The uselessness and hype of micro-blogging

Micro-blogging and specifically the service Twitter are quite a hype these days, which is not justified in my opinion. Let’s describe what Twitter allows you to do in one sentence. With Twitter you can write posts of no more than 140 characters in length which are displayed on the user’s profile page and sent to other Twitter users who wish to receive them or only the user’s friends.

So in fact it’s nothing more than ordinary blogging with a restriction that you can’t use more than 140 characters. There isn’t much difference with ordinary blogging, is it? I can start writing posts on my weblog which don’t exceed 140 characters, and everyone who wishes to read my posts can use the RSS feeds or visit my weblog. The only noticeable difference would be that posts on Twitter don’t allow comments, replies to other users’ posts constitute a post on their own. Twitter allows restricting posts to friends, but so does WordPress allow password protecting posts. Maybe the single advantage of Twitter is the feature to send and read posts via SMS messages, but for me personally this advantage is void because I never send SMS messages. I don’t want to spend money on sending SMS messages. I don’t know if SMS is a serious advantage for others?

So it’s nothing special, isn’t it? If you disagree, then at least read about Twitter’s policy regarding privacy, which could concern you. And Twitter is not an open system, it doesn’t work together with other micro-blogging services, Twitter locks their users in. So why not migrate to identi.ca or another open micro-blogging service?

The dangers of content protection

I already read about two campaigns of the Free Software Foundation in the past, BadVista and Defective by Design. I agreed with the ideas behind these campaigns, but it is only since I’ve read the document “A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection” that I realize the grave consequences of content protection.

Quite alarming that Microsoft and the music and film industry can pull this off. Again this is more proof that Microsoft’s monopoly is dangerous.

Economy of scale, high tech and corporatocracy

Fiat‘s CEO, Sergio Marchionne, predicted a few months ago that six large car companies would survive by the end of 2010. In this article that prediction is analyzed, and while an expert thinks it might be a little bit exaggerated, it is also mentioned that it is a fact that the car industry is increasingly collaborating on technological development.

There also is another example in a different market. Almost all of the microprocessors used in desktops and laptops are manufactured by either Intel Corporation or Advanced Micro Devices. In this market it’s nothing new, because both companies have formed a duopoly in this market for years already. Nevertheless, AMD has always a small market share compared to Intel. According to the most recent data of 2008, Intel had a 80,3% market share and AMD had 19,2%. In recent years AMD didn’t manage to turn a profit and encountered difficulty in competing with Intel. Last October AMD decided to transfer it’s production facilities (also called fabs) to a joint venture called The Foundry Company as part of their reorganization plan. With the joint venture, AMD can share production facilities with other companies and cut production costs. As the press release mentions “the cost and complexity increases and capital and research and development costs have become too high”. Soon Intel will be the only company left which can afford it’s own manufacturing facilities, and can spend a lot more money on research and development than AMD. This article from the beginning of 2007 predicted this development, stating that the production and design costs of integrated circuits keep increasing because of technological innovation, and that only the big players can afford their own fabs. AMD apparently isn’t the only one affected by this problem.

The relationship between these examples is the role of economy of scale. There seem to be too much players in both the car market and on the integrated circuits market some companies are too small. To keep earning profits, they have to join forces. In AMD’s case the reason is clear, production and design costs are too high, and as a high tech company they need to spend a lot of money on research and development because they have to keep innovating to be able to compete. This is supported by the fact that their R&D intensity is high, according to data of the top 100 companies with largest R&D spending in 2006. AMD’s R&D intensity was 21,3% and Intel’s was 16,6%. However, in absolute spending that is $1.205 million for AMD and $5.873 million for Intel. This establishes that R&D is quite costly, and that Intel has a serious advantage over AMD because they can spend five times as much money on R&D.

When it comes to the car market however, the reasons are not clear to me. According to the Wikipedia article on high tech, the car industry is medium tech and not high tech, because R&D intensity isn’t so high there. Toyota is on the first spot in the R&D top 100 of 2006, with $7.648 million on R&D spending, but only 3,7% R&D intensity. Many car manufacturers follow closely, with similar relatively low R&D intensity numbers. I theorize that their R&D intensity is low because they can’t afford to spend more money on R&D for some reason. Yet R&D is becoming more important in the car industry, so that’s why they have to increase their efforts to collaborate on R&D, because joining forces for R&D reduces R&D cost. But do they really collaborate on R&D because it is too expensive, or because of other advantages? As the expert in the article on the car market already said, I tend to believe that such a huge decrease in the amount of car manufacturers seems indeed rather exaggerated.

I think there is a rule of thumb for high tech and car manufacturing: because of the knowledge required to operate in the market, economies of scale and large companies are key requirements. I wonder, what would be the consequences in the hypothetical situation only six car manufacturers survive, or AMD wouldn’t survive? In the case of the car market, those six manufacturers would become more powerful, and there would be less diversity. In the case of the microprocessor market Intel would have a monopoly, quite possibly a natural monopoly because it would be difficult for a new competitor to enter the market and compete with Intel. Intel wouldn’t be motivated to keep innovating at it’s current pace if they would have a monopoly. Such a monopoly would certainly be very dangerous, because it would make one company far too powerful. It reminds me of the megacorporation often seen in science fiction literature. In our time megacorporations do not exist, but maybe they could become a reality in the future, when technology will be even more advanced and more important to the society? Possibly we would need a different economic system in the future, different from capitalism, to solve the problem?

My first large contribution to Wikipedia

Until know I had only contributed a few small changes to Wikipedia articles, but today I finally created a large addition to Wikipedia. The article which I modified is A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. During the last quarter of the academic year I followed a course about 18th Century British literature, which required reading three novels: Gulliver’s Travels, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, and either Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded or The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. I looked up all four of them on Wikipedia, and noticed that the article on A Sentimental Journey was by far the least developed article. Because it didn’t give me enough information, and because I gained enough knowledge of the subject after I read the book, I decided to improve the article. The subject doesn’t genuinely interest me, however.

My contribution consists mostly of the plot summary. Compare the revision of 17 December 2008 with revision of 30 January 2009 to see my changes. I also added some comments on the article’s discussion page. I think the plot summary I added is adequate, even though it probably leaves something to be desired. What annoys me slightly on Wikipedia is that there are no uniform guidelines for citation. When I searched for the footnotes policy and the citation policy, I read that Wikipedia does not require adherence to a single citation style. The way I see it, this only contributes to chaos. Fortunately Wikipedia does have the citation templated page, which listed the “cite book” template. It’s quite convenient because it allows you to give the citation data without worrying about the format, so I used that in my contribution.

Maybe I should also ask an expert to take a look at the article and judge what can be improved. Hopefully I will be able to contribute to other articles as well in the future, most of the time I’m reluctant to contribute because I don’t think I have quality knowledge. I’m slightly perfectionist after all.

Filtering on IMAP accounts broken in Evolution 2.24.2, fixed in 2.24.3

Since I’ve been using the latest Ubuntu 8.10 release and modified the e-mail filters in Evolution I noticed that the e-mail filtering didn’t work anymore. Filtering is quite useful to me, I use it to separate automated messages of bug tracking systems where I file bug reports from the other e-mails I receive. I visited the IRC channel of Evolution to ask if there was a solution, and I was told I was affected by bug #562708. The bug is fixed in version 2.24.3 of Evolution, which can be found in the intrepid-proposed repository. As far as I know it will take some more time before the new version will land in the intrepid-updates repository. If you don’t want to wait like me, you can get it from the intrepid-proposed repository by enabling that repository for use. Do so by choosing System → Administration → Software Sources. Then choose “Updates” and enable the repository.

Fixing a minor OpenOffice annoyance

I’ve been experiencing a minor, but rather annoying problem since I used OpenOffice.org Writer to create a complex document a few years ago. It was difficult to figure out how the problem could be fixed, but after spending a lot time on Google to refine a precise search term, I finally found a solution to this problem.

Let me explain the problem. Apply a paragraph style which places spacing above the paragraph (like the “Heading 1” style for example) to the first line of text on the page. Even though it is the first line of text on the page, OO.org Writer still applies the spacing above the paragraph. This adds unnecessary space to the already existing page margings, which will look strange. It will also look inconsistent because the spacing won’t present on the next page if a paragraph continues there on the first line, for example. Your only option is to remove the spacing above the paragraph from the style, but that means you will have to use the Enter key which is supposed to start a new paragraph to create spacing manually. This is not good, so I searched for an explanation as to why it’s not OO.org’s default behaviour to ignore the spacing above the paragraph if the style using it is applied to the first line of the page.

I found this topic on the OpenOffice.org forum. Apparently this illogical behavior of OO.org can be disabled by disabling the option “Add paragraph and table spacing at tops of pages (in current document)”. You can navigate to this option through the menu options “Tools” → “Options…” → “OpenOffice.org Writer” → “Compatibility”. According to this page on the OpenOffice.org Wiki this option is enabled (by default I assume, at least it was in my case) specifically to ensure compatibility with Microsoft Word.

While it is a good thing that OO.org tries to be compatible, it’s not good if I’m only using OO.org without importing Word documents. In that case this option is quite obviously working against me. On top of that, it was very difficult to figure out how to disable this behavior. The question is, can’t the option be disabled by default, and temporarily enabled on-the-fly when a MS Word document is opened? I wonder what the OO.org developers think. I filed a bug report, issue #97951.

Cheaper portable notebooks

Over half a year ago I wrote a post with my reflections on buying a new notebook. At this moment I still haven’t bought a new notebook, and in hindsight I think it was a good decision to keep waiting.

Since I wrote that post, the category of expensive portable notebooks like the Sony VAIO TZ, Dell XPS M1330, Dell Latitude E4200, Dell Latitude E4300, Lenovo ThinkPad X300 and Lenovo ThinkPad X200 has remained expensive. All cost more than € 1000. A few are far more expensive, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X301 and the Sony VAIO TT. Some exceptions are less expensive than € 1000, like the Lenovo ThinkPad SL300, but still too expensive to my liking. Of course there are a lot of other notebooks with 12″ or 13,3″ diagonals (Acer for example offers a lot), but they can’t compare to the quality of the notebooks I just mentioned, and often provide low battery life less than 3 hours. That doesn’t make  I don’t consider them.

Even though that has remained the same, a lot has changed. The market is crowded now with netbooks, which feature significantly less performance than the traditional portable notebooks, are even smaller with maximum screen sizes of 10″ and occupy a price range of € 200 – € 400. A while ago I considered buying the Samsung NC10, which distinguishes itself with a battery life of more than 6 hours and costs approximately € 400. But new developments made me change my mind.

So far Intel’s dominance over the netbook market with it’s Atom CPU and accompanying platform was uncontested. Recently however, AMD has released it’s competing platform for ultrathin notebooks, and the HP Pavilion dv2 will be the first notebook to use the platform. AMD is aiming for notebooks with larger screen sizes than 9″or 10″ which is common for netbooks. During Intel’s virtual monopoly of the netbook market, it restricted the screen size of netbooks using the Atom N270 to 10″ to prevent cannibalization of it’s more expensive CPU’s.

With more competition around the corner, this will probably change. I don’t think a screen size of 10″ is adequate, 12″ or 13,3″ at the maximum is the best compromise between portability and comfortable screen size. Also note that currently, the cheapest 15,4″ notebooks can be found under the price of € 400, the maximum price of the average netbook. Even at that lower price point, the 15,4″ notebooks outperform the netbooks. Netbooks are still relatively expensive, which will probably change as more competition arrives at the market.

Fortunately, there is even more competition coming for Intel and AMD. VIA will also enter the market with it’s VIA Nano. It will be used in the Samsung NC20 and FreeStyle 1300n notebooks, both featuring screen sizes larger than the common 10″ size for netbooks as well. MSI intends to introduce the X-Slim X320 and Asus the S121, which both come with an Atom CPU and a 13,4″ and 12,1″ screen respectively.

What is possibly more interesting is that ARM prepares to enter this market as well. The ARM CPU’s use the ARM architecture instead of the CPU’s produced by Intel, AMD and VIA, which use the x86 architecture. At this moment Microsoft Windows doesn’t support the ARM architecture, so ARM has made a deal with Canonical to make the Ubuntu Linux distribution available for their hardware. Qualcomm and Freescale will produce ARM CPU’s for the netbook market. These products would be very attractive to me if they are supplied with Ubuntu, I’d rather not pay for Windows if I’m not going to use it anyway. This could be a great for mainstream Linux adoption.

File sharing with gnome-user-share

Some months ago I wrote about using OpenSSH in combination with GNOME to share files. I advertised it as an easy method, but easy is relative, and using OpenSSH to do the job is still not easy enough. It’s quite a hassle to create a different user with stripped privileges to create a safety measure. That’s why I continued searching for a better method to share files. I found gnome-user-share, which can be found in Ubuntu’s package repository. To install it, just open Applications → Accessories → Terminal and then enter sudo apt-get install gnome-user-share there.

After it’s installed, you can open System → Preferences → Personal File Sharing to access configuration options. It uses a WebDAV to share the ‘Public’ directory in the user’s home directory over the network. It uses Avahi to publish the WebDAV server to all computers on the local network, so no configuration is necessary to allow other computers to access the server. So all you need to do to access the server is open Places → Network, where it should be visible. Additionally, it can also use ObexFTP to share files over Bluetooth.

However, even though gnome-user-share is really easy, it does come with it’s disadvantages. It doesn’t feature configuration of permissions, so you can’t protect your files. It doesn’t integrate in Nautilus. But most of all, it’s only possible to share the ‘Public’ directory, it’s not possible to share other directories. A feature request to implement this already exists in the GNOME Bugzilla – bug #500738 – but so far it hasn’t been picked up yet by the developers. Once this application is more mature, it should definitely be included in GNOME to make file sharing easy. Right now it’s hard to find as a separate application.

The Gallic War

A few weeks ago I finished reading The Gallic War by Julius Caesar, or Commentaries about the Gallic War to be precise. It’s far more easy to read than the other ancient epics I’ve read so far. As an account of a military campaign it’s quite exciting to read, especially when the Romans (or Gauls on several occasions) execute a well thought out tactical plan to deceive and defeat their enemy. This brought back memories about Sun Tzu’s writings in The Art of War, which mentions that all warfare is based on deception. Besides the account of the military campaign, Caesar also describes the geography of Gaul and the culture of the Gauls and Germans. Not surprisingly he writes describes their way of life with disdain, dismissing them as barbarians.

Even though Julius Caesar is without a doubt an excellent general, quite a few mistakes are made during his campaigns either by himself or those under his command. Caesar’s invasions of Britain can be considered pointless, because he doesn’t conquer territory but merely brings it into Rome’s political sphere of influence. After Gaul is pacified, Ambiorix revolts and later Vercingetorix starts a greater revolt. I keep thinking, could the Gallic War have been conducted in a better way, could those revolts have been prevented? You often read about the Romans asking for hostages from subordinated or defeated tribes during the course of the events. Apparantly they don’t have hostages or are not able to use the hostage to exact pressure on the revolters in case of the revolts of Ambiorix and Vercingetorix. Caesar easily pardons his enemies when they surrender, maybe if he had been more cruel to set an example the Gauls wouldn’t have revolted as easily? On the other hand, according to the book Vercingetorix and the other leaders chose to revolt because they would rather be defeated than subordinated to the Romans.

Easy file sharing with OpenSSH and GNOME

In my home I have three computers running Ubuntu connected to a router, which form a network. It’s useful to be able to share files with my brother’s PC, and Ubuntu uses Samba as a solution for file sharing because Samba can easily share files with Microsoft Windows. However, in my experience Samba often doesn’t work as it should. When I want to access a Samba share on a remote PC it often starts whining about permissions and refuses access. I don’t know where to start to figure out a solution for this. And in principle, why should you use Samba which reverse-engineered the Microsoft SMB protocol? Shouldn’t there be a better solution which works flawlessly? I started looking around for other methods for easy file sharing, and I found OpenSSH. Using it is surprisingly easy, and you can share files fast and flawless. So that’s why I’m posting a guide to give easy instructions on how to use OpenSSH in combination with GNOME for file sharing.

Because the username and password of your system are used to log in to a computer with SSH, anyone who will be able to log in will have all the privileges that user has, like becoming root. I chose to create a new user account on my system so that I could use that user instead of my own user to log in with SSH, while also stripping this user of any privileges. Then I changed permissions of my home directory to allow read-only access to Others. This can be done by opening System → Administration → Users and Groups. Enter the details for the account, and then disable all the privileges. Now open your /home directory in the Nautilus file manager. Right click your home directory, go to Properties, go to Permissions and set Folder access for Others to Access files. Of course you should solve this differently if your home directory contains privacy sensitive information. Possibly a better solution would be to keep read access to your home directory disabled, while you use the home directory of the new user for writing files. You also place links (create a link to a directory by right clicking the directory and choosing Make Link) to a few directories inside your home directory which contain the files you want to share and for which you have enabled read access for Others.

To log in to a computer with SSH, you need to install the OpenSSH server package first. You can do this by opening Applications → Accessories → Terminal and then enter sudo apt-get install openssh-server there. Then you need to look up the IP-address of the computer you want to log in to, which you can do by opening System → Administration → Network Tools. In my case, I chose to select the Ethernet Interface (eth0) as the network device here. Then you can see the IPv4 IP address, which is what we need. Now use another computer in your home network, and open Places → Connect to Server… and select SSH as the Service type. In the Server field, fill in the IP address of the other computer. Leave the Port field blank, in the Folder field enter the path to your home directory (e.g. /home/alexander) and in the User name field enter the user name you use to log in to the computer. Enable the option to add a bookmark, and give it a name. The bookmark will appear in the Places menu, and in the Nautilus file manager. Then press Connect. You will then be notified that the identity of the computer you are connecting to is unknown, but you should ignore the message and connect anyway. Now you enter your password for the username you entered previously. You have options to forget or remember the password, I chose to remember the password. Now Nautilus will open and display the home directory of your computer. You can start sharing files now. For me this works a lot better than Samba, even though it’s still not the best solution for simple file sharing. This was merely a quick guide, and more detailed documentation is available here on Ubuntu’s documentation website.