Thursday, July 31, 2008

Religion As Science

Here's great article from Salon about science and religion. It takes on the trend of radical atheists who treat their belief in science as if it were religion. It does a good job of articulating feelings that I often experience when I see intense anti-religious rants being posted on the 'net.

PC Magazine Pronounces Usenet Dead—In Other News, PC Magazine is Apparently Still Alive

I suppose it was inevitable. Every so often, you see someone proclaiming The Death of Usenet. This time it's somebody from PC Magazine and much of the consensus at Slashdot is that he's right. In fact given the recent spate of ISPs dropping Usenet alt.* hierarchy at the behest of the Attorney General of New York, I'd say that the Death of Usenet article was a little late this time around.

And while all this is going on, here I am with a backlog of literally thousands of still unread Usenet messages. Thankfully Usenet clients are a lot more powerful than web posting boards like Slashdot and it is pretty easy to clean up most of the Usenet clutter using kill filters to eliminate trolls and spammers. I jumped ship from my ISP's Usenet feed to a third-party Usenet provider years ago so for now, the culling of Usenet by ISPs doesn't affect me. But it is fascinating to see history—or rather the recitation of history—repeat itself. The conventional wisdom for years has been that Usenet is dying, so naturally every Death of Usenet proclamation is treated with a chorus of "duhs" by people who have no idea that there are millions of people happily reading, posting to, and downloading binaries from Usenet to this day.

I also came to another realization. Other than the occasional rant by John Dvorak, this is the first time that I've read anything from PC Magazine in over ten years. Their website is every bit as hideous as I remember it and I haven't read the paper magazine in almost fifteen years. And yet I read Usenet every day. Now I'm sure that there are millions of people who read PC Magazine every day. And here I am living in an entirely different reality than these people. Am I just weird—well, that's a given. And it's nice to have an outlet for my weirdness on Usenet.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Blogger Thinks I'm a Spammer

Here's a new experience. I was editing an article on my blog today when a CAPTCHA appeared at the bottom of the Blogger editing window. It was accompanied by the following explanation:
Your blog requires word verification

Blogger's spam-prevention robots have detected that your blog has characteristics of a spam blog. (What's a spam blog?) Since you're an actual person reading this, your blog is probably not a spam blog. Automated spam detection is inherently fuzzy, and we sincerely apologize for this false positive.

Before we can turn off mandatory word verification on your posts we'll need to have a human review your blog and verify that it is not a spam blog. Please fill out the form below to get a review.

Find out more about how Blogger is fighting spam blogs.

It seems Blogger is taking the news that it is being used to create numerous spam blogs seriously. They have even put up a page explaining what they are doing to fight spam blogs. While I've always found CAPTCHAs annoying and even though spammers are learning to defeat CAPTCHAs, you can hardly blame Blogger for trying to fight spam somehow. I for one wish them well.

Cuil—Google's Kid Goes Goth

It may come as a surprise to younger web browsers but there was actually a time when "Google" wasn't synonymous with search engines. In fact, there was a time when Google didn't exist at all. In the early days of the mid-1990s, there was no place to go looking for information.

Then Yahoo came along with its nice little web directory and the search engine wars began. For several years, a number of search engines with names like Yahoo!, Excite! (exclamation points were big in those days), AltaVista, and Hotbot vied for eyeballs with flashing banner ads vying for advertising dollars and assaulting the senses. Some of them even had useful features. AltaVista, for example, could translate web pages from one language to another. But as the search engine wars accelerated, search pages evolved into ever more bloated "portals" and search was relegated to an afterthought.

Then Google came along. A late-comer to the search wars, Google blew the competition away with two weapons: its powerful page ranking algorithm, and minimalism. While other search engines where turning into bloated messes, Google presented the average web surfer with a much simpler page—a page which looked much the same then as it does today. Once Google found a way to use its search results make tons of cash without annoying too many people, it was all over.

Flash forward to the present. Former Google employees have started Cuil, a new search engine that aims to take a bite out of the hand that once fed them. Like its predecessor, Cuil presents the user with a simple web page. In fact, Cuil's page is even starker than Google's. I don't usually like white text on a black background but unlike other white on black pages, Cuil's actully does succeed in looking cool without impairing usability. The real difference for users shows up in Cuil's search results.

Cuil does a nice job of laying out and organizing search results. Popular search results are organized by categories in an attractive tabbed layout with more thorough descriptions than the ones you'll find on Google. An image from each page is also added the description; while these images are usually related to the page, sometimes Cuil will merely display an ad that just happens to be on the page. Speaking of images, even though Cuil, like Google, has a "Safe Search" feature designed to filter out pornography, I didn't notice much difference between searching with this feature on or off.

So can Cuil compete against Google? Probably not. Google at this point, is turning into another Microsoft in terms of its power on the web. With a wide array of services, ranging from search, to advertising, to video, and beyond, Google is simply too big to fail. Cuil might be able to carve out a niche as an easy to use alternative search engine—an Apple to Google's Microsoft but it can't become a David to Google's Goliath without some divine intervention. Nevertheless, Cuil will be exciting to watch if for no other than reason than to see if its competition can drive Google to be a better search engine.

Update: I could have sworn that I'd seen a slashdot article about Cuil and sure enough here it is. As always, the discussion was pretty interesting. Most of the slashdot geeks are dismissing Cuil but there was also a surprising amount of hostility towards Google in the comments. It surprised me but perhaps it shouldn't have.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Eye Candy From Space!

NASA has put up a gorgeous interactive image gallery that allows you to zoom in on extremely high quality pictures of the universe. Incredibly cool:

Did I mention that it also has videos?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Another Chance to Watch Dr. Horrible

Dr. Horrible has now left the web and moved on to iTunes. But suppose you didn't get to see Joss Whedon's wacky musical and want to check it out before buying. Well WhedonTube, a video website dedicated to Whedon fandom still has the show up for your viewing pleasure.

You May Already Be Under Attack....

Slashdot has an interesting link to an article about the fact that malware authors have been targeting Blogger (which is the blogging engine that powers this blog along with millions of others) heavily. Since Blogger is owned by Google, this means that about 2% of all malware is hosted by Google. There are three big reasons for this:
  1. It is easy to automate setting up a blog on Blogger
  2. It is easy to set up Blogger to redirect links to another site
  3. Blogger is owned by Google so it's blogs are automatically indexed by Google's search engine
As a result malware authors are drawn to Blogger and set up 16,000 malicious web pages every day—Google simply can't flag and delete these pages fast enough. It's an interesting phenomenon that is repeated over and over again. Call it the "Windows Effect"—a computer product or service becomes so popular that it becomes ubiquituous and it will inevitably be targeted and attacked by hackers. Just like Windows in general and Internet Explorer in particular have been (and still are) popular targets for hackers, now it's Google's turn. And it's not just Google either. MySpace and Facebook are also popular malware targets. Congratulations guys, you've been pulled into the same infamous club that Microsoft has been trying to kick and scream its way out of for years.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Spot the Copyright Violation

Here's an interesting item from It seems that a mother posted a video of her baby dancing to the Youtube. Big surprise, parents love to show off their kids. But Universal wants the video taken down because of a song playing in the background. You can just barely make it out. It's "Let's Go Crazy" by Prince. It's a sign of how silly and draconian companies can get in the name of "intellectual property" rights.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Yay! Star Trek Parodies

TV Squad has a nice collection of Star Trek parodies. I was a huge fan of this show as a kid and loved watching these.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Something Cool For Chemistry Nerds

The Red Ferret Journal has a very cool link to The Periodic Table of Videos. It's like a typical periodic table which you might see in high school but when you click on the individual elements, you get a video explaining some amusing facts about that element. Like this one:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dr. Horrible, The Early Years

Dr. Horrible has a fansite. It's full of videos reviewing and otherwise paying tribute to Joss Whedon's web show.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Thoughts on Dr. Horrible (Now With Spoilers)

Joss Whedon's new web series Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog is a curious and bold experiment. Inspired in part by the success of web series like The Guild, it's probably the first web show by a "name" producer that isn't an ancillary show designed to promote an existing mainstream series.

As a producer who's had mixed success with movies and television, Joss Whedon is a pretty logical choice for experimenting with the web as a content platform. His work has always had a distinctive blend of genre spanning humor, action, and tragedy. Dr. Horrible is no different. Starring TV veteran Neil Patrick Harris as Billy (AKA Dr. Horrible) is video weblog of the rise of a wannabe supervillain. Not only is it jam packed with veterans of other Whedon series (it even includes two news anchors who are played by long-time Whedon writers David Fury and Marti Noxon); it is also full of the hallmarks of Whedon's work: great dialog, a sardonic sense of humor, and tragic twists and turns.

The show opens with a video weblog of Dr. Horrible answering his emails dropping hints about his latest nefarious scheme. But he's distracted by Penny, an adorable little redhead played by The Guild's Felicia Day (who also played Vi on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) with a social conscience and a fondness for frozen yogurt. For example his attempt to hijack of a shipment of "Wonderflonium," the missing ingredient of a "Freeze Ray" which Dr. Horrible is building to stop time, is foiled by his nemesis superhero Captain Hammer when he stops to chat with Penny. I say "foiled" in a very loose sense because Dr. Horrible actually does manage to steal the Wonderflonium even as he inadvertently helps Penny and Hammer meet when Hammer "rescues" her from a runaway van by throwing her into a pile of garbage.

Even though he's a superhero, Captain Hammer is the real bad guy in this story. Played with smarmy glee by one of Whedon's favorite leading men, Nathan Fillion, Hammer is a total douchebag whose only superpower is the ability to hit things very hard. He's mostly into the superhero business because it's a convenient excuse to beat people up and hit on women. Nevertheless, Captain Hammer does do some good. He helps Penny get a new a building for the homeless shelter where she works. He also taunts Billy mercilessly when he finds out that he has a crush on Penny.

Since this is a Joss Whedon production, tragedy strikes at the least expected moment. It seems to me that there are two basic Whedon heroines, the bad girl with daddy issues who is at the front and center of the action and always triumphs in the end even in the face of multiple deaths. The other kind of Whedon heroine is the sweet girl whom usually plays second fiddle to the lead and either evolves into a bad girl or dies tragically. (One of the few reliefs of the quick end to Whedon's brilliant series Firefly is that we never got to see what Whedon had planned in store for Kaylee.) Penny is clearly the in the latter category and dies tragically when Dr. Horrible's death ray malfunctions and sends a hail of shrapnel in all directions.

This event is essentially the origin story for Dr. Horrible. While he existed before it happened, he was basically a joke. He was The Trio from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer -- a big nerd who wanted to be a supervillain because he felt alienated. But just as Warren, the leader of The Trio, turns becomes truly evil once he kills his ex-girlfriend Dr. Horrible similarly becomes truly evil when he kills Penny. This exploration of the origins of good and evil is the most interesting hallmark of Joss Whedon's work and Dr. Horrible pulls it off quite with a lot of panache.

Overall, Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog does a tremendous of blending comedy and tragedy in an appealing musical format.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Understanding FISA

Here's an interesting blog post, complete with flow charts, about the changes FISA, the wiretapping law that is supposed to protect us from terrorism. I don't have much to add because it's sorta complicated....

Monday, July 14, 2008

More Fictional Characters Running for President

With Laura Roslin throwing her hat in the ring. That makes two characters from Battlestar Galactica running for president. Of course if we're talking about desperate times. Settling for a lesser evil might be a mistake. Thus, it might be time to turn to some alternative candidates.

ISPs Use Sledgehammer to Kill Cockroaches

A number of Internet Service Providers have been dropping the alt.* hierarchy from their Usenet servers at the behest of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo who has been crusading against child pornography. The alt.* newsgroups are particularly vulnerable to attacks like this one as the vast majority of them are completely uncensored and unmoderated. The ISPs also have a huge incentive as alt.binaries.* newsgroups which reside underneath the alt.* heirarchy use up an enormous amount of bandwidth in the form of pictures, music, and video—much of which is copyrighted and this infuriates copyright cops like the RIAA and MPAA. As a result when a politician made a big stink about pornography, the ISPs have buckled quite quickly.

Reading Cuomo's press release, you'd think that Usenet newsgroups exist entirely to distribute kiddie porn. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Usenet groups exist to discuss an almost endless variety of topics from technical topics like computer programming to television to computer games to sex—yes there are perverts who talk about sex and even distribute porn on Usenet. But Usenet is so much more. There is no pornography—child or otherwise—on,, or alt.comp.freeware but all of these groups are among the thousands of useful and entertaining discussion forums which will be banned in the name of the children.

Usenet is a decentralized, uncensored place where people can go to discuss any topic and this is a precious thing on the Internet. Blogs and specialty websites are many and varied and can be hard to find. Usenet is always there with everything you want in one place. And best of all, you can choose your software for accessing Usenet which allows you to control every aspect of your online discussions from the look and feel of your messages to the ability to kill-file online jerks.

Years ago, unhappy with AT&T's poor Usenet service, I began using a third-party Usenet provider which is independent of my ISP. Stories like these will likely cause more people to move to these third party providers and once people see what Usenet looks like when someone who actually knows and cares about newsgroup discussion is serving up newsgroups—less spam, more content, more newsgroups—they'll use it more. And now instead of hosting Usenet on their own servers, ISPs will instead be serving it up to a third party server which will serve it back to the ISP which will serve it their own users. In other words Usenet, which was already using up tons of bandwidth, will begin to use up more. But at least the ISPs will be protecting the children.


I've always believed and no, I don't have a cite for that belief, that the typical "Internet Predator" is by far the stupidist and laziest pervert of them all. Sure, it may be cool to watch Chris Hansen busting a pedophile who showed up to hook up with an undercover cop who pretended to be a twelve year old girl on the Internet; but let's face it, how many times do you have to watch a show like To Catch a Predator to realize that the average horny teen on the Internet is really an undercover cop trying to bust perverts? I'm guessing not many. The real predators, if they exist, aren't on the Internet trolling for kids. They are in the same places where they've always been around kids either as abusive teachers or priests or in some other job that allows them easy access to helpless children with neglectful parents. Many of these perverts are parents or uncles or cousins themselves. And no amount of censorship is going to stop them from hurting kids.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Windows for Warships?

Slashdot links to a disturbing and slightly sensationalistic article about the many unconventional uses of Microsoft Windows. These says everything from ATMs to warships use an embedded version of Windows and a lot of people who hate Microsoft hate this fact. But ultimately, they do have a point. Windows is overkill for many of these situations and its buggy enough that I can't help but wonder about what sort of mayhem can happen when someone hacks an ATM or worse yet, a US Navy "Smart Ship."

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Pondering the Planet of the Apes

Astrobiology Magazine interviews Australian Cosmologist Charley Lineweaver. Lineweaver uses the movie Planet of the Apes to illustrate some of the misconceptions about evolution and its implications for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). It's a pretty fascinating take on how our expectations are shaped by science fiction and on the rareness of human intelligence. No other species has evolved the way we have and even though animals like dolphins have their own form of intelligence, no one expects them—or any other animal—to start building radio telescopes any time soon. And yet we are far closer to the animals we with which we share the Earth than we will ever be to any alien civilization that might exist. Which is what leads Lineweaver to the following conclusion:
"But I still believe that the best evidence we have suggests that we should not expect to see human beings anywhere in the universe except Earth. We should not expect to see Indian elephants or any other forms of life that are genetically, functionally and cerebrally similar to us. I strongly suspect that our closest relatives in the universe are here on Earth, and they’re not likely to be elsewhere."

I used to have the SETI screensaver running on my computer while I was in college. Over the years, I've grown older and more cynical but I still love stories like this one about the possibility of life in the universe.

Old Palm Website Flagged "Bad" By Google

While browsing Palmaddicts, I came upon a link to an article at The Inquirer with a misleading headline suggesting that Google was pronouncing PalmOS utilities as dangerous to your computer. In fact, Google actually is referring to the hosting website as shown in this screenshot:

When you actually click on the "This site may hard your computer" link you get this page:

It's not too informative except for the final comment which explains that, "In some cases, third parties can add malicious code to legitimate sites, which would cause us to show the warning message." The first comment in the original Inquirer article gives us a better explanation than either Google or The Inquirer, pointing us to another Inquirer article. It seems that a few months ago, crackers began to take advantage of a flaw in Microsoft's SQL Server software which allows them to inject malicious code into web pages. Most webmasters have since fixed that problem but is actually an old website for PalmSource the company which owns Garnet (the official name for version 5 of the Palm Operating System) and which was bought by ACCESS a couple of years ago. Since buying PalmSource, ACCESS has sold the Palm name back to Palm and is working to build a new operating system with a new name. So it appears that ACCESS never bothered to update their old website even after a serious exploit made it vulnerable to being hacked. This makes me wonder if ACCESS will approach their new OS with the same care.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The End of the LinkScanner Controversy?

Slashdot reports on and Australian website's reaction to being flooded by traffic by AVG's LinkScanner. As before, AVG has promised to fix this problem. It's nice to see an anti-virus company—particularly a company which makes its products available for free—listening to its users and fixing its products. Commercial anti-virus companies like Symantec and McAfee turned their products into bloated messes years ago and its nice to see AVG back away before doing the same.

Raising the Bar - A By The Numbers Legal Drama

I managed to find a pre-air version of the pilot for Raising the Bar, a by the numbers new legal drama about oversexed young lawyers. It's sort of like Ally MacBeal only without the silly fantasy sequences, or a sense of humor, or a soul. It's not a particularly bad show but it is a very boring one.

I must confess that I came in with low expectations and perhaps that colors my opinion of the show. The only reason I wanted to check the show out was because of the presence of J. August Richards, AKA Charles Gunn from Angel. As a rule, I like to check out shows that feature Joss Whedon alumni. And there he is in a thankless role as a District Attorney with the hots for a hot blonde who's sleeping with an Idealistic Young Public Defender.

The show basically revolves around the idealistic young public defender and that's a shame because he's such walking, talking cliche. His unruly long hair is even more inappropriate for courtroom today than Ally MacBeal's mini-skirt was ten years ago. He exudes attitude and excels at getting himself thrown into jail along with his clients.

The most interesting character is Jane Kaczmarek who plays a judge that almost seems like a live-action version of Judge Harm, her character from The Simpsons. She's surly, bitter, cynical, and loves to hand out arbitrarily harsh judgments. In the pilot she presides over a case where the Idealistic Young Public Defender must get an innocent client off on a rape charge. She gives a the jury a very nuanced set of instructions which I find very interesting as you don't usually see judges doing that in TV legal dramas which tend to focus on the lawyers. Those jury instructions basically pave the way for the defendant to be found innocent of the rape but being a "hard ass," the judge still sentences him to seven years in jail on a weapons charge. She also throws the Idealistic Young Public Defender into jail when he protests the verdict.

Fortunately for the Idealistic Young Public Defender the judge also has a young boy toy (who is later revealed to be secretly gay) who gently reminds her that bad publicity from the case can hurt her political aspirations. He also kisses her on the neck just right....The Idealistic Young Public Defender and his client are quickly released from jail.

If this show revolved around Kaczmarek's brassy, cynical judge character, it might be worth watching. But as it is, it is a by the numbers legal drama populated with one-dimensional characters. We've seen this show done before and we've seen it done better.

People Actually Read This?

I found an interesting comment attached to my post about AVG's LinkScanner identifying itself as IE6. Pat Bitton says:

Following is AVG's official response to LinkScanner concerns:

We’d like to thank our web community for bringing these challenges to our attention, as building community trust and protecting all of our users is critical to us. We have modified the Search-Shield component of LinkScanner to only notify users of malicious sites; this modified version will be rolled out on July 9th 2008. As of this date. Search-Shield will no longer scan each search result online for new exploits, which was causing the spikes that webmasters addressed with us. However, it is important to note that AVG still offers full protection against potential exploits through the Active Surf-Shield component of our product, which checks every page for malicious content as it is visited but before it is opened.
I couldn't find any reference to this on AVG's website but it's late and I wasn't looking too hard. A quick google search leads a blog post which link to comments from an article by The Register on the controversy. Among those comments is one by (presumably the same) Pat Bitton:
Response from AVG
By Pat Bitton
Posted Saturday 14th June 2008 02:59 GMT

Hi, folks. Pat Bitton from AVG here. This issue has clearly raised some concerns that we had not anticipated, and we acknowledge that we need to do something. Our primary purpose with LinkScanner, as Roger Thompson has pointed out, is to protect users against web-based threats that they cannot see. These threats are also usually invisible to web site operators, who presumably also don't wish to be unwittingly passing infections on to their visitors. This kind of problem can and does affect all types of web sites, big or small, and is extremely transient - which is why we don't use the static database approach cited by some as a viable alternative. Over the next few days, we will be exploring ways in which we can continue to deliver informed protection as unobtrusively as possible without adversely impacting site analytics. Any webmaster reading this post who is interested in working with us constructively to reach this goal is welcome to contact me at pat.bitton(at)

These two comments suggest that AVG is taking this problem seriously and is working hard to fix it. Hopefully their update will do just that. In the meantime, I've reinstalled AVG antivirus without the Safe-Search component which includes LinkScanner. I've done this even though Firefox 3 is not affected by LinkScanner because AVG's Search Shield extension doesn't work with the newest version of Firefox. But you never know when you'll want or need to use Internet Explorer right?

Ultimately, the problem of malicious websites installing drive-by malware is a real one and it is good to see antivirus companies trying to do something about it. Basically what we have here is an arms race between the malware authors and security software authors. What is happening now is a lot like what happened with old computer viruses which would infect any executable file on your computer which led antivirus software to scan every program that tries to run on your computer. The same thing is going to start to happen now with web pages.

And Yet Another Candidate Joins the Fray

I was on Scienceblogs when I noticed that a new candidate has thrown his hat into the ring. Personally, I'm excited. This is probably as close as we are going to get to having Bill Gates as president.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

This is Americaaaa!

It's a little late to be celebrating the 4th of July but I couldn't resist putting up these videos I found on FARK.

Slashdot Takes On AVG

It's official, I have no life. I've been pouring over a recent Slashdot discussion of AVG's LinkScanner problems. Along with the typically sensationalistic write-up calling Grisoft "slimy" for their product's perfectly legitimate if poorly implemented new feature, the discussion includes a lot of good stuff including how to disable LinkScanner and suggested alternative's to AVG antivirus. It's ironic that Slashdot, the website which first pioneered the Slashdot Effect, which is the term coinedd by how a popular website can knock a smaller website offline by linking to it is up in arms over what is essentially an automated version of the same kind phenomon.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Snuggly the Security Bear

Ham-handedly protesting the erosion of our constitutional rights never looked cuter.

The Jedi Gym

I found this on Neatorama, hilarious:

LinkScanner Identifies Itself As IE6

AVG's LinkScanner feature continues to be controversial. And The Register continues to field complaints about LinkScanner's affect on website statistics. LinkScanner donwloads websites found in search results looking for sites that try to download malware onto your computer. LinkScanner now identifies itself as Internet Explorer 6 to websites after webmasters began filtering it from their traffic logs. This makes it undistinguishable from normal web traffic and skews website traffic statistics which hurts website advertising revenue. The Register quotes Steve Jackson, co-chair of the International Web Analytics Association:

"In order to make an omelet you have to crack some eggs. But a good omelet has cheese, ham, peppers, mushrooms and all sorts of other ingredients which AVG seem to have forgotten about."

While the controversy over the LinkScanner's bandwidth hogging and traffic skewing is a serious problem, the problem of websites that install malware on your computer is very real. Tools like LinkScanner would seem to be necessary to protect less sophisticated users of vulnerable operating systems (like Windows, there I've said it) from having their computers attacked by websites which knowingly or not are hosting malware which exploits unprotected computers.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The End Is Near. Awwww! Who's a Good Boy?

Boing Boing has a sweet video of interspecies cuteness:

Or do they? Could it be that this adorable video is instead nothing less than a harbinger of the Apocalypse?

Once you're done oohing and awwing, be afraid. Be very afraid.