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May 10, 2005

World's First Virtual Secretary

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Today's Washington Post front page features the photo above of Saadia Musa, a 21–year–old receptionist/secretary for the Resource Group, a Washington, D.C.–based call–center company, on screen next to Zia Chishti, the company's Pakistani founder.

But Ms. Musa, though she can see and converse with the Washington, D.C.–based Chishti, isn't in Washington, D.C.: rather, she's located nearly 7,500 miles away in Karachi, Pakistan, where it's 2 a.m. Wednesday as I write this.

The Post story by S. Mitra Kalita is about the recent rise of outsourcing in Pakistan, dwarfed by the rapid growth of India in this arena over the past decade.

The Resource Group acquires U.S. call centers and supports them via its operations in Karachi and Lahore, Pakistan.

What struck me was the photo: technology dissolves time and renders distance irrelevant.

Just an inkling of the deluge to come.

May 10, 2005 at 06:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Pope John Paul II's car for sale — estimated price $5 million

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Pope John Paul II owned a light blue 1975 Ford Escort GL (above, photographed in his private garden).

The 1975 model year brought forth an updated Escort, with five models ranging from the "base" up to the L, GL, Sport and top–of–the–line Ghia.

Pope John Paul II opted for the middle by buying a GL.

A Vatican official was quoted in a news story as saying the pope "loved to sneak out dressed in commoner clothes and take hikes and slip away in this car."

In 1998 Pope John Paul II sold his car, with 60,000 miles on it, to Kane County (Illinois) businessman Jim Rich.

The Associated Press wrote, "Rich said he remembers the day in 1998 when he took possession of the car. In the company of a translator, Rich handed Pope John Paul II a check for $102,000 [his winning bid in an auction], and the Pope handed Rich the car keys. Not much was said between the two, and Rich said he was nervous."

"'I handed him a check, and he handed me his keys, and I said, 'Can I take a picture of you with the keys?' Rich said. 'And he laughed.'"

But he let Rich get the picture (below).

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Rich has decided to sell the vehicle, with only a few more miles on it than the odometer read back in 1998 when he purchasd it, because he needs the money for his various businesses, which have run into financial problems.

He's debating whether to include the rosary beads that Pope John Paul II threw in to sweeten the deal.

The car will be put on the block June 3–4 at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas by auction firm Kruse International.

Dean Kruse, the company's president and owner, said the car would be worth $1,200 at best without papal provenance.

May 10, 2005 at 04:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

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I guess I must be really out of it since these rules came out in 2001 — maybe earlier — but I just learned of their existence in this past Sunday's New York Times Book Review cover review of his new book, "The Hot Kid."

I don't why it is but I've never much cared for Elmore Leonard's books; I just don't "get" why he's so popular.

Anyway, I've never finished a book by either of the James brothers (Henry or William — I don't know if Rick left a brother or, if so, he writes) but I know they are great writers nonetheless.

Here are Elmore Leonard's 10 rules:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said".

5. Keep your exclamation marks under control.

6. Never use the word "suddenly".

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Ditto, places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I can say that last year I almost completely abandoned the use of exclamation points after reading somewhere that they were a show of self–importance.

May 10, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Medi–Points Foot Massager

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When I first laid eyes on this I thought it might be the result of a wormhole pass–through of some space alien's first baby shoes, bronzed and all — but apparently not.

Rather, it's a modern day production purporting to provide foot acupressure in the comfort and privacy of your very own armchair.

But why wait till you get home?

Take this puppy to work and stick it under your desk.

Then squeeze out of your Jimmy Choos and put your tootsies inside.

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Bliss.

Like the website says, "Say farewell to pains in your feet, back, legs and neck that paralyze you and minimize your effectiveness."

Sounds good to me.

"It's a fact: all major organs and nerves throughout the body end in the nerve endings underneath the feet."

Well, I vaguely do recall the hip bone's connected to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone's connected to the knee bone....

The rest of first year gross anatomy's kind of hazy so perhaps they've got it right.

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The particulars:

    • Velcro cover

    • Acupuncture nodes

    • 10-minute timer

    • 3 intensity levels

    • Clockwise or counterclockwise

    • Instruction manual

    • Size: 11.3" x 10.7" x 17.5"

    • Weight: 17.5 pounds

$119.95 here.

May 10, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The dullest blog in the world

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Pretty tough competition for this title but the writer's gone and claimed it anyhow.

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Sample post titles include:

• Standing in the middle of the room

• Looking at a wall

• Turning off a light

• Thinking about putting on some music

• Taking a plate to the kitchen

• Going outside

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You get the idea.

May 10, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Lighting The Pool — Episode 2: Return of the Spheres

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All right, I heard you: $225 for a silly UFO–shaped floating swimming pool light is ridiculous.

Enough, already.

The crack research team, in an effort to win you back, brings you... the Solar Sphere.

"A discreet solar module in the sphere converts energy from direct sunlight, bringing a rainbow of colors to your pool or pond."

Need I note that all of these tricked–out lights will also work in your bathtub or sink, if that happens to be the largest fixed body of water in your purview? But I digress.

"Automatically illuminates in darkness with triple LED technology."

Floats, or mounts on its integral base (included).

"Two programs cycle through nine vibrant colors."

8.5" diameter.

$49 here.

Note that you could buy four of these for the price of one of yesterday's GlowBuoys® ($225) and still have enough left over for dinner and a movie.

Unless the GlowBuoy® is more than just a swimming pool light.

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In which case $225 seems cheap at one million times the price.

May 10, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Can a computer virus make your car crash?

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A fascinating article by Tom Zeller Jr. and Norman Mayersohn about this subject appeared in the March 13, 2005 New York Times.

Their verdict?

Not yet.

But not not ever.

Here's the piece.

    Can a Virus Hitch a Ride in Your Car?

    A virus can wreak havoc on computer files, hard drives and networks, but its malicious effects tend to be measured in wasted time, lost sales and the occasional unfinished novel that evaporates into the digital ozone.

    But what if viruses, worms or other forms of malware penetrated the computers that control ever more crucial functions in the car?

    Could you find yourself at the wheel of two tons of rolling steel that has malevolent code coursing through its electronic veins?

    That frightening prospect has had Internet message boards buzzing this year, amid rumors that a virus had infected Lexus cars and S.U.V.'s.

    The virus supposedly entered the cars over the Bluetooth wireless link that lets drivers use their cellphones to carry on hands-free conversations through the cars' microphones and speakers.

    The prospect is not so implausible.

    A handful of real if fairly benign cellphone viruses have already been observed, in antivirus industry parlance, "in the wild."

    Still, a virus in a cellphone might muck up an address book or, at worst, quietly dial Vanuatu during peak hours.

    But malicious code in cars, which rely on computers for functions as benign as seat adjustment and as crucial as antiskid systems that seize control of the brakes and throttle to prevent a crash, could do far more harm.

    The Lexus tale, based on murky reporting and a speculative statement by Kaspersky Lab, a Moscow antivirus company, seems to have been unfounded.

    "Lexus and its parent companies, Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. and Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan, have investigated this rumor," the carmaker said in a statement last month, "and have determined it to be without foundation."

    But the question lingers: Could a car be infected by a virus passed along from, say, your cellphone or hand-held computer?

    Or worse, by a hacker with a Bluetooth device within range of the car's antennas?

    The short answer is, not yet.

    "Right now this is a lot of hype rather than reality, the idea that cars could be turning against us," said Thilo Koslowski, a vice president and lead analyst for auto-based information and communication technologies at Gartner G2, a technology research firm.

    "We won't see John Carpenter's 'Christine' becoming a reality anytime soon."

    But Mr. Koslowski and others are quick to point out that the elements for mischief are slowly falling into place:

    First, vehicles are increasingly controlled by electronics — to the point that even the simple mechanical link between the gas pedal and engine throttle is giving way to "drive by wire" systems.

    Second, more data is being exchanged with outside sources, including cellphones and real-time traffic reports.

    Finally, the interlinking of car electronics opens up the possibility that automotive worms could burrow into a memory storage area in ways that engineers never imagined.

    Since the early 1990's, the various computers that manage a car's engine, transmission, brakes, air bags and entertainment systems have been increasingly linked in networks much like the ones that offices use to let workers share printers, scanners and backup storage drives.

    Benefits of interconnecting the electronic devices include less wiring — a luxury car can contain miles of copper cables — and reduced weight, an important factor in improving performance and fuel economy.

    Less obvious are the advantages of having the components communicate: an antiskid system, designed to help keep a car from spinning out of control, links sensors in the steering, brakes and throttle, and can effectively seize control from the driver.

    Other systems in which computers essentially take over, if only for a second, include emergency-brake assist, which provides maximum braking force when sensors detect the need for a panic stop, and "active steering," a feature now exclusive to BMW in which computers can compensate for a driver's recklessness.

    The latest versions of in-car information systems, known as telematics, include the ability to diagnose vehicle maladies.

    General Motors' OnStar can forward readings from sensors throughout the car for troubleshooting, a process called remote diagnostics. (All G.M. cars will include OnStar by the end of 2007.)

    The data, read from the engine-control computer, is transmitted over the OnStar cellphone link.

    Several automakers have discussed plans to use this conduit to update a vehicle's software or even perform electronic repairs, though no automaker is currently doing this regularly.

    Microsoft has entered this business, too, having recently signed a deal to provide software for a telematics and diagnostics system to be installed in all Fiats, starting this year.

    By design, the various controls are not isolated from other in-car processors, since they need to share information to operate effectively and avoid the need for redundant sensors, wiring and microprocessors.

    Also, automakers have begun to share in-car processing power and memory capacity over the network, said Paul Hansen, the publisher of an industry newsletter, The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics.

    In a car with a stand-alone cell phone installation there would be no pathway for pernicious computer code to enter the vital electronic systems.

    But as automakers work to take advantage of linked processors, ready exchanges of data — and malware — become possible.

    Possible does not, however, mean easy.

    Unlike the anonymous and remote world of PC viruses delivered over the Internet, a ne'er-do-well would need, in most cases, a few moments alone with a car to impregnate it with malware — for now.

    Marko Wolf, a research associate at Ruhr–Universitat in Bochum, Germany, and co-author of a recent study of security in automotive networks, said a rogue mechanic with under–the–hood access could make short work of planting malicious code.

    And as internal networking reaches the exposed extremities of a car--its side mirrors, say, or its lights — the number of potential access points increases.

    "Cars have extended their bus wires and controllers even into their electronic mirrors" and to receivers for global-positioning signals, Wolf said, conjuring a "Mission: Impossible" plot:

    "One can easily hack into the internal communication system just by breaking away that outside part and connecting the bare bus wires with a PDA or laptop." (A bus is essentially a collection of wires linking one part of a computer — or a car — to another.)

    Looking ahead, a proliferation of remote access points — OnStar-type services, for instance, or short-range Bluetooth connections — will raise the odds that virus writers will eventually try to beam a bug across the ether.

    Just as such services let the car send data to the outside world, malware writers could try to use those wireless conduits to send destructive payloads into cars.

    Systems like OnStar, known for providing emergency assistance or concierge services (its operators will make restaurant reservations for you), in fact hold deep conversations with the car's networks.

    Besides the ability to provide engine diagnostics and unlock the doors by remote to rescue forgotten keys, an advanced level of OnStar — now on about a dozen GM models — will report detailed data about a collision to emergency medical personnel.

    Navigation systems, which have used only a time signal from satellites to determine a car's location, are adding traffic information.

    The Acura RL is the first with this service; updates about congestion or construction delays are sent to the car and displayed on the navigation screen.

    Despite these potential pathways, creating a virus that would spread within the car would be no small feat.

    In the Windows-dominated PC universe, "the programmer only has to know the PC processor" to do damage, said Egil Juliussen of Telematics Research Group of Minnetonka, Minn., a firm that tracks the rise of in-car networking.

    "The auto is a very different environment," he said.

    "The infotainment system may have multiple processors and operating systems.

    The navigation system has one processor or operating system, the telematics system may have another one and the radio may have a third one."

    Getting a virus to propagate from one system to another would be akin to designing malware that could pass from a Windows environment to a Macintosh system and on to a Linux machine--infecting them all.

    "The point is that the virus writer needs to expand his knowledge by a factor of 10 or more over the PC world," Juliussen said.

    Even then, he said, with operating systems — particularly those that control crucial mechanical systems — remaining varied and proprietary, a successful virus could function in only a small fraction of cars.

    "It's feasible," Juliussen said, "just a lot harder."

    Whether virus writers can overcome the hurdles remains an open question, but evidence from the PC world suggests that as on-board networking becomes more widespread and standardized, they will certainly try.

    Early speculation, like the Lexus rumors, may help focus attention on the potential problem before car malware has a chance to flourish.

    "I am very happy to see as many rumors of that sort as believable as possible as soon as possible," said Peter B. Ladkin, a professor of computer networks and distributed systems at the University of Bielefeld in Germany.

    "Because it means that more automakers will pay attention to what they're doing."

May 10, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

World's Most Complicated BBQ Tongs

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Just look at them (above — in red).

Not one, not two, but three different articulating joints all of which must work in perfect synchrony to enable you to grasp and turn an item.

A Bizarro World

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Design Award to these Black Gold TM BBQ Tongs.

$9.99 here.

For the real world winner have a look here, at these:

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they're the official tongs of bookofjoe.

With an endorsement like that

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you know they've gotta be good.

May 10, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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