Sunday, June 8, 2008

Book: Beyond Fear, by Bruce Schneier

I read this a couple months ago and failed to take it with me to Seattle, so I've lost the notes I took on it, but it at least bears mentioning.

He proposes looking at a security problem/solution using the following steps:
1. What assets are you trying to protect?
2. What are the risks to these assets?
3. How does the proposed security solution mitigate those risks?
4. What other risks does the solution cause?
5. What trade-offs and costs does the solution impose?

It's a good introduction to some of the principles and key terms in security (at least, from what I can tell, as someone who knows very little about the field). He uses examples of national security throughout the book, essentially telling readers that terrorism isn't as much of a threat as everyday dangers like heart disease and car accidents, and that the current solutions do not mitigate the risks well. What I liked most about it was that he can frame anything in terms of a security problem and explore it in-depth (including a lot of things I wouldn't normally have thought of in that way, such as maintaining a population of honeybees), which puts it in the category of "books that help you learn to think differently". If I were put in the position to teach an undergrad-level course on computer security I would make it required reading in the first couple weeks, just to get students in the right frame of mind to think about security problems and solutions.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

E coli: not just for health scares

Today MSR had Carl Zimmer visiting to give a talk on his latest book Microcosm: E coli and the New Science of Life, following a pre-talk backyard burger grilling (not really). I watched over the live-streaming video. Zimmer addressed how E coli has been used in the past for scientific experiments, and some new directions that microbiology is taking.

E coli has been used in bioengineering to make synthetic insulin, jet fuel, and cancer treatments, to name a few. Some students even found a way to make it "take pictures". E coli has around 2,000 "core" genes, while the entire genome (all strains of E coli) has nearly 10,000 that have been found so far (for comparison, humans have 30,000). Some scientists believe that the "bare minimum" of genes necessary for its survival is around 200. Venter and company have already been working with a different smaller-genomed species, and "keep knocking out genes, to see if it still lives." Their count is down to 350. Potential experiments are to take these O(100) genes and begin adding more to create "new life" specialized for some purposes, which is very futuristic-sounding.

Other interesting experiments involve finding bacteria that are already suited for human needs. For instance, a teenager in Canada already isolated bacteria that eat plastic bags. These sorts of experiments could solve a lot of problems. I wonder if there are bacteria that turn lead into gold. :-)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Newsflash: Flying is Frustrating

Via The Consumerist, Americans are flying less because it's such a frustrating process, according to the Travel Industry Association. Detailed survey results are here (PDF).

Oddly enough they don't say anything about fuel costs, which I imagine has a much larger impact. For one, people are also driving less, and presumably this is not a reaction to the fact they're just sick and tired of having to fight their neighbor for the armrest.

For two, people have a greater tendency to grin and bear it when they're paying less for something (just ask any Southwest Airlines customer*). But when flights start costing more, whether on the ticket or by new-and-improved fees ("Now you want $15 to lose my bag, a service that used to be free?"), people expect a better experience, even if logically they know the cash is just getting pumped into the fuel tanks.

Perhaps I'm missing something. I haven't paid much attention to flight prices over the past year; I'm just guessing they've increased. (And if they haven't, that might explain why airlines can't get their stuff together enough to satisfy their customers.) Does anybody have solid data on this? Better, does anybody have solid data on how many people actually fly, not just what a consumer survey says?

*- I kid, but SWA flight attendants have been known to say during the pre-flight recitation, "Please do not tamper with the lavatory smoke detectors, as the penalty for disabling a smoke detector is up to $2000. And we know that if you had $2000, you'd be flying American."

Started at MSR/LL

I'm in Bellevue, WA now, and just finished my first week as an intern at Microsoft Live Labs. I'm working with Matt Hurst on some social media stuff. So far MSFT has been a fun place to work; everyone seems really happy.

One of the things I'm most excited about is the puzzle culture. I did PuzzleQuest, sponsored by MSFT, once awhile back and really enjoyed it. I hear there is an intern puzzle day as well as weekend-long "The Game" (not to be confused with The Game that I just lost). The latter is apparently invite-only, so I will have to get more details later.

Other notes:

-We found out that some recent work with Leman and Christos was accepted to KDD, so I will be in Las Vegas at the end of August. With my trusty free Microsoft Research nalgene bottle, so as not to dehydrate.
-As I tend to do when I travel, I've done an unusual (for me) amount of non-work-related reading in the past couple months. Will update later with some notes.