Vint Cerf helps Google reduce evil

In an interview with CNET, the internet pioneer evangelized sensible ideas about public policy for the internet.
Cerf told CNET that he finds it ””troublesome” that various states and localities have been proposing and implementing measures to outlaw municipally sponsored broadband networks. “Why on Earth would we inhibit people from making their own investments–deciding, for example, to float a bond?”‘.
Cerf has also been out talking to Hollywood, encouraging them to ‘view the Internet as an alternative distribution outlet. “Some are responding positively, but some legal departments are still having trouble swallowing the idea.”‘
Hopefully Cerf’s well-respected presense and active evangelism will help Google throw its weight behind good tech policy and counteract the force of the telecom and content oligopolies. The tech business strategy mantra is “commoditize your complements.” Google benefits when there are fatter pipes available to more people, and more content available for indexing and related ads. The world will get better when the innovative business that see the fortunes to gain pry off the stranglehold of stagnant businesses who only see what they have to lose.

Asterisk needs marketing

Socialtext is considering the use of Asterisk as a telephony server. We use a mishmash of skype, vonage, POTS, and to support our distributed team. It’s amazing that it can be done at all, but the string and baling wire is getting tiresome. “Can you hear me” isn’t amusing any more, and wastes plenty of valuable time.
The open source telephony server toolkit has tremendous potential to provide low-cost telecom services for small-to-mid-sized businesses But somebody needs to step up and market the heck out of it.
I was browsing through the Asterisk site itself, and the sites for some Asterisk VARs. The sites all focused on a long, long, long list of features. The laundry list is probably helpful for a telecom geek who knows exactly what she is looking for, and is in search of the specific set of protocols, hardware devices, and functions.
The “feature list” approach is next to useless for a small business person who wants to know how their telecom needs can be met effectively. A good marketing person would talk to small business people and understand what sets of capabilities they’re looking for in a phone server. Then they would explain, step by step, what Asterisk can do, and what the packages contain. The laundry list of features would show up on the site as a third level of detail, when the customer, now with a better understanding of what they are looking for, can see the details and compare to alternatives.
What’s needed isn’t marketing fluff — airy promises about enhanced productivity solutions yada yada. It’s for basic, clear, education so customers can learn what to buy and how to buy it.

Boycott Windows Vista

Personal computers were overwhelmingly successful in because they supported a wide variety of software and peripherals. PCs put digital control of words and data into the hands of end-users, routed around central IT bottlenecks, and a multi-billion dollar market was born.
Special-purpose word processing computers bit the dust. IBM’s monolithic model — where you bought the computer, storage, peripherals and software from the same vendor — lost market share. Microsoft played a huge role in making the PC explosion happen in the 80s and 90s.
Now, Microsoft is breaking this model that made it successful with its upcoming Windows Vista operating system. Audio and video are the latest media to move from the exclusive control of central distribution into the hands of end-users. And Microsoft has written Vista to keep that control out of end-users’ hands.
This story explains how Vista is designed to restrict audio and video capabilities:

For the first time, the Windows operating system will wall off some audio and video processes almost completely from users and outside programmers, in hopes of making them harder for hackers to reach. The company is establishing digital security checks that could even shut off a computer’s connections to some monitors or televisions if antipiracy procedures that stop high-quality video copying aren’t in place.

The article goes into more detail on how Vista reduces opportunites for software developers, hardware devices, and end-users.
This is a fine reason not to upgrade to Windows Vista when it comes out. A software upgrade ought to provide customers a better product, not a worse product.
This is also an opportunity for entrepreneurs building on Linux and web-based services. People who can package easy-to-use, open personal creativity systems have a vast market to gain that’s being left behind by Microsoft.

Cingular Wireless sucks

The superb What Geeks experience contrasts with the dismal customer service black hole which is Cingular Wireless.
My account has fallen victim to the merger between Cingular and AT&T Wireless. I sent Cingular a payment, but continued to get dunning phone calls. It turned out that while I had changed the address from Cingular to AT&T, I had failed to update my account number to the new Cingular account. They couldn’t find my payment. So I double-paid using my credit card to keep them from turning off the account.
The next step is to fax bank and bill-pay records of the transaction to their research department. The support person had a helpful demeanor, but was unable to confirm the fax number of the research department, or any way to check on the problem once the records had been faxed in. I’m scheduled to get a call back on Wednesday.
In the meantime, Cingular has a visible amount of my money earning interest somewhere. If one has bad memories of MCI billing “glitches” that turned out to be genuine, one might start to be suspicious at this point. There’s plenty of money to be made by double-billing people who have problems with the AT&T conversion. Hanlon’s Razoroffers some mild comfort to the paranoid: “Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence.”
p.s. Here’s Chris Shipley of Network World and the Demo conferences telling her story about getting stuck in the AT&T/Cingular transition.

Kudos to What Geeks

I dreaded an endless cross-vendor finger-pointing maze when when the Microsoft documentation for securing a wireless network contradicted the Linksys documentation, and the Microsoft rep tried to send me to Fujitsu.
At that point, I gave up on the vendors and called Whatgeeks a rental help desk service that promised assistance at $.99 per minute. The Whatgeeks tech support person was superb. He helped me through configuring security for a network with several versions of Windows and different speeds of network cards. Then he helped with another network misconfiguration. The tech was polite, informative, knowledgeable and efficient. What great customer service. Highly recommended.

What FEMA promised

Why didn’t local government have enough stockpiles for four days post-emergency?
This first-hand report from the Hurricane Pam exercise says that FEMA promised the locals quick and massive response.

They promised to have 1,000,000 bottles of water per day coming into affected areas within 48 hours. They promised massive prestaging with water, ice, medical supplies and generators. Anything that was needed, they would have either in place as the storm hit or ready to move in immediately after. All it would take is a phone call from local officials to the state, who would then call FEMA, and it would be done.

And why did FEMA seem to spend much of its energy turning down offers of supplies?

There were contracts-in-place with major vendors across the country and prestaging areas were already determined (I’ll have more to say about this later, but this is one reason FEMA has rejected large donation and turned back freelance shipments of water, medical supplies, food, etc: they have contracts in place to purchase those items, and accepting the same product from another source could be construed as breach of contract, and could lead to contract cancellation, thus removing a reliable source of product from the pool of available resources.”

AA Batteries save lives

I’d been wondering about the horrible on-the-ground communications problems in Louisiana, and this article in (Federal Computer Week) has the answer.
The handheld radios used by first responders in the New Orleans area use cellphone-style batteries that require electricity to recharge. Without new power, they ran out of battery and were out of touch. reports that the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, sent in radio systems that run on AA batteries.
Something as simple as radios that run on AA batteries can save lives.
Also, the different parishes used different frequencies to communicate, and local groups used different frequencies than the feds, according to this Wall Street Journal article. There was a sort of central switchboard that could patch together communications across the systems, but it was knocked out during the storm.
Upgrading to AA-battery radios with compatible frequencies is just the sort of unglamorous maintenance expense that is easy to avoid in tight budgetary times. And a seemingly little thing that is infinitely expensive in an emergency.
Update: another reason for the breakdown in communications — apparently the National Guard’s backup generators were in Iraq. Need to re-find the source that reported this.

How to rebuild New Orleans has creative and inspirational ideas about how to rebuild New Orleans to make it less vulnerable. Also some good ideas from Ergosphere. Both articles suggest razing neighborhoods that are destroyed and filling in to a much higher level. Ergosphere suggests building with stilts and jackable frames, so houses can be raised as the ground sinks. The WorldChanging article suggests using fitting new buildings with solar panels, which would be too expensive to retrofit but would be reasonable and financeable in new construction.
Dennis Hastert has backed away from his suggestion not to rebuild New Orleans. A strategy to continously rebuild coastal property in Florida and abandon New Orleans seems suspiciously like natural-disaster-enabled redistricting.

Give thanks for infrastructure

There’s a traditional Jewish blessing said after using the bathroom, expressing awe at the complexity of the human body and thanks that we can rely on this system. Atheists and agnostics can search-and-replace God with Nature.
“Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows (cavities). It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory that if but one of them were to be ruptured or if one of them were to be blocked it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You (even for a short period of time). Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals all flesh and acts wonderously.”
The Katrina disaster shows how much we have become utterly dependent on manmade systems of wondrous complexity:
* water
* sewer
* electricity
* telecommunications
* natural gas
* gasoline
When these sytems are disrupted as with Katrina our civilization dissolves. This is incentive to give thanks every day for systems that we take for granted and for their maintainers. Every day there is light and water and indoor plumbing and net access is a day to be thankful.
And to do what we can to prepare for disruptions. What caused the nearly complete failure of the on-the-ground communications in New Orleans, among police, emergency workers, and flooded areas? Was it a lack of extra batteries and generators? The military has communications systems for wartime. What was NO missing?