On bringing light to the darkness…

Yet another post inspired by Facebook discussion. I think I’m beginning to find my muse…

The web is not quite 20 years old (Dec ’91 was when the concept was published). While for most people the Internet revolves around Internet Exploder or Firefox or Safari, there were other products.

In the beginning, there was Mosaic. And it brought light from the darkness, but it was featureless. It begat Netscape, which had features, but crashed a lot, and eventually was bought by AOL who set about to kill it. Marc A set people free by leading a small band through the wilderness to start Phoenix, but they ran afoul of trademark and thus begat Firefox.

Somewhere along this path, Bill Gate-us of Borg beheld Mosaic, and begat Internet Explorer, which being of parentage foul became the source of much pain and suffering and in derision it is named Exploder.

Thus ends the quick genealogy lesson.


…and if the foregoing largely makes no sense, then here is the deal:

You access the Web by way of specialized software, the “Browser.” It allows you to browse content, in much the same way people [used to?] browse the shelves at the library, looking for something interesting to pull down and read.

NCSA Mosaic, Netscape, Firefox, IE, Safari, etc. are all examples of the “graphical browser.” This is the interface almost everyone uses, and for many people, this is “the Internet.”

It’s only a part of the Internet. There are also text-based browsers; Lynx is the most prevalent of these. Why would anyone use a non-graphical browser? Suppose you’re blind, but still want to make use of the Internet. You don’t need to download the pictures (can’t see them anyway). Or, suppose you have limited bandwidth, but need to get some information. One regular reader of this blog always makes disparaging remarks about the US National Weather Service relying on UPPERCASE TEXT FOR ALL WX MESSAGES – but there are both international treaties as well as good solid engineering reasons for having the all-caps text. [Technical rationale – all-caps can be transmitted as 6-bit code, thus saving 25% of bandwidth; while there is a single source for most WX data there are multiple output streams, at least some of which still use Baudot encoding.]

Back to the story… Browsers convert the user’s simple “woodallrvcc.wordpress.com” to the several lines of commands necessary for the webserver (the other end of the conversation) to find the content the user desires; then the browser interprets the content received and displays it…

It’s important to remember the browser does not represent the entirety of the Internet, and also that browsers are not a one-size-fits-all — except for the moment on so-called “smart phones.”So if you’re looking for that extra edge, try another browser.

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Thunderbolt and Light Peak

On February 24 2011 Apple (with an assist from Intel) attempted to change the world. Again.

Fizzy fizzy (fizzle?) – to be expected when you make Lemonade from a lemon.

That’s my quick take on Thunderbolt – it’s an attempt to make lemonade from a lemon.

Here’s the picture: Apple fell behind on peripheral connections. This is the attempt to leapfrog over everyone’s head and come out with something all shiny and new. Apple was first to use Firewire, first to have USB only notebooks, and then they stagnated. They made a couple of updates, adopting USB 2.0, changing to Firewire 800, but they ignored eSATA and USB 3. Their notebooks have always been somewhat crippled by a lack of external ports (I love seeing the big bags of holding carried by serious Apple users which contain the USB hub and cables and external drives and ephemera considered ‘necessary’).

The world marches on, and Apple belatedly realized they needed a new external peripheral bus. Thus Thunderbolt.

Except what they picked isn’t all that shiny, or new, and might even be regarded as a bit of a flop. LightPeak is Intel’s next-generation peripheral bus; based on optical fiber it promised multi-gigabit throughput and tons of interconnectivity. Thunderbolt has the 10GBit/sec throughput… but on copper wire. You have to believe something went a bit wrong between the lab and the showroom.

There’s some buzz generated by the incorporation of DisplayPort technology into Thunderbolt. How this plays out is still up in the air, but it does bring one thing to my mind: DRM. That’s right, along with Intel’s next-generation processors which include DRM on-chip, now the peripheral bus will also have Rights Management. Videographers might want to re-read the fine print on the H.264 licensing agreements… and contemplate. Of interest also is the sole-sourcing for Thunderbolt controllers (Intel) and the de-facto imposition of a royalty on implementation. It’s this last which effectively destroyed Firewire in the marketplace. Apple can be a slow learner at times.

Thunderbolt/LightPeak allows for seven devices, daisy-chained (one after another), with DisplayPort at the end of the chain. Theoretically there is 10W of power for peripheral devices – watch those batteries drain! Thus there is more peripheral power available, but far fewer devices can be attached. Right now that’s not a problem as only LaCie has Thunderbolt product in the channel. Only a handful of peripheral manufacturers have so far climbed onto this bandwagon.

One other thing I see from reading the specifications – Thunderbolt allows direct memory access to main system memory (this system operates peer-to-peer just like Firewire) and thus may well have the security hazards of Firewire as well – do you really trust that projector you attached?

Support your local computer store…

These are the “hole-in-the-wall” operations, working out of a little storefront in the old downtown, where the rents are a bit cheaper. These are the outfits with old recycled display cases, a few bedraggled items in the display window, the piles of stuff all over the interior.

In short, these are the experts. They’ve seen more different problems in a week than most corporate help desk techs will see in a career. They’re creative, intense, eccentric and generally dedicated to fixing the problem.

Best Buy, Staples, Office Max, the other big chains… well, they run a “repair” service. The usual aim is to sell you stuff; the repair shop at a big-box store is there to get you in the door, or to sell you a “service.” The local shop knows the dirty secrets: 1) It’s usually software that is the problem; and 2) Fixing it will take several hours of time – or maybe even a couple of days.

Hardware has become much more reliable – so much so that all the big stores carry for repair stock are the upgrade parts. The local guy is probably building-to-order so he may well have all the parts. However the local store is much less likely to make things worse – such as turning a simple CD-ROM drive swap-out into a replace-the-motherboard debacle (after seeing this trick three times in a year, it’s a ‘feature’ at one chain!).

The local shop will typically have a back room full of racks of desktop machines, all working their way through various parts of the repair-tuneup cycle (one local shop has a 32-point checklist), all tied in to a couple of overworked keyboard/video/mouse switches and a tired server or three for drivers and system reloads. Any wall space has long since been papered over with checklists and procedures, and the only clear spot on a desk is reserved for the coffee cup.

A local shop will also be happy to build a computer to your specifications – not to what a manufacturer or chain-store buyer thinks sounds good. I’m typing this entry on a custom-made system; it has a nice quad processor, lots of RAM, prodigious disk space, Firewire, RAID, big tower case with lots of cooling… and a basic video card. It’s just what I wanted.

Be a computer locavore.

A short discourse on Anti-Virus products…

A lot of the blog posts start as discussions on Facebook and then grow into something I think may have general audience appeal. This post started that way, as a discussion on cleaning a system after infection, and now has evolved into a discussion/review of anti-virus products.

My baseline security is Windows Firewall combined with MSE; also with the NoScript and AdBlocker filters in Firefox, and just AdBlocker in Chrome. I only use IE for the RVCC site and some Microsoft corporate contacts. Once you get a basic install up and running you should image that, and use it as the baseline for future restores. I run full-system images on a monthly basis with snapshots on some of the mission-critical stuff (some directories are on every-4-hour replication!).

Free AV = generally loss-leader advertising for the full product; MSE is the only real-time freeware AV I know of which does not function as beggarware. Clam-AV doesn’t make the grade as it is a batch scanner only.

MSE = Microsoft Security Essentials = free (as in beer) basic antivirus protection; low impact on host system; does its job quietly without a lot of fuss.

Clam-AV = batch-mode anti-virus scanner; no real-time component; thus it is useful as a recovery tool or on an email or webserver to test uploaded items.

The rest of these comments reflect my experience with the paid versions of AV products. I have or have had paid subscriptions with all of the following:

AVG = big, bloated, really trying to outdo Norton and McAfee for useless but cute features, and growing more expensive all the time.

Avast = cute but often behind the times on virus definitions; starts begging for renewal at the 40% mark; gets hyper over normal traffic when using the firewall product.

Norton = McAfee = Trend Micro = bloatware. The fact all of these require a special “removal tool” should suffice as a warning not to get these products.

Kaspersky = when it works, it works well. When it works. And therein lies the problem and the reason I can’t recommend it.

Zone Alarm = when it first came out, this was a decent product. BUT the company had no real business plan and eventually sold out to Checkpoint, who turned it into the hyper-active scare-ware typical of most consumer firewalls. IF properly configured it works well, at least until it is broken by the next update.

Bing Copies Google?

If you’re keeping up with web-related news, this should be high on your personal radar: Google recently accused Bing of copying their search results. This has been covered on broadcast news, in major newspapers, and of course in the tech blogsphere.

Here are some links on the issue:

Fox NewsSearchEngine Land, Matt Cutts (video is very interesting and worth the 40 minutes), David Pogue (NYT, may require registration), Nate Silver (NYT), more here, and here, and of course what started it all.

I posted a variant of this for my students to answer/discuss, and this space is for my take on the issue…

There are two topics here – the original conceit, which regards search spam destroying the basic value of searching; and secondly, the stunning PR coup perpetrated by Google on Microsoft.

I also learned Blekko is a fancy directory service;  a competent version of dmoz.

Matt Cutts is a better communicator than Harry Shum, and Vivek Wadhwa and Rich Skrenta appear to be friends.

Onward to the issues… The PR coup is Google changing the subject away from search relevance and into a plagiarism issue for Microsoft. Read Nate Silver’s blog at the NYTimes for some statistical musings on the possibilities, but I think Microsoft got caught…

All toolbars collect data and do an ET-phone-home routine. BUT – so do most anti-virus products, and I expect many of them are selling data back to Microsoft – and this may amplify honeypot results. I don’t think these guys want to get into that part of things and reveal too much about what data traffic really moves around between engines and browsers and toolbars and anti-virus (wireshark is very enlightening). But the Microsoft emphasis on “no one reads EULAs” is a blatant tell, at least to me.

The real issue regarding relevance of search is obviously a topic which Google aims to avoid discussing. Hence we have a lot of dissembling and yapping about algorithmic approaches and so on. Google doesn’t know how to deal with the problem; neither does Microsoft, and neither wants to go the directory route to solve it. But Google does understand it must be solved, and soon.

I am wondering if the spam issue might be the real reason behind the recent shakeup at the top of Google – Schmidt may recognize the real danger while the founders are still blind to criticism.

Back in ’02 I attended a conference for the professional journal industry (mostly medical but some engineering thrown in) and recall a speaker who predicted the eventual demise of Google – indeed he felt all “free” search engines would eventually fail – due to the internal conflicts of the basic business model.

I think we’re beginning to see this play out.

The next-gen search will have a subscription model – pay a fee and block the spammers or search for “free” and accept the less useful results.

I agree there are likely technological methods available to block the spammers, but the incentives have to be there to implement them. I’ve often thought selective economic boycott would do wonders to the email spam problem… along with public execution of some of the purchasers of spamvertised goods.

Ye Olde Greate Aggregator Panic (Spokeo.com)

The latest Facebook panic:

ATTN! There’s a site called spokeo.com that’s a new online USA phone book w/personal information: everything from pics you’ve posted on FB, your home address, credit score, home value, income, age, etc. REMOVE yourself by searching your name, copy the URL of your page, go to the bottom right corner of the page and click on the Privacy button to remove yourself. Copy & re-post so your FB friends are aware.

My reaction: YAWN.

Um, seriously, folks, spokeo is not the threat. Your own habits and those of your state and local government are the threats, if you’d like to look at it like that.

Spokeo is an aggregator. They run a “spider” or robotic software which scours databases and websites, looking for names and phone numbers and email addresses and regular addresses and blends all this together with public databases to produce reports, which they will then sell.

Go ahead. Go tell Spokeo that the information they have is correct (you’re doing that by “removing” yourself). It’s ok. PeopleSearch, ZabaSearch, PPLFinder, WhitePagesUSA and many many others will be happy to continue to list you – and not all of them have ways for you to “remove” yourself either.

You see, you’ve provided all the information collected by these data-miners. Look at those magazine or newspaper subscriptions. Recall those little mail-in cards, and questionnaires as part of renewing? Recall all those sweepstakes where you just answered a few questions (and included your email address and/or phone number)? How about some of those warranty cards you mailed back (after answering a few questions)?

Did you remember to use the same email address and phone number for all those entries? Good. The data-mining industry thanks you for your cooperation.

And as for the information you didn’t provide (like how much your house is worth), well, you did. When your deed was recorded, or mortgage(s) issued, your local government made a copy (and taxed you a bit on the transaction). All that data is public and accessible – and data-miners are the biggest purchasers. They tie the addresses and names back to the subscription/warranty/sweepstakes lists, and – we have a spokeo.


Protecting yourself…

You can’t really keep the data-miners out of the government records arena, or out of the conventional phone books. But you can make life a bit harder for them.

Don’t go filling in lots of warranty card data, or put bogus stuff in. In most jurisdictions it is not even necessary to “register” a warranty, despite what the card says (your state law trumps the fine print on the warranty card). Try to avoid using the same email address all the time – or even the same phone number.

You might really go whole hog and use blocking and anonymizer software systems, but it really shouldn’t be necessary, though a good adblocker will certainly help.For myself, I use a variety of email addresses, various phone numbers (between home, business, GoogleVoice, etc there are plenty to go around) and the NoScript and AdBlocker plugins in the Firefox browser to stay out of the data mines.

Finally – don’t panic about this stuff. Go to the site, search a few names, marvel at how often they get things really laughably wrong… and go back to living.

[wpw]

This is a repository

of my ramblings on topics related to my instructional activities. It’s also a demonstration site, for viewing and commenting by students (yes, Frank, there are those out there who’ve never commented on a blog).

The usual caveats apply: All opinions are mine and not those of others including but not limited to incidental employers and/or employees; etc.