Friday, March 30, 2012

Raspberry Pi: Don't give up yet

I've already written five articles about the credit-card-sized educational computer, the Raspberry Pi. As you know, the first 10,000 units were supposed to go on sale a month ago. A few unfortunate things got in the way.

First, they didn't ship from the factory in China when they were supposed to, for a number of reasons. One key reason was that the factory in China had substituted a cheaper part for one of the specified parts, and the units didn't even work. They all had to be reworked.

Second, the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the nonprofit org who conceived and designed this computer as a way to get REAL computer education back into the classroom, started to realize (too late!) that they had underestimated demand, and that their servers would not be able to handle the orders that would come pouring in on March 1st, and so they engaged a couple of worldwide partners to handle the ordering for them. Their partners didn't take the RasPi people seriously, when the RasPi people told them how big the demand was going to be, and so when the gates opened and customers rushed in, the crush of requests shut down the distributors' servers.

Once again: how badly had RasPi, Newark/Farnell/element14 and RS/Allied Electronics underestimated things? Well, the first production run was for 10,000 units. RasPi estimated they'd have 100,000 people wanting to order those 10,000 units. Actual demand turned out to be more like 2,000,000 people. That's TWO MILLION PEOPLE.

Maybe they should be embarrassed. Maybe dismayed. But what they were (and still are, if you read between the lines) is stunned - stunned that they created something with so much appeal. More on that later.

Third, the RasPi principals were expecting the initial 10,000 units to go, not to schools, but to engineers and developers who would produce all the programs and accessories to go with the computer. When they and their distribution partners looked at the demographics (and the GEOgraphics) of those 2,000,000 potential customers, they realized that it wasn't just engineers and developers clamoring for the product. Even though the computer was a bare board, not even in a case, and even though the Foundation were planning on tweaking the design based on feeedback from the first 10,000 users, EVERYBODY WANTED ONE. The general public. The hoi polloi. Regular people. So their partners insisted that they had to get CE and FCC certification for it before they could sell it.

That's unfortunate, but it was something they would eventually need to do anyway, and so it's good that they're taking care of it now. Unfortunate, because that testing ain't cheap, and you don't recover the costs of it until you start shipping product.

So, yeah: delays. But the Raspberry Pi computer is notvaporware! The Foundation have posted photos of the first shipment of 2000 items, on their website. It is for real, and 2000 customers will be very happy, very soon. As soon as the CE approval is granted, that is.

Okay, now back to the creators' emotional reaction to the massive worldwide demand. Believe it or not, they created this computer for altruistic reasons. They're not in it to get rich. They incorporated as a nonprofit org, and all the money they make will go back into the project. I don't think they expected two million people around the world to see the potential in their design, and go crazy over it. The Raspberry Pi is a rock star, and it hasn't even released its first album yet. It's a worldwide phenomenon. It's bigger than its creator's wildest dreams. Yeah, I would expect them to be stunned.

So we can forgive them for stumbling on the product release. They've never done anything like this before, and they're learning as they go along. But if you track their progress on their website or in the Allied/RS forums, you'll see that they're terribly serious about this project and intent on doing it right.

In the USA, Newark/element14 are taking orders, and quoting delivery dates in August.  Allied Electronics are not taking orders, but RS Components (the UK/Europe version of Allied Electronics) are talking about setting up a dedicated "Order your Raspberry Pi here" webpage, which will make it easier for individuals to order the units as they become available.

Wherever you end up ordering from, it will be worth the wait. Trust me on this.

p.s. "The creators" are not nameless, faceless people. You can read about them — and read their words! — on the http://www.raspberrypi.org website.
p.p.s. Kudos to the guy posting tutorial videos on YouTube, under the name RaspberryPiTutorials . He helped me fix a couple of virtual machines (totally unrelated to RasPi) that I've been fighting with for a while.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Afghan massacre: Well, what did you expect?

The story of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the solder from Joint Base Lewis-McChord who went on a killing spree in an Afghan village that left 16 people dead including 9 children, has been on my mind lately. He should and will be held responsible for his actions, but there's enough blame to go around. A Canadian blogger who goes by the nom de clavier "The Mound of Sound,"  published an article on Sunday, entitled "Afghan Murder Spree Blame Lies on Capitol Hill." Mr. Sound put into words a lot of what I was thinking. So, unless he objects and asks me to delete it, here is his article in full.

Following the recent killings of 16-Afghan civilians by a US Army sergeant, the critical details began rolling in.  Married man, father of two.  Ten year veteran.  Three tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan.   Two previous head injuries sustained in combat.   Sent to Afghanistan against his will.   Tick, tick, tick.  

The soldier's name isn't important.   What matters is his profile.  He enlisted in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  He wanted to defend his country.  He thought he'd do his bit.   What he didn't understand, what no one told him before he signed on, is that he'd be sent to war for a country that wouldn't stand behind him.

The U.S. government has shamelessly exploited those volunteers.   They were never enough for the job handed to them, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  More were needed but the supply of volunteers dried up.  So they had two choices.  Reinstate the draft or take the politically cowardly way out and simply keep recycling the existing volunteers, sending them back into war again and again and again.

Head injuries are a signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   The concussive blast of an improvised explosive device can be more injurious and longer lasting than the shrapnel.  We're a lot better at patching up torn bodies than we are fixing pulped brains.   This sergeant in Afghanistan had been pulped, twice.   He thought his combat days were safely behind him.  He was promised as much.   And then he got his orders to Afghanistan.

Does this mean he's not responsible for killing those Afghan civilians?   No, a court will have to decide that on the medical evidence.   What it means is that there are others who are probably just as responsible, perhaps even more so.   This guy shouldn't have been sent back into combat.  His commanders shouldn't have been left so short-handed that they had to send him back.   Someone, at the very top, should have stood up for this guy and all the other walking wounded like him and at the very least resigned in protest.   And, above them, the political leadership is morally if not criminally liable for dodging the draft that, of itself, ensured this man was sent to Afghanistan.   And that indictment includes Congress and the White House.

You can read the original article at http://the-mound-of-sound.blogspot.com/2012/03/afghan-murder-spree-blame-lies-on.html .

In case you don't think a Canadian has any business commenting on this topic, consider these facts: (a) Canadians are part of the coalition that's over there (or they were - 950 are still there); (b) I'm Canadian; and (c) I have a dog  two dogs three American dogs in this fight.

And (d) Mr. Sound isn't the first person, American or Canadian, to think these thoughts, or write them down.

And (e) while you may not agree with everything he says, you have to admit that he makes a lot of really good points.

UPDATE: You can read a follow-up news story, one that clearly aims to be sympathetic but ends up being very fair and even-handed, on Yahoo! News. I don't know how long that link will remain valid.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A life well-lived

I have written about two so-called "Christian" preachers who predicted that the world would soon come to an end, one in May 2011, and one in May, 2012.

A lot of New-Agey people have made a big deal about the fact that the Mayan calendar ends sometime in 2012, asserting that the ancient Mayas knew that the world would end on that date and therefore there was no need for more days on the calendar.

For those who believe in God and an afterlife, the date of the world's ending should be totally irrelevant. Whether you're here on earth when it happens, or whether you die first, doesn't matter. You're going to meet your Maker one way or the other.

What matters is not when the world ends, or when you die, but how you live. This is true whether you're a New Ager, a Buddhist, or a born-again Christian.

If you don't believe in an afterlife, then you still have some measure of immortality to look forward to, and again, it all depends on how you live.

At the end of this life, if you believe in an afterlife, all you can take with you are your deeds, your memories, and your character. Everything else, rich or poor, you have to leave behind. And what you left behind becomes your legacy.

How you live determines, in large part, the legacy you leave behind, and it is your legacy that makes you immortal (that is, if you don't believe in an afterlife - but stay with me here, okay?). People like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks and Mother Teresa will live forever, because the things they did have impacted so many generations.

Small people who live out their lives in front of a TV with a beer in their hand don't have much of a legacy to leave behind. And rich people who hoard their money while they're alive and leave it to be divided up among greedy and ungrateful heirs don't leave much of a legacy, either. And the legacy of tyrants, although their evil deeds will still be felt for a few generations, eventually crumbles to dust like the statue of Ozymandias in Shelley's poem.

Your legacy comes from all the things you did to try to make the world a better place. I had a Sunday School teacher once, an immigrant from Finland who could barely speak English and was so poor that she wrote out her lesson plans in pencil on scraps of cardboard. No, I'm not kidding. But we, a bunch of rowdy 14 year olds in Montreal, felt the warmth of her love and the power of her testimony, and it made a difference in our lives.

I know many wealthy people who are determined to use their wealth to make the world a better place - by generously giving of their time as well as their money to help other people. Their legacy will be measured in the lives that they changed, not in the money they made.

I just finished writing about Bashar Assad, and I predicted that he will die within a year, the pitiful end of the Assad dynasty, hunted down and killed by his own people. It could have been so different for him, had he chosen to live differently.

* * *

Today I celebrate the legacy of a woman who was born on March 16, 76 years ago, and who succumbed to multiple sclerosis at age 52. I honor her for how she lived.

Patricia Ann French was born and grew up in western Canada, the only child of a young bank executive and his pretty wife. She attended teacher's college for two years and became a schoolteacher in the early 1950s. Her legacy began with her students, who adored her as much as she loved them, and who carried the lessons she taught them into successful careers all over Canada.

She married Donald Albert Depew, the son of  a cowboy and the stepson of a long-distance truck driver, a high school graduate who dreamed of doing something more than driving a truck. When children started coming, she quit teaching to become a full-time mother. When Don got a job as a lab technician for a large chemical company, she packed up the kids and followed him, first to eastern Canada and then all over the eastern U.S., as he gained experience and changed jobs, following promotions and opportunities across the continent.

Wherever they went, she used her hands. She played piano and organ, she sewed and quilted and knitted, she painted and wallpapered and upholstered and hung curtains, she cooked for her growing family and for others in need, she tended sick children and sick neighbors, she planted gardens, she dipped chocolates and gave them as gifts, and she made costumes and decorations for countless parties and school plays. With her hands, she touched hundreds of people - no, more like thousands - all of whom were permanently changed by her touch and made better in some small way.

Although an only child, she managed to raise six children - three boys and three girls - and all of them became contributing members of society. None of them were ever drunk or stoned or high. None were ever arrested or thrown in jail. None of them became pregnant in their teens or out of wedlock. None of them beat their spouses or children. All of them attended a college or university. Of the three sons, one is a doctor, one an orthodontist, and one an engineer, and all three have become teachers and mentors of young people, passing on her legacy to another generation. All three of them have been missionaries in foreign lands, spreading her gifts of music and love on three different continents. Of the daughters, one became a banker, one an accountant, and one a real estate agent.  All three have been married, and although only one is still married, all three of them are raising daughters of their own (huh! and only two sons among the three of them!) who are growing up to be much like their grandmother.

She gave all of her children the joy of reading, the joy of learning, and the joy of music. She and Don gave all of them the gift of teaching and the gift of writing. Pat and Don worked together to teach their children morals, values and character. They worked as a team to support their children in activities in school and out of school.

At age 40, Pat began to develop symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Back then, the drugs and treatments to combat MS and drive it into remission did not exist yet, and she endured 12 painful years before losing the battle. In those 12 years, she affected more people than she had in all the years before.

Even in her weakened state, she and Don opened their house to young people and not-so-young people who had nowhere to go, giving them a safe and reliable place to call home until they were back on their feet and strong enough to strike out on their own. She insisted on holding parties which included square dances and other fun activities, even though she just sat on the side in her recliner and smiled.

Long after she had lost the use of her hands, with which she had blessed so many people, Pat published a book: a history of her ancestors, which has become a reference work for people she has never even heard of.

Even when Pat could no longer walk or see clearly, and when she could barely talk, people were buoyed up by her cheerfulness and enthusiasm. She never let the pain get her down. People called her "indomitable." Her example inspired everyone around her to see their problems differently and to rise above them.

Her greatest gift was one that she gave to her beloved husband, Don, and to her best friend, Linda, shortly before her passing. It was a selfless gift, one that few can comprehend, but one that continues to bring people joy today, 24 years later.

Patricia Ann French Depew left a legacy of thousands of lives made better for her having touched them. But her greatest legacy is her six children, 28 grandchildren, and  11 (so far) great-grandchildren, and the difference they will make in the world. If you believe in heaven, then Pat is already there, waiting for everybody else to join her. If you don't believe in heaven, then Pat is still immortal, because she has left a mark on the world that will never be erased.

ADDENDUM:
For other examples of lives well-lived, see the following entries at Zyzmog Galactic HQ:
- Steven R. Covey
- Steve Jobs
- Ray Bradbury
- Mark Miller

Syria: and thus it begins

This week marked a major milestone in the nation of Syria. It has been exactly one year since the popular protests began, as part of the Arab Spring, and the government began its bloody crackdown. According to various news reports, Syrian military and paramilitary groups, acting under the direction of president Bashar Assad, have killed over 8,000 people since the protests began.

(Other reports say 9,000 and 10,000. Once you get into four figures, the accuracy of the numbers hardly matters anymore. By the way, is anyone keeping track of the names of the dead?)

The protests started as peaceful demonstrations in the streets. From the very beginning, they were met with clubs and bullets, with snipers and machine guns and torture and executions. Assad and his government thought that taking violent repressive (or was that supressive? opressive?) action at the beginning would silence the protests while they were still small, and frighten the people into obedience.

Welcome to the 21st century, Mr. Bashar Assad. You have been using 20th-century weapons against a people armed with smartphones, satellite communications, and so on. Your guns and bombs won't work anymore. All they will do is make a bloody mess out of innocent people, and bring about your own violent downfall.

As the world has watched in silent and not-so-silent anger and frustration, the government has continued its campaign of bloody repression. And Syrians rose up in anger. The protesters turned into armed rebels. Hundreds of members of the Syrian military refused the orders to fire on their countrymen, instead taking their weapons with them and crossing over to join the rebels. So far the government has had the upper hand, and it has continued to use that upper hand to crush the opposition

But all that changed yesterday.

At the beginning, the protesters were just calling for reform. They weren't interested in toppling the government, just changing some things they didn't like. After enough innocent people got killed, and bombed out of their homes, their calls changed from "reform" to "revolution." However, the rebels have always been outgunned and out-brutalized.

The rebels aren't the ones who laid seige to a town, bombarded it into rubble, then went in and tortured, raped, and killed the survivors. The rebels haven't chased anybody across the border, into refugee camps in neighboring states like Turkey. Nor have the rebels engaged in the use of land mines to kill innocent women and children trying to escape the terror. Again, the Assad government did all this, and just because the people had the gall to speak their minds.

Yesterday, the violence was laid at the government's doorstep.

Two suicide bombs, car bombs actually, exploded in the capital city of Damascus, only 30 minutes and a few miles apart. One struck the air force intelligence building, and one the criminal security building. According to reports, 27 civilians were killed in the twin blasts.

The government quickly blamed the rebels, calling them "terrorists" as it has in the past. The rebels responded with a quick "You're crazy," claiming that they don't have the resources it would take to assemble an attack as sophisticated as that, pointing out that killing civilians has never been part of their strategy, and suggesting that the government did it themselves and tried to blame the rebels.

(For what it's worth, I'm inclined to believe the rebels. They are armed, it's true, but only with handheld weapons and whatever the rebellious Syrian troops brought with them. Despite the rebels' pleas for outside assistance, they have gotten nothing from other nations. And besides, the rebels have literally, honestly, gone out of their way to protect civilians and foreigners from getting hurt.)

Somebody this week stole and published more than 3000 email messages exchanged by president Assad, his wife, and other top government officials. These messages reveal the depth of contempt that Assad has for  his people. He would just as soon kill all of them in order to shut them up, as swat an annoying fly. He laughed about his promised reforms, saying that he only announced them to shut the people up, and had no intention of following through with them. At first, the authenticity of these messages was (rightfully) doubted. But they have been verified by the (non-Syrian) senders and recipients of some of the messages.

The U.S. claims, based on its own intelligence-gathering networks, that the terrorist organization al-Qaida in Iraq is behind these attacks. They claim that al-Qaida have seized on the opportunity afforded by the government crackdown and the resulting confusion, to infiltrate Syria. I'm not as trusting of U.S. intelligence agencies as I used to be, but this claim has some merit. Al-Qaida don't care who they kill. And al-Qaida aren't opposed to killing their brother Muslims, in order to further their aims. And if al-Qaida can destabilize the Syrian government, then when the government falls they can rush in and exert control over Syria to whatever degree they want. To them, 27 civilians is a small price to pay. Pocket change, even.

And Israel is right next door to Syria.

So the battle has now reached the streets of Damascus, although it's unclear who's doing the fighting. In less than a year, the Assad government will fall. As in Iraq, his generals and bureaucrats will do their best to disappear into the landscape. As in Libya, his soldiers - the ones doing the killing and committing all the other atrocities - will shed their uniforms and try to blend into the surrounding crowd. It's not clear yet what will happen to Assad.

Will he seek asylum with one of his neighbors, as Idi Amin did?

Will he be arrested and tried by his own people, as Pervez Musharraf was? And executed, as Saddam Hussein was?

Will he be captured in the streets (fleeing the country, like a coward) and killed by an angry mob, as Muammar Gaddafi was?

It would have been so much different if Assad had seen the writing on the wall when the protests first began, if he had taken a lesson from what was happening in the other Arab states, paid attention to what the protesters were saying, and made some changes - for the better - in his nation. Had he done so, 8,000 innocent people would still be alive, there would be peace in the streets of Homs and Damascus, and Assad's days would not be numbered, as they now are.

He has lost his country, and he has forfeited his life. It's only a matter of time, and he has only himself to blame.

Word peeve: Could you care any less?

Are you one of the people who says, "I couldn't care less"? Or are you one of those who says, "I could care less"? (We'll talk about inside vs. outside punctuation another day.) Which is correct?

Well, let's consider the derivation of the phrase, as an extreme version of "I don't care."  It goes like this:

I don't care about it.

I really don't care about it. Not at all. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

In fact, I care so little about it that you can't even measure how little I care about it.

There is no way in this world I could possibly care any less about it, than I do right now. It's a mathematical impossibility. You can't care less than zero.

In other words, I couldn't care less.

That works for me. So what's the derivation of the other one? I dunno. All I can think of is this:

I don't care about it.

But if you argue with me, and insist that I do care, even a smidgen, then I could probably force myself to care even less, just to prove to you that I don't care. But it's not worth the effort.

Nope. It sounds too contrived to me. I'm sure they're both listed in the dictionary, just because the "could" one has been in use for over 50 years.

But I'll insist that it's still wrong, and I will kick until my feet are bloody against this cursed evolution of the English language. I know that none of you care. In fact, you probably couldn't care any less.

My feet are all bloody, and nobody cares. *sob*

Thursday, March 15, 2012

ProFlightSimulator: Getting to the Bottom of the Scam

I think I might know who's behind ProFlightSimulator. I found some interesting clues in an independent statistical report about this blog.

In doing research for a June 7, 2011 blog entry, I found that the PFS website was registered to a Cody Moya, of Short Hills, New Jersey. I didn't think much about it, as a lot of people use bogus entities to register their websites.

But today's statistical report showed that someone had come across my blog by searching for the keywords "cody moya scams." Seeing that name for a second time, especially associated with the word "scams," got my radar buzzing. So I tried the Web search myself.

As the plumber said about the clogged toilet in the cathedral: Holy crap.

It turns out that Moya makes a living out of repackaging and reselling free software. His wares are advertised using websites with a tone and style frighteningly similar to the tone and style of all the PFS websites we've seen. He is not without his detractors or enemies, however. A lot of people have written a lot of stuff about him, none of it good. According to these writers, once he gets your email address, he will send you an endless stream of email trying to sell you more stuff - and once he gets your money, you will never see it again. There's also some speculation that "Cody Moya" isn't a real person - kind of like "Dan Freeman" of PFS.

Here are some comments left on http://www.imreportcard.com/people/cody-moya:
"Products sold on his site are mostly owned by others and are of rather dubious quality. Give your Address mail to sign on as myself and I had to change my mail address because I was constantly bombarded with spam several times a day, otherwise your inbox will become a landfill of spam."
"I think this Cody Moya is not real, and you know everyday my email is full with his offers of spam email, and that is very disgusting. Also his product is a junky product and very, very worthless and I think this guy is a scammer. "

Two years before I ran across his name, an entry on The Scammers Manifesto reported that Cody Moya was nothing but a scammer. It's a short piece, worth reading for yourself.

And here's some of Moya's own advice, from one of his own blog entries called "Churning out eZine Content": (redirected from http://www.codymoya.com)

"Another little known and underused method in getting your own content is via public domains. If you are not familiar with the term “public domain”, “public domain” simply means anything that is NOT protected under US copyright law.

This includes ALL works published before 1923 and, under certain conditions, works published up to 1978. And in this case, we are referring “works” to written materials such as reports, articles and books. Republishing and repackaging public domain information can help you save time and effort from creating new ideas and content as they are readily available. On top of that, you do not have to pay royalties or copyright fees on that work.

If you fancy the idea of publishing content without any writing on your part, this method is for you."

I haven't yet figured out the connection yet between Cody Moya and ProFlightSimulator, but the similarities are convincing: a loudmouthed huckster, carefully hiding his identity and contact information, repackaging free software, hyping it and selling it for as much as he can get away with, then running away with the suckers' money. It's a 21st-century version of a con game as old as civilization.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Raspberry Pi rollout: I'm irritated but I still want one

News reports that the new Raspberry Pi single-board computer sold out in minutes are inaccurate. The first batch of 10,000 units sold out in seconds, not minutes. According to actual data collected by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Farnell/Newark/Element14, and RS Online/Allied Electronics, projected demand was about 100,000 units (10X supply), and actual demand was 1,000,000 units (100X supply, and 10X projected demand). The rush of people worldwide trying to buy one brought the Farnell and RS servers to their knees. It looked like a DDoS attack on the servers. It was the electronic equivalent of shoppers rioting at a toy store.

I think that the Foundation knew something big was going to happen, but they had no idea it would be this big. And they were unable to convince their new partners to take their advance warnings seriously. The Foundation and their commercial partners deserve some measure of the scorn that has been heaped upon them.

But they also deserve all of the applause that they've gotten. Why? Because the RasPi is a revolutionary idea  world-changing, even  and the real thing looks like a fantastic product. This is something that's never been tried before. Although the RasPi was aimed at teachers and students, interest in it has gone way beyond that intended market. The Foundation is new at this sort of thing, and they will make several more mistakes before they get it right. But I have confidence that will learn as they go, and they'll eventually get it right. And one day, eventually, (as soon as possible!) I will own a RasPi.

Until then, I remain irritated.

  • Irritated that I couldn't get one on the first day.
  • Irritated that the reason I couldn't get one was because of the mistakes of others.
  • Irritated that the http://www.raspberrypi.org/ website doesn't work during daylight hours in North America.
  • Irritated that I can't even order one right now. (And neither can anybody else.)

But I'll get over it. And I wish them luck.

UPDATE, 12 MARCH 2012: Over the weekend, the website was moved to a different server. Now I can get it day or night, all week long. Cross off irritation number 3, and thank raspberrypi.org and their hosting partner.

UPDATE, 15 MARCH 2012: I had written that actual demand was 1,000,000 units. That was based on the initial data collected on the first day of sales. Now we have some updated numbers. Based on those who "registered an interest" with their two distributors, actual demand exceeds 2,000,000 units. Granted, many, if not all, of those are people (like me) who registered with both distributors, but from what I've read, most potential customers (like me) want to buy multiple units. So I think that the "more than 2,000,000" figure is accurate.