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June 28, 2006


Recently I did a project on Image Compression. One of our test images was a picture of a woman's head. This picture.


We joked a little that this must be a particularly male subject to study, since it'd be hard to justify using a picture of a woman if there were lots of female students around (bloody feminists). But the truth runs deeper than that.

This page gives more of the story.
From the comp.compression FAQ, we can find that "Lenna" or "Lena" is a digitized Playboy centerfold, from November 1972.

In the Playboy and Wired News, we know that in the early Seventies Lenna's Playboy centerfold was scanned in by an unknown researcher at the University of Southern California to use as a test image for digital image compression research. Since that time, images of the Playmate have been used as the industry standard for testing ways in which pictures can be manipulated and transmitted electronically. Over the past 25 years, no image has been more important in the history of imaging and electronic communications, and today the mysterious Lenna is considered the First Lady of the Internet.

Important stuff. But such a shame that the image is cropped. Not any more (NSFW link).

Blimey, me distributing pornography. Who'd have thunk it?

A brave new world?

I've been reading some fiction books for a change. It's quite exciting. I read the following tomes:

1984 - George Orwell (full text online)
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

I was struck by the different techniques used to control the population in each book, and, in particular, the different attitudes of each author towards sexual pleasure. 1984 describes the classic totalitarian state, with people not even able to think freely in the language spoken ("newspeak"). Sexual thoughts are the only ones which can't be controlled by the Party, so it suppresses them as much as possible. Young girls are encouraged to join the "Junior Anti-Sex League" and sex is used only as means of procreation.
The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now.

In contrast, Brave New World doesn't use sex for procreation at all. Control of the population is done in two ways: breeding, and pleasure. Children are created in bottles and are bred to fit their role in life. Street sweepers are bred to be stupid. They will never be frustrated with the monotony of their task. Meanwhile everyone is encouraged to take as much pleasure as possible from life. The population are drugged with "Soma," described as similar to alcohol but without the hangover. They are also encouraged to shag like rabbits. "Everybody belongs to everybody else" is a mantra endorsing free sex. Many of the population are born sterile, others are trained to use contraception from their early "erotic play" in infancy.

Both techniques remove the tensions caused by sex. One suppresses the instinct entirely, whereas the other satisfies it completely.

Both books also speak of the problems which ensue as a result of oversupply. As production becomes more mechanised, more goods are produced than can be reasonably consumed by the populace. Orwell solves this problem by fighting a war. An eternal war. War uses resources up quickly. Huxley takes a different approach, describing how his people are trained to consume resources as fast as possible. Their ball games take place using complicated machinery which has to be manufactured.

It's interesting that both authors tackle these two issues, perhaps more interesting even than the different ways in which the problems are solved. It will be interesting to see how the future pans out with regard to the dual crises of humanity: sex and steel.

Firefox (again)

I've not updated properly for a while, but this kicked me into action.

It references a post by Asa Dotzler with the exciting title "microsoft security manager calls users stupid."
A couple of months ago, Mike Danseglio, the Program Manager for the Security Solutions group at Microsoft blamed users for the Windows security nightmare, saying "there really is no patch for human stupidity."

Nice one, Mike.

Actually, Mike, there really is no patch for that kind of blame shifting. We make software and it's our job to make it work. Designing and building software is an extremely complex process but it is not magic and it is not only possible to make it safe, it's a requirement.

Of course, if we actually bother to read the original quote...
Danseglio said the success of social engineering attacks is a sign that the weakest link in malware defense is "human stupidity."

"Social engineering is a very, very effective technique. We have statistics that show significant infection rates for the social engineering malware. Phishing is a major problem because there really is no patch for human stupidity," he said.

So what our Microsoft security expert is actually saying is that whatever software you build to protect users, they'll still be vulnerable to attacks which tempt them into doing something silly. One of the best examples of this was the "I love you" bug of a few years ago, which tempted thousands of single office workers into downloading a dangerous attachment. Why did they download the attachment? Because they thought it was a love letter.

And when our Microsoft security expert points out that users need to be smarter in order not to be infected, he gets laughed at by Mr. Firefox. Not argued with, not listened to, but instead his comments are taken out of context in order to make him look stupid.

The Mozilla corporation will never have my support while it continues to act like a 14 year old teenager browsing the internet from his mother's basement. Get some bloody professionalism.

June 20, 2006

The Office Ribbon

The new MS Office Ribbon is reviewed here, one of the best descriptions I've seen.

June 09, 2006

Did Internet Explorer cause Web 2.0?

Here's an interesting theory.
Although opinions vary on the reliability of browser market share figures, a quick scan through all the data reveals one interesting commonality across all the data sources: IE6 market share peaked at around 95 percent sometime in mid-2004. If 95% of the world is browsing with IE 6, pursuing browser independence is a waste of time. If you don't have to worry about browser independence, you are suddenly free to exploit advanced browser techniques like XMLHttpRequest.
The super-saturation and monoculture of IE6 from 2002 to 2004 created an incredibly rich, vibrant development platform where developers were free to push the capabilities of the browser to its limits. Without worrying about backward compatibility. Without writing thousands of if..else statements to accommodate a half-dozen alternative browsers.

June 08, 2006

Nature Opens Peer-Review

Peer-review is the process by which scientific papers get to be published. The papers are first reviewed by a group of "peers." There's usually three of them, and they'll be experts in the relevant field. Thus the nonsense is weeded out, and only papers deemed worthy enough will be published.

Nature, however, have got bored with this scheme.
We will also offer to post the submitted manuscript onto an open website. Anyone can then respond to it by posting online comments, provided they are willing to sign them. Once Nature's editors have received all the comments from their solicited confidential reviewers, the open website will cease to take comments, and all the opinions will be considered by the editors as well as the authors.

This is, quite probably, a good idea, opening the scientific process slightly and allowing more democracy. But somehow, I just can't stop worrying.

Just how many Daily Mail journalists are going to sign up to this scheme so they can view the latest health scare-stories before anyone else? Even if those scare-stories cannot be verified by anyone else, and don't even get published in the journal.

(With thanks to The Scientific Activist)

June 07, 2006

Quick Quiz

Who said this:
Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Who could it be? Perhaps some <texas>left-wing lily-livered liberal douche scum</texas> who doesn't believe in this country?

No, you're all wrong. It was Hermann Goering. But it rings true even today.

Windows better than Linux?

This article seems to think so.
Standard Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and Linux distributions from "niche" open source vendors, are offline more and longer than either Windows or Unix competitors, the survey said. The reason: the scarcity of Linux and open source documentation.

And there's the rub. Open-source software suffers greatly from it's lack of decent documentation. It isn't simple to use, either.

Many Linux users (and Firefox users) believe that they are superior to Windows (and IE) users in every way. They're cleverer, faster, quicker. Technical support staff are famously impatient when dealing with ordinary users.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say this: Computers are not obvious or intuitive.

I first started programming at the age of 10 or so in BASIC using a Commodore Amiga 500. Eventually I moved onto the IBM PC, into Assembler, into C++ and the rest is history. To me, computers are generally fairly simple. I can usually guess what to do, even with unfamiliar software.

If you haven't been using computers since age 10, but only since you started your new job a month ago, then this isn't the case.

Whereas Windows and Mac OS are designed to be user-friendly, GNU and Linux aren't. They're designed to be functional. And that's what's holding back their chance at real popularity.

Web Applications - The Update Curve

When you buy software off the shelf, you'll use it for a number of years, and then decide that it's too old. It'll get creaky and slow, and the formats it uses will become obselete. It won't be supported on newer computers, and newer versions will become available.

Eventually you'll upgrade.

The great thing is that you do it all at once, at your convenience. You get confused for a week as your favourite features move somewhere else, but you get used to it.

Web applications are updated when the engineers decide it's appropriate. OK, you don't have to pay for the latest version, but what happens when a critical feature gets moved when you are racing towards a deadline. You've got 3 hours to finish a large project, and suddenly you can't find the "Bold" button. (I'm exaggerating slightly). I don't think this is a good thing.

Google Spreadsheet

This is my limited memory of the post which Blogger lost.

Google have just launched an online spreadsheet application, Google Spreadsheets. It's all over the Blogosphere, so I thought I'd add my two penn'orth of limited viewpoints.
Google Spreadsheets
My first problem with the application is right there in the middle: Formulas. Is that a word? Formulae, please.

I also have another problem with this idea, of streaming applications off the web.

The Free Software Foundation was founded on the principal of software freedom. "Open-source" is a derivative of this freedom. Basically, the principal is that you can download the source code of any application, and edit it to suit your needs. You don't like the way your word processor does tabs? Reprogram it, and publish your work so that other people can use your modification.

Most current desktop software, such as the MS Office suite is not free. Open-source software is spreading, however, with products such as GNU/Linux gaining ground. One day, perhaps, all software will be free.

Online software is not free. It can never be free, as its source code never leaves the server. The server handles your requests, and gives you an output. Nobody can reprogram it. I see all the progress in software freedom being dashed to shreds by the one company which might have helped push it - Google.

Do no evil? If only.