Monday, December 3, 2007

No Longer A Furnishing Virgin

This is the first new piece of furniture that I've ever owned.

Red is not my favorite color, but I've decided that it's a color that goes well with my house, and the greens of the forest outside my window. It replaces an absolutely dreadful sofa, that was collapsing... literally.

A Whole Lotta Libido Goin' On

Would you run for president? I probably wouldn't, but if I did, it would probably be for reasons like saving the world, or some other altruistic B.S. like that. But not Lee L. Mercer, Jr.. No, he has much bigger fish to fry. Here is one of the many reasons he is running for president:
49. To Prove the United States Government killed my sex life, my wife sex life, my daughter-in -laws sex life both may sons and other of my family members sex life with Espionage Experimentation and Espionage Exploitation sex killing. (sic)
I'm glad that someone has the courage to use the presidential pulpit to air his dirty laundry about his dirty dancing. And his wife's. And his sons'. And their wifes'. (How he has all of this in-depth knowledge about his family's intimate lives... is not something I want to know).

I suspect Mr. Mercer's problems run deeper than his sex life, but it's clear he's running for almost purely personal reasons. Which, strangely, makes me think of our current president.

Thanks to Swing State Project for the link.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Restless Blackjack Syndrome

I can't imagine how difficult it must be, to be afflicted by the horrible condition known as Restless Leg Syndrome. Suffers have symptoms like, "an urge to move, usually due to uncomfortable sensations that occur primarily in the legs." When I was a kid, we called that being antsy. But from the nifty little article on Wikipedia I gather that at least some people have real problems with it.

Thankfully, Mirapex is ready to heal your restlessness (with a doctor's prescription of course). I experienced a Mirapex advertisement today, and one phrase blew my mind:
... if you experience increased gambling, sexual, or other intense urges, then see your physician...
Come again? Should we be calling it Viagrapex? That must be some potent stuff indeed.

I kind of thought of Restless Leg Syndrome as a great alibi when you kick your partner in bed. Sorry honey, I guess it's the RLS acting up again! (wink, wink) But it sounds like the side effects are even worse. After all, it's easy to blame an innocent kick on RLS, but it's quite a bit harder to explain how you got caught binging on Butterfingers at a Texas Hold'em poker orgy. I guess it was the Mirapex, sweety!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

World's Highest Product Placement

Continuing on the theme of the Everest show, I started looking a little more closely at the climbers' jackets, and I started seeing things. Well actually, I started seeing corporate logos. In particular, the best climber, Mogens Jensen, has a bunch of "gsk" logos stuck to his jacket and his hat. Could that be the drug conglomerate Glaxo-Smith-Kline? Yep.

And if I wasn't mistaken I also saw logos for Motorola and (maybe?)

Now I seriously doubt that Glaxo-Smith-Kline manufactures mountaineering parkas or hats, nor does Motorola.

Of course not. These climbers are advertising for corporate sponsors. What I don't know is whether they found their own personal sponsor, or if the producers provided a certain number of "product placement" emblems throughout the show. On the one hand, it's clear that "gsk" has been Mogens Jensen's personal patron for at least two years (he's an asthmatic, and I'm sure they have asthma medicines for sale). On the other hand, product placements are sure money-makers for reality shows. Other shows like Top Chef have so many product placments that it's hard to draw the line between entertainment and advertisement anymore.

I predicted that by the third season, we would be seeing aspiring young actors auditioning for the show. Now I wonder if we will instead be watching a climber drinking his Evian springwater while warming his feet on a Coleman Stove and watching CNN on his Motorola mini-TV...

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Beyond the Limit

The Discovery Channel is airing a new season of its reality program, Everest, Beyond the Limit. I find it fascinating that the show is sponsored by Mastercard. The producers are already working on the new hit series, Your Credit, Beyond the Limit. I mean really, did Mastercard even look at the title before they sponsored it?

The program itself is quite fascinating. It's a reality-info-tainment documentary of climbers that pay a guide service for the privilege of climbing Mount Everest. I assume that the producers are paying for the same privilege for their camera and sound men to trail along and catch all of the grueling details. And to attach small cameras to the Sherpas that blaze trails and help climbers. The so-called SherpaCams™ can go places that normal mortal camera dudes can't.

The danger of death is very real, much more real than Deadliest Catch, where Alaskan crab fishermen lounge around at sea level and breathe luxurious 21% oxygen. Climbers have to deal with high altitudes, icy and windy conditions, and bad weather. The casualty rate is usually not measured by whether somebody died in the season, but how many died. And even those who don't die are susceptible to losing their fingers or toes (or nose!) due to frostbite. But this is not a huge surprise, to anybody who has read the book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.

The really interesting thing is that the conditions are so extreme, and the location is so remote, the documentary crew are not really impartial observers any more. Last season, a climber David Sharp died right on the trail as other climbers hiked by. There is some controversy over whether Sharp was seen by the climbers early in the climb on the way up, or later on their way down. Still, the expedition leader David Brice made the decision to continue his expedition and provide no rescue assistance. Understanding that the camera crew, Sherpas, and Brice himself were being paid by Discovery channel and the other climbers, one can imagine that the urge to continue the expedition was quite strong. We have a TV show to make here. Interestingly, the portion of the video where Sherpas encountered Sharp was editted out of the show. It's not clear if there was a "right" decision that could have been made, but in that kind of situation the decisions of the filmmakers themselves could have life-or-death consequences. (Another example of this is the documentary Black Tar Heroin which followed several heroin users for a year in San Francisco.)

This is the second season of the Everest show. I can already see that the producers have "selected" the climbers for the greatest entertainment value. So far we have been introduced to the Biker Dude, the L.A. Reporter, the British Pub Mate, and the Asthmatic Athlete. I'm surprised that none of them is an aspiring actor trying to get onto Desperate Housewives. It's so hard to get onto reality television these days, don't you know?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Frilly Liveried Land Lubber

Every year the US federal government basically has an employee "pledge drive" for charities called the Combined Federal Campaign. It's an interesting idea: get employees to pledge a certain amount, and then the government takes the money right out of your paycheck! Other employers do that too.

This year's campaign was more surprising than usual, since it's the first time they have peppered the workplace with these bizarre posters.

I get it. They're playing off of the Pirates of the Carribean. There are other posters that goof on Field of Dreams, Happy Feet, and Shrek.

But it's just not clear to me how a rastafarian pirate dressed in a glitter jacket is going to stimulate the charitable spirit. I mean, pirates pillage, don't they? (But then again, it's not clear to me what Postal-Shrek is supposed to mean either.)

Let's take a closer look at this scurvy dog. Check out his hair:

What are those? Yep, they're carabiner-earrings! And looking still closer, there are other keychains braided into his hair as well. If that's where he keeps his keys, he must jingle a lot every time he swabs the deck or climbs the forecastle.

Check out his feet too:

Uh huh, those are slippers with paper clips attached. This is is a very fashion-challenged pirate, but at least he is utile.

I believe that this year's pirate (and baseball hero) was played by David Lipscomb (man at pictured podium). Mr. Lipscomb, I salute you playing along with such a ludicrous concept.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Tipping the Moving Men

One thing my parents never taught me was to tip the moving men. Probably it's because they'd never hired a moving company in my lifetime up to that point. It just never crossed my mind that professionals that were being paid once should be paid again. Some people are probably rolling their eyes and saying, "Duh!" right now.

When I moved here to Maryland, my employer paid for a moving company, and that moving company screwed up in many ways, including being several weeks late on the delivery end.

But now I wonder whether my stuff was in "limbo" for those several weeks because I never tipped the pick-up guys. It's a revelation that is actually very disturbing to me if true....

This came to mind recently once, when I was thinking about getting a new refrigerator, and wondering if you should tip the delivery guy. And the answer is, probably yes. Then it came up again a few days later when a newly arrived coworker said he tipped his movers $30 each. And there were six guys!

Apparently there is an undercurrent of monetary gratuity that I am completely obvlivious to!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Iridium Craze

This summer I have spent a bit too much of my time searching for Iridium Flares. For the uninitiated, the flares are sun glints from Iridium Communication Satellites which pass overhead at regular intervals. Each satellite is one of a constellation launched by Motorola in the late 1990s. Motorola's idea was that mobile, wireless, global communication would be the wave of the future... and that satellites would make the wave even more future-y. They got half of the equation right, mobile communication is big, but the satellite constellation was too late, too expensive (more than a dollar a minute!), and just too inconvenient for consumer use. Motorola's venture eventually failed, but was resurrected to service the U.S. Military (for which late, expensive and inconvenient are ideal conditions).

But aside from largess, it turns out that Iridium satelllites have another cool property. The communication antennae of these birds are shiny and large enough that a specular reflection of the sun is possible, that make wonderfully bright flares as seek from the ground. For the geeks out there, the satellites are at an altitude of about 780 km. The sun subtends about a half a degree of arc, which means the specular reflection should be spread out about ~6-7 km on the earth's surface. Since the satelllites travel at about 7 km/s, the maximum flare lasts just a few seconds. In reality, there is a more diffuse reflection which spreads out a larger area and makes the flare last for about 20 seconds total.

The flares are very bright, very specific to your location, and very short. It's quite possible for you to see a bright flare, and a friend just 10-20 miles away sees barely anything. Thus, when chasing flares, it's important to know three important things: where you are, the precise time, and where to look.

I took the photo above with my little digital camera (no tripod!). The streak is an Iridium flare with a 15 second exposure. It is chopped because I started the exposure late. The black lines are power lines next to the road.

Catching a Flare

I knew in advance where and when to catch the flare because I knew those important three items (my position, the exact time, and where/when to look).

I use the web service called Heavens Above to predict flares times. It is very straightforward to create an account. One of the first things when you create an account is to enter your coordinates (latitude and longitude).

You can determine your location most easily using Jef Poskanzer's ACME Mapper (or, you can use a GPS device if you have one). Just find your self in the Mapper by clicking the link, and panning and zooming (or searching). Be sure to zoom in close enough so that you are within a kilometer or less. Then read off your latitude and longitude from the indicator. Here is what you need to look for:

Then it's a simple matter of plugging those examples into the coordinate boxes of Heavens Above. For example, the latitude box for the coordinates above would look like this:

and the same for the longitude box. Ignore the "Minutes" and "Seconds".

Once you enter your coordinates, you should be at the Heavens Above main page. Click on the Iridium "next 7 days" link to get predictions of flares near you for the next week.

Handy tip: focus on the -5, -6, -7, -8 or -9 flares. Because of the crazy astronomical magnitude system, more negative means brighter. Thus, the most spectacular flares are -8 or -9 (but these are rare).

Now you have your list of flare predictions. The last thing you need is the precise time. If you have a GPS, use it. Flares predictions are exact to the second, so you need a clock accurate to one second as well. The easiest thing to use is your cell phone clock, which is actually synchronized very accurately by the cell phone company. Unfortunately, your cell phone usually gives minutes and no seconds, so you will have to guestimate to the number of seconds. You can also synchronize your wristwatch to an official time server (such as the US server) and use that.

Now go out and watch. I have two final tips. First, the time given in the prediction is the time of flare maximum, so be sure to be looking a few seconds early. Usually you will be able to see a faint, fast-moving dot before it starts to get really bright. Second, if you are looking for flares at 50, 60 or 70 degrees altitude above the horizon, this will be much higher on the sky than you think. Be prepared to crane your neck. For lower altitudes, you will need to find an open space away from tall trees.

I guess my fascination is two-fold. For one thing, the really bright flares are quite spectacular. The brighter flares are easily the brightest objects in the sky for those few seconds. For another thing, there is something wonderful in how regular and predictable the universe is.

Monday, August 27, 2007

World's Deadliest Kitch

Now it's time for this month's media commentary.

The show World's Deadliest Catch was a pretty interesting show, although after three seasons, there's not much more the producers can do with a show about crab fishing in the Alaskan Sea... But now we have
  • Ice Road Truckers
  • Lobster Wars
  • Wildcatters
  • Tuna Wranglers
Tuna Wranglers? Are they kidding me? What's next, Scab Pickers?

Can't they let a good idea die a peaceful death? Nope, they're going to milk the "deadly job" theme until it's undead, just like they did for: game shows, reality shows, home makeover shows, poker shows, pretty much in that order.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Owing Myself

I have a procedural question. If I go on personal holiday with time off work, and am then struck by a nasty sinus-throat-lung illness which puts me out of commission for a few days, is that vacation or is it sick leave? I took a trip somewhere to see family, so it must be vacation; but I was laid up in a dark room for two days, so that seems like sickness.

I suppose it was really my personal vacation, so I am the one responsible not to get sick for it. Perhaps then I should also be responsible for my own private cache of sick days, sort of like self-insurance. Then I could be my own benefits coordinator and say snarky things like, Sorry, you can't get sick on this vacation. You were sick last weekend! I could also do mind-blowing things like taking a vacation from my vacation! Adios Phil, I'm taking a day off from all this fun!

Excuse me while fire myself.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Berry Berry Good to Me

I have the luxury of living near an agricultural research center, so even though I live in a "city," a short walk of five minutes puts me among cattle pastures, corn fields and a swamp (er, sorry, wet-lands). And I've been doing more walking there, which makes me more attentive of the flora and fauna than people who just sachet through in their Hummers (which I do too, sans Hummer).

I did not realize that the road-side is filled with berries! Last weekend there were a goodly number of mulberries and black raspberries that looked ripe (the left and middle photos). The mulberries were pretty decent sized, but the raspberries are just tiny little buds. I have to admit that I snacked on the ripe ones, which I quite enjoyed. There is a huge patch of blackberries (the right photo), but they are definitely not ripe yet. When they are, I will definitely be there to partake, thorns permitting.

Wednesday I stopped briefly to take these photos (but not to take fruit), and just at that moment a service security guard pulled up and asked me what I was doing. I figured I would get a scolding, but what actually happened was she first assumed I was a USDA worker (!), and then she warned me to look out for deer (!). Not as one nature lover to another, and not for any health reason, but just to beware that a deer might jump out and spook me! How considerate.

As a kid I used to sneak-and-snack on neighbors' berry patches that were hanging over the sidewalk. My dad and I were even more brazen at the local university, which planted Service Berry trees around the campus library (we knew them as Juneberries). We would troop to the library with buckets and come back with them full! Juneberries are a little like blueberries, but a little fleshier. Curious college students would stop and ask questions, assuming we were university staff cleaning up toxic plant material. Little did they know. I'm not really a nature-boy, but I know a few good berries when I see them. I am guessing some friends must have even more berry experience than I do.

Footnote: the title is a play on a friend's play on words.

I'll Fly Away

Here I am wrangling my little insect friend on the set of the next blockbuster movie hit, The Butterfly Whisperer. Thank goodness my camera was ready just then.

Update: now I know it's a "Red-spotted Purple."

Thursday, June 7, 2007

New Shoes

Apparently I am now equipped for the hybrid sport of soccer-bowling.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

A Tarnished Silver Lining

I'm watching a television show on PBS called Haley's Hints. It's pledge week and they seem to be running a scad of 1-minute household hints all together. Here are some of the hints:
  • Cleaning pet hair from your couch with kitchen gloves;
  • Opening a tight peanut butter jar with a rubber band as a gripper;
  • Removing tarnish from silver with water softener and table salt;
  • Storing old gift wrapping paper and wallpaper rolls in panty hose!
These are pretty cool hints. Technology and wealth have created tremendous benefits to our society, but they also have created the strangest of little problems that need to be solved. Like, "what the heck will I do with all this old wrapping paper and panty hose?"

I wonder, what would a third-world person think if they saw this show? American culture is pervasive. Perpetual TV re-runs of Dallas and Webster have guaranteed that, so the rest of the world knows about western proclivities. While Juan is sorting coffee beans in his hut, he can dream of the time when he can clean his own silver.

Now please excuse me, I need to buy some panty hose.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Mountains of Uselessness

I usually let my incoming (physical) mail stack up quite a bit before I pay attention to it. That may not always be a good thing when it comes to paying bills on time... I realized just now why I resist paying the bills. It's not the pain of actually paying the bill, but rather the hunting through mountains of crap mail to find the good stuff and real bills. The photo above shows three weeks of junk on the left, and the important stuff on the right (it's almost imperceptible).

It doesn't stop with the two or three "Pennysaver" fliers per week. Nor does it stop with the actual junk mail. Nor the credit card offer from United Airlines every week for the past three years! No, even when I open actual bills, there is more junk mail inside. My phone company keeps urging me to sign up for DSL service even though I tried them, their service quality was crap, and I canceled my account with them. Thank goodness my family doesn't send me junk mail too!

I probably get more than 500 pages of junk material per month. That's a whole ream of paper! In comparison about 20 pages of that is stuff valuable to me: letters from friends or important bills. If we are ever serious about becoming a "green" society, we really need to get rid of junk mail. With over 105 million households in the US, there are probably about 3 million tons of paper going to waste every year.

We talk about email "spam" filtering. I would really like to have physical junk mail filtering as well. But unlike spam which usually gets filtered at the receiving end, I think junk mail should be filtered at the sending end. I get so much repeat junk mail, it would make sense to have a little box on the envelope marked "⊗ RETURN TO SENDER, DON'T EVER SEND ME THIS CRAP AGAIN."

I realize that this is not a new topic, but I just had to vent for a moment. Now I know how Andy Rooney feels.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Police Release Me

Yesterday I was waiting at a traffic light to turn left. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. For three full cycles I waited with another car in front of me while all the other traffic directions were allowed to pass, but we were not. Finally both of us realized that something was wrong with the traffic light (or the sensor), and decided to turn left against the red light, when the way was clear.

Of course, a police car appeared out of nowhere immediately and chased after us. Not surprising since it's next to a police station. I pulled over, but the police car zoomed past and snagged the first guy. At first I drove away, but eventually I realized it wasn't fair for the other guy to get tagged for a defective traffic signal1, so I drove around and talked at the officer. I say "talked at" because he wasn't really interested in hearing anything I had to say. After I explained my version in twenty words, he ignored me for about fifteen seconds, and then blurted some kind of joke (I guess) which was meant to get me to leave (I guess). Me, being Mr. Slow-on-the-uptake, took a little while to figure this out. I did park and give my phone number to the guy being cited, in case he needed a witness for court.

Later the guy in the other car did call me to thank me. It turns out the officer did not cite him for a moving violation, but did write a citation for some other minor infraction. It turned out mostly okay.2

The thing that ticked me off was that we could have been waiting at that light for 20 seconds, or 20 minutes, and no matter when we finally decided turn, that cop could have showed up just at that moment. Police officers do a great service to our community, which I appreciate. In principle he did the right thing for pulling (one of) us over. On the other hand, it's pretty unfair that citizens should be punished for a defective traffic signal.

1 - The other man was African American so I was a little concerned he would be arrested for DWB, while I got a free pass.
2 - The other man wondered if the traffic light problem was a set-up. It is the end of the month. Did officer have to meet a quota?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Secret Easter Service

Goddard was swarming with Secret Service agents during the visit of the Queen. It turns out that they are locals: their training facility is just north of Goddard. Many Goddard people have seen a mysterious black SUV if they leave the Center on Soil Conservation Road. That SUV is guarding the Secret Service facility. Let's take an interactive tour:


Click for detail: Fake Town | Fake Airport | Driving Range | Performance Range | Underground Storage | Obstacle Course | Black SUV

The fake town and fake airport are for "real-life" exercises involving urban and airport situations. You can see that there is a simulated half of Air Force One, but not the whole airframe. I've seen a television program where agents were shown practicing various security activities (VIP arriving by airport, bombing in an urban environment).

The driving test range appears to have different kinds of paved street configurations, presumably for practice cornering and turning. The "performance" range, as I called it, is probably for high performance manuevering practice, like "J-turns" (you can even see the turn guide lines painted on the tarmac). It also appears to have a heli-pad.

I'm guessing that point E is some kind of underground storage, perhaps for munitions (especially considering the Jersey barriers obstructing the entrance). The obstacle course is not so obvious, but it's easier to see on Microsoft's Live Map of the location, and it contains a bunch of different swings, pits and balancing obstacles. It looks challenging!

Finally of course, the Black SUV (or maybe it's a van on the day this photo was taken) is present near the intersections of Soil Conservation Road and Powdermill Road.

There are probably other Easter Eggs to find, it just takes some diligent scanning. For example, the old Beltsville Agricultural Center airport is just to the southeast, and I believe the Secret Service uses that for training as well.

By the way, none of this is particularly secret. All these maps and satellite photos are available to the public via Google Maps, and several of the locations listed above were showcased on a recent Sixty Minutes story about the Secret Service.
This map brought to you by GMapEZ and Google Maps.Powered By GMapEZ

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Crack (juice) is good for you!

I found this interesting article on CNN, that pure fruit juice supposedly does not "cause" children to become overweight.

There is something fishy going on there. Both pure juice and artificial juice-flavored drinks contain a lot of sugar. It shouldn't matter which kind of juice a person drinks.

My guess is that there is a selection effect going on: that parents of children who desire or can afford pure juice, are the ones that pay more attention to the total diets of their children, and thus prevent them from becoming overweight. The implication of the article is that we should "drink more juice" because it's good for us. But I suspect the reality is more simple than that... If you drink more sugary juice -- no matter what kind -- you will get more overweight!

I'm sure I could devise a study that could conclude that crack makes children more alert and active... but that does not mean that cocaine is "good for you."

The fact that the obvious question was not discussed, whether children who drank water instead of juice were healthier or not, suggests that the researchers came to the study with an agenda. I found it interesting that there is no sponsorship information about the study.

According the study, children who drank more pure juice ate less fat and other bad stuff. However, is that really a cause and effect relationship? Do children really desire to eat less fat because they drink "pure" juice? I doubt it. I think the two are correlated, but not causally related.

To be fair, the author of the study does say that parents should look at the "total number of calories that the child is taking in ... and ... the activity level of the child." Good points. I suspect that these two factors are the important ones, and the kind of juice is irrelevant. This "total calorie" information is buried in the last paragraph of the press release. It's just that a headline like, "Children Who Eat Fewer Calories and Exercise More are Healthier," is not very sexy for the industry.

There was another article about a week ago, "New Study Shows Citrus Juices Have the Highest Nutrient Content," which suggests to me that the Florida juice industry is engaging in a media campaign.

Updated (3:04pm): added cause and effect paragraph.
Updated (11 May): my friend CW corrects some of my erroneous assumptions (see comments).

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A Royal Flush

Her Majesty the Queen of England paid a visit to Goddard Space Flight Center today. I don't have any pithy insights. We waited outside near Building 3 for about an hour and then she and her entourage passed by on her way from talking to the Space Station to a presentation in Building 8. She was within lunging distance, but not grabbing distance.

She paused and chatted with some women close to me. Her demeanor -- or should I say deQUEENer -- was aloof, yet kind. People around me (and myself) offered comments like, "Good morning!" or, "Welcome!" to tempt a response, but she did not make much direct eye contact or physical contact with anyone specific. A queen isn't meant to connect too closely with the commoners. She apparently did have more personal contact during other parts of the visit.

We also had a short glimpse of her at the Goddard Visitor's Center, where she "planted a tree." Which means, she and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin each turned over about a teaspoon full of soil. A good thing too, since they will move the tree from its photogenic ceremonial position to someplace else where it won't die so quickly. Gardening was never so easy for the Queen.

Prince Phillip seemed more chatty. As I mentioned before, I think the Goddard visit was probably his desire. He stopped and had more direct conversations with the crowd in front of me, and was definitely intrigued by the astronauts. Good for him, a Prince should have some hobbies too.

I'm not a big one for pomp and circumstance, but it was still a special moment for the place that I work. None of my photos turned out very well, but thankfully I was with a group that got some nice shots. Aside from the enjoyment of the moment, the most substantial thing I came away with was a hefty sunburn on my face.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Queen for a Day

The Queen of England is coming to Goddard Space Flight Center tomorrow. I don't really know why... I suspect it's because Prince Phillip wanted to see something spacey. The royals are in the US for the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. Anyway, it's sure to be a zoo tomorrow at the center. There are whole parts that will be blocked off, and the Queen's motorcade will cause all the major streets and highways to be blocked too.

The Queen is giving a short address to a small group of people that were selected by lottery. I was not in that group (harumph). But I'm still interested, so I will try to catch her as she walks between buildings, or plants a tree at the Visitor's Center. She plants enough trees, she could probably open a shovel store.

A brief note to employees suggests that as we "wave and address Her Majesty ... as 'Your Majesty' or 'Ma'am;' address the Duke as 'Your Highness' or 'Sir.'" They make it sound like we might bump into her on the way to the jacuzzi.

Of course, Goddard has spent the last week primping. All the pavement lines have been repainted, the shrubs have been shorn, and the lawns have been flattened. Well, the parts the Queen will see have been primped, that is. Other parts of the center have almost knee-high grass. Budget cuts you know.

It occurred to me that maybe the Queen has never seen anything bad or nasty. She always has an advance entourage which makes sure everything is just perfect before she arrives, so maybe she simply has no concept of "dirty" or "disrepair." Maybe she thinks that all paths are paved with red carpets, and all the toilets are gilded.

For that matter, she doesn't have to deal with money or passports. One of her attendants surely takes care of all such mundane matters. We all laughed when President Bush, Sr., was amazed by laser bar-code scanners at the local grocery store. But has the Queen ever even been to a grocery store? Food simply appears in her larder and is prepared by her expert chef.

I think it would be cool to trade places with the Queen for a day. I would experience the luxury of unlimited wealth and power, and the alien world of pomp and protocol. She would experience life as a commoner, and have to work for a living. That would be cool. For a day.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Highly Fortified Virgin

I have discovered that my wireless provider Virgin Mobile (USA), runs a pretty tight networking ship. Which is to say, it's difficult to get arbitrary packets from the mobile handset (Audiovox 8915) to the internet at large. First of all, direct socket connections to the outside internet are blocked. This conclusion is based on using MidpSSH to connect to various ports and failing.

Virgin appears to be running a proxy which intercepts only HTTP traffic and forwards it onward (but only for ports 80, 8080 and 443). Note that this does not mean that arbitrary socket traffic can be sent over port 80, just HTTP traffic. That's still could be interesting since MidpSSH is able to communicate through an HTTP proxy server.

Finally, Virgin seems to have some kind of denial-of-service detector which prevents too many accesses to the same host over a short period of time. Since MidpSSH is an interactive application, it ends up making lots of brief connections to the server in proxy mode. After about five connections in series, the proxy returns a "Network Gremlins" message, which messes up the SSH negotiation process.

In short, there appears to be no way to pass arbitrary data through the Virgin Mobile proxy. That's kind of a bummer, and not so cool.

UPDATE: (20 Apr) by snooping the phone's file system, I discovered the IP address of Virgin's proxy server that the handset talks to when web surfing. It turns out it's just a standard Apache HTTP proxy server running on port 80! I was able to telnet to it using MidpSSH and request random web pages from the Internet. While this doesn't solve the problem, the fact that there's a standard proxy there suggests that one could use the proxy CONNECT command to open a persistent socket connection, at least to port 443, which is what CONNECT was intended for. And it works! I was able to connect to an SSH server. But... after about 10-15 seconds, the socket is closed. I can only assume that Virgin's firewall limits the lifetime of TCP sessions to prevent global firewall resources from being tied up. Sigh, another dead end.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Connecting to the Audiovox 8915

I recently got a new mobile phone, an Audiovox 8915. In the era of whateverBerry super-smart phones, the Audiovox is just a kinda-smart phone. You can send images from (using the built in camera) and to it, and you can send sounds to it. It can also browse the internet, if you can call interacting with a 128 x 160 pixel screen browsing. I should point out that the interface of this phone, compared to my previous Audiovox 8500, is much improved.

Here are a few things that I have learned. First of all, one can connect a data cable to the handset. I used the FutureDial cable number 19 (which has a built-in Prolific PL2303 USB-serial converter). This is important for connecting to my Mac OS X machine, since there are no Mac drivers compatible with the Curitel USB interface within the phone itself. The Prolific drivers can be found on their web site. There are some people who have hacked the similar Audiovox 8900 and the Virgin Mobile Snapper. They have been able to upload graphics, sounds, and game applets. The graphics and sound part sounds a little strange to me, since I can just message myself with a graphics attachment and save that as a wallpaper or screen-saver.

I was able to decipher the binary phone book formats of my old and new phones enough to be able to download and parse the old phone book entries, and convert and upload the entries to the new phone. Too bad BitPIM doesn't support this phone. The developers seem to have a moratorium on development for it, after seeing enough people with problems. Sigh.

By snooping the phone's file system, I also found a reference to an XML file containing the phone's capabilities. Here are some interesting tidbits:
  • It has an ARM7 processor;
  • It accepts MMS messages up to 100K in size (and graphics 480x640 in dimension);
  • It accepts J2ME java downloadable programs (JVM version VMID 2.0);
  • The networking software is capable of IPv4, SSL-3.0 and TLS-1.0;
  • The web browser does tables but not Java or Javascript;
I'm very interested to see if I can upload Java applets such as Google's map applet or the MidpSSH SSH client, but I'm also wary of bricking my phone.
At least one brave person has tried it and documented how he did it. The hacker in me says, "cool."