Mirror, Mirror…

May 3rd, 2014

Michael Teeuw has made himself a Magic Mirror:

[…] I started to figure out what was needed: a mirror, a thin monitor, a Raspberry Pi, some wood and paint, and lots of spare time.

The Mirror.

Now, a regular mirror would not work. The mirror needed to be semi transparent. Or to be more precise: it should behave like a mirror when the screen behind it was black, and should behave like a regular glass window when information is displayed on the screen.

This is the same idea how a mirror in a police interrogation room works. When only one room is light, it behaves like a mirror. Otherwise it’s a regular glass window.

What i needed was a observation mirror. Now, believe me when i say you’ll be asked weird questions when you ask a glass salesmen for an observation mirror. They are probably have even more creative minds … Oh well, a dirty mind is a joy forever.


Anyway, eventually I was able to get my hands on a nice piece of observation mirror: let the fun begin!

Me, I'm not so bothered about the mirror part of the equation. It makes for a neat visual effect, but it'd feel as if I was running a desktop PC with a picture of me as the wallpaper, which just seems weird. I look forward to the day when we can buy thin displays in large enough sizes at cheap enough prizes that every room can have a decent-sized 'status display/dashboard', all connected wirelessly to a local web server and displaying the content of my choice.

[Via The Tao of Mac]

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' … the most lunatic thing I've seen on a piece of silicon since I found out the MIPS architecture had runtime-mutable endianness.'

February 17th, 2014

I bookmarked Mike Hoye's Citation Needed weeks ago but never got round to posting a link here. Unfortunately I've forgotten where I came across the link to this piece in the first place, but I can't let that stop me. If this is the sort of thing you like, you'll enjoy this a lot:

"Should array indices start at 0 or 1? My compromise of 0.5 was rejected without, I thought, proper consideration." – Stan Kelly-Bootle

Sometimes somebody says something to me, like a whisper of a hint of an echo of something half-forgotten, and it lands on me like an invocation. The mania sets in, and it isn't enough to believe; I have to know.

I've spent far more effort than is sensible this month crawling down a rabbit hole disguised, as they often are, as a straightforward question: why do programmers start counting at zero?

Now: stop right there. By now your peripheral vision should have convinced you that this is a long article, and I'm not here to waste your time. But if you're gearing up to tell me about efficient pointer arithmetic or binary addition or something, you're wrong. You don't think you're wrong and that's part of a much larger problem, but you're still wrong. […]

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February 15th, 2014

I can't help but think that the Lockitron is a solution in search of a problem:

Lockitron is the first device that lets you lock and unlock your door from anywhere in the world using any phone, all while installing on your door in under a minute. With Lockitron you can instantly share access with your family and friends, on a temporary or permanent basis. Lockitron will even send you alerts when a loved one comes home or someone knocks at the door.

If I want to "share access" to my house with family and friends I'm not sure that using the internet to do it is inherently superior to handing them a spare key or, you know, inviting them to ring the doorbell so I can let them in.

[Via bb-blog, via swissmiss]

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June 26th, 2012

Jean-Louis Gassée's latest Monday Note shares with us an image forwarded by a colleague which neatly sums up how Microsoft's recently announced Surface tablet PC aims to turn the world of portable computing as we know it upside down:


To be fair, you could draw a similar diagram showing how Apple's current iMac designs – the ones with the computer built into the screen, with nothing on your desktop but your keyboard and trackpad/mouse and possible a cradle for your iPod – pulled off a similar shift in weight distribution by comparison with the traditional beige-box-with-a-monitor=perched-on-top desktop PC.

The difference being that you aren't often forced by circumstances to try to balance an iMac on your knees while typing on the keyboard.1

  1. Obviously, sensible people will leave the keyboard off in such circumstances and just use the Surface's on-screen keyboard. But you just know that a subset of Surface users will give in to the temptation to try and get away with using it like a conventional laptop until they learn their lesson.

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Das Keyboard

April 15th, 2012

Based on Justin Williams' review, I very much want a Das Keyboard for my Mac:

[…] The Das Keyboard is a throwback to the days of loud, mechanical keys that came with the computers you used in previous decades. Mechanical keys give this feeling of satisfaction as you're typing. The keyboard itself is insanely large and has a substantial weight to it. It feels really well built and worth the amount of money I spent on it. It's got a full keyboard, number pad and even two full-powered USB ports on the side. The only thing missing from this throwback is the PS/2 or ADB cable at the end.

So… how does it type?

Amazingly. […]

Not that I can justify spending money on a new keyboard right now, but still…

[Via carpeaqua]

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Companion Species

April 8th, 2012

BERG's Matt Jones on the human race's newest companion species:

They see the world differently to us, picking up on things we miss.

They adapt to us, our routines. They look to us for attention, guidance and sustenance. We imagine what they are thinking, and vice-versa.

Dogs? Or smartphones? […]

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The future might be here

March 30th, 2012

LG has started mass producing flexible, plastic e-ink displays.

What we need now is for some consumer electronics company1 with deep pockets to buy a huge quantity of these things, give some talented programmers and user experience types their head, and present the world with a genuine alternative to the Kindle. Just for a start.23

[Via kottke.org]

  1. Preferably not Apple.
  2. Obviously it's nothing like that straightforward. What operating system do you use? Do you fork Android? License WebOS from HP? Do you build an App Store from the start, or concentrate on bundling decent e-reader and web browsing apps and then build a software ecosystem once you've got some users? Where will users get their content from? All excellent questions. But if there are no good answers then we're stuck for the next few years in a world where portable computing for the masses is dominated by Apple's tablet computers and a gaggle of alternatives led by Amazon's Kindle range hoping for Apple to stumble, and that's not a terribly appealing vision of the future of personal computing.
  3. Heaven help me, I'm almost wishing Microsoft would lead the charge, because they at least have deep enough pockets and sufficient bloody-mindedness to persevere. But then I remember the Zune. Oh well…

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Jittering and cheating

March 26th, 2012

Mike Solomon, one of YouTube's original engineers, has learned a great deal about scalability over the last seven years:

Jitter – Add Entropy Back into Your System
[…] Systems have a tendency to self synchronize as operations line up and try to destroy themselves. Fascinating to watch. You get slow disk system on one machine and everybody is waiting on a request so all of a sudden all these other requests on all these other machines are completely synchronized. This happens when you have many machines and you have many events. Each one actually removes entropy from the system so you have to add some back in.

Also (this one is my favourite)…

Cheating – Know How to Fake Data
[…] The fastest function call is the one that doesn't happen. When you have a monotonically increasing counter, like movie view counts or profile view counts, you could do a transaction every update. Or you could do a transaction every once in awhile and update by a random amount and as long as it changes from odd to even people would probably believe it's real. Know how to fake data.

[Via Snarkmarket]

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Portable cathedrals

March 17th, 2012

Dan Hill's review for Domus of the already-defunct Nokia N9 serves both as a requiem for an elegant smartphone and as a reminder that there's more that one approach to designing mobile computers:

Imagine an inverted pyramid representing the Apple mobile product line, with the MacBook Pro at the top, moving down into the Macbook Air, then down again into the IPad, before miniaturizing further into the iPhone at the apex. Each step down the 'computer-ness' diminishes and the 'phone-ness' increases, yet Apple takes its knowledge of building computers and runs it through the entire stack, with iOS simply a version of MacOS. As a result, the flexibility and efficiency of its software is evident at each stage, just as integration is enabled up and down the pyramid. This strategic alignment has an impact on consistency of functions, interactions and integration, yet also the operational requirements of device maintenance, code libraries, and battery life.

Nokia has been effectively starting at the bottom of the pyramid, the phone, and trying to move up. (To be fair, when they started, there was no pyramid above the phone.) […]

[Via cityofsound]

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USB Typewriter

January 9th, 2012

The USB Typewriter is a hilariously anachronistic yet strangely beguiling piece of kit.1

I strongly suspect the image of an iPad strapped to the USB Typewriter is causing the late Mr Jobs to do somewhere in the vicinity of 200rpm even as I type this.

[Via Memex 1.1]

  1. Personally, if I were in the market to replace my eight year old Mac keyboard with something a little louder I'd be inclined to look for a way to hook up my Mac Mini to an IBM Model M keyboard, for nostalgia's sake. Be sure to listen to the audio of the sound of a Model M in action on that page: what a glorious racket!

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Searching and browsing (and tapping and holding)

December 6th, 2011

In the course of a post about Browsing vs. Searching, user interface guru Bruce Tognazzini touches on something central to the experience of using the current generation of Apple software:

[…] Instead of working to make everything visible to the user, Apple's industrial and graphic designers, now fully in command, are doing just the opposite: Apparently bereft of even the barest knowledge of behavioral (HCI) design, they have busied themselves hiding everything they can, increasing visual simplicity at the expense of actual simplicity. Then, they pretend both to themselves and to us that the only instruction you'll ever need for an iPad is, "Turn it on." iPad users are left to stumble around, trying to find the things they need to get their work done, things so carefully hidden that without a friend to help them, they are unlikely to ever find them.

Case in point: At some point in the past, perhaps the distant past, Apple added the capability to jump from letter group to letter group by holding down on the letter column, rather than just stabbing at your letter of choice (and usually missing). After four years of using iDevices, during the course of writing this column, I accidentally held down for a second on an alpha character, causing the slide bar to appear. I never knew before that moment that hold-and-slide even existed in Contacts. Principle: If a capability is not visible and the developer does not teach that capability, it may as well not exist.

Damned straight! I had no idea the slide bar existed until I read that last paragraph earlier this evening.

I like iOS, I really do, but it's a crying shame that the most usable portable computers I've ever owned were designed by Palm1 and Psion2 back in the 1990s.

Come on Apple, you can do better than this…

[Via Daring Fireball]

  1. I loved my Palm IIIx and Tungsten T. The T5 was prettier and had better hardware specs, but by then PalmOS was clearly running out of steam.
  2. My Psion Series 3c was the best-engineered portable hardware I've ever owned. The Psion Series 5 came with tremendously capable software, but it wasn't as robust, and it was orphaned when Psion decided to concentrate on making software for smartphones.

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Wanted: some angry nerds

December 4th, 2011

Jonathan Zittrain declares that the PC is dead. Which would be fine, if only the smartphones and tablets that are ushering in the post-PC era weren't so locked down:

[…] Rising numbers of mobile, lightweight, cloud-centric devices don't merely represent a change in form factor. Rather, we're seeing an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other – and even those who keep their PCs are being swept along. This is a little for the better, and much for the worse. […]

[Via The Brooks Review]

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Future Drama

November 22nd, 2011

Future Drama: a compilation of designers of the (mostly quite recent) past's visions of the future, with a particular emphasis on videos depicting futuristic technology being deployed in real world situations.

You know the sort of thing: currently the trend is to depict elegantly dressed rich people toting around ultrathin tablet computers that they control via touch interfaces (often with some form of holographic display) whilst engaged in their job as a knowledge worker and/or high powered executive. Back at their hotel room after a hard day's collaboration, they use the device as a fancy videophone to chat with their cute pre-teen daughter back home about how school went today. 1 2 3

I snark, but I do find this sort of speculative work fascinating. Also, the Matt Jones blog post that pointed me in this direction is well worth a read: I've always seen this sort of video as a marketing tool aimed at gaining mindshare, but he's found that for designers placing their ideas on screen in the context where they'll be used can be immensely valuable, insofar as it helps them assess whether their ideas 'fit' in the real world. Good stuff.

[Via Comment #4 on a post at BERG Blog. TED Talk on a real-world Minority Report user interface via Wikipedia]

  1. Just like how ten years ago the future was going to involve lots of sharply dressed rich people organising their work and their lives via big screens employing Minority Report-style user interfaces whilst engaged in their job as a top executive or senior knowledge worker. Back at their hotel room after a hard day's collaboration, they'd use the device as a fancy videophone to chat with their cute young daughter back home about how school went.
  2. By contrast, fifteen years ago, our senior knowledge worker executive would have been using a stylus-based tablet that seamlessly and instantaneously translated their handwriting into computerised text ready to email to their bosses over the internet, whilst also displaying a pop-up reminder to call their daughter when they got back to the hotel.
  3. I can't help but notice that none of these devices ever has a red battery power indicator blinking away in one corner, reminding the user that they need to find a USB socket some time in the next thirty minutes if they want to keep using it. Funny, that…

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Open prisons

November 14th, 2011

"In theory" is one of the scariest phrases in the world of computing. Take this story about vulnerabilities in the computer systems used to run some federal prisons in the USA:

While the computers that are used for the system control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems that control prison doors and other systems in theory should not be connected to the Internet, the researchers found that there was an Internet connection associated with every prison system they surveyed. In some cases, prison staff used the same computers to browse the Internet; in others, the companies that had installed the software had put connections in place to do remote maintenance on the systems.

[Emphasis added]

[Via Bruce Schneier]

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September 14th, 2011

Consider Alexis Madrigal's thought experiment:1

Imagine you've got a shiny computer that is identical to a Macbook Air, except that it has the energy efficiency of a machine from 20 years ago. That computer would use so much power that you'd get [Redacted] of battery life out of the Air's 50 watt-hour battery […]

Try guessing the number that I removed from that passage before clicking through to the article itself.

[Via kottke.org]

  1. NB: for the first – and only – time on this site I've used a URL shortener to obscure the original URL of a link, because the original link's URL gives away the answer to the question. In the event that Bit.ly ever goes away, the original URL is here.

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Best observed from a safe distance

September 13th, 2011

The Cooling Kludge:

Alex's phone interrupted dinner with his Fiancée. It was the office. Again. The phone server had gone down, and that meant callers were being greeted with a busy signal instead of the friendly auto-attendant. As one of the few employees capable of toggling a server power switch, Alex asked for a doggy bag and headed to the office to reboot the server.

It was the third weekend in a row that the phone server had gone down, and Alex was getting a little tired of the mid-weekend interruptions. He didn't mind providing the occasional off-hour support, but this was getting a little out of hand.

"Don't worry," his boss assured him on Monday, "I've figured out the problem. It's heat ventilation, and I'm taking care of it today!" […]

Call me a wuss, but when the 'solution' involves situating a 25 gallon tub of water in close proximity to a server closet full of expensive electronic equipment I reckon a rethink might be in order.

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Zombie PCs

August 24th, 2011

Brian S Hall on Microsoft and the foo fighters, wherein Microsoft's Corporate VP of Microsoft Corporate Communications tries to persuade the world that the (Windows) PC has a vibrant future ahead of it:

In the past year, and again in the past few weeks, I've seen a resurgence of the term "post" applied to the PC in a number of stories including The Wall Street Journal, PC World and the Washington Post. Heck, I even mentioned it in my 30th anniversary of the PC post, noting that "PC plus" was a better term.

Translation: Everyone but Microsoft, even staid old media, has come to accept that the PC is dead.

Nothing draws more links and eyeballs than saying something is a foo-"killer" or that foo is "dead." That's human nature and part of the way we like our stories, simple and straightforward, black and white.

Translation: Or beige, as in the case of that PC gathering dust in your house.

A new thing shows up, kills the old thing, end of story. But in the world of technology, it's rarely (but not never) that clear cut. Most of the time, in fact, new objects enhance and complement the things we've already got. They don't replace them.

Translation: Those that do the "enhancing" and "complementing" wind up earing all the money. Microsoft will still be around. Just not making any new money.

I truly don't think the PC is dead, whether it runs Windows or Mac OS X or Linux. There are still times when some of us need a big screen and a hardware keyboard and a lot of mass storage: it'll be a while yet before I can access the sort of quantities of data I have sitting on my Mac Mini's hard disk over a wireless connection at acceptable speeds wherever I go. It's just that relatively few of the niftiest new toys will be designed for the PC any more.

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Better left unposted?

August 22nd, 2011

Unedited Thoughts About Technology:


The most mindblowing thing in technology right now is your inability to make products that people love (with very few exceptions). Brilliant, creative people work for you, and they have seriously incredible ideas. You have more money than Jesus Christ's rich uncle. I have these crazy high expectations, these hopes that you'll blow me away and you totally let me down. Just try making something other than an Xbox that I can fall madly in love with, and that more than 5 other people will buy because you didn't wait until 3 years after the rest of the market to launch it? Please? Also: I can't fucking believe you won't have a real tablet until 2012. I guess we can use it to liveblog the end of civilization. It better be so good Jesus Christ himself rides down to earth on it, if you're going to take that long. People like Skype, though, and Windows 8 looks alright maybe, so good job there. I guess.

[Via LinkMachineGo!]

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History of the Button

July 30th, 2011

Bill DeRouchey's presentation from last year's South By Southwest Festival on the History of the Button1 illustrates how the notion of what a button is, and what it does, has shifted over the last century or so. Which is a lot more interesting that I'm making it sound, I promise you!

[Via BERG Blog]

  1. That's pushbuttons, not buttons on clothing.

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May 30th, 2011

Quote of the day: Charlie Stross,1 quoting a character from his forthcoming novel, Rule 34

"The twenty-first century so far has been a really fucking awful couple of decades for paranoid schizophrenics".

  1. Prompted by a demo of NewsTweak.

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