Weird Spam

I somehow came to read the “blog” of the Perl NOC one day–the network admins for the sites. They get some really amusing spam. And then there’s that category of things where you think it might be spam, but you’re not sure, like this one.

But anyway, today I was checking through my own mail that got filtered as spam, and got the following:

from	Selma Orr <>
date	Wed, Mar 26, 2008 at 12:27 PM
subject	I hate you damm

Instant delivery worldwide. Certified by VISA and VeriSign.

They spam me, tell me they hate me, curse at me, and then expect me to buy whatever they’re selling? Also, why does “” get a lot of spam? That address never existed! (I should disclaim that this message wasn’t actually sent to, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten it. But I get rejected mail to showing up in the logfiles daily!)

Fighting Terrorism for Real

Does anyone else remember the Air Marshals? I seem to recall that, once upon a time, every single flight had an air marshal on it. They’re basically federal agents who ride the plane undercover and carry a gun and extensive training. Anyone who tries to hijack a plane would find that the air marshals had different plans for them.

So with billions and billions in funding going to making us feel safer from terrorists, what percentage of flights would you think have air marshals aboard them?

The TSA won’t say, but CNN’s put the number at less than 1%.

Let’s try to actually fund this? You can’t say you’re tough on terrorism and then refuse to fund programs to stop it. It seems like one of the few programs that might actually work.

Flaming Pants

I hadn’t paid much attention at the time, but Hillary spoke the other day about how she was “battle-tested” and ready to lead the country, unlike Obama. (Or so she thinks.)

CBS quotes her as having said:

“I remember landing under sniper fire… There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

Wow, sounds impressive. The problem? The CBS article continues:

Problem is: that’s not how it happened at all. And we should know: CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson and a CBS News crew accompanied the First Lady on that Bosnia trip.

A photograph shows Clinton talking to Attkisson on the military flight into Tuzla.

And pictures CBS News recorded show the greeting ceremony when the plane landed… [T]here was no sniper fire either when Clinton visited two army outposts, where she posed for photos. And no sniper fire back at the base, where she sang in a USO show starring Sinbad and Sheryl Crowe.

It’s great that she was over visiting troops in Bosnia, don’t get me wrong. It’d just be nice if, you know, she didn’t start wildly embellishing tales. And in an election where every move gets scrutinized, didn’t she realize that her lying would set her up for comments like this one:

Mike Allen of said: “Who knows if she misremembered, misspoke, exaggerated, whatever. It makes the case for Sen. Obama that all this experience that she’s been talking about is at least partly in her imagination.”

Also, the comments on CBS News are rapidly plummeting in quality, and may soon surpass Youtube in terms of insanely bad comments…

Enough Already

I used to like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They were both well-qualified, I thought, and the country would be in good hands either way. But I worried that Hillary had too many people who were opposed to her for one reason or another, so I thought Obama had a better chance of getting the Democratic nomination. I still supported Hillary, mind you, just not as much.

That all ended several months ago. It seems to me that every time she opens her mouth, she comes across as more and more bitter. She’s polarizing the Democratic party, and embarassing us at the same time. While she’s better than McCain, getting shot in the face is better than burning dying in a fire.

If you’d asked me in February to pick my top two Democratic candidates, I’d have said Obama and Richardson. And I haven’t wavered on that. (Clinton dropped from third place, though, to dead last among the Democrats.) They complement each other perfectly. So I was ecstatic when Richardson just came out in support of Obama.

Of course, the Clintons were not pleased. Which brings up another point of mine: I used to like Bill Clinton. Sure, he could have exercised some better control in personal matters, but if that’s the biggest criticism eight years later, job well done. But now he’s getting nasty and negative. I saw a survey somewhere that showed that his approval rating (yes, they apparently do track approval ratings of past presidents) has gone down since he started campaigning for Hillary. Fail.

But in the linked article, Richardson explains that he doesn’t think he’s “crossed” the Clintons, nor that he owed her his endorsement. But the best part of all is this little bit:

Richardson was asked Sunday about James Carville’s comment that Richardson’s Obama endorsement “came right around the anniversary of the day when Judas sold out for 30 pieces of silver.” Carville is an adviser to Clinton’s presidential campaign and a CNN political analyst.

“Well, I’m not going to get in the gutter like that,” Richardson said. “And you know, that’s typical of many of the people around Sen. Clinton. They think they have a sense of entitlement to the presidency.”

He’s starting to exhibit something that Obama rocks at: people come at him with some sort of low blow, and he manages to say exactly the right thing to deflect the attack and end up making the attacker look like the idiot. (Remember when someone started questioning Obama’s patriotism because he stopped wearing his little flag lapel pin? His response was that he’d noticed that the flags often served as a replacement for “true patriotism.”) And… Did Carville mean to equate Hillary with Jesus in his analogy?

(Also, I have to wonder… How is it not a conflict of interest to be “an adviser to Clinton’s presidential campaign and a CNN political analyst?” Are they familiar with the Republican jibe that CNN stands for “Clinton News Network?”)

In conclusion… Where’s my Obama-Richardson ’08 bumper sticker?

Business School

As I’ve mentioned in a few past posts, those of us in business school really don’t think normally. Having found that there are a lot of good jobs in Nashua (versus my previously-narrow search in Boston), I started looking, out of curiosity, at real estate in Nashua. And I stumbled across this place, a home with an attached storefront.

It’s located in a very dense rural area, and seems like it may have a high percentage of renters in the neighborhood. So I thought a laundromat may do well. Of course, you also stock a lot of vending machines. Although labor really isn’t necessary, I’d probably want to employ one person to watch over things, and maybe to do laundry for people who want to drop stuff off, and to help customers who need it. I’ve read that it’s hard to keep good staff, but really, the job requirements are minimal–you have to be able to work a washing machine, be friendly to people, and watch over the store. You’d probably have a lot of free time, too, which could be spent watching TV, surfing the web, or whatever. And I don’t think I could bring myself to pay less than $8/hour or so.

It’s hard to find much information on commercially-available solutions, but a “water recycling” system could help cut costs, too–filtering the “waste water” and reusing it. Additionally, I’d sell plastic “gift cards,” at a small discount. ($50 for $45 or so.) The cards would also help everyone by not being coins, meaning that they wouldn’t have to lug around a pocket full of quarters, and I wouldn’t have to empty huge hoppers of quarters. (Although a lot of coin-based places seem to end up being “closed loops” of quarters–you put your bills into the change machine, get quarters, and put them into the washers or vending machines. So at the end of the week, I go in and move the quarters back into the change machine, and take the bills to the bank.) Selling the pre-paid cards, though, would generate a lot of cash up front, which could be put into a high-yield savings account. If you get a gift certificate for your birthday, how long until you spend it? Especially when it’s a “bulk” item (something you can spent on multiple visits), it may well be six months or longer before you’ve depleted it. Further, gift certificates also get forgotten and lost. Thus, if I sell $5,000 in gift certificates, I might only ever have an expense of, say, $4,500. And that $5,000 is in the bank earning me a decent chunk of interest.

They now make cheap security cameras that do resolutions like 1280×1024, versus the standard 640×480. And with things like ZoneMinder on Linux, it’s easy to set up an excellent camera system on the cheap.

I’d also pull in a cheap cable/DSL line and offer free WiFi for people doing laundry. Hopefully, while waiting for their laundry, they’d also buy some food from the vending machines. (As long as I have someone working there, actually, we could maybe serve fresh, hot food, like hot dogs or pizza!)

And of course, there are benefits to me besides the income. I wouldn’t need a washer and dryer in my home, since I’d have a dozen attached to my home. And I wouldn’t need to buy Internet access, since I’ve already got it at the laundromat. Plus, it’s occasionally a problem to have packages delivered to my house, as no one’s home and they might need a signature. Now I’ve got an employee who could collect them.

Of course, only after developing a killer business plan in my head did it occur to me that maybe I don’t want a home in a not-so-hot neighborood, especially one where I don’t have a driveway.

Boycott the Olympics

I’ve never liked the Olympics. I don’t like watching sports on TV. I can watch a Sox game because they’re “my” team,” and I’m cool with the Patriots games being on in the background. The Olympics, though, aren’t fun to watch. So without anything against them, I already have no interest.

I’m also really annoyed at the commercialization. Networks pay big money to lock up the contracts for TV coverage. Everything under the sun becomes Olympic-branded, costing big bucks.

But the biggest reason of all? China’s hosting them. Even as they leave communism, they’ve got major problems. They run a firewall system blocking huge parts of the Internet that’s arguably more restrictive than that in third-world military regimes. But with rising unrest about Tibet, China’s cracking down on media coverage even more, including an apparent blanket ban on coverage from Tienanmen Square.

So don’t waste your time. I know I won’t.

Actually, the more I look into it, the more reason I find. They’re banning poor people and the mentally-disabled. That’s pretty scary.

Of course, it’s not all bad: “The Beijing government has issued new mandates that require police officers in the city to act more appropriately. The government has circulated pamphlets urging officers to desist from using foul language, lose their arrogance, and not hang up on people who call to report crimes.”

Quick Photoshop Tutorial

As a photographer, and an obsessive-compulsive nut, I spend a lot of time working on tweaking photos in Photoshop. Inspired by a recent project, here’s my workflow for one image. Here’s what I started with:

It’s an aerial photograph, and certainly not a bad photograph. But it can be better!

The first thing I tend to address is how much detail is “lost” in the shadows and highlights. Often you’ll find a photo that looks washed out. (Less often, you’ll find one that’s excessively dark.) The good news is that, within reason, you can fix this up. The classic way is the Levels tool in Photoshop (Ctrl+L). But newer versions have a Shadows & Highlights wizard, something I’ve taken to using before I even get to Levels. The Shadows & Highlight tool (Image / Adjustments / Shadow & Highlight) gives you two sliders, one to bring out detail in the shadows (the dark regions), and one to bring out detail in the highlights (the exceedingly light regions). Here’s how it looks after a quick adjustment:

It’s definitely looking better. But it’s still not quite there. You have to be careful with the Shadows & Highlight tool, because applying too much results in an image that looks entirely artificial. You can adjust it so it starts to look like real life, but take it much further and you’re quickly at, “Wow, someone got carried away in Photoshop…” So I had to stop when the image was still slightly washed out. Take a look at the shadows cast by the buildings, which are the darkest part of the photo. The darkest part should be black, not gray. This is where Levels (Ctrl + L, or Image / Adjustments / Levels) comes in:

A few things to note. The graph is called a histogram, and it’s basically a graph of how much of the photo is each shade of gray, ranging from pure black on the left to pure white on the right. Short of just hitting the ‘Auto’ button (which often produces results I don’t quite like), the easiest way to tweak the levels is to drag the sliders appropriately. Pull the black arrow (underneath the graph, above the “0” text box) until it points to where the graph is just starting to slope upwards. (Or, more accurately, to where the graph is non-zero.) You could do the same with the whites, although in this case, it’s properly-adjusted.

In this case, this is all we need. Press “OK” and you’re done. (A more advanced technique that’s sometimes called for involves using the eyedroppers above the “Preview” checkbox. Click the black eyedropper, and then click on the photo to select what you want to define as 100% black. Do the same with the white eyedropper, selecting what should be pure white in the photo. The gray one is more tricky, as you’re setting color balance, but you essentially want to find a “neutral gray,” something like pavement. You really just click around until you find something that looks good. But in this case, none of this is necessary.)

After clicking OK, here’s what you get:

The shadows are now black. More generally, and perhaps more importantly, the photo no longer looks washed out. It’s properly exposed.

In this case it’s not bad, but the next step is to look at the color cast of the image. It’s more pronounced in other photos, which often have various color tints that they shouldn’t.

Here’s the Variations menu (Image / Adjustments / Variations):

Make a habit of clicking on the photo under “Original,” which will reset it. When you first start otherwise, it’ll save whatever settings you have from last time. Unless things are insanely bad, I tend to slide the slider over from the center to where it’s shown in the photo. Do this mostly just “to taste.” My end result is subtle:

Now, we’re basically there. One last thing. I like really “sharp” images. It’s not blurry per se, but it doesn’t have that “tack sharp” status. Photoshop makes it very easy to sharpen images. I tend to use the “Smart Sharpen” available in newer Photoshop versions, though the older “Unsharp Mask” remains popular and effective. Here’s the Smart Sharpen (Filters / Sharpen / Smart Sharpen…) dialog:

You set two things: the amount of sharpening to apply, and the radius of the sharpening. Here, I used settled on an amount of 66%, and a radius of 0.5 pixels. This sort of blend is common. Another alternative is the “haze” sharpen, which is something like 20/20 (a low 20%, but over a huge 20 pixels). Applying the 66%, 0.5-pixel sharpening gives us this image:

So here we are. We’ve made lots of subtle changes, but all of them are quick. But then jump back to where we started:

One additional tip: I didn’t need it here, but adjusting Saturation can help with some more dull-looking photos. Ctrl+U is the shortcut to memorize, but Image / Adjustments / Hue & Saturation is the menu entry. Just don’t go too overboard.

It’s Florida

What is it with Florida and screwing up elections?

Right now there’s a big debate over what to do with their election results, which officially don’t count, and in which no candidates were allowed to campaign. Hillary did anyway, and, unsurprisingly, won.

Of course, counting the votes is unfair–only one candidate campaigned, and she was breaking the rules in doing so. So obviously, it would favor her. But then again, not counting the votes would be equally unfair–you’re disenfranchising a whole state.

Right now, I suspect that, as with Florida and the 2004 general election, 2008’s Democratic primary is going to be very close. And we’re going to end up with a big fight over Florida, the outcome of which will swing the vote one way or the other.

Except I think we’re at a critical juncture. A united Democratic front can take back the White House in 2008. A bitterly-divided Democratic party, feuding over the nomination, is going to lose. And if we get into a “credentials fight” at the DNC, it’s going to be the latter.

So, from the 49 other states–actually, 48, as Florida isn’t the only one with problems: please, figure out how to hold an election!

Awesome Radios

So the Project 25 protocol, with its IMBE CAI digital voice, is being rolled out in huge numbers. Motorola’s ASTRO is the most commonly-used, although several other providers make radios that do the P25 standard, too.

They’re calling it interoperability. When you and the next town over both buy $3,000 radios doing a crappy 9600bps digital audio protocol, your radios can talk to each other! I’m really not sure who fell for this, since the existing strategy, analog voice, worked 100% of the time. They’re switching people over to a new, proprietary (kind of: the voice codec is proprietary, but it’s part of an open standard) digital system so that everyone’s radios can talk to each other. This has never made sense to me.

The other big problem is that there are multiple bands out there. In New Hampshire, VHF is most common. You’ll find police, fire, and ambulances between 152 and 161 MHz. (More or less: they expand a bit on both sides.) Massachusetts is big on UHF, with the police usually being between 460 and 490 MHz. But it’s not quite that standard–some municipalities do their own thing. The 800 MHz band is becoming big, too, especially with trunked radio systems. You find that a lot in big cities. (Indeed, I think Manchester and Nashua are on 800, though I don’t monitor either so I wouldn’t swear to it.) And now there’s a 700 MHz band coming out that’s slowly being introduced.

As a ham, we have allocations on VHF and UHF that are both very common: 144-148 MHz and 420 or 430 through 450 MHz. Since both are commonly used, a lot of ham radios will do both bands. So my ham radios merrily transmit on both VHF and UHF. But, for whatever reason, this never caught on with “commercial” radios, like the ones public safety agencies use. If you want your police cars to monitor VHF and UHF, you put two radios in them. God forbid you work for something like a huge city, or a regional task force, where you may need to communicate on VHF, UHF, and 800 MHz. That’s three radios everyone will need to carry.

Vertex (the “commercial” branch of Yaesu, a ham company) made a dual-band radio. Once. The FTH-2070 came out in the 80s (?) and did VHF and UHF in one radio. It was huge, but for people who needed both bands (lots), it was a huge boost. For some reason, no one ever made a radio to follow in its footsteps, and the radio hasn’t been made for several years.

So it’s actually a grand mess. You have four different bands that a public safety agency may be on. They might be using analog voice, or they might using digital. (And this isn’t even counting wacked-out proprietary standards like OpenSky / EDACS / SmartNet, which are all additional technologies that need their own radios.)

Finally, someone saw the light. Thales has announced The Liberty, a handheld that supports P25 digital (and, of course, analog voice), and covers all four major bands. Pricing is rumored to be around $5,000, but you have to keep in mind that it’s doing the job of four radios that would probably cost $2,500 each. It’s SDR-based, front-panel programmable, and supports several different encryption protocols as well.

Thales previous filled a bit of a niche market. It looks like they do a lot of government stuff, and I seem to recall them being bigger overseas (but maybe I’m confusing them with another company). But this radio has a lot of high-end radio afficionados over here drooling. They not only did a dual-band radio, but they did a multi-band radio. It’s got a big color screen. (What the functionality is remains to be seen.) I think a lot of people, not just me, are hoping that this will lead to more competition, which will lead to more innovation.