Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Patron Saint of Ham Radio?

Monday, May 18th, 2020

Today, 19 May 2020, is Oliver Heaviside’ 170th birthday.



Okay this post will be a bit technical…but only a bit.

One of the giants of science is James Clerk Maxwell, he figured out the science behind how radio waves work. Pretty important stuff. He is immortalized in the famous four Maxwell Equations. Maybe you have head of them, lots of science-y types have heard of them, but not that many understand them, so don’t feel too left out, this is rarefied territory. (I’m still learning this stuff, but I’m not there yet.) But it seems they are important to the experts that make modern life work.

And Maxwell did them!

Except he didn’t. Maxwell did eight equations, not four. Oliver Heaviside is the one who simplified the eight into four.

People will write otherwise, but it seems to me that it was Heaviside, not Maxwell, who created the whole field of electrical engineering.

In Heaviside’s day the hot new technology was the telegraph. You know, Morse code, dits and dahs. It was slow and cumbersome and expensive, but it could communicate over long distances very rapidly when compared with a horse or ship or even a racing locomotive (that means a train). The slight detail is that the longer the wires got the mushier the signal got. People would try to make up for it by turning up the voltage, and they had other tricks they tried, but it was a seat-of-the-pants, rule-of-thumb world, and don’t ask too many questions because even the most talented “electricians” didn’t really know why one trick might work and why a different did not. The first trans-Atlantic cable was not only very slow but burned out after a very short amount of use. (They turned up the voltage quite a bit.)

Heaviside worked for a telegraph company, and he wanted to figure out this stuff worked. Precisely how it worked, as in quantifying things. This rubbed some in the industry the wrong way, there was a lot of opposition of quantifying these things. And he did. Both rub people the wrong way and figure out these things. He figured out how to make telegraph wires operate at much faster speeds for much greater distances, without burning them out. His same principles were applied to voice telephone calls, for they had the same problem of the signal getting mushy if the lines got too long, and he explained how to fix that, too.

His solution was to set up what is now called a balanced transmission line. Back when TV antennas were put on roofs the first kind of cable for connecting it to the TV was a balanced transmission line, 300-ohm twin lead, to be precise, and it was a flat cable, made of plastic with a wire running down each edge. Don’t tape it directly to your metal antenna mast, it doesn’t like that, but if suspended away from metal, it is very efficient at getting a very weak signal down to the TV without picking up interference along they way. Heaviside invented the balanced transmission line. And it is useful for a lot more than ancient TV antennas. It you haven’t heard of balanced transmission line, but have heard of coax cable (it is perfectly okay to tape coax to the metal TV antenna mast–coax is not as efficient as twin lead, but easier to string), well Heaviside invented coaxial cable, too.

About the time telegraph and telephone were still pretty new there was another hot technology: radio. Heaviside was paying attention there, too. At this point sensible people knew the world was not flat but is round (spherical, to be pedantic). And people also knew that radio waves travel in straight lines, so radio wouldn’t be useful for long distance communications, right? Wrong. For some frequencies, under the right conditions, radio waves will bounce off the ionosphere and can travel great distances. Heaviside figured this out. He figured out that this should work before people found out that it did work. In fact the layer of the atmosphere (the ionosphere) that does this was originally called the Heaviside Layer.

Back to the Maxwell Equations. The way that Heaviside did all of this was by taking the science and figuring out how to apply it in a precise way to make an engineering discipline: he created electrical engineering. Including inventing new ways of doing the math.

In the early days of Bell Labs they were working magic by taking Heaviside’s work and applying it in a practical way. Some Bell engineers were so impressed with Heaviside’s work, and so indebted to him, that they tried to send him money, but he said no.

At this point Heaviside was old and not rich, yet he said no. Oliver Heaviside could be difficult. Various folk tried to help him and to the extent it looked like help to him, he said no, even though he needed it. And part of why the Bell Labs engineers were having such a hay day on his work is he that, though he might have been brilliant, he didn’t stop to try to make his work easy to understand, it took awhile for his work to have full effect.

Back to the my claim he should be the patron saint of ham radio: He made practical much of what the field is built on, he was a hands-on man. And he died of complications from falling from a ladder.

-kb, AC1HJ

©2020 Kent Borg

P.S. Comments are broken and have been for sometime. Sorry.

Inviting Phishing: Stop Training People to Be Fooled

Sunday, December 2nd, 2018

As we try to tighten up our computer systems, in 2018, phishing feels like one of the most dangerous things. Sure, getting someone to open a dangerous attachment that exploits a PDF bug (is there an infinite supply?) is a problem, but let’s imagine users running on such tight systems that dangerous attachments are no longer a problem. Phishing won’t be over.

People will still be fooled by crooks, and if a crook walks up to you in nose glasses and politely asks for the keys to your car you might think something is funny. You do expect give your car keys to strangers, but you expect these people to be, say, the mechanic at the car repair, or the parking valet at the restaurant. The point is if you initiate the transaction (you go to get your car fixed, you go out to eat), the transaction is much safer. In contrast, if a stranger approaches you and volunteers to be a mechanic or valet, you are less likely to fall for it.

We should apply that to computer credentials. If I decide to go to website, it is reasonable for me to then type my TuKlever login credentials. But if some website claiming to be approaches me (via e-mail), why should I hand it my password (aka my “car keys”)? I shouldn’t.

A powerful way to avoid a lot of phishing attempts is:

Never (never ever) type credentials because someone else supplied you with a link, possibly in an e-mail.

Instead, if the link looks good, login to that website manually (type a trusted URL by hand, use a bookmark you typed by hand). Now log in. Now try that link in the e-mail–and if you are asked for another password, don’t do it.

This logic applies in other circumstances, too. Get a call from our credit card company about a suspicious transaction?, and that professional sounding voice asks for verification information from you? Say no, ask what it is about, say you will call back. Call what number? The number the voice on the phone gives you? No! Call the number on the back of your credit card. Same idea as the website example.

Back to my headline: We train people to do the dangerous thing.

  • Employees frequently get real e-mail from, say, HR, that includes links to, say, the new payroll system, and click and type in sensitive information.
  • For years now American Express has been sending me e-mails that include links to click on and an invitation fo type a password.
  • Other credit card companies–fraud departments even–have called me and expected me to give them identifying information.

In each of these cases we are conditioning people to do the dangerous thing. In each of these cases the safe thing to do and the normal thing to do are different. Do we really expect people to rock-the-boat, and refuse to log into the new payroll system, and not get paid?

No. We expect people to be phished, and we are training them for that.

I realize there is a heresy in what I am saying. I am implying that user behavior matters, that how we condition users matters. I am a hairsbreadth from suggesting that user education is a good thing! Horrors, the first step down the slippery slope of blaming the user for bad system design. Next thing you know I’ll make a snide remark about some celebrity caught on live camera entering the PIN 000000.


©2018 Kent Borg

We Are Really Unhappy with Our Operating Systems, and Don’t Know It

Saturday, September 24th, 2016

Linux has won. It is taking over everything, from tiny devices to the biggest super-computers. Apple’s operating systems are all pretty much on the same model, and Microsoft always seems to be trotting along in roughly this direction, too.

The idea is pretty cool: Give each program a uniform view of the machine, keep them from interfering with each other. Not only can each program mostly pretend it owns the entire machine, the model is good enough to be extended to multiple users, all running on the same machine.

Yes, there will be resource limits with all this sharing going on, but that is a necessary limitation, the larger sharing model is great.

So why are we so unhappy with it? Why do we have this big virtualization fad? The operating system was supposed to let multiple users share the same physical machine, why an extra layer of multiple operating systems sharing the same hardware? If these multiple operating systems were different kinds of operating systems (needed to be compatible with different kinds of programs) that would make sense, but mostly we run multiple virtual copies of the same operating system. Frequently the same version of the same operating system. The popularity of hypervisors for providing multiple uniform views of the hardware, keeping them from interfering with each other, seems a big indictment of what the OS was supposed to do. Something is wrong with the API offered by the OS if we prefer the API offered by BIOS. Something is wrong.

And inside the OS, different programs were supposed to do the different things. So why are we now inventing enormous container facilities like Docker and Kubernetes for supplying the features we want? Isn’t that what the OS was supposed to orchestrate?

I don’t see much questioning of the role of the OS, but I see an awful lot of ad hoc reinventing of OS-like services.

Part of this is clearly a limitation of the OS model: Individual programs are isolated from each other, but it seems not isolated enough, we want more isolation, so we fire up new OS instances. Also, individual programs have complicated and conflicting dependencies to shared libraries that the old OS model isn’t good at mediating. Finally, individual programs are not where the action is, we run different programs in concert with both dependency confusions between them, and contradicting desires to be isolated from other programs (so they don’t interfere) but not isolated from other programs (so they can cooperate). It seems these are all issues the OS should handle, and it doesn’t, that’s why we have so many VMs, and these container facilities.

Recently I ran across the various name-spaces that the Linux kernel offers. (Linus is very pedantic that the kernel just be the kernel, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still freaking gigantic and bursting with features.) These name spaces provide a lot of granularity for controlling what is isolated and what is shared between different programs. It seems they make it possible to completely isolate software, as if you were running completely different operating systems. I say “it seems” because I don’t know that I am right, I don’t know that these different name spaces cover all the bases. And, even if I knew they did cover all the bases, how would anyone ever trust that they did it in a bugfree way? How would anyone ever know that there isn’t some unintended leaking between spaces, security holes hidden in the confusion.

I think this gets to the point: The confusion. The old OS model was simple, that was a virtue. The model implicit in Linux name spaces is so complicated that I almost don’t want to call it a model: if almost no one can understand the implications of all those features, can it be called a “model”? Does it instead become an “artifact”? Something to be studied, as opposed to a model, something clear enough to be understood?

Maybe I am just being overwhelmed and demonstrating my ignorance. But something tells me that the simplicity of hypervisors, presenting a near bare-metal model, isn’t about to lose its appeal as everybody starts to grok Linux name spaces.

I think we are choking on unmanaged complexity, that we are building systems that are more complicated than we know, that not only are they riddled with conventional bugs, but attackers are waltzing though our systems via the security holes made possible by that complexity. But that’s another topic.

My conclusion here is we have run out the old OS model to the point of absurdity, that we need to rethink what abstractions an OS should offer. The old OS model was both powerful and simple, but look at the layers of baroque filigree we are accumulating, it is time to revisit our assumptions about what an OS is.


©2016 Kent Borg

Our Founding Fathers–Eating

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

I have occasionally imagined a piece of historical fiction, a Rip van Winkle story where John Adams (a grumpy, wise, philosopher) or Ben Franklin (a gourmand, party animal, and scientist) or maybe Tom Jefferson (a million contradictions who liked liberty and revolution and food and wine and books and women of all colors) is dropped into the present day to make sense of it, with the help of someone to be a clumsy guide and to keep our time traveler out of jail. (Me! Me! Picke me!) We learn about ourselves and our history as our lab rat tries to make sense of our era.

Fascinating to think about. It makes me ashamed I know so little history (and cultural history) to have a decent guess at what the poor lab rat would see.

Then I became completely distracted by eating. Our food bears so little resemblance to what these men knew that I think any one of them would be both impressed by the Taste Sensations of McDonalds, and ornery and out-of-sorts after a day here because our “food” is not food.

The result? Every time I eat something really good (Tonight: local lamb from Walden Local Meat, here in Boston) I feel like I am eating like a Founding Father.


©2016 Kent Borg

What Makes Anyone Think Physics is Not a Religion?

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

[I am sure this is not original, on so many levels, but my fingers are compelled to try to capture these thoughts. Forgive me.]

At a fundamental level physicists appear to be deeply religious. Their Articles of Faith are something like this:

  • There is order,
  • This order can be understood by us,
  • It is predictive, has temporal properties, and likely practical implications,
  • (Might be isotropic).

Snide remarks aside, there is a deep faith here: What I do in my little life doesn’t seem to have a great and deep order to it, why should the far larger universe constrain itself to being so precisely ordered that we can make exact equations about it? Why couldn’t the universe be capricious and random and arbitrary and I’ll-do-this-here and I’ll-do-that-there? I don’t know.

But physicists have this deep faith that they will understand if they only keep looking, that there is a fundamental order to the universe, that there is a simplicity under all these chaotic details we see when we look about.

As the world I see certainly has a lot of confusion in it, isn’t this a religious perspective by physicists? More creeping Secular Humanism? Isn’t it just another religion?


The difference between the faith of a physicist and that of a religious person is that the physicist wants data what will displace his/er faith. The physicist wants observations that will explain the mechanisms of why we see what we see–even if they are mind-bending and paradoxical–the physicist wants to expose his/er faith and dispel mystery.

The religious person wants faith, wants to hold on to mystery.

If I might get all meta: The physicist has faith that there will always be plenty mystery; that there is no risk in explaining things.


©2015 Kent Borg

Android Car Radio?

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

They don’t seem to quite exist yet, but it looks like we are getting close to having nice Android car radios available.

There are car radios with slide out screens, but the ones available domestically are proprietary software that I assume won’t be as good as Android and will cost a lot more for less. I already use my Android tablet kind of hanging from the dash of my car, so any installed unit needs to be as good.

What would I like?

  • A single-din unit, not one of those big double jobs. Single will look less obvious to anyone looking in the window.
  • The radio to be a real radio with a real volume control that will work even when the computer part is, er, being a computer. So the Android part is add-on, let it be a fancy remote control for the radio.
  • FM HD radio, RDS.
  • Radio needs to be good, I want selectivity so I can be parked next to a powerful transmitter and listen to something else. I want it to be sensitive to I can pull in a distant station while near the middle of no where. If the radio wants to be frequency agile and let me see if there is anything on shortwave anymore, that’s okay with me.
  • AM, too.
  • Android. Let me use Google’s maps, or let me choose OsmAnd, or let me buy a Tom Tom product. Let me use other Android software.
  • SIM slot if I want to buy data service from a cell company.
  • Wifi, let it connect through my phone’s wifi, let it connect to my house wifi when I am parked at home if I need to download something big. Let it be a wifi hot spot if I do buy cell data.
  • Bluetooth, let it be a speakerphone for my cellphone, let me stream music from my cellphone through the car speakers.

Sound cool?


“Digital Quality” and “No Moving Parts”: We Were Tricked!

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

It used to be that “digital quality” meant “high quality” because going digital was a way to do better what could be done with analog. Consider CDs, they often had very high quality sound. But we were tricked. Now a days “digital quality” is as crappy as the engineers and MBAs decide to make it. Consider Sirius Satellite Radio. Originally it was going to be called CD Radio, because it was “digital quality”, but they quickly realized their mistake. By doing more extreme data compression on the music streams they can fit in many more channels. The result is far, far short of “CD quality”. And God forbid you listen to their all-talk streams. The quality is horrible, makes me want to listen over a telephone circa 1965.

This morning, while doing some laundry I realized I was fooled by “no moving parts” in exactly the same way! I was waiting for a 40-year-old washer to advance to the rinse cycle, watching the old mechanical synchronous motor sequencer, listening to all its noises, wondering how much longer it will last. By reflex I thought “Moving parts! They will wear out faster.”

Ah, how I was tricked. Once upon a time “no moving parts” meant more reliable because it was a way to make something more reliable. But now it means as perishable as engineers and MBAs decide to make it. Our “no moving parts” electronics are made of ephemeral components that have calendar lives independent of whether they are used or abused. Lithium ion batteries are the nastiest examples of this today: they expire in time, no matter how you use them, they are custom molded into our telephones and computers, and they set the end of life for these devices–no matter how well we treat them–forcing us to land-fill our old model and buy a new one. Not just batteries, but flash memory, capacitors, LCD panels, and even LEDs–they all are being used in ways that will fail. Even the plastic cases we put everything in gets brittle and shrinks and discolors and will die.

I have a phone that is around 70-years old, and it could last another 70-years, though there won’t still be a wired phone system to connect it to by then. I have other phones that are just a few years old and are non-functional. From components that expire to wireless standards that have been retired.

My phone that has lasted all these years? It has tons of moving parts and is all analog.

-kb, the Kent who is clearly an old fogy to even ask the question.

©2014 Kent Borg

Late Show, with Stephen Colbert

Friday, April 11th, 2014

I couldn’t be more pleased for Stephen Colbert’s being hired to follow David Letterman on the Late Show. Congratulations, sir.

However some people are sad that Stephen Colbert’s character from The Colbert Report will not continue in his new job. I suggest they not worry. Colbert was plenty good on The Daily Show, when he was not playing this character. I think Jon Stewart was telling us the truth when he said Colbert has a lot more “gears” than we have seen. This will be his chance to explore a bunch of them.

But mostly, I think Colbert deserves better. Unlike the very early years on The Colbert Report, he now has a lot of help writing the show, but I still think the man is getting exhausted and needs a break. Maintaining this character all the time has to drain him, and it denies him the refreshment of ever doing anything different.

There is a lot of wonder over what the Late Show will be like “with Stephen Colbert”. I think this is a work-in-progress, but I have some predictions (or, advice):

  • More ensemble. He has already had the ego trip as the headliner of The Colbert Report, he can have more fun (and have less work) if he shares the stage with more talent. Not having to be such an ego-maniac will be a relief for him.
  • More elaborate production values. I admit I am not a regular viewer of the Late Show with David Letterman, but I am under the impression mostly he interviews people. Occasionally they walk outside in Manhattan with a camera, but much beyond that is rare. Colbert’s production budget will go up with this move, and I expect him to produce bigger stuff with it.
  • Stay in New York. I think he likes it there. But that doesn’t mean he won’t travel and take the show with him. His shows from Iraq were a lot of fun. He could travel to more cushy places and make good TV, too.
  • Continue to take plenty of time off. I wish I had his Comedy Central vacation schedule, I suspect he will want to keep it, too. With a bigger ensemble and more elaborate productions, I don’t think the show will fall apart during his absences.

The result will please those of us who wish TV had more Dick Cavett and more Sid Caesar. Luckily we will have move Stephen Colbert.

Stephen: I wish you the best. I hope you enjoy these final months as “Stephen Colbert”, and good luck planning your next gig.

-kb, the Kent who doesn’t even watch much TV.

©2014 Kent Borg

Pebble Watch’s Limitations: They are Key

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Maybe it is supposed to be click-bait, or maybe Jared Newman (@OneJaredNewman) is sincerely confused. In his posting on ( he complains that the Pebble watch is too much work, and “Pebble’s new apps are no easier to reach than the phone in your pocket.”.

He misses the point.

The Pebble watch is not a replacement for his phone, it is an accessory. In fact without a Bluetooth link to a phone it loses most of its value. For anything that your phone is good at, your phone is good at it, and your phone wins!  Use your phone to play games, answer e-mail, read, take pictures, etc.

But there are some things that phones are not so good at. Telling the time, for example. Reaching into my pocket for that is silly. And the temperature: before I had my Pebble watch I found myself looking at my analog watch because I thought the temperature should be there. That was my hint that I should buy one finally.

It is somewhat ironic that phones are not good at telling us who is calling. When I am washing dishes and my Pebble vibrates I and can easily see whether it is my wife calling (dry off my hands and take the call) or not (keep washing dishes).

I mostly don’t like my phone to actually “ring”…you know, make noise when someone is calling. I bring my phone with me when I go places and don’t feel like I have the right to add my ringing to stores, offices, nor movies. I can have the phone vibrate, but I sometimes miss that. A smart watch vibrating, however, is a great way to be alerted that there is a call. Again, ironically, it is better at this than is a phone. Also text messages, breaking news alerts, and the other little alerty things a phone can do, are better suited to a smart watch. It gives me enough information so I know whether it is worth pulling my phone out of my pocket.

Vibrating and caller ID are big features all by themselves. But the phone is still the point. The watch is merely the accessory.

Yes, there are apps for the Pebble, but apply some sense when deciding how to use them!

The Pebblebucks app will let me pay for my coffee, I can pull up the app while waiting in line, and when I get my coffee I can pay with my wrist and use my hands to take my coffee and not be fumbling with my phone or Starbucks card.

I have a stopwatch app that I have used while swimming and I have used it while cooking (“How long have those steaks been on?”). In both cases it is worthwhile to push a few buttons to get to the stopwatch, and then leave it there while I am busy swimming or cooking. These are cases where being on my wrist is key.

There is a nifty looking biking app. I have not tried yet becuase my watch is new and it is winter in Boston, but I expect next summer it will be worth pushing a few buttons to get to it, and then leaving it there as I peddle off. And when I want details about my bike ride at the end of the day? I will pull out my phone, because it is better for focused use, when I have the time, when I have free hands.

Next big election I expect there will be a Pebble app that will give me vote returns. Yes, it will be some effort to find a good app, and some effort to get it working, but then I expect to just leave it there, glancing at it now and then.

For sports fans who can’t watch a big game, putting a sports app on the face–and just leaving it there to sneak peeks at–makes sense. If you can steal a few minutes to get details of the game, don’t use your watch! Grab your phone, or find a TV. (I know a bartender who loves sports, but works at a place with no TV. He might be able to sneak glances if he had a Pebble.)

In each case, the Pebble is good for when I am doing something else. It is a limited little thing that sits on my wrist. That is handy location when I am doing something else and want to be alerted or want to glance at some status, but for anything more involved, it is a cumbersome spot. Better to grab a smartphone.

This is very much like earlier incarnations of a wristwatch, they showed the time. Maybe they had a couple more functions, maybe they could alarm. But that’s it. They occupied very privileged real estate (I have only two wrists), but had limited function suited to that space.

The Pebble watch should be thought of like a traditional watch: it shows status (but many more choices than just time) and can alert (but with many more choices than just an alarm clock). But it is still a wristwatch. It is on my wrist, and it does wrist-suitable stuff. It is not a phone, tablet, nor desktop computer.

The Pebble is a really cool wristwatch. But it is a wristwatch!


P.S. It is also new, has some rough edges that need improvements, and it is getting improvements. Stay tuned.

©2014 Kent Borg.

Deleted (?) Tweet I Like

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

@counternotions tweeted:

I’m not smart enough to know why Windows collapsed, but I know in 2004 you couldn’t do business without it, but in 2014 you absolutely can.

Very interesting. It might not be completely true, but is it semi-true? Or maybe not quite yet.