Thursday, March 16, 2006

Upgrading memory

I have to give the Staples guy credit for the idea of going on eBay to find Rambus memory to upgrade a Dell workstation. I went into our local Staples and he tried to find compatible memory for my machine. If you buy the memory from Dell it is almost double the cost. Instead I used "Buy-It-Now" on eBay to get an additional 256Kb of RAM for an older Dell Dimension 8200.

Here is a nice little memory testing program. An alternative open source program called memtest86 is located here. When you run the downloaded program it creates a bootable image on a floppy disk or CD, which is then used to boot the computer under test.

So far, my eBay memory looks fine. I'm going to upgrade a couple other machines as well. The combination of running Symantec Anti-Virus 10, with the Microsoft Anti-Spam program appears to be putting several older marginal machines (256 of memory) over the edge. The symptoms are either full crashes when several programs are open, or else a lot of extra disk activity as the memory is swapped in and out. A memory upgrade appears to help.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Excel, the other office application

I've been spending some time in Excel lately, doing budgets and projections. Excel easily passes the five minute test, but I can't say that I've gone much beyond adding up columns and rows using the SUM() function. I have friends though, that live in Excel, using it to produce all their reports, with graphs and color. A couple of items surfaced recently:

  • XLQ. XLQ is an Excel plug-in function that goes and finds stock prices (and a whole lot more) using free on-line stock services like Yahoo Finance. Although you can get a free plugin from Microsoft which does this, it also brings in several extraneous rows of information, including advertising. XLQ, by contrast puts the price in a single cell. For example, to get the current price of Apple stock, you would put =XLQPrice('APPL') as a cell formula, and the current (or 15 minute delayed) price would appear.

  • While browsing in B&N the other day, I came across a book by Stephen Few, Information Dashboard Design This seemed like a very elegant book by someone who obviously has spent considerable time figuring out ways to deliver a lot of summary information in effective ways. Think Tufte for the 21st century. However, the book was short on software ideas. But over at ExcelUser, there is a ton of material about using Excel to create dashboards. It looks like a very good place to start.

update: 3/16
Here is a nice set of Excel tutorials from Clemson University.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Sharing an inexpensive printer on the network

I had a request the other day, to share a Hewlett Packard All-In-One. I think the unit is a predecessor to the HP 2575. Inexpensive ($150.00), the unit prints with a color inkjet, and includes a scanner. It was the scanner in particular, that people wanted to share within the office, although they were also pleased at the idea of being able to print to a color printer.

When I hear about sharing a scanner, my first thought is to have them share a scanner on a networked copier. Imagistics and Xerox both have this option, and it works very well. But in this case, we had a cheap printer/scanner, that connected to a Windows XP desktop machine through a USB port.

The second idea would be to share the unit via the Windows XP sharing mechanism, to others on the network. This works reasonably well for sharing printers, but I was not aware that it would share the scanner function as well...absent some kind of networked scanner software and extra functionality built into the unit.

So I looked into networked scanners, and found a very nice HP Scanner for $400 or so which included networked scanning. But this was like hitting a tack with a sledgehammer.

We finally settled on a nifty device called the Keyspan USB Server. In their own words:

The USB Server makes it possible for USB printers, USB scanners and other USB devices to be used and shared across your network. It is ideal for home office, small office or classroom use!

The USB Server supports both Ethernet and Wi-Fi networks -- making it easy to use USB devices from a Wi-Fi based laptop!

We attaching our little printer to this thing, installed the print drivers on each workstation and voila! instantly were able to scan to any workstation on the network.

If you've installed printer servers on a network, (like the Intel Netport) this is a similar kind of thing for USB devices. It requires a small memory-resident program to be present on each workstation which uses the device.

Recommended at $104.00 from Amazon.

Small Business Innovation Research Grants

We have been down a rabbit hole the past several weeks, working on our small business innovation grant (SBIR) application. This is a program which requires all U.S. agencies to send 2.5% of their budget for outside funding to U.S. small businesses. The program is in two phases: Phase I is nominally for $100,000 for six months, and Phase II is nominally for $750,000 and two years. However, it varies by agency. In our case, we are partnering with the local university, and indeed, the Uni received almost 80% of the funds from the Phase I grant. However, they also brought us the idea so we can't complain too loudly. If your non-profit organization has a research project, and you need to subcontract the work to an outside company, the SBIR program might indeed be something to look at.

We were awarded a Phase I grant from the National Institutes of Health, Institute on Aging for our feasibility study on home-based telemedicine. The project involved installing a videoconferencing unit in our study subject's homes, and conducting a home-based exercise class. Our target population were senior patients who had fallen or who had a fear of falling. We conducted a 15 week exercise class with two sets of study subjects, using multi-point video. We could see them and they could see us, and they could at times see each other, so it was very much like a "real" class.

We did pre and post testing of our subjects, and found, in general, that they improved their balance, strength, and well-being in ways that were similar to, or even better than similar subjects who participated in a live class. We're now applying for a second phase grant, where we'll do a formal controlled study to compare participants of a home class with those who participate in a live class.

This has been a real eye-opener to me, as the business partner, the boxes-and-wires guy, into the whole realm of scientific research, academic journals, the NIH, and US government funded research. What is interesting to me is that I had no idea of how this is really done, even though the public reads every week about some new drug study, or finding about drinking coffee, or the efficacy of osteoporosis drugs. Pick up a copy of Prevention magazine, or any of the Rodale publications like Bicycling or Men's Health, and you'll read about a clinical study which shows that ....blah blah blah.

SBIR grants cover all government agencies, not just NIH. EPA, Department of Defence, Department of Education, NOAA, NASA, all are required to participate in the SBIR program. Particularly in health care, education, and environmental studies, there might be a connection for your agency.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Screwed Again. What Happened to Net Neutrality?

A series of individual events may seem insignificant when viewed in isolation, but becomes highly significant when viewed together. Now that cable companies and telcos have consolidated their near monopoly status (again!), there are new attempts to "stratify" the internet.
The first report comes from Canada. Users there of the Shaw cable broadband service report that using Vonage has become difficult or impossible, and that Shaw is now attempting to charge an additional "quality of service" surchage of CDN $10.00/month for users who want Vonage service (which competes with a similar Shaw-provided Shaw Digital Phone). According to Shaw:
Quality of service issues do not apply to Shaw Digital Phone because Shaw Digital Phone operates on its own separate, managed network. Voice traffic distributed along this network is never shared with public Internet networks, so you can be confident Shaw Digital Phone will deliver the service reliability and performance you expect. As an added safeguard, Shaw Digital Phone includes its own QoS Enhancement feature.
Uhuh. However, it seems that plenty of people in the rest of the world have managed to have acceptable VoIP service using their standard broadband connections. We get 30-frame-per-second video for heaven's sake. Furthermore, most calls are going to end up leaving the Shaw network anyway to be terminated at some other endpoint...putting the traffic on the internet regardless of the shaw "end-to-end separate managed network". This sounds like a blatent attempt to dictate what users run on their broadband connection. More on this one at ipdemocracy.

The second example was a statement from Deutsche Telekom that internet content providers such as Google and Amazon should pay extra for super-fast internet access. This echoed similar statements made lately by BellSouth and AT&T.

Here's what I don't get: The entire success of the Internet has been predicated on equal access for everyone. That's how startup companies like eBay and Amazon got going...and frankly that is how the Bell companies, who are merrily consolidating back into themselves, and the cable companies who are doing the same, managed to avoid bankruptcy. So why is this trend a good idea? What ever happened to the notion of a "common carrier" which separates the delivery medium from the content. As soon as my cable company starts providing me specialized content over my cable broadband connection, there is an inherent conflict of interest. And since most of the U.S. is already highly uncompetitive as far as broadband with one or at most two possible providers, we're already paying monopolistic pricing, stuck with poor service, and living with blocked ports and bizarre useage restrictions.

Or as Doc Searles quotes Bob Frankston on the reemergence of the notion of net neutrality:

It's simple.

The Internet has won. Why negotiate terms of surrender?

We mustn't settle for negotiating "Net Neutrality". We must demand the basic right to connect and not just an enumerated list of what we are allowed to do. It's no different from having to negotiate free speech by listing what is allowed. Having to beg for permission to speak is offensive.

What we need is very simple: a recognition that Internet-style connectivity is our right as fundamental infrastructure just like the roads are. We can share them like the roads or power lines.

Back to my original idea...that taken separately these incidents may seem insignficant. But, look at the whole collapse of the 1996 telecom deregulation decision by the FCC. Remember CLECS? Competitive Local Exchange Carriers? They were squashed by the Bell operating companies.
If we're not careful, the whole thing is going to happen again. And we're going to end up with haves and have-nots, "tiered" services...120 channels and still nothing to watch.