Friday, July 28, 2006

Goodbye, David Gemmel. . .

David Gemmell, British writer of heroic fantasy, has died at the age of 57 (see BBC article linked above). Reading the news felt like a savage and unexpected punch to the stomach. His works never failed to inspire me. He was one of the few modern writers who still believed in honor and justice, and fought cowardice and moral relativism in all its forms. He was a formative influence in my life.

I'm too distraught to write more. If you haven't read his books, do yourself a favor, get Legend or Sword in the Storm and start reading.

Can't stop the signal, indeed

One of Neal Stephenson's (pseudo)historical characters remarks in Quicksilver (which you should read) that the things made by man may appear beautiful to the unaided eye, but are imperfect and crude when seen up close, while the creations of nature appear ever more perfect when viewed at greater and greater magnification. Mankind has certainly made advances in changing this over the past century, but it will be only in this new century and perhaps even later that our creations shall start to become anywhere as precise and refined on a microscopic scale as those of nature.

For all that nanotechnology is a hot topic of conversation today, it is a discipline in its infancy. We still approach most problems we encounter, even in cutting-edge science and engineering, with a "sledgehammer solution" more often than not, expending far more energy and making far more noise than necessary. Any scientists among our great-great-grandchildren will find our technological ways as quaint and amusing as theater-goers, today, might find the theatrical conventions of ancient Rome. (For in Rome, the crowds of spectators were vast, so every gesture was exaggerated and many a word shouted so that its meaning might penetrate).

The analogy is quite relevant to the topic of this post. For modern electronics, sleek and silent to the naked eye though they might be, carry on as they operate their own ancient Roman song-and-dance in the electronic realm. Even in comparatively 'secure' applications, we really haven't learned to stop the signal yet (yeah, I'm repeating myself; to the uninitiated: watch Firefly). Every time we write a letter using a keyboard or make a mouse-click to open an application, we set off a veritable storm in the electro-magnetic field, which propagates at the speed of light beyond the boxes of our computers and the walls of our dwellings to reach the outside world. You might be scared to learn how much information this storm carries along with it.

I wrote earlier that I was doing some coding for a custom lock-in amplifier for the Company. Well, I'm done with that - the code runs beautifully, and the amplifier is functioning beyond specifications (to be fair, my contribution to this was minor). Seeing it in action reminded me of my junior physics lab in college 8 years ago, which is when I built my very own lock-in for the first time. It was crude, to be sure, but it could pick out the faintly flashing light from a diode from all the way across the lab, where I couldn't make it out with the naked eye. This with electronics running all around, fluorescent lights and sunlight flooding the room and all kinds of other background noise in the air. A good comparison would be being able to hear the sound of a faucet dripping against the background noise of a waterfall.

My point is not that genius me made a fancy spy device as an undergraduate, but exactly the opposite: that even a simple circuit, with a couple of cheap elements thrown together according to a diagram downloaded from the net, permitted me to do this. Let your imagination guide you as to what a team of highly experienced engineers with a large budget can build. Reconstructing the image on your computer screen as you, say, enter the number of your credit card - or describe the security setup at the White House - are not at all outside the realm of possibility. In fact, this kind of remote viewing, called by some Van Eck Phreaking (which Neal Stephenson also wrote about, this time in Cryptonomicon - further evidence of a great writer), has been demonstrated to work, even if its limitations are not widely known.

But do not panic just yet. The White House and other sensitive operations do take standardized precautions (look up TEMPEST on Wikipedia) to avoid all but the most advanced techniques, and as for your credit cards - well, the effort and knowledge required for such surveillance is sufficient that credit card fraud is unlikely to make it worthwhile. For, you see, to decypher the noise generated by technology of one level of refinement, you need something designed at the next level. With time, of course, such technology could become a viable mass-market product - but, as this starts happens, our computers and TVs will also transition to the next level of quality. To spy on those will once again be beyond the consumer's ability.

Perhaps in time our devices will run on the minimum energy physically required and cancel their own noise near-perfectly. In the meantime, you should feel just a little less secure in your privacy as you sit in your basement, typing up your world-domination plans on your non-networked computer. For, however fine your precautions, the signal always gets through.

(For the technically minded - yes, I know, the transition from a lock-in amplifier, which literally locks in to anything characterized by the reference signal, to a Van Eck Phreaker is non-trivial. I used the lock-in as an illustrative device.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Hezbollah caught by surprise

Edit: initially, the quotes in this story were incorrectly attributed to the BBC.

A couple of quotes from this Yahoo News story are priceless in what they tell us about the true nature of groups like Hezbollah:

'"The truth is — let me say this clearly — we didn't even expect (this) response ... that (Israel) would exploit this operation for this big war against us," said Komati.[...]Komati said his group had anticipated negotiations to swap the Israeli soldiers for three Lebanese held in Israeli jails, with Germany acting as a mediator as it has in past prisoner exchanges.'

So things didn't go quite as expected, huh? You abducted a couple of Isrealis, just another routine operation, and expected Isreal to bend over and obediently take its punishment like so many times before. Instead you discovered Isreal had found a bit of backbone - oh how dare they! Evil Zionist plotters! Instead of just giving in to terrorist demands, they've moved to - shock - eradicate said terrorists as fully as possible.

Were it not for the countless tragedies associated with the whole situation, Mr. Komati's comments would be downright funny. He sounds more like a schoolyard bully who's at long last had his nose broken more than anything else. "But every time before he just handed his lunch money right over!" And, of course, the International Coalition of Leftists and Pacifists plays the role of the bully's mom, bitching righteously about the "injustice" done to their poor underpriviliged Hizballah by money-grubbing Arab-hating intolerant Jews (in not so many words).

This kind of "international condemnation", along with the activities of local "doves", has resulted in
a lack of moral righteousness on the part of those who deserve to wield it and policies of constant appeasement that have bred complacency in terrorists and fueled their confidence. Too long have moral relativists and fuzzy thinkers within and outside of Isreal hampered its ability to defend itself. Finally it has taken action, and it is good at least one country in the world - ours - recognizes the necessity of what it is doing.

It is unfortunate that the Lebanese have gotten caught in the crossfire. Even with the utmost caution on the Isrealis' side, it is inevitable that civilians are hurt in any conflict of these proportions. Hostage-taking is standard procedure for terrorists; they do this on scales both small and large. Moderate Lebanese are held hostage to the Hezbollah, as are Iraqis to insurgents, and any moderate Palestinians to Hamas (though, with Hamas popularly elected, I have little sympathy there).

"Do not negotiate with terrorists" is as valid an axiom in small-scale operations as it is on a grand scale, however. We cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated into concessions and appeasement by the fact that terrorists use civilians as their shields. If we do, we have no defense left. The terrorists will have us at their beck and call, for there will always be innocents for them to hide behind, and slowly the world will slip back into a world order all but forgotten in the west. Michael Yon writes of this beautifully in a recent article called Jihad.

Appeasement is not a new trend; readers will be familiar with the story of Hitler, Neville Chamberlain and the League of Nations, and with how that ended. The time for peace and diplomacy is long gone. Nothing the west can do could possibly avert war, because war has already started. Terrorists have declared it, and our only options are to fight or to surrender into slavery.

Monday, July 24, 2006

'Law demanded'

(warning - waxing political here!)

Socialists never cease to amaze me. Few other groups believe that something can come out of nothing so consistently. The Soviets were neither the first nor, by a long shot, the last to legislate and union-ize individuals' and companies' ability to produce out the window _and then to expect those individuals and companies (not called that in the USSR, of course) to keep producing well, cheaply and efficiently_. Even in most western countries people are all too prone to this kind of faith in miracles, but the French wallow in it particularly. As an example, see the BBC article linked to by the title above. Quoting:

Mr Pelloux called for a law to prevent hospital managers from cutting bed numbers in summer.'

First the guy, a union leader, and his 'comrades' (in unions and among the populace) make it impossible for hospitals to operate at larger capacity during this time - by demanding and achieving legislation that makes companies slaves to their employees, which require - or else! - 'work stability', higher wages, shorter days, vacations during the summer for almost everyone and anything else that might catch their fancy. Now, when all the vacationing, combined with some union leaders' tantrum, results in this inevitable and quite predictable (same thing happened in August 2003, for instance, with thousands dead) crisis, they, instead of sending their own union members back to work, demand further legislation to prevent hospitals from reducing capacity. As if squeezing a rock could make water!

Ah, yes! The ones striking and the ones complaining represent different unions. That makes it okay then!

You can't make something from nothing. Either you let companies work freely and efficiently, or you make them slaves to their employees, shackled by union leaders' whims of the month and serving their workers, not customers or (God forbid) owners, first. Most of the time the French medicine system gets away with it because of the obscene amount of taxes it costs (French medicine is the most expensive in the world, which does also get France the best overall health in the world, according to the WHO), but this kind of event brings the ugly reality of the situation out in the open. Perhaps some people will take note and realize that the exact same problem, though less painful because it doesn't involve medicine, plagues every single French industry (and, to a lesser extent, the industries of many other western countries - including the US).

Not to mention that the attitude underlying this problem sends vandals out thrashing France's streets and students taking over universities in giant tantrums at the mere suggestion they might lose something they think they deserve by the mere fact of their existence.

It is only proper and fitting to recognize that doctors and hospital workers are slaves neither to their hospitals neither to the populace. In this sense the existence of unions is laudable. It is just as fitting, however, to recognize that neither are hospital owners the indentured servants of their workers. Hospitals, and other companies, should have the right to fire, hire and make renumeration decisions as they wish, the same as unions should have the right to
bargain as they wish. Then agreements would be arrived at that would be to mutual benefit and respect the interests of both sides - and, almost incidentally, better serve the public. It is the conspiracy of government with workers to limit the company's rights in firing, hiring and bargaining that, in a misguided Marx-inspired attempt to protect "the working class" from the evil
Bourgeoisie, ultimately ends up slowing progress and harming the whole of society in cases like the one described here the most.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Glorious sunday morning. . .in the lab

Slept till 1 P.M. today. I suppose I should've gotten up earlier, just to force myself back into a work schedule, but my pillow just wouldn't let me go. I guess I'll just suffer some tomorrow.

The lab quiets down a bit on Sundays, but a lot of people still come in - this job is their life. Everyone's working on some product or other that could propel them to industry stardom if successful - most won't be, of course, but there's enough innovative stuff being worked on to keep everyone enthused.

And that's on the public levels; what goes on in the sub-basement, where only senior researchers are allowed, is another question altogether. I asked Amory, my nominal supervisor and first tentative friend, about that when I first got here, and he just smiled mysteriously - the bastard! - and muttered something cryptic that ended with "you'll find out eventually". Amory never passes up an opportunity to have fun at my expense - in a good way, most of the time. He's only been with the Company for a year, but, at thirty-five, with his formidable-looking white overcoat (yes, formidable-looking - it's not just the usual cotton stuff) and (seemingly) inch-thick glasses, he thinks himself an old Man of the Industry, and heaps sage advice upon anyone with half a mind to listen. Entertaining if not taken too seriously.

As to why I'm here this Sunday morning. . . well, I'm new in town and not in the mood to go looking for social opportunities, and figure I might as well spend my free time doing something useful. Perhaps I'll go for a run through town tonight, as a treat for my heart & (long-suffering) lungs, but on the whole I'm not much of an outdoors person. Right now I'm perfectly content to sit in my office and familiarize myself with the tech specs on the Company's flagship & up-and-coming products. And to once in a while slip out to the team lounge and strike up a conversation with some of the Eddisons-in-residence. Some of whom are surprisingly cute.

Having a boyfriend who lives in a different state can really make some things difficult.

Frank, the designer of the lock-in amplifiers I'm coding for, just dropped by. He seemed surprised but pleased to find me here. I showed him my progess so far - I'm working on some preliminary filtering algorithms, mostly standard technique though I've added a few tricks of my own - and we compared notes on some potential I/O issues. I'm getting the feeling he's an important guy to develop good rapport with. I see him going to and from the sub-basement all the time, so he must be fairly senior and, thus, in a position to move people and jobs around. I don't think of myself as a careerist, but I do want to move on as soon as I can. There's too much interesting stuff going on here for me to spend my days looking for misplaced parentheses on IF-THEN statements (to any programmers out there - sorry!).

But, since I do want to move on, I suppose I had better return exactly to those parentheses right now. . .

From: Trudy To: World Subj: Hello!

For my Five Years of Hell (a.k.a. physics grad school), I resisted quite successfully any number of temptations - to eat, to sleep, to go to the movies or even (God forbid) to hang out with friends. Now I'm out, and my social life is ready for a Change. Yes, believe it or not, I'm starting a blog!

I mean, it's the middle of the summer - you could say it would be more fitting for me to spend my days outside, looking for an open-air pool or playing tennis with a friend, or sunning myself on the beach. But it's 1 a.m. in the night and I'm sitting here in the basement of our labs, jet-lagged from a trip to Europe. What's more, our air conditioners are groaning with strain even at this time of night - I don't know many people brave enough to venture outside for any length of time during the day. Might as well step into a toaster oven and ask someone to turn it on. So I've no reason not to spend some time starting a blog.

I suppose introductions are in order. I'm Trudy, pleased-to-meetcha. Got my physics degree just a couple of months ago, and now I'm working in a commercial R&D facility somewhere in America. Research, right. All I do is write code, night and day. It's funny how life works sometimes. I chose to do theory at school largely to avoid having to spend my days staring at reams of FORTRAN code (yes, physicists still use Fortran, all the time!). My search for postdoc and/or teaching opportunities was less than succesful, though, and now here I am - using my hard-earned knowledge of "esoteric" metrics, curved space multipole-expansions and event horizons to. . .code custom lock-in amplifiers.

Yeah, laugh at me, fate! One day I'll figure out a way to get back at you.

To tell you the truth, I'm being tongue-in-cheek. I like the firm I work for (with the rise of blog-related firings, I'll only call it the Company from now on, even though I've no intention of posting anything even vaguely confidential here). My present programming job is only temporary - the Company has a number of very exciting products on the drawing board, and if all goes well I'll get a chance to play with (and build!) some bleeding-edge tech over the next couple of years. It should be a pleasant change after years spent scribbling on blackboards.

And some of the people here. . . I'm not sure if they've even seen sunlight in the last 10 years, but those _brains_. . . when I got to grad school, I thought you wouldn't find a higher concentration of nerd-geniuses anywhere else in the world, but apparently I was wrong. The basements of the Company beat those at my alma mater any hour of the day (or night). For someone like me, even cafeteria conversations here are a thrill.

I got into physics because I was always excited about the wonders of the future, even as a kid (go, Robocop!). Now maybe I'll get a chance to be part of creating some of those wonders myself. And, until I get too lazy to keep this up, I'll let you know how I'm doing. . .