Thursday, December 25, 2008

Holiday thoughts about our pale blue dot

It's Christmas day here in Victoria and it was a glorious, sunny day. I was glad to be safe and sound here at home, surrounded by our family. I hope your day was a good one as well.

According to a story in yesterday's paper, Victoria has the distinction of being the "snow capital" of Canada, thanks to the 41 cm of white stuff that's accumulated here this month. That's even more snow than the North Pole! Not a position this city is used to at this time of the year - or any time, for that matter.

It's just the latest in a string of weird weather events that have hit this winter. And the season has just begun. Holiday travel has been a nightmare across Canada -- my sister-in-law and her family are hung up tonight in Calgary, trying to get to Regina from their home in Vancouver. But like thousands of others, they couldn't make their air connections.

It's enough to make you wonder just what the heck is happening? Is this extreme weather a sign of climate change or just a blip in the long-term? It sure seems like weather patterns are changing and that extreme weather is more common than it used to be.

While I was mulling over thoughts like that, I came across an article about Carl Sagan's famous photo of our planet, called "Pale Blue Dot." I remember reading about it at the time, but I'd forgotten the story. Here's a short excerpt from a Wikipedia article about it:
The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken by Voyager 1 from a record distance, showing it against the vastness of space. Both the idea for taking the distant photo, and the title came from scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan, who also wrote the 1994 book of the same name. In 2001, it was selected by as one of the top ten space science photos.

On February 14, 1990, NASA commanded the Voyager 1 spacecraft, having completed its primary mission, to turn around to photograph the planets of the Solar System. One image Voyager returned was of Earth, showing up as a "pale blue dot" in the grainy photo.
Sagan elaborated on his thoughts about our world in a commencement speech in 1996. In the video I've linked to below, you can hear his address, while images from decades of Hollywood movies flash by. It's an intriguing mix and a clever way of presenting some of Sagan's profound comments.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of us on this pale blue dot.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Let's squash corporate jargon, shall we?

ewww.jpgIf you like words and cringe when people start abusing them, you're going to love this list of least favourite corporate jargon that communications guru Shel Holtz has compiled. The list is also a pretty cool demonstration of the power of Twitter.
Last week, after seeing some particularly egregious corporate jargon, I queried my Twitter followers about their least favorite jargon. Here are the responses I got:

  • Leveraging low-cost locations (as a euphemism for moving US jobs overseas)
  • Class-leading
  • Value-added (One of Dave Fleet’s 10 most irritating PR phrases)
  • A value-add proposition
  • Impact (used as a verb)
  • Synergy
  • Leveraging synergies
  • Working as designed
  • Bandwidth (as in ‘I don’t have the bandwidth to help out)
  • Cutting edge (this is another one that made Dave Fleet’s list)
  • Leading edge
  • Industry leader (see Diana Huff’s comment below)
  • Good PR (as in ‘get me some good PR')
  • Best practices
  • Strategic
And the list goes on...

To see the whole list, as well as some pretty hilarious videos featuring a new word - Buffling - read the whole post.

(Via a shel of my former self.)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Let's follow another solo sailor

Remember Glenn Wakefield and his attempt to become the first sailor to circumnavigate alone the wrong way aound?

While Glenn wasn't racing anybody, it was certainly exciting to follow his progress - until his adventure came to its premature end with the loss of his beloved Kim Chow. (If you're in Vancouver in January, you can hear Glenn tell his tale in person.)

spirit-of-canada.jpgThere's a solo round-the-world race happening right now, called the Vendee Globe:
In theory, the Vendée Globe is an utterly simple affair. Its fundamental principles come down to a few sentences, compared to which even the roughest logbook would seem sophisticated. A sailing race around the world, for singlehanders, without any stopover. That’s it. In theory at least, because beyond these words start great stories.
There's a Canadian in this race that you might want to follow. His name is Derek Hatfield. Here's an excerpt from his bio:
This former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who became Manager of the Compliance Department at the Toronto Stock Exchange, came to sailing thanks to a neighbour and is already a round the world yachtsman. He in fact became the 126th sailor in the world to have sailed alone around the planet. That was in 2002 at the age of fifty on board a 40-footer christened Spirit of Canada. He finished Around Alone in third place in his class, in spite of a very long stopover for repairs having dismasted off Cape Horn. Named Rolex sailor of the year in 2003 for Canada, he also won the trophy in that same year that bears the name of the late Gerry Roufs.
Finally, and it is far from being the least of his qualities, Derek Hatfield is a keen defender of nature. With the Earth Rangers, a charitable organisation, he has launched a partnership to bring to the attention of children the importance of sustainable development and environmental protection. He will be setting sail with the fully justified pride of taking the first Canadian built Open 60 boat around the world.
I've been watching what's been happening in the Vendee Globe (it started Nov 8) but I hadn't blogged about it until I read a recent update Derek posted on his website about what he'd heard about our recent political shenanigans in Ottawa.
Word from back in Canada is that the government is in a bit of turmoil and the economy is at scary levels. I’m sure more than one of our sponsors are feeling the pinch of the recession. Hang in there and never give up on your goals. I feel a little guilty that I’m out here away from all of these woes but maybe some of you following the race can at least find it a motivating diversion from the financial situation.
That sounded like a great idea to me. So let's all follow along with Derek and let his adventures keep us in a positive frame of mind.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A new view of the House of Commons

Has anyone else noticed that we're seeing some new views of the inside of the House of Commons in Ottawa? This photo of Stephen Harper and Stephane Dion, shot by Chris Wattie of Reuters, is a remarkable shot, no question.

But it's also a view that I don't remember seeing before. It looks like the photographer was sitting in the back benches behind Harper. How did they get that shot?

When I was a reporter, photographers were only allowed on the floor of the chamber on special occasions like a Throne Speech, not during Question Period. I wonder if the rules have changed when I wasn't watching.

Anybody know the answer? Leave a comment with your ideas.

Photo credit: Chris Wattie, Reuters

Monday, December 01, 2008

How Dan Kaminsky broke and fixed DNS

This is one of the most interesting (and frightening) stories of the year, without question. If you're a geek, you probably know the basics of the story. But if you haven't heard about the DNS flaw - or you don't even know what DNS is -- you'll still find this a fascinating tale.

- Via Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing:

"Wired's Joshua A Davis has a great profile of my pal Dan Kaminsky's work on discovering and then helping to fix a net-crashing DNS bug earlier this year. Davis really captures the excitement of discovering a major security flaw and the complex web of personal, professional and technical complications that come to bear when you're trying to disclose the research in a way that minimizes harm to the net.

Dan does a lot of fun security-related stuff that doesn't get talked about in public. There's this one thing he does --

But that would be telling.

The next morning, Kaminsky strode to the front of the conference room at Microsoft headquarters before Vixie could introduce him or even welcome the assembled heavy hitters. The 16 people in the room represented Cisco Systems, Microsoft, and the most important designers of modern DNS software.

Vixie was prepared to say a few words, but Kaminsky assumed that everyone was there to hear what he had to say. After all, he'd earned the spotlight. He hadn't sold the discovery to the Russian mob. He hadn't used it to take over banks. He hadn't destroyed the Internet. He was actually losing money on the whole thing: As a freelance computer consultant, he had taken time off work to save the world. In return, he deserved to bask in the glory of discovery. Maybe his name would be heralded around the world.

Kaminsky started by laying out the timeline. He had discovered a devastating flaw in DNS and would explain the details in a moment. But first he wanted the group to know that they didn't have much time. On August 6, he was going to a hacker convention in Las Vegas, where he would stand before the world and unveil his amazing discovery. If there was a solution, they'd better figure it out by then.

But did Kaminsky have the goods? DNS attacks were nothing new and were considered difficult to execute. The most practical attack—widely known as cache poisoning—required a hacker to submit data to a DNS server at the exact moment that it updated its records. If he succeeded, he could change the records. But, like sperm swimming toward an egg, whichever packet got there first—legitimate or malicious—locked everything else out. If the attacker lost the race, he would have to wait until the server updated again, a moment that might not come for days. And even if he timed it just right, the server required a 16-bit ID number. The hacker had a 1-in-65,536 chance of guessing it correctly. It could take years to successfully compromise just one domain.

The experts watched as Kaminsky opened his laptop and connected the overhead projector. He had created a 'weaponized' version of his attack on this vulnerability to demonstrate its power. A mass of data flashed onscreen and told the story. In less than 10 seconds, Kaminsky had compromised a server running BIND 9, Vixie's DNS routing software, which controls 80 percent of Internet traffic. It was undeniable proof that Kaminsky had the power to take down large swaths of the Internet.
Secret Geek A-Team Hacks Back, Defends Worldwide Web

(Photo: John Keatley)

(Via Boing Boing.)