Monthly Archives: January 2009

Too good to be true?

In IEEE Spectrum, there is an article on a revolutionary new power source. “Randell Mills, founder of BlackLight Power, says his reactor liberates energy from hydrogen in a totally new way.” Sound a little suspicious? A little more from the article…

Mills is unfazed by the criticism, having faced down the physics establishment since he first put forward his hydrino theory some 20 years ago. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he veered into physics after taking some courses at MIT in the late 1980s. His theory has been evolving since then. Not only does it explicitly reject quantum mechanics as it is currently understood, it also attempts to explain physics and chemistry “from the scale of quarks to cosmos,” as Mills puts it. Unlike quantum theory’s statistical approach, his theory is completely deterministic.

You can read about it all in his magnum opus, The Grand Unified Theory of Classical Physics, a 1771‑page work that he’s self-published on his Web site. It claims to offer explanations with no “spookiness or weirdness” for quantum phenomena like entanglement, as well as some extraordinary predictions: that under certain conditions electrons acquire antigravity properties, which Mills calls “the fifth force,” and that the mysterious dark matter permeating the universe consists of large hydrino agglomerations.

The thing that makes this smell more than anything else, even apart from the lack of truly independent analysis and the self-published new unified theory, is the financial angle. If this technology were really as revolutionary and successful as he says it is, I would like to think that most people with that knowledge would abandon the commercial upside, give away the IP, and get this out there and being used as quickly as possible. He could still be famous, and probably rich, but be a hero at the same time. In my world, holding back on disclosing technology that could solve significant global energy problems makes you a colossal and selfish prick.  So, global asshole, or charlatan in a caravan selling snake oil?  Spectrum seems to have made the call.

Snake Oil ad

Take note

I’m a little annoyed — not devastated though — to find that Google Notebook is going into suspended animation. I’m annoyed because I made a conscious decision to start using it in anger not that long ago, but also annoyed because they’ve left it unfinished. Google Notebook is/was for me a very useful online, access-anywhere, searchable, taggable place to put stuff, but it does have its issues.

  • The editing options are limited. You can’t embed images or other media items for example. You only have four text sizes. And so on. The KISS principle, sure, but include the essential functions.
  • The HTML markup it uses to store its notes is atrocious.  If it’s one thing I hate it’s spaghetti markup with span tags everywhere and embedded CSS in the attributes. Gmail’s HTML is a little better, but have these people not bought into separation of style and content?
  • The architectural metaphor they’ve chosen doesn’t feel right somehow. I’m never sure exactly where a new note is going to end up.
  • It’s ugly. Aesthetics count. Beauty counts. It looks and feels messy and a little clunky. Its missing some UI polish and user psychology insight.

Maybe its demise has something to do with the lack of monetisation opportunities they brought to it, and opinions will vary. Regardless of why, now I have to find a replacement. Some options that come immediately to mind.

  1. Use paper and pencil. Yeah, nice one Grandad. Heard of the web?
  2. Store all my notes on a USB thumb drive with an editor for each OS, and carry it everywhere with me.  No, that’s dumb.
  3. Upgrade all my notes to Google Docs. I don’t mind Docs, it’s fine for more formal documents, and you can wrangle the CSS and HTML code if you want to (and I do). It’s not very lightweight though, and there’s an amount of opening, closing, and clicking that takes a bit of time.
  4. Use the cross-platform and iPhone poster-child Evernote. Nope, it just doesn’t do it for me. It likes you to install stuff even though you can access it through a browser. And you can’t edit any item through the iPhone that has rich text.
  5. Zoho Notebook. Much more polished than its famous cousin, you can draw lines and shapes, and embed stuff everywhere. It looks pretty but I worry about the portability of a multimedia format. You can export pages as MHTML, but that’s not exactly widely-used. And again, limited editing and formatting capability.
  6. Some other 2-bit company that I’ve never heard of with an “online notebook” solution.  Like they’ll be around in six months time.
  7. Find some open-source online notebook code that works with the MySQL instance provided with my hosting.  Good idea. but haven’t found one of those yet. It also has to be something I trust.
  8. Make my own. Well, that’s slightly tempting. I don’t “do” databases so I’d have to use something simpler like Amazon SimpleDB and maybe pay for some storage. It has the advantage of being all completely under my control, but it comes at the expense of my time, and other priorities.
  9. Use an on-line wiki, like Zoho Wiki or PBWiki. Wikis are great but they’re for more structured documents with high connectivity between pages.  Notes, almost by definition, are not strongly linked, and have little hierarchy, and quick capture and retrieval is essential.

Any other options?

[Update 18-Jan-09: added option 9]

The future is large multi-touch screens

Many have often thought that the use of large touch screens has to be the
way forward for user interfaces, if we're to move away from the
keyboard+mouse (or trackpad etc) dominance of the last twenty years of
personal computing, and I have always strongly agreed. For entering text, a keyboard works just fine, in
whatever layout you prefer.  But many of the tasks that computers
should be doing for us are not primarily text-oriented. Look at the
iPhone (as if you haven't already). You use your fingers to drag,
slide, flick, pinch, and point, and only use a keyboard when you're
actually entering text. It's intuitive, and developers are coming up
with new ways of interacting with data through its screen. Many of the
things we want to do on computers are only text-oriented because that's
they way we've always done it, dating from our prehistoric green-screen
days.  On a touch screen, you want to move a window?  Don't grab a
mouse to move a pointer onto the border of a window, just stick your
fat finger on it and move it.

Single-touch resistive screens, as most popularised by Palm, were the first step forward out of the keyboard+mouse rut. The capacitive multi-touch screen
has been the next evolutionary step, and I for one, am very
enthusiastic about the next step: having a large multi-touch screen. I
imagine this screen as a significant part of my desk, probably inclined
like an architect's drawing board, and the office of the future would
not have people using keyboards a large proportion of their time.

So, naturally, I'm excited about the iTable, as I was about Jeff Han's demos. What will people do with it?  It's an area ripe for innovation.

iTable picture

Servolex by Dr Dr Aardvark

This is not a new track, but I wanted to test the automatic media player thing in Posterous.  And it’s a good track anyway. Listen and be amazed (or not) at my skills on bass.  Hint: all the guitars you hear are done on a bass, even the bit at the end. But, Peter Hook I am not.

For your edification, Servolex is part of the name of a satellite town of Chambéry in Savoie, France, where we spent a month in 2005. The town’s full name is La Motte-Servolex. We walked there one day from the centre of Chambéry, for something to do. Unfortunately, it’s uninspiring in a modern, functional way, so we turned around and walked back. It’s a place where not even the residents can be bothered to write anything about it on Wikipedia1.

      Servolex

Ed: No, it seems it won’t automatically replace this with a player, I need to actually email the file to the blog. Which I’m not planning to do. Just click it on and it should pop up whichever default player your browser is set up with. Sigh.

By the way, there is much more music at the Dr Dr Aardvark site.

1. It turns out that they prefer to wax lyrical on their communein French. Trés bien, mes amis.

la motte-servolex

The programming language charts

Everyone loves a list. I was looking at the TIOBE programming languages list for 2008 with some level of discomfort, thinking I was more out of touch than even I had thought, and scratching my head at the kids of today. I mean, D? And ABAP, Pascal, and Logo? But a bit of Googling showed up the community disquiet at the methodology underlying the list, which made me feel better.  It pointed to a competitive list, the Language Usage Indicators, that had a (IMHO) more sensible top 20 that better sat with my own observations.

Even that list surprises me a little; the assertion that “Assembly” still gets a good workout makes me smile, and then wistfully remember long hours hand-assembling Z80 programs in 16K of RAM, and entering and debugging it with a hex editor. Tell that to the young web jockeys of today with their context-sensitive IDEs and GB of RAM. But even I defer to the PDP-8 programmers entering boot code by rocker switches in octal.

Top 20

iPhone Foleo

Having had an iPhone for a couple of months now, it does everything I’d imagined, and there are still new apps coming out that take it even further.  In keeping with the form factor, a major limitation is the keyboard (and the missing copy/cut/paste functionality).  Someone has already hacked a Bluetooth keyboard, but I can imagine a compact Bluetooth keyboard+screen device, similar to the stillborn Palm Foleo, that let’s you type a bit more seriously.  It would also open up the scope for iPhone apps that allow more capable document or presentation editing.  Something very slim, with a minimum of external connections, probably power (to recharge the batteries), and maybe USB 2.0 for a mouse. How slim and light could that be, I wonder?  Something you could pull out of your bag when you have space and time to sit and edit stuff (airport, plane, cafe, hotel lobby…).

Productivity

I was going to do a long blog post about my approach to personal productivity, but others have already devoted many blog-kilometres to that. I apply the Getting Things Done (GTD) concepts where I can, in terms of the philosophy and some of the processes. It’s not always as effective as I’d like, and I continue to search for a personal system (processes + tools) that improves my lot. One has to be careful not to become the armchair expert in productivity, or obsess about your processes or tools, without actually achieving anything, but it’s an itch I still like to scratch from time to time.

My biggest problems are volume, multiple inputs, and tools.  My global, geographically-dispersed IT company runs on email, and I’m typically receiving 60-70 a day, and sending maybe two-thirds that number. Being off-line or in a long meeting is stressful in itself because you know how much is backing up in the in-box.  I use an automated email filter to separate those I’m only copied on into a @cc folder, and I have other filters to colour-code the remaining ones.  I work hard to get my inbox down to zero, using the 4 Ds (do, delegate, defer or delete) and forward items to folders called @Action, @ReadReview, and @WaitingOn (à la GTD), or just archive into their appropriate resting place in a local folder. I can access the online folders from my smartphone, a convenience that has its pros and cons, but it generally helps.

Paper to-do

Having multiple sources of todo items is a fact of life: from emails, conversations, documents, meetings, thoughts.  Capturing and manipulating them can be a drag. My todo list tool of choice is SimpleGTD, mainly because it lives up to the promise. It’s not perfect, a little slow at times, and not very accessible from mobile devices, but I’m rarely away from a laptop at work or at home, when I need to check it. And it’s free.  I dump just about every action in there, as my central repository, but the lists can get big and important things can get buried from time to time. 

One of the absolutely essential practices of GTD to combat this is the Weekly Review, and this I find the hardest thing to do, simply because of the uninterrupted time it requires to do properly.  With a large number of simultaneous projects (remember, by GTD definition, this is anything with more than a couple of sequential actions), trawling through these and working out the Next Actions is a major activity, and hard to stay focused on.  I’ve learned not to try and manage a multitude of micro-projects, but group actions under broader topics like People, Financials, Resources etc. It’s not as neat as I’d like, but trades off speed.

My latest pick-up is the Zen To Done (ZTD) tip of deciding at the start of each day on 2-3 Most Important Things (MITs), and making sure that you give them some focus during the day.  Write them somewhere prominently. More strategically, think about the Big Rocks for the week that you want to work on, and plan around.

So, it was a long blog post about my approach to personal productivity after all.

Photographic elements

Very amateur photographer that I am, at the recommendation from a photography book, I decided to look at some of my more recent photos and identify the dominant design element in each photo out of the list:

  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Form
  4. Texture
  5. Pattern
  6. Colour

Interestingly, out of the 50-odd photos that I classified, I could quickly see that the more under-represented ones were Form and Colour. Form is about capturing the three dimensions of the subject, such as depth or volume, through the use of light and shadow, side-lighting, depth of focus and so on.Colour is mostly about an emotional response to colour, either as variations in a single hue, or contrasts and interactions between colour of different hues.

Tram Shed

One of my 2009 resolutions then is to improve my photography skills by more consciously addressing one or more design elements in each shot, in particular the under-represented ones.  And asking myself before taking a shot what it is that I’m attempting to capture in the field of view, and making sure there is a focus to it, in terms of compositional variables, like the framing, orientation, focus, depth of field, exposure, camera location and so on. When you have a camera in your hand you see the world differently.