Friday, December 28, 2007

Scoble Discovers the Mac Mini

Scoble just discovered he could connect his Mac Mini to his HD TV in the living room.
(guess he should have read my blog - my Mini has been connected to my LCD screen for a year now lol).

Here's a quote I liked:
Now I’m pissed that it took me so long and I’m pissed at the industry that it just doesn’t get what’s coming and they keep trying to lock me into closed boxes like the Apple TV or the Xbox.
Read his full column and recommendation here.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sleeping at Airports

While I wouldn't make a night at an airport part of a planned trip, many people who travel on a budget around the world do.

If you are one of those travelers, who'd rather break his back than spend his money, this site is for you: will provide you with essential airport-sleeping tips, lists of best and worst airports to sleep in (constantly updated by users) and reviews of certain airports.

It comes as no surprise to me that people fave Schiphol airport in Amsterdam (as you may remember, I like this airport too). And one of my worst airports, Chicago's O'Hare, is also one of the least favorite. The worst on that list is Bombay, India - and I agree with every word in the review.

You can also post your airport sleeping stories on that site - and you can post them here if you'd like. Sadly, all of us have spent at least one night of our life trying to catch some Zs on a hard bench, waiting for that f$#*ed up weather to clear...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Gadget Review - Flip

Following my PMP post, here's the review of the second gadget I bought this holiday season, the Flip.

Short Description
The Flip is a simple video camera for people who can't operate a video camera. If you just want a casual short video of the family, or a location, and you don't overly care about image quality, the Flip is for you.
With just one button to start/stop recording, auto-focus and internal memory, the Flip is ideal for people who are less technologically savvy (e.g. my parent - the recipients of this gift).

The Flip, like all cameras, has 2 modes: Record and Play.
In Record mode, just hit the big red button, point at the subject and hold your hand still. The Flip fits comfortably into the palm of your hand and the small 1.5" screen makes it easy to align your shot. The up-down arrows allow you to use a 3X digital zoom. But still, the Flip is much better for closer subjects, not wide backgrounds.
Click the red button again to stop recording.

The Play button allows you to play the clips. Use the arrows to skip to the next/previous clip, or the Trash Can button to delete a clip. You can either play the clips on the small screen, or connect it to any TV (Flip-to-RCA cable included).

Every operation on the Flip is accompanied with a visual and audio cue. When in Record mode, the timer on the screen switches to red, and a light turns on in the front of the camera - so it's easy to know if you're filming or being filmed.

The Flip has an internal memory store, good for 60 minutes of video. No memory card is available (although I've seen a hack online where someone opened it and doubled that time by using a flash card).

When it comes time to download the clips to your computer, you'll find an extending USB arm (which lends the Flip it's name). Connect it to your computer and either use the software (conveniently hosted on the internal disk of the Flip, so you can use it on multiple computers), or use Windows Explorer to browse to the files on the camera itself (appears as a Removable Storage device under explorer).

Technical Stuff
The Flip shoots VGA videos (640 x 480 at 30 frames per second). Files are compressed into MP4 videos (.avi extension) and are playable with any media player. It has a 2GB internal flash memory, good for 60 minutes.

It operates off 2 AA batteries, which would carry you for 6.5 hours. You can use rechargeable batteries, or carry extra batteries with you.

The Flip connects to the computer through a USB 2.0 link (supports 1.1, as I've seen with my parents old computer - although transfer time is noticeably longer).

The Flip's software resides on the Flip itself, and will auto start as you plug it in (if autostart is turned off, as was the case in my computer, just browse to the disk and double-click the icon).

The Flip's software allows you to manage the Flip's memory, archive files, send clips using email (in which case it compresses them further, at the expense of quality), or share them online (upload to YouTube etc.). It also allows you to edit the clips and add some effects. It doesn't rival video editing suites, but it fits the spirit of the camera (simple interface, big colorful buttons).

When I used my Flip the first time on my laptop, it had some problems in synchronizing the clips and lost connection several times.
It turned out this is a known issue and a patch to the software exists on the company's site. As soon as I connected the Flip to a computer connected to the internet, it patched itself (the firmware, software, and it even re-encoded all the movies in memory). Total patch time: 15 minutes. After the patch, operation is smooth and I wouldn't have written this review without it.

  1. Transfer time is still a bit slow.
  2. No software exists for the Mac, which is a big minus for me (although my parents could care less smile). The company promises a version would be available on January '08.
  3. The location and shape of the USB plug can also be uncomfortable (think about crawling behind a desktop and hanging your camera from the plug). I recommend getting a USB extension cord ($3-5).
  4. Despite it's "young" and "cool" attitude, it still feels a bit plasticky to me.
Bottom Line

The Flip is compact and easy to use and serves it's purpose. For it's price range it delivers what it promises: simple video shooting, easy transfer and sharing. Ideal for casual video capture and for people who are intimidated by more complex cameras.

The Flip is available in various colors and in 2 configurations Flip (30 minutes) and Flip Ultra (60 minutes) which was the one I've used for this review. It'd set you back either $100 (Flip) or $150 (Ultra).

I give it 4/5 stars. Get it here.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Lab Tour

If you want to know what new technologies await you in the future, you should visit the research labs of technology companies today, and look at the alphas and betas of proposed technologies.
Some will turn out to be useless, impractical or just a fad. But some would become the kernels of a new technological future.

In this post I'll review some of those pending ideas, stewing in the labs of 4 big technology companies. I can't even begin to cover everything, but since this is my blog, I can cover what interests me smile. I will, however, leave you with all the links and material to conduct your own independent research. I do recommend at least a quarterly visit to these research sites, to learn about new innovations.

1. Mozilla Labs
Mozilla gave us the source on which the Firefox browser was built. It is a true collaborative lab - everyone can contribute and the source is open. In the past, I've touched on their Prism approach to disconnected web applications. Today, I want to concentrate on 2 new approaches, but first, a challenge:

1. How many red letters do you see in the picture?
2. How many times does the letter 'K' appear in the picture?

Have you noticed that providing the second answer took much longer than the first? That's because our brain can process color much faster through our visual system, than it takes to actually read content. Many new technologies can arise from this observation (think about highlighting content in a document or a web page in different colors, based on the content type) and here's a first practical use I'm actually testing now.

Chromatabs is a Firefox add-on that colors each tab based on it's name. The algorithm takes the web site's URL, turns it into a hash and assigns a color to each tab based on a conversion of the hash to HSL values (Hue, Saturation, Light - another way to codify colors, similar to RGB). The result, once you get used to it, means I can tell you how many tabs are pointing to the Google domains (purple), my blog (brownish) or Mozilla Labs (pink) without bothering to read the titles.

Since it's not overly obtrusive, you can leave the add-on running and find that you subconsciously learn the color patterns over time. Here's how my browser looks now (click to enlarge):
Read more about Chromatabs here.

The second technology from Mozilla is a take on an old idea, the weaving of desktop and web together. This idea is offered by Google (through it's bookmark add-on and search toolbar) and Microsoft.
Mozilla Weave is another take at trying to convince you to store all your personal information (bookmarks, history, passwords, form completion strings etc.) in "the cloud" to allow access from different computers. Since I own more than one computer and I find myself needing a URL or a password from time to time, I find this technology appealing. But until I understand who protects my content and privacy in "the cloud", I think I'll stay on the sidelines and wait.

2. Digg Labs, the social network site, allows you to submit a link, an image, or a video you have "dugg" and others to join you in promoting that link (read more here). Like many other sites, they have found that they have too much information and not enough space/time to share it with the visitors. For a while, there was a limited list of links, that had enough "diggs" to make it to the front page. And the competition was fierce (with the occasional cheats, hacks and fights). But what about the real, interesting content that was buried under the Paris Hilton pictures? How do you expose that?

My Master thesis dealt with visualization of data mining results, so I can relate to this problem. Indeed, I'm currently raking my mind on how to expose the contents of this blog to the casual user (all he sees are the 7 last posts, 10 hand-picked posts on the right side - which may interest me, but not that reader, and 10 topic tabs - which again, might not meet his taste). That's why Digg Labs approach to visualization knocked me off my feet.

"The Stack" provides a visual quantitative approach to data: stories fall from the top of the screen to create stacks. The higher the stack, the more diggs the story received:
"BigSpy" utilizes font size to highlight mostly "dugg" articles:
And "The Arc" takes a diffrent approch at showing the "diggers" themselves:
Try some of the other visualizations. And you can also download them to your desktop as screensavers. Oh, and don't forget to digg this article smile.

3. Google Labs
So many ideas to choose from... A company that allows its workers to work on whatever they like for 20% of their time, is bound to come up with some great ideas. Many of the technologies in the Google Labs mature into a Google product later on (indeed, the main page contains a list of "lab graduates", such as Reader, Docs, Notebook etc.).

In the past, I've written about 2 technologies I predict would become crucial in the future: GData and Gears. Today, I'll focus on 2 new ideas that grabbed my imagination:

Experimental search allows new visualizations of search results (Google's bread and butter).
Here, for example, is a Timeline View of a search for "space exploration":
And here's the Map View of the same query:
There are some more interesting views, along with keyword suggestions, different results navigation schemes and keyboard shortcuts.

Trends would allow you to compare searches between diiferent terms. For example, if you're interested in a new hard disk, you may try comparing the 3 leading HD manufacturers and arrive at these results:
Try comparing "PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii" for example. Think about future possibilities. If you could assign weights to certain criteria, a tool for global data comparison would become rather handy.

4. Microsoft Research
By far the oldest and biggest of the research labs mentioned in this column and rivaled, perhaps just by IBM research labs. Microsoft researches dabble in so many areas, paradigms and methodologies, that it's hard to highlight just 2. In the past, I've written about Virtual Wi Fi, now I'll try to avoid the temptation of picking up software development advances (such as parallelism, or new .Net technologies) to avoid boring people.

VIBE (Visualization and Interaction for Business and Entertainment) is a lab concentrating on utilizing visualization techniques to improve interfaces of business applications.
GroupBar, for example, allows you to arrange your windows better in the taskbar. It can also be downloaded now as an application (as opposed to some of the other researches, still in early stages).

We have all seen CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) before, those annoying characters, printed on unreadable background, designed to separate humans from computers on web sites. Well, not only do they cause grief to humans, but, as I've recently blogged, OCR apps are getting better and better at deciphering those strings.

Enter Assira - a project that intends to replace CAPTCHAs with pictures of kittens. You see, a computer may be able to tell a "c" from a "d", but it can't tell a cat from a dog in a picture - while a human can do so quite easily. Powered by a database of 3 million cat pictures, Assira is just another way web services can prevent non-humans from accessing data.

That's it for now. Expect more lab reviews in the future.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Vote for a Technology Savvy President

Techcrunch wanted to call attention to the fact that technology is now a big part of our life, and we can scarcely afford to have ignorant rulers preside over issues they are far from understanding.

If you want just one sample of an ignorant (and believe me, I'm being very kind here) person of authority, look no further than Ted Stevens (Republican-Alaska). Stevens was sent to talk for a bill against Net Neutrality, unfortunately without being explained what the bill was about (charging more money for certain content going through ISPs), or what was the internet. Some of the "pearls" you can find in this instant classic are: "The internet is not a big truck - it's a series of tubes!" and "people can now sign up for a service that will deliver video movies to their real mailbox!". The 3 minutes of bumbling can be listened to here - and is highly recommended for anyone who has to talk in public about something he understands nothing about.

Back to the original program: Techcrunch asked all candidates 10 technology-related questions (Net Neutrality, Internet taxes, identity theft, H1B visas etc.) and allows you to look at all the answers, compare candidates and vote for your favorite in a site they call Tech President Primaries. The poll is open open till Jan. 18, when Techcrunch will announce one Republican and one Democrat "tech candidate" for the 2008 presidency.

What I found most surprising was that most candidates support more H1B visas. While, in a clear "follow the money" example, Democrats support Net Neutrality and most Republicans oppose it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Very Disappointing Post

PC World published a list of The 15 Biggest Tech Disappointments of 2007.

In the first place is Windows Vista (no surprise there, if you've been reading my blog regularly and if you can make sense of this error message above). But Apple fans get their dose of disappointment with Leopard (at #8) and the iPhone (at #5).

More familiar faces on this list: Facebook ("the anti-social network" at #3) and Office 2007 (at #9). Microsoft has another representative in the list in the form of the Zune (at #11).

Let's hope for a less disappointing 2008.

Download This! - Firefox 3 Beta 2 (and 3 and 4 and...)

I love Firefox and use it as my main browser. But there's no denying it: when it comes to resources (CPU, memory) consumption, FF is lacking. I always attributed it to the open source nature of the project. When many people contribute, they tend to focus more on features and later bugs, less on performance.

I've sampled the new release of FF 3.0 alpha and it was too buggy to recommend. But the latest release is much better. Resource allocation has been tightened and some performance boost is noticeable. Bear in mind this is a beta, so some bugs are still lurking about.

Another caveat: if, like me, you use and depend on many add-ons, don't replace your current version. Some of those add-ons are not supported yet. But FF 3 can be installed side-by-side with FF 2.

Read a review here, and download the beta here.

Update 2/13/08
Beta 3 just came out today with "approximately 1300 individual changes from the previous beta, including fixes for stability, performance, memory usage, platform enhancements and user interface improvements. Many of these improvements were based on community feedback from the previous beta."

Update 3/10/08
Beta 4 available (as well as a pre version of 5, for the braver people wink).

Get it at the same URL.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

An Interview with Mark Russinovich

If you want to hear about the future of Windows technologies, the internals of Server 2008 and the future of Windows 7, look no further than this interesting interview with Mark Russinovich.

Mark is the founder of SysInternals who joined Microsoft as a Research Fellow. He is considered one of the foremost authorities of everything "internals".

In this interview he discusses joining Microsoft (loved the question: "how does it feel like joining the Death Star?" biggrin), his job description (manages no one, has no deadlines, studies new technologies and attempts to direct his colleagues in the right direction. Sounds like what I would like to do. Anyone from Microsoft reading this? A link to my resume is on the upper right corner biggrin) and the way new OS kernels will be designed.

Along the way he touches on new technologies like SSD, NUMA, HyperV (Microsoft version of the Hypervisor paradigm) and their impact on future versions of the OS. In one of the most interesting parts of the interview, Mark takes to the whiteboard and draws the structure of the x86 kernel and its relations to HyperV.

You can get the interview here as a streamed video, downloaded video or MP3 file.
I recommend watching it to anyone involved in developing for the Windows platform.

Get Your XP SP3 Right Here!

As expected, Microsoft today made the Release Candidate of SP3 available to the public.

While the GA version is planned to be released sometimes in H1/2008, you can try the RC- it's stable and you'd notice some performance enhancements. No big UI changes or features though.

Get it here. And read my opinion of it in the Vista SP1 review post (the link to SP1 itself can be found here).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Bubble" Video is Back

2 weeks ago I posted the New Bubble Video. A couple of days later, a photographer from San Francisco "noticed" that one of the thousands of images used in the video (all of them of VCs, CEOs, famous bloggers etc.) was hers. She whipped out her lawyer, and had YouTube take down the video. My link suddenly pointed to NULL.

Yesterday, the guys who published the video, the Richter Scales, re-published it as "Bubble 1.1". That specific image was pulled out and a list of references to all the other source material was added at the end. The link works again - and the video is still very relevant.

Google Helps Track Flights

As part of their effort to assist the traveling crowd over the holiday, Google just launched "Flight status search" together with

Just pop in your airline and flight number, and get an up to date status on that flight:

Here's hoping they'll keep this service running beyond the holidays (and think Blackberry here - a great an easy way to receive free status updates on a mobile device).

Gadget Review - Samsung P2 PMP

As I've promised in an earlier column, here's my review of the Personal Media Player I bought, the Samsung P2.

Brief Description
The P2 is an 8GB flash-based media player. It is operated through a 3-inch widescreen LCD touchscreen. The screen is extremely bright and readable under various light conditions. It has a built in FM radio, a built in Bluetooth support (more on that later) and built in support for podcasts (which Samsung calls "datacasts" - everything to avoid the Pod word smile).

The device itself is small and thin - easily slipped into your shirt's pocket.

Playback Quality
The player's audio playback is superb - on par, and even surpassing the iPod's quality (to my ears). It supports many equalizer pre-sets and allows manual tinkering as well.

Video playbeack is clear and seamless. This is where the LCD screen shines (pardon the pun).
Contrast is great and brightness can be tuned.

Supported Formats
The P2 supports the MP3 and WMA audio formats, with various bitrates.

For video playback, it supports WMV and its internal SVI format - both are MP4 based. Luckily, it's possible to convert every known format to these 2 (figure about 20 minutes to convert a 2 hour movie) with the software supplied.

For images, it supports JPEG only.

The battery will hold for 35 hours of music playback time and for about 5 hours of video playback. So far, following a long domestic flight + a l-o-n-g transatlantic flight, I'm satisfied with the battery's performance.

The PMP is charged through a proprietary (what else?) USB cable. Since I don't like being dependent on a computer, I've added about $3 more and got a USB wall charger - just plug your USB cable in and plug into the wall.

FM Radio
The radio works extremely well. I got to try it in 2 different countries (US and Israel). Just set the country in your FM type and you're good to go. The radio provides auto and manual presets (up to 30 of them). Radio playback consumes less battery than media files playback - but of course, you don't buy a PMP for its radio functionality smile.

This functionality allows you to pair the player with bluetooth headphones or speakers. A promised firmware upgrade (scheduled for end of December) will allow pairing the player with your cell phone. When a call comes in, the music will mute and you can use the player's built in player to talk, without the need to locate your phone.

Another important functionality that will be added in a future firmware will allow synchronizing the device to your media library over the air - no more need for cables.

The player supports pairing with up to 30 devices simultaneously (although who needs so many, I don't know). Bear in mind that turning Bluetooth on would consume more battery power.

The PMP has a calendar, a world clock, and an alarm clock - so far, not that great. It also has a built in text reader (for .txt files) and here I was surprised: due to the great screen contrast, text comes out highly readable. The touchscreen provides a flick-like interface, allowing you to "turn pages", or just scroll through the files.

The photo browser is great - again, due to the screen's quality and the touch/flick activity, allowing you to browse through your photo collection easily. It also supports a slide show mode, 4 levels of zoom and horizontal/vertical aspects.

Ease of Use
The touch interface is extremely easy to navigate: you scroll your finger around and choose the function (music, video, photos, radio etc.). If you don't like the scroll-like menu, you can revert to a simpler, matrix-like menu structure.

The player also has 4 "hard" buttons: a Pause/Start button, 2 volume buttons and a Hold button. That means you're always one click away from stopping the music - an annoyance with other players I've tested, that rely on touch interface only. I highly recommend using the Hold button once you start playing. Since every other function is driven by the touchscreen, the tiniest pressure would turn on the screen, or jump to the next song.

Media files are sorted by artist, album, genre etc. - just like on an iPod. Unlike the iPod though, you can control the internal file structure of the player. Combine that with playlist functionality and you can navigate your files in any way you choose. Anything that makes sense to you can be defined.

While playing a song, you can change the screen to show the album details, cover art, an equalizer, or 3 more visualizations. A flick of your finger (called "horizontal stroke") can be configured to jump 1, 5, 10, 30, or 60 seconds ahead or backwards - depending on the flick's direction.
It took me a couple of minutes to understand that right-to-left is forward and left-to-right is backwards - quite counter-intuitive in the US.

There are 2 things that bother me a bit with the interface:
  1. the player assumes all users have petite fingers (not so on my case) and I find myself hitting the wrong choice on the screen more often than I want. Samsung does include a graphic recommending how to hold the player to avoid such errors, but I find myself slip by just trying to hit a part of the screen and hitting another instead. I hope I'll get used to it in time.

  2. The Samsung Media Studio software. It's not really intuitive and definitely not as polished as iTunes. I find myself transferring files again, because the ID3 tags got jumbled.

    The nice part is - this is no locked down iPod: you can mange the files through the Windows explorer directly, or through Windows Media Player (WMP 10 and 11 supported), so I got around the Samsung software.
The Price
The 4GB model will set you back $200 and the 8GB model will set you back $240 (compared to $150 and $200 for the 4 and 8GB iPod Nano models). But the touchscreen, the FM radio and the bluetooth functionality are well worth the premium, in my opinion.

The player is available in black, white and burgundy.

Bottom Line
I've had the player for a bit over a week now, and so far it's highly recommended. The sound quality, the capacity, the video playback and the overall design are great.

I cannot wait for the bluetooth upgrades: being able to use the player as a headphone for my cellphone means I will no longer miss calls. The ability to synch over-the-air would be great too. And something tells me that a sound recorder capability will be added in the future (the player already has a microphone - why waste it?)

On the cons side, you'll find the minor inaccuracies of the touch interface, the packaged synchronization software (that can be ignored, as far as I'm concerned) and the pricey price.

I give the Samsung P2 4.5/5 stars.

Next time: the second surprising gadget I bought this holiday season...

Firmware updates can be found here.

Update 12/22/07
The promised patch arrived on 12/20 (v. 2.08). I can now use my P2 as a handset for my Blackberry through Bluetooth. The P2 can also hold contacts from the phone and battery consumption is slightly improved.

Update 2/1/08
The second promised upgrade (v. 3.07) just delivered some intersting features:
  • You can now record the radio
  • You can delete songs from the player (without using a PC)
  • Few additions to photo navigation
  • Control of video wide screen
  • An A->B play mode
  • Games. And at least one is quite fun
And best of all, unlike iPhone upgrades, it's free! More to come (I hope)...

Update 2/20/2008
Version 3.15 of the firmware just published. Several bug fixes, more games.
Also, the Korean version of the patch contains some interesting Korean-only content: Korean-English dictionary, subway map of Seoul... Will we get it too eventually?
This cool video compares the first and second patch generations.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Out of Office

I'm leaving tomorrow on my holiday vacation. I'll try to update my blog from time to time, but
expect sporadic posts only. Expect more digests than usual smile.

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Download This! - Learn Visual Studio 2008

A cool new way to learn and try VS 2008. Now available from Microsoft is a Virtual Machine called "Rhythm Training":
The Visual Studio 2008 Rhythm Training VPC contains a pre-configured installation of Windows Server 2003, Visual Studio 2008 Team Suite, and the Visual Studio 2008 Training Kit. The training kit includes 20 hands-on-labs, 28 presentations, and 20 scripted demos for
technologies such as LINQ, C# 3.0, Visual Basic 9, WCF, WF, WPF, ASP.NET Ajax, VSTO, the .NET Compact Framework, and more.

This virtual machine does not have anti-virus installed. It should not be connected to a public network. In addition, the operating system and programs installed were patched with all updates as of December 11, 2007. If you use the included VMC configuration files, you will find networking is not enabled.

Time Limit
This virtual machine has a time limit. The virtual machine will stop working and require activation on March 8, 2008.

What’s Installed
This virtual machine is running Windows Server 2003, Office 2007 Enterprise, and Visual Studio 2008 Team Suite (90-day trial).

Download it here, and download VPC 2007 here (free).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Holiday Shopping Tips

Any self respecting tech blog has to have Christmas shopping tips. Here are a couple I came across last week, while shopping for the ultimate PMP (not a pimp - a Personal Media Player biggrin):
  1. Vulture mode - CompUSA is going out of business. They've already went through a wave of store closures, but beginning the end of the holidays and ending in March, they'll close the remaining 103 stores, and realize the real estate value.
    Very bad for the CompUSA employees, being sacked before Christmas - very good for sales hunters. Expect huge "going out of business" sales at your local branch.

  2. Circuit City - you can order almost anything, and select "store pickup" as your shipping method. This would allow you to pick it up immediately (if it's in stock).
    If you went the other way around (went to the store before visiting the site), the store will match any online deal. They'd just use a browser, and order it for you online, with "store pickup" smile).

  3. And speaking of Circuit City, their online deals last from Sunday to Saturday. I've ordered something on Saturday night for a store pickup, went that Sunday - and the deal was off. Ended up buying on Amazon - added a 2 day shipping and it was still cheaper smile.

  4. Fry's Electronics return policy is so great (14-30 days, full money back, no excuses), that I swear the return line is longer than the checkout line smile.
So which PMP did I pick, and why? That merits a whole new post.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Get Your Vista SP1 Right Here!

In a sudden move, Microsoft today released Vista SP1 Release Candidate to the general public.

SP1 was available to beta testers for 6 months and has recently become available to MSDN subscribers.
Clearly Microsoft feels that a drastic move is needed to stem the tide of people reverting back to XP, or (gasp!) looking for alternatives in Linux-land. Otherwise, I can't explain why an RC version, which surely has its share of bugs, is made available to the public.

Here's the latest example I've read today: the new Toshiba T31 will ship with both Vista and XP.

You can read about my test drive of SP1 here, and download it yourself here.

Fermat's Last Theorem

One day in the summer of 1993, my Math professor invited me and a couple of other students, to join him for a lecture at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He promised us a fascinating lecture. A British mathematician called Andrew Wiles will outline what he claimed to be his conclusive proof to Fermat's Last Theorem.

This, to us sounded a bit like science fiction. People have been trying to prove FLT ever since it was found in Fermat's notebook in 1637. Many people were lured in by its seeming simplicity, only to waste the best years of their lives in vain. Prizes were offered, careers were built and ruined, mathematicians were driven mad by their failure at finding a proof.

FLT states that:
If an integer n is greater than 2, then the equation an + bn = cn has no solutions in non-zero integers a, b, and c.
For n=2 we're looking at Pythagoras's theorem. But for n>2 FLT claims you cannot find any combination of 3 integers to fill the equation - and that's it's beauty: it's claim that a solution can never be found. This claim made in a generation that didn't even know what infinity (as a numerical concept) means and had no access to computers.

In the margins of the book, Pierre de Fermat added in his own handwriting:

"I have a truly marvelous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain."
Which would be like me saying: "I have found a really simple way to generate cold fusion and solve all of mankind's energy problems forever, but I cannot be bothered to write it down".
And indeed, even today many mathematicians and historians think Fermat never had any proof and furthermore, hadn't the necessary tools to prove it in his life time.

Back to my story: the biggest auditorium in the Weizmann institute was overcrowded. Despite us getting there an hour in advance, we only got standing space at the back of the room. An air of a rock concert was in the air. And as mathematicians go, you can't get anything more exciting than an age old conundrum solved in front of a crowd.

Andrew Wiles came up to the podium, and for an hour and a half went through his proof, building it meticulously, block by block, starting with number theory, advancing through various algebra fields and culminating in the field that brought him worldwide fame (and later knighthood) - Elliptic curves.

I lost him after 20 minutes. My colleagues last him a bit later. Our professor, and most of the crowd - all of whom were mathematicians, grad students and advanced scientists - lost him within the first hour. I doubt if there were more than 1-2 people in the room who could follow through.

Wiles's proof hit a snag a couple of months later, when later that year he found a gap in his proof. It took him another year and by the end of 1994, after dedicating more than 7 years of his life, and betting his career, Wiles's proof was officially recognized and the FLT case was closed.

I would recommend learning more about FLT, and the efforts to prove it over the centuries, not for the math behind it, but to review the genius and single-mindedness people applied to this problem and to recognize that new fields and advancements in math, physics and many other sciences were discovered during this search.

And here's how you'd get this knowledge: read Simon Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem (link on the left).

Intended for non mathematicians, and even for people who hate math, the book is read like a fine history book. From the days of Pythagoras, through the middle ages, renaissance and modern days, the history of this amazing theorem and its predecessors is woven with the lives of people, places and states of mind. Along the way, the book will throw some quizzes at you and you'll find yourself enjoying math (sometimes despite yourself).

And if you like Singh and the way he writes and describes even the most complex concepts in a clear and simple way, be sure to check out an earlier recommendation of mine, The Code Book.

How to get your developers to appreciate your customers?

When you're a developer, sometimes 4-5 organizational levels removed from your actual user, it's easy to fall in love with your code and technology, and forget that you actually develop for your customers.

I've been on that side for years: I used to demonize "whiny customers" with their "bizarre demands" and "crazy deadlines". And if this attitude is allowed to continue (or worse, encouraged) by management, and if those feeling continue to fester, pretty soon the company is divided into 2 camps: those that are in constant touch with customers (support, sales, etc.) vs. those that aren't (R&D, QA etc.).

Everyone thinks he's right and the other side "just doesn't understand" (see Benford's Law).
Field guys seem to think developers ("geeks") forget where the money comes from.
Developers are sure that if the field guys ("idiots who know nothing of technology") would just understand the pressure, technological constraints and crazy deadlines they face, they'd stop making all that noise.

And you know what? Both sides are right. And wrong.

I Started my career as a developer and lived deep inside my beautiful code. Anyone who interfered with my nice implementations and learning new technologies was the enemy.

Then, as a project manager, I started venturing out and meeting my customers (usually during initial deployments or crisis situations) and my eyes half-opened. I started seeing the customer's side, but still resented the fact they tried to screw up with my meticulous MS Project schedules.

My eyes opened all the way in my current position. Today, I'm managing mostly customer facing activities, and let me tell you, Karma is a bitch smile.
I started identifying with my customers' needs, to the point where I blame developers for "not understanding" the needs of the customers.

But enough about me. How do other companies prevent this internal strife and how do they promote customer understanding and respect amongst developers?

Why not ask Werner Vogels, Amazon's CTO? In a recent interview (quite long, but interesting) he said:
We have a lot of feedback coming out of customer service. Many Amazonians have to spend some time with customer service every two years, actually listening to customer service calls, answering customer service e-mails, really understanding the impact of the kinds of things they do as technologists. This is extremely useful, because they begin to understand that our user base is not necessarily the techno-literate engineer.
(I actually found this quote in this Coding Horror post - read it to get another take on the subject - and keep reading, it because it's good.).

So, getting your developers to do a short tour-of-duty with customer support, once in a while, might cure their misconception. It may even give them great ideas about new features, or code fixes, needed to ease the pains of customers.

On the other hand, I'd recommend a tour of the R&D facility by field personnel once in a while. This would put faces to names of people you only had phone/email communication with before. It would also help explaining constraints (time/technology/personnel) and improve communication.

But most importantly, it would would bring the company together.
Ultimately, without developers, sales people will have no product to sell. Without customers, no one would pay developers a handsome salary to implement another design pattern. All it requires to achieve this change is (as always), smart, open-minded managers.

But this is a subject for another post.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Technological Digest VI

Another week, another digest:
  1. Is the OLPC BS? - I've previously written about the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative, and thought it was a good idea, but reading John C. Dvorak's latest column, made me doubt myself. I recommend reading his searing opinion, about how offering a laptop to kids who have no water, food and electricity (let alone basic literacy levels) is akin to Marie-Antoinette's immortal "let them eat cake". You don't necessarily have to agree with him, but he does attempt to explain why Google is so interested in the project...

  2. Green screen of death? - in other OLPC news, Microsoft announced they'll attempt to install a version of Windows XP on the OLPC, so the rest of the world won't be deprived of the joy that is Windows. Microsoft originally objected to the project, then announced they'll assist Intel in developing a cheap laptop and now they're - well not really embracing it - but tentatively testing the waters.

    And you know what? I applaud the effort. Time and again Microsoft has proven they can reassess situations, change their mind and even go 180 degrees if needed, in order to succeed. In business, as in life, i appreciate companies that admit to mistakes and adopt agile thinking, to companies that will not let reality stand in the way of their vision.

    Of course, it still remains to be seen what would be the final price of a $200 OLPC with Windows XP on it...

  3. Build web applications using "only the materials in the room" - Microsoft announced another new technology called "Volta". In layman's terms, it allows you to keep developing regular .Net client applications (C++, C#, VB.Net) and Volta will turn them into n-tier web applications automatically. Sounds intriguing and I'll keep an eye out for that. Read more here.

  4. SP3 - As I've written 2 days ago, I'm currently testing both Vista SP1 and XP SP3. I've included a link to SP1's changelog, here's the link to SP3's chamgelog.
    My impression so far: it does improve performance (both speed and memory consumption).

  5. Don't touch my stuff! - Western Digital, the hard disk maker, found it's way into the crosshairs of every technology blog out there this weekend. It appears that WD decided to block sharing of multimedia files hosted on MyBook external hard disks. This list contains all the blocked types: avi, mov, divx, mp3, aac.. etc. This is "due to unverifiable media license authentication". Let me make sure I understand: I buy a 1TB hard disk, put MY files on it, attach it to MY home network and I can't share it between MY users, because WD thinks I stole the file?

    What the hell were they thinking? What's next? Censorship? ("you are not allowed to host your porn collection on our disk. Also, that letter you wrote to the editor of NY Times has been deemed deemed inappropriate. A report has been sent to RIAA and Homeland Security - expect visitors").

    Of course it didn't take long for a hack to be found - but people are not paying good money in order to hack their product (unless its name begins with an "i" smile).

    Bottom line: don't buy WD disks. There are plenty of good external HDs out there that are agnostic to their content.

  6. Another beta - And finally, Microsoft has started a beta of the new Microsoft Download site. The design matches all the "Live" sites. I like it, but would like it much more if it'll have a more advanced search feature. Right now, I get too many results, spanning too many years, when I look for something (click to enlarge).

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Is Enterprise Software Sexy?

Last week, Bill Gates bemoaned the fact that tech bloggers (is he talking to me?) don't cover enterprise software enough.

Robert Scoble (an ex-Microsftee) picked up the glove, and in his post explained that even though enterprise software such as SAP, Oracle, Siebel etc. is used by millions,the purchase decisions are made by a limited group of people in the organizations - sometimes just one (the CIO).

As such, it loses interest for the multitude of users, who have no say and are basically "stuck" with that software. And since his blog is intended to appeal to the masses, he'll keep covering "sexy" software, that the rest of us can decide whether to buy or not.

Immediately after his post being published, came a reply from Michael Krigsman, who blogs about enterprise software for ZDNet. He claims Scoble "Does not understand enterprise software". Enterprise software should not be sexy, claims Krigsman, just do its job. And users of enterprise software do not want to be "thrilled" by it, just get the job done. There is crowd for such blogs (of course he'd say that, or he might as well quit).

Other than the fact that I like blog feuds as much as the next guy, this argument resonated with me. I work for a company that manufactures enterprise software. And, unlike many such apps I see out there, ours is really SEXY (believe me - I'm trying to be as objective as I can). But blogging about it to the masses? I didn't think it fitted into this tech-n-travel blog. Not to mention the fact that in order to talk freely, this blog has to be completely disconnected from my employer (and I had to add a disclaimer).

But since I like blogging, and the software and sharing knowledge, I've decided to start another blog dedicated to said software. I realize the crowds of the two blogs may differ: this blog can be read casually, books bought, downloads downloaded - no commitment. The other will be more involving, containing plenty of details and technical material.

At present, I'm filling it up with articles, but once it's ready for prime time, I'll include a link.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

I Know What You've Typed Last Summer

A keylogger is a tool used by hackers to record any keystroke on your keyboard into a log file. That file is then sent to the hacker's computer, masked between normal packets.
After analysis, the hacker can glean user names, passwords, credit card numbers and other personal information. And if he doesn't intend to do anything with this info personally - he can always sell it (believe it or not, there's an eBay-like site for hacked information).

"Bah!", I hear you say, "In order for a keylogger to operate on my machine, a trojan, or another spyware has to install it. And I have my anti-virus up to date, my anti-spyware software constantly scanning, and I've stopped clicking attachments from people I don't know a while ago, after that incident. I'm safe!".

To that I say "OH REALLY?!". What's that nifty keyboard you're using? A wireless keyboard from Microsoft? With a 100 feet range? Good for you! And for any hacker within a 100 feet of you.

A couple of German hackers just published the results of their research (PDF file), aptly named "We know what you've typed last summer" smile, about hacking wireless keyboards remotely. While they don't give a step-by-step (for obvious reasons), the bottom line is: if you're using a wireless keyboard, a hacker need not install anything on your machine to get your keystrokes.

Their research shows that, while the data packets sent from the keyboard to the computer are "encrypted" (and I use that term loosely - they found out the encryption is actually achieved by XORing the value - meaning there are just 256 possible encryption keys. This means even your calculator has enough CPU power to brute-force it's way through the encryption, let alone a modern computer), the control packets (the ones in charge of synching the keyboard to its receiver and relaying other information) are not encrypted at all, yielding a wealth of information that assists in the hacking.

Currently they claim, that by the time you've typed 20-50 keys, they "have you". They even posted a flash video on their site, showing 3 keyboards hacked at the same time. Scary stuff.

So far, they've hacked Microsoft and Logitech keyboards (keyboards operating in the 27Mhz range) and are looking forward to test the next generation of Logitech keyboards that support "Secure Connect" an advanced encryption. My assumption is they'll break those as well.

To date, there's NO WAY to patch a wireless keyboard - the "encryption" is burned into the keyboard's ROM. For me, it's back to the good ol' USB keyboard.

Vista SP1 Test Drive

Earlier today, I've installed the Vista SP1 on my real machine (as opposed to my VM, where it was installed a while ago).

SP1 Release Candidate is now available to MSDN subscribers, having passed the beta phase. Some say it's Microsoft's last chance in redeeming this much maligned operating system.

SP1 does not add any new features. It's main purpose is to deliver reliability and performance improvements, as well as some hardware compatibility. Along the way, Microsoft closes some security holes, and boosts the performance of IE 7. For the full list of "features", read this blog post, or the Microsoft Official change log. Here's a description of my personal experience:

Prepare to spend a little over an hour, with 3-4 restarts. If your machine, like mine, is a dual boot (XP is still my main OS), you'll need to be in attendance of every reboot to make sure it comes back to Vista. Prepare to spend 30 minutes staring at the phrase: "Now updating: step 2 of 3: 23% done".

The result

As you can see, the version now shows Service Pack 1, with the RC version 668. The good news is that memory now finally shows 4GB of RAM instead of 3.32GB it showed so far (oh, really? more later). The bad is that even with a Dual Core 2 and 4GB of Ram, my computer is only rated 3.1 (out of the 5.9 available) on performance. (Sorry Microsoft, I promise that my next installation of Vista will be on a Cray supercomputer - maybe then I'll manage to get to 4 smile).

Going in and out of hibernation used to be one of my main pet peeves with Vista so far. Since Vista is installed on my laptop, I sometimes want to preserve the current state, turn off the laptop, and carry on in a couple of minutes (e.g. when the plane finally gets to 10,000 feet). But the time it took Vista to wake up was longer than a full restart!
Now going into hibernation takes the same amount of time it takes on my XP (probably due to the memory size) - but the biggest improvement is coming out of hibernation - major speed improvement! Well, one problem solved.

Overall performance looks better. I've originally set Firefox to be my default browser (due to IE's pale performance and lack of add-ons), but will give IE 7 a chance - it certainly takes less memory than Firefox.

Speaking of memory, although the main properties page shows 4GB,
it seems like the OS is still reporting a lower number. Task Manager still reports 3.317GB. And the Multi Meter gadget shows 32% of memory consumed - 1GB - with no application running!
This means you have to have at the very least 1GB of memory to survive and at least 2GB to work. Talk about a resource-hungry OS (compare to Leopard and Ubuntu - both can run on 512MB machines and deliver the same features).

Unlike earlier RC versions of service packs, this one can be uninstalled when the GA version arrives (so you do not need to reinstall the system).

All in all, a performance improvement can be felt throughout the system - bringing Vista up close to an XP level. And that's saying a lot - if the best you could do is avoid regression.
I do recommend this SP1 to any Vista user, but I wouldn't recommend Vista on the whole.

Note: together with SP1 for Vista, Microsoft released SP3 RC for XP. I've yet to test it on my main machine, but it seems to be doing quite well on an XP VM. Which brings to mind the following question:
  • assume Vista + SP1 == XP + SP2
  • and XP + SP3 > XP +SP2 (performance wise)
than what needs to happen for Vista to get it to XP + SP3 level?
And why would Microsoft shoot themselves in the foot by releasing a service pack for an older OS? Could it be a hint? Read item 4 in this post to see what IT professionals think.

Update 1/14/2008:
Read about the newer SP1 version, Refresh, here. The article also contains a download link.

Update 2/20/2008:
Look at some SP1 updates here.

Update 3/18/2008:
Finally! 7 months after this post was originally published - the final version was released today and made available through Windows Update.

There's also a standalone version of it (about 660MB download) and even a Vista version with SP1 integrated (available to MSDN subscribers).

If your Windows Update doesn't pick it, remove any beta version of the SP and reboot. It took me 3 restarts and a lot of patience until the SP appeared in my Windows Update applet.

This is what the final result looks like:

As you can see, it now just states "Service Pack 1" - no version number, and no annoying "Evaluation Version" label on the desktop.

No other differences in behavior than the beta versions. It's still faster on startups, shutdowns, and hibernation, but overall still slower than XP.

It won't recognize all the functionalities of my All-In-One printer (Dell AIO 926) - it has drivers available for download, but the installation fails time and again. I'll check with Dell to see if they have a solution.

Friday, December 7, 2007

My Linq Article

As you must have noticed by now, I'm trying to limit the heavy technical .Net to my other blogs/articles. But if you are interested in reading about my first experience with Visual Studio 2008, unit testing and Linq (Language INtegrated Query), look no further than my last CodeProject article: LINQ Performance Test: My First Visual Studio 2008 Project.

Also feel free to look at my other CodeProject articles (link on the upper right side). Don't forget to vote!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Facebook Poaches Google Employees

I've heard this rumor in the valley about a month ago: seems like many people in Google are packing and moving to the next gold mine: Facebook.

With the Google stock at an all time high, the chance of hitting the jackpot at Google right now is slim to none. The "bonanza" (i.e. people becoming millionaires) is way behind us.

Facebook, however, has its future ahead of it. And getting Facebook options now, after the Microsoft's investment inflated Facebook's valuation to $15bn is akin to getting Microsoft stock in 1981.

And then I ran across this Techcrunch post. Not only does it confirm that numerous key people left Google for Facebook, and that 2-4 people a month keep migrating, but it bemoans the fact that Facebook "poached" TechCrunch's product manager, Ben Meyer, by promising him some options (and, one would assume, a better salary than TechCrunch - a startup, could offer).

Michael Arrington, TechCrunch's CEO doesn't take this lying down - he actually asks for any negative Facebook story people can provide, so he could publish it on TechCrunch's blog.

Poaching has been practiced for years. There's actually a whole branch of recruitment called "headhunting" which specializes in locating people in managerial and executive positions at company A, digging up their salaries, benefits and career goals and having company B top those wishes. This way you get an experienced person, with a proven track record. And if s/he was (relatively) underpaid, you get them at market value.

(By the way, there's a link to my resume on the upper right side of this page. Poach me, Facebook! wink).

Noncompete Agreements Kill Innovation

Noncompete agreements are used by companies to make sure their former workers will not jump over to their competitors, taking with them precious proprietary knowledge. Of course, those agreements do not take into account the employee's right to choose his employer and earn an honest living.

All of us who work at the software industry, had to sign a NCA at one time or another. I remember reading through my first NCA years ago, looking at the long list of potential competitors to my employer and wondering "can anyone really enforce this agreement?"

I know a guy who worked in a very specialized part of the industry, with a limited number of companies competing in the same space. When treated like crap by his employer, he up and left to join the competition. His former employer sued him, probably to set an example for any future deserters.

But the judge didn't see the NCA as committing. In a ruling I still find funny to read, he said that due to the fact this guy's employment opportunities are limited, he can only be expected to stay at home and not work. Therefore, his former employer should pay him a full salary to stay at home and not compete. That - or let him work wherever he pleases. Furthermore, he charged the former employer the entire trial costs, plus compensation for time lost by the employee.

This interesting article deals with certain aspects of the NCA. It calls it "DRM for humans" and asserts that just like DRM (Digital Rights Management) hurt the recording industry, so will the hi tech industry suffer if stagnation kicks in, due to employees frozen by NCAs.

It further discusses the theory that Silicon Valley in California prospered while Boston's Route 128 stayed behind, due to the California's courts refusal to enforce NCAs.

Freedom as a success accelerant? I can subscribe to this theory.

What Will Be the Name of the Next IE?

In a short, but funny post in IEBlog, the official Microsoft blog of the Internet Explorer group, Dean Hachamovitch describes the names they've considered for the next release of IE (version 8):

  • IE 7+1
  • IE 1000 (think binary)
  • IE Eight!
  • iIE
  • IE for Web 2.0 (Service Pack 2)
  • IE Desktop Online Web Browser Live Professional Ultimate Edition for the Internet (the marketing team really pushed for this one ;-)
  • Ie2.079 (we might still use this for the Math Major Edition)
I liked the self humor (and coming from Microsoft, that's saying something).
Read the full post here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The (New) Bubble Song

Just got this link to a Youtube video from a friend.
It starts funny, but listen to the words: it's a set of current technology trends, set to the (possibly) recognizable tune of Billy Joel's "We didn't start the fire".

I've recognized (and experienced) almost every trend mentioned. Looks like we are indeed in the midst of another bubble cry.

And since the song specifically asks "blog this song", I'm contributing my tiny part in helping the bubble burst smile.

(Thanks for the link Yaniv)