Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Cars are Hungry in Raleigh

Currently visiting a customer at Raleigh, and I wanted to share 2 funny experiences:
  1. I heard my customer apologizing to a friend: "sorry I dropped the call, my Blackberry just hourglassed".

    Apparently, hourglass-ing is the state your Blackberry goes into when it freezes after an unhandled exception. I'm going to use it as a verb from now on razz.

  2. I just had to take a snapshot of this car:



    I just wonder what do they feed this car and who is its dentist smile.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

McAfee vs. Hackers

In my last digest, I mentioned McAfee, makers of (less than great) anti virus software, declared war on the hackers of the world, though a series of ads and road signs.

As I was sitting at SJC today, waiting for my flight to board, my eye caught some of those ads and I decided to snap some pics and upload them. Pardon the less-than-stellar exposure.


Hackers of the world, the ball is in your court wink.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Unrecognized Genius

This is a story about one of the greatest geniuses in history, whose name you (most probably) never heard before.

John Harrison approached the biggest problem in his generation: finding the longitude of a ship in the middle of the ocean.

Unlike today, when every $200 GPS will tell you where you are, with no more than a 1 meter error factor, no more than 2 centuries ago, ship captains couldn't calculate their exact locations and had to rely on star observations (hard to do on a stormy voyage) and arcane traditions to discern their longitude.

Several major disasters occurred, and trade and seamanship where limited to near-shorelines traffic (causing many fights on trade routes between seagoing nations).

It gotten to a point where huge sums of money were offered to the first person to offer a tried-and-true method to calculate the longitude in mid-ocean. Many grand scientists (chief amongst them is Sir Isaac Newton) took a shot at this problem, to various degrees of failure.

The book I'd like to recommend is Longitude: The true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time by Dava Sobel (as always, there's a link in the Amazon applet).

The book traces the roots of a problem, describing the historical and political situations and the reasons that drove nations to offer, cajole, and spy to get the solution to the greatest problem of their time. It describes the efforts of scientists, ordinary people and charlatans to solve this greatest of problems.

It also describes the life and efforts of John Harrison, the unrecognized genius, who indeed solved the problem, but got no prize or recognition - due to him not being "connected" enough, and not a good business man at all. His "sin"? Trying to solve the problem using "earthly" mechanical ways, rather than using the "divine" star observation methods.

You'll thrill at the trials and tribulations Harrison goes through with his invention. You'll sigh a "no you didn't!" when Harrison inadvertently reveals his secrets to competitors, without signing them to an NDA, and you'll fume when his opponents resort to dirty tactics to discredit his life's work and achievements.

All is documented in a clear, friendly language. The writer does her best to understand where and how events took place. She gives equal treatments to the "good" and "bad" people in the story, painting them all as people driven by existing knowledge and convictions, rather than malice.

This book is highly readable. It's concise (I finished it during one transatlantic flight) and will leave you wanting to learn more about the characters, the history and the mechanical genius creations of Harrison.

As for me, next time I'm in England (and have spare time), I'll take a day trip to Greenwich, to see the Royal Observatory (where GMT is measured daily) and Flamsteed House, where even today - almost 300 years later, Harrison's timekeepers still show the right time.

And as a last parting shot, the writer describes how the idea to write the book came to her while looking at the statue of Atlas holding the globe, on 5th Avenue in New York. For the benefit of those who didn't have the pleasure, here's a photo I took last Thanksgiving:

The photo at the top of the post is of Harrison's first prototype, the "H1". And here's a site that'll take you through a 3D tour of this marvelous creation.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Technological Digest IX

  1. Road signs in Silicon Valley are different than anywhere else in the US. Where else can you see signs trying to sell you a database, extol the virtues of XDR memory, or advertise the qualities of a server farm. My favorite is one of the mobile carriers, withe the tag line "we have ways to make you talk". Kinda reminds you of the KGB smile.

    But the latest is a string of ads from McAfee, with tag lines like "hackers hack code - we hack hackers" and "Hackers, prepare to be embarrassed".

    McAfee anti virus software is one of the worst out there (in many cases, my customers who suffered from performance issues, found out the McShield agent hogged their CPU and disk cycles). But regardless, it seems to me the hacker crowd is not one you want to agitate.
    I'm secretly crossing my fingers that hackers (whoever they are) take the challenge and embarrass McAfee.

  2. I loved the game Duke Nukem. It was one of the first first-person shooters for the PC, and had a funny story and an irreverent hero, spewing funny oneliners. Everyone has been waiting on the promised sequel, Duke Nukem Forever. But it seems like its name describes it's development schedule - it's almost 10 years late.
    Lately, 3D Realms, makers of Duke, released a short teaser to the game. I wasn't impressed. But what did make me chuckle, is their schedule commitment:
    The release date of this game is "When it's done". Anything else, and we mean anything else is someone's speculation. There is no date. We don't know any date. If you have a friend who claims they have "inside info", or there's some game news site, or some computer store at the mall who claims they know - they do not. They are making it up. There is no date. Period.
    Product managers of the world - that's how you publish a schedule - not. smile
    Read more here.

  3. According to this Engadget article, Apple has disabled it's OS X built debugger, DTrace, so people won't use it to subvert the iTunes DRM (also known as "FairPlay").
    Sure, some developers will suffer, but at least the RIAA will approve.
    My recommendation? Try SoftIce on a PC instead.

  4. And another one from Engadget: seems like Best Buy has sold virus-infected digital photo frames. If you never heard of it, essentially a DPF is a small LCD (5-8") with a storage unit. You connect it to your PC, upload some images and it will cycle through them. Cool device. When not virus-infected smile.

  5. Finally, in an embarrassing move for Microsoft, several hours after announcing the launch party of SQL 2008 on February 27th, one of its product mangers published on his blog a post titled "Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Roadmap Clarification", in which he claims the product is on-track (Microsoftese for: will be out 6 months after the planned date).

    The reason? You, yes you the reader, are the cause for Microsoft missing yet another deadline:
    "Microsoft is excited to deliver a feature complete CTP during the Heroes Happen Here launch wave and a release candidate (RC) in Q2 calendar year 2008, with final Release to manufacturing (RTM) of SQL Server 2008 expected in Q3. Our goal is to deliver the highest quality product possible and we simply want to use the time to meet the high bar that you, our customers, expect."

    "This does not in any way change our plans for the February 27 launch and we look forward to seeing many of you in Los Angeles"
    I just wished I knew the behind-the-scenes story here. Is it the marketing team jumping ahead of Product Management?

    And this ties up nicely to item #2. At least no one at 3D Realms invited the entire world to a party smile.
As you no doubt have noticed, my blog posts have dwindled this month. The reason is work, travel (and lots of it) and jet lag. Hopefully a weekend of rest will restore my creative faculties.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Technological Digest VIII

Some short observations this week:
  1. CES, the Consumers Electronics Show, was held in Las Vegas last week. I looked at the hundreds, nay, thousands of reports coming out of the show, and didn't find a single one worth mentioning.
    New plasma screens, flash cards, Bluetooth headphones... (yawn) - nothing we haven't seen before.

    Yes, it was Bill Gates's last CES keynote, but then again, in the last 3 years, everything was "Gate's last something".

    If you still want to get the play-by-play for this, Engadget did a pretty good job of (over) covering the entire show - dig for interesting gadgets here.

  2. On the other side of the Sierras, in San Francisco, Steve Jobs conducted his MacWorld show.
    As you may have heard, this year's "iPhone" is called MacBook Air - a thin (not the thinnest as claimed, but pretty close) notebook.
    When I saw it first (in real time, following the show online), I immediately thought "got to get me one of those!". I started adding another post to the "Beautiful PC" (here and here) series, when my eye caught the specs.

    Hold on! I'll be paying $1800 for what? 80Gb HD? a non-replaceable battery (iPod anyone?)? No network port? No DVD drive? Mono audio? One USB port?

    Hello Steve, are you there? Has the Design department taken over the company? Is the new Apple motto "Form over Functionality"?

    I think I'll sit this one out.

  3. A wave of major acquisitions last week: Oracle finally managed to snag BEA ($7.85bn). Sun, on the other hand, took over the open source community's favorite DB, MySQL ($1bn).

    I wonder what's the logic behind Sun's step - they were never a great software company, and irritating Microsoft, at this stage (after finally caving in and starting to sell Windows machines) is a sure way to wake up the Redmond giant (just ask Netscape RIP).

    Regardless, my suggestion is grab the latest version and its source - who knows if we'll ever see them again.

  4. Amazon is encountering resistance from the French government, on its free shipping initiative. I enjoy it immensely: every order over $25 is shipped to me free.
    But the French see that as an unfair competition to the local mom-and-pop bookstores. The court ordered a fine of 1000 Euro per day of violation.
    I guess Amazon are making way over a 1000 Euro a day - because they keep doing it.

    I wonder what will the French do when Walmart rolls over...

  5. Sears decided to fight Walmart on the "cheap PC" front, offering a $185 Linux PC.
    To remind you, Walmart's offering is $199 (read The Cheapest PC Available (Currently)).
    Well, it's actually $285 with a $100 mail-in rebate. I hate rebates. I'd rather pay $14 more and avoid it.

  6. Finally, here's something I saw online yesterday. This resonated with me so much (I just came back from refueling my car), that I decided to share it with you:

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Save Windows XP!

On June 30 2008, Microsoft is scheduled to stop support for Windows XP.

As we all know, the alternative (Vista) kinda sucks right now, and "7" is still too far in the future.
So InfoWorld have taken upon themselves to run a petition to save XP. Go there (http://weblog.infoworld.com/save-xp/) and sign.

I have signed already, and so have many others:

Monday, January 14, 2008

Vista SP1 RC Refresh Available

Microsoft released on Friday a newer version of the SP1 Release Candidate for Vista.

The newer version, dubbed "Refresh", requires uninstalling the earlier version of the SP, and installing 2 additional hotfixes.

I haven't tested it yet, but I hope it improves performance further. You can download Refresh here.

Usually, Microsoft does not release RC versions to the general public, and definitely not incremental improvements, but, as been noted before, they are with their backs to the wall with Vista.

On the same subject, read this funny post, of a user who upgraded FROM Vista (guess to which OS? smile).

Update 1/19/2008:
Just installed the Refresh version. The download contains is a cmd batch file and 2 documents. The batch adds 2 keys to your registry that will allow your Windows Update to see the new patch.

Installation is a major hassle: at least an hour to uninstall the existing SP1 version, one hour that the documentation asks you to wait between uninstalling the old version and installing the new one, and one more hour to install the new version. And I didn't even count the number of restarts (more than 5, closer to 10).

I'm not looking forward to installing the final release version - apparently the installation process will be the same.

I still can't notice any improvements over the previous version. My Windows version now shows 6.0.6001.744.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Would You Like Some Data?

I was always fascinated by data. More to the point, with consuming, analyzing and mining data for results, trends and predictions. In my opinion, utilizing facts collected in the past to predict the future is one of the greatest tasks of human existence.

Scientists do that every day. Trying to use past experiments to cure present and future illnesses, using theorems proved hundreds of years ago to solve problems our ancestors would never have dreamed about.

In this post, I'd like to look at 3 samples of data collection and analysis I've encountered this past week. I'll then discuss what attracted me to those samples and what do they represent (to me).

1. Proprietary data my @$$
If you ask Facebook, or any other social network, for demographic data (number of members, their nationalities, their sex and age) you'll get a puzzled look. This is "proprietary data". We don't share it with users for "privacy reasons" (which doesn't prevent us from discussing those numbers with our advertisers - a trustworthy bunch, I'm sure you'd all agree). In short, you join one of those networks, without knowing who your peers are.

Well, one Facebook user found a chink in the armor. Using a simple method, he managed to deduce the following (click the image to enlarge):

How did he do it? Did he hack the system? Did he use social engineering skills to get one of Facebook's employees to surrender the precious, proprietary data? None of the above.
All he did was go to the site's dating application, and look for women, specifying nothing (age, city, or any other preference), but the country. Repeat for men. Repeat for any country on the list. Throw into an Excel spreadsheet - and there you go: instant data mining.

Now, how many sites this can be repeated on, I wonder, before they force you to specify more criteria and limit your search? And even then, it just means more steps will need to be taken to collect the same data?

Add to that the fact that most social networks are now offering one API or another (like Google's OpenSocial, supported by several such networks, Facebook included) and you can see how easily data on those sites can be mined. If you force me to take more steps to get at your data, I'll just write a small algorithm that uses your API. A computer program is extremely efficient at iterating through tedious steps and accumulating numbers.

2. So, what browser are YOU using?
I use 2 services to tally the visitors data on this site. Both are free and unintrusive. From time to time, I compare the data I get from both and nod my head.
Here's last week's breakdown of the browsers used by you, my dear visitors:
1. Google Analytics data


2. SiteMeter data

According to Google, 71% of you are using Firefox and about 26.5% are using IE.
SiteMeter breaks it down by version and paints a different picture: Firefox (1+2+3+Mozilla) 38.3%, IE (4+5+6) 57.5%.
Since both sites usually agree on the total number of visitors (to within a 5% deviation), I find the difference in results confusing, to say the least.

A visitor's browser is determined by analyzing a string, submitted by your browser in the HTTP GET header, called the User Agent string. It looks like this: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1) meaning IE 6 on Windows XP. So how can 2 sites analyze the same amount of strings and arrive at such disparate results? And who do I trust here?

3. Where's the best place to live?
I stumbled upon the last sample in the latest PC Magazine. utilizing 3 different sites and correlating job offers from dice.com, house prices from trulia.com and domestic data from homefair.com, they managed to present this interesting table:
Evidently, it's best to work at San Jose, have a wife in New York City and buy a house (or several) in Philadelphia. Clearly, crossing information from several sources yields some unexpected trends.
[BTW, I'm missing a row here with data from Raleigh, NC - another booming hi-tech community. If any of my friends there cares to find that data for me, I'll be glad to publish it].

So, today we have seen you can get at any raw data, regardless of how much it's being protected; you can cross-reference data from different sources to find hidden trends; but, you can't always trust data that's offered to you for free.

And if you take one thing from this post it's this: with data, it's more important to know which questions to ask, than to look at answers (and a tip of the hat to Douglas Adams who has concluded the same years ago. In his 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy', 42 is the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, but no one knows what the question is).

[To read some more about my fascination with data, start with Set your dark data free! and Lab Tour. More can be found throughout the blog.]

Update 1/12/2008:
I just noticed a strange behavior in this post. Whenever you click to enlarge one of the images in Firefox, you may get a blank screen. In IE, you get the right image. This has something to do with the way Google hosts those images, as I can't view them in FF even outside the blog.
Strange... could this be related to the post's content rolleyes?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Internet at 33,000 Feet

The announcements by some airlines (and airplane companies, such as Boeing) that they'd start providing in-flight internet access soon, generated some mixed feelings.

On the one hand, it's another great way to distract yourself and while away the long hours. Not to mention a chance to keep in touch and get some work done (if that's what you're after).

On the other, it now means all kinds of online activities that were so far limited to home (chatting, Skyping, even surfing for porn) will be carried out in a crammed, limited space. Or as this AP article aptly put it:
Seat 17D is yapping endlessly on an Internet phone call. Seat 16F is flaming Seat 16D with expletive-laden chats. Seat 16E is too busy surfing porn sites to care. Seat 17C just wants to sleep.

Welcome to the promise of the Internet at 33,000 feet — and the questions of etiquette, openness and free speech that airlines and service providers will have to grapple with as they bring Internet access to the skies in the coming months.

So it may well be that airlines will try to censor the internet traffic - but if you've read my blog before (see TOR in How to Hide Your IP), you know this method is not bulletproof.

The flip side is this Ars Technica article, whose writer maintains that internet is already available in public places (cafes, libraries etc.) today and that people do a very good job of censoring themseleves and limiting their impact on their environment.

My take on this is, that while people are pretty good at policing themselves and behaving in a (relatively) normative way in crowds, airplane rides are an exception - they are extremely pressured and limited environments, containing people from different cultures, for long periods of time. Clashes are inevitable. And if airline censoring can prevent close to 90% of those people from accessing offensive content - then that's the way to go.

Today, though, I became aware of another problem stemming from internet availability on planes: Boeing intends to build internet connectivity infrastructure into its new plane, the 787 Dreamliner (the same was planned by Airbus for its A380 - not sure how that went). I read this morning in a USA Today article (a paper I only read at hotels - and then, only because they drop it on my door step every morning smile) that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is warning Boeing that this infrastructure might expose the airplanes to cyber attacks.

The FAA fears that malicious hackers may attempt to take control of the plane (that actually utilizes the internet to update ground stations along the way with its status) through the
internet connection available to passengers. I imagine Boeing has a set of firewalls in place, to separate between the passengers net and the airplane net, but I would thing some kind of physical barrier is required. Because one fact has been proven time and again: hackers are much more ingenious than security experts.

So if we don't want people hijacking airplanes with just keyboards, and for all our sakes, I suggest Boeing hires the best hackers out there, challenge them to hack the system, and close the holes when they do.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Just Because You're Paranoid, Doesn't Mean THEY are not Watching You

Let me start this post at it's end: DON'T use your workplace's network for private usage, if you don't want it documented.

A few weeks back, a friend of mine has been happily IMing on Live Messenger from his office. During our discussion, he typed "WTF?" (Where's the fire? wink) when suddenly the following message popped up on his screen (the name of his company has been removed):
So, not only does "Big Brother" now read his conversations (no doubt saving them for later analysis) but it even decides what's "potentially malicious". Next stop: enforcing political agenda?

My friend has since told me this message has popped up on strange occasions, with absolutely nothing in the conversation's content to invite it. So either the filtering algorithm is screwed up, or, even more disturbingly, those messages are shot out by smart asses in his IT department manually.

Ok, so I've learned my lesson: I either avoid IMing on my corporate network altogether, or I use Pidgin, which connects to all major IM networks (Live/MSN, Yahoo, GTalk, AOL) AND allows encrypting the messages' content (get it here) - which, of course, means convincing the other side to switch to Pidgin as well.

But today, I saw the following ad in PC Magazine, for Spector 360 - "Company Wide Employee Monitoring software" (does this come straight out of KGB Software Inc.?). And here are the major selling points of said software:
To me, this is spyware all over again. Only this time, you actually pay for it (rather than getting it off an unidentified email attachment).

Use the list above as a warning sign. Don't do any of the above in your office.
I especially like #5: "your employees have realized they are working for someone who spies on them, and are trying to leave. Get the jump on them and fire them before they manage to find a new job".

Couple this office spying with the fact that more and more employers follow your out-of-office online life as well (see item 1 in this digest) and you start getting the feeling nobody is safe.
But then, I'm sure all records end up on a big NSA disk somewhere anyhow.

3 years ago, Sun's CEO, Scott McNeally was quoted saying "What privacy? Privacy is dead".
Guess the man knew what he was talking about sad.

Finally, let me recommend this excellent Slate article titled "Secret Surfing: How to keep prying eyes away from your Web browser, e-mail, and IM".

Friday, January 4, 2008

Israeli Thoughts

As my vacation/work trip to Israel draws (sadly) to a close, here are some random thoughts, travel tips and tidbits from the last 3 weeks:


  1. When staying at a hotel in Israel, you get different levels of service, based on the language you speak. My recommendation: stick to English (even if you're fluent in Hebrew). rolleyes
    Still, an unblocked view of the Mediterranean at sunrise/sunset is well worth it.

  2. The fact that you have a "Do not Disturb" sign on your door, does not automatically promise you won't be awakened by a housekeeper at 8:00am sharp.

  3. High speed internet isn't. And not just in hotels.

  4. If you intend to use a Blackberry in Israel, make sure you manually connect to the cellular provider Orange. For some reason, the other provider (Cellcom) has problems with data services (email, internet).
    Cellcom, however, has the better sound quality for your phone and is therefore selected by default, if you're Blackberry is on Automatic discovery mode.

  5. When driving in Israel, be aware:
    a) Signaling (apparently) is not mandatory in Israel. If a driver wants to change lanes - he does.
    b) If a car next to you looks like it's about to cut you unexpectedly - it would.
    c) If a pedestrian looks like he's about to jump into the road - he would.
    d) In general, it looks like every Israeli's life goal is to die on the road. rolleyes

  6. Office atmosphere and conversation is much warmer and opener than anywhere else.
    This is something I'm definitely going to miss. The ability to ask anyone anything, and disregard political correctness. I hope this trend can be exported smile.
I completely forgot how much I used to love just doing research: no customers to answer to, just diving into a new technology, writing sample code, finding the boundaries (on which no resources exist on the internet yet, due to the technology still being in beta) and overcoming them.

This last week reminded me why I like working with technology and computers so much. I hope I'll be able to do this more often in the future.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Technological Digest VII

Happy New Year everyone!
Still on my vacation in the holy land, so this will be yet another digest. Without further ado:
  1. This NY Times article warns about your employer following your online activity past the work hours. You see, things people say, or do online (like blogging redface) is held against them and may lead to them being fired. This is not necessarily legal, but is a food for thought.
    I do not hide my identity and I carry a disclaimer, but I can now understand why so many people crave anonymity online.

  2. As if travel in the US hasn't been limited enough, the TSA now add limitations on lithium batteries:
    As of January 1, no spare lithium batteries are allowed in checked luggage. Batteries carried in the cabin are subject to limitations on per-battery and total lithium content, and spare batteries must have the terminals covered.
    Read more here and make sure you know the lithium content of your batteries.
    I shudder to ask "what's next" sad.

  3. 2 months ago I wrote about the return of Netscape Navigator. Apparently, I spoke too soon: AOL, the owner of the Netscape browser technology, decided to retire it. It now recommends everyone use Firefox instead. Read more here. And switch to Firefox, if you haven't already.

  4. An Adobe user manged to prove that his Adobe software spies on him. Once in a while, it sends an encrypted packet to the following IP address: 192.168.112.2O7.net
    Wait a second!!! Since when does an IP address has a ".net" extension? And is that an O instead of a 0 in 2O7?
    Apparently the address belongs to Omniture, a "behavioral analytics company".

    So, maybe Adobe just wants to improve their next generation of software by learning users' behavioral patterns, but the fact still remains they are secretly spying on users. Why aren't they notifying you of these packets and allow you to opt out, like every Microsoft software does? For shame.

  5. And finally, a useless (read: no immediate application exists, but we'll think of something later) science fact: researchers from the Technion in Israel managed to inscribe the entire bible (some 300,000 words) on a silicon surface "less than half the size of a grain of sugar."
    It took them about an hour and they've used particles called "gallium ions" to etch the words on the surface. This may have some functions in the future, but in the meantime, you can store your entire library in your sugar box razz.