Saturday, October 24, 2009

Top 10 List: Microsoft Wins...

I'm a big-time Machead, and tend to only use Windows when I'm required to. Recently, though, I've been using it more; using it with Sound Forge 10 for sample editing, doing Processing development there and generally enjoying the system. It helps that my (now operational) HP Pavilion dv3 system is pretty sexy, and I bought an additional battery pack that will work for a reasonable period of time.

Anyway, in celebration of Windows 7 (which I'm going to pick up today, I think), I thought it would be fun to do a Top 10 list of Microsoft Wins. They get beat up for not being innovative, but some of their decisions have made modern computing the Good Thing that it is today. So here goes...

Top 10 Microsoft Wins (from my perspective):

10. Bing. I know, I know - it's an also-ran in the search department. But have you actually used it? It is so much superior to the Google "I paid for top spot, so you are going to get my link jammed into your face" results that it's ridiculous. Getting out of the habit of ""'ing is a little tough, but the Bing results page is exactly what I want. Oh, and it came complete with a great set of ads!

9. DirectX. There are a lot of anti-DirectX sentiments out there, but the only real competition is from a hodge-podge of OpenGL and other BS interfaces - none of them coordinated, and none of them particularly stable. By creating a system that is able to embrace all of the various media types, Microsoft has create a beast that not other system can match. Yeah, and don't talk to me about Apple's Core Whatever systems. Zzzzz....

8. Gaming for Adults. I hate to even mention this, because grown-up gaming is one of those things that nobody wants to talk about. A lot of people (including, for example, my wife) claim to hate computer games and all they stand for. But, of course, getting a chance to play FreeCell along with the morning cuppa coffee is acceptable. The fact is that the basic games that come with Windows are commercial quality monsters, and the Mah Jongg game that shipped with Vista makes me tear up. Just don't tell anyone I'm spending hours on the thing.

7. Super-broad hardware support. You know what? Sometimes I just need to use a touch-screen display. Or maybe a crazy new audio interface, bar code reading device or Blu-ray DVD burner. As much as I love Apple, I hate having to choose from their list of 20 printers or 3 display devices. When I have to do bleeding-edge hardware, I'm almost always using a Windows box.

6. SQL Server. I've got some friends that are running a development business that works with large document storage and support. They've used a number of database systems, and they now swear by SQL Server. The developer support is great, the database is super-stable and deployment is easy enough (once you get used to it). I remember the rocky roads with database development, and it is great to see a company like Microsoft take on this mundane utility. Also, it's nice to see someone give Oracle a run for their money.

5. Third party software vendor support. Any platform that can support Sony/Sonic Foundry, Cakewalk, Image-Line Software and other killer companies - and do so over a long period of time - is, by default, a winner. Think about Mac-only companies for a minute: Opcode, Casady & Greene and others suffered for hitching their wagon to the Mac OS. Makes me very worried for MOTU (a company with some of the nicest - and smartest - people in the world).

4. Corporate Determination. One thing that I really appreciate about Microsoft is their determination to stick with something, even when it doesn't seem to be working out. What (for the broadsheet press) seems like failure may be exactly what a vertical market needs - and Microsoft isn't willing to abandon this market on a whim. A good example is Windows Mobile. Right now, it is being written off as dead meat. But my wife's book business is built around this unit, and she has been able to continue upgrading over the years with very little pain. Imagine if she had built her business around a Newton, Go or other Superior Technology. Thanks, Microsoft, for sticking with the hard stuff.

3. Microsoft Office. I can hear the moans from here. Sure, it is pretty bloated, and 90% of the stuff you get is unneeded. For you. What about me? I use this package several hours a day, every day of my life. I have for the past many, many years. You will pry MS Office out of my cold dead hands, baby. This software rocks!

2. Scalable product development. Any co2pany that creates software to support server farms while still supporting Netbooks gets a tip of my cap. The Netbooks phenomena is really exciting, and there are a lot of people that are computer-mobile using teeny-tiny Windows boxes that can fit in their purses or glove boxes. Anything that gets more people using gear is OK by me.

1. The Visual Studio development environment. By creating a development system that empowers the programmer, they've created an environment that allows third-party developers succeed - no matter how they prefer to work. Visual Studio has defined the de facto work environment for programmers, and has forced XCode, Eclipse and others to chase their overwhelmingly useful environment.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Digital Resistance examined.

For our Tech Foundations class...:

In the time since Digital Resistance was published (in 2000), much has changed regarding the possibility of a digitally-based civil disobedience. Much of what was proposed by the CAE would now be characterized as “cyber-terrorism”, and has become the fodder for overwrought news reports and countless new security groups, both governmental and private. The process of having a person’s records be more valuable than their physical body is now complete, with illicit data capture now named “identity theft”.

As the global economy has become more centered around the Internet as a marketing and commerce center, governmental agencies have reacted by further criminalizing actions outside the norm. This has the effect of reducing the opportunities to mount effective (while still quasi-legal) resistance using computer- or network-based means.

As a result, the public face of digital resistance has changed – largely as a result of the crackdown on “hacker” behavior and the widespread theft/fraud present in E-commerce. Since this system is seen to be fragile, CD efforts that target the movement of goods or money are considered too intimidating to be effective. One area where CD has thrived – despite the CAE’s skepticism toward the media – is the movement toward presenting user-created media on public channels.

Recently, after a particularly corrupt election in Iran, local residents were able to shape global public opinion using updated versions of classic resistance techniques. With makeshift media tools (like cellphone video and photo captures) and homespun communications (including blog entries, YouTube videos and Twitter messages), the Iranian public burst forth with information that would otherwise have been unattainable.

In this case, the Iranian citizen-reporters found a willing audience for their information, and received worldwide attention for their cause. Because this resistance didn’t interfere with first-world commerce, because it was inexpensive to produce and display, and because it was directed at an already vilified governmental entity, the resistance movement was greeted with open arms and great praise.

This new form of resistance is flexing its muscles by “showing” revealing examples of systemic misuse and forcing transparency. A good example is the China Channel add-on for the Firefox browser. This tool allows a user to experience the level of censorship found among the Chinese populace. This provides an opportunity to see that the “borderless, nationless” Internet it limited by a government attempting to control data flow. China’s “Golden Shield” content blocking system is a constant overlord of incoming data, and will target users that search for or access “inappropriate” data.

Another example of forced transparency is the creation, by the Electronic Freedom Foundation of a TOS tracker. User advocates had been disturbed with the secretive way that Facebook, YouTube and other large companies could change their terms of service without any notification to end-users, and how this could easily lead to privacy concerns. By creating a program that would keep track of policies and user agreements, the EFF forced an improvement in transparency – without support or acknowledgement by the companies in their sights.

Recently, I was forwarded a link to an ACLU-based Facebook application that would show how a simple quiz could reveal much of my personal data to the quiz creator. I was shocked – not only my available personal data, but by how much of my friend’s data was also provided to the quiz creator. This forced me to change many of the privacy settings, mostly using the information on this site:

So, while digital resistance – especially against large-scale entities (both governmental and corporate) – has changed, there are still ways to cause change using digital means. By either co-opting the media (ala Iran) or making systems more transparent (ala China Channel, the EFF and ACLU), there are opportunities for cause change through digital means.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Design project - of a sort...

For our first design project, we were required to make something that wanted to be touched. I immediately know what I wanted to do - I'd seen some sorority girls wearing these funny antennae headpieces, and I wanted to do something similar that would also have sonification.

I decided on balls perched on top of bass guitar strings. Why that? Because I'd always liked the action of bass strings, and I thought that ball could provide an interesting bouncing action. My first prototype used little "superballs", with the bass strings poked into an eraser as a temporary base. It bounced around interestingly, but the superballs didn't really provide any sort of interesting sound.

What I really thought I would like is ping-pong balls, but wasn't sure how I would perch them on top of the bass strings. Finally, I found an answer using my Dremel tool and a steady hand. The balls made a nice popping sound when impacted, and they also made an interesting swishing sound when they rubbed together.

The base was the harder part. I wanted something that would transmit the sound well, but that I could manage to work with limited tools. Initially, I tried different types of tile, but they were almost impossible to drill mounting holes into. Finally, I settled on a sandwich of two cedar closet hangers. This was easy to work, and provided a way to route them to place the pickup and run the cable.

I tried a number of transducers, and settled on using a mini-speaker as a microphone. This picked up the sound transported by the cedar base, and I ran that into a mini-amp for amplification. I also made a little Max patch to create an augemented sound. The whole thing is called "Cloud Formation", with a weather-like audio output from the Max patch. It may look kind of crude, but it is really cool.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Many future Max-heads germinated today...

I had a chance to do a quick intro class on Max today. The Tech Foundations class at DU opened the door to me and let me do a quick patching introduction (with lots of participation). Everyone seemed to get it, and by the end of the class they were pointing out ways to improve the test patch, automate some of its functions and reduce the complexity of subpatches without any prompting on my part. I couldn't be happier. Thanks to Chris and the boyz for the opportunity.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

OMG!!! BoingBoing strikes a Hit!

Normally, a troll through BoingBoing is done for the sake of keeping up with the proto-Joneses, trying to see what ideas I shouldn't bother having anymore and watching the wacky world of Etsy without actually having to grace the site. Today, I was doing my slide-through when I happened on an entry about some hand-printed calendars with the artwork of Jim Flora.

Money flowed frictionlessly from my Paypal account to the Jim Flora Studios. The memories behind these pictures is so visceral I can taste it, and the artwork is to die for. He combines some of the twitchy visuals of Joan Miro with the vitality of 40's and 50's jazz and pop music to create the ultimate "Of A Time" album covers - ones that I would be happy to display anywhere I happen to be squatting.

Must see visuals.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fingers dirty with hardware

People that know me will know how weird this was...


Snake head eating the snake on the opposite side...

You know, it really had to happen. One of the hot button design items is the sketching process, where you draw (on paper, you know? with a pencil?) ideas quickly and crudely in an attempt to understand systems before you commit resources to development. It has become widely recognized as The Right Thing, primarily due to Bill Buxton's relentless support and PR. It is a formalization of work most people have done, but never really thought through, and is responsible for keeping designerly activity relevant in the age of RAD development and speed-to-market nervousness.

So you know that someone had to come up with a product that would eliminate the "ooooh, scary" drawing part of the equation while maintaining the low-fidelity output of the sketch. Welcome Balsamiq Mockups, a program that is about as user-friendly as the UI for Visual Basic, but with the scratchy output of a hand-drawn sketch. It's delightful to watch the company spokesman pop off an iTunes clone sketch in a manner of minutes, but watching the video also gave me pause.

How does sketching change when you have a toolbar/palette with 75 items? Will all of your sketches use standard interface tools (maybe with the addition of the occasional Cover Flow)? Isn't the point of the sketch that you might want to break out of the mold of conventional software design and do something radical? Somehow, I can't see Buxton buying into this product.

In trying to remember the sitename for Balsamiq, I had to Google it again this morning. Of course, one of the Google ads is for a new competitor, called Protoshare, that is a Web 2.0 version of roughly the same thing. I'm sure these guys would get in a fistfight over me saying that, but you've got to wonder about software that is designed to remove the user's fear of a pencil...


(title thanks to I Palindrome I from They Might Be Giants, the greatest band in the world...)

Friday, October 2, 2009

I recently had a discussion about how many young people have a desire to be famous, but don't want to be singled out. Maybe this movie should be required viewing for everyone that aches to be on a reality TV show, wants to become a YouTube star or really needs to see the flash bulbs in their eyes.

Good luck to the bunch of you.