The House of the Blood Stains

This stately Amsterdam house, built in 1670, was the home of six-time mayor Coenraad van Beuningen.

house of the blood stains front

Slipping into madness later in life, he suffered apocalyptic visions of the future and decorated the outside of his home with arcane symbols of protection, scrawled upon the grey stone in his own blood.

house of the blood stains door

Despite numerous attempts to remove the markings, they can still be seen after more than 300 years, if you know to look.

blood stains detail

blood stains detail

My encounter with a St Augustine Monster

On November 27, 2011 at approximately 12:40 in the afternoon I encountered an unknown water creature in St Augustine, Florida. My wife and I had just finished walking our dog, after visiting one of the outlet malls, and suddenly she spotted a large Nessie-like animal in the nearby pond.

It was dark black in color, moving quickly, and although we only saw about 2 feet of it at a time (due the way it was arching its back out of the water), it was clearly quite long. If it hadn't been moving and clearly alive, it would be easy to assume it was a tractor truck tire sticking out of the water. (Just to give you an idea of the size.)

True to form for these type of events, the photos I hurriedly snapped are inconclusive and don't show what we witnessed. The thing was moving fast, and mostly all I managed to capture was the wake it left behind. Although in the first photograph, you can barely see its body slipping below the water's surface.

Was this the spawn of the St Augustine Monster? I don't know. As America's oldest port and home of The Fountain of Youth, clearly there's more to the city than meets the eye. I don't know when or if we will return, but if you're in the area, remain calm and be aware.




The Computer Underground: Twenty Years Later

In 1989 I concluded a multi-year sociological research project about how hackers, phone phreaks, and software pirates--collectively known as "the computer underground"--organized themselves. That is, how they identified each other, collaborated, and mutually participated in their activities.

I studied this closed culture by using the tools of participant observation. That is, I became a member of their society, albeit solely as an academic. But I wasn't the only one interested in the computer underground, towards the end of my research period the U.S. Secret Service, and career-minded district attorneys had begun their own covert investigations. None of us knew it at the time, but the feds even went so far as rigging up a St Louis hotel room to secretly video tape a hacker meet-up called SummerCon. (To this day I sometimes glance suspiciously at hotel room mirrors, wondering if this one, too, hides a watching agent in the next room.)

Shortly after I published my master's thesis, the hacker crackdown generally known as Operation Sundevil began. The aftermath was incredibly damaging to several of my friends, and the case so mishandled by the government that the Electronic Frontier Foundation was created in response. It also inspired me, together with Jim Thomas, to create Computer underground Digest (CuD), one of the earliest, large circulation electronic newsletters before the age of the Internet.

Yes, it's true. Before the Internet existed (at least as we know it today), swapping hacking techniques, warez, or gossip required dialing into basement bulletin board systems, arranging voice chats on "borrowed" telecom bridges, and swapping printed issues of TAP or YIPL via snail mail.

In recognition of those halcyon days of only 20 years ago, I've created an anniversary edition of The Social Organization of the Computer Underground, and added a new introduction with background and commentary. The first edition is widely available, in ASCII, across the Internet. This new edition is reformatted for easier reading and is a free download in PDF. You can also purchase a printed or Kindle edition from Amazon, and I'm donating all proceeds from these to the EFF. For more information visit The Social Organization of the Computer Underground website.

Wating for the Shoe Phone

I'm a big believer that fiction shapes the future in a multitude of ways. In some cases, I believe today's product designers are basically implementing the fantastic worlds of their youth. Two examples caught my eye this week:

Lockheed has developed a large airship that floats in position for intelligence gathering. Right out of science fiction, see Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) - Gizmodo for a peek at the forthcoming war machine.

Also recently announced, Nissan is addressing the safety problems of nearly silent hybrid vehicles by making them sound like flying cars in the movie Blade Runner. See this LA Times article.

Personally, if a hybrid car sound like the flying cars on The Jetsons (sound file link) I'd so buy it.

News at the speed of Twitter

Late on March 1st, 2007 I was working at my computer when Twitterrific popped forward with a brief message from Thomas Hawk. The message was only one word long, but it still caught my attention. It read:


After ten years of living in California, I'm acutely attentive to that word. Especially, in this case, because I know Thomas lives in my old stomping ground, the bay area. But perhaps, I though, he's out of town.

I opened my iChat buddy list and scanned for friends in California. Many of them were online, which I took as a good sign (the power was still on, at the very least). I sent Egan an instant message, asking if he'd felt an earthquake.

Yes, about 2 minutes ago! A small one.

As we talked about it, Egan felt an aftershock, and several other Californians in my buddy list changed their status messages to refer to the quake. too. Shortly thereafter, I visited the USGS earthquake events website and saw the initial reports.

The quake wasn't a big deal, similar the ones that I experienced firsthand, but this time I was 2200 miles away. Yet, thanks to Twitter and iChat, I knew about it mere minutes after it occurred, and learned that those I care about were almost certainly doing just fine. Gotta love the Internet.

Teaching Office to kids is criminal

One of the arguments used against purchasing anything but Windows-based computers for students is that they should learn how to use the tools that run the business world. I consider this a completely specious argument; students should learn about computing in general, not Window specifically. For most school-age students, the software they're using today will decidedly not be current when they reach the workforce.

In an article about the XO Computer, an inexpensive third-world laptop, Nicholas Negroponte addresses a similar concern about teaching Microsoft Office, but does it so much more eloquently than I:

"In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint," Negroponte wrote in an e-mail interview. "I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing."

I would extend the observation to world-wide, not just developing countries. Students need to learn how to write, how to give presentations, and how to logically process numbers in tabular arrangement. That's not the same as "using Word, PowerPoint, and Excel," which are but single tools to achieve the broader goals.

Monitoring teen drivers and more

Speaking of right out of the pages of science fiction, the Locate 1 device and service seems like something previously only seen on episodes of the A-Team or Knight Rider television shows. It's a small GPS-enabled transmitter (about the size of a deck of cards) that sends its signal to a website where you can easily track the current location and rate of travel of whatever you've attached it to. The ad copy in the latest Sharper Image catalog suggests that its easy to hide in a car, inside a kid's backpack, or in a briefcase full of hush money. (OK, I made up that last one. But you get the idea.)

Now at $500 for the transmitter plus a monthly fee that varies by how often you want the device polled (every five minutes or hourly) this isn't an inexpensive solution, but the fact that it exists at all for the consumer market is really quite remarkable. You can even set up email alerts for out-of-bounds conditions like speed or range of travel. This means you don't have to actively monitor the device at all, you can get a message on your cell phone as soon as your kid drives the family car too fast or too far away from home. Then log onto the web and see all the details, including a map of their location at the intervals you've selected. Or, for less dramatic use, if your loved one is going off on a solo weekend hike have them take this along and you can track their progress and know when to pick them up at the trail head. Welcome to the 21st century.

Food storage from the future

"Plastics." Long a watch word of futurists, I think I've just seen a product that ensures it will remain so for a few more years. I'm speaking of the FresherLonger Food Storage System. Not your typical Tupperware, these containers are infused with nanoparticles that inhibit germs, mold, and fungus growth. (Um, nevermind the sickly yellow color of the plastic, OK?) First came nano-pants that you can't stain, and now this. This is the 21st century we were promised!