27 September, 2009

Intro to a strange thing

And so, with great trepidation, I enter into MySpace

(Snipped, with modifications, from my first post on MySpace blog)

So now, I've got presences on live.com, blogger.com, and quite a few other places too. I've got nearly everything under the sun except for MySpace, until now. I'm an "old fart". Yup. I'm probably 75% older than the average age on there, but I'm probably not the oldest person there. Just old enough to know better.

Brand recognition

So, how come some things are so well known they've become new terms in the world at large: “I’ll just Google it”, and some have faded into obscurity—who remembers gopher? If you do, you're older than I thought. If you also know what veronica was for, you’re one of less than every thousand. It's called brand recognition, and is the reason why some companies have survived (some for centuries, even) and some have died within a year of release. Category killers (usually), they've either become the best (and in some cases, the ONLY) entry in their chosen field, or they're pretty high up there. For Google, at least, they took over (or so it seems to me) from the all-powerful altavista.com, doing the job better than them. Now, who hears of altavista? Only old farts like me. Yes, it's still around. Yes, it still provides search results. Have I had a look at it in the past decade? Only once or twice, the last time to check that it was still up before I blogged about it. Google killed it off, or might as well have. Altavista list who they are on their website:

AltaVista, a business of Overture Services, Inc., is a leading provider of search services and technology.
and so on.

Okay, granted—there are literally hundreds of thousands of leading companies that I haven't heard of, but there certainly was a mass exodus to Google from Altavista. Something is said that the results from Google were way more relevant, and way more up to date. I'm not too sure, just that I jumped the bandwagon along with most of the Internet population of the time.

The funny thing is: their initial page is so dead simple! It's only when you start digging beneath the surface that you realise just how deeply embedded that the Google company has become. There have even been comments about how Google could be seen as another Microsoft. I can't verify that, nor deny it. But they're certainly big.

Of pages and spaces

I’m all spaced out.

Well, I’m not really. Come to think of it, I just joined MySpace, so I should be anything but. Or does everyone think that an old fart like me joining MySpace means I’m spaced out? I don’t know, to be honest.

I’m on three other publically accessible blog sites, blogger.com, spaces.live.com and bebo.com, but I’ve found that of the four blogs I write semi-regularly for, only two of those can be directly posted to by using Writer. The other two blogs require that I use the browser and go directly to the website to use their web-based editor, or use a third-party plugin from ping.fm. One thing I’ve got quickly used to using in Writer is the three tabs where a post can be edited, or previewed as it may look on the site itself. Works well for spaces.live.com (of course, Microsoft do both Windows Live Writer and live.com) and blogger.com (which has a publically available API), but doesn’t seem to work at all for whatever Bebo and MySpace use as their non-publically-available API.

So. Apart from the evil chickens that say that “Facebook and MySpace are alien conspiracies to steal your soul”, a recent quote from IRC, no less… How do I get my blogging goodness all in one window? Simply put, at the moment, I don’t. I have to duck and dive amongst Writer and web pages, hopefully being able to cut-and-paste from the main two blogs that Writer does support, into the two that Writer doesn’t know how to write to. To add to this, bebo has no significant ability to format text; there’s no html encoding (that I know of), so no headers, emphasis, or italics. Thankfully, MySpace is a bit better in that regard.

Those were the days, my friend

Being online as long as I have been, I’ve seen a few changes. I started hearing about MySpace quite a while ago, but saw no real need to join it. I felt the same about Bebo—it was a thing that young people were a part of. Then I started getting involved, and taking a look at what you could do with Facebook, Bebo, MySpaces and Live.com. I’d already got to grips with blogger.com, due to it being a simple (at the time) blog-hosting site. The other three are anything but. In fact, to this date, Facebook users don’t even have their own blogspaces, even though MySpace (a comparable service) provides blogs to its users. I can’t say I’m one of the most “connected” people I know, even though I have a twitter feed, MySpace/Facebook/Live.com/Yahoo.com/Bebo pages, and others in addition. I don’t tweet from my cellphone, and in fact the only reason I had to use my cellphone recently in correlation to a social networking website was to get verified. Yes, Facebook uses SMS to make sure its users are real people. I’ve no idea who actually paid for the service, though it possibly turned up on my bill.

Your circuit’s dead, can you hear me, Major Tom?

Even with being available on multiple sites, like many other people I get the impression that very few people (aside from those I tell, of course) are even going to know I’m now a Live Blogger FaceSpacer BeBopper Tweeter unless they stumble across me in a “Oh, I’ll just see whose page I can randomly scan for” frame of mind. Frankly, who of us wants to do that? Surely we have better things to do than that? Well, apparently not—as it would appear, in a recent study, university (and college in America) students were apparently more wrapped up in their social networking lives than they were in their real-life courses, so much so that in some cases their grades were adversely affected, and in some even more extreme cases, their attendance at those courses. It makes me wonder why they didn’t just sit on a Pak’n’Save (a local supermarket) checkout for six months just so they could afford enough money for their computer instead of wasting tens of thousands in government student loans for courses they had trouble completing.

So. What do people most want from these social networking sites? I believe it’s to feel as if they belong. It’s not necessarily the geeks and geekettes that have the highest attendance either, as social networking sites play to normal people more than the average geek. After all, the geeks are possibly too busy retrofitting Linux to Granny’s 12 year old computer. And the largest base appears to be the 18-30 age group, as they’ve been the ones most exposed to it from a young age.

What ever happened to the time when late teens were seen sucking down sodas and bragging about their hot wheels? And actually spending face time with their peers?

11 September, 2009

Grand Angus, or King Pin?

So, what’s this Big Burger Bang-Up about, anyhow?

Well, I decided I’d had enough of not getting any junk food in my life. So, I held a small competition. McDonalds and Burger King are both advertising new products in their range. Since when is that new? Since my wife and I decided we’d each like to try one. Only…to make it fair, we decided to try one of each—needless to say we well and truly went over our recommended daily intake yesterday. I got some money out of the bank (it’s an expensive process testing out fast food. You lose your money nearly as fast as they can steal it from you) and went to McDonalds first to try out their Grand Angus.

Aye, so what’s a Grand Angus?

Roughly speaking, it’s a burger made with Angus beef, salad greens, tomato, two slices of cheese, salad greens, mustard and mayonnaise (that I noticed), all presented on a oblong sour dough bun. Apparently the North American market has had that for years, but it’s only recently made an appearance here in New Zealand. It features New Zealand Angus beef too:

“…or occasionally Australian beef. But only if we can’t get any New Zealand beef…”

I like it, because it’s, well—beefy. Can’t say a lot about the salad greens that it came with, so I just shut up and ate them with the burger. They were fine. Really…just not on their own—I noticed they got a little bitter if I tried eating the greens on their own, and the situation wasn’t exactly resolved with the included mayonnaise. Anyhow, we had that, then we headed off to the Burger King (across the road) for the second part of our “Mighty Burger Bang—Up”.

And the King Pin? How come it “gets what it wants, when it wants it”?

Marketing. Frankly. It’s a longish bun (the same length as the sourdough bun) but a little narrower and a bit squashed-looking, onion rings (crumbed), the usual chicken pattie, cheese and some sauce. They even semi-divided it, though that ended up being a bit messy to separate, which spoiled the effect rather. To me, nothing too distinguished, nice but …. yeah. Personally I think the Grand Angus (even though it costs twenty cents more) has more … beef. That would kind of figure, seeing as it’s made of Angus beef. But never mind. The love of my life prefers the King Pin.

Opinion’s still divided?

Yup. I like one—she likes the other. Don’t get me wrong, she likes the Angus, but the King Pin was more of a hit with her. It’s got the chicken and bacon flavour as well as the onion rings, cheese and some sort of sauce. She found it nicer, with an overall better taste than the Angus. In her opinion, pretty darn nice and she’d do it again.

Will you ever be reconciled?

Don’t know, don’t care. I tend to have McDonalds once every two years if I’m lucky, and we have Burger King even less regularly. So, nice experiment (though an expensive one), but not one I feel like repeating more than once in a while.

07 September, 2009

The modern browser, and other worlds.

Goin’ on a Safari diet

Earlier this year, I posted about Google Chrome and how good a score it got on my Windows XP Home system. Since then, I found the Safari browser from Apple, also based off the same WebKit code. I also got a copy of Windows XP Professional, then patched it to the max. Safari got a better score than Google Chrome too, as it didn’t fail the linktest that seems to plague Google Chrome every time I try the ACID3 test. Literally the only thing that Safari failed on was speed, and that’s totally unsurprising, given that I’ve got a Duron 1GHz, with a whole 1,256Mb of memory. Still, the machine does me okay for what I’ve been doing up until now.

Safari hasn’t exactly supplanted Google Chrome for sheer skinniness of browser interface yet, nor has it impressed me as much as Opera did when I first ran that way back when I first spotted it. I’ve literally only found two things missing from Chrome – the ability to turn off flash (a la FlashBlock for FireFox) and the ability to add arbitrary other plugins. Still, it’s pretty okay. I like things in Safari but don’t know if I’ll use it as my main browser; given that it comes from Apple, and they don’t exactly give out the source code to all their crown jewels, I may step back to Firefox.

New Jools for Mozilla Corporation

Incidentally, I understand there’s been a new release of Firefox (3.5) which supports the HTML 5.0 release of the HTML specification, which seems to include lots of goodies that don’t need browser plug-ins such as Flash, Shockwave, or SilverLight. While that’s nice, what does the HTML 5.0 standard mandate that earlier revisions didn’t? I haven’t any idea at the moment, which is why I’ll head off to the W3C.org site for the HTML 5.0 preliminary  standard to see what it says. Dry reading, but it’s the last word in the standard. I may have to go somewhere else to actually find out what it all means, mind you – but hey, that’s life.

Same old same old for Microsoft?

In comparison to IE8, I think I still prefer Firefox/Chrome. I don’t know why, it could be the fact that I can’t block adverts in quite the same way with IE. It could be the fact that I get a bar and a VERY loud noise that pops up every time the page has a flash applet that IE could run, but first it needs to check with me first. I can’t reduce the volume of the noise, and it’s one of the things that really puts me off. It could also be the fact that IE8 still only gets 23/100 on my machine when I do the ACID3 test. Hey, that’s better than the rank score of 3/100 that I got with IE7, or 12/100 in IE8 non-compatibility mode! It could even be the fact of the fallibility of Microsoft’s programmers when they made previous versions of the browser so exploitable, and so much a core part of the operating system. Hopefully IE8 isn’t exploitable in quite the same ways, nor to the same degree. Frankly, I don’t know.

Personally, for blocking/choosing flash, I prefer to use Firefox with the FlashBlocker plugin; add AdBlocker Pro and NoScript, and nothing is getting through those three without your say so. In my eyes, that’s a better way of doing the job. NoScript has the advantage of treating each site separately, no matter if it happens to display content on the same page or not, each website gets its own blockable entry. It’s the same for AdBlocker Pro.

So now what?

What’s next in the browser wars? I honestly have no idea. Not as a desktop user, anyhow. I could say I had a wish-list, but I’d be incorrect in saying so. And as I’m no programmer (really) I have no idea of the scale of the job that modern browser programmers have… do they make it lean-n-mean (a la Chrome) and risk leaving out features that users want, or do they make it sing and dance (a la Firefox 3.5) and take plenty of a user’s machine memory on load-up? That’s a hard act to balance, because while some people want to get the job done (display me the page, please, and don’t put any stupid dressing on it), some others want to be immersed in a multimedia environment hosted (funnily enough) by a browser-like interface.

So, what? Host the whole OS in the browser?

That’s a possibility being mooted by some – create the browser as a thin shim around a internet-based operating system, with most of the applications hosted at remote servers, along with most of the user’s data files. Great for redundancy, it almost approaches what thin clients are built for. A bit useless for those of us with slow old modems and gobs of hard disk space just crying out for tunes to be stored locally. And in New Zealand at least, shuffling all that data over our slow links that we have here isn’t all that practical unless you’re only editing a few documents a month and doing a little bit of surfing, a little bit of email, and some (small amount of) music listening. Otherwise you end up paying gobs of money because you’ve gone over your data cap for the month.

Local, or Server?

Personally, I prefer local. Nobody else has to deal with it then. As long as I’ve got a copy on my hard drive, nobody snoops my network traffic to see my artwork, music, or letters (or blog posts, for that matter). I’m not entirely in favour of server storage, except for one thing—access for other people. As soon as you throw in multiple access to the mix, then server storage makes more sense. With local storage, you have to shove a document up to some other place (via ftp/http/torrent) or let someone have a reccy at your personal machine to see the document, or use some sort of peer-to-peer software like Skype/Messenger. Hey, people are still emailing stuff, but that assumes the other person has an email account they have access to. And who remembers that grand old collection of software: uucp? Granted, all these solutions work (except for uucp now, of course), but they always feel like a bolt-on to me. Even server storage feels like a bolt-on to me, but it’s how shared environments work. “Team” members put documents into a store, and everyone has access to it, to work on as they need, sometimes in pairs—in which case, the document will probably be locked so that only certain things can be done by other people.

These sorts of team environments are only really used by businesses at the moment, but there’s no real reason to restrict it to them. I can imagine that Grannie might just want her son’s help in writing up a letter, but the son’s in another city. In which case, a shared environment may just do the job. I’m not talking about the type of thing whereby Grannie offers son a Remote Desktop invitation, as that’s not really what that’s for—and that’s rather limited to whatever software happens to be on Granny’s machine at the time, the speed of the network (sometimes abysmal), and the speed of understanding between the two of them. VNC offers a similar experience to Remote Desktop, but can operate across differing operating systems. An ad-hoc arrangement whereby son pastes paragraphs into Messenger and then Granny pulls that out of Messenger into her editor would of course also work, but there’s nothing like working from the same page, so to speak.

Linux (and indeed Unix of old, BSDs etc) had this concept of kibitz – a program that provided a shared shell where two (or more) people could interact, though for xkibitz at least, it’s text only. I can do the same thing with a OpenSSH session, the screen program  and an editor, but this requires either that I give the other party/parties access to my account, or provide a common login account for everyone to play in that’s a bit more locked down security-wise, so if anyone goes NATO on you, you’ve at least got some protection. Again, a screen session is text-only. Examples of fully graphical, fully interactive by all parties systems aren’t too prevalent, and VNC (in its various forms) is the only 2D example outside of RFB that I know of currently.

Why not a 3D environment?

One concept has a fully three-D model environment that everyone logs into, and everyone can create objects and interact with each other’s objects, all be it with some restrictions. Currently, I know of two models in this case: Second Life is one well-known example, OpenCobalt and EduSIM are two other examples that aren’t so well known, partly because people are still working on the underlying software. Frankly I’m still getting my head around things in Second Life, and I’ve volunteered to be a tester for the OpenCobalt project to bring them up to speed. There are some limitations to all of these environments though, in that you have to have a recent machine, and a reasonably fast Internet connection (DSL at 2MBit should do). Good quality graphics cards are a must for these applications, as I’ve found out to my detriment. Neither of my machines have a really recent video subsystem, and as a result, their performance suffers when subjecting them to the requirements of a 3D multi-user environment.

Why are there two models? What’s the difference?

The main difference between the two models lies in this. Second Life focuses on a server-driven hosting model, where everyone who downloads an official Second Life client and executes it automatically (with suitable username/password) gets logged into the Second Life server cluster, and can only interact with the activities hosted there. If you wish to have a slice of your own land, then that is paid for on a subscription basis, because that’s actually how they make their income to afford the running of the servers. I believe they’ve accepted the fact that most people won’t actually buy their own land, just as long as they can get those people to interact with people who will buy land, build projects, and items to interact with.

In the other model, there’s the “everyone gets their own island” model, where each person starts off with an environment (called an island, in Cobalt parlance) they can tool up as they need. The trick to getting people to each other’s environments is in a tool called the teleport. Much like Second Life, it allows an avatar to transport to somewhere else. Unlike Second Life, the teleports are not mandated by a server farm or by a company. And currently at least, spaces are only visible to other people on a voluntary basis. If I start up a Cobalt island, it’s completely autonomous. If I wish others to come to that island, then I can hand out a “postcard” telling somebody “this is where I am on the network, so come and join me”. I can take the island down whenever I like, without having to report to anybody other than whom I’ve invited to my island. People that receive a postcard can then use the teleport mechanism to come to my space.

So far, in my testing, I haven’t nailed down exactly how many people we can have on an island before performance starts suffering. I have heard that there have been twelve people (wow!) on an island, and performance wasn’t impacted, but they were all on a local area network. I’ve noticed that things happen at a slower frame rate for me, but that’s because I’m on an older machine. I’ve no idea how performance degrades for hundreds or even thousands of people in an island, because we’ve never done that scale yet.

OpenCobalt is built on the Squeak platform, a popular form of Smalltalk that’s freely downloadable and usable by anybody, so it was a good fit for a project of this type. There have been extensions to the Squeak platform to allow it to do the 3Dish thing, previous work was put into a client called Croquet, and further work was done on Croquet to produce what has become OpenCobalt. It’s got a wee way to go, but I think with the right work, we can get the performance of Second Life, without the necessity of depending upon a centralised server farm to run it on.

Anyhow, that’s my little wander through the subjects rattling around in my mind.

03 September, 2009

Unix, but not as we know it.

Last night, I finally managed to install the last piece of a group of packages from the SUA Community, a site sponsored by Microsoft to provide further tools for the Services For UNIX (3.5) subsystem. The SFU (now known as Services for Unix Applications or simply SUA) is a Unix-like environment to lure other non-Windows developers over to the Windows platform without scrapping their existing skill-base altogether. It provides an execution environment running within Windows, including “more than 350 commonly used” utilities (grep, sed, awk, telnet, find being a few examples) seen on many Unix-like platforms, shells (ksh, tcsh, perl and rsh-based tools), a compiler (gcc-3.3) and binutils, full NFS server and client, ftpd server, POSIX threads and other things too. They omitted the X server, funnily enough, even though they added quite a few X utilities. Microsoft’s rationale behind this was that there were already enough publically available X servers for download without them reinventing the wheel. Personally, I think that if they had provided a kernel-level X-like server, it would have removed the requirement for other options. Only problem being, we wouldn’t see the source code. But then I’m used to that. Plenty of tools to use in the SFU.

However, the number of tools provided aren’t anywhere near the number provided on a modern (read: released in the past five years) FreeBSD or Linux (or for that matter, the granddaddy of OSes, Solaris) distribution of software. So, the SUA community (previously known simply as “/Tools”) set about remedying the perceived lack of tools by supplying additional ones. Bash—being my favourite, is in there, as is the not so well-known zsh. Then, there’s ncftp, the Xming X server (the last publically-available Xming-6-9-0-31 server), and even several updates to the SUA/SFU tools, most importantly a later version of gcc. Of course, there are a lot of other tools as well (too many for me to mention here) that make the SUA environment a much more useful and friendly place to non-Windows administrators.

Anyhow, to finish off, I finally managed to get Xming installed, merely by downloading the current version from the maintainer (funnily enough, the same version as supplied in the SUA community package collections), and clicking the executable from a normal Explorer. Given that trying to run Xming-setup from a ksh as administrator wasn’t working, I ought to be grateful it works now.