Technerd Things

May 17th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

This afternoon, I went to the Apple Store in search of the newly-released MacBooks, and the newly-updated MacBook Pros. Neither was to be found at the SoHo store, which was unexpected, since it’s Apple’s flagship store. That said, the new, snazzy, 5th Avenue Apple Store will open this Friday, so perhaps I’ll be able to find a MacBook to mess with there.

I’m not really in the market for a new laptop right this second, but I’m curious about what the new “glossy display” is on the latest models from Apple. I may end up picking up a new machine in preparation for the fall, since I’m tired of dragging around my aging HP Pavilion zv5000, which now has a dead PCMCIA slot.

In other personal technology news, I got a hand-me-down Treo 600 at work yesterday. It was discarded by my boss, who said the touchscreen didn’t seem to be working. It seemed that the screen was working, just the coordinates were off when you tapped the screen, sometimes by enough where tapping the screen wouldn’t register as anything at all. A quick look at the PalmOne support page suggested that debris trapped at the edge of the screen might be to blame. I used a can of compressed gas to spray around the plastic frame. Lo and behold, the touchscreen worked like new.

The disadvantage is that it’s a Verizon-branded unit, and I have T-Mobile service. This presents two problems. First, the device is CDMA, not GSM, so as it stands at the moment, it is not even capable of connecting to the T-Mobile network. Secondly, the unit is “locked” to the Verizon network.

The first problem, I hope, might be solved by grabbing a broken GSM Treo 600 off eBay or Craigslist, and swapping out the onboard cellphone module. I cracked the phone open this evening, and it seemed like replacing the right part wouldn’t be too difficult. Pictures of the GSM innards on eBay seem to indicate a spot for a standard SIM card, so hopefully I should be able to plug in my old card and have it connect to T-Mobile.

The second problem should be easier to solve. I managed to track down a hacked version of the PalmOS ROM which unlocks the phone. Unfortunately, I can’t “test” the ROM on the phone as it stands right now. The Application gives me an error message, saying it is only for GSM phones.

In the meantime, though, having a mobile device that syncs with my iCal at work is handy. I’m generally impressed with the unit, though it lacks the snazzier features of the Treo 650 and 700, most notably Bluetooth and WiFi.

“Gobbledegook”

May 9th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Because I mentioned a related matter here yesterday, I thought I should link to this:
Networking Pipeline: Judge Chides FCC For CALEA Expansion

The expansion of CALEA for this purpose is patently ridiculous. According to conversations with my coworkers, at least one of whom is extremely knowledgeable about CALEA, the expansive interpretation of the statute sought by the FCC would require all intranet communications to be “tappable”. But, wait, there’s more! Not only does the FCC want all communications to be available to law enforcement on a whim (which, while requiring a large amount of network redesign, is technologically possible), they would like an individual person’s communications to be “tracked”. That is, the wiretap would follow the user from computer to computer. There is no technical way to accomplish this, though of course, the 800-pound gorilla of the corporate IT security world, VeriSign, thinks it is. Yeah, right.

More reading:
EFF: CALEA

School Lunch Project

May 9th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

This evening, I watched the first two episodes of Jamie Oliver’s School Lunch Project on TLC, which is the American-redubbed version of “Jamie’s School Dinners”. The documentary follows Jamie Oliver’s quest to improve the meals available in British schools. Having spent six years in British state schools, I can personally attest to the generally horrendous quality of food available. At the time, I wondered how it might get any worse. When I ate my first school lunch in the United States, I found out. American school lunches made their British counterparts look like a three-course meal at the Ritz.
In, School Lunch Project Jamie identifies two core problems:

  1. Healthy food is not a readily available option in schools. When it is an option, students will opt not to take it, preferring the unhealthy food they have become accustomed to.
  2. Healthy food is not an option in the home for many students. Having no exposure to good food, kids dismiss any alternatives to junk food out of hand.

In short, as Oliver himself puts it, there is no “food culture” amongst most kids, driven partially by economic reasons and partially by poor understanding by parents and their kids. He takes a two-pronged approach to the problem. First by taking the effort to stretch a meager 37p-per-student budget as far as it will go, buying fresh, quality ingredients, and second, by attempting to educate the students he comes into contact with about food choice. The latter seems to be by far the biggest challenge, especially for the older students who have become deeply entrenched in their poor eating habits. By the third episode, apparently, pupils at the London school Oliver uses as a testbed end up “rebelling” against their new lunchtime diet.

When I was in the UK in Spring 2005, the show was just ending its run in the UK, and public interest in the subject at the time was at fever pitch. I didn’t get a chance to see the show at the time, so I didn’t get much of an appreciation for the remarkable result of a four-part series. Around that time, as a direct result of School Lunch Project, the British government had just increased the budget for school meals significantly, and–equally important–recognized the lack of nutritional content in school meals as a major problem. I see School Lunch Project as a victory on several levels.

First and foremost, that one (admittedly famous and noteworthy) campaigner can make a real difference in the public discourse, and that power is increased withthe addition of more campaigners. The “Feed Me Better” campaign that sprang out of the television show garnered over a quarter of a million signatures on a petition delivered to Downing Street.

Secondly, School Lunch Project shone a light on, and made everyone stare at the critical health problem overshadowing America and Britian (and probably other parts of Europe, too): we’re fat. America, in particular, has a skyrocketing obesity rate, and very little is being done about it beyond a few Oprah TV specials and the odd PSA campaign. School food is still poor. Students are rarely, if ever, taught how to prepare a healthy meal. And by “taught to prepare”, I don’t mean fill in a few worksheets and memorize the USDA Food Pyramid. I mean, actually be taught to prepare, from scratch, using real ingredients, a healthy meal. I suggest that it is a cheaper option to invest in education now, rather than to pay the cost in public health decades from now. I also suggest that since, as Jamie Oliver demonstrates, the food culture within the home itself can be just as nonexistent as it currently is in school, students should be taught about preparing quality food at school, rather than dismissing the subject and leaving it up to parents.

Thirdly, School Lunch Project is a fine example of the power of independent media. The original series was produced and broadcast by Channel Four, one of Britain’s three commercial terrestrial TV networks. My guess (though I have no evidence to support my hypothesis), is that the distance between Channel Four and the government of the day allowed Jamie Oliver to editorialize freely and rake as much muck as possible without fear of zealous editing by overseers. Please don’t misinterpret my comments as being anti-BBC; my point here is that a healthy distance between the state and a documentary filmmaker was beneficial in this case.

Much of the content of School Lunch Project might be lost on an American audience, though I hope the audience sees parallels, if not precise representations of the scenario in many Ameican schools. Replace “Turkey Twizzlers” with “Tater Tots”, and you have the content of most American school lunches: too much trash.
Jamie’s School Lunch Project Episode 3 airs Monday, May 15 at 7/6 Central.

Further reading, and sources:
Wikipedia, “Jamie Oliver”
Channel Four’s Jamie’s School Dinners Page
Feed Me Better

Instant Message Encryption

May 7th, 2006 § 4 comments § permalink

If you’ve been reading the New York Times over the past month or so, you will have seen several articles about CALEA, as well as new wiretap rules for interconnected VoIP services. Not to mention the infamous NSA warrentless-wiretap scheme. The more I read on the subject, the higher my personal paranoia-o-meter climbs.

I feel like I conduct a large amount of my personal affairs via instant-messaging protocols of one form or another, so week or two ago, I had a conversation with my longtime technical cohort John van Oppen about options for instant-message encryption. What could we do to start encrypting IMs between us, and recruit as many of our friends as possible to start doing it, too? I said I’d dig around to see if any options came up.

The results of my survey are pretty disappointing, I must say. Generally, there are three problems:

- Commercial IM protocols with a wide user-base (like AIM and MSN) have closed-source clients and no protocol-level support for encryption. The client provided by the original vendor has no support for encryption, either, and is generally inextensible, so no support can be added.
- The open-souce IM clients that exist for those commercial protocols and that support encryption tend not to use standards-based encryption, meaning interoperation between platforms or clients is hard, if not impossible.
- Open-source IM protocols like XMPP/Jabber do not have a sufficiently large existing userbase. I’d rather try and convince my friends to switch IM clients and use an existing protocol than to switch to a different service, as well as change clients.

I have the benefit of access to Mac, Windows, and Linux machines at work, so I did a brief survey of tools available for encrypting instant message conversations:

Mac

  • Fire offers GPG support, but doesn’t have very good key management built-in. The GPG implementation is not compatible with commercial PGP, despite the same encryption standard
  • Adium has built-in encryption using OTR-messaging, which works quite well out of the box. However, there are a few client-behavior problems, and no support for OTR with commercial AIM clients.
  • PGP can be used to build encrypted IM tunnels between enabled hosts using a sort of transparent-proxy approach. However, nobody else I know has a commercial PGP client available. As far as I can see, this doesn’t work with GPG.
  • iChat has no native encryption support
  • Skype has its own built-in encryption
  • The “official” clients for AIM, MSN, and so on, have no encryption support.

Windows

  • The “official” clients for AIM and MSN, just as for Mac, have no encryption support. Unfortunately, almost every Windows PC user just downloads the AIM client and fires it up.
  • The Windows port of gaim has an OTR-messaging plugin available for download. It suffers from the same client-behavior problems as the Mac implementation, but seems to work quite well.
  • Skype has its own built-in encryption

Linux

  • The only client I have any experience with is gaim, which also has its own OTR plugin. Just the same as the Windows, Mac, and Linux versions
  • I’ve never tried it, but I assume the Linux version of Skype has the same encryption as all the other releases.

Looking at the above list, you might be wondering what my complaints are, since there seems to be an OTR plugin for every platform. Trouble is, my guess is that less than one percent of all AIM users have a client that supports it. Not to mention, I doubt that the average AIM user wants to go through the hassle of getting a plugin, generating keys, ensuring their friends do the same, and so on.

The only protocol that seems to be getting it right is Skype. And in the US, at least, uptake of Skype has been slow–which is a shame, because it really is an excellent product.

We need a standards based, transparent encryption solution for AIM and MSN. Preferably one built into the official client, that every user of the service will be able to take advantage of without expending any extra effort.

Links:

gaim
OTR-Messaging
Skype
Adium