August 2006

You are browsing the site archives for August 2006.

Sean Hannity has this to say about Democratic Congressbeing Nancy Pelosi:

“This is the moment to say that there are things in life worth fighting and dying for and one of ’em is making sure Nancy Pelosi doesn’t become the speaker.”

It would be cool if she took him up on that offer.

I was right. The case against John Mark Karr for the killing of JonBenet Ramsey has collapsed, to the surprise of almost no one.

Prosecutors abruptly dropped their case Monday against John Mark Karr in the slaying of JonBenet Ramsey, saying DNA tests failed to put him at the crime scene despite his insistence he sexually assaulted and strangled the 6-year-old beauty queen.

Just a week and a half after Karr’s arrest in Thailand was seen as a remarkable break in the sensational, decade-old case, prosecutors suggested in court papers that he was just a man with a twisted fascination with JonBenet who confessed to a crime he didn’t commit.

“The people would not be able to establish that Mr. Karr committed this crime despite his repeated insistence that he did,” District Attorney Mary Lacy said in court papers.

Karr’s defense attorney, Seth Temin, is trying to make a fuss:

“We’re deeply distressed by the fact that they took this man and dragged him here from Bangkok, Thailand, with no forensic evidence confirming the allegations against him and no independent factors leading to a presumption he did anything wrong,” Temin said.

Dude, your client confessed to a murder. Were they just supposed to ignore that? I’m sorry you won’t be in the spotlight for the next couple of years, but you need to get over it.

On another matter, my Karr-as-stalker theory looks like it might hold up:

At first, Karr seemed to be just someone with an intense interest in the case, but he soon claimed responsibility for the crime, and provided more and more detail about that night, according to court papers. He claimed that he accidentally killed JonBenet during sexual activity that included temporarily asphyxiating her, prosecutors said.

He began telling his story in hopes of being included a book Tracey was planning to publish, according to the court papers.

Just looking for his 15-minutes.

Here’s some weird bit of pop culture that I just don’t get. It’s stupid, it’s poorly drawn, and it makes no sense.

Video: George Washington (Probably not safe for work)

Can’t. Get. It. Out. Of. My. Head.

Pluto is not a planet.

Despite earlier indications that the International Astronomical Union might adopt a broad definition of a planet that includes Pluto and additional objects in the list of planets, they’ve decided that Pluto isn’t a planet after all, and neither are the other three objects they had been considering: Charon, Ceres, and 2003 UB313.

The good news, I guess, is that now that UB313 won’t be a planet, it will probably be allowed to keep its way-cool nickname: Zena. (Yes, named after the television character.)

In addition to the earlier parts of the definition (round, orbits the sun) they’ve also added a provision that planets must have cleared their orbit of other debris. Pluto and its moon, Charon, are in an orbit that crosses Neptune’s orbit, so obviously there’s other stuff there.

Then again, mighty Neptune (eight thousand times more massive) hasn’t yet hurled Pluto out of the solar system (or into the inner system) so how come it’s still considered a planet? Sounds like fuzzy thinking by Pluto-haters.

The meeting was held in Prague, but somehow I suspect the French are behind this…

Building on top of their S3 service, Amazon Web Services has announced the beta phase of a new service: The Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2).

Simply put, EC2 provides web-accessible virtual servers that you can provision as a service in just a few minutes.

Let’s say you have an application that requires a database server, an application server, and a web server. You start by telling the EC2 to start three machines for you. In a few minutes, they’ll be up and running. Each one is basically a Linux box with an Apache web server on it. You can then install your application and get it running.

These are virtual machines. Amazon’s servers are running virtualization software that allows each server to run one or more “virtual” machines inside it. To the operating system on the virtual machine, it appears to be running on a 1.7Ghz Xeon CPU with 1.75GB of RAM and 160GB of local disk space. In reality, however, whenever it interacts with the virtual hardware, the virtualization software takes over. What the virtual machine thinks is a disk is really one or more files containing all the data that’s supposed to be on the disk.

Or maybe it’s a real disk. That’s one of the advantages of virtualization technology. All the virtual machines can be identical, even if the underlying physical machines aren’t. That leads to the big idea behind virtual data centers: You can clone virtual machines just by copying their data files to another physical machine.

Here’s how that works on EC2: You tell the service to make images of all three of your servers. This makes copies of the virtual machine’s data files and stores them in Amazon’s Simple Storage Service.

Then, as usage of your web application increases, you can tell the EC2 service to launch additional copies of your web and application servers to handle the heavier load. Obviously, it takes a bit of care on your part to make sure your application is built and configured so new servers can just drop in, but that’s pretty common these days.

Suppose you have a site that runs a weekly contest. Each contest opens on Sunday and closes on the following Saturday. You get a burst of people checking it out when it starts, so you need 6 web servers on Sunday, and 10 servers on Monday as people check it out from work. The rest of the week you only need 3 servers, until the last day of the contest when everybody gets in one last entry and you need 25 servers to handle the load.

If you have a dedicated data center, you’d have to have 25 servers running all the time, even on days you don’t need them. Well, you could turn them off, I suppose, but they’d still have to be there. Either you or your hosting company would have to own them, and you’d be paying for all 25 of them, since most hosting companies won’t let you change the number of servers you rent on a daily basis.

Amazon EC2 lets you do exactly that. Each day, you can allocate however many servers you need. In fact, EC2 rents time by the hour, so you can idle with 1 server overnight, bring another server online as people get to work, and another server to handle the lunch break.

All of this is available as a service that responds in just a few minutes—they say 10 minutes from request to server boot—which means you can program your application to monitor its own load and call on EC2 to provision extra servers for itself as it needs them.

Right now, during the beta testing period, you can’t provision more than 20 servers for your application. But when EC2 goes into production, you’ll have access to a vast pool of hardware. So if, say, Stephan Colbert mentions your contest on his show and 10 million people decide to check it out, you’ll be ready, as your website quickly grabs an extra 300 servers to handle the load. Call it traffic-spike protection.

What’s the cost? 10 cents per server per hour. That works out to about 70 dollars per month of continuous uptime. I’m not planning to move Windypundit to EC2 any time soon, because I only pay a fraction of that price for a fraction of a server, but it sounds like a reasonable price for commerce hosting.

You also have to pay 20 cents per gigabyte transferred in or out, and 15 cents per gigabyte per month to store the configurations on S3.

As with S3, anyone planning to launch a large web business is going to have to include evaluation of this service in their planning.


Everybody says Google is going to build a web-based operating system, but Amazon seems to be doing it too, with their Amazon Web Services line of products.

For example, there’s Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), which implements a very simple store-a-file/get-a-file service. Amazon says it’s fast and designed for 99.99% availability, with data centers in two locations. Storage costs you 15 cents per gigabyte per month, and bandwidth costs 20 cents for every gigabyte transferred in or out. There’s no minimum charge.

Some companies have already decided that buying bandwidth and space from Amazon is cheaper than expanding their data centers. The smugmug photo sharing service uses S3 for storing redundant copies of all images, and Altexa Software used S3 to implement an over-the-internet data backup service. Both of them added S3 to their services in just a few days.

Calls to the S3 API can be made using REST or SOAP interfaces, and are authenticated with strong encrypted signing of the HTTP header, including the timestamp field to prevent replay attacks.

Each file stored in S3 can have its own security policy. If a file is set to be readable by everyone, then signed headers are unnecessary and S3 will serve up the file in response to an ordinary HTTP request, qualified by the “Host” header, allowing S3 to be used for virtual hosting of static content.

The image of the Chicago lakefront at the top of this page is currently hosted at Amazon. It took me a couple of hours of mucking around with Perl scripts to write a program to put the file out there, but somebody who actually knows Perl could probably have done it in a few minutes. (I could have done it in a few minutes in .NET, but I wanted Perl scripts so they’ll run on the Windypundit host system.)

If you need to serve large files to lots of people, the S3 servers will also act as a seeder site for BitTorrent.

I think anybody implementing a web business that stores large amounts of static data is going to have to include S3 (and its eventual competitors) in their planning.

Sort of:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Get ready for a segregated ”Survivor.” Race will matter on the upcoming season of the CBS show as contestants will be divided into four tribes by ethnicity. That means blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians in separate groups.

The announcement was made on CBS‘ Early Show. Host Jeff Probst says the idea ”actually came from the criticism that ‘Survivor’ was not ethnically diverse enough.” He says the twist fits in perfectly with what ”Survivor” does, saying the show is ”a social experiment. And this is adding another layer to that experiment.” Probst says contestants had mixed reactions to the racial divisions.

Can a reality show re-creating slavery be far behind?

About 8 or 9 years ago, I started working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I already had the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in computer science, so this seemed like the next logical step. At the time, I was working as a software developer for the research arm of the Illinois Institute of Technology and they offered me a pretty good deal to get my Ph.D. with the IIT Computer Science department. My field of research was going to be Information Retrieval, which is the name for the science behind full-text search engines like Google, Yahoo, and AOL.

I didn’t start out by doing research. First I had to take some classes. A lot of classes. In the meantime, I helped out a bit around the Information Retrieval lab, managing servers and other non-research stuff. One of the Ph.D. students using the lab was a fellow named Abdur, who was much farther along in his research.

Abdur and I, well, we didn’t exactly get along. He clearly didn’t have a lot of respect for my skills or my intellect. I figure he thought I didn’t have what it takes to do science research.

He was probably right about that, because I eventually drifted out of the Ph.D. program before ever doing any actual research or even completing all my classes. I had lost interest in the subject of Information Retrieval and the idea of doing scientific research. Software development is fun and rewarding. Software research just seemed like a lot of hard work that would bore me to death.

Abdur finished his degree and did a lot of research. According to his online CV he has over 20 patents, 8 publications in refereed journals, and over a hundred contributions to conferences. He’s been on various conference committees and is on the editorial board for a major journal in the field.

I guess if I had finished my Ph.D., I could have done all that too. In every way, Abdur was and no doubt still is a far better computer science researcher than I ever was or will be.

Then again, Abdur Chowdhury has quite recently made search engine history in a way that I would not want to share. He was the AOL Chief Architect for Research who published the search queries of over half a million AOL users, setting off a firestorm of controversy over the release of private search data.

Update: Samples of the leaked data here and here. No pictures, but might not be seriously not safe for work.

Okay, I’ll get in the game with my prediction:

John Mark Karr didn’t kill JonBenet Ramsey.

(I’ve been right about things like this before, but didn’t say anything in advance so who’d believe me, right? This time, right or wrong, I’m on record.)

He allegedly says her death was an accident, which is obviously not true: The forensic evidence shows a deliberate, brutal murder. This sounds like something the police got him to say to encourage him to minimize the crime as a way of getting him to confess.

He’s also allegedly said he drugged her, which also contradicts the forensic evidence.

If news reports are correct, it appears that Karr is obsessed with JonBenet Ramsey, but so far I’ve heard nothing that proves he was obsessed with her before she died. I think he became obsessed with her later on, about the same time everybody else became obsessed with her. I think he’s a celebrity stalker.

Think about it. Someone stalking, say, Britney Spears, would be telling people how he knows her and understands her better than anyone else. How they’re really good friends, even if her people don’t understand. How she secretly sends him coded messages in her songs. How he’s the real father of her baby.

But Karr isn’t stalking Britney. He’s stalking a poor little girl who’s biggest fame came when she died. Claiming to have been there when that happened would make him a very important person in her life.

The police and prosecutor are being very cautious. I don’t think they believe it either.

Still, I could be a fool. As in so many crimes these days, the DNA will tell.

Update: I think I called it.

Pete Guither asks us to help put together a challenge to a page at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) called Drugs in the Workplace—What an employer needs to know.

I’ll start with the third sentence, which includes this: “77 percent of illicit drug users in the United States are employed.” Since the employment rate in the general population is only 63 percent, it appears that illicit drug users work harder than the non-drug-using population. That’s skewed by the fact that women, the very young, and the very old have a lower labor force participation rate and also use illicit drugs less. Still, if you look at the breakdown by age and sex, illicit drug users post some pretty good numbers.

More seriously, the page has an interesting breakdown in credibility about half-way through. The first half discusses the problems caused by workplace substance abuse and gives actual quantitative answers in dollars and percentages and relative likelyhoods of certain outcomes. The references aren’t the greatest—secondary publications rather than scientific studies or reliable statistics—but still, they’re laying it all out for us to see.

The second half tries to answer the question “What can your organization do to decrease the impact of substance abuse?” The answer they give is “Implement a drug-free workplace program.” But this section of the document contains no references or statistics of any kind. They were quick to give statistics for the dangers of drug use, but appear to have nothing to prove that implementing a drug-free workplace program is actually effective.

I haven’t even begun to describe the fundamental problem with the SAMHSA page. That will be a longer article, which will have to wait until I’m less busy.

I think the drug war has been arguably the single most devastating, dysfunctional, harmful social policy since slavery.

That’s Norm Stamper, retired Seattle Police Chief.

He’s just one of the current and former police officers and other criminal justice professionals who are members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Here’s a short video of some of their speakers:

It’s fuzzy video, but it’s a searing criticism of the War on Drugs.

I found this sign in a small park-like area in Glenview, Illinois:

Pet Regulations
Larger ImagePet Regulations

I’m amused by the little figurines of the dog and its owner with the pooper-scooper. I’m also fascinated with the kind of thinking that must have gone into deciding on a maximum leash length. Were there incidents with long-leashed dogs? Was 8 feet the compromise value after a debate?

But what really gets me is the last line:

Dial 911 to Report Violations

You just know Glenview is a safe place to live if dog poop is cause for a 911 emergency.

I guess they have to report dog poop to the emergency dispatcher because time is of the essence. If people reported illegal pooping on the non-emergency lines, by the time a patrol unit got there the perp would be gone. Then where would we be?

If any police officer reads this, let me ask you something…Do you guys handle a lot of dog-poop calls?

I missed this when it happened, but I guess Natalie Portman was trying to break out of her Star-Wars/princess/Sesame Street/kiddie-movie image, and picked an SNL bit to do it:

Natalie Tells It Like It Is

I never used to pay much attention to her, but after seeing this video, I think I’m getting a bit of a crush. I think you will too.

[link repaired 12/31/2006]