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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Apple/iTunes: New Downloads OK, Broken Downloads Still Fail

Not long ago I wrote about Apple's most recent dagger in the back of their customers with the temerity to attempt to play downloaded iTunes Store video content on “fifth generation” iPods still in warranty. In that article I said that as a consequence of that betrayal, I would never again give Apple any of my business. But I had already purchased “season passes” for two series, which download new episodes automatically pursuant to a purchase made before the disaster, so even though I'm not sending them any more money, these files automatically arrive on those instances I soil my machine by booting into Windows XP.

Last week-end I booted the legacy operating system and launched iTunes, and two new episodes for series I had previously purchased downloaded. After being transferred to the iPod, they played correctly, while the previously downloaded defective videos continued to fail. I used the “Contact Us” form in iTunes to request refunds for the defective episodes (specifying the series, episode, and order number for each). The next day I received a reply which stated:

John, I am happy to tell you that this issue has now been resolved, so I have posted these 2 episodes back to your account to download again.
I then booted the system back down into Windows XP and within iTunes deleted the two defective episodes (because I wasn't sure what would happen if I tried to download purchased videos which were already in the local library). When I subsequently performed a “Check for Purchases”, the replacement programs downloaded and, after transfer to the iPod, played correctly.

This problem is, then, as far as I'm concerned, resolved. But while I shall continue to download material for which I have already paid, I still do not intend to make any additional purchases from iTunes. Two consecutive bootprints in the face suffice: from now on I'll just buy the DVDs when they come out—some patience is required, but at least they don't randomly stop working when some Apple coder flubs an update.

Posted at 22:54 Permalink

Friday, April 25, 2008

What's wrong with this picture?

Click image for real-time views from the
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory at the Earth-Sun L1 point.

The last 11-year sunspot reached minimum about a year ago, in March 2007. (Here's what the Sun looks like near maximum.) Since then there have only been a few, very small, isolated sunspots: far fewer than would be expected a year into a new cycle.

The deepest minimum in the Little Ice Age, 1645–1715, coincided with the Maunder Minimum, a period of extremely low solar activity, suggesting, along with other evidence, that solar activity is correlated with terrestrial climate, with low sunspot counts associated with periods of global cooling.

Writing in The Australian, Phil Chapman notes that the apparent rapid temperature decline in 2007 is aligned with the delayed onset of the expected next sunspot cycle and sketches the possible consequences if what we're observing is indeed the onset of another Little Ice Age or even a Big One.

Posted at 21:42 Permalink

Friday, April 18, 2008

Reading List: What Britain Has Done

Ministry of Information. What Britain Has Done. London: Atlantic Books, [1945] 2007. ISBN 978-1-84354-680-1.
Here is government propaganda produced by the organisation upon which George Orwell (who worked there in World War II) based the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. This slim volume (126 pages in this edition) was originally published in May of 1945, after the surrender of Germany, but with the war against Japan still underway. (Although there are references to Germany's capitulation, some chapters appear to have been written before the end of the war in Europe.)

The book is addressed to residents of the United Kingdom, and seeks to show how important their contributions were to the overall war effort, seemingly to dispel the notion that the U.S. and Soviet Union bore the brunt of the effort. To that end, it is as craftily constructed a piece of propaganda as you're likely to encounter. While subtitled “1939–1945: A Selection of Outstanding Facts and Figures”, it might equally as well be described as “Total War: Artfully Chosen Factoids”. Here is an extract from pp. 34–35 to give you a flavour.

Between September 1939 and February 1943, HM Destroyer Forester steamed 200,000 miles, a distance equal to nine times round the world.

In a single year the corvette Jonquil steamed a distance equivalent to more than three times round the world.

In one year and four months HM Destroyer Wolfhound steamed over 50,000 miles and convoyed 3,000 ships.

The message of British triumphalism is conveyed in part by omission: you will find only the barest hints in this narrative of the disasters of Britain's early efforts in the war, the cataclysmic conflict on the Eastern front, or the Pacific war waged by the United States against Japan. (On the other hand, the title is “What Britain Has Done”, so one might argue that tasks which Britain either didn't do or failed to accomplish do not belong here.) But this is not history, but propaganda, and as the latter it is a masterpiece. (Churchill's history, The Second World War, although placing Britain at the centre of the story, treats all of these topics candidly, except those relating to matters still secret, such as the breaking of German codes during the war.)

This reprint edition includes a new introduction which puts the document into historical perspective and seven maps which illustrate operations in various theatres of the war.

Posted at 23:27 Permalink

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The “You know” Report: Philadelphia Democratic Debate

They're baaaack! Last night Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama met for a debate in Philadelphia hosted by ABC News. As usual, I scanned the transcript posted at Real Clear Politics to count the number of times each candidate “told me what I already know”. Here are the results:

  Clinton     Obama  
 “You know”s  49 18

Obama has cut his total almost in half from that of the last outing, but Clinton continues to blaze along at a one a minute rate.

Posted at 17:31 Permalink

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Reading List: Challenge to Apollo

Siddiqi, Asif A. Challenge to Apollo. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2000. NASA SP-2000-4408.
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, accounts of the Soviet space program were a mix of legend, propaganda, speculations by Western analysts, all based upon a scanty collection of documented facts. The 1990s saw a wealth of previously secret information come to light (although many primary sources remain unavailable), making it possible for the first time to write an authoritative scholarly history of Soviet space exploration from the end of World War II through the mid-1970s; this book, published by the NASA History Division in 2000, is that history.

Whew! Many readers are likely to find that reading this massive (1011 7×14 cm pages, 1.9 kg) book cover to cover tells them far, far more about the Soviet space effort than they ever wanted to know. I bought the book from the U.S. Government Printing Office when it was published in 2000 and have been using it as a reference since then, but decided finally, as the bloggers say, to “read the whole thing”. It was a chore (it took me almost three weeks to chew through it), but ultimately rewarding and enlightening.

Back in the 1960s, when observers in the West pointed out the failure of the communist system to feed its own people or provide them with the most basic necessities, apologists would point to the successes of the Soviet space program as evidence that central planning and national mobilisation in a military-like fashion could accomplish great tasks more efficiently than the chaotic, consumer-driven market economies of the West. Indeed, with the first satellite, the first man in space, long duration piloted flights, two simultaneous piloted missions, the first spacecraft with a crew of more than one, and the first spacewalk, the Soviets racked up an impressive list of firsts. The achievements were real, but based upon what we now know from documents released in the post-Soviet era which form the foundation of this history, the interpretation of these events in the West was a stunning propaganda success by the Soviet Union backed by remarkably little substance.

Indeed, in the 1945–1974 time period covered here, one might almost say that the Soviet Union never actually had a space program at all, in the sense one uses those words to describe the contemporary activities of NASA. The early Soviet space achievements were all spin-offs of ballistic missile technology driven by Army artillery officers become rocket men. Space projects, and especially piloted flight, interested the military very little, and the space spectaculars were sold to senior political figures for their propaganda value, especially after the unanticipated impact of Sputnik on world opinion. But there was never a roadmap for the progressive development of space capability, such as NASA had for projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Instead, in most cases, it was only after a public success that designers and politicians would begin to think of what they could do next to top that.

Not only did this supposedly centrally planned economy not have a plan, the execution of its space projects was anything but centralised. Throughout the 1960s, there were constant battles among independent design bureaux run by autocratic chief designers, each angling for political support and funding at the expense of the others. The absurdity of this is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that on November 17th, 1967, six days after the first flight of NASA's Saturn V, the Central Committee issued a decree giving the go-ahead to the Chelomey design bureau to develop the UR-700 booster and LK-700 lunar spacecraft to land two cosmonauts on the Moon, notwithstanding having already spent millions of rubles on Korolev's already-underway N1-L3 project, which had not yet performed its first test flight. Thus, while NASA was checking off items in its Apollo schedule, developed years before, the Soviet Union, spending less than half of NASA's budget, found itself committed to two completely independent and incompatible lunar landing programs, with a piloted circumlunar project based on still different hardware simultaneously under development (p. 645).

The catastrophes which ensued from this chaotic situation are well documented, as well as how effective the Soviets were in concealing all of this from analysts in the West. Numerous “out there” proposed projects are described, including Chelomey's monster UR-700M booster (45 million pounds of liftoff thrust, compared to 7.5 million for the Saturn V), which would send a crew of two cosmonauts on a two-year flyby of Mars in an MK-700 spacecraft with a single launch. The little-known Soviet spaceplane projects are documented in detail.

This book is written in the same style as NASA's own institutional histories, which is to say that much of it is heroically boring and dry as the lunar regolith. Unless you're really into reorganisations, priority shifts, power grabs, and other manifestations of gigantic bureaucracies doing what they do best, you may find this tedious. This is not the fault of the author, but of the material he so assiduously presents. Regrettably, the text is set in a light sans-serif font in which (at least to my eyes) the letter “l” and the digit “1” are indistinguishable, and differ from the letter “I” in a detail I can spot only with a magnifier. This, in a book bristling with near-meaningless Soviet institutional names such as the Ministry of General Machine Building and impenetrable acronyms such as NII-1, TsKBEM (not to be confused with TsKBM) and 11F615, only compounds the reader's confusion. There are a few typographical errors, but none are serious.

This NASA publication was never assigned an ISBN, so looking it up on online booksellers will generally only find used copies. You can order new copies from the NASA Information Center at US$79 each. As with all NASA publications, the work is in the public domain, and a scanned online edition (PDF) is available. This is a 64 megabyte download, so unless you have a fast Internet connection, you'll need to be patient. Be sure to download it to a local file as opposed to viewing it in your browser, because otherwise you'll have to download the whole thing each time you open the document.

Posted at 22:53 Permalink

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Apple/iTunes: One Betrayal Too Many

Some time ago I wrote of an egregious betrayal of customers on the part of Apple, who disabled, for more than two weeks, sound from video purchased from the iTunes Store for customers attempting to play their purchased content on Windows XP machines.

Well, Apple's contempt for their customers doesn't seem to have ended there. Yesterday, having purchased a “season pass” for the current season of “South Park”, I booted my machine into Windows XP in order to download the latest episode. Having done so (along with another episode of a program to which I subscribe), I downloaded them to my fifth-generation video iPod, with the intention of playing them at my convenience after I'd restored my computer to a user-oriented operating system.

Later, I tried to play the recently-downloaded videos: nothing doing—in each case, after starting to play the video, the screen went blank and after ten to twenty seconds the program selection menu reappeared. Note that there was never, in the process of downloading, transfer to the iPod, nor in the attempt to play the video on the iPod, any indication of a digital rights management (DRM) or authorisation problem. The odd thing is that all videos previously downloaded, including episodes of the two programs I'd just updated, continued to play perfectly—obviously this was something specific to the newly downloaded episodes.

After exhausting all of the obvious expedients the folks in the offshore call centre would suggest in order to make their customers go away (resetting the iPod, trying it without the docking connector attached, standing on my head and breathing through my ears whilst pressing the “Play” button with my left little toe), I booted the machine back into Windows XP, whence I verified that all of the software versions involved were current: iTunes 7.6.2, QuickTime 7.4.5, iPod video 1.3. I then verified that the recently-downloaded videos which wouldn't play on the iPod indeed played just fine when launched from iTunes under Windows XP, which excludes any kind of download or DRM authorisation problem. I then, anticipating the all-purpose answer, “restored” the iPod (where “restore” means “wipe the hard drive and reload from the PC archive”). An hour and a half later, when this process was complete, I was precisely back where I began. All content purchased from the iTunes store prior to 2008-04-13 played fine on the iPod, but subsequent purchases resulted in a black screen “Duh”. If you visit the Apple support forum, it's apparent that this problem is widespread.


So far, I have been reasonably tolerant of digital rights management and proprietary platforms which implement it, because I believe that actors in the market should be free to adopt whatever business model they believe best serves their customers and shareholders. I continue to believe that, but based upon my recent experiences with Apple, I no longer think that they can be entrusted with control over content purchased by their customers, and consequently, I shall never purchase anything from them again.

Update: Fixed, at least for me. (2008-04-29 20:54 UTC)

Posted at 00:50 Permalink

Monday, April 14, 2008

The “You know” Report: “Compassion Forum”

Just when you thought the eternal campaign for the presidency of the United States couldn't get any more absurd, the two contenders for the Democratic nomination appeared yesterday at Messiah College in Pennsylvania for a “Compassion Forum”, broadcast live on CNN. As always, Fourmilog was there—well, not there—but rather here, sorting through the transcripts of the appearances of Clinton and Obama (courtesy of Real Clear Politics) to count the number of inarticulate “you know”s these politicians sprinkled into their remarks. And the answer is…

  Clinton     Obama  
 “You know”s  53 34

That's a stunning total of 87 in a 90 minute event, or more than one every sixty seconds the candidates were speaking, when you consider time taken by questions, breaks, etc. Are these people running to be president of the U.S., or president of their junior high class?

There are headlines today about “Clinton Opens Up Twenty Point Lead in Pennsylvania”. I don't know about the voters, but she's certainly doing so in the “you know” contest.

Posted at 19:33 Permalink

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Jim Kent Visits Fourmilab

Jim Kent Visits Fourmilab

Jim Kent, creator of Autodesk Animator, visited Fourmilab last Thursday. After becoming, like myself, disenchanted with Windows software development in the mid-1990s, he turned his interests toward biology, eventually earning a Ph.D from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he is presently co-director of the UCSC Genome Browser project.

We talked barely at all about old times, because new times are so fascinating, especially in his field. I had not previously heard, for example, that analysis of the mouse genome has shown that much of the DNA repair mechanism present in mammals with a longer lifespan is “in wreckage” in the mouse, and that consequently tests of substances for mutagenic and carcinogenic effects in mice may have only dubious relevance to their effects in humans. (If you think about it, this makes sense—in an animal with such a short lifespan, the benefits of highly effective DNA repair are limited, and evolution is unlikely to conserve something which doesn't provide a selective advantage.)

Posted at 04:43 Permalink

Thursday, April 10, 2008

From 1940: Workforce migration from the service sector to manufacturing

If the embedded player doesn't work, please visit this page.

Hat tip: John Nagle of SiteTruth. This video is in the public domain and hosted at the Internet Archive as part of the Prelinger Archives collection.

Posted at 22:41 Permalink

Monday, April 7, 2008

Lamest phish in the pond

Some “phishing” messages (junk E-mail scams attempting to steal recipients' identity by posing as messages from financial and other institutions with which an individual may have an account) are devilishly clever and may slip past even reasonably cautious and knowledgeable Internet users. Then there are those like the following, which came to hand today. (I have re-wrapped some of the header lines to avoid truncation and redacted information relating to Fourmilab's internal network structure.)

From alerts@citibank.com Mon Apr  7 15:53:31 2008
Received: from (REDACTED.fourmilab.ch
        (REDACTED.fourmilab.ch [193.8.230.REDACTED])
	by REDACTED.fourmilab.ch (
        with ESMTP id m37DpLsL013651
	for <REDACTED@REDACTED.fourmilab.ch>; Mon, 7 Apr 2008 15:53:31 +0200
Received: from exch5.aclu.org (smtp03.aclu.org [])
	by REDACTED.fourmilab.ch (
        with ESMTP id m37Dngmt028960
	for <REDACTED@fourmilab.ch>;
        Mon, 7 Apr 2008 15:51:19 +0200
Received: from NYEXFE02.aclu.org ([]) by
         exch5.aclu.org with Microsoft SMTPSVC(6.0.3790.1830);
	 Mon, 7 Apr 2008 09:21:37 -0400
Received: from User ([]) by NYEXFE02.aclu.org
         with Microsoft SMTPSVC(6.0.3790.3959);
	 Mon, 7 Apr 2008 09:21:36 -0400
From: "Citibank.com"<alerts@citibank.com>
Subject: To many wrong attemps
Date: Mon, 7 Apr 2008 16:23:34 +0300
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: text/plain;
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit
X-Priority: 1
X-MSMail-Priority: High
X-Mailer: Microsoft Outlook Express 6.00.2600.0000
X-MimeOLE: Produced By Microsoft MimeOLE V6.00.2600.0000
Message-ID: <NYEXFE02md1UtYj7XGe000012db@NYEXFE02.aclu.org>
X-OriginalArrivalTime: 07 Apr 2008 13:21:37.0306 (UTC) 

Because you have to many wrong attemps on your Citibank online banking,
we had to put your account on hold.

Account Status: Blocked

We ask you to complete as soon as possible our security steps 
which will reactivate your online banking.
To do this please follow the link bellow :


After this steps are complete you will be contacted by phone
in 3 days by a citibank representative.

Now, of course, in junk mail you can't assume that anything in the headers which wasn't put there by your own servers has not been forged. The originating IP address (assuming it is not bogus) belongs to an IP block in Romania. I shall be charitable and assume that the intermediate routing via the American Civil Liberties Union was forged, and that their definition of “civil liberties” does not extend to criminal fraud committed in the interest of identity theft. (A cursory test of one of their mail servers with the mail relay test page at abuse.net shows it as secure against external relays.)

I would usually black out the deliciously-misspelled scam site to which the message attempts to direct the recipient, but as the domain had already been pulled by the time I received the message, I'm leaving it in for your amusement. Ain't it great, living in a slum?

Posted at 19:29 Permalink

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Physics: Relativity in Six Minutes

Here's special and general relativity summarised in a six minute music video by Flora Lopis and Max Tegmark.

Get your own valid XHTML YouTube embed code

The print edition gives the lyrics and background information.

Posted at 15:01 Permalink