Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Lieberman: Our Troops Must Stay

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Writing for the Wall St. Journal, Senator Joe Lieberman summarizes the current state of affairs in Iraq.

A quick summary is:

  • The Iraqi people are better off than they were three years ago
  • The future of Iraq is likely to be better than it is now
  • The terrorists/insurgents are the minority, not the majority. 27 million Iraqis vs. 10,000 terrorists.
  • We have made some mistakes in the past
  • We have learned from those mistakes and are doing better now
  • Although Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the war, Iraqis are increasingly optimistic about their own nation
  • These events dovetail with several other positive events taking place in other Arab nations
  • The worst thing we could do now would be to prematurely withdraw from the region
Read the whole article for all the details.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Maxell to offer 300GB holographic discs 'late 2006'

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I love it when two warring giants both get trounced by an unseen upstart.

For years now, there has been a standards war going on regarding the successor to DVD. On the one hand, Blu-Ray, and on the other HD-DVD. Both products have been delayed, and there has been huge amounts of infighting and lack of cooperation between the camps.

But, while this fight has been going on, the next-generation (beyond HD-DVD and Blu-Ray) has been proceeding. The "Holographic Versatile Disc" (HVD) technology is nearing completion. Maxell is expecting to ship the first generation HVD drive by the end of next year.

The initial release from Maxell is expected to have a 300GB per-disc capacity with a data-transfer speed of 20MB/s. This is 3-times the capacity of a 4-layer Blu-Ray disc, 6.67 times the capacity of a 3-layer HD-DVD disc, and 33 times the capacity of a dual-layer DVD. The speed is as fast as an SATA interface (20MB/s is 160Mb/s) and as fast as all but the fastest tape storage devices.

Maxell believes the technology can eventually reach a capacity of 1.6TB per disc with a transfer speed of 120MB/s.

If this technology starts shipping before Blu-Ray and HD-DVD ship (which seems to be a distinct possibility), it could kill both of them off before they ever get started. Which would be poetic justice, given how much infighting and delaying has gone on so far.

In addition to its use for HD TV video distribution, the HVD technology has the potential to become the dominant standard for backup devices. If the 300G drive can ship for under $1000, with media for under $100, it will rival all but the largest tape storage systems. If the 1.6TB drive can ship for prices in the same range (say, under $2000 for the drive and under $150 for media) it can rival all other backup devices currently manufactured.

Similarly, if the price can drop even lower (say, under $300 for the drive and under $20 for media), it can effectively displace all other optical drive technology.

Here's to hoping this all works out. It's a good time to be a geek.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Tainted Sony CDs Used Open Source

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Sony's debacle gets more and more interesting.

Not only were they ruining people's Windows PC's with "security" software that leaves the computers open to attack, but they were doing it with stolen software!

Their malware uses code from at least two open source projects - LAME and FAAC. Under the terms of their open source licenses, anyone incorporating this code into a new product must release that product under the same open source terms. Meaning the original authors must be credited and source code must be made available.

Sony did neither. Making their software distribution an illegal act of copyright infringement.

Now we see the true hyprocrisy of the music industry. They scream bloody murder when you copy a CD for your personal use (which is legal in the US), but they have no qualms whatsoever about stealing other people's intellectual property when it suits their needs.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Tiger Tips: How to enable BIND

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I just upgraded my Mac to Mac OS 10.4 (Tiger). The upgrade was mostly painless, but my DNS server configuration got disabled in the process. More specifically, Apple replaced my /etc/named.conf file with one that doesn't work.

Fortunately, they do preserve the original file as /etc/named.conf.applesaved. I merged the two files together (which resulted in my original file with two new lines.) These two new lines refer to a file /etc/rndc.key, which doesn't exist. Furthermore, without /etc/rndc.key, BIND won't even start up! So I commented off those lines.

As the article (see link, above) says, you should do this even for a clean installation. I assume this rndc.key file exists on Mac OS X server. Either way, if it doesn't exist, the named.conf file must not refer to it.

The Tiger installer also trashed my startup script (/System/Library/StartupItems/BIND), but as it turns out, this doesn't matter, since Tiger doesn't use it anymore. Instead, it uses plist files in /System/Library/LaunchDaemons. A plist for bind (org.isc.named.plist) is created by default. A default installation has this disabled (at least according to the above article), but in my case, it was enabled. I assume the installer saw that I had it enabled in my 10.3 installation and therefore enabled it for 10.4 as well.

Anyway, it was a relatively minor problem to deal with, once I realized what happened, and it was easy to fix. Hopefully, this message will help out anyone else that finds himself in this situation.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Colored Soap Bubbles

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Coming soon, brightly colored soap bubbles. Completely washable, and whose color fades in about 30 minutes.

Read the article for all the details. It's both an amusing and fascinating read.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Orson Scott Card: The News vs. the Truth? - Or - McCarthy Is Dead, So Get Him Back Into His Grave Already!

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I'll let the article speak for itself and only add that none of this comes as any surprise to me.

I am no expert in world politics. I rely on what I hear from others to get an idea of what's going on around the world.

I am, however, an expert in other subjects - computer technology and a few other scientific areas. When the press reports on the subjects for which I have expertise, they almost always get all their facts wrong. Even the most basic facts that they could verify through a 5-second Google search. I can say with absolute certainty almost every single technology article they write is flat-out wrong, either because they don't know the facts, or because they deliberately choose to publish lies.

It is only logical to conclude that they get everything just as wrong.

So when Mr. Card publishes proof that the French media deliberately and knowingly published a work of fiction as a news story, and the rest of the world knowingly supported the lie, it doesn't surprise me one bit.

And to think that there are still people who wonder why I don't read newspapers anymore.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

After Criticism, Sony Issues Fix for Hidden Rootkits

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Upping the ante yet again in the ongoing war of the recording industry vs. the rest of the world, Sony recently released several audio CDs that automatically (and secretly) install copy-protection software on any Windows PC they are inserted into.

After some very embarrassing reports, they quickly backpedaled and released a program to undo the damage. You can download it here.

Sony, and others, have a long history of experimenting with copy protection schemes. The most recent attempts involve distributing a "multi-session" CD, containing audio tracks and a data track. When inserted into a Windows PC, the "autorun" file in the data track installs a software wedge that hides the audio tracks. This forces you to play DRM-protected versions of the songs, contained as data files.

This is nothing new. Sony's latest version, however, takes steps to hide the existence of the wedge. And it installs itself in such a way that removal will permanently cripple Windows' ability to play any audio CDs. As far as I'm concerned, this is no different from a virus.

Fortunately, there are plenty of workarounds, if you're careful. The easiest way is to not use Windows. All other operating systems (Linux, Mac OS, etc.) will not auto-run the installer, and is incapable of being run manually. Without the software wedge, the same programs that play/rip normal audio CDs will work on the protected disc.

If you're forced to use Windows, the thing to do is make sure the auto-run facility doesn't run. Holding down the SHIFT key whenever you insert the disc will do it. You can also disable this permanently in several different ways, depending on what version of Windows you are using. This will have the side effect of preventing all your data discs from auto-running, but IMO, this is a good thing.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

An explanation of gas price fluctuation

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This article is very informative. It explains, in simple language, why gas prices rise quickly, but fall slowly. At least as far as the retailers go. A superbrief summary is:
  • When oil prices go up, the manufacturers raise their price, and retailers must pass the increase along to customers.
  • When oil prices go down, retailers do not usually lower their prices until competition forces them to. Which means it will be some time after the oil company's price goes down. Depending on the local market, there may be a fairly large delay.

What the article doesn't discuss, however, is what the picture looks like from the point of view of the oil companies. They have the same problem (rising prices must be passed along, competition causes prices to go down), but they have an additional complication - futures trading.

Oil, like all commodities, is deeply involved in futures trading. A future is like a stock option. You pay a premium up front and get a locked-in price (for a maximum amount, for a time limit, of course). You can exercise your future to buy (or sell) oil at that price, if you want to.

Futures are used by speculators to leverage investments. Instead of buying and selling oil (where you need to pay for it all and store it somewhere), you instead buy and sell futures. If you buy a future for buying oil, and the price later goes up, you can exercise the future and immediately sell the oil at market prices and take a profit. If the price later goes down, however, you've lost the premium you paid for that future. Similarly for futures for selling oil - if you buy one and the price goes down, you buy oil at the market price and exercise your future to sell it. If the price goes up, you've lost the premium.

As for the other side of the equation, people sell futures to buy and sell. When you do that, of course, you are bound to buy/sell oil at the future's price if the future is later exercised.

Oil companies use futures in order to make their finances more predictable. In addition to buying oil on the open market, they also buy futures for buying oil. If the price goes up, they can exercise these futures and buy at the price they've budgeted for. It doesn't keep the price down, because new futures will be at a higher exercise-price, but it does allow them to keep their budget predictable.

When the price of oil goes down, however, they abandon the futures and just buy on the open market - because that price will be lower. But they have to eat the cost of buying the now-abandoned futures - those premiums are not refundable. So their costs can't come down immediately, which is why the prices they charge won't come down immediately either. When prices stabilize, they will once again resume buying oil with their futures, and the prices they charge will lower to the new equilibrium point.

In brief: prices go up immediately because the price of futures goes up immediately. Although the prices of futures will come down immediately, the oil companies have to absorb the cost of the abandoned futures, which introduces a delay when prices come down.

Is there an alternative?

If using futures creates this problem, why do they do it? Why not just buy oil at market prices and avoid all this nonsense?

The answer is that oil prices fluctuate daily, and often unpredictably. If every shipment of oil is a different price, it creates a lot of uncertainty in the budget. Companies would have to compensate for this by either keeping a stockpile of oil (to buffer out supply fluctuations) or take a higher profit margin (to buffer out price fluctuations.) These would cause prices to go up (to pay for storage or to make the higher margin). And unlike what happens with futures trading, these price increases would be affecting consumers all the time, not just when commodity prices are on the downswing.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

I've got an iBook!

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I finally decided it was about time to own a laptop computer of my own. And since I've been very happy with my Macintosh desktop system for more than the past three years, I decided that I will have to get a Macintosh laptop.

After careful consideration of the various available models, I chose the iBook. More specifically, the small model with the 12" screen.

The 12" model was a most important to me, because I want a laptop small enough and light enough to carry with me wherever I go. Small enough to be useful on my lap while a passenger in a car, bus or airplane. Although I'd prefer a higher resolution display, that is not available without moving up to a 15" or 17" PowerBook, which is both larger and more expensive than what I'd like.

I bought my iBook with a few upgrades. An 80G hard drive (for an extra $100) and 1.5GB of memory (for an extra $300). I could have upgraded the memory myself for $200, but I decided that $100 is not an unfair price to pay to have the memory installed and tested at the factory. And if there's ever a problem with the computer, Apple won't be able to tell me that it was because of third-party memory.

Anyway, I haven't had too much time to do too much with it yet, since it only arrived today, but so far everything has been working as expected. As expected, I was not able to copy my Emacs installation from my other computer, forcing me to download sources and compile it myself. This went smoothly, since I've had to do this several times before on my other Mac. Other applications (Thunderbird, Firefox, Microsoft Office, etc.) all installed without problem.