A Sign of the Times

austingasprices.com server too busyThere was a time (which I actually remember), when the current situation—war in the Middle East, much of the capacity of the Gulf of Mexico offline due to Hurricane Katrina—would have resulted in instant gas lines and huge price spikes. Now we just have to wait our turn for the austingasprices server. When the page comes up, you’ll see that prices here in Austin have actually gone down since the weekend. It’s tempting to say that opening the strategic petroleum reserve lowered the price, but since that doesn’t do anything to replace the refining capacity lost to the hurricane, it’s hard to see a direct connection. And looking at the futures market, I don’t expect these prices to last. As soon as local retailers and distributors sell the “cheap” gas out of their tanks, be prepared for a spike. But then no one was expecting that after Labor Day gas price drop this year, were they?

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back, Warp Speed Mr. Sulu

One of the very first programming challenges I tackled as a young person in the computer industry was implementing a fast search algorithm. Since computers have existed, there has always been a need to search large, constantly-changing data stores. In my case, the challenge was to search a historical list of retail sales transactions. This was a file that grew daily and went back to the beginning of the implementation of the software. If I’m remembering correctly, this file was 4 or 5 megabytes and growing. Today this sounds like nothing, but at the time I was working with a 386 computer running at 16 Mhz with, at most, 2 megs of RAM that was acting as a server for at least five terminals. The idea was that one of these terminals should be able to initiate a search of this database. On a good day, these terminals had 300 or 400K of RAM to work with. With the standard tools available at the time–dBase, Clipper–this search could be accomplished in maybe 5 or 6 minutes. To solve the problem, I learned assembly language so that I could forgo all the overhead of database programs and compilers and search the file directly. I got the search time down to 5 or 6 seconds. Theoretically, I was forcing the system to search at the limit of the hardware. If you ran this program today, it would have one of two outcomes: either it would search 5 gigabytes of unindexed data faster than any program commercially available or it would crash your Windows machine catastrophically. If pressed, I can probably come up with the application and source code. The lesson I learned was a simple one: applying superior skills and technology, the same effort will get you 60 times the outcome. That’s pretty much been the story of my life ever since.

Fast forward to today where Microsoft Outlook takes several minutes to search my message archive for a keyword. That’s if I only want to go back a year. If I want to go into my actual archives, spanning tens of thousands of messages and several years, I’m back up around the five or six minute mark. Plus a lot of user-interface hassle. Enter Google Desktop Search Version 2.0. First of all, let me say, this is the first computer program I’ve ever seen that is so powerful it frightens me. This is science-fiction-level computing. Secondly, let me say that if you aren’t afraid of what’s on your computer and you want to be able to search the entire thing instantly (including Outlook) you absolutely must install this program. Thirdly, let me say, whatever you do, if you value your time and your attention span, do not download this program. You cannot possibility imagine how addictive it is to have the entire contents of your computer instantly accessible, the RSS feeds for all the blogs you read running in a constant ticker, a slide show of all the images on your hard drive constantly running, a section of news headlines tuned to your reading preferences, a scratch pad of your most recent thoughts, whatever happens to be going on in your gmail account, the current weather where you live (it just knows), and everything else in the fucking world right in a little bar on the right of your screen. Your life will grind to a halt and you will worship Google. The difference between running this program and not running it is the difference between turning your computer on and unplugging it and taking it into the shower with you. Computing, as you know it, is over.

But here’s the question: why the hell didn’t Microsoft do this back in 1990 when I did? They had people who already knew assembly language! They’ve had the technology all along to give us instantaneous comprehensive search and they’ve squandered it. This is what Google has accomplished. With only surface access, no hooks into the operating system, no access to the origins of the data at hand (that is, we didn’t supply meta information up front), not even massive outside computing resources, they’ve taken this machine, one I paid hard-earned money for, and made it do exactly what it should have been doing all along. They took a seemingly insurmountable challenge and made it into a trivial operation. That is not only the definition of success, but the definition of genius.

Global Luke Warming

How the hell did we go from total denial of global warming to total bored acceptance of it in one Republican administration? I mean it’s a similar kind of sleight of hand to the whole political correctness movement, or Iraq, or any number of other things where the sudden reversal from the big lie to the big truth just leaves us stunned and apathetic. But it’s still shocking that everyone, everywhere, in every medium just suddenly has this ho-hum attitude about the whole thing. Like it’s a done deal. Nothing we can do, just have to sweat it out. I’d admit to the character flaw of trying to inhabit the reality-based community if I believed there was such a thing.

I Really Hope That’s Not a Baby

Yeah, right there, between the crushed stroller and the hastily-abandoned car seat. Apparently all hell broke lose when a school district attempted to virtually give away their entire inventory of four-year-old Apple iBooks. Perhaps before decommissioning the machines, the school administrators might have used them to look up such salient terms as “lottery,” “sealed bid” and “silent auction” on the Internet. Still, they have spiffy new Dell machines on which to read about the riot they facilitated, so who cares? Don’t miss the attached photo essay, in particular the looks on the faces of the frenzied mob. Clearly they believe this is their finest hour.

I’m starting to think maybe Virginia is the new Florida.

Bring Back the Dials?

These are notes I made that never really became a blog post, but I wanted to get them out there, mostly so I’d have them when I looked back…

In this article, the author makes a fairly compelling, and I have to say pretty obvious, observation that for a limited set of functionality, analog controls are more “natural” for humans to use than digital controls. Analog controls lend themselves more readily to the kind of kinesthetic learning our brain-body system is best at (think: riding a bike–initially frightening, eventually trivial). And I agree that controls you’re actually going to use often should be right there on the outside of the camera, not buried deep in some menu structure.

The point this article misses is that dials are expensive. My old Canon (film) SLRs had great interfaces and controllability. But to make analog controls versatile and robust requires a lot of added complexity and weight. Yes, even the cheapest Polaroids had a brightness wheel, but it wasn’t to make the user happy. Remember, Polaroid had a lock on both the camera and the film. The film had narrow exposure latitude, so if you wanted to get the exposure just right you had to play with the wheel. And keep taking pictures with each new setting. The brightness wheel was there to make you spend more money on film! This was an “expensive” feature the manufacturer could add and actually make money. This doesn’t work with digital cameras, where the film is effectively free.

As well as being cheap, menus also level the usability playing field. This is the whole point of the GUI menu metaphor. This is why anyone can sit down at a Mac and use it pretty much instantly. It’s also why, 10 years later, they won’t have gotten much more efficient at using the thing. Menus trade away any hope for long-term kinesthetic efficiency for up-front, instantaneous functionality. Look again at the bicycle metaphor–menus reduce the initial terror, but they’re like training wheels that never come off. This was exactly the debate we had back in 1990 when word processors started switching from key commands to menus. You used to have to take a class to learn how to use Wordstar, but after that you could touch type everything, every command, every font function. Of course the invention of the mouse and software with 20 times as many features virtually ended the key-command paradigm. We’ve retained the obvious cut, paste and Ctrl-S, but who remembers the key command for double spacing or numbered list? One notable exception is Photoshop. A Photoshop neophyte never touches the keyboard; an expert uses it a lot.

Which I think cycles us back to the original implied questions: how much functionality do you need, how usable do you want it, and how much are you willing to pay? Experts will pay the money up front and put in the time at the beginning to get great equipment and learn how to use it. A $200 digital camera is not for these people. A $900, four-pound digital camera covered in indestructible dials and levers is, but that’s really not what most people want or need. Ultimately, I think this author has a somewhat empty complaint–he wants professional equipment a consumer prices. He sees a way to achieve this: drag consumers kicking and screaming up toward demanding professional features. I think this has already happened. You’ll find the results in the $400 to $600 range where you have a thousand features, a big menu and only one dial built into the cameras. On top of the base cost of attaching a lens to a CCD, the extra features cost you $300, the dials another $300, and the high-end consumer sweet spot is right there in the middle.

Global Climate Change on the Horizon? Dude, We’re There!

So I’m reading this article about the strategic planning the Pentagon is doing for the day when global warming starts killing a bunch of people and we really do have to go to war with the whole world to ensure our survival (you know, as opposed to right now, where we do it for sport). And I read this paragraph that says global warming will cause an ice age and “worse, it would cause massive droughts, turning farmland to dust bowls and forests to ashes.” Massive droughts? Dust bowls? Equatorial forests burned to the ground? That’s like so last century.

Also, I kind of take issue with the whole global warming causes ice ages thing. Not because it’s counter-intuitive, which actually works in its favor as a theory, but because it smacks so hard of wishful thinking. I mean we know that biologically, as a species and a planet, we’re capable of surviving an ice age. We’re pretty sure we can’t survive a runaway greenhouse effect, so why even bring it up, I guess.