Sunday, April 30, 2006

Counting Skype Users

Jeremy Wagstaff has a blog entry entitled "Skype's 100 Million: Where The Hell Are They?" in which he questions Skype's claim of 100 million users. As users of Skype will note, the number of online users at any given moment is somewhere around 6 million.

Not sure what all the angst is about Skype subscriber numbers. Any telecom service is going to have more registered users than online users at any given moment. If not, the networks would collapse, since they are all engineered with a level of over subscription implicit in the design.

Skype is different from a conventional switched network because it is using peer to peer technology, so theoretically, it should be able to scale better.

I am just happy it exists. Having access to cheap, easy to use voice and video communications with chat and presence has completely changed the way I do business and interact with family.

StarHub - Smart TV Firmware 1.10 update

I was in the middle of trying to send my StarHub DVR back because of the poor performance, when they finally released a new firmware update, 1.10.

Because of family protests about the poor quality, I had already removed the new DVR from our main setup and reverted to the digital cable STB. The DVR now sits with the second TV, and is only occasionally used.

I cannot say at this point whether the new firmware makes any difference. When I went back to using my Pioneer DVR-520H, it was just so clean and simple that any desire to continue fooling around with the StarHub box just evaporated.

Apart from the fact that the Smart TV supposedly allows programmed recording from the on-screen directory, nothing else about it matches up to the quality of the Pioneer. I say supposedly because the previous firmware routinely failed to record selected programs.

I will eventually get around to testing the unit, but for now, it has achieved the status of an enthusiasm that didn't pan out.

Singapore Election - No Comments Please

There is an old saying that people get the government they deserve.

It has been a frustrating week watching the PAP machine grind toward the official calling of the Singapore General Election. Frustrating because of the peril one faces if observations or opinions are objected to. I can't truthfully say that the risk is worth it, and so have decided to write privately, rather than post any comments to my blog.

Suffice to say that events here stretch the definition of democracy to an extent that would be unrecognizable to a citizen of ancient Athens, the birth place of rule by the people.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Singapore Elections - Let the lawsuits begin

The Straits Times is reporting this morning that the Lees, father and son, have issued letters of demand against the Singapore Democratic Party's entire 12 man executive, and the printer of their newsletter.

This is a legal move to accuse the SDP of libel. The leaders of Singapore have used libel law frequently, resulting in the bankruptcy of opposition candidates. Once declared bankrupt, a person cannot run for Parliament.

The specifics of the libel suit relate to statements made in the SDP newsletter which claim the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) leaders have known about, and tolerated, corruption in the NKF charity and other government agencies.

There is a certain repetitious quality to the whole "election, libel suit, huge judgment for the plaintiff, bankruptcy of the candidate" cycle. One wonders why opposition candidates bother to run and/or why they are so careless about opening themselves to libel charges.

Granted, anywhere else commonly thought of as a democracy, most of the statements would be protected free speech.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Stealth E-commerce

I have recently had an unpleasant awakening to just how far the concepts of "fair use" and "intellectual property" can be pushed in the wrong direction.

I am an avid reader and collector of books. As the number of volumes has grown, it made sense to use computers and software to organize my collection. I have written before here, and here, about two great ways to accomplish the task.

What bothers me greatly however is that the organizations responsible for the software and service have both chosen to surreptitiously insert their own Amazon affiliate tag into listings and displays.

Let me explain the implications of this. Amazon has a program in which you can sign up to be an affiliate. They provide tools that let you embed links to books on Amazon within your web site, or as the case may be, listings of books on LibraryThing. If a person clicks through the link and buys the book, you are paid a small percentage as an affiliate.

That is all pretty straight forward. The whole web is driven by advertising, and whether it is Google ads or Amazon affiliate tags, it is a logical and above board way of driving sales and paying for the traffic. You would have to have a pretty popular site to generate earnings of a significant amount in any case, so it is not just the money that bothers me.

Where this all breaks down is when software companies and service providers start inserting their affiliate code into my listings and without prior notice. What is even worse is when those organizations refuse to modify their behaviour having been caught.

My current hall of shame includes:

Book Collector, which inserts their affiliate code in HTML extract reports,
LibraryThing, which inserts their affiliate code in displays of user book collections on the web

The morality is pretty hard to defend. Both Book Collector and LibraryThing rely on open API's to get the information and images they need for their services for free from Amazon and libraries.

This is all
reminiscent of the ugly happenings at CDDB, in which tens of thousands of people uploaded CD listings to what they thought was a public domain database, only to have it become a commercial enterprise.

Saturday, April 15, 2006


In the spirit of Easter, a few thoughts about rebirth.

The Wife watches Oprah, something I only admit to because apparently she has millions of fellow viewers. Inevitably, I end up sitting through the occasional show as circumstances dictate.

The formula seems pretty well developed. Somebody who has totally screwed up their life comes on, then everybody tut tuts about how well they have screwed up their life. This is followed by an uplifting denouement in which all is forgiven, acne is cleared up, and everybody emerges as happy and productive members of society. All accompanied by much demented cheering from white chicks in the audience who are secretly hoping for some freebie to be handed out.

But enough about Oprah. What really intrigues me is the easy way in which the traditional confessional and penance of mainstream religion has been transformed into the stuff of TV shows and pop literature.

Every society needs rules in order to ensure that things keep running and that the weak have a fighting chance against the strong. Morality, unless you really believe in the stone tablets, is the embodiment of the evolution of those rules.

The problem with systems that hold out damnation for sinners is that they fall apart unless the sinner is offered redemption. After all, if I commit a sin and then am eternally damned, I might as well forget about the rules for the rest of my life and just enjoy myself. Confession and penance are a neat way to keep the flock in line by offering the chance to wipe the slate clean. Now, this used to be something that happened privately, and supposedly confidentially, between you and your religious representative/priest/minister/shaman whatever.

Today in America things have become a lot more open and streamlined. Now you can completely screw up, get caught, do time (or not, depending on how much money you have), then go around telling everybody how much you screwed up and bask in their forgiveness and the 15 minutes of fame that go along with it. All pretty painless.

Since lots of money is spent screwing up, and more on the cure, and then even more on the publicity created by the recovery, one has to believe that this has a significant impact on the economy. Instead of worrying about all the American consumers in debt over their heads, just think of all the pending redemption stories out there. The books. The TV shows. The movies. The new charitable foundations.

I wonder if Greenspan took all this into account.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Book Recommendation - Syrup

It has been a rare treat to have had time to do some reading recently. Even more enjoyable has been the serendipitous introduction to two new authors. I reviewed Barry Eisler's work earlier, and now I have had the chance to finish my first read of a book by Max Barry.

He is simply a great writer. I don't know why I had never heard of his work before, but I couldn't put down Syrup from the moment I started reading. I don't want to go through all the plot and ruin the experience of reading it yourself. Rather, I just want to comment on the authentic voice that Max brings to his observations and dialogue. I constantly found myself nodding and agreeing with behaviour, remembering similar experiences and people.

If I was going to use reviewing cliches, then Syrup is a satirical romp through the world of advertising and corporate politics. Actually, it is funny. Very funny. My immediate reaction on finishing was to go and buy everything else he has written.

Get this book.

There have been a couple of other books that have delivered similar feelings of familiarity and mirth. I can recommend Thomas Scoville's Silicon Follies, and Douglas Coupland's Microserfs for excellent takes on life in Silicon Valley.

StarHub - Smart TV Digital Set Top Box Update

It has been a month since I took delivery of StarHub's new Smart TV digital set top box (STB). My original review is here. The experience over that time has not been satisfactory.

Where to start? Perceptible synchronization problems between audio and video. Heavy pixelization and digital artifacts, random picture breakups, complete crashes of the STB on an almost daily basis, failed recordings, inability to fast forward without losing synchronization, perceptible lag when changing channels.

I was astonished to read the positive review that appeared in the Straits Times Digital Life supplement. OK, not astonished, StarHub is a major advertiser of theirs, and the chances of a negative review were exactly zero. But come on.

Seeing other reviews that don't mention problems, I decided to call StarHub and ask to have my box replaced. The tech immediately agreed and scheduled an appointment. When the installer showed up at my flat, he was reluctant to do the swap. His point was that it would make no difference because the problems were not in the hardware. I insisted that the swap take place anyway, and fired up the new box.

Same problems.

Looking at the firmware revision number, 1.6, it is clear that no new release of software has been made in the last 30 days. I don't mind being a beta tester, but there is something wrong with this picture.

I am paying for hardware that doesn't deliver the service for which it is designed. There is no feedback mechanism to communicate with the beta program engineers other than going through normal 1633 customer disservice. Anyone using the box for more than an hour and exercising its functions would see that it was not ready for release.

My question to StarHub is "Why was this product released to customers?"

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Book Recommendation - John Rain Thrillers by Barry Eisler

One of the pleasures of reading a newspaper such as The Economist (never to be called a magazine we are informed) is the breadth of its coverage. Rather than a narrow focus on things financial, readers are treated to reviews of cultural matters as well. And it is from one of The Economist's recent book reviews that I discovered the work of Barry Eisler.

Mr. Eisler writes good old fashioned thrillers. He has created a character named John Rain, a half-Japanese, half-American killer for hire. With a combination of detailed tradecraft, martial arts, and exhaustive description of locale, one feels completely immersed in the action.

John Rain is not a simple minded psychopathic killer mind you, but the complex result of much that has gone before, as Eisler reveals throughout the books. The psychological debate Rain has with himself lifts the character out of the cartoon category and allows him to stand with his predecessors, most famously James Bond.

Quibbles? Although there is great detail about surveillance and counter-measures, there is far less detail about how all this is funded. Rain just always seems to have cash on hand, regardless of location or time. I would prefer to see the same level of detail Eisler supplies to surveillance applied to exploring the mechanics of moving and accessing funds.

The first two books have Rain involved against foes in Japan and America, and there is considerable ambiguity as to who the bad guys actually are. It is all quite believable. In the third book, Rain Storm, the foe becomes rather cartoonish Arabs, who are of course stupid, evil, and incompetent. The addition of a blue-eyed, blonde(?) Israeli femme-fatale to the mix makes the whole thing very black and white, losing the more interesting exploration of the shades of grey Eisler achieved in his first two outings. One can see this as astute marketing to an American public looking for Arab bashing books after 9/11, but it doesn't do the character any good.

I am looking forward to see if Eisler gets back on track with his fourth book, Killing Rain. It is not available off the shelf in Singapore, so I have put in an order with Acma to get a copy.


I have trouble throwing away gizmos and gadgets that have ceased to function. On one level, there is a sense of waste, a feeling that if I could just figure out what was wrong, or obtain a missing part, all would be well again. On another level, there is the rememberance of the joy that I felt researching, buying, and learning to use the latest "miust have", and the feeling that somehow that could be recaptured if I had the time or knowledge to fix the thing.

My long time favourite PDA, the Psion 5MX, was notoriously fragile. I put up with the expense and the periodic need to service or replace the thring because it was just so brilliant, and I had built my working habits around its capabilities.

It was the final death of my last Psion, and the fact that the company no longer manufactured the model or provided service in Asia that finally persuaded me to transition to the Nokia 9500. Now I really like the 9500, but it doesn't have all the bells and whistles the 5MX did, and I am still reminded of that fact occasionally when I try and do something that is no longer possible on the Nokia.

Which brings me to an odd occurrence yesterday.

It is Spring, and I was doing some cleaning in the Haunt when I came across my drawer of Psion carcasses. Everything from the original Series 3 to a couple of dead LCD screens from various 5MX's. Sitting with pride of place was the last 5MX, which had died suddenly, without warning, and resisted all attempts at revival. I had backups, and managed to retrieve most of what had been on it, all except my agenda which had been a complete diary of appointments going back more than 10 years.

For old time's sake, I popped in a couple of double A batteries and pushed the reset button. Nothing happened, and a phone call came in, so I just left it sitting on my desk. About five minutes later, I picked up the 5MX and prepared to take out the batteries. I popped the screen one last time to check and there was the setup screen in all its glory.

I went through the familiar motions of completing the script, and was dropped to the main screen of a fully functional Psion Series 5MX. No data files because of the hard reset, but otherwise a ready to go PDA.

I won't go back to using it of course, the same problems with fragility and service would remain. But as a reminder of the basic value of optimisim, it sure felt good.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Getting Linked To

Was checking my Technorati listing last night and saw that my blog entry on Social Networking had been referenced over on InfoTangle. I guess this stuff actually works, but is it self-referential or self-reverential?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

StarHub gets dissed in Straits Times

An article appeared in the Friday, April 7, 2006 Straits Times headlined "Gamers upset about StarHub's sluggish broadband speeds".

As a long time subscriber, I can attest to the problem. I can also attest to the lack of any meaningful discussion of the problem. Networks are not mysterious beasts that defy management or description. They are collections of equipment, wires, and configuration instructions. When managed properly, they deliver excellent service in a reliable way.

There seems to be a confusion about the terms speed (capacity), reliability (packet loss), and latency (lag). The discussion with Starhub has degenerated to the "It's slow, no it isn't" level instead of focusing on the very real and measurable problem.

Let's look at the facts. Starhub offers various plans, supposedly with higher speeds for higher prices. However, they do not guarantee any additional bandwidth for traffic after it leaves the local loop connection at a subscriber's home. You may have a high speed circuit, but it is only high speed to the first router within Starhub's network. What happens after that is very much a matter of how badly they oversubscribe their equipment. There is no way that the aggregate bandwidth sold to subscribers is matched one for one in the backbone network of Starhub.

The situation gets even worse when considering overseas sites. Starhub purchases a certain amount of international bandwidth to connect subscribers in Singapore to overseas networks. Again, this bandwidth is oversubscribed at a certain rate, which results in the performance seen by subscribers. There are simple and free tools available on the net such as PingPlotter to graphically show how all these factors come into play to deliver the Internet experience.

What is particularly frustrating is that Starhub refuses to acknowledge subscriber complaints, even when backed up with evidence, and continues to insist that the problem must be at the subscriber end. When that excuse is proven false, they fall back on the minimum service standards published by the IDA.

The bad news for gamers is that the standard is so low for local connections, real time gaming will be barely be acceptable even if StarHub is meeting the standard. The international latency standard of 300msec makes gaming pointless.

One can assess StarHub's approach to the market by looking at how they sell their service. It is not by focusing on the quality, or latency, or reliability. It is by packaging "freebies" with 2 year contracts to lock subscribers in, regardless of the level of service provided. Once you sign the contract or accept the "freebies", you can complain all you want, but you no longer have a choice.

To tell a customer like Mr. Tan, who is already a MaxOnline 6500 subscriber, that he needs a faster service is just ignorant. What he needs is a better network service provider. As do we all.

Friday, April 07, 2006

CIO Asia Conference and Awards 2006

Attended the CIO Asia Conference and Awards 2006 today. The folks at CIO magazine always put on a good show and this year was no exception. The event was well attended, and the speakers were, for the most part, interesting.

I say for the most part, because there is something that overtakes marketing managers for IT vendors and turns them into blatant shills for their companies. They just don't seem to get the difference between reading Powerpoint presentations to an audience and actually giving some thoughtful insight into the industry or their product sector. Suffice to say, new lows were established.

On a more positive note, any time an end user is prepared to be candid about their operation, I will be in the audience. There was a terrific presentation by Noble Coker, the CIO of Hong Kong Disneyland, and his enthusiasm and insight into his job were a joy to behold.

I was a bit taken aback by a comment from an IT manager at a local health group who explained that it was important for hospital systems to be available 24x7 because otherwise it would get into the papers and the Minister of Health would scold them. I always thought it was because patients would die...

Thursday, April 06, 2006

China Agrees to Microsoft Tax

It is being widely reported today that China's main PC manufacturers have agreed to stop shipping machines without a pre-loaded Microsoft operating system.

Supposedly this is to reduce piracy, but in fact it is the U.S. government putting pressure on behalf of Microsoft, which has long licensed its operating system to PC manufacturers based on the number of machines they manufacture. Some of the largest PC manufacturers in China were shipping PC's without any bundled OS.

Under the agreement, regardless of whether a customer wants a PC without an OS, or with an alternative OS such as Linux, the manufacturers end up paying a "tax" to Microsoft for the OS.

This is particularly invidious for large corporate customers who are also forced into bulk contracts with Microsoft. Under programs like Select, a corporate ends up paying twice - once under the Select agreement, and again when it purchases PC's.

Given China's rather visible attempts to avoid paying royalties for foreign IPR (intellectual property rights) for things like DVD's and cell phones, it is surprising that they capitulated on this issue.

Another article indicates that Microsoft is making the same demands on PC manufacturers in the UK.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Singapore Elections - No Talking

To understand Singapore, it is necessary to understand the statement

"That which is not permitted is forbidden".

Once you take that on board, it is a lot easier to anticipate what might seem like unusual statements by government spokesmen.

One might have thought that a lively debate among an informed electorate was one of the key elements of a healthy democracy, but it turns out that this doesn't apply in Singapore.

The local tabloid Today is carrying an article outlining the government's clarification that podcasting is not allowed during elections, nor is the streaming of video, nor "persistently promoting political views".

PODCASTING will not be allowed during elections as it does not fall under the "positive list" which states what is allowed under election advertising.

Dr Balaji Sadasivan, the Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts, added that streaming of videos during campaigning would also be prohibited. He was addressing a question in Parliament by Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang yesterday about the use of new technologies on the Internet during hustings.

Pictures of candidates, party histories and manifestos are on the "positive list" and they are allowed to be used as election advertising on the Internet. Newer Internet tools such as podcasting do not fall within this "positive list".

Dr Balaji said: "There are also some well-known local blogs run by private individuals who have ventured into podcasting. "The content of some of these podcasts can be quite entertaining. However, the streaming of explicit political content by individuals during the election period is prohibited under the Election Advertising Regulations. A similar prohibition would apply to the videocasting or video streaming of explicitly political content."

The Parliamentary Election Act was amended in 2001 to allow political parties to advertise on the Internet. This was to ensure responsible use of the Internet during campaigning as the free-for-all environment of the Internet is open to abuse.

Dr Balaji added that individual bloggers can discuss politics, but have to register with the Media Development Authority if they persistently promote political views. Once registered, they are not allowed to advertise during elections, something only political parties, candidates and election agents are allowed to do.

Despite the new Internet technology, there are no plans to change the law on online campaigning during an election, said Dr Balaji.

"We recognise that in our society, people will have their diverse opinion and some will want to share their opinion. But people should not take refuge behind the anonymity of the Internet to manipulate public opinion. "It is better and more responsible to engage in political debates in a factual and objective manner," he said.

Channel NewsAsia

I sort of get the point about anonymous manipulation, but if a person is willing to stand behind their statements and identify themselves, what is the harm in expressing an opinion?

Of course, the chance of that happening anyway is limited given the novel and effective use that has been made of libel laws in Singapore.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Microsoft attempts to mug English language

The growing realization that Microsoft's next version of the Window's operating system is not only going to be delayed, but also likely to be a complete bloatware resource hog, is leading to some interesting tap dancing on the part of the marketing department.

In an article in Computerworld, a JupiterResearch analyst tries to explain the difference between Microsoft's certification of PC's that are "Vista capable" and those that are actually able to run the new operating system.

My Oxford English dictionary defines capable as: having the ability or quality necessary to do something.

That is pretty straightforward, and does not anticipate a usage in which capable means "sort of able" or "we are just kidding, it won't really work".

Joe Wilcox, an analyst at JupiterResearch, stressed the importance of customers understanding the distinction between PCs "capable" of running Vista and those that are actually ready to do so.

"A system that will run Windows Vista may not be capable of using all of its features," he said. For example, Wilcox said, a machine branded Windows Vista Capable that is a high-end Media Center PC with superior graphics capabilities will be ready for even the most feature-intensive versions of Vista. But if it's a low-cost PC and it has a "Capable" sticker on it, "it will probably run the features of Home Basic but not anything else," he said.

Identity Theft - A real growth industry

While working as an R&D Manager at Visa in the mid-nineties, I had the chance to do a lot of thinking about payment systems, identity, trust, security - all the things that have to be present for value to be exchanged between parties.

Visa was heavily involved with the then newly emerging field of public key cryptography as a way of enabling payments on the Internet. The problem was that the systems being proposed, such as SET (Secure Electronic Transactions), were hopelessly complex to use and to implement.

Thinking about the societal implications of using certificates and computer stored identity,
I was concerned about the confusion of value transfer with identity. Why do you have to know who I am in order to accept payment for goods? I also became increasingly concerned about the potential for identity theft and false accusations.

If everyone agrees that an identity method is secure, then there is a natural tendency to assume guilt if the method says a person is involved. As we have seen with fingerprints (not unique after all), DNA (not unique, but statistically significant), and biometrics (easily fooled by Jello), it is dangerous to rely on technology to ascertain identity to the exclusion of all other factors.

My major concern about storing one's identity in a computer, or chip, or cellphone is what happens when it is stolen. Indeed, the fact that identity is available to be stolen guarantees that it will be. No amount of encryption mathematics is going to prevent misuse by the average customer who fails to safeguard what has now become the key to his entire identity and by implication, wealth.

The kind of nightmare that can ensue was covered by the Hollywood flick "The Net", in which the protagonist is targeted and has her identity stolen. While the technology depicted in the film is somewhat Hollywood over-the-top, it does give the flavour of what it would be like to try and function in society when your identity has been removed and you essentially lose access to your own life.

Which all leads to the recent release of a report by the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics in the US, entitled
"Identity Theft, 2004".

It appears that the identity theft industry has grown, and continues to grow, quite nicely. The press release for the BJS report says it best -


UOB Singapore does it again

The two activities any payment system has to do perfectly are clearing and settlement. The order in which they take place is as important as the outcome. That's the theory anyway.

I use Internet banking a lot because of travel and an aversion to queuing and counter staff. Having an upcoming income tax payment to make, I scheduled the payment and a corresponding funds transfer to cover the amount.

Imagine my surprise on returning from a recent business trip to find that the payment had not been made due to insufficient funds. A quick check confirmed that both the funds transfer and the payment instruction had been executed on the scheduled date.

With considerable weariness, I called the call centre to find out what was going on. No joy there, just a promise to get someone to look into it. To their credit, UOB did call back on the next business day, but the answer was not what one would call helpful.

It seems that the "IT Department" had informed the caller that there was no guarantee that transfers (clearing) would take place before payments (settlement). I expressed considerable surprise at this, and suggested that any IT department running operations for a major bank that could not figure out in which order to run scheduled jobs was probably incompetent. The caller agreed that the situation was unsatisfactory, and promised to raise it with higher ups.

He also suggested that funds should be in an account 24 hours before they were required. A sensible suggestion from one point of view, but not one shared by other parts of the bank when it comes to crediting interest or inter-bank transfers, those mysterious transactions that result in money disappearing for days.

The customer is expected to surrender funds before they are required, but the Bank is not.