A Staggering Number of 1’s and 0’s

The other day, Apple published an update to iOS, the software that runs iPhones, iPads, and iWhatnot. I updated my two devices last night; the download was about 1GB for each.

Not that long ago, a gigabyte was a lot of data. Even these days, a gigabyte here, a gigabyte there, pretty soon you’re talking about a crap-ton of information.

How much? Today I spent a full ten minutes doing research for this blog episode, hoping to come up with some sort of estimate for the number of iGadgets updated over the last couple of days. I found one fairly recent article that said there were 400 million iOS devices in the wild, but that report was published before Apple sold two million iPhones in China — in a single weekend.

I’m going to throw the number 500 million out there, because it’s nice and round and makes the math easier. We have to figure in the percentage of iDevices that are sitting in drawers gathering dust; those will not likely be updated the moment a new iOS version is available. What percentage is this? It’s really hard to tell. Apple loves to point out, however, that even taking into account the huge market share they enjoy, the amount of Web traffic generated by their devices is even higher, suggesting a significantly higher usage rate than their Android cousins. I will make the logical leap that higher usage rate implies higher demand for updates to the new iOS.

So, let’s say that half of all iOS owners upgraded their gear in the last two days. Apple considers it a HUGE competitive advantage that they can provide infrastructure to update all iOS devices. Android providers simply don’t have that (Google has might, but Android updates go through the telephone companies, so the telcos can limit features and add nefarious supplements). As a result, soon 80% of all iOS users will be on the latest version. Nirvana for software developers.

But let’s think about that infrastructure. Over the last two days, by my wild-ass estimates, Apple delivered 250 million gigabytes of data to their iOS customers. 250 petabytes, on top of the regular daily traffic. I’ve been told by unreliable sources that after the Great iTunes Christmas Crush of ’09 (or was it ’10? Thanksgiving?) work was done to allow server capacity to be reallocated in anticipation of massive crunch times. If the network performance in my office is an indicator, that happened this week.

Side thought: is it possible to store more bits of data than there are particles in the universe? Not in binary, I suspect. Side side thought: I learned on a British educational TV show in roughly 1981 that the universe holds something like 1083 particles, but what with all the dark matter and so forth coming down the pike since, it wouldn’t surprise me if the estimate had moved up to 1084 particles by now. Of course, the definition of “particle” itself can be squirrelly, translated from the 1980’s, and I may just remember wrong. ANYWAY, the iOS update was only on the order of 1017 bits. Chump change when scaled against the entire universe.

But down here on planet Earth, that’s a lot of ones, and roughly the same number of zeroes, each where it belongs.

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Bought a New Lens

It was love at first sight. I saw the lens, and had to make her mine.

I’d guess that I take more than 80% of my shots with my 24-105mm zoom. It’s an incredible piece of technology, combining versatility and really impressive image quality. In second place is my beloved 85mm, a lens that totally changes the rules when it comes to lighting, that I’m only just starting to master. My fishy-fisheye isn’t getting a lot of work these days, nor is my big ol’ 100-400 zoom.

I shudder to think how much money I’ve dumped into this hobby. (I have not done the math, nor will I.)

Since buying the new camera, I’ve bought two lenses. The first I will not describe now; that is for another episode. Today we’re discussing my new 135mm portrait lens, which is in the hands of the United States Postal Service and heading my direction from Baker City, Oregon as I type this.

Of course I did my due diligence before I bought the lens. I looked to see what other lenses with similar characteristics were going for. On ebay, there was one for less that had better numbers. The auction was young, however, and I wasn’t interested in hanging out to see what it finally went for. I was already in love, and it was purely physical.

I bought the 135mm prime f/3.5. I also bought an adapter to mount it on my camera. Total cost, including shipping: $46.

Yeah, baby.

The funny thing about my new, super-expensive camera: it’s manual-focus friendly. That means, within certain limits, I can mount a host of old glass in front of the state-of-the-art sensor. Ironically, old Canon lenses are not easily adapted on new Canon bodies. But ancient Pentax? Piece of cake. My new lens is by Vivitar. Here’s the link to the ebay listing: [Alas, the link didn’t work for the general public]. (I didn’t want to post the picture here, lest it undermine the drama in the previous scene.)

I have read (though I have yet to discern), that modern Canon lenses on modern Canon bodies create a look that can be distinguished by the trained eye. Same with Nikon and Sony. Not sure I buy that (there’s software between camera and viewer), but there’s a handful of photographers out there looking to bust loose by using old glass. Brand aside, the flaws in lenses before robots made them and lasers measured them adds a certain character to a shot. I like character, but to be honest, that’s not what motivated me. $46 for a 135mm prime lens (a lens I honestly think I can use to good effect) was only part of the story (but a meaningful part). It had to be this 135. Look at the picture in the listing and you’ll understand why.

OK, the link above seems to only work for me. Here’s the lens (click to biggerize):

My New Lens

My New Lens

iTelescope

I was reading up on the big-ass comet (who’s name is not actually ISON) heading our direction, and the article mentioned that the discovery had been confirmed by iTelescope (among others). (REAL QUICK digression: I really like the word “precovery” — Once the discoverers said, “hey, there’s a comet there!” other astronomers were able to use data gathered before the official “discovery” to confirm the finding. Precovery.) So anyway, Since I work at the company that invented put-an-i-on-it product naming, I had no choice but to look into this iTelescope thing. I had this idea that maybe there were a million webcams all pointed at the sky, and with the combined computing power of the participants a useful image could be inferred.

Of course, I was wrong. It was early in the morning and the caffeine hadn’t reached the critical parts of my brain — the parts that would have considered the logistical nightmare my “global fly-eye” idea would entail. Maybe in a few more years…

But what I did find is entirely cool, and has the benefit of actually working. iTelescope is a cooperative that has some 20 pretty-dang-good telescopes, and for a fee you (yes, you) can use them to take pictures of the sky. (The difference between ‘telescope’ and ‘camera’ is all in the lens.) iTelescope has three facilities around the globe (New Mexico, Spain, and Australia), so it’s always night somewhere. You control the telescope over the Internet and download your results. Oh, these times we live in. (In these times, it must also be said: you retain all rights to the photos.)

How much does it cost? That depends on the telescope you choose and the phase of the moon. Prices start in the neighborhood of seventeen bucks an hour and go up from there. That seems like a lot of money, until you consider what it would cost to get these images on your own. Eleven (at least) have even been honored as APOD.

It feels odd to think of it as ‘photography’ when you’re so disconnected from the camera – heck, you’ll probably never even see the telescope you’re using. Many of the other decisions one makes in terrestrial photography are moot as well — there’s no depth of focus to deal with, for instance. Someone else has set up the camera; all you have to do is point it. Except, when you look at the gallery, you see that there are many images that combine dozens of exposures, some with different filters, sometimes with different data coming from different telescopes. Dang. Seriously, how many photographers have access to such a vast array of gear? (Answer: now, we all do.)

There is still an art to getting that spectacular deep-space image, and just as a fashion photographer has assistants to handle the details, iTelescope users have the iTelescope staff and a helpful Web robot. Good times, my friends. Good times.

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Tor and Privacy

The other day I was looking for something completely unrelated and I came across an interactive diagram that shows what information is protected when you use a secure Web connection. The diagram also mentions something called “Tor”, which protects other parts of the information that gets transmitted with every message your computing device sends over the Web.

In a nutshell, Tor makes it impossible (as far as we can tell) to trace a message from source to destination. This could be really, really beneficial to people who would like to, for instance, access a site their government does not approve of. (If that government already suspects the citizen is accessing a forbidden site, they can still put sniffers on either end of the pipeline and infer from the timing of messages that the citizen is acting in an unpatriotic fashion, but they can’t just put a sniffer on the forbidden end to see who happens by.)

There are lots of other times you might want to improve your privacy; unfortunately not all those activities are legal or ethical. A lot of verbiage on Tor’s site is to convince the world that the bad guys have even better means of protecting privacy, since they are willing to break the law in the first place. Tor argues that they are at least partially evening the playing field. They mention reporters protecting sources, police protecting informants, and lawyers protecting clients. My take: you had me at “privacy”.

To work, Tor requires a set of volunteer middlemen, who pass encrypted and re-encrypted messages from one to another. Intrigued, I looked into what would be involved in allocating a slice of my underused server to help out the cause. It’s pretty easy to set up, but there’s a catch. If you allow your server to be an “exit point”, a server that will pass messages out of the anonymous network to actual sites, sooner or later someone is going to be pissed off at someone using the Tor network and the only person they’ll be able to finger is the owner of the exit point. Legal bullshit ensues.

Happily, there are lawyers standing by to protect the network, and some of them might even be itching for a showdown with The Man. Still, before I do anything rash, I need to check in with the totally awesome folks at MacMiniColo, because shit could fall on them, since my server is in their building. If they have qualms (they are not a large company), then I could still be a middle node in the network, and that would help some. But simply because of the hassles involved with being an exit node, that’s where I can do the most good.

I’ll keep you posted on how this shakes out. I need to learn more. If I decide to move ahead, there’s a lot of p’s to dot and q’s to cross, and my server company may ixnay the whole idea. In the meantime, check out Tor, especially if you have nothing to hide.

Publicly Funded Stadiums and Labor Stoppages

I’m happy that hockey is back. There are others much happier than I am, however. The guys who sell nachos and beers at the Shark Tank were hurting much more than I was. The restaurant employees in downtown San Jose weren’t getting as many hours; their bosses were just hoping to make ends meet.

Yet still, around the country, cities are bankrolling new stadiums for sports teams. The politicians justify using tax dollars for sports venues citing the same vendors and restaurant employees feeling the hurt now, saying the arena will be a financial stimulus. Which isn’t completely false. Disingenuous, maybe, but not an outright lie.

Except when the team doesn’t actually play. In that case the community has dumped a shit-ton of money to make a sports owner richer, and has got nothing in return.

So here’s my humble suggestion. Every publicly-funded sports facility that enriches a privately-owned team, must come with a caveat. If the team doesn’t play, the owners are on the hook for the loss of local revenue. If the politicians selling the stadium brag, “One hundred thousand into the economy every game!” then if the team doesn’t play the game, the owner is on the hook for the $100K. I’ll build you the stadium, but I’m not taking the hit if you decide not to play.

Under Gary Betteman, Hockey has lost 10% of its games. That’s a big deal to cities like Glendale, AZ. I would love to see Glendale sue the NHL for breach of contract. “We did all these things, and you didn’t play the games.” Had Glendale pressed a suit, might the lockout have ended sooner?

Because here’s the thing. Fans form unions and whatnot, hoping to influence the petty bickering between rich men over how to divide the fans’ money. The fans’ unions (my favorite: NHLFU) have no power. But there is one place where the regular joe can be heard: Voting for a new stadium. Joe’s not so enthusiastic about paying for a stadium anymore. Can you blame him? Turns out when the stadium is complete, he can’t afford a ticket.

And then the league has the nerve to not play, leaving Joe with a mortgage payment on a billion-dollar complex, and nothing to show for it.

There should not be a stadium deal anywhere in this country, for any sport, that does not include a performance clause. To the owners: you can stop play if you want, but we’re not paying for it. You want to shut things down, you owe every vendor, every waitress nearby, every bartender in the city. I’m a fan, and I’m voting NO on any new stadium in my neighborhood that doesn’t have that provision.

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Thesaurus bot in action!

Over a stretch of a few hours, my spam blocker flagged messages with the following content:

  • I intended to send you the tiny word to finally say thank you the moment again on your awesome
  • I wanted to send you the little observation so as to thank you very much again regarding the pleasant
  • Needed to compose you a very little remark to help say thanks a lot yet again over the lovely
  • I needed to create you this bit of observation to say thanks over again with the marvelous

There were probably more, but you get the idea. There is a template sentence that might actually be grammatically correct, in which certain words are marked for replacement by thesaurus. For instance, in the above, every line has a replacement for “note”.

Two questions present themselves: What is the actual template, and (more fun) what is the most ridiculous version of the template?

My humble contribution:
“I am pathologically compelled to fire at you this wee missive to once and for all pay you the respect you are due once more for the unbelievable.”

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More Thoughts on Spam

A recent attempt at comment spam on my blog was a message heavy with phrases designed to get a search engine riled up: Attorney Personal Injury Las Vegas, Attorney Personal Injury, Lawyer Personal Injury, Our lawyer handles all the legal matters professionally!

By putting those phrases here, not connected to the Web site of the sleazy lawyer resorting to illegal practices to promote his business, I weaken the search engine power by diluting the phrase. I think. That or I get blacklisted by the Goog.

But it seems like there should be more I can do. Here, on my blog, is a law firm breaking the law. Let me say that again, so you get the full feel of it. A group of people who are bound to upholding the law, are breaking the law right here and now.

From their Web site (careful not to actually click any link in the spam), I sent them this message:

You guys are lawyers. Yet you, or agents employed by you, are engaging in illegal spamming. Really, you guys should be smarter than that.

Fix it.

No reply, though days have passed now. There won’t be a reply. But I’m watching my spam bin with a little extra diligence right now; the next one is going to the Nevada Bar Association.

In the meantime, I got a glut of comment spam from a Forex trading site. Forex (foreign exchange) is the practice of trading currency, a high-risk practice of predicting the perceived values of global currencies, and the pool is filled with sharks ready to fleece ordinary joes who somehow get the impression that there’s quick money in those markets. The brokers brag that they have a can’t-lose system, and the unsophisticated suckers buy in, lose their money, the brokers pocket the profits, and the system worked. It really is a can’t-lose system — for the brokers.

So, when I got a heapin’ helpin’ of spam from a Forex site, I decided once more to play an activist role. I went to the site (as always, careful not to use the link in the spam directly) and it seemed to be devoted to exposing the bad guys. They’re called the Forex Peace Army, or FPA. Still, a spamming asshole is a spamming asshole. I sent them a message:

While your site makes it appear that you want to be one of the good guys, you are engaged in illegal spam activities. That is disappointing, and hypocritical. Please stop.

And they wrote back! To paraphrase (and infer just a bit): Sorry, but some jerks we pissed off have started a spam smear campaign. Any data you can give us might help us bring them down.

Alas, it looks like the jerks outsourced their libelous campaign; the spams I got came from China. Still, I’m sending them the data, in hopes that maybe somewhere along they way the FPA will catch a break and get the evidence they need. And you have to like an organization named Forex Peace Army. I picture a shark in tie-die.

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