Monthly Archives: July 2009

MacBook Pro, Why Did it Have to be You?

Apart from work issued laptops I’ve never really owned my own personal portable computer. A couple years back I did purchase a $300 laptop off ebay in the hopes of transforming it into a carputer however the unfortunate happened and it gave up the ghost a couple weeks after I bought it. Since then I’ve shunned most laptops as I’ve never had a reason outside work to have one, but all that changed recently when several different cosmic forces conspired against me to push me towards my ultimate decision, the MacBook Pro.

Coming up at the end of the year I’m getting married (yay!) to my lovely fiance. We’re going on our honeymoon to location X (no one but me knows where it is, ha!) and if it’s one thing that I’ve learnt from my friends who’ve travelled the world is that pictures and memories will only take you so far. When the first of my group of friends jetsetted overseas he was presented with a travel journal to chronicle his trip. This was long before any of us considered blogging or similar as it was still really in its infancy back then. So I resided myself to get some kind of portable computer to take along with us, not for entertainment just to write in of a night time. Hence I decided that I needed something that was light and compact with a decent battery life. At this point in time I was looking pretty squarely at a netbook as they tick all the boxes and are cheap to boot. I was thrown a requirement curve ball not too long afterwards however.

Enter my budding web application Geon. After showing it around to everyone the consensus was that the end game I was aiming for would be shot in the foot if I didn’t target the iPhone. Since I can write off one phone a year as a business expense the prospect of buying an iPhone isn’t such a bad prospect for me (and really if I don’t want to use it my fiance will gladly take up the opportunity) so I’d resigned myself to getting one once I had matured Geon to a level where I felt iPhone uses would want it. Thinking that such a widely used device would have development environments available for all platforms I set off looking for one so I could have a play.

Oh how wrong I was.

Turns out the iPhone SDK is only available to those who have a Mac to develop on. There is talk of some people running it on Windows using some creative hacks however it doesn’t appear to be all roses for them and 99.999% of the resources I found online make no mention of anything else other than a Mac environment. The cheap option here would be to buy a second hand mac mini but since I’m in the market for a Mac of some description and a laptop it’s going to be better to get something that can cover both requirements.

So I’ve resigned myself to get a MacBook Pro and whilst I initially struggle with the idea of shelling out so much cash for a laptop I’ve come to appreciate what I’ll end up getting. For the same specifications the MacBook Pro is incredibly small and light. Couple that with the new battery which lauds 8 hours of life (I’d be happy with 4  when specs like it has are involved) and it’s a pretty decent machine. Plus thanks to Boot Camp I can happily hide MacOS away if I want to delude myself into thinking I bought a silver Dell or something for a while.

I’m even slightly tempted by the 128GB SSD upgrade option for $288. That’s not too bad with all things considered.

Now where did I put that turtleneck……

The Rise of the Casual Sceptic.

If you look back a mere decade or so it is shocking how much information someone has if they have access to the Internet. Back in the late 90s the Internet was booming however it lacked real authoritative resources that people could draw on to do at least basic research. Today much of that is has changed with the advent of real resources like Google Scholar, arXiv and PubMed Central who bring real research with verifiable results to the wider world. Additionally non-authoritative sources like Wikipedia which make use of these journals provide a good baseline from which to pursue further knowledge from.

It is then interesting to note how people’s behaviour changes slightly when you add that amount of easy information into their lives via constant access to the Internet, usually via their phone. No longer are those slightly boozy conversations down at the pub which inevitably turn to debate left to stew until someone finds a book to prove their point it is now extremely common for someone to look up the fact on the Internet and have it be done with. I must admit I’m usually the one doing this as I always want to know the facts rather than the hearsay from my friends. Not to say that I don’t trust them, it’s just that sceptic in me that needs to know.

It’s also a right of passage for many people on the Internet to be able to judge what’s probably truthful and what’s not. Anyone who has used email in a corporate environment will have more then likely encountered 2 types of people who are born out of this information overload that the Internet provides. The first is what I call the Forward Junkie, someone who blindly forwards those joke/picture/movie/story emails to everyone in the office. Try as you might to stop them they’ll continue to do it until usually they hit on the second type of person, who I call the Casual Sceptic. Whilst they’re not the kind of person to spout reams of scientific knowledge should you dare claim something you can’t back up they will casually link you to either Wikipedia or Snopes to prove their point. It’s at that point that neither of them say anything about the matter again, and office life continues as it was.

To think that the Internet has brought about this kind of mindset in a few people is an amazing thing to behold. When the barrier to entry on information is so low many people take it upon themselves to not only educate themselves but also verify information given to them. As it is one of my ultimate goals to inspire people to think about a topic and do their own research about it (since of course I’m just a loon posting on his blog) every casual sceptic that I meet always brings me a little joy. I love it when technology is used in this way.

Maybe I’m just a ravenous sceptic in disguise….. ;)

Pirates, Perceived Value and Pedantry.

The digital age that we live in has brought us something that we weren’t accustomed to before: desirable products that have no limits on production. All forms of digital media can be reproduced essentially for free, and this leads to their supply being apparently infinite. This doesn’t work well with traditional business models as the normal rules of supply and demand would dictate the price would drop to near nothing if this was the case. What this has led to is a constant arms race between those who wish to profit from the digital age and those that wish to exploit a near limitless resource for their own game. I am of course referring to the pirates, or more accurately copyright infringers.

The reasons that people pirate are as varied as they are numerous, but the common thread I see throughout most of them is that there is an almost zero cost and risk associated with pirating something. When the barrier to entry is so low that almost anyone can get on and get whatever computer software they want for free with very little risk of being caught the perceived value of the product drops dramatically. In essence these pirates view the digital media as being worth a lot less than what it is being sold for commercially, and the risks associated with illegally downloading copyrighted material are small enough to be written off as well.

Most of the mechanisms that have been used thus far to combat piracy have been blunt and ineffective. The most traditional form is a Digital Rights Management (DRM) system which attempts to regulate access to only those who have purchased a copy legally. In all my years of working in IT I have not seen one program that has managed to resist the efforts to break its DRM, with the record standing at a mere 2 weeks if memory serves me. Personally when I pay for a game or application that dares to throw more then the most basic DRM at me I do feel like I’m being treated like a criminal for doing the right thing, whilst the pirates get away without having to worry about it.

However, despite all this bellyaching there are a few glimmers of hope. Stardock made headlines late last year for releasing a Gamer’s Bill of Rights outlining what they believe to be 10 rules that all game development companies should adhere to. In essence it was all about improving the value of the product for the customer, I.E the ones who are actually paying for the software. Whilst there has been no solid research done thus far into how DRM systems affect sales (although historically any draconian DRM scheme is met with strong customer disatisfaction) it comes as common sense that if people percieve the value of a product higher when they get it for free then you’re doing something wrong.

You can then understand my excitement when I saw Ubisoft talking about how they are going to combat piracy:

“Altogether on console, the piracy is low,” Guillemot said. “On the PC the piracy is quite a lot. We are working on a tool that would allow us to decrease that on the PC starting next year and probably one game this year.”

Guillemot didn’t say what that solution would be, but it since he talked about it as if it were a new tool and not an existing form of digital rights management, like SecuRom, it stands to reason that it may be an internal solution.

The topic of piracy came up during Ubisoft‘s quarterly earnings call after Guillemot pointed to it as part of the reason that their DS games haven’t been selling well.

He said that piracy on Nintendo’s DS is strong, though oddly not as bad on the DSi, and that the company has learned that they can reduce the impact of illegal copies of the game by including physical extras like figurines, with their titles.

This is exactly the way they should combat piracy. Improving the value of a store bought copy through things the pirates can’t get their hands on and duplicate is what will draw people away from the world of pirated software. History has shown that DRM is ineffective in preventing people from obtaining a product they want for free and recent forays into reducing the price (hence increasing perceived value) have worked to increase total sales.

With 2 of the big names starting to come around perhaps soon we’ll be rid of the DRM bugbear.

Technology That Refuses to Die.

Anyone who has worked in a large corporate environment can tell you that there’s some old legacy system that they use for something (typically Human Resources stuff like payroll) that hasn’t been reviewed or updated in years. Typically this is because they needed a system to fit a specific need at the time and since then that need has evaporated, leaving them with a custom system that works in an antiquated way. I’d be lying to say that I didn’t like these systems because this is where the majority of my work stems from, migrating old technology to new. There are however some pieces of technology that I just can’t seem to get rid of.

Take a quick look around you and survey the technology that you have. Despite the obvious (computer/phone) if you’re sitting at work reading this there are probably 2 bits of technology that are near you that have been around for so long that it’s amazing that they’ve managed to survive. The first is the floppy disk, which as I look upon my computer now is completely absent but if I turn I can see one a mere 5 meters from where I’m sitting. I had thought that this tech had sounded its death knell many years ago when the flash drive came along until about a year ago when I had to set up a server with an OEM raid controller. Seeing as the drivers were required at OS install time they had to come on a floppy disk and there wasn’t a single one to be found anywhere in our office. I think the pack of 10 we bought that day are still sitting in the office, with 9 of them unused. Luckily with the advent of things like iLO I don’t even need a flash drive to get the drivers I need on there, I can do it directly from my web browser.

The most common piece of technology that I see everywhere and has thus far evaded all other technology that has attempted to slay it is the good old fax machine. From legal documents to my weekly time sheets people still rely on a 33.6kbit/s peer to peer connection over the phone line to transmit A4 sheets of paper to each other. Whilst I can understand that the medium has been around for ages and is therefore trusted it is still a technology that comes directly from the mid 1980s, and carries its legacy with it. Whilst significant inroads have been made with email for transmitting secure documents I can still count 5 faxes on my morning stroll to my desk. Probably the most advanced form of fax technology is something like RightFax, which can at least make it look like you’re sending emails to each other with the underlying technology still being a phone line.

For all this chest beating about old technology that won’t die something has to be said for technology that works, and keeps on working. For a long time the fax and floppy disk just worked for what they needed, and indeed they can still fill a niche today. That doesn’t stop me from getting irritated when I have to use them however :)

The Secret of the Red Moon Dream.

With the world still reeling from the myriad of celebration events signalling the 40th anniversary of America’s greatest achievement in space to date you would be forgiven for forgetting about the primary reason they went there, to beat the Russians (then the Soviet Union). Over time the stories of the United States greatest competitor have been drowned out and there are many little know facts about their aspirations to get to the moon. Granted part of this was due to the secrecy of the Soviet Union of the time who wanted to belittle the American’s achievements by making it look like they weren’t interested in a race at all. With the arrival of Glasnost almost 20 years ago all the secrets came out, and the reds secret dream for the moon was revealed. It makes for quite an interesting story.

For a long time the Soviet Union held the lead in the space race. Back in October of 1957 they surprised everyone by launching the first ever artificial satellite Sputnik-1, which the United States played down at the time but in fact sent them into quite the flurry. With this simple move the Soviets then aggressively built upon their success by sending several more sputnik class vehicles into space. This all culminated in April of 1961 when they succeeded in sending Yuri Gagarin into space and orbit, making him the  first human to travel into outer space. Yet again America was shaken to the core, as they had believed that their aggressive pursuit of space had put them ahead again. This did little to stop the Americans however, and they continued to actively pursue the further goal of landing on the moon.

The next 3 years saw the Soviets achieve several firsts in space namely mutli-manned crews, longer duration flights and extra-vehicular activities but after that their manned accomplishments seemed to end. They continued sending probes out (to Venus and to the Moon) however any further progress appear to have been ceased. The official line at the time was that they had already won the space race and were no longer interested in fighting the Americans. However behind the scenes the tale was far more interesting.

In order to win the race to the moon the Soviets developed a lunar lander called the Lunniy Korabl which would take a single soviet cosmonaut to the moon for a couple of hours and return him home safely. This was a marked change from their original plan which was to assemble a massive lunar lander in earth orbit before attempting a moon landing. The idea was that they could use only 1 of their heavy lifting rockets to win rather than the 3 they had originally planned. This was the glimmer of hope that kept their program going although they were to suffer another failure which would knock them out of the race completely.

With the United States already well on the way to successfully launching their first heavy lift vehicle the Saturn V the Soviets needed a similar launch vehicle if they were going to have any chance of getting to the moon. Enter the N1 rocket which made some different trade offs in order to achieve their goals. Whilst the rocket produced more thrust and was cheaper overall than the Saturn V it lacked the payload capacity. Additionally the insanely complicated arrangement of rocket engines on all stages (30 engines vs the Saturn’s 5) plus the added complexity of 5 stages (Saturn had 3) lead to an incredibly fragile launch system. Adding in the additional complexity that the rocket had to be fully assembled first at their construction plant, disassembled so it could shipped, and then reassembled at the launch center. All of these issues lead to all 4 N1 rockets that were built as flight ready to fail, with the longest flight lasting only 1 minute and not even making it into stage separation.

It’s an unfortunate trend for the Russian space endeavours as they are usually the pioneers in the field (check out their impressive list of firsts) but fail to take it any further then that. Whilst a lot of this can be blamed on the political turmoil they have suffered throughout their space program they also have a very ingrained belief in “if it works, don’t change it” as demonstrated by their continued use of the Soyuz space vehicles. For the most part though this works well for them, and for a while they will be the only government owned way of getting to the International Space Station (although NASA is probably more likely to buy rides from SpaceX than the Russians if they can avoid it).

As the old saying goes “history is written by the winners” and it pays to look back and see what the people who were on the other side achieved despite the eventual outcome. Truly we owe much of where we are today in terms of space endeavours to the Russians as they blazed the path that we now tread.

Please Don’t Feed the Trolls.

I’m not usually a person to back down in an argument. If I think I’m right about something I’ll usually fight tooth and nail until I’m unequivocally proven to be wrong, at which point I’ll concede. I think this is my folly when it comes to debating arguing with people on the Internet, since the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory dictates that the people on the other end of the connection are more than likely not trying to inspire an intellectual debate. They’re probably just fishing for a reaction from someone in front of their audience of choice.

This behaviour is commonly referred to as trolling and is most present in online mediums. Take away the innate sense of identity from someone and it appears that a lot of them take it upon themselves to incite emotional reactions in people rather than attempt intellectual debate. Whilst I can consider the possibility that some trolls may just be people purporting an controversial viewpoint and thus receive the label incorrectly there is a distinct difference in behaviour between the two. Your typical troll will use such devices as ad hominem attacks which serve nothing for the argument but will invoke an emotional reaction.

With the population at large becoming more aware of these types of individuals the typical troll is usually spotted and shut out long before they have a chance to cause any damage. Like any organism who is trying to survive they have then evolved into what I referred to as Intellectual Trolls. Unlike their ancestors they will engage in the discussion or debate and instead of going for an immediate reaction they will attempt to get others frustrated with them by using deliberately ambiguous arguments and other oratory devices which would make them out to be the one who is being trolled. It’s these kinds of trolls I have a lot of problems with, since I don’t stop arguing until they’ve come around to my point of view.

There’s also a strange kind of situation where some people become accidental trolls. I usually see this happen when someone has a strong point of view that  hits on a nerve of someone on the other side of the argument. A great example of this was on the weekend when I was discussing Australian taxation with one of my friends. In essence I agreed with what he was saying but he used one example (contractors vs permanent employees in the public service) which hit on one of my bug bears (people thinking contractors have it much better than permanent employees). It trigger a primarily emotional response from me and distracted from the argument completely, in essence he trolled without even thinking about it. To be honest though the fault lies completely with me, but it’s interesting to see how someone could accidentally fall under the troll label.

For the most part though the online communities that I frequent are troll free and the only time I get caught out is when I’m actually in the wrong. Probably the biggest walls I face is when I end up against the groupthink of the discussion or community and I end up getting shouted down by several other parties. It’s at times like this I just leave it be as there’s not usually a lot of benefit in when they don’t want to listen. It’s a little hard to give an opposing viewpoint when they figuratively have their fingers in their ears.

I’m getting better at identifying these trolls and leaving them be once I’ve said my peace but they still manage to get my guard up at one time or another. Maybe I just need stop defending my viewpoints so fervently, I can be a little stubborn sometimes :)

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Apollo, 40 Years On.

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We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

- John Fitzgerald Kennedy 35th President of the United States of America

40 years ago, on this very day, this very hour, this very minute Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Lander “Eagle” and began his decent onto the surface of our closest neighbour in space, the Moon. Today the world remembers what an amazing achievement that this was, and how the whole world watched in awe as we saw for the very first time the human race had landed on another celestial body. Truly it was something that no one who saw it would ever forget.

For me the greatness of the achievements of Apollo are embodied in the two things that prefaced this post. The first is a picture of Buzz Aldrin taken by Neil Armstrong. A simple picture showing an astronaut against the magnificent desolation that is the surface of the moon. It’s always the first picture I think of when I’m talking about the Apollo missions, summing up their essence with such simplicity. The second is a quote that I’m sure everyone around the world is familiar with. John F. Kennedy was an exceptional man and his speech served to inspire his nation and drive them towards a goal that no nation has matched to this day.

As a man who was not even a twinkle in my parents’ eyes at the time of this event I can only imagine what the event must have been like. I’ve watched hours upon hours of footage of the moon landings with a tearful eye but I know nothing can compare to what everyone must have experienced on that day. My only hope is that this blog and my endeavours outside it will lead humanity to achieve such greatness again.

Today I pay tribute to all of those who made Apollo possible. From the ground crew to the politicians to great people such as Walter Cronkite who helped bring the missions home to everyone around the world. I would also like to leave you with an assortment of other tributes to the achievements of the Apollo program, something to keep you busy during this day of celebration.

Happy 40th Apollo. In 10 years time I hope we’ll be celebrating your 50th in true style, back on Luna.

Year of the Delayed Release.

A couple weeks ago I had come to the conclusion that my time in World of Warcraft had to come to an end. Whilst I had enjoyed rediscovering the game with a bunch of my close friends I started to become the angsty, late night hardcore raiding nut that I was throughout university and that didn’t sit well with me. Still I can always look back on the last 6 months of my foray back into the World of Warcraft with fond memories but giving it up has left me with a fair bit of free time. Part of it has been dedicated to Geon but of course part of it has gone back into gaming. Knowing there were a few titles scheduled to be released soon I thought I’d check up on them, boy was I surprised.

If you cast your mind back to long ago when the PS3 was still the giddy dream of the dominating powerhouse console that every man, woman and child on earth would want you’d probably be familiar with a game called White Knight Chronicles. It was a beautiful looking game that promised battles between massively scaled foes and showed of an interface that was by all accounts one of the smoothest I’d seen for a game like this. My heart ached as every year afterwards I found that the game was slated for next year until finally it saw a release in Japan on Christmas day last year, I knew it couldn’t be far away. It is now slated for Q1 2010 with the promise of not just a translated release. It seems my heart will ache for another year.

Probably the most devastating delay that I found coming out of my World of Warcraft stupor was that Heavy Rain had also been hit by the delay bug. After my initial gush about this game I was hoping to do a full review of it this year, but it seems that I will have to settle for it at the start of next year. It’s almost as if they want me to go back to WoW, although I really can’t bring myself to do it right now.

These aren’t the only ones to suffer the delay stick with other games like Bioshock 2, Mafia II, Red Dead Redemption, Tiberium all getting the same treatment. Having a dig around to see why all these games were suffering the same fate I couldn’t find a common thread, so it just seems like they’re all dealing with their own problems at the moment.

As a long time gamer I should be used to this kind of thing now. After Blizzard started taking the stance of  “done when it’s done” game delays seem to become the norm with few making their initially scheduled release dates. This isn’t a bad thing as it typically leads to a much more polished game. However it’s never easy to get funding to develop a game and the only way to get attention and therefore dollars is to showcase what you have long before you have a releasable product. The only people who really suffer for this are the anxious customers like myself but I guess it’s better then the alternative.

Maybe I’m just too impatient. I still have a backlog of last year’s blockbuster releases to play through. :)

A Busy Week in Space.

This week has been quite busy for those of us with a keen interest in space. NASA is currently putting on quite a show for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo launches (which I will dedicate a post to later) but also we’ve been privy to see not one but to launches. The first is the launch of shuttle mission STS-127:

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The main focus of this mission is installing the last part of the Japanese section of the ISS (Kibo). It will allow the astronauts to perform experiments that are directly exposed to space which up until now they have had a limited capacity to do. There’s also a few housekeeping things like spare parts and extra batteries as well as a couple satellites. Whilst this isn’t as exciting as the last couple missions it does signify a big step forward in the capabilities of the station, which makes crazy talk like this a little disturbing:

After more than a decade of construction, it is nearing completion and finally has a full crew of six astronauts. The last components should be installed by the end of next year.

And then?

“In the first quarter of 2016, we’ll prep and de-orbit the spacecraft,” says NASA’s space station program manager, Michael T. Suffredini.

With another 5 more missions planned to complete the station somewhere in 2011 this would mean 5 years of a fully functioning space station before it’s plunged back to earth. With so much invested in the station from so many countries I can’t help but feel that this statement is a little short sited. Sure, NASA has footed most of the bill for most of the station but I’m sure most of the other countries would be looking to keep the station up there for a while longer. I’m sure as the time gets closer we’ll see more interest in keeping it up there, maybe even Bigelow wil take an interest.

The second, and probably most exciting, launch we’ve seen this week was SpaceX’s first successful launch of a private payload into space:

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The payload launched was RazakSAT a Malaysian remote sensing satellite. It’s a great success for SpaceX and shows that they are capable of launching payloads with much less overhead then current companies. This bodes very well for their scheduled Falcon 9 test later this year and the private space industry as a whole. With Bigelow providing somewhere to go and SpaceX the means to get there we’ll soon be seeing the first fully privately funded space stations flown to by private companies, something back when Apollo was first conceived was still considered science fiction.

It’s been a great week for me personally as I’ve seen news reports of space peppered through the mainstream news. That says a lot coming from someone in Australia, considering that the Australian populace at large doesn’t have much of an active interest in space. With the culmination of the anniversary events for Apollo coming next week I’m hopeful that we’ll inspire many more people to take up a bigger interest in space, as did I a couple years ago.

Groupthink.

Back when I started my career by working in retail I underwent training in what to do if the store was held up. Along with all the usual things there was one bit of training that always seemed a bit off to me. In essence we were told that once the robbery was all over and done with we were told to make sure everyone stayed separated until the police arrived. The reason behind this was that typically in such situations one person would tend to dominate the social interactions that would happen afterwards. If you’re trying to get decent eye witness testimony (which is typically pretty useless) it doesn’t help if you have someone leading the pack, so to speak. I would learn later that this was a demonstration of the groupthink phenomenon.

With the popularity of online forums and collaborative news sites we can now see this kind of behaviour quite regularly. One of my past times is reading the comments on Slashdot stories and after a while you’ll start to notice a pattern of the kinds of posts that rise to the top (thanks to their moderation system). Whilst it is hardly surprising that a community that was founded on certain things (Linux, technology, general geekery) would tend towards these topics there’s a set of (not-so)unspoken rules that people tend to follow when posting on there. More recently I started browsing the Something Awful forums, which seem to take an even more authoritarian stance towards sticking to the groupthink norm.

Whilst I can completely understand the phenomenon itself I sometimes find myself hopping outside the groupthink (even if I agree with it) in order to see what the other side has to say. I guess its the little sceptic in me that keeps telling me that even if everyone believes something it can still be wrong. It’s part of the reason I usually pepper my blog entries with so many links, I want people to make up their own mind rather then just accepting what I type.

In this age of instantly accessible information there’s really no reason to take any one source of information as the source of truth. Sure some are better then others (I favour Wikipedia heavily for initial research) but when you can gather information from every corner of the globe in minutes there’s really no excuse for getting led blindly astray by groupthink. Well, I guess there’s always laziness…. :)