November 13, 2007

Future v Future I

One of the hot new techniques of getting things done is using technology to harness the power of openness and transparency to make things happen that would have been either prohibitively expensive or flat out impossible in the past. Two manifestations of this are the wikimedia constellation of efforts and the open source movement in all its manifestations including open source peer review. But open source peer review does not get a very friendly reception over at wikipedia, at least in the english version, at least when the subject under discussion impacts global warming, and I've got the scars to prove it.

One of the key instrument sets that determine our understanding of global temperatures is a world-wide network of surface temperature stations that use fairly low-tech ways to measure the temperature. The US is generally considered the best of the best in the quality of its network. Like the US' credit rating, nobody ever actually went and checked. So how good is that instrumental temperature record? Anthony Watts decided to find out. Watts is chief meteorologist for KPAY-AM radio and has his own company that sells weather forecasts and various tools. He uses these weather stations professionally and has for many years. He decided to start with the USHCN network, a limited network of "high quality" stations, 1221 in all, resolving to survey them all to determine whether they've fallen victim to poor maintenance or the urban heat island effect.

He had the funds to register a domain and maintain a website but not enough to send paid data gatherers across the US to physically survey those 1221 sites. So he took a look at the NOAA's site information handbook (PDF) and used their 1 through 5 classification system (page 7), designed survey forms, set up rules of conduct, and put out a call for volunteers. And the volunteers came. Currently there are 421 sites already surveyed and published on his website surfacestations.org. And here is where things get interesting. Applying the standard temperature classification categories in the siting handbook there are two categories (4 and 5) whose error ratings exceed the amount of detected global warming in the 20th century. So how much of the 421 stations (an admittedly urban biased sample) are in those two categories? It's 68% of the sample and 23% of the total network.

That's a pretty eye popping result. At least it seems eye popping until you try to get it included in the relevant articles in Wikipedia. Then it just gets ugly. The standards for reliable sources are theoretically flexible and merely require that it's not just self-published pap that has no independent editorial oversight but the community that camps on the pages won't budge on its own, unwritten set of standards that it's got to be peer reviewed in a "good" publication.

What isn't on the list is an open source scientific effort to gather data. Peer review can only be done by professional referees, the great unwashed are welcome to submit to wikipedia but if they attempt to engage in open source peer review, that simply won't do. It's one version of the future (Wikipedia) rejecting another (open source peer review).

And Watt's data? I gave up getting the data in when a Wikipedia admin casually libeled Watts' reputation by saying that a veteran weather man couldn't be trusted to ensure that his own effort is run by the rules he laid out on the project website. It was going to go downhill from there, and fast.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:07 PM

November 09, 2005

Apache Tops 70%

Netcraft has, for the first time, measured Apache market share at over 70% of active domains. Apache had seemingly stalled, right below 70% for months. As far as actual market consequence, the importance is purely psychological. Both servers are free. The real money is in the ecosystems of programers that surround both web server platforms. The bigger the market share, the more likely skills in a particular platform will translate into a well paid, interesting job. Programmers centered around IIS, while by no means needing to head for the exits, may find that fewer people are choosing to join that community. If Microsoft doesn't watch out, that can have long term negative effects.

Posted by TMLutas at 03:59 PM

April 05, 2005

Don't Trust WEP

The FBI demonstrated how long it takes a competent team of crackers to enter into a WEP secured Wi-Fi network. It took them about 3 minutes to break in. Don't even think of trusting your data security to WEP.

There is an alternative to WEP, called WPA. Unfortunately, for key lengths under 20 characters, it too is vulnerable (in WPA's case, you can make a dictionary attack). It looks like I'm going to be investing in a RADIUS server after all.

Posted by TMLutas at 07:05 PM

February 27, 2005

The Power of OSS

Classic solution
Small business PBX, NEC DS 1000 w/3 phones (no voice mail) $600, with voice mail $1250
Open Source solution
HP Vectra $155 (incl/shipping)
3 line input cards $30
3 SIP phones $195
Included voice mail $0
Total solution cost $380

The ability to customize your solution and integrate everything into the rest of your IT infrastructure because you can modify the code yourself... priceless.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:49 PM

February 11, 2005

Two Down, Five to Go

In the great Apple/Microsoft rivalry, one of the big points in Microsoft's favor has always been its stock performance. Apple has been lapped by Microsoft 7 times at the peak of Microsoft's lead with stock splits after stock split favoring Microsoft's business tactics. But the latest split was Apple's, not Microsoft's and today, Apple announced another split at 2 for 1. For financially minded macophiles, it's a very sweet story.

Posted by TMLutas at 07:25 PM

February 04, 2005

Managing the Decline of Microsoft

Assuming the Bill Gates is not just being a lying weasel (never a sure bet either way) Microsoft's strategy of embrace and extend just died.


New Strategy Unveiled

"Over the years, our industry has tried many approaches to come to grips with the heterogeneity of software. But the solution that has proven consistently effective -- and the one that yields the greatest success for developers today -- is a strong commitment to interoperability," Gates says in the message.

Interoperability is more pragmatic than other approaches, such as attempting to make all systems compatible at the code level, he adds.

Microsoft's strategy will focus on creating interoperability with software that customers currently are using, and on developing applications and Web services based on eXtensible Markup Language (XML).


Interoperability has always been something that Microsoft always tried to poison. They would support standards until they had the upper hand and then "extend" them until only Microsoft tools would allow you to conduct your day to day operations. This has antagonized so many that they're in danger of losing their dominant position. Microsoft's going down because of it and their only hope is to make a reliable promise of interoperability so that large customers can depend that there will never be a next time of being forced into an MS solution when it's not the best solution available because of purposefully placed interoperability problems.

Apple's in the same boat (OS X is a walking testament to the strategy) and if Microsoft's joining them in that uncomfortable boat, they realize that they're only going to thrive by legitimately being the best.

Well, it isn't the first time that Microsoft's promised interoperability but here's to hope, hope that Bill Gates is not being a lying weasel again.

Posted by TMLutas at 07:28 PM

December 13, 2004

99% BS

Damien Penny is adding his $0.02 to the whiners who are trying to delegitimize the Parents Television Council (PTC). The complaint, when you think it through unemotionally, is that the PTC and its FCC complaint web service are dominant in their demographic.

The PTC doesn't actually internally generate these complaints. They simply make it ridiculously easy to file one if your engine is revved over a particular program. If PTC's web activism model is illegitimate then so is moveon.org and all the deaniac and other web activist groups who offer the same sort of web services. If one ideological use of technology is illegitimate, they all are. That would be a shame because the technology has the potential to be the greatest advance in democratic participation in quite a long time. What the left doesn't seem to understand is that all ideological opinions are going to use the same tools in future. They don't like that and want to mau mau the right into not taking advantage of the tools that they themselves increasingly depend on.

Here's what I left in comments:


I suspect, though I don't know, that if I visit the Parents Television Council, click on their File an FCC Complaint link, and actually send something off, the people who are complaining about PTC dominance of the FCC complaint will jot down my opinion as less valid because I used a simple web form instead of running a search and sorting through it all myself.

The campaign against the PTC is essentially one against web forms that make life easy when the form does something the campaigners don't like. The PTC apparently dominates the sector of bluestocking complainants. That doesn't make the individual complaints any less valid than if they had not used the web form or had no contact with the PTC whatsoever.

I'm sure that PTC dominance will eventually break down, if nothing else than because monkeywrenchers are inevitably going to target the thing. But it seems to me that a principle is being established here, one that is not very good for free speech on the Internet mediated by web services. Today the PTC, tomorrow somebody you might approve of quite a bit more.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:40 AM

October 18, 2004

Pessimist Propaganda on Hydrogen

Nature has picked up a paper(pdf) by the Oswald brothers published in the journal Accountancy.

I can't recall the blog I first read describing the paper but it looked fishy enough to write and protest that the numbers weren't right. Jim Oswald did respond and his response made it very clear that whatever they were talking about, they were not talking about the hydrogen economy as most people conceive of it.

1. The calculations are for hydrogen burned in internal combustion engines (ICE), not hydrogen fuel cells. Virtually everybody views the hydrogen economy as a fuel cell economy with hydrogen run through the cells to directly create electricity, not burnt in cylinders that drive pistons, that turn a wheel or drive a generator.

2. Like all other ICE type motors, hydrogen ICE are limited in efficiency as they are Carnot heat engines. At realistic temperatures, fuel cells can have 3x the efficiency of ICE. This means that even with hydrocarbon created hydrogen, you lower pollution with hydrogen as everybody except the Oswalds in this scenario look at it.

3. The Oswalds deliberately and artificially narrowed the available sources of hydrogen to nonpolluting sources that are commercially viable today with no technological progress allowed for, nor any thought to how rising petroleum costs would make other sources of hydrogen become viable as energy prices rose.

4. Energy is lost in transportation with the shorter you go, the less you lose. Hydrogen is likely, on average (and certainly for the US & UK) to be produced closer to home than our current oil supplies. This effect is unaccounted for.

When all the constraints and fudges are made explicit and clear, the Oswalds' paper is a somewhat useful teaching tool to drive home the point that a totally clean hydrogen economy is going to be hard work. But that's not how Nature interpreted it and it's not how most people will read it who know nothing but the buzzwords of a "hydrogen economy". While the Oswalds are honest enough to freely admit their constraints when asked, they're not doing their duty to the truth in bludgeoning even science journalists to get the story right about the narrowness of their actual claims.

Posted by TMLutas at 05:04 PM

August 12, 2004

Practice Software: Platform Decisions

Medical software is one of those areas where you aren't necessarily locked into Windows/x86. There's a long tradition of Unix as well as a bunch of doctors committed to the Macintosh platform. For Maria Medical, we've decided to go with the Mac because it's likely to give us lower prices than the proprietary Unix vendors but won't expose us to the problems of the Windows platform, flaky code and lot's of malware floating around.

Comments are open. Feel free to discuss platform choices but be aware I support Windows, Linux, and Macintosh for money.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:36 PM

April 23, 2004

PRC Gives In On 802.11

The PRC has rescinded its decree that any wireless access point provide a nation specific encryption scheme burned in silicon. This is a great day for both technology standards and for the PRC's status in the world community. International businessmen will no longer have to worry about being able to use their wireless gear in the PRC, increasing the cost of doing business there and local vendors will not have to pay more to get the same functionality because smaller unit runs would have driven up prices.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:31 AM

April 05, 2004

Real World Manipulation via Virtual Games

I'm not so happy with the development of real world manipulation in virtual games.

"We used the map to give creatures some interesting behavior. Some creatures only hunt at night. Some hang around close to parks." If a player wants to find that creature, they'll have to travel near a park in the evening hours. ... It has a community dimension to it, I chat with other players, I also know how far I am from them and finding out some are less than a few hundred meters to me is really exciting. Over the past month, I bumped into a player who turned out to be the creator of the game, I had to race to pick up a flag that had been put on the map at equal distance between me and another player to encourage us to meet.

Especially when the game participants are likely to be kids, this has some real risks involved. Being able to lure people to a particular destination at a particular time has long been a successful strategy for criminals. It's reasonable that there will, at the very least, be a period where the brighter muggers, rapists, and murderers will hire hackers to lure their targets to a convenient spot.

Posted by TMLutas at 08:17 AM

April 03, 2004

Non-Luddite Resistence to Data Mining

The following sentence caught my eye in this article attacking privacy advocates' opposition to technological data gathering innovations through the use of data mining:

Public health authorities have mined medical data to spot the outbreak of infectious disease, and credit-card companies have found fraudulent credit-card purchases with the method, among other applications.

Like many other credit card holders, I've received a call asking about a particular transaction. Every time I've been called, it was a false positive. This imposes a cost on me (I have to answer the phone, I have to listen and judge about the transaction). The cost is small and so I don't mind paying it, but it is a cost. Now what would be the cost of being falsely flagged by an anti-terrorism data system? I might not be permitted to get on a plane. My house might be broken into, my computer might have monitoring software secretly put on it, I could lose contracts that I'm bidding on. I could be simply thrown in jail for a day or two and have my reputation ruined.

These failure modes are much higher in cost. It doesn't take a paranoid or a luddite to be worried about them. Now this problem is not insoluble but it you have to identify what the problem is, that data mining creates an awful lot of false positives, especially as you're just starting your system and haven't refined your algorithms through real world experience.

You can make two types of adjustments that improve the acceptability of data mining in a defense environment. You can change the failure modes, the consequences of false positives, and you can change the frequency of failure modes. The first thing that absolutely has to change is the reputational consequence of being tagged. You have to get rid of the idea that a machine can look at a set of data and say "here, here's a terrorist" with any acceptable degree of reliability. Once being tagged just means that you're leading an interesting life and a human being should make a judgment whether you're in the small % of interesting lives that are also bad guys, the cost of being tagged falsely drops. Of course, the perceived value of the system also drops so advocates don't want to do this, but that's not the fault of the privacy advocates.

The false positive consequence of being refused carriage, or being subject to an unwarranted search also needs addressing, as does the business problem of losing contracts due to being tagged. All of these are difficult things to manage and it's so much easier to dump a luddite or paranoid tag on somebody who is complaining than do the hard work of harm reduction in the inevitable cases of false positives.

Total Information Awareness (TIA) might not be a bad idea in principle, but it needs a lot of work in harm reduction before it can see the light of day in real world use and the same goes for the rest of the resisted IT initiatives that the article talks about. Instead of whining about how we should all be willing to take it in the shorts without complaint, maybe a reduction in the rate of friendly fire might be in order.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:49 AM

March 23, 2004

Democrat Cluelessness on Network Security

I don't know whether to laugh or to cry over this article on Democrat efforts to secure their electronic work product. If you give somebody rights to sensitive documents that they shouldn't have access to, you should be fired. If you leave the security hole open after you're informed, you're doubly culpable. That's what went on over at the Senate during the 'memogate' scandal.

Over at the House, they did security better with Democrats and Republicans operating in different security domains, making such mistakes much harder to make. But Rep. Brad Sherman wants to install completely irrelevant separate Internet lines even though that's not where the security threat is coming from. If what he's trying to do is achieve physical security, he'd be asking to physically separate the networks but he's not. Instead, he's just piling on irrelevant expenditures on top of measures that would likely lessen security.

It's cluelessness on a sad scale in 2004 at the highest levels of government.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:12 PM

March 09, 2004

Apple Lapped Microsoft

Apple Computer over the long course of its competition with Microsoft got lapped by it 7 times. That is, Microsoft increased it's stock price beyond Apple's split, and passed Apple again. One of the interesting aspects of the dot.com bubble is that Apple actually lapped Microsoft. When the crash came, Microsoft regained its price lead. It did so, at least, until last Thursday when Apple once again has regained its pricing position over Microsoft. 1 down, 6 more to go.

Posted by TMLutas at 08:15 AM

February 04, 2004

Out Microsofting Microsoft

The People's Republic of China is going to mandate proprietary wireless network standards. The technical reasons for this are patent nonsense. There is a security problem with the international encryption standard. It's really only good enough to keep honest people honest. But the globally adopted solution has been to run secure traffic over end-to-end encrypted links that are secure and can be changed if there is a fault found in the encryption scheme.

The PRC effort very much reminds me of Microsoft's continual efforts to undermine international standards on protocols by leveraging its control over the worldwide PC desktop market into protocol dominance. In the original article, a false choice is presented between hardware link encryption and no encryption at all.

The truth is that international standards are adopted, and take so much time to adopt because everybody has to be consulted to go forward. If the PRC succeeds in dictating worldwide adoption of its unilateral standard, it will gain the ability to manipulate IT companies' dictating hardware changes on its own schedule and for its own reasons. The PRC will be able to give its own favored firms advanced access to standards and give these companies months of crucial time to get a jump start on satisfying new technical standards.

This is the same reason why Microsoft has made protocol and file format differentiation such an important part of their business strategy. If they call the tune, they can always halt a competitor's momentum by changing an underlying technology and forcing them to devote engineering resources to solve that problem instead of adding to their competitive advantage and Microsoft can keep on repeating that strategy until it succeeds at little cost to itself.

It's ban enough that Microsoft continually tries to kneecap other firms with its market power. Having a nation state do it is an entire order of magnitude worse. As a sovereign power, they aren't subject to the same anti-trust pressures that Microsoft is and they can print their own money to get out of most financial difficulties from bad business decisions. It's not a widespread phenomenon yet, but if the PRC decides to go wholesale down this path, it marks a troubling turn for the world economic system.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:21 PM

February 03, 2004

Microsoft Explained

I present here, the best article I've seen in quite a while that explains why Microsoft is so distrusted by its competitors and why there is such fear and loathing in tech land directed at the Redmond giant.

Microsoft has, as a matter of policy, done exactly as William Safire describes the NSC attacking the USSR. Beyond the usual FUD jousting and trash talking of competitors' products that normal competition entails. Microsoft has been rumored to, and the rumors have been proven in court, tailor its code to break its competitors' products in a way that throws the blame on the product, not on the Microsoft sabotage.

Unlike the USSR, competitors are not engaged in any sort of theft or underhanded dealing. They took in good faith that Microsoft was not committing a fraud and that its documentation was accurate, its legally binding contractual promises of working with its partner/competitors on interoperability were legitimate, and that they could treat it like any other technology company.

Microsoft has broken faith so many times that nobody believes them anymore and so even judicially ordered compulsory licensing schemes for Microsoft technology generate few takers.

One other thing that Safire's Cold War story brought to mind. The story itself never came out to the public until long after the USSR was dead. DR-DOS may have eventually won its owners a nice $40M settlement but as a product, it died a long, long time ago. Microsoft banks $40M in a matter of hours. For it, paying a fine years down the road is nothing.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:43 AM

January 23, 2004

Why Competitors Aren't Licensing Microsoft's Tech

Microsoft's anti-trust judgement only has one fly in the ointment, insufficient competitors are licensing Microsoft protocols and other technology. The plaintiffs seem mystified why this is happening. Nobody with any sense of technology industry history should be puzzled.

The problem is simple. These sorts of licensing deals depend on the licensor dealing fairly with the licensee and not attempting to introduce incompatibilities and instabilities in the licensed implementations. Microsoft has a long and well deserved reputation for illegal and underhanded dealing to introduce exactly those sorts of incompatibilities, testing competitors products and delaying shipment until they competitor's product looks bad and it looks as if it is the competitor's, not Microsoft's fault. Uncovering the subterfuge takes years of legal footwork and is a chancy thing to get recompense. The two common responses are to let it go and to create a company consisting of the destroyed competitive product (DR-DOS was an example) whose sole major asset is the lawsuit for damages.

Would you license under such circumstances? I certainly wouldn't. There is one, and only one way to restore confidence in Microsoft's honesty and that is to not use the anti-trust laws the next time around (and there will be a next time around, you can count on it) but use the criminal fraud, conspiracy, and RICO statutes complete with perp walks on camera.

As long as the people who have engineered the great computing frauds of the 80s and 90s continue to have leadership positions in Microsoft to this day, Microsoft technology licensing will always be for the insignificant, the foolhardy, and the suicidally courageous.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:31 PM

January 20, 2004

Misunderstanding the Internet

I have rarely come across a more tragic knot of misunderstanding regarding the Internet than the article by Adam Thierer at Cato, analyzing Howard Dean's Principles for an Internet Policy, David Weinberger's analysis of the Cato article, Lawrence Lessig's wrongheaded commentary on same, and Smart Mob's meta analysis of it all.

Every single one of them is wrong.

Let's start with what the Internet is. It is not a commons. It is not in the public domain, it is not a set of protocols, it is contracts. The physical computers are owned, but they are not the Internet. You can run the protocols but not be on the Internet. You can create your own network, but it is not the Internet. What is the Internet is the agreement you have to carry the traffic across your network from any computer on the network to any other computer on any other network that shares the same agreements.

The Internet is a remarkably efficient piece of legal contract work, informally enforced without very much state action at all. You break the rules and people generally just disconnect.

To say no one owns the Internet as Howard Dean does in his article is as true, and as fatuous, as saying no one owns the market. Furthermore, Howard Dean seems to have just come out against IPv6 in his point #4. The QoS bit would seem to be an endangered feature in Howard Dean's administration.

Markets are owned. They are creatures of private ownership, contracts, and settled rules. Government can help by enforcing evenhanded rules and insisting on truthfulness but that's about all. The Internet can use the same evenhanded rules and insistence on truthfulness. Legally recognizing digital signatures, for example, is a legitimate government function that enormously aids the progress of the Internet. At this stage in the game, it's a little difficult to tell where a candidate will jump. Fleshing out policy papers is usually a summer phenomenon but I'm not particularly cheerful at the way Dean's principles are written up. Number four is somewhat troubling, number one shows that Howard Dean doesn't understand the beast that has propelled him to prominence.

Thierry is, sad to say, not much better. He has the classic disdain for commons that every true libertarian has but sadly seems to lack the technical knowledge to correct Dean. He flails wildly and misunderstands what open access regulations are about. They are attempts at fixing the distortions caused by government granted monopolies and, as such, should be looked at as halfway houses to true infrastructure competition, not a dose of socialism in a robust capitalist market. Then he compounds his error by randomly shooting his mouth off about movements he obviously understands little about. The problem is that cyber economics has odd characteristics. There is a tremendous amount of unused capacity in our machines and in our networks. This drives people to make rational capitalist, free market decisions that would look utterly insane in the physical world. In on-line social forums, people actively encourage free riders for sane reasons. The word of mouth advertising value far exceeds the cost of their free riding but both are too small to bother measuring most of the time so it comes out looking and sounding like socialism when in reality it's a special case of capitalism that uses very specialized shorthand.

Weinberg is not much better. He does a semi-creditable job of tearing into Thierry but he is both in error in dismissing private property (which is what most of the Internet Infrastructure is) models and in characterizing the Internet as a set of protocols. I can run these protocols on my own network without being related to the Internet in any way. Once I have subscribed to the principles of carrying traffic and internetworking the specific collective called the Internet, I have joined the Internet even though I may not run TCP/IP on my own network but will encapsulate it/translate it into whatever I'm actually running as a network protocol.

It's this sort of fuzziness that makes non-technical free market theorists worry. They've never had peering agreements explained to them properly. They don't understand how "free" traffic flow is just a monitored settlement mechanism that just charges when there are persistent traffic imbalances between networks that exceed the cost of collections. It's as socialist as check clearinghouses.

Larry Lessig's contribution to this snafu is even more disappointing as not only does he have a law degree but he has made something of a national name for himself in the field. The protocols do not define the Internet. You do not have a degenerate case of an Internet when you have only one network running TCP/IP protocols. You have no internet because you are not inter (between) networking at all. You have to have at least two networks for the smallest case of an internetwork and considerably more before you can seriously label your collection of nets an internet and not get chuckles. The term Internet, by common usage, is only capitalized for the biggest worldwide internet. If almost everybody on the Internet voluntarily dropped off one day, changed their protocol stacks on all their equipment and joined a new set of networks with completely different protocols, but the same principle of carrying traffic, the few remaining networks on the old system would no longer be the Internet. The new network would justifiably claim that title. The appendix network would be an internet still, but not the Internet.

If there was venom in Thierry's assault on Lessig, Lessig returns the favor in classic snippy net style. Dollar signs instead of s's to imply a commercial sell out to the man! is just old. In place of education and clearing the air, he makes it much more likely that he'll have a persistent fight on his hands.

Finally, Howard, at Smart Mobs, ties the whole stinking mess together on the blog and adds his own small contribution to the mess, capitalist baiting. The Internet is not a commons. If it were, there would be no peering arrangements. You wouldn't be able to drop people from the net for abusing net policy. You would have a very unhealthy, unstabled, unuseful structure groaning under the weight of even more abuse than the present structure.


Posted by TMLutas at 04:59 PM

December 23, 2003

Why I hate Internet Explorer I

I'm at a system right now that only has IE to browse the web. I had a nice article about how the whole US drug reimportation thing is developing, links, and some small amount of independent research to gain some perspective on how big this problem could get. Trivia fact for the day, there are 3094 functioning counties in the USA plus around 50 oddball entities usually called independent cities and also including Yellowstone Park which is the only cross state border entity listed in the nation. Anyway, the browser crashed, I hadn't saved a draft, and I have renewed my hate/hate relationship with IE.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:09 PM

December 19, 2003

Why I Love Macs II

Evan Kirchoff explains a great deal about why Microsoft has always been an "almost great" company. The money quote

It is, however, typical for Microsoft to choose to focus intensely on something, carry a solution to within striking distance of greatness, and then wander away distractedly like a bird spotting a shiny object. This is not a company that sweats the small stuff, or any stuff below the mid-sized.

Exactly.

Macintosh, on the other hand, is a brand whose greatest value proposition is sweating the small stuff. Now that it's plunked itself at the heart of the Unix world (Mac OS X is at heart an implementation of FreeBSD for PPC), it's going to be interesting to see how their sweat the user interaction details will work out with Unix' traditional attitude of sweat the technical details but not the UI.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:09 AM

December 17, 2003

Why I Love Macs I

Macintosh gives you high standards. I'm a bit of a computer schizophrenic. I have a Mac at home, run my own consulting business on them, and am an MCSE and have clients who are largely Windows/Linux.

So here I am, in need of a CD burner in my client provided Dell Laptop. I pop the computer out of the docking cradle. I pop the DVD/ROM module out of the Dell. I pop in a combo (DVD/CD Burner) module and put it back in the cradle. I did this while I was logged on to Windows XP. I expected it to work. Of course it didn't. (Note to self: move coffee up earlier on your things to do morning routine).

As I was rebooting, I considered why I thought this would work and the reason was that I hadn't put my Mac sensibilities entirely away this morning and just naturally thought that Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and cohorts had paid the care and attention necessary to make it just work.

It wasn't a big deal. I had nothing running other than XP at the time (I'm not a complete fool). It was just one more, in a long line of examples of not paying attention to the details of making sure the computer user can do what he wants, when he wants, with a minimum of fuss. Other operating systems/hardware combinations have solved the problem (heck, with some, you can add/change CPU and RAM components while you're running) so we're not talking about anything that hasn't been solved decades ago. They just don't care. They never have.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:12 AM

December 12, 2003

Citizen Defense Probing

There is a trend emerging in this global war on terror for private citizens to attempt to point out weaknesses in our defenses and offenses in various ways. Some do it by letter to their legislator or executive. Others circulate public and semi-public screeds pointing out avenues of attack, enemy strategies and our own strategies that should be deployed. But also there are others who do 'white hat' tests of defense systems. In the US the Transportation Safety Administration was horribly embarrassed that not only were weapons passed through their security systems but they were secreted on planes themselves and flew, undetected, for weeks until they caught up with their back mail and read the citizen report of the perpetrator of this white hat attack.

Even more ambitious is this effort to build a cruise missile out of parts that are commonly available for >$5000 US. This has led to some unfortunate consequences that are probably going to end up being litigated. But someone who was better at filing their taxes could have continued with the project in public without government interference and no doubt with the publicity this has already received, a $5k cruise missile will be built and defense planners will no longer be able to ignore this threat when the missile takes a nationwide publicity tour on a flat bed truck and the general public understands the stakes.

Clearly, threats of 10 year prison terms or bankruptcy (respectively) give a pretty clear message that some forms of citizen involvement in defense give governments a bad case of the hives but having to resort to selective enforcement of the tax code in the latter case makes it clear that from anyone's perspective it's quite important that there be some sort of regular channel where people can do these things in a controlled manner that doesn't do more harm than good but cannot be stifled by bureaucrats more interested in their careers than in national security.

A lot of the problem has to do with the fact that we've been very good at killing each other off for a very long time. Some items like a WW II V-1 are 60+ year old technology but would make adequate delivery systems for radiological dispersion systems, biological agent dispersion, or even good old fashioned chemicals that date back even further. Sure, our opponents aren't exactly cutting edge but if you can use a little imagination you can be pretty far behind technologically and still pose a threat to civilian targets.

Posted by TMLutas at 03:31 PM

December 08, 2003

The missing 11%

A survey by a company called InsightExpress has an interesting conclusion. After surveying 500 pc seeking americans they find that 14% consider Apple computers their favorite. Since Apple currently has ~3% of the market share that means that various barriers are turning away a large amount of Apple fans to second and third brand choices. If Apple could capture the full 14%, they would remake the entire personal computing landscape, not only for Apple shareholders but for fans of any and all other alternative operating systems out there. Right now the economics of PC marketshare makes it cost effective for an awful lot of software developers to go mono-platform and the mono-platform of choice is Windows with a huge majority of the market. With a 14% share, a great deal more applications would have a strong economic case for going multi-platform. The nature of going multi-platform is that adding that second platform is a great deal harder than adding a third platform.

So what's keeping the missing 11% away from Apple? The survey's public release doesn't seem to say. For Apple fans the answers are critical. For those who simply like innovation, variety, and strong competitive markets, there's a great deal of interest too.

Posted by TMLutas at 05:36 PM

August 17, 2003

Defining the energy problem

Steven Den Beste has decided to take me to task over my power ideas. First of all, I think we're looking at different problems.

As a pure engineering problem, there is no reason that we could not have solved the grid issues long ago. Engineers aren't stupid and after 1965 and the first great NE blackout, they knew they had a major problem to solve. The interesting question is why they didn't solve it. The short answer is that they were put under artificial constraints that didn't let them solve it.

Thus, all of SDB's graphs and hard engineering data are somewhat beside the point (not that he was 100% correct on the engineering aspects either). The problem is a military techno-political problem. In other words, it's very cross disciplinary. Be patient, this is likely to be long. [edit: it's also likely to be multi-part]

First of all, having a day or two holiday from electricity every couple of decades or so is actually not that bad a record. If that were our actual problem, we wouldn't be in such bad shape. But the real problem is having terrorist teams taking down major, multi-state grid sections every few days and likely not getting caught for a long time.

But what are these hypothetical terrorists looking to do? To some extent, they want to hurt our economy. I think that even more than that, they want us sitting in the dark, afraid. Demoralizing us, terrorizing us, is the heart of their strategy. So a system change that made the lights stay on at home would significantly reduce the terrorist impact and make the regular blackout strategy less attractive.

But let's get back to those frustrated power engineers. Who and what is frustrating the engineers and keeping our electrical systems vulnerable?

The coalition to keep us in the dark is formed of several parts. There is the environmental component who believe if we only had enough wind farms, solar cells, tidal generators, or geothermal pipes we could get rid of those nasty fossil fuel and nuclear plants that provide massive generation capabilities. Then there are the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) activists who don't want a powerplant near them, don't want to see high tension wires ruin their scenic views, but don't care beyond their local area. That wouldn't be so bad if NIMBYs weren't so widespread that any significant power project is likely to draw them into active opposition. Finally there are the luddites who believe in going back to a more primitive existence. They want an end to industrialization, low power usage, if any, and certainly no major transmission wires.

All three of these groups have their own moderate versions who qualify their opposition to new power plants and transmission lines but still form important sections of the coalition to keep us in the dark.

Love them or hate them, they have been successful in keeping power generating reserves at low levels to the point where we got the great NE and Canada blackout of 2003.

So a successful strategy to build a bulletproof grid has to not only take into account the engineering challenges, the terrorism challenges, but also the political challenges. All three are necessary conditions to solve the problem.

Out of the three, the terrorism challenge is actually the easiest to solve. Blowing up towers or shorting out lines is something that functionally looks like very bad weather. Add some booby trap clearing personnel training to repair crews and you've got the situation fairly well in hand from the mechanical perspective of recovery.

The engineering solution is also easy, add more power plants, preferably large ones that are cheap to run, build lots of new lines so it's difficult to take enough down to create a cascading failure, and create better communication between parts of the power systems so that you can adjust to point failures faster and more accurately.

The political solution is our real problem because we have a durable coalition that frustrates both powerplant building and transmission line building enough to land us in our current sad state.

The conventional strategy is to periodically let our reserves fall, have a massive blackout, and use the crisis atmosphere that follows to ram through plant and line construction quickly. This reactive, crisis driven deployment schedule does not serve society well as each crisis is costly and the rush to approve while the anti-forces are in disarray will lead to bad decisions being made.

The better solution is to break off at least one of the three coalition partners and create a durable political solution which will allow plant and line construction to proceed on a normal schedule as needed. But who can be peeled off?

The Luddites are the core resistance. They will always be in favor of less power, less technology. Getting rid of that problem is missionary work, not coalition building. The luddite grouping, unfortunately, has the disadvantage that it generally falls a false flag and luddites claim to be NIMBYs or environmentalists.

The easiest way I've found to tell a luddite flying a false flag is to discuss fusion. A luddite will be opposed to clean, safe, plentiful energy because it will enable us to indefinitely continue in our 'sinfully wasteful' ways. When an environmentalists says not to build a fission plant but to wait for fusion which will be clean and safe, the luddites grimace and groan.

NIMBY and environmentalist concerns are much more straightforward. NIMBY factions arise because of health, safety, and aesthetic reasons. A power plant that is not seen and not felt is a powerplant that has no NIMBY opposition to it. Property value drops are their core motivation and if you can create a non-visible power infrastructure that raises property values, they'll swap sides.

Environmentalists are clean energy fetishists. There's no problem with energy solutions which don't pollute and their major objection to power transmission lines is that you have to cut down trees to safely maintain the lines. These unnatural meadow corridors make many environmentalists unhappy.

A smart energy network tears at the internal cohesion of the anti-energy coalition Local generation through neighborhood based microturbines reduce the need to shift power into residential neighborhoods while they would keep the lights on during grid-wide blackouts. This reduces the attractiveness of a blackout terrorist strategy by creating islands of light that can be replicated at will. Individual options are wider than the inefficient solar that SDB allows.

SDB is in error when he says that there is no way to store electricity. You store via conversion (as he admits in his own example of pumping water uphill) and there's a relatively new contender for storage he doesn't examine.

As any veteran of the hydrogen debates quickly finds out, a big rap against hydrogen is that it's not found free in nature so hydrogen power is, essentially, a highly efficient battery replacement. You have to spend energy to make hydrogen energy. But this negative is turned into a positive when the problem is electricity generation time shifting. Power that is surplus can be converted into hydrogen and the hydrogen shifted back to electricity at peak demand or piped elsewhere for fuel cell use (perhaps to fuel the cars that will be coming down the road using this power source). It's quite likely that power line loss will be greater than hydrogen loss for similar distance hauls.

The smart power market I advocate would provide supply and demand contracts in real time. The engineers would be able to monitor the market and adjust their own efforts much more quickly without having to guess at aggregate trend lines as SDB informs us is the current system for independent individual power producers. Markets operate very fast and there are very well developed swystems for dealing with the problem of drowining in data.

I'm on the road right now and will probably take up this subject further as I have time.

Posted by TMLutas at 05:30 AM

August 12, 2003

The need for better upload speeds

I've previously written about 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class Internet connectivity. Donald Sensing's One Hand Clapping has just an article about one manifestation of this, the birth of "thin" media, specialized coverage that traditional mass media cannot cover efficiently. But Sensing isn't going far enough. What he doesn't realize is that Moore's Law changes the efficiency equation constantly and it both makes censorship through omission progressively harder and it makes distribution chokepoints (a la the RIAA and MPAA) virtually impossible to sustain. This is sociallly revolutionary stuff but it depends on the prolific and inefficient distribution of massive upload capability.

I recall reading an old Forbes Magazine article about the american garage as a secret economic weapon. Because of lower population densities, almost every house had one, often a large one. But combine a house with a large garage with an entrepreneurial occupant and you have the rent free first office that lowers costs sufficient to make business formation appreciably easier and more common in the US. The only price you pay is the necessity of washing the car a bit more often.

Over-engineering upload capacity does the exact same thing in the internet arena. If you have some minimal technical ability you can host your own web site, essentially becoming your own business, journalism outlet, entertainment palace, or what have you. All incumbents who deal in non-tangible goods are directly threatened as are middle-men who depend on people not knowing how to go direct to producers to get tangible goods. This was the base solid reality upon which the dotcom hysterical fluff was piled on to insane proportions.

The fluff is largely gone now but the reality remains unchanged and actually more developed than it was in the go-go years. Defensive action on the part of the incumbents is varied. Journalists mock their online counterparts, music and video distribution empires attempt to mau-mau content producers into thinking of online distribution as illegitimate or 2nd class, and the telephone and cable TV companies who provide much of the physical infrastructure of mass Internet connectivity have invented the 2nd class Internet.

This is a delicate balancing act. Cripple uploading too much and people will just incorporate into non-profit community ISPs and distribute first class internet connectivity locally. But if they don't cripple it enough, people will run VOIP for their voice communications and eventually TV over IP for their visual communications. At first it'll be a web cam over the crib, then community access type shows, but at a certain point, the broadband community will be large enough to create a profitable, independent show based on IP distribution and that business model will kill the studios.

Posted by TMLutas at 08:03 AM

July 16, 2003

State Department victim of war on cryptography

A letter to the editor with forged headers fooled the Washington Times into publishing an e-mail hoax and embarrassing the State Department. E-mail is currently usually transmitted using plain text character encoding with no inherent security. This makes standard e-mail the electronic equivalent of paper postcards, able to be read by anyone and copied/altered by anyone.

In most circumstances, this is quite convenient for the State as electronic eavesdropping is easily done with minimal computing power. The electronic equivalent to an envelope, signature, and seal is cryptography, in various forms and variants. Document forgery is very, very difficult when digitally signed. It's too bad, in a way, there are digital signature software programs available for free that would have solved this problem without a single penny having to be disbursed from the Treasury.

Posted by TMLutas at 03:49 PM

July 14, 2003

Time does an environmental policy hit piece

Time Magazine has just published a doom and gloom piece on US energy prospects. Unfortunately for them, their straight line projection on hydrogen is severely lacking in data. While hydrogen power and fuel cells have been around for decades and have been touted in past plans, they didn't have any shipping or near shipping products at that time.

Clearly we're getting to the point where alternatives to the oil economy are becoming economic and not just political priorities. Time's stuck in full reactionary mode with this piece, crying out permanent doom when the light at the end of the tunnel is finally visible. From here on in, oil has an effective price ceiling because conversion to hydrogen is becoming more and more of an option.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:23 PM