Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

India Grasshopper Big Nosebiter

September 7, 2013 1 comment

Nosebiter grasshopper

My little Canon Powershot A4000 is a great all-around tourist camera, but isn’t that good for low-light close-ups – this was the best I could do capturing this visitor to our flat vestibule.  About 4.5” in length – a veritable Hummer of a bug – I was taken by how leaf-like the wings were.

I’m a live and let live kind of guy, and so long as these hefty emerald Tettigoniidae don’t swarm excessively, destroying Pharaoh’s crops and the like, I’m good.  But I did want to find out some details on this specimen, like what species it was.

One thing I had to go on came from driver Rupesh and his copious store of local knowledge: these bugs hereabouts are called “nose biters”.  So, fire up Google and look for “india nose biter” … well, different variations of that tell me nothing about grasshoppers, but in the first few results of most of my searches was this article, about Sri Lankan politics:

UNP Has Gone To The Dogs, Nose-Biter MP Is A Racist Too

Dunesh Gankanda, a United National Party Member of Parliament from the Ratnapura District walked in to The Museum Club at the Galle Face Hotel around 1.30 am on Sunday with a friend, Capt. Senaka De Silva, a close aide of General Fonseka. Present at the night club was a Tamil businessman, Diwakaran, entertaining a group of foreign clients. Senaka knew Diwakaran and walked up to his table to say ‘hello’ and then introduced Dunesh. Diwakaran invited both to join his table. Dunesh initially made small talk and then broached  the topic of Raju Radha, ex-husband of Dunesh’s  wife Kushani Nannayakara.  She is the daughter of Capt. Nanayakkara and Mrs. Norma Nannayakara of Green Lanka Shipping Ltd. and has two children from her marriage to Raju.

Raju Radha, the son of the famous Indian actor M R Radha, is the owner of HRC Shipping and other businesses. His sister Radhika is also a popular Indian actress. Their mother is Sri Lankan.

When Diwakaran said he knew Raju well and Raju was a relative – out of the blue Dunesh lunged forward, bit Diwakaran’s nose and then disappeared into the crowd in the night club. Diwakaran was shocked and did not react at all.  Bleeding profusely and in pain Diwarakan was rushed to the General Hospital, Colombo where doctors performed surgery on his nose.

Ok, so the Sri Lankan parliament has its fringe cases, just as the Indian parliament – which incidentally has 125 of its 545 lower-house members indicted for crimes ranging from rioting to rape to murder, graphically shown here:


Some of these crimes are amusing, like “GOVINDA (INC), Age: 41, From: Mumbai North, MAHARASHTRA; Defamation, obscene acts and songs”.  Sounds like Govinda needs a nightclub booking, not a court date.

Back to my bug … nose-biter was not helping, so now I just try “india big grasshopper”.  What do I get?  See for yourself:

The Grasshopper Experiment

Of course.  “big” == “Big Bang Theory”, “india” == “Raj Koothrappali” (the show’s Indian astrophysicist), and “grasshopper” == Raj’s favorite drink.

Ok Google, you win.  Don’t know what species my bug-visitor actually is, but far as I’m concerned it is Tettigonia magnus viridis bharati – big green Indian grasshopper.

Book Reviews: The Last Lion; The New Digital Age

August 3, 2013 1 comment

The Last Lion on Amazon

Like many baby boomers I can’t help being fascinated by WW2.  The war was a constant subject of TV and movies in my childhood, from Combat to Rat Patrol to Where Eagles Dare to Hogan’s Heroes.  As I got older and my taste for actual history grew, I started reading accounts and perspectives of the war.  Among the things I read – we are talking 20 years ago or more – was Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, a memoire in 6 volumes.

This lengthy work filled me with questions:  Who was this man I’d formerly known only as a pudgy cigar-smoker, who shuttled across 4 continents in the midst of the most furious conflict in human history, meeting world leaders and crafting the conduct of the war, all the while downing copious volumes of brandy and painting the occasional water-color?  Who was this man who, in addition to his famous remark, “Yes madam, but in the morning I’ll be sober,” also observed, “When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.”?  Who was this great politician who was also a great author, so much so he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1953?

Motivated by these questions, in the 1980s I read the first two volumes of The Last Lion, William Manchester’s biography of Churchill.  Entitled Visions of Glory and Alone, they were published in 1982 and 1988 respectively.  It would be 24 years until volume 3, Defender of the Realm, would be published, 10 years after Manchester’s death and co-authored by journalist Paul Reid.

Though it has been decades since I read the first two volumes, it seems to me the tone and pacing of Defender of the Realm is markedly different.  Whether this is due to the change in authorship or the subject matter is hard to say, but DOTR reads much more like a weekly newsreel of the war than an examination of Churchill the man.

Perhaps that is how it should be.  One of the key messages of DOTR is that Churchill, molded by more than forty years of political and military experience, and having had a perfect vantage for the great events of the first half of the 20th century, was the very man Britain needed in her hour of need.  Aristocratic but not royal, old and not young, Churchill was nonetheless the nation’s Henry V when he famously said:

… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

When we look back at history, events oft times seem pre-determined; we can’t resist the assumption things could not have turned out any other way.  But something that comes though, in many places, in DOTR is that things could have turned out much, much different. In movies, of course the Germans always lose.   Well, they weren’t losing in 1940.  The German army of that time was savage, innovative, and gigantic.  Taking no losses of note, the Germans had neutralized and then defeated a combined French, English and Belgian force that numbered in the millions, driving the English to evacuate at Dunkirk.  In June 1940 by no means was any victory over Germany pre-determined.  Most English expected Germany to invade, and to overwhelm and pacify England just as they had France.  In preparation for this, Churchill carried cyanide, intending never to be taken alive by Hitler.

But, they didn’t invade.  The reasons were many and even today uncertain: Logistics, Germany was spent after the Battle of France and needed time to consolidate; Oceans, in that invasion required a Channel crossing, but Britain still had the most powerful navy of any European power; Uncertainty, in that if the Germans did manage to land, they rightly believed the English, as an island race, would defend their country to the last man, woman and child; and Politics, as Hitler fully expected England, in the face of obvious defeat, would sue for peace.  Manchester/Reid write:

The Fuhrer has assumed that invasion would be unnecessary.  After the fall of France he considered the war over.  In the East his pact with Stalin assured continuing peace as long as neither side abrogated it, which Hitler intended to do once the English came to terms.  When Hitler ordered the demobilizing of forty divisions, he told Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, that all war plans could be scrapped; we would reach an “understanding” (Übereinkommen) with the British.

Hitler clearly had no understanding of Churchill and, by extension, of the English.  Churchill’s refusal to accept the European common wisdom of accomodation, as manifested by the French with the Vichy Regime, was his great accomplishment.  If not for this principled and obdurate stance on Churchill’s part, things would have turned out much, much different, and what seems pre-destined now might never have happened.  If you still can’t evade the feeling the outcome of the war was predetermined, try to envision an American president of the last 40 years carrying cyanide and preparing to use it in the case of total defeat.  I don’t think so.

Another aspect of Churchill that comes through in DOTR is the combination of his wildly active mind and his leadership style.  To his subordinates Churchill seemed constantly out of control.  Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke) observed “It is a regular disease he [Churchill] suffers from, this frightful impatience to get an attack launched” and that Churchill “… never had the slightest doubt that he had inherited all the military genius of his great ancestor Marlborough!”

But their was method to Churchill’s madness.  He understood he was waging a global conflict that would set the course of history for a hundred years.  To focus on any single thing, a single strategy or a single front, would have led to disaster.  Instead he pursued a strategy of many fronts and many activities and was always ready to bolster those that succeeded and stop those that stalled.

To concentrate on a single thing was very much what Stalin wanted the Allies to do, in his constant demands to open a Western front.  Stalin understood that Germany, arrayed against the combined industrial might of the entire world, could not prevail.  His desire was that the Allies spend their strength in head-on encounters with Hitler’s most powerful forces.  This would allow Stalin more time and space to expand his own empire, and to insure the forces of the Allies would be depleted when he eventually turned against them.  Churchill’s strategy of first confronting Italy and Germany in North Africa, and then in Italy itself – something by no means initially supported by Roosevelt and his advisors – was intended to keep the Nazis off balance, but also to create a presence in the East, so that the Allies could take positions in Eastern Europe when the time was right.

Alas, it was not to be.  American Generals like John Lucas and Mark Clark were too cautious in the Italian campaign, completely wasting the surprise at Anzio and generally focusing on annihilating Germans face to face rather than neutralizing their ability to fight.  Churchill had a vision of taking Rome by April 1944, and from there striking quickly into the Balkans and thence to Austria.  Instead the Italian campaign stabilized and the Allies devoted all attention to Overlord in Normandy.  When in May 1945 the Americans, British and Russians finally joined forces in a conquered Berlin, the Red Army had already taken Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and much more of Eastern Europe – essentially the territory marked by the Iron Curtain Churchill would later describe in his famous speech of 1946:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. Athens alone — Greece with its immortal glories — is free to decide its future at an election under British, American and French observation. The Russian-dominated Polish Government has been encouraged to make enormous and wrongful inroads upon Germany, and mass expulsions of millions of Germans on a scale grievous and undreamed-of are now taking place. The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case, and so far, except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy.

As writing, I found Defender of the Realm to have a good pace, constantly weaving in Churchill’s views and activities with the unfolding events of the war.  The later chapters on Churchill’s post-war life and accomplishments are slower moving, but the links that were made to the younger Churchill – the writing, the socializing, the continued brandy and cigars – all serve to show how Churchill’s authentic self was always there.  The war did not make him – he made the war.

I’ll leave off this part of this long post (sorry for that) with my favorite image from DOTR:

Smoking a long cigar and stroking his cat, Nelson, he [Churchill] prowled the corridors of No. 10 wearing a soldier’s steel helmet (called by all a “tin hat”), a crimson dressing gown adorned by a golden dragon, and monogrammed slippers complete with pom-poms.  Sometimes he carried on anthropomorphic conversations with Nelson (including an admonition to be more stouthearted after the cat flinched in an air raid).


The New Digital Age on Amazon

Churchill was one of the architects of the modern world, a world where we  in the West enjoy the benefits of tolerance, democracy, and capitalism.  What have we done with the world Churchill bequeathed us?  One answer to that, at least, comes in The New Digital Age, by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google “Director of Ideas” Jared Cohen, a quasi-futuristic view of how information technology will transform daily life around the world in the coming decades.

You may recall this book from a previous post of mine, where I quoted Julian Assange, who described the book as an “expertly banalized version of tomorrow’s world”.

I have to say that now having read TNDA, I get what he meant.  Schmidt and Cohen lay out a world where smartphones and pervasive internet, well, just make everything all right.  An example:

The future will usher in an unprecedented era of choices and options.  While some citizens will attempt to manage their identity by engaging in the minimum amount of virtual participation, others will find the opportunities to participate worth the risk of exposure they incur.  Citizen participation will reach an all-time high as anyone with a mobile handset and access to the Internet will be able to play a part in promoting accountability and transparency.  A shopkeeper in Addis Ababa and a precocious teenage in San Salvador will be able to disseminate information about bribes and corruption.

Or, how about this:

People who try to perpetuate myths about religion, culture, ethnicity or anything else will struggle to keep their narratives afloat amid a sea of newly informed listeners.

Are these guys using the same internet I use?  In the cases of Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and even retired General James Cartwright we see what happens when citizens “participate”.

The main point of this book seems to be dishing out relentless naiveté to the effect that, whatever social ill is on your mind, the internet will magically fix it.  To be truthful, the book is not 100% internet rah-rah.  Here and there Schmidt/Cohen chill the fragrant sponge of fermenting digital dough with a few colder observations:

As part of their virtual containment strategies, states will undertake a series of transparency gestures, releasing crumbs but withholding the bulk of information they possess.  These states will be congratulated for exposing their own institutions and even their own past crimes … Manufacturing transparent-looking documents and records will not be difficult for these regimes – in the absence of contradictory information (such as leaked original documents) there’s little hope of proving them false.

Jared Cohen seems a serious guy – before his Director of Google Ideas gig he was a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and staffer to both Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton.  But I have to say, despite the subject matter he and Schmidt undertake – Identity, Government, Revolution and Terrorism – this is not a serious book.  Despite the various cautionary notes like that above, everything in TNDA is too pat, too suffused with the notion that technology always works out for the best.

One obvious example that shows how information access is not an unambiguous benefit is climate change.  What Schmidt and Cohen would have us believe is, if you are concerned, just Google it and you’ll find the answer.  However every reasonable person on the planet knows the “internet” has no such “answer”.  What you do find is different sides of the debate using the tactics of the digital world to promote their information and to suppress or discredit contrary information. Does anyone think a regular follower of will suddenly be enlightened by something they read on Without getting into my own views on climate change, if you tried to distill down what you get from the internet on this topic into a real answer, it would take years and you would end up being close to a climate scientist yourself.  So, yes, it’s faster than checking out dead-tree books from the library.  But it is not fundamentally better.

Really what this book is, is a commercial for Google.  Internet, phones, and information – with tasteful, well-selected ads, of course – is what they sell. And, like a weapons-supplier, they sell their stuff to anyone who can pay.  Google wants us to feel everything is fine, and for us to keep giving our information to them, to Facebook, to retailers, and to the government.

I don’t think everything is fine.  I love tech,  I make my living from tech, but no tech is an unalloyed benefit.  I do think individuals need to take action, but not by “participating” as Schmidt and Cohen would have it, but by taking control of what they can.

An FB friend recently shared a link on this very topic, the Surveillance Self-Defense Project, or SSD.  SSD is an Electronic Frontier Foundation project that informs the public on how better to contain personal information.  A vast amount of data about each one of us is in the form of “business records” – information that is publically or government-accessible because we have disclosed it, either explicitly or in the context of a transaction.  SSD has some good guidance on how to manage all that so you at least know what you are disclosing.  It will be efforts like SSD that really enable the benefits that TNDA talks about, not just the raw existence of technology itself.

To wrap up, the best I can say about TNDA is that much of what they foresee is indeed possible and to be hoped for – but hopin’ don’t make it so.


Perhaps you wonder why I chose to review these 2 books together?  Churchill was motivated by understanding of foundational truths, about Democracy, Totalitarianism, Tolerance, Opportunity and above all, about Power.  He was an ardent believer in technology – he was the father of the tank, after all – but not bound by it.

What would Churchill say to our challenges today, of government transparency, of economic inequality, of worldwide poverty and repression?    Would he erect a few cell-towers and make an app for that?

I think he would say: Never surrender.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get my tin-hat and bathrobe.  And who knows? when the monsoons abate I may get a few cigars.

Categories: Books, History, Technology

Teaching a Phone New Tricks

July 14, 2013 Comments off

Samsung Galaxy S2

Wherein I flash firmware and successfully petition the Allfather for root access.

Mobile phones are essential for life here in India.  More than essential: Vital, indispensible, crucial.  Without a phone you can’t reliably meet with anyone, travel anywhere, or conduct any business.  I came here with an HTC Sensation that I got on my plan in USA with T-Mobile; by popping in an Airtel India SIM card I was good to go.  This is a pretty good phone, 2-core 1.2 GHz cpu, 540 x 960 LCD screen, and HTC’s enhancements on top of Android, HTC Sense.  This phone is close to the iPhone 4 in capabilities and performance.

But I can’t say it’s a great phone.  Battery life is no more than average; in fact on trips I power-down the phone for long periods so I can be assured that my phone will have power when I get to my destination.  And here in India it sometimes acts flaky, getting into a mode where it flashes back and forth between full signal and no signal.  So in the hopes of longer battery life and greater reliability, I started looking for a new phone.  My ultimate pick was the Samsung Galaxy S2.  It specs out better than the Sensation in both talk-time and standby-time, and various reviews put it a bit ahead of the Sensation.  And, since I didn’t feel like spending the big bucks for an unlocked iPhone 5 or Galaxy S4, the S2 at its medium-bucks price was my choice.

One thing I was concerned about was the Android version on the phone.  The S2 came out in 2011, which means Android 2.3, aka Gingerbread.  My Sensation has 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and I was not about to go back. Some quick googling verified that the S2 could do Android 4.1, Jelly Bean, so I was off to Amazon to buy my new phone.  My rose-colored glasses showed me a vision of the future where my phone, being new, arrives with the newest Android pre-installed.

I should have been using my Peril Sensitive sunglasses, as phone arrived with antediluvian Gingerbread.  But not to worry.  I am a tech guy after all … I’ll just fix it.  A bit more googling shows that the upgrade can be done OTA by using the Samsung PC utility Kies.  Was able to get that installed no problem, only to find “Your current firmware does not support upgrading”.

Back to Google again.  Now I find there is a program, Odin, that allows you to replace the firmware of your Samsung phone with a new image.  Got Odin installed and after a bit more searching got a generic UK image for the S2 and Android 4.1.2.  Put the phone into “download mode” (power-on by holding down-volume, home and power simultaneously) and Odin was ready to work his magic:

Odin utility

Why a Korean tech company has a software utility named after Norse god, I have no idea.  Norse countries are heavily involved with mobile tech.  I guess I should be happy this utility wasn’t named Väinämöinen.

Regardless, Odin worked.  The phone rebooted and there was the Jelly Bean UI, all ready for me.  Yes!  Phone not bricked and X $s not wasted!  Put in the Airtel SIM card, setup my accounts, all my contacts synched down, installed a few more apps, and in short order I was ready to go, at parity with the data and functions I had on the Sensation.

Actually, not quite.  When you get a new phone, you dink around with the options, right?  One of the first things I dinked around with was the Lock screen. None of the settings did anything, the phone just would not lock.  Then I noticed that there was no warning when you press power-off – the phone would directly shut down.  That was not good, I could butt dial my phone off without knowing it.

I guess Google is the new hardware store.  If you are a home owner I’m sure you have had the experience of doing a project – fixing a mailbox or screen door, for example – and going to the hardware store once, thinking you have all you need, only to find later that 2nd, 3rd or 4th trips are needed.  So once again I go to Google, this time looking for “galaxy s2 lock screen problem”.

And once again, Google worked.  I quickly find that the lock screen and power-off problems can be corrected by placing a file named “keystr”, containing the characters “ON” in the right place.  Doing this, however, required root access to the phone – just like on Unix and Linux, on Android a plain ‘ol user can only see some of the file system.

And actually rooting the phone?  Odin can do this too, you just need the right kernel, which I got and flashed.  Once rooted, the app ES File Explorer allowed me to see the whole phone file system, and to put the needed file in the right spot with the right permissions.  One more reboot, and there was my lock screen.  Yay!


Moral of the story: Stuff is getting easier.  I have been looking at dev guides and how-to’s for phones for years and frankly, back then, they were pretty daunting, mostly involving a lot of *Nix knowledge, terminal sessions to your phone, that sort of thing.  Now, even “prosumers” can flash ROMs and root their phones by using GUI utilities.

Especially on Samsung, aided by Odin.  No human sacrifice necessary.

Categories: Technology

Don’t be Evil … at least for some definitions of “Evil”

June 9, 2013 1 comment


Decisions, decisions.  Grow the infrastructure of a police state – which history and experience tell us will eventually get used to its fullest extent at the expense of our fundamental freedoms – or, let the terrorists “win” – by which most people understand to mean that a self-renewing body of fanatics will have free rein to commit atrocities upon us.  In comparison to these, the third alternative of a powerful oligopoly of global corporations using technology to harvest money at ever greatest rates seems almost puckishly amusing.

Past week or so has seen the exposure of two programs run by the US National Security Agency, or NSA – often euphemistically called “No Such Agency” due to its penchant for utter secrecy.  The first program, reported by the Guardian, involves the retrieval of cell call records for millions of Americans.  Initiated on April 25, and due to continue till July 19, the program presumably was initiated to aid investigation into the recent Boston Marathon Bombing.  These actions were taken under provisions of the Patriot Act put in place in the last Bush Administration,  but this is the first time the Obama administration has used these powers.

The second revelation, also broken by the Guardian, is about an NSA program called PRISM, which gives government access to user data from major tech companies, including Apple, Google and Facebook.  PRISM is probably not an acronym, but it does have a creepy logo:

It is unclear how PRISM works.  Despite the statement on a top-secret Powerpoint slide that says PRISM collects “… directly from the servers of … U.S. service providers …”, what seems more likely is that there is, as the New York Times reports, a system of “locked mailboxes” where tech companies deposit requested data-sets in a way the government can see only that data.  All the usual billionaire suspects, from Cook to Page to Zuckerberg, deny there is any “back door” in their servers that is open to the government.

To add to this unsettling stew are many other ingredients.  One is that these revelations come close after stories on apparent abuses of government power: how the IRS targeted certain political groups for extra screening prior to being approved for tax-free status, and how the US Justice Department used phone records of Associated Press reporters to look for leakers of sensitive information.  Then, there’s the trial of Bradley Manning, who faces a possible penalty of life in prison for releasing 1,000s of classified documents to WikiLeaks including a notorious video of an Apache helicopter crew killing civilians and journalists in Baghdad.  Finally, we have the uncertainty of whether PRISM has ever actually stopped a terrorist attack, the expected alignment of the ACLU and the EFF against this surveillance, and an unexpected alliance of Bill Maher, Jack Welch and Lindsey Graham in support.

Whew.  What to do, what to do? Almost makes one long for the 60s, doesn’t it?

What seems most likely is the political part of this will, as it always does, run its course – committees will be convened, reporting will be done, and a new baseline of public belief and expectation will be established.  How grounded in truth that will be is hard to predict, but I have my hopes.  Maybe the best face I can put on it is to say this is an opportunity for Mr. Obama to “show his quality”, as Samwise Gamgee would say.

More troubling to me is the thesis put forth by Julian Assange – controversial founder of Wikileaks – in a recent NYT op-ed.  In it, he takes to task Google and two of its leaders, CEO Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen.  His article, entitled The Banality of Evil, blasts Schmidt and Cohen’s book, The New Digital Age, as a “startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism”.  Assange writes:

The authors offer an expertly banalized version of tomorrow’s world: the gadgetry of decades hence is predicted to be much like what we have right now — only cooler. “Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth. Already, every day, another million or so Google-run mobile devices are activated. Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China). Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.

In Assange’s view, Google and the other big techs are not outraged by government expectations of surveillance – to them it’s the price of doing business, and business means knowing everything about you not so you can be put in jail, but so you can be sold stuff … lots and lots of stuff.  His warning is about how we will come to consider loss of privacy, and of freedoms, as benefits rather than losses.

Assange is not exactly a well-considered, all-sides-of-the-issue kind of guy.  Also interesting is that Schmidt and Cohen interviewed Assange in 2011, as research for their book; apparently Assange was not too happy with the result.

I have the book in my Kindle, queued up to be read.  But it seems hard to conclude Assange is totally wrong.  The American people elected Obama, and they can elect his successor out, if that’s what they want.  No one elected Eric Schmidt.

If you read Assange’s piece on NYT, you may encounter the same ironic ad-juxtaposition that I did:


Google really is everywhere.

Categories: Internet, Technology

ESPN & Net Neutrality

May 14, 2013 Comments off


Stories going round today about a putative ESPN deal to pay wireless providers so that access to ESPN content is essentially free. puts it this way:




The defenders of “competition” and a “free market” have it all wrong. The pay-for-unlimited-bandwidth option actually restricts competition. That up-and-coming app developer with the cool new video streaming product who can’t afford to pay off AT&T or Comcast or Verizon ends up losing out. Entities with access to capital get a preferred position on our phones.

On the other side, there’s, who sounds a free-market-based warning:

You get the point.  Wouldn’t it be pretty darn terrific if Internet companies could be treated just like regular companies, allowing them to ”discriminate” or prioritize their services as consumers demand?

Net Neutrality hogties the whole ecosystem – from the network providers on down to the content, app, service and device makers.  Man, what a waste of a policy lever based on nothing more than fear.  We pay for “discrimination” / priority in every segment of our economy, like the mail, the airlines, shopping clubs, hot lanes, etc.  It makes these services better.

I’m not so sure about this particular case and net-neutrality.  By way of analogy, if ESPN put its content on thumbdrives and then courier-ed those to peoples’ houses, the result would be the same, people get the content for free.  It would be goofy, but no one would protest; why then do people get exercised over a virtual method of doing the same thing?

Note that the proposed deal has nothing to do with priority – users don’t receive the ESPN content faster or cleaner than any other content, they just receive it for free.

Yes, I get that we want to separate content-providers and network-providers, and that there is a risk of a kind of "McDonald-zation" of internet content — i.e. mega-providers with money to pay for priority lock out worthwhile content from small providers who don’t have that money.  But to take the McDonald’s idea one step further – McDonald’s and its kin monopolize many key locations across the US, like highways rest stops, airports, malls, etc., yet independent restaurants have not been wiped out.  They are under pressure, but surely no one thinks independent eateries are going away – in fact people are willing to pay more to eat at an indie restaurant.  The real problem that indie eateries have is not access – it is marketing.  So, coming back to’s comments, net neutrality will never help that “up-and-coming app developer” – that guy’s problem is not access to his app, it is marketing his app, which no amount of net-neutrality will ever do for him.

My net on this particular net-neutrality kerfuffle: Assuming access to all other content is unchanged, I don’t see the logic in trying to stop ESPN from paying peoples’ phone bills.  On ESPN’s prospects for success with this strategy, I suspect people will quickly conclude the content is worth what they are paying for it.

Categories: Technology

Silver lining … or not?

May 8, 2013 5 comments

Cape Cod clouds

Ars Technica relates how Adobe’s Creative Suite – Photoshop, Dreamweaver, InDesign and others – is “moving to the cloud”.  As Adobe says here:

Creative Cloud changes everything.

We believe the creative process can be better. New, more connected tools. Fonts, files, and projects always in sync. Your creative community just a click away. It’s all coming to Creative Cloud this June.

The technical net of this is:

  • The apps themselves are unchanged.  Your Photoshop filters still run on your hopped-up 8-core Alienware overclock job.
  • The way you pay is subscription.  For $19 a month you get 1 app, 20 GB storage, and some access to the “cloud services”.  There are bundled deals of multiple products, a complete bundle is $600 per year, actually somewhat less than the $699 for a boxed license to Photoshop alone.
  • Don’t know what the services all are yet … seems to focus on assets like fonts, templates, etc.

Response seems mixed.  Looking through the Ars Technica comments there is a positive contingent, as represented by “Korgoth”:

Korgoth Wise, Aged Ars Veteran

for people without a couple grand to get all the tools. Not everyone has $2500 lying around, but most can manage $50 in a month.
Cost wise it might work out to be more in the long term, but it does offer some extras over the boxed version; and allows more people to afford it.

But a lot of folks on the other side observe that this is really a massive price increase, as bluntly described by “Voix des Airs”:

Voix des Airs, Ars Scholae Palatinae

Absolutely not. I upgrade software when the developer provides me a compelling reason to do so. Features that make it worthwhile for me to upgrade. I positively do not want to pay a subscription for a stream of "upgrades" that might be of no value to me.
Screw you Adobe. This dude will not abide.


The logic here is, if I buy PS for $699 now, and say I can use it productively for 4 years, under the new scheme that would cost me $960.  I guess if I really cared about the latest-and-greatest, I’d go for cloud, but I think for 90% of users, PS already has more than they ever need, so what’s the value of these “continuous improvements”?

    I guess I don’t get Adobe’s rationale.  I get they want more money, and constantly flowing money.  But, surely they know a great many customers will use the same reasoning as Voix des Airs?  Why don’t they keep the boxed model and offer the cloud as an option? 

      I gotta believe that tons of users will use this inflection point as opportunity to look at a free alternative, like GIMP.
      If you follow this stuff you probably know that Microsoft is already in the same place Adobe is now going to, with Office 365: $100 per year for rights to install Office on 5 computers, plus 20 GB SkyDrive storage.  Unlike the Adobe thing, the MS thing is a good deal.

    Thoughts?  Rental software good, or bad?

    Categories: Technology

    Book Review: To Save Everything, Click Here

    May 4, 2013 3 comments


    My job is building software.  Of course I use technology every day, for work, education and entertainment.  I like to think, at least,  that I’m pretty good at building and using this stuff.

    But, for all that, I have a strong luddite streak; maybe folks got that from my post on Summly.  I use Facebook but I am intensely suspicious of it.  Of the 100 or so apps on my smartphone, I rarely use anything beyond Maps and Alarm Clock.  An app like Foursquare – which bills itself as helping  “… you and your friends find great places and make the most of your visits” – is to me a bizarre surrender of privacy and security for no return whatsoever.  Yet these and other “innovations” have constant command of the business and technology limelight and, despite their dubious value propositions, are all making money in very large buckets indeed.  Why the heck is this?

    Evgeny Morozov apparently shares my curmudgeonly suspicions.  His latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, while flawed in several ways, captures in one word the cognitive dissonance of the distinctive Silicon Valley brand of improvement through technology:

    Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized – if only the right algorithms are in place! – this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.  I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism”.

    So what is solutionism?  Morozov relates how researchers in Japan are prototyping “augmented reality” for cooking.  In this system, cameras are mounted in the ceiling and walls of your kitchen then, for example, if you are about to filet a fish, the system visually senses your intent and projects light indicators to guide you through the activity – for example with projected laser lines that indicate where to cut into the fish.

    Or how about this: Bin-Cam, a system with a camera mounted inside your trash bins that records a snap every time you open and close the lid, then passes on the image to a pool of human evaluators who in turn count your recyclables, wasted food, etc. to derive a “score” for your trash.  The ultimate aim is you and your neighbors will compete for badges over who has the most eco-friendly trash.

    So, what problems are these things solving?  Morozov’s contention is these sorts of “innovations” are both arbitrary and hurtful.  Can anyone believe the augmented kitchen reality will lead to better-cut fish?  What we as users need to do is just what our ancestors did: Learn how to actually cook.  Bin-cam can have worse consequences.  Recycling and waste are real problems, but by declaring this trivial “solution” we actually move ourselves further away from doing what needs to be done, like enacting market-drivers and regulations that generate real improvement.

    Solutionism comes together with Morozov’s other bête noir, “The Internet”, when he critiques liquid democracy.  In a nutshell liquid democracy purports to generate better public decisions through delegation of votes to “experts”.  Should we have a carbon tax?  Don’t ask me, I know little about carbon and even less on taxes.  With liquid democracy what I would do is delegate my vote on the matter to someone who is such an expert. Suppose the next issue is access to emergency contraception.  All I need to do is delegate to another, appropriately qualified expert.  And so on.  (Note to future self: If this dorky idea ever gets enacted in the USA, delegate everything to Paul Krugman.)

    Morozov’s point – which seems evident to me – is that the “openess” of the “the Intertnet” does not somehow make everything that happens on it  good, and that we can’t take the problems that thinkers and writers from Socrates to Voltaire to Churchill to Oakeshott all have pondered over and just “make an app for that”.  Morozov writes:

    Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder, and the opportunity to err, to sin, to do the wrong thing: all of these are constitutive of human  freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well.  if we don’t find the streng5th and the courage to escape the silicon mentality that fuels much of the current quest for technological perfection, we risk finding ourselves with a politics devoid of everything that makes politics desirable, with humans who have lost their basic capacity for moral reasoning, with lackluster (if not moribund) cultural institutions that don’t take risks and only care about their financial bottom lines, and, most terrifyingly, with a perfectly controlled social environment that would make dissent not just impossible but possibly even unthinkable.

    I said there were flaws in the book.  One is that Morozov is really a philosopher and as such likes to quote and reference other philosophers – a lot of them; the book includes 55 pages of citations.  He also comes across as really grumpy and tees off on harmless tech P-R phenomena like Clay Shirky and the TED Conference.  Shirky has little cause to complain, though, here’s the #2 hit I got when I Googled Clay Shirky:


    I guess Google doesn’t like Shirky either.

    Denizen’s of “the Internet” have mostly harsh woods to offer on this book.  Tim Wu writes:

    “To Save Everything, Click Here” is rife with such bullying and unfair attacks that seem mainly designed to build Morozov’s particular brand of trollism; one suspects he aspires to be a Bill O’Reilly for intellectuals.

    Slashdot has a review that focuses on the kitchen augmented reality thing, striving mightily to show how “the Internet” really can teach you how to cook, if only we could incentivize authors to write better directions.  Maybe badges for authors … you see where this is going?

    There’s a lot more ground Morozov covers – like how algorithms used by Amazon, Google and Facebook are obviously designed for maximum revenue generation, and not for our collective, transparent benefit – or how lifeloggers like Gordon Bell, while mostly harmless, also trivialize the productive flaws of human memory and tradition.  Some of that is valid observation, some just grumpiness, less of which would have benefited the book.

    In closing, while few people have ever heard the word solutionism, a great many intuitively get the point – which you can see in parodies like this:


    Technology mocking itself – a good sign.  Maybe I should make an app for that … ?

    Categories: Books, Technology

    Programming Worms

    May 3, 2013 2 comments

    No, not as in malware – a program that replicates itself as it moves from machine to machine – but as in an actual dirt-loving, squirming-about, icky-spaghetti worm.

    This link comes off of Boing Boing.  The project is called OpenWorm, and it self-describes as:

    OpenWorm is an open source project dedicated to creating the world’s first virtual organism in a computer, a C.elegans nematode. We plan to achieve this goal by 1) bringing together highly motivated scientists and engineers 2) pushing away all the red tape 3) fostering growth of a completely open computational biology community.

    So, its not building a real worm – a virtual worm.  The worm they are hoping to replicate – Caenorhabditis elegans – is a nematode worm about 1 mm long; there’s about 1,000 cells in each one of these tiny critters.

    How is this being done?  Hard to say.  The project milestones are here … here’s an example:

    Muscle Cell model output closely matches that of real data

    We will show that we have built a model of C. elegans muscle cell that matches data recorded from the nematode muscle cell. In part, we will use techniques of model optimization to fill in gaps in the model parameter space (deduce unmeasured parameters). The main technical challenge is tuning muscle cell passive properties and building a larger data set (more cell recordings). Mike Vella will take the lead on this.


    Do we need virtual worms?  No, not as such – but we need these types of projects, that’s is what science is, right?  There’s too much of the attitude these days that all R & D needs to be dedicated to obvious needs.  I for one think we need more scientia gratia scientiae.

    Categories: Technology Tags: ,

    India in Pictures

    April 27, 2013 Comments off

    India excess female mortality

    No, not pictures as in tourist snaps … pictures as in data visualizations.

    Wife Kim sent me a link to an interesting site, Data Stories (India).  This is the blog of Avinash Celestine, a journalist with India’s The Economic Times.  The idea of Data Stories is it shows interactive visualizations of different types of Indian economic and socio-metric data.

    What sort of thing is Data Stories showing?  The map below shows ownership of TV, Computer, Phone and Vehicle (either 2- or 4-wheeler).  The darker the color the higher the percentage of households who own all those things in that area:


    Where I live in Pune about 18% of households have all these things.  The message here is how wealth in India is concentrated in a small number of urban centers.

    These maps show worldwide per-capita income from perspective of both India (on the left) and China, on the right:


    India and China are represented by flat lines in their respective graphs.  The other lines represent the relative proportion of that country or region’s per capita income to the base country at that point in time.

    In 1975 USA per-capita income was about 18 times that in India, and  maybe 19 times that of China.  But notice how in the China chart the USA line starts sloping down steeply starting in around 1977?  By 2005 the USA:China ratio has dropped from 19:1 to 6:1, but in India with its more gently sloping line, the ratio has not dropped much, from 18:1 to 12:1.

    What to make of these visual presentations?  I’ll leave the public policy aspects of these to the side and just say: We need more of this stuff.  Thinking I might make my own geographic visualization I did some quick Googles on the topic.  Conclusion: There’s not that much out there that can do this quickly.  Microsoft sells an add-on for Excel called MapPoint that looks quite powerful, but at $300 list for the North America edition, it’s not going to get my vote.  There’s some Flash- and/or web-based tools out there, like StatPlanet and BatchGeo, but tools like these definitely have a learning curve.  Isn’t there something easier?

    <shameless-plug>My employer IBM has an answer, ManyEyes.</shameless-plug>  ManyEyes is a free system where you can create visualizations from existing data-sets, or upload and visualize data-sets of your own.  I found many India-related visualizations there, like this one:



    Note to self: Government of India has many data-sets available online.  Try to find a likely one and then make a ManyEyes visualization of it.

    Dragon Island!

    April 7, 2013 Comments off

    DragonIsland screenshot

    Here’s some tips tip for those contemplating a stint as an ex-pat: #1, Plan to immerse yourself in local culture, food, shopping, sightseeing, travel, meeting and conversing with new people.  Don’t be isolated – connect.

    Tip #2: Get some video games.

    Seriously, you and your family won’t be able to do the cultural ambassador thing 24 x 7.  You need some downtime, some alone with your family time – you need games.

    The game that has swept the Salazar household this past weekend is Dragon Island, free for iPad.  This game is like Pokemon … turn  based combat, with really cool monsters organized into the traditional air-water-earth-fire model.  There’s a role-playing aspect as your hero character – a “monster trainer” – travels around doing the bidding of the Trainers’ Guild and piecing together the also-traditional story of a lost father and mysterious doings at the highest levels of something or other.

    Who cares?  It’s the planning and the combat that make this game.  Seriously, once you start it is hard to stop.  First, the monsters are very clever – thus far among the enemies I’ve faced are Bitewings, Mutations, Giant Crabs, King Penguins, Cult priests, Blood Priests, Baby Nessie, plus something called an “Abomination” that is animated as a fat opera singer.  Second, your own monsters gain new abilities fairly quickly, and even “evolve” into new  forms – for example, a “Fairy”, an innocuous Tinkerbell-like thing that puts 1 enemy monster to sleep, evolves into a “Fairy Queen” which puts many monsters to sleep, and is, shall we say, very attractively rendered.

    Here’s another look at the combat screen:

    DragonIsland screenshot

    There’s just the right amount of animation here, the  enemies slowly floating up and down, with animated question-marks, or ZZs to indicate different conditions, and slashes or explosions to mark each attack.  All this is squarely in the Dragon Quest style. and takes about 30 seconds to figure out.

    Finally, this game is very forgiving.  You lose lots of battles, but there’s no effect on your progress in the game.  You just re-spawn in the last town you visited, your battalion of little horrors all healed-up and ready to try again.  If you can’t get past a certain boss fight, no problem: Just wander around, level up your monsters, maybe capture some more, then after a while go back and try again.

    Net-net: Dragon Island for iPad, super-game, get it.  Now sorry, have to go – need to find out what my 20th level Bat Fiend is evolving into …