James Cassell's Blog

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Evolving Banner Blindness

Banner blindness is a phenomenon where people grow to ignore ads on web pages. It started out as just ignoring flashy colorful banners. Recently, I noticed that I have developed a banner blindness to Google text ads. While this banner blindness can improve efficiency in browsing the web (if such a thing can be considered efficient), it can also lead to overlooking legitimate information.

The other day, I downloaded Sabayon Linux to see what it was all about. When I was running the live media, I was about to click "next" when I said to my self, "Hey! What's a Google ad doing in a live distribution options dialog?" I then realized that it wasn't a Google ad, it was simply a table of features and descriptions of those features.

There are two possible conclusions that I could draw. The first would be that I should never format information such that it could be mistaken for an advertisement. The secound could be that I should try to curb my banner blindness so as to not miss legitimate information formatted in this way. Perhaps, both conclusions are correct; they are not mutually exclusive, as far as I can see.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fedora 9 Beta

Yesterday, the beta of Fedora 9 was released. Overall, I am very impressed. The live CD, which actually fits onto a CD this time, booted with no problems on all of my systems. I was very pleased to see that they fixed a bug where one couldn't get 1920x1200 resolution. Everything works pretty seamlessly.

Having said that, it is obvious that this is a beta release. There are many bugs that need to be worked out, but the overall functionality is there.

One of the main problematic places for bugs is in SELinux policy. Many things that I try to do get blocked by SELinux, including updating the system. Of course, this will be worked out before the release, but it is an annoyance at the moment.

I am definitely excited for the upcoming release of Fedora 9, even though it is a whole month away. One thing that is interesting is that Microsoft will wait for 3 months after they have completed their code to release it to the general public, while that is half of a release cycle for Fedora.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Why Not Silverlight

Recently, Microsoft has been pushing its relatively new Silverlight web technology. Microsoft is posing it as a competitor to Adobe's Flash technology. I don't like either of these technologies due to their proprietary nature. Flash has been around for quite a while, and is nearly ubiquitous. It has become so prevalent that it is very annoying to browse the Internet without it. I am not going to help Microsoft create the ubiquity of another such proprietary technology.

Microsoft is trying to push out Silverlight via Windows Update. On all the computers I keep updated, I have specifically opt-ed to not install this update. There is an open source implementation of Silverlight being written, but even if it is written to spec, Microsoft's will inevitably have bugs, and their implementation will become a de facto standard, similar to how the rendering engine of Internet Explorer 6 was, for a long time, the de facto standard of how web pages should be rendered.

The same holds true for Flash; there is an open-source implementation, but it does not work nearly as well as Adobe's implementation. This continues to be a point of annoyance as Linux distributions generally don't come with proprietary code on the install disc.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Churning Mind

Last night, I went to bed at the decent hour of 2200 (10 P.M.) I was planning to almost get a full night's sleep, and to do my homework this morning instead of last night. Unfortunately, at around 0220 this morning, I was rudely awakened by the fire alarm. Apparently, someone had used the fire extinguisher, and there was smoke; I don't really know what happened. At any rate, we all had to go outside and wait for the fire department to get to the dorm and check it out.

This all lasted for probably 45 minutes or an hour. We were allowed back into the building. When I went back to bed, I couldn't immediately go back to sleep; my mind was flying in a million directions. I laid awake for nearly an hour before going back to sleep. At one point, I remember thinking of something that disengaged my mind, kind of like a clutch. I remember thinking, "well, that's interesting; now I can go to sleep." Shortly thereafter, I fell asleep. Sadly, I don't remember what it was that caused my mind to disengage, but it sure would be useful for times when I want to get to sleep in the future.

There have been a few times when I laid awake for the entire night. Needless to say, this is quite a waste, and if I could predict these times, I could use the time to do work. As Murphy's Law would predict, these difficulties of getting to sleep only plague me when I intend to go to sleep. At any other time, be it in class, watching a movie, riding in a vehicle, or almost anything else, if given the opportunity, I can go to sleep.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Cost of Turing Tests

The other day, I had the pleasure of visiting my aunt and uncle. When I was over there, I showed them my the website I had created for the National Honor Society at Mountain View High School, as well as my blog. We came upon the topic of Facebook. They were interested in what it was all about, so I logged in to my account, and showed them around.

One thing that arose was them wanting to click on things that would appear to other people as if I had done, and, for obvious reasons, this was undesirable. My uncle proposed that my aunt create an account, as it requires very little effort to do so. She entered the necessary information, but the page came back saying that she had typed the CAPTCHA incorrectly. At that point, she decided that she did not want to create a Facebook account -- for my aunt, the marginal benefit of having an account was less than the marginal cost of typing in the CAPTCHA.

The purpose of a CAPTCHA is to tell humans and computers apart. It is basically a Turing test. A Turing test is supposed to be a task that is trivial for a human to do, but nearly impossible for a computer to do. As it turns out, they are often onerous for humans to do, and computers have been able to do them in all cases with at least some success. In this case, Facebook lost a potential user due to the difficulty of their CAPTCHA.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Communications Cryptography and Key Signing

I have recently become interested in the encryption and authentication of messages. Several months ago, I started reading up on PGP and its open source implementation GPG. Basically, this is a technology that allows only the intended recipient to read a message. It also allows for the authentication of the sender.

This authentication and encryption is accomplished via public-key cryptography. Basically, each person has two keys: one public and the other private. The public key is given to anyone for verification of a cryptographic signature, or to enable him to send the owner an encrypted message. The private key is used by its owner to sign outgoing messages, and to decrypt incoming messages; it is never disclosed.

The preceding is a very simplified explanation, but should provide a basic idea of what is going on. There does come a small problem: how can you know that the public key you have for a someone is really owned by that person? This is where key signing comes in. One solution to this problem is to meet in person and exchange keys, but it would be a pain to meet each and every person with whom you wanted to communicate. Therefore, when you meet in person and exchange keys, you also sign the key of the person you met to inform people who trust your key that these new keys actually belong to their apparent owners.

A web of trust is created by many people signing each other's keys. In general, the fewer hops in this web between your own key and and other key indicates how much you can trust the authenticity of that other key.

Anyway, I have not yet attended a key signing party. I was pleased to find out that the ACM at Rensselaer is going have such a key signing party on March 24, 2008. Hopefully there will be quite a few people there so as to greatly increase the size of this "web of trust."

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Super Man-Like Hearing Abilities

The other day, I noticed something interesting -- our brains have the ability to filter out noise interference. My ThinkPad speakers aren't very powerful. When I decided to listen to some music while riding in the car the other day, the speakers seemed pitifully mute. The noise of the car greatly overpowered the sound of the speakers.

I left the music on despite this, and about 20 minutes later, I realized that I could hear my music just fine; I hardly noticed the noise of the car. Two things are true here -- the car didn't get any quieter during the ride, and my music didn't get any louder. This indicates to me that my brain selectively filtered out the noise of the car, and allowed me to better hear the music coming from my ThinkPad.


Saturday, March 08, 2008

Social Interactions with Friends and Family

Today, I had the pleasure of visiting much of my family. I was able to visit my cousins, my aunts and uncles, as well as my grandparents. I stopped by each of their respective houses after being picked up from the airport. While I was able to see each of these people over Christmas vacation, I was not really able to have a decent conversation with them.

It seems to me that whenever there is a large gathering of people, no deep conversation happens. With many people, if such a conversation begins, it is inevitable that it will be interrupted. Thankfully, there weren't too many people today to have some good conversations. Now that I think of it, I hadn't had good conversations with my family for quite a while.

The same holds true in conversations with friends; if there is a large group, conversations between subsets of the group will inevitably be interrupted. The most vocal of the group seem to end up being those who direct the conversation. Actually, this semester, I have not even spent much time with friends; I always seem to have things to do. The other day, I did hang out with several friends; we had a ?smoothie movie night,? where we had smoothies (made of fruits and ice cream put into a blender), and we watched a movie. It was a rather enjoyable time.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Lack of a Normal Sleep Schedule

This past week, I have pulled three all-nighters. I'm sure that this isn't healthy, but I get quite a bit of work done when I'm at the computing center. Most frequently, I seem to pull these all-nighters on Wednesday nights; Thursdays are my hardest days this semester. On Thursdays, I have class from 0600 (6 A.M.) until 1700 (5 P.M.) I really should get all of this work done on the weekends, but it never happens.

Hopefully, after Spring break, I can get into the habit of getting all of my work done on the weekends. I would then, theoretically, be able to get back to a normal sleep schedule. Since all of my things tend to be due at the end of the week, and since I have a history of procrastination following me around, I often find myself in a bad position with more work to do than can be done in an evening. I resort to pulling all-nighters that cause staying awake through my classes to be quite difficult.

I believe that this semester is so difficult for me because my typical week is unequally balanced; most of my work and classes are at the end of the week rather being evenly spaced throughout the week.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Cheating at Rensselaer

This afternoon, I was taking a test on which I was faring poorly. I had studied for a couple of hours, but not as much as I should have. Actually, I will be happy if I pass the test. When I was taking the test, I happened to notice that the person sitting in front of me was cheating. This caused me to have a silent outrage; as I saw it, neither of us were ready for the test, but he got an unfair advantage. He had a piece of notebook paper that he was keeping discreetly hidden. I can only guess that this had formulas or other such information on it.

Such things as this have always outraged me. Either I have felt that it wasn't fair that I should have studied, and they didn't have to; or I hadn't, and neither had they, but they get the grade as if they had. This being college, the stakes for getting caught are much higher, but as I found out today, cheating still happens. I don't know why I had assumed that I wouldn't see cheating here at RPI, but for some reason, I did.

It makes me sad that such things happen here at Rensselaer. I do believe that these people eventually get what's coming to them. It is just frustrating now when it seems to be benefiting them so well.

[tagged for clean-up]

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Beautiful Weather in Troy

Troy, New York is significantly colder than my hometown of Stafford, Virginia. Recently, we had temperatures as cold as -19°C (-3°F), which, believe me, is very cold. I have, for the most part, become acclimated to this cold weather. The past couple of days here, the temperatures have been above freezing. Everything is melting, and it is balmy outside. The other day, I went to my classes without my fleece, and had only my long-sleeved shirt.

I remember when my dad drove me up here in August, it was in the fifties (Fahrenheit), and we thought it was cold. I think it is interesting how one can become accustomed to a new climate.

On Tuesday, we (that is, ROTC,) even went for a nice run outside. It was actually raining today, which, while not ideal, was pretty nice compared to all the snow and sleet we had been having all winter. It seems that spring is finally coming along. I am, however, not looking forward to temperatures over 60°F. My dorm does not have air conditioning, and this provides for a very uncomfortable atmosphere. I remember all too well from the beginning of last semester what that was like.

(I have not been proofreading my posts lately, so they are of lesser quality. I will correct this over spring break, which starts in a very few days.)

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

My Printer: Brother HL-5250DN

When I came to school last semester, I brought my dad's old printer with me. It initially had the problem of black lines through whatever was printed. I fixed this by buying a new toner cartridge for it. About half way through last semester, it died. It was giving me a "50 Service" error. I found that this could be fixed with a $70 replacement piece. I was reluctant to spend so much money on such an old printer.

Last week, I had had enough with using the school printers, which both cost money to use, and didn't print as well as could be desired. I started looking at printers over at my favorite on-line retailer, NewEgg. I decided to go with the Brother HL-5250DN. It is a network laser printer, the only kind I would consider buying, and it has a built-in duplexer (that is, it can print on both sides of the page). It prints at 1200x1200 DPI, which is very sharp. (The LaserJet II that I had only printed at 300x300 DPI.)

Currently, I have the printer set up so that it is on it's own isolated network (which is just it and a wireless router). I connect to the wireless router whenever I want to print. To set it up properly (i.e., so that I could print to it from anywhere on campus), I would have to have to obtain some more networking hardware. Currently, my five-port switch is full and I don't have the desire to spend money on more networking hardware.

The printouts from the printer are very clean, and it is pretty quiet. The only negative thing about the printer is that whenever it gets ready to print, it draws a large amount of current, causing the lights in the room to flicker. Other than that I am very happy with this printer. The replacement toner costs around $75 or so, but I won't need that for a while.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Parallels Between Blogging and Programming

I have been programming quite a bit lately; my Computer Science 2 class assigns an involved programming problem each week. These take several hours each. When I work on my project, I go about writing my code, and as soon as I need to reference some other piece of code, I will change gears and write at least the interface for it (i.e., the prototype). I will later go back and write the implementation of the function or class that I prototyped previously.

I find that much of the same happens when I am blogging. As I am writing, I think of other posts of mine that I would like to reference (i.e., link to). Many times, I find that I have never written such a post. While I haven't been able to link to non-existent posts, I have written down notes for myself to go back and write such posts in the future. My "about" page is one post that I made so that I would have it for future reference. My post about my Alienware notebook is one that I had tried to reference on many occasions, only to find that it didn't exist. Yesterday, I finally got around to writing the proverbial "implementation" of that which I had tried on many occasions to reference.

In writing code, there are many ways to achieve the same results, but have the code look very different. One can write two statements that are logically identical but are syntactically different. It is the same with the creative use of language; I can divide my thoughts with a semicolon, a period, or in less formal writing, (such as a blog,) with an em-dash. There are, of course, many other ways to vary the used syntax, but retain the same meaning. If one does not master this variation in the use of syntax, his writings end up being quite dull and boring, much like the first several years worth of posts on this blog.

Just as I am happy to continue learning programming syntaxes and constructs, I am interested in learning and practicing proper grammar in all areas of communication. This is the one area of "humanities" that I have ever enjoyed; I have never liked the critical analysis of literature or other such things.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Alienware Notebook

It is extremely late to be writing this post, but, I have tried to reference it on a few occasions only to find that it didn't exist. In August of 2006, I made my first major purchase (read: over $1000.) I had amassed a non-trivial amount of savings, a large portion of which I wanted to spend on a laptop computer.


After looking at some of the available options, I had formed several requirements. First, the new computer had to have a high-resolution screen, preferably 1920x1200. Second, it had to be more powerful than my existing system, which was an AMD-based desktop (that I still have and use today.) My third requirement was formed later in the game -- I wanted my keyboard to have a full numeric keypad. These requirements ruled out most of my options. Initially, I wanted to buy a bare-bones notebook which I could build myself, but there weren't many of these, and none of them met my requirements.


The numeric keypad requirement limited me to 17-inch models. The hardest requirement to fulfill was that of the high-resolution display. The only notebooks that seemed to have this were Alienware's. I priced out an Alienware, and found that they charged way too much to upgrade the processor or memory compared to how much it would cost to do so myself. I priced out and purchased a system with the upgrades in place that I wouldn't be able to perform myself; the system came out to just over $2000. The two major limitations of this configuration were the processor and memory. The system I bought had the bare minimum in terms of memory: two 256-MB sticks for a total of 512 MB. My processor was the Core Duo, T2300 clocked at 1.66 GHz. Ironically, three days after my system shipped, four days before I received it, Alienware started selling my system with the Core 2 Duo chips. The most obvious advantage of the Core 2 over the Core is its 64-bit capability. Needless to say, I wished I had waited several days before ordering.

Performance and Upgrades

I got the machine with Windows XP Media Center Edition, but, shortly after receiving it, I over-wrote XP with the release candidate of Windows Vista. Having only 512 MB of memory meant that Vista didn't run too well. I did make use of the new ReadyBoost, which made a noticeable albeit minimal improvement in responsiveness. About two months after buying the system, I got around to upgrading the memory to 2 GB. The system ran much more smoothly after that.

The machine played machines decently well; it could play Half-Life 2 at full resolution at a very playable frame rate. The video card in the system was the high-end ATI Mobility Radeon X1800. I actually didn't play too many games on it due to school and other things occupying my time, though it did play them well when given the chance.

In June of 2007, I again upgraded the memory, this time to 4 GB. Some of this was wasted potential as Vista only recognized about 3.5 GB. I upgraded my mom's newish laptop with the old 2 GB from my system as I had no other use for it. In July, I did another upgrade; I upgraded my processor to the Core 2 Duo T7200 clocked at 2.0 GHz. Again, I upgraded my mom's laptop with the older processor, bringing her to a dual core from a single core system. This left my hard drive as the least capable piece of hardware in my system; it only held 60 GB of data, and was only a 5400 RPM drive. I never got around to upgrading this part of the system.

Current Status

This leaves my system specifications as follows:

  • Alienware Area 51 m5750
  • WUXGA (1920x1200) TFT "Clearview" 17" display
  • Intel Core 2 Duo T7200
  • 4GB DDR2 667MHz RAM
  • ATI Mobility Radeon X1800 (256MB) Graphics Card
  • 60 GB 5400 RPM Hard Drive

This system currently serves as my secondary system, and is my Windows machine. My Rensselaer-issued Laptop currently serves as my main machine and runs Fedora 8. My two servers run Windows Vista and Fedora 8, each serving its purpose. Perhaps this summer, I will have time to play Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Portal to make use of this once cutting-edge, but now aging technology. In total, I have spent a little over $2600 on my Alienware, including the initial system and subsequent upgrades.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Friends at Rensselaer

So, I'm finally getting around to writing this post. No one bothered to comment on my Proposed Topics for Discussion, but a couple of people told me personally that this one would interest them. Anyway, I'll get on with it.

Room Mate

So, first, we have my room mate -- he is the first person I met here at RPI. We are both in ROTC, we both go to RPI, and we both have slightly similar opinions on political issues, but the similarities pretty much end there. His being a good room mate in combination with my being able to get along with anyone who is not trying to not get along with me makes for a decent combination. (I suspect that I probably get on his nerves at times, but he usually doesn't mention anything.)

ROTC Friends

The several days of a hell-like experience that we fourth-class midshipmen went through together created an environment where, for the most part, we are all comfortable with each other. When I go to the dining hall, there is a high chance that someone who is in ROTC will be there. If I don't see someone else with whom I wish to sit, I can always sit with one of these people. Of course, I am closer to some more than others, but from what I can tell, any community turns out this way.

"Silver Bay" Friends

My best friends here at RPI are those whom I met on the student orientation overnight trip, or through people I met on that trip. It still holds that that trip was the most fun that I have had since coming to college. Some of the people I met there, I hardly ever see, but the few whom I do still see regularly are my best friends here.

This semester, I haven't really done anything fun with my friends; the highlight of many of my days turns out to be mealtimes spent with friends. I always have a lot of work to do (thanks, partially, to my legacy of procrastination that still follows me.)

(I was entirely lucid when I wrote this post, unlike my previous two posts.)

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