Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Net Neutrality, at least for now

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Tuesday was a big day for the future of the internet. In case you haven’t heard of the “net neutrality” debate, it’s about whether or not it’s legal for internet service providers to either divert traffic from websites they don’t like, or divert traffic to sites they do like.

The main reason people are worried about this is that if it becomes legal for the big content companies to pay service providers to get preferred service for their content, it could stifle innovation. Instead of success on the internet being based purely on how good your website/content/service is, it could become based more on how much money and political power you have. This would prevent a great new idea or small business from being able to gain traction and grow. Net neutrality supporters believe that the potential for this conflict of interest between big service providers and big content providers undermines the capitalist system of internet businesses.

Thanks to our democratic president, the Federal Communications Commission currently has 3 liberal-minded commissioners to 2 conservatives, and thus, inevitably, the new regulation that is pro-net neutrality passed by a vote of 3 to 2. Here is the text of the new rule (ignoring for the moment the irony of using Microsoft’s .doc format here):

Essentially, it provides regulation enforcing net neutrality on both sides of the coin: it is illegal to block access to any legal web content, and it’s also illegal to get paid prioritization for your content by throwing lots of money at the service providers.

There are some limitations, much lamented in the internet media over the past couple days. The provisions in the new regulation apply primarily to wired networks – wireless networks (such as internet over 3G cell networks) seem to be on a path for less regulation. Also, there is an explicit exception made for “reasonable network management” in the so-called “last mile”; that is, the connection from your local cable company’s switch to your home. Some people fear that this may be a big enough loophole to allow cable companies to manage the network in favor of certain content over others for less-than-honest reasons.

Still, it’s hard to count it as anything other than a win for net neutrality backers. If you believe in the vision of small, innovative businesses shaking up the status quo and making life easier for all of us, it’s a promising start.

Diabolical Marketing

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Wherever you fall on the debate about the “achievements” that have slowly taken over gaming in the last few years, this takes it to a whole new level: (link may expire after December 2010)

There are now achievements for buying/playing things on Steam, with the express purpose of encouraging people to spend more money.

This is like a grocery store that plays you a song over the loadspeakers when you buy your 100th bottle of Mountain Dew, or a bookstore that has trivia contests based on the contents of (sealed) books that you can buy and read.

On the one hand, it’s nice that marketing is becoming more interesting and interactive. I’d rather have a company spend millions on a game to get me to buy their products, because presumably it adds some enjoyment for me (see Scrabble/Monopoly contests at Subway and McDonald’s).

The dark side of this, though, is the erosion of privacy; in order to reward customers for these desirable behaviors, the company has to track customer behavior more closely. What will they do with the data they gather? Sell it to the highest bidder?

Amazon Universal Wish List

Friday, November 12th, 2010

This is some very cool tech that surprised me a lot when I first used it.

Amazon now has the ability to add any item on sale anywhere on the web to your wish list, using this little bit of Javascript:

javascript:(function(){var w=window,l=w.location,d=w.document,s=d.createElement(‘script’),

After adding this to your bookmarks bar (go here for an easy button you can drag to the bar), you can click when you’re on the page of something you’d like, and it will do some screen scraping to deduce the name of the item and even figure out which image on the page is its picture. It will then put it into your Amazon wish list where you can use all of their existing functionality.

For example, when adding this item to my list:, here’s what I get:

It’s able to grab the correct image and put it in the list (full disclosure: it doesn’t work for everything; Steam games don’t seem to get an image reliably). I’m mostly impressed that you can run pure Javascript in a bookmark button – I didn’t know that was allowed. It blurs the line between the browser and the current page when buttons in the browser are context-sensitive based on what page you’re on.

Solid State

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

I recently made what will likely be the last upgrade to my home computer before I have to replace it entirely. The main upgrade was something that I’ve been eyeing for a long time: a solid state hard drive. It is an interesting upgrade – helps immensely in some areas, but has no effect at all in many others.

The basic idea behind solid state is that instead of a spinning platter, these drives are essentially flash memory – entirely stationary. They have no moving parts whatsoever, and as a result have greatly increased speed, and theoretically longer life.

There’s a catch though: a memory cell in this kind of drive can only be written a certain number of times. After many millions of bit flips, eventually the cell will degrade and no longer be able to be changed. As a result, every solid state drive will eventually die and become read-only.

What’s really odd about this is that solid state drives are so new that no one really knows how long this will take to happen on average. There have been some lab studies by Intel suggesting 5 years is the median expected lifetime, but it’s unclear how well their projections will match actual everyday use. This leads to the weird market state where many tech enthusiasts are excited about buying solid state drives, but we are all collectively gambling that they will last long enough to be useful. It’s possible that all the early adopters will be left out in the cold when thousands of these drives start dying out after only a couple years.

Reassuringly for SSD owners, Apple seems to be willing to take this bet as well: the new Macbook Air is available only with a flash solid state drive – the machine is too thin to actually fit a spinning hard drive. Solid state drives can be made into just about any shape and size (they’re essentially an extension of flash memory technology, which is designed for portability above all else).

In the meantime, I have to relearn how to keep my hard drive clean – something that had been economical to ignore completely with just 10 cents / gigabyte storage (solid state is about twenty times as expensive per GB).

The Exercise Game

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Set a personal best for the 5k today: 26:44. I’d like to think it’s mostly due to willpower and dedication (and those play a part), but to be honest, marketing is the biggest factor.

You see, I’m a nerd – a math nerd, even. I love numbers, stats, and tracking things. So Nike has me right where they want me with Nike+. It started with an accelerometer that you put in your shoe, which syncs to an iPod, but now it uses GPS on my phone which is somewhat more accurate. I get to see my personal records right on my phone, and save a personal history of all my runs in the cloud.

Nike’s website shows me lots of graphs of my pace, routes, average run length, run frequency, etc. It’s very motivating to have exercise take on a sort of permanence and be available for later analysis. There’s a big psychological difference between “this run felt a little better than the last one” and “I beat my pace per mile by 7 seconds today”.

Next goal: sub-25-minute 5k by the end of next summer. In the meantime, I get to ‘level up’ in Nike running with just 48 more experience points (miles).


Sunday, October 10th, 2010

This weekend has been unusually warm and sunny here in Madison (record highs, in fact), which made it a perfect weekend for stargazing.

It’s hard to really capture much of the experience in a post, so here’s one thing we looked at. This was the only object bright enough to even show up on the iPhone camera.

This is Jupiter, which was the brightest object in the sky last night. This image does it no justice, but with a telescope, we could actually see the red storm band across its middle, and 4 of its moons.

Our friend Will has a great free-standing telescope which gave us lots of magnification (more than I’d ever seen before). Some of the cool stuff we saw: the Andromeda galaxy, the M13 globular star cluster, and the Pleiades.

I have to say, I might be hooked; it seems well worth the time. Now to see if I can justify the expense of a nice scope…

Xbox: Resurrection

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Back in May, I turned on my trusty Xbox 360 and saw the dreaded red ring of death. Sadly, it was long out of warranty (it was a launch box) and so I felt I had no choice but to buy a new one. This would give me a new 3-year warranty, new controller, bigger hard drive, better components, free bundled games, etc. And all was right with the world.

Then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to leave Rock Band set up down in the basement, and not have to lug the instruments around upstairs?” So, I ordered a repair kit (opening tool and some replacement screws to hold the heatsinks on more securely), and got to work repairing the old, now useless 360.

Success! A little bit of new thermal paste left over from my computer build a couple years ago, and it seems to be good as new. Now I just need to get a WiFi adapter, and we’ll be able to use Netflix/downloaded video down in the basement.

Synology server

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

This weekend I finally got my NAS (Network Attached Storage) set up. It’s called ELMO, and it’s 1.34TB of RAID1 storage. Currently I’m in the middle of the long process of copying and re-organizing all my photos, music, and video. Yesterday I moved all the programming work I’d done over so that the source code repositories are now backed up, and that has worked great so far.

Here is the little guy himself – the white box on the left:

and this is what it looks like to interact with it:

Office repaint part 2

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

We took a Friday night a couple weeks ago to paint over the paneling in our home office, replacing it with a dark blue (“Mood Indigo”). Here are the before and after, with the dry-erase wall visible for comparison:



Dark blue paint for the home office

Dark blue paint for the home office


Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Finished painting the wall in my home office with IdeaPaint, a dry-erase paint that you can use to make a whole wall safe to write on. I’m pretty excited about being able to use this for programming projects, lists of things to do around the house, and just general doodling.

Before and after pictures:


Now to wait 7 days for it to ‘cure’…