Google Updates Chrome to 17·0·963·83

March 22, 2012

Google has released a new stable version, 17·0·963·83, of its Chrome browser for all platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and Chrome Frame.  This release fixes eight identified security vulnerabilities, six of which Google rates as High severity.  It also fixes some bugs with Flash-based games.  More details on these changes are available in the Release Announcement.

Because of its security content, I do recommend that you check that your system is updated.  Windows and Mac users should get the new version via the built-in update mechanism.  Linux users should get the updated package from their distributions’ repositories, using their standard package maintenance tools.  You can verify that your system has been updated by clicking on the tools menu (the little wrench), and then on “About Google Chrome”.


Firefox to Support SPDY Protocol

March 20, 2012

Back in 2009, I wrote about Google’s project to develop a new Web protocol, which it calls SPDY, as a supplement to the existing Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol [HTTP].  SPDY is, essentially, a new session protocol that allows for multiple inter-leaved HTTP streams over a single TCP connection.  It also allows for prioritization of requests, and for compression of HTTP header data.

Google’s own Chrome browser has had support for SPDY for some time.  The “Webmonkey” blog at Wired has a post about upcoming versions of Mozilla’s Firefox, which reports that, beginning with Firefox version 13 (now in the Aurora testing channel), Firefox will enable SPDY support by default.

SPDY, which began life at Google, is in the early stages of the standardization process, but when it finally arrives it should make many webpages load twice as fast as they do now over HTTP.

The design of SPDY attempts to provide a better framework for the current use of the Web, which is rather different than the simple request/receive page dialogs originally envisioned.

If you want to try an early (pre-release) version of Firefox, you can visit the Firefox download pages for the Beta (currently Firefox 12) or Aurora (currently Firefox 13) channels.

FIrefox 11, the current version released last week, also includes an early version of SPDY support, although it is disabled by default.  If you want to try it out — I do not recommend this for production systems — you can do so:

  1. In a new tab or window, type about:config in the URL bar.  You’ll get a long list of option settings.
  2. In the Search box, type network.http.
  3. Look down the (shorter) list to find network.http.spdy.enabled.
  4. Right-click on the value (“false“) and select Toggle to change it to “true“.

You can change it back by toggling the value back to false.  I’m not sure how much change you should expect to see, since there are not many Web sites which currently support SPDY, although Twitter and Google seem to, at least on some pages.


LibreOffice 3.5.1 Released

March 19, 2012

The Document Foundation has announced the release of LibreOffice 3.5.1 for Windows, Linux, and Mac (Intel or PowerPC).  This is primarily a bug fix release, which addresses a number of issues in version 3.5, released last year.

You can download LibreOffice, in a variety of (human) languages here; you can also download the source code, and the development kit for extensions.  (LibreOffice is distributed under the LGPL.)  Further information is available in the Release Notes.


How Many Servers Does Amazon Have?

March 19, 2012

One of the most frequently viewed posts here is one that I made back in August of last year, on “How Many Servers Does Google Have?”.  (the estimate, at that time, was about 900,000.)  Recently, Wired published an article to answer a similar question for Amazon, specifically for Amazon’s  Elastic Compute Cloud [EC2] service.  It reports that Huan Liu, a researcher for Accenture, estimates that Amazon uses about 445,000 physical servers to power EC2.

This estimate is not easy to compare directly with the estimate for Google, because the two are for rather different things.  The Google estimate was for the servers used to deliver its array of end-user services, including not only search, but also GMail, YouTube, Blogger, and so on.  The Amazon estimate is, as I mentioned, for the EC2 “computing utility” that provides pay-as-you-go computing capacity; it does not, as far as I know, include the servers that power Amazon’s retail operations.

Another difference is that the Google estimates were inferred from data on electricity consumption provided by Google to Stanford professor Jonathan Koomey.  Mr. Liu was not lucky enough to have similar data, so he uses an ingenious technique to estimate how many server racks EC2 is using, based on their assigned IP addresses, both external (visible via DNS) and internal to the EC2 cloud.  (His original blog post, which explains the technique, is well worth a read.)  He says he is reasonably confident of the estimated number of racks, and that his assumption of 64 servers per rack is an educated guess.  (Te blog post is also clear about the caveats.)

Nonetheless, this is an interesting analysis.  Even those of us who have had some experience in operating data centers generally have never seen anything remotely close to the scale of Amazon or Google.  Maybe there’s something to this whole new-fangled Internet thing, after all.


Toxic Environments

March 18, 2012

I have finally had a chance to read Greg Smith’s letter, “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs”, published as an Op-Ed this past week in the New York Times.  In it, Mr. Smith, an executive director of the US equity derivatives business at one of the world’s  leading merchant banks, says that he is resigning because, in his view, the culture of the firm has changed significant;ly for the worse since he joined it twelve years ago.

… I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

Mr. Smith says that the culture of the firm has changed, from one which put the customer’s interest first , to one where making the maximum profit for the firm, at the customer’s expense if necessary, has become paramount.

I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them.

Much of the Wall Street reaction to Mr. Smith’s letter has been fairly predictable.  He has been pictured as a naive hypocrite, who never understood what the business was about, but was happy enough to deposit his bonus checks.  My own reaction, having worked for about thirty years in the financial services industry, is that no one there should be at all surprised by what Greg Smith said.  I have no specific knowledge of Goldman Sachs, but the scene he describes sounds all too familiar.

As William Cohan points out in an article in the Washington Post, the idea of Goldman Sachs, or any other investment bank, duping its clients is not exactly new.  He cites the example of Goldman’s role in and around the bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970.  Goldman was the underwriter for Penn Central’s commercial paper.  Because of its relationship with the firm, Goldman was privy to information about Penn Central’s deteriorating liquidity position, information it did not share with its customers even as it continued to flog the commercial paper.  The SEC investigated following Penn Central’s bankruptcy.

According to the SEC, Goldman “gained possession of material adverse information, some from public sources and some from nonpublic sources indicating a continuing deterioration of the financial condition of the [railroad]. Goldman, Sachs did not communicate this information to its commercial paper customers, nor did it undertake a thorough investigation of the company. If Goldman, Sachs had heeded these warnings and undertaken a reevaluation of the company, it would have learned that its condition was substantially worse than had been publicly reported.”

The SEC sued Goldman, and the suit was settled within a short time.  Goldman was also sued by some of its customers.  Many of these suits were also settled, but some, for whatever reason, were allowed to proceed to a trial, which Goldman lost.

Incredibly, Goldman thought it could win the lawsuits and allowed them to go to trial, where much of the firm’s dirty laundry was aired. In the end, it lost the suit brought by the three companies and paid the plaintiffs 100 cents on the dollar, plus interest.

Cohan argues that, if Greg Smith had been paying attention, he could have figured out that Goldman’s actions did not always match its lofty principles.  At one level, it is hard to argue with this.  Certainly since I started work in the industry in the mid-1970s, there has never been any shortage of skunks and weasels on Wall Street.

On another level, though, I think Smith is right: the culture of Wall Street has gotten worse, and there are at least some identifiable reasons for this.  Once upon a time, firms like Goldman Sachs were partnerships, meaning that the money they were risking belonged to the partners that owned and managed the firm.  Now, most of these firms are public companies, whose (very highly paid) managers are risking the stockholders’ money; they have also been permitted to become bank holding companies, with access to lending from the Federal Reserve, meaning they can risk taxpayers’ money, too.   The rise of proprietary trading in ever more exotic and opaque financial instruments has made effective oversight more difficult.  The bonus system rewards those who produce short-term profits, even when those profits are based on theoretical valuations of long-term transactions.  (I’ve written about this before.  These are sometimes called “IBG” trades on the floor: “I’ll Be Gone” by the time the deal craters.)  It is hard, offhand, to think of a more complete collection of perverse incentives, to say nothing of agency problems and moral hazards.

Really, the only thing surprising about this is that anyone is surprised.


Encyclopædia Britannica to Drop Print Edition

March 14, 2012

It seems we are seeing the passing of another era.  According to articles at the BBC News and the New York Times, the firm that publishes the venerable Encyclopædia Britannica has announced that it will not produce any more printed editions.

…  Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

The Britannica is the oldest continuously published encyclopaedia in English, having been available in print for 244 years.  But sales have dropped off dramatically in recent years.  In 1990, there were 120,000 sets of the Britannica sold in the United States; so far, only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold, at $1,395 per set.  The publisher, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., gets less than 1% of its current revenue from printed editions; about 15% of revenue comes from subscriptions to the online version of the encyclopaedia, and about 85% from the sale of educational curriculum products.

The availability of so many reference sources on the Internet has damaged the sales of all sorts of printed references.  I’ve written here before about the development of Wikipedia as a substitute for printed encyclopaedias, and about the mostly groundless fear that it somehow will contain wrong or corrupted information.  Online sources have several advantages: speed of updates and inclusion of new information, and ease of searching are obvious.  For those of us who live in rich democracies, these are undoubtedly convenient.  But, as I’ve said before, I think perhaps the greatest benefit, in the long term, will come from making a large body of knowledge available to the millions of people elsewhere in the world who would have no practical opportunity ever to see a printed copy of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

Still, I feel a certain sadness at this news.  I can remember many hours that I spent, as a child, curled up with a volume of the Britannica, reading articles that struck my fancy.  It was great to know that there was so much to discover, just in that one set of elegantly-bound volumes.


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