Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Headline Hunting

A little pop culture dissonance today with the headline: "Origins of wolverine in California genetically verified." Naturally, it took a beat for me to realize this has nothing to do with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which opens this weekend.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Who Needs Plasma Rings When You Can Use Lasers?

There is more than one (theoretical) way to produce power through fusion. One of them is to use an array of lasers to fire a high enough energy pulse at a fuel pellet to compress it to the point where fusion occurs. Very science fiction-y. But it took a step closer to being reality with the development of a method that allows the lasers to fire as often as once every ten seconds. I still hope to live long enough to see a commercial fusion reactor become a reality, and it's nice to see that progress is still being made.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Summer Project 2009: Introduction

Once upon a time, there was a man who programmed computers as a hobby. He liked it so much, he pursued it as a career. But work days were long and programming was mentally taxing, especially when doing it for real people with real money at stake. Still, he loved it, and every once in a while, when the demands of work shifted away from the bits he liked most, the urge to program a little something for himself would rise again. And then one day, he thought about the people who asked him what being a programmer involved and decided to do something stupid. He would begin work on an application he had wanted to do for years, and he would write about the process of developing it. It would be his Summer Project.

Sadly, this little tale of foolishness is a true story. I should warn you at the outset that my track record with summer projects isn't exactly stellar. The image of a southerner sitting on the veranda in a rocking chair sipping iced tea as the sun dips toward the horizon is classic for a reason: it gets hot and humid here during the summer months, often we don't have enough energy to do anything else. But it's currently spring, the dogwoods and azaleas are into their fullest color, and I'm still optimistic.

The project itself will be a simple application to help me track my money. I've been using Quicken for that purpose for years, and it does the job well. It's also overkill for my needs, and annoying in its constant attempts to show me features I don't use. But the real reason I want to get rid of it is because it uses a proprietary data format. I can't read the data using any other means than Quicken itself. It won't even migrate properly from the Windows version of Quicken to the Mac version. At some point something in Windows will change, my version of Quicken will stop working, and all that history I've accumulated will become inaccessible. And I wouldn't mind an app that could run on more platforms than just Windows too. Just in case.

And that's really all for the setup. I make no guarantees about actually finishing anything, or even getting to significant coding. Heck, you may never see this mentioned again. Hobby projects are like that sometimes. The main point of the exercise will be to demonstrate the kinds of things a programmer does, and hopefully learn some things along the way. I'm also not entirely sure of the tone and depth of writing this will need. Hopefully, it won't be too excruciatingly boring.

New Nuc For China and a Solar Buildup

Nuclear power remains the single universally usable source of economical, non-fossil fuel power. Here in America, new nuclear plants are non-existent, but Westinghouse is building its first Generation 3+ nuclear reactor in China. Apparently, not everyone over there favors it, as the Slashdot links demonstrate.

Nuclear power isn't my first choice, but solar still struggles to get its act together. However, signs of improvement continue happening in both research and the commercial market. Scientists are testing a new technique that uses single celled algae to triple the efficiency of thin film solar cells. Thin film cells have certain advantages over the typical silicon cells we picture when we think solar, but they are currently only half as efficient as the silicon variety. As for the commercial side, solar cities are getting a boost from two very different areas: a new wholly solar powered community in Florida and Rome. That's right, the Pope is trying to go from consuming Italy's power to being a power producer.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Designer Drug for Geeks

Take the shockingly popular, hugely compulsive hardcore MMO, World of Warcraft; add in the shockingly popular, hugely compulsive casual game Peggle. Millions of geeks just cried out in happiness, then were silenced. Because they couldn't log out.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Withdrawal Symptoms

Pressure is building in Iraq as well as America to put a date on the withdrawal of foreign forces. I suspect there are forces in America that would be just as happy if troop pullbacks started in late summer or early fall...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Time Sheds Light on Two Stories

I've got two links for you today with a common thread of needing time to sort out the truth.

A decade has passed since the tragic school killings at Columbine High School in Denver. The story that emerged from those days of outcast boys who played too many video games, were members of the "trench coat mafia," and were ridiculed by other students remains a fixture in the cultural landscape. It's also completely wrong. In depth journalism now reveals a very different, and ultimately more frightening tale of a true sociopath and just how bad the situation could have been. I've been a cynic about the 24 hour news culture for a long time now, but the depths to which the reporting on Columbine was wrong astonishes me. This is one you need to read.

Luckily, the second story isn't nearly as ominous, though it does have ties to dark times of the Cold War. The name Area 51 conjures up legend and myth in equal proportion, and to this day it doesn't officially exist. But now the government has started declassifying the A-12 OXCART program (a progenitor of the SR-71). For the first time, people who were stationed at the famous Nevada desert base can talk about their time there, and the stories are fascinating.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Follow-up on Bandwidth Capping

It looks like the outrage of the consumers has won the day against Time Warner Cable's scheduled bandwidth caps. The battle is won, but no doubt the war will continue. Also in the good news column: the router firmware I installed to monitor my bandwidth works like a charm.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Quote of the Moment

But on the first day of the week at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body.
--Luke 24:1-3

Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

This Just In: Monopolies are Bad for Consumers

Time Warner Cable has made the news for preparing to impose bandwidth caps with overage charges on their internet customers in three markets, including my home marked of Greensboro, NC. I'm not going to pretend to be neutral on this issue, since I'm obviously a heavy internet user. I'm against bandwidth caps, they will do nothing but raise my cable bill. I'm not the only one upset.

Stop the Cap! is a good clearing house for details, and it isn't exactly hiding its agenda either. Articles have shown up all over from people in the affected areas, including the local paper. People that use the internet to play games aren't happy. People that produce content for the internet aren't happy. And reporting shows that Time Warner is flat lying about why they are instituting the price increases (and make no mistake, a price increase is exactly what a bandwidth cap really is). It's also telling that the markets this "test" is happening in are areas where there isn't a comparable competitor to cable internet service, and Time Warner is the only cable provider.

All that said, I'm not entirely sure how much bandwidth I use on a monthly basis, but that's about to change. I've taken an old router that had a bad habit of resetting itself every few weeks and changed its internal software. One of the little things that router makers don't really like people to know is that the hardware for the $50 consumer router isn't much different from the far more expensive "business class" router. The software running on the router is a different story. The business class routers have far more options than the consumer ones, which is largely a good idea, since more features would just make an already confusing device even worse. On the other hand, thanks to Time Warner, I find myself in need of one of those advanced features: bandwidth monitoring. I have two computers and an XBox 360 attached to my internet connection, so having the router track bandwidth is going to give me a much more accurate picture far easier than I could get with another solution.

Enter the Open Source community and DD-WRT, router firmware* developed by people not involved with the routers' Original Equipment Manufacturers. DD-WRT runs on a wide variety of consumer routers, though using it voids your warranty. Installing the upgrade isn't quite trivial, but it's pretty close. If you can configure a wireless router (certainly if you have ever updated the firmware on one), then you already have the skills you need.

I'll at least be able to tell just how badly the coming change in cable rates will hurt me. Come on Verizon, you've got just over three months to get FiOS into the Greensboro market before the rate changes from Time Warner kick in. Make the deadline, and you could clean up.

*Firmware is software dedicated to the operation of a hardware device, such as a router or a remote control, among other things.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Quick Friday Updates; Like Twitter, but without the word limit

It's been a busy week, and I'm still recovering from my recent surgery, so instead of depressing news links, I have some random things that I might have posted short form this week.

Everyone have a good weekend!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Stream in the Fishwrap

I'm proud to announce that two of my regular posting formats have been picked up by the News & Record for columns. Headline Hunters will be appearing monthly in the Life section, while Watching the Watchers will be replacing Maureen Dowd's column on the editorial page. Not to worry though, I will still be devoting myself to the regular updating of this page. At least until the advances from my book deals come through.

In other news, Slashdot has gone pink and Google has announced their dating service.