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October 30th, 2008

Deep Thought Of The Day…

Isn’t it…interesting…how we’re suddenly seeing all these stories in the IT press about how Wonderful Windows Vista version 2…er…Windows version 7…will be.  I mean…since it’s not going to be released for another year and a half yet at least.  They don’t even have a beta candidate yet, let alone a product that reviewers can try, and already it’s…So Wonderful!

Vaporware, I believe they call it…

In other cases, vaporware may be announced by companies in order to damage the development or marketability of more real products by competitors, sometimes in combination with a campaign of fear, uncertainty and doubt; if customers believe the hype, they may put off purchasing the real product to wait for its vaporous rival to mature.

And who knows…they might even be able to get away with it one more time.  Especially if Steve Jobs keeps jerking around Apple third party developers.  On the other hand…  DOT-NET.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Deep Thought Of The Day…

October 28th, 2008

The Amazing Wonderful Reinvention Of The Telephone…And Its Discontents…

So…I’m switching back to my little Sony Clie’.  For the PIM functionality.  For now anyway…

The iPhone is nice…don’t get me wrong.  It’s a great phone, even if AT&T isn’t a great carrier…(Hi Tico!).   And its touchscreen interface is a work of engineering art.  Absolutely magnificent.  But Apple seems to be completely clueless when it comes to Personal Information Management software, and why it’s an important part of a ‘smartphone’

  • Fifteen months after the iPhone was first introduced and we Still don’t have notepad synchronization.  This is pathetic.  You see complaints about this all over the web and yet Apple seems completely indifferent.  This should have been a no-brainer.  A No Brainer.  But it looks like not only will we not get note synchronization any time soon, but when we do only Leopard users will have it.  On the other hand.  I can sync my Palm notes on my Macs, my Windows boxes (were I to still be using them regularly) and on Linux via any of several methods.  kPilot and jPilot seem to work very well, though setting them up is, Linux like, only easy if you don’t mind dinking around in /dev.
  • No native ToDo lists.  Let alone ToDo list synchronization.  Yes…you can get third party ToDo apps.  But Apple’s insistence on keeping third party apps away from the sync mechanism means you can’t sync third party ToDo lists (or third party notepads) directly to your computer.
  • Security:  In the Palm you can apply different security levels to individual records in the contact list, the calendar, the notepad and the ToDo list.  This means you don’t have to lock down the entire device, just individual records according to their sensitivity.  A record can be password protected and additionally it can be hidden, which means it doesn’t even show up in the list until you unhide it.  What this meant was, when I was using my Kyocera Smart Phone (which was a Palm device) I didn’t have to lock the phone.  Which meant that whenever I wanted to use it I just flipped it open.  I could use the phone or access any of my unsecured Palm data instantly, without having to key in a password.  But the iPhone won’t let me do that.  It’s security is either all or nothing.  So I have to lock down the entire goddamned phone so my senstive information is kept secure.  Which means every time I want to use the phone I have to enter my password and unlock it, even if all I want to do is make a phone call.
  • Categories.  In the Palm I can assign contacts and other data to various categories for sorting purposes.  Can’t do that in Apple’s simplistic contact manager.  The Apple calendar application now allows you to choose between a ‘work’ calendar and a ‘home’ calendar.  Whee!
  • Cut and Paste.  Palm’s had it since forever.  The iPhone still doesn’t.  Wait…what..?
  • vCards.  The iPhone doesn’t.  People’s jaws still drop when I tell them this.  Amazingly…idiotically…Apple’s MacOS contact manager app does vCards nicely.  So why the hell doesn’t the iPhone? 

My little Sony Clie’ is five year old technology and it runs rings around the iPhone when it comes to basic PIM fucntionality.  There are additionally dozens of little annoyances to the iPhone that are unique to it, and which have not been fixed since its introduction.  Crap like applications that don’t switch into landscape mode although they logically should.  The damn quirky touch-keyboard would be a lot easier to use if it existed in landscape mode more often.  I’ll say this though, fumble-fingering with the iPhone’s touch keyboard has actually made me a hell of a lot faster with the Palm’s stylus keyboard.  I’m still no better then I ever was with Palm’s own quirky ‘graffiti’ text entry…but I’m lot’s better with the stylus now.  Tons better.  It’s like my fingers have achieved a whole new level of dexterity. 

Where the iPhone excels and the Palm doesn’t is as an entertainment device.  But that’s largely because of it’s third party apps.  I have the Pandora app loaded on my iPhone and it is a joy.  I’d never really cared to use the iPhone as a music player until I put Pandora on it.  My iPod is a third generation one with no wireless connectivity.  I often have it on my belt though, because it can hold my entire digital music library and the iPhone can’t.  But with Pandora for the iPhone I can listen to my Pandora stations while working around the house or at work.  I love it. 

I strongly doubt there will ever be a Pandora for Palm devices, although Palm application development isn’t exactly stagnant either.  I can get really nice media players for the Palm that handle many different media formats including even the open source ogg format.  No Apple device I think its safe to say, will ever natively support ogg.  The media industry absolutely hates the open source movement, and Steve is being his usual jackass control freak self about what he’ll let third party developers do on his hardware.

Which is in the end, probably the biggest reason I have now for dumping my iPhone.  I still have until this coming July on my AT&T contract (like everyone else who bought iPhones when they first came out…).  That gives me plenty of time to wait and see what happens with the Google Android platform.  My hunch is by the time my contract is done, Android will have it’s own Pandora and who knows what else.  Maybe even something comparable to the Palm desktop that’ll sync across multiple platforms including Linux.

But for now it’s back to the simple Palm device for my personal data. It’s five year old technology and it beats the pants off of Steve’s reinvention of the telephone.  Nice work there Steve.  I can sync the contact book with the iPhone…awkwardly…by way of vCards.  The iPhone itself doesn’t do vCards, but I can export a vCard from the Palm Desktop to the MacOS contact book and from there to the iPhone.  And back the other way if need be.  But…sheesh…  I don’t really need calendar synchonization on the iPhone if I’m going to be using my Clie’ again.

Now I need to go find a nice belt case for the Clie’…  Since I’m going to be wearing it again probably for the next eight months or so…

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on The Amazing Wonderful Reinvention Of The Telephone…And Its Discontents…

October 15th, 2008

This Is Your Captain Speaking…Abort, Retry, Fail?

Tech columnist Robert X. Cringely once wrote that "If the automobile had followed the same development cycle as the computer, a Rolls-Royce would today cost $100, get one million miles to the gallon, and explode once a year, killing everyone inside."  I don’t know about costing one hundred dollars, but the explode once a year killing everyone inside part is on the way…

Computer error behind Qantas midair drama

Authorities have blamed a faulty onboard computer system for last week’s mid-flight incident on a Qantas flight to Perth.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) said incorrect information from the faulty computer triggered a series of alarms and then prompted the Airbus A330’s flight control computers to put the jet into a 197-metre nosedive.

At least 51 passengers and crew were hurt, many suffering broken bones and spinal injuries, when the plane carrying 313 people from Singapore to Perth climbed suddenly before plunging downwards on October 7.

The plane was cruising at 37,000 feet when a fault in the air data inertial reference system caused the autopilot to disconnect.

But even with the autopilot off, the plane’s flight control computers still command key controls in order to protect the jet from dangerous conditions, such as stalling, the ATSB said.

"About two minutes after the initial fault, (the air data inertial reference unit) generated very high, random and incorrect values for the aircraft’s angle of attack," the ATSB said in a statement.

"These very high, random and incorrect values of the angle attack led to the flight control computers commanding a nose-down aircraft movement, which resulted in the aircraft pitching down to a maximum of about 8.5 degrees."

The pilots quickly regained control of the jet, issued a mayday emergency call and requested an emergency landing at the Learmonth air force base in remote Western Australia where passengers received medical treatment.

"The crew’s timely response led to the recovery of the aircraft trajectory within seconds. During the recovery the maximum altitude loss was 650 foot," the ATSB said.

The plane’s French-based manufacturer has issued an advisory on the problem and will also issue special operational engineering bulletins to airlines that fly A330s and A340s fitted with the same air data computer, the ATSB said.

Oh…your aircraft needs our $230,000.00 per seat service upgrade patch 3b_06-A…

Like that Airbus, my Mercedes-Benz is fly by wire.  Seriously.  There is no direct linkage between the accelerator pedal and the engine.  I push down on the pedal and the onboard computer decides what to do, depending on how fast I’m already going, what gear I’m in, whether I’m driving up or down an incline, the road conditions as judged by the traction control system and I’m sure a zillion other variables it’s evaluating from one instant to the next. 

The gear shifter is also more of an electronic control then a direct linkage, although it will lock the transmission in Park.  I can press a button next to it to choose between two pre-programmed automatic shifting patterns, "Sport" and "Comfort".  And it learns your driving habits and adjusts the pre-programmed shift patterns accordingly.  There is a fairly complex set of steps you have to perform to reset the transmission program back to the factory default if you don’t like how its adjusted itself to the way you drive.

Mostly, while driving Traveler, I don’t really notice any of this.  The car responds to me very sure and certain.  I was driving in a sudden torrent of rain several weeks ago and never, Never have I felt so confident in the car I was driving, so solid and sure was the feel I had for the road while the skies had opened up all around me.  I could barely see more then a few feet in any direction at times and the traffic was slowing to a crawl, but the car felt absolutely tight and sure.  I never felt the slightest bit of skittishness or uncertainty in the car.  The Mercedes was just There.

It’s easy to forget driving that car, that I am not nearly as much in control of it as I was my 1973 Ford Pinto.  It just feels like I have more control.  It’s a way better engineered automobile.  It is much more a driver’s car then anything I have ever owned.  But there is a computer, that’s trying to be as invisible as possible, between me and the car.  This technology has been working its way into modern automobiles for quite some time now.  You may already be driving a car with an adaptive transmission.  Fly-by-wire is in the new 2008 Accords, so I was told when I went shopping last year.  It’s probably in a lot of other cars by now too.  The new hybrids would pretty much have to be fly-by-wire.

It’s nothing to be afraid of, so much as Aware of.  All technology can fail.  It’s just that computer technology is scary because it works invisibly.  You can see the failure mode of an engine.  You can take it apart and look at it and see where it broke and reconstruct the sequence of events from all the broken pieces.  Software is like a ghost in the machine, running spirit-like inside hardware with no moving parts, just a lot of silent, miniature black monoliths on a green circuit board.  When a program crashes, it vanishes like the soul from a corpse.  You may know the instructions it was executing at the time it crashed, but it’s unlikely you’ll still have access to the state the system was in just prior to the crash.  You have to debug it with whatever state it was left in After the crash…assuming you can get that out of it…and whatever other traces of itself it left behind before it died.  It may take days or weeks or months to figure out what it was doing in those final moments, and why the fuck it was doing it. 

This is why most cars these days have "black boxes" in them…just like airplanes.  For those cases when…you know…the whole thing just blows up…

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on This Is Your Captain Speaking…Abort, Retry, Fail?

July 27th, 2008

Home Again Home Again Jiggity Jig…Good Evening J.R….

[Geek Alert!]

I just have to figure that Mowgli, my main workstation, hates me leaving it alone for very long.  Every time I come back home from an extended trip it has to give me several hours of balk before it starts running again.  I have no idea why, but it seems to be a combination of hardware and software issues that just scream in my face every time I come back home.

Mowgli has a strange keyboard issue, which may have something to do with the fact that I prefer typing on an IBM "M" series keyboard and that might be a tad old for the newer motherboards.  I like the old IBMs so much I keep several spares here at Casa del Garrett, and use one at work too.  The only theoretical drawback is there is no special ‘Windows’ key…but some of us don’t consider having hardware that doesn’t do Windows Only things a drawback.  The problem I’m having is that occasionally the keyboard and motherboard get into a state that prevents Mowgli from starting up.  I hit the power switch and nothing happens.  So I have to unplug the keyboard, hit the front panel power switch, and when Mowgli turns on immediately turn off the power at the power supply, then turn the power supply switch back on and plug the keyboard back in, then hit the front panel power switch again.  Then Mowgli will start.  Note that if I plug the keyboard back in Before I turn the power supply switch back on Mowgli still won’t start back up.  It all has to happen in just that particular sequence.  I have no idea why this happens, but I suspect there is a strange bios thing going on between the new motherboard and the old IBM keyboard.

This time, when I went to Portland, I decided to just unplug the keyboard before I left.  Fine.  So I got back home and plugged in the keyboard and started Mowgli.  Mowgli started up without a htich.  Feeling satisfied with myself, I sat and watched it boot.  Mowgli is currently running CentOS and when the GRUB boot loader came up it told me there were no kernels installed.  What!??? 

You always have to give me shit when I come back home, don’t you?  I have no idea what happened, other then I’d run Yum to update the system before I left for Portland and it all seemed to go fine, except I didn’t reboot to test the new kernel, I just shut down.  I’ve done that before and it never bit me until now.  Growl.  So there’s GRUB cheerfully offering to boot "other", which was the only choice available, because it thought I didn’t have any Linux kernels installed. I entered the GRUB command line instead, to see if I could fix it from there. 

I pointed root to the system drive and tried to read the GRUB config file and the menu files.  GRUB kept insisting the files didn’t exist.  Since I’d never used the GRUB command line before I wasn’t even sure I was using it correctly.  I tried manually booting the kernel but since there is no way to get a directory listing from the GRUB command line I had no idea what it was named.  Linux Kernels are named something like "vmlinuz-2-2.6.18-53.1.4.el5", with the version numbers obviously part of the filename.  That’s not exactly easy to remember.

So I gave up on GRUB and re-booted with the CentOS install CD loaded.  When the installer came up I entered "linux rescue" at the prompt.  The rescue routine will try to find your installed kernels and mount one in /mnt/sysimage.  It searched my hard drive and found the kernel I had there, mounted it, and gave me a prompt.   I’d never had to use this before so it took me a little while to figure out I had to chroot to the newly mounted system drive before I could use it.  Once I figured that out, I was able to  go to the /boot directory on my system drive and try to figure out what had happened.

The kernel was there, but when I went into the grub directory, the menu.lst file didn’t have it listed.  There was only the entry for "other".  So I had to manually re-add the entry for the kernel I had (which I could now see the name of).   Fortunately I had a previous menu.lst file printed out and I was able to use that as a template for adding the entry for my kernel.  Once I did that, I rebooted again and then everything came up normally.

Welcome home Bruce.  Damn.  Even cats don’t give you the attitude some computers do…

by Bruce | Link | React! (1)

July 19th, 2008

Heading Out To Portland…

…and the OSCON Open Source Developer’s Conference therein.   This’ll be my fifth year at this particular conference and I really enjoy the company of so many fellow computer revolutionaries.   My all time favorite T-Shirt slogan is from last year’s:  In A World Without Fences, Who Needs Gates?

I’m flying out from Baltimore first thing tomorrow, with neighbors and Brinks looking after Casa del Garrett while I’m gone.  And I’ll be real busy at the conference so posting may be a tad infrequent until I get back.  I’ll try to post some photos of the scenery out there when I can.  Some of it is just lovely.  And Portland’s not bad either…

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Heading Out To Portland…

May 27th, 2008

Microsoft Is…Oh Never Mind…

And another, from Don Reisinger’s c/Net column…

When will Microsoft finally grasp that consumers and vendors have some trust issues with the company?

They don’t care.  Customer trust was never in the business plan.  The plan was always to have a monopoly on the desktop.  When people have no choice but to buy from you it doesn’t matter if they trust you or not. 

Bill doesn’t grok trust.  He’s made himself a life where he doesn’t have to. 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Microsoft Is…Oh Never Mind…


Microsoft Is Bill Gates. Bill Gates Is Microsoft. Understand Now?

Don Reisinger over at c/Net poses a question, regarding the company that made vaporware and FUD two of the central pillars of its business model…

I’m not going to sit here and say that every company should be admitting its failures for every problem with products, but can’t Microsoft finally admit that Vista is a major blunder that has cost the company far too much? Can’t Microsoft finally open its mouth just once and tell us what we should really expect for the future and promise us a new operating system that won’t commit the same mistakes Vista has committed?

No.

This has been another episode of Simple Answers To Simple Questions… 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Microsoft Is Bill Gates. Bill Gates Is Microsoft. Understand Now?

May 13th, 2008

Why I Don’t Use Debian Family Linux

Via Slashdot…  In a nutshell…

Debian Bug Leaves Private SSL/SSH Keys Guessable

SecurityBob writes "Debian package maintainers tend to very often modify the source code of the package they are maintaining so that it better fits into the distribution itself. However, most of the time, their changes are not sent back to upstream for validation, which might cause some tension between upstream developers and Debian packagers. Today, a critical security advisory has been released: a Debian packager modified the source code of OpenSSL back in 2006 so as to remove the seeding of OpenSSL random number generator, which in turns makes cryptographic key material generated on a Debian system guessable. The solution? Upgrade OpenSSL and re-generate all your SSH and SSL keys. This problem not only affects Debian, but also all its derivatives, such as Ubuntu."

At last year’s Open Source Conference in Portland (OSCON), I was made aware of a wee dust-up between the Apache project and "some" Linux distros.  Specifically, the Apache folks were complaining that certain Linux Distributions routinely modified their product, sticking libraries and configuration files wherever they damn well pleased because that was how, in their opinion, things should work. 

Now…the beauty of Linux and open source in general is that it is open and community driven and anyone can do whatever they damn well please with it.  I hope it always stays that way, Microsoft’s backdoor attempts to stifle it notwithstanding.  But the other side of that coin is that if you modify someone else’s software to work with yours now it’s your responsibility.  The Apache folks were complaining that they could not help end users configure their servers when they themselves didn’t know how the software worked anymore, particularly when it came to configuring it.  That’s not a trivial complaint coming from a project that powers the majority of web servers.  Most of what you see on the World Wide Web was fed to you by an Apache server, running on either Linux or Unix.

Well, the Debian folks pretty well knew who the Apache folks were talking about and sure as the sun rises they started pointing their fingers back at Apache’s big monolithic configuration file, and other in-their-righteous-opinion Apache shortcomings.  Begun, the clone wars have…

My feeling is, if you change it you own it.  At least in the sense of now you have to support it.  At minimum you ought to run your "fixes’ by the people who are maintaining the software you are "correcting".  They might actually appreciate what you’ve done and incorporate the changes into their build.  Or they might tell you why you shouldn’t do that.  Sometimes you should listen to that.  But from what I hear, listening isn’t one of the Debian project’s best points.

I keep hearing about how wonderful Ubuntu is, and knowing that it’s a Debian family distro I’ve been highly reluctant to bother with it.  I get along fine in the Red Hat family.  For the past couple years I’ve been happily running CentOS here at Casa del Garrett and I admit I would like it a lot better if it came bundled with better multi-media support, but on the other hand adding packages to it isn’t hard because everything is pretty much where everyone expects it to be.  Yes, I have to configure a lot of it in its own specific way, as opposed to having a nice common configuration system to do it for me.  If you want consistency, open source isn’t going to work for you.  Try Apple.  Seriously.  I run Macs here at Casa del Garrett too and damned if I haven’t been impressed by how well integrated everything is on a Mac.  I do all my artwork on Bagheera, my art room G5 tower, because it just gets out of my way when I’m in a creative mood and lets me create.  I love that.  On the other hand, it’s like that because Steve won’t let software developers color outside the lines.  Just ask anyone who ever unlocked an iPhone.  That’s why I’m still running Linux here too.

by Bruce | Link | React! (3)

May 11th, 2008

The Geek’s Revenge…

Via C/Net News…

Stolen Mac helps nab burglary suspects

A remote desktop access feature found in some Macintoshes is being credited with leading police to two suspects in the burglary of an apartment in New York.

In addition to flat-screen TVs, iPods, and DVDs, the thieves made off with two laptop computers, one of which belonged to Kait Duplaga, an Apple store employee, according to a report in the New York Times on Saturday. While police in White Plains, N.Y., were coming up empty with their investigation, Duplaga learned that her computer was being used on the Internet and turned on the Back to My Mac feature installed on her Mac from another Mac, according to the report.

The feature allowed Duplaga to see immediately how the computer was being used at the time, as well as operate it remotely. Recalling that she had a camera installed on the computer, the fast-thinking Duplaga snapped images of one of the burglary suspects before he realized what was happening, according to the Times. Duplaga showed the image to friends who recognized the suspect as someone who attended a party at the apartment.

The photo lead police to arrest two suspects on Wednesday and recover nearly all the stolen property.

"It doesn’t get much better than their bringing us a picture of the guy actually using the stolen property," Daniel Jackson, the deputy commissioner of public safety in White Plains, told the newspaper. "It certainly made our job easier."

The Back to My Mac feature runs on Leopard-based Macintoshes and requires a $99 subscription to the .Mac online service.

Don’t fuck with us…

by Bruce | Link | React! (1)

March 27th, 2008

Licensing Terms Shooting You In The Foot Much?

Apple doesn’t want folks running it’s OS and most of its software applications on non-Apple hardware.  iTunes being the only exception I know of, and that probably only because they wanted to take the online music marketplace away from Bill.  Off the top of my head I know of no other Apple software products that run on any other platform, but MacOS…and MacOS doesn’t run on any other hardware but Apple’s.

They’re very strict about that.  Very strict.  Very.  Very.

Apple forbids Windows users from installing Safari for Windows

In using Apple Software Update to slip his Safari browser onto millions of Windows PCs, Steve Jobs didn’t just undermine "the security of the whole Web". He’s made a mockery of end user licensing agreements.

As spotted by our Italian friends at setteB.IT, Apple’s Safari license says that users are permitted to install the browser on no more than "a single Apple-labeled computer at a time." This means that if you install Safari for Windows on a Windows PC, you’re violating the license.

There’s an adorable little screen capture of the license agreement on The Register’s site.  They say one of the hallmarks of cult behavior is an all consuming paranoia of the outside world…

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Licensing Terms Shooting You In The Foot Much?

March 3rd, 2008

Yes, We Hate Our Users…So Besides That, What Are We Doing Wrong…?

The OEMs were apparently screaming warnings to Microsoft early on about Vista.  Funny thing though…Microsoft didn’t listen…

Dell slams Microsoft over Windows Vista launch

A leaked Dell presentation accused Microsoft of making late changes to Windows Vista which forced key hardware partners to "limp out with issues" when the OS launched last year.

"Late OS code changes broke drivers and applications, forcing key commodities to miss launch or limp out with issues," said one slide in a Dell presentation dated March 25, 2007, about two months after Vista’s launch at retail and availability on new PCs.

The criticism was just one of many under the heading ‘What did not go well?’

Others ranged from knocks against Vista’s Windows Anytime Upgrade scheme, an in-place upgrade option, to several slams on ‘Windows Vista Capable’, the marketing programme that targeted PC buyers shopping for machines in the months leading up to Vista’s debut.

Funny how all the problems with Vista can be boiled down to two things: Microsoft’s tyrannical software license branding/activation scheme, and Vista’s locking down of the hardware to enforce film and music industry anti-piracy schemes. 

In an email to CEO Steve Ballmer written less than three weeks after he took over the post, Sinofsky [chief of Windows development] spelled out his three reasons why Vista stumbled out the gate.

"No one really believed we would ever ship so they didn’t start the work until very late in 2006," Sinofsky said. "This led to the lack of availability [of device drivers]."

Okay…that’s bullshit.  The reason why hardware vendors got started late, was because they kept having to start over.  That’s right there in Sinofsky’s points two and three: 

Next on his list: Changes to the operating systems’ video and audio infrastructure. "Massive changes in the underpinnings for video and audio really led to a poor experience at RTM," he said. "This change led to incompatibilities. For example, you don’t get Aero with an XP driver, but your card might not (ever) have a Vista driver."

Finally, said Sinofsky, other changes in Vista blocked Windows XP drivers altogether. "This is across the board for printers, scanners, WAN, accessories and so on. Many of the associated applets don’t run within the constraints of the security model or the new video/audio driver models."

The hardware driver issues arise from Microsoft’s changes to the hardware API to prevent anyone from tapping a pure digital signal and thereby bypassing Vista’s DRM.  Microsoft has gone as far as to demand that video and audio circuitry not provide any way for a signal to be tapped directly from the hardware, as a requirement for Vista certification. 

The problems with Anytime Upgrade revolved around the fact that you had to have your original install disks so the software could verify that you had a non-pirated copy of Windows XP before it would install Vista.  A lot of folks didn’t get those from the hardware vendors.  Others had trouble with the validation process that resulted in their computers being rendered inoperable.  Some were told that their license was invalid, even though they had legitimately purchased it, and then found they could not downgrade back to XP.  For many it was a nightmare.

This is what happens when you put profit over reliability.  Software license branding, digital rights management, all add complexity to operating system software, which needs to be as straightforward and elegantly designed as possible for the sake of reliability.  But the only thing Microsoft and Hollywood give a good goddamn about in terms of reliability is the sound of the cash register.  Microsoft became a multi-billion dollar company distributing software that could be easily copied, and for them to get pissed off enough about piracy that they’re willing to break your computer to make sure it doesn’t have an unlicensed copy of Windows running on it is on its face more a measure of their corporate greed then how bad the problem of software piracy may have been.  Windows piracy couldn’t have been so bad if honest software purchasers made Bill Gates a billionaire fifty-six times over could it?   Unless of course, even that wasn’t enough money for him.

This is why I’m running Linux at home, and a smattering of Apple Macs.  Yes, iTunes has DRM embedded in it too, but Apple seems not as paranoid about it as Redmond.  And Linux is open source, so I don’t have to worry that if I have a hardware failure my OS won’t work anymore when I swap out whatever broke with something new.  Amazon.Com is selling DRM free music now that I can play on both iTunes and my Linux boxes just fine.  I don’t need Microsoft anymore in my home anymore.  And the fact is that Linux is a mature enough technology now that most folks, who just use their computers for email, text editing, maybe a little checkbook balancing and web surfing would have no trouble using it at all.

For the moment, it looks like most people are standing pat on XP, or even older versions of Windows.  They don’t see the need to upgrade, especially when Microsoft keeps making the upgrade path more and more onerous.  Vista is costly not only for the software itself but the hardware you have to buy to run it smoothly.  It didn’t have to be this way.  Microsoft could have had a hit on their hands if they’d produced Vista for their customers, and not their stockholders and Hollywood media moguls.  Greed and paranoia about piracy are killing the music industry.  It’ll do the same to the big software companies too if they want it to.

According to the emails made public last week, Microsoft will apply the lessons it learned with Vista the next time around. "There is really nothing we can do in the short term," noted Joan Kalkman, the general manager of OEM and embedded worldwide marketing, in a message written a week after Sinofsky’s. "In the long term we have worked hard to establish and have committed to an OEM Theme for Windows 7 planning.

Committed to an OEM Theme for Windows 7 planning.  Committed to an OEM Theme for Windows 7 planning.  Committed to an OEM Theme for Windows 7 planning.  Take that apart and try to figure out what it means.  Go ahead.  I give Microsoft another decade before it completely implodes.  Nobody cares about their goddamned slogans and buzzwords anymore.  It all sounded so cool back when Microsoft was a bunch of bratty young computer geeks running rings around stogy old IBM, but it just doesn’t fucking cut it now. 

It was never about the promise of the personal computer was it Bill?  It was never about taking technology out of the hands of big corporations and their mammoth data processing centers and putting it on people’s desktops and giving them control over their own data and empowering them.  It was all about money wasn’t it Bill?  Software was never about empowering people, it was just a way for you to become rich.  And now you’re even bigger then IBM, stodgier, and way more paranoid, and all the little computer geek children are writing Open Source software now that anyone can copy and modify and use however they want to and running Linux and BSD and they don’t give a shit about Microsoft.  And they’re wearing t-shirts that say, In a world without fences, who needs Gates?

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Yes, We Hate Our Users…So Besides That, What Are We Doing Wrong…?

February 17th, 2008

For A Friend…

…who told me once that he and his wife are more into nature then technology.

Three bridges within a mile hit SIXTY-TWO times by curse of satnav

It has been blamed for directing huge articulated lorries down tiny country lanes, encouraging car drivers to plunge into impassable fords – and even sending inattentive motorists down railway lines.

And last night, it was revealed the curse of satnav has found yet another way to wreak havoc on Britain’s roads – by funnelling tall vehicles under low bridges.

The problem came to light after rail chiefs realized that three of the railway bridges most often hit by traffic lay in a one-mile radius in the same town: Grantham in Lincolnshire. Between them, they were struck an astonishing 62 times last year.

Half involved one of the structures, earning it the dubious distinction of being Britain’s most crashed-into railway bridge.

A spokesman said: "It’s a rising problem and satnavs are playing a greater role. They are great tools but they are no substitute for common sense and following the rules of the road."

An AA spokesman added: "The fact that you’re getting bridges with a reputation for being hit suggests that satnav software is directing large numbers of vehicles to take those particular routes.

"The problem is ‘blind reliance’. If people were using a map they would be more likely to question whether a bridge was high enough for their vehicle but it’s staggering to what extent people are blindly relying on technology."

Freight Transport Association director Geoff Dossetter agreed: "Satnavs are wonderful for drivers in unfamiliar territory but if a road sign says ‘low bridge ahead’ there really shouldn’t be any doubt about what that means.

"Foreign drivers are particularly bad in their blind adherence to satnav and need to improve their behaviour."

The first question that came to my mind was, isn’t there one of those universal road signs that means "Low Bridge"?   And apparently, there are:

  

 

I own a car that has a satnav system in it, and I’m here to tell you it’s a lovely little bit of technology.  And I’m someone who Never had trouble with maps.  I love reading maps.  A favorite pastime of mine since I got paid vacation is to browse my big road Atlas like it’s a Christmas toy catalog.   But for helping me navigate large, snarly highway interchanges in unfamiliar territory, or guiding me to a specific address when I have to be someplace at a certain time, the satnav system is really handy.  Even so, if I saw it telling me to drive into a creek or make the next left onto a set of railroad tracks, I wouldn’t do it.  I’d probably just frown and think to myself, well this part of the map needs a little work. 

But that’s because I understand the technology from the inside out.  It’s not some kind of mysterious magic to me.  To me it’s only a computer program manipulating pixels on an LCD screen.  I may not know the details of how that particular program works, but I can build a general idea of how it’s probably doing it in my head.  I know what it is that it’s telling me and, just as importantly, what it isn’t telling me.  But more importantly, probably, I know what all computer professionals know about computers: garbage in equals garbage out.  It didn’t take me long after I got the Mercedes, to realize that just because its nav system is telling me there’s a gas station two miles ahead of me, that doesn’t mean that there really is a gas station two miles ahead of me.  It might be there was one there at one time, when the map was being made, but now it’s abandoned.  Or it might never have been there at all to begin with.  At some point, all the information in one of those satnav systems had to be put into it by a human.  And if the human got it wrong, the computer will happily feed you the wrong information just as though it was good information.  And not even ask for thanks, because it’s just doing its job.

I know this.  I have to keep reminding myself that to other people, computers seem a tad mysterious and maybe even a bit creepy.  You can’t see a program running.  The computer just sits there and then the next thing you know it’s displaying something on the screen.  Maybe it’s what you asked for.  Maybe it’s something like this…

  
 

 

And a lot of people, seeing that, wouldn’t curse the lazy ass programmer who wrote that lousy, utterly worthless error message, but just sit there and let their computer make them feel stupid and they’re not.  The computer knows something I don’t…  No…the computer doesn’t know anything.  It’s just a machine. 

I know a lot of people feel this way about computers:

Everyone always wants new things. Everybody likes new inventions, new technology. People will never be replaced by machines. In the end, life and business are about human connections. And computers are about trying to murder you in a lake. And to me, the choice is easy.
-Michael Scott, The Office

But this is as silly as saying that skin will never be replaced by clothes.  We are not our technology, but our technology is us.  Technology does not dehumanize us.  That’s trope.  A stone ax is technology.  A plow is technology.  A book is technology.  To say that humans are tool makers misses it a tad.  Tools are the visible part of the human soul.  They are embodiments of our thoughts, our feelings, our innermost selves.  They are art.  All technology, is art.  The masters of a craft, the ones who make the best, most useful, most enduring tools, are the ones who understand this.  In the way that output is only the visible part, the part you can see, of the running computer program, the things humans make, our tools, our machines, our buildings, our works of art, are embodiments of the inner, essential human nature every generation leaves behind in its wake.  Whether it’s an arrowhead, a cuckoo clock or a satnav system, their nature is our own.  And as the saying goes "There’s nothing as queer as folk".

 

 

 

 

Computers are something humans came up with, to help with tasks that humans wanted to do.  They’ve become ubiquitous because the basic technology is so damn versatile.  Trust it where you can verify that it’s working properly and not when it hands you something you can plainly see with your own two eyes is crap.  It’s just a machine.  It’s judgment cannot replace yours because it doesn’t have any judgment.  It’s just a machine.  In his poem, The Secret of the Machines, Rudyard Kipling wrote…

Though our smoke may hide the Heavens from your eyes,
It will vanish and the stars will shine again,
Because, for all our power and weight and size,
We are nothing more than children of your brain!

When the road and the nav system disagree, believe the road.  If the computer directs you to go jump in a lake, it’s not being malicious, and you don’t have to do it.  It’s not working right.  Go find the programmer and make them fix it.

 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on For A Friend…

February 4th, 2008

My Work

Via Slashdot…

"I am, in the States, known as a Software Engineer. In Canada we’re not allowed to call ourselves engineers, although the discipline is no less rigorous than any other kind of engineering. But perhaps its for the best, because ‘engineering’ describes only a part of what I do. A software developer must be part writer and poet, part salesperson and public speaker, part artist and designer, and always equal parts logic and empathy."

Yeah.  It’s like that.  But I love it.  It still amazes me that I do the work I do. 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on My Work

January 14th, 2008

Disable Autorun. Just Disable It. Now.

As I’ve transitioned over the course of my life as a software developer/systems engineer, from an exclusively Windows oriented work life to a mix of MacOS, Linux and Windows, I’ve come to appreciate how incredibly brain dead the Really Smart Kids at Redmond are when it comes to computer security.  Windows, simply put, is unsafe at any speed.  I say this fully realizing that Unix/Linux and MacOS (which is Unix down in its kernel), isn’t bullet proof either.  But as there is a difference between driving a Mercedes-Benz or a Volvo and driving a 1960 Corvair, there is a difference between running a Unix like OS and Windows.  I could point to a number of different Windows inanities that continue to bother me, but here’s the one that’s got my attention now: autoplay.  And here’s why:

Malware hitches a ride on digital devices

It’s time to add digital picture frames to the group of consumer products that could carry computer viruses and Trojan horse programs.

In the past month, at least three consumers have reported that photo frames – small flat-panel displays for displaying digital images – received over the holidays attempted to install malicious code on their computer systems, according to the Internet Storm Center, a network-threat monitoring group. Each case involved the same product and the same chain of stores, suggesting that the electronic systems were infected at the factory or somewhere during shipping, said Marcus Sachs, who volunteers as the director of the Internet Storm Center.

"When (the first incident) pops up, we thought it might be someone that was infected and blamed it on the digital picture frame," Sachs said. "But this is malware – and malware that does not seem to be very well detected. You could plug in a device and infect yourself with something that you would never know you had."

And that’s possible in large measure, because of autoplay…something build into Windows that isn’t in other operating systems because most software engineers think allowing executable code to be automatically run from any media you happen to insert into a drive or port is just plain nuts.  And because Microsoft thinks doing that is such a really really neat idea, there is no easy way to turn the goddamned thing off.  You have to attack it in the system registry.  Here’s a sample registry script for turning off autoplay that I run on all my Windows 2000 and Windows XP boxes:

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\CDROM]
"AutoRun"=dword:0000000

[HKEY_CURRENT_USER\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\Explorer]
"NoDriveTypeAutoRun"=dword:000000FF

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\Explorer]
"NoDriveTypeAutoRun"=dword:000000ff

If you’re still running 95/98/Me the value of "NoDriveTypeAutoRun" should be BD 00 00 00.

For those of you who don’t want to deal with directly editing the Windows system registry (and you should absolutely leave it alone unless you know what you’re doing!), there is an article Here on how to use the Windows Policy Editor.  However that only works on Windows XP Professional, and I assume the pro grades of Vista.  If you don’t have either of those, there is a little application from Microsoft called TweekUI you can download Here.

Vista, apparently has a new dialog you can access from the control panel that lets you configure each device and also individual media types.  I haven’t worked with it myself so I can’t comment on how simple or intuitive it is, but apparently you can just uncheck a box at the top of the dialog and that turns it off for all media and devices.

The motivation here of course, is to make installing new software and new hardware devices more convenient.  But convenience can end up being more hassle then its worth.  It would be more convenient if you didn’t need a key to start your car too.  Then you’d never need to worry about loosing your car keys.  Just your car.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Disable Autorun. Just Disable It. Now.

November 5th, 2007

The Passing Of The Ignition Key

[Geek Alert…] 

I was scanning my server logs last night and saw someone had hit this post of mine with the Google search string "can’t pull out key mercedes".  I hope their problem was as absent minded as mine was, or more charitably, that I’d forgotten how you park a car with an automatic transmission.  (Hint: you put it in ‘Park’).  But as I was scanning the Google hits on that string (my post was forth in the list), I got to thinking about the anti-theft technology in it the key itself.

I posted this shot of my new car’s key the night I made a deal with Valley Motors to buy it.  I’m wondering how many others reading it had the same first impression I did when I first laid eyes on a Mercedes-Benz key…  That’s a car key???  It’s more of a dongle then an actual key, which makes sense given where automobile anti-theft technology is going.  The Honda had something in its key too, that the on board computer authenticated it with.  But it was also an actual key, in that it had a ridged steel shank like most keys that moved tumblers of some sort in a lock you turned to actually start the car.  Mercedes just took the next logical step and did away with the steel shank and tumbler lock part altogether.

I’ve wanted one of these cars ever since I was a teenager.  But when I actually took mine home, I found myself stressing out every night about it getting stolen while I was asleep.  I’d wake up at random moments and trudge over to a window and verify the car was still there.  A small, but non-trivial reason why I’m not leaving the car at home and walking to work every morning like I normally do, is because I’m still a bit afraid to leave it alone.  The neighborhood I live in has enough retirees in it that there are always a set of eyes somewhere keeping watch over things.  But I still stress about it.  A few months ago a small SUV was stolen from a guy just a few houses down from me.  But he’d left his doors unlocked, and an expensive tool kit set in plain view.  Still…I read about car thefts and attempted car thefts in the local police blotters for my district.  Lately, I’ve actually started mapping them out to see where the car thieves are most active.

Mine isn’t the only expensive car in the neighborhood…there’s others scattered here and there, and if you count some of the the big SUVs and pickup trucks there are actually quite a few vehicles within a few blocks of mine costing at least as much if not more then Traveler did me.  But a Mercedes sticks out.  I didn’t buy it for that…I really wish it didn’t, but last Halloween I had several dads walking their kids around complement me on the car, and ask me if they could check it out inside.  Of course I happily let them…I know the feeling, I had it myself for decades.  I gave them the whole tour of the car.  But afterwards it worried me that the car sticks out like that.  It’s bound to attract the attention of car thieves.

I’ve found that the best cure for the worries is to learn as much as you can about what’s worrying you.  So that Google hit prompted me to do something I’ve been meaning to do, to ease my worries a tad about someone making off with my new car in the middle of the night.  I started looking around for information about the anti-theft technology Mercedes is using now.  In the process, I got a bit of an education about modern automobile smart, or "VATS" keys.

The GM system, for example, uses a set of fifteen different precision resistance chips that can be embedded in a key.  The onboard computer knows which resistive value is supposed to work on its car and if you put a key with the wrong resistance chip in it in the ignition lock, the car cuts off fuel to the engine and starts a four minute clock that prevents the car from starting even if you insert a key with the right chip in it.  Ford on the other hand, uses a small transponder embedded in the key that transmits a code to the on board computer.  Some Japanese automakers use set of passcodes between the key and the car that rotate each time the car is started.

I was gratified to learn that Mercedes-Benz has a key so complicated it requires its own set of instructions.  Sometimes complexity is a good thing.  The moment you insert the key in the ignition a dialogue takes place between it and the on board computer, and the key’s digital passcode is verified and a new randomly generated passcode is assigned to it by the computer. 

At that point, the steering wheel and ignition systems are unlocked and the car is made ready to start when you turn the key.  I can hear the steering wheel being unlocked the moment I insert the key in the switch, as well as other very faint, gentle whirring sounds coming from somewhere inside the dash that I’m assuming have something to do with the climate control system powering up.  So even before I turn the ignition on and proceed to start the car, it already knows that a valid key is in the switch and its unlocking things and starting up other things.  It also grabs hold of the key slightly…not so much that you can’t pull it right back out again, but enough to make that something you have to deliberately do.  And the moment you pull the key back out the steering wheel re-locks and the faint whirring sounds stop. So the car is, in a sense, unlocked and switched on the moment you insert what it determines is a valid key for that car.

My car came with two keys…I’m not sure if there is an upper limit on the number of keys you can assign to an individual car…but the on board computer keeps track of the keys that belong to that car, and which passcodes it has randomly assigned to what keys.  There’s a set of button batteries in each key that are user replaceable.  Not sure what happens to the passcode a key has when its battery dies, but hopefully its kept in some sort of flash memory.

Other luxury car makers such as BMW also use this system, but Mercedes is unique apparently in that it did away with the steel shank portion of the key altogether.  Given the technology being used here, the shank part is now a tad redundant.  You can probably expect to see steel shanked keys slowly disappear from cars altogether as the on board computer takes on more and more responsibility for preventing theft.

Hence, the current popularity of car jacking.  If car thieves have to have the key in order to steal the car, then obviously they’re gonna try and get the key.  Usually that means getting it away from you.  So now I can rest a tad easier about the chances of my car getting stolen when I go to bed at night, or when I’m away from it.  On the other hand, now I have to worry more about dealing with a car thief face to face.  Ah well.  This was why I was bullied so badly in junior high school…so I could grow eyes in the back of my head for thugs…

[Edited a tad…]

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on The Passing Of The Ignition Key

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