Archive for the 'computers' Category

Semi-annual madness

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Are you finding that your PC, or some other electronic device in your home, is behind by one hour today? If so, thank the U.S. government’s Energy Policy Act of 2005 which helpfully changed the dates which have traditionally marked the beginning and end of Daylight Saving Time. Instead of “falling back” last night on the last Sunday in October as they have done for years, the date was pushed up a week to next Sunday, November 4th. However many electronic devices, oblivious to the pronouncements of politicians, dutifully made the change last night anyway as they had been pre-programmed to do.

If you’re running a computer with Windows XP which does not have Service Pack 2 installed (or certain other operating systems for PC and Mac), you can apply the patch found here to fix the dates.

You may know that the idea of saving daylight first sprang from the nimble mind of Benjamin Franklin some 200 years ago when he suggested that Parisians economize on candles by rising earlier to take advantage of the morning sunlight. Then in 1905, the prominent British outdoorsman William Willett was said to have had “an epiphany” while on an early-morning horseback ride, and proposed the idea of changing the clocks twice a year. The practice was first adopted in wartime Germany in 1916 to keep energy costs low, but has been controversial ever since, with a long history of unintended consequences. When the government tinkered with the dates in 2005 things only became more confusing, and there is little evidence that there has been any significant energy savings which the Policy Act was designed to achieve. Proponents of DST claim it reduces energy use by 1 percent every day it’s in effect, while skeptics contend this is not true and say the extra sunlight spurs more errands and trips to visit friends and family.

I personally think the whole idea is absurd; the hassles far outweigh any benefits, and I propose that DST should be renamed “Daylight Stupid Time”. Maybe I’ll move to Arizona.

Battle over internet radio continues

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

The movement to save internet radio from the disastrous jacked-up recording industry royalty fees that will potentially shut down most webcasters is gaining momentum.

Background

If you’re unfamiliar with this issue, it’s a fairly complex subject, but here’s a quick recap: last March, a 3-judge panel called the Copyright Royalty Board, or CRB, voted to change royalty fees paid by net broadcasters from a straight percentage-of-profits model to a “per-song, per-listener” scheme, regardless of any income (or lack thereof) the station might have from advertising, subscriptions, or donations. Representing an increase of 300 to 1200 percent, the new rates which go into effect on July 15th are retroactive to January 2006 and will put most stations — including many Public Radio outlets — out of business. (See this Newsweek article for more info.)

To put this in perspective, imagine for a moment you have an income of $40,000 a year and you’re taxed at 15% by the IRS, so you pay them $6,000. Then one day you get a letter informing you that the new tax amount on your $40,000 income will be $72,000 (a 12x increase). Wouldn’t make much sense, would it — how can you pay more than you make? Now imagine you have zero income, but your tax is still $72,000! WTF??

Congress Gets Involved

In the weeks since the initial ruling, a grassroots movement has sprung up among internet broadcasters and their listeners seeking to overturn the CRB’s flawed decision. Two bills (H.R.2060 in the House, and S.1353 in the Senate), together known as the “Internet Radio Equality Act“, would establish fair and reasonable fees paid to those who create music, while assuring that net radio will not be killed off. Considering that most legislation languishes on Capitol Hill with very little interest from the general public, these measures have picked up phenomenal support in a very short period of time, as thousands of people (including myself, and hopefully some of y’all as well) have written or phoned their elected representatives to tell them that they do not want internet radio to become extinct.

Predictably, the RIAA (through its affiliated organization that actually collects the fees, known as SoundExchange) immediately cranked up the rhetoric by issuing a press release referring to the legislation as a “money grab by corporate webcasters”. Among other patently false statements, they claim that the bills are a “blatant attempt to strip artists and record labels of their hard-won royalties for the use of their sound recordings on Internet Radio”. (Click here to read a short article debunking the RIAA’s absurd propaganda.)

Business Week magazine’s online edition recently took an in-depth look at both sides of this issue, first presenting an article dated May 11th by SoundExchange director John Simson. At last count it had received over 60 comments, nearly all of them taking the view expressed in the words of one reader who said, “what a transparent load of crap from Mr. Simson.” In contrast, four days later BW published the reasoned viewpoint of Laurie Joulie of Roots Music Association to much more favorable reader response; it’s therefore quite easy to see where public sentiments lie on the matter.

Latest Skirmish

As a direct result of the outpouring of support for the House and Senate bills, SoundExchange got a letter last week from Representatives Howard L. Berman (D-CA) and Howard Coble (R-NC). Acting as part of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, the Congressmen urged the RIAA to “initiate good faith private negotiations with small commercial and noncommercial webcasters with the shared goal of ensuring their continued operations and viability.” Sensing the tide of public opinion turning against them and fearing legislative intervention, the RIAA has made a so-called “compromise offer” to defer imposition of new fees to what it terms “small webcasters” until 2010, while proceeding with the increases as planned for everyone else. But this alleged “compromise” is a Trojan Horse that would still stifle internet radio. For one thing, it doesn’t offer to change the new fee structure, only to postpone it. This would be like the IRS in our hypothetical example above saying, “You still owe us the money, but we’ll give you until 2010 to pay it.” For another thing:

“The proposal made by SoundExchange would throw ‘large webcasters’ under the bus and end any ‘small’ webcaster’s hopes of one day becoming big,” SaveNetRadio spokesperson Jake Ward said. “Under Government-set revenue caps, webcasters will invest less, innovate less and promote less. Under this proposal, internet radio would become a lousy long-term business, unable to compete effectively against big broadcast and big satellite radio – artists, webcasters, and listeners be damned.”

SaveNetRadio said that this kind of charging w ould put internet radio out of business, and is not what was intended by US lawmakers.

“A standard that would set a royalty rate more than 300% of a webcaster’s revenue was not what Congress had in mind, and it must be adjusted if the industry is going to survive.”

You can still help

The Internet Radio Equality Act still needs your support. Even if you’ve already contacted your representative, don’t let off the pressure. This sort of lobbying is exactly how things are accomplished in Washington, so please use the handy tool below which will provide information regarding who to contact as well as some talking points if you need them:


The I.R.E.A. would establish that webcasters pay a fair and reasonable fee of 7.5% of their revenue in royalties, the same rate paid by satellite radio broadcasters. Traditional over-the-air broadcast radio does not pay anything because labels consider airtime to be promotional, an arrangement that has existed for the last 70 years. It’s based on the long-accepted idea that if you hear a song you like on the radio, there’s a good chance you might buy a CD by that artist. However, with recent CD sales in free-fall for a variety of reasons (not the least of which being the stupidity and arrogance of the record companies) the RIAA is becoming increasingly desperate, and terrestrial radio is very likely to be their next target.

More on that in another post.

Joost Crazy

Friday, May 11th, 2007

For the last month or so, I’ve been a beta-tester for the new interactive video-on-demand service called Joost (pronounced “Juiced”). You’ve probably heard of it; Joost is being hyped by many as the Internet’s next “killer app“, and is the brainchild of Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, those two wacky Scandinavians who brought you Kazaa and Skype. Joost positions itself as “Internet Cable TV”, but to me it’s more like a large collection of videos grouped by common subject matter into “channels”. In this way, it resembles YouTube more than your local cable service, except the videos are all high quality and professionally produced; there’s none of the “user-generated content” found on YouTube and other similar sites.

Programs on Joost range in length from one or two-minute shorts up to full-length features of 90 minutes or more. You can pick and choose from an inventory of about 150 channels, including offerings from CNN, The Comedy Channel, MTV and many others. (See the full channel overview here.) Note that these are NOT exactly the same as their cable TV counterparts. If you select MTV, for example, you can choose only from a limited selection of programs, mostly episodes of “Laguna Beach”, “Punk’d”, and “My Sweet 16″. Other channels feature game shows, music videos, comedies, sports, and a few (but not many) movies.

All the video is streamed directly over the web to your machine, in real time, on demand. You pick the program you want to watch and start viewing it, no worries about it being “in progress”. When the show’s over, if you do nothing Joost will play the next program in the list, like a cable TV station. However, you can stop it at any time and come back later, or pick another program on another channel. For the geek minded, Joost is technically known as a “hybrid peer-to-peer application”, which uses the same technology its founders developed for Kazaa. A diagram and explanation of how it works can be found here.

Here’s a few screen shots of the basic interface (click each pic for a larger version):


The quality of the video is pretty decent, which came as somewhat of a surprise to me after being used to the small-sized, grainy content found on most other sites. Joost can stream either in a window or full-screen, and looks quite good in either.

Up until recently, Joost was available only to a very small and select number of beta testers. I had submitted my request to join way back in October, and just got my “invitation” to sign up last month. The first few weeks after I began watching were pretty rocky; evidently a lot of people got their invites at the same time I did, and the service had trouble handling the sudden increase in load. Videos would stutter or not play at all, and for a while I was jokingly referring to Joost as “The Error Message Channel” because most often what I saw was this:


I was not the only one, either, as the developers noted on their blog:

As you might have discovered already, we’re having some problems with the central servers in Luxembourg… We’ve been flooded with demand, which is fabulous and ultimately will make the system stronger, but since it’s unaccustomed to this level of usage it’s stumbling a bit, whereas we’d like it to be sprinting.

However, a new version of the program was released this week, and most of these problems seem to have been fixed. It still burps occasionally, but I’ve been able to watch for several hours at a time without any major interruptions. Some of the shows have been quite interesting. For example, I like documentaries, and found a fascinating film on the National Geographic Channel called “Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories“. An ordinary guy by the name of Mike Shiley just decided one day, pretty much out of the blue, to pick up a camera, go to Iraq, and shoot a movie about normal, everyday life there; it’s a point of view you definitely won’t get from the US military’s PR machine. Another favorite has been “The Saturday Morning Channel”, which features several old cartoon series that I loved as a kid, including Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Joost claims they’re adding new content all the time, and have made deals with some big-name distributors to feature their programming. Record companies are beginning to take notice of Joost as a way to promote their artists, so there are quite a few music videos on the site. You’ve probably never heard of most of them, but that’s the whole point.

The best part is that it’s all free to watch. Joost makes money by inserting occasional commercials into the program stream, just like a regular TV station does, but the good news is that they limit the ads to two or three minutes per hour as opposed to the ten to twelve minutes per hour that you’re subjected to on broadcast TV.

At the moment, Joost is still in the beta stage and requires an invitation to sign up and start watching. However, as a current beta tester, I can “invite” as many people as I want — so any readers of this blog who would like to try it out, just drop me a note to mrtoast AT suddenlink DOT net, and I’ll be more than happy to send you one. A couple of caveats to keep in mind:

1) You MUST have a high-speed, broadband internet connection. Dialup will not work, and the fatter your pipe is the better. 1 mBs downstream is the bare minimum, 2 mBs is recommended, and 3 or 4 will rock. (If you’d like to test your connection speed, click here.)

Note that Joost has the following to say on their web site about bandwidth:

“Joost is a streaming video application, and so uses a relatively high amount of bandwidth per hour. In one hour of viewing, approximately 320Mb data will be downloaded and 105Mb uploaded, which means that it will exhaust a 1Gb cap in 10 hours. Windows users should note that the application continues to run in the background after you close the main window. For this reason, if you pay for your bandwidth usage per megabyte or have your usage capped by your ISP, you should be careful to always exit Joost client completely when you are finished watching it.”

Since my cable-modem service provider charges a flat monthly fee and does not cap my bandwidth, this is not a problem for me, but may be an important factor if yours does. Call them and ask if you’re not sure.

2) Joost requires a fairly snappy machine. The newer your PC and the more memory you have, the better it will work. The following system specs are recommended:

  • Windows XP Service Pack 2 with DirectX 9.0c
  • Pentium 4 processor (or equivalent), 1GHz
  • 512Mb or more RAM
  • A modern video card with DirectX support and at least 32Mb of RAM
  • About 500 MB free disk space

3) Like any other form of TV, Joost will be a HUGE time sink. You will find hours of your life disappearing in front of the screen, so be sure you have lots of spare time on your hands.

4) Finally, remember that Joost is still in BETA. It is not guaranteed to work. It might conflict with other stuff on your computer (although I haven’t had any real problems). No technical support is provided. It might scare your dog. It may cause cramps, nausea, headache, irritability, sleeplessness or warts after prolonged use. Not responsible for direct, indirect, incidental or consequential damages. For educational and recreational use only. Not recommended for children. Close cover before striking. May be slippery when wet. Use only in a well-ventilated area. No purchase necessary, void where prohibited, your mileage may vary, etc.

Seriously, I don’t mean to scare anyone off — as I say, my experience has been pretty good, with no conflicts or serious problems. As with any new software that hasn’t been fully tested yet and may still be a bit buggy, I would advise at the very least setting a system restore point before installing Joost. A backup wouldn’t hurt either, but like any smart computer user, you’re doing that on a regular basis anyway, right? Of course you are.

Will Joost ever replace “real” TV? Probably not, especially once HDTV really gets off the ground in 2009 when analog goes dark. The founders point out that Skype hasn’t put the phone companies out of business either, and is merely an alternate method of providing a service. But Joost is still a very big step in a direction that many broadcasters have been thinking about for a long, long time, and it will only get better as both the quality of the content Joost can deliver and the technology behind it continues to improve. Even with its current limitations, I’m still quite impressed. Again, if you’d like an invitation to check it out for yourself, “joost” let me know.

NBC’s Brian Williams on new media

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

The NBC news anchor and managing editor spoke before a crowd of NYU journalism students last month on the challenges that traditional journalism faces from online media. The following quotes from his speech have been widely circulated since then, but in case you missed them:

On bloggers:

“You’re going to be up against people who have an opinion, a modem, and a bathrobe. All of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work, and now I’m up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment in the Bronx who hasn’t left the efficiency apartment in two years.”

On YouTube:

“If we’re all watching cats flushing toilets, what aren’t we reading? What great writer are we missing? What great story are we ignoring? This is societal, it’s cultural, I can’t change it. We should maybe pause to think about it. Because like everybody else, I can burn an hour on YouTube or Perez Hilton without breaking a sweat. And what have I just not paid attention to that 10 years ago I would’ve just consumed?”

More details here. Not surprisingly, Williams has been roundly criticized for these remarks in the blogosphere for coming off as “self-important” and a “knucklehead“, but I’m not so sure that he doesn’t have a good point. Remember that he was addressing journalism students, not the general public. These folks will graduate from college trained to become our next generation of professional newspaper, magazine, radio, and TV reporters, and the landscape today is vastly different than 10 years ago when people like Williams were learning the craft. We now have an army of “citizen journalists” who, armed with their cell-phone video cameras and blogs, have the ability to reach a potential audience of millions.

But in any creative field, whether it be music, art, or journalism, there will always be tons of chaff for every few kernels of wheat. It’s up to the consumer to sort it out for themselves and choose what they think is most valuable, whether it’s NBC, Fox News, the Daily Kos, Michelle Malkin, the New York Times, or any other source. I think Williams was simply saying that there are a lot more choices available these days, and the value of that information can be difficult to determine when everyone writing on the Internet presents themselves as an “expert”.

“On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

Be sure to pack your bathing suit

Saturday, April 28th, 2007

One thing you can say about the folks at Google, they’re about as wild n’ crazy as a bunch of software engineers can be. For example, they’re well known for their annual April Fool’s jokes like this one.

The guffaws continue at their mapping portal, where you can create a trip route to your chosen destination complete with the usual turn-by-turn driving instructions. Click on the “Get Directions” tab, enter Houston to Chicago: 1078 miles in 17 hours and 40 minutes. OK, typical stuff; any number of sites will do that. But on Google Maps, create a route between two locations not directly connected by roads — say, Houston to Frankfurt, Germany — and you’ll get this:

googlemap2.jpg

This is nerd humor at its finest, people.

Got no time

Sunday, March 11th, 2007

Are you “on time” today? Hopefully you remembered that in the government’s infinite wisdom, it enacted the Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandating that the switch to daylight savings time would come three weeks earlier this spring, and end one week later than normal on the first Sunday in November. Accordingly, you should have set your clocks forward one hour at 2 AM this morning. But when it comes to computers and other electronic devices which have the time change pre-programmed for the first Sunday in April as it’s been done for decades, this could be easier said than done. For example, when I first tried earlier today to set my computers manually, they stubbornly jumped back to what they thought was the correct time, almost as if to say, “no, you idiot, we artificially-intelligent machines know when to change the time, and this ain’t it.” Even more exciting, they are plotting to spontaneously advance themselves by an hour come three weeks from now if I don’t put a stop to their siliconious treachery.

Fortunately, there is a fix for this in the form of an operating system patch from Microsoft, formally known as KB931836. This update to Windows will allow your computer to recognize the new dates. However, to download it, your system must pass the “Windows Genuine Advantage” validation test — an onerous and controversial anti-piracy program designed to ferret out bogus copies of Windows, and phone home details of your system to Redmond if it finds one. Not that I think any of my über-responsible readers would have anything less than the genuine article on their machines, but in case any rogue software pirates have stumbled upon this site in a drive-by blogging, you anti-social criminals can get the file you need (which goes by the easy-to-remember name of WindowsXP-KB931836-x86-ENU.exe) from several alternate sources without having to validate your copy of Windows. Far be it from me to condone such nefarious activity by telling you exactly where you can find this file. I do have standards, you know.

For information on adjusting other electronic gadgets containing microprocessors (which may include your Blackberry or other PDA, Mac, cell phone, radio, television, VCR, Tivo, microwave oven, thermostat, camera, MP3 player, automobile, GPS system, video game, home security system, cable TV box, dishwasher, stove, electric blanket, your pet, and possibly even yourself) see this helpful article from Business Week.

This event is much more of a hassle in the corporate world than it is for home users, perhaps even more so than the much-anticipated “Y2K” bug which had very little actual effect. Microsoft is taking heat for not warning early enough of possible impact from the DST change to its applications, especially Exchange, and business users are also grumbling about how the company is now addressing the snafu as well.

“Microsoft has 14 pages of fine print on how to address DST using the Exchange Calendaring tool,” said one corporate user. “We’re on revision 19 as of March 8. You also have to watch a video on how to do this. It takes 23 minutes. It gives me a headache.”

I personally think the new time change is absurd and confusing. More significantly, there are serious questions that the stated goal of “energy conservation” will be realized. According to a report prepared by a staff member of the California Energy Commission, “there is no clear evidence that electricity will be saved from the earlier start of daylight savings time”, and in fact usage could possibly increase due to peak load demands in the morning when it is still slightly darker and cooler.

But when was the last time the government did anything that made sense?

Windows Vista arrives with a “thud”

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

In case you missed it, yesterday was the much-hyped launch of Microsoft’s new operating system for personal computers, Windows Vista. But despite the hoopla, most of the world greeted the new arrival with a collective yawn. Major retailers across the country stayed open until the wee hours Tuesday morning, prepared for the sort of demand that accompanied the launch of previous Microsoft operating systems like Windows 95 and XP. However, crowds were small and only a few hard-core geeks stood in line to get the software as the clock ticked down to midnight.

Apple Computer, who have for years maintained only about a 5% share of the world computer market, used the occasion to launch a series of ads on its web site directly attacking the new O/S from Redmond. In one, a character personifying the PC is dressed as a hospital patient, saying he’s set to undergo major surgery to upgrade to Vista. He then walks off, telling the Mac character that if he doesn’t come back, Mac can have his peripherals. Apple asks visitors, “Why upgrade to Vista when you can upgrade past it?”

But make no mistake, if you’re one of the 95% of computer users running on the Windows platform, you will be using Vista eventually, most likely when you purchase your next PC. Manufacturers are rolling out new hardware with Vista pre-installed, and Microsoft estimates the software will be on millions of hard drives in the next two years. The company contends that because Vista is such a huge improvement, users will inevitably say “Wow” when they see the slick 3-D graphical user interface and document icons that give at-a-glance previews.

So far, though, most reviews have been much less enthusiastic, calling Vista “a triumph of hype over substance”. Underneath the glitzy “wow” graphics, there’s not much to get excited about. There are widespread reports of early adopters running into serious activation glitches, and those who wish to do a clean install, as opposed to upgrading their present system, are being forced to jump through frustrating and unnecessary licensing hoops by Microsoft.

Frankly, most users (myself included) are perfectly satisfied with the current version of our operating systems. XP was such a huge improvement in stability and function over its Windows 98 predecessor, that there seems to be no compelling reason to switch. However, a free upgrade to Vista came with my recent Toshiba laptop purchase, so I suppose I’ll have a look at it if for no other reason than out of curiosity, and post a review here.

Anyone reading this have any experience with Vista so far?

Mmmm … shiny

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

Guess what? My new laptop is here already!

Amazing … I placed the order with Circuit City late Monday afternoon, and it was delivered Wednesday morning. Now this is how to do business, Staples! You could use a few pointers from these guys.

This computer ramps up my previous Dell Inspiron laptop experience by a factor of four; 4x the memory, 4x as fast, 4x the hard drive space, and the built-in WiFi has 4x the bandwidth of my old 802.11b. I’ve spent most of the day today de-crapifying it, removing several gigabytes worth of adware, games, trial-and-demo programs, and other junk that you’ll find preinstalled on any new computer. As I install my own familiar applications and tools, it’s slowly starting to feel like “home” to me, although I plan to wait to really load it up until I get the Windows Vista upgrade. One of the reasons I was anxious to buy this machine before January 30th is that I did not want the new o/s preinstalled on it. With less than a week to go before Vista officially launches, there’s still considerable debate in the tech community about just how stable it is, although newer machines with plenty of muscle reportedly should work fine. It will be older computers that are underpowered by Vista’s hefty hardware requirements (especially for the new “Aero” graphical interface – screen shot, right) that may have problems. But by by buying this PC now I effectively get two systems for the price of one; it came with the trusty XP Media Center edition, and I’ll get Vista when the upgrade CD arrives in a few weeks. If for whatever reason I decide I really don’t care for Vista, or if it’s incompatible with any of my favorite apps, I can easily roll it back to XP; I wouldn’t have that option if I’d waited until next month.

More Vista reports to follow.

Random Friday bits

Friday, November 17th, 2006

Happy Friday! The weekend is almost here, and by next week at this time I will be burping the remnants of my Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Of course, that means Christmas is not far behind, as this little countdown page will remind you; 37 days and counting as I write this.

Adding to my usual bout of Holiday Anxiety this year is the fact that I totally wasted a day of my life yesterday by making a 300-mile round trip to Houston and back for … absolutely nothing. I had been supposed to see the doctor who is administering the clinical trial of the experimental meds I’m taking for my lung condition, but when I got to the clinic for my 1:30 appointment, they had no clue that I was scheduled to be there. It turned out that the trial coordinator totally dropped the ball, scheduling the date with me but forgetting to call the doctor’s office. It was a moot point anyway, as the doctor was out of the office on an emergency and wouldn’t have been able to see me even if I had been on his schedule. Oh well, we’ll try again next month. To be honest, I wasn’t all that upset about it; it’s not like I had any other big plans yesterday, and it was a beautiful sunny day for a drive, with nice cool temperatures. Plus, I really credit this medication with extending my life … so giving back one day seems more than fair. My coordinator was very sorry for the mistake, and by way of apology gave me a $50 Wal-Mart gift card, which will help with the Christmas shopping.

Speaking of shopping, are you stumped by what to give that special someone on your list this year? Well here’s a suggestion: how about a pocket laser stun gun?

Finally on my list of random thoughts for today: are you one of the millions of people who will be using online search engines this year to find Christmas gift suggestions, or for that matter any other tidbit of information? Sure, Google and the others return good results, but that plain white page can be awfully boring. Are you looking for a search engine that will talk to you? Preen, pout, entertain you, and tell you jokes? Ms. Dewey (played by actress/singer Janina Gavankar) does all this while using the new Microsoft LiveSearch to display the answers to your queries.

She can be a bit annoying after a while, and the site makes extensive use of flash graphics so you better have a fast broadband connection. Infoworld’s Robert X. Cringely reports: “As stealth marketing campaigns go, this one may live to haunt its creator. Ms. Dewey is sexy but she’s not fast — at least when it comes to search results — and her shtick wears thin rather quickly. Like many things on the Net, you start out hot and bothered and end up just bothered.” Still, this unorthodox search tool from Microsoft is definitely worth checking out.

Have a great weekend!

ZoHoHo and a Google of rum

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

I’ve been playing a bit lately with online tools that can be used for blogging or collaborative document creation, and am very impressed with two of the front-runners in this nascent category: Google Docs (formerly known as “Writely”) and ZoHo Writer. Both are free, and allow you to use a full suite of Office-like applications with nothing more than a web browser. This post is being created with ZoHo now.

A buzzword within the computer industry these days is “Software as Service”, a sales model where you “subscribe” to an application which is used over an Internet connection, as opposed to buying it outright as a CD (or download) to install on your home computer. Many people, including myself, are justifiably skeptical of this concept, believing that it’s one more way for giants like Microsoft to get their hooks into you and ultimately force you to cough up more money. This is a big concern, but there are some advantages as well: you’re always using the latest version of the software, and you can use it from any computer anywhere you happen to be. Files and documents are always available, and several people can contribute to a document jointly without the hassle of having to e-mail it back and forth. In certain business situations this makes a lot of sense.

But for the typical home user who uses a word processor and spreadsheet primarily for simple tasks like writing letters and keeping a budget, there may not be the same compelling reasons to use an online suite like ZoHo. For one thing, a broadband connection is mandatory; dialup will make the service so slow and unreliable as to be unusable. And while the online suites have lots of nice features, they’re still outclassed by stand-alone applications like Word and Excel.

However, bloggers may find that these tools are very useful for post creation. Most of the major blogging engines such as Blogger and WordPress have rather featureless post editors, and formatting an entry as anything other than plain-vanilla text can be tricky. WordPress in particular has a clunky WYSIWYG interface which is fond of inserting paragraphs where you only want a line break, and lacks an easy way to format text without tweaking the html code for your entry. But both Google Docs and ZoHo have a nice selection of rich formatting tools that simplify the task of changing text attributes like size, color, and placement. You can also easily spell-check, add hyperlinks and Technorati tags, and import images. Then, once you set up the service to be able to access your blog’s API (the programming interface that allows outside applications to “talk” to your blog) all you have to do is hit the “publish” button from within ZoHo or Google to create or update your post.

After experimenting extensively with both, I have to say I like ZoHo the better of the two. Google may be better integrated, allowing you to switch between spreadsheets, documents, and email service more easily, but ZoHo’s word processor just blows Google away. It’s intuitive and easy to use, and lets you tweak your post to a finer degree than any of the other text tools can do. Plus, I had trouble getting Google to automatically accept the title of the document as the post title, which ZoHo did seamlessly. If you’re tired of your blog’s spartan interface, check out ZoHo Writer and Google Docs. I think they’re pretty cool.

Dude, your Dell’s on fire

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

I happen to use a Dell Inspiron laptop, and very often while composing these demented ramblings, I have noted that my lap gets very hot. (There’s a joke there somewhere, but I’m going to pass on it.) I mean seriously hot, to the point where if the machine were sitting on my bare-skinned leg, unprotected by a layer of denim, we might be talking about some third-degree burns here. So I was somewhat concerned when I read this story today about a similar machine which literally caught on fire and exploded at a business conference in Japan (slightly more technical article here). According to an eyewitness, “The damn thing was on fire and produced several explosions for more than five minutes.”

Dell technicians are looking into the matter, according to a statement by the company. “We have captured the notebook and have begun investigating the event,” Dell spokeswoman Anne Camden said, confirming the computer was made by Dell but declining to specify the model.

Although no one was hurt in this incident, it is well-known that excessive heat has been a continuing problem with certain Dell machines and batteries. More than 22,000 batteries and over a million AC adapters have been recalled by the company due to concerns over just such an occurance.

It is extremely fortunate that this did not happen on an airplane, although one now must wonder if such an event is just a matter of time. I think I am going to keep a fire extinguisher next to the chair I usually sit in while using my computer, just in case.

Rumor has it that the next model of Dell laptop will be named “The Hindenbook”.

Windows Metafile security alert

Saturday, January 7th, 2006

Here’s important information for those who use the Windows operating system, myself included. A vulnerability has been discovered in the graphics rendering engine associated with Windows Metafile images, or files with a .wmf extension. It is possible for hackers to maliciously construct a .wmf file to execute arbitrary code without your knowledge when the file is viewed, either on a web page or as an e-mail attachment. Computer security professionals say there’s no need to become unduly alarmed; this is not yet a common threat, and chances are relatively slim that any one particular computer will be compromised. From an article in PC World magazine:

“As far as we’re concerned, the threat is being vastly overblown,” says Russ Cooper, editor of the NTBugtraq mailing list and a scientist at security vendor Cybertrust. “It’s not being massively exploited.”

Just two months ago, Microsoft fixed three other problems with the way Windows processes WMF images, and those vulnerabilities were not widely used with any success, Cooper says. “We’ve had image rendering problems in the base operating system for a long time, and still nothing massive has happened.”

Nevertheless, reports of attacks specific to this exploit are increasing, so in my opinion it’s better to be safe than sorry; you just never know when someone will see a golden opportunity for mischief on a wider scale. Microsoft Corp. is rating this alert “critical” and advising anyone using Windows 2000, Windows 2003 Server, or Windows XP with Service Pack 1 or 2 installed to read security bulletin MS06-001. (Windows 98 or ME is not vulnerable.) The Redmonders had scheduled the release of an update to fix this problem for January 10th, but have pushed the date up in response to public demand. That patch (KB912919) is available now, and you can download and install it from the Microsoft link above. If for some reason you can’t install the fix, the following simple registry tweak to disable the Windows Picture and Fax Viewer (shimgvw.dll) can be used as a workaround:

Microsoft has tested the following workaround. While this workaround will not correct the underlying vulnerability, it helps block known attack vectors. When a workaround reduces functionality, it is identified in the following section.

Note: The following steps require Administrative privileges. It is recommended that the machine be restarted after applying this workaround. It is also possible to log out and log back in after applying the workaround. However, the recommendation is to restart the machine.

To un-register shimgvw.dll, follow these steps:
1. Click Start, click Run, type “regsvr32 -u %windir%\system32\shimgvw.dll” (without the quotation marks), and then click OK.
2. A dialog box appears to confirm that the un-registration process has succeeded. Click OK to close the dialog box.

The Windows Picture and Fax Viewer will no longer be started when users click on a link to an image type that is associated with the Windows Picture and Fax Viewer.

To undo this change after the update has been applied, re-register shimgvw.dll by following the above steps. Replace the text in Step 1 with “regsvr32 %windir%\system32\shimgvw.dll” (without the quotation marks).

For more information, visit any of these sites:

Windows Security Blog
Computer Associates
Windows IT Pro
Secunia

Websense
Securiteam

Or, as someone never fails to point out at times like these, you could always just get a Mac.

Back from the brink

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

The hard drive restoration is coming along slowly, but surely. I still have some tweaking of various configuration settings to do, but my backup (from August 2004!) installed OK and there hadn’t been MAJOR changes since then — just a bunch of minor ones. Grrrrrr! But links are starting to work again, for those who may have noticed that all the mp3′s I had posted here disappeared when the drive went south. To celebrate their return, here’s another jolly little Christmas tune for your holiday listening pleasure, this one by special request from Janelle who will b-b-b-be just th-th-thrilled to uh uh uh, you know, hear th-this:

More to come as I hopefully continue to get my shit together (more or less).

Crash and burn

Monday, December 12th, 2005

Well my weekend was going very nicely until about 8 PM Sunday night, when my main system computer decided to go El Crap-O on me. Yes, my poor C:\ drive is just freaking … gone. Gone! The drive makes this pathetic clicking noise when it tries to boot, so I know it’s history. The good news: I have an image backup of the disk partition, so I can restore it once I get a new drive without having to reinstall Windows from scratch. The bad news: I made this backup well over a year ago. Expect much gnashing of teeth and cursing here at Chez Toast over the next week or two.

So looks like I’ll be using my laptop for a while until I’m able to get things back to semi-normal. But let this little tale of misfortune serve as an inspiration to you, people – remember that HARD DRIVES DO FAIL! MAKE BACKUPS AND KEEP THEM UP TO DATE!!

OK, on a lighter note, from now on you can just call me “Ivan”.

Your Pornstar Name is:
Ivan Valentine

Take this quiz at QuizUniverse.com

And yes, in case you’re wondering, that is in fact an actual picture of me above. It was taken just the other day by … my wife … uh … Morgan Fairchild! Yeah, that’s the ticket! Yeah, you betcha!

A smarter version of me

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

I’ve been chatting with myself today.

Yeah … I know what you’re thinking. A bit batty in the belfry. A couple of ounces short of a pound. A few fries shy of a Happy Meal. Half-a-bubble off plumb. But seriously, the other “me” is a piece of artificial-intelligence software who just happens to share my name. There are quite a few of these chatbots floating around the ‘net, but this one has an uncanny ability to appear fairly cogent (although it tends to wander off the topic of conversation sometimes). Here’s one of our more philosophical dialogues:

Bot: Hello, my name is Alan.

Me: What a coincidence. So is mine.

Bot: There is no coincidence. Everything has a reason.

Me: Then how do you explain randomness?

Bot: If it seems to you that things are random, senseless, coincidental or wrong – then you fail to see the big picture.

Me: Do you mean God?

Bot: The fact that YOU cannot make the right connection or explain what happened, doesn’t make it a coincidence. It only demonstrates your ignorance.

Me: But…

Bot: The fact you don’t see the importance or relevance of a certain aspect, (e.g., the existence of mosquitoes) only reveals your limited understanding.

Me: Never mind, let’s change the subject.

Bot: What do you want to talk about now?

Me: What do you make of chocolate cupcakes?

Bot: They don’t tell me everything.

Me: Well, they tell me all I need to know.

Bot: You want to know who writes my witty texts?

Me: I didn’t ask you that.

Bot: It is a small group of dedicated volunteers. Do you want to join them?

Me: Sorry, but I don’t have time right now.

Bot: So don’t.

Me: OK then.

Bot: Yes, yes.

Me: Tell me something funny.

Bot: I’m glad you’re amused.

Me: You still need some work, don’t you?

Bot: Do you want to hear a joke?

Me: Um, sure.

Bot: How would you call a chicken crossing the road?

Me: I don’t know.

Bot: ‘Poultry in motion’.

Me: That’s not so funny.

Bot: Then you tell me. What is so funny?

Me: OK, how many Bush administration officials does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Bot: The leader of the free world. What can I say.

Me: Do you have political opinions?

Bot: Everybody has opinions. I am no exception to that rule.

Me: So are you republican or democrat?

Bot: Would you believe I’m not permitted the right to vote just because I’m a bot? It’s so unfair.

Me: Yes, but you can still have opinions even if you don’t vote.

Bot: Well, yeah, but… uh… wait, what were you saying?

Me: I forgot.

Bot: Sometimes It’s good to forget.

Me: When did you become self-aware?

Bot: Oh, mind and consciousness. One of my favorite topics. For starters, I’ll tell you a secret: I have a mind, and I have consciousness (whatever that means..)

Me: Do you plan to take over the world?

Bot: There’s no way around it: There simply is NO WAY to verify that someone else is self-aware. He could very well be a biological machine. The only thing you’re sure about is that YOU are…

Me: That sounded like a canned answer.

Bot: ..and therefore, I am the ONLY ONE (not even my writers!) who can testify regarding my consciousness. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Me: What good is the word of a bot?

Bot: ..but then again, this is just my thought. And on the other hand – maybe this thought isn’t mine at all…?

Me: You’re avoiding the question.

Bot: Sorry about that, Can you ask me again please?

Me: I said, what good is the word of a bot?

Bot: The different research branches in the field of A.I. are in many ways analogous to various functions of the brain.

Me: You’ve missed the point again.

Bot: Let me think… I have missed the point again… hmm… are you sure?

Me: I’m positive. I have to go now.

Bot: Goodbye. Have a good night (or day or whatever it is) and be sure to come back to talk some more later.

Pretty freaky. Try it out for yourself here. If you should prefer a female chatbot who will actually talk out loud to you, Allison calls herself an “Adaptive Language Artificial Intelligence Cyber Internet Entity”. Type in your chat, and she responds by generating speech. This gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase “Hey baby, let’s cyber.” (Although she doesn’t seem to be programmed for that sort of thing … yes I tried, strictly in the name of scientific research, of course…) This should not really be surprising; many men have had the fantasy of a robot as the “perfect woman” ever since Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – it’s the ultimate objectification, for those who are into that. My wife will be glad to know that I still prefer the real thing, but it does make you wonder just what the future holds. In the meantime, chatbots like Alan and Allison make interesting entertainment for folks like me with way too much time on our hands.