This is BrainLog, a blog by Dan Sanderson. Older entries, from October 1999 through September 2010, are preserved for posterity, but are no longer maintained. See the front page and newer entries.

January 2010 Archives

January 31, 2010

Ian Fitzpatrick is blogging his way through Make: Electronics, similar to Jim Kelly but with video.

January 30, 2010

Fraser Speirs: Future Shock, welcoming the inevitability of iPad-style computing.

Yes but&mdash!

January 29, 2010

And Mark Pilgrim adds an essay defending the right to tinker.

Steven's essay nags at me, though. Those of us who started with an own-able machine and became programmers are married to that experience, but I don't think that's enough evidence to say kids who grow up without similarly own-able devices won't find their own way to loving the act of creating technology. Long before this became a debate, I wondered on behalf of my own kids whether modern machines were un-ownable simply because they were so complicated. All born tinkerers wonder how things work, but it's no longer so easy to find out how they work just by touching them.

To a certain extent, the Arduino is the Commodore 64 of the modern era, with the realization that the device you're programming doesn't have to be the same device you use to write the program. It's entirely plausible to program an Arduino or a Lego Mindstorms NXT brick from an iPad, and in fact that's an awesome idea and not at all disallowed by Apple's App Store policies. Seriously, LabView or the Arduino IDE running on the iPad. How awesome would that be.

One thing Steven doesn't address is the fact that iPad isn't just closed to a particular layer of usability abstraction, it's closed to the whims of a single company. If I have something I need to do that Apple doesn't like, I don't get to do it. This is different from not being able to run Emacs on my refrigerator. Apple banished a Commodore 64 emulator from the App Store—twice—because it exposed the Commodore 64 BASIC environment, the same environment that supposedly "made me" the high-paid all-powerful software engineer I am today.

Nobody has said the word "appliance" yet, and it seems worth connecting this new discussion with that old one. We "old world" folks have been talking about computers that can't do everything for a while, and even begging for one to give to our "new world" family members. I think the "old world" reaction to the iPad being closed is mostly just disappointment at a lost opportunity in functionality that can't be fixed in the same way as with a more open device (installing a third-party operating system). But we'll probably see a competitor take up the slack, assuming another company can get pretty close with the hardware.

One point of Mark's remains: If computing appliances replace the general purpose computer as the mainstream household device, fewer people will have access to own-able computers, and fewer people will be discovering technology through serendipity, as we did.

[Meta-note: I just noticed my blockquotes haven't been showing up as such in feed readers. That's now fixed.]

stevenf.com - I need to talk to you about computers:

When I think about the age ranges of people who fall into the Old World of computing, it is roughly bell-curved with Generation X (hello) approximately in the center. That, to me, is fascinating — Old World users are sandwiched between New World users who are both younger and older than them.

Some elder family members of mine recently got New World cell phones. I watched as they loaded dozens of apps willy-nilly onto them which, on any other phone, would have turned it into a sluggish, crash-prone battery-vampire. But it didn't happen. I no longer get summoned for phone help, because it is self-evident how to use it, and things just generally don't go wrong like they used to on their Old World devices.

New Worlders have no reason to be gun-shy about loading up their device with apps. Why would that break anything? Old Worlders on the other hand have been browbeaten to the point of expecting such behavior to lead to problems. We're genuinely surprised when it doesn't.

But the New World scares the living hell out of a lot of the Old Worlders. Why is that?

January 28, 2010

On the iPad

Alex Payne on the iPad:

The iPad is an attractive, thoughtfully designed, deeply cynical thing. It is a digital consumption machine. As Tim Bray and Peter Kirn have pointed out, it's a device that does little to enable creativity. As just one component of several in a person's digital life, perhaps that's acceptable. It seems clear, though, that the ambitions for the iPad are far greater than being a full-color Kindle.

The tragedy of the iPad is that it truly seems to offer a better model of computing for many people — perhaps the majority of people. Gone are the confusing concepts and metaphors of the last thirty years of computing. Gone is the ability to endlessly tweak and twiddle towards no particular gain. The iPad is simple, straightforward, maintenance-free; everything that's been proven with the success of the iPhone, but more so.

I had a really weird reaction to watching the creativity-oriented parts of the product demo. Brushes looked like tons of fun with the big canvas, and since you're expected to start from blank white, it is perhaps excusable that the only practical way to do something with a picture you created is to, uh, email it, I guess. And Schiller's iWork demo made it clear that you can get presentations, documents and spreadsheets to and from the device—through a synchronization feature built into the corresponding Mac applications, not a feature of the operating system. (I wonder how much the external video adapter for presentations will cost, and what connectors it will support, and if it'll play HD videos purchased on iTunes, and if it'll work at all.)

I got especially queasy watching Schiller manipulate a Keynote presentation. All at once, I thought this was a revolutionary new way to edit a visual document like a presentation, and a horrifying way to be expected to create one from scratch. A presentation especially is a document made up of dozens of other documents from other applications: pasted text, photos, videos. With iWork and the iPad, the only way to get these assets to the iPad is by bundling them into a presentation on my Mac and sync'ing it over. iWork for iPad may be an OK way to tweak an existing presentation the day before an event, but all that lovely touch screen potential is wasted if I'm actually trying to make something.

I seriously don't mind that the iPhone is a closed platform, if only because its place is as a supplement to an existing open computing environment. It's not as functional as it could be, but there are obvious tradeoffs that work out pretty well. I'm excited about possibly getting an iPad because I fully intend to keep my desktop and laptop computers. But each Apple product tells a story of how Apple sees everyday people using computers. The iPad and its successors have the potential to alienate the mainstream consumer from the ability to create. Making things is just not part of the story.

A possible saving grace: the Internet. Much like its Netbook and smart phone brethren, the iPad is a brilliant web access portal. The Internet has not yet reached its potential as a place to create things, ironically for some of the same reasons the iPad won't: you can't easily push data between applications or convert formats. But unlike the iPad, the potential is there. It might take us another decade, but the same developments that are making it easier to live without keeping our data on a computer's hard drive will make it easier to use closed devices like the iPad as general computing devices.

Stephen Fry on the iPad.

I have always thought Hans Christian Andersen should have written a companion piece to the Emperor's New Clothes, in which everyone points at the Emperor shouting, in a Nelson from the Simpson's voice, "Ha ha! He's naked." And then a lone child pipes up, 'No. He's actually wearing a really fine suit of clothes." And they all clap hands to their foreheads as they realise they have been duped into something worse than the confidence trick, they have fallen for what E. M. Forster called the lack of confidence trick. How much easier it is to distrust, to doubt, to fold the arms and say "Not impressed". I'm not advocating dumb gullibility, but it is has always amused me that those who instinctively dislike Apple for being apparently cool, trendy, design fixated and so on are the ones who are actually so damned cool and so damned sensitive to stylistic nuance that they can't bear to celebrate or recognise obvious class, beauty and desire. The fact is that Apple users like me are the uncoolest people on earth: we salivate, dribble, coo, sigh, grin and bubble with delight.

January 26, 2010

Lookwell!

(Via waxy.)

Seth Godin: Quieting the Lizard Brain:

"app.itize.us is a painstakingly curated presentation of the best produced and designed iPhone applications that are available for download via the App Store."

January 24, 2010

Project SIKULI, a Python-based UI scripting tool that uses a visual selection process for encoding UI actions. To tell the script to click on a button in a foreign UI, you take a screenshot of the region to click. Sikuli uses a visual recognition algorithm to find the screenshotted region to perform the action. This means it is likely to work with all visual applications, even those that don't have scripting hooks available to the operating system, like web pages. Easy and clever!

January 18, 2010

Khan Academy, a giant pile of 20-minute straight-to-YouTube lectures on math and science subjects. And they're not bad!

EEVblog #54 - Electronics - When I was a boy...:

Elenco still makes spring-terminal electronics kits for kids, but they're having some deserved success with the more modern Snap Circuits. I had a couple of the old style kits as a kid, including the ScienceFair Microcomputer Trainer, which I'm pleased to say I still own.

January 17, 2010

Annotated playthrough of Gimmick!, an obscure NES game. First of four parts embedded below, link goes to playlist with all four.

The author of the annotated video makes some great points along the lines of "more games should do this." Gimmick! itself looks insanely difficult, and seems to violate some fairness laws, not the least of which is you can complete the entire game and get a downbeat ending that doesn't resolve the story introduced by the opening sequence. The only way to complete the story is to find several extremely difficult secret rooms. The walkthrough above shows the happy ending; here is the sad ending (by a different guy, narrated).

(Via waxy.)

January 13, 2010

Jimmy Kimmel's show-long parody of Jay Leno [Hulu]. Probably not worth watching the whole thing, but if you got 20 minutes, watch up to Chevy's entrance. (Chevy also has commentary on the NBC situation.)

CL!CK: A LEGO Short Film:

Clever and inspiring short film, whose clever visual concepts are continued on LegoClick.com, an official Lego site whose purpose I have yet to ascertain. It appears to be a social media aggregator promoting Lego as an inspirational and educational toy, or just the Lego brand. Pretty, though.

January 9, 2010

Panic has released a 2.0 version of Unison, their Usenet news reader for Mac OS X. I really liked Unison 1.0, enough to write up detailed feature requests for muting sub-threads and such, and got positive responses from Panic, but I never expected they were actually willing to work on a 2.0 release. The new version is definitely gorgeous, with some user interface ideas that are obviously good, and some I'm optimistic will prove themselves. (I can't claim to read Usenet often enough to really push Unison to its limits, and I haven't yet tried to reproduce the inspirations for my years-old feature requests to see if new needs have been met.)

This just blew me away: their list multi-select UI uses a gradient over the span of a set. Love it!

Screenshot of Unison 2.0 demonstrating a neat background gradient effect in the thread list

January 8, 2010

The Boing Boing Guide to the 2010 Indie Games Festival. Video, playability details and descriptions of the 20 finalists.

Writer Jim Kelly is performing and blogging about every experiment in Make: Electronics, the excellent new beginners book on amateur electronics. Hey, I was gonna do that! :P

Make: Electronics is truly excellent, fresh in both approach and format. For sentimental reasons it saddens me a bit to say it, but this book indeed does take the crown from Forrest M. Mimms' Getting Started in Electronics as the book I'd recommend to children and beginning amateur adults as the first book to get.

A major feature of the book is full-color photographs. I continue to believe there's a need for high-quality multimedia approaches to this material, despite the existence of hundreds of websites on this subject. I'd been thinking of doing a blog like Jim's precisely for this reason, as an unofficial multimedia companion to the book.

Jim has also written or contributed to several excellent books on Lego Mindstorms.

January 7, 2010

Make: Online: Homebrew Digital 3D Movies, a short feature-rich article on rigging, filming and producing stereoscopic film with digital camcorders.

Related: I had wondered why I couldn't get the polarized film in two pairs of 3D glasses to block out all light when oriented at 90 degrees, so the uppy-downy light that gets through one pair is blocked by the 90 degree orientation of the other pair. It turns out I was thinking of linear polarization, and wasn't aware there was such a thing as circular polarization, which is used in modern 3D projection technologies.

The Third & The Seventh [Vimeo; make it full screen before playing], a gorgeous moody short film about a camera, its photographer, and the architecture of their surroundings. You can't tell just from looking at it, but the medium is part of the message: these images are completely computer-generated. All done by one guy, too.

Site for the film.

January 6, 2010

Movable Type 5.01, commercial and open source versions, are out! Not yet a feature on this site, but I'm looking forward to it. Congrats to 6A and the MT team!

Formica swarm robots, little robots that collaborate with each other using biological algorithms, will soon be available as a beginners kit. The design and firmware are open source and can be downloaded today. Build 20 and watch 'em go!

January 5, 2010

Google has launched the Nexus One, a kick-ass new Android mobile phone/computer, along with a simplified online purchasing experience that will include additional models of phone and a selection of carriers in the near future. Starting today, you can get a Nexus One bundled with a 2-year T-Mobile contract, or you can buy just the phone without a contract at a higher up-front price and use it with any GSM carrier (in the US, that's T-Mobile or AT&T; more options abroad).

By now most of us are familiar with the mobile phone business model: bundle the phone with a mandatory 2-year contract, then subsidize the up-front cost with the monthly cost. In many cases, you don't get a choice: buy it bundled with a contract or don't buy it at all. In some cases you can buy a phone without a contract, but since the cost of service isn't any different and the type of radio in the phone limits you to one or two carriers, there isn't much advantage in buying an unbundled phone. And the higher up-front cost and carriers' interest in selling contracts buries the option. That's the way it was.

With the Nexus One, Google and T-Mobile are making the contract/no-contract proposition explicit. Starting today, you can get a Nexus One bundled with a 2-year contract with T-Mobile for $179 and $79.99/month. Existing T-Mobile customers must qualify for upgrade pricing to buy the bundle. Or, you can buy a Nexus One without a contract for $529, which anyone can do at any time.

But check this: If you buy the device without service, you can get the same T-Mobile plan without a contract for $59.99/month. In other words, if you buy your own device, you won't have to pay again in the phone plan. (I suspect other carriers would do the same, but they don't advertise it.) This changes everything:

  • The total cost of a Nexus One with 2-year T-Mobile contract: $179 + $79.99 * 24 = $2089.76
  • The total cost of a Nexus One without a contract, plus the cost of 2 years of the same T-Mobile service with no contract: $529 + $59.99 * 24 = $1968.76

Pay for the phone up front, and you avoid a contract and save $121. To put it another way, the bundle is like buying the device on a 2-year installment plan at 22% interest, so you'd be better off putting it on a credit card and paying it down over the same period of time.

And if you still have a few months of an AT&T contract to finish, you can buy a Nexus One now with no contract, put your AT&T SIM card in it, and use it at EDGE data speeds, then switch to T-Mobile if and when you feel like it. Since you pay the same amount for the device regardless of when you switch, you might as well switch devices when you want to. And since the N1 isn't locked to a carrier, you can re-sell it if you decide to switch back to another device at any time.

By offering an equivalent-value no-contract no-subsidy plan, T-Mobile is separating the device from the carrier, which is great news for customers. In theory, only carriers that do the same will get to play that game, and that could lead to a level playing field that drives innovation of both the devices and quality of service.

But the carrier technology format (GSM vs. CDMA) is still a hurdle. iPhone users are stuck with AT&T even out of contract, and neither the iPhone nor today's Nexus One work with Verizon—though there will be a Verizon (CDMA) version of the Nexus One in Spring, according to Google's press event. With luck, eventually we'll have hybrid devices that are compatible with more carriers. And time will tell if AT&T is willing to advertise a less expensive month-to-month plan similar to T-Mobile's that would make AT&T an option for people that own their devices. (I wouldn't be surprised if they offer such a plan already but don't advertise it, might be worth a phone call.)

John Graham-Cumming anaylzes the Ikea LILLABO Train Set.

Replica of a high bay warehouse, using Lego and NXT components. Video is from LEGOWorld Zwolle, 2009:

How Good are UW Students in Math?, Cliff Mass.

Take Cliff's math assessment test yourself [PDF] (the missing diagram for 3b is a right triangle, angle α, a is adjacent, b is opposite, c is hypotenuse), then see how you compare to his Atmospheric Sciences 101 class [PDF].

January 4, 2010

Brad Graham has passed away at 41. I always felt lucky to have met Brad in person, and I'm sorry I didn't do it more often, or more recently. Brad was the curator of The Bradlands and had been blogging since '98.

If you knew Brad, be sure to check out this MeFi thread remembering Brad.

January 3, 2010

Wooden combination lock:

From woodgears.ca, naturally. I feel like I could learn a ton just by re-building some of Matthias's projects, and thankfully he publishes detailed plans for this purpose.

Also from Matthias: Beginning woodworking. Yes!

January 2, 2010

The importance of stupidity in scientific research, Martin A. Schwartz, Journal of Cell Science.

Top Gear: The Ariel Atom:

I'm not into cars or bikes, but if anything could get me into them, it's Top Gear. I need a savvy sarcastic Brit to review office chairs, or Lego, or whatever it is I'm into. Video games.