Friday, February 29, 2008

Barack the Vote

Excuse grammatical mistakes: I'm very tired right now and slept 2 hours last night to go to this thing.

I have to say a couple of things before I really start this post. Directly below this post you will find a nice, long-winded post about what has happened between Yahoo and Microsoft over the span of this month since Microsoft's $44.6 billion cash-and-stock bid. I recommend reading it because it's a great way to catch up on that issue and I put a lot of time into researching what has been happening. I have lots of other tech news to talk about, and I'll have to get to it this weekend (I'm thinking tomorrow or Saturday). The other thing is that I am not a political pundit, nor do I ever claim to be. I give my commentary on technology under the pretense that I do my best to be well-informed and unbiased and knowledgeable in the things I talk about. With politics though, I can't keep up quite as well. I'm in tune a lot more with what Barack Obama has been saying rather than Hillary Clinton, so I'm going to try to not talk about her a whole lot aside from impressions I had of her from the debate. What I'm about to say are just my personal thoughts on this morning and I do not want to be flamed for these opinions. I don't remember all the nitty gritty, you can see this guy for that. Now we can get started.

I know the title is a little corny, but I think it's kind of cute. People were chanting it this morning at the Town Hall that Barack had at the Austin Convention Center. It happened very suddenly, being announced only two days ago, and it was at 9:30 AM this morning. I got up at 5:40 AM and we made it there by 7:00 AM. We got pretty good seats, but we were a few rows ahead of him yet, making it hard to take pictures. Fortunately, I did get to shake his hand though:

I Shook Barack's Hand! from Eptiger on Vimeo.

I think this little girl wanted to shake his hand, too (the T-shirt is cute, too):

He was a little late coming on stage though, and was preceded by a woman who told her vignette about life in Austin, that seemed kind of untrue because she worked at all these non-profits and her husband was a teacher so I don't understand how they could support their kids. We actually did get these 50-page booklets while we waiting for him explaining his policies and focusing a good bit on the economy, which is one of my huge issues so I really liked that.

This was a really exciting thing for me because I have never, in my life, felt so obligated to really get involved in politics. Clinton became president when I was 6 and I didn't know who George Walker Bush was until I was finishing up middle school. I feel like the Democratic Party has lost its way for the past 8 years. I have to say this real quick: it's amazing how Hillary brags about being the more experienced candidate but let the Republicans trample on some of the ideals this country was built on and bring our economy to shambles with an unabashed spending policy and a nonsensical approach to education. Yeah, cutting funds to students will create more jobs. She had more seniority than Barack did, and so she could've been an instigator for change. I look at Barack's voting record, as I have since he first started being on the Daily Show, and I find myself very impressed.

When we were waiting for Barack, I had this total zen moment while reading through his policies in that booklet and I turned to my friend saying, "dude, what if he was our president? Everything would be so different!" Mind you, I don't mean our country would be fixed instantaneously and we'd all be sipping out of golden goblets, but I mean that we'd have a reason to believe in our government for once. We'd be criticizing our president's missteps in policy rather than his overall intelligence. It would just be a complete paradigm shift. Maybe we'd go back to the Clinton days when families would gather around a television and watch their president speak to them. Does anyone really watch the State of the Union address anymore? Honestly?

Getting back on topic, Barack started out with kind of a mild stump speech, you could say. Just generally outlining his policies and what he believes in. This was not his typical rally fare: it was a bare bones explanation of the key tenets of his campaign that he talks about everywhere: get out of Iraq, jumpstart the economy with tax reform and restoring the living wage, and better health care, among a few other things I'm probably missing. It was inspiring, but not energizing the way his rallies are. It's hard for me to explain, but I feel like everyone there (by the way, a lot of older people, but a decent amount of college students) had this understanding that a lot of us supported Obama, but it was early in the morning and this wasn't the rock concert he had in Austin last Friday. Instead, we wanted to hear the answers we've read online and seen on YouTube to more questions and prove to the naysayers that he's not "all hat and no cowboy." For the record, that's a stupid saying. I'm sorry, but you have issues if that's your way of saying that someone is all talk.

Let me tell you that the people who say that Obama is idealistic and has no real plan for getting anything done has either been watching too much Fox News or too much Hillary. I heard nothing but plans at this Town Hall meeting. It was incredible. I don't know how to describe this feeling, because I've never had it before, but this guy represents how I feel about all the issues that matter to me most: health care, education, fiscal responsibility, taxes, the Internet, technology in general, welfare, and the list goes on. It's like I can finally breathe a sigh of relief that maybe not everyone in politics is completely corrupted. How many candidates for president in the past decade have run campaigns as clean as Barack? How many have actually kept talking about how they're going to cut out special interest groups and make deals between the people and the companies or issue leaders (I need a term here I can't think of because it's 1AM right now) where it really matters. The government has been usurped from us and given to these lobbyists, he's right. Some people say, "oh, that's just politics" and they let it slide. They don't care about the erosion of our privacy. They don't care about the degradation of treating people with equality. They don't care about the rug being pulled under us. Why do people know that Lindsay Lohan was in rehab but they don't know that without net neutrality we could give way to stifling innovation on the Internet? There is something very wrong and haunting about a society where we've become more concerned with our celebrities than our troops, many of whom are coming back from serving in Iraq and having a rough time transitioning back. Just because Barack Obama is saying this as a politician doesn't mean he doesn't believe in it. When I look into his eyes, I see promise. I don't see half-truths and pandering. Do you have any idea how refreshing that is?

Back to his having actual plans though; that's important. There was no fluff, no high level statements (not very many, at least) of what he intends to do, but real answers. I've been so jaded by the Bush administration that I figured that Town Halls were rigged events. As it turns out, this was not such an event. It was completely live, unfiltered questions. Let me tell you that I love Austin, because the questions were diverse and well-conceived (except for a childish one literally asked by a 9 year-old, though it was still a little cute). How do I know it wasn't rigged? Because a very good friend of mine, who will remain nameless at his behest, got to ask the very first question, "One thing that has been hampering growth in the software industry has been the activities of U.S. Patent Office who has been issuing bad patents. Do you have any plans to reform what has been going on with software patents?" Take a minute to watch his answer:

Barack Talks about Patents from Eptiger on Vimeo.

He concludes with Google for Government, which I didn't include because I was trying to keep down the ridiculously large size of these movie files (Canon Powershots aren't known for movie compression). It's going to be an online system where you can see every single dollar the government spends accounted for; so he's a strong advocate of transparency in the government. This is a complete reversal of the Bush administration, and I'd be excited to see what happens. Anyway, this answer was incredible to me because he did not at all gloss over the specifics of what the issue is and how we have to reform the patent office and that we should create a chief information officer to make sure the government is "wired". By the way, Lawrence Lessig from the Electronic Frontier Foundation endorses him, and it's no surprise when Barack supports deploying next generation broadband (spreading it all across the nation, mind you, additionally), protecting the neutrality of the Internet, and investing in the sciences. We're falling behind and losing jobs overseas because we're losing our status in science; and this is a travesty. I love that he believes in that. Oh, and whenever he would mention technology or something related to technology, he would point back at us because of my friend's question. I thought that was pretty neat.

The next question he received was about welfare: a woman who was earning just above the poverty line wasn't getting the benefits she needed when people next door to her keep having kids they can't afford and fleecing the government. I wish I had gotten Obama's response to this on camera because it was truly incredible: people who can work need to be working. He applauded Clinton's welform reforms as a good start and wants to give a $4000 in college assistance annually for community or national service among other things. My summary doesn't do his response justice: he really had it well thought out.

After that was a biggie: fiscal responsibility. The guy asking the question was willing to accept tax increases for these reforms that our economy direly needs (including relief for those stuck in the subprime mortgage crisis and screwed by debt from inaccurate loan disclosure), but he wanted to know how important keeping a balanced budget was to Barack. I loved this response, too: we establish a rule that we don't spend money unless we can get the money for it from cutting spending somewhere else or raising it elsewhere (as through cutting down on loopholes in corporate tax code that cost us a lot tax dollars and bringing the tax rate for the high income brackets back to the rates they were under Clinton). He was really emphatic that we not borrow from the Bank of China, and that was one of my "OMGI<3U" moments because he understands that we can't keep borrowing money from abroad. He ceded that he wouldn't have a "fetish" for reducing the national debt, a really strange term to use there but I suppose valid, because we need to invest in our country first. He also mentioned something I've kind of been thinking about also for a while: why oh why didn't we set aside money when we had a surplus back in the prosperity of the mid-90s? **UPDATE** posted a video from the Town Hall with his answer to this question:

The next topic was education. Again, I'm a firm believer that we need to seriously reform our education if we want our children to have a bright future and we want our country to keep its competitive advantage for talented skilled workers. He hit a home run here for me. No Child Left Behind is a mandate that requires standardized testing that is unfunded by the federal government and takes money away from programs like music and PE that our schools so direly need to improve our children's capacity to learn and grow. It really doesn't make sense to administer a standardized test a few months into the school year to replace teaching material with teaching how to take a test, and it's better to have a test at the beginning and at the end of the year to gauge students' progress and provide valuable information to teachers. Plus, under NCLB the schools that underperform get penalized despite if weaker students end up progressing. His booklet goes on to talk about recruiting, preparing, retaining, and rewarding teachers as well as expanding summer and after school activities and addressing the dropout crisis. These are all truly excellent ideas for education. **UPDATE** They posted a video from later that day where the first couple of minutes is extremely similar to part of this answer in Austin.

I think that the next thing he spoke about was foreign aid with regard to a question about helping out the "motherland" (a Black guy did ask this question, though Africa was theoretical my motherland at some point also because of tectonic plate movements). The question was actually preceded with praise for running a clean campaign (earning a standing ovation) among a couple of other things. Unfortunately, I was so absorbed in this point at thinking over what else he had been saying that I can't give you a comprehensive rundown of what he said here. He was trying to get the point across that foreign aid is important for the long-term because we do need these countries to be part of the global economy. Any economist will tell you that free trade and a truly global economy is really efficient and very beneficial to consumers as a whole.

The last question was from a little girl (he wanted to give the last question to the next generation, and I have to admit that he picked a great diversity of people so this made sense in that context). She asked if he would sign her book (which I think he did later) and about jobs for young people and health care, as well. By young people, I think she meant 9 year-olds, not college students (though that's covered by child labor laws and his health care plan to guarantee coverage for children). Still, he answered the question as if it was for young adults. I wish I had recorded this answer, as well, to confront the claim that he's too idealistic. He spoke to us very frankly and explained quite pragmatically that he can't create all the jobs we need immediately or necessarily in his first term. It takes time and he's going to do all he can but he needs help and support from us, and I just loved that he wasn't promising us the impossible. He wants to put us back on the right directions and he's going to do this, this, and that to do so, but that's all he can do. He doesn't promise change in a box, he's trying to incite change from the bottom-up.

I think that's what I really love most about Obama: he wants to get people involved with the government. I can't remember the last candidate who really aimed to do that. For him, it's more than just a vague part of a hype speech, it's what he fundamentally believes in. We have to get involved in making change happen, and what he's really selling us is hope (by the way, I'm at the point of conclusions now so I'm past quoting things he said and making my own statements). This country needs hope though. Does Hillary give us hope? Look at this. She's more interested in muckraking than inspiring her supporters. I think that she lost the debate last week simply because she was being so catty and focusing more on Obama's campaign than his beliefs. That mistake cost her some swing voters who didn't understand how they differed but probably just saw Obama as being nicer overall and a better speaker (ok, that's arguable, but I think he is). Hillary wants partisan change, Obama wants to unify. Hillary will say she wants to unify, too, but only because she likes to play politics. Just read this uplifting editorial from the The Daily Texan; I'm not alone in claiming these things. Even if Obama can't achieve everything he believes and evangelizes, isn't it enough that he gets some of it done and promises the rest in the long-term? And how does he back up these promises? With the inspiration he plants in people that makes them want to start change from the bottom-up. You've probably already seen it with this amazing grassroots movement for his campaign, if you're from Texas. It's really quite incredible. Can we fix this country? Can we put it back on the right track? Can we recover from years of being gradually bludgeoned? Can we change the paradigm of how we look at our own government? Can we make a difference? The answer is quite simple: yes we can.

Texans: please vote today or on Tuesday, and then go caucus on Tuesday night. The eyes of the nation are upon us, and the Democratic primary is now partially in our hands.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Yahoo's Refusal?

I wrote this a couple of days ago, but didn't post it because I was intending to finish it out with tech news. My back log of articles and this post both grew too large for that though, so I apologize for the tardiness of this post. The other tech news will come tomorrow or Saturday and will be a huge post.

Not long after Bill Gates left Austin (in his private jet, I'm sure), a memo went out to Microsoft employees explaining how the takeover process would work and merging of cultures, almost implying that Yahoo had turned down the offer already. So as everyone hinted at and Steve Ballmer nearly cried out, Microsoft isn't going to rest until they own Yahoo. There's a lot to summarize about what has happened since the bid though, so let's start there.

There were a couple of knee-jerk reactions that Yahoo had. The first one is that they're worth more than $44.6 billion. Either they're bluffing or delusional, because some pundits believe that they're worth much less than that. At the time of the bid, they were worth less than $20 a share and only have come closer to Microsoft's $31 a share bid because of the bid. If Microsoft withdrew, I bet the stock would plummet. After all, Apple and Google's stocks have been dropping for a while now and they're much more stable companies. The other reaction is culture shock: the idea that Microsoft's "stodgy" environment would stifle innovation. Right, that's why Microsoft is the one whose stock hasn't been battered gradually over the past two years, because they don't take care of their employees. Having been to the Redmond campus, I can attest to it being pretty cool actually. I prefer Amazon, personally, and Google is obviously a lot more fun, but it's really not that bad considering how big and how old Microsoft is. I haven't been to Yahoo, but from how former employees have described their work life to me, it's really not quite that different. It may just be a little more risque and a little more open because it's a smaller company.

Yahoo has made no press release, as far as I can tell, saying that they formally decline the offer, but they keep saying that they don't want to do it, and so Microsoft has went ahead and explained that they're willing to send their own people to join the board of directors and establish an exchange offer, which basically implies cutting a deal directly with stockholders. This is what's commonly known as a hostile takeover. What's the problem with this? It's called "hostile" for a reason: it will hurt the morale of Yahoo's engineers and indicate that they care more about brand name, infrastructure, and customer base than talent. I heard Bill Gates say with my own ears that they are really interested in the engineers at Yahoo, but they would be willing to go forward with competing with Google on their own, if necessary. So basically, Microsoft is not so evil that they want to do this the hard way; they want to force Yahoo into submission. Maybe the proxy fight (i.e. forcing their own directors onto the board) will help them come to their senses, or maybe Microsoft will raise their bid (I think this is unlikely, but not impossible).

Microsoft has additionally sent out an e-mail to its employees explaining that they're going to work hard to merge the cultures of the two companies together (by the way, Yahoo will stay in California) after the deal is completed (a bit presumptuous, but it sends a clear message), but that employees should continue to compete with Yahoo until then. How has Yahoo reacted to this? In preparation for a hostile takeover, they have improved severance packages because it's definitely likely that people working in overlapping divisions will be laid off (though Microsoft isn't currently planning any) and they think it'll make executives more likely to consider the company's welfare rather than their own. This is a move that has upset shareholders. Some pension funds are suing Yahoo for not accepting Microsoft's higher bid last year while others are just impatient about Yahoo's holding off on this bid. In an act of strange defiance, they've purchased ad technology company Maven Networks, whose technology manages ads in videos, a quickly growing market. This just makes them all the juicier for Microsoft to swallow though, ultimately.

What's the bottom line of all this? The short and simple: Yahoo's Board is resisting Microsoft's offer despite the repeated requests from shareholders. Despite the fact that they haven't saved the company for the last 8 quarters, they don't want to cede to a giant and have turned to companies like Google and Time Warner for help, even. Microsoft believes that this would be an extremely strategic alliance and would create competition for Google, which we know is true because of how much Google is publicly flipping out over this acquisition. They'll stop at nothing for this to happen, in the ironic interest of increasing competition. Something I very much believe in and I would hope this deal will create. Are we feeding the Microsoft beast here? Maybe. If it doesn't happen though, we're guilty of feeding the Google beast though, and then we'll really see online innovation decline. I hope that Yahoo will just take the money and give up; it's not going to be that bad. I'm sure Bill Gates will even give Jeff Yang a lollipop.

Semi-unrelated to the takeover, I've been accidentally forgetting to talk about Yahoo Live, a service that launched a couple of weeks ago. I personally feel that it's an example of bad management at Yahoo and just proves the case for why Microsoft needs to step in. So what is this new service? Basically, Yahoo will host a live feed of your webcam, and then people can talk to you in a chatroom where you can also see a few of their live feeds in a tray at the bottom while chatting with them (well, anyone can who comes to your page). My initial reaction is that this is ridiculous: it's encouraging voyeurism, you get people saying "show us your boobs" in the female ones, and I don't get why people would want to be on camera like this. It does actually have it's uses: Diggnation loved the idea and wanted to use it for a town hall (they've probably already done this by now). It's perfect for that. I have a feeling that the initial drive were these online celebrities (I can't for the life in me remember their names) who had large cult followings of people who watched live feeds of them that were always on. So maybe Yahoo wants this to be the YouTube of that kind of stuff? I think that it's too much of a niche market and not mature enough for this. Do they really think that services like this will help save them?

2 Post Forthcoming

Sorry to be so behind on posting, but I have 2 posts coming up, one of which will be super long (addressing Yahoo's implicit refusal of the M$ offer) and the other will be a little shorter (addressing being at Obama's Town Hall today).

The long one is started but I'm adding in a slew of other tech news, the Obama one has to be written and will definitely be completed tonight. I'm trying to get both up tonight.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bill Gates Comes to Austin

Before, I get to the topic at hand, there are a couple of other exciting news items I need to briefly mention. There are rumblings that the Writers' Strike is over. I don't think official press releases, but it sounds like it is effectively over; the details are still unclear. Shows like Heroes, Desperate Housewives, and the Office will be back on within the next couple of months. If I see more details, I'll post them here. Also, Barack Obama has taken Hawaii and Wisconsin, which gives him a 10 state winning streak over Clinton. Early voting started in Texas yesterday, and apparently the caucus is on March 4. Anyway, the debate is tomorrow night and I hope I can make a post on that soon (though I'm going on a retreat Friday evening to Saturday afternoon).

I've been excited for a few weeks now because that's how long I knew that Bill Gates would be coming to UT; I just didn't have the details until last week. I may not like all of Microsoft's products or agree with their tactics, but I still idolize Bill Gates because he pioneered an industry, he is a phenomenal visionary, and he's really a fantastic philanthropist. Say what you will about Microsoft, but Bill Gates is a better man than Steve Jobs probably ever will be. So I felt honored that before my time was up here to have been able to see him in person. Even President Powers and Dean Rankin came (as well as Turing Award winner Dr. Allen Emerson). I believe this was the second stop on his 5 campus tour, and high-profile tech people always seem to overlook Austin so I was really glad that he recognized that some talented people definitely come out of UT Austin. This was semi-technical talk aimed at CS/CE majors so you're not likely to have gotten a whole lot out of it if you didn't care about technology. That having been said, it was also not a Steve Jobs keynote. It wasn't glamorous or flashy, it was pretty frank. He's not the best public speaker, but he's not too shabby at putting his thoughts into words either. He also doesn't say "uh" or "um" or anything like that. Anyway, if you want to see it in it's entirety, it'll be online this Friday.

He was introduced by the winner of his own scholarship, which I thought was kind of neat, and then went right into the popular video from CES of what he'll do when he retires. The CES version is a little different; the joke with Clooney in this one was that Gates wanted to be in Ocean's 14 and Jon Stewart had an additional joke that he had stolen the mic he had on him the last time he was on the Daily Show. There were a couple of other minor changes as well, plus a bloopers reel. The next 10-15 minutes was stuff I already knew about, but it was still nice to hear it from his mouth. He emphasized the trend of processors to multiple cores rather than faster clock speeds and the need for programmers to design with that in mind, as well as how he was gladdened by the research going on at UT in this area. The other topic he talked about that wasn't really anything new was ways for natural input. He had a term for it that had the word "natural" in it that I can't remember, but he mentioned Surface and the Wii and how the keyboard and mouse may never go away but advances still are being made and are important in more intuitive human-computer interaction.

Now the good stuff started (or what I thought was the more interesting stuff). He started talking about linking business with research, and how excited he was 15 years ago to start the Microsoft Research group. He really loves collaboration with universities, not just CS departments. And he actually went into a specific example with neurobiology. Apparently, it takes something like 1 million petabytes (1 PB = 1,000 TB) to model an entire human brain, and it's more manageable for a rat brain (1,000 PB), but they managed to fit a small cube of a rat brain in 1 petabyte. So Bill was just playing around with visualizations of it on the screen and it looked pretty cool. I always knew that computer science had applications in Biology, but I don't think it really set in until Bill Gates shoved it in my face how important and how incredible this sort of interdepartmental collaboration can be.

The next part of his talk was equally engaging: attending to the lowest 2 billion people of the world. As he rightfully claims, spreading technology to the world is regarded as only diffusion to those who can afford it. If you don't have money then your vote in what happens in the world simply doesn't count, and he recognizes this imbalance. This is the second time this semester that I've been inspired by people doing this kind of work. He talked about how they took DVD players and TVs to farmers, showed them better ways of doing things and how they're done in other places, and the farmers really took to it. In fact, they were rather competitive about it and wanted to improve further so that they could be on the DVD as well for making some new breakthrough in farming technique. He also talked about how ridiculous it is that there's more research done into baldness than into malaria. That kind of goes more with the not having a vote if you don't have money. If you're poor and dying of malaria, it's alright to the world, but if you're moderately wealthy and have money then it's a really big deal. He recognizes this disparity and his Foundation tries to help alleviate these issues wherever it can, is my understanding.

That was the end of his formal talk, but then there was the ever-painful Q&A. I knew that we'd have some people asking stupid questions, though I was definitely surprised that no one took a jab at Microsoft's antitrust litigation. When one guy said that he had a comment rather than a question I was a little worried, but he just proclaimed China's love for Bill Gates and gave him a present (security was surprisingly laxed, so I'm glad it wasn't a bomb or something equally bad). The guy who gets my award for worst question bragged about helping with the Obama campaign, how he interviewed with Microsoft last month (by the way, that means he got turned down because their interview turnaround time is real tight), and how he's applying for a job at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was wanting interview advice and a recommendation (what a cute joke). His answer to this question was actually good though: the foundation apparently focuses on 3 areas - infectious diseases, propagating technology to those who can't afford it, and spreading knowledge. People that die every day because those who can make a difference don't care to or can't afford to is a big deal, and so that's a big deal. There's always this dispute that there's no point in spreading computers to villages who can barely feed themselves, but I disagree with that because technology can help these societies function better and lead to a better quality of life. That goes hand-in-hand with learning though. The overarching value of the Foundation is that every human life should be treated equally, and I like that. It's simple and to the point. The girl after him actually asked the best question (about the issue of women in CS) and started out by saying, "I felt really bad that I didn't bring a gift, but that last guy just made me feel a lot better." I wish I could've shook her hand. Anyway, his response to that was pretty standard: it's a huge issue, and the attrition rate among women for science (and, more significantly, for CS) grows with age. Maybe the problem is that men aren't encouraging women enough, or maybe the field just seems more intimidating because it's male-dominated. Whatever the case, he's definitely behind diversity.

There was actually another markedly ridiculous question: someone has the gall to ask how far Microsoft was willing to go to acquire Yahoo and how much money Bill thought that they were worth. That deserves a slap to the face, in my opinion. What an insult. Does this guy hold stock in the company or something? How's it any of his business. Bill took time out of his busy schedule to talk about what's going on in technology right now at our little corner of the US and what he feel really matters in the world right now, outside of just Microsoft's little microcosm, and this guy asks a question that Bill obviously can't answer. As I've said before, I believe that they'd be willing to go as far as a hostile takeover, but I hope Yahoo wouldn't be so naive and just take the generous buyout offer. Amazingly enough, Bill had an interesting answer: search engine ads are the one form of advertising where you have to pay without getting anything in return, really. Each one of us contributes $80 a year (on average) in revenues to Google and get nothing in return. Of course, he's kind of overlooking the fact that we get to use their search engine and other free Google services, but I think I see his point. With television the benefit is immediate to advertising: being entertained with engaging or funny or scary stories. Google holds kind of a monopoly and, as a result, doesn't really have to give us anything extra for staring at their ads. Competition is important in this field. I know it's a funny thing to hear from Bill Gates, but competition is important and I wholeheartedly agree that Google cannot stay the uncontested king of search for much longer or else we probably will see a degradation in quality from them. He wrapped up the answer by saying that Yahoo has smart people and Microsoft is giving them time to look at the offer and evaluate what they want to do. Very diplomatic, but he shouldn't have had to answer the question at all, in my opinion, so I'd say he did pretty well. I wonder if this is some precursor to how MSN plans to compete with Google search? Is there something big they have planned for consumers to reward them to searching with MSN? It's cool to think that maybe there is, but it'd be presumptuous of me to suggest that some master plan lies in a simple answer to a dumb question. I guess we'll see what happens though.

All in all, it was an interesting talk. Or maybe you found this post boring and are glad you didn't see it or catch the live webcast. I definitely drew on some inspiration from it and I honestly felt like Bill was pretty down-to-earth. My friend disagrees with me, but I just didn't see a facade about him. He's the same geek I read about when I was 11 years old and dreamed of monumental success like that. He'll probably always be that same guy in my mind though unless he does something really drastic. When you consider him in the context of Microsoft, you should realize that all corporations do bad things whether you want to believe them or not. Apple and Google do bad things whether or not the press tells you about them or you choose to read about them (e.g. litigation against fans and censorship), so don't hate Bill Gates for the actions of Microsoft. Instead, realize that he did something pretty amazing for this industry and continues to give back to this world and his vision never stops. As old as he is he spoke like he was much younger in terms of his use of modern technological jargon and concise understanding of what was going on in the world (when you see the CEO of Sony speak, you feel embarrassed for him). I think the one thing to take away from this talk is that we have to work together in this world to make progress, and we should never lose hope as long as we continue to do that.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Help Save Ruckus

I got my super pink wristband this morning to see Bill Gates! He's coming to UT on Wednesday so you can bet that I'll be blogging about it later that day. Hopefully it'll be inspirational or educational or both. Additionally, there will be an Obama-Clinton debate broadcast nationally from campus and I can't imagine I'll be able to get a ticket but I'll probably talk about that on Thursday as well. So it's kind of a strange week, though I'll have another normal post this weekend, I'm sure. Oh, and thanks for the feedback on my teaser. I've received as much feedback from people that hate it as people who are intrigued. For the record: the large amount of text is on purpose because it's a teaser. I'm low on footage here because we barely started 2 weeks ago; give me a break!

I'm here to write a brief post supporting Ruckus. If you're not a college student, you may not care about the rest of this post. Basically, Ruckus is a completely legal way to download free music. How is this possible? Advertising on the site and on the music player you use to play the music because it's strapped with DRM.

I know, I know: DRM is evil. I tend to agree, but the whole point of this site is to show labels that music can be distributed online for free to poor demographics like college students and still earn royalties. If we don't support Ruckus and piracy continues on an upward trend among college students, we're basically telling them that we're not interested in free music unless we can steal it. I know that's not the actual case, but these people at the RIAA barely have functioning brains. The point is that Ruckus was such a great idea and tries so hard that I hate for it to end.

It has a pretty enormous selection of mainstream music and some stuff that's off-the-beaten path. I've found a lot of indie music on there and some Latin music as well, so it does include some obscure stuff. I discovered artists like Snow Patrol, Michael Buble, KT Tunstall, John Legend, Jars of Clay, Damien Rice, The Decemberists, Bloc party, and several others because of it. These are artists I definitely wouldn't have bought in the stores on my own and probably wouldn't have even gone to the trouble of trying to find illegally, but I've actually bought some of these albums (to not be bound by DRM and play them in my car and stuff) in stores after becoming addicted to them on Ruckus. It's just a great way to try albums before you buy them and check out new artists. Oh, and for a fee you can transfer the songs to your mp3 player.

It's not perfect, no doubt. The site could use a major UI overhaul. The DRM is annoying, but you can play the songs in Windows Media Player if you want to be mean and take away their ad revenues. The player always shows a banner ad, even when minimized (the banner ad isn't visible if it's not in the foreground). You have to renew your licenses on these songs every month unless you just listen to them every month (that automatically renews the songs you play). You can't really create playlists with the songs. Still, it opens you up to trying out new music without the guilt of having possibly regretted the purchase and you don't lose anything by getting Ruckus, really. When you hear a song on the radio you like you can check out the album. Or maybe an artist you hear about all the time, like Muse, but never bothered checking out because you don't want to bother with P2P and you can't afford the album. It's just too interesting of a project for us to let it die. Please, use Ruckus and tell your friends about it. They're seriously considering shutting down because of their user base size, I'm not making it up.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Truth About Net Neutrality; Teaser

Here's the teaser trailer for our forthcoming short film balancing the pros and cons of net neutrality for my CS 349 class. It's our big project (along with a paper). It'll probably end up being 10-15 minutes, but since we have some footage right now and I've been dying to play with iMovie, I thought I'd try making a teaser. If people like it, I may even make a full-length trailer next month when we have another 30-60 minutes of footage.

The Truth About Net Neutrality Teaser from Eptiger on Vimeo.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Internet Freedom Preservation Lives On

Again, sorry for the massive delay of this post. I know it's long overdue, but this week was really kind of crazy. This next week should be a lot more calm so hopefully I'll be able to make another post before the end of next week.

I've been working on my Net Neutrality video for my Contemporary Issues in CS class and it's been fun. I'm trying to get various viewpoints on net neutrality and expose the truth, my personal biases aside. A few people aren't talking on camera, so that kind of sucks, but I'd rather have a video where everyone wants to speak their mind than one where I have to pull people's arms. I actually totally forgot that censorship fell under the spectrum of what neutrality is trying to fight, and I'm reeling now to cover my bases on that end. Fortunately, How Stuff Works has a really great explanation of censorship in its many forms with tangents into net neutrality if you feel like your knowledge is deficient or could use a brush-up.

There is good news though: Congress introduced a bill earlier this week called the Internet Freedom Preservation Act that I really love: it seeks to protect the neutrality of the Internet not by regulating it but rather by empowering the FCC to investigate if companies are "blocking, thwarting, or unreasonably interfering" with consumers' consumption of online content. This could be worded a little better yet because it needs to allow them to block spam and child pornography and all that stuff, but you get the picture. Would such a provision protect illegal content? Probably not, but I'd rather live with that than tiered service and censored content. The bill additionally directs the FCC to hold several broadband summits with other countries to discuss the issues of consumer choice and protection and such with regard to broadband service. It's a really interesting bill that I think could do well if people mobilized and told their representatives to support it and maybe if it was polished up just a little bit so that it doesn't become an overbearing piece of regulation.

The House of Representatives has been really busy because another interesting bill, that was introduced recently and I even brought it up here, passed easily. It's called the College Opportunity and Affordability Act and one of its very strange provisions requires universities to provide legal alternative to P2P file sharing and that it implement network filtering. Obviously, all the IT departments are pretty pissed and have been about this issue for a while now. There's a very real fear that maybe if they don't comply they'll lose federal funding even though dealing with illegal downloading isn't their priority; providing a quality education is. You think the MPAA and/or RIAA had a hand in this? I wonder. What really upsets me about this provision isn't that it discourages stealing, I'm ok with that, but rather the fact that pushes this crap onto our universities. So basically, we don't care that this country is lagging behind in math and science graduates or that other countries, like India and China, are outpacing us in churning out really smart students but rather that our universities help out greedy labels and clueless studios in their quest to stamp out piracy. Since when did our commercial society get to the point where we value this junk over securing the future of this country. I mean come on, once these kids graduate it's not like they're going to keep pirating your nonsense if they can easily afford to just buy it. It's like burning Aladdin at the stake for stealing a loaf of bread for himself and his loveable monkey.

Anonymous has come out with yet another video:

I don't know if I talked about this back when I explained my fascination with Project Chanology, but they had a flyer on their site about gatherings in various cities on February 10 at Churches of Scientology in protest of them. I'm sure it was inspired by V for Vendetta, but that's alright because it was still a good idea. What amazes me is that people still refer to them as religious bigots. I saw someone's opinion in the local paper blasting these protesters as bigots, which is crazy because they keep emphasizing that it's the Church, not the beliefs, that they're attacking. It's no wonder that we elected George W. when people are this naive. There is proof of the Church's human rights violations and there's proof that they're the bigots in that they try to silence those who speak out against them. Not only that, but they're thieves by not paying proper taxes. Christian churches get tax breaks and, lo and behold, actually give food and clothing to the poor and conduct various services for the community. Yes, they still make money, and yes they're crazy powerful, but they don't take from the community without giving back and get tax-exempt status. Oh, did I mention people who have left the Church speaking out against the Church coercing people to work for them? You can get the big picture by watching The Bridge. I'm a big supporter of this cause, and I'm glad that they sound more focused and determined now than they did before. Oh, and Tom Cruise is crazy.

Bad news for HD-DVD: Wal-mart has decided that they're not going to be stocking up on HD-DVDs after June. Is this the nail in HD-DVD's coffin? I personally think so. Not that I'm an expert or anything, but this is a pretty big blow. Wal-mart is the world's largest corporation (by revenues) and is a huge player in selling music and movies. Couple that with Best Buy pushing Blu-ray and Netflix phasing out its selection of HD-DVD movies and you have an extremely steep battle for Toshiba. Is there any hope? I honestly don't think so. It would take something pretty miraculous for everyone to all of a sudden decide to give HD-DVD another shot. Does your mom ever admit she's wrong? Probably not, so it's not like Wal-mart is going to say "Whoops, let's start carrying HD-DVDs again" and all those studios that moved away from it also changing their minds. A format war is just bad for business, I think everyone just wants it to end sooner than later.

I know I haven't talked about the iPhone much in a while (I try to not pollute the Web with more buzz about how cool it is, even though it is rather nifty), but this is big. Gear Live has very reliable sources telling them that Flash support for the iPhone is in the very near future (I assume just a software update from iTunes), which makes sense so that it would coincide with the SDK release. It seems like what was holding it back was business negotiations, not power consumption issues, but it'd really help the iPhone if it had it, regardless.

Now for some odds and ends. Google developed Google Apps Team Edition so that company employees can collaborate with Google Apps without having to go through their IT department. I don't know/understand all the details, but it seems to me like this is kind of a security breach if people use this without their IT department knowing. These guys may be part of a bureaucracy, but it shouldn't suggest that they're useless. Six Revisions has an excellent article on using the Web Developer add-on in Firefox to bolster your web development efforts. I actually didn't realize all its advantages, I only wish that I didn't have issues using it on this computer. It'll probably work on the new computer I get in May. The last thing is this bulky list of open source alternatives to popular proprietary software. Some of the alternatives aren't so exciting, but applications like Gimp, Pidgin, and Miro (I just downloaded this one because it looks so freaking cool).

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy V-Day

Sorry that I'm behind on posting, but I actually had a night this week where I slept for less than an hour, so I've been a tad busy ;) I definitely have stuff to talk about though so I promise you a post this weekend as early as tomorrow night (and as late as Sunday afternoon).

Until then, enjoy this little easter egg:

Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day ;)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Bid For Yahoo

I'm clearly crazy for writing this post since I've been awake for more than 60 of the past 72 hours. Regardless, the pile of stuff I want to talk about is growing and I just have to let it all out. Let's start the most jaw-dropping news this week: Microsoft offered $44.6 billion to buy Yahoo, which is a 62% over-valuation based on the current market price of its stock. The point? That shouldn't be too hard to figure out: Google has been threatening Microsoft for years with its heavy stake in Internet search and Microsoft is hoping to strike back by purchasing a company that fell from on high and never fully recovered. Google, naturally, is not happy. That's an understatement: they're so displeased with this deal that they've become conspiracy theorists claiming that Microsoft's control would bring "inappropriate and illegal influence over the Internet" and that this is a "hostile bid". Plus, they implicitly suggest that it'll create a monopoly. So first of all, Microsoft has been on the Internet for a while (even though they got on board a bit late), so their influence hasn't really been inappropriate so far. I don't know how illegal a merge they r would be with Yahoo because I'm not sure if their combined market shares would be enough to be considered so, but that's something for the SEC to figure out. Essentially, Google is trying to cast doubt on the deal and shovel dirt on it in hopes that they won't have competition. I, amazingly enough, agree with MSNBC though: Google is going to stay king of search. Ignoring the huge hurdles Microsoft would have to overcome with cultural differences is the enormous momentum that Google has to the point that their brand has created a barrier to entry in and of itself.

Yahoo and MSN actually have cool stuff (have you ever tried Live Image Search or the bird's eye view in their maps?) to back up their search portal, but no one is looking because their eyes are glued to Google. This merger, I hate to say, would greatly benefit both companies. Yahoo may be reluctant just because being bought out by a company like Microsoft is a bit of a shock, but I don't imagine that anyone else will take them and years of mismanagement have shaken the foundations of the companies core technologies. The people there are smart they're just not acting quick enough to put a dent in Google's empire and they need a lot more resources if they hope to take on Goliath. I know what you're thinking, Microsoft is evil and if they get Yahoo then they get the PC market and the online market, and then Microsoft will rule the world. It's not that simple. Much like no one has toppled Windows as the predominant OS to more than a niche market no one has really dented Google because both brands are too ridiculously strong. Yeah, Mac and Linux have gained steam and are doing better and better, but they're not going to take over any time in the foreseeable future unless Windows just completely implodes. Even with this merger, it'll just create competition for Google and we, the consumers, will get more fun tools to play with. It will likely hurt Google's revenues, but it won't screw them over and it won't give Bill Gates the keys to the Internet. If Yahoo is smart though, they'll take the offer and try out something new. They've had plenty of time to adjust and have gotten nowhere. Steve Ballmer is really focused on winning this deal, so don't expect it to end just because Yahoo holds out or says 'no'.

There has magically been a breakthrough in the Writer's Guild strike: there were actaully some talks on Friday and we may see some good news before next week. It was a leak so we don't have details, but let's cross our fingers because I miss The Office, 24, and Heroes, damnit!

Of course, sports don't require writers and plenty of people still tuned in for the Superbowl; almost 98 million to be exact. It was the best ratings ever, probably because people were praying for New England to lose, and the Giants thankfully came through. The ads were pretty funny, in my opinion, and my personal favorite was the FedEx one with the giant pigeons. That was legendary. You can see them all here, organized by quarter. Once again, the GoDaddy one was really dumb. One of the things mentioned that I never saw a press release for was Pepsi's promotion with Amazon MP3. Much like Coke's alliance with iTunes, Pepsi has codes on the bottle caps for points for Amazon MP3 downloads and other stuff from as well. I think it's a really smart promotion to help showcase Amazon's newly acquired selection of DRM-free mp3s with deals from all 4 major labels. I hope it helps Amazon MP3's exposure! A lot of stuff like this will be necessary to even touch iTunes. While I'm on Amazon though: they recently acquired and I totally missed this. is an excellent service and I guess this will just lengthen the Amazon Mp3 arm to more audiobooks, but I wonder if it will be used at all in connection with the 2G Kindle (whenever that gets made)?

What you see on TV now that the game is over though is election stuff. I should disclose that I really support Obama and I can't imagine that so many Democrats support Clinton. Anyway, I wanted to plug this Obama video because it was just really well done:

If you have any Democratic inclination, I strongly urge you to watch it. Please, watch it for me! It combines words from his speeches with various artists who sing them (including the awesome John Legend). I'm not alone in the Obama boat though: the Times in the UK claim that Obama is the Democrats' best shot at the White House for various issues including the fact that she really pisses off the Republicans and helps unite them. It's an interesting read, and I'm plugging it because I think that it's important that people educate themselves. No matter who you vote for, make sure you understand the issues and not stupid smear campaigns or other nonsense.

Here's another big topic I need to address: the 700 Mhz spectrum and open access. So what is open access? Engadget explains it better than I can, but it allows interoperability of cell phones so that you can easily take your cell phone to another carrier because they can buy pieces of the spectrum as well and also that any applications must work on the spectrum regardless of your carrier. It should be obvious why the telcos hate this: it means they have to compete rather than just lock you in to their service. The iPhone wouldn't exist, for example, on this spectrum because you couldn't take it to Verizon or Sprint. The telcos are lumping it under net neutrality and fighting it as being "antiproperty". This is bull though: the point of open access is not to give up ownership of the network so that no one can make money, but rather so that to make money your service has to have value and actually competitive functionality rather than schemes to force you stay with them for crappy service. Anyway, what's really cool about this spectrum is that you'll be able to make/receive calls from anywhere because of its ridiculous range, and the fact that the FCC agreed to open access and open applications is a great victory for net neutrality proponents.

Speaking of phones though, there's news from Cupertino. Apple quietly started selling 16 GB iPhones. We all knew it was coming because of the 16 GB iPod Touches, we just didn't know when. This bad boy only costs $100 more than the 8GB at $500, and we don't know if anything had to change internally for the form factor to remain the same. I guess we just hope for the best.

So I think that this is a pretty huge deal: the 2007 Turing Award winners were announced yesterday. Usually it's one person, but 3 people collaborated on Model Checking so they all get the award. Dr. E Allen Emerson, an endowed professor here in UT CS, is one of these three people. This award only pays $250k (split 3 ways in this case), but the point is the prestige since this is the highest honor in CS in the world. I'm proud of this department for having him on board, and I'm sorry I never took his course but I was just tired of theory last year. Their research was a procedure for quality assurance, used to verify formal systems. This is a lot easier to do in hardware than software so this drastically improved the quality of chips from the semiconductor industry and the rest, as they say, is history. This unexpectedly boosts the stock of my Bachelor's degree though, but I really wish I could do the 5-year masters program that the department is putting together now. Even better is the new curriculum they're coming up with. I'm so glad that UT CS is really adapting itself to the needs of today's world and recognizing barriers to entry in getting a masters degree for applying to grad school and such. Very exciting stuff.

I don't know about you, but solving a Rubik's Cube has always been a great mystery to me and now there are some great videos online to explain how to solve it step-by-step. I'm keeping this for later when I have the time to try it all out.

I'm going to end with some humor here before I hit the sack. You're sure to chuckle while reading this redux of questions from FAQs that probably weren't asked. My favorite one is whether it's safe for a dog to chew gum. If you are feeding your dog gum then you have serious issues. The other thing is that Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O'Brien have been having this whole tiff about who created Mike Huckabee, that then evolved into who created Stephen Colbert, which snowballed into who created Jon Stewart and Conan. A quick summary: Colbert and Conan both claim to have created Romney, Conan claims to have created Colbert, Jon claims to have created Conan (and, hence, Colbert), Colbert decided that he was John McCain, and Conan later claimed to have created Jon and Colbert in a very compelling photo. And here's just a really funny scene from all this commotion:

You can see more at the Comedy Central site and if you look at all three shows from February 4.

Monday, February 04, 2008


I have so much to talk about, but I have a project due at midnight tonight as well. Hope for the best that I can get the post online tomorrow night.