Tech Week in Review

Computer bugs, Legos and Rubik's Cube, priority cellphone use, Apple at war with Microsoft, PC users are weenies, OS X vs. malware, the overlords of the RIAA, and a great OS X review.

You've Got Bugs

Those of you who haven't ever taken an intro computer science class might not know the origin of the term "computer bug." In 1947, Harvard computer scientists working on the Mark II found the machine wouldn't start up one morning. After some investigation, they discovered a moth stuck in a relay, which prevented the computer from functioning. Why was that moth there in the first place? Entomologists think that insects may be attracted to the electromagnetic fields generated by computer equipment. Wired published an article last week about the latest insect-repellent technology in the computer industry. After all, you don't want roaches pooping on your motherboard, do you?

Lego™ My Cube!

This one comes from the some-people-have-way-too-much-spare-time department: a Chicago-area air conditioning consultant has designed and built a Lego™-based robot that physically solves Rubik's Cube. (Free NY Times registration required.) I still have several thousand Legos at home, but I had moved on to other things by the time the Mindstorms gear got big. Boy, this brings back some fond memories. Anyone wanna have a pneumatic-powered garbage truck party?

"Hello? Hello? HELLO?"

You know the routine. You pick up the cell phone to dial someone and you start dialing:

"beep boop boop beep beep boop beep"

"We're sorry. All circuits are busy. Please try your call later."

I don't get those a lot, but I get them enough to be noticeable. Now, multiply normal cellphone usage by about 1000 and remove the five biggest antennas in your immediate area. That's about what it was like in the aftermath of the WTC attacks, and the President and Congress are now considering ways to give emergency personnel and government officials priority on the cellular networks (free registration required). I think it's a great idea, but the implementation discussed in this article is poor: It requires the use of a priority access code. Why not simply make a SIM card — enough cell phones use them now, even here in the US — that contains this code and sends it automatically? Or build a small EEPROM into the phone with the code if you don't want to worry about SIM cards getting stolen or lost. This would have two huge advantages: You wouldn't have to worry about remembering the code in a stressful situation, and you wouldn't have the security problem of people telling their spouses, kids, friends, or whomever the code so their calls always get priority.

One Battle is Not the Whole War

Rodney O. Lain's latest Mac Observer piece, excellent as usual, takes a look at why Apple is really at war with Microsoft and why Microsoft will eventually lose. Even the latest Windows XP ads show a guy on a park bench with his Lombard PowerBook. Regular readers already know what I think about Microsoft as a business, so I won't bother to rehash that here. Those of you who are new to the column can read the archives (there's a link down at the bottom).

PC Users Really Are Weenies

Okay, I admit it. I just said that to get the dander of PC-using folks up. Bruce Black makes an excellent point: a lot of PC zealots/Mac bashers haven't given the Mac a fair shake. "After experiencing Mac Bashers for so long, I have realized two facts undeniable, about them: Fact number 1: Mac Bashers have either never used a Mac at all, or 2: If they have used a Mac, it has been at least ten years since," he says. I can't really argue with either point, especially when it comes to the most vocal anti-Macintosh people I know.

The more important of these two points, I feel, is the second. People who last used a Mac in the mid-90s were likely subjected to System 7.5, which was not one of Apple's best OS efforts. Additionally, Apple had a good deal of hardware with less-than-stellar specs, much of which ended up in the educational arena, where a lot of teenage and twenty-something PC users would have had their experience. Imagine these people dealing with running System 7.5 on a lab full of LC IIs with the little 12" RGB monitors, and you'll begin to see what I mean. What all these people conveniently forget, however, is that putting a 386-era PC to work in daily use (as a word processor, email client, or basic Web browser) is nearly impossible with DOS or Windows. If their most recent experience with PCs was one of those machines, they'd be singing a far different tune.

Viruses and Malware and Worms, Oh My!

We Mac-using folks have led a relatively secure and trouble-free existence when it comes to the various nasties floating around on the Net. SirCam? Not my problem, at least not as far as doing nasty stuff to my machine. Code Red? Not on my box. While OS X brings all the benefits of a Unix OS to the Mac platform, it also brings the drawback of security holes. Unix, while not nearly as worm-ridden as Windows, has its share of security issues. Most are fixed quite promptly, but the problem is that they exist in the first place. Keeping abreast of security developments will become much more important, especially for anyone running any Internet services (such as a Web or FTP server) on their OS X box. Bob "Dr. Mac" Levitus gives an excellent overview of OS X security in his October 12 column in the Houston Chronicle.

RIAA + Congress = The New Feudal Lord

Charles W. Moore's "Digital Serfs" piece for Applelinks is something anyone in the United States (and countries considering DMCA-like legislation) should read. We are at the mercy of our lawmakers, some of whom are entirely in the pockets of giant media companies. "But our recording artists have to make a living," the media conglomerates say.

Bull. If they need to make a living, start giving them more than 10 percent for their album sales and stop keeping the other 90 percent to fill your executive garage with rich-boy toys like the latest Ferrari. If I could buy CDs directly from the artists without paying some middleman $12 per disc, you'd better believe I'd do it. I'd even be willing to pay the artists a little more. They win, I win, and the RIAA (and its members) lose. Good for all involved.

The RIAA Is Not Your Friend

Speaking of the RIAA, did anyone else notice their very slimy, low-down attempt to immunize themselves from being classified as a "terrorist organization" if they — are you sitting down? — hack into your computer and cause more than $5,000 damage in their quest to see if you have illegally copied MP3s on your hard drive? What's even scarier is this behavior is already legal, but the recently-passed "USA Act" made hacking into a computer and causing $5,000 in damages a "terrorist act."

Wired writes, "If the current version of the USA Act becomes law, the RIAA believes it could outlaw attempts by copyright holders to break into and disable pirate FTP or websites or peer-to-peer networks." And this is a problem? Sorry, but if you break into my network/computer/Web site just to see if I have stolen MP3s, I'll bring the wrath of every law-enforcement organization known to man down on you.

Alternatively, I suppose I could go to Hilary Rosen's house, break in, and take a look around just to see if she has any stolen goods lying about. If I accidentally burn her house down while I'm breaking in, I guess it was okay since I was just making sure she wasn't breaking the law.

See how ridiculous this is?

OS X Overview

John Siracusa has posted his review of OS X 10.1 on Ars Technica. Go read it. It's the best 10.1 review I've seen yet.

copyright ©2000-2004 by Chris Lawson