Category Archives: Technical

Twitter With Your Brain!


That was the post Adam Wilson made to Twitter by using only his brain.  Wearing a special red cap fitted with electrodes that connected to a computer flashing letters, by concentrating on the letters he wanted, Wilson was able to Twit the small message on the screen in front of him.

What this means for the rest of the world is almost beyond comprehension for those of us that regularly type, text, and click to send messages, visit websites, write emails, etc.  What this means for persons with physical disabilities, who have perfectly functioning brains but ill-functioning bodies, is that they may be able to communicate as easily someday as the rest of us do.  And all it takes is a silly red cap with electrodes.  No cumbersome pointing devices held by the teeth or strapped to the head, or custom keyboards that will take the pounding of a fist because the fingers can’t move.

What is even more surprising and exciting about this breakthrough is that it uses two existing products to do its job.  Twitter, of course, already exists and functions well for many people.  The electrode “brain cap” already exists as well, and is still being fine-tuned for work with computers.  Previous work had been focused on using brain implants to communicate, but this work is 10 years or more from any type of fruition.  Using existing products, Wilson, and his supervisor Justin Williams (both work for the University of Wisconsin) made the link that had not been made before.

This is exciting news for those suffering from debilitating, paralyzing injuries, whose brains are able to function normally in all ways except in the ability to communicate.  Hundreds of thousands of people in the United States alone suffer from such disabilities.  These types of breaks in technology can really leapfrog researchers ahead in their efforts to bring accessibility to all.

Stop Giving Me Software I Don’t Need

Every day, it seems, when I boot up my computers, each one wants me to update iTunes and add Safari. It doesn’t matter how many times I say no, and click quit, every day the stupid install window keeps coming back up. And there is no way to permanently turn this off. At least, not that I’ve found.

Java wants to do the same thing. We cannot run the latest Java here at work because it breaks one of our enterprise systems that are critical to business functions. Fortunately, you can remove the Java Updater from the control panel on most machines to make the annoying popup telling you there’s a new install of Java not pop up every day. But every once in a while, that updater seems to reinstall itself on my machine and I have to delete it again.

My annoyance today is the Sandisk Cruzer. It comes with the U3 operating system installed, and self-installs on any machine you plug the device into. This tiny operating system then gives you tools you don’t need, like copy and paste, explore. On a college campus with locked down computers, these Sandisk Cruzers are the worst for confusing students. Of course, you can remove the U3 operating system, but it takes several steps and a geekish know-how, so not everyone who buys one of these devices knows how to remove the operating system so it works like a normal thumb drive. Worse yet, older Cruzers do not allow removal of the U3 operating system, only the newer ones do. Even a format won’t take care of the problem, as the U3 software sits in a hidden file that is difficult to access.

I want software and hardware companies to stop telling me what I need, and trying to automatically install their software into places without my permission. I want them to stop hiding this stuff, make it an option rather than a necessity, and when I say no, it remembers that I said no and never ask me again.

Much of this stuff is a huge waste of time for tech workers that are just trying to get people back up and running as quickly as possible.

Holiday Toys

I’m starting to put my list together for Santa for the holidays. Yes, Geeks can have dreams too!

Starting off, I’ve already purchased some things for the kids, including Sansa 8 gb MP3 players. These sweet little units are as powerful as the iPod without the costly risk of replacement when they get banged around too much. While I would love to get them all iPods, I don’t think they’d survive the hustle and bustle of my teens.

I, myself, am looking at the new HD-capable Flip camera. Sweet at $229 and I could have so much fun with such a thing. I mean, I could do so much important work with this thing. Yeah, that’s the ticket. The Flip Mino HD looks just like earlier versions of the Flip, only it films in HD. It shoots video in 1280×720 720p resolution, wider than the previous 640×480 size, and touts one-click uploads to websites like YouTube, MySpace and AOL Video. You can also upload to Vimeo and, which will actually upload your video in its original HD format. It also comes with cables to hook up directly to your television! How cool is that?

We don’t do video games, so I’m not looking at anything for the Wii or XBox, but I am looking for some great deals on LCD televisions. If I can get a decent one for a decent price, that may also be on the Geeky Santa List this year.

What are you looking at for the holidays?

Everybody’s a Techie…

So the other day I walked into a shop to do some repairs. They had an in-house techie that put together their systems, but had no formal training. The kid was on vacation, so I walked in to fix an important program.

What I found was less than acceptable. The wireless was open, the computers firewalls were off and their data was completely exposed. Further, they were close to a public fairway which means that they get a lot of unknown traffic.

I have been seeing this on a regular basis – people that put their trust in non-educated techies. I lost a job to one a while back. They took price over quality. Later I found that person did something rather scary that exposed the systems and was asked to leave.

I can’t believe how many shops that have free WiFi have open systems. One system I was able to not only see the computers, I could see their POS systems. I was also able to download and upload files.

Did you know if you expose your Credit Card data in any way, shape or form, you will be subject to a $30,000 a day fine. Let me reiterate:

Thirty Thousand Dollar a day fine

I understand you need to cut corners. You wouldn’t fire your accountant for someone who does it every now and then. You wouldn’t take your Lawyer off retainer because your cousin is taking some law classes in college. Why would you do that with your tech?

There is a flip side – I know a few so called “Experienced techies” that I wouldn’t trust with my systems. They have certifications and diplomas to prove they have the knowledge, but couldn’t troubleshoot their way out of a box. A couple of them turned out to be good supervisors.

I also know some kids who come out of the gate and know their stuff. They have no certifications and are still in High School. They have the thirst for knowledge and can pick up new technologies like no tomorrow.

So if you are a company or person that needs help with technology, what can you do? You don’t know how to do that stuff and need to get things done.

Well, unfortunately the only way is to have a little bit of knowledge. Not only a little on the technology, but also what can affect you. A seasoned techie might not know that little tidbit on credit card info and you don’t want to learn of the issue until after the fact (and fine).

A good thing to do is talk to another techie. Ask them if they will come in and look at something small. If a seasoned techie sees problems, you will know pretty quick. Then you can take action.

This is going to be more important now that we can connect any machine to any available open wireless network. Laptops, phones or whatever from inside or outside the building. You might not even know someone is connecting. That is, until your data is compromised.

Blu-Ray beware

China’s answer to next generation optical discs has fnally had its first production line opened and earned itself a new name. CBHD (China Blue High-definition Disc) was developed in China by Shanghai United Optical Disc. It has some advantages over BluRay, mainly in the cost area. It is cheaper to license, and less than one third the cost to gear up a factory to produce them.

The disadvantage they have is the same one HD-DVD ended up with, they have no support from any of the major hollywood studios. This may be less of an impediment to getting a footprint in Asia though. I am sure that a large number of the Chinese movie makers will have no problems with writing to this standard. I am also sure that there will be a burgeoning trade in porting high definition movies to this standard within Asia, despite the illegality of that practice.

Given that the war for the next disc standard will be fought in the PC rather than the home theatre there is still a lot of questions to be answered about how well either product is going to work as a data standard. I would suggest that BluRay will likely have inbuilt restrictions to the way we can record HD content to it, regardless of whether it is fair use or not. If CBHD will allow us to record in HD to it and play it back in any device that might be enough to grab it some marketshare when these discs become mainstream.

Next gen virtualisation: about time

VMWare has just announced its new version of ESX server, 3i.  They only mention, in the info out to date, that the new hypervisor “ an extension of the hardware.”  This is actually much more geeky cool than it seems and represents a large step forward in virtualisation.  They are not the only company to have this, Xen is one example of open source embedded hypervisors which appear to do similar things to ESX 3i.  My purpose is not to compare virtualisation technology though.

Intel released its VT processors (VT standing for Virtualisation Technology) extensions about 2 years ago (AMD has similar AMD-V), but applications are only just starting to become mainstram that support it.  The problem with virtualisation has always been with ring 0 access to the processor.  If you are not familiar with priveledge rings, you can find a basic primer on Wikipedia.  Traditionally the hypervisor takes ring 0, which is the only level that can directly access hardware, forcing guest operating systems to operate at less privelaged levels.  Virtualisation engines have used various methods to get around this like emultation or binary translators.

Intel VT and AMD-V chips have a ring -1 that allow the software that controls the virtualisation to run in a special privelage level. This means guest operating systems can now directly access hardware without needing weird translations.  This reduces the complexity of virtualisation and opens the market for more players and faster developement.  But the real cool thing is the future possibilities this opens up for clustering.

If you can picture that a clustered OS allows applications to grow across seperate machines.  The limitations on how that application can use the resources of that cluster is dependant on that application.  Because the level of clustering is at the OS, it is the next level that must know how to use it.  At the moment the ability to do cool things with clusters is often application specific.  If the clustering is moved down a level, to the hypervisor, then this gives greater scope for the OS to do cool things with clusters.  And the applications can transparently take advantage of them.  This wasn’t impossible with ‘old school’ virtualisation, but much harder.

While virtualisation to date has offered some benefits, the virtual machines have still been limited in size by the physical hardware.  The future of virtualisation is to expand beyond a single box.  Not only will it be possible to have many virtual servers on a single physical box, it will also be possible to have one virtual server on many phyical boxes, and anything in between.  In all these cases, once the resources are selected it is only a standard OS install that is required.  The new generation of hypervisors make this much easier to achieve.

Tags: vmware, hypervisor, clustering