Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dear Singaporeans, we regret to inform you that you have been outsourced

With all the sound and fury from Singaporeans over the issue of foreigners and (un)permanent residents, one has to ask what is the Government thinking? Normally conservative and risk averse, why would the PAP risk heartlander anger over a policy of importing foreign labour that is so clearly unpopular?

The answer lies not in an analysis of how governments react to public opinion in democracies – the description doesn’t fit. Rather, one needs to consider Singapore Inc. in all its glory to understand what is going on.

As a Family run enterprise, Singapore Inc. and its organs of administration are business oriented and pragmatic. Faced with a population that doesn’t want to work in an increasing number of job categories, indeed a population that has lost interest in even reproducing, the Family has been forced to do what any business in the same situation must do – outsource.

Since emptying the current incumbents from the Company housing flats (HDB) is troublesome, it is necessary to import labour to do the work that needs doing.

So all Singaporeans complaining about foreigners and PR’s, wake up and face reality – you have been outsourced.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Building the perfect music server

The latest addition to the Haunt is the Shuttle X27, a tiny Intel Atom-based box with an external 60 watt power supply. Like BEAST, it is all black, but with a tasteful silver highlight on the front.

With all the other PC's and laptops floating around the place, one might usefully ask, "why?"
There are of course two answers - "Not because we must, but because we can" and an invocation of Bell's Law - "There are only two reasons to buy things - your friends already have it, or your friends don't have it"

I have to blame Paul Chatfield for bringing to my attention a piece of software called VORTEXBOX., which can be found at http://www.vortexbox.org

This is a Fedora-based LINUX distribution that is specifically set up for running SqueezeBox Server, and for ripping CD's to FLAC and MP3. I was intrigued with the idea of having a low power, quiet box to take the place of the ReadyNAS (which proved too slow) or my main PC (which requires the PC to be left running and the software in the background at all times)

The Shuttle X27 as built, uses a mini-ITX motherboard with an Intel Atom 230 CPU, 2 gigs of memory, and a Hitachi 2.5" 500gb SATA drive. Everything is designed to be low power and passively cooled. Ironically, it is the Northbridge chipset that requires a fan, but this is inaudible. The case is heavy steel, perforated on the sides and top. The drive interface is SATA, but can only accommodate a laptop drive.

I chose not to put in a slim DVD drive, as I prefer to rip on the main PC using dbPoweramp.
I used an external USB DVD drive to load the Vortexbox ISO image downloaded from the site and burned to a CD. It installed automatically, just asking for the time zone and a root password.

After installation, the box can run headless - no keyboard, mouse or display required. Instead, access is by web browser and invoking the IP address. The administration GUI is clean and simple, with icons for each of the major tasks.

Squeezebox Server looks exactly the same as it does under Windows. The current release of Vortexbox is 0.9, and after installation, I only had to configure Squeezebox Server and change the Workgroup name under SAMBA (I did this by editing the smb.conf file, but the option to change is actually available from the GUI) in order to be visible with the rest of my Windows PC's.

Since Slim Devices has just updated Squeezebox Server to 7.4.1, I ran the Vortexbox update routine, which connected to the Internet and downloaded 120 updates from the Fedora and Vortexbox repositiories.

The final job was to move all my FLAC files over to the Vortexbox. This was accomplished with a simple drag and drop - and about 5 hours of waiting to move the 240gb of data.

It is hard to describe how simple and painless the whole process of creating this music server turned out to be. I am no Linux geek, and the only questions I had were answered in the FAQ and/or some quick googling.

The result is a small, low power, near silent, music server running SqueezeBox Server and supporting 5 Logitech Slim Devices units (two SqueezeBox 3, one Boom, one Transporter, and one Duet). Of course, you can also just play music by navigating to the FLAC directory on the Vortexbox and using Winamp or similar software.

A very satisfactory result.


FORM FACTOR Mini ITX Form Factor

PROCESSOR Intel Atom 230 CPU CPU on board

CHIPSET Intel 945GC + ICH7

MEMORY 1 x 240 pin DDR2 DIMM Slots, 2GB per DIMM (Max 2GB) DDR2 533MHz supported

VGA Intel GMA 950 256bit 3D engine with a powerful 400MHz core

DirectX 9 3D hardware acceleration

Dynamic Video Memory Technology(DVMT)3.0 supports up to 224MB of Video memory

AUDIO Realtek ALC662 5.1 Channel High Definition audio

ETHERNET Marvell 88E8056 IEEE 802.3u 100Base-T specification compliant

10MB/s,100MB/s,1GB/s Support Wake-On-LAN function

STORAGE INTERFACE (1) UltraDMA100 IDE channel Master from ICH7

(2) On-board SATA connector


(1) ATA100 bus master IDE connector

(1) ATX main power connector

(1) ATX 12V power connector

(3) 4pin fan connectors

FRONT PANEL Power-On button

BACK PANEL (1) PS/2 keyboard

(1) PS/2 Mouse

(1) Gigabit LAN port

(1) Serial port

(1) D-sub port

(1) DVI port

(4) USB 2.0 ports

(1) Front out connector

(1) Rear Surround out connector

(1) Center / Bass connector

EXPANSION BAY (1) 2.5' bay

(1) Slim ODD bay

DIMENSIONS 250(L)x185(W)x70(H) mm

POWER 60W Adapter

Input:100- 240V AC


XPC CD Driver(32/64bit)

(1) SATA cable

Other: Screws

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Singapore - Becoming a nation of high-rise squash courts

I have been watching with bemused fascination the return of crowds to the launch of new properties. There is a complete disconnect between the business press reporting about the economic crisis, and the reality of mob scenes at show flats and mall openings.

What is even more disturbing however is what people are buying. The size of the flats that are being marketed are absurdly small. Instead of looking at the utility of the space being offered, buying is reportedly based only on the total price.

This leads to some really bizarre outcomes - in order to keep the total price below 1 million dollars (which is supposed to be an acceptable price), flat sizes are shrinking. At the same time, the use of balconies, air con ledges, and planters is reducing the usable area dramatically.

I am unfortunate to have a number of construction projects surrounding my building, and I have been watching the erection of what can only be described as pigeon holes. Pre-cast concrete slabs are dropped into place by crane, allowing completion of floors in record time. I don't see where the structural integrity comes from, and I certainly wouldn't want to be in one of these structures if an earthquake hit.

One building nearby called the Vida has recently been completed and is being marketed as a luxury building. Driving by at night, I was struck by how much the place looked like a stack of squash courts. The flats have floor to ceiling glass walls, like a squash court, and appear to be roughly the same size.

Intrigued, I decided to check the facts. According to the World Squash Federation, the dimensions of a regulation squash court are 9.75m by 6.4m, yielding 62.4 square metres. For those more comfortable in square feet, this is 671 square feet. Since there are no balconies, aircon ledges or planters, a squash court is really 671 sq feet of usable space.

Looking at the marketing materials for the Vida on their web site, it appears that a 1 bedroom apartment is 517-527 square feet - with aircon ledges and other encumbrances. This is actually considerably smaller smaller than a squash court!

Another way of looking at this is that a standard 40' shipping container is 12.036m by 2.35m giving 28.28 square metres or 304 square feet.

And how much does one pay for the privilege of living in less space than a squash court?

The last transaction listed on the Singapore government property website shows a price of S$1,175,210, yielding the seller S$2,228 per square foot.

I wish I could offer some sage insight to what this all means.

I do know that a squash court or a shipping container is not a home, nor is it a suitable place to raise a family. Even a single individual living in such a small space is going to go stir crazy pretty quickly. The breakdown in family structures can only be accelerated by isolating people in tiny cubes.

This is not housing, this is storage.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Singapore - Red Traffic Signal is Optional

What started as a sense of unease when crossing streets as a pedestrian and driving as a motorist has now become a fact - drivers in Singapore are treating amber and red signal lights as optional indicators to stop.

On my way home from work, I witnessed no fewer than three incidents which could have resulted in fatal accidents. Luckily for me, I was not the first car waiting at Upper Cross Street and Cecil, as a Comfort cab rocketed through the red light, narrowly missing the car in front of me. This was at least 5 seconds AFTER the light had turned green in our favour. Things continued badly as I barely avoided being hit by another taxi running a red light at Orchard Link, and then watched an SBS bus proceed through the red light at Orchard Blvd. and Scotts Road.

Amber appears to mean "accelerate", and Red is for closing one eye and continuing on.

There seems to be a perverse logic at play, in which the time spent waiting determines whether to proceed, not the state of the signal light. A driver forced to wait for pedestrians, or at the end of a long queue appears to believe that his "time served" is sufficient justification for running a red light.

The result is that it is no longer safe to assume one has the right of way because a traffic light is green in one's favour. It is essential to pause when a light turns green, and check to make sure that no vehicle is accelerating towards you.

What's going on?

There seems to be a positive correlation with the state of the economy - behaviour is deteriorating along with people's finances.

Or is it just another expression of the lack of social graces and sense of community that seems to plague residents of Singapore? Unable to connect personal behaviour with societal consequences, it is every man for himself.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Miele Singapore - Avoid At All Costs

I have long held the view that when it comes to tools, you either buy the cheapest or buy the best. This approach owes its origin to Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, which I first ran into the late '60s. The idea is that the best way to learn and decide about tools is to start cheap, then when you have determined which features/brands/quality is appropriate, you buy the best.

A domestic tool that we all have to deal with at some point or another is the washing machine. A visit to a local appliance dealer such as Best reveals a huge choice of models at widely varying prices. The question naturally arises as to whether or not there is a measurable difference between the cheapest machine and the best, which is presumably also the most expensive.

Having to set up a new flat some time back, I was faced with this challenge, and decided to purchase the best. Based on reviews and poking around the shops, I settled on a Miele W1514. They are obscenely expensive, but appear to be well built. In fact, Miele makes a big deal about the longevity a customer can expect from their products, as this excerpt from their website shows:

Long life expectancy

A test performed by wfk, Germany's renowned research institute based in Krefeld, proved that Miele appliances last 20 years. Appliances from 6 manufacturers were tested, the result: Only the three Miele washing machines survived in working order. Miele also subjects its appliances to in-house 10,000 hour endurance tests in which they operate day and night. Only Miele sets such a high benchmark.

OK, so we have the Rolls-Royce of washing machines, clearly worth the inflated price.

Except that it broke down after 18 months.

Getting ready to wash a load of clothes before a business trip, the machine turned out to be stone dead. After checking the electrical outlet and fuses, it was clear that the fault was within the machine's power control unit.

While annoying, it would be unreasonable to assume that a single fault is grounds for complaint. A call was placed to the Service number, and after some negotiation, a service man turned up.

Without parts.

It was 4 days later that another service man arrived with the proper part, and replaced the power control unit. Total cost - S$684.57

To put this in context, Best was advertising a Japanese 9.5 litre washing machine for S$320 on the same day. So for more than double the cost of a new washing machine, I had my Miele repaired.

Arriving back from my business trip to find that I had been ripped off by Miele, I wrote a polite letter to the General Manager of the firm in Singapore, requesting a refund based on the fact that the machine had barely been used, and the fault was in a non-moving part, clearly a design problem Miele has with the machine.

It has now been 2 months since I mailed and faxed the letter to Miele, and I have had exactly zero response.

It appears that Miele is trading on its (undeserved) reputation for quality, and simply ignoring customers with product problems.

My conclusion: Avoid Miele Singapore - they are unsafe to do business with.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Singapore - En Bloc Fallout

Having fulminated against the stupidity of Singapore's en bloc legislation, it was my fate to experience the human impact when my home of 9 years was sold, and the building destroyed.

The story has now entered a new, and predictably futile stage.

Wing Tai, the property company that bought and demolished Ardmore Point, has now announced that they will not be building anything on the property. The neighbouring building, Anderson 18 which was also bought en bloc, has been emptied of residents, but will now stand empty as the developer is not going to demolish the building after all.

To the former senior civil servant, Ngiam Tong Dow, who is so proud of his en bloc legislation, notch up another failed outcome. Buildings that were once desirable homes have been turned into empty lots and ghost buildings.

By destroying existing buildings and creating artificial shortages, en bloc sales contributed to the property market bubble that took place over the last two years. The Deferred Payment Scheme, which allowed purchase of property with little money down and no financing in place to actually complete the deal, simply added gasoline to the fire.

The result has been neighbours fighting neighbours, law suits, families forced to leave their homes, buildings being allowed to run down due to lack of maintenance, and unhappiness all around.

To add an absurd touch to the whole sorry mess, I present a letter sent to me and returned as undeliverable by SingPost. You have to admire their efficiency in having made a chop for use by their employees which reads:

Reason for non-delivery: Building Demolished.

Only in Singapore

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK

Unlike other types of farming, growing trees is a relatively leisurely pursuit. One doesn't have to worry about seasonal chores like planting and harvesting. It does require a rather longer time frame though, and patience, and money.

Having said that, it is still necessary to undertake occasional thinnings. Such a long overdue exercise is underway, and I have posted an update to the plantation page on my web site.

Oh, the Monty Python sketch can be seen here, and the lyrics here.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Dumping Pacific Internet

I wrote before about my frustration with Pacific Internet and how they had been black listed as a source of spam. My outbound emails were being blocked, and there didn't seem to be any interest on the part of the Company to do anything about it.

I decided to give up my account, though at the cost of many, many change of address emails and web site configuration sessions. Ironically, it is easier to send change of address letters by snail mail than it is to find and change one's address on all the subscriptions and web sites that pile up over the years.

One side effect of stopping my pacific.net.sg account has been the massive drop in the amount of spam mail I receive. On a typical day, I would get 50-75 emails, of which 90% were spam. I have been using a very powerful and free spam filter called SpamBayes,
which was handling the traffic well, so I didn't really notice the problem.

Now however, the time to download email is significantly shorter, and I can safely check email on my phone without being flooded with crap.

It is incredible to me that Pacific Internet would allow itself to fall so low. They are an international pariah ISP and provide lousy customer service by failing to filter spam at the gateway. Even from a business point of view, it would be cheaper to dump the spam rather than store and forward it to subscribers.

Goodbye and good riddance.

Book Recommendation - Halting State

What are they putting in the water in Scotland?

For some reason I have not been able to discover, some of the best science fiction writing is coming out of Scotland these days. Wikipedia lists 19 writers, although I doubt most people would know Arthur Conan Doyle as a science fiction writer.

Whatever the cause, Charles Stross is writing extraordinary fiction that challenges, frightens, and provokes the reader. Like others before him, he takes societal trends and technologies that exist today and projects them into a future that is recognizable but definitely uncomfortable.

His latest book, "Halting State" is liberally strewn with Scottish words and geek speak, which can be difficult at times if you are unfamiliar with the vocabulary. It is worth persevering however, as the reward is a mind-bending journey through crime, virtual worlds, technology that changes laundry, and conspiracies, all wrapped in a good thriller.

Book Recommendation - Manhattan Nocturne

I have recently "discovered" an author whose books are really quite wonderful.

Colin Harrison
combines the standard elements of detective and mystery stories with absolutely riveting prose description. His muse is New York City, and while some of the plots have holes you could drive a truck through, all is forgiven when one is transported into the world he creates.

Picador is re-releasing Harrison's works, and so most of the back catalog is available. My favorite to date: Manhattan Nocturne.

His most recent effort, The Finder, is also well worth the read.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Digital Music, High-Fidelity, and making it all work

The latest addition to my music system is the Slim Devices Transporter. It also represents the completion of my shift from spinning discs to digital music files as the music source.

I have been dismayed by the reduction in the quality of music reproduction driven by the move to MP3 and portable music players. If this had been just an extension of the music industry, it would not have mattered, but highly compressed "music" has dominated to the exclusion of all other forms.

The result has been the death of the music store, limiting access to the back catalog. It has also meant that producers are cranking up the volume and boosting the treble range to make their offerings sound better on MP3 players. This has left those wanting to play music, with what is now almost archaically referred to as high-fidelity, at a loss.

Things had gotten bad enough that I was tempted to give up on CD's and digital music and go back to vinyl LP's. I still have my original collection built up over the years, and with many Japanese pressings I bought while in Hong Kong. Others must have had the same reaction as vinyl sales are exploding, with Amazon listing tens of thousands of albums available.

After our last home move, I didn't get around to setting up my turntable. It is a fussy job at best, and many of the components are now well past their "use by" date. The idea of going back to cleaning vinyl, balancing tone arms, changing LP's every 15 minutes, and all the other annoying aspects of using record albums left me cold. Yes, the sound is often "better" when everything is setup perfectly, but it is a constant battle to derive an excellent outcome.

The final straw was looking at the prices of turntables and cartridges. The industry survived during the lean years by serving those with money - serious money. Prices are simply astronomical for good quality equipment. Indeed, even my current AV Amplifier lacks a phono input.

I decided to give digital another look. I have long used music streaming equipment from Slim Devices, from the original SliMP3, to the current Squeezebox. These devices stream digital music from a server to an amplifier using Ethernet, either wired or Wi-Fi.

The Squeezebox does a great job, but I had been using standard ripping programs to create MP3 files to be streamed. Even with high bit rate encoding, this is still a compressed music source and the impact is audible. It is actually quite tiring to listen to compressed music over any extended period of time.

Reading reviews of equipment for translating digitally encoded music to analogue for play back, it struck me that I was looking at the wrong end of the problem. Instead of investing in better CD management and better CD transports, the real opportunity was the data itself. Given that the CD is the medium on which a digitally encoded source is placed, the challenge was to get that data off the CD and stored in a format that was lossless and available for playback by a high quality analogue reproduction system.

It turns out that the CD player is attempting to read the CD and correct for read errors on the fly. The original standard for encoding does not have anywhere near the robustness of even the cheapest computer with a hard disk. Storing music on CD's, with their degradation over time, was simply the wrong way to go if the intent was to build a music collection.

It turns out that there are a huge variety of formats for ripping music, some with Digital Rights Management (DRM) and some without. Various levels of compression are possible, and different tagging is available. I started from the basic desire to have a lossless file format, non-proprietary, widely supported, and without DRM. The clear winner was FLAC.

Having chosen a format, the next issue is which tool to use in order to rip CD's to FLAC. The best ripping programs use plug-ins so that third party CODECS can be used, and improvements made without changing the whole system. After looking at a few of the most highly rated programs, I settled on dbPowerAmp. Exact Audio Copy (EAC) is also a good choice if you are obsessive about tweaking every last detail.

For ease of use however, dbPowerAmp wins. It has a paid version which includes a subscription to AMG for automatic track and cover art look up, and this is the one to go for. By comparing all the rips of each CD, dbPowerAmp can determine the accuracy of your rip. It can also detect read errors and go sector by sector to obtain clean data.

After installing dbPowerAmp, I added a multi-rip CODEC that encodes both FLAC and MP3. With the software and ripping process determined, it was just a matter of pointing the SqueezeCenter server software at the FLAC directory, and firing up the Transporter.

The result is CD quality music streamed digitally over a Wi-Fi network to the Transporter, and playback that is as good as it gets. A great user interface and access to my entire music collection means that I am now listening to music I didn't even know I had.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Singapore - ISP's to customers - "You are evil"

On Monday, The Straits Times ran a half page shill piece for the ISP's on the front of the Money section.

The gist of the article is that some unspecified "bandwidth hogs" with "insatiable appetites" are ruining it for everybody else by consuming more than their fair share.

The article attempts to equate using the Internet with consuming more than one's fair share of water. This is emotional manipulation of the worst kind. Clearly the ISP's are getting ready to try and introduce volume-based pricing in Singapore, and they are using all their press contacts to smooth the way. The article even trots out the argument that it isn't price fixing and collusion if all the ISP's coincidentally introduce volume pricing.

Except data isn't water, and there is no shortage of bandwidth. The world still hasn't consumed most of the fibre capacity that was installed during the dot com boom, and new technology continues to increase the capacity of the fibre optic pipes.

The whole comparison to water usage is a deliberate attempt to mislead.

The standard telecom contract for data services has been based on bandwidth provided since the invention of data circuits. Indeed, the ISP's price their services based on the bandwidth to which one subscribes. If I have subscribed for an 8Mb/sec service, how can I be a "bandwidth hog" for using 8Mb/sec of bandwidth? I paid for it, and I have the right to use it.

Let's dump the adjectives and get down to what is really happening.

The ISP's in Singapore have been selling ever greater bandwidth packages to consumers, confident in their belief that nobody can actually use that much capacity. At the same time, they have also under-provisioned the bandwidth required to connect all those subscribers to the rest of the world, which explains the incredibly slow performance one suffers with on a daily basis when accessing any site outside Singapore.

With organizations like the BBC discontinuing short wave transmissions in favour of Internet broadcasts, the popularity of video sharing sites like YouTube, and the wide-spread use of gaming, the Internet has matured into a rich media network.

Actually that is what it is supposed to be, but in Singapore we only get a frustrating hint of what is possible because of the lack of international bandwidth provided by the ISP's.

The problem is not "bandwidth hogs", it is the lack of capacity installed by the ISP's. I can't watch YouTube, listen to the radio, or download files without interruptions and dropouts. When I measure the local loop capacity, there is indeed 8Mb/sec of capacity. But that rapidly disintegrates into a high-latency, high packet loss mess as all the subscribers who are already paying for service find themselves dumped into congested and under-specified international gateways.

In case you think I am being unduly harsh on the ISP's, and that they need to charge by volume in order to stay in business, let's have a look at an answer given during the Q1 2008 results meeting with investors held by Starhub. (I don't mean to pick on Starhub, all the ISP's are doing it, but I know this comment took place because I was listening)

StarHub -"Keep in mind that the data and Internet service is provisioned over an existing fibre optic network system. All the CAPEX is laid in, most of the capacity is laid in, so when we sell a bit of bandwidth on that fibre optic system, it delivers very high margins. You’re talking about gross margins that are in excess of 80%. The encouraging thing is, as Mike pointed out, there has been a very steady growth in the very high margin in the data internet business. In fact now the revenue for that part of the business almost equals to the revenue in prepaid, so it has become a very meaningful part of our business."

So "No", Straits Times and local ISP's, the problem is not "insatiable bandwidth hogs", the problem is the failure to provide sufficient international network bandwidth to handle the traffic you have promised subscribers to carry. Maintaining an 80% gross margin while complaining about "hogs" is just hypocritical.

Monday, July 07, 2008

PacNet / Pacific Internet blocked as spam source

I have been a customer of Pacific Internet for more than 12 years.

Back in the day, their dial-up service was good and relatively inexpensive. I switched to Max Online (Starhub) when broadband cable became available, but continued to subscribe to Pacific Internet because I didn't want to change my email address, and I was still using dial-up roaming when traveling overseas.

Over the past months however, I have had the experience of email being blocked by receivers outside Singapore. The status messages indicated that Pacific Internet was a spam host and no traffic would be accepted.

It is now happening again, and this time I got a definitive response from the overseas ISP:

The outgoing mail server used, smtpgate3.pacific.net.sg, was
blocked by spamrats.com. This means that all of Pacnet's customers using
this outgoing mail server would also be blocked by spamrats.

Pacnet's Email Server Information page,
http://www.pacific.net.sg/customerservice/server/index.htm , indicates you
could use the following outgoing mail server: mail.pacific.net.sg . At
the present time, this mail server isn't blacklisted by spamrats.com as well
as 124 other similar blacklist organizations.

The trouble is that I am using mail.pacific.net.sg as my outgoing mail server. It appears that PacNet is consolidating their outbound traffic on a server that has been blacklisted by pretty much the rest of the Internet world.

With no overall organization in charge of the Internet, individual ISP's have banded together to create blacklists of IP addresses and domains that originate spam. Once included on such a list, you are pretty much unable to get through to anybody else outside your own domain.

Pacific Internet has been bought and combined with Asia Netcom. The resulting company doesn't seem to want individual customers any longer, focusing on business instead. The lack of interest in fixing the problem, and the desultory tech support have led me to finally bite the bullet and move my business elsewhere.

Goodbye Pacific Internet.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

There's one born every minute

A friend and I recently sat through a presentation by an asthmatic stereo dealer at Adelphi who was trying to convince us that the power cables he was selling for thousands of dollars each made a difference to the sound.

He had a near death experience as he climbed in behind the equipment to switch out the cables and plug things back in. The wheezing made it sort of difficult to concentrate, but I actually thought I did a hear a difference - the normal cables sounded better.

Which brings me to this gem.

Denon is selling their AK-DL1 Premium Denon Link cable "designed for the audio enthusiast". As both the name and the picture testify, this is a 1.5 meter Ethernet cable. For US$499.

We are talking about moving a digital signal over wire. Digital.

Apparently the words "audio enthusiast" translate to "idiot" in normal English.

Denon's 1.5 meter (59 in.) ultra premium Denon Link cable was designed for the audio enthusiast. Made from high purity copper wire and high performance connection parts, the AK-DL1 will bring out all the nuances in digital audio reproduction from any of our Denon DVD players with the Denon Link feature. Attention to detail when building this cable was used by employing high quality insulation, tin-bearing alloy shielding and woven jacketing to reduce vibration and to add durability. Additionally, signal directional markings are provided for optimum signal transfer. Rounded plug levers help prevent breakage.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Brother HL-2170W Laser Printer - PC Show 2008

After a really unpleasant and expensive experience with an HP LaserJet 2300, I swore off HP and expensive laser printers. Even though it cost as much as its model number when purchased new, HP showed no interest in fixing a vertical streaking problem. The only advice was to buy a new toner cartridge, at S$210 dollars.

Which didn't fix the problem.

Instead of throwing more good money after bad, I threw out the laser printer and survived on my Brother MFC-4800 laser fax/printer. This device is quite capable, with PC to fax transmission as well as scanning and printing. It is not great for graphics, and tends to get cranky when asked to print more than 10 pages at a time. It also does not accommodate the printing of envelopes directly. You have to remove the normal paper, print the envelope, and then put back the paper.

I have been waiting for the MFC-4800 to die, giving me an excuse to upgrade, but the thing has been flawless for more than 5 years now. Which is extraordinary since it seems to be made completely of plastic. I have had to put my prejudices in favour of a heavy metal chassis on hold in light of the longevity of this unit.

My work tends to involve the preparation and review of lengthy documents, so having an ability to quickly produce hard copy is required. With the PC Show 2008 on this week and actually being in Singapore at the same time, I took the chance to scout for a new laser printer.

Interestingly, it was a Samsung and a Brother that showed up on the radar. The price of the machines and consumables were significantly lower than competitors, and customer reviews for the Brother were pretty positive. After looking specs over, I decided on the Brother HL-2170W, the top of a range of 3 printers.

The HL-2140 is the first model in the series which all feature a fast printing speed of 22 pages per minute. It has a USB interface, and is meant for direct attachment to a PC. The next model is the HL2150 which has a built-in Ethernet interface and 16Mb of memory.

The one I went for is the HL2170W, which doubles the memory to 32Mb, and adds a Wi-Fi interface. I was intrigued with the idea of being able to run a printer wirelessly - it means that you can move a printer around as required without worrying about Ethernet or USB cables. It also has a manual feed slot at the front, though without a tray, so envelopes or other odd sizes can be printed.

Being deeply respectful of the crowds at a Singapore PC Show, I went to Suntec on the opening day around 3:00pm, after the lunch crowd had left. It was busy, but not dangerously so, and I was able to locate the Brother booth and do the deal. The printer was on sale for S$100 less than normal, so it was S$298. They also threw in a trolley and USB cable.

Brother is unusual in splitting the toner from the cartridge. Instead of throwing away a print cartridge every time you run out of toner, Brother sells the toner separately, so the cost is lower. Consumables were 20% off at the Show, so I also picked up a high capacity toner refill at the same time. Everything was strapped to the trolley and I fought my way back down to the parking garage and home.

The "out of box" experience was great, just requiring the insertion of the cartridge, and plugging in the power cable. There is a CD with installation wizards, as well as a printed manual.

I was curious about how the Wi-Fi would be configured as a printer doesn't have any obvious way of entering data. Indeed, the manual suggests plugging the printer in temporarily using the Ethernet or USB ports. I connected it to my LAN, and let the installation software run.

The software immediately found the printer and asked how I wanted to install it. I chose wireless, and it then stepped me through entering my SSID and WEP key.

And that was it, the printer was now a shared network device visible to the whole LAN. Simple and sweet.

It turns out there is a tremendous amount of intelligence in the printer. You can use a browser to directly connect to it's built in web server which gives you access to a huge amount of configuration and diagnostic information. There is also a screen to setup email, but I haven't yet figured out if that is for the printer to send diagnostics, or to receive print jobs or both.

I have to say I am very impressed. Compared to the pain I went through with a supposedly corporate class HP printer, the Brother has been a joy to setup and work with. Having the speed and cleanliness of a laser at about the same price as a good ink jet is just amazing.

Oh yes, the print speed and quality appear to be as advertised - excellent.

Skype introduces "all-you-can-babble" price plans

I have been a happy user of Skype since it came out. I have also used it heavily at work, first from China, now where ever I happen to end up in the world. Having a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection is all it takes to maintain voice and video contact.

With children overseas at university, it has also come in handy as a painless way of staying in touch. Far less intrusive than a blind call on a wireline phone, the presence feature lets you check status before calling.


Even at reduced rates, my spend on long distance was still significant because many of the people being called did not have a computer or Skype. Using the SkypeOut service, I bought credits which then permitted the calling of any phone number in the world.

I am happy to say that Skype has now introduced a flat rate calling plan that gives you unlimited (OK, 10,000 minutes per month) calling to wire and mobile phones. The combination of the Linksys CT400 Cordless Skype phone, unlimited calling, and "free" internet through my Starhub HubStation is an unbeatable combo.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Email interviews - magical conversion to gibberish

I occasionally get requests from journalists to provide answers to questions they send by email. The resulting exchange is then often printed as if you had been interviewed in person.

It can be annoying when perfectly good written sentences are often transformed into grammatically incorrect sentences that make you sound like a complete idiot. Or even worse, factual inaccuracies are introduced and it looks like you don't know what you are talking about.

Case in point. I ended up in the Digital Life PC Show supplement talking about how I use an Asus Eee PC. The picture seems to be lifted from another magazine (probably CIO).

The strangest edit came in the section where I had said that because the Eee PC used an SSD memory drive as a hard disk, it was more rugged. This became
the phrase "the Eee PC is in a solid state".

I sure hope so. It would be bloody difficult to use in a liquid or gaseous state.

The resulting article that ran is here as a .PDF

Saturday, May 10, 2008

ISPs in Singapore blocking BitTorrent traffic

There has been a considerable amount of controversy over the practice of some ISPs in the U.S. to limit or block traffic. The target is typically VOIP or BitTorrent, and the excuse is that it is overloading their networks.

This brings up the obvious question of why you would be in a business if you don't intend to supply the service you are supposedly selling.

A group calling itself the "max planck institute for software systems" has created a web site and Java applet that allows you to test your connection to see if traffic is being blocked. A fair number of people from Singapore have used the test, and the results are in:

We found widespread blocking of BitTorrent transfers only in the U.S. and Singapore. Interestingly, even within these countries, blocking was observed by hosts belonging to a handful of large ISPs.

I tried the test using my connection which is (barely) served by Starhub Maxonline. The results show that traffic was not blocked, but the throughput speeds are pathetic. The results are as follows:

Is BitTorrent traffic on a well-known BitTorrent port (6881) throttled?

* The BitTorrent upload (seeding) worked. Our tool was successful in uploading data using the BitTorrent protocol.

* The BitTorrent download worked. Our tool was successful in downloading data using the BitTorrent protocol.

* There's no indication that your ISP rate limits your BitTorrent downloads. In our tests a TCP download achieved minimal 39 Kbps while a BitTorrent download achieved maximal 26 Kbps.

The good news is that the BitTorrent protocol is not being actively blocked. The bad news is the terrible speed achieved. What is supposed to be an 8 Mbps service is delivering 39 Kbps.

Starhub continues to under-provision international bandwidth into Singapore. Local speeds can and do achieve the advertised numbers, but try and access anything outside Singapore and you might as well be on dial-up.

Friday, May 09, 2008

OCBC Securities - All your incomes are belong to us

Our series on great moments in abusive legal terms and conditions visits with the fine folks at OCBC Securities.

The 54 page document that governs doing business with OCBC can be found here.

I bring to your attention a couple of gems. The first is Clause 17.

17. Investment of Monies received

(a) You agree that OSPL shall be entitled to retain all of the interest earned from the maintenance of any monies standing to the credit of any Account; and

(b) You agree that OSPL shall be entitled to retain all of the returns from the investment of monies received on your Account. Such investment of monies shall be carried out in accordance with the SFA.

which suggests that leaving money with these folks is unlikely to result in any gain - except for OCBC.

Clause 24 deals with OCBC's obligations to protect your personal information. Somewhat predictably, one is forced to agree to OCBC's right to disclose your data to third parties under a number of different circumstances. There are nine (9) of these, and then we get to the final nail in the coffin of privacy.

24. Consent to disclosure

(a) You hereby expressly authorise and permit OSPL and each of its officers to divulge, reveal or disclose any or all of your particulars of your Account, including but not limited to your information relating to any transaction or dealings between you and OSPL;-

(x) any other person or entity at any time:-

(1) which OSPL or any officer in good faith considers appropriate for any purpose in connection with these terms and conditions; or

(2) where such particulars of your Account was inadvertently divulged, revealed or disclosed to/or accessed by such persons or entities through no willful default of OSPL or relevant officer

This is pretty good stuff. Ignoring the bad grammar (your Account was), as a customer you basically agree that even if OCBC completely screws up and loses your data, has it stolen, compromised or otherwise purloined, they are off the hook.

Lawyers 2, Customers 0

Thursday, May 08, 2008

UOB does it again

Credit crisis not withstanding, the banks and brokers have been up to their old tricks with bizarre and egregious terms and conditions buried in the fine print of forms.

Our example today comes courtesy of UOB. They are proud of their two factor authentication (required by the regulator) for Internet banking, which they trumpet on their home page. However, it seems the pride is tempered somewhat by fear.

If a customer applies to have their password changed, something one should do routinely as a good security practice, the following piece of legalese forms part of the agreement:

"In consideration of the Bank issuing to me a replacement Password, I confirm that I remain responsible for all transactions made with my old or deactivated Password"

Yes folks, UOB has managed to legally defeat the whole purpose of changing your password. Even if someone uses a deactivated or old password, you are responsible. One quick question for the brain trust at UOB - How does a password continue to function if it has been deactivated?

As a customer, I wonder just what kind of a computer department UOB is running if they require legal protection from deactivated passwords.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Singapore - You are a foreigner, shut up

In Singapore, whether on a work permit or with Permanent Residence status, you are never allowed to forget that you are a foreigner. You may live here for more than ten years, contribute to the CPF, pay taxes, and create employment for Singaporeans, but you are not eligible for any Government programs such as top-ups or tax rebates, and you pay higher fees for medical treatment.

More importantly, you have no right to speak. As has been made abundantly clear with refusals to permit speakers from overseas and the latest fiasco with the Complaints Choir, foreigners are expected to be invisible and quiet. There is an excellent review here of the situation, written by a Singaporean.

Which is all well and good from one point of view. If one is a guest, it is rude to criticize one's host.

Using the term "guest" stretches things more than a bit though. Moving to Singapore, raising a family, starting businesses, employing people, these are not the behaviours of a guest. There is clearly a commitment and permanence which makes the label "guest" inappropriate.

The Singapore government survives and prospers in no small part because of its disciplined and relentless organizational ability and focus on listening to the "HDB heartlanders". Given that set up, it is not hard to see how foreigners present a problem. They are too heterogeneous to be managed.

The reality is that there are now more than a million foreigners living in Singapore. And they are completely disenfranchised. To have almost a third of the population of a country relegated to invisible status is simply to breed trouble. There are no examples in history of disenfranchising major portions of a population leading to positive outcomes.

I doubt we will see British investment bankers rioting in the streets demanding their rights to be heard - they tend to riot only after extended sessions at Boat Quay. Instead, Singapore gets what it has created - a foreign population that feels no connection to their adopted country of residence, and a large group of people with no voice to air grievances or suggest improvements.

I contrast this with Hong Kong, where the expat population is proud of their adopted home, and serve as unofficial ambassadors for the Territory, creating and sustaining a positive image for Hong Kong throughout the world.

It is a shame that those in power today have made the policy calculation that they need to suppress foreign residents in Singapore in order to manage Singapore. There are other, more positive approaches which do not risk the Singapore identity, while providing those contributing to the growth of the country with an appropriate level of representation.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Hacking Bluetooth - We hear you

The history of the Internet has been the story of connecting things together - machines, data, and people. We have all benefited from the almost frictionless access to information that now prevails.

There is a dark side however, whether it is spam, identity theft, or in this case, intrusion. Hackszine has an article and video on how to hack a Bluetooth connection. It turns out to be relatively simple to do. The really scary part is that the hack goes on to show how to activate a Bluetooth device remotely, and then monitor the data stream.

In plain English, that means that somebody can hack into your fancy Bluetooth headset, and listen to what you are saying, even when you are not in a phone call.

And yes, there are other hacks to turn on your web cam remotely and monitor the video stream.

Have a nice day.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

ASUS - The Most Hated Company In the PC Industry

Mile Elgan, of "Mike's List" fame, has an interesting piece here, where he looks at the impact ASUS is having on the PC industry by releasing the Eee PC.

The size, operating system, features, quality of construction, use of SSD storage, and price, all directly challenge the incumbent suppliers who have controlled the rate of change and pricing.

"The source of ire is a tiny laptop called the ASUS Eee PC. This open, flexible, relatively powerful, and very small laptop is notable for one feature above all: It's price. The Eee PC can be had for as little as $299. (Go here to read the reviews -- they're all positive.)

Let's take a moment to ponder how cheap that is. This full-featured laptop costs $69 less than the 16 GB Apple iPod Touch. It's $100 less than an Amazon Kindle e-book reader. The most expensive configuration for the ASUS Eee PC on Amazon.com is $499."

"The reason Microsoft hates Asustek couldn't be more obvious. The Eee PC runs Linux (Xandros running KDE) and uses an appealing and innovative tabbed-based user interface developed by Asustek. The device also comes with OpenOffice, a Microsoft Office replacement, and Firefox. The entire system -- hardware, OS, office suite and applications -- costs $30 less than Amazon.com's discounted price for Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate alone. The Asus Eee PC is demonstrating to the world that its success depends on aggressively *avoiding* any Microsoft product."

Well said, and very true.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Netgear ReadyNAS NV - Power Supply Burns Out

Having gone through a number of low end network attached storage (NAS) devices, I finally opted to pay for a premium product that also happened to run the streaming music server software I use. That combination was the Infrant ReadyNAS NV, a toaster-sized unit that houses 4 hard disks and connects to your network to provide a common storage pool. I initially reviewed the unit here.

Everything was going along well until I received a technical support email informing me that overheating problems in some power supplies required a mod to the unit. As luck would have it, my unit was within the range of affected devices. I checked the temperature the unit was operating at by looking at the status screen of the built-in web server, and everything looked OK.

As my equipment room at home is reasonably well ventilated and air conditioned, I figured that would be the end of the story. Unfortunately not. Coming home from dinner out one evening, I was greeted with the unmistakable and panic inducing smell of electrical burning. The sniff test revealed the ReadyNAS as the culprit.

I did a quick system shutdown, and then unplugged the unit. Checking the online support forum, it was clear this was a common problem, and the new owners of Infrant, Netgear, were replacing faulty power supplies. My challenge was that I had imported three of the units from the United States directly, and the Netgear support call centre, which turned out to be in Australia, didn't know or want to know anything about the problem.

After getting increasingly frustrated, the tech finally suggested that if I called the Netgear support number after 6pm local time, I would get the US call centre instead of Australia. That actually worked, and I was able to walk the phone jockey through the problem and get an RMA. Since I was going to be in the US anyway, I figured I would have the replacement power supply shipped to me there and then bring it home and do the swap myself.

All of which was great, except that Netgear never shipped the replacement, and charged my credit card for shipping.

On returning to Singapore, I was able to make contact with the local Netgear office, and the extremely helpful Andrew Tan. In the end, I was able to do a swap with him at their office in Raffles Place, and install the new power supply myself.

So a happy ending, but a few insights as well.

I had always thought of the NAS as extremely safe archival storage because of the 4 disks and RAID arrangement that allows data to be recovered even if there is a disk failure.

What I didn't consider was that a power supply failure would cause all the data to be inaccessible because the RAID controller and software format are essentially proprietary. I did find some forum posts about using Linux and some utilities to get at the data, but that is way too hard for most.

StarHub - Smart TV HubStation Set Top Box Update

I was one of the early adopters of Starhub's Smart TV HubStation DVR set-top box back in March, 2006. I did a review at the time. And it was dreadful. The unit was consigned to the dead box and forgotten.

Having moved to a new apartment, and re-installed the home theatre at our new place, the Starhub box ended up connected again.

After powering up and loading new firmware, I am happy to report the thing actually, mostly, works properly now. The firmware revision has moved from 1.10 to 1.23, so there have obviously been continuous attempts to fix the problems.

The freezing that happened every time one fast forwarded through recorded material is gone. The scheduled recordings now actually take place. The time to move between channels is still too slow, and of course there is no way to burn DVD's of the recorded material. The user interface has a couple of bugs, particularly the inability to select a channel from the schedule screen, which the normal digital set-top box allows.

All in all, a pedestrian offering, but one that is now functional.

Tweaking the Asus Eee Pc

Further to my review of the Asus Eee PC, I have now had the chance to try a few more tweaks, both software and hardware.

Following instructions given on Eeeuser.com, I managed to reveal the Start button and create a filled menu structure for it. Going a step further, I also applied the mod that gives access to the underlying Xandros Linux interface, which is well described here. Feeling lucky, I used the Synaptic package manager to install a couple of additional repositories and then installed VLC, the excellent multi-codec media player.

On the hardware front, I decided to add additional memory to the unit. The model 4G which I have, ships with 512Mb. There is absolutely no reason to add more memory with the existing applications, but since it was possible....

The memory slot is under a cover on the rear, and just takes the removal of two screws to access. Remember to remove the battery and ground yourself before playing with the guts. There is only one memory slot, so you are throwing away the 512Mb SO-DIMM that comes with the unit, and replacing it with a 1 or 2Gb SO-DIMM DDR2 5300 667Mhz RAM card.

I chose the 1Gb size as it was relatively cheap, and the Linux image only recognizes 1Gb. A check on Hardwarezone showed the current pricing for memory of this type, which was followed by a quick trip to Fuwell at Funan, resulting in the exchange of S$32 for the SO-DIMM.

Installation took all of 30 secs, and the Eee PC was back in operation and proudly displaying its new memory total in the System Information panel. As expected, no visible benefits, but I haven't worked with multiple applications open yet.

Anyway, we do this because we can, not because we must.

Linksys CIT400 Skype Phone - Firmware Upgrade

I've reviewed the Linksys CIT400 Skype Phone before, and it continues to see heavy use by the wife, proving its high SAF (Spousal Acceptance Factor). There have been a few nagging bumps along the way, and I finally got around to checking for a firmware update to see if anything had been fixed.

The Singapore Linksys web site is useless when it comes to firmware, and a conversation with a Linksys support tech confirmed that one basically has to use the US site for firmware updates. A quick check showed that there was indeed a new firmware release here, dated 2007 06 29 and taking the code to version

Upgrading is done by downloading the firmware to a PC, then accessing the CIT400 base unit by typing its IP address into a browser. The base unit has a built in web server that gives access to various status and administration pages. By browsing to the downloaded firmware file and clicking the update button, the unit performs the firmware upgrade.

All that worked fine, and things seem a bit more stable with the new firmware.

One other discovery. Starhub announced that subscribers with the HubStation Smart TV Set-top box have "free" internet access through the built in Ethernet port on the back. I didn't really have a use for that until I thought of putting the CIT400 base station there instead of on my normal Maxonline service.

It turns out the 1Mb bandwidth is enough to support good quality Skype calls, and it gets the traffic off my regular network, along with any lingering security fears.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Searching E-mail

As a certified packrat, I have accumulated vast quantities of e-mail over the years. Working on the assumption that bits are cheap, I have a relatively complete record of my electronic communications.

The problem with the bit bucket approach to data storage is retrieval. How do you find what you are looking for in that huge pile of information?

A number of search programs exist, all with various flaws. Google Desktop leaks information back to the mother ship. Lookout, a search plug-in for Outlook crashes things regularly. Microsoft bought the company, and now offers Windows Search.

The problem with all these programs and plug-ins is that they only do literal search. If you are looking for a phone number, but the word "phone" does not appear in an email, you will not get a result. The solution is to use semantic search, and a researcher at IBM has created just that - a semantic search solution for Outlook and Lotus Notes called IBM OmniFind Personal E-mail Search.

What I particularly like about this program is that it is free (for now), fast, and clean. When installed in Outlook, a small search button is added to the toolbar. The search results are presented in a simple web browser page that looks very similar to Google.

Downloading requires registration with IBM.

Toy Alert - ASUS Eee PC

ASUS have managed to create something for which I have been waiting for a very long time - an inexpensive (S$598), usable, small form (225 × 165 × 21mm), notebook computer called the Eee PC. When you consider a Nokia N series or Windows Mobile smart phone is over S$1,200, the value proposition for the Eee PC is compelling.

Even more interesting is the market reaction. Sales are way ahead of projections, with the Taipei Times reporting
more than 350 thousand units sold, and predictions of 5 million to be shipped in 2008. The user community is already huge, with web sites, forums, wikis, and articles proliferating all over the 'net. That puts the Eee PC in iPod territory.

I won't bother to go into all the specs or provide a detailed review as that ground has already been well covered by others. It comes with Wi-Fi, a solid-state disk for storage, 3 USB slots, Ethernet port, integrated web cam and microphone, an external VGA connector, a removable battery, and a decent keyboard and touchpad. The 7 inch LCD screen is fantastic, and the default fonts and type sizes are very comfortable for my old eyes, unlike the more expensive UMPC's like the Toshiba Libretto, Sony Vaio, and OQO.

This little device is really going to shake things up in the operating system world. The model I bought came with Xandros Linux wrapped in a particularly simple and easy to use menu system. All the applications you need (to surf the web, send and receive email, use Skype, create and read documents, play games) are already installed. Linux is suddenly on the desktop and actually being used in anger.

Although I have installed Linux systems over the years in order to have a look, I am a firm Windows XP user. Linux just seems too fiddly and time consuming compared to Windows. The default installation of Linux on the Eee PC is anything but fiddly. It just works, and that is what good software should do.

Using hints and instructions I found by googling support forums, I have already modified the OS to reveal the advanced desktop which ASUS decided to hide, and installed my favourite media player, VLC.

It is also possible to install Windows XP on the unit. A DVD disk is provided which contains the Xandros image and the drivers necessary to complete a
Windows installation. ASUS is shipping models that have more memory, storage, and XP natively installed, but they have not appeared in Singapore yet. I was so taken with the device that I didn't want to wait for the higher spec units.

The ultimate recommendation I can give is that I was so impressed with the Eee PC, I left my usual ThinkPad behind and only took the Eee PC along on a recent 8 day holiday. I was able to access all my email accounts, check the weather forecast, and complete an Internet check-in for the return flight.

We do love our SMS

ZDNet Asia reporter Victoria Ho has a story about SMS growth based on findings from Gartner.

The numbers are truly staggering. Asia accounted for 1.5 trillion messages in 2007 out of a total of 1.9 trillion messages transmitted world-wide. The Gartner analysts are predicting growth of over 19% in 2008.

There are approximately 6.6 billion people in the world, and most of those don't have cell phones. Those that do, have very busy thumbs.

Add to the messaging total all the Blackberry users pushing email, all the IM conversations taking place on MSN, AOL, Yahoo and the like, and all the Skype and VOIP services, and one gets the strong impression that the human animal craves communication. The future of social networking seems secure, even as it evolves and mutates to take advantage of new channels.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Smoking is an IQ test you fail in public

With all the evidence linking smoking to a range of health impacts, and with that evidence particularly pointing to the effects on women, I am astonished at the number of girls and women who continue to smoke.

I was heading out for lunch today, and had to pass through a group of otherwise attractive women, all puffing away on cigarettes. My first thought was how pathetic it is to have to reveal an addiction in front of strangers, and then I wondered at the thought process that led them to take up smoking in the first place.

Which led to the bumper sticker:

Smoking is an IQ test you fail in public

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Come out of the cage - GSM in North America

Like animals kept in a cage so long they are scared to come out when the door is left open, North American cellular users seem unable to grasp the concept of a standards-based cellular network.

There has been a lot of press calling for open networks recently, kicked off in an op-ed piece by Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal demanding cellphone perestroika. American cellcos have adopted a business model in which they tightly control which handsets are sold, and heavily discount the equipment by locking subscribers into long term contracts.

Whenever choice is limited,
the result is rather predictable. The range of handsets available in the most technologically advanced country in the world is tiny compared to places like China, Hong Kong and Singapore, where hundreds of handsets are available at retail shops and from the cellcos directly.

Verizon, one of the main cellcos in America, and famously the one that passed on the iPhone, has now announced that it will "open" its network to external devices. In a bizarre twist, AT&T, which operates using the GSM standard, has announced that it is open too. I say bizarre, because by definition, GSM is open. People all over the world move between carriers everyday, with any device certified as GSM compliant.

It's called roaming. And no, you don't have to have permission to activate.

In an article in Infoworld, an AT&T spokesman is quoted as warning "
We can't guarantee the performance of the device, of course."

Which is nonsense. If a GSM-certified handset fails to perform on AT&T's GSM network, the problem is with a non-compliant AT&T.

Knowing that the situation in the US and Canada was not competitive, I equipped eldest daughter with the latest Nokia handset purchased in Singapore before sending her off to university in Canada.

Like AT&T, Rogers, the operator of the GSM network in Canada, has kept a stranglehold over handsets. Unlike other countries with GSM coverage, it is almost impossible and certainly uneconomic to purchase a prepay SIM card for use while in Canada. The staff at the shops don't seem to even understand the concept. You can however, sign up for a normal post-pay account.

And guess what. That foreign, unlocked, non-tested, unblessed handset works perfectly.

Who knew.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Who needs a computer anyway?

There was a post on Good Morning Silicon Valley today referencing an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the fact that half of the top ten books in Japan in the last 6 months were written on cellphones. As usual when exploring cultural trends, the Japanese tend to be out there first. Not everything starts in Japan, but if you want to look for unexpected societal implications of technology, Japan bears a look.

As someone who started using computers during a compulsory statistics course while at university, the journey from punching holes in cards on a keypunch to writing novels on cellphones is quite extraordinary. What I have also noticed is that the time to progress from one dominant method to the next has compressed beyond recognition.

If you consider that writing and paper go back thousands of years, printing goes back hundreds of years, the typewriter was invented just over a hundred years ago (1868), and the Teletype was in mass use in the 1950's, there is a pace of change that is exponential.

Within my own family, my grandparents had a discipline of writing letters to the family on Sunday nights. Each of them had portable typewriters that had traveled with them all over the world. I also learned to type on a mechanical typewriter, but it was the IBM Selectric that greeted me by the time I started work. Within 5 years, AES word-processing machines started to show up, and it was only 10 years later that PC's had completely replaced stand-alone typewriters and word-processors.

My dominant method of writing and communicating has been the PC and email. Although I did use typewriters and carbon paper when I first joined the diplomatic service, I rapidly shifted to PC's and WordStar, when I started assembling my own computers in the mid '80's. This was the time of the first modems running at a glorious 300 baud, and the advent of the free Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) with their forums and messaging.

For my children, only two years apart in age, I can see a difference already in their approach to written communications. The eldest grew up with instant messaging and gaming, and she barely uses email. For the youngest, email is already a thing of the past. She lives exclusively on her cellphone, using SMS for written communications.

Which challenges the whole idea of "the written record".

Our ideas of permanence and persistence are not keeping up with the change in technology. Carving marks on rocks gives you a pretty permanent record. Papyrus has lasted for milennia. Paper, if made acid free, last hundreds of years. But now we have thermal printing, laser printing, and ink jet printing, all with lives measured in tens of years. Our written record is becoming ephemeral, lasting only temporarily.

While electronic records seem permanent, the reality is that the storage media - disk, tape, optical disc - are fragile and easily corrupted. More importantly, even if the data survives, there is a dependence on the continued existence of computers, operating systems, and application programs in order to access the data. Although we are awash in information, our historical record is surprisingly delicate.

What has replaced persistence is presence. I don't care what you said in the past, I just want to know if you are online. Services such as MSN, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ, and Skype have changed the rules of the communication game from content to contact.

There is an assumption that there is no record - what I say to you will disappear when we stop talking. Nothing is permanent. This accelerates with SMS, in which even the device being used to communicate, the cell phone, is viewed as a fashion item rather than a communication channel. Replaced on a whim, the record of messages is erased without a thought.

The same behaviour can be seen on social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, where pictures of people doing things they would probably rather forget about are routinely posted. There seems to be a genuine sense of surprise when warnings are given that these photos may come back to haunt one later in life.

After all, isn't stuff supposed to go away when you disconnect?

In Japan, cellular storytelling is all the rage

Justin Norrie
December 3, 2007 - 10:29AM

It seems improbable, even at this early stage, that 21-year-old Rin (a nom de plume) might one day be granted a place alongside Fyodor Dostoevsky in the pantheon of literary giants.

The nursery school teacher from Kokura, in Japan's south, is celebrated for her skill with stichomythia and crude colloquialisms but not, like the great Dostoevsky, the extent to which her writing illuminates the darkest machinations of the mind.

For the time being at least, however, she is entrenched alongside the Russian master in Japan, where the two have become major best-sellers of fiction this year.

A new translation of Dostoevsky's classic The Brothers Karamazov, released in July, has surprised its publisher by notching up more than 300,000 sales already - but it is Rin's rather less challenging Moshimo Kimiga (If You ...), a 142-page hardback book about a high-school romance, that has caused the bigger fuss.

"I typed it all on my mobile phone," Rin explains matter-of-factly over the same device. "I started writing novels on my mobile when I was in junior high school and I got really quick with my thumbs, so after a while it didn't take so long. I never planned to be a novelist, if that's what you'd call me, so I'm still quite shocked at how successful it's turned out."

So successful that one volume of her book, which began its life in a series of instalments uploaded to an internet site and sent out to the phones of thousands of young subscribers, has sold more than 420,000 copies since it was converted into hardcopy format in January.

Remarkably, half of Japan's top-10 selling works of fiction in the first six months of the year were composed the same way - on the tiny handset of a mobile phone. They sold an average of 400,000 copies. By August, the president of Goma Books, Masayoshi Yoshino, was declaring in a manifesto that he was determined "to establish this not simply as a fad, but as a new kind of culture".

Conservative literary academics in Australia who have been huffing about the "radical" study in high-school English courses of SMS messages as "text" have cause to be anxious.

In just a few years, mobile phone novels - or keitai shousetsu - have become a publishing phenomenon in Japan, turning middle-of-the-road publishing houses into major concerns and making their authors a small fortune in the process.

Usually they are written by first-time writers, using one-name pseudonyms, for an audience of young female readers - who, in Japan especially, consult their mobile phones so regularly that the habit could be mistaken for a tic. The stories traverse teen romance, sex, drugs and other adolescent terrain in a succession of clipped one-liners, emoticons and spaces (used to show that a character is thinking), all of which can be read easily on a mobile phone interface. Scene and character development are notably missing.

Koizora (Love Sky) by Mika has sold more than 1.2 million copies since being released in book format last October. The story, about a high-school girl who is bullied, gang-raped, becomes pregnant and has a miscarriage in a saga of near-Biblical proportions, will soon be made into a movie.

Mayumi Sato, a 37-year-old editor at Goma Books who turned Rin's episodic melodrama into a bestselling book, says it is also her favourite of the new generation. "I was actually crying at one point while I was working on that one," she says about the story of a high-school girl's fight against HIV.

"It might seem strange that young readers are going out and buying the book after they've already read the story on their mobile. Often it's because they email suggestions and criticisms to the author on the novel website as the story is unfolding, so they feel like they've contributed to the final product, and they want a hardcopy keepsake of it."

Maho no i-rando (Magic Island), a site that has free tools to help readers create their own mobile phone novels, has accumulated nearly 1 million works since it was set up seven years ago.

Predictably, the surge in popularity of crude, cellular storytelling has raised eyebrows in academic circles.

Toru Ishikawa, a professor of Japanese literature at Tokyo's Keio University, points out that Japanese mobile phones allow their owners only a limited selection of kanji, the Chinese characters regarded by Japanese as more intellectually demanding than their native syllabary. "The size of the screen also necessitates that [authors] use short, simple sentences with basic words. If that's how you measure the quality of literature, then yes, the prevalence of writing like this will water down Japanese literature.

"But it could also encourage writers to be inventive with language in new ways. Language must always evolve."

Rin says she often reads more challenging Japanese classics and acknowledges that her work is deliberately aimed at young people.

This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2007/12/03/1196530522543.html