Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Google Docs still doesn't support OOXML?

Dear Google,

It's hard to believe that with billions of dollars in your accounts you still can't pay someone to write a 10 line converter for your online docs to load the new MS docx file format.

Here's the simple Python code you need to convert a file from MS Word 2007 to the old doc format. You must run this on a server that has Word and can load the docx format. Please get someone to do this soon.

from win32com.client import Dispatch
infilename = "C:\\foobar.docx"
outfilename = "C:\\foobar.doc"
word = Dispatch("Word.Application")
file = word.Documents.Open(infilename)

#the output file can now be imported into Google docs
#FileFormat = 0 is from the 'wdFormatDocument' entry win32com.client.constants

Monday, September 24, 2007


Blinking LEDs

An Israeli said to me that the US as a nation is two points stupider as a result of the incident at Logan Airport involving a sophomore at MIT who went to Logan wearing a circuit-board with blinking-LED name tag and got arrested for carrying a hoax device. Anyway, this past week was "everyone make fun of the nerds" week across the media--Boston area especially. Last year I read about a Harvard student getting arrested for running around naked on acid last year (and why you shouldn't sell to Harvard kids). They must have better media control over there.

As the voice of MIT, Phillip Clay is quoted in the Tech:

“We all have a responsibility not to cause alarm and to be mindful of security requirements.”

This sounds straight out of 1984. The problem with security in America is that we are creating annoyances instead of security requirements and they are marginally effective at thwarting any seriously willing attacker. The reflection we should have to towards this incident is that our security measures suffer from false positives. A system suffering from false positives generally means the sample data is under-fit and so is the case in the newly created TSA.

Anyhow, to emphasize my point: we of MIT should be more than mindful of security requirements. As engineers we should be critical of them and design meaningful security systems that disallow the potential catastrophe that could arise even when security officials roam our airports with machine guns with the best intentions.

In this particular incident, in the process of managing a perceived risk, the agents actually generated an increased risk to an innocent party. Unfortunately as a young government monopoly the TSA and Homeland Security in general have not settled in to best practices in risk avertment. With virtually no competition to encourage exploration of effective operational changes, we have arbitrary and annoying security practices that remain in place and are not even an effective means of averting a determined attacker.

In Israel, where suicide bombing have actually occurred with enough regularity for them to develop what we might consider "best practices," the overwhelming tendancy is to bomb markets, bars and nightclubs and so nearly all locations have armed security detail to inspect bags prior to entry. Despite the relative infrequency of airport events, airport security is not a laughing matter either (perhaps the infrequency is due to the tight security). In Tel Aviv you must stop to be inspected by security officers with M16s on the highway off-ramp leading to the airport. In the US, I have yet to experience an airport with this sort of defensive perimeter, but I assure you that the forces employed for this sort of thing, will create a means and mandate for its existence. It will not be worth its cost to liberty if this becomes the employment of our federation, despite it's effectiveness.

The current US approach to airport security is haphazard at best. If we maintain this illusion of security in exchange for pragmatic and straightforward procedures, we will find ourselves shocked that someone can manage a bomb onto a plane. The concept of federal security forces to protect us from terrorists causes my friend Ben to have a revolution in his grave.

Does this mean that MIT will now disallow blinking LED name tags at high-density public gatherings such as career fairs? What makes an airport so special?

I must be nuts because I leave a constitution in my luggage and I always bring a rubber snake when I travel! Snakes on a plane!

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