The Laboratorium
April 2001

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Houston, We Have a Coredump

During the initial 136-day shift aboard the International Space Station, Commander William Shepherd kept a mission log, which principally reads as a long list of the frustrations of life aboard an orbital bucket of bolts. I cannot describe how funny it is.

There are lots of gems: unexplained mechanical breakdowns, tools used in ways Ground Control never intended, odd DVD choices (Apocalypse Now?), and plenty of "redacted passages." But the best part has to be the computer problems. Anyone who's ever used a computer will sympathize, but as a software developer reading this stuff, I just want to hide my head in shame on behalf of my ignoble profession. Some highlights:

9 November: 'Laptop ergonomics' is an oxymoron.

We are out of laptop desks for the SSC's and Wiener. We have 3 and they are all deployed. (Just for background we have 9 laptops deployed and 1 or 2 more that we might want to use.) 2 more desks with bracket hardware would be handy. Until then, we are in a "make our own" mode, and intend to fabricate a substitute desk out of structural discards from Progress or a food container lid.

10 November: We know there's no good technical documentation on Earth, but there's apparently not any in space, either.

Finding the written instructions on cable and connectors very elaborate. This is the sort of thing where a good sketch would greatly help. Some of the English translation misses a bit of the Russian nuance. Russian instruction says look "in the vicinity of hermetic plate" and the English translation was "look on the plate". The connector Shep needs is, in fact on a wire bundle "in the vicinity" of the plate. (lose about 30 minutes sorting this one out). Total work on the job s about 9 man hours.

10 November: When Windows prompts you to create a boot disk, maybe you should.

We were configuring SSC 2 to run a CD when it decided to lock up. After repeated attempts to restart, Shep and Sergei went through a long attempt to extract files from the SSC's hard drive before reloading the SSC software. Used the startup disk in the onboard software suite, but could not find a particular file while hunting around with DOS. This would have been much easier with some bootable media (CD-ROM?) that could run Windows. (Or if Shep was not indoctrinated by that "other" operating system). We may need an emergency boot capability again. After 5+ attempts, finally got the hard drive to take an image off the ghost CD. One of the Autoloader floppies went down, but SSC 2 is now running normally. ( 3+ hours troubleshooting).

11 November: Uh, Expedition One, can you please hold while I escalate your issue to my supervisor?

Approx 1930 experienced a "crash" with the Russian PCS laptop. Attempting to reboot the PC gave indication that the Sun OS would not load. Boot s/w can not read root directory correctly. Even Sergei didn't understand this one. Talked with TsUP and decided to wait for specialist advice tomorrow.

14 November: Been spending too much time on Napster, apparently.

OCA file transfer problems in the afternoon. Did several reboots, cleaned off large avi files, dismissed unnecessary apps. OCA still appears to be running slow although lots of storage and RAM available. We are thinking to try again Wednesday with ethernet network card turned off, to reduce processing demand on OCA. Will wait for ground OK to do this.

16 November: Relaxen und watchen das blinkenlichten.

The only outstanding unit is the printer. We have about three blinking lights on the back panel of the printer but it's not on the net. We are out of ideas on how to troubleshoot this one and we need some more input from the ground on what to do next.

24 November: We're not sure why it works, but we're not asking any questions.

Reattempted the Winscat test by logging in as a new user. It worked, and seems to associate Shep with his previous data in database. Ground may want to look at this.

25 November: There's no such thing as a universal file format.

More on fonts. Major step forward. Sergei is on the Wiener checking out a CD with the Russian ODF on it and all the new Russian data file symbols can be read by "Word". Someone on the ground has created a file to interpret and display these symbols. We believe this could be added to the Windows environment on the SSC, so all Russian data file could move around the network as word documents vice having to be in the PDF format we are now using. We need to do this also.

27 November: Dual-booting can be hazardous to your health.

Sergei notices that the Russian PCS laptop has locked up. He tries to reboot, but the Sun application software won't load. Lots of messages on the screen noting data errors. Sergei thinks that it may be the hard drive. He boots up windows to see if the windows partition runs OK--it does. So at least some of the hardware is functional.

2 December: Dammit Jim, I'm an astronaut, not a sysadmin!

Everyone at a laptop to read mail and sort through the message traffic. We all are seeing some problems. Sergei moved all his mail to a personal folder, yet his ".ost" file is still over 1 Mb. Shep can't run outlook at all on the MEC configured with the SSC 2 hard disk. Yuri is having trouble doing mail in Russian. He needs help on fonts. We feel pretty much like a bunch of campers when it comes to mail-server problems. A little more of the nuts and bolts of how this all works would be useful to us and could help us work better with the ground during troubleshooting sessions

5 December: Strangely enough, the spammers found them immediately.

Sergei and Yuri still having some email problems. Apparently friends in Russia do not have the right email address to reach them.

19 December: Proof of artificial intelligence.

Ate some dinner and watched disk #2 of "Lethal Weapon 3" (It's Lethal Weapon Week) although the disk kept crashing about 10 minutes from the end.

20 December: Even in space, you can still surf the Web.

Some confusion on where the Z1 storage is listed. Database shows it as "outside" Node. IMS is running very sluggishly on SSC 2-don't know why, although some other applications were open (word, explorer).

22 December: Every hardware engineer is a pragmatist at heart.

Back into it with OCA. The procedure to connect up the data line calls for us to pull out 2 data lines which run aft the length of the FGB to the ??? and put their aft terminals next to connectors in the ?? so we can check continuity. We leave cables in place and jumper the pins on each end of the cable one at a time to ground and check continuity (and open circuit) that way. Probably saves us 1-2 hours. Also using the scopemeter for this kind of work is sort of overkill. A small test-light probe would do fine here.

23 December: When was the last time you took your network down to watch a DVD?

Reconfigured the Wiener for the DVD drive set up after dinner and tried one of the DVD movies. This is definitely the way to go. Video and sound quality much improved over the CD-ROM disks. Only down-side for us is the network has to come down when the Wiener gets configured for DVD, but we figure for Saturday night, it's worth it.

27 December: Ah, the Registry.

We got the SSC file server backed up per the daily plan. Finally have this configured so we don't have to change any hardware. Backup took a while. Kept getting messages that "registry" was full, although backup eventually completed itself. We believe that the server is trying to handle a lot of program transactions, and this is taking most of the computing power it has.

28 December: Better than just blinking "12:00," I suppose.

Around lunchtime, we missed another Earth Obs site, and we figure it could be for several reasons-Yuri's laptop is gaining a couple of minutes each day.

29 December: Asking people who refer to "memory space on the disk" to administer NT servers is asking for trouble.

We do the MPV update on the file server per the OCA note. MPV load does not seem to copy completely and server has a number of error messages. We are apparently out of memory space on the disk, although we're not sure exactly how NT manages its memory. Wait to talk to Houston. We discuss this later in the day, and then delete all the MPV files which frees up about 800 Mb. We also plug in one of the 1 Gb PC cards, so at least for the short term, the server has some more storage space. We would like to know a little more about the long term plan to manage storage on the server--we were kind of wondering when the hard drive was going to get full. Answered that question today.

3 January: Everyone hates PCMCIA cards.

Backed up the file server after lunch. Learned that when we pull the PC card now being used with the server for more memory, it loses the "sharing" property when it leaves and this has to be redone when it is reinserted. Backup was normal, and is going much faster now that we leave the server configured with the card extender. We just wish they were not so flimsy.

4 January: And press the "any" key to continue.

We did the time update on the SSC file server. When the server time was reset using the clock icon from the system tray, the "apply" button was used. (procedure did say use the "OK" button) This put the update program in some type of loop which we could not get out of. Had to shut down the server and restart. When the server came back up, correct time was resident. We don't know if this is a one-time anomaly or there is some problem here. Went ahead and broadcast the new time to the network.

8 January: The search for signs of an intelligent search engine.

The browser is working well, and this is a much more convenient system for finding things than doing it on paper. Searches on the messages onboard folder could be better, but it is workable. A keyword search feature here would be most useful.

8 January: Are you sure it's not set to use A4 paper?

Trying to print out the OCA messages about the IMS details. Printer is still acting up and printing half pages. We have been feeding it strange paper, (green) and wonder if that has offended it. We try the reboot technique sent up from the ground, and that seems to help for a while. Then the printer goes back to its old ways. We would still like to know how to change permissions so that the client SSC's can cancel print jobs in the print queue-we are still blocked from doing this.

15 January: I would have sworn it was right here.

We could not find one of the video cables for about a half hour until Sergei remembered that we had used it for the OCA hookup for TV from Progress.

16 January: What does a fellow have to do around here to get a decent headset cable?

We find fairly quickly that the "sleeve" wire does not connect between both ends of the cable on the leg to the microphone jack. We cut the wiring and do a check again, and isolate the problem to the end with the 1/8" plug, which fortunately, is right where we made the cut. Tried to take the plug apart, but this was all glued together. We pulled the wiring off a set of Sony CD speakers to get another jack that would fit the back of the laptop. We stripped and spliced the wire, which was very fine-24, maybe 26 gauge. We don't want to use our few butt splices for this, and the wires are too fine anyway, so we pull out the soldering iron to see how that works.

First problem is that we can't plug the iron in. Plugs are Mir-style, and apparently the sockets in the SM are different (more leads). So we do another IFM to hook the iron up. Then the little soldering tube on the end won't fit the iron-it's the wrong size. So out comes the Contingency Clamp Kit and we safety wire the tube to the end of the iron. It works. We tin the leads, put some tubing on them and insulate with electric tape. (The Russian side did provide this, and it does work.) We get the cable hooked up, and do a mike check. We have an OCA hookup with the Chief Astronaut and the system is working. That's the good news. Bad news is that we now have another failure-looks like the earphone cable is bad-maybe the same type of wire-connector failure. .Today's IFM took us maybe 3 1/2 hours. But the external laptop speakers are working and we have the OCA comm. link back.

18 January: There's nothing like a well-stocked supply room.

We would like to ask that 5A show up with enough gear so that we end up with at least the following spares, which will be above the 5A outfitting requirements:

  • 3 spare hard drives-3 GB or bigger
  • 3 spare network dongles and cards-we have no working spares left
  • 3 spare PC card extenders-we are finding that every laptop needs these
  • more spare coax-at least--
    • 2 X 25 feet
    • 4 X 10 feet or 4X 6 feet
    • 6 X 3 feet
    • 10 each of the T, Coupler, and Terminator connectors

19 January: That's what you get for using Outlook.

We are continuing to see some strange things on our email-particularly the sizes of files. We are trying to keep minimum messages in our inbox and outboxes, and we still see large ".ost" files moving to the ground-2.5 Mb each. We don't understand why these are so large.

19 January: All Ground Control Operators are currently busy helping other space stations, please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.

Stepping through the diagnostic procedure does not go as planned. On the first step, loading protocol 11001, we get the exact same indications as before-"download complete" followed shortly by "error-missing axis". Ground notes to "bypass" this do not work. We can not get the control software to do anything else. "Enter" key just puts us back into the top of a loop with MACE asking for a new protocol. We relay this word to Houston and standby.

22 January: Let me guess: Outlook again.

Sergei is still having difficulties with his email. After the mail sync, he still has "outgoing" mail left instead of everything in the "sent" folder. We talk to Houston about this, as this has occurred a few times now with Sergei's files.

23 January: Uh, yeah, we're having trouble repro'ing this one in the lab; do you think I could come over there and debug it on your machine?

The file server is acting up. Transactions between the client laptops and the server have much more delay than we have seen previously. Yuri had similar delays last weekend, but we have not worked intensively with the IMS since then. Today we are all inputting transactions and the system seems like it just can't keep up. Calls for data on individual objects has been taking 3-5 seconds. Today it seems like even the routine data from the server has significant delay-sometimes taking up to 4 minutes to complete. "History" pages are particularly slow in downloading. After a while, Sergei reboots the file server, but this does not improve the situation.

24 January: And you thought dogfood email was bad.

We are still having unusual email problems. After a late afternoon mail sync, we all had "outbox" mail which had not been taken, and nothing new put in the "inbox", so we think some part of the ground sync and upload to us was incomplete. Our mail problems have definitely been more frequent in the past 3 days, particularly for Sergei. He is pretty sure mail has been mislaid and he needs a way to account for what has been sent to him in the last 2 weeks

25 January: Who the hell resolved this one "By Design?"

Shep starts the MACE troubleshooting in the Node. We step through the procedure and finally get the MACE to operate after a PC card is swapped out in the secondary drive. The protocol we tested with, 11001, looks OK. The first protocol on the priority list is run, but it does not look as though MACE is doing anything. We call this down to the ground and Houston says this is expected

9 January: "Just ship it. Nobody will ever need that many alarms."

We have been working with the Timex software. Many thanks to the folks who got this up to us. It seems we each have a different version of the datalink watch, and of course, the software is different with each. Yuri and Sergei are able to load up a day's worth of alarms, but Shep has the Datalink 150, and this has a 5 alarm limit. So 2/3 of the crew are now happy. All this is a pretty good argument for training like you are going to fly-we should have caught this one ourselves in our training work on the ground.

30 January: Contains fixes for the American, Far East, and Outer Space editions.

Shep and Yuri update the file server with service pack 7. No problems. We reboot the server and it runs well all day.

5 February: NASA: we put the "Universal" in "URL."

Apparently Houston's been having some trouble with the OCA file transfer. We already saw that mail and some of the execute package did not make it up. We already have the OCA reboot started when Houston asks. We are missing some operational messages, and we don't seem to have the .htm file which points to each day's execute package. We ask Houston about this too, and finally get it squared away a few hours later.

7 February: Do you understand how routers work?

The Wiener comes "up" this a.m. with a blank screen, although it is still processing and "routing". Sergei reboots it and it runs normally.

19 February: You put WHAT on the CD-ROMS?

We have been receiving CD ROM's from the ground via Shuttle which have been difficult to read. We've had problems with both operational software and entertainment discs. These occasionally have some foreign material on the surface which gets in the way of the disk reader hardware. The new Russian laptop software image was the most significant example. We think there is some glue residue left on the disks from sticky notes or labels.

21 February: I'm sorry, you're breaking up. Are you going behind some space junk?

Mid afternoon, we do an OCA media event and a spot for the Houston Rodeo. The OCA is reverting to its previous mischief, where we are simplex comm. Everytime we want to hear or speak, we have to toggle a button on the keyboard to switch this. We think this has got to be a software problem. Sergei comes up with a temporary fix where we swap the headset and speaker jacks, which gets us through the session today. Unfortunately, comm. on the uplink from the media rep was intermittently unreadable.

22 February: You work with computers, you have days like this.

The day really gets off to a bad start. The server connection to the net is down hard. We worked on it last night until 0100 and could not bring it up. We were doing the file server part of network reconfiguration yesterday. This moved the FS to the lab-we also extended the Ethernet lan from the Node into the lab (not part of the procedure). This allowed the server to rejoin the network without delay, rather than waiting much later when the RF access points are set up. The plan was working well, and the server was online from mid afternoon. At about 2200, we were reconfiguring some mail files which, with a lot of help from Windows NT, got put in the wrong place during the backup procedure. When we finished restoring the files, the network was down and would not come back up. We worked this for several hours. Finally, jiggling some cables brings just a part of the net back. (that really instills confidence in the stability of your network).

So as of 0700, we have to use the OCA machine for daily planning. Fortunately, ground has uplinked everything to the OCA's directories, so at least we have what we need onboard. But when we try and print, the printer locks up. It is not happy with the net now either. So Shep and Sergei start trying to figure out what is going on. After trying lots of other computer tricks that don't work, we put another network card in the server and that seems to fix the server problem. We power cycle the printer and that comes back. We are having a hard time understanding the how and why, but everything is working.

1 March: Never tell a network engineer how to do his job!

The RF access point (#1) is mounted in the aft hatchway of the lab. Square antenna is pointing in the nadir direction. We know this is not what ground wants, but the entire station is accessible on the RF net through this gateway. You can even be down in the Soyuz with your laptop and still stay on line. Putting this on the forward bulkhead as requested is just not suitable the way the lab is laid out right now.

2 March: UNIX isn't so friendly, either.

Up early. We were working late last night with the PCS configuration "patches", and wrestling with the UNIX commands. Laptops were reloaded and left shut down while other files were uploaded to the MDM's. The word from Houston this a.m. is to wait another rev to connect the first laptop so that we're sure the changes to the C&C computers are complete.

2 March: Outlook again. As usual.

Yuri is missing 5 emails in his outlook "Send" folder. He drafted these up last night, and they were left in his Outbox. They should be showing in his "Send" folder, but they're not there, and Outbox is empty. We think an old mail (ost) file was uplinked and overwrote what Yuri did. We call Houston to see if the outgoing files can be recovered. Houston puts this in work.

The Light Bulb of Mathematics

If you think that you can think about a thing, inextricably attached to something else, without thinking of the thing it is attached to, then you have a legal mind.
-Thomas Reed Powell

Something similar might be said about mathematicians. On one account, the art of mathematics consists in taking sucessive abstractions of reality until the abstractions themselves shine with an inner beauty.

Beauty aside, the precise relationship between the language of mathematics and the "objects" purportedly described by that language is hotly contested. Philosophers, linguists, and semioticians have produced numerous, mutually contradictory, explications of the distinction between words and things, between signs and signifieds. Such debates have a labyrinthian quality: there exists no linguistic hair so finely split it cannot be split further.

Mathematics itself, though, has some interesting points to make about the limits of description. The basic question at stake here -- "what might we mean when we say 'foo'?" -- can be formalized, and mathematicians have extracted some interesting results by training their formal tools on themselves.

Let us consider a simple example, drawn from constructions ("universal algebra," for the curious) common in theoretical computer science. We would like to give a precise mathematical description of a light bulb. To the computer scientist, the crucial question to ask is which properties of the light bulb we care about. Very well: we can tell whether or not it's on, and there's a switch on the wall we can flip.

To be more precise, following the usual practice, we introduce a formal language for talking about light bulbs. This language has the following basic 'words'

  • "on" -- this word represents a light bulb we know to be in the on position, shining brightly into the room.
  • "off" -- this word represents a light bulb that's off, sitting forelornly in the dark.
  • "flip(_)" -- this word represents the action of flipping the wall switch, changing the light bulb from off to on, or vice-versa.

From these words, we form new 'light bulb terms' by stringing together these words in a few precisely specified ways. We can either

  • write down a primitive term -- either "on" or "off" --, or
  • take an existing term L and form "flip(L)".

The idea is that "flip(_)" is actually a function: given a light bulb, flipping the switch yields something which is still a light bulb, albeit one in some (potentially) different state. The following are all 'light bulb terms' of this language:

"on" , "off" , "flip(on)" , "flip(flip(flip(off)))"

To complete the model, we add the following two rules, which build in our knowledge of how light bulbs actually work:

  • "flip(on)" = "off"
  • "flip(off)" = "on"

Thus, we should be able to derive such profound results as

  • "flip(flip(off))" = "flip(on)" = "off"

so that, as we know, flipping the switch twice leaves a dark room dark.

The key point here is that "=" is a purely FORMAL relation: the rules that let me conclude that double-flipping is futile are really rules about how to manipulate odd-looking strings of words. I'm allowed to erase "flip(on)" anywhere it appears and replace it with "off," WITHOUT thinking at all about what "flip," "on," and "off" mean.

The fun part comes when we start to ask about possible meanings. We say that something (possessed of a bunch of sub-things) is a "model" for our formal system if that something supplies us with:

  • some sub-thing called OFF
  • some sub-thing called ON
  • an operaton, called FLIP, which takes any given sub-thing into some other sub-thing

where OFF, ON, and FLIP satisfy the above rules in the sense that:

  • applying FLIP to the sub-thing ON gives us the sub-thing OFF
  • applying FLIP to OFF gives us ON.

Note that "on" and ON aren't quite the same thing. The former is a symbol of our formal system. The latter is some particular 'real' light bulb that's on. There's an 'obvious' relationship between the two: the one is supposed to stand for the other, but the goal of all this formalization is to be precise about that 'obvious.' Every possible result in our formal system -- such as "flip(flip(off))" being the same as "off" -- turns into a corresponding result in the model: FLIP applied to the result of FLIP'ing OFF gives us back OFF again.

Why be so abstract about what a model is? You see, there are a lot of different possible models for this system. The lamp by my desk is one: ON is the state in which power is flowing to the 100-watt bulb, OFF is the state in which it isn't, and FLIP is what happens when I turn a knob. But the traffic light out my window is another model: ON is the state it's in when it's red, and OFF is the state it's in when it's green, and FLIP is what happens when it goes from red to green or from green to red.

Green to red? What happened to yellow? Oh, it's in there. Like I said, FLIP is what happens when it goes from green to red: I'm thinking of FLIP as the complete transition.

Objection from the floor: but what happens if we FLIP a yellow light? Oh, let's say we get a yellow light again. Or maybe we get a green light. From the perspective of the formal system, IT DOESN'T MATTER. The traffic light has a richer structure than we need for it to be a model of a light bulb. Once a model satisfies the basic requirements of your formalism, anything else it does is its own business: it can run a gambling joint on the side, fry eggs, daydream about paragliding, whatever.

In fact, it's pretty easy to produce an infinite number of distinct models for the above formal system. The "regular" light bulb has two states; the traffic light has three. Imagine a light bulb with four states: ON, OFF, Stan, and Ollie. Or one with five: ON, OFF, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. Where FLIP of Groucho is Groucho, and FLIP of Chico is Harpo, and FLIP of HARPO is ON. And then there's some light bulb with six states, and on and on and on.

One way of looking at this is to say that mathematics is quite explicit about the limitations of its own language. I can, in some sense, actually quantify the uncertainty in the precision of my words. When I say "ON," I could mean this, or that, or this other thing. I am capable of reasoning about whatever it is I'm describing, in the sense that I know that if I FLIP my ON twice, I'll have the same thing. So I can draw meaningful conclusions, without every really pinning down the exact reference. I'm NOT talking about a broken light bulb, in which FLIP of OFF is OFF (and not ON). Math is good as far as it goes, which is far enough to talk about how far it goes.

Now, that said, one amazingly cool construction, which comes up all over the place in math, results if we go back and look closely at the distinction between "on" and ON. What if we were to let ON be the string "on?" Similarly, we'll let FLIP be the act of taking some string S, writing "flip(" in front of it, and then writing ")" after it. So, given, for example, "flip(on)" we can apply FLIP to it to get "flip(flip(on))"

That is, we're using the 'light bulb terms' of our formal system as a model for the system. It's a bit confusing, but worth thinking through closely. We have a formal system, some set of rules for maniuplating strings. These strings can be construed as representing various things, but one of the things they can represent is themselves.

As a construction, it has two very nice properties. First, it can be applied to any formal system constructed along the basic lines used above. If you can write down your system precisely, you can reason just as precisely about the writings. And second, the model you get is in some sense 'natural,' because you're guaranteed that nothing extraneous will show up in it. It won't contain any yellow or Chico that you didn't mean to be included. It's almost tautological, but profound: this 'syntactic' model perfectly corresponds to the formal system precisely because the formal system lacks the terminology to describe the things it doesn't describe.

The two names most closely associated with this remarkable insight are Godel and Herbrand. Godel used it in his Completeness Theorem, raising hopes among other mathemeticians about the power of mathematics, hopes he cruelly smashed those hopes the next year with his Incompleteness Theorem. Herbrand used it to create the field of proof-by-computer, by showing that mathematical problems could be reduced to purely syntactic questions, to which mechanical proof techniques could be applied.

Of course, he did this ten years before there were computers, which really only adds to the accomplishment, when you think about it.

Like Selling Napster T-Shirts

The Quick and Dirty Summary (if "Aimster" means anything to you, just skip straight to the hyperlink):

  1. With the rise of the Internet, rampant copyright violation has come to the masses. Or at least those masses wealthy enough to own computers and fast net connections.
  2. Technique A for stealing from The Man is to make a digital copy of something -- e.g. turning a CD into MP3s -- and share it with your friends.

  3. Napster's business model consists of Technique A.

  4. One way The Man keeps us under his thumb is to make Technique A harder by encrypting shit. E.g. DVDs are encoded using a scheme known as CSS, which requires a special chip in the DVD player.
  5. Hence, Technique B for stealing from The Man: crack his encryption algorithm and decrypt the shit yourself.

  6. In order to stamp out Technique B, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, duly purchased by the large media corporations, criminalized the use and distribution of "circumvention devices." That is, it's a crime to decrypt certain shit, or to tell other people how to decrypt said shit.

  7. Notwithstanding the DMCA, decrypting said shit is often pathetically easy; the canonical example being that the explanation (as that of DeCSS, the anti-CSS algorithm) fits on a T-shirt.

  8. In an effort to protect its Technique A business model from The Man, Napster has recently "blocked" certain songs from its service. It does so by removing from its index any files with titles from a particular list.

  9. Aimster seeks to extend Napster's revolutionary Technique A marketing plan to the lucrative world of AOL Instant Messaging, noted for its loose ethics.

  10. Putting two and two together, Aimster observed that Napster's blocking scheme (7) is pathetically easy to get around (6) but that the DCMA doesn't know from pathetically easy (5). Thus the "Aimster Pig Encoder," which encodes song titles by putting the first letter of each word last, like so:

    "reludeP nda ugueF in D inorM"

    Aimster then proceeds to claim that the APE constitutes an encryption scheme to prevent eavesdroppers from monitoring the files on your hard drive. And, as they say,

    "IMPORTANT WARNING: DO NOT TELL ANYONE how the Aimster Pig Encoder works. Disclosing how the Aimster Pig Encoder works may be a violation of a federal law called the DMCA and subject to up to a $500,000 fine and 5 years in prison!"

Okay. Everyone with me so far? Now, this is the point at which we all laugh very hard for a while.

I've no special love for The Man, believe you me. But there are some techniques of sticking it to him that just aren't worthy of being so described, and the APE is one of them.

To start with, Chase has noted that the relevant portion of the DMCA "doesn't protect just any encryption, just encryption controlling access to a work protected by the DMCA." So the legalities fall apart from the get-go. Which leaves the hypocrisy.

Eavesdropping. Eavesdropping. Yeah, don't want those filthy record company clowns spying on your hard drive. Looking at the titles of the files in your Napster directory. Looking over the titles of the songs you're sharing with other Napster users. The titles you're exposing to them through the Napster search engine. Which ain't no eavesdropping at all, no, never.

The Big and Bad Guys here do have one advantage (in addition to being Big), one which is not to be underestimated. Their position is internally consistent. Circumvention is bad, they say. Tight access controls will always be required, they murmur. Yes, they're willing to be a bit willfully naive about the ease of breaking their encryption when it comes time to stand up in front of the judge, but this is hardly in the same league as crying out for the pretextual protection of laws you loathe.

Put it this way. Aimster didn't even try to distrubte a DeAPE utility. The world they pretend to encourage is one in which lots of people share files over Napster, but using an uncrackable code, which is, on its face, absurd. Or, if you want to argue a bit, perhaps they're letting "legitimate" users decrypt those names, but witholding their techniques from the evil file-name spies. Which is equally ridiculous, since they don't even make a token attempt at separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were. The DVD Cabal at least had the minimal self-respect to put their decryption in a black box.

Aimster makes a case against the DMCA, perhaps, but the positive pro-Napster anti-Man pro-fair-use case gets lost in the smirky self-righteous self-congratulation.

There's evil going down out there. Property rights -- and not just intellectual property rights -- are being stolen away and replaced with paltry grudging licenses to the temporary and limited use of property rights very much reserved by aforementioned Man. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are being hunted down by the forces of profit. Tradmarks are being used to control public discussion; patents are being used to squelch technology; the market is ruthlessly trying to cut off the air supply of intellectual life.

But with enemies like Aimster, The Man hardly needs friends.

And so we come to the circumvention device.

I'm not even going to dress this up with some sort of cutesy cover story about my extensive research and my ingenious feats of reverse-engineering. To do so would be to sink to their level. The emperor has no clothes, true, but Aimster is taking advantage of the situation to go streaking, and the time has come for a little dignity.

So here we go. Bruce Willis is dead, Brad Pitt doesn't exist, Jaye Davidson is a man, Soylent Green is made out of people.

And you can decrypt a file name "encrypted" with Aimster Pig Encoder by taking the last letter of each word and placing that letter at the front of the word.

Come and get me, Aimster. Bring it.

Recent Reading

First off, you should go to Google and search on "Dkmfkmkglklkgbkvbkbv." I'm serious.

Next, the following words are taken from the "front" matter of the paperback edition of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius(Dave Eggers, Vintage, 2001):

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Convention. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, who also reserve any rights there are to be reserved. The author wishes to reserve the right to use spaces like this, and to work within them, for no other reason than it entertains him and a small coterie of readers. It does not mean that anything ironic is happening. It does not mean that someone is being /pomo/ or /meta/ or /cute/. It simply means that someone is writing in small type, in a space reserved for copyright information, because doing so is fun.

Which is completely preposterous, because it passes completely over the all-important question: why is it fun to write in small type in such spaces? Eggers has no answer that does not concede either

  • that his use of the space is ironic, or
  • that "irony" is an empty term, nearly devoid of meaning, or
  • that "fun" is an empty term, nearly devoid of meaning.

I've always had a sense that Laurie Anderson and Don DeLillo have a lot in common. Even beyond their common preoccupations, their writing styles resonate. A talent for the abrupt. The shape of a casual repetition, the shape it takes. The shape, the abruptness. Repetition is the shape of history, and the sounds of their words unfold into this shape. This shape.

There are differences around the edges: Anderson's lines have more of an unsettling undercurrent; DeLillo comes closer to pure glossolalia. But still, when the wind is right and the planets are aligned, I can slip into those speaking styles, or even into their halfway compromise, as though it were some strange fugue state of consciousness I am entering.

Apparently, I'm not the only person to remark upon this connection, because Salon has just posted a clip of Anderson reading from DeLillo's latest novel, The Body Artist.

Neal Stephenson's The Big U was his first novel and long out of print, but it's just been republished in a rake-in-the-bucks paperback edition. He's all but disowned it, though it's not all that bad. It reads rather like a dry run for his later work: the funny passages are less funny, the wordy passages are less wordy, the incoherent passages are less incoherent, the colorful characters are less colorful, the random outbursts of violence a little less random.

It's still recognizably Stephenson, though, which means that it ends with a cartoonish quasi-apocalyptic shootout starring some unlikely characters and includes a cartoonish rape scene. He's not on indefensible ground here: he's clearly writing from the heroine's perspective, and I don't think I'm giving away too much plot if I note that she escapes. But still, his ratios of shootouts to novels and of attempted rapes to novels are both disturbingly high.

Two weeks ago, I discovered Pistil Books and News, down on Pike a few blocks from my apartment, home to a respectable used-books inventory and an eclectic magazine selection. Like many stores, they have a frequent-buyer punch-card system. In this age of readily-available computing technology, though, theirs is the most sensible system I've ever seen: your discount is set at the average of your previous ten purchases.

Of course, wisdom such as theirs cannot be allowed to continue to exist in this world. Pistil is closing down, driven out by high rents in the Pike/Pine corridor. It's the paradox of gentrification. People like me move into a neighborhood, drawn by the vibrant cultural scene. You know, as typefied by places like Pistil. We drive up the rents, and next thing you know, Pistil's out on their ear, going Internet-only. Curses. Foiled again, and there goes the neighborhood.

At their going-away sale, my principal find was a used copy of a property law textbook (Property, by Dukeminier and Krier). Sounds boring, perhaps, but there's something about this one's tone that I can only describe as "giggly." Maybe if you had to write a thousand-page textbook, you'd get a little goofy in the footnotes, too. I know I would.

  • (page 27) "Worry not! To a whaler a 'waif' is not a homeless child but a pole with a little flag on top."
  • (page 162, reprinting a New Yorker cartoon) "The way I see it, we divvy up -- a third for you, a third for me, and a third for Sam -- and what the George A. Fuller Company don't know won't hurt them."
  • (page 193) "One Roland is recorded as having held 110 acres for which on Christmas Day, every year, he was to perform before the king 'altogether, and at once, a leap, a puff, and a fart,'"
  • (page 294) "Now hold on to your seats and compare these two cases involving future interests in transferees."

More convincingly, remember Joe Piscopo? Well, in 1985, he filed for divorce from his wife of twelve years. At the divorce proceedings, he argued that his celebrity goodwill stemmed not from education and training, but rather, from unique and ineffable talents. The court disagreed, holding that his celebrity status constituted marital property, to which his ex-wife was entitled a one-half share.

Yes, but Joe Piscopo? In the same paragraph as "celebrity goodwill" or "ineffable talents?" They didn't stick this one in for case law, I'm convinced. They stuck it in for amusement value, the same way they stuck in Mark Gastineau a few pages later. Remember Mark Gastineau?

My other reading of late, mixed in about equally with the property law, has been John le Carre. You know, spy novels. Apart from the pleasures of his pacing and his undeniable talent for writing set-pieces, I'd say what I've been enjoying most about them is the epistemology of spycraft.

Imagine yourself a desk agent, reviewing the report of a field agent, telling you about a recent promising contact with a potential turncoat on the other side. What do you actually know at this point? Well, maybe everything is on the up-and-up.

Or maybe they've flipped your agent, and the turncoat doesn't exist. But that would be a bit obvious; you might notice the discrepancies in the reports. So maybe the turncoat exists, but is only pretending to cozy up to your fellow. Or maybe it's one step back, even from there. They know about the turncoat -- they bugged a few phones, followed your field agent around -- and are feeding him false information so he'll unknowingly leak only things they want you to know.

Perhaps you want to test out these theories. So maybe you'd like to feed them a tidbit of information to see if it comes back to you through this channel. Hmmm. If you tell your other operative about this whole plane, then if something goes wrong, they'll know about your whole scheme, including both your agents and your turncoat. Oops. So you'd better keep him in the dark about why he's leaking confidential intelligence data.

Hey. Come to think of it, they might be doing the same thing to you! You ought to be careful where you spread the information the turncoat supplies. If it spreads too far and someone recognizes it, that's another way the channel could be blown. But given all the secrets you're keeping from your own teammates, what if some of them are keeping secrets from you? And what about the walls of paranoid silence inside the bad guys' organization? Hey -- odds are that the turncoat's superiors aren't telling him about everything they're up to. Maybe there's a way you can manipulate this situation to your advantage. You can use him as a sample for understanding how they disseminate information, how much their lower-levels are generally privy to.

And on and on and on. The usual parlyizing thicket of problems in the philosophy of knowledge, compounded with a whole bunch from the philosophy of language, all nicely gummed up with a healthy dose of paranoia. And, yet, from this confusion, the spymasters have to tell their customers something. The tentative assembly of this something from the fragmentary back-and-forth of the spy trade makes for an interesting set of conundrums.

That's what I've been reading lately. You?