Archive for February, 2006

A Ridiculous Amount of Fun

February 28, 2006

My 15″ Mac Book Pro arrived last night and I’m sitting here in my den with a silly grin on my face, just enjoying the experience. I’m not new to OS X–I’ve had an iMac for several years–but this is my first Apple laptop.

Where to start? The keyboard backlight? The ambient light sensors under the speaker grills that automatically adjust the keyboard backlight and screen brightness? The cute little magnetic power connector that is designed to release easily and avoid pulling the laptop into the floor when someone trips over the power cable? How about the array of LEDs on each battery that let you directly assess the charge with the press of a button? Or the fact that moving two fingers on the trackpad causes the current window to scroll?

I think the ambient light sensors win. I’ve not yet tired of moving my hands over the sensors to cause the keboard backlight to turn on and off. My wife, on the other hand, just rolls her eyes.

I’m having a ridiculous amount of fun.

Bloglines: Server-side RSS reader

February 27, 2006

About a day after buying a copy of NetNewsWire, the OS X RSS newsreader, for my home Mac, I realized I had wasted my money. Not because NetNewsWire is crappy–it’s actually a nice product for what it is–but because storing my RSS reader state on a local machine rather than in the network doesn’t work for me at least 50% of the time. The day after my purchase, my feed subscriptions were at home and I was at work. Bummer.

[bloglines logo]

Instead, I use Bloglines, a free web-based RSS/blog reader that stores your state in the network and allows you to access your feeds from anywhere you can grab a browser. This is the way to go, unless you always access the web from the same location or you always lug a laptop with you. Take Bloglines for a spin and you’ll never look back– I love it.

For those of you already familiar with Bloglines, you may not have yet noticed some recent changes to the web interface. It looks like they’ve gone AJjax in a tasteful way. You can now drag and drop to reorder, refile, or delete subscriptions. In addition, they’ve enabled some other spiffy features that are described here. Cool!

Fred-phased MPI

February 16, 2006

Cleaning out my desk the other day, I came across my notes from an HPC event Sun held some years ago. The event was a live audio web cast that featured real-time transcription of the discussion onto a website for the audience to read and comment on. Here are two of my favorite transcription errors:

When I uttered the phrase “thread-safe MPI for parallel programming,” it was transcribed as:

fred-phased MPI for peril programming

And when we started the afternoon session, Jamie Enns, who at that time was head of Marketing for HPC, said “Good afternoon, everyone.” Which was transcribed as:

Goofin’ Everyone

I think that was our first and last excursion into the world of real-time transcription…

Microsoft OneCare

February 8, 2006

I read this morning in the Wall Street Journal that Microsoft will be offering a new antivirus service called Microsoft OneCare starting in June. A subscription will cover up to three PCs for a yearly fee of $49.95.

In other words, Microsoft is going to charge people a recurring fee to protect them from attacks based on flaws in…Microsoft’s own products. That does not seem like an arrangement that encourages Microsoft to actually fix the security problems in their software stack. On the contrary, building a bulletproof software environment that would allow the many millions of home users around the world to safely attach to and use the Internet would directly threaten the viability of this new venture.

Microsoft should make this antivirus capability free to all home users of Windows. It should, of course, still be possible for consumers to purchase competing products from companies like McAfee and Symantec if they so choose. I realize that a capable and free antivirus capability available from Microsoft will significantly hurt the businesses of companies like Symantec and McAfee. That’s business, but not monopolistic business. Microsoft should fix their vulnerabilities. If removing these bugs reduces the opportunities for what has been essentially a parasitic industry based around weaknesses in Microsoft products, then so be it. These companies can still offer products whose prices will be set based on the amount of value they add over Microsoft’s own (free) solution.

Microsoft can’t ignore the fact that its platform is the ubiquitous standard for home computer users connecting to the Internet. As such, they have a responsibility to give people a product that works robustly in this environment. As I’ve said, charging people for protecting them from Microsoft’s own weaknesses is in appallingly bad taste at the very least. It is also the case that if you charge people for this capability, then some non-trivial fraction of the home computer user base will not purchase it–either because they can’t afford it or because they are ignorant of the need for such capabilities. That’s not good for them or for the rest of us.

Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the value of a network is approximately equal to the square of the number of users of the network, has a dark variant in our hyperconnected, networked world. The vulnerability of a network is approximately equal to the square of the number of users in the network. To make real inroads against the increasing costs of viruses running rampant through the Internet, we need a ubiquitous approach to protecting ourselves that includes systems that are secure out of the box rather than secure via extra-cost options.

The 1918 Flu Pandemic

February 2, 2006

I very much recommend Gina Kolata‘s book, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic, which I just finished. I do not, however, recommend reading it on an airplane. Sitting in 33C with the guy next to me gently, but persistently coughing little microbursts of air at me all the way from Chicago to California made me want to jump up and smear him, me, the screaming kids, and everyone else within reach with hand sanitizer. Not that it would have helped, of course.

The pandemic of 1918 killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide. Many people are unaware of this, but everyone should get educated. Yes, because of its historical significance, but more important, because of its relevance to today’s hyper-connected, global village and its susceptibility to rapidly spreading disease.

Kolata does a good job of painting a picture of what it was like, at least in the US, as the flu epidemic advanced. The speed with which this strain killed people and the manner in which they died are described in sobering detail. It was especially striking to me perhaps because the virus first appeared in the US in the Boston area, where I live. And the largest local outbreak occurred at Fort Devens, west of Boston, where troops were massing for transport to the war in Europe. Many years later my Dad would do his summer National Guard training at Devens.

The book is not merely a history of the flu in 1918. Most of the book, in fact, is dedicated to contemporary attempts to understand what made this particular flu strain so deadly so that we can be better armed and better informed in the future. The attempts–some of which were ultimately successful–to find the virus after 60+ years and then sequence its genome make for riveting reading. The hunt includes a fascinating cast of characters and takes place in some of the most remote areas of the world.

Read this book and you will follow the current news about avian flu much more closely because you will understand what is at stake and why scientists are so worried. So very worried.

Final Telegrams Sent Last Week

February 2, 2006

Western Union has ended its telegram service after 150+ years STOP

SuitSat: Those Wacky Astronauts

February 1, 2006

According to Space Weather News, on Feb 3rd astronauts will launch an old spacesuit into Earth orbit from the International Space Station. The suit will transmit a radio message on 145.99 MHz that can be picked up by ham radios or police scanners.

[suitsat image]

For more information on SuitSat, check out If you really want to get into this, you can try to receive the image that will be broadcast by SuitSat using SSTV (Slow Scan TV).