Saturday, September 23, 2006

iTunes Playlist Trick - Upgrade

After a year and a half using iTunes on my “home computer” on an almost daily basis, I just saw the simplest, quickest way by far to come up with a custom playlist. (This one allows more programming control than the earlier iTunes Trick, 5/30/06).

Since my computing slab has also become the central piece of the home stereo system, and I’m a natural-born dj (in the original sense of the term), personally this is very big news. I’ll bet you anything some Mac whiz, power-user type columnist or author has already published these findings, but just in case:

All’s you gots to do is* --

  • within a playlist, command-click to highlight the songs you want to hear (that must be control-click in Windows),
  • click on the up/down Arrow at the top of the number column at left, so you can freely order tracks,
  • then grab on any one song, slide them as a unit to the top of the list song, and presto change-o, they now appear together in sequence, the lonely space that was once between them having been magically removed.
Once they’re all together, you can shuffle the order, and of course this is also the convenient time to Check all the boxes, too, for those songs to play.
Note: the earlier approach took place in the Library, which gave you multi-genre selecting on the fly, but didn't allow ordering the tracks other than using the column headers (name/artist/etc., selected in EDIT/View Options).
(* -- this is a real Saturday-style post. Please be assured that during the work week we strictly observe correct grammatical usage : - )

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

“How to Hack an Election in One Minute”

September 13: Princeton researchers release a study and video detailing their successful attempt to hack the widely-used Diebold AccuVote-TS electronic voting machine. (Oops.)

“The University's Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) is not the first group to demonstrate the vulnerability of Diebold's machines,” says the article in MIT’s Technology Review. “, Open Voting Foundation, and Johns Hopkins professor Avi Rubin have all published accounts of security compromises in Diebold products. wrote about their successful guerrilla project to swap out a Diebold voting machine's memory card using $12 worth of tools in four minutes (the Princeton team says it can execute its hack in one minute).”

They had three main findings: “First, the CITP group discovered that not only could it install malicious code on the voting machine, but also that the code could easily be configured to ‘disappear’ once its work was done,” leaving no trace of tampering.

Second, it was easy to physically hack into the machine to get at the removable memory card that stores vote counts.

Third, "By planting a virus far enough in advance, [a hacker] can ensure that a significant number of machines can steal votes on election day" even if the criminal had access to only one voting machine.
(“Criminal”? That’s pretty harsh, isn’t it? They'd probably prefer the term, “political operative.”)

That’s the thing about relying on technological solutions – you can always flip a couple strategic bits and come up with an opposite effect ('"A Working Simple System').
'Security Analysis of the Diebold AccuVote-TS Voting Machine'
By Feldman, Halderman, and Felten of Princeton's CITP

Technology Review is owned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “The oldest technology magazine in the world (est. 1899), Technology Review aims to promote the understanding of emerging technologies and to analyze their commercial, social, and political impacts.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

WSJ Tech Innovation Awards

The Wall Street Journal, on the rare 'Today's Free Features' page, announced their 2006 Technology Innovation Awards yesterday. They gave the Gold star to Sun Microsystems for a hot new debugger, which we're sure programmers -- excuse me, they like to be called "engineers" or "developers," however that translates into Hindustani -- are, rrreally, verry excited about.

But since writing a piece early this year suggesting an award for the best “Green” Invention, I was more interested to find one here: WSJ gave their Silver award to a company that's developed a thin-film solar material that can be applied to glass or other building materials, HelioVolt of Austin, Texas. The full story is here (assuming they haven’t since removed it from their free content):

Innovation Awards: The Winners Are...

They also named, as their winner in the Environment category, ET Water Systems, of Corte Madera, Calif., for a landscape-irrigation system that reduces water use "by gauging the precise watering needs of a home or business based on the location's plants, soil types and rainfall," using Web-based controls. Cooool.

Unfortunately, in my wistful view, they gave their Materials award to a company that’s using nanotechnology to make a electrically conductive coating for solar cells, etc. That's ironic. Creating active ingredients that can't be seen except with fantastically specialized and hence expensive equipment, and small enough to invisibly penetrate our bodies and wreak who-knows-what kind of havoc? Sorry, that just doesn't sound like a very wise idea.

Could they instead focus on manufacturing some additional common sense and social responsibility for technologists? Then I'd be impressed.

How about an Award for The Best New “Green” Technology?

Ever notice that “havoc” is almost always said to have been “wreaked”? Have you ever seen those words used independently?)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

TV commercial breaks reach The Outer Limits

Call me a starry eyed innocent, but I made an honestly shocking discovery recently. Now, I don’t generally watch a lot of TV, but it was vacation, I was tired of being glued to the computer, already took a walk, yatta yatta, so I decided to see if there was anything on. (“Yeah, yeah, alright, get on with it.”)

…Okay, I’ll admit that during basketball season, you will find me plunked down in front of the tube many evenings, for at least the second half. But it’s the off-season; this is a whole different ballgame.

Anyway, with no games on – and even the Red Sox back in the traditional wait-til-next-year mode – what sounded good that night was an early John Cusack film, “The Sure Thing,” which was showing on WE – that’s right, the chick-flick channel.

(Directed by Rob Reiner, it’s a cute one when or if you’re in the mood for a witty romantic comedy. I was coming in around the last half of the movie, and quickly remembered that I’d seen it before with my lady because of one scene. It’s when the female lead’s painfully-perfect Ivy League boyfriend offers her a cup of tea, and smugly starts to tick through his long list of choices. “…English Breakfast -- but that’s more of a ‘studying’ tea, isn’t it?” Funny the things you remember.)
But what I noticed this time was that the commercials just seemed to go on and on, and on… Every time my attention rose in expectation of the film resuming, yet another commercial started. Even with the sacred Mute button armed – don’t watch without it! – it was exhausting and frustrating. So, after spending the next break in the kitchen, I started timing the breaks. I was dumbfounded to discover that the commercial break was eight minutes long. Eight minutes!

But Wait, There’s More: in between these stupifyingly long series of ads, they generously screened 12 minutes of the film.

One gropes for a word that would begin to do justice to this: impossible? Absurd? Grotesque? I would not have believed it if I hadn’t seen and measured it myself.

Equally as astonishing as the length of these assaults was a mind-numbing phenomenon which we are all sadly accustomed to: at each break, they show you all the same commercials! On this channel, the same ones they hurled at you just twelve minutes before. It's relentlessly mind-numbing, insulting, and makes me angry at the companies pushing them at me. Put that in your focus group and smoke it.

Do you mean to tell me that anybody is sitting there and watching all, or most, or any significant percentage of those commmercials? Hel-lo, TV advertisers – they couldn’t possibly be. Nobody could even take in all that so-called information: if those were 15-second spots, that’s 32 commercials in a row. You’re letting that station make fools of you if you think anyone’s even capable of recognizing your message in the middle of all that, no matter how many times it’s shot at them, I don’t care what kind of stats they’re claiming.

You are wasting your money.

Being a longtime believer in Proactive Television Watching (TM), I did hit my friend and ally the Mute button (as usual), and literally pulled out a book and read during the next couple commercial breaks, because I didn’t remember how the movie ended. So yes, I kept watching the film, but decisively tuned out the ads – and that’ll be the last time I watch that channel.

O how we long for the return of the original “Outer Limits” show – because at the end they used to say, “We now return control of your television set to you…”
I did have a similar experience a couple years back – although it wasn’t this bad – when I tried to watch the film “Rudy” on ESPN Classic. I was literally exhausted by the end of it, and that’s the last time I watched a film on that station, either.
To be fair, I just saw “9 to 5”, with Tomlin, Fonda and Parton, on AMC last night, and they’ve kept their heads at that channel; they ran the old fashioned two-minutes’ worth of ads, which seems reasonable.
We're not anti-advertising types, by any means -- we have a pantheon of favorite ads, too. Just be clever about it, and we'll watch and even tell friends about them. But if you can't attain the heights of Cleverness, jeez, at least be intelligent about it.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Quoted again in Boston Globe's "Business Filter"

We are, unsurprisingly, happy to have been quoted once again in the Boston Globe's "business blog," this time on last Friday, Sept. 1st. (It's about two page-downs, right under both Katie Couric's.)

"Bill Ross doesn't think that paying $10,000 to $12,000 for personal windpower when you save an average of $500 to $800 per year is a good return on investment.

"'Take the high figure on cost there, and the low on savings - usually a pretty safe assumption - and that's 24 years, not exactly the ROI/price point that's going to move many people to dig in to put one up.'"
(I'd also written, since we're on the subject,)
Doesn't that sound like an awfully long time to payoff... given how everything's going to change dramatically between now and then, and we don't know how? Especially when you would think that if there's anything that technology could do for us, we could expect almost Moore's Law type increases in energy-generation efficiency.
The Business Filter is assembled and written by Maura Welch, who we naturally feel is doing a great job. (For the record, though, we thought so before ever being quoted.)