Monday, October 31, 2011

The Inspiration of the Mantis


Last week a friend of mine (thanks Gudrun) sent me a photograph she took of a praying mantis (order Mantodea).  The mantis is a curious insect.  It appears fragile and even prayerful, but it is more fierce than it looks. 

The picture got me thinking about the various styles of Kung Fu, and how many of the martial arts grew out of observation of the creatures around us.  So I went in search of the history of Praying Mantis Kung Fu.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) in China, martial arts had drifted into two groups, with the first group consisting of practical techniques used by soldiers, while the second group transformed into a performance art.   Many new styles were developed during the Ming Dynasty, including Praying Mantis Kung Fu.



By this time, the famous Shaolin temple had started taking secular students, including a small man named Wang Lang.  Lang struggled with the Lohan Kung Fu taught there at the time, and in sparring his fellow students always beat him.  One day after a rough practice, he sat under a tree to rest and spotted a praying mantis fighting a larger cicada.  Even though the mantis was smaller, it won the fight and inspired Lang to copy its movements.

Lang captured a few mantises and studied them to develop new techniques.  Although he couldn't beat the best monks at the temple, his skill improved so much it caught the attention of one of the master monks.  The master helped Lang improve his new style, especially the footwork, some of which they borrowed from Monkey Kung Fu. 

With the master's blessing, Lang left the monastery and travelled throughout China learning various arts, which he incorporated into his Mantis style.  Eventually, he returned to the monastery to teach, and his style became very popular.

A Taoist priest, Sheng Xiao, visited the Shaolin temple and was amazed at the new style, but shocked that the monks weren't studying their traditional Lohan Kung Fu.  The Shaolin Abbot was in a tricky position--he wanted to support the new Mantis style, but he didn't want the old Lohan style to die out.  So he made a deal with Xiao.  In return for teaching him the new style, Xiao would agree to spread Mantis Kung Fu in his travels.

Thus an entire system of martial arts grew out of a meeting between an insect and a frustrated but hard-working young student, along with the help of a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest.

(Mantis picture courtesy of Gudrun.  The picture of the Shaolin temple is from the New York Post.  The history is from THE ART OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU by Wong Kiew Kit.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Aerial surveillance with a robot hummingbird


The November issue of Popular Mechanics had a one-page article that caught my attention.  It described a robotic hummingbird about the size of a real hummingbird, with the key difference being the robot carries a camera. 

A company called AeroVironment designed this tiny robot bird, which can sit in the palm of your hand.  It has no propellers, and flies by flapping its wings, just like a real bird.  The Nano Hummingbird contains a camera, motors for its wings, a battery for power, and a radio transmitter that streams color video, all in a package that weighs less than one AA battery.

It also has an impressive speed of 11 miles per hour.  This may not sound fast, until you consider that it can fly straight paths above obstacles, and is considerably faster than most people can run. 

Aerovironment also makes a range of small unmanned aerial vehicles for the US military, including the Wasp, Raven and Puma, but they are all much larger than the Nano Hummingbird.  The article mentioned the US military hopes this invention will be the first of a new class of aerial surveillance robots.  These robots could fly both indoors and outside to identify targets and collect intelligence.

As with most technologies, this has the potential for good or bad.  I shudder when I think about a future where swarms of small UAVs fly through our cities, constantly watching us.  On the other hand, there are many possible uses for vehicles like these.  Imagine if we could fly them into buildings that are on fire to locate injured people.  Or use them to find people lost at sea or in the wilderness.

Either way, it won't be long before you'll see a bird fly by and wonder if it's a bird...or a robot.

(Here's the link to the original Popular Mechanics article.  And a link to AeroVironment's site.  The pic is from Popular Mechanics.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Spaceship Earth


A buddy of mine (thanks Cory) works in a planetarium.  Recently, he emailed me some things he'd learned while doing research for a new exhibit. 

Our sun, and indeed our entire solar system, revolves in a big ellipse (much like a race car track) around the center of our galaxy the Milky Way.  Even though we're moving very fast, the distances involved are huge so it takes 225 to 250 million years to take ONE trip around the galaxy.  To scale it down a bit, we can say it takes about 1,190 years to travel one light year.

To put that into perspective in terms of distance, the nearest star to us is Proxima Centauri at 4.24 light years away.  And the brightest star we see in the night sky is Sirius, which is 8.7 lights years off.  Thinking about these distances helps us understand why scientists and science fiction writers are so interested in faster-than-light speed travel.

Cory also sent me data that helps put this journey around the galaxy in historical terms, which is sometimes easier to wrap my brain around than the distances.  Since 821 AD, we've traveled approximately 1 light year.  We've sailed about 2 light years since 368 BC, which would be the time of ancient Greece.  From the time the Egyptians built the Great Pyramid, we've traveled 5 to 6 light years.  And since people were engaged in organized farming in the Indus Valley 9500 years ago to now, we've made it about 8 light years.

Cory also mentioned a theory that when our solar system moves through the more densely packed spiral arms of the Milky Way, these visits may coincide with mass extinctions on Earth due to what he called 'impact events.'  This ties in with the idea that a massive meteor may have killed off the dinosaurs.  Don't freak out, though.  We won't revisit those areas for many, many years.

When we sit and think about all this, we may realize the scope of human history is very small.  And the universe around us is vast.  But here we are, zooming through space in an amazing, perfect little cocoon--planet Earth.     

(Thanks to Cory for the facts.  Hopefully I didn't mangle them.  The pic is of the center of the Milky Way and is from:  Stephane Guisard at space.com)

Friday, October 21, 2011

A followup and a repost to the whole 'eat the rich' issue

Months ago we talked about the issue of wealth redistribution in a post titled "If we eat the rich, we'll be hungry tomorrow."  With all the Occupy Wall Street stuff going on, I think it's worth revisiting that post.

Here's the link, or you can enter 'eat the rich' in the search window on the lower right.

I don't buy into class warfare.  Turning on each other makes no sense to me.  We need to stop blaming and start problem solving.  Together.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Is that drone ours or theirs? US drones infected with virus.


Back on 7 October, Reuters and other news sources reported that a keystroke logging program was found to have infected US military drones.  The problem was discovered in late September, but the logger has proved difficult to destroy.

A keystroke logger records your input into the computer and is a commonly used hacking technique to learn usernames and passwords and security questions and answers.  So far, the military has not found evidence that the data collected by the logger has been sent to an outside source, but the fact they're having trouble getting rid of the logger is worrying.

In the Danger Room article, Noah Shachtman wrote:  “We keep wiping it off, and it keeps coming back,” says a source familiar with the network infection, one of three that told Danger Room about the virus. “We think it’s benign. But we just don’t know.”

I think saying a keystroke logger is benign is like spotting a guy who follows you all day taking pictures of everything you do and saying, "Oh, he's probably harmless." 

The military network that controls the drones is not connected to the Internet, which means the logger was introduced--either on accident or on purpose.  A USB drive or a hard drive swap-out containing the logger could explain how it got into the military network.  As long as the data has not gone back out, then it's just a matter of destroying the logger. 

But if the data has somehow reached our enemies, we could have serious problems.  The military and intelligence agencies operate at least 180 drones in five or more countries, and they are an important part of our defense (and our offense).  The Danger Room article mentioned that in 2009, insurgents in Iraq captured days of footage from Predator and Reaper drones because the footage was sent unencrypted from the drones to ground forces.

My concern is that as enemies gather more information about how the drones operate, they could find a way to hack them.  Drones are the future of air power.  When you remove the pilot from the aircraft and put them in a bunker, the aircraft no longer needs all the support functions that keep a human alive in the air.  This saves weight and complexity, and also saves pilots from being killed or captured.

In the future, I think we'll see fleets of drones in the skies as different countries race to build aircraft that are faster, stealthier, more durable, deadlier and able to stay aloft longer.

But the right hack might give control of these weapons to our enemies.  According to the Reuters article, the US currently runs some 60 of their combat air patrols using drones.  Imagine if some or all of these were turned against us.  We'd be frantically trying to organize an air defense without knowing which drones are friendly and which are enemies.

That's a scary scenario.

(Some buddies of mine first alerted me to this story--thanks Think Tankers! I later saw it mentioned on Bruce Schneier's site.  And here is the Danger Room article, and the Reuters one.  The pic is from:  defense-update.com.)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

All a twitter

On the advice of many other creative types, I signed up for Twitter this week.  My address is:  @markbosswriter

I'm not quite sure what I'll do at Twitter, so instead of asking you to follow me, how about I follow you?

If you're on Twitter and you'd like a new follower, send me a Tweet or comment here.  I won't guarantee that I'll follow, but I will take a look at what you have to say.

Sincerely,
Mark

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Trying to make sense of Occupy Wall Street


The Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and other cities are big news right now, but it's hard for me to make sense of them.  They have a nice website, but only a non-official list of demands.  This leads most people to conclude the protests are more a loose coalition of frustrated people with a wide variety of demands.  I think that's accurate.  But I'm not sure.

If you talk a virtual walk through the forums at the OWS site, you'll find certain themes repeat themselves.  And even the non-official list of demands may provide some clues.  Some of the main ideas that emerge include:  universal healthcare, a living wage for all people whether they are employed or not, free college, forgiving loans (especially student loans), an end to the use of fossil fuels (to be replaced with alternative fuels), more money for infrastructure and environmental restoration, open and fair elections, open borders, and a gender and racial equity amendment.

The first thing that you may notice is that most of the ideas center around the United States.  I don't know if movements in other countries are supposed to come up with their own demands, or if we Americans just continue to be that self absorbed. 

I'm not an economist, but I'm curious how some of these ideas will work.  For instance, if the government gives you a student loan, then the money goes to the school, and you owe the government that amount back.  If you don't pay the government, then the money has to come from your fellow tax payers.  So other people paid for you to go to college.

The infrastructure and environmental wish list is unrealistic because the US simply doesn't have the money.  We are in debt.  We need to spend less, not more.  I'm all for getting away from fossil fuels, especially oil.  If we quit oil, most of our enemies would starve, and funding for terrorism would shrink.  I think this is already happening as we move to other forms of energy, but it's going to take time and patience. 

The idea about fair elections makes sense to me, especially in light of the problems with electronic voting (which we've discussed here before).  And I like the idea of healthcare for everyone, particularly children and the elderly.  I just don't think we should force people to participate in it--that's too authoritarian for me.  I think gender and race are covered in the current US amendments, but they aren't in the constitutions of many other countries around the world--like places under hardline Islamic rule where women aren't allowed to vote or drive or leave the home without a male relative as chaperon.

I don't really understand the open borders concept.  Borders exist because not everyone is a good neighbor and not everywhere is safe.  If you decide to move to another country and get a job there, you should expect to have to abide by their laws and learn the local language.  If I planned to move to France and work, I'd probably need some sort of permission from France, and I'd need to learn to speak French.  That seems pretty straightforward to me, but maybe I'm missing something.  (I'm definitely missing that awesome bread they have.)

There's a lot going on in the world right now.  Wars.  Revolutions.  Starvation.  Big stuff.  But I can understand that for the people in the parks in New York, it's hard to look at the big picture when you've lost your job and you can't pay your rent and your kids are going hungry.  I get that.  And some of their grievances are very legitimate, while others seem to be more on the scale of optimistic dreams.

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out during the next elections.

(Again, this is an opinion piece.  I support your right to disagree.)
(Here is the Occupy Wall Street site and their non-official list of demands.  An article titled "Occupy Wall Street Protesters make demands" by Ryan Young in OpenMarket.org.  The pic is from: entmoney.com.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

From Napster to Spotify: Music Online


A few weeks ago my buddy Chris emailed me an invitation to something called Spotify, an online music service.  He's also the one who got me started on Pandora, so I paid attention to the email, but I've been too busy to check it out.

Yesterday I saw an article in Forbes magazine about Sean Parker, the guy behind Napster, who also worked with Facebook in their formative years.  (By the way, Napster remains in business as a Best Buy company that offers various monthly subscription plans for music for your computer and phone.  Honestly, I didn't know they still existed.) 

The Forbes article mentioned that Parker is now an investor in two companies--Spotify and Airtime.  And I thought, "Spotify? Where have I heard that name lately?"

I hit the Spotify site for a look at its features.  You can search its collection for music you like, then listen to it live from the Internet via your computer, phone or home stereo.  Since the music plays live, you're not using up storage on your hard drive.  Customers can create playlists, build their own libraries, and synchronize their devices--like computer to cellular telephone.

Like Pandora, the basic service is free, but the upgrade costs.  In the case of Spotify, the Premium Service is $9.99 USD per month.  Their pitch is that instead of buying one album a month, you have access to a huge collection of music, but you don't really own it, do you? However, the Premium Service does let you store to your hard drive and listen when you're offline.

The main thing that may set Spotify apart from the other music services is its partnership with Facebook.  Spotify wants to make sharing music a social event, and since Parker has worked previously with Facebook, the effort makes sense.  The Spotify site also asks wouldn't you rather get music recommendations from friends rather than a machine? This is a swipe at Pandora, which uses an algorithm to generate song suggestions based on music you've told it you like.  Personally, I find the Pandora system works well most of the time, with an occasional freakout that throws out an inexplicable song.

As for Airtime, it's reported to be a new social video platform, where I imagine you will be able to share your videos like on YouTube or Vimeo.  The Airtime site itself gives no clue, other than the fact that they're hiring software engineers. 

So Spotify is for music and Airtime is for video.  The key component they share is the social aspect, which Sean Parker has a lot of expertise in.  It will be interesting to see if this aspect is enough to set these two new services apart from their existing competitors.


(The Forbes magazine article is titled "Agent of Disruption" by Steven Bertoni in the 10 October 2011 issue.  The article on Airtime is in The Register, and is titled "The Napster Boys are back with Airtime," by Natalie Apostolou.  The pic is from last.fm of Rush, which is one of the best rock and roll bands ever.)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Diver Down

If you'd like to read a quick, fun story during your lunch break this week, please visit Beat To A Pulp magazine

I have a new short story there called "Diver Down" about an underwater heist, and I think you'll enjoy it.

Thanks for reading,
Mark

Friday, October 7, 2011

The War in Afghanistan After 10 Years: An Opinion


On 7 October 2001, the United States and the United Kingdom conducted air strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.  And so began the long war in a country many people in America were not familiar with.  The British had a history with Afghanistan, but the US did not.

The reasoning for the war was fairly straightforward.  The terrorists who carried out the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US were members of al Qaeda.  The radical Islamic faction the Taliban had allowed al Qaeda to build its camps in Afghanistan, giving the allied nations a reasonable cause for war.

Now 10 years have passed, and I have seen little interest in the US media, where the economy and 2012 elections are the main news stories.  I also haven't seen any indication US leadership is re-examining our role in Afghanistan.  There is always talk that the Afghan forces are being trained to do more, and there are plans for drawdowns of forces, but I wonder if anyone is thinking about the bigger picture.

Has al Qaeda in Afghanistan been defeated? It appears so.  The fights these days seem to be with the Taliban, who want to regain control of the country and establish an ultra-fundamentalist Islamic state.  While it is a noble effort to save the people of Afghanistan from Taliban oppression, I wonder what that means exactly? Does it mean we have to build them a democratic government and a modern economy that relies on something other than opium crops? While our economies struggle and our infrastructure ages, must we spend money to build them a new country?

The Taliban did not attack the US on 11 September 2001.  Al Qaeda did.  And al Qaeda has spread out to avoid destruction, establishing groups or affiliates in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Africa.  It is certainly possible that when our forces leave Afghanistan the Taliban may defeat the current Afghan government.  Or that they would control a large enough section of the country to allow al Qaeda to establish new bases to strike from.  But by their design terrorist organizations are decentralized, and can form in a variety of environments.  For example, several of the 9/11 terrorists lived and trained in the US before their attack.

In my opinion, the US and its allies (a current coalition of 48 countries) had a just cause to attack terrorists in Afghanistan.  And from a human rights view, action against the Taliban helped the Afghan people and freed them from oppression.  But the Taliban are terror enablers, whose goal is to rule Afghanistan.  Our real enemies, al Qaeda and their affiliates, appear to have fled the country.

So why are we still there?

Note 1:  I greatly respect the efforts and sacrifice of the US and allied troops serving in Afghanistan, and I'd like to see them come home safely.  And soon.

Note 2:  For many years I have been a proponent of 'nation building'--helping other countries establish a democratic government and beneficial capitalist economy.  However, the fragile state of the world economy makes me think we must suspend these efforts for a while.  Expensive foreign aid must be reduced.

Note 3:  The ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan has an extensive website.  On one of their maps, I counted 48 countries contributing forces to the allied effort, something many readers may not be aware of.  Judging by the flag-marked map, it appears the major maneuver battalions are made up of troops from the following:  Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Georgia, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, and United States.  If you live in one of these countries, please support your fellow citizens who serve in the military.)

Note 4:  This is my opinion.  I support your right to disagree.

(The map is from: lonelyplanet.com)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Your vote got jacked: How safe are voting machines?


Here in the United States where the campaign for president is on, Democrats, Libertarians, Republicans and others are busy arguing about voting.  A CBS News story pointed out that 34 states have introduced laws requiring voters to produce identification, and some states are experimenting with laws that prevent voting on the Sunday before elections, or restrict early voting. 

While the various political parties argue over these laws, I wonder about the votes themselves.  Because apparently it's pretty cheap to hack a voting machine.

Technology is great if it makes a job easier, but you also have to consider cost and accuracy.  A recent study from the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois figured out how to hack a widely used Diebold touchscreen voting machine.  The entire cost for the parts necessary to compromise the machine was $26 USD.  I know the economy is bad, but I'm pretty sure most any faction wishing to hack a vote could come up with $26 for each machine in a given area or even state.

Now election fraud is not a new thing.  People have stuffed ballot boxes, or voted using dead people's names and all sorts of other techniques for as long as people have voted.  The difference in this may be that with human and paper-based systems, fraud is limited by the cheater's ability to influence a given number of people.  In other words, most of the fraud techniques won't work without some collusion.  And when you have enough people in on a secret, the secret often comes out.

For example, you might pay people to vote using various names.  You would drive them around the city on election day so they could hit the different precincts.  But unless you have a lot of people and a lot of drivers, you are probably only impacting a fraction of the total votes. 

In contrast, hacking a voting machine means changing a lot of votes with the involvement of only a few conspirators.  In the Argonne test, the researchers planted a device on the voting machine, which is a physical security issue.  But a test at Princeton back in 2006 revealed that voting software can be hacked.  The testers also found that the machines "are susceptible to computer viruses that can spread themselves automatically and invisibly from machine to machine during normal pre- and post-election activity."

I think that's where the real danger is.  Accessing machines physically is difficult, but if viruses can reach them remotely, it means that hackers could, too.  It isn't hard to imagine political groups in the US or other countries hiring third party hackers to change crucial votes.

Before we continue to use this new technology, we need to take a very hard look at its vulnerabilities.  After all, you want your vote to be yours, not someone else's.


(Here are links to the CBS story, the Argonne story at Fox, and the Princeton study.  The pic is from:  cityofchesapeake.net)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Here Comes the Sun: Can we make solar energy work?


A few days ago I read an article by Jim Angle titled "Privately Funded Solar Energy Companies Thrive as Solar Industry Booms."  The article states that the solar power industry is actually doing fine, and has grown from around 20 companies in the 1980s to some 5,000 companies today.  This is relevant in the wake of the Solyndra fiasco--a case where the US government gave a private company $530 million USD in stimulus loans only to see it go bankrupt.

I'm generally not a fan of government bailouts, and in this case I don't see how the government will ever recover its loan money, meaning the US taxpayers just lost $530 million.  But setting that aside, I also wonder about the profitability of 'green' energy companies.  That's a big question to tackle, so we might cut it down to, "Can solar power companies make a profit without government subsidies?"

Angle's article answers, "Yes."  He quotes the CEO of the Solaria Corporation saying, "Over the last 20 years, solar has grown from 30 megawatts of shipments to 17,000 megawatts of shipments.  Solar has been the fastest-growing energy technology by far."  And the CEO of Recurrent Energy stated that the industry now employs 100,000 people.  So solar is producing more energy, and it's employing people, and that's good. 

Is it profitable? I don't know.  And is it growing? The Solaria corporate website says over the last 8 years the solar industry has experienced an annual growth of over 40%.  Out of curiosity, I looked at the job listings for Solaria--they have openings for 6 people, with 2 jobs in California and 4 in India.  Recurrent Energy also has 6 job openings, all in California.  12 jobs doesn't sound like massive growth to me.

I hug trees.  I am all in favor of green energy.  Let's kick the oil habit and go green.  But we need to be smart about it.  Energy companies have to find ways to make a profit and grow without subsidies or special government loans or bailouts.  If their business model doesn't work, they will fail and other, more nimble companies will take their place.

I wish these companies luck, and I agree with the optimism.  Solar panels are a good way to decentralize energy production because you can install a few on the roof of one house, or build a huge field of them in the desert.  Hopefully, these and other forms of production can combine to replace some of our current energy problems.

(Here is the link to Angle's article.  And the Solaria site, and Recurrent.  The pic is from:  basinandrangewatch, an organization opposed to building huge solar arrays on public land.  Which brings up a good point, and a possible topic for another blog.)