2010-01-25

The Moon as a Soviet Missile Attack

In a half dozen or so places on the web you can find the quote, "The rising moon was misinterpreted as a missile attack during the early days of long-range radar." They mention nothing more than this, but I would guess that they're referring to the October 5, 1960 Thule BMEWS incident. Wikipedia puts it in less dramatic terms (albeit without references):
[T]he moonrise occurred directly in the path of the Thule detection radar, producing a strong signal return. While the computer system never generated an impact prediction, the large amount of data caused enough concern that the equipment was subsequently modified to reject moon returns based on their long (2 second) delay.
So where did this come from, anyway? The 1987 CACM paper "Computer system reliability and nuclear war" (full text behind a paywall, unfortunately) claims that there was
a false alert in the early days of the nuclear age [16, 69, 89], when on October 5, 1960, the warning system at NORAD indicated that the United States was under massive attack by Soviet missiles with a certainty of 99.9 percent. It turned out that the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radar in Thule, Greenland, had spotted the rising moon. Nobody had thought about the moon when specifying how the system should act.
(This was dramatic enough for the editors, or someone at CACM, to use this as a pull quote.) The supplied references, however, cast some doubt on this in my mind. They are:
89. New York Times. Moon stirs scare of missile attack. NPW York Times (Dec. 8. 1960). 71:Z.

16. Berkeley. EC. The Computer Revolution. Doubleday, New York, 1962.

69. Hubbell, J.C. You are under attack! The strange incident of Octoher 5. Reader's Dig. 78, 468 (Apr. 1961), 37-41.
So, supporting this statement in what is presumably trying to be something along the lines of an academic journal we have, as well as the venerable New York Times, a popular press paperback and the Reader's Digest. Let us pause while we contemplate that last one.

At any rate, as you can see from the title of the Times article, perhaps it wasn't quite such a scare after all. I don't particularly feel right now like paying $3.95 for the full article, but I presume that, in the newspaper article tradition, the first paragraph is a proper summary of the exciting part of the story:
WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (AP) -- Radar reflections from the moon set off a missile scare at the nation's air defense centers on Oct. 5. The Air Force said today, however, that its equipment had been adjusted to avert more such flurries.
Then again, perhaps the Reader's Digest fact-checking department managed to verify what the New York Times fact-checkers couldn't. I think it's clear which story the CACM went with.

Update:

I have now managed to track down the full text of that Times article, and it turns out that the first paragraph truly was the most exciting one. The paragraph following:
Actually, the scare was only momentary, the Air Force said, since a quick check turned up the error.
Eventually, we find that even in those heady days of the cold war we had someone rather more level-headed than General Ripper in command:
[T]he commander in Colorado, Gen. Laurence Kuter, had found immediately that the reported detection "was totally unsubstantiated by other information sources and in no way indicated a threat" of missile attack.

2010-01-23

Another Terrorist Win

Patrick Smith gets it right once again. Someone mistakenly opened an emergency exit door in an airport, and
"As a result of the defendant's actions, thousands of people were required to evacuate and to be rescreened by TSA, causing substantial delays in the airlines' schedules," District Attorney Richard Browne said in a statement.

No, I'm sorry, Mr. District Attorney, but that's not it. What caused the delays and what hassled so many travelers was not the defendant's actions, but our mindless and hysterical response to them.
Another successful terrorist attack! I just wonder where the terrorists were in all of this. Laughing from the sidelines, I suppose.

2010-01-21

Sights Unseen

The Association of Photographers Gallery (81 Leonard Street, London) is currently running an exhibit of photographs taken by bind people. (The link leads to a short BBC video feature.)

Possibly because I started with a Lomo LC-A (and all that implies, art-wise), various "non-standard" forms of photography fascinate me. As I suggested to Charlie Stross late last year, perefect sight is not a key component of all photography:
[It] isn't out just because of your vision problems; you just need to get a bit more creative, and get into the more interesting areas.... To address the two specific concerns you put forward, there are (and have always been) lots of cameras that don't use viewfinders, including view cameras and many modern digital cameras. As for focus: modern cameras have autofocus; when you're shooting with wide angle lenses at reasonably small apertures scale focus works just fine (you have a huge depth of field, so it's very hard to get stuff out of focus); and with a pinhole camera, the entire image is always in focus.

In fact, your visual limitations might force you into doing something far more creative than you would otherwise. What about making your own photographic paper and doing contact shadow prints in the sun? Or building your own pinhole camera? There's a huge world of photography out there beyond what people usually think of as photography; even the Holga and Lomo stuff is in the fairly "normal" end of the range.
I also mentioned a fellow who makes photos with a Van de Graaf generator sending electricity through the film, and even a wet plate and tintype artist showed up in the comments. (Yes, I think that's very, very cool. Then again, the one cookbook I currently own is one of recipes for photographic film developer.)

So I'm quite excited by the idea of finding some way, other than looking through a viewfinder or at a screen, of deciding what will be captured on film. My imagination ran wild. How do you calculate exposure? Could you make a touch scale for it? Perhaps we should be printing sandpaper, where the roughness or smoothness matches how bright or dark something is?

It turns out that many of the photographers are partially sighted. (They may not see a curb in front of them, but they'll see a big freaking wall.) That's something I think is not well known in the sighted community: many "blind" people do have vision: it's just not the sort of vision we sighted people have.

I did wonder about the photographers' involvement in the other half of photography: editing. By this I am not talking about going at your photo with Photoshop. (I, having learned in an analogue world, would call that "printing.") I mean selecting, out of all of the photos you took, the appropriate one or ones for some purpose, as the photo editors of magazines do. (Of course this includes chucking out all the ones that didn't work at all. I'm starting to get good at that bit, I think.)

It's quite difficult to be put on the spot and asked to take a good photograph of some arbitrary subject or situation. The ability to do that is why the professional photographers get paid the big bucks. However, if you take enough snapshots, the million monkeys syndrome will kick in faster than you'd imagine and some of them will be great. I have a book by Christian Skrein called Snapshots that demonstrates this: it's a masterful collection of 500-odd photographs edited from more than a million snapshots, and I can spend hours on a few dozen pages of it.

So we must not forget whomever is editing these selections of photographs. But let's also keep this in mind:

The partially sighted photographers have more visual engagement with the world than you might think, and the fully blind have their own means to see what's going on. Perhaps they can, in some way, show you their view of the world, even though you can no more properly understand it than a blind man can understand colour. As Matt Daw says at the end of the clip:
When it comes down to it, photography is more than the creation of something visual. It's a communication of a moment of an experience, of a thought process, and if that moment has been experienced with senses other than sight, it can still be captured in a photograph.

Kindle and Sharing

On the TeleRead blog there's a post from a fellow who introduced his elderly stepfather to the Kindle. Interestingly enough, though he had no knowledge of DRM, he pretty quickly understood what some of the limitations of the device and system would be.

First (though this is not really DRM-related), when he discovered that he would have to use an "account" for this, he had a privacy concern: would Amazon be keeping track of what books he had bought and loaded on to various devices?

Second, he quickly understood that, unlike with paper books, lending would be a problem: how would he lend a copy to his wife? His stepson suggested sharing an account, and this seemed to be acceptable to him. But then he asked how he'd lend a book to a friend:
When I explained the potential snag here ([you could] add him to your account; but that would mean he could spend your money with it), he matter-of-factly pointed out that if he had a paper book, he could give it to whomever he wanted to.
However, the issue of lock-in (due to DRM and proprietary formats) didn't seem to be a problem: "He is not the type to re-read a book and is not concerned with how accessible a title might be to him 25 years down the road. But he did ask about reading library books."

Publishers, of course, are not going to be happy to hear this. They quite dislike both lending and resale of books, since they consider these to be cutting in to their market for new copies.

I wonder if publishers would be happier moving to a purchase/rental model like that of home video, where as well as having the option of spending $15 to buy a disc, you can also spend $3 to rent it for a week. Even as an anti-DRM guy myself, if the price were low enough I would be fine with "renting" books in that way. While I do want to have a large library of my own always available (for those moments when I get a craving for something in particular), and I own a lot of books I'll re-read, there are a substantial number of books I'd be happy to rent, and in those cases the DRM isn't much of an issue for me.

With anything I buy that's got DRM on it, that is in fact the way I look at it now: I'm essentially "renting" the item for an indefinite period, which means I have no right to re-sell it and will lose access to it one day. (I wonder what happens to all of the DRM'd e-books owned by someone's estate after they die?)

The key, of course, would be to make it cheap enough. Renting a video for $3 is a no-brainer for me (it costs me more than $3 in hassle to download a video, and often the quality is worse); but spending $15 on an e-book without the ability to lend and resell that I get with the $15 paperback is not something I care much for.

Update:

In this comment Skip notes that he will buy an e-book he's not going to read right away if it's cheap enough because that gets it on his list of things to read while his attention is there. I do exactly the same for DVDs: if I come across something I want to see, but it's low on my priority list, I'll buy it anyway if it's less than $10 because then it's there when the mood strikes me. (And yes, amongst the 300-odd DVDs I own, I have a stack of thirty or forty waiting to be watched. Some have been there for years. :-))

The interesting thing he mentions is that if the e-book is too expensive and he passes by the opportunity, it probably won't come again:
So what happens is, the marketing machine will do its job and generate a page hit - I'll go look at a work. If it falls into the category that in the past I would have waited for the paperback, at this point, if it's $10, i go ahead and buy it because that's only a few bucks more than the eventual price I'd have paid. If it's, say, $16 for the electronic edition I'm not going to buy it right now.

So now the publisher has to fund a second PR cycle when the price drop happens, or the odds of me ever buying the book drop drastically, because they're no longer getting the free eyeballs on the product when I go to check out the other new stuff.
This idea conflicts with the traditional form of rental, where you have the item for a limited period of time and then lose access to it. DRM does in theory enable "view once" or "read for one month starting at any time in the future" models, but remember, I think of DRM as giving me something for a limited period of time: if something happens with the device or the publisher, I may lose access to that book even before I've started reading it.

2010-01-15

Unsuccessful Terrorism

While terrorists may be costing us a fair amount of of money, aggravation, and freedom, they do appear to be failing pretty badly in one area: that of blowing things up.

More than two years ago, Lewis Page, an ex-bomb-disposal-operator, wrote an article for The Register describing how incompetently made most bombs are. He's recently written a new article explaining how they really could blow up things if they got their act together, found a few competent people to build the devices, and found some others to deliver them. Given the lack of successful attacks—heck, given the lack of attacks period—it appears as if that's much harder than it looks.

Or perhaps there are some master terrorists somewhere that realize they don't really need to go that far, and that a few clownish failed attempts (which stand little chance of doing much harm beyond the suicide bomber himself) are entirely adequate to give entire nations a panic attack.

2010-01-08

Successful Terrorism

When it comes to killing people using airplanes, terrorism isn't doing all that well. Nate Silver gave us a nice little ten-year evaluation of The Odds of Airborne Terror, and Gizmodo did it up as a colourful chart.

Sad to say, it appears I'll be flying to the United States twice this year, and while I've never been a huge fan of air travel, I'm especially not looking forward to what will no doubt be my most uncomfortable and pointlessly time-wasting experiences yet, given the recent successful terrorism incident.

Oh, what's that? It wasn't successful, you say? As I mention in a comment on Cockpit Conversation, I thought so too.

My initial thought upon hearing about this incident was that it should be counted as a success in counter-terrorism. The passenger screening appeared to be good enough that the perpetrator couldn't manage to bring an effective bomb aboard the aircraft, passengers stepped up to stop him when they discovered what he was doing, and the aircraft landed safely.

Bravo! One attempt at terrorism has little to no effect.

Until the TSA steps in, of course, and decides to make it a lot more successful. Now we have yet more secret rules, an elevated climate of fear, and a greatly elevated level of passenger annoyance and inconvenience, including losing the right to read a book (or was that never a right in the U.S.?) for an hour of one's life.

It makes me wonder if TSA really stands for "Terrorist Support Agency." Terrorists wouldn't get nearly as far disrupting our lives without the TSA to assist them in this way.

2010-01-04

Region Coding

This is hardly a new complaint, and the media companies and everybody else are I'm sure familiar with it. So I'm just venting here. But still....

A year or so ago, I paid about CDN$60 for a copy of the DVD set Smiley's People. It's not a bad production, as I recall; I thought I might watch it again.

Unfortunately, since the last time I watched it, I've replaced my old DVD player with a PS3, bought here in Japan (where I live). While I was happy to thank Acorn Media (to the tune of $60) for making this DVD set available, I can no longer play it. Better yet, I cannot anywhere buy a copy that I can play on my PS3; such a thing does not exist. (There appears to be a region 2 version of the DVD set available, but it's a PAL version, and Japanese (and also American) PS3s do not play PAL discs.

So what am I supposed to do here? Buy another DVD player?

I suppose I could try to find appropriate software to rip the DVDs and convert the output to something I can play on my PS3. Were I in the US or UK, this would be illegal. (In Canada and Australia, apparently it's ok.) I don't know the situation for Japan; does anybody else? It's also a lot of work, for someone who doesn't usually do this.

I could just go and find a BitTorrent site that has these, and download them. That would be easy and free. But that makes me wonder, why did I spend $60 in the first place?

This sort of pain has hit me before, and will no doubt hit me again. I feel as if I'm receiving a very clear message from the media companies: it's not only cheaper, but more convenient to download pirate copies of what I want to watch. I own more than eight hundred CDs, close to four hundred DVDs and as of late a handful of Blu-ray discs as well. Is this really the message they want to be sending someone like me?