Monthly Archives: January 2012

Up, up, and away…

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in weather balloons.  Truth be told, I’m still a little bit of a weather geek.

In middle school, my friend and I ordered away for a surplus radiosonde.  A radiosonde is an electronic instrument that is either carried into the atmosphere by a balloon or dropped by a weather observing plane.  In either case, the instrument sends weather information (typically pressure, temperature, and humidity) at various heights in the atmosphere to ground based receivers.  The receivers track the travel of the instrument to determine the winds aloft.

The radiosonde we got was one that was to be dropped from an airplane. When we opened it, we saw a cardboard canister on top of the instrument with a metal cap and a pull ring, much like you’d find on a hand grenade, taped down.  In bright red letters appeared a warning: “Danger! Explosive force!”

We knew this came from a military surplus outlet, so we took this warning seriously.  We called the police and asked what we should do… and here’s where the fun begins.  They said that we would need to safely discharge this by placing the unit on one side of a structure, such as a garage, tying a rope to the ring, and throw the rope over the roof of the structure to the opposite side.  Once protected by the building, we could safely pull the rope, thus pulling the pin, and release the explosive force.

It should be obvious, by now, that the police knew exactly what we had and that it wasn’t dangerous… because if it had been, they would have been there immediately.

Well, that wasn’t so obvious to my friend and me. After all, this is what the POLICE had told us we needed to do.  We arranged the instrument and device as recommended. It was on one side of our garage and we were on the other.  Just as we were about to pull the rope, my mother came to the back door to see what we were doing.  We explained what the police said.  With a very concerned look on her face, she said go ahead, because she didn’t have any other ideas on how to safely discharge the thing… and, it is what the POLICE had told us.

We pulled the rope… and we heard a whirling sound like that which would be emitted from a wind-up toy.  And then, “SPRONG!” was the sound of a spring being decompressed.

We raced to the other side of the garage to find the metal cap originally on the top of the canister, lying on the ground.  Now revealed to us was a large spring, like what one might find in a spring mattress, connected to the cap.  It was connected to a piece of silk cloth that was folded into what we discovered was a drogue parachute.  The way the mechanism worked was then obvious:

  • The person on the airplane would pull the pin and toss the radiosonde out the airplane.
  • The timer would assure the instrument got far enough away from the airplane before deploying the parachute.  If the parachute deployed immediately, it might get caught up in the airplane.
  • The cap would pop off, pulling out the drogue parachute which would pull out the main parachute.
  • The instrument would float to earth and send the weather data.

We never launched the radiosonde, but we learned a lot about how they worked.  We took it apart and studied the electronics and mechanics.  It was fascinating.

Looking back, you can understand why the warning was there: if you pulled the pin and this thing went off, you could have been seriously whacked in the face… but that’s about it.  The spring wasn’t that strong: it could be compressed with one hand. In fact, we’d put the thing back together and show others how it worked by pulling the pin and watching the top spring off.

Fast forward to today. With the advent of cheap cameras, GPS, and disposable cell phones, there have been A LOT of folks who have created their own weather balloons experiments.  It is so popular that Citi even featured this in one of their commercials:

So I’ve started to think about inexpensive ways to get started with my decades old dream.  Perhaps the old fashion way: Launch a bunch of balloons with prepaid postcards and see what people find and comes back?

That got me wondering about the ecological impact of this idea.  The web to the rescue!  It turns out that latex balloons are really not that bad for the environment: being made of tree sap, they decompose at the same rate as a tree leaf.  (

Another thing for the bucket list…

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Posted by on January 30, 2012 in bucket list, growing up, learning, weather


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When “new stuff” is decades old

Of course, this is just going to be the rantings of an old fart… but I guess that’s part of the reason to have a blog, right?  To rant?

Geek alert… this is going to be a bit technical.

The other day we were discussing the need to move an internal website from a rough and tumble, less-than-actively-supported environment to something more mainstream (as in, supported by IT).  I reflected that if the prototype environment was contained to single disk partition, it would be relatively easy to make a virtual image of it and move it to a supported VMware server and run it intact. (Translation: if the website was on a single disk drive, we could copy that disk drive to a file, which could be used by a piece of software to simulate a real computer).

The response I got was to the effect “yeah, that would work and wow do you know your stuff!”

I had to chuckle.  Virtualization, the process of having a real computer simulate one or more computers, has been around since 1967 when IBM created an operating system called CP-40 (and later, CP-67).  I first encountered virtualization more than a decade later when in 1979 I was a system programmer working at Hewlett Packard in their mainframe data center. I was responsible for installing IBM’s then current virtualizing operating system, VM (for virtual machine) on HP’s multi-million dollar Amdahl mainframe.  At that time HP only had one mainframe (hey, they cost a lot of money, even for HP) and if a systems programmer wanted to try out a change to the operating system, you’d need to come in on the weekend for the few hours that the data center wasn’t running. By installing VM, we could run two simulations of our physical mainframe.  One would run our production operating system, and allow business to carry on as usual.  The other we could use to test new versions of the operating system.  No more weekend testing!

Later, as I started to develop PC software, I watched how Intel added capabilities of their microprocessor chip.  By the time Intel announced the 80386 version of their microprocessor chip in 1985, they had added everything needed so that it could simulate multiple computers using virtualization. It wasn’t until 1998 that VMware was formed and created the first software to virtualize the PC.

Being a virtualization affectionado I’ve been experimenting and using VMware’s software since 2001. This included (and still includes) running their Mac OS X specific version, Fusion, on my Mac Book Air.  For those that are PC-only literate, Fusion allows me to run Apple’s Mac OS X operating system AND SIMULTANEOUSLY run Windows 7 on my Mac Book Air.  I can readily switch between the two environments, including cutting and pasting (a version of which had been present in IBM’s VM mainframe operating system in the early 1980’s).

VMware is not the only company that provides virtualizing software.  There are even open source versions.

So, referring back to the comment that set this off… yeah, I know this stuff.  Been there, done that… and even in more than one environment.

But I think the bigger picture is this… in any maturing industry, great ideas are going to be reused.  I’ve watched from a point where computers were so expensive that everyone had to share to a point where computers are so cheap everyone has one (or more!). I’ve watched the data move from that centralized model, where all the data is in one place, to a decentralized model (first with distributed minicomputers and later PCs on local area networks) and now back again… to the “cloud.”

Likewise, social media has its roots in technology that was created in the earliest days of computing.  In the earliest days there was commercial systems like Compuserve, but even before Compuserve there were systems such as Douglas Engelbert’s NLS demonstrated in 1968. Oh, by the way, Engelbert demonstrated the mouse at the same time as part of the user interface to NLS.

Business models need to take this phenomena into account.  Not only do you need to be aware of the side attacks that Clayton Christensen talks about in “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” you need to see where yesterday’s solutions might once again solve the problem’s your product is solving today.

You’ve heard it before: history repeats itself.  Unfortunately, I think some technology companies think they are immune from that law. They are not. And there is nothing more embarrassing than to lose to the past.

Oh, and if you are looking for an industry to model where the past is new again, look west to Hollywood and east to Broadway.  They’ve realized this and profited from it for years.


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OpenDNS & DNSCrypt – Cool new security for the web

I’ve got to hand it to the folks at OpenDNS… they are really, really, smart cookies.

I think Clayton Christensen would be proud. They took a pretty mundane job that needs to be done, reliable domain name services (DNS), and have created the number one DNS service on the internet.  They are so big, it is difficult to see a competitor trying to come after them.  In fact, one has to wonder why Google didn’t think of this… and why they aren’t competing.

DNS is the internet service your computer uses to find servers on the web.  When you type in “” into your browser, the network software in your computer sends it to a DNS server which returns a numeric IP address.  Think of DNS like a phone book: you search for a name and end up with a phone number.

All internet service providers (ISPs) provide DNS services.  Unfortunately, while DNS is very important to the proper operation of their network, they really don’t spend a lot of time optimizing it.  What does that mean to you?  Slow lookups… which means it takes longer to get to the website you want to view.

OpenDNS solved that by creating a really, really, REALLY fast and reliable DNS.  It is likely that if you change your computer to use OpenDNS, you will have a faster browsing experience.

Best of all, OpenDNS is free.

But the folks at OpenDNS didn’t stop there.  They added things parental controls and usage monitor. Doing it in a DNS server is the perfect place to do it, instead of each computer, because it is centralized in “the cloud.”

What is OpenDNS’s economic incentive to do this?  Just like Google sells information about the click throughs that occur when people search on Google, OpenDNS sells information about who is looking up which websites when.

Additionally, OpenDNS sells premium DNS services to large organizations like BP and Eastern Mountain Sports.

Now OpenDNS has created DNSCrypt.  What’s that and how does it make them money?

Well, when your computer talks to a regular DNS, it does so in a very trusting manner.  DNS was designed for an internet where the network was completely trusted: when a computer wishes to be directed to a computer at a specific numeric IP address, it was assumed the network would reliably and truthfully directed you to that computer.

Unfortunately, when your computer is in the wild, such as on a WiFi hotspot, your computer may not be on a trustworthy network.  The network can actually intercept requests going to a DNS server and provide nefarious responses.

For example, let’s say your computer is asking to go to and you are using your computer on a bad guy’s WiFi hotspot (or a good hotspot that has been hacked).  The evil network can imitate the DNS your computer was trying to use and direct it to a bad guy’s website that looks like your bank’s website.  Then all the bad guy’s website needs to do is simulate the login page of your bank.  You’ll enter your userid and password, they’ll save it, and then pass you to the bank’s website.  It might appear as if you’ve typed the wrong password, so once you are at the legitimate bank’s website, you’ll be prompted again, and this time login into your bank’s website. You won’t even know your userid and password have been compromised.

(You might ask about the lock icon in the status line of your browser and why that can’t be trusted.  Most people don’t even pay attention to the lock icon anymore, and that can be hacked, too, for lots of other reasons we won’t go into here.)

The bottom line is the bad guys can trick your computer into tricking you to give up your userid and password. This is called man-in-the-middle attack.

What DNSCrypt does is this: it causes your computer to only use a DNS server if that server can speak a secret language.  In more technical terms, it encrypts all the requests flowing from your computer to a DNS server.  Since this is encrypted, the bad guys can’t get in the middle and pretend to be a DNS.

What is the business opportunity, then for OpenDNS by providing DNSCrypt?  By providing DNSCrypt, more people will use OpenDNS, resulting in more websites being looked up by OpenDNS, and resulting in more information for OpenDNS to sell.  In fact, one could see a day virtually everyone who has a mobile device uses DNSCrypt and by extension OpenDNS.

Honestly, you got to love these folks… this is brilliant way to make money, much in the same brilliant way that Google makes their money.  Given what OpenDNS has accomplished already, I see them being right up there with the significant web businesses in the future. Further, I’m convinced they’ve got a bunch of other cool money making ideas up their sleeves.

OpenDNS-a company to watch.


Technology is no longer an ends onto itself

Once upon a time, I was a very early adopter.  I had the first IBM PC, HP’s first DOS laptop (I actually wrote communications software for it under contract to HP), the first Palm, the first smartphone, and the list goes on and on.

There was a lot of personal satisfaction in taking on new technology and making it my own.  In one case, a MIDI tone generator from Yamaha (that’s a box that makes musical sounds under the control of a computer), I actually had to write the Windows device drivers for it to work on Windows

You see, Yamaha had built the device for Macs and didn’t believe it could be made to work on Windows. They thought the Windows operating system was too slow  I said that it could… if you knew what you were doing.  They gave me the device and when I got it working, I sold the device drivers to them.  Yamaha was happy, their product was now Windows compatible.  I was happy: I got some money and a really sweet tone generator that worked on Windows.  A few years after that, I saw my software operating the tone generator at Disney World and the Smithsonian.

(For the geeks out there: I had to write a significant part of the device driver in assembly language and do some low level buffering directly in the interrupt handler.)

But, today, thinks are different for me.

For example, let’s talk about tablets.  I’d really love to have a tablet but, as great as even the iPad is, it will not replace my Mac Book Air.  I need a serious OS and a keyboard.  I would, however, love a tablet to replace the 5×7 notepad I carry with me to take notes.  So, I’ve been looking and waiting for a notepad that is really suitable for that.   But I’m not buying a tablet without it being the right size (a seven inch), the right weight (should approximate my current paper notepad and the leather portfolio I carry it in), and with a dependable OS. I’m really hoping that might be the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7.  We’ll see.

Likewise, I think I’ve pushed my HTC Incredible smartphone as far as it will go.  The Gingberbread 2.3 upgrade now causes HTC’s Sense UI to reload every time I use the browser.  From what I read, the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) is a superior architecture… but the only phone with ICS now is the Samsung Nexus, which is said to have battery life problems along with reception problems (similar to the iPhone 4’s “AntennaGate”).

(By the way: I’d love an iPhone if it only had some sort of AUDIBLE missed call reminder like virtually every other cell phone in the market has).

The point is that I’m in a place where new technology actually has to bring me more value than just being new technology. And I am less tolerant of compromising with problems just to have the latest. I’m not sure if that’s a sign of my maturity or the demands we all place on more mature technologies.

That being said… I’ve seriously got my eye on the Lystro camera….

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Posted by on January 29, 2012 in technology


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The Phaedrus

The Phaedrus is a discussion between Socrates and Phaedrus as recorded by Plato.  I found this portion referenced in a comment to the New York Times article “The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg” by Carina Chocano.  The article is a worthy read as well.  I found it interesting that already back in Plato’s time, there was a concern that memory would be eroded when it was offloaded to secondary storage (such as the written word).
The article speaks to being human is to forget, something we all do, and to reminisce. We generally do this gracefully, over time.  When we entrust our memory to a device and the device fails, we lose our memories completely all at once, something that is out of our normal context. 
The commenter to the article mentioned that this was not a new thought… that Plato had recorded it a long time ago…

Socrates: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. 

Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. 

It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

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Posted by on January 28, 2012 in humanity, technology, thought


In the beginning… again…

I think this is my third blog, I think.  In the past I’ve tried to blog because I felt I should be blogging.  Things are different now.  I’ve been tweeting regularly and this time, I feel I need to blog.  It isn’t a therapeutic thing: it is just that I have thoughts that I’d like to remember. That is why people have diaries.  The difference is that when I recount some of my thoughts to friends and colleagues, they sometimes seem to find them interesting. This has prompted me to give blogging a go again.

I appreciate you stopping by and visiting with me and my thoughts… and would deeply appreciating hearing your thoughts as well.

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Posted by on January 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

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