My Soliloquy


I read recently that a blog is often like a soliloquy.

so·lil·o·quy n., 1.a. A dramatic or literary form of discourse in which a character reveals his or her thoughts when alone or unaware of the presence of other characters. b. A specific speech or piece of writing in this form of discourse. 2. The act of speaking to oneself.

That fits the description of this blog :-). I’m essentially talking to myself, and sometimes I go back into the archives and see what I was thinking about at some point in time. I have virtually no subscribers on Bloglines or Newsgator and no links on Technorati, yet my RSS feed for this blog is one of my most frequently accessed files according to my web access logs. It’s hard to explain. I can generally find the topic I’ve blogged about on Google just a few days after I’ve made the entry, so I guess search engines like RSS feeds, and people who read this blog are finding it through searching on topics.

Today I checked out the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, a website founded by Brewster Kahle to archive the whole Internet. I was stunned to find my very first attempt to create web pages unmercifully stored in the archive for the rest of the world to see (from AOL, no less!).

The Internet has always struck me as an ephemeral medium, with stories that age off systems, websites that go away completely, broken links, and people who come and go. The fact that someone is trying to take periodic snapshots of it and store it away for posterity is absolutely mind boggling to me. I’d heard about this service many times, but never thought to go out and see if any of my stuff was on it. I figured, quite incorrectly as it turns out, that only important websites would be archived but I found that there were even a few of my @home pages tucked away in its archive. I found blog posts from many years ago sitting out there by people whose blogs never even had archives. I knew from previous experience with Usenet that it’s generally not a good idea to post anything on the Internet that you didn’t want to haunt you for the rest of you life, but I didn’t think that what I put on my own website would fall into that category. After all, I’m the webmaster of my domain and I can make things disappear. But not with the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine! It can store every embarrassing thing you’ve ever written and serve it out to anyone with enough curiosity to sift through its data banks.

It doesn’t appear to be complete, but there’s enough information on there to be used to piece together what a site looked like as many as 10 years ago. It’s hard to imagine what it would cost to host and maintain a server farm that is basically trying to back up the entire web. According to Wikipedia, it takes on petabyte of storage and is growing at about 20 terabytes per month!

So go ahead, write what you want on the Internet, but know that there is a veritable Akashic Record being stored of it somewhere…and it’s beyond your control to erase any of it.

U3 Smart Drive


I recently discovered a new type of USB flash memory device called a U3 smart drive that has the potential change the way that people use PCs. I won one of these on a TechPodcast RoundTable a few weeks ago. Now that I’ve had a chance to use it for a while, I figured I’d write up a review about it.

‘U3’ is a company formed as a joint venture by two flash memory industry leaders, SanDisk and M-Systems. The U3 smart drives make data and programs completely portable between PCs. When you plug the U3 drive into any Windows PC, it carries its own ‘environment’ and makes even borrowed PCs look and feel like they’ve been instantly ‘personalized’.

The U3 smart drive concept takes advantage of the fact that most people use PCs for email, document creation/editing, and web browsing. Imagine that programs, documents, email, and web browser settings were stored on a flash drive that could be securely locked with a password. It would be possible to use even a borrowed PC just like it was your own. When you eject the drive there’d be no trace of activity left on the PC. You could then take it to another PC and start working right where you left off.

Software downloaded for the U3 installs directly on the device, not on the PC. So instead of purchasing applications and installing them on every PC you might use, you can just insert and run the program directly from the U3 flash drive.

Programs that run on a U3 device can be specially modified so as not to use the PC’s registry or leave temporary files. A free SDK is available for software vendors wishing to adapt their programs. A large number of software applications have already been ported, such as OpenOffice, Skype, Thunderbird, Firefox, as well as lot of handy utilities to help sync data between the PC and the U3 drive. Many of the programs are either free or available for a nominal fee. There are over 70 applications available, with more becoming available all the time.

A common question people ask is whether their existing flash drive can be ‘formatted’ to have U3 features. This isn’t possible because the functions are embedded in the hardware. The U3 controller chip causes the device to behave as a combination CD-ROM emulator and flash drive. The CD-ROM emulator includes an auto-launch program that takes only a small portion (~4MB) of the flash. The auto-launch program prompts the user for a password to unlock the rest of the drive (provided he has set a password). Once that part of the drive is unlocked, a small U3 icon will appear in the system tray.

Clicking on the U3 icon in the system tray brings up the U3 Launchpad, as shown below:

U3 LaunchPad

The left side of the launch pad shows the programs on the drive. The right side has all the management utilities for the device. U3 also allows the manufacturer to private brand the drive with logos and links to their websites. In the case of the drive shown in the above Launchpad, Geek Squad (BestBuy) is the reseller brand. Clicking on either of those GeekSquad logos takes you to Best Buy’s GeekSquad website.

Installing programs on the U3 drives is very easy. Just click on the download programs icon and select from any of dozens of the programs and they will automatically download and install themselves. There is also a way to use a U3 installer file and add it through the Add Programs menu item.

Of course, there is always some downside to new technology and a review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention them. First of all, if you lock the device with a password, you can’t use it to move data to non-Windows platforms such as Mac or Linux computers. In addition, the programs installed on a U3 drive will only execute on a Windows PC, so the people who use Mac and Linux computers can’t take advantage of its most salient feature, i.e., executing programs directly from the flash drive. A customer can use it to share data with non-Windows systems, provided they unlock it first.

If you forget the password, there’s no way to retrieve the data (although it can provide a password hint). This security feature also means that if you were to lose the device, there are no worries about having any personal data stolen.

Currently, the largest U3 device available is 2GB, but this will continue to grow as flash drives get larger. Until flash drives got to be around 512 MB, a U3 smart drive wouldn’t have been a practical solution because of the space needed to hold applications. However, as flash drives continue to grow, its value becomes more and more compelling. The Office-like suites can take up about 200 MB each, but most of the other programs that run on these drives are only a few MB and take up only a small percentage of its capacity. It probably wouldn’t work well for very large applications like Adobe’s Photoshop or Illustrator but it will hold data from those applications, so if they are already installed on a PC, then the U3 smart drive can work with them and move data between computers like a conventional flash drive.

After using the device for a few weeks, I really appreciate the value in it. For the first time ever, my bookmarks on Firefox and IE on 4 separate computers are completely synchronized. I’ve gotten to experiment with some new MS Office-like alternatives, and the small size of the flash drive sets a new bar for portability. I’m also impressed with the RoboForm password manager that automatically recalls and fills in passwords on any website that requires them. At first, I was reluctant to commit sensitive data like passwords to anything other than my memory, but after using it for a while, and realizing that the passwords are encrypted and double password protected, I’m really enjoying the convenience of having them all entered automatically. It’s one of those applications which, once you’ve started using it, is hard to give up.

It’s impossible to predict the future, so there’s no way to know whether you’re reading about at an interesting curiosity, or “The Next Big Thing.” I’ve long contemplated a time where instead of lugging around a laptop computer, I could just securely connect with my data and programs on a shared PC with a real keyboard, mouse, and display. To a certain extent, the Internet has allowed some of this to occur, but it has security, availability, and performance issues that may never be completely resolved. To insure security and performance, a physical storage device along with a password will likely be required into the foreseeable future. The U3 device is well positioned to deliver these essential features.

Airplanes, Motorcycles, and Ham Radio


I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts yesterday on the way to work, the Slashdot Review Podcast, and heard the host, Andy McCaskey, mention my name in conjunction with his Frappr page. Frappr is a sort of ‘mashup’ application that utilizes Google maps to allow you to put a virtual pin in a map so you others can see where listeners are located. Many podcasters are adding this feature to their websites. The nice thing about it is that you can add some text, a weblink, and even a picture. Andy’s comment was that I was pilot-in-command of ‘something’, because I had posted the picture you can see on my webpage sitting in the cockpit of the LongEZ on to his Frappr map. Andy also mentioned that it was time to get out the ultralight and the ‘geezer bike’. I guess he also has these two essential interests that a lot of technology enthusiasts tend to share… airplanes and motorcycles. The trifecta is when you are also a ham radio operator, particularly if you have a domain that is your ham (vanity) callsign.

It’s not the first time I’ve been mentioned on a Podcast. My name has come up on KenRadio several times and it’s always a thrill to hear one’s own name mentioned ‘on the air’, so to speak. It’s like having 15 milliseconds of fame. I usually take off my headphones if Terri is around, backup the program a few seconds, and let her listen to it as well. If that isn’t the definition of vanity, I don’t know what is.

I’ve been exchanging some emails with my friend, Dr. Curt Smith, who I usually park next to at Oshkosh each year. Curt is my ‘Minister of Information’ because he knows so much about so many things. Curt recently discovered this blog while searching on the Internet for the term ‘LongEZ‘. We get along great because we share similar interests in airplanes and motorcycles. Today he mentioned that he’s had a ham radio license since 1959! Another trifecta! I feel like the ink is still wet on mine since I’ve only had it for 30 years :-). We don’t agree on everything, since we both have different political affiliations and are alumni of rivals schools in the Big 10 conference. But I have to admire Curt’s commitment to his alma mater because of his recently acquired OSU tattoo which definitely trumps my closet full of Penn State regalia.