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Virtual Machine Image library at EC2

The use of virtual machines is getting very popular in the web hosting world. Particularly exciting to many people is Amazon.com's EC2 -- which means Elastic Compute Cloud. It's a large pool of virtual machines that you can rent by the hour. I know people planning on basing whole companies on this system, because they can build an application that scales up by adding more virtual machines on demand. It's decently priced and a lot cheaper than building it yourself in most cases.

In many ways, something like EC2 would be great for all those web sites which deal with the "slashdot" effect. I hope to see web hosters, servers and web applications just naturally allow scaling through the addition of extra machines. This typically means either some round-robin-DNS, or a master server that does redirects to a pool of servers, or a master cache that processes the data from a pool of servers, or a few other methods. Dealing with persistent state that can't be kept in cookies requires a shared database among all the servers, which may make the database the limiting factor. Rumours suggest Amazon will release an SQL interface to their internal storage system which presumably is highly scalable, solving that problem.

As noted, this would be great for small to medium web sites. They can mostly run on a single server, but if they ever see a giant burst of traffic, for example by being linked to from a highly popular site, they can in minutes bring up extra servers to share the load. I've suggested this approach for the Battlestar Galactica Wiki I've been using -- normally their load is modest, but while the show is on, each week, predictably, they get such a huge load of traffic when the show actually airs that they have to lock the wiki down. They have tried to solve this the old fashioned way -- buying bigger servers -- but that's a waste when they really just need one day a week, 22 weeks a year, of high capacity.

However, I digress. What I really want to talk about is using such systems to get access to all sorts of platforms. As I've noted before, linux is a huge mishmash of platforms. There are many revisions of Ubuntu, Fedora, SuSE, Debian, Gentoo and many others out there. Not just the current release, but all the past releases, in both stable, testing and unstable branches. On top of that there are many versions of the BSD variants.

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Transit clock for local shops and cafes

In many cities, the transit systems have GPS data on the vehicles to allow exact prediction of when trains and buses will arrive at stops. This is quite handy if you live near a transit line, and people are working on better mobile interfaces for them, but it's still a lot harder to use them at a remote location.

Backwards airplane middle seats

It's annoying (and vidicating at the same time) when you see somebody else developing an idea you're working on, and today I saw one such idea announced in Europe.

Last year while flying I mused about how sitting in a row makes us bump up against one another at the point we are all widest -- the elbows and butts. We are not rectangles, so there are roomier ways to pack us. I toyed with a number of ideas.

First I considered staggering the rows slightly, either by angling them back or front a bit, or simply having the middle seats be about 6" behind the aisle and window seats. Then our elbows would not overlap, but it would make the "corridor" (if you can call it that) to the window seat have some narrow corners, and would suffer some of the problems I will outline below.

Then I realized it might make sense to just reverse the middle seat. All the middle seats in a section could face backwards, and we would then have more space because wide parts would mesh with narrow parts. Somebody else has also worked up the same idea and has even got some prototypes and drawings, which are better than the ones I had worked up to show here. However, I will outline some of the issues I came up with in my experiments -- mostly done with household chairs laid out in experimental patterns.

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A new sub-blog about Battlestar Galactica

I've been participating in online discussions about my favourite TV show, Battlestar Galactica, so I have collected a number of my selected postings about the show, along with some new ones, into a sub-blog on this web site.

If you are a fan of the site I invite you to subscribe to my Battlestar Galactica Analysis Blog.

Local Depot

In yesterday's article on future shopping I outlined a concept I called a local depot. I want to expand more on that concept. The basic idea is web shopping from an urban warehouse complex with fast delivery not to your home, but to a depot within walking distance of your home, where you can pick up items on your own schedule that you bought at big-box store prices within hours. A nearby store that, with a short delay, has everything, cheap.

In some ways it bears a resemblance to the failed company Webvan. Webvan did home delivery and initially presented itself as a grocery store. I think it failed in part because groceries are still not something people feel ready to buy online, and in part for being too early. Home delivery, because people like -- or in many cases need -- to be home for it may actually be inferior to delivery to a depot within walking distance where items can be picked up on a flexible schedule.

Webvan's long term plan did involve, I was told, setting up giant warehouse centers with many suppliers, not just Webvan itself. In such a system the various online suppliers sit in a giant warehouse area, and a network of conveyor belts runs through all the warehouses and to the loading dock. Barcodes on the packages direct them to the right delivery truck. Each vendor simply has to put delivery code sticker on the item, and place it on the conveyor belt. It would then, in my vision, go onto a truck that within 1 to 2 hours would deliver all the packages to the right neighbourhood local depot.

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Urban retail neighbourhood of the future

Towns lament the coming of big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco. Their cut-rate competition changes the nature of shopping and shopping neighbourhoods. To stop it, towns sometimes block the arrival of such stores. Now web competition is changing the landscape even more. But our shopping areas are still "designed" with the old thinking in mind. Some of them are being "redesigned" the hard way by market forces. Can we get what we really want?

We must realize that it isn't Wal-Mart who closes down the mom'n'pop store. It's the ordinary people, who used to shop at it and switch to Wal-Mart who close it down. They have a choice, and indeed in some areas such stores survive.

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An airliner mesh network over the oceans

A friend (Larry P.) once suggested to me that he thought you could build a rural mobile phone much cheaper than Iridium network by putting nodes in all the airliners flying over the country. The airliners have power, and have line of sight to ground stations, and to a circle of about 200 miles radius around them. That's pretty big (125,000 square miles) and in fact most locations will be within sight of an airliner most of the time.

The Efficiency of Attention in Advertising

I've written before about the problems with TV advertising. Recently I've been thinking more about the efficiency of various methods of advertising -- to the target, not to the advertiser. Almost all studies of advertising concern how effectively advertising turns into leads or sales, but rarely are the interests of the target of the ad considered directly.

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Making instruments with the human voice

The human voice is a pretty versatile instrument, and many skilled vocalists have been able to do convincing imitations of other sounds, and we've all heard "human beat box" artists work with a microphone to do great sounds.

That got me thinking, could we train a choir to work together to sound like anything, starting with violins, and perhaps even a piano or more?

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What is the difference between an agnostic and an atheist?

My father was famously a preacher turned agnostic. We used to argue all the time about the difference between an agnostic and an athiest. I felt the difference was inconsequential, he felt it was important. And I've had the same argument with other proclaimed agnostics. I found an amusing way to sum up my view of it in one answer.

What is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?

The difference is the atheist says she's an atheist, while the agnostic says she's an agnostic.

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Please release HD movies on regular DVDs

If you've looked around, you probably noticed a high-def DVD player, be it HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, is expensive. Expect to pay $500 or so unless you get one bundled with a game console where they are subsidized.

Now they won't follow this suggestion, but the reality is they didn't need to make the move to these new DVD formats. Regular old DVD can actually handle pretty decent HDTV movies. Not as good as the new formats, but a lot better than plain DVD. I've seen videos with the latest codecs that pack a quite nice HD picture into 2.5 to 3 gigabytes for an hour. I've even seen it in less, down to 1.5 gigabytes (actually less that SD DVDs) at 720p 24 fps, though you do notice some problems. But it's still way better than a standard DVD. Even so, a dual layer DVD can bring about 9 gb, and a double sided dual layer DVD gives you 18gb if you are willing to flip the disk over to get at special features or the 2nd half of a very long movie. Or of course just do 2-disk sets.

Now you might feel that the DVD industry would not want to make a new slew of regular DVD players with the fancier chips in them able to do these mp4 codecs when something clearly better is around the corner. And if they did do this, it would delay adoption of whatever high def DVD format they are backing in the format wars. But in fact, these disks could have been readily playable already, with no change, for the millions who watch DVDs on laptops and media center PCs. More than will have HD DVD or Blu-Ray for some time to come, even with the boost the Playstation 3 gives to Blu-Ray.

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Upgrading: ask me few questions, and ask them together

One of my current peeves is just how much time we spend maintaining and upgrading computer operating systems, even as ordinary users. The workload for this is unacceptably high, though it's not as though people are unaware of the problem.

Right now I'm updating one system to the beta of the new Ubuntu Feisty Fawn. (Ubuntu is the Linux distro I currently recommend.) They have done some work on building a single upgrader, which is good, but I was shocked to see an old problem resurface. In a 2 hour upgrade process, it asked me questions it didn't need to ask me, and worse, it asked them at different times in the process.

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Video virtual reunion

Videophones are still an early adopter thing, but I was imagining an interesting application for them -- reunions. Recently a theatre company I was in had a reunion far away, and I couldn't come, but I wanted somebody to bring in a laptop so we could run a SIP or Skype videophone there. It would not have given me a true sense of participation, but individuals I wanted to catch up on could have come to the video phone and chatted.

Most conferencing applications assume there is going to be one big meeting with everybody talking together. That's useful, but I can see a use for something that facilitates a lot of parallel one-on-one or small group conversations, for something like a reunion. In fact, one might be able to do a decent reunion entirely on the internet, or mostly on it.

Hard work for Burning Man to be Green

This year's theme for Burning Man is "the Green Man." It represents a lot of things. For many it just is an inspiration for art centered on nature or the environment. Others are taking it as a signal to try to be better environmentally. That's going to be a very tough road for a festival centered on building a temporary city far from everything and pyrotechnic art.

A made-up backstory for Battlestar Galactica

When I watch SF TV shows, I often try to imagine a backstory that might make the story even better and SF like. My current favourite show is Battlestar Galactica, which is one of those shows where a deep mystery is slowly revealed to the audience.

So based on my own thoughts, and other ideas inspired from newsgroups, I've jotted down a backstory to explain the results you see in the show. Of course, much of it probably won't end up being true, but there are hints that some of it might.

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Whoops, freeconference.com's pants fall off

Apparently freeconference.com is now sending notes to its customers (one of whom forwarded an example to me) because Sprint, Cingular, Qwest and some others finally got around to blocking calls to their numbers. They pitch it as the big companies trying to block their free service so the giants can sell expensive services, and are trying to whip up support by suggesting this is akin to a network neutrality violation.

In fact, it's an example of the big guys actually doing something right, and fixing a loophole caused by bizarre legacy telco regulation. The number you called for freeconference, and many other services, were served by telcos in rural areas such as Iowa. The phone regulations are set up so that when you make a long distance call on the PSTN, the long distance company pays the remote local phone company to complete the call. Usually that fee is about half a cent per minute in cities, and even free for cell phones. (Frankly, it should always be zero, and this should be paid for as part of my local phone fee, but that's another story.) In Iowa, however, in order to, in theory, help pay the costs of being a phone company that has to send the call out to a lonely Iowa farmhouse, the rural telcos get to charge as much as 6 cents or more per minute to complete the call.

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Bluetooth headsets as virtual headsets in a PBX

It's nice to have a headset on your desk telephone, for handsfree conversations. A number of phones have a headset jack, either of the submini plug used by cell phones, or using a phone handset jack. Many companies buy headset units that plug into the handset line to provide a headset, some of them are even wireless.

But bluetooth headsets today are cheap, standardized and have a competitive market. And they are of course wireless. Many people already have them for their cell phone. I have seen a very small number of desk phones support having a bluetooth headset, and that shouldn't be al that expensive, but it's rare and only on high-end phones.

Here's the idea: Put bluetooth headset support into the PBX. Bluetooth headsets can't dial, they can effectively only go on-hook and off-hook with a single button. You would associate (in the PBX) your bluetooth headset with your desk phone. A bluetooth master would be not too far from your desk, and tied into the PBX, or into a PC that talks to the PBX. When your BT headset was in range of this master, it would be tied to ith with Bluetooth. (You would have to do an actual bluetooth pairing in advance. In addition, many people have bluetooth headsets normally linked to their cell phone, and call attempts from the headset go to the cell phone. The system would have to switch that over to the PBX.)

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Elliptical Racer for toddlers and VR for children

When I watch the boundless energy of young children, and their parents' frustration over it, I wonder how high-tech will alter how children are raised in the next few decades. Of course already TV, and now computers play a large role, and it seems very few toys don't talk or move on their own.

But I've also realized that children, both from a sense of play and due to youthful simplicity, will tolerate some technologies far before adults will. For example, making an AI to pass the Turing Test for children may be much, much simpler than making one that can fool an adult. As such, we may start to see simple AIs meant for interacting with, occupying the minds of and educating children long before we find them usable as adults.

Another technology that young children might well tolerate sooner is virtual reality. We might hate the cartoonish graphics and un-natural interfaces of today's VRs but children don't know the interfaces aren't natural -- they will learn any interface -- and they love cartoon worlds.

Sysadmin services trading

I've ranted before about just how hard it has become to configure and administer computers. And there are services where you can hire sysadmins to help you, primarily aimed at novice users.

But we advanced users often need help today, too. Mostly when we run into problems we go to message boards, or do web searches and find advice on what to do. And once we get good on a package we can generally fix problems with it in no time.

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Model airplane dogfights with LEDs

Lots of people love model airplanes, and I bet they would love to simulate dogfights. They can't fire actual projectiles, as that would be dangerous, expensive, unworkable due to the weight and actually damage planes.

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