Book Review: Starswarm

Title: Starswarm
Author: Jerry Pournelle
Published: 1999 by Tor
ISBN: 0812538935

It's been a while since I've read a work of fiction, and even longer since I picked up any science fiction. That's a real shame because there's some good stuff out there. I learned about Jerry Pournelle from the TWiT podcast, which I listen to regularly. On the show he seems to be quite abreast of technology and somebody (could have been him, not sure) recommended Starswarm as a good first read of his. That's how this book and I became acquainted.

The story is about a boy named Kip who lives on a planet named Paradise, somewhere far far away from Earth. It's a colony run by a corporation named Great Western Enterprises. The planet is fairly earth-like, although not a clone by any means. First thing you might notice would be the blue sun. The local flora and fauna are different, although similar too. Some of the notables include centaurs, haters and the lovable starswarm. The latter is some kind of a water based plant which can grow to immense proportions but is largely misunderstood by the humans.

Well it turns out that Kip isn't an ordinary boy. For starters he has a computer chip in his head which he can use to talk to a mainframe computer. He's also not who he thinks he is. During the course of the book, he does eventually find the truth (which I'm trying hard not to give away). The events leading up to the discovery and those that unfold afterwards are pretty interesting and exciting.

I was rather pleased with the book. It held my interest well and I finished it in about a week. The story flowed smoothly and the science all seemed to fit in with the environment.

The one complaint I might make would be that the book ends rather abruptly. One page there's an intense standoff and the very next the book is over. There is very little in the way of resolution beyond a quick hand wave that "they lived happily ever after". In one way that might be a good thing as it left more pages to be filled with helicopter chases, gun fights and other assorted excitements. On his website, Pournelle indicates that Starswarm may be developed into a series, something that I'm certain it would be well suited for.

I enjoyed the book immensely and would recommend it to others. I undoubtedly will read more Pournelle novels.

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Switching To Digital TV


Way back on the 2nd day of this year I signed up for a digital TV converter box coupon. Actually I visited the site at about 2am on January 1st, but apparently they hadn't launched the site yet. Just this last week, on Tuesday in fact, my coupon finally arrived. I only got one because we only have one TV and if we were to ever get another TV, it would be digital so there really wasn't any point.

We had the option of shopping at Best Buy, Radio Shack, Circuit City and Walmart. Since I've sworn to never shop at Circuit City and to never buy electronics at Walmart, that left only two options. And Radio Shack kinda gives me the willies, so really I only had the one option. That's OK though. Best Buy hasn't ticked me off yet. Well, except that every time I go in they manage to slip my purchase into a plastic bag before I can ask them to use my canvas shopping bag. Oh, well.

I was hoping to have a few choices, which is why I took along the list of approved devices, but it turned out that Best Buy only carried a single model, the Insignia NS-DXA1. That made that easy. It was $59.99, which of course dropped to $19.99 with the coupon (plus tax).

For a quick review, I'll just say that the box works just as it is supposed to. We plugged it in, it scanned the frequencies and found every available channel. I was worried that I would have to get up and reorient my antenna (a large boom secured to my chimney). I was therefore extremely relieved that it Just Worked®. There was a brief period of concern though because it didn't pick up two channels, but after reading about them on Wikipedia I discovered that they were not assigned sister digital channels for the conversion. Instead, sometime between now and February 17, 2009 they will make an instant conversion. Luckily, those are the channels we watch the least.

With my digital converter the signal quality is great. The analog channels ranged from mostly OK to mostly not so much, but all were watchable. Now they're all crystal clear. We also now get 5 extra channels, one is a weather channel from the NBC affiliate, and 4 extra channels from PBS. The latter are a real bonus because one of them shows cartoons all day. My kids love PBS Kids.

My assessment would be that the digital conversion has gone well for me. Just took way too long. But is anybody really surprised about that?

HP Ink

I guess I could format this post in a "Cheers and Jeers" style, but that seems a little clichéd. See I was replacing the ink cartridge in my HP J5780 printer (which is a fine unit, I might add). So on the one hand I was miffed that the "starter" ink cartridge was so tiny. But to my surprise I discovered that the replacement cartridge came with a prepaid return envelope for sending the empty cartridge back to HP.

Recycling cartridges isn't anything new. Office stores have been doing that for a long time. They refill them with ink and sell them to you again (at outrageous prices). But what is impressive is that HP took a step to make it so darn easy. I'll shamefully admit that I've never recycled my cartridges before because I just never remember. I rarely go to office stores and even then I never remember to take the empties. So they just end up in the trash, which isn't good. This obviously is better.

The one question I have though is whether shipping this cartridge to Nashville, Tennessee is better for the environment than either A) sending it to the local landfill or B) dropping it off at the local Staples and sending a whole bunch of cartridges to Nashville. I imagine B is more efficient, but I'm not sure about A. But since I lack the resources and/or willpower to research it, I'll just send off this old cartridge in this handy dandy green envelope and assume that I'm helping the planet. Helps me sleep better at night, you know.

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VoIP QoS With Wondershaper

Hans and I were discussing QoS the other day, specifically regarding using Wondershaper from the LARTC. I had managed to mess mine up and I subsequently noticed a horrible turn for the worse in my VoIP calls. Wondershaper has to be adapted for use by OpenWRT and in the process I misspelled sch_ingress.o as sch_insmod.o. Too much insmodding that day, I think. The net effect was that download speeds were not shaped at all.

Once I got it corrected, I decided to do a few tests just to confirm that using Wondershaper actually made a difference. I'll cut to the chase for the lazy: it did. I made 45 second calls to music on hold from my softphone, Twinkle. In the background I had Wireshark running. I used the RTP analyzer in Wireshark to look at the statistics after all was said and done. I used both versions of Wondershaper, the CBQ and HTB. I had a single download running the whole time eating up all spare bandwidth.

With no shaping: 4.4% loss (95 packets), 60ms jitter
With CBQ Wondershaper: 0.2% loss (5 packets), 35ms jitter
With HTB Wondershaper: 0.3% loss (6 packets), 28ms jitter

So my unscientific conclusion is that both versions of Wondershaper work about the same and they both make a huge difference. I could easily hear the packet loss on the first call, but not so much on the other two calls.

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More On Net Neutrality

Another great opinion on Net Neutrality which closely (if not exactly) mirrors my own. For those too lazy to go and read for themselves, here's a quick snippet.

We need policy to help cut a path for more competition, rather than protecting incumbents -- a Bandwidth Competition Act of 2008, not bogus net neutrality. All takers should be allowed access to poles or underground conduits. This is where neutrality should be enforced, instead of being a choke point.

As I've long said, a government bureaucracy isn't going to solve the problem. It's going to create less incentive for Internet companies (like mine, full disclosure) to even toss their hat in the ring. Try forming your own telephone system and you'll know what I mean. The rules are ridiculously complicated and it takes an army of lawyers to sort through them. Please please please don't turn the Internet into the phone system.

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Taste Test: Maple Syrup

For Christmas my aunt and uncle, with help from my sister, sent me a bunch of assorted items they picked up around town. One thing my sister picked up was a bottle of 100% maple syrup from Trader Joe's (which we don't have around here). I've been wanting to buy some real maple syrup for a while but thus far my wife has balked at the price which is at least 4 times as much as the corn syrup + artificial flavoring kind. The question then has to be, is the flavor worth the added cost? Naturally, a test test was in order.

Since flavors from pancakes, french toast, etc. can add to or mask the flavor of the syrup I decided to taste them on a spoon. I had about a teaspoon of each. Due to a risk of spilling the viscous liquid, I wasn't able to randomize the spoons but in the end it didn't matter much. The difference was readily apparent.

The artificially flavored syrup, this one from Great Value (Walmart store brand), was sweet and had a nice round flavor. I suppose I would describe it as maple although to that point in my life I had never tasted real maple flavoring. The Trader Joe's syrup, on the other hand, had an extremely rich set of flavors. There was not just one. There were a hundred flavors hitting my mouth at the same time. It was quite pleasant. It didn't seem quite so sweet. That's probably due to the corn syrup in the artificial syrup. It had some vanilla flavors, even some coffee flavors. The range was just extraordinary.

It's going to be difficult (to say the least) to go back to the plain stuff. I'm not sure how or if I can do it. This real stuff was, well, really good.

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Lookit That Snow Fly! or Global Warming?

Over the last week here in Idaho Falls we've received a lot of snow. I'm too lazy to track down official numbers, but I know there's about 18" of snow on the table in my backyard. That's an accumulation over the last 3 weeks or so. It's been great since we need the water. My one concern of course is that the spring will warm up too quickly and we'll have floods and avalanches.

That all brings to mind something that's been bugging me for the last year or more. Every now and again I'll hear somebody mention "sure is hot today. Must be the global warming," or "see how cold it is? Global warming must be a fraud." Well you know what? Just stop it. Stop it, stop it, stop it.

Global warming is not marked by a particularly hot day in the summer nor by an especially cold day in the winter. As the earth gradually warms, there will be plenty of each. It's all about the averages, baby. According to the latest IPCC report, global temperatures will rise by 1 to 6 degrees C over the next 90 years. 90 years! Humans just aren't geared to that sort of sensitivity. The earth is, of course, but that's getting away from my original point.

And that point is that just because it's hot today doesn't mean global warming is trying to kill you. And just because my son's school was canceled today due to snow, doesn't mean global warming isn't happening. Both will continue to happen, albeit with slightly different frequencies.

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ZRTP

My bud Hans and I tonight tested out encrypted VoIP with ZRTP. I noticed a while back that Twinkle supports it and have wanted to test it out, but none of my desk phones support ZRTP.

It was fun. When the call terminated, Twinkle displayed a cute message about verifying the SAS (short authentication string). It was 4 character (hprj, if you're curious) that represented our encryption key. It's the way ZRTP verifies that a man-in-the-middle attack is not underway. There was a padlock icon which we both clicked to verify that the SAS was correct. I'm not sure what if anything happened because of that, except that we both verified that our SIP phones have not been tapped by the feds.

In the SDP, ZRTP is advertised with "a=zrtp". It's not a separate protocol per se. The actual codec was selected through the normal means (we used speex/16000). Looking at the RTP data, I see a whole bunch of "AES256", "SHA256" and "DH4096". Presumably that's part of the ZRTP negotiation. I didn't delve further. What I see though is that the encrypted data is simply represented as Speex RTP, but the actual data has been scrambled so it would be meaningless to a passerby.

Based on this testing, I predict good things for ZRTP. It was quite painless to use as a caller. As long as it's enabled by default in the phone, there's really nothing else that a user has to do to use it. The SAS is short and you only have to verify it if you care. Phil Zimmerman says that you don't even have to verify the SAS every time. Just once in a while is good enough. And obviously anytime you're conducting private business (which is not the same thing as illegal business). The simple fact that ZRTP is used every time means that you can't tell whether a call is valuable or not just based on it being encrypted.

The one possible failure of ZRTP is that it doesn't hide any of the signalling data, so a spy would be able to see who you were calling. That problem would be quite hard to solve. I'm not sure of the benefit either as the cost to mask that information is much higher. You pretty much have to know all the routing information ahead of time. Even then, an eavesdropper could still see the two IP addresses involved, which will give away some amount of information. So for now, ZRTP is a good solution.

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