WW2D – Java-based Google Earth-ish Application

I just stumbled across WW2D, which is a Java-based application that allows you to view and zoom through publicly available map data much like Google Earth does. Granted, it’s not as polished as GE, but does provide much of the same functionality. One big plus, is that you can export a give image location once you locate it (you can’t do this without handing a wad of cash to Google in GE).

I like that WW2D has quite a few user configurable layers, so that I can overlay the satellite image with the USGS Topo Maps for a given view. In fact, the image accompanying this post is a Topo of my neck of the woods.

Another cool thing is that, since it is a Java app, it can run on multiple platforms (Mac, Linux, Unix, Windows) with the same code base. I’m not sure when other application vendors are going to clue into the power (and portability) of Java for these types of applications. I would even say that if a startup requires a desktop component and it is not written in Java, then they really don’t get it.

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Changing Time Made Easy

It’s that time of year when the clocks leap forward by one hour in North America. I find it amazing that so few companies make it easy for consumer goods to deal with this twice yearly event. Why don’t alarm clocks, microwaves, etc just deal with the time change? No, Really.

The irony is that I can go to Target and buy a $12USD digital watch that can automatically adjust to seasonal time changes, but the sorry clock in my $XX,000 car can’t make the same adjustment? Seems odd to me; I can’t believe that more products can’t incorporate that two cent component and a simple way to say what timezone you are in to free consumers from having to manually make these changes.

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Happy 5th Mac OS X!

Yesterday, March 24th, marked the fifth anniversary of the release of the new Macintosh operating system from Apple: OS X. Shortly after the release of OS X 10.0.0, I bought my first Mac — something that I thought would never do, but found it an easy transition on for my home computing needs.

I have never been a big fan of Microsoft’s poorly written, buggy, generally awful software. I ‘celebrated’ the release of Windows 98 by removing all MS products from my home computers and replacing it with Linux. I found Linux and the applications available on it to be more that adequate for my needs.

One catalyst for my interest in Apple was that just before the release of OS X, I bought my first miniDV camcorder which had a built in firewire connection. This made me start thinking about doing more video editing and iMovie sounded like a good entry point. Also, I liked the idea of having a commercial OS with the power and stability of BSD/Mach under the covers with some decent eyecandy of a user interface. OS X had plenty to offer here. So in April of 2001, I took the plunge and bought a Graphite iMac and a shiny new copy of OS X 10.0.0.

The early days with the new system where interesting, just trying to figure out where things were configured or even located. I also found myself many times just saying ‘screw it’ and dropping down to the command line to get some work done instead of clickity-clicking around in the GUI. Software update was awesome and I was very pleased at the steady stream of new applications, bug fixes and updates that came my way.

I also remember all of the whining when Apple ‘dared’ to charge for an OS upgrade (*gasp*). My though was, I’ve gotten a free ride for this long, why not drop the $79(?) dollars for an update? I was a little less enthusiastic when the free ‘iTools’ where re-swizzled into the for-fee .mac .

iTunes made it too easy to solve a long standing problem I had with music. I had tons of CDs, but no good way to locate and listen to discs when I wanted to. The solution at the time, a multi-disc boom box was just not cutting it as far as variety and accessability were concerned. iTunes made it very easy to rip my CDs and play.

When the first iPod came out, I thought, ‘great, now I can have something to listen to at work’ and bought the first of three iPods (a 1st, 2nd, and 4th generation). With the iPod I was ‘buying up’ less for features but more for iPod disc space to carry around my ever growing iTunes-based music collection. I also thought that the 3rd generation iPod was a clunker user interface-wise (it was the only one with the separate menu buttons). I was so tempted to buy one of the ‘I had an iPod before you even knew what one was’ t-shirts I saw last year, but resisted the temptation.

With the purchase of a slimserver first, then several Roku units and an Apple Airport Express (as well as Tivo Desktop allowing for the playing of iTunes music through the TV) it became even easier to play iTunes music wherever in the house it was desired.

I was pretty vocal about singing the praises of my newfound Mac experience at work and slowly more and more co-workers were dumping their PCs for iMacs and Powerbooks. While my first iPod was met with questions like ‘why would you need something like that to listen to music on?’ — now iPods are everywhere in cubicle land. One of my neighbors even bought a Mac last autumn because they got so frustrated with trying to edit and organize pictures on their Dell desktop. I showed her iPhoto, iMovie and iDVD and some of the work that I had done in those apps and she had a new iBook within a week!

That was a bit of rambling Apple nostalgia, but it felt good.

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RFID Tag ‘Virus’ Nonsense

Computerworld is running a article about how some researchers are warning of the perils of RFID viruses. In a word, bullshit. An RFID tag is simply a data source and, typically, very little data at that. If you have a poorly written application that does not do the appropriate data validations you can create a problem for yourself regardless of the source of the data.

This is worth repeating: the issues identified in the article included SQL Injection, buffer overflow(!) and other classic examples of exploits that can be applied to any poorly written application. The fact that an RFID tag was the data source does not make it a specific RFID issue — it’s just data.

So if someone creates a ‘virus’ and puts it on an RFID tag, great. You can write a virus and embed it in a JPEG image or mp3 file. However, unless you have an application that specifically looks for the virus payload and provides an execution environment there is absolutely no way that it can do any harm to your computer system unless it can actually execute the virus code.

One last point about data security. Hopefully, the industry has learned (via rampant indentity theft) that putting personally indentifying information in an RFID tag is a very, very stupid thing to do (and may actually be illegal in some locations). It is likely that the RFID tag would only have some sequential number/identifier that is read and tied back to some other more meaningful definition/data elsewhere. So if a bad guy gets the RFID identifier, they still have to know about the other system, locate it, compromise it and make sense of the data relationship. Could it happen? Sure. But is it as simple as the press makes it out to be, probably not. Bonus points to the implementers smart enough to encrypt the RFID data in the first place.

Here is a rather contrived scenario from the article:

For example, airports are considering using RFID tags to track baggage. But Tanenbaum warned that this application could pose a large problem if an RFID tag is read and delivers a much larger set of data in return. A false tag on a piece of baggage could exploit a buffer overflow to deliver a virus to the RFID middleware. Once the virus code is on the server, it could infect the databases and corrupt subsequent tags or install back doors — small programs that allow for the extrication of data over the Internet, Tanenbaum said.

Right. Or you could have the appropriate data validations in you processing system and not worry about RFID data or data from any other source for that matter.

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Origami, Nothing to See Here

Microsoft has ‘innovated‘ again by introducing the Apple Newton 13 years after Apple originally did. From my previous post you might derive that I was a big fan of the Newton and was a bit surprised by the complaints about the form factor.

Yet here we are in 2006 and MS has produced an even larger, heavier unit that even the largest Apple Newton. Have a look at this MS article that describes how the Newton was the wrong form factor, it should have been smaller like a Palm Pilot or larger, like a tablet:

The Newton hardware could have been developed along a number of lines, making it either larger or smaller. Instead, it was left in that dead zone of being too big and heavy for a pocket and too small to have a large, visible screen.

So which part of the ‘dead zone’ does that leave their new product in?

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Defeating TiVo Commercial Skippers?

Collision Detection has an interesting post on how KFC is attempting to thwart people who fast forward through commercials by making a commercial that is tailored to skippers. The idea is that if they put a single frame in the commercial with, say a code to get something for free, then people will actually not only watch the advert but watch it frame by frame to find the embedded code.

Of course, this sort of overlooks the fact that only one person needs to do this, then post the code to their blog or discussion forum to save everyone else the trouble. Sounds a bit dubious to me. Time will tell.

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Self Serving Tech Journalism

Here is an example of a blatantly self serving article on Publish. Running under the tabloid-ish title of ‘AJAX Poses Security, Performance Risks‘ the author goes on to make some vague statements about security and AJAX then segue nicely into a company that has a product (gasp!) that addresses the froth stirred up in the previous paragraphs. Frankly, I would strongly recommend against considering a product that ‘advertises’ itself in such as disengenuous and sensational manner.

Perhaps it should be pointed out that the security statements made in the article are generally true of any web development technology (basically, if you are dumb about securing your app, someone will exploit it) and that other fact-based explorations of the topic have shown that AJAX can actually improve performance significantly (on the order of 61%).

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Old School Terminal Emulator for Mac

This Mac application really takes me back to when tubes were hot technology. Back in the day, when I was learning programming in college, I had the patience-building experience of programming on a hard copy terminal (the DecWriter) for the first year or so. Round about the beginning of my second year, they began to introduce VT-52 and VT-100 terminals with manual dialup acoustic couplers at a blazing 300 baud. There was one terminal that ran at 1200 baud that people would literally fight over (or come in when the lab opened and stay on it all day).

Anyway, back to the app: this is an emulation of an old tube terminal, including screen buldge/warp and variable brightness of pixels. Apparently, it even simulates cursor studder. Really makes one appreciate the state of computing these days!

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Exploring the Flickr Tagspace

information aesthetics has a pointer to two fun tools for exploring the growing Flickr tagspace: tagnautica and flickr tag browser.

Both use a similar visualization paradigm with the ‘keyword’ in the middle and related tags in a formation around the keyword. You can explore the related tags (and thus change it to the current keyword) by clicking on the bubble of your choice.

Shameless plug: I am an avid Flickr user; a random sample of some of my photos can be seen in the right gutter of this blog or directly at Flickr.

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New Yahoo Go = So What?

I read several announcements today about the new Yahoo Go service. After searching endlessly for an actual URL that linked to the offering, I finally found one. I’m sure I won’t be the first or last to say that the offering should have been called ‘Yahoo No Go’. The computer portion of it is not currently available and will be PC only, the ‘TV’ portion of it is also a PC app (and also not available). Ah, the mobile portion is available for Nokia series 60 phones — I’m in luck, I have a Nokia 6620 that fits the bill.

I download the ~1.7MB app and install in on my 6620 with great interest after having seen the screen shots and read the hyperbole from the CES announcement. The ygo.sis file expands to take nearly 4MB of phone and memory card space, then goes on to download another app for connections. After the initialization, I try out the apps. One by one, I grew less and less impressed. Yahoo Go, it turns out, is just 4MB of bloat that does nothing more than start the WAP browser on the phone (which wants you to login to Yahoo again!) to display the services that are already available to you through the Yahoo mobile site. Accessing the Yahoo mobile site directly using the Opera series 60 browser provides a much better user experience that this. What a total crock. Hell, Cingular’s J2ME IM application kicks the crap out of this thing (even as a single tasker). Google’s J2ME Maps implementation makes Yahoo’s effort look like the brown stuff in the bottom of a college dorm fridge.

I then went about removing this craplet from my phone, but, guess, what? As part of the removal process, it wants to ‘phone home’ to Yahoo and waste more bandwidth before it will remove itself (shades of Microsoft). It’s no wonder that Yahoo recommends that you allow the app to connect whenever it wants to (versus letting you know that it want to make a connection). I finally had to go into the Nokia AppManager and delete the various pieces of it manually.

Based on this experience, Yawnhoo needs to try harder and put out something useful (other than hype).

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High Tech Road Reflectors

Mavromatic has an article about a company that has created road reflectors that are capable of measuring a vehicles speed and using a built in camera, capture the license plate number (and presumably issue you a ticket).

I just wonder how well these things would do in a climate that regularly requires snow removal (and potentially inadvertent camera/detector removal).

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Innovation Happens Elsewhere

There is now an online version of the book Innovation Happens Elsewhere, which discusses using open source software as a business strategy. Even if you are developing your own ‘proprietary’ software, leveraging the sheer amount (and in most cases, quality) of open source software can provide for speedier startup and time to market.

If you are interested, the dead tree version was published in April 2005 and is available from amazon.

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Google Firefox Extension and Music Search

Google has introduced a new Firefox extension that displays Blogger Web Comments for the site that you are currently viewing. This reminds me of an IE plugin from around 1996 that allowed you to view post-it note type annotations that were placed on websites and viewable through the plugin. It wasn’t long before this became abused and if I recall correctly, the company went out of business. This approach seems to have only slightly more accountability in that it ties back to a blog. Then again, Blogger blogs have been notorious of late for their splog activity.

Google has also recently introduced some functionality to make it a bit easier to search for music on the Internet. According to the Google Blog, the search works only for well know artists by name and primarily for US based artists (though I did get results for David Sylvian, oddly enough). The results include links to reviews, lyrics and online stores to purchase some releases. Not surprisingly, I didn’t see any purchase links to Amazon (though there were links to the iTunes store). It will be interesting to see how this evolves.

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