Sunday, June 19, 2011

It's the Worst Parody... in the World

Hello, and welcome to tonight's episode of Top Gear.  I'm Jeremy Clarkson, and what a show we have for you. You may remember last series when we took a look at the Empire's top line Twin Ion Engine patrol fighter and decided it was something of a death trap.  Well this year, the Empire has a new model, and we sent our resident Jawa, Richard Hammod to take a look.

Yeah, thanks for that Jeremy.  As you can see, the Empire has drastically altered the lines of the craft, and boy what an improvement over the original.  The openings in the solar wings allow for greater pilot visibility, and the engines are even more efficient, allowing the whole thing to be lighter and faster even with added structural support.  And those engines also provide power for four laser cannons rather than the original's two.  They moved the cannons out into the wings to give a greater coverage area, increasing their chances of hitting an evasive target.  Let's take 'er out and see how she does on our flight track.

Right, I'm suited up and ready to go.  As you can see, this model uses the same hanger system as last year's model.    And the cockpit is... well, it's just as cramped as the original.  Very utilitarian.  Let's fire it up, and see what it feels like.  Ooooh my goodness!  This one has a kick!  Wow!  It's even more nimble than the TIE, so I can make easy work of the turns.  Woah, it's almost too maneuverable; you really have to watch out for over-steer.  Goodness.  I think pod racers might be right at home in one of these babies.  Woohoo!  It is just a dream to fly!

Richard, you sound awfully enthusiastic about this fighter.
Yeah, James, it really is a rush to fly.  Faster, more maneuverable, and just better than the original.
Right, the TIE felt great too, but we had some real issues with what it left out.  For instance, you can't actually land it, can you?
Well no, the Bothan boffins say that landing gear and such are just so much dead weight in space.
No, but you don't need those when you can't land, right.
Um, No.  Well, again that's a massive amount of added weight isn't it.
Shield generators?
Yeah, no.

So it's another death trap.
Well, I mean... yeah, yeah it is.  And it's a shame really, I mean it is such a riot to fly, but if you make the slightest mistake, it'll disintegrate.  There is just zero margin of error.
It is much better looking and wickedly fast, but I wouldn't have it.
Nor I.
Me neither, but I'll tell you what I would have... later in the show.  But first we have to really see how the Interceptor performs, and that means turning it over to our tame Sith pilot.  People claim that he's more machine now than man.  Some even say he's Richard Hammond's father.
(Oh now, that's not true.  That's just impossible.)
All we know is he's called Darth Stig.
And around the first corner, very neat.  Through the hammerhead, I don't think I've ever seen something this smooth, it's going to be a very quick time.  Coming up on the final corner now, really flying.  And across the line.  I've got the time here, and the TIE Interceptor has made the Top Gear Run in an astonishing point seven five of a parsec!  Just incredible.  Too bad you'd die if you tried to use it every day.

And now it's time to put a star in our reasonably priced speeder.  Please put you applause appendages together for singing sensation Sy Snootles...

[Apologies to George Lucas, and the cast of Top Gear.]

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A New Round of OS Wars Signals a New Era for Personal Computing

My primary computer is rapidly approaching its fourth anniversary, and as aging computers tend to do, it developed some... personality quirks.  The network port on the motherboard has died.  A run-time exception often pops when logging off or shutting down.  Being a Windows XP machine, it needed a hard drive wipe and re-install a year ago to clean out the accumulated cruft (which I still haven't done).  Basically what I'm saying here is that within the next year and a half to two years, I'm probably going to be in the market for a new computer again.  Normally this wouldn't give me pause.  The default path for me goes like this: take a budget of 1k dollars, hit up the usual web sites to do my parts research and head over to newegg.  Some assembly required, but you get a solid "enthusiast" class Windows PC with pretty much unmatchable value for price.  But in the wake of recent announcements from both Microsoft and Apple, that choice is no longer the no-brainer it would have been even a few months ago.

For the first time in quite a while, there are interesting things afoot in the land of computer operating systems, and you can thank the so-called smart phones for it.  Say what you will about Apple, you have to admit the iPhone kicked off a real revolution.  Apple's iOS interface opened up a new world of computing to a vastly larger audience than we have seen before.  Add to that the ease of use of integrated application purchasing, throw in a dose of network storage, and you can begin to see that we are about to enter a new era of personal computing.  And the choice of OS is going to be more important than ever, because once you choose, you are going to be well and truly stuck because of the vendor lock-in all that fancy cloud-marketed convenience is designed to generate.

"We've introduced a new platform based on standard Web technologies." -Microsoft "Building Windows 8" promotional video

I'm generally platform agnostic; I can find stuff I hate about every operating system I've ever encountered.  But if the choice is as important as I think it might be, it's worth taking a look at what's coming.  So what kinds of OSes are we going to have?  Well, Google's Chrome OS comes off as an experiment in seeing if dumb terminals can make a comeback using wireless instead of wired networking and the Internet instead of a mainframe.  I think we can safely skip that one.  Its long history shows us that Linux in its legion of forms will remain both pervasive around the Internet and virtually invisible to normal consumers.  That leaves us with just the dinosaur in the room and it's scrappy, arty mammal competitor.

In lifting the curtain a bit on Windows 8, Microsoft showed they are indeed working on taking their mobile interface to the tablet space and bringing it to PCs.  They have also hinted at an integrated software store.  At the same time they set of a minor firestorm of developer ire with the promise of yet another new API for programmers to learn.  The more incremental changes in OS X Lion (and the previous Snow Leopard) have already put Apple far down the path toward an integrated user experience.  The developer community also remains much more lively on the Mac, which can also use its Unix underpinnings to leverage the vast resources of open source software far more easily than Windows.

"We're going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device." -Steve Jobs in the WWDC 2011 keynote

Apple has the momentum right now in the consumer (i.e. not the "enterprise") space.  Even in the gaming world, Apple is benefiting from the renaissance in indy titles built in Flash, HTML 5, and Java.  iOS games are massively outselling gaming console titles.  Blizzard and Valve both support Windows and Mac via their digital distribution infrastructures.  Digital distribution of software is generally driving down prices and empowering the small developer again.  While Microsoft offers the "Express" versions of its Visual Studio apps, they don't have their response to the app store up yet, and the fully functional development tools cost an arm and a leg.  Apple's XCode appears to be a capable response at a much lower entry price.

Speaking of entry prices, I can't help but mention that Apple still has a fairly significant brand tax in place.  Still, given Apple's momentum and Microsoft's clumsy responses, the choice between a custom-built Windows machine and an any-color-so-long-as-its-black Mac may not come down just to price anymore.  As a user, and as a developer, I don't think I can ignore the ecosystems building up around computers anymore.  The maturation of speedy networking and portable computing devices means that your PC isn't going to be your sole computing mechanism, but one option of many.  If those many can't interoperate smoothly, the whole system will suffer in comparison. That, in turn, means that we are moving into the next era of computing, and things are about to get a whole lot more complicated.

"Apple and Google will compete like crazy for our data because once they have it we'll be their customers forever." -Robert X. Cringely

Sunday, June 5, 2011

People Being Awsome

Some people look at the hugely popular Facebook-hosted game Farmville and think of all the time wasted.  Others see the shady business practices.  Still others see the huge profit potential from a new and largely untapped market.  Forget those folks, because there are some who saw an opportunity to educate and reconnect the public with farming.  Thus was born the idea of having a real life farm with major decisions made by subscribers from the internet.  It is an odd idea, based largely on a football (soccer) team run using the same methods.  I have no idea how they will be providing the people who subscribe with the information needed to make educated decisions, and I have no idea how they will make things fun, but they get major points for thinking outside the box and trying to give a glimpse of the bigger system surrounding and supporting us.

Speaking of bigger systems, the Space Shuttle program is drawing to a relatively quiet close.  Astronauts aboard the Endeavor completed the final shuttle space walk late last month, adding the last U.S. built module to the International Space Station.  The thirty year old Shuttle program covered the majority of my life, and I expect I will have more to say after the completion of the final mission next month.

So we have a cool educational idea and the historic final Shuttle space walk.  A pair of wildly different stories that share only the theme that people have awesome ideas and can turn them into awesome realities.  One more story along those lines closes us out today.

Anyone who follows the news knows it has been a bad year for natural disasters.  Chief among the recent ones was the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent meltdowns of the Fukushima power plant.  The radiation danger makes cleanup of the plant much harder, as it puts the workers at risk.  Yasutero Yamada, a retired engineer, offers a unique solution.  He is attempting to go back to work.  "I am 72 and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live.  Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop."  He has already gathered a group of more than 200 volunteers, all over the age of 60.

Sometimes, when things are hard, in your life, around you, for those you know, or even for strangers you will never meet, it's worth remembering that as banal, crazy, callous, and fallen as people can be, they can also be really and truly awesome.