Archive for August, 2008

Obama/Biden vs. McCain/Palin

Friday, August 29th, 2008

So John McCain just announced Palin as his running mate, in a room packed with pasty blandly dressed white middle class men (and women) – average collective IQ of 50 – to rousing cheers of “USA, USA, USA”.

I wish I could understand why people would care solely about military service and joining the army – which topics covered most of the speech given by Palin just now. Rather than focus on actual issues, once again it’s a case of milking that military ticket for all it’s worth. And the neanderthals in the audience seemed to love it…so good for them. Because that’s really going to make a difference to the economy, poor state of education in this country, lack of quality healthcare for the poor…oh wait, they don’t care. They don’t get it, every bit as much as McCain doesn’t get it himself. And Palin is but a poor shill.

Contrast McCain and Palin with the powerful speech given by Obama last night. There’s a smart guy. A loving family man who “gets it” and has more than a one-trick military pony up his sleeve. Sure, it’d be good for his electoral chances if he’d happened to have been in the military, but in the real world elected officials also need to be in touch with the electorate and deal with real world issues – something that’s hard to do if you can’t even remember how many houses you own today. I recorded Obama’s speech (and Gore’s) and then re-watched both many times over. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so convinced that one man could change the US for the better.

Obama almost brought a tear to my eye last night. If he actually pulls it off in November, I think I’ll be on cloud nine until January.


Steve Jobs – You make my blood boil

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

So for about 17 months I’ve had an iTunes “problem”. It started around the time things got rocky with my ex-girlfriend and turned into some kind of virtual comfort food. And once you start with that shit, well, it’s hard to stop.

NOTE: This is an Apple rant.

Apple (Computer) Inc. almost constantly annoy me. On the one hand, their hardware is some of the most gorgeously innovative stuff on the consumer market today – like many others, I just can’t get enough of the shininess. But on the other hand, Apple software is some of the worst software ever conceived by man. Sure, it’s far more usable than Windows (but since when did I care about that?), and doesn’t tend to break too often, but it’s otherwise completely crap. You’ve no idea what it’s doing at all, it’s completely uncustomizable, it makes Microsoft look like an “open source friendly” company, and Steve persists in his love of DRM-forcing-you-to-stay-with-the-program in iTunes in spite of much better services like Amazon’s MP3 Download. What did you promise before, Steve? Something about wanting to kill off DRM? Amazon did, so why is iTunes Plus still utterly craptastically limited in comparison with Amazon?

Steve Jobs might well have saved Apple from doom, but these days I wish he’d just f-off. He can take his iPhone closed platform shit with him. If it weren’t for him, I’d happily own just one mobile phone, but thanks to the restrictive crap of the iPhone I have to own two – one to use as a phone, and the other to verify cracks/experiment with before deploying to my regular “production” iPhone (people of the world, you’ve no idea how cool the iPhone can be when running Winterboard and other customizable software). If it weren’t for Steve Jobs, I could probably also play music I bought in iTunes with RhythmBox on my desktop. But no, this is not allowed, citizen. You didn’t sacrifice a goat to the DRM Gods. If fairness, I did know about this before I got into it, but I wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind at the time – and I regret that now. I regret it very much.

Anyway. iTunes is now considered Evil Bad and Wrong for music at least. There are plenty of much better alternatives such as Amazon (and for more niche stuff there’s Magnatune, and similar sites – I bought some music on Magnatune just this afternoon) that we should all be using rather than giving uncle Steve the time of day. Don’t be like me, don’t give into Steve and his shiny iTunes crack. Be a stronger person, throw it away and download unrestricted content instead.


Beijing Olympics are finally over

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

So the 2008 Olympics are finally over and I can once again turn my TV on without running the risk of accidentally giving the Chinese government the time of day.

When China won the Olympic Games bid, this was seen as a great thing for the emerging nation. An opportunity for China to be proud in hosting a major international event, and an opportunity for greater openness, with western media covering such a prestigious sporting event. Except China chose to barbarically interfere with the Olympics and turn them into a mockery. Not only has their government been involved in scandals involving the competitors themselves (faking the passport of one competitor, and even manipulating the appearance of the opening ceremony itself), but their censors have been hard at work ensuring information control at all times. Western journalists were largely complicit.

This is not openness. This is a paranoid delusional government using every opportunity to retain its grip, completely disregarding the promises that had been made to the outside world concerning “openness”. And all this at a time when Tibet has suddenly become a bad word for much of the western media in their news program[me]s. Since I was unable to do anything about this in person, I decided the least that I could do was to not endorse the games themselves in any fashion. By not watching them on TV one is not exposing oneself to the advertiser’s messages, nor condoning the actions of the Chinese government itself. I don’t wish any harm against the athletes themselves, although I have a special place in my heart for the few of them who dropped out on principle.

Anyway, now it’s over people will finally stop asking me if I’m enjoying watching the Olympics. Maybe next time…maybe.


Ignorance is strength

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

So I started re-reading George Orwell’s famous book, 1984. It’s a story written in 1949 about a scary future of authoritarian government in which the people are fed concepts such as the party mantra (“War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.”), which includes the wonderfully simple and yet deliciously complex line “Ignorance is strength”.

Controlling access to information, ideas, and even thought is fundamental to the world Orwell is portraying. The notion that the world is more secure and safe in and of itself through pure ignorance of truth re-enforces the powerful separation between the Inner Party, Outer Party, and everyone else. Since everyone else can never really know what is going on at any point in time they are unable to make informed choices for themselves and must always defer to the wisdom of the Big Brother. Not that anyone would ever question this greater wisdom, since society has at this point been largely pre-conditioned to think as they’re told – even going so far as to understand what is a thought crime before such thought is committed. The concept of “newspeak” is used to redefine everyday language into a form that is less likely to result in thought crimes.

Another fundamental concept used within the world of 1984 is the notion of “doublethink”. This describes the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory sets of beliefs or value systems (a double standard), as a means to use logic against logic, what is otherwise rationale against itself. This can be used, for example to simultaneously believe that the stars are a mere few kilometres away, while also retaining the theory that they actually are millions of miles away when a scientific formula requires the latter to be true (albeit very briefly). It is through a combination of careful thought regulation, information control, and the notion of doublethink (as a safety net to prevent the ruling elite from realizing the truth of their own actions) that this scary world of the future retains complete control over the masses. And there is no point protesting – because nobody is listening anyway.

Orwell wrote a number of other interesting works of fiction that had semblances of such potential future real life. Animal Farm is the obvious other example (which I’ve read more recently than 1984), but there were many more, and I think it’s time to play catchup. Another great work of fiction from around the same time as Orwell (and sharing many similar concepts) is the 1932 novel by Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”. I just ordered a copy on Amazon.


iPhone 3G (or why Apple really piss me off)

Monday, August 18th, 2008

So I admit it. I’ve got an Apple shinyitis problem. Like many other people, I had to buy the first iPhone (there just wasn’t an option), and in order to be one of the cool kids (and to get a few features that actually are useful) I had to upgrade to the 3G. But this has not been a smooth process…

WARNING: The following blog post contains ranting.

I’m an AT&T loser. I signed up to Cingular when I moved to the US (purely on ideological grounds), and they happened to get re-bought by AT&T and go full circle again somewhat later than Ma Bell might have liked. I wasn’t prepared to use a cellular network not built on standards used outside of the US and the notion of using Verizon, Sprint, or similar was almost repulsive to me. That would be like endorsing China’s attempts at creating new “standards” for their cellular networks, just because they don’t like the US defining everything else. Besides, GSM (and its successors) won the war a long long time ago everywhere outside of the US. American networks just didn’t get the memo.

Anyway. So I was already on AT&T, getting the original iPhone didn’t prove too much of a battle – aside from the stupid activation nonsense. I was luckily not too late to the game, or I’d have been offended by the forced in-store activation crap they’re into these days. I enjoyed the iPhone as much as one can enjoy a sub-standard attempt by Apple at producing a cellphone, complete with the following defects:

*). No open development platform.
*). No third party apps (and no ssh).
*). Excessive per-application memory limits (Safari will crash when it tries to render a page with large or complex content).
*). etc.

I was, therefore, forced to crack the first iPhone (to fix the lack of ssh – the phone was completely useless without it, almost negatively useful). That only took about 8 hours of research and effort to repeatedly upgrade cracked firmwares until I finally got a stable enough 1.1.3 installation. I never “upgraded” to 1.1.4 since I just didn’t want the hassle of figuring that downgrade-to-upgrade path out. The phone was functional enough, and it didn’t have Apple’s stupid lockdownd getting in the way of doing useful things with the phone. Almost quite useful.

When the 3G was announced, I was semi-interested. A 3G iPhone with aGPS (not full GPS – it requires cellular coverage to perform the assist) was fairly interesting, and the App Store suggested more official SSH solutions might become available soon. Coupled with a recent gift card, recent (useful) App Store additions, a MA Tax Holiday weekend, and a few other things, I decided it might be worthwhile. So I wondered down to the Apple Store yesterday, like one of the many other Apple sheep.

Approaching the Apple Store, I was greeted by the Apple people. My response was a very obvious – shall we say – “religious gesture”. It was either going to be that or getting down on my knees – just to draw attention to the ridiculousness of the Apple shrine glasshouse they have down on Boylston St. and the crazed Apple people who enjoy seeming to be smarter than everyone else. They had hoardings up in case a stampede of people came in, and a line with those silly retractable dividers like you get in a bank. This was so I could stand around pointlessly in a line while someone “prequalified me”.

It’s a good thing I was going into Orbit on the next NASA mission, because had I been just buying a phone I might have found it all extremely amusing and offensive – that I needed to give my personal details to some dude to “check” I was “qualified” to make such a special purchase. Was I worthy? Sure. Did I make a scene and get management to justify this nonsense in front of the others waiting in this pointless line? Of course. It won’t stop there, more people need to poke fun at the silly little game Apple and AT&T (who apparently forced this activity) are playing so they learn to stop being so silly. If a customer with an iPhone already says they’ve even used the online AT&T account checker to verify their account is in good standing and all that crap, then Apple should accept their word as an honest citizen.

Anyway. So Apple had already pissed me off nearly to the point of walking out of the store without a phone even before selling one to me. But I waited with my silly coupon “valid only at this Apple Store”. I got the “3G” iPhone. It didn’t descend from above with a halo around it, harps playing. Instead, someone got it from the back room and brought it over. One more check to make sure I was “qualified” and we were in business…nearly. First they had to figure out how to handle a Gift Card…which of course is rocket science. Finally, a purchase. Now, let’s activate the new phone and make some test calls in the store so we don’t find it doesn’t work the moment we leave. Ok, it’s more or less working. I didn’t even have to sleep with Steve Jobs.

Aside: There’s no dock and I know this (I also know they have the 2.0 software reject many charging solutions that used to work with the old iPhone – like my perfectly functional iPhone 1.0 charger), but surely my existing one will work? I should have known better, and that I’d be back later to spend an extra $30 on one. When is Apple anything if not the most able of any company to make you spend $30 (more in Europe, I’m sure) on a piece of shiny plastic to rest your phone on? Seriously. If anyone else made these, people would scoff at the notion, but we’re all shiny Apple people here and expensive plastic is the order of the day.

I left the store after about an hour, having made one final complaint to management about the absolute ridiculousness of the experience. Then I sat in Starbucks while I got a couple of Apps that I wanted. I could finally remotely connect to the outside world without having to crack the firmware. Perhaps this was worthwhile after all. I took it home. On the way, I discovered that the App Store App on the iPhone doesn’t like getting disconnected by a train tunnel during install. It really doesn’t like that to the point where the App wont be installed and can’t be re-installed again without a lot of hassle. Nice work, Apple.

Syncing with iTunes, the new phone did pull in all of my existing settings and content. That went fairly smoothly for the most part – even my old photos were back in the gallery, and so forth. But it did trample on the Notes I had made on the way home. The old phone, no longer able to connect to AT&T’s network got upgraded finally to the 2.0 software update and is currently serving as a slightly more advanced iPod Touch (with a camera) and a backup/development unit. I hope to try some App Development since there are some missing features still. The original 8GB iPhone I picked up earlier this year is in pieces and will now be used solely to help out with the iPhoneLinux port efforts – we’ve got to get Linux running on this gorgeously capable hardware (and save it from the horribly limited Apple Software).

Here comes the bad news: the 3G iPhone is crap. Although the software is somewhat better than the EDGE-based predecessor, there’s a (by now, anyway) well known bug affecting the Infineon 3G chipset used in these things. It manifests in my case as an inability to hold a 3G connection after transitioning from WiFi or EDGE. Instead, I need to set the phone into Flight Mode and back to force a reconnection. Then I am able to hold a VPN connection and connect to the outside world. The battery life is also crappier than they claimed on 3G, which might force me to run mostly in EDGE mode unless that gets fixed.

I would not recommend you buy an iPhone 3G unless you like shiny plastic crap as much as I do, or you have an Apple problem. It’s very shiny, it’s probably the most sophisticated cellphone in production today and for the price, it’s really not bad hardware at all (though I get the feeling that this is very much a “cost reduction” over the original iPhone hardware – it doesn’t feel quite as polished and well built). But Apple continue to lock this thing down, play a game of utter secrecy, and do all of those usual Apple things that constantly make me wonder when I’m going to finally snap and realize I’ve given into it completely :)

Why didn’t I just buy a Neo Freerunner? I advocate the OpenMoko platform in my latest book, so why not use one as my regular cellphone? In a nutshell, the Neo is a fantastic example of Open Source done right in many regards, but it is far from a fully functional cellphone for the modern age. It can make and receive phone calls (just) and it does have WiFi, but there is (and may never be – due to issues outside of their control – free EDGE/3G support. It will unlikely ever be a mobile broadband device, but will be a cool phone. I might get one to play around with, but I can’t rely on it until I can ssh properly on the go (incidentally the reason I also had to crack the first iPhone to fix it).

Since we live in a world of mobile broadband, and the world is becoming dependent upon it (the assumption is that one has such access, especially once one actually does have this after buying an iPhone and others know this), it’s difficult to justify a Neo over an iPhone aside from pure ideology. And with my pragmatist’s hat on, I benefit from being able to read email from the taxiway like the other evening – yes, maybe that’s a sad reality of modern times, but it’s true nonetheless. Especially now my corporate VPN supports the iPhone – it’ll only get worse.


P.S. Do not think NFS-mounted-music is a good idea to try with iTunes unless you want a world of pain. What a load of horrific crap – I’ve simply got to stop relying on iTunes for stuff.

Visiting the UK

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

So I’m visiting the UK for a couple of weeks, after nearly 18 months away (a long time not to see people, but there are reasons). It’s been interesting so far, fun, and great to see family and friends (with more still to go), but also being here has reminded me that I made the right choice in leaving.

I hadn’t been to the UK in 18 months. That’s quite a while not to visit, but last year wasn’t a good year for me personally. Actually, last year was a very unpleasantly horrible year (mostly over a girl, who really got to me, probably because I’d also moved country the year before and just had a lot of “stuff” to deal with) and I mostly spent my vacation time distracting myself in California. Cost came into it too – it’s much more expensive to randomly fly to the UK these days (a trip costs many times what a vacation in California will set you back), though that doesn’t really justify not being here for Christmas or something. I’m sorry I didn’t do that, but it wasn’t a good time for me at all. It really wasn’t. I will be trying to visit a bit more often in the future – I certainly don’t want to go more than a year between visits, with a preference for 6-8 months or something along those lines.

The flight over was annoying from the outset. Some passenger was complaining about their seat and the cabin crew (who seemed to all have strong, annoying Birmingham accents) didn’t know how to deal with it. In the end, to get some peace, I got up and volunteered to move, which seemed to placate the situation and calm the person down, although it turned out to be unnecessary. As I remember from previous experiences, Virgin are slightly less annoying than BA, but they still like to talk way too much – I don’t care that I’m on a plane, I know this. I don’t need 30 minutes of instruction on using the seat-back TV (that I can’t skip). And I most certainly don’t want constant frivolous announcements – learn something from United Airlines, especially about the customer service and channel 9 ATC (Air Traffic Control). If I want to know what’s going on on a United flight, I just tune in and listen to what the captain is hearing.

Landing in the UK, I played “get the heck out of Heathrow”, a fun game for the whole family. Anyone can play, but not everyone can succeed. It requires patience and a lot of running through maze-like corridors, especially once you get out and yet are still far from the “central” bus terminal. Immigration were surprising this time around though, since they didn’t seem to be discriminating too much against racial minorities in the way that I usually observe them treating British passport holders (seriously, watch for the way they’ll pull Indian families aside sometime, it’s sickeningly disgusting, repulsively nasty, and so forth). I nearly bought a coffee, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pay more than $4 for a cup of drip (UK: filter) coffee. I tried not to look too much at the road from the bus to Reading as all the cars seemed to be driving on the wrong side of the road…quite disconcerting, especially on lane merging :)

I got to Reading and got a ride with Joe (hadn’t seem him in ages), going straight to the park to pick up Hannah and Oscar. I surprised Hannah by running up to her and the look on her face was priceless. I was especially happy to see my nephew for the first time. He’s nearly 18 months now, and recognized me from the photos. Apparently he’s been saying “Jon, plane!” for a few days. We played in the park, on the swings, and ran around, it was awesome. Then I gave him some picture books I’d brought with me from the Harvard COOP – one on the Pilgrims, and one on Boston (the Pilgrim book unfortunately has slightly misplaced Plymouth, UK, but is otherwise largely accurate). We went and found my parents and did the coffee/food thing before dad drove me into town in his shiny new Prius.

Reading seemed funny to visit again. The town hasn’t changed too much in the last 18 months, but there are now coffeeshops on every corner. The Starbucks density is now quite saddeningly impressive (not quite on a NYC scale, but would rival that of Boston) although their prices are ridiculous (and they don’t have decaf non-espresso coffee, the notion of a refill – free or otherwise – etc.), but the town is otherwise every bit as boring as I remember it to be. They still have the bus stop signs running Linux I helped to work on, lots of the stores are the same, and they have modernized other things, but walking around, I soon found myself missing home. After a while, I was in the US travel section of a bookstore, looking at a book on California, which said it all. Visiting the UK is nice, but I don’t belong here any more. I belong in the New World, not the old.

On Saturday (yesterday), my dad picked my grandmother up from Winchester (which is around an hour away) and we had lunch in Reading, then drove her back to Winchester. It was raining when we arrived, otherwise I’d have taken some pictures of the town – I really quite enjoy the little cobbled streets and the aesthetics of Winchester Cathedral. Maybe I’ll go down again before I leave next week. I’d missed my gran. We keep in touch by phone, letter, online, and so forth, but it’s never quite the same as meeting in person – and it had been too long since I’d seen her on her trip to Boston last fall, as had my visit in general. Dad and I had a drink in a local pub last night, and I was left with a huge pile of change…I don’t miss that. But I did enjoy spending some time with my dad :)

Today, I met my other grandmother (who is in hospital at the moment) and told her about some of my adventures with cows in Arizona. Then I went to the local (State) gym. They couldn’t figure out how to charge me without having a chip on my debit card, so it was free, and not a bad gym either. I amused myself remembering that lockers over here tend to take coins and have removable keys built into them – it’s the little things I find funny. I had to convert the units on all the machines from kph to mph, resulting in an average speed setting of 12.8-13.8kph (I normally run at 7.5mph, bursting to 9 or 10mph for short periods). On the way home, I wanted to stop at the “24 hour” supermarket for some groceries, but it was closed. Silly British Sunday trading legislation inspired by religious nutticism (in the US, we’d call these “blue laws”) is something I definitely don’t miss. What about people who aren’t (Christian) religious? Shouldn’t they be able to work on Sunday afternoon if they’d like to?

This week, I’m going to be in our Farnborough office, and likely spend some time in the evenings on other US-time work. I will be hiking next weekend, but the taking my laptop on the road a bit the week after. So I’ll likely be in Cambridge and London at some point next week.