Category Archives: Tech

The Jesus Phone

I hate cell phones. No, let me rephrase that, it’s not quite correct. I loathe cell phones. There, much better. Cell phones are truly the work of the devil and I hate them with a passion. I have never had a cell phone that I liked, only ones that I tolerated.

Every single cell phone I had except for my very first one (a nokia candy-bar style phone) aggravated me for one reason or another. The nokia didn’t aggravate me, but then cell phones weren’t super fancy gadgets then and I had a lot more tolerance. My motorola slvr drove me up a tree until I dropped it into a bucket of sanitizer, quickly sanitizing it out of existance. The motorola razr I replaced it with (a free one from a friend) wasn’t nearly as bad, but it still was a chore to talk on with horrible sound quality unless I used the blue tooth headset. It was tolerable with the headset but only just barely.

Well, I went ahead and took the plunge and replaced my razr with… (drumroll please) an Apple iPhone. Now, this phone has been overhyped beyond belief. It’s been shoved in our faces and down our throats by all the hip coolhunter trendsetter types until you just want to scream IT IS JUST A PHONE FOR CRIPE’S SAKE before you take out an automatic weapon and start hosing down all the smarmy hipsters who are hawking it.

Boy… either I’m getting soft in my old age or I SERIOUSLY misjudged the hype on this thing because I’m here to tell you, it lives up to the hype. Yes, you heard me correctly, this thing is truly the Jesus phone. I absolutely love it and after only two full days of having it I can’t imagine giving it up. This thing successfully marries so many different technologies, so many communication mediums, and it’s got the typical Apple “it just works” gloss and sheen. There’s no fumbling, no swearing, no wondering “how the hell do I do insert random task here“. It … just … works.

Apple… when they nail something, by God they nail it. I never thought I’d ever hear these words come out of my mouth but I love my cellphone.

Twiddly Bits

[Yes, this is a repost from my original writerferret site. I will be reposting many of these here in order to capture them]

I have a confession to make. I am a twiddler. A twiddler lies somewhere in between a tweaker and a fiddler, and I’m a stereotypical case. It’s a condition moderately treatable, usually by ingesting large amounts of some brain-numbing chemical such as beer. Since I don’t drink a lot of alcohol in general I’m usually left to just suffer.

You probably know a twiddler, or you are one yourself. You might be married to one, or have one in your family. We’re everywhere, and it’s impossible to escape us, and it’s nearly impossible to treat us unless you plan on creating other types of problems.

What’s a twiddler, you ask? Well, a twiddler is someone who just absolutely cannot resist twiddling. No, not twiddling their thumbs (although this habit is a generally accepted precursor and warning sign in young children) but twiddling all the little bits on the things around them. We twiddlers, when faced when something chock full of twiddly bits, simply cannot resist diving in and twiddling them all until we’ve driven ourselves and everyone around us completely crazy.

I come by my twiddler genes honestly, at least. My mother is a horrible twiddler herself. She’s the type of twiddler that, when faced with a tiny scrap of lifted wallpaper buried in a corner of the room that nobody will possibly ever see ends up scraping and repapering the entire house, retiling the bathroom and then resurfacing the driveway just for good measure. She’ll stay up for 300 hours straight to accomplish it, if necessary. Her twiddling generally manifests itself in the arts and crafts, home improvement, gardening and all-purpose dog-twiddling categories.

My own twiddlish behavior leans more towards technology. When faced with a new toy, a new bit of knowledge or even just a new idea I will end up twiddling it until I fall over in an exhausted heap, I’ll then dream about it and then when I wake up I end up twiddling it again until I suddenly realize it’s been 3 days since the last time I ate anything more substantial than a cup of yogurt, the dog is alternating between biting my feet and whining at me with his legs crossed and my cat has packed her bags and left to move in with a saner family.

Since I used to be an engineer, this behavior generally worked out to my benefit professionally, at the expense of any social life. My CTO would drop some new cool toy or some nifty idea off in my office and leave me alone to play with it. When I surfaced for air 3 weeks later I’d pretty much be an expert on it, coming up with all sorts of esoteric uses for it that would make the original inventors cringe and flee the room, and in general becoming a thorough and complete menace. I’d then pocket my nice fat bonus check and walk away happy.

Well, I’m not an engineer anymore. I’m a writer now, and as a writer I twiddle words. Word-twiddling is generally a bit more esoteric than twiddling technology, so sometimes I go find some new project to sink my teeth into, building a lego robot to scratch the dog’s itchy bits or figuring out how to build an automatic nose picker or, as in my latest case, building a digital jukebox.

A twiddler with spare parts is a dangerous thing. When faced with a mound of spare parts I’ll generally go into hyperdrive figuring out some nifty thing that I can build with them. In this case, I was faced with a completely superfluous spare computer, an older one that my wife used to use before she fled my twiddling ways.

I have a very large collection of digital music, in both MP3 and more recently OGG format. I have a large CD collection, and have ripped all of them and encoded them for my car stereo. My car stereo is an empeg, basically a computer with 60 gigs of hard drive space running Linux and masquerading as a head unit. I’ve had this beauty for many years now, and it’s also a twiddler’s dream.

Well, I’ve gotten tired of toting my empeg in and out of my car and plugging it into my stereo. I thought this was rather silly to do, since I already had all the music encoded, had an extra computer, and the general desire to twiddle up something new. First thing I did was to completely strip the old computer, ripping all the parts out into a nice big pile so I could twiddle all of them individually (whee, jumpers and toggles and other assorted nifties).

After putting the computer back together, freshly cleaned, dusted and pressed I then slapped a new version of Linux on it, and then spent a good portion of the last two days transferring all my digital music files to it as well as playing with all the free jukebox players out there. Most of them are way too sophisticated for a twiddler like me, I prefer lean and mean interfaces. I knew what I wanted, things like being able to put it on my network and browse it from any of my computers, fast access, a clean uncluttered interface to it, building playlists on the fly, etc. I wanted it simple and fast to use, and most of all it had to pass the “can you use this while throwing a party and looking at it through a beer haze” test. This is generally a step forward, since most twiddling involves communing directly with the primal forces of nature and being open to whatever you discover instead of having a set idea of what you are looking for.

I finally found one that sort of fit the bill and installed it. I spent the better portion of the wee hours of the morning getting it twiddled correctly, and actually decided I really liked it. I was quite convinced I was going to have to write my own, since that’s the ultimate step of twiddling. I can’t ever really be content with software unless I write it myself, but I was struggling manfully trying to resist the siren call. Since the author of the software I eventually settled on had more than an average amount of cluefullness I really decided I could live with it, for now.

So far, so good, right? Had my jukebox built, working flawlessly, a handy and useful addition to my technology toybox. Complete with a Harmon Kardon speaker set and a wireless network card I could set it up anywhere I wanted, even out on the patio, with just a few mins worth of plugging and unplugging. You think I’d be happy, wouldn’t you? Of course you would, but all my fellow twiddlers can see what’s coming next.

I just had to improve on it, you see. So, after sleeping for about 2 hours last night, I get up and rip it all apart and redo it, making it better (or at least that was what I was pretending to do). Finally, after spending all day doing all sorts of bizarre twiddler dances over it, it’s broken. Not broken badly, mind you, and not irreparable, but broken to the point where I probably need to wipe it out and start from scratch. I’ll probably end up going back to the original shape it was in before I started in on it this morning. If I’m smart, I’ll revert it back to the state where I really liked it, then break all my own fingers to keep me from “improving” it. Of course, twiddlers like me are never really that smart and I’m quite sure I’ll end up fixing it, only to twiddle it into submission three or four more times.

Maybe I should just go buy some beer and medicate myself instead.

The Act of Creation

I recently satisfied my Mac envy and purchased a new Mac mini. Consequently, I’ve been diving into the Mac world, learning the whole Mac vibe and trying to wrap my head around a whole new way of looking at not only my computer but technology in general. It’s been a wild ride from the start, and one of the best things I’ve done for myself in quite a while. I’d completely forgotten how much fun a computer can be.

Now, when I get interested in something I generally dive into it whole hog. I immerse myself in whatever new thing I’m learning until I have a good handle on it. Consequently, I added quite a few Mac podcasts to my podcatcher download list. On one of those I heard about Sinbad doing the keynote for some Mac expo that just happened recently, so I promptly went and downloaded it.

I like Sinbad, but this post isn’t necessarily about Sinbad, nor is it specifically about Mac computers either. I’m merely setting the story up so proper credit can be given throughout the rest of the story, because Sinbad said something pretty incredible during his keynote… something that made me stop, rewind the MP3 and screw my headphones in just a little bit tighter to make sure I didn’t miss it.

What was this world-shaking thing that he said? Well, it’s actually blindingly simple, as most good wisdom is. He was talking about how we, as geeks, constantly compare hardware. We ask each other “What do you have? How much RAM, how much this, how much that?” when in reality what we really should be asking is “What have you created? What have you made? What have you done?” I think this is brilliant and really cuts directly to the crux of what I want to write about.

I love technology. I love new toys. However, what I love most about technology isn’t the technology itself but it’s instead what that technology allows me to do, what it allows me to create. I’m a huge Open Source fan, mainly because I’m cheap but also because I really believe in the creative power of the community. I have made my own contributions to the Open Source community in the past and I plan on continuing that long into the future. I think the power of human creativity is where the real miracle of technology exists.

I’m extremely excited about my Mac and I’m quickly trying to learn as much as I can about it. I’m studying Cocoa and Objective-C, learning how to use the Xcode tools, writing little dashboard widgets and in general having a ball playing with the system. My pleasure really stems from the sheer act of creation that the system facilitates, though. I get a real thrill out of creating something new and sharing it with other people. I think this desire to create, this raw unbridled enthusiasm for sharing is what drives most of the really interesting uses of technology (such as blogging, podcasting, and even things like indie music). You don’t have to be a programmer in order to create something. There’s interesting things being created every minute of every day and only a small portion of those really require any sort of programming ability or knowledge.

So, how many times have you asked someone else what type of system they run or how fast a processor they have? How many times have you actually used the processing power and the tools you have to create something new? I hope you’ll join me in making the effort to instead start asking “What have you done? What have you made?” I also hope you’ll join me in coming up with your own creative answers to that question when other people ask you what you’ve done.

It’s time we got out of the never ending upgrade spiral. It’s time we stepped off the “Have to upgrade every single time a faster processor comes out” elevator and instead learned to master the tools we already have. Pick something you love, pick something you are passionate about, pick something you want to learn more about or explore deeper. Find something cool, make something new and share it with your friends. Write a story, remix a song, put together a photo collage, make a movie or a web page or even just a greeting card. Put your own little stamp of creativity on the world. You just might find it addictive.

More Sun Death Throes?

Sun has announced the outsourcing of what remains of their IT staff. This impacts around 770 people according to numbers I’ve heard. I’ve also been told that just over half of them will be absorbed into CSC and the remainder will be handed their walking papers.

This upsets me mightily. It’s been three years since I was shown the door at Sun and it still smarts… mainly because the company has fallen so far from grace in my eyes. I still have people on the inside at Sun, people I care and worry about, and it bothers me to see them struggling. Sun was my dream job for many years and it was very hard to let go of that dream. It’s even harder when the dream doesn’t die peacefully. Lately, Sun has been a lot like a ham actor doing his first death scene in a play… it keeps thrashing around, getting back up, stumbling into the furniture, spinning around clutching it’s chest and keeling over again. About the time you stop looking over your shoulder to see if it’s going to twitch again it moans really loudly, gets up and thrashes around a bit more. Makes you just want to take a crowbar to it just to end the misery.

Anyone that has read me in the past or followed my archive links to my old blog has seen my ramblings on corporate ethics so I won’t necessarily rehash them here. However, I will stop just long enough to say a hearty “I told you so” even though I take no pleasure in the misery of Sun (hey, I still own Sun stock… some day it may be worth enough to use as toilet paper). I’m not big on schadenfreude, but I do have to say that I do feel just a little vindication. Sun left their roots far behind, they started putting business above core values and they alienated the people that made them strong. It’s unfortunate, because Sun was an incredible company with strong revenues, strong product offerings, brilliant people and cutting edge development. All that got squandered somewhere along the way.

All that remains is to start taking bets on who will buy them out. Stock price is around $4-$5 a share at the moment and has been there for a while now. I wonder who will finally leap on it, snap up all Sun’s patents and IP and then put the company out of it’s misery? Wouldn’t it be poetic justice if it were Microsoft? Just the thought makes me shudder…

Answering the Siren Call

Ok, I am beginning to think the apocolpyse might actually be drawing near. First, I register as a Democrat, now I decide that I want to buy a Macintosh. If I were you, I’d start storing water, candles and ammunition immediately.

I’m not sure exactly why I want to buy a Mac. Ok, I’ve got a few ideas, and there are some pretty valid reasons for it but I’ve been pretty firmly bigoted towards Linux from very near the beginning of it’s life. I’ve had the occasional PC loaded with Windows in order to stay abreast of the requirements of my profession and I’ve used the PC to run the games that I like to play, but I’ve always relied on a Linux box to do my “real” work. You’d think if I was getting frustrated with my current Windows machine I’d simply just tear it apart and reload it with Linux, running the OS that God intended for us to run instead of that demonspawn from Redmond.

I have to admit, though… I want a new iMac. I want to run OSX and I want to get all geeky about Mac stuff. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t know anything about Macs except that they are pretty and slick, maybe it’s the fact that they run a real operating system now based on Unix or maybe it’s just the fact that I slipped and smacked my head when I got out of the shower. All I really know is I can start to feel that irresistable pull to the… well, I can’t really say to the dark side because that would be the demons of Redmond whispering in my ears. Let’s just call it the “other” side for now I guess.

Ok, let’s stack it all up and look at it closely. First, there’s the important thing to remember which is my very first computer was an Apple, an Apple ][+ to be specific. I loved that thing. It was my first indoctrination into geekdowm and I knew that thing like I knew the back of my hand. I treated it like a beloved kit car that I was constantly tinkering with, extending, enhancing or repairing. I’ll never forget the look on my poor mother’s face when she walked in, saw me hunched over the open carcass of my Apple with smoke curling softly up from my soldering iron and valiantly did her best attempt at not freaking out and murdering her child on the spot.

As I grew older the Apple line and I parted ways. Apple marched towards elitism, expensive GUI’s and what I call “toaster” computing. They became a system for people that simply wanted their computer to “work” without having to tear it down and rebuild it all the time. It became less of a geek computer and more of a workhorse and that just wasn’t where I wanted to be at the time.

Of course now they have started to return to their geeky roots. I mean, what ultimately is more geeky than Unix? Ok, well, learning how to sing a Klingon opera in morse code might be slightly geekier, I guess, but I’m not really interested in going down that route just yet so I’ll settle for Unix in the interim.

I’m much less interested in hardware geekery nowdays and much more interested in OS, application and usability geekery. There’s some really incredible tools available for the Mac, and if you’re even marginally inclined towards the “spend three weeks writing a tool to save yourself five minutes worth of work” mindset (as I am, unfortunately) you can spend years twiddling, fiddling and geeking out with all the clever hackery available with a robust and well supported Unix OS on top-notch hardware.

It doesn’t help that the price point between Apple hardware and PC hardware has finally started to lessen. Sure, the basic Apple system is still quite a bit away from the low end PC systems but if you trick out a PC you’ll end up spending comparable amounts of cash. The Apple overlords have finally switched on their homing device and are trying very hard to call me back to the flock. Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated…

I have tried valiantly to resist the siren call of the Apple.com website but I also know it’s only a matter of time before I run down to the store, offer up my debit card as a sacrifice to the gods of Cupertino and at long last rejoin the Apple fold. I wonder if they will be handing out grape koolaid and black nikes at the reunion meeting?