Thursday, January 26, 2006

Starfish: Automatically generated abstract imagery

I discovered this program a few days ago. It's really quite cool - you can select a colour palette (or create your own), select the complexity, and hit Go and you have yourself a nice desktop background image. This is the one I'm using right now (click to grab the full-size 1400x1050 image):

My current desktop wallpaper

A couple of other cool features this little program has:

  • Automatically set the newest generated image as the desktop wallpaper
  • Saves "image history" for as many images as you like (I have it set to 500)
  • Allows you to generate an image of any size, with presets including your current resolution, other standard resolutions and screen fractions
  • Option to create an image every x minutes (and set it as your background if you so desire)
  • Wide selection of colour presets and you can make your own really easily
  • Save as BMP, JPG (high or low quality) or PNG
  • Choose from 0x, 2x or 4x anti-aliasing

Download Starfish here, or just grab the latest Windows installer. It's GPL software, so you should be able to find a version for your OS and if not, compile it yourself.

Here's a gallery of some of the cooler images Starfish has generated for me. You can click on the thumbnailed ones to enlarge them.

Image generated by Starfish
Image generated by Starfish
Image generated by Starfish
These ones were the background for some banners I was working on.

Image generated by Starfish Image generated by Starfish Image generated by Starfish
Image generated by Starfish Image generated by Starfish Image generated by Starfish
Image generated by Starfish Image generated by Starfish Image generated by Starfish

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Unfounded Google speculation

The other week I posted a fairly comprehensive list of all the features that Google currently offers. There's always speculation on what Google is going to do next, I'm going to write briefly about a couple of things that I would like to see Google get into. (Of course, all of this is completely unfounded and just my thoughts.)

Google Audio
Well, we already have Google Video. It doesn't sound as useful as it really is, in my opinion. First of all, Google now have a pay service similar to what's also being offered in the iTunes Music Store: selling DRM'd downloads of TV shows, etc. through the Google Video Store. There was quite a bit of controversy over their announcement to use their own brand of DRM in the videos.

However, Google Video is a great way to distribute video in a lot of cases. First off, Google hosts the files, which basically means free bandwidth. (BitTorrent limits the amount of bandwidth used by the original "server", but it's still not as good as getting Google to do it for you for free.) Second, their Flash player is mint. It has all the features you should really need for playing web videos, it loads fast and streams the content pretty much without skipping, at least for me. The main reason I use it is to get lower-quality re-encodes of some of the more popular "videocasts" on the internet, like Systm. I can stream those shows straight from Google, without having to download them and delete them when I'm done - and the total file size is significantly smaller (I'm not overly concerned about getting the best quality from most of these vidcasts).

So, what I think we need is Google Audio, and frankly, I'm surprised they didn't either release this before Google Video or integrate it with it, making Google Media or something. First off, it would be a nice way for some people to distribute podcasts (for example, if you like to listen to them on the PC rather than actually loading them onto an iPod or similar, streaming is probably a better way to go). It would also be nice to have an easy way to search for audio, and I don't mean pirated mp3s but things like free sound effects (for amateur games, video editing et cetera), quotes, and such. Finally, it would pretty much mean that there is no longer a reason to use AllTheWeb, though I don't know how significant a competitor they are. (Yes, I am aware of using filetype:mp3 et al, but a separate audio search with 10-second previews and in-browser watching like Google Video would be very nice.)

Google Wallet
I know I'm definitely not the first one to think of this, whereas I haven't really seen much interest in the Google Audio idea, I know there are a lot of people that want something from Google (or indeed, any other company would be nice too) that replaces PayPal.

There are a few reasons for this. First, PayPal sucks. has a whole slew of reasons why, and if that's not enough to convince you, try this article on SomethingAwful on the whole PayPal fuckup they experienced while collecting donations.

Secondly, any competition in the market is good. I still would like to see some sort of functional service dealing in micropayments.

Oh well, here's hoping. Hey, all those people waiting for Google IM were shot down, but then Google brought out Google Talk...

For more unfounded Google-related speculation, check out GoogleRumors. (Here's an article on "Google Wallet".)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

BitTorrent Ultra and

I don't know much about, but I'm tempted to recommend that you stay the hell away from it.

They seem to be reviewing absolutely any p2p-related software without even running it, dumping the summary from the author's website and posting a screenshot. They're covered by Google News which means that in my opinion, they're getting a lot more readers than they deserve.

Take for example the Google Alert that I received this morning regarding a new BitTorrent client, BitTorrent Ultra. The name immediately set off alarm bells for me since it implies that this client shits on everything else out there (like BitLord). Of course, this usually means that it's simply a rip of another client with adware installed (like BitLord).

Here's the "review" posted on of BitTorrent Ultra. The "internal rating" - I guess that means what the staff have rated it as - is 4.5/5. Ha.

If you want to download movies super fast and music too then you need to download BitTorrent Ultra.
Another warning that this is probably a shitty rip of another client.

So, I headed off to their website to check out their "ultra" client. Lo and behold, the software is a rip of Bram Cohen's original BitTorrent client (the "mainline" client), as evidenced by this screenshot. Bandwidth stolen from the developers:

A screenshot of the BitTorrent Ultra download screen.

I'm going to ignore the point that the developers are clearly incapable of taking a screenshot (that's the highest resolution version available) and point out that not only is this a ripoff of the mainline client, it's an old, old ripoff. BitTorrent hasn't looked like that since before v4.0.0 was released, IIRC, which was in early March 2005. At least BitLord is using a relatively recent version of BitComet's source.

In summary, BitTorrent Ultra is a "new kid on the block" in the world of BitTorrent, featuring all the features of BitTorrent from a year ago, plus a mirror of BitTorrent's documentation with "Ultra" appended to every instance of the word BitTorrent. It also features a new program icon and probably a shitload of malware! Download it now. Or don't, because it's the shittiest client I've seen so far.

(If anybody wants to install this crap to find out exactly how much malware is in it, be my guest, and leave a comment here.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

DeDRM device

I don't understand why nobody has developed and released such a device before (maybe it's been done, but I just haven't noticed).

The way I see it, the ideal device would be a small box with two ports in it: one standard "stereo minijack" port (3.5mm wide, the type of port found in most sound cards and audio players such as the iPod) and one USB mini type B port (found in most cameras, takes the plug pictured right depicted here). Of course, the box would have to look cool in order to sell it to existing iPod owners.

Internal hardware would transform the analog audio from the stereo jack to a WAV or some other lossless stereo format (WAV is probably the best as it would probably require the least processing power to produce) and pipe it out via the USB port (which can be connected to a PC using a standard camera cable, included of course).

The device would come with software to interface with it and capture the audio stream, transferring it to a .wav file on disk. The software could also feature optional encoding to save disk space, but more importantly, it should be open-source or at least open-protocol, so that power users can improve the software (since hardware manufacturers always seem to make it utterly crap, except Apple) or write their own to interface with the device. (Why do software makers do this anyway? What possible financial gain do they have from using proprietary software and protocols just to support their hardware? Open-source makes it easier for people to fix problems themselves, and would increase sales to the "geek community" - for example, the success of the Linksys WRT54G router, which supports firmware mods because it's open-source.)

Another more expensive and unnecessary way of doing this would be to put some sort of flash memory chip onto the device and dumping the WAVs/compressed audio onto there, but this would greatly increase the cost. However, it would allow the device to double as a USB flash drive.

The reason for this? It would be a simple solution to all the DRM problems. First off, you wouldn't have to wait for someone to crack the encryption on a given DRM system just to load it onto your unsupported music player (assuming someone does it at all). Second, it would increase the popularity of online music purchases (people who don't buy due to DRM) and allow music that is only available on "protected" CDs to be extracted. Thirdly, the only way to block its use would be to force the user to use a proprietary audio player with special headphones/speakers.

Also, making the interface application or protocol open-source, or just dumping the files in WAV format would allow people to re-encode the music however they like, FLAC, MP3, OGG, whatever, depending on what they prefer and their music player supports. It would allow Linux and Mac users to use the device once someone had written an app to support it (since I'd imagine this would be quite popular with the "geek community", that probably wouldn't take long). Using the stereo jack also allows input to be captured from radios, CD players, PCs and audio players, depending on where the original source is.

There are a couple of weaknesses to the system; one, the audio is arguably lower quality due to being converted from digital to analog and then back again (and then re-encoded). This would be something to take into consideration when ripping from CDs and other high-quality sources, but downloaded DRM'd audio is usually encoded at relatively low quality anyway (at least low enough that it would probably be more significant than any quality loss from the conversion process). It could also feature an optical port if that is something that people really wanted.

Why hasn't any company produced this yet? Probably because of lawsuit concerns. But as far as I can see, this would fall under fair use in the United States (and I imagine most other places), and would sell quite well. Maybe I'm just deluded about how much DRM really annoys people, but if I had the money I would build and sell this myself.

Friday, January 13, 2006

P2P Scams

I've probably ranted about this before, but peer-to-peer scam sites piss me off.

Basically, they're sites that trick you into thinking they're legal download services - they then charge you a nominal fee (sometimes one-time, sometimes monthly) and give you a freeware p2p app and some crappy documentation.

I've found a really helpful reference site with regard to these scams: For most people with a reasonable level of Internet and p2p literacy, it won't be a problem to discern between what is and isn't a scam site (in short, there are very few legal download services, and most of them are reasonably well-known such as iTunes, Napster, Yahoo Music, etc). But this site is a helpful reference to hand out to people who aren't as computer-literate as you.

It explains exactly how the scams work (basically, they are able to stay relatively legal by just having in the fine print "you should ensure that you have permission of the copyright holder before downloading any copyrighted material over a p2p network"), and has a fairly comprehensive list of scam sites. They're arranged, basically, by what they spoof as, for example, the LimeWire section currently includes 9 different LimeWire scam sites as well as linking to the official LimeWire website.

A useful reference, especially if you don't have the heart to tell someone that they are downloading music illegally and are paying some scammer $40 a year for the privilege.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Apple MacBook Pro and new iMac: the first Intel Macs

MacWorld Keynote Announces x86 iMac & Laptop, via Slashdot

Resized image of the MacBook Pro

As you can see, the new Apple laptop, the MacBook Pro, looks very similar to what's basically its predecessor, the PowerBook G4. It, along with the new iMac, is the first computer deployed by Apple using an Intel x86 chip.

Now that we have Apple computers using x86 chips (and OS X written to run on x86 hardware), it should be possible to use Windows and OS X on the same computer. (I believe that people have done this before, but this should make it a lot easier - ie. eventually the "average" user could do it, even.) I can't see Apple selling OS X to non-Mac hardware, but I imagine that with a bit of modifying you could install Windows onto the new x86 Macs. It's an interesting idea, and we'll have to wait and see if anyone pulls it off. If this happens, I'll certainly be a lot more interested in picking up one of these MacBooks to replace my existing laptop (when I finally get around to it). Though at this stage they look nice enough to replace it anyway, since I've given up completely on the idea of gaming on a laptop: it's too expensive, and doesn't last for long.

The other thing that interested me about the MacBook is that it's the first mainstream laptop using a dual-core processor. (I could be wrong here, but I've never heard of one before.) Apple is playing the new "Intel Core Duo" chip up a fair bit (presumably it won't be available outside a Mac for a while yet, if at ever), quoting for example a 2.2x increase in "playing speed" (I assume this means framerate) on Doom 3 compared to a 1.67Ghz PowerMac G4.

Something else that is in my opinion incredibly cool is the new "MagSafe" power connector.

The MagSafe connector.

Brilliant idea if you ask me. Basically, the connector is attached by a magnet (I assume they've done everything necessary to ensure that it doesn't cause any of the usual magnet + hard disk = bad problems), which means that if someone trips over it, a lot less damage occurs. I don't usually have problems with people tripping over my power cord, but I guess some people do.

Some other things that aren't unique to the MacBook but certainly good ideas for laptops are the optical sound jack built-in, and the backlit keyboard. (I assume that you can disable backlighting.) Something else interesting that I would probably want to disable - but it would certainly be good to see how well it worked - is the automatic screen brightness adjustment. The MacBook detects the amount of ambient light and adjusts the brightness accordingly, assumedly to save your eyes and battery life. The scrolling trackpad seems nice too - you get similar functionality to the trackball on a Mighty Mouse - by putting two fingers on the trackpad instead of just one, and dragging around. However, they still have one mouse button on the trackpad. Apple fans always seem to say "the default mouse has only one button, but it will work with any USB mouse" - but why bother? The "simplistic" argument is pretty much obsolete, as most people using Macs are computer-literate enough to differentiate between left and right-clicking.

Oh, and the MacBook comes with all of Apple's "media centre" stuff - Front Row, their Windows MCE equivalent (it's basically just added on to OS X), including a remote, and built in iSight (webcam) with omnidirectional microphone.

Something that I'm still looking for that none of the "build it yourself online" companies offer, at least to my knowledge: a Dvorak keyboard. I'm mainly looking at this for a laptop. The reason is that most laptop keyboards are specific to that model - often not even different similar models from the same company share keyboards. This means that a Dvorak keyboard is something best done by the manufacturers. There is certainly no difficulty in implementing this that doesn't already exist with the customer being able to choose their processor, RAM etc; it's not like the keyboard is soldered onto the motherboard. (I've replaced my laptop keyboard three times.) Probably an easier way of doing this is just for someone to develop a standard form factor for a keyboard, so I don't have to look all over eBay to find a replacement keyboard for my laptop. Dell won't give me one (or even let me buy one).

The tech specs page for the MacBook is fairly extensive, and provides a number of interesting snippets of info that aren't as obviously "promoted" as the other features. First, there's a lithium-polymer (LiPo) battery, not lithium-ion (Li-ion). Lithium-polymer (technically, lithium ion polymer) batteries are newer than regular lithium-ion batteries as they can be modelled in a much wider variety of shapes, unlike Li-ion which is generally conformed to the "brick" shape. This is one technique that it seems Apple have used to keep the MacBook thin - the battery is thin, but quite wide and square. (See this picture of it on the Apple website.) Also, the MacBook comes with a DVI to VGA adapter - there is no VGA output on the computer. It comes with built in gigabit ethernet, FireWire, Bluetooth and 802.11g WiFi. Finally, it uses a SATA hard disk which can be from 80 to 120GB.

Dammit, I want one.. unfortunately, one of the areas that Macs have traditionally suffered in is price. Apple Store Australia is currently selling the MacBook for $3200 (~US $2400) or $4000 (~US $3000), depending on which flavour you choose. The US store sells them for $2000 or $2500, which as you can see, means we don't really get the best price, and end up being out-of pocket $400 or 500 USD (AU$530 - 670). Stupid currency.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Google feature list

Here's a list I've just gone through of everything I could find out that Google runs right now. That is, their additional services other than the regular search engine. It's incredible how much stuff they've actually got here.

These features are full web applications deserving of their own website - and usually have their own (sub)domain. Despite many of them being labelled as 'beta' releases, they are widely used and generally very stable.
Google SearchIt seems obvious, but I'm putting it here anyway. Google's main search engine, one of the most popular in the world, uses their PageRank technology to ensure the accuracy and integrity of search results, and the AdSense program to turn a profit from the service by allowing businesses to place "sponsored links" which appear (separate to normal results) in searches featuring given keywords. Google has also localized their search engine into a number of other languages.
Google Image SearchGoogle's image searching feature. This is quite an old one and known by most people, it searches both in the filename of the image and in the text surrounding the image, should it be embedded in or linked from an HTML page.
Google VideoThis is relatively new. Google has written their own Flash-based video player and you can use Google Search to search the catalogue of videos, and view them right in your browser. (You used to have to download an external application to view the videos, which was based on VLC.) At the moment, the "pay to view TV episodes" aspect hasn't yet been released, but you can use it to view a number of other web videos - most of them being "funny" or "cool" videos and Internet fads. I don't know how, but Video re-encodes all the videos to a reasonable quality which makes them fast to load. Pretty much all of the videos are available in higher quality from their original source, but this is definitely a good starting point to see if you like a videocast, for example.
Google AnswersA service where Google-qualified "Researchers" - web searching experts - will answer users' questions for a fee. Also one of Google's very old services, but not very well-known. After your question has been answered, the answer is fully viewable by the public for free.
Google Book SearchThis used to be called Google Print. Allows you to search the full text of books and read a limited number of sample pages, as well as providing a link to a place where the book can be purchased.
Google LabsThis is the page that most of Google's "beta" features are listed on while they are still under construction. Completed features integrated into the main search engine are listed here.
Google Web AcceleratorA plugin for Internet Explorer or Firefox that uses precaching and other techniques in order to "accelerate" browsing. It gives you an indicator of the "total time saved".
Google SuggestAutomatically suggests the search query you're typing in based on what ranks highest beginning with the letters you've typed so far using JavaScript. Has some basic censoring on it.
Google Personalized HomepageThis is sort of like a "web portal" that you can use as your homepage, where you can customize what appears on it in addition to the regular Google search. "Modules" that can be embedded include Gmail messages, news from several major outlets or an RSS feed and "quote of the day" and "word of the day".
Google MailOriginally known as Gmail, this is Google's email service. It's an AJAX-based webmail system with 2.6GB of storage at the moment - storage is continually increasing (see the Gmail homepage). A sidenote for Gmail users: you can use this link after logging in to force the "basic HTML" view instead of the advanced AJAX version of Gmail if you wish.
Google Maps/LocalGives you maps for all of the US and a large part of the UK, as well as satellite imagery for pretty much the whole world in decent detail. Google Local gives you directions to and from certain points, and allows you to find street addresses and phone numbers for local businessese if you're searching in a supported area.
Google DesktopA sidebar for Windows keeping convenient information in one place. Supports a number of interesting features (including Desktop Search, another Google app) and extensions, allowing anyone to write a module for it.
Google AlertsEmails you on a daily, weekly or realtime basis with updates to specific searches (for example, entering "George W. Bush" and selecting "News" will email you whenever a new story about GWB pops up on Google News).
Google DeskbarA Windows toolbar that you can stick on your taskbar. Features a plugin architecture.
Google GroupsGoogle's version of Usenet. It doesn't carry binaries, and is oriented towards the original point of Usenet (ie. discussion). Features a number of things introduced in Gmail including "starred" topics, and tracks a list of the most recent groups used. Also has a great interface for creating your own group. I send email updates of my blog using a Google Group - users subscribe using the link on the right. I'm the only one authorized to post to this group, so I post whenever I update, and subscribers receive an email alert.
Google ToolbarAvailable for IE and Firefox - and the page updates automatically with the correct version based on the browser you use to access it - this is pretty much the original Google tool. Features a search bar, PageRank info, Blogger links, find-in-page search and a whole lot more.
Google Blog SearchA search engine that indexes only blogs. However, Google's definition of a blog is somewhat inaccurate. Blogs are defined to the search engine as content syndicated using RSS or Atom.
FroogleGoogle's shopping search engine. Searches online prices for any item and allows you to search them by a number of criteria. (The name is a pun on "frugal".)
Google NewsAutomatically creates a customizable "front page" based on the most popular stories from "over 4,000 news sources" with links to original sources. Also provides access to a fully-searchable archive of news links that goes back about 2 months.
Google TalkA basic IM client running on the Jabber network. Its main features are the Gmail integration and voice support.
These features are complete and stable, but are merely included as "add-ons" to the main Google Search service.
Google ScholarSearches peer-reviewed journals, et cetera.
Google DefinitionsJust type "define" into your search query, and Google will return a definition of the following term as the top result for you. Usually.
Google MoviesGives you movie showtimes in the US, and movie reviews, based on the movie name or keyword.
Google SnippetsThis is just my name for a feature in Google that will cause it to return an answer at the top of the search results to certain common questions. This information is not hand-picked, and it's difficult to predict what works, but typically "how old is " and some other set phrases tend to work well.
Google CalculatorPerforms calculations and conversions. For example, currency conversions such as this or this, unit conversions like this, this or this.
Language ToolsAllows you to translate a block of text or webpage between various languages, as well as perform language and country-specific searches. Similar to Babelfish. According to the Wikipedia article, Google is working on a method of machine translation to supplement this using statistical analysis using UN documents (which must be translated into a number of languages).
Google DirectorySimilar to the way Yahoo works (or worked for a while), Google Directory organizes websites into categories and allows you to browse from there. Useful if you don't know where to start keyword-wise.
Special SearchesA bit of a relic really, but allows you to make a search confined toa few select categories, such as Windows, BSD, US Government or University. Not particularly useful with tools like the site: operator.
These features are likely to become fully-functional at some stage in the future, but at the moment have too little functionality, cover too little area, or are too unstable to be counted among the above features.
Google TransitA trip planner using public transport, similar to services offered by most local public transport authorities, for example Transperth's Journey Planner. At the moment, it only has data for Portland.
Google Ride FinderSimilar to Google Transit, except watched taxis, shuttles etc. too, and they're updated in real-time. It also supports several US cities.
Google ReaderA DHTML-based RSS aggregator.
Google Personalized SearchThis tracks your search history when you are logged in in order to provide you with better, "personalized" results. A bit creepy if you ask me.
Google CatalogsA repository of scanned-in print catalog/catalogues, searchable using OCR.
Google BaseEssentially a user-created database of content that will eventually show up in regular Google searches, too (which is presumably the big attraction). However, as it is currently in beta, Base content is not dumped directly into regular Google web crawls yet. Rather than me try to explain it (since I don't use it myself), it's better to look at the Wikipedia article since that has some info on it which will hopefully expand over time.
Google MobileA "lite" version of Google designed for mobile phones. Following the link on a PC will take you to Google's page with info about it. It is possible to get "mobile" versions of Google in XHTML (also accessible via a regular web browser) and WML, and there is even an iMode version. These pages also allow you to search the "mobile web", a feature currently in beta that searches only pages designed for mobile devices.
Google SMSA subset of Google Mobile that allows you to perform queries by sending an SMS to Google. Includes Google Local and phone book information as demonstrated by the main page.
Google PackThis new "feature" bundles a bunch of web "essentials" in the one download. Currently, it only supports Windows XP. It's still in beta, and Google's accepting sugggestions for things to have added to the Pack. It's fully customizable - you can add and remove programs as you see fit. Includes the Google Updater - a brilliant tool that keeps track of all the software supported by the Pack - regardless of whether the Pack installed it - and keeps it up to date. Google claims that it neither gives nor receives money for including these packages. Interestingly, it includes a special edition of Norton Anti-Virus with a free six-month subscription.
These features are not as useful as others mentioned here, and are usually released as a joke or "proof of concept".
Google SetsYou type in a number of related items, and it creates a "set" of other items that are related. For example, typing in "Clerks" and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" turns up other Kevin Smith films.
Google XThis feature was released by Google, then abandoned after a day, probably due to legal concerns. It's basically a ripoff of Apple's OS X "dashbar", providing access to a number of Google searches from the one place with some funky DHTML animation. The site linked above, as far as I can tell, is the same as the original Google X, though it contains a "Hosted by" advertisement. An "enhanced" version is also available from the same site.
Google MoonA Google Maps spinoff with satellite imagery of part of the Moon. When you zoom in far enough, the image is replaced with cheese. Yes, I spoiled the joke. Sorry.
These features are or are based on software written by other companies that have since been acquired by Google.
Google EarthBought from Keyhole, this software provides an interactive 3D globe model, allowing you to zoom into street-level satellite imagery in many places. Features placemarking, GPS device support (in the "pro" version), overlays, and Google-supplied layers including city info like locations of schools, ATMs, hotels, et cetera, road maps for many areas, 3D models of significant buildings in some parts of the US and 3D terrain info for most of the world. Also features "fly-bys" where the software "jumps" from one place to another, which can be automated in areas that support generation of driving directions and from which movies can be generated (with the "pro" version).
Google AnalyticsBased on software created by Urchin, this is a full-featured analytics program that Google was offering for free. It's similar to Web Side Story. Analytics is no longer open to the public due to high demand for the service. Luckily I was one of the ~300 000 who got in before they closed signups, however, Google has indicated that signups will eventually be reopened.
BloggerAcquired by Google but not rebranded, this is Google's blogging service. I'm using it right now.

A similar list of Google features is available on Wikipedia, though mine is at this stage more extensive.

Got any suggestions for additions to this list, or have a problem with one of the entries? Add a comment and I'll make the changes if I agree with you.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Anti-MySpace Manifesto

Let's continue on from my previous rant on the suckiness of petition sites...

MYSPACE SUCKS - a truly revolutionary petition. Soon it will reach 1 000 000 signatures and then the creators will march on the steps of their respective federal governments to get MySpace shut down. Why, with comments like this, how can they not succeed?

"i humped a squirrel and then had sex with it in the street n a bird shit on my leg n i licked it n put it up my ass"
"Im a Fag"
"myspace sucks hairy ball sacks, so fuck all u! N STICK A DICK UP UR BUTT!"
"im so nonconformist that im not gonna conform to this petition."
"myspace sucks hairy ball sacks, so fuck all u! N STICK A DICK UP UR BUTT!"
"Ya'll nigga's is stupid. The only reason you don't like my space is cause you to dumb to know how to use it. You proberbly don't even know what it's 4."
"FUCK MYSPACE!!!! SUM1 plz hack into that shit and destroy it!"
I decided to get right onto that request, namely "SUM1 plz hack into that shit and destroy it". , and after some Googling, I discovered this article on Kuro5hin: MySpace: A Place For Dolts. Apparently, MySpace is shittier than I ever imagined.
As you probably inferred, I am guilty of participating in this never ending bandwidth party online. It's popular for the same reason AIM became popular: it's trendy, computer-illiterate people can manage to make it "go", and consequently 'everyone else is using it'.
There are artifacts of past features where they used to be, saying "This feature no longer exists here. Go here instead." I think there are three or four of these just on the post-login page alone, and though it would be justifiable for the first week after the disappearance, they DON'T GO AWAY. I'm sure I could think of more with very little effort, but I'm going to leave it at this third and final damning trace of stupidity: the Extended Network feature.
You see, when you sign up for MySpace, you instantly have your first friend. You're immediately best buddies with the most popular person on MySpace: Tom. Now, to understand the stupidity of this, you have to understand that this is a social networking mechanism; if I'm friends with John and John is friends with Sally, then Sally is syllogistically my friend, and if I visit her profile it will tell me just that: "Sally is in your extended network". But if EVERYONE is friends with Tom, then there might as well not be an extended network feature at all, and he is defeating the purpose of his time and his website. Basically what I'm saying is, Tom is a dumbshit.
This has a whole bunch of info about a particular MySpace exploit. Apparently, there have been many others, too.

I decided to move on and look for other MySpace related sites, and found The Anti-MySpace Manifesto: Why MySpace Sucks And So Do You. This should provide an entertaining read, until I come back with my next post on MySpace. I'm working on a Weekend Web-style thing for it, unoriginal bastard that I am.

Time reform

What is the big appeal of the current time system? It is completely outdated, and damn confusing.

First off, I'm not about to say that the year be changed to some sort of metrically significant number of days or anything like that, because I have at least a cursory understanding of how these things work in heliocentric terms.

But come on, let's think of the things that could be changed. For one, time zones. I see absolutely no practical use in time zones, to tell you the truth. Let's go over the advantages of time zones:

  • When talking to someone in a different time zone, you can say "I woke up at 5am this morning", and they will understand that that is quite an early time to be waking up.
  • You can have a New Year's party at night.
What about the disadvantages?
  • Every time you cross time zones, you have to readjust your watch, computer, PSP, iPod, whatever the fuck else you are carrying around with an inbuilt clock.
  • Something else that has to be taught to kids.
  • Describing this method as "time" is technically incorrect, when the "time" is different in different parts of the world. It's just the position of the sun where you are. Time is the same everywhere in the universe.
  • Everybody thinks that everybody knows their time zone. I only know the ones local to me, plus GMT. Sorry, I have no idea what time zone Pacific Time, or Mountain Time, or any of the other time zones are. Just WST, EST and GMT. (That's AWST and AEST.) The fact that you probably don't know what those time zones are, if you're not Australian, indicates that timezones suck. This is easily fixed by referring to your timezone by its number, eg. +8 for AWST, but no, nobody does that.
I'm not proposing anything radical like "you live in this area, so your 9 - 5 work hours run during the night and you sleep during the day". How about we just get rid of the significance of each point in time to the Sun's position (ie. 11am is no longer just before noon) and operate on Greenwich Mean Time or something? I don't live in Greenwich, but I'm not such a patriot that I would take offense to using British time because I want to go to bed at 11 o'clock or something (but I'm sure many people would, unfortunately). Seriously, where is the problem if you now wake up at 11pm on an average day and go to bed at 3pm? Of course, this raises issues with the whole concept of the "day", as your "day" now spans two dates.

Time sucks. I can't be bothered ranting on this topic anymore, but suffice to say that there are much better ways to deal with things without getting into timezones and shit. Bleh.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

DSL, ADSL, ADSL2, ADSL2+ in Australia

It seems there is a bit of confusion over these four terms, which are all thrown around a lot, particularly here in Australia where DSL-based connections are generally the best and fastest options available for broadband-speed internet. They also have reasonably wide availability.

First, what is DSL? DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line, and it's a last-mile Internet technology (ie. between the telephone exchange / central office and the home) that allows you to send digital information over the phone line at a much higher bit rate than a dial-up modem, which is the other option for transmitting data over the phone line.

DSL does this by operating at a higher frequency than regular phone signals (devices operating on the normal phone spectrum such as phones, fax machines and dial-up modems are known as "POTS" devices, for Plain Old Telephone Service). This means that with the use of filtering technology, POTS services can run uninterrupted on the same line at the same time as DSL. You can read more about how exactly DSL achieves this at the Wikipedia article on DSL.

Most Australian ISPs are marketing "broadband internet" as internet that is faster and does not "tie up your phone line" while you're using it (as opposed to dial-up). Most of the time, they are talking about ADSL. This stands for Asynchronous DSL, and it essentially means that your upload speed is not as fast as your download speed (although technically, it would be possible to have an ADSL plan with faster upload speed than download speed, this is practically useless for 95% of users).

Recently (ie. over 2005), Australian ISPs other than Telstra (the owner of all the copper wiring and telephone exchanges / central offices) have begun installing their own DSLAMs in exchanges. These have been marketed in quite a confusing way. DSLAM stands for DSL Access Multiplexer, and a DSLAM must be installed in the telephone exchange to multiplex (combine) communications between DSL users connected to that exchange, and transport them to the ISPs high-bandwidth backbone. To clarify that, it performs two major functions: it acts as a DSL modem to convert the signals received over the phone lines into data that other transmission hardware can understand, and it combines all the data being transmitted over all those lines into one big stream that can be transported over a single line (typically a high-bandwidth fiber optic line that is connected to the ISPs backbone, and from there, to the server that the user was trying to reach).

This means two things: first, that Telstra would have had to install DSLAMs into all exchanges to offer DSL in the first place - and that other ISPs, starting with iiNet, were doing nothing "original" by installing DSLAMs, and second, that people who say that DSL is better than cable because you get your own line instead of sharing bandwidth with your neighbours are wrong. While the problem is not as bad, all people hooked up to one DSLAM (typically around 50) are limited by the bandwidth of the fiber optic line connected to the backbone. However (hypothesizing here), most fiber optic lines operate at gigabit speeds and higher, so that still leaves 20 Mbps for each of the 50 users on a DSLAM, assuming full utilization (and no ISP would be able to survive if all users were maxing out their connection constantly). This is in contrast to cable, which frequently leaves users with an equivalent of less than a megabit each if link speeds are maxed out.

Anyway, the reason that ISPs began installing their own DSLAMs is because Telstra artificially limits all ADSL connections that they wholesale or retail to a maximum speed of 1500/256 - that is, 1500 Kbps download, and 256 Kbps upload. The ADSL specification allows up to 8 Mbps (8000 Kbps, more than 5 times Telstra's limit) download and 1 Mbps (roughly 4 times Telstra's limit) upload, so at first, it seems like Telstra are just screwing their customers.

However, there is a good reason for their limit, although it is a little excessive. As the length of the copper line between the home and the exchange increases, the ADSL signal is degraded significantly, such that at any distance over 5 km, ADSL is essentially useless. Telstra will provide ADSL access to any customer within roughly 4.1 km of the nearest exchange (keep in mind that this is the copper line distance, not the direct distance of a straight line between your house and the exchange). This is why most regional customers can't get ADSL. At that distance, connection speeds of approximately up to 3.5 Mbps are possible, but as a lot of the copper lines are of low quality, and most users opt to "self-install" ADSL using microfilters (aka inline filters) rather than a central splitter, line quality can be degraded significantly. Therefore, Telstra offers a maximum speed of 1.5 Mbps so that they can effectively guarantee a 1.5 Mbps sync speed to anyone within the 4.1 km limit. This is best demonstrated by a graph.

Graph exhibiting ADSL, ADSL2, ADSL2+, ReADSL and Telstra's ADSL performance over distance
Source: Internode, created from data by Consultel with permission.

At the moment, we're looking at ADSL (blue) and Telstra (red). As you can see, they have a comfortable margin in which to operate. (I'll discuss ADSL2 and 2+ later, but just so you know, READSL stands for "Reach Extended ADSL", and its a fairly self-explanatory idea. It provides ADSL to distant customers, although it is not yet widely available.)

So that's why iiNet's 8 Mbps internet connections seemed so special at the time they were released, despite the fact that all they did was purchase essentially the same hardware as Telstra without installing limiting software on it.

As for ADSL2 and 2+, those are more powerful versions of ADSL, basically. I won't go into the specifics of how they work, but as you can see from the graph, their advantage over ADSL is really only noticeable within 2 km of the telephone exchange. Both retain the 1 Mbps upload speed from vanilla ADSL, but ADSL2 allows up to 12 Mbps downstream, and ADSL2+ 24 Mbps. To operate at those sort of speeds, in addition to living close to the exchange, you'll need to have an ADSL2/2+-compatible DSL modem. Obviously, the ISPs DSLAMs need to be compatible with 2+ as well, currently only iiNet, Adam Internet and Internode have their own DSLAMs, with iiNet having the largest number of them. Currently, all three support ADSL2+ on their networks, but Telstra's DSLAMs don't. Telstra has stated that they will support ADSL2+ in 2006, but I have my doubts as to whether this would happen; surely if they were going to offer a service that is only useful to a tiny percentage of their customer base (those using 2+ speeds and within 2km of the exchange) they would have started by uncapping the regular ADSL connections to 8 Mbps, and they announced that back in March.