August, 2019

Microsoft opens public bug database for IE 7 and beyond

Microsoft has announced the launch of a new site dedicated to public feedback for Internet Explorer 7 and future versions. The Internet Explorer Feedback site is open to anybody who wishes to report issues and log bugs, or just leave comments or feature suggestions for future versions. This sort of feedback is new for Internet Explorer, and the web site explains the reasons for the change:HangZhou Night Net

“Many customers have asked us about having a better way to enter IE bugs. It is asked ‘Why don’t you have Bugzilla like Firefox or other groups do?’ We haven’t always had a good answer except it is something that the IE team has never done before. After much discussion on the team, we’ve decided that people are right and that we should have a public way for people to give us feedback or make product suggestions. We wanted to build a system that is searchable and can benefit from the active community that IE has here.”

The site is run using the Microsoft Connect feedback engine, used by both internal and public Microsoft beta programs. Signing in requires a Passport account—which most people will recognize as their account info for Hotmail and MSN Messenger, but is also used at Microsoft for things such as MSDN subscriptions. Once you’ve entered your Passport info, the site requires that the user fills in some personal details, then there is a there is a long legal disclaimer screen, and finally the user is presented with a list of possible projects to “apply” for, one of them being the Internet Explorer 7 beta.

The site is organized fairly simply, with a search bar for finding existing bugs and a list of the “top” bugs in the product at the moment, as well as a list of related articles for the product. Each bug is given a rating, validation by other testers, and a comments section. While there are still relatively few people actively using the site (most bugs have around 30 to 40 votes and fewer than ten comments) the activity is expected to rise as the product nears completion. The site is cleaner and somewhat easier to navigate than Mozilla’s Bugzilla page, although it is a much more laborious process to get access (reading bugs requires no login at all on Mozilla’s site).

So how useful are public bug databases in creating a good quality software product? Opinion varies wildly on the issue. Many open-source projects use these databases for generating feedback (many of these projects also use Bugzilla), but some people have commented about the difficulties encountered when using public forums for large-scale projects. Useful feedback can often be lost under a morass of poorly written, emotionally charged posts. Companies with professional testers report that the general public will typically find only the most obvious bugs, and often fail to accurately describe the procedures for recreating them.

Still, for a product such as a web browser that is expected to work properly with all the millions of strange and wonderful web pages out in the wild, a place for public feedback may uncover problems that in-house testers failed to find. As well, the existence of such a site presents a more open face of the IE development process, which may be helpful in reversing the public’s perception of Internet Explorer as a stagnant product.

Global warming and hurricanes

Shortly after hurricane Katrina struck some
people started to blame particular hurricane events on global
warming. Most climate
scientists do not support such claims since climate models provide a window
into average climate conditions that will, in general, change the rate and
intensity of extreme events, rather than making predictions about specific
events. What we do know is that climate
models provide a strong link between greenhouse gases and warmer ocean surface
temperatures. It is also well understood
that hurricanes and tropical storms flourish over warm waters.HangZhou Night Net

Several studies have shown that hurricane frequency and intensity has been steadily increasing for the last 25 years. Scientists from Georgia Tech * have attempted to link this with various climate variables. They examined ocean surface temperatures, humidity and wind conditions using satellite data collected from 1970 to 2004. Analyzing data of this sort is extremely complex since it is an intrinsically multi-variable system. However, using statistical methods derived from information theory they were able to show that ocean temperature was the strongest predictor of hurricane frequency and intensity. At this point someone will usually point out that correlation != causation, however, the mechanisms for generating hurricanes are fairly well understood, especially in terms of the role of surface ocean temperature. In this case it is fair to say that the link they have discovered really only confirms what we already knew.

Climate modeling and our understanding of physical and chemical atmospheric processes provide a strong link between greenhouse gases and ocean surface temperatures. Thus it appears that some of the doom-saying is in fact coming true and that there are more serious consequences than a rising sea level associated with global warming.

*=press report, I could not read the ScienceExpress article

The slow approach of the self-driving car

I know a number of people for whom the coolest part of Minority Report was the highway full of futuristic, self-driving cars. (For my part, I was more into the jet packs, but whatever.) The 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, in which a computer-controlled VW Touareg successfully navigated 132 miles of desert, was the first step in such a driverless future, and a new EET feature article outlines many of the intervening steps that it will take to bring fully autonomous vehicles to a highway near you. HangZhou Night Net

The plan appears to be progressive automation, in which computers slowly take charge of different parts of the driving experience over the course of the next two or three decades. Right now, computers adaptively tweak things like steering and suspension, and before long they’ll be slamming on the brakes for you when the in-car radar detects an imminent, unavoidable collision. Eventually, a car’s computer and sensor array will allow you to place the vehicle on autopilot so that you can read the morning paper during the commute to work.

At any rate, you’ll want to check out the article, which talks to a number of experts in the field to get a sense of how and on what timetable self-driving vehicles will arrive.

Braking factors: liability, safety, cost

As the article mentions in passing, redundancy will be critical. I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see military-style triple-redundancy, where each critical system is backed up by two other completely different implementations that were designed in isolation from each other, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see something pretty close. The main reason is liability.

If I’m cruising at 75mph in the 2019 Honda WireDrive SUV and one crucial part of the car’s complex nervous system of electronics fails, causes me to veer into the oncoming lane, and sets off a 20-car pile-up, all of the passengers in all 20 of the cars will sue one Honda—not me—for fifty hojillion yuan (that’s about US$500 million in today’s currency, accounting for inflation and for the fact that in 2019 we’ll all be using the currency of our Chinese economic overlords).

Automakers will want to be 100 percent certain that when they take over for themselves the accident liability risk from the driver, their systems are not to blame for any property damage or loss of life. And in this respect, I think liability and safety issues, and not raw technical challenges, will probably be the main factor determining the pacing of the rollout of these autonomous driving technologies. When the first fully autonomous cars hit the road, it probably won’t be because completely autonomous driving has just now become technically possible, but because automakers were finally able to provide the necessary redundancy at a low enough cost.

Speaking of redundancy, I also expect that autonomous vehicles’ internal networks of sensors and processors will expand to include nearby cars in a kind of ad-hoc wireless mesh. Your car will be get a heads-up when the vehicle three cars ahead spots an obstacle in the lane, and it’ll take appropriate action. So when you pull onto the Interstate, you’ll also join a giant, roving, ad-hoc mesh network that includes hundreds of other cars, as well as government traffic systems, emergency and police vehicles, etc. And who knows—maybe the people in the car next to you will be up for a pick-up game of DNF deathmatch over the inter-vehicular network.

Mobile phone exam cheating on the rise in England

According to a new study from England’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), the number of students in the country who are using mobile phones to cheat on exams is rising fast:HangZhou Night Net

“Over recent years we have seen a noticeable rise in the number of mobile-phone related incidents in examination halls across the country,” said QCA Chief Executive Ken Boston.

The report found that over 4,500 students were penalized for cheating during the last round of A-level (pre-university exams) and GCSE (high school) tests, up 27 percent over last year. Of these incidents, candidates caught with mobile phones accounted for nearly a quarter of the offences.

Because of the rise of mobile phone cheating during exams, students are instructed not to bring them into exam rooms, and advised to leave them at home if possible. Students can currently be docked marks or even failed for simply having a mobile phone during exams, whether they use them to cheat or not.

The good news is that the overall number of students who are penalized remains low, with less than one incident for every 1,500 exams written. Other offenses included plagiarism, disruptive behavior, failing to follow the invigilator’s instructions, and cheating using more traditional methods.

Cheating has been a problem for examiners as long as there have been exams, but does the rise of wireless technology present a special problem for education? Traditional mobile phones would not be much use for in-exam cheating, but being able to text or SMS your friend who wrote the same exam yesterday (or last year) would be a much more discreet method of cheating. However, educators can adjust in much the same way as they did to the cheating possibilities provided by programmable calculators: by simply not allowing them to be used.

Is the rise of mobile phone cheating indicative of a larger societal problem? Already there are some concerns about the fact that today’s generation of gadget-obsessed kids may sacrifice concentration and accuracy to the holy grail of multitasking. However, the low percentages of cheating seem to indicate that the traditional examination is not under an immediate threat. What will happen to the education system when students get Google feeds directly implanted into their visual cortex is, of course, another question.

Two new Internet phone services step up to the plate

If you’re someone who loves to use the Internet to connect your voice to someone else’s ears, two more options have become available. As with so many things online, the mature business model for voice over IP (VoIP) has yet to really solidify, and we currently seem to be in a state of affairs in which, if a service doesn’t yet exist that offers what you want, you can wait five minutes and one will come along.HangZhou Night Net

With that in mind, both Jajah and Lycos Phone offer slightly different takes (and business models) on how to use those dandy little IP packets to magically scoot your voice around the world. Here’s a quick breakdown of what they have to offer:

Jajah

Jajah began life last summer as an Australian-based PC-to-phone service. It was cheap, and the users that migrated to the company liked that aspect, but it never achieved much popularity. It didn’t take long for the founders of Jajah to realize that there’s only so far a company can go in a price war before competition from better-funded rivals drives it out of business. With that in mind, they decided to redesign their service to make it simple for a user with any phone to make VoIP calls with little more than a link to a web page. Because the interface is web-based, anyone with a browser can access it.

The Jajah paradigm works like this: a user with an account logs into the Jajah web site and enters the phone number he or she would like to call, along with the phone number of the phone (landline or mobile) they’d like to use. Jajah then dials the user’s phone. Once connected, Jajah dials the remote phone. When the remote phone is answered, Jajah connects the two phones using VoIP.

As an introductory offer, Jajah is currently allowing US users to call a number almost anywhere in the world for up to five minutes for free with no registration. I gave it a try, and it seemed to work well.

Lycos Phone

Lycos is perhaps best known as the search engine that isn’t Google or Yahoo or AOL or MSN. It is also not Alta Vista, Excite, or any of another dozen also-rans. Lycos had its greatest success in the pre-Google age, and would like nothing more than to find something it does well enough to attract a decent quantity of users back to the service, or lacking that, uncover a way of packaging all of its portal offerings to turn it into a convenient one-stop for ‘Net surfers.

To that end, the company has unveiled Lycos Phone. Lycos Phone works only through a computer, and requires a client application and some type of speaker/microphone combination. Currently, only a Windows version of Lycos Phone is available, but support for other operating systems is planned for the future.

True to its portal roots, the Lycos Phone application ties in streaming video, MP3s, search features, ads (which can be viewed to earn free minutes), faxes, and even video calls. The service also provides the user with a phone number which can be used to receive calls from non-VoIP phones.

Bundling aside, Lycos Phones still falls short of a service like Skype in a few areas. For one thing, Lycos keeps you tethered to the PC, whereas Skype provides the fee-based option of forwarding your call to any non-VoIP phone. Skype also provides conference call capability, and Skype already offers Mac, Linux, and Pocket PC support.

Both of these services offer somewhat different methods of saving money by bypassing the regular phone companies’ connection charges in favor of VoIP. In so doing, they join a host of competitors like Vonage, Skype, and others offering similar services. Of the two, Lycos has a bit too much bundling going on for my taste. Jajah is cleaner and simpler, but both suffer from the fact that it’s hard to surpass the ease of use of a regular phone. The cost savings is nice, but even Jajah appears to be most useful as a long-distance alternative. You might as well make local calls the regular way. As always, your mileage may vary, and if you don’t like any of your VoIP options, wait five more minutes.

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