The Past Through Tomorrow

It is the time of year when we all reflect on the previous year, and prepare ourselves for what’s ahead.  Pundits of all shapes and sizes dust off the predictions from the previous year, score their successes, and trundle out another set of SWAGs (Silly Wild-Assed Guesses) for the new year.  I’ve been keeping myself mildly and technologically amused reading Robert X Cringely, Cory Doctorow, and a host  of other pundits, trolls and wannabes sharpen their pens and take aim at and possibly influence the direction of the year to come.

Along those lines I decided to pull out my quiver and let slip a slew of arrows at various topics near and dear to me in the iBatcave First Annual Crystal Ball Gazing and Pundit Toss – Doomsday Edition.

  1. The 2012 doomsday –  Okay – I might as well get the biggie out of the way, will the world descend into an apocalyptic dark age on December 21st?  Anything is possible – take for instance recent computer models that validate the idea of a Mars size body collision with the Earth that made it possible for life and a technological society to form as we know it today.  But given observation and scientific inquiry, the probability is very low for any life altering events of planetary significance – so my predication is many IT workers who take off the month of December will be returning to work the first week of January 2013 – rested and ready for cleaning up after all the panic stricken mobs.  Of course, I’ll be here in the bat-cave with my 2 year supply of MREs, Darkknight comics, and the batcomputer to keep me warm, assuming you can reach me… ^_^
  2. SOPA – The Stop Online Piracy Act – HR 3261, as of this writing in the House Judiciary Committee – is an attempt by ‘big media’ lobbyists to push through a draconian expansion of powers above and beyond the provisions of the DMCA.  Introduced late in the year on October 26th – the proposed law allows the Justice Department to order immediate blockage of accused offshore sites, would put the burden of proof on the accused website to respond in short order to an accuser or trigger an injunction, and has language that isn’t clear – that is particularly troublesome to large hosting sites as well as advocates of the free speech who contend that the internet has become the public square.  Furthermore, the safe harbor provisions put the responsibility of policing it proactively up to the internet network and hosting companies – which would not only place an undue burden/cost on these entities, but has other dangers to privacy and improper manipulation for private interests to the detriment of society.  This would furthermore break or fracture many of the key features of the international internet as Europe and Asia would certainly retaliate upon manipulation of worldwide DNS, security and routing by the United States.  Some core network American service companies (DNS and hosting services) are considering moving offshore to maintain connection with the worldwide network in the event takedown orders impact their customers.
    So far, it seems the lobbyists and Congress are holding all the cards; initial hearings only included the interest groups associated with the lobby – and were criticized for not having the technical knowledge to properly evaluate the effects of their proposals.  A fight is brewing as we speak; however, unless a hail Mary can be pulled off by the ‘freedom coalition’ – I don’t give this much hope.  I think it will be passed, and we’ll be dealing with the consequences for some time.  Let the boycotts begin!
  3. The Personal Computer – The personal computer, and more precisely the general purpose programmable computer, is under pressure from the plethora of mobile devices that have entered the market.  By and large, these new devices are not directly programmable by the user.  As the young population begins to age, the use of small devices will begin to wane – particularly when they hit their 40’s and need reading glasses – but that is 20 years away.  That being said, I don’t think the PC is going anywhere anytime soon – particularly for people who need the extra processing power locally to run complex simulations (RPGs/FPSs/FlightSims), do development, and other more ‘server like’ things in their local network.  People in the past who bought a desktop to browse the web and read email, will be happy with smartphones and tablets instead.  We might see some price fluctuations, as more production time is spent on components for the tablets and phones.  Desktops that are offered in the retail space will have new features to compete (e.g. touchscreen – and we’re already seeing this) – and will likely be optimized for use with cloud based applications.  With the ascendency of console game systems – the high end desktop game system will more and more become a hobbiest tradition – and there may be some growth in businesses that can cater to that market for those without the wherewithal to build their own system, and with little alternatives in the retail space.
  4. Cloud Computing – The Cloud is just another name for ‘thin client’ computing – and we know how that turned out – it has special applications, but isn’t good enough for every application.  As people run into more problems, aunt Suzy unable to download the pictures of your adorable rug rats, or little Jimmy trying to play the latest game – and loses connectivity due to infrastructure failures, then we’ll see this ameliorate a bit.  Right now it is a hot buzz word in the corporate board rooms – as companies look to squeeze whatever savings they can by outsourcing and relocating applications to the cloud.  As a result – I think we’ll still be talking about Cloud Computing when 2013 rolls around.
  5. NASA Manned Space Program – Kaput!  We are going to see the Russians and Chinese make advancements and continue to fly manned missions – while we tag along for the ride.  Seems like a pattern going on here – America outsourcing the work.  It’s going to be awhile before we launch people into orbit again – and it won’t be in 2012.  Commercial ventures will make progress – but in sub orbital arena only.
  6. Automobile Tech – will continue to suck; however Tesla Motors will release their all-electric sedan in 2012, and sales will be groundbreaking.  Google’s fleet of self driving cars will increase to 300 by year end.

These are my personal predictions for the coming year – zero calorie goodness.

  1. Community CPU Cycle Pwnage  – it is safe to say that last year I had the most CPU cycles available on the block in the Batcave – even discounting the Suburban Goddess and Bat Girl’s five systems.  To ensure and maintain my leadership, and bragging rights (and so I don’t have to scrape off my ‘My Gigaflops Pwns U’ bumper sticker) I will be investing in a custom computer build-out based upon an AMD FX series processor.  This system will be my dev/testing system – running VMWare or some other FOSS hypervisor – with various Linux flavors available for testing – and hosting for some development related things (master git/subversion repository etc).  I’ll continue to game out with my Intel i7 based Windows 7 box, and geek out with my Intel Pentium 4  based Linux box, and my collection of Apple paraphernalia  (Intel i7 based Macbook Pro, Core 2 Duo Mac Mini, and original iPad).  If time permits I might tinker around with getting some of my older systems running to pull some weight (if my power bill and the house wiring can stand it).  The real question is – can I successfully marshal the resources by convincing the Suburban Goddess to release the purse strings, to accomplish these goals?  Check back this time next year to find out!
  2. Uber Blogmeister – For the three people that apparently actually read this blog – I know there has been a long (LONG) dry spell, but I am bound and determined to get the blog going this year come hell or high water.  Can I do it at least once a week every week?  If my post count reaches 52 by 2013 we’ll all know the answer.  I also predict that I will have at least 100 readers a day by the end of the year (or world).
  3. Doomsday Weight Loss Plan –  I’ve been having trouble getting into the old bat suit (curse you rubberized kevlar!) so I’ve started a new ‘doomsday’ diet and exercise program to get into prime blogging shape by the end.  If things go badly – at least I’ll have a good looking corpse wrapped in black kevlar goodness.  The doomsday goal is to loose 100 lbs.  We shall see how this goes.
  4. Teetering in the Balance – This last prediction/goal is related to becoming a more well rounded person overall.  I have musical instruments and the means of creating quality recordings; I’m going to play them, get better at it, and make recordings this year.  I’m going to spend time meditating (the time spent sitting on the bus praying the drunk stinky hobo staggering down the aisle doesn’t sit next to you is not meditation).  Finally I’m going to spend more time with my family, outdoors actually doing outdoorsy stuff.   ^=^

Join me January 2013 to find out how well I predicted – provided we’re not all dead or living in a post apocalyptic hell, of course!

iPad Redux

To bring you up to speed from my last article, I did indeed preorder the iPad, and had it delivered by UPS on release day, 3 April 2010.  I ordered the 58GB memory model, and it was wifi only.  I also ordered the rubberized folio cover that Apple was offering at the time.  I immediately started using it – and it has been a constant companion device for me.

The problem I was trying to solve with the iPad was the limitations imposed by Laptops and netbooks when used in a general purpose note taking scenario.  Those limitations included, weight, low battery life, and the costs of task switching.  Using my laptop computer in the past for meetings – I found many times that the effort involved in disconnecting the machine from the wired secure network, moving it to a meeting room and lugging the power adapter and mouse along with it – caused me to defer to paper and pencil more often than not.   My initial reaction with the iPad was that its lightweight and legalpad-like form factor would make me keep it with me more than I ever did with laptops/netbooks – and I wasn’t wrong.  I completely gave up taking laptops or pen/pencil and paper into meetings.  Couple that with solid state flash memory, and long battery life due to limited power consumption when actively using it, and it fit perfectly into my vision of such a device.

Most of the software on it is free, and I have sprung for a few items that were not.   I did buy Numbers and Pages – but I don’t use them that much to have justified the cost (spreadsheets do come in handy from time to time).  I bought SketchBook Pro – and I use that quite a bit more, and I also bought WritePad – and have dabbled a bit with handwriting recognition — basically keeps the carpel-tunnel at bay by allowing me to switch between typing and writing.

Free iPad software I have used the hell out of: CJournal – a system that is a people oriented log and todo list manager,  and iThoughtsHD – a mind mapping system, who’s output files are compatible with ‘FreeMind‘ – which I also have loaded on all of my other workstations.  Others include PCCalc Lite (a scientific calculator), Biorythm (plots biorythms), SSH Terminal – for connecting to my systems remotely via SSH, and a few programming language related items – cbmHandBasic (C64 Basic emulator), Luna (Lua scripting language),  and iSkeme (a Schema implementation).  Having used the software over the past year and 3/4, I’ve more recently come to the conclusion that I need a better means of managing multiple projects and todo lists — the complexity of projects, both personal and work related, caused the CJournal software to show it’s limitations.  As a result I found ‘Get It Done 3.0’ – while free, a more full featured project ‘todo’ list manager than CJournal.  I will continue to use CJournal for what it excels at, logging meetings and phone calls with contacts – but the project management will be done in the new app.

My usage pattern has been split about 2/3 productivity, and 1/3 entertainment.  I have my full music library loaded on it – and I often use it at work with over-ear noise cancellation headphones to bring peace to my cubicle world.  The wifi connectivity is perfect for me – I already have cell phone with a data plan – so I knew if I were really out and about, I would use the phone to find directions or whatever else I would do truely mobile.  The iPad form factor doesn’t lend itself to truely mobile use – which is fine by me.  I really see the iPad as a highly portable laptop replacement for when I’m on the go – in meetings etc – and it has lived up to that perfectly.  While I don’t use it to write novels, I am looking at expanding my repetoire to capture ideas related to larger writing projects when I get the idea – and may not be in front of my workstation or laptop to capture it.

To that end, I’m now experimenting with two writing programs on the iPad that my initial evaluation leads me to believe are best in class: Werdsmith and A Novel Idea.  Werdsmith is designed primarily to capture your words – and even includes a project model keyed to the number of words you expect to write – so it can track your progress.  ‘A Novel Idea’ is more full featured, and is really designed not so much to actually write the whole enchilada, but instead to capture key aspects, such as characters, locations, scenes, and tie them together with a given project (novel).  Right now I’m leaning towards ‘A Novel Idea’ for my purposes – but Werdsmith’s tracking mechanism also makes me take pause.

Another key aspect of the iPad is it’s ability to hold reading and reference material.  This not only serves an entertainment purpose for those times when I have enforced downtime (such as waiting for the bus), but also allows me to keep a library of technical reference documents to have at my fingertips in meetings and other locales where I don’t have access to my workstation.  My younger colleagues tell me they don’t ‘get’ the iPad form factor – since you can do all the same things on the iPhone etc.  My point to them is, ‘wait a few years’.  At some point they are going to get old and need glasses, and reading text on an iPhone for any length of time beyond the length of an SMS message will be downright painful in a font that allows them to actually see it.

So here is my scorecard for the iPad:

  • Overall – B
  • Ease of use  – A
  • End user programmable – D
  • Availability of useful software – A
  • Readability – A
  • Portability/weight – B
  • Battery life – A

I’m so happy now with the iPad, that I didn’t feel the need to upgrade to the iPad2.  My one drawback is the iPad does not have the facilities to do any self contained development/scripting.  The result is spending $100 to gain access to the iPhone/iPad SDK program, and having an external machine capable of doing the development.  It is definitely not a general purpose computer from the user’s perspective.  I’ll talk about that more in a future installment.

Stop the Presses

Yes – Apple modified their website to (finally) provide the delivery date of the iPad (3 April 2010) – and you can pre-order on the 12th of March for either delivery or pickup at your local Apple store.  But while simultaneously exciting and relieving to know the dates now, that is not the reason for today’s article.

The bulk of today’s subject is the effect a truly ubiquitous reading device will have on the traditional print media.  Interestingly enough, while perusing http://slashdot.org I came upon an interesting and well thought out blog on just that:  Books in the Age of iPad gives a very well thought out dive into the subject from someone who’s been making ‘dead tree’ books for some time.

To summarize – the content of traditionally printed material was either ‘formless’ (no formatting changes would alter the presentation or meaning of the work), or ‘definite’ (having a definite layout in relationship to the size and shape of the page and incorporating artistic elements as part of the work).  The author while being deep into the binding and creation of books, is intrigued by the potential for the new tools to basically do away with the kind of books that were never meant to survive a first reading – paperbacks.  Furthermore he sees the potential for the new medium to allow us now, for the first time to do two things really well: publish the kinds of works that thrived in the paperback medium easily and cheaply, and provide new and unanticipated ways of viewing and interacting with the content – even for those works where ‘defined’ content is relevant – not just the words themselves.

Terminology aside, he makes good points – and poses the question, “to what extent will this technology be a game changer over the next few years, and as we go through it, what will the traditional publishing houses look like afterwords?

From my perspective I think this is yet another traditional ‘middle-man’ business (in this case delivering written works of fiction and non-fiction) that will continue to be less and less relevant in a wired world.  Just like the music industry now going through the throes of 99-cent music on the iTunes store, other once highly profitable zero-content main-in-the-middle delivery businesses will have to change their scope and focus, or die.  Rupert Murdock’s thrashing all over the internet (bid to block Google from seeing his sites, to his recent call for BBC to not to have as much news programming because free content is impacting his business).

If I had to look into my crystal ball, I would say this wave is very quickly rising (it is logarithmic – and we are still on the front side of the wave – but it is getting very high and we are very high up on that wave now) – and now is the time to either ride it, get out of the way, or get crushed by it.  That being said, the old dinosaur content distribution entities still have a lot of money in the bank – and some of them seem intent on doing whatever it takes to keep their precious profit margins high.

For the content creators and their fans/customers – I don’t see this as a big deal.  There are so many ways now to reach an audience – either for profit or not – and the iPad just adds another means of doing that.

iPad Debute…Sizzle or Fizzle?

I observed the ‘great unveiling’ of the iPad via live updates on Wired…meh.  Later I watched it on YouTube.  Initially I was a bit disappointed.  Where was the cell phone, and the camera?  But then I warmed to the idea of it.  Now, maybe I am showing my age, but I think this is just what I’ve been looking for… (elaborate fade to flashback 1989)

Since I had my first laptop, I’ve really wanted something truly portable that I could use as an adjunct to the heavier laptop/workstation.  I tried various PDAs to no avail.  Handwriting recognition was a stinker (I never had an Apple Newton – so I don’t know if that was better or not), and the things were too small and delicate (damaged, lost, or in the case of the early Palm Pilots corrosion munged the runs on the board ugh).  Years went by and I continued lug around multiple laptops (2 for work, 1 for personal).

Enter netbooks — I got an ASUS eepc – running Linux, of course.  I loved it, and I hated it at the same time.   The keyboard was too small for my ham-fisted typing, and the screen looked like a postage stamp when sitting on my lap.  I loved that I could load my favorite free development software easily using the package manager…but I couldn’t really use it.  I ended up giving it to my wife, who was happy to have it (the tiny hand cabal wins again).

I looked at various pen based computers over the years too — but most of the ones I’ve seen were as heavy as a laptop, and the operating system on them was just a ‘desktop’ operating system, made to use a touch screen.  Yawn.  Might as well keep lugging around the MacBook (fast forward to the present).

So, like some mello modern day hippie Moses – Steve Jobs came down from the mountain and delivered his iPad.  And much like the ten commandments, it is a simple device.  If you want a full featured general purpose computer – this thing is not for you (the vast majority of the complaints I see are along this vein – stop whining already).  Get another pad based computer or a laptop if that is what you want.

However if you want a device that is ubiquitous as a legal pad, contains all the books and documents you want to keep close (a library in your hands), with your calendar synchronized  – on top of games and music, when not reading fiction to keep you entertained when you’re forced to wait (for the bus, or a long meeting…), with the ability to view web pages and various document formats – then this thing is for you.  I’m not a fan of Flash — so that isn’t a deal breaker for me either.

That being said, there is only one thing that needs to shake out before I will plop down the $699 (yes I want the Wifi-only 64Gig model – if I can’t find an errant wifi signal to use where I am sitting and it is that dang important – I’ll move my fat ass):  Will you be able to sync documents to the device directly (e.g. PDF, DOC, TXT etc)?  I have a large library of PDF files and text files and information that I’ve created over the years that I find extremely useful to have at my fingertips when questions arise about technology and other subjects.  Using spotlight to index and search these on the fly would be very nice.

Everything else looks fine to me – I guess I’m easy to please.  Time will tell once I get my hands on the thing and have to live with it day in and day out.