Thursday, December 13, 2012

Geek Links of the Week - 13Dec2012

Yeah, it's been a while. Work+life = no time for fun stuff like this.

In this week's post we cover everything from parade confetti and geek TV shows to online schools and police raids.

My Geek Links of the Week!

Pregame: Geekiest Ways to Cook a Turkey

What started out as an easy question on Slashdot quickly descended into hilarity...

"What self respecting geek doesn't go home to be pampered by Mom?"
"Don't you mean 'go upstairs' ?"

Link #1: Computer Viruses Can Kill in Ambitious Sci-Fi Web Series H+
“In upcoming sci-fi web series H+, people embed themselves with a chip that hardwires their nervous systems into the internet 24 hours a day — until a virus kills a third of the world’s population. How will survivors cope, and who unleashed the homicidal computer code in the first place?”
 - Hugh Stewart, Wired
A new series called H+ launched recently on The series intrigues me to two ways...

1. The Scifi angle - The concept behind the story is that people can be implanted with a chip to interface their brains with the internet. At first glance the ability to access any information anywhere may seem like a good idea but, as with any other internet connected system, the inevitable happens: a virus spreads and kills 1/3 of the world's population virtually overnight. This reminds me of Ghost in the Shell, another series I never had the time to fully appreciate. Setting aside the apocalyptic theme for a moment, the story of how this was developed and sold to the public would make for a great piece as well. How would you convince people that the system was secure? Wouldn't people be wary of the devices? The possibilities are endless.

2. The direct distribution angle - This series was developed and produced by people that are no strangers to Hollywood and the entertainment industry (The director previous was attached to an X-Men movie) yet they chose to do this on a low budget (shooting in just 29 days) and release it as a web series. Perhaps they pitched it to some TV execs and were turned down? More likely this was done in their spare time as something fun to do and build their resume. Netflix and other online distributors are already producing properties that will never touch a traditional cable or satellite. When you are not bogged down with a studio or media corporation breathing down your neck the creative process can be much more free.

At any rate it will be interesting to see where this goes. The trailer looks really cool.

Link #2: The surprising, stealth rebirth of the American arcade
“The arcade industry is dead in the United States—everyone knows it—done in by a combination of rapidly advancing home consoles and rapidly expanding suburbanization in the late '80s and early '90s. The only people not in on this bit of conventional wisdom are the ones who happen to be opening a surprising number of successful new arcades around the country.”
 - Aurich Lawson, Ars Technica
This one is close to my heart. As a pre-teen I spent (wasted) a lot of money playing video games in arcades, amusement parks, and convenience stores. I have a special place in my heart for Super Mario, Pac-Man, and Gallaga. One of my fondest memories as a young child was playing Joust and Night Driver (the really old sit-in version) at a now defunct bowling alley near my Grandmother's house. A good friend of mine from high school is into collecting and restoring these old arcade games, which he does as a side project. PBS even did a documentary about it not long ago.

These old electronics are in danger of going away completely. As time goes by the plastic components degrade and eventually the circuit boards fail. The cool part is that you can buy really small devices to plug into your TV to emulate just about any old arcade game but the experience may fall flat. Nothing can compare to the old style way of standing in line with your quarter lined up on the machine to mark your place.

For some serious 80's nostaglia, check out the book "Ready Player One".

Link #3: 106 Passwords that BlackBerry 10 won’t let you use
“Deep in the heart of the BlackBerry 10 OS is a list of 106 passwords that you will not be able to use. We will probably see this list being added to over time.”
 - Rapid Mike,
I like the fact that RIM is taking a proactive approach and simply disallowing the most common passwords, forcing you to choose something a little less common. But this is chasing your tail: when you stamp out the 100 most common passwords they are replaced by the next 100 most common passwords. Users want ease of use and if you allow non-complex passwords in your app your users will use them. Ultimately this process will lead to the banning of the entire dictionary of single words. What's next, moving on to banning word combinations? Hint: many of the currently banned 106 passwords are more-than-one-word or letter/number combinations.

In the end, all it takes to be secure is a haystack.

Speaking of weak passwords...

Link #4: Update: New 25 GPU Monster Devours Passwords In Seconds
“The system was able to churn through 348 billion NTLM password hashes per second. That renders even the most secure password vulnerable to compute-intensive brute force and wordlist (or dictionary) attacks. A 14 character Windows XP password hashed using LM, for example, would fall in just six minutes.”
 - Per Thorsheim, organizer of the Passwords^12 Conference
Read that quote again. They can crack ANY Windows XP password that was hashed using the LM hash in under 6 minutes (XP has a 14 character limit on passwords). They used off-the-shelf components that are easy to acquire, along with an open-source HPC platform to create a monster password cracking platform. This attack does mean that the attacker must have access to the actual password hash, which requires OS access, so the actual threat your typical user is low, but an attacker with physical access to a machine can easily take it over without changing any passwords. They can read the local admin password hash using some common tools, look it up in a hash table, and now they have root access.

The writing is on the wall: passwords are not secure. The technology to crack passwords is gaining ground. How long until we hear about someone who used AWS or Windows Azure, with a stolen credit card, to create a password cracking cloud service? We need something much more secure: multi-factor auth seems to be a possible alternative (something you know + something you have).

Why did Jeremi Gosney create this password cracking system? He was one of the first researchers to publish the list of common passwords after a list of password hashes stolen from LinkedIn was published online, but that's not the end of it. He is quoted in the article as saying, “I have way too much invested in this to not get some kind of return out of it.”

“Copyright enforcement might be getting out of hand in Scandinavia. As anti-piracy groups and copyright owners continue to work with authorities to curtail piracy in the region, police this week raided the home of a 9-year-old suspect and confiscated her “Winnie the Pooh” laptop”
 - Zach Epstein, BGR
This one is a trip, we'll have to wait to see how it plays out. Apparently...

  1. A 9-year-old girl (in Finland?) has her own laptop.
  2. She searches for songs on Google by a popular Finnish band, Chisu.
  3. Goog pointed her to links on The Pirate Bay.
  4. She clicks the links but the downloads failed.
  5. Her father takes her to a store and they buy the CD.
  1. One of the ISPs involved in her online activity (not clear if it was her residential ISP) flagged her activity.
  2. The ISP reported it to the Copyright Information and Anti-Piracy Centre (CIAPC), a non-profit anti-piracy organization.
  3. CIAPC contacted the family and demanded they pay a 600 Euro fine and sign an NDA.
  4. The father declines the offer.
  5. Police raid the home, confiscating the laptop and other items as evidence in the case.
The exact details are still fuzzy and it will take some time to clear all the legal facts in the case. For a moment we will assume all the alleged items above are true.

This brings up a lot of questions-
  1. Can a 9-year-old be held liable for not fully understanding copyright law online?
  2. Can you be legally liable for entering a search term on a search engine and then clicking on a link?
  3. What should be the legal or civil penalty if that link is not from a valid source?
  4. In the case of a simple infringement, even in the case where there IS infringement, was a police raid an appropriate response?

The quote from the father sums it up pretty well-
“I got the feeling that there had been people from the Mafia demanding money at the door,” the girl’s father said when recounting the police raid. “We have not done anything wrong with my daughter. If adults do not always know how to use a computer and the web, how can you assume that children or the elderly – or a 9-year-old girl – knows what they are doing at any given time online?”

Link #6: Researchers find Megaupload shutdown hurt box office revenues, despite gains for blockbusters
“In this paper we make use of a quasi-experiment in the market for illegal downloading to study movie box office revenues. Exogenous variation comes from the unexpected shutdown of the popular file hosting platform on January 19, 2012. The estimation strategy is based on a quasi difference-in-differences approach. We compare box office revenues before and after the shutdown to a matched control group of movies unaffected by the shutdown.”
 - Abstract from the study, Munich School of Management and Copenhagen Business School
What does all that mean? Here's the money quote- “In all specifications we find that the shutdown had a negative, yet in some cases insignificant effect on box office revenues.” (emphasis added)

The researchers found that shutting down Megaupload had a negative effect on some box office returns. It did NOT have a positive effect in any case. That seems to follow the argument that pirates actually spend more money than the amount that they supposedly pirate.

Disclaimer and clarification: I do NOT endorse the stealing of intellectual property but I am most definitely FOR loosening digital copyright rules. This is a losing battle on all sides. I'm not sure there is a perfect answer but it is certainly not the situation we have now.

Link #7: Police documents found in parade confetti
“Parade-goers in New York City say they found shredded police documents mixed in with confetti at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The documents contained confidential information, including detectives' Social Security numbers, bank information and unveiled undercover officers' identities, WPIX-TV, New York, reported.”
 - UPI
Who knew that you could steal someone's ID simply by watching a parade? }B^)

Of course Macys, NYPD, and Nassau County authorities (where the documents apparently originated) said they were investigating how such documents made it NYC to be used in the parade. Macys even said they used only commercially produced, multi-colored confetti and does not use shredded paper.

The moral of the story: EVERY company/organization that handles sensitive info MUST have a well-defined, trustworthy, and audited document retention and destruction policy. If not you are asking for trouble.

Link #1: Rise of the code schools
“Learning to code used to involve a school computer room, a bearded teacher in a cardigan, and a book the size of an encyclopaedia. Not any more. To the delight of shoulders everywhere, there’s a new breed of code school on the scene: one that expects no physical attendance, that won’t put you on the spot in front of the class, and doesn’t even require a textbook. Welcome to the online code school.”

Online learning has come a long way. I took some online college courses in '06 and hated the experience. In the past year I have taken courses from Khan Academy, (along with my 10-year-old son).

Their user interfaces are incredibly easy to use. Even my kids love it because they make learning fun and easy. Isn't that what makes a good teacher in a real school?

Brick and mortar schools are in for some serious competition. And, yes, competition is a good thing.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Logical Approach To The Healthcare Debate

There are a lot of things wrong with the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold Obama-care but, rather than speak to the political or legal aspects of the matter, I would like to take a more reasoned approach to resolving the issues in the healthcare industry. No, I don't believe it is a crisis but it does need fixing.

Do you like your health insurance provider? No? I doubt many people do, given how many people think the healthcare system needs a complete overhaul.

Should a corporate or government entity, such as a health insurance company or the health department, decide what care you get and how much you should pay for it?

I will answer this question with an analogy: should everyone be required to have auto insurance? The answer in our current American society is an emphatic "Yes!" but only if you drive a car. If you choose not to drive a car you are not required to purchase this service. Who enforces that law is another story (hint: it's NOT the federal government) but think about auto insurance in a different way: do you use your auto insurance to pay for periodic maintenance? Oil changes? Windshield wipers? How about gasoline? The idea is simply idiotic. It is almost always cheaper in the long run to pay out of pocket for most maintenance items for today's practical car. I use term "practical car" on purpose because if you have an expensive luxury or sports car the economics are much different. We have auto insurance as a hedge against the financial impact of being in an serious accident. In a two-party vehicle accident, where you are at fault, you end up paying for the following items for all people involved (drivers, passengers, and pedestrians)-
  1. Repairs to both vehicles
  2. Medical bills
  3. Salary for missed time at work
  4. Pain and suffering
To revisit the earlier question, let's try it with a different spin: should a corporate or government entity, such as a auto insurance company or your local department of motor vehicles (which we all love!), decide what auto maintenance you get, the price the mechanic will be paid, and what your portion of the bill will be? Does that not sound patently ridiculous? The auto-insurance industry is also heavily regulated but it allows for much greater competition and consumer choice.

Now it's time for a little history lesson. Health insurance came to popularity in the 1950s as a benefit from employers looking to attract top talent. During the post-WWII economic boom employers, desperate to hire the best talent from a very constricted pool of workers, looked for ways to increase the benefits package offered to employees while not increasing their taxable income, which would move them up the marginal tax bracket scale. Employers added all sorts of non-taxable benefits-
  1. Health insurance
  2. Dental insurance
  3. Club memberships (health, golf, diners, etc.)
  4. Expense accounts
  5. Company cars
  6. ...the list goes on and on...
Non-taxable benefits are important because the employee sees more benefit per dollar spent by the employer than they would by increasing their salary by the same amount.
In countries with very high tax rates this effect is amplified. As an example, Israel's tax burden (income tax and nation tax combined) ranges from 35-58% plus a 16% VAT on top of every purchase. In that country companies routinely give employees free on-site meals, gas/commute allowances, and many other employer provided benefits. I worked for an Israeli-based company in the late 1990s and was astounded at all the perks my Israeli counterparts were using and they were equally astonished at the higher salary levels and lack of company provided benefits in the US.

After 50+ years of employer-provided healthcare insurance in the US it is now so engrained in today's society that many people would be upset if they received a job offer that didn't have comprehensive health insurance in the benefits package.

The answer to the health care debate may be as simple as changing over to a system where we only need health insurance for the same reason we have auto insurance: as a hedge against catastrophic health issues. 

To follow the auto insurance analogy, do you pay your doctor directly for any of the following-

  • A simple check-up or annual/sports physical?
  • A quick cold/flu visit, typically to obtain a prescription cough medicine or antibiotic?
Have you ever looked at your medical bills paid by your insurance company? Do you even know how expensive it is to see your primary care physician? Would you go less or more if you had to pay cash every time you went? You pay your mechanic every time you get an oil change, why not pay your doctor when you get a physical? Most people do not know what their doctor charges for a "standard" office visit. If you had to write a check or pull out your credit card every time you visited your doctor, would you go less frequently?

Would you continue going to an auto mechanic if their prices were 30% more than the shop next door? What about the rates your doctor charges? This isn't even relevant in today's healthcare system because most of the healthcare prices you "pay" through your insurance company are pre-negotiated between your doctor's network and the health insurance company.

How do we get our healthcare system to the point where health insurance is "liability only," to coin a phrase from the auto-insurance industry? There are already healthcare plans that only cover severe or debilitating illnesses.

There has been a push recently toward a "single payer" healthcare system run by the federal government. In a way we are very close to that type of system in that we have a "a couple of payers" system. Those payers are the health insurance companies. The system itself would change greatly if that buying power were taken away from the heath insurers and placed in the hands of the consumers.

In order to do that we need to do something drastic, and this is the meat of my argument: eliminate employer-based healthcare coverage, the majority of all health insurance plans. What incentive would employers have to eliminate this valuable benefit? The answer is quite simple: repeal the federal income tax. To make up for it the federal government could switch to a flat tax or a consumption based model which would be less cumbersome and may even reduce the bureaucracy of the Department of the Treasury.

What would happen if the income tax were eliminated? Many employer perks would end. The pendulum would swing further toward cash-based compensation and employees would be free to spend their money on the healthcare program that was right for them. They could remain in a health-insurance plan that pays for everything or switch to a plan that covers those severe or debilitating illnesses that would otherwise lead to bankruptcy.

In the end this system would allow for a much more open marketplace where consumers and doctors are free to decide on their own treatment plans as well as competition in pricing and services.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Geek Links of the Week - 25June2012

Wow, it's been too long since I posted this...
This week's links cover everything from DNA research, XBox forensics, and gadget hacking! I usually try to limit it to 5 links but it this week I just couldn't do it! Here ya go with 7...

My Geek Links of the Week!

Link #1: Microsoft Surface: a gentle kick in the teeth of the OEMs
“To allow Windows 8 to compete with iOS, Microsoft needs hardware to compete with the iPad. Bad hardware would jeopardize Redmond's ability to play in the tablet space, but the PC OEMs have established for themselves a track record of producing little else. And while many of the OEMs have produced Android tablets to try to compete with the iPad, they've also consistently failed to match its quality. ”
 - Peter Bright, Ars Technica
I have mixed feelings about this, having been a consumer of the Windows ecosystem for some time. Building PCs in the mid-90's was a real kick and the best way to create your dream machine for (typically) less money than buying off-the-shelf systems. Those days are long gone but not entirely forgotten (my sister built her own cheap PC a couple months ago).

This move by MS shows just how broken the old Windows OEM model is when compared to Apple. Is this move by MS a permanent one or, as the author suggests, a kick in the pants of the OEMs to get moving and to start out-innovating Apple at their own game?

Link #2: Every Watt Matters!
“Data center operators are touting metrics like PUE to demonstrate energy efficiency leadership, but there is more to consider. Data centers exist because they can more efficiently and economically scale to house servers that host online services used by enterprises and consumers. However, we need a more holistic approach to ensure that we are minimizing the energy consumed to run these services. Performance matters, but so does the energy consumed to deliver that performance”  
- Dileep Bhandarkar, Distinguished Engineer, Microsoft Global Foundation Services
Most people don't know much more about internet than to say it is, "In the cloud somewhere." Ted Stevens wasn't that far off when he esoterically described it as a "Series of Tubes." And then you see pictures like these from Datacenter Knowledge...

When you dig down into it all major internet services start in a datacenter where the equipment is hosted. Those facilities are big business, difficult to run, and incredibly expensive.
So it goes without saying that building facilities requires a lot of engineering and cost-benefit-analysis to justify building such a large facility. This article goes into a lot of details around power utilization, PUE, and other metrics that show how well MS datacenters are using the power they draw. Very interesting analysis.

Older stuff...

Link #3: 30 best features of Windows 8
The Metro start screen may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does have undeniable benefits
I have been using Win8 since the Consumer Preview last December and I have to say I love it, even on a laptop and in "desktop mode" (where I don't really use Metro apps). The list of features I like is quite long: split touch keyboard, new task manager, Skydrive integration, split screen metro apps, universal search, the advanced file copy features... too many to mention! When you run it on a device with a touch screen it really shines! Remember those touch screen tablets (i.e. laptops with swivel screens) that no one really bought? Now you can use one to run Win8 and it will amaze you. Just make sure you put an SSD in it before you start!

Link #4: Radioactive man? Milford resident pulled over by state police
“Mike Apatow was minding his own business Wednesday, driving to an appointment for work in Washington Depot when a state police car appeared suddenly and signaled for the Milford resident to pull over. Apatow, 42, was entering Interstate 84 in Newtown when the cruiser appeared, and he had no idea what he'd done to merit police attention. It turns out he didn't do anything. But earlier that day, Apatow, who'd experienced a recent spike in his blood pressure, had a nuclear stress test at Cardiology Associates of Fairfield County in Trumbull. In the test, a small amount of a radioactive material is injected into the veins and used to help track blood flow to the heart.”
- Amanda Cuda,
So a guy is driving down the road in his vehicle and the State Police can detect if he is radioactive? First off, that's amazing but it makes you think for a minute. Yes, the technology to detect low levels of radiation, in an effort to find possible unauthorized people transporting active materials (i.e. terrorists/criminals), but do they really need it? Do we live in a world where this is necessary or is it cheap enough that they decided to do it because they could?

Link #5: The Floppy Disk means Save, and 14 other "old people" Icons that don't make sense anymore
“What happens when all the things we based our icons on don't exist anymore? Do they just become, ahem, iconic glyphs whose origins are shrouded in mystery?”  
-  Scott Hanselman,
This one made me think for a minute. There are all sorts of technology that my kids will never have to use that were necessities only 10 years ago. This article takes a different spin on it: look at the icons on your computer that mean things like the save button, radio buttons, folders, etc. Will my kids even understand what those icons mean? Will they know why we call them "radio buttons"? What is a folder? What is CC:?
OK, I'm old.

Link #6: US self-defence expert banned from entering UK
“Tim Larkin tried to board a plane from his home in Las Vegas on Tuesday, but was given a UK Border Agency letter saying "his presence here was not conducive to the public good". Mr Larkin, who was due to host seminars, told the BBC the move was a "gross over-reaction". The Home Office said he was subject to an exclusion order.” 
- BBC News Service
The British consider an unarmed civilian to be a threat to the public good because he is trained in self defense and the use of lethal force? Or it is because he is critical of the self-defense laws on the books? There are many limitations on speech in the UK so this should surprise no one.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Geek Links of the Week - 16Jan2012

Snow day! Yes, it's a snow day in Seattle, the biggest one we have had in 3-4 years.

This week's links cover everything from DNA research, XBox forensics, and gadget hacking! I usually try to limit it to 5 links but it this week I just couldn't do it! Here ya go with 7...

My Geek Links of the Week!

Link #1: CSI: Xbox—how cops perform Xbox Live stakeouts and console searches
“In June 2009, a Massachusetts state trooper was gathering evidence in a case that involved a suspect having sex with an underage girl. He hoped to find one crucial piece of evidence—video of the encounter—on a digital device from the suspect's home. But the device wasn't a computer; it was the suspect's game console. The investigator was stumped as to how to sift the device for clues, and he turned to a digital forensics mailing list for help. ”
 - Nate Anderson, Ars Technica
Earlier in 2011 someone in the hacker group Anonymous hacked the email account of a computer forensics expert and posted all the emails online. Part of that email cache was a lot of traffic from an email mailing list for digital crime specialists.

This article spells out many of the different scenarios in which law enforcement is using electronic devices such as game consoles, cell phones, and even mobile gaming devices to track down and prosecute criminals. Excellent read if you are interested in such geeky stuff.

Link #2: DNA links 1991 killing to Colonial-era family
“DNA may help Seattle-area sheriff's deputies find a suspect in a 20-year-old killing after a comparison with genealogy records connected a crime-scene sample to a 17th-century Massachusetts family.” - CNN Wire Staff
You may be asking yourself, "Say what? How is this Geeky?" Follow the logic: a cold-case murder from more than 20 years ago has a clue from a link to a genealogical society's DNA records. Did you follow that?  Here's how it works-

  1. People voluntarily send in DNA samples (usually a cheek swab or blood sample)
  2. A private company sequences the DNA and sends it to the genealogy society
  3. The genealogy society enters the DNA sequence in their database and does a little research
  4. The society sends a report to the original DNA donor giving them an idea of which family they may be related to to give them a better idea of where to do their own family history research
How is this related to a cold case? These DNA databases are the same type of databases used by law enforcement! They can be easily cross-referenced (with a court order, of course) for forensic purposes. In this case a Sheriff's deputy in Washington state (not far from my home) got a lead on a 20-year old cold case using this very method.

This brings up all sorts of privacy and ethical issues. When you send in a DNA sample to a genealogy database you are effectively giving your DNA to law enforcement. 

The proverbial "good guys have no reason to fear" argument does apply but what happens when government oversteps its bounds? The possibilities are endless.

Needless to say what might happen if that DNA DB is hacked and leaked on the internet. Be careful out there!

Link #3: Can You Predict The Price Is Right Wheel?
“So, here is the question: Can I come up with a strategy to make the wheel land at a particular spot? Clearly, there are a couple of things: Where does the wheel start? Where do you want it to end? How fast do you have to spin it and where do you let go?”
Rhett Allain - Dot Physics, Wired Science Blogs 
OK, confession time: I'm a sucker for The Price is Right and the Wired Science Blogs. My favorite Wired Science Blog story was when they analyzed the physics of a baseball throw from an actual baseball game (yes, it was an AMAZING play).

Is it possible to predict where the big wheel will stop? Is it possible to spin it just right to reliably land on $1 or a combination of two values that total $1? Rhett goes to great lengths to find out, starting with vast data collection (with the help of Youtube), kinematic equations, and more physics and math than you can shake a stick at.

But is it possible to "play the wheel"? You'll have to read the article to find out (i.e. I'm not giving it away).

Link #4: ExoPC EXOdesk hands-on pictures and video
“ExoPC's EXOdesk was originally a touch-enabled panel running Windows 8 and powered by a Core i7 processor. Well, after stopping by ViewSonic's booth here at CES 2012 we've learned the company has other plans for the EXOdesk. ExoPC has ditched the processor and computer components to help reduce cost, and what we're left with is merely a 1920x1080 32-inch touchscreen monitor fused to a desk. Like the original, this EXOdesk has 10 points of touch, but it simply serves as a secondary monitor for Windows (Mac support is being worked on) rather than a standalone PC. We're told EXOdesk will be shipping at the end of 2012 with a targeted price of $1299. However, ExoPC said, "price is pending a few factors: customer feedback to size, desired touch input, usage models, apps, user interface."”
- Sam Sheffer -
I gave my wife an ExoPC Slate for Christmas 2010. So far she uses it a little bit and hasn't gotten used to the entire idea of a tablet. It doesn't help that Windows 7 isn't the best tablet OS out there. Win8 works much better on her tablet but the Win8 Developer Preview wasn't very useful for anyone not a software geek.

This is a fabulous idea! The EXOdesk serves as a second monitor for a PC and can be used for just about anything. The UI is very interesting and has all sorts of uses. It even got "Best Gadget of CES 2012" by PC Mag.

Link #5: German Hackers Propose Uncensorable Global Grid — With Satellites
“The members of the Stuttgart Hackerspace have taken it upon themselves to launch their own space program. The immediate goal of the Hacker Space Program is to create an uncensorable internet in space beyond the control of terrestrial entities using a network of ground stations and communications satellites. In the longer term (think the year 2035), they'd like to put a hacker astronaut on the moon!”
Tired of meddling government censors and traditional boundaries, a hacker community has announced plans to create their own satellite network and even put a astronaut on the moon. Their goals aside (being able to share any content at any time with no governmental controls) this is the kind of project that really interests me. I don't care about breaching copyright or sharing kiddie-porn but a grass-roots effort to launch satellites and actually have them work sounds like a super-human project. I'm sure in 25-30 years this may seem trivial but with today's technology it is a HUGE task. In some ways I hope they pull it off but the governments of the world will never let it happen if it challenges their ability to censor and control content.

Link #6: Raspberry Pi's $35, 700MHz Linux computer enters manufacturing
“The Raspberry Pi Foundation announced this week that its $35 Linux computer has entered the manufacturing stage. The system, which is an open board with a 700MHz ARM11 CPU and 256MB of RAM, could be available for sale within a matter of weeks. The foundation, which is located in the UK, was originally founded in 2009 with the aim of developing an affordable computer that children could use to learn computer programming. The organization produced two batches of sample boards last year for testing purposes prior to the recent transition to full-scale manufacturing.” 
Ryan Paul - Ars Technica 
Wow, a $35 PC (no monitor, of course). It runs on ARM so it has to run an ARM-compatible OS like Linux but, since Win8 will eventually support the ARM platform, eventually it will be available with other OSs as well. I may have to buy a few of these just to support the effort (this is a grass-roots, open source project).

Link #7: 
Learn to code, get a job
“It's time Americans begin treating computer code the way we do the alphabet or arithmetic. Code is the stuff that makes computer programs work -- the list of commands that tells a word processor, a website, a video game, or an airplane navigation system what to do. That's all software is: lines of code, written by people.”
Douglas Rushkoff - CNN 
Was "learning to code" one of your new year's resolutions? If so, there is some good news: the Code Academy has online tutorials and classes available to teach you to be a software developer within a year, with a lesson per day. Why is this important?

With cloud computing on the rise it is apparent that many IT professionals will soon need a new job (like me). My current job of IT systems design is going out the window in the next 5 years as people move to generic systems architectures like Microsoft's Windows/SQL Azure and Amazon's EC2. Re-learning C and C# is on my list and this site is helping me. Maybe I'll post some code examples if I actually stick to it.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Geek Links of the (Last Several) Week(s) - 9Jan2012

Yep, it's been a while. The holidays were crazy, I bought/sold my car, <insert excuse>, etc. Enough of that...

My Geek Links of the Week!

Link #1: The Chinese Town That Turns Your Old Christmas Tree Lights Into Slippers
“A single strand of burnt-out Christmas lights weighs almost nothing in the hand. But a bale of burnt-out Christmas tree lights the size of a love seat? That weighs around 2200 pounds, according to Raymond Li, the general manager of Yong Chang Processing, a scrap metal processor in the southern Chinese town of Shijiao. He would know: on a recent Saturday morning I stood between him and three such bales, or 6600 pounds of Christmas tree lights that Americans had tossed into recycling bins, dropped off at the Salvation Army, or sold to a roving junk man. He had bought that 6600 pounds for my benefit, to show me how his company's Christmas tree light recycling system works.” - Adam Minter, The Atlantic
This is probably the coolest story I read over the Christmas break. There is an amazing trend in the recycling industry to change the framing of the recycling vision from a sorting problem to a mining problem. By treating recycling as a sorting problem you assume that you can accurately sort different materials to be obtain enough raw materials in a clean state to allow for efficient re-use. When you change your perspective to a mining problem it changes the parameters of the issue completely. Now, instead of error-prone manual or automated methods for sorting, you shift to mining and extraction methods that have been in use for centuries. This allows for much cleaner extraction of the raw materials and more material is recycled.

Link #2: The Coming War on General Purpose Computation
“The last 20 years of Internet policy have been dominated by the copyright war, but the war turns out only to have been a skirmish. The coming century will be dominated by war against the general purpose computer, and the stakes are the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race. .” - Cory Doctorow
Interesting take on the future of computing. If the copyright-infringement debate continues "as-is" it is only a matter of time before the general purpose computer, at least the way we see it today, is no more.

Link #3: Dancing in Star Wars: The Old Republic can make you invincible
“The recent Ilum exploits in Star Wars: The Old Republic pale in comparison to the the glitch shown above, spotted by RPS, in which a bounty hunter discovers that dancing instantly interrupts all enemy attacks, effectively rendering him invincible as long as he never, ever drops the beat.” - Tom Senior, PC Gamer

This seriously makes me want to check out SWTOR just to try it. The video above shows what happens when a player uses the command "/getdown" during a battle.

Unfortunately they patched this flaw as of 1/5/2012. Well, that saves me some time.

Link #4: Apple’s First iPhone Was Made in 1983 [PICS]
“The first iPhone was actually dreamed up in 1983. Forget that silly old touchscreen, this iPhone was a landline with full, all-white handset and a built-in screen controlled with a stylus.”

Wow, that is one cool phone, even by today's standards. I would LOVE to have had that phone back in 1983.

Link #5: Publishers vs. Libraries: An E-Book Tug of War
“LAST year, Christmas was the biggest single day for e-book sales by HarperCollins. And indications are that this year’s Christmas Day total will be even higher, given the extremely strong sales of e-readers like the Kindle and the Nook. Amazon announced on Dec. 15 that it had sold one million of its Kindles in each of the three previous weeks.”
E-books in the library are an interesting business model. This is strikingly similar to the argument for/against MP3/Video piracy. Publishers and libraries will have to come to some sort of agreement on this issue or it won't be long until we will see a world with no libraries (did you see the movie "I Robot"?). Either that or the publishers go away, which is already happening.

Link #6: The Science of Santa
“For decades, mystified scientists have chalked up Santa's power to the inexplicable wonder of magic, but North Carolina State University aerospace engineer Larry Silverberg, team leader on a first-of-its-kind visiting scholars program at Santa's Workshop-North Pole Labs (NPL), says that Santa is, in fact, a scientific genius and that Silverberg looks forward to Christmas each year, so he can ponder the remarkable accomplishments of one of the greatest pioneers in his field.”
For years there has been an article circulating to debunk Santa from the standpoint of science but this article goes the other way: how would you use current scientific thought and even unproven theory to postulate how Santa might actually pull off his holiday magic? Fascinating read.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My recent (positive!) Frontier story

Sometimes a company pulls out all the stops and does something good for a change.

Sometimes a company does the opposite of what Clark Howard calls "customer no-service".

I was fully prepared to write about how Frontier rested on their laurels and lost another customer. Instead, I was amazed.

The Backstory...

Back in '99 DSL was THE thing to get if you wanted fast internet speeds so when we bought our first house I took the plunge and hooked up 1.5 Mbps down, 384K upload speed. That was 12 years ago and our speed hasn't changed since. At that speed today's internet seems like a 56K-dial-up-modem crawl. YouTube and Netflix videos take FOREVER to load and buffer frequently.

In 2005 cities near me were some of the first to roll out Verizon FIOS with synchronous speeds up to 15 Mbps. In 2007 Verizon came to a city council meeting in my town, talked up their new service, and applied for a cable TV franchise license. How did I feel about this? Ecstatic would be an understatement. I signed up to be notified when FIOS would be available in my service area.

And then the waiting game started. I checked the Verizon website every 6 months or so to see if their FIOS announcement had been made. And then I signed up to be notified when Verizon FIOS would be available in my service area.

And then in 2009 Verizon sold off their "rural telephony business" to Frontier Communications. More waiting... And then I signed up to be notified when Frontier FIOS would be available in my service area.

Several times I went on the Frontier support site and submitted a support request to ask when I could upgrade my service. Each time they told me that there was nothing they could share with me. Did I mention that I signed up to be notified when FIOS would be available in my service area?

Comcast: The company I love to hate

In the mean time my wife's parents have a Comcast TV/internet bundle. Every time we visit I love seeing my download speeds go to 14-16 Mbps. Why didn't I make the jump? I don't exactly enjoy bandwidth caps, speed inconsistencies, blocked ports, and other weirdness that comes along with Comcast's network. So I soldiered on.

Speeds at work are FABULOUS. I can download files from 3rd parties at speeds approaching 100 Mbps (with some limitations, of course).

So when I get home and slow down to 1.5 Mbps it feels like walking back in time 12 years.

Frontier Hits it Out of the Park

One day, while doing my typical "have they changed service in my area" test on the Frontier website I found a customer service page with contacts for 3 people in Frontier's West Coast region: the President of the West region, the Regional Director of Marketing, and Manager Communications for the West Region. This wasn't just a web form to fill in, it displays their emails and mailing address in Elk Grove, CA. After thinking, "What do I have to lose?" I sent of a quick mail to all three of them...
I have been a Verizon/Frontier customer in Sammamish, WA, for over 10 years with both phone and internet service. While my DSL service is quite stable for many years (no service interruptions!) the speed just doesn’t cut it anymore. I have had the same DSL speed for 15 years and I need something faster.
I have the 1.5 Mbps download, 384K upload DSL, which is the fastest available due to my distance from the CO. I would love to be able to get something faster, perhaps 10x faster, and I’m willing to pay for it.
When will Frontier build out FIOS service in the Sammamish, WA, area? I am interested only in phone and internet, not TV service. I like the pricing and bundles available on your website but have been waiting for a LONG time. I’m not sure I can wait much longer.
Any information you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
I expected a response within a week and to be sent back and forth to sales and support and, in the end, nothing really happening. Boy, was I wrong.

The very next day I received this mail from Denise B., President of the West Region for Frontier, along with her office and cell phone numbers (not posted here for obvious reasons). Here is what she had to say-

Mr. Dunnahoo,
Thank you for reaching out to me regarding your Frontier services and I appreciate the opportunity to serve you. Frontier Washington has a very aggressive plan to enhance the high speed internet experience over the next six months. Rich Klena is the Washington State VP, and Jason Gamble is the local General Manager. They will reach out to you to share more specifically the plans to enhance your neighborhood.
Appreciate your business for the last 10 years and I want you as a customer for life!
Denise B.
Frontier Communications
President - West Region
Not many people spell my name correctly on the first shot so that was quickly forgiven. }B^)

She CC'd Richard K. and Jason G. Within 30 minutes of that email Richard's office assistant sent me this...

Mr. Dunnahoo,

Jason G. is out of the office today. He will be in contact with you tomorrow morning.

Thank you.

Linda P.
Four hours later I got an email from Tim B., a Frontier Technical Supervisor located not far from my home.

I am a Frontier Technical Supervisor located in Kirkland.
My understanding is that you would like to upgrade your internet speed with Frontier. I would like to investigate what options we may have available to you.
Can you please provide me with your billing telephone #, address, and a contact # where I can reach you? 
Tim B.
Frontier Technical Supervisor
After a couple of emails back and forth with various technical folks they informed me that my best option was for 7M download, 768K upload bundle package. The message included the best news I've heard all year: "By rebundling your service, you will be saving money over your current plan."

Let me get this straight: If I renew my 2 year contract (which is only 6 months old to begin with) I get DSL speeds 4.7 times faster than my current line and it will end up costing me less per month? Where do I sign up?

After a quick verification the order was processed. Within a couple of days my line was re-provisioned at the new speed. They even sent me a new DSL modem to replace my ancient model. The results were immediately apparent-

  1. I can now stream Youtube videos at 1080p, where before it was stuttering on 480p.
  2. I can now watch a Netflix video on my XBox while someone is downloading their email in the other room (couldn't do it before).
  3. Remote access to my work computers is MUCH faster.
So there you have it: a great example of how a big company listened to a customer and did the right thing to improve their experience with their product. The entire process took less than 2 weeks. Now I only wish I had done this a couple of years ago.

Thanks Frontier!