2010-05-21

It's the premises, stupid.

Just like "Father" the book "The Evolution Man", by Roy Lewis, I sometimes try to see myself, and my surroundings from an outside perspective and I worry about the speed at which we are evolving.

Of course, I am not speaking of our biological evolution, but the fact that sometimes it takes us an awful lot of time to get it

It should also be noted that I am not talking about mere change, but how we are able to internalize ideas, changing premises and new insights in a useful manner.  Change is perfectly able to occur without the companionship of understanding -- as the content industry, and the feeble politicians foolish enough to indulge them, have so brilliantly demonstrated.

We are sadly afflicted with a tendency towards ignoring that fundamental changes do occur with some regularity.  Yet we like to think of the world as constant -- even thought we show no hesitation in paying lip service to, and coldly observing, that change does take place, and yes, sometimes with dramatic effects.

We make fun of those who with regular intervals in our past claimed that we had discovered everything there was to discover and that the future of human knowledge and thought would mostly concern itself with modest refinement of what we already knew.  Yet essentially we are no better; we are still struggling even to learn from our recent past and to make even the most obvious projections into the future.

Today, what made me ask myself how come we are so incredibly boneheaded was an article in which someone opined on what our ambitions for broadband connectivity should be in Norway.  With ambitions as low as these it is hard to decide if one should pity them for their obvious lack of even the most rudimentary ability to project the future or if one should chastise them for inexcusable intellectual sloth.

This isn't fucking rocket science, you know.

2010-05-19

Bodily harm

I am constantly amazed at what people think of as beautiful.  Lately I have been trying to adjust the colors of my TV set.  There seems to be an abundance of orange people on TV.  No, I am not talking about people with a tan and I have not suddenly become a racist.  I am talking about orange people. A color that in nature only occurs in certain fruits and vegetables, save for the odd poisonous frog or squeaky feathery things used to accessorize unpleasant tracts of moist forestry.

After realizing my TV is just dandy vis-a-vis color balance I have started to notice them in real life as well.  Holy cow, they are everywhere.  Just the other day I saw a completely orange girl with what might have been naturally colored lips -- though her oddball skin tone made them look like the lips of a victim of prolonged water inhalation.  If it hadn't been for her distractingly gaudy discoloration she would probably have been a rather pretty girl.  Perhaps even sexy.  However I was not able to mobilize a single impure thought; and I suddenly got a strange craving for carrots and dip.

I am not sure whether we are talking paintjob or a diet seriously skewed towards orange foods in pill form.   In any case I assume that it is something they subject to voluntarily.

The specimen I observed this morning was probably the result of a more expensive and drastic exercise in self-disfigurement.  I was observing this couple during some sort of ritual in which they took turns trying to digest the other person's face.  At first glance they appeared to be about the same age -- a mid-forties couple.  As they drew nearer my estimate of their respective ages shifted -- and not necessarily in favor of the lady.

She had that puffy, swollen just-got-out-of-bed-look about her face, and combined with battered, dry, peroxide hair my internal prejudice-engine mapped her to one of two uncharitable stereotypes.  As she spoke to her companion it turned out to be stereotype number two -- that is: not be the stereotype of wayward scandinavian birdbrain on leave from a life of gathering shiny objects on, or about, Rodeo Drive.   -"Da, iz good. I think we make flight".

However, upon further study there was conflicting data.  Indeed, the face, into which untold quantities of unhealthy substances must have been injected (no doubt with a syringe that would make an elephant whinge), hinted at a mature woman.  But the skin covering the sternocleidomastoideus looked uncharacteristically elastic.  Furthermore, as my gaze made its mandatory trip down her neckline I observed a notable absence of leather.  When I say that she had a rack like a teenager I am not talking about topology, but texture.  (Topology alone produces inconclusive evidence since it can be engineered -- and pleasingly so if done in moderation. Surface texture, not so much).

In other words, she was probably a good 15 years younger than she looked.  Which begs the question:  why would anyone voluntarily subject to treatments that make them look a good decade and a half older!?  I bet she would have looked stunning if she hadn't had those awful things done to her face.

2010-05-18

One lap...er..computer per child.

While the One Laptop Per Child initiative is a laudable one, I think the project in its current incarnation is a dead end.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of these devices a couple of years ago and the first thing that struck me was that the OS was not made for humans, but for aliens.  It took me a long time to make sense of it.  There seemed to be a faulty assumption that since its prospective users were unfamiliar with computers they would need a radically different UI.  I hadn't given this much thought back when the XO came out, so I thought this might be the right thing to do, but a few years down the line I see it as a boneheaded move.

(It would seem there was even a bit of inappropriate cultural sensitivity built into this misguided design -- perhaps they were afraid of being accused of cultural imperialism?) 

In any case I think this did more to underline a divide than to bridge a gap.

The second problem with the device was that it assumes that a laptop is the right form-factor.  Admittedly, at the time I was guilty of thinking this myself.

I think the ideal computer of the under-privileged has more in common with what we commonly refer to smart phones:  a much smaller device that in addition to being a computer is also a phone.  For everyday use a touch-screen should be good enough.  Perhaps a bit bigger than a typical iPhone or Android phone screen for cost/readability tradeoff, but  judging by my own extended use of such devices for browsing and reading, these are actually well into the realm of the usable.

For extended use I think that a simple external keyboard and an outlet for a screen would make the device more versatile.  Since there is a huge installed base of TVs it should be possible to create inexpensive interfaces.

The cost of devices that are powerful enough to serve as a base line computing platform is coming down every quarter.  Our obsession with smart phones in the west is bringing the manufacturing costs down rapidly.  And while the fast-paced adoption of mobile phones in developing countries is currently somewhat limited to very primitive devices, I think we will see more advanced devices gain wide adoption in these markets in a few years.

Head kept in a dark place.

In a recent interview Mr Chuck Geschke, co-chairman of Adobe, suggested that Adobe Photoshop and Acrobat Reader were not subpar apps.   I'll quote the question and his response for accuracy:
JP: Cross-platform mobile apps tend not to take advantage of native features unique to each device. What do you have to say about complaints that write-once-run-anywhere software results in subpar apps?
CG: Well, people don’t say that about Photoshop. They certainly don’t say it about Acrobat….I’m a little confused about what the real examples of that are. If there’s a problem with the performance of Flash as demonstrated on the iPhone, it’s because we haven’t been able to access the inner layers of hardware and software we need to to provide the kind of performance we can provide on other platforms. But that’s Apple’s choice, not ours. And now, of course, you can’t use it at all.
Technically, I would have to say that he is partially right about Adobe Photoshop.  Since there is very little real competition to Photoshop their product more or less defines the category.  Photoshop is the benchmark to which every contender is compared and thus defines what is par for the course.

That being said, not that much has happened with regard to usability.  For some mysterious reason, oft-used features are still hidden several clicks away in a rather arcane UI and Photoshop still feels very heavy, sluggish.  You can do that when you have no competition, and while Adobe hasn't been quite as bad as Microsoft were with Internet Explorer, leading to almost a decade of stagnation on the web, they haven't been doing a great job.

When it comes to Adobe Acrobat Mr Geschke's response is quite interesting.  Does he really think that users like Adobe Acrobat?  How can it have escaped him that in the past decade Acrobat has become the poster-app for bloated, unnecessarily complex, and slow software with an awkward UI?  A dubious honor previously held by such contemptible pieces of software as the RealPlayer.

The most charitable explanation is that Mr. Geschke is clueless.

I'll leave the less charitable explanations as an exercise to the reader.  In any case Mr Geschke would do well to make use of the PDF viewer built into MacOS X' Preview application.  Adobe Acrobat is like an annoying supporting actor in a play -- behaving like its name is at the top of the poster and thus expecting everyone to be accepting of rude, obnoxious, primadonna behavior.  A PDF viewer is a supporting actor and the dangerously obese primadonna that is Acrobat isn't worth the time.

As a software developer I get the impression that Adobe's developers are pushed to deliver features rather than improving the quality of the products.  In particular in their older applications.  If you know anything at all about developing software, you'll know that software that is actively being developed over time, and by a changing group of people,  accumulates defects.  More importantly, over time the premises change.  Operating systems change, the kind of features expected by the users change, even the way we solve problems in software changes.  This means that software architecture, and microarchitecture, that looked reasonable a few years ago may be outdated today.  For a developer this means that over time the cost of adding new features becomes higher.  Each passing year it becomes harder and harder to work with the code -- until you reach the point where your developers will have a hard time motivating themselves to get out of bed at all in the morning;  knowing that their day will be an uphill battle with ever more fragile and inelegant software.

As for Flash, I for one will not be sorry to see it go.  Flash is a technology that has stunted the growth of the web as a usable information platform for far too long.  A distraction from doing things properly.  An instant gratification solution to provide snazzy visuals at the expense of function and utility.  At the expense of being able to keep content more malleable, readable and useful.

While I abhor the draconian terms imposed unto developers by Steve Jobs, I'd be willing to look the other way if it rids us of Flash.  If you are infected with leprosy and someone comes up with a cure that can rid you of the disease at the cost of a few weeks of nausea, you would probably be inclined to tolerate that -- addressing the nausea once the more more threatening condition has been taken out of the equation.  Of the two evils, a Flash-infested web, or Steve Jobs screwing over developers for his products, the latter is definitively the lesser since the former affects everyone whether they want to or not.

And Mr. Geschke,  it would behoove you to try to be more in touch with reality.  I cannot imagine that your duty towards Adobe shareholders is well served by you sputtering obvious nonsense in the press.  It reflects badly on your company.

2010-05-14

Tinkering

About a year ago I started building up a bit of inventory to be able to tinker with electronics.  If you want to build stuff you need a fair selection of components unless you are going to order them one by one from the net.  For resistors and electrolytic capacitors it is generally easy to find cheap assortments of different values.  If you are a newbie, it is a bit more work to build up a nice inventory of useful semiconducturs;  the ones you need are invariably components that can handle a bit of juice.


I wish there were retail stores that sold components and tools where I live.  Of course, you have Clas Ohlsson, but at best they'll have only the most rudimentary electronics components and tools.  Hoping that they would start to carry a wider assortment of components and tools is fairly optimistic, so I guess we need a more specialized shop.  Preferably one run by enthusiasts who are good at selecting good components.  I read the blog of sparkfun.com yesterday and those people seem to put some effort into their selection.

I've also been on the lookout for people to set up a workshop somewhere.  The problem is that most people do not have the time and energy to organize this -- and I am like most people.  It would be nice to have somewhere to store all my projects and my gear.  Somewhere downtown where you can make a bit of noise and smoke, which has an Internet connection and where you can lock the door and trust all your stuff is still there when you come back the next time.

"Dirty tricks"-style SEO

I have a few Google Alerts registered to keep track of search terms that I am interested in.  Every day I get an email or two about new pages that contain hits from these search terms.

Over the last year, quite a few of the hits are from a very obvious spamming effort.  Every so often there are new pages being discovered by Google that, in rather pathetic terms, is singing the praise of a guy who has no doubt paid someone to repair his online reputation.  The modus operandi seems to be quite simple:
  • Create a bunch of blogs
  • Fill them with random, vaguely topical postings that are very obvious cut-n-paste jobs (dear spammer: when you cut and paste section headings you should at least take the trouble of typesetting them differently than the paragraph text to make the cut and paste less obvious)
  • Add one posting that sings the praise of the individual on whose behalf you are spamming.
The one posting per blog that contains the information this effort is designed to inject into Google is not without hilarity.  The advertising copy is somewhere between the enthusiasm for self that is so common in american resumes and the heroic exploits of certain North Korean leaders.  I am expecting a Nobel Prize to be awarded to the fellow any day now.

I wouldn't dream of reporting these blogs as spam though.  If someone performing a background check on the fellow were to find these pages I would not want to rob them of a good giggle.  This is the Internet-reputation-repair equivalent of a bad comb-over and thus constitutes its own punishment.

2010-05-12

Mobile banking

Online banking is a pain in the ass.  Just to log in I have to use that silly keygenerator.  Which means the keygenerator is all-important -- if I misplace it I can't access my bank for days.  So the key-generator stays at home in a fixed place so I know where to find it.  Which means that the online banking stuff doesn't help me one bit while I am on the road.  Or when I am not in my home office for that matter.

One solution would be if the bank allowed me to have multiple key generators and they made sure that they are ruggedized, so they won't break.  Perhaps then I'd put one on my keychain so I could always have it with me.

A better solution would be if my bank made a proper app that doesn't require the key generator and that lets me access a subset of my banking services.  Perhaps limited to only accessing only one account and imposing some limits on how much money I can transfer.

One of the things I really would like is to be able to queue up bills from my mobile.  Preferably by being able to OCR the account numbers and KID (specific to Norway) numbers.  Or better yet, by encouraging companies that make billing software to print QR-codes that can easily be scanned.  QR-codes would be less error prone than OCR. 

If I could add bills from my mobile, queue them up and then approve them later while I am at my workstation or laptop at home, that would actually be a good first step.  The first bank to offer this in Norway:  I'll be opening an account with you.

2010-05-11

End-to-end integration.

Yesterday I achieved end-to-end integration: EMC2 speaking to the CNC machine I've been building.    This is the machine running some sample G-code:



There is still a number of things that need to be done:
  • Calibrate the stepper driver boards.  The X-axis stepper motor is still getting quite hot.  I've tried to tune it by ear, but I guess I need to hook up the multimeter and figure out how much current I am sending through the motor.
  • The limit-switches need to be mounted and wired up
  • I need to find a suitable box to mount the 24V PSU (I've been running on 13.5V so far) and the electronics.
  • Finish the carrier board for the stepper drivers and parallell port interface.
  • Configure it for Mach 3
  • Get a PSU for the spindle and a PWM-controller of some sort.
Getting EMC2 up and running was surprisingly easy.  Now, I did have the advantage of knowing a lot of the parameters ahead of time (the advantage of having built everything yourself), but I seriously had not expected that I would have a working setup just 10 minutes after I fired up the configuration wizard.

When I get some time I hope to document in more detail how everything is hooked up.

2010-05-07

Downfall

A couple of weeks ago Constantin Films took steps to have a clip from the movie "Der Untergang" ("The Downfall") removed from YouTube.

If you've been living under a rock for the past years the significance of this may need a brief explanation.  A clip from the movie in which Hitler berates his generals as he realizes the war is lost has been used for parodic purposes.  People would upload the scene in question, but with their own subtitles -- so that in the parodies (if parody is the right term) Hitler is upset about everything from being kicked off Xbox Live to Apple's iPad.  The video is now considered one of the important Internet memes.



In having the clips removed from Youtube Constantin Films demonstrated, at best, that they are culturally ignorant and possibly incompetent when it comes to marketing.  At worst they are guilty of abusing the Digital Millenium Copyright Act by issuing takedown notices for what is likely to fall under "fair use".  If so, Constantin Films could be liable for their actions if someone bothers to take this to court.

Since this might have some educational value for the movie industry I am hoping someone will try to take this to court.  There is a certain symmetry and beauty to the idea of bludgeoning the movie industry with the very laws they abuse to harass common folk.

But being a film production company you would think that they would be more sensitive to the cultural aspects.  Not only did these clips represent an important part of Internet culture, but it was also a great vehicle for promoting the movie itself.  Many people I know saw the movie after seeing the parodies on YouTube.  I can only try to imagine how extraordinarily feebleminded the people at Constantin Film AG are not to understand this.

It is also strange that they would exhibit such cultural insensitivity given that the movie itself was not without some controversy:  the nazi era is a extraordinarily touchy subject in Germany and not a topic that is approached lightly.

One would think that a production company that relies on a certain degree of tolerance to bring their product to market would likewise be ready to exhibit some tolerance towards other forms of cultural expressions.

Finally, this act of cultural vandalism is yet another reminder that something needs to be done about the rampant abuse of copyright law.

As a friend of mine noted: "Downfall" and "movie industry" are probably closely related terms in 2010...

2010-05-06

Charitable real estate

Apparently, when reddit.com had some downtime they displayed a link to a Haiti donation page.  I wasn't trying to access Reddit while it was down, so I didn't see it myself, but it would appear that they managed to raise quite a bit of money.

Given that some web sites front pages are incredibly valuable real estate this is a really good idea;  to display something more useful than "we're down".  I wish more sites would adopt this.