Category Archives: Technology

Venturing into the world of external hosting

This morning, for the first time in nearly 18 years, I did not run apt-get update on my server to look for any software updates. The reason is, I can’t. There is no server; it was decommissioned on Saturday, a decision that has been forced on me. I have hosted my domains myself ever since I bought them.

Yes, the government forced me to do it. Pardon me while I take a rather circuitous route to explain.

Australia is in the laborious process of rolling out a broadband network across the nation; due to political wrangling, the rollout has been something like the Shakespearean drama The Comedy of Errors.

The original plan envisaged by the Labor Party, one of the two main political factions, was to provide 93% of premises with fibre right up the home. The 7% who were unable to get this technology due to geographical factors were to be served by fixed wireless or satellite.

The project got underway in 2009, with a government company, NBN Co, set up to handle the rollout. But in 2013 the other side of politics, the Coalition (a loose alliance between the Liberal and National Parties) took office and changed the technologies that would be used, claiming that this would hasten the rollout. (It has turned out be a big lie.)

In addition to fibre to the home, satellite and wireless, the Coalition added hybrid fibre coaxial using existing cable networks (one had to be dropped later when it was found that it was not fit for purpose) and fibre to the node. The latter means that the copper lead-in to a home will be anything from 400 metres to a couple of kilometres and the speed one gets will naturally be dependent on this.

The Coalition has also added fibre to the building/basement where fibre is taken to the basement of an apartment complex and copper is used to provide the links in each apartment, and, very recently, something called fibre to the distribution point where the lead-in is by copper running less than 40 metres. The NBN Co has also been throwing around an American term, fibre to the curb, (kerb in proper English) which means that the last bit of copper runs for between 300 and 400 metres. Both these terms, FttDP and FttC, have been used interchangeably by the NBN Co, adding to the confusion that surrounds the project.

The NBN Co advises residents when their homes/businesses are ready to be hooked up and gives private residences 18 months and businesses double that time to switch over. Reports from those who have switched have, for the most part, been quite discouraging. Thus it does take an act of faith to make the plunge before one is forced to do so.

I decided to switch in September after hearing from a neighbour that he had done so and was getting good speeds. I work from home, and my wife also does so occasionally, so upload speeds are important. And on ADSL, those are less than a megabit.

After checking with my existing ISP and finding out that they were not offering any business packages on cable – which is the technology allocated to the area where I reside – I picked another ISP and ordered a connection. NBN Co obviously did not give a rat’s that there are many small businesses that use ADSL business connections to run their own services like web and mail.

It took a total of 14 days for the NBN staff to come out and connect me, pretty good considering that the ISP told me it would take 20 business days at the maximum to get me connected. The work was finished by 12.30pm on the day and I had to contact my ISP two hours later to find out why the connection was not working. I was told that it would take about three hours more to be activated. By the time I was able to check again, it was 11 hours since the guy who came to do the work had gone. By that time it was working.

The decision to get rid of my server was forced on me by the fact that no ISP is offering business packages on cable. I am not surprised, as the numbers being served by each ISP on this technology would be small and given the outrageous charges that ISPs have to the pay the NBN Co for bandwidth, profits can only be made by ISPs if volumes are large. Given that Australia has a very small population, 24 million all told, those numbers will always be a pipe dream considering how many ISPs are in the game and how many are coming onboard to try and grab new customers.

Without a business connection (and a fixed IP which is part of the deal), one cannot run any services as I was – and hence I decided to move my websites and mail server to an external provider. A friend, Russell Coker, very kindly offered to host my sites and mail.

Two days into using the NBN, things appear to be okay. But with cable the downside is always that the more people who connect, the slower the speeds become. It is like a water pipe; the more holes you punch in it, the less the force of each individual stream.

But then one has no choice in this matter. I have taken the fastest possible connection, 100Mbps/40Mbps, to mitigate problems, should they arise, for as long as possible. Cable is only a temporary solution; the government will have to upgrade everything to fibre to the home in the future whether it likes the idea or not.

Gates: profit should not be the only motive. Yes, he said it

Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, giving the commencement address at Stanford.
Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, giving the commencement address at Stanford.
At the beginning of the year, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was making pronouncements about poverty coming to an end. Now, he is advising graduates at Stanford that profit should not be the only motive for innovating.

What is it with this man? Having made billions by unloading poor-quality software on the world by using monopolistic practices, why doesn’t he just buy an island somewhere, disappear into obscurity and stop his malign influence on others?

Or why not follow the example of fellow co-founder Paul Allen who has been quiet for most of his adult life?

Gates offered the advice when, along with his wife Melinda, he gave the commencement address at Stanford University on Sunday. This is the first time that a joint address has been given – but that doesn’t mean it was any better than the usual pap that is spouted on such occasions.

Both the Gates spoke of the admiration they had for Stanford and the “innovation” that emerges from its portals; at the same time, they told the students not to avoid tackling problems like disease and poverty because they could not profit from it.

This was the biggest joke of the 24-minute address. Every time I read something about Gates, his fortune seems to have increased by quite a large amount, despite his so-called philanthropic work. If he’s giving so much money away and not profiting from it, how come his bank balance seems to be growing so fast?

The truth of the matter is that Gates is into philanthropy because he is now bothered about his legacy. It is a good path to tread because it costs him nothing; indeed, it enriches him. Having used methods that bordered on the illegal to amasss a fortune, he now wants to be thought of as a good guy. Most people who have done shady things in their lifetime have similar desires – my favourite examples are Richard Milhous Nixon and Robert McNamara.

Philanthropy is a paying concern. Donate computers running Windows and Office to all and sundry – and when they come back for upgrades, your Microsoft stock will benefit. Gates still does own stock in the company he co-founded.

Investments in pharmaceutical companies ensure that when vaccines made by these companies are used in poor countries, the investor benefits. Of course, the investor can go around giving speeches in a whiny voice about how much good he is doing. The world, for the most part, swallows what the rich say hook, line and sinker.

Melinda Gates spoke about her interaction with poor people in India. Of course, when a rich woman tells a tale like this to students at one of the most privileged educational institutions, it goes down well. The reality of it is very distant. But her presence made for a much better photo opportunity; Gates, himself, cannot be exactly described as photogenic.

Years ago, I recall that two very photogenic women, Tansu Ciller, and the late Benazir Bhutto, who were at that time the prime ministers of Turkey and Pakistan respectively, visited Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war. Their picture appeared on the front pages of many newspapers the next day; I myself used the picture on the front page of the paper I was in charge of in the Middle East. It made no difference to the war. It looked good.

The same thing applies to all that Melinda Gates spoke about; she is as much committed to her husband’s agenda as he is. But you can only hide the reality by talking about the poor and under-privileged.

When Gates talks about innovation, does he really understand the meaning of that word? Microsoft has been a company that has copied things from others right through its existence, and paid to settle cases when matters went to court. There has been no innnovation – all that the company has done is take from others without acknowledging the source, and paying up only when forced to do so.

It speaks volumes for the kind of global society we have become that people like Gates are even called upon to speak to students. The man screwed up one generation; surely we can keep him from spoiling the next?

The death of free-to-air television

A FEW months before Christmas 2005, the UK’s biggest electronics retailer, Currys, announced that it would not be stocking VCRs that year. It was one of the earlier announcements of the approaching death of what was a staple in many households worldwide.

By the end of the 2008, the VCR was well and truly gone. JVC, one of the major brands, made its announcement about shutting down its manufacturing of the gadget at that time.

In its place has come the hard-disk recorder, which also affords the user the option of burning recorded material to DVD or, more recently, to Blu-Ray. Technologies come and go in this manner.

A few years hence, we will be looking at the death of free-to-air TV. That will happen once there is broadband which can support speeds sufficient to stream video of good quality. Broadband of such bandwidth exists in various countries and there are some services which stream films across the internet.

But it has not yet become mass-market. If there is fast internet in a country, the cost puts it out of reach of the majority. Internet costs have to drop; that will happen once more providers are able to offer faster speeds. Competition is the only way prices will drop.

Once that happens, the creators of content for TV will find it much more economical and easy to stream their content across the net. Their market will expand outside geographical boundaries and they will also be able to pull advertising which the TV channels ran along with the content.

Services like Hulu and Netflix which stream films are now confined to a few countries. Some telcos are experimenting with streaming films too, but the services are yet to reach tipping point. Like all digital technologies, costs will be low and the success of a service will depend on attracting big numbers.

Pay TV will take some more time to die than its free-to-air counterpart. Many pay TV services depend on telecasting sport to survive; the sports, in turn, depend on the money that is paid to them by the TV channels.

It is logical to assume that the pay TV channels themselves will start streaming content on the net. The sport authorities, of course, will demand additional rights money.

In some cases, those who administer the sport may experiment with streaming on the net; the Australian Football League allows people to watch matches free after the event right now, with all the footage coming from one of the TV channels which has the rights for broadcasts.

Who knows, one day the AFL might decide to do it on its own. It all depends on how much money can be made.

Is this where Fox News got its slogan?

FOX News is now the most widely watched television channel in the US. One cannot call it a news channel because most of what it dispenses is right-ring propaganda.

It is doubtful whether it would spread to the extent it has in any other country. But in the US, lots of people are poorly educated and unable to tell fact from fiction.

Hence there seems to be a logical reason for Fox’s financial success.clean_and_balanced

One of the hallmarks of the channel is its slogan – “fair and balanced”. Of course, it is anything but fair and balanced – it is biased and skewed to extreme right-wing views.

Fox is not the only organisation, however, to test out this slogan. The maker of a shampoo, Head and Shoulders, came up with something similar (right) a long, long time ago.

Did Fox use this bottle as inspiration for its slogan? One wonders.

Stupid is as stupid does

Sent from my iPad. Sent from my iPhone.

These are two of the most stupid lines you encounter at the end of an email or a text message these days. They serve the valuable purpose of informing you that the sender of the message has purchased one of these devices from the Apple Computer Corporation and is using it.

That’s certainly newsworthy enough for you to know about it, isn’t it?

Exactly why anyone, of average intelligence and above, would allow themselves to be used as an advertising hoarding is beyond me.

The iPad is nothing special. The same applies to the iPhone. Both consumer devices have been taken up in large numbers, sure, but are now losing ground to others that are running the Android operating system.

I have not found a single other device that creates a default tag to every message. Neither have I seen a user of any other device who would not delete such a message right away.

But for many businessmen, whose knowledge of computers extended as far as being able to spell the word correctly about 75 per cent of the time, buying an iPad is a way of appearing cool and with it. So they have to let the rest of the world know they are in the loop.

The same applies to many iPhone owners too. My doctor, for example, has more money than he knows what to do with, and has an iPhone 5 with a snazzy case. He can just about manage to phone his wife – that is the only reason he needs a mobile phone.

Apple users have long been known as snobs. They think the fact that they can afford to buy devices that are priced much higher than the corresponding devices for other operating systems makes them in some way superior.

Mitt Romney has plenty of money too. He is not exactly an individual one would describe as smart. Or savvy. Or educated.

Maybe Apple users should bear that in mind.

British traders being disadvantaged by pathetic mail service

BRITAIN’S Royal Mail service is royal no longer. Indeed, one could question whether it is a mail service at all, it takes so long to deliver material for which people have paid. At times deliveries do not take place at all.

This comes at an unfortunate time for a country which was once known for its efficiency. The number of people buying things across borders has soared with the development of the world-wide web and if things are not delivered in time, then traders risk losing customers.

Nobody will come back to a trader who cannot send his goods across in time. This is unlikely to be the fault of the trader but that does not bother the increasingly self-centred customer.

Apart from losing repeat sales, the trader also loses in another way. When the outside date for delivery is crossed, the customer often asks for a refund – and he or she is only willing to wait so long.

It is often the case that the goods turn up at the address they were intended to reach a week or so after the refund is granted. And the trader loses both the goods and the customer.

This happens with all kinds of goods. It has happened to me with books and shoes. In both cases, a week after the outside date for delivery, I wrote to the vendor and he sent me a refund. A few days later the goods landed.

This could well be exploited by an unscrupulous public to obtain goods free.

It is the responsibility of the country to provide a decent mail service and by letting the efficiency of the service go down the drain, Britain is also killing the hopes of traders who hope to join the growing throng of those who sell across borders using the wonders of modern technology.

Smartphones. How about dumbphones?

Smartphone. Nice word – is the phone meant to be the smart one or does it make the user smarter? Or is it the case that the phone increases the chances of error to the extent that people do tend to make more errors?

There is a sense of arrogance evident when people use smartphones, forgetting that if they are stupid then they will end up doing stupid things.

Any computer can only be programmed by human beings. Humans are prone to make errors. And those errors will reflect themselves in the way computer programs behave.

The classic example is the message that one receives at the venerable DOS prompt after entering a command that means nothing to the operating system. The computer responds “Bad command or filename.” End of story.

With a human being the reaction is different; if one were to ask one’s child to go to the bedroom and fetch a red shirt lying on the bed, the child will use his own intelligence when he finds a blue shirt lying there instead.

The kid’s reasoning will run thus: “Dad must have made a mistake, I better take the blue shirt with me as he must have meant blue instead of red.” The computer cannot reason in this manner.

But the line of demarcation is never made clear by the makers of digital devices who always paint the device as having its own form of intelligence. And when those of rather feeble intelligence are the ones spreading the message of technology, the question does tend to get confused.

Technology has come from a long way from the timw when computers tended to malfunction every time women wearing nylon underwear stood close to the machine. But it is still the case that the intelligence lies with the human being, not the machine.

There are many cases where an inefficient organisation computerises every one of its functions and then wonders why it doesn’t become efficient overnight. Those who are in charge do not realise that computerised inefficiency is worse than the other kind.

Do smartphones make people smarter? No, these devices have the capability to make it easier to carry out some functions which were done in a more laborious manner in the past. The apparent ease with which things can be done also makes it possible to make more horrendous mistakes.

The human is the smart one. Or, dumb, as the case may be.