Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Real alternative

An In.Tech reader needed to view some RealVideo files from the Internet but was hesitant to install RealPlayer because his friends had encountered problems with this software. He asks if there is a way to convert or play RealVideo/ RealMedia files without installing RealPlayer?

Here's my reply: You are right to be hesitant about RealPlayer from RealNetworks Inc. Previous versions of RealPlayer have been criticised for serving up ads, installing too many startup and background programs, and attempting to set itself as the default player for many other file formats, not just RealMedia ones.

None of us at In.Tech have installed RealPlayer, and we generally avoid viewing RealMedia files. We're not the only ones who feel that way; in a PC World story titled The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time (May 2006), RealPlayer was listed in the No. 2 position.

But if you absolutely need to play RealNetworks' file formats, consider Real Alternative instead of any product from RealNetworks.

Developed by a third party, Real Alternative allows you to play RealMedia files with Media Player Classic (a free program), without having to install RealPlayer or RealOne Player.

Real Alternative supports the RealAudio (.ra and .rpm), RealMedia/RealVideo (.rm, .ram, .rmvb, .rpx .smi, and .smil), RealText (.rt), and RealPix (.rp) formats.

It also supports RealMedia content that is embedded in webpages. However, certain RealMedia files like .smi and .smil files are not fully supported, so only the first part will usually be played. The developers say this is a limitation of the current version of Media Player Classic.

Real Alternative's RealMedia browser plugin supports Internet Explorer, Opera, Firefox and Netscape.

Real Alternative
can be downloaded from http://snipurl.com/94ce while Media Player Classic can be found at http://sourceforge.net/projects/guliverkli.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Car owners getting a free ride

Some car owner over at The Star Citizen's Blog is of the opinion that motorcyclists are getting a free lunch, and should be forced to pay tolls and road tax.

As a user of both a motorbike and a car, I agree that there is "no such thing as a free lunch". But he or she has got it wrong about who is getting the free lunch. Cars consume a lot more petrol than motorcycles. This means the car owners receive the bulk of the government's petrol subsidy. As an example, I use my motorbike for about 2/3 of my travels these days. If I were to use my car full-time, my petrol costs would increase by 3 to 4 times.

Since I pay taxes, that means I am paying the petrol subsidy for some car owner who is using a lot more petrol than I am. What is worse is anyone who pays taxes - even a person who doesn't own a vehicle - is subsidising the petrol used by car owners.

Another thing to note is that cars cause most of the wear and tear on roads; motorbikes are far lighter than cars and only have two wheels. So car owners should rightfully bear the costs for roadworks - hence the road tax and tolls. So ask yourself, car owners, who is getting the free lunch?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Are you discrete, or discreet?

Consider the following sentences which have previously appeared in The Star:
"...dining room was plush without being overwhelming while the service was charming yet discrete."
"Xxx's two discrete rooms are the perfect place to entertain business guests for private functions."

In both cases, the intended word was probably discreet. Discrete means "constituting a separate entity : individually distinct", according to M-W. Just a tiny difference in spelling, yet they have completely different meanings. Unfortunately, your spellchecker won't flag this, because both are valid words. These would be examples of malapropisms.

IT-savvy users are most likely to encounter this word in a description such as
"discrete graphics", which refers to standalone graphics cards (usually using processors from nVidia or ATI). Even here, there's also confusion over the two words; if you google for "discreet graphics", you'll get 700+ hits.

Speaking of discrete graphics, it looks like Intel is going to enter this already competitive market. Interestingly, the company is the overall leader in PC graphics, by virtue of its built-in (integrated) graphics technology used on many motherboards. They carry names like "Intel Extreme Graphics 2" though most serious gamers would call them "graphics decelerators".

Monday, January 22, 2007

Andy Bhasin, spammer

Boy, is he a prolific spammer. He apparently works for some outfit called APIMD and he regularly sends out thousands of spam touting their training courses. It's not as if APIMD can deny anything; they've already sent out so much of the crap over the years.

I think they've managed to spam most, if not all e-mail accounts in Malaysia and Singapore. Just Google for apimd.com and you'll see various complaints about Andy/apimd, plus you can find their spam on mailing list archives, Usenet archives etc. Everyone I know has received apimd spam at one time or another.

Now, my spam filters normally weed out this apimd crap, but today one of them managed to slip thru. This was possibly because he spammed me with a Gmail account. I duly filed a complaint with Google. If you get spammed by Andy or anyone else via a Gmail account, you can complain here:


Anyway, here's the Whois info on the apimd.com domain.

Domain Name.......... apimd.com
Creation Date........ 2001-04-03
Registration Date.... 2001-04-03
Expiry Date.......... 2007-04-03
Organisation Name.... APIMD SEMINARS
Organisation Address. 20 Ayer Rajah Crescent #07-03
Organisation Address. Singapore
Organisation Address. 139964

Admin Name........... Andy Bhasin
Admin Address........ 20 Ayer Rajah Crescent #07-03
Admin Address........ 139964
Admin Address........ Singapore
Admin Email.......... apimd@magix.com.sg
Admin Phone.......... 65-4254203
Admin Fax............ 65-8975242

Tech Name............ Oliver Chiam
Tech Address......... #13-10 Tan Boon Liat Building
Tech Address......... 315 Outram Road
Tech Address......... Singapore

Complete info can be obtained via Whois.

I don't recommend you actually sending e-mail to anyone there though; they'd just add you to their spam list. If you're in Singapore, feel free to call them up and express your opinion about the spam you've received from them.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Hold Your Wee for a Wii

Sometimes the headlines write themselves.

A California woman died of water intoxication after taking part in a radio station's water-drinking contest to win a Nintendo Wii video game system. Participants competed to see how much water they could drink without going to the bathroom.

The contest was called "Hold Your Wee for a Wii", thus providing the greatest ready-made headline ever. All Google News listings here.

And yes, you can die from drinking too much water. The folks at Wikipedia have an up-to-date entry on water intoxication.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Beware of open and "free" proxies

With Internet access still quite crippled in Malaysia, I've noticed some postings on forums and some blogs about "free" web proxies located in other countries. These proxies are provided by ostensibly "generous" persons who want to "help" you surf the net.

Speaking from personal experience, setting up a secure and properly configured web proxy is not a trivial matter. In fact, I would only do so for users I know and trust. Other than the obvious bandwidth issues, proxy operators also need to worry about liability issues. For example, users may use the proxy to surf kiddy pr0n, spammers could use it to send out their unwanted mail, or hackers could use it to launch attacks.

Just to give you an idea the cost and effort needed to run a web proxy, one company charges US$24.95 a month for dial-up bandwidth (30-60kbps) and US$49.95 a month for broadband (100-900kbps) access to its proxies . With that in mind, you have to wonder why would anyone set up a free, open proxy that can be accessed by thousands, even millions of users?

As the proxy company noted:
If someone is offering a free proxy service, there is a catch somewhere. Considering the cost of bandwidth and machine maintenance, a free proxy service is simply not feasible.

The proxies that are listed likely to be malicious proxies, i.e. proxies set up by hackers to record, or worse, to alter traffic that passes thru them.
By design, a proxy sits between your browser and other websites, and this provides a perfect opportunity for conducting Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks. If you have used these unknown proxies, I recommend you immediately change all your passwords and check activity/transaction logs for any accounts you accessed thru them.

In fact, most, if not all proxies on public lists and forums are:

1) Misconfigured proxies - the operater is not aware that the proxy is open to the rest of the world. Users are, in fact, stealing bandwidth.
2) Malicious proxies - these are set up by hackers to record everything sent to the proxy; this includes unencrypted logins and passwords.
3) Compromised proxies - If an operator does not know how to properly configure a proxy, there's a chance he may not know much about security either. Even if the operator has no malicious intent, the proxy may eventually be compromised by hackers and turned into a malicious proxy.

Wikipedia has some general info about proxy servers and also mentions malicious proxies:

A commercial provider of proxies details the risks of using open proxies:
The dangers of open proxy servers
OK, some of it is probably self-serving - this company sells proxy services - but there is still lot of useful information about open proxies that all users need to know.

Back to Wikipedia:
The bottom line is - be wary when using proxy servers, and only use proxy servers of known integrity (e.g., the owner is known and trusted, has a clear privacy policy, etc.), and never use proxy servers of unknown integrity. If there is no choice but to use unknown proxy servers, do not pass any private information (unless it is properly encrypted) through the proxy.