Saturday Dec 11, 2004

The Ultimate Cat?

A Cat called Erin

Ok, here's the thing; I want to get a cat, but my wife Andrea doesn't (she's still hoping the family of foxes we had living in our back garden will come back, but after 2 years, I'm sure they've headed on to pastures new). I'm looking forward to doing all the joyful stuff (and I can deal with the not so joyful stuff) a cat owner has to do, but I'd really like to get a cat that will win Andrea over. You know - smart, affectionate, minimal scratching and few accidents. In a nutshell, the ultimate cat (except maybe that it doesn't need to be a mouser). Of course cat qualities are mostly down the the invididual, but I'm thinking some breeds might have a head-start.

So if you're a cat lover, what do you think? Should I look for a specific breed, or just look for a nice cat that needs re-homing (oh man, look at these cute cat (and dog) pictures I just found ;) I think I'm going to be a sucker for Erin whose picture I borrowed.

XML - Open Source or Open Standard?

John Evdemon over on MSDN suggests that XML is not code and thus cannot be open-sourced. I'm afraid that's a rather narrow view: XML is text, and thus it can be code, or data, or a document or document schema.

Here endeth the lesson ;)

Friday Dec 10, 2004

A Child-safe Internet

It's tough for parents today; the internet has so much to offer children, but also a lot of adult and inappropriate content.

However the European Union is providing 60m Euro in funding to provide parents and teachers with tools to keep their children safe while on the internet. It's likely that these tools will be based on open-source, so they will be usable world-wide.

It's already possible to use free tools to do this today, but it's not yet easy enough. The key terms that you encounter with web or mail filtering are whitelist and blacklist; a whitelist or YES-list is a list of good sites/addresses that are allowed through, a blacklist or NO-list is a list of known bad sites. If you want the safest solution, you can use a whitelist and prevent anything that is not on that list from coming through. A blacklist is typically only useful if you subscribe to an update service (similar to virus protection); even with regular updates they can never be entirely safe, so I don't recommend them. It is also possible to use filters that look for keywords in the address name or in the content; if your list of keywords is long enough, this is far safer.

Here are some specific tools you might like to take a closer look at:

  • A web proxy such as the popular Squid can stop inappropriate content as well as caching content for faster access; DansGuardian is far easier to use and supports keyword-based filters
  • For blocking spam and adult mail, Postfix is an advanced mail-processing program similar to the popular sendmail; it supports a variety of techniques for stopping inappropriate mail or spam; for example, see this Newsforge article which uses a Postfix after content filter

Most free tools work best on UNIX-based systems such as Linux and Solaris. If your children use Windows, you can setup a separate machine to act as an internet gateway.

But if you're not interested in technology, there are several good sites where you can get more advice; the Filtering Software site contains reviews of several easy-to-use packages, and Phil Bradleys's Child Safe Internet has a host of links and useful information.

Java and J# - serialisation is interoperable

Interesting to see an MSDN blog that claims to demonstrate interoperability between an object serialised by a Java app and a J# app de-serialising it. Sample code included. Of course you can't use RMI between Java and J#, but you could exchange the object via HTTP-GET, a message service (via JMS), web services or even the filesystem. It's not clear if there are limits to this interoperability, but it's an interesting achievement. I'm sticking with Swing for desktop apps so that I can use Java end-to-end, but it's nice to know there are some ways for a .NET client to interoperate say with J2EE.

Thursday Dec 09, 2004

Sun Ray - Thin Clients at the Speed of Light

It's great to see Sun Ray now available for broadband. Folks who know SunRay thin clients tend to like their instant boot, solid state electronics (no moving parts, no disks), silence (a room full of Sun Rays is eerily quiet, nice if you're in a shared office, a call centre or a library), cool-ness (use minimal power, generate negligible heat) and their statelessness (if anyone steals a Sun Ray, they take no data; the flip side is that you can walk from one Sun Ray to another and instantly get back your desktop session by just inserting a card - check out our Mary packing her "laptop" - that's right, that little card is all she needs to access her desktop).

But now you can get all that, and take your Sun Ray home or on the road. Secure, low-cost, centrally managed computing and storage - simplicity itself. You might not believe it until you've seen it, and once you've seen it, you may not want to go back to managing your own desktop.

As someone who just last week had the distinct non-pleasure of trying to retrieve all the data I could from my laptop hard drive (ok tell me, who actually manages to do backup often enough that they don't lose some data? ;), not to mention fighting spyware from the time I used Internet Explorer on Windows, I'm seriously considering switching to SunRay full time; life really is too short to fight the problems of a thick client laptop.

Update: mere minutes after posting this earlier, a fellow Sun blogger Paul Rogers has another tale of woe about a laptop. And they can affect fertility too? ;)

Sun - Evolution of a company

Dave Brillhart asks and partly answers a key question: do industry conditions favour Sun's ongoing success, and is Sun equipped to evolve within the changing environment?

My answer to both questions is also yes, but I take a slightly different view to Dave; I think a company's DNA does not reside primarily in a concept of technology like Networked Computing: it resides in deeper concepts that are ultimately about people. That said, here is what I think Sun is fundamentally about:

  • Sun' big idea is: 1) make compute technology simple and effective, 2) solve big problems - these qualities are measured by people
  • Sun's core DNA resides in it's culture: an environment that favours freedom of thought, enabling innovation and really different ideas to be considered and (if they are good) to flourish; from NFS to Java to Solaris 10, Sun successfully creates an ongoing series of innovations that are so successful, they become almost invisible; this is a measure of both their simplicity and their seamless adoption into the mainstream
  • This open culture naturally promotes two-way permeability - ideas and technology from Sun (such as Java) are released to the public, many are open-sourced (such as OpenOffice.org, soon Solaris); conversely, Sun works with many external groups to mature technologies (such as Linux, X11, Mozilla, GNOME) that Sun also imports, and releases as added value to customers

I believe it is these qualities - especially diversity and permeability - looking forward and outward - that enable Sun to evolve. I think Sun has evolved significantly even in the last few short years; in my view, the biggest change is that we have accepted, deep down, that simplicity resides not only within the technology itself, but it has to reach up through layers of software right up to the user interface. Simplicity is not just for system administrators and developers; it is also for end-users. Customers of our products are beginning to notice this seismic change, but you've just seen the start of the first wave.

So to the heart of the question: do industry conditions favour Sun? Here's my take: as long as end-to-end computing remains a hard problem, and as long as innovation is about participating in a global network of talented people inside and outside of Sun - then conditions require Sun - as a firestarter, as a solver of the hardest problems, and as a company that can bring real solutions based on continuous innovation to customers.

But there's one more thing, maybe more important than all of that - we're not perfect, we're just striving to be. And the key part about evolution is that it does not happen without a context, and that context is our customers and their ongoing evolution. When it comes to listening to our customers there are so many questions that as an engineer I would like to ask so I'll just ask one - what do you want to achieve that you can't today because of cost or complexity? Because Sun wants to help your (r)evolution.

And if part of your (r)evolution is related to individual and team productivity, I really want to hear from you, because together we're putting the "open" into OpenOffice.org.

Patenting Aggregation of Notifications

When I saw the title of a blog Patent Pending: Centralized alert and notifications repository, manager, and viewer, I thought I must be misreading it. I mean you just need to do a Google search for "aggregation of notifications" to know that this has been done before. The open-source Glow project had this openly on the radar even before we had implemented IM and integrated mail. And there is prior art for a notification user interface in the form of icons and tooltips on desktop toolbars, and modern communication clients are expected to provide a unified user interface to content, including "notifications". Not to mention Jabber's framework for notifications or RSS feeds for notification of new addressable content.

With patents, the devil is in the details so maybe there is some innovation in there somewhere but it doesn't bode well from that blog title (I can't read further because according to patent law, triple damages are applicable for prior knowledge infringement as soon as the patent issues, and for this reason Sun requires it's engineers not to look at patents, even if they seem to be bunkum). Maybe somebody less constrained can take a closer look and see if it needs debunking.

Update: My subconscious sent an interrupt to my forebrain with another possible Google search: "federating notifications" which throws up a Citeseer page with a list of probably relevant references using the synonym "event".

Wednesday Dec 08, 2004

Blogs and Journals - Whither or Wither?

I still think that online journals and blogs will co-exist peacefully, but I'm not so sure if all journals will thrive in the more competitive "market" for views and information. It's truly sad to see articles like eWeek's A Year of Victory for Linux descend into rant and never come back up. It just looks like a bad blog. Jim Grisanzio corrects the blatant errors there very well, so I'm not going to bite this time (but see here, here and here for earlier occasions where I could not resist).

If some e-journals are already beginning to offer nothing more than a web-site for randam rants designed to catch the eye with keywords like "Linux", "EIA" and "SOA", where can they go from here? I can read unsubstantiated BS all over the web, and most of it is funnier or stranger and certainly truer than that eWeek article. Many blogs now have more facts and more reasoned arguments (and certainly more insight) than eWeek presently offers. Even explicitly open-source journals like NewsForge offer better and more objective analysis relating to their broad core of topics. Not to mention that journals like The Register succeed in serving up well-written analysis and opinion with humour, insight and a pinch of worthwhile scepticisim.

Anyone with an RSS reader can select from a range of "channels" and read what they want to read, whereever it comes from. I honestly think that folks who read online don't need the few desparate rant e-journals that claim to be the visionaries of the coming revolution (didn't we hear enough of that during the dot-com years?)

Don't have time or space for another desktop app? Use Thunderbird, it's got a solid basic RSS reader (integrated with mail and news!) that will grow as you need more from it.

No really, you have no privacy

Security and privacy are even more at odds, according to this opinionated report on The Register (articles there are looking more and more like blogs, which is good and bad).

How long before US citizens are required to carry ID's with biometrics \*and\* RFID tags that can be read remotely, say by a passing patrol car which feeds data to computers that may be accessed by a dozen agencies? And how long before you don't carry them but have them embedded, say in your fore-arm?

I used to say the US was a great place to visit (some world-class natural beauty), but I grow less sure of that. Is the US simply at the forefront with "national security" and other countries will follow? I hope not.

Halo 2 is a network hog

Some folks interpret the Halo 2 network demands as evidence that we need to invest in networks or charge service users by bandwidth. Sounds like marketese to me; Half-Life creator Valve's Steam service hosts more online users than any other, yet you don't hear Valve complaining about bandwidth. It seems more likely that the Halo 2 developers need to do a litte optimisation on their networking code.

Tuesday Dec 07, 2004

The True Value of OpenOffice.org

Despite a commitment to adopt open standards by 2006, the Netherlands government appears to be trying to rush through an approval to continue with Microsoft software (and proprietary document formats) to the tune of 147m Euro. Several MPs are expressing their disapproval and the vote next week to confirm this order will be watched closely by Dutch citizens and proponents of the value of open-source and open standards.

This flies in the face of all reason; in the Register's article, the Dutch town of Harlem demonstrated a saving of 90% in one year, dropping their costs from 500k to 50k in one year, including all migration costs and training. If similar savings can be achieved by the Dutch government, they could have an additional 132m Euro to spend on welfare or infrastructure or competitiveness. And Sun offers governments and large organisations a highly competitive support package for OpenOffice.org (some folks don't know that Sun is the primary developer and sponsor of OpenOffice.org), so you don't have to believe that FUD about open-source not being supported.

Aside: I'm not sure if Sun is still offering citizen pricing on StarOffice, but it would be interesting to see if that amount would cover it. Imagine an entire country's business and government able to invest all that money spent on individual Microsoft Office licenses towards more valuable initiatives. I somehow don't think the emerging global giants China and India are going to divert their funds just to buy the western world's current dominant office suite.

Solaris on Dell... or Lenovo

I see Jim Grisanzio had the same thought I did when I saw the tag-line that Dell were complaining to Red Hat about the price of their enterprise Linux distro.

But while Dell is urging Red Hat to reduce prices to stay competitive, Dell is also in a competition; I wonder what Lenovo will do now they've super-sized themselves?

I suspect all vendors of commodity PC's, especially servers, are considering how they can add value - and Solaris is one kick-ass differentiator. Who will get there first?

Meanwhile, customers who have been looking to Dell for low-cost x86 servers should make sure they are getting the best value and take a look at the summary of prices on Sun's server page. It's nice to see Sun offering value and transparency of prices, and of course all those servers can run Solaris 10.

Take The Weather With You

It won't do anyone much good when in 20-50 years our scientists can tell our kids and grandkids "we told you so". Slashdot discusses a solid Science Magazine analysis that shows overwhelming concensus among world experts that a near-term risk of catastrophic climate change caused by human activity is a reality.

In a related news item, the US has told a UN conference on global warming that it has no intention of re-joining international efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Thanks guys, it's a pleasure to share the planet with you.

Even more ironically, the only thing that may save us is our declining fossil fuel reserves. Either way, nature will have the last laugh, whether we can laugh along or not may still be in our hands.

WikiNews has arrived

Complimenting the encyclopedic definitions in WikiPedia, WikiNews is a persistent peer-based news media service. Contributors are suggested but not required to use tags that indicate the status of a news item (in development, under peer review).

Between blogs and other peer media, online journals are under increasing pressure to differentiate. It's hard to compete with a good domain-specific journal for writing quality, news accuracy and topic coverage. That said, blogs (and especially RSS feeds) provide a way to get content that is fresh, savvy, opinionated and diverse.

Monday Dec 06, 2004

Thunderbirds are go! Confessions of a former Mozilla Mail user

I switched from Mozilla Mail (1.7.3) to Thunderbird 1.0 over lunch; I can't say I've plumbed it's depths but I wanted to offer you some first impressions.

Praises:

  • flawless install and upgrade experience; perfect import of configuration settings from Mozilla (Outlook Express also supported)
  • very pretty default look-and-feel (nice skin with toolbar buttons, icons); consistent to Firefox
  • Mozilla mail was already fast, but Thunderbird feels subjectively even faster: message display seems about 30% faster
  • the search toolbar allows searches to be on subject, sender or message body; it also uses the edit area to show the current search type
  • searches can be saved as folders; a saved search can span one or more folders and include multiple criteria
  • much clearer layout for several dialogs, such as Junk Mail Controls
  • the preferences menu item follows Firefox's example by moving to Tools/Options, in line with applications like Internet Explorer and StarOffice/OpenOffice.org

Nits:

  • The toolbar button colours seem slightly out-of-sync with Firefox's palette (especially the reds and blues)
  • the search folder uses a close toolbar button to return the view to un-filtered mode; I think a checkbox would be clearer
  • I'd like to see search folders appear under a standard top-level Searches folder for ease of access and to clarify their operation (a delete on a search folder impacts the message in the actual containing folder)

Between Firefox and Thunderbird, the only thing that may keep some users from abandoning Mozilla is Composer; clearly the mail composer includes a HTML editor, but if you want to edit a longer document, you can use OpenOffice.org.

Firefox, Thunderbird and OpenOffice.org/StarOffice - now that's a killer suite.

Oh, and here are the other Thunderbirds.

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ColmSmyth

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