Bob's Junkmail (important stuff.)

Important Stuff. Junkmail #197

Iceland Attacks!

A 16-year-old guy named Vífill from Akranes, Iceland decided to call up President Bush and invite him over to Iceland. Vífill didn’t think Bush would talk to a 16-year-old high school student, so he said he was Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland. He also called on a private phone line into the White House.

He eventually got through to the President’s Secretary. But the White House apparently figured out that Vífill was not really Ólafur Grímsson. The Iceland police took him to the local police station and questioned him for a few hours. They wanted to know where he got that phone number.

Vífill said he didn’t remember where he got the private phone number. The White House said it wasn’t really a private phone number, that Vífill really called the White House switchboard. Everybody got a laugh out of that.

So Vífill was not charged with any crimes. The police told him he is on the no-fly list to the U.S. until he comes clean about where he got the private White House phone number, or until Bush leaves office. Well, maybe they didn’t really mention that last bit, but it’s just as plausible as Vífill having called the public White House phone number.

I think it’s pretty funny. I may call up Vífill and invite him to Pryor. Maybe I can get him on the private line to his high school.



I took this picture in Kansas last month. Which is better?


Question: Should I power a pump using a relatively inefficient windmill fan to drive the pump mechanically, or should I generate electricity efficiently in a big windmill, run it for miles along power lines and through several transformers, then run an electric motor to drive my pump?

Answer: Wait on global warming to bring more rain and fill up the pond.

What about coal vs. wind? It’s hard to find un-bent facts, but it looks to me like a new coal power plant generates electricity for about 5 cents per kWh, and a new wind farm is around 7 cents. But the U.S. government pays about a 2-cent subsidy for wind farms, so they’re in the ballpark with coal power plants. Smaller wind farms are more expensive. Cost of electricity from new nuclear power plants is in the neighborhood of wind power, but without the subsidies.

I also took this picture in Kansas:


I don’t complain about oil wells because I have a car. Well, not much anyway. I complain about most anything when the mood hits me.

Enercon has built the biggest windmill in the world, near Emden, Germany. It’s over 600 feet tall. Each blade is close to 200 feet long.


It will take around 100 of these to match the output of the GRDA coal power plant at Chouteau, Oklahoma, and about 250 of them to produce as much electricity as the nuclear power plant in Russellville, Arkansas.

Micro Air Vehicle

This 14 lb Honeywell autonomous “Micro Air Vehicle” received FAA certification to fly in U.S. Airspace. It can go 50 mph and over 10,000 feet high.


International GPS

GPS is a satnav (satellite navigation) system launched and operated by the U.S. The positioning signals are available free, worldwide to anybody.

Europe is planning its own satnav system, called Galileo. Their plans got a pretty big boost when President Bush made known his plans to shut down the GPS system to everyone but the U.S. military in the event of an emergency.



Some people (airline pilots, for example) may be concerned that Bush’s idea of an emergency may not be the same as their own, and would prefer that he not shut down the GPS system.

Russia has its own satnav system, called Glonass. It was working the 1990’s, but lost some satellites. It’s sort of working again, and should be fully functional in a year or two.


China has a satnav system in the works that is based on geostationary satellites. It will require fewer satellites, but will be limited to about 10 meters accuracy and will be limited to 70°E to 140°E, and from 5°N to 55°N.


The GPS, Galileo, and Glonass systems use satellites in orbits much lower than those of geostationary satellites.

So far, the U.S. GPS system is the only one complete, fully functional, and with high accuracy.


I have read quite a few stories about people having intimate internet chat conversations with attractive members of the opposite sex, only to find out they were tricked. That pretty 23-year-old girl may in fact be a 50-year-old man with a dirty t-shirt and a beer gut.

Now, that young lady you’re talking to might not even be human. She could be a collection of zeros and ones — a program designed to collect your personal information.


It’s just like Eliza.


Open Government

The Open Government Act of 2007, among other things, makes it possible for internet “publishers” to get “freedom of information” documents from the government without paying or suing, at least most of the time.


Although the Bush administration is not known for cooperating with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), he signed the bill. However, in the budget he submitted to Congress a few days ago, he moved the office responsible for the FOIA requests from the National Archives to the Justice Department.

When someone requests information under the Freedom of Information Act, and the government refuses to comply, they can sue to get the information. The Justice Department represents the government in these suits. This happens a lot.

So some people think it’s a bad idea for the Justice Department to be responsible for the FOIA requests, and that it effectively kills the new Open Government Act.


It seems to me that the law should be enforced whether it’s by the National Archives or the Justice Department.

Science Breakthroughs

Here are Science Magazine’s top 10 scientific breakthroughs for 2007:


And in case you were asleep the year before, here are the top ten from 2006:


Who Needs Fingerprints?

The FBI is spending a billion dollars or so on a new biometric database containing records of U.S. and foreign citizens. They should be able to positively identify people using cameras from some distance, using iris and facial identification. Old fashioned fingerprints and palm patterns will be also be used. I expect that DNA records will be in the database.

Some privacy fans don’t like the idea of a giant biometrics database. But the FBI used the word “terrorism” in their justification, so the funding and implementation is a done deal.

When asked of the privacy aspects of the new database, Thomas E. Bush III, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, replied “We don’t need any stinking privacy!” Or maybe I just made that up.


A Tale of Three Stores

CompUSA has essentially gone out of business. Last February they started closing stores, and Over the past month or two they have closed most of their remaining stores and sold the remains of their business to Tiger Direct, or Systemax. The CompUSA name is now owned by Tiger Direct.


CompUSA started business in 1984 as Soft Warehouse. In 1991 they changed their name to CompUSA and went public. By 1998 CompUSA was the largest computer retailer in the world, with sales of $5.8 billion. In 1999, sales grew to $6.2 billion, but the company lost $53 million.

In 2000, CompUSA was bought by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú for $800 million. (He had already purchased 14 percent of the company.) In 2008, Tiger Direct bought the CompUSA brand, web site, and 16 stores for $30 million.

Circuit City lost over $200 million in the quarter ending last November. Last March they fired their best sales people, replacing them with cheaper new-hires. When that didn’t work out so well, they paid all their executive vice presidents a million dollar bonus. Their senior vice presidents get a measly $600,000 bonus. These bonuses are to keep the vice presidents from quitting. I suspect they’d be better off putting those unemployed top sales people into the VP spots.



Best Buy is making more than a billion dollars a year, after-tax profit. They must be doing something different.

Fake Steve

A guy from Forbes writes a really funny blog pretending to be Steve Jobs. Here’s one of his latest:


Apple, or maybe the real Steve (Jobs, not Webster), doesn’t seem to like this blog. They offered the author $250,000 to stop writing it. The author told them that that would go against his ethics, violate free speech, destroy civilization as we know it, and that sort of thing. Then they offered him $300,000. Then $400,000. Then $500,000. He turned them down. Maybe I should make fun of Steve Jobs.


A guy in Morocco named Fouad tried something similar. He set up a Facebook account claiming to be the brother of the King of Morocco. Instead of offering him half a million dollars, a Moroccan court charged Fouad 10,000 dirhams and sent him to jail for three years. And I never even knew there was a King of Morocco.


4 Gig Memory

A lot of new laptops and desktops come with 4 gigabytes of memory now. I recently increased the memory on my computer from 2 gigabytes to 4. But Windows thinks I only have 3.25 megabytes. That turns out to be true for most 4gb 32-bit XP and Vista machines. Here’s why:


Cluster Ballooning

In 1982, a guy named Larry took off with a lawn chair and a bunch of weather balloons, flying around southern California. He launched from San Pedro with a large bottle of pop, milk jugs full of water for ballast, a pellet gun, a portable CB radio, an altimeter, and a camera. He ended up caught in some power lines in Long Beach. The story is true, and has been flying around the internet for years with various embellishments.


Now “cluster ballooning” is a semi-legitimate sport!


Terrorists are Everywhere!

Last month the TSA narrowly avoided disaster when they stopped a 5-year-old boy from blowing up an airliner in Seattle.



The Messenger spacecraft made one of its flybys of Mercury last month. The 2441 lb spacecraft was launched on August 3, 2004. On January 14, Messenger passed to within 125 miles of the Mercury. It will make passes by Mercury in October 2008 and September 2009 before it enters Mercury orbit March, 2011.



Smartphone Patent

Minerva Industries is a company in California. As far as I can tell, they don’t produce anything, sell anything, or invent anything. They acquire patents and sue people for a living.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark office, in its infinite wisdom, has issued a patent to Minerva Industries for “a mobile phone with removable storage, an internet connection, a camera and the ability to download audio or video files.” Never mind that this applies to most of the cell phones already on the market today.

Minerva immediately sued Apple, Nokia, RIM, Sprint, AT&T, HP, Motorola, Helio, HTC, Sony Ericsson, UTStarcomm, Samsung, and a bunch of others. Actually, they filed the lawsuit the day before the patent was awarded. They had to refile it at 12:01 a.m. the next morning.

Patents are intended to protect people who invent things. They are intended to promote creativity and technological development. Issuing a patent like this for existing technology to a company like Minerva doesn’t quite accomplish this. I think Thomas Jefferson had something a bit different in mind when he came up with the patent system.


In an unrelated European case, Nokia was sued for 12 billion euros for patent infringement, again by a company that doesn’t make anything.



In other patent brilliance, IBM has applied for a patent for offering restaurant customers rewards for waiting for their tables. It doesn’t require a computer. It’s really nothing novel. It just suggests that a restaurant record the waiting time for its customers and then give them a free meal or something after they’ve accumulated so many minutes. This is simple, trivial, obvious to see for anybody outside the U.S. Patent Office! I can’t believe IBM stoops this low.


NSA and U.S. Networks

It used to be against the law for the NSA and the CIA to spy on U.S. citizens in the U.S. I’m not sure whether that law is still a law, but it is now socially acceptable for the CIA and NSA to spy inside the U.S. This is to stop terrorism, drug dealing, and music file sharing (which, according to the RIAA,are all the same…).

Last month the President ordered the NSA and “other intelligence agencies” to monitor all computer networks of all federal agencies. I would agree that at least some of the networks should be monitored. But I would prefer that the FBI handle domestic spying since they are not encouraged to use the ever-popular “aggressive interrogation” techniques.


Fun in New York

A lady from England named Yvonne decided to take a Christmas vacation to New York with her two daughters, Gemma (15) and Katie (13). After they arrived, Yvonne caught a case of pneumonia and went to the hospital. The daughters were hauled off to an orphanage and were not allowed to leave, even to visit their mother.

When Yvonne found out, she left the hospital despite her pneumonia, and retrieved her daughters. Gemma and Katie did not enjoy their 30 hours in the orphanage.


After her ordeal, the New York Administration for Children’s Services was nice enough to send Yvonne a letter saying that she is under investigation for child neglect. A lady from the Administration for Children’s Services said that the letter was just a form letter.


Alfred E. Neuman for President

When I started this Junkmail, I decided not discuss the presidential candidates. I told my eldest toddler that the one sure thing is one year from now, I’ll be complaining about the President. But, I bet you can tell there’s a “but” coming.

I took a look at the candidates’ web sites. It’s against my better judgement to donate money to a politician. It’s a little like giving whiskey to a drunk. But nevertheless, I did try to donate $1. They wouldn’t take my money. Whew!

When you go to the web sites for Obama and Clinton, you are greeted with a form for your email address and zip code (and name for Clinton’s.) McCain’s site comes up with the home page immediately.

McCain’s site seems a little noisy and cluttered, but that’s just my impression. Clinton’s site has some fundamental technical problems, such as not handling large fonts, using a large “Submit” button instead of something that looks better, etc. Obama’s site has a good color scheme rather than a mess of unrelated colors and contrasts.

The Obama and Clinton sites both have “Terms of Service,” which seems pretty odd on a political campaign site. Obama’s TOS seems pretty straightforward, but Clinton’s are really funny. And long! It looks like it was written by a Washington bureaucrat.


I don’t even have to register in order to be bound by the TOS, according them. It’s hard to believe that they paid some lawyer to write this four-page contract and expect people to read it. Or maybe nobody at the campaign read it. Then they might have used a little common sense.

Here is a list of taboos in the TOS. “The Service” refers to the web site and online tools. These restrictions are pretty obvious, although I personally take exception to the prohibition against Junkmail in number 11.

You agree to not use the Service (and you agree not to allow others to use the Service) to:
1. Upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any Content or otherwise use the Service in a manner that is unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortuous, defamatory, vulgar, pornographic, obscene, or libelous;
2. upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any Content or otherwise use the Service in a manner that is hateful or discriminatory against any individual or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or disability, or promotes physical harm or injury against any individual or group;
3. upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any Content or otherwise use the Service in a manner that is harmful to minors in any way;
4. impersonate any person or entity, or falsely states or otherwise misrepresents your identity or affiliation with another person or entity;
5. stalk or harass another person or entity;
6. employ misleading email addresses, forged headers, or other manipulated identifiers;
7. upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any Content that you do not have a right to make available under any law or under contractual or fiduciary relationships
8. upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any Content or otherwise use the Service in a manner that infringes any patent, trademark, trade secret, copyright or other proprietary rights of any party;
9. upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any Content or otherwise use the Service in a manner that is invasive to another’s privacy or includes personal or identifying information about another person, without that person’s explicit consent;
10. upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any Content or otherwise use the Service in a manner that violates, intentionally or unintentionally, the rules of the Federal Election Commission or any other applicable federal, state, or local laws, or to promote or provide instructional materials about illegal activities;
11. upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials, “junk mail,” “spam,” “chain letters,” “pyramid schemes,” or any other form of commercial solicitation;
12. upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any Content that contains software viruses or any other computer codes, files or programs designed to interrupt, destroy or limit the functionality of any computer software or hardware or telecommunications equipment;
13. upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any Content or use the Service to interfere with or disrupt the Service, or servers or networks connected to the Service;
14. upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any Content or use the Service to collect or store personal data about other users for commercial purposes or engage in commercial activities, without the Committee’s prior approval.

And in case this doesn’t cover it, “In addition, you shall be subject to any posted guidelines or rules applicable to such Service, which may be posted from time to time.”

Oops. I missed this: “You agree not to reproduce, duplicate, copy, sell, exploit, or otherwise use any Content, in full or part, or any use or access to the Service, without the express written consent of the Committee.”

Pretend you didn’t read this stuff.

Dead Domains

What happens when you let an internet domain name expire? It seems that it would just go away, but that’s not what happens.

Old domains get snatched up. Almost all the dot-coms, and the majority of the .nets are immediately re-registered by people. There are a few companies doing this in a big way with lots of servers trying to snatch up every expired domain name. These companies are called Drop Catchers.

Most of these people put a bunch of Google ads on their newly acquired domains, then see if they make money for five days. That’s because there is a five day grace period before you have to pay for a new domain name. This is called Domain Tasting. Also, during the 5-day grace period, the new domain owners may email the old owner and ask if they’d like to purchase their domain name back.

If the domains make money, or if the old owner expresses an interest, the new owners pay for the registration. If not, they are cancelled.

I let a domain I wasn’t using expire, and I was surprised to see that someone had registered it. A few days later, I got an email asking if I’d like to buy it. I didn’t. A few weeks later I looked again, and that domain was available.

Google is planning to put the brakes on Domain Tasting by not allowing Adsense ads for the first five days after a domain is registered.



Cell Phones and Polls

Political pollsters generally call people on land lines because it’s easier to get the phone numbers, and because cell phones cost money to talk on. This means their polls do not include the opinions of cell phone users who don’t have landlines.

They say this is not a problem, and back it up with data. “Analysis of two separate nationwide studies shows that including interviews conducted by cell phone does not substantially change any key survey findings.”


I disagree. This data shows some pretty distinct demographic differences between those with and without landlines, age being the biggest. And, it benefits the polling organizations to persuade us that they don’t need to survey cell phone users.

However, I am happy for them not to call cell phones for surveys. I might get kind of irritated if I was driving along and had to put down my drink or sandwich or shaver or something just to answer a survey.

Privacy Board

What Privacy Board?


Saudi Flirting

If you find yourself in Saudi Arabia, you should refrain from flirting. This week 57 young men were arrest for wearing indecent clothes, playing loud music and dancing in order to attract the attention of girls, at the request of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.


It could have been worse. There could have been a man and a woman caught sitting next to one another.


Sea-Based X-Band Radar

What do you get if you put a giant radar system on top of a semi-submersible oil platform? The Sea-Base X-Band Radar system (SBX-1).

It’s used to detect ballistic missiles headed for the U.S., and probably does a little satellite tracking on the side. They built it in Houston, drove it around in the Gulf for a month or two, made some improvements, and put it on a giant transport ship (the Blue Marlin) headed for Pearl Harbor.



From Pearl Harbor, the SBX-1 went to Adak, Alaska under its own power. Last summer, it came back to Pearl Harbor for repairs and upgrades. From Pearl Harbor it will go (or has gone) back to Adak. There is a crew of about 85 people on board.

Here it is anchored near Adak.




Vista Fix

Microsoft released Service Pack 1 for Windows Vista. It fixes some of the incompatibilities of other applications — it prevents them from starting!

These programs are prevented from running under Vista SP1:

BitDefender AV or Internet Security 10
Fujitsu Shock Sensor
Jiangmin KV Antivirus 10
Jiangmin KV Antivirus 2008
Trend Micro Internet Security 2008
Zone Alarm Security Suite 7.1.078

Some others just have limited functionality.


A lot of people don’t want to move to Windows Vista, for a variety of reasons. More than 75,000 of them (including me) have signed a petition asking Microsoft to allow XP to be continued to be sold on new computers.



Microsoft responded with this pearl of non-information: “We’re aware of it, but are listening first and foremost to feedback we hear from partners and customers about what makes sense based on their needs.”

Filtering File Sharing

RIAA boss Cary said that internet filtering to prevent illegal file sharing may have to be done on end-user PCs. In other words, he is suggesting that everybody’s computer (except mine) be required to install software so the RIAA can determine what files can be uploaded and downloaded.


Later on Cary said he wasn’t really serious about the proposal.

Border Protection

Does U.S. Customs have the authority to browse files on your computer and check your cell phone for recent calls when you come into the U.S.? That sort of thing used to require a search warrant, or at least probably cause.

Now Customs has invoked the triple whammy, saying they have to browse laptop hard drives and cell phones for “terrorism, drugs, child pornography, and other criminal activities.” They could have just said “criminal activity,” which includes the other three, but that doesn’t scare people nearly as much.


In other news, U.S. intelligence officials have decided that massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as Second Life are being used by terrorists and criminals to move money, organize, and conduct corporate espionage. This sounds more than a little far-fetched to me.


Cocaine Town

The town of Bluefields, Nicaragua, population 45,000, is located in southeastern Nicaragua. One of the most important sources of income for the town is cocaine. They don’t produce it. The pick up abandoned cocaine shipments floating in the ocean.

When the Coast Guard or other law enforcement is closing in on a boat full of cocaine, one of the first things the drug smugglers do is throw out the drugs. The currents tend to float the bags of cocaine toward Bluefields, and fishermen occasionally bring in a catch of la langosta blanca, the white lobster, worth several years’ income and a new boat.

This is an interesting story about the town:


Public Access Academia

Harvard University’s College of Arts and Science has gone Open Access. Not in software, but in the publishing of academic papers. The Harvard School of Medicine may follow suit.

I think it would be nice if we could all read academic papers without paying for the privilege, particularly when they are partially funded by our tax money. I get a little annoyed when Google shows me an abstract but some company wants money before I can read the paper.


Swatting Houses

Police and SWAT teams around the country are so jumpy and anxious to nail a terrorist or file sharer, it was inevitable that people would start exploiting it.

For fun and games, some people are calling SWAT teams onto the residences of friends, acquaintances, and enemies, as pranks. I guess it’s pretty funny to see a dozen loaded guns pointed at someone who called you an unwashed bytehead, but if you get caught you’re likely to go to jail.

One 19-year-old guy named Randal got caught. He could be sentenced to a maximum of 18 years in prison. Hopefully they won’t go that far.


Pictures of Today!

It’s been a while since I sent out Junkmail, so I’ve accumulated a lot of photos. In December I drove across Australia. If you’re interested, you can see photos from that trip here:


The descent of Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, December 10:


Tasmanian Flowers:


A golf ball on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean:


The anchor chain of The Minnow:


Some Hawaiian fish:





These dolphins were at the cove on the Big Island of Hawaii where Captain Cook was killed.



The Minnow, from the top:


A turtle off Oahu:


Road Train, Australia:


Australian birds:


Australian railroad:


Australian grasshopper:


Australian ant:


Tasman Sea:



Classic signage:


Oahu waves:


The End


Monday, February 25, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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