29th anniversary of spam

I wasn't going to make any special commemoration, but it seems a whole ton of other blogs are linking today to my articles on the history of Spam, so I should blog them as well.

Many years ago I got interested in the origins of the term "spam" to mean net abuse. I mean I had lived through most of its origin and seen most of the early spams myself, but it wasn't clear why people took the name of the meat product and applied it to junk mail. I knew it came from USENET, so I used the USENET search engines to trace the origins.

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Where's a good shared calendar?

I really wish I could find a really good calendaring tool. I've seen many of the features I want scattered in various tools, though some are nowhere to be found. I thought it would be good to itemize some of them. I'm mostly interested in *nix -- I know that on Windows, MS Outlook is the most common choice, with Exchange for sharing.

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The end of public transit

I've been writing a lot about self-driving cars which have automatic accident avoidance and how they will change our cities. I was recently talking again with Robin Chase, whose new company, goloco attempts to set people up for ad-hoc carpools and got into the issues again. She believes we should use more transit in cities and there's a lot of merit to that case.

However, in the wealthy USA, we don't, outside of New York City. We love our cars, and we can afford their much higher cost, so they still dominate, and even in New York many people of means rely strictly on taxis and car services.

Transit is, at first glance, more energy efficient. When it shares right of way with cars it reduces congestion. Private right of way transit also reduces congestion but only when you don't consider the cost of the private right-of-way, where the balance is harder to decide. (The land only has a many-person vehicle on it a small fraction of the time compared to 1-3 passenger vehicles almost all the time on ordinary roads.)

However, my new realization is that transit may not be as energy efficient as we hope. During rush hour, packed transit vehicles are very efficient, especially if they have regenerative braking. But outside those hours it can be quite wasteful to have a large bus or train with minimal ridership. However, in order to give transit users flexibility, good service outside of rush-hour is important.

Many new panoramas of Alberta, Banff, Jasper and Rockies

I've been remiss in updating my panoramas, so I just did some work on the site and put up a new page full of Alberta panoramas, as well as some others I will point to shortly.

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A Posix (universal API) for package management

As part of my series on the horrors of modern system administration and upgrading, let me propose the need for a universal API, over all operating systems, for accessing data from, and some control of the package management system.

There have been many efforts in the past to standardize programming APIs within all the unix-like operating systems, some of them extending into MS Windows, such as Posix. Posix is a bit small to write very complex programs fully portably but it's a start. Any such API can make your portability easier if it can't make it trivial the way it's supposed to.

But there has been little effort to standardize the next level, machine administration and configuration. Today a large part of that is done with the package manager. Indeed, the package manager is the soul (and curse) of most major OS distributions. One of the biggest answers to "what's the difference between debian and Fedora" is "dpkg and apt, vs. rpm and yum." (Yes you can, and I do, use apt with rpm.)

Now the truth is that from a user perspective, these package managers don't actually look very different. They all install and remove packages by name, perform upgrades, handle dependencies etc. Add-ons like apt and GUI package managers help users search and auto-install all dependencies. To the user, the most common requests are to find and install a package, and to upgrade it or the system.

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Miles for charity

Many people accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles they will never use. Some of the airlines allow you to donate miles to a very limited set of charities. I can see why they limit it -- they would much rather have you not use the miles than have the charity use them. Though it's possible that while the donor does not get any tax credit for donated miles, the airline does.

Renting out eBay feedback to first-time sellers

An eBay reputation is important if you're going to sell there. Research shows it adds a decent amount to the price, and it's very difficult to sell at all with just a few feedbacks. Usually sellers will buy a few items first to get a decent feedback -- sometimes even scam items sold just for feedback. Because savvy buyers insist on selling feedback, it's harder, and sometimes sellers will also sell bogus items just for feedback as a seller. eBay has considered offering a feedback score based on the dollar volume of positive and negative transactions but has not yet done this.

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Why do most online discussion packages suck so badly?

Yesterday I attended the online community session of Web2Open, a barcamp-like meeting going on within Tim O'Reilly's Web 2.0 Expo. (The Expo has a huge number of attendees, it's doing very well.)

I put forward a number of questions I've been considering for later posts, but one I want to make here is this: Where has the innovation been in online discussion software? Why are most message boards and blog comment systems so hard to use?

I know this is true because huge numbers of people are still using USENET, and not just for downloading binaries. USENET hasn't seen much technical innovation since the 80s. As such, it's aging, but it shouldn't be simply aging, it should have been superseded long ago. We've gone through a period of tremendous online innovation in the last few decades, unlike any in history. Other old systems, like the Well, continue to exist and even keep paying customers in spite of minimal innovation. This is like gopher beating Firefox, or a CD Walkman being superior in some ways to an iPod. It's crazy. (The users aren't crazy, it's the fact that their choice is right that's crazy.)

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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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