Thursday, February 28, 2008

Placebo

I'm just coming out of 4 days of a severe "common" cold.
How severe? Only on Tuesday could I actually talk, and only today did people actually recognize my voice. I sounded like the X-Files "Cancer Man" almost the entire week.

I get several of those colds a year. I blame them on several factors: frequent traveling between different climates; being enclosed for long periods of time in a metal tube with hundreds of people, breathing recycled air; traveling between different time zones (causing your body to be in constant fatigue and more susceptible); and of course, my own unhealthy life style confused.

While lying in my bed feverish, re-appreciating Sting's song "Every breath you take", I was wondering why the generic cold medications I bought at the supermarket don't work anymore.

I got one of those one-two concoctions (you know, the day-time, non-drowsy, half-dose + night time, double-shot, can't-operate-heavy-machinery type). Well, not only was I drowsy all the time (including one hazy call with a customer - boy, I couldn't understand myself while talking. I'm pretty sure I promised the customer our software can find life on Mars, water in the desert, or something of this caliber smile), but I remained at the same congestion level. The freaking meds didn't work mad.

It could be that my body built tolerance to those medications. It could be a different strain of cold. It could be that the universe is against me. Or it could be I bought a useless drug.

A research that came out 2 days ago, shows that most anti depressants (Prozac, Seroxat etc.) are not better than placebos.

According to this Time article, if you're depressed, you have even chances of feeling better if you take Prozac, or take a sugar cube and believe really hard that you'll get better (the scientific term is "Placebo"). Apparently, drug companies knew this as far back as 1999. But while they have to notify the FDA of every research that shows negative effects of any drug, they don't have to share researches showing that drugs are useless.

As for me, next week I'm planning a trip to London, and no damn nameless bug would stand in my way.

So I got a couple of pounds of oranges, vegetables and a mountain of Kleenex and started treating myself seriously. I had to take something for the fever, and some nasal drops (I still need some air). But other than that, it was all auto-suggestion. I practically talked to myself, convincing myself that I'm getting better, that my fever is dropping, that I can breath on my own. Took 3 days - but I'm much better and will hopefully kick this evil germ by the end of the week.

Bottom line: If you believe you'll get well (and treat yourself of course - your body may still need external support) you have better chances of getting better faster, than by just taking the meds. Or at least, even chances.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Viva la Mainframe!

Fourteen years ago, fresh out of the university, I got my first programming job at a large government-owned company (ahem cool). After going through some sorting interviews and orientation, I found out I'm to spend the next couple of years as a Mainframe developer.

Mainframe? MAINFRAME?!? Me? With my B.Sc. and all my object-oriented, A.I., Gaming Theory etc. knowledge still fresh in my head, reduced to writing C and Assembler code on a machine that was older than me? Needless to say, my first question was "where do I sign to get out of here?"

My third question (the second being "Thank you sir, may I have another?") was "what can I learn here that would help me later in real life?". But as I found out, MF development had its own challenges, intricacies and, dare I say it? fun.

On the professional side, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about optimization and memory management - some things that people starting to learn programming today (Java or .Net) are not even exposed to (to find out more, read this): how to reuse a bit; how to use a single field to contain more than one type of data; how to minimize computation cycles (we were charged by the cycle, so anyone who came up with optimization schemes, actually could save millions of $$$ annually). What is pre-fetch and when to use it. How to write 10 lines of C code, run the optimizer and then go down to the assembler level and optimize it some more. How to work with non-relational databases. How to write C on a PC (Win 3.1), compile it for syntax, copy it to the MF, compile it again (this time via a batch file) and then link it...

And, of course, the whole batch process: you learn how not everything is instantaneous. There is a queue of jobs (although, like every queue, you can cut to the top - and we did, when we knew no one was watching wink). Jobs can sometimes take a whole night. And if they fail, you come back in the morning, fix the problem - and rerun the job (teaching you to check, recheck and re-recheck your parameters the next time).

Most memorable fun-generating efforts: a help screen that can only be viewed by clicking a combination of 3 keys, where I wrote everything I actually thought about my boss - some bastard squealed and he actually saw it - 2 days after I left his department.
Or the time when we broke into our company's time management system and added time consuming entries, like "peeling an orange", or "playing backgammon".
And let's not forget the fact that we could peek at our bosses salaries and personnel records... (yes, that's what happens when you have debug admin access on the same machine of the production files. 'Nuff said smile).

Now, why am I waxing nostalgic all of a sudden?

The occasion is the launch of IBM's new Mainframe, the z10. Bigger, better, faster than it's predecessors, but still a Mainframe. The amount of articles on distributed computing that predicted that by 2000 the MF would be extinct, probably equals in height to the amount of COBOL lines written in 1964 that are still with us today.

Yes, it's big, and expensive, and less agile than Unix servers, and if you buy into the paradigm you become IBM's upgrade-slave for life. That doesn't prevent banks, insurance companies, investment houses and government departments to keep buying new MFs. Why? Perhaps because they are predictable, reliable, really support hot and cold replication, and provide dependable disaster recovery.

We have been distributing our systems for years now: we went from a single fat application to a 2-tier design 9client-server), to a 3-tier design (client-business logic-database), to n-tier design (where you have diagrams on the board to remind you where are your servers and what do they do). We went from "that server in the corner" to a "server room" to a "server farm".

Along the way maintenance costs accrued: space, electricity, air condition, IT personnel. Every startup I worked at, had at least one or two servers thrown around (usually under my desk, warming my feet), because there was no more space in the "server room". Here are some more people who experience "datacenter pains".

In the last couple of years, virtualization has become the "hot" IT initiative: let's buy one strong machine, install a VM server and segment it into many "virtual machines". In other words, consolidation, instead of distribution.

Well, guess what? I just described a Mainframe smile.

I'm not saying I'll gladly go back to developing for the MF - I'm more of a web/.Net/open source kind of guy now, but don't knock off the old generation - it can still teach us something.

PS: I know of one particular reader, who's smiling while reading this post. We've been friends ever since I met him on that first day of being assigned to the MF team. He actually taught me some of the stuff mentioned above. Thanks man! (you know who you are).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

IE8 Beta 1 Available

Microsoft just announced a beta version of Internet Explorer 8 is available.

I didn't try it yet - the link they've supplied for beta registration (http://connect.microsoft.com/InvitationUse.aspx?ProgramID=2038) points to a page that does not exist. Probably will be up in a couple of days.

As always, I would recommend not installing any (beta) version of IE on your main machine. But that's what VMs are for. Use the beta to test whether your site or application can withstand the new version of IE without breaking. I'm just glad they didn't make it a "Vista only" browser.

Read more here.

Update 8:30pm:
Seems like someone jumped the gun and published an internal Microsoft memo, inviting someone to a private beta. That's why the link doesn't work. However, the memo does discuss a public beta soon. So I guess "patience" is the keyword here smile.

Update 3/6/08:
It's now official: you can download the beta from the MS download site, in one of 4 flavors:
XP version, 2003 SP2 version, Vista and 2008 Server version, and Vista/2008 Server 64 bit version.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Technological Digest: Update

From time to time, it's worth re-visiting some of the subjects covered in earlier posts:
  1. Rogue satellite - it's official: tonight (2/20/08) at 10:30 EST (3:30am GMT), the US Navy missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (currently sailing somewhere near Hawaii) will shoot a $10 million missile at that naughty spy satellite, USA 193. Hopefully it'll blow to smithereens before it hits Earth's atmosphere.

    Few facts:
    • According to CNN sources the missile will not contain any warhead, as scientists rely on the impact to destroy it.
    • The ship has a 10 seconds window to decide on the go/no go. No pressure smile.
    • China apparently had a similar experience with one of their satellites - and managed to hit it. Sadly, they've left space debris all over the upper atmosphere, further endangering other satellites.
    • According to one of the blog's avid readers, the toxic material in the satellite is Hydrazine, a common satellite fuel. He also furnished me with this link. Scary. The effects on humans are similar to nerve agents' effects. I'm not smiling anymore.

    So, if you wake up tomorrow and there's a flaming debris in your back yard - Run.

    Update 11:00PM EST
    Good news! The missile hit the satellite as planned. It's yet to be seen what will happen to the debris (will they fall to Earth or burn in the atmosphere). More can be found here.

  2. Vista SP1 - seems like Microsoft just can't catch a break on the Vista front:
    • a problem found in SP1 causes some users to be stuck rebooting perpetually. A fix was immediately posted, but not soon enough for some people.
    • Meanwhile, CNET posted a review and some performance data from their SP1 tests - claiming there's no noticeable performance boost, and maybe even some degradation for some tasks.
    • And Microsoft announced today that the RTW (Release To Web) of SP1 would be available on 3/18 (the RTM is already available, but as you can read in item 1, has some issues).

  3. HD DVD debacle - yes, it's official - Toshiba abandons HD DVD (although they've said they're not going into BluRay yet). In another annoying post, Engadget suggests 10 things you can do with your HD DVDs. Don't get me wrong - I usually like Engadget, but they took the bully's corner in this war and are too happy to see a superior format lose.
    A bit more balanced point of view, and better ideas can be found here.

  4. Internet cable cuts - a UN agency now claims sabotage can not be ruled out in the case of the 4 underwater cut cables, re-igniting the entire conspiracy theory again.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Shut Down, Damn You!

You're in a hurry (let's say, you're about to miss a flight), so you order your machine to shut down, close the laptop's screen, shove it in your backpack and rush out of the office. You pull it out later, only to find out the machine didn't shut down, because it has been waiting for some frickin' process to end. On the screen is that useless "would you like to end this process?" dialog (no, I don't really want to end it - I just clicked "Shutdown" out of boredom mad).

And so, yesterday I sat down in the plane, pulled out my laptop, only to find out it's burning hot (being cooped up in the backpack) and that two-thirds of the battery are gone.

Well, enough is enough! After some research, here are 2 easy ways to solve this annoying problem:

1. The bypass (beginner level)
  1. Type the following into a text file: shutdown -t -s 00
  2. Save the text file with a .bat or .cmd extension (doesn't really matter) - this will turn the text file into a batch file.
  3. Put the file anywhere you want. Change its icon if you feel like it.
  4. Add a shortcut to the batch file to your Quick Launch bar.
  5. Click that shortcut whenever you want Windows to shutdown
    - be careful not to hit it by mistake! No second chances here.
2. The registry hack (expert level)
  1. Open the registry editor (click Start->Run and type regedit).
  2. Locate the registry Key: HKEY_USERS\.DEFAULT\Control Panel\Desktop.
  3. Locate the value AutoEndTasks.
    If it doesn't exist - create it (type of String Value - REG_SZ).
  4. Change/add the value data to 1 (the default is 0).
  5. Close regedit and reboot.
I chose the second method - you can always revert back to the default value, should you need it. And no chance of shutting down by mistake.

PS: by the way, just in case you think things are better on the Mac: my Mac usually hangs the shutdown process, whenever any other application is still running. The most common situation is when Firefox was running when I chose to shutdown, the machine will wait for the "Do you want to save the tabs?" dialog.
I Will look for a hack on Mac OS and publish it here when/if I find it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Sky Is Falling

Stop me if you heard this one before: a rogue satellite is about to fall to Earth. It contains poisonous material. If it hits the continental US, a major disaster will occur (zoom on worried face of president).

"Space Cowboys" you say? or maybe "Armageddon"? Regardless, that script has been done a hundred times before - borrrrriiing.

Well, what if I told you this is reality? That right now, over your head hangs a spy satellite (designated US 193 - oh boy, how many of those are out there?) that fell out of orbit and is about to hit Earth's atmosphere?

And the poisonous material part? Sadly, that's true too, although you'll have to ask the US government what exactly they put into orbit that's that dangerous (they claim it's the fuel).

But have no fear, US Navy is here. This week, they've announced they'll shoot the satellite down with a special missile, that will carry extra fuel and a special program (hope their programmers and debuggers don't work for RIM, whose Blackberry network went down last week AGAIN because of software issues AGAIN).

Now it turns out that the entire operation (scientists, programmers, missile, material, 3 ships in the middle of the ocean) will cost $60 million. Probably more than it cost to put the satellite up.

The Navy would have shot it down already, but they're waiting for the space shuttle to return to Earth and a "go ahead" from the crew of the space station (which they got today).
All this foot-dragging just shows you how accurate they believe their missile to be.

So, if next week in the middle of watching a sports game on TV, the screen goes blank, or if your GPS loses contact, it may well be that the US Navy has successfully shot down the wrong satellite smile.

And if a strange metal piece lands in your backyard, keep away - that's usually how the aliens begin their attack in the movies smile.

To get a quick summary of this whole debacle, with pictures, videos etc., try this CNN article.

It Sucks Being on the Losing Side

Back in July, I shared with you my choice between the 2 competing HD video format (see HD DVD, July 29th). At that time, I chose to go with the Microsoft-Phillips-Toshiba backed HD-DVD, against Sony's BluRay.

After reading about both technologies, I deemed HD-DVD the better one. Another factor that assisted me in the decision was the XBox 360 addon HD-DVD drive, which cost me just $39 to add (well, to be honest, it was $139 on eBay, but I just won a $100 eBay certificate - thanks Doug!).

I also got a couple of titles (eBay and Amazon) and was very happy with my choice. Results were as promised and quality and feature were better than the average DVD.

The HD camp seemed to be managing the format war well, with major movie studios publishing their latest hits on HD exclusively (300 and Transformers were notable). Sony, on the other hand, was trailing a bit behind (with a rare victory, when the latest James Bond became available on BluRay only - mainly due to the fact that Sony owns Columbia Pictures).
It looked like the VHS-Beta format war all over again - where Sony ended up on the losing side.

But over the last month and a half, a revolution has occurred. Warner Studios announced that they're embracing BluRay exclusively (later, a rumor surfaced that Sony paid Warner a $150 million to "make the right choice" - further proving that only in movies does good triumph over rich/corrupted).

The HD camp started faltering: they've canceled their CES press conference, and had nothing to say even when NetFlix and later Blockbuster, announced they'll gradually drop the HD format as well.

A couple of days ago, Walmart decided to phase out HD by June. Amazon sold the Xbox 360 HD module for $79, and dropped the price on other HD players - and now it looks like the war is over.
Everyone's waiting for Toshiba's surrender message, and there are even rumors that the next version of the XBox may even include a buit-in BluRay player.

So, how does it feel to be on the losing end of a battle? How does it feel to be stuck with technology and media that are soon to become unsupported? - IT SUCKS. But..

Engadget had an online survey, asking HD adopters what will they do now. While it looks like most people conceded their "defeat" and are considering buying a BluRay drive in the near/far future, some commenters point out that HD is still the better format, and purchased movies can still be watched.

I subscribe to that opinion. Furthermore, with the rush of people to BluRay, the HD DVD prices will fall (there are at least 70 title on Amazon with 50% discount) - allowing me to get some good HD content for my library for rock-bottom prices.

But I guess if you're just getting into the whole HD movie deal now - BluRay is the format for you.

(Hero dies at end of movie. Cue sad music. Titles roll sad).

Update 6:45pm
This just in: Toshiba just announce they're out of the HD-DVD manufacturing (Reuters article). RIP HD-DVD.

Windows Server 2008 Audio Driver for VMWare

A short one: those of you who may have installed Windows Server 2008 (beginning with RC0 through the RTM) have discovered that no audio driver is available, for the VM's simulated device.

This was doubly annoying, since the OS resorts to using the onboard speaker (loud beeps, no way to control the volume).

Aaron Tiensivu found the right driver, hidden somewhere in the Microsoft Update site, but no longer offered as an automatic download. And it works! (Apparently it also solves Vista issues, although I never ran into those).

Download the driver here and if it's ever taken down, I've saved a copy here.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Travel Pet Peeves

Start date: 2/14/08
Last updated: 2/18/08
Pet peeve (noun) - a minor annoyance that can instill extreme frustration in an individual.

During my trips, I encounter a lot of annoyances, obstacles and hassles. But to warrant a place on this list of pet peeves, that annoyance has to fulfill 2 criteria:
1. be utterly stupid.
2. be repetitive (i.e., if I've seen it only once - it won't be here).

I intend to keep this post open and add more peeves as I go. Feel free to drop comments with your peeves, and if they make the cut, I'll include them in the "master list" with your name.

So without further ado:
  1. Tucked in blankets - why, oh why, do they have to nail those blankets to the bed? Why do I have to struggle with my blanket, or else be rendered immobilized for the night?
    And in high-scale hotels, they actually offer "turn down service" - that's when a housekeeping girl comes in and pulls the blanket for you. Waste of time.

  2. Faucets - why is it that each hotel in the world has to have its own faucet configuration? Some have one knob, others 2. I've even seen configurations with 3 and 4. In the UK you get 2 taps in the sink - one cold, one hot (conceivably you should make your own mix until you like the temperature). All in all, you spend precious seconds trying to master the current configuration, while being scalded (or frozen).
    Can't they go with normal faucets, like the ones you can in 99% of homes around the world?

  3. "Courtesy" shuttles - let's put the rental facility 20 miles outside the airport, force people to spend 30 minutes on a bus, after being on a plane for 5 hours, and call it a "courtesy" shuttle. Where's the courtesy here, I ask you? They should pay us to ride this bus.

  4. Gratuity - a lot has been said on this oft-maligned subject. The fact that tip rates keep growing (waiters in NY sometimes expect 20%) and no one knows why, should be a subject of sociological/economical research papers.

    But let's say you agree that people that make minimum wage deserve a little something on the side (and if not, here's the wonderful piece from Reservoir Dogs to remind you why you're right). When you order a meal from room service, they stick a bunch of taxes on it ("tray service") and then automatically add 15% gratuity - regardless of whether you want to pay or not, AND THEN they leave an empty place for you to add gratuity.
    Why would someone want to add 15% more on top of the 15% and the tax???
    Took me a while to realize I was paying twice.

    (on the same issue, but not travel related: as a consultant, i help my customer solve problems that sometimes cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet, I wasn't offered any gratuity ever. Why is that? If I'm being paid a flat daily rate, I can finish my work day without overly taxing myself. Yet I sometimes go above and beyond normal hours and effort. Following the same logic, don't I deserve a little somthin'-somethin'? cool)

  5. TSA - I have so much I can say about the Transportation Security Administration's methods, service and conduct - but I don't want to end up on a blacklist of people who get a full cavity search every time they get to an airport.
    So let me just say I appreciate the smart dedicated TSA workers and will continue to enjoy their service.

  6. Alarm clock "practical joke" - man, if I ever wake up again at 3:17am, because the person who had the hotel room before me was "kind" enough to set the alarm clock and I was foolish enough to not turn it off...
Added on 2/17/08

  1. Airport renovation projects - if you haven't seen a sign starting with "We appologize for the inconvenience...", then I guess you haven't been traveling in the US recently.
    It seems like every airport in the US, at any given point in time, is undergoing some renovation. This escalator doesn't work, that terminal is not open yet, you have to go outside in sub-zero temperatures and take a bus to the next terminal (Toronto's Pearson airport - always a fun one).

    And while they try to make it sound as if this is a temporary state, and the main goal is to give you, the passenger, a bigger/better/cleaner airport, they start a new project as soon as the old one's done.

    It wasn't until recently that a colleague pointed out that airport renovation is a very lucrative branch of the construction business, and a lot of people make money on keeping airports constantly "renovated". That explains it all - if there's money involved, the public's comfort be damned.

  2. Static electricity - unlike everything else on this list, I can't really blame anyone for this item. But every time I exit a car, touch a door handle, or collect my laptop from the X-ray machine's belt, I get zapped. Granted, this is not life-threatening, but it is extremely annoying. And painful. And although you grow to expect it, it's always unexpected.

  3. Larry Kellner - Larry is the CEO of Continental Airlines. And make no mistake, I have nothing personal against Larry, he seems like a nice guy. Every Continental flight starts with a short video ("Hi, I'm Larry Kellner..."), where Larry tells us about his great airline, the great people who work for it, and then says "we fly one of the youngest fleets in the US...". Hearing that, and then facing an old, crumbling 737, with center-aisle monitor with a greenish hue, that was young when my dad was still in school, is kinda... I don't know, disappointing.

    Larry, my man - less boasting, more doing. When every plane has a personal entertainment unit, in seat laptop power, and enough legroom for an adult - you'll be off my list.

    Read more about Larry here.
Added on 2/18/08
  1. 13 - "Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot" said Bruce Wayne, the night he decided to take the mantle of a bat and scare Gotham's criminals as Batman. But if you examine certain hotels and airlines, you'll find that not just criminals are superstitious and cowardly.

    I'm talking about the fact that several American hotels decided to omit the 13th floor due to a stupid superstition. Yep - look at the elevator buttons: 12th and 14th are there, the 13th is gone (probably in the Twilight Zone smile).

    Similarly, Continental has rows 12 and 14 on their planes (here's a 757 seatmap, for example).
    I have 2 things to say:
    a) some people (Chinese for example) consider 13 to be a lucky number.
    b) psst... people on the 14th floor... don't tell anyone, but you're actually on the 13th (if you count from the bottom)...

  2. Wireless internet (suggested by Ariel) - the technology is mature enough, but as always, people stand in the way of ease-of-use. Dozens of providers, methods of payment, various degrees of connectivity - all stand in the way of easily using the internet. Every hotel, airport, cafe has different providers and policies. Some are free and easy to connect to. Some will demand you sell a kidney to pay for a night of usage (most notorious: internet usage in London, at 19.95 GBP a night - that's right, over $40).

    Add to that the fact you usually get an inferior product, with limited download, and almost non-existent upload.

    Exception: the wi-fi in the Star Alliance lounge in Zurich airport - free, fast (1Gbps LAN, full 54Mbps for wi-fi!), and consistent.
Added on 3/19/08
  1. The bag may not inflate - by now we've all heard it (literally) hundreds of times: "In case of emergency, oxygen masks will drop. Put them on your face (leaving your child to die of asphyxiation) and breath. The plastic bag may not inflate".

    Why, in heavens name, do I care about the bag? And why is it there, if it's not going to inflate? And does "may" means that sometimes it does inflate and sometimes doesn't?

    And what's the deal with the life jacket? Will it also "may not inflate"? They do demonstrate how to blow air into it using a small tube. Cool. As you're jumping into the cold Atlantic water off a drowning plane, you will find the time (and air) to blow down a tube.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Southwest Airlines - Singing all the Way

Despite living on the west coast for a while now, I've only recently started flying with Southwest.

Considered one of the smaller and cheaper domestic carriers, Southwest serves mostly short lines (1-2 hours), although the do have many east coast destinations (map).

For a low fare (beat $48 from San Jose to San Diego), SW offers the bare minimum: flight, sans food, movies and even assigned seating. That's right folks: you don't get to pre-book you window seat at the exit row. Boarding a SW flight is a unique experience: you're assigned a letter (A-C) and a number (1-31), stand in line and board in numerical order. Seat wherever you like. Pay an extra $15 and be guaranteed to board amongst the first 10 (and get one free alcoholic beverage).

They also don't have a regular "frequent fliers" club. Instead, you get between 1-1.5 point for each segment you fly with them (based on distance and fare). Get to 16 points and receive a free flight (unlimited by dates and distance - hear that Continental?). Start your account online and get 2 free points to start you up.

But one of the strangest (and to me, likable) aspects of flying with SW, is the irreverent and fun attitude of the air and ground crew. Every once in a while they start singing a Southwest appreciation song (I hope they don't have to, as part of their job), or tell a joke.
Here are a couple of pearl that stuck with me:
  • "Welcome to Las Vegas. Have a nice day. Be nice to one another and don't forget to call your mother".
  • "If your final destination is not San Diego - it is now".
  • "As my boyf... er, the captain just told you, please keep your seat belts fastened".
  • "Please don't stand up. If you bang your head, I'll have a ton of paperwork to fill".
If you have any more funny quotes, post a comment and I'll gladly include them.

Bottom line: recommended.

Monday, February 11, 2008

New/Different Versions of Microsoft Products

Microsoft has many versions of its products out there. Just Vista alone has 5 different versions (10, if you count the fact that each version can be standalone, or an upgrade from XP).

What I'd like to do in this post, is bring to the light a couple of product versions that are less commonly known, but are interesting, none the less. There are many other products and versions, but I leave you the joy of unearthing them. Drop me a comment if you think I should add any of them to the post.
  1. Windows XP Home/Professional N - following their agreement with the European Commission decision, Microsoft has produced versions of XP with no Media Player and files (the "N" stands for "No"). This version is light on files, codecs and other things that Media Player pushes into your system. Just install it, drop VLC on it - and you're good to go.
    Sadly, this version is only for sale in Europe - but you can get it off your friendly-neighborhood MSDN.
    More about this version, along with a list of 186 files taken out of it can be found here.

  2. Microsoft Windows XP Fundamentals for Legacy PCs - quite a mouthful for an OS that is actually smaller than the original XP. XP FLP is a cut-down version of XP, meant to serve two purposes:

    1. Allow installation of XP on older/slower machines:
      It's hard to remember, but when Microsoft published the list of requirements for XP, almost 8 years ago, many people thought they're nuts (much like people think today when they see Vista's requirements). Many people didn't upgrade from Windows 98/2000 because they couldn't (or wouldn't) change hardware. Microsoft to the rescue! FLP has very humble requirements, for the value it provides:
      A computer with 233 megahertz or higher processor clock speed (300 MHz is recommended); Intel Pentium/Celeron family, or AMD K6/Athlon/Duron family, or compatible processor is recommended. 64 MB of RAM. 256 MB of RAM is recommended. 610MB disk space (1150 if you install all the options).
      And yes, just like version N, it can be installed without Media Player and Internet Explorer (and a bunch of other stuff).
    2. Allow unattended installation of Windows:
      FLP comes with the capacity to record, or script a system installation, and repeat it, either from a CD, or over the network. An IT manager can now deploy XP to all machines on his network with one key-click. This is so much better than ghosting.

      But my most liked feature - you can deploy the whole OS from a USB drive. Some tutorials will actually show you how to boot from the drive.

    Sadly, I can't tell where and how to get FLP. MS is not fond of giving/selling it, because it tends to find its way to all kinds of platforms MS doesn't like (OLPC, Asus EEE - which was where I've seen it first, to name a few). Good luck finding a version on your own smile.
    Read this post for more data and screen shots.

  3. Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager - this version of Outlook 2007 is a self contained CRM. No need for Exchange Server at the end. This version is geared more towards the sales and marketing crowd. It replaces the stunted contact feature of Outlook with an enterprise-level one, which is account-oriented.

    Use Outlook client to manage your contacts, communications and campaigns. Track billable time on the calendar, which automatically synchronizes with your accounting software. Use a handheld device to acces and synchronize the data. And more...

    Again, this version doesn't see a lot of publicity, since Microsoft would rather your organization purchases the full Office 2007 suite + an Exchange server or two.

    Find out more about this useful version of Outlook in its product page.

  4. VS Express Versions - Finally, if you're interested in using Visual Studio 2008 (and haven't downloaded the free VM image I recommended before) and can not afford to pay for your version, try the Visual Studio 2008 Express versions.

    They are FREE. The applications you'll develop with them are not limited in any way.

    This is Microsoft's way to get the community of hobbyists, code hackers, students, kids and people who dabble in programming, hooked on VS. For my money - it's a great idea and I thank Microsoft for making those versions available.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

What Would the new Blackberries Look Like?

While no one knows the answer to the above question, people do get hints.

Every time RIM (makers of our beloved Blackberry) file for a patent in the US, several site, such as UnwiredView.com descend upon them and dissect them to bits.

E.g., these latest 2 patents "SYSTEM AND METHOD OF INTEGRATING A TOUCHSCREEN WITHIN AN LCD" and "HANDHELD MOBILE COMMUNICATION DEVICE WITH MOVEABLE DISPLAY/COVER MEMBER", accompanied by some interesting images:


As can be seen, the screen would be tilted at an angle to the keyboard, allowing you to treat your Blackberry as a tiny laptop. They're also toying with the idea of a roller to replace the pearl (hope they won't take that route - I find the pearl highly intuitive and useful).

Probably the only people who won't like this new direction, will be companies like iGo, who make products like this ($38 on Amazon for the Bluetooth collapsible model):

Technological Digest X

Welcome to my Xth digest (I wonder how far can I stretch this Roman numeral thing before I forget how to count smile).
  1. Conspiracy - last week, 4 (some say 5) undersea fiber-optic cables were mysteriously cut in the middle east and the Persian gulf area. About 70% of internet traffic from Egypt, Algeria and (some claim) Iran, was disrupted. The rest of the countries of that area were driven to surf speeds reminiscent of the modem days of yore.

    Many conspiracy theorist jumped to conclusions immediately. How come cables were cut near Egypt, in a no-shipping area? Why was Iran disconnected? Who's behind this? And how come Israel still has internet connectivity?

    The most quoted sentence of the week was James Bond's famous declaration:
    Once is Happenstance. Twice is Coincidence. The third time it's Enemy action.

    Well, the Economist would have none of it. In this article they disprove most of the conspiracy theories: Iran had 80% internet activity throughout, with minor disruptions; one of the cables wasn't cut, but taken out of action deliberately by the provider; there are no (known) tapping technologies that would work on a fiber-optic cable. As for the weird coincidence of 4 cables being cut in a week, they use pure statistics: in a given year, about 50 cables get cut in the Atlantic ocean alone.

    As for Israel, it's the only country in the middle east to connect to the internet through Europe and not rely on any of its neighbors (gee, I wonder why smile) - and was therefore not affected by this cable outage.

    All in all, it's easy to see how conspiracy theories would evolve. In the meantime, all 4 cables were fixed - so crisis solved.

  2. Amazon buys Audible for $300M - Audible.com is an Internet provider of spoken audio entertainment, mainly audiobooks. So far, they've offered their books on their site and through iTunes. This latest move by Amazon shows that they want to control the book-retail world, not just the printed part of it. Few (unsubstantiated) rumors are making the rounds, that it was done top combat Apple (by taking Audible's 80,000 books catalog off iTunes), or that the next version of the Kindle will support audiobooks.

    I've long been a fan of Audible. I've listened to their books when they were still called "books on tape" (later CD). Their production values are high and they find the best people to read an narrate. I think they're worth a separate recommendation post.

  3. Windows Server 2008 now RTM - as someone noted, not early (VS 2008), nor late (SQL 2008 - see last digest) - but right on time, comes the latest version of Windows Server. 4 versions are available for download from MSDN: Data Center (supports up to 64 CPUs), Enterprise (for clusters and high availability), Standard and Web Server (with IIS7 and web server roles).

    I've been playing with RC versions of it for almost a year - so no surprises there. Some devisions in Microsoft ARE consistent, I guess. BTW, Vista's SP1 is on time as well.

  4. Polaroid - no more? - In a non surprising move, the company that brought us the instant photo, stops manufacturing the Polaroid camera. With all the digital cameras and printers lying around, no one really needs an "instant camera". Polaroid fired 450 employees and announced it will attempt to reinvent its brand and come up with something new. Good luck.

  5. A site called StopBadware.org, apparently a consumers' site that warns against mal-/spy-/badware, announced that RealPlayer 11 is "Badware", since it's not easy to uninstall, and leaves behind a ton of stuff.

    While I agree with them, and think that anyone who installs any Real product deserves whatever he gets(try Real Alternative instead), and while I agree that most of the applications and sites they mention should be avoided, I find their list of sponsors interesting.

    The site is sponsored by Google, Lenovo, Paypal, Sun and VeriSign.

    I wonder if we'll ever see the site warning about the Google Desktop Search application, that sends Google the list of applications installed on your machine, along with some other private information (Google never bothered denying that - they just refer you to the installation agreement).

    Or will they say something about all the crappy Lenovo apps that supposedly keep your Lenovo laptop up to date, but are not easy to dispose of, or work with?

    Indeed some of the software mentioned as Badware, such as Yahoo Player - are they really Badware, or just on the list because Google wants it there?

    At least they were forthcoming about their sponsors, so we know what to expect.

  6. Being Steve Jobs - if you've ever watched one of Jobs's keynotes, you probably realized you have ways to go before you'll achieve his presentation and public speaking skills.
    This BusinessWeek article will teach you how to deliver speeches like the master, in 10 easy steps.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Day Trip to Stone Mountain Park

This weekend I visited my best friend and his fiancee in Atlanta.
After visiting their new apartment, we headed out to Stone Mountain Park.

Just a 10 minute drive from Atlanta, off the 85 highway, lies a mountain, into which the portraits of the Confederate heroes were carved. I guess the artist aimed for a southern Mount Rushmore.

You don't have to be a confederate sympathizer to enjoy the park. Around the base of the mountain there are lakes, hiking, running and cycling courses, a hotel or two, a golf course and a theme park. The theme revolves around an old-time, frontier type town, with the usual buildings, a train and some other facilities.


Only when we arrived did we discover that the theme park is closed. It was utterly strange
to visit an empty theme park: no lines, no noise - just signs telling us the park will be back in business in March.

So, instead of using the cable car, we hiked up the mountain. It's a mile long trail, with a mild incline. Grandmas, babies and puppies rushed up and down the mountain, making me feel all the more out of shape confused.

It was just when we got to the mountain top that it hit me - where have I heard the name Stone Mountain before: in Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech.
Reverend King lists locations in the America where freedom should ring from:
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
(Here's a link to the full, inspirational speech).

From the top, on a clear day, you can see all of Atlanta and Buckhead. We also saw a flock of eagles - amazing view.

At the base of the trail there's a a small geology museum, where we've learned how the mountain came to be.

A great weekend excursion that left me wanting more. Wait for March and spend a weekend there to see what I mean.

And I'll leave you with one of the many quotes strewn throughout the park. This one just rang true:

Photos from the trip can be found here.