Archive for November, 2006

follow-up to “cyber monday”

It’s nice to have one’s predictions shown to be right.

But perhaps the scariest paragraph stated:

Overall, the study concluded that 37% of consumers were shopping in stores on Black Friday – and 41% of those were out between midnight and 8 am. 80% mentioned special as their motivation to go on a shopping tour, while 28% said that the “tradition” of Black Friday was a factor in their decision to spend money that day. Despite long lines, 64% indicated that they enjoyed their Black Friday experience and said they would do it again next year.

I’m disturbed that 28% cite shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving as a tradition.  But I’m horrified that 64% enjoyed it and would do it again.  shudder

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Luke’s eating again!

I hadn’t mentioned this, but it had been about 5 weeks since Luke (the boa) last ate.  For the first three weeks, I didn’t worry.  He had just shed, he’s a snake and it’s winter, etc.  By week 5, I was getting concerned.  Last Saturday, two days after finishing his cage, which upped the daytime temperature to ~80 degrees, he finally got interested in food.  Now he’s prowling the cage, looking for another rat.  🙂

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predictions… “Cyber Monday”

Let me get a prediction in here before the data come out tonight or tomorrow.  “Cyber Monday” will be a disappointment to retailers.  They will do more electronic business than they did last year, but not significantly more than they did last Friday or next Monday.  Any uptick is going to be small and due to people paying extra attention to online sales.

“Cyber Monday” (sorry, I can’t help but put it in quotes) is yet another marketing ploy.  The theory is that when people go back to the office, they’ll use the high-speed connection to shop online.  The problem is that the majority of people who shop online already have a high-speed connection at home.  Add to that the companies that are cracking down on online shopping (and game playing and general web surfing) from the office and I’m guessing that it’ll be a non-event.

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Poindexter

It’s taken me a bit to write about Admiral Poindexter’s visit and the small group talk we had with him. Let me start by reminding folks that here’s a guy who was convicted of lying to congress. The conviction was later overturned on a technicality. He’s also very politically savvy. I once asked my father if he would ever pursue becoming a general in the army. He told me that he was hoping to make full colonel (he later retired as a lt. colonel), but that becoming a general required a literal act of congress and that you needed to become a politician. I would assume the same thing is the case with an admiral and doubly so in the case of Poindexter who managed to become the highest ranking geek in government. All of which is to say take my impressions with a grain of salt.

When I met Poindexter, he came across as a very kind, gentle and grandfatherly figure. He smokes a pipe and was more than willing to tell stories about his career. It seems that he started in the Navy in college, finishing up with a degree in engineering (w00t!). This was around the time the soviets sent up Sputnik. The first Russian satellite caused something of a panic in the US and, arguably, did more to encourage investment in science and engineering than any other event. The military’s response was to select 5 men from the army and 5 from the navy to pursue graduate degrees in science or engineering, anywhere in the country. Poindexter chose physics at Cal-tech. After discussing he trials getting into and then through grad school, he notes that he’s never taught physics, never been in a lab, never really used his degree, but it did give him a solid understanding of the scientific method.

After gradschool, he had several different positions and in each, he played the role of technology evangelist. One of the first to use computers in the Navy, set up the first video conferencing system among the nation security counsel offices, first to use email (on a mainframe!) in the whitehouse, etc. Like I said, the highest ranking geek in government.

Shortly after September 11, Poindexter was asked to head up the DARPA Office of Information Awareness (OIA) projects. In talking with him, I definitely have the sense of a man who loves his country and truly believes that terrorism is the greatest threat it has ever encountered. I disagree with him regarding the extent of the threat that terrorism presents, and so he and I may disagree on the appropriateness of the OIA, but unlike many politicians, I don’t think that he’s using the terrorism to advance other goals. I don’t believe that he’s hypocritical about his work.

So, what is his work? One of Poindexter’s chief complaints is that he (and TIA) were unfairly maligned in the media. If you recall, TIA was presented as a giant “Hoover” of a database. The government would collect information from a number of private sources and perform data mining on it in order to identify (potential) terrorists amongst us. Lots of us whom are concerned with security and privacy were worried about this. The privacy angle is disturbing enough, but from the security stand point, you are creating an attractive nuisance. The first hacker that comes along and can get through the governments security measures is going to have a huge amount of data. Consolidating databases also increases the likelihood that the businesses involved will use the information. For example, can you be denied insurance if you are overweight, but grocery records indicate you buy junk food?

Beyond the privacy and security concerns was the very real question of how this was going to work, i.e., would it really keep us safer? Traditional data mining techniques find statistically significant patterns in large data sets. Terrorists (one hopes) are not statistically significant – unless there are a lot more of them. This is actually one of Poindexter’s complaints – that his proposal should never be called data mining, data mining won’t work. He was working on a “data analysis” system.
In his presentation, Poindexter tells us that the media got it wrong. He never planned a single huge database. Instead, he planned to leave the data where it was and to build a distributed database on top. Each participating database would make use of a “privacy appliance.” The privacy appliance would be connected to a query system and would anonymize the data before sending it to the query system.

To detect terrorists, he would have a “Red Team.” This is the group that is intended to think like terrorists. Their job is to hatch plots and to determine what it would take to implement the plots. For example, blowing up a building might require large amounts of fertilizer and fuel oil. Purchasing these supplies would leave a footprint in “information space.” The Red Team would pass this step along to the analysts who would then query the system with this pattern to find anonymous individuals matching it. Of course, purchasing fuel oil and fertilizer would flag every small farmer in the country. So the Red Team would go back and look at step two, perhaps renting a large van. New query pattern, new search. Repeat until you either don’t find anyone, or until you are specific enough to get a legally authorized search warrant.

Poindexter also notes that this was a research and not an operational program. That the “total” in TIA was meant to encourage researchers to think broadly. Finally, that the reason the privacy part did not get off the ground sooner is that none of the researchers were interested in this aspect – they only received two privacy proposals.

Interesting idea. A few problems:

  1. I’ve gone back through the documentation available at the time and I see nothing about either red teams, distributed databases or privacy appliances. The early architecture diagrams all seem to indicate a monolithic database.
  2. It’s still not clear to me that this will work. The red teams will have to come up with millions of patterns and even then, you are not guaranteed to come up with everything.
  3. Regarding research vs. operational. This is a lovely thought, but at the time, iirc, there were reports of TIA receiving real data. In fact, even as a research project, it would need real data in order to test.
  4. Regarding the “total” in TIA – that was a pretty scary logo if that was the case.

So, it may be that this is a refinement of the original ideas. In which case, they seem like a good refinement. From the privacy and security standpoint, this seems to be better suited that the original ideas. However, I don’t think that Poindexter was being entirely forthcoming.

All in all, a very interesting data and a very interesting man.

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Happy Thanksgiving! [updated]

I hope everyone’s having a good Thanksgiving. So far, ours has been great. K’s parents are in town which means: a) her father gets to see the house for the first time; b) we’ve got help cooking dinner; and c) we’ve got a reason to cook more food!

I started off the morning by (finally!) finishing the snake cage. I put the frames around the vents and put glass in about 3/4 of each vent (losing too much heat otherwise). I installed track lighting in the top and put two 75 watt grow bulbs in it. After they were on for an hour or so, the temperature rose to 81 degrees. Just about perfect. Eventually, we’ll replace the grow bulbs with heat lamps that produce no light, only heat; but for now, these are great. Luke’s basking right now and seems to be enjoying it.

We just finished dinner (did I mention more people == more food?). The menu was:

  • Turkey breast (for K’s father) and pecan crusted salmon for the rest of us
  • Cornbread stuffing with mushroom gravy
  • Walnut soup
  • Avocado, tomato and olive salad (no lettuce!) with a balsamic vinaigrette
  • Whole wheat rolls
  • Green beans with walnuts
  • Cranberry sauce

Dessert will be pecan pie. I tried something new with the pie – rather than using corn syrup, I used maple syrup. I’ll update later regarding that experiment.

I hope everyone’s enjoyed their Thanksgiving and have given a lot of thought to what they’re thankful for.

[Update: Using maple syrup in the pecan pie rather than corn syrup is a winner. I’m glad K ran across that idea.]

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Still need to finish the snake cage

The snake’s been in the cage for a few months, but I’ve held off posting pictures until I finished the last little bit – the frames around the window.  But as pointed out in this comment, it would be good to get some pictures with Luke in his cage.  So, hopefully I’ll finish up the frames this week, while I’m away from the office, but in the meantime, here are some pictures:

img_1947_m.JPG   img_1977_m.JPG

The other thing I need to do to finish this is to work on the temperature problem.  With the large vents (that I plan to shrink up a bit with plexiglass) and the big front, it loses heat faster than the small heaters we’ve put in there will add it.  I think the next plan is to put in some track lighting along the back and then I can add several of the low heat lamps (that won’t burn the snake if he touches them).

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things to be thankful for

K’s parents are in town and staying with us. Okay, that’s not a typical thing to be thankful for :-), but I like her parents and this gives me a great excuse to take most of this week off. I lost 54 minutes of vacation last month, I would like to avoid a repeat.

Hopefully, I can get caught up on a few things while I’m out of the office

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why i love the internet – reason 768

The Disney illustrated Communist Manifesto…

YouTube Preview Image

link

p.s. fwiw, some of this is Warner Bros. and Hannah Barbara (but who’s keeping score)

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Not a bad birthday at all…

I took the day off for my birthday.  I got to sleep in late and get some things done around the house.  I managed, I think, to get rid of whatever was smelling up one of our air ducts, I tarred up part of the roof and repaired the fence where the dog kept getting out.  After that, I headed up for the Poindexter small group meeting and then his talk (more on these later).  On my way home, I picked up some take out from the local Mexican restaurant.  We ate dinner, made a cheesecake and walked the dogs.  I opened presents when I got back.  K got me a hand full of things I had wanted:  the Library of America Writings of Washington and the Writings of Thoreau, Jared Bernstein’s All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy, and the Pinky and the Brain DVD 🙂  Tim Powers’s On Stranger Tides is still being shipped.

All in all, a very good day.  Oh, and the obligatory picture of the birthday cheesecake:

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/me grumbles

bah – the past few nights, my website/blog keeps getting screwed up because all of the disk space on the drive is consumed.  the first night, i freed up some space, but didn’t pay attention to how much was free. it happened last night and again i freed up space, noting that i had about 700 MB free.  Tonight, it happened again and I finally tracked down what happened.  I do an rsync backup to an external drive every day.  A couple of days ago, I rebooted the machine and the external drive didn’t mount back up.  So I wound up doing a backup of my home directory and root partition to the root partition.  Of course the partition filled up.  Oh well, problem solved now.  I just need to be more careful in the future

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