2008-10-31

Viral printing.

This morning a colleague of mine got an email from his wife asking why there were print-outs of tickets for the movie "Wall E" dated october 5 2008 (27 days ago today) in the printout tray of their home printer. Tickets that were made out to "Bjørn Borud" -- which is me.

Indeed it was a mystery since:
  • I have no idea where he lives and have never been there.
  • We live far apart and never frequent each other's neighborhoods, so wireless access is not plausible.
  • My colleague is provably competent and thus the printer is not available from outside his LAN.
  • We didn't go to see Wall-E together, nor did I forward the tickets to him.
  • He also doesn't have access to my email-account (not that I am aware of at least :-))
Yet those were my printouts. On his printer. On the other side of town. Behind a firewall. In a house I have never been to.

After establishing the above I pondered what had taken place for a moment and experienced a real Sherlock Holmes moment: "what brand and model printer do you have?". "A Canon i850" he responded.

Here is what I think happened:
  • My printer is attached to one of my home machines. The printer is shared out to my local network. It is shared out using the default name the setup process came up with.
  • I got the tickets via email and printed them, from my laptop on my shared printer at home. It didn't work so I printed the file from my Mac Mini instead.
  • Meanwhile the tickets stay queued on the laptop.
  • I take my laptop to work.
  • My colleague has an identical printer at home. Attached to his Airport Extreme (I think) His laptop is set up to re-share out this printer. Under the default name.
  • He brings his laptop to work.
  • My laptop sees the shared printer turn up on the network, thinks oh goodie, and forwards the printout to his laptop.
  • Since he is at work, and not near his printer, nothing much happens.
  • He goes home, pops his laptop onto his LAN, the laptop sees the printer and hey presto: out comes my ticket.
(Also note that Macs use Bonjour to announce and discover services.)

There are still some mysteries that need to be solved. I don't really understand why it would take 27 days for the planets to align, but I have some suspicions. Among other things, I suspect that a third laptop may have been involved. You see, I changed laptops a couple of weeks ago. And I think I printed this on my old laptop. This means that the printout may have migrated from my old to my new laptop at some point.
I am too lazy to check my logs, but I think that this is a plausible explanation since I only recently powered up the old laptop in order to migrate some files I'd forgotten on it to the new laptop. I am not too sure about how the printer and sharing configurations have changed, but I know I've fiddled with them.

So I suspect the printout migrated from my laptop A to my laptop B, then on to my colleague's laptop and then finally got printed via his Airport Extreme to which his printer is attached.

I guess the moral of this story is that you should be careful about default values and that you do need authentication even for accessing devices like printers.

It would be interesting to see what happened if you wrote a program to automatically generate printer setups for all printers known by the CUPS printing system, shared them out without requiring any authentication and then took the laptop to places where people bring their laptops. Like airports, trains, libraries etc.

You could, of course, do the opposite: enqueue a printout of a document (say, this blog posting) to all of the names and then see what happened.

So if you found this blog post in your printout-tray, you now know how it may have gotten there :-)

2008-10-28

I don't get it.

You would think that when a company decides to invest in a website for selling their products online they would optimize for actually selling their goods. Yet so many websites fail at really basic things.

Some time ago I was going to order some hot chili sauce. Lots of it. The first hurdle was just browsing the site. For some reason they had laced the site with so much useless Flash that my browser was consuming insane amounts of CPU and naturally the whole browsing experience was sluggish. But I persisted and slowly populated my shopping cart with a number of products that I thought I'd might like. The site was rather skinny on actual descriptions of the products, so there was no way of really knowing what to expect from the products, but I was in an adventurous mood.

As I was trying to complete my order the whole dance to get past the form validation started. Although they ship their orders abroad, the site insisted on various bits of information being entered and that they follow american conventions for formatting. So I had to make up a phone number, among other things.

I also had to type my name in using only characters available in 7-bit ASCII. It is annoying that in 2008 you still have people who make web shops who can't deal with international character sets. But usually I find a way around this. I am getting quite used to this.

Of course, the last step, validating my credit card information, seemed to crash the code. I just got a screenful of what seems to be a debug-sort-of-dump of a bunch of PHP variables. End of experience. It seemed that my $130 order for various chili products would never get through.

While I was navigating their site I noticed their proud announcement that the next version of the site would be an all Flash version. Oh great.

Why are these people so clueless? Why are they not focusing on actually selling stuff?

Tried to shop for watches lately? Same thing there, only worse. Watchmakers, and makers of fashion items, have supremely clueless websites. It is almost impossible to find anything and even harder to figure out how to buy. Why on earth do they think this promotes sales? It can't. It can only scare people away.

2008-10-19

Lost opportunity

The second to last F1 race of the season was today. I have a bunch of TV channels, but for some reason they decided to air it on a channel I do not have. Of course, I want to see the race today. Before I read about the results anywhere.

There is no way to do that legally right now. I could try to guess where they will be airing the next race and ensure I have access to that channel, but thee is no guarantee it will be set up in time and it doesn't help me watch today's race.

I want to see it. I am willing to pay for it. Yet the only realistic option is to download it from somewhere. Without paying anyone.

When are Formula One Management going to realize that their bone-headed approach to the Internet is only fostering a culture of sharing content in which they have no revenue whatsoever?

I'm over here idiots! Look, I am waving money at you. You do like money, don't you?

2008-10-18

Open wheel racing.

I woke up this morning after a particularly vivid dream in which I found myself behind the wheel of a Formula-3 car. Yes, I know, it is sort of like my sub-conscious aspiring to get the bronze medal in the olympics rather than the gold. Actually, I think the explanation is more mundane. I saw a video on youtube of someone driving an F3 car before I went to bed and it struck me that driving one would probably be a lot of fun. It looked doable.
Driving an F1 car would be no fun at all; the thing is too expensive, too fragile, and I would be too busy trying to breathe and keep my head upright. Not to mention that I'd spend most of my concentration on not putting the thing in the barriers and have no concentration left to cane the heck out of it.

An F3 car looked like hard work, but doable.

This got me thinking.

The Skip Barber Racing School. Laguna Seca. They're having some courses there in the spring. Not in anything close to F3 cars, but those 2-litre Skip Barber series things. That looks more than just doable. That looks downright possible.

Also, Laguna Seca is on my list of the four tracks I'd like to drive: Nordschleife, Spa Francorchamps, Suzuka and Laguna Seca. (One down so far).

Hmm. It's going to be a long winter of pondering.

Oh, that is just cruel.

I rarely visit Facebook. After the initial buzz of re-discovering all the people I haven't spoken to for years, it turned into every other boring social website I have ever signed up to -- perhaps with the exception of those incredibly annoying apps that propel Facebook into the same stratosphere of annoyingness that was up until now reserved for Real Player.

Yesterday I dropped by Facebook for the first time in a long while and I was served the ads on the right.

The first one asks if I am between 50 and 80 years old, have a heart disease and if I want to be someone's guineapig for testing some new drug. I'm not, I don't and I most certainly won't be injected with some untested drug on the basis of a badly targeted ad. (Nor a well-targeted ad for that matter).

The second asks if I need some crap for my grandchild. Although technically possible, no, I do not have any grandchildren.

Either Facebook has really crappy ad-targeting or I have been identified by them to have the facebook surfing habits of a geriatric.

2008-10-15

The Alfa 159 versus the Alfa 156

My friend James sent me a link to a review of the Alfa 159. The review was very positive (especially given that it was written by Jeremy Clarkson) -- certainly a lot more positive than my verdict after trying a 159. I replied to his email with my impressions of the 156 versus the 159.

Note that I am biased. I know what I like in a car and although the 156 certainly has its faults, I do like it a lot.

Here is a cleaned up version of my email response:

Clarkson is getting old. The 159 is a high quality car and it looks a lot better than any german car -- inside and out, but I found it rather unexciting to drive. it is too heavy and the steering isn't the way I like it.

Then again, I like the 156 with sports suspension and 17" wheels. A lot of people don't like it.

The ride is a bit harsh on mine. In part because I have aftermarket polyurethane bushings (powerflex). The 2 litre engine is nice, but not great (about 100Nm short of being exciting) and the steering is razor sharp so you have to be prepared to a) have the suspension adjusted every 2 years, b) the car will respond to the surface it drives on, and c) your inputs are translated directly into action so you need to calm the f*ck down when driving it and be precise. The latter takes a bit getting used to. You can forget about nonchalantly holding one hand on the wheel while driving fast on uneven tarmac in Norway. The steering behaves like a border-collie: eager. (In fact, it is noticably sharper than on the Nissan 350Z)

Also, the 156 is very light. the downside is that you really notice that the engine has only 155hp if you have more people in the car (larger percentage of the total weight being variable). I don't think most people actually notice that the balance of the car changes, but I do.

The V6 version has more grunt, but it comes at the price of a heavier nose. On a twisty road I drive faster in a 2-litre 4cyl than I do in a V6. In part because the front tends to understeer badly and in part because I haven't driven the V6 enough to figure out how to compensate. (Any front wheel drive will tend to understeer when driven "naively", but there are certain tricks to dealing with it. The problem is that the more unbalanced the car is by design, the more violent the countermeasures).

I also noticed that the Recaro seats that came with my 156 are very good for active driving. they are narrow and have pronounced sides so the seats hold you in place. the only thing I am missing on longer trips is adjustable lumbar-support. The 159 I tried has adjustable lumbar support (I couldn't figure out how to work it in the limited time the car was available to me) and possibly adjustable width, but I didn't feel like they held me in place well enough. Comfortable, but not made for sporty driving.

Steering wheel on most new alfas I've driven are great. Thick and chunky and usually relatively small. The number of turns lock-to-lock varies a bit, but the 156 can be driven without changing grip. The 147 has even fewer turns lock-to-lock. Turning circle is terrible though. Not much room inside the wheel-arches for those (relatively speaking) big wheels. Which can be a bit of a challenge when parking.

The brakes seem to be varying a bit from car to car. in general it is my impression that the 156 has very immediate bite and then a more progressive bite as you push the pedal further. First time you drive it you'll probably apply the brakes a bit too hard and end up with your face in the windshield. I think this is a property of the braking servo setup rather than the brakes themselves. The standard brakes are made by Brembo, but I think that the quality of the pads varies a bit. (Mine are starting to go now, so I am planning to mount Black Diamond grooved discs and Ferodo DS 2500 pads all round. according to what I've read, slamming the brakes fully on with this combo is so effective you have to expect bruising from the belts).

As for tyres, I have no idea what the standard stuff is, but I drive on Pirelli PZero Nero. Those are a bit expensive compared to the regular cheap stuff, but very good road tyres. I was driving on rather expensive Yokohama tyres earlier and while they didn't disintegrate the side-walls were a bit on the soft side and when they got worn they got a sharp'ish edge that made them a
bit too nervous on uneven roads).

Overall, the 156 with sports suspension and wide tyres has a very edgy, sharp feel to it whereas the 159 is about 250kg heavier and feels more..."homely" to drive. The 159 body does have higher torsional rigidity, but the less sensitive steering and the softer suspension (I haven't tried a 159 with stiff setup) makes it feel softer and less responsive. again, this is a matter of taste. Some people think my car is quite a handful to drive and is too responsive.

But again, I like hard cars. I don't mind harsh ride, I don't mind that any steering input has a very direct and precise response.

159 is probably the highest quality car Alfa has built in that segment, but it is also a very dull car compared to the 156. compared to other cars in the same segment it is still both good looking and a good drive.
Now, in abslute terms, the 159 is a good car. The build quality is very good and it is hard to think if any non-italian car similarly priced that is as beautifully styled.

If you don't understand a word of what I said in the email response republished in the above paragraphs, then the 159 is for you. :-)

2008-10-09

Freedom of speech.

While having my hair cut I was leafing through today's newspapers. In the culture section there was an article about David Irving possibly visiting a literature festival in Norway next year. Understandably, this was quite the controversy and several well known Norwegian authors said they were either going to boycott the festival or they were considering it.

It is understandable that people feel uncomfortable about letting a known nazi sympathizer, anti-semite and holocaust denier attend a festival and give a talk. After all, in these election times, it is abundantly clear that if you ever should find yourself in the vicinity of an iconic asshole like Irving, someone might try to pin it on you later.

I had somehow expected more from professional authors. People whose living is so directly dependent on freedom of speech. People who should be more observant of the principles they expect others to uphold when they themselves try to communicate unpopular opinions.

Most of all I am a bit surprised at the naïve reaction of these authors: they are simply running away from an opportunity I think they are morally obliged to make the most of. The way to expose and oppose people like Irving is to make the most of the opportunity -- to let him hang himself with his own words. To confront him and to educate people on what sort of views he represents. To inocculate people's minds against the sort of rethoric that might convince those incapable of critical thought.

Where are the ideas about authors having a social responsibility of educating the common folk? Are today's authors such lightweights, such spineless, unprincipled cowards that they are easily scared off by an old crackpot nazi?

The most scary part of the article I read was when one of the authors seemed to favor the idea that freedom of speech "should have its limits". Exchange their values for those of Irving and articulate the same thought. Not a particularly pleasant thought, is it?

Well, in fact, freedom of speech does have its limits even in the most liberal of jurisdictions; and Irving has no doubt crossed that line before and is likely to do so again. If he wishes to turn up and do just that, nobody should be more delighted than the authors in question since it is then the duty of the authorities to meter out the appropriate penalty. But denying him the right to speak based on what he might say should be beneath any half intelligent, self-respecting person.

A couple of quotes come to mind. One by a real politician, one by a fictional one (see if you can spot which is which):

'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, and who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.'

and

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

2008-10-08

In search of the perfect lap.

Last week me and some friends went to have our monthly race at the gokart track. Rune had informed me earlier that the levels of grip were very good there now, so I was looking forward to driving there. I joked that since it has been some weeks since the last time I drove a gokart and I wasn't feeling well that day, I'd probably set a new track record.

About 7 people turned up at the track. Among them a few guys who race, or have raced, cars. One of them has also raced gokarts more seriously than our once-a-month meetup. I think Geir is probably the only currently active racer. He drives a really cool Alfa Romeo Giulia in the Corsa Italiana racing series. The orange and white car in the topmost picture.

(The picture of me in a gokart was shot at Kerpen in Germany. Yes, one of the two tracks run by Michael Schumacher. And yes, we drove both of them. And yes, we set decent lap times :-).

I had a peek at the board with the 15 or so fastest lap times. The new best lap was a 24.16 and my previous best lap was pushed all the way down to fifth place or so with a 24.67. With that sort of gap I didn't expect any new track records to be set by us that day.

Oh boy was I wrong.

I usually take the two first lap to try to warm up the tyres by weaving rapidly to the point where I almost spin the kart, by braking really hard (without locking up) and by pushing the front wheels hard into under-steering, thus scrubbing them warm. When the tyres are cold the kart usually lets go really easily when weaving. This time they didn't. The thing was glued to the track surface. After a couple of laps the tyres had so much heat in them that I could drive about 90% of the track with the throttle pedal planted (as opposed to just perhaps 80%).

The track has a technically challenging middle section where you have to sacrifice the start of the section to get good speed out of it. Usually you get a noticable lift on the left rear wheel. This time there was so much grip that I was accelerating even before that left turn -- and instead of just the rear wheel lifting off the ground, I had both of the inner wheels 20cm in the air.

I can't remember what my best time during the first heat was, but I easily beat the 24.67 that was my previous record. Previously, anything under 25.50 was considered a very good time. Now all of us were doing laps well under 25.00.

In the second heat I progressively beat my personal best 6 laps out of 15 laps and managed to set two times below the current lap record for the track. The fastest time I managed to clock was 24.08. I'm also quite pleased that my average lap time was 24.307. Most of the slow laps being laps when I was overtaking other gokarts (one of them even being a lap when I played chicken with Geir into one of the corners. Horns clearly visible at this point).

The new record stood for all of 20 minutes before Torstein beat it again with a 24.00. To be honest, I think he would have broken the magic 24.00 limit if he had gotten the better gokart for the last heat. (Those who had the best times after 2 heats got the last pick in gokarts). Torstein drove amazingly fast given the gokart he got.

As Ståle pointed out: a lot of ribs will be smashed over the next week to beat the new times on the lap record board. News travels fast :-).

In the end I think 6 out of 7 people who turned up ended up on the board.

2008-10-02

Anything that happens before or after is just waiting...

For any petrolhead, the 1971 movie "Le Mans" is a must-see. Steve McQueen went to great lengths to make this movie, but when it came out it tanked at the box office.

What makes this movie so great is that McQueen was very passionate about racing and was himself a very good racer. Also, it doesn't hurt that it is some of the best racing footage ever seen in a movie. Even by today's standards. There's a very simple explanation for that: it was the real thing.

The on-track footage was shot during an actual 24 hours of Le Mans race. I don't think the car they ran was officially part of the race, but despite having its aerodynamics and weight distribution compromised by the cameras on board (remember this was the 70s and cameras were big and clunky) and frequent stops to change film rolls, they finished ninth.

Rumor has it that despite not being allowed to drive in the actual race, Steve McQueen snuck into the car and drove (this being the irresponsible 1970s and all), but I haven't seen anything that categorically confirms this. In any case he was more than qualified to drive in the race.

The main car used in the movie was a Porsche 917 although most of the footage was shot from a 908/2 (which McQueen had driven in the 12 hours of Sebring).

If you know anything about cars, you probably know that this car was so crazy the Porsche factory drivers were terrified of it. Many of them refusing to drive it until the aerodynamics were revised and the car became a bit more stable at speed. This was a terribly fast car. The top speed of a 917 was just north of 400 km/h at the end of its lifetime. With the turbos turned up all the way it could develop 1.580 hp (qualifying trim) and it was raced at about 1.100 hp (race trim), though the version shown in the movie was probably around to 580 hp. That sort of power in a car weighing about 800kg makes for a wild ride.

I can't remember the speed they achieved down the Mulsanne straight in the 917, but one racing driver described it as being a "white knuckle drive". Usually the Mulsanne straight was the part of the track where drivers could rest and check their instruments, but the 917 was so terrifyingly fast that what used to be just a straight became a real challenge because of the kink in the middle. (Eventually a chikane was added to the Mulsanne straight to reduce top speeds).

As mentioned earlier, the "Le Mans" movie was perhaps a bit narrowly focused. The first 38 or so minutes of the movie has no dialogue. Still there's a great quote that you may have seen before from the movie:
"Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing's important to men who do it well. When you're racing, it's life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting."
Here's a clip from the movie:



Here's an in-car shot from a 917 at Le Sarthe (the track where 24 hours of Le Mans is driven) from before they put in the chicane on the Mulsanne straight. Notice the kink on the Mulsanne straight at around 1:25 in the clip. Imagine doing that in a car from the early 70s: