My favorite New Years story goes back exactly 10 years. I was here in San Francisco, and my wife was visiting friends and family in Scotland.

It was wonderful when Carole called just after midnight, her time, to wish me a Happy New Year. Even though, of course, it was only 4:00 PM here in California.

But it was also freakish to talk to someone who was in a different millennium than I was. It was a “Back to the Future” or “Fifth Element” moment. (Yes, I know that purists insist that the new millennium began in 2001. That not the point. Go away.)

Carole looked out the window in response to my query and said that, no, she didn’t see any flying cars, people using jetpacks or anything else obviously futuristic. So much for the predictive powers of science fiction.

Happy New Year, my friends! May your 2010 be filled with peace, health and happiness.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

Spammers understand the business benefits of tailoring a marketing message to fit current events.

I checked my Postini spam trap this morning — it’s been over a week since last time it was cleaned out. There were several spam messages with the subject line, “Learn to score like Tiger Woods” — for male enhancement products.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

We receive many wonderful reader comments on Most are thoughtful and add genuine value to our news and analysis of the software development industry.

And then there are spam comments which try to drive links to external scam websites. We squelch those comments before they are posted.

Spam comments are easy to spot in our comment-review portal. They’re entirely unrelated to the context of the site or of the story they’re associated with.

Sometimes the spam comments are enjoyable in a beat-poet kind of way. Here’s one that just came in, trying to drive traffic to a shady electronics discounter. Isn’t it great?

Hey where you from? I’m from Toronto and … I like hockey. I live near a park with lots of dogs. the sky is blue over here what’s your weather like?

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

Pigs are flying all around my office today. According to The Weather Channel, the temperature in Hades is a nippy -40 degrees. Oh, and Microsoft has created an iPhone app available through the Apple App Store.

The application is called Bing, and as the name suggests, it’s a native front end to Microsoft’s search engine. I’ll give Microsoft credit here: the new app is beautifully done, lightning fast and delivers decent search results of both websites and images. (You can download Bing from the Apple App Store here.)

I’m not a huge fan of the Bing search engine because it seems to always assume that if you’re searching for something, it’s because you want to buy it. Thus, Bing loves to steer you to shopping sites – particularly those of its retail partners. The company’s Bing Cashback program is a blatant attempt to purchase market share and mindshare – but given Google’s utter dominance of the search world, it’s hard to blame Microsoft for going all-out to gain a toehold.

Creating an iPhone app for Bing makes total 100% sense for Microsoft to do. Why should Redmond cede the fastest-growing smartphone platform to archenemy Google?

Still, when you see a Microsoft app running on your iPhone, you know the world has turned upside down. Cue the flying porkers!

Microsoft, Google and Apple are an interesting troika of frenemies. Apple and Google used to be Best Friends Forever, but that all changed when Google announced its Android phone platform and Chrome browser, which are direct challengers to Apple’s iPhone and Safari browser. Now Google and Apple don’t get along at all.

Now we’ve got Microsoft developing cool apps for the iPhone, while Google is reportedly preparing to launch its own mobile phone, called Nexus One. That would bring the software giant into the consumer hardware business. (Google has long offered enterprise hardware like the Google Search Appliance.)

Funny world. Next thing you know, Oracle will buy Sun Microsystems, or something crazy like that.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

Gosh, isn’t this the cutest Aston Martin ever?

The Aston Martin Cygnet concept vehicle is described as a luxury commuter car. That’s quite a change from the company’s usual mantra, “Aston Martin is a name that needs little introduction. It has always stood for fine, civilized high performance sports cars, designed and produced by skilled craftsmen.”

According to The Telegragh, the three-cylinder Cygnet will be offered only to existing Aston Martin customers, “who, it is envisaged, will use it as a ‘green’ run-around while reserving their supercars, such as the DB9 or Vantage, for longer journeys.”

It’s so adorable!

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

A scam just arrived in my Facebook inbox. It was apparently sent from a Facebook account named Tofa Maxwell. It’s unclear how to report such messages to Facebook in any meaningful way. My advice is to simply delete such messages without responding. If you know of a better way to react, let me know.

Subject: Attention,


We act as solicitors and our services were retained by late Alan C. Zeichick, a foreigner who used to work with Shell International Republic of Togo, here in after referred to as our client. We write to notify you that my late client made you a Beneficiary to the bequest sum of FIFTEEN Million one Hundred United States Dollars in the codicil to his will and last testament.

He died at the age of 65. This bequest is to support your activities, humanitarian services, help to the less-privileged and research work.

We are perfecting arrangements to complete the transfer of this inheritance to you. You are required to forward the following details of yours:

1. Full Name:
2. Telephone number:
3. Age:
4. Contact address/Country
5. Occupation:
6. Identification:
7: Email address:

For verification and re-confirmation. Please acknowledge the receipt of this letter immediately. For further clarification you can always reach me on my direct phone number.

I guarantee that this will be executed under legitimate arrangement that will protect you from any breach of the law. Upon your acceptance to this proposal, I expect your urgent response indicating your full interest in this great transaction to our both mutual trust.

Congratulations! Reply to email hidden; JavaScript is required

Yours sincerely,
Tel: 00228-922-4588.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

This just in, from the aptly named “Pitch Public Relations.” This particular fastball, sent to a technology analyst (me), was high and to the outside… though, one could argue, by my blogging the pitch, the agency is getting the coverage it wanted.

From: “Ann Noder”
Date: December 15, 2009 9:22:00 AM PST
Subject: New – Angel Book


World renowned Spiritual Intuitive, Sonja Grace ( tackles the subject of death like no one else before, in her new 2010 book, Angels in the 21st Century: A New Perspective on Death and Dying.

I thought you might have interest in a review copy.

For nearly 30 years, Sonja has been providing clarity and guidance helping people worldwide to seek answers from within, as well as from the spirit realm. Thanks to her special gifts, she provides profound and unique insight, revealing how tuning into the Four Essential Bodies (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual) provides each of us the ability to experience a life of happiness, in part by preparing us for the greatest passage of all: Death.

The book takes a truly hopeful and positive look at what it really means to die.

Please let me know if you are interested in taking a look.

Also, happy to provide more information, a jpeg of the cover, and/or an interview. Thanks!

Ann Noder
Pitch Public Relations(tm)
email hidden; JavaScript is required
Phone: 480.263.1557
Fax: 480.907.5298

Pitch PR president Ann Noder (pictured) boasts on her website,

Plain and simple. Pitch Public Relations is about pitching to the media. We get your story, your product, your service, yourself in the news in a big way. We’re not talking advertisements or commercials here. We get companies featured editorially. So, how do we do it? Hey, we won’t give away all our secrets. But we start with a roster of media contacts that are unmatched – from magazine editors to television news reporters and everything in between. Combine that with savvy story placement and an aggressive work ethic and bingo – you have a formula for PR success.

Perhaps the secret formula should include, “Target the appropriate media.”

Oh, to have worked or studied at SAIL, back in the day. Of course, “in the day” was in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory was in its prime – long before AI became shorthand for “any technology that’s 20 years in the future – and always will be.”

When SAIL was at the cusp of computer science, as detailed in a recent essay in the New York Times, many researchers truly believed that artificial intelligence was solvable. Creating computers that would think – not merely follow algorithms – was a hard problem, to be sure. But not an impossible dream. The idea that you’d have a computer that would learn how to play chess, and be able to converse with humans well enough to pass the Turing Test, seemed to be a matter of just a few more transistors, a little more memory, choosing the right programming language and writing some better algorithms.

Hard, but solvable.

Optimism as Artificial Intelligence Pioneers Reunite,” written by John Markoff, talks about those glory days when John McCarthy and his team thought that a thinking machine would only take a decade to build. However, as the essay describes, by the mid-1980s, AI seemed farther from creating artificial intelligence than ever before.

My own involvement in artificial intelligence comes from about that time. I studied AI a little, but from 1990-1992 served as editor of AI Expert Magazine. (The publication is now gone, alas, but Google found my old writer’s guidelines squirreled away at Carnegie-Mellon Univ. Talk about a flashback!)

Editing AI Expert was a dream job – getting to hang out with the best and brightest in the AI community, and working with many brilliant computer science researchers as authors, attending conferences, and learning from a blue-ribbon advisory board. Ahh, nirvana.

What’s interesting is that many so-called “technologies” that we covered in AI Expert never became part of machine intelligence or artificial intelligence – but instead became part of the mainstream. Expert systems, for example, are a core part of many search engines and data mining systems. Object-oriented programming evolved out of AI. Virtual reality was part of AI. Natural language processing. Object databases. Vision processing and image recognition. Those are all just software development today.

Of course, not everything we covered in AI Expert hit the jackpot. While neural networks, genetic algorithms and fuzzy logic still live, they’re also quite esoteric.

Older computer scientists (heavens, do I now fall into that category?) remember AI’s history and accomplishments. We know that although we don’t have true artificial intelligence systems, those investments and research in SAIL and other similar projects paid off handsomely, and appear in products and technologies we use every day. I hope that younger generations of developers appreciate where we started – and how far we’ve come.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

“Use the chopsticks, Luke!”

My son found these delightful lightsaber chopsticks. Coming right after we completed a Star Wars movie marathon, we’ve got to have them. The link shows someone holding them.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

A good friend — a computer expert — just sent me this account of a strange experience this afternoon. It’s scary, especially for those whose “skeptic flag” is turned off. Be alert!

Got a weird phone call just now. Guy with Indian accent who said he was calling to help me with my Windows problems — I don’t have any, but he said they were calling ‘all’ Windows owners to fix problems causing computer to run slowly. He rattled off the name of his company, and after I asked several times I finally got: “Support On Click.” The number on my phone readout was 05-247-9749 — and it said “Out of Area.” Odd number.

Cautiously, I let him continue. He had me click Start-Run and type in eventvwr, and then click on Applications and tell him how many Error flags I had — well, there were hundreds, just from this past month. He asked for a little info about them, and started a spiel about how many people were having these kinds of problems. It sounded like the canned beginning of a sales pitch.

I finally said I wasn’t interested and hung up on him. He called back a minute later but I let it go to voicemail, whereupon he hung up.

Was it a sales pitch to get my credit card? A scammer planning to get me to read him something fatal off my screen? Hacker wanting me to enter some command that would give control to a virus or something? I would have hung on to find out where he was going with this, but he was taking too long. Clearly, he was prepped for inexperienced computer users, so he took forever with his instructions, and I lost patience.

Again: If you get a call like this, at home or at work… don’t do what the caller wants. It’s undoubtedly not good for you.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick

Touch may be the next mass-market computing innovation. It’s very interesting – but not surprising – that Microsoft appears to be leading the charge with functionality based on its Surface technology and built into Windows 7.

Despite its reputation for being a follower, not a leader, Microsoft has championed many hardware innovations, and have driven them into the mainstream. One example was the CD-ROM drive. With MSCDEX (The Microsoft CD Extensions), and investment in early CD-ROM products, we have Microsoft to thank for the ubiquity of the computer-based CD player.

While we can live very well without CDs today, bear in mind that in the beginning of the PC era, most computers had one or two floppy-disk drives at best. A few expensive models had 10MB or 20MB hard drives. Corporate networks were scarce, and there was no broadband Internet. The ISO 9660 standard for CD-ROMs gave us 650MB of easily distributable data. Thanks to Microsoft’s consistent support for the technology, DOS learned to read CD-ROMs – and CD-ROM drives became a de facto standard on nearly all desktop and portable computers.

Microsoft didn’t invent the CD-ROM drive, of course, and nor did it invent the two-button mouse, the Ethernet connector, WiFi networks or Universal Serial Bus. The company’s market clout, evangelization through conferences like WinHEC, and pressure on computer makers brought wired and wireless networking and USB to the masses.

The company faltered when it came to pen computing. There were many efforts, beginning with pen extensions to DOS (I own an IBM ThinkPad 750P convertible pen notebook made in 1993). Microsoft rebooted its pen efforts with the Tablet PC and a special version of Windows XP in 2001. Response from consumers and hardware makers was tepid, and the hardware didn’t become ubiquitous on Windows notebooks. Thus, the Tablet PC remained a niche device.

At Microsoft PDC 2009, Microsoft began a new push toward touch-screen computing. While Windows Vista supported touch-screens – and some computer makers like HP offered models that had such screens – it remained a curiosity. With Windows 7, however, Microsoft is signaling that it sees touch as strategic. The company gave special touch-equipped notebooks running Windows 7 to PCD attendees, and appealed to developers to begin creating applications that would recognize – and exploit – the new user interface paradigm.

This is another instance, I believe, where Microsoft is truly being visionary. While mobile products like Apple’s iPhone use a touch interface, only Microsoft has talked about touch-screens as a broad capability. I, for one, would love to see a touch-screen become a standard feature of notebook computers and desktop monitors.

I also hope that Microsoft maintains an open mind – and adheres to open hardware standards. Microsoft helped make CD-ROMs successful – based on ISO 9660. Ethernet, WiFi and USB are also open standards. I’d love to see mainstream Windows notebooks and desktops have touch-screens – but not in a way that precludes innovation by Linux, Unix and Mac OS X. Although I’m generally a Mac user (and am writing this on a MacBook Pro), it would be fun watching Apple play catch-up for a change.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick