Tech News Lowlights

Ever vigilant, here is the tech news lowlight roundup for the week of April 30, 2010.

Controlled Fusion Redux

All my life I have heard of the tantalizing dream of controlled fusion as the inexhaustible solution to global energy needs.  Lawrence Livermore National Labs to the rescue:  “Scientists at a government lab here are trying to use the world’s largest laser — it’s the size of three football fields — to set off a nuclear reaction so intense that it will make a star bloom on the surface of the Earth…If they’re successful, the scientists hope to destroy the earth solve the global energy crisis by harnessing the energy generated by the mini-star” (CNN).  Couple this story with Sir Martin Rees’ unsettling prediction that there is a 50% chance of humanity’s extinction before 2100 CE “…the possibility of malign or accidental release of destructive technology” (Wikipedia summary of Rees’ Our Final Hour).  Rees thinks that a grand physics experiment run amok is actually not an unlikely scenario for total obliteration.  If so, it won’t be this one.  (My money is on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider as the doomsday machine, if they ever get it running at full energy, which is appearing more and more unlikely).

When you describe this experiment to someone, especially making reference to the 3-football field length laser generators and the temperatures and pressures present exceeding those of the center of the sun, the typical reaction is one of awed suspicion that this might just actually destroy us all.  In fact, not a chance.  Humans have been experimenting with UNCONTROLLED fission/fusion/fission reactions on the surface of the earth since the 50’s and the apogee of Dr. Strangelove, whose portrait drew heavily on that of H-bomb advocate and, with Stanislaw Ulam,H-bomb inventor,Edward Teller–a man not unknown around the Berkeley labs.

With the Lawrence Livermore laboratories involved, we can be assured of only one thing:  the project will be run over-budget and behind-schedule.  In fact, US auditors confirm the fact:  “Since 2005, when the laser-fusion experiment was isolated in a government program called the National Ignition Campaign, the project has spent more than $2 billion, or 25 percent more than its budget of $1.6 billion, according to the April Government Accountability Office report…
And, in those recent years, the project has fallen a year off schedule, the GAO says, with the expected completion date for the research now at the end of 2012.”

Even if the project succeeds, large scale commercial applications are misty at best.  Climate change and the global energy crisis are real.  Should our tax dollars continue to fund large scale dreams like this when they might more realistically be spent on more promising, near-term solutions like efficient photovoltaic systems, wind farms, or small-scale, safe (relatively speaking) fission reactors?

McAfee Agonistes

Last week’s blunder by McAfee anti-virus caused the wholesale crippling of tens of thousands, if not millions, of computers to crash”  “…McAfee’s faulty virus definition file flagged the Windows system-critical file SVCHOST.EXE as a threat and quarantined it. Among other problems, this had the effect of forcing the computer to shut down every 60 seconds, and preventing USB drives from connecting to the computer. For many users, replacement versions of SVCHOST.EXE had to be copied to CD before they could be used. The original fix was labor-intensive and complicated by the fact that the bad update prevented many affected people from accessing the Internet in the first place. McAfee finally announced a simple tool to apply the fix on Thursday night, but it still requires a second computer to download it, and it cannot be applied remotely” (CNet).

Genius solution:  distribute latest Internet-virus fix over the Internet, make millions; Small problem:  solution suppresses machine’s ability to reach Internet and repair “rogue” genius solution.

Let no one use the phrase “perfect storm” on this one.  Everything gets called a perfect storm.  This one was corporate sloth and neglect.  Sure, anyone can make a mistake, but when you are paid to be the life-and-death guarantor of the means of communications (I’m not kidding.  Many hospitals and police and fire agencies were affected, not to mention just plain old people who had every right to expect things to work correctly).

Why, in light of this incident, a) should people continue to use McAfee; and b) continue to use an outmoded software platform like Windows XP SP3?  CNet offers some alternative anti-virus solutionsMicrosoft and Apple long ago released much improved operating systems.

Jobs’ Way or the Slob’s Way

Steve Jobs has issued an open letter titled “Thoughts on Flash.”  He is referring to Adobe Flash– Adobe, as in the company Jobs recently branded as “lazy“–and specifically for Apple’s non-support  of Flash on its premiere devices, the iPhone, iPod and iPad (if this niche device belongs in that category).

Here is the nub of the argument, neatly summed up by Mr. Jobs:  “Adobe has characterized our decision as being primarily business driven – they say we want to protect our App Store – but in reality it is based on technology issues.”  His version has it that in reality, Apple does not have a “closed ecosystem” and insist on 100% control of their product platforms.  In reality, they are public spirited good guys who support technology standards for all.  The real “closed” platform is Adobe Flash.

This is Apple speaking, right?

Right.  Mr. Jobs goes to lengths to make is rather lame case.  Reminding of us of a famous US president who quibbled over what is is, Mr. Jobs says it depends on how open open is.  Rather than use Flash, Apple is pushing open standards when it comes to the web:  “Rather than use Flash, Apple has adopted HTML5, CSS and JavaScript – all open standards.”  Except of course, in their Safari browser.  One gets the feeling that what Mr. Jobs can’t abide is someone else getting there first and gaining a proprietary hold, anyone other than Apple, that is.  What about the Music, Movies and Books Apple is selling over the web?  They surely conform to open standards, like those at Amazon, Project Gutenberg, and Librivox, right?  Hardly.

Sure, we use Flash when we have to, says Mr. Jobs, but “Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009. We also know first hand that Flash is the number one reason Macs crash. We have been working with Adobe to fix these problems, but they have persisted for several years now. We don’t want to reduce the reliability and security of our iPhones, iPods and iPads by adding Flash.”

Of course there is truth in Jobs’ assertions, but not full truth.  The reason Macs are relatively secure in comparison with PCs is that their market share is so small–about 5% of the home computer market–that it does not pay virus and malware authors to attack them.  If they had the user base Windows machines had, they would be the target.  And, by the way, Macs do to get viruses–or why else is there a Symantec antivirus product for the Mac?  It is not the OS that is more secure, it is the obscurity of the target.

I like Mac and am a Mac user.  I also like Flash and am a Flash user.   Mr. Jobs is wrong in painting Flash as an obsolete relic of the “PC era” that has no place in the “mobile era,” where, of course, he thinks Apple will be king.  Flash does need to be more secure and work on the full range of products consumers want, but that’s a little hard to do when the vendor of those popular products boycotts them more out of pique than out of reason.

We long ago have given up on the dream of an “open” future” in computing–at least in America.  Every large company, in order to be large, must take competitive advantage–and thereby earn profits for their investors–of proprietary systems.  The trick is to get YOUR proprietary systems branded as the “open” systems and your competitors’ as obsolete and obscurantist, which is what Mr. Jobs letter seems to be all about.  If company’s can stake out a portion of the market and yet work symbiotically with their competition consumers will ultimately profit along with the companies.  If not, things just get more insular and rivalries fester into wars, which looks like what has happened between Apple and Adobe.