Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday weekend link dump

As always, apologies in advance for the link dump. It's just been so busy recently, that I haven't found the time to explore things in detail.

Still, if you're looking for a few holiday-weekend things to read, try these:

  • If you haven't been paying much attention to the Carrier IQ controversy, Rich Kulawiec over at TechDirt has a great summary of what's been going on, with an amazing number of links to chase and study. As Kulawiec puts it:
    Debate continues about whether Carrier's IQ is a rootkit and/or spyware. Some have observed that if it's a rootkit, it's a rather poorly-concealed one. But it's been made unkillable, and it harvests keystrokes -- two properties most often associated with malicious software. And there's no question that Carrier IQ really did attempt to suppress Eckhart's publication of his findings.

    But even if we grant, for the purpose of argument, that it's not a rootkit and not spyware, it still has an impact on the aggregate system security of the phone: it provides a good deal of pre-existing functionality that any attacker can leverage. In other words, intruding malware doesn't need to implement the vast array of functions that Carrier IQ already has; it just has to activate and tap into them.

  • Many of us may be taking some holiday break, but the busy beavers at CalTrans are embarking on the final major step of the Bay Bride reconstruction: threading the suspension cable over the top of the main bridge tower.
    The cable is 2.6 feet in diameter and nearly a mile long. It weighs 5,291 tons, or nearly 10.6 million pounds, and is made up of 137 steel strands, each one composed of 127 steel wires.

    The strands will go up to the top of the center tower and down to the San Francisco side of the span, where they will be looped underneath the deck of the bridge, then threaded back up to the tower and back down to the Oakland side of the bridge. There, crews will anchor the other end of the strands.

    I found it interesting to read about how they finish the cable installation:

    Ney said it will take a few months to complete the installation. Once all the strands are installed, crews will bind them together and coat them with zinc paste.

    I'm familiar with the notion of sacrificial zinc anodes in sailboats, where the zinc is used to avoid destruction of a more valuable metal part (such as your stainless steel propellor). Is the zinc paste on the cable used for the same purpose?

  • The bubble is back! Everywhere you look, there is article after article after article after article about the desparate competition for software engineers that's underway right now.

    Of course, at least part of the problem is that it's still the case that, all too frequently, people who think they can program, actually can't. Contrary to many people, I'm not in a hurry to blame our education system for this. I think programming is very hard, and it doesn't surprise me that there's a high failure rate. Some would say that anybody can learn to program, but I think there's a real underlying talent at issue, and just like I would be a lousy lawyer or a lousy surgeon or a lousy soprano, some people will have more aptitude for writing software than others.

    Anyway, I can attest to a fair amount of the insanity, though happily I'm pretty well insulated from it. But we have clearly entered into a very exciting new time in software, with a variety of hot technologies, such as cloud computing and mobile applications, providing the fuel. Though I think Marc Andreessen may be a bit too giddy about the prospects for it all, I have to agree with his assessment that:

    Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.

    A large part of that transformational technology is, once again, being driven by Amazon. As they continue releasing new features at breakneck speed, Wired magazine takes a step back and wonders: what does it mean that Amazon Builds World’s Fastest Nonexistent Supercomputer. I remember my first introduction to system virtualization, when I got to use IBM's VM software back in the early 1980's; it definitely takes a while to get your head around what's really going on here!

  • Moving on to something entirely unrelated to software, in the world of professional football, the dispute between Uruguayan superstar Luis Suarez and French superstar Patrice Evra has been gathering a lot of attention. My friend Andrew has reprinted a well-phrased essay on the topic, which is well worth reading.

    Professional sports is of course mostly entertainment, yet somehow it is more than that; it is undeniably one of the largest parts of modern life. On that note, a recent issue of The New Yorker carries a fine review of the life of Howard Cosell, who played a major part in the development of professional sports into one of America's major passions.

    On Monday nights, Cosell called out players for their mistakes with orotund rhetoric and moral high dudgeon. Just as music fans used to go to the New York Philharmonic to watch Leonard Berstein's gymnastics more than to hear, yet again, Beethoven's Fifth, people tuned in to hear -- and howl at -- Cosell. Even if you loathed him, his performance was what made Monday nights memorable.

    And lest you think that this is just something minor, don't miss this wonderful article in The Economist: Little red card: Why China Fails at Football..

    Solving the riddle of why Chinese football is so awful becomes, then, a subversive inquiry. It involves unravelling much of what might be wrong with China and its politics. Every Chinese citizen who cares about football participates in this subversion, each with some theory—blaming the schools, the scarcity of pitches, the state’s emphasis on individual over team sport, its ruthless treatment of athletes, the one-child policy, bribery and the corrosive influence of gambling. Most lead back to the same conclusion: the root cause is the system.
    Is it sports, or is it life? It's definitely not "just" entertainment.

  • OK, getting back to things I understand better, it's been quite the year for Mozilla and Firefox. Ever since they changed their release process and their version numbering back in the spring, it's been a continual stream of Firefox releases, so it's no suprise that Firefox 11 is soon to be available, with yet more features and functionality. But the Firefox team are pushing beyond just making great browsers, branching into areas like web-centric operating systems, Internet identity management, and building entire applications in the browser, as David Ascher explains. Ascher's article notes that within the Mozilla Foundation, people are now thinking significantly "beyond the browser":
    we’re now at a distinct point in the evolution of the web, and Mozilla has appropriately looked around, and broadened its reach. In particular, the browser isn’t the only strategic front in the struggle to promote and maintain people’s sovereignty over their online lives. There are now at least three other fronts where Mozilla is making significant investments of time, energy, passion, sweat & tears. They’re still in their infancy, but they’re important to understand if you want to understand Mozilla

    Meanwhile, how is Mozilla handling this? Aren't they just a few open source hackers? How can they do all this? Well, as Kara Swisher points out, Mozilla has some pretty substantial financial backing:

    Mozilla is set to announce that it has signed a new three-year agreement for Google to be the default search option in its Firefox browser.

    It’s a critical renewal for the Silicon Valley software maker, since its earlier deal with the search giant has been a major source of revenue to date.

    Meanwhile, what is all this doing to the life of the ordinary web developer? As Christian Heilmann observes, it brings not just excitement, but also stress and discomfort, but underlying this is the fact that the web is no longer just a place for experimentation, but has transitioned into being the production platform of our daily lives:

    We thought we are on a good track there. Our jobs were much more defined, we got more respect in the market and were recognised as a profession. Before we started showing a structured approach and measurable successes with web technologies we were just “designers” or “HTML monkeys”.
  • Are you just feeling flat-out overwhelmed by all this new technology? Well, one wonderful thing is that the web also provides the technology to stay up to date:
    MIT President Susan Hockfield said, “MIT has long believed that anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage MIT coursework should have the opportunity to attain the best MIT-based educational experience that Internet technology enables. OpenCourseWare’s great success signals high demand for MIT’s course content and propels us to advance beyond making content available. MIT now aspires to develop new approaches to online teaching.”
    Now, if I can just find that free time that I misplaced...

  • Just because software is open source, it can still fade away into the sunset. Which is a shame, because I was really hoping to get a distribution with Issue 46 fixed, because I hit it all the time! Yes, yes, I know, I should just download the source and build it. Or find a new debugger. Or something.

  • Forgive the breathless style, and read the well-written summary of the Buckshot Yankee incident at the Washington Post: Cyber-intruder sparks massive federal response — and debate over dealing with threats. As author Ellen Nakashima observes, we're still struggling with what we mean when we toss about terms like "cyber war" and the new Cyber Command unit:
    “Cyber Command and [Strategic Command] were asking for way too much authority” by seeking permission to take “unilateral action . . . inside the United States,” said Gen. James E. Cartwright Jr., who retired as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs in August.

    Officials also debated how aggressive military commanders can be in defending their computer systems.

    “You have the right of self-defense, but you don’t know how far you can carry it and under what circumstances, and in what places,” Cartwright said. “So for a commander who’s out there in a very ambiguous world looking for guidance, if somebody attacks them, are they supposed to run? Can they respond?”

  • Finally (since something has to go last), Brad Feld has ended the year by winding down the story of Dick and Jane's SayAhh startup in a most surprising fashion (well, to me, at least): SayAhh Has Shut Down.

    If you weren't following the SayAhh series, Feld had been writing a series of articles about a hypothetical software startup, using them to illustrate many of the perils and complexities that can arise when trying to build a new company from scratch. I'm not sure if there's a clean index to all the articles he wrote, but you can start here for the first article, and then mostly follow along via his blog. I think it's great that he ended the series in such a realistic fashion, though I'm quite interested to see how his readership feels about that!

I hope your holidays are enjoyable, safe, and filled with family and friends.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the link! Though obviously my article was not actually written by me as I cannot type that much text.

    Very good link dump though. I especially like the Buckshot Yankee story

    Every time i read about Mozilla I just want to know, why has the quality declined so much? I have to restart Firefox 3 times a day now?

    Happy Christmas!