Welcome to Off on a Tangent, the online repository where I share my creative endeavors with the world. Inside you will find fiction, news, commentary, poetry, music, and more that I have produced over the years and am still producing today. I am always open to feedback, so please don't hesitate to contact me or leave a comment and share your thoughts!

Major Winter Storm to Wallop DC Area

December 18th, 2009

A major winter storm appears on-track to wallop the Washington, DC metropolitan area with heavy snow beginning late tonight and continuing through much of the weekend. The National Weather Service has issued a Winter Storm Warning for the DC metro area stating, in part, that ‘accumulations of 10 to 20 inches’ are expected.

The Capital Weather Gang, a group of weather bloggers with a solid, conservative [read: realistic] track record of accumulation predictions, estimate 8-16″ for much of the region with 10-18″ in some areas. They characterize this storm as a ‘Major Event’ for the DC area and predict widespread hazardous road conditions.

Those of us who have lived a long time in the DC area know that this area doesn’t handle snow very well. The various Departments of Transportation have an annoying tendency to spontaneously forget to treat major highways, and the MetroRail system was apparently designed to fail if exposed to winter precipitation (because they have exposed electronics [!] on train underbellies). Drivers in the region seem to fall into two camps: one, those that refuse to go anywhere at all even days after most of the roads are clear; and two: those (usually with SUVs) who believe you can drive on snow at full speed as if the road is perfectly clear. Reality, as usual, is in-between.

Off on a Tangent recommends the following: don’t be afraid of a little bit of snow, but don’t drive like an idiot either. 4WD and AWD vehicles are generally good in winter weather, but every car has 4-wheel braking and every car will take longer to stop than it would in clear conditions and any car can spin-out if you take a turn too fast on a slick highway. So, even in your 4WD and AWD cars, drive careful. If you don’t have to go anywhere, don’t. Make sure you have enough supplies at home to last you a couple of days.

Have fun and be safe!

Misusing the Word ‘Hacked’

December 18th, 2009

I read an interesting story over at CNN.com about how Iraqi insurgents figured out how to monitor the video feeds from our un-manned Predator drone aircraft. There are a couple things that bother me about this article—one about how it’s written, and one about the content itself.

First, despite the gripping headline, the insurgents ‘hacked’ nothing. The video feed they were watching was broadcast over the airwaves without encryption. They ‘hacked’ the feed in the same way I ‘hack’ a broadcast TV feed by turning on my television, or in the way I ‘hack’ air traffic control communication by turning on a scanner I get at Radio Shack. If an unintended recipient receives a broadcast sent ‘in the clear’, they’ve simply monitored open communication—which anybody can do and, in fact, has a right to do barring any specific laws prohibiting it.

(An example of a specific law is this: most jurisdictions in the United States legally prohibit the use of police scanners to evade the police, so if a bad guy uses one to get away he gets an additional charge on his rap sheet when he’s caught.)

Second, and much more troubling than run-of-the-mill journalistic exaggeration, is the fact that the United States Air Force broadcasts Predator drone video in the clear. Billions of dollars invested over decades in defense encryption technologies, and they can’t even apply a trivial cipher to put at least a speed-bump in the way of the bad guys? In the clear? Come on guys.

Website 21.1 In Development

December 14th, 2009

I took the weekend off from unpacking, got a lot of sleep, and worked on my website. It was a nice change of pace to work with code instead of cardboard, and I made a lot of progress on a minor update to the site (which, when done, will bring the version to 21.1). I’m doing a lot of experimentation with the jQuery JavaScript library, which will allow neat effects and dynamic stuff I haven’t done much of before. It also let me clean up the code for my existing dynamic stuff (like the pinned menu) to be a lot smaller and more efficient.

All-in-all, expect the site to start looking and acting a bit more like a ‘Web 2.0′ site from here on.

Obviously I’ll have a lot more detail when I actually finish the thing and launch it, but I wanted to let you all know that’s what I’m up to. Since a fair amount of the [limited] time I have for the web site is going to the next minor update, I’ll have a bit less time than usual for…you know…writing posts. I’ll try to keep up with it though.

The Babbage ‘Difference Engine’ Works

December 11th, 2009

Charles Babbage, long regarded as the father of modern computing, was not able to put his ideas into action during his lifetime. Faced with continual funding difficulty in building his ‘difference engine’ and, later, ‘analytical engine,’ his groundbreaking ideas were left unimplemented when he died in 1871.

Strangely enough, although Babbage has been well regarded for his ideas and is often listed among the ‘founding fathers’ of computing, nobody ever actually built his machines and nobody really knew for sure if they would work.

Well that’s changed. Almost 140 years after his death, we now know that Babbage’s ‘difference engine’ works. Using the original plans (correcting for a few minor errors) and using material and techniques that would have been available during Babbage’s lifetime, two ‘difference engines’ have been built and work exactly as intended.

Check out the video at the link. This thing is great.

Unlimited Means Unlimited

December 10th, 2009

According to several technology media outlets, AT&T is looking to ‘encourage’ high-usage wireless customer to reign in their data usage. According to the company, 3% of smartphone users eat up 40% of AT&T network bandwidth.

Let me put this in plain English for AT&T: If your network can’t handle a minuscule 3% of your users utilizing something you call unlimited data service, then improve your network (preferred) or stop selling unlimited data service. As long as you sell unlimited data for your phones, some people will use it. You have no right to try and get them to stop. You sold it to them as unlimited. Unlimited means unlimited.

I haven’t had too much trouble with AT&T really, despite their being slaughtered in the media for various transgressions (real and imagined). I live in a 3G area and get pretty good 3G signal during most of my day-to-day activities. Granted, coverage isn’t as good as Verizon, but when I switched to AT&T [then-Cingular] they had a much better selection of available phones and other benefits over the competition. I’m giving consideration to switching back to Verizon or to another carrier when my contract is up, but haven’t yet made a decision.

If AT&T starts playing games with what unlimited means, or stops offering unlimited data plans, they’ll pretty much guarantee my next phone will be on a competitive carrier.

Pandemic Emergency Fizzles

December 8th, 2009

If you are a regular reader, it should strike you as no surprise that the pandemic, national emergency H1N1 ’swine flu’ is no worse than the regular flu. I’ve been saying that all along.

Well, after spending the better part of a year blathering on about how we’re all going to die despite any evidence whatsoever of this flu being any more dangerous than the regular flu, it seems that the scare-mongering officials are finally sheepishly admitting their mistake [or deception]: this ‘pandemic’ is shaping up to be the mildest on record, and this flu has been less virulent and less deadly than the regular seasonal flu.

The cynic in me is so very, very tempted to declare this year of ’swine flu’ hysteria to be a fabrication. Perhaps it was intended to get us all to go along with an ill-advised socialized health hare system. Perhaps it was designed to dump federal dollars into pharmaceutical and household product [i.e., hand sanitizer] companies without having to call it a ’stimulus’ or ‘bailout’.

Is my inner cynic right? Who knows. All I know is that I said in August that the government owed us an explanation. I’m still waiting for one.

EPA: Everybody Stop Breathing!

December 7th, 2009

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared carbon dioxide (CO2) to be a public health threat, and thus subject to administrative action by the agency. If you buy into the argument that human activity is causing ‘global warming’ or ‘global climate change,’ this sounds really good. After all, these terrible carbon emissions are messing everything up and need to be reigned in, right?

There’s a problem though. You see, most chemicals regulated by the EPA as public health threats are…you know…dangerous. They’re poisons, pollutants, and toxins. CO2 is not; it is a natural byproduct of animals breathing. You produce CO2 every time you exhale. CO2 is also very important for plants, which take it in and produce oxygen. Plants thrive in CO2-rich environments.

So let us accept, for a moment, the argument that CO2 is a ‘greenhouse gas,’ is causing a rise in global temperatures, and that all this is a bad thing. There are all kinds of problems with this argument (which I will get into some other time), but let’s accept it as fact for a moment. Even if this is true, the idea that CO2—a naturally occurring chemical essential for life on this planet—is a grave public health threat is just insane. Why don’t we declare oxygen to be a threat too, since it’s explosive in its pure form. How about water; people can drown in water. I think it’s time that the EPA stepped in and did something about water. Read the rest of this entry »

Stuff From Today: Hiccups, Snow, Penguin

December 5th, 2009

This morning, I had to take Melissa to an art show in Falls Church. It was raining on the drive, but nothing too bad. As I loaded her stuff into the show, I came down with a terrible case of the hiccups. I absolutely hate hiccups and all of the supposed remedies—holding breath, drinking water, etc., etc., etc.—never seem to work.

So I did a Google search from my phone and  the first result was a site claiming it has a 30-second cure for the hiccups. I was completely skeptical but, much to my surprise…it worked. It worked instantly and the hiccups were completely gone and have not returned. If you come down with the hiccups, give it a shot and see if it works for you. Your mileage may vary.

On the drive back to the house (around 9:30am) the rain began turning to sleet, and then quickly to accumulating snow. We got about 2 or 3 inches by the end of the day. I absolutely love snow, so it was a good day for me. It was also my first chance to try out the Subaru in snow, since we haven’t had hardly any winter weather since we got it. I was very satisfied with its performance.

Aside from the two snow pics (1st right when it was starting to accumulate, and 2nd later in the day), I’ve also included a really scary penguin we saw at Target. Enjoy!

Site Host Change

December 5th, 2009

You may have noticed some downtime last night and early today. Things were briefly wonky while I moved Off on a Tangent’s (and our other sites’) web hosting to Network Solutions, my employer. As far as I can tell the migration went just fine and everything should be working. If you notice anything not working right, please let me know.

There are a couple other things that will be happening on the site over the next few weeks if/when I have time. There is probably a pretty large WordPress update coming out soon which I intend to apply fairly quick after it becomes available. I’m also planning to do a minor version update pretty soon to refresh the look a bit and improve some of the technical bits. More on those as they come.

Trespassing on Your Own Property

December 4th, 2009

A man in Minnesota was arrested by police on Wednesday for trespassing…on his own property. Welcome to the new America, people, where the rights to ‘life, liberty, and property’ cover none of the above. In this case the problem stems from a dispute over a pipeline easement. Enbridge Energy Partners, owner of the pipeline, wanted to expand its easement. Jeremy Engelking, the property owner, did not want the easement expanded.

It’s a simple dispute, really. Both sides must abide by whatever the terms were of the original easement (from 1949, in this case). If the original terms allowed unilateral expansion of the easement, then Enbridge can expand it without Engelking’s approval. If the original terms did not allow for this, then Enbridge and Engelking must come to some agreement or find a way to work within the original terms..

Either way, however, Engelking committed no apparent crime in being on his own property—and he certainly wasn’t trespassing! Maybe it’s illegal in Minnesota to interfere with a utility company doing work on an easement (regardless of any separate issues relating to that easement), and if so maybe that’s actionable, but what kind of despotic local government would arrest somebody for being on their own land?

Oh, and speaking of property rights, isn’t it nice that we live in a country where unelected, unaccountable homeowners’ associations can tell you how you’re allowed to fly our national symbol of freedom and liberty?