February 27, 2009
ABC Fora - 'The World is Thinking" is back this year.
"ABC Fora is a new screen space for intellectual, political, cultural and economic debate in Australia. As well as this website, ABC Fora brings you 2 TV shows a week on ABC 2, hosted by journalist Tony Jones. Tune in every Thursday from 5.35pm for selected highlights, and then Fridays at 8am for the best of those in full."
Update: This is "I am Australian" from The Victorian Bushfire Memorial Service for the 'Black Saturday' bushfires.
February 26, 2009
C470 IP handsets ... at last!
If you bought one of the Siemens C470 IP phones that we wrote about in the Green Guide last year, you might be looking for an additional handset. Freshtel, unfortunately, has only been importing the full kit, which costs anywhere between $149 and $199.
We've been looking around for a source, and we've just discovered that Maxotel has started bringing in them in for $89.95 plus $10 express shipping. Unfortunately, they're out of stock until March 9.
Small business networking
What with our Federal
Treasure Treasurer exhorting us to boost confidence and prop up the national economy by draining our bank account, the small business that Bleeding Edge supports probably should have ventured into a proper client/server network, when it became obvious that our Windows XP peer-to-peer network was showing signs of strain.
Harris Technology, for instance, would have sold us a rugged HP ProLiant ML110G5 E2160 box, bundled with Microsoft Windows SBS Standard Edition R2, for a mere $1299.
Somehow, however, the fact that we’d bought the admittedly slower G4 predecessor last year for just $899, discouraged us. We’d used that particular box as an Asterisk server, handling all our incoming and outgoing VoIP calls, and slashing our telephone bill, rather than installing the server operating system.
What had troubled us then, and continued to discourage us, was the fact that Microsoft SBS would usher the business into the expense of outside support. Bleeding Edge doesn’t have that sort of specialist network experience - some SBS problems are quite byzantine - and we didn’t have the time to acquire it.
We weren’t even convinced that a network of five or six computers, typical of a small business, and a surprising number of modern households, needed a client/server solution.
We continue to be amazed at the way small to medium businesses roll out Microsoft Exchange Server — part of the SMS suite — to manage their email. Exchange Server requires considerable experience and expense to configure and maintain as a secure, spam-free and reliable email system. We could imagine spending long evenings tussling with issues like configuring Exchange SMTP relays, rather than, say, having dinner or sleeping.
By contrast, our business-class IMAP email service gives us better than 99.99 per cent uptime, and filters out spam and viruses for a fraction of the cost. We can manage all the user accounts and complex things like archiving, from a simple Web interface.
When we examined our network problem, we were convinced that it was the result of poor provisioning. Like most small business networks, ours had grown like Topsy, without proper planning. Now the allocated server/reception PC was taking too long to boot up and interfering with the other network nodes.
We were prepared to bet that a dedicated box to house all the user folders and the database for the primary network application would allow us to decrease the load on the reception PC, and simplify backing up operations.
Fortunately, like many small businesses, we had a relatively modest computer that wasn’t gainfully employed. We’d bought it through the Grays Online auction site for about $650, and used it as a Linux box. It would be a simple matter to re-load Windows XP Professional. It had a 150GB hard drive and 1GB of RAM, which was perfectly adequate for our purposes.
We could put it in the same (well-ventilated) cupboard as the Asterisk server, and hook it up to the same UPS.
Reinstalling Windows proved relatively simple, although it didn’t pick up the Ethernet card. We solved that in a few minutes, by downloading the driver from Lenovo’s comprehensive support site.
We didn’t need a screen and keyboard or mouse for this box, because we were going to control it over the network with Windows Remote Desktop.
It’s a surprisingly powerful feature, and particularly useful in a network scenario, because it can provide remote access to each computer from a central internal, and if necessary remote site.
Although you can theoretically secure Windows Remote Desktop, we’re not convinced that it’s completely fireproof, and we’re reluctant to give hackers a potential window into an administrator account.
Instead we have two LogMeIn Pro accounts — one of which we immediately transferred to the new office server. The other gets us into the main PC in the Bleeding Edge cave. Each costs $US59.95 per year. We’ve found LogMeIn, which has recently opened an office in Sydney, is a particularly secure way of accessing remote computers, and aside from giving you control of a PC, it also sets up a simple drag-and-drop file transfer window through a Firefox add-in.
Once we’ve logged on to the office server, we can control each computer on the network through remote desktop. That can save us an unnecessary trip to the office if someone fails to log off the central database, which stalls the backup routine.
Because we’ve set up a link on Firefox on the server to the Asterisk box, we can even monitor and control that box remotely.
Our new system has solved our network issues and allowed us to extract even more value from LogMeIn and Windows Remote Desktop. We regard them as an essential part of a small system administrator’s toolbox. Combined with a well-managed business-class email system, they can help cut IT costs to a minimum. The economy, we’re afraid, will have to look after itself.
February 25, 2009
GMail cloud more solid than Exchange Server
We couldn't help but wonder how the decision-makers at the University of Adelaide felt just after they announced that they'd signed 16,000 students up to GMail Inboxes. The timing turned out to be terrible.
It was a matter of hours before GMail went blank for two and a half hours [to say nothing of being attacked by a Google Talk phishing scam] and the Financial TImes and at least one blogger got out the egg-beater and suggested that bits of the Cloud were falling on their heads.
As a couple of wiser heads commented on ITWire, prolonged outages are scarcely rare events with Microsoft Exchange Server, despite all those vast sums of money that are poured into buying licences and distributing ever more servers.
As more businesses catch on to the advantages and savings in having profoundly more experienced operators like FastMail managing their Inboxes, we'll see email in the cloud becoming a fact of life.
It will save heaps of cash, and it will be more reliable, not less. Although we prefer FastMail, and in particular - in the case of the spouse's small enterprise - its new business product, we still use GMail as a backup to the principal accounts, and continue to be impressed by it.
February 24, 2009
Hello, is that a browser I see in your pocket?
In my post, a little earlier in this blog, I mentioned that the Internet Explorer Collection provides Internet Explorer 8 as a standalone, side by side install with whatever you have on your desktop. Well, here’s another angle. Xenocode has virtualised browsers – take your pick from IE6, IE7 and IE8, as well as Firefox, Safari, Opera and Chrome. All ready to go, no requirement to pre-install a virtualisation player.
February 23, 2009
The Bleeding Edge spouse's practice, Victoria Avenue Psychology, was set up from the outset with VoIP, to try to keep communications costs to a minimum. Initially we used a hosted PBX solution from Mytel, but as the number of psychologists using the centre increased, we moved to a TrixBox Asterisk installation.
Our main VoIP providers are Freshtel and GoTalk, which are cheaper than Mytel's. When people occasionally suggest to Bleeding Edge that surely businesses ought to use PSTN rather than VoIP because they're more reliable, we explain that the incoming Telstra line was down for a week last year, and the only reason Victoria Avenue Psychology continued to function was that the VoIP lines remained solid as a rock. In close to 18 months of operations, we haven't had any interruptions to the VoIP service.
TrixBox hasn't missed a beat. It's gone down twice, when faulty electric wiring caused a couple of black-outs, but each time it's re-booted without a problem. We have to thank Nathan Pinskier and his son Samuel for setting up, and for doing the occasional reconfiguration, but we're slowly becoming familiar with the system, and doing our own maintenance.
We're about to add another Snom 320 phone to the system, and just today we've set it up to handle all the voicemail, rather than relying on Telstra's service. That means that we'll be able to reduce our monthly charges, however minimally, yet again. In the current economic client, Asterisk is even more essential for small business.
February 20, 2009
Our reputation as “a gadget-obsessed spendthrift” isn’t confined to computers and iPhones and iPods and scanners and printers and VoIP phones and Wi-Fi etc., etc. Our kitchen displays the same tell-tale signs of an inability to resist what we regard as essential devices … and the Bleeding Edge spouse thinks of as gaping holes in the bank account.
She’d probably make even more of a fuss were it not for the fact that we do all the cooking, and what with having taken many courses with various chefs, we’re not too bad at it.
One of our favourite, umm, essential tools is a KitchenAid KSB5 blender, which we’ve used for all sorts of things over the years, including crushing ice, pureeing soup and making delicious fruit smoothies.
Unfortunately, we have to report that it’s probably not wise to use a blender to pulverise the spices for your own garam masala, unless you want to shred the blender’s clutch, and splatter the debris around the kitchen.
We would probably have taken the blender in to have it repaired, at who knows what expense, had it not been for our daughter Lucy. Coincidentally, the clutch on her blender also disintegrated recently. Lucy is somewhat more resourceful when it comes to kitchen gadgets. She tracked down a cheap source of a replacement clutch, along with instructions on replacing it. The exercise is likely to cost just $6.95, provided we’re careful with the big screwdriver.
February 19, 2009
Trujillo vs. reality
On the face of it, what we have here is one of those displays of canine dominance with which the average dog owner is familiar. One puppy decides to hump another puppy, which objects and tries to mount the other, and before you know it, they’re snarling and wrestling, and you’ve got to separate them.
Frankly, in this case we blame it on Barcelona, and the Mobile World Congress, which each year seems to gives Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo some sort of hormone imbalance.
This year, however, when our globe-trotting. star-quality “Next Dimension Working CEO” started publicly comparing his cojones to those of other CEOs who possibly don’t get paid quite so many millions, Skype’s Josh Silverman and Google’s Vic Gundotra apparently took offence.
Silverman and Gundotra suggested that Trujillo’s by-now-constant boasting about the speed of the Next G network being responsible for an increasing share of Telstra’s revenue completely overlooked the impact of the iPhone phenomenon, and the demand for applications like Skype’s VoIP service.
There ensued an unseemly squabble about whose strategy was likely to extract the highest ARPU (Average Revenue Per User), which for cellular carriers equates to the Book of Common Prayer.
Trujillo dismissed Silverberg and Gundotra’s suggestion that carriers should engage in fair play with their subscribers, and warn them about just how much data they were going to consume if they chose to point their Internet-capable phones at a Web site.
His comment, which frankly has Bleeding Edge scratching our head [can his signal strength in ethics reception be that low?]: “So what you’re saying is that because I don’t know if I’m using one gallon or two gallons as I drive my car, I just give up and refuse to drive?”
Perhaps we’re being unkind, but that seems to translate to never giving a sucker an even break.
But the exchange made Trujillo’s strategy quite transparent. He dismissed the notion of all-you-can-eat data plans. Telstra subscribers are going to have to continue to pay through the nose if they expect the company to continue to invest in infrastructure. Well, that’s no secret.
But the other plank in the plan is clearly built on convincing business customers that it’s OK to tip a lot of money into Telstra, because that’s going to increase their productivity. That’s evident if you look at the case studies at Telstra’s Enterprise and Government site.
According to Trujillo, “Some of our business customers are already seeing productivity uplifts of up to 30 per cent in parts of their workforces from the Next G network by cutting travel costs and saving time.
"With 21Mbps rated network and devices, we expect to see business productivity increase even further at a time when business and governments need to find practical ways to lift economies out of recession and do more with less."
We didn’t look at all the case studies, but it seems to us that some of the businesses which did buy Telstra’s one-stop solutions could have made even greater economies with alternative technologies.
And we weren’t convinced that the one-button, one click etc. magic that Trujillo claimed was essential to his personal productivity actually was quite that simple, let alone affordable.
As it turned out, the timing was fascinating. As Trujillo was performing in Barcelona, at home AAPT released a survey which showed Australian households on average were spending $44 a month more on telecom costs than a year ago.
More than a third said their children’s technology consumption had become a burden on the household budget.
We’re increasingly amazed by the degree of cognitive dissonance between the economic climate, where practically every day brings news of more sackings and failures - Dun & Bradstreet predict the failure of up to 100,000 small to medium enterprises - and Trujillo’s apparent conviction that people are going to continue to pay through the nose to prop up Telstra’s balance sheet.
And the web changes again…
Image via Wikipedia
All right now, you anti Internet Explorer guys and girls – you know you want to, let’s let out your collective groan. Pause. Done yet? Let’s do another one after you read this.
Dear old Mary-Jo Foley reports on how lots (is 2,400 major sites lots these days?) of websites “don’t render properly in IE 8”. I think “breaking the web” has a bit of theatrical licence but Microsoft has responded by adding a Compatibility Mode feature to IE 8. Someone on the team must have sat at the feet of Raymond Chen.
Sooo, now, all you need to do is to install IE8 beta, and test your own websites. But wait…. Is this a side by side install with IE7, IE6? Will it trash your machine? Do you need to multi-boot or run a virtual machine or put your arm behind your head so that you can scratch your ear with the other finger?
Remember the flurry of excitement when someone a few years ago figured out how to install IE versions side by side? And then we lost interest because the need diminished and something broke when IE upgraded?
Now, all you have to do is “simply” rejig your websites, yeah? And test it on Firefox, Opera, Chrome, Safari, Opera Mini, Symbian Web Browser, Windows Mobile Web Browser, your iPhone Browser. Don’t forget your little itty bitty Mac and Linux.
Collectively now, one more time……. Groan!
iPhone: learning to live with Telstra
It took Bleeding Edge two hours to realise we’d made a terrible mistake with our Apple iPhone plan.
We’d justified the iPhone on the basis that this column can’t ignore what is arguably the most significant trend in mobile phones for at least a decade — a trend which has even convinced major corporations which have consistently ignored the mobile phone market to develop iPhone-specific applications.
But what really convinced us was when the young woman sitting next to us at Alliance Francaise clicked on her iPhone screen, entered a word and showed us the translation while we were still thumbing through the Collins French-English Dictionary. She had hers installed as an iPhone app. Resistance, we knew, was futile.
We thought we’d considered everything when we walked into the mobile phone shop two days later. We’d be paying more for Telstra Next G network, but its coverage and robustness are peerless.
Telstra Mobile remains the one division of the national carrier that we still rate as superior to the competition, and impossible to detach from ... provided you’re on one of the genuine Next G capped plans hidden away here.
Unfortunately, there was only one iPhone cap plan — the Ultimate at $150 a month for a ridiculous 2000 minutes of calls and 2000 SMS messages per month. The other alternative was to buy the iPhone outright, and we weren’t enthusiastic about handing over $1200.
We’re pretty sure that’s why our thinking got scrambled in between walking into the store and putting our signature on the contract.
We convinced ourselves that we could get away with the $70 package, plus an additional data pack, which would double the allowance from 150MB to 300MB per month for a total of $89 per month. For that, we’d pay only an additional $179 for a 16GB iPhone over a two-year contract.
We should have been focusing on the call allowance, rather than the price of the iPhone and the data pack. The $60 phone plan we’d signed up for wouldn’t cover our typical calling pattern. The flag fall for each call was 27c, and each 30 second block would chew up another 28c — nowhere near the $49 monthly Next G cap of $200 in calls, plus $50 Telstra mobile calls, despite its 37c flag fall and 40c per 30 seconds.
The magnitude of our error began to sink in only after we’d realised that the media’s concentration on this device’s internet capabilities has tended to obscure the fact that it makes voice and texting operations so much simpler than the average smart phone. Once you get one into your hands you begin to understand what a true communications device it is, and you find yourself placing more calls and sending more SMS messages ... to say nothing of the iTunes AppsStore.
Financially, however, it looked like we were sunk. That was the point at which Bleeding Edge’s impossible optimism kicked in. Why not ring Telstra and ask them to change the plan? All we had to do was to convince Telstra to overlook that contract we’d signed.
It was Monday morning when we rang 125 111, and asked for the iPhone department. The customer service agent listened to our proposition, and told us that he’d put us through to someone who could help.
Our past experiences with Telstra has taught us to translate that as putting us through to someone who wouldn’t help. This time, we were surprised to find ourselves talking to someone who asked us for details of our complaint.
We explained that we hadn’t made a complaint, and we were rather hoping that we wouldn’t have to. We had been a customer of Telstra Mobile since its establishment and we could see no reason at all why Telstra would want to offend us.
He agreed, and explained that we’d been put through the wrong department. His department dealt with escalated complaints, but he’d put us through to the customer loyalty department.
The customer loyalty person didn’t sound very promising. This would be a problem, he mused, because we’d have to pay a termination fee of $979. And then there was the matter of having bought the phone from an independent, rather than a Telstra shop. “They have their own avenues of dealing with these issues,” he said.
Nevertheless, what he could do was put us on a $79 capped plan of $79 ($450 calls a month plus $100 calls to Telstra mobiles at 35c per 30 seconds) and drop our data pack back to $10 for 150MB per month. In four days we’d used no mobile data, because we’d been using wi-fi.
It was a much better deal for us, and it suggested that Telstra might possibly have discovered that treating its customers well was a better strategy than screwing them to a deal. Could the iPhone be improving their communications too?
February 18, 2009
The future of music, Part II
The Bleeding Edge voice is going to have quite a work-out over the next few weeks. The South of the River Gospel Choir will be singing at Port Phillip Prison this Saturday (too bad the Justice Department doesn’t use Google Maps, rather than these directions) and in early March we’re doing a few gigs at the Port Fairy Folk Festival.
Shortly after that, CW will be attempting a particularly challenging assignment, singing the baritone part of Soave Sia Il Vento, one of Mozart’s greatest arias. Trying to hold the line with two soprano voices sweeping up and around you is by no means easy, particularly when the timing and breath control are so critical, and we were feeling less than confident after our first rehearsal on Friday afternoon.
We’ve found Spotify extraordinarily helpful. We did a search for Soave Sia Il Vento, and came up with no fewer than 29 different versions, sung by a range of artists including Bryn Terfel, Thomas Hampel, Dame Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, etc.
Aside from getting a lot of clues about breathing (and some sad reminders that we’re no Bryn Terfel or Thomas Hampel), we’ve discovered the extraordinary range of interpretations of Mozart’s score, and the way even the greatest singers, including Bryn, can sometimes get the words wrong.
February 17, 2009
Telstra: great iPhone service
We were flabbergasted a couple of minutes ago to receive a phone call from a "mobile mentoring" service that Telstra offers. The idea is that they send out someone who can teach users how to get the best from their iPhones. It normally costs $160 for an hour, but if you're a long-standing customer, it's apparently free.
We're going to get the run-down on Friday morning. We hope it's going to accelerate our understanding of the iPhone, although we've made pretty good progress on our own so far, having devoted the best part of Sunday to our self-mentoring process.
But it's a fantastic service from Telstra. Now if we can only get them to give Sol Trujillo a bit of mentoring on Telstra's data charges ...
FOOTNOTE: Just got the email confirmation. The sesssion can cover up to six topics, including Contacts Management; Shortcuts; GPS Maps and navigation; Speed and voice dialling; Predictive text; News, weather and sport; Mobile email ; Web browsing; Multimedia; Computer synchronisation; Calendar, Tasks, Notes; Data Usage;
Bluetooth pairing; Creating favourites; Next G™ tools and features;Personalisation (screen, layout, ringtones); Call Features (call waiting, conference calls, video calls); Messaging (voicemail, email, SMS, photo/video messages). Let's see now ...
We can't help but wonder if Sol Trujillo quite understands the underlying irony of the "improvements" he's just announced in Telstra's Next G network speeds.
From February 23, Telstra Next G business customers will theoretically be moving data at up to 21 megabits per second (Mbps), compared to the current theoretical maximum of 14.4 Mbps. The reality will be considerably slower, but still appreciably faster than pretty well any other mobile network in the world.
Sol has apparently fallen in love with Next G. We're pretty sure that he's going to have "42Mbps" inscribed on his tombstone, presuming that he leaves our shores when Next G is scheduled to get to that milestone, around the end of this year, or early 2010. That, surely, will be the summit of his career. We can't imagine any other telco being able to afford him.
Sol doesn't seem to understand that increasingly, those speeds highlight the astronomical charges Telstra levies on customers who actually use Next G for data transfers. We whipped out the calculator and determined that on Telstra's 1GB data pack, the new speeds will allow us to chew up $59.99 in a brisk 390 seconds. That's 15.37c per second. [We won't be at all surprised if we've got that wrong, but the maths are definitely compelling.]
The major corporations get a substantial discount on those rates, but it's increasingly obscene, surely, for these companies to be forking out huge sums of money for their executives to feed their company Blackberries ... rather like that extravagant San Francisco junket that National Australia Bank's Cameron "Costly" Cline treated his fellow "leaders" to, at a time when they should have been demonstrating restraint.
In our view, the head honchos of these operations should be stripping the Blackberries and other corporate bling off their executives as part of their obligations to shareholders to run lean, efficient operations. Only a tiny number of operational staff actually need them.
Maybe we should have a corporate vanity index which rates CEOs on the excesses they nurture. Sol possibly isn't No. 1 - "Costly" Cline surely outranks him, for one - but he's got very expensive tastes.
TED Talks David Merrill: Siftables Toy blocks that think
Ted: Talks David Merrill: Siftables, the toy blocks that think
February 16, 2009
The future of music?
At this very moment Bleeding Edge is listening [by means we're not going to reveal] to a new [still in Beta] Swedish service called Spotify. It's available at the moment free (advertising supported) in the UK (since February 10), Finland, Sweden, Norway, Spain and France. A Premium (paid) version is also available in most other European countries. And it is unbelievably good. The interface, as you can see from this screen shot, is simple but elegant.
Install the client, and you’re listening to music over your broadband connection as if by magic. The speed and quality is breathtakingly good.
In our opinion, this could change the way we listen to music, turning it into a social networking experience. Spotify allows you to share songs and playlists with friends. You can collaborate with them to produce playlists that, could mean, as the developers say, “Friday afternoon in the office might never be the same again!” And the whole thing is guilt-free, because Spotify has paid for the rights to use the music. Imagine being able to drag and drop an album or a track on to your desktop or into an IM message or email. That sets up a link, which when clicked, plays the music.
It works on Windows XP, Vista and Mac.
You can get a good idea of the content, and the energy behind Spotify through the Spotify blog. We’re going to keep checking it out and we’ll let you know when you can listen to it. [We’re listening to a Norwegian jazz group called the Tord Gustavsen Trio, to which we’ve been addicted since they appeared at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival a few years ago. Perhaps we should have chosen Abba!]
Twitter Tips & Resources 101
This morning's post has garnered a few more Twitter users that have started to follow me so I thought I should link to some starting tips & tricks and will keep updating the post from any questions and links from your comments and remember 'There's no such thing as a dumb question' so fire away.
Anything such as YouTube and other embedded items will be in the extended entry to keep some clutter of the main page.
The ABC Twitter Services page with ABC Twitter accounts to follow, suggested hashtags and a few tips and Twitter jargon. If you watch the ABC New Inventors 8:00pm Wednesday nights make sure you follow Mark Pesce as ‘most’ Wednesday nights he will be tweeting away whilst New Inventor’s airs giving insight and chatting with other Twitter users about the night’s inventions.
Mashable’s advice on following other Twitter users FOLLOW FAIL: The Top 10 Reasons I Will Not Follow You in Return on Twitter and you should follow some of these tips as you can always return to your followers page on Twitter and follow the people that have followed you but you were originally unsure about that person once they have updated their Twitter profile for example.
Twitter can be used from a vast array of programs and not just in a web browser which is probably the hardest way to use Twitter and understand what is actually going on in Twitter. Popular desktop apps are Twhirl and Tweetdeck that use Adobe Air, Mobile apps galore.
CommonCraft's 'Twitter in Plain English'
A pat on the back for Telstra
Regular Bleeding Edge readers will be aware that we regularly criticise Telstra for ... well, let's not get into that right now ... but we must acknowledge that they have done a superb job in responding to the Victorian bushfire disaster. The details are on their Nowwearetalikng blog, and may we say how refreshing it is to see a post on that site that must make its employees proud, rather than yet another hysterical, bullying rant.
Telstra has worked hard to restore services, converted public phones to provide free calls for victims, even gathered 3000 mobile phone chargers to replace those that would have been reduced to ashes.
And the performance of Telstra's Next G network during the emergency indicates something that we continue to acknowledge in print: Telstra is a first-rate network provider, and Next G is a fine example of that. We wouldn't dream of using any other mobile network. Coincidentally, in Thursday's Green Guide, we've got some complimentary things to say about Telstra and Next G that don't relate to the fires.
It's too bad some of the zealots on the Telstra blog couldn't refrain from trying to use the tragedy as leverage for getting Telstra back into the NBN scheme. The only reason they're not participating is the failed brinkmanship that Sol Trujillo and his amigos unwisely practised. They really ought to clear those comments off the site, because they're not worthy of the company.
That aside, Telstra and its staff deserve the greatest praise for their performance when the chips were down. Well done!
Wireless disaster project?
W. David Stephenson’s comment on Stephen’s most recent post on Twittering the bushfires has got me thinking. I’m going to talk to Keith Younger, president of Melb PC, and see if we might get a wireless mesh network operating using the CUWin Foundation’s community wireless software and a kit from Metrix Technology.
Melb PC is already working to provide hot spot access for fire victims, and this might be a worthwhile refinement of their plans, and a possible model for future communications in disaster areas.
It could also be a vehicle for a hot spot service that I tried to get the previous (largely disfunctional) committee of Melb PC interested in last year, servicing the huge Chadstone shopping mall where the group is headquartered. And if it works, possibly in other parts of the city as well. That could boost the group’s membership immensely.
Anyone interested in getting involved in this?
The Internet: Scrap It and Start Again?
New York Times technology writer John Markoff muses about whether we need a new Internet. According to security experts, the old one is about as effective at keeping out the bad guys as France’s Maginot Line fortifications proved to be in World War II, when German forces cracked it with an airborne assault on the supposedly impenetrable defences of Fort Eben-Emael.
Today’s Internet isn’t all that friendly to mobile communications either, and there are all sorts of as-yet-unimagined online enterprises that could be given a spur if we did a complete re-think.
That’s why researchers at Stanford University, Deutsche Telekom and NEC have formed the Stanford Clean Slate laboratory. The idea is to “slide” the new technology under the existing infrastructure.
The lab is working on speedier protocols like Rate Control Protocol, which tackles congestion to allow faster download times, Open Flow, anti-phishing browser extensions, Programmable Virtual Infrastructure for Virtual Worlds, better wireless spectrum usage, Ethane (new gasoline for enterprise network security),and Fast Dynamic Optical Light Paths for the Internet core.
Independently, Australian researchers working under Professor Ben Eggleton at CUDOS on a photonic integrated circuit (PIC) that can increase Internet speeds 60 times and act as traffic monitors, announced yesterday that the highly-energy-efficient thumbnail-sized chip would cost around $100 and have a lifespan of about 10 years.
Victorian Bushfires, ABC & Twitter
How and why I started to do this was similar to how I followed the Mumbai attacks and Inauguration of Barack Obama using Twitter as I posted here. Yet this disaster was happening in our backyard here in Victoria and I simply wanted to help get information out to anyone that sought after updates and help in a way that I knew I could do quickly and efficiently and that was with Twitter.
I had been following @774Melbourne and @CFA_Updates on Twitter for a while and once the magnitude of this disaster truly started to unfold I asked @774Melbourne what I could do to help and a simple reply "Send us any links to News, Photos & Videos from ABC websites" and thus I began posting updates directly to @774Melbourne and ‘re-tweeting’ these so that any of the existing followers I had following me on Twitter and Facebook would see these and be able to start following the #bushfires updates and then have accurate information sources that they in turn could refer on to their family and friends.
As I started following #bushfires search on Twitter more and more Victorians, Australians and ex-pats overseas using Twitter began asking for information and updates and we could as a community point them to the #bushfires search, following @774Melbourne, @CFA_Updates, tune into ABC Local Radio, ABC internet audio streams, ABC News updates and any other sites such as the ABC Bushfire Community and ABC News Bushfire Emergency websites.
Personally the hardest time I had was replying to Joe Coleman's tweet “heard that 95% homes in Flowerdale destroyed. can anyone confirm?” and seeing the updated information about Flowerdale sending the reply “@joefish99 Flowerdale on Google CFA Map 5 Dead http://twurl.nl/hvuffc” is something I don't want to ever have to send to someone again, at the same time it was good to be able to provide this information where otherwise this information was not readily available or easily found at the time. Two days later I read with joy Joe's update, “been in to Flowerdale fire area today. Aprox 60% houses in Riverside Cres standing. V.happy for my Dad.” removed much of the angst I felt from sending my original reply.
That is only one of so many horrific things that has made my heart drop with sadness, shed tears and read with joy on Twitter or listening to ABC 774 Melbourne since the worst bushfires in Australian history broke out 'Black Saturday - 7th February 2009'. Each of us will have our own moments that will last in our minds for many years to come. Many people have died, lost loved ones, friends, homes or businesses and we are all one thinking of everyone affected by this disaster.
The CFA Volunteers are amazing (CFA Bushfire Hotline 1800-240-667 & CFA YouTube & Thank Our Firefighters) as are all the other fire fighting volunteers that have come from interstate, New Zealand and United States to give us a hand and of course the DSE are hard at work out there as are the SES along with RSPCA and every single volunteer from every other organisation I have not mentioned, Thank You.
Charles wrote a post a few years back on the Razor blog at The Age which no longer exists and I cannot find it in any internet archive or cache about what else can be done to improve communications during emergencies and Twitter is one such tool the internet can offer to bridge this communications gap such as sending out “774melbourne: ABC Gippsland Transmitter burned by fires tune into 531AM , 828AM, 104.7FM, 105.5FM or 90.7FM for local updates” can be of great value if this could be delivered from Twitter by SMS to your mobile phone if your landline is down or when you next get in range of a mobile tower to deliver the message, sadly this is no longer available for Australian users of Twitter. The nationwide fire-alert system has been delayed by interstate and federal bickering and privacy laws. Nicholas Gruen wrote a column for The Age “Anyway, four hours after asking the CFA, Google was permitted to take its data feed and become a firefighter. But the CFA feed only covered private lands. The Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) provides similar information on public lands. According to Google’s Nobel, DSE hadn’t established a data feed and explicitly refused Google permission to access DSE’s internal data. And so it couldn’t be presented on Google Maps.” Fair enough that the DSE don’t currently have a public data feed that can be exposed to third parties at this point in time and didn’t want to let Google into the DSE’s internal data, but by having the ability to have a single map with both private (CFA) and public (DSE) fire data mapped would be beneficial to all Victorians instead of having to check two websites for updates if fire is in your area, so I hope the DSE once things settle down a bit for them can get a public data feed up and running as soon as possible.
Twitter won’t replace any of our traditional media sources but it can seriously supplement them as an information source.
Donations to Red Cross Victorian Bushfire Appeal via the web site or calling 1800-811-700 (International callers +61 3 9328 3716 or +61 8 9225 8880) or to Donate Blood. The Salvation Army web site or 13-72-58. Bushfire Public Accommodation: 1800 006 468. Friends & Family Hotline: 1800 727 077 (Intl. +61 3 9328 3716)
I would like to post a few thanks to some Twitter users who tirelessly have kept the updates flowing, @wolfcat & @deanog (You know what you guys have done) and @retrogrrl, @aniraangel, @geehall1 & @strictly for monitoring #bushfires and just doing what you have done and @BigPondTeam for jumping on board so quickly to give Telstra/Bigpond updates on current outages and repair status. There are many more Twitter users who have contributed and to many to mention so thanks to all and lets get these fires out and start rebuilding Victoria.
Lastly, the ABC 774 Melbourne and ABC Victoria and everyone behind the scenes – Keep doing what you are doing - Thank You.
February 15, 2009
Smart Dial allows you to dial your contacts without having to use that minute, infinitely irritating contacts navigation bar. Instead of trying to click on those tiny letters and finding yourself well adrift of your intention, you simply use the keypad to tap out the name.
Typing Genius teaches you how to improve your typing speed with various exercises, and gives you a lot of tips on keyboard contractions [type YOULL to get you’ll, WELLL for we’ll, ITSS for it’s etc.] and techniques like hitting the Caps key then dragging to the appropriate letter.
Another application that we really like is Air Sharing. It works with Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, and allows you to use your iPhone for file storage, much like a USB key, except that you transfer files over a Wi-Fi network.
It can view several file types, including PDFs, Microsoft Office and iWork files and Web pages. We’re using it to store things like account names and passwords that we constantly have to go looking for when we’re doing tech support, which makes the optional password lock very handy indeed.
Network, not work
Bleeding Edge has been suffering from one of our recurring bouts of what we call network effect.
The term officially describes the multiplying effect on the value of a service caused by additional users — co-founder of Ethernet technology, Robert Metcalfe, applied it most recently to computer networking —but Bleeding Edge seems to suffer from a more malevolent strain. In our case, the undoubtedly beneficial effect of the network is generally accompanied by an escalation of problems.
Our latest symptoms started early in the week, when one of the users at a business for which we provide tech support found she couldn’t get her new notebook on to the wireless network. It should have been simple to fix, but the password we had for the company’s Big Pond ADSL account and the router didn’t work.
It took a little convincing for Big Pond to change the password, but that was all we were about to get from them. The minute you mention the word “network”, their free tech support seems to default to a “premium support” issue, which involves paying $169 for a home visit by a company called Gizmo, or $99 for the advice that in our view, Big Pond should be providing free. We declined the opportunity to offset Telstra’s expenses.
All we had to do was reset the Netgear modem to the default login and password, enter the new Big Pond password and connection details, then [an essential security measure] change the router’s default login and password Unfortunately, when Big Pond changed the password, the router dropped the connection to the Web, and we couldn’t look up the Netgear defaults and the reset procedure. Big Pond did at least give us the number for Netgear tech support, and we can report that it beats Big Pond’s by a mile. It took less than 15 minutes to get everything going again.
Network effect wasn’t going to let us off that lightly, however. A couple of days later, the HP LaserJet P3005D printer which we’d picked up brand new last year from the Grays Online auction site for $384 , and networked with an HP 620N JetDirect card [$430], refused to associate with the new IP address range that we’d inherited when we installed the Tomizone router we wrote about last week.
The new network was on 192.168.0 but the LaserJet was apparently not going to budge from its old home at 10.1.1.3.
Then, spontaneously overnight, it did so [SIGH] ... just after we’d switched back to the 10.1.1 range. Were we going to try to convince it to move again? We went back to the 192.168.0.1 router, only to discover that now the printer driver threw up an “error –printer offline” message, and refused to co-operate.
We printed out the Information page from the printer control panel to establish the network address was still 192.168.0.101, then typed it into the Web browser, which took us straight into the HP web interface — a very useful resource for a network printer owner.
The Usage tab, for instance, gives you details of the precise number of pages, in our case 3283 (1249 of them in duplex), which meant we’d saved a total of 1249 sheets of paper. The Supplies Status page indicated that the 660 jobs we’d printed since last we bought the P3005 last May had used 45 per cent of the cartridge. At the current rate, we’d get another 4178 pages (depending on the ink coverage).
We rummaged around in the HP IT Resource Centre Forums at tinyurl.com/6cmbm and found that although the JetDirect cards hang on to their settings like bulldogs, you can convince them to change by doing a cold reset. The procedure is outlined here.
That wasn’t the end of it. Although we installed a new driver and made it the default (we’d love to know how to delete the old driver, because it’s by no means willing to disappear), and set it up for full duplex printing, every time we printed a document, the computer flashed up instructions for printing on both sides, which the old driver had done automatically.
We had to go into the printer properties and selected “Installed for Duplex Unit” from the device settings tab.
While we were at it, we checked the printer’s firmware version on the web interface and found it had been upgraded. Normally we don’t upgrade firmware unless there’s an obvious fault, but the balance of our mind had clearly been disturbed, and we went ahead with the installation. So far we’ve had no problems, but we have an uneasy feeling that network effect is out there, waiting.
iPhone, Flickr, LiveWriter
The iPhone makes it easy to take pictures. Flickr makes it easy to upload and store them. Microsoft Windows Live Writer makes it easier to insert pictures into blog entries. Learning how to use them all makes it easy to obliterate huge slabs of time.
We started experimenting with uploading pictures from the iPhone to Flickr. Like, for instance, the one below, which we took in Victoria Avenue, Albert Park last weekend, while two young constables were talking to, and presumably lecturing a driver who’d parked in a No Standing zone 15 metres away. Then they walked into a barbecue chicken shop and had lunch, leaving their car in a No Standing zone, impeding emergency entry to a housing block. Do they not realise how important it is, by their every public action, to engender respect for the law?
First we emailed the picture to our Flickr account, using the special email address they provide. It worked brilliantly, but it’s a touch laborious, so we’ll be experimenting with Flickit and the vastly more powerful PixelPipe.
We haven’t worked out yet how to get drop shadows, because they don’t appear on our drop-down menu, which offers just one option – and not a particularly thrilling one. Any suggestions for getting the best out of these apps?
February 14, 2009
Roughly about the third time the Bleeding Edge cave was burgled, it occurred to us that by choosing to reside in not-quite-the-world’s-most-liveable-city, we’d unwittingly enlisted as part of the supply chain for the pawn broking industry.
This unfortunate happenstance has forced us into a much more intimate acquaintanceship with security systems.
As a consequence, we can provide you with several unpalatable facts about the average alarm system, beginning with the expense of installing one. Bleeding Edge spent something like $2500 to have six infra-red sensors and three control panels installed in a Victorian house. We subsequently spent a few hundred dollars more having one of the sensors removed when it corroded and brought the system down. The installers had used an internal sensor in an external position, but by that time we didn’t have enough energy left to complain.
It cost us roughly $1000 more over the next few years to have the system monitored.
Alas, we didn’t have a zoned system with perimeter detectors, which is possibly why we had the interesting experience of an uninvited guest forcing a front window and restocking a pawn shop while we were just metres away in another room.
Another interesting thing about security sensors is that they are prone to taking fright at a discouragingly large number of perfectly innocent sources, including pets, spiders, sunlight, moving curtains and equipment failure. At times alarms fail to reset, as a consequence of which neighbours can get remarkably irritated.
Shortly after Bleeding Edge received our second anonymous complaint in the letter box about the paranoid activities of our increasingly costly alarm system — we had spent hundreds more on several attempts to re-educate the thing — we decided it was time to invest in new technology.
This was, after all, the age of wireless, and what with the cost of technology having dropped substantially over the years, there surely had to be a cheaper, more reliable solution.
It uses wireless technology to communicate between sensors and controller, which means you can — with a little attention to the manual and a useful FAQ sheet — install it yourself without having to lay wires and mount brackets. This has the added advantage of allowing you to take it with you if you move house.
What we particularly liked about the LS-30 was the fact that it was a good deal more informative than the average monitoring service. Plug it in to your phone line— or a VoIP line — and feed it some phone numbers, and it will ring them with a recorded message alert if it detects a break-in. Add an optional smoke alarm, and it will report a fire.
It does all the usual jobs like panic and medical alarms, and other sensors are available to monitor temperatures etc.
While you’re on the line with your LS-30 a built-in microphone allows you to listen for any activity in the house, to assess whether you’re dealing with a genuine break-in or a false alarm. You can even speak to an intruder in your house via the speaker, which could, we imagine, be an unsettling experience for someone replenishing stock levels at your expense. We can think of several things we’d like to get off our mind to someone like that.
If you key in your password and some code numbers, you can check the precise source of an alert, extend the monitoring procedure and reset the alarm remotely.
We found setting up the system was relatively easy, although we’d suggest allocating a full day to the process of installing batteries (some specialist devices require a 12-volt battery or DC power pack), enrolling all the sensors and changing the settings, and mounting them and the external (solar-powered) siren. We made a couple of free calls to SecurePro to clear up some points, and found they were extremely helpful.
We mounted four internal sensors using the supplied Velcro tape strips, but even with the additional cost of a handyman who did a particularly neat job mounting four door sensors, an outdoor detector to monitor the back yard and the rooftop siren, we spent $1350. A competent do-it-yourself person would have been up for around $1200 for our set-up. A more basic package of the main console, three passive infrared motion detectors, two key-chain remote controls and a wireless external siren and strobe costs $890.
We now have a zoned system that can detect any intrusions on the perimeter while Bleeding Edge is at home, and we don’t have any ongoing costs, aside from having to replace two AAA alkaline batteries in each sensor every couple of years. Each component has a two-year warranty.
We found enrolling devices and changing settings was simple enough, although slightly tedious using the controller’s keyboard panel and LCD screen. Things are considerably faster if you install the proprietary HyperSecureLink software on your PC, Mac or Linux box, and buy the optional USB or serial port link. You could also buy an Ethernet adapter and control your system remotely via the internet.
Something tells us that you’re not likely to pick one of them up at the local pawn broker.
On making stuff break
One of the reasons yours truly CW hasn’t been doing much blogging hereabouts is the amount of time that’s been chewed up doing what was supposed to be part-time systems administration and tech support for a couple of small businesses.
We’d love to know how much the average business pays for the computer illiteracy of its users.
We had a beauty the other day, for instance. The user reported that the mouse on her PC refused to work. She told us she’d unplugged it and plugged it in again, and it still didn't work.
So we sighed, hopped on the scooter, motored down there, and confirmed that yes, the mouse didn't work. Why didn't it work? Well, fortunately we didn’t exchange the mouse or start fiddling with Device Manager. Instead we popped under the desk and checked the cable. Sure enough, it had been forced into a spare modem slot. We have no idea how she managed it. When we stuck it into the right slot, it worked. Which led, of course, to several rounds of "Well, I only put it back where it came from, so why didn't it work before?", etc.
Our new policy is to ban users from plugging anything in, or pulling it out, unless they really know what they're doing.
Here’s a less innocent example of unnecessary expense and trouble.
It took half an hour last week to coax a new label into the Dymo LabelWriter 400 Turbo that stopped working several months ago. Now they needed to get it working again. We found that after finally convincing the machine to accept the label, when we pushed the print button it advanced the labels, but it wouldn't print.
It wasn't until we rang Dymo's [excellent] tech support line that we discovered the embarrassing cause via the following dialogue:
"Can you lift the lever on the left?"
"The lever that you lift to insert the labels."
"Umm. We don't have a lever."
It was pretty obvious what had happened to that lever. It had been snapped off, and not, we're convinced, in some random act of self-destruction. We suspect the culprit was a previous employee who had a particular fear and hatred of technology. Somehow, people like that seem to have developed the knack of provoking software and hardware to misbehave.
They can be a tremendous cost on a business. It isn’t only that they seem to attract disasters, possibly under the theory of “revenge effects” advanced by Edward Tenner in Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.
They can also delay or frustrate the introduction of cost-saving innovations, and frequently they seem to engage in expensive duplication of effort, out of some misguided apprehension that they have to have something to fall back on if the software or hardware breaks. If necessary, it seems, they’ll break it.
We wonder if part of the interviewing process for new employees should be aimed at discovering whether the candidate has some unconscious hostility to technology, and if so, eliminating them.
Getting to know the iPhone
Our column in next Thursday's Green Guide deals with the (surprisingly successful) negotiations we've had with Telstra since we bought our new 3G iPhone. They arose from the fact that one - well, at least a slightly dull, somewhat slow one like Bleeding Edge - doesn't realise quite how much an iPhone is likely to change one's usage patterns, until one has actually begun using the thing.
In our view, the iPhone is a completely different electronic animal. It changes the way one communicates, or at least it increases the frequency. We'd be interested in other iPhone users' perspective on this theory.
In the meantime, we've been busily familiarising ourselves with the iPhone's features: the little slide button that mutes it, for instance. The slight parallax error that can make the on-screen keyboard a touch irritating until you get familiar with it.
Bleeding Edge seems to be a two-thumb texter, by the way. A colleague insists on using one thumb. Fortunately, having an iPod Touch gave us a head start there, although it turned out to be a hindrance when we hooked it up to the PC and iTunes asked us if we wanted to restore the settings for the iPod Touch. We foolishly chose "Yes", thinking that was the easiest way to transfer our contacts, calendar and music. How idiotic!
We ended up having to wipe it and start again. This time we used Apple's MobileMe for syncing. MobileMe is, like most things Apple, far too expensive. It's irritating the way Apple sneaks it into your Windows Control Panel if you don't watch their update procedure like a hawk. But it's simple, and just at the minute, simple is awfully attractive.
One of the principal drawbacks of the iPhone is the lack of a simple cut and paste. We've recently installed a wireless burglar alarm system which allows self-monitoring. If there's an "event", the system rings our mobile, allowing us to control it remotely. Because we haven't committed all the codes to memory, we need to have a quick reference, and the obvious place to store it is, of course, on the iPhone. We decided, using the "easy is better" principle, that the solution was to install the iPhone version of Evernote. It automatically syncs your notes with the desktop (Mac or PC) software. While we still use InfoSelect as our main flatfile database, the developer hasn't yet understood that the Palm operating system, which is the only mobile platform he supports, is as good as dead these days, and the price has gone up $50 to $249. That's hard to justify these days. And the iPhone makes Evernote an even more powerful application.
What else do we like about the iPhone, so far? Well, our FastMail IMAP email service works brilliantly. And we love the way it threads SMS conversations - even better than the feature that as much as anything else made us fall in love with the Palm Treo.
We're limited to 150MB of data on the Telstra NextG plan, but after more than a week of usage, we haven't used a single megabyte, thanks to having Wi-Fi pretty well everywhere we've needed to get online so far, including one of our favourite breakfast spots, the Grocery Bar in Fitzroy St.
Global Financial Crisis – Diagramming the Money
I noticed a reference to the GFC in a Guardian UK article. It’s a short, simple and effective presentation, using bubble charts (ironically) and animation through the simple expedient of moving on to the next slide. And you don’t need more than a few slides to tell us how deep in doo doo we’re in.
February 11, 2009
Collective holding of breaths
Doubtless, many of us are watching as events unfold in the Victorian bushfires. The death toll is horrific and even in Melbourne CBD, people are walking much more silent than usual as it bears on their minds. Stephen is re-twittering a lot of twitter feeds in his Facebook and there is social network activity as well as international concern about their Aussies friends. More and more websites emerge to provide entry points for help.
Our thoughts are constantly with those affected.
February 05, 2009
Windows 7 AFP RSS Photo Theme
Inspired by Mike Swanson’s post of his fantastic Windows 7 Theme Pack from a selection of his wallpaper images and the already available Windows 7 Theme packs I have jumped aboard and gone a step further than Long Zheng’s post on RSS Powered Windows 7 Themes from Flickr users. The theme pack that I created uses a RSS feed of news photographs sourced from Agence France-Presse via Dave Winer’s FlickrFan project.
There are a few things to note regarding the install of this theme pack in that a few extra steps are needed to customise your settings for the RSS feed in getting updates more frequently than once per day, or you can leave the defaults to once per day as the AFP photo feed is updated quite often so I would suggest 4 hours is a good middle of the road option. The RSS feed can download in excess of 500+ images per day with image sizes ranging from 0.5Mb to 1.5Mb each you will need to take this into consideration.
Those of us here down under that have very limited download allocations per month I would definitely recommend not updating any sooner than every 4 times per hour, those in places around the world that have larger monthly download quota’s you can pick any setting you think that will not hurt your monthly download quota.
Firstly download the AFP FlickrFan themepack to your desktop and open it open it up (double click) and you will be presented with a popup window ‘Subscribe to RSS Feed’ and you should click ‘Download Attachments’ and by default you are now up and running getting updates once per day. If you want the RSS feed to update more frequently open up Internet Explorer 8 and navigate to your ‘feeds’ folder (Favorites -> Feeds) and you will have a feed titled (http://feeds.feedburner.com/AFP-OPML-WIN7) and right click the feed and select properties and select ‘Use Custom Schedule’ and select how often you want the feed list updated, ¼, ½, hourly, 4 hours or daily and select how many items you want to store, the default is 200 and you can change this to a maximum of 2,500.
The theme is set to change your background wallpaper every 15 seconds as drinking from the firehose without changing the background so often you would not get to see many of the images.When you do see an image and want to know more about the image you will need to open up Internet Explorer 8 and navigate to the RSS Feed and view the description contained in the feed as overlaying this text directly onto the images is well out of my league of wizardry.
For more information on FlickrFan and the AFP photo stream read Dave's post A taste of FlickrFan, Om Malik's Introducing FlickrFan, Read Write Web's Dave Winer's new photo viewing software or Scobleizer's The MacMini HDTV revolution.
If you do not have Windows 7 or this RSS Feed is just too much to download you can view the same images at the AFP OPML site created by Dave Winer.