The Humane Society of the United States

By Extension

December 18, 2011 by Robert C. Watson

Seeing What We Expect to See

I'm a Unix/Linux programmer. It capitalizes on my tendency to take what I see quite literally. By making few assumptions, I'm able to see the problem as the computer does.

By contrast, "normal human thinking" depends heavily on our imagination filling in many blanks. We have to make lots of assumptions. Those assumptions cause us to see what we've seen before... what we expect to see.

With almost all of my attention on Unix/Linux over the years, I've mostly just used Microsoft Windows and Office as tools and not followed their inner workings much. Long ago, I attempted to decipher the raw format of a Microsoft Word document (and failed to do so reliably). It left me with a mental image of Word documents consisting of intermixed binary values and text that only Microsoft understood.

A few years later, someone sent me a document in Microsoft Word 2007's new .docx format that I needed to convert to HTML for the web. I only had Office 2003 and was horrified by the mess Word made when exported "As a web page". So I proceeded to read the document into a text editor to see if I could just cut out the content and reformat it by hand. Knowing it was supposed to be XML, that's what I was expecting to see. What I saw instead was gibberish -- pure binary.

"Damn that Microsoft!"

Sliding back and forth through the sizable document and finding no blocks of text or other discernible patterns, I brought up Firefox and started many hours of Googling.

Now one thing I've learned over the years is that, for me at least, there's a very consistent inverse relationship between the intractability of a problem and the complexity of its solution. The longer it takes to solve it, the more simple the solution is likely to be. Assumptions and expectations lead me down an increasingly complex path of study, experimentation and failure as I exhaust "obvious" solutions. (Is "Occam's Razor" misunderstood?)

Lots of Googling have also taught me that simple, fundamental facts and concepts about a piece of software are often documented only once and thus rarely found in search results. Assumptions again.

The more intractable the problem, the more likely that the solution hinges on one of these obscure bits of information.

I finally came across somebody in a forum explaining the new format to a newbie (A Newbie! A Noob! How mortifying...) and discovered that in the world of Microsoft...

Though a .docx is named much like a .doc, looks like a .doc and is used like a doc... it's really a .zip!

Labels: , , , , ,

"HP dumps WebOS on open source world"

December 09, 2011 By Ted Samson | InfoWorld

A Comment...

I'm glad HP took my advice, though it was kind of a no-brainer.

I've read a number of positive things about webOS from developers working with it. Unlike in the market-driven world of commercial software, webOS only needs to do something - anything, especially well to be adopted in whole or in part by the purely innovation-driven Open Source community.

Since webOS is based on the Linux 2.6.24 kernel, I would expect future webOS development to probably lean towards being another Open Source alternative to Android on small devices. Maybe Google will adopt it if there's something in it they can use.

Commercial software has become so dominated by market forces to the exclusion of functionality, quality, reliability and value, that the industry seems to be coalescing into two camps -- Open Source, where most of the R&D innovation occurs; and Commercial, where they assemble those innovations into commercially viable packages and market them.

Businesses and individuals that want finished products and have more money than time or computing skill, buy commercial software and support. Businesses that need specialized mission-critical software that gives them a competitive edge over their competition or companies and individuals with more time and/or computing skill than money, choose Open Source for some or all of their operations.

Linux (and perhaps webOS) is the Lowes or Home Depot of software whereas Microsoft is the Ethan-Allen Home Furnishings.

How much you want to bet Ethan-Allen's manufacturers have long-standing accounts at Lowes and Home Depot?

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

"U.S. senator demands suspension of phone-tracking system"

November 28, 2011 By Ted Samson | InfoWorld

A Comment in response to...
"I admit this is bit big brother, but as a licensed amateur radio operator, many forget the airwaves are essentially public domain.  If you transmit using the air, those signals are not owned by anyone. Maybe this needs to change, but as for now this is a century old standard." -- Benjamin Adams
Excellent point!

Until your comment, I was entirely in the privacy camp along with most people. I now have to take pause.

Back in my emergency service days, I too was an amateur radio operator. As you know, the law requires all licensees like amateur radio operators, radio stations, police, fire, etc to regularly broadcast their "call-sign" (unique identifier) so they can always be located. That's often automated these days. The general public is largely unaware of this however and their idea of two-way radio is usually CB radio or FRS. CB radio used to be licensed and had to identify, but licensing was dropped in the 1980's because the laws were so widely ignored. FRS is unlicensed.

For the benefit of other readers...

Cellphones and Wi-Fi are very sophisticated two-way radio systems hidden under telephone and computer user interfaces respectively.

Mr. Adams, you are absolutely right that the airwaves are, by law, effectively a public domain shared and limited resource. The FCC was created to manage that resource in a way that prevents its users from interfering with other users.

In actuality, all electric devices transmit radio waves. Every wire is an antenna. A great deal of device design is dedicated to blocking those radio waves from leaving the device and interfering with other devices.

Also, the airwaves may appear limitless, but in reality, receiving devices like cell-phone towers can only handle a limited number of signals at a time. Too many signals hitting one tower is a lot like a network Distributed Denial of Service DDOS attack.

So how does this impact cellphone tracking and privacy?

As much as I hate to admit it, tracking is probably on sound legal grounds here. The FCC only really regulates transmitters, not receivers. So businesses intercepting cellphone signals is probably perfectly legal.

The question is -- should it be?

Our century of airwaves regulation and case-law has always controlled the activities of a very limited number of people. When CB radio use became widespread though, that regulatory system had to throw up its hands in defeat. With cellphone use approaching universal, identification requirements that allow tracking becomes a major invasion of privacy issue.

Not every problem can be solved by technology. This is one of those that is going to require laws and regulations to prevent widespread victimization of the public by ruthless businesses and government.

Don't hold your breath!

Labels: , , , ,