Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Release notes should really include the release notes

September 18th, 2007

A new version of the Firefox browser was released today. A minor update from version 2.0.0.6 to version 2.0.0.7.

Even more minor than that, actually, since what came out was just an RC version for testing. Sometime in the past I downloaded an update that was considered a beta or RC, so I’m on the list to keep getting them on the automatic updates.

The problem is that there was no information provided on what exactly the update includes, and what is the purpose behind it. The release notes page did not contain any relevant info (I’m not promising they won’t change the page in the future. It doesn’t contain the info now, and haven’t for quite a few hours so far).

It had lots of other things, the general outline they put on each release-notes page. But the actual release notes, what was changed from the last version, no. Nothing.

There wasn’t even any link to a page where this information could be found. Because, well, in theory it would have been that exact same page.

That’s a very very poor way to roll out an update. If you ask someone to install a new version of a software, and especially if it’s a beta/RC that you want people to test and provide feedback for, you have to tell them why and what has changed.

Seems very sensible to me. Apparently doesn’t seem so sensible to some of the people in the Mozilla foundation. Don’t get me wrong, they’re doing a great job, and Firefox is terrific. But most people don’t follow all the bugs and progress on every single application they use, so it’s far from obvious what an update is for.

I do hope they’ll do better next time. I’m more than willing to install updates, but I need to know why.

In this particular case, if someone is interested, it’s a single fix for a single security vulnerability. Well, a potential whole class of problems, but only a single known point. Which was now actually more of a problem with the Quicktime plug-in (on Windows) and not in Firefox itself, but in this case it’s a good idea to fix it in Firefox as well, to prevent any future problems from the same direction. You can look at the actual bug report for more technical information, if you really want to.

Compensating for DST, twice

September 18th, 2007

This Sunday (well, the night between Saturday and Sunday) Israel went off DST[1], meaning that the clocks had to be set to one hour earlier.

Normally I’m a very small believer in letting computers do things automatically, following the old adage that if you want something done right you have to do it yourself (rather than let a computer guess its way at it). And so usually I always set my computer not to compensate for DST automatically, and change the hour myself on the correct dates.

This year I made a mistake. I figured that changing the clock should be trivial enough for Windows XP to manage doing by itself. So I set the computer on Saturday to correct for DST automatically.

And on Sunday morning everything seemed fine. The time on the computer’s clock did indeed move an hour back, and it showed the correct time.

I went to work. I came back late at night.

And found that sometime during the day the computer… moved the time back yet another hour.

From now on I’ll get back to doing complex tasks like this by myself.

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  1. In Hebrew the DST time is referred to as “Summer Time”/”Summer Clock”, and in contrast the non-DST time is referred to as “Winter Time”/”Winter Clock”[back]

1=0

August 23rd, 2007

I have a lot of good things to say about Google and their services.

No errors, total count is 1But Math doesn’t seem to be a strong point with them lately.

Their Webmaster tools service just let me know it found an error crawling my site.

On the overview I got 1 error under the Unreachable URLs category.

I went to see the details. And was surprised (though a good surprise, given the situation) to discover that they found no errors with the site.

The same page reports one Unreachable URLs error, and says they found no errors to report. Good counting. Hey, that’s 1 error right there, so maybe they’re on to something…

How not to try and foil spam detectors

August 22nd, 2007

Senders of email spam keep working on ways to have their spam messages pass through spam filters. The idea being, naturally, that a spam that got caught before someone reads it will never generate revenues.

And sadly enough spam that does gets read by real people sometimes does generate revenue. That is why they still keep sending them.

But there are two important things for the spammers to to do there.

  1. As I mentioned, they need to try and make it hard to automatically flag the message as spam. That way the message may pass on to the recipient, who may actually read it.
  2. The spam message has to be readable to the person receiving it. Otherwise there is also no way to get money out of it, so why bother sending the message in the first place?

Sometimes, however, they get too creative. So much that the message is almost entirely unreadable to a person.

For example, an excerpt from a “stocks” spam message I received recently:

C,Y’T'V con’tinu+es i-t_s stead-y cl.imb f_o-r t’h-e s econd w_eek. S,tock re,porti-ng site-s acros_s t*h-e boar,d a-r,e issuin+g
sto*ck watc’h notic._es. R’e*a_d t-h’e ne’ws, l.o,o*k at t-h e numbe-r.s, a.n.d g+e t on C.Y_T’V as it kee ps i,t-s clim-b going .
Busines*s NewsNow h.a,s re.l’eased C,Y*T+V as feature.*d Sto,ckWa’tch.

It’s readable, barely, but you have to really try.

When someone opens a message which is just full of text like that, the first reaction is that it’s total gibberish, and people would erase it without even trying to read it.

Amusingly enough, this did not pose any problem for the spam filters, which caught it easily. I found it going through the spam folder, not my inbox.

The poor[1] spammer got it all wrong.

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  1. Sadly enough that’s probably not a financial statement. Nor does it express genuine sympathy on my part[back]

The most complex and expensive way of killing cockroaches yet

July 2nd, 2006

Researchers from Brussels, in a research funded by the EU (for a sum of 3 million Euro), have developed a small robot that smells like a cockroach.

OK, that was an overly simplistic way of presenting it.

The kick in the mandibles comes from a Belgian-led team who spent three years developing a mini robot that can convince cockroaches to creep out of dark holes and gather in light places. The InsBot looks more like a pencil sharpener than a household pest, but it smells like a cockroach.

The InsBot has a cocktail of pheromones and molecules painted on its body, allowing it to infiltrate the cockroach community.

Imagine, working for three years just to develop something that smells like a cockroach. Wouldn’t it have been better instead to work on something that can take away the smell of one once you crush it? These bugs stink.

Cockroaches, it turns out, are very social creatures. No, really. Yes, yes, I know that staying put even after you yell at someone to get the heck out of your house is usually considered a very asocial behaviour. They’re not social with people. Just with other cockroaches. Go figure.

And if there’s something they think is another cockroach, like a mini-robot with the right smell, they’ll tend to get friendly and stick around. So if the robot slowly wanders around near them, and then goes and stand outside on the floor, a bunch of them are likely to congregate around it.

Yes, that sounds strange to me too. Because I’ve seen many cockroaches in my life, but it was always one on one[1].

But the researches say that cockroaches tend to stick together in group. And they spent three years of intense study, not nearly thirty years of sporadic encounters. So maybe they do know better than me.

Now you must be wondering what is so exciting about being able to get the cockroaches to stick around the robot. Does it shoot them? Electrocute them? Spreads poisonous bug-spray on them? No. That won’t be fun. It won’t be sporting. And it won’t allow them to release that disgusting smell of squashed cockroaches.

The plan, the 3 million Euro plan, is far simpler, and much more direct. It could draw them all out into the middle of the floor, where a person could squash them with a shoe. Or, if there are enough of them around, maybe jump around in a marry little dance crunching and stomping cockroaches under heel with every step. How fun.

Can you imagine the cost of the extra software and electronics needed to allow the timing to be right? Because this is not automatic. Automatic means you’ll have cockroach parties in the middle of the living room when you’re sleeping, or out at work.

So there will need to be some signalling mechanism, or some pre-set timer. Letting the robot know when is it the right time to draw the little cockroaches in so you could step on them.

I wonder if it will take another research just to come out with the fact that the cockroaches, while highly social, are not entirely insane. When a person comes stomping in, do you think they’ll stay and keep the little robot company? Hell, no! They’ll scatter around, leaving the poor stomper in no better position than had he[2] just spotted a lone cockroach randomly.

Plus, how is one expected to go around stomping cockroaches when smack down in the middle of them there’s a complex, and expensive, electronic device, in the form of our erstwhile robot? You put down your leg too hard, you’ll break the robot. Unless the robot is very tough, in which case you’ll break the leg. None of the two options seems appealing.

So, given all the problems that I can think of[3], why are they still doing it? Are cockroaches really such a big problem?

In a breakthrough for the battle against mankind’s most diehard enemy – the cockroach – European scientists have hoodwinked a group of them into congregating in a place where they can be stamped on easily.

Aha! Cockroaches are mankind’s most diehard enemy.

Our greatest, and toughest, enemies. And all the EU invests in fighting them is a measly 3 million Euro fund?! And a small group of researchers from just one university?! All this with no assistance by other world countries and superpowers?!

Shocking. Truly shocking.

Plus, while fighting such a dangerous, tough, vicious, insidious, and diehard enemy, they put in the research team a traitor who sympathizes with the enemy. Seriously:

But, for now, Deneubourg is not taking his eye off cockroaches which he describes as ‘no dirtier than flies’ and victims of a ‘bad press’.

Bad press. Would that be the same press calling them “mankind’s most diehard enemy”, I wonder?

He believes it will soon be possible to develop an ‘intelligent roach nest’ in which robots are positioned to tease the creepy-crawlies into human stamping range.

Brr. Am I the only one getting odd vibes from the Terminator movies, with the robots designed to look like humans and infiltrate into their camps in order to betray them to the machines to be killed?

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  1. Me and the cockroach, Mano a mano. Two begin, but only one comes out alive. And it’s not the cockroach, let me tell you.[back]
  2. Women don’t squish cockroaches, they yell “Ewwww!” loudly, and wait for a man to come and do it.[back]
  3. And I did it with no funding, and hardly any time invested in research. So they, with the time and funding, probably came out with more.[back]

Out of money, and of common sense

June 14th, 2006

I think copying here the email I just tried to send my bank, “Bank Leumi“, would cover pretty much all the points I want to mention.

Identifiable information replaced here by asterisks.

Hi.

I’m probably sending this to the wrong address, but the Leumi website did not have any more relevant contact address on it. This is also something you may want to attend to, for people wanting to contact the bank on something not directly related to the website.

Last night I was trying to withdraw money from the ATM machine on Leumi’s branch in *** (I think branch ***, but not sure) .

After inserting my card and typing my PIN the machine presented a list of option which did not include the option to draw money.
The main screens, before I started the operation, did not announce that this ATM is out of money. It wasn’t noted anywhere. Only in the inability to withdraw.

The ATM itself seemed to have been changed since the last time I used it to withdrew money, so I was concerned this may not have been a genuine machine, and wanted to contact someone to verify.

The main contact number printed nearby was the *** for Leumi-Call, which wasn’t working at this hour. There was another sticker with a number listed for use in “severe malfunctions” ***, so for lack of a better alternative I called it.

I explained the situation to the person there, who said that while he has no way to verify that the machine was not altered, the behaviour is normal for ATMs who are out of money. I double checked with him that the ATM indeed does not notify in advance that it’s out of money, and he confirmed, saying that it’s because they are used for additional purposes like checking the balance.

To be on the safe side I went over by the bank today. The ATM worked properly, and everything seemed to be in order.
The whole incident, however, left a bitter taste, and I have some strong recommendations:

1. Have the bank fronts provide a contact number which is more obviously fitting for cases like these. This should be on the bank, from the inside pane of a glass/transparent-door, so it will be obvious it’s a real number and not part of a scamming attempt together with a potentially false ATM.

2. An ATM which is out of money should always announce it on the display, *before* people enter their cards. Yes, the ATM has other uses, but they are comparatively minor, and are a lot less worrisome when not working.

3. If a customer is calling worried about a possible scam or false machine, you should have a way to check that. As far as I know all these ATMs are connected to some central computer, so there should be a log of activity. If the person I talked to would have told me that he sees a record of my card being used in the ATM I would have known for sure what was going on, instead of staying mildly worried till morning. And on cases of a real problem, someone then could have been alerted to it earlier.

Thank you, and awaiting to hear your reply,
Yaron.

P.S. On a non-related issue, but one that also deals with security, having the “information security recommendations” page on your website require running a Flash file is… counter-productive.

Not that the website issues are a big surprise with them, nothing much improved since the last times I actually tried to use their website.

Last minute update: I was just about to post this, when I got back a bounce message from the bank. I sent it to two email addresses listed on their contact page, one for support of their “direct surfing” service (which is basically the website), and one for support of their “premium service” customers.

The only addresses there were those two, and one for help with their monetary trades section, so these two seemed the likelier candidates.

Except that according to their mail server the premium address doesn’t exist, and cannot receive mail.

This is how you know a bank is serious. They treat their regular customers better than they treat premium ones. I love it.

I did send another mail to the first address, telling them about it. This time it’s actually well within the boundaries of what they’re supposed to deal with.

Offline online check-in

April 17th, 2006

I’m flying for a short business trip abroad soon. The airline, El-Al, has a new feature: allowing passengers to do some of the check-in procedure from home, through the Internet.

This has the advantage of possibly saving time if the airport is busy. And it is certainly expected to be busy now, since it’s a holiday season.

It also allows to select a meal type (if some special meal, such as vegetarian, gluten-free, etc, is required), and select the seat. Which probably isn’t that big a deal for people going through travel agent, as they can do that in advance as well. But I suppose people arranging flights by themselves, or whose travel agent is lazy, can use that.

It also has, for now, a separate station/line for luggage. So until this becomes popular, the lines may be shorter. An advantage which will quickly go away once it becomes more popular, and the lines will even out.

Though, still, some of the questions involved with the check-in will be spared, since they were already answered. This isn’t much on a personal basis, since filling it out on the web isn’t much quicker than talking to a person at the station. But it counts on a line, since you don’t also have to wait that time for all the people in front of you.

Actually, yes, the advantages are there, but aren’t that big. So for now, since it’s a relatively new service, they’re also offering some minor bonuses for people who use this service (A free cup coffee at one of the airport coffee-shops, and a 25$ discount for purchases over a 100$ in one of the duty-free shops). For them it has the advantage of reducing loads from their people at the check-in counter, so if they can save a salary it should be worth it.

I decided to take advantage, and try the new service.

The first screen asked for the last name, and the ticket number. In my case an electronic-ticket, also printed through their website. Or, more correctly, printed through their site by my company’s travel agent, and faxed to us. And yes, it’s always amusing to have a printed page containing underlined “click here” links. Somehow clicking on the paper doesn’t help.

That went well, and I reached a second screen. This one allowed changing the listed last name (Which I don’t quite get), allowed to enter a frequent-flier number for people who have them, asked for the phone number, and had a long list for meal types.

Really long list, compared to what I expected. I guess there are plenty of people with unusual requirements for their meals. Sadly enough there wasn’t an option to choose a non-kosher meal, but that’s not really a surprise given that El-Al is the official Israeli airline, and have to keep kosher. They did, however, have a few meals designated as extra-kosher and such.

And I tried to get to the next page. I was greeted with an animation letting me know that the check-in is in progress, and asking me to wait.

A message which was shortly replaced by another one, telling me that the online check-in failed, and asking me to call their office (with a phone number). The number was for support on the online check-in, so calling it an office wasn’t exactly right, but never mind.

Since I was using Firefox as a browser, and not Internet Explorer, and there are still sites designed badly enough to only work in Explorer, I decided to open explorer and try again. Same error. But the screens along the way looked better. So the site is badly designed, but at least designed to be functional. Functional at the times when it is actually working, that is, which wasn’t the case here.

I called the number. A nice girl answered and asked how she can help me.

I detailed the problem to her. She asked for the flight details, to check for the flight times. The online check-in option is only valid at a specific time range before the flight, so they probably assume most problems are the result of people trying to do it too early. Though, frankly, if the error message for that is the general error I received, instead of a specific message explaining the problem, then the site is even worse designed than I thought.

After checking a little, and seeing that everything should be in order, she said that maybe they are having some temporary problems at their end, and that I should try again a little later. I pressed her for a more exact estimate, of how later is later enough (Not wanting to try later, and talk to them again being told that I did it too soon), and she said to try in about two hours.

Two and a half hours later (spares are important) I tried again. Same thing.

I called again, and this time it took a while before the call was answered. But the one answering was the exact same girl. Which could be chance, or could be an indication that they don’t have too many people there in the online check-in support department.

She even remembered me.

After explaining to her that the problem didn’t go away, she asked for more details, and said she’ll try to do the check-in from her own station, and will see how it goes.

She reached the page with the meal types and phones, put in everything, hit the button to go to the next page, and… after a few seconds I heard her say a very surprised “Oy”, followed by a still surprised statement of “It happened to me too!”.

It made me want to say something like “Of course it did, dear. There was nothing I could have done wrong until now to ruin it. It can’t be that I just can’t enter my phone number correctly, is it?” . But she was really nice, and it wasn’t her fault, so I didn’t.

She then put me on hold, while she went to check it out. This took quite a while.

After getting back, and apologizing for the delay, she said that she managed to do it on her station. I asked what’s the trick, and she told me that they really did had a problem at their end, which they now found and fixed. She also thanked me for reporting the problem to them. This, of course, make me suspect that the system is rarely used so far, or someone else would have stumbled upon it previously. It’s not like I was doing something very unique after all.

She then verified with me the seating arrangements. Actually, she quoted a seat number and asked me if that’s alright. It was quite apparent she’s not used to doing check-in with customers. Anyone who isn’t well familiar with the layout of the plane, and I’m not, won’t know what the seat number indicate. Seats numbers on plane are, sadly, not standard. So I just asked her the relevant details, and confirmed that everything is alright.

She then finished my online check-in, from her station, printed it, and faxed me the resulting boarding pass.

In this case they didn’t really save any manpower by having me do the online check-in. More like a phone-in check-in, actually.

So now I’ll go on a flight, with a do-it-yourself ticket that was faxed to me, and a do-it-yourself boarding pass that was also faxed to me. Life’s amusing sometimes…

In this series (El-Al online check-in):

  1. Offline online check-in
  2. How El-Al’s online check-in worked in real life

Movie studios still refuse to get it

April 7th, 2006

Most of the US movie studios are claiming to be going to offer their movies for download, through a site called MovieLink

On the face of it, a good thing. Saves shipment cost and time. Allows to easily see the movies on the computer. And could be cheaper since many of the costs are cut.

Except that they managed to do it wrong on almost all fronts. If this is supposed to be their way to combat piracy, or compete with similar offers, they’re on a totally wrong track.

New films will be priced similar to DVDs—between $20 and $30—while older titles will sell for $10 to $20, the news service said.

That’s mistake number one. When someone downloads a movie they get less. They don’t get a nice box, or a nice disc that they can hold in their hands and feel. They don’t get any extras which movie DVDs almost all contain, and which are a large part of their attraction. And if they want to see it on their TV, they have to work on it, and can’t just slide the disc into a DVD players.

And when the offer is less, the price has to be less. Simple economics. You can’t charge the same for an obviously inferior product, because people won’t buy it.

And what do they do? They charge the same amount as the boxed DVD. And there’s another issue, it’s also annoying, because they have less costs. They didn’t have the expense, however small, of arranging for the box, the design, the printing, storage, and many other things involved with creating DVD boxes. Sure, on-line distribution has associated costs as well, but the marginal cost per movie is much smaller in the on-line versions.

But wait, that’s not even the biggest problem. This is:

he downloads available on Movielink will include copyright protection software that prevents them from being transferred directly to a laptop or portable device, or burned onto a disc that will play in a DVD player. Copies of the films will only play on a maximum of three different computers, which must be authorized by Movielink, the news service said.

When someone buys a DVD, they can put it in any DVD player they want, and watch it. Well, as long as the region matches (another totally annoying, pointless, and needless concept, but that’s a different rant. And something which is also quite easy to bypass). They can also watch it on any computer that has a DVD drive, something which is becoming very cheap and very common. This, however, is more limited. It cannot be used everywhere a DVD is used. It cannot be used as freely as a DVD can, even with all the limitations that DVDs carry.

So this downloaded movie gives far lower flexibility. And very likely carries an expiration date, since future computer installations may be counted as a new computer. And yet, same price as a DVD. Stupid.

Movies which “include copyright protection” also usually mean they can only be viewed with the specific program that the company provides. Compared to DVDs which can be viewed with any DVD player, and with many different media playing software on computers. Or compared to other computer movies, like the pirated ones they think this will compete against, which can be played with any media player the user wants.

So users will not be able to use whatever program they like the best, or most comfortable with. Also, as is often the case with these tie-ins, the program they’ll provide is bound to be limited, and less useful, than other available alternatives, for many users. Some people may prefer it, but all the rest will just be stuck.

An what happens in a few years? Other programs can come and go, but there will always be alternatives, and support for common video formats will always be kept. But with a format that just one program, from one company, supports, what happens if they decide to close shop? All those downloaded movies, those paid for downloaded movies, become unreadable data.

After reading that article, I still had one other question, about another issue which has a large impact on how good the new offering is. What is the quality of the movies? Is it identical to the DVDs? Superior (for new movies)? Inferior?

So I decided to go to their website, assuming that they should have the data there. Guess what? They decided to also make the website as useless as possible.

After going to the site I was redirected to a page telling me:

Thanks for your interest in Movielink, the leading movie download service. We want you to enjoy our powerful movie experience, but it is presently unavailable to users outside of the United States.

We hope you enjoy the products and services offered below.

If you are an existing customer of Movielink and believe you have reached this page in error, please access Live Chat with Customer Service under Help in your Movielink Manager.

This is the wrong thing to do on so many levels:

  1. IP Geolocating is pretty good these days, but still not perfect. They can block potential real customers, in the US, from reaching their site.
  2. This is the website, not a direct link to purchase a movie. The website (potentially) does a lot of other things. Provides information, for one. So why block it to all people from outside the US? Publicity is good publicity, even if it’s for someone who isn’t currently a customer.
  3. There can be US customers, who have accounts with them, who are travelling abroad, and want to check their account. Why prevent them? If paying customers can’t access their accounts, they will get angry. Guaranteed.
  4. What are those “products and services offered below” exactly? Nothing below right now except a trademark/copyright notice.
  5. How can you be “the leading movie downloading service” when you haven’t started working yet? Even if you are, why should I care? You just told me that you don’t want my business.
  6. If you actually realize that real customers can be caught by this thing, as you must in order to give that instructions to people who installed your program, then this same instruction is absurd. These same people won’t reach a stage where they can download the program, so they won’t have the Movielink Manager, and won’t be able to access live chat. You’re saying “If you can’t get to our program, please use our program to contact us”. That’s stupid.

Oh, yes, and the stupid page has the word “untitled” as the page title, and uses table elements for alignment… Very bad design. Actually, the other pages in the site I reached later, they are all formatted inside table elements.

Oh, well, I still wanted to know about the image quality, so off I went to run the site through a proxy, preferably one in the US…

And was then greeted with a more nicely designed page (visually nicer, but still the same horror from a technical standpoint), containing a little self-advertisement, links to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy, and nothing else useful. Why? Well, the main thing was this message:

Sorry, but in order to enjoy the Movielink service your browser scripting AND cookies must be enabled.

I don’t want to enjoy the service. I don’t want to even use the service without enjoying. I just want some information. But no, I have to enable scripting and cookies. Oh, well, if I have to, I have to. So I did. And tried again. Still no go:

Sorry, but in order to enjoy the Movielink service you must use Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher, which supports certain technologies we utilize for downloading movies. Click here to get the latest version of Internet Explorer.

We do not support Mozilla or Netscape. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

Let me give you a hint. It is totally, entirely, and completely possible to download files in Firefox. Really.

Well, I don’t want to check stupid questionable sites in IE, so instead I changed the User Agent string, in essence lying to the site and telling it that I’m using IE as my browser. The sad (or happy, depends how you look at it) fact is that about 90% of the sites which insist they require IE actually work perfectly well in Firefox. The only feature on most of them that doesn’t work is the browser version check. So it was worth trying here as well.

No go:

Sorry, but in order to enjoy the Movielink service your browser ActiveX must be enabled. Click here to learn how.

ActiveX components, for anyone who doesn’t know, are full fledged programs. This means code that can do anything it wants, that has to be allowed to run on the computer. Now, for sites you absolutely trusts, when it should do very specific things you want it to do, that may be acceptable. But for a movie studio site I know nothing about, when I don’t even want to run their service but only to see some information pages?! No friggin way, sorry. Especially not with the abysmal entertainment industry history on the field…

I did take a look at their page of recommendations on how to enable ActiveX on IE… Here’s how it starts:

1. Open Internet Explorer browser and select the “Tools” menu
2. Select “Internet Options”
3. Click on the “Security” tab
4. Move Security Level slider to “Medium”

They don’t only ask to put their own site in the trust list. Oh, no. Anyone who doesn’t know any better is instructed to lower their security settings for every site on the Internet… Horrible, terrible, pathetic, and even dangerous.

Well, back to that main page. At least they did provide minimum system requirements:

.High-speed Internet access
.Windows 2000 or XP
.Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher
.Available only in the U.S.

And no, I don’t know why they have those “.” at the beginning of each line either… What I do know is that it’s possible to watch movies on operating systems other than Windows 2000 or XP, and that it should be possible to download them with other browsers.

The last thing I did before giving up was checking those Terms of Service, to see if maybe there I’ll find some technical information about the quality of the video they provide. No such luck. But I did find other interesting things (emphasis mine):

(ii) Retained Content License. Upon payment of the License Fee, Movielink will grant you a non-exclusive, non-transferable, limited right and license under copyright to create and retain a permanent copy of the Retained Content and to view, use and privately display in your Residence or for Permitted Non-Residential Use, the Retained Content purchased by you, subject to the following rules:

(A) You may retain a permanent copy of the Retained Content on the hard drive of your personal computer (or other device specifically authorized by Movielink) to which the Retained Content is initially delivered via a connection to the Services over the Internet.

(B) You may make a single back-up copy of the Retained Content on removable media (e.g., recordable DVD) in the same format as the original downloaded file to play on (i) the single computer to which it was initially delivered and (ii) if specifically permitted at the time of purchase on the Website (on a case-by-case basis), up to two (2) additional licensed computers for your personal non-commercial use. In order to enable viewing of your Retained Content on personal computers other than the one to which it was initially delivered, you will have to obtain a new license by connecting each such computer to the Services via an Internet connection, logging in to your Account and downloading a new license. Any back-up copy of the Retained Content on a DVD will not be playable on a traditional DVD player. Movielink may determine from time-to-time in its sole discretion those devices that are compatible to receive a license to view Retained Content as indicated on the Website at the time of downloading and installing the new license. Any rights granted to you hereunder (or on the Website at the time of purchase) to make and keep any copies of Retained Content is solely an accommodation to you and shall not constitute a grant or waiver (or other limitation or implication) of any rights of the copyright owners in any audio or video content contained within any Retained Content.

So, in essence, they are not letting anyone to buy the movies. Only to license the right to see them, and store them in a limited fashion on specific location that they approve. And that’s supposed to be worth the price of a DVD one can actually buy, and own?

You may not: (i) frame or link to the Website except as expressly permitted in writing by Movielink;

(iv) copy the Content or any portion thereof, except as specifically provided for herein;

Oops. Oh, well, sue me. I want to see a judge looking at this without getting into fits of hysterical laughter. Not allowed to link to the website except as expressly permitted… Get real!

5. MINIMUM SPECIFICATIONS. The Services will operate only on those hardware and software platforms specified on the Website. It is your responsibility to ensure that you have the appropriate software, hardware and Internet connection to operate the Services. Movielink reserves the right to cease supporting any hardware or software platform at any time, with or without notice.

I think this clearly shows that I wasn’t kidding when I said one day people may upgrade their computer only to find out that they can no longer see their downloaded movies, doesn’t it? It will work only on what hardware they want, and they reserve the right to stop supporting any hardware and software whenever they want, without notice…

So we have a bad deal, under bad conditions, and with bad execution. Inspiring, isn’t it?

With this attitude, I have a feeling they’re not going to see too many paying customers from within the US as well. Of course, once that happens they won’t try to figure out what they did wrong, they’ll just go on to blame it on piracy and on how people expect to get movies completely free…

Heck, I’m perfectly willing to pay for movies, if they’re worth anything. Many people are. But that’s for usable movies, not this dreck. Make the legally purchasable movies with similar quality to the pirated stuff, and as usable, and people will pay a fair price, a price higher than zero. People are aware that there was an investment in making a movie, and that the makers need to make money. Most people do want to play it fair.

But not when it’s good pirated movies compared to crappy legal ones. That’s not a competition.

Amazon gives special treatment to abortion

March 22nd, 2006

One feature which is being increasingly offered by search engines is automatic spelling suggestions. Usually for a term that doesn’t return results, but also for terms which return fewer results than other similarly-spelled words.

This happens with general search engines, but also with some stores that allow customers to search their stock. Stores like Amazon. And it makes perfect business sense. They want to sell. And anyone running a search may want to buy. So if someone may want something a little different than what they typed, at least offering to amend the search is the way to go.

As sometimes happens, though, they ran afoul of another case where the usual automatic algorithm naturally fails to take into account politically charged terms. In this case a search for “abortion”, while returning the results for the search, suggested a corrected spelling of “adoption”.

And, as often happened, someone who saw this decided to ignore the fact he was working with a generic algorithm, and complain about the affront.

Amazon, in response, manually changed the result page not to suggest this correction. This was even the correct thing to do. In this particular case it is extremely unlikely that someone will make this particular mistake as a simple typo. Offering a usually-unhelpful correction is a little annoying, and should go. And with this specific search, if they can prevent customers, even a few customers, from getting offended, that’s a good thing.

What bothers me is the reason they provided:

But the company says it ditched the question because the e-mailer raised a valid question. People who type in the term “adoption” don’t get a prompt asking: “Do you mean abortion.”

What? They cancelled it because the correction wasn’t symmetrical? Not because it was a mistake not likely to happen? Not because it was politically charged? Not because it could drive away a few customers? But because the other direction wouldn’t have gotten the same correction offer?

That seems absurd. These things are hardly ever symmetrical. They shouldn’t be. If I run a search for “splling” I want to get back a “did you mean spelling?” question. If I run a search for “spelling” however, I would be surprised to be offered to search for “splling” instead.

This sort of search isn’t exactly a dictionary search, but the same logic applies. It should try to offer more common spellings as correction to less common ones. If a lot more people are searching for “adoption” than are searching for “abortion”, then as far as the algorithm is concerned offering a correction from “abortion” to “adoption” will make perfect sense, while offering a correction in the other direction will not.

Same thing, depending on how the algorithm works, if there are many more items in stock that would fit a search for “adoption” than there are that would fit “abortion”. One way correction is proper, the other isn’t. It will merely inconvenience searching customers with irrelevancies, a lot more times than it would help them.

Cases where it would be proper to offer corrections both ways would be extremely rare. Maybe if there are two search terms which are very similar, and both extremely popular. This doesn’t really happen a lot. Even if it does happen, it’s not the rule but rather the exception.

And Amazon knows that. They have to know that. Their technical people, and their marketing people, know that. So making a public statement to the contrary is odd. Especially when the likely real reason isn’t problematical. It doesn’t require hiding. Nobody would take it hard that Amazon want to give customers better search results, and want to avoid offending customers.

Is the sense of having to hide real and nefarious business reasons so strong that they can’t go out with the real reason even when the real reason is perfectly valid? What does it say about the times when what they say does make sense? Should we understand they’re hiding something then too, because that’s the way they work? Peculiar…

Basing life and death decisions on automatic translation is a bad idea

November 26th, 2005

Automatic translation tools are terrible. There’s nothing wrong at all with looking up a word at an electronic dictionary, but letting one translate a sentences always ranges between pathetic and hilarious.

Even the best of translation tools does a terrible job of discerning context. And when each word can have several different translations, and often holds several different meanings, context is everything. You get that wrong, and some of the words wrong, and the translated result is pure gibberish.

Even worse, if the translation program tries to decipher some context and fails, as will often happen, the end result may not appear to be total gibberish at first glance. But we’re still far away from tools at even this level.

And all that is even when you translate between languages which are similar, and have a relatively recent common ancestor.

You can even check for yourself, just for fun. Go to one of the available translation tools on-line, enter a paragraph of text from someplace, and try to translate it first into a different language, and then back. See what a sordid mess you’ll get.

So, to change the subject completely (OK, not really), what new toys are the Americans up to in order to assist their soldiers in Iraq?

The risky business of battle-zone translation could get a technological boost, however, as researchers prepare to test a system that instantly translates spoken conversations to and from English and Iraqi Arabic.

Funded by Darpa, the system would allow troops to communicate in Arabic through a laptop computer equipped with voice recognition and translation software. Troops could speak in English and have their words instantly translated into Iraqi Arabic, “spoken” by a computerized man’s voice. The program also translates Arabic into English.

Automatic translation between Arabic and English. Two languages which are not even close to being remotely similar. At least those people haven’t lost their sense of humour. Though they may just do that after some bad incidents of horrible mistranslation that will cost human lives.

And they’re thinking of translating voice, even, not text. Voice recognition these days is still pretty bad. The best voice recognition programs these days don’t really work under non-ideal conditions, or without a lot of time dedicated to studying each individual voice they’ll be expected to deal with.

So all they have to do here is take a badly working voice recognition, drive the output from that one through a badly working translation engine, and then synthesize the output of that one to voice. Sure. No problems at all, none whatsoever. It’s going to go perfectly smooth. Nothing at all in there that they can’t get working within the year…

The only thing that seems plausible given the time frame is the voice synthesis at the end. And, well, even voice synthesis of text isn’t too hot yet these days. But really, that’s the least of their concerns.

Human looking robot?

August 6th, 2005

This group of scientists developed a robot that looks similar to a real human, supposedly. I doubt they’re actually quite there, but seem to be much closer than anyone else. Not that too many are actually trying, of course, so that may account for it.

Of course, getting something that looks like real skin, and maybe feels close to real skin, isn’t quite enough to make something really appear human. By hey, why not? It’s not like making something human looking is impossible.

The article does remain uncommitted about what exactly do they plan to do with those androids, though. Which makes sense, given that nobody still has anything even remotely resembling an AI. Robotic devices can do plenty of thing, but of a very limited scope. So it may look like a human, but will be stuck with the sophistication and conversation skills of a really expensive laundromat.

Or maybe I’m just biased. I’m the type who is more concerned with functionality than cosmetics, when it comes to gadgets (Or pretty much anything else). I’d say develop a working robot first, then worry about making it look nicer. But cosmetics sell, so it may give them a chance at funding.

And, by stretching the phrasing of the article a bit, it can be understood that they may have uses which actually require the human look:

She is designed to look human and although she can only sit at
present, she has 42 actuators in her upper body, powered by a nearby
air compressor, programmed to allow her to move like a human.
“Repliee Q1Expo can interact with people. It can respond to people
touching it. It’s very satisfying, although we obviously have a long
way to go yet.”

Or, to list some of the points:

  • It looks like a women
  • It can’t get up and walk away
  • It can respond to people touching it
  • It is very satisfying

Makes you wonder what they do for recreation over there, doesn’t it?