Sunday, October 05, 2014

Sidekick 98 runs on Windows 10 Technical Preview

Unless you are a user of Sidekick 98, the following statement is going to seem perverse.  

"I will not upgrade to Windows 10 unless it runs Sidekick."



Why does it matter if a piece of software that is more 17 years old works in 2014?  

Those of us who continue to value Sidekick 98 know the answer.  There is still no substitute for functional elegance that is SK98.  With the move to mobiles and apps, the situation just gets worse.  The original promise of the PC has been lost.  It is no longer a personal computer, it is merely a client attached to a cloud, pumping out ads.  Doing real work, with tools that assist instead of impose has become a thing of the past.

So back to SK98.  

I have written about this software before, and continue to use it on a daily basis.  I have a database of all logins to websites and accounts, which lets me maintain high security by having a different login for every account.  When it is time to login, I copy/paste from Sidekick to enter the credentials.

This is so central to everyday life, that a computer becomes useless unless I can have SK running.  

I copied over the directory of SK98 from my backup.  The original software came on  seven 3 and a half inch floppy disks.  By making a directory for each floppy, the setup program is able to run.  In this case, Setup ran perfectly, and SK98 appeared to be installed correctly.

There were also a number of patches released.  After setup is complete, it is a matter of going to the installed directory and replacing a couple of files - sidekick.exe dated 2000-01-07 and yintl.dll dated 2000-01-11.

Since Windows XP, it is necessary to do one more step.  Although it looks like SK98 is installed, no data is saved when you click the save button.  The introduction of security features in Windows means that you have to locate the sidekick.exe file, right click, and then select "run as Administrator".  This gives the software the required permissions.

I loaded my files, added data, changed data, saved, re-opened, printed.  Everything works.

That's it.  Windows 10 is a candidate for upgrade.

Evaluating Windows 10 Technical Preview using a VM

As long time users of Microsoft Windows know, not every release is an upgrade.  

Windows 95 was sort of usable, while Windows ME was not.  Windows 98 worked, but Windows XP was the first really stable version.  Vista was a dog.  Windows 7 was XP on steriods, but with a disturbing trend of hiding the plumbing.  Windows 8 is unusable for a desktop user, and suspect for a tablet.

As much as it would be nice to just stick with what works, the Microsoft licensing machine does not let vendors sell old versions of Windows, and one inevitably is forced into the latest release when buying new equipment.



So it was with some trepidation that I launched into an installation of Windows 10 Technical Preview.  Going by past experience, this should be the version that is "good", redeeming the madness of Windows 8.

I downloaded the Windows 10 Technical Preview from Microsoft's site dedicated to Windows 10.  The trick is to download the .ISO version of the file.  There is no need to burn the file to a DVD in order to install - the VMPlayer can read it directly.

Rather than dedicate a whole machine to the task, I created a virtual machine using the free VMPlayer from VMware.  One of the options is to create a new virtual machine, which I did, specifying 2 processors, 4 gigabytes of memory, and pointing to the newly downloaded Windows ISO file as the install source for the OS.  

Setup ran without a hitch, the install rebooted, and I was looking at the login screen for Windows 10.  I logged in with my account, and then kicked off the install for VMTools.  This is the extra software that makes moving between the VM and host computer easier and more integrated.  The last task was to go into the VM menu and set networking to Bridged mode so that the Windows 10 installation could see the local LAN as well as the Internet.

At this point, things looked pretty normal, and I was feeling optimistic.  The desktop is showing Build 9841. The Start button is back. I don't have large, motion sickness-inducing, live tiles littered around the screen. I can get to functions I know are in the OS without massive treasure hunts.  

I installed Firefox (it works) and VLC (it works).  I ran Windows Update, which grabbed one updated patch and updated definitions for Windows Defender, which is now automatically included with Windows, and replaces Security Essentials.

By then, it was way too early in the morning, and I headed to bed.  

Next job - installing SideKick 98.  If that doesn't install, it is game over for Windows 10.



Thursday, September 18, 2014

Not irrational to withdraw CPF funds at 55

The Straits Times published a piece by NUS economists entitled "Puzzling Behaviour of Singaporeans at 55" as part of their monthly "Ask NUS" series. 

The gist of the piece is that it is irrational for people to withdraw their CPF funds at age 55, because there is no alternative in the market that earns the same or higher interest rate.

Withdrawing one’s CPF funds is not as irrational as it may seem. 

Analysing an investment is fundamentally about risk versus reward. I made the decision to withdraw my CPF funds for the simple reason that the risk is too high to leave them with CPF. 

I am not concerned about the financial stability of the government or the Fund itself, but I am concerned about the constant changes to the rules governing CPF.  What started out as a simple and effective provident fund has become an overly complicated vehicle for whatever social policy is the hot topic of the day. 

I cannot treat as risk free the possibility that the Ordinary Account minimum sum, the Medisave account, the Retirement account, or any other account is going to be subjected to new minimum balances or restrictions on withdrawal. 

Unlike my deposits with a bank which are governed by contract and law, a government can, and has, done whatever it wants with the CPF rules. 

Fundamentally, this is my money – I have worked long and hard to ensure that I have sufficient funds to support my family, and I cannot risk that some new rule change is going to affect my ability to access those funds when I choose to use them. 

My rational decision is to avoid the risk and forgo some immediate income in order to gain control over my funds.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Audio Industry 1, snake oil 0

From CEA

DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, in cooperation with the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)® and The Recording Academy®, announced today the results of their efforts to create a formal definition for High Resolution Audio, in partnership with Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group.

The definition is accompanied by a series of descriptors for the Master Quality Recordings that are used to produce the hi-res files available to digital music retailers. These can be used on a voluntary basis to provide the latest and most accurate information to consumers.

"The DEG is proud to have played a key role in coordinating the work behind finalizing this important agreement" said Amy Jo Smith, president of DEG. "Thanks to this initiative, the industry can take a unified approach in offering digital music services a variety of information concerning the growing number of hi-res music titles being distributed today".

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CEA, stated, "The Consumer Electronics Association is pleased to have partnered with the DEG, The Recording Academy and major music labels in creating this new High Resolution Audio definition. The contributions made by our Audio Division Board will help consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers alike in their efforts to market the latest compatible devices and help provide more clarity about HRA for consumers."

"Leading members of The Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing provided valuable feedback on this new High Resolution Audio definition and descriptors for Master Quality Recordings, and we're grateful for their input and expertise," said Neil Portnow, president/CEO of The Academy. "When properly implemented, we believe this agreement will be welcomed by our members and the music community, enhancing their ability to improve the music creative process."

Conveying a Clear Message

High Resolution Audio is defined as "lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better than CD quality music sources."
In addition to this definition, four different Master Quality Recording categories have been designated, each of which describes a recording that has been made from the best quality music source currently available. All of these recordings will sound like the artists, producers and engineers originally intended.

Said Darren Stupak, Executive Vice President, U.S. Sales and Distribution, Sony Music Entertainment, "We are pleased to be supporting this definition for High Resolution Audio. We believe that a fundamental way to enable increased development of high def content and hardware, and more awareness and adoption of high-quality listening solutions, is to provide common language and technical descriptors for the music marketplace to use. We think that product offerings that reproduce the full range of sound from recordings, exactly as the artist intended, are a new and compelling option for increasing numbers of music and electronics consumers."

"Universal Music Group is pleased to work alongside the DEG, CEA and The Recording Academy to reach agreement on a High Resolution Audio definition and Master Quality Recording descriptors," said Jim Belcher, VP of Technology & Production. "This initiative brings further clarity for consumers of HRA content, and UMG looks forward to making more high resolution tracks available for music fans to enjoy."

Matt Signore, president, Artist & Label Services, WEA, added, "We support the creation of clear and formal definitions for master quality sources. As high resolution music services continue to grow, we encourage and look forward to all partners in the music value chain meeting the definitions of High Resolution Audio, and providing easy-to-use and exciting experiences. We expect 2014 and 2015 to be years of important developments around High Resolution Audio."

Master Quality Recording sources

The descriptors for the Master Quality Recording categories are as follows:

MQ-P
From a PCM master source 48 kHz/20 bit or higher; (typically 96/24 or 192/24 content)

MQ-A
From an analog master source

MQ-C
From a CD master source (44.1 kHz/16 bit content)

MQ-D
From a DSD/DSF master source (typically 2.8 or 5.6 MHz content)

High Resolution Audio Listening Experience
To further expand the High Resolution Audio initiative, The Recording Academy, the DEG and the CEA are sponsoring a special High Resolution Audio Listening Experience event, which will be held at Jungle City Studios in New York on Tuesday, June 24 from 6PM to 9PM during CE Week.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Singapore's public transportation system is broken

Singapore's transportation system is broken - here's how to fix it
 

Moving around one’s city is not something that is optional.  Everybody has to be able to get to work, school, shopping, medical care, and recreation facilities.  When everybody needs a service, it is a public good, and a natural utility.  That means that government has a role to play, either as the service provider, or as a regulator of the monopoly.

What’s wrong with the current setup?

In short, the erroneous application of open market principles to transportation. 

The MRT subway system has been fragmented between different operators.  But the fact is, holes in the ground do not compete.  If I live in proximity to a subway line, the fact that another subway line exists is irrelevant – I only use the one that is applicable to me.  

 This may seem obvious, but somehow the government has persuaded itself that there is benefit from forcing subway lines to compete.  The same thing applies to buses.  Unless both operators are sending buses down the same routes, there is no competition, just duplication.   

This needs to stop now, and the natural economies of scale offered by a growing rail and bus network need to be captured for the benefit of its riders. 

Although the idea of privatization and commercial operation is attractive at first sight, the realities are different.  

 A profit making enterprise does not have service provision as its first motivation, it has profit.  Public transport systems require massive upfront capital costs (digging tunnels, buying trains, buses, cars) which have to be funded in the commercial debt market.  That costs money that would otherwise have gone into providing the transport service.  

 Each individual operator has the overheads of a commercial firm – management, financial accounting, debt, premises, and shareholder dividends.  All of those costs are duplicative and could be eliminated with the creation of a single public operator. 

Coordination of modes of transport

A successful transportation system for a city state requires inter-modal networks.  It is unlikely that your journey can be completed on only one form of transport.  Rail provides efficient transport for longer distances, and buses, trams, and light-rail serve the feeder network that allows people to get very close to their final destination.  Taxis serve point to point journeys that are not served well by public transport, and cater to special needs such as travelling with luggage and those who are handicapped.

Today we have no coordination between the private operators of the rail system, the private operators of the bus services, and the providers of taxi services.  By treating all  as part of one transportation system, a highly effective transport grid can be created.

A little more about taxis

Today in Singapore we have no firms actually providing taxi service.  Instead we have eight rental car companies who provide vehicles to independent contractors, most of whom provide a taxi service.  This is all done on a "best efforts" basis, with the regulator applying some standards for service, which make no sense since the standards are applied to the car rental companies instead of the service providers who happen to be individuals renting cars. 

Some would argue that taxis are not part of the public transportation system, but considering that they provide over 650,000 trips per year, it is hard to accept that view.   

A better solution is to recognize the benefit of a public transport tier that allows for effective use of vehicles and roads and which provides a premium service allowing point to point and hard to reach destinations.  Since this is a premium service, private operators are fine, but they should be licensed and regulated as taxi service providers, not allowed to operate as car rental companies.

Funding

The usual objection to having government provide services is that it is effectively a subsidy that will drain the Treasury.   

As I showed at the beginning of this article, the proper role of government is to provide services to the people it serves and who pay taxes to fund the services.  In Singapore, we have a number of sources for government revenue, so the question becomes one of sufficiency.  Does the transport system pay its own way?

Direct fees – the first source of income is the revenue collected from ticket sales.  One could make the argument that this is the best source of funding, since the people using the system should pay for it.   

That sounds plausible until you also consider the cost avoidance implied by a well-functioning public transport system.  Every resident who uses public transport instead of driving a car is reducing the need for roads and parking.  On that basis, there is no need to attempt to cover the full costs of the public transport system directly from its users.  There is a societal benefit that applies to all residents, and this should be shared.

COE and vehicle taxes – The government currently raises S$4.6 Billion from vehicle-related taxes (I can’t make out if this includes ERP and COE – the document refers to Motor Vehicle taxes and Vehicle Quota premiums)   

Suffice to say that the revenue from taxing cars should not go into the general Treasury, but should be directly applied to public transport.  This would provide a more palatable justification for high COE premiums, as the monies collected would be used to invest in a first class public transport system.  Why have the hassle and cost of car ownership if you have an acceptable alternative? 

General taxes – if the direct fees and vehicle taxes are not sufficient to fund the transport system, then use general tax revenues.  Again, public transport is a public good that should be funded by the people for the people.

Singapore is the ideal size and density for a world-class public transportation system that serves its residents well.  That outcome has not been accomplished due to misguided application of open market principles to a natural utility/monopoly.  It is time the Singapore government stepped up to its responsibilities and delivered on the vision.

 

Monday, February 11, 2013

GV shows butchered version of Good Day to Die Hard



I have just come back from watching what was advertised as A Good Day to Die Hard at GV Gold Class VivoCity

What was presented was a butchered facsimile of the real film.  I don’t understand what GV is thinking by showing such a badly tampered with film – the experience was painful, with dialogue missing or replaced with inane phrases (chia pet, seriously??), and scenes apparently truncated.  The resulting mess was not even coherent.

To be clear, this is the fifth film in the franchise.  I am well aware of what to expect in a Die Hard movie, including violence and coarse language.  That is normally offset by a sense of humour, something that was entirely destroyed by the replacement of the intended dialogue. 

Who does GV/distributor/film censorship board think they are “protecting“ with this inane censorship?   The audience is clearly adult and willing to pay for comfort and quality.  Instead GV delivered crap.  

It is no excuse to say "this is what the distributor provided", which was the response from the on-site manager.  GV owes its primary duty of care to its customers, not the distributor.  If the distributor won’t provide a clean print, don’t show the movie.

I feel completely ripped off.  Instead of an enjoyable night out with my wife, we ended up spending over S$130 on what was a fraud.

I have checked the GV.com.sg web site again to confirm that there was no warning that the film being shown was not the original, but there is nothing.

With the increasing dirtiness of the seats and theatres, and now with butchered films, I don’t think we will be customers any longer.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Of empathy and bus drivers



In the debate about emotionless Singaporeans, it is useful to have some evidence rather than conjecture. 

I give you the Business Times and reporting on a “strike” by some bus drivers.   



The reporter manages to cover the story without actually talking to a bus driver, which is pretty amazing considering it was a work stoppage by bus drivers. 

We learn that the gentlemen in question were recruited from China on contract, they are not unionized, they are housed in a dormitory, and they are paid S$1,000 per month, which is less than other drivers doing the same job.  This disparity in pay increased after a recent round of pay adjustments, in which the contract drivers did not receive an increase.   

We also learn that the drivers refused to go to work at the beginning of their 4am shift, SMRT management called the riot police at 10am, and talks with the drivers didn't start until 12 hours after the work refusal started..

So those are the facts as reported. 

The total absence of empathy is telling.   

At a time when the government is cutting the number of foreign workers, we find that public transport, run by a government controlled company, is importing workers at low pay.  We learn that the national business newspaper, also government controlled, refers to the drivers as “PRC nationals”, and does not attempt to learn or understand their side of the issue. 

What must it be like to have left your home with the promise of a job in Singapore, and then to find that you are housed in a dormitory, expected to work side-by-side with people earning more than you, and not to get a pay increment in a country with a 5% inflation rate?

Do you feel intimidated when "45 police officers, 3 patrol cars, and 4 special operations command vehicles were deployed" at your dormitory?

We will never know, because these are not people, they are PRC nationals.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

In Praise of the Synology DS1512+ NAS



I have been using a NAS (Networked Attached Storage) device for more than 10 years now.  Starting with a no-name Taiwanese enclosure that was really bad news, and moving on to the original ReadyNAS NV (power supply caught fire, replaced under warranty, then power supply fan died, could not get replacement to work), then the now Netgear-owned ReadyNAS NV+ (because I was desperate after the old one died, still running).

The ReadyNAS NV+ has reasonable software for managing the unit, but the promise of being able to run other applications like Logitech Media Server to support music streaming has barely been kept.  The performance is sluggish, and the release updates are slow.  The box houses up to 4 drives, and my configuration is using 1TB drives, with a usable space of 2.7TB.

Reading a comparison of NAS units recently, I came across a brand I had not really looked at before – Synology.  What really caught my eye though was their operating environment, DSM.  Almost all devices sold are running some form of LINUX, so the differentiator is down to how well it is implemented, and how good the user interface (UI) is.  DSM is Synology’s flavour, and they have done a really spectacular job with it.

The website had a list of applications that was quite extensive, but then went on to include quite a few 3rd party applications as well.  The list of certifications was impressive, including VMWare, Citrix, and Hyper-V.  Instead of being just a box containing hard disks, this was looking like a complete server environment.

With the ReadyNAS NV+ approaching 5 years of life, I figured it was time to plan for what comes next.  My data sets have continued to grow, with music, videos, photos, image backups, and file backups all creating demand for space.  

With that in mind, I looked for units that could handle at least four 2TB drives.  The DS1512+ met that basic challenge, and had the additional benefit of dual fans, USB3.0 ports, expandable RAM, great read/write speeds, and most importantly for something that lives near me, was quiet.

Western Digital had just announced a new line of 3.5 inch hard disks called RED, specifically designed for use in multi-disk NAS setups.  The drives are quiet, run cool, and are designed for 24x7 operation.  I went with five 2TB  drives and easily installed them in the chassis.  

 
I powered up the NAS unit, and connected to it using the supplied setup wizard from a PC on the same LAN.  There are a few settings to make, and then the formatting kicked off.  I let this run over night, and in the morning, had a freshly installed 7.4TB volume ready to take data.

I let the unit burn in over the next couple of weeks in order to ensure that both the disks and the chassis had no problems.  I was amazed at the difference in noise level between the old ReadyNAS NV+ (noisy) and the DS1512+ (silent).

As promised, DSM is a joy to use, with clear informative icons, well thought-out menus, and simple to understand settings.   


Using Package Manager, I started installing a number of Synology apps to create a photo gallery, VPN server, Media Server, remote audio streamer, and remote video streamer.  Synology provides portable apps for IOS and Android to connect back to content on the NAS, and the installation and setup worked flawlessly.  I have both an iPad and an Android Google Nexus 7 connecting without problems, allowing me to manage the unit from anywhere in the world.  Security is catered for with the choice of both HTTP and HTTPS (SSL) connections, and extensive and granular user managment in DSM.

Feeling confident with how easily everything went, I decided to plunge on and see what the DS1512+ was like as an application server.   

I enabled the built-in MySQL and installed PHPMyAdmin to manage the data base, then used Package Manager to install Joomla, a popular open source CMS.  A few minutes later, and I had the sample Joomla web site up and running, accessible from any web browser.  I was somewhat surprised to see how fast pages loaded, and how little CPU and memory were consumed by the whole web site setup.   

This is not a theoretical hack, this is a fully functioning server platform.

You can probably tell I am pretty pleased with the DS1512+.  I have had a constant sense of being pleasantly surprised at the quality of the hardware and especially the software.  This is as good as or better than systems sold into the enterprise market, and at a fraction of the price.

Highly recommended.