blarg?

Ok, let’s do this.

What I’ve been working on for the last few months has just gone up here – an enterprise deployment suite for Mozilla Firefox.

We’ve got a few big things on the go – the first, a service called Torch, is a customization tool that lets you configure Firefox with a few clicks, including:

  • Default homepage and bookmarks
  • Web proxy settings
  • Preloaded certificates
  • Bundled addons
  • Localization

… and a bunch of other things. It also lets you pick which prefs you want to lock down, and generates both .EXE and .MSI installers that you can deploy through SMS or SCCM. On top of that, to complement Firefox’s fantastic cross-platform, cross-device sync services, we are also offering hosted sync services in a CICA5970 and SAS70-compliant hosting environment; enterprise users can walk away from their desktops and take all their bookmarks, history and open tabs with them on their iPhones, iPads, Android devices and, soon, Blackberries and Playbooks.

And if your company wants to keep everything in-house, we’re also offering rackable appliances hosting both services, Torch and Sync, that we’ll tailor to the particular needs and scale of your environment.

Firefox 4 is a fantastic product with some great features for enterprise users – it runs just fine on Windows XP, lives happily alongside Internet Explorer 6 and 7 and gives you a fast, secure browser without forcing organizations to upgrade their hardware, browser or operating system just to take advantage of modern web tools and development.

I’ll have more to say about this soon, but we’ve got a pretty great product on offer here; if your organization looking for a sane, manageable path out from under IE6 or 7 that doesn’t force you to upgrade everything else you own all at once, you should take a look at Bespoke I/O or send us an email.

(It’s pretty exciting!)

Ideas get lodged in my head, and if they’re interesting enough – not necessarily “good”, mind you, but “interesting” – then I basically can’t do anything useful until I’ve gnawed away at them for hours. If it’s OCD that applies only to the inside of your head, is there even a word for that? Obsessive Compulsive Extrospection? Intramania? Let’s watch what happens as my friend Dave pursues his secret hobby of sneaking up on me and sticking broomhandles through the spokes of my brainwheels.

14:23 <@humph> mhoye: http://vimeo.com/20950590
14:31 < mhoye> what what
14:32 < mhoye> is he projecting directly onto the sensor?
14:32 < mhoye> That is so great.
14:37 <@humph> yeah
14:37 <@humph> seemed like you might like that
14:37 <@humph> that's what I do with software, done with cameras and lenses
14:38 < mhoye> Shadows on the cave.
14:38 < mhoye> I've never heard the shadows-on-cave-walls parable end with "We need a smarter cave".
14:39 < mhoye> But maybe that's an avenue of inquiry that's overdue.
14:43 < mhoye> About every third conversation I have with you makes me want to go sit in a dark corner for an hour or four just to turn the ideas over in my head, and then go write somebody else's doctoral thesis.
14:43 < mhoye> But I CANT because I have OTHER THINGS TO DO, dammit.
14:49 < mhoye> i don't even like you.

[...]

15:17 <mhoye> GAH
15:17 <mhoye> SERIOUSLY I AM TRYING TO DO WORK HERE
15:18 <mhoye> AND NOW ALL I CAN THINK ABOUT IS WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE CAVE HAVING AGENCY IN THAT METAPHOR

I don’t think I’m being unreasonable about this at all.

The last time I did this, it didn’t go particularly well – The cheapest subnotebook I could find turned out to be pretty terrible, had a lot wrong with it from Day 1 and ultimately lived a pretty short, pretty unhappy life. I’ve got an odd fascination with the bottom end of the hardware spectrum, though, and while I’m waiting for Apple’s ARM-powered Airs to materialize (you’ll have to wait for that post, sorry) and, y’know, running a software company that builds stuff for Windows users, when I found another super-cheap laptop I decided to pick it up.

The Light At The End

This one cost $170. It’s a “Compaq Mini” and it’s pretty surprisingly good, as though somebody at HP read over my list of gripes and decided to address them all. The whole case actually fits together properly, there’s no obvious problems or ugly seams and even turning it over doesn’t reveal the usual mess of ill-advised ventilation grates and license barcodes, all of which are hidden elegantly away. The proprietary “Mini Mobile Drive Port” and “Expansion Port” connectors are gone, replaced respectively with a third USB port and nothing, entirely the right decision. The keyboard is unspectacular but usable, a pleasant surprise as compared to the old Mini 1116, and the decision to put the mouse buttons back at the bottom of the trackpad instead of keeping them on the sides brings it nicely back into “usable at all” territory. It’s still a tiny little trackpad and there’s only so much you can do with that, but despite the quite-dodgy multitouch it’s nowhere near the same grade of hateful that the 1116’s was.

VGA out only, a little sadmakingly and c’mon, guys, it’s 2011. HDMI? DVI, Displayport? Something with a D in it? But for $170, I’m not going to fuss too much. All told, designwise this really is the netbook the 1116 could, and should, have been. Well designed and assembled, quite inexpensive without feeling flimsy, designed with some care and not obviously junk.

Boy, the OS it comes with is junk, though. Preinstalled with Windows 7 Starter and, um, did you know this thing existed? I was unaware that this cut down, deliberately crippled version Win7 was a thing, and it’s not a good experience. Microsoft, if you’re listening, I really don’t understand why you’d do this to your customers; the contempt for your users on display here is astounding. This is really, really bad, and the fact that your idea of a business model here to annoy your customers into paying you more really doesn’t say much about you, or your opinion of your customers. You’re being out-executed by the free software movement and your answer to that is to ship a product that does less?

It’s also got the inevitable menagerie of grotesques that come preloaded on every Windows machine these days. Fish swim, birds fly and if you’ve got a new Windows box and an ounce of sense you need to spend hours deboning it before you can use it for anything. It would be like buying a brand new car, then finding out that the dealer has let an elephant take a dump in the back seat after the local zoo gave him ten bucks to claim elephant dung is “added value”.

It doesn’t help, and it’s a little odd, that device drivers and random apps are all on the same list, all horribly named, and HP apparently doesn’t sign their own applications. So when you go to uninstall something you’re given this slightly terrifying “unknown application from unknown person wants to modify your computer, do you wish to proceed?” dialog. It’s really a mess; it didn’t used to be like this, but something about Windows 7 makes it impossible to love. I may actually break down and install linux on this thing, because honestly, it can’t possibly be worse than this. But it’s incredible, as in despite the evidence of my eyes it is very difficult for me to believe, how you much of Windows hasn’t improved or even been changed since before WinNT 4. Scrape off a little bit of the paint and there it is – if you want to change capslock to control or use that dumb windows key for something else, you go to the Keyboard control panel and… it is the same damn dialog you’ve been looking at since Windows 3.0. You can change how fast the cursor blinks. Whoopee.

Having to calculate hexadecimal values and type them into freaking regedit.exe to remap a key is just so damn antiquated I can barely stand it. It was easier to use xmodmap in 1996. It’s really sad that in 2011 the experience is still this terrible. It makes me wonder, again, if anyone at Microsoft ever actually uses their own products.

But oddly enough this makes me really optimistic for the near- to mid-term future. HP has stated that they’re getting ready to ship WebOS on every device they make, possibly as a quickboot option in addition to a full-on OS, so they’ve got something modern available to them for approximately free, a significant upgrade from this one. I’ve said this before and if this laptop is any indication I may even be right: there are still people at HP capable of building hardware that people can love, and if they harness that talent and find an OS to back it up, that’ll be pretty exciting times. I’m actually looking forward to that WebOS tablet thing quite a bit.

The Light At The End

I was wondering the other day why investment banking, which is in theory a competitive service industry, appears to be so insanely profitable. A notion occurred to me, but not being an expert in the field it’s hard for me to evaluate its veracity. It’s got a certain sinister elegance to it, though, and if you’ll bear with me for a minute I just want to put this idea in your head.

The 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics went to Akerlof, Spence, and Stiglitz for their “analyses of markets with asymmetric information“, that is to say, the economic effects of the other guy knowing something you don’t. Akerlof’s classic paper on the subject is The Market For Lemons, of which Wikipedia provides a good summary, per usual. The more cynical among you are rightly saying, well yes, the economic effect of making a deal with somebody who knows way more than you do is that you lose your shirt, but that’s microeconomics; we’re talking macro here. There are no easy buckets on this court.

In any case, one thing I haven’t found in my cursory n00b investigation is something on the economic effect of what I will politely call an asymmetric understanding of the basic principles of modern markets and the naive company’s place in them. Which is to say, let’s imagine… I start like that because from what I can tell, “let’s imagine” is the traditional way of starting any argument about economics. Which probably tells you something about economics, now that I think about it. Seriously, try googling the name of your favorite economist plus “let’s imagine”, and count the Google hits. It’s eerie.

Anyway, you all know what derivatives, specifically futures are, right? The idea is that you can set up a long-term contract to sell a thing at some fixed price, fixing the price and letting the buyer at the other end absorb the risk, reaping the potential benefits or losses of a fluctuating marketplace. This lets our entirely imaginary A-One Flour Co. say “for the next five years we’re selling you this much flour for this price every year”, and whatever happens to the market price of flour, either more profit or unexpected loss, get absorbed by whoever’s on the other side of that futures contract.

That, in short, is why futures are traded – there’s both risk and potential profit involved, ownership can change, etcetera. But our imagined A-One Flour, a company with one major input of “wheat” and a single output of “flour” may choose to engage in the same sort of transaction on the wheat-purchasing end, to give themselves some stability on the supply side as well, a sensible move now that there’s a lot less flexibility available to them in terms of revenue. So they agree to buy a fixed amount of wheat for a fixed price over the course of the next few years, from some commodities trader whose hope in this case is that the cost of wheat will drop, thus insuring him some profit on the deal.

Now let’s say I’ve been watching all this, or more realistically I’ve had my computers watching all this. I see what the A-One people are up to, and because they’re traded commodities and I can, I buy both of those futures contracts.

Now: what just happened to A-One flour? They no longer control, in very real sense, the amount of money coming in, the amount of money going out, or who they buy from or sell to. They get wheat from me, they sell flour to me, and they’ve effectively been reduced from controlling their destiny to little more than operating their machinery. They went looking for stability, effectively trading stability for control. I own the complete set, in the Boardwalk & Park Place sense, of contracts for their material, and thus financial, inputs and outputs and this effectively means that I’m the one who’s really in charge of the company. All that without a single share of A-One Flour changing hands.

Better still, if I can pull the same trick with B-One Bread Co., and pair up those futures contracts profitably? That’s a pipe that spews money. And maybe even better than that, this is de-facto inside information about how profitable (or not!) A-One is going to be in the next year or three. So I have this great arms-length way to engage in what would normally be insider trading, knowing what’s going to happen to A-One long before shareholders or the public does. And it’s an oversimplified example, sure, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t already a well-understood process in some of the taller office buildings of the world.

I haven’t thought of a better way to make money recently, but I’ll let you know if I do.

You Shouldn't Be Rapping

This week’s mad science news is that I’m starting to experiment with sous-vide cooking now that I’ve gotten around to building myself the necessary tool to do that, uninspiringly referred to as a sous-vide cooker.

The idea of sous-vide or “vacuum-sealed” cooking is that you can achieve various interesting results by cooking things at low and often quite specific temperatures for much longer periods of time. Eggs can actually be poached in the shell, for example, and meat of any thickness can be cooked to perfect medium rare all the way through before a quick searing on the grill to finish and serve.

It turned out to be pretty straightforward; you can use a slow cooker, but if you have a pot and a wall socket you can get the rest of the way there for about $100 in parts. While the resulting tool won’t get you all the way to the tenth-of-a-degree precision that professionals may insist they need, you can get an accuracy of plus or minus one degree for fraction of the cost.

That will be a familiar experience for anyone who’s ever bought professional lab equipment, no doubt; want that extra shaving of a decimal point’s worth of fractional accuracy? That’ll be a 20000% premium, please. Fortunately for me amateurishness can be pretty easy on the budget, at least in the short term.

This has been interesting reading, including the temperature charts that I was soliciting on twitter the other day. I’ve also been looking at this list of food temperatures from Health Canada, and a comparable U.S. Government food safety page with a just slightly jaundiced eye, as their tendency to err on the side of cook-until-rubberized is understandable. Even more unfortunately, most of the other sites I’ve found have all the familiar hallmarks of trending-term content farmers, and no.

Nevertheless, a quite high quality of ingredients and information about temperatures and times is important when one possible failure mode is the E-Coli-A-Gogo version of the Sea Monkeys Home Aquarium and a night in the ER vomiting out your lungs. Did that image dissuade you? It’s OK if it did, this isn’t for the culinarily timid or faint of gut. If not, excellent, let us press on; just don’t be doing this with discount meat, you know?

Assuming you have a medium-to-largeish pot to hand, you really don’t need much:

  • About a meter of loose extension cord wire and separate male and female ends you can attach it to. Three prong, please. You can pick this up at your local hardware store for between five and ten bucks, horribly overpriced at that.
  • A dozen or so smallish marrettes just to cleanly tie it all together. Hardware store, likewise.
  • The parts that your hardware store won’t have are a Temperature Controller, a solid state relay, and a thermocouple. Those links go to the places I got mine, and I was pretty happy doing business with them – they insisted on a shipping method with a tracking number to ship to Canada, but their prices were a lot better than I’ve found elsewhere, so.
  • A standalone electrical element like that one, and a wire rack of some kind that fits in the bottom of your pot. This is the part you can substitute with a non-digital slow-cooker (and possibly even a rice cooker?) if you’ve already got one of them.

I won’t go through the step-by-step of wiring all of that up, but email me if you like. The basic idea is this: power comes from the wall and goes both to the temperature controller and through one side of the relay. The other side of the relay, the control circuit part, is likewise wired up to the temperature controller (the documentation for that thing is here) as is the thermocouple. What you’ll end up with is essentially an extension cord with a thermometer switch; it switches on when the temperature drops below some value and off again once you get back where you want to be. You should clip the thermocouple wire to the side of your pot with a clothespin or something so it doesn’t touch the bottom of the pot, or your readings will get a bit skittish. The wire rack is just to keep the zip-lock freezer bags you’ll be using from touching the hot bottom of the pan directly.

That’s about it. The only thing I have left to do is to find myself a reasonably pretty project box for the whole assembly – right now it’s a little inelegant with all the wires hanging out, but it works like a charm. I’m going to be trying something a lot like this out tomorrow night, just to see what comes out the other end of it, and I have it on good authority that butter-poached ribeye is one of the greatest things in ever.

I’ll keep you informed!