I (heart) geeks

Okay, I (heart) one geek in particular, who builds HD OTA antennas out of teaspoons and tape measures, and discusses λ/2 with me as if I remember anything from those long-ago electronics courses. Given the chance to review I Love Geeks: The Official Handbook, I couldn’t resist — although I am very geeky myself, I’m a software geek, and sometimes the mindset of my in-house electrical engineer remains opaque to me. And Friday of a crushingly busy work week seemed a good time for a break for myself and my readers.

The first chapter discusses the evolution of geeks, how the terms “geek” and “nerd” have become mostly interchangeable (not sure that I agree with that — I’m a self-declared geek but would bristle at being called a nerd), and even the etymology of the word “nerd”: it was first used by Dr. Seuss in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo, although his use doesn’t appear to be related to the current usage. There’s some discussion of the psychology of a developing geek, and some behaviors to expect from them, both the good and the weird.

The next six chapters each focus on a particular variety of geek: gamers, comic book and graphic novel, manga and anime, film and television, sports, and science fiction and fantasy. Each chapter is a great introduction to that world, giving you a quick background and some key facts: a valuable reference if you want to get into it yourself, or just not sound too clued out when you ask about it.

Some of these — film and television, sports — definitely don’t fall into my definition of geekdom, which has a much more technical direction that the author’s view. In the final chapter, she explains why she hasn’t address that directly:

Wait, what? We’re done? But… but… what about computers and programming? Biochemistry? Physics” Math You know, the actual building blocks of nerd-dom?

Well, here’s the thing: those interests — or rather, fields of study — aren’t so nerdy anymore. The people who study them, on the other hand, probably are, but it’s a sure bet that their interests fall into one of the categories I’ve examined in this book.

I disagree, and think that the book could have included a chapter on the engineering geek who spends his free time tinkering with electronics, a copy of Make magazine at his side, or learning a new RIA programming language just for fun.

I know that my readership is mostly male and mostly geeky, but this would make a great little gift for that woman in your life you often looks at you with a slight frown, one raised eyebrow, and her hand on the 9-1-1 speed dial button. Or, if you have kids who are into anime or video games and you’d like some insight into their world, there’s a chapter in here for you. It’s due out in January, a little late for Christmas but just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Disclosure: this book was provided to me for free by the publisher, Adams Media, through a great program called Mini Book Expo for Bloggers, which allows bloggers to claim a book in order to receive a review copy, in exchange for writing a public review of the book. All books can be shipped for free to bloggers within Canada, and some now can be shipped to the US.

Where the hell is Matt?

Want to improve your mood? Turn the sound up and watch this, preferably in high-quality mode:

Matt Harding traveled the world doing a goofy dance, and somehow it became an uplifting video, spotlighting both differences and similarities around the globe. Yes, it’s sponsored by a chewing gum company (who have only a small mention at the end of the credits), but it’s still amazing. Every time I watch it, I get a thrill when I see the places that I’ve visited, and hanker for many more of the ones that I haven’t.

The hauntingly beautiful music is available for purchase on iTunes.

Canadian Copyright — or is that Copywrong?

Off topic for Column 2, but hey, it’s Friday.

For those of you who have never seen Canadian government at work, it can be pretty entertaining sometimes, and never more than when there’s a lively debate going on during Question Period. Our big debate now is the newly-introduced copyright bill, which blatantly panders to the U.S. media industry; not surprisingly, a lot of us have pretty serious problems with it, and have been talking to our government representatives. Jim Prentice, the Industry Minister who presented the bill, either doesn’t really understand it or just isn’t very good at speaking about it:

The best source for information about what’s happening with the bill is Michael Geist’s site, a law professor who has analyzed the proposed bill in great detail and blogs about what it would mean to the average person, but you’ll also find a lot by Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing, who is Canadian and very vocal against any government interfering in its citizens rights. We’re also starting to see independent artists speak out against this, who feel that this prevents people from easily discovering them, and know that most of the money collected from lawsuits just goes to the lawyers anyway.

If you’re Canadian and care about this issue, join the Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook group and take the time to send your MP a letter, using the Copyright for Canadians template if you can’t think of what to write yourself. This isn’t just a techie issue, as both Geist and Doctorow explain: it criminalizes day-to-day activities of anyone who makes a backup copy of their DVDs as a guard against damage, or scan and email their kids’ class photo to their relatives, or rip your music CDs for your iPod if the CD has any sort of copy protection on it.

What did Earth Hour do for us?

I’ve heard a lot of criticism of Earth Hour over the past few days, mainly that it was a token public effort by people who aren’t really committed to any permanent change. Whether that’s true or not can’t be determined from last night’s behaviour alone, although I have read that some local businesses were using this as a test for how they can reduce their energy consumption on a regular basis while still maintaining safety standards.

In looking at last night’s behaviour specifically, consider the expected power demand curve for today (Sunday) in Ontario: pretty low at 8am when I grabbed these from the Ontario Wholesale Electricity Demand and Price Information site, expected to climb before noon as people start to make lunch and do laundry, then increase to a peak around 8pm when the sun has just set, the dishwasher is on after dinner, and people settle down to the TV or computer for a couple of hours. The green curve is actual demand, the darker step graph is the projected demand, and these guys are usually pretty accurate.

Now here’s what happened yesterday, which included Earth Hour at 8pm (20 on the horizontal axis):

I wished that I had captured the projected demand curve earlier in the day for comparison, but I suspect that the expected curve would have been much like today’s graph shown at the top. We see a higher demand midday than today, due to more businesses open on Saturday than Sunday, but then an interesting phenomenon: long before Earth Hour starts at 8pm, power consumption drops off, and stays well below the midday peak for the remainder of the evening, even after Earth Hour completed at 9pm.

So what’s the story here? This is only my hypothesis, but I think that businesses and individuals started lowering their power consumption much earlier in the day (around 3pm, when the usual evening demand would normally start to build) and maintained the lower power levels longer than the designated hour (until 10:30, when the usual evening demand would normally start to drop off) because of the awareness that Earth Hour raised; in other words, Earth Hour actually had an impact seven to eight times longer than planned.

During the actual hour of 8-9pm, a lot of us were sitting around in the dark or out on the street gawking at the lack of lights in some of the buildings, but what were we doing all afternoon until 8pm, and after 9pm, that also made a difference? Obviously, we were all going about our normal Saturday lives, but somehow using much less energy than usual. That gives me hope that this isn’t just a placebo, and we can reduce energy consumption if we take yesterday’s lessons to heart.

Jason Laszlo gives Bell Canada a(nother) black eye

All week, the local tech community has been buzzing around the news that Bell Canada is throttling P2P traffic — specifically the widely-used BitTorrent protocol — for not only their direct Sympatico subscribers, but also for anyone who buys their supposedly unlimited DSL from a Sympatico reseller, such as TekSavvy. For those of you new to the traffic shaping/net neutrality wars that have been going on in North America over the past months, here’s why throttling P2P traffic isn’t good news:

  • Bell Canada (and our only other “last mile” carrier, Rogers Cable) are violating their role as a common carrier: they’re supposed to deliver the data, regardless of what it is, subject to our individual bandwidth and download caps. As long as I’m not getting a higher bandwidth than I was promised, and don’t go over my monthly volume cap, I should be able to download whatever I want, whenever I want, because the contract that I signed with Bell implied that would be the case. If they can’t deliver that bandwidth, then they shouldn’t be selling it; furthermore, they should have taken the money made by all these years of overselling the same bandwidth and invested in improving the now-outdated infrastructure so that we wouldn’t have these problems now.
  • The carriers, Bell and Rogers, like to position this as allowing equal access to everyone instead of allowing those evil file-sharing types to hog the bandwidth, but they don’t exactly have altruistic motives: both of them sell services (cable and satellite TV) that compete with downloaded video, and they want you paying $40+ to them each month to watch the TV that they choose rather than be able to select from a wide variety of alternative — and legal — video available on the internet. Furthermore, Rogers wants to use the same bandwidth that you would use for free video downloads to download their pay-per-view movies instead.
  • Bell and Rogers have targeted the BitTorrent protocol for throttling even though it has many legal uses. Last week, CBC made history by offering a TV program available, DRM-free, for download by BitTorrent. This allowed anyone in the world with broadband access to have access to Canadian programming that might not be available on their local TV stations. By throttling BitTorrent, however, Bell and Rogers are effectively blocking access to that Canadian content within Canada, forcing people to watch it on Bell or Rogers’ TV services. Personally, I use BitTorrent not just for that CBC show, but to download new releases of Ubuntu, and other large open source downloads where the source site provides BitTorrent as an option in order to reduce the bandwidth demands on their servers.

What this all comes down to is a violation of net neutrality: Bell and Rogers are deciding which traffic on the network gets higher priority. They’re doing it now because they’ve failed to make the necessary investments in infrastructure over the years that would allow them to actually deliver what they sell, and coincidentally they choose to throttle traffic that competes with their other business areas.

Suffice it to say that Bell Canada didn’t have a good week because of this — it was all over the news, the DSL resellers are talking about suing, and even the unions are in on the action. Enter Jason Laszlo, a spokesperson (apparently associate director of media relations) for Bell Canada, who was quoted extensively on this issue in the press:

  • “Regarding customers like Mount Sinai [a major Toronto hospital that was used as an example of how legal file sharing might be used for CAT scans], Laszlo said it’s their own fault for using a notorious application like file-sharing. ‘We’re blind to the content flowing through our pipes,’ he said. ‘Our goal is to ensure maximum efficiency for everyone.'” — Digital Journal, March 25th. [“Notorious”? Oh, puh-leeze. And if they were blind to the content, then they wouldn’t be throttling file sharing.]
  • “P2P programs are only employed by a small percentage of internet users, but they tend to make use of all the available bandwidth, Laszlo said. Reduced P2P use should provide a better balance between P2P and other users at peak times, he said. ‘I feel we’re on the side of good,’ he said.” — CBC News, March 25th. [Throttling P2P is a good way to make sure that it is only ever employed by a small percentage of users, which is exactly what Bell wants.]
  • “Bell spokesman Jason Laszlo on Friday reiterated the company’s position —that it was shaping traffic in order to prevent a small portion of bandwidth hogs from slowing speeds down for all customers.” — CBC News, March 28th.
  • “Jason is throttle-icious.” — Jason Laszlo’s then-publicly-viewable Facebook profile, status update dated March 28th at 4:34pm.
  • “Jason is realizing how little seperates [sic] most journalists from lemmings.” — Jason Laszlo’s then-publicly-viewable Facebook profile, status update dated evening of March 28th.

Yes, those last two are real; his Facebook profile was posted on a broadband discussion forum yesterday afternoon (you can Digg the story here); he obviously was unaware of the impact of no privacy settings, since I was able to access his profile immediately after that even though we’re not directly connected and have no mutual friends.

My friend Mark Kuznicki channeled his outrage into a great blog post about how this hands the net neutrality advocates a gift, and messaged Laszlo on Facebook to let him know what we all think of his two-faced approach to media relations. Shortly after that, Laszlo’s profile was set to private so that I could no longer view it; this morning, it appears to be completely missing.

So what’s the lesson to be learned from this mess? The public is now aware and mobilized on the impact of traffic shaping on their daily lives, even if they haven’t yet heard the term net neutrality. To paraphrase Peter Finch’s character from Network, we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore.

Oh, yeah, lesson #2: don’t entrust media relations for a sensitive subject to an inexperienced junior who doesn’t know well enough not to post inappropriate comments to his publicly-viewable Facebook profile.

What’s the Difference?

I’ve been heads down in work for the past couple of weeks since I last attended a conference, and although I seem to find time to read and comment on a number of blogs, I haven’t written much.

I did find time, however, to be involved in a small video project with my talented photographer friend Rannie for SXSW called 20 x 2. I just sat on the couch, he did all the work.

20 x 2 : What's The Difference? from photojunkie on Vimeo.

You guys at Redmonk can’t say that I don’t push your brand, even if accidentally.

Making travel civilized (almost)

I travel a lot these days, and couldn’t do it without all of the great tools available:

  • As I’ve written previously, if you’re applying for a Canadian passport, do yourself a huge favour and fill out the form online; that reduces the actual visit to the passport office from about 1.5 hours to about 15 minutes.
  • If you cross the Canadian-US border frequently (or enter either country from elsewhere), get a NEXUS card so that you can use the automated kiosks instead of standing in immigration/customs lines; this reduces your time from 15-45 minutes standing in line to about a minute. The first time that I used the NEXUS kiosk, bypassing a line of about 1000 people at Toronto airport on a Monday morning, I almost wept with joy. Works at airports and land crossings.
  • Use TripIt to organize and share your travel plans. TripIt is definitely the most useful online service that I’ve found in last year: you forward your air and hotel itineraries to it, and it auto-parses them into an online itinerary. I can share my trips with my other half, so that he knows where I’m staying and when to pick me up at the airport. There’s also a mobile retrieval to get any particular part of your itinerary emailed to you in short plain text in case you forget to print out the itinerary. They’ve also just started accepting itineraries from corporate booking services such as Orbitz.
  • Dopplr is more of a travel social network, where you indicate when you’ll be where, and can see if your friends overlap in the same locations. TripIt is trying to do something similar, but since that’s not their main focus, they aren’t quite doing it so well, and don’t have the mindshare. Personally, I’d rather have all of this information in one place (TripIt) than use two services, but I’d need to have more of my social network using TripIt.
  • SeatGuru and their related mobile site lets you get a good seat on any airplane, or at least avoid the ones that don’t recline and are beside the lavatory. Pick by carrier and craft, and it shows you seating plans of the plane with the good, bad and cautioned seats marked.
  • FlightStats and their related mobile site lets you track any actual flight, sometimes more accurately than airline sites. However, it doesn’t always get updated in the case of cancellations.
  • FlightAware is quite similar to FlightStats, and provides a map for a specific flight to tell you exactly where it is and when it will land. Great for checking on the inbound flight when you’re waiting to take the same plane outbound.
  • Google maps on your mobile device can now use cell tower triangulation to give you an approximate real ground location even if your mobile doesn’t have onboard GPS: it sucks down your battery fast, but works as a low-res GPS in a pinch.
  • Mobile airline sites — I’ve used Air Canada, United, US Air, Delta, WestJet, Northwest and American — allow you to check flight status and set up alerts for changes in status; some even allow you to check in for your flight via your mobile.

The best thing that you can do for yourself if you fly frequently is to use one airline (and its partners) in order to accumulate status, and get yourself to gold level status if you can. This may (depending on the airline) give you lounge access to get you out of the madding crowds in airports — a sanity-saver when there’s a massive weather delay — and get at least a desk and a plug, and sometimes free wifi, food and drink. Status sometimes gets you free upgrades to business class, as could a full-fare economy ticket if your company springs for the fully-flexible alternative. Gold status also allows you to board the aircraft during pre-boarding, which means that you can carry on the maximum allowable bag size, avoiding checking any bags. Don’t feel guilty when you cram that suitcase into the overhead bin: if you don’t use the space, someone else will.

I read a newspaper column last week (not surprisingly, on an airplane) in which the author was complaining about things that have been a fact of life for a while: taking shoes off at security, no liquids through security, no free food onboard. My advice: you know about these things in advance, so suck it up and learn to compensate. Wear slip-ons. Budget ahead to buy an overpriced bottle of water after security. Pack a lunch. If you must whine, at least whine about unpredictable events, not the ones that you know are going to happen.

Update: one thing that I forgot, is that if something goes seriously and unexpectedly wrong, don’t be afraid to complain, although try to do it nicely. A few weeks ago in Vegas, I spent one night in a $2500/night suite after starting out in a “non-smoking” room that smelled like an ashtray. They moved me out of the suite after one night, to a much nicer room than I started out in, but I’m quite sure that I’ll never actually pay that much for a night in a hotel room so was happy to have the experience.

Email woes

Sometime after 7pm Eastern tonight, Google decided to do some maintenance on my kemsleydesign.com email account, which is hosted on Google. Some notice would have been nice, instead of getting errors through Outlook, then attempting to access the webmail to see a notice that Google Mail is unavailable for “up to” 24 hours.

24 hours?? I guess this is how they get us to move from the free Google mail accounts for our domains to the paid ones.

I’ve reconfigured to reroute my email elsewhere, but if you sent me something between 7-8:30pm Eastern, it may be sitting in a bit bucket at Google.

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon

For those of you who know what a non-athletic person I am, don’t get too excited: I’m not running a marathon, I’m not even running. However, I am walking 5km to raise money for the Fort York Food Bank on September 30th, a charity to which I’ve donated in the past due to the diligent efforts of my friend Ingrid.

You can click here to sponsor me; all donations will receive a tax receipt (although that may only be good for those of us who pay taxes in Canada).