Monday, September 24, 2007

The Revolution Will Be Posted to Flickr

For those (few) of you that haven't discovered it already, one of the best web comics out there is xkcd.

About 6 months ago, they posted the following comic with an embedded longitude and latitude (a park in Cambridge MA) and a date/time (yesterday).

In true geek culture, a couple hundred people showed up.

Nerd nation is upon us.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Finally, rational behavior...

After many years of head scratching and cursing the industry whenever I bought a new cell phone (and had to buy a new car charger) comes the news that the mobile phone industry has agreed on a common connection/charging standard based on micro USB connectors.

A small victory for rationality, but hopefully indicative of a trend of governments creating economic disincentives for wasteful behaviors.

Now if the automobile manufacturers would agree to always put the gas cap on the same side as the steering wheel...


Wednesday, September 19, 2007


My contract with Verizon has just come up, and my two year old cheapo Motorola phone just signed up for AARP. Time to play the field and see what's shaking in telephone land.

As much as a geek as I am, most people are surprised that I have never owned a smartphone. For me, phones are about making phone calls. I want the phone to be reliable, have great battery life, have a contact list for speed dial, and get great reception. Bonus points for voice activated dialing. Don't care about cameras (they suck), MP3s (have them on my laptop), web access (it sucks, and I have my laptop), texting (email), etc.

WAY back in the day, I was addicted to my beloved Psion 3a as a portable device. Used it for calendaring, meeting notes, to dos, etc. When laptops matured to the point of being desktop replacements, I couldn't justify carrying two devices any more and reluctantly gave up the Psion. To my mind, they have been one of the few players to actually "get it" and "get it right"

With the iPhone out, I am again tempted. If it had 3G connectivity, I would own one already. Still I'm tempted.

In doing some research, I found the surprise of all surprises: an absolutely brilliant post by the actor (and apparent gadget freak) Stephen Fry on all things smart phone. Excerpt below, but the whole piece is a must read for any self-respecting geek.

Design matters
By design here, I mean GUI and OS as much as outer case design. Let’s go back to houses. The sixties taught us, surely, that architectural design, commercial and domestic, is not an extra. The office you work in every day, the house you live in every day, they are more than the sum of their functions. We know that sick building syndrome is real, and we know what an insult to the human spirit were some of the monstrosities constructed in past decades. An office with strip lighting, drab carpets, vile partitions and dull furniture and fittings is unacceptable these days, as much perhaps because of the poor productivity it engenders as the assault on dignity it represents. Well, computers and SmartPhones are no less environments: to say “well my WinMob device does all that your iPhone can do” is like saying my Barratt home has got the same number of bedrooms as your Georgian watermill, it’s got a kitchen too, and a bathroom.” … I accept that price is an issue here; if budget is a consideration then you’ll have to forgive me, I’m writing from the privileged position of being able to indulge my taste for these objects. But who can deny that design really matters? Or that good design need not be more expensive? We spend our lives inside the virtual environment of digital platforms - why should a faceless, graceless, styleless nerd or a greedy hog of a corporate twat deny us simplicity, beauty, grace, fun, sexiness, delight, imagination and creative energy in our digital lives? And why should Apple be the only company that sees that? Why don’t the other bastards GET IT??

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

Best Media Center Box On the Planet

Lifehacker has a very nice comprehensive guide to how to mod an old school Xbox so you can run Xbox Media Center. Things have come a long way from the "crack open the Xbox and solder in a mod chip" days.

We've been running XBMC for years, and it is the best reason to own an Xbox. We actually have an Xbox that has never played a video game, but only runs XBMC at 1080i to our HDTV.

Get a cheap used Xbox on eBay, the Xbox DVD remote, and a wireless adapter, and you have the best media center box on the planet for <$100 (if that).

I keep all music, photos, vids, etc. on our file server, and access the files on the XBMC boxes (yes we have a couple of them) Having photos randomly cycle on large flat panel display at 1080i is amazing...

If you're feeling brave, the hack is even easier if you have a friend that has already modded their xbox. They can FTP the save file to their xbox, and use the xbox memory card management features to copy the save to a memory card (don't need Action Replay to do it from a PC)

As an added plus, many console emulators have been ported to the Xbox. Once you have the Xbox modded, you can FTP files to and from the Xbox. It is a nice diversion to play old Atari 2600 or NES games with a real console controller (alas, 1080i HD resolutions don't help them much ;-)

UPDATE: Lifehacker has a followup post on some advanced features of XBMC that is also worth a read

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mac'ing It: Living in a Multi-Computer World

With the new Mac in the house, it's been time to adjust how I manage basic logistics (backups, email, calendars, etc)

The situation is complicated by also running MS Vista on my new machine (via Parallels Desktop in a virtual machine)

Clearly, we're all going to have to deal with more and more virtual computers over time, even if they're all running on the same hardware. Virtualization is amazingly powerful and convenient, but keeping the basics (contacts, files, bookmarks, etc.) in sync between all these environments becomes a challenge.

Here is what I've settled on to keep my OSX environment in sync with my online environment, and MS Vista and MS Windows XP environments.

Email, Calendar, and Address Book
Email is probably the easiest. For years my primary personal email environment has been Yahoo Mail. With near infinite storage and universal access via the web, it has worked great. Have had the downside of no off line email access when traveling, but the convenience of having email on any computer I walk up to has made up for it.

(Un)Fortunately, the Mac has some pretty powerful integration between the built in Address Book app and the built in Mail app. Honestly, having lived in NeXT Mail for almost a decade, not using in OSX was never an option.

I configured to download my Yahoo mail via POP, and leave messages on the server so I can still have web access from Vista and other environments. The only annoyance is that does not delete mail on POP servers when you delete in Instead, you have to bring up the info panel for the Yahoo mailbox, find all the messages that are deleted on the Mac but still on the server, and press a button to delete them from the server. Works fine, and I'll probably set up a script at some point to automate it.

Addresses/Contacts and Calendar entries are another issue. Fortunately the latest version of Plaxo is spectacular in sync'ing various environments. I have a free Plaxo account that keeps my Yahoo, Google, and OSX environments in sync for calendars and address book (also supports hotmail and Outlook sync, but I don't use those). Works like a charm. I highly recommend it for everyone. (FYI, Plaxo has come a long way from their amazingly annoying incarnation several years ago...this is a first class service)

Web browsing and Bookmarks
Internet Explorer and Safari are both nice browsers, but I've been a Firefox user for a while. So I don't go crazy, my requirement was the same brower (with same plug-ins) and same bookmarks under both OSX and Windows.

Solution was to stay with Firefox. All my favorite extensions work in both environments. Experience is essentially the same.

Wish I could have fun with all those cool Safari'isms, but the Windows version would have to mature a lot before I give up Firefox (OSX version as well)

One of my favorite Firefox extensions is OnlineBookmarkManager. It syncs you're Firefox bookmarks with an on-line service, and lets you keep multiple systems aligned. There are other services as well, but I wanted something simple and reliable (I don't need social networking around bookmarks, thanks).

There is the added benefit of always having an off site backup of your bookmarks in case you lose your hard drive.

Files and Backup
I haven't yet put together a clean hybrid solution for file and backup management.

When I had a pure windows environment, I used the "Offline Files" feature of Windows to cache a copy of my files on my home file server to my laptop. While at home, I connected directly to my file server. While away, I would still have access to the local copy on my laptop, and any changes would get sync'ed back to my file server when I got home.

Backup was a simple matter of backing up the file server (with the added benefit that files were usually on 2-3 hard drives in 2-3 different machines at any given time if I lost a drive).

Backups of the file server involved cloning the internal drive to an identical external drive. Recovery would involve popping the new drive in and rebooting. Ditto for my laptop.

Unfortunately, OSX does not have a notion of off line files. There are a variety of options to keep folders in sync, but I haven't found a good one. The .mac service apparently provides for syncing between Macs, but that doesn't help me.

My current hack involves sync'ing files from my file server to my MS Vista virtual machine partition. Using Parallels, I can at least have access to the files. Need to come up with something more rationale. Please give a holler if you have a workable solution to keeping ~20Gb in files in sync across multiple environments.

For system backup, I'm experimenting with the Moxy on-line backup service. So far, so good (2Gb free backup storage, $5/month for unlimited). If you want to try it out, follow this link. I get 256Mb additional storage for every referral ;-)

Carbon Copy Cloner seems to be the app of choice for clone Mac hard drives. I have a MyBook Pro external drive on order (has USB, Firewire 400/800, and eSATA connectors) that I will start using for clone backups of my various system drives. Given the Unix roots of OSX, I can't imagine any issues with CCC.

We currently have an HP all in one printer attached to a Netgear wireless print server. Works great from our Windows boxes, but no Mac support for the Netgear.

Fortunately the Netgear uses standard LPD for communicating over the network, and the Mac is a Unix box under the hood.

Fortunately, our HP has Mac drivers. Unfortunately, the drivers are only for when the printer is connected directly to the Mac via USB. HP does not offer LPD drivers, and the various linux sites doesn't have a LPD driver that works either.

Solution right now is to walk up to the printer and plug it in when I want to print. Long term solution will be to find a printer that is well supported via LPD, or is a PostScript printer.

So far so good. Need to get the sync issue sorted out, but that should be addressable.

Get Out the Hot Cocoa in Hades

In the shocker of all shockers, Sun Microsystems, the company that recently changed its stock ticker from SUNW to JAVA to emphasize that it grown beyond its hardware roots as Standford University Network, has become an OEM for Microsoft server OS's to help them sell Sun hardware.

Ars Technica captures the Sun strategy map far better than I could ever hope to.

And of course, Fake Steve Jobs has his say. (fair warning: stop drinking your coffee/soda/whatever before looking at the 2nd link)

Modern Day Alchemy

bunnie (of hacking the original Xbox fame) has been posting a series of absolutely fascinating pieces on his blog about working with the manufacturing processes in China.

The video clips really give you a sense of what's happening, and bunnie is an excellent engineer/correspondent. His new company Chumby is ramping manufacturing in China, and he's bringing us along for the ride (before you ask, I've already filed a grievance with their VP Product for getting on the "First 50" list).

If you have any interest in the ghost in the (global economic) machine, definitely worth a read.

There are countless "wow" and "a-ha" moments while reading these posts, but one that really sticks out is his post on what is required to keep all the factory workers fed:
Again, the scale of some food operations is pretty impressive. I heard that Foxconn–the place that makes the iPods and iPhones–consumes 3,000 pigs a day. I saw this truck of pigs going off the exit on the highway toward Foxconn, and it reminded me of that factoid.

From pigs to iPhones! It all happens right here in Shenzhen.

Clearly, modern day alchemy is no longer about transmuting lead into gold, but rather pigs into iPods.

Monday, September 10, 2007


I was going to say something, but Fake Steve Jobs beat me to it.

Really REALLY big holes...

For those of us that wasted their elementary and middle school years seeing how deep you could dig a hole, deputydog has put together an amazing collection of 7 really really big holes...

The Bingham Canyon mine in Utah is particularly impressive. Apparently, the locals started digging the thing in 1863, and they're still going. So far, 3/4 miles deep and 2 1/2 miles wide (a damn darn big hole, as the locals would say)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Form over Feature/Function

One of the extraordinary things about being in the Mac world is the different mindset that you see in the applications and the application community. Design philosophy not only matters, but people actually know what it means.

After years in the PC space, I had gotten used to the relentless focus on feature/function in the various applications. "Things" were defined by long lists of features and the details of the functions they supported.

If you're lucky, these feature/functions may be grouped by some metaphor. Alas, you usually had to deal with competing metaphors from the 5 different teams that worked on the app (or 100 teams if you're talking MS Office)

If you're extremely lucky, the application designer may have applied some goal-centric design to streamline the app.

More often than not, competitive pressures in the PC application space required developers to put an insanely number of features into the app to remain competitive with the other folks that had 1000s of features in their app.

With that grounding, I was overjoyed to stumble upon the game changing Quicksilver for OSX. Although I'm sure the iGeeks could describe what it is (I'm still an apprentice), I find it a very difficult application to describe.

Thankfully, the author gave a very interesting (and must see) tech talk at Google on the subject that is available for viewing. There are also some nice on line tutorials available, which may be a better place to start.

What I find most interesting about Quicksilver is the movement from applications from a collection of feature/function (spell check, email, etc.) to application as a metaphor (desktop, recycle bin, etc.) to application as conversation based on a grammar.

Rather than interacting with a program (feature function) or a proxy for a thing (metaphor), you are now have a conversation with the application using a simple grammar.

In the case of Quicksilver, start typing a noun (word, file name, application name, etc) and pick your "thing" from a list, then pick the verb for what you want done to that "thing". For example, "Birthday photos.jpg", "Email to (compose)", "mom".

In selecting your noun, you're invoking a desktop search engine that intelligently adapts to your search style based on what you select. For example, if you type "pd" and select "Parallels", next time that app will be at the top of the selection list as you type "pd".

Based on the type of noun, there are then a fixed set of verbs that are appropriate things to do with that noun. As you plug in additional capabilities, the list of verbs grows.

The neat thing is that working with Quicksilver feels a lot like working with a person for the first time. Early on you need to make extra effort to make sure you're on the same page when discussing things, but over time you move to a kind of short hand. Human/computer interaction as conversation.

The authors Google tech talk video briefly alludes to the author's work on Abracadabra for gestural control (non-verbal) as a complement to the text focus of Quicksilver, and speaks to the minimalist philosophy behind the app. By using hotkeys and gestures as short hand for "sentences" (for example, circle to select, and a loop to delete), you can get to the next level of transparency in communicating your intentions.

Definitely worth checking out.

...Going to Party Like It's 1989...

After many many years of Windows purgatory, I recently purchased on of the new 17" MacBook Pros. Last several days have been a lot of fun, and definitely a nostalgia tour.

I haven't owned an Apple since my trusty Apple ][+ WAY back in the day (my first computer). I believe it was one of the very first Apple ][+'s sold in the state of Florida. Somehow persuaded my parents to give me a loan to get it ($2000 at the time was a lot of coin!), but it led to all sorts of good work through junior high and high school, teaching community college courses in BASIC, etc. Eventually sold the beast to get an Atari 800 (far better for gaming and game programming...amazing computer back in the day).

I was a Mac user through college, but was never able to afford my own. In grad school, my good friend Terry was going on and on about how amazing the new NeXT computers were. They were also insanely expensive. Finally in 1989, he convinced me to take the plunge with the new NeXT slabs. At the time, my campus and research group was heavily Unix-based, with everything from VT-100 terminals (real ones) to the just emerging DEC workstations for those lucky enough. I managed to persuade my advisor to move our lab from VT-100s and a couple shared Macs to NeXT machines.

At the time, the NeXT machines were amazing. I figured they were at least 10 years ahead of their time. Now, 18 years later, in playing with OS X on the MacBook Pro, it's clear that it was at least 15 years ahead of it's time.

Managed to stay with NEXTSTEP through 1998, then VERY painfully forced myself to switch to Windows NT (was in a corporate environment by then and it was too difficult to work with others). At the time, one of the more difficult things I had ever done.

Now, 9 years later, it is very surreal to pop open and fire up emacs and fiddle with NetInfo from the command line. The surface is a whole lot prettier, but the core is the NEXTSTEP that I never quite got over.

As an aside, I'm loving this new box. Using Parallels, able to run Vista in a virtual machine under OSX so maintaining the best of both worlds. OSX and the Mac apps are of course gorgeous. As I get up and going, I'll post some lessons learned for others that may be considering switching. Also, some tricks to keep all these various environments in sync with one another (virtual machines are awesome, but it is really hard to keep them aligned).

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

All I want for Christmas is a Super Capicitor

From Ars Technica comes a bit of geek news I've been waiting for years to read.

Apparently a company in Texas is working on a new type of capacitor that would replace traditional batteries. Capacitors make incredibly good sense for power storage, except for that pesky charge density problem (they just can't store that much umph unless they are huge). The Texas company is rumored to have a solution to that problem.

Having a viable solution to portable power storage would be game changing. Unlike computation power, memory, storage, etc. that have all enjoyed explosions in capacity, batteries have not been riding a wave of innovation.

A viable clean, high density, instant charge capacitor-based power storage system would turn a lot of what we currently do (from driving, to phones, to solar/wind/wave power to load leveling of power consumption in large offices) completely upside down.

Let's hope it actually works.

Peach Ice Cream

(NOTE: Since my sister informed me that these ice cream posts were becoming a bit obsessive, this is my last ice cream post for the season. Fortunately, it is also the end of ice cream season ;-)

With coffee, vanilla and chocolate hazelnut ice cream under our belt, and the freezer well stocked with chocolate hazelnut for the kids, I wanted to take advantages of the fresh peaches we get this time of year to try a fruit ice cream.

Once again, I used the previously successful vanilla ice cream recipe as a starting point, and experimented until the flavors seemed right.
Serious Peach Ice Cream
(with apologies to Alton Brown)

2 cups half-and-half
1 cup whipping cream
1/3 cup sugar
1 12 oz. jar of high quality peach preserves (not jelly)
2 vanilla bean, split and scraped (or 1 high quality bean)
1 1/2 fresh peaches, peeled and finely chopped (1 peach if large)

Combine all ingredients except the fresh peaches (including the beans and their pulp) in a large saucepan and place over medium heat. Attach a frying or candy thermometer to inside of pan. (see note below) Stirring occasionally, bring the mixture to 170 degrees F. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Remove the hull of the vanilla beans, pour mixture into lidded container and refrigerate mixture overnight to mellow flavors and texture.

Freeze mixture in ice cream freezer according to unit's instructions. The mixture will not freeze hard in the machine. 5-10 minutes before freezing is complete, put fresh peaches in the mixer and start up again. Once the volume has increased by 1/2 to 3/4 times, and reached a soft serve consistency, spoon the mixture back into a lidded container and harden in the freezer before serving (8 hours in our freezer).

NOTE: If you do not have a thermometer, bring the mixture just barely to a simmer. As soon as you see a bubble hit the surface, remove it from the heat. Do not let it boil.

For this recipe, make sure to use a high quality peach preserve (this is where most of the flavor comes from). I went with a fancy Swiss brand. Cut the sugar back from 1 cup to 1/3 a cup because of the sweetness already in the preserves

For this batch, I used 2 vanilla beans instead of one. This is because the new batch of beans I purchased are no where near as fragrant and intense as the first batch. Lesson learned: vanilla beans can vary by factors of 2-3 in flavor and intensity.

This batch was nice, but I was hoping for more peach flavor. Larger chunks of peach were also fairly unpleasant, since they came across as frozen chunks of ice (at least until the meltd)

For the next time, I think I'm going to give up on the peach perserves, and puree a large amount of fresh peaches. My hope is to get more peach flavor, and keep things smooth.

The girls do not care for peach ice cream. Even the little bit of peach in the vanilla recipe was enough to put them off. Looks like dad is going to have a lot of peach ice cream to eat this winter.