Conspiracy Theories

A 911 Truth video recently popped up on Facebook (as these things are wont to do):

Old dead link: http: // topinfopost.com/2013/07/03/911-explosive-evidence-experts-speak-out

We live in strange times.  "Conspiracy Theories" abound.  Some turn out to be true (I'm looking at you NSA).

I'm fascinated by the 911 "Truther" stories.  The story told at a site like http://www.911truth.org/ is far more interesting than the official story.  It's also sickening to think our government would have blown up the twin towers so most people will never even look at it.

I like to refer to Conspiracy Theories as Conspiracy Hypotheses.  A hypothesis is the beginning of a theory; a hypothesis becomes theory with proof.

Personally I don't think our government blew up the twin towers.  What would be the purpose?  To get us to attack Iraq?  The government doesn't need excuses like that; it invades for perfectly ordinary trumped-up reasons.

One of the ideas I find most fascinating about the hypothesis of a controlled demolition of the twin towers is that a new kind of nano-tech thermite was used.  Some have speculated it was painted on the interior walls during regular maintenance and then somehow triggered wirelessly.

I love the boldness of that idea.  Since I wrote a novel about nano-tech I keep an eye out for nano-tech stories and the idea of nano-thermite is very compelling from a storytelling point of view.

If I were to write a sequel to Nano-Plasm it would focus on how this amazing nano-thermite could be used and, of course, as a techno-thriller, on how it could be abused.

This imaginary nano-thermite stuff has trigged all kinds of imaginative flights for me.  One idea I would tie in is that maybe there is a paint that is non-volatile until it comes into contact with aluminum - the outer skin of airplanes.  Maybe flight 93 spontaneously combusted and that's why there isn't much wreckage.  Likewise for the flight that crashed into the Pentagon.  Poof!  No evidence.  How about taking out huge numbers of electrical substations simply by painting this evil, remotely controllable, explodable paint on them.  How about painting nuclear power plant containment domes with it.  It's pretty easy to imagine lots of ways this evil paint could be used.

My story, which would be the main thread for a Nano-Thermite book, goes beyond what 911 truthers propose.  In my story a foreign government would have brought down the twin towers with a controlled implosion and that is what our government is covering up (you know, because we can't appear weak).

In my story, which has several layers, the airplanes would have been a cover for the controlled implosion.  The foreign government planned the plane attack so ordinary Americans would think the towers collapsed from the planes.

Secretly, this foreign power told our leaders what they had done, and emphasized they could bring down any building at any time, particularly our seats of power and of course football stadiums.  This message would have been communicated just after both towers fell (or maybe between towers 1 and 2).  And the icing on the cake of the threat would have been the collapse of WTC 7.  "See?", the foreign power would have said, "just in case you silly people believe the airplanes caused the collapse, we will tell you in advance that we are going to drop WTC 7," and then they went and did it.

Originally, when I was thinking up my story premise, I figured the reason to bring down WTC 7 would be if the twin towers operation had been run from the emergency center housed in WTC 7 (yes, there really was one).  Then it would make sense to implode WTC 7 to cover up the evidence.  That wasn't compelling enough to me.  It didn't really make sense to me that something as clever as imploding the twin towers would need a command center that was a whole floor in WTC 7.

Aside:  We had basically already won the war with Japan when we dropped nukes on two of their cities. One hypothesis is that we did it to impress Russia with our power.  Now imagine a foreign power doing the same thing:  telling us they can drop any building at any time and then proving it on TV.  ("And if you don't believe us,", they would say, "check out the video of WTC 7.")

My story is quite a bit scarier than "our government is the enemy".  Because even in that scenario we imagine we might someday find the rotten tomatoes and throw them out.  The idea that we were attacked by a foreign power and instantly brought to our knees is much scarier.

Which foreign power?  In my story I would make Putin the bad guy.  He's got the resources, the craziness, a country full of smart people who could invent this nano-paint, and he hasn't hesitated to poison his enemies (with plutonium, no less).  I'd wind in some kind of genesis of the whole thing going back to the cold war.

I'm not a crazy person - I can tell imagination from reality.  But this happened:

Back in the day I was playing the beta of Neil Young's (the game guy, not the singer) Majestic, which was an augmented reality game (ARG) that intermixed story with the real world via web sites and even phone calls to you, the player.  The story was about an evil corporation making micro-electro-mechanical-systems (mems).  The morning of 9/11 I received an email alert from the New York Times that one of the World Trade Center towers had collapsed.  And I assumed this email was from Neil's game.  It was only when the second email alert arrived that I looked more closely and saw it really was from the New York Times and that's when I finally turned on the TV and was shocked by what I saw. So it was hard to tell story from fact that morning.

When it comes to compelling narratives about what happened on 9/11/2001 I can't really tell which, if any, story is correct.  I don't believe any of them.  I'll give the 911 Truth people props for more compelling storytelling; and if you like science fiction at all, I recommend you visit http://www.911truth.org/ and explore it.  Think of it as an ARG.  And if you come away after that with lots of doubts, well, that's probably a good thing too.

And here is a video summary of the NIST study of WTC 7.

For me, though, all of the 9/11 stories, including the official one, are still in the hypothesis stage.  I don't expect us to get beyond that for another 50 years (or unless a Snowden comes along with PowerPoint slides [written in Russian!]).  To be clear, I think our government is full of misguided nincompoops, but I don't really think any of them are evil enough to pull off a twin tower implosion - if that's what happened.  

I don't know.  In the meantime, my imagination runs wild.


NSA Listening Posts - Crowdsourced

There has been lots of press recently about the NSA hacking into everything.

There are cameras in everything now; laptops; Chromebooks; netbooks; tablets; phones ...   I'm surprised the NEST learning thermostat doesn't have a camera (but it does have a motion detector).

Anyway ...  with consumers (that's you and me) buying this stuff and distributing it around our homes, the NSA's job is half done.  The other half is getting to information out.  For phones with GSM/LTE the phone itself will do the job.  For the rest of these devices, Wi-Fi is required.

Comcast is here to help!  All new routers from Comcast come with WiFi you can't turn off.  The idea, from Comcast's point of view, is that they are doing a sort of "crowd sourcing" of WiFi hotspots. Supposedly (I haven't tried it), you can connect to anyone's Comcast router with your Comcast account and use it as a free hotspot.

Comcast, as you probably know, has a back-channel IP address for every home router.  They use this for maintenance, and generally, the back channel addresses are IP6, which is cool.  But since we know the NSA co-opts consumer gear for their own purposes I think we can be pretty confident that the NSA can take control of one of these routers if they want.

... so ... to summarize ... as consumers, we've bought everything the NSA needs to bug our homes.  Talk about crowd sourcing ...

(Note:  It's possible to do small amounts of configuration to your Comcast WiFi connection - so I renamed mine from HOME_<some hex digits> to NSA_LISTENING_POST.  So if you're driving by and see that, you'll know where you stand.)

[Edit: My question for many years as been - how do you know you're connecting to a trustworthy Comcast hotspot and not some random router?]



Nine nines

 (Reposted from 9/9/1999 to approx 9:10 on 11/12/13)

Wednesday, September 9, 1999 - Nine Nines

Today is the famous day 9/9/99 (or as using the international standard, 1999/9/9, but that's another story).

Personally, I wouldn't have used four nines to delimit a list of dates in my own code - that's too wimpy! I would have used NINE NINES!

9:99:99 on 9/9/99 (that's nine nines) could easily be stored as a time and date. Of course, if you 'normalized' it, it would really be 10:40:39 on 9/9/99, because you would have to subtract sixty from the seconds and the minutes to normalize it (carrying the extra 'tens' place). (Don't laugh: I bet you can enter 1:99 into your Microwave oven and it will do the right thing and warm your coffee for 2:39.)

Today is the first somewhat official day of Y2K-ness, so I thought it would be appropriate for programmers all over the world to observe a moment of silence at 10:40:39 a.m. Or, for that matter, since we're talking about lame ways of encoding dates, you can do it at 10:40:39 p.m.! Or, do the normalization wrong, and observe a moment of silence at 9:39:39 a.m. or 9:39:39 p.m.! Whatever!

(In some parts of the world it's already 9/10/99 - oh well! Close enough!)

So, whatever you're doing today, at sometime during the day that might be represented by 9:99:99 on 9/9/99, stop what you're doing and think a deep thought. Think about all the Cobol programmers who have gone before, boldly representing dates as strings that may or may not be parsable in the 21st Century.

Then think about what we are going to do when the Unix date function rolls over in 2039. Then forget about it, because, heck, it's still forty years away!


Self-government in action

Is self-government possible? (Most people say no and think it would lead to chaos.) I would say a certain amount of chaos is good (but I digress).

Watch the following video about bicycling in Amsterdam (which I witnessed first hand a month ago).


Bicycle Anecdotes from Amsterdam from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Yes, some central planner laid out the streets, but the day-to-day movement of bicycles is both chaotic and somewhat beautiful ... I would argue such self-organization is suggestive of what self-government might be like: maybe a bit chaotic, but ultimately productive and energetic and efficient.


An Essay on Privacy by Robert Sutton, Brigantine, New Jersey, USA

(From:  https://www.grc.com/sn/sn-422.txt - about two thirds down.)

I figured I would share a bit of the philosophical basis I use to explain why privacy is necessary:  The 20th-century existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre asserted that privacy was necessary to make the most out of our lives.  This is apparent in his play "No Exit."  In this play, a group of people have their eyelids removed and are trapped in a room together.  It turns out this room is hell.  This is where the quote "Hell is other people" comes from, he says.  Their eyelids being removed is so that they can't even close their eyes and imagine that they are alone.


In Sartre's version of existentialism, he claims that humans have two modes of being:  being-for-itself and being-for-others.  Imagine you're alone in the woods or going for a stroll in the park with no one else around.  You look at all the trees, the park benches, and leaves on the ground, and just enjoy the nice scenery.  Since you're alone, you almost get the feeling that all these things are there just for you.  You perceive these things as objects in your universe.  This is being-for-itself.


Then suddenly, you notice someone else in the distance walking towards you, though they don't see you yet. Seeing someone else and realizing they are about to approach you, you now perceive yourself as an object in someone else's universe.  So what do you do?  You suddenly become conscious of your appearance.  You make sure your shirt is buttoned, you fix your hair, you straighten your posture so you look presentable and mentally prepare yourself for an interaction with another person.  Then, when the person finally approaches you, you put on a smile, claim you're happy to see the person, and extend your hand for a handshake.  In this mode of being, you are viewing yourself as an object in someone else's universe.  You're not just behaving as your true self, but you're also behaving how you believe the other person expects you to behave.  Viewing yourself as an object in someone else's universe is being-for-others.


Sartre believes that being-for-itself is the mode where humans can be the highest form of themselves and make the most out of their lives.  Being-for-others is the source of all shame, embarrassment, and guilt.  People who live through the expectations of others and always behave how they believe others want them to behave is what Sartre refers to as being in bad faith.  The philosophy is somewhat derived from Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of "bermensch," which is German for "Superman."  An bermensch is someone who is the highest form of themselves with minimal influence from society.  An bermensch is always living inside their own head, and they don't view themselves through the eyes of others.  An bermensch also doesn't follow any rules or social norms that they don't understand, and make the most of their existence before they croak.


Ever since the whole NSA surveillance fiasco, I realize I'm always considering how I appear to others.  Whenever I am talking with a friend, I have trouble getting the feeling of flow, in which I feel like I can be my true self, because I always know someone else is watching.  It's like I'm always viewing myself through the eyes of a third party.  Before every sentence I speak or write, I enter being-for-others in which I consider how I would appear to someone else listening in on the conversation.  It's like I'm always behaving how the government would expect me to behave as the perfect citizen.  I even find myself afraid to say inside jokes I have with my friends because I'm afraid someone listening in would take them out of context.  I find myself constantly restrained from being my true self.


When the whole PRISM thing got leaked, I could hear Sartre and Nietzsche rolling in their graves.  This news made me realize that existentialism is now more relevant than ever.  If we believe we are always being watched, we will lose our ability to maintain being-for-itself, and we'll all be living through being-for-others in which we spend our short lives as robots behaving through other people's expectations.  This is why in the opening chapter of "1984," Winston Smith sat in the corner of the room as he wrote in his journal, outside of the view of the cameras. He needed to escape the view of others in a desperate attempt to retain his humanity.


Feedly FTW!

tl;dr: Feedly wins. 

Since Google Reader was officially turned off I had to change the way I read my "morning paper" - my RSS feeds. The top two contenders as a replacement reader were Feedly and Digg Reader. Digg Reader came up late but looked terrific; Feedly seemed a bit too clever and cumbserome to me. But since I read my morning paper on an iPad I need to use Feedly and now Feedly's web interface looks terrific ... so ... Feedly won. 

One thing about the Google Reader shutdown is that Google said only about 500,000 people used it. (Only?) But Feedly reports several million new subscribers. Maybe Google used a very conservative version of "used it" or maybe the publicity was generally enough to get people to try Feedly. I dunno. It's confusing. 

Good job Feedly! 

[Edit: Still using it in 2020.]


Collaboration - Tim Cook

What qualities do you look for in terms of what you think will produce effective collaboration?And what's your role as CEO in fostering that kind of collaboration?

You look for people that are not political. People that are not bureaucrats. People that can privately celebrate the achievement, but not care if their name that is in the one in the lights. There are greater reasons to do things.

You look for wicked smart people. You look for people who appreciate different points of view. People who care enough that they have an idea at 11 at night and they want to call and talk to you about it. Because they're so excited about it, they want to push the idea further. And that they believe that somebody can help them push the idea another step instead of them doing everything themselves.

I've never met anyone in my life, maybe they exist, that could do something so incredible by themselves in companies with global footprints. In our world, in Apple's world, the reason Apple is special is we focus on hardware, software, and services. And the magic happens where those three come together.

And so, it's unlikely that somebody that's focused on one of those in and of itself can come up with magic and so you want people collaborating in such a way so you can produce these things that can't be produced otherwise. And you want people to believe in that.


Source:  http://www.businessinsider.com/tim-cook-explains-his-strategy-for-running-apple-2013-6


Such a Bright Boy

-a short story-

By Stephen Willson, 1981

Mrs. Phillips heard the front door slam.  She knew it must be her only son, Harrison, and he wasn’t in a good mood.  Something was always wrong with the boy whenever he slammed the door shut.  Mrs. Phillips knew he expected her to go to him right away, but lately she had been having doubts about how much she should dote over him.  He would soon be leaving home, not forever, but going off to graduate school, before returning to live with her.  She was quite proud of Harrison.  All on his own, Harrison had finished number one in his class his junior year and it looked like a repeat performance this year.  He had scored in the 99th percentile of all college juniors on the Graduate Record Examination Special Test on Engineering.  Her neighbors commented on what a bright boy he was.

Mrs. Phillips had wanted to be an engineer; that was one reason she had married the late Dr. Phillips:  they both had a real interest in engineering problems.  He had founded the Phillips Oil Search and Discovery Company in Houston, Texas.  They had frequently talked over interesting engineering problems in the evening before retiring, and more than once, she felt, she had made a significant contribution to the advancement of the state of the art of oil discovery.  The board of directors had talked her into selling after Dr. Phillips’ passing, “so she wouldn’t have to worry about money matters.”  It was a decision she had regretted.  But while the late Dr. Phillips had been alive, they had shared the adventure of solving problems together.  She didn’t have that anymore.  All she had was Harrison.  But Harrison was fine boy.

Mrs. Phillips was more than little confused by Harrison’s behavior.  She had expected him to be quite happy today.  She let him stew a bit more and then went up to see him.  She knocked quietly on the door.

“Harrison, honey, are you alright?  May I come in, dear?”

She didn’t hear anything from inside so she opened the door anyway.  Harrison was so moody.

The room was dark.  Harrison was laid out flat on the bed, with his head sticking out over the edge of the mattress.  He was staring at some papers spread out on the ground below him.  One of the papers looked out of place; it was too colorful, but she couldn’t see enough of the paper to understand where it was from.  The light from the hall made a distinct shadow that fell from Mrs. Phillips onto the boy.  She hesitated a bit before moving the rest of the way into the bedroom.  She knew without looking what the boy was wearing:  he wore the same thing every day.  He was so stubborn when it came to clothing; well, when it came to anything; and he had resisted her attempts to make his appearance just a little bit more palatable. 

He was still wearing his blue tennis shoes with white socks and shoelaces that were too long.  It was a miracle he didn’t trip over them every day:  somehow he had adapted his way of walking.  His pants, as usual, were too short, so that when his socks slipped down even a little bit, there was a band of flesh visible between the bottom of his pants and the top of his socks.  His pants were always the same shade and weight of navy blue material, no matter what the weather.  His belt had his calculator attached.  His shirt was white with thin pale blue stripes evenly and vertically spaced around his torso.  The material was so flimsy as to be see-through.  Mrs. Phillips couldn’t see them but she knew there was an assortment of pens in his front shirt pocket.  She was very familiar with those pens.  Harrison was often putting a pen into his flimsy shirt pocket without the cap on the right end.  As a result, he was frequently seen walking around with big colored splotches on his chest.  If he put a red pen in wrong, then it looked like he had been shot in the heart and hadn’t noticed.  This had confused more than one student that passed him by.  Mrs. Phillips was in the process of sewing plastic liners into all of his pockets.

She went into the room and sat on the bed next to Harrison.  Her son was tall, over six feet, and very thin.  She could never get him to spend enough time eating!  He would never be famous if he starved to death first!

The light from the hallway was all that illuminated the room.

“Harrison, dear, what happened?”

Harrison twisted his neck to look at her.  She saw a tear was just then winning the battle to overflow and run down his face.  Another tear broke through and flowed down his other cheek.  He tried to open his mouth to talk, but only croaked.  He tried again, and this time the words began to rush out in little bursts.

“I had it Mother, but I lost it.  I had the Oppenheimer solution but not it’s gone.  It’s … gone.”

Mrs. Phillips made some ‘shushing’ sounds to calm the boy.  But Harrison kept going.

“I was on my way to school when I had, I don’t know, a sort of vision, you might say, right where you go around that corner near the weird building where the sun reflects into your eyes in the morning.  I suddenly knew it!  It was obvious!  I knew it was right.  There was no doubt.  It made perfect sense – it was so obvious I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.  It just … came to me.  I was on my way across the engineering plaza to write it down, really I was, I felt driven … when these kids… I guess, I don’t know, I don’t think they meant any harm, they just didn’t know how important it was for me to write it down!  But these, uh, kids, you know, students, they grabbed me and forced me into one of the Engineering Week contests.  Stupid stuff – why do they waste their time?  I wanted to get away and write down the formula, but they grabbed my red pen and made crude remarks about it.  I mean, it’s just a pen, but their tone was awful!  The next thing I knew they shoved a paper into my hands, laughing, and then they left, and I was alone in the plaza.  I took their piece of paper and my red pen and I tried to write down the formula before it was too late and I couldn’t remember the details that had seemed so clear before, but it was … too late.  The idea was gone like it had never really existed.  I tried for an hour to remember, but I couldn’t get a grasp on any good ideas.  My brain had blanked.  Harvey, you know Harvey, the one I talk to sometimes, he came by later and told me not to take it so hard, but he thought I was upset about the contest.  He didn’t know anything about the formula.”

Mrs. Phillips sniffed back a tear.  She picked up the brightly colored paper that was covered with Harrison’s scrawl.  The boy had been so close.  She read the printing on the brightly colored paper:

First Prize
Nerd Contest

Written on a single blank line was Harrison’s name.

Mrs. Phillips gave Harrison’s neck a squeeze to relieve some of the tension and then she quietly left the room.  She was alternately filled with rage and sadness for the boy.  He had been so close.  Things were finally about to get moving again for her and then this … contest … interfered.  Why couldn’t the boy have simply remembered the formula?  Why did these kids meddle?  She doubted they felt any responsibility – probably had no idea what they had done.  Now she had to take more risks.  Damn!  The Oppenheimer formula was one of the more famous outstanding problems in fluids engineering.  If he figured it out he would become a famous engineer and he would bring other famous engineers home – to her house – for dinner and talking.  It would be such an exciting time to have all of that intellectual energy in her house!

Mrs. Phillips went down the stairs, trying desperately to control her emotions.  She walked stiffly into the kitchen.  She took a deep breath, and then suddenly her movements became quick and precise.  She reached into the back of the kitchen cabinet and removed a bottle of detergent.  She poured a tiny bit into a bigger jar and filled the jar to the brim with water.  Then she put the diluted mixture back into the cabinet and resumed her usual poise.  She wanted everything normal for dinner.

She cooked a steak and warmed some frozen vegetables in the microwave; she precision-fried some French-fries (Harrison loved greasy foods – they were the only thing that kept him from starving); and then she rang the dinner bell and Harrison, as he had been trained to do, came down to eat.  Harrison was still in “sulk mode,” and she knew there wouldn’t be much conversation tonight.  After dinner they listened to the Gas Company’s evening concert on the local classical radio station, and then Harrison wandered off to bed.

When the boy was safely asleep she retrieved the mixture from under the kitchen cabinet and crept outside into the moonlight.  She went to Harrison’s parked car and very carefully and subtly painted the Oppenheimer formula – inverted so it would look correct from the inside – onto the windshield of the car.  She didn’t trust that the formula would still be visible from the building – the one by the corner where the sun hit you in the eyes in the morning – where she had painted it the night before.  It was difficult painting precise mathematical shapes onto the windshield but she knew it didn’t have to be perfect.  It had to be just good enough for Harrison to get the right idea.  She took a quick look around to ensure no one had watched her.  It wouldn’t do to have some silly neighbor interfere by asking what she had been doing to the car.

Mrs. Phillips reflected for a moment on how unfair life had been for her, but then smiled slightly to herself as she realized there was at least one woman on this earth who could take care of herself.

And the boy … he would be famous.

He was such a bright boy.


GDC 2013 Talk on Guild Wars 2 Scalability (and link to 2017 talk)

I managed to give a GDC talk in 2013 called "Guild Wars 2: Scaling from one to millions" and it focused on two things:  (1) our general approach to development at ArenaNet, and (2) user stories of some interesting problems I had a chance to work on during the project.  Part (1) is important to understanding why part (2) is interesting.  I think it is only by understanding the scale of effort that goes into Guild Wars 2 that a person would have any appreciation for some of the server scaling issues we had to solve.

Guild Wars 2: Scaling from One to Millions  

My experience up on the stage at GDC was 20 years ago when I hosted a GDC panel.  I can't find any evidence of it, as it was pre-internet.  Wow, what a difference 20 years makes!  20 years ago there was almost no support; you showed up, found the room your talk was in, and hoped the PC would read your CD with your talk on it.  This year, the AV people were super professional, ensured everything was set up and would work, and GDC provided a speaker's lounge and rehearsal rooms.

I ran into Louis Castle, who I know from the Westwood/Virgin days.  He has been on the board of advisors for GDC and he told me it has been a process of steady improvement on the AV front.  "We are a technical conference - we can't have technical issues,", he said.  The AV people are all individually interviewed to ensure they meet the quality standards of the conference.

All-in-all, it was a terrific experience.  I had about 10 minutes of questions at the end, and then about 15 people came up to me to talk individually, which I'm told indicates some level of engagement by the audience.

Hopefully you can find some take-aways in my slides.

Update 2021: I gave another talk in 2017:  Guild Wars Microservices and 24/7 Uptime

The 2013 talk got an okay reception (and I wish I could find the audience feedback scores - I'm sure they mailed them to me).  The 2017 talk however got a great reception, with lots of feedback in the upper ratings.


Reader's Digest

When I was a kid, I was forcedFORCED, I tell you, to either go to the beach or go sailing every weekend.  Yeah, life was hard.

At the beach, I would read one or two stories out of Reader's Digest Condensed Books and also every story out of the magazine.  We must have had 100 of those Condensed Books volumes at home.  I mostly read thrillers; I think The Jackal (Abridged) was the most memorable story.  Oh, and The Terminal Man (Abridged).  That was a good one.

*Sigh*.  Now Reader's Digest has gone bankrupt.  But at LRC.com I read that Reader's Digest was a CIA front.  (If you believe LRC.com, everything is a CIA front.)  But, in one of life's great ironies (since Reader's Digest was supposedly edited at the sixth grade level) I have learned a new word from RD's demise:  sinecures.

But wait, a little Googling and we learn this is a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy:  that's the kind where a company files for "protection from creditors" and expects to leave bankruptcy a healthy company.  Which sounds great until you read that this is RD's second bankruptcy in 3 1/2 years.

I guess the CIA just doesn't pay the way it used to.