Friday, July 29, 2011

Worst ... user experience ... ever (how to turn on your wireless radio)

[Doing a little more searching after I wrote this, I eventually learned that it's not just a few oddball brands that have this problem, and that some models really do have physical switches.  If you're banging your head trying to get your wireless turned on, this list might help.  It told me where to look again for the small, black-on-black slider switch on the laptop I was dealing with.

As always, I make no warranty that this will help you.  I particularly don't vouch for the spammers halfway down offering to crack passwords for you.  --DH]

OK, this isn't really much to do with the web, except that you can't really talk about the web unless you can actually connect to it, and it's really just a bunch of griping, but ...

Who in the Windows world decided it was a good idea to make laptops keep their wireless radios turned off until you find the right magical incantation to turn them on?  Did Steve Jobs sneak into Steve Ballmer's house at night and put an iPod loaded with subliminal messages under his pillow?  "Turn the wireless radios off ... trust me ... people will love it!"   Did someone decide that having wireless connectivity was too simple and useful?  No?  What, then?

I'm trying to imagine a portable device in this day and age that you don't want to be able to connect to the the nearest hotspot.   Smartphones do it.  Tablets do it.  Netbooks do it.  Even set-top TV boxes and video games do it.  One of the first things you do with most new gadgets is locate the nearest hotspot, connect up to it and say "Ah ... that's better."  At least if you're me, anyway.

Is this supposed to save the battery?  I can see that, but why have a separate control?  There's already a "disable" option for the wireless if you want to go offline (or wired, or into "airplane mode").  That should turn the radio off, no?  Conversely, if I enable the wireless I want the radio on.  Duh.  Do I really have to spell that out?  Evidently.

OK, fine.  You need to turn the radio on before I can use the wireless.  How do you do it?

Typically you futz around the network area of the control panel until you stumble on a help message that says to flip a switch on the front or side of the laptop.  I have never seen such a switch.  Why would there be such a switch?  How many other such switches are there on a modern laptop?  Typically, there's a power button and ... um ... yeah, that's about it.  [As mentioned up top, I have now seen such a switch.  I am no more impressed than before.]

I've seen other attempts at handy buttons for some novel function, but always in the keyboard area, and never for very many product cycles.  A switch is another moving part and an added design and manufacturing expense in a cutthroat business.  It only makes sense if it's for something that people really want to be able to do in one quick step.  Who, exactly, is asking for the ability to instantly make their mobile, web-enabled computer nearly useless?

So there's no physical switch readily apparent.  That leaves the software equivalent.  The previous time I had to jump through this hoop I was able to find some forum somewhere that said what to run to do the trick.  This time -- as you an probably guess -- not so much.

Oh, there's a function key that will pop up a grayed-out-looking but otherwise pretty little box with an icon denoting the wireless radio, x-ed out with a nice red x (Dedicated function key?  Who are all these people asking for a shortcut to do something I've never, ever wanted to do nor known anyone who admitted to wanting to do?).  Clicking on the box does nothing.  Pressing the function key again in hopes that it's a toggle that I somehow just turned off does nothing.

There's in icon in the tray at the bottom, bearing a similar x-ed out icon, that you can right-click on.  It will tell you that you need to turn your radio on.

There's a setup application supplied by the hardware manufacturer (this is one area where closed architectures like the Mac win).  It offers to set up the wireless hardware for you.

But first you have to turn the radio on.  Of course.

Search the forums.  Someone suggests uninstalling the drivers and rebooting.  Well naturally.  If I want to turn on the lights in my house the first thing I do is uninstall the wiring (never mind rebooting).  Try that.  Nope.  Flip a couple of checkboxes buried deep in the bowels of the "Device manager" menus.  Nope, sorry.  Maybe the drivers -- that the manufacturer shipped with -- are out of date?  You could try updating them.

If you had an internet connection.

Maybe drop-kicking the thing off the roof of a tall building will do it?  Seems worth a try ...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Shave and a haircut: two bitcoins

Someone the other day was mentioning Bitcoin, which calls itself the first decentralized digital currency.  Regular readers of this blog, a select group to be sure, will probably not be surprised that this sent my not-so-disruptive-technology sensors into high gear.  So what's a decentralized digital currency?

Virtual worlds often have virtual currencies, which citizens can earn by doing various things in the virtual world and which they can exchange within the world.  In at least some cases these virtual currencies have leaked into the real world, or been tied to real money to begin with, not always with happy results.  One can view Bitcoin as abstracting that process and removing it from the confines of a closed, proprietary virtual world.

Bitcoin uses a modest ensemble of established crypto techniques to create a public audit trail certifying that a particular person has generated a Bitcoin, or that one person has exchanged some possibly fractional amount of Bitcoin with another (and by "person" I really mean "whatever has control of a given private key").  Generating bitcoins and certifying transactions requires a non-trivial amount of computation, much as generating money in a virtual world requires a non-trivial amount of whatever one does to earn money in that world.

There are various safeguards to ensure that each unit of Bitcoin has exactly one owner and everyone has a consistent view of who owns what.  That view can change over time.  In other words, Bitcoin meets some basic requirements for a currency: It is transferable, limited in supply and difficult to duplicate or forge.  So far, so good.

It occurs to me that there is actually already a very widely-used decentralized digital currency, namely money.

While it is still possible to exchange cash for goods and services, an awful lot of commerce gets done without it.  Instead, various banks and other entities simply increment and decrement balances in various accounts.  If I pay you, my balance goes down, yours goes up and one way or another our banks and various intermediaries get to take a cut.  This is certainly digital, and it's certainly currency.  It's also decentralized, in that there are many banks, particularly once we move into the international arena, and not even the various central banks have complete control of what happens.

However, it's not as radically decentralized as Bitcoin aims to be.  Bitcoin aims to take out all intermediaries.  If I pay you in Bitcoin, everyone in the system will be informed, reasonably soon, that I now own that much less Bitcoin and you own that much more.  All participants are an essentially equal footing.  There are no banks, clearinghouses or other such entities at all.

More precisely, everyone learns that whoever controls my private key has that much less and whoever controls yours has that much more.  Whether anyone knows who controls what keys is a separate matter.    Bitcoin uses pseudonymity -- known names tied to possibly unknown entities -- to recapture some of the anonymity of cash transactions.

The Bitcoin documentation is very careful to make the classic economical distinction between value in use and value in exchange.  The computational work done in producing Bitcoin and validating transactions is not inherently useful.  It basically consists of guessing numbers until one the right one comes up (technically, one that contains a given bit string and hashes to a particular value).  The value, if any, comes of people being willing to use Bitcoins in exchange, that is, as currency.  This is no different from printed pieces of paper or numbers in databases or, for that matter, materials like gold whose prices -- that is, their exchange rate with paper currencies -- are largely decoupled from their practical uses.

So this looks well thought through and doesn't seem wildly implausible.  Why was my spidey-sense tingling?

In trying to make sense of this I went back and reviewed the concept of currency.  Except there doesn't seem to be a nice, crisp, near-universally accepted concept of what makes currency work.  Scarcity is required, in the sense that the supply of currency must be bounded, albeit typically large.  Gold and other precious metals are hard to produce.  Coins are limited by fiat -- the king's mint will only put his face on so many coins, and woe betide the counterfeiter -- making it less important what the coin is made of.  Notes carry this one step further.  Clearly it doesn't matter much how much the paper and ink is worth, only that it's difficult to duplicate the note itself.

Numbers in databases are completely abstract, and they seem to work fine.  So why not Bitcoin?

At the end of the day, currency has to be exchangeable for something useful, for example, food.  This can only happen if the person accepting currency in exchange can be confident that they in turn will be able to exchange it for something useful to them.  Bitcoin works hard to ensure that it will behave essentially like physical cash and carefully-regulated changes in bank balances, but that still doesn't make it a currency.

And that's the crux of it.  Will people trust that Bitcoin will remain exchangeable?  What is the mechanism for maintaining confidence?  Typically, this confidence is based on confidence in a government, but other systems work as well.  Failed states may continue to circulate currency well after the government has collapsed.  Some countries are perfectly happy to use another country's currency.  Local communities have been known to create their own currencies which rely on the communal bond among members.  All of these and more can work, so why not Bitcoin?

Well, maybe it can.

The best measure I can think of for the viability of a new currency is how it converts to and from existing ones, and there are Bitcoin currency exchanges which do just that.  From what I can tell, the jury is still out, if only because Bitcoin hasn't been around that long yet.  Bitcoin is currently trading around $14, but it's been as high as twice that in the past couple of months and much, much lower not long before that [and on 28 November 2011, around $2.75, less than 10% of the all-time high ... given that the earth shook slightly when the Swiss Franc dropped from around $1.27 to around $1.16 and that Sterling's fall from 2.80DM to around 2.55 helped bring down a government, this sort of volatility does not look good ... my source for the price,, is now offering options and margin trading on the bitcoin, just in case anyone wants an even bigger adrenaline rush -- D.H.].  On the one hand, a non-zero value is encouraging, but on the other, that sort of volatility doesn't inspire confidence.

Personally, I don't see much reason to use Bitcoin in any significant way.  Money has worked fine so far, and if the US dollar should collapse, I'm not exactly convinced that Bitcoin would become a safe haven.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Messin' with the buttons again

It took a couple of tries, because the template I use is a fairly old one, but I've made a couple of tweaks to the buttons at the bottom of posts
  • The old hand-crafted Digg widget is gone.  So far as I'm aware, no one has ever Dugg this blog.
  • The old email button is gone
  • In its place is an all-singing all-dancing set of share buttons, comprising (as I write this)
    • email
    • share to Blogger
    • share to Twitter
    • share to Facebook
    • share to Google Buzz
    • +1 -- a quick way to say "I like this", should you ever be so inclined
and of course, if you just want to read the post and be done with it, you still can do that, too.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wikipedia tics

I'll say it again: Wikipedia is great.  I use it all the time.  It does its job astoundingly well, particularly given that when it was first getting started any sensible person could have told you it couldn't possibly work.  Anyone can edit it?  Anyone can write anything about anything?  And people are going to depend on it for information on a daily basis?  Riiiight.

But it does work, thanks to countless hours of effort from dedicated Wikipedians hammering out workable policies, nurturing the culture behind those polices and putting those policies into practice by editing a stupefying number of articles.   It is this endless stream of repairs and improvements that keeps Wikipedia from devolving into chaos.  It's a wonderful thing, but wonderful is not the same as absolutely perfect (for starters, one is achievable and the other isn't).  Anyone who's read Wikipedia more than casually will inevitably have a few pet peeves.  Here are some of mine (and yes, I do try to fix them when I come across them, time permitting):
  • Link drift: Article A includes a link to article B.  Article B gets merged into article C and the link is changed to point to article C -- not the section, but the whole article.
  • More link drift: Article A includes a link to article B.  Someone creates an article on a different meaning of B.  The article for B becomes a disambiguation page, and the article on A continues to point to it.
  • Digression:  Article A has some connection to topic B, which people Need to Know More About.  Instead of just providing a short summary and linking to the article on B, an enthusiastic editor gives the complete story of B, in nearly but not exactly the same form as in the original article (or, the digressive section moves to its own article, but the section later regrows).
  • I'm really into this: An article is stuffed with unsourced Things You Didn't Know about the topic, often to the point of downright creepiness.
  • Some say ... yes, but some other people say ... yes, but ... :  People feel strongly about topic A.  Generations of editors qualify each other's statements until the article reads like a pingpong match. Usually an effort is made to collect the clashing statements into one section, but that doesn't always keep them from escaping into the article at large.
  • Actually, everybody gets this wrong:  An editor makes a great point of declaring some piece of common knowledge incorrect without bothering to check if this is really the case.
  • This is a very important distinction:  Instead of saying something on the order of "not to be confused with [link]" or such, an editor feels that it's worth including a sentence or two on either side of some valid but not earthshaking distinction emphasizing how crucial it is (see previous item if the distinction in question is invalid)
  • Take it to the discussion page, please: A discussion that ought to be lightly summarized is hashed out in excruciating detail before our eyes.
  • Oh look, I can write a textbook/conference paper, too!:  Editors seem to make a special effort to pepper their writing with the mannerisms of their professors or other authorities.  Math articles seem particularly prone to this ("clearly ... it turns out that ...").
  • My home town/band is the awesomest:  Material on a place or group reads like your cousin showing you around on a visit.  I actually don't mind this, so long as it's not too overboard, even though it generally runs somewhat afoul of Wikipedia's notability policy, because how else does one find out about the Anytown Moose-waxing festival or the real meaning of "incandescent oak" in that one song (don't go searching for those -- I made them up).
  • This article reads like it was written by dozens of different people over the course of several years:  Well, yeah.  The real magic of Wikipedia is that relatively few articles read like that, particularly if they really have had a chance for dozens of different people to work on them over the course of several years.
  • [One other tic occurred to me not long after I hit "Publish": Gratuitous wikification.  To "wikify", in wiki parlance, is to make an ordinary term into a link to the article for that term.  It's one of the things that makes wikis wikis, but sometimes people seem to go randomly overboard, occasionally with fairly odd results.]
Wikipedia's strength is in its transparency.  For the most part, you can see every draft of every article if you want to, every mistake, every correction, every paragraph in need of tightening, every statement in need of a reference, every quibble, every pointless edit war -- in short, everything that a normal publication, encyclopedic or otherwise, goes to great lengths to hide.  The downside is that flaws like the ones listed above are also there for all to see.

The upside is that we get Wikipedia.

Friday, July 1, 2011

This password madness has got to stop

It's well known that people like to choose bad passwords, and for years other people have suggested rules for making passwords more secure.  I'm not really sure why it should be happening now in particular, but it seems that every site that has a password must now jump on the bandwagon and have a password policy enforcer.

And of course, they're all a little different.

Fortunately there are plenty of possibilities.  Here's a do-it-yourself guide in case you think your site needs one.  First, pick any two of
  • The password must contain at least one number
  • The password must contain at least one lowercase letter
  • The password must contain at least one uppercase letter
  • The password must contain at least one special character
Next flip a coin to pick one of the remaining two to disallow.

Now pick a minimum length.  Back in the day, when computers were much slower than they are now and it wasn't fairly easy to get a gazillion computers to cooperate (with or without the owners' consent), the recommended minimum length was eight characters.  Today it should probably be more like 12 or 14.  So make sure the minimum length is at least six.

Now set a maximum length of 8.  Why a maximum, given that all other things equal, longer passwords are stronger, and the whole point of the exercise is to encourage strong passwords?  Don't know.  Probably whoever put the database together remembered the old eight-character rule and decided that should be the maximum.  But 8 is a magic number for passwords and everyone else does it.

Finally, add an arbitrary hidden restriction.  For example, if the password has to have a number, make sure it can't be the first character (yes, I ran into that one).  If it has to be a special character, quietly disallow '$' and '!'.  Something like that, just to reduce the strength and make people work a little harder.

Voila.  You now have a password policy.  If I did that math right, there are three dozen basic policies, times however many arbitrary rules there are, so there are easily hundreds of possibilities.  Chances are fair that your poor user will never have encountered your exact policy before and never will again.

Chances are also fair that once they jump through all your hoops (bonus points if this is all happening on a smartphone or tablet), your poor user will have never come up with that particular password on the spot before.  That's good, since sharing passwords can be dangerous.  The only drawback is that poor user is liable to forget this ad-hoc password within five minutes of logging in.

So urge them to write it down "some place safe."

Then have them pick three or four secret questions and answers for when they have to reset the password next time they log on.  But that's a different rant.

If you feel you need further security advice, you can always consult a real expert.