Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The silence of the depressed

Notwithstanding today's post on the iPad launch regular readers may have noticed Rondam Ramblings has been pretty quiet lately. Frankly, it's because I don't like to write about depressing things, and lately that seems to be all there is.

There was an earthquake in Haiti. Need I say more?

Massachusetts, to honor the memory of the fallen Edward Kennedy, elected a Republican to fill his vacant senate seat, thereby extinguishing any hope of achieving the one thing that Kennedy most hoped to accomplish in his lifetime, namely, to reform the health care system in this country so that people can no longer be rendered bankrupt by falling ill.

The Supreme Court, in a stunning but wholly unsurprising display of hypocrisy (and arguably perjury) overturned 100 years of established law (to say nothing of common sense) to rule that corporations are people and are therefore entitled to the same Constitutional rights as actual human beings. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is hypocrisy because conservatives have been railing for years about "activist judged" legislating from the bench. It's perjury because at least two of the five justices who voted for this decision insisted under oath during their confirmation hearings that they believed in stare decisis. It's unsurprising because... OK, too much time spent stating the obvious. Time to move on.

And as if the Supreme Court wasn't enough, the ninth circuit threw out the civil lawsuit against AT&T for conducting warrantless wiretaps against U.S. citizens during the Bush Administration. The grounds for the dismissal was that the litigants didn't have standing to sue because too many other people might have been wiretapped along with them. Yes, you read that correctly. No, I did not extract that from some neo-Orwellian novel. This is really the world we are living in. Corporations are entitled to the full protection of the Constitution, but actual flesh-and-blood people are not.

I wish I were making this up or being hyperbolic, but I'm not. Democracy and freedom really are crumbling before our very eyes. And what are people paying attention to? The iPad. And Conan O'Brien leaving the Tonight Show.

So that's why I haven't been writing much. Just in case you were wondering.

Since I have nothing better to do tonight

Everyone seems to be talking about the iPad so I guess I may as well pile on.

It seems like a spiffy gadget. It lets you read books, watch videos, check email, browse the web, and make julienne fries. But there is one very important thing that it doesn't do: it doesn't run Microsoft Office. And it never will.

But it runs iWork.

There has been a lot of speculation about why the iPad, like the iPhone before it, is closed and why Apple is exercising such draconian control over the software that can run on it. Some people think it's just a mistake. Some people think it's because Steve Jobs is a perfectionist and a control freak.

I think it's because Steve Jobs wants to crush Microsoft and grind it into oblivion. And the best way to do that is to create a world where Microsoft doesn't even exist, and then lead people into that world.

The iPad is that world.

Think about it. Why would Apple bother developing an office suite? It's a huge amount of work, and everyone knows that a frontal assault on Microsoft's position in that space is hopeless. iWork has never been front-and-center in Apple's product line. It's probably lost them a huge amount of money. Why did they do it?

I think it's all part of the Grand Plan. Apple started by leveraging its software expertise to develop a better way for people to buy music. Now they are extending that same model to make it easier for them to buy books and magazines. Amazon's Kindle tried to do that too, but the problem with the Kindle is it's a unitasker. It does a respectable job of letting you read a book, but that's all it does. The iPad does it all.

Including letting you run iWork. But not (are you starting to see a pattern here?) Office.

iWork has a good chance of displacing Office not by being better than Office, but by rendering Office superfluous. People won't buy iPads to run iWork. They'll buy them to read books, watch videos, play games, and surf the web. iWork will just sort of come along for the ride. And one day the sun will rise on a world where a critical mass of people will suddenly realize that, you know, iWork seems to get the job done on our iPads, do we really need to shell out $400 to run Office on our desktops?

And on that day Microsoft will be toast.

Ironically, despite the fact that I am a card-carrying Microsoft-hater, I will not be celebrating their demise if it comes about in this way. I am a big fan of open systems. I adore my Mac, but I have a love-hate relationship with my iPhone. It's a really neat, almost miraculous gadget. But I hate the fact that I am beholden to Apple in what I can and can't do with it.

There's one other cogent observation that seems to have gotten lost in the twilight zone between hype and grumbling: it's not just Apple's hardware that is remarkably innovative and effective, but their marketing is noteworthy as well.

Apple has figured out what the entire world wants and it is magic and revolution. That’s how they’re selling it. They figure the only people who won’t want an iPad are people who don’t like magic.

Tent revivalists have known this for hundreds of years. I wonder why it's such a hard lesson for technical people (and atheists) to learn.

By the way, did anyone notice that the President gave the State of the Union speech today?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What does atheism have to offer Hatians?

If ever there was proof that religion is not going to yield to reason surely it must be the sight of Haitians praying to God for relief from their suffering. That God either doesn't give a tinker's damn about Haiti, or else has has such a cruel and twisted disregard for the suffering of innocents that we would call Him a psychopath or the devil incarnate were he anything but God, cannot possibly be made any plainer. And yet the sound of prayer is heard in Port au Prince. Surely it must occur to the Richard Dawkinses of the world to wonder why? If having their lives destroyed isn't enough to convince these people that God doesn't love them, can anyone really believe that reading "The God Delusion" is going to do it?

The reason that Haitians turn to God is self-evident: it's all they have. When your entire country is in ruins and your family is dead and you can't even go down to the corner liquor store for a fifth of vodka in which to drown your sorrows, you are faced with this choice: turn to God, or try to salve your emotional wounds by contemplating the finer points of plate tectonics. Is it really all that mysterious that Haitians choose God?

Religion may be false by scientific standards. It may be a delusion. But it nonetheless has something real and powerful to offer: hope. A sense of purpose. A reason to go on even in the face of unspeakable horror. Even though I've seen a bit of the third world, I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like in Haiti right now. Richard Dawkins speaks about truth as the greatest good, but I wonder if even he would be so callous as to walk up to a Haitian mother praying to God after she has lost all her children and volunteering that, by the way, the God she is praying to doesn't exist.

That notwithstanding, I applaud Dawkins for taking a prominent and God-free lead in providing material aid to Haiti. That will win more hearts and minds than strident rhetoric can ever hope to.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Breaching airport security at LAX -- by accident

Reading about the latest breach of airport security reminded me of something that happened to me a few days ago at LAX. I had arrived early to pick up a passenger, and I took a somewhat obscure but nonetheless publicly accessible route into the terminal. I ended up behind the security barriers newly erected in the aftermath of the undiebomber. I'm not sure who was more surprised, me, or the TSA security guard who asked me what I was doing there.

I debated with myself for quite a while over what to do. I had just penetrated a significant layer of security at one of the country's major airports by accident, without even trying or intending to. Should I report it? To whom? A TSA agent already knew I was there and didn't seem to care. Could I expect less apathy from someone else higher up in the chain of command? Could I even *find* someone higher up in the chain of command? Did I have any reason to believe that when I pointed out that I had gotten somewhere that I wasn't supposed to be that they wouldn't arrest me and ship me off to gitmo?

I decided I really didn't feel like being detained, so I discreetly vacated the restricted area, picked up my passenger, and went home. But I'm posting this as an experiment. This is a public blog, and I'm reporting a serious security breach as a major U.S. airport. I wonder if anyone in our country's intelligence apparatus is going to notice this and contact me for more information. I'll give long odds against it.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Isis: the plot thickens

I just got an email from someone named Andrew Molloy regarding the Isis puzzle. I post it here with his permission and without comment, except to say that I am not terribly surprised:

I just read your blog on the Isis adventure. Interesting to see negative feedback from a customer's point of view. I have nothing to do with the Isis puzzle, but I designed their "NKryptor" puzzle (the physical part of it). You may find their business practices dubious for the customer, but they're also pretty dubious from inside as well. I was a self employed contractor and I got royally stiffed by them. As did another contractor who came on board for the electronics of that puzzle and then went on to design the Ramisis. It's essentially a one man driving force in that company called Andrew Reeves, who basically takes advantage of people and then takes all the credit. It doesn't surprise me at all that his method of squeezing out the money is by "extorting" the customer and forcing personal details from you. It may not get passed on but it doesn't stop him from sending you details of his own ridiculous pyramid schemes.

Building git 1.6.6 on Snow Leopard

Geek stuff ahead. You have been warned.

I've been agonizing over the choice of revision control systems and finally decided to take the plunge and go with git instead of mercurial because it seems to be what all the cool kids are using. So I downloaded the latest version (1.6.6) but when I tried to build it on my Mac I got this:

ld: warning: in /opt/local/lib/libz.dylib, file is not of required architecture

Several hours of Googling, hacking, and premature hair loss later I found a blog entry from Simon Engledew revealing that the problem seemed to be an out-of-date copy of Macports. Simon recommends nuking Macports with a "terrifyingly brutal" (his words) string of rm -f commands.

It was a little too terrifyingly brutal for me. A little poking around revealed that there's a less terrifying way: just add the following line to the top of the Makefile:


(There's probably a Make wizard out there who knows how to do this at the command line, but I am not he.)

One final wrinkle: don't run configure. I accidentally forgot to run configure but it worked anyway. I went back and ran it figuring that I might have built a time bomb, and then the build failed. So I went back and did a clean configure-less build and ran the test suite (which is impressively extensive) and it passed.

That's how I did it. YMMV.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

A robotic floor cleaner that could actually work

Being the tech geek that I am I of course had to get a Roomba when they first came out. It was a fun little toy, but not really practical. It missed a lot of dirt, it was noisy, and it took a looooong time to get the job done. And when it was finally done, emptying the dustpan was a messy chore, almost worse than having to clean the floor yourself.

Now, Evolution Robotics has announced a next-generation robotic floor cleaner called the Mint. Unlike the Roomba, the Mint uses Swiffer pads instead of a vacuum, so it should be a lot quieter and easier to clean up afterwards. Also, it cleans systematically instead of randomly, so it should do a much better job. It remains to be seen if the beacon that the Mint uses for navigation is really robust (does the signal penetrate walls?) but otherwise it looks very promising.

The Mint will be available, I am told, in June.