August 15, 2007

Skype Stuff

Skype still works fine, and the latest version has an incredibly useful feature: echo cancellation. In the past, you had to use headphones when using Skype, else your voice emanating from the other person's speakers would re-enter the microphone and come back as an annoying delayed echo, making it hard to speak. The new echo cancellation works great, making "speaker-phone" conversations comfortable and clear.

My parents have started their annual visit to their cabin on an island north of Seattle, and often Skype in to share a sunset. It's kind of nice--like a private web cam, in that use of Skype. If my camera weren't planted in the face of my Mac, I'd be able to give them the same kind of view. I should see if I can attach my video camera and use it that way--I think I can if I want to.

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My father's camera is an iSight, the kind detached from the computer, so he can move his around... and we found, to our mutual surprise, that we could use the camera with a spotting scope. See the small red circle in the sunset view below? My father wanted to show me the people he could spot on the spit between the bay and the channel--and was able to, but putting the camera lens up to the eyepiece on the spotting scope. Cool.

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Next time he sees an Osprey or other cool bird perched in a nearby tree, he promises to call me and share that with me. Real-time, remote-control trans-Pacific birdwatching!

Posted by Luis at 10:29 PM | Comments (0)

August 04, 2007

Analog to Digital

Things have changed. I remember when I was a little kid, my father used to work at SRI, a research institute, and took me in to work sometimes. I remember the big computers lining the walls of some rooms, the desktop calculators almost as big as some desktop computers today. But that technology, in the late 60's/early 70's, was still almost a decade from even starting to infiltrate the home.

0807-Dotmatrixsample-175I first worked on a computer at home around 1980, maybe 1981. It was an Apple III, a honking big thing intended to outclass the Apple II. Word processing then was like coding a web page today using a text editor--you had to type in style changes manually. The printout was from a dot matrix printer with a resolution of maybe 8 dots tall for 12-point text. Hopelessly primitive by today's standards, it was top-of-the-line for home use then. Before that, my brother and I enjoyed using our father's home terminal that connected to the mainframe at SRI via a modem which you activated by placing a telephone handset onto it (we played a lot of text-based Star Trek games on it). Before that, aside from trips to my father's work, we got glimpses of the upcoming technology from our father, an engineer who did educational stuff for us at home like building a binary calculator on a plank of wood.

I bring this up to point out that I was privileged, in a way, to witness a transition. As a child, I grew up in an analog world, and have watched it change to a digital one. Very much like people who lived before the Space Age and after it, or before the Nuclear Age and after it. The transition that I and everyone else who has lived through it is much more significant. Nuclear power has ebbed in its importance and frightfulness; space travel has not changed us as much as many thought it would, especially after it was mostly abandoned after the Apollo program. The Information Age, on the other hand, has transformed how we live.

One important aspect of this is to remember that virtually all information can be made digital--text, numeric data, sounds, images, video... and perhaps more information when sensory technology improves in the future (touch, textures? tastes and smells?). Computers can then juggle and sort the digits, doing just about anything with the data, limited only by our imagination and what software authors can bang out. It is so early on in the Information Age that we have not yet even scratched the surface of what is possible.

I refer to it as the Information Age and not the Computer Age because computers (not counting hand-driven machines like the abacus) have been around for quite some time (the first ones were in the mid-19th century, running on steam; the first electronic ones came in the 1930's); however, the greatest impact from computers has come with the Personal Computer, and the ability of computers to affect all our lives, not just researchers and corporations. In fact, the real impact came not in the 80's, when more and more households got PCs, but in the mid-to-late 90's, when computers started becoming ubiquitous, and the Internet started to get popular.

I remember researching an essay in high school. I remember going to the library and searching for books, using the card catalog. I remember looking through tables of content and indexes, skimming through chapters while standing between the book stacks, checking to see if the book had information which could be useful for me.

Today, I see my own students sitting down at a computer and pulling up Google or going into WikiPedia, and pulling out far more data, far more focused and relevant, in just a few minutes--work that would have taken me hours when I was their age, and which would not have been as fruitful. It is in this observation that you begin to see the impact of the Information Age, in just one of its aspects.

And yet, I still get badly-researched papers from some of my students--not because the technology failed them, but rather because they did only the minimal work necessary to bang out an essay. I shake my head and refrain from giving them the "when I was your age" speech; I don't need more than the gray hairs I've already got to make me look like a geezer.

But look at what else there is. Ordering books and whatever else you can think of from Amazon or other online sellers. Finding a good restaurant (did that just yesterday--tomorrow is Sachi's and my first anniversary since meeting), or checking movie times. Buying music, or videos online. Getting news from countless sources. To mention just a few of the more popular activities now possible using the technology.

Sure, most of that is stuff you could have done before; you could order through catalogs, look through issues of newspapers, visit local shops, or subscribe to any number of magazines or perhaps see them at the local library. But many of these older options included travel, cost, or both, and netted far less depth of information, far less wealth of choice.

Then there is communication; sending email instead of posting letters as I used to when I first came to Japan. Making expensive long-distance telephone calls instead of using Skype or other messaging software.

So much of this may be trite, stuff you know or have considered before. But it is part of an ongoing process so long and vast in the making that, I believe, most people overlook it and do not see the significance of the change. Instead, you get a lot of people complaining about the down sides, about viruses and spam and Internet-based crime. That's falling off now--I remember back in the late 90's and early 00's when it was chic for the media to report on this crime and that crime committed via the Internet. Baseless in meaning--after all, they never ran stories about how telephones or surface mail helped propagate crime, any more than they focused on how criminals use cars. But the Internet, being new and big and scary, got the blame for people who used it instead of older media.

We seem to have transitioned into the realm of the digital without fully appreciating how it has changed us. And that is not significant just so that we can say "wow!" or wonder at gadgetry; it is significant because after seeing where we were and where we are now, we can get at least a vague sense of where we will be in another twenty or thirty years--time enough not only for digital technology to permeate virtually everywhere, but for transmission speeds and data storage capacities to make the unthinkable today mundane tomorrow.

But even more important than the technologies is how they will be put to use: what we'll be doing digitally, what we'll have access to, how technology will help us find, sort, evaluate, and execute. As much as computers and other electronics seem to have advanced, we are still in the infancy of the Information Age. The Internet has only been widely used for a decade or so; the GUI-based computer just over two decades. Barely enough time for us to get introduced to the field, and not nearly enough for us to discover what we can really do with it. What applications will be serving us in 2030?

In a few minutes, Sachi and I will be going out to see the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I'm not too thrilled, and neither is Sachi. We bought advance tickets a month or more ago, and the timing was never right to go see it. This is our last chance before it leaves theaters, considering our schedules. Sachi is not thrilled because it has to be the late show, starting at 8:40 and ending not long before midnight. I'm not thrilled due to stomach cramps, which will ebb perhaps just enough to be tolerable throughout the show. But it's a choice of going now or tossing the tickets.

Why mention this? Because in ten or twenty year's time, our choices will be significantly different. We'll probably have the option of seeing first-run movies at home on Ultra-HD video over the Internet, with the flexibility of choosing times and moods to fit our schedules far better than now.

That might not sound like much to you, but it appeals to me greatly at this moment. And that is just one, small, tiny corner of what will change between now and then.

Editor's note: I wrote this yesterday, when I had zero time to edit and polish, so I did the editing and polishing this morning. A paragraph or image added here, words changed or tacked on there, the odd spelling error corrected. Sorry for the delay.

Posted by Luis at 08:21 PM | Comments (5)

July 31, 2007

Gadget Shopping

I stopped by a few electronics stores today to look for some gadgets. Usually the best stuff is to be found in the discount bins, but I was looking for a new mouse today as well. I have been using a Logitech Click! mouse, a dependable old variety that I got at Yodobashi a few years back for just ¥2000. It's corded, but that's the better alternative here in Japan; the good part is that it's a nice, dependable mouse with four buttons (one is the scroll wheel, the fourth just below the wheel). But they're getting aged, and my Logitech V270 Bluetooth mouse seems to have crapped out on me, so I went looking for a replacement. I wanted a mouse that (1) had 4 or more buttons, (2) was regular-sized, not that tiny "portable mouse" crapola, (3) tracked well on all kinds of surfaces, and (4) cost close to ¥2000.

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What I found was the Sanwa Supply MA-G9DS. It has, surprisingly, seven buttons: two in the normal places, a scroll wheel button (also normal), and two buttons on the left side above your thumb--but the scroll wheel can also be pushed left and right for two more button actions. It's marked as only working on Windows, but my Mac detects all seven buttons just fine. It tracks better than the Logitech (no skips so far, much better than any mouse I've used to date), and is simple. One strange point: the cable has a weird, almost metallic mesh sort of feel to it.

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But I can live with that just fine. It even has a built-in USB plug cap--not that I've ever had problems with loose stuff in my bag getting into the USB connector. It costs ¥2680, but that's close enough for what you seem to get.

Next, I was surprised to find that flash memory is coming down in price. Just a few years ago, 32 MB was the size memory stick you got for ¥2000; now it's 128 MB. But they had a surprise in the store: an import, a Kingston USB flash stick... 1 GB, for ¥1980.

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It was big enough (in capacity) and cheap enough that I decided to pick one up, just as a spare (I already have two 256 MB flash drives). I have seen cheap USB flash sticks at Costco, but none this cheap for this price, and certainly none outside of Costco. The same product does cost $13 in the US, about $3.50 less than it does here, but such low-priced stuff is not easily findable in Japan; it was certainly a bargain.

Finally, an old item at a new price: one of those F. A. Porsche-designed LaCie USB 2.0 external hard drives (250 GB).

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I didn't buy it for myself, actually (I already have two of the things), but for a friend looking for such a drive. My two have done fine for me over the past three or so years, and when I saw it on sale for ¥9800 ($83--$15 cheaper than Amazon in the US!) I recommended it to him, and he said to buy it. The image above is not the one I bought today, it's one of my old ones--but it's nearly identical. Small vents have been added to the back left side, and the power on-off was changed from a switch to a button, but it's mostly the same.

You may not think that any of these are particularly new, fancy, or cheap--but remember, I'm looking for bargains here, not cutting edge, and this is Japan, where electronics usually cost 40-60% more than they do in the U.S. It was certainly good enough.

Posted by Luis at 11:14 PM | Comments (0)

July 14, 2007

Not That I Expected Better from Microsoft

My school wants to buy Office 2007. We are an academic institution. We are fully eligible for the academic pricing. Except there are two catches: (1) Microsoft does not allow for multilingual software--unlike Apple, which makes all of its software multilingual out of the box, and (2) they refuse to allow us to buy the English version at academic prices from within Japan. They won't sell it in Japan, and they won't let us buy it in the U.S. and bring it in to Japan. A staff member says that they have a friend at Microsoft who says that the new suite "phones home" and tells Microsoft if a U.S. academic version is being used in Japan, at least more than one copy in a single location.

As a result, we probably will wind up not buying it, as the full price is prohibitive for our budget, and, as a college (accredited both in the U.S. and in Japan!), we should not have to pay that much.

Not that I'm hot to buy Microsoft stuff, but the Computer class kinda needs that software to avoid being hopelessly out-of-date (currently we're running Office 2000). Frankly, I'd much rather we just get all Macs and, assuming the upcoming version of iWork has a spreadsheet program, we just use that and Microsoft can go screw themselves. However, the school won't go for it, as not enough students use Macs and they want to teach what the students will be using. Circular logic--everyone uses it because everyone uses it--but that's what we're stuck with.

So, if anyone knows an end run around this stupidity so we can get Academic Office 2007 like we are supposed to be able to if M$ didn't have their heads up their arses, please let me know.

Posted by Luis at 03:16 PM | Comments (4)

July 13, 2007

Zune vs. iPhone

After seven and a half months, it is estimated by Microsoft that they have sold a million Zunes. Of course, that figure is very sketchy and unsupported. It is based upon an interview with Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices Division president, Robbie Bach, where he was misquoted as saying that they had sold "a little over a million Zunes" by the end of May, when he really said that they expected to have sold over a million Zunes by the end of June. Furthermore, nobody is sure that they have actually sold that many to consumers, as Microsoft has the tendency to report shipments to retailers as actual sales to inflate their figures. (And, as a side note, Bach has recently been implicated in an insider trading scandal.)

While the Zune's release was rather uneventful (ten units sold at a San Francisco store was "better than expected"), the iPhone's release was manic, crazed, crowded and furious. After ten days, it is reported that nearly a million iPhones have been sold; by the two-week mark, the number of one million is perfectly reasonable to expect.

Which means that Apple reached the one-million mark in just 1/16th the time it took for the Zune to do the same thing. Of course, look at the comparison between them:

Iphone Zune-450

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Iphone-Side-SmallTrue, one is $250 and the other is $500, but Apple has a much bigger profit margin, and more expensive stuff should be harder to sell, right? But really, just in terms of industrial design, there's no comparison here. At right, you can see a side view of the iPhone. I was trying to get a similar image of the Zune to show a comparison (the iPhone is 0.46" thick, the Zune 0.58"), but I could not find a single image on the web of a Zune in full side profile. I soon figured it out: it's basically just a rectangle from that view. Oh, there's the line of a seam breaking it up, but from the side, the Zune is utterly nondescript. Which explains why nobody posts images of it that way.

The Zune is set for an upgrade--but then again, according to reports, so is the iPhone. And while the Zune can get software upgrades like the iPhone (both may get their wireless capabilities upgraded), the iPhone is far more upgradeable without having to buy a new unit, as it relies on the touch screen for the full interface.

Of course, we're comparing apples and oranges here a bit--the Zune is only a media player, and the iPhone is a media player, web browser, email/schedule/address book client, camera/photo viewer, and a telephone. But what happens when the first widescreen iPod comes out? It's been rumored to happen sometime this year, possibly in August, but probably later. When you get a full-screen, multi-touch iPod with the 3.5-inch 480x320 display? People have gushed about the Zune's "big" display, which is a 3-inch 320x240 screen--but that's half the resolution of the iPhone at almost the same size. If the new iPod will have Bluetooth and WiFi like it's cousin iPhone, then there won't be much to give the Zune any advantage.

Seriously, I don't know who is buying Zunes right now. If it were an independent company instead of a part of Microsoft, I don't see it's shares going up anytime soon. But then, I should add the disclaimer that I own a chunk of Apple stock, so I may be biased.

Posted by Luis at 10:14 AM | Comments (1)

June 24, 2007

TV Online

OK, how can these guys do this? You'd think there was some law or something preventing the posting of massive amounts of copyrighted material like this. Interesting.

Posted by Luis at 01:49 PM | Comments (4)

June 23, 2007

Vista vs. Mac

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There's a six-month security report out on how Vista is doing, and according to the report, Vista is the most secure operating system out there. The report shows Vista to have fewer "high severity" vulnerabilities than OS X 10.4, closely followed by XP, and then various Linux brands. The catch: this report was authored by a Microsoft executive. Gee, I wonder if it skews the facts at all?

Naturally, criticisms have started to come out as to the validity of this claim. For example, the definition of "high severity" vulnerabilities is being challenged; if a Vista vulnerability allows someone over the web to take over the computer, and a Mac vulnerability allows a physically present user with an admin password to take over the computer, can both be grouped together in the same category? Some "high severity" vulnerabilities are far more easily exploited than others. Then there's the fact that the report discounts third-party vulnerabilities in Windows, which depends more heavily than the Mac OS on those types of apps. The count does not touch on all of the viruses, worms, spyware, or other malware which counts for the bulk of attacks that most people suffer from. And it does not factor in how many of the vulnerabilities are actually exploited in the wild.

In other words, just about every way the list could be skewed in Vista's favor, it has been skewed. Skew things the opposite way and Vista could be made to look like the worst OS ever. For example, this article sifted through the data released in the Microsoft report and discovered that Vista had fixed only 12 of 27 total vulnerabilities, unlike in XP, where in the first six months, 36 of 39 had been fixed.

But the fact remains that whatever you say about vulnerabilities, Vista is still susceptible to, and has been attacked by a wide variety of viruses and other malware, including adware and spyware, while the Mac has not suffered a single actual virus or worm attack in the wild, and has zero spyware or adware. The bottom line is that if you buy a Mac today, you're not going to have to even think about security, while if you get a Vista machine, you can still easily get infected by a lot of malware out there. And in the end, that's the only thing that matters to actual, real-life users.

Posted by Luis at 02:21 PM | Comments (0)

June 14, 2007

XP Wow, Huh?

About a year ago, there were supposed to be about 400 million Windows XP users worldwide. Microsoft now says that more than 40 million copies of Windows Vista have been sold. That means that there should be about 360 million XP users and 40 million Vista users, very roughly speaking. About 11% of Windows users today should be Vista users.

According to my site's stats, about 84% of my blog's almost 25,000 visitors (that doesn't include spammers or RSS feed numbers) in the past month were Windows users, so I have a pretty good sample pool to study. In Google Analytics, you can break down visitors by OS version. Over the past month, five months after the release of Vista, only 4.4% of this site's visitors are Vista users. In contrast, 4.6% are Windows 2000 users.

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Obviously, Microsoft is exaggerating things a wee bit. In fact, my stats may over-emphasize Vista users, if anything. Vista is likely more popular in the English-speaking world than elsewhere; it probably has not permeated China very deeply, for example. And as most of the visitors to this blog are English speakers, I should be seeing more than the average number of Vista users. Now, you might guess that since I write posts which are hostile to Vista, that might skew things; however, out of all Google visitors, only a few percent come from searches for Vista keywords, not enough to skew the results, and among Google visitors, the stats on who uses what versions of Windows remains consistent with overall visitor stats.

As I explained here, Microsoft has been caught cooking the numbers. Ever since early on in the Vista publicity cycle, Microsoft has been claiming amazing sales numbers--but those numbers included all the purchases of XP computers from late October, 2006, based on the idea that everyone who bought XP after that time got a coupon for a free copy of Vista. It doesn't matter if they never used the coupon. In fact, a good number of those last-minute XP buyers were buying XP computers so they could avoid buying Vista computers. Sales of RAM were not nearly as much as were predicted due to Vista adoption, causing a glut in the market. While there was a post-Vista jump, sales weren't as spectacular as predicted, nor as lackluster as thought before Vista was released.

More evidence of the numbers-cooking is that Microsoft is only counting their distribution numbers to retailers--not the actual sales to customers. Both this and counting XP purchases for three months prior to Vista naturally give an inflated view of VIsta adoption. The fact that Microsoft won't release specific sales details which would back up or refute their general claims lends itself to the thought that Microsoft is not being fully honest here.

But the numbers that you see in the real world are more telling than anything else, and the numbers I'm seeing are not so hot for Vista. Apple saw a larger percentage of its users adopt the Tiger OS in the first month than Microsoft has seen its users adopt Vista in five months.

One more thing: yesterday, I attended a meeting at my school where we discussed what computer software the school uses in the labs. I was asked whether we should upgrade to Office 2007 to replace our aging Office 2000 software; since students will be using 2007 more and more often, and since the interface and file type is markedly different, I said that we should. However, they didn't even ask about upgrading to Vista, and when I brought it up, they were obviously not inclined to do so.

But let me ask, to the 5% or so of my site's visitors who have upgraded to Vista: what's your experience? Is it positive, negative, or neutral? How does it compare to XP? Was it worth upgrading?

Posted by Luis at 10:58 AM | Comments (5)

June 05, 2007

McCain Continues Implosion by Publicly Acting Like Technology Idiot

John McCain showed himself to be pretty damned stupid when he claimed that the streets of Baghdad were safe to stroll through and then, to prove his point, went there with a hundred troops, five helicopters, and a flak jacket. Now that he's gotten that out of the way, he attended a conference on technology and quickly made an ass of himself there as well.

First of all, he came out against Network Neutrality. You know, the protocol that was probably one of the most responsible for making the Internet successful. The one that has kept the Telecoms from turning the Internet into their private piggy bank, making everyone pay for everything and throwing their weight around worse than Microsoft does.

McCain, a self-described "free trader" and "deregulator" apparently does not understand what the hell "Network Neutrality" is. To be against Network Neutrality is virtually the opposite of free trade on the Internet, allowing a few companies to have constrictive proprietary control over the system. And it's not "deregulating," because there's no tome of regulation or any bureaucracy involved--just a simple rule, that everyone is truly equal and free on the Internet. McCain's statements were virtually spot-on to the scripts written by the Telecom lobbyists.

But then McCain made an even bigger fool of himself, by saying that he would put Steve Ballmer on his cabinet to advise him on technology issues (apparently unaware that such a cabinet position does not exist), and said he'd consider Ballmer for an ambassadorial position, maybe in China. The latter has been noted as a "joke," but probably because no one in his or her right mind could believe that a person could be so monumentally stupid as to seriously suggest such a thing. But then, was McCain's statement about having Ballmer as a technology advisor also a joke? Nobody thinks so, though pretty much everyone sees the idea as ludicrous. Who knows, maybe McCain seriously promoted the idea of Ballmer on his cabinet, then either because of laughter from the audience or an internal realization of how stupid the idea was, then tried to turn it into a joke by mentioning the China spot.

Either way, McCain is poison to technology. The man is dropping like a dead weight--sorry to see after he seemed so enticing in 2000. Either it was a sham then too, or McCain realized that the only way to be taken seriously was to sell out, big time.

Posted by Luis at 01:23 AM | Comments (1)

June 02, 2007

Another One Bites the Dust

Interesting that Robert Alan Soloway has three names, just like serial killers or assassins. It's tempting to group spam kings with those other two professions; while the nature of the one may be far less heinous in some ways than the other two, the one makes up the difference with volume.

SpammerjaynesI heard people at the office talking about this arrest, in fact, mentioning reports that people might see a drop in the amount of spam they receive since this guy was arrested. I didn't believe it when I heard it, and that belief is now confirmed. There are just too many spammers out there, and like cockroaches, there are always more where that came from. There will always be more willing to fill the vacuum. After all, it was two years ago that the first big spam arrest was made, sending the creep to jail for nine years (his conviction was upheld), but spam did not ebb then, either.

That does not, of course, mean that we should not go to the trouble and expense of catching these guys, jailing them, and stripping them of all their assets and possessions. On the contrary, we need some form of payback, especially because of the fact that arresting them does not stop spam. I would suggest adding the touch of stripping them naked and forcing them to tap dance in front of large audiences armed with rotting vegetables and water balloons filled with noxious liquids, three times daily. I am pretty sure that this would not constitute cruel and unusual punishment considering their crimes, and there would be not trouble filling the auditorium on a regular basis, and we'd probably get some members of the ACLU and Amnesty International in the crowds.

Posted by Luis at 06:59 AM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2007

Ztupid

A found item on Flickr:

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The image caption claims that this is at the Zune headquarters. It has been noted that all of the iPods in the bin are of the same generation.

It seems clear to me that this is simply a stunt by the people in the office--but if so, it's a weird one. I mean, who would ever believe that anyone, even Zune employees, would toss several thousands of dollars of personal property in a box at work? Instead of, say, giving them to family or friends, or selling them on eBay? The expression "strains credulity" comes to mind. The only way I could see that happening was if the company offered a free Zune in exchange. (Lord knows they must have scads of the things available to give away.)

Instead, one would assume that the people in charge at the office set this up and put the iPods in there. But that doesn't make great sense, either; I mean, it's a pretty expensive stunt (assuming that they didn't just have a few dozen iPods around doing nothing), and what's the payoff? First of all, it immediately comes across as fake, and therefore as lame. Second, the bin is far too big; despite the expense represented here, the physical appearance makes it look like almost nobody participated. And third, how many people will see this display, and even if it were believed, then what possible impact would it have to make the expense worthwhile?

One might assume that it's simply meant as a humor item (the "bite me" on the sign suggests that), or a morale-booster... but then we get back to the whole lameness issue.

There is also the possibility that this is not from Zune HQ, that it's a hoax or something, but that's unlikely, considering the number of iPods in the bin and quality of the bin itself.

And then there's the faint possibility that it's intended to be real, that the Zune management believed they'd get employees to dump their iPods in there. I know, that's too stupid to believe possible. But we are talking about the people who made the Zune, here.

Posted by Luis at 01:01 PM | Comments (4)

May 15, 2007

Another Stellar Vista Review

From Transit:

So far, Transit has been using Vista Business full-time for a fortnight. And so far, we've found nothing that works better than in Windows XP, dozens of things that are annoyingly different without being a functional improvement, and several things that work at best intermittently and at worst not at all. On the whole, we wish we'd never moved.
That's just the introduction, but it really says it all. They waited a while for the worst bugs to be sorted out before they upgraded, but that clearly wasn't enough. They found the new OS to be "hideously" slow, bad at basic network functionality, and gave no gains in productivity.

Posted by Luis at 11:24 AM | Comments (0)

March 28, 2007

Vista Sales So Bad, Microsoft Has to Lie About Them

REDMOND, Wash., March 26, 2007 — Initial sales figures from Microsoft show its new operating system Windows Vista made a splash in its debut. In the first month of Windows Vista’s general availability, sales exceeded 20 million licenses, more than doubling the initial pace of sales for its predecessor, Windows XP. These initial figures reflect the broad interest in the security and usability enhancements in Windows Vista.

-- Microsoft Press Release

Well, yes and no. When Microsoft made this announcement, it failed to break down the "20 million" figure, making a lot of people suspicious of how they got that number. It sounded way high to a lot of people, and some of them started checking it out--and discovered that the number is as phony as Microsoft's claims of "innovation."

The claim is that Vista sold 20 million licenses in its first month of sales (presumably between the release on January 30 to the end of February), and they compare this to the 17 million licenses sold for Windows XP in the first two and a half months of sales.

Here's how they cooked the numbers. First, they didn't just count the first month. Included in that "first month" were all the sales for Windows XP starting from October 26, 2006, as they included a free or almost-free upgrade to Vista. Regardless of whether the upgrade was actually used, the numbers were added to the first "month" of Vista sales. So, actually, the Vista numbers are for four months of sales, and include many Vista licenses that were never actually claimed or delivered.

Second, Microsoft counted "sales in" figures instead of "sales out." What that means is that instead of counting the number of Vista licenses that were actually sold at stores to customers, Microsoft counted the number of Vista licenses provided to stores, even if they were not ever sold.

Neither of these accounting tricks were used to inflate XP sales numbers. As a result, the comparison between the two numbers is invalid. An honest statement of the 20-million number would have to be worded:

While Windows XP sold 17 million licenses in the first two and a half months of sales, 20 million Windows licenses (including XP and Vista) were either sold or provided to resellers for sale in a four-month period starting at the end of October 2006.
Doesn't sound quite so impressive, does it? But wait, it gets worse: computer sales in 2006 were almost double what they were in 2001, meaning that in order to keep even with XP sales numbers, Vista has to sell almost twice as many licenses. So, adjusting for inflation, as it were, Vista has "sold" only about 11 million copies in four months compared to 17 million sales of XP in two and a half months. And even the 11 million number still includes unsold stock on store shelves.

Pitiful.

Posted by Luis at 11:47 AM | Comments (1)

March 26, 2007

Are They Trying to Look Like Evil Bastards?

The RIAA strikes again. They are suing a 42-year-old disabled single mother who lives off of her Social Security check while raising her 10-year-old daughter. They are suing her for $1 million for downloading, among other things, Gangsta Rap at 4:24 in the morning on KaZaA.

The poor woman says that she doesn't even know how to download music, and has tried to surrender her PC to the RIAA so they can search it for themselves. The RIAA declined, and instead is now demanding that her 10-year-old daughter, 7 years old at the time of the downloading (and even less liable to have been up before dawn downloading Gangsta Rap), be deposed and put on the stand.

Details of the case are here. I almost didn't comment on this one because I thought it was the same case as one I reported on a few weeks ago--but that one was where the RIAA sued a paralyzed stroke victim, living on disability in Florida, for downloading music in Michigan. I thought it might have been another case I sub-referenced in that same post about a grandmother being sued for downloading rap music on KaZaA when she used a Mac which couldn't run KaZaA.

But no, it was neither of those. It was all-new unmitigated vileness from the sweethearts at the RIAA, as part of their overall attempt to use shotgun litigation to extort money from people.

Posted by Luis at 03:10 AM | Comments (0)

March 16, 2007

New Microsoft, Old Microsoft

Wow. Business Week, not your run-of-the-mill pro-Mac publication, has a column on Vista which is pretty devastating. Just the title, Vista: Slow and Dangerous, is likely to put you off of upgrading. The article warns that Microsoft's stated minimum RAM of 512 MB is not nearly enough, and even a gigabyte will leave Vista sluggish; 2 gigs of RAM is what the author recommends. He then goes on a riff about how the security dialogs become a major annoyance, prompting people to disable them--which then also turns off vital security measures in the OS.

Seriously, Microsoft has royally screwed the pooch with this new OS. Unless they come out with an "SP1" version fast (and it pretty damned well better be free and not make you jump through "verification" hoops), they're going to see people going to Linux and Mac systems like no one has predicted so far. Already two different U.S. government agencies (the Department of Transportation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology) have banned their people from using Vista and Office 2007--and even IE 7 (which is actually less offensive, and could be called a major improvement over version 6).

Those two agencies are bad enough, but their reluctance is going to convince other businesses that they should not upgrade, either. New versions of Windows have always been slow to get started, but Vista is going to be the grandpa of all the slow starts. Funny how Microsoft is supposed to be well-known for making things backwards-compatible. Apple gets guff for having changed the whole shebang three times now (from CISC to RISC, from OS 9 to OS X, and from PPC to Intel), so people have to update to compatible software, adjust to new layouts, get new drivers, and so on (though the Intel switch is barely noticeable). However, new versions of Windows seem to have problems at least as troublesome at their release--while new Mac OS versions aside from the major paradigm shifts are smooth transitions and Mac users promptly snap them up.

Who knows, maybe the Zune wasn't just an isolated incident; maybe it's the New Microsoft.

Posted by Luis at 10:02 PM | Comments (4)

March 12, 2007

So We Deleted Your Entire Email Archive. Get Used to It.

Is there a chance to recover it? If not, OneCare will have done more damage than any virus in my 30 years of active computing.
This was the question asked by one user who found that his entire mailbox had been deleted by Microsoft's anti-virus program because he had received an email virus. Microsoft's security software has a long-standing bug where the user's mailbox files and contacts, instead of just the suspect email, will be moved to quarantine or even deleted. This is not just a Vista problem, but would be particularly applicable to Vista users considering that many will now be using Microsoft's OneCare software by default, just as they use Internet Explorer and Outlook Express by default (because Microsoft pre-installs it that way). Which could mean a lot of trouble for new adopters; Microsoft's security system has been rated as the worst performing of the 15 available anti-virus programs, letting up to 20% of all malware through its filters.

The email bug prompted this comment as well:

This is the most unacceptable act Microsoft has ever committed. I run a small business, and I am screwed. I have no way to respond to e-mails because I made the mistake of trusting Microsoft ... and all of my e-mails and contacts are gone.
Fortunately, Microsoft has an easy-as-pie solution:
  • Close Outlook or Outlook Express
  • Click change OneCare settings in the main OneCare user interface
  • Click on the viruses and spyware tab
  • Click on the quarantine button, and then select the pst or dbx file, and then click on restore.
To ensure that the problem does not continue until the next update, users should also do the following:
  • Click change OneCare setting in the main user interface
  • Click viruses and spyware tab
  • Click on the exclusions button
  • Click on the add folder button
  • Navigate to the specific folder that contains the .dbx or .pst file to be excluded.
  • Click OK.
Yes, that's right, it's as easy as A, B, C, D! ... Er, ... E, F, G, H, I, J!

That, of course, is assuming that the user knows where his or her .dbx and .pst files are. Do you? Neither do I. Nice of them to include that little tidbit of information in their suggested fix, isn't it? This is also assuming that users will know about the bug before it hits them; otherwise, it's a little like closing the barn door after the horses have bolted, isn't it?

One professional user sums it up:

Software problems occur. Nothing is perfect. But companies I deal with normally are all over software updates to correct a problem. And we are talking about Outlook, a highly used software that holds critical data for most of us, especially business users...I almost get the feeling Microsoft does not really care about this product, that they came up with it just so they could enter this software market.

Posted by Luis at 07:13 AM | Comments (2)

March 08, 2007

Vista Revisited

It looks like all my negative pre-reviews of Vista were pretty accurate; sales of Vista are sluggish, selling only half as much as XP did. Steve "Monkey Boy" Ballmer is actually trying to blame pirates in developing nations for the slow sales. However, most other people have other theories as to why sales are slow.

The biggest reason going around is the "so what?" factor. It's hard to get excited by the new-features list, which is pretty short. The increased security is no big deal; if you have an anti-virus app on XP, it's not worse than security on Vista--and might even be better, as Vista security is still untested, still settling in, and besides which it annoys the hell out of you with nagging messages (which many turn off, thus disabling security features that may not be covered otherwise). The faster search is nice, but if you used XP for five years, you probably learned to live without search, a necessary avoidance strategy--and so you probably won't have the urge to do much searching. The Sidebar can be done in XP using free third-party software. And unless you like shiny new eye candy a hell of a lot, there's really not that much else to make you want to buy it.

But then there's the price. Assuming even that you do have a machine that's Vista-ready and don't have to buy more RAM, a new graphics card, or a whole new machine... you still have to shell out for Vista. Wait, what's that? You only have to pay $100 for the upgrade? True, few people need to pay the full price... but $100 gets you the "Home Basic" version, which is essentially a crippled version of the OS. Unlike the Mac OS, which has only one flavor and the price is $130 for the full set of features ($200 for a 5-pack), Vista has a wide array of versions--which really means that to get the full set of features like in Mac OS X, you need to get the $400 package ($260 upgrade).

I discovered this by going to Yodobashi Camera to check out Vista running on one of their machines. I wanted to see the eye candy in action, so I tried to get the 3-D window flip, Vista's version of the Mac Exposé feature. But try as I might, I couldn't get it to work. After hunting down a salesperson, I was told that I was working with Windows Vista Home Basic--which didn't have that much-ballyhooed feature. This truly surprised me--as a Mac user, I'm used to getting everything in the basic package. I mean, I knew that the different versions meant different functionality, but I simply didn't get what that meant--that lesser versions were essentially partially-crippled versions.

What's worse, many Windows users buying a machine will not be aware of this--and so will get their nice, cheap new Windows Vista PC... only to find many of the features they anticipated disabled... and the only way to get them is to pay for a whole new upgrade to a system they already own.

And then there's the Mac side of things. People who want to run Vista using Parallels are in for a shock. Not only will first-timers have to pay the full price (no upgrade from OS X!), but Microsoft is forcing Parallel users to buy the $300 Business or $400 Ultimate editions--neither "Home" version will work in virtualization. While Microsoft cites "security" concerns, it's pretty obvious that they're just trying to shake down customers.

I'd like to say that Vista's aggressive DRM is slowing sales, but I'm sure that's not true; most people probably don't use the advanced video features that would get you into DRM territory. But just wait. To be certain, DRM is not a positive feature egging on sales.

And then there's compatibility--Vista still won't work with a lot of the old software and hardware out there, and even if it does, it all too often requires quite a bit of effort to get things working. True, this will get ironed out over time, but it's hurting Vista's image and not helping with initial sales.

As time goes on, you see more and more stories like this one, where the US Department of Transportation is actually forbidding its people from upgrading to Vista or Office 2007. Why? Because "There appears to be no compelling technical or business case for upgrading to these new Microsoft software products. Furthermore, there appears to be specific reasons not to upgrade." So no upgrades--that means you, Paul! Meanwhile, Linux and Mac are being looked at.

I have seen this effect first-hand as well. Only a few of my students have upgraded to Vista and Office 2007, and from their reactions, I don't expect too many more of my students to do so soon. I asked one student who upgraded what she thought--and the poor young woman actually winced. And no, I am not kidding, nor am I exaggerating.

In the end, it looks like the only way Vista will win widespread acceptance is by Hobson's Choice--you buy a new Windows machine, you get Vista, like it or not. Though I expect that the creative retailer who offers new machines with XP will find a profitable niche market.

Posted by Luis at 10:22 PM | Comments (5)

February 11, 2007

You Were Saying, Bill?

Bill Gates said of the Mac OS in a Newsweek interview:

Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine.
What Gates was referring to was the MOAB, or "Month of Apple Bugs," an attack on Mac security taken by people who are obviously irritated and annoyed by claims of superior Mac security.

Of course, that claim is not nearly as bad as Gates makes it out to be. First of all, it was kept up for one month only--not every day of every year. They clearly planned for a month because they found 31 bugs, not 365 in a year. Second, not all the bugs were Apple's--only 22 or 23 of the 31 presented dealt with software created by Apple, the rest were 3rd-party bugs. And finally, Gates wildly exaggerated their seriousness when he claimed that each of these "daily" bugs could "totally" take over the machine. In fact, most were not nearly as caustic, causing instead local shutdowns of specific apps like Safari. And let's remember that we still have never seen any of these exploits do much damage if any at all in the wild--whereas Windows exploits have commonly produced massive damage. A friend of mine had to wipe her hard drive and re-install everything--twice--due to viral infections. That has never happened on a Mac.

But what about Gate's challenge for his own OS? "I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." Well, it's already happened. With Vista, no less, which has only been widely released for a week or two now, and was heralded by Gates as being the most secure OS ever. First, we saw that really embarrassing vulnerability where a sound file could start hacking into the system. And now there are reports of far more serious hacks, including a work-around of one of Vista's most-ballyhooed security improvements, one that limits administrative access:

Russian hackers posted instructions to an underground forum describing how to implement "privilege escalation," which could bypass some Vista security measures. This hack could escalate the "privileges" of a normal Vista user into that of a "superuser," allowing him to change anything he desired on the system. This would be particularly dangerous in a corporate environment where normal computer users have limited privileges, in that they cannot install programs, visit certain Web sites, etc. This threat is considered so serious that Microsoft has scrambled its "Security Response Center," which is ostensibly still trying to figure out what to do.
So, it looks like we have at least two exploits that are at least the equivalent of the MOAB in just one week--and there's no organization which has had time to stockpile Vista bugs and is now trying to publicize one-a-day Vista exploits. However, there are reports that many more exist.

Case in point: just because your copy of Vista hasn't been hit yet, don't feel all warm and fuzzy:
Reports are that, in order to steal as much money as possible, computer criminals are biding their time and building their arsenals, waiting for Vista to be installed on more computers around the world before unleashing their most powerful Vista-busting weapons.
The article reports "ongoing eBay-style black hat hacker auctions where attack programs that can be used to compromise Vista computers are being bought and sold for as much as $50,000." Certainly, it will be interesting to see if Leopard can be hacked this much this soon after its official release.

The Norman Transcript Report ends with a quote from "very irritated and frustrated Vista early adopter": "I should have bought a Mac."

Posted by Luis at 02:53 PM | Comments (2)

February 07, 2007

Steve Jobs Gets It

This is one of the reasons I like Steve Jobs. He wrote (or at least published under his name) an article about DRM (Digital Rights Management software) on the Apple web site. DRM is what restricts your use of music or video from playing and copying freely. I have highlighted (boldface mine) the key parts of the following paragraphs:

The third alternative is to abolish DRMs entirely. Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

One has to wonder what the Big Four think of this letter. On the one hand, it must piss them off to be called stupid, albeit in such a subtle way. On the other hand, what Jobs says is so blindingly obvious, they should be perfectly willing to be called stupid. They should read this and say, we're just not doing this right, we overreacted and have required this completely unnecessary system that does not stop piracy one bit and just hamstrings paying customers, and yet we stick with it either through continued panic or just because it's there.

Of course, I then remind myself that we're talking about the music labels here, the genius folk which constitute the RIAA. "Stupid" is their business. And the video content producers are not much different.

What Steve Jobs is saying here is, naturally, not a new revelation. Almost a year ago on this blog, I myself wrote about DRM-laden video:

The copy-protect and limitations on which OS, browser, and media players can be used are stupid as hell. We're talking about movies that have already been ripped and are available for full-quality download over the Internet. So what is the copy-protect protecting? Not a damned thing. People downloading it for free from the Internet can do anything they want with the movie, watch it on any player, in any format. But paying customers hit all these restrictions. Stupid!
So what does DRM accomplish then, as Jobs asks? Here's another take, again from one of my past blog posts on DRM:
Copy protection is never perfect; somebody always finds a way around it. The only people it really hobbles are the people who buy the product and want to use it legally.

And that has always been at the heart of the whole "digital rights" problem--the makers of the media try to control their product long after they sell it or give it away, for fear that after it is sold, it will be taken and redistributed or resold at a later time. That attempt at control causes problems because it tries to reach criminals by running over legitimate users. ...

And that brings up the question of how much right the seller of a product has to follow a product after a sale. Not only for protection against illegal copying, but for control over what happens to a product and how it is used once it is privately owned. Because recent developments have companies using "digital rights management" to do far more than just protect against copying. ...

They want to ride the illegal-download horse all the way into your living room, and assert permanent control over the media on the supposed grounds that it might at some point leave your home and go to someone else's. But you soon find out that it is less about hindering criminals than it is about hindering you, limiting your abilities so you'll pay them again to do what you should have been able to do in the first place. They don't just want to control the distribution of the media; they want to control every aspect of how you use the media in the privacy of your home, which is far in excess of their actual rights.

And that, essentially, is what DRM is all about: an attempt to control and limit use so they can sell you the same thing again and again, and/or sell to different people at different prices so they can charge all the market can bear in each separate situation. For them, that DRM-free content is on CDs and elsewhere is not an argument to make everything DRM-free, it is a reason to make all the DRM-free content covered by DRM somehow. The content producers want the opposite of what Jobs is calling for. They have tried again and again to apply DRM to CDs and other media. They are frustrated that it has failed, but they will still try again and again.

Now, you can hedge Job's remarks any way you like. You can point out that Jobs profits from the iPods and not the music, so the DRM is not as important to him. You can speculate that he's saying this as a tactic in dealing with European demands that Apple's FairPlay DRM be scrapped. You might even say that he doesn't really mean any of this.

None of that, however, will make what he wrote not true. And at least on the face of things, one cannot blame Jobs for the DRM that chains the music sold by Apple to the iPod. Jobs is now on the record as saying that he wants those chains gone. It won't change the minds of all the critics, but at the very least it's pretty impressive that someone like Jobs said the kind of thing that he said.

Posted by Luis at 12:49 PM | Comments (0)

February 06, 2007

Twice a Victim

Have you ever been assaulted by adware? Have you ever had at least one window open up on your PC without your bidding, and show you an ad for something? Maybe you've gotten that fake dialog-box security-warning attack? The one where it looks like a real warning which says that your computer has porn, or your web surfing history can be compromised, or that your computer is open to attack--and if you click anywhere on the "dialog box," it takes you to a commercial web page selling software of some sort. This fake dialog box may have even popped up when you weren't web surfing, so it looks even more like a real warning from your OS.

If you've been exposed to such a low-key adware trick, then you have only a small taste of what a full-fledged adware attack feels like. A real attack is when your screen fills with browser windows bristling with graphic porn ads, and any attempt to close one window will bring an onslaught of even more ad-riddled windows, in hydra-like fashion. The program must be force-quit to silence the ads, using the task manager (Ctrl+Alt+Delete) to end the process--and then the machine must be cleaned of adware.

It's bad enough to be attacked by spammers in this way. But then imagine being sent to prison for 40 years because you were the victim of such a spam attack.

No, I'm not kidding. If you have been following the case of Julie Amero, you'll know what I'm talking about. Amero is a substitute teacher in Connecticut whose computer suffered a malicious adware attack in her seventh-grade classroom. It almost certainly was not her fault in any way, but she's been prosecuted--and now convicted--for causing "injury or risk of injury to, or impairing morals of, children," and could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison. No joke.

Here's what happened. Long before Amero even saw the computer, it was infected with adware. A month before the offending incident happened, there was spyware/adware installed on the machine that started tracking the computer's activities. Before Amero's visit, some other teacher or student used to classroom computer to visit a singles dating service, well-known for its porn adware. Several other pieces of adware had already infected the computer before Amero arrived on the scene. Furthermore, the school itself had allowed the computer's parental filter software to lapse, and the machine was no longer protected against such material. The antivirus software was outdated and the firewall was not set up. In short, the school itself was negligent, and other teachers had caused the problems that eventually surfaced. Amero was simply the one present when the eventual attack came about.

On October 19, 2004, the day Amero was teaching, students were allowed access to the computer. The regular teacher logged Amero on to the system, told her that students could have access to it, and even warned her not to shut down the machine, else she and the students would lose access to it. One student visited a hairstyling site, and then 20 minutes later, the Crayola crayon site got visited. The hair style site was still active, however, and redirected to a different hairstyle site--one with porn advertising. The process that then led to the adware attack is laid out in detail here.

The screen filled up with porn windows, and the computer got locked in one of those endless porn loops. It's not clear from the stories I read whether kids were at the computer when the windows came up or not, but it seems that they were not. Still, six kids reported seeing the porn, and even though Amero kept the kids from the computer, and even pushed one student's face away from the screen, she still got into trouble--to put it mildly. The students told their parents, the parents complained loudly to the school--and the school not only fired the teacher, but had her arrested. The prosecutor pushed hard on the case, the police didn't see fit to even check for adware, and the judge denied the defense the full ability to present the case on adware--apparently because the defense was late in bringing that particular defense up for some reason.

The prosecution put on an "expert witness" who claimed that the only way to get those windows would be to intentionally visit a porn site--which supports what my father has always told me about purported "experts": that all too often, they're full of crap. In fact, the software this "expert" claimed proved the teacher went to porn sites could not distinguish between someone typing in a URL and the browser automatically redirecting to one due to adware or javascript.

On the weight of the prosecution's case, however, the jury convicted Amero. Of course, they got a very different view, like the one presented in this article, which claims it was intentional because Amero supposedly changed her claim from "students did it" to "adware attack," and that Amero did not get rid of the attack. However, if Amero was no computer-savvy and students triggered the adware or were at the computer when it came on, then it would indeed look like they started it--just like the judge and jury assumed of Amero, and they were wrong as well. Amero may not have become aware of the adware angle until later; changing a defense strategy in this manner is not evidence of guilt, and it is asinine to suggest otherwise. That Amero did not turn off the computer may have been simply her not knowing how to deal with it, and not thinking of turning the computer off, while thinking the screen was hidden enough not to be a problem.

This is scary. Hell, I've experienced this kind of thing in my own classroom. I teach an introductory computer class, and I give my chapter tests on web pages. A few years back, a female student opened up Explorer to take the test, and her screen filled with porn ads. She called for help, and I went to help, but got the same problem: every window I closed brought up at least three more new ones. I sent the young woman to a free computer, force-quit Explorer, and shut down the machine, not allowing it to be used again until the IT guys could clear it of malware.

If I used a Windows PC (Macs don't get adware, not that I've heard of at least), I might even have had such an attack when giving a demo. As it is, I use a virtual version of XP on which I put nothing but the basic software and use for nothing but teaching, so I'm clean and safe.

But I can fully sympathize with Amero. Unless you know the Ctrl+Alt+Delete trick, shutting down Explorer is near-impossible in that state. Sure, you could shut the whole machine down, but you could just as easily be attacked on startup again. And Amero may not have been computer-savvy enough to handle the situation, especially if it happened as she was teaching a class and could not sit down and troubleshoot a porn attack at the moment. Hell, I know a few teachers at my own school who would be at that much of a loss, at least. Most people would not even know what was hitting them, and so would not know how to handle it at all. Add to that the fact that in today's world, virtually all 12-year-olds, especially boys, have visited porn sites on the Internet themselves.

So of course, we should send this teacher who got caught by an adware attack to prison for 40 years. Since the verdict was handed down, it hit the newswires, and virtually the entire technical world is shouting down the decision, decrying it for the outright miscarriage of justice it so clearly is. Sentencing has not yet taken place, and in light of the whole furor now taking place (Norwich police admit to being "thrashed" by complaints and criticism), the judge will hopefully not sentence Amero to any jail time at all, and Amero can hopefully then work as a free woman to have the conviction thrown out and erased from her record.

However, since the prosecution is insisting that Amero intentionally visited porn sites, she may be marked forever as some sort of unfit teacher, and not hired by schools again because they would not want to take the risk that the accusations, however questionable, might be true. And so a teacher may have her career trashed and her life derailed because of spam, paranoid and overprotective parents, overzealous prosecutors, and lay people who just don't know enough about computers, who listen to legal "experts" who know almost as little themselves.

Posted by Luis at 12:30 PM | Comments (0)

February 02, 2007

Vista "Vulnerability"

While the Mac OS has not yet been exposed to a virus or other malware that could actually spread and be a threat to anyone, there have been many "proof of concept" hacks and a host of "vulnerabilities," or potential attacks that were never actually carried out. Many of these depended on a set of highly unlikely circumstances, like having two Bluetooth-enabled Macs which had not been software-updated within the past eight months operating in the same room with Bluetooth set to "Discoverable" and one of the owners foolish enough to manually allow a reported "device" that did not exist to be accepted by the computer.

Well, now Vista has joined that club--albeit in a way that makes Microsoft seem a hell of a lot more stupid than Apple ever looked. A new vulnerability reported on Vista just a few days after its release involves the OS's speech recognition. Now, speech recognition on a Mac requires a keyboard button to be depressed while a command is given (with an option to instead have the user to speak a definable keyword before the spoken command). This is to ensure that speech commands will not be taken by the computer by mistake when the feature is turned on.

Apparently Microsoft didn't take these rather obvious security steps. It seems that when Vista's speech recognition is turned on and a microphone is active (which is usually the case, if there is a built-in mic), any speech that matches the commands in the computer's vocabulary will be executed.

The potential hack: a sound file which starts giving speech commands to open Windows Explorer and delete files. Delivery is simple: a web site that starts playing a sound file when you arrive there. It could also be delivered in any number of other ways, including fake song files that begin with real music and then start issuing voice commands, or even a malware solution of some sort.

Now, like many of the Mac vulnerabilities, this Vista vulnerability is highly unlikely. While it will be common to find Vista users with active speakers and mics, it would be less common to find users who have speech recognition turned on. But the greatest unlikelihood would be the user who would just sit there and watch while their computer started speaking to itself, giving commands to delete files.

Now, on the other hand, this set of events is not impossible by a long shot. I have known a good many people who are computer-unsavvy enough that they'd be stymied long enough not to know what to do if their computer started doing that. Alternately, some users could be unlucky enough to be out of the room when the commands started being issued. Unlikely, yes, but not impossible. Still, I would doubt that this will ever really hit anyone.

Regardless of whether the hack ever happens or succeeds, the fact remains that it makes Microsoft look really stupid. I mean, that a computer's security system could be overridden by a frickin' sound file is just embarrassing. In their defense, Microsoft points out that because Vista no longer makes the primary user the system administrator by default, only files in the user's directories can be affected. Which is small consolation, as that represents all the personal files of the user; it just means that Vista itself will not be hurt. Whoopee.

Of course, there is one other thing that makes the exploit truly unlikely: Vista's speech recognition sucks. Okay, commonly available speech recognition all sucks, but Vista is certainly no exception, as this demo gone awry which I reported on six months ago clearly shows. Nevertheless, some people reported actually being able to make the sound file hack work.

It should also be pointed out that Vista is still vulnerable to some of the most common pre-exiting malware, which can blow through Vista's much-ballyhooed defenses, and that Vista is not exactly immune to the host of new viruses that will inevitably appear in the coming months.

Posted by Luis at 11:15 AM | Comments (1)

February 01, 2007

Like Zune, Like Windows

Just as the Zune was thoroughly hyped and failed to sell well, so goes Windows Vista. In Denver, initial sales have been slow:

Consumers in the metro area are apparently taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Vista - just as experts have advised them to do.

Stores haven't seen hordes of consumers lining up to buy the new Microsoft operating system.

"We've been selling a fair amount. There's definitely not high demand," said Jarred Dotterer, warehouse associate at Micro Center at the Denver Tech Center. "We're not low on stock."

The same is being reported in Jackson, Mississippi ("Jackson store reports slow sales of Windows Vista"). And Chillicothe, Ohio ("New Windows Vista not breaking any sales records around here"). And San Francisco, California ("No one is lining up for Windows Vista in San Francisco"), where crowds lined up to buy Mac OS 10.4 in 2005.

In fact, sales are slow everywhere; while some stores had even a few dozen people lining up at midnight, sales dropped off after the few eager beavers got their fix. It seems that everyone is realizing that Vista just ain't all that hot, just like they realized with the Zune. Unlike Steve Jobs, Bill Gates just does not know how to excite the fan base all that much--much less the public in general. Jobs has got everyone in a lather over a cell phone that'll sell for up to six times as much as Vista, and one can bet that a lot more people will line up to buy OS X 10.5 Leopard when it gets released--despite Apple having only about 1/20th the market that Windows has. (Some suggest that Steve Jobs missed a golden opportunity and should have opened up the Mac OS to work on PCs.)

Factors detracting from Vista sales are, of course, the fact that it is not revolutionary and contains nothing truly exciting, that XP works well enough for most, and that many would have to pop for a new computer to satisfy Vista's memory- and processor-hog appetites. And even some of its new features are disappointing--like the new-and-"improved" security, which is not only annoyingly intrusive, but also has been hacked and broken already.

What is happening is probably that most people are thinking, "ehh, I'll just wait 'til I get a new machine, and Vista will be on it then."

This cannot be good for Microsoft. Behemoth it may be, it is no longer a juggernaut. It has worked for five years to produce a single new version of an operating system, its flagship product, and virtually no one is all that interested in it. It will sell, eventually, if for no reason except that Windows comes on all new PC computers by default.

Some people are even looking at Macs because of Vista--and, factor in my Mac bias as much as you care to, it makes perfect sense, after all: if you're going to buy a new machine anyway, why not get a Mac? Not only do they cost much closer to PCs nowadays, but they even run Vista if you want 'em to.

Though my school is Windows-centric, the faculty is virtually all Mac now. In addition to myself, three other faculty and staff were already Mac users (myself and one other having recently bought new machines), but three others have switched and bought new Macs recently, and one more is on the verge of getting a nice Macbook. Two of my students just bought Macbooks as well. Now, I'd love to take credit for it all, but most of these switchers did it on the advice of others, though they of course heard my input as well.

Naturally, that's a microcosm. Hardly a trend. But then again, with Mac market share steadily rising, it is without doubt one small part of a much larger trend.

Posted by Luis at 08:45 AM | Comments (0)

January 08, 2007

<sarcasm> Great Support </sarcasm>

Yargh. I related last week about how, when I got back from my trip to the U.S., I could no longer send email, though I could receive it OK. My entry focused on how the tech support people for the ISP (KDDI Dion) insisted that I do all of this stupid stuff to "fix" the problem, all based upon the assumption that they were not at fault for the malfunction--this after they did a quick and cursory "check" to confirm that they were not the culprits here--despite the fact that I had all kinds of evidence showing that it was them.

One thing I specifically asked about was whether they had made any changes to their system. They said no; I pressed them on it, and they swore that not a single change had been made to their service. They even went so far as to claim that Google and my two separate web hosts had all changed their outgoing email protocols within a 12-hour period.

What's more, to probe the problem further, they promised to set up my Dion email account again so I could test out their email service; if it worked, they claimed, then the problem would not be with them, but with someone else. Since it contained a password, they would have to send it by regular mail.

This was 6 days ago. I have still not received the promised package.

But it turns out that this is unnecessary. Today I figured out what the problem was. It was the ISP, like I suspected all along.

Turns out they did change their system. They switched on a security feature which requires all outgoing email to go through their SMTP servers. So all I did was change the SMTP servers to Dion's, and it all works smoothly now.

Not only that, but had they set me up with the email account that never arrived, it would have worked--and they would have claimed that this proved they had not changed anything, when they actually had.

I called up the same support line and got the same person. Before telling them what happened, I asked them to confirm that they had assured me last week that KDDI Dion had changed nothing; they agreed that this was the case. Then I laid out what I had found, and got the expected reply: oh, they had told me all about changing the SMTP servers the week before, didn't I hear them say that? Of course, it was easy to demonstrate that such was untrue, at which point they switched to telling me about how some setting had been changed at KDDI, but still the main fault was somehow my email providers. And then finally, after I'd pinned them down for causing me a week's email outage for no good reason, they resorted to saying that this was all just stuff they were relating to me from the Japanese tech support people. They ended by having me specify what I had done to fix the problem, expressing surprise that such was the way to fix things.

Swell.

Posted by Luis at 02:21 PM | Comments (0)

January 02, 2007

Customer Support Motto: "It's Not Us"

Whenever you call customer support for a product that is not a closed system, that seems to be their philosophy. I'm having the same problem with my ISP right now.

I went on vacation in the U.S. for two weeks, and when I got back, my POP email wouldn't work right. (POP3 email is what you use with an email client like Eudora or Outlook Express, as opposed to web-based email like GMail or Yahoo Mail.) I can receive email all right, but I cannot send; the software says that the server doesn't respond. Whenever I have had that problem in the past, it has always been the ISP either having some problem somewhere, or demanding that you set your email software exactly to their specifications.

When I called KDDI-Dion (they have an English-language help center, though you don't get to talk to tech people, they mainly translate), they said that they ran a check of things on their end, and everything worked OK--so the fault must be on my end. I don't know how extensive their check was on their end, so I can't really call them out for not doing everything they could. And everything after that vague "check" was a suggestion that something was wrong somewhere else.

The thing is, it almost can't be somewhere else. Let me explain. I went to the U.S. on December 12. At that time, my email was working fine. In the U.S., I used my PowerBook, my laptop computer, and email worked fine. Then I came back to Japan On December 28, and immediately, the email didn't work. But that's not all: I have three computers, two email programs (three, if you count different platforms), and three different SMTP (outgoing mail) servers. On three computers, I have two Mac OS's and two Windows. I use Eudora 6.2 on both Macs, and Eudora 7 and Outlook Express on Windows. And I have two different web hosts with different SMTP server software, in addition to using Google's GMail POP service.

And on all computers, and on all software, using all the different SMTP servers, the problem is exactly the same: I can receive mail, but cannot send it.

That sends a clear message: it's not a software package problem, as three versions of two programs across two platforms cannot all simultaneously have the same problem. It's not a problem specific to the computer, because three different computers running different platforms all have the same problem. And it's not something different about the outgoing mail servers, because the same problem manifests itself with three different mail servers run by three different companies, and all started having the problem within a 12-hour period. While it is possible that all three companies involved all changed their mail server software within 12 hours of an upgrade, it is stretching things way too far to suggest that (a) this event just happened to occur exactly as I returned to Japan, and that (b) none of them released notifications of a change that would effectively disable outgoing email. Hold this up against there being a problem with my ISP somewhere, and there's just no comparison.

Naturally, logically, all the evidence points to a problem with the ISP somewhere, that at some point in the two weeks during my trip to the U.S. that something got out of whack and caused this problem--but because that would involve KDDI-Dion having to do some work to suss out the problem, they seemed unwilling to admit that possibility. So I went through the motions with the support person trying out all the different email programs on all my computers with different things turned on and off, rewiring my network this way and that.

And when all these efforts failed, they tried to claim that it was the people running the email servers who had somehow all secretly upgraded their security software at the same time. When the rep told me about it, she even declared it as if it was an actual, reported event that had been announced somewhere. She didn't say that they may have upgraded their security software, she said that they had upgraded it, and that was the problem. Had I been less well-equipped or less well-informed, I would have had no choice but to accept that line of bull, and would have been forced to deal futilely with my web hosts from then on about the SMTP server status.

All I can say is, thank god that I have so many different computers, programs, and email accounts available, otherwise I could not have insisted that they were almost certainly wrong on that one.

And of course, whenever you call tech support for just about any company that makes a product that in any way interacts with others, you get the same attitude: when it comes down to us doing actual work to solve your problem or blaming someone else, we blame someone else. That way, you make the other guys do the work before you do, even if all the evidence points to your system being the problem. I remember that even with Apple, in fact--one of the first things they would insist you do before they got involved was to blank out your hard drive and then reinstall everything from scratch, and only if the problem persisted after that, they would get involved. Well, thanks! All I have to do is a full day's work, probably unnecessarily, to prove to you that it's not my problem, but yours instead.

Now, that doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the tough job tech support has. Believe me, I have had more than enough experience trying to solve computer problems for people over the phone. It can be painful. Being the most computer-savvy person that most of my friends, students, and co-workers know, I tend to get all the requests from people to help them when they have a problem. Which is why I am a very good tech support client, as I know to alert them to the details of my computer hardware and setup, tell them all the technical details about my software, and the precise nature and process of the malfunction, giving more detail rather then less.

Unfortunately for them, it also means that I don't accept BS cover-your-ass answers either.

But at the very least, I ask them to work with me and not tell me to waste time hunting down by-the-book problems that I can logically eliminate as described above. In the end, I got them to do this. They were down to asking me to change the ports used by my SMTP servers when I insisted that we check out ISP equipment problems first. So soon I will do their local-equipment check of turning off the vDSL modem and router, then rebooting them while connected directly to just one computer. In the meantime, they are setting me up with a new password for the KDDI-Dion email account (I never use it and can't recall the password I chose 3 years ago), so we can test whether I can send mail through their servers.

I hope it'll clear up soon (and if anyone has any ideas about the problem, let me know!), because it can get really tiring dealing with a service which seems to be set up to do nothing but talk and slough off responsibility in every way possible before actually doing something.

Posted by Luis at 06:35 PM | Comments (4)

December 18, 2006

iMac of the Year

Apple has got to be happy about this:

Timepoty2006
Image from Mac Daily News; alternate image from TIME here

The use of the iMac is not directly referential to the article; they simply had to use some computer, so they chose an iMac, probably for the simplicity of the appearance--though they over-painted the already-simple front-panel interface with a YouTube screen, used to indicate what you communicate over the World Wide Web. And as happy as I am that an Mac was chosen to represent the everyman's interface with the web, I am even more pleased at the subject matter it represents.

I think that TIME made a fantastic choice here, though in the flowery prose and short storytelling, they do not explain the central point or theme all that well. They did run a story recently which also spoke to the heart of this issue but which also only described it peripherally. Maybe there's an ink-and-paper version, or even an on-line one, which I am not seeing. But they do seem to be making a point here which I fully agree with, even if they are not making it clearly.

This is something of a special point to me, which I have blogged on before, about how the Internet is wonderfully subversive in that it opens up the potential for the individual to communicate to a world audience in a way never before possible. The main point is that before the Internet, communication was controlled by a very few people, a rarified "publishing class" to whom you had to genuflect in order to communicate with more than just a few hundred people in the world. The Internet bypasses the publishing class for the first time in history, and makes it possible for anyone to speak to the world based solely upon the strength of their message.

This is also one of the reasons I favor Network Neutrality so much: it keeps the playing field of communication relatively level and uncensored. Allow the Telecoms to control the Internet, and that becomes hobbled, with the average person's voice suddenly becoming muted and leveraged, potentially even destroying the Internet as the free tool of communication I describe above and instead supplanting that new avenue of social discourse with simply yet another stripe of the publishing class, controlling what you say and taking tolls on yet another controlled and muted road.

Hopefully the Internet will stay what it is; the Democrats taking control of Congress, while not a guarantee, is a very good sign that it will. As such, the Internet is not a perfect answer; it is not a solution to the problem of unequal speech, but it is a step in the right direction. And any public celebration of that aspect of the Internet is something that I gladly welcome.

Posted by Luis at 12:34 AM | Comments (2)

December 12, 2006

Stumbled Upon

When you run a blog, you tend to get a steady stream of visitors. Some are regulars, and some come from the search engines. Every once in a while, the numbers surge, usually because a strong site somewhere linked to yours.

I used to get the occasional uptick in visitors from links on MacSurfer, a Mac news source; once as many as 10,000 people came in from that page, so many that I had to temporarily remove some graphics or else exceed my bandwidth limits. I haven't had a bump so large since then, and haven't been linked to by a rich source like that for some time.

However, twice in the past few weeks I have a new referrer, a site called "Stumble Upon." At first I thought it might be another spammer, but it showed up in Google Analytics (spammers usually don't), and a quick look at the site showed that it was some sort of web-linking/searching community site, probably like Digg. The first spate of links added up to just over a hundred, but today almost 2000 came through the site, going to my recent post on free Mac software.

Have you ever signed up for a service and then completely forgotten you did? That's what happened to me here. After finding the link surge, I tried to find out more about the site, but had trouble signing up--it told me that my usual sign-in name, "BlogD," had been taken. At first, I was a bit put-off that someone had taken my moniker--until I realized that the "other" person had my location. Apparently, for some reason, I had created an account with them more than two years ago and had never come back. Says something for the persistence of accounts with them...

Nevertheless, the site does not seem to be very easy to understand, or at least they do not make themselves self-explanatory. Maybe if I read some FAQ somewhere or dug around for instructions, I might be able to figure it out, but without that, the site doesn't feel very intuitive. And since I don't have time right now, it'll have to remain a mystery. But pretty soon, I'm gonna have to look into this whole Digg/Del.icio.us kind of connectivity fad; so far, when I've encountered it, I haven't really understood it (am I an old fogey already? I don't even have a MySpace site). Probably I could build readership on the site with it, but it'll take a bit of sitting down and figuring out.

For now, it looks like StumbleUpon may be sending some business my way, though that is based upon just a few spikes of referrals. (Is someone out there plugging my site into it? If so, thanks!) But it is also of note that I found out about it more than two years ago but only now is anything much coming from there.

Posted by Luis at 12:23 AM | Comments (5)

December 08, 2006

Internet Cafes

As I am away from home for more than a day, I am using an Internet cafe to make this post. I was hoping for a cafe that would allow me to use my own computer (with my blogging software and browser bookmarks), but this place, at least, does not allow for that. No WiFi, and the Ethernet cable for the computer is too short and cannot reach my laptop.

This cafe also has a fair amount of privacy; all the computer areas are walled off, and though the doors do not completely block the doorways, you could easily imagine salarymen coming in at any time of day or night and doing... er, questionable things. You can ever rent a "pair seat" with a nice, cushy couch where two people could, er, well, you know.

But for those not lecherously-minded, there comes with the 400-yen-per-hour usage charge free drinks and bite-sized candies, not to mention free usage of manga comics, PS2 video games, or movies on DVD. Or, if you're willing to pay, meals (including beef bowls, pasta, curry and so forth). Printing will also cost extra, 20 yen for a B&W printout, 50 yen for color.

Not all cafes have such private booths; it ranges from open counters with rows of computers to a variety of openness in booths. Most train stations (hubs of commerce in Japanese communities) have Internet cafes, which offer a variety of services and styles to attract customers. Want to sit in a massage chair while you surf? This random choice of cafes might give you an idea of a small neighborhood cafe. Some cafes will go so far as to offer almost spa-like treatment, with relaxation booths for ladies that include skin treatments and manual massages. In other words, more than just your basic computer-on-a-counter.

Posted by Luis at 03:23 PM | Comments (1)

November 29, 2006

90% Garbage, and One Solution

A new report says that spam email--already at record levels last summer--has tripled since June, and now accounts for 9 out of every 10 emails sent.

How long will these scum be allowed to operate before everyone out there says "enough!" and does what is necessary to cut them off at the knees? Already they have overrun our email, flooded our blogs, polluted the Internet with filth both illegal and barely legal. Probably a big chunk of what you pay for your Internet service subsidizes these sleazes, who take advantage of the free ride we're giving them so they can annoy us, harm us, and fleece us.

I am not one for restrictions or regulations on the Internet, so I would suggest as many self-healing techniques as possible, but beyond that, make the rules necessary to stop these rat-bastard parasites from bringing the Internet crashing down.

Almost exactly three years ago, I outlined a new email system that would immediately crush email spammers, and I reiterated the same plan a year and a half ago. A good idea never wears thin, so here it is again.

Call it "Email 2.0." Start a new protocol for email. It should be open-source, with profits, if there are any, going to fund new projects to stop spammers. No one company or country would be able to hijack the standards nor profit from them--the protocols and technology would be agreed upon by programmers and experts in the open-source project, and kept that way. Makers of email software would be given 6-12 months' lead time (or whatever is realistically necessary) to incorporate the feature into their email clients and other software.

In this new protocol, everyone would receive $1 credit right off the bat--you wouldn't even have to pay to start off. Those who would need to buy more credit could use a system that anyone could pay into--credit cards and PayPal would be possible, perhaps, but some other system, like a prepaid card or sending a money order to some location, would also be necessary.

Here's how it would work: whenever you send an email, it could potentially cost you a penny. But here's the beauty of it: it only gets debited from your account if your email winds up in someone's spam folder for more than three days. When that happens, you receive an automatic receipt informing you of the transaction, or whatever other notification system works best.

UPDATE: Oops. I misremembered my own idea. The idea was not to charge senders only after the email was reported as spam by the recipients. The idea was to automatically charge every email one penny and then forgive the charge once it was accepted by the user. This itself would cause problems, I'm sure--if your account were taken over by a spammer somehow, for example--but as I mentioned in the comments, a standard setting could be not to allow more than x numbers of messages to be sent within a certain time period. Again, stuff that could be worked out by smarter people. I know this whole system raises problems, and maybe it is unworkable--but I do have faith in the idea that some system would be workable, and we need to find that and implement it.
Most people would take years to eat up a dollar at that rate--have you sent 100 emails that wound up in people's spam folders in your lifetime? Maybe most people would never lose the original dollar.

But spammers would run out of money in the first few minutes of operation. Today, they depend on free email to send millions of spam out every day. But at a penny a pop, a million spam would suddenly become $10,000, and no spammer could afford to operate at the levels they now operate at. In November this year alone, 7 billion spam emails were sent; that would come to $70 million per month to the spammers. No way they could keep that up.

This system would not stop junk mail--after all, businesses still pay postage for snail mail advertisements. You'd still get spam--but you'd get a hell of a lot less of it, and that's the whole idea. Spam would no longer threaten to cripple our email systems.

The money paid for these spam emails could be split between the spam recipients and the open-source project, which would after all need some funding to survive. Even better, the recipient's portion of the income from spam landing in their inbox could be used to recharge their own accounts in case they lost some pennies from their own email accidentally landing in someone's spam folder. Beyond that, they could get a PayPal credit which could then be used for online shopping. What spam remained after this technological culling would actually begin to spur legitimate online shopping. And anyone who tries to nickel-and-dime their friends by collecting the spam penny off of legitimate email would probably not get sent any more email, not to mention they would not have their friends for long.

Because the system is, to a degree, exclusive, as well as self-correcting, spammers could not take refuge in spam-friendly countries or international waters. However, checks for fraud would need to be pretty good so that spammers couldn't hack in and create fake accounts full of credit. But we're able to do that with real money (PayPal manages, not to mention credit card companies), so hopefully that would not be a roadblock.

Perhaps a greater problem would be the spammer's propensity for hacking into victims' computers and using them as proxies to send massive numbers of emails each--but hopefully protections of this sort could also be averted by beefing up email security, like adding a feature that would require user intervention to send email to more than three people within a span of ten minutes, say.

I truly believe that such a system is possible, workable, and should be done. It just requires enough people getting fed up enough to make the effort. Frankly, I am pretty surprised no one has tried to get such a movement going by now.

Posted by Luis at 10:05 AM | Comments (7)

November 26, 2006

Surfing Conditions

One constant I have always noticed in the visitor stats for this site: readership numbers drop by more than half on weekends and holidays. Which brings me to wonder why: are people simply out of the house more on these days? It seems unlikely that this would be the case, as they are at home in the mornings and evenings and could surf then. It would account for some drop-off, but not so much--in fact, if surfing is done at home, one would assume that it would rise when people are at home more.

What seems more likely is that a large number of people surf the web at their jobs. That would make perfect sense--the drop-off happens when people don't have access to the web. Either they don't have access to computers and the web at home, or they just spend a lot of time at work goofing off. Interesting.

Um... but not you, of course.

Posted by Luis at 12:28 PM | Comments (5)

November 16, 2006

I Forgot Something

I knew I was leaving something out of the Zune post. Another scam by Microsoft: their currency system. When you buy music from the Zune online store, you don't use cash, or even credit--you use Microsoft "points," like Disney Dollars or funny money.

How is it a scam? Well, first off, the points are not made equal to dollars or cents, there's an 'exchange rate' at play here. Microsoft never actually quotes real money amounts when stating the price of a song, they say it costs 79 "points" instead. That makes it sound like Microsoft is selling music for 79 cents, but because a $5 purchase of "points" gets only 400 points in your account, that 79-point purchase really cost you 99 cents--the same as the iTunes Store.

Of course, there are benefits to having the point system. Unfortunately, those benefits are for Microsoft, not for you. For you, it's nothing but a liability. In addition to fooling you with an exchange rate, Microsoft also does not allow you to buy exactly the number of points needed to buy music--you always must buy too many points. When you buy from the iTunes Store, your credit card is billed for the exact amount, 99 cents. But in the Zune Marketplace, you can only buy points in whole-dollar chunks, starting at $5. Since music costs 99 cents a song, you have 5 cents left over when you use up the purchase amount. Essentially, when you buy a song for 99 cents, Microsoft is not giving you your penny change. Or, at least, they're keeping it in their pocket until you buy 100 songs.

Now, to you, this may be small change. But imagine millions of customers buying less than 100 songs. Say, 10 million people buying ten songs each is an extra million bucks Microsoft squeezes out of the deal. Though you might think that a company worth umpteen billions of dollars wouldn't need to create a scam just to squeeze another million out of gullible customers.

But the scam doesn't end there: you can only buy Microsoft points in denominations of $5 or higher. Which means that you can never buy one song. You have to buy in chunks of five. Which, of course, most people will not do. Most people will either never use up all the points they have, or they will take time to do it, which means more millions of non-reimbursed dollars for Microsoft, and more time for the pre-paid cash to generate interest for Microsoft before they have to pass the money on to the music labels.

Of course, unless you read a review like this, you don't learn about it until you've plunked down $250 for a Zune player, by which time you're committed. And then you discover that Microsoft has no respect for you and believes you're just another sucker who'll do whatever they want.

Posted by Luis at 10:40 AM | Comments (0)

November 15, 2006

So, What's the Advantage?

Zune is now out there. Kind of. It's not exactly flying off the shelves, apparently. Not like the PS3, for example, where huge throngs of people lined up to buy them and they sold out instantly. With the Zune on it's first day out, Best Buy in San Francisco sold all of ten units in the morning--which the store's manager said was "better than I expected." That kind of sums it up.

ZunelogoThe Zune is obviously intended as an iPod-killer, but has been beset by problems from the start. First was the choice of names. I mean, really--"Zune"? Is that supposed to be a combination of "Tune" and. . . what, the letter "Z"? The logo they chose is not exactly all that spiffy, either. The Zune includes a logo sticker (again copying Apple), but who would want to slap that thing on anything they own?

What's more, the design ain't great; it's bigger and clunkier than an iPod, and though the plastic casing may be more resilient to scratches and smudges, it's also less appealing. The wheel/circle, apparently intended to be reminiscent of the iPod's scroll wheel, doesn't scroll, it just covers four buttons. And the colors include white, black, and. . . brown. And people say that the brown is the best-looking one. Maybe I'm prejudiced, but when your new product looks its best in the crap-colored version, you know something is probably wrong.

ZunecolorsMicrosoft is pushing this as being better than an iPod, touting two main features: the WiFi interconnectivity, and the larger video display. Neither of these selling points, however, live up to the hype. The screen is a touch bigger than the iPod's, but it is the same resolution--which just means that the image quality will be a bit poorer as well. Just hold your iPod an inch or two closer and the difference will cancel out.

But the WiFi "sharing" is the big thing. I remember seeing a clip from the Oprah show where all the audience members were given a Zune, and a guest (presumably from Microsoft) gave the selling point: you can send songs from one Zune to the other! If your friend has a song that you don't have, you can ask them to send it to you, then it's on your Zune! Microsoft is even using a new slogan, "Welcome to the Social!"

What the MS rep on Oprah, and MS' pitches in general fail to mention is that the "sharing" is limited by Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions. Any file sent from one Zune to another is only playable three times. If you don't use all three plays in three days, it becomes unplayable anyway. It does not disappear, though--it remains on your Zune as an advertisement linked to Microsoft's Zune music store. Wouldn't it be fun to litter your playlists with ads for songs? To see a listing and think you have music, only to have it not play, and instead urge you to buy it? Wheee!

Update: I forgot to mention--once you've sent a piece of music to a friend, you can never re-send it to the same person again. So, no loophole there. Also, to be fair, it seems that the 'littering' of sent-but-unplayable songs will be limited to an "in-box" and not your main library--I think. So it's possible that you won't be constantly tripping over unplayable music equivalent to ads.
But let's say you don't mind the DRM or the ad-littering. Still, how often will sharing be possible? Think about it. I have an iPod. So do many people I know, fellow teachers, students, friends. And yet I cannot remember the last time I encountered anyone using an iPod at the same time I was and there was any likelihood that either of us would share with each other. Maybe some people would use it more than others, but frankly, I think that this feature will go to waste for most people.

But the WiFi feature has other down points as well. Even non-protected songs get zapped by the DRM. Even if you make your own song, when it is transferred from one Zune to the other, it again gets zapped--three plays or three days. And WiFi should be a powerful feature--it could be used to connect to the web with the Zune as a mobile-phone-style browser, it could allow you to buy songs online at hotspots, it could connect to digital cameras and other devices--but the Zune does not. Hell, it won't even connect to your own computer via WiFi! It is currently only active for Zune-to-Zune transfers, and that is limited to photos and music files with the DRMs (no videos). One imagines that MS will eventually enable the other abilities, but for them to have it so limited at launch is disappointing.

Another down point of the Zune, this one not related to the user experience, is Bill Gate's decision to sell out to the music companies. Gates decided to give a cut of each Zune sold to Universal. It is only $1 per $250 Zune, but the precedent is the damning thing. It is virtually blackmail, and Gates is caving in so he can enter the market--but by ding so he is opening the gates for more gouging in the future, weakening Apple and other makers of players who until now have resisted the media companies' demands of extortion. More on that later, in a different post.

Finally, one last screw-up: Zune is incompatible with Vista. I'm sorry, but when your two big November releases are Zune and Vista, and neither will work with the other, someone isn't doing their job right. Especially when Vista has been in Beta forever and most software by third-party vendors will work on it. Both Vista and Zune have been in parallel development for so long that for them to be incompatible is almost unforgivable. I know there will be an upgrade by January (erm, I think there will be), but nevertheless, this is not a well-played release. [Update: Microsoft now claims that Zune will be compatible with Vista "by January 30, 2007"--presumably the release date for the consumer version of Vista.]

Vistazune-450

By the way, why do people seem to be grimacing in the Zune software images? It's not just the frame above, there are a few more as well. Maybe they tried to install it on Vista. . . If this is their attempt to show people singing, their photographers did a terrible job. It looks like the woman above is in pain. And are those other two women making out? What a bizarre image.

Okay, all bashing aside: Apple should be worried. Yes, that's right, I just said that. But why? Was I insincere in all the criticism? Nope. I think it is 100% accurate, and the Zune is a piece of crap. So why should Apple be worried? Because everything that Microsoft releases is a piece of crap. . . in the beginning. MS has a history of this: release a piece of crap. Then make an improvement, And another. And then another. And by the time the piece of crap is somewhat less crappy, MS has used their marketing thuggishness and 800-pound-gorilla status in the marketplace to sell a million of them and make people feel like the piece of crap is exactly what they should be using, for some reason they cannot quite pin down. MS Word was a piece of crap. Internet Explorer was a piece of crap. Windows was a piece of crap. And the Zune is a piece of crap. Therefore, with Microsoft's deep pockets to subsidize it for many years while they work their marketing magic, it could actually be a threat.

And Zune does have some potential. The WiFi, as earlier stated, could be expanded to include some very good features. The iPod went through redesigns, so the Zune will eventually look less like a really bad remote control. And if Microsoft has shown a talent for anything, ripping off Apple is it.

Of course, eventual Zune dominance is far from a sure thing. While we all know that MS would never improve anything unless someone was nipping at their heels, we know just as well that Apple would be improving things even if no one is within a mile of them. Apple will not rest on its laurels with the iPod. If Apple does indeed soon release its full-screen touch-controlled iPod, it will deliver a crushing blow to the Zune. And while MS can copy Apple, they can't duplicate Apple's finesse and coolness.

It'll be a competition, but in the end, I think Apple will win over Microsoft on this one--just like Google has. Despite Microsoft's best efforts, they aren't even close to Google in what Google does. And likely the Zune will be a repeat of this. I don't think the Zune will be as big a disaster as some predict; I think it will still be there ten years from now, but I don't think it'll ever get to be on top.

Posted by Luis at 11:30 PM | Comments (2)

November 12, 2006

Behind the Curtain

Yet another of my Internet peeves: stuff like this.

Now, I could have gone ironic and left it at that. But my point is that the post consists solely of a link, but does not describe at all what the link is. This TPM post is more egregious than usual, as it only consists of the word "Yep," which is a link to a Daily Kos story. Josh Marshall is a repeat offender with this.

There are three reasons I don't like it when people have links and yet give no clue as to what they are. The first reason is that I don't like jumping around. If I am on a page where many entries might appear and I haven't finished all of them yet, I might not want to leave the page to look at something and then have to come back.

The second reason is that I don't like being led blindly about. I want to know where I am going to before I go. For me, a blind link like Marshall's is equivalent to someone holding something I can't identify up to my nose, and without explanation, saying, "smell this!" If you write a post about something, it stands to reason that you should make clear what you are talking about. If you don't have time for that, maybe you don't have time for writing the post. Take a minute and at least write a short note about where you're leading people and why. If the mystery was intentional, I like that even less; being coy may be fun for the writer, but it's a lot less fun for the reader. Maybe the article is one I'd like to read--but maybe not. People who have slow Internet connections and have to wait a while for pages to load must be really annoyed by stuff like this.

The third reason I am uncomfortable with this is because links go bad. If the post's archive is kept, people will find it with Google--but the link the entry points to could disappear at any time, especially news stories, which often have a very short lifetime. Without any exposition in the blog entry, the reader will be mystified at what the blogger is talking about. Broken links can also nullify the point of an entry by making key data or evidence inaccessible; ergo, bloggers should take the time to copy and paste the relevant portions of the page they are linking to, so the pertinent information is preserved.

An associated peeve often appears in comments left by readers, usually combative ones: some will make a vague argument ("I disagree with what you said"), and for a riposte they will link to an article--but they do not explain which part of my argument they disagree with, nor why, nor what it is in the article that supports their point. Unless the entire article is their point (which it almost never is), then I am left to read through an often lengthy piece (usually an annoying diatribe by a right-wing pundit), and then guess as to which part of the article the visitor was referring to; essentially, I have to do all the work of creating the visitor's argument for them, and even then, I am not sure if I understand what they were thinking about. In such cases, I usually ask for specifics and refuse to respond until they are given.

Long story short, it's best to be specific, and not count on links to tell a story that you should be making yourself.

Coming soon, another pet peeve: people who constantly whine and complain on their blogs. I hate that.

Posted by Luis at 10:28 PM | Comments (4)

November 06, 2006

Oh, So Now They Recognize Savings on IT

One of the Mac's selling points over Windows for business users has been the relatively low cost to maintain. With no viruses, adware, or spyware, and with the system so relatively easy to maintain, one could save a lot of money in IT costs alone by switching to Macs.

Somehow, this message never got across--probably because IT departments are the ones to advise businesses on which systems to purchase and employ. A stupid move, that--it's like asking your auto repairman which car you should buy. Unless he can be trusted implicitly, you're begging for him to recommend a lemon to you so he can make a mint off of you in repairs. Ask him if you should get a high-rated foreign job, and he'll tell you no--not because the car is bad, but because he's not familiar with it and you'd have to take your repair business elsewhere.

But now, with Microsoft looking at possibly dismal sales when Vista is released this month to businesses, they're claiming that businesses can save a ton of money with the switch-over, because Vista will "allow companies to sharply cut the amount of time it takes to maintain PCs." In fact, MS is stating that businesses could save $320 per PC per year--despite the fact that Vista machines would still require more IT maintenance than Macs would! What a savings you can get with Macs!

IT managers are quick to disagree:

"We manage 6,000 desktops and 1,500 laptops," Taylor said. "At $300 per PC per year, that should add up to $2 million in savings. The only way we could actually save that would be to eliminate 30 people, which we're not going to do."

On the other hand, Taylor, whose staff has been testing Vista on 100 PCs for more than 18 months as part of Microsoft's Technology Adoption Program, agreed that many of Vista's capabilities will boost automation and manageability, freeing up his staff's time for more valuable projects.

It's hard to see how to take that: this guy could be lying to save his budget. Note how he talks about retasking his people to other work instead of making cuts in his own department.

However you read his interests, it's clear that he thinks Vista could save time on maintenance. Which means that Macs could save even more, and could have for a long time. So why not make the Big Switch? Well, in the case of the two parties quoted above, it would profit neither. It would only profit the businesses who use lots of computers. And hell, screw them.

Posted by Luis at 12:02 AM | Comments (8)

October 30, 2006

Another Internet Pet Peeve

There are some elements of web page design that really annoy me. Text boxes you must write long missives into, but they're the size of a postage stamp; pages filled with moving images, the most notorious ones Flash animations, which are almost impossible to turn off; pages that automatically begin loading and playing music and/or movies without giving you a choice; designs which slavishly follow one browser's authoritarian dictates, making the page unreadable by other browsers. And so on.

One common theme in all of this is the design element of taking control away from the user. When a user visits a web page, they should have ultimate control over what they see. They should be able to resize text boxes, turn off animations, set their browsers so that no audio or video plays without their approval. Not having any of that is like having a TV with no "mute" control. If surfing the net means having to put up with uncomfortable dictations of others, then it stops being fun and starts getting annoying.

Fortunately, a lot of the flaws I have outlines above have been dealt with; browser features and plug-ins/extensions exist that can deal with most or all of these irritants. However, one usually has to wait a few years between an nuisance being created by some idiot web page designer, and the cure becoming widely available. One recent example is CSS text sizing; browsers are unable to change the standard text size on a web page if it is CSS-based, which means that in order to make web page text readable on my 24-inch screen, I have to increase the text size manually on almost every page I visit.

Another common theme is designing web pages to a specific browser, almost always Internet Explorer. As I recently wrote within a post on a clueless switcher, "optimizing" a web page to IE simply means that instead of using universal design elements that every browser (and therefore every visitor) can parse, you instead use design elements that only work in IE, created by Microsoft so that lazy web page designers would design sites that would shut out competing browsers.

And yet, even people who use HTML commands which are universally recognized and yet still are holdbacks to drawbacks in the only recently-upgraded IE6 browser--which brings me to my pet peeve of today: links which open into a new window.

The culprit is the TARGET="_BLANK" attribute to the link command. If a link is given that attribute, then a click on that link will make the browser open the new page in a separate window. The original intent of this feature was to allow the original web page to remain open while the user was presented with a new page to look at.

This feature became outdated, however, with the introduction of two browser design elements: first, the ability to open a link in a new window by right-clicking on a link and selecting that feature from the contextual menu; this allowed the user, not the web page designer, to make that choice. When that feature came out years ago, people should have stopped using the "target" attribute then and there. The second and more significant new element to outdate the "target" attribute was tabbed browsing, the entire reason for which was to eliminate extra windows, something which obviously annoys people. Under tabbed browsing, command-clicking a link (control-clicking for Windows users) will open the link in a new browser tab.

Either one of these accomplishes the task which the "target" attribute does, but better, they give the user the choice of what happens.

Web designers who use the "target" attribute, however, limit the user's choices. Very often, I don't want to see a new window (the entire reason for tabbed browsing, after all!), and I don't want to keep the originating page open; the "target" attribute doesn't give me these choices, at least not easily. In order for me to circumvent it, I have to first notice that the tag has been used (you have to keep an eye on the status bar which displays the target of a link your cursor is hovering over; it will tell you if a link will open "in a new window"), then you have to override the "feature" by command-clicking the link so it opens in a new tab instead of a new window, and then you have to close the offending page, then go to the end of your row of tabbed pages to get to the page you just linked to. A hassle.

Good web page design does not include the "target" attribute, and a good browser should have the option to disable that attribute.

Posted by Luis at 11:27 AM | Comments (2)

October 26, 2006

Google Blogs Down

Wow. Google blogs have been down big-time... of the air for at least a few hours now. Just saying...

Posted by Luis at 11:44 AM | Comments (2)

October 23, 2006

Yet Another Misleading "Mac Attack" Story in the Media

CNN is running a high-profile piece today titled, "Security analysts: Mac attacks rare but may rise." The URL for the piece contains the words "apple virus."

Their evidence? The story that a few iPods were shipped with a virus. A virus that doesn't affect Macs, or iPods, but the Windows OS only. This is a "Mac attack"?

But they give more evidence:

Oliver Friedrichs, director of security response at Symantec, a leading anti-virus software vendor, said 72 vulnerabilities were discovered in the Mac's OS X operating system in 2006, up from 19 in 2004.

And Symantec identified six threats of malicious code written for the Mac OS X operating system in the first half of 2006, versus zero in the second half of 2005 and two the year before that.

In other words, the same old re-heated misinformation spread by a company that wants to frighten Mac users into buying their unnecessary software. Vulnerabilities are all good and well, but every OS has them, and they don't mean much if they are not exploited before they are discovered; it means that Apple is doing a good job of finding and patching them. So far, no vulnerability on OS X has been successfully exploited in any harmful way. As for the "threats of malicious code" (just threats? not actual malware?), whatever "malicious code" has been released has been in proof-of-concept form only--never in the wild, never harmful, and never released in a way that could infect more than just a handful of machines. The day will come when the first piece of malicious code written for Mac OS X which actually does some damage will spread to more than just a handful of Macs. But that day has not yet come.

Ironically, the fact that the Windows virus was able to get onto the iPods (via a third-party contractor, not directly by Apple) is a testament to the weakness of the Windows OS, not the Mac OS. That iPod-virus story has no place in an article about Mac security, except to bolster the fact that the Mac itself is secure.

And yet people misuse the news, like this writer (who clearly has a chip on his shoulder and a stick up his butt about Macs), who speaks of "the myth of total Mac invulnerability to viruses and spyware" and "self-righteously invincible Mac users" who believe they will never be hit by a virus. Ironically,hit s view is not held by Mac users so much as it is held by Windows users who are contemptuous of Mac users. They hear Mac users express pride and satisfaction about the relative security on the Mac and resentfully exaggerate that to mean "Macs are perfect, and will never have any problems at all." As I have mentioned on many occasions, and any knowing Mac user will tell you, the Mac is not invulnerable--it simply has better security than Windows. It benefits also from its current obscurity, but even were it to reach 50% market share, it would still not get as much malware as Windows does.

Posted by Luis at 10:01 AM | Comments (0)

October 19, 2006

I Want One of These

This gadget is way too cool.

Hat tip to Cosmic Variance.

Posted by Luis at 11:55 AM | Comments (1)

Video iPod in December, iPhone in January? Meanwhile, Vista Sucks More

Ipodwide2

According to this site, the touchscreen video iPod will be out before the end of the year, possibly in time for holiday purchasing. The writer claims to have spoken to an executive from a third-party iPod accessory company, who says they are kept in the loop by Apple. One of their new products, he reportedly said, has been made for the 6th-generation iPod, or the full-screen touch-control iPod long rumored to be in production, and universally expected to debut by early next year. The iPod would, hopefully, have "480p" resolution--that is, the vertical resolution would be 480 pixels, which is essentially the same as any pre-HDTV television set--even better, as progressive scan (the "p" in "480p") delivers twice the video information of interlaced scan (what old-style TVs offer).

Take the rumor for what it's worth...

Meanwhile, Microsoft takes a cheap shot at Mac users: they have just released their licensing information for Vista, and it appears that they are forbidding use of Vista Home version in virtualization applications, such as Parallels. That means that if you want to run Vista in virtual mode, you'll have to pay for the Business or Ultimate editions, starting at $300.

Is there some actual, legitimate reason for doing this, or are they just being assholes?

Posted by Luis at 02:00 AM | Comments (1)

October 15, 2006

Extraordinarily Stupid Person Buys Mac, Can't Figure Out Squat

Man. If you know Macs, and want to see how stupid a person can be, check out this article. I had to check the site's main page to find out that it was not, in fact, a parody magazine--the guy's take on the Mac was so ridiculously wrong on so many counts, it seriously looked like a spoof. I've fallen for those before. But this time, it's for real--this guy is just plain dumb.

Let's go over the article's high points. First, a preview of his gripes from the second paragraph:

I was suckered in by the hype about freedom from viruses, simplicity of computing and versatility. Instead, I bought a boat anchor that can't view Web sites properly, is not compatible with Microsoft Word and can run only dumbed-down versions of regular software.
How do you respond to that? The Mac is not easy to use? He addresses that later on, but we'll see that his main complaint is that the Mac is not identical to Windows XP. Security he dismisses out of hand, as if it were not worth anything. "Not compatible with MS Word"? And "dumbed down versions" of software? But as I said, that's just a preview. Let's get down to his real gems:

I'll be lucky to get half of the $4,552.71 I paid for the Mac on May 21, 2006.
Here's a real sign of his cluelessness: he bought a pre-Intel professional-level Mac G5 just a few months before the Intel-based machines were released. That's like buying a brand-new, top-of-the-line VHS player today--you're buying into the old technology just a short time before it becomes outdated.

What's more, why did he buy a top-of-the-line desktop system? His previous computer was an IBM ThinkPad, for crying out loud. It sounds like he loaded it up with massive amounts of RAM as well--and the costs would not be less for a similarly-equipped Windows PC (a common fallacy in this article--complain about the Mac for having the same downsides as every other computer out there). Why not get the Intel iMac 20-incher, already out by that time? It would have cost less than half as much, and almost certainly would have met his needs--probably more so, as it could run Windows as well. And all he talks about is running Word, PowerPoint, and the browser--no 3-D gaming or video editing. Clearly he bought the wrong computer. The iMac is plenty fast for his stated needs. This guy clearly did not do his market research, at all. And this guy works as a marketing consultant?

I liked the sexy FireWire with its zippy transfer speeds, although I used it only to transfer data to my external hard drive.
Another sign of cluelessness. Firewire is 400 Mbps. USB 2, which has been out for a few years now and is standard on all computers including Macs, is 480 Mbps. Maybe he's talking about the Firewire-b port, which goes up to 800 Mbps--but that speed is only of use if you have super-fast peripherals, like a heavy-duty RAID array. Video editing pros need it, for example. A law firm marketing consultant, though? What for? The hard drive he mentioned was likely an out-of-the-box consumer drive, which uses only a fraction of the Firewire speeds.
The signs of doom were there on day one, but I ignored them. I pretended that I liked the one button mouse. I quickly started using click + command keys (and other keyboard shortcuts). I really missed the little scrolling wheel in the center of the mouse.
What the hell is he talking about? First, the Power Macs selling in May 2006 came with the Mighty Mouse, a 4-button mouse with a scroll ball (more versatile than a scroll wheel). How idiotic do you have to be to not realize there are three extra buttons on your mouse? Did this guy read no manual and speak to no Mac user?

Second, even if he was given a one-button mouse, he could easily just buy any USB mouse out there and it would work fine. What is wrong with PC users that they can't buy any mouse that was not shipped with the computer? I got a Windows machine and didn't like the old-style ball mouse they gave me, so I went out and bought a laser mouse. It's not brain surgery.

I put up with the fact that the HP printer, which I had purchased on the recommendation of an Apple Store, would work about 50 percent of the time with the Mac. I was constantly deleting print jobs and starting them over.
I have an HP printer, and it works beautifully. In fact, I don't even have to install the driver software, even if the specific driver for my printer is not installed in OS X; the Mac simply sees the printer, and makes up its own driver. I have only had trouble with network printers, and only in some cases even then. My PowerBook G4 easily connected to and used a Fuji-Xerox color copy machine on my office network, after just 30 seconds of setup. You have to be pretty inept not to be able to print correctly from a Mac.
I noticed it was slow; I saw that stupid spinning colored wheel a lot. The Mac would hang up; the TV ads said Macs didn't do that.
Here's another sign something was unusually wrong, or else he's massively exaggerating. Even though it was pre-Intel, the top-of-the-line Power Mac G5 was lightning fast. What was he trying to do that got him the spinning cursor "a lot"? He never reveals this. I suspect the exaggeration explanation. As for hangs and crashes, that depends on what software he uses, in what combinations. Maybe the guy was loading up with beta software; crashes with finished software are rare, at least in my experience. Again, he's probably exaggerating; frustrated people with a grudge do that a lot.
I did like the Finder because it was quick in locating files, but it would turn up a lot of false hits. It was comparable to the Google Desktop searcher on my PC.
It's called "refining your search terms." False hits are a problem endemic to all search engines, PC or Mac. So how does this show the Mac is worse? And does this guy not appreciate all the advantages in Spotlight over Windows alternatives, even despite the software's version-1 shortcomings?
What drove me nuts was that I would open Word for Mac and couldn't delete files while I was in Word. There is no File | Delete option.
This is something that I suspect a lot of people would not recognize, and this guy does not even correctly identify it. He's talking about the ability in Windows to manipulate files and folders from within the navigation dialog box--say, when you do an "Open" or "Save" command, and you want to look for where to open or save something. It's not a Word feature, it's part of the operating system.

It gets better:

So the documents took up space on my hard drive, until someone told me I had to find the document in Finder and then move it into the trash from there. This seemed stupid to me; I just wanted to highlight a file and tap "delete."
How dumb is that? This guy never caught on to the fact that in both Windows and the Mac that the standard way of manipulating files was in folder windows?

More amazing, without the ability to delete files in a dialog box, he would never delete any of his files? And by the way, how is his hard drive filling up with Word files? My superpowers of observation tell me he's exaggerating an inconvenience again. Create more folders and organize, Pointdexter.

Look, I'll admit right here and now that I like that ability in Windows, and would like to see the Mac pick it up--but to be chained to it so absolutely that he could think of no other way to function is so computer-illiterate to be laughable--at least for a guy who puts on the airs of writing an article about it in the media. Or are complete N00bs commonly writing tech articles now?

The really vapid thing here is that even after he's told how to do it the standard way, he sees it as a chore that is somehow more difficult, when it is practically the same thing, just in a different location. Instead of opening a dialog box in Word, just open a window in the Finder. Navigation is virtually the same--easier on a Mac, in fact. To get rid of the file, instead of tapping "Delete," tap "Command-delete." I know it's rocket science, but get with the program.

Word files transferred from the Mac were missing pictures. PowerPoint files transferred from the Mac would lose their formatting. PCs and Macs are not compatible, regardless of what they say.
Interesting--I transfer Word and PowerPoint files with my students, who use PCs, all the time, and I never have these problems. My guess though: the pictures that disappeared were in a file format that his version of Office for the Mac could read, but the Windows version of Office could not. I would guess that he saved the file using Office for Mac 2004, and tried to open it in Office for Windows 2000. I know that causes this kind of problem a lot. In short, he's probably whining about the Mac because he's too thick to figure out that the software version is different. This is true on Windows-to-Windows compatibility as well; it's a universal software version incompatibility, not an OS shortcoming. As for the loss of formatting, I'd be willing to bet he used a font on the Mac that didn't exist on the PC--which would be his error, not the computer's.
The multiple clicking to accomplish simple tasks was a constant annoyance. Things I could do with a PC in two keystrokes took four or five clicks with the Mac. To do a "fast print" required clicking File, Print, find Copies & Pages, click Paper Type/Quality, click Normal and finally clicking Fast Draft. And there was no way to leave the setting as the default. I had to do it manually every time.
He's basing the ease-of-use of the OS on a single printing task? How about doing a find-file between the two OS's? A far more common task where the Mac does in one stroke what takes five or more for the PC. How about mounting and ejecting USB flash memory sticks? How about creating a new folder within a file & folder window? How about changing screen resolutions? How about setting up printers? I could go on and on; the list of things a Mac does faster is a lot longer than the list of things you can do faster on a PC.
Doing a simple screen capture was an immense chore. On a PC you just press Alt and tap PrtScr. With the Mac I had to download and launch special programs to accomplish this simple task.
So, doing a Command-shift-3 is an "immense chore"? (By the way, a screen capture on Windows in not what he says it is--he's describing a window capture, not a screen capture!) This guy is wailing on the Mac because he's too damned lazy to even look up the keyboard shortcuts? (Three clicks: System Preferences, Keyboard & Mouse, Keyboard Shortcuts. Boom.) The same shortcuts he could easily customize on a Mac but not in Windows? You don't have to open the "Grab" application (which, by the way, comes pre-installed on your Mac) to do a screen grab on the Mac; that app is mostly good for "timed" screen grabs, so you can get a picture of the cursor in action, pulling down menus and such.

In fact, the Mac is easier and more versatile here than Windows. In Windows, you only have the keyboard shortcuts "Print screen" (to capture the whole screen) and "Alt-Print screen" (to capture the image of a window or dialog box). On the Mac, there are six keyboard shortcuts (most of them customizable), for capturing the whole screen, a window/dialog box/any-object-selected, or a custom-sized area you define, and to save it to the clipboard or as a file on the Desktop. With a free utility, you can specify where the file is saved and what image format it is saved as.

Here's a perfect example of the Mac being way better than Windows, but this guy is just too dumb to realize it.

I didn't even bother with the Mac's iCal or Mail, which required me to buy an @mac.com address.
Wrong. Mail can work freely with any email account, just like any other software. iCal works fine without .Mac as well; the mac.com address only serves as a convenient way to publicly publish your calendars and sync them between multiple computers--things you can achieve anyway if you have a bit of technical knowledge.
Instead, I went straight to Outlook for Mac. A lot of the software for Mac -- such as AOL for Mac OS X -- was dumbed down and missing may features of the current PC versions.
AOL for Mac was his prime example of dumbed-down software? And the outdated and feature-poor Outlook was an example of better software than what comes with a Mac? What a buffoon.
For me the killer was the Web browser. Safari simply cannot read Flash. It is, quite simply, a second-rate browser.
That's funny, my version of Safari reads Flash fine. In fact, I had to get special software to selectively disable Flash animations on Safari, they annoy me so much! Did he try downloading the plug-in? As for my Mac, I didn't need to--the Flash plug-in was included when I installed OS X.

Now, it is true that some web designers lazily create their sites so they only work cleanly for Internet Explorer, but that's the web designers' fault, not the Mac's. You'll find the same difficulties with Firefox. It's not anyone else's fault that some web designers are exclusive because they don't want to work hard enough to check their pages on different browsers and do the necessary touch-up work. Besides, finding a web site that doesn't work in Safari is not an everyday experience; aside from a Google app or two, in fact, I can't recall encountering a non-functional page in Safari for some time now.

I even called Apple headquarters and asked when a better version would be available and was told that Apple is in no hurry to improve it.
Yeah. Right. I'm sure that's exactly what they told him. I'd bet a lot that he's either lying about even calling them, was unable to explain his problem clearly because of his ineptitude, or that he's massively exaggerating again--or the last two combined.
On the suggestions of friends, I downloaded Netscape and Firefox, which were no better.
I rest my case.
I scraped along with Internet Explorer 5.0 for Mac, and then discovered in 2006 that Microsoft would no longer support the Mac version.
This explains why his browsing experience on the Mac sucked--he used the crappiest possible browser, in a version several years out of date, just because he couldn't figure out how to play Flash animations on a web page he visited in Safari. What a loser. A coworker of mine emailed me a few weeks ago to complain of web sites not working and that his browsing experience on the Mac sucked big-time. He was amazed when I accurately guessed that he was using Internet Explorer, and after I got him started on Safari, he had no complaints.
I run several Web sites, all optimized for IE 5.5 or higher.
Here's another clue. He's one of the lazy designers who "optimizes" for Internet Explorer. He apparently does not know that "optimizing for Explorer" means that instead of using universal coding so that every browser can read the page, he instead codes specifically for the Explorer browser in an exclusive way that simply shuts out visitors not using Microsoft's software. Then he whines about Safari "not working."
I couldn't operate my own Web sites with the Mac. That was the straw that broke the camel's back.
Say what? How, exactly, could he not operate a web site using a Mac? I do it just fine. Oh, I bet I know--he probably still uses Microsoft FrontPage and can't find a Mac version. Outside of that, there's no reason he can't use a Mac for this, not that I can figure--and I run several web sites myself just fine, thank you.
Then the hard drive croaked on me after only three months of owning the machine. I couldn't tell what was going wrong and had to hire someone for $125 an hour to come over and tell me what the heck was happening. Apple replaced it for free, but I became leery of what other hardware would fail unexpectedly.
Here's a clue: hardware can fail on any machine. You expect the Mac to never have hardware problems? How does the fact that a hard drive failed make the Mac any different than a Windows PC?

Furthermore, you had to hire a guy at $125 an hour to tell you that your hard drive wouldn't work? And you claim the expertise of running several web sites? The author claimed he went to an Apple Store before buying his printer, which means he had access to a Genius Bar. Sure, it's a pain to haul the big Power Mac chassis into the store, but it has those big handles on it, and surely it would be worth saving $125 an hour?

This is the definitive Ugly-Windows-User bashing of the Mac. A moron who doesn't bother to read up or learn how a Mac is different or what it can do, then complains when his Mac doesn't act like Windows. If I posted a blog entry on Windows that was as stupid as this article is, I would be too embarrassed to write again at all for a month, and would never expect anyone to trust anything I wrote about computers ever again.

There is one fringe benefit to this, however: if I ever need market consulting, I know exactly who not to call for assistance. If this guy is so clueless about operating a simple computer, I wouldn't trust him to do anything more complicated than driving a stick-shift, following a recipe for cookies, or programming a VCR--and probably not even that much.

Posted by Luis at 02:08 AM | Comments (5)

October 14, 2006

Yet Another Reason to Avoid Vista: The Pervasiveness of Virtual Serfdom

As if there weren't enough reasons not to get Vista already, Microsoft keeps coming out new ones. This time it's one related to the license: Microsoft will limit the number of times you can transfer Vista's license to a new computer. So let's say you buy Vista for your existing computer, then you decide to get a Mac, for example, and license it to that. The next time you buy a new computer, or if you want to simply switch to a different computer, you'll have to buy Vista all over again--even if you disable Vista on your older machines. Even if this will not effect you directly, the whole idea is offensive in principle.

This is not true on Macs--in fact, Mac OS X doesn't require activation--hell, Mac OS X doesn't even have a freakin' serial number or "product key"! They just trust you to use it honestly. But they wisely do not even try to do anti-piracy measures which would probably accomplish little aside from massively annoying their customers. Now, it is true that Apple tends to care more about selling hardware--heck, before Mac OS 7.5, the Mac OS was always free. But in principle, Apple's way is far more attractive.

The idea of individual ownership is quickly disappearing, and is being replaced by a system akin to serfdom, where the serf (you) is not allowed actual ownership, so that the master (the corporation) maintains control. As the information age develops, "license agreements" pervade in a way that limit your ownership of something. If you buy a movie on your computer, the studios want to limit the license agreement so that even after you've paid your money, the studios still control how you watch the movie, and on which appliances. While the claim is that they are trying to avoid piracy, that's bull--they just want to limit it so they can sell you the same thing all over again in a different format, and still control what you "own."

Examples of this abound. One variation is the "region encoding" of DVDs, which restricts the buyer of a DVD to play that DVD in the same geographic region where they bought it. For example, I live in Japan, which is region 2; however, I want to buy DVDs from the U.S., which is region 1. But when I try to play a region 1 DVD in a region 2 player, it won't work; they want to force me to buy the DVD in Japan. Why? To fight piracy, they'll claim. Again, bull. Pirates can easily, effortlessly get rid of the region encoding. They don't want to stop pirates, they want to stop legitimate consumers from getting around regional pricing and release dates. If I buy DVDs in Japan, they cost about 50% more, and are usually released months after the U.S. release. Region encoding is not to protect from pirating, it is to protect the profits of the movie studios.

In short, any license agreement at the individual consumer level has one purpose: to make more money for the vendor by denying true ownership to the purchaser.

The whole "licensing" business is as if you bought a new car, but the "license agreement" only allowed you to drive the car to work, and you are forbidden to do shopping or leisure using the vehicle; for that, you need to buy another car. And just to make sure you follow the license agreement, the car dealer will have someone follow your car around to make sure you honor it, ready to disable your car should you stop off at the convenience store. That is the effective analogy for what these "intellectual property" vendors are doing.

Microsoft's one-license-transfer-only policy could be equated to giving a car to a new family member. When you buy the car, you may sell it or give it to one person, but that person must then keep it or throw it away--the car may not be given to another person again, ever.

The Vista scheme is a sham because the transfer of the license to a new computer could be performed in a way that ensures the copy on the older machine is disabled. But the probable reason Microsoft is doing this is because their whole "activation" scheme costs them money in terms of hiring telephone operators to help people with the process; to avoid the extra cost of assuming you're a criminal, they want to limit your legal property rights.

Here's a radical concept: when you buy something, you own it. You can do whatever the hell you want with it. Since information can be duplicated, and that is a form of stealing, that can be forbidden rightfully. But beyond that, what you own, you control. This whole license crap is nothing but a way to deprive individuals of the right of legitimate ownership.

Posted by Luis at 12:05 PM | Comments (0)

October 07, 2006

Will Vista Really Stop Pirating?

Historically, safeguards against pirating have been unsuccessful. Perhaps the only real ironclad anti-pirating scheme has been the dongle--a small device you plug into a peripheral port (USB today, Serial in the past) which must be present in order for the software to work. Naturally, this cannot be used often (else we'd have twenty or thirty dongles hanging off our machines); it has been used mostly with specific, often professional-level, and usually expensive software packages. But since it requires a specific piece of hardware, it has been a good protection against piracy--perhaps the only one.

One of the problems with anti-piracy is that you risk alienating the customer. At most, the paying customer should have to type in a serial number at the start, and then not have to worry about anything else while using the product. But serial numbers can be copied, and usually are. New versions can be released that reject the often-used serial numbers that get distributed by pirates, but new serial numbers just get passed around. On the Mac platform, there is even a special piece of software, called "iSerial Reader," that reads a data package called "Serial Box," which someone updates and releases every month; the list of software included in pretty exhaustive. For Windows, there are similar lists, and there are also "keygen" programs that will dynamically generate serial numbers for software.

More stringent forms of anti-piracy have been tried, but they usually backfire: hackers always find a way to get around the protections, so pirates are not affected, while legitimate, paying customers are much more inconvenienced. Many schemes have been tried in the past, and honest people have often gotten burned--software that locks up, software that can't be re-copied if your system is re-installed, so forth and so on. Microsoft and Adobe are among the companies that have tried "activation," which requires you to contact the company and effectively tie your copy of the software to your machine, after confirming the actual purchase. But there are activation cracks and patches all over the 'net now, meaning that while you, who shelled out hard-earned cash for the product, are waiting on hold to talk to a service rep to activate your software, pirates have already breezed through on their own.

One very controversial way to stop pirating is to use the user's connection to the Internet. Since most people log on to the Internet every day, why not put a feature in the software that, when the software is opened, it looks for the Internet connection, and when it finds it, it calls home. Then the software company can collect data on who has unique serial numbers and clean software, and which of the users are being naughty. Adobe tried this, as did other companies. The problem: it is considered spying, and an illegal breach of privacy.

Microsoft's recent solution, however, is a variation on that theme. Since any company will release new software updates on a regular basis, why not use that window of opportunity? So when you want to get Internet Explorer 7, for example, you have to wait a moment during the installation process while Microsoft comes at you through your DSL connection, searches your computer for pirated software, and then gives you the all-clear to go ahead and get the new goodies. I'm not sure why people who would not accept the "call home" invasion of privacy would be just fine with this new "wait while we validate all your software" scheme, but it seems to be sailing through without a firestorm of any sort, despite being almost as intrusive. In fact, since the process potentially allows Microsoft to check not just the software being installed, but virtually all the software on your system, it seems far more intrusive. But, so far, I haven't heard any objections beyond a few simple comments of distaste.

So we now get to the original question: will Microsoft's new scheme actually work? Or will pirates find a way to circumvent all of this strip-search stuff while the paying customer has his hands up against the wall and hears the latex snap? If history is any guide, the answer is easy: of course they will. If not immediately, then over time. They always have, except for the dongle solution.

I recall a story from a few years back, where a giant corporation spent huge amounts of money developing a copy-protection system for optical discs with media on them. After spending untold millions, after many years of research, followed by a big public debut where they claimed the system would stop pirates cold, the copy-protection scheme was defeated in a matter of hours by a hacker, using nothing more than a felt-tipped pen. Apparently, all you had to do was cover over the part of the disc that had the copy protection on it, and the whole thing was defeated.

Microsoft's new system may be a bit harder to beat than that, but one rarely loses money gambling on the resourcefulness of pirates. They will very likely soon find a way to patch the license files in a way that will fool Microsoft's activation measures, even if it has to be dynamically updated each time Microsoft catches on--though it's more likely that the pirates will find ways to make it too hard for Microsoft to differentiate between pirates and legitimate users. If Microsoft's system is much better than that and can't be beaten dynamically, it might even force pirates to create what you might call "pirate system environments"--instead of interacting with Microsoft to get updates which require validation, instead you wait for the pirates to hack each update as it comes out, adding it to your system after it becomes defanged. This would circumvent the validation process and keep Bill Gates' nose out of your underwear.

In the end, it may just be necessary for these big corporations to be satisfied with the billions they make, and stop obsessing on every dime they miss--mostly because they don't really miss out on much. After all, just as with shoplifting, the cost of software piracy is included in the legitimate price of the software. Already bearing that burden, it's the legitimate users who, in the end, are most inconvenienced by the anti-pirating measures anyway. And let's face it, the software giants who will benefit from Microsoft's new scheme are very hard to feel sympathy for, despite recent attempts to look all doe-eyed and weepy.

Microsoft is now announcing, in defense of their new scheme, that "software piracy is not a victimless crime." Yeah, but when the victim is Bill Gates, and the crime leaves him with fifty billion dollars instead of sixty billion dollars, it's kind of hard to get all worked up about it, especially when Gates says that the answer is the crawl up your backside with a microscope after you forked over hundreds of dollars to him.

Posted by Luis at 10:42 AM | Comments (1)

October 05, 2006

More Reasons to Dislike Vista

You may have been reading this in the news lately, if you pay attention to the computer section: Microsoft is up to its old tricks again. With Windows 98, MS used its ownership of the operating system to lock out its competitors. By deciding that only its own Internet Explorer browser would appear on the Desktop, and further, integrating the browser into the operating system itself, it dealt a crushing blow to Netscape, the browser that once dominated the market.

Go ahead, ask any PC user which browser they use. When most of them reply "Internet Explorer," ask them if they chose it after making comparisons and finding the best-quality software. Of course, they'll simply tell you that they use it because it's the one that was on the Desktop when they bought the computer. Fact is, Internet Explorer 6, which most people still use, it the single crappiest browser out there, and the most dangerous to boot. The fact that it's the most popular is a testament to the crippling power of owning the dominant OS.

And now Microsoft is doing it again. With Windows Vista, MS is using its ownership of the operating system to lock out competitors; this time, it's the anti-virus crowd, where Symantec and McAfee are the big boys. Now, I have no great love for those companies, as you may have noticed; they often release malware warning about the Mac that are loaded with hyperbole and scare-mongering designed to sell product, rather than to protect computers. But then, I have no great love for Microsoft, either, and my biases don't stop MS's action from being just as wrong now as they were in the 90's.

Ever since SP2 for XP came out, you'll have noticed that Windows now has a highly intrusive "Security Center." Consisting of a "Firewall," "Automatic Updates," and "Virus Protection," the system makes it well known to you that all kinds of security-related stuff is going on. This system hugely annoyed me when it was installed in SP2. I turned most of it off because I didn't need it. I don't download software that might have spyware and adware, and I do almost all my browsing and email on my Mac. I left the Firewall on, but that was it. So I discovered that when you turn off the "protection" that the security center offers, Windows relentlessly reminds you, several times each session, that your computer is not protected. It could take you a bit to figure out how to turn all that junk off.

But if you want to use a third-party anti-virus solution, you might have to figure out how to do just that. Symantec and McAfee are complaining that consumers will be confused because their own "dashboards," or control panels, will be overshadowed by Microsoft's, and that to use the third-party software smoothly, each user would have to figure out how to turn off Microsoft's Security Center, at least to some degree. Having dealt with that myself, I have to admit that it's not the easiest process in the world.

Furthermore, the anti-virus makers complain that Windows Vista cuts off their access to the OS's kernel, the core of the operating system, making it more difficult for them to protect against malware. They called it, "locking out the good guys."

Microsoft sells its own anti-virus software, called "Windows Live OneCare," a $50 package that includes Windows Defender (which is included in Vista). MS's "OneCare" software would supplant Symantec's and McAfee's software.

And surprise, surprise: Vista's welcome screen includes a link to OneCare. Almost an exact replay of the Desktop placement of Internet Explorer. I can't find any information on what MS's future plans may be insofar as OneCare getting kernel access or even Desktop placement, but it doesn't take much imagination to figure out why the other anti-virus vendors are ticked off.

But that's not the only reason you might have to be dissatisfied with Microsoft's new security "improvements." It has been long known that as far as piracy and DRM are concerned, Vista is a monument to favoring industry over the customer. Vista effectively assumes you are a criminal, and treats you accordingly. Another aspect of that is that MS is getting plain nasty with anything that even looks like pirated software.

With its new programs, such as IE7 and the new WMP, Windows does an automatic "validation" of the OS. With Vista, reportedly, Microsoft will "lock up" any system that it finds to be non-valid. You'll find that your anti-spyware software will not work, your system will have limited capabilities, and you'll be given 30 days to cough up cash to Microsoft, during which time, you'll get "reminders" to pay with increasing frequency. After 30 days, the OS will allow access to the browser only, for one hour, presumably to let you contact MS and lay an offering of money at their feet. Even after the OS has been activated legitimately, validation checks for pirated software will continue to be made.

Of course, many will find all of this to be unacceptably intrusive, and there is pretty much no doubt that the system will inaccurately identify legitimate users as pirates, causing yet another I've-got-to-call-Microsoft-support headaches for paying users.

Are you still not convinced that you should get a Mac?

Posted by Luis at 11:02 AM | Comments (5)

September 30, 2006

Dead Pixel, Stuck Pixel, Dim Pixel, Fine Pixel

As I mentioned before, when I got my new 24-inch iMac, my initial worry was dead or stuck pixels. I thought there was one dead one, but now I'm not so sure. Let me explain from the beginning.

A "pixel" is named after the words "picture element," and refers to a single dot on a computer display. It's an element because you can't divide it further (in one sense). Each dot, or pixel, has its own unique color. Your display's image is made up of perhaps over a million such dots. The computer generates the display image by telling each pixel exactly which color it should take for any given refresh of the screen, and there are perhaps 60 or so refreshes per second.

The old, heavy CRT monitors "painted" the pixels on the screen, line by line, and could change the number of lines (rows of pixels) flexibly; this allowed them to change resolution (number of pixels on the screen) and still maintain a sharp, clean image. Because they "painted" the pixels with color guns, you never had problems with individual pixels on CRTs; instead, if one of the guns failed, you'd have a discolored screen.

The new, thin LCD monitors work differently. In these monitors, each pixel is a physical entity on the screen; each pixel is its own mechanism. If you peer really, really closely at your LCD screen (preferably on a white area), you might just be able to squint and see the tiny lines, little rows and columns of teensy little squares. Those are the physical pixels of the LCD monitor. Here's an image to save you some squinting:

Lcd1

Now, getting closer...

Lcd2

And closer yet...

Onepixel

Now you can see what a pixel on an LCD is really like. As you can see, each pixel actually has a red, green, and blue element. Those colors are the primary colors of light. By changing the brightness of each of the three colors from zero to full, you can create any color the human eye can see. For example, if you turn the red and green pixels on full and turn off the blue pixel, you get yellow. Turn on the red and the blue and turn off the green, it'll be purple (magenta). Turn all three on full, it'll be white; turn all off, and it's black.

So actually, each LCD pixel has three parts to it, each one working independently. My LCD screen has 1920 x 1200 pixels, or 2,304,00 pixels. Count the color elements, and the LCD screen has 6,912,000 working parts.

We whine about dead and stuck pixels, but when you consider it, the ability to make a very expensive single piece of equipment with almost seven million working parts and not a single one of them failing--well, that's one hell of an accomplishment, when you think about it. Frankly, it's amazing they can make such screens without any malfunctioning pixels.

But parts do come out bad, and that's what we have to deal with. The two most common ways for an LCD screen to have something wrong is with "stuck" pixels and "dead" pixels. In each case, it is commonly not the entire pixel, but usually one color element within the pixel that goes bad. In a "stuck" pixel, one of the color elements turns on and never turns off until the monitor is shut down. A "dead" pixel is the reverse--the color element, or sometimes the whole pixel, remains dark. Here are a few examples of "stuck" pixels:

Stpx1-1

Stpx2-1

Stuck pixels show up best against a dark screen, so you'll notice them most when you're watching a video with dark scenes.

A "dead" pixel will appear to be a tiny speck on your screen--you will often mistake it for a bit of dust, or conversely, you'll mistake a piece of dust for a dead pixel. Here's one that was on my Powerbook screen, before I had it swapped out last month:

Lcd4

Only the green element was dead, not the whole pixel.

So, getting back to the subject I started with, my new iMac. When I got it, I noted that there was one dead pixel up near the top left of the screen, apparently with the green element out. It seemed even smaller than I had seen a dead pixel look like before. At first I thought it was the larger screen and the pixels were smaller, but that's not the case--Apple keeps the pixels about the same size.

So I decided to photograph it, that being the best way to see tiny details too small for the naked eye. Strangely, the photos showed no dead pixel elements. I looked at the monitor with my eyes, and sure enough, there was the dark dot. What the?

I started up Photoshop, and created a red, green, and blue image. By moving each color over the malfing pixel, I could see which elements might be mucked up. Sure enough, when I looked at the blue and the red, the dead pixel "disappeared"; when I put it on green, the dead pixel stood out. It was the green element, all right.

So why were my photos showing no dead pixels? After a bit of experimenting, I found out why: the pixel's green element isn't dead--it's dim. I'd never heard of that before, but there it is. Here's an image of the pixel with a green image; the red and blue elements will be dark, accentuating the green. You have to look carefully to see the one green element that's dimmer than the others.

Dimpixel

Can you see it? It's on the same pixel row as the horizontal bar of the "plus" cursor, with the arrow pointing at it.

Frankly, I'm amazed I even noticed it with my naked eyes--I must have pretty good vision. That explains why it's not so dark as a dead pixel, and probably why I have to strain to even see it. I never even knew pixels could be permanently dim like this--now I do.

Posted by Luis at 12:21 PM | Comments (2)

September 27, 2006

Somebody Remind Me

Why the hell would anyone want to upgrade to Windows Vista? I've had a chance to try it out, and I have to wonder what advantages it gives. There are improvements, but this is the result of five years of work? For the most part, Vista looks like dressed-up and warmed-over XP, with bits of old Apple tech thrown on top.

I really thought there would be something more, well, surprising about the system. But there isn't. It's an old sow in a new dress, not much more. Aside from the search feature being better, it really seems to me that little of this will impact the common user much. In fact, in order to make it look cooler, Microsoft has mostly just rearranged existing XP features in a way that might do more harm than good; it might, in fact, make it just as hard for XP users to figure out the new interface as it would be for them to migrate to OS X and get used to that interface--which, when it comes down to it, would be a much better move.

Let me go over the list Microsoft gives in their "What's New in Vista" window.

V-Search

First, the search is now better--but mostly because, as with many points in Vista, they ripped off Apple. There is now a search window in the top right corner of each open window, complete with a magnifying-glass icon which looks like they stole it directly from Leopard Tiger. I haven't had the chance to test it while searching tens of thousands of files, so I can't compare speed, but according to reports, the full speed optimization had to be left out, so it's probably still slower than Mac's Tiger.

V-PermissionMicrosoft touts security as a new feature (that sounds about right). But as others have reported, it's in-your-face security. Prepare to have confirmation dialogs pop up at you twice as often, if not more, than when using a Mac--and it's still not as secure a system.

Internet Explorer is touted as a new feature, because finally, after many, many years, it has barely caught up with Safari and Firefox. Yippee. I'm convinced--should I switch now or later? Update: One important feature missing from IE7: you can't open a folder full of bookmarks into tabs with one click. You have to open each tab one at a time. That's a big omission, and a strange one. I have about 30 web sites I scan daily, set up in 4 or 5 folders on my bookmarks toolbar. With each click, I get a toolbar full of my favorite sites. IE7, apparently, will make me open them all one at a time. No thanks.

Sync and sharing is another feature--one the Mac has had for, what, five years now? They even tout the "Ease of Access Center," for people with disabilities. It's still warmed-over mush, not as nicely done as the Mac's. One feature I always use in OS X is the excellent zoom feature, which does exactly what it says--zooms in and out. The whole monitor becomes a zoom-in of any part of your screen, to whatever degree of zoom you want, controlled either by keyboard shortcuts you dictate, or (as I recently discovered on my new iMac) a control-scrollwheel move.

In contrast, Vista still has the same old useless part-screen zoom, which keeps the lower half of the screen at normal size, while the top half shows the zoomed version of the lower half. Not only does this cut your screen real estate in half, the two halves of the screen easily confuse the user.

Parental Controls sounds a bit more advanced than the Mac's, so if you're a concerned parent who does not have any other means of control over your kids, this might be useful.

The Backup and Restore Center is a wanna-be Time Machine, but Leopard will have this beat, easily.

Microsoft has a new Networks/Meeting Space idea, which apparently lets users congregate in shared folders and collaborate on files. While this may be good news for businesses, I can't really see normal users getting anything out of this.

Vista also talks up their new version of Windows Media Player and the ability to work with Pictures--can you say "iTunes and iPhoto"? Where's iMovie, iDVD, iWeb, iCal, and the rest?

V-InfobarOne "helpful" feature which annoyed me a lot is Vista's information box, the little rectangle that pops up after half a second of cursor-hovering to inform you about what you're hovering over. I keep wanting it to go away, as it covers up what I'm trying to get to next. It reminds me of those double-underlined links on web pages that make pop-up ads appear. Annoying as hell. And in typical Windows fashion, I can't figure out how to turn the damned thing off. I checked a half-dozen control panels, including the logical place--the Mouse control panel, under the cursor ("pointer") control--but nothing.

Then there's the Sidebar, with Gadgets--a rip-off of Apple's Dashboard with Widgets (which, to be fair, is a rip-off of Konfabulator software). But Apple's implementation is far better--you can make it appear at any time, but you can also make it go away--which is not what the "Sidebar" does, as far as I can figure out.

Then there is the hidden stuff--the most prevalent being Microsoft's new DRM features, which are designed to spy on you and protect businesses like movie studios and record labels. Using euphemisms like "Genuine Advantage" and "Plays for Sure," they sound like they were cooked up by the Bush administration, with their flair for naming things in ways that contradict the real purpose, like "Clear Skies" or the "Patriot Act." The "genuine" advantage is for corporations that assume you're a thief and want a spy perched on your desktop; "Plays for Sure" will play, sure, but only titles that pass DRM inspection. There is no advantage for the user here, only loss of privacy and flexibility.

I haven't had too long to play with it yet, but those are the impressions that pop out at me. The eye candy is nice, the new search is good (though I have simple learned to live without searching--XP forced me to organize better on Windows), but the UI changes will have people confused for a few weeks. If I really wanted to, I could force myself to use it and possibly get used to it (except for those damned info-tags), but the question is, "why?"

I really can't see a reason why you'd want to switch from XP to this. Of course, then again, I also can't see why you'd want to use XP over the Mac OS, so clearly I'm biased here. Still, it's a matter of gradations. At least each new Mac OS version has new stuff, cool stuff, really useful stuff, after 12-18 months of development. After 5 years, Microsoft has little to show for all that work.

For more screenshots, go here.

Posted by Luis at 11:35 PM | Comments (5)

September 22, 2006

ESP ESL

You really have to check out this presentation on Google Video. Not because the presenter is named "Luis," but because the presentation he gives is really fascinating. I got wind of it from the Google Blog, and appropriately enough, it is related to search engines. Specifically, it focuses on computer/human intelligence, for example, labels given to photographs on the web.

Professor Luis von Ahn has worked out a very clever way of labeling images on the web, using "wasted" computational cycles... of human brains. He points out that billions of human work hours are spent on playing Solitaire, thousands of times more each year than were used to build the Empire State Building or the Panama Canal. He also points out that most images on the web do not carry labels, which are (a) the only way that visually impaired people can know what an image on a web page is, and (b) necessary for good search engine results when looking for images.

He solves this problem by making a game called The ESP Game (go ahead, give it a try!). In this game, two complete strangers from the Internet, logged on to the game at random, are paired together, but they cannot communicate. They are both shown the same image and asked to type words that best describe the image. If they type the same word, they get points; the faster they guess the same word, the more points they get. As a result, the answers they give tend to be more accurate and generated in less time. As words become verified as belonging to the image more and more, they are added to a "taboo list" of words the players are not allowed to guess, ensuring that the labels for the image are extensive and complete.

Of course, even with protections against cheating (many people could conspire to log on at the same time and give the same answer to all images, for example), common misconceptions or even certain opinions tend to creep in. An image of Walter Matthau with a big mustache was not labeled with the actor's name, but did get labeled "Saddam" and "Mr. Wilson" (Matthau played that character in Dennis the Menace). An image of George W. Bush, on the other hand, received the labels "President," "George," "Bush," "Man," "Dumb," and "Yuck."

One side benefit of this game: It helps people learn English. When you think about it, that makes great sense--enough so that I am going to suggest this game to my students as a way to increase their vocabulary--an area they often ask for help with and is difficult to do.

Another game that gives even further data on images is "Peekaboom," which has one player slowly reveal an image to another based upon a keyword given for the image; as the image is revealed to the second player, they have to correctly guess the word the first player has been given. This lets the database know where in each photo any particular keyword is located. In addition to also being a good English-language game, Peekaboom also helps programmers design image recognition software.

There are other games, and a lot more very interesting stuff in the 51-minute presentation. If you have a free hour, I'd recommend giving it a look.

Posted by Luis at 08:14 AM | Comments (0)

September 21, 2006

HD/BD-DVD±R/RW/RAM/DL/RE, M-O-U-S-E

If you're confused about all the different DVD formats, don't worry. You have a right to be. You might also be confused by the current high-definition format war, and again rightfully so--it's a real ping-pong match going on.

First, Blu-Ray seemed like they had it sewn up, when the Sony PS3 game console was planned to provide the platform cheaply and widely, and more movie studios backed the higher-capacity format. But then HD-DVD lurched ahead with its hardware being released month earlier and at half the cost of stand-alone Blu-Ray recorders, and the Microsoft X-Box will ship with $170 HD-DVDs. Blu-Ray still seems to be ahead in general, but it is much more of a toss-up today. Both formats have a few dozen films selling already on their discs.

I went to a PC store the other day and noticed a Blu-Ray burner being sold. Both formats are about to hit the market in a fairly big way. And probably a lot of people will be hanging back, waiting to see who is going to win the Beta-vs.-VHS rematch. As it turns out, however, it may turn out to be less of a Death Match and more of an uneasy truce.

The clue, really, was in a different DVD war: the fight between DVD-plus and DVD-minus formats. It's possible that you don't know what I'm talking about, but there are two different fundamental formats for writing recordable DVDs, the kind you can burn on many computers today (and probably all computers a few years from now). There are actually so many DVD formats now that it could make your head spin: DVD-ROM, Video-DVD, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, DVD-R DL, DVD+R DL, and DVD-RAM. DVD-ROMs and Video-DVDs can be played in almost any player; after that, there is the minus family (DVD-R/RW/RAM) and the plus family (DVD+R/RW), each family also having a dual-layered (DL) version. And if that's not enough to make your head spin faster than the discs themselves, there are even more different varieties of recorders and players.

But the main fight was between plus and minus--until, of course, we got hybrid DVD recorder/players, commonly tagged "DVD±R/RW." These drives could accommodate both families, thus more or less ending the format war. Oh, it still rages, in some ways--Minus tends to be ahead, but Plus got the dual-layered discs out earlier and gained a bit of an edge. For example, the drive I'm getting with my 24-inch iMac is a DVD+R DL / DVD±R/RW / CD-R/RW drive, commonly referred to simply as a "Super Drive." If your drive is hybrid and plays DVD-RAMs as well, it's a "Super Multi Drive." And so on.

The point here is that hybrids came along and--at least for the consumer--made the whole "format war" kind of moot. And that's what seems to be happening in the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD format war as well. Betamax and VHS couldn't easily have had a hybrid to marry them together, but the DVD formats can, as they all use the same size media, and they are electronic in nature, which means the machines that read them can be highly flexible. A hybrid Blu-Ray and HD-DVD (not to mention standard DVD) is inevitable, and now Warner Brothers seems ready to make Sony (Blu-Ray) and Toshiba (HD-DVD) play nice, with a new technology that allows for the discs themselves to be hybrids--one disc, for example, could be either DVD and HD-DVD, DVD and Blu-Ray, or HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. (This follows Toshiba itself trying to make its own hybrid disk, combining HD-DVD and DVDs.) Eventually, I think you can count on seeing recorders and players coming out that can read and write all formats as well. But that may not come for a few years.

In the meantime, get used to more alphabet soup. HD-DVD is sticking close to standard nomenclature, calling their discs HD-DVD-ROM, HD-DVD-R, and HD-DVD-RW, in 15GB capacity (30GB coming soon). Blu-Ray, however, is redoing the naming, calling their disks BD-ROM, BD-R, and BD-RE (rewritable), available in 25GB and 50GB capacities.

In case you were wondering, here is the basic pricing for all the different formats, in Japan (Yodobashi Camera) and in America (Amazon.com):

Japan
America
DVD-R
$0.64
$0.25
4.7GB
DVD+R
$0.96
$0.33
4.7GB
DVD-RW
$2.30
$1.20
4.7GB
DVD+RW
$2.47
$1.10
4.7GB
DVD-R DL
$7.48*
n/a
8.5GB
DVD+R DL
$6.43
$1.60
8.5GB
DVD-RAM
$8.88
$5.89
9.4GB
Blu-Ray BD-R
$15.14*
$12.40*
25GB
HD-DVD-R
n/a
n/a ($20?)
15GB
Blu-Ray BD-RE
$21.09*
$25.00*
25GB
HD-DVD-RW
n/a
n/a
15GB
Blu-Ray BD-RE
$36.40*
n/a
50GB

The * denotes discs that were sold in single packs only; the rest were sold at discount in packs or spindles containing anywhere from 5 to 100 discs each. Note the interesting divide in pricing; standard DVD media costs significantly less in the U.S. than it does in Japan (following the pricing structure for electronics in general), but the Blu-Ray media is more evenly priced. I could not find any blank HD-DVD media being sold, but I did find one secondhand report of a Memorex 15GB HD-DVD-R disc being sold at Fry's Electronics in the U.S. for $20--take it with a grain of salt.

I hope you are now perhaps slightly less perplexed than when you came in. Frankly, I think that the DVD industry should adopt a universal motto, that being, "Hail Eris!" Fnord!

Posted by Luis at 01:14 AM | Comments (3)

September 04, 2006

Vista Rush?

After The Windows Vista Beta 2 was so buggy and crash-prone that testers virtually demanded a third Beta release, Microsoft instead went ahead and moved on to Release Candidate 1. I haven't seen much word yet about RAM requirements, but early versions demanded 1 GB, and Beta 2 needed 700 MB. The claim now is that 512 MB of RAM will do, but I doubt that you could run much more than the basic OS with just that.

So far, people are claiming that RC1 is a lot less buggy than the last Beta, but there are still long delays with installing and booting, and other problems (ZDNet called it "unbaked") which may require a second "Candidate" release. Even so, MS seems to be rushing here, concerned more with the deadline than with possible quality issues. It's still keeping its options open, though--despite XP's RC1 being accompanied by a specific release date, Vista's RC1 is not, so if more time is needed, MS hasn't painted themselves into too restrictive a corner.

Additionally, not everyone is excited about Vista's pricing, which is at $200 for the basic Home version and $400 for Pro ($100 and $260 for upgrades, respectively). The upgrade prices are deceptive, though--few people who have been running XP have computers brawny enough to handle Vista, which means that more people will probably be getting it bundled with new computers they'll have to buy--which, rebates or not, will up the price considerably.

Posted by Luis at 10:16 PM | Comments (1)

August 29, 2006

Okay, Maybe Eudora Is Getting Weak

Every day now, at least a few spam messages get through, sometimes with recurring types or themes--for example, spam with email addresses that read "???@???" with absolutely no message, or a very specific address pattern, like "12345@12345.br", with only the repeating number changing. Seems like once I identified these as spam, Eudora should be able to filter very similar ones in the future, but no, they keep getting through.

Today, I just got a new spam that Eudora absolutely should have gotten. The Subject line of the email read,"Spam from Vasya." That right there should have been a small clue for the spam filter, one would think. The message read,

Hi my diar friend!

This is the spam message for you.

Vasya

And there it ended. Now, I know that the filters look for specific tricks and stuff, and this was a simple message with no images or links or anything, but still... OK, so I sent it to the Junk folder, where it automatically won a spam score of 100%, supposedly "teaching" the spam filter how to recognize it in the future.

Five hours later, the exact same message, with a different "sender," sailed right past the spam filters. So, if the spam filters don't learn to keep out addresses and they don't learn to keep out content, then what the hell do they learn? Or do they not "learn" at all? In which case, what the hell good are spam scores?

On top of that, most messages from new writers that are authentic wind up getting shunted to the spam folder.

And this just a few days after I praised Eudora for the Mac after having dealt with the Windows version. I might just start looking into Apple's Mail program. I passed it up a few years back when it was still young. Maybe it's gotten better since then. I mean, I very much like Eudora's flexibility, plentiful preference settings, and the powerful search capabilities, enough to overlook some of it's warts (persistent small cracks in the interface, and the inability to search and check mail well at the same time). Maybe I should be somewhat satisfied that 98% or so of the spam is getting filtered out, but I think Eudora needs a serious refresh in that department. In the meantime, I'm looking into options.

Posted by Luis at 02:34 AM | Comments (7)

August 25, 2006

Windows '08?

Despite Microsoft's attempts to sound like they'll be on time with Vista, beta testers don't think so. As predicted, the current release, Beta 2, is so buggy that none of the testers could believe that MS could move on to a "first release candidate" before a third beta release gets most of the plague of vermin purged from the system. Anti-virus software still won't work with Vista, and the OS alone still requires a mammoth 700 MB of RAM (down from 1 GB, but still way too high).

Meanwhile, most companies don't plan to switch to Vista until more than a year after its release, and many don't plan to move there at all. Certainly for home users, Vista has few if any real advantages, and a lot of disadvantages--such as requiring major hardware upgrades, as well as MS's new "Genuine Advantage" "feature" which is an advantage to software vendors only--as for you, it assumes you're a thief and essentially forces you to prove that you didn't steal your software. Why anyone would want to make the switch is beyond me.

In short, don't buy any Microsoft stock anytime soon.

Posted by Luis at 11:53 PM | Comments (3)

August 15, 2006

Near-Future Tech

Look Ma, No Cables: USB is going wireless, maybe as soon as this Fall. Reportedly, the wireless version of the most ubiquitous computer cable will allow for the same speed as the cable up to ten feet away, or one-quarter speed up to 30 feet away. That will effectively make peripheral cables (not to mention poor old Bluetooth) obsolete--assuming, of course, that it works as advertised, and assuming that you'll be willing to pay for the convenience.

However, it's not the only game in town. Under the unromantic moniker "IEEE 802.11n," Wi-Fi will be also getting an upgrade. The first Wi-Fi signals sent data at a rate of 2 Mbps, or 250 KB per second. That was earlier on, however, and most people started with WiFi-b, which could deliver 11 Mbps (over 1 MB per second). WiFi-a topped that at 56 Mbps (7 MB per second), but it was incompatible with -b; then WiFi-g came out with the same speed as -a, but was compatible with -b (though not with -a). Confused yet?

Well, WiFi-n will transmit at 560 Mbps (70 MB per second), 10 times faster than current speeds. In fact, that's faster than USB 2 cables or their new wireless counterparts. The catch: it's not due until 2008.

WiFi is usually for networking, however, so between WiFi and Wireless USB, the only cable you'll need in the future is a power cable.

Look Ma, No Boot: Flash memory is making a splash as it is being used now as a buffer for hard drives (saving laptops huge amounts of power and a good deal of time by not making the drive spin up all the time), and may even supplant hard drives entirely in the future. However, since 1 GB of Flash memory costs $45, it can be prohibitively expensive as a total replacement, even if the price drops to the predicted $9/GB in three years.

But Flash can't replace an even more important component: RAM. Flash degrades over time, making it iffy even for hard disk drive replacements, and not acceptable as RAM memory. However, there is another solution: MRAM, or magnetic RAM. Like Flash, MRAM is non-volatile, which means that it retains its memory after power has been shut off. Traditional RAM is volatile, which is why you lose all your data when your computer's power is interrupted. Additionally, it's why your computer takes anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes to boot: memory must be loaded off the hard drive (slow) and onto RAM. Essentially, it's like your computer wakes up an empty vessel each time and must be filled with the OS and all apps before it can start functioning. Non-volatile RAM, like MRAM, would make that unnecessary.

So once MRAM is in your computer, you won't have to wait for lengthy shutdowns and reboots; your computer will turn on and off like a light switch. You'll still have to reboot from time to time to let the OS flush itself out, but that hassle too will likely be engineered out and made unnecessary.

The only problem: cost and speed. MRAM is faster than Flash memory, but what's going into production right now is still slower than the DRAM currently used. So at first, MRAM might be used in concert with DRAM, but when speed increases to DRAM levels and costs drop, MRAM will likely wholly replace DRAM. MRAM will not replace hard disks like Flash might, however.

So put all this together, and you'll have quite a different computer in just a few years. A computer that will start up instantly, require much less power, save data faster, and make data loss far less likely; a computer that will be able to wirelessly connect with all your peripherals at high speeds, making every cable except the power cable extraneous. And that's just from two basic areas of new technology, just over the horizon.

Posted by Luis at 11:09 PM | Comments (2)

August 09, 2006

Lieberman Website Wrap-up

Okay, Lieberman has lost, roughly 52%-48%, and immediately announced his bid as an independent, as promised. Not enough time yet to gauge the reaction of the Democratic establishment, but if they do right, they should back Lamont and drop Lieberman--that's what the people want, and they serve the people, right?

About the website thing: what a mess. It appears that the Lieberman campaign used to use a host called 2 Dog Media, but three months ago switched to an account at MyHostCamp. That web host's site continues to be down, just as Lieberman's page is down. I tried looking at the site via Google's cache, but not much can be gleaned from it that way. However, it should be noted that MyHostCamp is not really a web host. The web host named The Planet rents out a single server to the guy running MyHostCamp, who then in turn rents out individual accounts to users, like the Lieberman campaign. This is called "reseller hosting."

While Kos claims that the Lieberman campaign paid only $15/mo. for their hosting and got just 10 GB bandwidth (that's the total amount of in-and-out traffic allowed before the site shuts down), the guy who runs Lieberman's site said that they paid "a bit more" than that. The people who run the web hosting service for Lieberman's site claim that they pay around $150 a month and that they were allotted 400 GB of bandwidth. That does seem more reasonable--I don't think that 10 GB of bandwidth would last them more than just a few days--but even 400 GB is a bit sparse for a web site in a race like this. This blog uses an account which gets exactly 400 GB of bandwidth, though I usually use only a bit over 30 GB. If Lieberman's site only gets ten times more traffic than my dinky blog, then maybe that helps explain why he lost the race.

Still, we're talking about a shared hosting account on reseller web host. As I explained here, shared hosting is the lowest tier of web site existence; you pay a small amount, and get a space on a single server (network computer) along with dozens to hundreds of other web sites (in Lieberman's case, apparently, 73), all which share the same resources of that computer. That it was a reseller makes it even worse.

The highest usual tier is dedicated hosting, where you can get a whole server computer all to yourself. Here's a page showing example plans, from my own web host. As you can see, they start from about $100 a month up.

But despite paying $150 a month, Lieberman was on a shared account on a reseller; his people might have made a special deal with the web host, asking for the amount of traffic they figured they would need, and getting a special quote. And this may have been their undoing. Their campaign had a $10-12 million budget. And yet they bargained with a low-end web host? Idiots. They should at least have gone to a more expensive and reliable service, and shelled out a few thousand bucks a month for a dedicated server with appropriate backups. Anything less, and you're going to suffer for it--which seems like exactly what happened to them.

Discussion by people who know about this stuff (here and elsewhere) seem agreed that what happened was not a Denial of Service (DoS) attack, and it was not a hacker attack--both claims made by Lieberman's camp, despite their incompatible nature. The consensus seems to be that the site was using a weak hosting plan on a weak server, and was simply overwhelmed by traffic and shut down. All evidence seems to point to that so far. Since the firewall was also apparently disabled, then it certainly could have been some kind of attack, but with a site that weak, all that would be needed would be a good, stiff wind, and down it goes.

One interesting point: the Lieberman campaign, early on, displayed an email from their web host that claimed it was a DoS attack, which now it seems fairly clear it was not. Was that a sign of the host's incompetence, or did the web host simply write that because the Lieberman campaign told them to?

An even more mysterious question: why is Lieberman's site still down? Even if it was a hacker or a DoS attack, it should have been back up in a matter of hours--not a day and a half or more. But if it was simple bandwidth excess, it should have been back up even faster. The page that is displayed when you access the site has changed several times, once even including a message from the Lieberman campaign about the site being "attacked." This means that they do have control over what appears there. So why is it still "down"?

There are only two possible answers that I can see: (1) their web host is unbelievably incompetent--an answer which is not satisfactory to me, because you would have to be a huge honking moron to let it go on like this for this long, and no one like that could run a web hosting business for more than a week being that stupid.

No, the only remaining explanation that makes sense is: (2) the Lieberman campaign wants the web site to stay down. Like a soccer player who gets slightly nicked by another player and collapses in feigned extreme agony, it looks to me like the Lieberman campaign, having made such a big noise about hacks and attacks, needs the site to stay down for publicity's sake. With the primary now ended, they need a working web site far, far less than they need a good PR point to play on. With the web site down, they can point to that as the only reason they lost by 4 percentage points.

Of course, they can't make too big a noise to that effect; with the FBI investigating, if they find that it wasn't an attack at all, Lieberman is going to look pretty silly--especially if it was all caused by the campaign getting web hosting on the cheap.

Posted by Luis at 03:23 PM | Comments (8)

Cyber Hack or Political Hack?

I've been watching this story on Joe Lieberman's web site being attacked with mixed feelings; while it could be a legitimate attack on Lieberman's web site, it could just as easily be inflicted by someone supporting Lieberman--perhaps even more likely. To have something like this happen on the eve of an election is always sticky: there is not enough time to confirm what is actually happening, so voters get the impression that they hear the most in the media, without the benefit of evidence to say what is in fact the truth.

It started with Lieberman's site (www.joe2006.com) going dark, showing only a message saying, "This Account Has Been Suspended: Please contact the billing/support department as soon as possible."

Immediately the Lieberman campaign released the news about the site being down and claimed the site was hacked. Lamont's people expressed skepticism, noting that the Lieberman site had crashed before due to excess traffic, and suggesting the possibility that Lieberman's people forgot to pay their hosting bill--noting that the Lieberman story had a screenshot ("Under Constructiuon") different than the "Suspended" one that could be viewed publicly. The Lieberman camp then showed an email from their web host saying that it was a denial of service attack and that all bills had been paid in full and in advance (though such an email cannot be relied upon--they're working for him, and likely would say anything he wanted them to, true or not). Then screenshots started surfacing as if the site were hacked ("Thehacker Ownz you System")," which flies in the face of the prior claim of a denial-of-service attack--besides which, that sig has appeared on sites for weeks.

Lieberman's site could have just failed due to too much traffic, and since his site's been down, the legitimate requests for it have probably surged even more, causing more outages.

But now the Lieberman campaign is accusing "political opponents" for the "cyberattack," despite lacking any evidence, and is calling for a criminal investigation. Meanwhile, they are using this as a broadsword to attack Lamont:

"We call on Ned Lamont to make an unqualified statement denouncing this kind of dirty campaign trick and to demand whoever is responsible to cease and desist immediately."
Frankly, I find it impossible to believe that Lamont would have anything to do with this, or have any influence with whomever carried this out; I think it's certain that the Lieberman people know this full well, and released the statement to trap Lamont. If Lamont calls for the attacker to cease, it will look like the attack came from his "side"; if he calls for it to stop and it does, it will look like he is connected to it; and if he doesn't call for it to stop, it looks like he condones it.

But there is just as much reason, if not more, to suspect someone affiliated with Lieberman's campaign. A hack attack like this can only make Lamont look bad, making it an incredibly stupid move if it came from his supporters. Unlike the Republican dirty trick a few years back of jamming Democratic phone lines, this attack is highly visible to the public and is guaranteed to backfire, especially on election day.

The fact that Lieberman's people jumped on this so quickly and so effectively adds to the suspicion. Besides which, on election day, the web site and email are not as critical at this point; having them crash and being able to attack Lamont for dirty tricks is a thousand times more valuable to Lieberman than having a functioning web site at this point. Not to mention that this has all the hallmarks of a Republican dirty trick, from several possible angles; it matches what has been done in the past in several ways, and Lieberman has strong Republican support.

Other facts cloud the subject: why has the site been down for 24 hours now? A DoS attack shouldn't do that. The site still is down, and any attempt to go to joe2006.com resolves to http://server1.myhostcamp.com/suspended.page/. Just as suspicious, an attempt to access "myhostcamp.com" brings up a suspended page address which redirects to an address which redirects right back, causing a failure to open the page. A hacker could do that, but only for a very short time indeed. Any web host worth their salt, especially in such a do-or-die situation, would have fixed the issue hours ago, by any variety of means. So why not?

If we look at this from the viewpoint of who has the most to gain, all evidence points to Lieberman's side as the engineers. But we cannot discount human stupidity, a possible idiotic and unthinking eager-beaver hacker believing he's doing Lamont a favor.

In the end, it's not good for Lamont, even though it is all but certain he had no part in this, even despite the fact that odds say it was a reverse-dirty trick by someone on Lieberman's side.

Posted by Luis at 03:33 AM | Comments (3)

August 06, 2006

Dell and Batteries

Boy. Laptops seem to be exploding like crazy nowadays. This image from June at a conference in Osaka:

Laptopfire-Osaka

I have to admit that my laptop gets pretty hot (and my old Powerbook used to get hotter), but that's the CPU--and it's not the CPU that's exploding in these reports. It's the batteries. And the laptop maker at the focus of all this attention, fairly or not, is Dell.

Apparently, Dell has known about this issue for a long time--although CU reported that Dell only knew of three cases in 2005 when the company recalled 22,000 laptop batteries, it is now reported that Dell was aware of dozens of fires. And despite the recall, laptops continue to burn--some quite dramatically:

Explodell2

In all fairness, Dell is not the only laptop maker with these problems. Unfortunately, Powerbooks are blazing away with a fair level of frequency as well.

Burnedpb

I wish I could imagine my own 'book to be immune from this, but I am in fact rather nervous about it going up into flames. On three different occasions over the past year I've had it, I've experienced what could have been near-meltdowns. After closing the notebook cover and setting the computer to sleep, I come back--sometimes many hours later--and see that (a) the sleep light is no longer on despite the cover being closed, and (b) the fan is howling like a sonuvagun, obviously blowing at its highest level. When I open the cover, the screen stays dark and the computer refuses to respond. A hard-shutdown and restart brings the computer back on right away--thankfully!--but it takes a bit for the thing to cool down. After I saw these meltdown images, I began to wonder how close I had come to suffering the same thing, even though my own laptop is not on the battery recall list.

Looking at the discussion groups at Apple, though, makes me figure that what I'm seeing isn't a battery issue, but rather a sleep issue. Probably the computer jostles out of sleep mode while closed and for some reason does not go back to sleep. With the cover down, heat dissipation is probably hindered, causing the overheating.

Nevertheless, I'm having the screen replaced in a week or two (under warranty, even though it ran out last month), and I figure I'll let the people at Apple know about it just in case.

Posted by Luis at 11:08 PM | Comments (1)

July 29, 2006

Another Microsoft Demo Gone Wrong

So, Microsoft was trying to to show off one of Vista's cool new features, speech recognition, by having one of their people give a demo.

DEMO GUY: "Dear mom, comma."

VISTA: "Dear Aunt,"

DEMO GUY: "Fix aunt."

VISTA: "let's set"

DEMO GUY: "Delete that. Delete that."

VISTA: "so"

DEMO GUY: "Delete that. I think it's picking up a little, I can hear... Delete--select all."

VISTA: "double the killer delete select all"

At this point, the computer screen reads: "Dear Aunt, so let's set double the killer delete select all" as the audience has a good laugh.
DEMO GUY: (as he manually selects all the typed text and deletes it) "OK, I'm glad you're enjoying this."
Microsoft complained that the software was picking up ambient noise, but that's not much of an excuse--ambient noise is going to be present in most real-life applications. The story and a video (with a huge, distracting watermark on it) are here Update: here's a clean version of the video.

This is simply yet another example of Windows getting stuff long after Apple has. Apple has had speech recognition for many years, and Vista's looks like nothing really new. I sometimes demo the Mac's speech recognition (though the Mac doesn't have dictation, it does allow you to give speech commands) for my Computer classes, and sometimes I have the same problem this guy had; it's a matter of how much background noise is getting to the mic. Though this demo guy must have been wearing a mic headset, ideal for this kind of application, whereas I was speaking into the built-in mic on my Powerbook. So really, I'm not impressed by this. Personal computer speech recognition still has a long way to go before it is really feasible for most users.

Posted by Luis at 05:03 PM | Comments (2)

Vista Will Ship On Time... Maybe...

Microsoft seems to be giving itself some elbow room in their claims that Vista will not suffer any more delays. While they still predict a late-2006 release for businesses and early-2007 ship date for regular people, they are at the very same time saying that "Vista will ship when it is ready. Quality is job one," and that Vista will be evaluated "milestone by milestone."

So, essentially, they're saying that they hope to ship it when they said they would, but there might be problems, and if there are, there will be yet another delay.

Short-short version: It'll ship on time, or maybe not.

Well, that's encouraging! Already, the very late OS is still suffering from problems, including core features being axed to save time and late release dates for beta versions foreshadowing more delays; many analysts and businesses are already preparing for the release date of the final product well into 2007. My bet is that they'll release it late and slightly buggy. And even if it does come out on time and is not buggy, who wants it? What features will really be useful for the end user? Mostly new eye candy, some patched security holes, and new versions of Microsoft applications--mostly stuff that's been available with the Mac OS for a few years now.

Other complaints include the fact that the Digital Rights Management is geared for businesses, and not the end user, meaning you will be inconvenienced on the assumption that you've stolen your software and content. The eye candy is reported to take a big hit on computer resources, slowing things down; even for the basics, most existing computers won't be able to run Vista very well at all. And the security upgrades, while not as good as those on the Mac, are already annoying beta users as they are too much in the way. This is the best Microsoft can do after six years of work, and it's probably going to be late and won't work great out of the box.

For this you should pay for an upgrade? Hrmph. Stick with XP for the time being.

What went wrong with these guys?

Posted by Luis at 12:54 AM | Comments (0)

July 21, 2006

Gizmo: Not Very Good, but Free

GizmoiconThere's a VoiP program called "Gizmo." They're offering a deal that will likely ratchet up the VoiP war, namely free calls from a computer to a regular telephone. I just tried using it, and frankly, I'm not all that impressed.

First of all, you have to read the fine print. The free calls only apply when you and the recipient are registered with Gizmo, the recipient is in your contacts list, and is in one of 60 countries on the free-call list. I didn't see the first two of those three points until after I made a call to a number in Japan, and after 6 minutes got a robotic and incomplete "You have... seconds!" message twice during the call. After hanging up, I noticed that a charge of 24.5 cents had been noted. Upon researching, I found out that you get 25 cents free--so I was just about to get cut off when I ended the call, it seems.

The thing is, now that I've used it, I don't think I'd really want to. The reason: the quality is really bad, like a bad cell phone connection. Lots of streamed audio artifaction. Even Gizmo points out that Skype--what I'm used to using--has great sound quality in comparison. But the question would be, if I've got Skype, why use Gizmo?

I guess the answer would be, if I needed to call a phone number instead of a computer--like, if I wanted to call my father in the U.S. on his cell phone while he was out of the house. But where Skype is usable, it is of far better quality.

Still, Gizmo has an interesting idea--and it may be a good solution for some of my Japanese students, who will go to live in the U.S., and whose parents may not be tech-savvy enough to allow Skype to work.

Posted by Luis at 09:32 PM | Comments (0)

July 01, 2006

Days of Wine and Windows

Something that few expected seems to be becoming more and more of a possibility: the direct ability to run Windows programs in the Mac OS, without having to own or boot up the Windows OS.

This year, we saw two Windows-on-MacTel solutions arise: Apple's own Boot Camp, which allows one to choose which OS to use upon startup (but not both at once), and Parallels, a virtualization solution that allows you to boot up Windows within the Mac OS, allowing both operating systems to run side-by-side, or at least Windows-under-Mac (Apple is even touting Parallels in its commercials instead of its own Boot Camp).

But now a third solution is becoming possible: the WINE solution. WINE started more then a decade ago as a way to run Windows applications within Linux and other Unix-related systems. One does not need Windows to open Windows software; with WINE, you can open the software directly within the host OS (images here). One company which deals in this software translation, CodeWeavers, has just announced that they will be bringing WINE to the Mac.

The down side of this is that WINE is not a universal translator--it only allows you to use a limited number of apps (and a limited number of versions of those apps) on the host system. These include MS Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Access), Macromedia Flash 7, Dreamweaver MX, and Shockwave 8.5, Adobe Photoshop 6 & 7, Quicken, and a few other apps.

Obviously, this is not a cure-all. However, it is promising in terms of what can be done, even without assistance from Apple. And despite the limitations, it could be meaningful--I've heard some people say that a few key apps, like Access, have been preventing them from making the move.

But more to the point, if this much can be done independently from Apple, then if Apple worked to include Windows APIs and incorporated WINE, a lot more could be achieved.

In the meantime, virtualization like Parallels offers is quite satisfactory, though it does require one to buy the Windows OS, which adds a few hundred dollars to the purchase of a Mac. You still get a lot more for your money, but the bean counters still trying to defend a Windows-only approach will grab hold of that as a last defense.

Posted by Luis at 10:56 PM | Comments (1)

June 29, 2006

Capacity Shortage

Here's an interesting case:

Western Digital Corp. is offering free software to about 1 million consumers to resolve a class-action lawsuit alleging that its computer hard drives stored less material than promised -- a discrepancy stemming from high-tech's different standards for sizing up digital data. ...

The lawsuit against Western Digital alleged the company's 80-gigabyte hard drive had an actual capacity of 74.4 gigabytes. If not for that 7 percent shortfall, the buyer could have stored an additional 80 hours of digital music or 5,600 digital pictures, the suit claimed.

So, these people just now figured out that storage media don't really have as much capacity as advertised? Where have they been? I realized this the very first time I got a hard drive. Heck, every time I burn a 4.7 GB DVD and can't put more than 4.4 GB onto it, I realize this.

I still don't understand why they do this, how they get the higher number. I just know that they do, and so has anyone who has bought more than one piece of storage media and bothered to look at the capacity measurement. But these people filed a class action lawsuit? Did they really buy the drive thinking, "I can store 1,142 hours of of digital music or 80,000 digital pictures," and then got really upset when they saved 1,062 hours of music or 74,400 pictures and then ran out of space? Or did the lawyers just notice the discrepancy like everyone else and see a big chance to file a tort case?

Posted by Luis at 09:59 AM | Comments (1)

Net Neutrality: Act Now

Network Neutrality is coming up for a big vote today. Contact your senators if you're not sure that they're already supporters. Phone numbers for key senators are in that link. Do it!

Posted by Luis at 02:10 AM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2006

Bump Top

Bumptop ThEvery once in a while, a company somewhere comes up with a cool new idea for a computer interface to replace the standard Desktop/Finder paradigm used in Mac and Windows. These people have a pretty radical and very hip new idea for dealing with documents on a virtual 3-D desktop, based upon real-world document handling. It looks really nifty--but it could be undone by the very complex nature of its many features, the same ones that make it so cool. I'm pretty hip with using computers, and yet it'd take a lot of practice for me to get this system figured out. I can only imagine how confusing it might be to users who already find it tough to use today's more plain desktops.

They have a video you can download to see the software in action. I suggest you take a look at it, though the full-quality movie is about 100 MB (a fair-quality YouTube link is available). Here's a PDF explaining the idea.

The icons would suggest it's Mac based. Maybe Apple should look into this?

Posted by Luis at 01:49 AM | Comments (1)

June 14, 2006

Google Earth: Now in Lower Res?

What the...? Google Earth 4 was just released, with, they claim, "updated satellite data and much more detail for places in the world that didn’t have close-up information before."

Not in Tokyo, they don't. In fact, a lot of Tokyo is now lower resolution than it was before! The images are updated, yes, but strangely so. An entire swath of western Tokyo, including where I live, was replaced not only with lower-resolution images, but the images are from winter, with the ground covered in snow, making the details even harder to make out. Nishi-Shinjuku's image is from a time when the skyscrapers cast long northerly shadows. My own workplace in Shinjuku, before easily recognizable, is now extremely hard to make out. Where cars on the street in front of my workplace used to be easy to spot, they're now practically invisible in the more blurry, shadowed mush.

What the hell is up with that?

Until now, I've been showing off Google Earth to my students every semester, showing them points they know, starting off with our building. So much for that. They wouldn't know what they are looking at.

Posted by Luis at 10:29 AM | Comments (1)

June 12, 2006

Net Neutrality: Down But Not Out

You may have heard that a few days ago, a provision for Network Neutrality was voted down in the House 269-152. While a few Republicans voted for neutrality and several dozen Democrats voted against it, the vote was mostly along party lines, with Republicans against and Democrats for. Lobbyists won the day, bribing away like madmen; in an expensive election year, bribery is all too welcome in Congress.

While this loss is discouraging, it is not the end of the battle. It only means that the House will not positively vote for Net Neutrality; it does not yet mean that the House and the Senate will decisively vote against it when (and if) the telecom bill gets through Congress.

One more point to add to prior observations: the telecoms are trying to say that the big Internet media companies want to use these fast lanes for free to deliver content to you online. Aside from the untruth I noted before that these companies already pay high fees to the telecoms and get nothing for free, there is another fallacy: the metaphor of the goods being "delivered" to you, as if it's the Microsofts and Googles which are the ones traversing the information superhighway. The fact is, no one is "on" these highways or "in" these pipes. However, if anyone is using these pathways, it is you. The content providers simply make things available at their end. You are the one who chooses to initiate the contact and receive the content. Much more than the content companies, you are the one who is doing the traversing. Which means that you're the same greedy bastard that the telecoms are attacking for using their "pipes" for "free." Are you? Do you get a free Internet connection? Or are the telecoms lying?

What it comes down to is whether you get to choose what comes across the Internet to you at high speed. If the telecoms get their way, you get no choice--they get to choose, and they get to charge money for it, money which you eventually have to pay, whether it is directly to them, or to them through the content providers. If Net Neutrality wins, then you get to decide what goes fast on the Internet, simply by requesting it. And it won't cost a penny more in the end.

The fight's not over. It's not too late. Do something.

Posted by Luis at 12:51 AM | Comments (3)

June 09, 2006

Two Down, One to Go

Congress shot down the gay marriage constitutional amendment (a wholly political, election year wedge non-issue). Then they shot down another Republican chestnut, the repeal of the estate tax (which, despite GOP claims, would not affect a single family farm, and only hits people worth several million dollars--and even then, not by much).

Now they're stepping up to bat on Net Neutrality. A reminder: if the Telecoms get their way, this will mean only that prices will go up for you. Their claim that it will pay for you getting fiber optic broadband in the future is fictitious; when and if that comes, you'll still be paying full price for it. And for now, you'll have to start paying for more content on the web, and/or be more inundated with ads and spam, while the remaining free web sites slow to a crawl.

A danger less reported on: Telecoms will also be able to dictate to you which Internet applications you can and cannot use. Want to use Skype? Not if AT&T wants to sell their version of IP telephony, at a high cost to you.

And if Net Neutrality wins the day? Will the dire warnings of the Telecoms come true? No. This creates no new regulations; Net Neutrality has been the rule of the road since day one--that's why they're trying to get it changed. Will this force you to pay for fiber optics? No. In fact, you've already been paying, in higher fees allowed the Telecoms in exchange for their promise to use those fees to build fiber networks. They've taken in $200 billion in higher fees, and have done nothing. The extra fees they'll rake in from killing Net Neutrality will not legally obligate them to lay a single F/O line, or when they do, it won't obligate them to charge you a penny less.

Instead, with Net Neutrality preserved, the Internet will simply continue as it is: most content will be free, all web sites will be equally fast, and you are free to choose to use whatever applications you want, most of them cheap or free. Kill Net Neutrality, and you kill all of that.

Let your congressional reps know that. And act now--time is running out.

Posted by Luis at 10:40 AM | Comments (0)

June 03, 2006

Spamcatcher

I wanted to retry an experiment I carried out a few years ago, except this time more visibly and in real time. The experiment is to demonstrate what happens if you post your email address on a web page anywhere on the Internet. Spammers and con men use bots, automated programs, to scan web sites constantly in search of email addresses they can hit. Just now, I created a new email address. It has never been used before, never been on anyone's lists at all. Completely virgin. A few minutes ago, I posted it on this web page, and this web page only. The catch: it's not visible to the naked eye. I put it in a small spot way down the page where there's a solid color background, and then made the font color for the email address identical to the background. The only way you'll see it is to select the text (if, for some strange reason, you want to, then select all the text in the "powered by" box at the bottom of the right sidebar--but shush, don't tell anyone).

Why do this? To demonstrate how fast spammers and scammers will pick up your email address if you are naive enough to post it on a web site. Also, because I want to see how things may have changed in the spambot world. Last time, spams started coming in only a few days after the address went up, and after two weeks, 33 spams had come through, about 1/3 of them scam attempts, mostly Nigeria 419 and Euro-Lottery scams.

This time, I will post the emails I get to the comments of this blog post as they arrive--of course, only after I have scrubbed out all the links, email addresses, and anything else that could benefit the senders. When I finish, I'll re-date this post to move it to the top of the queue.

Posted by Luis at 12:01 PM | Comments (19)

May 29, 2006

DSL, e-Japan, and the La-Z-Boy Mentality

It's strange to see news articles from the U.S. talking about DSL starting to become widespread.

About 84 million U.S. residents now have broadband Internet access at home, up 40 percent from 60 million last year, a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found.

The increase comes as both the price of personal computers and the cost of Internet service continue to fall. AT&T, for instance, is selling DSL to new customers in the Bay Area for as low as $12.99 per month.

One interesting point in the high-tech San Francisco area paper is that they don't mention speeds. A provider in my family's area--very close to Silicon Valley--is offering "High Speed Internet" packages. While starting very cheap at $13, the speeds offered start at 1.5 Mbps, and top out at 6 Mbps. And as the article pointed out (as does the ad, in asterisks), the prices are promotional, to try to steal away customers from cable providers. But the speeds are what catch my attention; these are new speed levels, a big improvement over what's been available up to now.

And yet, here in Japan, those speeds are way out of date. I believe it was 3 or 4 years ago that the 12 Mbps speed stopped being the fastest rate. Now most ADSL services are providing 50 Mbps as the top speed, and most areas have some form of fiber-optic, usually topping out at 100 Mbps. I still read about some American colleges and universities boasting a 100 Mbps fiber optic connection for the whole school, which includes hundreds, perhaps over a thousand computers in the network. My school has had that speed for years, and we have only a few dozen computers sharing it. When I explain this to my students, they're shocked; they expect America to have better Internet connectivity, not worse.

While the telecoms can blame rural areas for being expensive to upgrade, what's their excuse for urban areas, like my parents'? There are certainly no problems with great distances in such areas, and no shortage of people willing to pay. So why is even the heart of computer territory still so painfully slow?

Part of it is probably that, despite being allowed to charge higher fees in exchange for the promise that they'll build broadband networks, the telecoms are just putting off any significant upgrades and instead are just raking in the fees for as long as they can. But part of it is that the government has no unified plan for encouraging broadband.

Japan was backwards in Internet speeds in 2001, and in just a few short years, leapfrogged high over the U.S. with a strategy called "e-Japan," which had the philosophy of "maximizing the benefits of users" and "promoting fair competition" to establish 30-100 Mbps Internet connections for everyone in the country by 2005. And guess what: it worked. They did it. It's here. In fact, they finished before 2005, and in 2003, they started on the "e-Japan Strategy II," a plan to use those fast pathways to the best effect, especially in the areas of "medical treatment, food, life, small-and-medium-sized-enterprises, finance, knowledge, employment, government service." The idea is to ensure good IT management and high-quality content, with strong interconnectivity between public and private institutions, with a focus on user satisfaction.

The American government faces bigger obstacles in the size of the country, but that's no excuse for not having a coherent policy at all. It's no excuse for such paltry speeds even in the heart of the computer industry, in crowded urban areas with almost every home owning a computer.

This is all to reminiscent of America's lapse back into big gas-guzzlers, with Japanese carmakers again being in the forefront in terms of high-milage vehicles. It's as if the lessons of the 80's were completely forgotten, and America eased back into its "La-Z-Boy" mentality. Only this time there probably won't be a Japanese bubble-burst and decade-long recession to allow American businesses to come back from behind.

I won't be too surprised if we see a repeat of the last generation all over again--except that while Americans apparently have not learned from past lessons, the Japanese may have learned very well indeed.

Posted by Luis at 10:52 PM | Comments (4)

May 24, 2006

The Vista-Ready Computer

A writer at CNet's News.com web site tried out the "Upgrade Advisor" software provided by Microsoft to test the readiness of various computers to accept and run, without trouble, the next version of Microsoft's OS. Which computer was most compatible, according to the tester?

An Apple Intel Mac Mini with 1GB of RAM running Boot Camp.

Go figure.

There is a point I wanted to make in addition: always upgrade your RAM. When you buy a computer, you're buying from a store that wants to price things as low as they can go while still maintaining as high a profit margin as they can manage. So add-ons are one way they go: if they can sell you on a low base price, they can still claim they're selling cheaply even after you bought a whole bunch of other stuff that they stripped from the machine to make it look cheap.

RAM is one of the first things they pare down, like an airline getting rid of yet another "perk" like, say, food. Most people know little or nothing about RAM. If you know, for example, that with a sufficiently powerful CPU, 256MB of RAM is more than enough to run Windows Vista while having three or more standard applications running, then you are one of the 9 of 10 people who know very little about RAM, because that statement is totally false. If you caught on to the falsehood before you got to the part of the sentence where I let on to the truth, then you're the other one in ten who knows a little something about it. But since 9 in 10 don't, stores can sell you a computer with too little RAM and you won't notice.

In fact, having enough RAM is very important--but that won't be apparent at the store. First, the store model (presuming that they don't cheat and put extra RAM in) is probably just running one app. RAM is a finite resource which your OS takes a big chunk of, and then each new app you open takes another chunk, and so on, until you run out of RAM. I had a friend who could open Windows 'Me' really well, and could even work MS Word snappily--but if she opened a second app, her computer would reeeally slow down. Reason: she had only 128MB of RAM, and Windows + Word used it all up.

Why does a computer slow down when it runs out of RAM? Because programs need a certain amount of memory to temporarily store data while the CPU is busy with something else. RAM is that storage space, and it's very fast. When RAM fills up, the computer may have to resort to using the hard drive--which is way slower. So when RAM runs out and your computer starts using the hard drive for everything, your computer slows way down.

Here's another reason why the need to upgrade RAM doesn't show up at the computer store: because the need is off in the future. In the story I started this entry with, I noted that Microsoft's "Upgrade Advisor" checks your computer for Vista compatibility. One point of compatibility is the amount of RAM. That's because Vista needs a lot more RAM than XP. XP needed more RAM than Windows 2000. 2000 needed more RAM than '95. Et cetera. Just about every new version of any kind of software requires more RAM than the last version, sometimes significantly more. This is true with operating systems or application software. So, while that present-day showroom computer can run XP and Word 2003 just fine with 512MB of RAM, if will fail dismally at running Vista and Word 2007. They can ignore that at the showroom.

A lot of people actually end up throwing away their computers when they become too slow, without realizing that all they need is more RAM, and it'll become zippier.

That's why it's a good idea to upgrade your RAM right away, when you buy your computer: it allows you to open up as many apps as you like without worrying, and it inoculates you from slowdowns when you upgrade your software later on.

That's not to say that RAM is the only thing you need to worry about. The CPU is important, as is the graphics card, and some other technical geek stuff. I've heard Windows users sneer at Macs because of the prices, talking about $500 PCs. When you point out that the Mac Mini starts at about that price, they'll laugh, and point out that it doesn't come with an LCD monitor! No problem. Just buy your Mac Mini and use your old monitor, then you can laugh at them next year, when your Core Duo Mac Mini is running Windows Vista and Office 2007 in Boot Camp (or whatever new version Apple has by then) while they're just figuring out that the weak-ass Celeron they bought can't make the same upgrade.

Posted by Luis at 10:37 PM | Comments (0)

May 18, 2006

GMail Rocks

I just spent 15 minutes drafting an email to someone in GMail, and my browser crashed. I was going to the CNet site and checking out reviews of laptops to refer to in the email, and one page of the CNet site crashed Safari (and did so twice more when I tried to access it again). Damn, I thought--fifteen minutes of writing gone. I had failed to save what I had written (though when do you make saves of web-based email drafts?).

But I got a pleasant surprise: when I restarted Safari and reopened GMail, expecting to have to start from scratch, there was my prior draft! All nicely saved as a draft by GMail, automatically. Even typing which I had finished no more than one minute before the browser crashed was still there. Very, very cool. Do Hotmail or Yahoo do that? Maybe I should experiment...

Add to that the newer features available with a GMail account, including Calendar (now I can share my schedule with my students more easily, allowing them to sign up for appointments better) and Google Analytics (a more detailed report on that coming sometime soon). Now, if GMail could only check all the POP email from my various domains as well...

Posted by Luis at 10:14 AM | Comments (0)

May 15, 2006

How the Telecoms Lie

As the fight for Network Neutrality heats up, the Telecoms are trying to pretend that there's a grass-roots movement by "the people" and "a nationwide coalition of Internet users" to tell the government to "keep their hands off" the Internet, while simultaneously trying to paint giant corporations (well, other giant corporations) as the villains, trying to make billions at your expense. In short, they're lying like hell.

The following are quotes from a cutesy Flash cartoon made by the Telecoms to try to pull the wool over your eyes:

"Building the next generation of the Internet is going to take a lot of work and cost a lot of money. And some big corporations can't wait to use it.... They're going to make billions. But they don't want to pay anything. Instead they want to stick consumers with the whole bill."
This statement rather coyly suggests that content providers don't pay anything for their use of the Internet, without exactly saying so ("they don't want to pay anything"). The clear implication is that companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon get a free ride on the Internet, and will not pay anything extra when higher-speed services are created. The ad says that those companies will stick you, the consumer, with the bill for creating higher-speed services.

None of that is true. The big content providers already have ultra-high-speed connections to the Internet, and they pay the Telecoms for these services; it will be consumers who upgrade, and the bill will be charged to the consumer by the Telecoms. The kindest interpretation of their message would be that the Telecoms are going to have to stick someone with the costs of creating fiber-optic networks, and they want to charge content providers more instead of being forced to charge you more. This, of course, is the same snow job that all corporations use to get whatever legislation they want passed: if you don't give us what we want, we'll be forced to charge you more.

Of course, the premise for that argument is bunk: Telecoms already charge for their services, and will charge you as much as the market will bear for fiber optic. It'll all be paid for, by you, no matter what. Their current campaign is just to charge the content providers more in addition to charging you more; it's a grab for even higher profits and more control. They're simply trying to make other giant corporations look like the bad guys.

In fact, the Telecoms have already charged you for the fiber optic networks, to the tune of about $200 billion, and have not used that money to provide the broadband services they promised in exchange for the higher costs you already pay. So you know in advance how much you can trust the Telecoms: not at all.

"These corporations are asking Congress to create volumes of new regulations to control how content is delivered over the Internet. Should politicians and bureaucrats replace network administrators? It will be the first major government regulation of the Internet and it will fundamentally change how the Internet works. These big corporations and the SavetheInternet campaign want the government to take control of the Internet."
Net Neutrality is the current rule, and would not create more regulation. Existing government policy is what made the Internet work so successfully; what the Telecoms want is not a stop to more regulation, they want a de-regulation--the same kind that led to wonderful results like the Savings & Loan crisis.
"The net neutrality issue is a fundamental question about who should control the Internet: The people or the government? And it's a fight about who's going to pay: multi-billion dollar corporations or you?"
These are both false-choice fallacies. It's not a question of whether the people or the government will control the Internet; the government has power over regulation, it's a question of whether the government will serve your interests (by leaving the Internet relatively uncontrolled by any one interested party) or whether they will serve the interests of the Telecoms (by deregulating and letting the Telecoms do whatever the hell they want).

The second question is not whether you or multi-billion dollar corporations pay the Telecoms; the Telecoms already charge both you and the multi-billion dollar corporations. It's a question of how much more the Telecoms can charge content providers, costs which will be passed on to you, while at the same time your access to non-multi-billion dollar corporation web sites will be crippled. In other words, you get charged more for worse service (even if you don't upgrade your connection) while the Telecoms rake it in. Or, the Internet stays as it is now, and you have the choice of just paying more for getting a fiber optic connection when it becomes available.

There are other implications beyond the Telecoms charging selected web sites more for faster service, and relegating every other web site to low-speed backwaters. Network Neutrality is also about what applications you can use on your Internet connection. No neutrality could allow your ISP to control which applications you use (whether Skype or your ISP's own VoIP app will work), or even what kind of home networks you can have. Companies like Verizon have even threatened some customers with criminal prosecution just for setting up home networks--that is, hooking up more than one computer to a network connected to the Internet, or having a home WiFi network. Companies like Verizon force you to agree to let Verizon closely monitor your computers to see what network configuration is used and what applications you're using, in the name of providing customer support--but there's no doubt that there are other motives driving that monitoring. Your ISP could make more money if they get to demand that you pay them to set up home networks, and charge for each computer connected, even though bandwidth stays the same.

Right now, you have the freedom to decide how you use the Internet. If the Telecoms get their way, you could lose that freedom to the Telecoms, who could then dictate to you what you could and could not do on the Internet, and they could charge you extra fees to do certain things, using only software they pre-approve or sell to you themselves. Imagine the electric grid being run without neutrality: your local electric company could dictate to you which lamps you could buy, how many TVs you could use, how you could use your air conditioner, and so on.

Don't be fooled. Keep up the fight for Network Neutrality.

Posted by Luis at 04:13 PM | Comments (0)

May 04, 2006

Windows Vista: Delayed Again?

Not according to Microsoft. They are standing by their most recent claim that Vista will be introduced in January 2007, a release already pushed back several times. But analysts at Gartner are now claiming that there is an 80% chance that Microsoft won't even hit that target, and that "broad availability" of Vista could be delayed yet again, perhaps as late as June 2007. They base this prediction on the timing of Microsoft's announced release date for the second Beta release of Vista, scheduled for this summer; they predict it will take at least 9-12 months to go from Beta 2 to full release. Microsoft counters that they'll be ready in five months after Beta 2, as they were with XP--except that Vista is far more complex an upgrade than XP was.

One has to take the strong assurances from Microsoft that they are "on track" with a grain of salt; after all, just last November, when the Beta 2 release was pushed back from December to January or February (it's still not out), Microsoft reps were positive that "the company remains on track for shipping Windows Vista in the second half of 2006." Now they're saying, "we remain on track to deliver the final product to volume license customers in November 2006 and to other businesses and consumers in January 2007." Pretty soon, they might be saying, "we are dedicated to staying on track for a 2Q 2007 release."

Also, Gartner has a point about the delayed release of the Beta 2 version of Vista, and Vista's complexity. If Vista does come out on (current) schedule in January, it may be a relatively unfinished release that could need many upgrades before it reaches a stable level of usability.

Of course, it may be that this won't matter to a lot of people. After all, Vista is reported to be a power and memory hog, and many people won't be able to use Vista without buying a new computer. More will probably take a wait-and-see attitude before switching from XP. If I recall correctly, XP took a while to get a lot of people switched over.

If one thing is for certain, it is the fact that further delays in Vista will deal even more PR blows against Microsoft--especially if Apple's OS X Leopard, 10.5, is released well before Vista makes it to the consumer.

In other Mac/Windows news, more and more articles on the web are pointing out that the recent "Macs besieged by viruses" stories are not quite so accurate. Snippets include:
Con Zymaris has been working with Unix systems for nearly three decades and for the past 15 years has been running a consultancy on open source software implementation. Zymaris says that, while it is true that a Mac can get infected with a virus, it is not easy and it is not likely to cause much damage. What's more, Mac users don't need to install firewalls and anti-virus software.
And:
OS X is not going to be vulnerability-free, but I do expect it to show significantly fewer vulnerabilities than Windows has. That does not mean OS X users can ignore security - at the very least, enable the built-in personal firewall - but it does mean you should not stay with Windows because you think it will be safer.
So there.

And finally, Apple has come out with its biggest new ad offensive since the "Switcher" ads a few years ago. The six new commercials (viewable here) feature two guys--a cool dude saying "I'm a Mac," and a slightly nerdy business guy saying, "I'm a PC." They then act out various conversations which cutely play out several of the advantages of the Mac, in a simple, friendly-joshing yet nevertheless competitive manner. At the least, they're fun to watch. I love the one title's "Network" with the Japanese gal playing the digital camera. In case you don't understand Japanese--and it's hard to catch exactly as there's overtalking and it sounds a bit cut up--she asks the cool Mac dude about the PC guy, "Doesn't that guy seem a bit nerdy?"

Posted by Luis at 11:25 PM | Comments (7)

May 03, 2006

The Network Neutrality Act of 2006

Well, at least one Democratic congressman recognized a simple, popular issue he could run with. Ed Markey, Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced the Network Neutrality Act. Markey introduced a Network Neutrality amendment to a Republican-backed bill to hand over the Internet to AT&T & co., an amendment that was shot down, mostly by Republicans, but by some Democrats as well. So Markey is firing back:

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to introduce the “Network Neutrality Act of 2006.”  Joining me today as original cosponsors of this important legislation are Rep. Rick Boucher, Rep. Anna Eshoo and Rep. Jay Inslee. ...

The Network Neutrality Act of 2006 offers Members a clear choice. It is a choice between favoring the broadband designs of a small handful of very large companies, and safeguarding the dreams of thousands of inventors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses. This legislation is designed to save the Internet and thwart those who seek to fundamentally and detrimentally alter the Internet as we know it. Mr. Speaker, I urge Members to support this bill and urge the House to take a decisive stand in favor of network neutrality.

This one is a winning issue, if it can run the Republican gauntlet; after all, there is literally zero benefit to the consumer, no added functionality nor savings of any sort--just a windfall to big Telecoms, at the cost of other businesses and the consumer. A classic giveaway of American citizens' money and resources to big businesses. If the majority of Republicans and minority of Democrats that supported the Telecom push in committee recently continue to do so by trashing this bill, they run the risk of being castigated for it; there's no other issue in the bill to hide behind.

AlterNet has several links to places you can sign petitions, or better yet, contact your congressional representatives and shout at them a bit.

Posted by Luis at 02:09 AM | Comments (0)

April 30, 2006

Inventing the "Invented" Myth

Let's get one thing straight: Al Gore never said that he "invented the Internet."

There are a lot of myths out there perpetrated by conservatives. For example, the myth that Bill Clinton passed up an opportunity to bag Osama bin Laden, or the huge myth of the "liberal media." Conservatives are excellent at starting and perpetuating these myths, which are believed by uncounted millions despite frequent and public debunking. The "invented the Internet" myth is perhaps one of the most pervasive; people still believe that election-campaign lie today.

This one started on March 9th, 1999, when Al Gore appeared on Wolf Blitzer's "Late Edition" show on CNN. On the program, Gore made the following statement:

During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system. [the full context of the quote in the interview can be reviewed here.]
I suppose I should say that it didn't "start" with that quote, as the quote itself was reasonable--if poorly worded--and drew no reaction at all from Blitzer in the interview. Perhaps Blitzer was aware of the fact that Gore, since 1988, had written and championed legislation that helped establish the Internet beyond the government-and-academia DARPANet origins that began back in 1969.

An unkind (and dishonest) interpretation of Gore's quote makes it seem like Gore was claiming that he single-handedly created the Internet. But that's not what he said. He said that he took the initiative, that he took an early leadership role--which, by definition, means that he was not alone in the task, nor does it even mean that he was the only leader.

No, the real mythmaking started two days later on March 11. One technology columnist, Declan McCullagh of Wired News, wrote a story--highly inaccurate, at that--in which he spun the distortion, though he did accurately quote Gore's statement--he just changed the evident meaning of Gore's statement. He also got the facts wrong, quoting a conservative technology think tank as saying, "Gore played no positive role in the decisions that led to the creation of the Internet as it now exists -- that is, in the opening of the Internet to commercial traffic." However, the Information Infrastructure and Technology Act of 1992 did exactly that, with Gore behind it, along with several other initiatives that indeed helped to create the Internet as we know it today.

The GOP, just a few days after Gore announced his candidacy for president, wasted no time in picking up the ball; then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said:

"If the Vice President created the Internet then I created the Interstate highway system. Both were begun during the Eisenhower Administration and I think Ike actually deserves a little credit here.

"It's common in Washington to steal an idea and claim it was yours all along. This strategy certainly worked for the Administration on welfare reform and tax cuts. But claiming credit for the Internet insults its real creators whose hard work and ingenuity can never be stolen."

Note that in reporting on Armey's statement, McCullagh first used the word "invent" to describe Gore's statement, though he later denied this.

Upon this foundation, everybody in the media picked up on the distortion, to the point where I have even heard people claim that they heard a sound file of Gore himself saying "I invented the Internet." [For those of you interested, here is a sound clip of the real statement by Gore.]

The irony here is that Gore, in fact, was instrumental to the creation and popularization of the Internet as we know it today. In the 1980s, DARPA had defunded civilian use of the Internet; it could have died right there had it not been for Gore pushing for funding to restart the Internet as a civilian and business network. That took the form of the 1989 National High-Performance Computer Technology Act introduced by Al Gore. The fact is, all along the way, Gore was behind the growth of the Internet, which in itself was largely responsible for the huge economic boom of the 90's. Ironically, conservatives who enthusiastically credited Reagan with every bit of good economic news in the 80's, churlishly denied Clinton and Gore any credit for the boom of the 90's, claiming that it was the Internet that was responsible.

Gore was instrumental in creating a huge economic and industrial miracle worth countless trillions of dollars to the nation. In return for this, the GOP distorted his rightful claim, mocked him as a liar and made a laughingstock out of him. In an election won by only a few hundred votes, the value of the "invented the Internet" lie could easily have been worth that many votes in Florida.

Good to see that the GOP's priorities are in order.

For the final word on Gore's credit for taking a leadership role in the establishment of the Internet, read this letter praising Gore's work, sent to Declan McCullagh from two guys named Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, more commonly known as the founding fathers of the Internet. The letter concludes:

No one in public life has been more intellectually engaged in helping to create the climate for a thriving Internet than the Vice President. Gore has been a clear champion of this effort, both in the
councils of government and with the public at large.

The Vice President deserves credit for his early recognition of the value of high speed computing and communication and for his long-term and consistent articulation of the potential value of the Internet to American citizens and industry and, indeed, to the rest of the world.


Posted by Luis at 11:45 PM | Comments (0)

April 28, 2006

Internet Explorer 7: Browser Catchup

When you go to the web page on Microsoft's site to download the public beta of IE7, there's a big title in the middle of the page that reads "We Heard You." Apparently, they forgot to add the word "Finally." IE7 is nothing but browser catchup, a dollar short and many years too late. Microsoft has always relied on the fact that since they control the OS for 90%+ of the computers on the planet, and they put their own and only their own browser on the desktop, that a similar number of people will use IE for that reason and that reason only, which is why most people have used a browser so ancient, unsafe, and generally crappy.

But now, with Firefox finally taking a bite out of their market, they've gotten off their lazy asses and have begun to upgrade the browser to include many features that have existed on other browsers for several years now. And even with that, they can't help but be snide about it: when you install the browser, IE demands that you acquiesce to having your copy of the Windows OS "validated." You feel like you're going into a movie theater and they want to check your bags for contraband Milk Duds. If you wanna use this browser, you gotta let Microsoft check your pockets first to see if you stole any of their other stuff. Real smooth.

The release is not fully stable--it crashed once soon after I started using it--but it does show that Microsoft paid attention to what the other browsers did well, and pretty much copied them outright. IE7 now has tabbed browsing, better security (so they claim), smaller toolbar/comtrol areas, RSS feeds, and finally--finally--they figured out how to print web pages without chopping off the right side of the content. You'll recognize a lot of smaller features that you're familiar with in Firefox or Safari, transplanted into IE7. But aside from a little redesigning, some eye candy, and a few small tweaks, there's nothing much new here.

Unfortunately, a lot of people will ballyhoo this, and many will remain with IE because it'll now be "as good as the other browsers." The thing is, it's taken 3-4 years for IE to catch up with other browsers, and it is just as likely to fall years behind again. Why reward Microsoft for being lazy and inattentive, and catching up by ripping off the competition years after the fact?

Just get Firefox.

Posted by Luis at 01:22 AM | Comments (1)

April 27, 2006

Network Neutrality Loses Round

The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted on an amendment sponsored by Democratic representatives to a bill on Internet regulation that would have guaranteed equal access to all information on the Internet, The amendment was shot down 34-22, which was in some ways seen as a partial victory, as it was a slimmer margin of defeat than was expected; this means that support for the surrender of the Internet to the Telecom Giants might be slipping as public opposition to the idea, while late in coming, is growing rapidly. While some Democrats have voted for the Telecoms, the voting is split mostly among partisan lines, with the opposition to handing control to Telecoms coming from the Democratic side.

If you want to add your voice to public petitions that support Net Neutrality and oppose handing control to the Telecoms, you can sign petitions at MoveOn, Save The Internet, and Don't Mess With The Web. Don't Mess With The Web is a new site joining the fray, with a blog keeping track of current events on the issue.

This is important, people--losing this battle could seriously mess with your ability to access the sites you want to visit, especially sites that offer free access to content you like. It'll hike your costs without giving you any increase in content or quality, and would give Telecoms the ability to censor or inhibit any voice they don't favor, on the basis of money, prejudice or self-interest. It's yet another multibillion-dollar giveaway to giant corporations with absolutely no benefit to the public. Get it stopped, now.

Posted by Luis at 09:37 AM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2006

Network Neutrality

Every once in a while Congress will try to slip a corrupt bill right past us. Sometimes it's a big thing of recognizable nature, sometimes it's hidden deep within a huge 1000-page bill forced into vote hours after it's first introduced. But more often than not, it's something that we just don't recognize initially as being bad, and that's what we have this time.

Three months ago, I wrote on a story Josh Marshall pointed out, about how the big Telecoms were fighting with consumer groups and a host of companies selling goods over the Internet over how the Internet should be run. The consumer groups and vendors were trying to preserve something called "Network Neutrality," which says that every web site is equal to every other web site as far as communication lines go; no one web site should be given priority over others. The Telecoms, on the other hand, were trying to change things so they could give priority for telephone line usage, giving fast lanes of communication to those who paid a premium, and crappy quality to those who did not. The Telecoms tried to make the case that right now, Google and others are using their "pipes" for free--which is unadulterated crap, of course. Everyone pays for using telephone cables and Internet communication pipelines, the Telecoms now simply want to gouge for more. It's as if the Telecoms suddenly wanted to charge you extra on your telephone bill for the quality of your phone service: if you pay AT&T an extra $20 a month, they'll give you crisp, clear service; if not, then you'll get crappy connections and your calls may be arbitrarily cut off, even though you're already paying AT&T for what should be acceptable quality.

Well, guess who won the lobbying battle? Yep, that's right, the Telecoms did. Now, three months later, the Congresspeople who are supposed to be serving you are once again selling your interests out to the highest bidder, once again taking bribes from corporations to pass laws which favor those corporations over you.

The new law will essentially hand over control of the Internet pathways to the Telecoms to use at their will. How will this affect you? First of all, it means that prices will go up without any increase in quality. The Telecoms will be charging more even though they are creating no new services--they will simply be charging more for favoritism. For example, Amazon.com will have to pay a great deal more to ensure that visitors to their site don't get so bogged down in slow connections that their customers will give up and leave. That means Amazon would have to start charging you more for stuff you buy so they could pay off the Telecoms for the new extortion preferred connection.

Sites that are unwilling or unable to pay the "premium" would become slow and sluggish, especially sites which do not sell anything (like blogs) but have very high readership. Sites which you now take for granted as free resources would probably have to switch to paid membership, perhaps offering you a choice between free and slow, and paid and fast. Overall, your free Internet surfing would definitely be slowed down and made less accessible in general.

The fees could eventually be extended to hit you directly, forcing you to pay an extra surcharge for uploading photos to your web site, even though you already pay a premium for your faster broadband connection.

It also means that the Telecoms could shut off anyone they desired. Network Neutrality does not exist in Canada, where their Telecoms have the control American ones are trying to get, and they have already abused it to their private advantage, blocking access to a web site run by the Telecom's worker's union. The Telecoms gaining that power in the U.S. would have a far greater impact, as U.S. sites are far more central to the global usage of the Internet.

At the core of this issue is the decentralized and open, public nature of the Internet. Up until now, the Internet has remained largely neutral, mostly a free, public resource without a central controlling authority. Kind of like a free market, an open port. This is one of the greatest reasons why the Internet has been so successful, and how the Internet has helped the American and international economies as much as it has in recent years. Giving this control to the Telecoms is antithetical to the nature of the Internet, essentially taking a multi-trillion-dollar public resource and handing ownership over to the Telecoms without them paying a cent for the cash cow they claim is theirs to take.

The House committee which now controls the bill is leaning heavily toward giving the Telecoms what they want, though enough members are still undecided that the bill could be killed while still at this stage. Various attempts by members in favor of Network Neutrality to maintain that system have tried to implement changes to protect free use of the Internet, but so far have been shot down.

What can be done? Well, one web site has gone up giving news on the issue, with a page showing a map of the country displaying which members of the Commerce Committee have voted for or against the bill, and who has not yet made it clear where they stand, along with contact information for those representatives; you can find the representative in your area, if yours is on the committee, and give their offices a call to tell them how you feel.

Posted by Luis at 01:43 PM | Comments (0)

April 24, 2006

Reinstalling Windows XP

After maybe three years of constant use, my XP was running extremely ragged. It's always a good idea to reformat your hard drive and reinstall your software, probably once a year, once every two years on the outside, especially if you use it constantly and install various software on it. Otherwise, data corruption eats you alive. That's what I was getting--the computer was becoming very slow even on startup, and if it was up for any length of time, things could slow to a crawl.

And here was where I found yet another Mac vs. PC distinction: Windows reinstallation can suck, big time. Maybe it works better on some machines than on others. It certainly wasn't easy on mine.

Now, when you get a Mac, you get the Mac OS, and you get an install DVD. Not a "restore" disc, although in the past, restore discs have been included as an extra. But you definitely get the OS install discs just as if you'd bought the OS separately. And none of this "install disks will only install onto your specific model" baloney, the OS install discs will work on any Mac modern enough to handle it. In the past, Apple did that differentiation thing, but not for a long time now, to my knowledge. Well, I have an eMachines computer, a cheap desktop box, and that's what the restore discs will work on, and nothing else. Well, fine for today.

Next, when you try to use the install disc, it's simple to use, self-explanatory. If you put the disc in while the computer is on, then open the install icon, it'll tell you exactly what to do--restart and boot from the install disc. It'll even auto-target the disc so all you have to do is click "restart," and you're on your way. Simple.

Not so simple for the PC. I put the restore CD in the CD drive (the computer has separate CD-RW and DVD-ROM drives), and all I got was an auto-run that opened a simple text editor file that told me that the drivers were on the second disk. Well, fine. But I don't want the drivers, I know they're on the second disk, I want to reformat the drive and reinstall the OS. I put in the second disk, it's just got the drivers, and no other instructions.

So after a while, I figure maybe I'll leave the first install CD in the computer and restart. Aha! That's what was needed! It now asks me if I want to restore the software. that's great, but how many people would have thought to do what I did? There are no instructions to that effect on the CD label, nor on the CD content. Nothing. Nada. You gotta figure it out on your own. Stupid.

But at least I figured it out, and so now I'm ready. I select the "restore" option, read the warnings, and tell the machine to go ahead. Bzzzzt! Sorry! A program starts up called "Symantec Ghost 2.0.0.260", and an error dialog comes up, stating "Single User Version cannot do multiple loads"; I press "OK," and another error dialog comes up ("Cannot open GHOSTERR.TXT"), and then another ("Invalid dump file"). After clicking "OK" for these dialogs, the computer then helpfully reports that the restore process was successful and my new software has been installed. Yeah, right.

I try different variations, and always the same thing happens. I get a copy of my sister-in-law's restore CD (they have the exact same model), and it fails. She can't figure it out either. But something strange is going on: every time I try the procedure, after it fails but reports it's finished, the DVD-ROM tray pops out. Now, left to my own self, I eventually would have figured out that the computer seemed to think that the restore CD was in the DVD drive rather than the CD drive, but in fact, my sister-in-law suggested it first. Sure enough, I pop the CD into the DVD drive, and everything works.

But again, we get a very non-intuitive process, and a stupid machine: why can't it recognize which drive a CD is in? Why does it only work when the CD is in the DVD drive and not the CD drive? And why can't the computer itself suggest to put the CD in the DVD drive?

This is what I'm talking about. The updates are similarly non-intuitive--I have to figure out where the software updater is, then update the updater, then install 19 updates, and only then does it suggest installing Service Pack 2, which is what I was looking for... oy. This is why I like Macs better. Sorry, but it is way easier to use. I just don't see any way around that.

Posted by Luis at 10:52 PM | Comments (8)

April 12, 2006

Writely: A Great Concept, Not Yet Ready for Prime Time

A recent acquisition of Google is an online word processing app called "Writely." I had high expectations for the app, since it is capable of saving documents to your computer in MS Word, RTF, Open Office, or PDF formats. It also allows "collaboration," meaning that more than one person can view and edit a document in an account. I thought this might be a great tool for the academic writing courses I sometimes teach at my college: students could write their essays online (no more forgetting to bring in their essay, or losing it because a floppy gets corrupted or lost), and then they would not even have to hand it in--I would simply log in and access the file, leave notes and corrections--everything done on line, but with the option of saving to a computer and printing it out there.

I signed up for an account but had heard nothing for some time, when a blogger who follows Google developments closely very kindly offered any readers an invitation, for the asking. I requested one and got it immediately (thanks, Googlist) and checked it out.

And while I still have hope that Writely will eventually become the tool I hoped for, it's not quite there yet. A lot of features are not yet present or smoothed out enough, much more so than can be accounted for by the app's beta status. For example, there are no options to set margins or paper size. You cannot set a first-line or hanging indent. The line spacing is sporadic at best, and is sometimes entirely lost on translation to an on-disk document. In short, the formatting is far from what is necessary for producing presentable documents. It is, in the end, limited to what can be presented on a web page with web standards. In this respect, it is a web page editor that can export its documents to a word processor, but it is not a word processor itself.

I attempted to write a document and then save it as an MS Word file. Double spacing got lost entirely. Margins (which can't be set within Writely) came out as .79" on the left, and all other margins were .39"--a strange set of defaults to use, and poor-looking at that. Paragraph breaks became line breaks, harder to handle in MS Word.

But Writely can also import documents, so I attempted to take a formatted MS Word file and import it into the web app. The document got pretty badly mangled. Tabs got translated to spaces, a header got distorted and appeared as normal text at the top of page one. Images lost word wrap formatting. Indents remained, but got distorted--first-line indents stayed at a half inch, while hanging indents went from a half to a whole inch.

When the same document was translated back into MS Word on my hard disk, it lost even more formatting. Hanging indents became full left-margin indents. The header reappeared, but jumped from the right to the left side. The margins got distorted into new proportions, with the top margin now 1.05 inches and all the others similar to Writely defaults.

The distortions after uploading to Writely and again downloading to MS Word were strange. Some stayed as MS Word had them, but some got changed to new values even though Writely does not allow you to change them. Any special formatting disappeared.

Clearly, Writely is not really a word processor along the lines of MS Word or any other disk-based app. It is really just a text editor, with web page formatting only. Importing from and exporting to MS Word is not very useful because the distortions make it easier just to copy and paste text from a web page to MS Word and apply formatting changes there. This app won't work if things like margins and indents mean anything to you. And it's absolutely not WYSIWYG.

I had expected Writely to come up with coded translations of all formatting at least available in the Rich Text Format; that the app would preserve all such formatting and then translate it into a web page that appeared in WYSIWYG style. I imagined that any change you made on the web page would be interpreted back into RTF, and that saving as RTF or MS Word would produce a clean document. Maybe Writely will become that in the future, but that isn't what it is right now. Instead, any text document is simply made into a web page, with non-web formatting distorted or lost.

The main values I see currently are the ability to edit anywhere you have Internet access, and Writely's ability to allow collaboration. You can add a collaborator simply by entering an email address. That person will get an email informing them, and if they are not already signed in to Writely, they will be given an account. They will be able to log on, then view and edit any documents shared with them by others.

Now, I would have known this had I read Googlist's March review of Writely (that was before I found that blog), in which the new web app is carefully explained, deconstructed, and analyzed. Googlist explained it like this:

Writely is not a fully-featured, traditional desktop publishing program. It does not provide features like those in Word and InDesign that let you create custom paper sizes, apply multi-page layouts, design your own greeting cards, or import custom font families.

Writely is not (yet) a term paper machine. There is no support for automatically updating footnotes, automatically updating tables of contents, or page numbering for that matter. It's just not that kind of app at this point.

Writely's strengths are primarily in portability (you can edit a doc from any computer on the Internet) and collaboration. I am hoping that they beef up the formatting so academic essays can be produced, but it doesn't look like it will get there for some time yet. Nevertheless, this is still a great concept, and I will be keeping my eyes on it over time. The development team has a blog which they post to every several weeks or so.

If you want an invite, I'd be happy to pass along the favor Googlist did for me--just leave an email in a comment; if it's a straight request with email address, it won't get published, I'll just send you an invite.

Posted by Luis at 07:45 PM | Comments (1)

April 09, 2006

Are They Kidding?

Boy, these guys really don't have a clue. I'm talking about the content producers, the movie studios specifically this time, who have decided to sell movies online. You download the movies to watch them on your computer. Hmm. Sounds reasonable--the best way to fight pirated movies would be to sell them to people in the same medium so they'll have a choice to do it legally within that medium. Apple showed that it's possible with music, and then with TV shows. Cool! Let's do it!

One problem: these studios, it seems, are incredibly stupid. And/or, they believe their customers are ever more stupid.

FoolsdareThe movies will be sold at prices and with restrictions that make no sense whatsoever. They will charge from $10 for "classic" movies from their libraries, up to between $20 to $30 for new releases. The movies are the same ones available on DVD, which sell for the same price or lower. The online versions will not have the special features, like commentaries, alternate endings, deleted scenes, etc. They will be full quality--that is, they'll be no worse quality than you see on your TV (file sizes will be about 1.4 GB). You can make copies to watch on up to two other computers. But--you can only see them if you are using Windows XP, with Internet Explorer 6.0 or higher, and Windows Media Player 10. They say that maybe you can use Windows Me, maybe WMP 9, but no guarantees. What's more, you can't burn it on a DVD and you can't get or make an iPod version. You can watch on your TV, but only if your computer can connect via S-Video or RCA, which most desktop computers can't.

So here's the question: why download a movie?

That's what makes no sense. Buy the DVD, and you can play it on any computer, with any media player that can play DVDs. You can play it on your TV with your computer or DVD player. You can download free software from the Internet to rip the movie and make it viewable as a computer file or watch it on your iPod or PSP. You can get all the special features. For less money!

The copy-protect and limitations on which OS, browser, and media players can be used are stupid as hell. We're talking about movies that have already been ripped and are available for full-quality download over the Internet. So what is the copy-protect protecting? Not a damned thing. People downloading it for free from the Internet can do anything they want with the movie, watch it on any player, in any format. But paying customers hit all these restrictions. Stupid!

The reason why the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) worked is because it was a good deal, and the Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions were nearly invisible to the user. You buy a song off of the iTMS, you can play it on your computer, burn it onto as many CDs as you want, play it on your iPod, your CD Player in your home, your car, your office, whatever. You have to try really hard to hit any of the DRM restrictions. (Okay, so you can only play it on iTunes or your iPod, unless you burn it on a CD. The iPod restriction may suck, but iTunes is universal and the CD option is always there.) What's more, it's cheaper than buying CDs. At the store, you pay maybe $15 for a CD, you can get the same thing on the iTMS for ten bucks, and if you want, you can usually buy one song at a time for a buck a pop, which is what most people have always wanted anyway.

That's a good model--cheaper, faster, customizable, and restrictions most people don't even notice.

Now, when Apple started selling TV shows--which is probably the breakthrough event that prompted these new movie sales--they did it as well as they could. Yes, the TV shows are of not-so-good quality; yes, they lack the special features on DVDs; yes, taken together, they cost more than DVDs do. But we're talking TV shows, which will not be released on DVD for another year. And while the cumulative price for a season of TV shows from Apple will cost more than the whole season on DVD, the per-episode price is a manageable chunk, something many people are willing to spend. And they can watch on their iPod or their computer. Not as good a deal as the music, but at least a deal which is tolerable to many (not to me, but to many). So it works, and that's the bottom line.

But this new movie paradigm simply sucks. If they sell any movies, it'll be a novelty thing and won't last. Not unless they change it. First off, get rid of the stupid restrictions on the OS, browser, and media player. Have it be a regular AVI file, or even better, a DVD-format file set (with a VIDEO_TS folder) as an option, so people can save to a DVD. But wait, the studios protest, that means people can buy it from us and then put it on the Internet! So what? It's already on the Internet, you idiots! You've got to enable the paying customer, not cut them off at the knees for no good reason! The thing is, like with the iTMS customers (who could easily download the same songs for free, but instead choose to buy them!), you've got to offer at least the same or better than what pirates offer, and for a reasonable price.

Okay, maybe the studios can't give a good price because they would alienate the DVD retailers, their current cash cow. But if you're going to charge more and give less, at least get rid of the playing and copying restrictions, because they do nothing to protect, and everything to inconvenience.

(Yes, I know--Apple's iTMS restricts the song files to the iTunes media player and iPod digital devices. I agree, it's a restriction that sucks. But at least it's being done for a logical reason--Apple wants you to buy their goods. Not a reason that helps you, but at least it's a reason that makes sense. It'd be great if Apple allowed the songs to be played on any media player and on any digital device. But--and this is what it comes down to--they don't, and yet they make the business model work, and most people are happy with it.)

My guess is that after this abortive attempt at selling downloadable movies flops, they're going to try to tone things down bit by bit until they make a safe (they imagine), soft landing where they sell enough to make money and keep their little restrictions. But Steve Jobs may take advantage, and after the initial attempt fails, Apple will start selling movies--likely beginning with Disney titles--in a smarter way. After which it will be a question of whether the other studios will see the light and sign on, or stubbornly try their own greedy formula. We'll have to wait an see.

Posted by Luis at 01:00 PM | Comments (3)

April 04, 2006

Version Tracker

VtlogoI make no claims that this is the best site of its kind, but it's the one I tend to use. Version Tracker, as its name implies, tracks versions of just about any software that gets released in downloadable form. I tend to check the "freeware" page regularly though I give the other pages a look now and then. It's great for keeping informed on new versions of software you use, and for learning about new software you never heard of before.

But when you're looking for a specific piece of software to take on a specific task, the search feature helps a great deal. Sometimes you might need to translate an audio or video file from one format to another, or you might want to see what free email or FTP clients might be available. You can search by category (games, graphics, utilities, word processing) or by type (freeware, shareware, commercial). The site lists software for Mac (OS9 or OSX separately), Windows, or Palm Pilot. With a free account subscription, you can get top downloads and editor's picks. Unfortunately, the most detailed searches, such as searching the most popular downloads within a specific category--are limited to a paid membership. Ah well--they gotta pay the bills somehow.

I used to use CNet's download.com and shareware.com, but they became far too difficult to use when CNet tried to jazz up the sites' appearance and thus made it far harder to navigate and find useful info. I also hate the whole "Free to Try" categorization--it's called a "demo," you nitwits. They don't allow you to view software by license the way you probably want to, making it a chore to wade through the stuff you won't use. Version Tracker's interface is much more economical, allowing you to quickly browse through large numbers of titles to get to the stuff you want, with better-defined categorization. Much more preferable.

Some good free Mac stuff: TinkerTool, a system utility that allows you to change some neat preferences on your Mac which are usually inaccessible (there's also OnyX); HandBrake, an app that allows you to rip DVDs, putting your DVD videos on your hard drive at adjustable sizes; VLC Media Player, which plays just about any video file, and makes your computer into a region-free DVD player; Skype, the only Internet voice chat program my dad and I could get to work well; Audacity, a free audio editing app; and Gimp, a poor man's Photoshop, an X11 app and not the easiest to use, but for a free program, it's pretty amazing.

Posted by Luis at 11:01 PM | Comments (2)

March 30, 2006

Google Page Creator = GMail Spam

Turns out I was right. Google Page Creator, as I predicted, generates spam to your GMail account. Not intentionally on the part of Google, of course. But when you get a Google Page Creator account, it is based on your GMail account, and so the address of your GPC web site mirrors your GMail address. My prediction was that spammers would easily be able to spambot the googlepages.com domain and harvest the GMail addresses of all the members.

And so it has come to pass. My original GMail account has been active for 1 year and 9 months, and I get very little spam--two or three every week get through to my spam folder, and it took more than a year before those started showing up. The junk GMail address I created for the GPC account, on the other hand, has been active only a week, and yet already 15 spam emails have penetrated Google's spam filters to show up in the account--and a few even got into my InBox, though most stayed in the spam folder.

No need to inform Google--there are already discussion topics about it and people have complained, so Google knows already. They simply haven't fixed it yet. In the meantime, I am quite glad that I caught that before publishing under my original account, and used the junk account instead.

Posted by Luis at 03:38 PM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2006

Google Page Creator

It looks like Google is going full-bore to create what is effectively a web-centric software suite. Google started out with just searching, and expanded in that field to include different varieties of searches (images, video, blogs, maps), but then they started getting into software, and appear headed more in that direction.

It's not all consistent, however; some Google software gets installed on your computer (like Google Desktop, Earth, and Picasa), some work wholly on the web using javascript to jazz them up (Blogger and GMail). Google does not appear to be going for the big time and making a whole operating system, or even to be creating what would seem to be the most obvious application for them: a browser. (There was a lot of speculation back in late 2004 that Google was developing a browser, but it fizzled and Google said it was not developing one.)

But more and more, Google is acquiring and developing new software, and even if there doesn't appear to be a direction, there certainly is a lot of enthusiasm. Google bought out Urchin, a web site statistics program, and has renamed it Google Analytics. I'm interested because it seems to have the ability to filter out spam from the stats, something I can't find anywhere else. Google also bought something called Writely, an online WYSIWYG word processor that can export a file in MS Word, OpenOffice, RTF, or PDF formats, among others. That would be great for my students, who are constantly losing essays due to corrupt files, or often (claim) they left them at home by accident. Writely would allow you to share files with anyone, so they could all allow the teacher to collect essays from online, and return them corrected in the same way. Both of these are in beta mode right now, though you can sign up for an invitation.

All of these products and services (to the best of my knowledge) are free, though some have "premium" levels where you can access advanced features at cost.

The latest new thing I got into is Google Page Creator (GPC). Clearly based upon the Blogger system, it allows you to easily create multiple web pages within your private web site from scratch. You could clearly call it a direct competitor to Apple's iWeb, as it works in pretty much the same way, though GPC is much more primitive.

Gpc-Buttons2There are two clear advantages to GPC. First, Google (in their usual online-disk-space largesse--GMail accounts now go up to 2.7 GB) gives you your own "googlepages" subdomain with 100 MB, free of charge, and no advertising slapped onto the page. It is essentially your web site, free and clear. You don't have to register a domain name for $10 a year, and you don't have to pay a web host anything. Second, it's damned simple to use--just click and type. There are big buttons that make clear what they are, and every action--including making links and putting up images--is made about as plain as it can be made. It's even easy to coordinate the many pages within the site, linking them together, using common images, and so forth.

There are down sides: in some respects, it is too simple. You cannot control the coding or appearance of the overall web page beyond the very limited choices GPC gives you. Your page is comprised of sections that must include a title banner, and either one, two or three columns, the center column always being the biggest. You can choose from 41 different themes, mostly color variations of 15 or so basic themes (very similar to Blogger). Beyond that, you can't tweak the overall look of the page using GPC directly. Now, within each section, you are allowed to edit the HTML, and therefore apply more advanced coding than the few buttons provided in WYSIWYG, but that's about it.

Gpc-Layout
only four layouts to choose from
Gpc-Styles
Blogger-ish theme choices

On the other hand, it is possible to upload pre-made web pages from your computer (using the upload window in the Page Manager), so advanced users will be pleased by that. You can also upload videos or sound files if you so choose. Meanwhile, novices will probably be quite satisfied with the native web page creation methods. Certainly, for a simple one-two-three way to slap a site up on the web, it'd be hard to get better than this.

There is currently a limit to the number of files--just 100 are allowed at present. Probably you don't need that many web pages, and if you have more than that many images, you could use a site like OurMedia, one of several free file upload services on the web. I expect Google will raise or eliminate this limit eventually.

GPC currently supports Firefox (Mac and Windows) and IE (Windows only) browsers--you can't touch it with Safari on a Mac, at least not yet. This service is currently tied in to GMail--you need a GMail address to use GPC. You sign in by using your GMail address and password, and the URL for your GPC site is based upon your GMail account name.

And that last part is, as far as I can tell, a big down side, as far as spam is concerned. Let's say your GMail address is myname@gmail.com. When you get a GPC account, your site's address will be http://myname.googlepages.com. In other words, your GMail address becomes the site subdomain address. And that means that a spammer could easily harvest GMail addresses simply by sending a spambot to scour the googlepages domain. I can't understand why Google would set things up like this, even in beta mode. Now, the Google Page Creator preference page does list the site address as a configurable option (like Blogger allows), but currently that option is inaccessible; hopefully Google will activate it soon.

In the meantime, I would advise setting up a junk GMail account if you want to fool around with GPC, like I did. My main GMail account is my name, and I signed up weeks ago for GPC. I got the invite a few days ago, but when I found the URL problem, I decided not to publish. Instead, I set up a second GMail account which I don't care if it gets spam, and asked GPC for an invite on that account. I expected another long wait, but the invite came the next day--which suggests that they're getting up to speed on this, I suppose.

GMail itself is still in beta mode, and strangely it still does not allow you to sign up without an invitation from somebody (unless you want to sign up using your mobile phone). But once you have an account, you immediately get 15 invites, and eventually get up to 100. So if you want a GMail invite from me, just post a comment to this entry with your email address. I will intercept the comment in moderation, send you the invite, and then delete your email address from the comment so it never appears in published form (or will simply delete the whole comment if you specify so).

Set up the GMail account, and then go to the Google Page Creator web site and sign up for an invite to that, using the GMail address. Apparently, you can get as many accounts as you have GMail addresses, which ultimately is unlimited, unless they have some way of catching egregious account-makers.

My GPC account is http://blogds.googlepages.com. Nothing interesting there yet, just a placeholder page with a few other sample pages to show different themes and layouts.

Keep in mind that GPC is still a very early beta (some suggest it's technically an alpha), so don't expect perfection. But even for a beta, it's pretty good for what it is.

This discussion-area post has lots of good information, suggestions, tips & tricks and other stuff.

Posted by Luis at 02:45 PM | Comments (8)

March 19, 2006

Bits and Pieces, 3/19/06

Mars-CliffsThey were expected to last 90 days. Sure, engineers always over-engineer, and leave themselves a comfortable extra margin. But the first of the two Martian rovers, Spirit, has lasted an amazing 779 days, or approximately two years and one and a half months of continuous operation, mostly on solar power, sending back countless photos and scientific data as it rolls along plains, up hills, across the face of Mars. It has traveled a total of 6,797 meters, or 4.2 miles, and finally, it is beginning to wear out. At the height of Martian winter approaches and sunlight wanes to a minimum, one of Spirit's wheels has become stuck. And yet, the rover moves on, limping still, trying to reach a position on McCool Hill's north-facing slopes so it can spend the rest of the winter in maximum sunlight. Every once in a while I still visit the image pages for the rovers, where you can see the latest landscape, a new rock-face, yet another panorama of Mars. Way, way cool.

Google has won! At least for now, as the government will probably try to appeal. The snoops in the Bush administration want to peruse through your searches (like they want to sniff through everything else you do), so they can "fight porn," despite the uselessness of the Google data in meeting that end. More likely, they are trying to set up a precedent so they can filch the files all they want in the future, and get more data about you--oh, I'm sorry, about terrorists--and probably have some nice juicy tidbits, like who searches for porn and how often. Answer: none of the government's damned business.

So good for Google. Microsoft eagerly handed over the data, as they care little for the end user, and Yahoo caved in, as did others. Google stood and fought, and though a week ago it seemed that they might be forced to give up partial user search data, they eventually won out. Only 50,000 anonymous URLs, not user searches, will be given to the government. This is one of the reasons I use Google. Yes, they aren't perfect--they caved in to China's demands for censorship. But more often then not, they do the right thing. Also, they have lots of cool, free software and services, and are constantly developing more--like an online word processor, fantastic web page stats engine, and more. (Anyone have an invitation for the Google Analytics, by the way? Leave a comment with your email, I'll intercept it in moderation and reply, the email address won't get published.)

Not to mention that Google is the best search engine, and certainly does best by me--they send twice as many visitors to my blog than all other search engines combined--five times more than Yahoo, ten times more than MSN. They're the biggest, best, and coolest. Or am I gushing too much?

Bush uses straw-man arguments in his speeches. This is something new? I think not.

In the meantime, Bush's approval ratings continue to sink. Newsweek has him at 36% Rasmussen, the most Bush-loving of all polls, has him at 40%, the lowest they've ever ranked him. Everyone else has him well below the 40% mark. And yet not even 40% want to see Bush censured for violating the Constitution. Are we in Bizarro-land or what? More than that wanted Clinton impeached for getting a blow job. Too many Americans are deeply unbalanced.

From DKos:
Have you seen the Patriot Act game? The game's creator says, "I've had people complain to me that when they play, nobody wins. They say 'We're all in Guantanamo and nobody has any civil liberties left,'" he said. "I'm like 'Yeah, that's the point.'"

Japan opens up archives of suffering and hardships of people in WWII.

Only of Japanese people, of course.

Posted by Luis at 02:29 PM | Comments (2)

February 06, 2006

Preferred Spam

Kevin Drum seems think think that AOL and Yahoo's "Goodmail" system might be a good thing; as reported by the New York Times:

America Online and Yahoo, two of the world's largest providers of e-mail accounts, are about to start using a system that gives preferential treatment to messages from companies that pay from 1/4 of a cent to a penny each to have them delivered. The senders must promise to contact only people who have agreed to receive their messages, or risk being blocked entirely.

The Internet companies say that this will help them identify legitimate mail and cut down on junk e-mail, identity-theft scams and other scourges that plague users of their services. They also stand to earn millions of dollars a year from the system if it is widely adopted.

In essence, this will simply create a new class of approved spam that will appear in your mailbox, creating only a nuisance to you, increased costs to businesses you need to hear from (e.g., receipt confirmations from Amazon.com and such firms you deal with), and profits for your web service providers. I see it as little different from the recent push by telecoms to charge Internet companies for bandwidth--just another profit-taking scheme by those who control the highways of the Internet.

It will also violate the Net Neutrality policy that has so far served as well as could be expected on the net. As for the safeguard of only approving email users have "agreed to receive," that's highly dubious at best. How will that be verified? What constitutes "agreement"? With AOL and Yahoo set only to profit from wider use, it is doubtful that spammers will often be blocked for abusing this; it is likely that the inclusion of an "opt-out" clause alone will qualify as "approved" spam.

This is not a solution, it's a business opportunity for AOL and Yahoo to cash in on the spam business at your expense.

Posted by Luis at 09:34 AM | Comments (0)

January 23, 2006

For Whom The Net Tolls

Via Josh Marshall, a story about how the Telecoms are trying to find new ways to put new toll booths on the information superhighway. In short, they want to artificially slow or speed up the connections of retailers according to how much they are willing to pay. If, for example, Google outbids Yahoo, then Yahoo will slow to a crawl on your computer while Google speeds away.

This is, of course, nothing less than a will to gouge:

AT&T Chairman Edward E. Whitacre Jr. complained that Internet content providers were getting a free ride: "They don't have any fiber out there. They don't have any wires. . . . They use my lines for free -- and that's bull," he said. "For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!''
A false argument, of course: everyone already pays for the pipes. You think Google pays no money to connect to the Internet? Do you get a free connection? Of course not. We all pay, and the big corporations which do their business online pay a premium for fast connections and massive bandwidth. This is nothing less than the Telecoms realizing that they have a potential stranglehold on the livelihood of super-rich businesses--if the laws are changed so as to allow them to artificially punish any user that does not cough up exorbitant wads of cash for the privilege. It's kind of like power companies figuring that they could charge businesses a lot more for electricity than regular consumers: it has nothing to do with the actual cost of providing the service, rather it has to do with the service provider seeing customers with loads of money are figuring they can extort a lot of that cash their way by threatening to cut off an essential service.

The telecoms claim that they're just charging for what they provide, but their statements belie this easy falsehood, like when a BellSouth executive said they wanted to charge Apple 10 cents for every iTunes Music Store download. That's not charging for bandwidth, that's asking for a cut of all business profits. A high-definition movie trailer now provided free by Apple can take up twenty to thirty times more bandwidth than a song; will they charge Apple two or three dollars for each of these? Obviously not--so it's not about bandwidth, it's more of a 'protection racket,' like neighborhood thugs demanding shops to cough up a percentage--such a nice business you have here, it'd be a shame if something happened to it.

In the end, if this is allowed, the consumer will naturally be the one to foot the bill in the form of higher prices and lesser services, even due to less competition. And you have to remember that we presently have a Congress that cares nothing of your needs when rich lobbyists bring bags of bribes contributions to their doors, as we witnessed when Congress passed laws that screwed the public royally but granted multi-billion dollar boons to the pharmaceutical and credit card industries at our expense. So just because this works against the interests of consumers does not mean Congress won't consider it. After all, the Republican majority has it's own protection racket, and the telecom lobbyists are far better entrenched in D.C. than the dotcoms are. But at least the dotcoms are businesses that can cough up cash in the end, so there's a fighting chance that they'll be able to fight it.

Posted by Luis at 11:13 AM | Comments (1)

January 22, 2006

OpenOffice

Sorry, but this thing is way too confusing for me. Trust me, I want OpenOffice to work. If it's a good alternative to MS Office, then by all means I want it to work. I don't know, maybe in Windows or Linux it's easier, but frankly I doubt it. Sure, I can open it up and do stuff, and yes, a lot of the difficulty is related to my being used to other apps like Pages or Word. Yes, it's worse quality, but it's free and I can deal with that just fine. Yes, it breaks the Mac rules and demands Control-key command shortcuts instead of Apple's "Command" key shortcuts, but again, I can deal with that. However, there are times when, trying my best, I attempt to do something that should be basic and simple, and I hit a brick wall.

Here's a case in point: the suite does not directly access my fonts--instead, it has its own collection of special fonts, most of which I've never heard of. I want others. Not too much to ask, right? But I can't figure out how. I go to the "Help" window, and find that I am instructed to follow a series of steps to add a font. It begins:

To integrate additional fonts in the OpenOffice.org software, proceed as follows:
1. Go to the {install_path}/program directory.
And wham, I'm stuck. Right there on the first step. "Go to the {install_path}/program directory"? Where? Under what menu and command? In the Finder? In a terminal app? And what the hell is the install path? Starting where? How should I type it? With what syntax? I'm no hacker, but I'm hardly a newbie either, and I cannot understand what I am supposed to do.

This is something I whined righteously complained about before: poorly-written documentation. Documentation is supposed to assist the reader in the most understandable way the authors can manage. But as with most documentation for non-mainstream software, it is written by programmers, who apparently are under the impression that everyone else in the world is a programmer too. Thus the instructions which I'm sure programmers can follow without problem, but the other 98% of us trying to use the software are hopelessly confused by.

So if you're OK with partial functionality, or if you know what the hell an "install path" is and know where and how to type it, then OpenOffice might be good for you. But frankly, I'd rather spend the eighty bucks on iWork than deal with that kind of frustration.

Posted by Luis at 01:21 PM | Comments (5)

January 09, 2006

Back to School

So tomorrow is the first day I have going back to work after the Winter vacation. I caught a break in timing, in that the semester started on a Friday, and I don't have classes on that day. This week, Monday is a holiday. Tuesday, tomorrow, will be my first day back. And a good semester it should be. I have three classes, but they are back-to-back on two days of the week, which means slightly longer but many fewer days. I've got the web site up to speed, and it all looks well-prepared and ready to go. I just have to figure out how to deal with it all with a broken foot.

One particular point of interest will be the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco, with Jobs' keynote coming at (I believe) 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Japan time. (Rumor roundups here and here.) If, as is predicted, the new Intel Macs come out, this should change the computing landscape some, and that'll mean changes possibly for my students as well. It's always good when something big is happening in the field you're teaching, it gives you a chance to go over all the aspects with your class.

In the past, I have set aside half of one class session each semester to demo the Mac OS, in part to give students another point of view to better understand what an OS is, and in part to show them how cool the system is. Perhaps more than that, they see how I use it myself every day--my monitor is almost always mirrored on the class monitor, and they can see how I navigate through things. And every semester, a good number of students come back very interested in the Mac, despite having seen little else but Windows machines all their lives. I know that if I could tell them they could get Mac and Windows all in one package, a lot more of them would make the switch.

So it should be a fun semester. Heck, if I'm lucky, I'll be able to convince my school of the wisdom of shelling out a few bucks for a Mac Mini, should it become available with Intel and Windows. Our IT people wouldn't know what to do with a Mac, but hey--I can do maintenance that side of things a lot easier than they can. It'll take me a lot less time, and be cheaper for the school to boot!

Posted by Luis at 11:46 PM | Comments (1)

January 07, 2006

A Year and a Half Late...

David Pogue gave a report on Bill Gates' presentation of Windows Vista, the next OS version after XP. It's due out about a year from now (unless it's delayed yet again, not an unlikely event). Pogue comes down on it pretty hard as mostly being a Mac OS X ripoff:

If I seem to be laying on the "stolen from Apple" language a bit thick, you're darned right. Ordinarily, I'm careful about making accusations like this, because I know I'll get hammered by Apple bashers. But in this case, there's not a shred of doubt: most of the features Microsoft demonstrated last night were pure, unadulterated ripoffs from Mac OS X. I could hear actual whispers of recognition from the audience around me.
Pogue did mention that they had a few original features, but they didn't sound like much to get excited about (go ahead and read yourself). But a lot of Vista's big features--widgets, application switcher, fast search--are features that will be one and a half years old on the Mac before Vista comes out. A few new features, like photo organization and tabbed browsing, have been standard on the Mac for a lot longer than that. Pogue seems satisfied "to have these features on both platforms," but why wait 18 months or even a lot longer to get them?

Meanwhile, Apple accidentally revealed (on its web site, a common place for this to happen) a new application coming out at MWSF: iWeb, apparently a consumer-level web page creation program. No details on it yet, but it might be styled after Pages, and could have easy drag-and-drop media capabilities.

Update: This site has a few nice videos which take the audio from Gates' presentation of Vista and matches it with a movie-screen-grab of Mac OS X Tiger, showing the stuff that Gates is saying Vista will have a year from now has been available on OS X for the better part of a year already.

Posted by Luis at 05:03 PM | Comments (4)

January 06, 2006

Skype and the Intercom Effect

For some time, my father and I have been experimenting with using some kind of voice chat, but for some reason, we were never able to get anything to work. And then a week ago, just after I got back from the U.S., we tried Skype, and after working out a few bugs, we got it to work. And it's great, too--very good sound quality, easy to use.

After using it for just the one week, we've discovered something very interesting about it: we use it very differently than we would use our telephones. With a telephone call, we would wait as much as a week or two between calls, and there would have to be more than just a casual reason to call. But with voice chat, it feels different. It feels like an intercom, and that my family is right next door, and not halfway around the globe.

I realized that this morning, when I decided I'd call my dad and just chat about things I wouldn't have made a phone call for. I'd seen Bill O'Reilly on Letterman, and just felt like commenting on it with him. Particularly on how Letterman, before O'Reilly came out, stirred his pencil in O'Reilly's coffee mug, and then later reacted when O'Reilly drank from it. And, while we were at it, about Robertson's yet-another-idiotic-remark event with Sharon's stroke being God's punishment for dividing Israel. Stuff we might discuss in the course of a regular telephone conversation, but not enough to trigger a telephone call in the first place.

It's hard to define why there is a difference. Mechanically, it's not much different than a telephone; it even uses the same ringing sound effects as a telephone. A call is placed, is answered, and at the end, we hang up. But still, somehow, it feels different. It might be financial--even though our phone plans have gotten international dialing rates down to under ten cents a minute (low enough that we don't even think about the expense any more), there remains the fact that it does cost money, and the clock is ticking, even if we don't think about it as consciously as we did before. Kind of like taking photos: with chemical film, I was always conscious of the cost for each photo, and restrained myself from taking more than one or two at a time. But now, with digital cameras and no cost per photo, I snap away incessantly.

Or maybe it's something as simple as the increased sound quality, capturing more of the ambience of the other side, and giving the other speaker more of a 'presence,' as if they were much closer. There was a bit of the same effect, I believe, when international phone lines were improved to the point where sound quality became the same as with local phone calls.

It could be because I've set this up only with my family and no one else, so it feels more like a private connection. Or perhaps it's something as simple as the fact that I was just over there, in the U.S. with my family, and am still in the mode where I feel I can start chatting about anything.

However, I get the feeling that this will be a bit more permanent than that, and maybe it's due to a combination of all the above factors. I think we'll be using the telephone a lot less, and this a lot more, despite the limitations. Those limitations include the fact that we can only make calls when both laptops are on and not closed. Also, because of terrible feedback problems, we are forced to use headphones which tether us to the computers, and we can't move far. Even so, there is something compelling about this kind of communication, closing even further the distance between us.

I compare this to when I first came to live in Japan, when telephone calls cost a few bucks each minute and were of terrible quality, and voice communication was more for emergencies, a luxury we couldn't much afford. As with so much else, things have changed.

Posted by Luis at 10:25 AM | Comments (6)

January 05, 2006

Flash! MRAM?

Here's a bit of Mac news, some more speculation on what will be released at MWSF in a few days. They're saying that new Mac laptops may use flash memory associated with the CPU so that startup and general performance is increased.

Huh? Let's go over that. First, you have to understand what "volatile" means in computerese. See, a computer's CPU and RAM (like its 'brain' and 'memory') can only hold data while they are turned on. Switch off the power, and they go blank. That's "volatile." Imagine it's like you lose all your memory whenever you go to sleep, and have to re-learn everything when you wake up. That's why a computer takes so long to start up: it's loading all the data from the relatively slow hard drive (which is non-volatile) back into the relatively fast RAM and the CPU--a lot of information taking a long path to its destination. The main point is that when you boot up, the computer has to 're-learn' how to work.

Using flash memory speeds that up. Flash memory is both chip-based and non-volatile. Shut down the computer, and the flash chip still retains all the data. Turn the computer on, and the data (stored in a "cache," located on or near the CPU) is instantly available. Your computer should be able to start faster and perform better.

This would simply be the first step in a line to even faster computers, however. Many researchers are working to perfect something called "MRAM," a magnetic-based chip technology which would make CPUs and RAM (not just the caches) non-volatile. In other words, if you turned off your computer, it would never forget anything. Turn on the power, and the computer turns on instantly, like a light switch.

You would probably still need to re-boot the operating systems from time to time as they get unstable when used continuously over time. Still, it would be a great feature--like changing from a crank-start automobile to a push-button Prius.

But until MRAM becomes a common reality, flash caches will do quite nicely, I'm sure. It does make me wonder, however, at how many innovations will really come out of Apple at the MWSF, so many have been reported. Probably, as usual, fewer than half will be true. But the closer we come to the keynote, more accurate information will start leaking out.

Posted by Luis at 09:07 PM | Comments (2)

December 26, 2005

Bluetooth Mouse - The Logitech V270

Lbtm1
Why isn't this technology used more? Beats me--I think Bluetooth is great. I waited for maybe 6 months for MacAlly to release their perpetually-coming-soon BTMouse (which some online stores perpetually advertised as "shipping in 3-10 days"), and then gave up rather unhappily when they finally fessed up that it was not coming soon at all. But Logitech came out with their version, the V270, an optical Bluetooth mouse. There are other mice out there, but most of them are mini-mice. Microsoft has a full-sized Bluetooth mouse, but (1) it's a bit too big and clunky, and (2) it's made by Microsoft. Apple has it's new Mighty Mouse, but they went wrong with the scroll wheel/button, and tried to stay too true to the one-button-mouse form.

Lbtm2BThe V270 has it about right: the right size (slightly smaller than a regular mouse, but still palm-sized), a nice plain form, the obligatory (though not universal, apparently) on-off switch, and simplicity of use. For Apple, that is. It comes with an install disk for Windows, but on a Mac you just "discover" it and it works. It also comes with a very nice little zipper pouch, made of good material, simple and not overdone.

After using for a bit, it seems perfectly fine as a mouse. It tracks well, doesn't jump or go berserk. The only problem is with distance. Even if the thing does work at 30 feet, one must have a clear line-fo-sight or it won't work. With the computer on the sofa and the mouse higher on the kitchen counter, I couldn't control it, because the bulk of the counter was in the way. And unless you're in a really big room, you're not going to find a flat surface with a direct line of sight with the computer thirty feet away--not that you could see the computer screen clearly from that distance, anyway. What I will do is click the mouse button, usually to advance Powerpoint slides, and that works fine as far as I get the mouse indoors.

The only other drawback I can think of is that it's a 3-button mouse, the third button being the scroll wheel. Especially for a cordless mouse which would be of more use as a button-clicker rather than a desk-scroller, you'd thing at least a 4th button would be easy to add and much more functional.

On the brighter side, this is a true Bluetooth mouse, meaning that you don't need a USB dongle sticking out of your laptop all the time, an easily-lost bit of really unnecessary extra hardware.

Posted by Luis at 03:38 PM | Comments (2)

December 11, 2005

Projects

Well, I'm getting things wrapped up. I just finished grading for the Fall 2005 semester (four sections of "Introduction to Computers," so it was a bit busy). The last part of grading was to review the students' blogs. I start them on blogging (using Google's Blogspot, of course) in the first month of class, and have them blog on the topic of computers once a week for ten weeks. This semester, they learned how to use Blogspot's image capacity, so that really jazzed things up. Go ahead and look at what they blogged on if you like (blog links are halfway down the page); they were given topics like "The Future of Computers," "My History with Computers," "What Computer Gifts Would I Buy Family and Friends," and so on--as well as some free-topic weeks. They also came up with some creative stuff, including the names for their blogs--like "With Rabbits," "Egg & Vinegar & Oil," "Froggy's Trash Can," "Hand in My Pocket," "Without Thinking," "Hello! Hello? Hello!" "Blog 101," and my personal favorite, "Don't Read!" If some of the later entries seem effusive with praise for the class, keep in mind that I hadn't given them grades yet...

I also just finished the main page for their web page projects, which I host on a domain which I otherwise don't use but has lots of disk space and bandwidth. A few of them just do the minimal prerequisite, but some went to a great deal of trouble, and a few had designs so nice I almost thought they stole it from somewhere. They used a lot of graphics off the web (I warn them about lifting copyrighted material, but for the purposes of practice I give them leeway), but a lot of the design and content is pretty good, considering that few if any of them ever made a web page before they came to my class.

As you can see, they get pretty creative. The blog and web pages are two of three projects they do in the class--the third being a PowerPoint presentation. I intentionally do not show them how to use wizards or templates, and require them to start with a blank slide show--and they come out with some fantastic presentations.

It can be a fun class to teach.

Posted by Luis at 10:36 PM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2005

Google Earth Beta for Mac OS X

Just ran into this link to download Google Earth for OS X. It is a very cool app. It's the one that flies around the globe, zooming in and out of any photographed area, with tons of notation and bookmark features. Very fun to play with. The link I provided just above takes you to a blog that links to a download site. The download site is a pay-for-immediate-access and free-if-you-wait type; just go to the bottom of the page, click the "Free" button, wait about half a minute, enter the anti-spambot code, and it'll download. The app is slightly buggy, but very usable. Enjoy. (Note: this very recent beta version will probably run only on 10.4.3 (the current OS X version), and might be sluggish on an iBook or older Mac.)

Posted by Luis at 12:20 PM | Comments (0)

November 29, 2005

Who Needs iDisk?

Gdiskicon2If you sign up for Apple's dot-Mac account, you get a variety of services, like an email account and 1 GB of disk space. They give you lots of bells and whistles, too, but in my trial for the service I found I never used them--and since I can use FTP and my domain's disk space on my web hosting account, I never really needed it. Certainly not enough to pay $99 a year.

But there is now a Mac application that allows you to use a function just like iDisk, except it uses a GMail account and it's completely free. The app is called gDisk (donationware). It's a very simple app on SourceForge, no documentation, but it's so easy you don't need any. Just download and open, and you see this:

Gdisk1

Under "Username," just type your GMail address without the "@gmail.com." For example, if your GMail address is "john.smith@gmail.com," then just type "john.smith". If you don't have a GMail address, get one from a friend. It's still on an invitation-only basis, but it's so widespread that surely someone you know has an account and so can get you one. I have 100 invitations available at any given time, so I assume all others with accounts have so too. Gone are the days when this was a special thing and people actually auctioned off invitations on eBay.

Once you've logged in, you should see a blank window with some button at the top. Just click on the "New Label" button to add a folder. As you can see, I added several folders / labels, and some even come with custom icons if you give them the right name:

Gdisk2-1

After that, it's as easy as drag & drop. Just select a folder, drag icons into the window and drop them there as if it were a folder on your Desktop. An "transfer queue" dialog will appear, showing you the status of the upload. When it's finished uploading, it may take a minute for the item to appear (switching to another folder and back again might speed that up). Now the item is in your 2.7 GB (and growing!) GMail account, and can be downloaded from any Internet connection in the world. Just open gDisk again, and drag & drop the item back onto your Desktop. Done and done.

The main drawback is that such network disks take time to upload and download the files, making it seem sluggish. But then, that's true of any app like this, including iDisk. Also, in this early version of the program, you can't save account settings and select them from a menu; you have to type your GMail user name each time, though the password will pop into place once you've done so. I would expect this to be remedied in a future version.

gDisk with a GMail account accomplishes the same thing as iDisk, providing you with the equivalent of dot-Mac's core services, except it's free and you get more than double the disk space. Hard to argue with that.

Posted by Luis at 10:30 AM | Comments (0)

November 23, 2005

The Invasiveness of DRM

I'm really getting sick and tired of these greedy, grabby media companies trying to control what we do with a product after we've bought it. One recent example is the Sony spyware incident, where people who wanted to listen to their legally-purchased songs on their computers discovered that Sony had covertly installed copy-protection software on their hard drives, which could actually be used by hackers to trash said computers. The Sony "DRM" program, called "Aires," was in the form of a "rootkit," a kind of cloaked software that hides certain system processes from the user. And while Sony "alerts" you to the fact the software is being installed, it is the typical spyware notice buried deeply in the EULA (End User License Agreement), that notice that pops up and demands you "agree" before you install software. The exact language is:

As soon as you have agreed to be bound by the terms and conditions of the EULA, this CD will automatically install a small proprietary software program (the “Software”) onto your computer. The Software is intended to protect the audio files embodied on the CD, and it may also facilitate your use of the digital content. Once installed, the Software will reside on your computer until removed or deleted.
Frankly, I think it's time for the laws regarding these contracts be revised. I disagree with the libertarian view that if you don't pore through every little clause in every contract you must sign (which would occupy half your waking hours if you did so), then it's your own fault. I believe that common-sense relevancy should demand that stuff like that be written in clear, layman's language at the top of every contract; burying it in the small print, even if it is clearly written, is nothing less than fraud, proven so by the fact that it was the seller's intent to bury the information in the first place.

But back to Sony's spyware: the rootkit Sony employed was not unique. In fact, it was the same kind of software used by hackers to put malware onto your system. Computer-savvy individuals caught on to what Sony was doing, and blogged about it. When the story got out, Sony assured everyone that the files were harmless and that they could be easily uninstalled. However, they provided no instructions on how to uninstall, and a layman's attempt to do so could cripple the computer. Further, it soon became known that hackers were hijacking the Sony rootkit to spread malware. Soon, Sony was backpedaling like a sonuvagun, distributing software to uninstall the rootkit while sellers like Amazon instituted recalls. And now the lawyers are lining up to class-action Sony's ass. And in this case, I say "right on!"

Copy-protection has always been a pain. I remember buying a VHS copy of "The Life of Brian" years and years ago. It had the kind of copy protection where the vertical hold would be completely lost if you tried to copy it. The problem was, in order to do this, the media company that sold it to us made the vertical hold on the original so weak that we had trouble watching the original--we had to constantly fuss with the vertical hold control on the TV. Copy protection is never perfect; somebody always finds a way around it. The only people it really hobbles are the people who buy the product and want to use it legally.

And that has always been at the heart of the whole "digital rights" problem--the makers of the media try to control their product long after they sell it or give it away, for fear that after it is sold, it will be taken and redistributed or resold at a later time. That attempt at control causes problems because it tries to reach criminals by running over legitimate users. If there were a way to mark each copy sold so it could be traced back later once a crime had been committed, then fine. However, unable to do that, the content makers instead tried to follow the product all the way along the path of its existence, which intrudes upon the legal consumer's territory far more often than it ever got in the criminal's way.

And that brings up the question of how much right the seller of a product has to follow a product after a sale. Not only for protection against illegal copying, but for control over what happens to a product and how it is used once it is privately owned. Because recent developments have companies using "digital rights management" to do far more than just protect against copying.

The latest example of this comes after TiVo announced that they would release "TiVoToGo," a technology which would allow TiVo users to download recorded TV shows to their video iPods or Sony PSP devices. Predictably, media companies were outraged:

"TiVo appears to be acting unilaterally, disregarding established rights of content owners to participate in decisions regarding the distribution and exploitation of their content. ... This unilateral action creates the risk of legal conflict instead of contributing to the constructive exploitation of digital technology that can rapidly provide new and exciting experiences for the consumer."
But frankly, this is utter bull. I mean, really--"decisions regarding the distribution and exploitation of their content"? Give me a break. Once it's been delivered to my home, by whatever method, it's mine. I own it. Not the rights to redistribute, but the rights to privately consume it. It has been distributed and that process is over. Once it's in my hands, I can do what I please with it, and the producer of the content can go to hell.

Think about it. Plug in any other kind of product into that equation. What if a store that sold you oranges tried to sue a company that made juicers on the grounds that they had rights and controlled what you did with an orange after you bought it? That the orange seller deserved a cut of any sales having to do with changing the form or consumption of the oranges after the sale? That you would have to pay extra if you wanted to do anything with the orange except peel it and eat it straight? That turning it into juice would require an extra fee to the orange grower, or that using the rind in baking confectionaries would be prohibited?

Ostensibly, all of these measures to control media are supposed to be only for the protection against said media being illegally redistributed. The case of personal home use has long been settled, not that the media companies will admit to it. They want to ride the illegal-download horse all the way into your living room, and assert permanent control over the media on the supposed grounds that it might at some point leave your home and go to someone else's. But you soon find out that it is less about hindering criminals than it is about hindering you, limiting your abilities so you'll pay them again to do what you should have been able to do in the first place. They don't just want to control the distribution of the media; they want to control every aspect of how you use the media in the privacy of your home, which is far in excess of their actual rights.

If a media content producer delivers a product to you, I don't give a damn what they think they still own. So long as I'm not reselling or redistributing the content, I can do whatever the hell I want with it. What right do they have to say that I have to watch it only on my TV and not on my iPod? That's like saying that I can record it on VHS, but not on DVD, or that I can watch their show on my living room TV, but not on my bedroom TV. You gave it to me or sold it to me, it's mine. If I want to deep-fry it in the privacy of my home, there's nothing you can do about it, so get the hell off my property. It's like a grocer selling you food, but refusing to let go, following you around and objecting to how you prepare it, trying to stop you from frying or baking if he doesn't approve. Just as you would with such a control-freak kind of grocer, you should tell these media companies to back off and mind their own damned business. Audio and video media are not some magical product which allow the seller to invade your home and micromanage your use of it, and it's about time that consumers asserted their own rights to be left the hell alone once they get the media.

Posted by Luis at 04:51 AM | Comments (4)

October 13, 2005

The Video iPod, or vPod

VideopodSo the predictions were right, and it was a video iPod that Apple came out with today (along with some new iMacs, which was less predicted). And there's a lot of hoopla about the video, in that you can download not only movie previews and music videos, but TV shows as well--in particular, Lost and Desperate Housewives. (It seems pretty clear that Jobs used his Pixar influence on Disney to open up their video vault to Apple for this.) The price: $2 an episode, or $35 per season. Not bad pricing, similar to a DVD set. And like with music on iTunes, you can download them to your iPod (if you have the new video iPod, of course) for portable viewing; you can share them between five computers; and you can burn them onto a CD for safekeeping.

Sounds good, doesn't it? However, most people who have checked the details aren't too impressed, and I'm one of them. First of all, how impressive is video on a 2.5-inch screen? Not very. If you don't mind a tiny picture in exchange for watching TV on the train, then OK. But I don't think many will really be wowed by that, at least not consistently. And with the iPods already bearing color screens, who didn't fully expect them to go video at some point? The bigger draw for videophiles would be the ability to watch video on one's computer, and perhaps hook it up to the TV for viewing.

The key advance here is the TV and movie downloads (the music videos are a step, but a small one). It would mean that video is going the way of music: instead of downloading TV shows and movies via BitTorrent or other piracy networks, people could download them via iTunes and pay a nominal fee for it. It would be a great alternative for people like me living overseas where some media takes forever to get here. The pricing scheme is just about right (on the high side of "right," however). Buying a DVD set would have advantages, like the special features (commentary, subtitles, special videos, outtakes, etc.), but the iTunes version would allow for immediate downloads of the episodes a day after they air--on-demand availability that will be key for a true video downloading paradigm.

There is one big caveat, however, and it will be a deal-breaker for most, including myself: video quality. If you go to Apple's web page for the new video feature, they studiously avoid mentioning anything about the video quality on a computer screen, aside from the highly misleading claim that the video are in "high-quality, H.264 QuickTime format." That's misleading, because people will think that "high quality" refers to the size of the video. It doesn't. HDTV quality is 720 pixels tall on a computer screen. 480 pixels tall is commensurate with non-HDTV size, and would look great on a normal TV screen. But that's not what you get with the new videos--instead, it will be 240 pixels tall, and 320 wide (see image at top of this entry as an example). That's 1/2 of regular video, and 1/3 of HDTV. You pay for the DVD, for example, the 1st season of Lost, and not only is the quality much higher, but you get a truckload of special features to boot, and the price is only $4 more.

Apple and Disney would have to make the quality a lot better and the special features present before a lot of people will buy into this. Right now it has more curiosity appeal than anything else, but that will soon pass. One can only assume that the small video size is mostly to guard against piracy. OK, fair enough. But you're probably going to drive more people to the pirated videos, which can be downloaded in 720-pixel HDTV format, and the DVD special features are often available for download as well. People who already pirate won't be tempted to go legit, and some people who were not aware of video downloads on demand actually might be attracted to the idea but will want more quality and could be led to download the content from BitTorrent instead.

That's why the iTunes music sales model has worked so well: the quality is as high as or higher than the pirated stuff, and it's easier to get. If the iTunes Music Store provided music with low-quality audio, no one would buy it. If Apple and Disney really want to fight video piracy, they have to offer something at least as good or even better than BitTorrent. Not worse.

Posted by Luis at 09:41 AM | Comments (2)

October 12, 2005

Apple Gaining Ground?

There's a new article from a publication called The Streets which claims that Apple's retail market share shot up about 50% in the past year, from 4.3% to 6.6%. If true, that's a significant amount. however, there are a few caveats. First, the article, linked to by many sites, has either been edited or changed--the quoted statistic no longer appears. Whether simply an error by the publication, an address mix-up, or a knowing decision to edit the article and leave out the information is not clear. I can't find the claim made elsewhere (without quoting that changed article), so it's up in the air. Other qualifications include the fact that this figure only quotes retail and not online sales, which would lower the number a bit, but would still represent a significant difference.

Nonetheless, there are factors that suggest that Apple's market share is actually higher than most report. For example, Apple computers tend to last longer. If one company makes tennis shoes that are popular but wear out in a month and must be replaced, and another company makes higher-quality shoes that last for years, the former company would see more sales--but it does not mean that so many more people actually use the shoes. It just means they sell more. This is suspected with PCs and Macs, where Apple has maybe 5% of all computer sales, but more than 5% of computer users own an Apple.

Certainly Apple is still faring well with people who buy them. Customer satisfaction for Macs not only exceeds all other makers, but it exceeds all other makers by a wide margin--in both laptop and desktop models.

The current increase is seen as an iPod "halo" effect--people who buy iPods but use Windows see the high quality of the product and want to try the computers out as well. But starting next year, Apple will have a new inroad which will probably propel its sales even faster than they are increasing now. That will be the switch to Intel chips, making it possible to run not only Mac OS X, but Windows OS as well--both on a Mac, both at native speed. You can bet that there will be the ability to switch OS's on the fly, by typing one key or another. And with that, a great many people will be perfectly willing to shell out a few hundred more bucks for a machine that has both in one. People can continue to use their old software on Windows, while at the same time get new software for the Mac OS, using both operating systems toward their strengths. It will suddenly become a lot cheaper to "switch" from PC to Mac.

Posted by Luis at 05:23 PM | Comments (1)

September 28, 2005

Ads? What Ads?

Over at Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum pointed out a number of problems with advertisements on web sites:

  • Ads that malfunction in a way that causes your browser to overload and use 95% of your system resources, effectively bringing your PC to a halt.
  • Ads that malfunction and cover up parts of the screen they aren't supposed to.
  • Ads that flicker wildly for five or ten seconds before finally settling down.
  • Ads that somehow disable the Back button on your browser.
  • Related: ads that prevent you from leaving a site altogether, forcing you to shut down your browser in order to get further work done.
  • Ads that decline to close even though they supposedly have a close button.
  • Ads that prevent a site from loading just because the ad server is malfunctioning.
This above and beyond the usual things about ads that annoy people, such as pop-up and pop-under ads, moving ads using animated GIFs or worse, Flash animations, so that the periphery of so many sites look like crazed circuses.

However, when I read the article, I had to concentrate and imagine more than just a bit to accept this list. Actually, I have experienced maybe half of these things, but only while using my Windows machine, on the uncommon occasions where I surfed the web on XP. On my Mac, especially with the software package I've got, I don't experience any of them. Not even the extra points I added about pop-unders and animated ads. It just isn't an issue for me, at least not any more.

In case you're wondering, I use Safari, which is not complete without Pith Helmet ($10 shareware) to complement it. What Safari doesn't do, Pith Helmet does, blocking almost all ads and allowing you to tailor settings for each site. For example, I have plug-ins disabled so that Flash animations aren't a problem. When I need or want to see Flash, I just go to the Pith Helmet menu and select site preferences, where you get a few dozen different settings related to cookies, scripts, plug-ins, animations, and security issues, tailored for that site. It's actually a lot less complex than it sounds--left to itself, it does a brilliant job at stopping the advertising annoyances and making it much more comfortable and safe to surf the web. The $10 payment is on the honor system--you can turn off the infrequent fee reminders in the preferences--but I gladly paid the measly ten bucks for the great functionality.

That said, I have had some problems with Safari in terms of compatibility with sites--for example, Safari can't see the formatting buttons on Blogger.com's blog post editing page. But no problem--I have Firefox standing by, which resolves pretty much anything that Safari can't handle--and Firefox itself has a lot of good ad-blocking features and extensions itself. In fact, if you're using a PC or don't like Safari on your Mac, go for Firefox and check out its extensions page for ad-fighting.

Just whatever you do, don't ever use Internet Explorer, unless someone is holding a gun to your head. Out of principles if for no other reasons.

Posted by Luis at 01:11 PM | Comments (0)

September 27, 2005

Music Labels Cry Crocodile Tears

Now that the initial contract between Apple and the music labels for iTunes Music Store sales is expiring, and the experiment has been so successful, the music labels want to do what have have been doing for a long time: screw over their customers like they screw over their artists. The labels want to allow for pricing tiers, charging variably per song and album. Already they are making more from iTMS sales than they make from brick-and-mortar sales, given there is no need for CD production, casing, packaging or physical distribution, and Apple likely takes a lower cut of the price than music stores do.

Yes, Steve Jobs is making a lot of money off of the iPods, no mistake about it. And yes, keeping the price of music to a dollar a song and ten for an album is helping him sell more iPods so people can use the iTunes Music store with it. So he has a bias to keep song prices low, while he charges a premium for the iPod itself.

This is the argument made by Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr., who says that some music is more valuable than other music, and that mandating one price for all is "not fair to our artists, and I dare say not appropriate to consumers."

While he's right about Jobs, it has zero bearing on the pricing structure argument at large. So what if Jobs is making big bucks selling iPods? The music labels make far more selling music, even at current prices. And he is completely full of it when it comes to artists and consumers. What he wants to do is keep 99 cents as the rock bottom and charge more for hot songs. How is this "appropriate" for consumers, at least from the consumers' point of view? As for artists, the labels give them next to nothing unless they are really big-time and able to negotiate--but on the whole, they rip them off royally, and there is no chance that the labels will give any but the most powerful artists a pay boost from higher iTMS pricing.

This is nothing but a naked grab for profits by the music labels, with no benefit for the artists and certainly no benefit for the consumer--quite the opposite.

Posted by Luis at 10:45 PM | Comments (0)

September 09, 2005

Firefox 1.5 Beta

Product-FirefoxThe new Firefox beta is out, and I'm going to give it a try starting now. Among the new features: improved pop-up advertisement blocking (which is a good thing, because pop-ups have been starting to break through the protection offered up to now); click-and-draggable tabs (you can now re-sort and re-arrange tabs as you like them--about time); better file handling (there used to be a long beach-ball pause when you tried to save or download something--no longer); RSS bookmarking (catching up with Safari); faster navigation system, better product updating, lots of bug fixes and a lot of other nice stuff.

What's not there: the ability to turn off individual plug-ins. Which is why I will still be using Safari with Pith Helmet for most of my browsing. The inability to disable the endlessly annoying flash animations--especially the damned dancing ads--is a feature most browsers lack, and I have to wonder why? Am I the only one who can't stand a dozen postage-stamp images swirling and jumping and shifting all over the place? Flash is the new animated GIF, and it's even more annoying. If any Mozilla developers are reading this, for the love of God, put an "off" switch on the plugins! And make a switch to turn off animated GIFs while you're at it.

So far, the new Firefox has performed well. The tabs are re-arrangeable, the performance is a lot snappier, and on initial start-up, it quickly and painlessly imported all my bookmarks from Safari. Sweet. One flaw noted already: it said it would also import my passwords--but I'm still being asked for them. I tried doing it again, from Mozilla (which should be more compatible), but to no avail.

Posted by Luis at 11:09 PM | Comments (7)

August 23, 2005

Email Spam Refresher: How to Avoid Spam

Email spam filters now do a pretty good job of keeping your email account relatively clean, but it is best not to attract any spam in the first place. I've posted on this before, but it was a while ago and I wanted to refresh and expand the advice a little bit. Here is the basic list of dos and don'ts:

  1. Never respond to a spam email for any reason; never click on any link in an email unless you are 500% certain it is not spam

  2. Do not publish your email address on any web page, BBS/Forum, chat, or anywhere public on the web. If you are required to supply an email address, use a fake address or a throwaway account (see explanation of throwaway accounts below)

  3. Do not use your main email address to sign up for anything; use a throwaway account

  4. Whenever you give your email address, even to family and friends, stress that they must never sign you up for anything, or distribute your email address to anyone without your permission, especially to any commercial enterprise

  5. When choosing a hotmail, yahoo, or any free mail account address, don't choose a short name (to avoid dictionary spam)

  6. Do not use the "opt-out" link in any email you receive, and do not sign up for any do-not-email list; they will only result in more spam being sent your way

  7. Turn off HTML graphics in your email--they will notify the spammer that you're viewing their email and probably identify you specifically to the spammer (this is more commonly allowed in email clients like Eudora or Outlook, but check for it in your browser-based email accounts as well)

  8. Use an email program with effective spam filters. If you're worried that a legitimate emailer might get blocked, remember that most email client spam filters will always allow email through if the address of the sender is in your address book for the program

  9. If you use Windows, then be sure to use an effective anti-virus program, making certain that it successfully and automatically updates the virus definition list on a regular and frequent basis. Some viruses are designed by spammers to raid your address book for addresses to be added to spam lists. Try avoiding adware and spyware as well (Ad-Aware and Spybot are popular programs for clearing these pests)

  10. Do not use the "send this story/picture/anything to your friend" feature offered on many web sites, and tell those with your email address never to put your address into one of them. Many services, including some respected periodicals, will give you the option of sending something interesting, like a news story or a cartoon, to your friend--all you have to do is enter their email address and hit "Send." A friend of mine once did that "for" me, sending a story using the BBC's news service. Within hours I was getting spam related to the topic of the story. If you want to inform a friend of something interesting on a web site, copy the address of the web page and paste it into an email you send them directly

  11. Never, ever, ever, ever, EVER buy ANYTHING from a spammer. Ever. If you do, then then anti-spam vigilantes will enter your house in the dead of night and tattoo the word "IDIOT" on your forehead in bright, day-glo colors. Or they would in a more perfect world.

One basic rule of thumb: treat your main, real email account like a top-secret piece of information. Only hand it out to people you know and trust, or people who absolutely need to have it. If you do business with an email address and have to give it out less discriminately, then create a special business-oriented email account, and keep special track of whom you give it to, so if it becomes spam-flooded and you need to change, you can send an email out to all the people you've given it to and notify them you're changing to a new address.

In other situations, an important tool is the throwaway account. If you're like me and you have some domain names at your disposal, you will have the ability to easily generate new email accounts to be used and discarded at will. But if you don't have your own domain and/or can't easily generate email accounts for it, then you'll have to rely on Yahoo, Hotmail and GMail. It might be easier to sit down in one session and create half a dozen or so accounts at once, of course writing down each specific address and its username and password. Keep in mind that if these accounts will expire after x amount of time if not accessed by you, but no biggie, just go back and generate a half dozen new ones every three to six months.

Why throwaway accounts? What are they good for? Well, nowadays a lot of places require you to give an email address if you want to do what you want to do on the web. If you want to join a forum, enter a restricted area, sign on for a "free" subscription to something, or to make a purchase, it is very likely that you will be asked for an email address. This is usually so they can generate a list of email addresses that they can sell to spammers and make a bit of money on the side, or it is for their own private advertising purposes. Most times they don't even bother to lie to you about the address being so they can contact you if something goes wrong.

So why not just give a fake email address? Because most times when they ask you for an email address, they will then send an email to that account with an "activation" code, and you won't be able to do what you wanted to do unless you go to the email account in question, get the code, and enter it into the web site. Many times this is a legitimate way for the web site to make sure you are a human being and not some robot program made by a spammer or hacker, but many times also it is a way for spammers to make sure you gave them a real live email address they can send spam to. So use a throwaway account.

So am I being paranoid here? Not at all. I tested some of the traps I mentioned in the list above. For example, I created some special throwaway accounts with very specific names which had never before existed, and I told no one of them. They were squeaky clean, no way for spammers to know they existed.

One of them I put on this web page, but I made it invisible to the eye. In a small area with a plain gray background, I typed the email address (not a "mailto" link, just the address in plain text) and made it the exact same gray color as the background. That meant that it would be invisible to any human visitor to the site unless they selected all the text on the page and searched carefully for the email address, which no one would do (don't try now, it's not there anymore). In theory, it should have remained secret. But within a few days, dozens of spams started pouring in (most of them Nigeria or European lottery scam artists, actually, but a lot of it also plain-vanilla spam).

So what happened? The spammers (and scammers) use robot programs to scan every web page they can find for anything containing an email address. They usually just look for the @ mark, and a period followed by a domain suffix; both are necessary in any email address. The addresses found are harvested, spammed, and sold to other spammers.

That's why you don't want to write your email address on any web page on the Internet. It will be found, and you will get spammed.

Another test I did was the opt-out. That's when the spam you receive has a bit (usually at the bottom) where they "allow" you to add your email address to a list of do-not-mail addresses, under the premise that this will actually remove you from anyone's spam list. Most often, it is simply a trap.

You see, spammers have huge lists of email addresses, but they face a problem: most of the addresses are fake, expired, or are never used. And they mostly don't know which ones are which. An email address which is certifiably active is valuable to them. An email address belonging to someone who reads spam messages is golden. An email address where the owner is gullible enough to respond to spam is the Holy Goddamned Grail.

So the spammers want to know that they succeeded in catching a live one. But they won't know unless you tell them somehow. The "opt-out" is all too often a scam to do just that. They put a line at the bottom of the email claiming that your email address was collected in some completely legal and honest fashion, and if it was a "mistake," then just click on this link, type in your email address, and we'll happily remove you from our lists.

What really happens, of course, is that when you visit that page and type in your email address, they know that (a) the email account is real, (b) you read the spam they send to it, and (c) are gullible enough to fall for the scam. Congratulations--you have just signed up to the Holy Grail of Spamming list and are about to get that email address flooded with more spam than ever before.

I tested this by going through some recent spam I'd received in a different account and culling a few dozen "opt-out" addresses. I then visited these pages and typed in one of those squeaky-clean throwaway accounts I had generated. If the opt-out promise were honored, that site should never receive spam; if spam came in, I would know for certain that it came from the opt-outs.

After seeding the address in the opt-out pages, nothing happened for a few weeks; after all, if they immediately started spamming you, you would likely catch on to what caused it. But after two weeks, the spam started rolling in. After a few months, the account was receiving more than a dozen spams a day. I shut it down before it got out of hand, but had I let it roll, it would probably be getting a few hundred spams a day by now.

Worse than this, there are scammers out there who will even charge you to get your name added to a no-spam list. Don't fall for it. And what about that government no-spam list? If someone suggests that they can put you on it, don't fall for it--it doesn't exist. Although the naive and useless CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 allows for such a list to be made, the Federal Trade Commission decided it was unworkable. Why unworkable? Well, 80% of spammers are outside the US and therefore are outside the reach of US law. But they can still read the don't-spam list, and get tons of juicy, active email accounts from it. And even spammers within the US might feel like raiding the list, since US law enforcement can't go after all the spammers out there.

And why is the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 useless, after we've seen a couple of cases of spammers getting arrested? The answer is simple: look at the spam in your email box. Mine hasn't been reduced since 2003, and if yours has, it is probably because your ISP put a better spam filter into place. The CAN-SPAM Act is simply another example of your congresscritter trying to look like they're doing something when there's nothing really that they can do. The New York Times reported in February 2005 that the act had done little or nothing to stop spam, and that spam volume had only increased since the law was passed.

So in the end, the best way to stop, or at least stem spam is to do it yourself. Follow the rules listed at the top of this post. Don't make me get out my tattoo needle and day-glo inks.

Posted by Luis at 10:58 PM | Comments (8)

August 05, 2005

Windows Vista Virus

Windows Vista, hyped for its "security," is 18 months away and already it has more viruses than Mac OS X. An Austrian virus writer has published a how-to work to show others how to make viruses, and included five viruses, which is five more than the Mac has right now. It's still in its conceptual stage, really proof-of-concept stuff, and Vista will undergo changes. But to have viruses designed to attack a "secure" system a year and a half before its even released is not so reassuring a sign of the system's "security."

Posted by Luis at 03:56 PM | Comments (2)

August 02, 2005

Vista vs. Tiger Comparison

There's a new article out in E-Week online, titled "Apple's Tiger vs. Windows Vista: Who Comes Out Ahead?" comparing Tiger and Vista. This is quite typical of Windows-centric writers comparing Mac and Windows: though they get some things right, they all too often are mistaken about what Macs can do, and give unreasonable props to Windows for things that don't deserve it.

The article starts out on a legitimate track, pointing out all the things Vista will do which imitate Tiger, especially with the note of search design & features and look-and-feel, though he also notes some rather irrelevant items, like the similarity between the names "Aero" and "Aqua," and the names for the "Network" and "Computer" areas. It does not talk about other more significant similarities, such as Internet Explorer suddenly become an RSS-savvy tabbed browser with startling resemblances to Safari.

But then the author begins to point out the differences, he starts getting stuff wrong. He starts with:

The more-advanced Aero Glass option uses translucent window title bars, a handy feature of Mac OS X that Apple dropped with Panther, but is still used in the Dock.
I'm not even sure what he's talking about here. Title bars in the dock? They don't even exist there--no windows in the dock. And if he's trying to say that transparencies don't exist in Tiger, he's gone batty. And how are translucent title bars such a big deal? What's the advantage with that?

Vista does, however, have some nice touches that Tiger doesn't. Vista places previews of documents right on file icons. These are more sophisticated than the thumbnails that Photoshop creates, as they update as the file is changed. Tiger can display previews of graphic files, but not text-based files. ... Vista's folders display a representation of the type of files inside. Dialog boxes for saving files and other tasks use these thumbnails.
Actually, Tiger can do previews of text files as well if you use the column view in Finder windows. But I will concede that icon previews are better in Windows--though this is not really a Vista improvement, as XP can do the same things the author is talking about. But then we get back to the question, so what? Is this really a big deal for anyone? It'd be nice if Macs had this also, but I use both systems and never really feel the need. I mean, they're icons--they can't hold very much information about a document. Metasearch is more important here, and Tiger has that, while Vista had to abandon it already.

But I really get annoyed when the Mac is criticized for essentially not being Windows. One example is when the writer praises Microsoft: "Windows Vista will be superior to Tiger in terms of networking, mostly because Windows is a better client for Microsoft servers." In other words, Microsoft is better because it can communicate with itself better than Macs can communicate with it! How's that for Windows-centric? And it's not even always true: many times in the past I have had an easier time connecting a Mac to a Windows network than I have had connecting a Windows machine to a Windows network. There are certainly fewer steps involved with the Mac, to be certain.

The writer also says a great deal about archiving and searching, virtual folders and stacking--but fails to mention the vital fact that much of this depends on the WinFS file management system, which has been delayed and will not be available until 2008. Which means that Vista users will have a relatively hollow shell of these features, most of which are already available in Tiger--and yet the author here uses them as examples of how Vista will outshine Tiger. Really? When? Three to four years after the fact? He even mentions the use of "stacks" in file management--an idea Apple has been developing since 2000.

What's even more outrageous is when the writer concludes, saying that the next version of the Mac OS, Leopard, "will need to be a compelling alternative to Vista." In other words, Apple better catch up with Microsoft--pretty arrogant, considering that not only has Tiger achieved a year and a half early what Vista promises later, but that much of what Tiger can do now won't be available on Vista for another two and a half years, well after Leopard has been released.

And that brings me to the final and somewhat overwhelming flaw in this article: although it does mention Leopard near the end, it is overall a comparison between Tiger and Vista--an already-released Mac OS and a future version of Windows that won't be released before Tiger itself is obsolete! Think of comparing Mac OS X Jaguar with Windows Me, or even Windows 98; a fair comparison? Please.

Considering the fact that the Mac has always been way ahead of Windows, this kind of reverse-logic comparison smacks of revisionism before the fact. You have to admit, if you have to go so far as to compare a 2008 version of Windows (pretending it'll be complete in late 2006) with a mid-2005 version of Mac OS in order to make Microsoft seem even marginally comparable--well, that speaks volumes as to Who Comes Out Ahead.

Posted by Luis at 09:44 PM | Comments (4)

July 03, 2005

Typinator

TypiconI just bought a new piece of Mac shareware and thought you might be interested in it. The software is called "Typinator." What it does is essentially the same as what Microsoft's AutoCorrect function does--it looks for you to type specific text strings, and when you do, it replaces them with other text strings that you have listed in the app. For example, if I want to type "The Blog from Another Dimension," I could abbreviate it in Typinator as "bgd"; then, whenever I type "bgd," the entire phrase is automatically replaced.

This function is also similar to the long-time Mac app called "TypeIt4Me" (around for close a decade), but from reports it works a lot better. TypeIt4Me works in the input menu, meaning you can only use it with the standard keyboard layout, and not, for example, Dvorak or any language other than QWERTY English. Typinator works differently, so you can use it with any keyboard layout; I've tried it by assigning English letters to activate Typinator to place Japanese characters, and it works. Typinator also allows for you to input images by typing specific strings. Typinator can also deliver date and time stamps, pre-formatted the way you prefer them. Finally, Typinator is cheaper, $19 shareware compared to TypeIt4Me's $27.

In my case, I plan to use it as an AutoCorrect feature, system-wide. I want to switch over to using Pages more, and rely on MS Word less. However, Pages lacks an AutoCorrect feature; Typinator now fills that need, and not just in Pages--it does it everywhere. If I visit a blog and want to leave a comment, people usually require an email address, and I might want to type my own blog's URL--but that can sometimes be a hassle. Yes, I know, I'm lazy as hell. But it's nice to be able to type just a few easy keys in each text box and have a full email address and URL in a second or so.

Another good feature is that Typinator allows multi-line fill-ins. MS Word 2004 for the Mac allows this also, but not on Windows. For example, you can enter your entire multiple-line home address into Typinator, and get it back in a split second. Another good use would be in scripting web pages; if I want to make a quickie web page, it's a hassle to type the basic HTML, HEAD, TITLE and BODY commands; takes a few minutes. But I can type them once, copy and paste the whole lot into Typinator, and from that point on I can insert the whole structure with only a few keystrokes. I can create similar fill-ins for TABLE or FORM tags, or any tag and attributes I please--which could save a lot of time writing basic HTML.

Typinator can also pay attention to your capitalization, so that if you have the string "typinator" with the trigger string "tpn," then typing "Tpn" will similarly capitalize the "Typinator" expansion.

Typinator does have a few down spots. For one, whenever it's activated, the automatically-replaced expansion text gets placed into the clipboard, kicking out whatever was in there previously; this has caught me up a few times, but I can live with it. Typinator is also a version-1.0, having just come out of Beta, so it's not as feature-rich as it could be. Future versions may include a workaround for the clipboard problem, and other new features, whatever they may be.

I also had some concerns about security. What Typinator does seemed to me to be similar to what a keylogging program might do: watch what you type. I emailed their support department, and got a detailed reply back explaining why that was not a problem. Typinator uses an Apple feature introduced in Panther called the "event monitor" which allows them to watch what you type without logging anything except very temporarily; furthermore, password fields in Mac OS X are protected from prying eyes (Typinator can't see what you type in a password field). It uses a completely different kind of technology to do its job. It would be easier for a hacker to simply create their own keylogging program than to somehow use Typinator for that purpose, so the security seems tight. Good enough for me.

TidBits reviewed Typinator, and you can find some user reviews on its download page at Version Tracker (assuming the reviews are genuine and not sales-related), or you can go to the product page at Ergonis. You can use Typinator as a trial, but it will only remember five expansion strings and no more, until you pay for the license.

As a side note, this app, along with the Dictionary now integrated into Tiger, make up the key elements I felt were lacking in Pages, which is now my first-string word processing application.

Posted by Luis at 12:53 AM | Comments (1)

June 30, 2005

More About PodCasts

Well, I was successful (I think) in creating an RSS feed and the iTunes Music Store said they accepted my submission--but it's been more than a day and I still don't show up in a keyword search in iTunes. So the success is tentative. I only prepared one item, and that was a 3-minute reading of my last entry, with a bit of music slapped onto it. It was not so much an audio blog as it was a test. If I start doing audio blogs, they'll be a bit more original and hopefully more interesting (and better-read) than that one. If you happen to listen to it, keep in mind that it's a throw-away.

In trying to figure out how it's done, I came across my pet peeve: documentation. In this case, it's not a lack of documentation, it's a lack of complete documentation. For example, in order to produce my own RSS feed, I had to search for a few hours just to find someone who wrote down the simple fact that an RSS feed file had to have an ".xml" extension! A vital piece of information, one that most newcomers will not know, and yet most people trying to help beginners will not even mention it. What are people thinking? Enough information should be given so that, from start to finish, a newbie can complete the task and, hopefully, understand all the elements. Maybe this is just obvious to me since I teach beginners how to use computers, but it seems like something one should know if one wants to help others do stuff.

So here, I will try to tell you how to get a podcast feed going. Keep in mind, however, that I have just learned and I may have made an error or two, especially where I was forced to assume something, and then it seemed to work. If I find that I erred, I'll try to revise and update. Also keep in mind that I am working on a Mac (so recording solutions will concentrate on that) and you must have a web site with your own domain that you can upload to. But here's what I figured out so far.

First, I tried a plug-in to Movable Type, called MT-Enclosures. Couldn't get it to work. Usual reason, spotty documentation. Followed all the directions given, and nothing happened. Even tried leaving a comment on the page describing my problems, and no reply. So I abandoned the attempt to have MT auto-feed the podcast, and instead went for the manual approach, which I'll use until someone comes out with a podcast solution that works without your having to be a hacker to get it to do its job. Again, I fell into the pit of despair you find when everyone assumes you've had several months of training when they tell you how to do things. One commercial site even had a video of a guy telling you, the average Joe, the layman, how to do it. He told us to make our show, and then... promptly assumed we'd be able to follow labyrinthine steps simply because he told us a web site to go to, without even telling us what page we needed to visit or even the basics about what steps you should take. Another dead end.

But as I noted, in the end, I finally got something done. Let me go over a few things.

RECORDING YOUR PODCAST

I should note that I use a Mac and that's what my advice for recording will center on; you'll have to look for your own recording apps for Windows.

First of all, you need your MP3 file. To make one, I used two programs: SoundEdit (to record and edit) and QuickTime Pro (to convert to MP3). But don't expect to be able to download SoundEdit; while it is an excellent program for recording and editing sound, it is a Classic app, about a decade old. It's a great app, but you probably won't be able to find it anywhere; Macromedia stopped selling it last year. There's a freeware app for recording sound, Sound Recorder, which is an ultra-simple no-frills audio recorder, though when I tried it, it played back with an annoying reverb/echo. You'll need a converter to change the file to mp3.

Then there's shareware, probably SndSampler would work okay, but the interface is a bit less than intuitive, and the 15-day free trial version is marred by the constant (not to mention hostile!) "reminders" to pay for the product, which interrupt the program for ten seconds at a time every few minutes, making the program very unattractive to use in trial mode. You also cannot save as an MP3 file, unless your version of QuickTime supports that, so again, a converter is required. Fee is $30.

A much better shareware option is WireTap Pro ($19). It will record not only audio you input, but also any audio coming in on your Mac, such as streaming audio from Real, QuickTime, iTunes or any other source. Unfortunately, the trial version does not allow saving in MP3 format or recording via your built-in mic or audio-in line; if you try, your recording will have a "this is an unregistered version" recording dubbed over it. Also, it does not allow for editing or applying effects such as fade-ins and fade-outs. But twenty bucks for this kind of an app is not bad.

For the experience of a commercial sound recording/editing app like SoundEdit, the choice today seems to be Peak LE, a $99 app with a 15-day free trial. It also has reminders, but very quick ones, and only at program startup and when you save an app. This program has a bit more of a learning curve than SndSampler, but it's not so bad. It also does not come with built-in MP3 support, but you can add it relatively easily: go to http://homepage.mac.com/awk/lame/ and download the bundle, then install it as a plug-in via the app's "Get Info" window in order to save as an MP3. Peak is a good app, but the problem with the LE version is that all the features in the pro version are in the menus but always grayed out--as if to tease you constantly about what you could have if you only shelled out 500 bucks.

None of these, however, compares well at all with SoundEdit 16 in terms of convenience, power, and ease-of-use (at least in the manner I use the app). So as long as I have a Mac which can use SoundEdit, I'll continue using that app.

CREATING THE FEED

As I said, using one of the services available (either MT-Enclosures or one of the web sites that offer a solution) can be problematic at best. There may be a simple, workable solution I haven't found. There are services which say they will host your podcast, but I prefer to try to host my own, to avoid ads, spam and to be able to control my own media. If you want to get a domain, you might try GoDaddy, and then go to Surpass Hosting to get the domain hosted. You'll need to use an FTP program to upload the podcast and the RSS file to your web site. You could use Fetch, Captain FTP (Shareware), or FTP Thingy or PW FTP (both freeware; PW FTP is off-line at the current time).

The RSS feed file will be a simple text file containing some script. It can be given any filename, so long as the filename extension is .xml. Open a text editor and type the information, or copy and paste from an example.

The basics: the file should begin with <?xml version="1.0"?> to identify it as an XML file.

The file should begin and end with the RSS tag:

<rss version="2.0"> </rss>
However, if you want to upload to iTunes, you'll have to add an iTunes xml attribute:
<rss xmlns:itunes="http://www.itunes.com/DTDs/Podcast-1.0.dtd" version="2.0"> </rss>
Within the RSS, you have a "channel." This decribes your podcast in general. Within the channel tag, you'll have "item" tags, each one decribing a specific podcast. The podcast file is identified by the "enclosure" tag. The basic structure, without attributes, looks like this:
<rss>
     <channel>
          <item>
               <enclosure>
          </item>
          <item>
               <enclosure>
          </item>
     </channel>
</rss>

Within each channel and item, there will have to be tags to designate various information points about the podcast. The tags for the channel include:

<title> - The title of the podcast "show," the general name
<link> - A link to the web page for the podcast
<description> - A description of the show (preferably small, 256 characters or less)
<language> - Which language it is in (I'm guessing here)
<category> - What category you'd put your show in
<image> - What image you'd like associated with the podcast.
<pubDate> - The most recent date of publication for the show.
<lastBuildDate> - The most recent date the RSS file was rebuilt.
<copyright> - a copyright message
<webMaster> - your email address
<ttl> - how many minutes a subscriber should wait between refreshing the rss feed from your site

These are straight tags with no attributes; just put the information between these tags and their end tags (same tag, preceded by a slash).

Tags for the item include:

<title>
<description>
<guid> - uniquely identifies the location of each podcast (I don't pretend to understand this one at all)
<pubDate> - The date of publication for the podcast.
<enclosure> - the address of the podcast

The "enclosure" tag requires attributes:

url - address of the podcast
length - the length of the podcast in bytes. Do a get info on the file to find this out. Don't use commas.
type - identifies the type of file; for an mp3, it would be "audio/mpeg".
Therefore, an enclosure tag might look like:
<enclosure url="http://www.blogd.com/podcasts/blogdpod1.mp3" length="1807241" type="audio/mpeg" />
iTunes also asks you to add some special iTunes tags:

<itunes:category>
<itunes:explicit>
<itunes:subtitle>
<itunes:summary>
<itunes:author>
<itunes:keywords>
<itunes:duration>
<itunes:keywords>
<itunes:owner>
<itunes:name>
<itunes:email>
<itunes:image>
<tunes:block>

These are explained in Apple's specification file [PDF]. Mostly they are stand-alone tags, with the target information between the start and end tags (such as <itunes:author>Luis</itunes:author>); others have the target information within an attribute, namely the <itunes:category> tag, which seems a bit complicated. The "itunes:owner" tag appears at the Channel level only; the "itunes:duration" and "itunes:keyword" tags appear at the item level only. All other tags can appear at the channel or item level.

If you want a quick and dirty, non-iTunes-optimized RSS feed, you could go here and type in the basic information to get a basic RSS feed text output. But you will probably want to tinker with the RSS code, especially for the iTunes store. Here is an example script (you may want to right-click the link and download the targeted file, otherwise your browser might read the RSS file as such) which I've tried to keep simple. The example script uses my own blog and podcast data, so if you use this, you'll want to change that.

When you're finished, save the rss file as plain text, and give it a name with the ".xml" extension (for example, "podcast.xml").

Later, after you've succeeded with the first one, you can add new podcasts to the feed simply by adding more "item" tag groups, one for each podcast.

PUBLISH AND VALIDATE

Now you have to upload the mp3 file and the rss feed. Open your FTP program, then upload the files into the directories you decide are best. At this point, I do not believe that any directory is better than any other. I have placed my RSS feed into my main directory, and my podcasts into a subdirectory. So long as all you URLs are given correctly, I don't think that should be a problem.

The next step is to validate the feed you have created. Go to the Feed Validator page, type in the address of your RSS feed file, and then validate it. If a problem is found, you will be told the line and the general problem, though not necessarily a solution. The validator will only correct one error at a time, so for each error, you will have to go back to the text editor, correct the error, re-save the file, and re-upload it, then you can go back to the validator and try to validate again. Once all your errors have been corrected (or the lines simply edited out), the validator will tell you that your feed is valid.

Once that's been accomplished, now you have to tell people about the existence of your feed. To do that at the iTunes Music Store, you must open iTunes, go to the Music Store. While no membership is required to get podcasts, but you do need membership to publish! Membership is free, and publishing doesn't cost anything, but you will need a credit card with a billing address in a country with an iTMS in order to get the account.

On the main page of the iTMS, click on the "Podcasts" link; then click the "Publish a Podcast" link. You will be taken through a process where you will give the URL of the feed file, log in to your iTMS account, and then you'll get a page to confirm your settings.

You can check if the feed works independent of your podcast listing at the iTMS by going into iTunes, choosing "Subscribe to Podcast..." in the "Advanced" menu, and typing in the URL of the feed directly. That won't tell you anything about whether or not the iTunes store has started publishing your podcast, but it will tell you if the feed and the podcast are working. Otherwise, you might try out iPodder, a podcast subscription client.

And that's it--so far as I now know. Let me know if you see an error in what I just wrote, and I will try to keep this page updated.

Posted by Luis at 11:08 PM | Comments (9)

June 29, 2005

So, What Are Podcasts, Anyway

If you're like me, then sometimes you find that these new technological phenomena kind of sneak up on you until they break out and become highly popular. I didn't know much about CSS, for example, until I started doing this blog and had to use it to design the appearance you see now. I'd seen it in other sites without knowing what it was. Probably I'd heard it mentioned many times, but didn't bother to find about it.

Podcasting was the same thing. I'd heard about it, guessed it had to do with recordings you could listen to on your iPod, but hadn't really figured it out much beyond that. But today, Apple released iTunes v. 4.9, which includes podcasting just as it does Internet radio and its popular music store, as a source of media beyond your personal collection ripped from CDs.

So what is a Podcast, exactly? Well, as I suspected, it's an audio file you can download from the Internet and listen to on your iPod, or other iPod-like digital music player. But there are two features that make it different from a standard audio download: first, it's not just one audio file, it's a recurring "show" with new "episodes" posted as time goes by. And second, it uses RSS technology so that when a new episode is available, your podcasting program (such as iTunes) gets notified and either tells you something new is available, or just downloads it automatically if you have subscribed. When you connect your iPod to your computer, the episodes go onto your iPod and you can listen to them. Or you can listen to them on your computer via your music app.

What is notable here is that you don't have to be a professional to be a podcaster. Anyone can do it. You might even get listed in the searchable podcasting directories, such as the one that Apple now provides with iTunes. You could, in effect, start your own radio show, just like blogging made it possible to start your own publication of whatever you want to write about. You need the ability to record and translate that recording into an MP3 file, then upload it to the Internet. But you also need to know how to submit the file with an RSS feed, which is not always so simple. Expect shareware or freeware applications offering just this ability to start appearing in large numbers very soon.

And if I can figure out how to get podcasts going for this blog, I'll let you know how I did it, as best I can.

Posted by Luis at 09:27 PM | Comments (10)

June 24, 2005

That's Better

I've been using my new Powerbook with 512 MB of RAM, the pre-installed amount, awaiting the delivery of a new 1 GB RAM module. Just got it this morning, and installed it about an hour ago. Got 1.5 GB of RAM now.

Man, what a difference that makes!

My first test with it was to use Virtual PC, which I could now assign 512 MB of RAM all by itself. With the new 1.67 GHz CPU and max RAM for the app, using Windows XP is damn snappy! On my old TiBook (with half the CPU speed and half the RAM I've got now), I used to have to wait several seconds for the screen to redraw and for windows and apps to open. Now using that particular CPU- and RAM-intensive app is much smoother; I almost don't notice that I'm not using a PC.

Even outside of VPC, I could tell that the memory shortage was slowing me down, causing problems when I had several apps open at once. I knew the extra RAM would make a difference--but was still surprised at how much of a difference it made.

One thing I did notice: Dashboard is eating a lot more memory than it was before. Tiger's new Konfabulator-like widget module feature used to eat maybe anywhere from 2 MB to 13 MB per widget upon opening, maybe averaging at 3-4 MB each. (Though memory leaks in Dashboard would cause some widgets' memory allocation to bloat up to dozens of MB each if you left them on long enough.) But after installing the new RAM, tripling my memory, it more than tripled Dashboard's memory usage. One widget started out eating 30 MB of RAM, and the smallest eater was using 15 MB. Each widget was using maybe 20 MB average.

Not that I can't afford it now; even with Virtual PC eating up nearly 600 MB or RAM total, and with Dashboard, Safari, and Ecto operating, I still have almost 500 MB of RAM free, almost my total RAM amount before the upgrade. I could open up several more apps before memory started getting tight.

I always tell my students that they should, as a matter of course, buy more memory when they get a new computer, and I'd tell the same to you. Computer makers want to offer you a machine at the lowest price they can, and one of the easiest ways to make the unit seem cheaper is to give you the minimum RAM necessary. 512 MB is quickly becoming the new norm, since 256 MB can't really cut it so well anymore.

Of course, it's possible you may not need extra RAM. If you only use one app at a time, if you don't use RAM-intensive apps, and if you don't expect to upgrade the OS or apps on your machine for its foreseeable lifetime, then you will probably be happy with what you get at the outset.

Many people are not like that, though. You may play some games with 3-D graphics, you may do photo or movie editing, or you may use apps like VPC. You will probably be opening several applications at the same time. And you will very likely upgrade both apps and operating system at some time, meaning that in a few years, your computer will be eating more memory than it does now; in this respect, adding RAM will effectively extend the lifetime of your computer, allowing you to upgrade farther into the future.

I have a friend who has a 1 GHz Athlon PC running XP. She called me up at one point and told me that she was experiencing a big problem. If she had MS Word only up and running, the computer was fine; but if she opened up another app, like Internet Explorer, suddenly her computer slowed waaay down. I asked her to go to her "My Computer" window, right-click on the icon at the left side of the title bar, select "Properties" from the pop-up menu, and report how much RAM her computer had. Turns out she only had 128 MB of RAM, and that, of course, was her problem.

Extra RAM may add a few hundred dollars to the cost of your computer, but you should see that as a part of the whole price of buying one.

Posted by Luis at 12:33 PM | Comments (0)

June 23, 2005

Yet Another Mac-Windows Comparison

One contrast between the two operating systems was one that surprised me at first. At work, there were some Windows machines in the main teacher area (it was a teacher office at a building I usually didn't work at). I wanted to install a specific application on one of the machines to do a task requested of me by the office staff. But when one of the teachers based in that office found out I was installing an app on one of their machines, he nearly exploded, and told me never to install apps on the machines without asking first. At the time, I didn't understand why he was so upset; after all, you can just uninstall later, right? But he insisted that one stray app could screw up other stuff--and he was right. I was just too used to the Mac way of doing things.

Recently I was trying to cut down on some of the bloat on my Windows box, so I went to the Install/Uninstall control panel, looked through the list, found several apps that I never used any more, and uninstalled them. The uninstall program obligingly did away with them, occasionally asking me if I wanted to delete shared resources; each time I said "no," not wanting to screw up anything else on the machine. But of course, it did. Though none of the apps I deleted had anything to do with browsing or even the Internet, my copy of Mozilla promptly developed an incredibly annoying bug: every time I opened up a web page, an error message appeared, telling me that a .dll file could not be accessed. Despite this, the pages I went to all loaded fully, so as far as I could tell, the missing file probably wouldn't affect my browsing. But the error messages persisted, and if I tried to close them, they would continue popping up immediately after I closed the last one, and would continue to do so as long as any page was loading.

As the error message suggested re-installing Mozilla, that's what I did. I uninstalled, and then re-installed the app. No luck--the error dialog boxes kept on coming. As far as I can tell, I'll have to wipe the hard drive clean and re-install everything before I can use Mozilla again. Fortunately, Firefox still works, so I can use that in the meantime. But what a pain.

What's worse, the Windows uninstall app doesn't always do the job. Sometimes it just doesn't work when you try it. Other times it will say it worked, but when you go to the Program Files folder, you'll still see a folder for the app with some files remaining. And, as I described above, sometimes it will remove resources and files used by or affecting other applications, even when you specify not to disturb shared resources. A damned ugly system, inconvenient and annoying.

On the Mac, it's pretty simple: to uninstall a program, just drag the app or its enclosing folder into the trash, and empty the trash. Bam, you're done. But doesn't that leave files behind? Yes, but they're usually so small that they don't take up much disk space, and they don't interfere with other apps. Furthermore, if you ever decide to reinstall the app you removed, all your preferences and registration info are still in place. And if you really want to get rid of the whole thing, just go to the Library folders and remove any specific files or folders in the Preference or Application Support folders; no big deal. And you never have to worry about one app's removal screwing up something else.

Posted by Luis at 11:15 AM | Comments (3)

June 18, 2005

No Documentation

What is it with non-commercial programmers/scripters and documentation? This is something I have noticed for years: people who write small scripts or programs that are not self-executing rarely write more than a few lines of vague instructions on how to use them, even if that much. These people apparently feel that telling other people how to use their creations is unnecessary. "Here's a great script," they tell you, "which will do all these great things." But they don't tell you where to put it, how to modify it, or anything else that's necessary for using it. Sometimes these people don't even make clear what their script even does beyond general descriptions.

Are they just yanking our chains, or do people who acquire the skill to script suddenly lose sight of the fact that most people don't know how to script or use a command line interface, and can't figure out what the hell they're supposed to do with these cryptic files? Better not to publish on the Internet claiming you've just created something useful, for all the headaches you cause so many people trying to follow up on your promise of a cool product with needed features. I'm not trying to be ungrateful, these people put a lot of work into some good ideas to make a useful product. But if you spend that much time making the script and then bail on the documentation, then what's the point?

And I'm not talking about full tech support here. I'm talking about sitting down for two friggin' minutes and writing down the most basic of instructions. If the file is self-executing, and simply works when you double-click it, then fine, minimal documentation is OK (ironically, those programs usually have good documentation), but the stuff that needs to be changed and placed just so--these are the ones the developers seem to completely abandon once they finish coding.

Were this only a sometimes thing, it wouldn't be so bad--but it seems that it's the case nine times out of ten. Is it just me, or what?

Posted by Luis at 03:49 AM | Comments (8)

June 13, 2005

How to Make a Web Page

Here's both an offer and a request for those of you who want to learn how to code web pages. I teach an introductory computer class, and part of it is to learn how to code HTML. The basics, of course, not advanced stuff.

I like to create my own materials (finding books to teach it in just the way you want is usually more trouble than just doing it yourself!), and I just finished a huge chunk of it. My students will be using it soon, but I wanted to put a copy of it up here to see if anyone here could find a use for it, and if you do, then let me know what you think of it, and how it rates as a primer for beginners.

If you already know basic HTML coding, then this will likely be boring for you. But if you know nothing at all about how to write a web page using HTML, this guide should (knock on wood) teach you how.

I'd appreciate any and all comments, kibitzing, critiques and corrections to make this better for my students. Keep in mind that the formatting is simple (white backgrounds, not much garnishing) because this is a first draft; future drafts may include more formatting so it is easier to read. Although it is intended to accompany several regular classes in which I'll be walking them through all of this, it'd be nice if it could be self-contained as well. And yes, I know the last two chapters and the project outline are missing--those have yet to be written.

Also note that this is aimed at Windows users. If you use a Mac, the pages will still work, except you should use a simple text editor like iText to write the pages, instead of Windows' Notepad. I avoid TextEdit because after saving and re-opening web pages, it tries to display them like web pages instead of showing the code, and I don't like trying to reset it to do what I want. I hate simple programs that try to "help" you too much!

Here's the link to the HTML Primer.

Thanks in advance!

Posted by Luis at 01:50 AM | Comments (9)

June 09, 2005

Easy for Him to Say, Now

Chris Seibold, in an article for Apple Matters, wrote:

Witness the people hauling around first generation TiBooks holding out for the (never to come) G5 laptop. People have been guessing that a G5 PowerBook was just around the corner for two or three years and have waited for it accordingly.  Wouldn’t their overall computing experience have been better if they had gone ahead and purchased a new PowerBook when they first felt the need?
Now, if he'd written that before the Mactel announcement, I would have given him more credit. Right now, it's unmistakably clear in hindsight. So thanks, Chris, for being paid to state the bleeding obvious after the fact.

Posted by Luis at 11:01 PM | Comments (3)

June 08, 2005

Close to a Decision

For me, it's harder to say that the Mactel news will slow Mac sales, because that very news has drawn me to decide, or almost decide, to get a new PowerBook G4. Of course, I won't be in a typical place.

Right now I have an 800 MHz G4 PowerBook (the first DVI model) which just turned three years old a few months ago. I have been waiting for a significant upgrade before getting my next Mac 'Book, but the Mactel news has spurred me to move forward sooner than I'd planned.

The model I'd buy now is the 15" PowerBook G4 running at 1.67 GHz, the Superdrive model. I should be able to get academic pricing from Apple Japan on a model with the US keyboard layout, meaning not having to ship from the U.S. and not having to pay high California state sales taxes. The cost would be about ¥245,000 ($2300) including tax. Add another $200 for an extra 1 GB of RAM. It's not a quantum leap over my present computer, considering that it's been 3 years. The new 'Book would have double the CPU speed, but in the past, that's happened a lot faster. However, there are other considerations, including 512 KB of on-chip L2 cache as opposed to 1 MB L3 cache (the former is better than the latter, for those of you who don't know what cache is about), a (slightly) higher bus speed, better RAM, better graphics chip, and several other small points. The big differences would be a faster Superdrive instead of a slower Combo drive, double the size of the HDD (40 GB to 80 GB), built-in Bluetooth, USB 2, and AirPort Extreme to match my base station.

If I wait for the new Mactel Powerbook instead of buying now, I could be waiting as long as 2 years, and will have spent much of that time impatiently expectant of a new PowerBook "any day now," not to mention trying to get along with a much slower computer than I'd prefer.

In addition, most completely new models--not just upgrades, but new designs--have kinks in the system that need to be worked out, and the new Mactel PowerBooks are probably more likely to have such bugs than other models. These bugs get smoothed out, but only after one or two revisions. Which means that when the first Mactel PowerBook comes out, it'll be fast but with the risk of annoying problems.

Getting a Powerbook now means that it'll be three years old (my standard computer retirement time) when the first Mactel PowerBook free of problems rolls out.

The risks: there could be a significant G4 upgrade soon, such as dual-core, that could come out in 3-6 months. If that happened, I'd be kinda pissed. However, the chances of that are low, and by waiting for that much longer, I would be getting started later on the lifetime of my next computer. Also, there is the chance that the first Mactel PowerBook out of the gate could be killer and have no flaws. Again, chances are low, but possible. Were both these things to happen, I'd feel pretty stupid. But I'd also feel like an idiot if I waited till MacWorld SF in January to find the next PowerBook model to be a minor speed bump to 1.8 GHz and little else, followed by a Mactel release in June 2006, 6 moths after buying the speed-bumped G4.

If I buy a new computer this week, I'll even have a good excuse: today was my birthday. Taking time zones into account, it's 2:35 am Japan time on Thursday, June 9.

So I'm probably a day or two away from ordering. Anyone has good reasons to stop me, better chime in fast!

Posted by Luis at 10:57 PM | Comments (14)

June 05, 2005

Wired on Macs on Intel

Wired has a story out which may explain Apple's willingness to make the platform jump: Transitive.

Transitive is a new product, introduced last year, which purportedly allows any software to run in emulation mode on any hardware without any perceptible speed cost:

In demonstrations to press and analysts, the company has shown a graphically demanding game -- a Linux version of Quake III -- running on an Apple PowerBook.

"One of the key breakthroughs is performance," [CEO] Wiederhold said. "You can't tell the difference between a translated application and a native application."

Presumably, Apple will use Transitive's technology to make the Intel switch painless for both themselves and for developers; this has actually been rumored for months now. If possible, it would explain why Apple would be willing to make a switch that normally would cost it more than it could afford.

Not only might it allow Apple to run OS X on an Intel chip more easily, but it might also allow Apple to run practically any Windows application under OS X as well--meaning that switching to the Mac OS could be completely painless--no need to buy new versions of software.

Wired is presently musing that Apple is not just looking at Intel's fast chips, but more so their DRM technology, as a platform to allow Apple to become a movie peddler in the same way they've started selling music so successfully.

Posted by Luis at 10:54 PM | Comments (2)

June 04, 2005

Apple with Pentium Inside?

Everyone was wondering what big announcement Steve Jobs will be making at the WWDC scheduled to start on Monday. Will it be hardware, software, a new gadget, or nothing except a status report on existing product? Will the PowerBook line finally get a G5 or at least a multi-core G4? Will there be a new video iPod? A new home media center?

Well, C-Net now claims to know the big news, and everyone is reasonably shocked by it: Apple, they say, is abandoning IBM and is switching to Intel's chips for future Macs. While rumors of this nature were reported recently, no one gave them any credence. After all, we've been hearing Apple-Intel rumors for quite some time now, a few years at least, and no one took it seriously. But C-Net isn't your common rumor site; they have a reputation for good reporting. Even so, most people are still holding back belief until Stevo makes an official announcement at the World Wide Developer's Conference.

According to the report, Apple will switch its Mac Mini to Intel by mid-2006, and will have the PowerMac line on Intel chips by mid-2007. Concerns include the possible loss of software developer support and customer attrition that could come with a switch to a different chip architecture. However, Mac OS X runs on Unix BSD, which is not altogether incompatible with Intel's architecture. And Intel seems to have interest; note this interview by the IDG News Service with Intel VP Anand Chandrasekher:

IDGNS: The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Intel has been trying to get Apple to use its processors. Has Intel been talking with Apple?

Chandrasekher: We always talk to Apple. Apple is a design win that we've coveted for 20 years and we continue to covet them as a design win. We will never give up on Apple.

IDGNS: What would you be willing to do in order to win Apple's business?

Chandrasekher: Well, nothing unnatural that we wouldn't do for other design wins. It's got to make sense from a business standpoint. We would do what makes economic sense. If we can do that and still get the design win, we'd do it.

What people don't seem to be assuming much is how much Intel would customize chips to be used in Macs. Some people are talking as if the Mac will somehow use off-the-shelf Wintel chips, allowing for easy cloning by other hardware manufacturers. While this is an option, I hardly believe that Jobs will go that route; he has seen the hardware as proprietary for far too long, basing too much of Apple's business on that paradigm to simply open wide the doors to mass cloning of Macs. I am almost certain that if the Intel rumor is true, then the chipmaker will be producing a specific line of chips, probably including necessary changes to accommodate PPC and pre-PPC architectures, perhaps allowing for some emulation as when Apple switched over from Motorola's 680x0 line to the PPC.

An interesting effect of such a switch would be the relative equalization of CPU speed when comparing Macs and Windows PCs--we might even hear the term "Mactel" in comparison with "Wintel." It would certainly make for a more notable contrast between the two operating systems, even if Intel makes some modifications to suit Apple's needs. And it would bring Apple one step closer to the eventual possibility of making the hardware non-proprietery, opening the doors to direct competition with Microsoft, should it be possible that the Mac OS would run on any PC box, or even if AMD were left out in the cold. It will be interesting to see how much Intel will do for Apple.

Certainly, Apple has not had the greatest luck with chip manufacturers; both Motorola and now IBM have left Apple hanging in the wind when it comes to updating the product lines and delivering on promised goods. The PowerBook line, for example, has been languishing in the G4 backwaters for far too long--the main reason I have not bought a new 'Book despite the relatively slow performance of my 800 MHz machine. New PowerBooks at present only have double the processor speed, despite my current machine being 3 years old. I am holding out for a significant upgrade to the line before buying a new one, hoping for either a multi-core G4 or some form of G5, possibly liquid-cooled (even if it is thicker and heavier than the present line--I can live with that). This news about Intel, if true, might even be an indication that IBM has completely let Apple down and will not be able to supply them with and big new products at all--which could set back a big PowerBook upgrade for a few years, possibly.

But, as I said, it's not set in stone, not confirmed yet. We'll see what The Steve has to say. Maybe it's true, or maybe C-Net got snookered. Maybe even if it is true, there will still be a multi-core/G5 PowerBook anyway. Or maybe nothing at all will happen.

Stay tuned.

Posted by Luis at 02:46 PM | Comments (13)

June 02, 2005

Worth the Trouble?

Yet another article from a disgruntled Wintel user. This one, in Fortune Magazine, about a maddening invasion of pop-up-generating spyware and the inability of the hardware and software sellers to eradicate it:

It started about a month ago. A blue window appeared on my screen. It was flashing, which is always a bad sign in Cyberville. The alert stated that my system was possibly invaded by spyware and that I should click on the ok button to scan for problems. I'm not a fool. I did not click. I am aware that viruses, like vampires, must be invited across the threshold to gain entry.

Over the next few days the blue window kept reappearing. I ignored it. But you can't wish this kind of thing away, any more than you can keep an upper-respiratory infection from striking you on a flight full of coughing travelers. ...

I went to Best Buy and purchased Norton Internet Security and something called Spy Sweeper, which promised to help eradicate cookies, sprites, wafers, and tidbits that gum up your system. The Norton was clunky and slow and inscrutable to me—it kept presenting windows that offered choices I did not understand. The Sweeper, on the other hand, was lean and nimble. It scanned my friend and pronounced that he was suffering from more than 250 viruses and some 2,000 traces of spyware seeping through my innards. I expunged them all, and felt much better.

Then up popped Mr. Window again. And then another. Hmm, I thought, and ran the fix-it program again. Whoops. It found 25 viruses and 350 or so footprints of associated dreck. Blew those off. Back they came. I had now spent the best part of a day cursing, yelling, damning the morons—wherever they were, whoever they were—who had caused this disaster. ...

There are lots of people I guess I could blame—Microsoft, for leaving a back door into Explorer that made this all possible; Best Buy, for giving me back a box that still had issues—but I don't. They, too, must be counted among the victims of the walnut brains who are out there wreaking havoc. If I could air out their skulls with a ball-peen hammer, I would. But I can't. All I can do is my little part to make this kind of thing less likely.

I'm getting a Mac.

Perhaps you see this writer as being uneducated about how to use a computer--but then, so are most users. And certainly, a regimen of prevention (which would include spyware and virus blockers from the beginning) in addition to wise usage to avoid viral email and spyware-ridden 'freeware' would make using a Wintel box much less hazardous. But the problem is, most users are not savvy enough to know how to do these things, so a Mac would certainly be a better choice for them in that respect.

And for those who do know how to do 'safe computing,' is it really worth all the trouble just to avoid using a Mac? Seriously, I'd like to know what makes a Mac so less attractive than a Wintel?

Oft-stated reasons include: the Mac costs too much. My answer to that would be, they used to, but not any more. Yes, the prices are maybe 10% higher for comparable systems, but then on the Mac you don't have to buy anti-virus software, and the machines tend to last longer than cheaper PCs. Another comment: Macs don't have software. Granted, if you like computer gaming, the Mac is definitely not for you. But for most everything else, while there may not be as many titles available as there are for Windows, there are enough for every category to satisfy most people.

Another gripe about Macs is that they are not compatible. That strikes me as strange, as I find Macs to be very compatible. Any removable storage device I can read on a PC, I can read on a Mac. Any major software format from the PC, I can open on the Mac. Any MS Office document is cross-platform, and many say that MS Office for the Mac is even better than MS Office for Windows. And connecting to PCs on a network is a snap--in fact, it's easier for me to connect to a Windows network on my Mac than it is to do the same on a PC! And for anything else, I can run Virtual PC on my Mac if I want to. Yep, it's slow, but it's much closer to having the best of both worlds.

However, most of the PCs-are-better-than-Macs arguments are not about why PCs are better; they tend to be pot-shots at the Mac, at either misconceptions about the Mac ("you can't use a 2-button mouse"), exceptions ("the design sucks--look at the flower-power iMac"), peripheral claims they disagree with ("Apple claims to be 'Your own digital entertainment center,' but Windows can do the same thing"), or PC-centric subjectivity ("after using a PC, the Mac is too hard for me to use"--generally, it's bad because it's not exactly like Windows).

So I'd like to ask, while you may prefer Windows, is the Mac really that bad as to make it a lesser choice?

Posted by Luis at 10:50 PM | Comments (14)

May 31, 2005

Mac Mini vs. the PC Mini

Well, sooner or later it had to happen. The Wintel world has ripped off just about everything else that Apple comes up with, so why not this? A company named AOpen has displayed what is clearly a complete rip-off of the Mac Mini. See for yourself:

Mini1

Mini2SPC defenders claim that small form factors have been around for years, so this can't be a rip-off (here's an example of what they're talking about). But the AOpen is so clearly a copy of the Mac Mini it's not even funny. The same size, same rounded edges, same brushed-metal sides, same location and appearance of the optical slot drive.

And look at the back: even the fan slots across the top of the back panel are a near match. More noticeably, the white plastic area containing the back panel: an exact match to the Mac Mini. The primary difference is the relocation of the power button and the lack of an Apple logo in the middle of the top of the unit.

They could at least bevel or round the edges differently and make the unit's color scheme something other than brushed metal. Stand it on its side or something. There's no getting away from the size constraints forced by the optical drive, but hey, at least try to make it look a bit different!

This comes on the heels of an announcement and display of an Intel "proof of concept" mini-PC. Intel order the prototype to show that they could put Intel chips in a similarly-sized PC box (though it is expected to cost more than the Mac Mini--so much for "cheaper" Wintel boxes). But the Intel model looks suspiciously like... you guessed it, the Mac Mini. Except it's a lot uglier. See the photo below: basically the Mac Mini box, with a ghastly grid on top and bizarre beveling of the identically-placed optical slot drive.

Intelmini

Update: just more info that I dug up, actually. For all the protestations in the PC world that there are Wintel boxes that sell for less than the Mac Mini (only if you spend hours jumping through mail-in rebate hoops and then wait months for checks), the Wintels referred to are all big tower PCs. Wired News, meanwhile, reports that Wintel minis that do exist sell for $600 at least, and about $900 to get features comparable with the Mac. And the PC minis don't sell well, while the Mac Minis have been flying off the shelves at the rate of 40,000 per month. So much for Wintel doing it cheaper and better.

Posted by Luis at 11:36 PM | Comments (1)

May 30, 2005

Thoughts on Macs and Wintel for the Day

I was at Costco in Tama-Sakai the other day and noticed that they've started selling eMachines for a fair price; they have a 2.8GHz Celeron with 256 MB RAM, 80 GB HDD and XP Home for ¥41,766 ($390), and a 3.06 GHz Celeron with 512 MB RAM, 160 GB HDD and XP Home for ¥57,516 ($535). Those are very low prices for Japan.

One problem: the copy of Windows XP Home is in Japanese for both machines. So if you prefer to compute in Japanese, this is for you; if you want English, however, you're screwed: Windows Doesn't Do Languages. I've looked into this, and from what I can find, there's no way to switch from Japanese to English within the operating system you're provided with; to get an English-language OS, you'd have to buy Windows XP English version straight out, which is going to set you back an additional $250.

Time to do some boasting about Macs: they do languages, and well. Macs come with 14 languages pre-installed (English, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean), 15 if you count both traditional and simplified Chinese. It's free and easy. Switching the languages simply involves going to the International preference pane, moving the desired language to the top of the list, and logging off and back on. All menus, dialog boxes and other native system features are in the new language. Additionally, there are 61 languages (not counting variations and varied keyboard layouts within languages) for text input, also included in the original OS, no downloading of language packs. And they're nicely integrated--the Japanese input I downloaded for Windows is clunky at best.

One reader pointed out to me several months ago that you can get the Multilingual User Interface (MUI) to change languages in Windows--but he was just slightly wrong on that one. Yes, there is a MUI pack, and yes, it can change languages--but it (a) is not free, (b) is not available retail, only specially through volume or OEM purchases, and (3) only works on top of English-language versions of Windows. And even then, it only mimics a localized version of the OS, and not completely. Pretty pathetic, if you ask me.

Since I'm on the topic of Macs and Wintel, there's a story recently about how a nationally known technology security expert got fed up with Wintels and decided to switch his business over to Macs. His name is Winn Schwartau, and he and others maintain a blog on the subject. Schwartau has written:

This is my first column written on a Mac - ever. Maybe I should have done it a long time ago, but I never said I was smart, just obstinate. I was a PC bigot.

But now, I've had it. I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore. ... the WinTel platform represents the greatest violation of the basic tenets of information security and has become a national economic security risk. I do not say this lightly, and I have never been a Microsoft basher, either. I never criticize a company without a fair bit of explanation, justification and supportive evidence.

He's not alone in his frustration--Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel, also believes that if you want better security, get a Mac.

A coworker of Schwartau's commented:

I've known Winn for a few years now, and when he called me up and said "We're switching to Mac's", I have to say, I didn't believe him. While initially I argued that if he truly intended to go in this direction he should send me a Mac mini for testing before we commit to it. ... Well, it's been a few weeks now and all and all, I'd have to say I'm smitten. I look forward to using my Mac every day, and I can honestly say I've never felt that way about a Windows machine. Lets face it, it's a sexy beast and it's just been one pleasent surprise after another. I crashed the dock once and was able to shell out and use ps aux and kill to end the process.

Neat.

Not everyone is going to have the same experience. I'm experiencing a bit of instability in Tiger myself, though I can tell that a lot of it is due to my aging PowerBook and heat issues (reducing the processor speed in the Energy Saver prefs helped a lot) and new versions of the OS are usually shaky at first, Windows included. But overall, the Mac has a lot more to offer than Windows, and not just in security (though zero malware vs. 60,000 is impressive in itself).

I just did a presentation in my computer class to highlight what OS X can do (for students who have only known Windows), and there was a lot to talk about--the Dock, spring-loaded folders, interface control, graphics, languages, customizable keyboard shortcuts, plug-and-play with peripherals, access to non-standard characters, Exposé, Dashboard, Spotlight, Windows compatibility, and more (that's just from the basic outline).

A few recent experiences as examples. On my Windows box, using XP, I was opening a variety of documents alternately in two diverse locations. I had one folder deep within my C: drive, another deep within my external F: drive, and had to open them from within a single application. When you get the "Open File" dialog box, it always opens to the last place you accessed. So to switch to the other folder, I'd have to go up to the drive level and work my way down through long lists of folders to get to where I'd want. Every time I needed to go to the alternate folder, I'd have to do that all over again. Huge pain in the neck. I tried to find some way to set "favorites" or "recent places" in the dialog box, but with no luck--only "My Recent Documents" was available, and though you could see folders in there, they were shortcuts, and did not allow the dialog box to open the folders and look inside. If there's a way to do what I was looking for, Microsoft hid it well--I certainly couldn't find it, despite multiple searches in the Help window.

On the Mac, the left side of any window or dialog box has a list of all drives and a customizable list of documents and/or folders. Just drag and drop a folder on the list, and there it is, one click away.

Another example: dealing with nested folders in regular file windows. Sometimes I want to clean out big files that are eating up space, and being able to see the size of each folder in list view, sorted by size, is invaluable to that end. On my Mac, that is, not in Windows--Windows will not display folder sizes in the list--instead you have to hold the cursor over each folder and wait a few seconds for a small info window to come up and show you the size (which, frustratingly, is difficult to get every time). On the Mac, you can set the Finder to calculate folder sizes (in all windows, or just select ones), then sort by size. Way easier. And then there's threaded view in folder windows, where you can toggle folders to see see their contents in an indented list without opening the folder itself. This feature is only accessible in Windows when using Windows Explorer; you can't do it in regular windows like you can in the Mac.

One more example. At my college, the main office just got a new Fuji-Xerox color copier, with network access from computers, so you can use it as a printer. Someone in the office with a Mac wanted to use it to print, but was told by office staff that it would be a week before the tech support people could come by with software to install the necessary drivers. But this person (not an expert user, by the way) knew he was using a Mac, so he just went to the Print Center and told his Mac to find printers on the network. The Mac found the copier and made its own driver, all in a few minute's time. And it worked perfectly. I'd like to see a layman try that on Windows.

Posted by Luis at 01:47 AM | Comments (0)

May 28, 2005

Conflict

So, it appears that installing Netscape 8.0, cousin of Mozilla Firefox, can disrupt the functionality of Microsoft's Internet Explorer on some web pages. Microsoft has issued a press release and general widespread call with a solution: uninstall Netscape.

Here's a better solution: throw Internet Explorer into the Recycle bin, where it belongs.

The sorry excuse for a browser is chock full of security holes, has not been substantially improved in six years (an eternity in software time), and is just plain crappy in general. You shouldn't be using it. When experts bail and businesses urge their employees to chuck a major Microsoft component, you know there's an excellent reason for it.

Not to mention that, back a decade ago when Netscape was the king of the hill, part of Microsoft's strategy to crush Netscape included revisions to Windows and Explorer that partially disabled Netscape. Microsoft also avoided popular web standards in favor of their own version of web page coding so as to force web page designers to create their sites for Explorer specifically, shutting out other browsers--in effect, disabling Netscape by changing the world wide web itself. Microsoft has, several times, and intentionally, used its muscle to make Netscape not work as well as it should, discouraging people from using the competing browser.

So, talk about the stove calling the kettle black.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: chuck Explorer, start using Firefox, Mozilla or Netscape. THey are more secure and have far superior features. If you use Explorer, then you should be aware of the fact that the reason you use it is not because it is good--the reason you use it is because it was there when you bought the computer.

What if, when you first got your driver license, you could have taken your father's decrepit Dodge Dart, or had your parents buy you a new BMW? Would you have taken the Dart simply because it was there in your driveway? That's how unintelligent it is to use Explorer when far superior browsers are just a few clicks away.

Posted by Luis at 02:55 PM | Comments (1)

May 26, 2005

Downloading Dent?

Just a week after its release, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith is expected to break $200 million--and that's just the domestic box office. Overseas, it's earned over $160 million by now. And none of that includes the merchandising, or the DVD sales that often match or exceed box office sales. It is probably safe to say that by the end of the year, the film will gross well over a billion dollars.

A bootleg copy of the film--a workprint straight from LucasFilm, in fact--has been available on BitTorrent since just before the film was released, and probably tens of thousands of people have downloaded it. Federal agents stormed sites in ten cities across eight states as the MPAA got help from the FBI and--why, I have no idea: the Department of Homeland Security--in shutting down "Elite Torrents," a BitTorrent tracking web site which guides people to make the connections to download movies such as Sith.

But it doesn't stop there. A 60-year-old man was arrested in California for taking digital still photos of the screen while Sith was playing. Still photos. Of lesser quality than hundreds of photos which have been out there legally for months now. He faces a $2500 fine. The theater owner explained it like this:

But Del Oro Theatre co-owner Mike Getz said Keachie's actions Thursday amount to movie piracy. Signs near the entrance to the theater clearly state that video recording devices are prohibited, he said.

"People who are (pirating films) are costing us billions of dollars a year," Getz said of the cinema industry.

Now, the Torrents site I can understand, but the guy with the still camera? Please. Throw him out of the theater and be done with it. But arrest him and claim he's responsible for "billions" of dollars lost?

The MPAA and related industries, in a way similar to the RIAA, are acting like Republicans nowadays--highly successful and hurt none at all by the opposition, but playing the grievously wounded victim for the cameras, as if they were getting killed by this nickel-and-dime stuff.

Say 100,000 people download the Star Wars movie. You think that even a sizable minority won't go see the film in theaters? Unlikely. Most of these are people who'll still go see the film three times, then buy the DVD along with bags of merchandise from the film. I don't care how much it's downloaded, Star Wars isn't going to lose a dime from Torrents, and certainly not a penny from senior citizens with digital cameras. There will not be a single dent in George Lucas' wallet.

The truth is, illegal downloading, despite being illegal, isn't doing the music or movie industry any actual harm--but it might if they keep acting like fascists. I mean, Homeland Security? Shouldn't they be hunting down terrorists instead of arresting people for stealing a few bucks apiece from billionaires? Do they not have their priorities straight? Lighten up, people.

One way to lighten up: watch this. I love ChewBroccoli.

Posted by Luis at 10:57 PM | Comments (8)

May 10, 2005

So Where's the Japanese iTunes Music Store?

Sure, I can still buy songs via the U.S. store because I still have my U.S.-based credit card with the billing sent to my folks' house back home. And for me, that'll do fine, because the Japanese store will likely be more expensive. Nevertheless, a lot of people here (such as my students, who would love such a chance to buy their music that way) don't have that resource, and so would depend on a Japan-based resource. Right now, there aren't many good alternatives; Sony Music Direct charges $2 per song or more. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that Apple plans to launch the Japan iTunes store "this spring," but there's no sign of it happening soon. The expected date was March, but that's come and gone. More recently, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that Apple is "poised" to enter talks with music companies here, and may have the store online by the end of the year.

Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway just got theirs, added to Austria, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. Japan is the second biggest music market in the world after the U.S., but it is still stuck way back in the 80's in that it is high-priced and more than a bit protectionist. Apple is being shut out while ten domestic online services sell music here, up to $3 per song. Music CDs still cost an arm and a leg here, and reports are that to sell CDs here for the ridiculous price of $30 a pop, special tracks withheld in the U.S. and elsewhere are added here to make the local versions more attractive. Bands are asked to record these tracks just for the Japanese market, which helps to discourage cheaper imports--so I hear.

When the iTunes Music Store finally does break through, it will likely not be for the 99 cents we pay in the U.S. But the question is, how much will it be, and when will it be allowed in? You know Apple has to be chomping at the bit to open up the online store here (any claims of "they aren't trying" will fall flat), and in addition to their reputation in the U.S., Apple has a killer interface with iTunes and a popular delivery system with the iPod--which may be why they're being locked out. Despite lagging sales, Japanese music labels don't want to surrender the astronomical prices, and complain that Apple's digital rights management (DRM) is insufficient--Japanese online stores all have heavy copy protection that does not allow burning onto a CD at all.

In the meantime, I'll just recommend to my students that they get a U.S. credit card and find a friend there whose address they can use for billing, until they finish up school here and move to the U.S.

Posted by Luis at 11:21 PM | Comments (2)

May 07, 2005

New Spam King: Texas Holdem

Not that these slimeballs are anything new--they've been infesting my comment spam for some time--but now they've added referral spam to their repertoire, and have overwhelmingly hammered my site--more than 3,000 referral spam hits in just five days. And they're rotating IP Addresses, so it's completely screwing up my original-visitor stats.

Please, please, please someone finally come up with an app or plugin for your site that will filter out referral spam from the log files, and one that does not require programming expertise to use. The bandwidth they're eating up I can handle, but they are making a hash of my stats, and the fact that they are doing that to me on my dime is all the more frustrating.

What we need is a programmer who can design an app that will work like MT-Blacklist, except instead of filtering the blog comment database, instead it filters a site's referral logs, deleting from those logs all hits that match specified parameters. This would at least allow for logs to be cleaned up, and give you a chance to really know who's visiting your site. Ideally, the people who make AwStats should have built this into their software long ago.

And yes, I've tried setting a .htaccess file--and it doesn't work. It stops the spammers for a matter of hours, but then they just blast right through it.

Posted by Luis at 11:57 AM | Comments (8)

May 04, 2005

Tiger Tales: And All the Rest

So I've covered three of the top new features about Tiger, namely Safari RSS, Spotlight, and Dashboard. I haven't tried out Automator yet--it seems useful, but I've never used macro-like features before, and would want to read very carefully about it and try it out several different ways before speaking on it.

So what else is there? Well, minor appearances, for example. The copy file pane is different from before. Quicktime 7 now handles larger, high-definition files--but my computer is not fast enough to display them in anything but a jerky stop-and-start way. And then there is an interesting appearance change which is both tiny and significant: in open windows, there is no longer a division between the title bar and the tool bar immediately beneath it; they appear to share the same area (at least in the brushed-metal style--classic Aqua style seems unaffected). The functional divide still exists, though--click and drag on the title area and it will move the window, while doing so in the toolbar area will not. A purely cosmetic choice, and one that could cause a bit of confusion.

And I should speak on smart folders sometime, I didn't get to that. Essentially, they are a way to keep a specific search permanent and ongoing in the form of a folder; visually, it's like a virtual folder where all items of one type will go to whether you save them there or not.

And then there's the Oxford English Dictionary and Thesaurus, now integrated into the system. For example, when I'm drafting in Ecto, I can right-click on a word and select "Look Up in Dictionary," which will open the dictionary and show me the definition, etymology and synonyms, if any. Very nice. Dictionary is also available in a widget, and as a stand-alone application.

There's the new interface for Apple's Mail program, with some other features, like setting mail priority (which in a quick attempt I could not make work). Many have complained that the new look is ugly, but I like it fine. I might even give it another try sometime soon, but frankly I like Eudora so much that I won't make a full switch anytime soon.

You may have heard that Tiger has "200+" new features, and Apple lists them here. But a close examination will show that the list is artificially lengthened. For example, the Spotlight feature is represented as multiple features when it's really just applied in multiple applications--Spotlight used in Contacts, Spotlight used in dialog boxes, Spotlight used in Font Book, Spotlight used in iCal, Spotlight used in Mail, etc. Also, each major new feature is divided into many parts; the Spotlight menu bar item, the spotlight window, smart folders, and so on. Dashboard is a single feature, but Apple lists individual widgets as separate "features." Additionally, add-ons are counted as features--more fonts and more languages, for instance.

But then again, this is standard for the industry. While you may not find 200 actual new features in the sense of what you may consider a "feature" to be, you will find enough in Tiger to make it interesting and useful.

But is it necessary? Well, probably not, though that may depend on your needs. Is it worth the price of upgrade? It was for me, but again, it may not be for you. And that's true of all upgrades.

Posted by Luis at 03:36 PM | Comments (0)

May 03, 2005

Tiger Tales: Dashboard

Aside from Spotlight, the other headlined feature of Tiger is Dashboard. If you know about Konfabulator, then you should understand Dashboard. Essentially, Dashboard is a place for widgets, which are mini-programs. You hit the shortcut key (you decide which), and the desktop goes dark while a layer of colorful, 3-D-ish little gadgets zoom in to cover the screen. These are limited-purpose, minimally-sized simple programs that perform a simple function--clock, timer, calculator, measure converter, weather forecast and so on. Stuff too small to really merit a full-sized program.

Many say that Apple ripped off Konfabulator, and it's hard to argue with them--the concept is nearly identical. But then again, others argue that Apple had the idea first, and they were called "Desk Accessories." If you've used Macs since the 80's, you know what those were, but essentially they were indeed the same concept--little mini-programs very similar to widgets. Maybe that's how Apple is able to avoid litigation from Konfabulator--they could easily sue them right back on the same charge. As a user, I can't complain too much--Konfabulator costs $25, and with Tiger, it's part of the system (and probably better-integrated), but many say that Apple will have a harder time getting people to make good 3rd-party apps if they take those ideas and integrate them into the system like that.

All that aside, Dashboard is a nice thing to have. Hardly essential, not exactly ground-breaking, but a fun and useful toy. This is what it looks like in use:

Dashboard

You're just happening to look at the widgets I've decided to use full-time. You get started out with a dozen or so, but there are 150 different ones available on the widget developer site, with new ones appearing every day. Apple has a list, but it's not as complete. (Note: when I download them in Safari, they get automatically placed in the correct folder in my Library--a nice touch.) Many of the widgets will be useless to you, unless you happen to need to know the traffic conditions in Houston, train schedules in the United Kingdom, or how to say "armpit" in Norwegian. With time, hundreds more will come out, and eventually you'll be able to build up a really good set.

How does it work? I set mine to appear with the F11 key. Just press it an zoom, it's there. How do you open new ones? You don't have to go to the Widgets folder and double-click, instead just activate the Widget bar (click on the little plus-sign in a circle at the lower left corner of the Dashboard screen), which pushes its way up from the bottom of the screen.

Widgetpanel

Click on one of the widgets in the bar, and it'll open, and stay open till you close it. To close a widget, you can click on the little close button at the top left of the widget, which is visible when the widget bar is open, or when you hold down the option key.

Widgetclose

If you have more widgets than fit on the bar, little buttons appear on either side to prompt you to see the next batch. When you're finished with the widget bar, click the "x" in a circle above the bar and to the left.

Widgetturn

Most of the widgets can have options set by looking at the "back" of the widget. The widget should show a little "i" in a circle in one corner; click on that, and with a very cool 3-D effect, the widget turns around to show the options, if any. Some widgets can change in size as well, depending on their function. Take the common weather widget, for example, one of the Apple standards. Here's a little animated GIF to show you how it works:

Weatherwidget3

The initial image is of just the basic bar, showing current weather conditions. Next, if you click the middle of the bar, the 6-day forecast drops down. And finally, on the back, you can set the city the bar is for and whether it shows in Centigrade or Fahrenheit.

When you're finished with widgets, you can make them go away in one of three ways: hit the key you designated to open them, hit the "escape" key, or just click on any window or the Desktop visible behind the widgets.

As I said, not a must-have item--but it's handy, fun, and cool.

Posted by Luis at 10:56 PM | Comments (1)

May 02, 2005

Tiger Tales: Spotlight, the Basics

Another new Tiger feature is Spotlight, and this is really the star of the new OS. This is the blazing new file search feature that's supposed to make it incredibly easy to find any file on your computer. And from my use of it over the past few days, I'd say it both does and doesn't make it easier. But the "does" part is much more significant than the "doesn't." Any system to find files is bound to have drawbacks, but overall, Spotlight is a big improvement over old search methods.

A Spotlight search begins with the new spotlight icon at the far right of the menu bar (pushing aside the account switching menu, not shown here). Click on the Spotlight icon (or use the configurable command key), and a search bar appears.

Spotlightbar

Type in your search term, and a menu will appear, showing the search results. I use an 800 MHz G4 Powerbook, so it's not lightning fast--a dual-processor G5 PowerMac might show instant results, I don't know. But this is what your results look like:

Spotlightmenu

Here's where some of the negative points about Spotlight come into play. First, it's difficult and sometimes impossible to confidently choose any of the items in the menu before the search is dome. On my computer, a full search takes about 6 or 7 seconds, but before that's finished, the list is constantly jumping and shifting due to new items being found and added. Still, 6 or 7 seconds for a full search is not bad at all, and my Mac is relatively old and slow. If I had the latest powerbook, it would likely be only 3 or 4 seconds; a PowerMac G5 would likely cut that down to 1 or 2 seconds.

The other problem has to do with choosing an item from the list. From this menu, the only thing you can do for any specific file is to open it. You should be able to right-click on any item and then choose to open it, view it in the Finder, or get info on it. Maybe that's impossible to do in a drop-down menu, but if it is possible, that feature should be added in the future. So, if you don't want to open one of the files you see, you have to go to "Show All," the item at the top. This will open a window displaying the results in a more manageable fashion. This is something you can do at any time--you don't need to wait for the search to finish.

Spotlightwindow

The results are here divided into categories, such as applications, folders, documents, images, music, fonts, and so on, each category showing five results each. You can exclude categories from your searches in the Spotlight preferences pane. (You can also group into categories by file author, date, or just display as a plain "flat" list.) Each category can be minimized to its title bar, or expanded to show all results. They can be sorted by name, date, kind, or "people," and limited by time frame or volume location. They cannot, however, be sorted by size--something I regard as a glaring omission.

A big feature of Spotlight is that it indexes and searches not only file names, but the contents of all those files as well. This is great, but the problem is that you can't limit it to a filename search only, unless I missed something. Which means that every dictionary file, text database and probably email archive will dominate the results of any search, flooding the results to a degree that makes it hard to find the file you want. Although you can't turn off the contents search, you can exclude certain folders from searches using the Spotlight preferences pane. In the preferences, if you go to the Privacy tab, you can select folders that will not be included in any spotlight search. I had to find all of my mail archives and dictionary files and exclude them in order to make it work well. (If you use Apple's Mail app, those results will show in a different category group and won't pollute the documents results--but I use Eudora). That helps, but it would be better for Apple to allow you to choose file names, contents, or both in any search.

The content search does help in other ways. Now that you have it, you can tag special files by making notes that spotlight can see. This can be done through the Get Info window:

Spotlightcomments

These comments allow you to single out a file by using keywords. However, the drawback is that it takes a bit of effort. You cannot select multiple files and add a single Spotlight comment to all of them in the Get Info window (another oversight by Apple, they should add that ability), and if you take thousands of photos a month, obviously it would be ludicrous to try making comments in all of them. This is for specific files you will especially want to find in the future.

SpotlightinfoBack to the "Show All" window. Note in the illustration I presented when introducing this window that each item takes up one line and gives limited information. A little hard to see is a ghostly "i" for "info" icon at the right of each line. Click on that, and Spotlight will expand the item to show a more detailed icon and basic information for the file.

Spotlightinfo2

Furthermore, by right-clicking (control-clecking for those of you who still use one-button mice) on any item, you can choose from several commands, including "Reveal in Finder," which allows you to see the file instantly. This is what should be added to the initial Spotlight search menu, if possible.

Spotlightrc

SpotlightimageAnother feature is for images. The blue title bar for the images grouping has three icons at the right, allowing you to choose how to display the images: as a slideshow, a list, or by thumbnails. Thumbnails are nice, but if you have a lot of images, it takes a while for the Finder to generate them all. The slideshow, however, provides a good way to get a very detailed look.

Opening one or more images in slideshow is possible. Either will allow you to see the image at actual size or fit to screen, with a black background that occludes the desktop. You also always have the option of adding the image to iPhoto (but there is no option to send the photo to any other application--perhaps not an oversight by Apple, but that should be changed). But with multiple images, you have more options.

Spotlightss0

Here's one result from a search for images of woodpeckers. Before I started the slideshow, I selected all six images I found. Note the control bar at the bottom:

Spotlightss2

The choices are, from left to right: back, play/pause slideshow, next; index sheet; actual size/fit to screen; add to iPhoto; and close. If you choose the Index Sheet, you will get an Exposé-style choice of all the photos; choose one, and it will show in the player. This is a nice option to have handy.

Spotlightss1

There is more to Spotlight, and I may touch on those other features later, but these are the basics. As I've noted, there are some down points--the time it takes to finish on older computers; the inability to get info on any item in the initial Spotlight menu, to sort by date, or to search by filename only, among other smaller nits. But the plus side overwhelms that: an extremely fast search method which allows you to flexibly sort and manage huge amounts of data to find what you're looking for. If search features like this are important to you, then Tiger may be an essential upgrade.

Posted by Luis at 03:20 PM | Comments (4)

May 01, 2005

Tiger Tales: Safari

So I've installed Tiger, of course. The question is, is it any good or worth the $129 ($85 by academic discount in Japan) you pay for it? The answer to that, I suppose, lies in what it is that you value. In such a short time, I haven't had a chance to delve deeply into all the new facets to the OS, but I do have a few impressions; I'll be discussing these over the next few posts, each taking on a new general feature of Tiger.

Unfortunately, the speed of the new OS is not something I can comment on too well. Speed is supposed to be one of the big new under-the-hood features in Tiger, and it may well be. But it's hard for me to tell. You see, I had been using Panther (10.3) running since its release, and had never reformatted the disk and re-installed everything, or even re-installed the system. As a result, the system was breaking down, crashing all over the place and slowing down quite a bit--coming to a crawl whenever I copied files from one location to another. So of course things run faster now, but I can't attest to how much faster they are compared to a clean install of Panther.

What I can attest to, however, is that Safari definitely works faster than I ever remember it working, and since Mozilla is inexplicably slower in Tiger (or is it the new version of Mozilla? or the bloated profile files from being used continuously for such a long time?), I've decided, at least for now, to switch over to Safari--despite the fact that it still lacks the ability to turn off those annoying animated GIFs. Safari, like most Apple applications, is very well-designed, easy to use, and lacking in features and controls. But what it does feature, it features very well.

One of the highly-touted features in Tiger is Safari's new RSS ability, which lets you use the browser as a news feed program. In case you're not familiar with that, RSS feeds are kind of a no-frills version of an article in a web page publication. With an RSS feed reader, you can quickly see a list of all the entries available--kind of like seeing an index of the new stories on the web site. But readers will also automatically scan all the bookmarked sites and alert you when new offerings are available, so you don't have to tediously scan all the web sites to seek out new entries. Unfortunately, most web sites do not have RSS feeds.

SafarirssbmSafari, like most readers, will scan the sites you've bookmarked at regular intervals you can decide. If you look at the bookmark, it will show you how many new articles there are available for each site (or group of sites you've bundled together) by showing a number in parentheses. While this form of notification doesn't jump out at you like some RSS readers do, it is quite usable. This blog itself has an RSS feed, though I've made the length of the feed unusually long, so you can read entire blog entries that way, instead of the usual practice sites have of only giving you one or two lines, then requiring you to jump to the web site in order to read the rest.

Now, this feature just as I've explained it would be kind of a Swiss-army-knife attachment to Safari, but if left at that, you might as well just get an RSS app and use it by itself (indeed, many may prefer to, as some will show the number of new articles in the dock icon, or have other features Safari lacks). But Safari does provide another twist to the game: in the course of regular browsing, when you visit any site that has an RSS feed, a little Safarirsstag"RSS" tag will appear in the URL (web page address) window, on the far right. Click on the tag and the whole window changes to a list of all the RSS stories available (see illustration below).

Safarirsssheet

SafarirsssearchThis list can then be searched in a Spotlight-style search bar on the right. This allows you to set keywords, sort, choose articles of various ages, or mail a link to the pages' RSS feed.

You can also bookmark a specific search in a specific web page. For example, if you want to be informed of any article concerning social security from the New York Times, just go to their main page, click on the RSS tag, enter the search words "Social Security," and bookmark it. You'll have a bookmark which then acquires a number by it to show you how many new articles on that topic at that site are available.

Other than the RSS system, the only new feature I can see worth mentioning in the new Safari is the parental controls, but I have not tried it and have no interest in it, so you're on your own there.

But Safari itself has many pre-existing features to make it worth using. It's a tabbed browser, for one. That's a make-or-break feature for me; after Mozilla started using them, I've become addicted and now find it cumbersome and annoying to have to open a new window every time I want a separate page open (even though OS X's Exposé feature could help deal with that).

Safari also has a bookmark system I've decided I like (though I just started using it a few days ago). It has all the features other browsers have, such as a bookmark bar, and the ability to create subfolders. But Safari's bookmark management is, I think, better than Mozilla's. It shows the bookmarks by taking over the browser window, upon which you have the bookmarks divided into sections at the left, and each section displayed in the main window when selected. SafaribmcatThis makes it very manageable. Also, when you decide to bookmark a site, you are allowed to choose where in the bookmarks it will go; while some may see this as an extra step they may not need, most of the time this is exactly what I want to do. In Mozilla, I have to open the bookmark manager, find the bookmark I just made, and then perform a "move bookmark" action; all of this takes far longer than I like. Safari allows you to much more easily handle unwieldily long bookmark lists. One gripe: when I try to move a bookmark folder to a new location between two other folders, it always lands inside one of those folders, and never in between. If there's a trick to it, I haven't found it yet.

SafariautoclickOne other feature worth mentioning is the "Auto Click," or "Open in Tabs" feature. If you've collected a number of bookmarks in one bookmark folder (to form a sub-group), you can choose to open them all at once. In the bookmark manager, you can check the "auto-click" box for any desired folder, and it will thereafter happen automatically. Otherwise, just right-click on any bookmark folder in the bookmark bar, and select "open in tabs." As many pages as you want will then open all at once in a string of new tabs.

So far, my only problem with Safari has been in remembering passwords. There are two situations in which this presents itself: (1) when you fill in a password on one web page to move on to another protected page, and (2) when a page is protected and you have to fill in name and password in a dialog box before the page appears. The former is no problem in Safari. The latter can be one. I found that if I try to go to my web site's control panel, I get the usual dialog box asking for the name and password. I fill those in, and then check the box to save the password to the system keychain. Then I log out, and try to log back in again--and the keychain has forgotten the password. With the Keychain window open, I can observe that the keychain password I entered for the site simply disappears as soon as I try to re-enter the protected page, and I have to enter the information all over again. But this happens only if I immediately try to log in after logging out. If I log out, then go to another site or sites, then log in a little later, the keychain password persists. I can live with this, but it was maddening when I was trying to establish all the passwords and immediately testing them, making them disappear. I can also foresee that I might log out from somewhere and want to get right back in--but if I do this and forget about the bug, I'll lose the keychain password; if I can't then recall it from memory, I'm screwed. If anyone know why this happens and if it can be turned off, please let me know!

All in all, however, Safari seems like a solid replacement for Firefox or the Mozilla browser--and as such, beats the hell out of Internet Explorer every day of the week and three times on Sunday. There are more features I didn't go into here, but you can find them like I can--if you have a Mac, of course.

Posted by Luis at 10:21 PM | Comments (3)

April 20, 2005

Google Satellite

I've noted before in this blog that Google now has a very cool map page. What I haven't mentioned yet is that they added a very cool satellite image feature. You can browse North America by satellite photos just as easily as by maps. It has also led to some very interesting sites based purely on finding cool images in the massive photo database, including names carved into fields, airplanes in flight over land, stadiums with games in progress, and even a fair or gay pride parade in the Castro district of San Francisco.

I tried zooming in on the home campus of my college, but that's when I found out that many areas have only limited resolution, and you can't get very detailed images.

But some areas you can get great images of. Here's San Francisco. Try it out. Double-click on a part of the map where you'd like to zoom in on. Double-clicking will center the map on that point. Then you can slide the zoom bar at the upper left to get a close-up view. You might want to try the TransAmerica Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, Candlestick Park (where that 49'ers game was being played--dad, can you see your car?), or perhaps my alma mater, San Francisco State University. Here's a plane taking off from SFO, and here's the South San Francisco City sign painted on the hillside. And here's my hometown, and the house where I lived when I was born. Oh, and of course--Apple Computer headquarters!

Also, here's the Hollywood sign. And here's NORAD, which you may be familiar with if you watch Stargate SG-1. What can you find?

For notes on interesting images, there is the Google Sightseeing Blog, and this page with a wealth of links by type and state.

Posted by Luis at 02:59 AM | Comments (2)

April 03, 2005

Tiger

The new Mac OS is coming out very soon, named "Tiger," or Mac OS X v. 10.4. While its feature set seems less dramatically improved than past upgrades, one of the biggest benefits appears to be speed--this reviewer reports an almost doubling of speed on her G4 Powerbook. If this is true, then it would be a very nice upgrade for me--my old G4 (which I'm keeping until a big upgrade of the Powerbook line comes from Apple) is getting a bit sluggish, though much of that is probably due to the fact that I haven't reformatted my hard drive and reinstalled my OS and apps in two years or so--that'll slow any computer down.

New features in Tiger include Spotlight, a new super-fast file and content search feature (integrated into the Mac Mail app as well), Dashboard (which is a copycat of Konfabulator), which allows you to use mini-apps called "Widgets" for easy access to content and controls. You might also find Safari's RSS reader or the "Automator" script-builder to be useful as well. But the speed increase and search upgrades are the real improvements made here.

Tiger is due to come out sometime in April, maybe April 15th, and its announcement is supposed to be in the next few days. If Apple acts as it has in the past, then new Mac purchasers can get a free upgrade to Tiger if they buy their computer after the announcement to Tiger is made.

Of course, OS X is already a hell of a lot better than Windows XP, which was released in October 2001 and has had only minor upgrades (mostly patches to numerous security holes) since then. The new Windows OS, code-named "Longhorn," is scheduled to come out in late 2006, but many doubt that it will be released on schedule. And when it does come out, it will not be a really great upgrade, either--already, just to make it possible to maybe reach the end-of-2006 deadline, Microsoft had to axe Longhorn's most awaited feature, called "WinFS," a new storage and file system that would theoretically speed up Window's file browsing and search features, which still, to this day, use decades-old DOS technology. Not only did Mac OS X rework their system long ago, but the OS release of Tiger is most likely going to be even better in file handling and searching than what WinFS will deliver whenever it comes out.

In short, to get Longhorn will be to get what the Mac has had for years. And most of the other improvements in Longhorn are so technical or business-related that the common user won't find much that excites them. Primarily the graphic user interface changes (read: eye candy) are what will make the most difference for most people--and that was kind of like what happened with the switch to XP. It was essentially just Windows NT with new colors. And one feature of Longhorn, called "Palladium," is hyped as a "security" feature, but mostly it is designed to keep big companies secure from you. It is reported to look at what you have on your computer and severely restrict your use of any file or program which is not verified by Microsoft as being fully paid for, and possibly even make it very difficult for competing and open-source software packages to operate on your computer. What's more, Longhorn, originally planned not to be backwards-compatible, will require users of XP to get upgrades (possibly more kludge-like) to their OS in order to use the software that Longhorn will encourage.

In short, Longhorn promises to be a slick-looking but far-behind-the-Mac OS that essentially serves businesses, not you, and may be more trouble than it's worth.

The one down side about the Mac is that while you get a lot more great innovations and improvements on a much more regular basis (once every year or year and a half or so, as opposed to once every five years with Windows), you also have to pay $100-130 or so for each upgrade if you want all the improvements immediately. Of course, there's no guarantee that Longhorn won't be just as expensive--some are talking about the possibility of a new "subscription" payment method, where you pax X number of dollars every year to use the OS. And presently the Windows upgrade price is about $200. So you can wait to get better features at the same time on the mac for half the price of Windows, or you can get Mac OS X upgrades as they come out and pay maybe 50% more than you would for Windows--but you'd have much more functionality much faster.

Posted by Luis at 03:09 PM | Comments (4)

Google Gulp

Google had a bit of fun on April 1st, "introducing" a new line of on-line beverages called "Google Gulp (BETA)™" with technology that might be available in a couple hundred years or so. Be sure to read the disclaimer at the bottom titled "Google Gulp and Your Privacy," it's pretty funny.

There's also their not-so-serious sketch of how Google's storage space will continue to grow after their fully-serious bump up to 2GB (2052 MB, actually) of mail storage space. With that much space, so long as you have a fast enough internet connection, Google is looking more and more like an extra storage location rather than an email service--including software (only for Windows now) for storing photos in an organized way within your account.

And hey, I've only got 50 GMail invites left, so if you want one, better act fast!!!

Posted by Luis at 01:49 PM | Comments (0)

March 11, 2005

Google News Just Got Better

As I've mentioned before, I use Google News as my news source, having left CNN and other news web sites far behind. Google offers far more data, far more variety--and now the main page is customizable. You can choose which sections (World, National, Entertainment, Business, Science/Tech, Business, Sports, Health, and More Top Stories) you want visible, and for each section, which national focus (U.S., Spain, Chile, Germany, China, Japan, etc.). You can add sections and change their positions to anywhere under the Top Stories banner, and then decide how many stories each section will display.

I know that other sites are customizable as well, but as with many other things Google, the whole package is better than what's being offered elsewhere. I tried Yahoo for a while, but for some reason it stopped recognizing my cookies and would simply not accept any new settings--probably a result of Yahoo deciding to focus their setup on Internet Explorer to the exclusion of Mozilla/Firefox. I consider that unacceptable--I'll be damned if I'll be forced to use that piece of junk, and any site worth its salt will find a way to work universally--which Google does on a regular basis.

Another mention of Google Image Search, by the way--it's very handy for my classes. Just the other day, I thought to mention the Altair computer from the mid-70's in my Computer class. I hadn't prepared for it, but no problem--just hop onto Google Image, and within about 10 seconds I had some great photos to show the class on the monitor. Apple's beautifully-executed zoom feature let me crop out everything else, so the image took up the whole screen. Cool.

Speaking of Apple, they've just signed on to the Blu-Ray DVD format, the next-generation high-definition DVD format which can hold up to 50 GB of data using a higher-frequency laser to etch smaller bits onto the disc. This is in opposition to the HD-DVD format, which has a lower capacity but which is cheaper to produce, according to its representatives. On the face of it, I would take this as a sign that Blu-Ray is better, simple because of Apple's history of choosing the better format (though some of those formats, such as Firewire, have lost out through Microsoft and Intel's sheer force of market control). Still, it is worth noting that Sony and HP are among the companies supporting Blu-Ray, and so there might be some influence from companies Apple has had close relations with as of late.

Posted by Luis at 10:42 AM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2005

The Sixth Estate

By way of a reader on Kevin Drum's site, this interesting aspect to a bill before Congress, in reference to making Freedom of Information Act requests:

Section 552(a)(4)(A)(ii) of title 5, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following: ‘‘In making a determination of a representative of the news media under subclause (II), an agency may not deny that status solely on the basis of the absence of institutional associations of the requester, but shall consider the prior publication history of the requester. Prior publication history shall include books, magazine and newspaper articles, newsletters, television and radio broadcasts, and Internet publications.
Well, this blog is undeniably an Internet publication. I may soon be legally a member of the news media. Granted, of course, that so might be millions of others. But still, it is a recognition of a new age of communication.

Now, I don't like people who throw around "age-of" designations like Bush hands out nicknames. But there is something important here to note.

Communication, in terms of reaching a large number of people with a message, has always been key to shaping public opinion, whether it be for politics, advertising, or any other matter. But communication has also always been expensive and involved, and thereby limited to a very few people. For the common man, public communication has always been limited to the reach of one's personal voice. If one were lucky, one might reach a few hundred people. If extraordinary circumstances prevailed, one could draw thousands to listen to your message.

But to reaching a worldwide, nationwide, or even regional audience, there was a major roadblock. To do it by yourself, you could start a popular movement through the force of your cause, so much so that your message could not be kept down--but that is an extraordinary circumstance. Otherwise, you had to control a business which could produce newspapers, magazines or books, or could broadcast radio or television shows. Since this was far too expensive, you were limited to using other people's communication tools, and that meant that you had to ask editors and publishers. To have your message appear in a newspaper (even as limited as a letter to the editor), a magazine, in book form or broadcast to people, you had to first beg for the chance to speak before a small class of people who controlled those information channels. For the purposes of this writing, let's call them the "publishing class." The publishing class has always held the power to silence you, whether it was because they didn't like your message, or didn't think it would profit them--or even just from simple indifference.

This was akin to having a small class of people who control the roads. If you want to travel anywhere, you would have to ask the roadkeepers for access to travel. For whatever reasons they pleased, they could deny you access to the roads. If your business did not bring them money, they could refuse to give you the ability to travel. If they did not approve of your business, they could lock you into your village. They could block your ability to move simply because they didn't like the way you dressed, they way you walked--or even just for no reason at all. You would have the "freedom" to travel, but not the freedom to travel far without someone else's permission.

We talk about the vital importance of free speech. What we don't talk about is the freedom to speak far. And lines of communication to the world are just like roads to take you there physically. Speaking to a wide audience remained a privilege, mostly controlled by the publishing class. And that does not constitute equal speech, another aspect of communication justice which is often overlooked.

If you come to a public park, step up onto a soap box, and start speaking your mind without fear of being arrested, that's what we call free speech. But if I have a lot more money, and come to the park as well to speak, I can set up a huge stage with enormous speakers, have a rock band open for me, and then blare out my message in such a loud voice that even those who are still interested in your soapbox speech can't even hear you anymore. That's an example of unequal speech, and it is about as much of an injustice as taking away your freedom to speak at all. After all, what good is free speech if your message is squelched to insignificance?

Such were the limitations of pre-Internet communications: speech to anything more than a small group of people was limited by the whim of those who had more money and power than you.

The Internet is not the answer to the problem, but it is a giant step forward. There are still limitations: others with money and the control of other popular communication channels can still make more noise than you can, but at least you have now been given a new, free channel all your own, kind of like a personal loudspeaker that can cut through the noise that the publishing class makes.

Of course, you still have to attract the audience--no one is immune from that. Freedom to speak is not a guarantee that you will be listened to. Your message has to be of sufficient interest to make others pay attention. But if your ability to communicate is good enough, if your message is significant enough, then attention can be attracted. Your publication will be linked to, discussed, and advertised by word of mouth through a community far larger than the local one in which you reside. Many have already done it--many bloggers have reached even a huge audience. These are people whose voices might never have been heard otherwise.

So the new law being proposed is not a landmark because of the access or legal status that it would provide bloggers, but rather because it demonstrates the recognition of this new channel of communication--a new "estate" in the sense of post-revolutionary French politics. The "fifth estate" has always been what is beyond the media, the "new" voice of influence. But there have been enough voices beyond the fourth estate of the media to fill that category, and the channel that the Internet provides is revolutionary enough that I would see it as justifying a completely new estate all on its own.

So I say directly to the world. Or at least you people who decide read this blog entry, anyway.

Posted by Luis at 11:32 PM | Comments (5)

February 19, 2005

On Downloading TV

A new story out there in the news is the downloading of TV shows. Apparently, Britons are the biggest culprits--it's pointed out that since it sometimes takes "months" before American TV shows get to the UK, impatient fans turn to BitTorrent to download the TV shows from the Internet. Almost one in five of all TV downloaders is in the UK.

A few months, eh? Try a few years, if ever at all, here in Japan. Even if you have cable or satellite, getting your favorite TV shows is hardly guaranteed, and usually lags three or four years behind the original broadcast. But then, there are not as many people here who would enjoy The West Wing, for example, in English only. And ironically, many people downloading not-yet-broadcast shows are in America; some shows like Stargate or Battlestar Galactica (the newer, much better one) are broadcast in England or Canada before the U.S. sees them.

While BitTorrent is available on the Mac, it seems best suited for the PC. On the PC, there are several choices, but Torrents work the best. KaZaA is old news, poorly executed and usually slow. Shareaza is a much better download platform, but interestingly, Shareaza when used as a BitTorrent platform is the best I've heard of (when clicking a download link, specify Shareaza as the app to handle the torrent file). If the torrent file is popular, speeds in the tens of KB/sec are very common, and downloads over 100 KB/sec are not unheard of. The Daily Show, of all things, downloads faster than it takes to view the show--though you can't watch it as it comes down as BitTorrent downloads take in bits and pieces of the file in a haphazard order, only allowing for viewing once the file transfer is completed.

TV shows are usually available as torrent downloads within a few hours of being broadcast, often in HD-quality AVI video files (viewable with VLC Media Player on the Mac) at about 350 MB for a one-hour show (really, 43 minutes since the commercials are all cut out). Sci-Fi shows are numerous among the most popular, but "24" tops the lists.

You access torrent files by going to sites which track them. The media industries are on the case, though--most torrent tracker web sites have vanished from the face of the Earth lately, probably due to threatened lawsuits or harsher legal actions. But it's a futile gesture on the part of the media companies--eventually, trackers based in countries that will not prosecute such cases will be left standing. Frankly, the anti-piracy movement will always be like sweeping back the ocean--there will always be a next wave (Napster to KaZaA to Torrent to... ?) waiting in the wings. So what is the industry to do? Well, as I have already laid out in a three-part blog entry (part 1, part 2, part 3, the third part being the most relevant here), I think the industry has to join 'em to beat 'em, and eventually switch their paradigm to narrowcasting TV shows with advertising preferred by individual users. As I explain in the entry series, I believe it could end up not only defeating piracy, but actually increasing revenues for the media companies. In other words, you have to stop fighting the inevitable future and take control of the technology by offering something better.

Torrent sites simply keep track of all the files which are currently being traded; they link to "torrent files" which are small packages of information on how to connect to other users to download the file in question. Right now, the better torrent sites still standing include BTEfnet, TV Torrents, and Torrent Spy (the last one, incidentally, remaining as one of the only sites to track files other than just TV shows). And not surprisingly, many torrent sites originate from the UK.

Posted by Luis at 01:47 PM | Comments (3)

February 18, 2005

Pac the Man and Other Stuff

PacthemanSome months ago I went looking for the Pac Man arcade game, during a bout of boredom or insanity, I don't know which. I looked first for the PC, seeing as how they always seem to do games for Windows first, but wasn't able to find an acceptable freeware version. But then I found Pac the Man 2 for the Mac, a freeware Pac Man true to the arcade genre, and it's actually very good. If you have countless hours to waste and don't mind getting your fingers all achy, go ahead and try it.

By way of that introduction is the site I linked to for the download: Version Tracker. A site that keeps track of new versions of software, and often completely new software. You can search the archive, or you can resolve categories. Under Windows, Mac OS, Mac OS X or PalmOS (I linked to Mac OS X above) you can access Shareware, Freeware, Beta or Commercial software, or choose a software type (Utilities, Games, etc.), presented in sortable lists. I usually do a weekly check for Freeware under the Mac OS X section. Each download has an area for use reviews and version histories. It's a pretty good tool for getting the software you want.Drop2Dvicon

A good Mac download from the past few days: Drop2DV, a video encoding app that allows you to take either MPEG files or VOB (DVD Video) files and convert them to DV files, which are easily editable by iMovie--and MPEG/VOB files are not easily--if at all--editable by standard software. I just tried it out, and it works--at least for me...

Posted by Luis at 11:28 PM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2005

Googley Stuff

Google has been busy lately. If you follow their blog, you'll know that they just came out with Google Maps, a new map engine which right now covers only the United States. But it has a very good advantage over other online maps: you can use the cursor to move the focus of the map in real time by clicking-and-dragging, as opposed to clicking an arrow or new area and then waiting for the whole page to reload. The Google Map page even has a slider for zoom, which also works much more smoothly than what other map pages have. Go ahead, give it a try.

They also have some other very cool stuff. You can get a free blog through their Blogger pages, which can even act as blog-generating software on your private web site. Google's News engine catalogs 4500 news sites and is my present news source--I rarely visit the news sites directly. You can search all the news on the web by any topic or specific keywords, and sort by relevance and date--a very convenient way to get your news. For students, Google Scholar searches essays and papers of an academic nature--sometimes too technical, but quite useful much of the time. A lot of other stuff also available on their "more" page.

And then of course, there's GMail--the free gigabyte email service that prompted Yahoo and Hotmail to finally give their own clients more than a few piddling megabytes of mail storage. GMail has always had a nicer interface, operating more smoothly and script-like, and without the garish ads and other images that pollute the other mail pages--Google's ads are contextual and text-only, and found solely and unobtrusively at the bottom of message displays. But one big advantage they recently added: POP access, for free. So now I can check my GMail account in Eudora, where most of my email is already, instead of having to visit GMail's page all the time, or depend on third-party GMail notification apps (which have eventually failed me in one way or another). Oh, and though they still don't allow people to sign up on the GMail home page, they are handing out invitations like candy--I am informed that I have 50 invitations left. How will that ever be enough?

Posted by Luis at 11:18 PM | Comments (14)

January 25, 2005

iBento vs. the Dell

Since the Mac Mini (which I like to compare to a bento box, complete with the Apple logo as umeboshi) was announced, just about every news item I have seen on the product announces without fail the fact that there are PCs out there even cheaper than the $499 Mac box. It's relentless, almost as if it would be sacrilege to say that a Mac is just as good or just as cheap as PCs out there. But just like the media always pointed out higher hertz ratings for PCs while ignoring the fact that Apple's processors are more efficient at lower hertz speeds, everyone is now comparing the discounted PCs with the Mac Mini based upon price alone--completely ignoring the fact that the PCs in question are stripped bare and have hidden costs to boot.

MinimacdellThis article in MacWorld does a good job of bursting that particular illusion. It would be hard for PC advocates to defend the favorable-to-PC comparisons based upon the idea that however stripped of features, they are still cheaper, because every article I have seen mentions, without fail, that the cheaper PCs come with a Monitor, mouse and keyboard, which the Mac Mini lacks. Well, if being stripped of features is OK on the PC, then why go out of your way to point out the features stripped from the Mac as a downside?

What is not mentioned in the articles you read is that the Mac comes with a dedicated graphics chip, a Combo optical drive, a firewire port, a one-year warranty (as opposed to a 90-day warranty), and a far superior software suite, nor do they usually point out that this machine is targeted at people who already own a monitor, keyboard and mouse, meaning that it will not be an added cost for most people. Nor do they mention that the Mac does not need antivirus software, though the PC does--tack on another $62 at least for that to the price of the Windows machine, almost the same cost as a monitor, keyboard and mouse for the Mac. Add the CD-R/RW and DVD optical drive and burning software to the PC and the price goes up about $100, bringing it right up to the price of the Mac Mini--and you're still missing many features the Mac has built-in. And let's not forget that the low PC prices are almost always arrived at through mail-in rebates, which require you to jump through hoops and cough up private information to advertisers in order to get the chance to wait months to get a rebate check in the mail.

And then there's the small detail that the PC is a monster tower, and the Mac Mini is arguably the first truly portable desktop computer, and is a hell of a lot nicer-looking to boot. The PC is 14.5" tall, 7.25" wide, and 16.75" deep; the Mac Mini is 2" tall, and 6.5" wide and deep. The Mac Mini weighs just 3 pounds; the Dell weighs 23 pounds. In addition to everything else, you get compactness and style. That may not sound like too much, but look at the illustration above right: that's what the two computers look like, side by side. Tell me that you prefer the look of the computer on the left, or that it would sit better on your crowded desk.

Posted by Luis at 12:56 AM | Comments (3)

January 10, 2005

...When It Works

Haven't been able to get anything done, including blogging, for the past 24 hours, because KDDI crapped out on me. If I hadn't complained loudly, they would've kept me hanging another one or two days, but I did insist and so they sent someone over a day after the outage started. And it's not just the Internet, it's also my landline telephone line. Apparently their "portability" between the lines is not even close to being as seamless and easy as they made it out to be when they were selling it.

Since mid-afternoon, I've had 5- or 10-minute islands of Internet workability, this being the latest--and if the KDDI guy, who spent an hour traipsing around my apartment opening up every phone jack panel and cutting a few internal lines, knows more than he's letting on, then maybe it'll actually stay on--but I'm not holding my breath. As it is, I've lost a lot of work time--and my phone line is still dead, and may be for another three or four days.

So far, I'm not incredibly impressed with the stability of the service, even though the speed is killer when it does work....

Posted by Luis at 07:42 PM | Comments (0)

January 09, 2005

Yowza--This F/O Is Fast

One piece of evidence that the new fiber optic Internet connection I just got is indeed blazing: I tested large downloads from big-name sites, both Apple and Microsoft, and got the following measure:

Windl1

The download was about 300 MB and took a little more than 100 seconds--almost 3 MB per second, or 24 Mbps. Not too shabby at all. Unfortunately, not everyone has such a high-speed upload connection, meaning that while I can potentially get 45 Mbps, I really won't, unless I download simultaneously from several sources--something which does not often happen. But it's nice to have the speed. For example, movie trailers from Apple's site come down about 3 or 4 times faster than I can watch them.

And the difference, the contrast between now and 4 years ago when I was limited to ISDN at 64 Kbps, feeling lucky if I was getting a download at 6 KB/sec, and now getting nearly 500 times that speed in a real-world test...

What, am I crowing too much?

Posted by Luis at 11:43 AM | Comments (0)

January 03, 2005

Cassini at Iapetus

One of my favorite moons in the solar system is Iapetus, and the Cassini probe just made its closest flyby of the moon a few days ago, at the end of 2004. Iapetus is an alluring moon because of a fascinating surface feature: an incredibly high-contrast swath of blackened material over much of its surface. Look at the first image here: it looks like you are looking at the shadow side of the moon, but that is a full-on bright side view; the "shadowed" areas are the dark swath I mentioned.

Iapetus2

Other features show themselves at this distance as well: note three very large impact craters, the largest located on the left edge. Also note a ridge on the middle right that leads to a small visible rise on the limb of the moon (see below). There will be some talk about whether the ridge is related to the dark material, which is as black as coal.

Iapetus5

The contrast can be seen even better in this time-lapse image, taken of the dark side of the moon, brightened by the light side of Saturn.

Iapetus3

There is also this image of one of the large craters, caught very nicely in light and shadow.

Iapetus4

Cassini also just released the Huygens probe, a package that will, in ten days, fly into the atmosphere of Titan (the largest moon in the solar system, and the only one with an atmosphere) and perhaps give us some astounding data of the satellite close-up.

So far, NASA has been just stellar this year, with the energizer-bunny Mars rovers (images all available here) which have so far outlasted their 90-day lifetimes by nine months, and now the Cassini probe doing so spectacularly well, imaging the Saturn system. We need to hear more praise for this government-agency-that-could.

The Cassini probe can be followed at CICLOPS (more of a diary of events) or at the European Space Agency, but the best page is at NASA, with a great image library, including the latest, unprocessed raw images (which NASA has been publishing from all its missions) in a searchable database. Cool.

Posted by Luis at 07:22 AM | Comments (0)

January 02, 2005

Phishing

My father just got his first phishing email. "Phishing" is a "leet" word, intentionally spelled wrong in the fashion of "warez" (illegally copied software), "n00b," (newbie), or "h4x" (hacks). "Leet" is short for "elite," a kind of hacker's written slang, invented in the late 80's probably to allow hackers on BBS or chat areas to talk about illicit deeds while avoiding text filters. Phishing is certainly an illicit activity, and fits into that category nicely.

Phishing is when someone sends out massive emailings designed to get unknowing victims to cough up vital information, like bank account numbers and passwords. The email is often easily spotted as fake, but if a scammer sends out a million emails, they're bound to get several bites, ergo the reference to fishing.

Today's phishing scams are centered on bank accounts primarily (though eBay and PayPal are hit quite often as well). You get an email from a bank; sometimes you belong to it, sometimes not, it's all part of the fishing experience. Let's say you're a customer of the bank, for this example. The email looks very official, and appears to come from a valid address with the bank's domain name (e.g., users-billing21@citibank.com). It may or may not contain the bank's logo and other official-looking graphics. The email is written in a professional-looking way, and it contains an alarming message: your account at the banks is going to be suspended. Now, nobody wants that! The concern that such a thing might happen will drive a lot of people to give respect to the email.

The reason given for account closure is usually that someone has been trying to access your account with an incorrect password, and in order to ensure security, they will suspend your account--unless, of course, you go to the bank's web site and verify your logon information. Now, the link is the tricky part. Usually they will display a link that looks quite official--again, with the bank's domain name. Here's where the slight of hand comes in, and they hope you won't be looking all too carefully.

Now, when you are presented with a link, there are two parts to it: the link text that is displayed to you, and the actual address which it links to. With a link as part of an email message, you might view it in a browser or in an email program. In the browser, the link is supposed to be more transparent; as you hold the cursor over the link, the address it links to should appear in the status bar (the strip at the bottom of the browser's window). Here, let's try it. Hold the cursor over this link: http://www.cnn.com . Note that the URL in your status bar at bottom left is not the same as the one displayed in the link. That's because the displayed link can be anything you want. The same is true in your email program, like Eudora, except that the link is even more opaque because the actual link is usually not displayed in a status bar or elsewhere; you click on the link, and it just takes you there.

The reason I'm telling you about the status bar in browsers and the real link is not just to demonstrate how you can be faked out, but also because that's a good thing to look at in browsers before following a link. You can be faked out. You should not just jump willy-nilly into any link thrown at you, especially in email, where spammers may have given it to you. Not only could it lead to a fake site, but it could also include a code that clearly identifies you as being the visitor. But that's another scam, so let's get back to the phishing.

So you get the email, apparently from the bank, telling you your account will be suspended, and to stop that follow this link. On the face of it, the link will appear to be one that goes to the bank's domain, or will just be a link saying, "To confirm your bank account records please click here." The thing is, if you follow the link, it will not take you to the bank's web site, it will take you to the scammer's web site, which is reconstructed to appear identical to the bank's page, using graphics stolen from that page, and to a great degree is completely stolen from the bank's site, so as to fool you into thinking you're at the bank's site.

There is a telltale, though: look in the URL window at the top of your browser window. When following a phishing link, you should see an address that looks like this: http://218.65.110.11/suntrust/internetbanking/ (though be careful--one of the security holes you hear about in Explorer allows hackers to fake even this). Note that it begins not with a domain, but with a number. That's an IP Address, which is the same to your browser as a domain name. But to you it's a number, and as such is nondescript and anonymous. That's what the scammers want--they want you not to know where you really are. That number I gave you--218.65.110.11--was the IP address of a real scammer who recently phished for me. That wasn't the address for the Sun Trust Bank, it was the address of the computer where the phisher was lurking.

So if I had gone to that page and input my user ID and password, I would have gotten an error message. And in the time it would have taken me to call the bank and ask what was wrong with their page, the scammer would already have gotten into my real account, changed the password, and done his best to empty it of all my money. What the scammer would really love is that after you get the error message, you simply give up and not look into any of this for a while. But they wouldn't need long. They tend to scram pretty fast--most links to phishers' fake bank pages go offline very quickly.

So don't trust any message like that, if for no other reason that banks never send emails like that. The only time banks will send you email is if you send them an email query first, and even then, they will address you directly by name (phishers don't do that), and they don't respond with a detailed message, just with a note to go to their main home page (they do not even give you a link, just tell you to go to their honest domain).

So the simple solution is not to trust any email message that claims to be from a bank. Beyond that, don't trust any official-looking email that does not address you direct by name; don't try to communicate with banks by email; and for that matter, don't trust any email that has to do with financial institutions at all. And never enter a financial web site through a link--type in the domain name directly.

Posted by Luis at 02:45 AM | Comments (0)

September 19, 2004

How To Be a Professional Couch Potato

I recently purchased of the Toshiba RD-XS53, the TiVo-like HDD/DVD recorder, and am quite satisfied with how it's turning out. After a steep initial learning curve, I got it all programmed and am now training myself through the various procedures, which are lengthy--the thing has countless options, which can be both good and bad. If you're not interested in techy, gadget-oriented home video kind of stuff, you may want to go on to the next post. Otherwise:

Essentially, this is like a TiVo or ReplayTV machine, but with added features. Like other DVRs, it records video on a hard disk in the MPEG-2 format (the same as on DVDs). Because it's digital, it can then be manipulated in a variety of ways.

There are a variety of Toshiba machines that do similar things, but the RD-XS53 is the only one that has the ability to work with SkyPerfecTV. Although that connection is limited to turning the tuner on and off and changing channels, that's really all you need, at least right away. The SkyP connectivity is important if you're living in Japan and want to record a good amount of English-language video. Unless your local cable has a good selection of channels and its tuner can work with a DVR box, the SkyP-Toshiba combo is probably best. The machine can also get the "BS" satellite feed as well, and of course can record off of local broadcast stations. You can also record any video input, like from a DVD player, a VCR, a video camera (there is a Firewire/iLink port for digital video cameras) or from the video-out on a PC. Want to make a DVD of a demonstration on your computer? This will let you do it.

Also, the RD-XS53 (at least in Japan) has a whopping 320 GB of hard drive space, allowing for up to 570 hours of recording at the lowest quality setting--144 hours at "high." That's more than enough to have a great deal of video saved up before archiving is necessary--and that's where the DVD recorder comes in handy; more on that later. The large hard drive also allows you to record all your shows while you're on vacation, and it even claims (though I have yet to come close to figuring it out) that you can set programming by remote control using your cell phone, sending a text message with coded instructions that the machine will receive via the Internet connection.

The RD-XS53 does fall short in a few areas, such as ease-of-use, as evidenced that sharp learning curve I mentioned. There are four different main special activity areas, dozens of preferences screens, and so many menus that I can't count them. And not all processes are easily performed; deleting commercial breaks, for example, requires you to go to the editing area, going through a process of determining "chapters," and then going back to the recorded-shows area, and deleting the vaguely-titled chapters one by one, each time having to navigate back to the recorded-video area. Another problem not really Toshiba's fault is the inability to record "bilingual" shows in English on Fox or Disney channels--they have a unique bilingual mode which must be set by hand each time.

But if you can put up with little stuff like that, there is a lot of compensation. You can access an Internet-based program schedule with the next week of programming included, with search options available. You can surf the programming schedule area, up and down for channels, left and right for times, with all the available broadcasts shown on the grid. Unfortunately, it's all in Japanese (if you can't read at least Katakana, then you shouldn't get this), though the SkyP box can show you the same grid in English for reference if you want. The programming has to be done on the Toshiba, though.

Once you find a show, you can reserve it for automatic recording. You're given the flexibility to change the exact time it starts and ends, which days it will record the show (every Tuesday, or every Monday-Saturday, for example); you can set the recording quality exactly on a 1-9 scale or use presets, and you can direct the recorder to save the show in a specific folder. Unlike most VCRs, which only allow 8 programmed recording times, this machine can keep a large number of pre-set recordings. I don't know if there's a limit--I have 21 set at present.

The machine also has two tuners/encoders, so it can record two shows at the same time--though only if they are on different inputs. For example, you could record two shows simultaneously if one is on SkyP and the other is on local antenna, but you can't do that if both shows are coming from SkyP.

Like most DVRs, this one has "Timeslip," which allows you to "pause" live TV. This comes from the ability to both watch and record at the same time. When you hit "Timeslip," the DVR starts recording the show on the hard disk, and at the same time plays back the file it is recording, but pauses it at the start. The show can keep on recording for as many hours as you like, and you can come back any time and then play the recording from the beginning, going forward or "rewinding" or pausing or skipping around to your heart's content, until you "catch up" with the live picture.

My father uses this on his ReplayTV to avoid endless commercials in football games. He sets the Timeslip, then keeps it on pause and does something else for half an hour. Then he comes back and watches the part of the game that was just recorded (as the recording continues), skipping through commercials until he catches up with the live game. Then when a live commercial rears its ugly head, he pauses and goes away for a half hour again so he can come back and skip through the commercials again. But this feature is handy in other ways, too--have you ever been settling down to watch your favorite show and the phone rings? Just pause it, and pick up where you left off.

While the file system is a bit clunky on the TV display, because this machine connects to your computer network (in order to download the programming information) it is also visible from your PC. The Toshiba people did a pretty good job of creating a browser control interface for the machine. Just find out which IP Address the machine was designated (e.g., 192.168.0.5) and type it into the browser's address box, and you get the machine's control interface. You can program recordings, create and title folders, see the recorded show titles and view and alter their information (titles, show info, assign chapter titles, etc.)--and most handy, you can author DVD titles and menus.

For example, I recorded Groundhog Day as a test. On the RD-XS53 directly, I then cut off the excess recording before the start and after the end so it was just the movie. Then I broke it into chapters, like on a DVD, and for each one set the thumbnail image. Then I went into the browser interface and viewed the thumbnails, giving each a title (it is so much nicer to type that than to use the cell-phone-like remote control typing feature). Then, also on the computer, I searched the Internet for a nice photo from the movie. I found a few, patched them together in Photoshop, and saved it as a BMP image, which I could them export to the RD-XS53. Also using the browser controls, I set the exact color scheme for the titles, then went back to the RD-XS53 and went through the DVD authoring process. After recording the DVD, I had the equivalent of a commercial DVD of the movie, with menus like this:

Granted, it's a bit of a chore, especially at first, but if you don't mind it or even enjoy it, you can build a pretty nice library on your own.

The DVD recording features are very nice--with them, you can archive any number of shows or movies. It is still a little pricey--the cheapest brand-name DVD-Rs I can find are ¥150 ($1.35) apiece. In high-quality mode, you could save three episodes of a one-hour TV show on one DVD, costing perhaps ¥1200 (about $11) for one season--but considering the $40 ~ $130 cost of these seasons on commercial DVD, this is an acceptable price. Record enough stuff like this and the machine pays for itself, in a way. The RD-XS53 can also record on DVD-RW or DVD-RAM media, for those of you who don't keep permanent copies of your recordings (I usually do, so I stick with the cheaper DVD-Rs).

There are a lot more features, some too insignificant to explain, others I haven't discovered or figured out yet. But as you can tell from the length of this post, I am sort of getting into it. One thing I'll admit, it's not gonna be good for my health; I am turning into a veteran couch potato!

Posted by Luis at 04:00 PM | Comments (2)

August 02, 2004

Stop Election Fraud

"It's election night, and early returns suggest trouble for the incumbent. Then, mysteriously, the vote count stops and observers from the challenger's campaign see employees of a voting-machine company, one wearing a badge that identifies him as a county official, typing instructions at computers with access to the vote-tabulating software.

"When the count resumes, the incumbent pulls ahead. The challenger demands an investigation. But there are no ballots to recount, and election officials allied with the incumbent refuse to release data that could shed light on whether there was tampering with the electronic records."

That's the beginning of Paul Krugman's most recent article in the New York Times, describing his view of the perils of voting machines. This article in The Nation has even more disturbing information on how your vote could be changed, erased, or outnumbered by false votes with frightening ease.

Ironically, the vote fraud in the 2000 election--particularly in Florida--was supposed to bring about reform, but instead has thrown open the doors far wider to fraud under the "cure" of electronic voting. Pitched to the public as a way to make voting easier to understand so that the "butterfly ballot" fiasco in Florida would not happen again, the machines being set up as we speak do indeed solve that problem--but they open an even more dangerous threat to accurate counts: no means of verification. At least the votes in Florida could have been recounted had the Supreme Court not shut down the definitive count. But with computer ballots, it'll only be the malleable, easily-tampered-with electronic number, and if anyone doubts its veracity, there will be no recount. Because it won't be possible.

Here's how it might work. You go to vote. You and so many others in your area leave your votes on the voting machine, which shows you verification only on a monitor; when you leave the booth, the monitor is wiped. You get recorded as having voted--but there's no physical record of the vote. It's all ones and zeroes on the machine. It might be that a bit later, a representative of the company that makes the machines (a company whose owner is a Bush campaign manager, no less) comes up to that machine, and as Krugman described, starts fiddling with it--and presto, votes are changed. Fraud you call--but can you prove it? Not a chance. Another form of fraud might be even harder to spot. The software which runs the machines could be tampered with beforehand, completely out of your site. It could be set to do anything, such as to count votes for one candidate double and for the other candidate half--or just completely make up numbers based on whatever scheme the programmer wishes. If the computer is programmed the right way, all evidence of fraudulent programming could erase itself afterwards.

And those committing the fraud can just deny it, as it will be near impossible to prove, and if they are caught, they can just call it an honest error. Think they could never do that? Just look at Florida. In not one, but two presidential elections, a list of voters to be removed from the voter rolls was fraudulently compiled by the Republican administration in that state, both times flagrant, both times proven as dishonest--and both times called an "honest mistake" and no one was prosecuted. That's a case where something a lot more blatant than electronic voter fraud was committed, and not only did they get away scot free, they tried it twice and still no one is being prosecuted! Why not? Because the party in power is the one doing the fraud, and the party in power has the attorney general who gets to decide what crimes will be prosecuted.

This coming November, if nothing is done to stop them, up to 2 million votes will be counted on these machines and will automatically be suspect. What happens if the e-votes suspiciously tilt towards Bush, who wins by a small margin? Will there be proof? Nope. No paper trail. Even if fraud is proven beyond any doubt whatsoever, will the results be thrown out and a new election held? Of course not. The constitution did not provide for this, and mandates a decision within a certain time frame. So even if we know Bush did not win and there was massive fraud, once again we will likely throw up our hands and in the name of stability and avoiding a constitutional crisis, we will again agree to let a man who was not elected take office and power for another four years.

But you can stop that. Call your local election official. Ask if electronic voting machines will be used. And if they say "yes," then get off your ass and find out how the votes will be verified. The only system that can work is that with independent paper verification. In other words, when the voter casts his or her vote, not only does the vote register in the machine, but a slip of paper prints out with the voter's choices on it, and that vote is both checked by the voter for accuracy, and is given to the official in charge and kept in case a recount is called for.

Anything less, and you should immediately take action to remove ALL electronic voting in your district. You have to act, though--just reading about it or talking about it will not accomplish anything; if there is fraud, the other side will simply say that you did not object in any official manner, and you'll be screwed. So do it, and contact people you know in other areas and have them do it.

Do it NOW.

I'm not kidding.

Posted by Luis at 03:32 AM | Comments (1)

July 31, 2004

DNC Speeches at Apple iTunes Music Store

Kudos once again to Mark at VuDeja for a brilliant heads-up:

The DNC Speeches are available as audio books, for free, downloadable from the Apple Store. Way Cool. At this moment, only the first two days' speeches are there; expect the third and fourth to appear soon.

You have to have an account at the store, which means you need a credit card with a U.S. (or European now, I suppose) billing address. There's no cost to sign up, you just have to register the credit card number. Then you can download the volumes for free. Apple also gives away one free track of music each week, BTW.

Posted by Luis at 07:57 AM | Comments (0)

July 22, 2004

Photoshop Resource

Many of you Photoshoppers likely know about this already, but many perhaps do not--I did not, until many years into playing around with the premier photo-editing program. It's already fun to play with just as it is, but a lot of people have put a lot of work into creating special effects which you can enjoy for free. Just go to Adobe's home page and head over the the Adobe Studio Exchange. There are tons of freeware effects for a variety of Adobe software; below are some examples of "styles" for Photoshop I've been sampling. Some very cool stuff there. Again, it's free, but you have to register before you can download anything--but once you get started, it's hard to stop!

FYI, after you download a style resource (with the filename extension ".asl"), to install it, you first open Photoshop, bring up the "Styles" palette, click on the arrow menu in the upper right corner of the palette, and choose "Load Styles...". Then navigate to the .asl file you downloaded, and click "Load." The new style(s) in that package will appear at the bottom of the styles list. You can apply a style to an object in a layer above the background layer (such as a shape, filled outline, or text). Just select the target layer and then click on the desired style. If you want to get rid of a style you don't like, then just right-click (or control-click for one-button-mouse Mac users) on the style button and choose "delete style." The above sampler shows a different style for each letter.

My apologies for not getting the Fahrenheit 9/11 review up yet; that will (hopefully) be up by tomorrow sometime. This semester, Tuesday through Thursday is where my work is concentrated, and I have the least free time.

Posted by Luis at 11:22 PM | Comments (0)

June 27, 2004

Bug Me Not

Tired of having to fill out forms, sometimes with very personal data, every time you want to read a newspaper article? Having to go through the process of checking your email, activating your account, then having the newspaper sell your info to spammers so your email box can get even more clogged up? These signup pages are appearing everywhere, and each news service has a different one, so you wind up having to subscribe to dozens of different sites--or, like me, just a few (LA TImes, Chicago Trib, NYT), and then just give up and ignore the others.

Try Bug Me Not, a web site designed to help you get past those signup pages. Go to the site, type in the URL of the newspaper you can't get into, and they give you a login name and password to get into the site. Extensions for Mozilla/Firefox are available, allowing you to right-click on a subscription page and be given a name and password immediately in a pop-up box.

Posted by Luis at 07:54 PM | Comments (0)

June 14, 2004

TIME for Blogs

If you are at all interested in the blogging news and culture, you'll want to read this story in TIME Magazine about the history and influence of the newest media.

Bloggers are unconstrained by such journalistic conventions as good taste, accountability and objectivity — and that can be a good thing. Accusations of media bias are thick on the ground these days, and Americans are tired of it. Blogs don't pretend to be neutral: they're gleefully, unabashedly biased, and that makes them a lot more fun.
But what's this about not giving Wil Wheaton a nod?

Posted by Luis at 07:18 PM | Comments (3)

June 13, 2004

I Hate Flash

Sorry, but I do. And no, I don't mean Flash Gordon, or Flash Photography. Flash, for those of you who are not familiar with the name, is the technology by Macromedia that allows advanced animation with interactive/link properties to be displayed on web pages. True, Flash done right can be incredibly cool. The problem is, it is incredibly annoying most of the time, and sometimes can crash your browser--and more often than not it is completely unnecessary.

It reminds me of the early days of the World Wide Web, the days of the first Mosaic browser and the first versions of Netscape, when there was far less capability to browsers. There was one hypertext command, BLINK, which made the chosen text blink on and off. Many used it because it was new and fun, and "hey, I can make the text blink!!" However, it became maddeningly annoying very quickly, and it is rarely used any more. Animated GIFs became the new BLINK, and everyone started putting cute little animations everywhere--prompting the makers of browsers to include a browser option to stop them from doing their thing.

But now, the new BLINK is Flash. In 99% of all cases as I see it, Flash is utterly unnecessary, used solely in a vain attempt to make the web site look cool. Some web site are Flash-only, meaning if you don't have Flash, then don't bother visiting. Good web designers have Flash- and No-Flash versions of their pages. Better web designers know when not to use Flash at all.

Worst of all, many ads today are Flash-based. Meaning that if I visit a web site, I cannot read it because all those damned ads along the sides are constantly distracting me. And though a few browsers claim they can disable plug-ins (Flash is installed as a 'plug-in'), Flash still persists. I've tried a couple of plug-ins that claim to be able to disable Flash easily, but so far, none actually work for me. So I've devised a kludge--I found the Mac OS X plug-in for Flash ("Shockwave Flash NP-PPC" in the Internet Plug-ins folder in the main Library), and removed it to another folder. Whenever I need Flash, I plop it into the needed folder, reload the web page and it works; when I'm finished, I get rid of the plug-in. Inelegant, but at least it works.

Still, Flash is a major annoyance, IMHO. Even with a less kludgy way of disabling it, it should be used sparingly by web page designers.

Posted by Luis at 07:10 PM | Comments (8)

Just Got Invited

I just got invited to GMail (Google's new free email service which offers 1 Gigabyte of storage space) by a family member, and am trying the service out. When you choose a user name, you are restricted to six letters or more--a bummer for me, I was hoping to get blogd@gmail.com, but no such luck--and I don't like names followed by numbers, like blogd1. But I can understand their reasons: dictionary spam.

Sometimes spammers just flood services like Yahoo or Hotmail with spam addressed to every conceivable email address, starting with aaaa@yahoo.com and ending with zzzz@yahoo.com. Limiting the addresses to names and numbers, that's 1,679,616 combinations with four-character email addresses, and 60,466,176 with five characters. That's maybe doable for some spammers, especially if they limit five-character addresses to ones that follow certain spelling rules. But six-character email addresses present more than two billion possible combinations, far too many for dictionary spam to handle without severe restrictions. Which is likely why Google made the limitation.

The sign-up process was pretty easy (though there are several terms and policy pages to scan), and then you get your account. It's highly functional, but also very spartan--makes Yahoo and Hotmail seem hopelessly cluttered. You get an address book which activates by typing the first letter(s) of a name in your contacts list--for example, just type in the letters "bl" and if "blogd@gmail.com" exists in my contacts list, it appears below the "To:" box; just hit "Enter" and the address types itself out. Nicely done. GMail also has a spell-checker.

Attaching files is no problem, either--a few simple clicks and you can browse your hard drive for files to attach. Photos attached in this way show up inline in the recipient's email (at least it did when I emailed myself in an account I check with Eudora). And web site URLs automatically become links, though they do not appear that way when you compose the email. Each email is limited to 10 MB in size--more than enough even for sending a small batch of unedited digital camera photos. GMail also will refuse to send "executable" files (programs, ending with .exe) for understandable reasons (viruses).

GMail also gives you nine months of dormancy before they delete your account and recycle your address. Yahoo gives you four months before your account becomes dormant, and although their wording is not clear, it appears that you have another four months to ask for your account back before they delete it. Hotmail is far more strict--no access in 30 days and they wipe your account, deleting everything in it; you are given another 90 days to reclaim the address.

Right now, since GMail is in its beta period, you can't just sign up for an account--you have to be invited by someone else who is already a member. You don't get to invite someone right away, though. From what my sister told me, a link appears after a few days which allows you to invite three other people to join GMail. According to GMail's help page on the topic, you are "periodically" allowed to invite people, but "once you have used all of those invitations, we will not be able to immediately issue more invitations." The wording seems to indicate that you are not always given three invites.

Like Yahoo, GMail will eventually offer POP3 access (so you can check your GMail account using a program like Eudora or Outlook), but it will be fee-based. Reasonable, since the ads they show are what generate the revenue, and POP3 email would at least minimalize the impact of the ads.

Finally, there are the contextual ads--the real revenue driver for GMail. When you sign up for an account, you have to agree to GMail's scanning your email--though it is software-only, real people won't be rifling your email--in order to find out what you're saying, so they can target you with ads specific to your writing. Apparently, they don't let more obnoxious spam through--my sister said that for fun, she and her husband tried emailing each other about porn sites, sexual aids and mortgage payments, and none of that got reflected in the ads they saw.

There are some who fear the possible abuses of the contextual ads, like this story which supposes an anti-gay group buying GMail ads targeted at gay people; when people follow the links, their IP address is revealed and the group can perhaps find out who they are and add them to 'hit lists.' Frankly, I don't see this as a problem--for one thing, I don't think it would be quite that easy to identify many people just from IP addresses, but more to the point, the same result could be gained much more cheaply by simply creating faux-gay web sites and getting their search-engine listings high up. And as for GMail scanning my email content, I'm not too worried about that either in terms of privacy as all email is far less than private. You use any email service, you should treat it like a postcard, and expect that strangers will read it.

Posted by Luis at 04:11 PM | Comments (4)

May 12, 2004

Googling

Google has for some time been my favorite search engine, as it has been for a lot of people. It also helps this blog out quite a bit, being the chief referrer among all the search engines; last month, for example, Google sent 1214 people to my site, as opposed to 589 from Yahoo, 375 from MSN, and 48 from AOL.

In addition, Google seems to have a much more human face. Just a few days ago, they started a Google Blog, which discusses Google and other search engine issues in a straightforward, personal style (even comical sometimes--their advice for young people who want to clean up their blogs for Mom-viewing sagely suggests using "more Mom-friendly vocabulary," e.g. "I got really drunk last night" to "I got really marshmallow last night.") Another example is that, as an expected artifact of linking to all content--even offensive content--searches for the word "Jew" resulted in links to a great many anti-Semitic and supremacist web sites; Google has made very public an explanation and apology that tells why this happens and how to avoid such results.

Google also has some good secondary services, including Blogger, which allows anyone to make their own blog for free. It is actually very, very good. It only takes a minute or two to set up, and there you go. It allows access with the excellent Mac blogging app "Ecto" (wBloggar on Windows also will work). Photos cannot be uploaded, but can be added to the blog if they exist elsewhere on the web. You are given the choice of 25 design templates (with a link to more), and are given access to the HTML template so you can make custom changes. It also allows for comments, RSS feed, and a fair amount of customization through the site settings. The downsides are no categories, a banner ad at the top ("Ads by Google," so not too obnoxious), and no direct stats (although they do point you to sitemeter.com). Blogger's BlogSpot Plus service allows for photo uploads, statistics and more, but they are presently not accepting new accounts for that service.

Google also is starting a new service--not yet widely available--called "G-Mail," a free web-based email service like Hotmail or Yahoo, but with a full gigabyte of mailbox space. Google gets its money back by adding their less-than-intrusive text ads.

Posted by Luis at 05:45 PM | Comments (2)

Listening to Air America Radio: Archives

The long-promised Air America Radio archives are still not up and running (no reason given as to why and no hint as to when they will be). Fortunately, other people are more on the ball. Here are the archive sites I have found so far:

Air America Place

  • All shows since the beginning, listed by date, with guest information; MP3 format
  • Free registration required; allows access to a post with a username and password and links to the password-protected archive with the shows.
  • Great bandwidth--I got speeds up to 192.8 KB/sec.
Ogg Vorbis Archive
  • Last one week of programming in one-hour chunks
  • All spots in Ogg Vorbis audio format only (will play OK on Windows, may need software added to play on a Mac).
The Randi Rhodes Archive
  • Last two weeks' programming for this show only; MP3 format
  • Individual interviews from the show dating back to well before the show moved to Air America.

If you want to listen to the show live, here is a URL which will activate a Real Player live stream.

Posted by Luis at 04:25 PM | Comments (0)

May 02, 2004

Viruses, Scams and Spam

Has anyone else out there been getting hammered with viral emails lately? I hardly ever used to get them, and then with the advent of the MyDoom virus, I got loads and loads of emails pretending to be mail-transaction-failed and message-sent-as-binary-attachment fake-outs. That lasted from late January to the end of February. Then some came in a flurry from late March to early April, then a few every week or so.

But now they're coming hot and heavy again, three or four a day. Many come with the false disclaimer of "+++ Attachment: No Virus found," as if they'd been checked already. I don't know, maybe that's fooling some people. But my guess is that these fakes are becoming the new Nigeria emails, in that everyone has gotten so many that only newbies could be caught by them.

Speaking of Nigeria, I rarely get any now--in my main account. But I've been getting interesting results from my spam experimentation for my Computer class next semester. I knew, for example, that posting your email address on a web page would get you picked up by the spammers--but not to the degree that I'm seeing. I put up a phony email address (a throwaway account) on my blog site's main page--the address being invisible to the eye, but existing as text as part of the page. Sure enough, a few days later, I start getting spam--and it has been quickly accelerating. It's been two weeks now, and the account has gathered 33 spams. What's interesting is that fully 1/3 are not standard spams, but Nigeria "419" scam letters, fake lottery emails, and a virus posing as a love letter (complete with a photo).

Just as interesting is the ratio--fully 25% of all the emails to the account are Nigerian scams ("To show my preparedness and appreciation to conduct this business with you,I shall give you 20% of the total funds and 5% commission on any profit that we might realise in the process of investing the funds"). I did not expect the ratio to be so high, and in fact had thought the Nigerian thing had more or less died because of how much a joke it has become. But it seems that they have simply moved on to other pastures. Still, it is amusing to get emails offering me millions of dollars because they "got your contact from an email directory" just a few weeks after I made up the email address and hid it on my web site. Or that I was entered into a lottery "held on the 23th March 2004" with my "email address attached to the ticket number" when I created the email address in April. Now that's an amazing lottery!

What has been most surprising, however, is the complete lack of spam from the opt-out sites. I entered a fake address into no fewer than 26 opt-out directories for major spam sites--and not a single email has come back. I'm almost disappointed, but if this comes through, I might even take the dive and enter my real email address into them, and see if they actually do stop sending me spam. Wouldn't that be a kick in the rear?

Posted by Luis at 11:37 PM | Comments (3)