Monday, December 15, 2008

The Wall Street Journal, Net Neutrality, and the Devil in the Details

I was a bit stunned to read this article in the Wall Street Journal today about the defenders of Net Neutrality backing down. The story was picked up and parroted by multiple other sources (CIO Insight, and InformationWeek, to name just two) without critical examination.

Some companies, like Microsoft, have openly dropped their active support of Net Neutrality, though the details in the WSJ article don't point to any open violation of it, or activism against it.

But Google? The "Don't Be Evil" company? Not hardly. If you wish to read Google's prompt denial of the claims in the WSJ, check here

The Journal also spears Lawrence Lessig, Obama advisor, and Net Neutrality advocate, saying:

Stanford's Mr. Lessig, for one, has softened his opposition to variable service tiers. At a conference, he argued that carriers won't become kingmakers so long as the faster service at a higher price is available to anyone willing to pay it."


Mr. Lessig also responded quickly, on his blog.

I will let those two speak for themselves, but I am troubled that a news source as valued as the Wall Street Journal can get the details so wrong. In the case of Net Neutrality, the technical details are crucially important.

The Journal article at one point states:

Advocates of network neutrality also claimed that dismantling the rule would be the first step toward distributors gaining control over content, since they could dictate traffic according to fees charged to content providers. The fortunes of a certain Web site, in other words, might depend on how much it could pay network providers, rather than on its popularity.

But the fortunes of websites have *always* depended on how much they pay network providers *for their bandwidth*. This is not a problem for Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality is not intended to bring about equality of outcome. The Tinker's Mind doesn't deserve the same bandwidth as YouTube, and I'm not going to pay for the same bandwidth. 

The problem that Net Neutrality is meant to protect is the end-to-end delivery of content on a best effort, per-packet basis. So if my tiny website pays for some minor bandwidth (say, a 1.5 MBps T1 connection), then that's the speed of my on-ramp. If my website suddenly explodes in popularity, that T1 will be horribly burdened trying vainly to deliver it's precious content to the information-hungry masses. I get what I pay for. (This is happening on both ends of the pipe--chances are you can pay more for faster residential service through your ISP if you want to.)

At the other end of the spectrum, with something like Google's OpenEdge proposal, according to the Journal:

Google's proposed arrangement with network providers, internally called OpenEdge, would place Google servers directly within the network of the service providers, according to documents reviewed by the Journal. The setup would accelerate Google's service for users.

It certainly would accelerate Google's service for users. From the standpoint of Net Neutrality, this is not a problem, however. The fact that Google can afford it, and I can not, is also not a problem.

What Net Neutrality will prevent is the following scenario: When you request a webpage (be it from Google, or from my tiny website), the packets being delivered to your desktop are switched along all the intermediate pathways (by AT&T, Comcast, or whomever) *without being molested*. Every packet on the network, from end to end, queues up and shoots down the line at it's fastest possible speed. Comcast wants the right to hold up your packets in transit to make way for traffic they deem more important. This is a violation of Net Neutrality. When intermediate carriers and providers can decide what types of applications, or packets from certain sources, are given priority at the switch level, they can decide which sites perform better on your desktop. Not based on the bandwidth that you pay for...Not based on the bandwidth the website pays for... But on which content is in the *best interest of the ISP*.

This means that, should my little website decide to beef up its bandwidth to better match its demand, it may not matter. If Brighthouse network is your ISP, they may decide that packets from my website don't need to reach you as fast as the packets from their fellow AOL/Time/Warner brethren. This is what Net Neutrality is meant to protect against. (Brighthouse is no longer wholly owned by AOL/Time/Warner, for the record).

So back to Google's OpenEdge technology, which would place frequently accessed content closer to the end user to improve performance. This doesn't violate Net Neutrality in the least. This just means that end-to-end, the data you asked for is closer to you and reaches you faster. There is no hint of technology that would hold up other end-to-end traffic along the way, based on its source, or its content. Google may be able to pay a premium to the ISPs for locating their data close to you, but non-Google data won't be squelched in order to make room for it. In fact, the opposite happens. Instead of traveling halfway across the globe, occupying the lines of transmission along the way, Google traffic to you will only occupy a local spur of the information lanes, leaving more room for data that can't afford to cache itself locally to travel freely around the world.

Like so many other facets of life, equality of opportunity is not equality of outcome. Know which one you are fighting for.



Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Illusion of a Green Auto Market

I keep hearing people proclaim the lack of foresight on the part of the Big Three in making more fuel efficient cars to meet market demand.

While this is, in part, true, it is not a prescription for saving them. Retooling to make more fuel efficient cars isn't going to drive up demand for Big Three autos. In fact, demand doesn't need to be driven up! Just look at the numbers. GM is outselling Toyota worldwide. Ford is outselling Nissan and Honda. So if the Big three are outselling the rest of the world, how are they going bankrupt?

The reason that Detroit has focussed on making pickups and SUVs is that it was the only place they were profitable per unit. Their operating costs are just so much higher than the Japanese, and the smaller, cheaper cars lose the profit margins necessary to keep the Detroit companies afloat. Take a look at the graph on this page.

So where do those operating costs come from? Here are places to look:

1) Union wages and benefits: GM's cost per hour of labor? $84. Toyota's cost per hour of labor? $48. This adds about $2000 to each car produced by the Big 3. This, in turn, drives them to push their pickup and SUV lines, as it's the only place with enough profit in it to cover that $2000 cost. ($2000 out of a $32,000 price tag, is a lot easier to deal with than $2000 out of a $14,000 price tag)

2) Healthcare and pension (union and non-union) costs for employees in America:

Surprising note: GM's pension fund is fully funded, and not a source of woe for them! Who knew?! But largely, the cost per labor hour above isn't just union wages, it's benefits, and that includes non-union employees too. Japanese plants benefit from having the government pick up the tab for healthcare.

3) Operations efficiency:

Another surprising note: Detroit's factories and suppliers seem to have caught up since the 90's, at least in labor hours/vehicle. But even assuming that labor hours per vehicle are equal, $84 x H > $48 x H, where H = hours to make a car. I think it's safe to assume that parity will exist between the Big Three and the Imports in this area for the time being.

4) Dealer Network:

This is a big problem. Domestic dealerships are trying to hang on from the days where 90% of cars on American Roads were American. It's under 50% now. They need to stomp some dealer contracts, and much like union contracts, they won't have any incentive to do it given a bailout.

4) Executive Salaries:

I don't have hard numbers on this, but even assuming that the Big Three is Millions of dollars above the Japanese on this front, it's still a drop in the bucket in operational cost. It's largely a symbolic thing, and I'm kind of tired of hearing about it. (However, if you have a source for hard numbers, please send it along!)

If you can think of any areas I've overlooked, please let me know. But as it stands here, I can't see a way out of this mess sort of massive retooling of Union contracts and Dealer contracts. Making smaller, cheaper, greener cars will expand the gap in profitability between the Big Three and Japan, not decrease it. And it doesn't matter how many small green cars you sell, when you lose money on every one, you just end up losing more money if you build more of them.

Since the Democrats are in control of everything right now, they are going to have to decide a winner and loser with this bailout. There is no middle ground between the Labor dems and the Green dems on this issue. The UAW has bled the Big Three out, and made them incapable of surviving while building green cars. So when people talk of the bailout, we need to realize that we're really bailing out the Unions, and not doing anything to help American auto companies survive in the long run. Giving the Big Three a check in order to "let the Big Three retool to meet the demand of a greener market" is a pipe dream. There is no panacea to be had on this front. If the Federal Government props up the Big Three, they are just kicking the can on further down the road. And given how they've treated Medicare and Social Security, I won't put it past them.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Deficit Spending - The American Way

Deficit Spending - The American Way!

I apologize for the sparse posting lately. I've been obsessing more about the economy and politics than my usual tech/social networking fare.

When we get over this credit freeze, we're still going to see a recession. We should expect it, and in some sense, hope for it.

Few politicians are talking about what got us into this mess.

The desire to put more people into houses, regardless of their ability to afford it, via Fannie and Freddie, caused an unsustainable housing boom. Banks, happy to ride this wave of good fortune with money that wasn't really theirs, were completely complicit with this doctoring of the free market.

Our inability as private citizens to delay gratification until we could actually afford it, has become all too common.

The economy will not right itself until the prices in the housing market come down to their real market value. Real people will lose real money on this. Nothing has been said by our leadership on this simple fact: our economy *is* in trouble because of a credit crisis, but not the one they think. Citizens, local and state governments, and our federal government have all been spending money that wasn't ours. The *real* credit crisis is that, for far too long, there's been too much of it available, and too much of it undeserved.

Even if doctoring the markets with this bailout package works, we're just kicking the can further down the road (like we're doing with Social Security, Medicare, the national debt, etc.)

If America does *not* end up in a recession because of this, then we're doing something wrong as consumers. We're going to have to reel in own own spending to get us back to solvency. This, in turn, will have recessionary effects on the economy. Anything short of this is just an indicator that the housing bubble is just a precursor to the bubble that the entire economy is riding.

Let us hope that we learn our lessons well, and we can softly deflate this bubble before it bursts. Reel in our spending. Pay down our debt. Set some savings aside.

But given our lack of leadership, and the quick-fix policies that will set the precedent and commit the federal government to float the economy at all costs, it's unlikely that these lessons will be learned by those who are truly culpable -- you and I.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The New Democracy

The New Democracy

Back in march, I talked about how the internet will change democracy, by fundamentally changing the way we get our news, and how we share it with each other.

There are indications that this election is starting to see those effects already. Previously, I suggested that, in the future, "Electoral success depends on motivating people, not donors, because people can't be swayed by an increasingly irrelevant broadcast media".

Sen. Obama is burning money at almost 2:1 over Sen. McCain, yet McCain's seen a decent enough boost since the pick of Gov. Palin to break even. Granted, a lot of this is due to the sensationalist coverage of her in the broadcast media, but that coverage comes as a result of the media scrambling (and sometimes clumsily so) for details on someone they thought was an unknown.

So why have I been hearing about Sarah Palin, potential VP pick, since before she had her 5th child? Because I keep my eye on the conservative blogs. I'm not saying that she was the expected pick, but the media reacted as though it came completely out of left-(or, maybe, "right")-field. Traditional media doesn't know what the Internet literati do. That's a powerful statement.

The Internet has the potential to produce an undesirable insulating effect when it comes to politics, however. It allows us to sift through the noise and filter content that we wish to see. It allows us to build our community and social ties around shared interests, instead of shared geography. The more we get entrenched with like-minded people, the more we end up talking to ourselves, and shutting out outside information. This is particularly dangerous for the campaigns themselves, because it distances them from the thoughts, worries, concerns, and ideas of independent voters they need to win any election.

This election cycle, I've noticed the following trends due to this:

* "Message Discipline" is way up among people who aren't on campaign staffs. The True Believers on both sides, dedicated to circulating their propaganda within their own circles, get increasingly out of touch with Independent and swing voters, and increasingly parrot their party lines.

* The campaigns themselves target those swing voters as a demographic needing coercion. While this is not something new, what is new is that these independents are busy informing themselves on the issues that matter to them.

* The media isn't helping these people find the information they want. The media is busy reporting on which demographic segments are leaning which direction, and playing the campaign smear commercials in between. Instead of illustrating the issues and policies of each candidate, they are instead following the populace, who is digging for that information on their own thanks to the Internet, blogs, RSS feeds, and links and writings by the people in their social network. The media, instead of bringing the issues from the candidates down to the people, are lagging behind the people who are using the Internet to go straight to the source.

More evidence that the people are going straight to the candidates to make their decision? The Democratic Convention was the most watched convention, ever. For one week. Then the Republican Convention was the most watched ever. I predict that the debates are seriously going to determine the outcome of this election. America is paying attention. The broadcast and print media just haven't figured out what they paying attention *to*, yet.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

MMO Gaming: (Not So) Wasted Time

In my last post, I highlighted what the terms Social Media and Web 2.0 really refer to, as well as some mild predictions of what is to be produced by this new means of media consumption. (I promise that the next time I am compelled to write a treatise of this length, I'll bust it up into smaller posts.)

I ran across this link on LifeHacker, talking about where the time to be a participant in this new media will come from. This is a question I've faced many times from people . "Where do you get the time to read everything you do?" or "How can you spend all that time playing MMO games?".

Clay Shirky does a much better job detailing it than I could here.

His presentation also touches on many of the nuances of what Social Media is, so it's worth checking out, as is his book _Here Comes Everybody_.

So did I waste all this time on building and selling blasters in Star Wars Galaxies, or raiding dungeons in World of Warcraft? Not entirely. Here's some of the valuable business lessons I've learned spending my leisure time in online games:

Gently Dominate
Being the early adopter amongst my peer group, I frequently found myself in leadership roles in most of the MMOs I've played. By sheer virtue of greater exposure, I was looked to to provide expertise for newer players. But the adventuring party is a fickle beast, and leading a group of friends can cause tension. Arguments over what characters to play, who to invite to the group, who should get what loot, and simply managing playtime and coordinating an attack strategy based on the strengths of players and their characters can cause serious social trauma. I learned that having strong knowledge and producing results consistently over time lend to your credibility in leadership and decision-making roles. People are willing to submit themselves to your decisions if they know that you can produce rewards for them over time. Pick your fights, and know which decisions to let slide for the sake of the group's happiness. "Sure, I'll bring my mage instead of my paladin if you want to tank."

Know Your Role (Right Now)
The converse of Gently Dominating, is to know when to shut up and follow someone else's orders. (How do you think I got all that knowledge in the first place? I tagged along with those who knew better than me.) However, just because you're good at something doesn't mean you should be a one-trick pony. Learn to be flexible, and do what the team needs you do do *right now*. My favorite class in Warcraft was the Paladin. Paladins are built to take a tremendous amount of abuse through a combination of 1) sporting some serious armor, 2) being naturally as tough as nails, and 3) the ability to heal themselves and others. Paladins, hoever, aren't particularly skilled at dishing out the pain. Most of the time, this meant my job was standing in front of the Nasty Thing and drawing it's attention while those better suited to putting the hurt on it dealt damage from safety. Sometimes battles don't go as planned (usually when there's more than one Nasty Thing and it just killed your priest), and you have to know when to stop dancing with a bad guy and start healing your friends. The ability to switch roles in a team at a critical moment can mean the difference between success and failure. And you better have the goods to perform more than your traditional role.

Message Boards are better than Surveys
One of the things I learned from Star Wars Galaxies wasn't even while playing the game. MMOs have extensive community involvement by their very nature. To be certain, much of this involvement occurs inside of the game. However, a great deal of it is played out on the forums and message boards. MMOs make frequent changes, adding new content, fixing bugs, and balacing gameplay. Many of these changes are welcome, many are controversial. The player community hashes out these issues and airs their grievances on the game's message boards. Posts range from "Thank you!", to carfeully constructed ideas on where the game developers should concentrate next, to hate-filled ranting against the developers or other players. Message boards are not pretty. They are not controlled (much) by the developers. But getting constant feed back from the customer in direct conversation with the company (through PR representatives on the forums) or by watching the commentary between players, tells the developers what they've done right, what they've done wrong, and what the community wants to see more of. This kind of interaction is essential to the MMO, and in the future it's going to be essential to all corporations. Listen to your customers, give them more of what they want, ditch whatever isn't working, and keep the customer informed about what you're doing and why throughout the process. In this way, you don't just build a consumer, you build a member of your customer community, making them advocates who can take their message out to their friends and the market.

Focus On The Core Competency
The MMOs that have flopped have mostly tried to do too many things, attempting to please all of the people all of the time. One of the strongest features emerging from Social Media is the room to thrive in service to a niche market. Whatever your endeavor, focus on what you deliver best to the customer, and get other people to do what they're best at in service to your ancillary needs. In the early days of Star Wars Galaxies, there was a thriving economy. My character made guns for all the happy spacefaring adventurers who wanted to run around and blow things up. (A task I was particularly unsuited for). In fact, I spent so much time building weapons, what I wasn't particularly good at moving the products themselves. Luckily, a friend of mine, due to their class as an Entertainer, spent all their time in front of large groups of people gathering in cities. I stopped trying to peddle my weapons, and instead offloaded them straight to him at wholesale price. I didn't have to manage a supply chain, I took his orders from halfway across the galaxy and delivered to him in bulk to offload to the customer base. I went on to cultivate similar relationships with many others in the same vein. My goods had become so widespread that retail customers started coming straight to me with their orders. I stuck with what I was good at (manufacturing weapons), and my network of entertainers stuck to what they were good at (interacting with people during non-combat time, and peddling my wares for a profit to themselves).

These are just some of the lessons I learned from my gaming experiences on the Internet. Now it's off to waste some time, playing games and learning more lessons.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

On Social Media: What is Web 2.0, and What Does It Mean?

I dislike industry buzzwords, and how quickly they get usurped by those who don't fully comprehend them. "Web 2.0" is a buzzword that has been being tossed around ever since O'Reilly and MediaLive International coined the term to isolate who survived the bursting of the dot-com bubble and why. Yet most people are still unclear on the concept, at best. "Web 2.0" doesn't refer to a platform, a particular set of tools, a programming interface, or even really a design methodology. It is an emergent effect, flowing naturally from the how the Internet works. It's only coming to light recently because, with the dot-com bust, we've separated the wheat from the chaff. As the speed of networks rise and the price of storage falls, the emergent behaviors are simply more evident than they were a decade ago. Universal Mccann International refers to this emergent trend with a better distinction, "Social Media", and defines it as "Online applications, platforms and media which aim to facilitate interaction, collaboration and the sharing of content." See Universal Mcann International slideshow here.

"Web 2.0" is the concept surrounding what the Internet has always been at its core: cheap, fast and sturdy communication leads to collaboration and connection. This collaboration, in turn, leads to ideological community. These communities band together and produce amazing things, akin to the old-fashioned phenomenon of barn-raising. This process has been a potent force on the Internet since its inception. (One of the first "barns" to be raised on the Internet was the Linux operating system, delveloped through collaboration of various Open Source communities). But it's only now emerging on the World Wide Web. This emergent behavior, identified in general by the terms "Web 2.0" and "Social Media", is simply the World Wide Web catching up to the Internet.

---Web 1.0---
Once upon a time, the World Wide Web was just a particular protocol riding on the Internet. It grew to dominate the Internet, so much so, that today "The Web" and "The Internet" are practically synonomous terms. How did this happen? First, the Web itself was user friendly. You didn't have to participate in it, you could simply consume it. This is the crux of Web 1.0. Participation in the web was largely passive. Its content quickly became "top-down" like traditional media, as the platform it rode on became vastly more accessible to "consumers". (The cost of connecting home PCs to the Internet got cheaper. Service providers like AOL could bring the web to your desktop, and the TCP/IP stack was brought from the college UNIX systems to Windows and MacOS users at home for the first time.) Thus, with the demand for consumption of Web content coupled with the cheap delivery of it into the home, to most users there was no functional difference between "The Web" and "The Internet". The Web was the window (pun intended) through which most people saw everything they knew the Internet to be. But people were largely still consumers of the Web's content, not participants in the Internet.

---Web 2.0---
As the base of web consumers expanded, so did web producers, largely in the form of organizations and corporations that were seeking to further their brand in this new media. However, technology and technique advanced on the web to take advantage of the untapped avenue for two-way communication. The Active Participant, ("Active Participant" is the terminology I prefer, as it embodies the individual that both produces and consumes web content) who started with a simple personal webpage found herself with newer modes of interaction. Blogging sites like LiveJournal started to promote social networking. Facebook and MySpace distilled it down and moved social communication, photo sharing, and music to the center, and pushed blog commentary to the peripheral. Sites like del.icio.us allowed us to bypass the middle-ground entirely and feed internet content to our friends without the need for visiting a middle ground. Speaking of "feeding", RSS feeds allow us to aggregate our content and bypass the form (or branding) of that content, making it ever easier to keep up on the news and commentary we want, be it from the New York Times, or the blog of my old college roommates (who frequently write better than the Times).

"Old Media" provided 4 essential functions:
  • Some form of centralization to build or aggregate the information
  • A means to distribute the information (which was neither cheap nor easy)
  • Authorities to edit the content to give it context
  • Authorities to inventory and catalogue the content to separate the "noise" from the "signal".

    So how do we achieve all of these functions with Social Media?

    The production and distribution of content should be pretty self-explanatory, this is what Web 1.0 brought us. Editorial contextualizing is being brought about by the blogosphere, and the choices we make regarding which RSS feeds to subscribe to, who to add to our friends lists on social networking sites, and which blogs we visit regularly. Finally, the inventory and cataloging has been replaced with tagging and searching. Again, thanks to advances in hardware and software, we can search massive amounts of information. This is Google's core competency. But beyond this is that we no longer have to pay people to index, catalogue or identify this content. We're doing it for each other. Next time you have a hard time nailing a subject down with a google search, try del.icio.us. You may be surprised at what millions of the web's Active Participants can do. Here's a wonderful video by Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University that sums up Social Media quite nicely.

    ---What does it all mean?---

    So what practical effect will this new conceptual framework have on our society? I would argue that it is profound. We're only at the very tip of the iceberg in terms of the changes this will render on our world. I'm not one for hyperbole, but I would argue that the mature Internet (by way of Social Media finally coming into it's own on the Web) rivals the printing press in its revolutionary utility. It will change the way we organize, learn, vote, consume, volunteer, work, play, and act.

    It will change how we act as consumers. Web 1.0 allowed us far greater freedom in the goods we could purchase, and the ease with which we could acquire them. It allowed producers of niche goods and services to reach markets big enough to sustain themselves. The best example of this has been used book stores. While Amazon.com has been horrible to brick-and-mortar sellers like Borders and Barnes & Noble (who have had to pepper their stores with coffee shops and sell their customers an "experience"), it has been a tremendous benefit to used book sellers who can connect their inventory with Amazon in real time, allowing internet customers around the world access to their rare out-of-print books that may not have a market locally.

    If Web 1.0 changed how we buy, Web 2.0 changes how we decide what to buy. If you tag any website with the label "wishlist", and your friends can see what to buy you for your next birthday (If you care to contribute to my happiness and well-being, you can find mine here ). To see if I really want that next Jim Butcher book, I can check out the reviews on Amazon's page before I buy it, or I can see the reviews in the iRead widget on my Facebook page to see what other readers are saying about it. Moreover, iRead may suggest books I would like by comparing my book-ratings and my library with libraries similar to mine.

    Sites like Angie's List can help me find reviews written by other people about their experiences with everything from plumbers to mechanics. And Craig's List may help me determine if I need to buy anything at all, if someone out there is looking to get rid of something I've been needing for only the cost of hauling it away. With all of these choices, combined with the thoughful participation of fellow consumers, businesses will have to learn how to navigate and participate in Social Media. Again, I quote Universal Mcann International's report on Social Media:


    All companies and brands should consider employing them to create open and honest dialogue. Any blog that spins he truth will be found out. In a world of social media, honesty is the only policy. The future of marketing is about acting how you want to be perceived instead of talking about it.

    Social Media has already changed the way we organize, work, and volunteer. The Open Source Software movement is the earliest and finest example of how many hands make light work, producing stable operating systems and applications for free, simply by having the tools to collaborate easily on such projects, and the desire to volunteer some small amount of time, effort, and brainpower to them. Though the Open Source people are the natural earliest adopters of this methodology, we're starting to see its use in all sorts of community organization, from relief efforts to political campaigns. Speaking of which...

    Social Media will also change how we act as citizens. Old Media allowed political campaigns to craft thier brand as well as any corporation. In simpler terms, money on advertising in traditional media outlets could put the proper message forward, polished to a high-sheen, and tailored for consumption by the target demographic. Beyond simple advertising was the implicit trade-in-favor of newsmedia, which due to it's role in editorial control and distribution, would trade a certain level of compliance in order to gain access to candidates.

    Social Media is just now starting to short circuit this. The first stirrings were 4 years ago, when Howard Dean managed to raise boatloads of cash on the Web. But boatloads of cash isn't going to drive the campaign of the future, Active Participants will. (See my post, The Campaign of the Future.) Active Participants aren't just going to promote their candidates and platforms blindy, however. Barack Obama found this out the hard way when talking at a San Francisco fundraiser a few weeks ago with his now infamous "Guns And Religion" comment. That fundraiser had no traditional reporters in attendance, and if they were, they surely wouldn't have risked future access to Obama's campaign by offering up the information that Mayhill Fowler did, breaking the story. If you think I'm exagerrating the news media's compliance with campaign wishes, Jay Rosen's article here may change your mind. In it, he sums up what Social Media means to political campaigns quite succinctly:


    Before she was airbrushed out by Tim Russert and changed into a leaker by Jay-Newton Small, Mayhill Fowler was an Obama supporter who sometimes found it necessary to be a critic of the campaign. She is also a citizen journalist with a platform: OffTheBus, which resides at the Huffington Post. Now if the term "citizen journalist" drives you nuts, or gets you up on your high horse, then call her a writer with a page on the Web that can reach the rest of the news system. The point is Fowler is a particular kind of Obama loyalist, a particular kind of contributor to his campaign. The kind with a notebook, a tape recorder, friends in the campaign, a public platform of decent size, plus the faculty of critical intelligence. The campaign doesn't know what it thinks about such people.
    The category into which she fits is not an existing one in journalism, which generally forbids contributions to candidates and open expressions of support. It is not a familiar category among donors, either: Citizen journalist for a pro-am site who may or may not publish something if you invite her?


    You say "Citizen Journalist", I say "Active Participant". Regardless, it's the way that campaigns will work in the future, so we better get used to dealing with the foibles and missteps of imperfect candidates, and they had better learn that they no longer have complete control over information. This will be a Democracy practiced in a more perfect form, with transparency on the part of governments and campaigns, and a deeper understanding on the part of the constituency, including tolerance of the ugly bits that we're going to have to recognize and put into context once we are no longer accustomed to having information pre-scrubbed for our palatability.

    In the world of Social Media, actions speak louder than words, for both the Consumer and the Citizen. The technology, access, and tools are in place for the general population to create, edit, distribute, and catalogue all media. And in this new world the phrase, "The Truth Will Out" has never held so true. We'll have to be more honest with ourselves and each other, and more nuanced in our understanding of our world. Talking points, soundbites, corporate slogans, and product taglines all become meaningless when the conversation is a two-way street and widespread for the the first time in human history.
  • Friday, April 4, 2008

    Phoenician ASCII

    All communication, since the dawn of language, starts as synchronous communication, and tends towards the asynchronous. Oral histories disappear from cultures once writing and literacy is common enough to allow it. Orders delivered though synchronous communication (verbal conversation) can run a tribe but not an empire. Voicemail, e-mail, and text messages replace phone calls and face-to-face meetings. Having to be in the same place at the same time, let's face it, is inconvenient.

    Some 3500 years ago, in one of the great and shining moments of human achievement (cue the monolith from 2001), the Phoenicians reprogrammed the human mind.

    In the beginning, distinct sounds represented distinct thoughts. Words were the fundamental atomic nature of communication. I say "horse", and the idea of the equine quadruped pops into your head. (Computer scientists still honor this tradition when talking about PC architecture. The smallest chunk of memory that can be addressed is referred to as a "word". This is what "32-bit" refers to--a PC with 32-bit architecture can't address pieces of memory smaller than 32-bits in length). As language became more complex, so did the words. The first forms of asynchronous communication to develop all over the world were pictographic in nature. Just like spoken language, a visual symbol is a placeholder for an idea. Simple ideas were simple pictograms, and simple words. Complex ideas became combinations of pictograms or words. If a language had a massive vocabulary, it also had, by necessity, a massive collection of pictograms to represent it. This is the state that the Egyptian heiroglyphics are in at the height of their civilization. Writing was an absolute necessity to govern an empire so large, but the writing was so complex, that only very few were truly literate, and only those that held power.

    The Phoenicians were a maritime trading culture--merchants that traded all along the Mediterranean Sea. Asynchronous communication was even more essential to a seafaring populace, where geography and slow travel makes synchronous communication nearly impossible. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could be witness to the moment in history when it dawned on that first Phoenician thinker that the number of possible sounds made to form language was far more finite than the number of distinct words that form the vocabulary of that language? That with just a few dozen symbols, every "word" in thier language could be constructed in an easy to remeber visual shorthand? What an incredible shift in thinking! That conceptual leap, from direct symbolic representation, to another layer of abstraction is nothing short of miraculous-- translating the "idea" into the "word", then into component simple sounds! (The Phoenicians, of course, is what gives us the term "Phonetic", if that wasn't obvious by now).

    The human mind is good at internalizing a vast vocabulary by binding sound to ideas. Our brains are wired for it. So that first moment of genius, where the sounds themselves were broken up into simpler building blocks was akin to the splitting of the conceptual atom. The words "horse" and "house" sound similar to the ear, but evoke vastly different ideas in the human mind, but the sound that "h" makes doesn't evoke much of an idea at all. Who was the Phoenician mad man that first thought to build in that layer of abstraction, and encode distinct ideas ("words") into a compressed and easily transmitted format? I am humbled by the insight that that moment in human history must have taken.

    We have so altered the way that human consciousness works that the very idea of "words" being atomic to language seems alien to us. We can't help but think that letters make up words, and words make up ideas. But in reality, this isn't the case! Letters are wholly abstract, they are nothing more than an auditory shorthand that carries no meaning in-and-of-itself. Letters, as an idea, rest on top of words, not beneath them. The irony of trying to convey this notion, while using a phonetic alphabet isn't lost on me.

    Further tunelling down the rabit-hole, think about this... Right now, the letters on this page were conveyed to you in *even yet another* layer of abstraction. It only takes 8 little on/off switches (bits) to map to a number between 0 and 255, and those numbers are mapped to our phonetic alphabet, each number producing a specific letter on your screen right now. This is what the ASCII code is. (Of course, you're probably reading this on a 32-bit computer, so each letter is wasting alot of memory space, because it takes only 8 bits to represent a letter, but your computer is using 32-bits to store each one since it can't address anything smaller that a 32-bit "word".

    A phonetic alphabet is the basis for the earliest compression algorithms, and this paradigm shift in human language and thought is nothing short of a monumental development in human evolution.

    Thursday, March 27, 2008

    The Campaign of the Future

    --Looking Back on 2008 in Shame--

    First, with all the flack that's going around about the Democratic Primary slugfest, here's what I'd like to see. I'd like to see all the super-delegates get together and say, in one resounding voice, the following:

    1) "We love this primary fight. We hope it goes all the way to the convention. We want every opinion voiced and every voter heard. We will not supress democracy for the sake of appearing to have a clear winner, or triumphant champion. Politics is a fierce business, and sometimes it is less-than-pretty, but to have such a strong field competing against each other is a sign of the strength of our party."

    2) "BUT.... If you two can't play nice, talk about real issues, and show some respect for each other and your party, we're going to immediately grant all of our super-votes to the candidate who *doesn't* stoop to name calling. So help me God, I'll turn this convention around and take you all back home if you don't behave."

    Not that this will ever happen. The Democrats, at heart, like appearances and dislike competition. Especially friendly competition. Every opponent is simply evil and closed-minded. Even other Democrats.

    I hope that in some future campaign, we may hear ideas like the above expressed. But our nation is clearly not quite ready for it.

    --Politics in the Information Age--

    The Internet brought us a way to fulfill our traditionally out-of-the-way desires, both in our personal lives, and in our economy. This same transition is going to hit government sooner or later. Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch write, in their cover story for Politics:

    ...politics is a lagging indicator of American
    society, which has been moving with
    broadband-like speed into an era of Do It
    Yourself culture and not-so-rugged individualism.
    Think of what Americans have come to expect
    and insist upon in their social and economic lives:
    increasingly individualized service, culture and
    consumer products at every level (“You want
    soy with that decaf mocha frappuccino?”);more
    and more control over education, healthcare and
    retirement; and a nearly full-throttled embrace
    of lifestyle tolerance and pluralism that was
    unimaginable in a pre-Netflix, pre-“Queer Eye
    for the Straight Guy,” pre-iPod America.
    Decentralization, niche markets and choice are
    the coin of this new realm. The political future
    belongs to those leaders—and parties—that
    figure out how to transpose this insight into
    the legislative world.


    Catch the whole article here:
    http://www.reason.com/news/show/125656.html

    They go on to talk about the increased demand from niche markets in our everyday lives, and how the top-down imposition of common goods, services, and ideas is nearing the end of its reign. I can't help but agree with them. The changes the Internet has wrought in our economy and our personal lives is about to come crashing over Washington D.C.

    When someone talks about the sweeping changes that the Internet is going to bring to politics, they are usually talking about recent or near-term trends like Online voting, scandal scoops from the Blogosphere, or tapping into internet-based campaign contributions. These symptoms are certainly novel, but they are just that... symptoms. The real sea change is occurring in the populace now. We expect to have a voice, not just in the "strongly agree/somewhat disagree" opinion polls, but in shaping and driving opinion and dialogue, and in oversight of a truly transparent government.

    --The Mass-Media Politics of Yesterday--

    We are becoming, again (thankfully), a nation of do-it-yourself individualists. Look how politics changed with the ascent of mass-media, particularly television, in the 1950's. When political discussion became a one-way-street via broadcast media, we became a one-way-nation. When that media became nationally broadcast, we became far more federalist. (One media, one nation). When advertisers learned to ride that media, we became "consumers"--literally, bottom-feeders who ate whatever ideas or products were shoveled in front of us. (In WWII, American's were called upon to sacrifice at home for the war effort. In 2001, we were called upon to go about our business of consuming as usual, for the war effort).

    We relied upon the editorial content that Television, Radio, and Political Parties provided to us. We were awash in too much information, and we needed someone to filter out the relevant data lest we be overwhelmed. In recent years, however, we have adapted. We have learned technological tricks to helping each other filter out the noise.(Things like Google, del.icio.us, digg, and community reviews and rating-systems like EBay, Angie's List, and Slashdot). And while we are beginning to reassert ourselves and demand that the feedback loop gets closed, media, newscasters, pundits, and party leaders are still riding the last wavefront. They have polished their advertising-age editorializing to such a high sheen that they can no longer tell the difference between filtering the information, and trying to control it for their own ends (nominally, for "our own good".)

    Major Political party leaders, backed by the willing accomplice of mass-media and slick advertising, have grown so accustomed to setting the agenda through their position in power over information and opinion, that they cannot see the ground opening up beneath their feet.

    We now have the means to make all information available in a way where it can be searched, filtered, rated, propagated, refuted, and proven, not by some small top-down leadership, but by each other.

    --The Glass Closet--

    Anyone with any sense stays well away from politics, only further removing those who do practice this arcane art more segregated from normal American Society. This has been a long-running theme of politics: those qualified to hold office will never seek it.

    This is certainly an over-simplification, and the truth is more subtle. One thing that is certain is this: Politics is a self-selecting field. Those who seek political power seek political power because they want some form of control over other people. This feeling is often benevolent, and many seeking office do so out of some sort of perceived need to help others, but all to often, "helping" one segment of society means "controlling" another. Many good people shy away from politics for this reason. And power centralizes there, from both major parties, because they are made up of these power-seeking people, regardless of how well-intentioned their motives are.

    However, many worthy people stay away from politics because they are afraid of any skeletons making their way out of the proverbial closet. But now imagine this: in 20 years how impossible will this be? Who isn't going to have some embarrassing blog post on LiveJournal, or some compromising photo up on MySpace? Nobody will be able to have lived such a pristine flawless life just to make it into politics. And if they do, none of us will put up with having people so garishly out-of-touch with the human experience as our leaders.

    Furthermore, the people who are blogging, digging, linking, and cross-posting today who do make it into office will find that our expectations of their openness (and our forgiveness of their youthful indiscretions) is without bound.

    I could go into this theme further, but Jeff Jarvis already beat me to it in his article, The United States of Google.

    http://www.buzzmachine.com/2008/03/22/the-united-states-of-google/

    In it, he proposes, among other things, to "Turn the Freedom of Information Act on it's head", and make the government ask to keep things from us. He wants the entire government to be searchable. Jarvis goes on to quote Barrack Obama:

    I’ll put government data online in universally accessible
    formats. I’ll let citizens track federal grants, contracts,
    earmarks, and lobbyist contacts. I’ll let you participate
    in government forums, ask questions in real time, offer
    suggestions that will be reviewed before decisions are
    made, and let you comment on legislation before it is
    signed. And to ensure that every government agency
    is meeting 21st century standards, I’ll appoint the
    nation’s first Chief Technology Officer.

    I won't quote you any more of the article. You should promptly go read it in its entirety.



    We have a bright political future to look forward to. In it:

    • Government is transparent
    • Voters are treated like investors instead of consumers
    • Citizens have a voice that refuses to go unheard
    • Citizens are positive and constructive towards our government, because we have a stake in it every day, not just in election years, or as members of a broad demographic in a poll
    • Ideas about good governance comes from the Citizens and bubbles upward, not from the politicians from the top-down
    • Electoral success depends on motivating people, not donors, because people can't be swayed by an increasingly irrelevant broadcast media

    I can't wait to see you all there.

    Sunday, March 23, 2008

    Reconciling Net Neutrality with the Free Market

    Politically, I like to think that I'm nothing if not "philosophically consistent". (This, by the way, is probably why I have a hang-up when it comes to both major parties).

    But I've been wrestling with myself over Net Neutrality. I'm sure you've heard next to nothing on this issue from our presidential hopefuls, so here's a brief recap.

    The Internet protocol was originally specified that all traffic was to be forwarded on a "best-effort per packet basis." This means that, on the Internet, a packet of data is a packet of data, and all intermediate hosts (the stops along the way between the data's sender and it's receiver) were to attempt to deliver it without any prejudice to it's content. For a very long time, this was a non-issue. It simply meant that you could not pick which sources or destinations got preference from you. In the 25 years since the writing of this protocol, something happened that nobody had forseen. Computers and routers became so fast that they could perform "stateful packet filtering" or "packet-shaping". This means that the routers were fast enough to crack open your packets and look at the type of information they were carrying. If your traffic type was deemed "less important" by the router, it could queue it up and send "more important" data first. This is a terribly handy tool for businesses concerned with their own data (it's positively essential for Voice-over-IP phones), and so is generally regarded as A Good Thing.

    However, the big Internet Service Providers decided that they wanted to start doing it to their customers. They claim that it can boost the efficiency of their systems, and allow more favored traffic the right-of-way on their networks, even if that traffic didn't originate, or wasn't destined for, one of their customers. (It's just along for the ride on their infrastructure - the primary method of all Internet traffic). Detractors (myself among them) say that this amounts to censorship, and Comcast proved us correct when independent tests showed that they were blocking or delaying trasmission of BitTorrent packets, the chief method of Point-to-Point filesharing between end users. We defenders of Net Neutrailty further postulate that allowing ISPs and common carriers to packet-shape traffic will render the Internet into a more broadcast like medium, with "desirable" traffic from major media sources getting prime treatment, while "undesirable" traffic, from the likes of individuals, would get held up or lost. This in turn would turn us back into proper consumers of corporate-approved traffic, with individual voices squelched in favor of established media outlets, many of which are owned or affiliated with providers.

    I'm looking at you, AOL Time Warner. *points menacingly*

    Okay, so it's clear that I'm strongly in favor of Net Neutrality, Yet, at first glance, it doesn't seem to jibe with my generally Free Market libertarianism. This may not bother your average elected official, who eats philosophical inconsistencies each morning for breakfast, but it's been nagging the hell outta me. Usually, even my instincts are pretty rational, so when I came to what apeared to me to be an irrational paradox from two rational arguments (Net Neutrality is Good. Free Markets are Good. Net Neutrality is limiting to the Free Market), I decided to rethink the whole issue, and determine whether my analysis was flawed, or my conclusions.

    Finally, on the way home from Easter dinner today, it came to me. Are there any circumstances under which I believe that government oversight should step in and correct markets? As it turns out, this is a pretty easy question for me to answer. Yes, there are. Governments should only interfere with markets for three reasons.

    1) To prevent coercion by fraud: Corporate entities should not be able to misrepresent themselves or their products to the consumer. Advertising doesn't count as fraud to the more cynical among you. This doesn't seem to apply to Net Neutrality, though. The ISPs aren't lying about what they want to do.

    2) The prevent coercion by force: At first glance, this is a pretty weak argument for Net Neutrality. I have some limited choice as to what Internet Service Provider I choose. Of course, if you run a few traceroutes to some different internet sites, check and see how often the same common carriers come up along the way. The argument gets stronger when you see how much traffic is routed through just a few carriers, any one of which could packet-shape your data into a trickle. Still, this isn't strong enough to settle my unease with my logical paradox.

    3) To prevent predatory monopolistic effects: Bingo! I found what was bothering me. The ISPs aren't acting as competitive agencies fighting to provide the best services to their clients, they are acting in concert as an oligopoly to preserve a traditional market structure that is becoming obsolete, but is much preferable to them. Centralized broadcast media is challenged directly by independent and instantaneous access to publication through the Internet by individuals. They'd all be much happier if they could turn your web browser into a TV set, and feed you the content and advertising that they find most advantageous, and could leverage with their other business interests. If you think this sounds cynical, look at an AOL (Time Warner) subscriber's default homepage. Or Road Runner (Also Time Warner). Comcast. Name a major provider, and look at the internet experience they provide out of the box. It's built to hammer you with their ads and services every time you start up your browser. Hell, this isn't new. The music and movie industries have been collectively fighting a paradigm shift in their market with almost the exact same techniques. People want quick cheap and easy access to only the music they like, delivered right to their desktop. The technology can provide it, but the publishers wanted to protect their profits and maintain a grip on the editorial content of thier industry. The pick the music the radio plays, and they put Digital Rights Managment into their proprietary audio formats, so they can meet this demand halfway, or lose thier shirts to pirated MP3s.

    Monopolies (and oligopolies) are an anathema to the Free Market, even though some technologies naturally drift towards them due to factors I won't go into here. But when those oligopolies combine to effectively force you into abiding by their provisions because they control the common carrier infrastructure, you can no longer avoid them with market choices. They own the infrastructure, they can feed you what's good for them, not what you choose. That is coercion by force, and it's a coercion agreed upon by corporate entities in their own collective best interest. That is when governments have to step in to protect against monopolistic practices.

    Sunday, March 9, 2008

    Forays into Second Life

    As the resident gaming geek at the office, I've been asked to look into Second Life and other Virtual Worlds, and help evaluate their potential for our use. They sent me to a conference on Libraries, Education, and Museums in Second Life yesterday.

    I use a tool called BlogHUD to document my journeys inside Second Life. Check it out here:

    http://my.bloghud.com/arrykrees/

    Sunday, March 2, 2008

    The Tinker's Toolbox: Part II

    As promised, here are some essential applications and software I lean on, not just to get work done, but to make my Linux machine really feel like "home".

    -----iGoogle-----
    http://www.igoogle.com

    iGoogle has become an absolute essential for me. When you're on as many different machines as I am in a given day, it's nice to have everything follow you around. I am a heavy user of Goggle Documents for all my spreadsheets and word processor files. I'm addicted to Google Reader for my RSS feeds.

    A brief aside on RSS: RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. When done right, it is a godsend for information junkies. In short, your RSS reader grabs simple XML code for the pages you have subscribed to, and the posts to these syndication feeds are piped directly to your computer. Imagine a tickertape for your most commonly viewed websites. My RSS feed is like a perpetually updated custom newspaper for me. It should be noted that RSS feeds are only as good as their authors, and many sites seem to misunderstand the purpose, or have co-opted it, and give you little more than a headline. Stick with the feeds that send the full articles down.

    Of course, Gmail is on the main page, as well as Chat. I'm holding my breath for the release of gDrive, a shared network drive that you can reach from any computer. In the meantime, I make extensive use of Notepad (as well as it's companion FireFox extension) to make quick notes on ideas for future blog articles. My various activities are plotted via google's calendar.

    -----VLC-----
    http://www.videolan.org/vlc/

    This is a must-have. It's the universal media player for Linux, and it covers just about every codec and format you can think of for video and audio. Grab this, and forget about having to look for the right app for a particular format. Of course, it won't save you from DRM hell, if you're moving over from iTunes on a PC or Mac, but we can address that in a different way. (DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is any number of custom formats that folks like iTunes and Microsoft force you to use. It limits your ability to move or play your music to cut down on illegal sharing). Search Synaptic for VLC.

    -----Amarok-----
    http://amarok.kde.org/

    This is your new iTunes replacement. You'll find the features very familiar, and some additions to a standard iTunes interface that should please everybody. Let it search your hard drive or network for all your audio files, and watch it catalog them. It works flawlessly with an iPod, but it may screw up your current list when it syncs, so make sure you convert all your music over to mp3's and get it into Amarok before trying to sync. So long as your musical house is in order on your PC, the iPod will do just fine. (I've also had good reports from Zuners too.)

    Sadly, it can't play your blessed DRM files that you purchased off iTunes, but that's what we get for playing with proprietary closed systems, isn't it? The only way to grab your music as MP3s, if you purchased it from iTunes, it to rip it out to CDs and re-import it into MP3s. (I'm hunting for a better method, I'll let you know when I find it). The first time you play it, it will grab the codecs for whatever non-DRM format your music is in. But moving forward...

    -----AmazonMP3-----
    http://www.amazonmp3.com

    If you have followed my lead, and installed Gutsy Gibbon (Ubuntu 7.10), just follow the links on the main page. It will install your MP3 downloader in about 10 seconds, and give you a free song to test it with (you'll want to put in your credit card info here for future purchases, but this one will be free). No more DRM!! Amazon's MP3 catalog is extensive (easily matching the selection of iTunes), and better than that - it has a massive collection of Classical music, something iTunes is horrible at. Most songs are 89 cents per song, so it's even cheaper than iTunes. So, why are you using iTunes again?

    -----Dia-----
    http://www.gnome.org/projects/dia/

    This one really belongs in my previous post, as I use it almost exclusively for work, but this is your (superior) replacement for Microsoft Visio. It's excellent at cranking out network diagrams, and they can be cranked out as PDFs when you're done. Like most Open Source analogues to the M$ world, it's smaller, faster, simpler, and more robust than it's proprietary counterpart. Per usual, grab this package via Symantec.

    If you've been following these last two posts, your Linux box should be feeling an awful lot like your old Microsoft home.

    Friday, February 29, 2008

    The Tinker's Toolbox

    I'm going to start this blog off at it's natural beginning. A few posts on the assembly of my arsenal of toys, trinkets, and 007-esque gadgets that I use regularly to get my myriad of jobs done. The software, hardware, and toys that I list here are as unique to me as any mechanic's toolbox is. There's always more than one way to skin the cat, but these are my weapons-of-choice.

    First up, the laptop. The box. The deck. The one essential workspace of the Network Engineer. If I were a bank-robber, this is where I keep my shotguns and ski-masks.

    I'm a long-time Linux tinkerer, but it's only recently that I've really used it to bear the brunt of my technical heavy lifting.

    Ubuntu's 7.10 distribution (Gutsy Gibbon), is the first distro that I feel is robust enough for me to dive in with both feet, and completely abandon Windows.

    Now, I have a long-time habit of documenting new computer setups and configurations as I perform them. I can't tell the number of times I've been saved by compulsive note-jotting. I thought I'd translate these notes into an abbreviated guide to getting Gutsy up and flying with all the toys you need to replace your Vista desktop.

    Target System:
    Stock Dell Inspiron E1505
    1.86 GHz Dual Core Processor
    Broadcom 10/100 Card
    Broadcom DW 1390 WiFi
    Nvidia G72 256MB Video
    2GB RAM

    -----Ubuntu 7.10 "Gutsy Gibbon"-----
    http://www.ubuntu.com/

    First, I started with the Ubuntu 7.10 alternate install. I could have used the live CD, but I feel more comfortable with the old-school text install. I resized the Vista partition of my hard drive without wiping it, which is a miracle in-and-of itself. Here's my usual homage to the importance backups before you try a stunt like this, however. Everything of importance on the Vista side went off to my free Mozy (http://www.mozy.com) account first.

    Clickity-click, Next-Next-Next, Ubuntu is up and running with 10 minutes. Upon start, I got 2 Restricted Driver messages. For those unfamiliar with Ubuntu, this is when it warns you that it wants to use some proprietary code for some of it's drivers, as opposed to native Linux kernel code. My video card and my WiFi adapter both needed to grab stuff from the internet (so I plugged the laptop in on the wire). Both were configured in under a minute, and a reboot was called for for the video drivers.

    I rebooted, scanned my wireless networks (thanks to the technical arms race between me and my fellow engineer and neighbor) I find no less than 6 WLANs available. I connect to my home network, and I'm off the wire, and on the Internet. I had some automatic updates to do, so I let the system crank those out for me real quick.

    Okay, so there's a million guides that tell you how to stumble through all that good stuff if you hit any snags. The real point of this article is to document my must-have apps, and how to get them up and running quickly. I'll provide links to the resources I use to grab them.

    -----Tomboy-----
    This comes pre-installed. I busted this out right away (and dragged a launcher for it over to my task bar) because it's where I'm jotting these notes down.

    ----del.icio.us-----
    https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/3615

    I had to get the del.icio.us extension for Firefox just so I could get all these bookmarks back. If you use more than one PC, this is essential software.

    ----Compiz-Fusion-----
    https://help.ubuntu.com/community/CompositeManager/CompizFusion

    This is so damn pretty, it will make Vista Aero users cry. Crazy music not included. Enjoy this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lawkc3jH3ws

    How did I get this? If you know what you're looking for, this quickest way to install apps is to grab them from repositories on the net. In a terminal I typed

    sudo apt-get install compiz compizconfig-settings-manager

    It dropped in the necessary files, and I could configure it under System->Preferences->Appearance using the Custom button. Have fun!

    -----Evolution-----
    This one comes pre-installed with Ubuntu as well. Some folks prefer Thunderbird for their e-mail client, but since I need to have complete connectivity with my Exchange server at work, Evolution is the way to go. It's the Open Source Outlook Killer. If you can configure Outlook to read your mail, you can configure Evolution. If your Exchange server supports OWA, make sure to put the deliberate URL in the server address box. ("https://server.domain.com/Exchange/")

    -----Pidgin-----
    Another pre-installed app. This is my IM client and runs two AIM accounts, a yahoo account, and my Windows Live Messenger account.

    ----Minicom-----
    I needed a TTY terminal program to configure switches and the like at work. I found that the Belkin F5U409 USB-to-Serial adapter works out of the box in Gutsy, which is nice. It mapped it to /ttyUSB0 for me. I grabbed minicom off of Synaptic, and configured it thusly:

    sudo minicom -s

    This allowed me to configure my settings, most notably the serial port. I saved my config as default, and also created a save for cisco devices.

    I run it from a terminal with:
    sudo minicom

    Easy as pie....

    ----Super Nerdy Stuff-----
    Things that I need, but most don't. If you're an Network Engineer, these are MUST-HAVEs in your arsenal.
    I grabbed from Synaptic:

    aircrack-ng (Wireless network monitoring and hacking)

    kismet (Wireless network monitoring and hacking)

    Wireshark (Wired network packet sniffing - formerly Ethereal)

    These all came down just fine. If you want to know a little more about them here are some good links that I refer back to:

    Aircrack WEP cracking:
    http://www.aircrack-ng.org/doku.php?id=simple_wep_crack

    Kismet Wireless Monitoring:
    http://www.kismetwireless.net/

    Wireshark:
    http://www.wireshark.org/


    So that's it! My toolbox is ready to hit the road with me, and I'm fully functional as an IT professional under Ubuntu. Next up will be a list of Online applications I use to round out my computing experience on any machine.