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January 02 2014

December 02 2013

Four short links: 2 December 2013

  1. CalTech Machine Learning Video Library — a pile of video introductions to different machine learning concepts.
  2. Awesome Pokemon Hack — each inventory item has a number associated with it, they are kept at a particular memory location, and there’s a glitch in the game that executes code at that location so … you can program by assembling items and then triggering the glitch. SO COOL.
  3. Drone Footage of Bangkok Protests — including water cannons.
  4. The Mature Optimization Handbook — free, well thought out, and well written. My favourite line: In exchange for that saved space, you have created a hidden dependency on clairvoyance.

November 21 2013

November 11 2013

Four short links: 11 November 2013

  1. Living Light — 3D printed cephalopods filled with bioluminescent bacteria. PAGING CORY DOCTOROW, YOUR ORGASMATRON HAS ARRIVED. (via Sci Blogs)
  2. Repacking Lego Batteries with a CNC Mill — check out the video. Patrick programmed a CNC machine to drill out the rivets holding the Mindstorms battery pack together. Coding away a repetitive task like this is gorgeous to see at every scale. We don’t have to teach our kids a particular programming language, but they should know how to automate cruft.
  3. My Thoughts on Google+ (YouTube) — when your fans make hatey videos like this one protesting Google putting the pig of Google Plus onto the lipstick that was YouTube, you are Doin’ It Wrong.
  4. Presto: Interacting with Petabytes of Data at Facebooka distributed SQL query engine optimized for ad-hoc analysis at interactive speed. It supports standard ANSI SQL, including complex queries, aggregations, joins, and window functions. For details, see the Facebook post about its launch.

August 12 2013

Four short links: 13 August 2013

  1. How Things Work: Summer Games Edition — admire the real craftsmanship in those early games. This has a great description of using raster interrupts to extend the number of sprites, and how and why double-buffering was expensive in terms of memory.
  2. IAMA: Etsy Ops Team (Reddit) — the Etsy ops team does an IAMA on Reddit. Everything from uptime to this sage advice about fluid data: A nice 18 year old Glenfiddich scales extremely well, especially if used in an active active configuration with a glass in each hand. The part of Scotland where Glenfiddich is located also benefits from near-permanent exposure to the Cloud (several clouds in fact). (via Nelson Minar)
  3. Who Learns What When You Log Into Facebook (Tim Bray) — nice breakdown of who learns what and how, part of Tim’s work raising the qualify of conversation about online federated identity.
  4. lolcommits — takes a photo of the programmer on each git commit. (via Nelson Minar)

July 29 2013

April 11 2013

Four short links: 11 April 2013

  1. A General Technique for Automating NES Gamessoftware that learns how to play NES games and plays them automatically, using an aesthetically pleasing technique. With video, research paper, and code.
  2. rietveld — open source tool like Mondrian, Google’s code review tool. Developed by Guido van Rossum, who developed Mondrian. Still being actively developed. (via Nelson Minar)
  3. KPI Dashboard for Early-Stage SaaS Startups — as Google Docs sheet. Nice.
  4. Life Without Sleep — interesting critique of Provigil as performance-enhancing drug for information workers. It is very difficult to design a stimulant that offers focus without tunnelling – that is, without losing the ability to relate well to one’s wider environment and therefore make socially nuanced decisions. Irritability and impatience grate on team dynamics and social skills, but such nuances are usually missed in drug studies, where they are usually treated as unreliable self-reported data. These problems were largely ignored in the early enthusiasm for drug-based ways to reduce sleep. [...] Volunteers on the stimulant modafinil omitted these feedback requests, instead providing brusque, non-question instructions, such as: ‘Exit West at the roundabout, then turn left at the park.’ Their dialogues were shorter and they produced less accurate maps than control volunteers. What is more, modafinil causes an overestimation of one’s own performance: those individuals on modafinil not only performed worse, but were less likely to notice that they did. (via Dave Pell)

April 10 2013

Four short links: 10 April 2013

  1. HyperLapse — this won the Internet for April. Everyone else can go home. Check out this unbelievable video and source is available.
  2. Housing Simulator — NZ’s largest city is consulting on its growth plan, and includes a simulator so you can decide where the growth to house the hundreds of thousands of predicted residents will come from. Reminds me of NPR’s Budget Hero. Notice that none of the levers control immigration or city taxes to make different cities attractive or unattractive. Growth is a given and you’re left trying to figure out which green fields to pave.
  3. Converting To and From Google Map Tile Coordinates in PostGIS (Pete Warden) — Google Maps’ system of power-of-two tiles has become a defacto standard, widely used by all sorts of web mapping software. I’ve found it handy to use as a caching scheme for our data, but the PostGIS calls to use it were getting pretty messy, so I wrapped them up in a few functions. Code on github.
  4. So You Want to Build A Connected Sensor Device? (Google Doc) — The purpose of this document is to provide an overview of infrastructure, options, and tradeoffs for the parts of the data ecosystem that deal with generating, storing, transmitting, and sharing data. In addition to providing an overview, the goal is to learn what the pain points are, so we can address them. This is a collaborative document drafted for the purpose of discussion and contribution at Sensored Meetup #10. (via Rachel Kalmar)

March 13 2013

Four short links: 13 March 2013

  1. What Tim Berners-Lee Doesn’t Know About HTML DRM (Guardian) — Cory Doctorow lays it out straight. HTML DRM is a bad idea, no two ways. The future of the Web is the future of the world, because everything we do today involves the net and everything we’ll do tomorrow will require it. Now it proposes to sell out that trust, on the grounds that Big Content will lock up its “content” in Flash if it doesn’t get a veto over Web-innovation. [...] The W3C has a duty to send the DRM-peddlers packing, just as the US courts did in the case of digital TV.
  2. Visualizing the Topical Structure of the Medical Sciences: A Self-Organizing Map Approach (PLOSone) — a high-resolution visualization of the medical knowledge domain using the self-organizing map (SOM) method, based on a corpus of over two million publications.
  3. What Teens Get About The Internet That Parents Don’t (The Atlantic) — the Internet has been a lifeline for self-directed learning and connection to peers. In our research, we found that parents more often than not have a negative view of the role of the Internet in learning, but young people almost always have a positive one. (via Clive Thompson)
  4. Portable C64 — beautiful piece of C64 hardware hacking to embed a screen and battery in it. (via Hackaday)

January 24 2013

Four short links: 24 January 2013

  1. Google’s Driverless Car is Worth Trillions (Forbes) — Much of the reporting about Google’s driverless car has mistakenly focused on its science-fiction feel. [...] In fact, the driverless car has broad implications for society, for the economy and for individual businesses. Just in the U.S., the car puts up for grab some $2 trillion a year in revenue and even more market cap. It creates business opportunities that dwarf Google’s current search-based business and unleashes existential challenges to market leaders across numerous industries, including car makers, auto insurers, energy companies and others that share in car-related revenue.
  2. DIY BioPrinter (Instructables) — Think of it as 3D printing, but with squishier ingredients! How to piggyback on inkjet printer technology to print with your own biomaterials. It’s an exciting time for biohackery: FOO Ewan Birney is kicking ass and taking names, he was just involved in a project storing and retrieving data from DNA.
  3. Parsley — open-sourced forms validation library in Javascript.
  4. ADAMS — open sourced workflow tool for machine learning, from the excellent people at Waikato who brought you WEKA. ADAMS = Advanced Data mining And Machine learning System.

October 31 2012

January 03 2012

The Transportation Security Administration's QR code flub

I recently read about a cyberpunk author focusing on fictional graffiti artists who use code stencils to overwrite existing QR codes. The author, Tim Maughan, didn't know about my hack showing that there's actually a generalizable method for making QR code stencils work. In Maughan's book, street artists do things like replace a Coca-Cola QR code advertisement with subversive virtual art. It's a cool concept, and the author deserves props for nailing the edge of current and future cyber-reality so well. But "replacing" QR codes in public places is a notion that myself and others have been toying with in the non-fiction world.

"Toying" and "doing" are different things, of course. For example, I've toyed with the idea of covering some of the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) QR codes with my own because it wouldn't be hard to do. You could create stickers for your TSA QR Code prank, and while waiting in line at the airport, you'd — theoretically — put your stickers over the QR codes on the TSA's posters. The TSA QR codes link to boring and bland websites about how much safer we all are because we have to buy $5 bottled water on the other side of the X-ray scanner. These aren't the most popular links, so it's unlikely anyone at the TSA would quickly notice that the QR codes have been replaced. This is a prank that could hang around for a very long time.

So, why haven't I started doing this? I have a strong aversion to jail time. I have seriously considered using Post-It notes or something that would clearly not count as defacement. Permanent stickers might technically be defacing federal property, and they could easily figure out who added the stickers through video recordings. So, while it might be hilarious and completely awesome, I am not going to try it. For the record, neither should you for all of the same reasons.

In any case, now you can understand why I scan the QR codes at the TSA lines. There's always the chance someone with more courage/foolishness than me had the same idea.

And then one day while traveling in Orlando, I scanned the following sign:

TSA poster with QR code
TSA poster with QR code. Click to enlarge.

I'm surprised that what happened next didn't result in a full pat-down for me. The QR code I scanned didn't go to a site, so I started flipping out. I told my traveling companion that I would meet them on the other side of the scanners, and I just stood there in front of this sign trying to figure out if someone else had beat me to my own "hack."

The QR code linked directly to the site I rubbed the poster to see if I could detect a sticker. No sticker. The QR code was in the poster. Had someone replicated the whole poster and just changed the QR code? What a far more elaborate hack! How had they replaced the whole poster without anyone noticing? I took several minutes trying to get a decent photo, and the picture you see above is the best I got. You can still scan the QR code from the photo if you're patient, but trust me, it goes to

It took me a while to figure out what happened. Justin Watt, the owner of, had discovered QR codes relatively early, in 2007. He wrote about how his QR code blog post eventually earned the No. 2 spot in the Google image search for "QR code." The first spot belonged to the BBC, but they had put "BBC" in the center of the code, making his image the first "normal" one. You can see his code here.

Justin's QR code is identical to the code in the TSA poster. So, this wasn't a hack. What happened is that the designer of this poster put a "stock" QR code photo, pulled from Google's image search, into the poster as a placeholder. All of the placeholders in all of the posters were later replaced with Google short links to web pages. Except for this one. Apparently, no one bothered to check that the QR code links work. As far as I know, this poster is still sitting in the Orlando airport and pointing to the wrong website. (Note: I'm assuming that an image swap is what happened. It's really the only assumption that makes any sense. Plus, it's happened before.)

Could this flub get any better? Turns out, it can.

Like many people, Justin thinks the TSA is pretty silly. A quick site-search from Google reveals that Justin has very little patience for all of the mind-numbing things that the TSA regularly does. He even links to this article about Bruce Schneier that is every bit as juicy as the one that I was fantasizing about "hacking" into the TSA's posters.

So, the TSA accidentally linked its poster to a TSA critic. Awesome.

Why would anyone like me take the risk of making the TSA look ridiculous when they've done such a careful job themselves? They could not have done a better job here if they linked to the best way to support the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In fact, because he completely controls the domain, Justin can re-route the QR code to whatever he likes. I wonder what he'll do with his super power.

I will leave it to the readers to discuss the social implications of all of the English language QR code content working, while the Spanish language QR code poster was not checked before it went out. Suffice to say, I think there are some implications there.

I also wonder how long it will take for this poster to be pulled from the TSA screening lines. So, let's do this: Post your sightings of the flubbed QR code poster on Twitter using the hashtag #tsaflub. I will try to create a collection of the "sightings" so we can see how quickly the TSA takes these down.


October 25 2011

July 29 2011

Four short links: 29 July 2011

  1. SQL Injection Pocket Reference (Google Docs) -- just what it sounds like. (via ModSecurity SQL Injection Challenge: Lessons Learned)
  2. isostick: The Optical Drive in a Stick (KickStarter) -- clever! A USB memory stick with drivers that emulate optical drives so you can boot off .iso files you've put on the memory stick. (via Extreme Tech)
  3. CrowdDB: Answering Queries with Crowdsourcing (Berkeley) -- CrowdDB uses human input via crowdsourcing to process queries that neither database systems nor search engines can adequately answer. It uses SQL both as a language for posing complex queries and as a way to model data. (via Big Data)
  4. The DIY Electronic Medical Record (Bryce Roberts) -- I had a record of my daily weight, my exercising (catalogued by type), my walking, my calories burned and now, with the addition of Zeo, my nightly sleep patterns. All of this data had been passively collected with little to no manual input required from me. Total investment in this personal sensor network was in the range of a couple hundred dollars. And, as I rummaged through my data it began to hit me that what I’ve really been doing is creating my own DIY Electronic Medical Record. The Quantified Self is about more than obsessively cataloguing your bowel movements in low-contrast infographics. I'm less enthused by the opportunities to publicly perform private data, a-la the wifi body scale, than I am by opportunities to gain personal insight.

June 20 2011

Four short links: 20 June 2011

  1. HD Video Recording Glasses (Kickstarter) -- as Bryce says, "wearable computing is on the rise. As the price for enabling components drops, always on connectivity in our pockets and purses increases, and access to low cost manufacturing resources and know-how rises we’ll see innovation continue to push into these most personal forms of computing." (via Bryce Roberts)
  2. Sketching in Food (Chris Heathcote) -- a set of taste tests to demonstrate that we've been food hacking for a very long time. We started with two chemical coated strips - sodium benzoate, a preservative used in lots of food that a significant percentage of people can taste (interestingly in different ways, sweet, sour and bitter). Secondly was a chemical known as PTC that about 70% of people perceive as bitter, and a smaller number perceiving as really really horribly bitter. This was to show that taste is genetic, and different people perceive the same food differently. He includes pointers to sources for the materials in the taste test.
  3. Investigating Millions of Documents by Visualizing Clusters -- recording of talk about our recent work at the AP with the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs.
  4. Managing Crowdsourced Human Computation (Slideshare) -- half a six-hour tutorial at WWW2011 on crowdsourcing and human computation. See also the author's comments. (via Matt Biddulph)

June 16 2011

Four short links: 16 June 2011

  1. Solar Powered Wireless Sensor Network -- Chris is building wireless sensor networks using open source software and hardware that could be used in a variety of applications like air quality or home energy monitoring. It looks like he was inspired by Tweetawatt and is using xBee and ASUS wifi for communication in conjunction with Pachube for data display. (via MindKits)
  2. CSS Lint -- validate and quality check your CSS. (via Jacine Luisi)
  3. An Introduction to Stock Options for the Tech Entrepreneur or Startup Employee (Scribd) -- nice introduction to board, stock, options, finance, dilution, and more.
  4. Interesting Web Hacks (Quora) -- You can quickly run HTML in the browser without creating a HTML file: Enter this in the address bar: data:text/html,<h1>Hello, world!<h1> (via Alex Gibson)

June 14 2011

Four short links: 14 June 2011

  1. ASCII Flow -- create ASCII diagrams. Awesome. (via Hacker News)
  2. Principles of Uncertainty -- probability and statistics textbook, for maths students to build up to understanding Bayesian reasoning.
  3. Playable Archaeology: An Interview with the Telehacks Anonymous Creator (Andy Baio) -- The inspiration was my son. I had shown him the old movies Hackers, Wargames, and Colossus: The Forbin Project and he really liked them. After seeing Hackers and Wargames, he really wanted to start hacking stuff on his own. I'd taught him some programming, but I didn't want him doing any actual hacking, so I decided to make a simulation so he could telnet to hosts, hack them, and get the feel of it, but safely. (Andy was the interviewer, not the creator)
  4. Responsive Data Tables -- CSS ways to reformat data tables if the screen width is inadequate for the default table layout. (via Keith Bolland)

April 19 2011

Four short links: 19 April 2011

  1. Lines (Mark Jason Dominus) -- If you wanted to hear more about phylogeny, Java programming, or tree algorithms, you are about to be disappointed. The subject of my article today is those fat black lines. Anatomy of a clever piece of everyday programming. There is no part of this program of which I am proud. Rather, I am proud of the thing as a whole. It did the job I needed, and it did it by 5 PM. Larry Wall once said that "a Perl script is correct if it's halfway readable and gets the job done before your boss fires you." Thank you, Larry.
  2. PHP Clone of Panic Status Board (GitHub) -- The Panic status board shows state of downloads, servers, countdown, etc. It's a dashboard for the company. This PHP implementation lets you build your own. (via Hacker News)
  3. The Management Myth (The Atlantic) -- a philosophy PhD gets an MBA, works as management consultant, then calls bullshit on the whole thing. Taylorism, like much of management theory to come, is at its core a collection of quasi-religious dicta on the virtue of being good at what you do, ensconced in a protective bubble of parables (otherwise known as case studies). (via BoingBoing)
  4. Obsolete Technology -- or, as I like to think of it, post-Zombie-apocalypse technology. Bone up on your kilns if you want your earthen cookware once our undead overlords are running (or, at least, lurching) the country. (via Bruce Sterling)

March 02 2011

Four short links: 2 March 2011

  1. Unicode in Python, Completely Demystified -- a good introduction to Unicode in Python, which helped me with some code. (via Hacker News)
  2. A Ban on Brain-Boosting Drugs (Chronicle of Higher Education) -- Simply calling the use of study drugs "unfair" tells us nothing about why colleges should ban them. If such drugs really do improve academic performance among healthy students (and the evidence is scant), shouldn't colleges put them in the drinking water instead? After all, it would be unfair to permit wealthy students to use them if less privileged students can't afford them. As we start to hack our bodies and minds, we'll face more questions about legitimacy and ethics of those actions. Not, of course, about using coffee and Coca-Cola, ubiquitous performance-enhancing stimulants that are mysteriously absent from bans and prohibitions.
  3. Copywrongs -- Matt Blaze spits the dummy on IEEE and ACM copyright policies. In particular, the IEEE is explicitly preventing authors from distributing copies of the final paper. We write scientific papers first and last because we want them read. When papers were disseminated solely in print form it might have been reasonable to expect authors to donate the copyright in exchange for production and distribution. Today, of course, this model seems, at best, quaintly out of touch with the needs of researchers and academics who no longer desire or tolerate the delay and expense of seeking out printed copies of far-flung documents. We expect to find on it on the open web, and not hidden behind a paywall, either.
  4. On the Engineering of SaaS -- An upgrade process, for example, is an entirely different beast. Making it robust and repeatable is far less important than making it quick and reversible. This is because the upgrade only every happens once: on your install. Also, it only ever has to work right in one, exact variant of the environment: yours. And while typical customers of software can schedule an outage to perform an upgrade, scheduling downtime in SaaS is nearly impossible. So, you must be able to deploy new releases quickly, if not entirely seamlessly — and in the event of failure, rollback just as rapidly.

February 14 2011

Four short links: 14 February 2011

  1. Stephen Elop is a Flight Risk (Silicon Beat) -- a foresight-filled 2008 article that doesn't make Nokia's new CEO look good. A reminder to boards and CEOs that option vesting schedules matter. (via Hacker News)
  2. CHDK -- Canon Hack Development Kit gives point-and-shoot Canon digital camera new features like RAW images, motion detection, a USB remote, full control over exposure and so on. (via Sennheiser HD 555 to HD 595 Mod)
  3. The Atavist - iPad app for original long-form nonfiction (what used to be called "journalism"). (via Tim O'Reilly)
  4. Why Most Published Findings are False (PLoS Medicine) -- as explained by John D. Cook, Suppose you have 1,000 totally ineffective drugs to test. About 1 out of every 20 trials will produce a p-value of 0.05 or smaller by chance, so about 50 trials out of the 1,000 will have a “significant” result, and only those studies will publish their results. The error rate in the lab was indeed 5%, but the error rate in the literature coming out of the lab is 100 percent!.

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