Fun is Where You Find It (Part 8)

One of  the series of posts that I’ve produced that have received the most comment and views is the Fun is Where You Find It series. This series of posts is designed to help you do something fun for next to nothing. The fun today was started when someone gave me a basket filled with goodies for a special event. The basket is really interesting because it looks like a little house. Rather than put the basket aside as a means for packaging someone else’s gift, I decided to make something interesting for me in the form of a basket with silk flowers to decorate the house. Silk flowers are especially nice during the winter months because they perk the house up when there aren’t any real flowers available (except at a premium rate from the florist).

The basket was free, of course, and I did find a few flowers in the craft closet, but this turned into one of my more expensive projects. I spent about $20.00 in total for the supplies that I used for the basket. The first need is floral foam to use to hold the flowers in place. Floral foam comes as dry and wet blocks. For a project of this type, you need dry blocks. The blocks will require shaping. All you really need is a good utility length knife. Carefully cut the foam to fit the inside of your basket.

Of course, you also need some silk flowers and greenery. A friend and I went to a craft store and had a wonderful time perusing the assortment. I tried to shop carefully. It almost looked like I had too many flowers at first, but I amazingly didn’t end up with much left over. The flowers are always provided long, so you need a diagonal cutter to safely clip the stems to length. The diagonal cutter was the only tool I needed to get the job done besides a good, sharp, knife. Here’s the results of my efforts.

A flower basket in the shape of a house with a springtime arrangement.
Re-purposed Flower Basket

Even though this isn’t one of my less expensive projects, it should provide a nice decorative element for my home at a price far below what I would have paid for a finished item at the store. Let me know about your latest crafting project at


Considering Threats to Your Hardware

Most of the security write-ups you see online deal with software. It’s true that you’re far more likely to encounter some sort of software-based security threat than any of the hardware threats to date. However, ignoring hardware threats can be problematic. Unlike the vast majority of software threats that you can clean up, hardware threats often damage a system so that it becomes unusable. You literally have to buy a new system because repair isn’t feasible (at least, for a reasonable price).

The threats are becoming more ingenious too. Consider the USB flash drive threat called USB Killer. In this case, inserting the wrong thumb drive into your system can cause the system to completely malfunction. The attack is ingenious in that your system continues to work as normal until that final moment when it’s too late to do anything about the threat. Your system is fried by high voltage sent to it by the thumb drive. Of course, avoiding the problem means using only thumb drives that you can verify are clean. You really can’t even trust the thumb drive provided by friends because they could have obtained the thumb drive from a contaminated source. The result of such an attack is lost data, lost time, and lost hardware—potentially making the attack far more expensive than a software attack on your system.

Some of the hardware-based threats are more insidious. For example, the Rowhammer vulnerability makes it possible for someone to escalate their privileges by accessing the DRAM on your system in a specific way. The technical details aren’t quite as important as the fact that it can be done in this case because even with repairs, memory will continue to be vulnerable to attack in various ways. The problem is that memory has become so small that protections that used to work well no longer work at all. In addition, hardware vendors often use the least expensive memory available to keep prices low, rather than use higher end (and more expensive) memory.

It’s almost certain that you’ll start to see more hardware threats on the horizon because of the way in which people work with electronics today. All these new revelations remind me of the floppy disk viruses of days past. People would pass viruses back and forth by trading floppies with each other. Some of these viruses would infect the boot sector of the system hard drive, making it nearly impossible to remove. As people start using thumb drives and other removable media to exchange data in various ways, you can expect to see a resurgence of this sort of attack.

The potential for hardware-based attacks continues to increase as the computing environment becomes more and more commoditized and people’s use of devices continues to change. It’s the reason I wrote Does Your Hardware Spy On You? and the reason I’m alerting you to the potential for hardware-based attacks in this post. You need to be careful how you interact with others when exchanging bits of seemingly innocent hardware. Let me know your thoughts about hardware-based attacks at


Cloud Computing and Privacy Rights

A number of the science fiction books on my shelf view the earth as having a single government. Countries no longer exist. Of course, we have still have countries. In fact, if anything, we have more countries today than we did thirty years ago. However, the Internet has reduced the impact of borders. The presence of global trade and other globe girdling changes have reduce the impact of borders even more. Still, countries exist partly because tradition demands it and partly because different groups have their own ideas of what a country should look like.

Most of my book shy away from any sort of legal discussion, mostly because I’m not a lawyer, but also the discussion of technology doesn’t apply to any particular country or its laws. When readers write to me, it doesn’t matter what country the reader is from, I can usually answer the question in precisely the same way. Variables work the same in Germany as they do in Spain, Japan, and America. It doesn’t mean that I’m unaware of potential legal issues surrounding technology. For example, I’ve written about privacy (or the lack thereof) a number of times.

Legal requirements, privacy needs, and the problems with borders are about to become more and more important because of one current technology and likely a host of others at some point. Storing data in the cloud means that users could create a situation where even the smallest company is in for a nasty surprise should the user work with data in other countries. Actually, the mere storage of data in the cloud could cause problems. Let’s say that the user in America chooses a storage facility in Mexico because it provides the least expensive service. Theoretically, the user’s data is subject to the laws of both Mexico (because that’s where the data is located) and America (because that’s where the user is located). If the user then travels to another country, such as Iraq, the data becomes subject (at least in theory) to the laws of Iraq as well.

In reading the views of several industry pundits on the topic, I can see where the legal issues could become quite vexing indeed—taxing even the best lawyer’s ability to untie the Gordian knot of legal consequences. So far, I can’t find anyone really trying to apply these multiple jurisdictions to a single user’s data, but I imagine it’s only a matter of time. As more and more technologies become global, however, and we begin to explore the stars with a greater sense of urgency, I begin to wonder just how long countries will continue to exist. It makes me wonder whether there will be a point at which the legal burden alone will make it a lot easier to have a single set of laws worldwide.

A number of people I’ve approached on the topic have presented perfectly valid arguments against a one world government. The most reasonable argument is that administering a single country is hard—trying to administer the entire world from a single place might well prove impossible. Still, I see more and more arguments about this whole issue of legal requirements, porous borders, global economies, and the like and it does make me wonder.

How do you feel about the legal issues regarding cloud computing? Is this simply the beginning of a much larger trend where legal requirements start to eat away at the need for countries? Does our future really involve a single world government? Let me know your thoughts on the issue at


Self-driving Cars in the News

I remember reading about self-driving cars in science fiction novels. Science fiction has provided me with all sorts of interesting ideas to pursue as I’ve gotten older. Many things I thought would be impossible, have become reality over the years and things that I thought I’d never see five years ago, I’m seeing in reality today. I discussed some of the technology behind self-driving cars in my Learning as a Human post. The article was fine as it went, but readers have taken me to task more than a few times for becoming enamored with the technology and not discussing the reality of the technology.

The fact of the matter is that self-driving cars are already here to some extent. Ford has introduced cars that can park themselves. The Ford view of cars is the one that most people can accept. It’s an anticipated next step in the evolution of driving. People tend to favor small changes in technology. Changes that are too large tend to shock them and aren’t readily accepted.

Google’s new self-driving car might be licensed in Nevada, but don’t plan on seeing it in your city anytime soon (unless you just happen to live in Nevada, of course). A more realistic approach to self-driving cars will probably come in the form of conveyances used in specific locations. For example, you might see self-driving cars used at theme parks and college campuses where the controlled environment will make it easier for them to navigate. More importantly, these strictly controlled situations will help people get used to the idea of seeing and using self-driven vehicles. The point is to build trust in them in a manner that people can accept.

Of course, the heart of the matter is what self-driving cars can actually provide in the way of a payback. According to a number of sources, they can actually reduce driving costs by $190 billion dollars per year in health and accident savings. That’s quite a savings. Money talks, but people have ignored monetary benefits in the past to ensure they remain independent. It will take time to discover whether the potential cost savings actually make people more inclined to use self-driving cars. My guess is that people will refuse to give up their cars unless there is something more than monetary and health benefits.

Even though no one has really talked about it much, self-driving cars have the potential to provide all sorts of other benefits. For example, because self-driving cars will obey the speed laws and run at the most efficient speeds possible in a given situation, cars will become more fuel efficient and produce less pollution. The software provided with the vehicle will probably allow the car to choose the most efficient route to a destination possible and provide the means for the car to automatically navigate around obstructions, such as accidents (which will be notably fewer). People could probably be more assured of getting to their destination on time because they won’t get lost either. Working on the way to work will allow people to spend more quality time with family. It’s the intangible benefits that will eventually make the self-driving car seem like a good way to do things.

The self-driving car is available today. It won’t be long and you’ll be able to buy one. You can already get a self-parking Ford, so the next step really isn’t that far away. The question is whether you really want to take that step. Let me know your thoughts on self-driving cars, their potential to save lives, reduce costs, create a cleaner environment, and make life generally more pleasant at

Renewable Energy Inroads

I’m all for making the planet less dependent on fossil fuels, if for no other reason than they represent a finite resource. Renewable energy offers to replace the finite resources we use now with something we can harvest forever. The problem is that many renewable energy sources are really quite dirty. For example, the solar cell that adorns your roof may be killing people in China. In my opinion, we really don’t need to clean up our part of the planet by making China’s part of the planet even dirtier. In the long run, we won’t benefit by that strategy. Just think of all the really interesting poisoned toys China will send our way—toys poisoned by our own toxic waste. The toxins we generate in other countries tend to come back to haunt us.

It was with mixed feelings that I recently read that solar energy will become a major energy source within 15 years. The reasons for the increase in usage are many, but the basic reason is that solar is becoming less expensive to install and maintain. The costs of the solar panels and their installation has gone down considerably, so it’s possible that solar power might actually become less expensive than using fossil fuels at some point. Of course, the savings assume that you’re not storing excess power in batteries. Adding batteries to the picture greatly increases costs and makes solar quite expensive indeed.

There is one benefit to solar energy that many people don’t think about. If the solar panels appear on people’s rooftops in a decentralized configuration, the ability of terrorists to disrupt the electrical system is greatly diminished. A decentralized setup also reduces costs associated with power transmission and could actually do things like reduce cooling costs in summer. Of course, the utilities aren’t crazy about decentralized solar because it cuts into their profits, but the fact of the matter is that we need a better setup than the one we do now. Our system is so fragile right now that I’m often surprised a storm or other simply cause doesn’t knock out major sections of the country.

The bottom line for me is that we really do need to reduce our power usage and embrace renewable energy sources. However, we need non-polluting renewable energy sources or at least sources that pollute less than the ones we have now. I last tackled this topic in More People Noticing that Green Technology Really Isn’t. The fact is, nothing has changed in the technology, but the need to address the technology shortfalls has just become greater. Before a technology that pollutes our planet quite a lot becomes entrenched, we need to come up with answers to deal with the pollution—preferably a better technology.

What are your thoughts on renewable energy? What forms do you feel pollute the least and provide the greatest benefit to people as a whole? Do you see renewable energy becoming the only power source at some point? Let me know your thoughts on these and other energy concerns at


Fighting Dry House Conditions

Anyone who knows me, knows I love my wood stove. It keeps my house toasty warm. The floors, walls, and ceilings are all warmed so that I can walk around barefoot in my 68 degree house if I want. Just try doing that in a house heated by a furnace! So, there is no doubt that I’ll continue to enjoy the benefits that radiant heat can provide.

There are down sides to everything and heating a house tends to produce really dry air. My furnace has an Aprilaire whole house humidifier attached to it. On those rare occasions that I do use the furnace, my Aprilaire adds much needed humidity to my really dry house. Of course, not everyone has such a device, so houses heated with furnaces can suffer from a lack of humidity too.

Horridly dry air has a number of nasty side effects. For example, you might find that you literally can’t breath because your nose is so dry. Petting the cat becomes an experiment in shock therapy (and don’t even think about brushing the dog). You could see damage to your furniture as well. The glue joints tend to fail when the humidity is too low. So, there are both health and monetary issues to consider when it comes to winter heating. The issue that seems to elude most people though is that humid air is able to support more calories than dry air. This means that really dry air actually feels cooler than humid air heated to the same temperature. Humidity that causes you to sweat in summer keeps you warm in winter.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that keeping a house as humid as possible in the winter (within reason, you really don’t want the walls dripping either) is a good idea. When my hygrometer (a humidity measuring device) reports 60 percent, I’m quite happy. Even 50 percent is worthwhile achieving. The problem is that with wood heat, you don’t have an Aprilaire to help out.

Assuming that your wood stove provides a place to put one, the first course of action is to get a couple of inexpensive soup pots—big ones. Actually, you might be able to get one almost free at a thrift store or garage sale, so look around to see what you can find. Fill them with water and put them on the wood stove. The heat will evaporate the water inside and produce humidity for your home. If you want, you can add wood stove simmering spices to make you home smell nice as the water evaporates. The people living with you in your closed up house will appreciate the fragrance. My stove will accommodate two pots, so I have two really large pots going most of the time (one is removed when I want to heat water for tea, heat something up, or make soup).

Sometimes using the pots just doesn’t help enough, unfortunately. It’s during those times that I leave the bathroom door open when I shower and turn off the ceiling fan. The ceiling fan normally takes the humidity outside, which is a really good thing to do in summer when you don’t want things rotting inside the house. During the winter, it seems like a better idea to allow the steam to get out into the house. Of course, you’ll need to exercise more caution to ensure everyone keeps their privacy intact.

Winter is also a dandy time to make soup. It’s possible for me to make soup on my wood stove when it’s completely fired up. However, there are a lot of times where I still need to use the stove. In those cases, I keep the stove’s vent fan off so that the steam from the soup stays in the house. Not only does the house get humidified, but it also helps build a healthy appetite.

I’m sure by now someone is wondering why I haven’t mentioned the obvious—a humidifier. Yes, a humidifier will do the job and yes you could use one, but all of the other techniques I’ve mentioned are free. A humidifier will cost money to purchase, maintain, and operate. In the long run, using every free technique at your disposal first is the best idea. Let me know your ideas on humidifying a home at


All Cooped Up

I normally let my chickens run free during the entire year. They get outside and play games outside while pecking around for things to eat. They really are quite funny at times. One of their favorite winter games is Queen of the Hill. I put a french fry or other treat on top of a snow hill and the chickens race to see how gets it first. The chickens knock each other off the hill and grab the french fry until it’s gone. Of course, the game continues as long as I have french fries to offer them. The outside time is important because it allows the chickens to exercise properly and to gain access to alternative food sources, such as bugs. In addition, getting out of the coop provides them with fresh air and time to interact with their environment.

After seeing my egg production (and subsequent sales) drop to nearly nothing this past winter, I decided to try something out. On truly cold days, I’ve been keeping the chickens in the coop. I’m not talking about a coop with the door open, but with the door closed so that the coop stays significantly warmer. On the coldest days, I’ve been putting a pot of hot water in the coop to partially heat it. As a result of this change, my chickens are laying more eggs—a lot more eggs. In fact, egg production has increased threefold over egg production last winter at this time. Mind you, I’m getting this increase without disturbing the chicken’s natural light cycle by using a heat lamp or other light source.

The results seem consistent. In addition, the only thing I’ve changed is the time the chickens spend in their coop. I did note that there is no increase after a certain point. Keeping the chickens in their coop six days a week didn’t provide an appreciable increase in production over four days. What seems to be the most important factor is choosing days that are especially cold. Right now I’m keeping the chickens in their coop when the temperature falls below 20. However, I plan to keep playing with the temperature to see what effects I can come up with. The chickens might actually do better if I keep them in the coop anytime it’s below freezing, but something tells me that they’ll begin fighting if I do.

What I’m trying to figure out now is how cold is too cold for the chickens. They survive just fine, even if I let them out in relatively cold weather. The thing that changes is the number of eggs they lay. The cold stresses the chickens just enough to stop laying almost completely. I’m still experimenting to find the trigger temperature for this effect. Figuring out the correct temperature is important because the chickens really do need the outside time to remain healthy.

Like many topics related to chickens, trying to find specific temperature guidelines online has proven impossible. However, there must be others who have experimented in figuring out just the right temperatures for letting chickens go outside to play. Let me know your thoughts on the topic at


Radio Shack, We Knew Thee Well

I’m dating myself here, but the first time I entered a Radio Shack was in 1972. I had just finished reading The Radio Amateur’s Handbook and was absolutely fascinated by the whole thought of working with electronics. The combination of reading science fiction and electronics books of various sorts, convinced me to go to a technical high school. I graduated with all the necessary knowledge to become an apprentice electrician. However, entering the Navy moved me into computers, where I remain today. (I started out as a hardware guy and moved into programming later.) Radio Shack was filled with all sorts of cool looking gizmos. It was akin to entering my science fiction books and experiencing what “could be” first hand. The day I finished designing and building my first power supply and amplifier was an absolute thrill. I still have the plans for it somewhere. The mono output of 20 watts seemed fantastic. I’m not the only one with fond memories—authors such as PC Magazine’s Jamie Lendino and John Dvorak have them as well.

Over the years I watched Radio Shack change from this absolutely fascinating place I had to visit every time I passed it to something less. Eventually, it became just a common store—the aisles filled with televisions, radios, and consumer gizmos of all sorts. It got to the point where I could buy the same type of goods just about anywhere for a much lower price. For me, the death spiral was just sad to watch. As a country, we really need stores that encourage people to invent—to think outside the box. Unfortunately, Radio Shack is no longer that store. I visited a Radio Shack in a mall the other day and there were only a few items left for sale at high discount. I helped a friend buy a mouse. It was an odd feeling to leave the store one last time knowing that I’d never see the store I knew and loved in the 70s and 80s again.

Even the salespeople changed over time. During the early 70s when I first started going to Radio Shack, I could hear salespeople talking the talk with any customer that came in. One of them even convinced me to use a different transistor for my amplifier and to rely on a full bridge rectifier to make the output cleaner. If these terms seem foreign, they do, in fact, belong to a different time. The surge of creativity I experienced during that phase in my life is gone—replaced by something totally different today. The young lad I talked with the other day was a salesperson and just barely knew his trade. Gone are the salespeople who really made Radio Shack special.

I yearn for the resurgence of creativity and of stores that promote it. This is one case where brick and mortar stores have a definite advantage over their online cousins. When you go into a brick and mortar store, you can talk with real people, see real demonstrations, touch real hardware, and get that special ethereal feeling of entering the zone of the tinkerer and the definer of dreams. Radio Shack, we knew thee well, and we really need something like you back.


Our Borders are Porous

No, I’m not talking physical borders here—I’m talking cyber borders. I’ve talked a number of times about the relative insecurity of Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. My biggest personal concern is how leaks in these systems can affect people with special needs. At a minimum, implanted devices used by people today are open to hacking. However, there are some reports that say that hackers could eventually become murderers. I wrote Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements with the idea that implanted devices and other aids should help people, not hurt them.

However, other sorts of devices are leaky. Just about any hacker could attack our water supply, power grid, or any other utility. A hacker could turn off your car engine by remote control, lock you into the car, and then do whatever nefarious deed seemed pleasant at the time. These posts aren’t meant to scare you as much as to inform you that the borders of your devices are wide open to attack in many cases. Yet, despite a huge number of newspaper articles, radio talk shows, government inquiries, and odd assorted other do nothing activities, surprisingly little has been done to secure anything.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that the latest casualty, in a long list of problematic devices, is the gas pump. Yep, your gas pump can turn against you. I hadn’t really thought about a gas pump as being anything particularly worthwhile to hack. Yes, you could possibly turn on the pump and get free gas or deny someone else their gas, but it really didn’t strike me as something that hackers would invest time in learning about. Actually, it turns out that gas pumps are connected to all sorts of monitors and messing with the pump can cause those monitors to go off. It doesn’t seem like alarms are anything to worry about either, but think about someone intent on disrupting the emergency services network in a city so that they can attack in some other way. While everyone is distracted with the gas pump spills that haven’t actually happened, someone could do something that would cause the city to go into overload because emergency services are already overwhelmed.

The thing that gets me about a lot of these deficiencies is that they aren’t caused by systems that are secured, but someone has manged to get into anyway. They’re caused by systems that have no security at all. That’s right—someone connected those gas pumps to the Internet so they could monitor them remotely and didn’t add any security at all. Someone who knows the right information can just walk right in and cause all sorts of mischief.

From direct attacks on our infrastructure, to feints used for distraction, to personal attacks, SCADA systems will let us down at some point. I’m surprised that we haven’t had a major issue so far. Perhaps someone is out there right now planning just the right sort of attack that’s designed to cause a maximum of damage. Until we make security a priority, these open systems will continue to pose a serious risk to everyone, whether you have special needs or not. Let me know your thoughts about insecure SCADA systems at


A Problem with Short Attention Spans and Getting Only What You Want

I read more articles every day that talk about how content is distributed today. It isn’t just one sort of content; it’s every sort of content, from writing to music to videos. Books are presented electronically without any ads or other content to disrupt your reading, magazines are becoming a thing of the past as readers blithely read just the article they want to see, music is presented as individual song downloads, and video is streamed without any of the extras that come with a DVD.

The idea is to package content items individually, in the smallest container possible. People consuming the content need not bother with anything that doesn’t immediately attract their attention. The smaller size ensures they can consume the content in seconds (even in my books, I’ve made the size of the sections smaller because I noted that readers weren’t making it through the material and missing important information). As a result, consumers are getting used to seeing just the content they want and not having to work at all to get it. Spoon feeding consumers content is probably something that marketers love because they can keep the consumer well fed and not asking too many questions. The content is focuses precisely the way the marketing folks want it. At some point, the quality of the content can decrease without anyone actually noticing. The somnolent mutterings of a few is all that will otherwise detract from the utter quiet of a new age of customized consumerism.

Inferior content is a problem, but it’s not the problem that you should consider immediately. Lack of diversity will cause more problems than content quality ever will. When music was distributed in albums, you counted on getting two or possibly three hit songs. Some of the remaining songs were pretty bad. However, you often encountered two or so additional songs that didn’t get played on the radio for whatever reason are were quite good. Because you were forced (after a fashion) to listen to all the songs on the album, it became common to discover the gems that no one really thought to hype. A few of those songs ended up being hits in their own right simply because people were forced to listen to them as part of listening to the album as a whole. With customized content, you never hear the good songs because no one is hyping them.

The lack of diversity affects your growth as a person. When you listen to something unanticipated or read an article that you didn’t think you’d like, you experience the world in a new way. An idea or concept that didn’t occur to you before is now part of your being. However, with today’s marketing model, you’re being cheated out of that opportunity. The marketers have determined what you’ll read, hear, and see. They control the picture. Think about it for a minute and you’ll see that I’m right.

Magazines are headed in the same direction. It won’t be long and paper magazines will be gone. Electronic magazines will almost certainly follow the current trend at some point. You’ll read only the article that you were interested in seeing in the first place. The supposed boring article that will broaden your horizons will never see the light of day because you won’t be exposed to it. Sometimes it’s necessary for some agent to force you to see content that you might not otherwise review. In the past, it was the added content that came as part of magazines, books, CDs, DVDs, and other distribution techniques that provided this force. There is no such force today. You don’t really see any additional content when viewing a streamed movie.

We view content with fewer interruptions and in purer form, deadening our minds to new ideas. At some point, the lack of growth will cause additional problems. People who get used to thinking only within the box that they draw themselves are less likely to create innovative ideas. As a society, our ability to create something entirely new, entirely different, will be diminished due to a lack of diversity in the input we provide to our brains.

The solution to the problem is uncomfortable and requires a level of determination that our society lacks in large part today. Because alternative content is no longer provided as part of the package, it’s imperative that you look for content that you might not otherwise enjoy. This means making a conscious decision to read, hear, and view content that you may not like at the outset, but will find grows on you with exposure. Let’s hope that there are enough people who don’t mind being uncomfortable to make this a reality. What are your thoughts on the methods used to package content today? Let me know at