A Philosopher's Blog

Google’s Sidewiki

Posted in Business, Ethics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 10, 2009

Google has a new browser add on, Sidewiki, that allows users to comment on any web page.  This is not just “on” as in “say something about” but to actually place the comment so that all visitors to the site can view the comment via Sidewiki. Google’s bullet points about this add on is that it will allow users to “publish helpful information” and “read insights in context.”

While the idea is interesting and the goal is noble, I have to wonder if the folks at Google are aware what the web is really like. While there will be some folks who will “publish helpful information”, I suspect many (most) of the commentary will be obscene, spam, hateful or idiotic.

Naturally, some might compare Sidwiki to the comment feature on blogs. After all, people do make meaningful contributions to blogs via comments. This site is a good example-commentators add a great deal and the site would be considerably poorer without them.

While this is a reasonable comparison, there is a critical difference. The comments on this blog, like most blogs, are filtered through a spam filter and they are also subject to removal. That is, I have control over what appears on my site.  While I value freedom of speech, I also think that a person (or company) should have control over what appears on her site. After all, it is her site. This does not restrict freedom of expression because, obviously enough, people can get their own sites and comment about other sites until their fingers bleed.

My main concern about Sidewiki is that it will become an online equivalent of spray paint, allowing people to “deface” sites with various obnoxious things. While people do have to consciously chose to use Sidewiki, this merely means that it is like a special sort of spray paint that you need special glasses to see. To continue the analogy, just as property owners have a right to keep people from putting graffiti on their buildings (even graffiti that requires special glasses to see) I think that web site owners should have the right to opt out from Sidewiki.

That said, I do see the potential value in this add on. After all, it turns every web page into the equivalent of a blog with a comment section. Of course, there is the question of whether this is a good thing or not. In any case, Google’s power has grown once more.

Finding Your XP or Office Keys

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 5, 2008

Being nerdtastic, I am often called up to solve various computer problems. One I ran into recently involved  a colleague who had somehow lost his Windows XP and Office product keys. He had apparently even removed the Windows XP product key sticker from the PC case.

He was having serious problems with the PC and wanted to just wipe the drive and reinstall everything using borrowed disks. However, he obviously could not install another person’s Windows XP or Office and activate them, so he needed his own product keys.

Fortunately, there is a wicked easy way to find these keys. The cutely named Magical Jelly Bean Keyfinder will find the product keys for Windows, Office and some other programs. With the keys, he was able to install his software and activate it online, rather than having to plead with a Microsoft minion to allow him to use the software he had paid for.

Apple Files Against Psystar

Posted in Law, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 15, 2008

I’ve been a Mac user since I bought a Mac Classic in graduate school. Sadly, the last Mac I bought was in 2004 when I got a spiffy G4 iBook. I’d really like a new Mac, but Apple just sells the Mini (too weak), the iMac (too all-in-one) and the Pro (too expensive). Ideally, I’d like a nice mini-tower that has the power of the iMac, but with a lower price. Since I have a very nice monitor, I’d rather not buy an all-in-one computer.

When Psystar announced that it was going to sell Mac clones, I was interested but cautious. After all, Apple is rather clear in its terms of use agreement regarding OS X. While I am no lawyer, it seemed clear and obvious that Psystar was acting in an illegal manner. Oddly enough, Apple did nothing about it. That is, until now.

On July 3 Apple filed suit against Pystar here in Florida. I suspect that the case will not go well for Psystar. However, I do hope that this incident motivates Apple to produce a mid-range tower Mac computer. Many people seem quite interested in that sort of machine and I think that it would sell reasonably well. Of course, Apple is probably worried that it would simply cannibalize sales of its other Macs.

Wooden USB Memory Sticks

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 4, 2008

The July issue of Macworld featured an article on wooden USB memory sticks. Oooms, a Netherlands company,makes the custom devices and sells then for about $95. Since USB thumb drives are now selling in the $10-20 range, $95 is a lot to pay. Of course, the high price is not for the USB drive, but for the hand slected stick that encases the drive.

Being a Maine Yankee, I am loath to lay out money for sticks, however pretty. But, the idea of a wooden shell for a USB drive struck me as a neat idea. Of course, I don’t want to be branded as an elite, so I thought I’d make a rustic USB drive.

Being thrifty, I didn’t want to buy a new USB drive for the project. However, I did have an older USB drive that had a damaged plastic shell and decided that it would serve nicely. I would have preferred to use a much smaller USB drive (such as a DT Mini) but my Yankee thriftiness precluded that option. When I make a fancy one, I’ll use a DT Mini, but it will be for a gift (oddly enough, my cheapness really only applies to myself).

Once I had my USB drive, the next step was to find a suitable piece of wood. Fortunately, I live right next to the woods, so that was easy enough. I brought the USB drive with me so I could match the proper size. I picked a dead branch and cut off a section.

I then considered how I would get the drive into the wood. With a small drive, like the DT Mini, the ideal approach would be to use a drill to create a hollow space in the wood (a drill press makes this very easy-my Dad has one) after cutting a slice for the top of the shell (from which the USB plug would emerge via a small cut). Unfortunately, my Dad’s drill press is in Maine and I didn’t want to buy one (as you might recall, I’m thirfty). So I resorted to the crude method: I cut the stick in half using a miter box and saw. This worked reasonable well and soon I had the stick section sliced in half.

Once the stick was cut in half, the next step was to cut out a hollow space for the drive. There are numerous tools that would have made this quick and easy, but I decided to use an ancient technique: whittling and chiseling. Unlike many nerdtastic folks, I’m quite familiar with wood working tools. If you are not, keep in mind that sharpened metal can cut you. I’d suggest leather work gloves, protective eyewear and someone on hand to drive your bleeding carcass to the hospital. If you like fire, you can also use another classic technique: burn out the hollow space. This method was used to make duggout canoes. Just be sure that the burn is a controlled one. Carefully wetting the area you want to remain unburned can help. Naturally, this method takes time and some luck. Of course, there is a certain appeal to making a USB drive case using such an old method. The fire method is not usually precise enough to cut the hole for the USB plug. You’ll want to use a metal implement to cut that (watch your fingers).

Once the hollow spot was ready, I put the drive in and ended up with an ugly thing that looked quite rustic. I left the bark on it, since that makes it look even more rough. I also made the cuts at an angle, so as to add to the crude appearance. However, if you want something a bit more refined (that is, if you are an elitist techno-sissy) you can peel the bark off, sand it and then varnish or stain the wood. That is just the sort of USB drive that Obama would probably use. McCain probably doesn’t know what a USB drive is, but he would know how to look it up on Google, should it come to that. Or as Bush would say “the Google.”

The final step was to plug my new rustic USB drive in and see if it would catch on fire. Not surprisingly, it worked just fine. Since the USB drive components generate heat, encasing a USB drive in wood might cut down on its operating life. The components should not generate enough heat to actually set the wood on fire (but that could be a neat YouTube video).

As you can see from the images, the wooden USB drive looks properly ugly and rustic sticking out of the shiny USB hub. I think it creates a nice juxtaposition of high tech and low tech. Plus, it is just ugly enough to cause people to say “what the hell is that?”

If you would like something a bit more exotic than a wood USB shell for your drive, you can try various other options. For example, a sea shell can make an interesting shell for a USB drive (I tried that, too).

The Cloud

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 23, 2008

If you are reading this, then the odds are good that you have heard of cloud computing. While it is being put forth as the next great thing, in many ways it is a return to the early days of computing.

Oversimplifying things, the basic idea behind one type of cloud computing is that users are able to tap into vast computing power via the internet. To be a bit more specific, imagine that you need to run a complex analysis of vast amounts of data. Sadly, all you have is a mere desktop PC. Powerful, yes. But not powerful enough to grind through all that data before your data is obsolete. The solution? Send it to the cloud. Rather than running the analysis on your PC, the analysis would be done by other computers that you would access via the web.

One current example of what some people consider cloud computing is Google Docs. Instead of doing your word processing and spreadsheets using programs installed on your PC, using Google docs allows you to do the same thing via a web browser. Your files are stored on the Google servers, so you can access them from any computer that has a web connection. Google Docs is but one example of what is planned for the future-the hope is that eventually almost all software will reside on servers and all you will need on your computer is a web browser to access everything.

This sort of cloud computing does have a certain appeal. One appeal is the fact that you can access your documents and data from (almost) any PC with a web connection. As such, leaving your files at home while on a business trip or at school would be a thing of the past.  A second appeal is that the technology will allow users to have simpler and cheaper computers. This is because the majority of the work will be done by the computers in the cloud rather than your PC.  A third appeal is that the hassle of updates and such will be largely gone-the server computers will always have the latest versions. A fourth appeal is that the platform will be largely irrelevant. No longer will users have to worry about Mac vs. Pc vs. Linux versions of software-it will all be served up via the magic of the cloud.

A terminal.Of course, cloud computing does have some downsides. As mentioned above, it is a return to an old model of computing that went away for many good reasons. This old model, which I used as a kid, was the use of dumb terminals that would dial up mainframe computers. While today’s computers are vastly better, the reasons people moved from the mainframe to the personal computer still remain.

I’ll now present some of the reasons why I find the cloud somewhat unappealing.

First, there is the fact that to use cloud computing, you have to be connected to the cloud. While I already use many internet based programs (Slacker, WordPress, etc.), I am glad that I do not have to rely on my internet connection to do my important work. For example, I am working on a project for a gaming company and the deadline is fast approaching. While doing my writing today, my internet connection has gone out a few times. If I had to rely on the cloud, I’d be screwed in terms of getting my work done in a reliable manner. Of course, the cloud people have an answer-you can run the software on your PC while your connection is down and then connect back to the cloud when your connection is back. My reply is the obvious one-if I need to have software for when my PC is offline, why should I go to the cloud when I already have what I need on my PC? The cloud folks might reply that the cloud will give me the above mentioned universal access to my documents. While that is appealing, I can do the same thing by using various online storage options (such as just emailing the files to myself). Also, there is the worry that the cloud that holds your data might go out of business. In that case, you’ll have to hope that your data is also on your PC.

Second , while I do like the idea of having a simpler and cheaper computer, there is the concern that I just raised above. If my web connection is out and my computer relies entirely on the web, I have a simpler and cheaper brick. If my computer has to be able to run the software offline as well, then it will presumably still be a normal PC.

Third, while I like automatic updates, I also like being in control of my updates. I have used software that actually became worse with each new version. Features I used vanished and features I disliked were added. Also, the model being used for this type of online software is often subscription based. I’d rather be able to just buy a program and use it, rather than having to pay an ongoing subscription fee.

Fourth, while I do like the idea of not worrying about the OS and platform, I’ll believe it when I see it. I use Macs, Windows PCs and Linux PCs and notice that the web experience can vary with each one. Perhaps this will get sorted out in the clouds someday.

Overall, I do find the cloud appealing. If my web access were as reliable as my phone and electricity, I might even be tempted to get on a cloud of my own.

In a nice bit of irony, just as I was about to publish this, my Comcast connection went down again. Fortunately, I copy and paste long blogs into my word processor for just such occasions. Yes, it will be a while before you see me trying to put my important work on a cloud.

Freezing Laptop Batteries

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2008

I have some modest amount of nerdastic powers when it comes to technology, so people often ask me to solve their computer problems. In return, people often dump truly broken hardware on me. Not in the sense of “dropping it on me with the intent of harm”; but rather in the same sense that a person drops junk off at the dump.

Fortunately, I hate to let things go to waste and I love a repair challenge. One recent challenge involved a 1998 Compaq laptop my ex-wife had “beaten to death.” The power supply was dead, the battery was dead and the case was cracked and broken in many places.

Replacing a laptop power supply is fairly easy-numerous companies sell “universal” replacements that come with a variety of tips. I use a Targus adapter that has served me well with a number of rescued laptops.

Fixing a cracked and damaged case is also easy. As long as the damage does not affect the safe operation of the machine, some glue and electrical tape will fix most cosmetic damage. Electrical tape also matches the black of many laptops quite closely.

The battery is a tough part. I had heard that freezing a battery can restore it. Since the laptop battery was dead, I figured it was suitable for an experiment.

The battery itself is a 1998 NI-MH battery for a Compaq 1275 Presario laptop. I took the battery and placed it within a ziplock bag. The bag is important to keep moisture off the battery and to otherwise protect it from what might be in the freezer (like leaking ice-cream).

I froze the battery for 24 hours and then removed it from the freezer. Since the battery was cold, I kept it in the bag to protect it from condensation. I then waited for the battery to warm up. After checking it for damage and wiping it down, I put it in the laptop and let it charge up.

Initially, the battery would take a charge but would discharge in a matter of seconds. The software also failed to recognize the batter. Then I charged the battery for a long time (several hours) and the software recognized the battery and it held a charge. Naturally, the battery is not as good as new and my trust in it’s staying power is quite limited. However, it does work again.

I tried the same technique with a Lithium Ion battery for a a Gateway laptop my ex-wife had also beaten to death. No luck with that. It might be the difference in the battery or it might be that the abuse inflicted on the Gateway damaged the charging mechanism (the titanium case was broken in some places). I did manage to repair its power supply to some degree. The Solo 3350 has a weird connector that apparently was only used in that model and hence my Targus adapter is of no use. It works reasonably well, but the battery is kaput.

So, freezing laptop batteries can return them from the dead. Before you freeze your batteries, I’d suggest only using ones that are already dead. Freezing a battery that is in decent shape might not help it and might actually do it some harm.

Ripping Books

Posted in Business, Ethics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 19, 2008

Copying movies and music is old news. It is easy to do and all attempts to prevent it seem to be doomed to failure. It can probably even be proven that any encryption scheme must be such that it can be bypassed.

One medium that has done well in resisting copying is the printed word. While there have been numerous projects devoted to scanning books and making them available (such as Project Gutenberg and, more controversially, Google’s recent project), books still have two defense mechanisms that help protect them.

First, scanning a book is tedious work. Flatbed scanners do a decent job on a few pages, but scanning an entire book would be an ordeal. After all, you have to manually scan each page. Then the text has to be recognized via OCR software which takes time and is still not error free. Hence, the text will need to be edited-which takes even more time. There are commercial devices that do a better job-but they are very expensive. Given the time and cost of scanning books, this is an excellent defense. Of course, there have been some inroads against this defense (see Steven Levy’s column in the February 18th issue of Newsweek, page 24). For a mere $2,600 you too can have a set up for making copies of books that consists of two cameras and a rig for holding a book in place and in the dark. This is a less tedious than a flatbed scanner, but still very tedious. Also, it is rather expensive. So, it will probably be a while before people start copying new books and sharing them as they do stolen music and movies.

Second, people generally prefer to read a book that is an actual printed text. While Amazon is betting that people will be willing to switch to an electronic device for reading, the printed page is still the favored medium. Copying a song or movie onto your hard drive costs nothing. Printing a book still costs money-unless, of course, you have access to free printing. In most cases, it is obviously easier and cheaper to just buy the actual book rather than steal one by copying and printing it.

Naturally, someone who copied a book could make a profit selling bootleg printed copies. One interesting possibility is that a clever student might copy an expensive textbook and sell copies of it. Since some textbooks can cost over $100, a clever an unscrupulous person could make a tidy profit each semester. In fact, I have heard of students trying to sell photocopies of expensive texts to other students.

People might also be able to sell bootleg copies of bestseller-but selling illegal book copies would present some challenges and would probably have a rather narrow profit margin-assuming it has one at all. Selling a bootleg movie on DVD allows a decent profit since DVDs are cheap. Selling a bootleg book would be far less profitable since the book still has to be printed on paper and bound.

Interestingly, if electronic books succeed, they will obviously change things. Someone will find a way to hack the protection used on commercial electronic books and will then be able to distribute them as easily as people now distribute stolen music and movies. Further, access to professional quality electronic versions of texts (as opposed to the usual scanned versions) will make it possible to create high quality bootleg versions of books. This is because they can be printed right from such files-or after the files have been suitably cracked.

I am reasonably sure that as books go electronic piracy will become a serious problem for the printing industry. It will not, perhaps, be as extensive as the copying of music and movies, but it will still be a problem.