Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

42 Astoundingly Useful Scripts and Automations for the Macintosh

Work faster and more reliably. Add actions to the services menu and the menu bar, and create drag-and-drop apps to make your Macintosh play music, roll dice, and talk. Create ASCII art from photos. There’s a script for all of that in 42 Astounding Scripts for the Macintosh.

The way to be a programmer is to program—Wednesday, November 6th, 2019
Hello, World color bars

The traditional “Hello World” program, spiced up for the TRS-80 Color Computer 2.

In Tassajara Cooking, one of my favorite cookbooks, Edward Espe Brown says that “The way to be a cook is to cook.”

He’s right. And the way to be a programmer is to program.

My first computer program was:

  • 10 PRINT "HELLO THERE. I AM YOUR NEW TRS-80 MICROCOMPUTER!"

I know this because it’s the first program in the TRS-80 manual. I don’t know what my second program was, because I tend to go off-track quickly when reading through programming manuals. It is a lot more fun to learn by doing and making mistakes than copying rote lessons. I’d never used a computer before, never seen one in person, and bought it really as a glorified calculator: I’d been saving for a calculator, realized that it would only take a few more months to get a real computer, and bought a used TRS-80 Model 1. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

But unlike modern computers, it didn’t come with any software other than BASIC. In those days, everyone who owned a computer was expected to be a programmer. It was how you got your computer to do anything. There were books filled with programs to type in. I stayed up late typing other people’s code, and learning from it. From code that did something useful, not just code designed for lessons. This is what I tried to emulate when I wrote 42 Astoundingly Useful Scripts and Automations for the Macintosh (Plug: also available in print.)

I also subscribed to magazines that printed computer programs for readers to type. Those programs came from their readers—readers who wrote programs that did something they found useful, and sold their programs to the magazines for others to use. My first sale, to Hobby Computer Handbook, emulated a Mattel handheld baseball game. My brother had one, and I wanted one. It was a problem that could be solved by programming, so I wrote a program. I used the money from the sale to buy an expansion unit with more memory for the Model 1.

The first serious program I wrote for the TRS-80 was a word processor, in BASIC. I had saved to buy a word processor, and I went to a local electronics fair—an amateur radio convention—to buy one. I thought I’d be able to get software cheaper there than through mail order, and I’d be able to see it in operation before buying it. I was right. What I hadn’t considered was that I’d also be able to see great games in operation, too.

The elephant in the nuclear power plant—Wednesday, June 19th, 2019
Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository

Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, never used. A monument to government waste and the folly of government experts. Did it occur to anyone in the bureaucracy that if you have to go to this much trouble to contain the radioactivity it might still be a useful fuel?

For some reason nuclear power has been in my news lately, both new news and old news. I was watching a segment a few weeks ago about nuclear power plants going out of business, because it’s so expensive to dispose of the highly radioactive waste products that nuclear power plants produce. They can’t figure out what to do with it. Nobody wants it—it’s dangerous and it takes thousands of years to become not dangerous.

It occurred to me that this is nuts, and it’s so nuts it’s an elephant-in-the-room problem. Saying that nuclear power plants are going broke because they can’t figure out what to do with highly radioactive byproducts, is a lot like an oil power plant saying that the byproduct of burning oil is more oil, and what are we going to do with all this oil we’re generating?

If nuclear waste is so radioactive, why aren’t we recycling it for use in nuclear power generation instead of spending billions building waste repositories that the federal government just abandons? A quick bit of research, and it turns out that radioactive waste can be and is recycled back into useful radioactive fuels. But not in the United States. The US federal government not only wastes money building and abandoning waste repositories, it also bans recycling the waste, and has done so since President Carter. And so nuclear power plants go out of business because they aren’t allowed to recycle and they can’t throw it away.

Recycling radioactive waste both reduces its radioactivity—if it didn’t, obviously, it would be infinitely re-usable as fuel—and drastically cuts the volume of waste. Recycled waste takes up less space and is radioactive for far less time than first-generation waste. Not only would recycling nuclear waste provide more fuel, it would vastly reduce the cost of safely storing it by making the waste itself safer.

This is an example of how uselessly insular and provincial modern news is in the United States. The whole point of nuclear power plants is turning radioactivity into useful power; reporting on how nuclear power plants are going out of business because they need to dispose of radioactive waste, does no reporter think to ask why it needs to be disposed of if it’s still radioactive? It seems the obvious question.

Of (Laboratory) Mice and Men—Wednesday, May 8th, 2019
Running rats Fantascope

Artist’s rendition of federal research funding.

The more I read about the supposedly breakthrough research being done today, the more it seems that in many research areas, especially medicine and biomedical, competition for subsidies decreases innovation. It isn’t just that research tends to focus on old ideas that appeal to bureaucrats and politicians instead of new ideas that might represent a valuable breakthrough. More and more, the research isn’t focusing on anything other than replicating the buzzwords that appeal to bureaucrats and politicians.

Researchers don’t seem to be looking for mice that have, say, Alzheimer’s, or induce Alzheimer’s in mice, and then for a way to cure or alleviate the mouse’s Alzheimer’s. That’s hard. It requires identifying Alzheimer’s by more than just its symptoms. Instead, so many studies seem to take test animals, induce symptoms that look like the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and then the press reports that we now have insight into how Alzheimer’s works.

It makes everyone look great. The researchers, the reporters, the bureaucrats, and the politicians. What it doesn’t do is bring us closer to a cure. It doesn’t need to. When money comes from funding, the potential patient isn’t a potential customer.

Often, such studies seem like breaking a mouse’s legs to learn how to cure polio, or sometimes even paraplegia.

Sometimes these studies even find that if they stop doing the things that induce the symptoms, the symptoms go away. This, also, is headline-making. Worded correctly, it can sound as if a cure has been found for the thing that looks like the symptoms induced.

But there is a big difference between knowing how to induce symptoms that look like the symptoms of disease X and knowing anything at all about disease X itself. Unfortunately, even the scientific press is getting confused by this more today than they were even five years ago when I started subscribing to Science News.

I put a lot of the blame on federal funding. It is, I suspect, a lot easier to get funding for the very high chance of being able to induce symptoms that look like disease X than it is to get funding for the very low chance of getting real answers about disease X.

When Senators demagogue that we should limit opioid prescriptions to seven days “because no one needs a month’s supply for a wisdom tooth extraction”, ignoring (a) all the evidence about what can go wrong with tooth extractions, and (b) that there are other reasons for needing pain medication than dental visits, such as, say, cancer, remember that these are also the people who set the bar for federal research funding.

After that tweet, the level of funding for any research that might recommend longer terms on pain medication went down. Bureaucrats don’t like to get caught in congressional crossfire.

Back Seat Baby: Have airbags become a Rube Goldberg machine?—Wednesday, April 10th, 2019
Steam power tooth extraction

It’s perfectly safe… as long as you take all the proper precautions. (Wellcome Images L0015008, CC-BY-4.0)

Perhaps the best example of a deceptively useful prescriptive mandate is the airbag mandate. That cars with airbags are safer than cars without airbags, for the most part, is undeniable. It is also not the right comparison. The right comparison is between airbags and what we would have if airbags were not mandated. Airbags take up a lot of space and resources that could be used for other safety features. The more I learn about the amount of resources airbags use in cars, and how much effort is necessary to keep them from causing injuries, the more it seems likely that they monopolize space and effort that could be used to create a far safer and more effective safety mechanism.

Take a serious look at what airbags cost in terms of space, weight, and design. Look at all the places and parts that airbags occupy in your car. Look at all the behavioral changes we’ve needed to make to avoid being hurt by them. To a large extent, cars today are airbags with extra features attached. So much of a car’s design is, how can we fit a car around these airbags? Your dashboard is no longer a feature in your car; it is something to be avoided. You can’t put your feet up: if the airbag deploys it will smash your feet into your face, turning a minor accident into a deadly one.

Airbags are designed to turn themselves off if there’s a kid in the front seat. When airbags deploy on short people, they kill. It’s so dangerous that it is now illegal in some states for young children to be in the front passenger seat. Short people are encouraged to ride in the back no matter how old they are.

Which may make you wonder about short drivers. Sure enough, short drivers need to do all sorts of things, from adding extenders to the controls, so as to not sit too close to the airbags, to asking permission from the government to turn airbags off.

Do you read books or tablets in the front passenger seat while someone else is driving? That’s also not recommended. You should do that in the back seat. In the case of an airbag deployment, that book or tablet becomes a projectile. The airbag will deploy it into your face, stomach, chest, neck… God help you if you’re writing with a pen or pencil, or handling some other vaguely pointed object.

You’re not even supposed to have anything in your pocket.

Prescriptive vs. performance mandates—Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019
Denmark car crash

Patient: “It hurts when I do this.” Doctor: “We’ll design it so that when you do this your arm will accordion but you won’t be hurt.”

Performance mandates are often proposed as a solution for ensuring that government technology requirements don’t block innovation in the same way that mandating specific technology does. For example, mandating that cars use specific technology to reduce emissions is prescriptive. It doesn’t matter what emissions the car actually produces, what matters is that the car use, say, a catalytic converter. Under such regulations, a perfectly clean car that doesn’t use a catalytic converter is designated dirty. On the other hand, a regulatory environment mandating crumple tests would be performative. It doesn’t matter how the car reduces the impact the passengers feel, just that it does so to the extent mandated.

A performance mandate mandates outcomes; a prescriptive mandate mandates how the outcomes are arrived at, locking in specific technology. Performance mandates are an attempt to replicate the amazing transformative effects that result from letting people decide what features they want and how much they value those features.

But performance mandates don’t actually do what they’re supposed to. For all the good intentions, they’re still not the choices of the people who matter. They’re the choices of government bureaucrats and their definitions. Government definitions always skew innovation away from revolutionary breakthroughs and toward gaming the mandate: any progress is toward pleasing the bureaucrats and their definitions, and not the actual users of the product. Performance mandates don’t come anywhere near the strength of millions of people all making decisions independently. They’re no different than the fake-market exchanges that caused California electricity to become both expensive and unreliable back when I lived there, or the insurance exchanges that that are doing the same right now. Bureaucrats don’t understand the power of people’s choices, nor do they trust people to make choices. It’s crazy to expect them to successfully emulate people’s choices.

Security is hard, and 2FA is not the answer—Wednesday, March 20th, 2019
Air travel touchless fingerprint detector

Another part of the problem is trying to take the human factor out security. In this image from Homeland Security, for example, turning an in-person security check into a remote security check.

I’ve become a one-note-Cassandra about identity authentication, especially insecurity questions and their subset, out-of-wallet questions. I even tried to create an insecurity-questions tag on StackOverflow, adding the tag to several related questions in the hope of getting some outside-the-box thinking done. It failed, probably justifiably so—I’ve been on StackExchange for several years now, but really don’t understand how the system works.

Often, when this topic comes up, someone in the comments—or even the blog author—suggests two-factor authentication as the answer—even in this article at KrebsOnSecurity detailing the dangers of phone authentication. I have never done so. For one, it doesn’t even make sense. Taken literally, it’s a non-sequitur. Two-factor authentication means that the person needs to know both their password and have some other identifying factor, and insecurity questions are technically meant for when someone does not know their password.

The suggestion makes more sense, however, when you realize that the real problem is trust, and that 2FA inevitably devolves to ½FA at the drop of an appropriate sob story.

In many ways, despite the claims of incredible divides today, we trust far too much. Banks still hand out checks, meant to be given to third parties, that contain all of the information needed to drain checking accounts. Every time we write a check, we are implicitly trusting that the person we give the check to, as well as everyone in the chain of handling the check, on down to the people who trash it or shred it, can be trusted with full access to our money. And don’t think you’re above the problem because you don’t write checks; the information that matters is the information you give to every system that offers to put money into your checking account. The same information that puts money into your account can take money out of your account.

When you enter that information into PayPal, or Amazon, or whatever other service gives you money, you’re adding not just everyone in the chain of handling the information, as with a check, but also everyone who programmed their database systems.1

Apple swings privacy out of the park—Monday, March 18th, 2019

This is the best Apple ad I’ve seen in a long time. It rivals their rip-mix-burn ad from the music encryption wars. (For extra credit, count the number of walls in this video.)

This is possibly my favorite Apple ad since Rip. Mix. Burn. It forcefully states the obvious, yet it’s an obvious that too many people, especially people in power, are trying to make us believe is wrong. That truth is what they say, rather than what we see.

And they’re going to keep torturing us until we believe the lie rather than the obvious truth our eyes are showing us. Privacy, like owning music in 2001, is not dead yet, nor does it have to die.

This TRS-80—Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

“There are many TRS-80’s in the world. But this one is mine.”

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