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Comment Internet access in Cuba (Score 4, Informative) 70

Yes, the public access points make it easier to connect, but there is only a single ISP: the Cuban national telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA. To use the Internet, you must buy their scratch-off cards at their offices, which involves waiting in line. You can then use them on your own devices or at the aging Windows machines at ETECSA's centers. The cost of access has dropped to $1.50/hour, but that's a lot of money in a country where the average monthly income is $25. If you are associated with one of the universities, particularly the Universidad de Ciencias Informaticas west of Havana, Internet access is reasonably good (and free), but outside of that, only about 4% of Cubans connect to the Internet. Others get information from "The Packet", whose managers download and assemble materials, including books, movies, news, etc., onto electronic media and make it available to all.

The good news is that the Cuban government isn't blocking access to websites, and that smartphones are becoming more widely available, but the absence of alternatives to ETECSA means that costs are likely to remain prohibitive for the vast majority of Cubans for the foreseeable future.

Comment Uber drivers and automated vehicles (Score 2) 383

Human Uber drivers tend to run red lights and stop signs, too. So maybe their autonomous vehicles are programmed similarly. Uber humans routinely ignore bike lanes and frequently stop in them. Traffic in San Francisco would be less painful if we didn't always have several thousand ride-hailing drivers cruising the streets while waiting for a fare, adding to the already grim traffic situation here.

Comment The value of Knuth's volumes... (Score 1) 381

As a graduate student, I bought and used the first three volumes of these books when they first came out. At that time, computing resources were much more limited and much more expensive than they are today. Knuth's volumes made me appreciate the value of algorithms and the logical thinking needed to develop them. As a programmer, the turnaround time on submitting computing jobs to your computer center could be long, so it was in your best interest to exert some self-discipline and check your code carefully before pushing the card deck through the input slot. If you created software products, you had to create tapes (well before floppies, FTP, and email) and send them off to your customers, incurring manufacturing and shipping costs. So there was a significant financial disincentive associated with having to fix and replace buggy software. That's one reason why program updates were so infrequent, at least to the mid-1990s when downloads became more common. Today, it's relatively easy to build an app and make it available for download; if there's a bug, you can make the fix without extensive delays, and quickly provide an update at low cost, other than to your product reviews. My sense is that many developers would benefit from the more rigorous approach to programming inherent in Knuth's books, but I would also note that modern web and mobile applications are far more complex than anything that Knuth envisioned at the time, and that algorithms alone don't do enough to address the issues faced by today's full-stack developers working with a large number of software components and libraries.

Side note: Knuth's books predated electronic publishing and were typeset, necessitating careful proofing of the galleys prior to publication and many months of delay between completion of the manuscript and actual publication of the book. The errors made by human typesetters weren't always caught, which led to bugs in the published book (and in some of the algorithms and code). Knuth offered a reward of $1.00 to anyone who was the first to find and report an error. No email then, so you had to write a letter or make an expensive long distance phone call. Knuth actually sent out hand-signed written checks, but not many people cashed them, preferring instead to display the signed check as proof that they had found an error in one of these volumes. If you were wondering about Knuth's inspiration for creating LaTEX, this note should help explain that.

Comment Fewer telecom restrictions are just a start (Score 5, Informative) 59

I'm glad to see another piece of the ridiculously outdated Cuban trade restrictions disappear; I'm hoping that the rest of the 57-year embargo goes away soon.

As for the telecom issue, there are two key issues for the Cubans. The first is that there is very limited bandwidth for Internet access. Cuba just doesn't have enough high-sped satellite or undersea connections to allow video streaming and other high-bandwidth uses. Instead, someone will burn DVDs with movies and other content, then share them with others. It's like the old sneaker-net. So ETECSA (or its successor) will have to address the bandwidth issue before Cuba can have better Internet access. The proposal for the cable to Florida seems like a good start.

The second issue is limited public access to the Internet. If you are at the UCI (Computer science university), it's easy to get on the Internet from their machines, which run Nova, a UCI-developed Linux distro. Home computers with network access are extremely rare, so most people wanting to get onto the Internet must go to an ETECSA-run center and pay for access. The rate is about $2 US/hour, payable only in "hard" currency CUCs, extremely high in a country where average monthly salary is about $25. Overall, the estimate is that about 3% of the Cuban population is on the Internet, mostly through ETESCA's portal.The situation isn't any better with mobile phones, where ETECSA hasn't yet reached 3G speeds and there are no data plans. More info on the ETECSA site (in Spanish).

Comment driverless cars with driver features (Score 1) 139

Aaron Levie of Box tweeted that if the California DMV existed when cars first hit the road, then they would have required Ford to include a horse in each car. Exactly right.

There will come a point down the road (sorry for the pun) when my wife and I will no longer be able to pass a driving test and thus drive. Rather than being stuck at home, as is now the case for many people, I want to be able to call up a driverless car in the same way that I would call a car service today, and then use it for point-to-point local transportation. While I greatly enjoy the opportunity to drive myself around, I'm not going to need a steering wheel or normal pedals in that situation. An emergency brake and a web-connected alarm, a la OnStar, will be enough. I hope that the legislatures in other states don't follow the erroneous lead of California.

Comment Barton vs. Louie Gohmert (Score 1) 275

It's not only tough to find the least intelligent member of Congress, but tough to find the dumbest one from Texas. Louie Gohmert gives Joe Barton a lot of competition for that honor. Gohmert opposed changes to marriage laws by saying "when you say it’s not a man and a woman anymore, then why not have three men and one woman, or four women and one man, or why not somebody has a love for an animal?"

Comment Average Joe/Jane doesn't read NY Times (Score 2) 231

I saw the article yesterday, and it did a good job of explaining a phenomenon that has been happening for 20 years or more.

But I'm afraid that it won't convince "the average Joe/Jane that their nice safe middle class office job isn't so safe." That's because the average Joe or Jane doesn't read newspapers much anymore, and they certainly don't read the Times. I also suspect that Joe and Jane, if they or their family members have salaried jobs, have already seen this situation and perhaps been affected by it. If you want to get the message out, then it has to get to the cable news channels, where it can be explained in basic English and illustrated by a couple of interviews. The extreme right-wing is already against the H1B program for its own reasons.

When you combine the H1B assault on the middle class, with the "workforce optimization" programs used for hourly staff, you get a severe squeeze on all workers, which helps to explain why so few people outside the 1% feel secure in their jobs and their lives.

Comment Cops didn't think the clock was a bomb (Score 2, Insightful) 662

As noted elsewhere, the authorities in Irving, Texas, didn't act in a way that was consistent with a potential bomb threat. If they found a mysterious unattended package on the street, they would have cleared the area, brought in the bomb squad, and destroyed the contents of the package. But neither Ahmed's school, nor the cops that they called, did any of those things. Either they didn't act to protect the students and teachers in the school (on the assumption that it might be a bomb) or they knew from the outset that the clock wasn't a bomb, in which case it was Islamophobia in action.

Comment Remember "The Last One"? (Score 1) 289

About 35 years ago, a British company brought out a software product called "The Last One", a "program generator" that took high level descriptions and generated a BASIC program. They tried to go beyond the features of the 4GLs of their day (PowerBuilder, etc.) Of course, that software is long gone, and would be totally obsolete anyway. More recently, there are many other efforts at model-driven development, many of which point in the same direction as the vision of these wannabe "revolutionaries". About 10 years ago, Ravenflow (now owned by Versata) tried to generate use case and scenario diagrams (not code) from English, with limited success. Earlier this week, I saw an announcement that Facebook has developed "software that writes software". But I think we're still a long way from the point where software designers and developers have to worry about being replaced by requirements analysts who can describe "what" they want a program to do and have it automagically appear.

Comment Sony Xperia Z3 (and Compact) and OnePlus Two (Score 1) 208

I'm quite happy with battery life on my Sony Xperia Z3 Compact with its non-removable 2600 mAh battery. GSM Arena gives it an Endurance Rating of 101h, and I routinely go two days without having to recharge it. For those who want something larger than its 4.6" screen, the Sony Xperia Z3 has a 5.2" screen and a non-removable 3100 mAh battery, but its Endurance Rating is only 85h. The Samsung Galaxy 6 Edge, with its 2600 mAh battery and 5.2" screen, is rated still lower at 73h, perhaps because of all of the running bloatware. You might do better if you root it, and kill off some of the useless stuff that eats the battery.

Another likely winner on battery life is the brand new OnePlus Two, with a 3300 mAh battery (up from 3100 in the OnePlus One) and a 5.5" display. But its Endurance Rating is likely to be similar to that of the Galaxy 6 Edge.

One note: US carriers don't carry the Xperia Z3 Compact, so you have to get it from Sony ( But it's much cheaper than the Samsung's, and Sony offers an additional discount to students and others with a .edu address. Then you can get the SIM chip from your chosen GSM wireless carrier, which will also make sure that the data settings are correct. For the OnePlus, you need to secure an invitation (several ways to go about that), and then claim your phone on the OnePlus site. Since it's half the price of the Samsung, it's worth a bit of a wait.

Comment Re:If visiting Europe, card should have chip AND P (Score 1) 294

Absolutely correct. Ticketing machines, such as those in European train stations at airports, also require Chip and PIN. You also can't use the Vélib (Paris) or other bike rental systems without a PIN.

For many years, US banks thought that it was cheaper to eat their losses on fraud from unchipped cards rather than join the modern world with chip-and-pin. The Target breach seems to have changed some thinking there, but the current chip-and-signature cards only help a bit. You're able to use them in European restaurants, grocery stores, etc. No need yet for a chip card if you go to Asia or the South Pacific, except in Burma (Myanmar) and Bhutan, which are mostly cash economies.

I continually request a chip-and-pin card from the banks where we have credit cards. I've told them all that I will move all of our credit cards to whichever bank is first to replace my current card with a chip-and-pin variety of the same card. If you want chip-and-pin, call the toll-free number on the back of your credit card(s) and make your request.

Comment MUMPS was designed for a different world (Score 1) 166

I was part of the MUMPS community back in the 1970s and was the principal author of several documents that provided an executable specification of the language syntax and a guide to implementing globals efficiently, given the systems of that era. (I didn't write any MUMPS code that found its way into production.)

MUMPS was initially developed for the 18-bit DEC PDP-7 in the late 1960's, where memory and disk constraints were severe, and processor speeds were a tiny fraction of today's slowest devices. Early MUMPS programs were limited to 1k characters, so every character counted, with most variables being 1 character long. Globals were done as a hierarchical "database", such as X(1,5,Z), again for space-saving and for efficient retrieval from the extremely small and slow disk drives of the day. MUMPS programs were interpreted, not compiled. With these constraints, comments were exceedingly rare, since they used part of the 1k, and slowed down the interpreter, which scanned every character.

As a computer scientist, I was appalled by certain features of the language, particularly the ability to change a running program by executing a variable. That's a security nightmare, since you could effectively read a string (stored as a global or input from the console) and then execute it as MUMPS code.

Here we are, more than 40 years later, and many of the major medical information systems are still running code that derives from the original flavor of MUMPS. Meditech and EPIC Systems are major vendors of medical information systems, including software for electronic health records, mostly developed in MUMPS. The much-overpraised VA electronic health record system is also MUMPS-based. As with any other production application, it's very difficult for a new vendor to come along and displace an incumbent, particularly if the conversion process is highly complex, as is the case here. As a result, there's no practical way to update these systems, other than rewriting them from scratch for modern languages and systems, something that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Comment Why Boston's Route 128 lost to Silicon Valley (Score 3, Interesting) 114

Non-compete agreements may be part of it, as were the decline and fall of Digital Equipment Corporation, Wang, Data General, Prime Computer and more. With the notable exception of Akamai, there were relatively few big Internet successes among Boston area companies, and the past 15 years have continued that trend.

But I think that Boston's terrible weather is also a big factor. Here's an analysis of Boston winters that shows the grim reality of 5 or 6 months out of every 12. When sunshine, mild weather, and Silicon Valley jobs beckon on a gloomy February day, it takes a wicked love for the Hub or the Bruins to turn down a good offer. The cost of housing is much higher in the Bay Area, but the bills for heating oil and winter clothing go away, and cars last a lot longer, just to name a few things.

Boston remains one of my favorite American cities to visit (only during baseball season, though), but I no longer [perhaps unfairly] associate it with startups. Maybe the innovative and creative ideas get frozen out.

Comment Next challenge: FirefoxOS phones (Score 3, Interesting) 296

I use Thunderbird, but there's not much to be done there, and Mozilla has already put it on the "back burner". But I think that the challenge of FirefoxOS is much more interesting. I have a Flame phone running a prerelease of FirefoxOS 2.0, and it's pretty nice and very inexpensive compared to some other devices out there. I use it regularly when I travel internationally and need a local SIM chip. The FirefoxOS team is working with carriers around the world, almost entirely in developing countries, where the price of an iPhone or Galaxy S 5 is too high for the mass market. But even in relatively rich countries like the US, there is a sizeable population for whom those phones are too expensive. I think that the FirefoxOS phone is a great starter phone for kids, since it's cheap enough to replace when it gets damaged.

Unlike some other mobile operating systems, FirefoxOS is completely open and uses HTML5 to deliver content. BlackBerry and Windows Phone each have small market shares, and I don't think that's going to change anytime soon. So we mostly have only two choices of mobile OS. Don't get me wrong: I very much like my Android phone (Sony Xperia Z3 Compact) and my iPad, but I think that it's a worthwhile challenge to contribute to the FirefoxOS platform and/or to build apps for it.

Comment My rights as a paying Netflix customer (Score 1) 437

I subscribe to Netflix. To me, that means that I should be able to use my subscription independently of where I am in the world. I'm often too busy when I'm at home to watch a full movie or to binge-watch a TV season, but I have more time when I am traveling. When I am outside the US, I must use a VPN to a US-based host. If Netflix blocks my access to their service from outside the US, then the value of the subscription drops significantly for me.

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