28 September, 2008

DRM hits you coming and going

If you re unfamiliar with the term DRM, it stands for digital rights management. The record (RIAA), movie (MPAA), and software industry has used forms of DRM to prohibit you from sharing your purchased digital goods with others. This continues to be a headache for the honest, while the less honest folks are able to find free "cracked" version of the same materials.

Take for example if you purchased music from the likes of Microsoft or Yahoo! You were notified (hopefully) this past year that they will no longer support these services. For reasons that appear to agree with what has been argued all along -- that DRM only impacts honest, paying customers -- Microsoft, Yahoo!, and now Wal-Mart are reversing their business models by discontinuing the DRM practice. Microsoft and Yahoo! have easied up some what on their position, to give you more time to find a work-around, but nevertheless you are left either with losing the music once your current PC dies or the burden of transfer through CD ripping or other nonsense. No word yet what Wal-Mart is going to do, if anything.

So here we have a bad business practice that has impacted customers continued through now not supporting "what was started". (DRM hits you coming and going.) I understand that if you work hard enough, you could get a full refund from Yahoo!. This should be the norm for all of these companies that forced DRM on consumers.

Another example is currently happening in the software industry. If you buy the new game, Spore, from Electronic Arts (EA), you are required to activate it over the Internet. If we ignore the many, many problems users have had with the system and just look forward 5 years, will EA still be supporting the Spore activation? What about in 10 years?

The message, which our government seems to always come down on the "big business" side is that you are never really purchasing a product to own, but rather to use until we (big business) decide you should no longer be able to use it. My advice... be very careful what you buy, and make sure you do it with your eyes wide open.

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) says it is illegal to defeat any piracy protection, even if just for a backup. So, most CDs can be legally ripped (copied) to your computer, but many online services (e.g. iTunes) continue to have DRM music. It is very unlikely that you will find DVD movies that you can rip to your computer; fortunately most of us do not watch movies over and over like we listen to music. With software it is a mixed bag. Be very leary of any software that requires an online activation, unless you know that you will want a newer version within every 4 to 5 years. With the exception of games, there is usually a reletively similar open source alternative that you can always turn to if you do not want to risk your hard earned dollars.

25 September, 2008

Is your ISP keeping you safe?

Recently a new vulnerability was found in the core of the web surfing systems... the DNS server. The DNS server, short for Domain Name System, is used to translate a websites URL to a websites ip address, the addressing system of the Internet, so your web browser can find the website you are looking for.

In order to manage the load of users, there are many, many DNS servers. In fact DNS is provided by ISPs -- either their own or third party systems that they have paid for -- so when you connect through your ISP, you can find the website you want. When the DNS you connect to cannot find a website, it will contact another DNS server to update its records. Likewise, websites will have DNS servers to tell other DNS servers what ip addresses are required for their website.

Here's the problem at hand. It has been figured out how a hacker could tell a DNS server a wrong ip address, when the DNS server is updating its records. It does this through forcing the server to ask for a new update from another DNS server, and then responding back first, posing as the queried server. This is called poisoning the DNS server. By providing the incorrect ip address, the web surfer looking for a website could be redirected to a fake website that looks like the site they wanted.

So to finish the hack, after the hacker "poisons" the DNS server the hacker has to have fake website posing as the real one. When you, the web surfer, logs into the "fake" website, the hacker can capture your username and password for the real site. Imagine the problem if this "fake" site was posing as your bank.

This was such a big deal in the Internet administration community and they did a great job keeping it quiet until they had a fix available -- something not know to happen to often. All the major DNS server providers for the Internet backbone and major sites have patched themselves at the same time this was announced. It is such abig deal, it is posted on the U.S. Homeland Security website. Unfortunately, not all ISPs have patched their systems. If an unpatched DNS is providing service to you, that means you are at risk.

Fortunately, there are tests available to see if your DNS is vulnerable or not. Here's a test from DNS-OARC. The test looks at two parts of the DNS server called source port and transaction ID. The test is essentually looking to see how random is your DNS system. If the vulnerable DNS servers are predictable, the hacker can beat the queried DNS server to the response (which creates the poisoned record). In the image we can see what a failed test might look like, with sequential ports being used on the DNS server -- sequential ports are predictable; random are not.
Use this test yourself (just click the Test My DNS button) to see if your DNS server is safe. If not, report it to your ISP -- if they don't change, perhaps a new ISP is in order. Another option to leaving your ISP is to use OpenDNS. I wrote about this in a prior post, Faster and more reliable web surfing with OpenDNS. Depending on your ISP, you may have to configure each PC to use open DNS; for others, you can just program it within your router.

24 September, 2008

Referencing the value of a cell, not its formula

In Excel, I will use formulas quite frequently for my analysis. At times I want to reference the resulting value of the formula for a comparison or to feed another formula. Unfortunately, if you are doing a comparison, Excel will try to compare the formula instead of the formulas results. Well, turns out there is an easy way to correct this.

If you want your formula result to be a number, then use the VALUE function. If you want the formula result to be text, use the TEXT function.

Here is the syntax for each:
  • VALUE(text)
  • TEXT(value,format_text) -- The format_text value can be any format from the Category box on the Number tab (in the Format Cells dialog box) except General.

Here is an example of each:
  • =VALUE(MID(A2,46,FIND("&",A2)-46)) -- this actually finds a number beginning with the 46th character of a string, and continues until it find the ampersand character. By wrapping the formula with VALUE, I can now compare the number to other numbers in my lookup table.
  • =TEXT(IF(ISERROR(INDEX('Language Lookup'!$B$2:$B$37,MATCH(B2,'Language Lookup'!$A$2:$A$37,0))),"NA",INDEX('Language Lookup'!$B$2:$B$37,MATCH(B2,'Language Lookup'!$A$2:$A$37,0))),"#") -- This uses a formula I posted May 15, 2008 that is doing a lookup. Remember the syntax above, I use "#" to specify the format of my text.

23 September, 2008

Faster Firefox

With the release of Google Chrome just weeks ago, speed tweaking tips are popular topics for Firefox. I found a list at TechRadar to be fairly good. Of the 8 tips offered, I am trying the following: 1 - 3, 6, and 8. Not that some of these are as much about perception as really making any difference. But isn't perception all we really care about? If we perceive it to be faster, it must be faster.

20 September, 2008

Microsoft goes Back to the Future to kick-off TechEd 2007

With all the buzz around Microsoft's latest ad campaign, prior videos are re-appearing. Thanks to Digg, I found this video with Christopher Lloyd as Microsoft kicks-off TechEd 2007. I found most of it quite funny.

"Oh, Biff..."

Real iPhone speed, not the commercial speed

As published on the Silicon Alley Insider, here's a video that compares the real speed of an iPhone against the speed you see in the iPhone commercials.

In looking at the ad, Apple has clearly cut out much of the connection and load times. Now let's examine the reality of cell phone network speeds. As reported by tests done by Computer World, AT&T's network averaged download speeds of 755Kbit/sec. and average upload speeds of 484Kbit/sec. Computer World also included a 3 second network connection time. With this information, let's calculate the load time for an average 50kb page.
  • Convert our download rate to Kb: 755/8 (8 bits in a byte) = 94.4 Kb/sec
  • Download page time: 50 / 94.4 = 0.53 seconds
  • Total time: connection time of 3 sec + download time of 0.53 seconds = 3.53 sec
For us to really get the performance we have come to expect from our computers, it appears the issue right now is the connection times. We can grow our page sizes 6x (and many have) before they would equal the connection time. With the processing power of an iPhone, the hardware itself wont cause us any issue either. What we need is better connection times, as demonstrated in this example. Oh, and not to forget, improved battery life is required if we want to be able to use the networking capabilities beyond a few hours.

19 September, 2008

Language Bar keeps returning to Taskbar

I recently got a new laptop with Windows XP and I'm slowly getting it configured to all my preferences. One thing I noticed is that everytime I rebooted, the Language Bar would reappear in the Taskbar. No matter how many times I removed it, it would rear its ugly head again.

With a little research, I found out how to stop this nasty behavior. You need to un-register and re-register a DLL that controls the behavior. Specifically, here's what you do:
  1. Go to Start and click Run...
  2. Enter"Regsvr32.exe /u msimtf.dll" and click OK
  3. Go to Start and click Run...
  4. Enter "Regsvr32.exe msimtf.dll" and click OK
Next time you reboot, it wont show up.

Microsoft Ad Campaign, Phase 2 is much different than Gates/Seinfeld

It's hard to figure whether the Gates/Seinfeld ads ran their course as expected or were they cut short because thy missed the mark expected. Regardless, Microsoft has releases some new, more relevant ads that displays all types of people and their roles as PC users.

I'm a PC: Pride

I'm a PC: Not Alone

I'm a PC: Stereotype

The New York Time released an analysis of the Microsoft strategy to combat the Apple TV spots, and they point out that Microsoft isn't the first company to try and take some very bad press and turn it around in their favor.
“This is just the beginning, the first phase of the campaign,” said Mich Mathews, senior vice president for marketing at Microsoft. “We’re on a journey to reposition the PC.”
Looks as if we may have many more entertaining commercial spots ahead of us.

18 September, 2008

Open additional mailboxes within Outlook

You may have the need to open and view more than one Outlook Inbox at the same time. Take for example an employee quitting... who's going to monitor his inbox until a replacement is hired? In my office, email support is handled through a shared email account, with designated individuals watching it at various times.

Here's how you can add additional inboxes to Outlook, so you do not have to switch back and forth between accounts:
  1. Start Outlook
  2. Go to Tools | E-mail Accounts...
  3. Make sure View or change existing e-mail accounts is marked and click Next
  4. Make sure your Microsoft Exchange Server is highlighted and click Change
  5. Click More Settings...
  6. Click the Advanced tab
  7. Click Add
  8. Enter the name of the additional inbox you want to add. This is the same name you find in the Outlook Address Book.
  9. Click OK -- you may have multiple choices, if the name you gave matches more than one account. If so, select the account you want and click OK, again.
  10. Click OK
  11. Click Finish
Here's a few things to keep in mind:
  • Your Outlook Administrator must give you premissions to the additional inbox.
  • Any replies or new emails (the "from") will come from your default account. If you want to reply from the account you are watching, you need to access it through a different email program or setup multiple email profiles for Outlook. If you go with the multiple email profiles, then Outlook would prompt you each time you opened it to the profile you want to use. To switch the "from" of your email, you would need to restart Outllok and choose the other profile.

Improve right-clicking options by expand SendTo's list

How often do you use the right-click on your mouse a s a shortcut to tasks that otherwise would take much longer? Sometimes I find I want to open a file in an application that is different than the default application. For that purpose, I right-click the file and hover over Open With Other times though, I may want to send the file in an email, or zip it up, and sometimes, OpenWith is not even listed. For these times, I use SendTo.

Microsoft has made it very easy to customize SendTo to meet your needs. The default options include all the drives on your computer, zip, shortcut on the Desktop, an attachment in your default email, or to My Documents. For my own list, I have added all my web browsers (except the default), because when I right-click on an HTML file shortcut (URL), there is no OpenWith option. I also added Dreamweaver, as it does not always show up in the OpenWith dialog for file formats. Notepad has also been a good addition, as often times there are file formats I want to view in a simple text editor, and Notepad is not listed in OpenWith.

Here's how you can customize SendTo:
  1. Open Explorer and navigate to C:\Documents and Settings\[your username]\SendTo
    * If you do not see this as an option in Explore, make sure you are configured to see hidden and protected operating-system files. To do this:
    1. Within Explore click Tools | Folder Options | View
    2. Mark Show hidden files and folders
    3. Uncheck Hide protected operating system files (Recommended)
  2. Create shortcuts of the applications you want to show in SendTo and save them in this folder. I find this to be the easiest way:
    1. Navigate the Start menu until I find the application I want
    2. Right-click on the application icon
    3. Click copy
    4. Go to the SendTo folder we opened in step 1
    5. Right-click, again
    6. Click paste
That's it. Next time you right-click on a file, checkout SendTo for your new shortcuts.

17 September, 2008

Tweak for even more speed from XP

Windows XP (like all Windows operating systems) uses a technique of storing some content of its system memory (RAM) to the hard drive, therefore using less memory for functions that are used less often. So what Windows is doing is keep functions used most often in RAM and "swapping" out less used functions on to your hard drive. Though great in principle, if/when a function is needed that is stored on the hard drive, the system must reload it in memory before it is used, which makes things work slower. This is particularly true when Windows stores central parts (referred to as the kernel) of Windows itself on the hard drive.

If you have 256 MB or more of RAM, a simple Registry change keeping the kernel from being swapped to the hard drive can give you some performance improvements. Here's how you do it:
  1. Click Start
  2. Click Run...
  3. Enter Regedit and click OK (opens the Registry Editor)
  4. Navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE \ SYSTEM \ CurrentControlSet \ Control \ Session Manager \ Memory Management \ DisablePagingExecutive
  5. Change the value to 1 (to reverse or disable this setting, change the value to 0)
  6. Close the Registry Editor
  7. Reboot your computer

16 September, 2008

Execute ASP in HTML pages

This is a little 'techy' for my typical blog posts, but I had a heck of a time finding an answer online. I recently got a new laptop and needed to reconfigure my ASP development environment. I kept running into one problem, where my home page displayed ASP code at the top (<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> <% var openMenu; ...), instead of executing.

Turns out you need to add to the basic ASP configuration to execute ASP code that is in HTML pages. Of course that seems like a no-brainer, but I don't recall having done that in the past. Here's the steps to do this:
  1. Go to Administrative Tools in the Control Panel
  2. Launch Internet Information Services (IIS)
  3. Go to your (default) website and open Properties
  4. Go to the Home Directory tab
  5. Click the Configuration.. button under the Application Settings section
  6. On the Mappings tab, click Add
  7. Enter the following information:
    Executable: c:\windows\system32\inetsrv\asp.dll
    Extension: .html
    Verbs | Limit to: GET,HEAD,POST,TRACE
    Check the boxes: Script Engine and Check that file exists
  8. Close the dialog boxes (OK 3 times)
  9. Stop and Start the IIS Server
  10. Test / verify it now works
That's it; very simple, yet so hard if you don't know what you're looking for.

15 September, 2008

Speed up XP menus

This is a simple Registry setting that will speed up your Windows XP menus.
  1. Click Start
  2. Click Run...
  3. Enter Regedit and click OK
  4. Navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER \ Control Panel \ Desktop \ MenuShowDelay
  5. Change the default value of 400
    A value of 0 would open a menu even if you just pass the mouse over it, so try a value of 100 or 200.

12 September, 2008

Always have expanded menus in Office apps

I just got a new laptop and was reminded of a common annoyance in MS Office products. The menus never fully display immediately -- you either have to click the arrow at the bottom of the menu or wait a few seconds. There is actually a fairly easy way to keep them expanded all the time.
  1. Right-click any toolbar
  2. Select Customize
  3. Check "Always show full menus"
That's it.

AT&T gets on the bandwagon with network slowdown practices

AT&T has released new information that they will also start degrading customer network throughput for those that use more than what AT&T would consider average. You can read all the terms of service on the AT&T site.

Here are some highlights in order of appearance, followed by my commentary:
Broadband access is provided in speed tiers of:
(1) 200 Kbps to 768 Kbps downstream (not available for AT&T U-verse High Speed Internet service)
(2) 769 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps downstream
(3) 1.56 Mbps to 3.0 Mbps downstream
(4) 3.1 Mbps to 6.0 Mbps downstream;
(5) 6.1 Mbps to 10.0 Mbps (available only with AT&T U-verse High Speed Internet service) (collectively “Service Capability Speeds”)...

... AT&T Uverse High Speed Internet throughput speeds may be temporarily reduced when a customer is using other U-verse services in a manner that requires high bandwidth. This could occur more often with higher speed Internet access products. ... While this performance optimization process will prevent some customers from obtaining the maximum downstream speed capability, service capability speed will not be set lower than the service tier you have purchased.
Isn't that the entire purpose of buying a higher speed plan, to avoid slow down? Just to be clear though, AT&T is actually selling you a minimum speed of service, which know that is better than some providers. The real test is how frequently does this happen. Is it infrequent enough to allow the advertisement of the higher speed or should the lower speed really be the only speed referred to? Only time will tell.

With that being said though, I think we need to recognize this is a better solution that what Comcast has offered, which is one speed for everyone, and if you violate it, then your service is terminated for one year.

Since I was looking at the Ts & Cs, I thought I'd highlight 3 others.
a. No Resale. The Service is provided for your use only (unless otherwise specifically stated) and you agree not to reproduce, duplicate, copy, sell, transfer, trade, resell or exploit for any commercial purposes.
It looks as if you're okay to have an open wi-fi hotspot.

b. Copyright Infringement & Digital Millennium Copyright Act. You are prohibited from infringing, publishing, submitting, copying, uploading, downloading, posting, transmitting...
Isn't this a bit redundant. AT&T is not the government. Seems like the next step is AT&T will be monitoring our traffic, to make sure we are in compliance. We'd better keep an eye on this one.

c. Use by Children. ... children under the age of 13 will not be permitted to access the Site or Service unless added as a Sub Account by a Member Account holder who is their legal guardian. ... AT&T also recommends that you remain diligent in the supervision of any minors...
I had to point this out, as it seems odd that AT&T would include anything about how to rear your children. It's a statement of opinion; it doesn't belong in a Terms of Service Agreement.

Despite some of these other odd conditions, overall I believe that AT&T is currently better to deal with than Comcast. In other words, given the choice, I'd take AT&T.

Microsoft Ad Campaign, Episode 2

Microsoft has released their 2nd ad, from their infamous ad campaign to combat Apple. At 4 1/2 minutes, it's certainly different than what we're accustom to from a commercial.

I don't think there are as many buried messages as the first ad; the big message here is Microsoft connects people.
  1. "Bill, have you had scallop potatoes before?" confirms a feeling many have about Bill: he's different, therefore he has not experienced the typical American family dinner.
  2. "Do we have any more ketchup" and "Nobody told me we were eating" are lines that tries to re-enforce that this is an average family and Microsoft (through Bill and Jerry) are trying to better understand ("re-connect with real people") what it's like to be an average family.
  3. "Didn't we have this yesterday?" Bill implies that with Microsoft, you don't have to have the same thing every day.
  4. Bill reads a technical story; Microsoft knows technology
  5. "Jerry, I've got $1800..." and "Jer, I've got these Greek coins..." - Microsoft provides software to manage money, but does not tell you how to manage it.
  6. "Wow, when's this coming out?" shows that Microsoft does research into new software (games), too.
  7. "Chinese delivery" is the last straw for Bill and Jerry, they cannot live like an average family. Oh, and they don't carry any cash.
  8. Bill and Jerry are setup as to have taken the leather giraffe; Microsoft setup to look worse than they are. Hmm. This one, I think Microsoft has done to themselves. In the commercial they overstayed their welcome; in the real world they pushed their business practices over the edge. Of course not the message Microsoft wanted to deliver here, but that's what I take from it.
  9. "Bill, you've connected over a billion people..." Bill gives Jerry a sign that something else is in the works.
Overall, I liked the first ad much more, but to spend the money to run a 4 1/2 minute ad, Microsoft must think this 2nd ad is an important piece to their message.

09 September, 2008

Follow-up odds and ends: Google, Comcast and Microsoft

Well it has been a week since Google released Chrome, a week since I've tracked my Internet bandwidth usage, and 5 days since Microsoft released its ads to compete against Apple. Let's take a look and see how each are doing.

I wrote a little about Google's surprise announcement of their new browser Chrome last week, highlighting some of its features. One feature that intrigued me was the ability to "tear-off" a tab and turn a browser window into a pseudo application on your desktop. I did just that with my email and RSS reader -- I replaced Thunderbird with a direct window into my Gmail account and replaced the RSS reader with Google's RSS reader.

I had looked and tried many RSS readers before settling on Thunderbird, but found that over the last six months that I've used it less and less. I like the Google Reader interface much better than Thunderbird and others and Chrome has made it just a little easier to access it. In addition, in the few times that I want to check it out remotely, the move to Google Reader, spurred by Chrome, enables that capability. But where the real value I found was switching to using Chrome for reading my Gmail. With Thunderbird I still had to periodically go into Gmail through my browser or iPhone and delete and file messages I already read, now that problem is gone. And for the occasional click-through from an email to a web page, it opens quickly in Chrome.

Despite some shakiness at times and the lack of plug-in support, in particular for my favorite -- RoboForm -- Chrome is doing good and has found a home in my daily computing life. I will note that I still use Firefox for my daily web surfing.


Let's move on to the next follow-up, bandwidth usage. I also wrote last week about Comcast's announcement of placing a cap on monthly bandwidth usage of 250 GB, starting in October. Part of this announcement was that they were not offering a way to monitor your usage -- seems odd, huh? Well it's not too difficult to measure the bandwidth of a computer, as there are several application available, and I've been using one, BitMeter. Before I tell you my usage for the last week, keep in mind this is just for my single computer; it does not count the bandwidth consumed by my work laptop, as I worked late one evening in particular; it does not count my Apple TV either, which included accessing Apple's iStore and Google's YouTube; finally, many household that may run into a cap issue likely also have a game machine accessing the Internet. Needless to say, Comcast really needs to connect a bandwidth report tool with your account that you can check any time on their site if they are going to try and hold you to a cap. Until then, it's a scare tactic that will likely lower usage by many household that have no reason to worry about going over.

Here are my statistics for a week. If I take the daily average and multiple by 30, we get 51.5 GBs of usage per month. Of course your milage will vary based on your Internet usage habits, your Internet attached devices (see above), and the number of members in your household.

Finally, let's talk a bit about Microsoft's new ad with Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld, which I also posted this past week. Apparently Microsoft is investing $300 million, include $10 million to Mr. Seinfeld, in order to fight back for the long running Apple ads that have been bashing Microsoft.

I have not heard many good comments about the lengthy ad, which definitely does not call out Apple, and in fact does not even refer to Microsoft specifically until near the end (1:09 of 1:30). I think many of the industry pundits were just being too critical, and they did not step back and pick up the subtleties.
  1. If you begin with the location of the bit, a discount shoe store, it parallels the difference between Windows (discount) and Mac (higher priced).
  2. And Bill is trying a leather show, which is too tight -- I interpret the leather as being a higher price shoe (Apple), yet its going to have to stretch to fit right.
  3. On the other hand, with the Conquistador shoe, though they are "tight" to begin with a little customization (stretching; wearing in the shower) can make them fit your well.
  4. And even before the full customization, it fits better.
  5. Oh, and Bill is a 10 -- we heard that 3 times.
  6. The family outside (not looking for a new OS, err shoe) knows the Conquistador is a good shoe, yet runs a little tight.
  7. Bill's been shopping at the same place for years, he's a Platinum member, just like most Microsoft customers -- been using Windows for years.
  8. Big Top points? Working on that one.
  9. "...computers moist and chewy like cake so we can eat 'em while we're working. if it's a yes, give me a signal, adjust your shorts." Bill moves his hips -- Microsoft must have something new in store for us.
So no, it wasn't a cool, catchy ad like the ones we all like from Apple. But if we listen closely, we see that Microsoft is laying the foundation for its own story while sublimely reinforcing the Microsoft way -- lower cost and customizable how you want to customize. I'm looking forward to the next ad.

06 September, 2008

Your biggest privacy concern could be from your own ISP

Over the last 6 to 12 months there has been several battles between ISPs, users, and the government. ISPs want to choose what type of content can run on their network and how fast it should be delivered. One such example is Comcast's blocking of P2P traffic. During their FCC investigation, Comcast changed this practice, though after being ruled that it was actually illegal practice, Comcast is now challenging the ruling. For Comcast to block just P2P traffic, it had to scan all the activity on your connection to identify what part of the traffic was P2P.

In the Comcast ruling, the FCC implied that it would be legal to monitor user traffic so that illegal content could be blocked such as child pornography and copyrighted material. While we would all like to see child pornography and other nefarious activity stopped, this would require the ISP to inspect everyone's content, from banking to love letters to new job applications and everything in between. It would be interesting to see this challenged in the courts, as this seems to violate wiretapping laws.

Now we've all heard about a store or even banks either losing customer data (such as credit card numbers) or their network being breached, losing data. How long until the same thing happens to an ISP? What if that ISP had all of your surfing habits and associated content? It doesn't end here, though.

As I mentioned in my Safe and Secure Internet Surfing blog post, so ISPs are allowing third-party companies setup in their data rooms to monitor and collect information about you in exchange for a few dollars. These third-party company's, such as Phorm and NebuAd, use your Internet surfing behavior to better target advertising. Further, this is being done without your permission. No opt in; no offer to lower your ISP fee in exchange; and in some cases, no way to prevent. Fortunately, this behavior has had so much recent scrutiny that some ISPs have decided to stop projects that would have added this to their networks, and the President of NebuAd has even left for a new job.

Before I close out, let's look at one more scenario -- most ISPs are operating with a conflict of interest. The same ISP that should be delivering you content of your choice at a consistent speed as any other content, also is a provider of content themselves. For example, I currently do not have any form of cable TV or satellite TV -- any TV I watch is either through the air or over the Internet. My ISP, could throttle down my throughput (or lower the reliability) for Internet TV in hopes of getting me to buy their service which would deliver a higher quality experience. The same could be said about Internet telephone (VoIP). I can use a lower cost service such as Skype, which directly competes with my ISP's VoIP offering. Through inspecting my traffic, they could also reduce the throughput of my connection, making me want to try a different service such as their offering.

One more example. Comcast recently introduced a bandwidth cap (effective Oct 1), which has a hard penalty for violation (loss of service). The next step from Comcast is to add some exceptions to the bandwidth cap; add an exception for any Comcast content. Now if you had concerns about exceeding your bandwidth usage, you may opt to access Comcast content at times where in the past you would have looked at content from another provider. Each of these examples requires your ISP to perform deep-packet inspection to know specifically what you're doing in order for them to know how to handle the situation. This is just another situation where your ISP would have records of your Internet activity; records that they do not need to provide Internet service.

So let me conclude, ISPs such as Comcast have already demonstrated that they can and will inspect your Internet traffic to take action based on their interpretation of what you should or should not do on the Internet. Additionally, though the FCC beleive blocking certain traffic protocols such as P2P are illegal, watching for illegal content is okay, therefore all activity must be watched to locate anything illegal. We have already seen some evidence of ISPs using their "trusted" services to make more money from you through allowing third-parties monitor and track your Internet behavior. I have also established how most ISPs are operating under a conflict of interest, providing you Internet access and competing content and services. And finally, we have already witnessed organizations that we trust lose our data to nefarious hackers.

What can you do?
  • Tell your government officals how you feel about these issues, and support only those that are looking out for your best interest -- Save the Internet is a good place to start.
  • You can also notify your ISP your position, and that if they offer these new "features", you will be finding a new ISP. Here's one such resource from August 15, 2008, that lists spying ISPs.
  • Pay attention to what industry experts who care about this are saying.
    • Follow Steve Gibson: Perhaps the most well known security expert among the general public. Steve has been responsible in getting Microsoft to make many security improvements over the years. Steve, through his GRC website also provies a great utility, Shields Up, that can analyze and give you feedback aboutr the security of your computer on the Internet.
    • Follow Paul Ohm: Paul recently posted an article about the very subject I've written about here: The Greatest Threat to Privacy: The Internet Service Provider. "Paul is an Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Law School. He specializes in computer crime law, as well as Internet regulation, criminal procedure, intellectual property, and information privacy."
    • Check back here: I will do my best to summarize the many things I hear on Internet security, privacy, and the unethical behavior of ISPs.
  • Read other blogs, such as Wired's postings on Law, Online Rights, and Security.
I predict that without increased consumer involvement, this sort os privacy and security violations will gradually gain a foothold. It's time for the less Internet savvy to understand and speak up too.

05 September, 2008

04 September, 2008

What are you and your friends reading?

Goodreads is a social network for those who like to share what they read and find new books to read. I joined Goodreads and was able to easily add a dozen books that I've recently read, and provide my rating and review for each. The site is very easy to use. It's easy to find books to add that you've read and books that you want to read. Goodreads is also easy to find other readers with similar interest and ratings on books that you've considered reading.

With goodreads, you can start your own book club or join an existing one. The groups can even go a little off-topic, such as there is a group for folks to rate and discuss recent movies they watched. You can also find over 4000 authors who participate on Goodreads, as well as some author interviews. If that's not enough, you can also test your book smarts with general book trivia or triva only from books you've read.

Now I'm seeing some value out of social networking... MySpace to keep in-touch with my favorite musicians and Goodreads to socialize about the books I read.

03 September, 2008

3 iPhone Usability Tips

Tip 1: When the phone is locked, double-click the Home button to access your "iPod" volume, play/pause, forward, and backward features
Tip 2: When the iPhone is unlocked (you're using it), double-click the Home button to get to your Contact Favorites
Tip 3: (Repeat from a prior post) When apps are crashing, power your phone off and on or start and stop airplane mode

02 September, 2008

New browser from Google

Live blog from CNet Webware

Today at 11 am PST, Google will announce a new browser from the search giant, Chrome. Chrome promises to start off on the right foot with many great features.
  • Sandboxing: kill one tab while the rest of the browser tabs continue running
  • Blacklists: one for phishing and one for malware, both maintained by Google
  • Plug-ins: dedicated processes
  • Faster Javascript: designed for speed and important enough to be built by its own Google team
  • Multiprocessing: separate process for each task
  • Tabs: placed at the top of the window, giving each tab its own URL (Omnibox) box
Google has published a comic book to cover all the features.

It will be interesting to watch the responses from the current browser incumbents Microsoft (IE), Mozilla (Firefox), Apple (Safari), and Opera Software (Opera). For example, Google is signed up to be Firefox's biggest contributor through 2011, with $56 million of $66 million coming from Google in 2006.

As they say in the tech industry, only time will tell.

01 September, 2008

Comcast announces bandwidth usage cap

Effective October 1st, Comcast is putting a cap on its unlimited usage plan -- instead of unlimited bandwidth, you get 250GB per month. It looks as if first-time offenders will only be given a warning, but then any subsequent violations could result in termination of your service.

At first glance, that seems like quite a lot of bits; lets check it out. Comcast claims their average usage is 2 - 3 GB per month. From the Comcast Network Management Policy page, here's how you could use the 250 GBs.
  • Send 50 million emails (at 0.05 KB/email)
  • Download 62,500 songs (at 4 MB/song)
  • Download 125 standard-definition movies (at 2 GB/movie)
  • Upload 25,000 hi-resolution digital photos (at 10 MB/photo)
What Comcast didn't publish was a realistic look at usage. For example, Comcast left a few items off such as IM, YouTube, podcasts, and 3rd party VoIP calls. With that being said, estimating usage for a family of 4 still only exceeds the Comcast estimate by 10x (20 - 30 GB p/ month). I did not calculate for the person that works full-time from home. Now if you add in online gaming such as World of Warcraft (WoW), you have another 3 KB/s of gaming, so add another 2 GB per month. If you are a real power user, you could also be using bandwidth for backing up your PCs to the cloud. This would be a one-time hit to do a full backup, but all subsequent backups would only send what's changed.

As much as I dislike Comcast's business practices in general, I think the cap will not cause problems for most families. I think they could be more helpful and provide a bandwidth meter program, and perhaps a record of your usage over the last 6 to 12 months. I also think they should offer a higher and lower bandwidth packages, priced accordingly. Don't confuse this with net neutrality -- Comcast was not respecting net neutrality when it was cutting off P2P traffic; having tiered bandwidth packages seems reasonable. Right now, if Comcast average usage is really what they claim, they are making a lot of dough of folks at $50+ per month for only 2 - 3 GBs.

CNets Webware site is running a poll to hear what people think about this change from Comcast. Though I think it is a bit biased towards power users, it's kind of fun to read some of the comments.
I'm not so worried about today, as I don't get anywhere near 250GB. But I remember a time when downloading even 1GB was beyond people's comprehension. Who knows, maybe someday 250GB in a month won't really be that much. Especially when you consider the increase in things like rich web content, streaming radio and TV, VoIP, cloud computing, and backup services.
Comcast, already well known for being one of the nation's worth ISPs, will ensure that they maintain their title with a move like this. The first time I get a call, which will be around the middle of October, I'll be telling a Comcast rep where they can shove this Motorola modem and going with another ISP.
If you're still with me, and still with Comcast, here's a program you can use to monitor your bandwidth, BitMeter. With BitMeter, you can set ISP restrictions (i.e. 250 GB), so you can be notified before you exceed the cap.