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Sunday 31 August 2008

I was really surprised when McCain picked Palin as his running mate. I guess McCain figured if he was born in Panama, he could have a veep from Sheffield, England, though the citizenship requirement may be an issue. And sure, Michael Palin was funny in Monty Python, but he has almost no political experience. I'm just not sure how it will all go over with the voters.

Oh, Sarah Palin? That's different. Never mind.

Seriously, Sarah Palin is a really interesting pick, interesting enough that no one quite knows what will come of it. She's obviously a capable and principled politician, and now the only executive of the four candidates. But she's been governor for less than two years, and before that was mayor of a town of 9,000.

Everyone agrees that picking Palin pretty much makes it impossible for McCain to call Obama inexperienced. Her family life is the most interesting wildcard, including as it does a blue-collar husband, a infant with Down syndrome, and a son about to be deployed to Iraq.

And then there are her personal beliefs and how they affect her governance. The early evidence is that she is very right-wing in beliefs (pro-life, creationism, against gay rights), but isn't dogmatic in applying them in government.

A very interesting choice indeed.


Saturday 30 August 2008

August has been a swim-intensive month for me. I've swum every day but one, something I've never done before. And of course, there were the Olympics, with Michael Phelps' amazing performance. Although the swimming has been over for weeks now, it's all still on my mind:

  • Physically, Phelps is something of a freak of nature: unusually long torso, an arm span three inches more than his height, double jointed knees and ankles, and size 14 feet. He's what an evil scientist would breed in his lab to win swimming medals.
  • His routine was spartan. Although his mother and sister were in Beijing, he didn't have any contact with them. His motto was "eat, sleep, and swim".
  • Eat he did: he reportedly took in 12,000 calories every day.
  • In the 200-meter butterfly, his goggles filled with water, making it difficult to see underwater, but he won anyway.
  • In the 100-meter butterfly, he was seventh out of eight at the turn, and was still in second place with six feet left, but won anyway. Sports Illustrated has underwater shots that showing Milorad Cavic coasting to a finish while Phelps powered in another half-stroke to win by one-hundredth of a second. BTW: not everyone is convinced.
  • Of his eight gold medal races, seven set world records. There's a lot of discussion about the number of world records being set, with credit spread around pretty well, to the LZR suit, the design of the pool, and so on. Still a remarkable accomplishment.

One last factoid: the design of the Water Cube was based on the geometry of an ideal foam, known as the Weaire-Phelan structure.

All in all, it was an astounding week of swimming, and there's every indication that Phelps will be back for London 2012...

It's hard to imagine someone eventually breaking his record of eight golds in a single Olympics. What's the record for most medal events even entered by a single person?

Channel One and FM radio

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Yesterday at lunch, the question of Channel One came up. That is, why is there no TV channel 1 in the US? I thought it was because anyone running a channel 1 would have an unfair marketing advantage over other channels. I also thought that was why FM stations in the US always have an odd tenths digit (101.7, etc), so that no station would be 101.0, for example.

I was wrong: Snopes' What Happened To Channel 1? not only explains it was a simple matter of reallocating bandwidth that cost TV its channel 1, but explicitly discusses my answer as a canard tossed around by people who don't know what they are talking about! Please subscribe me to Jackass Magazine.

The FM allocation theory also seems to be wrong, though not explicitly refuted. The FM station allocation plan spaces them 200 kHz apart, with nominal frequencies placed in the center of the range, leading to station frequencies of 101.1, 101.3, and so on.

Another untruth about FM: I had long thought that FM was developed as an alternative to AM in a contest open to the public, and that an amateur had come up with the breakthrough. Not true: Edwin Armstrong was far from an amateur, and unfortunately, the development of FM radio was one of those tragic stories ending in the despairing death of its inventor.

So I had been harboring misconceptions about channels and stations all of these years, confident that they were the right answers. What else am I lugging around that's false?

BTW: The switchover to all-digital TV will happen in the US next February, and I guess will release all of that TV bandwidth back into the pool.

Code déjà vu

Friday 15 August 2008

The other day, I sat down to add a small feature to the Tabblo code. I mentally plotted out what pieces I'd have to build, and how they would interact. I wrote the first piece, and then moved on to where I would have to add the second piece. When I got there, the code was already there!

Sometime quite recently, in the last two months let's say, I had actually pretty much already written the very feature I thought I had to write now. Whoa.

At least it made coding it up easier!

What is it?

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Surfing blogs and the web in general, I often end up at the home page for a new project, and I need to figure out what it is. Too often, the information is not forthcoming. Sometimes, these pages are small open-source projects, where documentation is a clear weak point, and the page will be mostly detailed news items intended for those familiar with the project. I can cut these pages some slack. They should do a better job advocating their work to new users, but I understand how it is that they don't.

Odd, though, that Fire Eagle, Yahoo's latest Web 2.0 gizmo, falls into the same sandtrap. It has a very nicely designed page, but again, I don't know what it does.

When I arrived at the home page, I saw "Take your location to the web!". What does that mean? Is this a hyper-local advertising service? A way for municipalities to promote local events? The next text I read on the page says, "Update anywhere: send updates from your phone". Update what? Here I am trying to learn about their service, and I already feel behind the times and out of touch with the cool kids.

Clicking the Join button takes me to a page that starts,

Fire Eagle looks after information about your location. You can use web sites and applications to update your location, and then use that information all over the Internet.

OK, now I think I get it. Other than the odd "looks after information" verb, I'm beginning to see that this a service that tracks where you are physically, and provides that information to other applications so that they can use that location information to enrich their offerings. Why didn't they just say so?

Obvious next questions

Monday 11 August 2008

Helping Max with DateDifference, we wanted a way to parse a date string using the user's current locale. We naturally found the dateWithNaturalString:locale: method on NSDate. It sounds perfect. The documentation for the method includes this statement:

This method supports only a limited set of colloquial phrases, primarily in English. It may give unexpected results, and its use is strongly discouraged.

There's an obvious next question here, and I wish the doc writer had thought enough about their reader to answer it: if this method's use is strongly discouraged, what is the recommended way to solve my problem?

This isn't meant to be a dig at Apple. There's tons of reference documentation all over the place just like this. There are probably even tech writers that defend this style, in the name of modularity and brevity. Don't believe it. This is unhelpful, exactly the opposite of what docs should be.

Extra bonus question: if you can help me understand how to parse dates according to the user's current choices in the International system preferences panel, I would really appreciate it!

Anatomy of a Subway Hack

Sunday 10 August 2008

A trio of MIT students found security weaknesses in the MBTA, the Boston public transporation system, colloquially known as "the T". The students were going to present their findings at Defcon, that is, until a judge ordered them not to.

Of course, the injunction did far more to spread the news than the talk alone would have, including making public the students' whitepaper about the vulnerabilites. Their slides, Anatomy of a Subway Hack are also online, including a photo of an over-the-top modded shopping cart that they somehow used as part of their work.

How many times do we have to see this story played out? A system is deployed with poor security, someone figures out the weaknesses, tries to talk about it, and is sued to prevent disclosure, only making the information even more available to the public. These injunctions are like putting a flashing red light on top of something: they only attract more attention to the situation. The presentation slides have already been distributed to all Defcon attendees, that toothpaste is not going back in the tube.

The MBTA should either decide that this is not that big a deal (how many people are really going to hack RFID cards to get on the T for free?), or get to work designing improvements. And they should hire these students to crack the new system before it's deployed.

git shirts

Saturday 9 August 2008

Max and I made some git t-shirts spoofing a well-known dairy campaign, promoting git, the fashionable source control system:

git code? shirt

and an alternate style:

got git? shirt

Go ahead, buy a git t-shirt, you know you want to!

PS: as has been pointed out to me by a few friends, I don't use git. I know this. But "svn code?" isn't a good slogan!

PPS: the Zazzle terms of service request that I state that these shirts were made "in partnership with Zazzle.com".

Tire gauges

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Barack Obama suggested that people properly inflate their tires and tune up their cars to help reduce oil consumption. John McCain ridiculed him for it and said we need to start off-shore drilling. Why do people so easily laugh off the idea of maintaining your car as a way to use less gas?

As Time magazine points out, tire gauges are a good solution:

The Bush Administration estimates that expanded offshore drilling could increase oil production by 200,000 barrels per day by 2030. We use about 20 million barrels per day, so that would meet about 1% of our demand two decades from now. Meanwhile, efficiency experts say that keeping tires inflated can improve gas mileage 3%, and regular maintenance can add another 4%. Many drivers already follow their advice, but if everyone did, we could immediately reduce demand several percentage points. In other words: Obama is right.

And don't forget that time line: offshore drilling would take ten years before it changed anything, while we can immediately begin using less gas now with simple maintenance. Heck, if need be, do both. But what's so funny about maintaining your car?

Everyone knows these tips: drive slower, inflate your tires, tune up your car, you'll have better efficiency right away. If the experts' estimates are right, you can immediately use 5% less gas. Put another way, pay 20 cents less per gallon.

Why do people find this so ridiculous? Americans, especially voters being pitched during an election year, want big actions, not tweaks. Any idea that includes "less" or "smaller" or "work" is ridiculed as somehow eating into our way of life. And as much as people cry out for personal responsibility, they don't want to get their hands dirty checking their tire pressure.

Shop around for cheaper gas? OK. Use a little less, even if it doesn't mean driving less? No thanks. Sheesh...

Mac keyboard symbols

Sunday 3 August 2008

Apple computers are beautiful, Apple computers are the pinnacle of usability, I grant all of that. But here's something that for the life of me I cannot figure out. Why don't the menu symbols for modifier keys (control, alt, shift) appear on the keyboards?

Like any modern operating system, OS X menu items have keyboard short cuts, and because there are so many menu items, they occasionally need modifiers other than the command key. Here's a menu from Safari:

Safari bookmark menu showing key modifiers

The command symbol we all understand because it appears on the keyboard, but what are those other two modifiers? Why not print them on the keys?

Close-up of a Mac keyboard

The thingy next to "Show All Bookmarks" is for option, which is labelled on the keyboard with "option" and, alternately, "alt", but doesn't have the symbol. The big up-arrow next to "Add Bookmark Folder" is not the up-arrow on the keyboard, but the shift key, which is labelled only with "shift".

And God forbid you should have to ever Force Quit an application. Is that a Quicktime symbol?:

Apple menu, with Force Quit Finder with four modifier keys

I must not be the only one who is confused, because Dan Rodney started off his thorough Mac OS X Keyboard Shortcuts page with a translation chart:

A translation chart from symbol to key

Why no symbols on modifier keys? Or, why is the command key special? Why is it labelled with its symbol while the others are not. This seems like a really basic usability rule: refer to the same thing the same way in different contexts. Is there some logic to this, or is it just that the minimalist hardware design gurus win out over the operating system usability guys?

Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press

Friday 1 August 2008

This is a great hour-long documentary about a technology start-up. It's got all the classic elements: the spark of an idea, the quest for funding, the need for secrecy, the ups and downs of investors, the early products that fuel the drive to the big dream, the disruptive technology winning in the marketplace, and so on. The only difference is this one happened 500 years ago.

The Machine That Made Us is Stephen Fry's telling of the story of the Gutenberg press. It's a good overview of the whole story, inclduding all the technology that went into it. The Youtube link is to a search page because the videos get taken down, but new copies crop up eventually.

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