web: companies too lazy to follow phishing advice

Basic Internet security means “Don’t click links that resemble legitimate sites”. Yet lazy companies persist in sending e-mails that invite you to “View your statement” or “Enjoy our discount offer” that go to e.g. click.global.expediamail.com instead of expedia.com (that one doesn’t even use the httpS (ecure) protocol!). Even PayPal does it, sending me “⌚ 👜 Get a Credit decision in Seconds” which asks me to click https://epl.paypal-communication.com/blahblah, which is counter to their own security advice about suspicious activity! Companies engage in this stupidity because the people in marketing enter into agreements with third parties to deliver e-mail and track customer responses without involving the web site or security team, and the quick hack to make it work is to register a separate site.

Maybe it’s impossible for scammers to register http://LegitimateBigCo-myscamsite.com , but who can tell the subtlety of that distinction with the definitely fake http://myscamsite-LegitimateBigCo.com ?! I’m a web engineer and I don’t grok that level of detail in domain registration.

Posted in web | Leave a comment

books: bad SF

Singularly unconvincing

cover of 'Accelerando'

★★☆☆☆ The singularity assumes ever-accelerating technological change (hence the title), but after a fairly solid beginning it was a fatally dumb idea to spend a chunk of the book on a long space voyage. It’s beyond the author’s imaginative skills to cover what happens! Gibson’s solution to techno-overload is to focus on “The street finds its own uses for things”; Strosser’s is to move the action far from the inner workings (literally – advanced economics takes place near the center of the solar system). There are some ideas (tiny spaceships, smart lobsters), but it’s not thought through.

And the usual irritation of people in the future always choosing to dress and act retro solely to be familiar to us peons in the 20th century. Aggh.


cover of 'Accelerando'

★☆☆☆☆ More rubbish that brings discredit to the term “cyberpunk.” People’s personalities get digitally transmitted to inhabit “sleeves,” including our protagonist to solve a perfect crime in a turgidly unimaginative noir crime (billionaire, sultry wife, hardboiled yet sexy cop partner, various goons, kill me now). Lots of ultraviolence. But since the sleeve is rented or borrowed, there’s no consequence to the death and destruction, and there’s a lot of unconvincing handwaving why everyone doesn’t get cloned into multiple sleeves at once. The best character is an artificially-intelligent hotel, and that is terrible too. Just awful.

Posted in books | Leave a comment

cars: fun with math and physics

People have a hard time distinguishing between energy and power, it really manifests itself when thinking about electric vehicles (EVs).

Batteries store energy, and people grasp that they don’t store a lot of it. To travel about 75 miles the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle has a battery that weighs 660 pounds and costs $5500 to replace. It stores 24 kW·h of energy.

A kiloWatt hour?

But what is a kW·h?  It’s a “kiloWatt hour”, which means the ability to provide a kiloWatt of power for an hour; the ‘·’ is multiplying power and time. It’s a measure of energy, and it’s the stuff that your electric company sells you. Be more energy-efficient and you use fewer kiloWatt hours.

pay the man

As Googling “1 kW in hp” will tell you, one kiloWatt is a mere 1.3 horsepower. So 24 kW·h is only 31 “horsepower hours,” and then the confusion sets in. “Ugh, electric cars are so weak! Wimpy granola-wearing sandal-eating hippies!” Or the new refrain “Electric cars are so weak, unless you’re a rich person pretending to be green who can afford Tesla’s huge batteries.”

No. Cars don’t need lots of power for hours, they need occasional bursts of power. A 24 kiloWatt hour battery holds the energy to provide 1 kiloWatt of power for an entire day, or 48 kiloWatts for 30 minutes, or…

Performance is a burst of power

Again, energy is not power. Let’s build a hot-rod that throws down 2,000 horsepower for 10 seconds to accelerate. That’s 1,500 kiloWatts for 10 seconds, which is only 4 kW·h. In other words the weakest battery in a plug-in car (currently the Prius plug-in hybrid) has enough energy storage to throw down a brief surge of power to out-accelerate any ultra-supercar from a stoplight! In practice only a big battery can discharge that much power without disintegrating, but there’s no physics preventing it. If and when someone improves battery chemistry so smaller batteries can discharge rapidly, even a mid-range EV will out-accelerate all gasoline sports cars. Most performance car fans haven’t woken up to this yet, but all the engineers working on AMG/M-series/RS-line/-V 600+ horsepower engines are going to be collecting unemployment and taking night classes in battery chemistry in less than a decade.

Recharging is about power and energy, and it isn’t

Let’s recharge our Nissan Leaf with its 24 kW·h battery pack. Firstly, it’s dirt cheap. Electricity averages 12 cents per kW·h (you’re buying energy), so even with some charging losses (the battery gets warm) you’re looking at $3 to travel 75 miles. If you charge overnight you should look into a cheaper rate from your utility. If you have solar panels, you’re laughing.

How do you put 24 kW·h of energy into a battery? As the unit suggests, you could deliver 24 kiloWatts for one hour, which is quite a lot of domestic power; for comparison turning on every light on my house only takes 4 kW. But again energy is power for a period of time; you can vary the power or time. A regular 110 Volt outlet can deliver 15 amps. That’s 1.6 kW, meaning it will take 15 hours, plus an hour or two for charging losses, to completely recharge a fully depleted Leaf. That’s a little tight to fully recharge overnight, So many EV buyers use a 240 Volt outlet. Most houses have one or two 240 Volt circuits to power ovens and dryers, an electrician can install a 240 Volt 30 amp socket for about $300. Now instead of 1.6 kW you can send 7.2 kW to your car, which means you’re done recharging your Leaf in about 4 hours. That means

Every morning you get into a car that you’ve cheaply, and overall-less-bad-for-the-planet, fully charged for your regular driving duties.

(Expressed that way, how come every two-car family with a garage doesn’t have an EV?! Suburban familes of the world, get a clue!)

The confusion between power and energy continues with recharging. Some car makers and fans trumpet how their plug-in car can fully recharge in only three hours from a wall plug, but that’s only because it has a small battery! “You can refill the Diamante in 30 seconds… because it’s got a tiny gas tank” is not a feature!

Similarly, people make fun that recharging a top-of-the-line Tesla from a wall plug can take days. That is stupid. Whether you plug a Leaf or a Tesla into an AC outlet, it’ll take about the same amount of time to recharge either car enough to travel 30 miles. So long as you wake up to a car with enough charge for your commute, who cares?

Fast recharging is power in reverse

SAE J1772 EV recharging plug

Besides billions and billions of regular AC sockets, there are lots of these 240 Volt sockets around the country, and there’s a standard plug for them. This government map shows 23,000 of them at 9,000 “public charging stations” around the USA. (My neighbor has and loves a Chevy Volt and recharges it at work, she doesn’t even have access to a garage at home.) But if you’re on a long road trip, that four hour wait to travel the next 75 miles is onerous.

No problem, just increase the power, and the time to provide the energy goes down. An EV is designed to transfer huge current at high DC voltage from its battery to the motor, so you add a circuit to the car that does the reverse, accepting huge current at high DC voltage to recharge the battery. It doesn’t add much cost to the car, but the station to provide it involves some more elaborate electrical engineering and so a “Fast DC charging station” costs $10,000 rather than $1,000. Nissan promoted the CHAdeMO standard that supplies 50 kW, the other car manufacturers dickered around in standards hell before coming up with the “Frankenplug” that adds extra pins for fast DC charging. If you go to the same map you can see these fast DC charging stations slowly popping up.  Meanwhile Tesla went their own way with the Supercharger that can deliver a staggering 130 kiloWatts. Again, because of battery chemistry limitations, only a big battery can accept that kind of power input, just as only a big battery can output Ferrari-beating power.

Gasoline is amazing!?

Let’s go back to that Leaf with its 24 kW·h battery pack.

Meanwhile a single gallon of gasoline holds 33.4 kW·h of energy and only weighs 6 pounds. It holds 100× more energy by weight than that Leaf battery pack! The comparison looks terrible, but it’s misleading. When an engine burns that fossil fuel, at best only around a third turns into forward motion. The rest turns into useless heat. The efficiency of the Leaf is reflected in its EPA sticker, which has the confusing “99MPG equivalent” number on it. The electric car goes a long long way on the same amount of energy.

Nissan Leaf EPA sticker

99MPG equivalent means what?

And when you discharge an expensive heavy battery pack, you still have an expensive heavy battery pack. You can recharge it over and over before eventually recycling it.

The amount of gasoline a car burns through is staggering. I made a spreadsheet that does the math. A car that gets 35 miles per gallon will consume 3,400 gallons of gasoline over 120,000 miles. That gasoline weighs 10 tons, and it turns into 33 tons of CO2 that contributes to global warming (and ocean acidification, plus smog, plus funds Middle Eastern terrorists). A 1.5 ton car burns through 6 times its own weight in gasoline! So any troll on the internet who bleats about all the pollution from making a hybrid or battery-powered car is a complete f***ing asshole crying crocodile tears while understanding nothing. The idea that making a 600 pound non-toxic recyclable battery pack is as bad as producing, spilling, refining, and shipping all those tons of gasoline is completely ludicrous. Obviously there’s more to the comparison than that, because the energy to recharge the battery pack has to come from somewhere, but remember the battery pack and motor are so much more efficient. These days the power most likely comes from a natural-gas power plant, and the proportion of renewables is going up while coal is going down.

Let us review

  • “Power” is doing hard labor, “Energy” is doing hard labor for some time.
  • Electric cars are incredibly efficient.
  • Anyone driving a conventional car is burning tons of gasoline and it’s bad for the planet.

Class dismissed!

Posted in cars, eco | Leave a comment

computers: power supply fix

I fiddled around with computers for five days straight over Christmas. I knew upgrading a laptop to Windows 7 and adding memory would be a chore, but I also had to repair my desktop.

cheap HP Pavilion, power supplies, old Northwest Falcon

On the right is the mighty $3000 PC that Northwest Falcon hand-made for me in 2004 out of slabs of aluminum and top-of-the-line parts.

On the left is the HP Pavilion I got second-hand for $100 to replace it when it died. They have nearly identical specs!

The HP Pavilion soon stopped resuming from standby, so I would mostly leave it powered on. Then it wouldn’t start up after being turned off. Thousands of people have this problem, many HP Pavilion desktops shipped with a crappy power supply unit (PSU). It turns out there’s a hack for that, the immortal “hairdryer trick” (Google it).  So I would only turn the computer off when I went away for a while; when I returned I had to hold a hairdryer to the back of it for 20 minutes until the power supply rose from the dead and then I could restart the computer. Crazy, but it worked.

Then at Christmas I had to reboot my PC into Windows to run Quicken to look up last year’s charitable contributions. (Quicken sort of runs on Linux thanks to the amazing WINE program, but it’s too fiddly getting the right mix of Windows code and Linux equivalents for it.) Instead of clicking Reboot I accidentally clicked Standby, and immediately started cursing. Sure enough the computer wouldn’t come out of standby even though I pressed the power switch immediately.  This time the hairdryer trick didn’t work even after blowing hot air into the PC for 25 minutes. Time to get another computer… except my last backup is 7 months old 🙁

So instead I tried to replace the power supply, the thing I should have done ages ago. There are lots of guides to doing this, it’s just unscrewing stuff and disconnecting and reconnecting a lot of connectors. In the photo the dead cheap HP power supply is the gray box at top center  First I swapped power supply with the brass and ball-bearing masterpiece from the $3000 hand-made Northwest Falcon PC (in the photo it’s at the top left of the computer on the right), but that didn’t work either. (Pro tip: the only way to tell if a power supply works is to short two pins together to make its fan start, see Power supply paperclip trick.) So I bought a new power supply, the Antec EarthWatts 380D Green (in the photo it’s the box at bottom center). I installed it in the HP Pavilion, only to find that HP’s stupid custom cutout for the PSU has flanges that overlap the Antec:

curse you, overlapping flange

Ahh, to hell with it, I screwed it tight anyway. I pushed the power button, and the power supply fan turned on! … and the HP’s cheap pastic power button broke off! So I removed the front panel, fixed the power button, and it powered on! Glory be! Both hard drives seem fine despite getting a 25-minute blowdry.

Posted in computers | Leave a comment

cars: finally the new snow car

1998 Outback Sport dwarfed by 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid

I’ve driven the same Subaru Outback Sport (a Subaru Impreza with slightly increased ground clearance) for 16 years. After dealers sorted out a wonky thrust plate and rear bearing it’s been rock solid for over a decade. It’s a great snow car: decent control in a snowstorm without having to put on chains, and the next morning you can drive out of a driveway blanketed in a half-foot of snow without shoveling.

Small car needn’t mean cheap car

But even by 1998 standards the Impreza/Outback Sport was quite primitive. I criticized Subaru for treating their smallest car as a cheap car, with no winter package (heated seats, mirrors, and wipers), and I had to add aftermarket leather seats.

In 2011 Subaru listened to me and introduced the fourth-generation Impreza with all those options. At the time I complained there is “No small fuel-efficient all-wheel drive car… no one is making a small AWD hybrid,” and last year Subaru listened to me again and announced a hybrid powertrain option for the XV Crosstrek (like the discontinued Outback Sport this is another Impreza variant renamed – Subaru of America clearly hates the name “Impreza”).

So when the A/C gave out on the Outback Sport I was happy to reward Subaru for making the car I asked for. I ordered a 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid with a lot of options in August. I put aftermarket leather in the regular hybrid, avoiding the overpriced Touring model with a moon roof I don’t want and an nav/infotainment system that’s worse than my smartphone. It’s a fine AWD car and a huge advance over my 1998 Subaru Outback Sport (backup camera! Bluetooth phone! no ignition switch! electronic traction! stability control! a USB port!).

Impreza vs. XV Crosstrek (from CarAdvice.com.au, flipped)

inoffensive hatchback vs. “commanding road presence” mini-tank CUV

The regular Impreza has an inoffensive “nicer-looking than a Ford Escort/Focus hatckback” appearance. Unfortunately Subaru doesn’t offer the hybrid powertrain on the regular Impreza, so I had to buy this faux butch “commanding road presence” uglified poseur that I didn’t want, in order to avoid the unacceptably primitive behavior of belching out exhaust when the car isn’t moving.

1 step back, 1 step forward

The jacked-up stance and increased weight of the XV Crosstrek makes it less fuel efficient than a regular Impreza. The hybrid powertrain improves the city MPG but it still has worse highway MPG than the regular Impreza. (Somehow the 2015 model increments city and highway MPG each by 1 to 30/34, but combined remains 31 MPG.) I wish it got better MPG – I’d”un-UV” it with smaller tyres if I trusted a tuner like Brucie’s Executive Lifestyle Autos – but the new Lexus NX300h  and BMW 328d xDrive wagon are the only AWD cars with slightly better MPG, and they cost a lot more $$$.

License plate WEAKHYB

It’s definitely a weak hybrid. It’s more powerful than the regular Crosstrek, but the puny 0.55 kW·h hybrid battery drains quickly and the regenerative braking that recharges the battery can’t slow it down on a steep hill (the engine turns back on if you downshift with the flappy paddles!). Subaru is adding an “audible vehicle approach pedestrian warning system” to the 2015 model, which is comical because the engine lurches to life if you accelerate faster than walking pace. Every time the engine ignites I think “Goddam, if this thing had a real battery I’d have instant torque from 0 RPM and get 80+ MPGe around town instead of 29 MPG.” It’s funny to see people wishing for a more powerful engine on this and other cars; Tesla’s Model S shows the future is electric, with big batteries sending hundreds of kilowatts to a small powerful motor.

There’s a better way

All-wheel drive adds complexity and weight, because you have drive shafts running to the front and back wheels. But once you add an electric motor you can radically simplify this: have the engine drive one axle and the motor the other, with no mechanical connection between them. The motor flings the car forward from a standstill and powers the car completely gasoline-free for the first NN miles around the city; the engine only kicks in on long trips and when you need all-wheel drive. This “through-the-road plug-in hybrid” layout is the future of all AWD cars. Volvo and Mitsubishi are starting with bigger SUVs, BMW, Honda, and Porsche are starting with sports cars, and Subaru needs to abandon its mechanical Symmetrical AWD, with or without a puny motor spliced in, and make the transition.

Meanwhile Tesla’s ‘D’ version of the Model S shows you can ditch the engine altogether and put an electric motor on each axle for insane all-electric no-gasoline-ever performance. (I couldn’t wait for the Tesla Model X with the same dual-motor AWD, besides it’s much bigger than my needs and will cost over twice as much as the XV Crosstrek Hybrid.)

I sincerely hope this is the last car I buy without a plug.

Posted in cars | Leave a comment

Fergus, 2001–2014

Fergus was a one-trick puppy, but it was a doozy, a monster über trick at the 1080 backside cab rodeo flip level. When he noticed strangers on the street he would perk up, assess the situation, make a bee-line for the least dog-loving person in the group, and turn on the dictionary definition of “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” as he wagged his tail, turned in circles, and gazed up adoringly at the humans. Resistance was futile. If I had a dollar for every “aww so cute” it would have put him through Harvard. If the group were outside a restaurant or, better yet, carrying takeout food, winning their interest while the smell of cooking lingered in the air was transcendent canine ecstasy. It never ever got old.

sex and a stick

helllo boys and girls

Around 15,000 years of unnatural selection led to this apex predator of pet affection, an adorable dog. We’ll never know when or where he needed to turn on the charm to survive, or how his winning formula went wrong, before we adopted a scrawny sickly 8-month old mutt off the street whom the SPCA had infelicitously named “S crappy.”

The downside was Fergus had no great loyalty to his ostensible owners. The three times he managed to hop out of the car he took off for the hills like a jackrabbit, knowing he could lure a meal and a new living arrangement without breaking a sweat. We were lucky that each time an interesting smell distracted him long enough so I could tackle him. He was never off-leash on the street again, and even on-leash he’d wander expectantly into open doors and garages looking for a new relationship. Depending on the kindness of strangers was his modus operandi, so he was the least grateful dog we’ve adopted.

His charm power meter had limits. At parties, after 45 minutes of showing off I’d find him recumbent and pensive in a corner. I feel the same way (“You can’t expect me to keep up that  level of charm, I’d have a heart attack” — Play It Again, Sam); sometimes we’d curl up together. He was probably wondering what more he had to do for the adoring crowds to lift him onto the dining table in acclamation.

beady eyes, button nose, cotton fur

Steiff bear

beady eyes, button nose, cotton fur


Fergus quickly learned to do the basic dog command repertoire: sit, down, shake, high five, and turn. When we got Nuala, a far smarter angry lesbian bitch, he struggled to keep up. He would “Go to your mat” if he liked the mat in question, but “Fetch the ball! Not the rope, the ball! Not the stuffed toy, get the ball!” ended with him wagging his tail in a transparent “I’m blonde and cute, you can’t expect me to discern the quiddity of objects!”

Fergus B&W

Looks go a long way

The darkness for him was narrow but deep. He was terrified of thunder, and despite how rare thunderstorms are where we live, his brain worked overtime to connect all kinds of events with it. Fireworks displays would make him desperate to find one unsatisfactory hiding place after another, his heart shaking his body from side to side like a rubber ball in a box. But then firecrackers too, so after a single crack he would turn tail and pull on the leash towards home. For the week around the 4th of July we would have to carry him outside. He learned to be scared of balloons that someone might puncture and even bubblewrap that someone might pop, and then any kind of package that might have bubblewrap, so that he would run away from deliveries and presents while Nuala would scrabble at the box hoping it contained treats and toys. The best thing about growing old was he couldn’t hear far-away explosions, but ’til the very end he could smell from a block away whether a party at the park had balloons (please, no further!) or not (yay!)

The narrow gap between our house and the neighbor’s is the only one on a long block, making it the cross-town route for cats with irresponsible owners and urban wildlife – possums, raccoons, skunks. Fergus believed his job was to alert us loudly and often to these interlopers (whereas a burglar would be a welcome opportunity for flirting and adventure). As his eyesight failed, any imagined motion would send him into intruder alert mode.


with Nuala


Rest In Peace

… and gone (still pretty in pink)


Fergus’ kidney function deteriorated but he soldiered on diminished, with regular subcutaneous fluids from nurse mom. This week he became jaundiced probably due to liver failure, and he stopped eating. Staying at the animal hospital for intravenous fluids was an (expensive) opportunity for him to meet new people, but we were not going to subject him to invasive procedures. After two days with no clear diagnosis, he was still trembling in pain and not eating, with only a slim chance that antibiotics might restore him to, at best, a feeble dog with kidney problems. As his guardians and friends, we chose to kill him. A shot of propofol (the choice of Michael Jackson) and he was at peace, then a shot of barbiturates and he was gone. It’s an awesome terrible power to wield over another, but I fervently hope someone does it to me when I’m near my end. It is utterly inhumane that we don’t extend the same dignity in death to ourselves that we do to our companion animals.

Two weeks ago: an evening stroll, lights ahead, a group of people outside a pizza restaurant (!), and another chance for Fergus to delight strangers and strengthen the bonds between man and animal. It never grew old.

Goodbye my ward, my companion, my true friend.

wuff wuff wuff

Posted in dogs | 1 Comment

computers: trying to update HTC Evo 4G

I bought an excellent Moto X phone, just before Motorola cut the price of the wooden back 75%, and shortly before Google sold them to Lenovo.

That leaves me with a 4-year old HTC Evo 4G, at the time absolutely the best phone I could buy. The battery doesn’t hold a charge for very long, but otherwise it’s in perfect working order. Its flip-out stand is still fantastic. So I leave it at home plugged in to a Jambox to play music and listen to internet news radio.

But… it’s run out of room. The applications on it have filled up its built-in storage, even after I moved as many as I can to its removable SD memory card, even after uninstalling many of them. What sucks is Sprint filled it with crapware that I can’t remove, it’s “baked in” to the system software. The lack of room means I can’t install updates to Google Play, YouTube, and Google services, so Google Play has stopped working. Now even calendar sync is failing.

It’s open source though, right? I should be able to install a free version of Android that doesn’t have the crapware and gives me more control over what it stores. As a bonus, I can run a newer version of Android; HTC stopped updating this thing years ago at Android 2.3.5, while Google has released Android 4.4 and is about to release Android 5.

It’s a great theory. Open source software FTMFW! Except:

  1. HTC never supported installing other system software on the phone. (Which itself is ridiculous, it’s my device.) Instead hackers have to figure out some way to “root” the phone by exploiting bugs in it. This is the same thing the bad guys do when they trick you into opening corrupt Flash movies and Microsoft Office files, but here used for good instead of evil.
  2. Although the core software that runs the phone is the open source Linux kernel, many pieces of the software on the phone are closed-source. The radio, the graphics, the Wi-Fi are all bits of binary code. So they don’t run with the latest version of Android and nobody can make the minor changes required to update them.
  3. The fine hackers who figured out how to do this have moved on. The guides to rooting and installing other software are years old, the forum is inactive, nobody has built newer software or updated the instructions.

The result is even if I can follow the 17-step jargon-filled nearly impenetrable instructions and find all the old programs and bits and pieces I need, I’ll still be running Android 2.3 from 2011.


Posted in computers, open source | Leave a comment

music: Ylvis “Stonehenge” the best comic music video

I was dimly aware of “What the Fox Says,” (now over 240 million views!) but my first exposure to Ylvis was someone mentioning their song “Massachusetts.” It’s light goofy parody, let down by falling back to retro homosexual panic.

I surfed some more. Ylvis make these videos to promote their evening talk show on Norwegian TV. “Someone Like Me” is a one-joke trick, but it’s a killer. “Jan Egeland” yokes the tropes of high-caliber stadium rock to a real-life mid-level U.N. diplomat. They’re all very funny.

But with “Stonehenge” they reach the zenith. Watch, it full-screen, then watch it again.

The parody casts a wide net:

  • tortured cosseted artist
  • Josh Groban precious singing
  • pop stars flailing around trying to rip their clothes off (stripping is hard)
  • non-sequitur jump-cuts between a studio and a daytime shot
  • forced rhymes
  • writhing around on a car
  • emoting on a dark set with a smoke machine

Parody doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Ylvis acknowledges their forebears:

This is all great, but with the call and response with the choir, the video leaps into the stratosphere. Normally the singer asks and the gospel choir responds, instead the choir challenges his commitment. But he’s resolute. Why shouldn’t a guy with a thousand-dollar haircut drive a Civic, a car you can trust? “Never mind the car, let’s talk about the henge!”

It’s a brilliant move. But it’s not Monty Python absurd, the song and video are ruthlessly consistent, and that unity makes it so perfect. This is a man obsessed with one thing. Who the f*** builds a Stonehenge?

Posted in music, web | Leave a comment

electronics: the return of the VCR!

I don’t pay for cable or satellite TV. I use a cutting-edge technology that delivers dozens of HDTV channels, wirelessly: the technical term for it is “rabbit ears.”

It’s great, but the feature we lost in the transition to all-digital is a box that will record TV programs for later playback. We should have taken our $40 coupon from government during the digital TV transition so that our old VCR would continue to record, but it would be fiddly and confusing and very low-def. It should be a simple job for modern electronics: take the decoded digital broadcast you’re about to show on the TV screen, and compress it and write it to a file just like a digital camera does. Surely there’s a replacement for the old and unloved VCR?cassette stuck in VCR

Sadly, not really. ReplayTV would sell you a box to record TV broadcasts, but they’re more or less out of business. Magnavox and some other companies briefly sold similar boxes, but it seems the market for this is tiny. Tivo can probably do it, but you pay by the month for their program guide. Maybe people are so brainwashed that they don’t realize that the ability to record programs doesn’t have to come in a box from your cable or satellite provider along with a monthly charge.

You can put this together yourself, just buy a digital TV tuner card or USB dongle for your computer and hook it up to software. I looked at using the free MythTV or XBMC software, but all the hardware recommendations for them in A-V forums are for people assembling quad-tuners networked over Ethernet to back-end storage servers accessed from front-end home theater PCs – I just want a box with a record button! At the other end of the scale are hackers using a Raspberry PI or other cheap bare-bones computer board, but there’s dispute whether they’re powerful enough to do it and by the time you add a case, power supply, and remote, it’s not cheap.

product imageThen I found out about the HomeWorx HW-150PVR. It’s an external digital TV tuner like any other, but it has a USB port on the front, and you can plug a USB hard drive into that and press the record button! I ordered one, it’s as flimsy and cheap as you’d expect for only $46, but it does the job. The remote is a confusing mess, but you can fast forward and rewind through commercials up to 16× speed without any tape noises. Like a VCR it has a poor interface to program it to record in the future. (I’m disappointed it doesn’t have a function to flash 12:00 just for old times’ sake.) Unlike a VCR each show you record is a separate file named after the station and time, you can rename these files and delete them, and if you unplug the USB drive the files should be editable and playable on a computer using a media player like VLC. No more hunting through a 180-minute tape for the good bit, or accidentally overwriting stuff.

What’s strange is my TV has a digital TV tuner and a USB port, and similar software for browsing media files on an external drive. Why doesn’t Samsung add the simple function to write movie files to a USB drive?

Posted in electronics | Leave a comment

computers: William Gibson and brain interfaces

Slashdot breathlessly summarizes a rather weak project combining virtual reality headset and a brainwave reading device with the editorial. Consumer level brain computer interfaces are still primitive these days, but it doesn’t seem too far off that we’ll have virtual reality similar to what William Gibson envisioned in his novels.

But Gibson never really envisioned what the experiments are developing. He imagined all kinds of VR  (cyberspace, simstim, holoporn), and he wrote about all kinds of brain control of things in the real world. But he never envisioned mind control in Virtual Reality itself. You jacked in to cyberspace, a consensual hallucination of a graphic representation of data (which never took off, there’s no “representation” of the net at all when you jump from Slashdot to YouTube), but Gibson explicitly had his hackers typing commands while jacked in: “distant fingers caressing the deck”, “whip moves on those keyboards faster than you could follow”, etc.

Gibson’s Neuromancer follow-up Count Zero is stuffed with profoundly prescient ideas like fully-immersive telepresence and one of the first descriptions of hanging out with people’s avatars in cyberspace, but the closest he comes to a “brain-computer interface” is slotting in a piece of microsoft behind your ear which gives you the knowledge to fly a real plane in physical reality. Similarly, in Spads & Fokkers (his short story with Michael Swanwick) players use a brain interface to control a holographic plane in a videogame: “He fitted the Batang behind his ear after coating the inductor surface with paste, jacked its fiberoptic ribbon into the programmer, … when it was done, a sky-blue Spad darted restlessly through the air a few inches from his face. It almost glowed, it was so real. It had the strange inner life that fanatically detailed museum-grade models often have, but it took all of his concentration to keep it in existence. If his attention wavered at all, it lost focus, fuzzing into a pathetic blur.”

In another comment on the story undefinedreference says You could play a video game or work in a virtual environment while your body is essentially at the gym. Gibson foresaw that too, but “The street finds its own uses for things,” and so Rikki in Burning Chrome is “working three-hour shifts in an approximation of REM sleep, while her body and a bundle of conditioned reflexes took care of business. The customers never got to complain that she was faking it, because those were real orgasms. But she felt them, if she felt them at all, as faint silver flares somewhere out on the edge of sleep.”

Gibson’s ideas are masterful poetic riffs on the future, but they aren’t its operating manual.

Posted in books, computers | Leave a comment