Sunday, September 28, 2008

SpaceX Falcon 1 Makes It To Space

In a week where we faced the melt-down of Wall Street and the death of Paul Newman, it's uplifting (no pun intended) to read that SpaceX's forth attempt to achieve orbit succeeded. The only stories so far about this success are on Wired and Spaceflight Now. While the launch of the Chinese Shenzhou 7 with the Chinese first-ever space walk is important (especially to the Chinese), what sets Falcon 1 apart from every other rocket of its type to date is that it's privately funded and every element is of new design. And it achieved orbit.

My hat is off to the terrific team at SpaceX. May you have even greater successes in the future.

Update

Another article from Wired: "Space Visionaries Prove Naysayers Wrong — Again"

Update 2

It's a success: Valley billionaire launches rocket into orbit

Update 3

Here's a more complete article from Spaceflight Now. One additional important milestone was achieved yesterday; the second stage engine re-fired to circularize the orbit.

Notes from the Field: iPod Touch 2G

Three weeks ago I gave into my lust for gadgets once again and picked up a 32GB iPod Touch 2G from a local Apple store (Mall at Millenia). I've spent only a few hours each day (at the very most) setting things up, adding songs and other content and just using it as a device. No attempt to hack into the Touch (although I've Googled a bit looking for the state of iPhone/Touch version 2.1.1 jailbreak). I spent $400 on this little jewel, and so far I haven't regretted it. This is in stark contrast to my experience with the Nokia 770. Here, in no particular order, are my experiences to date. Where possible I contrast and compare this with the 770.
  • Display - The display is the first feature you experience when you turn the device on. The resolution is 480 by 320 (landscape) resolution. By contrast, the 770 (and N800 and N810) are 800 by 480. While the aspect ratios vary slightly between the two, the big difference is in resolution footprint: the 770 is obviously larger than the Touch by 2.5 times. And there's no denying that the 770 display is a beautiful and rich display, especially considering that the 770 is now two years old.

    Putting both devices side-by-side and looking at a website, you can see immediately that the 770 rendering is superior to the Touch, especially with small text. However, the Touch has a few features that considerably mitigate the problem with reading small text on the display, which I'll get to when describing the user interface and the Safari web browser. But if there is a single shining 770 feature it's the display. Even after two years, the 770 display remains the gold standard.

  • User Interface - The Touch's UI is one of the best I've ever worked with on a compact device. A lot of thoughtful engineering has gone into the UI and it shows. One blessed feature: I don't need a stylus to work the interface. I can use my fat greasy fingers. And therein lies one big problem with a finger display, the collection of finger grease and dirt on the display from said fat greasy fingers. The Touch packaging comes with a wipe to keep the display clean, and I'm looking for a stick-on cover to protect the display and keep finger smearing to a minimum.

    The Nokia's UI, in stark contrast, uses a metaphor strongly based on existing desktop environments. That is you have drop-down menus, nested many levels deep, and the device requires you to use a stylus in order to invoke and then make a selection. The UI on the 770 (and descendants) certainly looks pretty, but once you get past the bling and work with it over time, the shine quickly wears away with the multiple steps required to perform any task. The Touch's UI is quick and easy and a joy to work with.

    Another feature I quickly came to appreciate (and marvel at as well) is the devices ability to automatically orient the display to portrait or landscape depending on the Touch's physical orientation. This makes reading pages of text (web pages or ebooks) so convenient, and it helps to minimize the issue of the screen size vs. font size. The 770, unfortunately, was fixed to landscape, except for the very few games (such as Tetris) that put the device in portrait mode for operation.

  • Performance - As I said the UI is easy and fast. And when I say fast I mean fast. I've installed a number other applications and they seem to execute as fast as the bundled apps. Each and every application, bar none, executes nearly instantly when selected. Within one to two seconds the application has finished initializing and is ready to perform its given task. This is in stark contrast to the 770, which has never been particularly fast regardless of the OS version installed, and I installed each and every one released.

  • Web Browser - The Safari web browser, based on Webkit, is one of the best embedded browsers I've ever used, if not the best. It won't run Flash or Java content, but it seems to render everything else, and it renders it quit speedily. By contrast the definition of slow on the 770 is the built-in Opera web browser. What's more, the Opera browser, while it will attempt to render Flash can't render Java, and Flash makes the Opera browser either hang or crash. So for all practical purposes Opera can't render Flash.

    Because of the lower resolution of the Touch's screen compared with the 770's, Safari does a poor job of rendering small text, especially if you're looking a the full webpage on its screen. But Safari via the UI has a powerful feature; double-touch zoom. Just double touch on a section of text on the web page and the text is zoomed to fit the width of the screen. This feature works best when the Touch is in landscape mode, and makes reading news and other text quite pleasant, as pleasant as the 770. Yes, the 770 has zoom as well via a set of switches at the top of the device to zoom in and out, but that's a general zoom feature. The Touch assumes that the section of text you double tapped is the section you want to zoom to, and it does that, pushing all other content "out of the way". Double tapping the same section zooms back out again. And to scroll around is so simple; you just use one finger to flick either up-and-down or back-and-forth horizontally to navigate. And this feature of zooming in and out seems to be available as a system feature, with the notable exception of Stanza, the ebook reader, and it has a reasonable alternative.

    And finally, Safari is rock stable compared to the 770's version of Opera. Towards the end of my use of the 770, there wasn't a web site I could go to that wouldn't crash Opera, or worse yet, crash the 770 back to a full reset and boot. I've managed to find one site that can crash Safari; Webmonkey. Safari will attempt to load an entire page off the site, then freeze, then crash back to the main panel. But that's all. Yes, it's annoying, but considering all the Touch's other capabilities, and the fact Safari is pretty much stable most everywhere else, and what I've suffered with everything else, then I can certainly cut Safari some slack and wait for an update or two.

  • Multi-media - The strongest feature of the iPod Touch is its multi-media support. It flawlessly plays audio and video; all my MP3s, movies I've ripped on Linux, video podcasts, movie trailers, and YouTube; and it renders text quite well, especially ebooks using Stanza. And one other very nice feature I never really knew I missed until I heard it - breakless MP3 playback between songs, especially album tracks where one song leads directly into another without silence between the two. I know it's a feature that's been there for quite some time on other iPods, but it's just one of a host of little quality touches that make the iPod stand out in a crowded field. The 770, by contrast, performed reasonably when playing back audio. But it never played any video of any significance, and trying to transcode video to play adequately on the 770 was a royal PITA. There is a touch of irony in the fact that it's easier to transcode movies to play on the iPod using ffmpeg tools on Linux that it was to try the same for the 770.

  • Third-party Applications - I'm going to disregard the storm that's been raging with regards to Apple's SDK NDA and how it allows (or not) applications on its App Store. I want to comment, but I've already written enough on this post as it is. What I will say is I find too much junk and not enough of value, and sometimes I question the price of many of the applications, especially those headed north of USD$20. I have spent the grand total of $0.99, for Koi Pond, and I purchased it because I saw it demonstrated on an iPhone. Koi Pond is a great demonstration of the features and capabilities of this platform, and I personally found it worth the buck I paid for it. All other applications I've loaded on my Touch are free and/or 'lite' and include Weather Bug, Movies, and Stanza. I've even downloaded and then removed applications, specifically games, when I quickly hit the end. So far I use Stanza to read many ebooks, mostly classics that seem to fill its 'shelves' (notable exception; Cory Doctorow, certainly worth reading). The App Store is limited but functional, and I can't think of any reason to make it more complex; if I need to really look for something then there's iTunes on my Windows notebook for that. I'll talk about the applications in greater detail another time.
Overall I find that the iPod Touch 2G is the best hand-held computer I've ever owned, and I've owned many such as the Handspring Visor Prism, Dell's Axim X5, a Palm Tungsten, and finally the Nokia 770. It's a great balance of size, capability, and long battery life. Not only would I purchase it again, but I won't hesitate to purchase any future generations of this superb little machine.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Win some, loose some

Two interesting stories from the Linux camp; Lenovo is removing Linux (specifically Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop, or SLED) as a pre-installed OS option for some of its notebooks, and an article on the Linux Devices site shows that Linux on smartphones dropped over 15 percent.

The Distribution That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Lenovo's dropping SLED as an offering on selected notebooks is going to be something of a difficult issue for a lot of people. On the one hand you've got the slavering blood-thirsty hordes led by Boycott Novell screaming for Novell's economic blood over Novell's agreement with Microsoft. That group will see this action by Lenovo as some sort of Divine Vengeance against the Great Novellian Apostasy. And then you've got the other end of the spectrum who stamp their little feet in frustration and shrilly complain, like SJVN, that Lenovo isn't providing enough choice, and they Just Won't Buy Their Product Any More. So there.

Of course the biggest question is why. Especially given the special relationship between Microsoft and Novell, you'd have thought that Novell (and SLED) would have been pretty immune to any Microsoft chicanery. But then again, the complete story is that Lenovo has limited selling SLED on notebooks to the business community. After all the 'E' in SLED is Enterprise, so it makes sense to sell these machines to organizations capable of supporting them to the a level that doesn't require constant hand-holding that the typical non-business end-user requires.

Can You Hear Me Now?

The story about the drop in smartphone share is more troubling. In spite of what the Linux fanbase likes to say, the real future for Linux is in the embedded market. One key high-visibility market is the smartphone. As the article points out Linux was the only environment that suffered a loss in the second quarter year-over-year. Every other environment listed showed a gain, especially Mac OS X (i.e. the iPhone) with an incredible 230.6 percent increase. Yes, Mac OS X went from a dominating 1.0 percent market share in Q2 2007 to an even more dominating 2.8 percent for Q2 2008. Be still my beating heart.

Update 9/14

From Tom's Hardware:
It seems Lenovo has decided to stop selling Linux loaded machines online and instead will only sell PCs and notebooks pre-loaded with Linux through its channel organizations...
The same spokesperson also said that the reason the company was ditching Linux for orders made via the web was because the demand for Linux-based machines from online orders was not meeting expectations.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Becoming One with the Borg

No, not Microsoft. Apple. My wife purchased a new Macbook over the weekend. You know, the 'low end' model, 13" screen, white only, 2.1 GHz Core 2 Duo, 1GB DRAM, 120GB hard drive. With the exception of me spending five minutes turning it on and setting it up for her, it's been her machine and she's loved every minute of it.

Judy's purchase of the Macbook marks the second Mac in the household. The first, a 20" iMac, was purchased Christmas 2006 for my youngest daughter, who subsequently took it with her up to F.S.U. It's been rock solid and, with the Mac version of Microsoft Office installed, it's done everything she's needed for school and then some. And of course I don't need to mention that wife and both daughters have their very on iPods; youngest daughter with a second generation Nano and wife and oldest daughter with a third generation.

This leaves my oldest daughter with her Toshiba running Vista SP1 and me with my motley collection of systems running Windows XP SP2 and Mandriva Linux. The Oldest will probably stick with Vista because it provides features and capabilities not supported on the Mac or Linux, and me... well, the Wife says I can purchase a new computer come Christmas, so we'll see if I don't succumb to the Jobs Reality Distortion Field and give even more cash to the Apple Machine.

Why Apple?

The flippant answer is because it isn't Windows and it isn't Linux. Buried in there is the germ of truth, so let's sort out why Apple for me.
  • It's Unix. Mac OS X really, really is Unix under the shiney cover. And the particular Unix variant it's based on is BSD. My wife and daughter don't care that it's Unix, and would probably run screaming away from Mac OS X if the Unix part was the only part exposed. But I care. I've used BSD and its variants since the mid-80's, starting with DEC's Ultrix and continuing with real BSD on Vaxen through Sun OS up until Sun switched from BSD to SVR4 and Solaris. The shell is bash. And for me it's easy to reach (Apps | Utilities | Terminal), while buried deep enough not to snare the unwary.
  • It's not Windows. I've used Windows and developed for Windows since Windows 1.0.3. I still have the SDK in its original box complete with 5.25" 360K floppies. Call it what you will now, and damn Microsoft for its business practices (I certainly have), when Microsoft was leaner and hungrier they produced a competitive product that was fun to work with, without the hassles of ownership imposed by the current Microsoft regime. But that time has long since passed; Microsoft reached it's peak with Windows 2000. Since then it's been one technical snafu after another while they've tightened their grip with Windows Genuine Advantage. I'm genuinely tired of Windows.
  • It's not Linux. Frankly, I've grown quite tired of Linux. Mac OS X is actually a finished shipping product, with a U.I. design that all other Linux desktop environments are envious of and copy poorly. And if Mark Shuttleworth thinks that it's so good that Linux should "shoot beyond the Mac" then who am I to argue? The only question is why should I have to wait an interminable period of time (usually measured in years) for Linux to try and catch up with what I can have right now with a Mac? And by the way, everything really does Just Work on the Mac. And when problems occur, Apple listens and actually provides a release that addresses those problems, fixing bugs and reasonably addressing the complaints. And as I've watched over the years, OS X has marched from success to success in a manner that makes both Linux and Windows look like rank amateurs at best.
The Mac isn't perfect; no platform ever is. But from personal experience and the considerable experience of many other peers in my field it meets and beats Windows and Linux hands down. The keys are a GUI that is "a work of user-interface designer art" coupled with features such as full multimedia support that surpass both platforms, especially Linux. Add to that the Unix underpinnings and the fact I can use all my open-source tools (Perl, Python, Ruby, Java (yes, Java), gcc, etc) and I've got what I've always wanted and never found in either Windows or Linux: a powerful graphical desktop coupled with real Unix and powerful open tools that allows me to co-exist with the majority of users who still use Windows.

I can't wait until Christmas.

Update 9/4/2008

Octo said:
Until you start discovering that many of the traditional open-source community oriented projects seem to support both Windows and Linux quite well, while not giving a flying %@$%@! about the Mac. Of course they're improving gradually, but the stigma is still there.
Well, I can only speak from experience (and you of all people can corroborate it), but when I built the Subversion system the first time in late 2005, I built Apache 2, Berkeley DB, Subversion 1.4, and PHP 5 on the OS X server we had in the back room. And it worked pretty well until you updated to the latest versions in January of this year, at which point we switched over to the up-to-date Apple versions. I've also built up-to-date versions of Perl and Python as well as finally getting a chance to build and use Qt 4.4. My experience so far has been limited, but nothing I've tried has had any problems building or executing.
Oh, and in the area of multimedia support? You've gotta be kidding, at least if you're thinking of video playback. Quicktime (the built-in video player) has piss-poor codec support out-of-the-box, and has a tradition of wanting you to pay extra for the "Pro" version for some important features (i.e. full-screen playback). The best media player on OSX? Its actually VLC (http://www.videolan.org), which has a much slicker UI on OSX than on Linux.
Well, so far it's played every DVD I own flawlessly, and it plays 480p and 720p QuickTime material equally flawlessly. I can even play back all the movies I ripped under Linux using K3b without any issues. As for other content such as WMV I don't know if or how well it plays; but then I have no need to see it. But the bottom line is it all plays out-of-the-box. As for the interface on the DVD player, it may be simple, but it's more than adequate for my needs and my wife's needs. Thanks for the tip about VLC. And I find it interesting that it has a "much slicker UI on OSX than on Linux." I think you can say that about Linux vs OSX in general.