Mark Boss's Blog, page 4

January 18, 2013

Bitcoin is a virtual currency.  It is also a concept and an experiment.  Here's one way to think of it.  If you go into a local store and buy a cool watch, you can pay cash.  But if want to order a watch from a catalog or online, you go through a trusted third party.

Maybe you use your Visa card to buy the watch on Amazon, or you buy it from someone on eBay.  Either way, the buyer (you) and the seller have to trust someone (a bank, a credit card company, an online vendor) to carry out the transaction.
What if there was a way to skip the middleman--skip the trusted third party and deal directly buyer to seller? Bitcoin is an effort to bring this idea about by using cryptography to timestamp each Bitcoin and build a chronological record of its transactions.  To me, Bitcoin is also interesting because it isn't a national currency like the US dollar, the Chinese yuan, and the Indian rupee.
Bitcoin is controversial.  In October 2012, the European Central Bank issued a paper titled "Virtual Currency Schemes," and Bitcoin was one of their case studies.  Because the Bitcoin system allows a person to be anonymous and to set up multiple accounts, there is the risk it can be used for money laundering or drug sales.  And like any other currency or object, Bitcoins can be stolen.
Finally, there is the question of whether Bitcoin really functions as a currency.  Are Bitcoin users saving their money (or hoarding it), and are they able to use Bitcoins in enough places to make them worthwhile? The Central Bank report also asked whether Bitcoin is simply an elaborate pyramid or Ponzi scheme where early adopters see a return but rely on a constant stream of new investors.
I think that as we watch governments around the world make poor financial decisions, and banks fail from reckless greed and ineffective management, we will see more virtual currencies like Bitcoin. 
What do you think? Would you use a virtual currency?
(Here's the Bitcoin site so you can see what they say.  And a link to the TerraNova blog, which has addressed this issue.  And the European Central Bank report in PDF.)
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Published on January 18, 2013 10:11 • 33 views

January 10, 2013


Dead Girl is back!
DEAD GIRL 2: FADER BOY is now available on Amazon. 
While recovering in Our World, Dahlia Grove must find a way back to the Shadow Lands to save Fader Boy and their Tribe.  Together with Mike, a bad-boy wrestler from her high school, she returns to the Shadow Lands to find her friends on the run from ruthless assassins, a scheming war lord, and the lethal hunter Leopard.
If you read fantasy and horror, try this series while DEAD GIRL is on sale for .99.

And be sure to click the buttons below to share on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.  Thanks!
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Published on January 10, 2013 12:20 • 41 views

January 5, 2013

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942
“In general it can be said that a nation's art is greatest when it most reflects the character of its people.”--Edward Hopper
Nighthawks is the painting Hopper is famous for.  You've seen it, or you've seen the knockoffs.  The ones where it's Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis or maybe James Dean behind the counter.  But the knockoffs are all wrong because they missed it.  They zoomed in close so you can see the faces of famous dead people. 
The real Nighthawks is different.  It takes you a minute to realize how late at night it is because the artificial light from the diner throws you.  It's late and you're outside on the sidewalk.  Outside looking in.  That's the loneliness of it.  Not the picture, but the viewpoint.  City life, where you're surrounded by a million people, is lonely.  That's why the people in the diner are there, chasing away the ghosts and the long night with a cup of coffee and a little conversation.  New York Movie by Edward Hopper 1939 The truth is that Hopper was an accomplished watercolor artist who handled sunlight very effectively.  But for me, Hopper will always be oils and cities.  The late-shift world of cab drivers, waitresses and security guards.  The night hawks.

(Learn more about Edward Hopper at EdwardHopper.net and the National Gallery ofArt.  Pictures from EdwardHopper.net.)
(Side note:  Some people think Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers," which took place in a diner, was the inspiration for the painting Nighthawks.  I'm not sure that's accurate, but it's a great story, and a great painting.)
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Published on January 05, 2013 09:14 • 49 views

December 13, 2012


Back in 2006, some folks at the UK's University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory realized something:  their computer science students were different.  Kids from previous generations came to college with both hardware and software experience because they experimented with their computers.  But by 2006, most of the new students had no programming experience.  They hadn't grown up in a world where you were encouraged to take your computer apart or modify your software or hack...well, anything.
These folks decided to do something about that.  So they built an inexpensive computer about the size of a credit card and named it Raspberry Pi.  The Pi has many features, including video, audio, a USB port, a LAN hookup and more. 
There are two models:  Model A has one USB port, no network hookup and 256 megabytes of RAM, and Model B has two USB ports, Ethernet network hookup and 512 megabytes of RAM.  The Pi runs various flavors of Linux from an onboard chip, and accepts SD cards.
The Model A costs $25 USD, and the Model B costs $35 USD.  The price, plus the do-it-yourself community that has embraced the Pi, are what makes this little computer so interesting.  For $25 you can give your kid a device that does a lot of the things your laptop or cell phone does, but you won't have to worry about them taking apart your new phone.
The Pi encourages experimentation, whether you want to use the computer as a gaming device, or to build a robot, or a garage door opener.  Pi users can hook the computer to an old TV for output, and plug a keyboard into the USB slot.  Judging from the number of old TVs I see at yard sales, picking one up should be very inexpensive.  So with just a few items, your kid (or you) can set the Pi up and start tinkering.
Whether you call it 'hacking' (in the best sense of the word) or 'modding' or 'tinkering,' time spent learning the hardware and software in invaluable.  It gives both children and adults a DIY (do it yourself) attitude, and the freedom to experiment--to learn, test, and grow.
So check out the Raspberry Pi site, and think about supporting this excellent project by buying one.
Note:  I grew up fooling around with TRS-80 and later Commodore 64.  What computer did you first use, and what did you do with it?
(The pic is from http://www.raspberrypi.org/faqs)
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Published on December 13, 2012 13:04 • 58 views

December 6, 2012


Connections are interesting.  You're in Panera Bread with friends, you see other friends up at the counter, and quickly discover one friend from the first group knows your friend from the second group.  But how? Did they go to school together? Attend the same church? Meet at a convention?
Connections fascinate narcotics detectives, writers, and the Center for Disease Control.  I recently blogged about THE QUANTUM THIEF, a science fiction novel.  In the acknowledgements at the back of the book, the author mentioned something called BLDGBLOG.  Building blog?
I imagined someone living in a vast hive of public housing, blogging about their experiences with broken elevators, and rooftop gardens.  But BLDGBLOG is about architecture.  And lots of other things.  In the same way that chimpwithpencil is about monkeys and other things.
Architecture is a wonderful blend of science and art.  When you see a building for the first time, it's much like seeing a painting.  You react instantly, and either like it or don't.  But unlike a painting, a building or a bridge has to function as a practical construction.  So even if you don't like how it looks, you can appreciate its sturdiness, its use of space, or its lighting design.
At BLDGBLOG, author Geoff Manaugh has created something eclectic, interesting and a little weird.  For instance, when blogging about a new cyberwarfare training center that uses a replica city, he wrote:
"I envisioned whole empty streets and bank towers—suburban houses and replica transportation depots—sitting there in the rain whilst troops of code-wielding warriors hurl electromagnetic spells from laptops against elevator circuit boards, sump pumps, and garage doors, flooding basements, popping open underground gold vaults, and frying traffic lights, like some gonzo version of The Italian Job wed with the digital wizardry of a new sorcerer class, the "first-line cyber defenders" who will be trained in this place, our 21st-century Hogwarts along the freeway. Then they clean it all and start again tomorrow."
Good stuff.  So when you're done here, go check out BLDGBLOG.
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Published on December 06, 2012 12:01 • 60 views

November 29, 2012

THE QUANTUM THIEF is a science fiction novel, and science fiction is a great platform for ideas.  Ideas about technology, about politics, about economics.  In a sci-fi novel you can discuss all sorts of disciplines in a 'safe zone' where you aren't talking about anyone's homeland, or their political affiliation, or something horrible their ancestors did. Sci-fi can also be about fun.  STAR TREK and STAR WARS style fun where you can bend or even ignore the laws of physics and just thrill readers with a fantastic tale.  Sometimes you get ideas, sometimes you get fun, and once in a while you get both.  With THE QUANTUM THIEF (TQT) you get both, plus chocolate syrup, a cherry, and an inexplicable slice of mango on top. TQT is about a thief, a detective, and a horde of lost memories.  It is set in a future of scary panopticon prisons, sentient spaceships, moving cities (perhaps in a nod to a Michael Moorcock concept), and rampant cryptography.  At first read, it's all a little overwhelming.  I found myself paging through the back of the book, hoping for a glossary to help with all the unfamiliar terms. Sometimes you have to trust the author and extend that tentative handshake.  I went with the story and quickly found myself caught up in the interesting characters without worrying overmuch about the extensive world-building taking place on the stage behind them.   We've all read novels where the ideas the author wants to share drown the story, but this is not the case with TQT.  The Great Swampy Middle (as Jim Butcher calls the middle of a novel) is the most dangerous part for a writer because it's easy to get bogged down.  And in the middle of TQT, there were moments where I worried Rajaniemi had lost the thread of the plot.  But he increased the pace, forced the characters into collisions, and produced a very exciting ending. When I shut the book, I smiled because it was fun (and he set it up for a sequel).  Days later my head is still buzzing with ideas I have only a vague understanding of.  I especially like that Rajaniemi thanks his writers' group in the Acknowledgements.  His novel is a good example of how someone with a bundle of neat ideas can benefit from the help of other writers when it comes to telling a story. If you enjoy science fiction, I recommend THE QUANTUM THIEF. (THE QUANTUM THIEF was copyrighted in 2010 and first published in Great Britain, then in the USA in 2011.  I believe a sequel, THE FRACTAL PRINCE, is already available.  The book cover is from Macmillan.)
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Published on November 29, 2012 09:46 • 40 views

November 22, 2012

Is there plastic money in your wallet? And I don't mean credit and debit cards.  Depending on where you live, polymer banknotes might be common, or they may still sound like something from the future.  Perhaps the near future. Australia introduced its first polymer banknote in 1988, and made the transition to all plastic money by 1996.  Polymerization means linking together simple molecules to form a more complex molecule.  This is usually done because the new molecule has different physical properties that are desirable in a material.  For banknotes, polymer money is made because it is durable and hard to counterfeit. The longer a banknote lasts and can stay in circulation, then the fewer banknotes a government has to print, thereby saving money for the tax payers.  For example, in Australia a paper $5 bill lasts about six months, whereas a polymer $5 bill lasts around 40 months.  The polymer money can also survive a trip through the washing machine, and when it does break down, it can be recycled. Canada began the switch to polymer money in 2011 with their $100s and $50s.  According to an article in the Huffington Post, the money feels "smooth and slightly waxy. They don't crumple easily, but they do crease when you try, and they don't seem to tear in half." So far 15 countries have changed to polymer banknotes. Most news stories mention the security benefits of polymer money, like the clear window you can see through on each bill.  While anything that can be made can be copied, it may take counterfeiters a while to duplicate the complexities of polymer money.  However, I think there may be another benefit that hasn't been examined. If polymer money encourages people to go back to using cash, this will reduce a lot of the current cybercrimes.  Criminals can copy credit and debit cards in a variety of ways, and even hack into bank accounts, but to get your cash they have to attack you or break into your home.  Both of these are high-risk crimes, with the possibility of low rewards.  It's a lot safer for a criminal to steal a credit card number online. So this high-tech money may help remind us of why we used cash in the first place. (This is an article on the Australian polymer money.  Here's the Huffington Post article on Canadian money.  And this site has a list of countries that use polymer money.  The picture is from: starta new life in australia.)
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Published on November 22, 2012 10:39 • 37 views

November 15, 2012

Tom Wolfe has a new novel out, titled BACK TO BLOOD.  It's been eight years since he published a novel.  The literary hype about BLOOD got me thinking of Wolfe's excellent work, A MAN IN FULL, which I read in 2001.  Not long after, 2002, I read THE LITTLE FRIEND by Donna Tartt, and it wowed me.  Darn good novel.   Maybe in my mind the two authors are linked by the time period when I read their work, or by their literary acclaim.  Or maybe by the length of time between publications.  It was 11 years from Wolfe's BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES to A MAN IN FULL.  I think ten years passed between Tartt's first book, THE SECRET HISTORY, and the release of THE LITTLE FRIEND. I rarely see news of Tartt.  I don't think she's in the J.D. Salinger mode of aggressive recluse, but she isn't outgoing either.  Perhaps she is simply indifferent to the public eye? I don't think she has a web site, or a Facebook account, although there is a fan page.  You don't see her tweeting on Twitter, but I'm sure her tweets would be clever.  Galley Cat, the publishing news site, ran a short article in August that said her next novel would not be out in 2012.  At least that implies there will be a next novel. Her previous books appeared to do well among critics and readers, and expectations are probably high.  This can pressure a novelist, and slow them down instead of speeding them up.  Most writers and some readers understand that while you may write many books in your life, you will be fortunate if you write even one great novel. Maybe she put her pen down and went into other work? If she was discovered in the Antarctic doing a long-term study of Emperor penguins, I would not be astonished.  Or maybe her health has been poor, but I hope not.  No, I hope she is somewhere quiet and well lit, writing a novel. Is there an author out there that you wonder about? (Here's the Galleycat article.  And a website that has a bunch of articles about or by Tartt, although nothing newer than 2004.) (I found five Donna Tartts on Twitter, and one named "Damn You Donna Tartt" which is either funny or kind of mean.  I didn't click on it.)  (The book cover above is different than the one I have, but similar.  Mine is from Alfred A. Knopf, with a jacket design by Chip Kidd.)
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Published on November 15, 2012 12:28 • 15 views

November 8, 2012

A buddy of mine loaned me a recent issue of Game Informer magazine, and I read some new terms and concepts that made me think.  eSports are video game competitions, sometimes played in teams, that are staged so non-players can watch them.  Shoutcasters comment on the games in progress. These concepts forced me to think about how I usually picture video games--either someone home alone playing a game (against the software), or groups of people meeting online to play against other humans.   But if you think about it, this evolution of games makes sense.  The newest games, especially some of the first-person-shooters set in real places like the Middle East, are almost photo-realistic to watch.  The weapons, uniforms and vehicles are based on real life items, and the sound effects are excellent. When you sit and watch a football game, you're used to having a couple of commenters in the booth providing both facts and opinions.  While I usually think of video games as something to participate in, I can understand how watching a tense match between highly skilled players might be interesting.  After all, it has some of the same elements of physical sports--the game is immediate, events unfold in real time, and there may be prize money on the line.  So it's natural that we will need 'shoutcasters' to explain the game to us, and the tactics the players are using. To accomplish this, some games now provide tools for streaming games and assisting shoutcasters.  For example, in the new "Call of Duty:  Black Ops 2," shoutcasters can patch into the voice communications between teammates, bring up tactical maps to give viewers a better idea of what's happening, and jump between individual players to see the game through their eyes.  I can imagine a talented shoutcaster could make watching a game very interesting. As with so many things, the march of technology is opening new possibilities and hopefully new jobs for people to pursue.

Have you ever watched a broadcast of a video game? Would you? Comments welcome. (Issue 234 of Game Informer has two articles:  "A New eSports Focus" by Adam Biessener, and "eSports Rising" by the staff.  Also, here is an article onJoystiq, "Black Ops 2 features in-game livestreaming and 'Shoutcasting'" by Xav de Matos.  The pic is from Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and I found it at ign.com.)  
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Published on November 08, 2012 10:21 • 22 views

October 31, 2012

Today let's consider one of the rarest animals in the world, the Tonkin Snub Nosed Monkey (scientific name:  Rhinopithecus avunculus).  The Tonkin Monkey lives in the forests of northern Viet Nam in a handful of provinces, and only about 300 of these monkeys still exist. The IUCN (or International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists the Tonkin Monkey as critically endangered.  At IUCN, they use the following scale:  Not evaluated, Data deficient, Least concern, Near threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically endangered, Extinct in the wild, and Extinct.  So the Tonkin Monkey is just one step away from Extinct in the wild, which means it would only exist in zoos. Left alone, Tonkin Monkeys form groups centered around one male and a dozen or so females and young.  Unattached males form bachelor groups, and the feeding areas of the various groups may overlap.  Tonkin Monkeys spend their days in hillside forests, eating leaves and fruit.  Data on their size is limited, but one male weighed 32 pounds/14.5 kilograms, and three females weighed an average of 18 pounds/8.3 kilograms.  The Tonkin Monkeys have faced all sorts of threats in the last 50 years, including logging, dam building, wars and gold mining.  Current threats include changing habitat due to deforestation and agriculture, and hunting.  Tonkin Monkeys are hunted for use in traditional Asian medicines, and products made from them have been found in China. In the early 1990s, an effort was made to educated villages in the monkeys' range about their status as critically endangered.  However, the demand for 'bush meat' and lack of effective enforcement keeps these monkeys at risk. When human demands collide with animals, the animals always lose.  As with so many other cases, education is key.  If people in China had better access to modern medicine and understood that their demand for Tonkin Monkey products is destroying this species, they might change their habits.  Likewise, in Viet Nam, hunter education and better farming practices would help preserve the remaining monkeys and give them a chance to re-grow their numbers. (Source include Animal Infoand the IUCN.  The top picture is from: Vietnam Primates.  The middle picture is from:  Green Packs.)
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Published on October 31, 2012 13:40 • 20 views