Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Yesterday We Had Canaries In The Coalmines - Today It's Hamsters In The Hurricanes

From my personal experience, in the 14 years I've been in Canada, I've experienced five supposed “lifetime” events; 

  • the 2003 blackout, 
  • two storms with “100 yr” rainfalls, 
  • snowfall big enough to call in the army, 
  • and the SARS breakout that shut down many essential services.  
There's also been more power outages than you can shake a stick at, caused by everything from raccoons holding impromptu BBQ sessions in the local substation to microbursts blowing over trees onto power lines. 

Doing the math (14 years divided by 5 "lifetime" events = 2.8yrs), when the news mentions that a "lifetime event" is about to occur, I can only conclude that they're measuring timelines using hamster lifespans.

Most people I know in Toronto have been here for as long, if not longer, than I have.  Despite this, the night after hurricane Sandy I had nearly all my emergency equipment at other people's homes, including backup batteries, generators, flashlights, LED lamps, etc, because they had none.

The neighbour who I carried my generator to in order to save the contents of their freezer and quickly power up their sump pump asked me how much something like this cost.  Upon hearing I'd paid $350 for mine, she was shocked at how expensive it was.  When I asked her to tally up how much replacing the contents of her freezer was, she realised that whilst my generator sits idle for 99% of the time, it was now in the process of paying for itself the tenth time over on the food alone, never mind the thousands of dollars in flood damage avoided by emptying out her nearly-full sump.  Thankfully the water system to the taps was working as that house had no backup water either.

In the old days, people used to heed warnings.  They used to use canaries in coalmines to detect gas, look into the embers of fires to predict coming frosts, watch the behaviours of animals to detect weather.  Now, most people sit back in awe and wonder at the events which happen about once every three years whilst the news tells us this is a "once in a lifetime" event, and most still don't prepare for these events that are now pretty regular...

...and people think I'm crazy for having backup equipment?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bread - General Recipe

One of the things that I love making is bread.  The problem with this is I'm a busy person and one of the foods that takes the longest to make is bread.  The following is how I accomplish homemade bread when I've apparently no time.

Note: My method does involve a stand mixer.  If doing things manually, your mileage may vary.

The first thing you need to do is planning.  You need to make sure you have two consecutive days where there's a few hours around the house on the second day.  For me, I usually centre things around the weekends as I usually have lots of chores at weekends that centre around the house.

The first thing we need to do is make a "sponge". This is basically a starter dough that will ferment over the next 24 hours. During this process, it will generate some good byproduct qualities like natural preservatives, acidity, taste, etc.

Day One:
In a 1litre sealable tub (to stop it drying out) pour in:

  • 5 grams instant yeast.
  • 130 grams of luke warm water.
  • 150 grams of flour (can be 100gr white, plus 50gr wholewheat).
Mix it all up with a knife or something that gets to all the sides, then put it aside.  Having spent less than 60 seconds you're now done for day one.  

You will notice over the next 24 hours that the mix grows and collapses as the yeasts break down the gluten structure and mix with the natural yeasts in the flours.  This is normal. It also smells great (like beer).

Day Two:
In a mixer bowl, throw in:
  • Whatever sloppy goop day one has left you with.
  • 350gr of white flour.
  • 100gr of other flour (whole wheat, graham, atta, anything usually works)
  • 5gr of salt
  • 270gr water
  • 15gr of olive oil.
  • Any optional things like nuts, flax, etc, that you want to add.
Mix it up in a mixer.  It'll likely resemble more sticky slop.  If you want to firm it up, add some flour, but I don't normally bother.  This entire process usually takes about 5 minutes.  Next, cover the bowl and leave it for an hour in a relatively warm place (I often shove it in the oven with the light on to warm the space) whilst you mow the lawns or do a load of laundry.  After an hour, the dough will have activated the new yeasts in the flour you added today.  
  • Tip the mixture into a bread pan.
  • Throw some cling film over it (stop it drying out)  
  • Leave it for an hour or so to rise.  
  • Check regularly to make sure cling-film doesn't touch the top of the loaf, otherwise it'll rip and the loaf will deflate.
When it looks like it's getting near the top of the bread pan, remove the cling-film and throw it in a pre-heated oven for 30 minutes at about 375F to 400F (depending on how crusty you like it).  When it's done, tip it out of the pan so it doesn't "sweat" as it cools down.

As you can see, the entire process takes a combined total of about 12 minutes spread over two days to create. I generally don't futz about with presentation on this loaf. It's purely utilitarian and nothing fancy.

Spin, Facts & Using Your Brain

"Just think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize half of them are even stupider!" - George Carlin 

When I was a lad at school, probably about 13 years of age, I remember convincing a kid who was a year younger that if you took a red car and an identical white car, the red one would go faster in daylight.  

The logic was this:  The red car would absorb more sunlight than the white car, and therefore get hotter.  As hot things get lighter, we can assume that less energy would be needed to make it go, and therefore given the same spec engine, the red one would go faster because it's pushing a lighter car.  

A number of years later, I overheard the same kid (now much older) in a pub pulling the exact same stunt.  I butted in, and pointed out that Formula One cars (which we all know are considerably fast moving) have a lot of spoilers to make them heavy using aerodynamics, and therefore grip better and have better acceleration as a result.  Applying this idea, the white car would be faster because it was heavier and it's tires wouldn't spin so much on the ground during acceleration and cornering.  

This is "spin" in action.  It's the thing that allows you to paint a picture of something in whatever light suits you, and by picking your words carefully, you can convince people of anything.  

However, just because I can spin a situation two ways, it doesn't mean that either are factually correct.  It also doesn't mean I know anything about the subject at hand, in this case the mythical science of photo-gravity enhanced aerodynamics of cars.

These are points that are lost on many people.

What immediately became apparent is that when someone is spinning something, they've tried to gauge your mentality and they think that they can pull the wool over your eyes, regardless of whether they are correct or not, or whether the subject matter is something they even know about, or not.  When someone starts using spin, they've concluded that they are smarter than you, and as a result they believe their spin would work on you.

When you think about this, it actually becomes a very abhorrent situation when you realise how stupid some people think you actually are.  We see, in the news, regularly conflicting stories that should make you question whether the media is just robotically pumping out drivvel that they're being supplied with by people who think that their spin is going to work.

Everyone should question what you're being fed in the news.  Ask yourself if the person presenting the "facts" to you actually knows what they're talking about, or if they're just regurgitating what they're being fed.  More often than not, they don't have an opinion and definitely don't offer it, have no prior experience with the subject, and most likely has no clue whether it's even true or not.  People need to use their own brains with this stuff.  When you think something is not right in the media, the chances are you are correct.  

Learn to spot spin and you'll do yourself a huge favour.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cellphones, terrorists and Toronto's subway.

A story on CityNews this morning made me laugh.  With ever increasing frequency, the news is becoming packed with alarmist stories about what vectors an attacker might use for terrorism.  

In this latest news story, the problem is if the TTC lets cellphone service get into the subway, the ability to use cellphones to trigger an attack is perceived as a major threat to be thwarted.  In the story, it mentions a few attacks that have used cellphones, and concludes that Toronto may become a target too if this vector is opened up.

As a quick sanity check, here's a few other methods that have been used over the years. Ask yourself if the TTC should have tackled these types of threats and you'll undoubtedly answer "of course not". 

1.  March 20th 1995. Sarin gas was released on Tokyo's subway system in a coordinated attack.  How are those poisonous gas detectors working out at your local TTC station?

2.  April 11th, 2011.  Nail bomb is detonated by radio control on the Minsk subway system.  Do we have radio scanners on the TTC?

3.  March 29 2010. Suicide bombers attack the Moscow Metro.  Are we doing psychological evaluations of passengers to to determine their suitability to ride?

4.  February 18 2003, an arsonist sets fire to flammable liquid in South Korea's Daegu Metropolitan subway.  Are we now detecting flammable substances in peoples baggage?

Now, as a result, we didn't suddenly ban nails, radios, psychologically-unstable people and flammable liquids from the subway. So should we ban the introduction of cell phones?  No. 

If someone wanted to really do some damage, there are easier vectors, and you don't have to look far to get inspiration either.  Here's an example of what I mean:

People on the inside are always the number one threat.  These guys have radios too.  And nails.  They get annoyed with ever increasing frequency, which usually results in the suspension of services whilst they strike.  Does the TTC do psychological evaluations on the bloke that looks after your buses brakes?  Probably not.

Having looked at the most obvious and easiest vector, you'll be glad to know that the nations top security people have known for ages that IEEE 1473 controlled trains need to be secured against hackers who could do just as much damage.

So the question remains; what is the most likely vector?  

Everyday items like batteries, detergents and cleaners, cat litter, pharmaceutical compounds, glues, diapers, fertilizers, wire-wool pads, some foods, etc, are all things that are a) not restricted in how you obtain them and b) dangerous when combined correctly (no, I'm not detailing that).  These can all be used to devestating effect when used by the wrong types of people...  and there's the crux of the matter:  It actually takes a special type of individual to carry out a terrorist attack on something like the TTC.  

The greatest defence the TTC has and we all have as society is actually you.  Just keep your eyes peeled, ears open and report anything you think is suspcious.  

Finally, remember that the cell phone service in the subways should actually help save lives.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Timmy Falls Down The Well In Social Media.

In the show Lassie, Timmy never fell down a well.  In fact, the only thing that ever fell down a well was actually Lassie herself during season 17.  Despite this, it's almost a universally accepted axiom that Timmy fell down a well during one of the 7 seasons he was the owner of Lassie, whilst being a simultaneously unknown fact that Lassie did.  Social Media suffers with a similar issue where some piece of information takes hold and then spreads like wildfire until everyone believes what they've read as being real.

The problem with this is people have a tendency to connect what they've heard with who they've heard it from.  In the same way a child might believe information received from its parents when they've gotten something wrong, people will blindly accept snippets of information as fact from the people they trust.

This leads to some pretty dangerous consequences.

In the old days, it was fairly common for rumours and misinformation to spread and then the next thing you know, some poor innocent people are tied to wooden stakes as the flames go higher, surrounded by a feverish crowd of people who are hell-bent on believing that the status quo is the correct outcome.  Fast forward to last week and this sounds like the guy in BC that was wrongly targeted as the bully of Amanda Todd, right?

Social media today has the same powerful flaw that every other medium of communication has had in the past, and that's the ability to start a witch-hunt.  I know that.  You know that.  The issue is there's the other 99.999% of the online population out there that doesn't know that.  Worse, if they want to question something, they're ill-equipped to verify what's truth or fiction.

National media and news outlets can really whip this issue into something of epic proportions.  First, you start of with the headlines and slap a word or two in there to indicate that this is baseless information.  Example:

  • Breaking: Something happened somewhere. Report.
  • Reports that something happened somewhere. More shortly.
This type of "break the news first, substantiate it later" is now typical behaviour from the type of establishments that the average person on the street looks to for fact and education.  The problem, as I see it, is nobody is addressing this.  

To recap: Social Media generated by the public is feeding the news outlets that is then often blindly forwarding misinformation to the public, therefore completing the cycle and reinforcing that the news must be true.  The media has a social obligation to educate people in not just what is going on in the world, but also in what is true and false.

If anything has fallen down the well, it is the media's sense of social responsibility.

Thoughts on Personal Data Privacy

Many home owners that pay for their electricity that I've ever talked to, has done the same as I do when going to visit someone else's house;  You get to the front door of the house you are visiting, see the nearby electricity meter spinning, and then you ask yourself "Is this meter spinning faster or slower than my meter?".  If it's more recently, then you spot the Smart Meter and watch the "black square" flashing and ask yourself if it's flashing faster or slower than yours.

Meter data is supposed to be a private affair. In Ontario, there was a lot of chest-pounding by Ministers about the security of this data as it's moved from your house to the central MDM/R (Meter Data Management and Repository) far away.  If you have access to the meter data, you can deduce/infer a lot about a house and it's inhabitants, including patterns of activity.  Without even having to visit a house, if you have access to their data, you can determine when they've gone on vacation for instance, because the pattern of peaks and troughs suddenly changes.

The first problem with this is that black flashing block; I can see mine whilst standing on my neighbour's property - effectively meaning someone can gather my family's data (with an optical sensor) without trespassing on my property. If I mount a clear magnifying lens on the meter, I can see that block flashing away, unaided, from a much greater distance.  Now, if you mount a clear magnifying lens on someone's meter, the chances that they'd notice it within several weeks are very slim.

The second issue I had was on the front of the meter is an IR (Infra-Red) port.  I ordered a $2 IR sensor, hooked it up to a $25 Arduino board I had kicking around using a breadboard, plugged in some AA batteries and and held the entire mess up in front of my meter. It registered that the port was live and spewing out data. Googling the code to decipher this data was trivial from that point.

From here, it's only a hop-skip-and-a-jump to put the Arduino in a weatherproof box with a battery power-source, connect it to a ZigBee transmitter and theoretically throw the whole kit-and-kaboodle into the eavestrough of a neighbours house with just a small wire coming down to the meter where the sensor is over the smart meter.  At that point, I could theoretically broadcast the data to a nearby location where it's monitored, recorded and analysed…. which is essentially the same thing that the Smart Meters and MDM/R are supposed to be doing already.  In fact, they're transmitting the same data (in a compact, encrypted, and less-verbose manner) hourly, from each house to a designated aggregator house which then sends the entire package to the MDM/R.

So unless I'm mistaken, they've secured the data from a transmission standpoint (from the house to the MDM/R) and left the higher granularity data spewing onto my driveway in an easily detectable and decipherable, unprotected, fashion.

And they've done it twice.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What we've got here is... failure to communicate.

Some men you just can't reach, so you get what happened here...

I definitely wasn't reached on this issue.

Update:  When checked on November 2nd, 2012, it appears that the City of Toronto has updated their waste wizard to include polystyrene. Hopefully, nobody else has to go through unnecessary garbage tags like we did because of bad communication.

Those who know me well, know that I can be pretty anal about certain things. One of the things I've been particularly focused on is our household garbage.  Whether it's reducing it or working out how to get rid of it most effectively, I seem to run into problems on a regular basis.

Here's the latest debacle in the series, which this time focuses on communication... or the lack thereof. 

The City of Toronto has a "waste wizard", which I use regularly to work out what can be recycled.  Anything that doesn't come up on it as recyclable, is assumed to be garbage.  As part of the ongoing drama since the City of Toronto invaded our basement via the vector of the storm drain system, we've been replacing furniture and this has generated a lot of expanded polystyrene.

So, I went to the waste wizard and punched in all of the following:

  • EPS
  • Polystyrene
  • Expanded Polystyrene
  • PS Foam
  • Furniture Packaging (and Furniture Packing)
  • Plastic Number 6 (and Plastic #6)

The above items all go to the "not found" screen, along with instructions on what to do or not do.  As you can see, the Plastic #6 should fail anyway, as Toronto doesn't use the number system used everywhere else in the universe.

So out went this weeks expanded polystyrene that won't fit in the bin, in a black bag along with the $3-plus garbage tag.  Along comes Mr Garbage Truck Driver who promptly ignores the bag (a frequently increasing occurrence).  Having bolted out my front door in my socks to stand there yelling up the road at the blind-as-a-bat driver after this, I went straight back in and complained to Toronto 311.  In the process of Toronto 311 dealing with this (again), they explained that EPS is recyclable.  


Having questioned whether this is correct, they redirect me to the above waste wizard. With my head ready to explode, I re-punch in everything I can think of, including the chemical composition ((C8H8)n), and still it doesn't come up.

Having thought about things for a minute, I decided to attack the problem differently. The City says not to use brand names, and the brand name for expanded polystyrene is "Styrofoam" (trademarked by the Dow Company).  

So I punched in "Styrofoam" even though I'm instructed not to.

[head explodes]