Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The story of the near fall of a diabetic.



On November 11th, 2010, I took my first steps on a journey that would change my life. After being bitten by a dog on my diabetic feet, I allowed an infection to form and tissue to die which almost ended up costing me my toe.

Thankfully, due to a fantastic doctor and good antibiotics, that hasn't happened yet but, nearly a month later, I am still fighting infection and dealing with a near quarter inch deep crater in my foot. Most, if not all of this could have been avoided had I taken better care of myself, eaten right, and kept my blood sugar levels down. But Diabetes wasn't something I paid that close attention to and it nearly costs me my toe.

This video discusses my experience and provides a warning to others dealing with diabetes. Don't play around, it's *much* more serious than you might think.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Email Security in the new Surveillance Society

For over two decades, email has been a routine part of our modern lives. Who would consider sending out a quick one line 'Haven't heard from you lately, how are you?" by postal mail anymore when just about everyone in the industrialized world has an email address?  For many people, myself included, email has nearly totally supplanted postal mail as their de facto method of communication. On any day, I probably send and receive more than 100 emails while my outgoing postal mail is down to one or two items a week and my incoming is nearly only commercial.

With our incredible reliance on the technology, it might surprise you that email hasn't changed very much since it was developed nearly four decades ago or that it is one of the biggest threats to your personal security and liberty on the Internet today. Bigger than hackers. Bigger than viruses. Bigger than the entire criminal underworld combined.

Email works much the same as our traditional land based mail systems do.  When you drop a letter in the mail in Florida destined for a friend in Wisconsin, that piece of mail will pass through multiple mail processing hubs as it makes its way to its final destination. You might trust your local postal staff not to read your mail and you might even trust the postal staff at the office in Wisconsin, but what about the multiple, unknown, stops your letter will make as it travels? Do you trust the people who work at those locations?

From the moment you press the send button, your email begins a magical journey that will carry it through tens (or even dozens) of machines in a totally unencrypted and unprotected form.  Anyone at any of the machines your email passes through on the way to its destination can easily intercept and read your mail and you'd never know it happened. The email would still reach its destination as planned and you and Aunt Sallie would successfully plan the demise of this years cookie baking champion.

Who would want to read your email though? I mean, you're exchanging baking recipes, jokes, occasional 'important' but not terribly sensitive information.  You're not some CIA spy working in Siberia trying to catch an international arms dealer.  As it turns out, you don't have to be.  There are several groups that might have an interest in intercepting and reading your mail: the government in an effort to 'catch terrorists', your ISP (for various reasons), your email provider, someone trying to analyze the data in your email for marketing purposes, the list goes on and on and on.  Unfortunately, the list also grows every day. Email is the last great wide open privacy farm. Nobody thinks about protecting it and people share incredibly sensitive information using it.

Let's define 'reading' a bit.

You've seen me use the term 'read your email' several times in this article and you might be thinking 'really, Anthony, someone is going to sit down and personally go through thousands or millions of email messages every day? I don't think so!"  You'd be right. They automate it.  Because email contains absolutely no encryption or security at all, it's easy to automate scanning it for keywords. If you use the popular email service GMail you're already familiar with this. Notice how if I make a joke in my email to you about Viagra, GMail is suddenly showing Viagra ads on the left of the email? It's because they've used special software to 'read' your email for keywords and picked up that we were talking about Viagra. GMail uses the technology to help their marketing, but it could easily be used to scan for anything they wanted.

That's one form of reading your email. But there's another, even more sinister and more direct way.

Let's discuss the Government


The United States, as well as several other governments around the world including UK, New Zealand, and Australia, have admitted over the last several years to routinely monitoring overseas communications. That includes phone calls, emails, faxes, etc.  From recent research, we have strong reason to suspect that a few of those governments may have tuned their surveillance to even include domestic communication that that's where your email to Aunt Sallie comes in.

The software governments use to scan email is similar to that used by GMail except immensely more sophisticated.  Because governments are seeking (called 'minining') intelligence information, their processing is more fine tuned and the analysis that goes on is much more extensive. Government analysis seeks to find patterns, keywords, and trends in your messages. For example, is a specific phrase used a lot in multiple, otherwise unrelated emails? That might indicate something.  Were you frustrated by the recent election and said something in passing about 'just getting rid of them all'? That might indicate something too. We don't know how extensive government analysis is but, because of it's purpose, you can bet it's intense.

In the end, if your email is interesting enough to trip enough triggers, it might end up on the desk of some nice intelligence analyst who will read it personally. If he finds it interesting, he might ask your Internet mail provider to forward him all of your email communications for a while and he'll read those until he's satisfied that you're just another ordinary citizen.

For brevity (what's that?) I'm not going to go into the other parties who might want to read your email. The point is that there's virtually no protection against anyone who really wants a crack at your private communications. Your email is like a house with no locks. Private as long as nobody decides to take a peek inside.

Installing the locks...


With all this talk about how insecure email is, you probably think that protecting it from prying eyes must be a Herculean task or else everyone would do it.  Here's another surprise: it's not.

Protecting your most private communication from anyone's prying eyes is incredibly simple and the tools you need are freely available. The process involves both you and the person you're communicating with simply encrypting your mail both ways using something called a public key.

Don't worry, it's not as complicated as it might sound. It's all automated!


Public Key Encryption is a reliable and, if used correctly, unbreakable way to protect your emails from unauthorized access. It involves both you and the person you're exchanging emails with to exchange 'public keys' which is information that anyone can have - it simply allows someone to encrypt email to you. YOU keep what is known as your 'private key', which is used to decrypt mail sent to you and to do other functions.

The process can be done in most email clients (Outlook, Eudora, Thunderbird, AppleMail, etc) automatically after a five to seven minute setup. After that, as long as you're encrypting mail to your recipients and they to you, no one will ever know what you're saying ever again.

If it's so easy, why isn't everyone using it?


Good question! Laziness!

While setting up and using this technology is very simple, it does require you to set it up and it does require some extra work when you start to encrypt mail to new people (you have to add their public key to your 'keychain'). It's not a lot of work but it's more than most people want to do just to send an email - especially if they have nothing to hide.

Exactly! I have nothing to hide, why would I worry who reads my email?


Are you ashamed about sex with your spouse? Can I come over and peek through the windows next time you guys are romantic?  The truth is, you don't have to be doing anything wrong to deserve or want privacy. In fact, it's the innocent who require and should demand the most privacy. If you're not doing anything wrong, why should someone be reading your emails? Personally, the fact that there's possibly some guy I don't know sitting in some analysis room reading YOUR private emails makes me mad as hell. You deserve privacy and YOU exerting your right to it makes a stronger case for all of us privacy loving netizens.

Alright, where can I find out more?


There's not a lot your have to do to get started. If you're a Windows user, first make sure your computer is virus and spyware free (I assume you know how to do that) then head over to http://www.gpg4win.org/download.html, download, and set up the software. Go through the steps in this article to set the software up and generate your public/private key, and get the keys of those you communicate with. With that, you are totally secure!

Happy, safe, computing!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Replacing Skype with SIP in a few easy steps

I've been a Skype user for a long time. For about 4 years, I've been loyal to Skype and had no real reason to move away from the service. It worked well, it was fairly reliable, and it was a pretty much an enjoyable experience. But recent events have forced me to take a hard look at my need for Skype and, if it could be replaced easily and, better still, with open source software.

The first event that made me take a hard look at Skype was finding out (late) that they had granted the Chinese government eavesdropping privileges on some of their users. While Skype might say this was 'following the law of the countries they operate in', I see it as an absolute violation of privacy. The second, and a bit less compelling, was my total migration to Linux and the fact that Skype just doesn't work well there at all.

So off I went looking for a solution. My requirements were pretty simple:

1. It had to be SIP compliant
2. It had to allow incoming phone to PC calls
3. It had to allow outbound PC to PC and PC to Phone calls
4. It had to be open source or from a company that respects openness
5. It had to be cheap.
6. Google Voice needed to work with it

I first looked at Gizmo5. I've always liked Gizmo and I really like what Google has done with it since they bought the company in 2009. Still, Gizmo has never really worked well for me so I wanted to avoid using their software if possible. Then I remembered Gizmo5 was a SIP service AND that Google Voice allowed me to forward inbound calls to my free Gizmo number.

So, for the first time in almost a year, I logged into my Gizmo5 account and grabbed my free SIP phone number. I then logged into Google Voice and added that number to my account and told the service to forward calls to it whenever they arrived. Easy as pie.

Since I'd been using the Ekiga SIP softphone for a while on my Linux desktop, I figured I'd stick with something I knew and went to the website and downloaded and installed the software. Next, I went into Ekiga and set up a new SIP service using the SIP information that Gizmo5 provided to me on their website. Within 3 minutes, I had my cell phone in hand, placing a test call to my Google Voice number and seeing it ring on my desktop Ekiga SIP Phone!

It was amazingly easy to replace Skype inbound calling with Ekiga and SIP but now I needed to allow outbound calling as well.  As luck would have it, both Ekiga and Gizmo5 allow outbound calling at extremely competitive rates - as cheap or cheaper than Skype. Ekiga charges around $0.02 a minute to call the USA while Gizmo5 comes in around $0.01 per minute for the same service. It ain't free, but it's pretty darn close. In the end, I'll probably go with Gizmo's calling service since it's the cheapest. Technically, I could forgo outbound calling entirely and just use Google Voice. But I like the idea of doing everything from one application and who can argue with $0.01?

Lastly, I faced my biggest hurdle in migrating from Skype: contacts. While it's really nice to think I can do all this cool stuff using the software I've chosen, the fact remains that most of my contacts are on Skype. Expecting them to all move to SIP is unreasonable so I have only two options:

1. Run a dual Skype/Ekiga desktop switching to the right client for my needs at the moment.
2. Convince my contacts to move to SIP
3. Wait for Skype to allow inbound SIP calling to Skype contacts.

I'm hopeful that option 3 is well on the way to becoming a reality since Skype is working on attracting business customers, many of whom are very reliant on SIP for their internal phone networks. Option 1 will probably be my choice for now since I'm not likely to convince many people to jump through the hurdles I did tonight. Still, it's a nice thought and I am nearly completely free of proprietary Skype.

As you can see, setting this up really wasn't hard at all. All you need are a few pieces from different places and you can easily move almost totally away from Skype.

Ah, the smell of freedom.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Does Windows need a software center like Unbutu has?

Finding software in Ubuntu Linux is a pretty painless task. There are basically two main ways people do it (with a few others that are harder and seldom used): through the new Software Center or through the Synaptic Package Manager. Whether users choose to use the Software Center or Synaptic, finding and installing software is as painless as clicking the program, searching for a term, and double clicking to install. Uninstalling is just as easy.

The same process on Microsoft Windows, by comparison, can be much more complex. Users have an infinite amount of sources for software from retail outlets to niche online stores, competing download sites, and even personal sites where software created by the site owner is hosted for download.  Sometimes, just finding the software is more than half the battle, then there's installing and uninstalling it which can be an even bigger pain in the ass.

This problem doesn't just plague Windows though. Mac has had the same problem for a long time until, recently, Apple decided to do something about it by opening a desktop app store similar to the one they run for the iPhone and iPad devices. Brilliant idea! Allow users an infinite choice of free and paid software applications, but consolidate their location from multiple sites down to a single one. Regardless of what you might think of Steve Jobs and his need for iron fisted, white knuckled, control of Apple users, the idea of having a single place to go for all your software is very attractive. Ubuntu is seeing huge success with the Software Center and Apple has seen an extremely positive response to their announcement of an desktop app store.

Where is Microsoft? Why are they not feverishly working on a similar thing for Windows users? Not only is an in OS app store a great win for the user experience, but it's a fantastic way for a company to generate additional revenue by taking a cut of every app sold in the marketplace. Microsoft has seen solid success with the Windows Phone Marketplace; why have they not extended the technology to the desktop? It would be very easy. Just add it to Windows 7 as an additional program or even integrate it with the built in search functionality. It's something that could be deployed in a matter of weeks and Microsoft could easily leverage existing technology to make this a stellar experience for Windows users.

An in-OS app store makes sense from any angle you look at it: users win, developers win, Microsoft wins, everyone is happy. There's no compelling reason for the company not to jump on this idea like a hungry dog running to a bowl of fresh food. This is their chance to be innovative, to be an aggressive mover in the user space, to really push the user experience forward.

If they wait much longer, it won't matter. Everyone else will have an app store and, once again, Microsoft will show up late to the party with their homely cousin Betty as their date.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Is Ubuntu slowly shutting out older hardware?

A few weeks ago, Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth announced that the company was abandoning the popular GNOME desktop in favor of its own Unity solution.  Just as the dust from that announcement was starting to settle, Shuttleworth dropped another bomb on the Linux community in a blog post yesterday announcing Ubuntu's imminent move away from the X.org display server to upstart Wayland.

Display servers, as the name implies, are responsible for rendering what you see on your screen, including the desktop itself.  While X.org has long been a standard in the Linux/Unix world, Wayland offers some tantalizing new possibilities as to what can be done on the desktop. By combining Wayland and Unity and abandoning X and GNOME, Ubuntu will be able to offer the excitingly rich user experience to their users that users of other operating systems have enjoyed for years.

But that new experience could come at a cost to both Ubuntu users and Canonical itself.

By combining Unity and Wayland, Canonical is, in one huge swoop, cutting free a fairly large group of users who use graphics cards that can't handle the type of technology, called OpenGL, on which these two systems heavily rely. Most affected are users of laptop computers where graphics technology often lags several years behind the desktop counterparts, but many desktop users who use older hardware, or anything with nVidia or ATI chipsets, could well find themselves out in the cold as well.

Personally, I'm torn about this issue. While I understand that Canonical is a for-profit company who must survive and that the changes they're making to Ubuntu are moving it forward into a more polished and commercial place, I find it somewhat frustrating that the company has made several rapid fire decisions that will affect such a large group of users within six months to a year or two.

One of the beautiful things about Linux is that it can be used to give life to old hardware. Laptop and desktop computers that couldn't even dream of running Windows Vista or Windows 7 can usually happily run Linux and some can even provide a desktop effects environment that rivals or surpasses Microsoft's offerings. This move, I fear, is going to change that and many users of older hardware, myself included, will be forced to either purchase new gear or leave Ubuntu for something else, like Linux Mint or Fedora.

There is a bright point in this story though: while Ubuntu will be moving away from GNOME and to Unity with their April 2011 release, the move to Wayland will be much more gradual. Wayland is still a young project with a long way to go before it is even a minor contender to X and that's something Shuttleworth acknowledged in yesterdays blog post about the move. The move might take four to five years or, depending on Wayland's progress, it might never happen (unlikely). Eventually, though, we're going to see Ubuntu move away from X.org and towards what could be an exciting new display server, if your hardware can support it.

Lastly, I find it quite exciting that Canonical is pushing the envelope so hard in improving the Linux user experience. We've focused on everything else to the degree that Linux, and particularly Ubuntu, is a fully usable and advanced system able to compete with both Mac and Windows toe to toe. The only thing missing by some accounts is software and graphics. In my opinion, while this could be a double edge sword, this takes a step in the right direction in both of those areas.

My money is on the long term success of Unity and Wayland. It's exciting, it's sexy, it offers a lot of possibilities. I guess we'll just wait and see...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Open source marketing sucks. Here's how to fix it.


There's no doubt that the open source model of developing software is superior to ones where code is kept in secret rooms and people get fired if any of it gets leaked to the public. The open source model provides a way for everyone, not just developers within a company, to participate in the design of the software. Average, ordinary, users have every bit as much say in a well run open source project as the project leader does and, sometimes, perhaps even more. This model of community based software development has given us some amazing products: OpenOffice, Linux, Android, and countless others who might never have seen the light of day had it not been for a vibrant community.

It is perhaps because of the sheer brilliance of this community, and the great products they are able to produce, that it is equally sad and frustrating to see how badly they suck at marketing. From the names of the product themselves to the guerrilla marketing tactics used to get the word out, almost everything screams 'armature, toy project' which, in most cases, couldn't be further from the truth.

We in the open source community love to talk about how Microsoft and other companies like them have 'won' the market through dirty tricks. Some of that might be true, but not all of it. Microsoft won the market through absolutely brilliant, mostly well thought out, targeted marketing. For every bit of technological ineptness Microsoft has shown in product design, they have made up for it by three times in their marketing. Apple is another good example of great marketing at work. There's nothing particularly innovative or absolutely mind blowing about almost any Apple product. But you'd think there was based on the drooling fans that line entire city blocks to buy their latest products.

What both Apple and Microsoft have figured out and what I don't think the open source community has is that having a good product is only part of the equation. In some cases, it's not even that important. What is important is how your consumers perceive you. Microsoft is perceived as a company that is serious about business. They can be counted on to provide every possible IT system most offices could ever need. They have marketed themselves as a trusted advisor for businesses and businesses have responded to that in a huge way. Consumers, as an outgrowth of their offices, schools, and other points of contact, have bought into the marketing too in the 'if it's good enough for X big company, it's good enough for me, the little guy' mindset.

Apple's marketed itself as the hip, innovative, scrappy company that can be turned to for entertainment. If you want serious fun, you want Apple. Their products, we're told, are innovative, cutting edge, and sexy. They even have a cult like leader in Steve Jobs who's willing and ready to lead the masses to the Mecca that is everything 'i'.

Where do you see that in the open source community? Nowhere. You have a bunch of believers largely telling other believers how great open source is and exchanging high-fives over their latests cool code hack. We talk among ourselves about how great Linux is but where are the cool commercials? Where are the splashy magazine ads? Where are the snazzy conferences with people who don't smell like they haven't taken a bath in six weeks? Where is the coolness of it all?

The fact of the matter is, of everything that can be done by the community, public relations and marketing generally isn't one of them. Not on the levels that Microsoft and Apple do. Usability studies, psychological analysis of consumer buying trends, focus groups, all that goes into creating an incredible marketing campaign cost money. It's almost impossible to get people to pony up $10 towards supporting a piece of software they use every single day. Do you really think you're going to raise the $2-$3 million dollars a kick ass PR campaign is going to costs from the community?

As I write this on the morning of October 28 – 3 days before the end of the month, a very well known and widely used Linux project; one that is almost essential to the proper functioning of the desktop, is proudly proclaiming on their website that they are 'running on $269 from the community so far this month!'. That's right, they didn't even hit three hundred bucks for the month. Far, far, short of the millions they'd need for a serious PR push if that would be their goal.

Thankfully, while I believe real money is going to be the only key that will really push open source software into the collective mindset, I also believe there are a few things that the community can do in their marketing efforts to help their pet projects along:

  • Stop talking geek to users. Users don't care about the technology behind your product. They care if it can do something cool or it it came give them a bit of street cred amongst their friends, and, maybe, if it helps them do something at work. Proudly touting that your product is 'built on the latest Qt release using Python 3” doesn't mean anything.
  • Stop talking standards as you battle Microsoft. Sure, Microsoft Office might break every standard known to man and you product might be 100% compatible with the established international standards set forth by some standardization body nobody but geeks have heard of. Cool deal. It's meaningless to Joe Consumer when his boss and colleagues who use Microsoft Office can't read the report that's due today and he spent all night laboring over in OpenOffice. Standards matter when the products the majority of users use in their day to day lives conform to them. Otherwise, nobody cares.
  • Stop talking in silly 'it's free as in beer' terms and telling people 'you even have the freedom to change the SOURCE CODE! You can't do that with Windows!' Want to know why you can't do that with Windows? Because most people don't want to...or even know how. I'm a professional software developer and do you know how many times I've dug into the source code of a product and changed anything in the last ten years? Twice. If a product doesn't do something I need it to, it's usually easier for me to go out and find another one that does. I'm an altruistic guy but I also need to work on, you know, stuff that puts food on my table. I don't have time to spend two weeks integrating a BASIC feature that should already be there into a product. I need my software to work now. Quit telling me I can change the source code. It doesn't matter to most people.
  • Start focusing on the cool stuff – not the geek cool stuff but the real people cool stuff. Linux being open source and free isn't cool. Showing somebody something like Compiz running with full blown effects is. OpenOffice running on the desktop isn't cool. But showing how Bob saved the day by producing his companies latest brochure in a few days without spending a penny is. Users are real people. Geeks are ideologues. Speak normal and show them what's cool.
  • Break things until you win. Like we've already talked about, Microsoft breaks standards and conventions in almost every single product they have. Still, they have the market share so they can pretty much do anything they want. To compete with them, we're going to have to play their game, beat them, then move users to a better place. Quit focusing on what Microsoft is doing wrong and do it wrong yourself while you tout price, reliability, and availability. Bring the users over then move in the right direction. Being 'wonderful' when nobody really cares or uses your products isn't really a victory.
  • Get some better product names. This is my last and maybe one of the most important points in this entire post. What the hell is with open source developers and product names? Am I to believe that the absolute best name a massive collection of people who are passionate about their office suite could come up with is OpenOffice.org? That's not a product name, that's a website. LibreOffice? Do most users know what the hell 'Libre' even means? Naming is one of the keys to setting the tone for your product. I'm an open source developer and even I think the names are stupid. Stop sucking at it.

With all that said, it might seem like I see the open source landscape as almost hopeless. I don't. I believe there is a massive glut of people waiting anxiously for something better than what they have to come along and who don't realize that it already has. I think the community is doing a tremendous disservice to a huge section of the consumer market by sticking to some of the conventions they do when winning the market should be everything that it's about. It should be our laser focus.

We constantly complain about companies like Microsoft and Apple holding their users hostage. I believe we are accomplices to that because we haven't clearly and aggressively led users to their freedom. We've sat around and bitched to each other and whined about how Microsoft's unfair practices have kept us down. It's a classing 'fight the power' move and it's not working. We have the power to free users from their bondage, we have the power to lead them to the promise land of technology, and I believe we're wasting it on stupid crap that doesn't mean anything to most people.

 So here's my challenge to the open source community: stop thinking like geeks and think like users. It might give you a whole new view of the tech you're creating.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wikileaks: a citizens best friend for government accountability

Over the course of the last year, the popular leak website Wikileaks has released over a million secret US military documents that detail everything from the mundane work our soldiers do to some of the atrocities they've committed.  For its part, the US government is trying to squelch the site using the 'national security' argument claiming that the leaks are putting our 'men and women in uniform' at risk.

Personally, I applaud the work that Julian Assange and the Wikileaks team have done to hold the US and other governments accountable for their actions.  For too long, governments have hidden under the blanket of national security while committing some of the most vile acts known to man.  Rape, torture, and the outright murder of innocent civilians are all things that the government believes would 'compromise national security' if the knowledge of them came to light.  Those who dare question such obviously faulty logic and patent lying are quickly labeled 'unAmerican' or smeared because they don't care about the men and women in the field.

Bullshit.

I care about our soldiers. I am thankful every single day that they choose to put their lives on the line to protect my safety and ensure that future generations will grow up in at least a somewhat free country. But killing innocent people, raping non-combative women, torturing potential informants for information has nothing to do with protecting my freedom and safety and I'm deeply offended that the government believes the American people are so collectively stupid that we will continue to believe the lies as long as they keep feeding them to us and demonizing those who question or confront them.

In an age where we're flooded with brainless prattle like 'you're either for us or with the terrorists', it's refreshing to see men and women of conscious standing up and boldly confronting that which is wrong, unethical, and immoral.  I believe they are every bit as much of a hero as the battlefield soldier who braves enemy fire to pull his wouned comrade to safety or the young Private that runs into hostile territory to accomplish the mission with no thought to his own safety.

I refuse to accept the 'we'll take care of you, you don't need to know the details' doctrine anymore. We do need to know. We need to know when our government, as our representatives to the world, is murdering innocent people, torturing people to madness, and running secret detention facilities where who-knows-what goes on. Yes, Mr. Gates, President Obama, Senators, we do need to know that. More importantly, we have a right to know and no amount of 'national security' foliage that you use to hide your actions is going to take away that right or lessen our determination and dedication to the truth.

So this is my personal 'thank you' to Jullian Assange and Wikileaks for the incredible work you do in exposing the truth. The government might war against you but the people are standing strong at your side.

Keep up the great work!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fragmentation: What Steve Jobs and Apple got right


In a recent quarterly earnings call, Apple CEO Steve Jobs spent more than five minutes trashing competitors Research in Motion, makers of the popular Blackberry devices, and Android, a smartphone system designed and maintained by search giant Google. Though the remarks he made were prepared, that did little to hide the seething rage and disdain that Jobs holds for his two toughest competitors.   Jobs' remarks were angry, inflammatory, provocative, and absolutely dead on the mark.

The IT community, a community in which 'How much do we hate Steve Jobs today?" seems to have become a popular game, was, as you might imagine, driven to madness. Attacking RIM and the Blackberry were bad enough, but attacking Google and Android? That's just too far!  What the slobbering fanboys missed in the Jobs message, however, was the fact that nearly everything he said was true.

The main thrust of Jobs' message was focused on the fragmentation that Android has brought to the mobile application market.   Most device manufacturers don't run the stock version of Android provided by Google. They run a modified version, tailored to either their specific tastes or the whims of the carriers they service. Add to that the fact that some manufacturers are considering running their own version of the Android marketplace and you can see a situation developing where users will have so much choice that they will be  crippled. Where do users go for apps and what app stores are particular applications listed in are becoming the million dollar questions for Android users. Ultimate freedom has become ultimate chaos and it doesn't seem to be getting any better.

Now, let's compare this fragmented approach with that of Apple. There is one application store and only two targets for developers to hit: the current release of iOS and the one immediately previous to it. A single company controls both the operating system and hardware so developers know exactly what type of environment their software will be running in and what kind of services and resources will be available to it.

From the users standpoint, it's near paradise: one place to go for all applications. It doesn't matter who your carrier is (AT&T right now but more coming soon) or if you're in the US, UK, or somewhere else, it's the same store, If you find a cool app in the store that you want to tell a friend in another country about, chances are good that it will be available to them too and, if it is, it will run the same on his iPhone or iPod Touch as it does on yours.

No moving targets for users or developers. No fragmentation.

We in the open source community love to talk about choice; how, when users are given a variety of choices, competition and the free market thrive. I prefer to think of the perfect solution as 'choice within reason'.  There is absolutely no good reason for a particular phone maker to have their own app store when the Android Marketplace is already there and insanely easy to use. There's no reason why developers should have to submit to and wait for approval from multiple app stores just to get their software on users handsets. Allowing users the freedom to choose what applications they want on their handset makes sense.  Allowing them to choose which app store to use doesn't.

Users don't care about openness, they just want software.  The sad fact is that, as much as we'd like to think they do, most users don't really care if a handset is built on open technology. Ask the average Android user 'is this whole Android thing open?' and they will return a nice, blank stare.  We're fooling ourselves by pretending the majority of users actually care about 'handset freedom' and the ability to browse and modify source code. Geeks care, users don't.

Steve Jobs has it right: the false flag of 'open' versus 'closed' in the mobile space is really just a cover for fragmentation.  Apple offers a superb user experience from an integration standpoint, Android, not so much. When I pick up an iPhone, I know pretty much what's going to be on it, where things are, what the interface is going to look like. On Android, I have no clue. Those things are totally up to the manufacturer. 

What would be so evil about Google standardizing the system or saying "only one Android store"?  Would that be the end of civilization? Would that make Android "not" open?  It wouldn't matter one bit. Not a single user would complain and most wouldn't even notice. Developers would jump for joy because they would know exactly what they were developing for instead of the sludgy pile of mush that is Android today.  It would help the platform in enormous ways and would not effect usability a single bit. In fact, it would help usability too because, regardless of the Android device you used, you'd be fairly familiar with the interface and features.

Don't get me wrong, I haven't become and Android hater or an Apple fanboy.  But the fragmentation of Android is something that drives me nuts as a developer and the integration of Apple calls to me. I dream of a day of developing an application and not worrying so much about where it's deployed and on what hardware,  Hate him as you may, Jobs is an absolute genius at crafting the user experience. When he calls something 'sexy', he's usually right and at the very least I know exactly what I'm getting with an Apple product from both the user and developer perspective.

Am I going out and buying a Mac? Probably not. But I certainly thank Steve Jobs and Apple for bringing sexy back to the tech industry and for making an experience for their users like no other.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Protecting your privacy while you search and browse the Internet

Did you know that every time you visit a website, your privacy is violated? Not only does your Internet provider know where you've been, but every single site you visit keeps a log with identifying information. :Law enforcement, hackers, and various other interested parties can use those logs to piece together everything from evidence of a crime to a fairly complete and accurate psychological profile based on where you've been, how long you stayed, and what you clicked on next.  It's a privacy nightmare.

In my last post on privacy, I discussed some ways to mitigate the privacy violating policies of many popular sites like Google, Facebook, and MySpace. Unfortunately, that advice can only go so far as just about every single website you visit is going to keep a log of that visit. And, while most don't keep these logs for long, there's no real way to determine how long they do keep them or what they do with them.

I'm a huge proponent of using good security. I believe you should protect your privacy even if you have nothing to hide; perhaps especially if you have nothing to hide. That's why I've been using StartPage.com as my primary search engine for a while now and it's why I recommended it as an alternative to Google in my last post.  But as I use the service, things just keep getting better. This morning is a good example of that when I discovered proxied browsing through StartPage.

Normally, when you click on the link for a search result, your browser is transferred to whatever site you clicked on. Your ISP logs that visit, the search engine you used to find the site logs that visit, and, of course, the site logs that visit, all associated with your unique internet address.  Proxied browsing through StartPage allows you to securely click on a search result, visit the site, and never leave a trace that you've been there.

When you use StartPage's 'proxy' links, the service acts as your agent and inserts itself between whatever website you're going to and you.  From your ISP's point of view, you've only visited StartPage, from the target websites' point of view, it is only being visited by StartPage. No record of your visit is EVER recorded anywhere - not even by StartPage. It's SSL encrypted so your browsing session can't be snooped on, no cookies are stored on your computer, and no records are kept. It's the perfect secure browsing solution.

As fantastic as the service is, it's not without its faults. In many cases, you won't be able to submit web forms because they require certain information about you that StartPage isn't willing to offer up. You'll also take a slight speed hit since your browser isn't actually loading the target page itself but waiting on StartPage to fetch it and feed it back to the browser. Overall though, the service is zippy and useful and I haven't experienced any problems using it with most of the websites I visit regularly.

Using proxied browsing through StartPage is easy. Do a search like normal and, instead of clicking the result link, click the "Proxy" link under the result. That will open the target website in proxied mode and you are completely protected. You can click links on the site, even be transferred to other site by links and you're still protected.

If you're noticing a trend in these security post, you're probably right in your observation: security requires a little extra work. You'll have to change the way you do things sometimes because, unfortunately, the most convenient way to do things on the Internet is usually the least secure. That's by design, don't be fooled.  Take a little extra time and effort to protect yourself and you can rest at night knowing that your privacy has not been violated.

It is well worth the extra work and you're actually making society better for all of us by doing it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Day One: Is this the beginning of the end (of soda) for me?

When I was 12 years old, I had stomach problems.  When my mother took me to the doctor, we found out that I was drinking too much Coke and the doc said I was on the verge of developing an ulcer.  Naturally, my mother cut back (not out) my Coke consumption which lasted about two weeks.  After that, my previous love affair with my brown, fizzy, master, continued.   I wasn't drinking as much Coke as I had been, but I still was taking in a lot of Coke.

The affair continued for years, unabated,  until last year when I turned 35 and was diagnosed with Diabetes. That meant no more sugary drinks or foods and I had to find a substitute for my first liquid love. Thankfully, all sorts of diet drinks waited in the wings, all calling my name and offering me different and exciting taste possibilities.  Most, if not all of the drinks I was interested in, were not sweetened with sugar but with a sugar substitute called Aspartame (also sold as Equal and NutriSweet and contained in almost 6.000 foods and also marketed under the new name AminoSweet as of 2007).  Aspartame promised me a solution I could live with: I didn't have to live a sweetless life and I could take care of my Diabetes at the same time.

Sweet!

Then, I began doing research and what I found scared me.  I started by watching the film Aspartame: Sweet Misery, A Poisoned World which discusses the dangers of the chemical and the back room deals that were done to get it approved in the 1970's.  I also spent a lot of time on Google looking at both sides of what turned out to be a huge controversy: is Aspartame safe or not?  It turns out it probably isn't.

So last year, I decided to give up diet drinks completely and cut what I believed to be a deadly poison from my body.  Even while thinking that Aspartame might be responsible for everything from my eyesight problems to my Diabetes, I only lasted two weeks and went back to drinking diet, Aspartame laden, soft drinks. I slowly came to realize I was truly addicted.

So here we are at the end of 2010 and I'm once again resolving to rid my life of this horrible chemical.  But this time, I'm doing it sensibly. Instead of cutting all soft drinks from my diet, I'm simply going to remove the ones that contain Aspartame. I'm probably addicted to multiple chemicals in these drinks so slowly coming off of them while eliminating their most dangerous chemical sounds like a good idea.   I'm starting to wean myself from soft drinks by doing two things:

1) I'm reducing the total amount of soft drinks I consume a day dramatically. On average, I was drinking about six liters of diet drinks a day. I'm immediately reducing that to only two.

2). I'm totally eliminating Aspartame from the drinks I buy. Tonight, that meant buying a 2 liter of Diet RC Cola. It doesn't have Aspartame and taste pretty damn good at the same time.

The two points above are my starting point. My goal is to completely eliminate soft drinks from my diet within 3 months, replacing them with natural, healthy, water.  No doubt, this new road is going to be hard. Not only will I be battling several simultaneous addictions, but I'm also giving up something I truly enjoy.  But I'm determined to live a healthier, more natural life, as well as lose some weight and this is the first step in that direction.

So this is Day One. The first step. I'm ready for this. I'm also worried about how hard it might be. In the end though, I have absolutely no doubt it will be worthwhile. My health is worth the sacrifice.

I'll keep you all posted.

Privacy in the age of Google and Facebook

It used to be that managing your privacy was simple. If you didn't want someone to know about the private parts of your life, you didn't discuss it. In those days, the only privacy issues you had to worry about were nosy neighbors and gossiping friends. And once an event had occurred, there really wasn't a way for those who hadn't experienced it first hand to go back and review it with the same intensity of those who were there.

Of course, those times are long gone. The introduction of Google, Facebook, FourSquare, and other services has forever changed the landscape of privacy. Now, it's possible to learn almost anything about you by spending an hour in front of a computer. Using only the three services anyone mentioned above, they can find out your political and religious affiliations, what you ate for supper, where you shop, how close you are with family, where you work, and, often, where you live and how much time you spend there.

If they want to dig further and spend more time, they might be able to find who the last girl you dated was, when you and your wife last had sex, when she had her last menstrual cycle, and what your opinion of the last movie you saw was. Using that information, even a fairly unsophisticated person with decent research skills can create a fairly accurate and wide reaching profile of who you are and what your preferences are. Or, they might use it to find out if you might be a security risk to a company, or if you fit for employment within an organization.

The information that can be found about you is almost limitless and, with a bit of creative software programming and the tools for accessing your personal data most of these services provide, anyone can use that information to extrapolate other, more intimate information that you might not have publicly shared. Things you might not want others to know. Things that might be embarrassing or damaging to your career, marriage, or family.

We live in an age where it seems like the technologies we use everyday are engaged in a literal war with us for our privacy. Do you need to look up information? Google will do it for you but it's going to cost you an entry about you in their database. Want to let your friends and family know where you are? Use FourSquare but your data is going to be mined and analyzed in ways we don't fully understand or even know. Almost everything we do in our daily lives involves technology that is hell bent on tracking, logging, and cataloging us for later analysis. For the last decade, the United States government has spoken about a program called Total Information Awareness. It's here and it wasn't developed by the government. It was developed by companies offering cool new services and, instead of fighting for our privacy at every turn, we willingly gave it up to them

With all the technology that seems devoted to invading and eliminating our privacy, it might seem to some that the battle for it might be futile. People like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the popular social networking site Facebook, have even declared privacy dead and the idea of living a private life antiquated. In their future, we will all be connected all the time with everyone knowing our every move, thought, and action simply by scanning our Facebook or Twitter profiles. But, the truth is, privacy isn't dead - even to those who say it is. Ask any of them if they wouldn't mind installing cameras in every room of their house that broadcasts everything that happens there and you'll quickly see lines being drawn and exceptions being made. Would Mark Zuckerberg allow us, his loyal fans, to watch him take a shower? Have sex with his girlfriend? Probably not. But it's not just in times like that where privacy matters, it's anywhere I simply want to be left alone and remain anonymous and unaccosted.

So the question could be asked how can you protect your privacy while still using tools like social networking, location based services, research tools, and the like? You can't. Remaining completely anonymous while doing even mundane things on the Internet is nearly impossible. But there are a few things you can do to maintain a small shred of privacy while still enjoying the interesting tools technology brings us.

1. Only friend people you really know. Ever notice how some people have thousands of friends on Facebook or Twitter? Do you think they really know all those people? Probably not. But all of those strangers see everything they post. Some of them may not even be real people but software programs designed to harvest private data. Friending only people you know in real life makes sure you're provided with some real world, non-loggable, privacy.

2. Use the privacy tools services give you. Social networking and location services are all about connecting people. But most of us don't want our ex-girlfriend who tried to kill us three times being able to track our every move. Sites like Facebook allow you to manage, often in granular detail, who sees our updates. You can even segregate people based on their relationships to you so one set of people see some of the updates while others don't.

3. Don't check-in regularly. Services like FourSquare make us want to reach for our mobile phones every time we walk into a place. Even though we know there's a good chance that nobody we know will actually be at that same location, we obsessively and obediently check-in, logging our exact location and posting it to the Internet. In addition to giving friends a glimpse into your life and habits, it also arms those who would invade your privacy or even break into your home or stalk you, with valuable information for them to use. By checking out a users location history, it's easy to figure out their daily routine or know when they're going to be somewhere for an extended amount of time. Vary your check-ins. Resist the urge sometimes.

4. Don't use Google. Yes, I know I've just committed a mortal sin and will burn in the ninth level of hell for all eternity for my transgression against the all knowing one. But privacy experts worry about Google more than just about any other service on the Internet. Google knows what our interests are, our health history, who we email and chat with, where we shop, and even our exact location. While there's no hard evidence that the company has ever deliberately misused any of this information, it would be incredibly easy for them to do so by writing a few lines of software code.

Unfortunately, replacing Google is probably the hardest thing on this list to do because using their services is both convenient and habitual. 'To Google' has even broken into the lexicon and their superiority is so ingrained in us that many people never even consider the alternatives. They are out there.  StartPage.com, a search service that searches Google, Yahoo, and other big search engines for you while keeping you completely anonymous, is a good place to start. They're even working on an anonymous email service that will provide secure, non-logged email accounts that aren't data mined to death.

5. Educate yourself about the privacy policies of the websites you entrust your data to. Any site that collects personal data must have a privacy policy. These are often long, complicated, documents that are written with so much double speak and with so many exceptions that it's hard to make heads or tails of them. Read them. Know what the site or service is going to do with your data and, if you don't understand something, email and ask about it. Get clarification on what happens to your data, who owns it, and how it's going to be used, BEFORE you sign up to the site. Once you sign up, providing your name and other information, you're logged. Don't jump in without knowing the limits of how they use your data.

Some of you might claim that the advice above is a bit paranoid and it well might be. But the fact is that, if we are to keep our privacy, we must be proactive about guarding it. Companies invade our privacy for the sole goal of making money. Is it worth losing your privacy just so you can send an email and say you use a cool service to do it? Is convenience worth becoming a statistic in their massive, growing databases? I don't think it is.

Lastly, the argument could be made that our ISP is going to log everything we do online anyway and, to some degree, that's true. We can mitigate that some by using secure, encrypted, connections (called SSL) to sites that allow it. But this will only protect the data traveling between our computer and the site. It won't protect us from the site logging our information or our ISP logging that we've visited the site. Still, it's another tool to help us maintain some measure of privacy and it should be used whenever possible.

The bottom line is that it's your job to protect your privacy. You must be proactive, a bit paranoid, and, more than anything else, willing to buck the trend of 'popular' services. Maintaining privacy is possible. Not being an entry in a database is possible. It's just going to take a little bit of work. In the end, it's work that's well worth it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Downloading images from a website in Python

From time to time, you might find yourself needing to sift through a website and grab images from it. While this isn't terribly difficult in any language (except, maybe, Perl and Java), it's amazingly easy in Python:


import urllib2
import re
from os.path import basename
from urlparse import urlsplit

url = "http://www.yahoo.com"
urlContent = urllib2.urlopen(url).read()
# HTML image tag: some_text
imgUrls = re.findall('img .*?src="(.*?)"', urlContent)

# download all images
for imgUrl in imgUrls:
try:
imgData = urllib2.urlopen(imgUrl).read()
fileName = basename(urlsplit(imgUrl)[2])
output = open(fileName,'wb')
output.write(imgData)
output.close()
except:
pass


As you can see, the code above is incredibly simple. All it does is connect to the URL specified in the 'url' variable, searches for the HTML '<img>' tag using standard regular expressions and downloads whatever file is specified in the 'src' parameter. Earthshaking code? No. Useful? Yes!

The code could be made better if you added the ability to also parse URL's that were on the page and follow those to continue parsing. That way, you could point the program to a URL and have it automatically explore associated URL's and grab images from their sites too. Still, even as it is, it's pretty useful.

** Thanks to the folks at ActiveState for this Python recipe!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book Review: I, Cyborg



Dr. Kevin Warwick is perhaps the most interesting person you will ever meet. In the truest sense of the words, Dr. Warwick has successfully integrated robotics and other physically enhancing technologies into both his life and his body. He has, indeed, become a cyborg, and he's not done yet!

"I, Cyborg" is a book that will capture your imagination from the first page and not let go until you sadly read the last paragraph. In the book, Dr. Warwick, a professor at the University of Reading, discusses experiments in cybernetics, brain enhancement, and life extension technology, some of which have had surprising results. You will be continually surprised at how relevant an extremely high tech book written in 2004 is to the science we're exploring today and you're sure to be left with wonder at how little progress we've actually made in life enhancement through technology over the last six years.

Overall, the book is really an exploration of Dr. Warwick's self-experimentation with crossroad detours into broader topics including bioethics and just how far we can push the human body through technology before we hit a virtual wall. The book definitely answers many questions, but, I think, raises just as many at the same time.

All-in-all, while I've just gotten deep within the book myself, I think it's a fantastic read and recommend it to you if you're even remotely interested in human technological enhancement.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ubuntu 10.10: Nothing new here, move along please

Last night, I decided to bite the bullet and see what all the fuss around the upcoming release of Ubuntu 10.10 was all about. So I pulled out my external hard drive and installed the software, expecting to see enormously huge leaps and bounds in the progress of the OS. What I got instead was a mildly disappointing waste of my time that will make sure I won't be upgrading my os until the next LTS release in 2011.

Ubuntu 10.10, for all the typical hype Canonical puts behind these new releases, really doesn't add anything that would benefit a typical desktop user and, especially, a power user. In the desktop edition of the software there are six changes:

1. GNOME has been updated to the latest version
2. Evolution Mail has been updated to a new, faster, version
3. Shotwell has replaced F-Spot as the default photo management software
4. The sound indicator now has play, pause, forward, and back buttons
5. The software center has an updated look and feel
6. Gwibber has been updated to work with the new Twitter oAuth system

None of these things are going to matter to the average user and, I believe, the switch to Shotwell from F-Spot is actually a step BACK for the distro. But, with the way Canonical is pimping this release as the greatest thing since sliced bread, many novice users probably won't take the time to find that out. Instead, they will rush to upgrade their systems in a glassy eyed greed for new features that aren't there. Of course, that upgrade will come with tons of new problems that will need to be worked out by updates over the next few weeks and months and some users might be left with an entirely non-functioning system just because they wanted the latest and greatest upgrade which is, at best, a snorefest.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the importance of interface upgrades. I know that one of the things that makes Ubuntu so popular is that it looks so damn good. It can just about go head to head with Windows 7 and compete on look and feel and that's a very good thing. But why do we need an entire release just to implement the six features listed above? Does Microsoft wait to implement new, non-integral, parts of the OS until there's a new version of Windows out? Of course not! Canonical pushes these silly do-nothing upgrades to give users the appearance of movement and cutting edge. In the end, you end up with a slightly disappointing release like 10.10, one which I'm going to skip for the time being.

What I'm more excited about is the next LTS release - 11.10 12.04 I believe. It seems that the LTS releases are where the magic usually happens in Ubuntu and I suspect that 12.04 is going to be no different. I expect a lot of movement on the GNOME desktop, huge improvements to the Software Center, tons of work on Ubuntu One, and a lot of new hardware support. That's been the case with other LTS releases and I hope that continues to be true here.

Overall, I'd suggest skipping the 10.10 release and waiting for either 12.04 or 12.10 before doing an upgrade. Right now, there's just nothing really that exciting to see.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Product Review: Kindle DX Wireless eBook Reader




Generally, I don't do a lot of product reviews on this blog. They're something I'd like to do a lot more of, but can barely find the time to post regularly, much less do full product reviews. But the latest iteration of the popular Amazon Kindle ebook reader has me so excited that I thought now would be a great time to post my first review.

The Kindle DX wireless eBook reader is probably one of the best pieces of technology I've ever owned. I was excited about the original Kindle but this one just has me totally wowed. From its physically beautiful black graphite finish to its large, clear, anti-glare screen, Amazon got almost everything right about this product:


  • A big, bright, stunningly clear, 9.7 inch, anti-glare, screen that makes reading in direct sunlight incredibly easy.

  • Super thin one-third of an inch depth makes it as thin as most magazines. It's almost as light as a magazine too!

  • Incredible battery life. The Kindle 2 had great battery life but the Kindle DX kicks butt. Read for a full week before having to charge it again!

  • Great PDF support means you can take your existing documents with you easily without needing to convert them to the native Kindle format.

  • Global coverage means you can get books wherever you are - anywhere there's a 3G or Wifi signal.

  • Auto rotating screen. Yep, that's right, flip the Kindle DX to the side and it will reorient itself to a sidelong view.

  • Same great features other Kindle's have


If you're a reader and you purchase only one device this year, the Kindle DX is the one for you. Amazon has put a lot of work into the new design and it shows. The Kindle is one of the few devices that, like the Apple iPhone, continue to get better with each iteration. The DX is no exception.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Could a failed Ubuntu Software Store be a failure for Linux in general?

One of the things I believe has always held Linux and open source back from mainstream adoption is the near total dependence on community software development and support. While I certainly see the value of community and would be the first to say it works very well, I think the demand for 'free as in freedom, free as in price, software that's totally community developed is beginning to cripple both the movement and the platform.

Canonical, makers of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution, is one of the first Linux distributors to tackle this problem head on and offer developers the ability to sell their software directly to Ubuntu users via an upcoming upgrade to the built-in Software Center. Using Software Center, users will be able to easily purchase and install software directly on their machines without the need for command line configuration, editing configuration files, or even seeing a hint of the command line. To some degree, Software Center, especially with this upgrade, brings Linux software management every bit as easy as Windows or Mac.

Unfortunately things don't look too promising for the store as it's scheduled to be released next month with only one official application: a suite of media codecs that while useful, will definitely leave a bad first impression of the service. To add insult to injury, there seems to be no defined way, even with only a month left to go before release, for developers to request to have their applications included in the store and Canonical is very dodgy when asked directly about how to do so.

This could be very bad. As one of the largest, if not the largest, consumer installed Linux distribution in use today, people will be looking for Ubuntu to set a standard for software distribution on the platform. A failure to deliver a clear, user-friendly, defined product will not only hurt Ubuntu as a brand but the entire Linux community. If the software store fails, people aren't going to say 'look at how Canonical failed to offer a working software store', they're going to say 'Yeah, Linux tried to sell software once and it failed miserably'. They won't differentiate, they won't connect it with Connonical, it will forever be associated in users minds with a Linux failure.

"See", they will say, "you can't make money on Linux. Why bother developing for it? Stick to Windows and Mac." Sure, they say that now, but Canonical is in a unique position to either prove them laughably wrong or deathly right. Everything is riding on the success of the software store and, right now, it's just not where it needs to be.

With no well defined process for software inclusion, no well defined pricing and payment structure and only one application in the store on launch, I hope Canonical has the wisdom to pull the plug on the store and delay its release for while until they've built up a decent list of paid applications. With its crazy six-month release cycle, there seems to be a feeling that the store must be ready for the upcoming 10.10 release. Only Ubuntu adheres to this crazy software cycle. Everyone else on earth understands that major new features that aren't intrinsically tied to the functionality of the operating system can be deployed anytime. Imagine what would happen if Microsoft released no new software for Windows except when they upgraded the OS. Windows users would think it's insanity and Linux users should feel the exact same way. There is absolutely no compelling reason why the software store has to be launched on the 10.10 release date. It's short sighted and could easily translate to the total failure of the software store - a feature who's time has come, but just isn't ready for 10.10.

Personally, I'd like to see a few things from Canonical before they officially release the software store:

1. I want a clear, well-defined, way to get my paid applications into the store.

2. I want a clear understanding of how I will be paid and how much Canonical will take from each sale.

3. I want my applications to have a good chance of selling. That means I want a robust marketplace with lots of well-written, competing, software and good backing from Canonical.

4. I do not want a requirement that my applications must be open source to be included in the marketplace. Sure, open source has a lot of benefits, but the choice should be the users. Freedom of choice, by definition, should include the freedom to choose non-freedom. I think this is something the free software and open source movements have missed. This one point could make or break the software store.

In short, I suppose I really want something like the Apple App Store for the Ubuntu desktop. For all its problems, Apple has developed a vibrant and thriving marketplace where developers can make real money. There's a good balance between free and paid apps and the user always has the freedom, with a few constraints, to choose whatever application that works for them.

Will the Ubuntu Software Store live up to the bar set by Apple? Probably not at first. But, with time, I think it can get there as long as the community breaks the 'free means free of cost" mentality. Regardless of what Richard Stallman says, there's nothing really evil about proprietary software. Sometimes, it makes the best sense for both the developer and the consumer. It would do Canonical well to remember not to be so fanatical about 'free software' tat it alienates the very companies and developers that could most benefit the Linux movement.

I'm looking forward to the software store. I hope it's not released in October with the shipping of Ubuntu 10.10 but, in the end, it's going to be a true partnership between Canonical, software developers, and end users working together to make the software store a success or failure. I just hope Canonical has the wisdom to break out of this 'release with new OS upgrade' mindset and put the needs of the community ahead of its own marketing hype.

More Oracle bloodletting as OpenOffice forks

If Oracle purchased Sun with the main intention of acquiring Java, that might soon be the only technology they're left with. First Monty of MySQL fame began pushing a new database initiative after losing confidence that MySQL would survive Oracle's chopping block, then the father of Java left the company citing pay and corporate culture as his main reasons for heading for the hills, then Oracle itself discontinued the popular OpenSolaris operating system, opting to keep the paid only "Greedy Bastards" version. All-in-all, it's not been an easy road for open source within Oracle this last year. Yesterday, it got even worse.

After expressing severe doubt about Oracle's intentions with the popular OpenOffice productivity suite, a team of independent developers, OpenOffice veterans, and others from around the software industry, announced the launch of The Document Foundation and a new office suite based off of OpenOffice called, sadly, LibreOffice.

The Document Foundation says that it seeks to continue the legacy of OpenOffice by running a truly independent, transparant, and meritocratic organization that guides the future of the software suite by community instead of committee.

I believe the unstated goal is 'to make sure OpenOffice survives Oracle'.

Overall, LibreOffice has a good start. It's got broad support from around the industry and is definitley going to be able to capitialize on the tide of Oracle hate that's going around. Will Oracle try to kill the initiative? Probably so. Even though they give OpenOffice away, it still brings in customers and allows the Oracle name to be in front of customers. LibreOffice is a threat to Oracle, just like OpenSolaris was and just like MySQL is. While I hope it survives, I'm not terribly hopeful for its future.

Is Oracle quickly becoming the new Microsoft? Will it, like Microsoft, eventually grow into a comfortable relationship with the open source community? I wasn't too hopeful for Microsoft and they've proved me wrong. For the sake of the community, I hope Oracle does too.

I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tackling human trafficking through technology

It's a sad fact that, even in our modern, advanced, world, human trafficking is still a major problem. Every day, hundreds of people around the world are kidnapped or even given by their families, and forced into sex work By some estimates, 'hundreds' is too low. Recent statistics seem to show that the number of girls, boys, and young women forced into the international sex trade may well number into the thousands each and every year.

In recent years, sex slave trafficking has gone high tech. Many of the biggest traffickers are now using the Internet to find new customers and widen their reach far beyond the small closed 'you have to know someone' club they used to operate in. But while the use of the Internet makes trafficking easier and more profitable than ever, it also provides us with a broad opportunity to address the problem using technology.

Brandon Merritt from UC Berkely has launched an ambitious new project called Project Milk Carton that seeks to bring two hot technologies - facial recognition and internet web crawl bots, to bear against these bad guys. The idea is simple: compile a database of pictures of trafficking victims, then crawl the web looking for other pictures of that person. When a hit is made, do deeper analysis and, finally, work with law enforcement to recover the person from the trafficker.

I'm excited about this project for a number of reasons. First, while facial recognition isn't perfect, it's good enough to potentially produce a quite viable tool in the arsenal against trafficking. Second, it automates the process of analyzing data and, in effect, puts dedicated slueths on the trail of the missing twenty-four hours a day. If this project is even marginally successful, the results could be incredible.

Right now, Brandon is looking for both funding and coding help. If you can provide either, or would like to find out other ways you can participate in the project, I encourage you to email him at merrittb7@gmail.com

Monday, September 20, 2010

This post commits a crime: another case of patent (mis)use by scamy trolls

So it seems that there's a new twist to the patent troll industry. In what appears to possibly be the first case of such silliness, Dr. Ann de Wees Allen, a supposed nutritional researcher with a Ph.D (unverified) and over 25 years experience, has successfully trademarked her own name and is threatening to sue anyone using it with out her permission. That means, of course, that this blog post has violated the law twice already just by mentioning Dr. Ann de Wees Allen (three times!) and that these stories all do so as well, putting us all in 'serious risk' of being sued.

Yes, I realize how absolutely stupid what Dr. Ann de Wees Allen is doing actually is, but the scary thing is that there are many people so confused by the workings of the patent system and why it exists that this kind of thing isn't really unexpected. It's just as much a testament to Dr. Ann De Wees Allen's ignorance of the system as it is one to the brokenness of that very system.

But it gets even better.

The patent isn't actually registered to Dr. Ann De Wees Allen but to a company called NutriLab Corporation, Inc, of which we can probably assume Dr. Ann De Wees Allen holds either a full stake in or possibly is one of many stakeholders. The problem with this, and something her law firm should have told her, is that since it's a corporation and, thus, a living entity run by a board of directors, Dr. Allen could be ousted from the company and they could continue to use her name without her permission. Worse still, since she doesn't own the patent herself, it would then become illegal for her to use her own name without the permission of NutriLab.

See how silly it gets? See why it's broken? See why it needs change?

The American patent system was never meant to be this way. It was not created to stop people from mentioning your trademark, but to stop brand confusion. A good example is a recent case where Microsoft Corporation brought suite against Mike Rowe Soft Corporation, run by one Michael Rowe. Someone wanting a product from Microsoft could easily be confused by the name Mike Row Soft and, thus, Microsoft's litigation was valid. It's all about preventing consumers from getting confused by similar names which could bring about problems for both the consumer and the legitimate trademark holder.

But Dr. Ann de Weese has no such intent. She's not worried about anyone calling themselves "Dr. Ann de Wees Allen" and selling competing products. She's worried about someone criticizing her product and mentioning her by name. She's trying to control what people write and say about her product by claiming a trademark that is inapplicable in this case. Courts have long held the right of consumers and journalists to use a trademarked name when they are reviewing, discussing, or, especially, criticizing, a company or individual. A site called WalmartSucks.com is a good example of that. Walmart sued, got smacked down by the court, and ended up offering the site creators boatloads of money to buy the site from them. Walmart obviously owns the trademark to their name but they could do nothing about the walmartsucks.com website. Other companies like GM, AT&T, and Ford Motor Company, have tried similar actions that all ended in the same disappointing result for them. Bottom line is you can't shut up criticism by claiming a trademark violation.

Personally, I love this situation. By claiming trademark violation, Dr. Ann de Wees Allen has guaranteed that her trademark will be 'violated' and, thus, provide an excellent new test of patent law. Unfortunately for her, she's also brought even more ridicule upon herself and definitely beefed up the image that many have of her as a quack. I guess we're just going to have to add 'patent troll' and 'trademark land grabber' to the list of names.

I don't know Dr. Allen and have never tried her products. In fact, I'd never heard of her before I read the story on Slashdot yesterday. But I can tell you this: after reading her ridiculous claims on using her name, I will never try her products. They might be fantastic and work exactly as described or better, but her greed and protectionist measures have shown me that she is potentially someone who can't be trusted as a curator of truth. How can I know if her stuff does what she says it does when I know she's trying to use patent law to shut up her critiques? Are there that many that she needs a cadre of lawyers to protect her? If so, why are there that many critiques if the products are so great?

So, in the end, Dr. Ann de Wees Allen has succeeded in getting my and a large part of the market's attention. Unfortunately, it was only to show us that she is not to be trusted and could be a total loony quack.

Number of times I've broken the law in this post: 11.

** THIS POST IS COPYRIGHT AND TRADEMARK 2010 CAJUNTECHIE AND NO PORTION OF THE CONTENT, EVEN A SINGLE WORD, CAN BE USED, QUOTED, SPOKEN, OR READ, WITHOUT THE PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT OF THE RIGHTS HOLDER. THIS RIGHTS NOTICE IS ALSO COPYRIGHT AND TRADEMARKED BY CAJUNTECHIE AND YOU ARE VIOLATING MY RIGHTS BY READING THIS WITHOUT MY PERSONAL WRITTEN CONSENT. PREPARE TO BE ASSIMILATED...I MEAN SUED.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Firefox 3.6 on Linux sucks. Here's how to fix it.

On Ubuntu 9.10 and up, Firefox is slow. It's one of the biggest complaints I hear from new users of the OS and, I have to admit, it was the only thing that didn't work very well when I first installed my new 10.04 system. Perhaps the most confusing part of the problem is that it seems pretty random. Some web pages will load fine and quickly while others will just sit there and hang forever.

While many people on the mailing list and forums bang their head for hours (or even days), the solution is actually pretty easy and it mostly revolves around your hardware's support for IPv6. Some hardware supports it, others don't. If you're having the problem, yours probably doesn't - or doesn't support it well and you need to both disable and enable a few things.

Here are the steps. It's probably best to document your current settings in case something borks so you can revert to your old only half-broken settings.

1. In the Firefox location bar type 'about:config' and press enter. This will bring up the configuration options screen. There are a lot but, thankfully, you only have to change a few of those options.

2. In the 'Filter' box, search for 'network.http.pipelining' and change its value to TRUE by double clicking it.

3. Next, search for 'network.http.pipelining.maxrequests' and change the default value to either 8 or 10. I've noticed very little difference between 8 and 10 so the real value doesn't matter much. I set mine to 9.

4. Now search for 'network.http.proxy.pipelining' and change its value true.

5. Next, find 'network.dns.disableIPv6' and change it to true.

Now, restart the browser and you should notice a drastic change in page loading time.

There are a few people who believe you can get away with changing only the last entry. This didn't work for me at all and I didn't notice any change in performance at all. I had to change most of the entries to get it to work.

Also, there's some debate about enabling network.http pipelining. According to this article, you could experience problems with servers who don't support piplelining. I made this change earlier today and, so far, I haven't noticed any problems. But, just to be sure, you can probably safely skip that one if you're uncomfortable with it.

That's it. Firefox is now ready to power your web experience in proper fashion. Enjoy!




Saturday, September 18, 2010

Oracle officially ends the OpenSolaris project. Is MySQL next?

While the OpenSolaris board dissolved itself in August, the final blow to the open source operating system seems to have been delivered quietly and inadvertently by a leaked Oracle memo. While the memo does deliver a death blow to OpenSolaris, it goes on to say that Oracle's commitment to the Solaris OS remains strong, and that users of traditional (read: paid) Solaris have nothing to worry about. That may be true, but the ending of the OpenSolaris project is yet another indication of Oracles distaste for everything open source and leads us to wonder, is MySQL next?

With a paid OS under its belt, Oracle had no incentive to keep the OpenSolaris project alive. In a traditional software company, open source cannibalizes profits because the developers make their money by selling the 1's and 0's that make up the software instead of the services surrounding it. Why would Oracle continue to support a project that takes away from its paid software model?

There's absolutely no reason for them too.
It makes good business sense to kill OpenSolaris.

That should make those of us who rely on MySQL very nervous. Oracle makes the bulk of its money from the Oracle database, a competitor to Microsoft's SQL Server. MySQL, much like OpenSolaris, cannibalizes profits from the Oracle database. Every time a company chooses MySQL and open source, Oracle loses a potential customer. Economically, it makes no sense and I suspect that, as I write this, Oracle is sharpening a very large ax that will be used to take the head off of MySQL very soon.

"But what about the community?", I hear you say, "Certainly they won't let Oracle kill MySQL!" Here's a dirty little secret of the traditional software industry: they don't care about the community. They care about paying users, contracts, and seats sold. Communities don't pay the bills. Communities take up time that could be used to make more money. Yes, I realize how wrong that statement is but that is exactly how most traditional software companies view the concept of community.

The writing is on the wall. MySQL's days are numbered. It's only a matter of time before Oracle either kills MySQL completely or removes the open source licensing around it and offers a paid only version. But Oracle knows that the majority of MySQL users aren't going to translate to paid users. They're small time developers sitting behind a terminal hacking together code for a cool new web or open source application. They won't pay. What about those who are hosting small websites using MySQL? Nope, they aren't likely to pay the price Oracle will probably demand for a paid version of MySQL. That leaves only the corporate world and there's just not enough of MySQL there to justify a huge effort spent on continued development. It would make more sense to transition them all to Oracle DB.

I hope I'm wrong. While it has its faults, MySQL is definitely one of the best RDBMS out there and it would be a shame to see it go the way of OpenSolaris. But I'm afraid it's going to go that way very quickly. It's obvious that the main reason Oracle bought Sun is because it wanted one single technology: Java. In fact, Larry Ellison said that Java was "one of the most important technologies Oracle has ever purchased". He didn't mentioned Solaris, he didn't mention MySQL. It was Java they wanted. Everything else, is fair game and Larry Ellison has a really big gun.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why isn't Linux on grandma's computer?

We've been hearing about the 'year of the Linux desktop' for about five years now. At the beginning of every year, usually coinciding with a major release by one of the distributions, pundits come out in blogs and on tech news sites and declare that finally, after all these years, Linux is going to take its rightful place alongside Windows and Mac in a trio of absolute goodness and light.

But when I turn on my grandma's computer, it's Windows or Mac I see and not Linux. It's never been Linux. My grandmother doesn't even know what Linux is. Neither does my mother or her friends or very many 'average' people I know. It's a bit hard to see how Linux is going to take over the desktop when Joe Consumer doesn't even know what "a Linux" is, isn't it? And that's why it's so silly to keep declaring year after year the year of the Linux desktop while ignoring the glaring problem that keeps that elusive goal at bay: software.

Before distributions like Ubuntu and Linux Mint came along, Linux faced a tough hill to climb. Not only was most of the software people wanted absent from the platform but the damn thing looked ugly and didn't support half of the hardware on the market. Then along came Ubuntu and its ilk and changed all that. Now, it's fairly easy to get new hardware to run on a Linux system and the user interface is as polished, if not more so, than Windows or Mac. But the software still isn't there.

I can't count the times I've heard professional Linux software developers say such silly things like "I don't care if anyone uses it, I program to scratch my own itch!' Obviously, while some programmers do indeed develop software just to scratch a personal itch, having this general attitude permeate the community as a whole is an obvious problem. If no one cares if anyone uses the software or not, they don't put as much work into producing a polished, slick, easy to use application. Where does that leave the average user? On Windows or Mac, that's where.

Cononical and Mark Shuttleworth have taken a lot of heat lately because of the amount of actual code the company contributes to the Ubuntu distribution. But Cononical has contributed more to mainstreaming Linux than any other company in the market because they've focused on where it counts: marketing and the user experience. Ubuntu looks good - really good - and Cononical has put a lot of money behind marketing it as the distribution your grandmother could use and, you know what? I could actually see my grandmother using it!

Mark Shuttleworth understands the importance of creating good software. He understands, and pushes it down through his organization, that functional is not enough. People will choose a beautiful piece of software that kind of meets there needs over a crappy, ugly, piece of software that meets them fully. The experience matters as much as technical correctness. In fact, Cononical has an entire team dedicated just to the user experience. That's what they focus on. That's it. Nothing else.

I've long held that the main thing holding Linux back from the mainstream is software. In fact, it's not just the main thing, it's the only thing. Joe Consumer doesn't care that there are thirty-seven versions of some scientific tool used in an obscure academic discipline that he's never heard of. He doesn't care that your cash flow management program technically works after he's had to spend an hour tinkering with scary looking .conf files that, for all he knows, might just break his system. No, Joe cares that he can't just put in a disc, click a few buttons, and start using his software. He wants the Windows and Mac experience. He wants to spend more time using the software he bought or downloaded than configuring it or downloading dependencies because the developer didn't include them so that the user could experience 'freedom'. Users don't want freedom. They want working software. When your user installs your software and he has to go and download other things before it works, your software is broken in that users mind. It's not freedom, it's broken.

I don't believe there is any room in the Linux world anymore for software developers who 'don't care'. You should care because the more people adopt the platform, the more hardware vendors will support it, and the better the platform will become. Linux has moved beyond its pot smoking free love days and has grown up into a rather respectable adult.

It's time Linux developers do the same thing.