Wireless Internet – It’s Getting There

Originally published in The Clarion | March 28, 2012

Wireless technologies continue to mature over time, what was once considered as an only-as-necessary connection has moved very close to a viable one. While traveling recently, I had the opportunity to use two different wireless services for the very first time. While my brief testing of each returned better than expected results, each had its downfalls which left me still questioning their viability as a primary Internet service.

The first service I had a chance to try was from one of the dish companies who only sells Internet connection solutions. I truly did not know what to expect from my testing as I only had information from reading about the technology online to go on. For starters, the throughput tests I ran far exceeded my expectations. The particular service was sold as a 15Mbps service and my speed test showed that the bandwidth capacity was there. The upload speed was even good, while I don’t recall the exact numbers they were far better than I had anticipated.

One paramter that really caught my attention though was the ping test result. A ping test is one that sends a very small amount of data from your device to a destination which simply bounces that data back. The result of the test is the amount of time it took for that data to return back to the originator. Many factors play in to ping times and honestly I expected the satellite ping test to be much worse than what I am accustomed to on a wired network. Typically a ping result under 50ms is considered good, the over 800ms result I got on the satellite service was very surprising to me. Sure my packets had to go up into space, back down, across the Internet, back up and down again but really? Eight hundred milliseconds is pushing the one second envelope. Would this service work well for an ordinary user who only surfs the Web and uses eMail on a daily basis? Sure. Would it suffice for someone who plays online games, runs a business or is an IT guru? Most likely not.

The second service I was able to test was Verizon Wireless’s 4G LTE service. Since it isn’t available in our area yet, I was pretty excited to take it for a spin. Again, the speed test results were good, especially considering I was using my smartphone. Unfortunately I do not recall the ping test results but do know they were far better than the satellite service mentioned above. The big drawback though (and big is an understatement here) was that while connected to 4G, the battery of my smartphone drained faster than I have ever experienced before. Sure the connectivity was great but without battery power, the best connection in the world would do me no good. Couple this with data caps on both of the services I tested and I will say (for now at least) that wired connections are still the way to go for fast, reliable Internet connectivity.

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Walled Gardens

Originally published in The Clarion | March 21, 2012

I recently received an eMail message from someone @aol.com. I cannot tell you how long I had gone before this instance where I had noticed such an address. This, of course, caused me to think back in time many, many years ago when America Online was such a dominant force in the world of Information Technology. While they were never really big in the areas I lived in (only because they never had local telephone numbers to dial in to), AOL seemingly ruled the Web.

Some of you may remember a time, not so many years ago, where it seemed that once a week a new America Online CD arrived in the mail. To say they wanted the masses to take their service is quite the understatement. I wish I had kept, or at least kept count, of how many CD mailers I received from them over a several year period. Instead, I (like most) simply threw the disc in the trash – it almost became a ritual. During their glory days, AOL was without a doubt a successful Internet Service Provider. One can only imagine though how much money they spent on advertising and mass mailers, making every effort possible to add new customers.

Many years ago, I had the unfortunate opportunity to use AOL’s service at a friend’s house. I say unfortunate simply because once the dial-up connection was established, AOL seemingly insisted that you use their browser interface to navigate the “Web”. Even back then, if I was needing a dial-up connection, it wasn’t for pleasure – I had a purpose for having to connect and did not want anything getting in my way. Considering this, having to use the dial-up AOL connection was torture for me. From what I remember, their interface is what most today would referred to as a Walled Garden. The developers at AOL (on the instruction of Management I’m sure) skillfully designed their software so that the user was essentially trapped – akin to a garden with a tall wall around it. I’m sure marketing and dollars were the primary reasons for this, I cannot imagine what else it could have been.

In the spirit of a free and open Internet and Web, walled gardens are evil. I have recently read several articles warning that sites like Facebook could eventually become closed, isolated walled gardens – enticing their users to use their site as their primary portal to the Web and trapping them in as tightly as possible. This, without a doubt, is not a good situation. I compare it to other countries around the world whose governments strictly limit access to the worldwide network, even redirecting traffic intended for legitimate sites to their own government-sponsored propaganda. Thankfully we live in a country that does not do this, and thankfully we have choices other than those who want to put a fence around our Internet destinations.

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Raspberry Pi

Originally published in The Clarion | March 14, 2012

The realm of technology is definitely an odd one. The computer geek stereotype didn’t come by haphazardly, if you are fortunate enough to know one of us, I’m sure you know what I mean. In all our quirks, social inabilities and off-the-path ways of life, a dry yet fun sense of humor can be found. A quick search for technology project code names will easily give you an idea of the sense of humor I am referring to. A relatively new project in the world of computing has many of us geek types quite excited. The project’s name is one that is quite fitting in the world of computing – Raspberry Pi. Started in 2006 by a British foundation bearing the same name, the first Raspberry Pi devices were made available for purchase only a couple weeks ago. The aim of the foundation is a noble one, the implications of its devices have the capability of being nothing short of revolutionary.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation was formed for the sole purpose of developing an inexpensive computing platform that could be used for teaching school-aged children the fundamentals and art of computer programming. With two models available priced at $25 and $35, the likelihood of the Raspberry Pi Foundation realizing its goals are almost guaranteed. The computer is sold as a simple circuit board the approximate size of a credit card. There is no fancy enclosure, no screaming bells and whistles and certainly no keyboard, mouse or monitor. For me, this makes the computer even more fascinating. I can imagine myself when I was ten or so years old being introduced to such a device. Being able to see all of the components skillfully soldered onto a circuit board and knowing the capabilities of such a small device would have been astonishing. Truthfully, I am quite astonished at its capabilities even now.

Using a standard SD card for the Linux Operating System and additional software and storage, the Raspberry Pi has the capacity with its included processor and memory to be configured in such a vast array of ways it literally is up to one’s imagination just what all can be done with these devices. From network-attached storage to multimedia servers, firewall and routing devices to Web servers, the Raspberry Pi truly could be revolutionary. With its extremely small form factor and low power consumption, the computer could easily be embedded into a plethora of control systems in an unlimited number of industries. While the primary goal of the foundation is the education of an upcoming generation, I have a hunch their devices are going to reach far beyond the grade school classroom. Now if I could only get my hands on one.

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Politics and the Web

Originally published in The Clarion | March 07, 2012

The subject of politics can be a touchy one. Many an argument has come about when folks who are ordinarily friends decided to discuss any of the many aspects of politics. Whether local, regional, state or federal, most people I know hold strong opinions and convictions when it comes to politics. 21St Century media and other technologies have certainly changed the political landscape in our country and around the world. The evolution of campaigning can be directly connected to the evolution of media and technology. Beginning with nothing more than word of mouth, then to printed media, radio, television and now the interactive Web, voters today are able to learn more about the candidates than ever before. On the flip-side, candidates are more easily able to get their views out to the voters in more ways than ever as well.

How candidates use media and technologies to reach out to the voters seems to be a matter of preference. While many local candidates hinge their candidacy on the traditional signage, door knocking, popularity and newspaper advertisements, more and more are turning to television and the Web. Personally, I feel the Web – and specifically social media – are prime avenues for candidates’ voices to be heard. An attractive yet simple website is realitavely easy to come by these days. Knowing the number of voters who use the Web on a daily basis, a dot-com seems like a no-brainer when it comes to running for office. On an even less expensive front, social media sites continue to be all the rage. Signing up is free and odds are good that a very high percentage of voters will turn to social media to learn about candidates in upcoming elections.

The Clarion has done a fantastic job in interviewing local candidates and making the interviews available on their website – www.theclarion.org. If you are a voter in Jackson County and have not taken the time to watch the candidate interviews, I highly encourage you to do so before next week’s elections. I have also created two political forum pages on Facebook for Scottsboro and Jackson County. While the idea was to have a single location for voters to ask questions of the candidates, so far the forums appear to be quite one-sided. We have had several individuals ask questions of those running for office but unfortunately there has been very little resopnse from the candidates. Whether it is intimidation, lack of interest or something else, I remain perplexed as to why so few local candidates are using the social media platform to get their messages out. I feel the days of elections being nothing more than popularity contests are coming to an end. The 21st Century is the Technology Century. Whatever the reason, I feel that those who don’t adapt to today’s communications technologies are eventually going to be disappointed in their efforts (or lack thereof) to gain public office.

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