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Andrew Richardson
Software engineer, business owner, husband, runner and member of my pack of four-legged girls.
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March 30, 2011

Idol: Best of the Night

Pia Toscano showed of her terrific voice. Hope she does more of that in the coming weeks.
Lauren Alaina had a good performance. Perfect song choice. If she would just stop talking afterward.
Casey Abrams redeemed himself after last week's disaster. Great voice. Earnest delivery. Terrific.
Haley Reinhart ... easily the best of the night. Wow!

My top four had mixed performances this week. Paul's quiet Rod Stewart is wearing thin, but Pia was simply super. Thia's pretty voice didn't make her performance any less dull, but Casey was riveting.

Golf Ball Hell

Who knew a golf ball could deform so greatly and return to a round shape? (hat tip to New Bern Linda)

March 29, 2011

My Hero

I've been a fan of John Gruber's for a while. He blogs about Apple, design, technology and the culture that grows up around those subjects. He began his blog nine years ago and today stands at the top of the Apple blog pile. As Silicon Valley Insider reports, his blog has just hit its first 4-million pageview month, with over 700,000 unique visitors.

Gruber is a great example of the new kind of one-man, self-publishing empire, made possible by the advent of free/cheap publishing tools, inexpensive web hosting, and advertisers that will pay for influence, and not just mass "reach."

and

The rate card for his weekly sponsorship is now $5,500 -- $286,000 a year if it sells out at full price. And he still runs a single display ad via The Deck network. All told, he could potentially be approaching a $400,000 revenue run-rate, if not more.

Great work at a dream job.

∴ Hardware Hacking Made Easy

Well, kinda easy. I took delivery of a shiny, new MacBook Pro a few weeks ago, and although I'm very happy with it, I wanted to tweak its hardware to make it better fit my needs.

MacBooks have long shipped with an internal optical drive. CD-ROM, DVD, CD burner, DVD burner; each new generation sported a faster, more capable drive for reading and writing music, movies, and data. The new MacBook Pros carry a "SuperDrive," capable of reading and writing nearly any format short of BluRay. Trouble is, the SuperDrive takes up a lot of internal space, and I have almost no use for it.

Western Digital My Passport Essential

At the same time, I'm in the habit of making a daily backup of my machine's boot drive with a software application called SuperDuper!. I plug an external hard drive (at right) into a USB port, and the software makes a bootable clone. If I ever encounter a problem with the internal drive I can simply re-boot from the external drive, and I'll be back in business almost immediately.

But plugging and un-plugging the USB drive is annoying, and it takes up room in my bag. How great would it be if I could swap out the unused optical drive for a laptop-sized hard drive, maybe even the USB model I already have?

MCE Tech OptiBay Hard Drive

I was intrigued to come across MCE Tech's OptiBay solution. This product (at left) allows a user to mount a second, laptop-sized hard drive in place of the factory optical drive, providing a built-in backup drive and/or more storage (more on that later). For $99 they shipped me the OptiBay internal drive caddy, as well as an external, optical drive enclosure. They will include a new hard drive, for a higher price, if you don't already have one on-hand. The idea is to move your optical drive to the enclosure, which can be connected to the laptop with a USB cable when needed. The hard drive goes into the caddy, which is mounted in place of the optical drive. It's the best of both worlds.

Most USB external hard drives are just regular laptop drives with a special converter card attached at one end. I opened my external drive's case, slipped off the USB converter card and set the drive aside. The case and parts went into a box for a future project.

Installation of the OptiBay caddy was a mild challenge. Laptops are tightly engineered, and MacBook Pros are the most extreme example I've come across. The optical drive sits right up against the internal boot drive and logic board. Removing screws is made more difficult by interfering components. Everything is a perfect fit, so it took me a good half-hour to remove the optical drive before I could turn my attention to re-assembly.

I mounted the external hard drive it into the OptiBay, then carefully lowered the OptiBay into the space just vacated by the optical drive. After a bit of jostling I had it in place and fastened it in. Another fifteen minutes of careful manipulation and all the cables and components were back in their original positions, I had no left-over screws and was fastening the chassis bottom back in place. Total time from first screw to last was about an hour. Bring reading glasses and a flashlight to this party.

But would the machine boot? It sure did. The default startup drive, an SSD, brought my machine back to life in seconds. I used the Mac OS Finder to examine the now-internal Western Digital drive and found all of its data intact. I tested the backup drive's bootability by restarting the machine with the Option key held down, selecting the backup drive and hitting enter. What a difference it makes booting from a standard hard drive! Much slower than the SSD I've become accustomed to. It all worked, though, restoring my machine as it had been when I made the last backup. Convinced that the project had succeeded, I quickly re-booted on the SSD.

I set up a scheduled backup for SuperDuper!, running each day at 8 PM. I usually have the machine awake and in-use at that time, so SuperDuper! can copy any changes to the internal backup drive. I'll have a constantly updated backup right inside the laptop in case something goes wrong with the SSD.

The internal backup drive has more space than the SSD, so in addition to backup duties I can use the extra space for infrequently used files, or even the occasional movie ripped from DVD. It won't matter that the internal backup drive is much slower than the SSD; movies stream just fine from a hard drive and use less battery power doing so.

This was a fun little project, made somewhat difficult by the tight space within the MacBook Pro. I'd recommend it to anyone handy with electronics and small tools who's looking for a more versatile drive arrangement.

March 28, 2011

Hollywood Comes To Warrenton (where?)

J. Edgar parking sign

Clint Eastwood's next film, J. Edgar, will be filming on-location in Warrenton, Virginia today. Warrenton is our nearest town, and the home of our shop. The film stars Leo DiCaprio and Naomi Watts, so who knows, maybe one or both of them will be on-hand.

Signs went up yesterday telling extras and crew where to park. Traffic, parking and pedestrians, always a challenge in Warrenton, will be a mess today. Our courthouse, conveniently located in the middle of the old town's traffic pattern, is the shooting location.

J. Edgar Courthouse

This is the second film to shoot in the area since we moved here. There was a thirty-second scene in Rules of Engagement (2000) where Tommy Lee Jones was driving down a country road (Vint Hill Road) and Kelly and I both recognized it right away. Should be a hoot to see the center of our town in this movie next year.

I was toying with the idea of heading in to town to see what's what, but I suspect there will be crowds all around the location. I might get to see the back of someone's head if I'm lucky. And it's cold today. Guess I'm staying home.

(pictures courtesy Pablo Teodoro (Facebook) without permission. I'm like that, ya know.)

Apple's Computing Future

Business Insider reports that Apple has set their next Worldwide Developer's Conference for June 6-10 this year. Why is this notable for the average Apple product user?

WWDC is the annual conference where the company usually releases the next version of iOS, the iPhone and iPad operating system, and talks up the future of their Mac operating system. This year, however, it appears to be the venue for discussing the long-anticipated convergence of the two technologies. Phil Schiller, Apple senior VP:

At this year’s conference we are going to unveil the future of iOS and Mac OS.

Apple revolutionized the mobile market, first with the iPhone and then the iPad, while continuing a line of traditional desktop and laptop machines. That tease will kick off two months of rabid speculation and rumor about how they will come together. This will become the most-anticipated presentation of the year by the time June rolls around.

March 25, 2011

∴ Dish Network: Martini Time

I was tuning through the available music channels on my mom's satellite receiver and came across an interesting choice. Called Martini Time, the channel plays 1950s lounge music by the likes of Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, and lots of instrumentals. I love this music. I can almost see Bill Bixby and Hugh Hefner sitting at a lounge table, sipping drinks and making smart remarks.

It reminds me of a really cool lounge we visited with my sister and her then-boyfriend in Madison, Wisconsin years ago, which was attached to a dinner theater. The place was fairly large and had a super, ovaline bar shaped like a dropped noodle, weaving back and forth around its circumference. Scattered around the walls were luxuriously upholstered couches and cocktail tables and chairs, and the place was carpeted in a dark weave. Fancy wall sconces lit the edges of the room while subdued lighting handled the main areas. The bartenders were dressed properly, in white collared shirt with arm garters and bow tie. They professionally mixed drinks and served them with a flair. The other customers were well-dressed, having come from a show in the theater. It was quite an enjoyable visit, the drinks were tasty and I kept a lasting fond memory of the place.

When I found this satellite music channel I was instantly transported back to that lounge and have enjoyed listening to it during my visit here this week. I'll be heading back to Virginia tomorrow morning. My sister and her family arrive tonight, my mom is well on her way to recovering from the surgery and Kelly is getting ready for a three-night shop owner's retreat in West Virginia beginning Sunday. I have puppy dogs to care for back home.

March 23, 2011

∴ Mom: a Follow-up

The procedure went better than expected, and my mom is recovering from the spinal block that anesthetized her lower body. The spinal block was her request to the anesthesiologist, and a good idea for an easier recovery today. Though it was a short surgery, just one hour, recovering from general anesthesia is never pleasant.

The prognosis for her ankle is a good one. She can begin to put pressure on it almost immediately, and her only restriction will be for pain and swelling. There will not likely be a need for a hard boot or even crutches, though she may use one or just a cane for the first few days just to keep from putting full pressure on the ankle. She returns to her doctor, with my sister, for a follow-up visit next Monday.

So overall it has been a very good morning.

End of a Sporting Life

Dave Duerson committed suicide last month. The medical examiner's scene report was released today, and includes a clinical and heartbreaking description of the end of a life. It's not the end anyone would have expected years ago, when Duerson was in his prime. From Deadspin:
The final scene in his apartment is probably the worst thing we can picture for our athletes: dead, in bed, surrounded by his medals and certificates. In his closet, his trophies and awards, and football helmets from his three different teams.

Folded neatly at the head of his bed, an American flag.

Duerson had complained of mental impairment in the years since he left the NFL. I wonder how many more of these stories we'll hear in the coming years, as attention increasingly turns towards the long-term effects of all those hard hits. Click through for the actual ME report.
March 22, 2011

∴ The Circle Begins to Close

I'm in North Carolina this week, at an odd crossroads of my life. It's a common enough one. My mom will undergo a simple outpatient surgery tomorrow (Wednesday) and, for the first time in either of our lives, I will be taking care of her.

It is cliche to recount the care provided by a parent to a growing child. Not being a parent myself I can only suppose it to be a thankless job. I mean, how many times does a child actually turn and say, "Thank you?" So this visit will be another form of that; a first, very small repayment of kindness from long ago.

From start to finish, the events should take no more than a half-day and we should return home before dinner. Kelly sent me off this morning with a fresh lasagna for this week's evening meals, and there's plenty of other food in the house for the rest. My sister and her family arrive Friday evening, and I head back to Virginia Saturday morning. It won't be a long visit, and my mom will likely not be a helpless patient. Six weeks of recovery, a couple of doctor visits and it's all history. In fact, this might be the easiest lifting I'll ever do in this regard.

It gets me thinking, though, about the future. It was around my fortieth birthday that I started reflecting on the impending second half of my life. In this brief regard it looks a bit like a mirror of the first half, going the other way. There are many more years together ahead for my family. This just gives me reason to pause and think on these things.

Everyday

Here's a neat iPhone app, especially if you have kids. Everyday (via DF) prompts you to take a photo of yourself, or any subject, every day. Accumulate enough photos of the same subject and you have a flip-book. From the Everyday site:

Take a picture of yourself. Every day. Set reminders. Get into the habit. The more pictures you have, the better your Everyday app will be.

Do this long enough and you can watch your kids grow older. Or your spouse. That'll make her happy.

March 19, 2011

∴ Nuclear Me

Hearing the news from Japan this week got me thinking about how I've found myself near a nuclear plant wherever I've lived.

I grew up on Long Island's north shore, about half-way out from the city. (What city? Why, the greatest city on Earth.) At some point I became aware of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, under construction about ten miles from my home.

Shoreham does not have a successful history. A neighbor of ours, employed as a steamfitter building the plant, used to regale my parents with tales about portable generators that somehow found themselves forklifted over a fence. They were gone by the next morning. I recall him driving a nasty old pickup truck during this time. It had the most remarkable stainless steel exhaust system.

My dad and I used to go fishing in his boat on Long Island Sound, sometimes directly off-shore of the plant. The exhausted cooling water would attract fish, and the fish would attract fishermen. Every now and then we'd have to avoid being run down by a commercial boat, dragging his nets through the area. I remember hearing stories of how the water would form a shallow dome over the exhaust port as huge quantities were pumped through the plant during testing. I never saw the dome, but it was amusing to think about. Shoreham was weird in the way of most nuclear plants. Stories grow up around them.

Shoreham wasn't much to look at by day, really just a collection of low structures and a cylindrical containment building. By night, however, it was transformed. LILCO, the local power company building the plant, lit it up like the Sun. Every square inch of the property was flooded with the highest available wattage halogen lamps, making day of night. Its glow was clearly visible across the water in Connecticut. Many evenings of carousing the area ended with my friends and me parked at the boat ramp across Wading River, knocking back a few beers, looking at the spectacle that was the Shoreham plant. We were a little hicky, that way. The plant was licensed for 5%, low-power testing at the time, and I wondered if I was being irradiated as I stood there, leering.

The Shoreham plant containment building remains today as a monument to waste and mismanagement. The nuclear part of the plant was eventually decommissioned and a gas-fired generator installed. The containment had been irradiated by low-level testing and will remain in place until long after we're all pushing up daisies.

The Shoreham plant was also my introduction to municipal hypocrisy. The county legislature eventually discovered and voted that the Island could not effectively be evacuated in the event of a nuclear emergency, and the governor weighed in and forbade state approval of an evacuation plan. Apparently the Island had changed shape overnight.

This new religion wasn't found until well after the local community had taken quite a bit of LILCO's money, for community improvement. There was a new, showplace high school with a very nice library, road improvements and other evidence of the utility's largesse. Local protests against the plant, coming three years before the crisis as Three Mile Island, began after the make-nice-let-us-build-a-nuke-in-your-neighborhood money had been spent. Before TMI gave a greater number of people reason to distrust nuclear energy, but after they took the money. Nice.

I left Long Island after college to begin my career in New Hampshire, where I began hearing stories about the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, which was about thirty-three miles from my new home.

Seabrook Station was a legend unto itself. Built on New Hampshire's miniscule, 18-mile long seacoast, and just north of the Massachusetts state line, the plant became a focal point for nuclear power protests.

Seabrook's story taught me something about community ignorance. Local communities refused to participate in the evacuation drills required for licensing. The utility used employees, their families and other volunteers to complete the drills. Local and state governments refused to allow local police and fire personnel to drill in rapid-response protocols. The utility went to court. There was no underlying difficulty in evacuating the area, as there was on Long Island. (An Interstate highway runs past the plant a few miles away, and the plant sits on the Atlantic coast with most of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts at its back.) There was only people's underlying distrust of nuclear power. The plant was eventually licensed, lit, and put into use despite the protests.

How well-versed in emergency response were the local fire and EMS personnel after being barred from participation? I have to wonder if there was an unnecessary vacuum of competence for a time after the plant went into full production.

Years later, married, Kelly and I left New Hampshire and found our way south. We settled in a nice community in north-central Virginia and life went on.

Friends bought a lakeside home on nearby Lake Anna a few years later. I got curious about the area. I found it on Google Maps, dug up details and discovered that the lake was artificial. It had been created by a dam built across the North Anna River to serve as, yes, a cooling reservoir for the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station.

Sometimes I feel like I'm being followed. This pair of contained nuclear chain reactions sits about forty miles from our home.

I don't hear much about North Anna. It's shut down for fueling now and then, and re-started. There's a licensing process underway to build a third reactor on the site. Our friends continue to enjoy their lake house and we visit them there from time to time. And there's a half-megawatt electric power distribution line emanating from the plant, running past us about a half-mile behind our home before heading further north. We get our juice from North Anna's atoms.

We could find ourselves in a long line of heavy traffic headed away from its reactors someday, if a calamity befell the plant and the area had to be evacuated. I think we're sufficiently far from them, but I don't know for sure. It's easy to not think about these plants and what consequences might arise from living near them. It is nature's irony that fragile life could hang on something as random as the breeze.

Nuclear power is a good incremental step away from fossil fuels. The containment design used at the Fukushima facility is an old one, a reduced-cost one, a design that should never be used because of the relative ease of a breach. There are twenty-three such plants in America, a minority of a nuclear electric power capability that amounts to 20% of our total production. We literally cannot do without nuclear energy in America.

There are still glaring questions, such as what should we do with the spent fuel? One of the main areas of concern at Fukushima is an evaporated spent-fuel pool that has left poisoned, depleted rods ready to combust. Tonight comes word that the Japanese have succeeded in re-filling that pool. And that radioactive iodine has entered the food chain there. They wouldn't need a pool if they had a safe, centrally located storage facility elsewhere. So just where is elsewhere?

March 18, 2011

Overhead Japan

From the New York Times (via Daring Fireball):
Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami
Move the slider to compare satellite images from before and after the disaster.
We've seen these slider-enabled overhead images on cable news channels. Now you can peruse the disaster for yourself. Scroll down that page for images from up and down the coastal region.

The people on the Pacific coast of northern Japan were literally wiped out. Now they're being irradiated. If you're feeling charitable, go here (or somewhere) and give.
March 17, 2011

∴ The Switch: Followup

Geek With Laptop

It's been about a week since my CrackBook arrived. I love this thing.

I'd been thinking about replacing my Thinkpad with one of these since shortly after Kelly's MacBook Pro arrived two years ago. Let it never be said that I have a need for instant gratification. It took that long for my Thinkpad to grow a little long in the tooth, and for me to get comfortable with shedding some coin.

Given the heavy use I put them to, my machines are on a three-year replacement cycle. For desktops that means a new hard drive (or two) each cycle, and the occasional motherboard or video card. More on desktops later.

Laptops are a different beast. I've been fortunate to use employer-purchased machines for quite a while. When it came time to buy one on my dime I went for a Lenovo Thinkpad. It remains the only laptop I've ever used that didn't require warrantee service while I had it. My Thinkpad has been moved to household iTunes duty in my office now that the CrackBook is here.

(If you're in the market for a laptop, and you've just gotta have a Windows machine (trust me on this, you really don't), get a Thinkpad. Not an Ideapad, which is Lenovo's home-grown variant. A Thinkpad. Trusted tool of road warriors everywhere. Look around the next time you're at an airport. Check out what the business types are carrying, because they beat the snot out of their machines. Thinkpads.)

This time, though, I followed Kenning's advice and practice and dove into a Mac. Kelly's experience with the Mac OS was enough to convince me there was gold here.

The trouble for Apple, and I'm an example of this, is that the prospective customer is always left asking 'why should I spend this much money, when I can have a Windows machine for less?' I must have run down the features list and priced out a MacBook Pro at least a half-dozen times, always ending with that question. It's hard to put into words why you want this machine, this operating system. Why should it matter? Maybe you're just enjoying Facebooking, checking mail, buying the odd Amazon toy. Why spend the extra dough?

Spend it because the joy is in the journey. Spend it because these devices are the end result not of commodity-priced thinking, but of careful consideration of how they fit into your life. Spend it because, when you finally get a terrific machine that does what you want, and looks and feels great doing it, with no extra crapware and a reliability that won't let you down, you'd pay the same price for a Mac. And you will happier with the Mac. I'm crapping you negative.

I just looked back at what I spent on that Thinkpad, which until then had been the machine I always wanted. Then I looked at what I've spent on this Macbook Pro. Nearly the same.

You can buy a netbook (but you shouldn't). You can buy a nicely equipped Toshiba or Dell laptop and suffer the wobbly hinges and inferior display. You can own a Thinkpad, the king of Windows laptops. Or you can be really happy with a MacBook.

My perpetually upgraded desktop machine? Last of its kind in our house. There might be a Mac Mini in its place at the end of its life.

iPhones are gateway drugs. Then come iPads. And CrackBooks. Then you're done-for.

March 16, 2011

Idol: Best of the Night

Most of tonight's performances were underwhelming, with a few exceptions.

Thia Megia has a beautiful voice, but she needs to start singing younger songs. She's 16 and this is a pop competition.
Stefano Langone, another great voice.
Jacob Lusk sang Heart better than any other contestant in recent memory. Great voice.

My top four were challenged tonight. Casey, what the hell was that?! Pia was off-key and not interesting to watch. Paul was Rod Stewart (again) doing Elton with a sore throat. Thia sounded great, but was a snoozer.

Next week cannot come soon enough.

Famous Film Objects

Neat site (via kottke.org):
This site presents you with famous objects from movies and asks you to identify them.
See how many you get right!

One Kid Video Per Month, Tops

Posting kid videos isn't my usual thing, but this one from Dooce was too good to pass up. I'd re-post it here but Heather very clearly says NOT to, so follow the link for a fifty-nine second break from routine.

PepsiCo Thinking Green

This is cool. From Consumerist:
GreenBiz reports Pepsi's bottles will be made with witch grass, pine bark and corn husks and will be able to be recycled along with petroleum-based plastic bottles. Pepsi will manufacture the bottles for a test run in 2012, then introduce them to the market if all goes well.
It's an incremental move away from petroleum-based plastic.
March 15, 2011

Keep This In Mind...

...the next time you hear someone complain about "greedy oil companies" and high gasoline prices. The Tiger has returned. From MSNBC:
Beijing's airport now trails only Atlanta's hub as the world's busiest thanks to a surge in demand in fast-growing Asian economies, an industry association said Tuesday.
Fast-growing economies need petroleum products for fuel and industrial lubricants. Supply and demand will have its way.

The Chinese may not be democratic, but they sure are industrious.
March 14, 2011

∴ What's Surprising About the Japanese Nuclear Crisis?

The recent Japan earthquake and resulting tsunami were each stunning in their scope and awesome energy release. What can it be like for the earth to shake, non-stop, for five minutes? How frightening is it to look up from a city street and see a tall building sway, as if blown by a wind you cannot feel? Imagine the horror of a wall of seawater, four stories high, rushing at you faster than you can run. The mind boggles.

More surprising is the ongoing crisis at several Japanese nuclear power facilities. The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant sustained damage to its diesel power generators and battery backup system as the tsunami swept over it. The cooling system shut down even as the reactor core itself ceased operation. Nuclear cores operate at very high temperatures, though, and they take a long time to cool down. It would take the better part of a week to cool down the Fukushima reactor cores with a functional coolant pumping system. And there's no electricity at that facility anymore.

The systems designed to keep those plants safe for human habitation are the most surprising failure. Granted, a twenty-four foot wall of water is hard to plan for. But those plants were built on the Pacific coast of Japan, a country squarely situated on active, major fault lines. Tsunami warnings are not uncommon, no less common than offshore earthquakes. How do you run a diesel generator when it's under water? How do you cool a reactor core with a battery backup that depletes in twelve hours? The technology has failed because someone didn't design it to do what we needed it to do given known history. Now we wait to see which way it goes, peak heat followed by a slow cool-down or a full meltdown and potentially lethal radiation release.

Our impressions of the nuclear industry have been formed by two notable accidents, at Three Mile Island in the US and Chernobyl in Ukraine. Blame for the accident at Three Mile Island was ultimately assigned to employees who shut backup cooling valves shortly before the primary cooling pump failed, preventing the backup pumps from functioning. The Chernobyl disaster was blamed on multiple flaws in reactor design. Public outcry in response to these accidents effectively halted further development and construction of nuclear plants in the US.

Attitudes changed over the decades since the Chernobyl disaster as technical innovation produced safer designs. One design in particular, the Toshiba 4S (via Bob Cringely), provides near meltdown-proof safety in a smaller, easier to maintain structure.

Attitudes changed, too, as the price of oil and other fossil fuels climbed. $4-per-gallon gasoline has a way of changing minds. Environmental concerns over the effects of burning fossil fuels have helped turn minds toward emission-free nuclear power production.

At the same time, people have come to rely upon and accept technology in their everyday lives. We not only expect our technology to work, we expect it won't kill us while doing so. The events in Japan are stunning in that the technology we expected to protect us from exposure is close to failing.

The right way forward is to pursue nuclear energy. In each case, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima, humans formed the weakest link in the safety chain. The technology only did as well as it was designed to.

iPad Doesn't Know What It Wants To Be

Marco Arment, author of Instapaper and lead developer of Tumblr, has a terrific piece today about the iPad's evolving role. His take: Though it's been in development for years, and selling for one year through two versions, we (and Apple) still haven't found the sweet spot of purpose for the device. That we can see its huge potential is the key to its success to date.

Concise writing.
March 12, 2011

Josh Topolsky Leaving Engadget

From Engadget:
After nearly four years at Engadget, it's time to make my exit. There are things I'm after and challenges I want to take on that just don't fit with my day-to-day schedule here, so off I go.
Topolsky is a heavyweight in tech blogging. He runs a reputable publication, isn't prone to posting baseless rumor, and brings experienced enthusiasm to his reporting. The site is a go-to resource for What's Happening Now. His departure prompts two questions: is AOL's ownership of Engadget and its recently-leaked AOL Way memo finally taking its toll on him, and what's his next act?

Nuclear Plant Crisis in Japan

Bob Cringely has a concise write-up of the ongoing nuclear reactor crisis in Japan. It's a five-minute read by a knowledgable source (he describes his qualifying credentials in the piece).
March 11, 2011

Description: Apt

From Andy Ihnatko (via The Chicago Sun-Times):
In every kind of creative endeavor -- and great technology is indeed a form of creative expression -- there’s a difference between real art and mere technical competence. It’s impossible to quantify but which everybody can intuit it almost instantly.
Andy was writing about the iPad, but his words describe the overall thrust of Apple's design and engineering as well. Their stuff is still insanely great.

∴ The CrackBook Cometh

My new toy arrived last evening in a red, white and blue truck. It came built-to-order all the way from Shanghai in three days. I'm typing this on it. My Mac era dawns.

A few notes.

  • The Mac OS is dead-simple to learn how to use. There is almost no learning curve. Really.
  • This model was ordered with a solid state drive instead of a traditional hard drive. The few extra dollars were worth it, because it's lightning fast. Click the icon and a web browser opens in less than two seconds.
  • DRAM (memory) prices are dirt cheap. I tend to keep several programs running all the time, and more than a half-dozen browser tabs open as well. A memory size upgrade is well worth the cost.

I did some prep work in anticipation of moving to a new machine. Some of it will be handy for anyone making the move, regardless of platform. Here's a brief rundown of how I transfered my digital life from a Thinkpad to my new MacBook Pro. It involves four tools.

First up, Dropbox. Dropbox is a free service that lets you securely (using AES-256 encryption) store up to 2 GB of data on their server. There are paid plans available if you need more space. It gets better. After you sign up for an account, a small software application is installed (with your permission) onto your machine. It starts up every time you boot the machine. You never have to manage it. This software creates a folder on your machine into which you put your data. Documents, spreadsheets, pictures, video, you name it. On Windows the folder appears in My Documents, on Mac OS X it's in your home directory. Anything you put into that folder is automatically uploaded to and kept in sync with the Dropbox server, and any other machines onto which you've installed the Dropbox software.

Moving my data to the MacBook was almost automatic. I had to install the Dropbox software and sign in. Done. The software is smart enough to recognize that another machine on my local network is signed into my account. It synced the data from there. All of my documents were on the new machine in a few minutes.

Second, Google Chrome. Chrome is the current speed champ among web browsers. It has a lightning-fast rendering engine so pages display quickly and, best of all for last evening's project, automatic syncing of bookmarks, extensions, form data and more. I installed Chrome to the MacBook, signed into my Google Sync account and had an exact replica of the old machine's Chrome setup in seconds. My preset tabs opened automatically.

Third, KeePass (KeePassX for Mac) password vault. All of my userids and passwords are stored in an encrypted file in my Dropbox, managed by KeePass. I installed the software, pointed it at my now-synced Dropbox folder and all of my dozens of credentials were accessible.

Fourth, iTunes and a storage server. All of my music, movies, podcasts and audiobooks are organized with iTunes, but the actual data files are stored on a network-attached storage array elsewhere in the house. This isn't an uncommon practice nowadays. Microsoft sells their Home Server product and several other manufacturers offer similar wares for this purpose. Accessing the media library from the new machine was simple: I closed the program on the old machine, opened that same software on the MacBook and pointed it at the network storage drive. If you have a lot of music, movie or other media content, or valuable data you don't want to lose, a storage array like the Drobo FS (my choice) is invaluable.

There's a lot more to moving into a new machine and making it your digital home. As soon as the basics are in place, though, the rest comes along as you need it.

I'm loving this machine. It's addictive.

 

March 10, 2011

Keeping the Skynet Dream Alive

From Engadget:
the ultimate goal of having two Global Hawks doing the deed without any human intervention is said to be within reach by next year.
An experiment in unmanned air-to-air refueling. Soon the machines will replenish themselves. Hit the link for test-flight video.
March 9, 2011

Idol: Best of the Night

Casey Abrams blew doors open at the back of the theater.
Paul McDonald was spastic on stage, but I really liked his voice and energy.
Pia Toscano has a great voice, but the repetition in "All By Myself" got annoying.
James (Adam Lambert 2011) Durbin wailed Paul McCartney.
Thia Megia might have the best voice of the lot: strong, yet controlled. She needs to sing something younger than she did tonight.
Naima Adedapo has got a funky, versatile voice. Great performance.

Those were the best six of thirteen. Prediction: my top four are safe this week.

∴ Lebanese Dining in Rural Virginia

We had lunch at a Lebanese restaurant today. That's not remarkable in a metropolitan area, or even a busy suburb. It's something we've waited for in our rural area for a long time, though.

The area around today's dining spot was thick with woods when we moved here thirteen years ago. Just a couple of minutes off the Interstate highway west of Washington, DC, Gainesville was far west of the well-populated Fairfax county. (We live even further.) The area was home to not much more than McDonald's, Wendy's and the relative newcomer, Subway. Nearby Warrenton, our closest town, was no better. We thought nothing of hopping in the car and driving forty-five minutes east to find good dining. Thai, Indian, you name it, Fairfax had it.

What a difference a decade has made. There are Japanese, Vietnamese and Afghan dining establishments in the same shopping area where we found the Lebanese restaurant. We've sampled two so far. There's even been a Thai restaurant in Warrenton for about five years, and a pair of fine dining spots, and a comfortable bistro serving Virginia-produced foods, beers and wines.

We used to live in the middle of nowhere. It's beautiful, it was largely outside the crush of DC commuter traffic, but short on interesting dining options. Now that the traffic has found us, fortunately good food has, too.

March 8, 2011

No Sheen, None of the Time

From BoingBoing:
Thank you, Greg Leuch and fffff.at, for providing us all with a tool for blocking Charlie Sheen from the Internet: Tinted Sheen.

"Download the plugin for Firefox or Chrome, and never again worry about seeing his name or face."
Install the plug-in and Charlie goes bye-bye. Winning!

The Zuckerbeast Wants You To Watch Movies

From Ars Technica:
Have you found yourself wishing for yet another site to start watching streaming movies from? Your wish has been granted—via Facebook. The digital arm of Warner Bros. has announced that it's about to begin testing a new service that would offer certain movies for rent—or even purchase—through the movies' Facebook pages. The test begins with The Dark Knight, with more on the way.
Because we don't have enough ways to watch movies, and because The Facebook needs to be everywhere. It's like a virus, that way.
March 7, 2011

∴ Steve Jobs' Washing Machine Explains Apple Philosophy (Really)

I've been thinking about how to write about this subject for a few days, since Steve Jobs took the stage to announce the iPad 2. Describing the new device, he ended his presentation with these words:

It’s tech married with the liberal arts and the humanities. Nowhere is that more true than in the post-PC products. Our competitors are looking at this like it’s the next PC market. That is not the right approach to this. These are post-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC, more intuitive. And the software, hardware, and applications need to intertwine in an even more seamless way than on a PC.

How do you bring the liberal arts and humanities into a technology product? You think long and hard about how the customer will make it part of her lifestyle. I'm so glad I found this next piece (from Wired via 9To5Mac), which describes how Jobs did that when his family needed a new washing machine.

“We didn’t have a very good one so we spent a little time looking at them,” he told contributing editor Gary Isaac Wolf. “It turns out that the Americans make washers and dryers all wrong. The Europeans make them much better – but they take twice as long to do clothes! It turns out that they wash them with about a quarter as much water and your clothes end up with a lot less detergent on them. Most important, they don’t trash your clothes. They use a lot less soap, a lot less water, but they come out much cleaner, much softer, and they last a lot longer.
“We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make. We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table. We’d get around to that old washer-dryer discussion. And the talk was about design.”
Two weeks of discussions to choose a washing machine? That’s life in the Jobs household. (He opted for Miele in the end, adding, “I got more thrill out of them than I have out of any piece of high tech in years.”)
So how does he justify deliberating for so long? Well interestingly he compared it to a phone – an essential item, but something people don’t have time to spend figuring out. “You just don’t have time to learn this stuff, and everything’s getting more complicated.” So he simplified it all with the original iPhone, and the mobile landscape changed forever. If Apple made washing machines, you can bet they’d be the easiest to use in the world.

Today's products are complex, and customers can't or don't take the time to understand their details. An unsatisfied customer, who doesn't get what she expects from a product, is often the result.

Making the complex simple is difficult. It takes a lot of thought by smart people, and trial and error with candidate products. It takes an engaging way to explain and sell it to the customer. Apple manages this by considering design alongside engineering. The result is a product that does, in a simple and easy-to-use manner, what the customer expects. It leaves her feeling good about her purchase, even when the product lays the occasional egg.

Any company that manages all of that can charge a premium for its wares. The customer will thank them for making her feel smart and happy, all-in-one.

Re-read the excerpt. Makes you want to buy a Miele washer, doesn't it? If so, Steve Jobs just sold you someone else's terrific product.

 

Apple Sells HUGE Number of MacBook Air Laptops

From Cult of Mac:
Apple reportedly sold 1.1 million MacBook Air laptops during the December 2010 quarter, 63 percent above analyst expectations. The 1.1 million figure could mean MacBook Air sales represented about 40 percent of the 2.9 million notebook sales reported by the Cupertino, Calif. company for the three-month period.
As I've written here before, those Airs are tasty. They pack a full computing capability into a very slim package (follow the Colt of Mac link for a few photos). I imagine they'll sell an even greater number when Apple refreshes the line, bumping up the mobile processor and memory specs to match the MacBook Pro, this fall.
March 5, 2011

∴ The Switch: Choice

Last time I checked in on the subject, I had eliminated the 11-inch MacBook Air from my buying decision, and expressed reservations about the 13-inch model. I really liked the slim, light design of each, but there were issues.

Over the years I've hauled a number of laptops to work, home, and on travel. I recall the pain in my shoulder as I trudged through Charlotte Douglas airport with my laptop bag one afternoon, headed to my parents' place in North Carolina. I was carrying a 15-inch Gateway machine at the time. It had a nice display, brighter than most portables of its day. At 8 and a half pounds, though, that machine was a brick. A few bricks. At 2.3 and 2.9 pounds, carrying either of the Air twins would be a world away from that experience.

This will be my main machine, though. The 11-inch model carries a nicely-high resolution screen, but its overall dimensions are smaller than those of my Thinkpad. I don't want to be restricted that much. The delight of small size would give way to the constraint of small size.

The 13-inch Air is tasty, but its direct competition is the 13-inch Pro. It loses that battle. The Pro has a significantly more capable main processor. It has an equally-fast graphics processor. It sports the new Thunderbolt port. (I call it the Thunderhole). Its native display resolution is nearly as high. It has room for double the memory, and it provides room for a little project I'll write about soon. And it's only about a pound and a half heavier than the 13-inch Air.

So it'll be a 13-inch MacBook Pro for me, please. 128 GB solid-state drive. 4 GB main memory, and I'll bump that to eight gigabytes with a side-purchase and crack the case myself.

Hey, I even get a $100-discount, just 'cause Steve likes my face. What a guy.

March 4, 2011

Culling the Herd

From MSNBC:
A 575-pound man who gained a measure of fame as spokesman for the Heart Attack Grill — a Phoenix-area restaurant that unabashedly touts its unhealthy, high-calorie menu — has died.
Friends of 29-year-old Blair River say he died Tuesday, possibly from contracting pneumonia after a bout with the flu.
I wonder how well his body would have fought the flu virus if it hadn't had to support that excessive weight, as well. I wonder, too, at how an athlete can so completely go to pot.

Finally, I wonder if the Heart Attack Grill will ever mention his name again.

Apple and Your Media, a Follow-up

From 9To5Mac:
According to Bloomberg, Apple is currently in negotiations with major music labels regarding some major enhancements they are planning to bring to iTunes by mid-2011. These enhancements are said to focus around an “unlimited” download approach
and
The potential changes, that Apple is working on with Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group Corp., and EMI Group Ltd, would also allows users to re-download songs, on the same Apple ID account, on multiple devices.
As it stands today, you'd have to pay multiple times to download the same song to multiple mobile devices. That won't work if Apple wants you to keep all your content in their cloud. This negotiation is about gaining license to pay once (when you buy at the iTunes store) and download (stream) forever. It would eliminate the need for storage on the device in order to keep music playback free.
March 3, 2011

Idol Top Four

Stefano, James, Paul, Jacob and Casey were my picks prior to tonight, and they made it through. 5 out of six.

Naima, Ashthon, Karen and Thia were my picks, too, and they made it through. So I hit 4 of six on them.

My top four: Casey, Paul, Thia and Pia.

∴ Apple and Your Media

Apple debuted the new iPad 2 yesterday morning, and announced the availability of iOS 4.3. iOS is the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch operating system. One of its new features is improved Home Sharing. What is that?

Apple mobile device users are required to plug in to a personal computer running iTunes to tansfer music, podcasts, photos and other content. That's called syncing. Many have asked Apple for the ability to sync their device instead over their home WiFi network, avoiding the tyranny of the cable. Is improved Home Sharing the answer? Apparently not. From Apple's release PR:

iTunes Home Sharing
Share over the air.
Now you can play your entire iTunes library from anywhere in the house. If it’s on your Mac or PC, you can play it on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch over a shared Wi-Fi network.3 And not just music. Watch a movie or TV show. Play a podcast. Or listen to an audiobook. On whichever device you want — without having to download or sync.

Footnote 3:

Requires iTunes 10.2.

iTunes 10.2 was made available late Wednesday.

That doesn't sound like WiFi sync to me. It's playing content directly from an iTunes-running computer, via WiFi. That's nice, but the content can't go out the door with the user unless it's synced to the device.

Greg Hughes, an independent software developer, solved this problem last year with his WiFi Sync app. His app does exactly what users want: it syncs content from iTunes right to the mobile device as if it were plugged in with a cable. A forthcoming version promises to sync the two via WiFi as well as 3G. The app is $10, and the linking software for your Windows or Mac machine is free. It can only be had via Cydia, however. That's the app store for those who jailbreak their iOS device. Without jailbreaking the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, users are still waiting for Apple to do what Google did with the Android platform two years ago. Enable WiFi sync.

Here's where Apple's long-term strategy becomes interesting. The company introduced their latest Apple TV product late last year. The previous version included an on-board hard drive, for storing movies, music and tv shows purchased from the iTunes store. The new version did not. The updated device was designed instead to stream content as-needed from the iTunes store, online. And the iTunes store would no longer offer to let users buy movie or tv content; without a drive to store it, users would instead rent it. In other words, users don't ever possess the content.

Now we have the new iPad, which lets users stream content from a computer on their home network. Content they already possess. It lets users listen to and watch their previously-purchased movies, music and tv programming, stored on their computer. But the new iPad, using improved Home Sharing, doesn't store the data itself. Again, the data remains separate from the device and only arrives the moment you want to see or hear it. And while users may possess previously bought content on their computer, Apple has plans for that, too.

With each device update, media content is another step removed from a user's possession. The next step will likely occur when the long-discussed Apple data center (Engadget) comes online this summer (the date has slipped since that article was published). Newly-purchased music and podcast bits from the iTunes store will reside on Apple's data center storage, and your iOS device will stream it to you live, when you want to hear it. Sort of like Pandora, but you own the music. With enough storage capacity at Apple's data center, users might even move their previously-purchased movies, tv shows, podcasts, and music to "cloud-based storage" and have it all available for streaming to any iOS device, any time. And your media content will be completely removed from your possession, even if you own it.

Apple will become the center of your communication and media consumption lifestyle without owning or operating messy television, telephone or network infrastructure, just storage and devices. Storage is cheap, and devices are what Apple has designed and sold since the 1970s.

Improved Home Sharing is not the same as WiFi sync. Maybe Apple is after bigger fish.

 

Windows, From 1.0 to 7

Some intrepid fellow has taken the time to install every Windows operating system version, from 1.0 to 7 (there are many more than seven versions between those numbers), onto a modern computer. There's video out there of him doing so, one after another, upgrade after upgrade. Here's a link to it if you'd like to watch.

The man's curiosity and persistence are not what's remarkable here. What is remarkable is that this worked at all, and that the software programs that ran on that first version of Windows still run on Windows 7. You will be very hard-pressed to find any single version of software, anywhere, that was designed to run on the original Mac and still performs on today's beauties. It just isn't a priority for Apple.

While Apple's highest principle has always been innovation, Microsoft's has always been compatibility. In this case, "backwards compatibility," the ability of a new version of the operating system to run software that was designed to run on a previous version. The benefit to Windows users is obvious. The other side of that coin is that newer versions of Windows carry increasingly heavy baggage. Newer versions of the Mac OS...don't.

The Mac OS stays lean and clean, though occasionally forces you to upgrade your application software. It'll cost you more over the long haul, though as a Mac user you're used to that. Windows doesn't often require you to upgrade your applications, but lean and clean has never been used to describe a Microsoft product. Give Microsoft their due, though. Backwards compatibility over twenty-five years was not easy to achieve. Pick your poison.
March 2, 2011

Idol Keepers: Girls

Naima Adedapo (banana-yellow dress, upper back tats, and oh yeah, great voice)
Kendra Chantelle (soulful blonde white-girl. go figure)
Karen Rodriguez (bi-lingual, strong voice)
Lauren Turner (lots o' hair, bluesy, ballsy voice)
Ashthon Jones (young Diana Ross?)
Thia Megia (FREAKING AWESOME. Could be the winner, will be in the final four)

That's my six, but I heard tonight that only five will pass. Oh well. My top four after tomorrow's cut.

Does Steven Tyler dislike anything?

∴ No Drill

Reading Captain Dave's training account reminded me of an incident I had many years ago, when I was working as an enroute air traffic controller in New England. I was working the radar at a low-altitude sector of airspace over upstate New York one afternoon. It was a routinely slow time of the day. Air traffic control is a lot like being a fire fighter, without the fire. Long hours of general boredom punctuated by short spans of intense effort.

Anyway, I'm parked at a low-and-slow sector with another controller, and we're shooting the shit, as controllers often do. We have maybe four or five airplanes on our frequency, mostly slower prop jobs. Out of nowhere we hear "mayday, mayday, Boston center, this is N-----, emergency." You don't hear that very often, thankfully, but after years of training including that kind of call and the resulting workload, it wakes you right up. First order of business, ask the pilot the nature of his emergency.

The pilot is flying a small, six-person single propeller-driven aircraft. He's just a private citizen out for a flight from the Boston area to Toronto Island, not too far from Toronto, Canada. Not a pro, not making money off it, just flyin'. Probably has his family aboard. He explains that his engine is out and won't restart, and he's headed down. Down from about fourteen thousand feet, if I recall correctly. His voice is a bit elevated, and I can hear some commotion in the background. A controller can fall only as far as the floor from his chair, not so much a passenger.

The next order of business is to run a checklist of items I need to know from the pilot, things like fuel remaining in minutes, souls on board, his intentions. (we're not supposed to use the phrase "souls on board" anymore, I guess it's unsettling. Believe me, when a pilot has given a controller reason to be asking for that information, he or she knows damn well what's happening and any unsettling has already occurred. Not so much with the professional pilots, but the little guys...)

He tells me to stand by, and then something must have clicked in his head. Maybe he looked at his fuel gauge and the light came on. Most aircraft have two or more fuel tanks, one or more in each wing. It lets them evenly balance the load. It also helps make the aircraft more stable, having the weight cantilevered out on either side of the fuselage. This pilot had flown from the Boston area on one tank and had forgotten to switch to the other as he burned fuel. Some aircraft will take care of fuel re-balancing for the pilot, but not this one. His first tank had run dry, the engine had died, and now in the midst of a mild panic he saw his salvation. He reached down under the seat and threw the manual tank lever. Crank, crank, crank, and the engine re-lit. It was a long ten seconds or so, but he came back on the frequency to say he had regained engine power and was climbing back to his assigned altitude. He wanted to continue on to his original destination. I re-cleared him to Toronto Island and resumed my otherwise dull afternoon.

That was my only directly-worked emergency. The day ended well for everyone, and that pilot has a good story to tell over a beer.

iPad 2

Apple debuted their second-generation iPad today, and Steve Jobs was on-hand to make the introduction. The new features worth mentioning are:
  • 33% thinner, much lighter at 1.3 pounds
  • much faster processor and graphics, but same battery life
  • available in black or white
  • works on both AT&T and Verizon Wireless 3G networks
  • same prices as the first iPad
  • includes HDMI-out to directly feed a hi-def tv
  • super new cover, attaches and aligns with a magnetic hinge. Auto-wake when opened, auto-sleep when closed. Removes in a second. Folds back to become a wedge for propping the device in portrait or landscape mode. Ten colors, 5 in polyurethane, 5 in leather. Very thin.
  • new version of iOS (4.3), adds a personal hotspot to iPhone 4
  • two cameras, one facing forward for FaceTime video chat, one facing backward for, um, taking pictures. With a tablet.
  • a couple of new Apple-developed apps: iMovie ($4.99) for editing your self-recorded videos and GarageBand ($4.99) for creating music with multiple instruments and tracks. You'll be blown away at what you can do with these tools, for so little money.
The size, processor bump and covers are tasty updates. Not revolutionary, but evolutionary. I think I'll hang onto my first-generation iPad, though there may be an iPad 2 in Kelly's future.

Virtual Fire Drill

Captain Dave has posted another view of life as an airline pilot, this time narrating an annual simulator take-off at max weight, from a high-altitude airport, with an engine on fire. This is why you're safe flying with these guys. I only wish I could write as well as him. Take a look.
March 1, 2011

Idol Keepers: Guys

James Durbin
Robbie Rosen (nice Long Island boy)
Stefano Langone
Paul McDonald (sounds like Rod Stewart, a little spastic on stage)
Jacob Lusk (really sweet voice)
Casey Abrams (there's a soulful musician in there somewhere, along with about four dozen others)

That's my six, the rest should go home.

To Be Mocked...

in a comic (from Ruben Bolling via BoingBoing) means the opposite of "winning!".

Think his mama's proud?

∴ Happy Birthday to Us

Kelly called me on my way to work this morning, to remind me that on this day six years ago we opened our doors for business at Kelly Ann's Quilting. We had both forgotten and it was only after she received a note from one of our customers that Kelly realized, today is our sixth anniversary.

Neither of us had much business knowledge when we decided to go into business. Kelly had worked in the banking industry for a number of years, so was closest to knowing what she was doing, and I had worked in government for nearly two decades and had zero business sense. Somehow, by applying common sense, reading a lot, and taking emotion and whim out of the equation, we managed to create a business that profited from the start.

Kelly has been the managing partner in our business all along, running the day-to-day operations, buying, selling, hiring, while I've spent the time installing and maintaining our technology tools, handling our web presence, newsletter publication, and later, sewing machine repair on the weekend. Each year she has managed to find some new avenue for our business, expanding and enriching what we offer our customers. The greatest compliment I hear is when a new customer expresses how our store is a welcoming, homey place to shop. That was Kelly's vision six years ago. It's been a great education and has given both of us a deep appreciation for what a business owner must go through to simply keep the doors open and comply with regulation.

Here's to another six successful years!