Archive for category Soapbox

Analogy can be found anywhere

This post may come across as self-serving, semi-advertorial, promotional, or just plain crappy (or all of the above).  I don’t apologise, it’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to.  However, because it’s the Internet and it’s almost guaranteed that someone reading this will think I should have warned them… consider yourself warned, fair reader.

My recent post about experiencing things for the last time started me off on a somewhat interesting train of thought.  There I was, sitting on an aircraft that was being retired, which must happen fairly often around the world–after all we don’t see too many 707s or TriStars in the skies any more.  Qantas used to have a lot of 767s, and I picked up the inflight magazine to see the numbers today.

As at September 2014, Qantas had 6 Boeing 767s in their fleet (down from 13 at 30 June 2014, further down from 20 as at July 2013, according to the Qantas Data Book 2014).  Then I looked at the total fleet size: just over 200 aircraft in total (again, looking at the Data Book 2014, 203 as at 30 June 2014).  The numbers started wandering around in my head, and soon put me in mind of another piece of hardware requiring large investment, and just as close to my heart as jet aircraft — mainframe computers.

I started to do some research into the numbers I looked at in the flight magazine.  According to the registration data available from CASA, there is only one 767 in Australia (a 767-381F freighter) not registered to Qantas.  Therefore, during 2014, Qantas was the operator of the only dozen-odd Boeing 767 aircraft in Australia.  Thousands of people every day, travelling on an aircraft of which there was only a dozen working examples in the country–in fact, by the time I had my last 767 flight, I wonder how many of the September Six were left?  Maybe VH-OGO was the last in service by then…?

Okay, you might say, the B767 doesn’t count as it’s old and Qantas was retiring them.  Righto, point taken.  Lets look at what is the mainstay of domestic inter-capital air travel in Australia then–the B737.  Qantas lists 70 as at June 30 (57 owned and 13 leased) while Virgin Australia shows 74.  CASA lists some freighters and a half-dozen registered to “Nauru Air Corporation”, but lets stick to QF and VA (apart from a couple of B787s Jetstar’s fleet is all Airbus and much smaller than Qantas or Virgin).  The most widely-used commercial jet aircraft in the country, and there’s only 140-ish of them?  So what, you might say: they’re jet planes, of course there won’t be many.

The numbers continue: again as at 30 June 2014 the total number of Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s and A330s in the Qantas fleet was 36 aircraft, and by now some of the B747s have been retired.  Think about that for a moment: Qantas is able to service all of its international routes, including covering maintenance intervals, using less than forty aircraft?  It’s not like Qantas has a small network… yes they extend their reach through alliances and codeshare just like all airlines do, but Qantas services Los Angeles direct from Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne, daily (you’d have to think that’s at least six planes by itself) as well as daily flights into cities across Asia and the few routes into Europe that haven’t been taken over by Emirates.  Three-dozen planes seems light…

A popular criticism of mainframes (once you get past the “old, room-sized, punch card” nonsense) is that there aren’t many of them.  Apparently if it was such a good system everyone would use it, and the fact that not many companies do is proof that it isn’t.  Also, apparently it’s risky to use a system that comparatively few other businesses use.

Imagine for a moment if airlines around the world started subscribing to the same kind of thinking that seems to have taken hold in IT:

Operations Manager: It’s too risky for us to use these large, expensive aircraft.  We don’t have enough of them to justify training pilots to operate them, and it costs a fortune when we have to service one.  Plus, did you know each one costs $100million?

C-suite: The last OM said these aircraft are the best fit for our operations, that we get value in return for the cost.  Are you saying there’s an alternative?

OM: You bet!  Did you know we can buy hundreds of light aircraft for what it costs to buy one jet?

C-suite: Really?  Sounds complicated…

OM: No way!  It’s simple, light aircraft are much less complicated to operate and maintain, and it’s much cheaper and easier to get pilots that know how to fly them.

C-suite: I’ve seen a light aircraft, they’re… small.  Won’t we need more of them to carry the load of our jets?

OM:  Maybe… ah but it won’t be that bad: how often are we running those big jets half-empty anyway?

C-suite: Hmm…  I assume you’ve done some projections?

OM: Yes, the acquisition cost of a fleet of light aircraft is a fraction of that of a fleet of jets!

C-suite: Acquisition cost…  I seem to recall that we should be worried about more than cost of acquisition…

OM:  Did I mention the acquisition cost of a fleet of light aircraft is a fraction of that of a fleet of jets?

C-suite: I guess that was all!  Okay, sounds like a great plan!

It seems ludicrous, and would never happen in real life.  Outside aviation, imagine a similar scenario with a transport company replacing B-doubles with postie bikes, or an energy company replacing wired electricity distribution with boxes of AA batteries sent to homes.  For some reason though it’s not farfetched in IT, and yet over the years conversations like that have happened in too many companies.

There aren’t many Boeing 737s in Australia, but that isn’t stopping Qantas and Virgin (and airlines around the world) from using equipment that is fit for purpose.  Why should mainframes be different?

On global roaming for data

Like most international travellers in the Internet age, during our recent travel through Europe I was confronted by the ridiculous situation that exists for mobile data access.  By ridiculous I mean ridiculously expensive.

Telstra SMS warnings

Warnings from Telstra when a customer connects to a roaming network.

Look, don’t get me wrong: the technology that allows GSM/UMTS global roaming is pretty magical[1].  But it’s not exactly new!  It’s not like mobile networks are breaking new ground in how this should be done!  As I understand it, GSM was designed almost from day one to support the interconnection of networks in the manner that global roaming requires, so why are we consumers gouged so aggressively for it?

Telstra goes to great lengths to warn their customers about the high cost of data when they roam overseas.  Nice.  So let’s say I want to buy one of these International Roaming Data Packs—how much does that cost?  On Telstra’s website I find the answer: in fact I find several answers, since it would be unreasonable to expect one simple, easy-to-budget rate from a telephone company.

The cheapest data pack is A$29, which gets you the princely total of—wait for it…

20MB of data.

Wait, what…?

Twenty megabytes?!?!?

Packs range all the way up to 2GB, which costs an unbelievable A$1800.  I have a Telstra mobile broadband service which costs around A$39 per month and has a monthly allowance of 3GB—that comparison puts the roaming data rate at almost 700% more expensive!

The kickers though are in the fine print:

If you use all of your data allowance, we will charge you 1.5 cents per kB you use which equates to $15.36 per MB.

This is the rate for roaming data if you don’t have a data pack.  An order of magnitude again more expensive than data in a data pack!  Let’s look at the SMS they sent though: “we’ll SMS you every 20MB of data” — which means, if you don’t have a data pack, you’ll get your first SMS alert once you’ve already spent A$307.20!  The next one is the absolute best, though:

Any unused data allowance will be forfeited at the end of the 30 day period.

Are you absolutely @#$%!$ kidding?!?!?  Seriously?!?  Let’s think this one through:

  • You have concocted an astronomically exorbitant rate for data usage
  • You’ve made me pay up-front for my expected use
  • If I get the estimate wrong, I’ll either pay through the nose at the casual usage rate until I decide if I want to buy another pack OR I’ll get no compensation of the up-front money I paid for data I didn’t end up using
  • You’re still collecting on my contract monthly plan fee, which includes domestic call and data allowances I can’t possibly use because I’m overseas!

The whole situation is unbelievable to me.  Unjustifiable.  If Douglas Adams was writing Life, The Universe, And Everything today I believe “bistromathics” would have instead been “phonemathics” (except that it doesn’t roll off the tongue as well).  I can just imagine it:

“Just as Einstein observed that space was not an absolute, but depended on the observer’s movement in time, so it was realised that numbers are not absolute, but depend on the observer’s mobile phone’s movement through roaming zones.”

It’s only a problem because mobile technology is so embedded in our lives today.  We tweet, we post pictures, we e-mail, we navigate, we live connected in ways that we didn’t even ten, or five, years ago.  I know this, because I did without mobile data even as recently as 2009 (when I was in the US and China for a total of seven weeks).  The ironic thing is that we are most likely to want to do these sharing activities, such as checking in on Foursquare and sharing photos, when we are travelling—and even more so when we are in new and exotic places, such as a foreign land.

I call BS on the whole international roaming data scam.  I defy anyone from a telecommunications company to explain to me why it can be three orders of magnitude more expensive to access bits in a foreign country compared to accessing those same bits from home.  It is nothing more than a money gouging exercise, and I reckon I’ve got proof:

Amazon Whispernet.

I have a Kindle, for which I paid about A$100 when the local supermarket had a 25%-off sale.  It’s the 3G and Wi-Fi version, and I take it with me most places I travel.  I’ve had that Kindle in the USA, New Zealand, France, and of course here in Australia, and in every place I’ve had Whispernet come on line and I’ve been able to at least browse the Amazon store.  Now, if roaming data really did cost what mobile networks say it does, how does it make sense for Amazon to make Whispernet available internationally on my Australian Kindle?  I mean, if I browsed the Store for half an hour before buying a A$2.99 book (pretty-much exactly what I did last trip, in France), the transaction would have cost more than it made!  To me, Amazon Whispernet is the proof that there is minimal cost in roaming data and that we’re being taken for a ride.

Needless to say, my phone has Data Roaming disabled.  I became a free Wi-Fi junkie—one of those pitiful souls hopping from one café to the next looking for open access points.  It wasn’t too bad when we were in Paris and Montpellier, but before leaving for the back-blocks outside Toulouse and Bordeaux I knew we’d need a better solution.  In a Geant Casino store in Montpellier I happened across a prepaid 3G Wi-Fi access box from Orange for about 45€, which included 500MB of data valid for one month.  It came in handy too, thanks to the GPS unit in the car getting confused about the location of our hotel at La Pomarede and us having to use Google Maps to find the right way.

Come on mobile networks, get with it.  Stop pissing off your customers and forcing them to do cruel and unusual things when they travel.  Just charge reasonable rates.  You’ll get more business, and guess what—happy customers.  Well, happier.

[1] By magical I refer to Clarke‘s Third Law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

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My local Borders is no more

I had two book-related experiences today, one of which was obvious and prompted this post. The other I had almost forgotten about, but should not have. First, the one I forgot.

I went to the shopping centre today (Garden City, in Upper Mt Gravatt) with my seven-year-old son. On the way there we were discussing the various things we might do there, foremost among them was eating (he seems to be inordinately interested in food at the moment; I suspect a growth spurt). After finding somewhere to park and finding our way from the car to the shops, we resumed the where-will-we-go conversation. We decided that the main purpose of the shopping trip was to get something for Mummy for Mothers’ Day, but we did agree it was okay to do a little bit of looking at things for ourselves. I was explaining the concept of “window shopping” to him when he suddenly said “or we could go to the library.”

I managed to choke back my reflex response of “The LIBRARY?!?” and instead managed something a little more fatherly. “But Mummy has the library card, I don’t have one,” I had to say, thinking he wanted to borrow.

“That’s okay,” he said, “we can just go and look at the books and maybe read one and then we could have some lunch.”

Which is exactly what we did. My seven-year-old son took me to the library. We looked through the books, found one that he liked which he read aloud, and then left and had sushi for lunch. I was definitely proud but at the same time stunned that a visit to the library was as interesting a prospect as anything else the shopping centre had to offer — especially since the library is immediately next door to a Toys-R-Us!

So what has this to do with Borders?

I was a little disappointed, but not too surprised, when the local Borders franchise announced it had entered administration. All of the Australian Borders stores that have touched me in some way, including the Brisbane City and Mt Gravatt stores, are to be closed. The hammer is even going to fall on the Jam Factory store in South Yarra, the first Borders I ever set foot in (the novelty of visiting that store was part of what kept me entertained when I was working in Melbourne).

Shortly after we’d been to the library, had our lunch, and looked at a couple of other shops, my son and I went into the Borders — it, along with the other stores to be closed, are open while the administrators try to wring every last dollar out of them. There were people everywhere, picking over the remains of the stock. How ironic that the busiest many stores are is their last days of trade.

It was pretty depressing: many shelves were bare, even a couple of complete sections had been abandoned (and were being used as impromptu play areas by kids bored by their parents’ sudden interest in books). Because all the stock was 50% off, people seemed to be treating it as having 50% less value — books were being disdainfully rummaged through, in a similar way to how a pile of laundry gets treated when you’re looking for that one lost sock.

I looked at the remnants of the computer books area, and was quickly reminded why I haven’t bought a tech book from Borders for years. I saw an O’Reilly title, one which I wasn’t sure I had, and the price on it was almost $100. When I got home I checked and I did have it: bought via Amazon at a price, even including shipping (and an exchange rate at the time that was nowhere near as attractive as it is now), that was less than even the Borders administrators 50% discount would have yielded. Nevertheless, I did take a few books to the register — not technical books, rather some light stuff in the vein of Richard Hammond’s “As You Do”.

The final depressing twist came as we left the store. I got a partial smile from the cashier when I placed my purchases on the counter for payment, but by the time she’d handed the bag to me her look was more “enjoy your books and your discount, I’ll be jobless in a few days”.

From the safe and insular confines of a blog, it’s easy to rant about bookstores and big publishing companies that try to ignore the international market and continue pricing domestically as if the Internet doesn’t exist and it really does cost a fortune to ship books to a tiny place like Australia. It’s a different matter when that bookstore you used to love going to can’t afford to keep the lights on any more.

But then, as I was thinking of how to wrap this post, the thought occurred to me… what kind of place would be good for someone who likes looking at books but never buys them…

Sometimes when I’d go to Borders I’d get quietly mad at the people who’d sit themselves in the comfy chairs and read the books for hours and hours. What did they think Borders was… a library? It was a library — the problem was, in their kind of library you had to buy the books instead of borrowing them.

I’ve got a feeling that the initial success of Borders was driven by the same enthusiasm for libraries that my son showed me today. We all remembered this incredible place where there were thousands of books, and we could pick them up, turn their pages… and read a bit of them, then put them back. And to the eventual demise of Borders, that’s what we all did.

So to anyone thinking “now that Borders is going, I’ve got nowhere to read a good book” I say “find your local library!” And to any passing librarians I say “I hear there’s some books hitting the market cheap, might be a chance to build the collection because you never know when traffic might pick up”.

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IPv6: SSDM?

Two of the four keynotes at LCA 2011 referenced the depletion of the IPv4 address space (and I reckon if I looked back through the other two I could find some reference in them as well).  I think there’s a good chance Geoff Huston was lobbying his APNIC colleagues to lodge the “final request” (for the two /8s that triggered the final allocation of the remaining 5, officially exhausting IANA) a week earlier than they did, as it would have made the message of his LCA keynote a bit stronger.  Not that it was a soft message: we went from Vint Cerf the day before, who said “I’m the guy who said that a 32-bit address would be enough, so, sorry ’bout that”, to Geoff Huston saying “Vint Cerf is a professional optimist.  I’m not.”.  But I digress…

I did a bit of playing with IPv6 over the years, but it was too early and too broken when I did (by “too broken” I refer to the immaturity of dual-stack implementations and the lack of anything actually reachable on the IPv6 net).  However, with the bell of IPv4 exhaustion tolling, I had another go.

Freenet6, who now goes alternatively as gogonet or gogo6, was my first point-of-call.  I had looked at Gogo6 most recently, and still had an account.  It was just a matter of deciding whether or not I needed to make a new account (hint: I did) and reconfiguring the gw6c process on my router box.  Easy-as, I had a tunnel — better still, my IPv6-capable systems on the LAN also had connectivity thanks to radvd.  From Firefox (and Safari, and Chrome) on the Mac I could score both 10/10 scores on http://test-ipv6.com!

My joy was short-lived, however.  gw6c was proving to be about as stable as a one-legged tripod, and not only that Gogo6 had changed the address range they allocated me.  That wouldn’t be too bad, except that all my IPv6-capable systems still had the old address and were trying to use that — looks like IPv6 auto-configuration doesn’t un-configure an address that’s no longer valid (at least by default).  I started to look for possible alternatives.

Like many who’ve looked at IPv6 I had come across Hurricane Electric — in the countdown to IPv4 exhaustion I used their iOS app “ByeBye v4”.  They offer free v6-over-v4 tunneling, and the configuration in Gentoo is very simple.  I also get a static allocation of an IPv6 address range that I can see in the web interface.  The only downside I can see is that I had to nominate which of their locations I wanted to terminate my tunnel; they have no presence in Australia, the geographically-nearest location being Singapore.  I went for Los Angeles, thinking that would probably be closest network-wise.  The performance has been quite good, and it has been quite reliable (although I do need to set up some kind of monitoring over the link, since everything that can talk IPv6 is now doing so).

In typical style, after I’d set up a stable tunnel and got everything working, I decided to learn more about what I’d done.  What is IPv6 anyways?  Is there substance to the anecdotes flying around that are saying that “every blade of grass on the planet can have an IPv6 address” and similar?  Well, a 128-bit address provides for an enormous range of addresses.  The ZFS guys are on the same track — ZFS uses 128-bit counters for blocks and inodes, and there have been ridiculous statements made about how much data could theoretically be stored in a filesystem that uses 128-bit block counters.  To quote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

The Guide, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams, Pan Books 1979

Substitute IPv6 (or ZFS) for space.  To try and put into context just how big the IPv6 address range is, let’s use an example: the smallest common subnetwork.

When IPv4 was first developed, there were three address classes, named, somewhat unimaginatively, A B and C.  Class A was all the networks from 1.x.x.x to 127.x.x.x, and each had about 16 million addresses.  Class B was all the networks from 128.0.x.x to 191.255.x.x, each network with 65 534 usable addresses.  Class C went from 192.0.0.x to 223.255.255.x, and each had 254 usable addresses.  Other areas, such as 0.x.x.x and the networks after 224.x.x.x, have been reserved.  So, in the early days, the smallest network of hosts you could have was a network of 254 hosts.  After a while IP introduced something called Classless Inter-Domain Routing (CIDR) which meant that the fixed boundaries of the classes were eliminated and it became possible to “subnet” or “supernet” networks — divide or combine the networks to make networks that were just the right size for the number of hosts in the network (and, with careful planning, could be grown or shrunk as plans changed).  With CIDR, since the size of the network was now variable, addresses had to be written with the subnet mask — a format known as “CIDR notation” came into use, where an address would have the number of bits written after the address like this: 192.168.1.42/24.

Fast-forward to today, with IPv6…  IPv4’s CIDR notation is used in IPv6 (mostly because the masks are so huge).  In IPv6, the smallest network that can be allocated is what is called a “/64”.  This means that out of the total 128-bit address range, 64 bits represent what network the address belongs to.  Let’s think about that for a second.  There are 32 bits in an IPv4 address — that means that the entire IPv4 Internet would fit in an IPv6 network with a /96 mask (128-32=96).  But the default smallest IPv6 subnet is /64 — the size of the existing IPv4 Internet squared!

Wait a second though, it gets better…  When I got my account with Gogo6, they offered me up to a /56 mask — that’s a range that covers 256 /64s, or 256 Internet-squareds!  Better still, the Hurricane Electric tunnel-broker account gave me one /64 and one /48Sixty-five thousand networks, each the size of the IPv4 Internet squared! And how much did I pay for any of these allocations?  Nothing!

I can’t help but think that folks are repeating similar mistakes from the early days of IPv4.  A seemingly limitless address range (Vint said that 32 bits would be enough, right?) was given away in vast chunks.  In the early days of IPv4 we had networks with two or three hosts on them using up a Class C because of the limitations of addressing — in IPv6 we have LANs of maybe no more than a hundred or so machines taking up an entire /64 because of the way we designed auto-configuration.  IPv6 implementations now will be characterised not by how well their dual-stack implementations work, or how much more secure transactions have become thanks to the elimination of NAT, but by how much of the addressable range they are wasting.  So, is IPv6 just Same Sh*t, Different Millennium?

Like the early days of IPv4 though, things will surely change as IPv6 matures.  I guess I’m just hoping that the folks in charge are thinking about it, and not just high on the amount of space they have to play with now.  Because one day all those blades of grass will want their IP addresses, and the Internet had better be ready.

Update 16 May 2011: I just listened to Episode 297 of the Security Now program…  Steve Gibson relates some of his experience getting IPv6 allocation from his upstream providers (he says he got a /48).  In describing how much address space that is, he made the same point (about the “wasteful” allocation of IPv6).  At about 44:51, he starts talking about the current “sky is falling” attitude regarding IPv4, and states “you’d think, maybe they’d learn the lesson, and be a little more parsimonious with these IPs…”.  He goes on to give the impression that the 128-bit range of IPv6 is so big that there’s just no need to worry about it.  I hope you’re right, Steve!

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Nokia SIP client: WTF?

I was having a browse around the excellent Nerd Vittles site tonight, and stumbled onto a disturbing conversation about the removal of the Nokia SIP client from S60 Third Edition Feature Pack 2 (as used on recent phones like the N78 and N96).

Nerd Vittles linked to this blog, which alludes to the possibility of mobile carriers putting pressure on Nokia to remove “free” calling capability (i.e. VoIP) from their phones.  Within the comments on that blog post comes a link to a post on Nokia Conversations (I’ve never seen that site before, but it seems to simply be a bit of a PR site…).

“Charlie” from Nokia Conversations tries to spin the changes to Nokia’s SIP support.  Firstly, in what seems to be almost believable at first he says “no, the SIP stack is still there, in fact it is actually better in FP2 than previous versions”.  Apparently, the improvements meant that the integrated VoIP client had to be dropped because it wasn’t ready.  This explanation loses credibility, however, when you see that Charlie’s blog post was made on 27 August 2008: nearly one year ago! And folks are still commenting on that thread, saying “where’s my VoIP client?”.  I cannot believe that it would take Nokia a full year to update the VoIP client and package a firmware update for these phones–especially given that two other S60 3rd-ed FP2 phones released after the N78 and N96, namely the N79 and N85, apparently do have the VoIP client!

On 8 December 2008, Charlie posts a follow-up on Nokia Conversations.  In it he says “well we made some folks unhappy, but we’ve made a fix”.  He points to something called the “SIP VoIP Settings” application that was supposed to bring back what people were asking for.  Problem is, it’s not a VoIP client at all: it’s simply a configuration tool allowing more detailed control over the configuration of a SIP profile.

In the final insult it appears that the new N97, Nokia’s current flagship also has no VoIP client.  The N97 is based on S60 5th edition and not 3rd edition, but 5th is supposedly just 3rd updated for touch-screen anyway (not a significant change in technology).

Looking more closely at the specifications pages for these N-series phones, the tiny-tiny text that says “VoIP” is missing.  It’s probably arguable therefore that Nokia never advertised the phones as having VoIP capability[1], so anyone who bought one without checking has created their own situation.  However, Nokia, why is the “upgrade” to the N95 missing one of that phone’s most popular features?

At one point Nokia’s story changes… it seems that VoIP is a function that doesn’t fit the product direction of N-series and belongs in the E-series phones (indeed both the E75 and the soon-to-be-released E72, reportedly S60 3rd-ed FP2 phones, list VoIP capability).  Why, then, do other S60 3rd-ed FP2 phones like the N79 and N85 have VoIP?

This whole “affair” seems to have been handled really poorly by Nokia.  Firstly, claim a technical limitation.  When that fails (because you discover that your users actually know something about tech), claim that your third-party providers have developed a solution.  When it turns out that the third-party products are steamers that don’t even use the infrastructure your OS provides (something you didn’t know before either), claim that the product has been “realigned” and doesn’t service that market any more–while simultaneously marketing a product in the same series with the same technology that still has the disputed feature.

I must admit to being a lot less angry about this after researching this post than when I started it.  I’m more angry about the survey I completed earlier today when I visited the Nokia website–I was very complimentary about .  My shopping-slash-wish list just lost an item–not that I was seriously contemplating buying the N97, but it’s nice to have a technical reason not to buy it rather than the boring can’t-really-justify-it line. 🙂

[1] Of course it’s easy to make this statement based on what the product pages look like now

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Photo printing pain

S went to print some photos the other day, and what was supposed to have been a simple exercise turned out to be a very frustrating one for both of us. I was utterly amazed to discover that even on the eve of 2009 there are web sites that think the world is only viewed through Windows…

S's and my respective creative sides are being adequately satisfied by the iLife suite on the Mac, but there are times when we need to get the pictures out of the silver tower and onto other media—on this occasion paper, for albums and so on. A large retailer here has part of their floor space in each store set aside for those photo printing kiosks, and I introduced S to the art of putting photos onto a USB stick so that she could print some photos when next she went there…

On her return from the shop, she reported that we hadn't successfully put the photos she wanted onto the stick. When she'd plugged the stick in, she'd found only less than half of the photos we'd stored there. Sure enough, when I plugged the stick in all the files were there safe and sound. Strange thing was I could find nothing in common about the files (uppercase/mixedcase filename, long or 8.3 filename, datestamp, etc) that would have yielded the number of photos that the kiosk had found on it.

Annoying, but life is too short to worry about it. After all, this same retailer was plastering adverts of their new web-based photo printing service… S could submit the photos online for printing and pick them up from the store later.

<sarcasm>This is where the fun really started.</sarcasm>

Their app is Flash-based but seems to have some Java involved as well. While it loaded quickly enough, the app portion of the web page had an incongruous grey background that just looked dodgy. S had to create an account and sign onto the site just to get this far though, which was a bit annoying.

The workflow seemed to be to create an album, upload pictures to the album, then select photos from the album for processing. Creating the album went fine, but when the upload function was selected there were no action buttons visible to complete the operation! S was using Safari, but Firefox made no difference.

Then I suggested she use her laptop, which runs Ubuntu 8.04. The situation actually seemed a bit better to start with, as instead of the upload function showing an embedded file selection dialog like it did on the Mac we got a "normal" GNOME file dialog box. However, only some of the photos showed again: this time, it was because they had hard-coded a non-modifiable filename filter for the dialog that was only picking lower-case file extensions!

Trying to work around this, I mounted the stick manually with different mount options. I succeeded in getting all but one of the files showing with a lowercase name, and a rename fixed that one. Back in the web page however, it still didn't like us: any file chosen from the dialog box resulted in a nonsensical error message followed by a "You have selected no files to upload" dialog.

S was beyond caring by this stage (she has a very low threshold for being stuffed around by technology). She went to Snapfish after a friend's recommendation, and found a well-designed and easy to use WEB site that required no downloads or other junk.

So why did this wind me up to the point of spending all this time blogging it? Because nowhere on Big-W's site is there any mention of browser or operating system compatibility. Not even a "we've tested only on Windows, Mac users may experience difficulty"[1]. Not a blessed thing. Their Help page has a single paragraph about trouble uploading, blaming "your IT Department" for "setting certain network properties that inhibit the upload tool from working".

I wonder if the developers of the app were just so blind to believe that their gunk would just work wherever it was run, or whether they really think that it's a Windows world. Of the two I hope it's the former. 😉

So Snapfish gets a recommendation for being not just an application hosted on the web but a web application. They do good photos too!

[1] I never expect to see Linux mentioned on these things and get pleasantly surprised on the occasions it is; even if it says "Linux is not supported", someone there at least knows enough to mention it.

Security blows

I was about to post about how pleased I was with Synergy in helping me tidy up my desktop clutter (by removing a keyboard and mouse from the surface). Ironically, I’m instead posting about a problem with the configuration that will cause me to throw it out and look for something else. Why the title? Because the default configuration of a Linux distribution nowadays has given me no way to fix this ridiculously simple problem without powering off the running PC, VMware guests and all.

The problem is that Synergy and the VMware console don’t play well together (I could have sworn that when I first started using Synergy I had no trouble with it, but there are a few hits around that describe problems like I’ve now hit). The problems people are reporting are that keys like Shift and Ctrl are not passed to the VM (some described here and here).

My problem is slightly different: the screen of my Synergy client (the one that’s running VMware) locked while a VMware guest had focus. Now, the Shift and Ctrl keys are not picked up by gnome-screensaver to unlock the screen. Even the real keyboard attached directly via USB doesn’t work. Big problem, for the following reasons:

* Thanks to password strength rules enforced on the Linux build I use, my password now has a Shift-obtained punctuation character.
* I can’t switch to a virtual console, since that requires Ctrl (e.g. Ctrl-Alt-F1).

Okay, so the keyboard doesn’t work. This client machine just happens to be a tablet PC, and I had hacked gnome-screensaver (to display the onscreen keyboard to allow the screen to be unlocked in tablet mode). I grabbed the pen and tapped out my password, but it *still* didn’t work: even the output of the virtual keyboard gets the Shift modifier dropped. Hmm… Starting to fume now.

Never mind, I’ll connect via the network…

* Fedora does not start SSH by default (okay, yes, and I didn’t make sure it gets started after I’d finished the install).
* There is no remote desktop (VNC server, XDMCP) configured.
* The shiny web-based management interface on VMware Server 2.0 only listens on 127.0.0.1 (or is being blocked by the Fedora firewall).

So with no way to get access to the machine to try and fix it, a power-off is the only solution. Some readers are probably thinking “boo-hoo, diddums had to kill-switch his widdle poota, how tewwible,” but I hate having to do that; not because the system doesn’t recover, but it’s “problem resolution, Windows-style”.

Even though the real problem was between Synergy and VMware, I’m blaming the (perceived) need for security since without that I wouldn’t have a cryptic password that I can’t enter without Shift and a system I can’t administer over the network. Red Hat and Fedora doing everything in their power to ensure I don’t fall prey to nasty Internet fiends (rich analogies to governmental nannying, but that’s probably over-thinking things).

So in summary: Synergy is great, just as long as you’re not using VMware console and have a password with punctuation or uppercase… Remember to have your SSH or other network access enabled before you play!

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Scourges of the Universe: Blog Spam, and ISPs

If you can read this, it means that Round 3 of my fight with my ISP is over and my ADSL is back up, which is a good thing because it means that I can tell you about why my ClustrMaps image has so many red dots on it suddenly…

Every so often I found that some random junk would show up in comments to my blog posts. When I saw it I’d just delete it, and it didn’t occur often so I didn’t really think much of it.

This was until I spied a comment that I actually needed to reply to, and found I couldn’t. I started looking at why the record number of the comment was so high, and found that my blog of little-more than 100 entries had become home to over 13000 items of blog-spam. 🙁

I blame myself, obviously, as the software I use had introduced spam-filtering techniques a couple of versions ago and I hadn’t kept up.

In cleaning up the garbage, behind the red mist of rage I saw at having my blog being violated so, I noted something interesting. The issue had been going on for some time, and I realised that in front of me, in my humble little blog, I had a snapshot of the evolution of blog-spam.

The early stuff was primitive, and easily identified by querying for the names of erectile dysfunction drugs and other medications. The later stuff was harder and harder to detect until I was virtually picking it record-by-record out of the database. Some of it made absolutely no point to me at all: strings of random alphabetics with not even a URL in sight; maybe this was a worm just looking for the kudos of a DOS.

The thought occurred to me that perhaps I should have kept it, in much the same way as someone I know keeps copies of PC viruses and worms in a little (hopefully isolated) folder. Then I realised two things:

* Preserving something, or putting it in a museum, gives it some legitimacy. I don’t want to legitimise blog-spam; and

* The art (if any) in blog-spam is in the code that generates it, not in the crap it leaves behind.

As for all the hits on my ClustrMap, I figure 80% are the spambots infecting the blog and about 19% are the poor folk that got drawn to my site as a result of the spam. I had been thinking of a different blog platform, perhaps this episode shows that I need something a little harder.

Of course another way to fight blog-spam is to get your network disconnected from the ‘Net, and my ever-so-unfriendly ISP went out of their way to do that for me this weekend. Unsolicited, of course, which is even better. On a Friday afternoon, too — better still, as if you do actually manage to get someone on the phone it’s too late for them to find anyone who can do anything about it (apparently).

Recommendations of a good ADSL ISP accepted: although keep it to yourself if your ISP’s called wwkjukhkkjlpuggh or qjkdfsdfaksjkulkfhg… 🙂

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On being an early-adopter

I like new things. Many of my friends and colleagues do as well. Some of us are very familiar with “early adopter tax”, the high price of paying for a new release product or program in spite of the knowledge that delaying the purchase would save money. I got to thinking about early-adoption a little while ago, and came to somewhat of an epiphany: nothing to do with shiny gadgets or cool software, either…

Some months ago I was in an IRC channel with a group of folks in the team I was working with at the time. The conversation had come around to green electricity, what deals our respective electricity companies were offering, and whether we were “doing the right thing” and selecting green energy.

I was a nay-sayer. “It’s a scam,” I railed. “Why should I pay extra for green power when the electricity companies know they should be doing that anyway?” The conversation turned to subsidies for installing solar power systems, and soon after that we actually got back to work. 🙂

Months later I recalled that conversation while listening to a podcast. The presenter was discussing climate change and the need for urgent action, whatever the cost. Which is when it hit me: green energy and it’s friends are like an early-adopter tax for a sustainable future.

In the early 90s, I remember models of the IBM ThinkPad would cost A$12k and more. Twelve THOUSAND dollars! Over time however, the developments in the technology have led to such remarkable improvements that a modern laptop can be had for a fraction of that amount, and projects like OLPC becoming viable. None of it wold have happened, however, if early-adopters had not backed the IBMs, Compaqs, and Toshibas (and the Osbornes before that, bless them) and supported the idea.

In 1978, when Mercedes-Benz first fitted ABS to the S-Class[1], I expect they would have wanted to make it at least an option on all their vehicles. That they didn’t, when the cost of doing so would have been astronomical, ensured that they were able to viably continue research and development on the technology and bring the cost down over time. Together with other car makers who progressively did the same, they ensured that even a modern $10k car can have access to such technology, but again it wouldn’t have happened if not for those S-Class buyers validating the idea and stumping-up the cash.

I’ve realised that businesses don’t have a conscience, and that the current economic model cannot reward a company for “knowing what it should be doing”. In quite a real way, companies need their customers to be their conscience by supporting those products that make a contribution to society, and rejecting products that are damaging or harmful. Longer-term, those companies that “get it” will thrive while those that don’t will fail.

So my consideration on things like green electricity changed to, simply, “can we afford to?”. Knowing that in around three months I’ll be meeting my second child (all going well), and becoming maudlin about the state of the world that a new person is being brought into (as new parents sometimes are wont to do), perhaps the question should be “can we afford NOT to?”…

[1] Other manufacturers fitted ABS systems to cars earlier than 1978, but they seemed to be one-off decisions that were inconsistently implemented or met with commercial failure. Mercedes-Benz, once the decision was made, stuck with it.

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Umbrellas like Canberra

Or at least the ones bought there do. In my travels to Canberra I’ve now bought two compact travel umbrellas and lost *both* of them within a week of purchase. Seems like an umbrella bought in Canberra really wants to stay in Canberra — the last one lost was liberated by someone who sought to relieve me of a burden at the x-ray screening at Canberra Airport. To that someone, if you’re reading: I’d rather have kept the umbrella, thanks, and you could have asked me before you liberated it from me…

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