Friday, March 31, 2006

Geek Talk: Public Key is Cool; Passwords Drool

Let's say you start working on a project with a group of people that will require you to upload files to some central server so that everyone can access them. (this goes for revision controlled systems too) The leader of that project sends an plain text e-mail around letting everyone know what the SFTP site is, what the user name is, and what the password is.

This is just silly. You've exported sensitive information (the password) over a link that is not secure (plain text e-mail) and now the password is being stored in multiple places not in your control (the e-mail boxes of all of the recipients).

There is another way, and that way is so much better: public key authentication.

Rewind a second and imagine if things worked a different way. Imagine that instead of sending a password to everyone, you request that everyone send you their public keys. In fact, these keys might be found on each person's personal website somewhere. (as long as it's a hard task to factor huge primes from huge numbers, this is safe) (they might even send you multiple keys) You then add those keys to a text file somewhere and that's it -- everyone has access. If you want to remove access to one particular person, remove that person's public key from the file.

You see, back on each user's home computer, there is a private key stored somewhere. That private key is never exported. When the person uses ssh (via sftp) to login to the server, the private key on her machine works with the public key on the remote machine to authenticate. This happens automatically. The person doesn't even get prompted for a password. Access is immediately granted.

A downside to this is that anyone who gets access to your computer (where your private keys are stored), then that person has password-less access to all of the machines that have your public key on them. Well, to prevent this, when the public-private key pair are generated, they can be generated with a "passphrase." The passphrase is like a password for the private key. In order to use the local private key, you need the passphrase. So there is no password for the remote machine, but there is a passphrase for the local key.

It's such a beautiful system. It's much more secure than passwords. It's much nicer to administrate.

Everything password-centric should move to this system. It's very exciting.

And that's the geek talk for today.

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Snakes on a Blog

There's just so much to say about the upcoming Samuel L. Jackson movie, Snakes on a Plane.

I recommend taking a look at Snakes on a Blog. In fact, start here and listen to the remixed NPR segment about the movie. I'm still grinning.

Once you're done with that, click around. And start using the phrase "snakes on a plane" daily, if not more often.

Update: this is the audio that was played as a music interlude on All Things Considered today. It's a hoot.
First I will put my army of snakes into a box, and then I will put that box on a plane, then I will release the snakes... AND THERE WILL BE SNAKES..... ON THE PLANE.... AND..... THEN.... that will happen... AND I WILL RULE THE WORLD!

They will let you put snakes on the plane?

Of course... No one suspects the snake!

Friday, March 17, 2006

American Inventor is a good thing

I missed the first half hour of American Inventor, but I caught all of the rest of it.

I'm really pleased by the show. I know that a lot of people are giving it a hard time. People think that it's not realistic. People think that it's scripted. I don't think these things though. If you were to have an open casting call of self-proclaimed inventors, you would get exactly this type of mix. There would only be a few good ideas and the rest of them would be really bad. Additionally, even with good ideas, there would be lots of bad pitches. It's not easy to create a good idea AND give a good pitch for it. That's the challenge behind the show.

I hope it survives to see a second season. I think the people who come to the second season will learn from the first and the process will go much more smoothly.

Regardless, I think it's a great idea to try to elevate "inventors" to the level of pop stars. Organizations like FIRST have tried to do something similar -- they try to put science and engineering on the same level as sports -- however, I think that American Inventor is doing it in a much more practical and far more visible way. How can that be a bad thing?

Doug Hall, one of the judges and also a member of an engineering think-tank that has produced so many products that the average household contains 18 of them, has said that the greatest inventions are the ones that at first convince you that they are the dumbest things you've ever seen and then gradually get you to see the genius behind them until you're not sure how you could have lived without them. I think American Inventor is going to be much of the same. At first it looks like an awful idea; however, as you keep watching, I think you'll start getting the point, and you'll get excited about it. I know I am.

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"I pinch"

I really love "Crab", "Platypus", and "Oppossum" (even though they spelled opossum wrong). I especially like "Crab". I saw it on TV the other day and about woke up the apartment building.

The Element and Friends Web Site - 2006 Honda Element

"I pinch."

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Robotic Pack Mule Gets Its Kicks

This is probably the coolest robot I've seen in a long time...

Robotic 'pack mule' displays stunning reflexes

Check out the video. Watch it long enough to see them KICK IT AS ITS WALKING. They give it a swift kick to the body and it sticks out its leg, balances itself, and keeps on walking!! That's disturbance rejection, folks. That's controls engineering. That's what I do. That's right.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

White crustacean in a short furry skirt?

Divers have discovered a new animal in the South Pacific. It's so unique ("so unique" -- is that good English? "unique" seems strong enough) that they created a whole new family and genus for it!

New animal resembles furry lobster
PARIS, France (AP) -- Divers have discovered a new crustacean in the South Pacific that resembles a lobster and is covered with what looks like silky, blond fur, French researchers said Tuesday.

Scientists said the animal, which they named Kiwa hirsuta, was so distinct from other species that they created a new family and genus for it.

There's a picture of it on-line. Personally, I think it looks a little creepy.

They later describe it:
The animal is white and 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) long -- about the size of a salad plate.

It's funny that they use "salad plate" as their reference. It's as if they're just planning on devouring it once they get back to the lab.

Oh, and it's blind too. No eyes; just a membrane. It's probably because if it had eyes its own look would creep itself out. Creepy crustacean...

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Pay too much and you could raise the alarm

Pay too much and you could raise the alarm
"We're a product of the '60s," he said. "We believe government should be way away from us in that regard."

He was referring to the recent decision by him and his wife to be responsible, to do the kind of thing that just about anyone would say makes good, solid financial sense.

They paid down some debt. The balance on their JCPenney Platinum MasterCard had gotten to an unhealthy level. So they sent in a large payment, a check for $6,522.

And an alarm went off. A red flag went up. The Soehnges' behavior was found questionable.

They were told, as they moved up the managerial ladder at the call center, that the amount they had sent in was much larger than their normal monthly payment. And if the increase hits a certain percentage higher than that normal payment, Homeland Security has to be notified. And the money doesn't move until the threat alert is lifted.

Personally, I've had similar experiences at my bank. I found out that I couldn't transfer money in or out of my savings account more than 5 or 6 times a month. I can transfer money out of checking accounts as much as I want, but not savings.

I thought this was a problem with 5/3, so I called them, and I found out this new restriction was due to 9/11. It was a patriot act thing. Apparently preventing people from transferring SAVINGS ACCOUNT money more than a few times a month strikes a blow to terrorism.

So now if I plan on doing a lot of savings account transactions (paychecks/etc.), I need to do it all at once or move things into a checking account FIRST and then move everything over.

Does THAT make any sense?

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They killed the chimp!

A little while ago there was some local news that had some national coverage when an OSU researcher's funding for chimp research was cut. The chimps she had were all very smart. They were taught to do lots of things that help showcase how smart chimps are.

Well, when her funding was cut, she chained herself to the laboratory doors (they took away her keys earlier) and gave a lot of visibility to what was going on.

Of course, "the man" ended up winning and her chimps were transported away from OSU.

Apparently once the chimps got to their final destination, the keepers "accidentally" KILLED the alpha male. They sedated him to death!!

Recounting dead OSU chimp's last day
At this point, the animals were sedated so the staff could transfer them safely out of the cages, also not unusual, he added. They started sedation procedures with Kermit, since he is one of the alpha males, weighing close to 300 pounds. After the initial dosage did not sedate Kermit, procedures were followed to give incremental dosages to start the transfer.

"At some point, they found he wasn't breathing, so they immediately started CPR," Holland said. "They continued CPR until they realized he had no heartbeat and no respiration, so he was dead."

I wonder how you give chimp CPR. The image of someone giving CPR to a 300 pound chimp sorta drives home the idea that chimps are only marginally different from humans. It's kinda creepy.

So that's a sad story.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Down With Dildos!

Two state legislators in Tennessee want to ban dildos ("three-dimensional device[s]")!

Down With Dildos! (Two state legislators say no to sex toys)
To wit: Senate Bill 3794 (House Bill 3798), legislation that would make it illegal to sell, advertise, publish or exhibit to another person “any three-dimensional device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs….” For that matter, if you offer to show someone your dildo collection—or possess a vibrator with the intent to show it to someone—you’d be violating this proposed state law. And don’t even think about wholesaling those three-dimensional sex toys.

I wonder if the "used primarily" part will cause any problems. Take any blunt object that has a diameter about the size of your average pleasure rod. Now make a histogram of all of the things you can do with that blunt object. If "stimulation of human genital organs" happens to beat out all of the rest, then I guess your blunt object is contraband. Is that how it would work?

What if you could prove that while the object is marketed for stimulation of genital organs, you primarily use it as a meat tenderizer? Would that be an exception?

Nonetheless, this Tennessee legislative tag-team went ahead and introduced their bill last Thursday, and on Monday, it passed a perfunctory first reading. In other Monday developments, Tennesseans died from a lack of health care, remained poorly educated and were among the most obese state populations in the nation.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

My Belly is my Airbag

They did a study of car crashes.

Moderately overweight men survive LOTS more than thin men and fat men.

The trend does not show in women.

The speculation is that the gut pads the men like a pre-deployed airbag. The same does not hold for women because female fat goes to the hips/butt. However, if the man is too fat, he can have a heart attack.

Isn't that fascinating?

Obese and Skinny Male Drivers Fare Worse in Car Crashes
MedPage Today Action Points
  • Explain to interested patients that this study found in males, but not females, a body-mass index greater than 35 or less than 22 is associated with increased mortality from automobile accidents.

Body-mass index did not affect women's mortality risk after a crash, perhaps because gender differences in body shape lead to different injury patterns, the researchers speculated.

Current vehicle cabin designs are based on a standard crash test dummy in the driver's position with a BMI of 24.3, the authors said.

"These cabin designs may not be optimal for drivers with a different body habitus and may contribute to the higher fatality seen at both ends of the BMI continuum," the authors concluded. "Future crash dummy simulations and other studies are needed to account for individual and gender-related variations in body mass and fat distribution in tests of velocity and vehicle design."

Friday, March 03, 2006

New Orleans Plant Life: A Robust System

I thought this was a neat story. The emergent behavior from the dynamics of how plants work is fascinating. This suggests mechanisms for how plant life recovers from lots of disasters (for example, forest fires). It's a pretty robust system.

(summary: the idea is that the additional sunlight and area has tossed the plant life into "reproductive overdrive" where they're growing and blooming much faster and earlier than usual. They're repopulating as quickly as possible)

'A Studio in the Woods' Offers Hope for New Orleans
Last August, as Hurricane Katrina headed for New Orleans, the Carmichaels packed up some of their favorite artwork and secured the wood-frame house they had built by hand. When they returned home 41 days later they found a tangle of downed trees. Among the mess was a magnolia tree blooming at the wrong time of the year.

Botanist David Baker takes care of the grounds. He also studies hurricane ecology, and so he knew that the mangolia and other trees showing unexpected signs of life were doing exactly what they needed to do.

Trees that were healthy went into reproductive overdrive, sprouting leaves and spring-time buds in the fall. It's nature's way of creating a rush of seeds so that new trees will eventually replace those damaged by the storm.

Gone from the Carmichaels' woods is a canopy of gigantic water oaks, pecan trees and hackberries. Fallen limbs are everywhere. But amazing things are happening as a result. Decades-old trees that were stunted because they never saw much sun are now growing like crazy.

I'm a PublicRadioFan

I'm a big public radio fan. While I work during the day, I like to listen to the Internet stream of WOSU's NPR 820. However, they preempted their shows today that were during the OSU women's basketball game. I think this is dumb because they have a separate sports stream that ALSO plays the games. I'm okay with them playing the basketball games over the air, but on-line they should play the normal NPR stream.

So I went looking for another radio station doing live streaming of the shows I was interested in (in this case, I was looking for something that would play Talk of the Nation since it's Science Friday today)... Well, I ended up coming across THIS:

PublicRadioFan is a great site that catalogs live NPR radio streams. I was able to look through their huge schedule grid and find a station that had the right mix of programs around the schedule right NOW **AND** my preferred audio streaming format.

It's great!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

GOP RootKit

GOP RootKit: Republicans launch new Contract On America with privacy violations
This week the Minnesota Republican Party is distributing a new CD about a proposed state marriage amendment. Along with flashy graphics, the CD asks people their views on controversial issues such as abortion, gun control, illegal immigration, and so on.

The problem – the CD sends your answers back to headquarters, filed by name, address, and political views. No mention of that in the terms of use. No privacy policy at all. The story concludes: “So if you run the CD in your personal computer, by the end of it, the Minnesota GOP will not only know what you think on particular issues, but also who you are.”

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