Sunday, December 23, 2007

Why Dell and Gateway Are Going Into Retail

I recently bought a Dell for my daughter. This was the first desktop that I ever purchased by simply walking into a store and walking out with a box. My Toshiba laptop was the first computer that I ever purchased at retail and not online. I went to the local WalMart and bought the second cheapest computer in stock. The cheapest was an eMachines. It came with a widescreen monitor, 2 GB of RAM, an AMD dual core processor, Vista, and a 250 GB hard drive for less than $1,000.00. One thing about just walking in and picking up a computer is that you don't have the same urge to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade that you do when ordering online. It works just fine for my daughter who was thrilled.

Having succeded with the Toshiba and a Dell, I decided to do the same thing for my new laptop. I went to the local OfficeMax, which had a supply of HPs, Sony's, and Toshibas. After looking them over, an employee pointed out to me that they had the HP Pavilion dv6000 for $799.99 bundled with an HP printer and digital camera. The dv6000 has an AMD processor (only my second), 2 GB of RAM (which is more than you can even add to the old Toshiba), a widescreen, Vista Home Premium, and a 160 GB hard drive.. It seemed like a no brainer to me. Plus with Christmas coming, I figured that I could give the printer to my daughter to go with her new Dell and the camera to my son. I took one. I had thought about buying a business laptop with Windows XP, which seemed to be available at Office Depot, but I figured that if I really hated Vista, I could retro-upgrade to the older more familiar experience of XP. So far, so good.

Pleasant Surprises: The widescreen is gorgeous. It is at least the equal of my Toshiba's and that was really good. The built in Altec Lansing speakers are 100 times better than the crummy Toshiba speakers. It is much lighter than my Toshiba. In fact, it is almost too light. The shell is clearly plastic, which may be one reason that it is so light, and I worry about the construction quality of this lightweight, plastic laptop. It is also very thin. It is much thinner than the Toshiba. However, the lightness and thinness make it a pleasure to travel with. It is the lightest, thinnest laptop I've ever owned. I buy my laptops to serve as a desktop replacement that I lug to work and back home again so lightness and thinness were never a priority before. It has a webcam and built in microphone, which I've never had before. I might have to try some video communications now.

Disappointments: The aforementioned lightweight, plasticky feel. Vista seems to take too long to boot up (not that my former XP laptop was a speed demon). It took me forever and multiple tries before I could get it to connect reliably to my home wireless network. At first, it didn't even seem to find the network and I thought it was broken. However, after monkeying around with the settings and exploring, I finally found one that worked. I've now connected to wireless networks at home, Orlando International Airport, a Microtel Hotel, my in-laws in Williamstown, a Howard Johnson's motel, and (at this very moment) my in-laws in Albany. Guess I've got it figured out. The touchpad has a virtual scroll bar on the right side so every time I brush it with my right palm the screen jumps around. It is pretty annoying. I've adjusted the pressure settings and it has improved, but it hasn't gone away completely. I loaded Office 2003 and now the EULA keeps popping up when I use it. According to a Crucial Memory scan, 2 GB is the maximum amount of RAM that the computer can handle. I'm going to investigate that further though. Given that 2 GB is the minimum recommended for Vista I'd like to have the option to add another 2 GB.

Over-all I am pretty happy with it, especially for the price of $799.99

An Update to Adventures in DIY Computer Upgrading

Remember that Toshiba laptop that I added RAM to and upgraded the hard drive myself? It died. Specifically, the LCD screen stopped working. It is very difficult to work on a computer when the screen looks plaid. Having already learned my lesson wasting time and money upgrading the hard drive myself, I immediately purchased a new laptop. "Immediately" may not be the right word. "Eventually" would be the right word, because first I just couldn't resist goofing around trying to be clever.

The Toshiba still worked except that you couldn't see anything on the screen. So I tried connecting it to a working monitor, which worked really well until I tried to tweak the settings. Silly me! I just had to tinker. After that, I had to try to figure out what was happening on the broken Toshiba screen and then drag the window that I was working with to the working screen. I couldn't get back to having the working screen show the Toshiba's desktop until I connected it to another monitor. I thought maybe I could just swap the Toshiba's recently upgraded hard drive to the Gateway. It fit easily and booted up, but it didn't work too well because of the differing hardware configurations. For some reason, I also couldn't get to my data.

I tried backing up my data to the old 40 GB hard drive, reformatting, and starting over. Well, somehow the data didn't back up and I lost it. In the end, I ended up with a broken but still working Toshiba and a Gateway that is missing essential drivers, which I've tried to replace, that won't connect to the Internet anymore. By the way, the data loss wasn't a complete disaster. Most of my important documents are on the server at my office anyway. I did lose a few things, but nothing that I don't have paper copies of and that I can't rebuild.

After spending another weekend learning my lesson, I hit on the solution that I had figured would cure the problem from the beginning and was my fall back plan all along. I went out and bought a new laptop. I realize that the problem with the Toshiba might be as simple as the cable connecting the screen to the rest of the computer, but even if it could be fixed for a reasonable price would I be halfway to the cost of an up-to-date laptop while preserving a laptop that while functional was yesterday's news?

My Blogging Hiatus

It has been awhile, too long really, since I last posted to this blog. After an intitial burst of regular posting, I found myself feeling like I had nothing interesting to say. So where have I been and what have I been doing? Nothing much really. Well, that isn't entirely true. I've been working --- a lot. Plus the kids are back in school and the family is busy. I get up, I take the kids to school, I go to work, I come home, I go to sleep.... I think you get the idea. Summer is over and the living is no longer easy. And given the nature of my work (I'm a lawyer), I can't say a whole lot about what I do at work. But this week, I'm on vacation so I'm gong to try to do some blogging. So, here goes...

Friday, October 19, 2007

Adventures in DIY Computer Upgrading

Could you replace the hard drive in your laptop? Even if you're not "handy" and not "mechanically inclined"? If my experience is any indication, the answer is "Yes! You can!"

First, a little background on me. I'm probably the least "handy", least "mechanically inclined" person that you'd ever meet. Power tools are dangerous things of wonder to me. I once took the Kolbe A Index and my lowest conative ability was working with my hands. Theoretically, I shouldn't be any good with computers or anything technical. My lack of ability and interest has never stopped me from daydreaming about building a car or an airplane from a kit. However, my common sense has always prevailed. It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I decided to try to replace my own laptop hard drive.

I discovered that the 40GB hard drive in my Toshiba Satellite was almost completely full when I tried to defragment it one day and found out that I didn't have enough space to defragment. Who knew you needed space? I did some investigation and discovered that it was allegedly easy to replace a hard drive. I supposedly only needed to clone the new drive and swap it for the old drive. Yeah, right!

My first mistake was buying the wrong kind of hard drive. I needed a SATA drive but I bought an IDE drive. The connectors are not compatible. Fortunately, the big box retailer where I got the drive took it back and refunded my money, but they didn't have any SATA drives in stock so I had to go elsewhere. My second mistake was prematurely sealing the Nexxtech 2.5 inch USB hard drive enclosure. I thought it would snap apart as easily as it snapped together. I was wrong. I had to pry it apart with a screwdriver, which ruined the enclosure. I wish I hadn't done that. It was a pretty nice little enclosure. I could still use it to hook up the drives to my laptop even though I had ruined the case. I downloaded some software from Acronis and after some fiddling around managed to "clone" my hard drive. I see now that I didn't follow what Acronis recommends. Everything seemed to go well until I installed the new hard drive in the laptop and tried to boot the computer, and then I got an OS error. I tried it again with the same results.

I decided that maybe it made more sense to have professionals do it. So, while visiting the big box electronics store to get a new car stereo, I took my laptop to get a quote on installing the new hard drive. While discussing what was involved and the estimated cost (around $278.00), the fellow helping me asked if I had the original installation disks because the OS wouldn't transfer. If I didn't have the disks, then they'd have to charge me for Windows XP. The lightbulb went off and I realized the missing step that hadn't been explained in what I had read ---- the OS wouldn't clone and I needed to reintall it. EUREKA! I decided to try it myself one more time.

I went to the store and bought a new copy of Windows XP. I sat down with my laptop, new hard drive, external USB drive case, and my Windows disks. I installed XP on the new hard drive and cloned my old drive again. I had a few glitches along the way. I got several error messages that files couldn't be found as I installed XP. I had a Windows upgrade disk and for some reason that seemed to help. In any event, I eventually was able to boot up the new hard drive and it was a thing of beauty. My desktop looked and acted exactly as it had before. It was as if no change had been made to my computer, except that now I had three times the hard drive space. I've noticed some other changes as well. For some reason, the Western Digital 120GB drive seems to run much cooler than the 40GB Hitachi Travel Star drive even though they both run at 5400 rpm. Consequently, the cooling fans don't run all the time and create a lot of noise. The computer also no longer overheats and shuts down unless it gets excellent airflow to the fans. I liked the laptop before, but I like it even more now that it isn't so hot that it burns my lap.

I replaced the external USB hard drive enclosure with another one from Tiger Direct. Now I have a new internal 120 GB hard drive and a 40 GB external hard drive for back ups. Unfortunately, the drive case requires two small screws, but did not come with them. I think the assumption is that you'll use the screws from your hard drive, but my hard drive screws are holding in the new internal hard drive. Nevertheless, the case seems to fit together pretty well without the screws.

Because my hourly rate is $250.00, I probably would have saved money by working and paying someone else to install the hard drive. But that wouldn't have been as interesting or as much fun. The final cost was $321.00 with tax for Windows XP Professional, about $14.99 for the second drive enclosure, $25.00 for the first drive enclosure. and around $100.00 for the new drive. The total was about $461.00 plus my time. At that rate, I was on my way to the price of a new low end laptop.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Spooks, Gadgets, and "The Bourne Ultimatum" Part II

What really got me thinking about what the CIA and NSA can and can't get away with while I was watching "The Bourne Ultimatum" was the CIA's problems with the kidnapping of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr a/k/a Abu Omar in Italy. They succeeded in kidnapping him from an Italian street and whisking him to the Aviano Air Base, but it wasn't exactly a complete success. Apparently, the CIA isn't as spooky as we thought or would hope. Twenty-six Americans and five Italians have been indicted for the kidnapping or, as the CIA calls it, "extraordinary rendition." Their gadgets and technical prowess might also not be that sophisticated.

Italian prosecutors apparently tracked and identified the CIA agents involved via their use of cell phones. They were not tracked in real time. The prosecutors apparently identified cell phones that were responsible for unusually high traffic during and near the extraordinary rendition , and not all of these phones were registered to aliases. The phones were even used to call the CIA headquarters, the local CIA station chief, and the commander of Aviano. In the CIA's defense, they may have had the cooperation of Italian intelligence officials, and weren't trying to hide. Nevertheless, operations like this are potentially embarrassing to the U.S. and its allies and of questionable legality so why not take basic precautions? Why not use prepaid phones like every drug dealer, thug, and terrorist?

You would hope that the CIA has encrypted satellite phones for agents to use. There are also encrypted cell phones commercially available. Of course, encrypted cell phones might actually increase suspicion and make a covert operation even more obvious. After all, the Italians weren't eavesdropping on the CIA, they simply tracked the numbers called to and from each cell phone. Encrypted satellite phones would both prevent tracing through cell phone records and prevent eavesdropping. However, if they don't have them or if they're just looking for a lower tech solution, then prepaid cell phones would be the answer.

Imagine if the CIA had used prepaid phones exclusively in their efforts to grab Abu Omar. Just pay cash for the phones so they can't be traced to individuals. Other operatives could collect them in advance a few at a time so as to not arouse suspicion. The phones would best be purchased by agents not associated with the operation from all over the country or Europe, as this would make it even more difficult to connect related calls. This would make it harder to gather up retail store surveillance images to connect particular individuals to each phone. Perhaps several dummy retailers could be created to purchase the phones in bulk from a variety of companies wholesale. Each morning remove new phones from the shrink wrap, exchange numbers, and hit the streets At the end of the day, the phones go in the trash and the process begins again the next day. Now the Italians would have dozens of different numbers to trace and all of them would be dead ends. Every day calls from a new set of prepaid phones would create a new pattern of calls that would not match the previous days calls.

Better yet -- don't throw the phones away. Give them to passing teenagers, leave them on cafe' tables, leave them in the backseat of taxis, and other places where they're likely to be "stolen." Give some anonymously to charities . The point being to increase the number of calls and the geographic range of calls for each phone. This makes it even more unlikely that they could be ferreted out as part of a pattern. If a phone becomes identified with an operation under investigation, then the investigating authorities would be kept busy tracking down clueless teenagers and their friends. It seems one of the things the Italians looked for was phones with SIM cards that were no longer used within days of the kidnapping.

Speaking of SIM cards, perhaps the CIA could simply have a supply of prepaid SIM cards to swap in and out of the phones. A large number of SIM cards would be easier to hide than an equal number of phones. Dozens could be kept in a plastic baggie. Each time the SIM cards were changed, the phone would be identified by a different number. SIM cards could easily be flushed down toilets, tossed in storm drains, burned, cut up, and even swallowed.

Any phone or SIM used to call anyone associated with CIA headquarters, or other U.S. installations should be used once and discarded immediately. Likewise, any phone used to call any cooperative local official would be used once and then discarded. It might even be a good idea to make these calls from distant locations. Call someone on the other side of town, or another country or who is driving around in a car, and then have them relay the messages to the people you don't want connected with the operation using a completely different prepaid phone that is immediately discarded. If the person tracking you knows that you've called Langley or Aviano, then they'll know to track that phone number. A call to another anonymous cell phone in the city is unlikely to arouse suspicion. If the phone called from the suspect phone is not used to place the sensitive call but rather another prepaid phone, then the number called is a dead end. If the phone used to call U.S. or foreign officials is used once, the trail begins and ends with the one call. If the phone is then left somewhere to be stolen, then tracing calls from that number leads to a whole new set of false leads.

I doubt that the Italians could have pieced together the convoluted trail created by using dozens of prepaid phones or SIM cards for limited periods of time, and then allowing them to be "stolen" or redistributed.

Spooks, Gadgets, and "The Bourne Ultimatum" Part I

I went to see "The Bourne Ultimatum" a second time last night. Lest you think that I loved it so much that I had to see it twice --- the first time was with just my daughter and friends, and the second time was with my wife and son. However, it is a good movie and I definitely recommend it. It was almost as entertaining the second time as the first. As usual, I picked up clues and connections the second time around that I missed the first time. It is a high energy, action packed movie full of equally exciting foot, scooter, motorcycle, and car chases. The frequent use of jittery handheld camera shots even for close ups combined with fast cuts of little pieces of action might leave you feeling motion sick, but it all adds to the feeling of constantly being on edge. But this isn't about the movie, this is about the CIA, NSA, and gadgets. If you'd like a collection of reviews, visit .
In the movie, cell phone calls are intercepted, closed circuit cameras are hijacked, compact digital camera images are viewed from the other side of the world in real time, people are tracked in real time, innocent people are assaulted in broad daylight, and a lot of other things happen that leave you wondering --- can they really do that?

Events are set in motion when a British journalist mentions "blackbriar" on his cell phone in London. This is picked up by a CIA substation (i.e., listening post) and a top level black ops section in New York is notified in minutes and provided with a full recording of the conversation. Can they do that? I believe the answer is "maybe, sort of..." There is no doubt that the US government operates programs around the world where they listen to electronic communications. The Echelon program is known to identify key words and other data. However, it is doubtful that this can be done instantly in real time for random communications as opposed to tapping a specific known target. There must be millions of telephone conversations in London every day. The word "blackbriar" gets 32,400 hits when you Google it. The task of instantly identifying one person who mentions the word "blackbriar" and then tapping every phone connected with him would simply be too massive, especially when millions and millions of communications are monitored. Note the frustration of the FBI over the flood of "tips" generated by the NSA listening programs in this ACLU article. Could they do it? Maybe but it would take days, weeks, or months to be identified and followed up most likely.

Everyone knows that London is perhaps the most surveilled major city in the world with closed circuit TV (CCTV) everywhere. But could a CIA post in New York City take control of these cameras and operate them from New York City? I doubt it. It would take the cooperation of the British authorities in charge of the cameras, or you would have to hack into the control system. Although the U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies cooperate, it is doubtful that the U.K. authorities would cede complete control of their CCTV system to the U.S. If the system is even connected to the Internet or could otherwise be hacked, it would undoubtedly set off alarm bells when the cameras started whizzing around scanning the crowd and following people all by themselves. I also believe that there would be too many technical hurdles for a top secret CIA post in New York to control cameras on the other side of the Atlantic. What happens in the movie would be a disaster for the U.K. and the U.S. as it results in the obviously professional assassination of a journalist who has already published articles about Bourne and is known to be investigating the CIA. This one doesn't pass the smell test.

In a number of scenes, CIA agents employ compact digital cameras to transmit images around the world to New York City. Can they do this? Maybe. We don't know how they do this in the movie. Is it via satellite? Is it via cell phone technology? We just don't know. However, the cameras used are very small and have no external antennas. They look a lot like this Sanyo. The U.S. government might be able to make an ultracompact video camera that transmits via cell phone technology. I doubt it could make one that small that would transmit in real time via satellite. A compact satellite telephone looks like this. Note the antenna. You wouldn't need a keypad, or a screen if it called only one number when activated so maybe it could be made smaller, but you'd also need room for the camera systems so maybe, maybe not. However, even if this could be done, would you want to? Would you want a video record of your break ins, murders, and kidnappings flying around the ether via either cell phone or satellite? I wouldn't. As I'll mention later, cell phones have caused the CIA enough trouble.

I also don't believe that CIA operatives would run through public places brandishing guns, stopping buses, shooting at police, ramming cars, and assaulting people in plain view. This would create a public relations nightmare and would attract too much attention, especially if a journalist was then killed nearby with a single bullet to the head under very difficult circumstances. There is also the moral problem of getting a relatively large number of people to participate in random killings, assaults, and serious bodily injury to journalists, fellow agents, people waiting for buses, police officers, bystanders, random motorists, and others who haven't been charged with any crime or wrongdoing of any sort. It is one thing to target known terrorists sworn to destroy the U.S. and another to willy nilly order assassinations and run the very real risk of killing, maiming, and injuring bystanders. We know from the Italian kidnapping case and others that the CIA can efficiently and quietly grab people, but, as we'll see in my next post, they aren't so good at covering their tracks.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

You're A Mean One Mr. Brooks!

The wife and I recently got a night out without the kids and decided to see an “adult” movie. No, not an XXX movie! I mean a movie that wouldn’t be appropriate for the kids to see. We settled on “Mr. Brooks” with Kevin Costner. It was a good choice. It was definitely different from our usual movie going these days.

The main character, Earl Brooks, is that most modern of monsters --- a thoroughly organized, very intelligent, highly functioning serial killer. He has a thriving business, a happy family, and a beautiful home. He is a modern day Jekyll and Hyde. Although most serial killers suffer from Antisocial Personality Disorder, the organized serial killer is one of the two types of serial killers so Earl Brooks is not as improbable as I first thought. Mr. Brooks has a voice in his head named Marshall (portrayed by William Hurt) so he is probably schizophrenic, which makes his button downed facade more improbable. Mr. Brooks is sort of like Hannibal Lecter without the cannibalism. Mr. Brooks is chilling in the way that only someone who stalks and kills other people but is the Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year can be. I won’t reveal too much of the plot because it is the plot twists and turns that make this movie worth watching.

Marg Helgenberger of “China Beach” and most recently, “CSI; Crime Scene Investigation” is her usually lovely self as Mrs. Brooks. I do question why such a loving wife never wonders where her husband is during his all night long adventures. The cover story is that he is in his pottery studio. But no one in the family ever comes to the studio to check on him, to chat, or to see his latest work. The studio is ridiculously clean and where do all those pieces that he must create go? Danielle Panabaker plays the beautiful college age daughter. She’s just a bit creepy when she hangs all over Daddy to get what she wants. Is she seducing her father or what? Costner’s reserve saves these scenes from being too creepy.

Speaking of reserve, at least one review I read complained that Costner slept walk through the role and didn’t portray enough emotional range. I think that’s the point. Underneath the cool, calm, reserved exterior of Earl Brooks lurks a homicidal maniac. A person fighting his homicidal urges and the encouraging voice in his head would probably be very reserved as he struggled to maintain his facade of normalcy. It is that thin veneer of calm competence that makes Costner’s portrayal of Brooks so chillingly believable. By the way, Mr. Brooks fights his “addiction” to killing by attending AA meetings. He repeats AA prayers often and calls himself an addict.

Demi Moore is the equally improbable homicide detective who hunts Brooks. What is so improbable about her character? She is a tough as nails, unstoppable homicide detective who is even wealthier than Brooks. It would be like Paris Hilton picking up a gun and a badge and going to work.

Dane Cook plays the serial killer fanboy, Mr. Smith who wheedles his way into the life of Earl Brooks so that he can vicariously feel the thrill of the kill. He manages to make his character even less sympathetic than Earl Brooks. He has never killed anyone and yet you find yourself rooting for Brooks against Smith. It can’t be easy to play a character that makes a serial killer look good. Mr. Smith's nervousness and lack of calm makes a good counterpoint to Earl Brooks.

It is frightening to think that there actually are seemingly normal people just like your next door neighbor who are capable of serial murder. In the end, that is what makes this movie a guilty pleasure. If you like low key “horror movies” that are more cerebral than visceral, I’d recommend this thriller as one you should see.

Announcing A New Blog

As I've mentioned before, I started this blog just for fun. I've been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who've read it. I never really expected anybody to read it. Furthermore, it proved that I like blogging and can sustain regular posts.

I've had a website for my law practice for years, but updating it has always been cumbersome. Updating a blog is, however, a snap and it is the perfect format for regular fresh contributions. Therefore, I've started a blog for my office at I call it the Harry Thomas Hackney, P.A. Florida Law Blawg. No, "blawg" is not a misspelling. It is a common play on words for law related blogs. If you have any interest in Florida law, especially estate planning, check it out.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Of Goblins and DRM

I recently finished reading the seventh and final Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows. A great read, but this is not a review. I just had to comment on a short exchange between Harry and Bill Weasley on the subject of goblin concepts of ownership. Griphook , the goblin, will help Harry with a task but only if Harry promises to give him a certain goblin-made weapon. Bill senses Harry has made a deal with the goblin and endeavours to explain to Harry goblin concepts of ownership. Bill explains that "To a goblin, the rightful and true master of any object is the maker, not the purchaser. All goblin made objects are, in goblin eyes, rightfully theirs." When Harry protests "But it was bought ---", Bill goes on to explain that to a goblin the item is rented by the payor for life, but upon the death of that person it ought to return to goblin possession. The wizard habit of passing goblin-made items from wizard to wizard is viewed by the goblins as thievery.

Wow! Goblins invented digital rights management (DRM) and run the RIAA! Who knew? Considering that J. K. Rowling is a billionaire thanks to copyright, this position strikes me as odd. This exchange between Bill and Harry is not essential to the narrative. In fact, it ends up not really having much to do with the story at all. So I can only conclude that Rowling stuck it in as a commentary on copyright and DRM. Given that the wizards are the sympathetic characters and goblins are generally not sympathetically portrayed, it is difficult to see this as an endorsement of the goblin view of property rights. Rowling's publishers go to great lengths to protect her books from being leaked in advance, as they should. And Rowling has deservedly made a fortune from her books. All of this is made possible by copyright.

However, as an author, Rowling knows that once purchased her books will be lent by libraries and passed from reader to reader. My wife and I shared one book. We don't buy two books and no one would expect us to, but when I buy a recording subject to DRM the music industry does everything it can to make it difficult for me to share even within my own family. The easiest way for me to share music with my wife is to hand her my iPod. Despite the fact that books can be, and are, easily passed around, shared, and lent by libraries, Rowling and other authors still reap handsome rewards from their labors. Perhaps there are some lessons here for the RIAA and the music industry about making money without suing your fans.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Power of Blogging

I wrote earlier about how surprised I was that people actually can find and read my blog. I’ve been reading the book "What No One Ever Tells You About Blogging and Podcasting: Real-Life Advice from 101 People Who Successfully Leverage the Power of the Blogosphere" by Ted Demopoulos, which makes the point that search engines love blogs. Well, shortly thereafter I got a first hand lesson in just how much.

I got my weekly report about my site stats. The first thing I noticed was that over 100 people had read my blog. Now that’s probably no big deal for a celebrity blog with a focused subject, but this is a totally idiosyncratic personal blog a so-called “cat blog” that’s only been around a couple of months. I wasn’t sure anyone would ever read my blog. I’ve had a business website for years that is only just beginning to reach that level. Frankly, I rarely update the website because it is pain. It also seemed like there was a sudden jump in readership. Upon examining the referral pages, it seemed most of the jump was because I had reviewed the movie Live Free or Die Harder. In that review, I mentioned the F35 STOVL fighter jet. I guess a lot of people looked that up wondering if it really could hover. (It can.) TIP: If you want people to read your blog, write about a popular movie.

But the thing that really convinced me of the power of blogging and how much search engines love blogs was a referral page on which someone had searched for “ron john shops,” which is a misspelling of Ron Jon. In any event, my blog was number one on the page and ranked above Ron Jon’s own website! That’s nuts! That is when I decided that I had to add a blog to By the way, if you search for “ron jon shops”, which is the correct spelling, my blog comes in at number 10. That’s still pretty crazy. I cannot explain the difference, but apparently search engines love recency as well as links.

If you’ve got a website to promote your business, you might want to consider adding a blog.

Surf's Up For Family Fun

First, let me make it perfectly clear that I did NOT want to see this movie. My reaction when the trailer came on before other movies was “not another penguin movie!” Now that my children are 11 and 13 I’m looking forward to fewer animated children’s movies and more PG and even PG-13 fare. In fact, I had planned to take my son (the older child) to Live Free or Die Harder, but he invited along a friend who wanted to see Surf’s Up a second time rather than Die Harder. So I very reluctantly went to “another penguin movie!”

The three of us were the only people in the theatre for a 5:50 p.m. Wednesday evening showing. The kids got a real kick out of that. It was like a private showing. I was pleasantly surprised by the movie. The only apparent reason for most of the characters to be penguins is a blatant appeal for the “cute factor.” Oddly there are Antarctic penguins, Australian penguins, and tropical island jungle penguins --- odd but entertaining. One major character is a chicken from Wisconsin. How a chicken from Wisconsin ends up on the back of a whale in the Southern Ocean is never explained. But then who cares? Another non-penguin is a badger (I think) surf promoter with a Don King hairdo. The chicken is daffy and way cool.

The movie is laugh out loud funny even in an empty theatre or maybe that’s especially in an empty theatre. The movie ultimately works because it is really a tale about following your dreams against all odds, friendship, loyalty and loving what you do. In this movie, winning isn’t everything. Everything is staying loose and having fun while doing your best. Winning is the byproduct of loving what you do and doing what you love. The win at all costs penguin surf champ who worships his trophies is a jerk. For the real winners, friends come first. In addition to being funny, the movie has a good moral for kids too. I recommend it. It has earned good reviews and they're well deserved.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard: The Implausibilities

Warning! Spoilers Follow! I don't want to ruin anybody's fun, but I just can't let some of the implausibilities of Live Free or Die Hard go without comment. Here's a list of just some of the implausibilities in the movie.

  • A raging gun battle goes on in a city for 15 minutes and not even one police car is seen or heard.
  • McClane seeks cover behind plaster and lathe walls that are shot to pieces but he's not even nicked.
  • Farrell's computer blows apart while McClane and he are in an adjoining room. We see similar explosions level homes earlier, but Farrell and McClane aren't scratched or even bleeding from their ears.
  • The bad guys crash the entire country from a moving truck, but never grab for a handhold or sway.
  • McClane brings down a helicopter with a police car. (Hint: If you're being shot at from a helicopter at very close range, shoot back at the rotors or motor.)
  • Standard cell phones are used to hack computer systems and tap into satellite communications.
  • An F35 Lightning hovers under an overpass. (Yes, an F35 can hover, but under a highway?)
  • McClane survives having missiles and cannons from the F35 shot at him.
  • Enough bullets are shot at McClane to keep the U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq supplied for an entire month, but he is never hit. He, of course, dispatches the bad guys with a pistol.
  • The hackers tap away on keyboards at hyperspeed and the computers react instantly.
  • The bad guys fly over D.C. in an unmarked helicopter while brandishing assault rifles.
  • McClane flies a helicopter and finds the Warlocks house miles away without any trouble even though all utilities are out so he's flying through total darkness.
Now for the glaring errors --- McClane walks past an overturned Crown Victoria cab and you can clearly see there's no exhaust, transmission, drive shaft, or rear axle. Next to it is another car completely stripped of its interior.C'mon folks! You're making a mega budget Hollywood blockbuster! Is it too much to ask that you not completely strip the cars before burning them?

Still the pace, special effects, and fun of the action carries the movie through all the eye rolling implausibilities. In the end, isn't it all about the spectacle?

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard: Implausibly Entertaining

If I judged movies based on plausibility, then Live Free or Die Hard would be one of the worst movies I've ever seen, but that's not how I judge movies. I judge movies based on whether I'm entertained and don't check my watch to see how much longer it is. You won't be checking your watch during this entertaining, fast paced, action flick. Even the critics give it a 78% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes . For once, they seem to recognize a movie for what it is --- mindlessly fun entertainment.

Bruce Willis still has what it takes to play the wisecracking, courageous, super tough cop John McClane. All of the elements of the Die Hard formula are there. Justin Long ,who plays "the Mac" in the Mac vs. PC commercials, is his reluctant good hacker sidekick. The plot involves a high tech scheme to "crash" the U.S. for nefarious purposes. Long's character, Matthew Farrell, is using an Apple computer for his hacking when we first meet him. I wonder if that was a requirement of his contract? For the rest of the movie, he does most of his hacking, including tapping into satellite communications, on a Nokia 9300 PDA phone. Just as implausibly the bad guys use Nokia N95s or similar phones for much of their hacking. Ironically the uberhacker known as "The Warlock" (super-geek director Kevin Smith) exclaims with amazement that the head evil hacker crashed NORAD with "just a laptop." He'll be really amazed to discover the same guy crashes the whole country with a few desktops and cell phones.

This plot wouldn't even have been possible when the first Die Hard was released in 1988. Every day technology has advanced that much. In this movie, computers, cell phones, and the latest STOVL jets are as essential to the plot as the curmudgeonly John McClane.

Timothy Olyphant portrays the chief evil hacker as the kind of villain you just love to hate. Maggie Q plays his girlfriend/accomplice, Mai. McClane describes her as "smokin' hot", as do many Internet commentators, and she is "smokin' hot", but you're not sorry to see her go.

A lot of the implausibilities are good for a chuckle or provide the thrills. There's a lot of bits that make you think "that would never work, but it sure is cool to watch!" After all, cartoonish escapes and the ability to keep going after being run over, shot, beaten, and falling 50 feet are all part of the Die Hard formula.

In the end, good triumphs over evil. McClane is implausibly still standing despite an army of bad guys focused on killing him. He takes a lickin' and keeps tickin', as one character says he's "a Timex watch in a digital world."

A good time was had by all. Even the implausible bits are good for a chuckle so put your brain in park and have a good time.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Old Timey Florida Vacations

Florida's beaches used to be lined with one story "mom and pop" type motels. Most of them have been replaced with impersonal, characterless multistory condominiums and resort hotels. The Sea-Aire is one "mom and pop" motel that survives in Cocoa Beach a mile or two south of Ron Jon's Surf Shop. It was built in 1950 and is still family owned. My family likes to go there for the occasional beach weekend. It sits directly on the Atlantic Ocean. You can see the rocket gantries at the Kennedy Space Center in the distance to the north. It would be the perfect spot to watch a shuttle launch. Every one of the 16 rooms is an efficiency with a kitchenette and the room rates average between $80.00 and $100.00 per night (as of July 2007 but rates may vary seasonally and change). All the rooms have tile floors, two twin beds, a window unit air conditioner, and ceiling fan.

As for those window units, window a/c's supplied the sound track to my youth. I dont' notice them and neither does my New England born and raised wife. We consider the sound "white noise." They're a non-issue. Some of the rooms have the air conditioners somewhat removed in an entrance alcove. Our room had it right in the room. When our friend, who was in one of the rooms where the a/c is slightly removed, asked us if the noise bothered us we said, "What noise?" However, after she brought it up, I realized what she meant. So if window unit a/c's keep you up, you might want to make sure you get one of the rooms facing the ocean where they're in an alcove.

Who would like the Sea-Aire? Anyone who ---
  • wants to stay directly on the ocean with direct access to the beach (no walking down the hall to the elevator, through the lobby, across the parking lot, around the pool...).

  • appreciates a bargain.

  • doesn't mind not having room service.
  • likes to sip a beer while grilling outdoors and enjoying a million dollar view.
  • doesn't want to worry about the furniture and the carpet when coming back from the beach.
  • likes to sit and listen to the waves come in.
  • won't miss a swimming pool when you're ocean front.
  • likes friendly service.
  • likes to cook their own meals in their room or an outdoor pavilion.
Who won't like the Sea Aire? Anyone who ---
  • insists on room service.
  • thinks waiting five minutes for a fresh mai tai is a hardship.
  • who goes to the beach to sit by a swimming pool.
  • enjoys schlepping their beach equipment 200 yards to the beach.
  • who expects the Ritz Carlton.
The Sea Aire doesn't advertise free wifi as far as I know, but there is a weak but usable wifi connection. It does advertise "flower gardens" and there are a few beds of flowers, but if you're expecting extensive lush gardens you'll be disappointed. The office keeps a supply of boogie boards and sand toys on hand for the kids to use. Because the floors are tiled and you'll be trekking in sand, dirt, and bits of grass, you may want to bring a Swiffer or a damp mop to keep the floors clean.

The Merritt Square Mall and a Cobb Theatre multiplex are just over the causeway about 10 minutes away. A number of restaurants are nearby, including Grills at Port Canaveral. Funntasia Fantasy Golf is straight up A1A. We had a great time there one evening thanks to the friendly staff. A little farther north is Traxx at Jungle Village, which features go cart tracks, batting cages, bumper cars, a climbing wall, and an arcade. The Kennedy Space Center, Police Hall of Fame, and Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum are also nearby. For adults only, there are a number of bars nearby, including some offering entertainment of an "exotic" nature, and a Fairvilla megastore [NSFW].

If you're looking for a beachfront spot and you're primary focus is family fun and hanging out at the beach, then the Sea Aire is for you.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Thank You Ron Jon's Surf Shop

This is my first July 4th at Cocoa Beach. It is common for fireworks to be shot off on the beaches of Florida during the 4th. You can often see several fireworks displays at a time up and down the coast as each municipality launches its fireworks show. The world famous Ron Jon's Surf Shop apparently provides the display here. It was a very good display that was much appreciated by all. It was a fitting end to a beautiful Central Florida day. Thank you Ron Jon's for brightening everyone's July 4th. A good time was had by all.

Happy Fourth of July 2007: 231 Years of Independence

The Fourth of July has long been my favorite holiday. Perhaps it relates to the summer of '78 when I got my first "real" job out of high school. I started on July 3rd and on July 4th I was floating in a pool eating barbecued chicken and drinking beer while pulling in $3.00 an hour. Life was good! My first paid holiday. Maybe it relates to the summer of '76 (1976) when I sat on Fort Lauderdale beach right to next to the fireworks pit and watched the fireworks. We were so close that bits of fireworks fell on us.

But what we should all remember on July 4th is the summer of 1776 when the Founding Fathers took that momentous step and declared our independence from England. In an age when royalty was believed to be ordained by God to rule over the populous, they had the temerity, the unmitigated gall, the nerve to declare themselves no longer bound by the edicts of their King and his parliament. These were for the most part wealthy men with much to lose. George Washington was one of the richest men in America. His home was a grand palace in a nation of rough hewn log cabins and shacks. And yet he and the others risked it all to establish a grand experiment in republican government. They established a nation ruled by the people and for the people. A nation not of men, but of laws where the rights of the individual are acknowledged and respected over the rights of the state. Where individual rights could be protected from majority rule and not taken away by the vote of others. A country where no man or woman ruled over any other by divine edict.* We take it for granted today, but in the 18th century this was unheard of. Democratic republics didn't exist. Men with power never gave it up willingly. No one went to war so that all might be free.

There is no better example of the selflessness of the Founding Fathers than George Washington. How many modern power hungry politicians would pass up a golden opportunity to be king? George Washington could have been king, but instead he followed the example of Cincinnatus. George Washington's example set the tradition that presidents would only serve two terms and then return to private life. There would be no dynasties. Compare that to the spectacle of the privileges that public officials grant themselves and the way that Congressional delegates and Senators view themselves as elected for life. They rarely give up power willingly even in their dotage. Make no mistake about it, the Founding Fathers were extraordinary men who came together in an extraordinary time. Many of them were self-made and not born to privilege. Alexander Hamilton was a poor lad from the Caribbean islands, and yet rose to become the first Secretary of the Treasury and to establish the foundations of the banking system we still use today. All that mattered was brains and talent. Birthright was irrelevant.

So take a minute today while you're enjoying your barbecued chicken, or hot dog, or hamburger and reflect on the extraordinary men who made this holiday possible. Ask yourself would you do the same? Would you risk a comfortable life to make the world a freer place not only for yourself but for all men and women?* And while you're at it, reflect also on the extraordinary men and women who have defended our country in the past and who are serving abroad now in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and around the world on the land and seas and in the air. Our military has volunteered to serve. Think about that --- they've volunteered to leave their comfortable lives to get shot at. They deserve our thanks. Thank you servicemen and women around the world.

* Yes, I am fully aware of the contradiction that many of these same men subjugated others and kept slaves, including Jefferson and Washington. I know it is popular to focus on the foibles of the Founding Fathers and to hold them to the same standards that we follow 231 years later. They are easy targets in our politically correct world because they were all white men and that is very unfashionable today. However, they were men of their times and not of ours. Their flaws don't make their accomplishments any less extraordinary. Make no mistake about it, what they did created the U.S. and all of us of every race, creed and color enjoy a better life today because of it whether you realize it or not.

Friday, June 29, 2007

If It Ain't Broke, Why Fix It? The Treo 680

I bought my Treo 650 in late 2004. Despite the occasional lock up and reset, I really enjoyed it. When people asked me how I liked my "phone," I'd usually reply, "Great! Except when it acts like a computer." It survived a number of drops and was pretty banged up by the time I replaced it. The case was cracked on either side of the screen and the limited memory was starting to fill up. I wasn't going to replace it though. Treo's are expensive and I was hoping that if I held onto it long enough I could skip a generation. Alas, it was not to be! I accidentally dropped it at The Mission Inn

driving range and it stayed out overnight. It was found but it had some water in the case --- not a good sign. It seemed to work fine except that one entire column of keys typed the letter to the left of the key pushed. I couldn't type "i", "k", or "m" and at least one other key had failed earlier. It was time for a new phone.

I picked up a new crimson Treo 680. Why crimson? Why not? I was tired of boring grey. I've had it for a couple of weeks and I'm a little disappointed. On the positive side, I haven't had any lock ups and I haven't had to reset it. The new screen is also a big improvement. Although some commentators complain about the camera, I took the picture of the brownies below with it and it seems better than the 650. I was surprised to read that the 680 lacks a reset button. I guess you have to remove the battery now for a reset. That's an example of what I meant when I said, "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" The reset button worked fine on the 650. Likewise, I liked the interface of the 650. The changes to the 680 interface seem to be different for the sake of being different and not for improvement. Now the "Favorites" are one long scroll showing 7 buttons at a time. On the 650, the "Favorites" were arranged in pages of about a dozen buttons per page. You have to edit the "Contact" entry in order to assign a unique ring tone to a caller. Again, this seems more difficult than on the 650. The method for making a call is also subtly changed so that placing a call seems more cumbersome. You have to dial the number and then press send, but I keep wanting to push the button with the phone icon or the center button of the 5 way navigation button for some reason.

Now a scroll bar appears across the bottom of the screen. There are 5 buttons for the phone keypad, "Favorites", "Main", "Contacts:", and "Call Log." The keypad is particularly boring and doesn't provide information like time, number of new messages and emails or next appointment. The "Favorites" is a long. boring scroll. The "Main" setting let's you set your own background picture and shows the time, dates, next appointment, messages, and email. This is my default setting. The "Call Log" has some nice clear icons to show if the call was incoming or outgoing.

On the positive side, the 680 lacks the antenna protuberance on the 650, seems a little lighter, a little thinner, and easier to hold. The form factor is much improved. I was thrilled to discover the 680 comes with a car charger. The 650 was the only phone I've ever owned that didn't. The USB cable that you use for hotsyncing with your computer will trickle charge the phone while it is plugged into your computer. The USB cable also seems to be more sturdy as do both of the chargers. A lot of people have complained about a lack of battery life. That was never a problem with the 650 and hasn't been a problem yet with the 680. There are 3 ways to charge the phone (car charger, wall charger, and hotsync cable). I plug in my phones every night and that seems to be enough. Now I can also keep it plugged in while driving. Maybe the people who complain are like my wife, who never plugs in her Blackberry and is always running out of battery power.

Bottom Line: I like it, but I wouldn't have bothered to upgrade if the 650 hadn't reached the end of its useful life. If you've got a 650 in good shape and like it, then you might want to keep it. By the way, I checked out a 750 but I don't know Windows mobile and the interface seemed crowded and clunky. I've always liked the simplicity of Palm. We'll see how much longer Palm lasts.

For some longer more detailed reviews try The Gadgeteer,, or C/Net.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Who Will Read Your Blog? You'd Be Surprised!

I recently added two site counters and some code for Google Analytics to this blog. Before I added these, I wondered whether anybody ever read this blog. I assumed it was pretty obscure, and it is. I don't get a lot of traffic, but now, thanks to the site counters and Google Analytics, I know that people do read it and I even know how they find it. I no longer write something and then helplessly wonder whether anybody will ever read it. The fascinating thing to me are the searches that lead people to this blog.

For example, someone searched the words "Veronica Belmont precocious." I've never called Veronica Belmont precocious. However, I have mentioned Veronica Belmont and I called Nancy Drew "precocious." So, if you search these words in Google, my blog comes up as the fourth item. Whoulda thunk it? Someone else searched for the exact phrase "tips for living in Florida" and up came this blog as item number two of two. I'm actually surprised that searching for the exact phrase "tips for living in Florida" only produces two items. One of the first referring pages that showed up on the counter was someone from the United Kingdom searching for brief reviews of Spiderman 3. So somebody from England read my review of Spiderman 3. Pretty cool!

The random ways that people find my blog are amazing. Of course, some of the randomness is the result of the totally unfocused idiosyncratic nature of this blog. I write this blog primarily for my own amusement and to learn about blogging. Now I have a greater understanding of what professional bloggers mean when they talk about the key search terms that lead people to their blogs. I didn't understand exactly how they knew this until I installed the site counters and discovered what is tracked and that you can see the search phrases people used and the search page they viewed. This is pretty powerful information if you're trying to attract people to your site or buying ads via Adwords. In fact, I'm going to ask the webmaster of my office web page to add Google Analytics to my professional website.

By the way, as I was typing this, someone came to my blog because they searched for "Floridian spider" on the Dell search page. "Floridian spider"? Whoulda thunk!?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Happy Dad Day!

My daughter made me brownies for Father's Day complete with M&M decorations. Yum!

This photo was taken with my new Treo 680. I think it looks pretty good for a phone camera.

Spot the Product Placement

As I mention in my review of "Nancy Drew", Nancy uses a Mac Book for her online sleuthing. It is a brilliant bit of product placement. The Apple notebook shares several scenes with Nancy and can't be missed. Apple seems to be seriously pursuing product placement in movies. Ever noticed how you see more Mac Books in movies than Windows notebooks? Seems to be the reverse of the real world. Nancy also uses a video iPod. She even manages to seal the bad guy's fate with her iPod and an accessory. According to the "Washington Post" newspaper, Apple does not pay for these placements, but it was one of the first company's to employ an agent in Hollywood to promote the use of its products in TVs and movies.

Product placement on TV and in movies amuses me more than it annoys me, as long as the product is a seamless part of the show and not out of place. I'd rather see movie and TV characters drink Coke and Pepsi than black and white cans of who-knows-what. It is actually much less jarring. When characters drink from blank cans, it is obvious that the producers are just trying to avoid giving a soda company a free plug. Besides product placement has to be the way of the future. Thanks to Tivo I only watch the most amusing commercials or the first few for a new product or show that I'm interested in.

Nancy Drew: Cluelessly In Pursuit of Clues

The movie "Nancy Drew" answers the question nobody asked: What would Nancy Drew be like if you plucked her straight from the pages of her books and plopped her down in 21st century L.A.? The answer is a plucky, precocious, pretty young sleuth cluelessly pursuing clues. Calling Nancy clueless is not an insult. It is part of the quirky charm of the movie. Nancy is brilliant, business-like , and perfect. She just doesn't seem to have a clue (most of the time) that she is a walking , talking anachronism. She even drives a Nash Metropolitan, which is the most uncool convertible ever made and possibly even more uncool than Steve Urkel's Isetta. But nothing, not even the disdain of the cool girls, dissuades her from pursuing the mystery of the mansion that she and her father have rented in L.A.

This movie uses the same device as the "The Brady Bunch Movie" where the Brady's are plucked from the '70s in their polyester britches and deposited in the '90s. Nancy, her Dad, Carson, her best friend/boyfriend, Ned, and the town of River Heights all seem to exist in a '50s time warp while the rest of the world has moved on. But this doesn't keep Nancy from driving a rented Ford Escape, using a Mac Book for online sleuthing, or carrying a nifty GPS enabled cell phone. The end result is a quirky and loving send up of the Nancy Drew series.

Look for the ever ironic, self-deprecating Bruce Willis playing himself in a cameo.

Some critics worry that you can't take the kids back to River Heights after they've seen the CG special effects of Harry Potter, Narnia, and countless others. Well, they're wrong. Kids still enjoy the occasional simple movie with a story and acting. Speaking of which, Emma Roberts does a great job of playing Nancy straight up without a hint of irony or condescension. Someday she may even be as pretty as her Aunt Julia. Lucky for her she looks a lot more like her Aunt Julia, than her father, Eric.

This is a worthwhile movie for the whole family. All four of us enjoyed it. And that's my bottom line for any movie --- did I enjoy it? I'll leave the nitpicking of cinematography vs. direction vs. plot to the critics. I only worry about enjoying the movie and not comparing one movie to another.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Peek Behind the Beauty Scene

I'm the proud father of a beautiful eleven year old girl. She's naturally pretty thanks to Mom's genetics. But every little girl is bombarded with unrealistic visions of beauty every day. You've probably never seen a magazine cover where the model's image wasn't artificially enhanced in some way. Even Cindy Crawford gets this treatment. Have you ever seen a supermodel photographed without make up? Ugh! You wouldn't give most of them a first glance never mind a second. Here's a film every little girl should watch. It demonstrates just how much work goes into these images of "natural" beauty.

Outsourcing Legal Jobs

It’s being done with customer and technical support services, software development, engineering, and even the reading of X-rays and MRIs.

And now a Florida Bar member wants to know if it is ethical to outsource legal research to India. The Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee will take up the issue when it meets June 29 at the Annual Convention in Orlando.

So begins a front page article by Senior Editor Gary Blankenship in the June 15, 2007 edition of "The Florida Bar News", which is the official newspaper of the Florida Bar. Frankly, I don't believe that outsourcing should necessarily be "unethical", but maybe it ought to be unpatriotic. Yes, I know that we're capitalists and outsourcing is good capitalism at work and capitalism is what makes us perhaps the greatest economy in the world. But I still can't help but worry about where this is taking us. I've mentioned before that I'm concerned we're becoming a nation of "haves" and "have nots" where the "haves" control the outsourced goods and services and the rest of us buy from them. As one wag put it (possibly John C. Dvorak on the TWiT podcast), outsourcing makes millionaires into billionaires. And that's what bothers me --- is outsourcing driven by short-term greed? Will all the displaced lawyers and paralegals really find "better work" elsewhere? After all these are well paid office jobs and not factory jobs.

Large law firms are most likely to embrace outsourcing. Partners at those firms already earn substantial six figure salaries. Their newest lawyers start at or near six figures in some cases. They've bid up starting salaries to silly levels by insisting on chasing the same handful of lawyers, which is the top ten percent of the class at certain schools. Outsourcing would allow them to leverage those high priced young lawyers even more. Thus, they could move from six figures to seven figures. But at what price to America?

I recently questioned a friend about the wisdom of his daughter's decision to become a radiologist. I wondered whether she had considered the fact that radiology was increasingly outsourced. He advised that he had already had that same discussion with her. It is tempting to think that the answer would be to become a surgeon. After all, doesn't someone have to physically stand at the table and do the cutting? Not anymore! You may have read about telesurgery performed via robot. This is touted as increasing the precision of the surgeon who uses the steady and tiny robotic limbs to perform surgery. It can also be done remotely. Surgeries have already been performed where the surgeon was on a different continent from the patient. How long then until the surgeon stands in Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro or Beijing while the patient lies on a table in Tijuana or Nassau? Surgical tourism is already burgeoning. I picked locations outside the U.S. on the assumption that the AMA's lobbyists will prevent this from being done in the U.S. unless, of course, the doctors who run the AMA think they'll make more money and too bad for the new doctors. Certainly hospitals would love the idea.

In Episode 100 of the TWiT podcast they bemoaned the decline in students majoring in computer science. I think John C. Dvorak nailed the reason when he opined that there was no incentive to major in computer science in the U.S. when all the jobs were being outsourced to India. You'd have to be nuts. How many times have you heard of programmers, computer designers, and technical support employees being laid off because their jobs were outsourced? How many times do you have to read that before you get a clue and major in something else?

They also discussed H-1B visas and the push to get more of them approved. Large computer companies whine and moan that the they can't get enough skilled employees so they need to import workers from India, which is what the H-1B visa program let's them do. The fact that an imported engineer thinks he's getting rich on half the money doesn't have anything to do with their desire to import him though. Of course not! This is a use of legal immigration to depress wages just as illegal immigration does the same. Big businesses love of illegal immigration has a lot more to do with a love of cheap labor than it does a love of America's immigrant heritage. Milton Friedman the free market, libertarian economist derides H-1B visas as a government subsidy to IT companies. It is a way for the government to supply lower wage non-U.S. workers to industry. Thus, huge CEO salaries are subsidized at the expense of citizen workers.

As much as I love capitalism and love to think that a rising tide raises all boats, I'm not sure that I can embrace this trend. If you/'re young and worried about your own future, I guess the best thing you can do is find a career that requires a physical presence and can't be outsourced and buy the stock of outsourcers with any money you can save.

Blogged with Flock

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Another Take on the Unauthorized Use of a Computer

Here is another take on the issue of unauthorized computer use. I earlier wrote about a Michigan gentleman who was charged with a felony for checking his email on an open wifi connection without first buying a cup of coffee. See, Keeping the World Safe From Email Checking Leeches. Now we have a Florida case in which a man used his employer's computer network to steal from the employer, but Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled that the unauthorized use of the computer network was not one of his crimes. The full text of the Florida Statute can be found here. The Florida Statute is much more detailed and explicit and, therefore, better written than the Michigan statute. The Florida court focused on the issue of "authorized access", which the employee had, versus exceeding the authority granted, which is what the employee did. The Florida court contrasted the language in Florida's statute with a Federal law. The Federal statute added the language "exceeding authorized access" to the proscribed conduct, which was not in the Florida law. The Florida statute also had a clause that read, "This section does not apply to any person who accesses his or her employer's computer system, computer network, computer program, or computer data when acting within the scope of his or her lawful employment." § 815.06(6), Fla. Stat. (2003). This clause excused the defendant's use in excess of his authority. In contrast, the Michigan statute is so broadly written that the mere "use" of a computer network "without authorization" is a felony. The Florida statute requires maliciousness or harm and not mere "use."

Admittedly, we're not comparing apples to apples here, but isn't it ironic that the Michigan man faced jail for merely checking email with no malicious intent while the Florida man committed no "computer crime" while stealing from his employer? I think both legislatures need to revisit their statutes. The Michigan legislature needs to rewrite their obscenely overbroad statute. The Florida legislature needs to consider an exception to subsection (6) so that the deliberate use of the employer's computer for theft is a crime. On the other hand, it wasn't like the state didn't have the defendant for his theft anyway. A crime is a crime whether committed with a computer or not. Misuse of a computer does not carry the same potential for harm as the misuse of a gun so maybe there is no reason to enhance the already stiff penalty for grand theft.

This case was brought to my attention by Matt Conigliaro's Abstract Appeal blawg.

Outsourcing: Boon or the death of America?

Henry Ford knew that for the Model T to be a success his workers had to be able to afford it. He attacked the problem from two angles. First, mass production reduced the cost of the product. Second, he passed along some of the profits in the form of above average wages so his workers could afford their own Model Ts. What if Henry Ford outsourced Model T production? Would millions have been sold in the U.S.? Would there have been anyone in the U.S. who could pay for them? Maybe. After all, Model Ts would have been even cheaper if assembled in China. This brings me to my quandary.

A local business owner recently told me he is thinking of outsourcing some engineering for his business. He can hire Indian engineers for peanuts compared to what he would pay a U.S. engineer. He would fly the Indian engineers here for training and then fly them back to India to do the work. That's one less decent job for a well educated American locally. One less home sold, one less new car, one less family shopping at Publix, one less client for me.... It gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I doubt I'll pay any less for the company's products after they outsource the engineering to India. The owner of the business is already quite wealthy so the savings probably will make no difference in his lifestyle. Locally at least he keeps a low profile relative to what I am certain is wealth and income that puts him in the top 5% to 1% of all Americans.

Coincidentally, I am reading John Stossel's book "Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity" and one of the topics he addresses is outsourcing. He argues that outsourcing is good for the American economy. It brings consumers cheaper goods, which is a good thing. Consumer dollars go farther and inflation is held in check. He also argues that the displaced factory workers often secure better jobs after the initial shock. After all, manufacturing jobs aren't really all that wonderful. We romanticize factories and farms. The factories are put to other productive uses as art museums (e.g., Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massuchusetts) or as colleges (the example in the book). Meanwhile, the standard of living in the desperately poor third world is improved increasing demand for what we do produce (music and movies?).

But what about the phenomenon of white collar jobs being outsourced. Those are good clean jobs, and isn't engineering one of those "creative" jobs that outsourcing frees us to do? I can outsource the transcription of dictation to India thanks to QuikSek. Hospitals are already outsourcing the review of medical scans and the creation of 3D renderings to India. There is even talk of large law firms outsourcing their research, drafting, and writing to Indian lawyers thus reducing the need for highly paid associates. I tend to be an optimist and I believe in the great resilience and productivity of Americans. We've survived massive losses of factory jobs in the '70s and '80s. We survived Japanese investment. (Remember when the Japanese were going to own the U.S. lock, stock, and barrel?) I'd like to believe that outsourcing will be a net boon to the U.S., but I can't help but wonder whether this is true. Will we survive this and prosper or is outsourcing the final nail in the coffin? Where is the incentive to become an engineer, radiologist, or lawyer in America when you have to compete with an Indian who will do the same work for less than what you need for a lower middle class lifestyle?

Maybe all the concern over outsourcing is just the usual alarmist negativity or, maybe, we're creating a third world nation right here. Could the end result be a nation of "haves" who own the businesses and the output from the outsourced jobs (i.e., they sell us the goods and services produced elsewhere), and of "have nots" who scramble to work at WalMart so they can buy the goods and services produced abroad from the "haves"? Have we lost sight of the lessons of Henry Ford? Only time will tell. The jury is still out for me.

Post Script: By the way, that local business owner who is thinking of outsourcing his engineering is embroiled in a local political fight over increased fees. The fight is portrayed as a battle between the "working man and woman" and the well heeled privileged politicians who already "got theirs" and don't care about pricing everyone else out of a house and a job. How ironic that he would consider undercutting a hard working engineer by outsourcing his or her job to India. The political fight focuses on the ripple effect that will be created if the local housing market is killed by high fees. What about the ripple effect of moving a job that pays well from here to India? Who will buy the house that the business owner's products are incorporated into?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Aarrrggghhhh! It be Pirates III

The family went to see Pirates of the Caribbean III recently. I was the only family member who loved Pirates II. I pronounced it the best pirate movie that I'd ever seen. The other three family members yawned in reply. As we were leaving Pirates III, I announced that it suffered from the same disease as Spiderman III; i.e., an excess of length. The family agreed weakly, but pronounced it nonetheless the best Pirates of the Caribbean yet and "much better" than Pirates II. I enjoyed it but I still think II was better. It is nearly impossible to keep track of the crosses, double crosses, and fake crosses, and three hours is just too long for a movie these days. Look closely at the pirate who is the "Keeper of the Code." There's a good reason he looks like Captain Jack Sparrow's older brother. You could say that he had a great influence on Jack. Bottom line --- It is worth seeing and a good time was had by all.

Now for an entirely different take on it I found this review Rick apparently didn't enjoy it all.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Keeping the World Safe From Email Checking Leeches!

Can you imagine doing five years in the state penitentiary and paying $10,000.00 in fines for checking your email without buying a coffee? I can just imagine the conversation now ---

Grizzled murderer/rapist, "So what are ya in for?

Computer geek, "Checking my email without buying a coffee."

This almost happened to Sam Peterson II of Sparta, Michigan. The local police chief is apparently the Maytag repairman of crime. He has so little to do that he has to go searching for obscure victimless crimes. Peterson would check his email every day from his car outside the Re-Union Street Cafe, which provided a free unsecured wide-open wi-fi access point. Chief of Police Andrew Milanowski apparently found this suspicious and asked Peterson what he was doing every day. Peterson freely admitted that he was checking his email using the cafe's free unsecured wi-fi access point. Chief Milanowski wasn't sure what the crime was, but he had an idea that maybe this was a crime so he went looking for an excuse to bust Peterson and found an obscure Michigan law that makes it a crime to

intentionally and without authorization or by exceeding valid authorization do any of the following:

(a) Access or cause access to be made to a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network to acquire, alter, damage, delete, or destroy property or otherwise use the service of a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network.
Full text of statute

There was no complainant, no harm done, and no victim so the Chief did what any good half wit with a badge would do. He got a warrant for Peterson's arrest and charged him with a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail and a $10,000.00 fine. I'll bet the Chief can really sleep well knowing that he is protecting the people of Sparta from the likes of Peterson. I'd be embarrassed. Apparently, the local prosecutors are no better, because they actually chose to prosecute Peterson for this "crime." They've apparently never heard of prosecutorial discretion. Have any of these people ever heard of a warning, common sense, or a spine?

Worst of all is that I don't believe Peterson even violated this statute. In order to violate the statute he must access the wi-fi hotspot "without authorization" or "by exceeding valid authorization." Aren't you implying authorization to all when you set up a free unsecured wi-fi hotspot? Did the cafe have any explicit requirements to be an "authorized" user? Were any users of the wi-fi access point given passwords or told that they had to purchase a product before they could log on? If there are no distinctions between authorized users and unauthorized users, how can you ever be unauthorized? If you wish to limit the use of a free unsecured wi-fi hotspot to your customers, then you ought to explicitly say so in signage or when people log on. Peterson wasn't acquiring, altering, damaging, deleting or destroying property so he could only fall under the "otherwise use" language of the statute, which is obscenely overbroad. The way this statute is written you violate it if you merely use a computer program inconsistently with its end user license. Have I committed a felony if I access Blogger and violate the terms of service? Ninety percent of computer users must violate this overbroad statute at one point or another.

It makes me sad for America. Our justice system becomes arbitrary and capricious when legislatures create crimes that aren't obviously crimes and have no victims and involve no harm at all. Its scary and unworthy of our republic.

Full article from WOOD TV

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

John Edwards Is A Lear Jet Liberal? --- No, Duh!

Reportedly the John Edwards campaign is having to rethink its main message. Edwards likes to tout his underprivileged upbringing and portray himself as the friend of the poor. Meanwhile, he is gets $400.00 haircuts and is paid $55,000.00 to speak to college students about "poverty." Here's some perspective on those numbers --- a poor family of four could eat like kings for two weeks or just be well fed for a month on $400 while $55,000.00 would let them enjoy a middle class lifestyle for a year. Then there's his $500,000.00 annual salary from a hedge fund and the palatial mansion he is building on his baronial estate. The thing that amazes me is how anyone could be surprised at the excesses of this ultrawealthy trial lawyer. Was there ever any doubt that he's a Lear jet liberal? I don't have a problem with the fact that he is wealthy. I think he ought to embrace and enjoy it, but that's not the message he wants to send while he preaches higher taxes and increased government programs. Higher taxes and government spending won't dent his lifestyle. That's the real advantage in having more money than you can spend sensibly.

The "San Francisco Gate" article refers to the "devastating effects of poverty in America." There are some who would argue that there are no poor people in America by world standards. Drive through a poor neighborhood sometime (even a public housing project) and count the cars, satellite dishes, and color TVs. Sure they're poor compared to many Americans, but on a world level the American poor live better than most people. A lot of those "devastating effects" are the result of alcoholism, drugs, and other poor choices and not necessarily the lack of money.

The original article appeared in the "San Francisco Gate".

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Flock Browser

Leo Laporte of the This Week in Tech (TWiT) podcast mentioned a browser named Flock. So I, of course, just had to check it out. I found a clean looking interface built around Web 2.0 social networking. Its tag line is "The Social Web Browser." It is kind of hard to explain and I've only just downloaded it so I don't have much practice with it yet, but it allows you to comment on pictures, has a built in newsreader for your RSS feeds, and lets you blog from within the browser. In fact, I'm writing this entry from within the Flock browser without going to Blogspot. Of course, it allows tabbed browsing. It couldn't compete without tabs these days. It even lets you drag and drop pictures like this one:

That is the world sunlight map from my iGoogle homepage.

Hey, it is what was handy! And it is the first time I've dragged and dropped a picture into a post using Flock. What were you expecting? It was either the world sunlight map or the weather map.

Now it will be really easy to rip off copyrighted photographs for blogs. I guess I'll have to watch that and be careful. It even lets you tag your post and publish it to your blog from within your browser. It will then open your blog for you too if you want so you can view your new post on your blog. Anyway, it is a pretty handy application for blogging. I'm sure that I'll be writing more about Flock as I use it.

You can check it out for yourself at the Flock website.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

I was listening to Episode 66 of the East Meets West podcast and they relayed a message from a listener. He said that Twitter let's people feel they're part of the "in crowd" by following people like Tom Merritt, and Robert Scoble. In fact, that's why he had a Twitter account even though none of his friends had one and none of them seemed to "get it." I can't say the same for myself. Although I do follow Leo Laporte on Jaiku and I've joined the Buzz Out Loud and TWiT channels. I haven't joined to feel like I'm part of the "in crowd." I'm just kind of along for the ride to see where it leads. I love technology and think we're living in the best of times. This stuff is part of that and I want to see where it goes. I have a real sense that this is changing our lives (or at least the lives of today's teens and twenty somethings) I want to play along too. However, like that fellow, I don't have any friends or family with Twitter or Jaiku accounts and I'm not sure they'd "get it." But Tom Merritt also made a very profound statement on the same podcast that went something like this "In today's society, it is easier than ever for like minded people to find each other." Hhhhmmm... That sounds like the true significance of Web 2.0 and social networking sites. Like minded people with common interests can find each other regardless of time or geography; e.g., the gentleman who commented on my walking the dog every night. Maybe that's just a small connection, but I'm sure there are many bigger connections out there. That's new and that's cool.

As I follow along and consider the possibilities, I'm also thinking of some very practical, productive uses for the likes of Jaiku and Twitter, which I'll talk more about in future posts.