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Sunday February 17, 2013: Windows 8 Recap

Keywords: Windows, Windows 8 Windows 8 Pro, Microsoft, Lenovo, Sony, Vaio, operating systems


 I have finally, after a fair amount of (quite manageable) trial and error, got everything I wanted running under Windows 8, on both my 2012 Lenovo laptop and my 2010 Sony Vaio desktop. It all runs, with the exception of my Vitamin D Video surveillance software. The bad news is that some of it needed tweaking the average user will not be able to do. I don't know how bad that is, to be honest, you could hire somebody like me to figure it out for you, or you could buy a new, Windows 8 compatible, dingdong, and put the old one on Ebay. Lots of possibilities. None that make Windows 8 bad. The Vitamin D Video software runs under Windows 8 on my Sony Vaio, but it frequently hangs, and then has to be "recovered", a useful function in Windows 8, except for the one time when Vitamin D hung while shutting down, and became completely unrecoverable. That state it crashed in even made it impossible to uninstall, which I then had to do by hand, after which I had to run a full error recovery on Windows 8, this to fully repair the registry and other "Windows innards". I have not tested it in my other Windows 8 machine, but considering the rather damaging effect, I don't even want to try. It wasn't a biggie, I have several other surveillance packages that will store pictures on a remote server, just had not bothered to bring them up.


If you think you may, in the future, progress to a Windows phone and/or a Windows tablet, get Windows 8 now (as I write this, Microsoft still sells the update for US$ - hold on.. the original cutoff date for the $14.99 Windows 8 upgrade was January 31st, but I now see the date has changed - February 28, 2013, is the latest). It gives you time to learn, and you will achieve something you cannot with Apple: a unified interface across multiple devices with freedom of vendors. Getting the Windows operating system does not tie you to a hardware vendor, or an online system you must give your personal information to to activate your device - Windows runs on PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and even some semi-smartphones. I am afraid I am allergic to vendors who force you to use their services to make your purchase actually work. Microsoft, too, tries very hard to get you to give them your data, but it does not make it mandatory. And the interface is fully touch screen compatible (Windows has had touch screen drivers for many years, going back to Vista, anyway, so that will not be buggy), but has the classic desktop readily available - and it runs faster and smoother than Windows 7 did, and Windows 7 was not bad to begin with.

So I do apologize it has taken me more than a month to do a proper assessment, but you really can't test an operating system faster than that. I had to solve quite a few small "niggly bits" that won't much matter to you, and won't impact your computer experience, but I like to see what does not work,  and why, so the second I finally discover some errors I am in second heaven. With the Lenovo laptop, the power management software would not find its driver, and just sat in the device manager with a question mark. That's a flaw in the way Windows 8 looks for drivers - I retrieved the Lenovo Windows 7 power management package, installed it, and the problem went away. Similarly, one out of the three Bluetooth dongles I tried did not work. I managed to install the other two, since I use a Bluetooth keyboard / track pad combo, and wanted that to work, because that way I can use two computers side-by-side with one keyboard (the keyboard can switch between devices with a keypress).

The Vaio was interesting too - the optical audio (Dolby) drivers would not load, so I had to install them by hand, the same thing applied to the power management drivers (but I use the Vaio with a managed UPS, so maybe that was OK - the All-in-One with a USB-attached UPS thinks it is a laptop). And there were some other drivers that installed fine, without hiccups, but only manually. The strangest was the power driver, that made a list of failed Bluetooth drivers go away. I am not complaining, it all works, but it probably is not for the faint of heart, who don't want to ignore error messages, that can indeed be lethal. My latest struggle, still ongoing, is the disk defragger, now called "disk optimization". You can set this to run automatically, which I always do, but on the Vaio it won't run automagically, while on the Lenovo it does. One of the reasons your system eventually runs slowly is that your hard disk may suffer from fragmented data, and the defragger built into Windows since XP does away with that - provided you set it to run when you are not using your system, say, at night, which for many people isn't an option because they turn their computers off. Disks, you see, do not defragment while you are using them. So, while the Scheduler settings on both systems are the same, on one it runs, on the other it doesn't. Go figure. Please be aware that disk fragmentation may cause you to crash your system, even lose files, and can put your entire harddisk at risk. I am very firmly convinced that many of the "virus problems" consumers think they experience are due to the lack of maintenance on their PCs. Turning them off will stop any maintenance in progress, creating risk, rather than reducing it, and I have noted consumers turn off laptops even more readily than they do PCs. All of my systems are on 24/7, and, at night, every night, automatically run full disk maintenance and a full, deep, virus scan. Neither of those can be done while you are using your system, whatever the manufacturer says - Windows uses the hard disk for virtual memory, and thus always writes to and reads from the disk, all it needs is one running program, or a couple of open files.

So anyway - Windows 8 is new, and some stuff needs to still get fixed, that isn't a problem. It runs well, is smooth, is fast, boots fast, and Media Center works well, which is good news for those of us who like to watch TV on our computers. Media Center allows that, because it has DRM (Digital Rights Management) built in, and I have to say that the HD screen image, under Windows 8, is superb, even on a 50 inch display. Most importantly, it doesn't just run well on new PCs and laptops, for the older systems, even if the manufacturer tells you they "are not supported", Windows 8 is a true improvement. My Vaio, which I bought with the manufacturer provided Windows Vista Professional, has been through Windows 7  Business, and now, under Windows 8 Pro, it runs at least twice as fast as it did under Vista, is more frugal with memory, and is not at all in need of replacing. This is partly due to the excellent Sony motherboard build, I must say.

Postscript: Forgot to mention something that is likely more my discovery than specific to Windows 8, but.... if you connect both your WiFi and a wired Ethernet connection, and bridge the two (select both, right click and select "bridge"), you actually end up with more bandwidth, and a bit more network speed, if your modem is capable of that. I actually have two routers hanging off the cable interface, and that seems to lift me well above the port speed, though it isn't a straight shot. As I said, I had never tried this before, so for all I know you could do this in XP, but I do know that bridging was finicky, and used for failover, and this is very easy and compounds as well as provides you with a potential failure recovery. I mean, you could hardwire into your router, and then use the neighbour's Wifi, and you'd never go down. Umm, I didn't say that :)

Before you read this and subsequent musings about Windows 8, here's Menno's Law: do not buy a computer with a new operating system until it has been on the market for a year (I will now go on to tell you why I am breaking my own rules ;) For Windows 8, that would be October 2013. Apart from the obvious reason - it needs to be debugged in the marketplace, and after a year Microsoft will have fixed 95% of whatever doesn't work right - it is clear that, for the moment at least, most computers are sold with Windows 8 Core, which is a crippled version of Windows 8 Pro without Windows Media Center. You'll have to pay to get upgraded to Pro, and then pay to add the Media Center software, which you can't even buy if you don't have Pro installed. I should imagine by October 2013 there will be lots of affordable computers with both Pro and Media Center off-the-shelf. By that time, Microsoft will have made the money it needs to support its share price.

If you're wondering, I managed standardization and rollout of two entire Verizon subsidiaries, one in the US and one in Indonesia, on the workstation/PC front, converting the standard from PC to laptop, and managing the vendors that provided equipment, imaging and support, down to the Help Desks. I helped the Indonesian Army combat PC viruses, as well, but that's a different, though somewhat related, story.


I've always had "Windows internals" as part of my personal knowledge base, and so I've ordered a new Windows 7 laptop, which I should be able to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro cheaply, while Windows Media Center can be downloaded for free from Microsoft until January 31, or thereabouts. Doing those installs will teach me more than buying a cheapie Windows 8 laptop, so there you go. I ran around from Bellevue to Everett to see what was available Thanksgiving night and Black Friday, and clearly, 99% of what was out there was limited in capabilities, had large screens (most folks buy laptops as their primary computer these days, and want 15.6 inch or larger screens) and the crippled Windows 8. Nothing was a really good deal, except for one single Toshiba Windows 7 model at one single Best Buy, and they had had run out of that by the time I got there.

Then, I'll start customizing equipment for my colleague in Asia Pacific, who I've been supplying with his computing environment since 2010, when I handed him a customized Acer in my hotel room in Beijing. We then couldn't find the Peking Duck restaurant we wanted to go to, using the Beijing subway, and ended up in a Finnish restaurant, where we had... Peking Duck.

It was, I suppose, high time a really new version of Windows was released - Windows was getting very long in the tooth, not having materially changed since the early versions, like Windows 286. By "changed" I mean the basic concept, user interface, of course there was significant advancement in Windows' internals. But if I look back to the Windows version I worked with in the late 1980s, at the First Boston Corporation in Manhattan, I can, if you like, "see" the line Windows development has taken. So with the advent of touch screens - like it or not, that is what tablet computing is really about - it was clear Microsoft had to do something to facilitate the integration of notebook, laptop, tablet and handphone. And it is clear that Windows Phone, Windows 8 and Windows RT, together, create a new way of computing. Over the past few days, after the initial influx of Windows 8 laptops in the Black Friday sales, I am seeing the Windows 7 laptop return to the shelves, while the user experience of many largely uninitiated buyers of Windows 8 laptops slowly ripples through the PC-verse. I am looking forward to see how many applications and user environments have Windows 8 versions available, and interested to see how much innovation Microsoft has put into the new user interface, which, if "old" Windows is a guide, may be around for decades, assuming there will not be new user interfaces beyond "touch" any time soon.

I am not in any danger of losing data in my transition to Windows 8 - I will continue to use my Windows 7 laptop, at least for the foreseeable future, until I am comfortable it works OK, and I have learned all there is to learn about "8". It is a professional need I have had throughout my career - always have a spare PC to fall back on, should your primary fail. For now, the Windows 8 laptop will be my learning machine - I have bad experiences in terms of losing data to new operating systems. While I have always advocated keeping a spare PC if that is a must-have item for business or work, that view has changed. The average consumer, today, has so much essential data on their PC, from tax returns to banking information to coursework and thesis-in-progress, that having just the one PC (laptop, for many) is really a risk you cannot afford to take. I currently use a Lenovo laptop as my primary system, which I back up on a daily basis, it is actually the very first thing I do, after checking my email, updating my finances, and having coffee. I have a Vaio All-in-One PC, equally running Windows 7, as a backup, all I would need to do is install my essential software and restore my backup up archives there should the Lenovo fail - the last time I did that was when my previous HP laptop failed, I moved my data onto the Vaio, then was able to take my time finding and installing the Lenovo I now use
. To make sure the Vaio works when I would need it, I use it to watch TV when I am at my desk, and as a surveillance webcam when I am away. One thing I can tell you about spares is that if you don't use them on a daily basis (and maintain them, of course) they are quite likely not to work when you need them. You need to either use your spare for some trivial purpose, or swap between the two PCs every week or so - but that would mean transferring files all the time, which is, I think, too much work for the benefit you get.

So, to the install. I see it as a - technically astute - sign of desperation within Microsoft. You've installed Microsoft Pro, it runs nicely, the problems you've had to solve were survivable, you've made a copy of the master disk, and now you'd like to back up, so you have a base image of your PC as-installed. Backup & Restore, an application normally packaged with a Windows Professional, lives in the Control Panel, so you right-click in the Start screen, click "All Aps" at the bottom right, and start the Control Panel.

Not. No "Backup and Restore". Nothing else that looks like it. Back to the Start screen. There is the Microsoft Cloud, called "Skydrive", where you can store stuff, but that has only 7 Gigabytes of free (that is, you don't have to pay for it) space, and besides, you must use one of their mail accounts, like Hotmail or Live, and under the Microsoft Privacy Agreement they can access anything you put on or pass through their network for the purpose of targeted marketing, by them and their partners. It is the overriding theme in Windows 8 and "the new Micro$oft".

So, you look at every App in "All Aps". Nothing there. Back to Control Panel. and check all the links. There is something called "Windows 7 File Recovery", which, since this is an upgrade from Windows 7 Home Premium, probably lets you somehow back out Windows 8. Let's take a look.

No, it isn't. Windows 7 File Recovery is actually the Windows 8 "Backup and Recovery". What the heck? Is this (apart from mentioning the wrong version of Windows) done to force you to use Skydrive??? What'sGoingOn? No Microsoftie noticed this "small" typo?

I don't have an answer, but it does look like it. Everything that comes natively with Windows 8 drives the user, unashamedly, to using the Microsoft Cloud. Everything - there is even the offer of free Microsoft Office Cloud service, complete with a change of your Hotmail or Live email address to an Outlook.com address, the successor to Live.com, which was the successor to Hotmail.com. Microsoft did this before, when they gave us Windows Vista Professional with a slew of Live environments, everything from storage and email to virus defense. Now, Live is dead, the entire sophisticated Live suite of utilities has been murdered, and the Outlook name is being recycled.

Windows 8, then, has become a dual purpose operating system. The stuff you used to use Windows for is still there, actually works well and has lost weight and gained pace, but the front end, no longer a Start button but a Start screen, is completely designed to make it unnecessary for you, but especially for the novice user, to never have to go anywhere than Microsoft for anything - well, beer and coffee maybe. Whether on a Windows tablet, Windows smartphone or Windows PC, you can now always be in the same look-and-feel, with the same tools. The Start screen comes up with tiles for everything you could ever need, from Search, Travel and Weather to Explorer and everywhere that can take you. And as it all want you to sign in with your Microsoft mail account, everything you do on any of these devices is automatically accessible from all your other Windows devices. This goes all the way down to Microsoft Office, which is now free and running in the Microsoft Cloud.

Ignore the commentary you may read about how Microsoft's phones aren't selling, how the Surface tablet is too expensive, Microsoft is in there for the long haul, building an ecosystem that aims to shackle Windows users completely to Microsoft. That isn't going to happen overnight, but Microsoft has very deep coffers, and needed to do something to not lose more custom to Apple and Google. Windows 8 is it, it does, in combination with its mammoth partners, like Intel and Nokia, soup-to-nuts communication-and-computing.

It took me a couple of days to do the basic install of Windows 8 Pro, much of which was spent figuring out what has gone where. You will likely not need to do that, anything that isn't in the tiles on the Start screen you can either find by right clicking in that screen, "All Aps" will come up bottom right, or click on the "Desktop" tile and you'll go to the conventional desktop you are used to. From there, you can slide your cursor to the bottom left to activate a Start screen representation you can click on (clever, that, it is where the Start button used to be), or go to the top right and slide down to the Start icon, or Search, or Settings, and some other choices. It is pretty simple and self explanatory - kudos to Microsoft for making major major changes without complete alienation. That's one of the hardest part of Human Factors design.

Windows 8 splash screenBecause: this is smooth! It cold boots in something like five seconds, amazing (although there is a boot setting somewhere, but even the slow boot only takes twenty or so seconds), and it runs quite a bit (that's just shy of significantly) faster than Windows 7 did. It is in fact so smooth and usable that I am, after a week, considering upgrading my Vaio All-in-One, which runs Windows 7 Professional, as well, something I had not intended to do as I need to be sure I can access my files and applications, and I do not take risks with new operating systems. But it must be said: I do not like the marketing and personal data mining aspects, but I haven't had a single crash, not one hang, no blue screens, only a couple of installation mishaps that Windows recovered from by itself (!).

The Apps that get tiles on the left side of the Start screen clearly are Windows 8 specific, I am assuming they're ubiquitous in Windows Phone and Windows tablet as well. On the right side appear the "traditional" Windows applications you install - Windows Media Center, for instance, free to download from Microsoft until the end of January (it is not included with Windows, I expect because most consumers do not use it), becomes a right side tile, not a left side App, although it is fully Windows 8 aware. You can copy the shortcuts and put them on your "old style" desktop, if you like.

Beware of the Windows 8 Core that comes with the cheap laptops - I don't actually know what it lacks, but I do know that even Windows 8 Pro does not have "Media Center", so getting something that is intentionally "simpled" and can't be upgraded cheaply is never a good idea. You're better off, I think, buying a Windows 7 laptop, while they're cheap, and upgrading to Windows 8 Pro for $14.99, which you can do here until the end of February, at least if you're in the good old US of A. The Windows 8 Pro upgrade for Windows 8 Core costs (as I write this) $39.99, a price that seems to fluctuate by the day, and you cannot use the $14.99 upgrade to do that. Duh.

What I have seen in the cheap-and-cheerful Windows 8 section, then, seems to mostly consist of large screen laptops with underpowered processors, not enough (2GB) memory and smallish (250GB) hard disks. That may be enough for you, but to future proof yourself, I recommend getting a 64 bit motherboard, 8 GB of RAM, and a terabyte hard disk. If nothing else, the larger the disk, the faster Windows will run, provided you turn on write caching, and turn off buffer flushing, on the drive. That upgrade, and the free (for now) Windows Media Center, are here. I use it to watch cable on one of my systems, using the AverTV USB tuner for Windows, which works a treat, auto-installs under Windows 8 without a hitch, too.

Anyway, the last two things I managed were my Blu-ray drive and the Lenovo Power Driver. The latter was not supposed to run under "8", but did, and I managed to install and update the Nero 8 software that came with my Buffalo Blu-ray burner, and play back both Blu-ray movies and HD-DVD movies, I own a library of those, and I kept that drive around so I can still play them (I have a regular player for them as well). I am not suggesting this is important for you, it is one of the things I happen to think is important, that folks aren't convicted to replacing their gear, if they are willing to invest some effort, use the information on the internet, and make something work. With the exception of one of my three Bluetooth dongles, everything I threw at Windows 8 works, and I was able to install it on an older, unsupported, desktop, as well as my more recently acquired laptop. Pass, pass, pass, people.




Wednesday February 13, 2013: Rampage marketing does not create jobs, only Jobs.

Keywords: deceptive marketing, CFL, LED, cheap imported gas, netbooks, smartphones, GPS, T-Mobile, hydropower, hybrid power, Clover Wireless
What should be of concern is the proliferation of useless technology - but by "useless" I do not mean the resulting products have no purpose. I mean more that the technologies are being used to generate corporate profits but do not otherwise provide a benefit to anyone.

This morning, on CBS, one of the reporters demonstrated how you can call a credit agency, end up in a call center in Bangalore, and have an absolutely useless fifteen minute conversation that ends up directing you to the company's website to fill out a form - the website that sent you to Bangalore to talk to customer support in the first place. I recall Freeservers moving its paid service support to India, where, when I had a problem with my domain, the agents (after spending up to fourty minutes on hold) had no authority or capability to make any account changes - that had to be done by "technicians", who were still in Utah, but who they could not connect me to, they could only email them. The upshot of that was that after my diligently trying to get Freeservers to help me fix my database, I gave up and took my custom and $$s to another ISP. T-Mobile USA has done the same thing - their call center overseas (Philippines, I think) used to be able to escalate a problem to senior agents in the United States, but no more. Similarly, their rebates have been outsourced, and if there is an issue you have to call the outsourced company, Clover Wireless, which sends you to T-Mobile to get a correction approval. T-Mobile then connects you back to Clover Wireless, which then tells you they will follow up with T-Mobile. You then hear nothing, and if you re-connect, Clover Wireless tell you to contact T-Mobile. This is simply fraudulent behaviour, based on the behaviour of most consumers, who don't then resort to legal proceedings - after all, when Clover Wireless issues an actual document on which it is printed that you're getting $100, they should not then be able to tell you a story about how T-Mobile does not approve that refund, and only approves $70. The net result of all this is that I am no longer renewing my contracts with T-Mobile, while getting a new free phone - for one thing, I used to be able to do that without incurring another data plan, since I only need that on one line. So - the money they used to make on the phone they gave me, they no longer make.


What we should have is an agency that takes one of those complaints, finds others, proactively, and then prosecutes the culprit, in an expedited procedure. What we do now, three years of research, and eventually fining companies, rather than sending the departmental managers and the CFO's to jail, is of little use. Fines are "the cost of business". Something simple, like the British "Trade Descriptions Act".

But I digress. Technologies are increasingly being used to make money without direct benefits. Take light bulbs. To begin with, old Tungsten style bulbs are very efficient heaters, and replacing them with low energy bulbs anywhere heating is used saves nothing, in most cases, during the heating season, it actually costs money. Only outside the heating season do CFLs and LEDs save energy, and even then, I have to ask myself why there are two "carbon saving" technologies. Not only (dig this) does the LED not save energy - a 10 watt CFL gives a little more light than a 7.5 watt LED, this is not about lumens, but about your eyes and mine - but the 7.5 watt LED generates more heat than the 10 watt CFL. You'd think that heat output would form part of government's testing cycles, but it does not. Nobody talks about the number of fires and fire deaths caused by light bulbs, by overheated older fittings, by hot bulbs setting things on fire, those two factors, to me, a primary reason to replace Tungsten bulbs, I've never seen a fire department handing out CFL bulbs together with batteries for smoke detectors, and smoke detectors themselves. By comparison, the LED bulb above uses about 13.5 watts, provides around the same amount of light a conventional 60 watt bulb would, and the cost has come down to $5 - from $50 a couple of years ago. But: you can buy three 14 watt CFLs for $9, today, and then your only real advantage is the bulb's life - the LED is supposed to last 35,000 hours. That's four years, if you leave it on all the time, sixteen, with normal use. But since nobody keeps receipts for sixteen years, or even remembers which bulb they bought when, this is completely deceptive and nonsensical marketing. Half of us may have to put our expensive LED bulbs in our will, as they may last longer.


We aren't distancing ourselves from technologies, and we certainly do not employ experts to review the actual benefit to the human being. Not long ago, I talked to some government folks here in Washington State about energy - they are proud of their hydroelectricity, what with the abundant mountains here, which, according to the State "is the cheapest in the nation". From what I see, that does not reflect in the power bills, but there is something more ridiculous here: most folks in urban Washington State heat their homes with gas - much of it imported from Canada.

So we have cheap electricity, a home grown invention, the heat pump, that we can use to heat homes efficiently, a temperate climate - and we use gas? Again, in my opinion, there is a disconnect here, between the available technologies, and the consumer. Remember that, in order to light and heat, we have to maintain two very expensive, large, and complicated, infrastructures. Tell me how that makes sense, and saves the environment?
 
I'd start on computers and smartphones next, but I always try and keep my pieces brief. Suffice it to say that the relentless push, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, towards tablets and smartphones is actually cannibalizing the computers we already had, and for the younger generation, it is reducing the amount of information they have access to - smaller screens have less data, and most smartphones don't run internet access half as fast as do computers. You can even see it in the laptop arena - there are quite a few internet activities, like high resolution streaming video and video calling, that cheap "netbooks" with anemic processors are not capable of. What happens is that the consumer buys one of these things, finds it doesn't do all they expect, and end up buying a faster, second computer. That, to me, is marketing anathema - selling a consumer a slow system by deceptive advertising isn't going to make them come back for more, nor does it help with the manufacturer's reputation.

I must admit it is very hard to predict the future. Earlier on in the development of the computer, we were able to kind of figure out where it was all heading, but those days are long gone. Reading an article about the fortunes, or misfortunes, of GPS manufacturer Tom-Tom, I wondered whether or not the development of smartphones, and their assuming the role of navigation equipment, was a foreseeable development. I am particularly knowledgeable about this development, as I worked on GPS applications for the telephone network very early on, when Navteq was building the first navigation units, and I went up to Palo Alto to test the state of the art, which had recently been installed in a few Hertz rental cars. It did not work very well, this due to mapping technologies that needed further development - the technology itself had been kickstarted to assist in the mapping of the Atlanta, GA area for the 1994 Olympic Games there. But by 2007, I bought a Nokia mobile phone with full navigation functionality in the Philippines (that's it on the left) - it was not, at that time, available in the United States, as American wireless carriers were not interested in making it available. They did not - dig this - think this was a product that would make money, and were under pressure from car manufacturers, which wanted to build the technology into vehicles as a sales incentive, and develop things like OnStar, which needs GPS.

Why am I banging on about this? At the time I bought the Nokia Navigator, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, and began using it around New York the day I got back. I just was not certain consumers would want to do the finicky stuff necessary to use GPS on a phone, so did not make much noise about it. There are lots of issues with that, from the restrictive keypad phones had, to the small size of the screens. And sure enough, GPS (here in the US) did not take off until folks could buy standalone units, while others were made available as accessories in vehicles. And now, folks are using GPS on smartphones, which have much larger screens than they did in 2007. But due to the way technology is marketed, today, which often amounts to loss making sales incentives, I could not have predicted anything. It never made sense to sell standalone navigation equipment, not when the necessary components are in every cellphone, but what seems to have happened is that we did sell GPS units, only to transition to giving the technology away for free. That was a trend Nokia began after it bought Navteq, at which point it no longer needed to pay license fees. Google followed, after creating and marketing its own mobile operating system, and setting up its own mapping company. All I am saying is that, at this point, coming up with a new technology means little. A recent Guardian article highlights that smartphone sales are gaining on feature phone sales - while that is undoubtedly true, I don't believe it is because more consumers want them. It is because they're being subsidized by both manufacturers and carriers, because the latter can sell data plans - T-Mobile, today, will not activate a smartphone on your account if you don't have a "smartphone plan" - so if you want navigation to work on your phone, that's it. Never mind you can run navigation on your Nokia phone without a data plan, American carriers will not let you. I don't know that that helps anybody, least of all those trying to kick start the economy and create jobs.

It is the marketeers and the suits that determine strategies, and they may not be interested at all in selling the technology. Anti-lock brakes were used to sell vehicles, in Europe, but in the United States they flipped the equation - if your vehicle has anti-lock brakes, you'll get an insurance discount, and the cost is buried in the running cost, in the savings. Same with hybrid vehicles - in my area of Virginia, nobody bought a Prius or Hybrid Honda to save gas, but they bought them - by the tens of thousands - so they could get the tax incentives, and drive by themselves on the HOV. Nothing to do with saving gas or the environment. Had the government not gotten involved, hybrid vehicles would be a lot cheaper, today - or non-existent.

Thursday February 8, 2013: Windows 8 is absolutely cool. Paypal Here, dunno.

Keywords: Paypal, Android, Windows 8 Pro, T-Mobile, Lenovo, Sony Vaio, Windows drivers
Paypal's new credit card reader needs an Android smartphone or an iPhone, so I ran around T-Mobile stores trying to get a decent deal for my spare line, so I can play with it, but whether I try with their online folks, or in the stores, no deals. I used to be able to get a reasonable upgrade offer from them, in years past, but no way will they give me something without data plan, even though that would get me to renew my contract. Fine. It is easy enough for me to go and buy sumtin' compatible (Paypal conveniently provides a list) on Ebay, and from what I see so far doing that will save me money. I mean, on a monthly basis, but I am not planning to spend $400 on a plaything, either. The idiot in the TMO store went "What do you want it for?" and I said "I want to play with it", and he got all obstreperous, as that meant he couldn't figure out what in particular to sell me. With WiFi and UMA, you see, I need no data plan for experimenting, it is high time I got an Android phone anyway, so I can figure out what all the noise is about, Android has pushed everybody else pretty much into unimportance. And it needs to be a T-Mobile co-branded handset, because only those will work on all of T-Mobile USA's frequencies - it is a mobile phone, after all.

Let you know when I figure it out.

In the meantime, the NRA idiot seems to have told a Congressional Committee that the government "has no place deciding how people defend themselves". Umm, Mr. LaPierre, the government does. And as I have said before, anybody who needs an AR-15 to defend themselves is an idiot. You defend yourself using a readily available firearm, one you can quickly get to, aim, and fire. A rifle, which likely is the other side of the house when you need it, is not that. By the time you have your rifle and are aiming it, you're quite likely dead - most assailants come armed with a handgun - a robber with a rifle walking up to your house kinda stands out. So if we're just talking self defence, a revolver (which won't jam) or a short pump shotgun (which does huge short range damage) work just fine. The rest is bull.

Let's see.... I gave you a brief report about my experience installing Windows 8 on December 15, so I owe you the aftermath. Important is to understand I have installed an official Microsoft "upgrade" on my Lenovo B570, which isn't officially supported for Windows 8 (the B570e is). Why, I do not know. I thought it was the BIOS chipset, but I have since discovered, through experimentation, that you can work around that, or maybe (I'll know in a few days) the way I do the BIOS settings is a standard method to handle Windows 8. I do know it wants a UEFI BIOS, which, as it turns out, this Lenovo has. But I now have bought an update for my other system, an older Sony VAIO desktop, and that install went more than smooth. Afterwards, I reverted to Windows 7 on that machine, but now that I figured out the BIOS issue, I am re-installing it on the VAIO permanently. This VAIO too, is not supported for Windows 8 by its manufacturer. Anyway, the last two things I managed were my Blu-Ray drive and the Lenovo Power Driver. The latter was not supposed to run under "8", but did, and I managed to install and update the Nero 8 software that came with my Buffalo Blu-Ray burner, and play back both Blu-Ray movies and HD-DVD movies, I own a library of those, and I kept that drive around so I can still play them (I have a regular player for them as well). I am not suggesting this is important for you, it is one of the things I happen to think is important, that folks aren't convicted to replacing their gear, if they are willing to invest some effort, use the information on the internet, and make something work. With the exception of one of my three Bluetooth dongles, everything I threw at Windows 8 works, and I was able to install it on an older, unsupported, desktop, as well as my more recently acquired laptop. Pass, pass, pass, people.


The reason I am writing this sequel (go here to read the previous installment) now is that I have finally, after a fair amount of trial and error, managed to get everything I wanted running under Windows 8. It all runs. The bad news is that some of it needed tweaking the average user will not be able to do. I don't know how bad that is, to be honest, you could hire somebody like me to figure it out for you, or you could buy a new, Windows 8 compatible, dingdong, and put the old one on Ebay. Lots of possibilities. None that make Windows 8 bad.

If you think you may, in the future, progress to a Windows phone and/or a Windows tablet, get Windows 8 now. It gives you time to learn, and you will achieve something you cannot with Apple: a unified interface with complete freedom of vendors. Getting the Windows operating system does not tie you to a hardware vendor, or an online system you must give your personal information to to active your device - Windows runs on PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and even some semi-smartphones. I am afraid I am allergic to vendors who force you to use their services, or your purchase won't work. Microsoft tries very hard to get you to give them your data, but it does not make it mandatory. And the interface is fully touch screen compatible (Windows has had touch screen drivers for many years, going back to Vista), but has the classic desktop readily available - and it runs faster and smoother than Windows 7 did, and Windows 7 was not bad.

So I do apologize it has taken me more than a month to do a proper assessment, but you really can't test an operating system faster than that. I have to solve quite a few small "niggly bits" that won't much matter to you, and won't impact your computer experience, but I like to see what does not work,  and why. With the Lenovo laptop, the power management software would not find its driver, and just sat in the device manager with a question mark. That's a flaw in the way Microsoft looks for drivers - I retrieved the Windows 7 power management package, installed it, and the problem went away. Similarly, one out of three Bluetooth dongles I tried did not work. Rather than find a driver for it, I managed to install the other two, I use a Bluetooth keyboard / track pad combo, and wanted that to work, because that way I can use two computers with one keyboard (the keyboard can switch between devices with a keypress).

The Vaio was interesting too - the optical audio (Dolby) drivers would not load, so I had to install them by hand, the same thing applied to the power management drivers (but I use the Vaio with a managed UPS, so maybe that was OK). And there were some other drivers that installed fine, without hiccups, but only manually. The strangest was a power driver that made a list of failed Bluetooth drivers go away. I am not complaining, it all works, but it probably is not for the faint of heart, who don't want to ignore error messages, that can indeed be lethal. My latest struggle, still ongoing, is the disk defragger, now called "disk optimization". You can set this to run automatically, which I always do, but on the Vaio it won't run, while on the Lenovo it does. One of the reasons your system runs slowly is that your hard disk may suffer from fragmented data, and the defragger built into Windows since XP does away with that - provided you set it to run when you are not using your system, say, at night, which for many people isn't an option because they turn their computers off. Disks, you see, do not defragment while you are using them. So, while the Scheduler settings on both systems are the same, on one it runs, on the other it doesn't. Go figure.

So anyway - Windows 8 is new, and some stuff needs to still get fixed, that isn't a problem. It runs well, is smooth, is fast, boots fast, Media Center works well, which is good news for those of us who like to watch TV on our computers. Media Center allows that, because it has DRM (Digital Rights Management) built in, and I have to say that the HD screen image, under Windows 8, is superb, even on a 50 inch display. Most importantly, it doesn't just run well on new PCs and laptops, for the older systems, even if the manufacturer tells you they "are not supported", Windows 8 is a true improvement.

Postscript: Forgot to mention something that is likely more my discovery than specific to Windows 8, but.... if you connect both your WiFi and a wired Ethernet connection, and bridge the two (select both, right click and select "bridge"), you actually end up with more bandwidth, and a bit more network speed, if your modem is capable of that. I actually have two routers hanging off the cable interface, and that seems to lift me well above the port speed, though it isn't a straight shot. As I said, I had never tried this before, so for all I know you could do this in XP, but I do know that bridging was finicky, and used for failover, and this is very easy and compounds as well as provides you with a potential failure recovery. I mean, you could hardwire into your router, and then use the neighbour's Wifi, and you'd never go down. Umm, I didn't say that :)

Sunday January 27, 2013: The year of arguments

Keywords: Facebook, copyright, SEO, pay-for-clicks, trending, gun control, mental illnes
Facebook deleting photos? No such thing. I frequently clean up my albums and timeline pictures (you can see in this link to the Daily Mail what happens if you do not - the Mail uses your pictures from your profile and posts them as "copyright Facebook"), but I wondered why Facebook says I have 99 photos and 7 albums, while I see only 44 pictures and 4 albums. But I think I've got it now - although Facebook has made it known it deletes what you deleted from its servers, it actually does not. Test? I removed my profile picture, then uploaded an old profile pictures, one I had not used for a couple of years. Guess what? Facebook said that I had used that picture before, and did I want to use it again? Well, Facebook, for you to recognize a picture, you've got to have it in a database. We know you compare faces when folks upload, but now it is clear you do not delete pictures. You keep them forever. Makes sense. Your face recognition stuff, and other clever algorithms, wouldn't work if you didn't. Yea, I am sure. I got another old picture, and tried it again. Same thing. And again: for Facebook to recognize my picture (changed, renamed, embedded data changed, the works) it has to have kept a copy.

John Dvorak has again gotten on one of my hobby horses - or perhaps not entirely, but he gets to "the meaning of like" in Facebook and other media, and I go from there to "why do they pay for clicks?". Think about it - do Macy's or Sears pay anyone for visitors to their stores? I am not talking about buyers, I am talking about people who walk into a store or a mall, and walk out again. Without any knowledge of why they were there, maybe looking at stuff, maybe just walking through Macy's in Bellevue to find a bathroom, maybe just cooling down from the afternoon heat in D.C.

So if we do not pay people for those visitors, why do we pay for clicks? Someone clicks on a link, visits a site, no connection of any kind to the person or to actual revenues, and we pay for this. Same as likes. The most likes I see are from the teens in my Facebook group. These are teens that say they like burger joints and shoe stores and malls and game stores. These are teens with little disposable income - they certainly don't go out to lunch every day. So Dvorak is right - their clicks are meaningless, much as my clicks on my friends' postings mean little - "I saw your post", or "Nice!". Absolutely nada to do with anybody making any money - if one friend goes to a museum, I certainly won't remember that in six months, nor will I look up that post, and the friend is 2,000 miles away today. If you know what I mean.

As I have said before, repeatedly, we're in the process of creating another bubble, paying "experts" vastly inflated fees for "SEO", Search Engine Optimization, I think you can get a degree in it now, and it is something that does not work and that doesn't sell a single thing, ever. You cannot read someone's mind based on their use of a phone, tablet, or PC. Not. I have been married five times and I still cannot read wimmin minds. I think. Well, that is not 100% true - I had a vasectomy. But that was it.

The same as for "likes" applies to all of this "trending" stuff. It was originally valid to look at what netsurfers were searching on, but once you publicize those results in "reasonable time", you lose the statistical relevance, because people are going to go to pages that "trend". That is pretty much a pyramid scheme. They'll do that even if you put up a fake list, where the top result has ten hits, and the bottom a single one. Most users don't look at the stats, nor do they understand what exactly statistics mean. How do I know this? Most consumers know about virus laden websites, yet the number of people whose computers are infected by suspicious websites runs in the millions. It follows, therefore, that web users click on links regardless, rather than, as I and many others do, only go to websites we know are safe (although there technically is no such thing, any website can get infected).
But the people who send each other "funny" links and "interesting" websites number in the millions, is is "their" internet in their home, and the links come from their friends and relatives, so it is safe. It was bad on the WWW before, and that has now moved to Facebook, where the chain letter is having its hundredth or so resurgence - you know, the people who ask you to repost some diatribe about living with cancer, which has an absolute zero effect on the sender or their illness, if they even have one. What bothers me most is that, in the days that mail was physical and regulated, chain letters were illegal. Quite understandable that this isn't an option, with mail volumes probably 100,000 times what they were, but we mustn't forget there was a reason for all these rules, even if it is no longer physically possible to enforce those types of rules.

Speaking of rules...

It is just as easy to kill multiple people using a revolver with multiple 6 round speed clips or a handgun with multiple 10 round straight clips. Easier, I would even say, as both are much easier and quicker to handle than a rifle, which is not designed to be used in confined spaces. Not as noticeable, either, if you need to get into a cinema or a school.

Then, there is the semi-automatic aspect. The fact is it semi-automatic is a gun control measure - the gummint did not feel that civilians had any business owning automatic weapons, which were reserved for the military and law enforcement. Then the automation - that's a fairly normal societal and technological progression - there are automatic transmissions (which arguably kill more people than manual transmissions do), automatic doors, and automatic weapons. The AR-15 is just another rifle with good marketing - you can go and buy a semi-automatic 12 gauge shotgun, and I promise you that is, at short range, an infinitely more lethal weapon than the AR-15 will ever be.

Self defense? With a rifle? That's gotta be a joke, unless you own a ranch in Texas and they call you they're coming, well ahead of time..
. I mean, you're going to walk around your house with a rifle slung over your shoulder? While vacuuming and laying the table? Or can we start having meaningful conversations? Because: nobody "needs" an AR-15 with a 30 round clip. But taking them off the market isn't going to stop the next mentally ill kid shooting up a school or a cinema. And while I have no clue what it is these kids are acting out when they go into a school or cinema, sometimes dressed as a Bond guy, with guns to match, it is clear to me they are acting out. It is desperately important to find out what it is that drives the assassins, what it is they're acting out, how their emotions allow them to murder at will. There isn't a gun law that can stop this from happening - we cannot even outlaw gun sales, as there are just about as many firearms in the USA as there are people, and taking those away from their owners is not really a viable option...

Tuesday January 1, 2013: Not been a pretty year

Keywords: CBS Morning News, Chinese Americans, guns, Newtown, mental illness
It hasn't has it? It has been a messy year, bad shootings, bankrupt countries, and lots and lots of empty homes in my neighbourhood - dozens in just a two mile radius, and it cannot be much different in other places, it was pretty much the same in Virginia when I left there. Stores, too - I still see stores closing, and not being reopened - one sports equipment store moved, and a while later a Hispanic grocery moved in - with half the shelves empty, that's either a front for something, or it won't last. You don't make money by not stocking things.

So yes, I read the economy is doing better, but I am not seeing it. I hope it is true, don't get me wrong, but there is a huge amount of misinformation floating around on which people base decisions. That's an increasing problem - a conjecture is published somewhere, it gets picked up and "rewritten" fifteen times in the next hour, and starts rotating around the globe with 80% invented drivel in it. What with Google deciding what to put in its news pages by software, there no longer is much of a check on what is news and what isn't, and "if it says so on Google News, it's gotta be true" is the effect. Yahoo, famously taken over by a Google, as if working for Google as your only job for umpteen years is somehow a qualification, now puts even more entertainment in its headlines, from Kim Kardashian to the world's ugliest woman. Why would you hire a Google? Because you want to become Google. But there already is one, and it is very successful - and if you then sell your Chinese holdings, which is what differentiates you from Google, I have to ask myself what you think you're doing.


Rebecca Jarvis and Jeff Glor were all in agreement, on the CBS Morning News: the Chinese buy homes in California, and wine, because "they want to own American things". Duh. Shows you how little understanding there still is in middle America about what drives the Chinese, and it makes me wonder whether these two have ever traveled China (staying at an American hotel somewhere in China does not count).

There are many reasons why the Chinese are buying wholesale, all over the globe, much of it to do with the safety of their investments, with spreading risk, but they come to the American West Coast because it is close, it is, like they are, on the Pacific Rim, and there already is a very large Chinese presence here, so they can deal with folk who understand them, from bank managers and realtors to supermarket owners and staff. It is one of the problems with American news shows: they're made on the right coast, completely New York/Washington centric, they have no clue that ballot boxes, on this coast, have Chinese and Korean alongside English legends. So do public libraries, local government and social services offices, and your bank manager is more likely to be of Asian origin than from Montana. There are currently more ethnic Chinese immigrating to the United States than Hispanic and Latino peoples, while ethnic Chinese immigration has almost doubled, in the last decade, mostly to the West Coast. I walk through Seattle suburbs and sometimes think I am in a Beijing suburb.

What Americans need to begin to understand is that the Chinese buy European, not American - their trains run French and German technology, their telephone switching centres have French technology, the communist party drives Audis, and the cops and the cabbies drive Volkswagens. They like engineering, those Chinese, and that is not where we lead the world.

I wrote the below bits after the Newtown massacre, but then before I finished the Webster, NY shooting occurred. And I suppose that was providence, because it pointed right at where I was going anyway: we seem unable to even define some types of mental illness. I cannot accept anything other than that these two shooters were mentally ill, but every time you look at what's been written about mass shooters, the end conclusion is that they are not, with very rare exceptions. We look at their circumstances, their upbringing, their medical history, what have you, and by and large there isn't a clue, anywhere. Mr. Lanza went so far as to destroy his hard drive, I gather rather effectively, so we could not dig through his computer and internet life.

That is a very important clue. This particular murderer did not want anybody to even be able to try and understand him. Perhaps this is a clue why so many mass murderers take their own lives, as they are carrying out their assassinations, or create a situation where police blows them away. In those cases, we have no way of asking them any questions, and in many cases they take next of kin with them.

It only recently occurred to me that at least some of these "next of kin" murders may not have anything to do with hatred or family trouble. It may be that folks like Mr. Lanza kill their next of kin because they otherwise would not be able to carry out their plan - Mrs. Lanza might have called the police, had she known her son was loading thousands of rounds of ammo in his vehicle. Same with the guy in Webster - his sister would have been able to see him make preparations for the inferno he unleashed.

Is there a law in Connecticut that could have prevented Mrs. Lanza from having guns in her home while a mentally impaired person was living there? What is the definition of mentally impaired? Is there even a consensus that the perpetrators of these shootings are mentally impaired? How do we, without a National Health system in place, ensure that treatment is available to all of these folk? Because you cannot compel a patient to undergo treatment - we can't even compel an infectious tuberculosis patient to take his meds and stay in quarantine. And, Dr. Appelbaum, if these shooters "do not have a diagnosis of mental illness", they absolutely should. All that means is that we're missing something, that we need to do better in identifying kinds of mental illness that clearly aren't in the books. Nobody in their right mind goes to kill twenty little children. And I cannot say it often enough: the Newtown shooter, or any of the other recent idiots, did not need an assault rifle to do their killing. They could have use a shotgun, pistol, anything with bullets. In fact, an assault rifle is not a particularly efficient weapon, at close quarters. I recall a colleague and I noticing Guardsmen and -women with M-16s slung across their backs in the airports, immediately after 9/11, until we pointed out to the Pentagon that a loaded rifle over your shoulder with people in front of and behind you is asking for trouble. That's the reason why, at Heathrow Airport, during the Northern Ireland troubles, firearms officers were carrying a short Heckler & Koch submachine gun, flanked by unarmed officers, to prevent assailants getting at the gun.

Yes, we should tighten up gun laws - especially the enforcement. During the last assault rifle ban, new magazines with more than a ten round capacity were illegal to sell. That didn't stop anyone - I bought a fifteen round clip from a legitimate firearms dealer on the internet in the middle of all that, and manufacturers immediately began producing rifles that did not fall under the "assault" definition, but had the same capacity and capabilities. I actually quite liked the "10+1" 9 millimeter I bought in that period, when the 15 round handgun was no longer legal to sell to the public - it fit my hand like a glove, and when you do need a gun for self defense, if you need more than eleven rounds you've got a problem, and it is not the gun's capacity.

Let's begin by fitting all new guns with an embedded NFC chip, with a specific signature, so we can install scanners for them. Let's start a voluntary registration, where you can take your existing guns to the Sheriff's office, and have the chip installed at the taxpayer's expense. If nothing else, if you do get burgled, your guns will be traceable. It'll be inconvenient for hunters, once deer get hold of the scanners, but there's always a price to pay.. ;)



Saturday December 15: Windows 8 Volume I

Keywords: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, targeted marketing, Microsoft

Windows 8 Control PanelI see it as a - technically astute - sign of desperation within Microsoft. You've installed Microsoft Pro, it runs nicely, the problems you've had to solve were survivable, you've made a copy of the master disk, and now you'd like to back up, before something goes wrong and you lose all your work. Backup & Restore, an application normally packaged with a Windows Professional, lives in the Control Panel, so you right-click in the Start screen, click "All Aps" at the bottom right, and start the Control Panel. Not.

No "Backup and Restore". Nothing else that looks like it. Back to the Start screen. There is the Microsoft Cloud, called "Skydrive", where you can store stuff, but that has only 7 Gigabytes of free (that is, you don't have to pay for it) space, and besides, you must use one of their mail accounts, like Hotmail or Live, and under the Microsoft Privacy Agreement they can access anything you put or pass in their network for the purpose of targeted marketing, by them and their partners. It is the overriding theme in Windows 8 and "the new Micro$oft".

So, you look at every App in "All Aps". Nothing there. Back to Control Panel. and check all the links. There is something called "Windows 7 File Recovery", which, since this is an upgrade from Windows 7 Home Premium, probably lets you somehow back out Windows 8. Let's take a look.

No, it isn't. Windows 7 File Recovery is actually the Windows 8 "Backup and Recovery". What the heck? Is this (apart from mentioning the wrong version of Windows) done to force you to use Skydrive??? What'sGoingOn? No Microsoftie noticed this "small" typo?

I don't have an answer, but it does look like it. Everything that comes natively with Windows 8 drives the user, unashamedly, to using the Microsoft Cloud. Everything - there is even the offer of free Microsoft Office Cloud service, complete with a change of your Hotmail or Live email address to an Outlook.com address, the successor to Live.com, which was the successor to Hotmail.com. Microsoft did this before, when they gave us Windows Vista Professional with a slew of Live environments, everything from storage and email to virus defense. Now, Live is dead, and the Outlook name is being recycled.

Windows 8, then, has become a dual purpose operating system. The stuff you used to use Windows for is still there, actually works well and has lost weight and gained pace, but the front end, no longer a Start button but a Start screen, is completely designed to make it unnecessary for you, but especially for the new user, to never have to go anywhere than Microsoft for anything. Whether on a Windows tablet, Windows smartphone or Windows PC, you can now always be in the same look-and-feel, with the same tools. The Start screen comes up with tiles for everything you could ever need, from Search, Travel and Weather to Explorer and everywhere that can take you. And as it all want you to sign in with your Microsoft mail account, everything you do on any of these devices is automatically accessible from all your other Windows devices. This goes all the way down to Microsoft Office, which is now free and running in the Microsoft Cloud.

Ignore the commentary you may read about how Microsoft's phones aren't selling, how the Surface tablet is too expensive, Microsoft is in there for the long haul, building an ecosystem that aims to shackle Windows users completely to Microsoft. That isn't going to happen overnight, but Microsoft has very deep coffers, and needed to do something to not lose more custom to Apple and Google. Windows 8 is it, it does, in combination with its mammoth partners, like Intel and Nokia, soup-to-nuts communication-and-computing.

There is lots more to tell you about, but I am going to do this in installments. It took me a couple of days to do the basic install of Windows 8 Pro, much of which was spent figuring out what was put where. You will likely not need to do that, anything that isn't in the tiles on the Start screen you can either find by right clicking in that screen, "All Aps" will come up bottom right, or click on the "Desktop" tile and you'll go to the conventional desktop you are used to. From there, you can slide your cursor to the bottom left to activate a Start screen representation you can click on (clever, that, it is where the Start button used to be), or go to the top right and slide down to the Start icon, or Search, or Settings, and some other choices. It is pretty simple and self explanatory - kudos to Microsoft for making major major changes without complete alienation. That's one of the hardest part of Human Factors design.

Windows 8
                                                          splash screenBecause: this is smooth! It cold boots in something like five seconds, amazing (although there is a boot setting somewhere, but even the slow boot only takes twenty or so seconds), and it runs quite a bit (that's just shy of significantly) faster than Windows 7 did. It is in fact so smooth and usable that I am, after a week, considering upgrading my Vaio All-in-One, which runs Windows 7 Professional, as well, something I had not intended to do as I need to be sure I can access my files and applications, and I do not take risks with new operating systems. But it must be said: I do not like the marketing and personal data mining aspects, but I haven't had a single crash, not one hang, no blue screens, only a couple of installation mishaps that Windows recovered from by itself (!).

The Apps that get tiles on the left side of the Start screen clearly are Windows 8 specific, I am assuming they're ubiquitous in Windows Phone and Windows tablet as well. On the right side appear the "traditional" Windows applications you install - Windows Media Center, for instance, free to download from Microsoft until the end of January (it is not included with Windows, I expect because most consumers do not use it), becomes a right side tile, not a left side App, although it is fully Windows 8 aware.

Beware of the Windows 8 Core that comes with the cheap laptops. You're better off, I think, buying a Windows 7 laptop, while they're cheap, and upgrading to Windows 8 Pro for $14.99, which you can do here until the end of January. The Windows 8 Pro upgrade for Windows 8 Core costs (as I write this) $39.99, a price that seems to fluctuate by the day. What I have seen in the cheap-and-cheerful Windows 8 section, though, seems to mostly consist of large screen laptops with underpowered processors, not enough (2GB) memory and smallish (320GB) hard disks. That may be enough for you, but to future proof yourself, I recommend getting a 64 bit motherboard, 8 GB of RAM, and a 500 GB or larger hard disk. If nothing else, the larger the disk, the faster Windows will run, provided you turn on write caching, and turn off buffer flushing, on the drive - caching is disabled by default, under Windows, even though laptops have batteries and auto-shutdown.
That upgrade, and the free (for now) Windows Media Center, are here. I use it to watch cable on one of my systems, using the AverTV USB tuner for Windows, which works a treat, auto-installs under Windows 8 without a hitch, too.

Monday December 10, 2012: Mob Rule Indeed

Keywords: Windows 8, Leveson report, celebrity, wild Oz, shock jocks

As in Britain the Leveson report on the press makes its waves on the way down, Google's news digest, on a random Sunday, mentions Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan and Chris Brown. Not being even remotely interested in them, I can't help but continue to wonder why these people are even in the headlines. The two are undoubtedly related, but I have a hard time believing there is real interest among the populace, they really wanted News of the World journalists to provide news that needed them to hack people's phones. Because in the final analysis, if nobody read this crap the hacking thing would never have happened.

I am not one who automatically wants to believe consumers drive this nonsense, drive TMZ. It is perfectly possible for publishers and broadcasters to manipulate the public, they have hundreds of years of experience doing this, and they will, from the very beginning, publish stuff that is sensational, and to a significant extent, untrue or inflated. As a former Dutch / British journalist, I have always had a vested interest in truthfulness in the press, even going so far as to decline one story commissioned by the Dutch daily De Telegraaf. It looked for a Buddhist related smuggling operation that
simply did not exist, I discovered after flying from Austria to France to investigate. When I see which direction we're heading in - a gas station in Maryland apparently selling security video footage to the press in the search for a lottery winner - I don't know that the Leveson report gets anywhere near a true solution to the problem.

There are now so many ways of disseminating information, mostly supported by advertising and click-throughs, that anything goes to drive traffic to media. That isn't in any way discussed in the report, the internet only gets a sideways mention. If we simply began by making it illegal for advertisers to pay for the delivery of readers and viewers to its media, much of this "traffic driving" frenzy would go away. Think about it - companies pay for the promise of possible sales. How crazy is that? All you really want to pay for is sales, the idea that you pay someone for delivering people to you, without any demonstrable benefit, is ludicrous - there is no evidence of any kind you can sell stuff by forcing people to look at it. You deliver someone to me, and they buy shoes, I can give you a percentage, but paying you for making people look at my shoes? Why are we doing that? Maybe in 1950, but now? When there are 100 million companies selling shoes... And no, we cannot, and will not be able to, make technology read minds. We've been working on that for 100 years, and aren't any closer than asking somebody a simple question and then seeing what happens in their brain using an MRI scanner.

Let me put it this way - if we need
Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan and Chris Brown to drive traffic, we don't really know what we're doing. I certainly would not buy shoes, perfume, asswipe or dog food because any of them recommended it. Apart from anything else, I doubt any of them ever go to a supermarket to buy groceries, any more than Mitt Romney does. You have to understand that the impact of all this is significant - you and I are paying for the huge amounts of money that go into advertising, in the price of our products. One reason prices go up continually is that manufacturers and resellers spend increasing amounts of money trying to manipulate you into buying their products, never realizing that everybody does this, and that the effect of the competing advertisers cancels out any possible gains - take a look at Groupon, they come up with a concept, everybody jumps on the bandwagon, and Groupon goes under, since there are no margins to do discounts. If that weren't the case, there wouldn't be ads that pop up on top of the article you want to read. One site I visit recently experimented with having an ad pop over as soon as you clicked in the login field, before you even got to their home page. Are these people really so stupid that they think you're going to buy something when it takes you somewhere other than where you wanted to go? This is like the hotel driver in Chennai, who took me to a tourist store when I asked him to take me to a supermarket to buy cigarettes. After he had done that three times, including giving me a lecture about how they paid him to do that, and he really needed the money, I fired his ass. What makes anybody think that because it is internet or cable television, it is OK? Tivo tried this 10 years ago, and it didn't work... Nothing changed, kids. The next driver I got took me only places I wanted to go, and I gave him a fat tip before I checked out of his hotel. A tip that would have been smaller if it weren't for his demented colleague.

I wrote the above before the prank call to the Duchess of Cambridge's hospital by
Mel Greig and Michael Christian, the moronic Ozzie radio hosts that seem to think anything is fine for as long as it drives ratings. Most certainly, their broadcast network is duplicit here - there are not a lot of reasons I can think of why a lawyer would say: "Sure, calling the Queen's daughter in law pretending to be the Queen? Hah ha, that is so funny and completely legal". The lawyer probably then went and bought some more shares in the network.

The issue isn't whether it is legal or not, I ask myself how completely stupid their broadcasts must normally be to need these kinds of "pranks" to be listened to. I remember boring shock jock Howard Stern, who famously proved you can get huge numbers of listeners in New York City if you parade naked women on radio. The question is, to me, but then I am an old journalism hand, not if you can, but what the purpose is. Let me just refer back to Jimmy Saville - something I can't put out there often enough is very simple: if you, as a corporate entity, do not control what goes on with your people, you will get unintended, and sometimes disastrous, consequences. The Saville thing began decades ago, so there really isn't anything new going on - it is just that the proliferation of internet and other cheap and ubiquitous communications makes it all much more accessible and possible.

Friday November 30; You got your Windows already?

Keywords: Windows 8, Toshiba, Windows 8 Pro, Peking Duck, redundancy

Before you read this and subsequent musings about Windows 8, here's Menno's Law: do not buy a computer with a new operating system until it has been on the market for a year (I will now go onto tell you why I am breaking my own rules ;) For Windows 8, that would be October 2013. Apart from the obvious reason - it needs to be debugged in the marketplace, and after a year Microsoft will have fixed 95% of whatever doesn't work right - it is clear that, for the moment at least, most computers are sold with Windows 8 Core, which is a crippled version of Windows 8 Pro without Windows Media Center. You'll have to pay to get upgraded to Pro, and then pay to add the Media Center software, which you can't even buy if you don't have Pro installed. I should imagine by October 2013 there will be lots of affordable computers with both Pro and Media Center off-the-shelf. By that time, Microsoft will have made the money it needs to support its share price.

If you're wondering, I managed standardization and rollout of two entire Verizon subsidiaries, one in the US and one in Indonesia, on the workstation/PC front, converting the standard from PC to laptop, and managing the vendors that provided equipment, imaging and support, down to the Help Desks. I helped the Indonesian Army combat viruses, as well, but that's a different, though somewhat related, story.


I can't wait until next year, though. I've always had "Windows internals" as part of my personal knowledge base, and so I've ordered a new Windows 7 laptop, which I should be able to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro cheaply, while Windows Media Center can be downloaded for free from Microsoft until January 13, or thereabouts. Doing those installs will teach me more than buying a cheapie Windows 8 laptop, so there you go. I ran around from Bellevue to Everett to see what was available Thanksgiving night and Black Friday, and clearly, 99% of what was out there was limited in capabilities, had large screens (most folks buy laptops as their primary computer these days, and want 15.6 inch or larger screens) and the crippled Windows 8. Nothing was a really good deal, except for one single Toshiba Windows 7 laptop at one single Best Buy, and they had had run out of that by the time I got there.

Then, I'll start customizing equipment for my colleague in Asia Pacific, who I've been supplying with his computing environment since 2010, when I handed him a customized Acer in my hotel room in Beijing. We then couldn't find the Peking Duck restaurant we wanted to go to, using the Beijing subway, and ended up in a Finnish restaurant, where we had Peking Duck.

It was, I suppose, high time a really new version of Windows was released - Windows was getting very long in the tooth, not having materially changed since the early versions, like Windows 286. By "changed" I mean the basic concept, user interface, of course there was significant advancement in Windows' internals. But if I look back to the Windows version I worked with in the late 1980s, at the First Boston Corporation in Manhattan, I can, if you like, "see" the line Windows development has taken. So with the advent of touch screens - like it or not, that is what tablet computing is really about - it was clear Microsoft had to do something to facilitate the integration of notebook, laptop, tablet and handphone. And it is clear that Windows Phone, Windows 8 and Windows RT, together, create a new way of computing. Over the past few days, after the initial influx of Windows 8 laptops in the Black Friday sales, I am seeing the Windows 7 laptop return to the shelves, while the user experience of many largely uninitiated buyers of Windows 8 laptops slowly ripples through the PC-verse. I am looking forward to see how many applications and user environments have Windows 8 versions available, and interested to see how much innovation Microsoft has put into the new user interface, which, if "old" Windows is a guide, may be around for decades, assuming there will not be new user interfaces beyond "touch" any time soon.

I am not in any danger of losing data in my transition to Windows 8 - I will continue to use my Windows 7 laptop, at least for the foreseeable future, until I am comfortable it works OK, and I have learned all there is to learn about "8". It is a professional need I have had throughout my career - always have a spare PC to fall back on, should your primary fail. For now, the Windows 8 laptop will be my learning machine - I have bad experiences in terms of losing data to new operating systems. While I have always advocated keeping a spare PC if you need your for business or work, that view has changed. The average consumer, today, has so much essential data on their PC, from tax returns to banking information to coursework and thesis-in-progress, that having just the one PC (laptop, for many) is really a risk you cannot afford to take. I currently use a Lenovo laptop as my primary system, which I back up on a daily basis, it is actually the very first thing I do, after checking my email and updating my finances. I have a Vaio All-in-One PC, equally running Windows 7, as a backup, all I would need to do is install my essential software and restore my backup up archives there should the Lenovo fail. To make sure the Lenovo works when I would need it, I use it to watch TV when I am at my desk, and as a surveillance webcam when I am away. One thing I can tell you about spares is that if you don't use them on a daily basis (and maintain them, of course) they are quite likely not to work when you need them. You need to either use your spare for some trivial purpose, or swap between the two PCs every week or so - but that would mean transferring files all the time, which is, I think, too much work for the benefit you get.

For those who have a family (I got lucky and got myself a famisectomy when I lived in London, much to the chagrin of the very Christian doctor who had to write the order) having a spare is even more important - I've seen family  situations where two laptops failed inside of six months. It is a splendid learning curve as well, it is how you can teach your kids and your spouse to maintain their systems, to back up, and to do data transfers. There are essential skills, in today's world, the days of "Daddy will take care of it" are long over - I hope, for you too. I can't say this often enough - kids need both laptop and smartphone skills in their lives and careers, so both parents must have those too, and all must be responsible for their own maintenance, backups and updates and fixes. You don't defrag your hard disk? It'll fail, at some point or other, and you will lose a lot of data, and some self-defined nerdy friend or relative will go "virus!", and you won't know any better. Much of the time, it isn't, and a relative is not a replacement for learning.

Rapidly, a situation is evolving where kids have advanced programming skills, but not the underlying engineering skills to run servers and networks. I don't know how much of an issue this truly is, all I know is that, throughout my career, whenever I wrote a line of code I knew what that code did, all the way down the line to the server, in the network, down to packet level. And while I do appreciate we're not all in a research lab, and don't all build our entire computing environment as we go along, I do think some of the big cloud failures we're seeing today have something to do with end users not knowing what their processes do, in the wider sense, and center managers not understanding what their users do. Writing a game for Facebook is nice, but if you don't have access to the computing resource you need to scale your work, or even a basic understanding of how your users in Asia will access your code, we have a real lack of basic training.

One reason programmers in India do well is that they did not come up on gigabit networks and fast processors with gigabytes of memory. They learn their trade in a universe where you learn computing on an old Pentium with 256MB of memory, and "broadband" is a 2x64kb ISDN line shared around the flats, all this while you're learning enough English to present your project to a department head....

Monday November 19; Ph. D.'s in the Pentagon and Catholics in your Womb

Keywords: Savita Halappanavar, China exports, Irish catholicism, Gaza, Petraeus, factory floor, Ph. D.

I saw some staggering statistics in the German magazine Stern, to me a reliable source of information, even if only because I once worked for them. Stern has it  (that link is in German) the United States exports to China to the tune of € 70 billion per annum, and then goes on to give the numbers for some much smaller European countries: France, € 101 billion, Britain, € 66 billion, Germany, € 65 billion, and The Netherlands, € 70 billion.

Say what?

That's staggering, it truly is. And I honestly don't quite see how a country with 16.5 million inhabitants and a GDP of US$ 704 billion, is on a par with the USA, with 315 million inhabitants and a GDP of USD 15 trillion, in terms of exported value. What is it these folks do that we don't? Is this in any way related to the way we apparently deal with manufacturing? Is our security threshold too high? Do the Chinese favour European contracts, or products? Is there some other reason why we aren't putting stuff into China wholesale? Do we make what they buy? Do those that manufacture even try to export to places where English ain't spoken?


I am asking because China is an enormous marketplace, we're in the economic doldrums, and if we did what the Dutch do, proportionally, we would be exporting goods and services there to the tune of 1.491 trillion, say US$1.895 trillion. Statistics are finicky and you can't really use them like I just did, but still, if we're exporting goods and services equivalent to my fellow countryfolk the Dutch, something is desperately wrong. Don'tyouthink?

I'll see if I can rustle up some detail about what it is these intrepid Europeans export that the Chinese think they need - especially the French number, US$ 128 billion, is amazing, but they do plan for the long term, I wrote about that before. Yes, these are the same French that bought Lucent and Reuters, I recall my (former) brother in law, who is French, being posted to Shanghai in the 1990s, when Alcatel was building telephone central offices all over China. This at a time when we started and then abandoned projects there, because we could not figure out how to work with the Chinese - I watched this, working for our international division, from my posts in Monaco and Jakarta. Yes, the same French we vilified for not supporting the invasion of Iraq - remember Freedom Fries? Perhaps, my friends, perhaps we should slowly do less talking and more listening....

I get on this rant because I see reports (here is one from CBS) that we have lots of jobs, like three million, that can't be filled because we don't have the correct skillsets, and I wonder if those are part of a production-and-export problem. In Europe, when they need workers they don't have locally, they import them from somewhere else. Paid for, housing provided, anything to keep going and keep making money. By and large, in the United States we don't do that, we can't find staff and then complain on national TV. Not going to do much, but the USA has this old standard that it is the employee who needs to move, make the effort, it is a sort of rite of passage, pervasive throughout American society - you make the effort, we'll then take care of you.

I can't prove there is a correlation between the jobs picture and our low exports to China, but I think some Fed department should at least look at it. While the Obama administration has been pumping money into the country, perhaps the Fed and the States could be more proactive in terms of distributing the workforce, if the employers are not. Go on Monster or Careerbuilder and you'll see virtually no employers look for relocatable workers, and even if they do, it's the $100K programmer, not factory floor workers - I see Microsoft posting thousands of jobs a month, but see little effort to actually fill them, as if there is an established "placeholdering" mechanism that we're all used to. Monster, LinkedIn and Careerbuilder (the latter so desperate it now sells job seekers' private telephone numbers to clients) don't even have real sections for relocation positions - most of the time, you can only apply to local positions - same for State employment websites whose only function is to help the unemployed, but have no mechanism to move unfilled jobs to "nationwide search" after a period of time. I've always found the absence of this kind of funding something "typically American", but if there truly are three million manufacturing jobs going unfilled, we have a structural issue that can be worked. Posting available positions on Monster, then updating their posting date to the current date even if they were posted three weeks ago, doesn't help fill jobs in any way.

Income tax on three million workers, not to mention their spending, is not chump change. I personally don't even care where we get these workers, for as long as they pay income tax and spend here. Imagine, three million more consumers buying iPads and Q-Tips.

What else is out there? Israel is getting itself stuck in Gaza again, that's getting kinda boring, and if it really is American funding that helps them with these Patriot batteries, I hope we're getting the research back, assuming that is what we're paying for. The Israelis and Palestinians get into another war, a truce is negotiated, everybody piles in to give 'em both money and arms, and the whole thing starts all over again.

Petraeus? A few years ago, when his visible meteoric rise began, I asked why the White House was flaunting his Ph. D. That's a theoretical, academic, degree, mostly intended for scholars, teachers, academics, and researchers. I do not know or understand how a Masters and a Ph. D. in international relations have any bearing on the military, unless the military have civilian or political aspirations. President Eisenhower, a man who had taken the route from the Pentagon to the White House, had much to say on the subject, and much of it reads very true today. The military are lauded for their achievements post-9/11, and to be honest, that's composed of an initially successful incursion into Afghanistan, one that now has now morphed into a battle we can't win, and Pakistan doesn't want to - you'd think we'd get the generals with international relations Ph.D.'s to take care of the Pakistani problem - and success in an Iraq that was no threat to the United States. Whatever the case may be, I guess we won't be having a President Petraeus any time soon. Resigning over a mistress? Only in America, although not mentioning this "affiliation" in his periodic Clearance review is actually quite a serious offense, something I am not hearing anybody talk about, something that may well be related to his sudden resignation.

The unfortunate death of an Indian woman in Ireland, after being refused an abortion that might have saved her life (there is no evidence for this as of yet) brings the Indian newspaper The Hindu to an interesting review that has much broader significance: "
religious dogma passing for constitutional law" is certainly a turn of phrase that could apply to many countries. When I grew up in The Netherlands, you could not repair your car in the street on Sundays - that was an offense under "Sunday Law", someone actually called the police on me for this once. And I don't need to pontificate about rural Turkey, about Pakistan, about Iran, although Turkey has been fighting a battle on that score for many years. Indonesia, nominally secular, prevented Lady Gaga from performing in Jakarta, on religious grounds.

All I am saying is that in many places "religious dogma" is what the population believes in. You could even postulate that in many cases religious dogma gets replaced by constitutional dogma - look at the way some Roman Catholics and some right wing folk in the United States are attempting to use the law to prevent all abortion. And that takes us back to the Pope, and the disservice Roman Catholicism does by making contraception and abortion a mortal sin for hundreds of millions of human beings, that's hardly an Irish issue. The Hindu invokes the phrase "vibrant democratic states" without realizing democracy is the new religion. It is an interesting argument, when we see that China is making great strides into the twenty-first century due to the absence of democracy there...

While I understand
the turmoil Savita Halappanavar's death has caused, she did not die because of Ireland's laws. It is incumbent upon us to understand, and be reasonable. She died because something went wrong with her pregnancy - that does happen. Yes, it is possible an abortion might have saved her, but it is just as possible it might not. And, knowing what she did, she could have gone to give birth back in India, or in another European country - I would assume that in England, or in The Netherlands, she'd have been given that abortion. Or in India, where infanticide through abortion is common, though not legal. Of course, nobody plans the possibility of an abortion into their choice of birth venue, but if she or her husband did not know that would not be an option, they weren't well informed, something you really can't blame the Irish for.

Monday November 5; Who You Gonna Call?

Keywords: Romney, Obama, Sandy, hurricanes, Delta Works, capitalism, socialism
Been kinda glued to the box watching the goings-on in my old home town, New York City, checking on my friends and colleagues, and generally feeling powerless to help anyone or do anything useful. Scary, the whole thing - this was only a Category One storm, and it hung a left before it even got there. Try and imagine what would have happened if this had been a Category Three that hit the island on the nose. We now have something to gauge the effect on, and the picture is not pretty.

I grew up by the sea, in The Hague, in a country that is largely below sea level, and that, with the UK, got socked by a storm in 1953. Nobody ever used to build on the shore, although even in The Netherlands, that has changed.
. In The Netherlands, building a protection infrastructure to prevent this type of disaster from ever happening again began almost immediately, and the resulting Deltaworks took some fourty years to complete. In England, which got socked by the same storm, the protective barrier didn't need to be as extensive, but the Thames Barrier still took ten years to complete.

Perhaps poignant in an American election, the only way those projects could have been set up and completed is Mitt Rmoney's bane: Big Government. You just can't get private enterprise to create a nationwide solution that has no commercial payback and whose completion takes decades. Just look at China, where the modernization of its country wide infrastructure is only being realized because they have "Big Government". And read how the Chinese population is generally happy about this - you can't eat "democracy", after all. And in terms of providing basic consumables, like food and health care, capitalism doesn't seem to be doing too well - remember, I come from Europe, and can compare the social systems on both sides somewhat from personal experience. Having said that, it isn't comparing apples with apples, there are few countries even slightly comparable with the United States. The two party system, extinct in most of the universe, does not help, with its polarization-rather-than-negotiation crux.


The problem with the Republican fixation on socialism, as if it is something bad, is that they do not, by and large, understand what socialism is, and what it intends to do. Whether it is always successful is beside the point, but you can't possibly continue to advocate that energizing the economy, only to have the banks collapse and the savings of millions of people, including yours truly, wiped out, without recourse, represents a viable economic system. Those wiped out savings will never flow back into the economy, and those wiped out savings are the cause of our current recession. It is disappeared wealth.

The reason I am raising this issue is that the cost of this storm, like the cost of Katrina, will to a large extent be borne by the tax payer and the rate payer. And there will be next storms, and there will not be a protective construction to prevent the loss of life and loss of property, and it is pot luck, where the next storm will strike can't be predicted, and we have Katrina, which took out an entire actual urban city, as an example of what happens. Think what you like, but the ghastly truth is that New York City did not take a real hit from Sandy.

So there. I am not being critical or negative here, I think we have great ways of dealing with these things, but the Red Cross and the Army Corps of Engineers aren't a substitute for Central Government. When the subways in emerging economies live television, cellular service and screened in platforms everywhere, we really have to start asking ourselves what they know that we don't. Or, perhaps, what they do that we don't. Because, perhaps, we do know, but they do, and I seem to recall that's how we used to operate. Watch English television reports and it seems British public hospitals, under the National Health Service, seem to have adopted wireless computer tablets wholesale - not here - many hospitals in the United States (and I am not talking about backwaters, either) haven't even yet converted to Windows 7, I kid you not.

So, to conclude my "Big Government" argument, if you do think a good central government is a solution to taking good care of your populace, leave the guy in the White House. He has not screwed up, unlike Dubya, and it takes more than four years to turn the country around. This isn't The Netherlands or the UK, those comparisons don't work, this is a really large, really fragmented place. You think Wall Street can fix our ills, that same place that lost us our savings, put Governor Rmoney in the White House. You know, the guy who cant tell us how we're going to make more money to pay for all those jobs. A pointer: there is no small business without big business.

Me? I go with socialism - you don't make a fortune, but you don't lose it, either. It is what put a nationwide computer network for all citizens in, using water mains, built the fastest High Speed Train network in the world by completely reinventing rail technology, and put the only commercial supersonic aircraft that ever flew (TU-144 only flew 55 passenger flights before it was grounded), as well as the largest airliner in the world in the air. Still has a national health system, as well. That's France. I don't know how they do it, but they do. Let's get off our kick and learn from those who've been here. I think Obama is a listening-and-learning guy, so there you are. The other guy thinks he knows it all because he once ran a place with an economy the size of the City of Los Angeles, and I personally can't afford to hang out until he has learned what he doesn't yet know. Or even, learned that he doesn't know stuff. It is just no comparison.

How I am going to get through winter without Downton Abbey (England's 3rd series just ended) I don't know. Didn't series run through winter, to be suspended in summer? When did that change? Thankfully, Foyle's War is being re-run both in the US and Britain, so I am not totally without culture. Plenty on the DVR already - ah, a Downton Abbey Christmas Special, I see, thank heavens, and the Dr. Who Christmas Special, not that far out, I suppose.

Wednesday October 24; Dreamers and Facilitators

Keywords: Savile, Armstrong, Wisconsin shooting, advertising, low margins, Blackberry, Nokia

Venus flytrapTwo news trends jump out - the number of celebrities falling off their pedestals, and the number of internet companies showing less (or no) growth. Even Google is falling prey to the times, it seems. 
Interesting is that, in the realm of internet companies like Google and Faceook, a drop in revenues or profits is seen as related to their inability to monetize the mobile advertising ecosphere.

And yet, when you look at internet advertising, you see one after the other website beginning to try to charge for access. From the Times of London and the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times and the Straits Times, apparently advertising on websites isn't the great revenue generator it was once made out to be. As I've said before, this advertising model dates back to when there were three broadcast networks in the United States, where today there are hundreds, many internet based, and where the walled off environment, like Facebook, makes Search Engine Optimization a complete joke. Advertisers no longer know where their customers are, what they watch, when, and where. I see CVS advertisements in Washington State, these days - there isn't any CVS here, as in, zilch, and I can go on. Britain's ITV and America's Tivo offer to take you to an advertiser's website while you're watching Law & Order - what's the point? That's about as stupid and disruptive as putting an ad over the article you wanted to read, or starting a video automatically when you arrive at a website, so everybody in your department or classroom knows what you're doing.

Manufacturers and retailers are putting vast sums of money into technologies that disrupt your reading and viewing, with ad agencies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook purporting they can read their users' minds. The recession has thrown another spanner in the works, with retailers hoping they can maintain market share by advertising more, with lots of dogs that can talk telling you how nice bacon is, not to mention the cats that carry can openers. All you need to do is look at Walmart's balance sheet over the past decade to see what sells, and to whom. Not long ago Costco's CEO said it in a television interview - Costco makes a profit on membership fees, not on its products. That means, simply, that the vast majority of consumers shop for rock bottom prices, at stores that offer those, and that's a recession effect. You can even see the Chinese selling dirt cheap stuff, and then take note that those products they sell for next to nothing via Amazon.com, like keyboards and webcams, are mostly no longer sold at Walmart and Costco.

It is a sea change, profit margins are being minimized, and the above means simply advertising tries to sell you stuff you would "pay more" for, and consumers aren't falling for it. Putting advertising on phones is not going to change that, because there are no Googles, Yahoos and Bings that can read the consumer's mind, however much they try. On top of that, most cellphone users now pay for data plans in some way, and I can tell you that I will bill the companies bringing me advertising once my data plan is impacted by the bandwidth they need. I pay for my data plan to get what I want, not for someone to inject stuff I haven't asked for. You want to be able to do that, you have to make data free, or charge the advertisers for my data use.

But I digress. It is, of course, easy for me to criticize the mastodonts of the internetverse, but how do we solve the conundrum? If advertising is no longer the best medium to sell stuff, what comes in its place? Is Amazon's format, where you can find something and order it and have it delivered wherever you are, the new way of doing things? Are the competing behemoths a thing of the past? Will you be able to order something at Amazon and pick it up tonight at WalMart or Best Buy or Safeway? Have we taken commercialism and competition to the point where it becomes economically destructive? Is there still a role for the regulator, as a facilitator of the citizen and the shareholder?

Let's take mobile telephony as an example. The carriers subsidize handsets, collecting money from their clients to pass that on to the phone manufacturers. That should make everybody rich, except it doesn't. There is ongoing consolidation in the mobile carrier universe, indicating margins aren't high enough, and about half the manufacturers of handsets, who should have more or less guaranteed revenues, are experiencing significant losses, the erstwhile behemoths RIM and Nokia being the best examples. This makes no sense - especially Southern Asia and Asia Pacific are littered with Nokia phones, while Europe, Africa and parts of Asia have vast numbers of Blackberry
handsets. There are vastly more people in Indonesia accessing Facebook on Blackberrys than on any other device, including laptops and tablets. Both these companies should be doing well, but aren't. And the carriers aren't exactly adding anything to what they deliver to their customers - upgrading to 4G while you're reducing the amount of data in the customer's basic package is not likely to keep consumers coming back for more. It goes right across the board, too - Comcast's new home alarm service requires not only a three year commitment @$1400+, it additionally requires a three year internet service contract, and since those come in bundles, guess what three years of mandatory internet, cable and VOIP will set you back. And then "the equipment is free", except for the video capabilities they're advertising with, the video equipment has to be paid for (read: rented) separately. All this so you can go online on your smartphone to see if your house is being burgled, or the cat is being molested by a badger. Dunno, folks.

Jimmy Savile, Wilfred Brambell, Lance Armstrong, and I am sure I can find many others, using their fame for whatever purpose - one aspect of all this is that these celebrities seem to be surrounded by facilitators, a common occurrence with addicts and criminals. Even in past discussions about domestic violence, we've seen that the violated victim often has facilitated the abuser. I don't mean "invited", but we all know the stories about wife beaters that promise to do better, only to be allowed back and beat more. It is only a few days ago this crazed ex-marine in Wisconsin responded to an order of protection by killing his wife and a few other people. Far be it from me to accuse the poor woman of doing anything wrong, that isn't my point, but you will likely agree with me that this man must have run off the rails years ago, as indeed Jimmy Savile must have done. We mustn't forget that the organizations that are taking Lance Armstrong down today do so because they built him up first.

So what can we do to recognize and treat these offenders at a much earlier stage? At what point do Savile or Armstrong decide they can't be caught? How can we get those around them that "let things slide", often for years, take some sort of action? What action would that be - is it possible to remove a violent marine from the Corps? Is there such a thing as a non-violent Marine? Can we teach people to recognize manipulators? Can we stop glorifying manipulators? What about removing a man with paedophile tendencies from the BBC? Is it true these offenders turn their weakness into some sort of strength, so they can stay under the radar? For a paedophile to run a charity for sick children is a really scary thing, should there be a routine inquiry into these charities as they are formed? Is "innocent until proven guilty" no longer an acceptable civic principle?

No, I have no answer, don't know how you'd recognize this type of behaviour early, all I am saying is that we're probably just seeing the tip of the iceberg, there are now too many of these cases for them to be exceptions. Where do we go from here?

Sunday October 14; Fall descending on the Puget Sound

Keywords: Mercedes Benz, social networks, Spotify, UNIX, tcp/ip , streaming video, IPTV

Fall in Seattle
There had been no rain in the Seattle area since July 23, thirteen weeks, not even a thunderstorm or passing weather front. The total measured rainfall is .03 inches, that's about 7 millimetres, and I think that was all in a bit of overnight rain a month ago. But it's done, it is raining on Friday October 12, with more to come, although I am not seeing the deluge the forecasters promised. Now the yellow can turn green again... even lawns that received regular water turned yellow, water is expensive here, and cisterns aren't a common household appliance here. The roads will be slick and slippery for days while the rubber-and-oil crud that accumulated over summer washes away, thankfully there's quite a bit of rain expected, so they should be clean again in a few days.

Seeing a mention of Mercedes' attempted marketing use of Twitter set me thinking about social networks again. Not much of a fan, I have confined myself to using Facebook for friends and family, LinkedIn for professional purposes, and Twitter for travelogues-with-pics. Additional to that, commentary about the computer-and-IT verse go to LinkedIn/Twitter. And that's it. Other services I have tried I've stopped using, as they duplicate what I do in other places already, said duplication being the main problem with the social media, methinks
. I just can'tsee the purpose of talking to the same people on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Hyves, and what have you. It must be said Facebook has done a pretty good job of being all things to all people, I can think of few things they don't offer. To some extent, my use of systems is partially determined by what is available on my mobile devices, although the way Facebook mines data has made me uninstall their application from all of my equipment. Even through a browser, Facebook will retrieve your location information without your permission. I am a bit of an expert on the GPS front, so I have managed to stop Facebook doing that, but the fact that you need to jump through some hoops to restrict Facebooks "data collection" is, in my book, pretty grim.

The big issue is, of course, that In My Not So Humble Opinion social networks don't sell anything. Or, at the very minimum, their return on investment is minimal. We see this in the reporting on Facebook's stock price, and on its revenue. Facebook had revenues of $3.71 billion in 2011 - let's assume that, for the entire year, it had half a billion subscribers, keep the sums simple, that would make $7.42 per subscriber per year, or 62 cents a month. That is not a viable business model. Recently published numbers from Spotify appear to show the same trend - practically every incoming dollar goes to licensing and royalty payments, with what little is left insufficient to pay other expenses. In other words - setting up a "free" platform, then monetizing it, does not normally work - just as a reminder, the only reason Hotmail "worked" was that Microsoft bought it, but there is no real revenue stream associated with it, even today. We seem to have lost the realization - you can see this in the entire telecoms universe - that you must charge users a reasonable amount of money to provide a service, and the old model - commercial television - does not work in the new universe, that much is clear. From pop-up ads to unwanted emails, producers are completely desperate, and haven't figured out new ways to capitalize on what are fast becoming essential services. Perhaps some of these things work in the "good times", but not in a recession, when you can advertise until you see blue in the face, but nobody buys anything they don't need, with the exception of Ferraris and iPhones, products with elite appeal and a high margin.

While I continue to look for gainful employment (although a nice consulting position is fine, I have lifetime benefits) I try to keep my hand in, in terms of keeping up to date with the computer industry. With some subjects, that's easy - I can play with "the cloud" in Amazon's AWS, where a basic cloud account is free. That's pretty smart, you can try it out, model stuff, get used to the interface, and I guess the idea is that you then become a client. I haven't put that on my resume, as I don't have a production environment that I can point to. Hmm, maybe I should.

another networkBeing a UNIX - Lotus Notes guy the other thing is harder - Microsoft's Sharepoint. I tried to set up a test environment, only to find out that Sharepoint needs a full blown Windows 2008 server with a full SQL environment, which, in turn, needs a heavy duty four processor server. I had the server available, last year, but not a license for the latest server software, so that was that. My bad, I suppose, when I came up to the Seattle area I didn't think about Microsoft's dominance, and how that might affect other companies here. As it turns out, even Amazon's technical management is all Microsoft - because that is where most of them used to work, they brought their expertise and tools, I guess. I spent my entire career in development and project management in the world of UNIX, first in the labs (even at Bell Labs I worked on a flavour of UNIX) and then in the product deployment environment. We've always had a propensity to use UNIX for everything, I recall that when I set up my data center in Arlington, VA, the only Windows server environment I signed off on was for Lotus Domino, our staple mail-and-database tool. As I said, my bad, I didn't think about it and didn't know enough about the way Microsoft has permeated the local development environment. It is curious though - you could download a free Linux version, and start learning UNIX tomorrow, but no such thing where Windows is concerned. That's a shame.

Another interesting (to me) aspect of broadband internet is IPTV, especially now that I have back door access to British broadcast TV, which is simulcast via the internet in various ways, using Adobe Air and Adobe Flash. The interesting part, to me, is that these are heavily used live streams, not intended and not optimized for faraway customers, so I have been working with several routers and network interfaces to see if I can reasonably stabilize reception. One nice aspect of the way the BBC does things is that it lets you use a freely available app to download programs, while ITV (I understand) only offers that via iTunes, which, to me, is one of those ways Apple collects consumer information.

One of the big issues with broadband internet isn't the speed of it - in most places that is more than adequate, whether you get it via cable or DSL, but the intrinsic "burstiness" of the udp protocol that underlies the world wide web - sorry to have to take you back to the world of UNIX, where all this network stuff, tcp/ip, http://, ethernet, comes from, it is intrinsic to the UNIX Apple uses, to the UNIX (a.k.a. Android) Google uses, and Microsoft had to bolt it into Windows after repeated attempts at introducing its own network stack failed. Streaming video does not like bursty transport, and while the computer interface provided by Adobe has some local store-and-forward capabilities, the carriers have little control over the amount of stuff going on in your Windows or Apple OS X operating system. To some extent, the adoption of these multitasking operating systems is the worst thing ever to happen to consumer PCs, as consumers are often blissfully unaware of the number of software packages they have running, and most PCs don't really have enough memory to run as many as they do. That is what messes up your streaming video, not the speed of your broadband connection.

You've seen those ads that try to sell you antivirus and optimization software "if your PC is slowing down", I assume - the reason why your PC is slowing down is that, as time progresses, you're "pre-loading" more and more software packages. You know the quickstart icons you get - well, they start a piece of the software, so that the rest loads faster, and so that the maker can collect data on you, and every one of those little icons hides a process that consumes some memory. Nothing wrong, it is because you gave the software permission to "quick start", and over time that means you have most of your CPU cycles and memory taken up by stuff you don't need. Graphics is a culprit too - you run your Windows with all of that fancy graphics stuff? You've just slowed down your PC by maybe thirty percent, assuming you run five or eight applications (a.k.a. "windows) at a time.

But I digress - all I am saying is that your PC or Mac is running much more than it needs, and that slows down your streaming video and Skype and other stuff with high bandwidth requirements. I spend hours turning all that crap off - the fancy graphics with see-through windows, Adobe's update checker.... it is a good example - Adobe checks for updates when it runs anyway, so there isn't any need to do that when you're not using it. Software manufacturers, generally, think they own your computer, and they know that the more stuff they run on your system, the quicker you will buy a faster system, so they can then run even more stuff you don't need. I have dedicated an older Sony Vaio to streaming video, after updating that from Windows Vista to Windows 7, and ripping out absolutely everything it does not need, which means the streaming video does not interfere with the stuff I need on my laptop. It is nice to have multiple screens, anyway, and much of the time I actually watch TV on that Vaio anyway, courtesy of a USB/cable interface from Avertv.

Umm, and then I got completely terminally distracted, and tried to restore a 2008 SQL database from an older version of Wordpress to my shiny new Godaddy Wordpress, and promptly damaged the install beyond repair. And I will be damned if I spend the next fifteen hours reading manuals - as there wasn't anything in the Wordpress instance (I haven't used it since it got hacked in Freeservers, and I lost control of my domain for a while) I've simply destructled it and started afresh. Wish me luck :)

Wednesday October 3; Bad journalism is employment too

Keywords: news, CBS, Schwarzenegger, Romney, China Post, Google, driverless cars, employment

The election lotteryArnold Schwarzenegger wrote a tell-all book, the Afghanistan war is failing to the point CBS has sent Lara Logan back there, several European countries have run out of money, several others are trying to form governments, and Jimmy Savile is rumoured to have been a pedophile. Dunno, folks, I think this is mostly, largely, in the "grim news" arena. Even the prognosticators that predict Obama is a shoe-in don't really brighten the day - in general, I have begun to ignore most news based on tealeaves - there really isn't anybody who can predict the future. I mean, there never was, but today the proliferation of "news" publications is such that you can just go to Google News (change countries if you need to, that's one of the strong points of Google News) and pick the future you would like.

Perhaps that is how we will vote, in the future.... I see it among some Catholic friends, who, in many cases, will decide their vote on the basis of who favours abortion and contraception, which is hardly relevant in terms of doing what is best for the People and the Country. Then again we seem to be "filling" in the news - CBS' Jan Crawford, this morning, regaled us how she asked Mitt Romney on his airplane point blank (her emphasis) if he thought he could win this election. I'll spare you his response, but how is this journalism? How much are we paying this woman to dog Romney's footsteps and do irrelevance? It is, in my view, a general issue, especially in the American press - there are so many programs and articles and journalists end up with absolutely irrelevant and nonsensical contributions - you can't very well call the home office and say "this is a non-story", as I famously did to one newspaper after it sent me to cover a 'jewelry smuggler" who turned out to have a diplomatic passport.

CBS seems to have landed among the news media that say the American population "has woken up" and now understands there isn't an easy solution to the economic downturn, although I have not seen or heard anybody offer a solution. I've been saying for years that "renewable" energy is not renewable. Hybrid and electrical vehicles, for the most part, are more expensive than regular vehicles, if anything is on the positive side, it is that there is increasing realism among consumers. Although, I continue to be amazed to hear the Washington State energy folks say we do so well in generating so much cheap hydro-electricity, but then I see that just about everybody in the Seattle area heats and cooks.... on gas, 60% of which is imported from Canada. That's two entire energy infrastructures to achieve one service, and that does not in any way save anybody money. Two steps back, and look at the woods, not the trees.

dooor-to-door China PostWe seem to generally be confused, and developing technology just for the heck of it. I am all for technology development, please don't get me wrong, but I just can't see the point of driverless cars. Any initiative that is likely to put more cars on the road, rather than fewer, won't help us economically or in terms of efficiency. Driverless taxis and trucks, maybe, but then we'll put even more people out of work. Driverless infrastructure will be very expensive, and will prevent even small changes to road signage and landmarks without some kind of feedback to the technology. It is absolutely great Google develops new technologies that do not yet exist, but they're not doing that, as I heard on Fox this morning, to "help the elderly". You can't drive any more, that's it, and you then won't be able to use a car you can't drive in case of failure, same as you need pilots on today's largely automated airplanes, which can even land automatically.

WiFi in airplanes? Great, but the whole idea between working on the internet is that you don't need to travel, can work remotely. This story completely misses the point, and the huge cost of putting WiFi in airplanes. Yes, the airlines need to make more money, and once they all have WiFi some will offer it for free, and then the ticket prices will go up. Same-o same-o. I can certainly understand why airlines want to make flying more attractive, providing "all the mod cons", but we have the technology that makes much business travel unnecessary, and pushing that technology, creating more facilities for remote working, might give us a new product for export. Apart from which, the skies are crowded to the point that the Fed is spending billiuons on new traffic management systems we should really no longer need... The secret: redesign enterprises to do away with the offices and centralized locations. Redesign schools to do away with classrooms, and soccer moms. Etc. We have the technology, but making so many systems and standards obsolete would not help the economy, on the contrary. Perhaps we need to rethink our ways, as parts of our economy are based on essentially useless activities - yes, Apple doing its own mapping service creates jobs, but all that work has been done before. The people who are now going to fix the iPhone's navigation could be employed creating more useful services - we do, after all, have at least three large and experienced mapping and navigation companies, and you could make an argument that Apple's incessant walling off its products prevents any form of useful standardization. It was bad enough when Google decided to "roll its own", but at least they added value, invented, in creating Streetview, which has become an indispensible tool for many, consumers as well as businesses, not to mention the tax office.

I am not, as you may think, knocking our technological efforts. Some of this stuff, like driverless cars and WiFi internet in airplanes, was hard to develop, and it is brilliant. The issue is that these aren't efforts that will help the economy "kick it up a notch". Nor will, as I hear candidates say, creating more small business help. Small business, largely, is local, and it can't thrive if people don't have money to spend. What with the downsizing of many businesses, and the automation of others (Amazon is a good example, the company is automating the picking process in its warehouses), there are few jobs that used to exist. Amazon is an excellent example in another respect, too - it employs far fewer people than does Walmart, and sells much of its stuff at much lower prices. To some extent, Amazon pioneered a business model that now has many products shipped, cheaper, with tracking, right from the manufacture - in China.  That, my friends, you need to take notice of - it is the new outsourcing. It is a very significant way in which the Chinese government supports its population, much more so than manufacturing solar panels. And nobody seems to notice.


Tuesday September 25; Religion or Computing, it is always down to Standards

Keywords: Pakistan, internet access, MS Windows, UNIX, Mandarin Chinese, routers, modems, insulting religion

Muslim generationsIf anything amazes, it is that the Pakistani minister who put a bounty on the head of controversial anti-islam filmmaker
Nakoula Besseley Nakoula was not fired and arrested (and maybe Mr. Nakoula should have been returned to Egypt, if that is where he is from?). I think calling for someone's killing is a big step up from insulting a deity, and for the Pakistan government to leave this minister where he is.. Combined with previous problems with Pakistan, one wonders where does this permission come from? Is this an expression of Pakistani permissiveness, or is the Pakistani government saying this is a fatwah? And is it true that only insulting the Prophet, as opposed to important folks in other religions, warrant the death penalty? Is it true Islam is that different from other religions, and why is this so? Religion, over time, leads to a lot of grief - they still have protestant and catholic football teams in Glasgow..

Don't get me wrong, I think this entire movie story is completely crazy, especially the fact it was dubbed over to be offensive to Islam. Yes, it is often an issue that freedom of speech can have offensive consequences - I vividly remember the nation's upset and even riots caused by the Supreme Court allowing flag burning, way back when. And in my home country people used to go to jail for insulting an allied head of state - Lyndon Johnson was the last, I believe, as far back as 1968, and it was at that time that the law in the Netherlands changed to legalize that kind of insult. That is 44 years ago... But burning down embassies and consulates because of the constitutions of some Western nations goes a bit far, in my book. I think, as well, that some of the countries that are Islamic at heart but profess to secularism and democracy have to revisit what that actually means.

We tend to forget that most people in emerging economies do not have cable television, and only limited internet access - only a few years ago, "broadband", in India, was a 2x64 kbps ISDN connection - for an apartment building. And what you can see on the small screen of a handphone is limited. So, in many countries, it is word-of-mouth, preselected information provided by what few broadcasters there are, and what the papers print. The populace doesn't necessarily get the whole story, and especially if the mullah says it is so, believers will follow. It used to be that way here, many years ago, and even today you can see in the presidential race that people here in the United States have diametrically opposed opinions that millions of people believe are true - just think about the persistent rumour Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Kenyans speak English and have a civil registry, so we'd know if that were true, but that does not persuade many Americans it is a rumour - and a vicious one at that.

Anyway... I do apologize for my tardiness posting new blogs - where I normally post at least a couple of times a week, my new blog at the Telegraph seems to have the unintended side effect that I am much more selective in choosing subjects. No, that makes no sense, really. On top of that, I am trying to catch up on a lot of backlog paperwork, and I am working on some routers and modems and interfaces that have, to some extent, bedeviled me for a while. One router in particular, an IP-COM W641R Wireless-N, only comes in freakin' Chinese, like this:
W641R特别版, it is one of those products made for China only, and as I don't speak or read Chinese, I have to wrestle through the interface to figure out what does what. Last time I bought a router in China I could download English language firmware, but not this time. Having been able to set it up, originally, in my hotel room in Beijing (that is why I bought it, for $16), I eventually gave up trying to reprogram it. The way 802.11n was implemented is way beyond the stuff I know (this device being Chinese, it's got some stuff that is probably not approved in America, same as when you buy a wireless router in Europe it comes with 13 channels instead of 11), so I am pretty much out of my depth trying to figure out some of the features. Worst of all, with the support website in Chinese, and the interface, upgrading the firmware was a hit-and-miss affair, where you have to understand that if you do that wrong, you brick the router forever.

Chinese UNIX router GUIBut I think I've finally managed to crack it, helped to some extent by Windows 7's capability to interactively set up a router, using, I believe, WPS. That doesn't work on my WinBoxes unless I do a full full reset on the router, which I don't like doing as it loses me my customization, and it can come up with the same IP address the core router uses, so everything goes down. Etc. But you see, you've got to figure this at some point, so that's what I've been doing the whole freaking week, until nothing worked any more, I had to go right back to scratch to get it working, no shortcuts and clever things. And to be honest, it says WPS was invented to make it easier for "civilians" to set up their stuff, but when I see how much jargin is involved, I am not seeing Grandma do this. It's a start, and it is nice that folks can use their Windows client to set it up, rather than having to log in to the esoteric router interface through an IP address, but it isn't anywhere near what I would think is user friendly. Worse, if WPS can be used by Windows for setup without authentication, it is really easy for hackers to hijack a router or router/PC pair. That's a huge concern.

As I go through my email and do some job hunting - a daily activity, though I don't spend as much time on it as I used to, and for "job" read mostly "consulting position' - I reflect on my complete lack of Windows server skills. I suppose I ought to rephrase that - I've kept my hand in with Windows internals for decades, just so I could integrate Windows boxes in the UNIX development environment I have always worked in.
The problem is that I don't have any way of proving that, and I never took any formal training on Microsoft stuff. The telecommunications development world I spent twenty years in ran, and runs, mostly in UNIX environments, you see, less overhead and much easier segmentation of processes. Not long ago, I wanted to start learning Sharepoint at a friend's house, only to discover that the powerful four processor server he has does not run the latest version of Windows Server, and that is what the Sharepoint training server needs. There isn't a convenient free Sharepoint learning environment you can access or install.

Having said that, now that I have seen some teens at their studies, it is clear they're rooted in the world of Windows, something that happened almost inadvertently. While games and other computing intensive applications used to be built on UNIX cores, which is why you had to load a game from the CD or DVD and it would take over your computer, these days more and more gaming stuff is built in a segmented Windows box, now that Windows manages memory so much better than it used to, and processors have multiple cores, one or more of which can be taken over by a piece of software. At that point, a piece of software doesn't necessarily have to use one or the other operating system. So we see UNIX, in its Linux incarnation, relegated to dedicated devices and servers - most webservers, today, run Linux, standalone routers and modems and Tivo boxes and what have you do, most smartphones use a UNIX-derived operating system, and even Apple's mainstay OS can be said to be a UNIX-derivative. When I set up a Macbook for a friend, a few years ago, I was completely amazed when I saw that the GUI it was running was simply X-Windows, something I had spent many years learning and working on in the lab, back in Westchester County, NY. And my UNIX expertise really helps in networking, after all, everything Ethernet, Internet, http://, ftp, tcp/ip, and so on, all came from the wonderful world of UNIX and got bolted into Windows when Microsoft eventually realized developing its own network stack was a non-starter.

Anyway, so I never realized, moving up to the Seattle area, that everything and everybody here is practically Windows based. Not rocket science, really, what with Microsoft having its main operations in Redmond, just outside of Seattle, my back yard, so to speak. That had just never occurred to me, my bad, talk about being a rocket scientist..

Monday September 17, 2012; Beauty and Beast Week

Keywords: boobies, journalism, muslim innocence, publishing, tabloid press, Kate
At my Telegraph blog: my.telegraph.co.uk/aartsen


Tuesday September 11, 2012; Is the Cloud more like a Fog?

Keywords: Amazon, CAP theorem, fault tolerance, Google, high availability, redundancy, the Cloud

Router with 4G fallbackI came across a Wired article the other day, in which the CAP theorem is mentioned - see an excerpt in the following paragraph:

"When you spread data across hundreds of machines, the theorem explains, you can guarantee that the data is consistent, meaning every machine using the system has access to the same set of data at the same time. You can guarantee that the system is always available, meaning that each time a machine requests a piece of information, it receives a definitive response.

And you can guarantee partition tolerance, meaning the system can continue to operate when part of the system fails. But you can’t guarantee all three. You can guarantee two of the three, but not all. As an established bulder and designer of high availability systems, I had to reread the story a couple of times, as it didn't make sense to me that you could guarantee even two of the three, or, paradoxically, that you can actually positively guarantee all three."

How do I 'splain.

To the right, one of those redundancy examples - a WiFi broadband router with a 4G fallback facility, in a hotel room. Before I built my first fault tolerant box (click here for a picture and documentation), I had to learn how the phone company implements high availability. Based around a telephony switch, which is to all intents and purposes a fault tolerant computer with analog interfaces, the special requirements of operator services come into play here, operator services (call center) automation is what I was working on, at the time. Fascinating stuff, because you get (or got, in those days) full control of every aspect of the process, from software and human personnel (operators) on the one side, to the customer's equipment, and their wiring, on the other.

To make your reading a little more challenging, I will, at the same time, take a look at another article, that dealt with ex-Google Marissa Mayer, and her reviewing every new hire at Yahoo - the article has it that is how Google hires, too, although I don't know that any reporter knows "innner workings" that well.

But - woof. That's scary. I've worked for a couple of those micro-managing managers, but I have never myself adopted the methodology, because I think you lose more than you gain. And, to get back to the previous, this is the last thing you want to do building a high availability environment. I firmly believe that deciding all of your new staff yourself is a good way to prevent innovation, unless you think you know everything. You make yourself (and I am not saying I believe the article about Ms. Mayer) a single point of failure. Remember that whenever you look at a rocket scientist, you don't see the sidekick that keeps them in check.

Anyway, we'll get back to the human angle, let's tackle the premise first: guaranteeing system uptime, something we've been struggling with since networks were invented. However many times I reread the CAP theorem, I am not seeing definitions that make it really clear what the author means. When you say "each time a machine requests a piece of information, it receives a definitive response", it is clear that response can simply be an "I don't have it" or "I'm not here" statement, directing the requestor elsewhere. That would be valid, but doesn't get you what you need. But then in what I have learned in the phone company is that even a response that leads you to a "I cannot deliver this now" or "I cannot deliver this at all" would be valid. You'd then issue an alarm to a system or entity or human that/who can resolve the issue.

The problem is always at the back end, you see. Whether it is Marissa Mayer, who cannot vet resumes while she is giving birth, or a huge storm that takes down the infrastructure around Amazon's center in Northern Virginia, there is a cause-and-effect. I am assuming  Netflix went down, during that storm, because it does not have a fully triplicated infrastructure, although one of the articles seems to indicate the failure to fail over lay with Amazon's Elastic Load Balancing, which didn't do what it was supposed to do. How that could be related is not clear to me, because Load Balancing is a service that needs all of its component parts online, but should continue to function (read: cease to be active) if one of its resources fails.

I have seen that happen, and I've been at the business end of the design decisions, too. Running a fully duplicated infrastructure is incredibly expensive, you see, and leaving all of the failover and security in the hands of a vendor entails a significant risk. Having said that, if Amazon has a center go down, and Netflix can blame it on them, and the outage is only a few hours, that constitutes a fair tradeoff with cheap service. Not to mention folks like Pinterest and Twitter, which the consumer does not pay for at all.

There is an interesting phrase in this Forbes article by Kelly Clay: "Resiliency .... needs to be part of the way we design our companies to recover from outages".Actually, but I am nitpicking a bit, the resilience would prevent the outages from happening. Or, and that is the cheaper way of doing things, a failure would cause a deterioration in service, but not a complete outage. But the part about designing companies very much rings a bell with me. In many, if not most, cases, companies are set up regionalized, and then end up being "backfilled" as their active regions change or increase. Look at Facebook and Twitter, and you'll see a U.S. centric design, these are companies that began trading on the U.S. MAN (Metropolitan Area Network). Look at Microsoft and RIM, and you'll see an international design - these were companies trading all over the world when the cloud came into being. Google, to me, is the odd man out, a U.S. centric company that was internationalized successfully, though it unfortunately has not been able to get a good footing in China, something Yahoo did temporarily manage, and Amazon is trying. I am, as an aside, fascinated by how hard it seems to be to work with the Chinese - and I am saying that as someone who was involved with Chinese networks, years ago, I still keep my Chinese business card in my collection:

Be that as it may, a German Siemens R&D executive, many years ago, said exactly the same when, in Munich, he showed me a telephone his artsy colleagues in Milan had concocted: it had an interchangeable keypad that could be personalized to the owner - this in the days before cellular telephony took off. He had it that you couldn't introduce these advanced technologies unless you redesigned their work environment - effectively, redesigned the entire company the technology was supposed to work in. You must, in assessing that, realize German technical companies are, more often than not, run by engineers, rather than lawyers, and engineers think about efficiency and friction reduction and stuff, on a global scale, which is why the entire Chinese government drives Audis.

It is the one thing I had a hard time getting used to, when I came to the United States - in the words of a Canadian CEO I worked under, much later: "What we do is like building a 747 during takeoff". Back in Europe, in them days, we'd spend umpteen years designing, like GSM, which took almost eighteen years to roll out. I am still in two minds about that, because it was GSM that took over the world, after all that, not the American CDMA - but part of the reason for that may have been the FCC setting it up to fail (unwittingly and unintentionally). At any rate, in this day and age, we can no longer afford to spend many years building things in labs, I was lucky to be at the tail end of that, in the 1980s.

But back to the CAP theorem, and the article that says, in part, that "Amazon doesn’t guarantee consistency across multiple zones" in its AWS design. I looked at AWS, a while ago, since I was being interviewed by one of Amazon's AWS executives (who unfortunately had a fatal accident the weekend before my scheduled interview, but that's another story). Thinking about that statement, I think Amazon actually does let you guarantee consistency, but it is a framework, not a ready made service. The part where you can replicate data across multiple geographical zones is where the customer needs to do some work, and write some requirements. AWS, or anyone's cloud, for that matter, isn't as simple as that. Consistency across multiple zones would mean that information contained in one instance of a database is an exact mirror of the information in every other instance. That's easy enough to achieve, but it means that all instances must communicate with each other, and not release the latest update until there is some kind of confirmation that all data is synchronized. The problem isn't in the synchronization, the problem is in the amount of time it takes to do the verify, and how quickly you need your data available.

Let me explain. If you have a fully fault tolerant server solution, and you're working on a spreadsheet online, you will want to see a cell update immediately, within a millisecond or so. If one of your database instances is not just across the country, but the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Singapore, and you're in New York, the verification of that instance is going to take more than a millisecond - that's mostly simply travel time for the bits to get from NYC to S'pore and back, and the verification software to do its job.

It reminds me of the way the Space Shuttle computer flight management systems were designed - I was told about this while researching flight management systems here at Boeing, and at British Airways at Heathrow. In the Shuttle, originally, there were two systems that would compare readings, to make sure they were consistent, and then, because this was designed for real time, a third system was available that would only "wake up" if there was a discrepancy between the primaries, and decide which of the systems was closest to its own data. I haven't done the calculation, but if you think about it you'll understand that the statistical chance that you still end up with wrong information is quite high. But it is the best you could do in the time available - and even though we have much faster and much more capable computers today, you can reduce the risk, but not eliminate it, and as you add complexity you add risk factors.

In other words, the CAP theorem really can't work, even in two instances out of three, because you can't get a guarantee in a timely fashion unless you introduce restrictions in the physical locations of your server parks. The question then becomes one of application - where does the data you need have to be available? A theorem, as such, can't have restrictions, after all. No wonder high speed trading companies have now begun working not on the redundancy, but on having very high speed data connections available - closer to the source, faster connection, more, fast fiber, fewer routers, avoidance of POP hotels (POP - Point of Presence), and so on. The problem here is that this flies in the face of the CAP theorem - in order to provide security and redundancy, you need time, and in order to do high speed trading, you must reduce time as much as possible. We've seen some spectacular trading losses, recently, that show we're sacrificing accuracy for speed, for the sake of profit, deliberately. And perhaps what that means is that CAP, postulated in 2000, is obsolete, killed by its own elegance. Because, after all, whether or not a system serves its purpose predominantly depends on its requirements, and those are, talk to any ISO auditor, the primary problem.

Look at what are arguably the best distributed systems today, Amazon's and Google's (I don't have experience with Microsoft's cloud, and my worldwide network experiences are too aged to use for comparison). Amazon built its system for e-commerce, while Google designed its network to do rapid lookup processing. The former is, then a combination of processing and databases, the latter a very fast distributed (I would almost say dispersed) database application. Google is particularly fascinating, because it had to build a system that could retrieve websites, information, from anywhere, something nobody had ever done before. What this means, effectively, is that neither network was originally designed for the cloud, but eventually adapted to it. Amazon, as I understand it, decided to start seling some of its excess capacity, and even though it began providing e-books and streaming video, this did not require a real time network. Similarly, Google did not need real time capabilities until after it acquired Youtube, and began to stream in real time.

When I first looked at "real time computing" I found the discrepancy between high availability and fault tolerance staggering - fault tolerance cost five times as much as high availability did. What, effectively, the cloud has done is institutionalize high availability, reducing its price by scaling up it infrastructure. To some extent, that works - if you compare the supporting infrastructure for banks, and then compare American "up" time with Europe, you can see that our experience with 24/7 operations, necessary because our economy is so much based on 24/7 commerce, has led to much better availability of services. I read worldwide newspapers, and notice the frequency of outages in online banking and ATM operations in Europe, at a much higher rate than what we're used to here. It is hardly surprising, then, that the cloud was invented here, and that price regulation in Europe has forced providers to invest less than what we're used to - 24/7 availability, after all, is a competitive aspect of society. If you read my 1994 HA talk, you'll note that Europeans, not that long ago, did not have access to their money in their banks, after hours. That was "normal". This at a time when I could retrieve money from my New York bank account in Jakarta, Indonesia - around the clock (admittedly, HSBC, with headquarters in both Europe and Asia, did have 'round the clock operations more or less from Day One).

Of course, when I began work on fault tolerant systems, the target became what we refer to as "5x9", or "five nines" - systems with a designed uptime of 0.99999%. That's a downtime of about 5 minutes 15 seconds or so per year. This is a failure rate not achievable in hardware, so the way you look at "five nines" (or even "three nines") is in terms of service. From a RAID array, capable of functioning when one of its drives fail, to a redundant bus, when signals in the system have multiple paths to choose from, you can combine hardware and firmware to provide failure protection. You can go quite far, as some of us do, with multiple terminals and network connections, using different methods of connecting. One terminal using a cable internet connection, for instance, with the other using (something we can finally do now) 4G data. And that shows you, forgive me the elaborate example, how finicky and not-quite-secure this methodology is - because, on 9/11, in downtown Manhattan, everything failed. The cellular antennnas were on top of the WTC, there wasn't enough capacity across the rivers, and the fibers quickly became unusable - all of them.

I could go on, but I don't want to terminally bore you, and there is "Songs of Praise" - oops, I mean the Monza Formula 1 Grand Prix waiting for me, now that I have access to the Beeb. Next stop Singapore, ah, when will I get to travel again? And yes, I know, I haven't finished this article, in my next installment I'll address the human angle a bit more, as there is much more human in the cloud than we give it credit for...

Monday September 4, 2012; Back door to the Beeb - there isn't a front door

Keywords: BBC, broadcast television, censure, cultural exchange, Democratic convention, iPlayer, IPTV, Republican convention
OK... Republican Convention, Hurricane Isaac.. and the BBC's iPlayer. And the Germans messing up an American WWII bomb disposal- right in the middle of Munich. And the Dutch successfully removing a German WWII bomb - right in the middle of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.. and the BBC's iPlayer.

BBC iPlayerCan't quite figure out why they have this convention, or the Other One, for that matter. Don't Republicans have Skype? Don't we have too many carbons in the air? I mean, this Romney fellow is the candidate, so do these nice folks really have to get together to hear his wife tell them how great he is? What else is she going to say?

There are, perhaps, traditions that are a bit archaic, and not necessarily conducive to bringing the change we need. In a day and age where we are all interconnected, and we know who the candidates on both sides are, and we have, in the U.S., decided we still do not want more than two parties, like real democracies, why the show? Even England went to a multiparty system..

Just asking... and then a decidedly old Clint Eastwood steals the show, and the media don't go "Good show!" but "What was he thinking?". Sheesh. We need to lighten up, people. Yes, we're in a recession, but not laughing isn't going to help that one bit.

Back to the venerable BBC, older than Clint Eastwood, first in the world to broadcast television, in 1936, from Ally Pally, near where my partner's parents lived, when I was living in Norf London. Checking one of the applications installed on the Blackberry Playbook tablet I've been using since the beginning of the year, I noticed something I had seen and ignored a dozen or so times before - the help file has it there are ways of getting TV feeds from various overseas places. I don't know if you've ever tried that, but most foreign TV broadcast channels available on the internet are country restricted, and those few that aren't, usually come in various unintelligible tongues. But this time I checked what these folks were on about, and it turned out that one of their solutions, which gives you a network address in the country you'd like to watch, actually works reasonably well. So I am watching some of Britain's normally restricted broadcast channels on my US-based computers, especially gratifying since I lived in England for a long time, and for some weird reason that left me Anglophile.

There is, normally, a license fee a British TV viewer must pay, which, like in other European countries, subsidizes free TV broadcasts. Being a good boy, I went to the licensing site, to see if they had created a way for overseas folks to pay a license fee. I mean, I know we're not supposed to be able to watch, but why not make it possible to pay? No way, I am afraid, if you don't have a UK postal code, no dice. Perhaps I should use my old office address in Wood Green? Ah no, that would not be legal either...

Come to think of it, perhaps it wasn't living in England that made me Anglophile. Maybe I was Anglophile before, and that's why I moved there. I don't really know. All I know is that I've been watching science fiction and British TV since before I moved here, and still do, after 26 years. With exceptions, American TV does not appeal to me. And having gone to the trouble of connecting to British broadcasters, I really have to ask myself why. American television is watched the world over, by millions and millions of people. So that sort of does leave me the odd man out.

Scrolling through the program offerings (or, in English: programme offerings ;) I suddenly realize one of the reasons, as I come across Parade's End, with the superb Benedict Cumberbatch. Just his name has something undefinably Old World. (re)written by Tom Stoppard, it is just something incredibly soothing to have going in the background, or, as I do today, on the other screen.

ITV iPlayerOne wonders, as an aside, whether it is "Parade's End" for the United States. Taking place in World War I, Parade's End chronicles the approaching end of the British Empire, and suddenly, having watched Mitt Romney announce new jobs without ever telling us what these people are going to be doing, building, making, I wonder whether our form of capitalism is at an end, now that everybody and their grandchild seems to do what we do better than us.

Hmm. I am not trying to say there's anything wrong with America or Americans. This is somewhat hard to explain. If you've grown up in Europe, and spent half your life in the old cultures (I moved to the U.S. at age 38), you just look at life, and zings, differently. And that is all it is, different. I recall conversations with my colleagues in New York, American engineers, who really hadn't come across an engineer who'd taken Latin and Greek in high school. I could go on about this, suffice it to say America is a segmented society, even more so than Britain is. Or perhaps I should say "was", as I haven't lived there for many years, and England has changed a great deal since the 1980s.

Anyway, so it is Culture I meant, I guess I got a bit wordy. I like watching television programmes that keep me thinking, lines of dialogue whose origins I can follow. I remember a COO walking into a conference room in Jakarta and starting off with a baseball joke. Which no Indonesians there got. A Brit would have said something colonial, like driving on the same side of the road, and that would have got a laugh. A Brit, or a Dutchman, would have spent some time understanding his audience. The people. And when I watch American television today I still don't see much of anything international that can educate the average American. The NBC even cut the bits they thought too "English" out of the Olympic's opening show, and the commentators had little understanding of what they were watching, replacing intelligent commentary with about 400 repeats of the words "industrial revolution". It is what I noticed when I moved here, American culture is a bit inward looking, in "House" the doctor has to be American, when American hospitals are littered with England educated physicians. Imagine what Hugh Laurie could have done with that part in British English! Fake, you see, is fake, however good you are - and you can be English and be American at the same time, just ask (or watch) Left Coast TV host Craig Ferguson, who technically harks from Scotland, of course.

On another occasion, I'll talk to you about the limited use we seem to make of all of these capabilities - yes, the BBC broadcasts ABC News, and some PBS stations broadcast some BBC World News (the BBC runs the largest news organization on the planet, I believe), but giving the populace everywhere live access to everybody else's television is not exactly happening. The carriers and ISPs, as well as the governments, aren't interested in giving you "the world at your fingertips", their only effort seems to be in the area of selling expensive services to those who can't get them anywhere else, like selling Zee to (East) Indians, and some international channels from other countries in premium cable or satellite packages. I have personally always found the level of attention to national and international evening news ridiculous - the main broadcasters give you just half an hour of news, squeezed in between hours and hours of local news, with the advertisers continually baying at their doors to broadcast Law & Order or Entertainment Tonight. It is high time we began thinking outside of the box, internationally, there must be ways beyond the conventional to begin providing international information that isn't preselected by broadcasters, that can help educate our youngsters. We talk about the Chinese and the Iranians censuring things, and what we don't realize is that we're doing the same thing, as - for instance - folks overseas can't watch NBC, because NBC sells Law & Order to carriers, and so you cannot watch American television broadcasts on the internet. How crazy and dysfunctional is that?

It is the end of summer, somehow, the Fourth of July holiday weekend, I am not used to this weather, but the temperatures here in the Pacific Northwest are on their way down already, but of a heatwave at the end of July, and that was it. I think I'll take a run out and see what goes on at the Washington shore, where I've never been...


Wednesday August 29, 2012; The World Wide Database

Keywords: careerbuilder.com, database engines, Google, job hunting, LinkedIn, Microsoft, monster.com
At my Telegraph blog: my.telegraph.co.uk/aartsen


Sunday August 25, 2012; Recession, or Misdirection?

Keywords: advertising, agriculture, development funding, fuel, internet, Romney

mandarin portalI don't know if you've been following Mitt Romney's rhetoric about energy self-sufficiency, I find much of that noisy election-speak, rather than that it has any basis in reality. Only the other day, I caught him on CBS Morning News beginning a sentence with "energy self sufficiency in Am...", then quickly swallowing his sentence, and turning "Am.." into "North America". And his noise about the infamous pipeline is noise about a pipeline from Canada to the United States, nothing whatsoever to do with American oil. No, Mitt, Canada is not the United States, and while they are a good neighbour, they have their own agenda. Rather than go to England and Poland and Israel, when you went walkabout, you should have gone to Canada and Mexico. The oil coming through this pipeline (which has not been canceled but simply needs to redo its permit application) is Canadian, and we will have to pay the Canadians for it. Makes no difference with Saudi or Kuwaiti or Iraqi oil, especially since we're paying for much of the pipeline, while the other guys pay for their own tankers. Thinkaboutit.

I've looked at what goes on here in Washington State, which technically should have the cheapest water-generated electricity in the United States, and I see that many people (I can't say "the majority" since I don't have the data) use gas to heat and cook. Gas that comes... from Canada. When I see that I wonder whether we're even close to looking at generating electricity and using heat pumps to reduce the cost of imported energy. Romney just wants to add more Canadian oil to the mix - as I understand it the majority of the oil in use on the West Coast comes from there anyway.

So if you're replacing "self sufficiency" with "North American self-sufficiency", sure, you can make lots of irrelevant comments about energy. But Romney, as a business person, should know this: you can't make money by spending less. You make money by selling more. And I am not seeing any plans on Mitt's part (or on Obama's, for that matter) to sell oil or energy to India and China, both countries desperate for the stuff. Using hydro-power to free up oil and gas for exportation, now that would impress me. But nobody is thinking or talking about that. We're talking about bringing gas prices down. Nice, but with a drought that cuts into ethanol production... Shell Oil advertising they are working with their Brazilian partners on ethanol production.. guess what, that's imported. Not only that, it's bullshit, as well - the Brazilians began producing ethanol to be less dependent on imported oil in.. 1975, and built the first car to run on 100% ethanol in 1979. They combined ethanol production with sugar production, so ended up with two products out of one - sugarcane. And Shell advertising Brazilian ethanol in the United States in 2012 - let me put it this way, Brazil is the second largest exporter on ethanol in the world, and has a population of only 190 million, and an enormous fertile landmass to grow this crap on.

All I am saying is that I would love to talk to some folks with good ideas, the election rhetoric, if they get anybody to believe some of it, is only going to make things worse. It's getting to be like a game show, this election.

In the meantime, the industrious Germans, in the middle of being hit by the Eurecession, have some terrific economic news (that link is in German!): in the first half of 2012, they have managed to increase their agricultural exports (these are people we think of as engineers and manufacturers) to non-Western countries by 13.3%, to some 7 billion Euros. Total agricultural exports were worth some 29.5 billion Euros, In other words: the Germans "saw it coming" and managed to increase exports to countries less affected by the recession, something they could only do by careful planning and preparation - the screen capture to the left shows you GEFA's Mandarin Chinese website, they have them in quite a few languages. I am using this example because I can see the Germans looking ahead, while our candidates are not. I would need Romney (and Obama, of course) to be talking about where we need to be ten years from now, and how we get there. And I'll give you a couple of clues: it's got nothing to do with Medicare (we need to make more money so we can afford healthcare, we're not going to be healthy by saving money) or with finding life on Mars (robots need to go out here and find and harvest the natural resources we need, screw the bacteria - if we want to find life we can just watch Obama v. Romney).

mandarin portalIf you have followed Facebook's exploits, you'll have noticed the company is having a hard time monetizing its mobile users. As I've mentioned now and again, forcing Facebook members to pay for data services for advertising is likely not a brilliant idea. The screen capture to the left show you one way they might tie users to their service, financially - paying the carrier for the user's data. It looks like they are doing that with Claro, probably as a test - Claro is a brand that belongs to America Movil of Mexico, owned by multimegatrillionaire Carlos Slim. It is one of the largest telecommunications providers in the world, and of course South and Middle America, where Claro operates, is full of lower income folks who could not otherwise access data services on mobile phones. In many cases in those regions, though, mobile is the only way they could access data, as there isn't an advanced telecommunications infrastructure in much of its coverage area. So, please, Mr. Zuckerberg, can you tell us if you're paying Mr. Slim, with some of that lovely investor money, or is it the other way around?

With the ongoing collapse of Groupon, and the non-success of Facebook's IPO, it is increasingly clear that their formulas work to achieve a membership, but do not work as a method to achieve income. Groupon may be a completely different case, where possibly the recession is making it hard-to-impossible for sellers to maintain pricing that allows discounts. But Facebook joins a long line of social networks, from CompuServe via AOL to MySpace, that haven't worked, in the long run, and that probably because they don't charge a membership fee. The cause may simply be competition- CompuServe and AOL used to charge for access, then ended up having to lower their prices as the "free" competition came along, offering the same thing for no money. In the end, everybody went belly-up. Going back to where advertising paid its way, that was in magazines, which consumers pay for, newspapers, which consumers pay for, and television, fully financed by advertising (in the United States). There was, when all this came about, little television - just three channels, and I should imagine that now that we have the ability to publish everything electronically, and have as many TV channels as we want, the method simply no longer works. Surf channels on your cable box, and you'll find huge numbers of advertising-only channels, and I will bet you that their proliferation is because they no longer work. I can't imagine any internet connected teen ever watching infomercials again. If that is how you make your money, get out, before it bankrupts you.

Why listen to me? Like your teens, I have spent most of my life on the internet, I worked on internet's forerunners, began my career with IBM, and moved to the press just as electronic page makeup became a reality (we were a bit quicker with that in Europe than American publishers were, my publishers had fully electronic page makeup, including transmission to the remote printing factory, in the late 1970s). In other words, I have a twenty year head start on most of today's internet users. And, for what it is worth, I do not read paper papers, do not watch television advertising, do not watch infomercials, and ever since the World Wide Web and search engines became available to me (mid-90s, as I was in a development lab and could use UNIX tools on the nascent WWW, which is to all intents and purposes a giant UNIX box) have used those tools to find things. And what I see is that children growing up today do the same thing - they do searches and, as children do, use their peers for reference. The main variable are the parents - many still feel children should "read books", for whatever un-thought-through reason; others do not understand children need smartphone and laptop skills to advance in their studies and their careers, so buy crappy phones and cheap notebooks; and it goes on. Insofar as there are technologically deprived children, that is a class created by parents and, to some extent, governments. I remember talking to one parent, the daughter of a friend, who home schools her children, and does not feel the children need more than dialup internet for their homework. I feel sorry for them, and I think parents like that should be fined or jailed, but there it is, there will be another underclass.

Anyway, the telephone is virtually free, the internet is virtually free, so I don't know either how we're going to monetize the new media. One thing is for sure: we're going down the wrong track.

Monday August 20, 2012; Billionaire, Bodybuilder or Blonde?

Keywords: asylum, Assange, Bush, Obama, Romney
At my Telegraph blog: my.telegraph.co.uk/aartsen

Friday August 17, 2012; It isn't about jobs; it's about work

Keywords: internet, Deepak Chopra, Volkswagen, Beijing, employment, trade, Yahoo

mandarin portalSoon after I got my new Blackberry Torch, in May, I noticed that the "home portal" T-Mobile provides, web2go.com, changed. Where I'd had news headlines from CNN before, from the look of it the headlines now come from Yahoo. I'd seen the Yahoo headlines before, when logging into my Yahoo mail account, they're usually an eclectic mix of Britney Spears, the love life of Tom Cruise's son, and drivel about Olympic athletes' tax bills. Little or no news, in other words, at least not stuff I consider news. I have to be careful saying that, of course, plenty of people love this entertainment stuff, or there would be no TMZ.

At any rate, the question is how you present yourself, as what we used to call a "portal". The only company that cracked a formula was Google, which realized that there wasn't anything you could present that interested all people, so you should simply ask them what they wanted to know. Where, usually, anybody who thinks of a new concept gets pipped by number two, or three, or four, look at AOL getting upended by the World Wide Web, Google took off and got so far ahead its competitors can't even smell its exhaust any more.

As Deepak Chopra said on CBS News, the other day: "My five and six year old grandchildren don't even watch TV any more, they get up,  they go to Youtube". Youtube, a,k.a. Google video. Or Google TV. Or whatever you want to call it. And the Google folks just keep going, they have an idea, get it started, if it doesn't work they move on to the next idea.

So now we have one of the head Googles, Marissa Mayer, stepping up to fix Yahoo. A Yahoo that, famously, went and bought some 40% of then fledgling Chinese internet company Alibaba seven years ago, and so should have had the ability to make a good entry into the Chinese market - Alibaba is a profitable behemoth today. Except the story has it Alibaba is planning to buy out Yahoo's share.

China is a really hard nut to crack. Google pulled out - voluntarily, but even so, Facebook didn't even try, Twitter hasn't managed, I am not seeing Blackberry there, Apple manufactures there, so is a different animal,  and then Skype is in China, Microsoft is in China, Nokia is in China, but they are among the few. My company, back when, NYNEX/Bell Atlantic, pulled out, you couldn't do telecommunications in China without participation of the People's Army, which was an issue. Much has been written about how to crack the Chinese market, but I don't know that anybody has the Golden Grail. I found a dichotomy in China - yes, the Chinese want to play in the world market, but then you turn around and see they really don't.

All I am saying is that I would hope Marissa Mayer can find another way of dealing with them - Yahoo's connection with China goes back a long way, and is likely related to one of its founders, Jerry Yang, who is of Taiwan Chinese ancestry. Ditching that chunk of Alibaba would be a bad move,  from the development perspective, in my opinion. The press has it Ross Levinson, the interim CEO at Yahoo, is the architect of the Alibaba buyout - is his departure related to that not being considered a good move? This is just me conjecturing, please understand I am totally besotted with China, where the general atmosphere reminds me of New York in the 1980s, when I got here, and I keep thinking (or maybe hoping...) there has to be a way to "do this together". If there is anything that is totally stupid, in my world, is that 1.5  billion Chinese can't get on Facebook. There has to be a batter way of "doing the internet" - we may have invented it, it really is high time to separate a computer network from human rights. This is what you do with customers: you find out their needs, their limitations, and then you build what it is they're looking for. You do not send Hillary Clinton to lecture them on politics. Or try to hide "dissidents' from their police.

As I am sure Marissa Mayer knows well, the American and European markets are stagnant. Yes, there is an uptick at places like Google, but the cause of that is an increase in advertising, companies think advertising more will increase sales, hence the interest in new advertising technologies like SEO and Targeted Marketing. Not so, in a bad recession, but these aren't folks that can think out of the box. When Costco sees an increase in memberships, and the only item they make money on is those memberships, there's something else going on altogether.

Growth is in Asia, that's actually been the case for a long time. I vividly remember the first time I went shopping in Singapore, from my Jakarta, Indonesia posting - this was 1995, and the local airlines were flying shuttles between Jakarta and Singapore. Except, those weren't small Airbuses or Boeings, they were Jumbo jets, 747s. And they were full, every hour. It is in Singapore, see the picture to the left, where they put airconditioning in outdoor terraces... think about this, we have never had 747s as airline shuttles, we, unlike Beijing, do not have live TV in the subway, and I've never seen an airconditioned outdoor seating area in any restaurant in the United States. So anyone trying to turn a large corporation around, in the capitalist West, today, and doesn't have functional subsidiaries in India and China, hasn't really gotten the message.

Beijing police VWAll you need to do, if you're a business person, is walk around Beijing, and see that practically every taxicab, police car, is a Volkswagen, and every government car is an Audi. Then do some research on how the Germans market and produce - it impresses the heck out of me, it isn't like they learn Mandarin in school. The only reason the Germans aren't more successful than they are is because they don't speak English - like the French, the British, the Americans and other large countries, Germans don't grow up with the sound of other languages, they dub their movies and television series into their native language, it is a shock to me every time I am in Germany, and hear Captain Kirk speaking German. For Germany, it got worse at unification, because East Germans spoke even less English than West Germans did.

I know I am getting a bit off base here, but the reason why small Western countries do so well, in trade and IT, is that we're brought up speaking English. The difference seems marginal, but we learn languages in school, and then, when we get home, we get movies and television series broadcast in those languages, with subtitles. We learn as we grow up, we absorb the sound, we learn the sound we develop better reading skills.

Language is at the core - India, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, do well in outsourcing and IT because they all have English as a native language. China has not decided that's a good idea, learning English isn't encouraged, go into a Beijing computer store and you'll have a hard time finding an English speaking sales person. It is India's main advantage, despite its economic problems - at independence, they made English an official native language.

I don't really have a lesson out of all this, except we're in a recession, and the only way for your company to do well is to either export, or trade overseas, or set up subsidiaries, or do all of the above. With today's transportation, and the internet, setting up shop in Chennai is no harder than setting up shop in Renton, WA. Of course, you need to hire some people who speak the lingo, but being an immigrant nation, we have plenty of those. All I am saying, Ms. Mayer, is: don't sell that chunk of Alibaba - Yahoo will just burn through the money if you do, and outGoogling Google - I don't think so.

Monday August 13, 2012; Two eyes is not redundant vision

At my Telegraph blog: my.telegraph.co.uk/aartsen

Sunday, August 5, 2012; "New" Internet? Where's the Old?

Keywords: Tivo, advertising, Youtube, TV news, NBC, Olympics coverage

broadcast block by NBCWell, says the Wall Street Journal, "Social-Media Stock Frenzy Fizzles". Sure enough, but it isn't because the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs "can't monetize" their products. It is because Wall Street, way back when, decided that you could take a product consumers liked, and give it to them without charging for it, as if it was 1941, and adding advertising to TV was opening up a whole new market. Never mind that there were only three broadcast networks in the United States then, and that Western Europe thought about it and decided that was not a good model to finance television, advertising is now the way we're going to finance the internet, the subscription model today is used only by a few hallmark publishers.

Internet, an interactive computer interconnection methodology, isn't even slightly related to television. Apart from anything else, internet is diverse and dispersed, it makes television fully obsolete, something carriers are fighting desperately. In other countries, there are time delays due to the need to translate and edit, but nowhere does a government allow a commercial company to censor a world event (NBC completely replaced parts of the opening ceremony, and didn't stream it live on one of its gazillion cable channels, which would not have interfered with the "main" broadcast). If you want to know why I don't believe in all of this noise about "internet freedom", it is what I've just described to you - yes, the Chinese and the Iranians censor the internet, but Comcast actively preventing live access to Olympic broadcasts amounts to the same thing - censoring. An NBC spokesman, when asked, admitted as much - "the broadcast needs to be put in context" - that's exactly how the Chinese and the Iranians justify their management of the internet, and of television.

"The foundation of a new internet era" the New York Times calls it. Why would there be a new internet era? What was wrong with the old one? What we did was use the existing concept of advertising funded service, then finding out that advertisers aren't paying enough to support all of the media, and invent a mirage called "targeted marketing", forgetting that computers, websites and "handheld devices" cannot read minds. It does not matter how many algorithms you embed in your Android device, there will never be any way it can tell Papa John's when I feel like having pizza. On all of my devices, Facebook tries to force me to turn on my GPS antenna, even if I am accessing Facebook using a mobile browser. If it can do this, it can send you local advertising. Facebook, and its clients, believe that this will help them sell things to you. Left and right, the evidence is that more and more consumers are displeased when social networks track their movements and activities, but this does not in any way alter their methodologies. It is amazing to see Facebook's technique - they began with two of those thumbnail ads in your news feed, then three, now they are up to seven or so, and since that didn't do what they were looking for, the ads now refresh while you are in your news feed. If that isn't desperation, I don't know what is.

Personally, as the broadcast wasn't live anyway, I Tivo'd the whole thing, began watching later, and skipped all of the commercials. What is with these people, broadcasting programs on delay, but pretending they are live, as Comcast does with the Today Show every day, here on the West Coast? I don't know what makes them think this sells more advertising - the deterioration of journalism into "How did it make you feel to become a princess?" and "What did you think when you died?" has to, at some point, begin to become known as "unreality television". I even saw Matt Lauer and his cohorts discuss Daniel Craig's mission to Buckingham Palace to fetch Her Majesty as if that happened in real time. Not to mention their hearing that Paul McCartney's voice cracked, for emotional reasons, when he saw the vast arena full of people in front of him - what they heard, in fact, was Paul McCartney's singing voice succumbing to old age.

Writing about technology, I do, of course, attempt to predict the future as much as the next writer does, I have more experience than most, and I am a patent holding developer and technology integrator. In the case of Facebook and its cohorts, it goes even beyond educated guesswork, as I am a user, a customer, and I've seen and participated in more social media than most. I had my own user group on CompuServe in the early 1980s, leased a server from ITT Dialcom (later BT Dialcom) soon after, was an early Dialogic user, and by the time I made it to NYNEX' research labs in White Plains, NY, in 1990, left AOL by the wayside. I was, by then, able to set up and run my own servers, which I decided was rather more fun than mingling with citizens, who by then were able to subscribe to the nascent internet, and effectively invade and take over our elitist little club.

Forbes advertisingAt any rate, the way I look at Facebook is the same way I looked at AOL - where you had to log in and use "keywords" to get to where you wanted to be. AOL, that compressed webpages before sending them to you, to save money. AOL, then Yahoo, and then came Microsoft, that tried to get on the bandwagon by buying Hotmail, the first time I can remember a technology company spent a huge amount of money on a company that had no revenues. All in the same vein - every single one of these corporations don't sell a product, they took over carrying advertising from the printed press, and have between them fragmented the market to the point that advertising has become vastly more expensive than it used to be. Instead of advertising in fifteen publications, you now have to advertise on five hundred websites, so bad that the "share" buttons on a website have to come up in a separate window. When Hotmail was acquired, in 1997, it had some 9.5 million subscribers, for the day that's pretty much Facebook size, and that was going to be the core of Microsoft's online presence. In various ways, Microsoft has, since then, attempted to force Windows users to use their Hotmail address to register, pretty much the same way some publishers, today, won't let you register unless you do so with your Facebook account. Dunno, kids, I get the feeling some of those marketing folks aren't learning from history, because it was the consumer, hand in hand with some governments, that stopped Microsoft from doing what it was doing, something that brought them some very large antitrust fines.

So, as the press would have it, is this the end of Wall Street's love affair with "social networks"? I've been waiting for the penny to drop - there is no such thing as Search Engine Optimization, and no such thing as Targeted Marketing - that is, these are technologies that do exist, but they don't produce any sales. The idea behind all this is that when you go to a search engine looking for something, it'll take you to General Motors - this despite the fact that all car manufacturers are using the same tools. The screen capture to the left shows you a typical example of "the new internet" - Forbes thinks that providing four menu areas - left, right, top, bottom - to the point where it really is no longer possible to see even a small portion of the article you were wanting to read, is an effective way of marketing and selling advertising. I find it hard to believe "specialists" are making $250,000 a year thinking up this kind of lunacy, if anybody bothered to equate their efforts with actual $ale$ they'd be on the way to the labour exchange.

Think about it this way (and if you're a CEO, pay close attention): you get up, crank up your laptop so you can watch the news, and go to the kitchen to make coffee. In the kitchen, you're met by someone you don't know, who positions themselves between you and the coffeemaker, and is going to ask you questions about some supermarket products, instead of your making coffee. Not while, instead. It is a survey. It arbitrarily collects information someone sticks in a spreadsheet, and someone else the uses algorithms or software or both to predict the future using this information. This methodology delivers data on which Vice Presidents of Marketing base recommendations that go to their CEOs, Presidents, Boards of Directors, and Government departments. If you do not want to take part in the survey, you have to push the person taking it out of the way.

"If you want to make money, sell something people need, food, asswipe", a Vice President once said to me. Facebook and Pinterest and Twitter are nice tools to communicate with, but, the same as it was with my first consumer product, voice dialing, back in the early 1990s, consumers will not pay for products that do things they can do themselves. Consumers do not buy a car because it has a touch screen.

We are, in many ways, our own worst enemy. We had a perfectly good product, the telephone, which we needed to buy service for, so we could speak with one another. That service kept quite a few people in bread and butter, for many decades - it had, if you will, an access fee. Then, someone in Joisey invented a way of doing this without a wire. That made it even more expensive - my first handheld, a Radio Shack phone made by Nokia, cost some $1,200, and the service easily another $200 - per month. Then, someone invented data transmission (part of the original European GSM specification), and next, the portable computer (another Radio Shack first, made by Kyocera in Japan). Eventually, Apple came in with a handheld computing device called the iPhone - and now, we all have handheld computers, with the phone, the only thing we really need, built in - for free.

Saturday August 4, 2012; Nobody out-Googles Google

At my Telegraph blog: my.telegraph.co.uk/aartsen

Wednesday August 2, 2012; If it isn't free, is it still Social?

At my Telegraph blog: my.telegraph.co.uk/aartsen

Monday July 30, 2012; Obama Cares

Keywords: Colorado shooting, universal health care, remote working, distance learning

health careI haven't written about health care for a while, but the Colorado shooting reminds me of one of my hobby horses: socialized medicine. Health care, here in the United States, isn't available to many millions of people, something that Hillary Clinton, and now Barack Obama, are trying to provide solutions to.

Something that legislators and voters need to think of, when we look at these deranged killers, is that socialized medicine includes mental health care, and that generally available mental health care can prevent some of these folks running off the rails. In most Western countries, socialized health care includes ways for mentally ill or deranged folk to get some kind of care. It is one of the things that struck me as incongruous, when I came to live in the United States, moving here from England, and before that, The Netherlands - how can you label your country as "the richest country in the world" and not provide medical care to all your people, as we do in Europe? When I moved to New York City, with just a thousand dollars in my pocket, I was able to get incidental care at St. Vincent's hospital, but a kindly pharmacist at Charing Cross Hospital in London, where I had received NHS specialist care during my years there, sent me the arthritis medication I could not have afforded in the United States, until I eventually got insurance through my new employer.

I have no way of knowing whether the Aurora shooting might have been prevented had the shooter received psych care earlier in life, I don't know that he did not, all I am saying is that mental health care would certainly "intercept" some of the deranged killers we see, certainly the Virginia Tech shooter had psychological and social issues. Anything that makes people's lives better, and helps them when they have need, we should be able to do. I don't know what's wrong with those who label these efforts "Obamacare" and vow to take medical care away from people who need it, but please think about this when you go to vote. Some of what we do must help those who can't help themselves, or we might as well forget about going to church on Sunday. Or Saturday. Or Friday, Or whenever your religion wants you to.

ISSRarely discussed is the cost, both to insurers and society, of taking care of adults who have not had appropriate health care growing up. Children and adolescents who grow up in bad health will have significant health issues later in life, health issues that get progressively more expensive. Even if they do get health insurance, as they grow up, they will be "costly to maintain", requiring the fixing of ailments that could have been avoided. There is a cause-and-effect issue here, one that rarely gets addressed if you govern your country election-to-election. Europe has, with its many-party system that requires extensive negotiation, been better able to put in place measures that have long term societal impact, and is less prone to what we see Governor Romney propose - rolling back a law that has cost billions to put into effect, and adding additional billions in public and private expenditure undoing it. These types of change rarely benefit anybody, we're much better off leaving everything in place, and working with what's there to make things better.

Thinking about where it all begins, education, what I would really be interested in is an organization with the temerity to begin a completely new process of dissemination - from education and work to home entertainment, we have new technologies we're not really using in any significant way. Twenty-odd years ago, after I had moved into telecommunications R&D, we had this new thing, the internet, and the Mosaic browser that gave rise to the World Wide Web. We've been coasting on that ever since, and mostly are today trying to put square plugs into round holes, making phones with screens that get progressively larger (this is the most stupid thing on Earth), "tablets" that try to do what only computers can do (looks like Microsoft got that message), and computers that can't do what they're supposed to do, because they generate too much heat, which is hidden from you because of their automated output management we've been told is an advance in technology.

Laptops are either too large, or not fast enough, and I probably don't need to remind you of all of the cellphones that have been catching fire, over the years. Today, the advanced smartphones run out of battery halfway down the day, if we use them at full capacity - I have at least one smartphone that has a "power saving" setting - the fact that it is there means we're not able to manage our technologies. Putting "the internet" into huge TV sets when kids no longer watch conventional television means simply that we have the wrong people in the lab, today. Seriously.

But this isn't about overheating computers. This is about why we still have children learning in schools and classrooms, why we have workers going into offices, and why we have government employees and politicians physically attending conferences. We have, for some years now, had the technology to make all of that unnecessary, and I am beginning to believe that until we begin to push hard to make the use of that technology mandatory, we're not going to get to the next stage of the industrial revolution. If nothing else, we're not going to solve global warming until we get those commuters out of their cars.

Think about it, the majority of those, and they are the majority of car buyers and -users, don't need to actually go anywhere to work. Same for the kids, the soccer moms and the school buses - mostly completely unnecessary, at least in the Western world. Yet, we continue building roads, solving traffic problems, and preparing our cars to deal with the rigours of long commutes - you can message from many cars, using speech recognition, even though we now know that any kind of conversation can fatally distract a driver's attention. It is as if we are addicted to this way of living our lives, moving to a good school district as the kids grow up, even though we can use a combination of home schooling and online education, and make that better than any school class could ever have to be. And there are other ways of tackling education - we could combine kids in a neighbourhood class, taught by parents who rotatingly get time off, we could have traveling, visiting teachers, there are so many different ways we can use that really need trying and creative thinking.

It is out-of-the-box thinking that we are most in need of, today. Look at China, and India, we can see that large proportions of the population are moving into cities - but that is a trend that began in England during the Industrial Revolution, when factory workers needed to be living close to the factories they worked in, in a day when mass transit was not yet available. That Industrial Revolution is the only reason why we have lots of kids in those enormous amorphous schools, something we have built an educational system around. We've built an educational system around something invented in 1750, when the mechanized loom came into being, then re-invented in 1850, when the steam engine became portable. The true interconnectedness of the world didn't happen until the 1980s, when the internet began to connect individual countries and regions, and the 1990s, when Communism took a nosedive that has led to the globalization of various forms of capitalism, which, in turn, connected the rest of the world to the global internet. You could say, then, that the Third Industrial Revolution began in 1980, and as before, had an enormous impact on the world's population. Now is perhaps the time to start making the changes new technologies enable, and begin abandoning the ways we deceive ourselves. After all, when you no longer commute, you don't need that hybrid fuel efficient vehicle, as you're not using much of the gasoline you used to, right? You won't even need that new vehicle, and can just get by using a recycled one, saving energy there, too.

Sunday July 22, 2012; Advertising that does not sell

Keywords: Tivo, advertising, Youtube, TV news

Tivo menuI think we may have a larger problem than "jobs", when I look at the advertising flying around - just on my Tivo (see pic to the right) they sell some of the sparse screen real estate so they can put things in front of consumers. These are folks who access their Tivo in order to watch television - and just because advertising was a big thing on TV in 1954, why does anybody think that is still the case today? We have some new and some old advertising technologies, nobody has any idea which leads where, and we are - in my view - stupidly adding more advertising without there being any reason to think any of it works.

Why do telecommunications companies, or insurance companies, think that using the same language across all vendors sells anything? All carriers advertise unlimited data plans that are limited, we've seen the carriers try to change the meaning of the word "unlimited" on several occasions, Chevrolet had the Federal Government change terminology to "distinguish" the Chevy Volt, insurance companies tell you their plans have everything "in network" so you find out it isn't after you sign up, and on top of all that we now have a presidential candidate who says that withdrawing insurance from poor people is "good for America". I am glad to be reminded they can buy their own insurance, which is why they were uninsured in the first place. Have we gone crazy?

The thing is, of course, what do we replace those useless activities with? The advertising is for companies that compete, so even if it worked wouldn't help the economy - the economy does not care whether you buy your service from Aflac or United Healthcare, and as the economy is in a downward spiral there aren't enough consumers who can afford coverage. Worse, we have now entered the realm of deceiving consumers into thinking we give them more than we actually do, thereby hurting the consumer, but actually creating a situation where they have to pay more for less, and that, in turn, has an additional detrimental effect on the economy. As advertisers and the creators of products and services now seriously believe that you can sell something to someone by putting an advert of that thing in front of the consumer instead of the information that consumer wanted, it seriously is high time we asked ourselves why we spend real money on completely crazy activities. Did you ever buy a pair of shoes because they were shown to you instead of the nine o'clock news you pushed the button for?

Here is Deepak Chopra on CBS about his 5- and 6 year old grandchildren: "They don't watch television at all any more, they get up, they go to Youtube". Advertisers must begin to pay attention - and, in my book, should be working on abandoning the traditional media altogether, tomorrow, preferably, I'll help. Free up the talent and the money to create new ways of selling things - you'll sell just as much crap with traditional advertising as without. Promise. Forget Facebook, too - that's for boomers. And boomers are the past. Even just looking at news functionality, the Pew Institute concludes Youtube "is it" as far as news is concerned.

The only way you can get a new, happy customer, is by providing more service for less money, something the Chinese know how to do, and we don't. They won't be able to do this forever, but they prepared, and paid down. We did not.The parcel in the picture left contains a webcam, mail ordered from Hong Kong, for the princely sum of US$4.99 including shipping. Somehow, the Chinese manage to sustain this "onslaught", and all you need to do is go into the store on a Saturday and look at the price of a box of cereal, and you can see we're not sustaining this - even though disposable incomes have shrunk... And I don't believe there are enough consumers that buy games that all of those magical start-ups can "make a difference". Remember that all of that good-for-you green stuff, like solar panels and wind energy, have so far only managed to make energy more expensive, and shortages continue, while there isn't any pollution control that has made a dent anywhere that I can see. Look at the statistics and it will be clear to you nobody is doing anything that has any downward impact on the carbons. Looked at simplistically, if we don't reduce our energy consumption, and make fewer babies, we're not going to bring anything down. Making the Dutch believe that it helps if you unplug your TV when you're not watching is impressive, but doesn't help, as they install solar panels on their roofs in a country where the sun only shines three days a year....

China Post from Hong Kong

This being the Royal Jubilee year, we're fairly overrun with PBS programming about Queen Elizabeth II, and that brought to my Vaio the well known voice of Sir Trevor McDonald, a voice I had not partaken of since the 1990s. It sort of propelled me straight back to the News at Ten, thankfully one can now go to Youtube and key up bits of history, which had, for me, the unwanted but appreciated effect of the proverbial pang of incongruous homesickness.

I suppose it is partially because there's been such a long gap in my hearing Sir Trevor's voice, I left for America permanently in 1985, but felt very much at home in Britain - paradoxically (and I can't really explain that without writing a book) probably more so than in The Netherlands, where I was born, though it is only partly my country of ancestry.

On the subject of Britain, the BBC reports that publicly funded research will be available to the taxpayer, in the future, as is the case here in the United States (Google publishes most research as well as all U.S. patents for free). It is a pity the BBC gives it a negative slant - this initiative gives "armchair scientists" an opportunity to work from behind their terminal, and will bring more and better science and development into the marketplace. There are lots of very brilliant people that don't make it to Oxbridge or JPL, but have the ability to benefit society with what they do, and this will certainly help, in that respect. No idea why it took so long, but it is a good move - and as I said, we did that long ago, in the United States. Combined with global search engines, it brings science to all. Good show.

By the way, I mentioned recently that many British news websites have loads and lots of American content when they "see" an American IP address - this morning I notice that of the ten or so news stories mentioned on the CBS Morning News, fully half come from British papers. I am not the only one who gets his news from the U.K., then, apart from Randy Rupert's moronic outlets there is really some excellent press coverage going on, as opposed to copying stories others publish, which I see an awful lot of. There's something to be said for journalists whose native language is English (sorry) and who aren't solely driven by selling advertising pages. I just hope it stays this way - I see the Beeb sliding into commercial space on a regular basis, which isn't why it was invented. Keep up the good work, folks, this is one British export that works. One unfortunate side effect of America's insular qualities is that much of the country thinks that "international news" is a report about Mrs. Clinton visiting Egypt, and important news that happens in Thailand or Botswana is relegated to Youtube moments. CBS is at least trying to be different...

Saturday July 14, 2012; Airplanes, computers, everything breaks

Keywords: Hewlett Packard, Windows Media Center, Airbus, Sullenburger, Concorde

HP PavilionBleh. The HP Pavilion I thought I had cleverly saved, by disabling its built-in screen and hanging an HDMI panel off it, died. Days of work down the tubes, and that was a really nice little laptop, multimedia-capable with some of the clever stuff HP puts in its "entertainment devices". Thankfully, I had not yet put my Sony Vaio All-in-One on Ebay, so was able to put that back in service, but I guess I am out the $450 or so I had hoped to recoup, which would have paid for the new laptop. Now I need to decide whether or not to have it repaired, although I replaced it with a Lenovo that was on sale, that is actually a brilliant laptop, but a bit bigger than I like to carry around with me (meaning it does not fit in my backpack). But I can work. I go paranoid when I do not have two working systems, many years in the phone company, and especially being "in charge" on 9/11, have made it a phobia to be able to get online and work at all times. My internet is backed up up worldwide by T-Mobile and a tetherable Blackberry Torch, and I normally have a spare laptop sitting around - so there is my current compromise, one laptop and a Sony Vaio All-in-One (although, sneakily, with a UPS that will behave like a laptop, though I have not tested how long the UPS will last). Why worry about the Pavilion? It has some nice extras, like a remote, it has (with the dock I bought) optical Dolby, it has eSata, handles HDCP and digital HDMI, and it is actually good looking.

Owell. Lot of time wasted, but I do know all there is to know about Microsoft Windows Media Center by now, which works like a dream using a digital cable / antenna TV USB adapter, cheapest DVR you'll ever have, if you have a Win7 PC lying around you don't really need. Of course, if you are a privacy nut and you don't like your cable or satellite provider mining your converter box or DVR for marketing information, the PC/cable adapter solution works well, too. That's why I have liked my Tivo, and why I like my "AverTV Hybrid Volar Max TV Tuner Kit for Windows", which works directly with Microsoft's Windows Media Center - I guess that means you're just providing Microsoft with data, although you can turn that off. Here in the US, cable companies aren't going to tell you whether or not you can use this device on your cable connection, I just tried, and it works (don't expect premium channels, though). I note that a similar unit is available in the UK as well, I have no way testing it with DVB-T and DVB-T2, though, the US has ATSC.

Curiously, this morning, CBS anchor Rebecca Jarvis gave a good example of how little anybody understands about what to do with all of that data, this on the subject of targeted marketing. She quoted department store Macy's as an example, which, according to her, after you had accessed its website four times in the course of a working day, would send you an email with a special offer towards the beginning of the evening, to get you to buy something online.

And that is a perfect example of the simplistic, brainless and useless way we're using the vast masses of data we now collect. To begin with, if someone accesses your website four times during a day, they have likely decided what, or if, they want to buy something, and you don't need to risk upsetting them by letting them know you're watching them. The up and coming generation knows it is being spied on, and how to send you packing. Secondly, you don't know why they accessed your site. They're likely comparing prices for their 87 year old Auntie who has been buying at Macy's since 1933 - not someone you have to market to any more. We must understand we have no clue why somebody does something, and guessing this from their behaviour leads to lots of misunderstanding, go talk to a divorce lawyer if you don't believe me. Last but not least, what corporations do not understand is that impulse buying works only if you spend billions of dollars and decades building thousands of Wal-Mart stores, and then once everybody gets into big box stores and has all of the flat screen TVs you put by the door at half price, and everybody has copied your formula, it dies. Even so, this isn't something you can conveniently do via email, because everybody and his great-grandmother is emailing everybody, and even if you manage to stand out it is only for three minutes. No, you can't predict when somebody gets hungry, even if you can see them through their webcam, something Facebook is trying to build into its business model, until the EU figures it out, and puts a stop to it. The bottom line is that collecting data without knowing what it means is very much a waste of time.

Ann Curry's departure at the Today Show may not be the solution Comcast is looking for. It may well be that the Today Show's loss of ratings is due not to Good Morning America, but to the young people demographic, which is turning towards the internet, has been for a long time. Long in the tooth and populated by plastic people with one hairdresser, the Today Show has morphed to where their interviews consist mostly of "How did that make you feel" and other tearjerkers, and they get to interview people because they're the largest. Anybody who is anybody stubs a toe, you can count on them to be on the Today Show the next morning. If they're legally blind, so much the better. I've seen Savannah Guthrie, who is a D.C. lawyer on heels, dispense tearful legal advice on air, in the news - that isn't television, and she is no Charlie Rose, who has a personality. I abandoned Today a while ago, when CBS, in hiring Charlie Rose for their morning program, turned that into a real news program, with lots of stuff that interests me. An endless parade of high end New York City chefs telling housewives what to cook, when they haven't seen the inside of a Gristedes on a budget, having to bring home dinner between work and home on Friday afternoon, may be cute, but it does not help anybody, in the middle of a recession. One celebrity chef has diabetes, another is twice the size he used to be, and all that barely anybody talks about, on air, especially not Emeril's ballooning. I am not your average American, whatever that is, but Today is propped up by populist drivel, which doesn't make the cut in the internet era. And no, you can't make television by doing bits of coverage and ending them with "see the rest at our website", or by having doctor Nancy pushing iPads to help you lose weight. An iPad costs a month's worth of dinners, for many. It is a problem, when you get to be mammoth size, and your mantra is "it's OK, as long as it doesn't lose viewers".

What with the demise of "unlimited data " plans on mobile devices, teens and tweens aren't going to watch "Today" on their iDevice anyway, reserving their wireless internet for important things, and a friend recently told me that her iPhone, and her Android phone before that, doesn't have enough battery capacity to watch TV anyway, not if she wants to use them for work, the rest of the day. My Blackberry Torch / Blackberry Playbook combo does better on that score, and together don't cost more than your latest generation iPhone, but that's not something you can sell the American public, or so the manufacturers seem to think.

CBS News had an item on aircraft accidents, and how those are, these days, always due to human (pilot) error - and by now, we have the official verdict from the French authorities. CBS cites, amongst others, the Airbus crash between Brazil and France, and the Queens American Airlines crash. Human error? I don't think so. In the case of the American Airlines flight, the pilot overdid it on the rudder control, and snapped off some of his tail controls. In the Air France crash, a pilot did not compensate properly when the instruments provided faulty readings. In both cases, we have had the technology for many years to deal with these issues - a pilot should not be able to make excessive use of the rudder to the point where something breaks, while the Airbus reported an incorrect airspeed, and the computer disengaged the autopilot. Yes, in both cases the pilots could have saved the flight, but that does not mean the crashes can be blamed on them. What we do is make larger airplanes, heap additional responsibility on air crew, have increasing amounts of air traffic, and create increasingly complicated computer systems that pilots have to manage on top of their other responsibilities. You can't then expect the human computer to take the right decision in a situation it has not been in before. "Adding training" is not going to create better pilots, and the comment I heard, that pilots still need to maintain their flying skills - I don't know, maybe it is time for pilot specialization, with a fly pilot and a computer pilot on the flight deck, as well as an all rounder. Something. But no, I do not accept that this is magically now all "human error". In both these examples, the cause is a system that either failed, or worse, did not exist. Elevating the pilot to a computer repairman is ridiculous, especially with neither the time nor the phone to call a helpdesk. There is a simple rule I apply - beyond a certain amount of automation, you introduce more variables than you take away, and need to do more real world (as opposed to lab) testing, and do limited introduction. Perhaps it is time to re-introduce the flight mechanic.

Captain Sullenburger, the Hudson River miracle pilot, demonstrated to CBS news on air how Airbus and Boeing flight decks differ, with Airbus having a much more "fly by wire" implementation, and how traditional controls might have helped the French pilots realize the co-pilot was flying "stick back" for several minutes. Sully certainly has a point, but that is only in terms of talking about how this accident might have been avoided. The issue, or maybe "my issue", is that we have sufficient intelligence in aircraft to make it technically impossible to stall an aircraft. It is the step beyond today's autopilot, perhaps, but it is a logical step - still, today, pilots control aircraft, this because we don't trust our automation enough to let it take over. I understand that well - I cringe every time I reboot a computer with un-duplicated files, as I know what can go wrong with the disk, and that, most of the time, disks fail during startup.

Interestingly, the more traditional design isn't really Boeing design - it is pilot design. American airline companies, when this level of automation became available, were pressured by American pilots' unions not to go to what was then called the "dark, quiet" cockpit. It was the one compromise they made so they could get the union to drop flight engineer (three man cockpit) requirements for transatlantic flights using twin engined aircraft, saving fuel and labour cost (two crews had to be on those aircraft anyway). Boeing, being an American manufacturer, had little option but to listen to American pilots, Airbus, being a new technology European enterprise not overloaded with former military "stick" pilots, managed to talk European and some Asian airlines into accepting the Brave New World.

ConcordeUnions traditionally are wary of automation - all that does is shift employment, not reduce it, but we often pay lip service to the labour requirement. In this case, there is a new generation of pilots, who don't come out of traditional military aircraft, and if, in this particular case, one pilot had an instinctive response to the autopilot warning, that is not a bad thing. The bad thing was that the aircraft didn't realize what was going on. All that means is that we are in a transitional phase. I recall a KLM captain showing me how the backup and primary destination of his Flight Management System were in different countries, and the FMS refused to set a backup in the same country - so, he used the same destination for primary and backup. These were early Airbus days, but it was a good demonstration of how stupid the systems are - an FMS doesn't know about borders, and will happily land in East Germany, if left to its own devices. By contrast, a British Airways pilot, demonstrating the FMS of a Boeing aircraft to me over London in an approach to Heathrow Airport (I was a member of the British press by then, loved that day - the KLM approach was interesting as well, especially since the captain shouldn't have let me be on the flight deck at all during landing), showed me how the Boeing FMS let him do what he wanted - though I must add that Britain is an island, quite a bit larger than The Netherlands, and an FMS "knows" not to land in the water.

All this may go away, over time, as there is a new generation of military pilots on the way who know nothing but fly-by-wire - drone pilots. Flying drones thousands of miles away from their actual location will force aircraft manufacturers to solve urgent problems in software, as in some situations the satellite lag time does not allow pilot response in real time - that French Airbus might as well have been flown remotely from Paris for all the good three pilots on the flight deck did. My boss at NYNEX' research lab used to call it "reasonable time". But I repeat, we have to get to where some of these conditions have to be trusted to automation pilots cannot override. Again, I don't think this situation can be blamed on pilots, or on their training. It is having partial automation, and three "operators", on the flight deck that is the problem. Speed sensors have been freezing for a hundred years, that should not have made any difference. Especially, if what Boeing thinks will come true: 34,000 new airliners in the next twenty years, we're going to run out of third world countries to sell the old ones to....

Concorde was the first passenger airliner to have fly-by-wire controls. The picture shows an Air France Concorde at Orly Airport in 1978, having diverted from Charles de Gaulle due to a thunderstorm - it did not carry enough fuel to be able to circle, and had to go to a backup airport straight away (the other backup was London's Heathrow, of course ;). I had just returned from New York on that aircraft on one of Air France's promotional flights, champers and caviar from seven in the morning. We ended up having to be bused back to Charles de Gaulle airport - but after a week in the Waldorf Astoria, and four hours having a positively Gallic dinner, we were way too pissed to mind the ride.

Saturday July 7, 2012; ..but not in Pakistan

Keywords: Pakistan, Islam, ideology

motorickWell, Jeez. The Wall Street Journal has it the reopening of the American supply route across the Pakistan - Afghanistan border "Offers Pakistan, U.S. a New Path". No such thing, I am afraid. A week or so before Secretary Clinton told the Pakistanis the United States government is really sorry about their loss of military life, the Pentagon sent an appropriation request to the Congress, if memory serves me, stating a need for some $8.1 billion, to defray the increased cost of transportation. Much of that would have gone to the folks that transport Armed Forces supplies into Afghanistan, a path that runs from, I think, Estonia through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and, of course, Russia, with its rivers of military rolling stock, and ready made railways into Afghanistan. I think $8.1 billion would have secured that route forever, and the Pakistanis understood we had given up on them.

Pakistan is, or, maybe, was, with Iran and North Korea, one of those countries you cannot negotiate with, one of those places that have no rulebook. So expect this whole thing to happen all over again, because they're in their own dichotomy, one that began when India fell apart, way back when. A country whose existence is based solely on a religion, one that declares other religions invalid, is bound to be supremely paranoid, a democracy based on a religious vote isn't something very manageable. Even the Indonesians, nominally secular, are finding out that religious zealots can prevent Lady Gaga from performing in their country, costing their economy millions of dollars. They're paying the price already - RIM has decided to set up their regional centre in Malaysia, rather than Indonesia, and I expect (and so, seemingly, do many Indonesians all over the blogs) the Islamic upsurge could be partly to blame. In all fairness - Indonesia is a destination, not a waystation, so there may well be a valid technical reason, as well, and besides, Malysia's business ownership in Indonesia is growing significantly, and they are all over Africa in terms of technology investment. Malaysia probably got lucky in another respect - it adjoins Singapore, and as far as I can see the oldest and most reliable phone- and data connections into Asia were made by Cable & Wireless, the British company that used Britain's colonial legacy to run high speed and fiber networks across the globe. When I began interconnecting our (NYNEX') new GSM joint venture in Indonesia, in the 1990s, the best internet connections I could get to bring us back to the interbilling centre in Rome, and intercarrier nodes in London, were C&W's. So if you're anywhere near Hong Kong, Singapore, India and Australia and Japan, you'll find it easier to connect to the world, because those countries have had those high speed in-and-out connections since the 1980s.


We should, probably, pay more attention to the rising importance of the "three blocs" - communism, now the core element of the largest country on Earth, China, then Islam, a core religion in a number of countries, and, in many, the "primary" religion, with its own laws, and, dare one say it, capitalism, which, by now, is beginning to look like it is an offshoot of Christianity. What happened to socialism, once very important in Europe, is not quite clear to me, but I suppose the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and the "acquisition" of the German Democratic Republic were the beginning of the end - for Western socialism, for unions, for the idea that there is such a thing as  "greater good" managed by benevolent statesmen. Instead, billionaire businessmen now manage those countries, except, paradoxically, in the United States, where the American equivalent of a socialist is in the White House, propelled there on the backs of billionaire businessmen who flew the jumbo right into the ground, and in France, where an avowed socialist has just taken the helm. The upcoming American elections will likely tell us in which direction the Western world is swinging.


In my book, those capitalists have done a very good job of crashing the collective economies, and as of now, don't appear to have a clue what to do to get things going again. I used to stay at a cheap hotel in downtown Beijing, close to everywhere and the subway, and just checked what the nightly rate is - remember Beijing is a massive modern metropolis, with all mod cons and some 20 million inhabitants - the last rate I paid, in 2010, was $35/night, with free breakfast and room internet... Guess what, that rate, for July, is down to $24.41. With the supermarket, people's department store, MacDonalds and the laundromat all within three blocks, you can go stay in Beijing for a month for $800. Something is definitely not as it should be - the Chinese, too, are hurting. But since they did not all move to the suburbs and buy a $250,000 house, they're probably a bit better off than we are...


Sunday July 1, 2012; And always those Chinese, Take Two

Keywords: Lenovo, IBM, Thinkpad, Intel
Lenovo
                                B570When I get or buy new equipment I will be using for a longer period of time, I try to start a review I then post on Amazon.com, and my new Lenovo, bought because the display on my HP Pavilion laptop is failing (it has since passed away completely...) , should be no exception. But checking where to post the review, it soon became clear the particular model I purchased at Best Buy wasn't in Amazon's lineup. I eventually found a comparable model, but it is now clearly harder for consumers to comparison shop, as what I think happens is that manufacturers create model designations for specific resellers, and so you are, umm, "discouraged" from comparing a particular model, as it exists elsewhere only under a different designation, and if you're not an expert you're not going to figure that out. This Lenovo, the B570 1068-ASU, is quite fast, has some really nice features, but I really don't know under which model to post it, so if you're looking for comparable equipment I can only hope you can find this review

Lenovo is an interesting company - once known as IBM's PC division, IBM being the company that invented the personal computer architecture that is ubiquitous today (yes, including that of the Apple PCs), Lenovo has taken IBM's technology based concepts, and grown the division even larger than it was. profitable and with a turnover of some $22 billion. While HP is larger, it isn't doing well, of late. What, to me, is interesting about Lenovo is how the Chinese took some really clever American technology developments, many emanating from IBM's T.J. Watson research labs in New York State, and redesigned the manufacturing and marketing engines around them. But the good bits - for instance the hard disk encryption - were retained, as Lenovo understands that finding new customers does not mean dumping the existing aficionados. We buy computers for their technology, not for their toy aspects. Staple, for instance, need to be HDMI and eSata ports - Lenovo offers them both, even on cheap units, they've become part of the laptop architecture, rather than "add ons".

whipped cream wodka There isn't much point in telling you about this laptop in and of itself, otherwise, I am sure you've read a gazillion descriptions of laptops already. I bought this particular laptop because it was cheap. The sale price was $360, after a Best Buy discount for discontinuation, all I needed to do was add a 4GB RAM module - that in itself was a nice surprise, as every laptop I had bought, until now, needed its two 2 GB DIMMs replacing - and has a fast processor, Intel's i3-2330M dual core processor. This distinguishes itself by its Sandy Bridge architecture, which lets it handle four computing threads at once. It depends on your operating system and software whether or not that can be used, to be sure. I was not disappointed, after I did my usual tuning of Windows 64, this architecture flies, and is so much more energy efficient than previous processors that this laptop, unusually, doesn't make intermittent blow dryer sounds keeping its innards cool. I am not helping my computers by maxing out their memory, a 64 bit motherboard can generally handle 8 Gb of RAM, and using fast peripherals, like a 2 terabyte 7200 RPM eSATA drive, and its HDMI display port.

While the older chipsets allow the hybrid eSata/USB ports I first found on an HP laptop a few years ago, they often won't let you boot from the eSATA device, or mount and unmount it. The chipset in the Lenovo, much to my delight, does, so I am now able to use my backup drives on the fast bus without having to reboot the laptop every time I change external drives, and I can probably set up a fast eSata recovery drive. As far as the internals are concerned, remember you need to turn on the cache on your internal drive, and especially if you upgrade the RAM, the larger the hard disk (this one has half a terabyte), the faster Windows will run, this due to the way it handles virtual memory. An 8 or 16 Gb SD card providing Readyboost cache memory helps too, but as I said, all that taxes the processors, uses more power and generates more heat. I've managed to coax some 6 hours of continuous use out of the battery, which is rated at 4 hours of "full steam". A spare will set you back around $35. The limited battery duration is due to the relatively small size of the battery, the laptop itself is quite frugal with power, considering

Other nice discoveries on this particular unit hark back to the halcyon days of its predecessor, the IBM Thinkpad: a fingerprint reader for security, as well as facial recognition software that not only protects system logins, but can also be associated with secure encrypted segments of the hard disk. Lenovo still, as it always has, offers a disk access password in the BIOS that encrypts the disk, thereby making retrieval of data from a disk with that password set almost impossible. You've been told this about other systems, I am sure, but I have been subject to the unfortunate proof that IBM/Lenovo's system works, when a disgruntled worker scrambled his password as he was being let go, and thousands of dollars spent at an upstate disk recovery specialist had no result. I am not suggesting you emulate that, but use of the secure login capabilities and the BIOS level encryption can certainly make your information, or your employer's information, quite safe.

Other than the above, the laptop is far from ugly, but with a 15.6 inch (40 cm) diagonal HD screen it is a bit large. I would have preferred one that fit in my small backpack, but those were, alas, at least $200 more expensive, and so out of my reach - for professional reasons, I make sure I have two functioning systems, so my work can proceed unimpeded should my primary machine fail. It does come with an HDMI port as well as VGA, and as its Microsoft Windows Home Premium 64 comes with the Windows Media Center, the unit is completely ready to display HD cable television as well as Blu-Ray disks in full HD, and so you can use it as a DVR. For the price it is brilliant - though Lenovo stopped making the unit, I've seen it on Amazon for $400 and up, and I must tell you I have had good experiences with the IBM Thinkpad and Lenovo lines, having owned six or so myself, over the years, and once having bought 1,400 of them for my department, without one single failed unit. Again, with this Intel processor and its big hard disk, this unit is unbeatable at the price.

The picture to the left I took inside a local Safeway, as they were preparing the shelves for the deregulation of alcohol sales in Washington State - like a number of states, Washington is finally getting out of the business of selling hard liquor. The big box stores have jumped into this market with all of their very large feet.. But I have to say I think selling whipped cream flavoured vodka is a bit over the top. Kudos to the State of Washington, it has managed to make more money from the taxes and excise now, than it ever did when it still sold this stuff. Do I think hard liquor should be in supermarkets? I sometimes see it in Europe, but, as I recall, only relatively specialized or "own brand" products, not aisle after aisle of liquor. A bit strange, and I don't know that bringing alcohol into big box stores is going to do much curbing alcoholism. But then that isn't the function of capitalism, is it..

Thursday June 28, 2012; You remember?

Keywords: memory, aging, brain

memory Thinking about memory and aging, there was a an interesting article at the U.S. National Institutes of Health referenced the other day, although I should add I don't support researchers jumping to conclusions about what causes which symptom, without some kind of evidence, which is thin in that report.

I have more than a passing interest in the matter as my own brain ages, and I find my analytical and retention methods change - all by themselves. It occurs to me that advancing technology may not be any help in maintaining the brain's agility. I thought the reverse, and then I realized I was neither taking a note, nor bookmarking a page, for the above reference, as I  have 24/7 access to search engines, on, count 'em, five devices, at least two of which I carry, one of which is glued to my hip, or in a pocket of my dressing gown. I am privileged, I suppose, in having worked with computers and in the computer industry since 1968, and having spent a significant portion of my career in telecommunications research. Something I wasn't quite prepared for, though, is that so many people in my age group are only semi-literate in the computing world, and have lost a portion of the reference media they used to use.

So while the computer lets us find information, especially older folk have not had training as to how to use search engines, how to use databases, and the PC does not provide a convenient and transparent way to store and organize information - this isn't a criticism of Microsoft, none of us anticipated how this "Windows thing" would become ubiquitous. Having programmed myself, having managed the very large database engines the phone company uses - my first research position involved directory assistance, which uses an enormous online database - and having had dozens of programmers for database development in my reporting structure, I know a lot about how databases work. We had no tools to manage very large amounts of data - we didn't even have very large amounts of data until countries and companies began merging. But, disturbingly, I find myself make less and less of an effort to remember things, because I have the tools to find information instantaneously - why remember information I have at my fingertips? I inadvertently tested my memory skills over the past few weeks, as I had to set up two work computers in a short period of time, one new, and one I have been using, that needed to be "revamped" back to its original state. At that time, I was relieved to notice that my recollection of Windows internals and management consoles hadn't in any way diminished, not a skill I use on a daily basis any more.

So what we're looking at is a double whammy: the amount of information unleashed on the unsuspecting public has increased greatly, while the ways to find information have been reduced, and now require a skill set that three or four generations have not been trained in. I can, at least, not recall a single employer I've worked for, excepting my first, IBM, that provided general "information management" training. I was aghast when getting to Indonesia on a network build, back in 1994, when I found the secretaries in Jakarta, barely out of the stone age, had much better software and computer training than the secretaries back in New York. Bit of a shock, that. If you want to know part of the reasons why Asians are doing so well, BTW, it is right there. This stuff was all new to them and they had to master it to compete - we've grown complacent, I was writing on, and programming, my first laptop computer in 1984, and that machine had internet access - although, most of you wouldn't recognize a PDP-11 on Dialcom as internet, but those boxes were compartmentalized, programmable by the user, and talking to all the other Dialcom boxes in the world. In 1984.

But I digress. I've been reading up on memory and brain aging and brain function for a while, and I keep running into contentions (because they're not based on proven research) that do not make sense. First and foremost, I keep reading that "we are nowhere near our brain's capacity" - this in terms of storage and computation capability. And then, out come the examples, of savants that calculate the value of pi to the nth degree, other savants can store impossible amounts of visual data, etc. But that isn't what it is about. I am not at all convinced that the human brain has that much capacity, and I am not aware that anyone has even managed to calculate its capability.

Why would evolution over-engineer an organ? All of our other organs are engineered to capacity - a good example is the heart, my ballerina ex-wife had a heart five times the size of mine, due to the six-or-seven times a week training regime dancers and professional athletes go through. So much so that her heart had moved to the middle of her chest, for lack of space where it began. Why do you think athletes need to train so much? Surely not because their organisms are engineered for over-capacity.... And one of my cousins is so much overweight that he has had to have both of his knees reconstructed, not an unusual occurrence in overweight people, but it does mean his knees were not designed to carry that much weight. So to me that empirically proves that the human body is "designed to capacity", and from simple logic that means the brain would be, as well. And that, in turn, in an era where we are bombarded with information due to new technologies, vastly more (a factor of a thousand or so) than ever before, means we may be overloading our brain's capacities. Which makes perfectly good sense. So it would make good sense to research how much mental deterioration may be related to simple capacity failure - assume we have reached capacity, now start researching what the consequences might be. And by "capacity" I don't necessarily mean "full", it may be some folks do not have the ability to organize and store their information, due to the speed with which it arrives, inherent in increased volume, and that that has a deteriorative effect on the brain. Kind of like "memory fragmentation" or "disk fragmentation" in a computer. After all, Windows is now set up to automatically defragment disks, after decades of millions of users losing their computers because they never maintained (didn't know they had to) their hard drives, which eventually ran out of table space. From an engineering perspective, it makes perfectly good sense the same thing happens to the brain, which, in my book, can't have been designed to hold and process unlimited data. I do not expect the Good Lord ever conceived one of Her Creations would start collecting, storing and processing vastly more data than they would ever need or could use.

Saturday June 23, 2012; A Bit of British

Keywords: Daily Telegraph, journalism
naptimeThe shot to the right shows the scene behind a local Texaco, where tow truck drivers hang out while they are on call. There are so many cars and trucks idling all over Washington State, I was especially amazed to see car lines at drive through espresso bars, that it looks to me the "green" effort is a bit half hearted. It isn't like this is Alaska, where you'd freeze if you got out of your car, much of the year.

It has been frustrating to see traffic to my blog dwindle, over the past few years, and I really don't know why that would be the case. I may have become incredibly boooooring, that's certainly possible, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of "internet consumers" now spend so much of their available surfing time on Facebook, it cannibalizes the rest of the internet. So, beginning a couple of days ago. I am writing blog entries for the British Telegraph newspaper blogs section, and reproducing them here, as always, under my own copyright. Find my Telegraph blog at:

http://my.telegraph.co.uk/aartsen

Here is a rendition of how I introduced myself there:

I am a more or less accidental Telegraph reader - like many expats in London, where I lived from 1978, I took the Times and the Evening Standard. I came to the U.K. as a journalist, and while I was a correspondent for a number of Dutch magazines in the VNU stable, I soon began working for the British press, after being accepted into the NUJ. After Design, the monthly published by the Design Council, I soon added some of VNU's British titles to my outlets, helped by the nascent computer industry, and my work with IBM in The Netherlands and in London's Chiswick.

I kept reading the Times after moving to the USA in 1985. Until, that is, Rupert the Conqueror decided to start charging for his newspapers, and the old journalist in me found I could only respond by withdrawing my support, as I have for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and all those others. Yes, I understand papers need to make money, but somehow the internet must be a place where we develop new communication methods, and that must include new ways of funding the press.

So I now read the Telegraph, which is free to the internet denizen, the Washington Post, and otherwise have Google bring me the (free) headlines, avoiding the duplicitous titles that let you read "five articles a month". I don't know about you, but having to mandatorily register, cookies, and popovers, are yet more ways of collecting personal data "the Facebook way". And that brings me to where I decided to copy my blog, which I have been publishing since the late 1980s, to the Telegraph, since Facebook is cannibalizing the internet to the point that I see fewer and fewer hits at my own site, something I assume due to the shift in where consumers spend their available internet time, which I believe we can now see has reached a limit.

I began blogging, well before that word was invented, as an outlet for my creative juices, after I transitioned from the media world to the IT universe. I had made the reverse move some ten years earlier, when I left IBM and was offered a position in theatre and artist management in Amsterdam, an occupation to which I soon added journalism and photography, for no other reason than that I liked those activities. When I "rerouted" from editorial into the nascent internet (leasing space on a PDP-11 owned by what became BT Dialcom, discovering MCI and X.400 and Vint Cerf, who would eventually become a colleague), I became re-engaged with the other great love of my life, cybernetics, which previously had meant IBM and mainframe computers and "big iron".

Still writing today, I love the ability to self-publish, although the universe has become very crowded, and I don't know there are enough tools for the consumer to always find what they are looking for. Perhaps there is another field for regulators to get stuck into, making Google a government department, and teaching children from when they are little how to find information. I know they are very capable of this today, but some management in what they find might, if I see the news about bullying and youth crime, not be a bad idea. Parents must understand that unless they have their children teach them their internet, they will not ever have even a tiny clue about that universe... Perhaps a nice subject for an upcoming blog entry - but in the interim, I will begin writing frequent contributions to the Telegraph blog I just set up, and then every few days lump 'em together here - see how that works. It will be more work than my blog is now, but perhaps I can drive some more traffic than I have been, of late, and who knows, somebody might like my musings enough to employ me in some way. Journalism continues to be an important hobby, and opinions I have in abundance....

Thursday June 21, 2012; And always those Chinese

Keywords:Enfield, China Space, death, Greece, air disasters
A retro bikeNoticing a "Royal Enfield" motorcycle at a local dealership, see the picture to the right, I checked the internet, as I thought that British company had long since passed, but as it turns out their erstwhile Indian (Madras, now Chennai) subsidiary is now doing the Enfield thing on its own. Rather handsome, don't you think? It so reminded me of the British WWII Army bikes, I suppose I just dated myself there..

Frustratingly, I see friend L's mother still being kept alive, surgery, IC, the works, when from what I read in her blog Mum should have been transferred to a hospice some time ago, and receive help to prepare for a peaceful and painless departure. The other day, she suffered some kind of heart failure, but "her heart magically restarted, since she does have a do-not-resuscitate order". Sweetheart, she should not be in the hospital. In a hospital, what they do is keep someone alive, that's their function, that is their training. When someone has an embolism and their heart stops, the alarm goes off, the crash cart and resuscitation staff are called, because you have seconds when the heart stops pumping oxygen, seconds. So they go into automatic mode, as they are trained to do. They don't check stickers and they don't stand around having a quick meeting, that isn't what they do. So yes, your mother is still around, but she was resuscitated, and that may happen again, depending on when the heart stops again, and who is on duty. Hospitals have mostly nobody trained in palliative care, and even if they did, their base cost is way to high for life ending services.

I stopped myself from writing this in her blog, or calling her, because she has to go through this her way, and not have some idiot like me tell her to pull the plug on her Mum. But there isn't a point to this - her mother will die, and being in that bed on tubes and leads and lights isn't going to make any difference. But it pains me, and makes me feel powerless to stop the poor woman's torture. That's why the nurse asked your mother if she remembered what happened - every time the brain is deprived of oxygen, it dies a little, I think the accepted value is two million cells per second, and you check how bad it is by checking short term memory. The do not resuscitate order isn't an order, you see - it is an advisory, and the hospital doesn't have to follow it.

Urgh.

Greece? Many of us "old style" Europeans never understood why the original European Economic Community countries, rich and in a working community relationship, felt compelled to create something like a "Eurozone", inviting marginal countries like Ireland, Greece, Italy to join, because these were countries that came out of WWII impoverished, and were never able to crank themselves up and out of that situation. "We", the rich Western European nations, France, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, were doing just fine, but then I started looking at it from afar, as I moved to the U.K., and then to the USA, and I didn't have the benefit of the "inside view" any  more. It did not make sense to me that islands of cheapness, like Spain and Italy, would adopt the Euro and end up having the same expense base we did. These countries didn't magically get rich overnight, was my simplistic thinking. So after everything the "core EU" went through to get the marginal economies into the Union, they're not going to let them walk off again. Nor do I think the Greeks, Italians, Spaniards are going to let their rich cousins walk away. I recall when the Greeks, Italians and Spaniards came to work in Northern Europe, cleaning our streets and doing other menial work, as "guest workers". I have the expectation they don't want to get back to that era, when the Dutch had coastal tourist hotels in Spain that Spaniards that did not work there, the local peasants, were not allowed to enter.

Sole from ChinaWhat impresses me most about the Chinese space program is that they only flew the first manned mission in 2003 - and here we are, nine years later, and they're docking with their own first space station component. By comparison, the United States took some twelve years from first flight to Spacelab docking. The Chinese did, of course, have the ability to use some Soyuz technology bought from the Russians - and the good news is that their docking mechanism comes from the Russians, too, so they would be able to dock with the Russian module on the ISS, which is how we get crews in and out of the ISS, these days. From what we can see - the Chinese aren't exactly secretive any more about their space stuff - this program  has a string of hits without failures, which is pretty amazing. We're kind of used to American and Russian space developers trying something new out, and it failing the first time around, and what we say is "that is how you learn", nothing wrong with that. But I would love to know what it is the Chinese are doing differently to have this string of successes, if it is reasonable to assume they're not "just lucky".

Seriously, inasmuch as I have spent a large part of my career in risk management and high availability design, this is very impressive, especially in that it is taking them less time in between steps than we are used to. They appear not to be huge risk takers, like the Russians are, nor over burdened by a top heavy administrative organization,  as we have always been - but that is what goes with democracy, a problem the Chinese do not have. Still, you've got to ask yourself how much "benevolent dictatorship" is actually "better for the people".  I look at India, and its fascinating, but painful and laborious progress, and wonder whether there is a "critical size" beyond which democracy becomes a net hindrance.

On the subject of China, that box of frozen sole, in the picture at the left, comes from China, too. Five pounds, at a discount price of $14.90, that would be @2.98 per pound. That is not a lot of money. Found this in a restaurant supply store where practically all of the cheaper fish and shellfish in the frozen section were Chinese. So no, it isn't just the Bluetooth dongles...

CBS News had an item on aircraft accidents, and how those are, these days, always due to human (pilot) error. They cite, amongst others, the Airbus crash between Brazil and France, and the Queens American Airlines crash. Human error? I don't think so. In the case of the American Airlines flight, the pilot overdid it on the rudder control, and snapped off some of his tail controls. In the Air France crash, a pilot did not compensate properly when the instruments provided faulty readings. In both cases, we have had the technology for many years to deal with these issues - a pilot should not be able to make excessive use of the rudder to the point where something breaks, while the Airbus reported an incorrect airspeed, and the computer disengaged the autopilot. Yes, in both cases the pilots could have saved the flight, but that does not mean the crashes can be blamed on them. What we do is make larger airplanes, heap additional responsibility on air crew, have increasing amounts of air traffic, and create increasingly complicated computer systems that pilots have to manage on top of their other responsibilities. You can't then expect the human computer to take the right decision in a situation it has not been in before. "Adding training" is not going to create better pilots, and the comment I heard, that pilots still need to maintain their flying skills - I don't know, maybe it is time for pilot specialization, with a fly pilot and a computer pilot on the flight deck, as well as an all rounder. Something. But no, I do not accept that this is magically now all "human error". In both these examples, the cause is a system that failed. Elevating the pilot to a computer repairman is ridiculous, especially with neither the time nor the phone to call the helpdesk. There is a simple rule I apply - beyond a certain amount of automation, you introduce more variables than you take away, and need to do more real world (as opposed to lab) testing, and do limited introduction. Perhaps it is time to re-introduce the flight mechanic.

Saturday June 16, 2012; Dollar, Euro, RMB, it is the basics that change

Keywords:Romney, China Post, EMS, Sony Vaio, Orencia, backup
China Post elabelUmm, Governor Romney, I keep hearing you all over TV with that buzzphrase: "Talk is cheap". You appear to not quite have caught on to the implication of that: yours is, too. You have never had to handle anything like a recession, or anything like an economy the size of the world. Yes, Massachusetts was nice, I am sure, but there are cities in the world with a larger economy, and it is a state without manufacturing. Get real, will you? If we want to size your mouth, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a GDP that is about 50% of the GDP of... Greater Los Angeles.

So why can I suddenly edit in SeaMonkey again? Not a clue. I did some reformatting, a few days ago, didn't work, gave up on that, and just now I opened up the index file and it comes up like before (on a different PC). Nothing changed, power setting, but that really can't have anything to do with it, especially since I lowered it a little. What with two laptops working side by side, the fan noise can get annoying - not necessarily that of the Lenovo, but the HP Pavilion, with its AMD processor and ATI GPU, can get pretty loud, and together they sound like an air conditioner on heat.

Anyway, the VAIO desktop is done, ready for Ebay, though my landlord is now threatening to buy it. He could do worse - it is a $1,000 PC, in excellent shape, and expertly upgraded to 64 bit Windows 7 Professional. For him (his wife, actually), that isn't an issue, but I tend to run so much crap side by side I need 8 Gb of RAM, and for some stupid reason Sony's motherboard won't support that. But he could do worse, especially with my expert setup.

Much to my amazement, E-Post and postal tracking is now available between China and the United States - door-to-door, see the picture to the right. I can't figure out how anybody makes a profit: Bluetooth dongle from Ningbo in
Zhejiang province to Seattle, WA, $2.24 including shipping. Normally, just the postage from San Francisco to Seattle would cost as much, so how does this work? I mean, it isn't that I don't understand, but if we (collectively) continue this we are all going to end up in a recession from which there isn't a return. We're probably (globally) only being saved by the fact there isn't an unemployment benefit in China, but at some point something will have to implode - if it hasn't already. First time I have seen end-to-end tracking on an order with Amazon.com, going directly to a vendor in China, coming directly to me without the intermediary container. Amazing, and to me this is a major advancement, and a good example of how fast the Chinese are catching up. Before you make derogatory noises about that, China is one heck of a large country, we can fit in there, with Alaska, together with Canada, and have a whole lot of space left over. Fifteen years ago that place was a third world country with ox carts. Think about it.

What else is there? This week is a bit of a jumble - finishing revamping the VAIO took over a day more than intended, as its DVD drive didn't properly format disks, and didn't generate an error message, possibly a Sony driver that isn't in Windows 7. Poof, a whole day and evening gone. But thankfully, I have an external Buffalo drive, a BD burner, that always gets it right, I don't sell a computer unless it is properly set up and comes with a full - double - backup. I found that if you do not have a duplicate backup - of any backup, that is - you run a serious risk. I did it myself, the other day, told my backup software to delete an entry - not the backup itself, just the database entry in the backup software, clicked "OK" - and poof, the entire backup was gone. No recovery, the backup came from my setup in the VAIO under Windows Vista, since re-installed, and had, in particular, about a year's worth of email in Outlook format that is now forever lost. This is me, I have, for years, always used a double backup, I have one huge archival drive and four 750 Gb backup drives, so there wasn't any excuse not to have a duplicate. I just didn't do it, this time, and sure enough, the software did something I had not expected, didn't double check, and isn't recoverable. I think it is the second time in thirty years I've irretrievably lost data, and no man overboard, but still, I know better.

Blackberry Torch videoSo I am back to double backups, now, of course, swapping drives every other day. Let that be a lesson to ya, even the Master fucks up.

I am continuing to see this futile political conversation about "jobs", with even the Speaker this morning going on about things that create jobs - construction, roads, health care - when in fact none of the things she lists create anything, unless we find the money for them first. I see the desperate way Bristol-Meyers Squibb pushes its expensive Orencia drug, an arthritis biologic medication more expensive than its predecessors, and wonder where the money is supposed to come from when more and more people lose their health care coverage. Obama has tried to turn that around with his health care expansion, but when I see
Bristol-Meyers Squibb doesn't even do an income verification to see if someone is eligible for their copay assistance, I have to wonder why they are so desperate to push this drug when they know the patient has adequate insurance coverage. Beyond that, the biologics don't sell that well overseas - in most countries with universal healthcare they are available to selected patients only, after a regime of more traditional treatments has been tried and proven not to work. That means that, effectively, the very expensive very advanced new drug regimes, outside the United States, is available only to the rich, and to a few insured patients, And that, in turn, means that the bulks of their sales have to be to well insured American patients, like myself. And that means these drugs, and expensive specialized medical equipment, and what have you, aren't going to contribute to the jobs market either, even though the pharmaceutical companies say they will. A quick comparison: a three months' supply of Enbrel, an "old" new technology drug: $2,623.91, and three months of a "new" new technology drug, Orencia: $6,255.2. No wonder the drug companies have a "copay assistance plan" for these drugs. Part of the problem may well be that new drugs are now being developed at such a rate that they probably cannibalize sales of the older ones. It circles back, a bit like buying a webcam for $4.99 out of Hong Kong via Amazon. These things used to be available cheaply at Wal-Mart - no more, they've given up, they can't compete.

The picture to the left? Live TV, from the Associated Press, on my new Blackberry Torch. Just a bit of testing, I am not sure I have a great need for live TV on the phone. More about that, about the need for "a TV", as opposed to "TV", later in the week.

Monday June 11, 2012; Facts, not Fiction

Keywords:Nancy Snyderman, HP Pavilion, Windows 8, HDMI, Obama Europe
laptop displayed on flat
                                          panel To your right, an HP laptop displaying on an HD flat screen - I wonder how many consumers actually know you can take an average laptop, and have it display on a cheap HD flat panel display. As long as it has an HDMI port, any laptop will do it. Good idea to have a 64bit Windows, and some extra memory, though - 8 Gb will help. And to your left, below, an amazing red rainbow I caught at dusk in Snohomish County, the other day. Never seen that before, it was only there for 20 seconds or so.

After a full reinstall of the HP Pavilion laptop connected to an HDMI flat panel it looks there's nothing wrong with it, except for a connection somewhere in the display hinge. I am not going to screw with that, when I have money I can try and have it repaired, but in the interim I'll get another display (50 inches doesn't fit on my desk) and use it as a desktop. It's got everything you could want, plenty of RAM, digital Dolby, you name it, and once I have that set up I will sell the Vaio. That is in fine shape, all upgraded, but I think the Pavilion with an HDMI display will let me do Blu-Ray, and the Vaio does not, although it does have an optical Dolby out. Finding the Pavilion on Amazon to post the link showed me they even sell the laptop screen, but I really don't have that type of expertise, and I think it may be the connector, rather than the screen, so I guess I'll eventually get it fixed, when I am in need of another laptop.

You're probably thinking "busywork", and you be right, but I am keeping my hand in in terms of working with the new motherboard / chipset combos, and making sure I understand what needs to be done to anticipate the rollout of Windows 8. When I ran diagnostics on my new Lenovo dual core Intel Core i3 Sandy Bridge gizmo, it showed with four processors, not two! Much though "8" is aimed at touch screen and tablet computing, if we have to believe the scuttlebutt, Windows 7 had all that built in already, and when I went to Beijing, a couple of years ago, to get myself a touch screen Lenovo laptop I could not find one (with English language operating system, that is). And Lenovo, couple of years ago, was the only company that made a serious contender in this field, which more or less died on arrival. It is nice to see someone on Law & Order Skyping to his wife in Afghanistan on an iPad, but that is not exactly the majority of the buyers - the majority of consumers, worldwide is what I mean, don't even have access to the fast networks needed for that sort of thing. Honest. It's mostly advertising - and I do have Skype on my Nokia phone, and video-calling applications on my Blackberry Torch and Playbook.

Awright, so that's cool, at least I can roll into summer being busy revamping my business tools, while my doctors change over my medication. That has turned out to be a longer process than I anticipated, the new medication taking some three months to achieve proper effectiveness. It isn't all that strange, and I had been on the old "stuff" some fifteen years, but it is frustrating, and I suppose the specialists had a point "forgetting" to tell me this in advance. Still on steroids and other crap, today I managed completely normal walking for the first time in a couple of months, inflammation increasingly under control. So, I guess, so far, so good. This isn't a place I hadn't been before, but as I get older, it gets harder, and not being in my normal career does not help. To some extent I am floundering a bit, without the clear target corporate America has always provided me with, and it is hard to think back to the 1970s, when I set my own goals and aims and "went for them". I suppose I never expected to have to do that again, which is, perhaps, a bit silly of me, others have been here before me. Targeting next year to move abroad, if corporate America does not want my skillset, is a good place to go. As I do my research, I find that quite a few countries, near and far, have "retirement visa" deals I could make use of. That's kinda cool to discover, although I wasn't planning to retire just yet, but it would be a good idea to be in one of those places for when I do.

red rainbow in SnohomishI am quite amazed to see that President Obama has waded into the European monetary problems. I am not sure the Treasury folks this side of the pond understand what is going on in Europe. I can't even say I've seen many commentators the other side of the pond making a lot of sense, either. I wonder whether the problems occurring in the "problem" countries aren't related to their post war development. Is it coincidence that the economies facing issues are all in former dictatorships? Greece, Italy, Spain, all came out of World War II under the control of a dictator, and took many decades to enter the democratic fold. Perhaps (I am not an expert on economy, but I was there to see it all happen) the economic changeover after the dictators died or relinquished power was never handled properly, after all, the rest of Western Europe came out of WWII as democracies, and began rebuilding capitalism based economies virtually from liberation day. We need to understand how "they" got to this place, and I am not convinced that we do.

It is, to my simple mind, clear the European Union admitted too many, too fast, all you need to do is compare the amount of time European nations spent building the EC, to see how much faster the EU was put together. Add to that the Eastern European nations that weren't, by many folks' reckoning, anywhere near ready to join an advanced Western community, and you're ready for problems, if not disaster. Rich Western European countries being flooded with Eastern European criminal gangs that arrive on buses - I rented a car in Amsterdam, to take to Germany, and received very specific instructions I couldn't take it into Poland. Gangs of Romanians operate skimmer credit card schemes all over Europe - and actually, being part of the EU they're able to travel more easily, they're even operating here in Washington State. It is a direct consequence of the EU organization, and I am not seeing how some of these countries beneficially add to, say, the recovery of Greece. As is Europe's wont, they talk about it. That hasn't really helped much, if I am to believe Mrs. LaGarde... I can tell you that if youth unemployment (under 25s) in both Greece and Spain is 50% - umm, yes, five-zero -, there is something going on there we have no clue about. It has even me, an American European with a reasonable understanding of the employment system in Europe, stumped. This entire thing went South a while ago, and nobody did anything, I'll tell you that for free.

The Today Show, on Sunday, had the most awful segment on "how to treat your doctor" I have ever seen, by the very knowledgeable, but clearly abrasive, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC's medical correspondent. Just to single out one of her comments - she admonishes patients "don't lie to me", because she can tell when they do. Well, Dr. Nancy, patients do, and if you did less journalism and more science, that might give you perhaps some new ideas about the reasons why patients do things. Yes, a patient may say "I think I stopped smoking" - her example - and it will be clear to all (including the patient) they're fibbing. Similarly, there are patients who are habitually late for appointments, indeed, Dr. Nancy. "Be on time" on the Today Show is so not going to solve that.

What the physician needs to understand - certainly if you're a physician with a national audience - is that those behaviours are part of a behavioural pattern, and likely part of a medical or psychological condition. If a patient wants to stop smoking and can't, and lies about it, you can go to the books and find out what kind of behaviour that is, and what it indicates. That finding then becomes part of the patient profile, of their disease, if you like - and it is linked - and becomes part of what you, Dr. Nancy, need to treat. Clear is that NBC needs a new medical correspondent, not one that goes off on her patients on Sunday morning on national television. Inappropriate, and insofar as her patients were watching, damaging. Get some retraining, Dr. Nancy, some doctor schools teach this stuff now.

Thursday June 7, 2012; Governance, both sides of the pond

Keywords: SpaceX, Myanmar, Facebook, Pakistan, Queen Elizabeth Center, ISS
The picture to your right has a 1970s Alfa Romeo 1750 I came across the other day, looking like it just came out of the showroom, vintage. And below the only picture I ever took of Her Majesty up close, at the Royal Tournament in London's Earls Court, when she was presented with cheeses by two girls from the Dutch Dairy Bureau. I got Charles as well, see if I can find that shot. I moved to England in 1979, and to the US a few years later, just to put you in the timeframe.

1970s Alfa RomeoThe return of SpaceX' Dragon capsule to Earth, and the return of Aung San Suu Kyi to Myanmar, certainly fit in the "good news" category. Elon Musk has completed an incredible feat, one that indicates we've got to the point we can do orbital vehicles at lower cost and sufficient durability. I expect their next step would be an actual automated docking, assuming this whole Canadarm process was just to make sure the SpaceX vehicle didn't bump a dent in our ISS.

And it is wonderful to see Aung San Suu Kyi was able to do a trip abroad, and come back home. I don't know that I understand how Myanmar turned the corner (I don't know that they need me to know, either), but it very much looks like the country has, and hopefully the dialogue can be continued.

But ouch. Every time I see aid workers and tourists being kidnapped and having to be rescued, or not, as the case may be, I wonder why we're letting these folks put themselves in harm's way and having to be bailed out at the taxpayer's expense. If the local charities don't seem fit to provide assistance to their own, isn't us doing it a bit like this whole military exercise in Iraq and Afghanistan, at enormous expense, to no measurable benefit? I must admit I like the direction Obama seems to be taking, leaving Pakistan to its own devices, we have long since solved the transportation problem, they need to figure out which team they're on, and I think so far they've decided to be on the bad guys' team. Taking out Osama bin Laden in the way it was done was a powerful statement, it is unfortunate to see a former ally fall off the wagon, but it is what it is, so to speak. Afghanistan will end up being a bit of a buffer zone, not very much in our camp either. It is sad to see the division play out, but it does, and that will not change until we pull back and stop meddling in their affairs - which includes "charities" and "NGOs". Don't help people that don't ask for help. We're way past the crusades. And if the current drone attacks in Pakistan indicate a policy - my way or the highway - I am all for it. We're being jerked around by Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Syria even, and once they get the message - jerk all you want, we will hurt you whenever you do - the jerking will stop. Talking don't do nuttin', look at Cuba, and Lybia.

Somehow, reformatting this web code by using different creation tools has screwed it up to the point that it interferes with the web server output. I am not quite sure what to call the problem, as I have not figured out what causes it, but I think something or other inserted hard returns in the HTML, and now I need to figure out how to get those out. That used to be real simple in the 7 bit world, but today I don't even know what to look for any more. This is uncle Microsoft and its tools, not that it is their fault, their tools work the way they're supposed to, I am just switching tools - and not even because I wanted to, just because - dig this - I was helping someone else, someone who then simply abandoned the project she asked me to help with. $^%%#, kinda.

But the internet is squirrelly, just at the moment. Facebook has had huge slowdowns, these past few days - this morning, it won't accept my comments and likes, coming back with an undefined error each time. With the recent reported outage - which I did not experience - one wonders whether Facebook is under hack attack, wouldn't surprise me. The only other reasonable explanation would be that they are doing a system wide update, and screwed that up. As they're working on new privacy stuff, that would not suprise me either. But I see my own domain misbehaving, in terms of pushing out multiple streams, and I have not seen that before - then again, I am new to GoDaddy, I am sure they suffer from mishaps the same as the next guy does. Still, recent media coverage makes it very clear that Facebook isn't a good advertising platform, in terms of driving sales, but then again the technology industry now has created so many advertising platforms and advertising methodologies that I do not believe any of them particularly drive sales.

Advertising is beginning to become a major, and under-addressed, issue. There are now so many advertising vehicles that few producers and retailers have any idea which advertising medium or methodology sells. There isn't any connection between the AARP insurance sales pitch and the number of policies sold. It is lumped into a bucket, without correlation. Disney, perhaps, has this figured out, what I hope happened here is that they understand banning junk food from their kids networks will not cost them a dime - it may actually help them gain additional revenues, now that responsible food vendors have an outlet with room, which may increase their sales. It'll take time to see the effect, and I hope Disney will give it that time. That circled me back to Facebook - hopefully some of these advertisers, like GM did, will begin to understand that Facebook is cannibalizing internet time, by tying so many consumers into a platform that prevents them from going other places on the internet, where they might have effective advertising pitches and product information. GM figured out Facebook is not a good advertising medium, and Facebook has not figured out how to get itself there. I have, so, Zuck, you want the answer, give me a call. I'll take you out of your ivory tower, you need to understand how the world works, and you can't do that from Silicon Valley.

Royal TournamentSort of got drawn into watching the Jubilee over in Britain, partly, of course, because I lived there for many years.. Love London - funny, last time I went to London it was to visit friends who are now back here in the Seattle area, and for me it was a bit of a homecoming. Much like New York, London is so large it really doesn't change all that much, over time, even if you have to figure out the Oyster card, and which roaming carrier to use. I guess for those less in the picture it is incongruous - London is massive, a single city that needs three airports, all that because it is so much out of proportion with the size of Britain itself. The industrial revolution began here, and that created the sprawl from which it never really recovered, and I guess it keeps on growing - the town of Richmond, Surrey, where I used to live, now is just another London postal district, my old house on the Mortlake Road I can't even find on Google, and the heavily Jewish and somewhat run down district of Stoke Newington is completely gentrified.

Curious how much awesome talent comes out of Britain, augmented these days by busloads of Aussies, even a few New Zealanders, I remember the English language was the primary reason I moved to Britain, in 1979. The Dutch language area felt small and insignificant, after being in journalism there for a number of years, and I realized I had pretty much the rest of the world on my doorstep, IBM had taught me pretty good business English, so I lost the girlfriend, and drove a rented van across the Channel, where I still needed a work permit. A buddy drove the empty van back to The Netherlands, the girlfriend later met me at Schiphol Airport to ask me to come to dinner, told me she had changed her mind, but this was something I had wanted to do together, as a couple, and that spoiled her for me. Just as well, my later move to the United States would have taken her even farther away from her family, which was the issue, them and the cats.

Gosh, that light show on the front of Buck House was something else, hope you caught some of "Our House", lovely, and so very Brit... And there is the Archbishop of Canterbury, of course. You'd never catch the Pope swinging to "All my loving" with a Union Jack in his hands, now, would you?

Saturday June 2, 2012; The Many Ways of Deception

Keywords: maanisch.com, Facebook, Obama Center, ISS
faded                                                          coloursOuch. As I check a long time blogger friend's blog - she was one of the very first bloggers in the Netherlands - I see her mother is ill, very ill, if I read in between the lines. Sure enough, the parents tell her it'll be OK, go on vacation, not to worry, and I remember how my mother fell ill, I was living in London, my sister was in Greece, on vacation, not at the time a country with good telecommunications, and she hadn't left a number and the Netherlands Embassy in Athens tried and couldn't find her. I flew into Amsterdam and Schiphol Airport kindly let me meet her flight at the gate with a police escort and whisk her away in a hurry. Same thing with my dad, neither of us made it to the hospital in time to be with him - I hadn't even had time to get to New York airport. So I comment in Luna's blog to ignore what her folks said, and go and be with her, do what you feel you need to. I've been there before with parents, a father-in-law who didn't want us to visit before his open heart surgery, a mother who wanted me to remember her "the way I was", you name it. I don't know if it has anything to do with my comments, that's not really important, but her latest blog entry indicates she is with her mum now, and I am sure she'll be there until it is done. Veel sterkte Luun. You have the best blog-mum ever - I remember the first time she appeared in her daughter's rather racy blog, having made herself a comment alias as "Luna's Mum" - unheard of at the time. I'll miss her banter.

The picture to the right illustrates the faded colours so common to the Pacific Northwest, nestled in between the (ever) green of the Evergreen State. Quite pretty, methinks. And below left is what we call a "meatball hero" in New York, from Subway. It just looks like a sandwich with copious sick and cholesterol - I often wonder why we don't try and advertise things looking the way they actually do, rather than pretty them up. All that leads to is the awful "Today Show" helmet hairdo look of most American TV women, and things that generally don't look anything like what they do when they wake up or when you unwrap them. I bought this sandwich, something I do very occasionally so my doctor doesn't kill me, and I know it tastes great and gives me that naughty feeling. So why would it have to look like anything other than what it is?

I am in many ways gratified to see I've not completely lost it, as far as Facebook is concerned - it is brilliant, in the Hotmail kind of way, not so brilliant in the SpaceX kind of way. Facebook's IPO does, worryingly, show we aren't out of the woods. We're still labouring under the pre-recession misconceptions - that we still are the best thing since internet-sliced-bread, that cars with speech recognition that can read emails to you are a technological advancement, that the economy is "doing better"....

Subway                                                          sandwichI am sorry, but I think we're still in self-deception mode, we're still not getting the message. I remember so very well that in the late 1970s I wanted to buy an American car with anti-lock brakes, and that I ended up with an Alfa Romeo, since no American manufacturer made one. What if Facebook does introduce a smartphone, and buys a browser company? Run, don't walk, away. Elon Musk is a genius in a lot of proven ways, Zuck is a half played symphony. Beautious first movements, yes, but....

Add to all of the turmoil the election - will we choose stability, or end up changing leadership and going completely topsy-turvy in terms of policy and direction? That would, in my book, be the last thing we need, and to be honest, "let's get rid of this president" isn't exactly a goal for the future. I have not heard a single proposal from Romney in terms of how he wants to get our mojo back - yes, we do need it back, but I think leaving Obama to do his thing is probably the lesser of two evils. This recession is worldwide, and Romney knows no more about combating that than Obama does. For me to be comfortable with Romney I would have had to see him put a "recovery team" together months ago, and have presented the country with a business plan by now. Never mind giving press conferences outside a failed subsidized company - all that means, Governor, is that Obama tries. That is what we need, people doing stuff. Obama said he wanted private enterprise in space, Musk delivered. Besides with, I feel we should give the first Black president another run. We owe this to African America. I know that's not politically correct thinking, but I just believe this should be a consideration, FWIW.

I am still struggling with my computers - it is always the same thing, you make major system changes, little things break. It turns out one of my two Bluetooth dongles - one I bought in Singapore, that is very fast - doesn't "hold" a signal all day, something I did not know, because I had only ever used it intermittently to tether my laptop. Now that I have this great Iogear Bluetooth keyboard, which lets me switch between computers, I find it doesn't always work with one system, and as it turns out, that is related to one of the dongles. the keyboard itself is fine. So I'll try a new dongle, mail ordered for the massive price of $3.31 with shipping - I just can't get over these prices.

Monday May 28, 2012; Memorial Day became Space Day

Keywords: SpaceX, Mars Rover, disk recovery, Windows Media Center, ISS
SpacexThis be one of those holiday weekends you'd wish you'd taken a holiday.... I mean, I broke yet more stuff - on the bright side, I fixed what I broke, but still, it worries me when a computer does something I can't explain, like making a hard drive inaccessible to a user.

Saturday evening, out of nowhere, after a reboot of my new Lenovo laptop, I could not access files on my hard disk. It booted, so the disk was there and operational, but in File Manager I could not see its name or the disk size - the latter, by the way, the largest disk I've even had installed in a laptop, 500 Gb. This does not necessarily mean anything in terms of its functioning, but it isn't all that long ago that drive sizes on PCs were very limited, so that is something I always have in the back of my mind, I remember when you had to install boot drivers so you could access large drives, and those could fail, and then you'd lose all of your data. More importantly, I was asking for trouble as I have a massive archival subdirectory on my primary backup drive, itself 2 Tb in size, and I had copied that entire archive to the Lenovo because I could.

Rover                                                          OpportunitySo on Saturday, still in install-and-test mode, I hooked up the Lenovo via HDMI to a flat panel display, basically to test that port and make sure it all worked OK. HDMI is a very demanding interface, outputting higher resolution video than anything else on a PC, as well as digital Dolby 7.1 signals. Just because a PC has an HDMI port does not necessarily mean it has the oomph to handle all that, and important to understand is that the HDMI port requires Windows to recognize it as such for copy protected HD TV and Blu-Ray disks to be able to be played. IOW, a lot of integration that has to work properly, and not something that is well documented. If you buy a laptop or PC with HDMI, if do not hook it up, set up the flat panel as an extended screen, then run Windows Media Center, and then run Windows Update, you don't know that everything will work when you want it. Besides, the resolution is stunning - if you've never done it, hit Amazon for a cheap HDMI Cable, and feast your eyes.

Anyway, I digress - what I think happened is that I set Media Center to index all the videos in my archive, and it basically choked. I have always wondered if Media Center actually copies files when you create a "Library" - I think the answer is "yes", and when you take the system down while it is doing that weird things can happen. It is a bug in Windows, I am sure, but it was, at the same time, a bit much to do. You set a process running, best don't do much else until that process finishes - I knew that media center can take hours to index large numbers of large files. It is the problem with multitasking software and background processes - you don't know that the programmers tested absolutely everything an idiot like me could try and do. In Media Center, since Microsoft has built some kind of digital rights scanner into Windows, the way the Federal Government originally wanted it (eventually canning the technology as cheap PCs just did not have the horsepower to do this), the library build process can be very slow, I just remembered this was not the first time I've had issues with digital rights management under Windows. Microsoft wants to be able to do all this locally, on the PC, it already has the ability to recognize and reproduce copy protected HD content, but as I said, cheap PCs do not have the horsepower, reason why Media Center is only available on Windows Home Premium and higher. So I think that's what got me.,..

Thankfully, I had made the disks with the original image Lenovo lets you make (as do most other manufacturers) and as I am a compulsive backup-upper, I had a Saturday morning full incremental backup, and so lost no data to speak of, just a few hours. The reason I did not use just the backup is that the disk failure spooked me. Hard drives tend to fail catastrophically when they are new, or when they experience a "hard failure", like a power failure, power spike, or a fall or bump, later in life. Because this machine is brand new, re-imaging the drive, then re-installing it, gave me the best guarantee that there wasn't a physical failure in the drive system itself - the Lenovo being under warranty still, I could have had it replaced. I run disk defrag and a full virus scan on all of my systems every night, so if there is anything else wrong with the drive system it'll experience another failure sooner rather than later. But it installed (twice, for safety's sake) without hiccups, and did a full file system scan Sunday morning, so I think it is unlikely the fault is mechanical or magnetical. I am working on the Lenovo as we speak.. Phew.

Space milestones this week - you'll have noted the arrival of the SpaceX capsule at the ISS, a momentous occasion in that space, now, is no longer exclusively the province of governments. You could technically hire a bunch of NASA retirees and do this in Namibia, if you had enough money. Of course, the spaceport is still Federal, much like international airports are, and I am dying to get my hands on some numbers, on the cost of Dragon and its flight, by comparison with the Russian and European space vehicles. I still think Elon Musk should have sold the rights to the capsule to UPS, it would have been a gas to see a UPS ship pull up to the ISS, don't you think?

It does bring me to wonder if we'll ever move away from our current space policy. I can't say I see a benefit to going into space to "look for life", past or present, our obsession with (re)visiting the moon and Mars, Venus, is anathema to me. What I think, especially when I see we can deliver things to the ISS using Dragon, modules using Ariane, and people using Soyouz, is that we can start building another ISS, one designed to travel into space, bring up and train young astronaut families, a commune, if you will, and send them into space in the new, self sustaining, ISS, knowing they'll die in space and only their children will return. That's new, that could be the next frontier. Looking for more rocks on outlying planets, taking soil samples, building more rovers, isn't where it is at. We have - look at the picture to the left, the picture at top right is the moment Dragon docked with the ISS - proven we can build technology capable of surviving in hostile environments, and we should use the designer's brains before they retire, that thing has been out there for eight years, without a single service.

This picture, taken in March by the only Rover still in operation, Opportunity, after landing in January of 2004, show the dust covered rover overlooking the crater it is currently investigating. One out of two is very good, considering they had a design life of less than a year, and we must retain the services of the thinkers that were capable of designing such a foolproof device for circumstances they could not go and measure. That's a skill, and one we need to design an ISS that can survive and be repaired in space.


Friday May 25, 2012; All The Fixen's

Say, this Musk fella really goofed... he sends a space capsule up to the ISS and he doesn't have the darn thing sponsored by Staples or Wal-Mart, with their logo plastered all over it? I mean, these are "non-essential supplies", which these companies sell, right? Here he can establish the first Interplanetary Super Store (ISS) and he misses it, the Afrikaner bum...

Seriously, here is someone who starts Paypal (which people pay to use, unlike Facebook, just to name an example), then starts Tesla (which makes real electric rickshaws) and a real life space company that actually puts a payload in orbit, don't you love the guy? This is pretty amazing stuff, especially the bit where the engines shut down, they fix the valve (which, in the Shuttle era, would take ten months) and then kick the thing up into orbit a couple days later. Hooray Elon Musk. Elon for president!

To your right, another techie's toy, a 1937 Fieseler Storch owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, parked at the Snohomish County airport. For its time, the Storch was an unbelievable piece of technology, able to take off and land seemingly vertically, specially developed to "go where no man had gone before". In terms of aircraft development, the Storch ("Stork") was well ahead of its time, almost more so than the Messerschmitt ME 163 rocket aircraft, there at Snohomish as well.

Now I really am wasting time, I am spending the entire week computer set-up-ping. Having installed this Lenovo, I end up with one extra Windows 7 Home Premium license, since one came with it. So I decided to not use the Windows 7 Professional license I have an upgrade kit for, since the old HP no longer needs that, I am going back to the original load I had on that machine. Instead, as soon as Windows 8 is out, which should be Any Day Now, I'll buy an upgrade for the Lenovo, rumoured to be only $15, and the Windows 7 Professional license can now go to the Vaio, which was still running Windows Vista (I have the Ultimate upgrade, though).

Still with me? Vista is, today, a fine and mature operating system, but it will lose factory support next year, and besides, it is a bit top heavy and slow, long in the tooth, I suppose is an adequate description. The Vaio has a completely state of the art 64 bit motherboard and a dual Core Intel processor, although it does not support more than 4Gb of RAM, which is a bit stupid on Sony's part. Anyway, with Windows 7, it can easily last another couple years, maybe a little while as a server, for as long as I keep vacuuming the vents, this thing "Hoovers up the dust", as they say in the old country. Nice big screen, too, although HD drivers don't recognize it properly, those all look for an HDMI connected display now. It does have a Dolby optical outlet, if I ever get my own house again.

Couple days on, I finished up reinstalling the Vaio, we're on Thursday now, and I must say it was worth the day's extra work, with Windows 7 it runs at least twice (!) as fast as it did with Vista. And Windows Media TV, which I ran patched under Vista, runs like a dream under 7, the plug-in cable decoder is magical.

As I am sitting here installing two Windows 7 PCs, including all of the software I need, I have an opportunity to think about brains and aging and learning, a subject I have been analyzing for a while now, and am beginning to think I may have an idea how dementia and Alzheimers may get triggered. Well, understanding is a big word, it is just one of those brainwaves you get when things clunk-click into place. I've been thinking about this for a while, particularly trying to figure out how brain functioning seems to change as a person ages, without necessarily the cognitive bits being affected negatively.

Anyway, I need to do some research, see where the official science stands, I'll come back on this, promise. For now, I am watching Coronation Street on my Vaio, and writing this on the Lenovo, updating my website as I go along. This means getting used to yet another keyboard, but as I have recently extolled to you the benefits of constantly learning to the brain, I guess I don't have much of a choice.


 

Tuesday May 22, 2012; I love it when things break

Seriously. One of the aspects of the work I used to do in the lab, way back in New York, was systems integration, but I put together the Windows network we used for documentation development and file tracking as well, and spent many moons configuring Windows environments to work with our UNIX development systems, and our eventual WWW backbone (I have worked on the internet since before it was called "internet"). So whenever I need to configure a new computer (or re-configure an old computer) into my personal network as well as what we scathingly refer to as "the world", and on the rare occasions I do this for a good friend, it is a bit like being back in the lab. It is real work - between setting up the server aspects of my systems, security and firewalls, and configuring Windows so it doesn't run all of the Windows nonsense you don't need so it runs much faster, defragging and running scans, and installing software, I easily spend four days on a new PC. This is day four.... even a Blackberry takes a day or so.

So - just as I am more or less pennyless, one after the other, my "things" break down. And these are things I need to work, I've had nightmares thinking about finally getting that juicy assignment I've been waiting a year for, and my lovely HP laptop breaking down on the spot. Which it has been doing since late December, when its display started behaving in an odd discoloured manner. I switched to my spare (a Sony VAIO VGC-JS110J/S , which is, unfortunately, a desktop), in the hope the HP would magically repair itself. Failing that, I would open it up and, umm, j-j-jiggle it a bit, to quote Mr. Arkwright , and that would fix it. You wish. I did splatter all of its screws across the corridor, haven't yet bolted it back together, but it ain't working any better than before. I got that HP at Best Buy in Fredericksburg, VA for a reasonable $525, including tax, back in 2010, coming back from a China trip, so I suppose I've had my mileage out of it. Although, between replacing the memory to get from 4Gb to 8Gb, and a Windows 7 Professional upgrade, the thing wasn't in the end cheap, exactly.

Since it is still working fine, provided I use it with an external screen, and I have lots of peripherals and batteries and crap for it, I'll hang on to that HP (the HP Pavilion dv4-2145dx, if you want the gory detail), but in the meantime, selling my backside as a contractor with a dodgy laptop and a Blackberry Playbook is probably not going to fly, so I've been scouring the stores for another laptop.

While I prefer a smaller computer (11.6 or 12 inch screen, those are out of my price range, so I eventually ended up (again!) at Best Buy, but this time in Everett, WA, where I found a Lenovo on clearance sale, for $360.99 (without tax and extra memory). With a dual core Intel i3 Sandy Bridge processor and a 500Gb hard disk, and fitted with an HDMI port, a combined SATA/USB port and Lenovo's fingerprint authentication gizmo, it seemed a good deal, especially when it turned out it had a single 4Gb memory chip, so I was able to just add another, rather than replace all of the memory. Long story short, it is quite fast, has everything I need, even if it is a bit larger than I find convenient, and I ended up only $426.95 out of pocket, with tax. Phew. It is the Lenovo B570-1068B9U, if you want to look it up - I kind of doubt they'll have many left, by now. It is, much to my amazement, as far as the Windows Performance Diagnostics are concerned the fastest PC I have ever owned (PC, I said, not server). This isn't by itself earth shattering - I tend to buy cheapo laptops, far preferring to buy two budget machines versus one top-of-the-line item. Apart from anything else, if you get one of those super-duper fast game style laptops, you have little in the way of battery life, and what are you going to do for a backup? I am paranoid about having the ability to seamlessly jump from one PC to my backup - which is why I was able to switch to the Vaio when the HP Pavillion began to experience colour Alzheimer's. Read below how I do the same for cellphones, which are the other tool without which I can't work.

Anyway, still setting up the Lenovo, I'll tell you more about it once I have it all done, and have switched over to it. All I can say is "so far, so good". And look at the performance numbers to the right, and you will hopefully agree those are pretty impressive.

Highly confusing, to me, is that T-Mobile is pushing the expensive Blackberry Bold 9900, when they have the Blackberry Torch 9810 still available. Both support 4G and have a touch screen as well as the ubiquitous Blackberry keyboard, but the Torch, which is cheaper, has a slide-under keyboard and a larger touch screen than does the Bold. Other specifications, down to Blackberry's "new" 7.1 operating system, appear to be the same for both. I can only imagine that the 9810, sold by AT&T Wireless under the same type designation, was manufactured specifically to support the AT&T Wireless / TMO merger, killed in November of last year by the Federal Communications Commission. That means the phone would be able to work on both the AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile GSM networks, which share frequencies for GSM and EDGE connectivity, but use different frequencies for 3G and 4G high speed data connections. I know T-Mobile introduced phones that have the capability, my Nokia C7, which TMO calls the "Astound", is capable of running 3G on both networks, so I'll test whether the Torch does that too - I haven't yet tested that, although T-Mobile did make a carrier unlock available to me.

I love my new Torch, beginning with the slide-under keyboard - the keyboard in my Bold 9700 eventually wore out because I slid it in and out of its belt holster a dozen or more times a day, from December 2009 through April 2012, it was my primary phone all that time. It traveled around the world with me several times in that period, when I discovered that Blackberry handsets even let you roam in Japan - not something any other handset commonly available from an American carrier could do, in 2010, when I first turned it on at Tokyo Narita Airport. But with that, the slide-under keyboard, and the larger touch screen, I am very happy with my Torch. It is very sturdy, too, due to its metal casing and sliding mechanism. Because the sliding keyboard will never rub up against anything, this Blackberry is the best thing since sliced bread, for Blackberry aficionados. If you've never used a Blackberry before, perhaps this is one you should try, since it has the touch screen keyboard as well, so you never need to use the slide if you don't want to. Most carriers will let you exchange the handset for another if you do that within the week, should you decide you don't like it. And there really is not a huge difference between the AT&T Wireless 9810 and the T-Mobile 9810, except for T-Mobile's "WiFi Calling", known to us techies as "UMA", which lets you make calls and use data over a WiFi connection, when you're inside a building where service is blocked, or at home, or in locales where there is no cellular service, if you subscribe to this it gives you free minutes and data. Not new, UMA has been available here since 2007, only a few carriers worldwide support it, in the USA that's T-Mobile, and I think Rogers in Canada has it too. I use it all over the world, free WiFi is everywhere these days, from any Starbucks in Beijing to your one star hotel in Patagonia.

As I've said, reviewing phones, in terms of comparing them, is increasingly impossible. They simply have too much functionality, too many capabilities, for a comparison by a reviewer who has played with the thing for a week to be meaningful. In that respect, the user reviews at carrier and vendor sites are more useful. Even there, though, there is a lot of reading between the lines to be done, and as is the case with most phones and computers, weeding out the "reviews" from many users that don't run the basic setup and update routines prior to use is a necessity. Reading up on reviews of the Torch 9810 at the AT&T Wireless site, here, it looks to me at least half the reviewers are in the "self inflicted" category.

So all I am doing here is tell you about my experiences with the Torch, with perhaps some comparison with my old Blackberry Bold, and my Nokia C7. Why do I have multiple phones? In a nutshell, I need my "old" East Coast mobile number to continue, but needed a local Seattle number as well. It isn't a luxury, and in fact, I tend to think that much as we have progressed to one number per person from one number per home, technology allows us to progress to one number per purpose per person - work, home, Ebay, Gramps, you name it. Dual SIM phones are available, and we can even have numbers (see Google Voice) that don't need their own handset. Something that impressed the heck out of me was the restoration of my Blackberry backup - while available for other brands of handsets, the Blackberry recovery was seamless, a Bold 9700 backup restored to a Torch 9810, without so much as a hiccup, this after the Blackberry Desktop I was using already updated the Torch OS. Some other stuff I really like: Blackberry Protect, which will let me locate and wipe the handset remotely, and I just connected the Blackberry Bluetooth modem to my Sony Vaio desktop, and found, much to my surprise, that the modem settings I have always had to manually set for T-Mobile aren't necessary, on the Torch. Why, I don't yet know, but all this with non-custom drivers is quite astonishing, although I may be in nerd territory with this, I don't really know.

It is, of course, perfectly possible I've lost some of my zest-for-the-new, never even experimenting with Apple's iOS or Android. OTOH, I like Nokia's Symbian OS and Blackberry OS, have done for years, same as I am wedded to Microsoft Windows, and it isn't because i've not used other operating systems. Any operating system that connects me directly to the main purpose of the device, voice communications and email, has my vote, it is very simple. As a test, I just synchronized recorded TV under Windows Media with my Nokia - something I only accidentally discovered it will do - while I think the capability is magical, and it means I basically have TV capabilities on both the Blackberry and the Nokia, I have little purpose for the ability to watch movies on a screen the size of two matchboxes. The only time I recall I thanked the Gods for mobile TV was during the broadcast of the last episode of Seinfeld, when the limo company had, with a lot of foresight, sent a car with TV to LaGuardia, when I arrived on a delayed flight from somewhere, and would have missed most of the show while driving from the airport to my home in Westchester County. But even with Windows Media, these days it all gets recorded, and unbeknownst to me it is portable. I could fall asleep drunk and miss a show and watch it in the morning on the way to work, then, except I don't drink any more.



Friday May 18, 2012; Careerbuilder has your number

If you have a resume at Careerbuilder.com, check your privacy settings. I noticed last month that the "intermediate" setting, which allowed the job seeker to post a resume without providing personal details, had been eliminated. Sure enough, on Thursday May 17 I received both an email and a telephone call from ING - a call to my unlisted number - ING is recruiting salespeople. I am not in the financial industry, I am not a salesperson, I have never applied to any position at ING, and what is worse, these aren't "jobs" ING has, they are most likely commission agents they're looking for. ING clearly does not care what the person's credentials are, freely available to them, as they pay Careerbuilder. So it probably is not a bad idea to either remove your listing from Careerbuilder, or at least make it invisible to "employers". I have noticed for some time that Careerbuilder is now posting tens of thousands of what they call "non-traditional jobs", which aren't paying jobs, but unremunerated telesales "opportunities". The probably reason behind all this? I would wager a bet Careerbuilder is in financial trouble, and is trying to solve that by selling job seeker private information to corporate customers. I hope the FTC is looking over my shoulder...


Wednesday May 16, 2012; IPO or manipulatipo?


Facebook                                                          advertising If Facebook's IPO serves any purpose, it is the realization that consumer internet access is shifting from the PC to mobile devices, worldwide, and the industry, including the advertising industry, has sat on its backside making nice with large screens when consumers can do much of what they like to do on small screens. Kids I know barely watch anything on their 50 inch home screens, 20% of their life takes place on a small laptop, the rest on an even smaller handset. IOW, Facebook spent the past few years developing what you see to your right, it advertises credit cards to me - I cut mine up last Summer, how come they don't know that? - in a way that can't work on any of the handheld devices that are today the primary access device for the internet. Other ads in this example are either completely irrelevant to me, or have, due to the postage stamp dimensions, not enough information for me to see what they are about. Clicking on random ads because they say something intriguing, in my view, isn't something most people have time to do, at least those of us who have jobs and busy lives. What I see on my Facebook page, when I look at what my friends and family use Facebook for, is half games, half communicating with other people. Occasionally, someone I know will "like" a product or service, but as I generally don't know why, I tend to ignore that. One of my buddies is really happy with his new Verizon Wireless phone, but I happen to know that his employer pays for that, so it is kinda irrelevant to me - if nothing else, Verizon's cellphones generally don't work overseas, something I have always found ridiculous, in the Age of Miracles. Tell me again why you're going to give Facebook one hundred billion dollars this week?

I do know that I've moved much of my own Twitter interaction, my Facebook posting, Google Talk, even some of my LinkedIn  to mobile devices. Twitter I always ran mostly on my Blackberry, but Facebook I've now moved 50% to my tablet, a Blackberry Playbook. I did occasionally look at Facebook on my Nokia C7, but never posted there, the (touch) screen is just too small for me. I never ran Facebook on my Blackberry, as, from a privacy perspective, I don't want Facebook to look over my shoulder to see where I am, and I have GPS always turned on in my Blackberrys. In the Nokia, less frugal with power, I control GPS by using an external Bluetooth GPS antenna that I turn off when I am not using navigation. My primary reason for using that antenna is that I can put it on top of the dashboard, where it can "see" satellites, so I can have the screen up close, and that it has its own battery, which lasts more than a week. The GPS chipset inside a phone uses a lot of power otherwise. This privacy stuff may not be much of an issue for teens and students, but beyond that, depending on what you end up doing in life, you may well allow Facebook and others to hand out information that can be used to hurt you or steal from you or stalk you. Seriously, if you lock your front door when you leave, if you have lights on timers to give your house a "someone-is-at-home" look, you shouldn't have GPS turned on when you Facebook. Facebook actually goes so far that on the Playbook application, if I want to comment or like a posting from somebody who has checked in from a locale, I am disabled from commenting unless I turn my GPS on first. That, to me, is way beyond acceptable.

I've also got the feeling that handing over this personal stuff doesn't actually sell anything, that this whole idea about the internet knowing it is lunchtime where you are, and letting you know about the nearest Pizza Hut deal, is a pipe dream. My team looked at this some fifteen years ago, but by now everybody is doing it, and that means only information overload for the consumer, nothing else. Or, let me rephrase that, Wall Street is about to give $100 billion (if the prognostication is correct) to a company that says they know so much about the consumer they can predict and maybe influence how and where and what the consumer buys - this after the industry has already spent several billions of dollars developing technologies that I very much doubt sell anything.

Nokia                                                          AstoundLook at the sheer numbers of SEO jobs - Search Engine Optimization - this at a time when most consumers spend their internet hours on Facebook, where search engines can't reach.. These jobs command salaries of $150,000 a year, and ask yourself if this isn't a pipe dream.  Impulse buying works in Wal-Mart because you went there to shop in the first place, but just because a million teens "like" Burger King doesn't mean they don't go to McDonalds. I had an American teen in my car in Spain, many years ago, who wanted a Happy Meal, not one of those delicious jambon baguette sandwiches you can buy by the roadside in Catalonia - I actually once selected a Europe-to-U.S. flight routed through Madrid Airport just so I could have lunch there. They're not going to want Happy Meals because of Facebook, but because many American kids aren't brought up with real food, so they think that's what these burger+fry+toy deals are. What the industry doesn't get is that the kids go back because of the taste and the toys, not because of Facebook. If all their friends were to decide that McDonalds fries were blah, tomorrow, they'd all go to Wendy's. Try to put that in your search engine. The idea that you can get somebody to buy a new car because you send them a car ad when they drive into the repair shop may be valid, except if you've just spent 20 million dollars rolling out that technology and it sells 800 extra cars a year, you're kind of deceiving yourself, and you don't know this because you have no way of tracking the expenditure to the individual revenue action.

Am I right or am I right?

Anyway, webservers have huge amounts of fancy technology to push advertising out to browsers, to push sponsored content, again to browsers, all this aimed at those countries that have wired broadband technology in place. In the rest of the world (which is most of the world), a majority of consumers access the internet on mobile devices, at mostly lower speeds. I checked this out at my cousin's house in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2010, when I was able to install 3G wireless broadband he could use to Skype, a connection that was several times faster than the DSL connection he had at his home, running over the old copper wire that is all there is, if it is there at all, in most emerging economies.  They have leapfrogged, and we've known this for a long time, from nothing to 3G/4G wireless speeds. And they use small screens, and we haven't built any technologies to push advertising to those small screens - web pages are made for 1024x768 or higher resolutions, and your average smartphone probably has 320x200, if that. In other words, they're running at a resolution we never used - we started at 640x480, way back when, and that was mostly text. We never did the lab work we now need to do, and as far as I am aware we're still not doing it.

Interesting conundrum, don't you think? And no, I have nothing against Facebook, I use it, it is a brilliant way of keeping in touch, but like so many other "products", it can't bill its users. I've seen this continuously, throughout my career in the networking industry: The Source, CIS / CompuServe, Tapcis, Minitel, Viditel, Hotmail, AOL, then GroupOn seems to be on the way down, MySpace deceased, Overstock seems to have lost it, Amazon is doing fine  but never managed to become a social network, and that not for want of trying, Google does well but not because it is "social", and I don't see how Facebook will fare any better than any of the above. I just don't see it. Social networks aren't new, people. They've been around for more than twenty years, they just had different names and weren't accessible to your nieces, your plumber and Gramma. And the big question does not get answered: you can advertise, targeted if you like, as much as you like, but that is not going to sell more of anything - we're in a recession, both in Europe and the US, and people buy less. Advertising more is not going to change that - advertising we never had a problem doing, as far as I know. Helping Facebook cannibalize the rest of the World Wide Web - how does that help anyone? We have Apple as a good example, already - its profits go two places: China, where the jobs are, and the USA, where many of its investors are. Investors. Not workers. Think about it. Same for Facebook. Investors. Not workers, it is automated. And its equipment and network elements and servers and, umm, stuff, come from..... you guessed it, China.

Sunday May 13, 2012; More Blackberry musings


T-Mobile                                                          Blackberry                                                          old For those of you who have been following the Mayan calendar drivel about how the Mayans predicted our world will come to an end in December - I don't think they had leap years, so we probably should be thinking about March, maybe even April. Add Summer Time corrections, who knows when we'll be.

Seriously, it is beyond me how anybody who works in the press can not report it in the following manner: 1) Even if you believe the Mayans could predict the future, they would have predicted their own future. They didn't know about you, they did not have mobile phones and satellite television - in fact, they didn't even have black & white television! They probably didn't yet have steam locomotives, even! They didn't know nothing about Iranians and Kim Yong Ill, didn't even have Amtrak tickets, either, because they didn't have Visa cards or internet.

Yes, they might have predicted their own future - that's what most populations do, in a religion related sort of way. There's nothing in anything they published that has any end-of-the-earth scenario. They had calendars, and figured out a way to calculate e-nor-mous numbers. Maybe they just ran out of those.

The other thing I haven't seen anybody write is that the find described above is "early Mayan". All this other stuff leading up to the December 2012 date dates to much later in the Mayan civilization. So you could just as easily postulate, and perhaps find another Swiss hotel manager to write it, that the Mayans, during their ascent and descent, discovered something they didn't know when the above calendar was made, and then revamped the calendar to end at an earlier date.

Or maybe they just used a calculator whose battery drained, and they couldn't get a replacement battery, because nobody had discovered Shenzen and container ships. The Mayans, by the way, still exist, they live in South America and Middle America, still have their language, religion and traditions, and if you ask them when the world will end they'll reward you with a blank stare. Nobody told them about their sell by date, you see..

I find myself at a real disadvantage reviewing the T-Mobile Blackberry Torch 9810 (picture below - to the right are my older Blackberrys), because I can't really give you a comparison with other smartphones. Or, perhaps, more correctly: I can't give you a comparison with smartphones. I think we're looking more and more at a division between handphones that have "normal" screen sizes, like this Blackberry, and my Nokia C7 (a.k.a. "Astound"), and what I like to call "handheld computing devices" like the iPhone, and Samsung's Galaxy. Perhaps those larger devices with a design concentration on running "apps" are the smartphones, although we then don't have a name for the devices that fit in between "feature phones and "smartphones". I don't have any of the large screen devices, have never owned any, and so am not the right person to comment. For all I know, they're just totally magical and I don't know it. But I see four and five-plus inch screens cropping up on handphones, and if I compare that it isn't all that far from the 7 inch screen on my Blackberry Playbook. I use the term "handphone" advisedly - it is the name normally used for mobile phones in much of Asia, and not for nothing.

I like the size of the Torch, see it in my average hand below, though some of the time I, admittedly, use mine with a Bluetooth headset, when I am in the car, or when I have a call I expect to be longer than a few minutes. Then, of course, size does not matter. And here is where I get lost, because there are two entire generations behind me that may think it is perfectly OK to handhold a larger phone. Statistics have it that adolescent communications are shifting to Facebook, Twitter, and SMS all the time - although, when I look around me on the street and in the mall I see plenty of people talking on the phone. All I am saying is that the generational thing may be more important than any design- and usage features, when, indeed, for Facebook and Twitter and in email (not something teens use at all any more), the larger screen is absolutely better. At which point design may be driven by the "instant gratification" generation - the generation that does not want to boot a laptop and log into this, that and the other, but wants to have a single device they can use for whatever. There is, of course, one large issue here - kids, who for the most part can't afford multiple devices, will go for a device that can "do it all" - and a laptop they can't carry everywhere, nor can they make voice calls on it.

That is, by the way, a completely different reason for choice-of-phone that the majority of reviewers and analysts use - but I see two main determining factors, and they both have to do with cost, but not with "cheap".

I've noticed in "growth economies" like Indonesia and Thailand, but even Hungary, Poland and Romania, that folks can afford to spend money on handsets, but not on the handset - laptop - desktop combo. On top of that, in many former Third World countries there isn't the finely mazed fiber network we're used to, and so folks have little choice but to go for wireless broadband. And if you're doing that anyway, what's better than a smartphone, in both cases?



Thursday May 10, 2012; Why have investoriadors at all?


T-Mobile                                                          Blackberry                                                          Torch 9810Friend E. asked me, the other day, why "we" - me and another couple Facebookies, all of us happening to be engineers - like Blackberrys so much - E. being a graphics artist by training, thus an Apple aficionado, and an IPhone freak. The initial answer was kind of too easy - her iPhone works in Jo'burg, where she lives, but not in the countryside where her farm is, for use there she has a cheap Blackberry. So I launched into a long diatribe about Blackberry and Nokia Symbian devices being advanced technology telecommunications tools, not handheld computing devices with telecom added, like iPhone and Android thingies with their huge screens.

I am sure I am heavily tainted by many years of mandatory 24/7 availability in my telecoms career - you just can't then rely on a piece of gear that may run out of battery, or crash, when you most need it. But I must, of course, be realistic, and understand that for most consumers, that isn't the primary consideration. I was asked, the other day, while consulting at Nuance, to "think like a consumer" - and had to explain that I hadn't been an ordinary consumer since before I went to work at Bell Labs, but that especially 9/11 changed my outlook on the difference between "tools" and "toys" forever. My Blackberry, by now - I am talking about my brand new Torch 9810 - and my Nokia C7 are both pretty solid small devices, good phones, with functionality added, but they're certainly not mini-PCs, and I don't want them to be. In fact, Nokia's C7 is advanced enough, as a "smart device", to suffer the same issues iPhones and Androids do - it does fancy stuff, it'll hang, crash, all this unlike the Blackberry, even the high end Torch, now with touch screen, still with the hallmark Blackberry keyboard, but this now can be slid under the screen - see to the right how well this fits in my hand, see it below with its trademark Blackberry keyboard slid out.

The C7 is actually my backup phone as well as my backup GPS unit, and as such, I am perfectly happy with it, but I wouldn't have it as my primary. The T-Mobile Torch supports AT&T Wireless 3G, T-Mobile 3G and 4G, 3G in Tokyo, and 3G and 4G in lots of places in between here and there, and believe me, there are few handsets that can do all that. It isn't what the competition is about, you see, and you get to where friend E. is - oops, nice iPhone, but it doesn't work in the South African countryside, so she needs another phone that does. Not for me, that, and it is amazing someone sells limitations for extra money, today, and makes consumers think that's OK. Now as before, the Blackberry is bulletproof, reliable, and its battery lasts until next week, what more does one need?

So it is sad to see RIM taking a nosedive, expertly helped by the carriers, which like selling you gear you don't need at inflated subsidized prices so you will use more data - the Blackberry uses less data, as some of its data requirements are met, for free, by RIM, using its own network, keeping things affordable for those who know what they're doing.

Now I do see the thousands of apps others say they're using, and I admittedly use very little, in the way of apps, on a daily basis. Anything fancy I run on my Playbook tablet, and beyond that, most of the stuff I use on a daily basis, like photography and picture processing software, lives on my laptop and desktop. So does my financial software - I don't want anything to do with my finances on my phone, I want it somewhere it is secure, and I can easily back it up and secure access to it. The most I have acceded to, over the years, is that I now transfer funds between my bank accounts on my phone, and I will occasionally read the news on my Blackberry, although mostly, I prefer doing that over a cup of coffee on my Playbook, at Starbucks, where T-Mobile makes my data usage-over-Wifi (using UMA) free. Here again, the carriers don't tell you what you have - UMA isn't just "WiFi Calling", it is actually GPRS/EDGE data service, over WiFi, at WiFi speeds. You can tether over it, and use it over a secure, encrypted, Bluetooth-to-WiFi network connection - which is why I can Facebook in China.

Speaking of Facebook, with its size and importance, it is totally beyond me how a large internet enterprise like Facebook has managed to not be in China. If anybody should have an incentive, and anyone should have the clout, it would be Zuck, wouldn't you think? How can you go to IPO without the largest social networking market on the planet? Why is it so hard to put something together the Chinese can live with, that will let us all be one planet wide family? Yeah, we'd have to compromise, but being politically correct in China isn't any different from being politically correct in Saudi, why are we not learning to do these things? If Facebook can spend a cool billion to acquire a startup, wouldn't you think a similar amount spent in Shenzen wouldn't get something going "over there", even if the Chinese are less impressed with the colour of money than they used to be.. How can we, with our marketing clout and advanced technologies, not make the Chinese an offer they can't refuse? How will you, the investor, take seriously a CEO who can't crack the largest market on Earth? Isn't that what commerce is about? And what do you think will happen when someone else cracks that problem? When we already have tens of thousands of children in schools all over learning Mandarin, all of whom can't communicate with the kids in China because they cannot get on Facebook...

I suppose, seeing headlines like "
Facebook Kicks Off Roadshow With Zuckerberg in Hoodie", it is slowly safe to say that Mark Zuckerberg wants to be Steve Jobs 2.0, and Facebook wants to be World Wide Web 2.0. I had been looking for some easy to understand comparative expressions for a while, and just now, as Summer warmth envelopes the Puget Sound, it hit me. The problem is, then, the difference between the two - Jobs was a marketing genius, and Jobs opened up a market that I had no idea existed - luxury gadgets. Sony had done it before, with the Walkman, showing that consumers will pay over the top to buy gadgets that serve absolutely no purpose, Jobs did a do-over with the digital equivalent, the iPod, then conceived the iPhone, neither a good telecommunications device nor a good computer, but something in between with a lot of glitz and glamour and "the right stuff". He created an over-the-top ecosphere where consumers felt compelled to pay three times what the thing was worth for the hype of "belonging", and the rest is history. I've followed Apple from its very first computers, running the very first Apple licensee in the Benelux, via the Macintosh, which I was "in on" (as an accredited technical journalist) both in London and New York, to where we decided, at the First Boston Corporation on 49th Street, that we could not use the Macintosh as a brokerage workstation as it did not have protected memory, and thus went (we and the rest of Wall Street as well as Bell Labs) with the IBM PC-AT and a nascent, creaking Windows/286 - which did. It was a magic moment, when we saw those four Windows, each with a live stream from the Chicago, NYC, London and Tokyo stock exchanges - in real time, something my NYNEX S&T supervisor Craig Reding would eventually rename, to "reasonable time", when we noticed lag differences of several milliseconds between different feeds from the same place.

The thing is, I believe Facebook, like AOL before it, is hanging by a thread. Facebook, by virtue of its requiring you to log in from an IP address, can (and does) look up, collect your personal information, and sell this to advertisers. That's what it does - that is its product, its only product. Currently, if you want to advertise on Facebook, you're paying way over the top to get access to potential customers, without any evidence that those customers buy anything as a consequence of your advertising - especially since its postage stamp ads don't exactly provide room for a lot of information. Most of what I see are teasers.. The amount of "social media" advertising available to companies today is such that there isn't a measurable correlation, over time, of the effectiveness, in terms of sales.

Thing is, I think Zuck isn't Jobs. Jobs created and sold a product, something you had to buy and had to pay hard dollars for. He then had to deliver on the expectation - in the case of the iPod, music-on-the-go. That required an ecosystem - without iTunes, Jobs still wouldn't have had a product, and iTunes is a very different animal from a music player. Besides - Jobs, originally, was part of a team, a small group of visionaries, who created something together, they learned a whole bunch of stuff doing that. Jobs, ego notwithstanding, needed an industrial design genius, and he needed to listen to that genius. To his credit, he did, because without the design embedded in Apple I doubt its success would have been what it is today.

Not Zuck. Facebook reminds me mostly of Hotmail, sold to Microsoft as the world's largest mailing list without ever making a dime - and in the end, I doubt Microsoft ever got a benefit out of its Hotmail acquisition. You don't pay Zuck, and he therefore is under no obligation to deliver anything to you, all he needs to do is make sure you come back and log in and somehow hand over your personal information. Because without the login, Zuck's gone. Toast. He must know it is you on his line, must tie you down in his ecosystem, or track you across the internet, which he can do because you do not log out when you leave, so he stalks you electronically, anathema in my internet generation, when zone transfers were frowned upon (I noticed recently Facebook now downloads all content in my webserver directories, ignoring robot statements), and can tell his advertiser to let fly. It has gotten to the point already where on many news websites, you can't comment on articles and participate in discussions unless you log in with your Facebook ID. When I want to comment on someone's post made from a location, the Facebook app for the Playbook won't let me because I am not logged in with my GPS location. And you have to ask yourself about the bottom line - does it sell? Because our problem is not that we don't have enough advertising, we don't have enough products to sell, and those we do sell leave much of their income in China, not in Wisconsin.


Monday May 7, 2012; It always happens all at once

T-Mobile                                                          Blackberry                                                          Torch 9810The keyboard on my Blackberry Bold had been giving signs of failure for a couple of months - keys coming up, pushed them back down and tried to ignore, then the chrome rails in between the keys dislodged themselves - I suppose, having used the thing every day since December, 2009, this is a reasonable MTBF. It wasn't your most expensive Blackberry. So on Friday, I got on the horn to T-Mobile customer support, spoke with an immaculately spoken guy by the name of Jeremy, who eventually turned out to be not as fluent as T-Mobile hopes he is, because he kept insisting there was a discount coupon at the website that (I've used those before, and I had noticed a discount earlier in the week) simply did not exist. So he was overseas after all, and not able to provide adequate customer service - once you end up in an Indian overflow office and you go "off script" they're lost. They've never personally dealth with this type of situation, probably have only rudimentary internet on their handphone, and nobody trained them for "system shows different screen from what you have".

On Saturday, I went to the store in Edmond, and there wasn't a discount there either. I should have known better - the discounts, these days, not only with T-Mobile, but at Safeway, too, are mid-week. By the weekend, when the folks that work all week go shopping, the discounts are gone, and they get to pay full whack, even if the label says something else. Been like that for a while. It is how you can tell we are in a deep recession, you're manipulated into spending more money if the retail trade can assume you have some. You see, us unemployed folk, that don't have money, mostly shop midweek, all week, looking for bargains. So, my bad, I knew all this.

In the end - long story as short as I can manage - I ended up with a Blackberry 9810 Torch - about the last thing I had in mind getting, especially since T-Mobile took these units out of its offerings shortly after they were introduced (the latest: after I bought one, yesterday, the Torch magically reappeared in the "upgrade" listings, though not in the "new phones" listings, where it only appears as a "refurb"). So I seem to be in an elite class of existing TMO customers eligible for this high end device, which even in the stores isn't on display. I am assuming that has something to do with the merger failure TMO and AT&T Wireless experienced, when the FCC decided to take them to court. I can't shed much light on that, but I do know TMO was introducing phones, last year, that covered both their own and AT&T's 3G frequency spectra - the Nokia C7 I got around that time actually roams on both 3G networks. It would have been necessary to introduce these types of handsets to be used on both networks - the Torch, designated "9810" by both AT&T Wireless and TMO, I assume is one of those specialized handsets - the companies never even got to advertising these "joint" handsets, which, with the merger now abandoned, are pretty much useless.

The Torch otherwise boasts everything TMO has, HSPA+, UMA, HSDPA and HSUPA in Europe and Asia, and has both the Blackberry keyboard, this time in a slide, as well as a full touch screen - it is the handset to the left in the picture. I should get a $50 mail-in rebate, and $100 back for my Bold 9700 (middle), leaving my outlay a somewhat manageable $150 - more than I had planned to spend, but I did get extra capabilities for that money, some of which may come in handy if I move overseas. Between UMA and its plethora of supported international 3G frequencies, this Torch is a powerful communications tool, and "plays nice" with my $199 Blackberry Playbook, a tablet I use daily now, that works well with Blackberry handsets, as it can use the handset data plan "invisibly" to the carrier - i.e., no tethering involved (though available, not all applications can use the Blackberry Bridge).

Every ten or fifteen years or so, some of my medication stops working. These being the medically extremely advanced United States, by the time this happens - either because my body no longer tolerates the drug I have been taking, or  my body learned how to ignore it - help is normally at hand: there is always a new super duper latest greatest designer drug that one of my doctors kindly arranges for me to have. Every time also, the new drug is more than twice as expensive as the old one, and it is so hugely effective the FDA waived half the testing they'd normally insist on so we will together find the other 111 side effects five years from now, when the CDC updates its bulletins, and I am the guinea pig.

I am going through one of those periods right now, and while I really should be majorly grateful I have insurance that pays for all this stuff, at the same time I am a bit offended at how hard the pharmaceutical industry pushes things that are really really expensive. I mean, if you want to know why our medical expenditure is soaring, this is it. It wasn't until I was well into my Verizon career that I began to realize that if it weren't for my health insurance, I would long have been back in The Netherlands, where the State would take care of me. In fact, they offered to, many years ago, after I had revalidated from my car accident, and the City of Amsterdam cheerfully  suggested I would never have to work again, nor worry about my medical treatment, and I told them where to get off, left for England, and eventually for the United States. They promptly stopped my sick pay...

On that cultural note, I have only really recently realized how Americanized I have become. If that sounds stupid, after twenty-seven years, it probably is. The thing is, I've never tried to "become American", I do not believe in the chameleon life, and I've seen some bad examples, over the years, of people who put on what I like to call "an American veneer", but culturally weren't well adjusted underneath. It is, in my book, better to be who you are, even if that makes you "a foreigner", and find where you, in your own personality, belong. I've been lucky in that I was a published journalist and writer when I moved to England, so in order for me to "do my thing" I spent close to a decade perfecting my English language skills, without which I couldn't exercise my skill set in the Anglo-Saxon world. I was the first Dutch translator who certified, in London, as a non native English speaker, in Dutch-to-English translation.

But I have, over the past few years, come across a number of non-Americans resident here, who all seem to share one trait: they don't assimilate - as in: don't bother. I mean that as I write it, I shy away from the word "integrate", because I think that is generally a misnomer, and I have my doubts if it even applies when you come to live in another country as an adult. But I see many foreigners make huge attempts to stay in touch with their home front, and their own culture, at the expense of learning to understand their new culture - which, thereby, doesn't become "theirs". Assimilation is hard work - I enjoy understanding other cultures, for many, that is an uphill battle, even impossible.

By now I've kicked quite a few shins, I am sure, but bear with me. I don't, as I said, advocate "becoming American", or German, or French, or Indonesian. I don't know that such a thing exists, and even if it does, you'd have to get here as a child in order to go through the formative experiences, school, college, that sort of thing. Some of my relatives did, growing up and going to school in Northern Virginia, because their Dad, my uncle, was a Dutch diplomat in Washington, D.C. Cousin H. married an American, had kids, and stayed, the others all moved abroad, I think they're all "back" in The Netherlands now. I say "back" in quotes because they weren't born there, but in the colonies, and grew up all over. But largely, if you look at cultures - if you see that Indonesians refer to a group that immigrated into Indonesia 400 years ago as "Chinese", even though you and I couldn't distinguish them from Malay Indonesians, what chance do you think any more recent arrivals have of "becoming Indonesian"? Exactly, none. It is no different here.

But this rant really isn't about whether-or-not, but about the hard time I see some have assimilating. Those with the job overseas, or career - and I am no yardstick, because my European spouse in New York had her own career - has it, comparatively speaking, easy, because when you have the office, the colleagues, the American  environment you hack around in, every day, the assimilation happens largely automatically. Kids - I never had any - get "it" easily too, at least if they are in American schools, but beyond that, life becomes complicated. You have to go out and "get acquainted" and "blend in" and do stuff, and that is not easy, and, these being the United States, there