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Thursday, December 28, 2006
The knowledgeable and wise Peter Gutmann
(Department of Computer Science
, University of Auckland
, New Zealand) has posted a paper entitled “A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection
” which explores in detail the assorted “content protection” technologies mandated for computer hardware and device driver software by Windows Vista. If you have not been following this topic, you may be aghast at what is coming down the pike in the next generation of PCs designed to deliver “premium media content”. The details are so horrific and and depressing that I will not attempt to summarise them here; go read the article and keep in mind that most of the information therein is derived from the Microsoft documents cited at the end.
Apart from the consequences of this insanity for the reliability, performance, software and driver portability, and maintainability of the forthcoming products which will implement it, consider for a moment that if Microsoft are willing to go to such lengths to protect “content” owned by third parties (perhaps with the intent of “own[ing] the distribution channel” as Gutmann suggests in the “Final Thoughts” section), imagine what they will do with the complementary “trusted computing” technologies to defend their de facto
monopoly against “unlicensed operating systems” and other competition. One of the most common reactions to The Digital Imprimatur
was that the hardware-enforced end to end signatures I was proposing were paranoid, technically infeasible, and unacceptable to customers. But it is nothing
compared to what Vista appears to require.
What are those of us who use computers to compute
instead of passively consuming “premium media content” and games to do when the next generation of hardware essentially denies us the prerogatives of ownership of a machine we have purchased, and perhaps mandates the use of software which limits our access to the machine's full functionality? Maybe it's time to take a page from the survivalists' book and stockpile enough generic “white box” computers and spare parts of the last free generation to carry us through the Dark Times ahead. The more generic the components, the easier it will be to obtain spares on the used market should your own supply of spares of a given category be exhausted.
I would usually dismiss a suggestion like this as flaming paranoia, but it is difficult to read Gutmann's paper without concluding “they” are
out to get us, or at least undertaking to transform personal computers as we have come to know them into locked-down “content delivery platforms” filled with secrets inaccessible to their nominal owners.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Reading List: On Intelligence
- Hawkins, Jeff with Sandra Blakeslee.
New York: Times Books, 2004.
Ever since the early days of research into the sub-topic
of computer science which styles itself “artificial
intelligence”, such work has been criticised by philosophers,
biologists, and neuroscientists who argue that while
symbolic manipulation, database retrieval, and logical
computation may be able to mimic, to some limited extent,
the behaviour of an intelligent being, in no case does
the computer understand the problem it is solving
in the sense a human does. John R. Searle's
Room” thought experiment is one of the best known
and extensively debated of these criticisms, but there are many
others just as cogent and difficult to refute.
These days, criticising artificial intelligence verges on
hunting cows with a bazooka—unlike the early days
in the 1950s when everybody expected the world chess championship
to be held by a computer within five or ten years and mathematicians
were fretting over what they'd do with their lives once computers
learnt to discover and prove theorems thousands of times faster
than they, decades of hype, fads, disappointment, and broken promises
have instilled some sense of reality into the expectations
most technical people have for “AI”, if not into those
working in the field and those they bamboozle with the sixth
(or is it the sixteenth) generation of AI bafflegab.
AI researchers sometimes defend their field by saying “If it
works, it isn't AI”, by which they mean that as soon as a
difficult problem once considered within the domain of
artificial intelligence—optical character recognition,
playing chess at the grandmaster level, recognising faces in
a crowd—is solved, it's no longer considered AI but simply
another computer application, leaving AI with the remaining
unsolved problems. There is certainly some truth in this, but
a closer look gives lie to the claim that these problems, solved
with enormous effort on the part of numerous researchers, and
with the application, in most cases, of computing power undreamed
of in the early days of AI, actually represents “intelligence”,
or at least what one regards as intelligent behaviour on the part of
a living brain.
First of all, in no case did a computer “learn” how to
solve these problems in the way a human or other organism does; in
every case experts analysed the specific problem domain in great detail,
developed special-purpose solutions tailored to the problem, and then
implemented them on computing hardware which in no way resembles the
human brain. Further, each of these “successes” of AI
is useless outside its narrow scope of application: a chess-playing computer
cannot read handwriting, a speech recognition program cannot identify
faces, and a natural language query program cannot solve mathematical
“word problems” which pose no difficulty to fourth graders.
And while many of these programs are said to be “trained” by
presenting them with collections of stimuli and desired responses,
no amount of such training will permit, say, an optical character
recognition program to learn to write limericks. Such programs
can certainly be useful, but nothing other than the fact that they
solve problems which were once considered difficult in an age when
computers were much slower and had limited memory resources justifies
calling them “intelligent”, and outside the marketing
department, few people would remotely consider them so.
The subject of this ambitious book is not “artificial intelligence”
but intelligence: the real thing, as manifested in the higher
cognitive processes of the mammalian brain, embodied, by all
the evidence, in the neocortex. One of the most fascinating things
about the neocortex is how much a creature can do without one,
for only mammals have them. Reptiles, birds, amphibians,
fish, and even insects (which barely have a brain at all) exhibit
complex behaviour, perception of and interaction with their
environment, and adaptation to an extent which puts to shame the
much-vaunted products of “artificial intelligence”, and
yet they all do so without a neocortex at all. In this book, the author
hypothesises that the neocortex evolved in mammals as an add-on
to the old brain (essentially, what computer architects would call a
“bag hanging on the side of the old machine”) which
implements a multi-level hierarchical associative memory for patterns
and a complementary decoder from patterns to detailed low-level
behaviour which, wired through the old brain to the sensory inputs and
motor controls, dynamically learns spatial and temporal patterns and
uses them to make predictions which are fed back to the lower levels
of the hierarchy, which in turns signals whether further inputs
confirm or deny them. The ability of the high-level cortex to
correctly predict inputs is what we call “understanding”
and it is something which no computer program is presently capable of
doing in the general case.
Much of the recent and present-day work in neuroscience has been
devoted to imaging where the brain processes various kinds of
information. While fascinating and useful, these investigations may
overlook one of the most striking things about the neocortex: that
almost every part of it, whether devoted to vision, hearing,
touch, speech, or motion appears to have more or less the same
structure. This observation, by Vernon B. Mountcastle in 1978,
suggests there may be a common cortical algorithm by
which all of these seemingly disparate forms of processing
are done. Consider: by the time sensory inputs reach the brain,
they are all in the form of spikes transmitted by neurons, and all
outputs are sent in the same form, regardless of their ultimate
effect. Further, evidence of plasticity in the cortex is abundant:
in cases of damage, the brain seems to be able to re-wire itself to
transfer a function to a different region of the cortex. In a long
(70 page) chapter, the author presents a sketchy model of what
such a common cortical algorithm might be, and how it may be implemented
within the known physiological structure of the cortex.
The author is a founder of
Palm Computing and
Handspring (which was subsequently acquired by Palm).
He subsequently founded the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, which
has now become part of the
Helen Wills Neuroscience
Institute at the University of California, Berkeley,
and in March of 2005 founded
Numenta, Inc. with the
goal of developing computer memory systems based on the model
of the neocortex presented in this book.
Some academic scientists may sniff at the pretensions of a (very
successful) entrepreneur diving into their speciality and trying to
figure out how the brain works at a high level. But, hey, nobody
else seems to be doing it—the computer scientists are
hacking away at their monster programs and parallel machines, the
brain community seems stuck on functional imaging (like trying to
microprocessor in the nineteenth century by looking at its gross
chemical and electrical properties), and the neuron experts are off
dissecting squid: none of these seem likely to lead to an
understanding (there's that word again!) of what's actually going on
inside their own tenured, taxpayer-funded skulls. There is
undoubtedly much that is wrong in the author's speculations, but then
he admits that from the outset and, admirably, presents an appendix
containing eleven testable predictions, each of which can falsify all
or part of his theory. I've long suspected that intelligence has
more to do with memory
than computation, so I'll confess to being predisposed toward the
arguments presented here, but I'd be surprised if any reader didn't
find themselves thinking
about their own thought processes in a different way after reading this
book. You won't find the answers to the mysteries of the brain here,
but at least you'll discover many of the questions worth pondering,
and perhaps an idea or two worth exploring with the vast computing
power at the disposal of individuals today and the boundless resources
of data in all forms available on the Internet.
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Tom Swift in Captivity Now Online
The thirteenth episode in the Tom Swift adventures, Tom Swift in Captivity
, is now posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library
collection. As usual, HTML, PDF, PDA eReader, and plain ASCII text editions suitable for reading off- or online are available.
In this adventure, Tom, Ned Newton, Eradicate Sampson, and Wakefield (“bless my miscellany”) Damon are off to the Amazon in search of big game of a singular nature and end up making the acquaintance of a new member of the Swift household who will figure in subsequent adventures.
As usual, I have corrected typographical and formatting errors I spotted in this edition of the text, but have deferred close proofreading until I get around to reading the book on my PDA. Consequently, corrections from eagle-eyed readers are more than welcome. Please note the comments in the main Pocket Library page before reporting archaic spelling (for example, “gasolene”) as an error.
Friday, December 22, 2006
Reading List: The Captive Mind
- Milosz, Czeslaw.
The Captive Mind.
New York: Vintage, [1951, 1953, 1981] 1990.
This book is an illuminating exploration of life in a
totalitarian society, written by a poet and acute
observer of humanity who lived under two
of the tyrannies of the twentieth century and briefly
served one of them. The author was born in Lithuania
in 1911 and studied at the university in Vilnius, a
city he describes (p. 135) as “ruled in turn
by the Russians, Germans, Lithuanians, Poles, again the
Lithuanians, again the Germans, and again the
Russians”—and now again the Lithuanians.
An ethnic Pole, he settled in Warsaw after graduation,
and witnessed the partition of Poland between Nazi
Germany and the Soviet Union at the outbreak of World War II,
conquest and occupation by Germany, “liberation”
by the Red Army, and the imposition of Stalinist rule
under the tutelage of Moscow. After working with the
underground press during the war, the author initially
supported the “people's government”, even
serving as a cultural attaché at the Polish embassies
in Washington and Paris. As Stalinist terror descended upon
Poland and the rigid dialectical “Method” was
imposed upon intellectual life, he saw tyranny ascendant once
again and chose exile in the West, initially in Paris
and finally the U.S., where he became a professor at
the University of California at Berkeley in 1961—imagine,
an anti-communist at Berkeley!
In this book, he explores the various ways in which the human soul
comes to terms with a regime which denies its very existence. Four
long chapters explore the careers of four Polish writers he denotes as
“Alpha” through “Delta” and the choices they
made when faced with a system which offered them substantial material
rewards in return for conformity with a rigid system which put them at
the service of the State, working toward ends prescribed by the
“Center” (Moscow). He likens acceptance of this bargain
to swallowing a mythical happiness pill, which, by eliminating the
irritations of creativity, scepticism, and morality, guarantees those
who take it a tranquil place in a well-ordered society. In a
powerful chapter titled “Ketman”—a Persian word
denoting fervent protestations of faith by nonbelievers, not only in
the interest of self-preservation, but of feeling superior to those
they so easily deceive—Milosz describes how an entire population can
become actors who feign belief in an ideology and pretend to believe
the earnest affirmations of orthodoxy on the part of others while
sharing scorn for the few true believers.
The author received the 1980
Prize in Literature.
Monday, December 18, 2006
Linux: Remote backup bandwidth (dump/tar) to LTO3 tape over SSH depends critically upon block size
In getting ready to leave Fourmilab unattended while I'm out of town during the holiday season, I habitually make a site-wide backup tape which I take with me, “just in case”—hey, the first computer I ever used was at Case
! This was the first time I've made such backups since installing the new backup configuration
, so I expected there would be things to learn in the process, and indeed there were.
While routine backups at Fourmilab are done with Bacula
, for these cataclysm hedge offsite backups I use traditional utilities such as dump
because, in a post-apocalyptic scenario, it will be easier to do a “bare metal” restore from them. (The folks who consider their RAID arrays adequate backup have, in my opinion, little imagination and even less experience with Really Bad Days; not only do you want complete offsite backups on media with a 30 year lifetime, you want copies of them stored on at least three continents
in case of the occasional bad asteroid day.)
Anyway, this was the first time I went to make such a backup to the LTO Ultrium 3 drive on the new in-house server
. I used the same parameters I'd used before to back up over the network to the SDLT drive on the Sun server it replaced, and I was dismayed to discover that the transfer rate was a fraction of what I was used to, notwithstanding the fact that the LTO3 drive is much faster than the SDLT drive on the former server.
The only significant difference, apart from the tape drive, is that remote tape access to the old server went over rcmd
, while access to the new server is via ssh
. Before, I had used a block size in the dump of 64 Kb, as this was said to be universally portable. With this specification, I saw transfer rates on the order of 1300 kilobytes per second, at which rate it would take sixteen hours
to back up my development machine. Given that my departure time was only few hours more than that from the time I started the backup and that I had another backup to append to the tape, this was bad.
According to a cursory Web search, it appears that the most common recommendation for an optimum block size for LTO3 tape is 256 Kb. Now, if you read the manual page for dump
, there is a bit of fear that things may go horribly awry if you set the block size greater than 64 Kb, but I decided to give it a try and see what happened. What happened was glorious! The entire 40 Gb dump completed at an average rate of 4817 Kb/sec; this isn't as fast as Bacula, but considering that everything is going through an encrypted SSH pipeline it's entirely reasonable. The actual command I used to back up a typical file system is like this:
/sbin/dump -0u -b 256 -f server.ratburger.org:/dev/nst0 \
Should the need arise to restore from such a backup, it is essential that you specify the “-b 256
” option on the command line so that the block size of the dump will be honoured. I verified that I could restore files backed up with these parameters before using them to save other file systems.
Commands like this can be used to back up Unix file systems, but legacy file systems such as VFAT and NTFS partitions on dual-boot machines may have to be backed up using TAR. To back up an NTFS file system on my development machine which I mount with Linux-NTFS
, I use the following commands:
tar -c --rsh-command /usr/bin/ssh \
-f server.ratburger.org:/dev/nst0 -b 512 .
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Ship It: Lignières History Book Published
To my mind there are few phrases as satisfying as, when at the conclusion of a protracted, difficult, and exasperating development project the moment comes when you utter the magic words “ship it” and then step back to to await the reaction of the customers.
After four years of organising a foundation
, fundraising, identifying source documents
, recruiting more than thirty authors, photographing everything from a
forged Papal Bull
(“Papal bulls**t?”) dating from A.D.
1179 to the site where a German bomber crashed
in 1940 after violating Swiss airspace and being shot down by a Swiss Army Messerschmitt 109, today the first history published since 1801
of Lignières, Fourmilab's home village, shipped
to those who pre-ordered it. Lignières, un village aux confins de trois Etats
(ISBN 2-88256-166-X) grew, as many software development projects do, from a modest 160-odd pages to a total of 220, with 168 illustrations, 74 in colour. A DVD Video/ROM hybrid disc is attached to the back cover: if placed in a DVD Video player, a variety of films, both historical and produced expressly for this publication (including my own Les Quatre Saisons
) can be viewed. If the disc is loaded in a computer DVD-ROM drive, a large collection of original source documents for the book can be consulted: this is a history book which lets you “look under the hood” and examine the sources, many from obscure archives, which the historians used in writing the book.
The book was rolled out at a village meeting tonight: this picture shows only a portion of the audience, and recall that this is a village of less than a thousand residents! The photo was taken just after the unveiling of the restored
of the Hôtel de Commune
, which is visible to the left to the projection screen. You can click the close-up image at the left for an enlargement which shows the sign in all its re-gilded glory. Next spring it will take its place in the centre of the village where you can see it, almost a century before
(look to the left of the clock tower at the level of the first storey windows), in our Lignières: Then and Now
pages—next year the “now” photo will once again include this Lignières landmark!
If you type the ISBN number for this book into an Amazon search box, even at Amazon.fr, it will come up blank: Swiss high-end publishers are not indexed by Amazon, even though seemingly every vanity press and self-published screed in the U.S. is included in their database—go figure. If you're in Switzerland, it's easy to order this book; just visit the page
and click “[Commander]” If you're not, I'd suggest you fill out the order form and provide them contact information to arrange payment if you don't have access to the frighteningly efficient Swiss electronic payment system—perhaps a postal money order will work.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Reading List: Fab
- Gershenfeld, Neil.
New York: Basic Books, 2005.
Once, every decade or so, you encounter a book which empowers
you in ways you never imagined before you opened it, and
ultimately changes your life. This is one of those books.
I am who I am (not to sound too much like Popeye) largely
because in the fall of 1967 I happened to read Daniel McCracken's
FORTRAN book and realised that there was
nothing complicated at all about programming computers—it was a
vocational skill that anybody could learn, much like
operating a machine tool. (Of course, as you get deeper into the
craft, you discover there is a great body of theory to master, but
there's much you can accomplish if you're willing to work hard and
learn on the job before you tackle the more abstract aspects of the
art.) But this was not only something that I could do but,
more importantly, I could learn by doing—and that's how I decided
to spend the rest of my professional life and I've never regretted having
done so. I've never met a genuinely creative person who wished to
spend a nanosecond in a classroom downloading received wisdom at
dial-up modem bandwidth. In fact, I suspect the absence of such
people in the general population is due to the pernicious effects
of the Bismarck worker-bee indoctrination to which the youth of most
“developed” societies are subjected today.
We all know that, some day, society will pass through the nanotechnological
singularity, after which we'll be
immortal, and incalculably rich: hey—works for me! But few
people realise that if
the age of globalised mass production is analogous to that of
and if the
equivalent to today's personal supercomputer, we're already
in the equivalent of the minicomputer age of personal fabrication.
Remember minicomputers? Not too large, not too small, and hence difficult
to classify: too expensive for most people to buy, but within the
budget of groups far smaller than the governments and large
businesses who could afford mainframes.
The minicomputer age of personal fabrication is as messy as the
architecture of minicomputers of four decades before: there are lots
of different approaches, standards, interfaces, all mutually
incompatible: isn't innovation wonderful? Well, in this sense
But it's here, now. For a sum in the tens of
thousands of U.S. dollars, it is now possible to equip a
“Fab Lab” which can make “almost anything”.
Such a lab can fit into a modestly sized room, and, provided with
electrical power and an Internet connection, can empower whoever
crosses its threshold to create whatever their imagination can
conceive. In just a few minutes, their dream can become
tangible hardware in the real world.
The personal computer revolution empowered almost anybody (at least
in the developed world) to create whatever information processing
technology their minds could imagine, on their own, or in collaboration
with others. The Internet expanded the scope of this collaboration
and connectivity around the globe: people who have never met one another
are now working together to create software which will be used by
people who have never met the authors to everybody's mutual benefit. Well,
software is cool, but imagine if this extended to stuff. That's
what Fab is about. SourceForge
currently hosts more than 135,500 software development projects—imagine
what will happen when StuffForge.net (the name is still available, as I
type this sentence!) hosts millions of OpenStuff things you can
download to your local Fab Lab, make, and incorporate
into inventions of your own imagination. This is the grand roll-back of
the industrial revolution, the negation of globalisation: individuals,
all around the world, creating for themselves products tailored to their
own personal needs and those of their communities, drawing upon the freely
shared wisdom and experience of their peers around the globe. What a beautiful
world it will be!
Cynics will say, “Sure, it can work at MIT—you have one of the most
talented student bodies on the planet, supported by a faculty which excels in
almost every discipline, and an industrial plant with bleeding edge fabrication
technologies of all kinds.” Well, yes, it works there. But the most inspirational
thing about this book is that it seems to work everywhere: not just at MIT
but also in South Boston, rural India, Norway far north of the Arctic Circle,
Ghana, and Costa Rica—build it and they will make. At times the
author seems unduly amazed that folks without formal education and the advantages
of a student at MIT can imagine, design, fabricate, and apply a solution to
a problem in their own lives. But we're human beings—tool-making
primates who've prospered by figuring things out and finding ways to make
our lives easier by building tools. Is it so surprising that putting the
most modern tools into the hands of people who daily confront the most
fundamental problems of existence (access to clean water, food, energy, and
information) will yield innovations which surprise even professors at
This book is so great, and so inspiring, that I will give the author a
pass on his clueless attack on AutoCAD's (never attributed) DXF file
format on pp. 46–47, noting simply that the answer to why
it's called “DXF” is that Lotus had already used
“DIF” for their spreadsheet interchange files and
we didn't want to create confusion with their file format, and that
the reason there's more than one code for an X co-ordinate is that
many geometrical objects require more than one X co-ordinate to define them
The author also totally gets what I've been talking about
since Unicard and
even before that as “Gizmos”, that
every single device in the world, and every button on every
device will eventually have its own (IPv6) Internet address and be
able to interact with every other such object in every way that makes
sense. I envisioned MIDI networks as the cheapest way to implement
this bottom-feeder light-switch to light-bulb network; the author,
a decade later, opts for a PCM “Internet 0”—works for
me. The medium doesn't matter; it's that the message makes it end
to end so cheaply that you can ignore the cost of the interconnection
that ultimately matters.
The author closes the book with the invitation:
Finally, demand for fab labs as a research project, as a collection
of capabilities, as a network of facilities, and even as a technological
empowerment movement is growing beyond what can be handled by
the initial collection of people and institutional partners that were
involved in launching them. I/we welcome your thoughts on, and
participation in, shaping their future operational, organizational, and
Well, I am but a
programmer, but here's how I'd go about it. First of all, I'd create a
“Fabrication Trailer“ which could visit every community in the
United States, Canada, and Mexico; I'd send it out on the road in every
MIT vacation season to preach the evangel of “make” to every
community it visited. In, say, one of eighty of such communities, one would find
a person who dreamed of this happening in his or her lifetime who was empowered by
seeing it happen; provide them a template which, by writing a cheque, can
replicate the fab and watch it spread. And as it spreads, and creates
wealth, it will spawn other Fab Labs.
Then, after it's perfected in a couple of hundred North American
copies, design a Fab Lab that fits into an ocean cargo container and
can be shipped anywhere. If there isn't electricity and Internet
connectivity, also deliver the diesel generator or solar panels and
satellite dish. Drop these into places where they're most needed,
along with a wonk who can bootstrap the locals into doing things with
these tools which astound even those who created them. Humans are
clever, tool-making primates; give us the tools to realise what we
imagine and then stand back and watch what happens!
The legacy media bombard us with conflict, murder, and mayhem. But the
future is about creation and construction. What does
An Army of
Davids do when they turn their creativity and ingenuity toward
creating solutions to problems perceived and addressed by individuals?
Why, they'll call it a renaissance! And that's exactly what it will be.
For more information, visit the Web site of
The Center for Bits and Atoms
at MIT, which the author directs. Fab
Central provides links to Fab Labs around the world, the
machines they use, and the
open source software
tools you can download and start using today.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Applying Check Point FireWall-1 Hotfixes on a Nokia IP265 Network Appliance
The information in this item is so specialised it is probable that not a single regular reader of this chronicle will find it of interest. Why post it then? Because every time I publish such an item I receive feedback from people who found it with a search engine who write to thank me for pointing them to the solution of the obscure problem in question. That's why I try to give such items long titles with keywords to direct those searching for such information to them.)
Last year at about this time Fourmilab's firewall
was upgraded to dual redundant diskless Nokia IP265
network appliances which run Check Point FireWall-1
software. The two Nokia machines are configured as an active/backup high availability cluster using the Virtual Router Redundancy Protocol (VRRP)
so that if the active firewall fails, the backup, which constantly monitors its status and mirrors connection information, can take over without even dropping active TCP connections.
All of this worked pretty much as expected, but unfortunately I soon discovered a horrific bungle in the VRRP fail-over implementation. When the active firewall went down, the backup took over, then relinquished control back to the primary unit once it came back up: all well and good. But if you rebooted the backup
, the active
firewall would cease to forward traffic until the backup returned to service! The meant your entire “high availability” cluster and access to all of the machines behind it was vulnerable to the failure of the backup
firewall—what a mess!
After researching this problem for some time, I discovered that Check Point had issued a “hot fix” to correct a problem in which the reboot of a VRRP backup machine would send a bogus gratuitous ARP
packet which “could block cluster connectivity”; that certainly sounded like the problem I was having. Check Point periodically releases what they call “Hotfix Accumulators” which are like Sun's omnibus “rollup patches” for Solaris: a large collection of independent patches said to be mutually compatible which, together, constitute a minor release of the software to which they pertain. I downloaded the current such package, which was released in June of 2006 (although its documentation was most recently revised in mid-September 2006) and proceeded to try to install it first on the backup firewall, allowing the primary to remain in production so as not to disrupt access to the site.
Because the Nokia IP265 is a flash-based diskless machine, its file system structure is rather curious. It runs an operating system called IPSO, which is based on FreeBSD
, and the output of the “df -k
” command is as follows:
xl5[admin]# df -k
Filesystem 1K-blocks Used Avail Capacity Mounted on
/dev/wd0f 127151 40525 76454 35% /
v9fs 120224 41752 78472 35% /image/IPSO-3.8.1-BUILD028-12.02.2004-222502-1518/rfs
/dev/wd0a 31775 33 29200 0% /config
/dev/wd0h 317903 154047 138424 53% /preserve
procfs 4 4 0 100% /proc
v9fs 88712 10240 78472 12% /var
mfs:83 7607 0 6998 0% /var/tmp2/upgrade
v9fs 174448 95976 78472 55% /opt
The file systems on the various partitions of “/dev/wd0
” are stored in the non-volatile flash memory. At boot time, they are decompressed and copied into the RAM file systems from which the system runs; changes to the “v9fs
” file systems are lost at the next reboot. The Hotfix Accumulator I wished to install was 22.8 Mb GZIP
compressed. I decided to copy it to the volatile “/var
” file system, with about 80 Mb of free space, for installation. I copied it, decompressed and extracted the archive, and still had what I thought was plenty of free space on /var
How wrong I was. The process of installing one of these updates uses a huge
amount of intermediate storage, and the installation script does not bother to check whether there's enough space to complete the task before commencing it. Worse, when it does exhaust the free space on the file system, it just keeps blundering on, truncating files and destroying information, and then, as a final boot in the system administrator's face, reports that everything has completed successfuly.
When you reboot the firewall after this process, you begin to appreciate the extent of the damage. Essentially nothing works; your installation consists of about an equal mix of old, new, and truncated files, and since the backup files were lost in the disc full incident, you cannot even reverse the process to restore the status quo ante
. After surveying the wreckage, I decided the most expeditous course would be to restore the entire contents of the /preserve/opt/packages/installed
directory from the most recent backup. (If you haven't previously installed any patches, you can restore it from the “IPSO Wrapper” for the software version you're using.) After restoring the contents of this directory, I was able to reboot the backup firewall and have it resume its backup rôle running the old version.
For the next attempt, I decided to place the update files on the /preserve
file system, which is the largest on the machine. Copying them there filled this file system to the 50% level from a starting point of 37%,
but that still left far more free space than on /var
. The first attempt to install the patch failed, claiming that it was already installed. The first failed attempt had corrupted the registry (shudder
) and so I had to edit
and remove the two instances of:
left there by the failed installation before the update would apply successfully. During the installation I kept an eye on free space, and at the high-water mark /preserve
reached the white-knuckle level of 87% of capacity. But after the installation was complete, it dropped back to just a few percent above where it started.
After the installation was complete, I rebooted the backup firewall, halted the primary, and allowed the new version of the software on the backup to enter production. After a day with no problems, I repeated the process to install the update on the primary, restoring the site to a fully redundant configuration. After all of this I was almost afraid to try the obvious test of rebooting the backup to see if the problem which launched me on this adventure had, in fact. been fixed—I'm not sure I could have maintained my composure if all of this had been for nought. But, after all, system administrators are known more for their ill-tempered meat cleavers than even tempered composure, so I went ahead and rebooted the backup and, lo and behold, the problem had indeed been fixed (cue choirs of angels singing hallelujahs).
The lesson to take away from this is that when you're installing Check Point Hotfix Accumulators on a Nokia IP265, always place the update directory
on the /preserve
file system, not one of the others with less capacity. And, of course, be sure you have a complete, current backup of the entire machine (not just the configuration files backed up Nokia Voyager, which do not
include the critical package files modified by the Hotfix installation) before attempting the installation.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Reading List: Mercury
- Bova, Ben.
New York: Tor, 2005.
I hadn't read anything by
Ben Bova in years—certainly
not since 1990. I always used to think of him as a journeyman
science fiction writer, cranking out enjoyable stories mostly
toward the hard end of the science fiction spectrum, but not
a grand master of the calibre of, say, Heinlein, Clarke, and Niven.
His stint as editor of
was admirable, proving himself a worthy successor to John W. Campbell, who
developed the authors of the golden age of science
fiction. Bova is also a prolific essayist on science, writing, and
other topics, and his January 1965 Analog article
“It's Done with Mirrors” with William F. Dawson may have
been one of the earliest proposals of a multiply-connected
small universe cosmological model.
I don't read a lot of fiction these days, and tend to lose
track of authors, so when I came across this book in an
airport departure lounge and noticed it was published in
2005, my first reaction was, “Gosh, is he still writing?”
(Bova was born in 1932, and his first novel was published in
U.K. paperback edition was featured
in a “buy one, get one free” bin, so how could I
I ought to strengthen my resistance. This novel is so execrably bad
that several times in the process of reading it I was tempted to rip
it to bits and burn them to ensure nobody else would have to
suffer the experience. There is nothing whatsoever redeeming
about this book. The plot is a conventional love triangle/revenge
tale. The only thing that makes it science fiction at all is
that it's set in the future and involves bases on Mercury, space
elevators, and asteroid mining, but these are just backdrops for a
story which could take place anywhere. Notwithstanding the
title, which places it within the author's “Grand Tour”
series, only about half of the story takes place on Mercury,
whose particulars play only a small part.
Did I mention the writing? No, I guess I was trying to forget it.
Each character, even throw-away figures who appear only in a
single chapter, is introduced by a little sketch which reads
like something produced by filling out a form. For example,
Jacqueline Wexler was such an administrator. Gracious
and charming in public, accommodating and willing to
compromise at meetings, she nevertheless had the steel-hard
will and sharp intellect to drive the ICU's ramshackle
collection of egos toward goals that she herself selected.
Widely known as ‘Attila the Honey,’ Wexler
was all sweetness and smiles on the outside, and ruthless
After spending a third of page 70 on this paragraph, which makes my
teeth ache just to re-read, the formidable Ms. Wexler walks off stage
before the end of p. 71, never to re-appear. But fear not (or
fear), there are many, many more such paragraphs in
An Earth-based space elevator, a science fiction staple, is central
to the plot, and here Bova bungles the elementary science of
such a structure in a laugh-out-loud chapter in which the
three principal characters ride the elevator to a platform
located at the low Earth orbit altitude of 500 kilometres.
Upon arrival there, they find themselves weightless,
while in reality the force of gravity would be imperceptibly
less than on the surface of the Earth! Objects in orbit are
weightless because their horizontal velocity cancels Earth's
gravity, but a station at 500 kilometres is travelling only
at the speed of the Earth's rotation, which is less than
1/16 of orbital velocity. The only place on a space elevator
where weightlessness would be experienced is the portion
where orbital velocity equals Earth's rotation rate, and that
is at the anchor point at geosynchronous altitude. This is not
a small detail; it is central to the physics, engineering, and
economics of space elevators, and it figured prominently
in Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel
The Fountains of Paradise
which is alluded to here on p. 140.
Nor does Bova restrain himself from what is becoming a
science fiction cliché of the first magnitude:
“nano-magic”. This is my term for using the
“nano” prefix the way bad fantasy authors
use “magic”. For example, Lord Hacksalot
draws his sword and cuts down a mighty oak tree with a
single blow, smashing the wall of the evil prince's castle. The
editor says, “Look, you can't cut down an oak
tree with a single swing of a sword.” Author:
“But it's a magic sword.”
On p. 258 the principal character is traversing a
tether between two parts of a ship in the asteroid
belt which, for some reason, the author believes is
filled with deadly radiation. “With nothing
protecting him except the flimsy…suit, Bracknell felt like
a turkey wrapped in a plastic bag inside a microwave oven.
He knew that high-energy radiation was sleeting down on
him from the pale, distant Sun and still-more-distant stars.
He hoped that suit's radiation protection was as good as
the manufacturer claimed.” Imaginary editor (who
clearly never read this manuscript): “But the only
thing which can shield you from heavy primary cosmic rays
is mass, and lots of it. No ‘flimsy suit’
however it's made, can protect you against iron nuclei incoming
near the speed of light.” Author: “But it's a nano
Not only is the science wrong, the fiction is equally lame. Characters
simply don't behave as people do in the real world, nor are events and
their consequences plausible. We are expected to believe that the
causes of and blame for a technological catastrophe which killed millions
would be left to be decided by a criminal trial of a single individual
in Ecuador without any independent investigation. Or that a conspiracy
to cause said disaster involving a Japanese mega-corporation, two
mass religious movements, rogue nanotechnologists, and numerous
others could be organised, executed, and subsequently kept secret
for a decade. The dénouement
hinges on a coincidence so fantastically improbable that the
plausibility of the plot would be improved were the direct intervention
of God Almighty posited instead.
Whatever became of Ben Bova, whose science was scientific and whose
fiction was fun to read? It would be uncharitable to attribute this
waste of ink and paper to age, as many science fictioneers with far
more years on the clock have penned genuine classics. But
look at this! Researching the author's biography, I
discovered that in 1996, at the age of 64, he received a doctorate in
California Coast University,
a “distance learning” institution. Now, remember back
when you were in engineering school struggling with thermogoddamics
and fluid mechanics how you regarded the student body of the Ed
school? Well, I always assumed it was a selection effect—those
who can do, and those who can't…anyway, it never occurred to me that
somewhere in that dark, lowering building they had a nano
brain mushifier which turned the earnest students who wished to
dedicate their careers to educating the next generation into the
cognitively challenged classes they graduated. I used to look forward
to reading anything by Ben Bova; I shall, however, forgo
further works by the present Doctor of Education.
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
Computing: Feedback Form Updated
I have just posted version 1.1 of the Fourmilab Feedback Form
, which has been in production test since last week. Since no problems have been noted, either by users sending feedback or from scrutiny of the Web server error log, I'm releasing the source code for folks who wish to install it on their own sites, along with the corresponding documentation update.
Although the documentation for the feedback form was updated to XHTML 1.0 some time ago, the form itself, its confirmation and error messages, and (if configured) the HTML mail it sent remained sloppy old HTML 3.2. The new version generates XHTML 1.0 (Transitional) for all of these documents, and all have been validated for compliance by the W3C Markup Validator
In addition, a few potential “HTML injection” vulnerabilities have been corrected. These are circumstances in
which a clever (or in some cases, brow-ridged knuckle-walking obvious) use of HTML mark-up in user-specified input could pass through to the HTML returned to the user or sent in HTML mail to the designated recipient of the feedback. This can create what is called a “cross-site scripting” vulnerability, but, since in this case users can only send the injected HTML back to themselves or the unspecified address to which the feedback is sent, the potential damage was limited compared to the general case. Still, 'twere better fixed, and 'tis this very day.
Although the documentation was already in XHTML 1.0, it now uses CSS for more of the presentation specifications, and Unicode entities for special characters such as opening and closing quotes and dashes.
Sunday, December 3, 2006
Wretched Excess: Blue LED Christmas Tree
I'm on record as saying, several years ago, that the high intensity blue LED is the
design cliché of the oughties. No matter
where you look, there's one of these short-wavelength eyes glaring at you: from your Web server, firewall, television, or toaster; you may sleep—but these unblinking LEDs do not.
A couple of years ago I encouraged folks to migrate from irritating series-string incandescent Christmas lights to the coruscating, actinic, partially nuclear-powered lights
which grace Fourmilab's windows from Advent through the New Year. But little did I imagine it would come to this….
This twelve metre Christmas tree outside a shopping centre down the hill from Fourmilab is decorated exclusively
with high-intensity blue LEDs. Note how directional they are—the few which happen to be pointed directly at the camera appear much more intense than those just a few degrees off axis. This is apparent with my own LED strings, but I hope to mitigate the effect in this year's display by dipping the LEDs in beer and Epsom salt (really!).
And I will never, ever, use blue LEDs, although I reserve the right to deploy high intensity red and green emitters in creative ways along with the
Saturday, December 2, 2006
Safetyland: New Frontiers in Cosmetics
CNN.com recently posted an article from Reuters entitled “Americans: 60's are the new middle age
”. According to the last two paragraphs:
French beauty group Clarins will launch in January what it says is the world's first spray to protect skin from the electromagnetic radiation created by mobile phones and electronic devices such as laptops.
It says the spray contains molecules derived from microorganisms living near undersea volcanoes and from plants which survive in extreme conditions such as alongside motorways and in Siberia.
Wow—what a concept
. I wonder if I can beat them to the filing window with a patent application on conductive hair-spray which eliminates the need to wear a tin-foil hat
Friday, December 1, 2006
Reading List: The Plot Against America
- Roth, Philip.
The Plot Against America.
New York: Vintage, 2004.
Pulitzer Prize-winning mainstream novelist
Roth turns to alternative history in this novel, which also falls
into the genre
pioneered and named
“transreal”—autobiographical fiction, in
which the author (or a character clearly based upon him) plays a major
part in the story. Here, the story is told in the first person by the
author, as a reminiscence of his boyhood in the early 1940s in Newark,
New Jersey. In this timeline, however, after a deadlocked convention,
the Republican party chooses Charles Lindbergh as its 1940
presidential candidate who, running on an isolationist platform of
“Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war”, defeats FDR's bid
for a third term in a landslide.
After taking office, Lindbergh's tilt toward the Axis becomes
increasingly evident. He appoints the virulently anti-Semitic
Henry Ford as Secretary of the Interior, flies to Iceland to
sign a pact with Hitler, and a concludes a treaty with Japan
which accepts all its Asian conquests so far. Further, he
cuts off all assistance to Britain and the USSR. On the
domestic front, his Office of American Absorption begins
encouraging “urban” children (almost all of
whom happen to be Jewish) to spend their summers on farms
in the “heartland” imbibing “American
values”, and later escalates to “encouraging”
the migration of entire families (who happen to be Jewish) to
All of this, and its many consequences, ranging from trivial
to tragic, are seen through the eyes of young Philip Roth,
perceived as a young boy would who was living through all of
this and trying to make sense of it. A number of anecdotes have
nothing to do with the alternative history story line and may
be purely autobiographical. This is a “mood
novel” and not remotely a thriller; the pace of the
story-telling is languid, evoking the time sense and feeling
of living in the present of a young boy. As alternative
history, I found a number of aspects implausible and
unpersuasive. Most exemplars of the genre choose one specific
event at which the story departs from recorded history, then
spin out the ramifications of that event as the story
develops. For example, in 1945 by Newt Gingrich and William
Forstchen, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany does not
declare war on the United States, which only goes to war
against Japan. In Roth's book, the point of divergence is
simply the nomination of Lindbergh for president. Now, in the
real election of 1940, FDR defeated Wendell Willkie by 449
electoral votes to 82, with the Republican carrying only 10 of
the 48 states. But here, with Lindbergh as the nominee, we're
supposed to believe that FDR would lose in forty-six
states, carrying only his home state of New York and squeaking
to a narrow win in Maryland. This seems highly implausible to
me—Lindbergh's agitation on behalf of America First made
him a highly polarising figure, and his apparent sympathy for
Nazi Germany (in 1938 he accepted a gold medal decorated with
four swastikas from Hermann Göring in
Berlin) made him anathema in much of the media. All of these
negatives would have been pounded home by the Democrats, who
had firm control of the House and Senate as well as the White
House, and all the advantages of incumbency. Turning a 38
state landslide into a 46 state wipeout simply by changing the
Republican nominee stretches suspension of disbelief to the
limit, at least for this reader, especially as Americans
are historically disinclined to
to the presidency.
If you accept this premise, then most of what follows is
reasonably plausible and the descent of the country into
a folksy all-American kind of fascism is artfully told.
But then something very odd happens. As events are unfolding
at their rather leisurely pace, on page 317 it's like the
author realised he was about to run out of typewriter ribbon or
something, and the whole thing gets wrapped up in ten
pages, most of which is an unconfirmed account by one of
the characters of behind-the-scenes events which may or may not explain
everything, and then there's a final chapter to sort out the
personal details. This left me feeling like
Charlie Brown when Lucy snatches away the football;
either the novel should be longer, or else the
pace of the whole thing should be faster rather
than this whiplash-inducing discontinuity right
before the end—but who am I to give
advice to somebody with a Pulitzer?
A postscript provides real-world biographies of the many
historical figures who appear in the novel, and the
complete text of Lindbergh's September 1941
Moines speech to the America First Committee which documents
his contemporary sentiments for readers who are unaware of this
unsavoury part of his career.