On Demand, in the Air

A recent BBC In Business episode discussed the recent innovations in the on-demand air-taxi market. One of the startups hoping to make a name for themselves in this market are DayJet, who are in the process of launching a service which allows for buying seats on charter aircraft from and to airports you nominate. The logistics are solved in real-time by an automated system, and the wider the time window you allow for your journey (which permits drop off/pick-up of other passengers), the cheaper the ticket. DayJet are hoping to offer prices not far off the cost of a standard economy/coach ticket on scheduled flights. They are also planning to use extremely cheap (only $1.5 million) jet aircraft produced by Eclipse. I think all of this combines to produce what seems to be a pretty novel service, although to be fair they aren’t the only ones exploring this market.

There’s a slightly witty irony in that the CEO of DayJet, Ed Iacobucci, is an ex-IBM executive, and he’s entering an on-demand business. Well, I found it amusing.

Spam and OCR

It’s strange how the same techniques can be used to attack both sides of a problem. For some time now, some of the more sophisticated web spammers have been using OCR techniques to circumvent CAPTCHAs on websites in order to hijack free email accounts, submit comment spam on blogs, and similar forms of mischievousness.

As the more capable e-mail spammers seem to be figuring out that anti-spam technologies are getting pretty good at filtering out the crap they send, normally using rule-based detection, Bayesian learning, or a combination of the two, a lot of spam now being sent out is image-based - and anti-spammers are now using OCR to fight back against this new tide.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a huge spam problem on my personal e-mail account (~4,000/week) - due to a combination of bad luck and some foolish naivety at a few points - and so I have a fairly highly-tuned SpamAssassin installation running at home, with plenty of custom rules and plugins. I’ve seen a rising amount of image spam on it, so I decided to give FuzzyOcr, a plugin for SpamAssassin, a try. So far, the results are pretty impressive. FuzzyOcr uses the open-source gocr program as the engine, and ties it to with SpamAssassin and some logic. The OCR is fairly CPU-intensive, so unlike most SpamAssassin plugins, it only kicks in if the message is otherwise going to be below a certain scoring threshold. So far it has roughly halved the volume of spam that slips through into my inbox (previously ~40-50/day), which is a welcome improvement.

However, fun though they are as a technical challenge, technical approaches such as these always feel like fighting a losing battle. I might write a lengthier article on this at a later date, but I’d like to see ISPs take a far more hardline attitude with their peers that host spammers. There are also compelling economic solutions to the problem, mostly related to micro-payments for sending email. There are problems with those too (how do you roll them out gradually?), but you rarely see graphs of spam that have a downward trend - a solution to the spam problem would be most welcome.

Common Myths about Common Myths

A quick Google search for “common myths about” turns up ~315,000 hits. Apparently, there are a lot of myths about:

  • Sex

  • Atheists

  • Copyright

  • Science

  • Gifted Students

  • The Apple Mac

  • Web Design

  • Earthquakes

  • West Nile Virus

The last one is the most surprising. I’m not even sure what the West Nile Virus is. Perhaps that’s why there are myths about it. But at least as regards the other subjects, it seems to be a slight cheat, and writing cliché, to ‘correct’ a set of myths without demonstrating that they exist. For example, here are some alleged myths concerning the subjects above:

  • Married couples have less sex [if I might be slightly glib, this sounds a bit like the argument that crime rates go up when you jail more criminals].

  • “If it doesn’t have a copyright notice, it’s not copyrighted.”

  • Atheists have no sense of morality, since morality comes from God.

  • Scientific knowledge can only be discovered by highly trained professional scientists.

  • Gifted students do not need help. If they are really gifted, they can manage on their own.

  • Quitting [smoking] is just a matter of willpower.

Does anyone really believe any of this stuff anyway, or are these myths mythical?

S.W.A.T.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you may turn off your brains now.

How to develop the plot of a brainless Hollywood action flick, in 11 easy steps:

  1. Demonstrate SWAT’s awesome prowess but arrogant fallibility with an opening scene that introduces handsome lead Colin Farrell.

  2. Develop some guilt and other emotion to be easily overcome later in the film, via a few heart-to-heart chats between colleagues. Demote Farrell for his cockiness in the first scene, but consign his colleague to the police bin of history.

  3. Introduce Samuel L. Jackson as the older, wiser counterpart to the young and impetuous Farrell.

  4. Introduce the bad guy at LAX.

  5. Build up to Jackson inviting Farrell back to the SWAT team.

  6. Get the SWAT team trained up with a good ‘ol sequence of montage-style scenes, followed by a test, and then a booze-up and celebration.

  7. Up the pace of the story be re-introducing the baddie in a jail-break scene, reinforcing how bad he is by listing his crimes. Have a bit of trouble transporting him around.

  8. Engage in the only original twist in the story (which I won’t reveal).

  9. Crawl around in some sewers for a while in a game of cat and mouse.

  10. Reveal the ridiculous escape route the bad guy’s rescuers have arranged for him, except that sadly:

  11. The good guys win.

This film is pure entertainment, as long as you don’t get too irritated by the gung-ho nature of the presentation (or for that matter, the blatant Fedex product placement). If you feel like an action film with a bit more intelligence, see another film of Jackson’s instead: The Negotiator, which has a lot of similar themes.

Lightbulb Conundrum - Drinks, Anyone?

A pint is yours if you can solve this conundrum for me (a theoretical explanation you can convince me of will do; I have a practical workaround).

A few weeks ago I replaced some of the bulbs in my house with energy-saving ones. However, the ceiling light in my hall behaves in a very odd manner. Occasionally, after I switch it off at the wall, it flickers on very briefly (for about 1/10 second) about once every minute - even though the power is (allegedly) off. The flicker is fairly dim, so I only notice it at night. If I take the bulb out of the socket, the flicker stops. If I put it back, it starts again. This behaviour happily continues for hours - to the extent that I remove the bulb when it happens because it’s too distracting when trying to sleep.

Perhaps it’s some kind of residual charge in the bulb. But this doesn’t really seem to explain why it only flickers when the bulb is in the socket (even though the switch is off). It also doesn’t explain why it doesn’t happen in the rest of the house (they have the same brand of bulb). The only difference is that the hall has two switches - but they aren’t dimmer switches or anything special.

Any thoughts?

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