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Facebook’s IPO doesn’t have to be the end of Silicon Valley

I saw a story on Slashdot this weekend writing Silicon Valley’s obituary at the hands of the Facebook IPO. The logic is that since social networking is an easier path to riches than traditional science, people will choose social networking.

In the short term, he may be right. But in the long term? The Facebook IPO looks more like Dotcom 2.0 to me. Read More »Facebook’s IPO doesn’t have to be the end of Silicon Valley

UEFI on ARM illustrates why we still have to watch Microsoft

UEFI is a technology that forces a computer to only load a digitally signed operating system. This has some security benefits, as it makes parts of the operating system unbootable if they become infected, since the viruses won’t be digitally signed by a reputable vendor.

Great idea, right? From a security perspective, absolutely. The more attack vectors for viruses we can eliminate, the better off we’ll be. But Microsoft’s policy on ARM systems shows how it can be abused.

Read More »UEFI on ARM illustrates why we still have to watch Microsoft

Secure that public wi-fi with a low-tier, no-cost home VPN

If you spend any time at all using unencrypted wi-fi networks at hotels and coffee shops, you need a VPN. Public connections are fine for reading news headlines and checking sports scores, but cannot be considered safe for e-mail, online banking, making purchases, or anything that involves a username and a password. A VPN, which encrypts that traffic from prying eyes, is the only way to make them safe.

Here’s how to set up a VPN that’s good enough for personal use. All you need is a home Internet connection, a computer at home, and the laptop you take on the road.

Of course corporations can set up VPNs that are much faster and much more robust, but this is something you can set up in a couple of hours on a weekend afternoon without spending anything.

Read More »Secure that public wi-fi with a low-tier, no-cost home VPN

Misguided security, episode 14

I was working in a data center, where we had a couple of Cisco VOIP phones. I don’t know who put them in or when–it’s possible they predated me. We never got them working, but nobody ever really tried, either.

The idea was that two guys working on servers in different datacenters across the WAN might need to talk. The reality was that we didn’t do that very often and usually had other ways to do it–a cellphone being the most obvious option. Our networking guys always had much more pressing issues than getting the VOIP phones working, so the phones just sat there and looked pretty. Until the wrong guy noticed them one day, that is.

Read More »Misguided security, episode 14

What to look for in a router

I revisit the topic of what to look for in a router every six or seven years. As important as it always was, I think it’s even more important today, as there are a number of underpowered routers on the market and it’s best to avoid them.

This post originated in 2010. I revised it for 2017 needs, and by the time I was done, I’m not sure much of my 2010 text was left. But that’s OK.

Read More »What to look for in a router

Why don’t wins count anymore?

In Kansas City, baseball fans are celebrating. In St. Louis, they’re fuming.

It’s usually the other way around. Right now, Royals fans are celebrating Zack Greinke’s highly deserved Cy Young Award. In St. Louis, fans are complaining that Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, expected to finish 1-2 in the voting, got "snubbed" and lost to San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum, who won a total of 15 games.

Greinke, for what it’s worth, won 16.The Cy Young Award usually is "the pitcher with the most wins" award. And that makes a little sense–Cy Young won 511 games in his career, the most all-time. And that itself shows the problem with wins.

Cy Young is the winningest pitcher of all time, but he’s not the best. Walter Johnson won 417 games pitching mostly for last-place Washington Senators teams. Put him on the teams Young pitched for, and he would have won more than 511 games. Win 110 games over the course of your career and you’re considered a pretty good pitcher. Johnson pitched 110 shutouts.

I learned playing Micro League Baseball in the mid 1980s that wins are an overrated statistic. Cy Young was an outstanding pitcher, but Walter Johnson and Lefty Grove could beat him most of the time. Advanced baseball statistics barely existed in the mid 1980s and my Commodore 64 sure didn’t know anything about them, but I quickly started paying attention to WHIP–walks plus hits per innings pitched.

In their best seasons, Johnson and Grove permitted fewer than one baserunner per inning. And they permitted fewer baserunners than Young. Fewer baserunners means fewer chances to score, which means a better chance of winning.

Greinke and Lince*censored*won on the strength of their advanced statistics. Carpenter and Wainwright were very good this year. But they gave up more baserunners per inning than Greinke and Lince*censored*did, and other advanced statistics also indicated that Greinke and Lince*censored*were the better pitchers last year.

In the case of Greinke, the Royals lost six games in which he gave up one run or fewer. Yes, you read that right. Six times, Greinke took the ball, pitched seven or eight innings and gave up one run, or zero runs, and the Royals still lost.

So it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Greinke would have won many more games. Had Greinke pitched on a team that could consistently score more than two runs, had the Royals had more than one reliable relief pitcher to back him up, and had he had more than one above-average fielder playing the field behind him, for example.

Greinke realized he only had one guy behind him who knew how to catch the ball, so he would intentionally pitch in such a way as to make them more likely to hit a fly ball to wherever David DeJesus was playing, usually left field.

Lince*censored*suffered from less bad luck than Greinke did, but still won his 15 games while pitching for a weaker team than the Cardinals.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, pitching for a team with average offense, Lince*censored*and Greinke each would have won 18 games. Under the same normalized conditions, Carpenter would have won 15, and Wainwright would have won 17.

Both pitchers had good years, and admittedly they played for a team that had problems. But Tim Lince*censored*pitched for a team with even bigger problems.

I see the words "which pitcher gave their team the best chance to win every fifth day" thrown around by St. Louis fans a lot. The answer, when you normalize the statistics, is Lincecum.

Or, to look at it another way: Carpenter’s and Wainwright’s win totals showcase just how good Albert Pujols is.

The case for Tim Lince*censored*was less clear than the case for Greinke, and that was why the vote ended up being so close.

But it’s obvious to me that the voters got it right in both cases. And that’s good.

Twenty five years ago, it wasn’t as easy to go much deeper than conventional statistics like wins, losses, and ERA. Today it’s simple, so there’s minimal excuse to pay attention to them.

I didn’t cause the depression

Various analysts are blaming the current depression on people like me. The reasoning goes like this: I have money in the bank, therefore, I should be out spending it, for the greater good, to stir the economy.

Let’s correct that right now.People like me “hoarding” cash didn’t cause this depression. I played by the rules. I didn’t lie on my mortgage application. I bought less house than the bank said I could afford, because I didn’t see how I could make that payment and still buy groceries. I bought a Honda Civic because I didn’t see how I could afford a car that cost $25,000 or $30,000 and I really didn’t see how I could afford to put gas in it. I made this decision when gas cost $1.59 a gallon in Missouri.

Basically, I made a budget and then I made the decision to stick with it. It wasn’t rocket science. Any time I thought about buying something, I sat down with a spreadsheet, entered in all the money I paid out each month, entered what I made, and figured out if the money left over was enough to buy whatever it was I wanted.

We were due for a depression, or at least a recession, at the beginning of the century. The dot-com boom and Y2K was a bonanza, but then two things happened. Y2K came and went, the world didn’t end, and people quit buying survival supplies in large quantities. Meanwhile, these startups failed to come up with viable business plans, continued to spend money faster than the government, and ended up going out of business. This hurt those companies, but it also hurt companies like Cisco and IBM and Intel, because as these companies went bust, their inventory of technology equipment, some of it unused, went on the market at bargain prices. There was no reason to buy a new Cisco router from CDW when you could buy the same thing, still sealed in the package, from a liquidator for half the price.

Then 9/11 happened and it really looked like we’d get our recession. But the government slashed interest rates, changed bank regulations, and encouraged people to buy like there was no tomorrow. GM started offering 0% financing on its cars in order to move them. Soon you could get free financing on anything but a house, and interest rates on houses were ridiculously low. And anyone could get a loan. Republicans loved it because it made the economy go boom-boom again. Democrats loved it because people at any income level could get mortgages.

But the problem was that many of these loans had onerous terms and conditions, and just because you could afford the payments one day didn’t mean you’d be able to afford them in two, three, or five years after some of the back-loaded terms kicked in. Of course, nobody worried about that because they were living the high life.

And then it all fell apart. It wasn’t quite as rapid as it seems. I think people started having problems paying their bills in 2005 or so, but it didn’t quite hit critical mass yet. It hit the smaller banks first. I know because the banks who had my mortgage kept going under, and every year or so, a slightly bigger bank would end up with my mortgage. But those weren’t any match for this monster either. Countrywide got my loan in 2007, but Countrywide wasn’t a dinky little bank. It went under, and when I made my final house payment, that payment went to Bank of America. Now it looks like even the mighty Bank of America might make me look like the kiss of death.

But that wasn’t the only problem. These bad loans got packaged up and re-sold. And somehow, these bad loans got higher grades than they deserved. A guy working as a slicer at Arby’s making $9/hour living in a $150,000 house isn’t a good investment. When everything’s going right, he can afford to make his payments, but the minute something goes wrong, he’s going to start missing payments and might not ever recover. So unless the guy gets a decent job, he’s not going to be able to afford to stay in that house. Yet somehow, a bank could package a bunch of loans like this and spin it as a grade-A investment.

Imagine me going around to my neighbors’ houses on trash day, filling boxes with trash, and selling the boxes, legally able to tell the buyer that the box contains something valuable. That’s great, until someone opens the box and realizes it’s just a box of trash.

No, this depression wasn’t caused by people like me. It was caused by people living beyond their means for too long, and not being able to pay the piper when the time came.

There’s another word for what’s happening right now, besides recession or depression. That word is “correction.” When the economy has been going in one direction for too long, it corrects itself. Sometime in the future, there will be another correction, and the economy will start improving again.

But I read my ultimate proof yesterday. Supposedly, if people like me would just spend their money, things would get better. So why does someone walk into a Jeep dealership with $24,000 in cash, intent on driving home in a new Jeep, and end up driving himself and his still-heavy wallet home in his old car?

And let’s look at people like me one other way. When I nearly lost my job in January, I had almost six months’ worth of income in the bank and a plan in place to be able to live off it for a couple of years, potentially. It wouldn’t have been a comfortable living, but it would have been doable. There would have been no need for me to go collect unemployment. I would not have been a burden on society. And when I retire, I’ll retire with enough money to get me through the rest of my life, with or without Social Security. I won’t be a burden on society either.

People who save their money might not spend it at the most opportune time for everyone else, so they might fail to even the economy out like a capacitor evens out electrical power. But they are never, ever a drag on society.

If you have wireless, you need DD-WRT

I picked up a spare Linksys WRT54G recently, and tonight I finally got a chance to try DD-WRT, a free replacement operating system, on it.

Amazing is an understatement. The biggest complaint I usually hear about wireless networking is range (and when people complain about reliability, they almost always mean range), and DD-WRT offers several solutions to this.First of all, DD-WRT allows cheap, ubiquitous routers to serve other functions. Wireless repeaters cost $100. Wireless routers cost $50. DD-WRT lets you turn that $50 router into a repeater, among other things. So if there’s a dead spot in your house, you can pick up another WRT54G (be sure to get the WRT54GL version if you’re buying new; when buying used, you want version 6 or earlier, and version 2 or so is probably the best), load DD-WRT on it, use it as a repeater, and save 50 bucks. Some of the used units on Amazon or eBay already have DD-WRT loaded on them, which can save you some effort.

Second of all, once you load DD-WRT, you can connect to it, click on Wireless, then Advanced Settings, and scroll down to TX Power. The default value is 28. You may want to adjust that.

I was also happy to see that once when I configured my second WRT54G as a wireless bridge, the computer I was using to configure it gained Internet access through it. So a DD-WRT-equipped router can do double duty. If you have a video game console with an Ethernet port on it, you can put one of these routers in the same room with it, run a cable to the device to put the game system online, and at the same time configure the router to serve as a repeater, strengthening your wireless signal. So not only do you save $50 by not having to buy a repeater, it can also mean one less wireless card you have to buy.

The one thing I’ll say about DD-WRT is that when you load it, you need to take precautions. If you follow the instructions, loading it is a safe procedure that only takes a minute or two. But if you don’t follow the instructions, it’s possible to ruin the router. You never want to change firmware using a wireless connection; use a computer connected to a wired port. And with my particular router and the version of DD-WRT I was loading, I had to use Internet Explorer. For some reason Firefox has difficulty getting this particular job done. Also you have to load the factory default settings at one point or another during the configuration. So read the documentation at least twice and make sure you understand everything before you proceed.

I like DD-WRT a lot and I plan to load it on the WRT54G that I have connected to my DSL modem very soon. The main benefit I see is being able to crank the power of the signal up a bit, but there are plenty of other goodies in there that I may end up using. Perhaps more importantly, my WRT54G stopped working with DynDNS at some point, and Cisco/Linksys doesn’t seem to be revising the standard WRT54G firmware anymore. But DD-WRT has an active community behind it, so if something changes, I’m confident that there’ll be a new DD-WRT to take care of me, whether I need it next year or five years from now.

Pay DD-WRT.com a visit, find a compatible router (there are non-Linksys models that are compatible also) and pick one up. It won’t disappoint you.

Resolving an issue with slow Windows XP network printing

There is a little-known issue with Windows XP and network printing that does not seem to have been completely resolved. It’s a bit elusive and hard to track down. Here are my notes and suggestions, after chasing the problem for a couple of weeks.The symptoms are that printing occurs very slowly, if at all. Bringing up the properties for the printer likewise happens very slowly, if at all. An otherwise identical Windows 2000 system will not exhibit the same behavior.

The first idea that came into my head was disabling QoS in the network properties, just because that’s solved other odd problems for me. It didn’t help me but it might help you.

Hard-coding the speed of the NIC rather than using autonegotiate sometimes helps odd networking issues. Try 10 mB/half duplex first, since it’s the least common denominator.

Some people have claimed using PCL instead of PostScript, or vice versa, cleared up the issue. It didn’t help us. PCL is usually faster than PostScript since it’s a more compact language. Changing printer languages may or may not be an option for you anyway.

Some people say installing SP2 helps. Others say it makes the problem worse.

The only reliable answer I have found, which makes no sense to me whatsoever, is network equipment. People who are plugged in to switches don’t have this problem. People who are plugged into hubs often have this problem, but not always.

The first thing to try is plugging the user into a different hub port, if possible. Sometimes ports go bad, and XP seems to be more sensitive to an deterriorating port than previous versions of Windows.

In the environment where I have observed this problem, the XP users who are plugged into relatively new (less than 5 years old) Cisco 10/100 switches do not have this problem at all.

This observation makes me believe that Windows XP may also like aging consumer-grade switches, like D-Link, Belkin, Linksys, and the like, a lot less than newer and/or professional grade, uber-expensive switches from companies like Cisco. I have never tried Windows XP with old, inexpensive switches. I say this only because I have observed Veritas Backup Exec, which is very network intensive, break on a six-year-old D-Link switch but work fine on a Cisco.

I do not have the resources to conduct a truly scientific experiment, but these are my observations based on the behavior of about a dozen machines using two different 3Com 10-megabit hubs and about three different Cisco 10/100 switches.