Thursday, March 30, 2006

US debt clock running out of time, space

NEW YORK (AFP) - Tick, 20,000 dollars, tock, another 20,000 dollars.
So rapid is the rise of the US national debt, that the last four digits of a giant digital signboard counting the moving total near New York's Times Square move in seemingly random increments as they struggle to keep pace.
The national debt clock, as it is known, is a big clock. A spot-check last week showed a readout of 8.3 trillion -- or more precisely 8,310,200,545,702 -- dollars ... and counting.
But it's not big enough.
Sometime in the next two years, the total amount of US government borrowing is going to break through the 10-trillion-dollar mark and, lacking space for the extra digit such a figure would require, the clock is in danger of running itself into obsolescence.
The clock's owner, real estate developer Douglas Durst, knew such a problem could arise but hadn't counted on it so soon.
"We really expected it to be quite some time," Durst told AFP. "But now, with the pace of debt growth only increasing, we're looking at maybe two years and certainly before President (George W.) Bush leaves office in 2009."
The clock was the invention of Durst's father, Seymour Durst, who nursed a keen sense of fiscal responsibility and believed government profligacy to be a national curse.
The elder Durst, who died in 1995, originally thought of the idea in the early 1980s as the US budget deficit started to mount during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, but the technology was not immediately available to realise his vision.
The original 11 foot by 26 foot (3.3 meter by 8.9 meter) clock was eventually erected a block from Manhattan's Times Square in 1989 when the national debt stood at 2.7 trillion.
For the next decade it tracked, odometer style, the government's red ink with an extra feature which, by dividing the main figure by the number of families in the country, offered an estimate for how much each family owed as their share.
Toward the close of the millennium, with a booming economy fuelling annual budget surpluses, the clock began to slow and finally ran into its first mechanical problem.
"It wasn't designed to run backwards," Douglas Durst explained.
Believing that the signboard had served its purpose, the Dursts pulled the plug in 2000 with the debt total showing around 5.7 trillion dollars and the individual "family share" standing at close to 74,000 dollars.
The clock was covered with a red, white and blue curtain, but not dismantled.
"We'll have it ready in case things start turning around, which I'm sure they will," Durst said at the time.
He only had to wait two years as the Bush presidency coincided with an upsurge in borrowing. The curtain was raised in 2002 and the digital readout flickered back to life showing a national debt of 6.1 trillion dollars with the numerals whizzing round faster than ever.
In 2004, the old clock was torn down and replaced with a newer model which had optimistically been modified to run backwards should such a happy necessity arise.
Instead the debt continued to rise at such a rate that the once unthinkable total of 10 trillion dollars veered from alarmist fantasy into the realm of impending reality.
"When it became clear what was going to happen, our first thought was to free up the digital square occupied by the dollar sign so that we could cope with a 14th digit," Durst said.
The latest plan is for yet another replacement, involving a larger scale signboard.
"We're not happy at the impact we're making with this one," he said.
Durst insists that the clock is non-partisan in its effort to shame the federal government over what he sees as its willingness to gamble away the nation's future.
"We're a family business," Durst said. "We think generationally, and we don't want to see the next generation crippled by this burden," he said.
Last week, the "family share" readout on the clock stood some loose change short of 90,000 dollars.

US debt clock running out of time, space

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Never Admit You're Wrong

What is it about modern society that we are so loathe to accept responsibility and do the right thing? Are we afraid that someone will exploit our weakeness? Or is it that we just don't have the backbone to face the truth?
I think it's something else: the difference between management and leadership. Management is in constant crisis mode, always trying to weather the storm, and manipulate clients and workers with a constant barrage of spin. Mangers tell the customer not to worry, the matter will be taken care of. The same managers try to blame someone else for the problem. If they get caught out, they pretend they know nothing about the problem.
Denial never convinced anyone. Even the "plausible deniability" theory surrounding the White House doesn't convince anyone any more. Why should it work with anyone else either?
Leaders, on the other hand, welcome bad news and turn it into an opportunity for success. They face it head on, analyse the problem, and think of creative solutions. As a result, they earn the respect and trust of their clients, and sometimes even their employees.
Certainly, the employees need to trust the leader in order to know that they can report bad news without risking their jobs. If they are encouraged to take problems to the leader, as well as providing solutions if possible, they grow as leaders too. The clever leader knows this.
Lawyers, on the other hand, can never be leaders because they have to represent the lies of their clients. When was the last time you heard a lawyer say, "I can't write that in a letter because it's not true"?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Champagne Castle Hotel Noise Pollution

This weekend I was in the Drakensberg, a stone's throw from the Champagne Castle Hotel, where Penny and I spent our honeymoon nearly 5 years ago. This time we were in a log cabin with a beautiful panoramic view and a persistent noise coming from a pump belonging to the hotel. It sounds like the damn thing just needs some oil, but it's probably a bearing that is on its way out.
Whatever the cause, the hotel management doesn't care. It can't be heard from the hotel itself, but their neighbours have been complaining about it for months. Can you imagine stepping outside your home every day to be confronted by a noise that you cannot ignore, almost as loud as a burglar alarm?
If that noise went off in a city suburb for longer than 5 minutes you could complain to the police and the municipality. But this happens in a World Heritage Site, so it's OK, I guess.
I walked up to the hotel reception and asked them what could be done, and they said they would mention it to the owner. But the noise carried on the entire weekend, and I could hear it all night with all the doors and windows closed. Thank you Champagne Castle Hotel for destroying the tranquility of my weekend.

See HelloPeter complaint | Hotel Web Site

Writing for Busy People

Ben Goodger, lead engineer for Mozilla Firefox, writes about writing and getting read. A good read, not only for software developers!

read more | digg story

Friday, March 24, 2006

Ultra-Secure Passwords are just a URL away...

Steve Gibson at has written a great high-security password generation utility at Listen to the Security Now podcast (episode #11) to see how really secure *and* thorough Steve has been creating this utility. Each page refresh produces a fresh password set. Just make sure you keep a record of the password, because there is no way you can remember these ones.
I have used them for setting up Hamachi VPN networks and encrypting data using WinZip. Eventually I'll use them for a WPA wireless setup, when I can find one. From Security Now episode #13:
The last thing that is important, and this is critical, is passphrase quality. The reason it's critical is WPA is subject to what's called an "offline attack," meaning that someone could sniff your traffic and only needs a little bit of traffic to sniff. They don't need a lot. They then take that home to a big computer and run an offline cracking utility, which basically it does a brute force, or dictionary, attack against your passphrase. So because it's possible to do this, to put as much time or energy as necessary, you know, since you're bothering to do WPA anyway, you know, it absolutely makes sense to choose a good passphrase. And what that means is somehow come up with just a jumble of arbitrary special characters. You're able to, with WPA passphrases, you can use anything printable, you know, asterisks, dollar signs, you can look like a comic book swearing person - upper, lowercase, numbers, you name it. And use the full length. A passphrase can be 63 characters. And that's what I'm saying. This is not somewhere where you want to type in a sentence that you like to use. That can get cracked offline. You want just a nightmare jumble of junk. And then you just use copy and pasting in order to paste the same thing into each of your machines at access point. And when a friend does come over, you paste this jumble in, they can't memorize it.

Leo: Right.

Steve: So, you know, before they leave, you delete that from their wireless adapter, and it's safe just by obscurity. There's no way anyone is going to - even you are going to - be able to memorize this 63-character hodgepodge of just static.

Leo: Now, let me ask another question. And this, I think, is really where the criticism comes from on what we were talking about last time with MAC address filtering and so forth. People say, how real is this threat, anyway? Aren't we kind of spreading a lot of fear unnecessarily? How many people are getting hacked?

Steve: I don't know how to respond to that because, again, our goal is just to explain the technology. So it's important for people to know that WPA is subject to offline cracking. So that if they were in a situation where they thought they were secure using a few English words strung together as their passphrase, maybe it's useful for them to know how that can be broken, and that it really can be broken.


Steve: Believe me, I do have an extremely strong WPA passphrase that I can't remember. It's in a file on my computer. And when I need to set up a new device, I copy and paste it into the device. There's no way I could even type it again. But it's absolutely never going to get cracked. The reason is that passphrase ends up getting hashed 4,096 times into a 256-bit master key. 256 bits is way long for a master key. So my point is, while you're doing WPA security, if it's okay with your lifestyle to have a key that you can't remember, but because you can't remember it, that demonstrates how strong it is, then take the time to do it once, and you never, never need to worry about it again.

Security Now podcasts | GRC Password Page | digg story

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Open Access up and running

I registered the domain in 2004, when I was working flat out on the JockBase database project. Now that the orcs have canned the project, I have found the time to set up the Open Access web site.
So far I have managed to transfer all the Black and White Inc stuff across, and intend to update the versions of Miami and DataMover that are part of this suite of developer software in the next few days.

Monday, March 20, 2006

DataPro wants to charge me Telkom prices

My hobby web site has been hosted by DataPro for years, at a flat fee. Now they have decided to get greedy and charge me for bandwidth usage as well. I guess that's fine if I can manage the bandwidth and get full usage stats as to who is downloading what. I suppose.
What I don't like is the rates they want to charge: R0.09 per MB. That works out to nearly R100 per GB, which is pretty excessive. Telkom charges me the same prices for my ADSL line, which is about 10 times the international average.
By comparison, Hetzner's "Basic" package costs R99 per month and includes 15000MB, which works out at R0.066 per MB, except that it's already included in the basic price, so it ends up being much cheaper.
I guess they'll have to change their slogan to "Internet solutions for the GREEDY world".

RIAA p2p file share defeat

The RIAA licks its wounds after losing a bid for unfettered access to the hard drive of an Oregon mother it's victimizing in a p2p file sharing case.

read more | digg story

Friday, March 17, 2006

Hunter-Killer is back!

Hard drives fill up with junk. We often don't know where it comes from, and it's a pain to get rid of. Programs like Microsoft SQL Server promise to remove old backups as part of the maintenance plan, but don't always get it right. Employees put a whole load of junk on the file server and never bother to delete their old files. The list goes on.
Hunter-Killer was originally developed for the Sowetan newspaper about a decade ago, when a method was needed to remove old stories from journalists directories. That was a DOS-based version; this one is written in Visual Basic, and can be used in a batch file or interactively. Hunter.exe does not delete or change anything; the user has to run killer.bat to do this. I have added some menu options to make it easier.

Download and information page for Hunter-Killer: a utility to delete old files | Bug fix article

Classic Australian Cricket Joke and Commentary

From ABC Sport - Cricket: "Relive a classic Kerry O'Keeffe commentary moment from this summer's one-day triangular series." It's hilarious!

And while you're about it, listen to their broadcast on the Sunday world record ODI match:
"South Africa hit a world record 9 for 438 in the highest-scoring one-day international in history to beat Australia by one wicket and win the series 3-2 in Johannesburg"

ODI records set during the match:
  • Highest run chase of 435 runs to win.
  • Highest match aggregate of 872/13.
  • Highest first (434/4) and second innings (438/9) totals.
  • Most boundaries hit in a match: 113 boundaries - 26 sixes and 87 fours.
  • First time a total recorded over 400 runs, and it was done by both teams.
  • Highest score by a player against Australia: Herschelle Gibbs 175 beat England's Robin Smith score of 167.
  • Most runs conceded by a bowler: Australia's Mick Lewis went for 113 runs in 10 overs.
  • South Africa's highest second wicket partnership against Australia: Gibbs and Smith 187 runs.
  • Gibbs' 100, his 16th, was the fastest century by a South African.

I must say I'm thoroughly impressed with the sporting attitude of Ricky Ponting. He has done a lot to undo the damage done by the rude arrogance of older cricketers like the Waugh and Warne lot. Good on you, Ricky! There are some great pictures of the match at the Aussie Cricket web site.

Is it an Urban Legend?

If it sounds incredible or too good to be true, it may just be an urban legend. Leo Laporte reckons that this is the ultimate Urban Legends Reference Page: ""

Some of the stories are quite amazing. It makes for interesting reading.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Foobar Snafu

Programmers have used "foo" and "bar" as variable names for years. I wonder how many realised that "foobar" is an acronym for Fu@ked Up Beyond All Repair. It was only when I watched "Saving Private Ryan" that I learned this. I guess my non-military career has kept me ignorant.
Today, courtesy of the Discovery Channel, I dicovered that "snafu" is also an acronym: Situation Normal: All Fu@ked Up. This is confirmed by the Webster On-Line Dictionary. Of course some say that the F-word comes from a mis-spelling of "Found Under Compromising Circumstances", referring to men caught in the paid company of prostitutes. Webster has other ideas on this touchy subject, and doesn't list foobar at all. Isn't the English language just filled with wonderful words?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Microsoft Says “Open Office is Just Fine”

When you decode all the spin in the article, this is what you get:
“It really depends upon what job you’re trying to do. Certainly, if you’re just trying to write a few notes or something, Open Office is just fine. The truth is though that Open is really designed to solve the problems that Microsoft focused on 10 years ago when the model was an individual user working at their individual PC,” says Alan Yates (General Manager, Information Worker Group at Microsoft - see photo).
“The world and Microsoft software has grown way beyond that to make it very easy to do what used to be very hard things. Most documents today are not done by one individual. They’re done by multiple people working on a project at once. Essentially, Open Office is fine if you have very limited needs because it was really designed around what Microsoft Office products were designed around 10 years ago.” That's spin for saying that the only people who are getting any value out of new versions of Microsoft Office are large corporate environments that have the technical resources and money to deploy all their "cool server features".
Now that Microsoft has taken my money (and spent it) for products I bought from them in the last 10 years, it's very nice of them to tell me that they won't support my product and more and I should upgrade to get more bloatware that I don't need in the vain hope that the parts that I do need have been made more reliable. I don't think so.
The only reason I don't use Open Office is because they don't have a decent database program, like Microsoft Access97. And the reason I haven't upgraded to a newer version of Office is that there are no amazingly new, stunningly wonderful features in Office 2000, 2002 or 2003 that justify the cost. And I was stung by the numerous bugs in the Access 2000 Runtime that forced me to go back to Access97 so the data wouldn't get corrupted. Also, Access 2003 doesn't run on Windows 98, which halves my client base.

Read all the Microsoft spin at Microsoft says Open 10 years behind