Friday, December 15, 2006

The truth about the Seattle Menorah fiasco

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I'm sure that everybody has heard of the "Seattle Menorah" incident. According to the press, a rabbi went to the owners of Seattle's airport demanding that they put up a menorah, was rejected, and threatened a lawsuit. The airport responded by removing their Christmas trees. The rabbi then changed his mind and the trees went back.

Although I'm certain members of the press truly believe their version of the story, it is hardly what happened.

See this story in Chabad's online magazine for their side of the events. It is a very different story.

The local Chabad rabbi was trying to arrange a meeting with the airport's people to arrange to have a menorah set up. The owners, for whatever reason, were dead-set against the idea. But they wouldn't just say "get lost". Instead, they decided to resort to bureaucratic BS - refuse to return phone calls, cancel meetings, etc.

The rabbi's lawyer mentioned the possibility of legal action, probably as much over the obnoxious treatment they were receiving as over the menorah itself. At no time did anybody ask that the Christmas trees be removed. The airport, reacting to their own imagined threats, instead of reality, reacted by removing the trees and then telling the press that the Jews made them do it. (Spurring volumes of hate-mail sent to Jewish organizations nationwide.)

So, instead of a lawsuit-happy rabbi with an anti-Christmas agenda, we now have a picture of an pig-headed airport administration engaging in a campaign of character-assassination in "retaliation" for an offense that never took place.

But you probably won't read about this story in any news outlet, will you?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thermionic energy conversion

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Thermionic energy conversion is a mechanism for generating electricity from heat without bulky equipment like steam turbines and generators.

So far, it has been impractical, but one company, Eneco, claims to have solved some of the key problems and will soon be shipping a solid-state energy converter with an efficiency of 20-30%.

The idea is that one of these can be installed in a computer, which can use waste heat (that is currently just blown out the exhaust fans) to generate power that can be used by the computer itself.

Clearly, this can't be a perpetual motion (that's impossible), but if it can reduce power consumption (and therefore battery life on laptops) by 20-30%, then this will be a very important piece of tech.

According to AppleInsider, Apple and Dell are in talks with Eneco about getting these used in their products.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

NAS/RAID for dummies

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On another forum, someone asked about a basic primer regarding RAID drive arrays and NAS (Network Attached Storage) systems. For the benefit of the rest of the world, here is my response (paraphrased to be more generic, since the original post was to a Mac forum.)

NAS basics

First off, despite the way they are marketed, a NAS is not an external hard drive. It is what the name implies - Network Attached Storage. The NAS has a special-purpose computer built-in. It appears to your computer as a file server on your LAN. You attach it to an Ethernet hub/switch (which your computer will also be attached to.)

If it works properly, your computer should see the NAS as a network file server. On Mac OS X, you should be able to click on the Network icon in the Sidebar of a Finder window, locate it and mount its volume(s) on your desktop. On Windows, you should be able to open the Network Neighborhood/My Network Places icon, locate it and mount its volume(s).

Once the drive is mounted, it should behave like any other volume (hard drive, flash card, etc.), except, of course, that you probably won't be able to boot from it. It's still a network server, not a local hard drive.

When selecting an NAS, be sure it has good support for your operating system's network protocol. For Mac OS, this is AppleShare. For Windows, this is Windows File Sharing. For UNIX, this is NFS. Most operating systems can connect to "foreign" servers, but they won't work at peak efficiency, and may end up operating with some quirks (like not supporting your OS's entire range of characters in filenames.)

Expect an NAS to be slower than a local hard drive. 100M Ethernet is significantly slower than ATA, SATA and FireWire drives. It might even be slower than some USB drives. If your NAS supports Gigabit Ethernet (and your LAN is GigE, of course), then you might not notice a significant speed difference.

RAID basics

When people speak of RAID, they are typically referring to one of the following technologies:

Name Description
RAID-0 RAID level 0, aka "striping"
RAID-1 RAID level 1, aka "mirroring"
RAID-5 RAID level 5 - striping with distributed checksums

RAID levels 2, 3, and 4 are rarely used, and will not be described here.

RAID-0, aka "striping" is not really a RAID system, because it provides no redundancy. Your data is spread across all the drives in the array. If any drive fails, you've lost all the data in the array. (In other words, the overall reliability of the array is less than that of a single drive!) RAID-0 has the advantage of maximizing the storage capacity of the array, and increasing performance (since each drive only has to read/write half the data), but at the cost of reduced reliability.

RAID-1, aka "mirroring" does just what the name implies. Every piece of data is written to both drives - one is an identical copy of the other. If one drive fails, it is automatically removed from the array, and the remaining drive is used instead. RAID-1 offers redundancy (making the reliability of the array greater than that of a single drive), but at the expense of 50% of your storage capacity, since all data is written to both drives.

For small RAID arrays (those with only two drives), RAID-1 is the only possible mechanism for providing redundancy. For larger arrays (with more drives), it is inefficient and RAID-5 should be considered instead.

RAID-5 is what large RAID arrays typically use. Error-recovery data is generated for all your data, and the combined data (your data and the recovery data) is striped across three or more drives. If any single drive fails, the entire array remains functional. If two drives fail, however, all data in the array is lost. The capacity of a RAID-5 array is the total capacity of all-but-one of the drives.

For example, suppose you have five drives in a RAID-5 array. When you write data to the array, 25% of your data will go on each of four drives, and error-recovery data will be written to the fifth. (Which drive gets each piece of data is irrelevant. It actually rotates across all the drives in the array, in order to maximize performance.)

Now suppose a drive in this array has failed and you try to read the data back. If the failed drive is the one with the error-recovery data, the array can get your data from the remaining four drives (since they are the ones that actually contain it). If the failed drive is holding data, the data on the remaining three drives, combined with the error-recovery data, can be used to reconstruct what was on the failed drive.

In addition to these RAID levels, there are also two common "hybrid" RAID levels: RAID-0+1 and RAID-1+0. These, as the names imply, involve both mirroring and striping, to provide increased capacity with redundancy.

RAID-0+1 is a mirror of a striped drive array. Your data is striped across a set of two or more drives (a-la RAID-0), then the striped-set of drives are mirrored to another set of identical drives (a-la RAID-1). If a single drive fails, its entire striped-set gets hosed, but the mirror of the striped-set keeps on working. If multiple drives fail, and they all belong to the same striped-set, the array can keep on working. If multiple drives from different striped-sets fail, the entire array is lost.

RAID-1+0 is a striped set of mirrored drives. Each drive is mirrored against a matching drive. Your data is striped across all of the mirrored-pairs. If a single drive fails, its mirror-partner drive keeps the array working. If multiple drives fail, but each is in a different mirrored-pair, the array keeps on working. If multiple drives fail, but two are in the same mirrored-pair, the entire array is lost.

While these hybrid RAID levels are often used for inexpensive software-based RAID arrays, they are wasteful of storage, because of all the mirroring. RAID-5 is much more efficient, and is preferable, where possible.

It should be noted that with all of the RAID levels that support redundancy (all but RAID-0), you can replace a failed drive with a new, blank drive, and the RAID controller will rebuild its contents from the data stored on the other drives in the array. Good RAID systems will allow you to do this without turning off the power or even interrupting service to users on the network (a feature known as hot-swappable drives.)

Of course, when a drive fails, even if the array remains operational, it will be operating without any redundancy - an additional drive failure can trash the entire array. So it's very important to keep a spare drive on-hand. This way, when one fails, you can quickly swap it for the spare. This practice is known as keeping a "cold spare".

This is compared to a "hot spare" drive. A hot spare is a spare drive that is attached to the RAID controller. It is not part of any configured array, but sits idle (and possibly powered-off) until a drive in the array fails. When this happens, the RAID controller immediately removes the failed drive from the array and starts using the hot-spare in its place.

The point behind a hot-spare drive is that when there's a failure, the amount of time the array goes without redundancy can be reduced to the absolute minimum amount of time.

Of course, once this happens, you will still want to replace the failed drive, in order to make another hot-spare available, in case another drive fails. Because ordering new drives may take a week or two, some large RAID systems will allow two or more hot-spare drives.


Clearly, the overall capacity of a RAID array will be a function of the number of drives, the capacity of the drives, the number of drives used as hot-spares, and the RAID level configured. Some examples follow:

An array of only two drives can not support RAID-5. It must be configured as either RAID-0 (no redundancy) or RAID-1 (mirroring.) If the drives hold 500GB each, the RAID-0 array will be able to hold 1TB, and the RAID-1 array will be able to hold 500GB.

An array of 3 drives can be used either as RAID-0, or RAID-5. Using our example of 500G drives, the RAID-0 array will be able to hold 1.5TB (but remember, there's no redundancy, so if any one of the three fails, all data is lost!). The RAID-5 array will be able to hold 1TB (remember, the overall capacity of RAID-5 is that of all-but-one of the drives.)

An array of 4 drives can be configured in four different ways: RAID-0, RAID-0+1, RAID-1+0, or RAID-5. Using 500G drives, RAID-0 will provide 2TB (but with no redundancy), RAID-0+1 and RAID-1+0 will provide 1TB, and RAID-5 will provide 1.5TB.

If hot-spares are used, just don't count them when figuring out the array capacity.


NAS and RAID terminology may be confusing to novices, but the concepts are not overly complicated. The important points to remember are:

  • NAS devices are network file servers. They run a self-contained operating system, but are otherwise the same as a server you might set up on your own using a separate computer.
  • RAID comes in three main flavors: RAID-0, RAID-1 and RAID-5
  • RAID-0 maximizes the storage capacity of the array, but offers no redundancy. If one drive in a RAID-0 array fails, all your data is lost.
  • RAID-1 mirrors drives. This increases reliability, but at the expense of storage capacity. The overall capacity of a RAID-1 array is 50% of the aggregate capacity of the drives. It is your only choice if you only have two drives and want redundancy.
  • RAID-5 is a happy medium between RAID-0 and RAID-1, if you have three or more drives. Single-drive failures will not make the array fail, and the overall capacity is greater than RAID-1.

Keep in mind, however, that RAID systems are not a substitute for making regular backups of your system. RAID (all levels other than 0) will protect you against single drive failures, but backups protect you from many other things, including:

  • Simultaneous failure of multiple drives (e.g. a bad power surge that fries the entire array.)
  • Accidental (or deliberate) deletion or corruption of files.
  • Software bugs, viruses, and worms
  • Natural disasters (fire, flood, hurricane, etc.)

Friday, October 20, 2006

The reason for integration testing

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I am a do-it-yourselfer when it comes to PCs. Nearly all of my PCs have been home-built. Well, not really home-built, since I don't solder chips, but home-assembled - I buy boards, drives, cases, etc., and assemble it into a system.

I do it because it's a hobby, and I enjoy doing the work. Sometimes, however, I read articles about people choosing to build their own PCs for professional work. Often because some corporate finance-type person thinks he can save money over buying complete systems from Dell or HP. (And the idea that you can save money by building your own systems hasn't been true for many years, but many people haven't figured this out yet.)

Similar principles apply (more frequently) to people who perform their own upgrades - adding/replacing memory, video cards or hard drives.

What these people fail to realize is that assembling a computer system for a production environment involves much more than simply slapping parts together. Even if there are no software-compatibility issues (not always the case), there are sometimes obscure problems that only become apparent after extensive integration testing. All the major PC manufacturers test their systems before offering them for sale. Very few hobbyists do much testing beyond what's necessary to get their favorite game up and running. And I doubt many corporate finance people realize the expense (in terms of time spent) needed to thoroughly test a completely custom-designed system.

(FWIW, many corporations have standardized software environments, and even this requires extensive integration testing as PC manufacturers introduce new systems. It may take a month (or more, if there are problems) to ensure that a new computer is compatible with corporate-standard software. Now imagine the time that would be required if the hardware itself also had to be thoroughly tested.)

But this is nothing new. I mention it simply because recent articles report of a problem that is an almost textbook case for why integration testing is necessary.

For the last several years, Apple's laptop computers have sported a "sudden motion sensor" (SMS) that senses acceleration and vibration. The system software uses this sensor to detect sudden motion (such as if the computer is dropped) and parks the hard drive heads, so the drive won't be damaged on impact.

Western Digital's new Scorpio line of hard drives also has a motion sensor, serving the same purpose as Apple's.

So what happens when you put a Scorpio drive in a MacBook? The two systems step on each other. When the computer is jostled, the drive parks itself, and the Apple SMS system sends the command to park the drive. The SMS system get an error back from the drive (the drive probably goes off-line while it is in this auto-park state), assumes that the drive has failed, and panics the OS kernel.

One perfectly good drive plus one perfectly good computer combine to form an unstable system. This is a problem that very few people could ever predict without actually assembling and testing a completed system. It is something that a manufacturer would (or at least should) test for as a part of deciding what brand/model drive to bundle, but is something the rest of us will not be able to figure out in advance while shopping for a new drive.

Friday, October 06, 2006 -- 100 things you should know about DDT

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This is a fascinating an eye-opening article.

It would appear that the worldwide decision to ban DDT was based almost entirely on political pressure and junk science. The scientific facts (both known today and what was known then) indicate that the alleged dangers do not exist.

But millions of children die from malaria every year as a result of the ban.

Quantum information teleported from light to matter - Yahoo! News

1 comment:
Read the linked Reuters article.

This is incredibly cool. And we're one step closer to Star Trek.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Ignoring battery recalls? Think again.

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As you are probably (or should be) aware, both Apple and Dell have issued recalls on millions of laptop battery packs, due to risk of fire.

I know of some people who are choosing to ignore the recall. This is incredibly stupid. Gizmodo ran an article from someone whose laptop caught fire. Another person posted some photos showing the aftermath of a laptop battery-fire.

(Note: This applies equally to Dells. My links show Apple laptops only because I've been getting my information from Mac user groups.)

Monday, August 14, 2006

Mercury in fish? Don't worry about it.

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The Center For Consumer Freedom (an advocacy group funded by the food service industry, but that backs up its statements with solid facts) has just released a large paper called "The Flip Side Of Mercury". Read the executive summary here or read the full paper here.

For those of you who don't want to do either, here are the key points of the paper:

  • It is perfectly safe to eat fish. There has not been a single study that shows any actual danger. Just lots of hype, hand-waving, and misrepresenting of statistics. (There were actually two incidents in Japan - one in the 50's and one in the 60's. Both were the result of industrial accidents, involving mercury levels thousands of times higher than anything normally caught in the ocean.)
  • Most advocacy-studies about mercury in fish use a threshold concentration of 1 part-per-million. This is the FDA's "action level". What they don't tell you is that the FDA defines 10ppm as "the lowest level associated with adverse effects." In other words, the mercury concentration can be 10 times this "action level" before the FDA considers it dangerous.
  • Most fish studied have mercury levels well below the 1.0ppm action level. A few (most notably swordfish) have higher levels, but event the highest concentrations (3.48ppm) are still well below the level that the FDA considers dangerous.
  • Recent studies show that selenium offers protection against methyl mercury. An atom of selenium neutralizes the effect of a molecule of methyl mercury in living organisms (including people.) On a per-molar basis (comparing by counts of atoms/molecules instead of by weight), almost all fish (and absolutely all of those that have significant amounts of mercury) have significantly more selenium than mercury. Some have orders of magnitude more. So the same fish that contains traces of mercury also contains the antidote in abundance. Most activist-published studies choose to ignore this fact.
  • The health benefits of fish (including Omega-3 fatty acids and many other things) far outweigh any theoretical danger from mercury. Activist advisories telling pregnant women to avoid all fish are far more likely to harm than help the unborn.

But don't just take my word for it. Read the paper.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Mac OS X tip: Reload Dashboard widgets

I just discovered this wonderful (and apparently undocumented) feature with the Weather widget in Mac OS X.

When I display the dashboard while I'm at work, the weather widget is often incorrect. My company's web proxy caches old values, causing me to see reports that are often several days out of date.

This is not surprising. Many web pages end up out of date due to this problem. Telling my web browser to reload the page (which produces a slightly different HTTP request, directing the proxy to not use a cached value, and to update its cache) results in my getting the current page.

The Weather widget, however, is not a web browser. Dashboard widgets have no menu bar, and this one has no buttons on the GUI. I did notice that the widget fetches its content whenever Dashboard activates, so I would hide and then show the Dashboard to make Weather try again. Usually, it would get a current report after a few repetitions.

Today, however, this didn't work. After several dozen repetitions, the widget was still showing yesterday's weather information. Out of frustration, I typed CMD-R (the usual "reload" key used by most Mac web browsers). Much to my surprise, the widget immediately reloaded (including a really nifty looking graphical flourish), and immediately switched to the current report.

Even more interesting is the fact that this works for all widgets. Click on any widget, and then type CMD-R, and watch it reload its content with the same graphical flourish. It doesn't change the Calendar widget, but it did cause my Ferengi Rules Of Acquisition widget to pick a new rule.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Bill Gates is heading for the door

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Bill Gates has announced that (in July 2008), he will start winding down his responsibilities at Microsoft to focus on philanthropic works.

I think this will ultimately be good for Microsoft and for consumers.

As CEO, Gates was in his element. He is an incredible businessman, and his decisions moved Microsoft from an obscure developer of BASIC interpreters to the world-dominating operating system powerhouse.

But ever since he left that position to focus on technology decisions, Microsoft has started slipping. Ballmer (the current CEO) is not that good a businessman, and Gates is far too visionary to be designing commercial products (at least not if they will be stable, ship on-time and on-budget.)

Disgruntled Microsoft employee blogs have been saying this sort of thing for a while, and they do a better job of explaining than I do, so I won't go into all the details. Suffice it to say that while Gates loves technology and stays up to date on all the latest innovations, he seems unable to recognize when a cool feature is too complicated to be implemented in a consumer product, and he's unable to recognize when a product (Windows) has grown too complicated to work on without radical reorganization.

Hopefully, he will be replaced by someone with a little less vision (but not a lot less), and a lot more experience with management of large software development projects.

Thursday, June 15, 2006 - bringing Microsoft Windows programs to Linux and Mac!

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And here's yet another approach to getting Windows apps to run on other platforms.

First there was emulation. You create a virtual PC, boot Windows into it, and run your program there. It works, but it's slow. You're emulating an entire processor, which is never fast. And you need to buy a Windows license (if you want to be legal.)

Then there were cross-compilation libraries. You take your Windows sources and compile them against the library to get an app for another platform. These work well, but they're only useful to someone with access to the source code (like the original developer.)

Then there were library-server systems, like WINE. No processor emulation (so you need an Intel-based computer), just OS emulation. You run a server that loads the app, links it up against appropriate libraries, and then runs it. This works, but you need that server, and all the associated libraries, in order to run your application.

And now there's Alky. If I understand their web site correctly, Alky reads your Windows app and generates a native app from it. In other words, it treats a Windows app as source code, which it proceeds to recompile into whatever your own operating system requires. When it's done, you have a native app, and can throw away the original.

This isn't the first time this has been done. Java systems do this in order to get good performance (since interpreting bytecode is slow.) The difference is that Java systems use a just-in-time compiler. They compile the app into native code on an as-needed basis, but they don't keep the results of the compilation. If you quit and re-load the application, it has to re-compile the app.

I have yet to try out Alky, but if it works as promised, this could be a really big thing. Of course, many of us said that about emulators (like Wabi) and WINE, so I could be wrong.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

An unorthodox proposal regarding gay marriage

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I sent an article very similar to this to a local talk show host. Here it is for (with much formatting and editing) your perusal:

A complete waste of time

First off, I consider the entire subject of gay marriage a waste of Congress's time. We've got far more important things to deal with than telling people who they can and can not marry. Especially when nobody is really stopping anyone to begin with (see below.)

It's about judicial activism, not gay marriage

If this entire debate was about state legislatures passing gay marriage laws, I wouldn't have anything to complain about. I am a firm believer in the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees states all rights that are not explicitly reserved for the Federal government or prohibited from the states. And laws regarding marriage (of all kinds) is exactly such a right.

But we're not talking about states passing laws. We're talking about activist judges legislating from the bench. We've already seen one state supreme court (MA) ordering the state legislature to pass laws permitting gay marriage. The population of the state have no say in the matter. And the US Supreme Court seems to have upheld their right to do this.

The fact that the US Supreme Court is supporting this clear violation of Constitutional separation of powers means that a response is necessary. And the only Constitutional way to override a US Supreme Court decision is to pass a constitutional amendment. I would personally prefer to use some other more meaningful issue to fight the USSC over, but we weren't given that choice. MA's supreme court didn't order the MA legislature to pass any other law, so that's where the fight must be fought.

If Congress does nothing here, it sets the precedent that the country has no problem with this kind of extreme judicial activism. And the next time a state supreme court orders a state legislature to pass an unwanted law, it will be that much harder to fight the decision.

All this having been said, I don't like either side in the debate (to ban or guarantee gay marriage). As far as I'm concerned, the government should get out of the marriage business altogether.

It's state recognition, not marriage

As it stands right now, no state actually prohibits gay marriage. A gay couple has only to find an appropriate member of the clergy to perform the ceremony and they will be married under the eyes of whatever god or gods this clergyman represents. And there is no state law that prohibits this. While there are many religions that prohibit gay marriage, there are also plenty to permit it, so this is not a difficult thing for a couple to do.

In other words, the entire fight is over state recognition. I say "who cares?" Or more explicitly, why should anybody, whether gay or straight, care about the state recognizing their marriage. Marriage is a covenant between two people and whatever god or gods they believe in. Or in the case of atheists, just between two people. Why should I care what the government thinks? And why should the government care about my marriage?

In the US, we have separation of church and state. This means God's laws should have nothing to do with the state's laws. If you reject all arguments based on religion, what is the difference between a marriage and a "civil union" or "domestic partnership"? Absolutely nothing!

My proposal

Government gets involved in things like taxation (allowing a couple to file jointly), settlement of property after death/divorce/separation, and powers of attorney. All of which can be accomplished without any concept of marriage, using existing laws!

For example, the first two can be covered by existing corporate partnership laws. If two people create a partnership business, and give all their assets to the partnership, they end up paying no individual taxes, but the partnership files corporate taxes on its income. If the partnership is dissolved, the partnership contract will contain the terms of property distribution (or laws will define these terms if the contract doesn't have anything.) Similarly, there already exists laws where one person can grant power of attorney to another, to be used in case of mental or physical incapacity.

Note that the sexual preference of the people involved in this scenario are completely irrelevant, because we're now dealing with terms of incorporation and not "marriage". This system would be used for traditional heterosexual partnerships as well as homosexual ones. The whole concept of "marriage" ends up solely as a religious one, having nothing at all to do with government.

I'm sure some will complain about this, claiming that it promotes polygamy (since contractual partnerships can have more than two partners.) But this isn't true. We're talking about a partnership in order to gain specific financial/property benefits, not granting rights of sexuality. The right to enter in a group-sex relationship remains just as legal/illegal as it is right now - in actual practice, nothing changes.

And lets face it, legal or not, there are groups of people today that have group-sex relationships. My proposal won't create them, ban them, or support them. The same things that make them unpopular now (religious and family pressure) will continue to make them unpopular under my proposal. And when society changes (as it always does) to make them become more or less stigmatized, my proposal will have no effect, and will not be affected by these changes.

My proposal also stops the slippery slope of people wanting to demand other kinds of "marriage" rights - like to children and animals. (Yes, there are groups that advocate this, and I'm certain some of them will become much more vocal once gay marriage becomes the norm in society.) Under my proposal, these kinds of partnerships can't happen, because children and animals can not legally enter into a contractual relationship of any kind.

It also eliminates the pressure from those groups that would like to promote incestuous relationships. Since these partnership contracts are purely social/financial, it's not an issue. A brother and sister can choose to enter into a partnership together if they really want to.

This all works because these partnerships don't grant any kind of sexual rights/privileges. If the partners want to have a sexual relationship, existing laws already exist to define what is allowed or prohibited. Incest can remain illegal, even if the two people are contractual partners. And religious organizations can retain the moral and social authority they currently have over their members.


I'm curious about what you think about this proposal. I think it solves a whole world of problems. It strengthens the separation of church and state. It takes the issue away from the judicial activists. And it is flexible enough to not require reorganization as social norms change. And government doesn't have to take sides in the debate over people's sexuality.

I'm certain the polititians and judges would uniformly hate this proposal, because it takes power away from them both. But I'm not trying to placate government. I'm trying to solve what I see as the real problem here.

Monday, June 05, 2006

My take on outsourcing

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In recent news, Apple began a plan to outsource tech support to India. After a few months, Apple cancelled that effort.

This has spurred lots of discussion about the pros and cons of outsourcing. Not being one to keep my mouth shut about anything, I contributed my two cents. And since this is a subject of interest to more than just the Mac community, here it is (in expanded form) for you to see and comment on.

What people seem to forget is that India is a big place with lots of variety. Just like everywhere else.

"Outsourcing to India", with respect to quality, is no different from "outsourcing to New York" (or Los Angeles, or Atlanta, or any other US city/region where the typical people speak with thick accents.) In both cases, you can get good support staff that speak English well. And in both cases, you can get lousy support staff that don't speak English and are no better than phone-menu trees.

I recall a very painful exercise with Earthlink tech support a few years ago. The person was American, and spoke great English, but we wasted hours on pointless questions because he was not allowed to deviate from the corporate script. After three hours (and escalation to another support person who also wasn't allowed to deviate from a script), they finally opened a trouble-ticket. I found out the next day that it was a scheduled network outage. Apparently, their support staff doesn't get informed about this sort of thing.

I've also placed support calls to American call centers where the person spoke with a very thick accent (and Southern US is often just as hard to understand as a Chinese or Indian accent), but where the staff was able to quickly identify the problem and give me a solution.

In other words, the quality of support is a function of corporate policy and the skill of the staff and not the country the calls get routed to. Although foreign accents can make problems worse, it is possible for a corporation to hire people (even in India) that don't have these problems.

The real irony is that the costs for a call center are directly related to these factors. A high quality support center will cost a lot anywhere in the world. And you can set up a cheap support center in the US if you don't care about quality. A skilled support engineer can get employers to fight over him, even in India.

Which is probably the real reason why Apple has abandoned their outsourcing project. They probably realized that they won't save very much without destroying their reputation for quality support. And if you're not saving much, there's no point to outsourcing.

And this is the big difference between companies like Apple and companies like Dell. When Dell outsourced their support staff, they chose to give up support quality. Which destroyed one of the key things that made people prefer Dell over other brands. Let's hope Apple remains smarter than this.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Couple's Supposedly Destroyed Hard Drive Purchased In Chicago - Yahoo! News

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This is yet another reason why I will never let the monkeys at computer stores do any maintenance on my computer.

A couple brought their computer to Best Buy to have the hard drive upgraded. They were assured that the old drive (which contained lots of personal information) would be physically destroyed.

Well, BB flat out lied. A few months later, that drive was bought at a flea market. BB didn't even bother to erase it. The person that bought the drive had everything intact, including bank statements, investment records and account numbers. This buyer was able to use the information on the drive to contact the original owner (who wanted it back.)

As far as I'm concerned, Best Buy is guilty of theft. If a corporation promises to destroy/recycle something on behalf of a customer, and then sells that something, they are selling stolen merchandise. They are (at least) in breach of contract, and should be held liable for all consequential damages (such as identity theft) resulting from their choice to not destroy the contents of the drive.

If you decide to replace a drive, do it yourself. If you're going to throw the drive out, physically destroy it. Drilling holes through it helps. An industrial shredder (which can shred a hard drive) is even better.

If your drive breaks and you try to get a warranty replacement.... Well, let's just hope it really is broken. I'd probably decide to forgo the warranty and just pay for a new drive, in order to keep it out of the hands of the incompetent pigs that work in computer stores.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Macworld: News: Apple loses court appeal against online journalists

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Good news. Apple lost their appeal in their lawsuit against bloggers.

For those who were unaware, several rumor-oriented web sites posted information about an Apple project code-named "Asteroid". The sites posted drawings that were allegedly stolen from Apple, in violation of non disclosure agreements.

The owners of the web sites never signed any NDAs, of course. They were given the documents by people who took them from Apple (or from people who got them from people who got them from people who took them from Apple....)

Anyway. Apple filed several "john doe" lawsuits against the unknown parties that leaked the documents. Then they tried to subpoena the web site owners for the identity of their sources. The site owners refused, citing California's shield laws that guarantee the media the right to protect its sources. Apple countered by claiming that these are not legitimate news sources.

Well, the judge upheld the web site owners. Media is media, and journalists of any caliber can not be compelled to reveal their sources.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

I'm on LJ too!

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I've decided to jump on the bandwagon and host a LiveJournal page in addition to this one.

The main reason for the LJ page is because lots of my friends have LJ pages, you have to post comments as "anonymous" if you don't also have an LJ account. (You can also use an "open ID", but I don't think Blogspot has an OID server, and many of my friends' LJ pages don't allow posts from OIDs anyway.) I also want to be able to see my friends' "friends only" postings.

Anyway, I expect to keep both blogs going. This one will be mostly for when I feel a need to comment on a news/product/whatever web page, since the "Blog This" button on my Google toolbar is incredibly convenient. I also plan on using this one for any long original works (like some of my commentary on the computer business or discussions on security systems.)

I plan on using the LJ page for more silly nonsense (like the "star trek character" poll) that will be of possible interest to my friends but of absolutely no interest to the world at large.

So now you know about it. Go create yet another bookmark.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

What Star Trek character are you?

1 comment:
Here's mine:

Your results:
You are Geordi LaForge

Geordi LaForge
Jean-Luc Picard
An Expendable Character (Redshirt)
Mr. Scott
Will Riker
Deanna Troi
James T. Kirk (Captain)
Leonard McCoy (Bones)
Beverly Crusher
Mr. Sulu
You work well with others and often
fix problems quickly. Your romantic
relationships are often bungled.
Click here to take the "Which Star Trek character are you?" quiz...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The next generation of TV

I just ran across this article from Canon (see above link.)

All TV technologies have some key problems with them:

  • CRTs are heavy, use a lot of electricity, and have a practical size limit. The largest widescreen CRTs I know of are 34". The largest 4:3 aspect CRTs I know of are 40". This is a nice size, but is small compared to what other technologies can provide.
  • Internal projection systems (CRT, DLP or LCD) can go to huge sizes, but there are brightness problems. Images tend to dim-out if you watch the screen from an odd angle. CRT-based projectors often suffer from burn-in, so they create problems for video games and those TV channels (like news channels) that have tickers and static images on-screen for extended periods of time. Replacement projector bulbs (for DLP and LCD units) can be expensive.
  • External projection systems (LCD and DLP) can be projected to humongous sizes, but you need a place to put the screen, and the projector needs an unobstructed view of that screen. Lenticular screens (that give you maximal brightness) tend to dim-out when seen from odd angles. And replacement projector bulbs can be expensive.
  • Plasma screens look great, but they can suffer from burn-in. They also tend to lose their brightness and/or focus after a few years. Considering how expensive these screens are, I can't see myself ever buying one. (But if you want to give me one for my birthday, I won't refuse to use it.
  • LCD screens look great (and modern units don't have the off-angle fading and color distortions that were a problem in the past), but they can be very expensive. Especially at very large sizes.
Well, canon has solved these problems with their SED technology.

SED can be thought of as the successor to CRT technology. A traditional CRT has a screen coated with phosphors that glow when hit by an electron beam. An electron gun at the back of the tube beams electrons at the phosphors to light them up. Deflector magnets bend the beam so it can hit more than just the phosphors directly in front of the beam. Circuitry manipulates the deflectors so the beam scans over the entire phosphor-surface 60 times per second (or faster, depending on the refresh rate), producing the image.

This is the reason CRTs can't get much larger than they are now. When the screen gets larger, you need more distance between the electron gun and the screen, since the deflectors can only bend an electron beam so far before it loses focus. Increasing the distance from the gun means you need more electricity (since the beam has a longer distance to travel), and it means the TV will get larger.

With SED, they eliminate this problem. Instead of a single electron gun, producing a beam, there are millions of micro-size electron-emitters. One for each pixel. Since each one beams its electrons straight ahead, there is no need for deflector magnets, and no need for a great distance between the emitters and the phosphors. The result is a screen with all the brightness, color definition, and off-angle quality of a CRT, but completely flat, and with lower power consumption. And there is no technical reason why SED panels can't be made as large as plasma screens - which means pretty much any size the public will be willing to buy.

I can also see these replacing LCDs as the display of choice for computers. Especially for graphic professionals. Large flat screens without all the contrast and color issues that professionals have with LCDs.

This tech is still experimental, so I don't know when we'll see commercial products, but hopefully it will be soon. This seems to me that it will end up being the best of all worlds (unless you want the wall-filling image size of an external projector, of course.)

Friday, March 31, 2006

'Kosher' Phone

1 comment:
The Washington Post reports that Mirs, an Israeli cell phone company, is selling a "kosher phone". This is a cell phone where most modern features (like cameras and text messaging) is disabled, and where immoral phone numbers (like sex lines) are blocked. The communities in Israel that this is being marketed towards see this as a good thing - allowing the convenience of cell phone usage without inviting the commercial world into the community.

In some respects, they are right, but I ultimately see this as a bad move.

The way I see it (and I have been a cell phone user for years) is that the phones don't bring anything into your life that you don't explicitly go looking for in the first place. I have never received a call from a sex service or from any other immoral business. The only way these phones can be used for immoral activity is if the owner goes looking for it (for example, by dialing the number of a phone-sex service.)

I would like to believe that the people buying the kosher phones could be trusted to not go looking for immorality without requiring a board of rabbis to tell them what numbers can and can not be dialed. And if a person considers himself unable to avoid this kind of immorality, why would he buy the kosher phone in the first place? To show off to the neighbors? (Actually, maybe there is some truth to that...)

Now, it might make sense of these families are buying the phones for their children. Kids sometimes go looking for immoral content, either out of curiosity or as a form of rebellion against their parents. In my opinion, however, blocking systems like this are a meaningless façade. Sure, a kid with a kosher phone won't be able to dial a sex line. But if he is rebellious, he will simply find a different avenue for his rebellion - like buying pornographic magazines, or getting his own phone that his parents don't know about. Technology may be able to make immorality inconvenient, but it can not do a thing about what's in a person's head.

A better concept

All this being said, I think there is a place for a "kosher phone", but not the device Mirs is selling today.

My kosher phone would be based on a modern cell phone, with all the bells and whistles. It would have a camera, text messaging, video service, etc. It would also come with an array of Jewish features to make use of this technology. For instance:

  • An address book pre-loaded with "dial-a-shiur" services, so you can learn Torah from anywhere at any time.
  • A similar feature using text messages - a daily mini-drash that can be delivered automatically into the phone (or e-mail box) every morning.
  • Torah-study chat-rooms, where Torah is discussed 24 hours a day by whoever wants to connect. (Moderated by rabbis, of course, to prevent the discussions from straying too far off-topic.) This could be text, voice or video.
  • A calendar pre-loaded with the Jewish holidays, yahrtzeit-tracking capability, and software to compute the times for prayer, fasts, etc.

Note that none of this involves blocking anything. It trusts the owners to actually practice the morality they preach if they want to keep objectionable content off of the phone. I think that most people can be trusted with this responsibility, and those that can't be trusted have problems that a restricted phone won't cure.

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe said on many occasions, technology is not something that should be avoided or banned. It is something that should be made holy by using it for kosher purposes.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Windows Vista - train wreck on ice

1 comment:
A disgruntled Microsoft employee calls for the termination of Microsoft's top brass, due to Vista's repeated schedule slippage.

More interesting are the numerous comments (hundreds) that follow. Many of them are from Microsoft engineers complaining about all kinds of horrible things. Microsoft is clearly a Dilbert company. And I now feel a lot better about my company (which isn't even close to this disaster.)

And I'm very happy I didn't accept Microsoft's job offer back in 1998!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

New toys

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I got several new geek toys this week.

First and foremost is a new monitor. I bought a Dell 2405FPW. This is a 24" widescreen LCD monitor. It has dual inputs and seems to play nice with KVM switches. It is attached to my Mac G4, Mac Quadra, Windows PC and Linux PC. It also has a built-in USB hub and memory card reader. Native resolution is 1920x1200. See the photo (to the right) for an image of it hooked up to everything.

I am very pleased with Dell here. I placed my order on Tuesday. The charge went through that night. I received it Friday afternoon. This is with the free UPS-ground shipping. The monitor includes both VGA and DVI cables, so I didn't have to buy either - which is great, since I'm using both inputs. The total cost, with tax and a 5-year warranty came to $880.

The second new toy is a PlayStation 2. Once I learned that the PS3 will be delayed at least until November, I decided to go and buy a PS2. I don't want to wait over 8 months to play Katamari Damacy in my living room!

The new PS2 consoles are small!. (See the image to the right. Note the size of the DVD in the drive and the controller.) Sony isn't kidding when they say it is 75% smaller than the original PS2 console. When I took it out of the box, my first impression was "this is it?". Significant changes from the original PS2 are:

  • Different DVD drive. This one is top-loading instead of tray-loading
  • No mechanical power switch. Only the electronic power switch.
  • No expansion bay. So the hard drive add-on doesn't work
  • No network expansion port. Instead, Ethernet is built-in. According to Sony, the North American models also include a modem, but mine didn't. So they must be shipping two different models to the US. (Or Sony's web site is wrong, which is also possible.)
  • If you use a multi-tap, you need a new model. Previous ones are incompatible.
  • The vertical stand is different, because of the new case-shape.
I still have to buy the Component video cable and an optical audio cable, to make the system complete, but it seems to work well. I played Katamari Damacy for many hours tonight (from about 7:00 until 3:00am, so I'm just a bit wired right now. )

And now it's time for bed. Tomorrow's a day with nothing to do but laundry, so I've got plenty of time to play with my new toys.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

"Indy 4" Script Ready

1 comment:
In an interview with a German magazine, Harrison Ford says that the script for the fourth Indiana Jones movie is finally ready to go.

I hope this means they can start shooting soon. I really want to see this one on the silver screen

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Rats. No PS3 until November

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Until today, Sony had been telling the world that the PlayStation 3 would ship this spring - meaning any time between now and June. The rumor mill, however, was saying that there's no way they can meet this date.

Well, Sony now agrees. The official word is now "November". We hope.

Apparently, the console itself is ready to go, but the PS3 is supposed to double-up as a player for Blu-Ray Disc movies (Blu-Ray Disc, or BD, is a high-definition successor to DVD). Unfortunately, the BD standards body hasn't yet nailed down all the specifics of the copy protection tech that BD will use. Sony can't ship a BD drive without the final protection code, or the drive won't be able to play BD movies (expected to ship soon after BD is officially released to the world.)

Personally, I think this is a cop-out. If they have the BD drive working for data discs and are waiting on copy protection schemes, they should be able to ship it now and release a firmware update later on. I don't think it would be that terrible for them to ship a PS3 that can't play BD movies without a firmware update that they can release when BD movies actually become available.

I was going to wait for the PS3 in order to have a console to play Katamari Damacy on, but I'm not going to wait until November, and maybe later if the BD people create even more delays. So, it's time for me to go get a PS2 now, and that PS3 purchase will be delayed indefinitely (until some must-have game comes out for it.)

Oh well. Such is life.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

How to set up a new broadband connection

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Moving from dial-up to broadband is a great thing. You can do things that would be impossible on dial-up connections, like video conferencing, movie downloading, and a great many other things. But if you're not careful, it can also be a nightmare. Being connected to the internet at high speed 24 hours a day makes it an attractive target for hackers and the malware they use.

But with a little bit of precaution, these problems don't have to happen. Here are a few tips for making the transition to broadband quick and painless.

  1. Get a router. A consumer-grade gateway router doesn't cost much (often under $100). A router provides several features that help enormously.
    • NAT. Short for Network Address Translation. A broadband service provider typically provides only one IP address, which will only allow one computer to connect to the internet. NAT is a facility that allows multiple computers to share that one address. You can have an entire network of PCs all connected to the router (either directly or with a hub). The router will assign a private IP address to each computer and will translate all their addresses to the one address assigned by your ISP. It also tracks connections and remembers which computer created each one, allowing them all to access the internet at the same time. If you have more than one computer, this feature is an absolute necessity.
    • Firewall. When NAT is being used, a packet coming in from the internet could be sent to any one of your computers. If the packet is part of a connection that one of your computers initiated, the router will know which one to send it to. If the packet is not part of an established connection, however, it won't know where to send it, and the packet will be dropped. In other words, computers on the internet can not create connections to your computers. Although this can not prevent all hacking attempts, it will block a very large percentage of them.

      Because of the firewall benefits, I recommend that you NEVER attempt to connect to the internet without a router. Without a firewall (hardware or software-based), a Windows PC can be hacked in as little as four minutes.

  2. Make sure your operating system software is up to date. On Windows XP, this means you must install Service Pack 2, and apply any high-priority updates that have come out since. (And there are a lot.) You should apply these as soon as possible, if they're not already installed. If you can't take the time to download Service Pack 2 (it is a very large download), you can order it on a CD for free. For the rest, you can visit with Internet Explorer to install the updates.
  3. Make sure you have an anti-virus package installed and kept up to date.
  4. A software-based firewall, like the one that comes built-in to Windows XP Service Pack 2, is a good idea in addition to the firewall features you get from a router.
  5. If you plan on setting up a wireless network, make sure your hardware (router and interface cards) support WPA2 encryption. Older encryption standards (like WEP and the original WPA) are much less secure. As a matter of fact, WEP security is so insecure that a hacker can crack it in only an hour or two.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Jerry Falwell comes to his senses? Maybe?

Jerry Falwell, Baptist preacher and political lobbyist, seems to have changed his mind about trying to convert Jews to Christianity, and is now against the practice.

Assuming this isn't some trick or political double-speak, then it is a good sign, since Falwell is well respected in the Evangelical Christian world.

Let's hope this is indeed a sincere change of heart.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Now this is a great invention

A tie, with built-in in attachment points for an iPod nano.

Unfortunately, I don't own a nano (a mini would be too heavy for a tie) and I don't wear ties. Otherwise, it's a wonderful invention.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Friday, February 17, 2006

Adobe is a gang of idiots

1 comment:
I launched the Adobe Reader to read a PDF file at work. It popped up a window requesting me to download and install an update. That's fine - updates happen. So I click the link, the update downloads and installs, and it asks me to reboot Windows. OK. lots of programs require rebooting Windows for no good reason. So I reboot and what happens? The stupid installer asks me to reboot AGAIN!

What kind of brain-dead installer requires not one but TWO reboots? Not even Microsoft's Windows system updates require this! Unless the Adobe Reader is more complicated than Windows itself, there is no justification for this behavior.

I don't know what's worse. That their programmers are unwilling/unable to write a proper installer or that Adobe's management considers this behavior acceptable for a product.

As far as I'm concerned no application should ever require a reboot of any kind. I never have to reboot when installing/updating my Linux boxes (aside from kernel updates.) I almost never have to reboot when installing/updating Mac stuff. But on Windows, every program wants to reboot after an installation. And Adobe wants you to do it twice.

Your mouse has moved. Please restart the computer for the changes to take effect.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Very cool illusion

Persistence of vision is an amazing thing. Visit this link to see an interesting trick.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I got mentioned in an AP article

1 comment:
Stephanie Hoo, of the AP wrote this article about how personal electronic devices (specifically, those with hard drives) don't work at high altitudes (like in Tibet).

In trying to figure out why, she ran across some blog posts of mine and contacted me for additional information, which was cited in the article.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Multi-Touch Interaction Research

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You've got to see this to believe it.

Jefferson Han, at NYU has been working on a multi-touch screen. This is effectively a touch-screen display that is capable of detecting and tracking a large number of simultaneous finger-touches.

When used in conjunction with appropriate software, this system creates the possibility for UI designs that traditional mouse/pen interaction (which are single-touch) can not come close to.

Note that many of the demos in the video use a zooming user interface. A concept that is (IMO) made far more useable in conjunction with the multi-touch display.

Friday, January 13, 2006

iTunes Music Store now selling karaoke tracks

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It's true. iTunes is now selling instrumental versions of lots of songs, courtesy of a wide variety of karaoke publishers, like Sound Choice. You can find them here.

The interesting thing, however, is that these are audio tracks. As anybody who sings karaoke knows, it is much easier to sing when you have the lyrics in front of you, which is what you get when playing a CD+G karaoke disc on a compatible player.

Hopefully, this will be the start of a bigger trend. Since Apple sells videos through iTMS, they should start selling graphical karaoke tracks as videos. So when played, you get the graphics you'd see on a CD+G release. I think these would be very popular, especially if they're priced at the same $0.99 that audio tracks are sold at.

Of course, it would be even nicer if iTunes could play CD+G discs, ripping them to H.264 video files. But that may end up being too good to be true.

Monday, January 02, 2006

RIAA suborns perjury

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Yep. Faced with the fact that most people are not pirating music, the RIAA is now engaging in witness intimidation in order to win lawsuits against innocent people.