Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Came across an interesting new service called PubSub that does real time searches for keywords and phrases. Unlike a search engine, it does active scanning. They are currently claiming over 9 million sources and 925 new items per minute.

Many years ago, I used to subscribe to a news digest service that sent a daily fax with headlines based on keywords you provided. This seems to be the same sort of thing, but using computers instead of editors, and in real time. You can add a widget to your browser (either Firefox or IE) to get results that way, or use Atom/RSS/XML and get the results in a newsreader.

The Wall Street Journal picked up PubSub as a source being used by day traders to trade on momentum by picking up early notice that something was being discussed.

Interesting and free - give it a try.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Book Recommendation - The Company

Contemplating a start-up has me thinking about the building blocks, including what form the organization should take.

We think of companies as being something pretty obvious, but the modern conception of a company can be traced back to pre-Industrial Revolution Britain. The impact they have had has been enormous.

"The Company - A Short History Of A Revolutionary Idea" is an enjoyable and brief overview of how the idea for joint-stock companies came about, and the impact they have had since their invention.

The authors take a light and fast paced trip through history, leaving the reader with the opportunity to learn more if interested, with extensive footnotes and an extensive bibliography.

The chapters covering the modern period examine the issues that companies present society:

  • Do companies have an obligation to support the communities they operate within? This is often referred to as CSR or corporate social responsibility.
  • Do companies owe their primary duty to stakeholders? And are those stakeholders the shareholders, managers, or customers?
  • Do companies have too much power? Are they the cause or the effect of globalization?
Such meaty topics do not allow much more than a cursory treatment in a book covering so much history, but it does get one thinking.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Why Using Windows Is Like Being A House Cat

A lifetime of using computers has left me with the ability to click the Start button. What happened and what does it all mean?

One of the more surprising findings of a study of cats found that their brain shrinks the longer they are house pets.

This got me thinking with what is left of my brain.

I have been using computers since university, and personal computers since they were invented. From poring over articles in Popular Science about the IMSAI Altair, to lusting after a SOL 20, to actually owning one of the first Osbornes, I have been acquiring and using the machines for more than 30 years.

Along the way, I have learned many languages (FORTRAN, BASIC, COBOL, APL, dBASE) and any number of operating systems (CP-V, CP/M, DOS, Windows). I was very comfortable with the ins and outs of batch files, memory managers, and other arcane skills need to get things to run. I actually made my living as a programmer for some period of time, and wrote commercial packaged software for managing contacts back when that was unusual.

Today, my computer runs Windows. Why? Because after a while, it was just too hard not to. As my favourite applications fell by the way side, and as the hardware I wanted to run evolved, there was really no choice - one had to run Windows.

One of the professed design goals of Windows is to hide complexity from the end-user. No need for config files, no need to understand or learn, just click on things until something happens. And I suppose it is hard to argue with the approach. Why should you have to have a degree in rocket science just to boot a computer?

Which brings me back to the cat.

I don't think I can actually write a program to save my life anymore. Like a well-fed house cat, my skills have atrophied and shrunk to the point of vestigial memories.

I have moments of lucidity when I attempt to recapture the glory days, when slinging code separated the men from the boys. I try and install the latest greatest Linux distribution on an old PC, and settle in with some 1000 page "Learn LINUX in an hour" bible.

Many times, I actually end up with a working system on which it is possible to start one of the included applications. A very old version of Netscape. Or a Tetris clone.

When I try and install some new application, it usually doesn't work because I haven't put some file in the right directory or edited some obscure configuration file. Right now, I have lost the taskbar on my GUI interface. I don't know why, and I sure don't know how to get it back.

So I switch back to my comfortable Windows XP machine and use it to look up tech support for Linux. The irony is not lost on me...

But even house cats have frustrations.

I mourn the loss of skills, but I also mourn the loss of functionality. When I was running DOS and WordStar and dBASE, I had no trouble writing letters and using mail-merge to send out our annual Christmas letter. In fact, WordStar even had a dictionary (not spell checker) and thesaurus which contributed to better writing. Today, one is left with American dictionaries and a mail-merge process that is a frustrating series of compromises that belie the progress we are supposed to have made.

Now we have the all conquering Microsoft Outlook and it's hideous mishmash of menus and rigidity. Want to store data with your own labels and field types? Forget it. Want to figure out where your data is? Good luck. Need to export to another program? No chance. Unless of course it is a virus that wants access to your address list. That apparently is easily done. Want any choice of programs to use to accomplish a task? Forget it. All innovation has ceased if Microsoft has released a program in that category.

But I am a house cat, and my brain hurts from all this thinking. Better roll over and go back to playing Solitaire.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Bell's Law

Way back in the 1980's in Hong Kong, a bunch of expats and old China hands met on Friday nights to eat too much, drink too much, and to talk about computers. It was an odd bunch of people with nothing in common except a love of food, drink and computers.

They managed to start the first computer club in Hong Kong, HKFOG (later SEAnet), and to put up the first bulletin board system (BBS), running a pirate Apple II and salvaged 8 inch floppy drives. This eventually became the Asian link into the world-wide FidoNet.

During one of these bacchanalian feasts, a blinding truth became obvious, and was dedicated to the gentleman who first managed to distill it into a Law.

"There are only two reasons to buy a new piece of equipment: Your friends have it, or your friends don't have it."
Bell's Law

This one's for you Dexter.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Book Recommendation - Beginning PHP5, Apache, MySQL Web Development

My interest in web publishing has bumped into the limits of the hosting service that I use - Homestead. First the good news. If you want to get a web site up quickly and without learning anything new, use Homestead. They have a genuinely WYSIWYG editor that completely shields you from having to learn HTML or FTP or anything you would normally have to do to publish.

This simplicity of use has served me well for years, when I didn't have the time to attempt creating my own web site from scratch. I had two main objectives in publishing a web site - personal use, and information sharing regarding projects I was working on.

The personal use came from extensive business travel. While bookmarks work well if you are on one computer, they don't work when you are travelling or switching computers. I wanted an easy way to reach web sites that I regularly used for work and personal reading. Thus was born Hanafi's Haunt, my website. I have pages for Business News and Technology News, as well as pages covering projects such as computerizing my hi-fi.

The limit of Homestead is that it only supports rudimentary pages. One cannot create a database, RSS feed, or publish many types of files. To do so, it really is necessary to get down and dirty and create a web site from scratch.

Looking around, it became clear that the most common combination of tools was AMP - Apache, MySQL, and PHP. Apache is an open source web server, MySQL is an open source data base, and PHP is a scripting language.

I reviewed a number of different books to find something that catered to an absolute beginner. Many of the books published are reprints of manuals available on the web, or assume that the reader is already knowledgeable about the subject. I wanted something that took me through the steps of setting up the software and using it.

I am happy to report such a book exists. "Beginning PHP5, Apache, MySQL Web Development" published by WROX is readable, accurate, and has downloadable source code so you don't need to type in all the examples.

Highly recommended.


The confluence of MP3 audio files, RSS newsfeeds, and portable MP3 players has resulted in something called podcasting.

Any audio content can be recorded in MP3 format, not just commerical songs from CD's. With the spread of portable MP3 music players, there is now a critical mass for distribution of content to people owning such players. I should hasten to add that podcasting does not require an iPod - these are just MP3 files that can be played on your computer or any MP3 player.

The final piece is the use of RSS to distribute the files. Instead of having to troll for files through peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa with all the attendant issues regarding legality and spyware, there is a new class of software that looks like an RSS reader, but which knows about audio.

An excellent example of a podcasting client is iPodder, available here. Just like RSS, you add URL's for the sites that you want to receive content from. iPodder has a list of sites that will get you started. You can schedule iPodder to download on a regular basis, and then transfer the files to your player.

The CBC has already made two radio shows available as podcasts - Quirks and Quarks, the long running science show, and /Nerd, a technology show.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Datsun 280ZX Fairlady

Datsun 280ZX Fairlady

My favourite car of all time - the Datsun 280ZX, known in Hong Kong as the Fairlady.

Bought this car used with my first pay cheque after entering the private sector. It had four different tires, and almost killed me
when I spun out going around a corner on my way home from the dealer in the New Territories. After putting Michelins on it, performance was fantastic.

The engine was the famous "Iron Maiden" straight six, with a manual 5 speed. The only problem I ever had with it was the low ground clearance - going over speed bumps was likely to remove critical parts from the underbody...

Picture was taken in 1987.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Good Morning Silicon Valley

One of my favourite newsletters is the daily round-up put out by the folks at Good Morning Silicon Valley. With a mix of tech news, a touch of the bizarre from around the net, and good writing, it is an always welcome arrival each day in my in box.

A little gem they highlighted today is this post from what looks like a personals ad on Craigslist. Funny!

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Book Recommendation - High Crimes

I try never to see a movie based on a book until I have had a chance to read the book first. It is really irritating to have an actor's voice and image in your head instead of deriving the image from your own interpretation of the author's words.

I started reading High Crimes by Joseph Finder because I really enjoyed his novel Paranoia. I had the nagging feeling that the plot was familiar, and the further I read, the more it dawned on me that I knew what was coming. A quick check with the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB), and fears were confirmed - I had already seen the movie.

So this is a tainted review. I actually was enjoying the book until the deja vu hit, so I can recommend it. There is a nice twist at the end, and enough detail to keep one entertained.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

When Old Software Is Best - Sidekick 98 and Phillipe Borland

I am one of those people who gets classified as an "early adopter". I have an enduring optimism that things get better over time, and that the next great thing is just about to be discovered. I love the thrill of getting a new toy, figuring out how it works, and then spreading the news.

Hard experience would indicate that this optimisim is not well founded however. Gartner has what they call the hype-cycle, the various phases that people go through when evaluating technology and its potential impact. I can simplify this into two phases - anticipation and reality.

Anticipation is wonderful because it is unconstrained by reality. All desires are satisfied. All features work. Nirvana is at hand.

Reality, as some others have observed, is a bitch.

Which brings me to software. Microsoft's Borg-like domination of the planet has extinguished innovation in the core areas of word processing, spreadsheets, personal data bases, and email. Yes, there are still efforts going on, but the look and feel seems to have been locked in concrete, with most competitors releasing "me-too" products rather than real innovation.

The Open Office folks are doing a great job of providing an open source Office suite, but the goal seems to be duplication, rather than extension.
You do not have any tools at hand for managing and moving lists, unless you are managing names and addresses in Outlook.

Shortly after I took delivery of my first IBM PC in 1984, I came across a marvellous program called Sidekick from a company called Borland. This magic piece of code was the first commercial use of something called a TSR or terminate and stay resident program. Running on DOS, the program would pop up when a key combination was pressed, providing an editor (with WordStar keys), a calendar, and most importantly, a little flat file database.

I can't describe how powerful it was to have all those capabilities at the touch of a key. Instead of having to insert a floppy and wait for the program to load, Sidekick was memory resident. The ability to quickly and easily create a database and then export in .dbf or .csv or pretty much any format was something I took for granted.

Windows came along, and the very thing that made Sidekick cool (TSR) became a liability. Borland the company was going through changes as well, getting broken up and sold in pieces. Eventually, Phillipe Borland started a new company called Starfish which was dedicated to reducing bloatware and writing software that was small and functional.

Starfish came out with a Windows version of Sidekick that had all the original features, plus the ability to synchronize across the Internet. The best version of this software became Sidekick 98. Subsequent versions were released, but they were actually worse. I was really happy that Sidekick was back, and used it to create contact lists, account and password lists, CD and vinyl lists, DVD lists, you name it. I didn't really care about the collaboration features.

Flash forward to today. Starfish got bought by Motorola during one of their periodic "software vs. hardware" moments of doubt. Getting bought by Motorola is usually the kiss of death for a team, which rarely survives Motorola's "special" corporate culture. Indeed, all traces of Starfish disappeared. The web site hung around for a while, but then in April 2003, it started pointing to Pumatech, the people who were selling the Intellisync product. Pumatech has since changed their name to Intellisync, and appears to be concentrating on selling to enterprises and carriers for phone and PDA synchronization.

A new PC user will inevitably conclude that his only choice for managing data is Outlook, since that seems to be the only program with which vendors concentrate on synchronizing. Unfortunately, Outlook is a primary example of bloat-ware, with rigid formats (you cannot define your own fields), and endless menus and options. Ugh. Add to all that the fact that people like Palm didn't even include a proper database with their device, and you find yourself in the wilderness when it comes to managing anything other than names and addresses.

Anyway... what this is all in aid of is the fact that Sidekick 98 is still the easiest and most flexible piece of software out there for managing information on the fly, and for formatting it to move between different programs and devices. I have been able to take data originally entered on an Osbourne 1 running dBASE II under CPM, and move it to DOS, various laptops, Windows, Psion PDA's, and most recently, a shiny new Nokia Communicator 9500.

I am happy to report that Sidekick 98 runs fine under Windows XP, a testament to Phillipe Borland's design goal of simplicity and usability. I just wish he was still making great software.

Update: September 26, 2023

So we are 25 years past the release date of Sidekick 98, and the old girl is still running.  I haven't been blogging for quite a while (life) but I still use Sidekick 98 and have managed to get it running on Windows 7, Windows 10, and now Windows 11.  

There still isn't anything out there that comes close.  It is particularly noticeable for those who grew up with dBase II that there doesn't seem to be much/any software for individuals to organize data privately and personally without being on a cloud-based system.

Long live Sidekick 98!

Monday, March 14, 2005

MP3 Streaming Devices - Squeezebox2

The folks at Slim Devices have released the latest generation of their network-connected digital music player. Called the Squeezbox2, it features wireless connectivity as well as digital optical outputs.

I first came across this company when I was building my own compturerized hi-fi. At the time, they were selling a product called the SliMP3, which had a display, ethernet port, and RCA phono jacks. It was a simple and elegant solution to integrating MP3 music with a conventional stereo system.

I went further and added wireless capability by plugging the SliMP3 into a wireless bridge, which has worked just fine, though things can get a bit hairy when somebody is surfing on a wireless laptop while the music is playing.

The new Squeezebox2 has 802.11g, so bandwidth should no longer be a problem. I like the addition of the optical ports, and the server side software has been updated to support Internet radio, and a host of other features.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Book Collection Goes Live

After evaluating a number of different book collection management packages, I decided to go with Book Collector from the folks at Collectorz. The software allows export to HTML, and so the fruits of my first data entry session are now on view here.

It is going to take some time and the right mood to bang in all the ISBN numbers and do the lookups, but the results are quite pleasing. The template I used shows all the books in Title order, with thumbnail cover shots, and click-through screens showing all detail information.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Book Review - The Nudist On The Late Shift

Continuing to mine the backlog of books on my shelf, and considering getting involved with a startup, I decided to read Po Bronson's "The Nudist On The Late Shift". It is an autographed first edition which I got through one of my periodical bulk orders from Amazon.

I can still remember the incredible energy and sense of inevitable success that defined Silicon Valley in the late '90's. I was lucky to be working for Visa in Singapore, and made regular trips to head office in Foster City. I would always take advantage of the travel to prowl around the Valley, visiting companies I had heard of and looking for solutions to problems we ran into building and maintaining Visa's networks.

The growth between visits was measurable, and it seemed like the centre of the universe had shifted to that endless collection of office parks scattered along Highway 101 between San Francisco and San Jose.

Bronson's book is really just a collection of articles he wrote for Wired, in which he attempts to capture what made the Valley work by telling the stories of people he interviewed and followed. He has given the book a structure by giving each of the individuals a thematic role in explaining the mysterious magnetisim of the Valley.

How does it stand up post bubble, post 9/11?

As with any attempt to write history while being surrounded by events, one risks missing the big picture and being buried in the detail. Bronson was clearly taken by certain companies and people he met. Not all have prospered in the way he assumed they would. But the book is still a good way of re-capturing the sense of the possible that pervaded everyone involved.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Economics of Piracy

Daniel Gross has written an article in Slate commenting on Hollywood's decision to sell DVD's in China at a low price to compete with the pirates. He thought this would lead to people in the US importing the discs because they were so much cheaper than the ones sold in the US.

As he soon realized from reader comments, Hollywood thought they had the grey market covered by imposing region coding, which means that discs sold in one region should only be playable on DVD players sold in that region.

Like any other commodity, consumers of DVD's have rapidly discovered that there is a difference in quality and price between the various region releases. Code 1 discs released for the North American market are better quality, with more features (sound choices, special documentaries) and come out first. The result is the availability of multi-region players, first under the table, and now openly from legitimate retailers.

In the face of instant information, it is almost touching that Hollywood believes they can release a movie in one market months before another, and then stagger release of the DVD.

Anyone interested in supply chains must give credit to the incredible efficiency exhibited by the pirates, who can obtain a copy of a new movie from (say) a "voter" copy given out to Academy members and have it duplicated and in full distribution within a week.

As Gross points out, you really need to look at value pricing instead of costs when discussing piracy. Whether a Cartier watch or a DVD, the raw material inputs and manufacturing labour are a small fraction of the eventual selling price. In Singapore, a blank recordable DVD-R costs more than a pirate DVD from China with full packaging.

And that is the whole point. Piracy is theft, clear and simple. But it is also an indication of market demand at a certain price. Why is Hollywood so ignorant of economics? The market is saying that there is near infinite demand at $2 a disc. Why spend a fortune on regulation and bullying customers when they clearly want to buy your product?

The exact same reality applies to computer software. Why does Microsoft charge $500 for Office and then complain about pirates? The market wants the product, but at a much more realistic price. Piracy only exists when there is a pricing mis-match.

The real answer is that you don't get to earn $20 million to appear in a film and live like a king if discs sell for $2. You get to earn a decent living like everyone else doing a job and making a margin on their labour.

And where is the fun in that...?

Hotmail Being Attacked By Large Spam

About a month ago, I noticed that I was starting to receive very large spam messages of more than 130K each in my Hotmail account. Although the spam filter was picking them up, the messages were counted against my disk quota (2mb), effectively rendering my account unusable within 24 hours.

I attempted to report this problem to Hotmail tech support, but only got bot replies saying they were too busy to reply right now. Pop quiz. When can you tell a company has lost the plot?

Thank goodness for Gmail.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Web Site Monitoring

Came across this company called SiteUptime that provides monitoring for web sites. They have a free service that lets you monitor one site, and then fee-based services at very reasonable rates for more sophisticated statistics and multiple domains.

If you ever wondered how often your hosting service actually goes down, this is a quick way to find out.

Former Tech Executive Segues to Trucker

There have been any number of times while sitting through yet another incompetent vendor presentation (why don't they ever ask what I need?) that I have had fantasies of completely changing careers again and taking up long-distance trucking.

No, I am not a closet CB-radio fan or country music junkie, just someone who remembers fondly the freedom and peace of driving cross country.

This article in My Way, covers the story of the guy who sold Mosaic (which became Internet Explorer) to Microsoft and then ended up unemployed in the early 2000's. He got his big rig driving license and went on to start a small trucking company. He is still applying tech to the business, and sounds like he is having fun.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Stopping Hollywood Before It Is Too Late

The clash between content owners and everybody else is coming to another critical juncture. The ability to make money from ideas has always been problematic. When innovation was primarily expressed in physical inventions, the patent system was introduced to provide protection to inventors.

When innovation is creative, we have copyright law. When the methods of publishing and distribution were restricted to the few (priniting, celluloid film, broadcast music), it was relatively easy to enforce collection of royalties through organizations such as ASCAP.

As the technology genie escaped from the lamp, it became more and more difficult to enforce creator rights. Xerox machines and scanners, VCR's and DVR's, ripping and MP3's, have all destroyed the old gatekeeper and control mechanisms. Add in the Internet to increase the reach and speed of distribution, and you have the meltdown of businesses based on the medium instead of the message.

Like a wounded animal, the studios and music publishers are striking out at those they percieve to threaten them. Their latest demand is that hardware (the medium) be legally obliged to incorporate piracy protection of their choosing.

While at first blush this may sound reasonable, the unintended consequences are manifest. It will become impossible to make backups of material you have legally licensed (already the case with DVD's). Innovation will be stifled as every new advance will have to seek permission from the content industry before it can be released. The kind of home music and video distribution systems that I have been playing with become illegal. There is already a case where the studios have sued a company called Kaliedescape, which makes a high-end home entertainment system with a DVD jukebox, over a product that streams material you already legally own.

Amid all the fear mongering and extreme warnings of the death of creative industries, some well written and thoughtful papers have been written as amicus curiae briefs in the case of the studios against Grokster. The National Venture Capital Association has a paper here, and the Free Software Foundation has their submission here.

Book Recommendation - Skin Tight

After enjoying Hiaasen's "Skinny Dip", I decided to try another of his novels, this time "Skin Tight".

Released in 1989, this is a much earlier work, also featuring Stranahan, the main protagonist of "Skinny Dip". We learn a lot more about why he is the way he is, and meet the other characters who make up the rich and weird citizens of South Florida.

"Skin Tight" tackles the plastic surgery industry and the vanity and greed of those involved, including corrupt cops, politicians, and actors. The book is a good detective thriller in its own right, with a hard edge. Add Hiaasen's layer of the bizarre and farcical, and you get a very enjoyable read. The fact that the book is still in print attests to its enduring appeal.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Be All That You Can Buy

Came across a great parody of Apple's original "1984" ad, made by an improvisational comedy troupe I had never heard of before called The Royal We. You can see the film here, or download a copy here, from Bored At Work. Great stuff.