Frankenstorm and the voting booth

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/29/2012 - 09:40

The storm of the century may have blown over by November 6th, but if power is still out in some places in the northeast, I wonder what the Plan B is for voting if all the local governments have are coal-powered (i.e. electric) voting machines? If all the old manual voting machines have been recycled for scrap, how will they handle the power outage? If they still have the old manual voting machines in storage somewhere, do they have a well-designed contingency plan to haul all those machines to each voting precinct and train the poll tenders to set them up and use them on short notice? If there are no manual voting machines, or if there is not time to get them all moved to the precincts, do they have a paper-based voting system ready to go that can be verified and audited?

Just because you can use a computer to do something does not mean that you should. The convergence of the storm of the century and a presidential election may well expose the weak underbelly of our excessive reliance on electronic gadgets for things that could be done with virtually fail-safe mechanical or manual systems that work even if there is no power.

The end of media and why broadband is a green technology

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/24/2012 - 08:27

Apple introduced the new iPad mini yesterday, which is an incredible piece of engineering, but to me, the more interesting story is the release of the new iMacs, which seem impossibly thin, largely because Apple has eliminated the DVD drive. Apple has always led on storage media, and the company has a long history of pushing the entire industry in a new direction, including 3.5" floppy drives, CD-ROM drives as standard, DVD drives as standard, solid state drives as standard, and now, elimination of removable media entirely.

The story behind the story is broadband. Only widespread availability of broadband has made it possible to eliminate removable storage from our computers. Apple's Mac App store and the Web have made it possible to buy any software you need directly from the 'net, so who needs a DVD drive? The interesting side effect is that broadband is green....really green. Eliminating hundreds of millions of DVDs also eliminates the cost and energy of manufacturing, storing, and shipping those DVDs. While it is true that data centers storing our content in the cloud use energy, at the same time, broadband and the cloud are eliminating lots of other energy uses.

Still time to register for the Danville Broadband Conference

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/17/2012 - 08:18

If you are interested in seeing firsthand what happens when a city invests in open fiber, there is still time to register for the Broadband Communities Community Fiber Networks conference in Danville, Virginia in early November. Danville's open access fiber network has been a key part of an enormously successful downtown revitalization effort that has brought hundreds of new jobs to the community and international firms have been re-locating to Danville in part because of the high performance, low cost open access fiber network.

University of Texas commits to MOOCs

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/16/2012 - 07:22

A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. These are online college classes that often have enrollments of many tens of thousands of students in a single class. The concept was pioneered by Harvard and MIT in a joint project called edX, and with the University of Texas joining edX, the movement is going to expand dramatically.

With the cost of a college education now costing many tens of thousands of dollars a year, most college students can't get a four year degree without nearly bankrupting their parents and/or taking on staggering student loans. And employers are not always satisfied with the quality of college graduates as many four year institutions have been spending more on amenities to justify the high tuition while shortchanging actual instruction.

MOOCs have the potential to make getting a good job much less expensive, and the traditional four year colleges had better beware....the dis-intermediation is being caused by high speed broadband. Like the sudden disappearance of music stores, which took only ten years, expect many four year schools to be gone a decade from now, as parents and young people figure out that there are cheaper and better ways to get prepared for the work world.

Has Logitech cracked home video calling with new HD camera?

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/12/2012 - 14:08

You can now buy the new Logitech HD video camera, called the TV Cam HD. The device combines a high resolution HD video camera, integrated four-microphone sound input, and Zeiss remote control zoom lens. The breakthrough is that Skype is built in, meaning you don't need a computer. The camera can work with your home WiFi or Ethernet network, and an HDMI jack plugs the video and audio right into your existing flat panel TV. The camera also has a built in ringer, so that solves one of the persistent problems with using Skype as a phone replacement...your computer has to be on and awake all the time to be available for a call.

I just had a friend with one of these cameras call, and I can attest that the picture quality, over the network, is really excellent, and we use Skype with webcams on a daily basis...this new device is clearly better.

Crossing the spam tipping point

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/02/2012 - 10:28

I seem to have crossed some kind of spam tipping point over the weekend, with more spam hitting my Inbox than is being filtered out by two levels of spam filters (one on the server, one on my mail client). There was a time when as much as 90% of the spam was being caught by this two-level approach, but no more. I'm now getting only about 50% of spam trapped by the filters.

Spammers are using two techniques to foil the filters. The first is the relentless use of zombie machines that have been infected to send out email from apparently legitimate source email addresses; they do this so the filters can't "learn" origination email addresses and block them. The second is equally pernicious; they are using increasingly sophisticated phishing techniques to create emails that look exactly like the messages we get routinely from legitimate companies. For example, over the past several weeks, I have apparently ordered at least one thousand large screen TVs from Amazon. The order confirmation message looks EXACTLY like the legitimate order confirmation messages I receive from Amazon. So I can't mark these emails as spam, or the occasional real message will be blocked. I get these phishing emails from US Air, from American Express, from Verizon, from AT&T, and many other companies.

This is a slow motion catastrophe. I would estimate I am now spending as much as 45 to 60 minutes per work day just reviewing and deleting spam from my Inbox. I can typically tell from the subject heading, but it takes me as much as thirty minutes in the morning to delete some 300-600 spams, and then additional time every time I check my email during the day.

Gmail can read your attachments

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/02/2012 - 10:08

Gmail can now read many kinds of attachments. It is touted as a benefit to users, as a Gmail user can search not just the text of emails, but also the text of attachments stored on Gmail. But it also means Google will be searching those attachments as well and using the information it finds to fine-tune the kinds of ads it delivers to you.

Making telecom central

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/27/2012 - 07:29

Susan Crawford, writing as a Fellow of the Roosevelt Institute, argues eloquently for paying more attention to broadband capacity and affordability, especially in rural areas of the U.S. She argues that well-provisioned, modern broadband connectivity is essential to economic growth.

Chattanooga continues to be serious about economic growth

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/26/2012 - 12:46

Chattanooga is providing financial assistance to people with technical backgrounds who agree to buy a house and move to the area. It's a brilliant idea, and coupled with their fiber network, Chattanooga continues to prove they are not just serving up the same old warmed over, forty year old economic development strategies.

Profits go up if service is slow

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/26/2012 - 09:04

Via Slashdot, here is a link to a new book that talks about why Internet and broadband in the U.S. is so poor. It's worth a read....basically, all the money has been spent on mobile cellular networks and not on local fiber infrastructure. And adding to the problem, in most markets, there is cartel pricing via the telco/cableco duopoly. Residents and businesses have only two choices: marginal DSL or cable modem service that won't support now-common business services and applications.

Apple's iPhone 5 is a beauty

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/13/2012 - 09:49

Apple pundits, prior to the release of the new iPhone 5 yesterday, were saying that the new device would be no big deal because Apple had nothing to add in the way of features. In a way, that's true; there is nothing like the iPhone 4S release of Siri, the voice input software. But Apple kind of busted through the old engineering joke: "Quicker, cheaper, better: pick any two." Apple has managed, with the iPhone 5, to offer a phone that is faster, lighter, and thinner: customers get all three! Apple is saying this is the best iPhone they have ever built, and I believe them. Not only did they make the phone and the screen bigger and brighter, they also managed to make the phone thinner and lighter. That's quite an achievement. And it is truly a world phone; it supports just about every cellular wireless protocol on the planet. They speeded up the processor, speeded up graphics, and speeded up WiFi networking.

My iPhone 4S is barely a year old, and I'm already looking longingly at the iPhone 5.

New Kindle HD is a direct assault on Apple

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/07/2012 - 09:01

Amazon has released its new Kindle HD, and it is really something. It's nice to see someone giving Apple some real competition, rather than just copying what Apple does (cough, cough, Samsung...).

The original Kindle Fire was a bit underpowered, and seemed to be primarily a conduit for selling Amazon content (as well as being a decent book reader). But the Kindle HD, while still a conduit for Amazon content, has a more refined interface, improved graphics, improved processor, and better connectivity (better WiFi, 4G cellular support). But the new Kindle also supports Skype, better email, a very interesting set of parental controls, and an improved Web browser. Finally, Amazon is touting support for college textbooks, a direct swipe at Apple's similar iBook initiative.

This is great for consumers. The Kindle HD now appears to be a much more capable tablet device that can go head to head with the iPad. And it is no accident that Amazon released it just days before the rumored iPad mini.

Apple's reinvention of TV hitting rough spots

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/06/2012 - 13:28

According to a Bloomberg report, Apple is finding it difficult to re-imagine TV. Content providers are scared to death that Apple will be successful in creating a better TV experience. The problem is that the cable companies are deeply involved with the content providers...recall that Comcast, as one example, owns a big chunk of NBC. The cable companies have decided to go down with their own ship; they are going to cling to the sixty year old analog cable model until their last customers swim away the S.S. TitanicCableCo.

I can't really figure out what Apple has in mind that hasn't already been done. I've already ditched cable TV, and am quite content with cheap Hulu and Netflix subscriptions. Why do I need to buy a box from Apple? It's not that hard to bookmark the Netflix site and click on something in my queue. This is one area where I don't Apple really can bring some fresh new user interface experience a la the iPod or the iPhone and win.

Put down the iPad at bedtime

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/06/2012 - 12:42

Here's another report on backlit tablet devices and how they disturb your sleep cycle. The Kindle does not cause the same problems, as it uses the reflective e-ink technology.

Update: I was reminded by a reader that the Kindle Fire is backlit, so that is a device you should NOT be using at bedtime. The less expensive black and white Kindles are the e-ink models and do not have a back light.

Yet Another Update: Amazon just released a new Kindle Paperwhite and Paperwhite3G....with higher screen resolution....and...a backlight! They even have a picture of someone reading in bed in the dark using the backlight. Somehow they forgot to mention "Warning: use of the backlight before bedtime will keep you up all night."

Death of TV: Part XXXVI: Netflix and HBO to dump "TV"

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 09/04/2012 - 13:54

The clash of the Titans is on....Netflix and HBO are taking the gloves off in Northern Europe. Both content companies are ditching cable and satellite TV to offer their movies and "TV" shows as IP-TV offerings. No cable or satellite TV subscription required. Meanwhile there are bunches of small start ups that are negotiating "channel" line ups for a pure IP-TV offering; their plan is to offer bundles of niche channels (e.g. The Food Channel, the Golf Channel) at a very low monthly subscription price. Once subscribed, you can pick out any show you want and watch it anytime you want, much like Hulu.

A woodstove that charges phones

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 09/04/2012 - 13:16

Sometimes little things can have big impacts. The BioLite HomeStove has the ability to make a lot of lives better while reducing tree loss in many parts of the world. The innovative cooking device is a highly efficient "jet" or "rocket" stove that burns small amounts of wood while generating a lot of heat. There are many similar jet stoves, and because they are so good at creating lots of heat quickly, in many impoverished areas, the stoves can dramatically reduce the amount of wood needed to cook food, and make it possible to sterilize water much more easily. The stoves also reduce the amount of work needed to collect wood, which, if you are cooking for a family over an open fire, can be very significant.

But the real innovation of this device is the integrated thermocouple that powers a small fan (to make the stove more efficient) and powers a USB port that can charge small portable devices like LED flashlights and cell phones. It is an amazing innovation that has the potential make millions of lives better.

Apple's iCloud disaster

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 08/22/2012 - 13:37

I hope other iCloud users are having better experiences than I am. From my perspective, it's a mess that makes its mostly awful predecessor, MobileMe, look pretty good by comparison. Here are the problems I am having:

I could keep going, but you get the idea. iCloud is a big mess. The only thing I notice it does very well is keep your music in sync across several computers. I can buy a song from iTunes on my iPhone, and a few seconds later it is in my iTunes library on my laptop. Leave it to Apple to make sure the big money maker (i.e. selling music) works okay. Everything, not so much. Somebody really should be fired over this.

Danville Broadband Conference: $95 early registration

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/07/2012 - 14:02

The Danville Broadband Conference, on November 8th and 9th, is still available for the early registration price of $95. It will soon go back up to the full fee of $475, so if you are planning on going, get in on the great deal. You can register here.

Rural America still on a broadband dirt road...

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 07/26/2012 - 08:13

Via Eldo Telecom, there is a Calix U.S. Rural Broadband Report with depressing news about broadband cost and availability in rural America (about 70% of the U.S.). Rural residents don't even have the laughingly pathetic 4 meg down/1 meg up of the national broadband target. Most rural broadband is running between 1 and 3 megabits.

But Design Nine is changing that, one community at a time, with projects like RANA and FastRoads. Call me (540-951-4400) if you want help.

Do Not Track spat heats up

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 07/24/2012 - 12:50

The Do Not Track fight is heating up, with the big Web sites like Google and Facebook firmly opposed to the idea that they should not be allowed to track where consumers go and what they do online. The Federal government is threatening legislation that will require Web sites to allow an opt out option. It is a dilemma, as sites like Yahoo!, Google, Bing, and others make their money in large part by using tracking data to sell ads.

I think it is past time to let users make their own decisions about this. The idea that we can't use the Internet unless we give up all our privacy is an odd, even malicious one. Certainly business models will have to adjust, and we may have to pay for some services that were formerly free. But the problem is that right now, there is no such thing as a "free" service; it is just that the cost (giving up privacy) is obscured, tilting the business transaction in favor of the seller, rather than a more equitable balance between sellers and buyers.

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