GPS to catch criminals

Yet another Amber Alert has been sounded in NC, this time for a 12 year old girl who was abducted by a 27 year old man. I came to know about this while I was coming back from Burlington on Saturday evening, and saw animated signs about a vehicle registration number near the RBC Center in Raleigh.

This made me wonder; what if there was a way to use the existant GPS network to track runaway vehicles like this Hyundai Sentra. What if we could embed a GPS tracking device into every new vehicle sold? Of course, this raises privacy concerns, but what if the entire tracking system was automated? Law enforcement gets access to it only when they believe a certain car is being used by a criminal.

This would really help in curbing these kind of abductions that involve known convicts. I am guessing that the technological limitation comes in the form of processing the immense raw data that would continuously be generated by vehicular tracking systems. An artless idea that comes to mind has to do with using the already established cellular communications network to signal to black boxes/controllers in vehicles. Each box could have a unique SIM like card to identify the car, and once turned on, the box would transmit its triangulated location data to the associated tower.

I would think that such a seamless network is definitely possible with the current state of the art in cellular communications. It is high time that we deployed them to make the society a safer place to live in.

Some other interesting projects/technologies that I found related to this are Automatic Vehicle Location [pdf], and Automatic Number Plate Recognition. The latter is a really interesting project from Europe, but I doubt it is as cost effective as deploying a GPS based system. A company called TeleType also makes some interesting GPS based tracking devices.

Finally, here’s hoping that the kidnapper gets caught soon.

Yahoo! Messenger reveals your IP address

I just realized that the latest version of Yahoo! Messenger suffers from a vulnerability that allows a hacker to get your IP address.

Basically, if both the clients use the latest version of messenger and the victim responds to an IM from the attacker, the former’s IP address is shown in the netstat output of the latter. This is a very old vulnerability that was supposedly patched a long time ago, but has resurfaced in the latest version of the messenger software.

It appears that both the clients initiate a direct end-to-end connection whenever a conversation is begun. I have noticed this behavior when I communicate with some of my friends on messenger. I can see their IP address.

This is a serious issue, and I hope Yahoo! addresses it pretty soon.

India through the eyes of Hollywood

The “blogosphere” is abuzz with reviews and commentary about the academy award winning documentary, “Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids”“. I haven’t yet seen the movie myself, but have been reading about it and the directors on various websites.

I am not going to say so much about the movie (mainly because I haven’t seen it yet) as about how I think there is a disbalance in the media-portrayal of India and the reality. Now, I am not saying that there is no poverty in India, or that there are no Red Light districts in this country, or that there is no bureaucratic red tape. It is all there, and it is also true that we need drastically strong political will and external/internal help to make India a truly developed country. I am not debating that.

How many Hollywood flicks have you seen that have shown the real India? The India that has the world’s most fascinating socio-economic ecosystem. The India that has age old healing techniques along with snake charmers and elephants. I do not remember any. Even the last season of CBS’ “The Amazing Race” had contestants making way through the most poor areas of Indian cities. I was surprised that during their 2 episode leg in the city of Lucknow, India, the crew totally abstained from showing the historical vignette of the city. Instead, I sat there watching unusually crowded localities, slums, cows and hungry surprised kids. Now, I am not saying that we need to hide the poverty, but that is the unique aspect of India. We have the rich and the poor co-exist in a totally symbiotic manner. Name me one major US city that does not have a ghetto.

Some people would argue that we shoudn’t shy from our poverty and vices. I don’t understand where this comes from. If we really wanted the world to see only our good side, we would do what most anarchies have done. We would systematically censor the media, strictly scrutinize the production of independent movies, and go as far as rejecting foreign aid towards some of the “upliftment” projects. We don’t do any of that. Anyone is free to come to our country and do what they want. India probably has some of the world’s best NGO organizations in the world. Years ago, I was at the Atomium in Brussels. They had a showcase on poverty and hunger, and guess what, India was the star attraction. I would have had no objections with this if they had cared to include some good things about India in other showcases.

What is the notion that most “non-Indians” have in their mind about India? Yes, that nothing can be done about this country, there is poverty everywhere, children ride elephants to school, and we don’t shower. How is that helping India’s growth? How is that helping an average Indian’s esteem when he goes out to other countries as probably one of the hardest working people there?

Is nothing being done in our country about improving the lot? I fail to agree, and I am not even being overly nationalist when I say that. A lot of people in these “conditions” actually do not want anything to be changed. It is really hard. Even then, I have to ask, have you really never read about efforts by Indians in India to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, and other social vices? I also have to ask people who saw this movie if it actually included work/effort being put in by the local government/NGOs?

Now, to answer my friend Vel‘s questions:

1. So what if she focuses on the bad things ?
There is nothing wrong in focussing on the bad things, but my gripe is with over-using examples of the bad conditions to fortify the age-old stereotypes prevalent in the Western world about India. There is a lot of good in this country. How many downtrodden poor Indians have you met that say they consider it a bane to be in Hindustan?

2. Why are Indians so defensive ?
I don’t think anyone has tried to defend poverty, corruption, and brothels. But, I do believe that we need to defend our society and national pride from perpetual efforts to downplay it as an ever-stagnant third world country. We need to defend the honor of people that are wasting their lives working in the country without any personal resources to make it a better place.

3. Why are we analyzing Ms. Briski’s motivation ?
It is human nature. I also think that most people want to really know what happened to the 7-8 kids she actually helped. I can assure you that a lot is being done by people in India, but they don’t get as much attention. What’s their motivation?

4. Should the world see our poverty and squalor ?
I don’t think we need to advertise it. I think the world should see how we are trying to tackle all these vices domestically as well as with their help, and how we have transformed our society from elephant jockeys to astronauts. The world needs to see a promising picture of the future of our country, not something which has the intention of putting us back by 50 years.

Konfabulator makes the desktop fabulous !

Desktop screenshot

I downloaded and installed the latest version of Konfabulator yesterday. Needless to say, it is probably one of the best free software that I have ever installed on my Windows machine. Konfabulator is a “JavaScript runtime engine” for both Windows and MacOS that allows programmers to design interactive and visually appealing “widgets” to be placed on the desktop. These widgets run as individual programs and do not consume a lot of system resources.

There are tons of widgets already available for download for both these platforms. The most wonderful aspect of this program is that it allows for both the operating systems to have similar widgets. It is possible to define the transparency of the widgets from 0% to 100%, and also position them on the desktop in a multitude of ways. I am sure Yahoo! is working behind the scenes to build a port for the Linux operating system.

Digg Widget I tried many different kinds of widgets once my initial excitement died off, but have now settled for 3 of them running continuously on my desktop. My favorite is the “Digg Digger” aggregator widget pictured above. It updates every 2-3 minutes and is always fun to read. Another widget I have on my desktop provides me with weather information from weather.com, and the third one basically cycles through random Simpsons quotes after some interval.

All in all, I love this software, and after using it for about a day haven’t found any issues with it yet. Truly, one of the best freebies ever!

Just listened to my first official PodCast !

I just listened to my first official PodCast at slate.com! Nevertheless, I am sure I cannot be branded a slow learner. After listening to this news-piece, I realized that PodCasting isn’t as new as we think it is. Anyone else remember the old CNET Radio 910?!

It used to be a terrestrial radio channel in the SF Bay area during early 2000, and then was downsized as CNET’s media business wasn’t doing so well. As a result, a new audio web delivery service was launched by the name of “CNET Radio Direct” in 2003.

CNET Radio Direct was an innovative free service where the CNET software pulled small 15 minute MP3 files containing a short radio broadcast from the server every evening. Sometimes, the server would push more than one file depending on the content, but the software used Windows Media Player to play the audio.

Come to think of it, this was the first instance of a “PodCast” like service that I ever experienced. So now that I have joined the club, maybe I’ll start my own PodCast station soon!

Happy 59th Independence Day, India !

The Indian Tricolor

Today marks the 58th anniversary of India’s successful freedom struggle. I would like to extend the warmest best wishes to the readers of my weblog on this occasion. At the same time, I salute the martyrs who laid down their lives to fulfill their dream of an independent and progressive Hindustan.

Click here to read the full text of the President of India’s speech to the nation on the eve of the Independence Day. The President of India is akin to the British Crown in that he “reigns” but does not “rule”. As such, the President is very politically neutral and has a respectable image. The current President, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is a very learned person and is responsible for spear-heading India’s space program as a scientist in his younger days. He is probably also one of the world’s most learned statesmen. In his speech, Dr. Kalam focussed mainly on employment generation and power self reliance. In fact, more than half of his speech was devoted to the necessity for improving power generation and distribution. India generates about 3% of the total global energy produced even though it is among the top three fastest growing economies. The President’s call for improvement in this area should certainly catalyse efforts in this area. I am glad that we have a scientist as a President of our country at this important juncture in India’s race towards becoming a developed country.

The Prime Minister of India is the most powerful man in the country. He addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort. In his speech, the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh reminded the country of the freedom struggle, and the reasons for which it was pursued by our forefathers. He stressed on the importance of chalking out newer programs to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, and diseases, something that has become a common theme of almost every I-Day PM speech over the years. Dr. Singh also lamented on the prevalent social inequality in parts of India, especially the villages and among the poorer sections of the Indian citizenry. Being the nation’s highest political figure, Dr. Singh also commented on the need for border peace and effective measures to curtail cross-border terrorism, especially from neighboring Pakistan.

I would like to re-iterate today that I am very proud to be an Indian. More so because I am fortunate enough to be a part of the Indian youth at a time when an Indian face reminds people of unprecedented growth rather than poverty and hunger.

Jai Hind

USCIS reaches 2006 H1-B cap

H1-B cap reached

Just discovered that the H1-B visa cap for FY2006 has been reached. This signifies an acceleration in the demand for H1-B visas by corporate America when compared with the demand last year. The USCIS would not issue any H1-Bs for applications that are received after Wednesday, August 10th, 2005. The “cut off” date was October 1st, 2004 in the last financial year.

This is an interesting trend that clearly proves that the US is still the dream destination for tech workers from around the world, and that the economy is still growing. FY2005 marked the introduction of an additional 20,000 cap-exempt H1-B visas for professionals who have an advanced graduate degree from an American University. As of now, only 10,000 applications have been received in that category for FY2005, and only about 8,000 for FY2006. Infoworld has an interesting article that reports responses from various trade and industry groups about this USCIS announcement.

I am, personally, surprised that the cap was reached so early this year, especially when less than 4,000 applications were filed during the first 2 months of its availability. Of course, since I have a graduate degree from NCSU, I still have time to get one of the remaining 12,000 FY2006, or 10,000 FY2005 H1-B visas if need be!

NC State webmail service compromised

One of last week’s major event was the compromise of the NCSU Webmail system by hackers. What is surprising to me is the fact that the hackers had an IRC server running on 2 webmail servers for about 5 days before the IT Department staff noticed that the attackers might have captured user passwords.

The NCSU ITD system news bulletin has more information on the event. The NCSU password change facility was bogged down due to excessive network load after emails were sent to those that might have been affected by the exploit.

It seems that the attach was based on an April 2005 advisory posted on the Internet. It is named “Cacti Remote Command Execution Vulnerability”, and basically exposes vulnerability in the Cacti graphing tool. Cacti is a an RRDtool based package that uses mySQL databases to record various statistics about the network/server.

It is amazing to find out in conversations that some people do not change their passwords regularly, or have really funny password management tactics. Some people still use their SSN as passwords. Everyone should follow the guidelines on this website to choose passwords !

This Blog now uses rss2pdf

For all those who like my weblog so much that they wish to read it offline, I now have a way of getting a printout ready aggregate. Please click on this link to check it out !

The software works great, and I love it !

Addendum: Thanks for the nice comment, Tom! After I posted this, I read about Google making available RSS and Atom feeds of their Google News service. I think this coupled with Tom’s rss2pdf service makes a very interesting combination. It would now be possible to generate your own newspaper by aggregating feeds from Google News and other such services, and then using rss2pdf to print them out!

Am I the only one very impressed with the way the web is evolving ?!

Using trees to power our cars – Is it a good idea ?

Just read on Yahoo! News that a research group at the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho is working on replacing oil with wood as a primary fuel.

Now, the news report lacks substantial technical information, but my guess is that these guys are using Pyrolysis to generate bio-oil from wood. Of course, I would try to gather some more information from their webpages/publications, but for now, going by the article, pyrolysis seems to be the only way this is possible.

This makes me wonder. What is the purpose of even doing this type of research? I can understand using waste bio material to generate fuel, but cutting trees to generate oil, or as the news report puts it, quicken the natural process of crude oil formation seems a little irresponsible to me. Deforestation is a serious issue, and I doubt that using trees to power our SUVs is going to help solve anything.

I wish that more research was done from a practical viewpoint rather than just to get published.