Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Raid on Steve Jackson Games: 20th Anniversary

As nice local pre-event to the upcoming SXSW insanity starting Friday, I attended a 20th anniversary panel on the secret service raid of Steve Jackson Games last night at Independence Brewing. If you’re unfamiliar with the landmark case in cyberlaw, Steve Jackson maintains a page about the case on his company’s web site and Bruce Sterling’s book, The Hacker Crackdown, was written in 1992 and has been available as an ebook (also here) since 1994. The raid led to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The panel was hosted by EFF-Austin (The original idea was to have local chapters of the EFF, but that never panned out. The Austin chapter has continued on independently since then.), attended by Steve Jackson, Bruce Sterling & Pete Kennedy, and moderated by Jon Lebkowsky. The panel went over the basics of the case and why it’s important, followed by a Q&A session. Sterling became pretty impassioned during the talk. He said that he’d thought he was over his anger with the issue, but the two hour panel brought it all back. Pete Kennedy was very measured. Steve Jackson looked back on it with a bit of humor, but 20 years ago, it nearly killed his business. Kennedy brought up the interesting trial detail that the government’s main basis for the sealed search warrant executed on SJ Games was a local security professional affiliated with UT who wouldn’t corroborate half of the things that the federal government alleged. Sterling thinks that the Chicago US attorney at the time, William J. Cook,  had career ambitions that made him reckless. He also brought up the Obama administration’s current cyber security czar, Howard Schmidt, served under Cook at the time of the raid. Sterling also contends that we missed an opportunity at the time to be the standard for law on the Internet and that things are much worse now.

As a aside, I’m kind of a beer snob and haven’t been a very big fan of the Independence Austin Amber or Bootlegger Brown, but I had the opportunity to try their Stash IPA last night and liked it quite a bit. I’m partial to IPA’s anyway, but still. I think it’s only available on draft right now, so check with your local beer pub.

It sounds like EFF-Austin plans to become more active than it has been lately, so be on the lookout for more events from them.

Something about Austin #opscamp

I’m in my 4th year in Austin, one of the things that continues to surprise me, is how I’m continually discovering new places and things. I find myself today at the Spider House at Fruth st. Never heard of it, but another really cool Austin coffee shop and location.

I’m up here for Ops Camp Austin. What? One of the other new cool things thats happening in the tech industry, and in which Austin is also a major driver, an “un-conference”.

Unlike the big commercial conferences that spend a fortune on big locations, put on endless sessions in parallel, all indiscernible from each other and attendees suffer through death by powerpoint multiple times a day. They also tend to be expensive to attend, the hotels are expensive etc.

So an un-conference is the opposite. It costs nothing to attend, it’s informal, there is no pre-set agenda, talks get posted to an informal grid, they are limited in time and thus powerpoint charts, and theres both an air of excitement and anticipation, we don’t know what we are going to do but it’s a big turnout from a lot of new and established Austin Tech companies.

Time Warner Cable Web browsing problems

You know how it is, you suffer through a problem for ages, mention it to someone and they say, “oh yeah, I had that, solved it easily”. And so it was with my Time Warner Road runner service. Early this year I started having web browsing problems, often pages would be “not found” and if you hit the refresh button a couple of times, it would work. Funny though as it seemed not to be a connection problem as I could mostly stream the BBC Internet radio without problem.

I added a new wireless router to the existing broadband modem a while back and the problem seemed to go away. Then it was back and I assumed I’d messed a config option but just never had time to fix it. I had guests staying this week and they’ve been frustrated by the lack of reliable service, and since I work in the tech industry, I mentioned it at work yesterday and “oh yeah…”

And so it was this morning I followed the simple instructions for my NetGear broadband modem at https://www.opendns.com/start and so far everything is working perfectly. Without going into a long technical explanation, the DNS server is more or less the white & yellow pages for the Internet. You give it a name in the form of http://austin.metblogs.com and it returns something the computer can actually use in the form of http://1.2.3.4.5 – It appears that problems with Time Warners DNS servers are well known and there have been numerous problems. I didn’t contact TWC to get their view on this, but if you are having this problem you might try the above suggestion, because “I had that problem…”

Now it has to be said that OpenDns isn’t without it’s own controversy, if you type a web site name incorrectly, it redirects you to a search engine that makes suggestions. Not a bad idea but had its own drawbacks.

If you are slightly more tech savy you might want to try http://www.dnsserverlist.org/ and use the suggestions you get from there. Unless you know better…

Time Warner Cable Pay Bonanza

I came home this evening and found a second “threatening” letter from Time Warner Cable. Headed URGENT NOTICE [their emphasis] it says that my TWC “eBill statement will no longer be available through Checkfree, your bank or other financial services online bill payment provider.”

And that after June 18th, “you will only be able to access your eBill statement online through the newly redesigned Time Warner Cable PayXpress online bill payment service.” – How it works today. I subscribe through Bank of America online banking for TWC eBills; the bill arrives electronically at BOA; I get an email payment reminder from BoA, I logon to BOA online banking and schedule the payment to be paid 1-day before its’ due at TWC. Easy, simple, BoA handle all the security debit, credit accounts etc. and I get a unique transactio id.

I certainly hope that TWC isn’t going to stop making the balance and the online billing available through banks and switch to only available through this PayXpress outfit? There are numerous online complaints about customer service; some fairly obvious security questions and ultimately the most important, if TWC want to be paid in a timely manor, why don’t they make it as easy as possible for customers to pay, not as hard as possible.

As far as I’m concerned I’d rather go back to paper statements, and writing a check than use some unknown online bill payment system, for which it seems the incentive is to drive customers to pay by re-occurring credit card, than by bank mandate or check. I tried to switch my billing back to paper based, and sadly this doesn’t appear to be possible without creating a PayXpress userid/password and giving it more personal information.

Certainly I plan to give PayXpress a wide berth, you might too. Even if you do decide to use it, remember these simple rules for your own online security and safety.

  1. Never use the same password for more than one account, certainly never for your online banking, and a supplier system such as this.
  2. Never disclose more personal information than they should need. Does cable company really need your social security number?
  3. Always check to see that any web browser session prompting for a password, is done over a secure link[look for the padlock in the status bar]
  4. Never accept a pop-up asking you if it’s ok to display a page that has secure and non-secure items on it.
  5. Never trust a system that asks you for information, like account number, house address etc. and then promptly displays it back on the screen. You know the number, they know and have acknowledged the number, displaying it is a good indicator of poor system design.

Maybe I’m being unfair, maybe paranoia has set-in, but unless someone can tell me otherwise I can’t see any point to this new Time Warner Cable offering that is an improvement over what I’ve already got, and a whole lot of additional concerns. UNLESS YOU KNOW BETTER?

Time Warner Cable, Tiers and tears

Over on austin360.com, Omar Gallaga is reporting that Time Warner Cable have annolunced the tiers they are going to use for capping and overage-charging for their broadband cable offering. For the last couple of weeks this has been a hot topic on the interweb thingy, and has generated piles of bile, some useful analysis but much of it missing the point.

There is no doubt, there are out there amongst us interweb users, some leaches and obsessive, compulsive overachievers. In opposition to the TWC changes people are marching out all sorts of claims and justifications for being big-data users, why they are the “bleeding edge”. What they do today, will be the norm’ in a few years time. Well, that maybe, but probably not.

Time Warner Cables business model is under attack on all fronts. They are doing what all nascent monopolies do when under attack, they push the boundaries of what can get away with. This usually more broad in America than in Europe, because America is the great defender of free enterprise, freedom of choice, and commercial innovation. No amount of facebook pages is going to change that.

Only, we just don’t have any of those things really when it comes to digital communication. Cellphones here in the US are restrictive, expensive, fragmented and fine examples of monopolistic practices. Some of the best cellphones in the world are now crippled when sold outside the US, so that when they are used in the US, they don’t get full network, 3G speeds, meaning the “network” operators can charge and tie you to multi-year contracts, oh and it’s OK coz we get “free” phones.

Cable TV here in the US has hardly changed in 30-years. The addition of HD has been done in a haphazard, fragmented way with no real innovation. Unlike Europe where broadcast, often free to air, HD offers many more channels and multi-screen viewing, interactive services etc. See for example what Sky and the BBC have done with that little red-button in the UK. Why is it for example, that when watching a “home shopping channel” you have to dial 1-800 and wait, press buttons and speak to a person? Broadband, is bi-directional you know…

When the cutover to broadcast HDTV happens here in the US, it will be a pure swap, no new advance services, just the same old channels, mostly showing repeat programs(not in HD) and thats about it. What most Americans will find is that the signal will break up frequently during rain storms and other bad weather thats affects b roadcast quality. Unlike conventional TV(non-digital) though, you won’t get a degraded picture, you’ll get nothing at all.

And so, back to Time Warner Cable. I’m a triple play subscriber. I don’t watch much TV, mostly I record a few shows per week and only watch them on Sunday evenings. I have my home phone service through TWC, although heaven knows why. No one has the number, and I don’t use it for outgoing calls, especially now I don’t work from home. Many people don’t have “home” phones now, they use their Cellphones, I should join them, except my cellphone has no docking station and really isn’t suitable for a 2-hour conference call using any kind of headset.

Here is another example of lack of innovation in the US. When was the last time you saw a phone in the US that was your cellphone when outside the home, and when inside the home, used the broadband service to connect rather than wireless, and allowed you to switch seamlessly between the two as you walk out of the house, without dropping the call?

I think that in the 2.5 years I’ve had my TWC service, I’ve watched maybe 5 on-demand movies. This is an area that most people focus on when analyzing the effects of broadand usage capping by TWC. It’s clear, isn’t it?

TWC have every reason to stop you downloading legally or otherwise, movies from the Internet or watching them online. If they can stop or price that to discourage, THEY can charge you for the same movies, either through subscription channels, or on-demand.

So, lets recap. TWC offers four services:

– Basic cable inc. subscription channels
– Basic internet cable broadband connectivity, soon to be tiered by usage
– Landline telephone service(wired)
– On-demand movies(chargeable)

The threats to their business are:
– Declining use of basic cable, subscription channels and on-demand movies because people get their entertainment elsewhere.
– Telephone service is under attack from cellphones and VOIP, Vonage, Skype etc.
– Basic broadband is underattack from “unlimited” subscription and pre-pay cellphone data plans, 802.11 wireles in coffee shops, down at Austin City hall etc.
– Basic cable is stagnent, uninteresting, overloaded with cheap promotional shows and home shopping networks and 24-hour news channels that basically make the news up as they go along.
– Consumers are also increasingly savy, well you’d hope so. What many realize is that it’s all data. The cable you watch, the telephone calls you make, the on-demand movies, even if you do everything the TWC way, it all arrives and leaves your house as data.

So, here we have a high-noon showdown. The customers don’t understand why part of their data service should be metered and priced seperately from the other parts of the same data connection. The cable company, in this case, TWC, is playing the typical, dumb, fat and happy monopoly that can and will charge as it sees fit, easy things first and trying to paint a small section of their customers as the problem.

TWC should be forced to compete for my business, not get it on a plate. After all, if I don’t subscribe, I can’t get anything back for the ugly, 1920’s style cabling and poles that litter my street, having to have the trees cut back to protect their golden-egg.

First, TWC should be forced to unbundle it’s TV service. The cable channel selections should be offered in more flexible groupings or by individual channels. It is simply way past time this should have been done. I’d pay a premium for about 8-channels total and would prefer more bandwidth than more channels.

Second, the broadband service offered by TWC should be split into two. A bulk data backbone service and a last-mile service. The bulk data backbone service has to be sold, on a tiered/metered service to companies that handle the last-mile service. TWC is more than welcome to compete as a last-mile provider. Yep, this is effectively turning TWC backbone into a “utility” by the back door.

Third, irrespective of the first two, the home telephone service offered by TWC should be unbunlded. If the first two recommendations are adopted, this becomes largely irrelevant as the last-mile providers will need to provide advanced services, or just compete in race-to-the-bottom cheap pricing. If race-to-the-bottom pricing is the only innovation, then overtime TWC will just rebuild it’s monopoly through acquisition. This is exactly what allowed AT&T to come back from near death to semi-monopolist(and yes, I know it’s not the same AT&T and it didn’t really come back, it’s just branding, but the point remains.)

Fourth, again irrespective of the first three, TWC needs to design, develop and deliver REAL digital cable offerings. This isn’t just the same old channels and a 1980’s style programming guide sent down a digital channel. It’s interactive TV; it’s online HD games delivered without a PC or gaming system; it’s an interactive YouTube channel; it’s interactive news; it’s bidirectional video calling; it’s something that America and especially here in Austin we could be proud of.

Arguing about broadband caps/tiering, overage pricing is just missing the point, and will end up in tears in 10-years time, TWC will be the next GM looking for bailouts to subsidize it’s “essential” services. And please Omar, suggesting stimulus money now for TWC is just rubbing salt in.

Maker Faire

Maker Faire comes to town this Saturday. Last year was a blast, check out my photos. There’s all kinds of things going on leading up to it this weekend. I’m assuming that Laughing Squid among others will have a drinkup at the GMan.

The first event, which I’m unfortunately going to miss, is escorting the Bike Snake from the IHOP at Koenig and I-35 to the Travis County Expo Center where Maker Faire will once again be held. Bring your bike and your endurance and meet tomorrow night at 11pm and let me know how it goes. I’m really pissed off that I’ll be out of town and missing it. You’ve still got time to get tickets to the faire. It’s an event for all ages and you’ll be kicking yourself if you miss it. All the cool kids are doing it.

Srsly.

From pies to peripherals

Here’s the news on the fabulous pies of the Frisco Shop, made by the same pastry experts who produce those divine biscuits: call ahead, and do it the day before, ideally at least 24 hours before. The number is 459-6279.

This morning at 9:30, the day’s pies were still in the oven. We were sad not to take away a pie (any of the varieties would have done very nicely, thank you), but were delighted to take away two heavenly biscuits, and very happy to see how busy the Frisco is. Many of the patrons were resplendent in burnt orange.

Since we were in the neighborhood and had some time to spare, we checked out Discount Electronics for the very first time, seeking some speakers for a laptop in order to improve the sound experience for a presentation before a good-sized audience. All appears to be well organized and properly labeled. I thought that the prices were good. My fellow-seeker found an elusive item today. The two guys there were very patient with and very helpful to some far-from-young female computer neophytes. One of the staff members had a tip new to me that solved a problem that’s been perplexing me for a long time. In keeping with the general air of tidiness, this place, incidentally, has very clean restrooms. When I was busy replacing desktop innards piece by piece, I used to frequent another establishment. In the future, my first stop will be Discount Electronics.

iPhone Lines – One Week Later

This will probably only interest a small minority, but that’s what blogging’s all about right?

I’ve been planning on getting the 3G iPhone for pretty much the past year, but I wasn’t enthusiastic enough to wait in line last Friday to get one. Last year, when the first generation was released, a co-worker waited a little less than a week to go get one at the Apple store at The Domain and walked right in and out with one. I was hoping that I’d be able to do the same.

No such luck.

I’ve been watching the iPhone availability page over the past week and both Barton Creek and The Domain have shown no stock. I finally decided to call The Domain store this morning at 10am. Turns out, they are, in fact, getting phones on most days, it’s just that people are lining up as soon as they’re open and they’re selling out of each day’s stock by the end of the day. So, if you really want one anytime soon, it appears you’re going to have to do pretty much the same thing that you had to do on the first day.

A few more tips:

  • Be prepared to wait. I was there for 3 hours today. One of the employees estimated a 1 hour 45 minute wait when I arrived. Yeah. They did seem to be good about making sure that there were enough phones for those in line.
  • The holdup appears to be people switching from another carrier. One man was being helped for a full hour and three others were there for a half an hour. I’m an existing AT&T customer. It took them 10 minutes to check me out.
  • Over the three hours I was there, there were between 2 and 5 Apple employees actively setting people up with phones. It really should be 5 all the time. I realize they need breaks, but Apple needs to staff up.
  • They could probably streamline some of the process. The employee has to ask you which model you want and then shuffle back to the back room to get the phone and come back. They’re using up a few minutes with each customer to do this. It’s probably to avoid theft, but this adds up.
  • My guess is that you might have a faster experience at an AT&T store but I hear that their stock is much lower. That’s all purely anecdotal, so please correct me in the comments if you’ve had a different experience.

How do I like the phone so far? It’s pretty fscking amazing. I giggled like a little girl the first time I controlled my iTunes library on my PC from the phone. I sense an Airport Express purchase in the near future. The App Store is like crack. I downloaded several apps, including Shazam, which can identify a song you’re listening to on the radio and then link you to purchase it in iTunes. Unbelieveable.

Get Your Geek On

The Austin scene of Web designers and usability experts, technologists, social media enthusiasts, game developers, and beyond seems to be thriving, with an almost overwhelming number of groups and corresponding events every week.

  • Refresh Austin – for Web designers and developers working to keep it fresh. The next meeting is Tuesday, May 13th.
  • Geek Austin – their blog includes interviews with lots of tech industry and startup stars. Geek Austin and Refresh Austin are hosting a WordPress Fest on May 21st to celebrate the release of the blogging software’s version 2.5.
  • Jelly Austin! – although not exclusive to tech workers, this co-working group meets currently every Friday at Café Caffeine.
  • Creative Commons Austin Salon – this group advocates for Creative Commons, which “provides free tools that let authors, scientists, artists, and educators easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry.” They have a Google group and meet occasionally.
  • 501c Tech Club – affiliated with NTEN, the Nonprofit Technology Network, this group meets monthly although I don’t see the next meeting date’s info on the site. (If you’re interested in the intersection of technology and nonprofits, check out the great blog FISpace.)
  • Austin High Tech Happy Hour – is just what it sounds like.
  • Social Media Club – a fairly nascent group of social media professionals and enthusiasts whose next meeting is May 15th.

Speaking of co-working, if you do freelance work, often work from home, or are starting your own business, you might be interested in the work of Conjunctured, a co-working company and the forthcoming LaunchPad, a co-working space (so you don’t have to go to your local coffeeshop all the time and you can have a place to meet, make copies, etc.)

SXSW Interactive Recap 2008

I was lucky enough to get a day pass for Monday’s panels at SXSW Interactive. I’ve been meaning to post this for a couple of weeks, but both of my kids picked up some sort of stomach flu and then I came down with the SXSW Plague, aka SXSARS. I attended five panels that day:

Before I get to the recap of the panels that I attended, I thought I’d highlight some general things about SXSWi this year. The big news that’s already been hashed to death was the audience revolt during the Mark Zuckerberg interview. Apparently, the Frank Warren (PostSecret) keynote was pretty good. Zappos gets the marketing genius award for being prescient enough to hand out ponchos during a downpour around lunch time. At one point as I walked to Taco Shack for a quick lunch, nearly every single person within sight downtown was a walking advertisement for Zappos. Sorry, didn’t get a shot of it, but there are plenty of photos on Flickr.

Oh, the parties. I did manage to make one or two of the insane number of parties. I went to the Laughing Squid / blip.tv thing on Friday night. It was completely packed with people overflowing into the Tap Room (formerly B Side). I attended the Frog Design Party on Saturday night. There was plenty of space there with the outdoor bars and performances. I caught a couple of songs with Groupo Fantasma. The bar lines were long throughout the night with people throwing down mixed drinks and green beer. I’m assuming the green was for frog and not an early nod to St. Patrick’s Day. I was turned away like many others by the massive line at the 16bit party at Scoot Inn. Apparently, the capacity had shrunk since booking the event. I returned to the Scoot Inn later in the week for the music festival and thoroughly enjoyed myself however (more on that later). We had the Metroblogging Meetup at Rio Rita on Sunday.

I brought my 9 year old to ScreenBurn Arcade on Sunday as well. It was all Guitar Hero and Rock Band this year . Dell had a bunch of real guitars modded to play guitar hero. The Boy also got a chance to play Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii which had just been released that day.

Check out the panel notes with photos after the jump.

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