Friday, June 29, 2007

iDay Is Here!

The iPhone goes on sale today. Now we will see if Apple's manufacturing, distribution and quality control are as good as its design and promotion capabilities.

Will the iPhone be another iPod? Or will it be a Newton or a Zune?
Tomorrow and for the foreseeable future, the news will be all about the SNAFUs and problems that happen with iPhone and about how customers have been disappointed. The story will no longer be about what an amazing thing that Steve Jobs has wrought.

Among stock traders, there is a saying; "Buy on rumor, sell on fact." According to this wisdom, if the word on the street is that XYZ Corp. is going to be acquired, you ought to buy XYZ Corp. stock. When the deal is announced, sell it. If you followed this wisdom, you bought AAPL stock in early January when the iPhone was rumored and you sell it today. If you did that, you paid about $85 per share and right now you can sell for about $122 per share. That is a gain of 44% over 6 months. Not bad.
And what about AT&T which provides phone service for the iPhone? This is not Alexander Graham Bell's AT&T. It is the bastard child of Wall Street, having been cobbled together after the telecom bust.

The powers that be at AT&T know all about junk bonds, leveraged buyouts and corporate restructuring (AKA layoffs). They know how to play hardball. It remains to be seen if they can work with Apple and provide the technology, customer service and innovation that iPhone customers will expect.

I own a few shares of AAPL. But I am not selling today or any time soon. I didn't buy the stock because of the iPhone. I didn't buy it because of the iPod or the iMac either. The iPod is an attractive business because of its market share. The iMac certainly has its partisans, but I would not be surprised to see it sold to Lenovo before long.

The reason why I like Apple's stock over the long term is iTunes. What I like about iTunes is that it has a dominant position in the digital music business. The digital music business has "increasing returns to scale," and I believe that Apple can parlay this position in digital music into a dominant position in online movies and television shows. This means lots of upside for Apple and its shareholders, including me.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Power Protection

I've written before about power outages, surges, brownouts, etc. and the problems they cause for information technology and the people who depend on IT (i.e., everyone). Check it out.

Unfortunately, for political reasons, these problems are not going to be resolved in our lifetimes. So, today I have some practical advice for dealing with one of the power issues that you and I will encounter -- transient fluctuations in power, which are commonly refered to as power surges, spikes and dips. (Spikes contain high voltages but usually last only a few milliseconds, as opposed to longer, but lower voltage power surges.)

Following a thunderstorm which passed through our area last week, our shop experienced a "surge" of repair business (data recovery) from people and businesses whose computers were fried by the storm. How can we help people avoid these catastrophies?

In the United States, the Alternating Current voltage standard oscillates between +120 volts, through 0 volts, to -120 volts at a rate of 60 complete back-and-forth cycles every second.

Power fluctuations outside the norm can happen for many different reasons. For example electrical appliances and equipment cycling on and off can cause transient dips and surges. However, minor fluctuations are not a problem for most modern electrical equipment. For example, all but the cheapest computer equipment has the capability to handle transient power surges. And such equipment handles transient dips in voltage by drawing more current (amps) to deliver constant power (watts).

Placing a surge protector between your electrical equipment and the wall plug generally does you no good, except if your equipment has no ability to handle surges. On the other hand, there's no sure way to know if your equipment has that capability short of opening it up and looking for Metal Oxide Varistors (MOVs) inside (most brand-name and business-grade PCs have MOV's in their power supplies).

Unfortunately, a false sense of security is not the worst-case scenario for connecting your PC, for example, to a surge protector. Depending upon the design of the surge protector, voltage surges and spikes on the phase wire will be dumped to either the neutral or the ground wires or both. Depending upon the size of the spike and local variables like the specs of the premises wiring and the distance to the earth ground, the (diverted) surge may travel to the PC through the neutral or the ground wires. If a diverted surge reaches the PC, bypassing the PC's surge protections, frying the PC, the surge protector ironically will have caused the PC's demise.

In the event of a thunderstorm, where the electrical potential of each lightning bolt may be 100 million volts, and each bolt can carry 50,000 amps of current, it is impossible to predict how currents will flow in the vicinity of a lightning strike.

So, even if your electrical equipment is turned completely off, it may be damaged in a thunderstorm if it is merely plugged in. That is because with all those volts around, the current can arc over the small distances separating the wires inside your surge protector and/or your electrical equipment. And, the spike can travel from anywhere; the air, the earth, the ground wire, the phone line, the cable TV line, the computer network lines, etc. And we're not only talking about the effects of a direct lightning strike. These effects can be caused by a lightning strike on a utility pole miles away or a tree down the block.

In conclusion; how do you protect your valuable electronic equipment from transient fluctuations in power, which are commonly refered to as power surges, spikes and dips? Dips are not a problem. Surges are not a problem. Spikes are a problem and there is nothing you can do about them except to unplug all your equipment in the event of a thunderstorm in your area.

This is an unresonable prescription for most of us. What if we are away from our home or office when the storm hits? Then all we can do is carry insurance to cover our losses if our equipment is fried. Insurance will generally not cover the value of data lost, so, archive your persistent records to permanent media (DVDs) and backup your dynamic files regularly to online, offsite storage.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


I have a project that I am doing on spec. It involves a lot of text processing.

I've experimented with MS Word macros, but I cannot do everything I want to easily in Word. To borrow an example from O'Reilly's Learning Python, "Suppose you need to replace any occurrence of "red pepper" or "green pepper" with "bell pepper" if and only if they occur together in a paragraph before the word "salad," but not if they are followed (with no space) by the string "corn." That's definitely way out of Word's wildcards' league." I also don't want/need Word's GUI, spell check, and all the other "overhead" in Word that eats up RAM and CPU cycles.

Based on my research, I determined that Perl is perfectly suited for the job I have. It was originally developed (1987) for text manipulation, and it is now used for a wide range of tasks. A stated design goal of Perl is to "make easy tasks easy and difficult tasks possible." Perl has been called "the duct tape of the Internet". See for more info.

Perhaps the best feature of Perl is that it is relatively easy to learn -- relative to Java. However, Perl programmers love to create super-dense and terse code, and some even pride themselves on how unreadable their code can be. Terse, dense Perl code is not what I am after at this stage. I'd be happy with verbose, inelegant code - as long as it does what I want it to do.

So how does one go about learning Perl? I know from experience that it is not fun to learn a new programming language. A teacher of mine once said that it takes somewhere between 5 and 5,000 mistakes to learn how to do something (anything). If that's so, my corollary is that it takes 5 mistakes to learn a term, function or usage in a language and 5,000 mistakes, give or take an order of magnitude, to become fluent in the language, be it English, Spanish or Perl.

So the trick is to make the painful learning process interesting and enjoyable. I thought it would be fun to make a game. I call the game Blasphemy! I selected famous quotes and well-known texts and mangled them using a Perl script I wrote. Can you identify the original words and who spoke/wrote them?

  • Ask for your you do ask what you; country what your can do can for not country!
  • And to all that continent, nation, four men on and created are in conceived score forth a new dedicated years this seven liberty, the equal. Fathers proposition our brought ago
  • Slings nobler 'tis arrows against outrageous and sea the by and that to be-- of be, to of the or question: opposing to them. Not to whether in or mind take arms troubles a end suffer is the fortune
  • Heaven. Temptation, in kingdom give us forgive from is be those art and deliver thy as the father, and thy for against us come. Trespass into in for thine is hallowed the our and it forgive the who us and evil. Not glory, ever. Day done, daily on this and but we name. Who earth as will be ever us. Trespasses, our lead power, us bread. Kingdom, thy heaven, our
  • Village, snow. Not house up will though; in is these his think his to whose woods here the know. See I watch woods me I He fill are stopping with

    Think the little queer darkest evening year. The between of lake a and frozen without it near must the woods farmhouse to horse my stop

    Bells his the sleep. Downy I is deep, to the and flake. And miles have dark, before easy I he ask woods before and mistake. Go only to harness if are miles sound's keep, sweep some gives to of promises other there but sleep, wind I the and go shake to a lovely,

So, how did you do? Want to know the answers? Here they are:
  • President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!"
  • President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
  • William Shakespeare, Hamlet's soliloquy, "To be, or not to be-- that is the question: whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them."
  • The Lord's Prayer. "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever."
  • "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost.

    Whose woods these are I think I know.
    His house is in the village, though;
    He will not see me stopping here
    To watch his woods fill up with snow.

    My little horse must think it queer
    To stop without a farmhouse near
    Between the woods and frozen lake
    The darkest evening of the year.

    He gives his harness bells a shake
    To ask if there is some mistake.
    The only other sound's the sweep
    Of easy wind and downy flake.
    The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sys Admin

The system is up and online
which makes me very happy.
It does not care.
And they take it for granted.

It's magic
Unless you know what's really going on, or
Unless you don't think about it.
Like walking.

Trouble of some sort.
Must I prevail through concentration?
That makes me very nervous
Because of the time involved.

Or will my abstractions support me
And show me where the problem lies?
Or mask the ticket hiding in the weeds?
Nobody's happy now.

Friday, June 01, 2007

High-Tech Scam: Self-Installs

I've done more than a few Verizon High-Speed Internet "Self Installs" for clients. Generally I get called in after a client has tried on his/her own, failed and gotten frustrated and angry dealing with Verizon tech support.

Whose idea was it to market high technology self-installs like this to the general public? Maybe they figured that they could charge less if the customer would do the install and so more people would buy. But if/when the customer realizes that they cannot install it, they feel badly about the purchase, bad-mouth the service and adversely impact sales. It's crazy!

Here's how easy Verizon's self install is supposed to be, according to the Verizon web site:

  • "After you place your order, we will send you a three-step self-install kit. The kit will walk you through the installation process, including installing your modem, using filters, and installing your Verizon High Speed Internet software. Instructions are included in the kit, and we're always here to help you with our 24/7 live technical support."

I have had to speak with Verizon High-Speed Internet tech support personnel from time to time. I know first hand that it can be a nightmare. Here are some of the issues I have had:

  • I cannot hear the person.
  • I cannot understand the person's accent.
  • They cannot answer my questions because they are simply following a script and don't really understand the technology
  • They waste my time chasing down dead ends that I've eliminated because they don't believe I know what I am doing
  • They get pissy when I tell them that I know better than them.

The reason that clients come to me, however is that I can successfully overcome the frustrations and hurdles inherent in dealing with Verizon tech support and get the service running properly.

There are many competent and friendly tech support personnel working at Verizon. They just aren't first-tier support personnel. Unfortunately, however, there is no shortcut around the first-tier. You have to keep your wits about you and go through them.

A case in point. Earlier this week, a client called because the Verizon High-Speed Internet service that I had recently installed for her was proving to be intermittent. I returned to her premises, troubleshot the problem and diagnosed it as a defective wireless access point on the Westell 327W DSL modem supplied by Verizon. I placed a call to Verizon to get them to replace the unit.

Using Citrix GoToAssist, my Verizon representative accessed my client's PC and checked various things while I watched. I offered friendly advice and words of encouragement, knowing that that would be the fastest way to get to the outcome I wanted (replacement of the modem).

After about a half-hour of trying various different things, my representative put me on hold to discuss the problem with his supervisor. When he came back on he said that the problem was that I had set the encryption on the wireless network to WPA. He said that WPA was not reliable on the Westell 327W, and we needed to use WEP. I did not tell him that I always use WPA, and I have not had any problems with it on other Westell 327Ws (focus on the goal).

After another half-hour spent changing the wireless encryption and trying to get the wireless access point to work, it finally did. A quick speed test showed that we were also getting full bandwidth wirelessly. "Problen solved!" my representative claimed.

"Wrong," said I and reminded him of the various difficulties he had in getting the connection to work, even using WEP. At that point the wireless connection dropped out again. "I want you to replace this unit," I said, and he agreed.

So while it took an hour, for which I will charge my client, I was able to get Verizon to agree to replace the modem. When it comes, I plan to configure it with WPA again.

I remember buying self-install satellite TV service which had me up on my steeply-pitched roof, trying in vain to point the dish at a particular spot in the sky without any signal detection devices except the TV in the house. I could have fallen off the roof and killed myself. At some point, I realized the folly of this and got a pro to do it.