Security Forces

I just finished a show on “NatGeo” about the private security firms working in Iraq. It was a really interesting watch. They’re not there to engage in combat, but they’re there for “security,” such as escorting construction materials for a new police station (something insurgents are eager to stop), and transporting VIPs around.

IEDs are apparently a huge problem, moreso than the news portrays. One of the guys brought back his SUV, with the whole side blown in and full of bullet holes. The SUV was “reinforced,” meaning that it had bullet-proof glass and huge steel plates over it, and yet it was still in terrible shape. He made it out alright, although the driver, an Iraqi, died. “That was my seventh IED,” he mentioned casually.

Most are apparently set on desolate roads, and are basically just tripped by any car. There are often just tripwires that set them off, versus manually being tripped. Which got me thinking of an old idea…

I want to build an “RC Car,” something radio-controlled. Except I don’t mean a little RC car. I mean an actual car that’s driven remotely. With GPS and a set of video cameras (plus a high-speed, low-latency data link), you could be pretty accurate. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to remotely drive one of these down Route 3 (although I think you could design it to work pretty accurately). But I think they might rock in Iraq. You send one out a quarter-mile in front of your “real” convoy. No one’s in it, but its main purpose would be to trip IEDs, and do some scouting for you. From the back of a van in tow, or from a remote headquarters, people could watch for anything suspicious. And, “worst case,” it trips an IED, effectively wasting the IED on blowing up a van with no one in it. The real people behind could either divert their course, or plow on through, knowing that the bomb had been detonated.

I’ve also thought RC planes would be interesting. These days they’re “UAVs,” unmanned aerial vehicles. What I have in mind is isn’t the military UAV, a “real” airplane remotely controlled, but something a couple feet long with some cameras. Outfit it with GPS and various data links, such that it can stream video real-time, or even capture higher-resolution still images and transmit those. (Heck, fit a high-end camera on it, but have it transmit a 640×480 image, and just store the full-res to an 8GB Flash drive…)

I always thought it’d be cool to have as a pet project. Fly it around and go “sight-seeing” from your room, with what’s essentially a wireless webcam in the sky. I think they’d also be popular with places doing mapping / “satellite” imagery, as you could send these little things up and just have them run autonomously, snapping photos of an area until the batteries / gas ran low, at which point they’d return “home.”

But these things would rock in combat, too. Send these out over areas you’ve got to travel. (And areas you’re not travelling, to keep them guessing.) At a remote command post, someone can spot potential threats and identify them long before they become a problem. (You could even try grazing them with your mini RC plane.)

I don’t know what sort of radio infrastructure over there (well, I know they’re running CDM1250s and HT1250s, but I mean, I don’t know if they run repeaters / what power they run), but you might even fit a portable repeater on the little UAV, ensuring that their portable radios could still keep in touch with their post miles away.

As an aside, the radios I saw them with in the show don’t support encryption, meaning that it really wouldn’t be hard for insurgents to tune in. Their bombs keep getting more and more complex, showing that they’ve got some technically-minded people on board. It seems like a pretty bad idea to me to not encrypt your radio traffic in those circumstances.

Digital Photo Recovery

I just discovered PhotoRec, a tool for recovering digital camera images.

For the non-geeks, a quick basic background…. When you save a file, it writes it to various blocks on the disk. Then it makes an entry in the File Allocation Table, pointing to where on the disk the file is. When you delete a file, the entry is removed from the File Allocation Table. That’s really all that happens. The data is still there, but there’s nothing pointing to where on the disk it is. This has two implications. The first is that, with appropriate tools and a little luck, you can still retrieve a file that you’ve deleted. (Whether this is comforting or distressing depends on your perspective…) The second is that, with no entry in the File Allocation Table, it’s seen as “free space,” so new files saved to the disk may well end up getting that block. It’s technically possible to recover stuff even after it’s been overwritten, but at that point it’s much more complex and much more luck is involved.

Last night we went out to dinner… We took lots of photos, but some were deleted. So I figured PhotoRec might recover them. So I gave it a try.

The filesystem shows 163 photos. After running PhotoRec, I have 246 photos. What’s odd is what photos I have. It’s not the ones from last night. They’re scattered from various events, and several are from almost two months ago.

This does leave us with an important tip, though: if you delete an essential photo, stop. Each subsequent thing you do to the disk increases the odds of something overwriting it. In a camera, just turn it off. Taking more photos seriously jeopardizes your ability to recover anything.

In my case, I didn’t have anything really important… I just wondered how it would work. And I got strange results for recovered files. (Which has me wondering a lot about how its files get written out to disk, actually.) But it’s good knowledge for the future. (By the way, PhotoRec runs under not just Linux, but also, apparently, Windows, and most any other OS you can imagine.)

Arresting Firefighters

This is wild. The fire truck pulls up to a car crash on the highway, and parks the truck to “shield” the emergency workers as they extract a victim from the car. The cop yells at the firefighter driving the fire truck to move so as to not obstruct traffic. The captain, who was actively working on the patient, yells for the fire truck to stay put, pointing out that they very deliberately parked that way for the safety of anyone involved. So the cop pulls the guy away from the patient and arrests him.

Of course, not all firefighters arrested are innocent.

Cold War

Anyone who’s learned about the Cold War will be familiar with the chilling fact (no pun intended…) that we came very close to a nuclear war.

But after reading things like this article, mixed with other anecdotes, I’m left wondering how on Earth we didn’t go to war… Accidentally. Both the U.S. and the Soviets, on multiple occasions, “detected” launches of nuclear weapons by the other, and came within seconds of retaliation before someone noticed something out of the ordinary.

Fortunately, the U.S. was very thorough the first time around, and quickly proved that the first “attack” they witnessed was caused by some guy inserting the wrong tape… In the case of the Soviets, the only reason they didn’t launch a counter-attack after their own false alert, it seems, was because the guy who was supposed to press the button disobeyed orders and went with his gut. (And boy are we glad!)

And there’s a further set of coincidences, really. After a flood of nonsensical data, officials discovered some problems. Apparently, one detection system was alternating between reporting some 2,000 incoming missiles and 0 incoming missiles. Because of the conflicting data, they turned to alternate systems, which also reported 0 incoming missiles, and it was traced to a hardware malfunction, with the 2,000 number just happening to match, by sheer luck (or lack thereof), internal checksums.

So they wrote some code to compare results from multiple systems. And not more than a few months later, the problem with the training tape occurred, when one of the systems began reporting more believable numbers of incoming missiles. (Apparently, a steadily increasing number.) The data “made sense,” but, because of the newly-implemented code to compare with other systems, they realized that it was just one system, and quickly isolated it to a case of someone sending “training data” as if it were live data. It’s almost a case of two wrongs making a right–had the first error not occurred, the safeguards wouldn’t have been implemented to catch the second error.

Oh, and there exists a slightly-creepy website dedicated to the Russian who decided to trust his gut over the myriad indications that we were attacking

World News

Several things of note have happened in the past 24 hours:

  • In Pakistan, the PPP and the PML-N, the former being Benazir Bhutto’s party and the latter being on with apparent similarities, won by a landslide in elections, which were a remarkably peaceful event. There is already talk (albeit just rumors) about the possibility of the impeachment of dictator Musharraf. It’s far too early to know the full effects, but some are suggesting that this is a very good sign for democracy.
  • Fidel Castro has stepped down. The article is quick to note that this doesn’t mean that democracy is around the corner–a new leader will be appointed by Cuban parliament, only because Castro said he didn’t want to be named as the next leader. Possible replacements are reported to be Castro’s brother, with some discussing the possibility of a surprise appointment of a “generational gap” leader, Castro’s current VP (who is 56).
  • Kosovo has declared its independence from Serbia.


LCD and plasma TVs are becoming increasingly popular, costing between $1,000 and $3,000.

If you have that budget in mind, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time suddenly becomes viable: buy a projector and mount it on your ceiling. Of course, only the very high-end projectors will do the 1920×1080 that 1080i and 1080p do, but 1024×768 is very doable for under $1,000, and the difference in resolution shouldn’t be all that noticeable. And then you’ve got something like a 100″ screen. Wow-a-wee-wow!

The caveat, of course, is that few (if any?) projectors include tuners, so you’d have to set up a PC for that, something like a Mythbox. But one can be put together for around $500, and that naively assumes that you don’t already have a spare computer with a tuner card or two.

Internet Radio

I still remain a fan of SomaFM, a network of awesome streaming music.

Two interesting things I’ve come across, though:

The first is AACPlus. The webpage makes it look like a minor little project. But it’s being used by a number of streaming stations, and it’s supported by VLC and WinAmp, among others. What makes it notable is that I’m listening to a 48 kbps stream of one of Soma’s stations right now… And it sounds better than a 128 kbps stream. You can apparently drop it to 32 kbps and drop to just slightly less than CD quality, and at 24 kbps it’s still on par with MP3 streams. It works out great: it delivers high-quality audio to me, and instantly doubles (at least) the number of listeners they can handle, since bandwidth is almost always the “limiting reactant” with streaming audio.

In other news, the RIAA is apparently having luck getting Congress to raise webcasting rates enormously again… In some instances they’ll apparently go up by more than 1,000%. If you check out the Soma site, they’re coming up short on funding every month, pleading for donations to stay online. This is the case with a lot of streaming radio sites, too. They’re barely staying online as it is. Raising their rates by a factor of ten is going to kill Internet radio.

Things are Changing

It’s no secret that Obama’s been winning even more elections lately than the polls had predicted. I won’t get into theories for why, and instead point out another development in Obama’s string of successes.

Hillary had considerable backing by superdelegates, the almost 800 “free” DNC delegates and high-ranking elected Democratic politicians. But one of Hillary’s superdelegates has just announced that he’s backing Obama.

I’m starting to feel good about this race.


I don’t consider myself a ‘hardcore environmentalist,’ but I’m not sure there’s anyone on the planet who wouldn’t agree that this is absurd.

It could be easily fixed, too, if someone (Indonesian government? UN? Environmental groups?) were willing to pay a bit. Hand out nets, and offer a nominal amount of money for each pound of garbage pulled out of the river. 5 cents a pound? Figure that they can get at least 100 pounds of garbage in a big net, in probably twenty minutes of work. You just need to drag it behind you until it’s full.

I’m sure that pulling all the garbage out of the river won’t instantly cure it of its problems. (Currently, even fish can’t live in it.) But I’m also pretty confident that pulling all of the garbage out of the river would be an improvement over leaving it in…