31 August 2006

Go California!

California's legislature has reached a deal with the Governator to reduce Cali's greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter by 2020. Hopefully this is a good indicator of policies to come.

30 August 2006

Social policy?

I found a bit of humour in this BBC headline today: Call for fertility ban for obese. The article is about the health risks of IVF for obese women, alas, and not about stopping fat people from propagating.

28 August 2006

At last!

After seeing MRhe's "tabblo" about flying a Piper, I thought it looked like a cool way to present photos and text to tell the story of my trip. Tabblo is a very cool site, and the basic idea is awesome, but at present I'd say it's definitely in "beta". Basically you need to lay the whole thing out linearly, because if you try to go back and add one item to the beginning it destroys all the careful work you've done below. And the "manual flow" mode isn't very useful because once you've put stuff together you can't insert anything new there, only at the end (at least as far as I can tell). Plus the documentation is crap and it kept randomly emptying my "lightbox" where extra photos not yet in the layout are kept. Anyway, like I said, the concept is excellent, the execution needs some touching up.

I present for your enjoyment: Whitsunday Cruise.

26 August 2006


I've put just four photos up in the Oz album in the sidebar, so that people could see a glimpse of what my sailing trip was like. I promise more photos and more details to come eventually.

24 August 2006


If you're a poker fan and want to hear a well stated mocking of Bill Simmons poker articles, check out this blog which I thought was defunct.

Pluto was derecognized as a planet! My kids will grow up with only eight planets (it was evidently either that or add Ceres, Charon and something called 2003 UB313 to the list) which seems kind of weird, like removing a letter from the alphabet.

I'm being shockingly slow in getting any photos from Australia online (probably because I've been falling asleep between 8 and 9 every night). The current plan is to put a few up here soon and then sort out the best ones for a much bigger album a little later on.

I'm Ron Burgundy?

22 August 2006

Comparative Culture

To be added to the list of Things Which Are Much Sweeter in Australia than England:

When you bump into somebody, or accidentally queue jump or run over their dog and say, "Sorry about that," Australians will universally respond "No worries mate." and actually mean it, whereas Britons will just glare at you uncomfortably.


The funny thing about printing out a paper from a major journal like Science or Nature is that you usually get a snippet of the next article on the last page of whatever it is you're looking for. Not many publications can get away with transitioning from "The Fine-Scale Structure of Recombination Rate Variation in the Human Genome" (a perfectly legitimate arena of research) to "The Rise of Rhizosolenoid Diatoms" (which sounds like a bad sci-fi movie).

21 August 2006

Home Again

My holiday in Oz was just about the longest holiday I've ever taken, and certainly my longest in several years. It was an awesome time, and I even did well for myself in terms of photography volume (over 150 snaps), although I make no guarantees about qualitas.

More on all that soon, but today I've been struck by the strangeness of going through my normal routine again. The grey drizzle in Oxford, being annoyed at the fact that English coffee shops don't open until 9, turning the key in my bike lock, seeing everyone at work. Two weeks' holiday was wonderful, but I don't think I'm ready to go back to the rest of my life yet.

03 August 2006

RFID Security

Wired had an interesting piece today about a demonstration at the Black Hat Convention where a hacker cloned the RFID tag inside a German "e-Passport". These passports include an RFID tag as an additional security measure and are due to be introduced by the United States in October. The US is also lobbying for international adoption of the standard. A US State Department official made the reasonable point that cloning the RFID data isn't necessarily a big deal. Nobody has yet been able to alter data on one of the tags (they are hashed to make tampering obvious to the scanning machines).

A few other, more interesting things were demonstrated, however. For instance, by cloning one passport's RFID onto a smartcard (like most current University IDs) and slipping it into the passport, the RFID reader could be fooled into reading the smartcard. In principle, this could mean that while the printed information said "Joe Terrorist" the automated reader would see "Joe Bloggs". Officials again dismissed this problem saying that they're not planning a fully automated security process, just that this provides another source of information for border agents (who would presumably compare the printed name to the RFID name and flag discrepancies).

Regardless of whether this technology will prove risky in passports, the fundamental problem with the design is evidently widespread in RFID systems: the data is unencrypted. If the data on the tags were encrypted it would raise a nearly insuperable barrier to even reading the information contained therein, let alone copying or modifying it. The article goes on to say, however, that something like 3/4 of the RFIDs they tested (hotel keycards, University cards, corporate IDs) were either unencrypted or used the factory-default key for their encryption(!).

Now I'm sure Scott is smiling smugly right now, but this illustrates an aspect of my personality that I feel ambivalent about: I'm inclined to believe by default that any system operated by a big enough organization (Oxford, a company, a hotel, the United States) will do a good job implementing basic security or will test procedures for safety and so forth. For instance, my office in Oxford is very uptight about people swiping in and out with prox cards. Since nobody ever checks the photographs on the cards, I assume they've verified the integrity of the RFID system to fill that potential gap. It just seems so obvious to me that RFID cards need to be encrypted that I can't believe that large Universities wouldn't bother or that they wouldn't reset the key. Don't they have anybody with a clue working for them?

Another example of my automatic trust is illustrated by the new low-energy x-ray machines being tested at Heathrow. You basically stand in this booth and adopt a series of funny poses (hands over your head, face sideways with legs akimbo and arms ahead and behind in a faux-running stance, etc) and they blast you with low energy x-rays which penetrate clothing but not skin. I just assume that some government body has tested this and it is safe for me to do, but some people are unwilling to accept that premise. And it's not unreasonable to be dubious: the dentist does cover you with a humungous sheet of lead when he zaps your teeth, after all.

So is this a good thing or bad? I'm happy that I'm not naturally inclined toward paranoia: I don't waste my time worrying about this stuff. On the other hand, I'm probably too accepting. Healthy scepticism, after all, drives interesting scientific research, and I never have a problem applying it in that arena. Plus, lots of "policy" decisions are made by blowhard politicians who probably have no idea how safe ionizing radiation is or that RFID tags should be encrypted. It seems crazy to me that they don't get expert advice, but it demonstrably happens all the time.

Balancing scepticism of The Man against pointless paranoia is something to keep in mind for my self improvement plan, I guess, along with being less of an arse when I'm drunk. :)

01 August 2006


Steele is in Oxford for a couple of weeks doing a course here affiliated with his law school (something about corporate governance — funny how opaque the specifics of a law education are to me, just like how my day to day research is pretty uninteresting to other people). We met up on Sunday, after he arrived and I showed him a few sights around Oxford before getting some lunch with Blanca and Matt. After that we played a little pick-up football and hit the Angel & Greyhound for a pint before I dropped him off at Teddy Hall, where his course was.

Today I offered to take him and some of his compatriots out punting. It's not easy to try to organise a group requiring two punts (there were nine of us in total) if only one person has any experience. I did my best to explain to the guys in the other punt how to go about it, but it really is best taught by somebody standing with you in the boat, not by shouting mildly helpful tips from upriver. Unfortunately one of the girls in my boat had a serious phobia of birds, which doesn't really go well with the punting experience, since flocks of tame ducks and geese swim right up to the boats, expecting food. This girl evidently grew up in a Manhattan apartment and as such had no particular appreciation for the outdoors.

I did my best to put on a happy face, though, and she should at least have been grateful that she was in the boat with a competent punter, since the other craft spent their first half hour or so spinning in circles. We made a miscalculation in divvying up the passengers, though, because two people in my boat did a commendable job of trying their hand at punting, whereas the other boat seemed to have a bit more trouble. Of course, people always get the hang of it after a little while and eventually we did make it upriver a short way. I saw two herons, which was a new experience and very cool (except for the girl who's afraid of birds — she predictably freaked out). Afterwards we walked through the University Parks and I left them at the Turf for a pint and headed back home.