Entries in Information technology (25)

The war's over, you can buy Blu-Ray now....

Posted on Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 11:44AM by Registered CommenterScott McPherson in , | Comments7 Comments

blu-ray.jpgJust a quick note on the eventual demise of the HD-DVD format.  As you probably know, the high definition DVD market is plagued with two competing and non-compatible formats:  Toshiba's HD-DVD, and Sony's Blu-Ray.  HD-DVD is unbelievable, and Blu-Ray is equally awe-inspiring.  The technology basically allows a thinner, more precise laser beam to put many times more information onto a DVD disc.  Thus, you can get much richer video (more information stored on disc) and, in an increasing number of films, uncompressed audio.  I own a Blu-Ray player and HDTV courtesy of my wife (well, we gave each other the stuff for Christmas), and this has directly affected my ability to churn out quality blogs in real time!  In other words, I find myself sitting on my behind more often, watching things like "3:10 to Yuma" or "2001: A Space Odyssey" in Blu-Ray with my mouth and eyes wide open, amazed that I finally have motion picture quality exceeding that of a movie theatre in my own home.

But I digress.  Sony, hurt badly several times by losses incurred (both moral and financial) due to bad strategery with formats in the past (recall the VHS vs. beta battle in the 1980s and other, more recent A/V muckups), wised up this time and got in step with their usual competitor, Philips.  Thus was Blu-Ray DVD born, and the format is truly spectacular.  Sony also lined up five major motion picture studios to back the product.

In contrast, Toshiba lined up Paramount and Universal to support HD-DVD.  Universal was HD-DVD-specific.Paramount had been making hi-def DVDs in both formats, but last year decided to move to HD-DVD exclusively. 

Bad decision. 

Warner Brothers, whose films account for about 20% of all titles, had also been licensing in both formats.  But, due in no small part to what they see as an inevitable recession with resulting timidity in the buying public, along with a recognition of superior marketing by Blu-Ray, announced several days ago that WB would be Blu-Ray-specific by mid-2008.  This announcement was quickly followed by two business partners, New Line Cinema and HBO Films.

Universal's exclusive HD-DVD contract with Toshiba expired on New Years Day.  It is anticipated that Universal will also jump on board the Blu-Ray bandwagon sometime this year and start releasing films in the format.

So here's what you can look for:

A long, slow roll to oblivion for HD-DVD.  Dropping prices, coupled with frantic efforts to lure smaller boutique studios to their format.  Probably won't happen, since those smaller studios desperately need cash, and Blu-Ray is the ticket.  Also look for better and better bundles from HD-DVD and Toshiba.

Meanwhile, Sony is in the process of licensing Blu-Ray technology to more and more manufacturers (something they did NOT do in the VHS-Beta war).  This will allow more players, which will cut prices, which will increase demand for movies in Blu-Ray.

The Blu-Ray Disc (BD) marketing people are also now smelling blood, and moving in for the kill with great sales and specials on titles.  For example, Amazon has been running a buy one, get one free BD special on selected titles, and offering huge price cuts on BD discs as well.  Best Buy has been selling AFI classics like Goodfellas and Deliverance for $14.99 on BD, and has been running its own Buy One, get One Free Blu-Ray specials online.

This, in turn, will put even more pressure on Toshiba to reduce prices.  But the tide has officially turned, and unless Toshiba can come up with a huge innovation, or make HD-DVD movies as cheap to buy as standard DVD, the format is doomed. 

But do not wait until then to get on the bandwagon for Blu-Ray.  The format is so impressive, you are truly  doing your eyes and ears a disservice by NOT moving to high-def now, today, absolutely this minute!  I use two Websites to evaluate the auality of individual Blu-ray discs:  http://www.blu-ray.com/ and http://bluray.highdefdigest.com/ .  If a disc gets reviews for quality of video and audio with both of these sites' reviewers, I get the disc.  That is not to say I would go out and splurge $30 on a Blu-Ray of Superbad, for example.  But if I thought "McLovin" would be any funnier in HD, I might be tempted.

So get out there and move to Blu-Ray with confidence that your butt will be completely numb for months to come.  Eye and ear candy of the highest magnitude.

Why telecommuting will probably fail in a pandemic, Vol. 1

slow%20internet.jpgHas anyone noticed their Internet connection slowing down over the past few days?

Has anyone not noticed the slowness of the Internet, especially at night?

E-commerce retailers are experiencing a huge surge in shoppers this holiday season.  And nowhere is this more evident than in the (in)ability of users to expeditiously shop on their favorite Websites this holiday season.  I can speak directly to this issue.  For example, while shopping for a new television set online, I was thrown off Sears.com several times, and thrown off circuitcity.com almost as many times.  Screen refreshes were agonizingly slow, and I would up shutting off the computer and waiting for a more suitable time to shop.

Welcome to the New Normal on the Internet once a pandemic starts.  As we have discussed before, the New Normal (at least for 8 to 12 weeks at a time) will be socially-distanced parents attempting to work from home, while their kids are toiling away on their XBox 360s hooked up to the net, gaming with 200,000 of their closest online friends.  The cumulative effect of this will be to slow even the highest-speed cable connection to a veritable crawl.

But even a pandemic may not be the trigger to bring the Web to its knees.  A recent USA Today article speaks of the dangers to bandwidth that are just a few years off, even without the threat of a looming pandemic. Here it is:

Video, interactivity could nab Web users by '10

NEW YORK — Enjoy your speedy broadband Web access while you can.

The Web will start to seem pokey as early as 2010, as use of interactive and video-intensive services overwhelms local cable, phone and wireless Internet providers, a study by business technology analysts Nemertes Research has found.

"Users will experience a slow, subtle degradation, so it's back to the bad old days of dial-up," says Nemertes President Johna Till Johnson. "The cool stuff that you'll want to do will be such a pain in the rear that you won't do it."

Nemertes says that its study is the first to project traffic growth and compare it with plans to increase capacity.

The findings were embraced by the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), a tech industry and public interest coalition that advocates tax and spending policies that favor investments in Web capacity.

The findings were embraced by the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), a tech industry and public interest coalition that advocates tax and spending policies that favor investments in Web capacity.

"We're not trying to play Paul Revere and say that the Internet's going to fall," says IIA co-Chairman Larry Irving. "If we make the investments we need, then people will have the Internet experience that they want and deserve."

Nemertes says that the bottleneck will be where Internet traffic goes to the home from cable companies' coaxial cable lines and the copper wires that phone companies use for DSL.

Cable and phone companies provide broadband to 60.2 million homes, accounting for about 94% of the market, according to Leichtman Research Group.

To avoid a slowdown, these companies, and increasingly, wireless services providers in North America, must invest up to $55 billion, Nemertes says. That's almost 70% more than planned.

Much of that is needed for costly running of new high-capacity lines. Verizon is replacing copper lines with fiber optic for its FiOS service, which has 1.3 million Internet subscribers.

Johnson says that cable operators, with 32.6 million broadband customers, also must upgrade. Most of their Internet resources now are devoted to sending data to users — not users sending data. They'll need more capacity for the latter as more people transmit homemade music, photos and videos.

"Two years ago, nobody knew what YouTube was," Johnson says. "Now, it's generating 27 petabytes (27 million gigabytes) of data per month."

Schools, hospitals and businesses could add to the flood as they use the Web for long-distance education, health care services and videoconferencing.

Service providers might not appreciate how fast Web demand is growing, Johnson says: "Comcast doesn't know what's going on in AT&T's network, and vice versa. Researchers are increasingly shut out. So nobody's getting good, global knowledge about the Internet."

One of the best-kept secrets in netland is the existence of LambdaRail, an educational network that makes broadband seem as slow as dialup.  First, some history: What we know today as the Internet was actually built by the US military during the Cold War.  It was a data communications network called ARPANET; a network so resilient that it could survive multiple nuclear strikes.  After the US military surrendered ARPANET to Higher Education, the colleges and universities turned it into what we know today as the Internet (sorry, Al, you didn't do a damn thing to build it).  And then the planet took the Internet over from academia.

Academia never really got over that idea, so they built their own, faster, better net, called LambdaRail.  It travels orders of magnitude faster than the public Internet does.  And it has relatively few users; so few, in fact, that state university systems are now trying to resell LambdaRail bandwidth to anyone who technically qualifies (you have to have some serious jack, plus a smidgen of an educational purpose, so most need not even bother to apply). In my day job, I am seriously considering moving my organization to LR as a way to fuse our disaster recovery network planning with our daily net business model.  If we move to LR, we hypothetically should avoid the wobbles, crunches and squeezes the rest of you peons will face when the pandemic arrives.  HAHAHAHAAAAAAA!

Anyway, this LR stuff may all sound good, but the impact of a pandemic to global commerce, globalization itself, and the just-in-time economy will be sudden and devastating.  The same Internet that carries your Flikr photos and YouTube videos also carries banking information, billions and billions of transactions, and literally trillions of dollars move on it annually.  So the idea that during a pandemic, Johnny's game of Assassin's Creed for the 360, coupled with Mom's need to log in and hit the corporate mainframe via a Web portal cumulatively causing a global financial meltdown is more than just the stuff of fiction.

Booz Allen Hamilton came to this conclusion last June, when they predicted the Internet would collapse in the EU in Day Four of a severe pandemic.  So the lesson is to watch the Internet this holiday season, study how it slows down, then envision this scenario being the New Normal during a pandemic.  Or anytime in 2010, according to Gannett.

Happy shopping.

An influential voice weighs in on pandemic preparedness

tpmbarnett20picture.gifThomas P.M. Barnett has written an excellent opinion piece for the Scripps-Howard News Service. Titled "In the future: health screening at airports," the piece clearly and plainly lays out the enormous difficulties nations and the aviation industry in general will face when the next pandemic arrives (via a scheduled passenger airline flight). The link is at: http://www.scrippsnews.com/node/27573

Barnett is no stranger to planning.  In fact, if you have not heard of him, let me condense his story.  Barnett was in the Pentagon in the late 1980s and started giving Powerpoint presentations regarding what he believed was the inevitable implosion of the Soviet Union.  He even went so far as to predict the American Navy, for example, would be called upon to help its Soviet counterparts. 

The assembled admirals and generals scoffed at this heresy.  More than once he was laughed out of the room.  But the ensigns, commanders and captains in the back rows -- the inheritors of the military after the current silver-hairs retired -- they listened with intense interest. 

And they believed.

 

pnm_pb_cover.jpgWhen the Soviet Union did collapse, just as Barnett predicted and within the timeframes predicted, and the U.S. was asked to help its former enemies, those same youthful military leaders sought out the visionary Barnett.  "Where's that guy with the Powerpoint!" they would yell at their adjutants.  In response, Barnett's first book -- The Pentagon's New Map -- was a New York Times bestseller and the second-most popular book in the entire Pentagon, behind the Bible.  Barnett's follow-up work, A Blueprint for Action, also sold well and both books are in trade paperback today and available at fine bookstores across the United States.

He is also a buddy of mine, so I am happy to shill for him!  Barnett gives the most lucid explanation for the violence directed against the civilized world today via his "Core and Gap" message.  It is simple yet not simplistic.  It is simple genius and one only wishes someone at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would stand up and articulate it to the world.  He is frequently bookended in peoples' minds with fellow globalization maven Thomas Friedman.  To contrast: Friedman is the diplomat and Barnett is the enforcer (again, a reference to his desire to revamp the military into "The Leviathan" and "System Administrators" -- oh, just go buy the damn books!).  He is sometimes described as "Jack Ryan with a Powerpoint."  He is brilliant.

Barnett was heavily involved in the Pentagon's Y2K planning effort in the late 1990s, which is where I first heard of him.  As I was running Florida's statewide Y2K preparedness effort, I naturally took a deep interest in those in Washington who were also thinking way outside the box.

Anyway, I have taken some excerpts from his latest column, which I referenced way back in the beginning of this blog.  Here they are:

The White House recently released its new homeland security strategy and, unlike the initial 2002 version, this one focuses far more on natural disasters as opposed to terrorist strikes. That's a welcome change not simply because Hurricane Katrina was a humbling experience, but because globalization's growing connectivity means a naturally occurring pandemic is the most likely mega-disaster we'll face in the near term.

A bird flu-triggered pandemic could easily become the most deadly global outbreak since the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed at least 20 million people worldwide. In the United States alone, over one-quarter of the population became sick, with approximately 600,000 people succumbing to the virus. Extrapolated to today's American population of 300 million, that yields a potential death count of 1.5 million to 2 million.

Flu strains enter the United States in the bodies of sick travelers, so the key here will be our efficient and effective screening of in-bound passengers at international airports. According to Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists currently investigating pandemic response procedures for the Department of Homeland Security, for every flu carrier who --unwittingly or not-- eludes that envisioned net, as many as 10,000 Americans could suffer exposure within three weeks time.

Consider the sheer volume: over 25,000 passengers arrive through Los Angeles' international terminals on a daily basis. In August, when a software glitch struck U.S. Customs' computers there, 20,000 passengers were stranded for up to 18 hours.

Ideally, any systemic approach would include initial diagnostic screens conducted overseas at originating airports. Since virtually all international flights are lengthy, passive diagnostic screening at points of embarkation and debarkation would offer authorities the opportunity to compare and contrast readings over time. For example, additional measures would be warranted if a passenger's symptoms worsened during the flight or if those symptoms spread to other passengers.

In the summer of 2004 my wife and I got a preview of this sort of screening at Honk Kong's international airport during a localized outbreak of avian flu cases. As we walked through the terminal with our youngest child, just then adopted from China, I noticed a large computer screen along the wall where our ghostly images were being displayed in real time. It turned out that airport authorities were scanning our body temperatures passively as we passed through a chokepoint.

I walked over to the technicians and asked about the procedure, only to be told that if any of us had registered an above normal temperature, our entire family would have been required to spend at least 48 hours in Hong Kong -- at our own cost! -- before we could again attempt departure on an outbound flight. Fortunately for us, what turned out to be our infant daughter's impending ear infection didn't kick in fully until we were several hours into our cross-Pacific flight. Had we been again screened at our American port of entry, we would have been nabbed, preventing -- for all we knew at the time -- something far worse from unfolding. (bold mine)

Where do you draw the lines in all of this? I can't begin to say.

I just know it's important that our Department of Homeland Security think through all realistic scenarios and gear up for the real-world tests that inevitably lie ahead.

Thomas P.M. Barnett is a distinguished strategist at the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies and senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC.

As fellow bloggers Crawford Kilian and Mike Coston have pointed out, it is refreshing to have someone actually use the correct numbers when predicting an influenza pandemic.  It is no surprise that Barnett would use the appropriate numbers when predicting the potential pandemic's impact on the U.S. population.

What is most important to all of us is this: Because of Barnett's extreme gravitas inside and outside of the Pentagon and the Washington media, government think tanks and policy wonks everywhere, his voice becomes a powerful force for pandemic preparedness.  I am hopeful that this is the first of many, many written and vocal forays into the world of pandemic preparedness.  His Website/blogsite, by the way, is www.thomaspmbarnett.com .   

Pandemic Planning: Why the wrong "All Hazards Approach" will fail miserably

first%20pandemic%20info%20age%20title%20slide.JPGI spend a considerable amount of my "free time" lecturing on avian flu and pandemic preparedness, especially when it comes to information technology.  Those are my twin specialties:  I am a Chief Information (technology) Officer by profession, and I also have considerable experience in developing massive disaster recovery and business continuity plans (many of you know I developed and ran the largest State government Y2K project in the nation, Gov. Jeb Bush's statewide Y2K preparedness and awareness effort).

So this morning, as I scanned Crawford Kilian's Blogsite http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/h5n1/ , I was directed to an IT story that, quite frankly, doesn't surprise me at all.  Today's Computerworld blog title pretty much sums it up:

Pandemic disaster planning: We give ourselves a grade of C-minus, and that's generous.

The blog can be found at http://www.computerworld.com/blogs/node/6214 , and it should concern everyone who reads it.  Disaster recovery firm Sungard underwrote the cost of the survey of IT leaders, which was conducted by IDG Research and is published by CIO and CSO (that's Chief Security Officer) magazines.  Sungard is taking a strong interest in pandemic planning, if for no other reason than they understand that data centers may fail for lack of trained personnel, and frustrated executives may reluctantly order the implementation of an organization's IT disaster recovery plan just to keep the ol' mainframes and server clusters hummin'.  I recently sat through such a Sungard presentation and it was quite refreshing to hear someone other than me talk about IT failures during pandemics.

OK, the short form is that most business and government CIOs are aware of the threat of avian flu, but their own pandemic planning efforts  -- and those of their bosses -- are woefully lacking.  Nothing new there:  We all know pandemic planning lags far behind other disasters. 

My latest Powerpoint presentation (which can be found and downloaded at http://bpr.state.fl.us/pandemic/ is titled The First Pandemic of the Information Age deliberately, and with good reason.  We have never had a pandemic in the 21st Century, and we dodged a huge bullet with SARS (and its extremely scary 10% Case Fatality Rate).  We have no idea how IT will operate in the wake of 20%+ absenteeism and in the era of the Just-in-time economy.  But we all know that no entity can operate without IT.  It might as well try to conduct its operations by gaslight.  IT is the fuel that drives the modern economy, the modern government, the modern everything.  That is one major reason I strongly advocate government data center people being classified as "second responders" for purposes of antivirals.  Without IT, governments will lose their ability to effectively serve their citizens within 24 hours.  That is because in a pandemic, after medical help, citizens will demand sustenance.  The assistance will come in the form of checks, drafts, and warrants, usually via direct deposit.  The era of people with green eyeshades, writing checks manually, does not exist anymore.  And to move that money requires data centers, with mainframes and server clusters working overtime to produce the ones and zeros necessary to convert digital cash into real cash. Try to do THAT in the midst of a major pandemic.

Katrina showed us what happens when government cannot complete its most essential tasks in the most urgent time frame.  Imagine what will happen if/when governments fail to take care of their citizens' most basic needs.  Those needs include unemployment compensation; aid to families with dependant children; emergency food stamps (although whether or not there will be food to buy in a JIT-failed supply chain is debatable); and housing subsistence.  Without those direct deposits/swipe cards/ checks, people will invariably resort to other, more drastic measures to survive.

Which brings us to the source of the title of today's blog.  According to Computerworld and IDG,

Among those respondents with plans in place, most organizations plan to allow employees to work from home (76%) and/or will use their current business continuity/disaster recovery plans (72%), while 38% will geographically disperse their operation and personnel and 13% will outsource operations.

Has anyone bothered to ask Sungard or any of the Alphabet Soup Gang (IBM, KPMG, et al) if they have bought Tamiflu for their data center and network employees?  What is their strategy for a pandemic?  Just because they are selling pandemic services does not mean that they, too, will be ready.  So ask them! 

Here in sunny Florida, we constantly hear about taking an "All Hazards Approach" to disaster recovery planning.  It is preached to us day in and day out.  But until I am convinced otherwise, neither Florida, nor any other state with a similar mantra, is prepared for a pandemic.  The reason is simple: taking an "all hazards approach" should mean planning for a pandemic as the human equivalent of a 9.0 earthquake or a major terrorist attack or an ice storm of long duration or a Category 5 hurricane.  And unless the planning bookends a pandemic as the twin of the "other" Worst Case Scenario, the planning is fatally flawed.  Thinking you can manage a pandemic the same way you can manage a hurricane's aftermath is both arrogant and wrong. Pandemic planning and earthquake/hurricane/tornado/terrorist planning should be the twin bookends of disaster and business contunuity planning.  Pandemics should not be something you throw into the mix the same way you throw that extra piece of laundry into the washer. 

Yet that is exactly what people are doing when they say they will manage a pandemic using their existing DR plans.  Because they never planned for a pandemic in the first place, they think they can somehow try to look up "Supply chain failures" on Tab Three of their DR plan and have a solution.  Sadly mistaken, they will realize that plan called for massive reinforcements of goods and services from areas outside the affected zones.  There will be no mutual aid, no assistance pouring in from the outside world.  Government cannot stockpile what it needs, let alone what the population will need. 

Also, current disaster recovery and business continuity plans have an event horizon of a few days to a few weeks.  There is a conclusion to all these plans.  But with a pandemic, the event horizon will stretch for three months.  The event will not have a tidy conclusion; it will consist of sporadic, then massive influenza cases, coupled with equivalent sporadic-then-widespread supply chain failures, topped by failures in government's ability to cut checks and serve its people, capped with severe shortages of food and water. 

Gradually, as the first wave passes over the nation, people recover and go back to work, and slowly life returns to normal.  But unless all disaster recovery and business continuity plans embrace pandemic as the bookend of human suffering and hurricanes and earthquakes as the other bookend, the management of the event will fail.  The trucks full of ice will stop.  The trucks full of food and medical supplies will run out.  And patience with government as a relevant entity will also have run its final course. 

The appropriate question to ask governments and businesses is this:  "Have you embraced pandemic planning as the human equivalent of your hurricane, ice storm, terrorist and earthquake planning, with the same zeal and gusto and with the same allocation of resources, training and practice?"

If the answer is "No," or worse yet if you get no answer, then their plans will fail miserably. I guarantee it, sadly.

Bali suspected cases increase; collaboration circumvents censorship

bali%20map%20flu%20wiki%20091007.jpgThe map you see presents collaboration at its finest, which is why the Bali government attempts at censorship of H5N1 cases are doomed to fail.  Various Internet message board "posters" at flu sites Flu Wiki and FluTrackers spend long nights translating native Indonesian newspapers, blogs and other articles, sometimes by hand, then post the translated messages for others to examine and offer additional or countering translations.  The net result is like putting a puzzle together, but the important thing is that all of these collaborators are getting pretty dang good at reading and understanding Malay, the native language of Indonesia.  The map was created by Flu Wiki and represents the best effort I have seen at placing locations with cases.  Even I did not know the extent of the number of suspected cases, nor their geographic distribution, until I saw this map at http://www.newfluwiki2.com/upload/bali.jpg.

These intrepid lay translators at both sites agree that nearly thirty cases of suspected H5N1 have occurred on the island.  Flu Wiki is reporting 29; FluTrackers, 28.  Only a few of these cases have tested negative; as we know, three deaths are confirmed positive, with the index case -- a young child -- where samples were never taken; and the rest are unknown.  There are new suspected cases almost every day, with four hospitalizations occurring this past weekend, 

Also very distressing is the number of infants with symptoms. 

Clearly, SOMETHING is taking place in Bali.  Many thanks to the dedicated posters at Flu Wiki (http://www.newfluwiki2.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=1652) and to FluTrackers (www.flutrackers.com) for their yeoman work. And thanks to Flu blogger DemFromCT for getting the word out on the map.