Monday, December 10, 2007

When You're (a) 64

Has it really been 25 years since the Commodore 64 has been introduced? A Technology article, Commodore 64 still loved after all these years, says it's so. I'm one of the 17 million owners of one.

Most of my memories of the 64 are pleasant -- playing around with Basic and Assembler, starting my record collection database, going online at 300 baud, and watching my hair grow while waiting for a program to load off of the disk drive.

"Computer nostalgia is something that runs pretty deep these days. The memories that people have of this machine are incredible," McCracken (Harry McCracken, vice president and editor in chief of PC World -- no relation to Phill) said.

Twenty-five years ago computers were an individual experience; today they are just a commodity, he said.

"I don't think there are many computers today that we use that people will be talking about fondly 25 years from now."
Sadly, I think he's right.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Ratatouille for the Ears

The title of this piece is an allusion to the animated movie about a Parisian gourmet rat. The following quote, taken from a article, In Defense of Audiophiles, made me think of a scene in that movie where the main character was waxing orgasmic about the symphony of flavors in a well-constructed dish:
But there are some things that only a really good home stereo, playing well-recorded CDs or vinyl LPs, can give you: the texture of an instrument (the woodiness of a bass, the golden brass of a trumpet, the fleshy skin of a bongo); the bouquet of harmonics that waft from an orchestra (the mingling overtones, the echoes off the concert hall's walls); the breath behind a voice; the warm percussiveness of a Steinway grand; the silky sheen of massed violins; the steely whoosh of brushes on a snare; the undistorted clarity of everything sung, blown, strummed, bowed, plucked, and smacked, all at once—in short, the sense that real musicians are playing real instruments in a real space right before you.
For what it's worth, many of us are losing the chance to appreciate quality music. Whether because our music collections are primarily in MP3 format, or because our "stereo systems" consist of tiny speakers or earbuds, we -- as a consumer group -- are dining on "fast listening."

Monday, December 3, 2007

Risky Behavior for an Honorable Man

I should be too jaded about things like this coming from the Bush administration, but news about the head of the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) himself being under investigation is just too mind numbing. It has been alleged that the head of the OSC had retaliated against whistle-blowers among his own staff members and improperly dismissed whistle-blower cases brought to the agency by others. This hardly seems like something that someone from the Bush administration would do.

The primary mission of the OSC is to safeguard the merit system by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal for whistleblowing. The head of the Office of Special Counsel is the "Honorable" Scott J. Bloch, a Bush appointee who was confirmed on Dec. 9, 2003. Prior to this, Bloch served as Associate Director and then Deputy Director and Counsel to the Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Justice. As such, someone might find it a bit odd that Block is withholding from federal investigators copies of personal files that he deleted from his office computer.

According to Bloch, his personal computer records are not relevant and the investigation into his activity is a "fishing expedition." However, people are finding it just a tad suspicious that Bloch had technicians perform a seven-level wipe on his laptop computer as well as on those of two of his aides. Overwriting the hard drive seven times was supposedly done as part of a virus removal procedure.

This is apparently a new type of virus removal that I'm not familiar with. But Scott Bloch is an honorable man and we must take him at his word on this. I just hope that he does not engage in the same risky behavior that got all three laptop computers infected in the first place.

"Thank you 1 800 905 GEEK™ - you gave us such peace of mind."
-- Karl from Texas

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Banewood's Comcast Adventure

My broadband internet service was down this morning. After rebooting the modem a couple of times, I went to check on the television, which has "digital" service. While there was basic service, all of the premium digital channels were blank, leading me to conclude that service to the house was down for whatever reason.

Once I got to work, I googled the tech support number for Comcast, which is my service provider. The automated attendant quizzed me about the service I desired:

  • language of choice?
  • corporate or commercial customer?
  • television or internet service?
  • yadaa yadda?

After waiting through the usual "Thank you for your patience" messages, I got through to a human-sounding attendant who informed me that my account was in good standing and there was no service interruption in my area. This afternoon would be the earliest that they would be able to make a service call to my home. Would I like noon to 4:00 p.m. or would I like 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.? Interesting question -- I chose door #1. They took my number and will call me some time after noon.

Later, when I talked to a few other people this morning, I began to suspect that maybe there was an Internet outage after all. One helpful support person (I work very close to a help desk) suggested that I check the Comcast network health web page, which would tell me about the current known status in my service area. Unfortunately, that page required a login. I used to be an Adelphia customer prior to Comcast buying them out -- I tried my Adelphia username/password, but I was rejected.

Not to be deterred by such a small matter, I navigated to Comcast's support site and proceeded to respond to a series of questions that led me into a waiting cue for a tech support chat session. That person told me that I would have to actually speak to tech support.

The automated attendant quizzed me again, asked for my telephone number (including area code) and asked me to state clearly the nature of my problem.

I clearly stated "I do not have a username or password for my account."

The attendant said that it didn't understand my problem and to try again. Not so clearly this time, I said "bite my ass." Not surprisingly, that was also not a succinct statement of problem. Please press 1 if you would like to speak with a support representative.

Their automated system thanked me for my patience and informed me that they were "experiencing a higher-than-normal call volume today" (I get that EVERY time I call them, BTW). And by the way, there is currently a service interruption in the Morgantown area. If I would still like to speak with a real person, enter my telephone number (again).

After about 15 minutes in the company of an automated attendant thanking me for my patience, I think I spoke to a real person. He eventually told me that I don't actually have a Comcast account/password -- it's currently some long MAC-style number. But when service is once again resumed in the Morgantown area, they will flash my modem (I wish I could return that favor). Afterwards, I'm to call their tech support number, wait on hold for another 15 minutes because they'll most assuredly be "experiencing a higher-than-normal call volume," and eventually speak with a human who will let me establish my account name and password.

Apparently someone is still going to come in person to tell me that they're currently experiencing an Internet outage in the Morgantown area.

I have just glimpsed the ninth circle of hell.

Update: Local Comcast called me on my cell at about 4:10 p.m., asking if I still wanted them to come over (in the noon to 4:00 p.m. time frame that day).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sound Decisions, Part 2

As I write this, I'm recording an old vinyl Hollies album, Another Night, from 1975, onto my Linux partition.

I connected the model TC-750 pre-amp to my sound card. Using the open source Audacity program, I first recorded five tracks from side one of John Entwistle's 1972 album Whistle Rymes.

From there, I learned about using Audacity's noise reduction filter to get a noise level profile from the dead space between tracks. Using that as a baseline, I apply the filter to the rest of the music, taking out a great deal of what underlying noise was there. From there, I next applied the click removal filter. Results were admirable, and I would challenge you to tell that the resulting file was transcribed from an LP.

My next experiment was with an album with a lot of pops and clicks -- The Phantom's Divine Comedy Part 1 from 1974. This was much more challenging, and I think, beyond the basic abilities of Audacity.

I switched over to Windows XP and tried the commercial Adobe Audition software. It, too, could barely remove the scratches from the surface. I downloaded ClickFix, a shareware plug-in with a 300-second limitation. It took me a while to learn how to use ClickFix, but I was happy with the final result, which was quite clean -- albeit not perfect. And it was noticeably much faster at pop and click removal.

When I started out recording LPs onto my soundcard, I did them one song at a time. Later, I learned that Audacity has an easy way to mark spots between tracks and export them into separate songs. This obviously becomes a real time-saver, because I can do basic noise elimination and pop & click removal on an entire album side at a time, and then I can break the side up into separate song files prior to burning to CD.

Lessons learned so far:

  • If you have a decent quality album to start with, you can get a decent quality music rip without wasting money on a CD of something you already have.
  • If the album is scratchy, then it becomes a judgement call as to how much you really want to invest in time and trouble in restoring it to CD-like quality.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sound Decisions

A fellow I work with was talking about the new breed of turntables and how nice it would be to convert some old LPs into a digital format. Googling the internets, I found some interesting and decent quality USB turntables, with some of the best prices on . When I dug deeper, however, I learned something interesting -- if you already have a decent turntable (I do, albeit an old one), then another approach is to buy your own pre-amp, and use that combination for ripping.

It turns out that even some of the better USB turntables don't feature cuing. I decided that my old Audio Technica turntable with direct drive, speed control, damped cuing, dust cover and a pretty decent Pickering magnetic cartridge with elliptical stylus could still serve me well. When I compare that venerable dinosaur to this $300 Stanton T.90 model at Amazon, I would still opt to keep my own.

Now I'm looking to get a standalone pre-amp, which I can use to hook my turntable directly to my PC's soundcard. Here's where I found a good lineup of pre-amps: I've ordered the TCC TC-750 model, which lists for under $50. It was mentioned in this PC World article, which seems pretty informative.

Hardware alone is only part of the story. Most of the USB tuntables came bundled with Audacity, which is an Open Source program. I downloaded the Linux version the other night. The Linux sound quality of my home-built PC is superior to that of the Windows XP side, which often has a background hum. The culprint, I think is the Chaintech AV-710 Sound Card. Often a cold boot into Windows XP will result in some godawful sound coming from the speakers. It must be the drivers, because the card is perfect under Ubuntu's Gutsy.

Years ago, I attempted some LP ripping using older software and older technology, so I'm not going into this with any delusions as to how problematic this will be. It's a real bear to get all of the pops and clicks out. Still, I have a substantial collection of LPs, some of which do not appear to have their CD counterpart. This looks like it could be a productive use of my time on some cold winter nights.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Banewood's Post Office Adventure

In a previous posting, Yesterday's Word, I talked about my great hope to make some bucks on eBay by selling off my ancient copy of Microsoft Word Version 1.00. That day arrived last weekend, and my hopes were dashed when it only sold for a paltry $20.49.

I took it to the post office after work the other day to bid it goodbye and ship it to its new owner. In spite of my sadness, I was in an uncharacteristically good mood when I handed the package over to the lady behind the counter and asked to ship it via media mail.

"Is there anything liquid, fragile or perishable in the container?" Asked the clerk.

"No," I replied.

"Does the package contain any hazardous material?" She inquired.

"Well," I said with a puckish grin, "it does contain Microsoft Word. Some people would argue that it's pretty dangerous.

BIG Mistake!

"Microsoft Word?" She frowned and said "That's not media! You'll have to send it parcel post."

"No way," I countered. "It's a software manual and the installation disk on a 5.25-inch floppy. That's media!"

"No it isn't," she replied condescendingly.

I asked her to show me the rules, and she pulled out this big sheet and read from it.

Media Mail is used for books, film, manuscripts, printed music, printed test materials, sound recordings, play scripts, printed educational charts, loose-leaf pages and binders consisting of medical information, videotapes, and computer-recorded media like CDs and diskettes. Media Mail cannot contain advertising.

"What you have is not media," she said dryly.

"Yes, it is!" I said in my most authoritative tone, which was perhaps underpinned with a touch of exasperation. "This is a software manual in a three-ring binder, with the installation software. You can go to any bookstore and buy a computer book with a CD in the back."

At this point, the lady in the stall next to her told her not to argue with me. "Alright!" I thought to myself. "Someone who understands the meaning of customer service -- and media mail."

But then she added "Just stamp it Postage Due and send it that way." Which my clerk promptly did.

I was dumbstruck. No way was I intentionally going to send some one's eBay winnings Postage Due. I wasn't going to win this round, so I caved. "Okay," I said. "Send it Parcel Post."

Ka-ching! Next!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Oldest animal found reports that a team of scientists from the Bangor University school of Ocean Sciences have found a quahog clam, which they believe is approximately 400 years old. The clam was apparently living on the seabed off the north coast of Iceland. Dating was done by counting the growth rings on the shell.

According to the article, the discovery was made by postdoctoral scientist Al Wanamaker, the newest member of the ‘Arctica’ team. "No wonder it tasted so rubbery," Wanamaker was later heard to remark.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Storm Worm Open Warfare

I mentioned the Storm Worm yesterday, and now Ars Technica reports on more recent developments. As computer researchers had begun to close in on the worm, it now appears that it has the ability to see who is probing its servers, and it subsequently launches a denial of service (DDos) attack against the IP of the investigator! According to the article, "some reasearchers are now afraid to publish any of their findings about the worm for fear of even harsher retaliation."

People had previously thought that the primary intent of the Storm Worm -- so named because it orininally claimed to provide information about storms going on in Europe -- was as a SPAM-bot. Now, it is feared that perhaps it is a launch platform for DDoS attacks.

Cyber warfare anyone?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

We have wormsign the likes of which even God has never seen

The latest factoid from
The network of compromised Microsoft Windows computers under the thumb of the criminals who control the Storm Worm has grown so huge that it now has more raw distributed computing power than all of the world's top supercomputers, security experts say.

According to some experts, this botnet could easily outperform IBM's BlueGene/L, which is the top-ranked supercomputer on the planet.

Storm Worm is diabolical. Unlike traditional botnet, which are controlled through a central server, Storm Worm seeds a botnet much in the same way as a peer-to-peer network, such as bittorrent. There is no centralized control. Each infected host shares lists of other infected hosts so that no one machine has a full list of the entire botnet.

Do you know what your PC is doing while you are asleep?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

We Can't Handle the Truth!

An AP article, White House Edited CDC Climate Testimony, by H. Josef Herbert, accuses the Bush administration of eviscerating a Center For Disease Control report that was given to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Things that the public should not hear:

The deleted sections of the draft, covering more than half of the original text, included a list of specific impacts on which "climate change is likely to have a significant impact on health." The list included the effect of more frequent hot spells on vulnerable populations, the impact of extreme weather, more air pollution in drought areas, and greater likelihood of vector-borne and waterborne diseases as well as mental health problems.

While these impacts would be expected to be less significant in the United States than in the developing world, one deleted section says, "nevertheless many Americans will likely experience difficult challenges."

Of course, a government spokesperson says that the report "was not watered down in terms of its science." Any more than the United States "does not torture."

But if criticism of the war in Iraq is said to give "aid and comfort to the enemy," then what is to be said about our providing specific details about how climate change might affect public health? This is time-sensitive information that shouldn't get out until well after the 2008 elections.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Another Look at Word 1.00

In a previous post, I mentioned that the entire DOS version of Microsoft Word came on two 5.25-inch floppy diskettes. Given that these floppies date back from 1983 and they have only one write-protect notch, I have to deduce that they are the 360K variety and not the new 1.2 M.

Here's a directory listing of what's on the first floppy:

Note there are three files listed, which have a total size of 54,713 -- that's only approximately 54K! Now the listing also says that there's 17,920 bytes free, so I'm guessing that there must also be some hidden files on this diskette.

I'm really out of practice with my DOS commands and I practically have no utilities left with which I can sniff around on the diskette. Since the file is only 2060 bytes large, I think it's also safe to assume that it must be linking to some hidden stuff on this floppy.

Here's what's on the second WORD diskette. I used a /W flag on the DIR command, so that I would get a multi-column listing that would fit on the screen. Unfortunately, the /W flag also leaves off the file sizes.

There may very well be hidden files on this diskette. What you see here, however, is very little in the way of real program files, mostly some .PRD printer drivers. There are a couple of sample .DOC files and a couple of .STY files. Could these be early incarnations of Word Style templates? I wish I could really play with this stuff to find out.

My final comment on all of this is a matter of perspective. You're looking at the entire Microsoft Word program (minus Mouse drivers, which are on the third floppy) on two (count them, two) 360K diskettes. Not even 720K total, given that there's free space on both floppies. I wonder how large Word 2007 is?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Yesterday's Word

With the potential eBay success of my GEM Suite, I thought that I'd continue my thread of DOS-related curios. One of the real treasures in my collection is Version 1.00 of Microsoft Word.

Microsoft Word was officially released on October 25, 1983. This was the first word processor for the IBM PC that showed actual line breaks and typeface markups, such as bold and italics, directly on the screen while editing.

Years ago, I literally rescued this copy of Word for DOS from the dumpster at work. It comes in a dark green, plastic-covered three-ring binder. Packed inside were the Microsoft Word Word Processing Program manual (Copyright 1983), as well as the Customer Service Plan/Service Support Warranty booklet, a Quick Reference Card for IBM Personal Computer, and a pre-paid Microsoft Product Line Product Information form. In addition, this early version of Word came on two (count them: two) 5.25-inch floppy diskettes. A third disk contains the drivers for the Microsoft bus mouse. The bus mouse is so-named because it is attached to a special ISA bus card -- this was even before standard mouse ports appeared on the back of the PC case.

A fascinating detail about this software is in an "Easter Egg" that I had once read about in a trade magazine. I used an old DOS sector edit program (Central Point Software's PC Tools) to locate the following ASCII text on the program disk:

"The tree of evil bears bitter fruit, crime does not pay. THE SHADOW KNOWS. Trashing program disk."
Here's what it looks like on the original impact printer paper that I saved:
I think that I had read about this Easter Egg in PC Magazine, but I cannot verify it. The "trashing program disk" part was supposed to be a scare for people who were using a pirated copy of Word. I recall something to the effect that the person who placed that code in the program might have had to find a new job.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Circa 1985 GEM Shows its Polish

After a bit more noodling (see my earlier post titled Paleo-Geekology), I managed to load the other GEM applets onto my VMWare Workstation. Below is another picture of the GEM Desktop, with (clockwise) a clock/calendar (surprise -- no Y2K problem!), a colorful little calculator, and a snapshot applet for taking screen shots. The whole thing does look a bit like the first Mac screen. Apple made DRI take out the "Trash." ;-)

The next picture is a screen shot from the GEM Write program. According to literature on the back of the box, Write is based on the Volkswriter Deluxe word processor. GEM Write lets you write and edit, move and copy, search and replace, or erase and print without learning complex commands. You'd have to be familiar with an old workhorse like WordStar on DOS (or Vi on Linux) to know what they're talking about.

The following screen shot is from GEM Paint. Thankfully, they provided some stock files, such as this "proposed office floor plan." Your Paint project was limited to 16 colors -- and that's if you had the latest and greatest IBM Enhanced Color Graphics Adaptor at the time. I think you could achieve the same results now with the WebCT Vista chat/whiteboard applet on the web.

Below is the GEM Draw package displaying some computer clip art. If you wanted colors, you'd have to go back and finish this project with GEM Paint.

Oh, brave new world!

I put the GEM suite up for sale on eBay today. My starting price is $19.99, which I feel is modest, given that this software belongs in a museum. Sadly, there are no bids yet at this time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Many moons ago I rescued a three-box suite of Digital Research, Inc. (DRI) GEM sofware from a dumpster at work.

GEM (Graphical Environment Manager) was a windowing system created by DRI. The first version for DOS-based 8086 computers shipped on February 28, 1985. This version of GEM is an almost direct copy of the Macintosh (DRI was sued by Apple and later had to change various aspects of their interface).

The eponymous GEM suite includes:

  • Write
  • Paint
  • Draw
  • Graph

And GEM Desktop in the darkness binds them.

My plan is to eventually unload the GEM suite on eBay, but I have been hoping to devise a way to preserve a copy of it for myself.

I recently came up with an old 5.25" floppy drive and wrestled it into submission on an Athlon XP box. Windows XP, however, didn't like the drive or anything that I put into it. With VMWare Workstation installed under Windows XP, I was able to intall a copy of MS-DOS 5 onto a two megabyte virtual hard disk. VMWare, it turns out, was able to dummy down the hardware interface and let me read data off of these old 5.25" diskettes. The additional beauty of this is that VMWare Worskstation will let me clone this install and preserve a working copy!

Perhaps it's hard to appreciate the extent to which it was necessary to dummy things down. Bad enough that I had to work with 360k capacity 5.25" floppies, but when it came time to configure GEM Desktop, I chose the highest point of 1985 technology for my install: IBM's Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA), which renders a whopping 16 colors at up to 640x350 pixels. Mice had just begun to scurry around amongst the dinosaurs in 1985... I configured for a Microsoft bus mouse.

Here's a screenshot of the GEM Desktop component that I installed:

Friday, October 5, 2007

Lessons in Geekdom

My old DFI Lanparty motherboard died in its sleep several months ago, forcing me to limp along on my cheapo laptop until I could scrape up the spare cash to build a replacement desktop unit.

This was a non-trivial upgrade -- the industry has cast aside the AGP video format in favor of PCI Express. In order to make that jump, my shopping list required a new motherboard and video card. In for an inch.... let's also get a new CPU and memory worthy of this new threshold.

But this is a tale about SATA and RAID. On my old system, I had kept a lot of data on a pair of 150GB SATA drives, which were combined into a single, 300GH, striped, RAID 0 array. As I waited peacefully and unawares for my upgrade, I thought that my data on the volume I called "Stripey" was safe and sound. Technically, I suppose that it still is. The problem, I discovered, is that my new motherboard will not recognize an imported RAID 0 -- I must initialize both drives if I wish to use them again in that fashion.

It turns out that there is some software out there, which is designed to recover data from RAID 0 drives. Unfortunately, this software is not free or even cheap. My data is certainly not worth that expense, anyway.

Ah, but wisdom comes with age (though often too late to do any good). With the advent of rewiteable DVDs, I actually began to practice the seemingly arcane art of data backups. I'm resigned to the fact that Stripey is going to have to die. For, while my backups are not perfect or all-encompassing, they're good enough to get me by.

Post Script: How is is that in my pile of backup DVDs I do not have a copy of the intall program for the backup software?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Whither we goest?

The title of a Vanity Fair article, Lazy-Ass Nation, intrigued me enough to peruse it online (hard also to not peruse pictures of Tom Cruise's ex-better half). But I digress. This was an amusing piece, which notes the extents to which modern society has succumbed to the allure of gadgetry, e.g.,
  • a motorized ice-cream cone twirler
  • battery operated self-heating jackets
  • cars that park themselves (better than you, no doubt)
  • peanut butter and jelly (in the same jar)
  • remote-control switch for a clapper
  • motorized, remote-controlled duck decoys (I want one!)
One interesting and distressing point is a quote from Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee. I have read this, but I probably banished the detail from my mind:
"Hunter-gatherers really do have more free time." He points to studies showing that Kalahari Desert Bushmen, a hunter-gatherer tribe that has survived to this day, "have leisure time, sleep a lot, and work no harder than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food has been reported to be only twelve to nineteen hours for Bushmen: how many [of us] can boast of such a short work week?"
From here, we go to the near future, where information might successfully be implanted into live neurons and bioengineering will cure us of everything. You've got to love the conclusion:
And once the goods and services we come up with are advanced enough to eradicate every last annoyance from our lives, we'll finally achieve that state of bliss known both to yogis of the East and Homer Simpson on the couch.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An awareness of hunger, appetite and eating enjoyment

A press release yesterday on PennState Live says "Eating competence may lower risk of heart disease."
University Park, Pa. – People who are confident, comfortable and flexible with their eating habits may be at a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease than people who are not. Researchers at Penn State suggest that a curriculum that helps people understand their eating habits could prove to be an important medical nutrition therapy.

Coming from a family whose medical history is rife with heart problems, I am comforted by this news. I am a paragon of confident, comfortable eating. In addition, my eating habits are extremely flexible. I willingly will trade dishes or modify my eating times to accommodate my dining companions.

I think I shall embark upon my 100 Lunches in 100 Days program immediately.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Kobayashi Moru vs. Seppuku

I wish that I was Captain Kirk. The only Star Fleet cadet to beat the no-win Kobayashi Moru Scenario might be able to come to grips with using Office 2007 within Blackboard Vista. The problem is that Vista does not currently recognize Office 2007 file formats.

Office 2007 applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint save their files with a new XML-based file format called Open Office XML Format. This new format features new and different file extensions (e.g., .docx, .xlsx, .pptx), which help to indicate their XML-based content.

The file format container, which is comprised primarily of XML files, is based upon the compressed ZIP file format specification. The following problems can arise for users:

  1. Downloading the file from Vista with the default ZIP extension makes the file unreadable by Office 2003

  2. The default ZIP association forces the client to treat the XML format package as a ZIP file

  3. The client Office application does not recognize the XML format package encoding

A wise person at this point would simply not use, or allow to be used, Office 2007. Of course, a wise person would not be teaching Office 2007 for Fairmont State University and trying to do it on Vista.

There are two practical solutions:

  1. Rename the Office 2007 file before (or preferably after) you upload it to Vista. For example, change the .docx filetype of a Word document to .doc.

  2. Upload the four-character Office 2007 extension, but teach everyone to override the default ZIP filetype when they download and SAVE AS…

  3. Don't use Office 2007

Of course, none of this brings into consideration as to what someone who uses Office 2003 will encounter if they are faced with the Kobayashi Moru of handling Office 2007 files on Vista. It would help a lot if they had the latest Microsoft Office Combatibility Pack (sic) for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats.

It would help even more if they didn't have to do it.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A foolish consistency is hardwired into conservative minds

Nature Neuroscience reports on some interesting findings by some researchers who have taken another look into the neurological differences between liberal and conservative people. In their article, Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism, the researchers (Amonio, Jost, Master and Yee)say that "greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity."

There idea was that "conflict monitoring," which they defined as a general mechanism for detecting one's habitual response tendency, could be tested by a Go/No-Go task.

In the Go/No-Go task used in our study, participants must quickly respond to a frequently presented Go stimulus, such that the 'Go' response becomes habitual. However, on a small proportion of trials, a No-Go stimulus appears, signaling that one's habitual response should be withheld. Hence, a No-Go stimulus conflicts with the prepotent Go response tendency.

In a nutshell, the researchers hypothesize that response conflicts are associated and detectable within a specific area of the brain. Their results indicate that a liberal political orientation was strongly correlated to greater conflict-related neural activity when response inhibition was required (e.g., a "No-Go").

Those with an inherent bent towards "staying the course" show little conflict-related neural activity.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Orifice Open XML

A Guardian Unlimited Technology article today, "Microsoft OOXML not a standard, standards body votes," tells of Microsoft's latest setback in having their latest non-standard declared a standard.

OOXML (Office Open XML)is Microsoft's XML-based document format, which is being used in Office 2007. Apparently the awkward name "Office Open" is meant to avoid any mixup with "OpenOffice," which is a multiplatform and multilingual office suite and an open-source project. Quite an orifice full.

The New York Times Technolgy article, "Panel Reject Microsoft's Open Format," offers more details of this tempest. In five months of voting by member of the International Organization for Standardization, or the I.S.O., Microsoft has failed to win designation of OOXML as an approved standard.

The fight over the standard, while technically arcane, is commercially important because more governments are demanding interchangeable open document formats for their vast amounts of records, instead of proprietary formats tied to one company’s software. The only standardized format now available to government buyers is OpenDocument Format, developed by a consortium led by I.B.M., which the I.S.O. approved in May 2006.

According to Gartner, more than 90 percent of all digital text documents in the world are in Microsoft formats. This statistic is important because many groups, here and abroad, are arguing for a reduction of our reliance upon Microsoft's propriety products.

BSI, a Brittish Standards group, has some great arguments against OOXML.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Do not adjust your set -- turn it off!

NewScientistTech has a disturbing piece about the results of a recent study, which show that watching television more than two hours a day early in life can lead to attention problems later in adolescence.
Symptoms of attention problems included short attention span, poor concentration, and being easily distracted. The findings could not be explained by early-life attention difficulties, socio-economic factors, or intelligence, says the team.
This is particularly disturbing in that the attention problems seem to be independent of whether a diagnosis for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder had previously been made.

One caveat, though, is that the children in the study were prone to attention problems, and they were drawn to watching television. Still, the results warn us that TV viewing is supplanting other activities that promote concentration, such as reading, games, sports and play.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

It's so nice to have you back where you belong

An article by Newsweek correspondent Matthew Philips says that the Chinese government has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission.

Borrowing from the Karl Rove/Alberto Gonzales playbook where they had hoped to replace key federal prosecutors with loyal "Bushies," China has moved to "institutionalize management of reincarnation." Although this sounds patently silly, it's really a ploy to allow Chinese authorities to choose the next Dalai Lama.

The current Dalai Lama, who now lives in India, says that he refuses to be reborn in Tibet as long as it's under Chinese control. And the Chinese, for their part, no doubt have placed the Dalai Lama's soul on their No Transmigration List.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Cashing in on computer nostalgia

A couple of weeks ago, I stuck my toe into the pool of eBay sellers. Thus far, I've managed to clear out some of the duplicate mini-sheets in my collection of Ukrainian stamps. Having achieved that beginner's level of comfort, I'm now looking to part with some old computer memorabilia that I thought I could live without.

Results have been hit or miss so far, as I'm struggling to find the pulse (if there is one) of that niche market. Last week, I found a well-paying buyer for the first two issues of OS/2 Magazine. They went for $10.50 each. At the same time, however, nobody at all was interested in buying either Volume 0, Number 0 of OS/2 Professional Magazine, or the (I thought) very cool "The Borg is Here" cover of Issue 3. Go figure.

Last night, I decided to post my old IBM System/360 Reference Data “Green Card,” from circa 1970. A little noodling on Google told me that this old nerdy badge of honor has achieved somewhat iconic status. And my card is in pretty good condition, if I do say so myself.
I have some hope that another item might also do well. It's an old 1977 Creative Computing Catalogue. I'm guessing that the real selling point of this item is some illustration work by underground cartoonist, Robert Crumb. The picture that I show in the eBay posting is not touched up. However, a little PhotoShop work was able to render a pretty sharp image (right).
Only time (as in six days) will tell if my hunch is correct about the desirability of that catalog. To date, my track record is pretty spotty, as I'm sitting on several boxes off AOL disks, which I doubt that anyone now wants. :-(

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Old Map linked to actual cave


Many a day in the late 70s and early 80s I had read the words above, which told me that I was once again above ground somewhere outside of Colossal Cave. I needed to pick up a lamp, and I would once again be ready to explore.
It wasn't until last night that I learned that Colossal Cave had a real-worldTM counterpart as Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.
The Digital Humanities Quarterly Summer 2007 article, "Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther's Original “Adventure” in Code and in Kentucky," by Dennis G. Jertz of Seton Hill University sheds new light on an old legend.
Colossal Cave Adventure was a text-based computer game that I surreptitiously played on an old mainframe VAX account that I had when I first started work at West Virginia University in 1979. I had to be stealthy because computing resources and storage space was deemed too precious a commodity for such a thing as a non-productive text adventure game. Sysadmins had banned the game and diligently searched out and deleted the executable binary. Fortunately for me, they only looked the the title "ADVENT." I renamed my module to something else.
Lord, it was a mighty feeling of accomplishment when I finally completed the adventure! But I didn't do it alone. I had confederates whom I had met in the first computer science class that I took, courtesy of a tuition waiver granted to full-time employees of WVU. Together, we had mapped the legendary labyrinth section of the cave, which alternately consisted of a maze of twisty passages, all alike and a twisty maze of passages, all alike. Those expressions have remained with me all of these years. If I see a glimmer of recognition in the eyes of my listener, then I know that they, too, are an initiate.
According to the article, Colossal Cave Adventure was created by Will Crowther. Newly discovered evidence indicates that Crowther wrote the game during the 1975-76 academic year and probably abandoned it in early 1976.
Crowther's original source code, which had been presumed lost for decades, was recovered in 2005 from a backup of Don Woods's student account at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL). The recovered files, dated March 1977, and bearing the in-game message “WELCOME TO ADVENTURE!!”, confirm that Crowther's original was in fact a game, with puzzles (such as a sequence that involves interactions between a rusty rod, an empty birdcage, a bird, and a snake), subtle humor (such as the surprising way that the bird helps the player get past the snake), and fantasy (including a magical crystal bridge, magic words, and combat with axe-wielding dwarves. Yet Crowther's adventures in Colossal Cave began earlier, via the Cave Research Foundation (CRF).
Crowther and his wife, Pat, were spelunkers. According to this article, it was Pat who distinguished herself in the caving community by physically squeezing through a tiny hole that connected two sprawling networks of cavers that were once thought to be separate. Crowther himself worked as a cartographer, and he participated in a survey of "Bedquilt," an area of the Flint Mammoth Cave System / Colossal Cave region.
When I read this article and saw the pictures, I dug through my collection of memorabilia and came upon my old New Adventure Map, which was given to me by a now-retired German Professor who I befriended in my first CS class. Tattered, wrinkled and stained (the map, not the professor), an image of the map appears below:

Thank you, Don Huffman, wherever you are.

Monday, August 6, 2007


On August 4th, two days after the tragic interstate bridge collapse in Minneapolis, President Bush was on hand to take a 10-minute tour of the wreckage. He brought prayers from the American people. I came to the realization that a new form of tourism has been born.

Borrowing from Ecotourism, let me tell you about Disatourism:

Disastourism: "Responsible travel to disaster areas that does little to improve the welfare of local people."

Principles of disastourism:

  • photo opportunity that capitalizes on media coverage

  • take nothing (but pictures), leave nothing (but prayers)

  • build disaster awareness

  • raise sensitivity to affected regions

  • provide positive experiences for party loyalists

Friday, August 3, 2007

Our roller coaster ride is nearly at an end

Some scientists from the University of Kansas in Lawrence think that they may have figured out the reason behind the cyclical pattern of mass extinctions. At least for the last 500 million years, the number of species on Earth has regularly dropped approximately every 62 million years.

Physicists Adrian Melott and Mikhail Medvedev say that our solar system circles our galaxy, the Milky Way, in a roller coaster fashion. Every 62 million years, it reaches its highest point relative to the galactic plane, where it is closest to a source of deadly cosmic rays.

No longer being blocked by cosmic debris, powerful radiation particles called muons are more likely to strike the Earth and cause damage to DNA.

According to Melott, the zenith of the Sun's oscillations match almost exactly with the times of the dips in the fossil record. The last time that this was thought to have happened was 55 million years ago -- that gives us less than seven million years to get our affairs in order.

The roller coaster ride we took is nearly at an end.
I bought my ticket with my tears,
that's all I'm gonna spend.

And I think it's gonna be all right.
Yeah, the worst is over now,
The morning sun is shining like a Red Rubber Ball.
Red Rubber Ball by Simon and Garfunkel

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

White pawn better watch his ass

Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal article, Don Putin, by Garry Kasparov, says that if you really want to understand Vladimir Putin's Russia, you should immerse yourself in The Godfather series by Mario Puzo.

First, the background: Kasparov is a former world chess champion, a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal, and chairman of the United Civil Front of Russia, a pro-democracy opposition organization.

That aside, however, Kasparov draws a very realistic analogy between Putin's government and the mafia:
the strict hierarchy, the extortion, the intimidation, the code of secrecy and, above all, the mandate to keep the revenue flowing.
Those who have run afoul of Putin have found themselves in Siberian prisons or, more commonly, dead.

To date, Kasparov has only been beaten on the head with a chess board. Given the fates of those who have gone before him, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Kasparov might awake on morning to find the knight to a chess set lodged in some orifice -- or worse.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How to Look Like You're Working?

Here's an interesting tidbit.

Moneyweb reprinted a July 31 Wall Street Journal article, Ten things your IT department won't tell you, by Vauhini Vara.

The ten "secrets" are thoroughly presented in a format that lists the problem, the solution, the risks involved and how to stay safe.

  1. How to send giant files
    Very cool! I had never heard of the online services, such as YouSendIt Inc., SendThisFile Inc., or DropSend.
  2. How to use software that your company won't let you download
    This is more an issue of work-arounds. At least for where I work, there's a good reason to block certain software, such as Google Desktop -- Security!
  3. How to visit the web sites your company blocks
  4. How to clear your tracks on your work laptop
  5. How to search for your work documents from home
    Great... their solution is to use Google Desktop. :-(
  6. How to store work files online
  7. How to keep your privacy when using email
    Some common sense here: use https (a secure session). Encryption is another solution they mention, but I'm surprised they don't mention freenigma, which I love.
  8. How to access your work email remotely when your company won't spring for a Blackberry
  9. How to access your personal email on your Blackberry
  10. How to look like you're working
    Hit Alt-Tab ?? That's their solution? Give me a break! That doesn't even work in my environment. Best advice here is "Get back to work!"

Monday, July 30, 2007

12 Things that I Hate about You

Seth Stevenson's article, There are 12 Kinds of Ads in the World, provides a useful framework around which all advertisements are broken down into twelve basic types. The categories are the work of advertising executive Donald Gunn. The Slate article also features a slide show, which highlights each advertising format and provides a related video link. You can't get away from the advertisements, though -- you have to disable pop-up blocking from Slate to get the navigation bar of the slideshow to appear.

  1. The Demo -- a visual demonstration of a product's capabilities. Think Ginsu.

  2. Show the need or problem (e.g., "Head-on -- apply it directly where it hurts").

  3. A symbol, analogy or exaggerated graphic to represent the problem. The cited example was of a guy who couldn't pass a football through a tire -- until, that is, he took some Levitra.

  4. The comparison -- Hi, I'm a PC ... and Hi, I'm a Mac.

  5. The exemplary story. For everything else, there's Mastercard.

  6. Benefit causes story. This add shows a trail of events that might be caused by the product's benefit.

  7. The "tell it" add uses a presenter or testimonial, like Lindsay Wagner pitching the Sleep Number bed.

  8. Ongoing characters and celebrities, like the Geico caveman or "Bob," the male enhancement pill fellow with the rictus grin.

  9. The symbol, analogy, or exaggerated graphic, which demonstrates the benefit of a product (e.g., the geyser, Old Faithful, becomes "regularity.").

  10. Associated user imagery, which showcases the type of people it hopes you'll associate with a product. Somehow, I don't think that "Bob," the male enhancement pill fellow with the rictus grin, is what they have in mind with this one; they probably mean cool, beautiful people wearing cool, beautiful jeans.

  11. The "unique personality property (e.g., with a name like Smucker's, it has to be good).

  12. The parody or borrowed format -- ads that parody movies, TV shows or other ads, such as parodies of that Ginsu commercial.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Unaccountable, unverifiable and inaccessible voting

To err is human, but to really foul things up takes a computer.

A July 28 New York Times article by Christopher Drew, Scientists' Tests Hack into Electronic Voting Machines in California and Elsewhere (login required), tells how three different types of electronic voting machines (Diebold Election Systems, Hart InterCivic and Sequoia Voting Systems) were easily compromised by computer scientists at the University of California, Davis.

According to the article, investigators had created situations for each system “in which these weaknesses could be exploited to affect the correct recording, reporting and tallying of votes.”

Investigators had found possible problems not only with computerized touch-screen machines, but also with optical scanning systems and broader election-management software.

Executives for the voting machine industry countered that the tests had not been conducted in a realistic environment (such as in Ohio during an actual election) and that no machine was known to have been hacked in an election. Right. But if a computer scientist at a university can do it, I'll wager that somebody else could -- and probably did -- do it.

A proposed House bill would require every state to use paper records that would let voters verify that their ballots had been correctly cast and that would be available for recounts.

The 2004 election in Morgantown, WV, was my first exposure to an electronic voting machine. I was surprised and pleased to note that a paper roll on my machine was printing out a corroborating record of my selections. Before that, things were done the old fashioned way -- with little old ladies threading together paper ballots as they were handed in.

Friday, July 27, 2007

People get ready

I'm a newcomer to the work of Max Blumental, but the two latest pieces of his that I've seen have been excellent.

Back on July 18, he had a piece on The Huffington Post titled Generation Chickenhawk: the Unauthorized College Republican Convention Tour. The College Republican National Convention is where the cream of the next generation's GOP get their start, the breeding grounds of future Jack Abramhoffs, Grover Norquists and Karl Roves. It's really something to listen to these well-scrubbed kids parroting the party line about "fighting them over there, so we don't have to fight them here." But to a man, they all have some excuse as to why they aren't over there. All have "other priorities."

Blumenthal's latest piece on Huffington Post is equally chilling. Titled Rapture Ready: The Unauthorized Christians United for Israel Tour, it's about a July 16, Christians United for Israel annual Washington-Israel Summit. These good people are nothing more than evangelical Christians who support Israel. The pentacostal flames that they are fanning, however, are in the hopes that a Mideast conflagration will help to bring about Armageddon, the final climactic battle between God and the Devil. These people want a ring-side seat.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Executive (out of) Order

There's something wrong with our system of government when the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branches can be so out of whack. A recent Executive Order, "Blocking Property of Certain Persons Who Threaten Stabilization Efforts in Iraq," appears to be another blatant power grab in an incessant string. This one empowers the Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of Defense to freeze the assets of an individual or group that is suspected of "threatening the peace or stability of Iraq or the Government of Iraq" or "undermining efforts to promote economic reconstruction and political reform in Iraq or to provide humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people."

Where is the public outrage?

Stephen Pizzo, in his article in the, likens this latest erosion of our liberties to the classic analogy of a frog sitting in a pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil. It's just going to sit there until it's cooked.

Taken by itself, this latest executive order is merely turning up the heat by a few degrees.

Another favorite of mine is Executive Order 13422, which was signed by Bush last January and is now taking effect. This one places a political officer -- a commissar -- into Federal regulatory agencies in order to make sure that newly created regulations will reflect the wishes of the President.

How about another executive order, which states our position on torture in relation to the now-quaint Geneva Convention? It's okay as long as we don't do it with the express purpose of degrading and humiliating.

How about warrantless wiretaps?

So what's a poor legislative branch to do? Cite members of the President's staff for contempt? Guess what -- the Department of Justice, which happens to be under Alberto Gonzales, has said that it won't enforce any contempt citations against all of the President's men.

The heat is on, as Stephen Pizzo suggests.

Got some time on your hands? Check out this Wikisource listing of all of Bush's executive orders. The first one is a real stroll down memory lane.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Reaper has a first name, it's spelled OSCAR

An AP story on MyWay, Oscar the Cat Predicts Patients' Deaths, tells about a Providence, Rhode Island, cat with a predilection for snuggling down with nursing home patients who are within hours of passing away. According to an interview with Dr. David Dosa, who recently had published a New England Journal of Medicine article, A Day in the Life of Oscar, "He doesn't make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die."

On at least 25 occasions, Oscar has been observed to sit beside people who would wind up dying in a few hours.

According to skeptics, maybe Oscar is just homing in on a heating pad that staff will put on a sick patient. However, that doesn't really explain every situation. Some cats just flat-out have psychic abilities. A cat of mine has the uncanny knack of yacking up a hairball in a location where I am most likely to step into it barefooted. This has been observed on at least a dozen occasions.

And now here's something you'll really like...

According to Iran's state-sponsored Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA),
'In recent weeks, intelligence operatives have arrested 14 squirrels within Iran's borders.'

'The squirrels were carrying spy gear of foreign agencies, and were stopped before they could act, thanks to the alertness of our intelligence services.'
Interestingly, a search of the IRNA web page didn't have any hits on "squirrel." Perhaps I needed a better search term.

On this side of the globe, however, NBC News Producer Ali Arouzi obtained some Tehran man-on-the-street comments to the effect that perphaps these might have been cunning British squirrels, no doubt MI6.

However, at great risk to myself and my secret Iranian contact, I have obtained this exclusive image of one of the squirrels. Judging from the headgear, I think this is one of our boys from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota.

For additional background, NPR's All Things Considered on July 20th carried an analysis piece with interviews by an ex-CIA intelligence expert and a wildlife professor.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Every Picture Tells a Story

Early in the book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the under-age Harry Potter could be traced by the Ministry of Magic if he performed illegal magic. Perhaps even magic has a unique signature.

A current item in Ars Technica, titled Harry Potter and the Serial Number of Doom, by Nate Anderson, reveals some interesting details about digital photo images. An industry standard "Exchangeable image file format" (Exif) data record is embedded into modern digital images.

The article cites an Electronic Frontiers Foundation item from July 20, Harry Potter and the Digital Fingerprints. Prior to the official release of J.K. Rowling's seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, someone had gone to the trouble of photographing every page of a leaked copy of the book with their digital camera, and they made the entire text available through BitTorrent.

By using an open-source program called ExifTool, the folks at EFF can tell us that the leaker of the book had used a Cannon Rebel 300D, what the camera's serial number is (560151117), and more than 100 other facts about the photos.

Out of curiosity, I downloaded the Windows executable of ExifTool and tried it out. The Windows version supports a handy drag & drop interface, where you can drag an image onto the executable and read a CMD-style terminal window listing of the Exif data.

An image that I had taken with the camera in my cell phone contained the cell phone model number and all kinds of other details, including what version of PhotoShop I had used to clean up the image. Another image taken with my Canon PowerShot S60 contained even more detailed information.

I did a non-scientific survey of pictures in the photo sharing site, flickr, and I couldn't find too much information on a random selection of photos, including my own. I checked out the privacy and permissions settings for my flickr account, and I discovered that they have a global setting that lets you hide your photos' Exif data. When I went back to my account and checked on the Exif data for my pictures, I noted that was just barebones information, such as the image type, size and resolution.