Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Popular VoIP software is closed source with plans to be evil as Google

VoIP with plans to be evil Following from my post on Gizmo Project, it turns out that more than a handful of VoIP companies are already in direct competition with Skype. I suspected as much, but didn't expect that several of these would be offering the free calls to landlines like Gizmo and Skype. All the same, it seems that Gizmo is the first to offer free calls to landlines in Australia.

I also checked Wikipedia for a comparison of VoIP software. Wikipedia is a such very good place indeed to start a comparison of any category of software, that it might have been started for that purpose! Anyway Wikipedia's comparison of this category of software is marked as being under development, but it looks like both Skype and Gizmo Project are guilty of being closed-source software and Skype, as we know, is further guilty of using a proprietary protocol to send the voice packets. The upshot of this for me is that Gizmo Project and Skype, now being owned by eBay, are just as evil as Microsoft's Windows Messenger and Google Talk.

Asterisk PBX logo The only VoIP software app I could find that is dual licensed is Asterisk, an open-source implementation of a telephone exchange. It's used by the popular calling shop software *starShop, a great example of how to make a business model on open source software. More strength to this "only pay for commercial use" model I say. And hopefully the flawed-but-useful model of capitalism will bring more competition to providers like Gizmo Project and eBay/Skype from providers who use open-source VoIP software and non-proprietary transmission protocols!

To non-geeks who read, apologies for these overly techy posts. I'll try to stick more to the social-relevance side of the techy pool as was the original plan on this blog!

Coming up: I want to write a more extensive blog post on this idea of making profit from open source software in the spirit of doing well while doing good.

"VoIP plans to be evil" image derived from image of author.
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Friday, July 21, 2006

New species discovered in VoIP genus: Gizmo Project

Some real sound assurance, via Dr Faustus, that Skype will never be able to change their business model and start charging for VoIP calls. Gizmo Project (which I didn't test yet) offers comparable VoIP-out call rates and a special sweetener, announced yesterday, to try and lure us away from Skype.
The new program gives active Gizmo Project users unlimited free calling to landlines and mobile phones in 60 countries around the world. People who wish to participate simply download Gizmo Project, sign up for a free account and add their friends, family and business contacts to their Gizmo Project Contact list. Callers can then call their Contacts on their mobile phones, landlines or Gizmo Project for free.
Yes, Australia is one of those countries. The capitalist inside me is heartened to see such competition pop out of nowhere.

The promised update has gone into a new post here.

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Carnage in Lebanon: Would it really be okay if the response was proportionate?!

Southern suburb of Beirut bombed I still haven't quite grasped how much carnage is happening in Lebanon. Having been too occupied with other matters to watch TV, since Hezbollah started firing their rockets, I only just saw the first TV footage of Lebanon last night. Carnage! Now I see why people are all saying "well, it's a disproportionate response". Still, who is the person in charge of measuring how terrible an act is to know how much counterattacking is warranted? How does that person measure it? The idea that any military incursion is okay if it's "in proportion" is preposterous anyway. Would it really be useful if the Israeli army said: "Okay, that's four rockets and two prisoners each. Time to stop now."

First, see the best post I've read about the conflict, by Ben, who is in the Australian Army – I guess if your day to day life is preparing you for military conflict you think carefully about the nature of conflicts elsewhere. Admirably, he suggests an approach to thinking about the conflict that includes sustaining peace and not just a ceasefire. I don't care if it seems simplistic. More time needs to be spent thinking in this direction.

Regardless of the fact that this is considered a "disproportionate response" I simply cannot condemn the Israeli government for responding with an attack. Just the same way as I could hardly condemn the Australian government for attacking Papua New Guineau if an armed PNG non-governmental organsation was firing rockets at Cairns. It revolts me to think along such nationalistic lines, but while the world functions as a set of sovereign nation states, this is the way it must work.

The fact that the Israeli attack is vicious is hardly the point. We all know Israel has more firepower than Hezbollah and can do nasty things to people they perceive to be radically opposed to the existence of Israel, so no surprises that Southern Beiruit can be so swiftly reduced to rubble. The point is that Lebanon apparently made no effort to apprehend or stamp out the criminal activity of Hezbollah. I pity the people of Lebanon and northern Israel now, and I agree the rules that need to be followed as sovereign states can be tough to implement, but if Lebanon is to be treated as a sovereign state then it must play by the rules.

Image sourced from ABC News Online: Middle East conflict
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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

More on 50-terabyte DVDs and genetic modification... and thank God for sex!

Last week when I posted about the 50-terabyte, GM DVDs I made a little mistake. Not sure why I didn't realise it when I was writing the post, but of course proteins are the building blocks of all living things, not just animals! As a regular commenter (Jair) pointed out to me in an email, the proteins used for these DVDs are likely to be bred inside bacteria, not animalia. So it's hardly an ethical concern as it would be if we were using animal parts.

Of course, the concern about genetic-modification is still technically valid, although I am not particularly bothered by it. Another reader (vociferously anti-GM) who responded by email said "I'm opposed to GM crops, for whatever purpose." Granted, it's a very important concern to some, but I instinctively feel it's a predictably Luddist (remember
Ned Lud?) approach to take; like the fear of "recycled" water, not necessarily a rational or objective objection, but an emotional one.

I understand that GM is kind of scary to some people, but let's not forget natural genetic modification happens every day, every moment, as cells divide and replicate DNA inexactly, and on a much bigger scale every time a zygote is formed from sexual reproduction. GM is just a much faster (and possibly less-predictable) way of having that happen. I'd guess for these saltmarsh microbes the genetic modification necessary to survive at high temperatures was simply copied from the bacteria that are found in really hot places (perhaps deserts, volcanoes, who knows?) so it's based on parts of other genomes already found in nature – not a completely random experiment. Since microbes can't sexually reproduce, Renugopalakrishnan couldn't just politely ask the volcano microbes have sex with the microbes containing bR protein. Genetically-modified bR was the only realistic option.

On a side note, thank God for sex! How fortunate it is that we humans have thrown out so many trillions of not-so-useful and downright unhelpful traits from our genome via natural selection. (Of course some of us still retain some that could probably be chucked out!)

Mainly, I wanted to highlight how reportage of technology advances such as these rarely bother to take into account the effects the technology may have on society, including the good effects. Let's see... It's a biodegradable, completely sustainable resource, compared to magnetic strips! It's a way of storing an unimaginably large amount of information (50TB or roughly a million megabytes) incredibly cheaply (assuming existing light-based burning technology will be adequate). Despite dire warnings about information security and the risks of genetic modification, I think this is overwhelmingly good news for society!

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Proteins: The building blocks for new digital media

'Salt marsh at sunset / Wellfleet, Massachusetts' by Tom Whelan
Microbes from this salt marsh will be sacrificed so you
can burn all your favourite movies on one DVD!
I love the way science and technology news stories are reported: Researchers discovered something new. They're going to produce a commercial version in X months. Rarely any discussion of the social impact it could have or what ethical implications it raises. Doesn't matter, it will be really cool, allow us to be more lazy and improve our quality of life. What more could you possibly want? Yes, we love learning about and testing out new technologies where possible. The social considerations are just more red tape that get in the way!

Update 1: A couple of other bloggers have posted about this, basically just to express amazement at the 50-terabyte storage potential of these DVDs: Update 2: There's correction of some mistakes in this post in the next post.

Sharks I made a short, sarcastic note earlier in the year when I posted about a device that could be fitted to sharks brains to control its movements. Well today I noticed (via ABC) that the DVDs of the future will make use of genetically-modified proteins (found originally in sea-dwelling microbes) to store information. Not so controversial on initial reading. Yet another example of biomimicry where we've gone back to nature to find a highly effective technical solution. But then, wasn't genetic modification (GM) meant to be something so terrifyingly unpredictable/wrong that thousands of protestors in New Zealand were able to significantly influence national policy on it? I wonder if people who object to eating GM foods also will object to using GM DVDs? I've never heard of protests against the GM products pervading our clothing stores thanks to GM cotton.

In Amélie's world, records are made like pancakes. What about the very fact that we are using protein to store bits of data? We use bits of animals for many purposes already, but never in a digital device as far as far as I can think (perhaps I missed one). The very building blocks for our bodies are being used as the building blocks for digital storage! On another note, I wonder if it will be okay by PETA and the RSPCA that we'll be spreading these proteins like paste on neat little discs for use in our laptops? I am suddenly seeing Amélie Poulain's vision of how records are made!

Anyway ethical concerns aside, this is übercool! Only problem would be that losing the DVD you'd lose the contents of your laptop. I guess backups would be easy though. What about the life of the media? According to the article:
When light shines on bR, [the protein,] it is converted to a series of intermediate molecules each with a unique shape and colour before returning to its 'ground state'.

The intermediates generally only last for hours or days.

But [the report's author] Renugopalakrishnan and colleagues modified the DNA that produces bR protein to produce an intermediate that lasts for more than several years, which paves the way for a binary system to store data.

"The ground state could be the zero and any of the intermediates could be the one," he says.
More than several years would be fine, but for more permanent storage magnetic storage is still required (perhaps those single-molecule magnets we sometimes hear about). Just imagine after 10 years the files on a protein-based DVD would start to fade like old photographs as the proteins returned to ground state. The data wouldn't be completely lost, just have blank patches like scratches on a CD. What about the fact that the proteins are sensitive to sunlight. Does this mean we have to keep them stored in a dark cool place like photographic paper and that the disc would have to be washed in a fixative after burning?

What about the information security issues? Oh yes, forget social implications, but data security is paramount so the obligatory two lines on the risks of putting such a large amount of easily-replicatable data into such a small space are included:
Renugopalakrishnan says making large amounts of information so portable on high-capacity removable storage devices will make it easier for information to fall into the wrong hands.

"Unfortunately science can be used and abused. Information can be stolen very quickly," he says. "One has to have some safeguards there."
But specifically what safeguards will be employed are left up to our imagination. Given that each protein will have its own unique genetic sequence, perhaps nature has provided the basis for the ultimate data integrity checksum! Although, for a checksum, it would seem ridiculously large.

Image credit: Salt marsh image courtesy of Tom Whelan; shark image courtesy of Mark Rosenstein; Amélie image edited from a screenshot of the movie, Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001).
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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Breaking the bonds with mother Italia

Lucas Neill protests after Fabio Grosso is awarded the penalty In light of Italy's entry into the cup final, I note Tim's description of a discussion he had with his barber:
I just had my haircut at the local barber, an Italian guy. Asked him if he was following the soccer. Not since last week, he said, meaning, not since Australia was eliminated. So are you barracking for Italy now? I asked. Mate, he said. Fucken Italy. Free fucken haircuts for everyone if Italy loses.
I guess Tim and his mates will be paying for a shave still. Whatever loyalties our barber did have to Italy, they have been seriously strained by Fabio Grosso's imfamous dive in the final minute of the game into extra time which resulted in Italy's winning penalty kick.

Not just him. Many Australians following the cup saw red (even though it was a foolish challenge by Neill before Grosso's dive), but more surprisingly this included a lot of Italian Australians (if we may use this term)! Most of the cafe proprietors here (who, in Adelaide, are extremely likely to be of Italian descent) say their Italian-descent customers are unhappy with the Azzurri. Certainly this was clearly the story last night at San Georgio's. I understand even Anthony LaPaglia has been highly critical of the Italian team and has withdrawn his support for it.

Let's rewind to a couple of weeks before the cup began. In the Rundle Arcade hub, some guys were selling specially-designed Australia-Italy memorabilia. For example, they had soccer shirts with Azzurri colours and team emblems on one half and the Socceroos' on the other. Perfect for Italian Australian soccer fans who could support both of their favourite teams at once. Then when the two teams faced off in the quarter finals, I'm sure it was a tough call for them to decide which one they'd support. I'm not sure if the coin landed on the Socceroos side before the game or it was the bad sportsmanship perceived of the Azzurri that won the Socceroos support after the game, but Italian Aussies weren't happy!

Apparently the world cup is not just an amazing competition capable of arousing incredibly strong emotions, but has been a catalyst for breaking the vestiges of those bonds many Italian Australians have with mother Italia – certainly in Adelaide anyway.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Housemates "bring joy" to Australia but humiliation to "bitches"

Camilla Halliwell When you see the word "scandal" linked to "Big Brother", it's basically the key to switch off and ignore whatever follows. So feel free to switch off and ignore what follows, but I do feel compelled to comment on the sexual assault/harrassment perpetrated by Ash (Michael Cox) and John (Michael Bric) in the house over the weekend.

First, if you didn't already hear what happened, see: Key part of the story:
...Camilla climbs onto the bed and again asks whats going on. They are all laughing and Ashley again says nothing. John tells Camilla to "Lie down and shut your eyes." Ashley repeats the sentence. Camilla says "Why? You're not going to turkey slap me are you?" Ashley says "No". Camilla says "You are you liars. Let me in". She climbs into the bed. Camilla says "I'll hurt you if you do." As soon as she is fully down in the bed, John puts his arms around her to keep her down. He tells Ashley to "Go. Turkey slap her." Ashley gets on his knees, pulls down his pants, grabs his penis and slaps Camilla's head with it. Ashley and John laugh. Camilla says "Hey, you little shit". Camilla half sits up in the bed and informs the rest of the bedroom "I just got turkey slapped." Camilla lies back down in the bed saying "You guys are mean to me." Ashley says "It was funny though." Camilla repeats "It was mean..."
Michael Cox (Ash) Gretel Killeen last night said "Ashley and John were fantastic housemates, bringing joy, not only to their fellow house mates, but to Australia as a whole." That's fine but they are also stupid. And so is Gretel for using her position following up on the revelation to perpetuate the idea that boys will be boys so girls, it's your own fault if you get harrassed. You just don't do things like that – especially, need I mention – if you know you're being filmed 24 hours a day! First and foremost you just don't do it because it's extremely disrespectful.

Michael Bric (John) I have no doubt it was Ash's idea – characteristic of his lack of personality, lack of emotional depth and sheer uninterestingness, thinly veiled by his pull-my-finger style antics. And John – feel the tiniest bit sorry for him – is just too much of a pushover to have objected to being a party to the "joke". What I just don't get is why is it so funny to "turkey slap" a woman? Well, it's not. The fact is it's just ordinary sexual harrassment/assault designed to humiliate but disguised as a joke. And Camilla is just the kind of woman Ash wants to humiliate – and knew he'd get away with humiliating – to compensate for her (and others) exposing him for the total idiot he is.

Images of housemates sourced from
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