SETI as security risk, and ET hackers

As reported on SlashDot:

As reported in the Guardian, Carrigan frets that alien radio signals could pose a security risk.

The threat of this is as realistic as the 1996 movie Independence Day, where Jeff Goldblum uploaded a virus to the alien mothership from an Apple PowerBook.

Why is it so difficult for one species to submit a technology virus to another, relatively unknown, species? Well, consider. We know nothing of their technology. We know nothign of their programming languages, code methodologies, or hardware/software. We know nothing of their communication methods — wireless, wired, etc. — and even if we knew what frequencies were used, it would be incredibly difficult to figure out what the sequence of 0’s and 1’s meant. Not to mention the fact that, even if we got past all that, we would know little about their security systems and, in turn, ways to thwart them.

Is it remotely possible? Yes. Considering infinite time and infinite events, anything can happen. But that’s hardly a reason to be concerned.

The best analogy I can give to this threat is this: What is the possibility that, upon finding a book filled with mysterious symbols that seem to follow a rough pattern of organization and, on occasion, repetition, but are otherwise totally mysterious, be translated into readable English? Sure, we can figure out Egyptian heiroglyphics, but we’re the same species, with similar cultures and language structures, and future languages developed from this historic language. We can figure out how some animals communicate by studying their behavior and language in natural and controlled environments — things we have no opportunity to do with ETs, especially those locusts who want to brutalize our planet (until Goldblum saves the day).

Top 20 geek books (and three of my own)

A post on the Guardian’s Technology blog, entitled Top 20 geek novels — the results (and highlighted by Slashdot), indicates the results of a whopping 132-person survey to find the most popular geek novels.

Knowing that any 132-person survey is rather unscientific at best, looking through the list of 20 books, I realize that I’ve read seven of them, making me 35% geek, using a straight scoring system of 5% per book read. However, if you weigh things based on the ranking of the book (I read the top three books, and five of the top eight), I’d be 45% geek, using a reverse point system (where reading the first book counts as “20”, and reading the last book counts as “1”).

Needless to say, I guess I’m between 1/3 and 1/2 geek. Fine by me — I thought it would be somewhat higher.

As for the list itself, I’m kind of surprised that no Star Trek or Star Wars book was in the list (at least none that I noticed). Then again, I never read a book from either genre, and I have no desire to, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised.

Three books that should be on the list (but are not), according to my personal opinion, follow. If you’re a geek, take it with a grain of salt (remember I’m between 1/3 and 1/2 geek).

  1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Simply the best book ever written.
  2. ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. The most intense “horror” book ever written. Also a pretty darn good movie starring David Soul.
  3. Animal Farm by George Orwell. The only book you can read in two hours that you will remember for a lifetime.

If you haven’t read any of those, make reading them a priority. You’ll be glad you did.

Tickers and Web pages

Recently, a client asked me my opinion on tickers. My response was, “They’re great for the stock market, and bad for Web pages.” A quick little Web search on usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s Web site,, found this quote, from his commentary on Sun’s Web site redesign, circa 1997:

Almost all users disliked the scrolling tickers (marquees) in some of the prototypes. Users complained that they were hard to read and time-consuming to interpret. One user kept missing the beginning of the text and thus had difficulty understanding what the message was about. One user said that he tended to ignore such text with the explanation that “I have never seen any information in crawling text that had any interest to me.” One more indication that users can see through gimmicks and that they have an explicit understanding of Web design and what they like and don’t like on the Web. (Usability Testing of Advanced Homepage Concepts)

My sentiments exactly. A ticker on a Web page is like a skywriter on a beach — when you’re just about to walk back to your car. In other words, odds are you’re not catching the full text, part of it may already be faded out, and you’re not going to wait around for the rest of it to appear.

If you want to give people content on a Web page, give it to them. A callout box with your hot news item can be much more effective, and doesn’t suffer the usability drawbacks of a ticker.