Tuesday, November 29, 2005

fun with video phones

Last weekend, Coppertop and I got a couple of web cams so we can video conference. We settled on the Logitech Quickcam Pro for Notebooks. Now, she’s hanging out with a nice, fat DSL connection, static IP, the works. I’m using dial-up. Those of you playing from home can already see where this is going…

Anyway, for pure voice connections, we’ve been using Skype, which works well: generally very good voice quality, multi-platform support, free calling. Skype seems to use a healthy chunk of the dial-up bandwidth, but it still allows some room for web pages, e-mail, and so on. It doesn’t do video, though, so we downloaded video4im, some add-on software that does video over Skype calls. It’s not multi-platform, but we can both call from Windows machines.

Well, it turns out video uses a good bit more bandwidth than the dial up link can support. A few seconds into the call, Skype would just give up and drop it. So I downloaded AOL’s Instant Messenger (I normally use Trillian, which doesn’t seem to support video) to try it, and got crappy audio when the video was (unsuccessfully) trying to run. The audio quality was why we switched to Skype in the first place.

Now, it turns out there is a way you can have both video and audio over a dial-up connection. Sort of. Microsoft has some experimental software called Microsoft Portrait. It’s designed to work over very low bandwidth connections, as low as 9.6kbps. It does it by using efficient compression for voice, which sounds about like what you’d get over a cell phone, and by playing with the video quality. Supposedly it gives you full color video on a fast connection but switches to black and white on slower links. Well, it took one look at my dial-up and dropped into “make everyone a black and white silhouette” mode. A bit of adjustment added noses back to our faces, but it was still pretty low fidelity.

So it looks like I’ll finally break down, enter the 21st century, and spring for DSL. After finals, though, ‘cause there’s no way I’m going to risk messing up network access during finals.

on demand computing

IBM has a new initiative called “on-demand computing”. The idea seems to be that computing is a service: instead of buying a bunch of computers, you buy as much computing power as you need. Microsoft has poo-pooed the idea – they’d really prefer to sell copies of applications and operating systems that run on desktop boxes. For a great bit of social commentary that ties Microsoft’s response into the battle over open source Linux licenses, which seems to really be an ongoing battle between IBM and Microsoft, see today’s User Friendly.

The idea of computing as a service isn’t new. In fact, I think it shows up in 50 year old Isaac Asimov stories, where there’s One Big Mainframe supplying computing power to a whole city. It’s an interesting idea, though. If done right, switching your business model from selling products to services can change the whole incentive structure in some very useful ways.

For example, consider a company that sells air conditioners. Their incentive is to sell you as big an air conditioner as they can, and to reduce their cost of goods sold as much as possible. Now change their business model to one in which they sell the service of providing cool air using whatever means they choose. Now they have an incentive to install insulation in the building, to provide a properly sized air conditioner that that’s going to be very durable (because they continue to own it and can reuse it somewhere else if you cancel your “coolness” contract) and efficient (because they pay the cost of electricity).

The same thing could happen with computers. If – and it’s a big if – IBM can provide computing services, they’ll have an incentive to make their computers efficient, secure, easy to maintain, and recyclable or at least reusable.

On the other hand, it’s a big technical challenge. For instance, imagine the potential headaches when they want to upgrade the word processor everyone’s using, or if a network disruption cuts access to business critical software. It’ll be interesting to see if Big Blue can pull it off.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Japanese military again?

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the ruling party in the past 50 years in Japan, proposed a Constitutional change that could allow Japan to take a more assertive role in international military activities. Does anyone here immediately feel a bit scared and remember the WWII, Kamikaze, the Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Empire and what it did to many Asian countries, and A-bombs? You are not alone.

The proposal would give an official role to Japan's armed forces, allow them to assist military allies, and participate in armed international peacekeeping missions. In fact, a current domestic self-defense force will be promoted to a “military” and called something like “self-defense military” (This is my translation). The proposal mentions that this military would be used for peacekeeping missions, but I am concerned that it might eventually lead the country more aggressive military activities in the future.

Since the WWII, Japan has been proud of its pacifist Constitution, renouncing war and preventing the country from using aggressive military force in any international dispute. It has also helped Japan to rebuild diplomatic relationships with the neighbor Asian countries. In addition, with this Constitution, the nation was able to spend tax money to recover its economy after WWII rather than spending it for arming again.

This Constitutional change, bringing back the Japanese military, could jeopardize Japan’s hard-won relationships with its neighbor countries and risk its economy that has already been pressed under the long-lasting recession. Scary ….


Friday, November 18, 2005

At An Immigration Office

Have you ever been in one of the immigration naturalization service offices? I believe that it is one of the most stressful places. If you are there even once, you probably know how I felt when I was there a few days ago: Being treated like a criminal.

You need to make an appointment on-line ONLY before visiting there.
You get there too early. Then, you have to wait until it is15 minutes before your appointment time. You stand outside of the building and wait.
You go in the building and get checked all over: a cell phone with picture-taking function is not allowed. Metal detector is so sensitive that even your little hair bow sets the alarm off. A palm pilot gets checked. Your key chain gets manually checked.
You pass the security check and go to a corner of a large waiting room. A front desk lady behind bullet-proof-glass asks you “What do you want?”
You show your paperwork to her. She looks at them briefly and gives you a number card.
You sit on a hard plastic chair about 30 minutes to one hour in the waiting room.
You see some signs on the wall, “No foods” and “No drinks”. You also see a sign warning you that someone is watching you through security cameras.
Your number is called up. You go to a specific window. An officer asks you “Why are you here?”
You show your paperwork to the officer.
You get nervous whenever the officer points out a little shortcoming on your documents because you know it is too much trouble and too time consuming to get anything straight with the immigration office. The worst case scenario is that you have to leave the US or are put into jail.
If paperwork goes reasonably well, you sign them and put your finger-prints on them. You can now exit the building.

Your new green card will be mailed to you in the next 6 months to one year. Good Luck.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Sony's XCP escapades

I may have to get rid of the Google Desktop, because it's dangerously more interesting than updating outlines. Here's a developing story in the world of Digital Rights Management.

It appears that Sony created a system to keep people from pirating audio CDs. The system is called XCP. If you want to play an audio CD protected by XCP in your computer's CD drive, you have to install the XCP software, which limits your ability to copy the disk. And apparently does some other things that are a bit nastier.

One of the authors of the Sysinternals blog conducted an analysis of the software. To make a long story short, when you install this stuff, it hides files and directories that have names beginning with the letters "$sys$". It also takes steps derived from hacker tricks to make sure you can't find it or easily remove it and periodically sends information back to Sony. The steps it takes create some security vulnerabilities: anyone else who can hack into your system can hide files simply by giving them names beginning with "$sys$". Apparently at least one virus and one trojan horse already take advantage of this vulnerability.

On November 11th, Sony suspended distribution of the XCP software and offered a way to remove the software to those who had installed it. According to Sysinternals, the removal system is cumbersome at best. Now Microsoft has jumped into the dispute, saying they're going to treat XCP as spyware and add its signature to the weekly update for their spyware blocker because of its effect on the security, reliability, and performance of Windows systems where the software's been installed. Also, on November 1st a San Franscisco attorney filed a class action suit against Sony over XCP.

patent on antigravity machine

In more patent news, the PTO has issued a patent on a spacecraft using an antigravity device. Here is the abstract:
A space vehicle propelled by the pressure of inflationary vacuum state is provided comprising a hollow superconductive shield, an inner shield, a power source, a support structure, upper and lower means for generating an electromagnetic field, and a flux modulation controller. A cooled hollow superconductive shield is energized by an electromagnetic field resulting in the quantized vortices of lattice ions projecting a gravitomagnetic field that forms a spacetime curvature anomaly outside the space vehicle. The spacetime curvature imbalance, the spacetime curvature being the same as gravity, provides for the space vehicle's propulsion. The space vehicle, surrounded by the spacetime anomaly, may move at a speed approaching the light-speed characteristic for the modified locale.
Now, one requirement is that a patent must teach the person of ordinary skill in the art how to practice the invention. I think that means for this patent to be valid an ordinary spacecraft engineer should be able to take this patent and build a functional antigravity system. Anyone up for giving it a try?

The reaction from the physics community appears to be negative. I'm not sure I agree with the reasoning, though:

"The problem, of course, it that this deceives a lot of investors," he said. "You can't go out and find investors for a new invention until you can come up with a patent to show that if you put all this money into a concept, somebody else can't steal the idea.

"[Approving these kind of patents can] make it easier for scam artists to con people if they can get patents for screwball ideas."

It's possible scam artists could use it, but people shouldn't treat a patent as anything more than a grant of property. It's like a deed to a chunk of land: until you actually go look at the land, you won't know how valuable it is. Same deal here.

On the other hand, it seems like the applicant should have had to supply some sort of evidence that the thing actually works. It would be interesting to go back and see what that evidence was.

Props to slashdot for this one.

Friday, November 11, 2005

less than perfect equanimity

K2, our mail server, is now down. It appears to be a memory problem. It could be as simple as a loose SIMM or video card, or as bad as a blown chip. Unfortunately, the server is about 9 hours' drive from here, depending on traffic. Net result: we just spent an hour reconfiguring mail clients to patch together functioning e-mail systems, and a lot of archived mail is sitting on k2's disks where we can't get to it until that machine and I spend a few quality hours one-on-one.

Everest, my backup desktop machine, is also down. The symptoms suggest a blown power supply, but I don't have time to work on it right now. I'm also a little afraid to open it, because when a power supply blows it can take a lot of expensive stuff with it. Net result: if the new laptop croaks, I'm in deep doo-doo.

The old laptop, Mt. Terror, is sitting in the same city as K2, the same 9 hours away, so there's no good way to press it into service as a mail server.

Two dead computers and one seriously wounded in the space of a month. It's probably just lack of time to work on them, since ordinarily I'd be able to focus on getting them up and running, but I'm starting to wonder if I'm losing my touch...

US gov. wades into Blackberry patent fight

Now this is an interesting development. It seems the federal government has stepped into the patent fight over Blackberries and e-mail. They've asked the judge to make sure that any injunction doesn't shut down the 50,000 to 200,000 federal employees who depend on the things.

Can you imagine being the attorney who has to say to the judge, in effect, "your honor, we would like you to please issue an injunction that will turn this communications device, on which most of the House and Senate along with 200,000 other federal employees have become dependent, into an expensive travel alarm"? There's someone who sure better enjoy a challenge...

Here's another interesting question to contemplate: exactly how dependent is the operation of our federal government on this privately operated, business-grade communications service, and what sorts of communications pass through it?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

laptop update -- the final chapter

This is -- hopefully -- the final chapter in the Saga of the Laptop. I shipped the old laptop, Mt. Terror, up to Coppertop so she could use it while traveling. It made it through the shipment process, and worked in the airport, but she had to run to make a connection and the extra bouncing was too much for it. By the time she got to her hotel room, the display had died and stubbornly refused to come back.

So, after the trip, she took it to her local CompUSA. They diagnosed the problem within 15 minutes (compared to the several days at mine): the motherboard had cracked near the power switch. Someone had tried to glue it back together, but the crack was spreading and that's why the video had gone out. So, Mt. Terror will now be relegated to non-portable duties. In fact, it'll probably become a Linux web server eventually.

In the meantime, I'm wondering about a number of things.

First, how did HP manage to design a laptop computer that had a motherboard with poor enough mechanical support that it could crack in ordinary use? I was fairly gentle with that machine.

Second, how did my local CompUSA manage to diddle around for several days, on two different occasions, and miss something as obvious as a cracked motherboard? Or, if they were the ones who glued the motherboard back together, why didn't they tell me that's what they did instead of saying it "just worked" when they turned it on?

And finally, who glued the motherboard? There are only three possibilities: HP when they manufactured it, MicroCenter where I bought it, or CompUSA where I took it when it was failing. And none of those possibilities makes a whole lot of sense.


I came across a blog written by a university instructor in Japan. He presents a story he heard from his friend who also teaches in a Japanese university. I will call the friend of the instructor “Dr. A” below. To be sure, the blog does not include any individuals’ names.

So, here is the story.

Dr. A found one of his students writing an e-mail using a cell phone during his class time. He told the student to stop it. A few days later, Dr. A received a letter from a lawyer hired by the family of the student. The letter stated that they are going to sue him for defamation. I am sure Dr. A was surprised, but he did not seem to get scared. He wrote a letter to the lawyer and said “I’ll also sue the family and student.” Dr. A learned later that they decided not to sue him, after all.

This case tells me that a tedious thing and/or lack of common sense can sometimes trigger people to sue each other. I also wonder how the lawyer felt about this case when he was hired. In addition, it is almost unbelievable that the student seems to have taken the Dr. A’s instruction offensive. How could it be “defamation”?

If you are interested in reading the blog, here is the URL http://plaza.rakuten.co.jp/toranekocafe/diary/200510310001/
This blog site is written in Japanese though.