Archive for October, 2009

USENET history gone! Temporarily?

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Just noticed that google groups historical search doesn’t work anymore.  That means we have no access to most of the history of the Internet.  All of those flamewars…  all those snarky comments…  gone!

This comment complains about the fact that there is only one provider for historical search of usenet newsgroups.  I can’t find any other usenet search engines that keep more than a few hundred days online.  So much for Internet history, or anyway USENET history.  Where will the children of the future learn about legendary trolls?  How will they meet B1FF?

Instant Berkman Center Library on your Kindle 2

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Let’s say you own a Kindle 2 and you want to quickly get a few Berkman Center basic readings on there.  Here’s a quick start:  I’m assuming you want to (1) right click on the files below and (2) save them to your computer, then (3) email them to your kindle account for automatic transfer ( yourname at kindle.com).  This will cost you 15 cents per megabyte but it is by far the easiest way to get these books onto your Kindle 2.  My notes in parens.

  1. The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler — ZIP (each chapter and section will dump into your kindle as an unhelpfully-named separate file [e.g., "ch-11"] in an apparently random order, but the text in each one is well-formatted and readable).
  2. The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain — PRC (e-book reader format — table of contents won’t show up but footnote links will work)
  3. Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig — HTML (as one large file — TOC appears but links won’t work — they’ll launch the Kindle web browser instead)
  4. Remix by Lawrence Lessig — TXT (courtesy Internet Archive — some yukky text formatting characters throughout, but overall not too bad)

Surprises:

  • Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig has no easily accessible HTML or plain text file that I can find!  Surprising, as Code 1.0 was available in many formats.

Back story:

  • PDF conversion on the Kindle 2 is awful — perhaps you can install Savory but this is a pain.
  • These books and more are available as PDFs so you can read them online for free.  But not easily on the Kindle 2.
  • The books that aren’t available above are available as kindle e-books (you can buy them).

I did this for myself, but I hope this list helps someone else.  Of course, if you read all four of these books they will convince you that you shouldn’t own a Kindle in the first place.  You have been warned.

Declaration of Conformity: Three Questions About Unlicensed Wireless Devices

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

I was recently having a conversation about unlicensed wireless devices.  That is:  radio transmitters that don’t require advance permission from the government to operate (a license).  Examples of unlicensed devices are baby monitors and cordless phones.  You can buy them at Best Buy and you don’t need to have your own radio station call letters or pass a test.  One reason that people find unlicensed devices interesting is that they often have a lot of them sitting around their house or office.

Some questions came up in the conversation and they are hard for me to answer.  I’m putting them up here as a way to document my attempts.

Here’s the first one:  What frequency band contains the most unlicensed devices? “Most” in this case meant most diverse.  In other words: Where in the ether would we find the greatest diversity of different kinds of things sharing frequencies with each other?  My guess was the 2.4GHz band, as that is the frequency band that really popularized the idea of mainstream low-powered unlicensed devices for untrained consumers in the 1970s using spread spectrum techniques.  That’s where some of the most common devices today really took off.  Another good bet would be 900MHz, however.  (Amateur radio enthusiasts and engineers used devices without specific frequency licenses much earlier than that.  All of this is chronicled in Kenneth Carter’s Unlicensed to Kill.)

You could pick other bands as historically important but they didn’t really take off in the same way.  (I’m thinking of the U-PCS and U-NII bands.)  There is some more history in Henry Goldberg’s short paper Grazing on the Commons, which also draws attention to of Silicon Valley’s interest in unlicensed wireless operation and includes the delightful quote:

Like sin itself, the deliberate un-licensing of spectrum began with an Apple.

The next question:  Is there a list of all of the different kinds of things that operate in the band?  ”Unlicensed” means the device operator doesn’t need permission but the device still needs to get one of those nifty FCC stickers on it — called certification.  Here’s a retro one.

In some contexts this is called a “declaration of conformity.”  What a nice phrase!  Those administrative law regulators really have a way with words.  I’ll use it as my post title.

So you can search the certifications online.  I searched 2400 – 2483 MHz (not exact match) in the charmingly not-user-friendly EAS database at our own Federal Communications Commission (use “authorization search“).   It turns out there are 3001 different things certified to operate in that band right now.  The database is so hard to use that there is no easy way to see what the devices are without several clicks for each device.  I tried two at random and got (1) an off-brand wireless camera and (2) an old-looking GE cordless phone.

Okay that didn’t really help.  Let me expand the question and just brainstorm instead.  Here’s question number three: Is there a list of all of the different kinds of unlicensed devices? Maybe I can brainstorm one.  I’ll see if I can list all of the examples of unlicensed transmitters that are intentionally transmitting.  My guess is that we can find examples of most of these (except as noted in parentheses) in the 2.4 GHz range.

  • wireless microphones
  • telemetry (water controllers, industrial controllers, etc.)
  • wireless sensors
  • anti-pilferage systems (those planks you walk through when entering stores)
  • security alarm systems
  • auditory assistance devices (help you hear the sermon in church)
  • garage door openers
  • ground-penetrating radar (below 2GHz)
  • through-wall imaging (not sure what this is exactly… sounds awesome! or scary.)
  • medical imaging (some)
  • keyless entry (wireless car key fob)
  • wireless cameras
  • remote controls
  • wireless video game console controllers
  • radars (frequency varies)
  • marine radios (some VHF radios don’t require a license)
  • toys (“Mr. Microphone” is a famous historical example though it initially operated in AM and then FM radio)

  • RC cars
  • novelties (??? don’t know what this means exactly but the term shows up in certification records)
  • any Bluetooth devices (mobile phone headsets, PDAs, laptops)
  • also ZigBee devices
  • wireless LANs like Wi-Fi, HiperLAN, HomeRF and any device that uses them (networked picture frames, printers, laptops, computers, phones)
  • cordless phones (not cellular)
  • low-power transmitters designed to broadcast your iPod or whatever to your car radio (uses FM bands)
  • talking houses, talking billboards, or talking roadsigns (temporary advertising or informational messages — only some of these are unlicensed — they must be low power)
  • RFID tags (although at lower frequencies than 2.4GHz) can now be found all over the place in anything that someone wants to track.
    • toll road transponders, airline baggage tracking tags, various shipments of valuable or controlled substances where the boxes/containers are tagged (e.g., prescription drugs), fast-pay keyfobs, shipping containers, credit cards (American Express blue card), keyless entry cards in your wallet, passports, expensive car tires…  I read in Wired Magazine a while ago that rare Indian elephants were having chips implanted to reduce trafficking.

Okay I’m running out of steam.  Anything else?  I seem to remember that J. H. Snider wrote some sort of list like this but I can’t find it.

Institutional Dynamics of Internet Studies as Revealed by Coffee Mugs

Friday, October 16th, 2009

The University of Illinois [InfoStructure] (left):  Proletarian.  The standard shape — one size fits all.  Midwestern earnestness.  Plain fonts.  ”I (heart) INFO” = funny, but in an over-eager sort of way.  Obvious.  Hardworking.

Oxford Internet Institute (center):  Effete. European. But stylish handle.  ”We are near France but not French.” Our coffee is smaller but stronger.  So what if you have to squint to read the writing — it’s worth it.

Harvard’s Berkman Center (right):  Stylish, rounded, large.  Says: “We in the Ivy League can afford more coffee.”  Real intellectuals wear black.  (But… trying too hard?)

On Systems Thinking

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

When we bought our 1904 house we inherited a monster of a heating system.  Steam radiators in every room, and when we moved in it didn’t work well — lots of banging, some radiators didn’t heat up at all, and the energy bill was EXPENSIVE.  Worse, the temperature set on the thermostat didn’t seem connected to what happened in the house.  On top of it all, this was some kind of system that none of our contractors were familiar with.  They would arrive and stare at the fittings and you could see a kind of doubting look come into their faces even though they tried to conceal it.  For a while we paid them to adjust things that didn’t need adjusting and add things that didn’t need to be added.  The system didn’t work any better.

Finally I got down to business.  By examining this antique gauge (which appears to measure a vacuum in bars of mercury) I figured out that I had a Kellogg-Mackay-Cameron Co. Vacuum System installed in 1906, based on Morgan’s patent.

(See also the flickr photoset for my heating system.)

I managed to find the original product literature [PDF] on a steam heating enthusiast web site.  I found the original patent on Google Patents. Heady with this success, I thought — why not look for the original repair instructions that would be written for the steamfitters of the day?  I found the book 500 Plain Answers to Direct Questions on Steam, Hot Water, Vapor, and Vacuum Heating (1915) on Google Books.

I don’t know anything about do-it-yourself projects in the home.  I am not good with my hands.  But no one seemed able to solve this one for me, so I dove in.  After a lot of reading I ended up performing three adjustments.  Two involved a screwdriver and one a wrench.  That’s it.  It took me two weeks to understand the system and 15 minutes to fix it.   Just after I finished the last adjustment there was a terrific whooshing noise and the heat started to work — and work beautifully.  It gives me a new perspective on cybernetics.  The solution is never near where you see the problem.  As Dan Holohan, the leading chronicler of steam heating enthusiasm, writes:

A steam system is like a child’s mobile. When you touch one part, everything else starts swaying. If you’re not sure what will happen when you touch something, don’t touch it.

My system now produces a cozy, dry heat that my allergist says is far superior to forced air.  It’s much quieter.  My heating bill dropped substantially (it is lower than an equivalent forced air system would be in my house, but the maintenance cost is higher for the steam system).

Like many others, I ended up with an enduring appreciation for steam.  These systems were so well-made and also so clever and complex.  The thought that went into a normal household heating system in 1906 boggles my mind.  Dan Holohan calls his classes on these systems the Dead Men’s Steam School.  (Everyone who designed these systems is dead.)

While steam radiators have a reputation for being trouble-prone heating systems, in fact the main problem is that nearly everyone that knows how to build, operate, and maintain one is dead.  And what craft! My system is 100 years old and works very well. As I learned from Holohan’s writing, it is quite common to encounter parts of these systems that no one alive understands and (until recently) weren’t documented anywhere.  If that knowledge were more widespread and steamfitters (and spare parts) were as common as they once were I think steam would rule the world.  I guess this is another case study in path-dependence.

Pick up The Lost Art of Steam Heating and you won’t be disappointed.  This book is worth buying for Dan’s chronicles of famous boiler explosions alone.

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