Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cloud Security

How Safe is it in the Clouds?

As you can tell, I'm not all that skilled with photo editing, so I went with the Gizmodo approach. Anyway, the story I'm highlighting this week comes by way of Computerworld about Carbonite (a company whose main product is backing up your computer to the Internet, "the clouds") suing a hardware manufacturer for fault hardware that caused backup failures losing them data on about 7,500 customers. Carbonite claimed that the failsafe mechanisms on the machines didn't perform to spec whereas the hardware folks claimed it was mis-managed. In the end, much of the data was restored, but it has brought to question whether the cloud can be trusted. While some journalists would use this as an opportunity to blow your mind and tell you how unsafe it is, much like you'd think by watching the news that you're probably going to get shot if you walk outside, I'm going to say that cloud storage is safer than keeping it in your home, for most people.

When I say "most people", I mean average folks. If you're very tech savvy and good at what you do, then maybe you would take more appropriate measures. While I obviously can't give a lot of details on how Amazon stores its customer-sensitive information or how S3 (affordable, online storage) works, I can assure you that it's pretty secure on many levels. If you store your data on S3, or even likely on some of its big competitors, that data is replicated across multiple locations across the country (or Europe if you're an EU customer). You'd need a pretty ridiculous series of events to cause enough failures for your data to be lost, as opposed to you spilling coffee on your computer, or your external hard drive having a mechanical failure, or a thief robbing you, or something of that sort. I will grant you that you may have occasional issues of unavailability with online services, which is one leg up you have on keeping your small business data in-house or keeping your personal computer's backup in your bedroom where you have direct access to the hardware. Still, data being temporarily unavailable is not the same as it being lost.

What about your data getting stolen? What are the odds on that? This is a tough call, but I'd still argue that the data on the average person's computer (or small business network) is less secure than in online storage. There are so many ways to get owned by a hacker online it's almost miraculous to never get a virus or become part of a botnet or something equally terrible in the span of 6 months. It's kind of like the drug war - it'll never end. With every passing day malicious hackers get more clever and more malicious. Besides often being physically secure, a lot of these data centers are very restricted in the access to the Internet, and the traffic is often monitored pretty closely. Nothing is ever impossible when it comes to network security - it's all about playing the odds. The odds are just worse for you as an individual then a data center as run by (hopefully) competent professionals.

I know that cloud storage is a bit scary and requires a big leap of faith, and it may not be sensible in all situations, but it's not as bad as articles like the one I referenced earlier would make it out to be.

More Security News

I won't drag on the other security news too much, but there is some interesting stuff out there. Like the Conficker worm, which is the biggest thing since Blaster. In essence, it exploits a Windows remote server vulnerability that was patched already but unpatched machines are at risk and, since it's a worm, it looks quietly for others to infect (including your own USB drives). It has infected millions of machines and, on April 1, will ping 50,000 domains for instructions (I'm guessing that only a few will actually have the instructions, the large number is to throw off security engineers). So get ready for Wednesday, which will either be apocalyptic or just a big joke. I think it'll be the latter, but the worm writer may be renting it out for monetary gain so it's really anyone's guess. By the way, make sure you're clean.

Make Use Of has a really excellent round-up of extensions you can install in Firefox to make your computer just a little bit more secure. It has everything from a panic button to security ratings next to your search results.

I recently reported a story about a Pwn2Own (a hacking contest) champion stating that Safari on a Mac was the most insecure browser, who is now saying that Macs are more secure than Windows machines because there's less malware out there for them. I talk about Mac vs. PC security every once in a while, and either one is less secure depending on the context. The bottom line is that Macs are less secure software-wise but PCs are a larger target, which is why people perceive them as being not very safe.

Microsoft Marketing

This might've been a good headline topic to talk about, but oh well. I talked about Internet Explorer 8's release last week, but no one else really is. The bottom line is that it really wasn't marketed very well at all. Very few people knew it was coming (or cared), and though it was a pretty good product the number of downloads per day was pretty disappointing for the boys in Redmond. So what happened? My guess is that it may confirm rumors from a couple of weeks ago that IE8 would be the last one on this engine. It would make sense that they'd keep the release of IE8 quiet if they're planning on trying to ween people off of Internet Explorer. I know people have become skeptical of upgrading Microsoft products, but there really wasn't much bad mojo associated with IE8.

On the other hand, Microsoft is not doing to bad with their Windows campaign. A lot of tech elite have scoffed at the Seinfeld ads and the I'm a PC ads as being too little too late, but I think coupled with the buzz surrounding Windows 7 and an economy that's not favorable to Apple it could mean great things for Microsoft. This clearly isn't lost on them as they're getting ready to start a campaign comparing the relative affordable of a PC compared to a Mac. I think this is super smart. I'm sure that Apple will come firing back with something about quality and the fanboy war will continue, but you cannot dispute that PCs are almost always cheaper than Macs with arguably comparable hardware.

Executive Branch Supports RIAA Damages, EFF Fights DRM

President Obama's administration has taken a stance on RIAA lawsuits that is likely to shock some supporters: they believe that $750 to $150,000 per track in piracy lawsuits is a reasonable award in such litigation. I can't see how these are statutory damages as opposed to punitive damages at such astronomical rates, but I guess the administration felt it would be too liberal to disagree with the RIAA. Given that they're not going to be suing so much anymore I guess it's not that big of a deal, but I still think it's a terrible precedent.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) testified at the FTC's hearing on Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology against it and has made publicly available its briefs on the issue. It really all boils down to DRM causing worse damage to consumers than the little help it provides to content owners. The EFF's comments aren't as long as they look (probably a 10 minute read) and they're a great read.

Monster's Tactics Still at Play

I'm giving bold text to this short article because I hate Monster and I love spreading the word against them. Sales of Monster's overpriced audio/video cables result in big commissions for Fry's employees, and so there are Fry's stores that have in-store displays comparing Monster to the other guys under the guise that you should "see the Monster HDMI difference" when the competing cable is composite instead of HDMI. For the non-geeks: composite cables are not capable of carrying true high definition, so they're obviously going to suck compared to any HDMI cable for HD content. This is an old trick that some thought died a long time ago, but apparently not.

On my last visit to Fry's to get an HDMI cable some sales guy tried to push an $80 Monster cable on me because it was "handmade" and rated for some asinine transmission speed. I saw one of their digital audio cables at a friend's place and it was terrible - it wouldn't even fit in the PS3. Don't buy Monster, Amazon has much better deals.

Final Stories

Ok, ready for the lightning round? I'm sick and it's almost drowsy medicine time, but I have a few stories left on my list. Let's see how fast I can run through them.

Tech Crunch ran a really good article about why advertising online is in such bad shape (basically: people hate and don't trust ads) and the article presents three alternatives for making money online: selling real things, virtual things, and access. I can imagine why it would piss off some people, but I agree with a lot of his key points.

Facebook is semi-caving to the backlash regarding its recent facelift: they've pledged to make improvements that they think will address some of the large concerns with the re-design. To be honest, I don't think the new look is that bad. I can understand that people like to trust a UI though, which is easy in offline software where you choose to upgrade as opposed to online where it's forced on you.

Twitter has confirmed that they're going to have premium accounts later this year for commercial customers. No word yet on exactly what they have in store (they themselves may not know quite yet), but with nearly 10 million visitors a month now, I'm sure they're ready to start making money.

A non-profit campaign on YouTube raised over $10,000 in one day. I'm sure YouTube is going to use this to try to sell YouTube ads to commercial advertising firms, but I don't think you can compare commercial ads to the faces of needy kids in Africa. Still, I think the non-profit tie-ins are great.

Skype handles more international calls than AT&T now. Bam.

If you hate the Craigslist UI, you may like Craiglook. Having had to spend a lot of time on Craigslist last summer, I always like to see mashups like this.

I hope everyone has a great week! I wonder how many days this week in Seattle will be as pretty as today?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Great Buck Howard

The Great Buck Howard Review

I don't know how they pulled this off, but HD Movies got exclusive rights last week to air The Great Buck Howard on television a full 3 days before it came out in theaters nationwide, so I thought I might as well give a short review of it (as I like to do when I see movies so close to the release date). As a side note: I saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona last weekend and liked it a lot! It's worth seeing if you're ever looking for something to rent.

The basic premise of the movie is pretty simple: Colin Hanks's character (Troy) is in law school because his father (real-life dad Tom Hanks) pressured him into it, but he hates it and ends up answering a call for a road manager for the Great Buck Howard (John Malkovich) - a somewhat self-satisfied magician ("mentalist") who has been performing for some 40 years but only gets half empty venues in small towns now.

I never really felt compelled to continue watching the movie other than I was trying to figure out where the story was going. The overall message of the movie was pretty clear in the end, but for a while the movie ostensibly seems to go nowhere. Still, for going nowhere it ends up being pretty entertaining. It's called a "show biz comedy", but it's a very dry comedy and could almost qualify as a dramedy. Unlike Tropic Thunder, the last show biz comedy in recent memory, it wasn't littered with stupid inside jokes. John Malkovich definitely shines overall and is almost like a Michael Scott (from The Office I mean) - you develop a real love/hate relationship with him. Colin Hanks is, well, Colin Hanks. I was surprised that I found myself liking the inclusion of Emily Blunt - the romantic angle in the story wasn't prolonged and never distracted the film from its main plotline, and I really dug that.

I wouldn't seek out this movie right now in theaters, but I think it's a very solid B movie and a great rental. There's nothing really bad about it - the only thing is genuinely struggles with is getting you to care about the movie. The cameos are pretty fun, the script is quirky, and it's a worthwhile way to spend 90 minutes.

Computer Science Back in Style

According to a recent study (i.e. take it with a grain of salt), enrollment in Computer Science in the U.S. increased last year for the first time in 6 years (so around the burst of the .com bubble) - 8.1%. That may not sound all that significant, but the industry has been importing talent from abroad because they're just not finding enough of it domestically, so this is great. Technology is a pretty resilient industry overall, so even though things are down now there are still companies hiring right now and there will be more than ever at the end of this downturn. The class of 2012 should definitely be pretty well off as far as entering the job market. Some people are attributing it to the "coolness factor" of social networking and others to the iPhone, but I think that there was a big uptick in CS jobs leading up to last year and I had friends in other science majors who were jealous of all the choices we had, so I can see the job market having a huge influence on this rise. Unfortunately, female enrollment only stayed about steady, but hopefully the industry continues efforts to encourage women to give C.S. a shot.

IE8 and Chrome 2.0

A goliath browser and a newcomer to the market both saw fresh releases last week. Internet Explorer 8 was available on Thursday and boasts improved security, much improved tab management, and a better address bar (akin to the Firefox omnibar or the Chrome awesome-bar). From what I can tell, a lot of the new features have been around in Firefox for a long time by way of well-established extensions (although some are native to Firefox). For example, IE8 considers new tabs opened from one tab being colored the same to be a new feature, but some Fireefox power users have had this for a long time. There are two fresh features that I find interesting though. One is the concept of Accelerators, which is basically a mashup that allows you to plug text on a page into certain services to enrich the content (e.g. map an address or get pictures of a celebrity by right clicking on some text). The other is the idea of having Web Slices on a page, which can alert you when they change without having to have a tab open for it (like weather or stocks). Security-wise, it sounds like the anti-phishing feature is good and its attempt to restrict sites from gathering private information about you. It also tries to highlight the domains of the URLs you visit so that you don't get tricked too easily to visit a fake bank website or something, and gives you an impressive view of your cookies. It's a strong release compared to IE7 and it's finally approaching the point where it's in the same neighborhood of Firefox, but Firefox users have no reason to switch to it. However, if you're actively using IE7 then you should really upgrade - it's much better.

I don't know if anyone is still using Chrome, but Google made a 2.0 beta of their browser and it's actually much less impressive than the IE 8 upgrade, if you can imagine that. The feature list is thin with the main reason to try it out being a faster Javascript rendering engine and full page zoom. It doesn't look like people have anything to look forward to in the final 2.0 release.

Shuffle Lockdown and the iPhone Event

I talked about my disdain for the 3rd generation iPod Shuffle last week, and I had a hunch about this story but didn't want to talk about it until it was confirmed, which it now is. The headphones for the new Shuffle have a proprietary chip, which means that you can't use any other headphones on it if you want to be able to control it at all since the bloody thing has no buttons. The communication with the Shuffle isn't encrypted, so the chip could theoretically be cloned, but I think that legally you have to pay licensing fees to Apple to be able to sell your own headphones. I'm guessing that Apple figured people wouldn't like this if they're still selling the 2nd generation Shuffle for $50 (although they're trying to screw you in that you're paying $30 less for 1/4th of the capacity).

In better Apple news, they had an event last week to preview the forthcoming iPhone 3.0 software update, which includes copy/paste (it only took them 2 years, imagine that). They claim the software will support tethering, though individual carriers may not. The feature list also includes MMS (finally), voice memos, better searching (you can search all your data on your iPhone), P2P connectivity (for playing games with other iPhones), push notification for 3rd party applications, support for paid subscription services within 3rd party applications, and being able to send multiple pictures at once. Other than that, they went over a bunch of games and other apps, including health-related applications (like taking blood pressure using a peripheral) and multimedia streaming (like watching ESPN content live). They also made it clear they're not interested in supporting background processes, which is kind of disappointing but their reasoning is that it often eats too much battery life. It was a pretty long presentation overall, but I think this is actually a pretty solid release and 3rd party developers ought to be pretty thrilled. Oh, and here's a video of cut/copy/paste and some of the other new additions in action. They claim doing cut/copy/paste was hard, but the fact that they were willing to let a hard problem stretch for nearly 2 years shows their disregard for what their customers ultimately want. Anyway, it's a feature that still seems like it could use some polish. Overall, I think people will be pleased with this release.

Botnets and Trojans

If your computer gets infected as a zombie in a botnet, it basically becomes the slavish follow of some hacker living in his mother's basement. It logs on to an IRC channel, in secret, and accepts encrypted messages from its master to send spam or steal your data or help in coordinated attacks without leaving a trail to the progenitor of the evildoings. So how do you know if you're in one? If you're Internet connection seems inexplicable slow, go to the task manager and see what's hogging up your bandwidth. If you don't recognize it, you're probably in a botnet. There's also software out there to passively look for your being in a botnet, and some spyware scanners (like Spybot and Ad-aware) may be able to sniff it out depending on how you were swindled into the network. The important thing is that you stay vigilant.

If you ever wondered how a trojan virus works, Megapanzer has a great, concise write-up on the various stages of the highly popular breed of infection. In a nutshell, there's a dropper that implants the malicious code where ever the vulnerability on your system is and binds it to an entertainer file to hide the true purpose of the file, and then it tries to spread itself, and then the damage routine that the dropper planted is executed on restart. It may then delete itself once the damage is done to avoid detection. Fun stuff, huh? As sickening as some of these viruses and worms and phishing attacks are, a small part of me can't help but admire the amount of skill it requires to come up with some of these things. If only they used their power for good rather than evil.

I'm going to sneak one more thing in here: in turns out that the TV industry is losing a ton of money to satellite piracy. I never knew that it was such a big deal, but apparently it has become very damaging in Canada, among other places (on the order of 10% of satellite households in North America being illicit).

Terrible PC Hardware Support

A columnist at humor site did a very true, though somewhat funny, piece comparing his tech support experience with a Dell XPS (one of Dell's top computer lines) versus with a PowerBook. I actually laughed for a while after reading his short transcription from talking to the Dell support guy, who was in India (I'll let you read it rather than spoiling it). It seemed like the people he worked with on either side were incompetent, although the turnaround time was shorter for his Mac because he happened to have an Apple store near him. I'm kind of surprised at the state of customer service nowadays, especially with computers. Here's a device that is not at all intuitive right out of box and should come with a giant instruction manual and a class to use for security reasons alone. Yet, no one seems to get customer service right relying on nonsensical scripts rather than trying to enhance the customer experience.

Final Notes

Ok, I've blabbered on quite long enough. Let's get to the quickfire round, shall we?

The founder of IMDb was at South by Southwest (SXSW) and mentioned that their vision is to offer streaming for every title on the site, which is a pretty lofty goal that a lot of people took very kindly to. People at Amazon definitely think big, so I'm pretty sure he's being genuine about it.

A former Googler wrote a little blurb about his 3 years at Google working on visual design and how he hated the nit-picky discussions he ended up finding himself in. Maybe this partially explains the UI problems people have historically faulted Google for.

Gmail Labs created an undo send option, which I think is pretty cool. In fact, I think they should purposely delay sending e-mails by maybe 30 seconds for people who decide they're too jumpy on e-mails (or just hit the wrong button too often).

Nine Inch Nails, in their typical awesome fashion, released a tour pack of music for free on their site with tracks from themselves, Jane's Addiction, and Street Sweeper. Their experiment last year with Ghosts ended up earning them a lot of money, so surely they're hoping for heightened tour sales this time around.

Google recently started displaying ads based on your browsing history, so you should probably read this if you want to opt-out.

Lastly, one blogger took it upon himself to apply the psychology concept of the 4 stages of competence to programming. I'd like to think that I'm at stage 3.

Hope everyone has a fruitful week!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Disparity in Broadband

The Great Divide

It's semi-well publicized that there's a decently large disconnect between the speed of the Internet in America versus many other countries. No one ever talks about why this is though. After all, the average speed here is 5.2 Mbps - the problem is that it can get up to 16.7 Mbps in Japan. Some people ask why something like that matters. After all, do we really do anything online that really takes advantage of speeds that fast? Do we need it? The answer is: yes! We do need it! We're in a global economy where the U.S. is increasingly becoming known as a service economy, so be able to provide services online is a big win for us. How can we stay competitive with Japan though when its citizens can access the Internet at more than triple our speeds? Granted, checking e-mail doesn't require speeds that fast, but rich content does - like TV shows and movies. Let's face it, people are getting tired of bowing down to their cable television providers and going to the movie rental store - they'd much rather curl up on their couch with loved ones after a hard day of work and enjoy their multimedia without having to pay through the nose for it. I'm disappointed by the amount of HD content legally available on the Web, and part of the problem is that there's no point distributing media no one can reasonable consume on their Internet speeds. Also, when it comes to moving applications to the clouds so we can have lighter computers, the tradeoff will come in the bandwidth these sites require.

However, some people spit out numbers on how we're behind without qualifying it. You may see 20 Mbps in some European countries not because they've really got it together (though they aren't doing a bad job), but because these are in densely populated areas. Given how big the U.S. is and how far spread out our urban centers are, we can't take advantage of geographical size like to build great infrastructure for cheap. I still argue that the telcos are hording money, but to their credit it's just not as easy here as it is in like South Korea where a lot of people live in crowded apartment complexes. And they lie less than in other countries where Internet providers sometimes put usage caps in fine print and overstate average speeds that are really the max speeds (which can be a fairly sizable difference, at times).

It's just good to put all this stuff in perspective. The point is that we'll never know what we can do with everyone on super fast broadband if we don't strive for it, but we shouldn't be discouraged by reports that we're lagging behind the world. It's easier said than done, but we do need to work towards it and annoy our telcos into building up the infrastructure we so direly need to stay competitive.

The New Shuffle

There was a skit on SNL a long time ago mocking how each iPod gets smaller and smaller, and I can't believe that it predicted correctly the ridiculous race to have the smallest mp3 player. Presenting the iPod Shuffle 3G:

In choosing between the pill and the new Shuffle, you may be better off with the former. I was actually very fascinated in it at first, but the more I read about it the more I thought it was totally useless. It's cool that it has playlists now and it announces songs so that you don't have to guess anymore, but not having any buttons on it is kind of ridiculous to me. How do you control it without buttons? You have to use their crufty earbuds with the 3-button controller on the cord. So you have to memorize how to press keys in certain combinations to do things - although it is fairly easy to change the volume. What astounds me though is that this is a product that a lot of people use for working out, and it's totally un-usable for that purpose now. Using earbuds while you're jogging or upside down would probably be aggravating, and even worse would be the awkwardness of controlling it by reaching to your cord rather than a quick press on your arm. Supposedly, there will be an adapter for other headphones later on, but it should come with that in the box, to be honest. Also, I question how sturdy that clip is since it's smaller and probably more easy now to lose/break.

I'll give them credit for keeping it cheap though: $80 for 4GB isn't too shabby and it would make it ideal for listening to audio books or podcasts on the go right from your pocket - which probably has a bunch of other stuff in it because of how small this thing is. Still, I'm not really impressed.

Let me jump into two other Apple stories real quick. They've ordered 10-inch touchscreens for a mysterious product that some speculate will be announced this week. I don't like commenting on these Apple rumors, but this is fairly reliable and it could indicate a netbook, a tablet (very long rumored), a Kindle competitor (unlikely, in my opinion), or just simple a mobile Internet-enabled multimedia device focused on video since the iPhone screen is a bit small. Also interesting is their patent for a magic wand to interact with Apple TV almost the way you would use a Wiimote. I actually really would be interested in seeing something like this because I was just thinking recently about how antiquated our current remotes are and incapable for effectively typing on-screen or interacting with pictures and such.

Windows Lessons and IE's Final Release

Infoworld has an article up I really liked about lesson that Microsoft learned from Vista in creating Windows 7. The main lessons learned were that they were building for hardware that was too advanced, they didn't have enough support from hardware manufacturers for drivers early enough, the feature set changed multiple times in the product cycle, and it was released before its ready. It's already apparent that almost all of these things, and more, have been corrected for in creating Windows 7.

One thing I like that they're adding in Windows 7 is the ability to disable Media Center, Media Player, Search, and several other things. Being able to pare down your system to what you need is a great feature and something I think Vista could've benefited from.

There are strong rumors that IE8 will be the last iteration of Internet Explorer, at least the last iteration based on its current engine. Some are saying that Microsoft will be moving on to Webkit and others say Microsoft will move to a brand new engine. I'm guessing (and kind of hoping for) the latter. I think Microsoft has seen IE decay for a while and knows it needs a better approach. Webkit doesn't seem their style, I think they have an ace in the hole. I would definitely not be surprised though to hear an official announcement that IE8 will be the last IE.

The Rest

To be brutally honest, I'm exhausted (I was on call last week through this terrible morning) and I've been talking to friend about personal stuff so I'm going to have to run through these last items quickly so I can get at least 6 hours of sleep in tonight.

CNet has a really good roundup of alternatives to paying your cable bill, like a Roku box or an Xbox 360. It's pretty evenhanded and a great read. Of course, I'm going to support the TiVo, but they're all actually pretty decent options, depending on what's most important to you.

Jon Stewart has done an awesome job of going at the throats of CNBC for not being more proactive in helping Americans understand handling their finances and AppleInsider has an excellent article about it (including the uncut source videos) and Cramer's potentially illegal market manipulation when it comes to Apple stock. It's pretty shocking stuff and I'd say a must-read/see.

Sirius XM is planning to stream to the iPhone. The company is still in dire straights, but it's pretty much the last thing they can try to save themselves.

Palm is selling stock to try to raise funds so they can squeeze out the release of the Pre - a Hail Mary play in their prolonged fall from the top. Those investors will either be really lucky or get screwed if the Pre flops - it ought to be a pretty risky investment.

I'm really sorry that I couldn't talk more about Joel Spolsky's amazing article about what Program Managers do. I think it's a fantastic explanation of why they're important and what they're responsible for. Having worked with a great TPM at Amazon, I fully agree with what he says and how important they are.

Circuit City is done. They really shouldn't have swapped out their good sales people for minimum wage high school students. I don't have a whole lot of sympathy for them because they simply didn't offer a good customer experience.

Facebook has gotten yet another facelift, and people are getting peeved, per usual with Facebook changes. I don't understand why they don't give users the option to choose the layout they want - if they designed it properly they would've had that in mind from day one of creating a major facelift.

If you wonder what cameras will focus on now that the megapixel race is largely moot, Ars Technica has a pretty good explanation of the features you'll want to pay more attention to now.

How did Jimmy Fallon get The Roots to be his house band? Anyway, Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht were on last week, and I'm interested to see how Fallon's attempt to bring technology and video games into late night will pan out. He's basically try to take what G4 does and bring it to national television, and I think that'll be a pretty big challenge.

These are some super cool bus ads.

If you're wondering what's getting the most viewership on Hulu, check this out. It's funny how much better Dr. Horrible did than established television franchises.

Have a good week, everyone! If you're in Seattle: stay dry! It looks like it'll be a wet week, I'm afraid.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


Watchmen Review

Watchmen is probably one of the most revered graphic novels of all time and even made it on Time's list of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the past century (the only graphic novel on that list, in fact). Zach Snyder was rightfully hesitant to take the helm of this film adaptation, a much greater feat than 300 was. Fitting over 400 pages into a 2 1/2 hour film has been in the works for about two decades now fraught with so many problems that fans all but lost faith that it would get made. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to read the novel before I saw the film, but I still definitely enjoyed it.

First of all, I have to stress that this is not a superhero movie by any means. It's a graphic novel, and you could even call it a comic book (since it was a mini-series before being compiled into one book), but it's not your typical story of good guys and bad guys. It's more of a character study, time period study, and mystery that just happens to involve masked vigilantes. I'm afraid that it'll get compared to The Dark Knight and Iron Man when it should be compared to 300 and Sin City. It's probably more similar in genre with Sin City than any other popular movie based on a graphic novel. Anyway, the premise of this movie is that it takes place in an alternate 1985 after the retirement of the second age of superheroes who call themselves "Watchmen" but are really just masked vigilantes (as only one of them have superhuman abilities). They've been ousted as protectors by the people, and the movie starts with the murder of one of them - the plot just unfolds from the mystery of this murder and where these characters are now.

Even though I haven't read the novel, I can say that the scenes in this movie are true to the text - that's how obvious they were. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's clear that the visuals and the dialogue came straight out of a comic book, so I don't imagine that fans of the novel will be disappointed. The real problem is everyone else. The greatest triumph and worst thing about this movie is the way it's presented: in a complicated, multi-layer form fraught with flashbacks, clear thematic devices, and dense characters. If movies were meals, you'd have to loosen your belt at least two notches after watching this one - it's huge. It's actually hard for me to piece together the movie from beginning to end just a few hours after seeing it because of how much happened in those 2 and a 1/2 hours (originally 3 and a 1/2 hours) to do any sort of justice to the original form. Alan Moore (the writer of the novel) refuses to watch it because he purposely wrote it to not transfer well to any media except for a comic book. I think he was right, but I don't think that anyone else could've gotten any closer than Zach Snyder. As great as the story itself is, the movie is simply too long. It either should've been cut down more or split into two films (possibly including the cut hour), but both of those options would've pissed off the fans so I can see why they didn't do that.

I have to stick with the story for just a bit more because it's really pretty powerful. At it's heart, it's truly belongs in some sort of mystery genre. The characters are fleshed out really well and the actors/actresses did a fantastic job overall. They pretty much jumped off the screen. What you have to appreciate about this movie is how well it performs as an anti-super hero movie and shows you what's wrong in a world with superheroes (somewhat like The Incredibles). It's also holds no punches in its themes and political messages. To top it all off, it's quite dark and serious. You're more likely to walk out of the theater trying to dig up your old Staind CD than go dancing. Still, it's really worth experiencing for the story alone. The only thing I didn't like was the comedy theme, which I thought was too drawn out and uninteresting.

Visually, it's great but not extremely impressive. It had powerful imagery, but they felt a little too obvious as throwbacks to the novel. We saw it in IMAX and it looks great on the big screen, but I could definitely see noise and grain, and the colors were purposely dark and dull to mesh best with the milieu. I did love the costume and set designs though - I believed the movie's world wholeheartedly. The soundtrack, on the other hand, was one of the best things about the movie. It was pretty much perfect. It was retro and always appropriate for the scene, often serving as needed comic relief. You'll probably find it pretty nostalgic, too.

The last thing I want to bring up before I wrap this up is that it's very much an R-rated film. I didn't think that The Dark Knight was appropriate for anyone not of high school age and this movie's often gratuitous violence and sex scenes never hold back. It's not saturated in either of the two, but some of the violence may have you turning your head, which I've heard wasn't in the original graphic novel. Still, I think it uses the rating well in having the freedom to tell a very dark story in a big way.

I think I've gone on long enough: this was a great film. I think I liked The Dark Knight and Sin City better in terms of dark, mystery films, but it's definitely a better movie than Sin City. It's definitely not for everyone, hence the mixed reviews, but if you can stomach the length of it I think you'll be in for a treat. I give it an A- and would say that it's probably the best thing out in theaters right now (and it's already grossed $55.7 million).

The Mobile Disincentive

A topic that I regularly end up landing on is our increasingly versatile and mobile society. We've become used to having easy and frequent access to computers and the Internet. The smartphone industry used to be a blip and now you can scarcely walk down an urban street without spotting an iPhone or Blackberry. The problem now isn't availability of devices, it's price. The data plans out there are pretty harshly anti-consumer. AT&T should not start their data plans at $60 a month, and the prices just get higher and higher. It's funny how the cell phone infrastructure becomes naturally more profitable over time with more customers and the amortized costs of having built it up, and yet we have to pay so much to send simple 140-character text messages.

In fact, they cell phone users pays $3 a minute on average. So why aren't there any all-you-can-eat plans (not counting Sprint's ripoff plan that's advertised on TV)? It's all about an industry that's well controlled by a few big companies with heavy barriers to entry. Their interests are not in the best interests of society, which is the point at which the government can legitimately be allowed to intervene. So I was pretty glad when President Obama appointed an FCC chairman sympathetic to net neutrality (see my video for more on what that means). I know that's kind of a segue from cell phones, but I'm trying to tie everything to the idea of freedom of information and access to it. He still has to be confirmed by the Senate, but hopefully he is. We've stood by and let this happen to us, and hopefully we can get things to change. Something as simple as ubiquitous access to the Internet via mobile devices can make a huge difference, and having an equal right to provide content online to anyone else is also important, so I'm always willing to plug it here.

First Apple Announcement Sans Jobs

Apple released a few new products last week, which would probably normally be announced at a small event by Steve Jobs with much fanfare and press coverage. Instead, it was a very quiet press release for an updated 24-inch iMac at under $1500, a new Mac Pro, and a new Mac Mini. The only one of those to receive much coverage was the 17" MacBook Pro which I'd argue appeals to a somewhat niche audience of individuals willing to drop a ridiculous amount of money on a large laptop. I'll admit that I'd gladly take one if they were handing them out for free because they're pretty solid, but the point is that these new products were seen for what they were: new iterations of old technology. It's just refreshing to see a change from the normal fanboy-ism.

More Data Leaks

Before I get to the juicy stuff, I have to get to a quick fun little article. The annual Pwn2Own contest is an annual event intended to expose vulnerabilities in operating systems and Internet browsers for research and patching. Last year's winner says that Safari will be the first browser to fall this year. Why? Because it's too user-friendly. It supports too many file formats and such, leaving it open to more mistakes and, hence, more vulnerabilities. He hacked an instance of Safari within two minutes last year, so I imagine he's fairly confident in his abilities. I just find the tradeoff between usability and security really fascinating.

The big security news last week was confidential information related to Marine One, President Obama's helicopter, has been leaked to someone in Iran over a peer-to-peer sharing network. This has been an argument against P2P since its creation, and it has finally happened in a big way. This actually happened last summer and has only now been discovered, and it's not the first time that private information has been leaked via a P2P network, but it is now one of the most famous of these leaks.

The FAA had a heavier data breach: the personal records of over 45,000 current and past employees. While your flights are still safe, the problem is going to be identity theft for these poor people.

The lesson to be learned here is that computers are more sophisticated that most people give them credit to be. Despite how sexy a Macbook looks, it can be quite dangerous if used improperly. People working with sensitive data, especially pertaining to national security, need better training with regard to stuff like this. It may seem dumb that this was leaked over a P2P network, but it's not as boneheaded as you make think for someone who doesn't have the proper knowledge for securing a computer, let alone a network.

Windows 7 Security Quirks and More

Meanwhile, Windows 7's User Access Control (UAC) system has had a third vulnerability discovered. From what I can gather, the problem is that you can run Windows components as administrator from programs not running under administrator permissions, which is a flaw used by Windows itself for some of its core functionality. A hacker could potentially use this to place files in locations the user can't access and then load them to do bad stuff. This basically renders UAC useless, in a way. The bottom line is that Microsoft needs to take a seriously look at its "improvements" to UAC and really weigh what they're losing in exchange for making it more user-friendly.

Another fun quirk is that you'll be able to disable Internet Explorer 8 in Windows 7 by deleting the executable entirely. It's specifically intended to appease European regulators, but my assumption is that it'll apply to American Windows 7, as well.

Lastly, if you're interested in what Windows 7 features await us past the beta, you'll like Tech Radar's roundup of 12 of the more notable MIA improvements.

Kindle on the iPhone and Game Trade-Ins

Last week brought some pretty cool Amazon-related news. You can now read your Kindle books from your iPhone via a free application that will additionally stay in sync with your Kindle (so bookmarks and such). It's obviously not as satisfying as the experience on the Kindle, but it seems to be pretty cool, nonetheless.

Also Kindle-related: Slate had an article I liked explaining why computer voices are the way they are: cold and emotionless. Text-to-speech technology has been around for over 2 decades, so it's just interesting to learn about why it's not farther along.

Last, but not least, Amazon released a new part of the site: video game trade-ins. If you have video games valued at $10 or more than you can print out a free shipping label and send them in for an gift card to buy whatever you want on the site. It's definitely a really interesting way to compete with Gamestop in an economy that increasingly turning to online retail, and I'm really curious to see how it turns out, especially since the value of the trade-in can be applied to anything Amazon sells, not just games. People are clearly willing to rent video games and movies by mail, but are they willing to trade used games by mail?

Yahoo Reaches Out to Old Media

In the latest chapter of the ongoing Yahoo saga, they've been trying to encourage more newspapers to advertise online through them. This is kind of an old story that the New York Times is just now picking up, as is their custom with technology (which is why I almost never read their technology related articles anymore), but it kind of exemplifies Yahoo's strange decision-making. While I don't think they should cease to do business with newspapers, they've been in trouble for a long time now. I don't imagine that their financial gains from these sales have been very strong, and it's a strange business for them to have ever focused on.

Enter Carol Bartz. She was recently hired as Yahoo's CEO for being fairly aggressive and having a reputation of shoring up ailing companies. She acknowledges that Google Maps is better than Yahoo Maps and even admits that one of Yahoo's problems is neglecting products that would otherwise have been great. What I like about her is that she sounds like she's intent on focusing the company on the core user experience, which is something that I definitely believe in. She's willing to trade ads for improving the UI where it makes sense and wants Yahoo's software to integrate better with outside services. I really hope that she can make a difference because I'm still maintaining some semblance of hope for poor Yahoo.

Final Tidbits

Ok, I'm on call tomorrow and it's almost time for bed, so let me race through some quickies.

The new trailer for Star Trek is pretty spectacular. I have no real interest in Star Trek in general and even I was enticed by that trailer.

Firefox has finally overtaken IE 6 in browser share at 24%, only about 16 points behind IE7.

Tux Radar has a bookmark-worthy list of Linux tips that every Linux power user should know. I definitely got some valuable advice from it that answer questions I've had for a long time, like finding the biggest files when you're running low on disk space.

If you're wondering how to pitch Linux to your business, this is a pretty good resource. It's 25 reasons to switch, and it's pretty convincing. I'm a big fan of Linux for businesses, but it's definitely not for non-techie home users.

PC World has a short list of Microsoft web services you probably didn't know about, which I mention because it got me to start using SkyDrive as a result, which has a questionable UI but affords you 25 GB of free storage in the clouds.

I really like this video of Microsoft Office Labs's vision of technology in 2019. The comments are unsurprisingly sarcastic about Microsoft in the status quo, but I get really pumped when I see stuff like this. It's an awesome time to be involved with technology, especially since several of the things this video shows are definitely within reach in the next decade.

Lastly, Twitter has finally integrated search into the site (a long overdue feature) and now plugs featured users on the site, which is a controversial new feature but these are all fairly small and unobtrusive things, compared to Facebook's frequent deluge of new stuff.

Ok, I think that's enough for one week =) Just read a few paragraphs a day of that and have a great week, everyone!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Anywhere Network

The Yankee Group's Open Letter

Every once in a while, stuff happens that makes geeks proud to be geeks. I don't care how corny it is, the Yankee Group's open letter to Obama about an Anywhere Network definitely made me proud to be a geek. It's not perfect, but it's backed by a lot of great principles, and I relish the opportunity to spread its good word.

First of all, the Anywhere Network is a fairly new concept of (ask you can probably guess) being citizens and governments being connected via a unified front of normal broadband and mobile platforms (i.e. your PC and your cell phone). Broadband penetration (i.e. the number of people with broadband Internet access) in the U.S. is bleak compared to a lot of other countries, though no one seems to agree on where we fall (almost never in the top 10 though). The reason that it's important is that we're at an ideal time to overhaul a lot of inefficiencies in our daily lives and in our governments. Weren't you pissed when you had to wait in line for 4 hours for your driver's license or license renewal or license transfer? How many times do you drive somewhere rather than take a bus because reliable information isn't readily available as far as when the next train/bus will be by? Did you know that ordering a hamburger is more technologically advanced (typically) then getting a check-up from your doctor? Wouldn't having online advisories with nurses using a webcam help reduce the number of people who go to the hospital for benign issues and probably increase the number of people who talk to a health professional who hate going to the doctor's office? Fortunately, I don't face this problem at Amazon, but how much could we save in traffic congestion and employee happiness if more people could work from home regularly and, hence, spend more time with their family?

Having everyone on the Internet doesn't fix all these problems, but it creates an impetus and helps a lot indirectly. Some people argue that those in rural areas don't feel like they're missing out on much, which I think is more of an argument for how desperately we need to get people connected. There's more to than Internet than Facebook and YouTube, there's a wealth of information and a digital marketplace. We can't ignore the fact that our economy has spent the last couple of decades gradually becoming more and more of a service economy. Protecting our manufacturing doesn't make sense when we should be fostering our service industries to create new jobs, and the infrastructure you can build online inexpensively for small businesses is pretty awesome. However, we need more people that are computer literate and online-literate. In some instances, we also need more users for these great sites and online businesses.

I could go on and on about this, but the fact of the matter is that we could and should be doing better. While only 1% of the stimulus package is going towards shoring up our broadband network, we need to commit to making firm plans so that we achieve the goals I outlines above and more. To be honest, I believe that technology is going to play a big role in getting us out of this economy. It's one industry where a little investment can go a long way, and the hardware only gets cheaper and cheaper. Microsoft is even going to start offering free tech training online - if more unskilled laborers who need work could get online and access training like this, it would probably lead them to a decent job with a bright future where maybe previously they had no hope. I'm really excited and hopeful that we'll see this Anywhere Network in the next few years and a revival of interest in building up this country's economy the right way.

Oscar Hangover

I was watching the Ultimate Trailer Show last week and ran into a trailer for a movie I totally forgot about: Quentin Tarantino's 7+ year project, Inglorious Basterds. I'm pretty stoked about this one. The trailer may be off-putting to some, but I can see the scene snippets going from weird to really awesome with some more context. How can you really go wrong in a movie about a group of Jewish-Americans killing Nazis? After watching There Will Be Blood tonight I realize that I've moved away from straight serious movies to enjoying more of the stuff that's off the beaten path, even if it is ridiculous or unrealistic.

Reuters ran an article I thought was kind of funny last week about all the Oscar snubs in exchange for all the Slumdog Millionaire praise. I only heard of the movie at first from an episode of the Totally Rad Show and never thought it would get this much acclaim. The Curious Case of Benajamin Button won in only 3 of its 13 nominations, Doubt and Frost/Nixon were left in the cold (no pun intended), and I'm sure that plenty of people were shocked to see Mickey Rourke lose Best Actor to Sean Penn. Very interesting year for Oscars, but it always seems like plenty of people get snubbed.

Blu-ray licensing has finally gotten easier: you just need one instead of dealing with 18 separate companies. That's right, 18 companies with different Blu-ray related patents. I'm impressed that Sony, Phillips, and Panasonic managed to get them on board together, but it is necessary if they want to actually turn a profit on the fledgling format. That article I linked was focusing on whether or not Apple would jump on board since they were reticent due to licensing issues, but now they're free from that restriction. I don't want to debate that point much, but I think Apple's future lies in completely dominating people's living rooms (especially in an economy where people are heavily relying on home entertainment for their escapism fix), unless they're satisfied with putting new paint on old technology. Blu-ray is incredible and its only worthy competitor is a sudden influx in high-definition digital movie downloads (which requires more people having broadband and less caps on how much you can download in a month through your ISP, as opposed to just renting the Blu-ray disc). I never thought I'd say this, but I can hardly watch my DVDs anymore because they're so comparatively disappointing.

More on the Kindle 2

Our fearless leader, Jeff Bezos, was on The Daily Show last week and I loved his interview so much that I have to share:

I think he handled Jon's subtle jabs pretty well and I think it's great how he can be so good-humored and yet very committed to making the right business decisions.

There's also a really good review in Wired that's not loading for me right now but has a great rundown of all the pros and cons to the new Kindle. It's the best, most balanced review I've read of it and highly recommend checking it out if you're interested in it at all. Price notwithstanding, I think it's a nifty device. When you see it in person, it really is pretty impressive.

Massive Credit Breach and More Security Randomness

One of the nation's biggest credit card processors had a massive security breach that spans multiple states and has compromised the credit cards of an undisclosed number of people. I don't know if they know yet who did it, but I couldn't find any other details on it. Heartland has been named by several people, but they deny it. Please, be careful. Check your credit card transactions online daily for now, and then you can lower the frequency down to every few days after you're sure you weren't affected.

Meanwhile, Xbox 360 users are becoming the targets of Denial of Service attacks from sore losers on Xbox Live. I don't know if I've ever heard of this before, but it's funny how the immature kids out there get more advanced with each generation. At first, it was just text chat, and then there was the boom of forums, and then voice chat, and now to see malicious attacks like this is disturbing. The attack doesn't sound Xbox-specific so I don't know what Microsoft can do, but hopefully something to help contain it.

This isn't heavily security-related, but definitely watch out for what you download on P2P networks. This prank proves how things aren't always what the seem. Trying to download a bestiality video could get you a clip of Billy Idol.

Final Notes

I'm sorry to do this, but I've had a terrible day. To avoid stretching this post out another evening, I'm going to have to wrap it up now with a quick rundown of my remaining stories.

Windows 7 is going to include native support for .mov files, so I'm guessing that they finally actually want Windows Media Player to be at the center of your multimedia. If you forgot about the other new features in Windows 7, this is a good list of them.

Steve Ballmer claims that Linux is a bigger competitor to Windows than Apple after looking at the distribution of market share across the operating systems. While this may sound ridiculous, you have to consider how important Linux is for enterprise users, a market that Apple has always struggled with. Ballmer says a lot of crazy stuff, but that wasn't one of them. is now streaming CBS and Showtime content directly to the iPhone in the wake of Hulu giving Boxee the cold shoulder (see last week's post).

The RIAA has been hit hard by the economy and their massively incompetent campaign of suing people, and so they're now having to lay off a lot of people. I hate to see people get fired, but there are consequences for irresponsible choices so it was really only a matter of time. Oh, and despite what you may have read, never supplied them with user information.

Flexible touchscreen displays, they're coming. Someday.

Google has had so many outages recently that they've come up with a dashboard so you can keep up with all their failures. I don't know how much happier that's going to make users if they assume carte blanche status to have outages without dealing with root causes.

If you like Twitter but hate the UI, you're going to want to read this. It's a roundup of alternative faces to Twitter, and I've fully switched to Tweetree since reading it.

Mashable has a great article putting together some great resources to help you find a job. It's a good read even if you feel safe in your job, just for future reference.

If you ever have to do web development, you know how painful it is to get cross-browser compatibility down. This is a great roundup of sites to help you do just that.

I hope you have a better week than I've been having, everyone!