Tuesday, March 25, 2008

No, Really: DO NOT REPLY

I found this post in the Washington Post's Security Fix blog. I'm not sure whether it's more humorous or more disturbing, but it does point out some of the major issues in social engineering involved with computers and e-mail.

The issue is that a lot of companies send out mail from bogus e-mail addresses because they don't want people to respond to the e-mails. They often use something@donotreply.com as the "return address," hoping that a) people will see that and realize they shouldn't reply, and b) if people do reply, the message will simply vanish somewhere or bounce.

Except...there is a donotreply.com, and the guy who owns it gets all those messages:
As owner of www.donotreply.com, the Seattle-based programmer receives millions of wayward e-mails each week, including a great many missives destined for executives at Fortune 500 companies or bank customers, even sensitive messages sent by government personnel and contractors.
The social engineering part of the matter is this: good security practice tells one not to click on links in e-mail messages. But that's exactly what these lazy companies are trying to get people to do. So not only are they being weaselly and trying to send one-way messages and make it hard for people to respond, but they're also encouraging what is essentially dangerous computer behavior, because if you want to reply you have to click a link in a message.

What's with these companies, anyway? Is it so hard for them to get that if they send me an e-mail message, if I want to respond I will click "Reply"?

This is vaguely reminiscent of a company I told off yesterday. They have been calling for several weeks now, trying to get me to sign up for a service I don't want. I have tried telling them I don't want their service, I don't want to talk to them. I have tried rudely hanging up on them. Finally, yesterday as they started their spiel, I said "Stop." Had to say it about five times before she actually stopped. "Don't call anymore." She made some reply that indicated she didn't understand. I explained that I didn't want their service, and I didn't want them to call me ever again.

We'll see how well that works out.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

99 Sea Otters

One way to spend Easter morning, apparently, is to go on a nature cruise. I didn't know this before, but my family had scheduled it, so I went along. It turned out to be quite lovely.

The destination this morning was Elkhorn Slough, off Monterey Bay. The cruise is run by Elkhorn Slough Safari, which is a little local operation. Captain Yohn Gideon has been running these tours for about a dozen years.

One feature I quite liked is that about a half-dozen of the passengers were given clicker-counters to count sightings of specific critters. So someone was responsible for counting sea otters, another sea lions, another (me!) harbor seals, and others blue herons, snowy egrets, and great egrets. The captain turns over the counts from each to researchers, so I felt like we were doing something useful as well as sightseeing.

And boy, was there wildlife to see today. We saw 99 sea otters (93 on the cruise, and six back in the harbor afterward), about 75 sea lions and 49 harbor seals. I forget the bird counts, except I know we only saw one heron. But I must admit, I was expecting to see maybe a couple of dozen otters, total. Seeing nearly 100 was a great surprise!

Anyway, it was great. Sunny and calm and pleasant, with lots of critters out playing, feeding, etc. Spring is a great time to visit the slough, and I will definitely be back again.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The New Splash Zone

We're down in/around Monterey this weekend, and I want to post my first impressions of the new Splash Zone exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I know some of my multitudinous readers are fans of the aquarium, so this seems pertinent.

Normally I would avoid a tourist spot such as the aquarium on a holiday weekend, but last night was Members' Night, so we got to go in for a couple of evening hours without the crowding that accompanies holidays.

We hit some of our favorite spots first, to let the throng of children work its way into/through/out of Splash Zone, then headed over there.

First thing we noticed is that it's much bigger. Basically, the whole second floor on the old end of the building is now branded Splash Zone, incorporating the old Splash Zone and the part upstairs from the big kelp forest tank that used to be called the Kelp Lab, as I recall. Since we came over the walkway from the Outer Bay side, that's the part we saw first.

I like what they've done to the old kelp Lab. It's still focused on the kelp forest, but with several important upgrades. One is a HUGE touch pool. It's really long, and it has a big fish tank under it, so you can see rockfish and kelp, and then touch sea stars and such on a shelf above. Very nicely done, and able to accommodate many more investigators.

There is also a very nice kelp canopy tank, where you can walk under and get a feel for what it's like to be under the kelp. It's not quite like diving, but it's a good illustration.

And there are numerous tanks with kelp forest fishes, including some wonderful kelp fish (they look like kelp, really). The label claims there are spiny lobsters, but they were not in evidence last night.

One favorite for us was that one of the new kelp tanks has a very young, small black sea bass. We have always liked the two larger ones who live in the large tank in the Monterey Bay Habitats section, so it was a treat to see a really small one, less than a foot long, right up close. Black sea bass are huge but slow-growing fish. We have encountered sea bass that were easily 7-8 feet long in the Channel Islands off southern California. They're very inquisitive, beautiful fish, and it's fun to see them in the aquarium.

There are also some new interactive kelp forest things that I didn't get to go through. Ten we headed off to the other side, the previous home of the Splash Zone. Superficially, it seems much the same. Beautiful tropical fish tanks as you walk in, but you quickly notice some differences. To the left as you enter, they've got cuttlefish on display again (they used to be down by the octopi)! It's a much nicer habitat for them, with piles of rock and coral they can hide in.

The play and splash area seems unchanged, but I could have missed some nuance there. But as you go past it to the penguin habitat, you see where they've made big changes. The penguin habitat is considerably larger, with much more vertical structure for the penguins to climb and sit on, and much better visibility for visitors. It's not just a one-sided exhibit anymore. The window curves around and provides much more viewing area. The penguins weren't very active last evening, but the exhibit looks great.

Just beyond the penguins, next to the gift shop, there has always been a spot to look down into the big Monterey tank with all the large sharks (and the black sea bass). That's still true, but they've turned it into a resting spot for the common murres that also live there, so you can see and observe these fascinating sea birds much more closely than before. Also, the barrier here is now clear plastic instead of metal bars, so it's much more inviting.

Finally, as you head out of Splash Zone, the tank that used to have moon jellies now has leafy sea dragons. The lights were out last night, but it looks like a good, fairly quiet spot for them.

Overall, they've managed to keep the spirit of the Splash Zone quite well, while expanding it to make it feel less crowded, and probably less frustrating to people who just come up to see the penguins. It's good work!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Snow Bunny, Part II

Hoping that I learned something from my last venture into snow sports, I went with the family again to the snow this weekend. Following my daughter's sage advice, I decided to strap a board to each foot this time, rather than just one board shared between the two.

And boy, did it work out better! (I told you she was wise.)

I must say, the technological advances in skiing since I last tried this are quite amazing and worthwhile. Step-in bindings are worth their weight in gold, and although the boots are a hassle to put on, they are much more comfortable.

Amazingly, after something like three decades away, I put on the skis and headed out to the hill, and it was as if I'd never left: I picked up right where I'd left off. Which is not to say I was any good at it, but my skills (and flaws) were almost exactly as they had been when I was a teenager.

But I did have to tell my wife, as we paused midway down our first scoot down the bunny hill (we were shadowing our daughter's lesson), that I'd already had more fun in the first few minutes that day than I had in the whole day of snowboarding lessons.

After a couple of hours of messing around, I took a two-hour private lesson with a really terrific teacher. She listened to what I wanted, and within mere minutes had corrected my worst flaws, and suddenly I was parallel skiing. Just that easy. We spent the rest of the time doing some drills and little refinements, but truly, within just a few minutes, I went from sloppy snowplowing to fairly competent parallel skiing. It was great! I suppose if I'd been able to make that leap as a kid, I might have kept skiing all along.

Anyway, it was great fun, and not nearly as hard on my body as being repeatedly slammed by the snowboard. I guess I'm just Old School.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Prevent Unwanted Presidencies

Driving past the fabulous Grand Lake Theater today, I was tickled by the message on the marquee:
PREVENT UNWANTED PRESIDENCIES
AMERICA MUST BRING BACK
HAND-COUNTED PAPER BALLOTS
As my throng of long-time readers will recall, this is a hot-button issue for me, and I agree completely. 'Nuff said.

But while I'm thinking about electoral politics, I have to point to this terrific post on LGM about the late, unlamented, Richard Nixon:
By the time his career ended, it was as if the nation's brain had been infested by parasites or poisoned by arsenic; and forty years after his election, we're still cramped up, delirious and vomiting and scratching our skin raw because of what he managed to do in less than six years. And the fact that we got a couple of fucking pandas out of the bargain does not, in my view, set things right.
This was the best-written screed on Nixon I'd read since Hunter S. Thompson's note appended his book "Better Than Sex," which included this fine paragraph:
If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.
As much as I like to excoriate the current administration, Nixon really paved the way for them. He deserves a special circle in political Hell.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Administrivia

I have just turned off the ability to comment anonymously on this blog. Over the last couple of days I've started getting comment Spam, so the system will now require a Google login or an OpenID login for comments.

I apologize for any inconvenience. If this is a problem for anyone (and I don't think it is, at least for those who leave the vast majority of the comments), please let me know.

I truly don't see the point of comment Spamming, but it appears it is now a fact of life here.

Monday, March 03, 2008

An Old Fashioned Butt-Kicking

Went to the snow for a couple of days. It was meant to be a work outing, but only the host and I showed up, and I had the presence of mind to bring along my ski-enthusiast spouse. Now, playing in the snow can be fun. But I haven't been on skis since I was a teenager (which is, um, several years ago now), and I've been having my doubts about taking it up again. On the other hand, snow-boarding looks kind of fun, and seems like it would be gentler on my knees. Several friends recommend it. OK, so I'll take a lesson.

Boy, did I get a lesson.

I mean, the instructor (an Aussie bloke) was great, and the basics were easy, scooting with one foot on the board, sliding, curving, and so on. No problem. Until the hill came into play. Not that the hill was a problem per se, except for two things: One, it had this nasty habit of jumping up and hitting me, quite hard. And two, once down, I found it nearly impossible to right myself and get back atop the board without once again falling on some already-bruised part of me.

I was prepared for this. Everyone told me that the first couple of days on the board are tough, and it's not until you've had at least three days of lessons and practice that it begins to be really fun. I must say, for me it wasn't fun. At all. It hurt. It was frustrating. I kept thinking that my first day on skis was (although frustrating at times) fun, and featured some accomplishments, and by the end of the day, I was happily riding up the beginner hill and snow-plowing down.

Not like that on the board. For one thing, you have to keep taking one foot in and out of the bindings. Now, once you're actually skiing a meaningful distance down the hill, this won't be a big deal, but when you're mostly stumbling and falling on the little class hill, you spend an inordinate amount of time removing and refastening the bindings. Add to this all the time spent sitting on your rear end trying to get back up, and a huge portion of your day is spent not riding your board.

I know it gets better. But it wasn't fun.

And did I mention it hurt? Nice, well-groomed, packed slope. That means it's hard. Not quite like ice, but hard. You feel it when you hit it. When you fall. When you slip getting back up. It hurts. Oy.

Ibuprofen is my friend.

Anyway, after tumbling and sitting much of the day Sunday, I was in no shape to get back on the hill today. I rested. I watched a movie. I did a little work. My spouse and my coworker went off to the ski resort and had a lovely day of skiing. I rested. I feel much better.

I came home and told my daughter about my adventures. She was very excited that I had taken a snowboard lesson (though not as excited as she was by the new skis my wife bought), but she suggested very seriously that the next time I go to the snow, I should try skis, because they're much, much easier.

I think I will take her advice. She is very wise.