Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Controlling climate change

Everyone is making impending climate change something big that we must all worry about, and must change our lives to prevent global warming. The argument to my understanding is that should the climate of our planet warm, more of the arctic ice sheets will melt causing sea level to rise. This will submerge some coastal land and also disrupt marine life.

It is the latest political band wagon that everyone is jumping on. The politicians love it because they can raise taxes, make more money for the treasury and still score a positive image with most voters - except me!

Can we just use what is described as 'the helicopter trait' and take a look at the slightly bigger picture here?

1. Every single definition of a climate, or discussion of different climates ALWAYS states that a climate is always changing. It is one of the most certain things in nature.

2. Nature is phenomenally powerful. I learnt this when canoeing on moving water. My strength was nothing compared to that of water. The art of canoeing is about embracing the power of the water, not trying to fight it. Nothing we humans try can prevent or control nature. Think of a lava flow from a volcano. No one has ever managed to stop it in its natural flow.

3. How can Carbon Dioxide be the problem? The planet could not survive without Carbon Dioxide. All plants and trees need it to photo-synthesize (live). Every human being breaths in Oxygen and breaths out Carbon Dioxide as part of our respiratory process.

A recent Time magazine had a list of things we could do to save the planet. One was to turn vegetarian. Apparently there is a regular rise in meat farming meaning more cattle emitting methane. If we stopped eating meat there would be less cattle and less methane 'damaging' the environment. This is when you know things have gone way too far.

I have already commented on the green tax on airlines elsewhere - who is going to bat an eyelid at an extra £5 on a £400 holiday? People like holidays and should not be discouraged from enjoying free time somewhere nice with their friends and familys. The climate will change regardless of our Carbon Dioxide emissions. Some statistics I have seen state Carbon Dioxide increases lag climate changes by about 800 years. How can it be blamed?

The recent IPCC report was not endorsed by all the scientists who participated in it, and a large part of the contributions to it were not by scientists but politicians and other 'interested' parties.

To the people who really want to save the planet I suggest they only breath one day a week so they emit less Carbon Dioxide :) - only joking cos you might die if you try it.


Update: Check this out on the Channel 4 website for more details of the arguments.

Friday, April 20, 2007

If Microsoft made cars....

Bill Gates reportedly once compared the computer industry with the auto industry and stated: "If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving twenty-five dollar cars that got 1000 miles to the gallon."

In response to Bill's comments, General Motors issued a press release stating:

If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics:

  1. For no reason whatsoever your car would crash twice a day.
  2. Every time they repainted the lines on the road you would have to buy a new car.
  3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason, and you would just accept this, restart and drive on.
  4. Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left turn, would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.
  5. Only one person at a time could use the car, unless you bought "Car95" or "CarNT." But then you would have to buy more seats.
  6. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, reliable, five times as fast, and twice as easy to drive, but would only run on five per cent of the roads.
  7. The oil, water temperature and alternator warning lights would be replaced by a single "general car fault" warning light.
  8. New seats would force everyone to have the same size butt.
  9. The airbag system would say "Are you sure?" before going off.
  10. Occasionally for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key, and grab hold of the radio antenna.
  11. GM would require all car buyers to also purchase a deluxe set of Rand McNally road maps (now a GM subsidiary), even though they neither need them nor want them. Attempting to delete this option would immediately cause the car's performance to diminish by 50% or more. Moreover, GM would become a target for investigation by the Justice Department.
  12. Everytime GM introduced a new model car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.
  13. You'd press the "start" button to shut off the engine.

It's an absolute classic, but still rings so true!


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Web 2.0 and beyond

Whenever you talk socially to people and say you work with computers and the web their question is always 'So what do you think about web 2.0'?

There is no such thing. Web 1.0 works. We don't need a web 2.0! The people that tell you we do are trying to sell you something.

When I return the question and ask what people think web 2.0 is - the answer is always these virtual life websites like Second Life. I have never logged into one. Also they run on the normal web, and display a website normally in a normal web browser. You can't call something Web version 2 without changing some infrastructure (Ie hardware), protocols (Ie http) and/or browsers.

This website trys to be a virtual world where you can interact with other non-existant fake people. To me that is electronic social networking. And their PR company have decided to try and sell it as web 2.0 to get more press.

End of rant. :)

Let me define what the web actually is. This really is basic stuff but I bet most readers wouldn't be able to explain it.

We start with lots of computers. They are connected together by a single network that allows them all to communicate with other instantly regardless of how far apart they are physically. This network is called the Internet. Some computers 'serve' data, and the majority download data to use it. The term data describes anything a computer can store or use. For my discussion of the web I will refer to 2 main kinds of data - Email and Webpages.

Email is an electronic letter sent directly by a sender to one or more named recipients. Anyone can send an email to any other net user for negligible cost. Whenever most users think of email, they also think of spam. Unfortunately spam is big business, and over 70% of all emails sent on the internet are spam. Spam is basically unwanted direct email. Usually marketing. Nothing can be done to control spam because it is untracable back to the sender, and it may have come from abroad where our legal system doesn't apply. Every spam message appears to be from a different sender on a different network, so blocking it is very difficult.

Webpages are nice looking pages of formatted text and graphics. To access them you need a computer connected to the internet. On this you start a web browser and enter the address of the web server you want to read from. If you don't know the webserver address there are sites that search the web for you and tell you the address. The reason it is called the web is because webpages can and pretty much always do contain links to other pages on the internet. This complex and unlimited interlinking of all webpages to each other is like a web, hence the names World Wide Web and webpages.

Moving on, having defined the web you should agree that what we have works. And it works well. Anyone can easily and cheaply publish anything to the world. It does not need upgrading or enhancing. What it does need is controlling. Controversial but true.

When something is controlled there is an extremely fine line to draw between policing it to protect people and prevent illegal activities, and censorship. In a country proud of allowing free speech, censorship is bad - its basically someone saying I don't like what your saying so you can't say it.

The two issues that need addressing with the web are:

One, it is beyond the control of the law. Illegal information and opinions can be published and this cannot be stopped. It is not always possible to trace people across the internet and hold them to account. Hence the problem mentioned with spam. The web is impossible to police. If anyone tries all the hackers scream 'but that infringes our privacy'.

Two, if a computer is on a network it may be possible to break into it remotely and change or access data you should not have access to. This also covers making changes to someone's computer by installing nuisance software like spyware or a virus. Vista's claims to help with this are pretty shallow.

When someone has addressed these two issues successfully, I will let them call what they create web 2.0.

Over and out.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Review of Google Apps

Following from my post about Software As A Service, I promised to review the Google Apps Beta service once I had used it for a while and put it through its paces. You need to try something for a couple of months before you find the problems! An example of this I recently hit was some great hardware I got cheap. Turned out it wouldn't work in Vista as it promised because it had a dodgy firmware version. Thankfully I got a refund no probs.

To recap, Google Apps is a customisable, brandable, free service from Google that provides email, calendar, chat, website, word processing and spreadsheet functions. It is planned to compete with Microsoft Outlook, Word and Exel.

So the question, should you give up your normal office applications yet and migrate to these software as a service alternatives? In a word NO!!!

See my other article for discussions of the principles. My conclusion then was cover a couple of potential problems yourself and it is a great idea.

The main advantage with services like Google Apps is they run within any web browser on any machine. This is also the biggest disadvantage. Web browsers, as the name states are small limited programs that visually display web sites, and let you navigate them. However this restricts the possible functionality of all websites. They are designed to prevent anything you look at from accessing your computer. This is why a website will never compete with a normal program running on your PC.

A lot of the functions in Office 2003 are available in Google Apps. Due to limitations of what is possible in a web browser, the features are much harder to find and use. The ways you can edit a document are not as sophisticated as is possible in Word. The next version of Office will move the barrier higher as Google get nearer and nearer to where it was. As an example a web page cannot be controlled by voice commands in the way it will be possible to control a word processor running on your PC.

I do uneqivically recommend the email features of Google Apps. It is head and shoulders above using the normal POP service provided by your internet company. The reasons why are described next - be warned its a long list :)

  1. Google email will work with your domain name. Find a better service and you can leave without changing your email address!
  2. You can create an unlimited number of email mailboxes, email aliases (think nicknames that forward to one of your other email mailboxes) and email lists (an alias that forwards to any number of other email accounts on the web).
  3. It's quick. Email is delivered immediately its sent. My old email service could take 10 minutes to send a test message to myself.
  4. 2Gb of storage per mailbox. You will have to try very hard to exceed that. I have just checked my PC and all my email from the last 5 years is only 1.5Gb!
  5. All email mailboxes are filtered for spam by Google at their end. In other words you don't have to download everything to your computer and delete the ones your computer decides are spam. The spam filtering is free. And it is extremely good. I now get 2/3 spam messages a month compared to 10 a day with my old spam system (cloudmark) which was hot compared to most. Nothing important has ever been marked as spam in error. You can use the google web interface to review spam messages and release any you actually want.
  6. Nothing is appended by google to sent or received messages.
  7. One way you can access all your email mailboxes is from any web browser. This can be customised free to show your company name and logo if required. There are unobtrusive ads on this web page (same as in google search) unless you upgrade.
  8. The other way is over an encrypted connection from your usual email client such as Microsoft Outlook. Normally, anything running on your network can eavesdrop when your mail program routinely looks for email. Every time you check for email your email account password is sent completely unprotected. I have never come across a service that allows secure email collection before. Outlook has a checkbox to turn it on if supported at the other end. This stops your password and your emails being eves-dropped.
  9. It is usually not possible to use any outgoing (SMTP) service other than the one provided by your internet company for security reasons. Again google provide enhanced encryption and security for outgoing messages that works over any internet connection.
  10. If you wish, all email (incoming and outgoing) will be kept on the google servers after you have retrieved it. It can be put in an archived state which effectively makes it disappear until you search for it. We all know Google for search and this is a great feature.
  11. When accessing email in a web browser all related incoming and outgoing messages are grouped as a conversation so they appear as one large message.
  12. There are loads of options for conditional filtering or forwarding of email.

In summary - it is good!

If you studied the above you will understand that at no point did you need to go to Google in a web browser. The email side (including the web browser email interface) of Google Apps is clearly ready for mainstream release. It is good enough for use in any size business. The rest is not. The web interface is unusable by all but the most advanced user. It is hard work. For example some calendar screens have two save buttons, one at the top and one at the bottom of the page. Press the wrong one and it doesn't save. The interface is very inconsistent between different parts of the applications. I could not recommend this aspect of Google Apps. Even sharing any access to a document between members of the same group was next to impossible.

Once it is out of beta testing and the interface is refined I will have another look. At the moment forget the features other than email. I have lots more niggles, and loads of features the system badly needs to be properly useful in a shared environment, but as its beta I'm sure Google will fix them and it would not be fair to detail all of them here.

To sign up go to http://www.google.com/a/ It's all totally free! You can even try the premium service free. This gives you more storage, ability to turn off the ads in the web email interface, an uptime guarantee and access to technical support. All the problems I raised they just logged them to be fixed by the developers.