unrequited narcissism

Archives: tech
Archives: tech
July 07, 2006
July 07, 2006
2d into 3d tech

this is awesome. sorry if it's been all over the internet already.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
July 05, 2006
July 05, 2006
like bumfight, but with nerds bitching  - tech

Oh Jesus. So I've had a little trouble with certain folks from New York who handle the tech administration for a certain regional blog (site A) that I do some tech things for. And tonight I learn that at least some of these NY tech staffers are also affiliated with a public transport arrival time SMS service (site B) that invaded site A's comment section after I declined to cover site B, given that my own site A-branded public transport SMS service was about to debut. I chased their apparent spamminess out of site A's comment section with some testy replies.

Man. This kind of explains a lot of the intransigence I've experienced from the NYC gang. And it's kind of a pain in the ass. What a tangled web we weave, when first we write some PHP.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 03, 2006
July 03, 2006
get hackin' tech

I've been holed up in the apartment coding an Awesome Science Project all weekend, so I'm a bit too exhausted to try this out at the moment — but I just got an email indicating that Mozes has just announced developer support for their text-messaging product.

If you don't remember Mozes' debut, I don't blame you. Basically, they've bought an SMS short code — one of those nifty five-digit phone numbers that you can text things to (instead of using a cumbersome ten digit code like some services I know). You go to their website, register for a keyword that's unique to you, and then... uh... things happen. Maybe. When other folks SMS your keyword to Mozes, they get your contact info. And you can store song titles and stuff. It doesn't make much sense to me, to be honest.

But! Although I don't see the appeal of their SMS-based note-taking functionality, I think the newly-announced developer access is a big, big deal. So far as I can tell, it lets you hook a script up to your Mozes keyword. So you can host a service elsewhere on the web and get free SMS service via Mozes. This is a fairly cool thing to get for free — shortcodes cost $2k to set up, then $1k/month after that — and that's before the charge you have to pay for every SMS you send or receive. Having your users specify your keyword for every query might be a pain, but for simple apps this could be a great way for developers to get SMS capabilities without having to find funding first.

Of course, if you start to make money off of the service you can bet that Mozes will shut you down pretty quickly. Hell, if Mozes starts to make money off of reselling their short code, I imagine the telcos will shut them down pretty quickly.

But it's a neat service, and a step in the right direction. Mobile services are a pretty closed set of systems right now. But that can't last. This stuff is going to continue to get more accessible to the common geek, I think.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 22, 2006
June 22, 2006
this american podcast photos  - tech

Controversy! So, This American Life, the astoundingly good public radio show, finally got around to ditching the irredeemable RealAudio format for its online offerings and put everything up as mp3s. Geeks, doing what they do, immediately created podcast feeds out of this newfound bounty. Then the trouble began.

TAL seems to be run by nice and generous folks, but they sell their episodes through iTunes and Audible.com. They also give royalties to their contributors and the folks they license music from (they have good taste in music). These entanglements mean that they can't endorse the free downloading of permanent copies of their shows — although they seem to be okay with old episodes being streamed off of their website (they wrapped the new mp3s in m3u playlist files; for the non-tech-savvy, this would conceal the downloadability of the underlying mp3s and appear to be a stream-based offering).

TAL has begun contacting the folks who put up the podcast feeds and politely asking them to take their feeds down. The feed maintainers have all complied, so far as I know. But folks aren't uniformly happy about this, or convinced that TAL is unambiguously in the right. BoingBoing has been operating a clearinghouse for the resulting discussion. See here, here, here and here. Folks seem to be backing off due to their fondness for the show, but the copyfighting contingent isn't particularly happy.

That sums up my position pretty well, too. I'm conflicted about this. I love This American Life and I want it to survive. And, after reading this glowing profile, I'm pretty much ready to pledge my undying allegiance to Ira Glass.

On the other hand, I don't really believe in the idea that content producers have a right to restrict how their work is consumed after it's been given away in one format. Consumers shouldn't be begrudged the right to time-shift programming and consume it as they see fit. That's the underlying idea behind DRM, and it'll produce an incredibly irritating system for interacting with our culture if it's allowed to take hold.

So what to do? Compromise — and be discreet. The dopes who submitted their homebrew TAL feed to the iTunes Music Store had precisely the wrong idea. If TAL doesn't want other folks to decide their distribution system on their behalf, I suppose that's fine. So long as they don't bother those of us who quietly make use of technology to more easily enjoy their show, everyone should be happy. I'll admit that it's not a very democratic solution, but it seems like the best one available at the moment.

And on that note, if you happen to have a web hosting account available to you that can run PHP scripts, you might be interested in the one I whipped up this afternoon (you'll probably want to secure it from prying eyes). Also: shhh!

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 20, 2006
June 20, 2006
a blogging non-recommendation tech

BTD, Unfogged, Kriston — all have been having trouble with their Movable Type 3.2 installations. The culprit in all cases seems to be an overabundance of comments and trackbacks in the junk folders — for some reason these continue to be indexed as part of day-to-day MT operations. Eventually the load gets too large, scripts start timing out, and shared hosting providers shut you down for consuming too many resources. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but I'm not convinced — assuming a constant level of spam, these breakdowns have all occurred very close to one another. It looks to me like an inevitable shortcoming of MT 3.2 is surfacing.

From what I hear, SixApart hasn't been very helpful — despite these folks owning licenses. I'm sure this new Vox thing is going to be very cool, but they probably ought to spend some time fixing their existing flagship product, too. It seems to be breaking in a fairly serious way.

For those MT users who haven't crashed yet, all I can suggest is that you delete everything from your junk comment and trackback folders. That hasn't been a cure-all for everybody, but it can't hurt.

UPDATE: Check out the comments for more detail from Becks on the problems Unfogged ran into. Spawning lots of individual Perl processes isn't necessarily a bad thing (or avoidable, given MT's overall architecture), but the scripts clearly need to be made lower-impact — at least until the submission is definitively identified as non-junk (at which point resource consumption can be escalated).

Meanwhile, WordPress, MT's chief rival, continues to not-quite-intrigue me. I like that it's in PHP and that it's open source. But it's not capable of handling load in its default configuration, and it's been built with a nasty coding approach that, while intended to make template designers' lives easier, mostly just infuriates me with its quirkiness, opacity and illogical nature.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
that's it? tech

Gizmodo has a hands-on with the Sidekick 3, which apparently will be unleashed on T-Mobile customers in 8 days. Perhaps it's just the Gizmodo reviewer's lack of familiarity with the SK platform at work, but I find this piece somewhat discouraging. Yes, there's Bluetooth, an audio player and a slightly better camera, but large parts of this review read exactly like the author is talking about the Sidekick 2:

Little notifier icons in the top right corner inform you when you have a message in IM, mail, or SMS/MMS. Messages appear in a little bubble for a moment before disappearing, so you can assess the value of emails and messages before reading. There is an airplane mode that turns off the wireless and basically lets you browse your mail like a madman but little else.

The trackball is a real winner. It lights up with all the colors of the rainbow—actually about 10...

The battery lasted one full day....

Voice quality was fine and reception as about as good as can be expected. One pet peeve—it would lose its GPRS connection and only a full reboot would get it back...

Ah well. I think the GPRS speeds have been bumped up, too. If that's the case, it's probably enough of a reason to upgrade (the Bluetooth is the main attraction for me). Still, I was hoping for better battery life... maybe even... GPS? I know, I know, I'm asking too much.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 17, 2006
June 17, 2006
kml: so about to be hot right now tech

Trend prediction! I think that the next skill that IT recruiters are going to be looking for without knowing why is knowledge of KML. It's really just a simple XML format that lets you keep track of geographical locations. Check out that Wikipedia link — KML's not rocket science, but it seems like it's suddenly showing up all over the place.

Maybe it's just my perception of it. Irongeek put together a KML-based hack a while ago allowing a database of unsecured wifi access points to be mapped into Google Earth, but I just saw it today. But there are other, more timely signs: cheap GPS loggers like this one and this one seem to be popping up very quickly. And Mologogo appears to have only gotten KML support in January. I'd say we're hovering near buzzword-dom.

There are plenty of other ways to store geographic data, but Google Earth seems to have tipped the hobbyist balance in favor of KML. Everybody says that location-based stuff is going to hit big in the next year or so. Seems like KML is going to be the format of choice for powering it.

That is all!

Also, I swear, entertaining blogging to resume soon. I'm brainstorming, people.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 16, 2006
June 16, 2006
foiled! tech

Because I've been working pretty hard this week, and because my plate of things that have to get done right away turned out to be relatively small today, I decided to treat myself to a little recreational nerdery this afternoon. Sadly, it wasn't successful. But I'm posting anyway in order to help the nerds of the future.

See, I really, really hate that MySpace doesn't let you link directly to songs. Not necessarily the raw MP3 (though my hardline copyfighting inclincations say they should), but at least to the band page with something in the URL that tells it: "Play this particular song. Don't just randomly select one of the other, crappier ones in the featured playlist. I want to send this to my friends, goddammit."

So I fired up Ethereal and the Firefox LiveHTTPHeaders plugin and started looking at the conversation that happens between your computer and MySpace when you click on a song in their Flash audio player.

First things: an XML file comes back, specifying the playlist. It's called mediaxmlprovider.xml, and it's served by a fairly easy-to-find URL (which has to be passed some of the random codes specified in the HTML of the band's page — I didn't bother to confirm this, but it seems pretty likely). The contents of the file look like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="iso-8859-1"?>
<profile>
<timestamp><![CDATA[1150454435]]></timestamp>
<name><![CDATA[regina spektor]]></name>
<playstoday><![CDATA[33341]]></playstoday>
<downloadedtoday><![CDATA[0]]></downloadedtoday>
<totalplays><![CDATA[1811136]]></totalplays>
<autoplay><![CDATA[0]]></autoplay>
<allowadd><![CDATA[1]]></allowadd>
<playlist><song bsid="7548074" title="Fidelity" songid="0" plays="685573" comments="" rate="" downloadable=""
imagename="http://c.myspace.com/BandSongs/48/41/3071484/bs7548074_m.jpg" imagedesc="Begin To Hope<br>2006 Sire Records" filename="48/41/3071484/3071484_c4b21abc.mp3" url="http://home.myspace.com/Services/Media/mediaHitCounter.ashx?i=MIGdB
gorBgEEAYI3WAOuoIGOMIGLBgorBgEEAYI3WAMBoH0wewIDAgABAgJmAwICAMAE
CNxa3NiUig5fBBBBZNK8fzHa3nXq%2fQXZNaSJBFClWYkcVz5a2X%2bUe5yft5iC9Cn
mboEQKrW%2fPBrUqXlO7VwTgCxy%2bptjwvoaQsx2O4AAqXzpF63IosE0kZY0bsZ
k1XznxMS9l8rzeTgwz14T9w%3d%3d" lyrics="" purl=""/><song bsid="7494789" title="Better" songid="0" plays="358965" comments="" rate="" downloadable=""
imagename="http://c.myspace.com/BandSongs/48/41/3071484/bs7494789_m.jpg" imagedesc="Begin To Hope<br>2006 Sire Records" filename="48/41/3071484/3071484_141017ab.mp3" url="http://home.myspace.com/Services/Media/mediaHitCounter.ashx?i=
MIGdBgorBgEEAYI3WAOuoIGOMIGLBgorBgEEAYI3WAMBoH0wewIDAgABAgJmAwIC
AMAECLuj4EHcSIfyBBD5z%2fO%2bh8P26LaTqDiG07JMBFBq5PV2kJDM%2b07hGBsp
xCmC3nxdreIiWFPw4nt3onOecM5NqoOaEjWPyNYCOvCD8X77svdho%2bSmW7Ok
a9F67YoFS10RfyZ0UADznDzj6ZJelg%3d%3d" lyrics="" purl=""/><song bsid="67359" title="Us" songid="42627" plays="336564" comments="42627" rate="42627" downloadable=""
imagename="http://c.myspace.com/BandSongs/48/41/3071484/bs373400284_m.jpg" imagedesc="Soviet Kitsch<br>2004 Sire Records" filename="48/41/3071484/3071484_e2b7a709.mp3" url="http://home.myspace.com/Services/Media/mediaHitCounter.ashx?i=MIGVBgor
BgEEAYI3WAOuoIGGMIGDBgorBgEEAYI3WAMBoHUwcwIDAgABAgJmAwICAMAECFG4n
aZwuIbOBBDLD%2flDSGXRFNcjgKaiVaXWBEjwVg5Sd1IoyLFpHt%2fb85q41kwbAwufnVR
CexWU%2fziYdY66mVw7vIGNx37awMxokOQ%2foEtupSdopInRyczeNZCRfb3wI4G1VIM%3d" lyrics="" purl=""/><song bsid="67063" title="Ghost of Corporate Future" songid="42522" plays="387912" comments="42522" rate="42522" downloadable=""
imagename="http://c.myspace.com/BandSongs/48/41/3071484/bs356236944_m.jpg" imagedesc="Soviet Kitsch<br>2004 Sire Records" filename="48/41/3071484/3071484_8fcdc23f.mp3" url="http://home.myspace.com/Services/Media/mediaHitCounter.ashx?i=MIGVBgor
BgEEAYI3WAOuoIGGMIGDBgorBgEEAYI3WAMBoHUwcwIDAgABAgJmAwICAMAECPTQc
TjZI5BPBBDldE4GvP%2bEfHTN%2bZP%2fyPupBEhHCQ6QrxvOGCaM5nRpJPRJO35ivJEb
6%2f%2fTVNDzWOPiZj04wesbPi6WP9jUubZFoXdQ7UIW92EqnCvEOnYM9c1Mqfdoyzy4
ZZ0%3d" lyrics="" purl=""/>
</playlist>
</profile>

Those yellow parts look pretty promising. In fact, it seemed like this might be susceptible to a variation on this method (which has since become outdated). But those mp3 filenames are relative URLs, not absolute, and I got 404s when I tried them against any of the likeliest domains & paths.

It's possible that URLs like http://c.myspace.com/BandSongs/48/41/3071484/3071484_8fcdc23f.mp3 were just being clever, noticing my lack of a myspace.com HTTP referer, and lying to me about the file's presence. But I don't think so: I went to the page of a random band that offers downloads and found that the URLs used to obtain the mp3 look like this:

http://mp3download.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=bandprofile.downloadSong&bsid=11466&song_name=Its Dange&fid=1943559

There's no redirect or anything like that going on here. It looks like they've set up a dedicated mp3 gateway that serves the song out of a non-public part of their filesystem. This lets them lock things down as tightly as they care to — ie, they can check against the database to see if a song is genuinely supposed to be downloadable before sending it out. Nuts.

Of course, the Flash player still has to get the audio somehow. But I don't know enough about Flash to figure out how that happens. If I had to guess I'd say that it might use a proprietary (and secure) Flash streaming audio solution. It's still possible to grab the audio to an mp3 — until we get trusted computing forced on us, it'll always be possible — but for purposes of linking directly to mp3s, there isn't a lot of remaining promise here. Not that I can see, anyway.

Ah well. Perhaps a cleverer geek will pick up the mantle and figure out how to make MySpace mp3bloggable. Or perhaps MySpace will eventually remove its head from its ass and allow incoming links to specify particular songs. Till then I'll maintain the attitude of apathy and gradually-spreading terror that I'd been directing at the site up until this point.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 14, 2006
June 14, 2006
in the year 2011 tech

neat to think about - can you believe that just five years ago iPods and social networking sites amongst other ever-present tech and media things weren't part of our day-to-day lives? five years from now, "which products, used by few today, will be essential?"

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
June 12, 2006
June 12, 2006
when unqualified opinions collide politics  - tech

Unsigned editorials are terrible. I realize that I should be getting into the habit of dutifully reading the ones on offer from the Post and Times so that, during the dinnerparties of the future, I can cluck my tongue insightfully over the latest institutional outrage (in between lighter conversational fare, e.g. "Preschools Are So Expensive Now" and "We Think The Maid Is Stealing From Us").

But I just can't do it. They're like particularly badly-written blog posts, except without a name to offer accountability or references to back up their bizarre arguments-by-fiat. If newspaper editors had any brains they'd ditch the unsigned editorials (and political endorsements) immediately, before people start laughing in their faces in social settings. But I suppose they're too focused on fomenting the next war (how'd that last one work out for you guys, by the way?).

Today's an exception, though, because the Post's anti-net neutrality editorial is so staggeringly dumb that it deserves to be reprinted everywhere — to ring throughout the online universe as an emphatic testament to the fact that Writing, Editing, and Not Being A Total Fucking Idiot are three distinct disciplines.

MORE...
comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 08, 2006
June 08, 2006
on the off chance you haven't made up your mind tech

It appears that Cox Cable is throttling access to Craigslist — presumably because Cox offers its own classified ad service. Via Dave Winer.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 07, 2006
June 07, 2006
oh dear personal  - tech

Between the LASIK and my generally geeky ways, my friends give me a lot of shit about my potential for becoming a post-human abomination. Digital-themed tattoo? I've thought about it, but probably not. RFID chip? Maybe in a few years. Intracranial bluetooth headset? Eh, I'll wait until I start seeing them in rap videos. I'm not actually all that anxious to modify my body in permanent ways.

But this... Oh man. I want this. The ability to feel electromagnetic fields, people. To tell when a wire is live, or a hard drive is being read, or a transmitter is on, or if a surface is ferrous. It's just a little too cool. Make it safe, then sign me up. Sorry, humanity.

comments [10] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 05, 2006
June 05, 2006
tv on the radio on the pc tech

I wrote about the GNU Radio project a long time ago, but my efforts were probably fairly incomprehensible . Today Wired has an excellent story that profiles the project, explains why it's so cool — and does so in more lucid terms.

The signal processing applications that are opened by this project are truly mind-boggling. The linked article mentions that some folks are already using it to track which department store window displays are the most popular by triangulating the cellular keepalive signals emitted by shoppers' cell phones. That's just astoundingly awesome.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 02, 2006
June 02, 2006
pimping: actually fairly easy D.C.  - personal  - tech

echoditto adSome of you might remember me asking for career advice a while back. I ended up deciding to take the new job, then blogged the first day. Then everyone at work discovered this site (using their strange internet powers), and, aside from some generalities, I haven't mentioned it.

Well, let me fill you in. It's been about six months, I think. People use the phrase "it was the best decision I ever made" to describe getting a hair transplant, or buying a boat, or ordering a Cobb salad. So I'd like to avoid joining their idiomatic ranks, but I can't. It just seems so obvious. These are the smartest, coolest, funniest, most talented people I've ever worked with, and the job itself is interesting, varied and rewarding. I look forward to work every day. Okay, every non-hungover day.

The reason for my gushing: we're hiring. If you're geeky, really smart and interested in working in the non-evil sector, you should think about applying. You'd like it. Seriously.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 30, 2006
May 30, 2006
this is hardcore tech

Prompted by a WSJ article, Bunnie, the man most frequently credited with cracking the copy protection on the original Xbox, lets us in on the work he's doing on the Xbox 360. The recent exploit that allows DVD dual layer backups of commercial games came thanks to the other star of the WSJ article — a guy named TheSpecialist (he didn't release his work, but it was replicated). Bunnie's been mostly quiet about the XB360, implying at times that he wasn't planning to really get his hands dirty with it.

Well, that didn't last. Exposing a chip's silicon and extracting the cryptographic keys hardcoded on it = BAD ASS.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 26, 2006
May 26, 2006
the beginning of the beginning of the end tech

I was talking about Google with Matt last night — more specifically, when they'll fall from grace. He thinks it might be a while, and considers the period when the Gmail Generation begins running for office a likely date for the turn, what with all the secrets that have been entrusted to them.

Personally, I think it'll be much sooner. The cracks in the facade are showing: Google Pages is a bust; Orkut is mostly a bust; Google Talk is mostly a bust; and I'm deeply dubious about Google Base ever turning into anything. Amazon S3 seems to have beaten GDrive to market. We'll see if they ever do a web-based office suite replacement, I suppose — their Writely acquisition is suggestive, but I have doubts about them being able to pull off a really compelling Word replacement in the browser.

There are plenty of failures that I'm forgetting, too. Google fans generally defend this hit-or-miss history by saying the company throws stuff at the wall and sees what sticks. But now they're having trouble with their core offering, too: from what I'm reading, their search difficulties extend beyond the Sitemaps problems I've been having. The "site:" operator hasn't been working correctly, and the debut of a new crawler codenamed "Big Daddy" has been wreaking havoc with folks' PageRanks.

The trouble in search-land seems like big news. If they can't keep a handle on the cornerstone of their business, the company will stop looking quite so much an eclectic whiz kid and begin appearing a bit more like an ADD-addled savant. Now that they're public, a loss in confidence could send their suspiciously dot-commie culture and strategy spiralling off into unpleasant places.

Or maybe I'm just feeling pissy because Gmail has been screwing up all day. Either way, I'm souring on GOOG.

comments [7] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 25, 2006
May 25, 2006
woot tech

2006_verizon_success.jpg

A small victory, it's true. But I had to fight long & hard with Windows XP to get this far. The Mac has a nasty habit of quickly hanging up the connection when the Airport is simultaneously on. I think that's because OS X is clever and tries to save you modem charges when you have cheap wifi. Let's hope it's really clever and doesn't extend this policy to when you're sharing your modem connection over an ad-hoc wifi network.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 24, 2006
May 24, 2006
EVDOceanfront personal  - tech

I'm heading to the beach this Memorial Day weekend, and I'm intent on bringing the internet along with me. Last year I still had a fly-by-night dialup ISP that only charged you in months when you used the service. That business model has since run its course, and I'm casting about for another way to ensure connectivity. Needless to say, the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

So I stopped by the Ver/iz/on store on my way home and signed up for EVDO service. By the numbers: $80/month, $150 for the PC5740 card and — most importantly — 14 days to return it all. I'll still get charged a prorated fee for the service I use, so it's not totally shady. Just mostly.

There's one complication, though: the card doesn't work with Macs. Well, okay, it sort of does: I've already gone through these instructions, but they mean it when they say the account has to be activated on a PC. Sadly, Charles' laptop isn't up to the task (it's always been flaky about PCMCIA cards, and refuses to recognize this one). But we have one sort-of-working PC laptop at work, and a number of EVDO cardholders who've successfully gotten their Powerbooks working with the nominally PC-only technology. So spirits remain high.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
i am displeased tech

Remember when I was singing the praises of Google Sitemaps, only to quickly reconsider? Well, I'm moving from "reconsidering" to "being kind of pissed off".

For those who don't know, the idea behind the sitemap is to give Google a specially formatted file that says "here's where my content is, here's when it was updated, and here's how important each piece of it is relative to the rest". It's supposed to make the Googlebot that crawls your site work more efficiently, and give you better results. Personally, I'm sick of having old-style URLs (e.g. 001234.php) showing up for our site.

But so far the sitemap hasn't managed to do anything except banish every included URL from Google's systems entirely. Which is pretty much exactly the opposite of what it's supposed to do. I posted the following message to the Sitemaps Google Group; I'll let you know if I hear anything back.

I hope someone can help me figure out what's going on. Last week I submitted a sitemap for my blog (http://www.zunta.org/sitemap.xml). Everything seems to be working properly according to my Google Sitemaps account dashboard.

However, since submitting the sitemap every page that is in it has been excluded from the index, including many that I know used to have relatively good pageranks. I know that there have been some recent hiccups with the site: operator, but this applies to other queries as well. I wrote an SSH tutorial with the word "sshirking" in its title a while ago that got a number of links and attained a high pagerank for the unusual word "sshirking". The proper permalinked URLs used to be among the top hits; now they can't be found anywhere in the index (as proven by entering the full url as a query, e.g. http://www.zunta.org/blog/archives/2005/08/30/sshirking_work_1/index.php).

What's more, the old version of these pages -- before I changed permalink naming styles -- are still in the index. http://www.zunta.org/blog/archives/004498.php was the original URL of the above link (it now redirects to the proper URL). Only this second, less descriptive URL (which is NOT in the sitemap) is still in Google's index. It's only the files included in the sitemap that have been dropped from the index.
I tried deleting and resubmitting the map, and have patiently waited since May 18 for a new crawl to include the results. Nothing so far.

Can anyone tell me what's going on? Right now it seems that having a sitemap achieves nothing other than nuking your results from the index entirely.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 23, 2006
May 23, 2006
in case you were wondering tech

It turns out that Feed on Feeds + this incredibly simple PHP XML-RPC library = your own Technorati. Well, okay, not quite — you'd still have to write your own app to crawl the internet for new blogs and add them. And I have some concerns about using the FoF RSS reader in a shared hosting environment — seems likely that those lengthy 4x/hour blow-crawling sessions are going to start getting noticed by somebody eventually.

But for now, and for a limited pool of blogs (say, all the DC-related ones), it's working pretty well. You can probably guess where this is going...

Anyway, why would I want to do this instead of just using Technorati's open API? There are a few reasons. One, to restrict the search results to a particular pool of blogs that I have control over. Two, to avoid paying Technorati money. And three, for fun. Sort of.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 18, 2006
May 18, 2006
not so fast... tech

Hmm. Remember a day or two ago when I mentioned some quick & easy ways to generate a Google Site Map for your MT/WP/Drupal site? Well, you might want to hold off on that — all of a sudden we seem to have dramatically fewer entries in Google. I'm having trouble finding blog posts that I know were available before.

Hopefully this is just a case of Google clearing our their old entries prior to picking up the new ones from the site map. I'm taking some steps to make the sitemap more accessible, then I'll give it a few days to settle down. But right now this seems like a pretty bad way to optimize your site.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
that might come in handy tech

Saw this on BoingBoing yesterday and meant to blog it, but then didn't: FeedRinse is a pretty neat idea. Put your various RSS subscriptions in, combine them into channels (if you so desire), then set up filters on various criteria.

Why would you want to do this? Maybe because you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about when I write about tech stuff, and don't care to learn. You could filter out all of the tech posts from our feed and just see the others. Or you could just view posts by Catherine. Or add richer keyword filtering to a Craigslist feed.

Sadly, their site is a little too slick for its own good — in order to keep up with the guy's 19 or so different blogs, I tried to put together a "Kriston" channel. Unfortunately, the dynamic feed-adding process seems to have a bug; when I added new blogs I'd get empty select boxes instead of meaningful UI elements. Oh well.

But it's still a good idea, and probably works just fine in IE or Safari or Camino or Opera or something. And the feed filtering stuff works fine, I believe — it's just the channel-creation feature that's broken. Once they get the kinks sorted out, this will be the kind of thing that ends up being unepectedly useful on a regular basis.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 16, 2006
May 16, 2006
how i spent my summer vacation tuesday evening tech

When Google Sitemaps came out I didn't really bother to check it out. Custom-authoring some arcane XML format in order to support one (admittedly gigantic) private company? No thanks.

Well, it's been a while, and folks have gone ahead and done all the hard work for us. So if you want to be sure Google can find everything on your site (and that it'll know when you've updated it), you might want to follow one of these sets of instructions:

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
by the numbers tech

Alright, it's been a week. How's LastCall holding up?

Day Requests
5/9291
5/10165
5/1154
5/1279
5/1385
5/1463
5/1564

 

type # queries %
metro 423 52%
opentable 70 9%
music 45 6%
movie 56 7%
weather 117 14%

No huge surprises. I guess I'm a little surprised that more people are using the opentable capability than the movie and music features, but it's pretty close.

Traffic might seem low, but I'm pretty happy with this level. People are using the service, but it's got a lot of spare capacity. And, more importantly, this level of use seems unlikely to provoke the ire of my mobile carrier.

I've gotten requests for a few more movie theaters and two reports of "no trains" being incorrectly returned by the metro component, but otherwise no real complaints. I'll be trying to address those two items — particularly the bug — as soon as I can.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 10, 2006
May 10, 2006
aha moment tech

An interesting insight from a Slashdot thread on the Nintendo Wii and its prospects, made by a gentleman named John Hu/mmel, aka "Dark Paladin" (awesome):

it would appear that Nintendo has a lot of 3rd party support time time around, which made me think of why, and then something that Ubisoft president commented on made me figure it out.

Long story short, he made some less then flattering remarks about the PS3 — how it just ups the power. The same could be said for the 360. But that's no the issue for a publisher; for a publisher, all of that extra power and HD requirements goes into cost. Now, a development team needs even bigger hardware, a bigger graphics and sound team to get the same game out, which now increases the cost of the game by a large margin - say from $1 million to $7-$10 million. For a publisher, that means increased risk, reduced margins, and relying ever more on "certain" hits (which can vanish if something goes wrong — look at the Tomb Raider franches, and what they've had to do to get it back).

Nintendo is offering publishers something more than just a gimmick: they're offering them reduced price. Look at "Brain Age" - developed, tested, and ready for market in 90 days, and it hardly needed a graphics team. Since the Wii uses really Gamecube development systems with more power, that's an easy transfer of knowledge, which is why I predict that for the first year, Wii games will look pretty much like Gamecube games, maybe a little smoother.

But for the publisher, once you get past the controller issue, it's reduced cost, reduced time, reduced risk over time. If the Wii takes off at all, it may be that publishers wind up favoring it if for no other reason than it makes them more money over time.

Another commenter follows up:

Your numbers are a little off. My understanding is that a XBox/PS2/Gamecube title costs $8 - $12 million to produce (with some AAA titles going into the 20s), and last I heard HD games were expected to at least double the costs. (Is it any wonder publishers are afraid to take risks with money like that involved?)

...

Yes, sure, it might take more people to program a game for such a complex controller, but you aren't going to need 200 people churning out high res textures that will only be appreciated by people with HDTVs. Nintendo knows what it's doing.

Makes sense to me.

comments [6] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 09, 2006
May 09, 2006
something else to complain about tech

Alright, here's another stab at a legitimate complaint about OS X: my copy can no longer play Flash movies. Every time Flash launches on a webpage it apparently tries to connect to my Bluetooth headset (which is nowhere nearby and hasn't been used in months). I then get a "Bluetooth Audio Failed" message and playback stops — and can't be started! Argh. This despite my decidedly non-headset-oriented settings in Preferences and Flash's settings.

This guy seems to be the only other person on the internet having this problem, and he hasn't got a solution. It's pretty goddamn irritating — I'm missing out on YouTube-based hilarity on a daily basis.

comments [6] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
don't forget! pop culture  - tech

Today is E3, when we'll supposedly learn some more details surround Nintendo's new console and the plans of the Big Three in general. Already revealed: the PS3's $500 price tag — and that's just for the entry-level model without wifi or HD support. Yikes.

I sort of had a PSOne in college — a roommate owned it, but I chipped it — and it was a pretty fun, but not great system. I've always had a grudge against Sony's offerings, though, on the basis of their insanely bad controller. I think they just shot themselves in the foot pretty seriously.

Meanwhile, I'm getting more and more excited for the Nintendo Revolution Wii. Everytime I look at that new controller I get a little more excited.

UPDATE: NYT coverage of the Wii can be found here. In general the various gaming news outlets are saying Nintendo hit it out of the park with their demo, It's getting very favorable comparisons to Sony's presentation. which is being treated as something of a flop (largely because of the huge price tag for the PS3). No word on price for the Wii, but they've previously pledged it'll clock in at under $300. No release date either, other than the disappointingly vague and far away "Q4".

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
cat out of the bag D.C.  - tech

Well, my SMS project has finally been loosed on an unsuspecting world. And yeah, it's for DCist. Go check out the announcement message here — it's got all the details on what the service does and how to use it.

My dirty little secret? Throughput is an unimpressive 4-6 outbound messages per minute. If things don't crash horribly under the announcement traffic, I'll be very surprised. But there's nothing I can do but dive in and see how it handles load. Once it breaks I'll start sorting it all out.

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 08, 2006
May 08, 2006
the OPML clouds clear tech

Okay, after reading Steve Rubel's explanation, I think I get it — it's just that there's nothing much to get. Or rather, there's exactly what I thought there was: OPML sharing will be used to determine what people are interested in. Consumers can find new sources of news and marketers can pitch to them more effectively.

This seems like a much bigger win for the marketers than the users, though. RSS empowered content consumers in some obvious ways — it made it much easier to stay on top of many sources of news. OPML provides a slick, hi-tech framework for providing statistically justified blog recommendations, but to be honest I've always felt that blogrolls and interblog links work fine for that sort of thing. OPML's big advantage will be centralizing that data so that it can be more easily mined.

I suppose it may help inject some more ad revenue into the blogosphere, but that's really the only major benefit I can see. I can't imagine a scenario under which an end user would be all that interested in using OPML sharing. This is a technology that'll be implemented in the backend of RSS readers in order to provide a shiny but unnecessary recommendation engine — and, not coincidentally, a new source of marketing data. But that seems to be about it.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
maybe i'm dumb tech

I gotta say, I don't really understand what's so exciting about this OPML business. Is it a good format for exporting lists of blogs? Sure, apparently. For note taking and compiling lists of references? I think so, based on what I've read. And could Share OPML.org provide Amazon "people who bought X also bought Y"-style recommendations to the world of blog reading (or at least bring a more accurate version of it, since I'm sure it already exists somewhere)? Sure.

But beyond that, I have to admit that I don't get what the big deal is. There's apparently a community of people really excited about OPML, so I feel pretty confident that I'm missing something. I don't remember, but I can imagine that in the past I might've foolishly said dismissive things about Dave Winer's last XML format — I certainly wasn't able to imagine its usefulness for tracking packages, finding apartments on Craigslist, or powering my screensaver. So I'm trying to be circumspect, and to bite my tongue — I really do want to understand the OPML hoopla. But right now it's lost on me.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 07, 2006
May 07, 2006
calling all nerds: tell me why this won't work tech

New project time. The SMS dealy should be released imminently — I just need to write the help system (and, uh, ignore a persistent bug and elusive bug). I should be able to wrap that up this afternoon.

I've got a new project in mind, though. For a while I've wanted to be able to pipe sound around the computers in the apartment more easily. The Linux server is connected to a pretty nice stereo system, but it's a headless unit. We tried using SliMP3 as a webserver-based MP3 jukebox for a while, but the latency was pretty irritating. And besides, I want to be able to pipe other kinds of audio around — streaming internet radio, youtube soundtracks, even mail notification beeps. And I'd like for the various computers in the house to be able to use it (not simultaneously, though).

There are various solutions to the problem of playing MP3s over a network, but I want something a little more universal and cheap. Ideally, it'd be an icon that sits in the system tray. Click on it and it turns green (or something) and all your sound starts magically coming out of a server connected to a set of nice, big speakers.

This page shows the outlines of a solution. It involves piping raw audio samples across a network to something that catches them and shoves them at the soundcard. There's no buffering, but that should be okay — I want realtime audio, so that everything stays as closely sync'ed as possible. If the wifi gets spotty and some samples get dropped from time to time, that's fine. I've managed to get a proof of concept variation on the article working:

On the server:
listen for incoming data on port 1234 and pipe it to the rawplay application
nc -l 1234 | rawplay

On the client:
convert an mp3 into raw audio samples
mpg123 -s somemp3.mp3 > somemp3.raw
print the raw data across the network to the rawplay instance on the server
cat somemp3.raw | nc <server's ip> 1234

This setup works decently — it sounds slightly weird, like the sampling rate is a tiny bit off and as if it has a weirdly flat frequency response. But I'm going to blame that on mpg123 for now. Unfortunately, this trick doesn't account for grabbing live audio off of your system — that's the hard part. But I think this example code, combined with SoundFlower and some OS X Sockets 101 (yet to be learned), should take care of that.

Justin gave a demo of OS X software development on Thursday that made everything look encouragingly awesome and easy. Ideally I'll be able to wrap everything up in a slick GUI package, then resurrect my .NET skills and build a Windows version. Construct a proper server (a few dozen lines of Python should do), throw in FLAC support to avoid wasting bandwidth, and I'd have a pretty neat app.

That's the plan, anyway. I'm sort of hoping someone will pipe up in comments and say "that's already been done, you can download it here".

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 05, 2006
May 05, 2006
the latest from zunta labs D.C.  - tech

So, as everybody knows, Mike Grass, friend to me and Catherine and cofounder of DCist, has launched his newest professional endeavor, a blog for the Washington Post's Express newspaper. The site looks great, and I have no doubt that it will be a wild success — Mike was born to be an editor. It seems highly likely to me that I'll be pestering him for a cushy IT job someday.

But there's already a tic of the new site that's erupted in controversy: the bolding. Between this and DCist's now-partially-abandoned editorial "we", Mike's establishing a pattern of copy-editing controversy.

Well, personally I can't get enough of it. And if you can't either, I can help sate your bottomless lust for bold. Presenting the Expressamifier, a Javascript bookmarklet to bring FreeRide's distinctive look to virtually any webpage! Just click on and drag this link up to your browser's quicklinks bar (where Firefox sticks "Getting Started" and "Live Headlines" by default):

Expressamify

Then browse to any site and press it. Our sophisticated algorithms will selectively highlight text to maximize, uh, boldousity. Yeah.

And, as a special bonus, you can try running it on the Express website itself for a unique surprise. The resulting reaction is not unlike matter and antimatter colliding.

SPECIAL BONUS NOT TONGUE-IN-CHEEK ADDENDUM: Okay, so the bookmarklet will try to remove the bold from FreeRide. But it turns out that there's so goddamn much of it that you have to run it several times to remove it all. No joke.

ALSO: This bookmarklet is pretty inefficient, and could easily crash your browser. Don't use it if you have unsaved work in some other tab.

AND: It seems to produce an error in IE, and doesn't work at all in Safari. But shouldn't you be using Firefox anyway? This clearly isn't the sort of thing I'm going to waste time debugging. Probably.

FINALLY: Because it's late and I apparently can't adopt a consistent sarcastic voice, I should point out that the stuff above about Mike is meant in earnest. The stuff about liking the bolding... yeah, not so much.

comments [7] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 04, 2006
May 04, 2006
more asterisk nerdiness personal  - tech

I expanded on my little science project, and now you can call 202-318-0196 and use an automatically-updated menu system to navigate & listen to the ten most recent podcasts from work. And hear my voice! Excitement, internet stalkers! And yeah, it sounds weird to me, too.

If you're interested in hearing me hold forth on Asterisk and why it's sort of awesome, head on over to the EchoDitto blog — I've got some more voluminous ruminations over there.

I think this setup is kind of neat (if somewhat pointless). But I am disappointed that, now that I've fixed the script to actually grab the ten most recent podcasts (instead of the ten most recent that have media enclosures in the RSS), our Chuck Brown podcast no longer shows up. Go go's not really my cup of tea (outside the context of DC Lotto commercials, anyway), but I'm still mind-bogglingly happy that such a podcast exists, even though it was recorded before my time with the company. I'll have to remember to ask Tim how the hell he pulled that one off. I sort of suspect that Mr. Brown was deeply confused by the experience.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 02, 2006
May 02, 2006
ssh update tech

Believe it or not, I still get a steady trickle of comments on parts one and two of my SSH tutorial from last August. I'm happy to help those unfortunate enough to be shackled to a cubicle inside a restrictive firewall. And although there are better SSH tutorials out there — mine uses an old and relatively user-unfriendly SSH server package, for one thing — there are probably few that are more loquacious.

But I didn't answer all the questions that folks had. As I ate lunch today I took a stab at finding an answer to the biggest one: how to play Yahoo Games over SSH. I was pleasantly surprised to find how easy it was to get working, so I thought I might as well write it up. This method should work for other apps too (World of Warcraft comes to mind, although I guess it might let you configure a proxy server manually, instead of using this SOCKS hack).

Pretty much everything but "twitch" games, which use the un-SSH-able UDP protocol (and would suffer from the latency anyway) should work with this method.

MORE...
comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 25, 2006
April 25, 2006
some things are simple politics  - tech

Well, I'm at least glad to see that network neutrality is beginning to garner blogospheric attention. Kevin Drum posted an honest appeal for clarifying commentary on the issue, to which Atrios responded with, um, characteristic pithiness. This is all good; some folks aren't yet clear about what's going on. They want either additional nuance or for someone to explain a few more times that the situation really is as black and white as it seems.

The problem is that the nuance-providers are ready to serve, whether their interjections are justified or not. In the process, they make the issue seem much more complicated than it needs to be. Witness Crooked Timber's fretting that imbalanced service will lead people to dial down their packet timeouts, flooding the net with junk in order to get their message through faster. Abandoning network neutrality would break the internet's tenuous social contract! Gasp!

This is an extremely silly idea. Application developers generally don't handle this stuff — it happens at the level of network libraries, or even lower, at the interface driver or TCP stack. There are fewer different implementations of these pieces of software than you'd think, and their authors are not going to break the internet just because Johnny's upset that YouTube keeps stuttering. These people regularly get into epic, months-long flame wars over differences of opinion about algorithmic implementation that are much smaller than this. Also, they use SpeakEasy. They're not going to break the internet without a reason so incredibly good that it only exists as a Platonic ideal.

Could there be rogues? Yes, of course. And they'd be caught and blocked, the same way that someone running a DoS attack, or voluminous ping scans, or an open SMTP relay on a consumer connection would get caught. Enforcement right now could use some beefing up, but in the unlikely event of abandoned-NN actually endangering the system's network infrastructure (rather that just its societal and economic infrastructure), you can bet there would be remedies. Contrary to Henry's assumed social contract, there are already a lot of jerks on the internet. We have ways of dealing with them.

The other side of the fake-shades-of-gray crowd is nearer and dearer to my heart: check out this lengthy series of posts over at Freedom to Tinker, which inspired the CT post. Call it the Garrulous Geek approach — to understand any technical issue, you have to start by talking about the different energy levels an electron can occupy. By part 36 of the series, we'll have gotten to principles of mass-producing crystalline silicon — almost there!

But I'm being unkind (particularly given my own guilt on this score). Ed Felten's discussion of how traffic shaping policies, inequitably applied, could degrade internet service is interesting and thoughtful. It's also beside the point: we're not talking about different ways of marshalling a limited resource. Is it important and worthwhile to think about how to prioritize traffic when a consumer's data connection is fully utilized? Yes, of course.

But dropped packets are, by and large, not what's at issue. Most of the time, most consumers are only using a fraction of their bandwidth. The average person simply doesn't have a gigantic Bittorrent download going in the background. If they do, then yes, it's good to ensure that VoIP traffic gets priority. But again, that's not what we're facing. Network neutrality is about cases like this one or this one, where Vonage customers lost service or were forced to upgrade their accounts by their predatory ISP, because the ISP didn't want competition to intrude upon its own plans for VoIP domination. They're getting more artful at these shady tactics all the time, too — rumor has it that Vonage customers using Comcast's network experience significantly degraded service shortly before Comcast deploys their own VoIP offering in an area. Ed's attribution of this problem to an architecture that innocently produces jitter problems is, I think, extremely generous — particularly given customers' earlier ability to use Vonage without problems.

We're not talking about preferentially scheduling cable company VoIP packets over Vonage ones when we face a bottleneck (although we should talk about that when we get a chance) — this is about a private firm intentionally crippling the services of another in order to provide an advantage to their own competing product, regardless of whether bandwidth is scarce or not.

So please: stop looking for nuance. It's simpler than you're making it out to be. Here, let's let AT&T chairman Ed Whitacre explain:

"They don't have any fiber out there. They don't have any wires... They use my lines for free — and that's bull... For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!"

But of course, they don't use them for free. They pay a broadband wholesaler. You pay the Ed Whitacres of the world for your home connection. And Ed and the broadband wholesalers (he's one, too) have complicated agreements governing how they exchange traffic equitably. Everything's paid for; nobody's getting away with anything.

It's as simple as this: Mr. Whitacre and the other ISP stakeholders have convinced themselves that when someone isn't paying them money, it constitutes an injustice. They're wrong — really wrong. Don't give an inch, don't give equal time, don't pretend there's more to it than this. There isn't.

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 23, 2006
April 23, 2006
everyone's picking on google tech

Two stories that are a little old, but suddenly coming into better focus:

  1. google_miro.pngRemember when Google ran this custom logo to celebrate Joan Miro's birthday? And Miro's family complained, prompting Google to take it down? I know, it all happened ages ago (Thursday). But until today I didn't realize that the takedown request had come from the Artists' Rights Society, which did something similar when Google paid tribute to Salvador Dali in 2002. I had initially thought that this was a case of a stupidly litigious family, but it now seems that the attitude may be characteristic of the Great Dead Artist establishment.

    I find it all pretty unseemly. I realize that intellectual property is the only real asset an artist has. But Google didn't copy a work, they emulated a style — and a style that was formed by works more than half a century old. In any sane society that IP would already belong to the public domain.

    But let's be generous and assume that the motivations of Miro's estate in this matter are non-venal — that they aren't just trying to squeeze licensing fees out of Google, and that they realize Google's tribute doesn't represent competition for Miro-related income. Let's say this is just about controlling the man's legacy. You'd still have to count me as unsympathetic. I don't think a person has the right to control how society views him or his work. I suppose an artist is welcome to take a stab at doing so, but I don't think it's unreasonable for society to expect him or her to quit bugging us when they die. Lobbying from beyond the grave is just tacky.

  2. I hate to unabashedly stick up for GOOG — I've got first shift on the "How Long 'Til They're Evil" watch. But on the issue of net neutrality, they've already publicly committed themselves to doing the right thing: the search engine says they won't pay protection money to ISPs when the broadband providers start making the rounds with hands outstretched. Good for them! Maybe completely surrendering every shred of privacy to a commercial venture won't be so bad after all.

    As worked up as I get about intellectual property controversies, net neutrality is a much more pressing and unambiguous issue — I find it genuinely hard to see why anybody would oppose NN unless they're in the pocket of the telecom industry. If you haven't got an opinion on the matter or don't totally get what it's about, you might be interested in watching this brief video on the topic (thanks to Mike for the link).

comments [5] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 19, 2006
April 19, 2006
pointless precision tech

Let's nip this in the bud right now: just because an electronic device has two different embedded circuit packages in it does not make it "dual core". I'm going to find it pretty irritating (admittedly, for no good reason) if "dual core!" stickers start getting slapped on every new consumer gadget. In this case it's a particularly bad example: having a digital/analog converter outside the general-purpose processor is completely normal and unremarkable. If you were building an mp3 player out of off-the-shelf components (that weren't specifically designed as integrated solutions for building mp3 players), you'd end up with a separate DAC quite naturally — it's not exactly a premium feature. And you'd really be a dope to call such a solution "dual core".

But if you insist on it, you might as well call the iPod sextuple core. Check it out: it's got a genuinely dual core ARM processor, a DAC, a firewire controller, an LCD controller and (not listed on that page) I believe the video on newer models is handled on a separate IC. What does all this mean? Nothing, other than that — surprise! — electronic devices aren't magic boxes. They have pieces inside of them. Unless you know what they are, counting them won't tell you very much about which gizmo to buy. I suggest sticking with the traditional "shiniest" heuristic.

comments [6] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 15, 2006
April 15, 2006
kill all humans tech

I've been threatening to mess around with Asterisk for a while now — it's the voice-over-IP hotness at the moment. Well, with taxes finished unexpectedly early and a professional motivation for getting it under my belt, I took the plunge today. Signed up for a $5/month DIY account with BroadVoice, compiled the tarball (@Home is for the weak!) and immediately ran begging to the #asterisk IRC channel for help.

Well, I eventually got it figured out. Disappointingly, the text-to-speech project Festival is already installed under FC4, and not in a way that Asterisk can use. However, there's a handy little hack out there (bottom of this page) that lets you get away with generating then throwing away WAV files instead of actually streaming sound from the Festival server.

All of which is to say that, in a new feature that will doubtless make your life much richer and easier, you can now dial a phone number and have a robot read you the latest RSS headlines from this blog. I know, pretty useful. Give 202-318-0196 a ring if you want to hear what a wasted Saturday sounds like.

This may not stick around that long — it's just a proof-of-concept science project. And yes, I realize how stupid it is.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 14, 2006
April 14, 2006
miscellaneous tech stuff tech

Warning: gibberish ahead. Those of you who don't find Perl and Javascript really, really fascinating should probably stop now.

There, I'm all disclaimed. On to what I've been messing with this week:

  1. WWW::Mechanize is fairly awesome — I wish I'd known about it back when I was doing everything with LWP. However! It isn't really up to the task of interacting with ASP.NET sites. I've generally had a pretty positive outlook on Microsoft's current web platform, but trying to interact with it via Perl is changing my mind — the Viewstate and Javascript stuff is just a mess.

    The site I currently want to talk to changes some dropdown options via Javascript based on what you select in other fields. This is a fairly bad idea, but it really sucks in this situation: because of a "feature" in HTML::Form, you can't submit a value via Mechanize that isn't available for that form element in the page's original HTML. Because of this Javascript situation, the value I need to submit isn't available and Mechanize throws an error.

    The solution seems to be to download the page to the disk, rewrite the parts that don't match my requirements, then point Mechanize at that local copy with a URI::File. For those who don't speak geek, take my word for it: this is a huge pain in the ass. And I'm still not sure it'll work, although I have all the different pieces working in a proof-of-conceptish way. Perl gurus would be welcome to chime in at this point.


  2. Earlier this week Emily pointed me an an old post of Michael's complaining about PDF links that don't label themselves. I feel his pain, and because I felt like wasting 20 minutes writing Javascript, I wrote a GreaseMonkey script to fix the problem. That's not that exciting. What is exciting is that when I tried putting it through the GM script compiler, it actually worked (previous attempts were, um, less successful). So voila: a Firefox extension that does the same thing as the script without having to have GM installed.

    I've tried to mess around with writing FF extensions before, and it's been a mess (I've got no talent for XUL). The GM compiler still won't give you access to the cool, chrome-y things you can do with a real extension, but you can get a lot done with this.

comments [6] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
ecohipster transport tech

A hybrid vespa? Hmm. Seems sort of pointless to me: why not just ditch the gas engine entirely? Sure, I get that energy density is a problem, but surely a scooter has a weight and expected-range advantage over electric cars, which are at least on the edge of plausibility. Besides, those tiny scooter motors are dirty and inefficient — surely you could pack a day's worth of use into a vespa's-worth of batteries if you ditched the pollution-spewing lawnmower pieces.

Anyway, I've been thinking about this since the last issue of Make's feature on homebrew EVs. It's cool to see that people are spending some time on building electric vehicles for applications where they could shine — namely urban transport — rather than just waiting for them to become all things to all people.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 07, 2006
April 07, 2006
graphic violence photos  - tech

We have to talk, fellow children of the internet. I think that, by and large, you're all doing a bang-up job of building out this new digital commons. It'll soon come to define our planet's culture for the foreseeable future, and we're off to what I would call a solid, monkey-punching start.

But we do have a big problem. The images, people. Many of you abuse them shamelessly, as if you somehow don't know or care about the difference between a GIF and JPEG. I have a hard time even conceiving of this possibility, to be honest. But since I run into this a lot, both with new DCist contributors and with submitted press releases, I thought I might as well write something up explaining how different graphical formats work, and what situations you should use them in.

MORE...
comments [6] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 06, 2006
April 06, 2006
a legitimate complaint (i think) tech

The switch to OS X has been occasionally bumpy, but overall I'm extremely happy to have made it. Generally whatever problem I've had has turned out to be due to my own ignorance. Whenever I ran into an annoyance, helpful Mac gurus with the gentle eyes of true belief would swoop in, diagnose my problem, and help me get past it. There are still things I don't like — control-clicking, non-standard keyboard shortcuts, Expose's occasional unpredictability — but overall I'm very pleased with it. After yesterday's news, I would unconditionally recommend Apple notebooks to anyone with enough money to buy one.

But last night I finally came across a bug that really does seem serious and inexcusable. Maybe someone will point out what I did wrong. But I have my doubts about this one being my fault.

I was trying to burn a CD. In OS X you do this through a pleasantly-intuitive mechanism called a Burn Folder. You create one and drag files into it. OS X makes shortcuts to the original file in the burn folder rather than copying them in their entirety. When you've got your disc properly laid out, you press a little "Burn" button. It's nice.

Except here's the thing: if you delete a shortcut from the burn folder, it deletes the original file. Perhaps there's a way to suppress this behavior, but I couldn't find it. And it's definitely the default action. This was particularly horrifying to me because I was working off of Charles and my mp3 collection, which currently resides on a removable USB hard drive and nowhere else (I haven't had a chance to move it back to the Linux machine since rebuilding it). It took me a little while to realize what was going on, and when I did, the Undo function would only repair the most recent deletion.

Fortunately the damage wasn't too extensive, and I could rescue everything from the trash can. But did Apple really never consider the idea that someone would want to copy some top-level directory to a burn folder, then prune its subdirectories? A shortcut is a shortcut, guys. Check out "man ln" — it's good stuff! More importantly, have a look at how deleting a shortcut/symlink works in every other situation on every popular OS.

I like you, Apple, but if this is your way of getting me to repurchase all of my music from iTunes I'm going to be pissed.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 04, 2006
April 04, 2006
text presaging tech

It's working. The text messaging stuff I've been working on for the last six weeks is finally all working. The payoff is forthcoming. Right now, it's time to show off — and, more importantly, load test. Until the end of Wednesday, April 5, you can add comments to this post via SMS. Neat, huh?

Just text the number 202-299-7949. Seriously, please give it a shot. It'd be a big help to me. If your message doesn't show up within a couple of minutes, leave a comment to that effect. And don't worry, your phone number's last four digits will be scrubbed.


Warning: fopen(/home/zuntae0/public_html/sms/smslog.txt) [function.fopen]: failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /home/metamon/public_html/zunta/blog/archives/cat_tech.php on line 3003

Warning: filesize() [function.filesize]: stat failed for /home/zuntae0/public_html/sms/smslog.txt in /home/metamon/public_html/zunta/blog/archives/cat_tech.php on line 3004

Warning: fread() expects parameter 1 to be resource, boolean given in /home/metamon/public_html/zunta/blog/archives/cat_tech.php on line 3004

Here's the setup. There's an unlimited-SMS SIM in my cracked-screen Nokia 3100. From there text messages travel over my recently-acquired FutureDial cable and are picked up by Gammu's smsd daemon. That dumps them into a directory. A Python script uses the coincidentally-named Gamin to detect the arrival of the new files (because Gamin's Perl interface refuses to compile for me, even using CPAN). It then dispatches the content of the messages to an appropriate Perl script. That script packages the data up and sends it to a simple PHP script on this server, which unpacks the data and prepends it to a text file. A tiny bit of PHP in this post includes that text file, and some CSS formats it.

There! Some of the most tightly-packed technical gibberish I've ever written. The acronym density should give you some idea of just how much time I've put into this project, and how much knowledge I've had to pick up along the way. It took me a fucking lot of work to get this operating properly. I'm exhausted and ecstatic that it's finally working. When this system is hooked up to something useful, it should be pretty cool.

comments [20] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
noted without comment, or anyone on retainer tech

From a post on Slashdot:

If you think the whole Mac/PC beef is religious in nature, try the Tivo/anything else one.

Ain't that the truth.

Go to an online TiVo forum and ask about feeding your TiVo listings from XMLTV rather than subscribing. Bask in the hostility.

Here's a hint: google for "oztivo", "tivocanada", and "service emulator". Learn perl. Then lament the fact that you'd be sued and lynched if you ever told anyone how you did it.

(This is all hypothetical, of course.)

Verrry interesting. Hypothetically, I mean.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 03, 2006
April 03, 2006
even i have limits politics  - tech

Check out this interview with Rick Falkvidge of Sweden's PiratPartiet, a political party founded around the issue of P2P sharing (and at least loosely affiliated with The Pirate Bay BitTorrent site).

It's not a joke: with just 4% of the vote they'd establish a presence in parliament, and their favorability ratings have been polled as high as 57%. Of course, favorability doesn't necessarily translate into votes — people would probably express basic support for the Free Lollipops For Everyone Party, but perhaps not spend any votes on them. Still, the PiratPartiet folks seem to be going about this process methodically and responsibly, and from the (admittedly biased) sources I've read, IP issues have apparently become a topic of national debate in Sweden. They seem to have a real shot.

I find this pretty encouraging. I have no idea if the IP debate will ever take hold in America, but PiratPartiet's rise makes it seem to be possible, at least.

With all of that said, I can't quite bring myself to endorse Falkvidge's positions. Five year copyrights seem likely to seriously hurt content producers. And his take on the patent system is pretty stupid (his mobile phone industry example is laughable).

It seems pretty clear that some form of patent protection is necessary. It's just the details and extent of the system that needs fixing. Kill off coverage for business processes, algorithms, software methodology and discovered (rather than synthetic) genetic information. Make life harder for patent trolls. Spend more money on examiners and fire those who grant patents to perpetual motion machines.

It'd be a start, anyway. But it seems obvious that eliminating the patent regime entirely would be bad, bad news. Technology companies are going to protect their revenue streams one way or another. If you remove legal protections entirely you'll end up with a world full of epoxied-shut black boxes, all of which will operate on proprietary, closed standards and fail to integrate with one another. The digital world is still just now learning how to speak the same language. It'd be a shame to scare the corporations building it into packing up their toys and going home.

Perhaps PiratPartiet is pushing for more radical reforms than it actually believes in, planning for an inevitable compromise. If so, carry on, fellas. But as things stand I'm not yet quite ready to apply for Swedish citizenship. Better to wait until the EFF seizes the means of conduction at home.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 02, 2006
April 02, 2006
didn't even have to use my AK personal  - tech  - weekend report

Sunday: it's an up-and-comer. Between the injustice that is daylight savings time and the freshly-painted hallway flooding the apartment with solvent fumes, things were not shaping up well. But then a little Drupal installation, a little Chipotle and some cherryblossom-viewing with Michael, Emily and Tim served to brighten things up. Despite this flurry of activity, I somehow still found time to not clean the bathroom.

But, perhaps most exciting of all: the Radioshack cellphone cable recommended to me by this gentleman actually works with my Nokia 3100. I've been through two phones, a pair of Linux installations, and four $25 phone cables, but I can finally taste victory: I successfully sent and received SMSes from my miraculously un-lost Italian SIM. Score! Take note, Gammu googlers: the FutureDial cable (#22) is the one you should be investing in.

Now I'm over at Kriston and Matt's (whose names it now feels weird to hyperlink for some reason) for some grilled Italian links and Sopranos watching. It's the good kind of sausage party.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 30, 2006
March 30, 2006
surprise, surprise tech

Remember how Sony's UMD format for the PSP was unexpectedly taking off? And everyone was surprised at the sudden success of a proprietary format with nothing to offer anyone who wasn't a Sony shareholder?

Yeah, turns out that was bullshit. Walmart is dropping the format following poor sales, and studios are beginning to cease production of UMD movies.

So how's the proprietary-format scorecard looking, Sony? Betamax? MiniDisc? And how's Blu-Ray shaping up? The only reason Memory Stick is sold at all is because Sony devices require it. Nobody else uses it; its price and performance characteristics make it a loser.

I know, I know: Sony helped invent the Compact Disc standard, then successfully licensed it. But Phillips handled the licensing (and much of the technology) for that, did it intelligently, and consequently avoided dooming the format to proprietary obscurity.

It's a beautiful dream, locking people into a format you own and then squeezing money out of them. But it doesn't work anymore. It'd be nice if the Sonys (and Apples) of the world would knock it off, rather than stranding their customers with useless devices every half decade.

comments [8] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
pity the poor kaloogian politics  - tech

Oh, Howie, Howie, Howie. First you post a picture of Turkey and claim that it's peaceful, kite-flyin', tube-top-wearin' Baghdad. But sadly, people recognize subtle, seemingly impossible-to-notice inconsistencies — things like, oh, say, Turkish writing. Suspicions are raised. And then bloggers find a different photo of the same street corner, taken from another perspective, on PhotosOfTurkeyNotIraq.com (or something similar). The jig is utterly up.

What to do? Damage control. Blame an intern, put up a shot from your REAL Baghdad vacation, and apologize for the misunderstanding. It's a not-very-convincing aerial shot, but hey, it's something.

Except whoops! Looks like you didn't scrub the metadata from the new shot. Turns out the photo was taken on July 13, 2005. Which, it seems safe to say, probably doesn't qualify as occurring during your "recent" trip.

Also, now your website is down. Not the greatest example of an effective online political strategy, I'm afraid.

Metadata, kids. It bit the Post in the ass, too. If you're trying to hide something online, talk to a nerd first.

UPDATE: The date might match up after all. Apparently the guy just has a liberal definition of "recent".

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 28, 2006
March 28, 2006
something, anything tech

Wow. What a spectacularly unproductive evening. I got sidetracked helping a new acquaintance set up a VNC/SSH setup, and even that didn't work.

So it's now 1AM, because god dammit I was determined to get something productive accomplished. So, here: the promised GreaseMonkey script. If you use Movable Type (and configure the include path to point at the URL for your installation(s)), this will autosave your work every five seconds, guarding against the browser crashes that we could avoid by responsibly writing entries in text editors, but don't. To restore your work, just bring up a MT entry editing screen and press the button that will magically appear near the top of the screen.

It ought to keep separate drafts for each individual MT weblog you work on, but that functionality hasn't really been tested. I'd doublecheck before relying on it.

This is for MT only, I'm afraid — it's what this site and DCist both use. It should be pretty trivial to adapt to other blogging platforms, though, if anyone's so inclined. Also, it's written for MT version 3.2 — I have no idea if it'll work with other versions, but it might be worth a shot.

UPDATE: Whoops! Found a major bug wherein a new, blank entry would overwrite your saved draft within a few seconds of bringing it up. That'd make this pretty useless, huh? Well, it's fixed now. Your in-memory draft will only be erased if you type something into one of the blank fields on a new entry form.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 27, 2006
March 27, 2006
i am going to kill everyone bitching  - tech

Seriously now: I'm on cell phone number 2 and cell phone cable number 3, and I STILL can't get Gammu working. Right now I'm trying to work off of these instructions, but it's not even clear that the thread's participants had success. And, to be honest, I'm not following all the instructions — compiling custom kernel modules seems a little advanced, but I suppose I'll give it a shot eventually.

Anyway, I'm officially running crying back to mommy, aka the project listserv. They haven't been able to help me out yet, but the current batch of Nokia crap was bought on their recommendation, so I'm doing my best to maintain my trademark childlike optimism.

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 20, 2006
March 20, 2006
making your life slightly easier tech

Internet goodness:

  • Transpodder — when combined with a podcatching setup — will download your favorite shows via Bittorrent, transcode them to an iPod Video-friendly format, and provide an RSS feed so that iTunes can keep your iPod synched up. Slick.

  • co.mments has an awful, awful web 2.0 (stoopd) name, but a good idea. Sign up, subscribe to a personalized RSS feed, and add a bookmarklet to your web browser. Then when you next find yourself leaving a comment somewhere, hit the bookmarklet button. The conversation will be marked and periodically checked by co.mments, which will let you know about new entries via RSS. Unfortunately, co.mments seems kind of slow about checking up on conversations — and using the personal RSS feed via Bloglines makes it really, REALLY slow. But if you use a desktop newsreader, you might find it useful.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 19, 2006
March 19, 2006
victory! tech

It looks like the Xbox 360 has been cracked. Check out the video:

It's true that another 360 could be plugged into the back of the TV. But word on the forums is that the video's author has a good reputation and the technical chops to have pulled this off. Plus, much of the work leading up to the breakthrough occurred in a public online forum. As of right now the verdict of the usually-dubious Xbox hacking scene is that this is probably the real deal.

The exploit is a little different from those that were used on the original Xbox. Instead of the BIOS being subverted, the DVD-ROM's firmware was modified to prevent it from telling the difference between a burned and pressed disc. MS beefed up the security on the parts of the system that had been attacked on the XB1; that console's DVD firmware was cracked, but very late in the system's lifecycle. By all appearances, MS didn't see this class of attack coming.

The downside: because the rest of the system remains secure, unsigned code still can't be run. So this hack is really only useful for playing backups — aka pirated games. Cool apps like emulators and media players are still out of reach.

The other fly in the ointment: the hack hasn't been publicly released. "TheSpecialist" and the rest of the developers might legitimately not want to foster piracy — or they may just fear Microsoft. But either way, their notes are available for all the world to see. Given that, I doubt it'll be very long until we see a mass-market mod of some sort for the 360.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 17, 2006
March 17, 2006
all the best ideas explode in balls of hellfire tech

Don't get me wrong: the new Macbook Pros look pretty sweet. Yglesias bought one after his Powerbook got pinched, and it's a beautiful machine. But most of the new features don't thrill me. Matt reports that the integrated iSight is tough to aim. And Apple has long ago spent all their credibility when it comes to the relative merits of different processor architectures.

No, the one feature that really got me excited was the new magnetic power connector. And now Gizmodo has a report of one of them catching on fire. Sigh. Here's hoping this is just a weird aberration.

comments [5] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 09, 2006
March 09, 2006
settled for a sunburst with a crack tech

cracked nokiaWell, my star-crossed SMS project continues to trundle along. I've had to give up on my beloved T39 — it's just not working out between us. So I bought this Nokia 3100 off of Ebay for 99 cents (+ $10 shipping). That white blotch on the right side of its screen isn't glare; it's a big ol' crack in the LCD. In real life it's neon pink and looks vaguely like a pornographic cartoon.

It arrived in the mail today, loosely wrapped in newspaper. Thanks for the care, anonymous Ebay guy. In return I'll refrain from calling all of your definitely-not-deleted contacts and leaving obscene messages.

I headed off to Eport World, the slightly weird cellphone emporium down the street, to pick up a charger and a cable.

I'm a sucker. If I'd read the documentation a little more carefully, I'd know that any cable except the official Nokia one will work under Linux. Naturally, I ended up with the genuine article, which is totally useless on non-Windows machines. Worse, Eport World's return policy is nonexistent (I asked). So it looks like I'm out $25. D'oh. My only hope is to lean on the goodwill I earned by explaining my project to the guys there. The clerks were clearly in need of friendly cell phone nerd/computer nerd interaction and started quizzing me about posting to blogs via SMS. Here's hoping they don't actually use the email address I left — I'm pretty well tech-supported out at the moment.

So it's back to Ebay, I guess. Attention, googling cell phone hackers: you need a DKU-5 cable with a PL2303 chip in it. 2303 I say!

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 08, 2006
March 08, 2006
you call that scaring readers? tech

Pfft. I can produce way more boring posts than that.

To wit: I just got done adding a Drupal module to the company's open source offerings. Now, not only is it likely that none of you who aren't coworkers know what Drupal is, but any of you who do will probably find this module astoundingly useless. It creates a live tag cloud. Which, for anything but a huge flurry of folksonomic activity, will look a lot like an, um, normal tag cloud.

But! In the course of massively over-engineering this thing, I actually ended up using the Prototype Javascript library. And since the number of you who occasionally write JS may be non-zero, I should take a moment to sing its praises. I thought it was just an AJAX library, but no — it really makes a lot of things much, much easier (and with basically guaranteed compatibility). Some people say it's too large, but to them I say: shhh.

Its biggest problem is that it seems to be somewhat sparsely documented compared to its offspring Scriptaculous. But this article does a decent job of showing off its basic features, and providing enough code for you to get started.

Finally: I've mentioned it before, but if you're applying lots of event handlers to elements, consider Behaviour.

UPDATE: From the linked article, JQuery also looks pretty promising. And I might as well include the code for one of my all-time favorite JS functions, a method for safely adding OnLoad functions. It's behind the cut. Apologies to whoever the original author is.

MORE...
comments [7] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 04, 2006
March 04, 2006
links! links links links! misc  - tech

  1. Scott sent me this video of Sims-creator Will Wright demonstrating his new project, Spore, at the Game Developers Conference. The video is 35 minutes long, but he's demonstrating new functionality throughout all of it. The game looks flat-out amazing. It revolves around guiding the evolution of a species from its existence as a single cell to colonizing the galaxy — all with complete flexibility and customization. The way your species walks, dances, develops a culture and builds structures are all emergent behavior that comes from algorithms examining your choices, rather than canned actions. This is the most excited I've been about a videogame in a while — if it were anyone but Wright, I'd think this was just a slick demo. But he seems likely to have actually pulled this off.

  2. Catherine sent me this real-life Simpsons intro, via waxy. Awesome.

  3. This and this are probably the clearest, simplest explanation of Fourier Series that I've ever seen (admittedly, that may not be saying much). Perhaps not everyone's cup of tea, but I find it kind of fascinating. This is the essential mathematical insight that allows digital compression of analog information. Without it MP3s, digital video, our modern phone system, JPEGs, and a whole bunch of other essential stuff wouldn't exist.

UPDATE: Fixed the Spore link.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 03, 2006
March 03, 2006
the slippery slope is looking like a cliff tech

One of the things I've been helping out with at work is the setup for DearAOL.com, an open letter/petition put together by the EFF to oppose AOL's recent adoption of a premium email service. The idea is that users can pay a small premium to have their email bypass spam filters. The spam filters could then be tightened up, and spammers would be dissuaded from plying their noxious trade.

The problem is that this would also affect groups like MoveOn, as well as a vast array of email-heavy businesses. Yes, there are supposed to be one-year exceptions for the MoveOns of the world; no, there are no guarantees. And the basic point made by the EFF — that under this scenario AOL will have a financial incentive to do a poor job maintaining its unpaid-email-spamfilters — seems basically sound to me.

But people seem to have mixed feelings about this initiative. Hurting online advocates would be bad, but spam is pretty bad, too. In a perfect world we'd pay the email toll computationally, donating time to worthy causes through SETI@home-style computing. But botnets make that idea useless.

I'm inclined to agree with something our CTO JP said at work: this issue is more about precedent than the merits of the AOL scheme.

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comments [6] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
techcrunch tech

I like you, TechCrunch. I really do — you're a great way to keep up on what's cutting-edge. And certainly you can't be blamed for nearly everyone you profile failing and going out of business — that's just the nature of bubbly bubble boosterism.

But sometimes it seems like you're just making shit up:

I expect Ether to ramp quickly towards success, and it will be extremely hard for competitors to enter the space given the capital intensive infrastructure needed to do something like this.

"Something like this" refers to Ether's gameplan: selling ad-hoc expert services over the phone. But the "capital intensive infrastructure"? That'd be, um, voice over IP. Which, it turns out, isn't very capital intensive at all these days, unless for some reason you insist on building and maintaining your PSTN gateway yourself. But why would you do that?

So yeah: lease some space in a datacenter, talk to a bank about processing credit cards, then start setting up Asterisk boxes. This ain't the Apollo program (although it's still a neat idea).

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
February 28, 2006
February 28, 2006
yay nerds tech

everyone knows the people behind 37signals are smart (who doesn't use backpackit, or writeboard, or any number of their easy-to-use online tools?). but who knew they were KINDA HOTT. ? not me.

chicagoist has an interview with them today. it's pretty good reading.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
February 27, 2006
February 27, 2006
for the photographers photos  - tech

My SMS project remains in limbo — the Gammu project maintainer and I have been emailing back and forth, but I'm not optimistic about getting the software working with my phone. Most likely I'll have to buy a cheap, old, maximally-compatible model off of Ebay. Oh well. I'll give him another week.

Other projects are also frustrating: my VGA to NTSC converter has mysteriously died, putting the planned Linux reinstall on hold until I collect a monitor. I owe everyone a final Python tutorial, but more for the sake of completeness than anything else — I think I underestimated the scope of the project. I'm not feeling up to it quite yet.

So, lacking anything immediate that I can work on (or, more accurately, that I want to work on), I'm thinking about learning ActionScript, Flash's built-in language. Mostly I just want to screw around with Flashr and write something that talks to Flickr — a little slideshow for the sidebar that automatically grabs new photos from Catherine & my photostreams, maybe? That'd be kind of neat.

Anyway, in the course of looking through other people's code I came across SimpleViewer. It's not what I want — it's a full-featured photo gallery, not a sidebar widget. Besides, what I'm after most is a learning exercise. But it is a pretty slick slideshow app. And it's free! Any photographers out there (I know there are at least a couple) could do worse than to use this on their portfolio sites. Those of us unconcerned with publication rights and hotlinking ought to eschew the razzle-dazzle and stick with permalink-able formats, of course.

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
the case of the missing gtalk tech

has anyone else's gmail chat function gone missing in the past few days? mine disappeared last week and I WANT IT BACK.

comments [5] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
February 22, 2006
February 22, 2006
dear gmail tech

This new "DHTML chat window popping up in gmail whenever someone IMs me thing"?

SHIT HAS GOT TO GO.

comments [8] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
February 21, 2006
February 21, 2006
sms-related things i learned tonight tech

I'm really just working this stuff out for my own benefit. You should ignore it unless you're working on something similar. Seriously.

MORE...
comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
this week in thievery tech

I've been meaning to write something quick about the state of console hacking, but kept getting sidetracked. Might as well do it now, before the news gets completely stale:

Xbox 360
Xplorer360 was released a little over a week ago. The app lets folks read and write to the Xbox 360's hard drive — but don't get too excited. The hard drive isn't encrypted, it's just in a mildly exotic format. This is a useful tool, but not a breakthrough in and of itself.

In other Xbox news, the "kiosk disc" was disabled by the latest Xbox Live update. You might remember me talking about it before — the disc was electronically distributed to retailers for them to play in display units. But recipients were expected to burn the disc image to a DVD-R, bypassing the console's usual prohibition on playing writeable media — this made it an intriguing means by which hackers could potentially inject their own code. The executable files were still encrypted, but the media assets (an in particular, Flash files) weren't and could be replaced. All of this looked like a promising, if less-than-surefire way to find an exploit on the 360. Sadly, that avenue is now closed for anyone with an up-to-date system.

Nintendo DS
But although the news for the 360 crowd isn't as encouraging as it might have first seemed, owners of the Nintendo DS now have more capabilities than they used to. Via BoingBoing I learned of the PassMe, a slick add-on for the DS. But BB got their facts slightly wrong — the PassMe isn't the only thing you need to hack up a DS.

Actually, all the PassMe does is transparently pass traffic back and forth to a genuine DS game (necessary because of the platform's encryption) — with one exception. When it sees a specific instruction — one that tells the DS to begin executing at an address corresponding to the beginning of the DS cartridge — it rewrites it, telling the console to go to the Gameboy slot instead... in which you presumably have a writeable flash cartridge (aka "flash cart") onto which you've loaded your hacked applications.

There are a lot of flash carts available for the Gameboy Advance, and they're all roughly compatible with the DS. But if you want to play "commercial backups" (aka pirated DS games), you'll need to use one of two specific brands, and you'll need to use some custom hacked ROMs that have been released by a group called Golden Sun. You can find details on all of this here.

So, sadly, the cost of modding your GBA isn't as cheap as the $20 PassMe, despite what BoingBoing thought. You also need one of those two brands of flash cart, which will run you another $125-150. For once, piracy doesn't come cheap.

And hey, while I'm at it...

PSP
It's cracked yet again. I can't afford a PSP, and don't really want one, so I haven't been tracking this particularly carefully. But last I checked, you can run homebrew apps, emulators and commercial backups on all firmware revisions.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
beta bleg tech  - travel

Consumerist brings news that TechCrunch (which appears to be down at the moment) has just reviewed the private beta of a service called FlySpy. It looks fairly neat — enter your origin and destination cities, and get back a graph of fare prices for the coming month. You can overlay graphs for different airports, adjust parameters, and generally short-circuit the airlines' confusing pricing schemes.

Or that's what it looks like, anyway (there's a screenshot on Consumerist). The site is still in closed beta. So, on the off chance that anyone has invite capabilities... yeah. Drop me a line.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
February 19, 2006
February 19, 2006
movable type, apache redirects, justifications for wasted time blog  - tech

Among the many things I like about my new job is that it's given me the opportunity to learn a bunch of new technologies. Email triggers, .htaccess files, SVN repositories, XML, and of course the power to raise the dead (from the command line!) — lots of good stuff.

And useful stuff. For instance, this morning I finally fixed out broken archive URLs. Movable Type 2.66whatever built entries in the format

  • /blog/archives/000001.php
  • /blog/archives/000002.php
  • etc.

But since the upgrade to 3.2, we've switched to a more useful format, oriented around a value that MT generates called the basename (which is basically an abbreviated, URL-safe version of the title). The new URLs look like this:

  • /blog/archives/2004/01/22/round_the_world/
  • /blog/archives/2005/12/16/sweet_nostalgia/

The problem is that there are still lots of links to the old URLs, both within entries on this site and elsewhere. That's no good, since they don't get rebuilt when new comments are added, or when their entries are updated, or when we redesign, or when anything else happens on the site.

But now I can do something about it. And since it took me a few hours, and since it might help someone else, I thought I'd post my solution.

MORE...
comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
February 18, 2006
February 18, 2006
interposse media  - tech

Today's Post has a an interesting profile of a botnet operator — one of those jerks who remotely infects computers, amassing swarms of enslaved machines that are then used to send spam, extort websites, steal information and generally do nasty things. The subject remains anonymous, only identifying himself as a high school dropout living in a small midwestern town. The three businesses closest to his house are also mentioned, but not named.

Except — whoops! It looks like the Post failed to scrub its photos very carefully. Within thirty minutes of the story being picked up by Slashdot, a user had noticed that the Post's photos contained metadata saying "Location: Roland, OK". Which, as you may have deduced, is a small midwestern town (pop. 3000). Another slashdot commenter googled for the businesses mentioned and was able to take a guess at the intersection where the guy lives.

Pride goeth before the fall and all that, I suppose. Have fun in jail, asshole.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
February 14, 2006
February 14, 2006
kind of inevitable tech

I've got an idea for what I think would be a fairly neat DC-centric SMS application. I don't want to tip my hand just yet, but once the serial cable that I just ordered for my old t39 wings its way to me, I'll provide some more info. For now, though, some things I've figured out about sending text messages from your Linux computer:

  • Asterisk is neat (and likely to make knowledgeable techs a lot of money in the near future), but not really necessary for SMS. Most of the docs for it deal with using FastSMS, a custom SMS gateway that requires no hardware but costs about five cents/message. That's overkill for little guys like myself, though. I think it might make more sense to just run one of the programs mentioned below externally to Asterisk if you need less-than-heavy duty SMS capabilities. In my case, that means I won't be running Asterisk at all.

  • A cheaper alternative is to buy an old GSM phone off of Ebay and hook it up to your computer's serial port with an appropriate cable. It should then be able to act like a modem. Figure out what software you're going to use before deciding on a model. Avoid connecting to the phone with Bluetooth or USB — they just confuse the situation. Also, think about T-Mobile's Sidekick Data Only plan, which only runs $30/month and offers unlimited text messages.

  • I've got some links to relevant software here. Of these, Gnokii currently appears to be the most impressive (but is poorly documented). Also, don't miss this list, which links to a lot of SMS software for Linux.

  • Teleflip can't help you receive SMSes, so it's not quite what I want. But it does look neat. yourphonenumber@teleflip.com will automatically figure out your wireless carrier and send an email to their email-to-SMS gateway. For example, phonenumber@tmomail.net lets you SMS T-Mobile customers. The format/address is different for every carrier, though — Teleflip just figures this out for you and forwards your email along. It's free, but only works for North American numbers.

  • I'd be remiss if I didn't mention MoLoGoGo, which has nothing to do with SMS, but lets you track your GPS position by remote using a free app loaded onto a $80 Boost Mobile phone. And it now exports your location information to XML! I'm pretty desperate to figure out a way to do something useful with this. So far, no dice.
comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
February 12, 2006
February 12, 2006
he started out as little brother, you know tech

Via Slashdot: a Cincinatti company is requiring that its employees receive injected RFID chips in order to gain access to the corporate datacenter. Workers won't get fired if they say no, but one has to wonder what effect declining the injection might have on a person's career. Not a good one, I'm guessing.

I should work myself up into a righteous dudgeon, throw around some inflammatory superlatives and send everyone to the EFF's donation page. But honestly, I just feel a sort of giddy thrill about this. It's the same feeling as in the moment when a rollercoaster crests its first hill: we're on the verge of something bad, and completely powerless to stop it.

And, on that dogmatic pro-privacy note, allow me to inform you that we're now tracking you in new and terrifying ways. Well, okay, not that terrifying — we just put our RSS feed into Feedburner. Look! It's all pretty now!

I set up a forwarder so that you shouldn't have to change any settings in your newsreader. But I thought I'd mention the change, lest anyone freak out over the newly omnipresent Feedburner URLs in our RSS.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
February 06, 2006
February 06, 2006
30 boxes tech

looking for a new, fun, web-based calendar? give 30 boxes a try. it's more interesting than other web-based calendar apps out there in my opinion because of the social networking feature in which you can keep track of your buddies' schedules and vice versa. you can read a review of it here. let me know if you join so i can add you as a buddy!

UPDATE: actually, the more i browse this program the more i realize i probably won't use it that much unless it really gets a lot of other users that are my friends. the ajax stuff is neat but unless the social networking stuff (and yes i realize what a retarded buzzword that is) really pans out, it's not really better than any other calendar app out there...anyway, we'll see!

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
February 02, 2006
February 02, 2006
so many animal calls misc  - tech

It's not like me, but the siren song of the link roundup cannot be denied. Apologies to everyone I'm ripping off:

  • The first thing I've heard about Google that genuinely worries me. Solution here.

  • The second-best CafePress shirt I've seen.

  • The third awesome crochet thing I've learned about (#1: multidimensional crochet branes, #2: Valerie talking about stabbing people last Tuesday).

  • Four: the bullet entry where I abandon this stupid numbering scheme. But check it out: $560, well-reviewed 30" LCD HDTV, Microcenter (B&M only). Who am I to resist? So much for the new austerity.

  • Verizon FiOS service blocks more ports than regular DSL. This is done to keep you from running a webserver on your home connection — the link is fast enough that you could get away with it for small sites, and Verizon doesn't want to supply that much bandwidth unless you're paying for business-class service. Fair enough, but it puts a damper on my hopes of fiber service — I like to run SSH over 443, since it provides a nice mixture of accessibility-from-behind-firewalls and not-getting-attacked-by-chinese-hackers-every-night. Dreams, shattered, etc. Sigh.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
February 01, 2006
February 01, 2006
in retrospect music  - tech

I'm planning to go to the Hold Steady show tonight, which has gotten me thinking about the band, which has gotten me thinking about its music, which has made me realize that it's a real tragedy that their latest album's final track didn't exist when the title for this article was being composed.

Yeah, I know. I can't believe I'm this immature, either.

(as Kriston points out: NSFW)

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
January 29, 2006
January 29, 2006
tommy's version of hell tech

or, trying to explain python to your hungover english major girlfriend:

pablohoney: functions look hard
halgernon: The words if then else and while all make sense in english
pablohoney: you say we already know one way to make variables contain mult values but i don't, what is it?
halgernon: Arrays are the way
pablohoney: oh yeah duh
halgernon: You could set different indexes in the array to the values you need to return
halgernon: Then return the array
pablohoney: that sentence makes no sense to me
halgernon: Ok, lemme rephrase
halgernon: If you had three values to return from a function
pablohoney: ok
halgernon: Like, let's say you had a LookUpShoe() function
halgernon: That you pass a model number
halgernon: And you want to return whether it's a mens or womens shoe, and the color
halgernon: You could say
halgernon: ShoeData = ['male','black']
halgernon: return ShoeData
halgernon: Make sense?
pablohoney: yes but i think my problem is that i dont understand programming at all
pablohoney: like where would y ou put that shoedata thing?
halgernon: It'll come back
pablohoney: i'm sure your tutorial is wonderful but i don't know if anyone with zero programming experience can understand it
pablohoney: at least, me
halgernon: That'd come in a function
halgernon: Yeah I was trying to walk a line between the programmers and new people
halgernon: But maybe I should take a step back and explain things more carefully
pablohoney: no, then you'd have to speak like you were talking to a retard
pablohoney: everyone else who is interested gets it fine i think
...
halgernon: Anyway, I think you will get it if you just ask questions
pablohoney: well you're nice to explain it to your girlfriend
halgernon: I appreciate that you want to learn my geeky stuff
halgernon: Seriously
pablohoney: it's HARD though
pablohoney: it's like a different way of thinking
halgernon: You'll get it, you're a brilliant girl
pablohoney: haha ok
halgernon: But that's the thing, once you get used to it it all snaps into place
pablohoney: this is coming from the girl who only got through high school senior computer science by manipulating the nerdy boy who sat next to her
halgernon: Well that option is still available
pablohoney: hehe
pablohoney: i can't have you cheat for me this time
pablohoney: i will learn python, goddammit
pablohoney: even if you constantly have to come up with shopping analogies to get me to understand
halgernon: I didn't do that to tailor it to you, actually
pablohoney: uh huh
halgernon: Shoes were just what came to mind
halgernon: And then I thought "shit, she'll think I'm being patronizing"
pablohoney: yes
pablohoney: but then i was like, ooh shoes

comments [10] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
January 25, 2006
January 25, 2006
dance dance resolution science  - tech

Nicole points me to news that West Virginia is installing DDR in its middle schools in order to fight childhood obesity. Neat. I remember seeing the news of the pilot study last April, but I never suspected it'd result in an actual, widely-deployed fitness program. Lucky fat kids.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
January 24, 2006
January 24, 2006
iso: iso personal  - tech

Okay, not an ISO, really — I need the original disc. We're perilously close to successfully softmodding Kriston and Matt's Xbox. All we need is one of the flawed games that open the door to videogame mischief. Sadly, the local Blockbuster doesn't stock any of these (they're too old). So I thought I might as well ask here. If anyone in the DC area has a copy of MechAssault, 007: Agent Under Fire or the original Splinter Cell and wouldn't mind parting with it for an afternoon, let me know. It's got to be the original version, I'm afraid, not the edition released under the "Xbox Classics" brand. Thanks in advance.

comments [7] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
January 23, 2006
January 23, 2006
i take back the ungrateful bitch thing tech

this seems to me like an especially good and worthy use of the internet's social networking potential...besides the ability to find random sex partners, ride shares, couches for sale and the like.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
sluternet bitching  - tech

all the free wifi connections in my apartment complex in chicago, which i had been stealing for the past four months, suddenly ran out yesterday.

it is a dire situation. i did not realize how much i loved the internet until now, coming up on my third hour in caribou coffee, where i am paying for the privilege to a) drink weak tea b) surf blogs and do homework. i love it so because i am subjecting myself to this pukehole of a fake log cabin, where i'm pretty sure i just heard the fourth different rendition of "i've got you uder my skin" in the past 45 minutes. either that, or i'm living in the matrix.

pray for me.

pablohoney: sigh, i am tired, but do not want to retreat to my den of no internet
pablohoney: i do not think i can live w/o the internet
pablohoney: it's one of the great love stories of our time
friend: wow sounds like it
friend: and yet, it just doesn't love you back
pablohoney: i know
pablohoney: ungrateful bitch

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
January 16, 2006
January 16, 2006
ptunnel tech

I've been meaning to post this for a while: ptunnel is an application that allows you to tunnel internet traffic over ICMP pings. Allow me to explain why this is cool.

Pings are the simplest way of testing connectivity over the internet. They're part of a protocol called ICMP that's used for diagnostic purposes and little else. Ptunnel reimplements TCP/IP b— the internet's main protocol — by tacking your messages' content onto the end of pings. You run a server on another machine that receives the tunnelled packets, converts them to normal internet traffic, sends them out, gets a response, and sends it back to you over the ICMP tunnel.

Why is this useful? Mostly, it's not. But ICMP is frequently the only thing that can get through airport/coffee shop-style wifi hotspots prior to purchasing time with a credit card. ICMP traffic is allowed through because doing so makes service technicians' lives easier. Now that fun fact can make your life slightly cheaper.

I haven't tested it myself, though. The problem is that you need to run ptunnel on a server that can receive ICMP — and most consumer routers aren't designed to let you forward ICMP traffic from the internet to machines on your LAN. I suppose I could make my linux server the network's DMZ host, but that would result in all incoming TCP traffic getting through, as well. Given the lousy passwords I have on my mp3 shared directories, that's not a great idea. Besides, even with a DMZ set I'm not sure that the router wouldn't just answer the incoming pings itself.

Maybe I'll try to get ptunnel running on the router itself — it is a Linux machine in its own right, after all. It would be pretty fun to see if Starbucks can be beaten this way.

comments [6] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
January 10, 2006
January 10, 2006
endless possibilities, none of which i can think of tech

How is it that I haven't heard of gumstix before? Linux machines the size of a stick of gum that run off of 5V power supplies... wow. One of those suckers + wifi expansion + AirSnarf + clever concealment at a wifi-enabled cafe = all kinds of mayhem. You can get a lot done with 200MHz.

And, for the less nefarious, here's where I saw the link: a magic random wifi iTunes player. Neat!

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
hax0rz D.C.  - misc  - tech

My interview with the Shmoo Group is up on DCist, if anyone's interested in reading it. Their DC-based convention kicks off on Friday. I would've loved to have gone (esp. after they offered me a press pass so I wouldn't have to shell out hundreds of dollars). But this weekend I'll be in Chicago instead, having an even better time (albeit a slightly less nerdy one). Oh well — next year, I guess.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
January 03, 2006
January 03, 2006
attn: dorks tech

Three quick tech things.

  1. Bunnie Huang, the man commonly credited with cracking the Xbox 1, has some things to say about the burnable XB360 disc I wrote about last week. Nothing particularly new, but he summarizes the exploit approaches that were being suggested — and offers some expert confirmation that this burnable disc is a track worth pursuing.
  2. If one wanted to — hypothetically — help set up his mom with DirecTV, and he hypothetically had a spare hypothetical satellite receiver, and her house already boasted a DirecTV dish, could he just activate the receiver @ $5/month on his account and plug it in for her? Or is there something that ties the receiver to the dish (the hypothetical one)? Remember kids: cable theft is a real and serious crime, even when there's no cable.
  3. I'm interviewing someone from the Shmoo Group for DCist, so if anyone has anything intelligent they'd like to ask them, let me know.

comments [5] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 27, 2005
December 27, 2005
imminent destruction tech

In their rush to launch the Xbox 360, Microsoft had some trouble getting its act together. One of the consequences of this was uneven distribution of demo discs to retailers. In fact, it looks like they were so rushed that they accidentally released an unsecured disc — one that can be ripped, read, traded, burned and played in consumer 360s without any special hardware or cryptographic measures.

I couldn't say whether this will provide the exploit that cracks the 360 wide open, but it looks very promising. The next step will be for hackers to hollow out the files on this disc image, inserting their own code and using it to expose the machine's secrets. Something similar happened with the Dreamcast — it's a Pandora's Box kind of situation. If I'm reading the situation correctly, I'd expect to see some significant developments occur very quickly.

On the other hand, this is the kind of exploit loophole that can probably be closed in future hardware revisions -- which we'll no doubt see, given the machine's current bugginess. If I had to guess, I'd say this'll let crackers get their foot in the door on the 360's launch, but that door will be slammed shut sometime soon thereafter.

UPDATE: Nevermind. The code is signed, it's just that the "media flags" have been turned off, telling the machine it's allowed to play the content from a burned DVDR. So the executable files still can't be changed — but it has been confirmed that at least some of the media files can be. Now the trick will be to see whether any of the executables are susceptible to buffer overflow exploits inserted into the media assets. I believe XB360 uses some kind of virtual environment to prevent overflows, so I'm not particularly optimistic about this.

Analogy time: there's a man in a locked room who does nothing but read books. We want to make him do what we want. Normally the room is locked (content cannot be run from writeable DVDs because of the media locks). Now, suddenly, the room is open. But we still can't harm or influence the man (the executable code is cryptographically signed). All we can do is replace what he's reading (unsigned media files). Most of the time he'll read our replacement books and say "this is gibberish"; sometimes he'll read them, take them in but not be seriously affected. But if he has some sort of mental defect (programming error) and can be upset by just the right combination of words, we can reduce him to a blithering mess (buffer overflow) and get him to do our bidding (run arbitrary code).

Needless to say, the odds on a) him having this weakness and b) us finding it are rather long. But it's possible.

Creepy analogy, I know, but it's the best I could come up with.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 26, 2005
December 26, 2005
tech tidbits tech

I can never share the gospel of Attack of the Show with anyone besides Charles because a) Comcast doesn't carry G4 and b) there aren't enough colossal dorks around here. But if you've got DirecTV and a computer, you really ought to watch. Parts may be completely incomprehensible to those not yet beyond redemption, but the cast has enough charm and wit to keep everything moving. Right now I'm watching their year-end Best Of The Cons show, and it's pretty entertaining. But then, I'm the kind of guy who geeks out when he sees Scott Moschella or Phillip Torrone on camera.

Speaking of cons, here's something Defcon-y: TEMPEST phreaking. Remote viewing of television screens by detection of the radio frequency noise they emit was just a rumor back in the bad old BBS days, when I and scores of other antisocial geeks spent their evenings debating whether ymodem or zmodem was the superior protocol for transferring copies of the Anarchist's Cookbook amongst ourselves. Later on I heard mutterings about the government's standards for RF shielding in secret facilities; and it was hard to miss those signs in various defense contractor conference rooms explaining which TVs could be used to display secret material and which could not. Now, a real-world example: download this program, stick a radio in front of your monitor, and point the app at an mp3. It'll display patterns on the screen that are designed to produce waste noise that'll be picked up by the radio. You're playing an mp3 out of your monitor! If you can do this with the junk you've got hanging around your house, it seems like a safe bet that dedicated hackers can see what's on your television from behind a wall or across a street.

Unfortunately I haven't got any computer CRTs hanging around — and although televisions have the same vulnerability, the odds of this working with a laptop-to-TV setup seems unlikely anough that I'm not prepared to expend the effort hooking everything up (North American (NTSC) TVs are interlaced and have different refresh rates than monitors — the noise they produce would be very different). So I haven't given it a shot myself. Still, it looks pretty cool.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 25, 2005
December 25, 2005
almost certainly bullshit tech

But I desperately want to believe this.

(Also: Merry Christmas, etc.)

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 21, 2005
December 21, 2005
achievement! tech

It probably doesn't help to preface this post with a tale of running crying to our webhost's helpdesk — but still, last night's happy hour represented a new frontier in personal geekiness.

"So," says Jeff, "I'd kind of like to see the first season of The Wire."

Well, my good friend, allow me to ignore you and start playing with my cell phone. I'll browse to the pirate bay, find and copy a torrent link to the clipboard, SSH to the server at home, wget the .torrent to the directory that Azureus checks every 15 seconds and BANG! It's sort of like I've accomplished something. The illusion is nearly almost convincing.

This is some kind of threshold. I know things probably can get nerdier, but I'm not yet sure exactly how. Hopefully I'll figure it out before I apply for this.

ALSO: It turns out that Movable Type 3.2 chokes on entries that include the word "wget". Which is pretty stupid, if you ask me.

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
all better tech

That was a scary five minutes.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 19, 2005
December 19, 2005
dell tech

i know a lot was made of jeff jarvis' dell hell saga, but i just wanted to note: i had a completely fine and pleasant experience with the dell customer service when my laptop monitor went all dead baby on me. yes, it sucked, having my monitor break about six months after i bought it, but everyone i spoke to on the phone was very friendly and helpful, and i though i did have to send my laptop in, it was picked up immediately and returned to me in 3-5 business days, just like they told me it would be. shrug. maybe it's cause i used my flirty-confused-girl voice on the phone when speaking with all the reps. it usually works wonders.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
December 13, 2005
December 13, 2005
drm: done right, (a) motherfucker tech

I've talked in the past about reasons for concern about our ability to beat DRM systems. But I didn't make my case as well as I could have. So go read this — a very, very good post explaining why rosy optimism about amateur hackers' future success against Big Content is a less than sure thing.

Securing content on x86 is hopeless. But as processors inevitably get cheaper, faster and more ubiquitous, x86 will handle less and less of our computing. The systems that replace it will largely be either a) not general purpose, and therefore less documented/harder to access or b) properly secured.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
lobotomizing the smartrip D.C.  - tech

I recently took apart a SmarTrip card — one of the RFID-based farecards that work on DC's buses and subways (and subway parking lots!). Those interested can have a look at a Flickr set of the proceedings here. A detailed writeup should be appearing on DCist soon (possibly tomorrow), so keep an eye out for that. My goal is to get this thing reliably mounted on my keychain, freeing my wallet of the SmarTrip card and bringing my ass one precious millimeter closer to seated equilibrium.

UPDATE: The longer DCist version is now online.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
an ftp recommendation tech

Finding a good FTP client is irritating. FTP is the type of thing that's almost worth leaving to the command line, but does benefit from a minimal GUI. But as soon as a good program becomes popular its authors decide they need to fill it with spyware, fees and unnecessary features. I used to use WS_FTP, then it stopped being free. I moved to CuteFTP, then its authors made it bloated with crap. I switched to SmartFTP, but it's recently also become filled with junk (and crash-prone).

So now I'm using FileZilla, and I'm pretty pleased with it. It's open source — hopefully the absence of a profit motive will keep it from getting junked up.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 12, 2005
December 12, 2005
new frontiers in nerdery tech

Okay, so it's not a particularly impressive breakthrough — in fact, it's probably most similar to the sorts of idiots who unicycle down mountains, in that the activity is inefficient, slow and likely to result in broken things. But I may be the first person to dynamically generate graphics with Javascript in Greasemonkey! Woo!

Okay, so actually I'm just flipping the pallette information. Still, it's kind of cool. And, to put it in your primitive human language: the Gmail Colorizer script now properly handles messages with up to three labels applied. I've got more work to do before an official release (I plan to add a GUI to help users set colors and assign them to their labels). But if you'd like to check it out, you can find the gif-manipulating goodness here.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 09, 2005
December 09, 2005
whoa tech

Stumbling around the del.icio.us blog, I came across playtagger — a neat little Javascript/Flash hack that lets you play mp3s without leaving a webpage. That's very, very slick, and a complete no-brainer for every band and mp3 blogger. This and Flickr's pre-DHTML interface might be the only two worthwhile uses of Flash, anywhere, ever.

UPDATE: I missed it the first time, but there's also a bookmarklet that'll let little ol' web-browsing you use playtagger on any webpage. I've taken it on a spin through largeheartedboy and been very pleased, although there are plenty of links with stupid redirects that confuse it (I'm looking at you, subpop). Maybe I'll take a look through the JS this weekend and whip up a slightly more universal version.

UPDATE 2: Apparently this post reads as jibberish to most people. So look, give it a try. Here's a link to a Lejeune song. It's just a hyperlink to an mp3, but playtagger adds a magic play button. Cool, huh?

Lejeune - Kubasaki Ha'i

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
yahoo/del.icio.us tech

Today brings a new frontrunner in the "stupidest names in a merger" category: Yahoo! just bought del.icio.us.

Good for them. Yahoo did a lot of stupid, irrelevant things after accidentally becoming the biggest, richest portal on the internet. Then Google showed up and suddenly everyone realized that life isn't all stock options and foosball tables in breakrooms.

But Yahoo's recent moves have been very, very smart. I'm not sure whether the video stuff they're pursuing will pay off, but within the web space they've been making all the right decisions — perhaps best evidenced by their acquisition of Flickr. If they really wanted to complete the trifecta, they'd go make the 37signals folks an offer.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 06, 2005
December 06, 2005
grr tech

Google, I love ya, but this does not sit well:

gmail lockdown message

I haven't been doing anything unusual, so far as I know. Well, there's the GreaseMonkey colorizer script, but that should be invisible from Google's perspective. I suppose it could've been that stupid Gmail conversation preview script — but I didn't think that did anything unless I right-clicked.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 05, 2005
December 05, 2005
screenscraping movable type tech

Have I rhapsodized about Perl yet? Well, I'm going to. The language has been around for ages, but I've always been put off by its godawful syntax. And I still am. But it's just so damn powerful. The stuff you can do with the LWP module alone is staggering -- and that's just one of tens of thousands of modules that can extend the language's capabilities.

The syntax may be horrifying, but once you know how to do something it's simple to do it again. For example, retrieving a web page within even a friendly environment like .NET can be a relatively large pain in the ass. Generally speaking, you've got to initialize an object, use it to make the request, and set up an asynchronous callback to handle the response. With the LWP package you just write $variable = get($url);. That's hot.

For anyone who already uses Perl on a regular basis, my revelation is no doubt extremely banal. But for any vaguely techy types who might delay learning it, like I did: don't. It's way too useful.

With that said, my recent evangelism is motivated by the success I had over the weekend writing a set of scripts to scrape a Movable Type site (that shall remain nameless) off of the web and into a format that can imported into a different MT installation. My scripts are probably too site-specific to be worth releasing (email me if you want em anyway), but here are some general tips for googlers looking to solve the same problem:

  1. Pull down the category archive pages.
  2. Scrape 'em to get out the individual entries' permalinks.
  3. Pull down each individual entry by its permalink.
  4. Strip out the header and footer, but leave the RDF block (it's your friend).
  5. Process the remaining entries for image tags, pulling the files down and rewriting the links to match your new site's URL.
  6. Extract the data necessary to match MT's import format and spit it out into an appropriate text file.

This will all go without saying for anyone who knows what they're doing. For those that don't — hey, it's a starting point. Go read up on your regexes and get cracking.

comments [5] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 02, 2005
December 02, 2005
iso: spl0itz! blog  - tech

If anyone knows how to export the contents of a Movable Type blog to which one has author but not administrator rights, let me know. Otherwise it's a weekend of Perl scripting for me. I guess I need to learn XSLT sooner or later.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
November 29, 2005
November 29, 2005
worth doing right tech

I've taken another pass at the Gmail colorizer greasemonkey script — I'm pretty pleased with it now. Have a look, if you'd like.

comments [5] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
check it tech

Photos of the capabilities that will be found in Tivo's next software release. Traffic reports, weather, movie showtimes and tickets, podcasting — it all looks pretty cool. Back when I had a working MythTV install set up, I was very pleased with how convenient it was to check the weather using the TV remote. For some simple tasks the TV really is a nicer interface — even if there's a laptop sitting right in front of you.

Of course, Charles and I have a DirecTivo, so there's roughly no chance that this upgrade will reach us. As you might know, DirecTV is in the process of rolling out their own cut-rate DVRs, complete with a ridiculous ad campaign that seems to think rewinding live TV is an innovative and unique feature. DirecTivo is soon to be an orphan. I'll be counting on you conventional Tivo users to tell me how awesome all these new electronic geegaws are.

On an even geekier note, allow me to recommend Behaviour to any web developers out there. Very, very slick.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
November 28, 2005
November 28, 2005
let's pretend that tonight was productive tech

My sister emailed asking for webmail recommendations, and of course I sent her a now-superfluous Gmail invite. For some reason this got me thinking about the site, and one feature I wish it had: color-coding of messages. This feature was one of my favorite things about Thunderbird prior to an unfortunate incident involving a massive loss of email and sworn oaths to never use the product again.

But, for the period when I still had my mail, it was easy to set up filters, and quickly tell which messages were from work, which were from the blog, and which were from the various mailing lists to which I'm subscribed. I've got several email accounts pointing at my Gmail address — filtering through the messages at a glance would be handy. And no, I will not just look at the text labels, goddammit.

So I took a crack at making a GreaseMonkey script that provides that Thunderbird-style functionality. Check it out. It color-codes your messages by label. There are only six colors in there at the moment; if you've got more labels than that, some will repeat (and others may be skipped, if they're not present on a page).

It needs some work. Allowing users to customize the colors would be good; so would un-breaking how Gmail highlights rows when you select them. Interested geeks should feel free to have at it.

UPDATE: Wolfson's pointed out that the script ought to be wrapped in an anonymous function. And it appears that when Gmail makes an AJAX callback to check for new mail it drops the formatting. Which means I'll have to dig into Gmail's javascript to figure out which function needs to be overridden in order to reestablish the formatting whenever that check happens. Nuts. Well, it still looks kind of cool.

comments [10] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
November 25, 2005
November 25, 2005
off to the races tech

The Xbox Linux people have already started the Free60 Project, an attempt to get Linux running on the new XB360. Their documentation already contains some interesting tidbits about the machine's architecture. I'm not a hardware geek, but it looks like it's going to be a tough nut to crack. The CPU is designed to check that what it's running comes from Microsoft. That's a more deep-rooted level of trust-checking than was present on the XB1. The previous Xbox's protections could be removed by turning them off via an injected replacement BIOS. This time the checks may have to be fooled rather than simply disabled. They'll no doubt be harder to get to, as well.

At the moment I'd say the smart money would be on the discovery of an exploitable bug in a game showing the pathway to opening up the device. Whether such an exploit will translate into a multipurpose machine as practically useful as a cracked XB1, or simply prove to be a novelty, I couldn't say.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
November 23, 2005
November 23, 2005
whoopsie tech

Looks like the Xbox 360 might have been pushed out of the gate a little early. Some users are reporting crashes, evidence of which can be seen on Flickr. Suddenly I'm not so disappointed about the shortages.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
November 22, 2005
November 22, 2005
home taping is killing the music industry tech

You've doubtless heard about Sony's recent DRM fiasco. Today, word that a piece of tape placed on the CD can defeat the copy protection. So can the holding down the shift key, or turning off autorun, for that matter.

This is all very funny, but I'd encourage people not to conclude what the following Slashdot commenter did:

Really, there's nothing they can do. If someone can create software to copy-protect a CD, some enterprising soul can create software to defeat it.

This is true, but only because it includes the term "CD". At the moment we're lucky to have a popular digital audio standard (Redbook CD) that has no DRM built into its format, and a digital video standard (DVD) with poorly designed security that is now easy to break.

But let's not lull ourselves into a false sense of security. The next generation of digital media will have very strong protections — geeks have won this round because the DRM people were sloppy and at times relied on security through obscurity. That won't happen again. The cracking of the current generation's formats also took place under a lax legislative atmosphere that, post-DMCA, does not exist. And it's only thanks to a relatively small handful of brilliant experts — people like DVD Jon and Bunnie Huang — that we enjoy the digital freedom we currently do. A little disincentive can go a long way. There simply aren't that many sufficiently brilliant people that have to be dissuaded.

It is theoretically possible to make a digital format that is all but uncrackable, and I wouldn't be surprised to see someone succeed at such an implementation. The electronics industry is trying to build DRM into our home entertainment centers and PCs. If they succeed in that effort the situation will be even more bleak. We'll truly be at their mercy.

Yes, the analog hole will always exist. But taking advantage of it requires expertise and some relatively expensive equipment. And the end product will never live up to the source — particularly since the source formats' fidelity gets better with every new release.

Sony looks like a bunch of boobs, but that's largely because the CD format ties their hands. CDs won't be around for ever; neither will Sony's chagrin. This is a battle that is going to have to be fought over and over. Maybe the geeks will save us every time. Congress would only have to do it once.

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
November 20, 2005
November 20, 2005
while I'm at it tech

I hacked together some Javascript for Unfogged to help users (by which I mean me) keep track of their place in the site's fast-paced and sprawling comment threads. It'd be overkill for this site, but I may as well post the code. Perhaps someone else with a big Movable Type site will find it useful. It'd also be easy to adapt to any other HTML page that needs to remember users' scrolled positions from visit to visit. Code after the jump.

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comments [9] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
so close tech

It's been a while since I've written a gloriously nerdy post. This hack would certainly fix that. The only problem is that it doesn't work. But it almost does.

I really like Quake 3 Arena. It's my favorite game in my favorite genre. Unfortunately, I don't really have a machine that's ergonomically suited to playing it. The laptop's awkward and the easy chair in front of the desktop swallows you whole.

Enter the Xbox. A clever Brit named Carcharius took the freely available Quake 3 source code, used the not-so-freely-available XDK, and released a port of Q3A that could be played on hacked Xboxes, provided that the user had the game's original data files (and a valid CD key, if he wanted to play online). That's a fairly impressive feat when you consider that the Xbox has a mere 64 megs of RAM — it's an extremely impressive feat when you see how smoothly the game plays. Sure, some of the graphical bling has been disabled, but it's still very fun.

The only problem is the controller. Internet opponents will generally be using the vastly superior mouse/keyboard combo. Stuck with the unwieldy Xbox controller, getting pwned was inevitable. But, like most of life's problems, this was nothing that a little soldering couldn't fix.

The Xbox's controllers are actually USB devices, despite their distinctly non-USB plug ends. Tear open a spare female USB cable (left over from an unused motherboard riser) and a spare Xbox cable-end (surplus thanks to an extension cable I had previously purchased) and you'll find that the wires match. Okay, the Xbox controller has an extra wire (yellow, I believe), but that can be safely ignored. Match 'em up, solder 'em together, apply tape, and bang! You'll end up with something like this:

xbox quake 3 setup

That's the Xbox to USB cable, then a USB A/B cable, then a USB hub, then a USB to PS/2 adapter, then a PS/2 mouse and keyboard. I had come close to the geek holy grail: having all of the components for a nerdy project lying around in one of my tupperware tubs of electronic crap. I was just missing one thing.

I didn't have a USB keyboard. The setup worked great with a USB mouse, but I still had to use the Xbox controller for movement (I only had PS/2 keyboards handy). I made a trip to Microcenter to remedy this, but foolishly allowed myself to be seduced by the (not that much cheaper) idea of buying a USB to PS/2 adapter instead of a new, bulky keyboard. Sadly, the Xbox is too stupid to work with the adapter. The setup you see above is useless. I'll have to buy a USB keyboard after all.

But I was close, goddammit.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
November 11, 2005
November 11, 2005
torrents! lost  - pop culture  - tech

Lost is here. You might need RAR software to uncompress it before playing it.

Veronica Mars is here (I think).

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
November 04, 2005
November 04, 2005
take a second job at work tech

Check out Amazon's new Mechanical Turk initiative. It seems to involve earning small payments for completing captcha-style tasks. It's broken at the moment, but this still seems like a pretty interesting development.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
November 03, 2005
November 03, 2005
charmingly predictable tech

Microsoft appears to be deliberately undersupplying the Xbox 360 so that they can claim stores have all sold out of it on launch day. Way to inconvenience your customers, guys.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
October 31, 2005
October 31, 2005
dcist maps source code tech

I've finally written up some release notes and cleaned the code up a bit (only a little; it's still a mess). If you'd like to play around with it or use it for your own project, you can get it here.

The code is released under the GPL; images are Creative Commons. It's slightly silly to bother with all these licenses for a 50kb application, I know. I guess my internet deadly sin is vanity (Catherine clearly gets dibs on wrath).

comments [5] trackBack [1] posted by tom - link
October 25, 2005
October 25, 2005
l33t tech

I missed it last year, but SchmooCon happens in DC and is (relatively) cheap. And the Schmoo group offers some of the best work on wifi security/pwning teh noobz anywhere. But can I stand spending an entire weekend in a conference room full of people nerdier than myself? Hmm...

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
October 24, 2005
October 24, 2005
discless tech

(crossposted at BTD)

Bill Gates doesn't like Blu-Ray, Sony's proprietary DVD replacement technology. He presumably really doesn't like the fact that Blu-Ray seems to be edging out the MS-backed HD DVD in the war for third-party support.

None of that's surprising. But despite his distinct lack of objectivity, Gates is completely right: it doesn't really matter. Optical discs will be a niche product long before the end of the next format's lifecycle. Hard disk storage combined with mature network technology makes discs irrelevant.

It's true that there's a lot to be said for Warren Jackson's famous quote about the bandwidth of physical media — mass-produced discs will continue to hold an advantage in sheer price per gigabyte. But the average consumer is about to see their bandwidth needs level off. A speedy cablemodem coupled with a healthy BitTorrent swarm can already deliver a movie in about as much time as it takes to go to Blockbuster and back. We need faster connections and business support for online distribution of films, but those things are already within reach. After that, the next bandwidth plateau will be on-demand HDTV streaming — a technical problem that pressed discs won't help to solve.

In the very near future I suspect that we'll see devices like this one integrated with consumer routers and cablemodems. Throw a download client daemon onto its tiny brain, an interface for telling it how to start transfers, and maybe a VPN so that you can access it from anywhere. All of a sudden your files are securely stored and available from any place and at any time. You could already hack something like this together for three or four hundred dollars. I expect that within a year or two we'll see a consumer-grade network device with 100 gigs of redundant storage selling for around $250. At that point, what use do we have for discs?

Don't get me wrong: lots of money will be made off of Blu-Ray. Discs will be on the shelves of Best Buy and Blockbuster. They'll still be used for archival purposes. But they will inevitably be eclipsed as a distribution medium. The Blu-Ray/HD DVD format battle promises to be as confusing and irritating as Beta versus VHS was. But this time it's a fight that consumers can safely ignore.

comments [1] trackBack [1] posted by tom - link
October 20, 2005
October 20, 2005
powerless to resist tech

Well, hell. It seems like I just bought this goddamn phone, and now the rumor mill says that a new edition is already on the verge of release. I'd like to say I'll stick with my perfectly-fine phone, but the addition of bluetooth and a quadrupling of connection speed might be too much to pass up.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
October 15, 2005
October 15, 2005
phake out tech

It's been a while since I did anything here besides bitch about work. My poor, beloved tech category has been suffering in particular. Let's do something about that. Here's a silly little hack designed to help you avoid the more pointless parts of the workday. This one is pretty sneaky. I like it.

Meetings are one of the most godawful aspects of the cubicled life. For me they're usually a tense internal struggle between keeping my mouth shut so that the meeting will end quicker, and piping up in order to steer the conversation away from initiatives that are likely waste my time in the future and/or destroy the company.

But sometimes silence isn't enough to make the gathering end, and you badly want to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. Wouldn't it be nice to borrow a page from the annals of sitcom hackery and have a friend call your cellphone at a predetermined time? "I'm sorry... I have to take this," you say with a grave look on your face, before heading to Starbuck's. If anyone asks, mumble something about a medical situation, everything turning out to be fine, and not wanting to get into the details. Works every time.

The only problem is finding a friend up to the duty. Fortunately, your computer is the very best friend you have.

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comments [15] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
October 11, 2005
October 11, 2005
into the wild D.C.  - blog  - tech

Wonkette picked up my Google Maps Metro hack a little ahead of schedule, so I've pushed this sucker up to its final resting place — surprise surprise, it's DCist — and put up a forwarding notice.

Anyway, if anyone was biding their time to link to it, now you can go nuts. It's also had some bugfixes applied. There'll be an announcement on DCist later today if you want to trash me in a higher-profile venue.

comments [3] trackBack [1] posted by tom - link
October 08, 2005
October 08, 2005
bigger and better tech

Remember that DC Metro Google Maps hack that I posted? Well, I've finished it. You can now use it to create your own maps, get directions, and do geocoding. I think it's pretty slick. Have a look here and let me know if you run into any problems.

comments [4] trackBack [1] posted by tom - link
October 07, 2005
October 07, 2005
seriously? tech

Laptops are breaking the $400 barrier, huh? Wow.

(Not that I'm complaining.)

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
October 04, 2005
October 04, 2005
the master chief masterpiece tech

Via Justin, I see that Microsoft has handed Peter Jackson a sack of cash to lend his name to the upcoming Halo movie. Isn't that adorable?

I can't tell you what a kick I get out of videogame creators' complete inability to differentiate between financial and creative success. Bungie is easily one of the worst offenders — just look here. A whole jokey cult, invented and nurtured by Bungie, has sprung up around cheesy cartoon depictions of the Halo series' protagonist, the Master Chief. Who is — guess what — a clear ripoff of the unnamed marine from Doom. The reason for this persistent aesthetic? A) because you don't have to animate faces that go inside helmets and B) keeping the uniform consistently colored has technical and gameplay payoffs.

But what about the game's actual plot? Well, it's about a personality-free cyborg with a sassy computer sidekick, a gruff sargeant, a setting ripped off from Larry Niven, and marauding aliens. It's all highly original.

Some people just can't understand that they were in the right place at the right time. The truth is that nobody gives a shit about Halo's story; or at least, nobody ought to. People like the game because it did a decent job of being a console-based multiplayer FPS after Goldeneye primed the mainstream pump. Some of them play enough and are dumb enough to start thinking that the game's aesthetic is more than a placeholder. A number of those people seem to work at Bungie.

I don't blame anybody for cashing out when Hollywood executives ask to buy a storyline that read "PLOT GOES HERE" until 3 days before the game shipped. All I ask is that they try to be a little more quiet about it. Let the goddamn movie come out, pay for itself, then gracefully fade into the annals of cinematic embarassment. You're not going to fool anybody except the fanboys. And they were fooled by default.

comments [6] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
September 29, 2005
September 29, 2005
tv on the internet lost  - pop culture  - tech

Catherine can't get UPN. Susan doesn't have a TV, and if she did it would mostly serve to confuse. How are we going to maintain our shared pop cultural language? Wouldn't it be convenient if someone put up a BitTorrent site offering easy downloads of Veronica Mars and Lost each week? Yeah. Seems like it would.

In totally unrelated news, I've started working on a hacked-up version of Blog Torrent that allows for the creation of private torrents. It won't provide real security — the tracker won't customize .torrents with unique logins, so this is really just security by obscurity — but it should stop those wandering in from the internet from seeing what on offer. I'll release the customized Blog Torrent to whoever else might want this sort of Darknet functionality.

But having thought about it a little more, this is clearly overkill. It'll be useful for DCist since we may occasionally need to ferry large amounts of video among the staff prior to editing it down, and we don't want it to be publicly accessible to everyone. But you lose out on the speed advantage of BitTorrent if your swarm consists of one downloader and one seeder. Plus, I'm running out of disk space. Running my own BitTorrent operation doesn't really make sense.

So: here's what I suggest. It's really simple.

  1. Head to DCist Torrents and click on the "Easy Download" link for any of the torrents listed. Let it walk you through installing the software. It'll automatically detect if you're using a Mac or a PC. Once the download starts, you can cancel it. BitTorrent is now installed on your computer.
  2. Each week I will supply links to the Pirate Bay pages for the torrents of the two shows. Go to the one you want, click the link that looks like DOWNLOAD THIS TORRENT, specify a save location, and your download will begin. That should be it.

Easy enough? Okay, you might need to install one other thing in order to play these files. But there's no getting around that. If your download is complete but you can't play the file in Windows Media Player (or its Mac equivalent), just go here and download and run the appropriate file.

A torrent for this week's episode of Lost can be found here.

A torrent for this week's episode of Veronica Mars can be found here.

Note to angry MPAA peons: I'm not linking to a copy of the TV show. I'm linking to a website that links to a torrent that links to a copy of the TV show. I can add some additional degrees of separation if you'd like.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
September 24, 2005
September 24, 2005
metro map tech

One of the reasons for my recent relatively light blogging has been a little science project I've undertaken: a google maps version of the Metro. Yeah, I know, it's been done. Not as well as this, though, I don't think. You can have a look here.

I've got plans for this — it should evolve soon into something more useful (and at a different domain, so please don't publish the link yet). But for now, if anyone feels like clicking through and reporting any errors you come across, I'd be grateful. I'm particularly interested in how it works (or doesn't) in Safari. To all the IE users: I know it's dog slow and has transparency problems. Not much I can do about that, unfortunately. But if you experience other weirdness, let me know.

comments [6] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
September 20, 2005
September 20, 2005
nip it in the bud tech

A lot of people seem to be wildly misinterpreting the Google Secure Access initiative that I wrote about this morning.

Despite Om Malik's high-profile (and if you ask me, ridiculous) prediction of a few weeks ago, Google is NOT getting into the "business" of providing free wifi to everyone. Reuters & co. seem to have seen "Google" and "wifi" within a sentence of each other and not bothered to read any further. But Google isn't becoming an ISP — they're just offering a free VPN.

Why are they doing this? For the same reason they offer GMail and the Google Web Accelerator: to drive more of your personal web traffic through their servers. They can then analyze it (check the terms of service!) in order to better profile you, which in turn allows them to better target you for ads, which in turn lets them make more money.

It's a pretty straightforward model, and it makes sense. It's basically a glorified version of your supermarket's discount card program. And yes, I think those are a nasty, evil mechanism with the potential to violate privacy, discriminate against the poor, and (most likely) steal your thoughts via secret government satellites. Google's no different from these other privacy brokers, and eventually their shareholders are going to start complaining that the company's "Don't Be Evil" motto puts them at a competitive disadvantage. For now, though, the consumer gets a lot in return for surrendering their privacy.

Still — what if tomorrow Google started selling public access to GMail users' email for a buck an hour in a "best of Craigslist" sort of setup? What would you do? How would you get your messages out of their system? I don't have good answers to these questions, and it makes me uneasy. Relying on the continued benevolence of a company — particularly a publicly-traded one — is not a position in which any of us should want to be.

UPDATE: And yes, I realize that running a free ISP would be a great way to capture users' traffic. But others have tried it and failed — usually while actually placing additional ads in front of the user (ala NetZero). That's far more profitable than simply showing better ads. It's true that running a wifi ISP would be cheaper than the dialups that failed. And I wouldn't be surprised to see Google partner with a business to provide free wifi, or perhaps get involved in a municipal project or two. But the sort of vast wireless GoogleNet that Malik posits seems very unlikely to me.

UPDATE 2: I should point out that the Craigslist example is probably unrealistic. As noted in section 5 here, you retain the copyright to your emails. The point is just meant to be general: Google is in a position to do a number of evil things, should they decide to.

comments [7] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
google secure access tech

An interesting new release from Google — they now offer software to help you secure your wifi connection. Put briefly, it seems to install a virtual network adapter representing a VPN connection to Google, then redirect all your traffic through it. It's very similar to OpenVPN's setup, except that the installation is smoother, and of course Google is providing the VPN backend.

I haven't tested its throughput, but I can confirm that it doesn't require wifi. So for those of you daunted by my SSH howto, this could be a good, easy solution (until your IT department starts blocking it, that is). Oh, and Aaron: this will probably let you get around MLB.com's policy of blacking out webcasts of Nats games for DC-area IP addresses (all of your traffic will appear to be coming from Google's servers). It may not be fast enough for streaming video, but it's worth a shot.

For those interested, it looks like the program sets up the connection over SSL — from there Ethereal seems to think that it's sending data out using compressed PPP, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me (I thought PPP was a protocol that runs under TCP/IP, not over it). Maybe someone with better networking credentials can fill me in on how this works.

UPDATE: Of course, now I realize that it's PPTP — tunneled PPP. Which is one of the two big VPN standards. Nothing unusual here. PPTP is encapsulated in TCP/IP and sent to the host. Wikipedia's got something about it here, although the GRE portion of the protocol remains less than clear.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
September 19, 2005
September 19, 2005
switchfoot? i don't care for the music, but i'm a big fan tech

The band has posted instructions for how to circumvent the copy protection put on its newest CD by their label. Good for them.

comments [8] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
September 16, 2005
September 16, 2005
free photoshop tech

I forget if I mentioned this before, but it's worth noting again. Scott Moschella of the venerable plasticbugs set out to redesign the interface of the GIMP, a powerful open-source image editor, so that it would be more familiar to Photoshop users. Today brings an interview with him about the project.

But more importantly, the project has progressed enough to start showing up in easy-to-use packages. Click here for a windows installer. Despite the project being Mac-based, the latest version isn't yet available as a .app package. But you can find install instructions here. If that's too daunting, just stick with the original release for now — you can find a binary install package here.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
gonna be a revolution tech

Sorry. That was terrible. But it's hard to avoid these awful puns when talking about the Nintendo Revolution — the console's name makes it bad-prose compatible out of the box.

Anyway, the controller has been announced, and it's weird. But also intriguing. Don't be put off by the pictures — actually read the text. It sounds kinda cool. There's also a video here, which my enfeebled computer refuses to play. But I'm confident that it's awesome.

Nintendo seems to be aiming for the nongamer audience with this move. I think it's a good strategy — this actually does look like something I could get my mom to play. But I'm pretty excited about the implications for first person shooters, as well. As this guy points out, Nintendo is responsible for pretty much every controller innovation since the joystick. It's hard to imagine that they'd make a serious misstep in this area.

I'm still on board for the Xbox 360, first and foremost. Nintendo's software lineup is simply too weakened for any serious geek to consider it as a console of first resort. But the Revolution is supposed to be pretty cheap. If I somehow stumble across an extra $150, I could now easily see myself blowing it on one of these things.

comments [6] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
September 14, 2005
September 14, 2005
an ethical dilemma tech

So the guy from whom Catherine and I are borrowing wifi (until hers is installed) — he didn't even bother to change the administrator password on his router. And it happens to be a Linksys WRT54G. Which means that I could upgrade his firmware to the Sveasoft edition. Which would allow me to boost his signal strength, which would improve the marginal reception the two of us are experiencing.

Well, I doubt I will. Maybe I'll try to figure out his email address when he gets home and send him a polite anonymous note explaining how to change his admin password. Although the fact that I just came across this link today (via hackaday) makes the situation awfully tempting...

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
September 13, 2005
September 13, 2005
toys i don't need tech

Spurred by the news that it just got bought for $2+ billion, I finally tried out Skype last night. Charles gave me a hand trying it out, and with 10 euros worth of SkypeOut credit loaded up, I called the apartment. And hey, it worked pretty well. Charles' voice was very clear, albeit slightly delayed. My own voice could be understood, but the Axim's lousy integrated microphone made it pretty muddy. On the other hand, our 150 second call cost all of three cents — and if I had been calling another Skype user, it would've been free.

So it was pretty cool. All it would take is a cheap bluetooth headset to make it really cool. The only problem, from my perspective, is justifying this gadget. I've already got a VoIP phone for work. I've already got a cell phone with free long distance (but not many minutes). Neither of them have integrated bluetooth, meaning the headset would only be good for Skype — which, as I mentioned, solves a telephony problem I don't really have.

Well, screw it. I can always get one of these suckers to make my non-BT phones ready to play with the wireless headset. I've never been able to resist a sexy new gadget. Between this and the sidekick, I somehow seem to be extremely susceptible to marketing conducted via rap star product placement. Seems a bit odd given that I barely listen to any rap at all.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
for my mac-lovin' friends tech

A portable version of firefox that works on Windows and OS X. Stick it on a thumbdrive and never again waste time synching extensions and bookmarks between work and home.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
September 07, 2005
September 07, 2005
xbox live: a sociological perspective tech

Slate's got a piece up by two thirtysomething guys evaluating Xbox Live. It's pretty accurate — the people on it really are insanely good, until recently cheating really was widespread, and virtually every kid on it does deserve to be grounded.

But it's still fun, even if they found it a bit overwhelming. It might be worth pointing out that the "senior league" sort of arrangement the Slate article asks for will almost be present in the Xbox360's implementation of Live. The plan is to offer a choice of four "GamerZones": Pro, for the hardcore; R&R, for the casual gamer (and the hardcore who feel like abusing them); Underground, which is for cheaters, so far as I can tell; and Family, which will presumably just turn off players' microphones entirely.

I doubt any of this will work out the way it's intended, but it's at least a nice thought.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
September 06, 2005
September 06, 2005
getting around the itunes sharing limit tech

With 4.7.1, iTunes introduced a 5-connection limit on sharing. A lot of my friends work in offices where everyone shares their music, and they found this to be a real pain in the ass.

Well, perhaps I'm late to the game on this, but this site claims to have a workaround, and it's as simple as setting a password on the music share. Supposedly password-protected shares aren't subject to the 5-a-day limit. The authors suggests using the share name to tell folks what the password is in order to make connecting simple for everyone.

I haven't had a chance to test this out, but if anyone's in an iTunes-heavy office and wants to give it a try, I'd be very curious to hear if it works.

Related: iLeech and RendezvousProxy, for pulling songs off iTunes shares and making shares accessible across different IP subnets, respectively. Documentation is sparse, but if either of these sound useful you might want to give them a download. They're written in Java, so they ought to work across platforms.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
softmodding the xbox tech

There's a good howto here. With this method you can upgrade your console without ever opening the case. All you need is a memory card, a particular rented game, and a Gameshark-like device called the action replay (or a friend's modded xbox).

They promise an update explaining how to add a larger hard drive with the softmod method — important, because the xbox's built-in drive is only 8GB. That's large enough for a decent number of emulators, but not much else.

But I'm more interested to hear if a softmod can be made to play nicely with Xbox live. Connect to XBL with your modchip turned on and your xbox — and perhaps your account — will be banned for life. But if you flip your modchip off before booting up (and don't make any other really egregious mistakes), you can play happily. Seeing as I've got at least one more modding job on the horizon, it'd be nice to know if it can be accomplished satisfactorily without shelling out for a modchip and firing up the soldering iron. That d0 connection point is a real bastard.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 31, 2005
August 31, 2005
SSH addenda tech

I'm pretty excited about all the traffic generated by my SSH howto (part 1, part 2). I should've submitted junk to hackaday long ago!

Anyway, I'm doing my best to respond to all the questions posed in comments (and that's definitely the place to pose them). Here are answers to the two most common problems: restrictive work security policies, and mac ownership.

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comments [13] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 30, 2005
August 30, 2005
bittorrent tracking for dummies tech

Wow. Sorry for the deluge of tech posts today, but this is too cool to ignore. Maybe you've already heard of it.

I knew that downhillbattle made cool t-shirts; I didn't know they also made cool software. But check out BlogTorrent — particularly their technical explanation. It lets you run a BitTorrent tracker on any website with PHP! Installation is as simple as uploading a directory! And users don't even have to have BT installed... it wraps downloaded .torrents in a BT executable that works on Windows or Mac!

Frankly, it's taking a lot of effort to keep myself from installing this right away, opening it to the world, and getting sued for millions of dollars. But it does seem likely to doom the RIAA's strategy of going after tracker sites — any jerk can anonymously obtain some PHP hosting (often for free), set this up, and become a mini Pirate Bay. For a few weeks, anyway.

Or maybe I'll just set up a private tracker to distribute important TV shows* to Catherine, Susan and the rest of the 05/06 DC blog diaspora. Either way: I badly wanna play with this toy.

* for which I have obtained legal distribution rights, of course

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
future! tech

Did someone say... HOLOGRAMS!?!

No? Hmm. I was probably just muttering it involuntarily, then. Happens all the time.

Seriously though, this is pretty cool. Sounds like their technology works by causing tiny droplets of water to condense out of the air, which are then used to diffract projected light. It essentially creates a screen of fog in midair, then paints an image onto it with light. Neat. With today's swamp-like DC air, I bet it'd work great here.

comments [1] trackBack [1] posted by tom - link
SSHirking work - part 2 tech

When last we left our hero — that'd be you — he had a functioning SSH server running on his Windows machine. You've poked a hole in your firewall and/or router, and maybe you've signed up for a dynamic DNS service. That, or you at least have an IP address. The bare minimum is the same: to proceed from here, you ought to be able to connect to your OpenSSH server with PuTTY when you're away from home.

The remaining tasks are pretty easy:

  1. Install Privoxy on the server
  2. Set up the SSH tunnel using PuTTY
  3. Configure your web browser to use the SSH tunnel

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comments [165] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 29, 2005
August 29, 2005
SSHirking work - part 1 tech

A little while ago I mentioned that I've been tunnelling my web traffic out of work and through my home connection. That post inspired a firestorm of public interest (one person emailed me about it). Here's the beginning of how to implement such a setup yourself. When it's working your boss won't be able to snoop on which websites you're visiting, or block them, or really tell anything about your internet traffic apart from how much of it there is (and that it's strangely hidden).

First, the big picture. I've explained the idea behind ports at least a couple of times. We're going to take our browser's web traffic — the stuff going out through port 80 — and send it through an encrypted tunnel to a PC at home that's running a proxy server. The proxy server will make an unencrypted request for the webpage we're trying to access (using our home connection) and send the data back through the encrypted tunnel.

We're going to need a few things. We'll need a PC that's at home and turned on at whatever times the link should be available. And we're going to need to make some assumptions. So this is going to be a Windows tutorial. All the software required is free and open source, though, and you could certainly accomplish this setup under OS X or Linux. In fact, in some regards it'd probably be quite a bit easier. But Linux users don't need my help setting up a proxy server, and Mac users are used to being ignored. If anybody with a Mac really wants this functionality, just let me know. I'll be happy to dig up the relevant links.

Finally, I'm going to assume you know how to open up ports on Windows firewall (or at least turn it off) if you're running a version of XP that has it installed. Same thing with ZoneAlarm, or whatever other software firewall you might be running. I can't account for everything, people!

So let's get started. In this post we'll take care of the software that supports the encrypted tunnel. This is the hard, but not that hard, part.

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comments [216] trackBack [1] posted by tom - link
August 28, 2005
August 28, 2005
rss tech

thanks to ogged for pointing me towards GreatNews, an RSS reader that is, oh, about two billion times better than bloglines. i've become increasingly frustrated with bloglines lately - the interface sucks, it's slow as molasses, etc - but i didn't want to give up the capability to read my bloglines feeds from any computer (since it's browser based instead of a desktop application). amazingly, GreatNews has a feature that will synch your bloglines feeds, so you can read your RSS feeds through GN, but if you happen to be at another computer at another point, you can still check bloglines, and the feeds will be the same. it's awesome, and superfast, and i haven't found any major glitches with it so far. so, hurrah.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
ripoff tech

The Xbox360's $400 bundle will come with a wireless controller, but the rechargeable battery pack/charging cable kit will run you another $20.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 25, 2005
August 25, 2005
they're on to us D.C.  - tech

It's been fun basking in blogospheric attention for an HTML hack that could be performed by any number of middle-schoolers. But, sadly, a commenter has pointed out that the zoo is on to us -- the butterstick submission form no longer works. I'll try to have another look at it tonight, but it's likely that there's nothing to be done. On the upside, this means that there probably were votes labeled "butterstick" making their way into the zoo database. Which is pretty great.

Catherine suggested explaining the hack, so for those interested, a rundown of the relevant webdev principles is behind the cut. The rest of you should start thinking about the next step in fomenting the Pale Yellow Revolution.

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comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 23, 2005
August 23, 2005
x-etera tech

The novelty's worn off, guys. I get that your boss will give you a better evaluation if your list of Q1 accomplishments includes "viral", "blog" and other words he wishes he understood, but this is getting ridiculous. Vis: Microsoft's latest website, which implies that something will be happening on September 27 at noon. Nobody thinks the Xbox360 will be out before November, so this is probably an announcement of a pending announcement. A metannouncement. Aren't you glad you paid attention to it?

In other XB2π news, you might have heard that two flavors will be offered -- one for $299 and one for $399. The pricier bundle comes with a removable 20GB hard drive, a wireless controller, a headset, and a bunch of cables and other unexciting shit. Disappointing, and irritating, but I'll cave: the nerds are worried that the system will be neutered without the hard drive (there'll be no backward-compatibility without it, for one thing). The most irritating part? Larger capacity drives will no doubt soon be released (and bought by me, should a modchip be developed). The smart money's also on some clip-on MP3 hardware turning this into a portable player.

IGN's got a story up that attempts to take the sting out of the gouging. Here's the only important part: a chart showing past console launch prices, adjusted into 2005 dollars.

Atari VCS launched in 1977 for $249.99 $811.21 in 2005
Nintendo Entertainment System launched in 1985 for $199.99 $354.91 in 2005
SEGA Genesis launched in 1989 for $249.99 $389.67 in 2005
NeoGeo launched in 1990 for $699.99
$1041.12 in 2005
Super Nintendo launched in 1991 for $199.99
$282.21 in 2005
Jaguar launched in 1993 for $249.99
$328.69 in 2005
3DO Interactive Multiplayer launched in 1993 for $699.95 $920.30 in 2005
SEGA Saturn launched in 1995 for $399.99 $497.66 in 2005
Nintendo 64 launched in 1996 for $199.99
$242.75 in 2005
SEGA Dreamcast launches in 1999 for $199.99 $228.09 in 2005
PlayStation launched in 1995 for $299.99 $372.01 in 2005
PlayStation 2 launched in 2000 for $299.99 $333.15 in 2005
Xbox Launched in 2001 for $299.99
$325.34 in 2005
GameCube launched in 2001 for $199.99
$216.89 in 2005

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 22, 2005
August 22, 2005
keeping secrets tech

I've recently started working as a subcontractor on a new (incredibly boring) project, and it's requiring that I spend a fair number of days in a cube farm at the prime's office in Crystal City. Worse, the people here actually have some technical savvy, forcing me to worry about my internet traffic (and vigorous daily blog regimen) being observed by folks for whom I'd prefer to maintain the illusion that I'm an industrious and conscientious worker 100% of the time.

As a result, I've set things up so that all of my personal internet traffic goes through an encrypted tunnel, back to our apartment, and then out to the internet over our DSL connection. Office snoops will see traffic going out, but have no idea what it is. And from Verizon's perspective I might as well be sitting on our couch right now.

All of this has gotten me thinking and reading up on encryption and security, as you might have noticed from the post I put up over at BTD this morning. But since it's been a while since I did something really techy over here, I figured I might as well write a bit more about it. And since it's a pretty meaty subject, I figured I might as well split it up across a number of posts.

So first things first: let's talk about how modern encryption systems work. And let's do it in few enough words that it isn't confusing, or too terribly boring. Movie and Xbox references behind the cut, I promise.

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comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 21, 2005
August 21, 2005
abusing flickr tech

Four facts:

  1. Flickr Pro accounts have no storage limits.
  2. Folks have lots of files they'd like to store.
  3. But Flickr only lets you store images.
  4. But steganography lets you hide arbitrary files in images!

See an exploit here? Of course you do. And so did this guy.

Related: use your gmail account as a hard drive.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 16, 2005
August 16, 2005
distraction tech

I think this Flash game has a lot of potential for ruining Charles' life. The guy's already primed to spend hours playing Sodoku and other brainteasers — making a game centered around a dynamic that boils down to tidying has the potential to put at least sleeping and personal hygiene in jeopardy. If there was feature that let you gain experience points I'm pretty sure he'd be dead within a week.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 08, 2005
August 08, 2005
planning ahead tech

A little more Xbox 2 news: it plays surprisingly nicely with the PSP. Okay, this is just on the developer machine -- but at least we'll know that if the retail version lacks this feature, it's because Microsoft specifically went out of its way to be a jerk.

In other geeky news -- well, not news, since it's a bit old -- but here's a PDF about what the Xbox 360's security architecture might look like, written by bunnie, arguably the biggest name on the Xbox cracking scene. It's all speculation, but interesting nonetheless (well, the parts that aren't incomprehensible). The first Xbox had a number of serious security flaws -- see here for a rundown of how MS managed to cram three serious backdoors into a mere 512 bytes of code. It seems likely that they'll do a better job the second time around. Nevertheless, I'm confident the crackers will ultimately win out. If nothing else, the preceding links prove that some very smart people are willing to waste time on this stuff.

Truthfully, though, it wouldn't be so bad if they didn't manage to beat MS this time. I've got the Xbox 1, and it emulates everything short of an N64 pretty well. It's a lot harder to rationalize the need for a modchip when I already have a perfectly good emulator/media player.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 03, 2005
August 03, 2005
the price of lame tech

Sounds like the Xbox 360 is going to be $300 -- that's $50 pricier than earlier rumors. D'oh. Worse, games are currently expected to clock in at $60.

(Modchip prices remain unannounced.)

comments [8] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
ssh/vnc/pocketpc! tech

Well, mark one item off my list: MochaSoft has a VNC client for PocketPC that works with VNC4, has built-in SSH2 support that isn't impossibly slow, and is unlimited shareware. Cool.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
August 01, 2005
August 01, 2005
tech troubles tech

I got problems:

  • Due to a major security hole in GM 0.3.3, my GreaseMonkey project has been delayed. Nuts. Competition from others within the project proper may derail it -- they're not doing quite the same thing as I am, but they are creating a situation where there are three or four sites that want to be the central repository for all GreaseMonkey scripts, anywhere, ever. Which would be difficult to maintain. I'm hoping when the rubble clears I can just make my database a periodically downloaded version of theirs.

  • I've got VNC for the Pocket PC working; I've got SSH for the Pocket PC working; but I can't get VNC working over SSH on the Pocket PC. It craps out about a fifth of the way down the first screen refresh. What's going on? This is kind of a central function of this software.

  • On the other hand, Skype has a Pocket PC version available for download. The only catch is that I can't think of any scenario under which Skype would actually be useful for me. Not that that's stopping me from gazing lustfully at bluetooth headsets for no particular reason.

  • Our music server resets the sound card's permissions every time it reboots, making it impossible for the jukebox software to work without me logging in and fixing things. Unfortunately I'm too clueless at fixing FC4 to be able to fix this without wading through endless support forums. Sigh.

  • And, perhaps most troublingly, I have no fucking idea how this flash game is supposed to be played. I strongly encourage you to try to figure it out. But be forewarned, it has sound (although it doesn't require it).

comments [10] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 29, 2005
July 29, 2005
taking a step back from the full-belt brink tech

I'm trying to figure out this whole ebook thingy, and stumbled across Amazon's bestselling ebook chart. There's smut, Dan Brown, and very little else. Ew.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 28, 2005
July 28, 2005
don't trust trusted computing tech
crossposted at BTD

It's time to say goodbye to BIOS. If you're lucky, you have no idea what it is, anyway, but the less fortunate have hit F2 or Del to enter setup when their system was booted, and browsed through the myriad options presented. The BIOS doesn't just let you flip settings; it also serves to manage the very low-level hardware on your computer, like RAM, basic video, plug-n-play support, and the built-in hard disk controllers. It translates the commands of more sophisticated programs into the language of your computer's specific chipset.

But most agree that BIOS has outlived its lifespan, and it's time to move on. Apple, for instance, uses OpenBIOS, a newer technology that offers advantages that make it easier to recover from a system crash, boot from the network, or run multiple operating systems on the same computer. Now industry heavyweights like AMD, Dell, HP and IBM are banding together to design a next-gen BIOS architecture called United EFI. That's fine -- but in the process they're going to try to cripple your computer. You shouldn't let them.

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comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 20, 2005
July 20, 2005
blahg tech

Sitting in Mclean (at an absent coworker's unpleasantly messy desk) doesn't do much for the ol' inspiration -- I used up all of my daily bullshit quota trying to convince my boss to buy me an Axim for no particular reason. But I can't let the weekday blog streak break. What has it been? Two weeks? Ripkenesque, baby.

So let me offer this: some dude is offering the SveaSoft binaries for free.

Allow me to explain why this is worth knowing (briefly). Once upon a time, Linksys released a consumer router called the WRT54G that runs Linux. Because of a license called the GPL, using Linux legally obligated them to release the changes they made to the public in a way that would let others build on their work. They didn't, but nerds noticed and eventually badgered them into compliance.

Linksys's code wasn't all that great, but others took and improved it. One particular guy who happens to live on an island off the coast of Sweden decided he'd like a wireless link to the mainland, and hacked in a function called WDS to make it possible. Other modifications followed, and the WRT54G turned into a much more powerful device than its $50ish price tag would suggest.

I've been meaning to write about the WRT54G for a while now, having bought one myself when the cheap Belkin routers I was using to pipe data from the kitchen to the Xbox proved to be pieces of shit. It works great -- in fact, I've been able to keep one of the Belkins. And I've been using the release of the Sveasoft firmware that's named "Alchemy".

But that's not the most up-to-date version of the software -- that'd be "Talisman". See, Sveasoft eventually decided they didn't care for the GPL's full implications either, so they reclassified the most recent, sophisticated version of the firmware as a "beta" release, and shut down the help forums and documentation for their software. The older software is available, but access to the new stuff or any documentation costs $20 a year.

Well, the documentation and support stuff is fine -- Sveasoft owns the copyright to those materials, and they can do with them what they want. But while this pay-for-beta system seems to follow the letter of the GPL, it's pretty clearly contrary to its spirit.

Not that it really affects me, per se. I don't really need the Talisman features. For one thing, there are now other, more sophisticated but less user-friendly WRT54G firmwares out there, like OpenWRT. For another, my router needs just aren't that great -- prioritizing VoIP and Xbox Live traffic over BitTorrent would be nice, but it's not exactly a major quality of life issue.

But still -- it's nice to see someone stand up against Sveasoft's hypocrisy.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 12, 2005
July 12, 2005
the word of the day is 'hack' tech

This John Tierney column, which seems to seriously flirt with proposing that hackers be given the death penalty, is almost too stupid to believe. But I couldn't resist giving it attention anyway, and wrote some more about it over at BTD.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 11, 2005
July 11, 2005
debunking a particularly boring urban legend tech

Some of you have probably heard of the Dvorak keyboard -- an alternate key layout that was designed to be more efficient than QWERTY. The story goes that QWERTY was invented to slow down operators who were jamming the earliest typewriters by typing too quickly on an alphabetically-ordered layout. With that mechanical limitation gone, Dvorak put the most frequently used keys on the home row and focused on keeping common consonants and common vowels assigned to different hands, to encourage letter-to-letter alternation (which speeds everything up). The result was supposed to be faster and easier on your hands and wrists.

But of course Dvorak never caught on -- railroaded by the market having already decided (poorly), Mr. Dvorak died a bitter old man. Or so the story goes.

I know that Jon learned Dvorak. What with the cathodic adding machines that seem to be so popular these days, it's as simple as downloading some software or flipping a system setting to get started learning the new layout. Here's a web-zine that'll guide you through the process, if you'd like to give it a try.

But today I learned that it's lies, all lies! Have a look here for the rough summary, or here for the academic paper it references. It turns out that the studies confirming Dvorak's superiority were poorly designed or biased; that QWERTY actually did win out over several competing keyboard designs; that ergonomics research indicates QWERTY isn't as bad as folks assume; and we've forgotten that, thanks to a patent, Mr. Dvorak had a financial interest in promoting his keyboard layout. And there's not much evidence that Dvorak is better for your wrists or fingers (which I guarantee will spontaneously start to hurt as you read this ergonomic research). If you're really starting to suffer from carpal tunnel, apparently you should be using one of these wacky-looking things.

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 07, 2005
July 07, 2005
seen in giant tech

Standing in line to buy groceries (booze) last night, I spied an impressively-built guy in a wifebeater with a large tattoo stretching vertically down his tricep. It read, "NEWBY". He must be really bad at Quake.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
openvpn gui tech

Thanks to a new coworker, I see that OpenVPN -- the free VPN software suite I rambled about previously -- now has a GUI client for Windows. No more ugly DOS-boxes for you, no sir! Anyway, if you've got a need for secure communication over the net, here's another vote for OpenVPN.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 06, 2005
July 06, 2005
thumbdrive tech

By using precise pulses of radiation, researchers have found that they can store up to 5 megabits of data on your fingernail -- that's a little less than half a floppy disk's capacity. The data persists until the nail grows out.

I know this is awesome, but I have no idea why.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 02, 2005
July 02, 2005
onward and nerdward tech

The geekery has been intense around here the last couple of days. First, I'm hustling to finish up an overambitious GreaseMonkey project. It was spawned by the ad-killing efforts mentioned here (incidentally, if the project hadn't changed direction, Kanishka's Simpsons reference would have totally won the naming competition). But more on that later. In a few days to a week I should have a script/site that I'm hoping some of you will help me test before it's unleashed on the world.

Second, my external hard drive finally arrived in the mail, allowing me to backup and reformat our Linux machine. It had been limping along -- I'm no Linux guru, and the machine had been built out as a MythTV box. When we got a real Tivo I turned off as much of the MythTV detritus as I could find, but it still had problems working as the MP3 jukebox I wanted. So, after making some backups and downloading Fedora Core 4, I wiped the machine.

Fedora Core 4 running Azureus

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comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
July 01, 2005
July 01, 2005
so long, pirate bay tech

Yesterday, an 11-nation raid was conducted on various online pirate operations. Conspicuously absent from the list was Sweden, which is not part of the EU. Well, today Sweden passed some strong anti-piracy legislation.

The most obvious consequences are for The Pirate Bay, which is arguably the world's biggest bittorrent tracker site, and resides in Sweden. They've been particularly smug about their immunity from prosecution. Although TPB doesn't actually host copyrighted data -- the torrent files and trackers they provide simply supply metadata telling your Bittorrent client how to find peers offering the data -- it seems pretty likely that they're not long for this world.

It goes without saying that this won't actually stop piracy, but when TPB finally goes down there'll be a transition, the same as there was when Suprnova.org was shut down. Matt and I were talking about plausible future hotbeds for piracy just the other night, actually. Matt's bet was China, but I have my doubts. It's true that their government isn't keen to enforce intellectual property laws, but though they might be lacking the will, their nationwide firewall gives them a simple way, should they ever decide to. Eastern Europe? Nah; Suprnova was based there (although it used an elaborate -- and awful -- international mirror system). The glory days of slavic piracy have come and gone, and as countries jockey for EU membership they're keen to chalk up good records on IP enforcement. Africa? No infrastructure. Central or South America? Brazil's pretty wired, plus it's run by a bunch of anticorporatist hippies, so it's a definite possibility. But Russia is already in a computer crime class unto itself. If I had to bet, I'd say the next big tracker site's address will end in .ru.

comments [5] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 27, 2005
June 27, 2005
grokking the grokster decision tech

The Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in favor of the entertainment industry in MGM v. Grokster. Disappointing, to be sure, but the net's early IANAL consensus seems to be that the ruling is fairly limited. The decision states:

One who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright ... is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties using the device, regardless of the device's lawful uses.
That would seem to indict Grokster for basing its business model on infringement, but exempt applications like BitTorrent that are promoted as being meant for distributing legal content.

Regardless of the specific contours of liability that emerge from this decision, it seems likely that there'll be a lot less investment in companies developing consumer media technology. In the hardware space, this is a real shame -- the next Tivo will take that much longer to emerge.

But for software, it's probably irrelevant. The open source movement is well-positioned to avoid Grokster-style liability, and doesn't need to find brave venture capitalists in order to ship a product. With private industry slowed by litigation, open source offerings already dominate P2P. This decision will probably cement that position.

(crossposted at Begging To Differ)

comments [2] trackBack [1] posted by tom - link
June 23, 2005
June 23, 2005
first person savior tech

I like videogames; I dislike politicians scoring points for railing against (but not acting against) videogames in order to mollify irrational parents. To me, this Penny Arcade strip pretty well sums up the situation, at least for the foreseeable future.

But then I go and see something completely confusing and terrifying, something like this, and all I want to do is put my Xbox beneath something heavy in the closet, then go hide under the covers.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 22, 2005
June 22, 2005
PDA tech

in my continuing quest to become a plugged-in, organized new media guru, i have decided that i want to purchase a PDA. given that i have no idea what PDA actually even stands for, or the capabilities that certain PDAs may have, i need some help on making a decision. things i need: web browsing capabilities, email capabilities, RSS reading capabilities and, uh, a puppy screensaver. i don't know what else. tommy says there are PDAs out there that you can hook up collapsible keyboards to, to turn them into portable computers, so that'd be pretty sweet. anyway, blogosphere hivemind, i turn to you in your infinite wisdom. what PDA should i buy?

comments [7] trackBack [0] posted by catherine - link
June 20, 2005
June 20, 2005
my birthstone's made of silicon tech

I've tried buying different kinds of gifts for Catherine, but they've all been failures. CDs? Already had em. Jewelry? It's sweet that I tried. Books? Oh lord. Let's not reopen that shameful chapter. Girls don't like Neal Stephenson, it turns out.

But there's one thing I can buy: technology. I can sustain enough of an interest in it to learn about it, so it's possible to pick things thoughtfully. The aesthetics of clothing escape me, but I can tell you that that MP3 player simply does not match with your computer's peripheral bus, at all. What were you thinking?

Unfortunately, the pace of invention for actually-useful consumer technology can't keep up with the pace of a boyfriend's trinket obligations, and for Christmas I sucked it up and got Catherine some earrings. They went over okay, but the experience was terrifying. The jewelry counter was staffed by an astoundingly beautiful girl with a thick Russian accent, who had no doubt been shipped in specifically for the holidays. She radiated a cool unattainability that made every hapless male patron sure of two things. First, regardless of how much money he had planned to spend, he was a cheap jerk who deserved to die alone. And second, and more definitively, he would never, ever score with a hot Russian ice princess (although if you were to buy a couple thousand dollars of jewelry from her, she might at least not belittle your masculinity with her supermodel girlfriends later on).

I quickly retreated and bought the same earrings for $20 more from an excitable Indian kid manning a counter two stores down. He made me feel emasculated too, but only because they were giving away teddy bears with every purchase.

So buying jewelry does not agree with me. The margin of error is low, the financial stakes are high, and interaction with the salespeople is terrifying. Technology is my home court. All of which is to lead up to the news that Gizmodo might have just supplied me with a compromise (or at least another internet-based means of horrifying Catherine).

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 17, 2005
June 17, 2005
gamecube modding! tech

I haven't really kept up with this since hearing the news ages ago that a GC mod chip was in the works... but it looks like it arrived. And now somebody's got a good tutorial up (link via hackaday). Looks like a pretty easy mod -- although the chip's pricey ($60) and you'll need to get your hands on some miniature DVD-Rs to make it worth your while.

To be honest, the projects involving LAN bootloaders (imperfect though they may be) and internet multiplayer seem a lot more glamorous. The GC's lack of a hard disk more or less limits the modding applications to piracy and a few assorted applications like MP3 players (oh yeah -- and running Linux, for some reason). That was exciting circa the PS1, but at this point I'd actually rather just buy the damn games.

I've totally sold out.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 15, 2005
June 15, 2005
hacking the PSP tech

Just a quick note: as of today you can run unsigned code on Playstation Portables with the 1.5 firmware. That means emulators and homebrew games can be run from your memory stick -- in the past only the Japanese version of the PSP could do this, and people were going to great lengths to import them. I'm not a PSP expert, so I don't know if all US PSPs have the 1.5 firmware, but at least some do.

This also opens the door to homebrew media players, freeing folks from Sony's proprietary format requirements, and perhaps dooming the manufacturer's ridiculous plan to sell movies in the UMD format. Yes, I know -- there have been articles crowing about what a great success the UMD already is. Nearly 10% of PSP owners have one! Ignore, for a moment, that Sony heavily pushed a bundled offer including a Spiderman 2 UMD with PSP purchase. Well, now enterprising geeks can rip their own DVDs, or download files off the internet. There's no need to buy a tiny, $10 movie disc that will only play in your fancy gameboy.

But take heart, Sony: I predict your 1GB memory stick sales are about to skyrocket.

comments [1] trackBack [1] posted by tom - link
June 13, 2005
June 13, 2005
there's no place like 127.0.0.1 tech

This is pretty funny. Via hackaday.

(For those who don't know, 127.0.0.1, synonymous with localhost or loopback, is a reserved IP address that always points back at your own machine.)

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 06, 2005
June 06, 2005
drm tech

I guess this has been out for a while, but I just came across it today: BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow speaking to Microsoft about DRM and why it's bad.

Lessig's more complete, but this is succinct and snappy. Give it a read.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
greasemonkey tech

I mentioned GreaseMonkey the other day, and promised future evangelism, complete with wild-eyed predictions about how it's going to Change The Internet Forever. Well, here we go.

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June 05, 2005
June 05, 2005
naming bleg personal  - tech

Today I started playing around with GreaseMonkey (which is amazing, and about which I'll write more later). Inspiration hit, and I've spent today working on a kind of cool (I think) GreaseMonkey script that'll provide a framework for automatically stripping ads out of webpages. I'll explain how all this works when I'm ready to release it.

But because this script relies on a central server, I'm going to have to register a domain name, and that means I'll have to think of one. For development purposes I've been using the incredibly-imaginative "AdKiller", but of course that's already taken by some similarly creative folks.

So I'm hoping you all can help. I'm looking for something witty and short that conveys the script's function. Suggestions?

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
June 01, 2005
June 01, 2005
important news! tech

wreck believes in a thing called loveYes, Virginia, there will be a sequel to Karaoke Revolution on the XBox.

The article claims there'll be better multiplayer support, duet modes, and the ability to incorporate a DDR pad into the game. The only announced songs so far: "Sweet Caroline", "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me", "Crazy In Love" and "I Dont Wanna Be". It's supposed to be released sometime in the fall.

Dignity: totally overrated.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 27, 2005
May 27, 2005
ut oh tech

EliteTorrents.org, a site I've referred to in previous posts, has been taken down by the FBI and Customs. Coverage here. The notice on the ET site makes it sound like they'll be using ET's database to go after users. Ouch. I'm not too worried; the last time I even visited the ET website was months ago. Still, this highlights the inherent danger of ratio-maintaining torrent communities: tracking ratios means keeping records, and records can be seized.

Maybe more to the point, though, is that some believe this action is a response to ET's posting of a DVD workprint of the new Star Wars movie 6 hours before it hit theaters. I've got some doubts about the timetable necessary for that to be true -- but who knows? Maybe it was the nail in their coffin.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 19, 2005
May 19, 2005
console yourself tech

This year's E3 -- the Electronic Entertainment Expo -- is well underway, and the first details surrounding the next generation of videogame consoles have been revealed. Let's begin deciding how to waste our money, shall we? A review, preview, and pictures of the hardware are below the cut.

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May 11, 2005
May 11, 2005
electronic paper! tech

I'm planning to write a lengthy cross-post for here and BTD about the Awesome Display Technologies of the Future, since I've been reading up on it recently. But since I'm still working evenings, I have no idea when I'll get a chance to write it. So for now: wonder at the mystery of electronic paper!

electronic_paper.jpg

It's being used by Bridgestone as part of an automated pricing system -- you can read a little about it here.

None of the various competing electronic paper technologies are going to be in your next TV -- the response time is generally way too slow for effectively conveying motion. But the benefit to this tech is that you don't have to apply power to preserve the image, so if it can be made cheap enough you could build dynamic displays without worrying about where to plug them in.

It's fun to imagine the possible applications. Advertisements are an obvious one -- but so are, say, restaurant menus that automatically display the day's specials and the market price for fish. Or labels on keyboards that remap themselves to whatever application you're using. Or (if it gets good enough) electronic picture frames that actually make sense to own.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
May 04, 2005
May 04, 2005
nonfiction technothriller tech

International gambling organizations! Mysterious Russian extortionists! A lone wunderkind facing overwhelming odds, and a tale stretching from Phoenix to Costa Rica, with occasional stops in Scotland Yard. It's all right here.

Of course, the locales in said places are all climate-controlled server rooms, and to the layman victory or defeat in this battle would have most easily been detected by how quickly various LEDs were blinking. But even if you only find it half as interesting as I do, it's still a pretty good read.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 19, 2005
April 19, 2005
settling our hash tech

Not the food; not the drug; not the terrifying drunken running hobby. No no no, a FAR more exciting type of hash: the algorithmic kind! Party!

See, these things have been in the news lately because a couple of popular hashing techniques have started to look susceptible to attack. This might seem mind-numbingly boring, but it's important -- in a broad sense, because of security and encryption. In practice, because defeating hashing could in theory allow record companies bring P2P to a halt.

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April 15, 2005
April 15, 2005
one of the reasons you won't be downloading HD-DVDs tech

For those interested, I've got a post up over at BTD explaining the new AACS system which will be replacing the CSS copy protection in the HD-DVD format. You can get to it by clicking here.

It might sound a little dry, but these things are important to keep track of. More and more DRM is going to get shoved down our throats in the coming years, until consumers finally get sick of being inconvenienced for the sake of the companies they buy from.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 14, 2005
April 14, 2005
bah tech

iomega_micro_mini.jpgYou might remember the flash drive to the right from such keychains as: my keychain. Well, treasure that memory, 'cause Iomega's keychain connector is a piece of junk. It broke once; I reattached it to a link higher up the chain. Now it's broken a second time, and my poor little flash drive is lost out in a big, uncaring world. Nothing too desperately important was on it, although there *is* an openVPN configuration file on there that would make it very easy for malevolent people to do bad things to my mom's PC.

Anyway, my point: these things are pleasantly tiny, but if you buy one don't use the hardware that comes with it.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
April 11, 2005
April 11, 2005
hurry up and let me waste my money tech

The next XBox will be revealed May 12 on MTV. Good for them -- I'm sure this will be a mostly information-free event ("new giga-X processing makes games 300% more extreme!"), but it's never made sense that new consoles are revealed at trade shows to hordes of slavering adult geeks. When you'll actually be able to buy one of these remains a mystery (Christmas seems like a good guess), but at least we'll have plenty of advance opportunity to dismantle our social and romantic lives to make way for all those additional gigapixels.

In related news, MS has also announced that new titles for the original XBox will be arriving through 2007. Sounds to me like a "no" vote on the new console being backward-compatible, but what do I know? Some people think it means exactly the opposite.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 31, 2005
March 31, 2005
lee, t tech

If you're of a certain inclination, you'll find this page a great way to waste time at work. It's the results of a survey of NMap users, revealing their favorite security tools -- "security" being to "hacking" as "liberation" is to "invasion". Frequently the difference is just a matter of perspective.

Anyway, there are a number of tools there that'll let you do sneaky things to other computer users, but the most accessible one -- and one of the coolest -- is a program called VisualRoute. It's made by these guys, and you can try it out for free. Better yet: there's a java version online! You'll need to give them your email address -- be sure to use SpamGourmet, as they specifically mention that you'll be signing up for their newsletter.

But once you've done that, you can play hacker just like they do in the movies, watching a snazzy map display each leg of network that your packets traverse to get to a given server. Okay, so it's just a fancy version of traceroute, which you already have on your computer -- but it's still a neat toy. And VisualRoute is a lot faster than sifting through traceroute data to tell where things are geographically located. A quick spin and I've confirmed that my mp3s really are coming from Moscow, that Kriston's art blog is served out of New York City (of course!), and that this site is hosted in Hong Kong, a fact I should have known but actually only dimly suspected.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 29, 2005
March 29, 2005
ourmedia sux0rs blog  - tech

I don't know if you all paid attention to the stories about OurMedia, the Internet Archive-sponsored initiative to provide free hosting for Creative Commons content. It's a nice idea, but I tried to use it to host the Polyphonic Spree-related sound files from the post below, and the experience was so buggy and tiresome that the related post ended up even less entertaining than it otherwise would have been. The registration system didn't work right the first two times I tried it, their client-side uploading tool didn't upload the larger file to my account properly, and I'm still waiting for the smaller clip to go live. Yeesh.

So screw it. Instead, I just put the files up on this server and used CORAL, a free content distribution system provided by NYU. I won't bore you with the details, but the ten second summary goes like this -- take some URL:

http://www.zunta.org/some_directory/some_big_imaginary_file.zip
and change it like so:
http://www.zunta.org.nyud.net:8090/some_directory/some_big_imaginary_file.zip
And CORAL will magically pick up the bandwidth bill for distributing that file. They've got a bandwidth limit, but I'm sure it's big -- Slashdot leans on CORAL from time to time to prevent the destruction of sites it links to. Not sure what their IP policy is, but you might want to have a look at it before you start up that MP3 blog you just thought of.

You'll still burn some bandwidth as CORAL periodically fetches the file from your server, but all in all it's a pretty slick solution. Worth a look if you've got something big to distribute that doesn't merit a torrent.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
looks like we've got ourselves a mystery, gang! music  - tech

Here's a story about how amazing technology is.

First up: the internet. Going through my daily work-avoidance kata, I found myself ambling through this blog's archives after going looking for something and getting lost. Eventually I stumbled across a review of a Polyphonic Spree show that I wrote a while ago.

That put me into a mood to listen to their latest CD, so on the walk home from work I started playing it through piece of technology number two: the Etymotic earphones that Catherine gave me for my birthday. Then a curious thing happened. Thanks to those little wonders, I heard something I had never heard before. On the final track of the CD (the title track -- "Together We're Heavy"), around the 2:36 mark a woman's voice starts whispering into your left ear. It's very quiet. Too quiet to make out the words.

So after getting home I fired up my copy of Goldwave, grabbed the MP3 off of our music server and started trying to extract the whisper.

Turns out it's a lot harder than they make it look on Alias. I tried a bunch of things, but the most successful seemed to be to throw out the right channel, run a bandpass filter to only keep frequencies within a range that (mostly) included the whispering, then normalize the track to bring the volume back up. Whispering is a nasty thing to extract, though. It's all sibilant and high frequency, with a broad frequency profile and (so far as I no) no one fundamental frequency. It also features occasional bursts of low-end that can't be chopped off without losing a lot of information. If a friendly audio engineer is passing by internet way I'd love to hear what the proper way to do this.

But, for now, this is all that I could come up with. By way of comparison, here's a snippet of the original. The whispering is more isolated, but it's still damn hard to tell what the hell is being said. I can't really make much of it out. I think it begins with "before anybody began ... created a giant banana ... the joint was filled with ...". Yes, I'm perfectly serious. Sounds like a Polyphonic creation myth to me, but I'd love to hear other theories.

I haven't forced my addled ears to listen to much more of this considerable segment of whispering, but if anyone feel like giving it a try, help yourselves.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 28, 2005
March 28, 2005
mgm v. grokster tech

I've just put something up about the case at BTD, and am not quite sure how to handle it. I said I'd cross-post tech articles, but this is only sort of a tech article. So maybe I'll just give you a link.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 25, 2005
March 25, 2005
more acceptable mayhem tech

For those interested, Bungie's finally released word on the downloadable content update for Halo 2. The short version: nine new maps released on a staggered basis beginning in late April. Half of them will be free from the get-go; all of them will be free by the end of the summer. Non-XBL users can buy a disc of them for $20; those who download the maps will presumably pay somewhat less than that.

Just in time for the sunny weather! This should help me maintain that robust pallor I've got going on.

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waiting for iphone tech

More news from the "cellphone companies are evil" department: the collaboration between Apple and Motorola to produce the long-sought iPod phone is going to be delayed. The reason? Cellphone carriers don't particularly like the idea of consumers being able to put music on their phones at-will; they'd rather have them pay for every song that gets loaded, like the current situation with ringtones.

It's more or less tradition at this point, so I'll just stick it in here: cyber-serfdom! Perpetual revenue streams! Naked bodies in gel-filled pods!

If the carriers don't play ball, a phone becomes a much tougher sell. Standard practice is for carriers to chop a couple hundred dollars off the price of a handset, shifting the cost into the service contract. If the network operators don't want a phone released, they can simply decline to offer this price-shifting system, and suddenly the phone costs $200 more than it otherwise would. And if you think those shifted costs would be deducted from customers' service contracts, you're nuts. Owning an iPhone would get real pricey, real fast.

Anyway, the situation isn't all that dire. As the article notes, the iPhone could be a big win for a slightly-less-evil-than-usual underdog like T-Mobile; alternately, Apple might just try to sell the device at the full-price premium -- it wouldn't be the first time people have shelled out for a sexy slab of plastic from Cupertino.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 23, 2005
March 23, 2005
said it once before but it bears repeating tech

I've mentioned Tor before in the context of BitTorrent, but now that I'm on a contract site, it's worth talking about its more traditional use: anonymous websurfing.

It's really, really easy to see the contents of traffic on the same subnet as your PC. Practically speaking, you're likely to be on the same subnet if you're plugged into the same router, and you're likely to share a router with other folks in your department, floor, office or building, depending on the size of your corporate overlords.

Don't believe me? Go download Ethereal and fire it up. It's not the most user-friendly app in the world, but you should be able to wrestle it into coughing up some packets, and if you sift through them you'll be able to find your coworkers' IM conversations, web surfing habits, and (frequently) email. Creepy, right?

Well, you can be sure that your company's IT department can do the same thing, only with a lot less effort. Do you really want them peering over your virtual shoulder? Of course not. I know what you've been looking at, you pervert.

So what's to be done? Simple. Encrypt all your traffic, for one. For another, send it zipping randomly throughout the internet so that your office geek can't see who your PC is talking to. This is exactly what Tor does. Go here and follow the instructions. You just need to install Tor and a piece of software called Privoxy. Both are free, and both are easy to install. You might also want to install a Firefox extension called SwitchProxy to let you easily turn the whole apparatus on and off.

Once you've got that up and running, it's as simple as selecting an item from a dropdown to send your web-surfing whizzing through random intermediaries, safely encrypted. Sure, things get slightly slower (slightly). But it's pretty cool to have your homepage pop up with a big "Auf gut Glck!" button: right now, Google thinks I'm in Germany.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 15, 2005
March 15, 2005
danger avoids its namesake tech

sidekick2.pngWe've been enjoying a flurry of technology purchases over here at zunta HQ. I'm sure Catherine will be introducing you all to her new laptop shortly. For my part (and as you've no doubt been irritated to find out if you've seen me in the past few days), I'm the proud owner of a new Sidekick 2.

It's pretty slick -- yeah, it's a little longer than my old color sidekick, but it's also flatter and lighter. And dig that color scheme! Very imperial stormtrooper. Better battery life and reception are on the feature list, but surely most important is the ability to buy useless accessories. I can even get it bedazzled!

Also included is the de rigeur shitty digital camera. It's not too bad in daylight:

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March 14, 2005
March 14, 2005
it couldn't be worse than ethanol tech

A few weeks back I wondered how the US economy could survive globalization and a bunch of friends wrote to me, both in comments and email, with helpful explanations and pointers toward various resources. Well, I at least learned that other, smarter people feel confident that everything will be just fine, dear.

But now things are starting to snap into focus. So what if we can't make pop culture, goods or services better than the developing world? We don't need comparative advantage for salvation -- we just need to start offering tax incentives to the magic bean industry.

Slashdot's got a story up today about gold farming in massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (delightfully abbreviated as MMORPGS). For a three-panel primer on gold farming, see this Penny Arcade comic strip. Or just listen to me.

See, MMORPGS are serious time commitments. Over the course of months or years you play a single character amongst a world of other human players, each dilligently guiding their avatar through successive levels of virtual proficiency. Frequently the tasks that must be performed to level up are pretty rote and boring -- find the same kind of monster and kill it over and over again, hoping this one will drop some gold or a rare piece of equipment. Elaborate virtual economies exist within these games, with auction houses, banks, and players grouping together and pooling resources as sorts of unregulated corporations (whose mission statements, if they had any, would always revolve around leveraging synergies to proactively kill monsters). As Clive Thompson Edward Castronova semi-famously discovered, one of these games, Everquest, has the world's 77th largest economy.

How can you arrive at a number like that when it's all just make-believe? Actually, as Thompson found, it's pretty easy: you can buy these make-believe currencies with real money. IGE is among the highest-profile of these traders. Right now a piece of gold in Everquest 2 can be bought for a shade under 45 cents; 20 million credits on Star Wars: Galaxies' "Shadowfire" server can be had for $150 dollars.

Here's where gold-farming comes in: it's really fucking boring to amass gold in these games. So these online currency exchanges pay people to sit in the game, stand by creature spawn points, kill them and collect the dropped currency and items. This has created problems for other, casual players of the games: for one thing, the not-actually-that-delicate monster ecosystem is thrown out of whack. For another, spoiled fourteen year olds can use mommy's VISA to ascend to the games' highest levels of mastery -- levels that rightly belong to the world's 40 year old virgins! Because while the meek shall inherit the earth, surely the geek should get dibs on the internet.

So the gold farmer is reviled by players, and companies are cracking down on them. But I think this might be just the sort of industry that the US should embrace. A promising sign is that American virtual currency trading houses are reputed to frequently hire Chinese gold farmers. That's right: we're already outsourcing the labor portion of the pretend economy we've set up! I envision a world where the invisible hand guides a cursor between a game window and its web browser, watching its bank ballance edge skyward as a happy customer on the other side of the world accepts delivery on a few kilobytes' worth of enchanted battle axe.

Special bonus benefit: with such a controllable and idealized set of market conditions, denizens of reality might actually be able to get the world's economists to leave us alone! Everybody wins!

Now: who wants to get in on the ground floor of a promisingly non-substantive business venture?

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 11, 2005
March 11, 2005
ipod linux tech

This time it isn't Linux running on your ipod -- it's Linux running off of your ipod. Load up the files and no matter how boned your PC becomes, you can boot into a version of Linux, complete with GUI, restore utilities and other goodies.

Sounds pretty neat, but it's actually somewhat more pointless than it sounds. Not all PCs can boot from USB devices yet, for one thing. For another, there are already plenty of Linux "live CDs" available: pop em in your CDROM drive, power up, and try out a new operating system -- all without installing a thing. Less sexy, I guess, but more practical. Have a look at Knoppix if you're feeling curious; if you're feeling mischievous, have a look at PHLAK.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 09, 2005
March 09, 2005
ready set wait tech

Quick note: BitTorrent 4 has been released. You don't need to do anything just yet, but you might want to start looking for updates to your BT client of choice.

The biggest change: BT traffic will now be marked with the "bulk data" tag. Supposedly this'll improve download speeds and lessen BT's impact on latency-sensitive applications like VoIP. In practice I'm guessing it'll mainly be used by ISPs to throttle your BT download speeds -- so there's another reason to wait. I'm sure somebody will offer a configuration option to flip the bulk data tag off.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 06, 2005
March 06, 2005
vpn howto tech

The sad thing is that I've been waiting for months to write this post, hoping for a working proof-of-concept to come online at my office before I recommend the setup to anyone else. Well, let it never be said that the Wheels of Commerce turn quickly. Compared to the Wheels of Wanting To Avoid Driving Out To Fix Your Mom's Computer, they barely turn at all.

See, my mom lives in Annandale, and a month or so ago she acquired a new computer. Being tech support to the world, I have to work on this a lot. Worse, I stupidly got her an iPod shuffle, making my duties as a filial technophile that much more hopeless. I needed a way to get to her computer without getting to Annandale. I found a great solution; maybe you'll find it useful, too.

So what I'm about to outline is a secure way to remotely access your home network using only free software. The secret to this is a great piece of open source software called OpenVPN. Not only is it free, it's in many ways preferable to commercial VPN products that use the overly complex and problem-ridden IPSec specification. With OpenVPN set up you can securely use any resource on your LAN, be it a file share, FTP server or printer. You can even remotely control your computers by using another free application called VNC. It's this application that lets me manage my mom's computer by remote, so I'll cover installing that, too.

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comments [15] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 04, 2005
March 04, 2005
digitally watching your digital watch tech

Via Slashdot, check out this article. A UCSD grad student named Tadayoshi Kohno has published an interesting paper outlining a way to fingerprint computers remotely.

The trick is to analyze the timestamps on packets. Like a postmark, timestamps are sometimes applied to outgoing parcels of data to help the routing systems that will carry them work more efficiently: knowing when a message originated can help order it, determine when clogs occur, and otherwise optimize traffic.

The sneaky part is Kohno's realization that these timestamps might reflect a phenomenon called clock drift. See, the crystal in your computer doesn't keep perfect time -- it's more precise than accurate, incrementing a very reliable amount that is usually somewhat different from the intended amount. As time passes, the clock gets further and further out of sync with "real" time. Thanks to handy software, your clock might resynchronize with an online atomic clock or otherwise be periodically adjusted, but the rate of drift remains fairly constant. Kohno has shown that even though the clock used for timestamps is usually one or more layers abstracted from your system clock, it still reflects the same drift -- regardless of your operating system.

The result is that a system could collect an apparently undifferentiable batch of transmissions from a group of computers, then sort them out by their clock drift. Even if your physical location, IP address, operating system and connection method all change, you can be fingerprinted based on your clock drift. And it can be done from anywhere on the internet.

Time to start furiously deleting those naughty BitTorrent downloads? Well, not yet. The process only extracts six bits of significant data -- get a crowd of more than 60some computers together and some of the clock drifts will be statistically identical. Still, you can bet the NSA and other internet boogeymen are paying attention to this: as a supplemental means of identification, it could be pretty useful for tying together seemingly-unconnected pieces of evidence, as if a series of mailbombs with varying postmarks were suddenly all found to be addressed in the same handwriting.

The real fix would be to drop the timestamps -- they're not a mandatory part of the TCP/IP spec. I'm sure some paranoid open source hackers will roll out a Linux distro that does just that, but it seems unlikely that Microsoft and Apple will see any value in doing so. A more likely mainstream fix? Someone will write a little system-tray app that constantly jiggers your clock by a few fractions of a millisecond. Keep your darting eyes peeled, my friends.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 03, 2005
March 03, 2005
requiem for a gizmo tech

So how about those cell phones? Lots of little parts, huh? Well, see for yourself:

sidekick_guts.jpg

I've at least got a working theory as to what happened. The battery (which still holds a charge) is connected to the system by a just-a-little-too-short ribbon cable. The last time I remember having a working SK in my hand, I was performing a stupid little trick where I toss it while it's opening, and the screen clicking into place sends it whirling into my other hand. In practice it probably just looks like I'm chucking it from one hand to another, but it feels cool -- lots of unexpecting torque and chunky noises and whatnot. Yeah, I'm a dork.

This ill-advised little maneuver probably rattles the insides quite a bit, and my best guess is that this nudged the poorly-designed ribbon cable out of position with the circuitry it's supposed to power. Whoops!

Well, it's great that I think I know what's wrong, but getting this thing back together is a whole other matter. There are five distinct layers going on, a magnet that fell out from god knows where, and I twisted the screen cable more than I should have while trying to disassemble it. With the odds of a successful reassembly plummeting, I think I'll bite the bullet and buy an SK2. Unfortunately, no store in the DC metro region appears to have any in stock.

Oh, and in case anyone stumbles in from google: this guy is who I should have been listening to for disassembly instructions.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
March 01, 2005
March 01, 2005
high FUDelity tech

The Post has got an article up today covering the current state of the online music services. It's fairly content-free, but mostly inoffensive: some college kids say they'll buy all their music when they graduate, and some industry execs think they're finally finding their way in the digital age. Of course, virtually every engineer I knew in college thought they'd be making six figures immediately after graduation, and the music industry's online strategy involves suing twelve year-olds. There's no reason to pop either of these bubbles: they're self-popping. Just wait.

But the article does spew a bit of misinformation toward the end that's worth correcting.

The company that did the most to get legal downloading off the ground may also be the lead weight on a market whose consumers like to shift among different players and services, taking their libraries with them. In addition to shutting out Napster, Apple also prompts iPod owners to use iTunes as their PC media player and online music store, making it difficult or even impossible to buy tracks from other retailers and move them directly to their devices. About 90 percent of the hard-drive-based music players sold in the United States are iPods, according to Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster.

"Apple has opted to keep iPod proprietary and not let people who own them choose how they want to get digital music," Harris said.

Representatives for Apple reached by telephone and e-mail repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this story. While its adherence to a proprietary model may eventually become an obstacle to widespread adoption, Apple's strategy is sound business and unlikely to change any time soon, said Gartner G2 analyst Mike McGuire.

"In a perfect world it would all be interoperable, and everybody would make money, but in a market-driven world, is there a business case to be made for making the iPod interoperable? I don't know," McGuire said. Apple chief Steve Jobs "is doing what any business would do," he added.

Ah, "journalistic balance". In this case, though, the fair and balanced other side is, "That's the market for you! Apple's doing what it's got to do!"

But painting Apple as the outlier is inaccurate. Microsoft has assembled a consortium of content providers and portable player manufacturers around its WMA format, and the Post is acting like this is a well-respected standard. It's not. Apple has the larger marketshare, and its preferred AAC format -- unlike WMA -- is an ISO standard that can be used by programmers without paying licensing fees to Microsoft. It's also considered to be technically superior. With a quarter billion songs sold and commanding marketshare in the portable player market, it's Microsoft and its PlaysForSure consortium that's bucking the standard.

Shame on the Post for falling for MS's ridiculous marketing. Sure, Bill has assembled a broad coalition of allies, but they're the ones attempting to assert a proprietary stranglehold on the market. They're facing an uphill battle that can't be won on the merits -- so it'll be PR efforts like this article that lead the way. They're counting on stooge articles like this one.

Oh, and that bit about iPod users having no choices besides iTunes? Not true. Not at all.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
February 25, 2005
February 25, 2005
mainstream media tech

Ah, the simple joys of data archiving. The click of the spindle cover; the smooth line of the constant angular velocity test; the gentle whizz! of Sharpie intoxication.

You see, I finally bought a DVD burner. Prices have gotten quite low, and so has my available disc space, so I picked up this sucker from NewEgg -- a BenQ DW1620. Our relationship got off to a rocky start: despite having installed dozens if not hundreds of optical drives in friends' PCs, I managed not only to put my new prize in upside down but to forget to plug any cables in prior to closing the case. That's not like me at all! I *love* plugging cables into things!

That problem corrected, I found myself in posession of a sleek, high-tech means of manufacturing reasonably priced drink coasters. Reflashed the firmware to an older version, and bang! Success. I'm merrily archiving our music collection, guarding against the inevitable yet never-foreseen infocalypse. It was this or buy a new hard drive and figure out how to set up software RAID in Linux.

I'm also backing up some old movies on the server so that I can delete them to free up some space. I'm a bit of a digital pack-rat. You'll never know when that Pascal version of Tetris you wrote in 10th grade will come in handy, after all. So the first disc I successfully burned holds XviD versions of Alien vs. Predator, Blade Trinity, Van Helsing and Wimbledon. Obviously it'd be a tragedy if these were lost to the aether.

This is one of those tech purchases that I'm completely convinced will change my life for the better in immediate and important ways. I have no idea what those ways are, but it's a pretty safe bet that they'll require that I spend more money.

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February 23, 2005
February 23, 2005
hilton hacking update pop culture  - tech

Turns out I misspoke yesterday when I wrote about Paris Hilton's Sidekick getting hacked. Although all T-Mobile user accounts were hacked a while ago, that isn't what happened to Paris. Engadget reports that the crafty thieves just managed to guess the answer to Hilton's lost password question -- "what's your favorite pet's name?"

So I suppose it's kind of a punishment for her television show... I guess. I was sort of hoping for something involving skewers.

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where's an EE when you need him? oh, right: boston tech

Hackaday has a great little article on getting started with BASIC STAMP microcontrollers. These are little programmable chips that help bridge the gap between the world of software nerdery and less-accessible hardware geekdom.

But browsing through the comments on that post confuses the issue. Everyone seems to agree that BASIC STAMPs, while something of a standard, are a huge ripoff. Proposed alternatives include the PICAXE and Atmel AVRs. Both are much cheaper, but probably not as well supported (in terms of tutorials, software and the like).

So, to any fellow nerds out there: do you have any recommendations? How hard is it to switch platforms once you've learned the basics? I know both the stamp and the PICAXE support basic, while the AVR claims to support C (and definitely supports assembly). Less money spent on the chip means better quality components for the robotic flamethrower it'll be controlling.

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February 22, 2005
February 22, 2005
because the word "socialism" is terrifying politics  - tech

A while ago I wrote about Verizon's efforts to block the city of Philadelphia's plan to offer municipal broadband. Unfortunately this phenomenon seems to be spreading. Legislative enshrinement of private monopolies... catch it!

Alright, the slogan might need to be punched up a little. But the print campaign is coming along nicely: FreePress.net has got a good map showing the progress of this kind of legislation around the country. Hey, Virginia legislators: thanks SO MUCH for saving me from the scourge of cheap internet access. You guys have really been on a roll lately.

Okay, actually the Virginia barriers to municipal broadband are among the least onerous of those of the states with relevant legislation. But still.

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phreaking out tech

If you've been doing your duty as an American media consumer, you're aware of the following recent developments:

Yes yes, it's all very titillating, but what about the cell phone?!?!

Well, the Sidekick hacking thing happened because SK data is mirrored to T-Mobile's servers. It's a neat feature that lets you use your phone's address book over the web and ensures that you'll never lose your data. Someone broke into that server and could consequently help themselves to a copy of the data on an SK user's phone. The hack affected all T-Mobile SK users, so yes, I too am dreading seeing Gawker post that photo of Aaron bowling I took that one time. I'm sure they'll get to it any day now, and it will be devastating.

But now Paris' voicemail has been hacked, too. Or, more accurately, phreaked, the term of art for hacking phone systems. Interestingly, this was done through means unconnected to the SK data theft. And unsettlingly, the exploit used might be applicable to your voicemail, too.

Kevin Rose has the scoop, but it's simple enough to summarize. There exist various services allowing users to fake Caller ID information -- you dial into a system and it places a call with customized caller ID info, then connects you. This can make for some great pranks.

Unfortunately, Caller ID appears to be the security measure used by T-Mobile, Sprint and perhaps others to let users avoid entering their PIN every time they call to check their messages. So if you want to get into someone's messages you just need to place a spoofed call from their number into the voicemail system -- usually accessible by calling the mobile number in question when you know it won't be picked up. Oof. Not great, guys.

More worrying: the fact that credit card activation is frequently confirmed via Caller ID. Businesses might want to think about leaning on this insecure system a bit less. In the meantime, you might want to turn off automatic voicemail login if you've got any messages you don't want to share with nosy friends.

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February 18, 2005
February 18, 2005
more bang for your bitrate science  - tech

Yesterday I promised in comments to figure out how lossless compression algorithms work. Lossless compression schemes are those that let you store a signal without losing any information -- think of ZIP files, for example. Turns out my top-of-my-head theoretical explanation wasn't bad -- a bunch of lossless compression algorithms do work similarly, and it's a set-in-stone fact that a lossless codec will make some worst-case files larger than they started out.

But I was specifically asked about FLAC, a lossless codec designed for audio. FLAC can take PCM data (a digital audio signal) and compress it to anywhere from 30-70% of its original size without losing any data. Neat. But how does it work?

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picking a fight music  - tech

Scott Moschella's conducting an interesting experiment. He bought and downloaded a track from the iTunes Music Store, violated the DMCA by using JHymn to remove its copy protection, then placed it on his website and invited visitors to download it. The catch: the song, from Sonic Youth side-project Ciccone Youth, consists of 1:03 of silence.

Will Sonic Youth come after Moschella? Will the RIAA? Will John Cage's estate sue everybody? Stay tuned.

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February 17, 2005
February 17, 2005
¡digital audio extravaganza! music  - science  - tech

I called Napster a "bad brand" a few days ago, but I've got to admit that there seems to be a certain magic to it. In the past couple of days I've had a lot of friends IMing and emailing me about the various ways of turning Napster's DRM'ed WMA files into other, unprotected formats.

Well, yes, you can do that. As I noted in the original post, you can use Winamp's out_lame plugin to encode to MP3. The Napster trick making the rounds uses the Output Stacker plugin (which has since been pulled from AOL-owned Winamp's website), but the principle is the same -- I haven't tried it, but I imagine Output Stacker might let you transfer ID3 information so you don't have to retag your music, but there is very little difference from the out_lame solution, technically speaking.

Thing is, this is nothing new.

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February 14, 2005
February 14, 2005
for god's sake, somebody teach me econ politics  - tech

Yglesias' observation that the Democrats ought to figure out what they think about globalization got me wondering what I think about it. Allow me to preface this by pointing out that it's a cry for help: honestly, I don't know jack about this stuff and am hoping someone can explain it to me. So here's my thinking.

In the past my intuition has been that globalization will mostly be a race to the bottom -- can global economic growth really occur quickly enough to offset the diffusion of wealth from the first world? Given the gaping divide between American prosperity and the rest of the world's relative poverty, it at least seems like the answer is probably "no". I understand that assuming a zero-sum situation is a classic mistake in economics, but assuming growth will fix everything also seems myopic.

I have no doubt that globalization will increase the planet's net wealth -- to the extent that this is true it seems like we have a moral imperative not to oppose it. But I'm not convinced that everyone will come out a winner; nor am I convinced that protectionism is as futile as some people suggest. I know there are important human rights and environmental considerations to be sorted out, but my thinking generally arrives at the conclusion that Americans have an ethical obligation not to fight globalization, and that we're going to end up mostly getting screwed by it.

Yesterday's adventures with AllOfMP3 has got me thinking that this problem might be worse than I'd imagined. In globalization fans' rosiest storytime fables the US stays healthy and wealthy by virtue of being wise: we export parts of that wonderful Information Economy we've got going and in return the developing world sends us cargo ships full of injection-molded plastic lawn furniture.

The internet seems to be teaching us a couple of important lessons about how this arrangement is going to work, or fail to. First, if you want to sell information it needs to be priced affordably or it'll simply be stolen. Related but separate is the idea that the market in which it's sold needs to prosecute piracy. China's the classic example of these prerequisites not being met -- foreign music and movies are too expensive and enforcement is lax, so piracy occurs on a truly mammoth scale.

But how can you price information elastically across the world when network technology eliminates all trade barriers? Obviously this problem is worst at the consumer level of IP-purchasing, but it seems like the principle will broadly scale: IP owners will be pushed toward using a single price point, and will consequently either be unable to optimally sell their product overseas or will take a huge cut in their domestic revenues. Artificial measures like DVD region codes are feeble stopgaps -- it's easy to find a $40 player that ignores them completely. And so far, intellectual property treaties don't seem to have done much good -- what incentive does the Chinese government have to protect Hollywood?

Maybe I'm too dumb to see the alternative, but I can't figure out a way to sell intellectual property more effectively than manufactured goods. Combined with a rapidly declining monopoly on high-tech innovation -- most chip fabrication happens in Asia, you know -- I'm not feeling too good about America's economic prospects. Maybe we'll invent flying cars or fusion energy generators or an amazing new kitchen utensil that grips, flips, scoops AND strains. But assuming for a moment that such a miracle doesn't occur, what's going to save us?

Well, probably I just don't understand econ and everything will be fine. But so far I haven't been able to understand why that is.

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February 13, 2005
February 13, 2005
we get letters tech

Over the weekend my friend Jeff, who really ought to know better, foolishly asked me to opine on Napsters new music service, and to explain whether theres a Hymn equivalent for removing its copy protection. Hah! A voluntary technical question! Better put on a pot of coffee, suckers.

The premise is this: for $14.99 a month you get all-you-can-eat privileges at the Napster buffet. Downloaded tracks will play on your computer or your Napster-approved portable music player. But you dont get to burn them to CD without paying an extra 99 cents per track, and when you cancel your subscription all of the songs for which you havent purchased burning privileges will stop working thanks to the magic of Microsofts Windows Media 9 Digital Rights Management system.

As you might have gleaned from their hilariously ineffective Superbowl ad, Napster reckons this is a good deal since itd allegedly cost $10,000 to purchase and fill up an iPod with Apples music store. First: ten grand? Hah. Second: this is still only a good deal if you plan on dying within 55 years or so.

On the upside, a few more evenings like Saturdays Mousetrap and I wont be able to hear much anyway. Plus, you can stretch even more value out of this deal, particularly given the free trials currently being offered. Programs like TuneBite are cheap and promise to convert your DRM-protected WMA files to un-DRM-able MP3s. There are downsides -- TuneBite is fairly slow and involves a digital > analog > digital process that will produce varying results depending on the quality of your soundcard. A less user-friendly but technically better solution is to use Winamps out_lame plugin to skip past your soundcards lousy digital/analog converter. Youll still be losing some quality theres no helping that when you encode from one lossy format to another. Also, the ID3 information wont be set automatically the way it is by TuneBite but with a little effort, this method should get you a large number of serviceable MP3s for not a lot of money.

But I still hate this. Okay, I admit it -- I just hate Napster in general. Their software started out buggy and ended up bloated. Their technical model was inherently vulnerable. They were cocksure and unafraid when they should have been, then panicky and useless when the shoe inevitably dropped. I realize this new service has little to do with the Napster of yore, what with Shawn Fanning doing show-pony duty elsewhere in a lame attempt to latch onto the RIAAs withering teat. But this is still a bad deal from a bad brand.

I could go all crazy on you and scream about how businesses are trying to convert all commerce to a license model, wherein nobody owns anything and our lives are lived at the pleasure of corporate behemoths for the low low price of a few dozen monthly subscription fees. Dont sign me up for the Presidents ownership society mumbo jumbo, but I am keen to hang onto ownership in general.

But I wont wander off on that tangent. Instead, allow me to offer you a superior alternative to Napster -- and iTunes, for that matter. You mightve heard of AllOfMP3. Turns out its not just a way for the mafia to harvest credit card numbers! Theyre based in Russia, and offer a unique music store model: rather than paying by the track, customers pay by the megabyte. You wont pay much, though. The current rate is a measly two cents per meg. You can choose your encoding format and bitrate, too, anywhere from 128 kbps MP3 to lossless, CD-quality FLAC (on the newer tracks; older ones top out at 384 VBR MP3).

Amazingly, it seems to be legal. The same tangled nest of laws thats paving the way for a fresh new autocracy also gives an organization called ROMS the authority to sell licenses for any recordings released in Russia. That puts a limit on AllOfMP3s catalog, but its not a particularly bad one. The official Unrequited Narcissism Impossibly Limited Test Of Musical Scope (UNILTOMS) reveals a distinct lack of Arcade Fire, but available copies of both Ted Leos newest and the A.C. Newman record. Not bad. And don't worry about that unfortunate "foreign"ness -- theyve got excellent English translators working everywhere but the news page. Finally, music-loving youngsters can get in on the fun of importing American products from foreign countries. Take that, you drug-loving seniors!

Im sure the ROMS loophole will be closed eventually, but who knows when? It seems like Russian democracy has got bigger problems at the moment than protecting the RIAAs business model. Even if its eventually closed, Ill still be steering clear of Napsters subscription service. DRM makes consumers pay more for less, and it shouldnt be encouraged. If you want free music well, you already know how to get it, and doing so is a lot easier than converting Napster's songs to MP3. If you want a simple and lawsuit-free music source, look no further than AllOfMP3. The nerdiness of the piratical cutting edge will no doubt keep me interested in the Soulseeks of the world, but Ive enjoyed tonights brush with legitimacy: I just put together an embarrassing-yet-undeniable 22-song boy band mix and downloaded it for about 45 Rubles. In case you havent checked in on your Russian currency market securities lately well, maybe you should sit down first.

Anyway, once my BSB-heavy queue finishes up I think Ill grab the Kanye West album, even though Charles copy is about fifty feet away. Thats right: weve finally reached the point where the price of music is less than the mental toll of standing up to get a CD. I guess we could all see this coming, but it still seems like an important moment in Internet history.

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February 11, 2005
February 11, 2005
boo! tech

Have a look at LokiTorrent's homepage (UPDATE: the page has been taken down for some reason, but you can find a copy over at MirrorDot). Scary! The MPAA's coming to get us! Well, two things:

  1. LokiTorrent initially set up a paypal legal defense fund to fight the MPAA, collecting several thousand dollars. Then this comes up. Nice, guys. Very nice.
  2. Actually, you can click and hide. I wouldn't suggest relying on my internet privacy tips if you're planning on committing corporate espionage or emailing around nuclear secrets. But it seems safe to say that if the MPAA needs to issue multiple subpoenas across multiple countries in order to punish you for downloading that copy of Blade 3 they'll probably elect to go after lower-hanging fruit. So get yourself a copy of Azureus and a SOCKS proxy; or better yet, download Tor and point Azureus at that.

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headaches blog  - tech

evox m8 logoYeesh! My heartfelt apologies for the lack of updates. Catherine's been adjusting to her recent promotion to Associate Box Mover at work, and I've been running to Capitol Hill on a near-daily basis to pick up the slack left by a less-than-dilligent coworker. The limited technical energies I can muster have been spent screaming at the BTD folks that they're totally all cogs in the machine, maan, and wrestling with Jon and Paul's XBoxes.

Ahh, the XBoxes. You might remember when Jon and I spread the poor machines' guts throughout the apartment prior to frying their tiny electronic brains. Well, I got a reprogrammer and put the appropriate BIOS on the chip. I acquired and installed a ready-to-go suite of apps called "Slayer's XBox AutoInstaller" that featured dragon graphics. Then -- more problems.

This won't interest anyone else, probably, but I had to search all over the goddamn internet for the solution to my problem, so I'm writing it down here, if only to allow others to find it, Google permitting.

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February 07, 2005
February 07, 2005
the big picture: smaller moving pictures tech

Tyler Cowen's got a post up offering an economist's perspective on filesharing (link via BTD). Its three parts are short, and so will be my responses.

1. In ten year's time, what will happen to the DVD and pay-for-view trades? ... a song download can be a loss leader for an entire CD or a concert tour. Downloading an entire movie does not prompt a person to spend money in comparable fashion.

No argument here. I believe that filesharing will flatten musicians' incomes, and that -- counterintuitively -- this will actually raise the quality of the product available by improving the signal/noise ratio of the marketplace. But for movies, this is going to be a real problem. Technology may democratize the process in the same way that it has music, letting anyone with a couple thousand dollars produce a professional-quality product. But it seems likely that the barriers to entry will still remain relatively higher, and certain types of movies -- effects-heavy scifi epics spring to mind -- will doubtless be selected against as their high budgets create a substantial base cost and their tech-savvy fanbase steals the final product freely.

2. Perhaps we can make file-sharing services identify (and block) illegally traded files.

This badly misunderstands the technical situation. Certainly you can legislate such a thing, but until US IP law extends across the globe (and enforcement improves by orders of magnitude) this is pragmatically untenable. The industry can respond in an ad-hoc manner by both finding and prosecuting violators and injecting junk into P2P networks. But the collective distributed intelligence of thousands of users will filter out that junk and find new ways to trade their files, and there *are* decent ways to make finding violators sufficiently difficult to be effectively impossible. The next increase in processing power and bandwidth may not revolutionize the way we trade media in terms of speed -- it could be that the revolution will lie in bringing truly anonymous FreeNet-style systems up to current technology's speeds.

3. I question the almost universal disdain for the "Micky Mouse" copyright extension act... Economic research indicates that current cash flow is a very good predictor of investment. So the revenue in fact stimulates additional investment in creative outputs... We are fooling ourselves if we deny that the extension will benefit artistic output, at least in the United States.

From an economic standpoint, perhaps -- if we're going to measure artistic output by some kind of universal metric, then yes, Disney keeping the rights to Mickey will result in them getting more money, which will result in more Mickey utilization. But surely that can't be considered useful artistic output -- once we're 75 years out, who cares how good the cartoon mouse on your Taco Bell commemorative cup is? I suppose commercial Mickey-driven success may result in more money being invested in Disney, which could then presumably be spent on the creation of new characters. But I think you'd have to show that this would increase the content industry's total share of the investment pie -- and I'm not convinced of that.

Even if it does, is it worthwhile? We don't give NEA grants to NBC, after all. Improving society's creative output is a worthwhile goal that we can talk about implementing, but are we really so sure that it's a good idea to rob from the commons in order to provide an intellectual subsidy to entrenched copyright holders? It seems like an awfully regressive way to subsidize the arts. I can't say I'm convinced.

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security tech

Two quick security links

  • Kazaa is even worse than you thought: not only is it chock-full of malware, it also keeps track of your downloads.
  • Boston's South Station's got wifi security problems. This whitepaper is kind of silly -- the author's self-serious adoption of the "white hat hacker" monicker is a bit much, considering that the exploit he used was guessing some abysmally bad passwords. But it does provide a decent entry-level overview of how not to run a professional wifi access service.

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February 02, 2005
February 02, 2005
delusions of grandeur blog  - tech

I see now that the YouSendIt link that I picked up came from Nick Denton's latest blog startup, LifeHacker. Credit where it's due, I suppose, but to be honest LifeHacker doesn't yet seem very impressive to me. Obviously you're not going to earn my nerdmiration by penning phrases like "the software thats closest to making BitTorrent usable". Bah! The fact that some XP-only tricks aren't designated as such, and that the site has already begun repeating itself (via unnecessary "review" posts) isn't encouraging.

The problem here is that existing Gawker tech site, Gizmodo, has been getting its brains beaten out by rival Engadget for months now. I've got no idea how their traffic compares, but Engadget is faster to post stories, covers more items, and has considerably more technical depth. I still love Gizmodo's snappy writing, but it's just not a go-to tech blog. I guess LifeHacker is supposed to flesh out Gizmodo's missing bits, but so far it isn't providing a very compelling justification for its existence separate from Gizmodo.

If you still have a technical itch that needs scratching, though, you'd do pretty well to visit these sites (plus the aforementioned Engadget):

  • Hack-A-Day - infrequent updates, but if you're as intent on electrocuting yourself as I am, this is the place to start.
  • TheBroken - nothing much other than episode downloads are currently available, but updates are pending. For a while, though, its message boards were an amazingly friendly resource for 14 year old aspiring hackers. I mean that in a good way.
  • Digg - Collaborative nerd news filtering. It's getting pimped pretty heavily by TheBroken's Kevin Rose and his orbiting array of TechTV castoffs. It's not bad, but I'm not completely sold on it quite yet.
  • Dan's Data - I've mentioned it in passing before, but this site isn't just about magnets and rubberband guns. It's also about belittling audiophiles. Oh, and tech stuff.

Finally, I would normally mention LearnToHack -- it doesn't live up to its domain name, but it is a decent way to learn how to subvert various types of websites, mostly through manipulating HTML and javascript. Unfortunately, it looks like one of their students just completed his thesis...

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February 01, 2005
February 01, 2005
speaking of email tech

I just discovered YouSendIt earlier today -- I wish I'd known about it yesterday, when I made my laptop spend hours shoving a 70MB archive up through a slow SMTP connection, emailing it piece-by-piece to a friend.

YouSendIt aims to make email transfers of large files easy. While almost all mail services cap individual attachment sizes at 5 megabytes or less, YSI lets users send chunks of data up to 1 gigabyte at a time. Go to their site, specify a destination address and upload the file using a simple web form. The recipient will get an email containing a link that'll allow them to download the attachment from YouSendIt's servers. Simple.

What's not so clear is how YouSendIt intends to make any money off of this little scheme. For that reason I'll be sure I use the just-mentioned SpamGourmet whenever I utilize YouSendIt's service. If the recipient doesn't have a SG account you can always send the email to your own, then communicate the YSI link to your buddy through a private email. Zipping up your files into a password-protected archive probably isn't a bad idea, either. It's not exactly a secure solution, but it should at least be enough to keep YouSendIt from automatically poking through your files for who-knows-what.

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let's avoid the monty python reference tech

Spam! Everyone's talking about it, I guess because of today's NYTimes article. All parties seem to agree that the CAN-SPAM act is pretty useless and that the problem is getting worse. So what's to be done about it?

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January 31, 2005
January 31, 2005
super mario kart pop culture  - tech

I'll fess up: I like talk radio. I start most days listening to the Tony Kornheiser Show, then Don and Mike in the afternoon. NPR fills the lunchtime gap. Occasionally I'll even drag out Charles' XM receiver and turn on Al Franken's show. I know it's not good for me, but it's easier than picking out music.

It's a shame that I mostly listen on weekdays, though -- in the DC area, Saturdays are when things get really good. I'm thinking in particular of This American Life and Studio 360. I usually prefer TAL, but this week's Studio 360 was all about videogames -- so naturally I was intrigued. You can find the "this week's show" page here; it looks like eventually the videogame episode will move to the archives here.

The episode was quite good, providing listeners with a quick background summary before launching into a piece on how games affect people and a segment on the military's use of game-like simulators for training. All of this was tied together by insightful banter between Kurt Andersen and Clive Thompson, Slate's videogame critic.

But the most interesting segment focused on an guy named Cory Arcangel, an artist who uses old NES cartridges as his medium. Arcangel's been shown at the Whitney Biennial, where, among other things, he displayed what seems to be his most heralded work: a piece called Super Mario Clouds. SMC is an installation of three projectors showing a looping animation of clouds coming from a hacked Super Mario cartridge. It looks like this (taken from Arcangel's site):

Super Mario Clouds, by Cory Arcangel

This may seem a bit silly and frivolous. I think that's normal; it's pop art, after all. Irritating though these NES references may be, we're only going to see more of them. The MiniBosses are enjoying considerable success doing rock covers of songs from classic videogames; and apparel pushing 8-bit nostalgia is keeping our nation's unemployed musicians warm. It makes perfect sense: loving videogames is as close to a universal boyhood experience as anything. It's a touchstone, and both marketers and artists are going to use that to their advantage.

But which is Arcangel? I can't say that I'm sure. Looking at a sampling of his work confronts the tech-savvy viewer with a chicken and egg problem. Much of his art can have conceptual significance ascribed to it -- but did Arcangel himself know the piece's meaning prior to its completion? Customized Nintendo games will no doubt seem novel and impressive to the normal, non-geeky art-lover. But people have been hacking cartridges for a while without demanding artistic kudos. Making Tetris insanely slow only requires the alteration of a few bytes of the game's code. So Arcangel isn't inventing a new type of canvas, or even pushing the boundaries of an established one. It therefore seems critically important to know whether he's coming up with new ideas, or just a new way of marketing a dorky hobby.

The case for Arcangel as a serious artist trying to communicate his ideas isn't helped by stupid, jokey pieces like NIpod -- a hacked cartridge with an iPod-like interface that can play the likes of Weezer and Lil John; or I Shot Andy Warhol, a modification of the light-gun game Hogan's Alley that turns the bad guys into pixellated Warhols; or, most despicably, Doogle, a version of Google that only returns results related to the show Doogie Howser, M.D.. These last three works all seem pretty lousy to me, but they're also considerably more complex technical achievements than the relatively pleasing Super Mario Clouds, adding to the possibility of SMC and Arcangel's other best pieces being merely the good bits culled from mountains of thoughtless technical noodling.

I think this opens up a more fundamental question about artists and the materials they use. Arcangel seems beholden to his medium. Did he conceive of Super Mario Clouds and then decide to implement it? Or was he fucking around with ROM hacking and realized he could market a sub-par tech demo as art? I don't know the answer to that, but I think the line between those processes marks the delineation between "art" and "arts & crafts". I suppose this puts me in the unpleasantly complicated camp of believing a piece of art can't be divorced from its creator's intent and personal history. But for all the pretension and subjectivity such a stance introduces, it still seems preferable to getting suckered by endless medium-specific variations on solarized photos: engaging tricks with meaning ascribed only after their fabrication.

Unfortunately it also means I won't really know what I think about Arcangel's work until I know exactly how he makes it.

comments [7] trackBack [1] posted by tom - link
January 30, 2005
January 30, 2005
nerding it up photos  - tech

Stare into the voided warranty long enough, and the voided warranty begins to stare back at you.

Last night Jon and I set out to install modchips on his and our buddy Paul's XBoxes. For those who're scratching their heads: mod chips let you override the XBox's BIOS, and with it the unit's factory-specified hardware limitations. This effectively turns the console into a general purpose computer that happens to have a great interface for games and video output. After you've chipped an XBox it can be used to watch movies, play old NES and SNES videogames or even run a webserver.

Paul couldn't join us for this fun-fest -- he lives in San Francisco -- but he bought some of the components while he was in town for the holidays, then shipped the rest here so that I could do the install.

Well, 7 seven hours later I'd managed to break both modchips by improperly upgrading their BIOSes. God dammit. This seemed much easier when I did it to my own XBox. The situation is fixable, but it'll be a pain. The only worthwhile product of our efforts yesterday? Some pictures of the apartment with electronic entrails spread throughout.

jon.jpg

More after the cut.

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January 28, 2005
January 28, 2005
a digital ACLU tech

You've got to love the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Okay, so their mission isn't quite as critical as that of the volunteers who provide legal advice to arrested protesters, or fight to keep our science classrooms reality-based. But it's still nice to know that somebody's poised to save fourteen year-old music lovers from the predations of the content industry.

They've been doing a particularly great job lately. I wrote about the EFF-sponsored Tor Project previously -- to recap, it's a network of proxies designed to allow easy anonymous communication over the internet. I expressed some worries about it initially, but it turns out that Tor is better than I thought. By default you don't route other people's traffic -- I don't know if this will work very well if the project becomes popular, but for now it means that you can use the system without worrying about getting subpoenaed for other folks' network use. And it's easy to install -- even on Linux. Once you've got it running it works as a SOCKS proxy, meaning that you can easily point a vast array of applications at it and it'll Just Work. The Azureus BitTorrent client seems especially well-suited to Tor-ifying, having settings for a SOCKS proxy (and being written in java, it'll run on any platform). To anonymize your web browsing you'll have to jump through a few more hoops, but all in all it's pretty seamless. Azureus loses a bit of speed (and compatibility with ratio-enforcing trackers), but it's nice to be able to run a worry-free BT client.

So the EFF is doing a great job technically -- but it's also making some slick PR moves. Check out their just-published List of Endangered Gizmos. Is that great or what? It provides a simple, concrete way for people to understand the current battles in the war over Digital Rights Management, and couches the EFF position in a sympathetic spotted-owlish metaphor. Okay, so it may not be 100% accurate -- outlawing digital/analog converters isn't very realistic, although their inclusion on the list makes a good symbolic point about the "analog hole". But it's a nice, press-release-ready way to get people's attention. Keep it up, guys.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
January 26, 2005
January 26, 2005
idiocy! tech

I'm sorry to geek out so hard twice in a row, but this story is driving me nuts. It's short, but if you don't care to read it, it's basically a quick analysis of a patent filed by ATI for part of the graphics chip that will show up in the next generation of the XBox console. And it's full of bullshit:

The patent, we think, is part of the effort to get CMOS processing - as in traditional processors - and dynamic logic processing - as in supercomputers - working on the same chip. Dynamic logic works at far faster speeds, hence the need for an integrated circuit to regulate the switching between the two.

The discovery of this patent is the first hard proof that ATI is treading down this road of chip design, as its deal with Intrinsity was surrounded in speculation as to the exact nature of the technology being licensed and which way the information was flowing. The patent appears to confirm that the R500/R520 part will be something substantially different to anything we've seen in the past.

Supercomputers?! Uh, no. You guys are just making stuff up. Graphic chips in consoles are never revolutionary, despite the bullshit press releases put out by the likes of Sony. They may do some things in interesting new ways, but their raison d'etre lies in doing a lot with a little -- the cost and heat constraints posed by consoles mean that Pixar isn't going to be bulk ordering Playstations anytime soon.

But the worst part comes at the article's beginning:

Sounding bizarrely like John Kerry, the patented circuit includes 'a first flip flop having an input port... an output port providing a flip flop output signal..." and other such indecipherable phrases.

Okay motherfucker, we'll let the Kerry thing slide. But I didn't take any digital design classes in college (I just hung out with people who did) and I still know that a flip flop is a circuit component. Seriously, if you're going to have somebody write up an analysis of a microprocessor patent, don't you think you should pick someone who knows something -- anything -- about microprocessors?

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how to appeal to geeks without mentioning star wars tech

Over at BTD, Venkat takes note of Google hiring Ben Goodger, one of the Firefox team's lead developers. He notes that the Mozilla Foundation is a nonprofit, but speculates that this move is still in some way representative of Google getting into the browser market.

I'm not so sure about that. Catherine was the first to point this story out to me, wondering what it might mean. I'm not convinced it means much of anything. If Google wants Firefox they can just take it -- the source code is licensed under the semi-famous GNU Public License, a so-called "viral" license that boils down to allowing folks to do whatever they want with the source code, so long as they release the source code to their own product (or at least the portion of it based on the borrowed GPL code). It's a neat idea, but not only has it not yet been tested in court, it also doesn't prohibit Google from doing anything other than creating a closed-source browser from the Firefox code. So if Google wants to release a Google-branded version of Firefox, they don't have to hire Goodger to do it. Google already has plenty of extremely skilled programmers who could handle that task. And if for some reason they wanted to go closed-source, hiring Goodger wouldn't help with that, either -- he doesn't own the Firefox project, and he presumably can't change the license under which it's released by personal fiat.

What about technical reasons? Well, hiring Goodger seems likely to ensure that future versions of Firefox play nicely with Google's various offerings, but that's probably not a particularly worrisome area for our friends in Mountain View -- Firefox is already tightly integrated with Google, and open source folks share the same enthusiasm for open standards that Google does. Every party involved already pledges allegiance to the official geek-approved pantheon of acronyms (e.g. XMLRPC, SOAP, XHTML). So why bother?

It basically boils down to prestige. There's a precedent for this: Transmeta employed the ur-geek himself, Linus Torvalds, for several years. Transmeta is in the energy-efficient processor business, and while they enjoyed excellent Linux support by virtue of their relationship with Torvalds, Transmeta's products aren't marketed specifically for Linux use. It'd be a stretch to say that Torvalds represented a great technical investment -- by his own admission Linus spent a lot of time working on non-Transmeta-related tasks prior to leaving for OSDL (which is still partially backed by Transmeta).

Transmeta was happy with their arrangement because the mere existence of an ltorvalds@transmeta.com email account instantly produces a huge amount of geek cred. Whenever Linus would go speak at a conference his nametag would have "Transmeta Corp." on it, and for a probably-still-reasonable programmer's salary, Transmeta got a ton of favorable press from places like Slashdot and The Register.

I suspect Goodger's hiring was similarly motivated. Google's rolling in money after a predictably explosive IPO; they like and want to encourage Firefox; and now that they're officially a corporate behemoth, it's worth buying good PR in non-obvious ways. Goodger's salary will no doubt support technical developments that are generally beneficial to Google, but it will also function as a precisely targeted and cost-effective PR exercise.

UPDATE: How's that for a coincidence -- the nerd-friendly ISP SpeakEasy has just released a customized version of Firefox. No money was exchanged between Speakeasy and the Mozilla Foundation.

comments [1] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
January 25, 2005
January 25, 2005
recommendation tech

Thanks to a commenter over at Yglesias', I've been enjoying Oink's Pink Palace the last couple of days which, surprisingly, is not nearly as unpleasant as it sounds -- it's actually an audio torrent site. Prior to this I had written off BitTorrent as a source of music. To be honest, it's still a bit cumbersome -- it's less like a celestial jukebox than a celestial remainders bin. The upside, though, is that unlike Kazaa or Soulseek, Oink's has got a lot of audiobooks available, including a bunch of stuff from The Teaching Company. My dad's a big fan of TTC -- lately he's been working his way through their Great Philosophers series. Overall, the audiobook section is still a little spare, but I've managed to stumble across a torrents of stuff by Bukowski and John Searle next to pirated Lemony Snicket. So, like the rest of the internet, they get points for breadth, if not depth. And hey, how about a belated segue? There's also a torrent of a lecture debunking the Da Vinci Code.

I have to admit that I feel comparatively uneasy about downloading boutique content such as this. While I realize it's hardly a coherent moral philosophy, I intuitively feel better about downloading a copy of Alien Versus Predator than I do a copy of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. In the case of AvP, a lot better. I suppose the reason is that downloading a copyrighted work I respect tacitly discourages the production of content that I think is worthwhile, even if the download generally doesn't represent a lost sale. On the other hand, it's not like there's a looming shortage of recordings of college lectures. Hopefully outfits like AudioBooksForFree will be able to cajole note-taking-averse students and their professors into making their courses available on the web, following the trend set by folks like Christof Koch and, well, all of MIT.

Anyway, back to the morally troublesome present: if you click on the link to Oink's you'll notice that you've got to register with the site. That's a bit of a drag, especially considering that they don't seem to enforce up/down ratios, making the account system rather pointless. Still, the process is fairly painless.

Finally, this won't be of interest to most folks, but as the new owner of a 4G ipod, it seems cool to me: you can turn any audio file into an ipod-ready audiobook by following the instructions here (short version: make it an AAC, change the extension from 'm4a' to 'm4b'). The advantages to doing so are that 1) the file will start showing up in the audiobook section of your menus instead of the music area 2) the device will remember where you stopped listening and 3) you can use the nifty setting that lets you speed up or slow down the audiobook by 25% without affecting the pitch. Neat.

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January 21, 2005
January 21, 2005
smoking on the street instead of the crackhouse won't keep you out of jail tech

Welcome to the newest revolution in P2P! Well, supposedly: the beta version of eXeem has been released. For those who don't remember, eXeem (henceforth Exeem, because we shouldn't encourage them) is the "next generation" P2P app from the folks behind Suprnova.org, the late, great BitTorrent site.

Exeem is intended to eliminate the aspects of the BitTorrent architecture that resulted in Suprnova's closure. As I've noted previously, BitTorrent isn't as distributed as some other P2P applications. When you start a download you connect to a "tracker". The tracker doesn't supply data, but it keeps tabs on who's participating in the download, introduces them to each other, and issues commands about how quickly everyone should send each other data in order to make sure that uploading is rewarded. Because of their central role in the process, trackers are considered a potential point of failure, both technically and legally. Exeem adopts the BitTorrent architecture but does away with trackers; instead torrent distribution is done through peers, and tracking is performed in an ad-hoc and transparent manner by users. You don't need a central site like Suprnova to aggregate links to trackers. Instead you can search the Exeem network instead of scouring the internet for trackers.

But how does this work? Well, the safe money is on a fixed port range. Each network-enabled application on your computer uses a port of range of ports. Web servers run on port 80; FTP works over 21 and 22; AIM uses 5190. Think of it this way: your computer's like an apartment, and applications are like the people living in it. When mail arrives, the name on the envelope allows it to be distributed easily, even though the address is the same. If it weren't there you'd have to open the message and read through it to figure out where it should go. Your computer receives a lot of pieces of mail in the form of packets. Examining the format of every one isn't practical, so the port number is used to make distribution easier. I've explained this before, but don't you like the mail analogy better?

However, a classic BitTorrent tracker can run on any port -- it's specified in the .torrent file. Similarly, you can tell BitTorrent to use any port you'd like for sending and receiving data because the tracker will keep tabs on it and report it to other users. Exeem more than likely removes this capability. Instead, it probably behaves like a classic P2P application, broadcasting traffic on a specific port into the ether, looking for other users listening on the same port.

The problem with this is that it's easy to find traffic on the internet if you know what you're looking for. By running on a specific port, Exeem makes it simple for BigChampagne and the rest of the MPAA/RIAA's henchmen to find pirates. In the past they could connect to a torrent and see the other peers. But that would only give a snapshot of a moment in time, and only establish one IP violation for each person in the downloading swarm -- and first they had to find the torrent. Now they can patiently listen for Exeem traffic over a period of weeks or months, aggregating a long list of infringing activity indexed by IP address and ready to be fed into their masters' DMCA subpoena factory. Exeem makes it much easier to automate part of IP prosecutions, which will make them more cost-effective, which will make them more plentiful.

So if I were you I'd steer clear of Exeem. Besides, not only is the architecture flawed, it's reported to be buggy, is filled with ad- and spyware, and is only loosely affiliated with the guys from Suprnova (not that they were all that technically proficient to begin with). There's already an allegedly adware-free Exeem-Lite available, if you're intent on trying it. Just don't say you weren't warned.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
January 11, 2005
January 11, 2005
macworld, briefly tech

The new iPod Shuffle doesn't look that appealing to me, but goodness gracious is the Mac Mini a sexy piece of tech. It makes me wish my perfectly-fine desktop PC would spontaneously combust. If you or someone you know is looking for a secondary, web-&-email, get-one-for-grandma-style computer, there's no longer any question about what you should buy.

Oh well. For the time being I'll have to satisfy myself with an iPod -- now that Jobs' keynote is safely over, there's no worry about missing out on an imminent upgrade. Clarendon, here I come! Now if they'd just hurry up and get Linux running on the 4G iPods...

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January 10, 2005
January 10, 2005
no escape bitching  - pop culture  - tech

Dammit. I was prepared to ignore 24 this year -- last season irritated the hell out of me. Having inexplicably killing off the pouty-lipped, double-dealing, druglord-dating latina love interest halfway through the season, the series' producers left us to slog through a maze of bureaucrats, geeks and metrosexual villains. It fell apart pretty rapidly.

But then, that's always the problem with 24: the people plotting the show make it up as they go along. I still find it amazing that each season's arc isn't set in advance -- doesn't the premise demand it? Realistically, yes. In practice, no. As a result the show always gets off to a gripping start, then degenerates into plotlines about amnesia, mountain lions and bad Russian accents.

I'd finally had enough after season 3, and was determined to avoid this year's installment. I was prepared to be exposed to it -- Charles remains devoted to the show like no other -- but I hadn't counted on the blogospheric pop culture currents that this franchise brings with it. The first two hours seemed a little unexciting compared to previous 24 premieres, so maybe I'll be able to jump off this bandwagon earlier, but for now COMMENCE BLOGGING.

AKA nitpicking. Jim Henley (via Yglesias) has already picked apart the nonchalant acceptance of torture that we saw last night. There's also the apparently silly decision to make this season's terrorists Turkish -- I'm no expert on this stuff, but a country as publicly secular and westernized as Turkey seems like a bad candidate for breeding zealots determined to strike against the far enemy. Plus, it sounds like Turkey's actual terrorists are Marxists. If that's who this season's enemy turns out to be, count me in: now that the conflict is safely fictional, I love jingoist anti-Commie entertainment. Their debauched ideology killed Apollo Creed, for pete's sake!

But I have a feeling they'll be pushing America's more contemporary fear buttons, so instead let's talk about the other fun aspect of 24: the technononsense. We're still easing in, but this season is already off to a rollicking start.

MORE...
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keeping materialism timely tech

Macworld will be starting up in a little under three hours, but its two most interesting developments seem to have already leaked -- or at least convincing hoaxes have been created to back up the two most talked-about rumors.

First up: the new headless iMac. There are some pictures here, although irritable Mac zealots seem to think they might be fakes. I guess I'm sort of hoping they are -- iHome is an unfortunately dopey name. A sub-$500 Mac would be exciting whatever it looked like, though. I'm not likely to ever switch, but I've got to admit they're sexy machines. It'd be nice to be able to buy a computer that just works when Grandma decides she wants to try email.

Second is the iPod micro. An Italian Mac news site claims to have seen the device, and the answer to everyone's question: there's no screen. It's shaped "like a small remote control". They also have photos of banners being put up for the product's announcement. The slogan? "Life is random". Er... great. They're not going to sell you on the device, they're going to sell you on shuffle mode.

Well, it's true that lots of folks are stupidly excited about shuffle mode. And it's true that some of those people are journalists with nothing worthwhile to write about. But I think Jobs may have miscalculated if he's counted this as a cultural phenomenon that can Apple can cash in on. The iPod is a runaway hit because it's pretty, because it was first to market, and because of its interface. Aside from that nifty scroll wheel, you can get more bang for your buck from a variety of other products. Get rid of the screen and you're getting rid of most of your interface advantage. I have no doubt it'll be a beautiful piece of gadgetry, but at $150 for a gigabyte of storage, paying for that Apple cachet is getting harder and harder to justify.

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January 06, 2005
January 06, 2005
creating scarcity bitching  - tech

Via Hack-a-Day and Slashdot, an enterprising geek named Shadowmite has completely redefined the capabilities of one particularly hot smartphone, the Treo 650.

The 650 is a pretty sexy piece of tech -- produced by PalmOne (henceforth Palm), it's a cellphone/PDA that people actually like. Integrated keyboard, a nice color screen, not-too-big size... it's a good product, even if it was a step backward, in some limited respects, from the 600. However, one thing has always bugged Treo users: the device has an SDIO slot. Folks make SDIO wifi cards. And similar Palm devices -- specifically the Tungsten C -- support wifi. So why can't the Treo? "Interference with the cell phone antenna!" cried Palm. "Impure thoughts from the user! The fundamental cruelty of the universe!" Basically: we tried, it's not our fault.

Now ask yourself: would I be telling this story if the corporation came out looking like the good guy?

MORE...
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December 28, 2004
December 28, 2004
rome wasn't built in a day tech

And the horrific dystopian future won't be, either. Oh sure, I'm all about the merciless, unblinking machinebrains, with their cold calculations and algorithmically-precise contempt for humans. But it's going to take more than building SkyNet for the Terminator movies to come true. So toward that end:

  • Scientists are working on a robot powered by a bacterial fuel cell. They envision building flying machines that can power themselves indefinitely by feeding on insects and fruit.

  • Not scary enough? Well, this is a little old, but Japanese researchers have figured out a way to power devices with human blood.

Progress!

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December 27, 2004
December 27, 2004
radio free earth tech

GnuRadio has released a hardware peripheral that allows soft radio. This is going to be big. Very, very big.

Put in simple terms, this means that radio signals can be affordably processed by a general-purpose computer instead of a custom-built piece of hardware. All the frequencies flying through the air affect every bit of metal they come in contact with -- it's decoding those mashed-together frequencies meaningfully and in real time via a system electronic components that's the trick. Well, these guys have built a system that enables simulation of those components in software, allowing a single computer to emulate a vast array of radically different radio devices. It's already capable of receiving HDTV broadcasts. With the right software it could receive XM radio. Hell, with the right software a geek could now set up his own cell phone company. A big antenna (or lots of small ones) and some spectrum rights from the FCC are all that would be stopping him (well, okay -- this specific device would probably not be up to the task beyond the proof-of-concept level. But a similar one would be.).

The complete implications of this are still unclear. Up until now it's been a somewhat high-profile but imposibly nerdy project that no one was sure would ever bear fruit. But now it has -- or at least, it has overcome the theoretical hurdles that could have made software radio intractable, and released a tool making homebrew radio accessible to everyone. No one's sure exactly what effect these developments will have, but everyone seems to agree that it's a revolutionary shift in how broadcasting can be done -- and more importantly, by whom it can be done.

Satellite transmissions, police band communication, virtually anything that's broadcast can now be picked apart or put back together by your PC -- and that includes massively parallel attempts at decryption. Security through obscurity is no longer an option, nor is it far-fetched to imagine that folks will now spend their spare computer cycles trying to crack the encryption coming from HBO's satellite (or the government's) instead of searching for aliens.

This puts a lot of power in the hands of anybody with a thousand bucks. Look for it to be outlawed almost immediately.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 23, 2004
December 23, 2004
...and its antidote tech

Good for the EFF. They've put some money behind an open-source project called Tor that might do a lot to stymy anti-P2P efforts. It's basically a SOCKS proxy -- install it on your computer (linux, windows, os x) and you'll join an ad-hoc P2P routing network. When you send a request from a given application -- your web browser, IM, BitTorrent, almost anything -- it'll be encrypted and sent through a random series of peers in the network to disguise where it's coming from. This isn't foolproof, for a number of reasons that are better explained by the project wiki, but it'll be fine for most uses.

However, Tor is also a potential liability: while the whole point of the system is that a user doesn't know what traffic is going through his system, that doesn't mean the law won't try to hold you responsible for it. Some Tor users have reported getting C&D letters for traffic that didn't belong to them. It seems unlikely that you could be held responsible for other people's traffic that gets routed through your system -- industry lawyers have tried this already, and the courts, realizing that it could mean the end of the internet, have arrived at an at least somewhat-agreeable detente with the ISPs. However, you probably don't want to be the first person to go through the process of confirming my hunch. So: caveat emp-Tor.

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mpaa prosecution update tech

More details of the MPAA's current campaign against BitTorrent are emerging. A cease & desist letter has leaked, addressed to the owners of demonoid.com. A couple of things jump out:

  • The identities of demonoid's owners aren't known by the letter writers. The letter was sent to their ISP with a request that it be forwarded. Presumably this information would be subpoenaed when and if the MPAA decides to proceed with litigation. I haven't been keeping up with the state-of-the-art in DMCA interpretation, but the fact that they don't yet have these guys' names is encouraging.
  • Although demonoid was certainly trading pirate material, actual evidence of infringement may be scarce. There's a warning in the letter not to destroy any evidence. If demonoid's owners were smart they just ran the tracker and didn't host any seeds (content). BitTorrent's pseudo-centralized, yet peer-to-peer nature means that the folks with the most important functional role in the distribution network may not be legally culpable.
  • The letter-writers aren't very tech savvy. They repeatedly refer to an IP address that, by definition, cannot exist (66.250.450.10), and their list of infringing works includes a .nfo file (a metadata text file created by the original pirate, to which they presumably have no copyright claim), plus the listing of an archive AND its extracted contents -- it seems like they probably don't understand what all these files are
  • The list of infringing files is depressing for two reasons. First, they include recently-aired broadcast television shows like Desperate Housewives. The law's unambiguous on this: the networks own these shows and have a right to control how they're disseminated. Still, they're broadcast for free over the airwaves, and it would have been nice if ABC/Disney had elected to grant (or continue to implicitly allow) some limited license allowing the transfer of these shows temporarily -- until the DVD release, perhaps. My worry is that a poorly-constructed court decision or piece of legislation could have negative effects on other kinds of fair use (like my beloved TiVo).

    Finally, the other depressing aspect of this is that someone might be going to jail or driven into bankruptcy for pirating the Garfield movie. How do you ask a man to be the first to go to jail for a shitty, shitty movie?

comments [5] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 20, 2004
December 20, 2004
like the hydra. no, not the nick fury one. the other kind. tech

The MPAA's recently announced campaign against websites hosting BitTorrent trackers seems to be paying its initial dividends: a few BT sites have shut down, including the relatively venerable Suprnova.org.

Some folks thought that Slovenia-based Suprnova would be immune, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Legal action isn't shutting these sites down, so jurisdiction is irrelevant. The threat of legal action is all that's required; some schmo from Slovenia is likely to be bankrupted just by going through the process of figuring out if the MPAA can come after him; if the answer turns out to be yes, he'd REALLY screwed. The only viable option is to fold up shop.

In fact, while it's obvious that these sites aren't operating in good faith, it's not clear that any of them are actually breaking the law. Since the INDUCE act failed to pass, the crucial distinction seems to be whether torrent sites can be considered "common carriers" -- clearinghouses of information for which the site's owners are not ultimately responsible. One of the most effective ways to find pirate torrents is Google, after all, and nobody's going after them.

Well, all that's a bit irrelevant, right? The question is where to go now when you find out your VCR didn't tape Lost. There are plenty of answers:

  • There are still a lot of suprnova-style torrent sites that haven't yet succumbed to the MPAA's campaign, thanks either to their small size or a foolishly brazen appraisal of their legal liability. No one knows if they'll be able to tough it out, but for now TorrentSpy, FileList, EliteTorrents and The Pirate Bay are all still up.
  • As always, IRC remains the internet's wild west, and torrent traffic seems to be retreating there. EFNet hosts the channels #bt and #bt-gm -- which conveniently provide web interfaces here and here so you can find what you want before wading into IRC. You'll need an IRC client, but from there you just need to hop on the network, join the channel, and type !rules or !triggers or whatever the welcome message tells you to. That should provide you with instructions for connecting to an FServe bot, from which you'll be able to download the torrent file. It sounds complicated, I know. I'll be honest: it sort of is. But only at first -- once you understand the system, it's not a bad one to navigate.
  • Finally, there's the aforementioned Google. A particularly neat development is a little program called GTorrent. Behold the power of Slashdot! Someone posted an idea for the program at 2pm, and the idea was implemented and available online by midnight. Not bad. The program sends a google search for torrent files, then tries connecting to each returned result to see if the torrent is still active. Pretty slick, although it's Windows-only at the moment -- and you'll need the .NET environment installed (win2k and xp should already have this; downloads are available for 9x).

There are also some efforts underway to build BitTorrent clients that look more like traditional P2P apps -- Suprnova was working on such a system, called eXeem, although it's not clear if they'll continue to pursue it in light of their decision to shut their website's doors. I have doubts about this endeavor -- I think such a design mistakenly assumes that BitTorrent as a whole is suffering from the liabilities of a centralized architecture simply because individual torrents have a somewhat centralized nature. Creating a distributed system may seem like it would make the network harder to track down, but in practice it'll necessarily codify a specific port range and actually make it easier to locate and shut down BT traffic. On the other hand, technical merit frequently takes a back seat to novelty and stealth -- witness the uselessness of FreeNet versus the technically ho-hum but excellent-in-practice SoulSeek -- so if it's ever released, eXeem might be worth a look.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 16, 2004
December 16, 2004
abhorrin' orrin's whorin' tech

The Post has an article today on the shifting landscape of copyright law, focusing on how Arlen Specter's elevation to the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee may produce an environment less sympathetic to the content industry, if only because former chairman Orrin Hatch was squarely in the RIAA's pocket.

The article is an extended guess -- some folks think Specter will be preoccuppied with other issues and allow Hatch to continue to lead on IP law; others think Specter's detail-oriented nature will lead him wade into the debate, and that he may be more amenable to listening to organizations like the EFF.

Nobody really knows -- the article's evidence consists mostly of quotes from anonymous staffers talking up their bosses. All that you can really say is the end of Hatch's term is a good thing. Aside from sponsoring the vile DMCA, the man has approached copyright issues with a perspective warped by his aspirations to a recording career. I suppose brutally lame intellectual property deserves protection too, but I'm inclined to think that a chairman who identifies more with the commons than the content-owners would be a good thing.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 14, 2004
December 14, 2004
laws must be just before they can be properly ignored tech

A disturbing piece has popped up, via Slashdot: a guy named Greg Aharonian is suing to remove copyright protection from computer programs. He maintains that instead, IP protection should be offered by patents.

This makes sense in principle, but is a terrible idea in practice. Getting a copyright is easy -- if you've written something, you have at least some copyright protection. Getting a patent is difficult -- it's expensive, it takes a long time, and you have to demonstrate that your invention is new and non-obvious. A lot of redundant and obvious software techniques have managed to get patents, but this is due to the USPTO's almost complete inability to deal with software patents competently, not because patents are well-suited to software. If the patent system -- properly applied -- was the sole source of IP protection for software, not only would the system be shifted to favor large companies with the resources to file lots of patents, but the vast majority of software authors would be producing work that could be legally appropriated by whoever cared to copy it. I'm not someone to equate piracy with the end of civilization, but if businesses weren't compelled to buy software licenses it does seem likely that the industry and our economy would suffer.

Aharonian has a point, though. Despite some valiant efforts by computer scientists to pawn it off as speech, computer code really doesn't express ideas in the way that copyright law seems intended to protect. Still, just because our IP law is ill-equipped to handle the information economy doesn't mean we should dismantle the jerry-rigged protections it does afford.

The problem with software patent is that there are very few software innovations that could not be developed given a hundred geeks at a hundred PCs and adequate supplies of cola. Those innovations that do rise to this level tend to be highly abstract algorithms that are largely mathematical in nature -- a faster way to sort data, for example. But these discoveries approach the level of fundamental mathematical truths, and allowing them to be patented would be as problematic as requiring engineers to buy licenses for the quadratic equation.

And in any case, the development of such algorithms is rare. Software patents are more commonly awared for inventions like Amazon's infamous "one-click" patent --which actually covers basically all business conducted over the internet (Amazon has thus far declined to enforce it). Patents liek this are for trivial ideas that clearly could easily have been thought up with by someone else first (and frequently have -- the USPTO is very bad at finding prior art for software patents). They're obvious -- Amazon has not done the public a big favor by developing this knowledge, and consequently they don't deserve special protection. Yet they have it -- and unlike patents most other fields, software patents are a potentially huge pain in the ass: if someone patents a better mousetrap, that doesn't interfere with my existing mousetrap business. But if Amazon starts enforcing their patent for performing transactions over the internet, I have to be on my toes to avoid infringing upon it as I write any number of glaringly obvious applications.

There's not much genius involved in software development, but there is frequently a huge amount of work. That work deserves to be protected. Just because computer code is philosophically more similar to an invention than it is to speech doesn't mean that the patent system is the most appropriate way to protect it -- in practice, protecting code as an invention would not serve the industry or the public's best interests. Mr. Aharonian is trying to make a principled point while ignoring the damage that doing so would incur. It's a good thing that he seems likely to fail.

comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 09, 2004
December 09, 2004
like they weren't vulnerable enough tech

via Michael of Articulatory Loop, here's a promising new source of worry for men (in case early death, prostate cancer and the holiday season's ubiquitous jewelry commercials weren't enough): the heat from your laptop may be cooking your testicles. Well, okay, not cooking. But reducing fertility. And while that sounds fine, there's still something disconcerting about the ceaseless howl of my Compaq-brand space heater's fan. And as you can see from the picture below of me at the office, I'm deeply concerned with projecting an image of masculine potency:

tom_w_bear.jpg
(not pictured: ugly green socks)

I think I might need to ask Santa for one of these doohickeys.

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ipersonalization tech

Check it out -- from Engadget come instructions on how to replace your iPod's built-in graphics. Cool.

antiriaa.JPG

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December 06, 2004
December 06, 2004
overstate, ignore, repeat bitching  - politics  - tech

If news had a smell, today it would reek of ozone and urine-soaked khakis. That's right -- it's time to be terrified of cyberterrorism. DHS has released its report on cybersecurity, including a rough evaluation of the threat posed by cyberterrorism, the looming explosion of cybercrime, and some cyberrecommendations for expanding the cyberbureacracy to cyberfight these menaces. Sorry; cybermenaces.

But before that, we've got former CIA chief Robert Gates warning about the grave threat of cyberterrorism, saying that it could be the most devastating weapon of mass destruction yet. From the AP story:

"When a teenage hacker in the Philippines overnight can wreak $10 billion in damage to the U.S. economy by implanting a virus, imagine what a sophisticated, well-funded effort to attack the computer base of our economy could accomplish"

...

He said the CIA and National Security Agency conducted an exercise six years ago, assigning 50 computer specialists to see how hard it would be to shut down the nation's electric grid. It took only two days for the group to put itself in a position to do so, he said.

"All you have to do is look at what happened in the northeast when you had a tree fall on a line in rural Ohio," he said of a blackout that affected cities from Detroit to New York last year. "What I am talking about is bringing the U.S. economy to its knees."

The first thing to note about all of this is that it's utter bullshit.

MORE...
comments [2] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
December 03, 2004
December 03, 2004
corporations hate you, pt. 2 pop culture  - tech

Check out this story. What jerks. Apparently networks are deliberately shifting the start and end times of their shows to confound TiVo users. Networks hate TiVo due to its commercial-skipping powers. By making time-shifters miss the end of their recorded shows the practice is discouraged.

Of course, you can manually extend the recording period by the necessary minute or two, but if you're planning to record NBC at 9 and ABC's 8PM show runs until 9:01, your one-tuner DVR will typically decide there's a conflict and conclude that it's not worth recording any of the NBC show. ABC gains an advantage either way: either time-shifting is discouraged, or its competitors get fucked over. Great job, guys!

It's curious how this innovation has popped up, yet, having had decades to offer additional value to consumers by competitively scheduling their commercial breaks -- that is, not having them simultaneously -- the networks have managed to stay in wonderful synchrony: when one is at commercial, so are all the others. Hmm.

Obviously something has to pay for TV, but I don't think it's going to be commercials for much longer, ill-advised legislation notwithstanding. Networks will increasingly have to turn to subscription fees to support themselves. There won't be a massive switch to an HBO model, but fees paid by cable companies will slowly increase. Some networks will disappear and your cable bill will creep upward. That's a shame, but if it means I can escape a nightly corporate assault on my subconscious it's a tradeoff I'll be happy to make.

In the meantime, I suggest you apply the power of righteous indignation to downloading this week's episode of Lost (click the link, click on 'Lost', then scroll down). Who would have thought that the pregnant girl's backstory episode would be so fascinating and spooky? I liked the show before, but I thought it was going to end up with an unfortunately mundane foundation once the island's mystery was stripped away. Now I'm not so sure. Seriously, go watch it.

comments [11] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
ma bell's matriarchy tech

A while ago I wrote about Philadelphia's plans to offer citywide wifi access. I argued that data should be thought of as a utility, that it's a natural monopoly, and that it ought to be run by the municipal government. I also said that Philly's plan was doomed, since the city is Comcast's home base. Well, I was wrong. It looks like the city's wifi plans are going forward. And it turns out that Comcast wasn't a jerk about it. Verizon was.

Right before the plan went through, some eleventh hour legislation magically appeared forbidding Pennsylvania towns from offering fee-based broadband access without giving the local phone company the right of first refusal. If the telco decides it'd rather not have the government offering cheap, universal service, it can veto the plan and offer a similar service within 14 months.

Some folks were a little irked by this. The argument goes along the lines of "WHY THE FUCK DO WE NEED VERIZON'S PERMISSION TO BUILD PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE?!" I guess you can argue it's unfair for industry to have to compete with a partially-subsidized civic scheme -- although you'd still have to convince my why I should care. But an entirely subsidized, no-fee service is specifically allowed by the legislation. So I'm at a loss -- why should Pennsylvanians have to ask for Verizon's seal of approval if they want to leverage economies of scale to save some money, attract hi-tech companies and help bridge the digital divide?

Amid the controversy Verizon graciously agreed to waive the right of first refusal they were fighting so hard to get. Hurrah! What great guys. The broadband plan can proceed. And oh, while we're at it, let's just sign that legislation anyway. You know, it's already all drawn up. Might as well. ...That's it. Right on the line here. Great -- thanks! Oh, and FUCK YOU to every other town in Pennsylvania. Verizon's your daddy now.

I don't want to beat up on Verizon -- or at least I don't want to want to. They've consistently stood up on their customers' behalf against the RIAA and its nasty DMCA subpoena factory; plus they don't employ secret bandwidth caps like some of their competitors. But whatever goodwill they've earned with my inner geek, the rabid technosocialist in me bristles at the idea of legislation that halts progress in order to legally enshrine a corporation's imagined right to profit.

comments [3] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
November 29, 2004
November 29, 2004
the oldest new economy profession tech

Have I mentioned that I love the internet? I know you all know it, but I still don't say it enough. I'm just a very lucky guy. How do I love thee, internet? Let me count the ways: free shit.

That is all.

But oh, what a way it is! I remember the heady days of my freshman year, when venture capitalists blissfully handed sacks of money to legions of incompetent ASP programmers. In between rounds of Starcraft and Being Terrified Of Girls, I amassed piles of $1 DVDs and ill-fitting promotional t-shirts. It was a great time to be young and pale.

That well has dried up, but you can still find a great offer here and there; my enthusiasm for finding too-good-to-be-true deals on the internet is only slightly tempered by the knowledge that most of them are attempts by the Russian mafia to steal my credit card number and, if possible, internal organs.

But here's a free offer that seems to be on the up and up: freeipods.com. I know, I know. But it appears to be legit -- even trusted sources seem to say it's okay. Complete the requirements and you can get a 20GB iPod or a 4GB iPod mini shipped to you for free, for serious.

For those of you who haven't seen these links kicking around, the deal is pretty simple: sign up with the site, complete one of their free trial offers, and refer five friends who must do the same. The free trial offers are for things like credit cards, BMG's music club, a two week trial of Blockbuster's Netflix knockoff... that sort of stuff. Personally, I signed up with Ancestry.com's "14 days for $1" offer and my account was credited immediately. If I forget to cancel within 14 days I'll be out of a couple hundred dollars -- as you might have noticed, all of these "free" offers are of the sort that can net the companies offering them a lot of money if the signee isn't careful. But they're from reputable companies, and having set up free email and SMS reminders for myself at MemoToMe, I'm not too worried about forgetting.

The trick is the referrals, of course. Fulfilling an offer doesn't pay for your iPod, it pays for your referrer's iPod. The whole thing is a pyramid scheme; since you won't be out any money if you play properly, that isn't a bad thing. But it does mean that the so-called "conga line" sites, where people line up in message boards to refer one another, are useless for everyone but the first few people in line.

Which brings us to the title of this post. I'm taking the freeipods.com plunge -- if anyone feels like trying it out for themselves, here's my referral link. Conga lines can't work in the long run -- the last people to sign up won't get anything out of it, and the problem gets worse the bigger the list (bonus points to the first person who comes up with a function to express the number -- I suck at math). On the other hand, there's no benefit to having more than five referrals, it doesn't cost a participant anything to use someone else's referral, and the first few people really do benefit. And you can always bug your friends for referrals if the conga line fails you. So if you decide to join in, post your referral link in comments, and we'll see how many people we can help out.

Oh, and there's one catch you should know about: there's a limit of one iPod per household. So if you and your roommate both want to take advantage, you'll have to play your cards right -- you can't change your address once you sign up. I've got a sneaking suspicion that this has more to do with increasing the number of completed sponsor offers without increasing the number of iPods shipped than with any legal or practical requirements. With that in mind, I'll mention that if you live in say, apartment 3, your mailman will usually be able to figure out that a package addressed to apartment 3G should go to you (even if you live in a house). Promotional websites will not be able to figure this out. Not that I'd ever do something like that myself. Ahem.

comments [4] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
November 24, 2004
November 24, 2004
DIY TiVo tech

For those of you pining after a TiVo (or just the ability to watch pay-cable TV shows), have a look at Engadget's "BroadCatching" how-to. It's surprisingly simple -- all you need is a java-capable computer (that includes Macs, Linux and Windows) that you can keep online for extended periods. Set your filter to catch the shows you want, and a java BitTorrent client called Azureus will keep an eye on some RSS feeds for you, and automatically handle downloading whenever a new episode of, say, "Lost" becomes available. After you specify the shows you want, you just have to check your download directory periodically for new episodes.

Seriously, it's easier than it sounds. There are only like four steps. You can do it. Oh yeah, potential copyright violations, nobody sued yet, liability, etc etc... Get real. You're a rebel. You're not going to let the man hold you down.

comments [0] trackBack [0] posted by tom - link
September 28, 2004
September 28, 2004
talk isn't cheap, bits are bitching  - blog  - politics  - tech

It shames me deeply, but I agree with Michelle Malkin on one thing: Andrew Sullivan is kind of a whore. Sullivan has raised nearly $200,000 in his last two pledge drives to cover "bandwidth costs". Now he's just signed up with blogads, explaining that doing so "will soon provide a real revenue stream for this site". Sure, the guy deserves to earn a living -- which he does through his various print journalism gigs, too. But pretending these drives are for bandwidth is disingenuous. Kos says his site costs him $6000 a year -- and dailykos, being more of a community site, has significantly greater needs in terms of bandwidth and hardware than andrewsullivan.com.

Like I said, I don't begrudge Sullivan his ability to earn a living, but it seems like he's making a very good one while only slightly-smaller bloggers like Atrios or Kos can't make one at all -- which makes me think people are responding to his lame complaints about hosting costs rather than intentionally giving money to provide him with a salary. Misleading people with geekspeak in order to maintain such an arrangement is a little shady -- although I wouldn't hold my breath for Sullivan to see a problem with this or any other income disparity.

comments [3] posted by tom - link
September 08, 2004
September 08, 2004
automation + democracy = autocracy politics  - tech

Nevada's now has e-voting machines with paper-trails. They're the first to manage this meager feat. The fuss that the e-voting companies have been kicking up about implementing auditable paper records sends chills down my spine -- it's hard to think of a reason for these companies to pretend it's impossible to get computers to print things on paper (unless, of course, they actually were planning on rigging an election). Well, Nevada has developed an actual counterexample to the e-voting companies' ridiculous claims. Good for them! It almost makes you feel guilty about filling their state with nuclear waste.

The electronic voting issue hasn't raised enough eyebrows this year. I think that's probably because people don't understand the grave threat that computer programmers like myself pose to democracy. But to do so, you really only have to know three things about programmers:


  • They think they're much, much smarter than everyone else.

  • They are much, much smarter than everyone else about technology, but are significantly dumber about most other things.

  • And finally, a lot of them are asshole libertarians of the worst sort.

This is a combination that's primed to do clever things to save America from its hopelessly misguided self.

Even more horrifying, the folks at Diebold, one of the biggest vendors (and certainly the one that's gotten the most press thanks to its CEO's status as an outspoken Bush supporter) seems to have substandard engineers who exhibit all of the above negative traits, yet built their system on top of an unsecured version of Windows 98, opening the door to election tampering from an even larger pool of evil nerds.

I have absolutely no doubt that many software engineers would tamper with election software if they had the opportunity. I don't think they'd do this without getting caught, but it's likely that an awful lot of votes would be lost in the process. It looks like Nevada's leading the charge on stopping this, and I for one am grateful. Enough so that I think I'll go lose some money in its casinos at the next available opportunity.

UPDATE: I mistakenly indicated above that Diebold's voting system runs on an unsecured copy of Win 98. Actually, it can run on any variant of Win32 (ie 98 and above). That copy can be secured as well as any vanilla install of the given version of Windows. What's not secured at all is the MS Access database that contains the voting records, or the administrator password of the GEMS system. This url contains a thorough explanation of how to circumvent the system -- it's an obvious exploit that's easy to pull off (in fact, it's tough to call it an exploit -- "using MS Access" is more like it). The authors conclude that these vulnerabilities are so gaping and widespread that they must have been left deliberately. I don't know if I'd go that far (although I could be talked into it), but whatever state election officials paid money for this system -- and yes, it is being used "in the wild" -- ought to be fired. And maybe jailed.

I should note that this vulnerability applies to "GEMS" -- the management software that would be used collect and count votes from individual machines in an election official's office. There are some accounts that claim the voting machines have a backdoor as well, but I have yet to find any thorough documentation on this.

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