Posts Tagged ‘opinion’

h1

Vietnam and My Interest in the Minutiae

21/06/2013
Image (c)2010 by Think0.

Image (c)2010 by Think0.

As I had mentioned on a placeholder post (since deleted) I have been in Vietnam for the past few weeks on an academic trip. This blog is generally geared towards technology, so I won’t be focusing on my trip per se, but on the technology I encountered there. There are a few things of interesting note to me and perhaps others that are part of every day life in Vietnam. I decided to combine these all into this one post.

This has got to be a nightmare for installers.

This has got to be a nightmare for installers.

Keep in mind that this is from an American’s point of view, so some of this stuff may be, and is, used all over the world, but this was my first encounter with it in mass. The air conditioning systems mentioned later are a good example of this minutiae that I find interesting, but is probably old-hat for people who’ve always used this stuff.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived was the cabling over the streets. While Vietnam is generally well “wired” in the sense that basic broadband was available in the cities I went to, the majority of it seems to be above ground. Cabling that would normally be hidden beneath the streets was up on posts, creating some very haphazard-looking displays close to that of spider webbing.

I actually saw some installers putting in some new wiring, but I was unable to catch any video of it. It mostly involved threading the wiring around the post and to its destination. It wasn’t clear to me how they were differentiating different cables from each other, or how they were avoiding cross-talk and interference, or if they were even concerned about that.

One of the wiring boxes that I, uh, "found" open.

One of the wiring boxes that I, uh, “found” open.

Speaking of being wired, the city of Da Nang was in the process of implementing a city-wide WiFi service. Even though it wasn’t officially available (it should be by the time this post hits) I was able to use it almost everywhere in the city with varying levels of success. It was about what you’d expect from a public wireless service. Useful, but not as robust as a privately-owned system.

3G service was fairly ubiquitous, and the VNMobile Blackberry that I had been given had signal just about everywhere I went. I did not have the ability to test data transfer speeds, but 3-4 bars was present in most locations, and cities were generally solid throughout. Mobile devices themselves were everywhere, just as in any city anywhere in the world, though I saw much fewer tablets than state-side. I’m not sure the reason for this, but I imagine transportation might be part of it. Most Vietnamese ride motorbikes so maybe finding a place for a device of that size is difficult. I can only speculate.

The timers on the lights are a really neat idea.

The timers on the lights are a really neat idea.

Moving on to more minutiae, the traffic light systems are quite similar to what you’ll find in just about every country, with the addition of a timer. Especially in the larger cities, lights had timers that would tell you how many seconds until it would change. It was my understanding that this was prevent people from preempting the lights and causing accidents, as well letting motorists check their mobile devices or do other things at a stop light without holding up traffic when it suddenly went green.

Also, while this might be odd to point out, the air conditioners, both in private residences I visited as well as in most hotels, were these single-room setups. They were mostly operated by a remote, and as I found out later, called “ductless” air conditioners. Here in the United States, A/C units are usually large affairs (especially in the case of central heating and air), even the small units, and have to be planted on the outside of a residence. The ones I encountered in Vietnam used less power, could be placed anywhere in a building and were hyper-efficient. However, they had the drawback of not quite offering quite the cooling power of some of the Western ones that I’m accustomed to.

The A/C on the inside feeds through a tube to a fan mounted somewhere on the outside of the building.

The A/C on the inside (top) feeds through a tube to a fan (bottom) mounted somewhere on the outside of the building.

Lastly, along the same line as the air conditioners, the most common type of water heater was not a tank water heater as is common in the States. Almost every place I went used in-line tankless water heaters. These work by heating water as it’s used rather than heating and holding it until use. These can be set up to heat with electricity (the most common I saw), natural gas or even propane. The only problem I had with these was that they sometimes didn’t get hot enough or took a long time to get “warmed up”. Again, very efficient but not as robust as the tank ones I’m used to using in the US.

I did a lot more on this trip than look at water heaters and street lights, but I thought that these little tidbits were the best suited for this blog. I find the differences in the technology that people use on a daily basis the most interesting, as all “good” technology intertwines itself seamlessly into our lives.

-CJ Julius

Advertisements
h1

AirDroid: Android File Transfer Made Easy

06/05/2013
In Direct Connect Mode, you don't need to log in and only get access to the "lite" features.

In Direct Connect Mode, you don’t need to log in and only get access to the “lite” features.

I have a bad time with MicroSD memory cards. Seriously, I have destroyed two of them in the past six months. I’d like to think that it’s because of a manufacturing defect, but I’m pretty sure it’s just my inherent clumsiness.

See, my tablet, a Galaxy Note 10.1 uses this type of storage and I spend a lot of time moving things to and from it. It’s usually large files or huge blocks of small files so it takes quite a lot of time unless I put the card itself into an adaptor  and plug it into my computer. Even the USB linking ability through the port on the tablet is painfully slow and sometimes just plain doesn’t work.

Emailing the files was sometimes the solution, but was impractical for larger files. Some times I could transfer through a USB stick, but that too was cumbersome. A few programs existed that allowed transfer between a computer and the device over Wifi, but most of them were lacking in some key respect, or didn’t function as I needed. Then I found AirDroid.

AirDroid is not exactly new to the scene, and in fact when I actually broke down and started searching for a solution to my problem, it was the first one to pop up. So I grabbed the “light” version and was throwing things to and from my tablet within minutes. All you need to do is grant it superuser permissions (so it can read/write/get updates) and sign up for the service (if you want to use the optional web version).

The GUI is very nice looking and offers a wide range of to

The GUI is very nice looking and offers a wide range of tools.

The app has two ways of connecting to your tablet, both of which involve configuring your tablet to act as a kind of file server. The first of these is to directly connect to your tablet over your current Wifi by pointing your browser to a specific IP and port (usually [Local IP Here]:8888). Then, through the gorgeous GUI, you can add/remove files, contacts, ringtones (if it’s an Android phone of course) as well as just about anything else that resides on your device.

The second way is similar to the first, except that you go through the AirDroid website (web.airdroid.com) to transfer files. This is useful if your tablet/phone is at home and you need to get something off of it. Assuming that your AirDroid app is running and connected, you can grab your files from literally anywhere in the world. There is a 1GB transfer limit on this function if you’re using the free version, though. So keep that in mind if you’re trying to pull a movie or something from your device.

If you want to grab an entire directory, you can get everything as one .ZIP file

If you want to grab an entire directory, you can get everything as one .ZIP file

Both of these look identical, in that the web interface is the same for both. The GUI has a multitasking feature, letting you add/remove files at the same time while checking your notifications and anything else you have the bandwidth for, as well as stats on your device like its battery life and storage capacity.

AirDroid did not crash or hang the entire time I used it no matter how much stress I put it under. I was transferring several Gigabytes of files to and from it while poking around in my contacts and looking at photos. Also, I run my tablet through an SSL VPN and didn’t have any troubles from that setup either.

On the whole this is a brilliant piece of software and an absolute must-have for any Android user who moves a lot of data around their mobile devices, which is probably everyone. AirDroid2 should be coming soon to my device and I am definitely looking forward to that.

Rating: 5/5 – Absolutely Perfect. You need this app.

-CJ Julius

h1

MOOCs: E-Learning Run Amok

03/05/2013
Classes like upper level mathematics just don't translate well to elearning environments.

Classes like upper level mathematics or philosophy just don’t translate well to elearning environments.

I can name on one hand the number of online courses that I’ve had that I enjoyed and really felt like I was part of the class. While a few have been decent, my experience with them on the whole has been less that admirable. In the right hands, and with the right professors, online courses can be good learning tools, but they invariably felt distant (not just physically) and left me wondering whether I really understood the material.

When I was given a choice of colleges I made sure that I focused on brick-and-mortar schools that I could get the bulk, if not all, of my education by showing up to an actual classroom with actual classes. But with any education nowadays, you’re going to run into classes that are unavoidably online only. For the most part, that’s fine. Not every class needs the one-on-one focus of an actual classroom and I can understand that.

I stated all the above as sort of a disclaimer about my position on the subject of distance learning. Put quite simply, I think that all-distance learning degrees (ones that are online from 100-level to completion) are junk.* Now, there’s a new trend of of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) which are classes that can be taken, for free or very little cost, by anyone, even those who are not necessarily students of an educational system.

If a college or university devalues the degrees for the current students, it affects all past and future students, too.

If a college or university devalues the degrees for the current students, it affects all past and future students, too.

And to me this seems fine and interesting. There was an MOOC Stanford class a few months back on artificial intelligence that I thought was interesting. I might have taken it myself if I weren’t knee-deep in my own college classes at the time. However, now it is being considered that these courses should be college credit-worthy. Color me sceptical.

Color a whole bunch of professors sceptical as well. Whole departments of colleges and universities have flat-out told the administration that they will not participate. In the article below, they argue that the material cannot be presented properly and the class size is too big to be effective.

The AI class from Stanford that I talked about before drew 160,000 students. Did they all get a college credit’s worth of education? Call me a cynic, but I seriously doubt it. America should have a free or low-cost education system, as our current one is too costly to be useful or fair, but this is not the way to go about it. I fear we may devalue our higher education system and drive smaller schools into the dirt. MOOCs seem like a great idea in moderation, but we can’t see them as a substitute for “real” classes.

From GIGAOM:

San Jose State University, one of the biggest academic supporters of the growing MOOC (massive open online course) movement, apparently has some vocal dissenters in its ranks.

In the past year, the university has welcomed MOOC providers like edX and Udacity with open arms — in addition to launching a first-of-its kind program with Udacity to award college credit for courses taken on its platform. The school has a growing partnership with edX and plans to create a dedicated resource center for California State University faculty statewide who are interested in online content.

But discord seems to brewing among some faculty.  This week, professors in the Philosophy department said they refuse to teach an edX course on “justice” developed by a Harvard University professor, arguing that MOOCs come at “great peril” to their university.

Read More…

-CJ Julius

*Again, I want to point out that I recently took a few online classes. In the hands of the right professor, class size and with the right subject, individual classes might be able to be done properly. This is the exception rather than the rule.

h1

Bitcoins, Mobile Digital Vaults and Google Fiber (2013.04.26)

26/04/2013

As this blog is an ongoing venture, occasionally I will want to update previous entries or projects. New information is gathered, projects evolve and, in general, things change. Also, I’ve found that updates don’t work so well on old posts because few people bookmark them and then come back later. To combat this, every once in a while I will be giving updates in rapid fire about previous entries. Those posts will be automatically updated via “pingback” in the comments section, so if you actually do bookmark them, then you’ll get notified that way.

Without further ado:

Bitcoins

bitcoins

Even the experts don’t know if Bitcoin is economically viable.

On April 11, 2013, Bitcoin Exchange Halted Trades in order to bring down the price of the coins. They also released a statement denying the bubble and assuring everyone that it was a solid currency. Whether it is or not remains to be seen as it has had its share of detractors and the largest U.S. exchange shut down following the big hype. As stated in my previous post, no matter how it turns out, it’s a fascinating convergence of technology and economics, much in line with the computerized traders on the stock market today. While I’m still extremely skeptical, I’m secretly rooting for an all-digital currency.

Mobile Digital Vaults

DiskInternals Linux Reader

A little cumbersome, but you can read your EXT drives.

My last project involved taking an old 500GB SATA drive, using TrueCrypt and a snazzy drive enclosure to turn it into a mobile digital vault. This was largely successful, although I could not get Windows to format a large enough partition for some reason. This led to me formatting the virtual drive into EXT4, which meant that I could not read it on Windows. I don’t use Windows that much, so that was not a big deal, however I wanted to see if I could find a method that would let me do so.

The blue light on the front show drive access.

The blue light on the front indicates drive access.

I mentioned that I used a piece of software called EXT2READ which I found out later did not work. When I tested it prior to writing the article, I found that I was able to read the drive, though some days after when I tried to copy a .DOCX file from an EXT3 partition to my NTFS Windows drive, the file was corrupted and unreadable. So, I tried another piece of software by DiskInternals to read EXT2/3/4 drives and it worked flawlessly, seeing the newly mounted TrueCrypt drive and letting me access it.

Also, I got another drive enclosure, the Nexstar3 by Vantec to house another 250GB SATA drive. The only major difference between the two is that the NexStar3 does not have a fan built in thus making it significantly smaller. It also requires two different sized screwdrivers to get your drive in, which I thought was odd, but otherwise it seems to be a solid piece of equipment. This drive is a little more “mobile” than the other so I’ve moved all of my encrypted drives that I want to take with me over to this one making the Rosewill enclosure largely stationary on my desktop.

Google Fiber

Google Fiber is stirring up some dust in Austin

Google Fiber is stirring up some dust in Austin

AT&T is feeling threatened by Google Fiber and has launched a counter-offensive aimed at bringing fiber to mainstream consumers in Austin. Some have argued that this is just posturing, but that they even bothered to acknowledge Google’s plans means that they’re taking the move towards a fiber infrastructure seriously to some degree. On the heals of this announcement came Time Warner Cable’s decision to wire Austin for WiFi. Austin Texas is going to be one of the most internet-connected cities in the U.S. at this rate.

Again, as I said in the last post, there is no bad news.

Future Projects

I have several new projects lined up for the next month, a few which are already underway. First of all, I need to take a 1TB (terabyte) hard drive and resurrect some files that got deleted from it. I will probably be using Deft Linux for this, which should be interesting. I’ve only “carved and sifted” once before.

Also, I got my Raspberry Pi up and going, which was interesting in and of itself, but I’m thinking that I’ll drop Wheezy and move toward XBMC. I had hoped to stream video from my Windows shared drive and onto my TV. We’ll see how that goes.

Lastly, I want to do a longer Wednesday post about Security on the Internet. The utilities I use to keep myself secure might be interesting to others out there. The use of VPNs, two step authentication and software to obscure passwords will be some of the pieces I’ll touch upon.

-CJ Julius

h1

Sherpa, A New Challenger to Siri

19/04/2013
SherpaWidget

You can put a widget on your
home screen for easy access.

I’ve used Siri a bit, and not to say that it isn’t an impressive piece of software, but it didn’t really wow me like I thought it would. It (she?) had the problem of misinterpreting what I said, or in some cases being very confused as to the nature of my request. I speak in a relatively clear North American accent, and am usually regarded as having a clear speaking voice, but these assistants sometimes have trouble getting me.

This is a problem, not just because it’s annoying when I want a “map of Ho Chi Minh” and instead get directed to a “map of coaching men” (honest-to-goodness result), but because it isn’t reliable enough to be useful. If it takes me just as long to open up my quick apps and find it on Google Maps myself, then I might as well not even use the assistant.

Sherpa is a new product along these lines released by a Spain-based company of the same name. It’s still in beta, so I’m cutting it some slack, but it like all of its Siri kin isn’t something I can use regularly.

Sherpa_Main

On the left is where commands, as they’re understood are listed, and on the right a work area where the browser, notifications etc show up.

It gets very confused on simple things like open [name of app], and sometimes misinterprets what I say. For example, “Open Google Play” should open the Play Store. It does not. For some strange reason, Sherpa googles Google Play in Firefox (my default browser). It’s just not reliable enough to do all of the cool things it should be able to do.

Sherpa may have a long time to go before hitting a final release, so this could be a really early preview version, even if it was released to the public in the Play Store. However, it seems to me to hit all the bumps in the road that current Digital Assistants do, and in doing so, fails to be something that I can regard as much more than a toy for amusement. I’ll probably keep the app installed, just to see where it goes, as it’s the most promising Digital Assistant I’ve seen outside of Siri.

Rating: 2/5 – Lots of promise, but still not useful. Note: In Beta

If you want to know more, here’s a quick article about the new release:

From Gigaom:

A new voice digital assistant is on the scene in the U.S., but unlike other Siri-challengers Sherpa comes with some overseas work experience. Sherpa launched its Spanish-language Android app in October and has since risen up the Google Play charts in Spain and Latin America. Sherpa has now learned English, and on Wednesday it launched in the U.S. in the Play store.

Most virtual assistants powered by natural language processing are taught to do specific tasks very well but tend to come up short when given unfamiliar assignments. For instance, Siri excels at jobs like making calendar appointments and dictating text messages but can be confounded by more general requests for information, usually resorting to simple web searches.

Read More…

-CJ Julius

h1

Data Caps for Home Internet Are a Terrible, No-Good, Very Bad Idea

15/04/2013
Cables_small

Want Internet?
It’s gonna cost ya.

I had been lucky enough to get in on AT&T’s unlimited bandwidth for the iPhone before they decided that they could make a boatload more money if they charged based on caps. You’re probably familiar with these caps if you have a smartphone of any kind. They’re a bank of data that you can use to send/receive over a predetermined amount of time, usually a month. They are confusing and infuriating, even for someone who knows how the technology works and keeps a close eye on it.

Now, they (companies like Time Warner Cable and Comcast) want you to use this system for your home internet as well. Which brings up a whole host of questions, like: How much is a gigabyte worth to you? Would you pay $20 for a gigabyte of bandwidth? Is that fair? What happens if I use over my gigabyte? Do I get a penalty or does my Netflix just shut off?

There are no good answers to these questions, because data caps are just a bad idea for home networks. It takes a relatively simple system, which already has a pricing scheme in place mind you, and needlessly complicates it. It adds nothing for the customer and in fact may drive people away, like similar price discrimination has hurt the airline industry.

The following article goes into more depth explaining why data caps are terrible in theory and practice:

From Gigaom:

In a recently published piece, Prof. Daniel Lyons of the Boston College Law School argued that broadband data caps are a reasonable form of price discrimination. Lyons believes that data caps allow ISPs to more equitably distribute network costs among users based on how much they value internet access. He then goes on to suggest the best model of price discrimination comes from the airline industry, and that ISPs would be wise to learn from them.

Okay, wait a minute. The airlines? I had to read that twice to make sure Lyons was actually recommending that companies like Comcast and Time Warner –  you know, two of the lowest-ranked U.S. companies in terms of customer satisfaction – ought to be taking marketing tips from the industry that rivals them for most-hated status. (Interestingly, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the airlines are third from the bottom, followed by… the cable industry!)

Read More…

User Mcbeese had an interesting comment on the above article, where he argues that it may be treated like long distance telephone service. Users pay based on peak and non-peak usage times. So, a user who surfs all night (non-peak) would be charged less than someone who does so in the 5-7pm block.

That’s a fascinating alternative view (I hadn’t thought about the link between ISPs and long distance telephone services before), but as Elfonblog points out, it’s still “imposing rations on a resource which is not scarce in order to sabotage it’s use for competing purposes (Internet video).”

While I personally won’t go as far as a conspiracy, I can definitely see this as a method for ISPs like Time Warner and Comcast to squelch Hulu and Netflix so they can offer their own competing services. It almost seems too convenient.

-CJ Julius

h1

My Life After Google Reader

08/04/2013
Google Reader on PC

Farewell, Old Friend

I’ve used Google Reader for quite a while, probably five years or so. I wasn’t an early adopter, but the service had definitely become the cornerstone of how I interact with news from around the internet. It allowed me to take all of the different websites that I enjoyed and pull them into one feed, organized that feed and then share what I found interesting. It was a solid platform.

But it’s going away. As of July 1st, 2013, Google Reader will shut down and we’ll all be left to find another service to organized our RSS feeds.

I decided to start a few weeks ago, looking at other newsreaders that would offer a similar experience, or maybe even one better. I needed  four things from my new software:

  1. It needed to work on Linux PC, iOS and Android, as I use all three OS types on a daily basis.
  2. It needed to be able to organize my feeds into groups that I had become familiar with over the years of using Google. This includes being able to save something for reading later.
  3. It needed to have integration into various sharing apps. Specifically, I needed to be able to get to Twitter, Linkedin and Buffer if possible. Maybe even WordPress if I could at all manage it.
  4. It needed to sync my reading lists over all of these platforms and preferably pull my data from Google.

    Feedly on Firefox in Linux

    Feedly on Firefox in Linux (Ubuntu 12.04)

It seemed like a fairly standard list, but I was not very optimistic. This is a tall order from a free (or cheap) newsreader, especially number 4 above.

I’ll cut to the chase here, since I’m sure that my step-by-step decision process is less than enthralling. I tried multiple different online readers, even the MSN one, and found them all pretty lacking. Some were good at organizing, but just had an iOS app or only worked on the computer. Others, Pulse for example, looked slick but didn’t offer much in the way of sharing options. I then came across this article on TechCrunch (via my news feeds on Google Reader, ironically) talking about a new relaunch of a piece of newsreader software called Feedly.

Feedly on iOS

Feedly on iOS (iPhone 4)

I’d heard of Feedly before, but I’d never investigated it beyond a few screenshots. Besides, I already had a newsreader that worked pretty darn well. After some reading I found that it was indeed the software I was looking for. It claimed to do all the things I wanted and then some.

So, I installed the app on all of my devices, synced them with my Google Reader account. All of my data came over flawlessly and I’ll admit it looked great. The sharing options were there with Buffer and Twitter integrated in already*. With minimal work on my part I was grabbing, commenting and sharing like a pro again.

As of this writing I’ve only been using a Feedly for about a day and a half, but I’m liking it (dare I say it?) more than Google Reader. There are a few bugs, and some configuration options that I wish were there, but it’s rare that I go out looking for a piece of software and find one that matches what I needed so perfectly. If you’re one of the immigrants from Google Reader and you need a news reader, I recommend Feedly extremely highly.

Feedly Android

Feedly on Android (Galaxy Note 10.1)

Ratings:
PC version: 4/5
iOS version: 5/5
Android version: 4/5

*Buffer does not seem to show up on my Android device. I don’t know if they have yet to implement it or if it’s a configuration thing. Probably the former as Android apps tend to lag a bit behind the iOS ones.

-CJ Julius