but I have not yet been able to find the time.

Here’s the analysis of the software.

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A classic NYT sentence

Online Dating Sheds Its Stigma as Losers.com: “It’s amazing how all women say they’re slender when a lot of them are overweight,” said one 79-year-old Manhattan man who lists himself as 69 on his Match.com profile.

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Your geese are cooked

The WSJ has this great section on geese:

What could possibly cause a majestic V-formation of honkers high overhead on a thousand-mile migration to the Arctic tundra to suddenly drop down and land on a golf course in, say, Greenwich, Conn., defy their instincts, and take up the posh suburban life?

The answer is startling to many Americans: These geese didn’t stop migrating. They never migrated. These geese, say wildlife historians, have virtually nothing to do with wild, migrating flocks. “Resident” geese — the ones most likely to be seen in suburban parks, ponds and soccer fields — are descendants of farmed geese and flocks of “live decoys” once used by professional hunters.

The Fish & Wildlife Service calls them “hybrids … originating in captivity and artificially introduced” around the country. In other words, in most places these geese are a non-native species thriving, like feral cats and kudzu, in an artificial habitat: the welfare-wildlife world of sprawl.

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Satellite television

The NYT reporting on schools reopening in Baghdad, has this quote:

The principal, Bushra Cesar, had splurged on Friday and bought a satellite television dish. After a lifetime with only Iraqi state television to watch, she was so enthralled with the choice of foreign channels that she stayed up all night flipping from station to station. “I saw the world for the first time,” she said. “I saw where we were. I saw presidents and cities and people from everywhere! The whole world!”

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Hyperthymia and happiness

Happiness had been a long-standing intellectual interest of mine, although the study has not produced a lot of breakthroughs for me. Here’s a fascinating NYT piece on hyperthymia, the condition of being uncommonly happy:

Cheerful despite life’s misfortunes, energetic and productive, they are often the envy of all who know them because they don’t even have to work at it….

So if some people are just born happy and stay happy for no good reason, does this mean that happiness is nothing more than a lucky combination of neurotransmitters?

For most people, no. Circumstance and experience count for a lot, and being happy takes work. But hyperthymic people have it easy: they have won the temperamental sweepstakes and may be hard-wired for happiness.

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