Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Lost and Ballistic Trajectories Over Marine Carnivores

As I think I may have mentioned, my wife and I are addicted to Lost. We TiVo it, and on the fairly rare, but not rare enough, cases when TiVo screws up, we download it from iTunes. We're not ultra-devoted quasi-insane-stalker fans of the show, we don't own it on DVD, and we haven't watched every episode more than once. We don't take notes.

At the end of season two it seemed to me that LOST jumped the shark. Worse than that, since the previous seasons have never had a single satisfactory denouement, it really shows that it started in midair over the shark.

LOST made an implicit (within the show) and explicit (from the producers of the show to their fans) that the story would make sense without requiring aliens, cans of creamed corn containing psychic terror, or other such addle-brained garbage. For two seasons it managed to appear to, possibly ... somehow ... just maybe, sticking to this set of constraints by (very cleverly) violating the usual rules of storytelling -- i.e. building characters up from the past to make sense of ongoing narrative.

But, by reframing the entire narrative in terms of a more knowing group entirely outside the crucible and simultaneously pulling the viewpoint out from the claustrophobic interior (of the crash survivor experience) to the omniscient, they have gone too far -- it's now clear that the entire story, initially presented as some kind of mystery which human intellect might penetrate, is in fact merely a series of dei ex machinis which the writers can pull out of their collective back passages on demand.

Here's some of what we (think we) know (but as I've said, I haven't been taking notes):

  1. They crashed on an island.

  2. It appears as though the leader of the "others" knew in advance the crash would happen.

  3. Either the others knew who would be on the plane and had detailed records of them, or they arranged for at least some of the people to be on the plane.

  4. The others have high tech communications links to the outside world.

  5. There are seemingly magical phenomena on the island, but we've been told that the plot does not involve magic, divine intervention, and it's not a dream or hallucination.

  6. One of the survivors won a lottery with a specific set of numbers.

  7. Those numbers appear on a seemingly very old plane wreck found on the island.

  8. Those numbers are the combination for the dead man switch in "the hatch".

  9. ...

Either they can arrange for certain people to get on a plane, the plane to crash, and the right people to survive. Or they can't.

Either they can fix lotteries. Or they can't.

If they can, they're basically as powerful as, say, the CIA and they're willing to spend bazillions of dollars on some kind of whacked experiment. Why are they bothering with this ridiculous crap?

If they can't, they can implant memories in people. It's not a dream, but it's a bunch of implanted memories. This is magic in my book, but given the creators of LOST created Alias it's probably allowed by their rules. It's a pretty sucky premise, but it's barely plausible. Even so, if you can implant memories you have better things to do. Why are they bothering with this crap? Unless you're still working out the kinks.

So perhaps that's the story. Someone has developed near-perfect brainwashing techniques which can create completely compelling (however implausible) and yet bogus memories in a person and thus control their attitudes and behavior, but they haven't perfected it and are performing experiments to figure out how well it works, etc. They need to test both how strongly people cleave to their (false) memories under stress and the subtle effects (e.g. sexual preferences). It explains why a guy who looks like he should be some kind of athlete-cum-killing machine is in fact a doctor, and why they give a damn whom Kate prefers.

Tomorrow, the world.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

One of the great cartoons just gets better with time...

By Michael Leunig, from the National Library of Australia.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Gun Control & Democracy

"Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains." Winston Churchill

I'm not sure if I qualify as "old" by Winston's definition ... or liberal. I don't know if Winston Churchill would consider the current Republican mainstream to be "conservative" or just nutty. But, I have slowly been rethinking one of my long-held beliefs recently, and it's regarding a signature political issue that puts me at odds with most "liberals", and that is gun control.

Gun-control advocates can point to all kinds of evidence that having too many guns around is a bad thing. There's no question that, for example, a gun in one's house is statistically more likely to be involved in a suicide or an accidental death than in self-defense. There's no question that hundreds of children die, every year, from firearms accidents (or suicides reported as accidents).

But one compelling argument against gun control, and it's made fairly well by Penn & Tell in one of their Bullshit! programs is that there needs to be some kind of check on the power of the state over its citizens. The fact that nuts use guns to shoot the police doesn't mean that decent and/or sane people (such as John Brown) might want to also. The first amendment of the US Constitution is freedom of speech, second comes the right to bear arms.

It would seem foolish to argue that its being second means that it's the second most important. The third amendment (protecting us from having to board soldiers) seems pretty quaint, and it hardly seems terribly farsighted to have given this amendment greater weight than -- say -- the right to a fair trial, or against unreasonable search and seizure. For most of my life I've been convinced that the framers were, perhaps, right at the time but that times change and what made sense then might not make sense now. Let's make the extreme case -- that nuclear weapons are "arms" and that the people should therefore be allowed to have them. I think even hardened anti-gun-control advocates would not take this position.

I think it's also fair to say that there were some things that the "founding fathers" did not anticipate and, if they had, they might have worded things slightly differently. All this aside, it's quite clear that the framers of the constitution thought that it was very important that people be allowed to keep personal weapons -- as a balance against the power of the militia. The wording of the second amendment is odd, and different from that of the other amendments, but it's quite clear that it's the militia that is being well-regulated, and the people who get the arms. These guys weren't idiots, if they wanted the people to be regulated and the militia to have the arms, they'd have said so.

I think this is a time when "liberals" need to rethink gun-control, both because it's sensible electorally, and because the political agenda here is no longer driven by liberal values. When the Federal government was, in essence, taken over by the liberal agenda in the 60s it seems to me that many conservatives took solace in their guns. If things got really bad, if -- say -- the government sent agents into your neighborhood to stop you from using the n-word, or desegregate your elementary school, you could go out in a blaze of glory. Now that the Federal government has been taken over by a reactionary agenda, you may need to protect yourself against Federally sponsored missionaries turning your kids into Baptists and forcing your family to say grace.

I currently live in Alabama so I'm only half joking.

One reason the right likes guns is that they feel put-upon by liberals who won't even let them call people they don't like by nasty names. Civil wars are fought over one bunch of people trying to tell another bunch of people how to speak.

Once you throw away the ad hominem attacks and emotionally compelling but essentially irrelevant arguments that form the bulk of Penn & Teller's arguments, you're left with the central libertarian* argument, which seems at least defensible and certainly emotionally compelling, i.e. that one of the things that makes the United States more resistant to totalitarian impulses is the profusion of guns. Thomas Jefferson famously suggested that a democracy needs a little revolution now and then.

* Libertarianism deserves an episode of Bullshit! all to itself, but I doubt Penn Jillette is quite that fair-minded.

Here's a thought experiment: what might happen if Hitler rose to power in the USA. He spouts anti-Jewish rhetoric. Crystal Nacht. Brownshirts in the streets. Would Jewish Americans buy guns? Would they be prevented from buying guns? Assuming that Jews were known to be well-armed, would it hinder efforts to round them up? It's hard to say. After all, the two countries in Europe which did their best to protect their Jewish populations were Denmark and Bulgaria. I don't think the right to bear arms had much to do with either.

Now there are plenty of countries with lots of guns and no civil society. Take Sierra Leone, Somalia, or Lebanon for example. It's pretty clear that you don't get a great place to live just by giving everyone guns. Similarly, Britain, Canada, and France are all pretty nice, pretty free places to live that don't seem to rely on private citizens being heavily armed. (And, Britain and France both had revolutions that overthrew the established government without a "right to bear arms".) Given Germany's martial traditions, it seems unlikely that it was a lack of privately owned firearms that allowed Hitler to gain power.

But the question remains, would the United States be the country it is without the right to bear arms? Does this right, in the long run, help maintain the better aspects of American society, or not? Are the unmeasurable and unverifiable benefits of the right to bear arms worth the measurable and verifiable costs? In any event, is there any practical set of laws or policies that might "fix" the US gun "problem"?

These are all imponderable, and the next question is even more difficult: is it worth losing elections over?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Eve Online

Eve's been around for a while, but I've been doing something else (i.e. playing World of Warcraft) so I didn't try it. I generally prefer "science fiction" flavored stuff over fantasy, but MMOs are in large part about sunken cost.

Eve Online is essentially multiplayer Elite (or, if you're a Mac gamer, multiplayer Escape Velocity in 3D; if you're under 30 it's multiplayer Privateer), only with the fun part (dogfighting) removed and the other fun part (trading in slaves and illegal drugs) replaced with something resembling E-Trade. Actually, E-Trade is a lot more fun (and more realistic!).

I won't bother criticizing the back story (apparently some people are just genetically predisposed to liberal democracy -- quick, better call Condi, I think this whole Iraq thing might be a mistake) because EverQuest and World of Warcraft prove that a back story can be an uninspired kitchen sink of stolen cliches and the game can still be great. I will say that Eve Online's back story is essentially fantasy (i.e. the past was great the present sucks) and not science fiction, and that it aspires to be a uninspired kitchen sink of stolen cliches.

When you start the game (about 1h after installing it and waiting for it to patch) you have two sets of choices to make; one is your character's appearance, which can be customized by a pretty amazing set of options (e.g. you can narrow your gaze by increments, give your character a smile, snarl, or twisted leer), and some other stuff (e.g. professional background) that is -- I'm told* -- very important but for which you have no useful information. So basically, think of this as 200 questions of no consequence on what your character's icon will look like (all the 3d character stuff just generates an icon) mixed in with three questions of deep import written in a foreign language ("would you like your character to be a Mixlplk, a Jewwawwa, or a Flnobstrog?"). Good start.

Next, here's a game with an in game tutorial that takes over three hours to complete. (It took me two sessions.) The user interface (including the interface for the tutorial is terrible). As a simple example, the tutorial knows when you have completed a step but requires you to click "Done". If you click "Done" too soon, it tells you to complete the step. D'uh. I haven't seen this level of bad UI design since I stopped having to use Lotus Notes.

Oh and don't get me started on left- vs. right- clicking. The tutorial constantly tells you that "when in doubt, right-click". Guess what, many crucial game objects only respond to "left-click and hold". In general, the game uses three "noun verb" conventions: right-click and select from text context menu, left-click and hold (graphical content menu), left-click and click on some palette somewhere. These are all different and mutually incompatible, e.g. you can't "open" a cargo pod by right-clicking it. You can't "activate" a stargate by right-clicking it. Or maybe you can. Who knows?

The developers call the gameplay "open-ended". No it's not, it's non-existent. Everything is automatic enough to be no fun, but manual enough to be tedious. E.g. to fly from point A to point B you need to click on point B (almost anywhere, e.g. even on a mission briefing) and then (in one of maybe twenty different ways) select "Set Destination" and engage autopilot. Your ship will then slowly head over there ... unless it's docked. You can't start on a flight while docked. You need to click Undock and wait 30s first. (This is apparently too much for the Autopilots of the 53rd century.) Once your ship arrives, guess what? Your autopilot disengages somewhere inside the star system (not inside docking range), you need to click on your actual destination again and select "Dock", and wait a few minutes. Congratulations, you're Han Solo.

Combat is similarly thrilling. You see a red dot somewhere (e.g. in your "things in the vicinity list" or somewhere in space) and you click on it, then select "approach" or "orbit" and then click on a weapon. Then you wait and you either live or die. You can turn some stuff on and off if you get bored (e.g. your "shield booster" might slow your demise). Eventually, if you win, some cargo pods will appear. Click on one. Click Approach. Wait. Click on it again. Click Open. Open your ship (that's manual of course). Drag loot into cargo hold. Woohoo, now that's some flying!

Other folks have remarked on the thrills of space mining. Yes, you click on a rock, click approach, click your mining laser, open your cargo hold, and wait. Maybe your cargo hold fills, maybe you have to click another rock. Will you survive the excitement?

Oh and just so there's no doubt about how not open-ended the gameplay is. You can play "we got fired from E-trade because we can't design a GUI to save our lives" in space stations, and you can fly around in quasi-control of your ship in space. That's the game play. You can't walk to a cafe. You can't land on a planet. You can't board an enemy ship. You can't get on someone else's ship and man the guns while they fly. You can't negotiate loan refinancing with a blaster in the cantina. Heck you can't even book passage on someone else's ship to go visit another star system.

You can gain skills while away from the game. In fact, you pretty much can play the game while AFK. Most of the things you do are so time-consuming, you probably want to buy a GameBoy DS or something to pass the time. My newbie character has 13,000 skill points (xp) and 120,000 ISK (gold pieces). So I want a new spaceship. I find one (selling several star systems away) for 30,000 ISK. Now, can I get this sucker ... delivered? Nope, that wouldn't be tedious enough. Instead I need to fly over there (see two paragraphs back for the roller-coaster thrill ride that will ensue) and pick up my ship. (I can assemble and disassemble it with a single mouse click... new interstellar frigate 24,000 ISK. Fedex... priceless.) When I get there I discover I need a new skill to pilot it. No problem it's 4000 skill points. So I select the skill and click "Learn" or something and ... well I logged off when I had absorbed 500 of the 4000 skill points. And then I uninstalled won the game!

Again, let me put this in context. If my level 10 warrior in WoW buys a new axe he may not be able to use it, but he can get it delivered. If the seller is in another town he might travel there, avoiding monsters (or killing them) on the way. He can go to the trainer and learn the basics of how to use the axe. If he doesn't have enough money, he can go kill bandits and get some money. So he can use the axe but he sucks at it? He can go "practice" with it on rabbits, cows, and giant spiders. All of this is to some extent "fun". Under no definition of "fun" will you find "wait six hours for a number to increment. The "benefit" of being able to learn "Gollante Frigate 2" skill while not logged on pales beside the benefit of being able to win Eve Online while not having it installed on your hard disk.

It's not surprising they can run 30,000 players on one server. This game is about as fast-paced and compelling as tic-tac-toe by email with a REALLY bad user interface.

Much has been said of the "gorgeous" graphics. Sure, like most MMOs, you can take some nice screenshots. I think the 3d artists have done a great job of creating 3d assets, and one day the programmers may get around to using them properly. E.g. when your ship accelerates, beams of light appear kind of where your engines are, maybe in front, maybe behind. Looks ... stupid. Space is full of really neat mist. Stargates look like giant guns that "fire" stuff to distant star systems, but the problem is your ship doesn't actually go into them. You go somewhere "near" them and then the stargate "fires" and your ship sits there for a bit and then fades away. The docking sequence is similarly brilliant ... e.g. you dock with one of the pretty spiffy looking space stations by flying up to it (or through it -- there's no collision detection worth a damn) and then ... the game seizes up and you reappear in space dock.

All of this for $20/month. Golly.

* You can win the game without knowing what the professions are. Just select "Unintall Eve Online" from Eve's main menu... no wait that's the Windows XP Start Menu. I get confused sometimes, but I should have realised it wasn't Eve's menu because it appeared instantly.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Fond Memories of Sesame Street

There are so many clips from Sesame Street that I loved way back when. It's a shame the show was refocused on younger children.

Bumble Ardy's Birthday Number Nine:

I guess a story featuring underage drinking and a mother threatening pigs with vivisection wouldn't be considered politically correct these days.

Here's "The King of Eight":

The alligator king and his seven sons:

We all live in a capital "I":

More later!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Of course, it's just a rumor

I've not been reading much tech news lately... too busy actually doing work (for a change!) So it was with some satisfaction that I read reader reports on Macintouch of using Crossover Beta for Mac OS X.

Crossover is a commercial version of WINE (WINE Is Not an Emulator), which is a library which provides a Win32 compatibility layer for various UNIX/Linux flavors, including OS X. This is the technology which, eventually, may allow Windows apps to "just work" on any platform.

(It's sad that for some reason the two apps most people seem to want to run under WINE are Visio and Outlook. I'm sorry, but Visio is a joke (try Omnigraffle), and Outlook is, at best, a horrible necessity.)

There are also game-specific variants of the same thing which allow programs which live on top of a certain subset of DirectX (Microsoft's game development API) to "just work" on UNIX/Linux platforms.

Anyway, I mention this mainly because of some bloggers who -- somewhere, sorry I couldn't find the post directly -- have written off this entire direction.

My wife needs to use SPSS for her work. SPSS is a classic example of a program that folks will run Windows just to use. The Mac version sucks and lags the PC version. SPSS is horrible on all platforms, and really having it "ported" to Mac OS X gains us nothing. Crippled and lagging as it is, the Mac version of SPSS currently does not run, even under Rosetta, on Intel Macs (a neat trick!). It seems to me that it would be easier for SPSS to work on compatibility with WINE/Codeweaver than keeping a lousy Mac implementation going, and everyone's a winner.

One of Joel Spolsky's observations is that you want your competition to be expensive and your complements to be cheap and ubiquitous. WINE/Codeweaver is free/cheap, Windows is expensive. It's better -- especially for software aimed at niche markets -- to target WINE than Windows, given you get the latter for free by targeting the former.

This is why compatibility libraries, such as WINE, which -- essentially -- reduce Windows (or other platforms) to virtual machines, are the way of the future, and not a myth to be debunked. Forward-looking software development (e.g. .NET, Cocoa, Java) build virtual machines, while backward-looking development (emulators, compatibility layers, etc.) reinvents old APIs as virtual machines.

Leopard may not provide WINE-like functionality out of the box (although it would blow a lot of minds if it did), but it looks like we'll get it from Codeweavers (or an early version at least) before Leopard ships, and ultimately similar technology will get better and software developers will have an incentive to target it -- so inevitably, Windows apps will, one day, "just work" on Intel Macs. As will Classic Mac apps.

But, it's just a rumor.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Word of the Day

One of the things I have visible on my google homepage is dictionary.com's word of the day. I'd like to think it's there so I can improve my vocabulary, but really it's there so I can feel superior at all the words I already know.

Or think I know.

So today's word is "fortuitous" which is defined as "happening by chance". This definition struck me as wrong, even for a one-liner. So I looked it up on dictionary.com itself and got a slightly longer definition:

"happening by accident or chance"

With the meaning I expected listed as a "usage problem". Damn those users! Underneat, was the following explanation (quoted from Dictionary.com):

"In its best-established sense, fortuitous means “happening by accident or chance.” Thus, a fortuitous meeting may have either fortunate or unfortunate consequences. For decades, however, the word has often been used in reference to happy accidents, as in The company's profits were enhanced as the result of a fortuitous drop in the cost of paper. This use may have arisen because fortuitous resembles both fortunate and felicitous. Whatever its origin, the use is well established in the writing of reputable authors. ·The additional use of fortuitous to mean “lucky or fortunate,” is more controversial, as in He came to the Giants in June as the result of a fortuitous trade that sent two players back to the Reds. This use dates back at least to the 1920s, when H.W. Fowler labeled it a malapropism, but it is still widely regarded as incorrect."

I'm a great fan of Fowler (or I should say the Fowler brothers), who are collectively responsible for both the modern Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler's Modern English Usage. I think, however, that it behooves a dictionary to provide definitions of words as they are used (at least as far back as the 1920s) rather than as they ought to be used, since someone looking a word up is probably more interested in what the speaker or writer intended to say than what they would have said if they were in compliance with the 1923 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Incidentally, here's the current definition of fortuitous from the OED: "adjective 1 happening by chance rather than design. 2 happening by a lucky chance; fortunate." Note that the "correct" (i.e. if we were in fact speaking Latin and not English) meaning is still first, but the second -- more likely intended -- meaning is given.

It did pay Dictionary.com for a few ad impressions though, so not all is lost. Does this mean that Dictionary.com has a financial incentive to provide, in essence, incorrect or surprising definitions of words in an effort to drive traffic to its site (increasing ad revenues)? It's a delicate balancing act -- do it a little too often and dictionary.com will soon be thought of as, essentially, useless.

It's not like Dictionary.com is the last bastion of the English pedant. Here's their first definition of decimate:

"To destroy or kill a large part of (a group)."

As every good pedant knows, decimate originally meant "to kill every tenth man" and was applied to Roman legions which were seen as having failed in their duty to The Empire. This is provided as the third definition, while the second definition (another usage problem) is hard to tell apart from the first definition. So here we have a well-known "incorrect" usage listed as the top definition, while a far more obscure and less incorrect usage gets a short essay and is listed solely as a usage problem.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Yay, I got a new computer

It's been a long time between drinks. My last new desktop computer was a 2.4GHz Dell, which is now pushing four years old. When I bought it, the fastest PC I could have gotten without paying ridiculous prices was a 3.08GHz P4. This machine matched my philosophy of buying the fastest cheap machine or the cheapest fast machine available. The other side of my philosophy is to only buy a new machine if it's going to be at least twice the raw speed of the last one; anything less isn't noticeable a day or two later.

The biggest leap I've ever made from one computer to the next was probably from my first Mac 512kE (upgraded twice from a 128kB original Mac) with its 8MHz 68000 to a Mac IIci with a 25MHz 68030, 5MB of RAM, and a 40MB hard disk. That was a simply amazing leap. (I'd gotten a Commodore Amiga 500 in between the two, but the Amiga was slower for most anything except games than a Mac, so that was not a speed boost).

My new computer is a standard config Mac Pro. So I've gone from a dual 1GHz G4 Mac on the Apple side and a singe 2.4 GHz P4 on the PC side, to a quad core 2.66GHz box. When you do the math, it's actually a jump comparable to the jump from the Mac 512kE to the Mac IIci -- at least on the cpu side. I can theoretically put 8x the RAM into the G5, but I can't practically afford to!

The real beauty of this, from Apple's point of view, is that instead of someone like me buying a Mac every four years and a PC every three years (for important productivity tools, like World of Warcraft), both Apple and its customers can have their cake and eat it. We can spend less money on computers and upgrade every 2-3 years, buy a better machine, and not split our incremental upgrades (new graphics cards, more RAM, more hard disks, nicer displays) between our two current boxes. Yes, Apple stuff often costs more (although, try buying a quad Xeon for $2500 from Dell), but it doesn't cost as much as Apple stuff + Wintel stuff.

It's bad news for PC hardware makers, since they'll be losing sales to Apple, but also bad news for Microsoft, because their target audience doesn't buy a copy of Windows with each box. Yes, the retail version of Windows costs more, but you only need to buy it every five or six years (based on the time elapsed between XP and Vista), during which time many of us would have bought two or three OEM Windows licenses. (In our household, we've bought four OEM Windows licenses in the last five years.)

The Macintosh Difference

Dell makes pretty good PCs, as PCs go. Here's the Mac Pro out of box experience. You open the box. There's a keyboard and a small black box with CDs, mouse, and such, and some cables (two video adapters, a USB extension cord, power cord). You lift up a styrofoam tray, and there's the Mac's handles, and it's wrapped in thin foam sheeting. You break the seal, the Mac lifts straight out of the box. You stick it on your desk, attach power cord, keyboard, and monitor; hook up the mouse to the keyboard; plug it in, boot. You're asked to enter a few pieces of info (e.g. your AppleID), which populates stuff like your address automatically and correctly, and then you're good to go. Elapsed time, five minutes.

Everything, from the fact that the Mac just slips out of its box to the system pinging Apple for your customer info to minimize form-filling is an example of why Apple and Macs don't suck.

Anyway, first impressions last, but I'll write about my second impressions later. So far, so very very good.

Friday, August 11, 2006

So much for NDAs.

So, folks at WWDC have been delving into their Leopard previews, with results like this.

When members of the die hard early adopter Vista crowd start saying that they bought a Mac after seeing this list, it makes you think that perhaps Leopard isn't as "disappointing" as some folks have suggested.

Which harkens back to that joke I quoted a while back -- What's the difference between Vista and Leopard? Windows developers are excited about Leopard.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Comprehension Skills & Blogging

When I was in 4th and 5th grade in country town Australia there were these boxes of cards (from some company in the USA, I think it was called "SRA") we had to go through. There were cards to study and corresponding answer cards. The study cards had about a half page of text on them, and on the flip side were multiple choice questions on the text. You were supposed to read the card and then answer the questions. Flipping back to the text was not considered cheating.

We had to do one card per day. Sometimes we were handed the card, sometimes we could pick. I couldn't understand why this was considered work; the texts were usually at least mildly interesting, took almost no time to read, and the questions were ridiculously easy. E.g. the text might read "And we've provided an API for Time Machine so you can support it in your applications" and the question would be "The new Time Machine product has: (a) a big red knob; (b) an API to help you support it in your application; (c) a big blue knob; (d) none of the above".

What amazes me is that the blogosphere is ripe with opinions, complaints, suggestions, and speculation about Leopard, thanks to the announcements on Monday, and yet almost none of the participants -- despite having graduated from the 5th grade, being of far greater than average intelligence, and more-or-less able to read, write, and spell -- appear to have mastered the art of answering this kind of multiple choice question.

So here are the spoilers -- note that this isn't post modernism 201, so we'll be basing our answers on what was said during the WWDC '06 keynote, or in press releases on the same day, or on Apple's Leopard preview page the same day, even though it may not be true:

Does Time Machine have an API? Yes. Listen harder. Or read the website.

Will iCal support third party servers? Yes. Listen harder. Or read the website.

Is the new iChat basically a bit like NetMeeting? No, because NetMeeting doesn't do screen sharing. Read the website.

Is Leopard just a bunch of fancy sizzle with no steak? I assume if you're still asking this you consider OS-level integrated seamless backup to be sizzle, so how about: Objective-C 2.0, modern garbage collection, full 64-bit support, XCode project snapshots, and visual performance monitoring tools?

Actually, the Leopard Server page is also worth visiting. Summary: comes out of the box with iCal Server, Wiki Server, PodCast Server, and something called PodCast Producer. And of course pretty much every component technology has been revved.

Physics & Game Design

There's an interesting and thought-provoking article on Escapist about Havok and game physics in general which reminded me of some of the thoughts I've had since I started playing with the Unity game development tool.

Unity's fundamental premise is to wrap pretty much all of the state-of-the-art game technology out there in a graphical, high-level development tool, kind of a 3D equivalent of HyperCard (the HyperCard analogy is more apt than, say, Visual Basic, since the runtime and development environments are essentially the same thing; which is what made HyperCard such an amazing thing).

One of the great features of Unity is its excellent support for physics. Because you can implement physics with scarcely any code, it's highly recommended that you do so. Recently, I was trying to implement a sailing ship, and I wanted the player's steering control to move the ship's rudder. For reasons that aren't important, I was having problems, and someone helpfully suggested that I use physics... Aaargh!

Now, a lot of discussion of physics tends to assume you know what physics is. I don't mean formulae or theory, but what physics, as a component of a game, is. In essence, physics is all the behavior you expect from objects as a consequence of their size, shape, and mass. Perhaps the most common example of game physics, present in every game since Pong, is collision detection. In the "real world" two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time, and to simulate this behavior in the game world you need to do collision detection (as a first step) and then do something about collisions when they are detected (e.g. make the ball bounce rather than go through a wall or paddle). In pong when the ball collides with a paddle or wall, it bounces more-or-less the way you would expect perfectly elastic bodies to bounce.

Interestingly, however, what makes pong at all interesting as a game is the fact that the ball does not bounce the way your Physics textbook says it should. Where your ball hits your paddle modifies the ball's trajectory, allowing you to steer your shot in interesting ways. And herein lies the rub for all the idiots who think adding physics to games will somehow make the world a better place: what makes games good is good gameplay. To some extent physics can make explosions (say) prettier or more impressive, but a nicer deck of cards doesn't make Euchre more fun than Bridge.

In other words, physics can embellish the stuff that makes no difference to the game's outcome, but fine control of object behavior is exactly what makes gameplay good. Indeed many of the things that are being credited to "physics", such as "gravity guns" or "portals" or whatever, are actually hand-crafted, finely tuned violations of physics which mainly use the physics engine to add a bit of convincing jiggle and bounce.

Here's another way to look at it: you design a game that involves going through a door in the side of a wall. If physics lets you blow a hole through the wall, then opening the door ceases to be a plot point in the game. If you can collapse the wall, blocking the door, then you can create an unwinnable condition that may not be discovered during testing. Either way, putting physics into something that actually matters in the game isn't helping.

Microsoft to enhance Mac OS X's Security

According to MacWindows, Microsoft just announced that it will be dropping VBScript support from the Universal version of Microsoft Office for Mac OS X. VBScript is a feature of Office that almost no-one uses, wants, or needs, which comes switched on by default, and which is a favorite venue for malware under Windows and cross-platform malware (e.g. it is the mechanism that allows most mail viruses to work). If you wonder what the "script" in the term "script kiddies" is, and were maybe thinking it's, say, UNIX shell scripts ... nope, it's VBScript. Indeed, most Mac anti-virus programs are chiefly concerned with finding Office macro viruses, since there are as yet no actual Mac viruses for them to find.

Microsoft also announced -- and this has been much more widely reported -- that a Universal version of Virtual PC would be too expensive to develop and is dropping it; this is hilarious since they have already have Virtual PC for Linux and Windows (which are essentially equivalent to Parallels) and so it's a pure business decision which has nothing to do with development costs. They simply don't want to help the rats leave their sinking ship.

Macwindows also said: "One advantage that Microsoft could offer that noone else could is a preinstalled implementation of Windows bundled with the virtual machine software." This is actually rubbish; the only thing that Microsoft could do that no-one else can do is offer Windows at an unbeatable price. Any vendor can buy Windows, install it on an image, and bundle it with their Virtualization software.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Thinking out loud about Leopard

The Leopard announcements have been widely judged as disappointing. Pretty much every SteveNote is judged disappointing just afterwards, and then folks gradually absorb the information and recast it all as amazing later (I, for one, thought the iPod was an overpriced useless gizmo that only geeks would buy; if you find reportage at the time, you'll see I was not alone), forgetting that at the time they were disappointed.

I wasn't disappointed. I'm writing this little note to myself as a kind of open diary entry (hmm I guess that's what a blog is :-) ). Maybe I'll laugh at myself in six months' time.

First of all, the Mac Pros are the most droolworthy pieces of hardware Apple has ever released. Well, at least since the Quadra 700 or perhaps the Mach 5 boxes (anyone remember those? Photoshop launched instantly on those suckers...). Sure, I think the cases look ugly and are freaking huge, but you get a whole pile of grunt for not much money. And after reading HardMac I discover that the CPUs aren't soldered in, so you can buy a 2GHz box and swap in faster CPUs at your leisure (more useful to folks outside the US where Apple's prices are ridiculous). The only real complaint is that there's no midrange graphics card option (e.g. an X1600 or a GeForce 7800).

But on the OS front, Time Machine -- if it works -- is a reason to buy Leopard on its own. Backups are a huge deal. We're reaching the point at which the hard disks on which millions of people are storing their entire photo and/or music libraries are going to die of old age and you can only imagine the kinds of horror stories that will start circulating by word of mouth. Similarly, the "but I was just magically saved by Time Machine" stories could become a serious selling point. For serious users developers, Time Machine could make, at minimum, version control for small, single-developer projects completely irrelevant. Whether it will have the ability to roll back servers, etc., remains to be seen, but just this much is a serious win (for me, anyway).

I might note that Time Machine -- at least as shown -- directly supports everything at file level via Finder, but it appears to offer an API for application developers to allow application specific and/or finer grained support. This is what makes having something like Time Machine implemented as OS level so powerful.

The ability to turn any part of any web page into a Dashboard Widget is not only incredibly cool, but it has the potential to both change the way we browse the web AND make Dashboard actually useful and amazing rather than a use-three-times-and-forget piece of eye candy (as it is now). Dashcode sounds pretty compelling, but a lot of that will hinge on whether its JavaScript debugger is as good as advertised.

iChat's screen sharing features (mentioned on the website but ignored during the KeyNote) are pretty mind-blowing. First of all, having this functionality for free at OS level is pretty amazing (but will iChat be able to broadcast and/or connect to non-Mac clients?) and might make remote meetings and collaboration a lot more doable than is currently the case with half-assed tools such as GoToMyPC or WebEx. The big question for me is the extent to which this functionality may be available independently of iChat. E.g. can we log in to a Mac OS X box remotely with a GUI, or can we only screenshare via iChat?

Next, there's Spaces. I've used several virtual screen programs over the years and at some point, such as when I stopped using the computer it was installed on, just given up on them. This is because while they are great in theory, they all suck in practice. It looks to me like Spaces may address this suckage in a number of ways, not least of which is by making it an OS feature so I don't need to install it (or license it) on specific machines. But it also appears to be much more intelligently and simply designed than other virtual screen implementations, in part because it's implemented at OS level:

1. When you jump to an app (e.g. by clicking on it in the dock) you automatically go to its space.

2. There's a well-defined spatial relationship between the spaces which is consistently reinforced with animations and screen layouts. This is really important (and one of the reasons why many people think the OS X Finder sucks*).

3. I'm hoping that it will be well-integrated with Expose (i.e. that dropping into the Spaces overview is, in essence, what Expose will do now).

I'm not convinced that Spaces will be wonderful; but it has the potential to suck less than its predecessors.

* I think the OS X Finder sucks too, but not because it isn't spatial. I think the OS X Finder sucks because it is trying to do a really hard job (manage hundreds or thousands of files in a directory, etc.) with a really bad UI design (arrays of icons or lists of text labels) that dates back to when users only had 500 files on their hard disk.

That said, most of the other announcements are pretty ho-hum. 64-bit -- yeah, whatever. Being able to install 16GB of RAM is all the 64-bit support I really need for now. Core Animation -- cute but will it lead to anything useful or just more cute screensavers? Spotlight -- stealing some ideas from QuickSilver and adding remote searches; cool but hardly earthshaking. Mail 3 looks nice, but I don't currently use Mail 2 (I use gmail) -- although I must say when I do launch it to check my old mail (from before gmail) it does make me think I should go back :-).

Finally, the new voice synthesiser rocks. It's a minor thing but still, it has useful applications. I could actually imagine writing a little app to turn texts from Project Gutenberg into iPod tracks or CDs for road trips ... it sounds THAT good.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Licensing iTunes/iPod Compatibility

Wouldn't it be interesting if Apple allowed third parties to support iPod and iTunes right about now? Creative, Samsung, et al, must just be thrilled by the Zune announcement.

Or maybe just wait for Zune to come out, wait until Microsoft has spent a billion or two getting up to, say, 20% market share, and then do it.

Just a thought.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Windows on the Mac, Revisited

One of the comments on a recent post points out that he (or she?) has blogged on this topic before and in more detail. (I'm hardly the first to observe that WINE, Crossover, et al are, at least conceptually, a far better solution to this problem than Parallels or Boot Camp.)

However, on reading his comments, which I summarize below as five reasons Apple should do this and five reasons it shouldn't (I've paraphrased and renumbered):

Reasons it Should

1. The hard work is done (WINE etc.)
2. Since they're dropping Classic support...
3. Vista will not support EFI in first release...
4. Apple desperately wants to break into the Enterprise market...
5. Leopard seems to have few compelling new features

Reasons it Shouldn't

6. Fear of Microsoft retaliating
7. Support would be a nightmare
8. Microsoft's Mac Business Unit would be alienated
9. Not a new issue and they've never done it before
10. It's not very Apple

Here's my reaction to said reasons.
1. Agreed.
2. That's just stupid. It's not a reason.
3. Irrelevant.
4. Yes, but so what?
5. So, you know what's in Leopard?!
6. Far-fetched. What could Microsoft try* to do that's more malicious than "Zune"?
7. Absolutely true and a good point. Might have to be a free download "beta" like Boot Camp.
8. Possibly true.
9. Completely and utterly wrong. Aside from some horrible kludges (like Mac Charlie and the PC compatibility card for early PowerPC Macs) which were essentially low-end PCs that shared the Mac's monitor, Apple has never had x86 CPUs in its machines, and Mac OS has never run on x86 CPUs.
10. Simply a matter of opinion, and I think far MORE Apple like than Boot Camp or Apple's previous PC compatibility efforts.
* Actually, Zune is probably a gift for Apple, since the real victims are PlaysForSure licensees. But I doubt Microsoft considered Apple's feelings.

Mentioned, but not enumerated, is a very important reason -- the fact that a company which is on the cusp of developing a native Mac version of a program might decide simply to support the Mac's Win32 compatibility layer instead. This is a real issue, but it's not really clear that it doesn't already exist because of Parallels and Boot Camp. If it's a key productivity app, then chances are you'll want it native. Photoshop native is going to kick pretend Photoshop native for the foreseeable future.

The Bottom Line

Apple's core PC market is people who buy their own computers or can tell their company which computer to buy for them. The whole enterprise thing is never going to work out because enterprise IT hates, loathes, and fears Apple (subject of another blog post I think :-) ).

There are a certain number of people out there who want to use both a Mac and a PC for whatever reason. (I'm one of them.) You can only really use one at a time. I would argue that the vast majority of these people want to use their Macs for almost everything and their PCs for gaming and/or 3D apps (like 3DS Max) and one or two random Windows-only apps.

At the moment, Apple and Dell (say) are selling these folks two computers every X months for 1.7Y dollars. If Apple can produce a computer for Y dollars that serves all these people's needs then their customers will be very happy, and either upgrade more frequently or buy a higher end computer. In my case I'd also save on desk space, power bills, fan noise, and carpet wear from sliding my chair from desk to desk).

If Apple is working on this, it's doing a very good job of keeping it secret (e.g. it is either doing it from scratch -- unlikely -- or working on Open Source projects and either not pushing back its changes or somehow concealing its contributions or working with someone like Codeweavers and maintaining absolute radio silence). So it probably isn't. That said, the solution I'm describing is going to happen whether Apple does it or not. So all the arguments against it are, in the end, irrelevant.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Creating an Application in Five Minutes

It used to be really hard to build a new application. If you find a copy of the original Inside Macintosh there's a "roadmap" application which is, in essence, the sketch of a minimal Mac app (actually, it's not even that, because it doesn't implement multiple windows, or a bunch of other things). This simple text editor program occupies four large pages of commented source code, and figuring out what it all means will involve many trips through the first three volumes of Inside Macintosh.

Writing applications for the Amiga and Windows wasn't much (any?) easier. Note that I say "writing applications" and not "programs". Writing computer programs had been really easy up until then...

E.g. almost everyone who had used a computer knew you could do something like:

> 20 GOTO 10

on a computer in a department store and the screen would fill with "HELLO"s and the computer would kind of lock up until a salesperson unplugged it or (and this would be astonishing when it happened) typed CTRL-C.

It was even pretty easy to write a program for a mainframe computer. Something like:

void main (){ printf("hello"); }

could actually be turned into a reusable executable fairly easily. (You also needed to type some arcana to compile it.) Shell scripts were even easier.

But it took a long time for graphical user interfaces to actually simplify the task of programming, and there were many missteps and dead ends along the way.

Probably the first truly easy-to-use GUI programming tool was HyperCard. HyperCard was so easy to use and so good at what it tried to be (and so oddly implemented) that it has never really been bettered. Even the various attempts to clone HyperCard (notably Toolbook, SuperCard, Runtime Revolution) ever succeeded in making a completely live development tool (i.e. where using your program and developing your program were seamless acts). Indeed, I would suggest that a web-based HyperCard clone is a true killer app.

Various less ambitious but more conventionally useful imitations of HyperCard, notably Visual Basic and Delphi, appeared, as did class libraries which allowed you to subclass a bare-bones application and its components, such as MacApp, PowerPlant, and MFC. Today, most of our development tools are spiritually derived from Visual Basic and its brethren, i.e. HyperCard with a sharp line between "development" and "use", or MacApp and its brethren, i.e. a class library which assumes you'll be writing a "totally general" app, where "totally general" means "something a lot like a common office app". Some of our development tools are more primitive than either, but let's not discuss Perl, PHP, et al here ;)

What all this means is that you can write "hello, world" using a GUI-based IDE in about fifteen seconds, except that it takes 15s to launch your development environment, and about 30s to five minutes to compile and run it. Versus getting the same thing done instantly in UNIX or on a Commodore 64 twenty-something years ago.

I've recently started using a new Mac-based game development tool called Unity and it's interesting ... amazing even ... to realise that in many ways it's closer to HyperCard than Visual Basic. You do need to explicitly save changes (probably not a bad thing). You can create a 3d game application (well, you know, the gaming equivalent of "hello, world") in about thirty seconds. There is no sharp line between playing and development. It still takes fifteen seconds to launch the IDE and 30s to compile, but...

Game development just got a little more interesting.

Running Windows Apps on a Mac & Other Stories

One of the best stories I've heard about Apple's history concerns Ellen Hancock, whom Gil Amelio brought into Apple as Chief Technology Officer. Her role is pretty much overlooked these days, but she is responsible for pulling the plug on Copland, looking for a viable replacement, and -- ultimately -- acquiring NeXT, Steve Jobs, and Avie Tevanian (her successor).

Anyway, back to the story which I am reciting from memory. Ellen Hancock comes in to work and she is the most senior woman -- ever -- at Apple, surrounded by a lot of cocksure guys. She holds a meeting with her key reports and during the meeting utters the following statement. "One of the things that's always puzzled me about Macs is why when I have a Windows .exe file on my desktop and I double-click it, it doesn't just work." The reaction is one of utter consternation. How could anyone working at Apple, let alone its new Chief Techology Officer, be so utterly clueless. And then it starts to dawn on them:

1) She has a PhD in Maths.
2) She has done serious shit at IBM.
3) She's right.

Not long after this, Virtual PC added a feature which actually allowed .exe files to "just work" if you double-clicked them. It was a horrible kludge -- you double-clicked the .exe and Virtual PC (which claimed ownership of that type of file) launched, loaded up the last version of Windows you had run with it, booted Windows, copied the .exe file over to some place Windows (under VPC) could see it, and then attempted to execute it. If the .exe required a bunch of local context to work (as most Windows .exes do) it quite likely crashed.

But the principle was there.

The only word we've seen from Apple on Windows compatibility lately is (a) Bootcamp -- a pretty much wholly unsatisfactory option for serious users (it's a great security blanket for switchers). (I am not going to reboot my Mac to run some dumb Windows app; I hardly reboot my Mac at all period. If a Mac OS update requires a reboot, I often leave the dialog up for days before I finally click "Restart"...); (b) pushing Parallels Workstation -- almost as unsatistfactory as Bootcamp since it won't run games, which are Windows's killer app; and (c) a statement by Phil Schiller that Apple is not going to implement virtualization in Leopard.

So Apple has implemented one pretty much lousy option, is pushing a second, also lousy option, and has denied that it will implement the second lousy option itself.

What Apple hasn't denied, because no-one has asked, is whether it will implement the correct answer to Hancock's question -- a Win32 compatibility box in the Mac OS X block diagram. You know, those rectangular diagrams which show "QuickTime" in a box that is kind of offset on top of another box labelled "Quartz". The one with "Carbon" and "Cocoa" sitting side-by-side.

This isn't the stuff of Science Fiction or a bad rumor page. It has existed under UNIX for years, Linux for not-so-many years, and is currently available for free as Open Source WINE (WINE is not an Emulator) and in various commercial forks. Apple in fact used to sell an equivalent product for UNIX that let you run Mac apps on Sun workstations. Unlike bad option #1 it doesn't require rebooting your Mac, and unlike bad option #2 it doesn't require partitioning your hard disk, booting up Windows in a virtual environment, or giving up games. Word has it that World of Warcraft (for Win32) actually runs faster under WINE than under Windows itself.

Let's see. This option is Open Source or (for certain versions) fairly inexpensive to license, works better than any other option, satisfies the it just works mantra, is unbelievably cool (as in "would make a kickass TV ad"), is already out there, and Apple hasn't denied that it is working on it. Oh and it doesn't sell more Windows licenses.

But, you know, maybe Apple will just buy Parallels.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Return of the Newton

It's been thirteen-or-so years since I got my first Newton. The PDA industry has still not produced a tool with a better interface for note-taking, tracking appointments, or making quick sketches. I've still never lost data in a Newton. (I've owned two iPaqs, both of which have died losing everything onboard on multiple occasions. That just isn't cool. The fact that they're useless pieces of junk for anything that a decent cellphone can't do doesn't help.)

So folks are buzzing about the imminent death of the iPod (my iPod died a couple of months back; it was its second trip through the washing machine that did it). I actually agree that everything is going to merge into the cellphone, and I hope that Apple will be the company that makes that cellphone. And I think they can do it. Anyone who can reduce the pocket/purse clutter we all live with and the number of things we can forget to take with us when we leave the house, or recharge when we're at home, without losing functionality or convenice, has a winner on their hands.

Here are some things iPods do well:
* Stores Data
* Transfers Data to/from Computers
* Navigates Large Lists
* Plays Music
* Runs a decent time on a single charge (unless playing video)

Here are some things iPods do less well:
* Output audio to other devices (e.g. car stereos)
* Output video to other devices (e.g. TV sets)
* Transfers Data to/from other devices (e.g. cameras)
* Allow you to view organizer data (appointments, contacts)
* Record Audio
* Watch Video

Here are some things iPods don't do that you need to carry other crap around to do:
* Make/Receive Cell Phone Calls
* Make/Receive VoIP Phone Calls
* Instant Message
* Video Conference
* Allow you to record organizer data (appointments, contacts)
* Transfer Data to/from common data storage cards (e.g SD Cards)
* Take Pictures
* Take Notes
* Draw Pictures

So imagine that Apple produces an iPod with a larger screen, bigger battery, solid state storage only (no hard disk), an SD card slot, a microphone, a small camera, and the the best pen-based UI ever developed (i.e. the Newton's). It can basically be a Nano in a Video iPod case using the space previously used for the hard disk for more battery capacity.

All of a sudden they have a Newton (who cares if it's really a Newton underneath, as long as it has the UI?) that they can actually sell.


I'm not exactly sure when the "Zune" products are coming out. Is it tomorrow? Or ... October? It seems to me like Microsoft has just, effectively, told everyone shopping for a music player that they'd like you to buy a Microsoft music player ... when it's available, or an iPod if you want one now. Regardless, you should avoid buying anything with "PlaysForSure" since they're guaranteed to screwed.

One of the writers for the Simpsons was (is) a fellow named George Meyer, who produced a newsletter named Army Man ("America's Only Magazine"). One of the things he loves, according to a New Yorker profile, is products or statements which are lies in and of themselves (kind of like an oxymoron, but more blatant and not restricted to two words). Microsoft is a great purveyor of such products: "PlaysForSure" doesn't, "Windows Genuine Advantage" isn't, and so forth. (So is the Bush Administration: "Clean Skies", "No Child Left Behind", and so forth.)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Bill Gates's Successor

There's an interesting article in The Economist suggesting that Bill Gates is picking Ray Ozzie as his successor because Steve Jobs isn't available. Entertaining suggestion, but since Ray Ozzie's chief claim to fame is Lotus Notes, perhaps it should be taken with a grain of salt.

If you are unfamiliar with Lotus Notes let me summarize: it's an email and collaboration program that, conceptually, is similar to a wiki but better (because you can grab those parts of the wiki that interest you and put them on your local machine, and then merge your changes back in later) but actually is much, much worse.

Make no mistake, conceptually, Lotus Notes was a brilliant product. Its chief advantage over any random wiki-software today is, essentially, defunct, since the cost of deploying Lotus Notes (estimated by Gartner in the mid-90s at $7000/seat/year) dwarfs the cost of, say, giving your employees wireless network access 24/7. Heck, it would probably cover giving them a satellite phone to access the internet. Having had such a strong base to build on and such a head start over the web, you'd think Notes might have made up for its lack of compelling new functionality with, say, ease of use or excellent platform support. But no ... you can't even get the latest Notes for Mac OS X.

Anyone who has used or administered Lotus Notes can tell you that not only is it actively user-hostile, but it doesn't get better. They keep releasing new versions that just suck. It's a piece of software that no-one who wasn't forced to use it by their boss would avoid like the plague.

If this product accurately reflects the vision of the person who is Bill Gates's chosen successor, Microsoft is headed for oblivion.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Death to the Games Industry

Greg Costikyan is a very interesting guy.

I accidentally came across some articles of his here:

Part 1
Part 2

It's quite a read -- and the second article is compelling. I don't think this is so much about remaking the games industry (which is basically impossible) so much as what a viable indie games industry should -- and I think already does -- look like (e.g. shrapnelgames.com).

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Datastick

The Datastick

In one of the collections of Ron Cobb's fantastic artwork (I believe it was "The Art of Alien" but I could be mistaken) there is a device which looks a bit like a flashlight labelled "datastick". As far as I know, the device never appeared in the movie.

I've been thinking about the Datastick ever since. To me, it's essentially a smart storage device (not quite a computer) which serves as an interface between anything that creates or consumes data. Because it isn't itself a computer with a UI it can be cheap and rugged. It's been a considerable source of disappointment to me that many companies build devices which are tantalizingly close to being a Datastick, but none of which are as useful, versatile, or robust.

The iPod

An iPod could be a datastick. It has a standardized hardware interface and decent storage. It would be more compelling if you could replace its battery and/or plug in more storage.

PDAs and Cellphones

I group these two because, today, any decent PDA is a cellphone and any decent cellphone is a PDA. Sadly, these many of these devices don't yet support decent mass storage options (e.g. normal sized SD cards), standardized interfaces, and they all have too much computer functionality to be cheap and not enough to be useful. (I'd make the computer an accessory.)

So that's the Datastick. I think there's a huge potential market, although the first one will need to pretend to be a PDA/cellphone/iPod to get traction.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Addendum: Six SKUs of Separation

Addendum: Six SKUs of Separation

Microsoft is currently planning on six versions of Windows Vista, including two versions of Vista Home.

Gone is an earlier SKU oriented towards idiots gamers. Or maybe that's the "ultimate" edition.

This seems like a bad idea to me, but then I'm not a Microsoft Marketing Genius™. From a developer's perspective, the more I can rely on the target platform to be similar to the development/testing platform, the better. This in turn means that the fewer variations of the overall platform that are out there the better.

(Note: this is one reason why Linux remains such a terrible desktop platform.)

Currently, XP has Home, Media Center Edition, Tablet, Professional, and Server. From a development standpoint, this equates to Home/MCE/Professional, Tablet, and Server. So while the retail picture of XP is pretty complex, from a developer's point of view we have a single, pretty unified, target platform (since a server app is a server app and we probably don't care about Tablet).

But in the new world we have Home Basic and Home Premium which will have different looking GUIs just for starters. So when I write documentation for my users, I'm now going to need to do a lot more work (forget testing, etc.).

Annals of Usability: Windows Vista

Annals of Usability: Windows Vista

Disclaimer: I haven't used Windows Vista for even five minutes, so my opinions on it are just that valuable.

Windows Vista is the new version of Windows Microsoft plans to ship in 2004*. It features many groundbreaking new features, such as a search field on its file browser, a 3D chess game, and pixel-shader-powered rectangular window frames.

Ed Bott has posted thirty screen shots highlighting features of Windows Vista which he thinks particularly noteworthy, and it's certainly interesting.

Ed Bott's Blog Entry and Screen Shots.

Until I looked at this I really couldn't think of any reason one might want to use Vista (aside from the distant prospect of Microsoft dropping support for XP), but these two links show that the jump from XP to Vista looks at least as compelling as that from Win2k to XP... i.e. not very compelling, but a lot better than say the jump from Windows 98SE to Windows ME.

Of course, screenshots don't crash or take four days to install.

The biggest benefit for me: Microsoft is so busy imitating the Mac GUI in Vista that all the folks who claim they prefer the Windows UI are going to be explaining why Vista is better to themselves and their fanboi friends. This was fun back when they were claiming command line UIs were better than graphical UIs, and that mice were toys. It's still fun now.

That said, it's pretty hilarious that the performance rating system rates his Dual 3GHz PC with 3GB RAM etc. as "3/5".

* Based on the assumption that Jesus Christ was actually born in 5AD.

LOST has lost it.

LOST has lost it

I'm sorry to say that LOST seems to have jumped the backwards-talking midget shark. It seems to be the TV show no-one minds admitting they watch, but the formula, which is apparently Twin Peaks but with more writers and less drugs is wearing thin on me, and I suspect a lot of other viewers.

This started to get way too long, so I'm going to summarise:

1. Twin Peaks was, at its best, better.
2. Twin Peaks sucked pretty bad towards the end ... but we haven't seen how much LOST is going to suck yet.
3. At least Twin Peaks ended.
4. There is no way to resolve LOST at this point without aliens, creamed corn, and magic.

Of course the heart of the problem is the economics of TV production in the US. If you produce something and it's successful it is mandatory that it last at least five seasons so that it can make money in syndication. Thus, LOST must run five years to justify its existence, which means stretching out a pretty shaky story for about eighty episodes more than necessary.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Blogging Made (Too) Easy

Blogging Made (Too) Easy

I've recently started using Dashboard (I've been using Tiger for ages, but really didn't pay much attention to Dashboard).

Most of Dashboard's built-in functionality, e.g. calendar, calculator, units converter, dictionary, is pretty darn useful, but I really don't see why it needs to live in its own layer. In some cases it's actively annoying.

One of the most popular Dashboard widgets allows you to add a post to your blog by typing into it and clicking a button. This is almost too easy. Actually it *is* too easy.

So here goes...

But first, a geek joke I came across on DaringFireball.net (he cites his source...)

Q: "What's the difference between Leopard* and Vista**"

A: "Microsoft's Engineers are really excited about Leopard."

* Mac OS X 10.5, the next version of Mac OS X, due early 2007.

** Windows Vista, codenamed "Longhorn", the much delayed next version of Windows.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Bootcamp, virtualization, yada yada yada

Microsoft makes tons of money and has legal headaches. Apple makes not quite so many tons of money and has smaller legal headaches. Here's an interesting possible direction...

Apple makes Windows XP/Vista "the new classic" via strong virtualization (i.e. virtualization where the virtual machine can actually "see" some of the more useful hardware, which is to say the GPU) within OS X 10.5.

OS X 10.6 with Windows Vista bundled (a la Classic) replaces Windows as both Microsoft's and Apple's OS. Microsoft still makes a ton of money from OS X 10.6 (via sales of Office and cross-licensing). Apple gets access to Microsoft's DRM. Windows users get a relatively robust OS. Users get a single OS that can run Windows, Macintosh, and UNIX software seamlessly, play media from anywhere. Apple will lose hardware sales but gain huge market share. Everyone is happy.

Note that Apple is heading this way regardless (and, indeed, Apple has no choice; virtualization is already here and stronger virtualization is the logical, obvious next step).

So it's merely a matter of whether the two companies cooperate to make everyone's lives easier, or insist on creating incompatibilities to force some users to choose one platform and live with the inconvenience and other users to work across both platforms and live with a different level of inconvenience.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Annals of Usability: Pathfinder 4

Like a great many Mac users and the vast majority of self-appointed usability experts, I have been very critical of Apple's new (as in OS X) Finder. Every so often, I download the latest version of Pathfinder -- the most ambitious attempt to replace it that I have found -- and desperately try to like it, and then delete it and go back to the one Apple gives me "for free".

Oddly enough, many prominent voices have said that Pathfinder is the be-all and end-all Finder replacement, and I really wonder why they think this.

First of all, let's examine objections to Apple's Finder. These fall into several basic categories, which all in turn either fall under the general heading "it's not the old Finder" or "it's not Windows Explorer".

The Old Finder

Many of us old-time Mac users have fond memories of the Classic Finder. These generally date back to the days of, say, 1989, before hard disks became terribly large. My Mac IIci (my first Mac was a 512k) came with a 40MB hard disk, and the System folder had something like 20 files and folders in it (which I thought horribly cluttered compared with, say, System 3.2). The spatial Finder made a lot of sense back then and worked very well. Aside from a live project directory, most things stayed pretty static and having a feel for "where" everything was really made sense.

By 2000 the Mac Finder had seen its best days. Almost anyone I knew had everything set to show hierarchical list views, which kind of worked and kind of didn't. Individual views could be very slow to update, and the whole interface was somewhat fragile.

The old Finder did have one excellent feature which I still miss: tabbed windows. They never quite worked properly, but for hours at a time they would be attractive and useful, before something messed them up and they had to be fixed. It seems odd to me that Apple never resurrected them, since they would work much better in OS X... except that there's this pesky Dock in the way.

Windows Explorer

Windows Explorer is, at its best, quite a nice file browser and quite a nice web browser. Unfortunately, because it is both, it has the ability to morph its windows into many different forms, and whether you get the form you might prefer is quite arbitrary (no doubt there's a consistent set of rules by which different forms are evoked, but in fifteen years of using Windows it has yet to become apparent to me).

Consequently, I cannot seem to set Explorer to always display directories in a specific way that I like, so instead I just live with whatever odd form a window takes, or when I have a specific task in mind, I go through the rather painful process of either configuring a window properly OR finding a window that is already configured properly and pointing it at the right directory (or web page).

When Mac users who are familiar with Windows point to a nice feature of Explorer and decry its missingness from OS X, they are right to do so. But they seldom add the caveat that this feature is arbitrarily present or not, or buried amid a host of horribleness beyond casual contemplation.

The Complaints

As I see it, the specific complaints against the new Finder are:

  • It doesn't have tabbed windows.
  • Columns view is clumsy in some ways
  • Columns view lacks obvious features (e.g. sort options)
  • It's no longer spatial
  • It's metal
  • It behaves badly sometimes

All of these complaints are perfectly valid. Metal, in particular, is so hopelessly ugly next to the new "unified" windows in 10.4 that it should be made to disappear altogether. It was kind of cool in 2001... can we lose it now and pretend it never existed?

The problem with these complaints is not that they're wrong, but that they're either simple to fix (make column views sortable NOW Apple) or there's no known solution:

  • Tabbed windows never worked properly in Classic, and there's a dock in the way now. Figure out a way to make Finder windows "tabbify" to any side of the screen that doesn't have the dock on it.
  • Columns view can be kind of clunky. I don't know how to fix it and it's better than the alternatives (e.g. huge hierarchical views).
  • Add sort options to column view NOW, please. And add filtering.
  • The spatial Finder is broken. Get over it. And please, figure out how to keep my desktop tidy without constant supervision.
  • Make Finder windows unified NOW, please.
  • If I say I want settings to apply to all Finder windows, APPLY THEM TO ALL FINDER WINDOWS.

Pathfinder is NOT the solution

I originally set out to put my feedback on Cocoatech's forums (Cocoatech develops Pathfinder) but it seems I need to be a member, and I didn't want to join (or if I had already joined, I couldn't remember my userID and password). So here I am ranting in "public".

Here's the deal with Pathfinder:

  • It replaces column view with something more web like (a this>path>to>folder headline which I would love to see in Finder's non-column views).
  • It provides tabbed browsing windows (not Classic Finder type tabs but FireFox / Camino / Safari / IE7 type tabs) which I would also love to see in Finder.
  • It also provides a whole bunch of hopelessly disorganized and marginally useful clutter.
  • It provides multiple redundant views of everything.
  • It can replace Finder (kind of) but the developers don't really believe it so it does dumb things like reveal selected items in Finder windows rather than its own Windows.

Here's Pathfinder's problem in a nutshell: by trying to be too many things to too many people it simply becomes a clumsy mess.

It has two drawers -- one on the left and one on the right. The icons to disclose the drawers helpfully resembler drawers (i.e. they indicate, kind of, that they disclose a drawer but not what you might find in the drawer).

The left drawer contains a process list allowing you to conveniently and/or accidentally terminate processes with two mouse clicks at any time from any Pathfinder window. WTF? This is like attaching, say, a self-destruct next to every light switch; sure it has a plastic safety cover over it, but having a 0.1% chance of accidentally blowing up your house every time you switch a light on or off is still a bad idea.

I can't remember what the right drawer containers, except that it seems redundant. Indeed redundancy is the watchword of Pathfinder.

In Mac OS 7 the Apple menu stopped being a list of "Desk Accessories" and became instead of list of everything in the Apple Menu Items folder. This was really cool because it let you put aliases (another System 7 feature) of all your favorite stuff in the Apple Menu. I miss this feature. So do a lot of us.

OS X replaces the Apple Menu with the dock. This has the disadvantage that it takes up screen real estate (either permanently or at inconvenient times, such as when resizing a window) and the advantage that unlike the Apple menu it can act as a target for drag operations. It also eliminates what had become a burgeoning problem for Classic, which was "multiple incompatible mechanisms for accessing everything". In OS9 you could launch an app via the Apple Menu but only drag to an application in the Finder (barring ugly system hacks); meanwhile running Applications were visible in another menu ... etc.

Both the (old) Apple Menu and the Dock have the great virtue of being user configurable. The dock has the even greater virtue of containing all running applications.

Pathfinder, by default, provides you with no less than four, and probably more, methods of directly accessing the items in the Applications folder. I don't know about you, but my Applications folder has 123 (I am not making this up) items in it at the bottom level. (I tried tidying my Applications folder up a long time ago, and discovered that Microsoft and Adobe products no-longer updated themselves properly, so I've decided to treat the Applications folder as a horrible place not fit for human habitation.)

Pathfinder automatically turns things like your Documents and Applications folders into menus. Rach of these menus is essentially a horrible booby trap waiting to blow up in your face. (Either you use these directories, in which case they have hundreds of files in them, or you don't, in which case you don't need that menu.) All of this stuff in Pathfinder is potentially configurable, but in the end it seems like the Windows Explorer problem (can you configure it and predict its behavior?) wrapped around a just-not-terribly-good-file-browser-window.

Pathfinder is also disorganized. The menus are all enormous with no real organisation. Things you might use once in a blue moon (e.g. set window transparency) are top level items rather than justifiably buried in in a dialog box.

I don't know why a useful feature -- launching a shell with its current directory mathcing the directory you're looking at -- is buried in a menu while a useless feature (showing you a console transcript) is conveniently available by clicking a toolbar icon that looks strikingly similar to the terminal icon. Oh and why is the tabbed shell window the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my life? (Although Pathfinder's About box is a contender too.)

This gets on to my final complaint. Pathfinder is, aside from its main browser Window (which is merely cluttered) horribly ugly. While the company is called Cocoatech and great emphasis is placed on Pathfinder being Cocoa throughout, just being built with Interface Builder is no guarantee of aesthetic nirvana. Every dialog box is poorly laid out, with incorrect spacing, poorly chosen widgets, or just too much crap in too little space.

Even when it tries to add clever and original features (e.g. the dropzone) Pathfinder fails to make clear what it's doing (e.g. the dropzone). I understand the principle (you can collect a bunch of stuff to copy from one place to another) but I don't know what happens if I change my mind halfway through, or if some of the items are only being moved within a volume while others would be copied from one volume to another. This isn't immediately apparent, so I'm not willing to risk guessing wrong.

I understand everyone's frustration with the Finder. It's far from perfect, and if folders in the Dock automatically disclosed to Finder windows, Finder adopted the best features of Windows Explorer (e.g. allowed items in the left column to disclose hierarchically), and it acted more predictably it could be better, but Pathfinder is an ugly, confusing mess. At its core, Pathfinder's browser window isn't as good as Finder's, and adding hundreds of doodads around it doesn't fix that fundamental problem.