Monthly Archives: June 2011

iPad Is Deserving Of ‘Magical’ Designation

What makes a device “magical?” It’s not about being the fastest, thinnest, well-built, or mobile in its class.  No — In my opinion magical devices are made by the impact they have on the world, not by any features they posses.

Early in the iPad’s life we learned that people who have never used a computer were now using the iPad as their first foray into the computing world.  A 99 year old woman who never owned a computer started using an iPad to read and write — pastimes she had given up due to glaucoma. The iPad’s innate ability to resize text enabled her to once again enjoy reading and writing.

This week a touching story broke about a child with a genetic condition that affects her vision, and how an iPad has changed her world:

But the sight problems that once made school a struggle for Holly are now largely a thing of the past – and her parents thank her touch-screen tablet.

The iPad has replaced a weighty magnifying glass as Holly’s classroom companion, and a simple swipe of her finger now zooms in on text that once had to be enlarged by teachers on the photocopier.

Holly’s attention span has increased and her mother, Fiona, estimates “visual fatigue” now takes twice as long to set in.

“Holly’s enthusiasm to read has grown so much, and it’s definitely increased her independence,” Ms Bligh said.

My grandmother suffered from severe glaucoma in her later years, and I wonder if the iPad was around then how much of an impact it could have had on our relationship.  She was always so patient trying to understand my fascination with technical things, but in the end I don’t think she ever quite got it.  After all, most of what I tried to demonstrate to her she couldn’t see very well (if at all).

Apple has billed the iPad as a “magical” device.  No, it’s not perfect; yes, it has room to grow.  But is it magical? Yes — and I challenge anyone who says otherwise.

First Thunderbolt Accessories Arrive

Today the first Thunderbolt™ accessories appeared for sale on the Apple store starting at a whopping $999 for the Promise Pegasus R4 equipped with 4 1TB drives and scaling to $1999 for a Pegasus R6 with 6 2TB drives. The products have impressive specs with the R4 series boasting speeds upwards of 500 MB/s and the R6 cresting 800 MB/s, but the price will certainly relegate these products to the professional market for now.

In related news, Sony announced the VIAO Z series with the Power Media Dock which uses Thunderbolt technology to add a dedicated graphics processor as well as optical drive.

Sony Thunderbolt

The performance of VAIO Z Series is taken to new extremes by the unique Power Media Dock2, a monolithic expansion module that links with VAIO via an optical cable. The proprietary port can also be used to attach regular USB devices to VAIO when it’s not docked.

Featuring high-speed I/O data transfer based on the architecture codenamed ‘Light Peak’, Power Media Dock boosts graphics performance while adding numerous extra connectivity options. It includes an optical drive for even greater business productivity and satisfying HD entertainment.

Not many are happy about Sony’s choice to use a proprietary connection method for the Power Media Dock, but I would love to see other manufacturers employ Thunderbolt in a similar dock-like fashion. Old-style dock connectors on the bottom of a device typically add significant bulk to a machine, so using a standard Thunderbolt connection would be a huge boon to device aesthetics. I also love the idea of using Intel HD graphics un-docked and providing more powerful discrete graphics as an option when docked, which could lead to slimmer PC designs from more manufacturers.

Kinect for Windows SDK: Innovation At Its Best

Today, gadget blog Engadget pointed out what one developer is doing with Microsoft’s Kinect for Windows SDK.  The SDK is still in beta and the presenter in the video hasn’t quite mastered his presentation skills, but nevertheless it’s worth a watch to see what is possibly an exciting new frontier for desktop user interfaces.

Microsoft’s Kinect technology has potential to be just as game-changing to the user interface as Multi-Touch has been. The key is its ability to detect parts of the human body without any special sensors attached to the body needed. Imagine a cook with greasy hands being able to scroll through their digital cookbook without having to touch the screen, or innovative new music applications where a composer can literally conduct his/her music to life. I’m excited to see where Kinect for Windows goes.

Has Apple Retail Lost It’s Magic?

Right off the bat, let me clarify something: I’m not talking about sales. Clearly Apple Retail is firing on all 12 cylinders when it comes to sales and profitability. What I mean is has Apple Retail lost it’s almost magical quality that made shopping a truly enjoyable experience?

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While visiting one of my local Apple Stores at Fair Oaks today, I couldn’t help but feel the experience was anything but magical. The store was noisy and crowded, which made it feel claustrophobic. I turned up empty in my search for a mini-DVI to DVI adapter; apparently Apple only stocks DisplayPort and HDMI adapters now. And then there was the price factor that weighed on me: as nice as the MacBook Pro was that I was looking at, was it worth spending so much money when much more affordable options are out there.

Maybe I’ve changed? After all, I’m now closing in on 30 years old and I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll never be ‘trendy.’ Did I subconciouisly feel out of place with the trendy early 20′s employees working the store?

In the end, I just ended up feeling really stressed — a feeling I typically haven’t associated with browsing at an Apple Store. Obviously there were plenty of people who weren’t phased nearly as much and were buying up a storm, but here’s to the time when going to an Apple Store was relaxing and fun.

New Site Theme

No, you haven’t landed on the wrong site.  I’ve changed themes to a more streamlined look.  Enjoy!

FBI Server Seizure Brings Cloud Computing Questions

An  FBI seizure of a hosting company’s servers yesterday that brought several sites offline is causing a stir for both cloud providers and users of cloud servers.  While the FBI was apparently only interested in one client’s information, the FBI ended up taking several servers that affected “tens of clients.”

Due to the way cloud providers use virtualization technologies that allow any one client’s virtual server to touch potentially all of a datacenter’s computers (depending on specific setup), law enforcement armed with a warrant to retrieve any and all devices that pertain to the targeted client could result in the seizure of a significant portion of the datacenter, and with it affect tens if not hundreds of clients.

Many have been quick to fault the FBI as lacking in understanding of how such hosted systems work.  Personally, while it is clear that there needs to be some better processes put in place for handling such situations, I don’t fault the FBI.  Law Enforcement computer forensic specialists are really good at what they do and they often find evidence pertaining to the case where least expected.  Even if a computer that was seized that only processed a virtual machine (did not host the persistent storage) a forensic specialist may want to have access to that computer’s RAM for analysis.  Of course, persistent storage on a SAN would be confiscated for analysis for obvious reasons, but since even persistent storage can hot-migrate in a SAN, the law enforcement agency would wish to confiscate any and all drives that have hosted the target data within the scope of the warrant.

In my opinion, there are several things that can/need to be done immediately and as long-term solutions to address the issue:

  1. Hosting providers need to segment their virtual population in such a way that balances the need for sufficient uptime for users in case of hardware malfunction or high utilization with the need to keep a single VM from touching too much of the datacenter.
  2. Forensics technologies should be researched and developed to help mitigate the impact of server seizures on other clients.  For instance, allowing a law enforcement officer serving a warrant that may not be trained in computer forensics to easily identify exactly what needs to be confiscated using automated technologies could help minimize disruption of services for other clients.

Destroying The Spinning Wait Cursor

Mac OS X Spinning Wait Cursor

The Mac OS X spinning wait cursor. Every OS with a pointer-based UI has one.

Those who know me know that if there is one thing I can’t stand it’s an unresponsive user interface when working on a computer.  The most common unresponsive user interface I get is the spinning wait cursor.

In brief, a spinning wait cursor appears when an application has not responded to system events such as user clicks or messages from the OS.  System events are “pumped” into an application’s main thread, where it is the programmer’s job to handle them.  For instance, a button may have an OnClick(…) message handler, which is a piece of code that executes when the user clicks on the user interface element.  An important thing to note here, though, is that even though there are separate message handlers for each button or user interface element, they are all called from one thread — the main application thread which is tied to the OS’s message pump.  Since events are processed in the order they are received, if one event handler takes too long to process the entire application can become hosed and the user gets the spinning wait cursor.

Because there is only one event processing thread in today’s OSes, application programmers need to pay close attention to how much and what kind of code they put in their message handlers.  Anything above and beyond the extremely mundane should be done in a separate thread within the application (or done asynchronously).  Even if the application programmer is only using one line of code that calls an OS function, the programmer needs to consider what is happening during that call; is it something that relies on physical I/O like a disk that may take time to spin up?  If so, put it in a separate thread or make an asynchronous call!

But instead of just calling on application developers to code better, I’m also going to call on OS manufacturers to fix this problem.  I don’t claim to know all the answers in this realm, but I’d really like to see research done regarding having multiple event threads per application–perhaps as many as one thread per UI element.  That would make for a massively threaded program and there would certainly be overhead involved, but if a developer knows that their application is not very UI-complex, then why not let them choose to have the application run in this manner?  This would eliminate many sources of the spinning wait cursor.

Questions Remain Regarding Lion Upgrade From Pre-Snow Leopard [Updated]

Apple has made it abundantly clear that it plans to distribute Mac OS X 10.7 Lion exclusively via the Mac App Store, which first debuted in Mac OS 10.6.6.  The use of the Mac App Store has a lot of advantages, chief among them:

  • Digital delivery – No need to run to the store
  • One purchase can be applied to all the devices you own

Questions remain, however, regarding how users of Mac OS 10.5 “Leopard” and prior will be able to upgrade to Lion, as the Mac App Store is only available on Snow Leopard.  Many have simply dismissed the issue (see this thread), claiming that all users that are going to update already have Snow Leopard, or that there aren’t that many Leopard users left anyways.  I call BS.

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Kludge Award: Embedding Rosetta Into Quicken 2007 For Mac

It has been well noted that Apple is dropping support for Rosetta in Mac OS X 10.7 Lion.  Rosetta, also known as QuickTransit,  is a dynamic binary translation technology used under license from IBM, which acquired the original developer, Transitive.  As a side note, some believe Apple is dropping Rosetta support to “move the platform forward.”  Don’t believe that bullshit; Apple wants to save on the licensing costs.

While most will be able to get along just fine without Rosetta now that Microsoft Office for Mac has considerably matured in its 2011 incarnation, Quicken for Mac users are scrambling to figure out how to cope, as the latest release of the software was in 2007 and was PowerPC only.

recent rumor has pegged Intuit as working with to embed the dynamic translation libraries directly into Quicken for Mac 2007.  While this is only a rumor, I’m going to give this idea a kludge award.  Why, Intuit, would you spend any R&D on this stupid idea rather than spend the money developing a new, Cocoa-based application that is long overdue?  Sure Quicken is a complex application, but there is no way I can endorse this idea.

Quicken for Mac users: I’d suggest getting ready to employ a Windows VM and switch to a better supported windows version or try to find another Mac based software solution that handles your needs, as I don’t expect Intuit to come through.

DIY Home Security

I work for a security company, and recently I have explored the realm of DIY home security.  There are many brands out on the market, including GE and Honeywell, I chose to go with DSC PowerSeries by Tyco for one big reason: it has a documented API for connecting the system to a computer for real-time zone information and control.  I could not find any other home security system out there that had an API available.  With an API to read and write zone information, I have the ability to write programs that can do the following without inducing any monitoring fees: Read more »