Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Planet of Pirates 

At least, it seems as though that's what the music industry want. No other explanation fits the available facts.

Case in point: just now, I was listening to the Sky.fm classical guitar stream, and heard Simon Wynberg's rendition of Bach's Cantata #147 (Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring). I thought "hey, I like his style", and browsed to see what other tracks were on Wynberg's A Bach Recital album. Amazon apparently had it on offer for US $5.99; easy impulse decision, right? That's how Internet music is supposed to work, right?

Not so fast. Although I've had a valid Amazon ID for years, and they've even got my valid credit card info on file, I can't place an actual order if I'm not geographically located within North America. (Or China, Japan, the UK or one or two other countries. Which of these is a major piracy hub?)

I hear you saying three words: "iTunes Music Store". And, loyal Apple customer though I am, I don't have access to the iTMS because I'm not in an approved geographic location. So the two largest, most heavily-advertised legal music sources on the planet aren't available because I live in this Second World country. I don't do torrents or illegal music downloads; I make my living from the exercise of my intellect to create value for others, and ethics completely aside (this is Singapore), the hypocrisy would be way, way over the top.

So I'm out an album, since I'll never find it in the stores here. (State crony capitalism is such a boon for consumer empowerment and choice, after all.) Mr Wynberg and his label are out the dollar or two they would have made from my purchase, and nobody wins except the pirates and those aiding and abetting them.

And the Internet is supposed to make the world a closer, more unified place? Only if we get the corporations out of the picture. But that's another set of (several thousand) rants.

Ideas, anyone?

And yes, it has been an age since I've posted here. I'll start it up again, as I've a pile of things I would like to (calmly, rationally) shout at the omniverse, and they're really not appropriate for my other, more technically-oriented blog.

Thanks for reading, and for your feedback — especially if you can clue me into a legal way to acquire MP3s/AACs of the Wyndberg album.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Medium v. The Message v. Reality and Fiction 

I just came across a comment left by one Mark Miller to a post on "Paul Murphy's" ZDNet blog that poked my mind on a couple of levels. Murph's post (go read it if you haven't read him recently) is a reaction to a New York Post article written as an "undercover" first-person observation of how Wal-Mart operates at the grass-roots level. Murph's interest is in how Wal-Mart's use of technology fits together with their corporate culture to allow floor-level clerks to make ordering and pricing commitments for their store based on direct customer interaction. That decision-making process (and culture) is enabled and driven by the use of IT to put an amazing amount of proprietary information literally into the clerk's hand, along with the authority to order and/or re-price an item in response to customer demand without going through any bureaucracy.

Mr. Miller's comment started off by paraphrasing the (second) well-known Marshall McLuhan quote, "We shape our tools and then our tools shape us." He then goes on to talk about his view on the cultural differences between Windows and other systems from a cultural perspective, generally agreeing with Murph's original assertion about a system in which change (being inherently risky due to unknowable side-effects) is actively discouraged, vs. the other system that, being inherently stable and flexible, empowers all sorts of customer-centric behaviour that the first group would find suicidally risky - "we don't let our users think for themselves," in effect.

That was interesting enough in itself, but the other thing that popped into my mind was more of a free-association thing. I've spent the last week or so catching up on the last half of Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica (yes, I know, but here, Season 3 starts next week). For both of you reading this who aren't familiar with the (remade) series, it's about the last human survivors of a genocidal attack. The attack was carried out - and the survivors pursued by - sentient artificial life forms deried from robots ("Cylons") originally created by humans as "soldiers and slaves." (One of the early tag-lines for the series was "Never create what you can't control."

The series has been gaining enthusiastic reviews and accolades since it started. As with other notable series before it, it uses a science-fiction metaphor to comment on our own current events, our own humanity, and what may be going wrong (or right) with either.

The point is... I'd bet the rent that if you asked any of the people professionally involved with the show, especially the writers, what they thought of the "we shape our tools..." quote -- they might or might not recognise or properly attribute the saying, but they would have to agree that that statement is at least half of what BSG is all about. (The other half, "don't push your responsibilities off onto others", comes through after some reflection; if people hadn't created machines to be their "soldiers and slaves" in the first place, several billion (fictional) people wouldn't have been incinerated; a point I haven't seen explicitly addressed yet.)

Yes, it's a slow day...

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Innovation is yet another Microsoft monopoly? 

Following is the text of a letter I sent to the editor of the (Singapore) Straits Times today after reprinting(paid subscription required) a New York Times article, "Making Microsoft share code may prove a bad idea". One must first ask, "bad for whom?" The sub-head, original to the Straits Times, claims that "Restraining big companies can stifle innovation and competition". But, in fact, the history of the software industry, and particularly of the personal-computer software industry, shows that precisely the opposite is true.

With regard to your reprint today, Wednesday, of the New York Times-supplied "Making Microsoft share code may be a bad idea" (main section, page 20):

First, you and other readers may not be aware that the lobbying group "Association for Competitive Technology", whose president was quoted in a prominent sidebar, is a commercial-IT-industry lobbying group. It was rganised in 1998 and largely funded by Microsoft, originally in response to the US and later EU anti-trust proceedings against them. It is now widely known in the IT industry as an "astroturf" (artificial grass-roots) organisation whose mission is to provide PR spin for and to appear as an "independent" group in favour of protecting and extending the Microsoft hegemony over the software industry. It lobbies strenuously, for example, against the current trend by governments and NGOs to reduce or eliminate their use of proprietary Microsoft document formats in favour of open, vendor-neutral formats like the OpenDocument Format ISO standard. By doing so, it helps assure that governments worldwide spend billions of dollars of taxpayer money to support Microsoft rather than, through the use of free alternatives, to lower taxes or fund projects benefitting their citizens.

The New York Times has, within the last decade or so, become very well-known as a "corporate-friendly" newspaper. Supporting columnists and writers such as Thomas Friedman and Judith Miller, it is widely credited in the US as one of the major forces helping the Bush régime drag America and the world into the current Iraq War. For you to reprint such a lengthy, biased article, without any contextual explanation of the source or background of the issues raised, does a serious disservice to your readers. Further, such support on your part can be used as ammunition by local and regional Microsoft-funded or -organised lobbies to undermine efforts to promote open standards and freedom from influence, if not outright control, by an American corporation who has repeatedly shown itself no friend to consumers.

You can do better.

Comments are welcome.

Friday, August 31, 2007



As many of my friends know, I'm no longer in Kuala Lumpur. I've moved to Singapore, and then started work for a company based in Beijing. I'm presently serving as Principal Technologist for fonevillage.com; if you've got a Beijing mobile phone and you haven't signed up with us yet, why not? :-)

I'm in Beijing now for on-site getting-to-know-everybody and getting started off on the right foot. I'll be going back to Singapore in a week's time to work from there for about a month before coming back. We expect that this transitional period will be for about three months, after which, if all goes as envisioned, I'll be based in Beijing.

One of the most glaring differences between working in a Web start-up in Beijing as compared to just about any major city outside China is the level of Internet connectivity available. In Singapore, I enjoyed a 10 Mbps (megabit, or million bits, per second) connection, and at least one company has 100 Mbps on offer at reasonable prices (about US$60 a month at present). Even when I was living in Kuala Lumpur, where people routinely groused about the quality and speed of service, it is possible to get a 4 Mbps connection from home (for about the same price as 100 Mbps in Singapore).

No such high-speed, affordable connection appears to exist in Beijing; if anybody knows differently, please contact me. So I've gone from a casual to professional dependence on network connectivity matched with a reduction in connection speed from 10/100 Mbps down to 1 Mbps shared with more than a dozen devices. Nothing like a challenge.... but I'm glad to be here.

EDIT 1 Sept 2009: As many of my friends know, I couldn't make it through the day without you - including my very special fiend, the when-she-gets-around-to-it eyes of a hawk. Copy editors make the very best of fiends, Judy. Thank you.

Friday, November 24, 2006

One Bucket of Water Does Not the Mississippi Make 

Those of you who have known me professionally during the last 2-3 years know that I have been a steadfast supporter of the Apple Macintosh. This is a direct result of well over twenty years of Microsoft developer and user experience. The new Apple MacBook notebooks and MacBook can even run legacy PC operating systems and applications such as Windows, Linux and BSD Unix. The difference between the typical Windows and Mac user experience by a joke making the rounds in a mixed support shop circa 1996, when the Mac was only half as good as it is now:

Q: What's the difference between a Windows usee and a Mac user?
A: The Windows guy talks about everything he had to do to get his work done; the Mac user talks about all the great work she got done.

The point is that, in most ways, most of the time, the Macintosh does things so much better than the Windows-only PC that it's like describing a sunset to a blind man to convey the difference. Except in this case, the 'blind man' wasn't born blind; he's taped his eyes shut with duct tape.

Like all things made by man, however, the Mac is not perfect. Secunia, one of the major security consultancies, recently warned of an extremely critical "zero-day" exploit against the Macintosh OS. While this is depressingly common in the Windows world, with new critical defects discovered on a seeming hourly basis, the number of zero-day exploits against Macintosh OS X 10.3 in the wild can be counted on your fingers.

This relative scarcity will drive Windows partisans to even more frenzied attacks against the Macintosh: "See? It's got zero-day too". Yes, it does - BUT. First, the remediation is very straightforward, since a single application (the Safari Web browser), which unlike Internet Exploder on Windows, doesn't force itself into every otherwise unrelated nook and cranny of the system. Secondly, the flaw which causes the problem is known; it's in Apple's high-level system code (the "Macintosh" part, not the "built on Unix" part). Apple's track record in fixing such problems is far, far better than their main competitor's in acknowledging, let alone fixing, their own. Short version: People in straw houses shouldn't throw Molotov cocktails.

I do expect to hear flak about this from the Microsoft-informed clients and client prospects I will be talking to in the near future. Based on my experience to date, however, my advice will continue to be "don't buy a new PC For your business. Migrate your existing PCs to other systems (like Linux or BSD), and strongly prefer Macintoshes for new desktop systems." By the time you take your average Compaq, HP or Acer Windows PC and upgrade the specs to be comparable to the Macintosh, any perceived cost advantage (for the Windows box) disappears. Also, consider the cost of maintenance and operation: the current Mac problem will certainly be more amenable to a fully-effective automated fix than many of the Windows problems we've been having for the last few years.

Two final thoughts I'll leave you with: The Macintosh has its own version of Microsoft Office, which many users and reviewers (and reviewers and reviewers) consider to be a superior user experience. Secondly, Windows has its own largely incompatible version of Office for Windows coming. The Ribbon Bar completely replaces the visual convention of the standard menu structure; you can still use the menus with keyboard shortcuts (like -F for the File menu, but that is not visually apparent to the novice user. In short, retraining and support for the Office 2003-to-2007 migration will be at least as onerous as similar migration from Office 2003 to OpenOffice 2.0, Sun StarOffice, WordPerfect Office, or any other similarly-featured and -matured system presently available.

More to follow.

As always, non-spam comments are greatly appreciated. I'd love to get a FUD-free conversation going here. And again, thanks for your time.

It's been a long time.... 

...since I was last this way. Give me a minute to find an appropriate tool to clear the cobwebs and stuff.... ahh, a pocket flamethrower. This should do the trick....


Right, then. Next time, probably shouldn't light that off whilst sitting on an LNG tank. On the other hand, it was labelled "AIR" (which means 'water' in Malay). On the gripping hand, I've always dreamed about seeing Earth from orbit....

For the three of you that have been reading this blog from time to time, thanks and welcome back. Life can be interesting; some people believe it is a test from whatever God you believe in, to prove to you that you can in fact handle more stress than you thought humanly possible; others point out that the (Traditional) Chinese character for crisis (危機) is derived from the characters for danger (危險) and opportunity (機會). Be that as it may, the danger has always been readily apparent - and should not be over-dramatised. Opportunity is still an unknown quantity after three years in Kuala Lumpur, but optimism is the second most subborn force in the Omniverse. (Deliberate ignorance, of course, carries top 'honours').

I've been sick, I've been hurting, and I was (probably clinically) depressed for a long time. I've never seen a culture - in many, many countries visited or lived in - that took such unbounded joy in slamming to the ground and stomping on anybody who was different in any way (race and ancestry being the most obvious) as Malaysia. Whereas the rest of the world has spent the last 150 years or so asserting, fighting wars over the concept of, and eventually agreeing that race, per se, matters to an individual's performance almost as much as whether the next snowflake to fall in Antarctica lands right-side-up (whatever that is), in Malaysia, race is seen as the single most important attribute of an individual or a society. While many argue that this is a protective feature, that cultural segregation within a strictly enforced outward tolerance has prevented a recurrence of the race riots that marred and threatened a newly independent Malaysia decades ago, the fact remains that the social and cultural structure here is singularly unsuited for growth, let alone prominence, in a globally multicultural society. If "the world is flat" in the sense that Friedman and others argue (that there are and should be no meaningful impediments to the free flow of capital, information, ideas and people from anywhwere, to anywhere), then many people here are expending herculean effort to ensure that Malaysia retains its elevated status as a speed bump, where anything that might affect the status quo, whether it be original thinking, world-class education, freely-competitive business, or open markets without set-asides, is strictly monitored and manippulated. This arguably benefits the country as a whole; it inarguably benefits those with the right connections and skin colour.

There are conflicts and contrasts here - between an economy reliant on government Five-Year Plans for a large part of the economy (and we see how wildly successful that method is in the Soviet Union, with the world's leading consumer economy and internationally-recognised service and quality standards) and a country that has so many small entrepreneurial businesses; between a country where publicly accessible information and opinion is so tightly controlled (through means such as the Sedition Act, the Internal Security Act, the Printing and Presses Act (which requires newspapers and magazines to have a license from the government, which can be suspended or revoked at will), the Universities and University Colleges Act, and so on. Malaysians are proud of their democracy - where one continuously ruling coalition of racially-segregated parties forms a legislative majority where each member is required to vote as directed by the executive. In The Economist's annual review of the political and economic progress of the nations of the world, a major article summarising 2006 is titled A pause in democracy's march. The accompanying list of 172 countries, ranked by score within five broad categories, lists Malaysia as tied for 81st, at the very bottom of the "flawed democracies" list; equal overall to Bolivia, lower than such exemplars as Palestine, Israel, Mali, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Either the survey method is horrendously flawed (and the accompanying article suggests that it has been used for some time, with positive critical review), or surprising parts of the world have been "backsliding".

I came here three years ago last week hoping to find a positive, growing, truly open society. This would have contrasted nicely with the last few countries I've lived in (such as Vietnam, where the rocketing growth seems limited to certain industries, areas and players) and my home country, what once was the United States, where six years of arrogant ignorance and craven obedience to Israeli priorities has left the country a philosophical, economic and moral shell of what it was for the middle half of the last century. I have made my living through the obsolete craft of "software development": obsolete not because software itself is no longer developed or used (it's growing in amazing ways), but because the trend of the last five years has been to abandon craftsmanship, quality and originality, sacrificecd at the altar of (seemingly) ever-increasing corporate quarterly profits through (undeniably) ever-shrinking labour costs. I came here because I was stubborn; I was - and am - unable and unwilling to walk away from something I have been doing for two thirds of my life, nearly 30 years now; something that I am good at, and something that is ever-more omnipresent in our lives today.

Next time you get on a lift (or elevator, for we Yanks), push a button to go to a different floor, and get there smoothly and safely, thank a software team (along with the hardware, mechanical and structural engineers). Next time you get on an automated or remote-controlled transit system, such as the Putra LRT in Kuala Lumpur, thank a software team (and the engineers). When your father is in the hospital, and computerised monitoring and medical-assistance equipment increases his chances of successful and comfortable recovery, thank the nurses and doctors who attended him, and don't forget the software team and other engineers who developed that equipment. Little, if any, of it was developed in or leverages scientific exploration in the disposable-labour countries from which the labour fuelling this "race to the bottom" is harvested. But, to the transnationals that run the "free trade" racket, that doesn't matter. What does matter is making this quarter's numbers.

And for a promising country like Malaysia, that's all just Too Bad.

Thoughtful, non-spamming comments are always welcome; that's what the 'Comments' link is for (at the bottom of this and every post). Thanks for your time.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Astro-nomically bad service? 

I had the "pleasure" this evening of dealing with Astro, the monopoly provider of direct-broadcast satellite TV service in Malaysia, paying a bill I never saw. (If you own a unit in Bistari Condominium and haven't yet signed the petition to remove the present management company, please do so.)

One thing you quickly learn as a foreigner living in Malaysia is that Malaysian large businesses are much more efficient at making excuses for substandard service than they are at actually performing their nominal service, even (especially?) when they could reduce costs by providing better service. Tonight was a spectacular exception - especially as I am familiar with systems such as the ones they use.

A typical customer-initiated reconnect at the large cable-TV company I was working with circa 1994 would go something like this:

  1. Customer calls in, provides proof of payment

  2. Cable company CSR records payment details, orders reconnect

  3. CSR-generated reconnect order placed in operations queue

  4. Automated system verifies that the earlier disconnect was in software only (no technician yanked cables from a box), initiates software reconnect (essentially a database update)

  5. After control system and heaad-enbd system updated, central system verifies communication with customer's set-top box

  6. Assuming communication with STB reestablished, reconnect order automatically marked as 'closed' by the system

Total time from the reconnect order being placed in queue to the customer enjoying his newly-reconnected service: less than 2 minutes. Total action involving a human after the initial CSR contact: none. This was fairly routine North American practice circa 1994. Hardly bleeding-edge stuff now.

How was the customer interaction handled by Astro tonight?

  1. Customer calls in, provides proof of payment

  2. CSR records payment details, orders reconnect, promises reconnect within 24 hours "or possibly a bit longer, like the next morning"

  3. (This and the following steps are per explanation from CSR)Reconnect order placed in queue for review by operations personnel

  4. Reconnect order reviewed and approved by operations personnel

  5. Operations personnel manually perform workflow tasks needed to initiate reconnection

  6. Operations personnel verify communication with customer set-top box

  7. Assuming communication with STB reestablished, operations staff mark order 'closed' in the system

Total time from the reconnect order being placed in queue to the customer enjoying his newly-reconnected service: unpredictable, with a soft commitment to "about" 24 hours. Total action involving a human after the initial CSR contact: at every single step. Since all subsequent steps are performed by operations (not CSR) staff, CSR is unwilling to make any commitment beyond the required 24 hours.

Without any form of commitment, with what seems to the customer to be a bureaucratic rather than technical delay in reestablishing service, the customer is not a happy customer.

  • Unhappy customers don't order additional products or services from companies they have negative impressions of, reducing company revenue.

  • Unhappy costomers tell friends, neighbours and other acutal or potential customers of their dissatisfaction - in all likelihood, reducing company revenues still further.

  • Unhappy customers have more frequent and longer interactions with customer service representatives, increasing costs and reducing company profits

  • Unhappy customers often are more motivated to write public descriptions of their experiences than are happy customers. Such descriptions are highly unlikely to contribute positively to company revenues or profits.

In short, any sensible company should as a matter of policy take all reasonable steps to enhance customer satisfaction, and actively seek to eliminate anything which decreases customer satisfaction. This was the main message to companies during the great "consumer revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s in market economies. Obviously, as we have seen tonight, not all companies in all countries have gotten the message. Astro advertises heavily in Malaysia, both to attract new customers and to motivate existing customers to increase their spending on Astro services (such as through adding channel packages or using pay-per-view services). Those messages are muddied connsiderably when customer interactions leave such negative impressions.

Monday, August 21, 2006

How do we evaluate a war of terror? 

There are voices in the media of Israel and of its vassal, the United States, saying that Israel "won" the Lebanon War; that it would take time, perhaps "months" or "years" before that "fact" was "apparent to the world", and that, since certain segments of Israeli punditocracy have declared it to be a "different kind of war", the old "win"/"lose" criteria don't apply anyway - victory on the battlefield being nice, but not nearly as important as victory in the op-ed pages of the Jerusalem Post and the New York Times: in other words, environs where the party shouting the loudest can enjoy and enforce complete freedom from contrary views.

Let's see... we had opposing forces on a battlefield - using asymmetric tactics, yes, but forces have been doing that since at least the American Revolutionary War; we had (according to commentators on both sides) heroism and bravery on both sides; we had one force trying to achieve specific strategic goals and the other force attempting to deny those goals through the use of available resources up to and including men's and women's lives... from Agamemnon to Sun Tzu to General Sir John Hackett, the basic story of war in this or any other time and place.

What is beginning to seriously worry me are the increasing, and increasingly consistent notes of delusional denial that various ssegments of Israeli society are apparently embroiled in, cynically or otherwise. The idea that the army was "stabbed in the back", that total, complete victory was "just out of reach" and will wait for the "next time", "soon"... declarations of victory where plainly none exist, the placement of cults of personality and cults of tribe above the prudent rule of nations or of the most basic respect and gratitude for those sons and daughters of other men who fightg and die on orders from old, fearful, men on both sides so horribly twisted by hate and ignorance and fear that they cannot comprehend how they are wounding their own society by claiming to preserve it.... if we do not immediately, firmly and decisively cease to give such "statesmen" and "leaders" the power to destroy the lives of millions through their own cynical paranoia, then we will have truly lost any claim to the mantle of civilisation. If we value one life above another - not for what has been done by he who lives that life but merely because that one is alive with a skin colour or speaking a language or professing a religious belief which differs from the one in whose hands the power to make war rests - then any claim we have to call ourselves "civilised" is no less preposterous than a gaggle of four-year-old children playing with fire and with loaded weapons. Far worse these "leaders" are, for they cannot pretend to be innocent of the knoledge of what their actions and words bring about.

"But wait," I hear a voice say. "What of the War On (Some) Terror - to save our holy Society and our Way Of Life from the heathen Other? Surely any evils committed by our 'well-meaning' Leaders are preferable to the loss of our freedoms?" My friends, if you have to ask that question, then you already know the answer. Just as it was evil and reprehensible to destroy the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre "in order to save it", how much larger the crime against humanity when the victims are two entire nations? For indeed, perpetrating such disproportionate, wanton, morally unrestrained actions does not only destroy those against whom it is directed. Equally importantly, it severely poisons the morality and legitimacy, if not the humanity, of those allegedly in whose name the barbarities are perpetrated. How many voices cry out, in this world and the next, for a new Nuremberg, indeed, a host of Nurembergs to call to heel those who have abused their power so horribly? And yet, and most damningly, how unlikely any such justice has been rendered by those amoral "moral leaders" who have brought these calamities upon us and our posterity?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Sore Loserman and the Needs of the Powerful 

If anyone still had doubts about either the abject desperation of the Bush regime to maintain utter control over the machinery of power, or of the ethics of Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, you can wake up now. Lieberman's descent into self-worship and breathtaking arrogance (speaking of his loss to Lamont, he bellowed "I cannot, I will not, let this result stand") has all the emotional comfort of a train wreck combined with service to his party and nation worthy of the bubonic plague. Lieberman serves the regime's present needs quite well: by jettisoning the "official" Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, the Republicans are free to pur their money, resources and operatives (including Karl Rove) into getting a desperately-needed Bush yes-man back on the Senate floor. Schlesinger seems to be an earnest moderate with mainstream views on Social Security (no more diversion of trust-fund monies to other uses), immigration (if you can't or won't stop the immigration, at least regulate it, organise it, to end the worst abuses), and so on. As such, his views are clearly not in the Bush-Cheney-Rove-Falwell mindset, and therefore expendable. Imagine - his Web site doesn't once call for school prayer, doesn't bash liberals, minorities, women, or poor people.... This guy should appeal to folks in the Teddy Roosevelt/Dwight Eisenhower/Pat Buchanan remnants of what once was the Republican Party; as a jackbooted, unflinching supporter of the Bush regime and its policies, he apparently leaves a bit to be desired.

The divisiveness, confusion and disruption sown by Rove, the rest of the Bush-regime people working to reelect the "Democrat" (now "independent") Lieberman, and the neoconservatives are depressingly likely to continue to serve neocon aims for years to come. It has been pointed out by several people that the Democrats in Connecticut, on whichever side, are going to remember who supported whom, making it harder for the Democrats to pull together on anything (especially if the neocons find new ways to spread mischief - a very safe bet). What I haven't seen commented on, though, is the rancor likely within the Connecticut Republican Party. The message from down in Washington could not be more clear: it doesn't matter how hardworking and loyal you are in the local, county, and statewide offices that are the traditional stepping-stones to Congress and the Great Game in Washington; if you're insufficiently bellicose on the neoconservative "red meat" issues, if you're too sensible, if you're just not seen as being as useful a tool as the "opposition", you'll be dumped in a red-hot minute. If I were Mr. Schlesigner or one of his supporters, I would remember the way the national party treated Connecticut this year - and might be interested in returning the favor.

What goes around comes around, in other words; some of that may indeed start next January, in the unlikely event that an honest election is held this time, and the Republicans are raked over the coals for some of their more flagrant abuses. More of that, unfortunately, seems all too likely to burn away at the social fabric of places like Connecticut for a long time to come. In a regime whose major players found their political voice slandering those who opposed a war 30 to 40 years ago, that does not seem as unlikely as it should. That fact, itself, should motivate well-meaning Americans of all political persuasions to fix what's broken and then endeavour to look forward, not backward. America has always been at its greatest when it leads from a hopeful vision, when we show the world what we can do, what working together can accomplish that pettiness and sectarianisxm every bit as small-minded as in Iraq or Afghanistan cannot.

If Joe Lieberman's petulant, divisive, doomed campaign to represent a state which no longer wants him can help usher in that leadership, that positive vision, then he will have done us all a service far outweighing any in his long political career. While people will still likely remember the sour-grapes note his career will have ended on, others will recognise that as having led to one of the many unpleasant, necessary parts of what must be done to help restore the Constitutional Government of the United States of America.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Fourth World Attitudes in a Third World Country 

I hope everybody had a good holiday weekend for Workers' Day, or Labour Day, whichever it's called in your part of the world....you Yanks have to wait until September for your watered-down version...

Whereas the holiday is meant to honour the contributions made to the world by the workers who actually do most of the work that spreads prosperity through a nation, a region (such as, say, South-East Asia) or the world, it's obvious to even the most casual observer that people at various levels in various societies work harder than others, and consequently their society reaps the progressive benefits - or lack thereof. While the Japanese salaryman is probably the best-known stock example of this in the last fifty years or so, he had the benefit of at least living and working in a nation whose Government was (mostly) just as committed to the progress and increasing prosperity of the country. Therefore, although he worked hard and made what others would consider great personal sacrifices on a routine basis (think "family time"), he and his family did not seem to feel that that effort went unrewarded.

I have never in my life seen harder-working, more self-disciplined people than the Thais as a whole, with the Vietnamese giving them strong competition. Several people I know who are with multinational corporations (MNCs) of one sort or another routinely remark that their operations in Thailand are much more productive, often by an order of magnitude, than their operations in South Asia or in Africa. The Vietnamese have, in living memory, fought and won a decades-long war for independence, unification and self-defence against not one but four local or global superpowers (Japan, France, the United States, and China). I observed while living there that people there had a strong sense of pride and accomplishment in their country; they were keenly aware of the limitations and failures as well as the successes, and people were (again, mostly) working themselves to death trying to make life better for themselves, their family and their country. In a year's time, I saw exactly two people who appeared to be begging: on further inquiry, one appeared to have fraudulent intention, while the other had obviously (and apparently temporarily) fallen through the cracks in a "perfect storm" of highly unlikely, interacting events. Business in Vietnam was a bit of a different story - few of the independent artists and consultants I knew there were paid regularly for work done - but again, there were strong indications that that sort of treatment was not acceptable to most of society.

Then you have two other countries in the region which do things a bit differently. One is in the final throes of the run-up to an election; during the run-up, a senior minister was quoted by foreign press giving the apparently routine threat that 'districts which vote for the Opposition candidates to Parliament can expect to remain last on the list for "Government monies for housing and neighbourhood development and opposition. The party which has monopolised power in that country since before its independence is apparently upset that the Opposition has not been sufficiently cowed, having the unprecedented audacity to have candidates standing in over half the country's districts. So, depite the considerable best efforts of the party and its Governmental rulemakers, many people will have an almost unprecedented opportunity to cast votes against the one-party state.

That country's nearest neighbour, of which it was in fact once part, is faring little better. Having just announced the latest in the country's Soviet-style Five-Year Plans for a command economy, the country does in fact have an active private sector. Largely dominated by ethnic and cultural minorities, the private sector is growing rapidly, bringing foreign commerce and ideas into the country and trying hard to make the country a regional force in agriculture, manufacturing, information and technical services, and other areas. While the majority has a reputation for avoiding risk, either by doing Government projects (for which they are strongly preferred to minority-led companies), or by following the lead of minority-owned companies that pioneer new areas. While this has been moderately successful in lifting a large number of the majority culture out of the most abject poverty, questions are now being delicately raised in some quarters about whether the current way of doing things is the most effective way to bring greater economic power to the majority, to match their current and historical political power as constitutionally-mandated controllers of the Government. While the Government continues on its course of favoritism and growing "multiculturalims" through strict racial separation and mandated superiority, the minorities - who are carrying the economic risks and workload of the country far out of proportion to their numbers - have been growing increasingly dissatisfied. Not among their ethnically-oriented representatives in a "coalition ruling party" dominated by the majority and their interests - those politicians are as sleek and comfortable as their majority counterparts - but among the actual workers on the ground, there is a palpably increasing discontent. The majority is, not without reason, petrified at the idea of losing exclusive power - before independence, they were stomped on egregiously by various colonial powers. Be that as it may, they have singularly failed, to date, to rise to the level of transparency, openness, and freedom from corruption and from hypocrisy necessary to ensure that all benefit from the country's progress, and that individuals, of any ethnic or cultural background, can fairly reap the rewards of their labours without having to give large percentages of the rewards to Government-mandated "partners" who contribute little or no value to the actual operation of a company (besides links to the ethnic Government, of course).

This last country, the only country to ever have successfully crushed a Communist insurgency (with massive foreign "assistance" and at great and lasting costs to freedoms). With a command economy, and an educational system purpose-built to erase the individualism and creativity needed to compete effectively in the modern global workforce, one almost wonders why they bothered. Perhaps the leaders are familiar with the most famous passage from The Communist Manifesto: "Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains" - and they are petrified by the idea that someone might ask how to go about losing those "chains" on their freedoms without becoming a socialist in name as well as deed.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Intelliigently Avoiding IntelliTXT: What Price Freedom from Free Ads? 

You may have noticed that some of your favourite Web sites, large and small, have been sprouting words and phrases in double underlines lately. Mousing over these keywords displays a pop-up window heraldikng the latest intrusion of drive-by advertising on the Web: Vibrant Media's "IntelliTXT".

This self-inflicted (by the site managers) graffiti is visually distracting, annoying to a number of people, and worst, as has been pointed out by several others, it alters content in ways which may violate the original author's rights (for example, material quoted under a Creative Commons license prohibiting modification).

But virtually any problem that technology enables, other technology can mitigate. A quick Google search led to Shell Extension City's search page, from whence is linked The Grey Area's discussion on how to disable IntelliTXT. The discussion explains how to disable the ad glop on an individual system (through editing your /etc/hosts file (for Linux/BSD/Mac OS X) or %SystemRoot%\system32\drivers\etc\hosts for Microsoft Windows.

A better way, in my view, is to handle this from the firewall - either the software firewall (ipchains, DansGuardian, ZoneAlarm or whatever you're using - you are using one, aren't you?) for a single system or the hardware firewall if you have a network (or a broadband connection). Block the domains intellitxt.com and vibrantmedia.com and you should never again get a double-underlined ad again.

This gets rid of the ads, but it doesn't solve a very real problem. Most of the IntelliTXT ads I've seen are on sites run by relatively small organisations, not Fortune 10 companies. These sites use IntelliTXT because it's often effective at getting click-through while being both less intrusive and less obviously blockable than traditional banner advertising. Disable IntelliTXT, and you won't ever click through an ad. If enough viewers of a particular site disable the ad system, then the website provider is either going to have to close the site down or find new ways to pay the expenses of running it. No Web site is completely free; "free" providers like Yahoo/Geocities, myspace and so on wrap your "free" content in their own advertising banners, "Advertising by Goooooogle" links, and so on.

Freedom is never free, or, to put it another way, liberty is never without cost. Lowering the price that a recipient of your views or information needs to pay does not in any way reduce your costs in providing that information - whether on the Web, by printing press, or hiring salespeople to go knocking on doors. One of the issues apparently decided by 20th-century history was that efficient, growing economies with rising standards of living depend on some form of the profit incentive, either financial gain or emotional/spiritual satisfaction. People who aren't being rewarded for their efforts rarely sustain intense, creative efforts without reward. How that reward gets distributed - and collected - with respect to Web advertising, is still a very open question.

Your comments, as always, are greatly appreciated.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Saga of the New Laptop 

Well, entropy has finally caught up to my trusty Fujitsu LifeBook C2210 laptop. Approximately a year and a half ago, it suffered numerous indignities and significant damage whilst on loan ot a project I was working on at the time. After roughly US$1,000 in repairs at that time, bits and pieces have been going wrong since. Now, in addition to all but one USB port being nonoperational, the power system being very unreliable, the display case being cracked at the right hinge, the hinges being very loose, etc., etc.... almost all metal parts of the case are now electricaly live. Needless to say, this can have rather shocking effects when the system is used for a hands-on demo with a prospective client.

I have been using a Toshiba M45-S331 laptop as well for some time. What can I say about this thing? NEVER buy a Toshiba laptop! Even if you think that all you'll ever need it for is Microsoft Windows, it is always good to have alternatives available to you, and the Toshiba has been specifically and deliberately designed to eliminate them for you. No Linux or BSD CD will even boot. There is no standalone BIOS; you adjust BIOS settings from insideWindows. It has some interesting hardware quireks of its own - unplug power and plug it back in - instant hard lockup; press the power button until the system shuts off and then restart. Plus, since it's XP, it can't be secured.... even with a hardware firewall and software firewall and all the other usual security goodies, I know I'm getting hit with lots and lots of malware. I've got work to do - which means that I need to get rid of Windows in my face all day. Hence the new system.

Anybody who has comments based on experience with any of the following, especially with a proper operating system, would be greatly appreciated:

  • Compaq Presario V3352AP (1.73 GHz, 512 MB, 60 GB, 14" screen, DVD+RW);

  • Acer TravelMate 4154NLCi (2 GHz, 512 MB, 60 GB, 15" screen, CDRW/DVD combo);

  • Acer TravelMate 3214NWXMi (2 GHz, 512 MB, 60 GB, 14" screen, DVD+RW);

  • Compaq Presario M2246AU (1.6GHz Turion, 512 MB, 80 GB, 15", DVD+RW)

The first three systems are all within 10% of each other, pricewise. The Turion is 25% less than any of the Centrinos. Why? Too good to be true? Comments, please...

Friday, December 23, 2005

(Picking up the) Bits and Pieces 

For those of the relevant faith, Merry Christmas! -- for the rest of us, relax and enjoy the time off :)

I'm starting to get my home/work-at-home computer infrastructure back up to scratch following the near-death of my longtime trusty Fujitsu LifeBook C2210 and the increasing flakiness of my Toshiba Satellite M45-S331 talking to my old wireless router. (I do not recommend the Toshiba under any circumstances; more on that in another post, or write me.)

So I obviously have Net connectivity, and it's probably as fast as the monopoly telecom provider here is going to give me, and once it's inside my walls it's solid as a rock. I strongly and enthusiastically (so far) recommend the NETGEAR WGR614 router; decent features for the price, good docs and support (rare these days), and while it may not be the be-all and end-all of SOHO network connections, it does the job. Next step: affording and getting a replacement for the Toshiba...

I'm looking for regular work again. Office politics in small companies is always potentially lethal because there's so few individuals to win a specific prize; strength of ego and connections become key to survival. I've found a small project that will probably pay the rent next month while I go find bigger things. (Anybody who's interested or has any leads, feel free to browse my résumé here or here, and email me here.)

Personal life? Away from the PC? What's that? :-P

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Humour in Technical Support Masking a Deadly Problem 

Still trying to fix my Toshiba laptop. (an M45-S331, if you care...but you shouldn't: don't buy a Toshiba laptop!) While flailing around the Toshiba support site, I came across a humorous "Knowledge Base" item. Entitled Virus or Worm Infection on New Machine or After Running Recovery, the Resolution area reads, in part:

Toshiba Recommends that all users make use of the Windows Update link available in the Start Menu of their computer in order to download and install the available updates for the operating system software.

Perhaps a more truthful/accurate paragraph might have resembled
Toshiba punts. You're on your own, suckers! If by some miracle Microsoft happens to have a fix that actually works, you can try their support pages, but rotsa ruck, guys! Bwahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaa.....

OK, perhaps I am being a bit flippant, but really, it is impossible to overstate the seriousness of this problem if a user is actually affected by it. It has been well-known in IT support circles for years that the time to download and install the security patches needed to (minimally) secure Windows against attack greatly exceeds the mean time between when a system is connected to the Internet and the median time to successful exploit.

I can't thiink of a real-world analogy for how serious this is. The closest I can come is if your brand-new car's engine had a 50-50 chance of exploding before you could get the engine started, warmed up and in gear. Think about everything that you keep on your PC. Think about all the sensitive information - passwords, credit card numbers, and so on - that you enter on your PC. Now, imagine some teenager in East Slobodnia - or, more likely, a Chinese Mafia type or an al-Quaeda Cyber Strike Force Team member - having access to all that, and the ability to read and modify anything on your PC at will, completely without your knowledge. Even if you've applied all the security patches and updates that Microsoft has released, and you have a fully-updated anti-virus system, and you have a software firewall like ZoneAlarm. If you run Windows, you will always be vulnerable, because many of the fundamental architectural "building blocks" that make Windows work the way it does were committed to years before Microsoft had ever heard of the Internet.

If you go back and read Bill Gates' (original version of) "The Road Ahead", it's clear that his concept of "Information At Your Fingertips" was something very much llike the Net, but under the centralised control of Microsoft, with no need for the user to trouble his pretty little head with things like "security". The result of all this, of course, was to force every user (usee?) of Windows to become an administrator; to worry about operating system updates and security management and so on, so that the old joke about the Windows user being the one who "talked about everything he had to do to get her work done", while the user of a competing, longer-established system "talked about all the great work she got done".

If it takes you an hour a day to 'manage' your system, to apply patches, make sure your antivirus is up to date and so on, and if it takes you another hour a day to clean up after program crashes and get back to where you were in your work, then you're wasting 25 percent of your work day, from the point of view of your boss or client. How'd you like to get that time back?

"It's no use", I can hear you saying. "Everybody uses Windows." Do you care how the people you work with get to work? Does it matter to you if they drive a Proton, a Mercedes, a Yugo, a bicycle, or they take public transport? No, it doesn't - you only care that they're in the office with you when they should be.

What do you need Windows for? What do you use a PC for? Lots of studies have shown that 90% of office workers spend 90% of their time in four applications: word processing, spreadsheet, email, Web browser. All of those have viable alternatives - whether you're considering an Apple Macintosh or your existing PC with Linux or BSD Unix. Microsoft even makes a version of Office for the Mac - and most people who've used both insist that the Mac version is better than the Windows one. Whether you're on Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD or a dozen other systems, OpenOffice 2.0 can read and write most Word and Excel documents well enough that Microsoft Office users won't even be able to tell the difference - whether they're on Windows or the Mac. And there are other alternatives; one of the nice things about each of the non-Windows systems I've mentioned here is that they reward experimentation and creativity - because they offer solid guarantees that no matter what you do, it's extremely unlikely that you'll accidentally cause any damage to your system. Sure, errant code can lock up the window manager - but a Control-Alt-Backspace later, you discover that nothing has really been damaged. The computer goes from being the centre of attention and fear to just another tool that you use to get your job done.

Now, wouldn't you like to get done more quickly so you can get out of the office on time? If only the commute home was as easy to improve....

Friday, December 02, 2005

Reality Sometimes Stinks 

I've been going through a few major life changes here lately...

  • I'm no longer affiliated in any way with Cilix Corporation Sdn Bhd of Kuala Lumpur; if anybody is interested in the details, please contact me separately;

  • I'm still going through more drama than I'd care to in my personal life. I don't think I'm asking for the unattainable in a woman; just someone who can hold my interest on all levels and can accept me the way I am...

  • The 'old' laptop, a Fujitsu LifeBook C2210, which has been failing for some time now, seems less and less likely to last beyond my birthday (6 January, for those of you who have ideas). It was a great Linux PC and an OK Microsoft Windows PC; its main limitations in Windows were:

    • Microsoft Windows, and

    • it was bundled with Microsoft Windows XP Toy Home, which, even if you're unshakably committed to Microsoft Windows in general, should be avoided like bird flu; either get XP Pro or do The Right Thing and get a Mac - or at least put BSD or Linux on your PC. Anyway....

    dauntless, as the PC is named, is in need of hardware repairs that would cost at least half as much as a new (desktop) system. So, I'm saving my pennies again...

  • I expect to be a lot more active for the next few weeks on my other blog, Archimedes Lever: Observations on the craft and art of software development. Moving the world with a virtual toothpick. I'd be glad to know what you think of the things I have to say over there, which are more related to my work than this blog is. Thanks again.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Crimes of Omission and Commission 

Just reading the news this afternoon... Yahoo! is reposting an AP story on the prison murder of a "Jewish Defense League activist imprisoned for his role in a plot to bomb a California mosque and the office of a Lebanese-American congressman". The details of the murder itself are relatively mundane and sad as such things go, and apparently the murder was unrelated to Earl Krugel's politics, or it would certainly have been mentioned in the article. In fact, Krugel's wife is quoted as saying that it was political, but related to persons or issues about which Krugel himself apparently was unaware of and uninvolved in. That only makes the prison authorities look worse.

This strikes me as interesting and worth thinking about for another reason, however. First, in the close of the story, JDL spokesman Brett Stone was quoted as saying "It's shocking that's the second member of the Jewish Defense League in three years who has died in federal prison". To the degree that it's shocking that anybody should die an extrajudicial death in prison, that's true. One of the few rights that I think all would agree that prisoners who otherwise follow the rules in prison have is the right to e secure in their lives and persons against injury and death caused by other prisoners. In that, the US Federal department overseeing the prison has some answering to do, and sharp questions should rightly be asked. But why more for this prisoner than for any other?

Let's turn this around a bit. Suppose that the individual at the heart of the story had been a Palestinian member of one of the various paramilitary or terrorist organisations there, rather than a member of a group founded by a Zionist terrorist so loathsome that even the Israeli Government found it necessary to denounce him (Meir David Kahane of the Kach political party and the related Kahane Chai and JDL terrorist organisations).

Suppose, instead, that the individual were not a Zionist terrorist convicted of attempting to bomb a mosque and the office of a United States Congressman opposed to Israeli involvement in American domestic and foreign policy. Suppose that it were instead, a Palestinian Arab who had been convicted of being a member of a terrorist organisation, planning to bomb a synagogue and the office of a Congressman known for his support of Israel's continuing hegemony over American policy?
  • Would there have been an AP news story reporting such a man's death?
  • Would it have been so careful not to condemn the views and actions of the subject of the story?
  • Would Yahoo! or other online news services have reposted the story, increasing its readership and presumed legitimacy?
  • Would the cause for his conviction and imprisonment have been buried in the seventh paragraph, or would it have been the focus of the headline or lede?
  • Would a spokesman for the Palestinian terrorist's organisation have been quoted at all, let alone as favourably as the Zionist terrorist's organisation's spokesman was (see the second para of this item or the end of the AP story)?
In short, does this story continue a trend where readers in general and Americans in particular are being fed a hypocritical, distorted story, where one side's "terrorist" is another side's "activist"? What effect does that have on public sentiment, and public policy?

On the one hand, this is a straightforward, seemingly routine, news story about an unfortunate event - and certainly the failure of any prison system to safeguard the security of the prisoners under its control is unfortunate, at the very least. Krugel had every right to expect that he could exercise safely, that the greatest threat posed to his safety was any injury he might cause himself, or that he might stress or injure himself in a way that any 62-year-old man with limited opportunity for exercise might. Getting whacked on the back of the head with a concrete block over something that you're not even personally involved with is completely outside the pale.

But then again, so is the free exercise of religion, whether it be Judaism, Islam, Christianity or The Cult of the Gazed-Upon Navel. Outside the pale, too, is the act of going to work in the morning, in the office of a man elected by his fellow citizens to represent them in their Government. Yes, Mr Krugel had rights that were not upheld, and that is shameful. But the actual and intended victims of his and other likeminded terrorists' actions - on any side - have rights too, and scant attention is being paid to them in anything approaching an evenhanded manner. That leads to the continuous erosion of more rights, from more people, until those most basic rights, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", are lost by all. The media have an obligation - borne out of their unique position in society - not to let that happen. This story, in my opinion, completely abnegates that sacred duty.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Facts and reality 

I was reading through MSNBC's report on the autopsy of Terri Schiavo this morning, and a few things jumped out at me.

That the Schindlers, Mrs. Schiavo's parents, have not and apparently have no wish to come to grips with the edeath of their daughter, and the medical fact that she was in a persistent vegetative state for an extended period of time prior to her death, is somewhat understandable. That they are "exploring every option" to waste more money on lawyers and drag other people, aided eagerly by the media, to continue to dwell on this can only be regarded as ghastly in the extreme. After so many years of fighting, it appears to an extremely disinterested outsider that they have become convinced that continuing to fight, continuing to try to hurt her now-former husband, Mr Michael Schiavo, is the only way they can remember and honour their dead daughter.

What might be more troubling, however, is the reaction of others who have injected themselves into what started as and should always have remained a private family matter. Self-styled "conservative" "thinkers" such as "President" Bush have issued public statements implying that their support for the Schindlers extends beyond the normal courtesies a civilised person extends to those grieving the loss of a close loved one. Rather, I expect that the newly-released autopsy report, and the autopsy photos which Mr Schiavo has announced will be released later, will become as much of a political weapon as the earlier court battle immediately prior to he death. The world will soon see another example of whether those who claim to speak foro America as a whole are reasonable, moderate, caring and wise, or if the newspapers and airwaves are about to be splattered with endless "analysis" and condemnation of reality for political gain.

It is no secret that the US public education system has almost completely collapsed over the last 30 years - whether as a result of malice or overburdening depends on your politics. But the net effect is that Americans, certainly those in or below their mid-forties now, do not have the attention span, temperament or training in critical thinking and analysis to be able to see the difference between whether they are being led or being manipulated against their own interests. People paid very close attention to the oversensationalised Michael Jackson trial - which brought the city of Santa Barbara, California a bonanza of trial-fuelled tourist dollars. It was difficult durinbg the last couple of months to find serious, thoughtful discussion of anything really important (i.e., having a real effect on the lives and well-being of a significant number of people) in Washington or internationally. What "coverage" there was tended to be the prepackaged "multinationals good/greedy workers bad" (or vice versa) superficiality that has programmed Americans so effectively in recent years.

It may even be said, in the not-too-distant future (this afternoon?), that the root cause for the American people accepting the total usurpation of control over their nation by those obviously and demonstrably not pursuing Americans' best interests is that the last thirty years hae been dedicated to teaching people to trust their "feelings" (prejudices) over anything they see in the world around them. Once that is complete, the finest, most effective marketing industry - and its masters - have completely free rein to reign as they please. That any serious attempt to explore, or even discuss this tends to be shouted down immediately only testifies to the technique's sordid effectiveness. Neither Leni Riefenstahl nor 1984's Ministry of Truth could even conceive of propaganda so efficient and effective.

No, the reaction to the Schiavo autopsy isn't surprising in the least. It's the logical corollary of a phenomenon that has been continuing for some time, coming to a head in December, 2000: bread and (televised) circuses can not only keep people from seeing what is being done to them, but, properly managed, can manipulate them into doing it to themselves. If the Republican-held Congress passes laws binding doctors' hands in similar cases, especially by giving supersition or politics primacy over scientific, rational reality, I will not be suprised in the slightests. I will, instead, continue my own grieving - for the dead country that in many ways was the greaatest that the world has ever known - the constitutional republic known as the United States of America.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Penny-pinching and penis-pinching 

Some people just seem to think they go together. Crimes against humanity for the budget-conscious; let economy of scale work for you!

Take Donald Rumsfield (please!), the Bush régime's Secretary of Defense and one of the poster children for what is wrong with that cabal in general. You don't have to disagree with Bush/Cheney/Rumsfield/Rove politics to see that things are seriously out of whack in Iraq, even as the friendly corporate media has done a yeoman job of sweeping Afghanistan under the rug.

And then there's Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, one of the United States' oldest trophies of empire, which now serves as a handy, out-of-the-way place to put 'really bad people' (whom you disagree with, as opposed to really bad people you support, such as the early Manuel Noriega, the early Saddam Hussein, Roberto D'Aubisson, etc.) and do really nasty things to them. These things, such as physical and psychological torture, religious desecration, and so on, are things that would be illegal if they were done in the United States; the historical US spent much of the last century diplomatically fighting for and winning the safeguards for civilisation that are being so blatantly cast aside at "Gitmo".

The problem for Mr Rumsfield, and for the régime in which he plays a critical role, is that "Gitmo", as the site is nicknamed, isn't quite far enough out of the way to avoid some people, governments and organisations from noticing, documenting, and protesting the barbarities that occur there with alarming regularity.

According to a Reuters news story among other sources, the "facility" at Guanténamo is presently holding approximately 520 prisoners from 40 countries. In the three years that Gitmo has been in operation, only four have been charged with any crime. The setup costs US taxpayers nearly $100 million a year - money that could be used elsewhere, like getting American soldiers off food stamps, paying for supplies so that the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan don't have to buy their own gear with their own money, and so on. It could even be used to pay down the deficit - prudent financial management being another traditional Republican virtue that has gone by the boards in this most spendthrift adminisstration in history. But I digress.

In the face of all this, with Republican leaders in Congress and elsewhere debating whether to keep or close the detention centre at Guantánamo, the régime is grasping at any wisp of a facile excuse it can come up with to figleaf its disastrous policies. Quoting the Reuters story, "Asked to explain the advantage of keeping the Guantanamo prison rather than starting over somewhere else, Rumsfeld told a Pentagon briefing, '... The investment's been made.'".

The investment's been made? We're not talking about an automotive-parts factory here; the United States and other justice-minded countries have rightly pilloried the Eichmanns and Mugabes and Pol Pots of the world who have offered similar blather as apologia for their most heinous, brutal acts. By continuing to pursue policies that are so utterly contemptuous of the world, of justice, of humanity, the Bush régime risks not only putting the United States into that same sewer. In doing so, the régime risks real and permanent damage to what's left of the Republic by forcing its longtime, more civilised friends to distance themselves while at the same time giving enemies such as al-Qada a golden propaganda vehicle to gain all the recruits and finances and other support that they can possibly deal with.

But then again, Team Bush has never shown any indication of being able to think that far ahead. If they had, there wouldn't be a go-it-alone occupation of Iraq, several hundred Americans and several dozen thousand Iraqis would likely be alive who aren't today, and the United States could credibly focus the world's attention on the true threats - like a nuclear North Korea in easy missile range of numerous important US allies like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan - and soon Los Angeles. That may prove to be this régime's true and final crime against humanity.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The LAMP has been lighted for some time now... 

This is a repost of a comment I made on ZDNet, in reply to an article on LAMP (development using Linux operating system, Apache Web server, MySQL database and PHP, perl or Python scripting languages) for businesses.


Now that the MS propaganda is out of the way (in the first message...), let's look at a few things.

A good argument can be made that Linux is at least as mature as Windows. The operating systems have been worked on for approximately the same length of time (if you consider the fact that XP and 2000 are basically expanded-but-less-stable heirs to NT 3.51, one of the best operating systems *anybody* ever made). Microsoft has thousands of developers working on their products; some of the smartest, most able developers in history using one of the most fundamentally flawed development models in history ("Code Complete"). Linux has far fewer full-time developers (yes, there are a few, scattered here and there - Red Hat, IBM, OSDL and so on), but their development model (open source via distributed projects) and release model (when it's ready, and not when marketing/CxOs say it has to go) is far superior in terms of quality delivered to the user.

Apache is the leading Web server in the world, without serious question, on a wide variety of platforms. Microsoft IIS is now, as of version 6.0, a quite-capable system which, properly patched, does not appreciably degrade the security of the hosting system. But too many Microsoft platform-hosted sites fell as easy prey to crackers for too many years; the cast-in-concrete conventional wisdom is that Microsoft-hosted sites are by definition vulnerable. Hence, the wholesale centralisation on Apache as seen in all major Web-hosting surveys, notably Webtrends. Apache comes with most Unix and Unix-like operating systems (including Linux, BSD and Macintosh OS X), and is also offered for Windows. For better or worse, the majority of the world is now standardised on Apache. [Though, to be honest, my recommendation to my clients who are concerned about security overall is to host on Mac OS X using StarNine; that platform is how the US Army solved their long-standing Web security woes, and if a monoculture is bad in operating systems, a common argument among anything-but-Microsoft types, why is a monoculture among Web servers any better?]

MySQL has for some time been the best-known and most-widely-used open source database system, and MySQL AB one of hte most successful companies based on an open-source business model. MySQL 5.0, with the long-awaited support for stored procedures (among myriad other improvements), is certainly capable of handling the needs of just about any small-to-less-than-humongous application thrown at it. It may not have all the features or speed of DB2 or PostgreSQL, but it is certainly adequate for the task. And since it, like Apache, is not tied to a single platform, sites can upgrade their hosting systems to meet increased usage needs without modifying existing code, queries, tables, etc.

The P part of the LAMP acronym, being expanded as either PHP, perl or Python, depending on your environment, offers many of the benefits alluded to earlier. With open-source implementations of all three commonly available for numerous platforms, code created in any one language on one platform is portable to other platforms, and properly-designed and -written code can be reused across applications. With the variety of choice between PHP, perl and Python (all interpreted, server-side scripting languages), users have the ability to choose any based on their needs, without getting tied to any one single vendor (even with Zend's preeminence over PHP). Being open source and freely available, anybody can learn the basics quickly, and it is not terribly difficult to find experienced developers for any given project.

Finally, another great benefit of LAMP to businesses, particularly in the post-9/11 world, is auditability. For the first time, it is now possible for *any* business to review, or engage competent auditors to review, each and every single line of code running on a major line-of-business system. System managers have complete and total control over their systems, being able to install exactly and only what is needed for a particular task or set of tasks, and to continuously verify security and monitor actual or attempted modifications to the system. This level of granularity and control simply is not practical in *any* closed-source, proprietary system, and is a major source of LAMP's appeal to security-aware businesses.

It is easy to see why the mainstream IT media is starting to notice that smart businesses have been using LAMP for some time, with sizable growth in the last couple of years. The real question is why ZD, in particular, has been denigrating it for so long. That has provided ill service to its readers.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Free Trade or Freedom? 

If we were still in the '50s, people arguing for the "free trade worldwide" and "let the Third World compete" viewpoints would have an excellent point. However, things aren't the way they were then... "Competition" is rarely on a level playing field, regardless of what the Indian entrepreneurs telling William Friedman what to think may say; there is simply no way an American, paying US$1000 a month for rent or mortgage, that much again for transport, and so on, can compete with an Indian in Bangalore being paid US$6000 a year. Having an "American" company fly said Indian to the US to be trained by the American worker, before replacing him in his job, just adds insult to injury. But this has happened to literally thousands of IT professionals in the United States.
One of the many things we have lost in recent years, and especially since the death of the Constitutional republic of the United States of America in December 2000 is the ability of people with different viewpoints to be able to, or even to be willing to try to, see a given situation from other viewpoints. This used to be called "civilization"; it is now routinely denigrated as "left-wing liberalism".

This blog item grew out of a response I made to a Yahoo! group message from an individual who obviously (in my view) has never experienced first-hand the negative effects of the economic and structural changes in the United States over the last 20 years or so. Had he paid attention to these more closely, I suspect he would have said things a bit differently. Or maybe he is aboard one of the "many boats" being lifted by the "rising tide" of the Bush regime's Jonestown Kool-Aid. I have interspersed my responses to his statements within the flow of his original message; his writing is in italic; my response is in normal font.

>The dollar is weak but that isn't always so bad.
>USA made goods cost LESS in other countries, makes our products more
>competitive in over sea markets.

Name three industries that make products in the US, using domestic
labor, from domestic parts and supplies. Cars? Nope; most "American"
cars are made up of largely foreign-supplied parts, assembled in
whatever (generally) low-wage country offers the biggest tax breaks.
Software? Not a chance; American developers are being forced to train
their own replacements who then go home and get paid $6,000 a year, OR
the H1B or L1 visa holder is brought to the US - without even
accepting applications from Americans - and the taxpayers foot the
entire cost of the visa holder being in the US (through
business-expense tax deductions). Even many critical defense items -
specialized hardware and materials needed for homeland security and
military effectiveness - depend solely on foreign suppliers. Were the
ten largest ports in the US to be blocakded, we'd run out of necessary
parts and supplies within a few months. So the "weak dollar helps US
exports" doesn't really fly.

>Because of the weak dollar, foreign products now cost MORE in the
>USA. That Japan or German car has to be sold for more dollars to
>equal the same amount it used to. Increasing prices on foreign made
>items, lower costs on USA made items isn't so bad.

The "increasing prices on foreign goods" part is true. Again, name any
commercially significant good that ISN'T "foreign" these days. When
you're a multinational corporation "based" in the US, you get to put
"Made in the USA" stickers on your stuff even if it was assembled in
Bangladesh from Chinese parts but - oh, yeah - you shipped those items
to the US in bulk and then packaged them individually here, with
either automatic machines or sweatshop-level barrio workers. Again,
not bringing a whole lot of (economic) good to the American public at
large, but it sure makes the MNCs' quarterly figures look good.

>Foreign investors in the USA stock markets are taking a beating.
>Anyone in the USA who is invested in foreign markets is coming out
>smelling like a rose.

Most foreign exchanges have been rising modestly during the last 18-24
months except for late bubble-riders like Shanghai. Foreign stocks,
invested broadly two to five years ago, would have been a dandy place
to put US dollars; the rise in share prices coupled with the
artificially weak present dollar value is a windfall for any
multinational corporation or wealthy individual with competent
financial managers; an advantage which the proverbial Middle American
does not directly enjoy.

>The dollar is down, yes, it's a market correction to our deep debt
>and huge spending. Will the dollar go back up? Who knows or if it
>does when it will happen.

The dollar is doomed to continue falling unless and until immediate,
credible corrective action is taken against the budget and trade
deficits, which are not only destroying our long-term economic
prospects by siphoning off the economic resources needed for
sustainable growth, but once China and Europe decide that continuing
to fund our budgetary crack cocaine habit, we're fubared. In the last
year, I've seen reports of studies by the Federal Reserve, the RAND
Corporation and several major universities which all agreed that the
US standard of living is in for a 30% to 50% downward "correction"
within the next decade. In other words, it will make the Black Tuesday
of the 1929 stock market crash (a mere 13% correction which wrecked a
nation) look like a mild case of indigestion compared against a
flatline-courting heart attack.

>Personally I think once the war is over and we stop spending
>billions a day in Iraq our money will go back up. Till then it
>really doesn't affect me much.

Depends on which war you're talking about, The 'war on terror' is a
public-relations ploy designed to scare the sheeple; I have never
heard any militarily sound justification for most of what goes on
under that figleaf. Name 3 things that have been done since September
11th that have truly improved national security, as opposed to
Halliburton's bottom line. You can't.

Or maybe you mean the war in Iraq, where the Bush regime threatens
anybody who dares to report on, let alone photograph, the return of
dead or injured American servicemen and -women in a war that the Joint
Chiefs of Staff admitted last week is in worse shape now than it was a
year ago, and most independent analyses have called just short of
unwinnable. How many billions of dollars will go into no-bid contracts
tied to the gravy train painted in American blood before taxpayers and
financial supporters cry "Enough!"?

Or you could have meant the war at home; the one waged successfully
against the Constitution of the United States of America, and which
has now turned to attack the freedoms, intelligence and sensibilities
of American citizens? For the last two years, there has been talk of a
"war without sacrifice on the home front" by people who were either
deliberately misleading or are playing the part of Lenin's "useful
fools". One of the things people who travel internationally find when
comparing their experiences a couple of decades ago to now is that, in
the Golden Age of American democracy (roughly 1915-1974), it would
have been ludicrous to argue that Americans did not enjoy the greatest
freedom on earth. By the mid-1990s, and certainly after December 2000,
it would have been disingenuous at best to argue that htey did. One
would have to have consisted on a steady and exclusive diet of regime
propaganda from that time to this to even make the assertion with a
straight face.

>If you're really worried about it convert your money to gold.

Better to buy Euros or yen or renmenbi or shares in Singaporean
technology companies or Indian ones that specialize in throwing
massive numbers of putatively skilled people at labor-intensive
problems. Or if your sense of patriotism allows it, in companies like
Tata or Wipro or IBM, which are involved in the systematic and
deliberate esport of America's once-promising technology future to the
overloaded streets of Bangalore and Mumbai.

And nobody's yet come up with a reasonable answer for why, more than a
year after "Mission Accomplished" heralded the granting of the
second-largest proven oil reserves in the world to American corporate
control, that gas prices in the US are still "through the roof"; most
of the rest of the world (except for the "coalition of the willing")
doesn't have the problem to such an extreme.

Just my two kopiyka; sorry for the blast, but misinformation and
disinformation really do need to be thrown out into the light of day
and stomped until dead. Only then can we start dreaming of a free
America again.

Cheap...or inexpensive? You choose 

I last returned to Kuala Lumpur from Singapore on 31 March. Getting off the bus, I was pushed by a guy behind me who thought I was moving too slowly. Banging my head against the doorframe, I woke up a few moments later to find both my laptops still with me (thank God by whatever name you call Him) but my wallet a few hundred ringgit lighter. I also had injured my right arm; two ligaments and the rotator cuff.

Thus began an interesting odyssey. Malaysia is trying to build itself an image as a destination for medical tourism; they have excellent facilities and medical professionals here at what, by First World standards, are extremely reasonable prices. A North American or European contemplating major non-emergency surgery would likely find as good medical service here for lower cost, even considering the additional travel expenses.

This does not hold true, of course, for local Malaysians, or for foreigners such as I who are living as locals (no expat package, no seven-figure salary, no chaffeur-driven Mercedes, etc...). There is a decent basic medical service here, and top-tier service is available for those with the means to pay. In my case, I had an orthopaedic surgeon estimate the cost of repairing my arm as being at least 12,000 Malaysian ringgit (or about 2,440 Euros). This is approximately what it costs me to live for four months here; I don't have that kind of money available. I have started looking at less expensive options, including the anybody-serviced three-tier public hospitals. I haven't found a place yet that both inspires confidence in the abilities of its medical practitioners and is sufficiently less expensive to justify the perceived risk of dealing with a new set of doctors.

Any good local advice would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Domain hosting follies 

My "professional" Web site and domain, seven-sigma.com, is temporarily unavailable, from last Thursday, 3 March. I expect that I will be signed up with a new provider, likely webserver.com.my within the next day or so. (This is Malaysia; things are a bit slower here. My 3-month-old honorary granddaughter can crawl faster than most office-workers prefer to walk. If anybody is trying to reach me by email in the interim, please use jdickey at graffiti dot net or jeff_dickey at personal dot ro. Thanks.

Quotes and notes 

I spent a little time this weekend Googling for a wallpaper I could use of the Adidas Impossible is Nothing campaign that had the full quote ("Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men...") with the picture of the defiant/triumphant Ali in the ring. (Anybody who knows where I can find such an image for personal use, please email me.

Buried deeeeep in a Google search result was this little gem from the NC (North Carolina, USA) Soccer.Net website that had several great quotes (IMAO) about the nature of winning. Besides the text of the Ali quote I was following,

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they\u2019ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. its an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. its a dare. impossible is potential. impossible is temporary. IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING.

There was also this great, humbling quote attributed to Michael Jordan:

I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

That is going to get mounted beneath the Edison quote plaque for reinforcement and encouragement on the days when things not only don't go according to plan, they argue forcefully against the existence of any plan. To wit:

Unfortunately, many of life's failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed because every wrong attempt discarded is just one more step forward.

Useful words to remember when, for example, pondering pulling up stakes yet again and moving business and personal life to another place Far,Far Away.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Compasses and directions 

I had two curiously connected yet disjointed Web experiences this morning. First, I read Mark Sherman's AP story posted on Yahoo! News about a Federal judge ordering the Bush régime to either charge or free José Padilla, an American citizen being unconstitutionally detained as an " enemy combatant" for 2-1/2 years without ever having had formal charges laid against him. While this should be cause for celebration by any who respect the rule of law and the theory that government should be responsible to its citizens rather than its rulers, many of my fellow Americans seem to take a different view. For those with strong stomachs not easily swayed by utter lack of civility, you may find the Yahoo! discussion board for that article interesting. Those of us who were hoping to be able to go home in our lifetimes to a Constitutionally-governed country may be at variance with foreseeable reality.

The other discovery of the morning was the Political Compass website, which has an interesting little survey - rank yourself along a two-dimensional grid, liberal-conservative and authoritarian-libertarian. Roughly in line with my expectations, my scores came out as :
Economic Left/Right: -8.38 (leaving the neighbourhood of moderately leftish) and
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.15 (somewhat less libertarian than I expected).
One might ponder on the choice of assignment of negative values to the left or to libertarianism. However, for those of you who remember your middle-school geometry and trigonometry, a standard grid is ordinarily drawn with increasing values to the right and top from a central origin point. I'm sure some authoritarian righty will find fair to bash the "negative" libertarians or liberals. It saves him the trouble of coming up with a substantive argument.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Do you have time for this? 

One thing I've learnt in spades over the past two years is that there are 1,440 minutes every day; they don't belong to you, they certainly don't belong to me; if you, like me, believe in a God, then you believe they belong to Him, and you, like me, may well believe that He doesn't like them wasted.

I've been in Malaysia since November, 2003. When I've run into foreign travellers here (mostly Australians, Europeans, the occasional Canuck - I can count the number of Americans I've met here on one hand), many of them remark on how warm and open and pleasant the local people, especially the Malays, are. This is even more true as you get out of the urban jungle of Kuala Lumpur, into the "real Malaysia". I can think of at least a half-dozen places within four hours of where I type this that I think everybody should see at least once in their lifetime. But what's relevant about the remarked-upon observation is that there is, quite often, a sense implied or stated of how different this is from the observer's "normal" day-to-day lifestyle. The foreign traveller is rarely in-country long enough to ponder exactly why that is, but those of us who have been here understand a few things, or think we do. This alternately fascinates, frustrates, inspires and enrages us.

This culture, more than any other "modern" "industrialised" culture I have ever seen, does not place significant value on the time of individuals. Government and corporate workers alike are famous for the slow walk, for getting things done when they get done, making the Central American concept of mañana look like blistering efficiency in comparison. This has some unfortunate side-effects (building a truly civil society is a challenge, as the Malaysian Government is discovering with their 'politeness' campaign). But if you're not in a hurry to get anything in particular done, and you assume that others aren't either, then it does free you up to relax, have that third teh tarik, and chatter on with the funny-sounding tourist about all the wonderful things he should go see that are only a day's drive away. This becomes more pronounced, again, the farther you get from the big cities; out in the countryside, many people try very hard to live with the same priorities and (more or less) lifestyle as they imagine their great-grandparents would have.

But if Government programs like Vision 2020, stipulating that Malaysia is to be a fully-industrialised, advanced society 15 years from now are to be successful, or even the Malaysian Multimedia Super Corridor (where 8 of the first 10 companies listed are foreign) is to succeed, some fundamental changes need to be made. This has been recognised locally for decades (see, e.g., Mahathir's The Malay Dilemma (1970)), and much ink has been spilt for the cause, generally ineffectively. Whereas the Government and various political leaders have been whinging for years that Malays need to become more self-sufficient and hardworking and less dependent on Government subsidies (as expressed by Mahathir in a Star interview reprinted here), few if any positive results have yet been achieved. Many educated, motivated Malaysians - Malay and non-Malay alike - have seen this, and voted with their feet, going to Singapore, Australia, the UK and Canada. In the time that I have been here (14 months at present), I have met and talked to perhaps 30-40 people planning or in the midst of such a move. This is a higher proportion of local subjects in that situation than I have met in any country I've been in before Malaysia - including Vietnam, China, South Africa, Russia. (The post-Constitutional US might change that, however; lots of people since the selection of November 2004 have been at least talking about moving to the Free World. But I digress.) This can, to anybody who truly cares about Malaysia's successful advancement and integration into the world economy, be seen as undesirable bordering on disastrous. History shows that any society whose "best and brightest" see greater opportunity in foreign lands than at home is in decline. Very few have seen that happening, addressed their problems, and reversed the trend. I sincerely hope Malaysia accomplishes this. But much work needs yet to be done - starting with a national agreement that much work needs to be done, that it is in fact capable of being done, and that individuals and groups within Malaysian society must change to make that work possible. To those who resist change, one might point out that societies are like all living things: they either change continuously, in a generally beneficial fashion, or they die.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?