Thursday, November 30, 2006

Vista Matter

So Microsoft's big news is that they're finally unveiling their breakthrough new operating system. And what are the breakthroughs? Well, it won't crash as much, and it won't be as vulnerable to attacks by every freshman comp. sci major with too much spare time. Whoop-de-doo!

Ok, there's nothing original about bashing Microsoft. They're trying. In some ways, the sheer volume of their sales means there are bound to be disgruntled customers. They deserve some credit for trying to re-gruntle them.

My biggest complaint with Microsoft is not faults with Windows or the Office applications. (Those are littler complaints.) My biggest beef is that developing software just isn't any fun anymore. When I started writing software, back in the days of the abacus, you'd think of what you wanted to do, and get it working within a day or so. Running it would then give you more ideas about what it could do, and you'd start coding again. There was a feedback loop of writing code to solve a problem, and then seeing opportunities to generalize the code to handle more and different problems.

Now I know all the history of software engineering as a discipline, with procedures for developing specifications, designing, implementing, testing, etc. I have no problem with that. What I object to is that now I spend probably 80% of my implementation time on complying with various APIs, interfaces, protocols and conventions. That leaves 20% (minus other overhead) for actually doing the fun stuff. And for that, I think the structure and definition of the Microsoft SDKs, frameworks and APIs are largely to blame.

I'll elaborate on this later.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The non-post post

Sorry. No time to post today. I'm watching reruns of Grey's Anatomy to catch up for tomorrow night. (I know ... I said I don't watch commercial TV. My wife got hooked on this show.) I'm sure never going to want to have surgery after this.

After suffering through back and leg pain all summer, and having an MRI confirm that I have sciatica from a herniated lumbar disc, and waiting yet another month to finally see a neurosurgeon, I was told I should definitely have the discectomy surgery, because the condition had not resolved itself in the 3 months that it normally takes. I chose to get second opinion.

After waiting another month to see a spine specialist, I was told not to have surgery. It takes 6 to 8 months for this condition to resolve itself, and apparently in that last month of waiting, things had finally started to improve. So now, a month after that, I feel great! From May through October, I was in constant pain, 24/7, especially when sitting, driving, putting on my socks, etc. I still get the pain occasionally, but it's infrequent.

Lo and behold, a new study last week confirms that waiting is just as effective as surgery for this herniated disc/sciatica condition.

All of which goes to prove nothing, except that I had more time than I thought.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

eConomics

eBay has had a major impact on the global junk market. People are crawling through their attics and basements looking for those hard-to-find treasures they can fob off on other unsuspecting ... er, appreciative buyers. Parents shopping for their kids buy an extra toy for themselves, kept pristine in all the original packaging, for the purpose of extorting money from a collector at some future date.

I expected eBay would have one of three effects on the market for "yard sale" quality goods: prices might stay the same, or they might go up, or they might go down. (I'm such a shrewd analyst.) Specifically, I figured prices on most items would go way up, when eBay shoppers first discover obscure, long sought items. After the spike, however, I expected prices to go down, as everyone started dredging up old junk, and the once rare Elvis ashtray or Gangsta Barbie suddenly appeared in profusion across a wide range of inappropriate categories.

From the few categories of items I actually check out, however, it appears that prices have stayed about the same. I think this means the number of buyers has grown faster than the number of sellers, so even though more people are cleaning out their garages, there are yet more and more buyers to bid up the prices on this stuff.

It also means that buyers don't have a clue what things are worth. I know, I know. Things are worth what people are willing to pay for them. Putting the word "rare" in an auction title automatically raises the price by 15%. Putting in big pictures makes the item more valuable than smaller pictures.

With all the social networking sites out there, like MySpace and LinkedIn and whatever, I'm surprised eBay hasn't tried to take advantage of this. After all, you can form instant connections with other people around the world who are into Elvis ashtrays and Gangsta Barbies.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Water Cooler or the Spigot?

I run about 25 Yahoo! groups, and one large, busy Mailman list. I have also run lists with Majordomo, Onelist and eGroups in the past. I also belong to a number of mailing lists that I don't own or moderate.

From all this, it seems to me that there are two basic philosophies about e-mail lists (often mistakenly called listservs, after one of the early software packages to support this.) Some people regard lists as a kind of virtual water cooler ... a place to hang out and talk about whatever comes to mind, often but not always related to whatever the participants have in common. Thus a list for taxidermists may have discussions on where to get "authentic" pizza, which political candidates can most easily be likened to Hitler, and who has a video of the last episode of Lost to lend.

The other view is that an e-mail list is like a spigot. I join the taxidermists list because I want to talk and hear about taxidermy. If I want to talk about other things, I can join the pizza list, or the Hitlerian candidate list, or the Lost list. When I turn on my hot water, I don't want radiator fluid to come out, even if it's really awesome radiator fluid.

Invariably, there will be people frustrated with whichever approach the list moderators take. There's no walking the line. Some moderators have created two lists ... an on-topic list and a chat list. In my experience, this is about as effective as a "Yield" sign on the highway.

I'm firmly in the spigot camp, but I've learned to let the lists I moderate seek their own center. I get occasional complaints from one side or the other, but I can live with that.

I have a bunch of other pet peeves about e-mail lists, but I'll save those for a future posting.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Confession

I don't have an iPod or other MP3 player. My cell phone plan has no minutes. I don't have a laptop computer. The CD player in my car has been broken for over a year. I can't remember the last time I watched a commercial TV show.

Sometimes I like just to be where I am.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Restarting

Why is it that so much software requires restarting your computer during, or after, installation? Or both? When I worked on Unix and similar operating systems, we installed, removed and re-installed with reckless abandon. What is this software doing that's do intimately connecting with operating system that it simply cannot be installed without completely rebooting the system?

For years, science fiction movies depicted computers as being vulnerable to paradoxes. Heroes in tight-fitting clothes would defeat the evil computer by posing an unanswerable question, thus causing the computer to spin its tapes and flash its lights helplessly for a few seconds before erupting in smoke and sparks, proving yet again the indomitable superiority of humankind. For years, we scoffed at those movies, joking about what an absurd depiction of cybernetics they offered.

But danged if those old movies and TV shows didn't get it right! In fact, they overstated the case for computers. You don't even need to pose an unanswerable question. All you need to do is try to install the latest word processors or Web browsers or graphics software. Sometimes not even that.

When I first started writing BASIC programs in high school, we used to dream of crashing the remote time-sharing system to which we were connected. Now I have a thousand times that much computer power under my desk, and I dream about getting through the day without having to restart.

Progress.

Friday, November 24, 2006

It's An Ad Ad Ad Ad World

You may have heard the buzz about Web 2.0. The Internet is the computer. Everything will be Web-mediated, allowing you to share documents, spreadsheets, blogs and video clips with people scattered across the face of the globe. And it will all be free!

Well, not actually free. It will exact a price from you which is the most valuable commodity to marketers, and the one thing you can never recover once paid ... your attention. All Google and the other Web 2.0 pioneers want is some portion of your attention ... your ears, your eyes, and a share of your brain ... to give them an opportunity to sell you something.

This shouldn't come as a surprise to us. The entire broadcast industry has been founded on this principle since its inception. The programming is free, but you pay by having to live through the commercials, whether you watch them or not. It's like those timeshare deals where you win a free vacation but you have to spend a few hours in a locked room listening to a high pressure sales pitch.

Advertising has a sort of manifest destiny to completely overwhelm all of human experience. Billboards on highways, commercials on TV, product placements in movies, buildings and sports venues named for the highest bidder, newspapers and magazines with less than 50% actual content. Heck, even this blog has Google ads at the bottom.

Moreover, as technology makes it easier to skip ads, by fast-forwarding or pop-up blocking, the ads become more intertwined with the content, until it becomes impossible to separate them. Even now, there are marketing ploys in which people are payed to start conversations with strangers on topics that lead to product or service recommendations.

Qualcomm provided an interesting choice with its Eudora e-mail program. You could run it for free, but have ads placed on the screen, or pay for it and run it with no ads. This makes perfect sense. You get to choose. Evidently, this model didn't work for Qualcomm, which is now planning to make Eudora free and open source, a polite way of saying they're giving up on it.

In general, the free/fee model will succumb, and you will be subjected to advertising whether you pay for your content or not. Then all content will be just a way to attract attention to the ads. Your books, movies and music will all have paid plugs woven into the content. So-called news reports will be thinly disguised industry or government promotions. Even scientific research will be "owned" by sponsors who will dictate the findings.

Oh wait! This has already happened.

Sorry I couldn't make this funnier.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Reflecting on Anniversaries

Today, on this 43 anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it would be appropriate to reflect on the state of leadership and political will in this country.

But I'm not going to do that. Instead, I'm thinking about numbers, and why 10th, 25th, 50th and 100th anniversaries seem so significant. For some, I think it's the odometer effect ... the fun of watching the car's odometer turn 100 or 1000 or 10000 or 100000 miles, and seeing all those 0's appear. (It used to be more fun when the numbers were printed on little plastic wheels.) After all, this is exactly why so much of the population was determined to celebrate the dawn of the 2nd millenium a year too early.

But what about 25th and 50th anniversaries? Is it just because those are interesting fractions of 100?

The whole concept of anniversaries has gotten out of hand. Ancient Egyptians developed a calendar so they could predict when the Nile would flood, bringing fertile topsoil with it. But now we use the year to measure our ages, determine when we should celebrate or commemorate past events, and know how often our insurance will let us visit the dentist. The year and its multiples have become so ingrained in our thinking that we characterize them by historical trends and developments. Oh, the sixties was the hippie decade, the seventies the disco era, etc. And the nineteenth century was so ... well, nineteenth century. It's as if some part of the human psyche ticked along with the atomic clocks, and underwent some transformation at midnight.

What's behind all this? Could it be that we have a fundamental need to see all of experience as cyclical, to take comfort in the repetition of patterns like seasons?

Damned if I know. Hey, my high school class was such a bunch of procrastinators, they had a big 26th reunion party!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Interactive TV

I don't understand all the excitement over this new technology called Interactive TV. To my mind, the one and only virtue of TV is that it is NOT interactive. I firmly believe in every citizen's right to sit in his or her underwear, feet up on the coffee table, immured in beer and potato chips, and stare moronically at the flickering phosphors of the TV set, or home entertainment system as we like to say nowadays. I will defend to the death this basic right, as long as it's during a commercial.

I don't mean to criticize all the technologists and scientists who even now are working feverishly to bring this miracle to our homes. I'm sure their motives are purely altruistic, and they see no other consequence of this technology than the enrichment of our lives, and the betterment of our planet for generations to come. Why else would they do it? I, however, unrecoverable cynic that I am, view this all as a plot to deprive me, and others like me (numbering in the ones) of our precious mental inertia. Remember that old notion, inertia? That's the law that says: "A body at rest tends to remain at rest, unless acted upon by his wife." Well, that applies to minds as well as bodies.

Now before you get the wrong idea, let me explain that the mind is most active, most creatively fertile, while watching TV. What could be more stimulating than contemplating the possibility, however remote, that Simon Cowell will again bruskly dismiss another would-be Idol? Or that the interns on Gray's Anatomy will unwittingly divulge the most intimate details of their sexual exploits to their patients? And what, of course, could possibly provide more mental stimulation than professional wrestling?

And if you don't want all that mental activity, there's always the evening news.

So I say we must fight against interactive TV. Stand up for ... ok, well sit down for your right to remain passive. Whatever.

Introduction

Ok, so I have a love/hate relationship with technology. I love checking out the latest and greatest gadgets. I want wall-to-wall flat panel TV screens, all HDTV/DVD/PS3/Wii enabled, with multi-function remotes, etc. I want GPS, GSM, GPRS, WiFi, 16 Mp, 4 GB and all that that entails.

On the other hand, none of this will work for more than 6 months. The MTBF ("Mean time between failure") of these gadgets is somewhat less than the time to get them home. Everything's made of the flimsiest possible materials, the poorest quality construction, and the lamest design as far as usable buttons, readable menus, etc.

And if it does last 6 months, it will be obsolete anyway.

So, this will be a place where I rant about technology in general, and about digital media in particular. I may occasionally sprinkle in some helpful information. Please excuse these lapses in judgment.

Note:
Everything in here is copyrighted as hell! You can look, but don't touch.