Thursday, April 28, 2005

Singapore wants to get dirty

Like the A student who starts hanging out with the guys taking shop, Singapore has decided that it is too boring and needs to add some excitement.

The first physical manifestations of this took place last year when the operator of a reverse bungee was given a licence, AND bar top dancing was permitted under certain circumstances. (presumably not while on the bungee).

With this radical unbuttoning, it was only a matter of time before things really got crazy.

After carefully preparing the public through the usual trial ballons and op-ed pieces in the local press, the government has now announced that it will permit two IR's. No, not infrared, but Integrated Resorts, the Singaporean code words for casino gambling.

One can hardly wait. Maybe things will completely go to hell and Singapore will host the world chewing gum spitting championships...

Juniper (JNPR) buys Peribit and Redline

Juniper, the only company that really keeps Cisco awake at night, continues to make interesting and strategic acquisitions. They have already purchased NetScreen (VPN and firewall).

This week they have announced the purchase of Peribit, the makers of excellent WAN compression boxes, and Redline, a maker of web application accelerators.

I have personally put Juniper's large core routers into a corporate, and used the Peribit compression to dramatically cut WAN expenses. Having the capabilities in a single product family is a really smart move on Juniper's part.

Anybody who still just automatically buys Cisco because it is safe is missing the plot.

We Know Who You ARE

I often come across web sites, emails, and IP addresses that I would like to verify in some way. Are they really who they say they are? Where are they located?

There are any number of sites you can find that do lookups for individual pieces of information. But for the most comprehensive one stop query page I have ever seen, check out DNSstuff. There are more than 20 different query and test links, all grouped on a single, easy to use web page. No need to install any software.

Great stuff.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Cleaning Up After Yourself

Thinking about privacy and security brings to mind another useful utility that should be on every Windows PC - Crap Cleaner.

This freeware gem goes in and cleans up all the footprints and detritus left after a hard day surfing. I was astonished the first time I ran the program to find that it had removed more than 80mb worth of files from my computer. The number of nooks and crannies that contain data are truly amazing, and ccleaner deletes all traces quickly and painlessly.

Highly recommended.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Profiling Your Computer

Keeping complete image backups is the only practical way to restore a PC after a crash, but what if you need to start all over and install your software from scratch?

After you have been running Windows for a while, the registry is filled with an accumulation of broken and obsolete enteries that slow down performance. Although there are tools to "clean" the registry, they are fraught with problems unless used very carefully.

It is incredibly tedious to re-install, but if you must, one way to at least ensure that everything gets restored is to take an inventory of what is currently installed. Clicking on Start|All Programs shows you a list of what Windows thinks is there, but there is no way to print this easily, and programs that did not create Start entries will not be shown.

Belarc comes to the rescue. Free for personal use, the Belarc Advisor is a remarkable program that generates a complete listing of all hardware, peripherals, OS patches and software on your computer. I was astonished to find that I had hundreds of programs installed.

The listing produced by Belarc is generated in your browser as a web page with links. It also shows licence keys for software, something which is really important to have in a single place when re-installing.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

When Your Passport Can Get You Killed

The balance between privacy and security for all of us was fatally disrupted when the United States decided that it was at war with terrorism.

To be at war with an idea, with a consequence, instead of a country or person is not an easy thing to manage. The first casualty of the war on terrorism was the ability to express an opinion. This is often referred to as free speech, but as history shows, it is an early and frequent victim of conflict.

When crowds, or countries, decide that they are threatened by "them", some pretty ugly things start happening. An enduring image for me is of a 61 year old man being arrested at a shopping mall for wearing a T-shirt which said "Peace on Earth, Give Peace a Chance".

I have tried to avoid travelling to the US by air after a number of incidents which were both unpleasant and unnecessary, and inflicted by the screening personnel at airports. There is nothing you can do as a traveller but submit, however outrageous the request.

And so to the US campaign to force all other countries in the world to issue new passports. These documents are to have biometric and biographical information on an unsecured, unencrypted chip that can be read by a contact-less proximity reader. The US has actively and successfully argued against encrypting the information on the chip or allowing safeguards to prevent unauthorized data acquisition.

Which means that you can be scanned without your knowledge and have all your personal details picked up by someone who may or may not be doing so for innocent reasons.

There is an excellent overview of the technological and societal implications written by Scott Bradner in his NetworkWorldFusion column.

I find it difficult to think of a positive outcome for any of this.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Meta Search with TurboScout

A local Singaporean student has created a useful meta-search web page called TurboScout that submits your search query to more than 90 search engines.

The interface is googilian in its simplicity, and the expanded search universe delivers truly useful results. For those using Firefox, there is also a code snippet to add TurboScout to your search box on the toolbar.

Can't ask much more for free.


We have all become used to the simplicity of finding things on the web with just a few clicks. Google is a verb, so what can come along to make you take a deep breath?

How about a search engine that finds people, gives you all their personal data, draws a map with directions to their house, and to top it all off, has a satellite photo? Welcome to ZabaSearch.

ZabaSearch was launched at the end of February, 2005 and is just amazing and scary. An excellent review of the site was done by David Lazarus in his San Francisco Chronicle column.

The site appears to work better in IE than Firefox, where the links were not clickable.

In a world in which nothing is private, anonymity is your most precious asset.

Skype to your wireline phone

I mentioned in an earlier entry that Skype was starting to cause an add-on industry. A good example was brought to my attention in the form of the MPLAT Skypebox B2K.

Apart from the ugly name, this is a neat little device that creates a physical connection between your PC running Skype, and your wireline phone. Which means that you can not only answer incoming calls on a normal phone, but also place outgoing calls.

Now, this is not a replacement for the SkypeOut service which lets you dial to a PSTN number. You would still need a SkypeOut account with pre-paid credit to do that. Rather, the MPLAT uses some clever software on the PC to assign speed call numbers to your Skype contacts, then lets you dial them from the wireline phone.

There is a complete explanation of how it all works, with diagrams, here.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Open Letter to the Building and Construction Authority

Update: Received the following from the BCA today, after a conversation with one of their people:

Dear Mr. Hanafi

I refer to your teleconversation with our Ms. Catherine Wong this

We are looking into the issues raised by you in your email. In the
meantime, if you have further questions or feedback, please feel free to
contact me.

Thank you.

Goh Meng Hwi - Engineer - Building & Construction Authority - Tel: +65
63258967 - Fax: +65 63257482

Call me cynical, but one does rather think that the investigation will be finished just about the same time the building is demolished...


I have been off the air for the last few days, beaten into submission by the relentless pounding of heavy construction equipment being used to demolish a re-inforced concrete building across the street. In the finest Asian tradition of non-regulation of anything that gets in the way of making money, there are no meaningful rules for acceptable limits to noise and duration of operations.

Although ultimately futile, I sent the following to the government agency involved, and the Straits Times editorial page.

Dear Sir,

I am writing this letter from my desk at home while feeling slightly queasy from the swaying of the building I live in. For the past 108 days, the building directly across the street has been under demolition from 08:30 in the morning until 19:00 at night, 6 days a week. They appear to be half finished. The impact is similar to living in Beirut during the civil war - constant noise, dust, and earth-shattering impacts, while enduring your home shaking and swaying.

The building being demolished was not old or unusable. Indeed, it was younger than the one I currently live in. It is being demolished because the owner believes that they can make more money by tearing down the current structure and building a new one with smaller apartments and higher density. While I am firm believer in the capitalist system, their profit is coming at my expense. There is no national interest being served here, just profit. But the costs are being borne by those of us forced to live nearby.

Singapore is a heavily urban environment. Thousands of people live within 500 meters of the demolition site, yet the technology being used to demolish the building is extremely primitive - hitting concrete with pneumatic hammers. It is time to realize that conventional demolition methods are inappropriate for urban environments, and that something better and faster needs to be used.

I call on the Building and Construction Authority to bring in regulations that protect citizens from the effects of demolition projects. As a start, there should be requirement for the use of controlled demolition (use of explosives) to demolish buildings in residential areas. This is a well-understood and safe technique which brings down a building in a single controlled explosion. There should also be compulsory use of acoustic shields on pneumatic hammers to control the noise. The allowed work hours need to reflect the reality of their impact. People need rest, and students need to be able to concentrate. Hammering should be restricted to 9-5 during weekdays, and not on the weekend at all.

There are at least 2 other buildings scheduled for demolition in my immediate neighbourhood, so this is not an issue that is going away any time soon. When you multiply the situation by all the sites across Singapore, this is a major problem.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Ecology of Skype

One of the marks of success for any product or service is the emergence of communities, accessories, pundits, copies, and newsletters. This has happened with the iPod, Amazon, Google, and blogging.

The latest entrant to this level of interest is
Skype, the free VoIP service that lets anyone connected to the Internet talk with anyone else. There are now enough services, products, hacks, and activities that have come into in existence, to describe an ecology of Skype.

Any one who uses Skype regularly has sought out better hardware - echo cancelling microphones, comfortable headsets, physical phone interfaces.

There is a blog/forum called Skype Journal, which covers the service itself as well as the ecology and potential impacts.

The equivalent to podcasting has emerged as skypecasting, in which content is played back out over Skype, creating the ability to be your own broadcaster. More troubling, content can also be captured during Skype sessions and turned into MP3 files for playback and distribution. A good reminder that anything you type or say on the Internet can come back to haunt you.

I really wonder if the old-line telco equipment makers are going to survive this latest shift in their universe. They tried to ignore data for a long time, then scrambled to integrate IP voice into traditional PABX equipment, still charging millions for large systems.

Meanwhile, every desktop has a PC and it is just a matter of habit catching up with reality. You can't have cubicle dwellers in open plan offices all yelling at their computers, but you definitely can marry the idea of a handset with a PC.

Throw instant messaging (IM), calling regular phones, conferencing, and soon, video, into the mix , all also provided by Skype, and you have a genuinely disruptive change on your hands.

Apart from the obvious impacts on traditional businesses, there is also a change in the way we interact. Email broke the conventions of "proper" correspondence by turning written interaction from the formal to the casual. Speed also changed expectations of politeness, and the pressure to respond. IM ratcheted up the pressure even higher, because now you can have a continuous conversation regardless of distance.

A recent program on the BBC World Service had an academic talking about how his collaboration with a colleague in Japan had changed with Skype, because they no longer say hello and goodbye, they just talk when it is appropriate.

Since Skype can also work on PDA's and wireless devices, and people with way too much time on their hands have figured out how to put Internet access into airplanes, we have truly arrived at a permanently connected world.


Sunday, April 10, 2005

Nokia PC Suite - New Version for 9500 Communicator

A new version of the PC sofware for connecting and synchronizing a Nokia phone to a PC has just been released. Called PC Suite, it is now at version 6.5 and is available here.

The previous version certainly had issues, and this version is supposed to have dealt with the bugs. I am hoping this one will handle things more smoothly. I have also updated my page of links to Nokia 9500 software and resources.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Don't Let Cellular Carriers Bully Manufacturers

A recent recent opinion piece in the Straits Times suggested that it was a good thing for cellular carriers to be able to dictate how phones should be made and released, and that this shift of power from the manufacturers to the carriers would be a good thing.

The reality is quite different. GSM has become the success it has precisely because the Nokia's and Ericsson's of the world refused to be bullied by the carriers. The carriers are only interested in "lock-in"- they want you to buy your phone from them and then make sure you have no choice by ensuring that the firmware in the phone is unique to their network.

If the world worked as suggested, there would be an end to innovation and an increase in prices. New services work because they are ubiquitous and follow open standards. Closed, proprietary systems rarely gain traction.

To see the kind of abuse that follows carrier modified phones, look at the experience of Treo 650 users in the US. If you buy a Treo off the shelf, it has Bluetooth. If you buy it from Verizon, it has Bluetooth turned off. Why? They want you to use their network to move information, not an off-net technology like Bluetooth for which they cannot charge.

Singapore has been relatively "clean" in that you can buy phones from any manufacturer and use them on a local network. The SIM cards are locked to prevent local roaming, but otherwise do not suffer from restriction present in other markets.

It would be a huge step backward to argue for an end to the healthy and innovative competition that has delivered benefits to device customers in favour of giving further power to the telecom oligopoly.

In Praise of Sidekick 98

After posting my reminiscence of old software, and Sidekick 98 in particular, I have come across a number of other people who feel the same way.

There appears to be an active Sidekick community running over at Tech-Tips, with new forum postings happening daily.

There is also a web site which hosts FAQ enteries and downloads here. The postings contain some excellent information about keeping the program running, and how to import and export to various other programs.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The VCR is dead - long live the DVR

A vulnerable moment (left alone by a momentarily distracted wife in an electronics store during a sale) has led to the invocation of Bell's Law and the addition of a shiny new Pioneer DVR-520H to the home theatre setup.

Living in the heat and humidity of Singapore has not been kind to our VCR tape collection. Many of the pre-recorded tapes purchased more than 10 years ago are unusable. There is also the palpable shock of switching from the clean high resolution picture provided by a DVD. Going back to the old grainy VCR and waiting for the thing to rewind, only to miss all the great sound coded on the equivalent DVD is just too much.

We have had DVD's and players since the format was first released, but the VCR was the only available device to do time-shifting. Being in Asia, there is no TIVO or G-code recording. Definitely created a sense of deprivation.

DVR's with hard disk recording and built-in DVD burners started showing up last year, but at ridiculous prices. By the Chinese New Year sales this year, things had calmed down enough to punish the plastic and bring home a new toy.

After looking at all the various flavours of DVR available here, I decided it really came down to a choice of UI and remote. In other words, it is digital recording, so there won't be much difference in the actual recording, just in how easy it is to program and operate.

The Pioneer DVR series quickly emerged as the most sensible and practical package. It really is a pleasure to use, with just a few key presses to set up a future recording event, to retrieve a recorded program, and to burn a permanent copy.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Book Recommendation - Setting Up LAMP

Continuing the adventure of building a computer to provide myself with a web server driven by a database, I needed more handholding and information, so it was back to the book store.

The components have been selected on the basis of their being a) open source, and b) well documented. That led me to Linux for the OS, Apache for the web server, MySQL for the database, and PHP for the scripting language. This combination is known as LAMP.

A review of the available books for LAMP newbies, and I settled on "Setting up LAMP". As advertised, it takes you through all the installation and configuration issues without assuming any prior knowledge, the achilles heel of most computer books.

Highly recommended.

Computing Appliances versus Configuration Control

As both a CIO and a home user, I have long been frustrated with the trade-off that was required between accepting a computing appliance with limited capability, and the power and complexity of rolling your own.

Often, appliances have been from obscure manufacturers, and tech support is not something that can be counted on. This has led to most people avoiding appliances in favour of the tried and true process of selecting hardware, operating system, building the application, and configuring the parts to work as a whole.

OTOH, non-existant manuals shouldn't be a problem if the appliance is truly plug and play.
There are appliances for spam and virus prevention, firewalls, and web servers. But the first ones to pass the plug and play test were probably NAS appliances. Why go to all the trouble of building a full system when you just need a bunch of disk attached to your network? There are relatively expensive NAS appliances running proprietary operating systems from people like Netapps and EMC, mid-price NAS appliances running Windows from Dell, HP, and IBM, and cheap NAS appliances running various flavours of Linux such as the V-Gear which I reviewed previously.

The most interesting development has been in the all-in-one box that allows a SOHO user to have a complete computing environment without having to hire an IT team or pay big bucks for hosting. The folks at Axentra have come up with a neat little box that appears to do everything, with minimal initial setup handled through a web browser. The product is called the Net-box SOHO-400.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Telecom Policy Needs Work In Singapore

There is an ongoing fight between the two wireline providers in Singapore because of a basic mistake made by the regulator when monopoly telco operations were ended.

StarHub is refusing to provide service to customers in various locations around the country because of a dispute over the pricing of SingTel's circuits.

Underlying the present dispute is the larger issue that StarHub has not been given equal access to the in-ground conduits that are used to run telecom cables throughout Singapore.

SingTel enjoyed monopoly rights and unfettered access when it built the existing in-ground conduit access system that is ultimately at the heart of the dispute. Having been allowed to dig up the streets and enter every building in the country, it now is suggesting that StarHub undertake a similar task on its own.

This is not an unusual state of affairs around the world, where most countries have had to deal with an incumbent monopoly refusing to give up its privileged position, while permitting competitors to enter the market in a way that permits them to be economically feasible. SingTel was paid a considerable amount of taxpayer funds for the loss of its monopoly.

The in-ground conduits are a public good that should be for the benefit of all residents of Singapore, not for the enrichment of a single commercial enterprise. Other jurisdictions have levied usage fees on all users of in-ground conduits, reflecting society's stake in ensuring equal access.

The alternative is that we will never have meaningful competition for residential telecom services, and we will be forced to endure the wholly unnecessary duplication of the existing conduits in the form of endless road excavations and broken pavements.

SingTel should stop trying to compete by blocking competition and concentrate on providing great service at a good price. Their current behaviour does nothing to benefit the residents of Singapore.