Archive for the 'Geekery' Category

What You Lookin’ At?

Tuesday, August 30th, 2005

In “Visa Seeks New Ways to Keep Data Secret“, the NYT takes a look at the challenges involved with securing data throughout the chain that brings information from the little swipe boxes through to the banks.

The story includes this photo of the Visa data center:
VISA data center, with plenty of monitors

Here’s what I’m wondering: what could possibly be displayed on those monitors? Seems they’ve got plenty of screens, but how do you even begin to monitor a system that entails “some 3,000 credit and debit card transactions swiped … every second”? After all:

On any given day, data about Visa cardholders courses through the computer networks of more than five million merchants, hundreds of data processors and 14,000 banks before it even reaches the machines at the Visa operations center. For online purchases, cardholder information can make additional pit stops at any one of the thousands of processing hubs in between.

According to the article, there are 1,000 servers in that data center, used for 35 billion transactions a year. I’m just wondering how you could even begin to decide what would make it to those monitors. Server statistics (temp, load averages, remaining storage)? Transaction details? Phone center traffic? Exceptions to averages? How do you determine when something’s gone wrong? What makes the cut and what doesn’t?

Basically, I’m just glad I don’t have to baby-sit those boxes.

Awww, Geek Out!

Monday, August 22nd, 2005

Three months ago, I mentioned that I had begun to clean one of the two rooms in which I spend most of my time:

The other is “the Lab,” which is dominated by computers (presently 5 towers and 2 laptops) and has paper on nearly every surface.

That cleaning isn’t quite complete, but now at last I have a chance to illustrate what I mean by “dominated.” This afternoon I decided to send my dear friend Jesse a picture of my workspace. So I pushed back from the desk and snapped this (click for larger version):

a desk with 6 monitors and a phone

These connect to the towers under the table, which include Debian, Ubuntu, and XP machines. (The Mac mini, my new primary computer, can be seen on the desktop just behind the LCD.) As you might guess, it can get fairly hot in here.

For the record, I don’t usually have 6 monitors, I actually have 2 computers I’m upgrading/transferring here at the moment. On the other hand, this picture doesn’t include the laptops…

Is This the Future of TV?

Wednesday, August 10th, 2005

DTV screenshot

(No. But provocative headline, eh?)

You’re looking at a screenshot of the new “DTV” client from the Participatory Culture Foundation. The program is an open, free attempt to make an iTunes for video.

Or, actually, to go beyond that. Rather than just create a new way to browse existing television, the Foundation is looking to encourage “regular” people to get involved in creating and selecting programs for others to enjoy.

It’s very, very early going yet — this beta is only 2 days old — but I’ve downloaded the program and I’ll be keeping an eye on it. I’ve always found the “access to distribution” questions to be one of the most fascinating parts of modern media.

Earth to Photos

Wednesday, July 27th, 2005

Just when you’re wondering what other uses Google Earth offers comes MAKE’s tutorial on geocoding.

In essence, you take your digital photos and upload them to the Flickr photo-sharing service. Then add tags to them with the lat/long of where you took the photo, which you can determine with a geocoder, a handheld GPS, or even a snazzy camera cable.

Next fire up Google Earth and add the GeoBloogers network link. Network links allow Google Earth to request additional data from remote servers.

Now zoom around the globe as usual. Whenever you stop moving, the software will search Flickr for photos taken in/of the area you’re viewing.

It’s completely cool, and a really fun way to get a ground-level view of some of the famous tourist traps.

Give it a (snap)shot.

MSN Discovers Earth

Monday, July 25th, 2005

Today Microsoft released MSN Virtual Earth, the latest entry in the increasingly crowded mapping market. The “Earth” in the title is a bit generous; the service is very USA-centric at present — odd, as MSN’s own MapPoint service has streets and address data for around 30 countries. (But then if Google’s already moved on to Google Moon…)

Anyway, I gave the new site a cursory look and was pleased to discover that it worked just fine (including the slightly tedious map zooming effect) in Firefox, with no plug-ins necessary. This being Microsoft, however, there’s also a plug-in available that allows you to… find yourself. With the 4MB “LocationFinder” plug-in installed, your browser will attempt to find your location by probing nearby Wi-Fi hotspots. (That would be 802.11b/g, not GPS. You’re out of luck if you don’t have wireless.)

Now, I love technology as much as the next guy — okay, more — but I’ll be damned if I’m ever going to be reduced to using wireless routers to find what city I’m in.

I Call That Isolated

Sunday, July 24th, 2005

So that playing around with the phones wasn’t just for my amusement. I’ve been steadily working towards making a phone system to replace an older system that’s on its last legs.

Part of my research involves checking out long distance providers that connect calls via the Internet. I think I’ve found one provider that’s not going to work so well:
map of the USA, all but Iowa is shaded (Iowa is therefore outside the service area)

It’s fun living in the Midwest Central U.S….

Further Proof I Have Too Much Time on My Hands

Thursday, July 21st, 2005

1 nerd with an initials fetish + 5 IP phones = trouble.

Phone screens spell out 'We hail our lord JSP'

(By the way, that’s totally Frutiger 95, for those who remember. Kickin’ it old school.)

Sprechen Sie Surgeon

Tuesday, July 19th, 2005

The folks over at Yahoo! have really been creating some interesting stuff lately, and their new search translator is one particularly impressive example.

The newly unveiled beta is focused on German, but the general technology is designed to allow users to search the Web and get translated results from pages in different languages.

All that is great stuff, and a fascinating application of technology. However, I wonder about the example provided:

Have some health questions? Try “Alternativen zur Nierendialyse” (alternatives to kidney dialysis): with Search Translator you go from just 1 result to another 140K pertinent results that are translated back to your local language!

Machine translation being what it is, I’m not sure if kidney treatments are something you want to be investigating with only a computer to guide you through a foreign language. Something tells me that rather than trying to figure things out by context you’d be better off just, you know, seeing a doctor…

Maps and Missiles Redux

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005

Previously, I looked at Google Maps and noticed the top of the White House was altered, for security reasons. In Google Earth, the image looks the same, which is not surprising as they both draw from the same data.

But this puzzles me:
White House image, extruded

This is the same image of the White House, this time in Google Earth (larger screenshot, placemark) with a tilt and “extrude buildings” enabled.

As you can see, the 3-D model is a pretty good likeness, which makes me wonder: how is that possible? A recent Slashdorks article said Google was building a laser-equipped truck to scan buildings (and included a link to this fascinating project at Berkeley) but even if such a truck were in the wild, I don’t think they’d let it drive around the grounds of the White House.

Which leaves a few options: either there’s some kick-ass photogrammetry going on, or there are some other datasets in play here.

In any case, I’m fascinated.

Update [Thu 00:18]: Check out these cool placemarks. Not strictly related, but still cool.

Great Googly Moogly

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005


signal lost

Holy Response Time, Batman

Saturday, June 4th, 2005

Anything seem familiar about Gizmodo’s reporting on an alleged PowerBook G5 press release?

Yes, that “reader ‘John'” quoted at the bottom would be me. (After all, who else would consider the misuse of “it’s” to be convincing evidence?)

That’s fun by itself, but I’m also amused that I sent the message at 12:41am, and it was on the site barely an hour later.

Clearly, somebody there is having a weekend as cool as mine. Nerds of the world unite!

An Ode to My Mac

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

I hate computers so fucking much at this moment, you have no idea.

I’m trying to get Asterisk working on one of my Debian boxes with a TDM card. It’s a nightmare. A user interface catastrophe to begin with, there’s next to no useful documentation. They require you download the system and drivers as source, with which you need to recompile the kernel. I fucking hate it.

My Fedora box has developed the annoying habit of slicing the screen into offset bands when certain video files (with no discernible commonalities) are loaded. The only recourse is Ctrl+Alt+Bksp to restart X. Would an Nvidia driver update fix it? Perhaps, but Fedora refuses to enter Runlevel 3 without choking, so I can’t run the shell script that installs it. Oh, and the latest package update for BitTorrent (v4.1 trackerless) borked it. I fucking hate it.

Windows is no better. I just tried to install the JRE 1.5_03 edition on my XP Pro desktop. I double-clicked the installer and followed the prompts: no more, no less. Then I get this monstrosity. Visual C++ assertion failures? What the fuck does that mean? Why should I be expected to care? I fucking hate it.

I hate that I’m expected to know this fucking esoteric crap just to get work done. I hate that I have to massage all these different tempermental software applications that are too dumb to do simple things like recognize there’s an existing version installed and just cleanly update it.

I am just so beyond tired of wasting all this precious time in my finite life trying to wrangle some crap that’s not fit for human consumption. In fact, the only thing that is keeping me from throwing the lot out the window is my new Mac mini.

I purchased it the day Tiger was released, and on the first day I shed blood for it. (I had to pry it open with putty knives to upgrade the RAM, cutting myself in the process.) But after a few hours using the Mac, I forgot about my wounds.

One of the things that I love is how easily you can install software. In Linux, it’s a nightmare of different distributions, kernel versions, source and scripts. On Windows, you’re running installers and choosing options and paths.

On my Mac, it looks like this. That’s a disk image. Visit a Website, click a hyperlink, click “Yes”, and you’re presented with a view like that. To install, just drag the icon over to ‘Applications’. That’s it.

Does that action trigger all sorts of actions/scripts/modifications behind the scenes? I have no idea, and I couldn’t fucking care less. It. Just. Works. And right now, that’s precisely what I need.

End rant.

Some Perspective

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

We used to have one of these back in the day:
Compag luggable

That’s a Compaq “portable”, though we, along with everybody else, called it a “luggable”. (Yes, you can move it; there was a handle on the top. Also check that link to find out about the historical importance of the model.)

The beast was the size of a piece of luggage — note the full-size keyboard — and weighed around 30 lbs. [13.6 kg.] The processor was just 5MHz, the screen was green and black, and there were no wacky frills like a battery, either.

So I gotta say, as much as technology sucks right now, we’ve come a long way, baby.

On Geocoding

Wednesday, April 20th, 2005

The other day, as part of making a point about punctuation, I sent B-don an image that featured the latitude and longitude of his house. Well, I should say it approximated those coordinates, because I sort of “guesstimated” using Google Map’s satellite map navigation, and then lopped off a few figures for good measure.

I needn’t have bothered, because yesterday I discovered a new service: Using TIGER line data from the U.S. Census, you can specify an address and get the coordinates. Pop those coordinates into GeoURL, and things start to get interesting: you’ll find a list of sites that concern points nearest those coordinates.

Most of them are blogs and weather, and the GeoURL db is quite sparse as far as locations near my neck of the woods is concerned, but think for a moment of the possibilities if this sort of thing was widespread: You could “geocode” your blogged complaints about Best Buy with the location of the store. You could tag your Web photos with the coordinates of where they were taken. You could hide something, record its coordinates, and make a “You’re getting warmer…” page…

It may become easier than you think. Last year Microsoft gave a hiker a camera with the ability to record GPS coordinates with each snap, an ability that I expect might show up in cell phones before long. Apple, if one alleged insider is to be believed, has even more ambitious plans. Imagine a PowerBook with built-in GPS:

What’s next? We’re going to find new ways of attaching automatic metadata. Here’s one we’ve been talking about a lot: Your laptop has a GPS receiver in it. Tiny thing, about the size of a pencil eraser. At all times, your laptop knows where it is on the face of the Earth, accurate to about thirty feet.

Every file you create is tagged with three new, additional pieces of metadata: latitude, longitude and altitude. That’s on top of the date and time data we already attach to every file.

Say you go on a business trip to Seattle. A year later, you can search your laptop for that e-mail you sent to your coworker Tom while you were in Seattle.

I think the ability to go to a spot and say “Internet, what can you tell me about this place?” and to have photos, musings, reviews, work you created when you were last there and more be pulled from all sorts of online content would just rock. Of course, organizing all that would be a whole different challenge…

What Fresh Hell is This?

Monday, March 28th, 2005

Last week Slashdot mentioned an X Windows upgrade that would allow for some OS X-level “eye candy” features for Linux. In describing one of the effects, the author wrote:

The wobbly window effect is mildly addictive. Kristian hasn’t gotten much work done since he wrote it. He (and now I) spends all day moving windows around and watching them settle.

(See link for video.)

This is a good thing? I understand that it’s a demo, and therefore devoid of any actual usefulness. I’m okay with that. But I’m not wild about the section later in the post that covers button styles. Do we really need buttons with swirls around them, or buttons that appear to be hand-drawn?

At least one Microsoft cheerleader seems to think so. After first pointing out the standard button that Windows users have come to expect (shown here in the 1.0, 3.0, ’95, and XP iterations):
4 'OK' buttons

…this dude gushes over the ability to create “a Flippin’ CD Button!”:
frames of an animated CD button

Now, I hate to sound like a curmudgeon here, but I don’t want my buttons to bounce, swirl, or dance. I don’t want my windows to wiggle. I don’t want to have to click odd, walking diskettes to select folders. I just want to do whatever I set out to do with the program, and be done with it.

Is that too much to ask?