Category Archives: Geek Stuff

End of a (Keyboard) Era

Today, I’m replacing my workstation keyboard. Not really a big deal, until you consider I’ve been using the same one for 16 years. In 1994, Microsoft released their Natural Keyboard, and after I had tried it at the local computer store, I was hooked.  I know, I know, Microsoft!  But, despite the fact that I, er, dislike their software, for some reason they tend (tended?) to make great hardware.  I bought one, and in the next few years would buy 2 more. Nice and solid, the typing feel and the ergonomics were always perfect for me, and I quickly realized I needed one for my campus office (I was still a student working part-time at a great sysadmin gig in one of the departments), one for home, and one for my workstation at a new start-up I was spending more and more time at.

My original MS Natural Keyboard

That the original one I bought has lasted this long is not only a testament to how well these things were built, but also a fortunate thing for me: in 1999, Microsoft changed the design such that the keys were smaller and the feel was very mushy.  I had been hoping to upgrade, but just 30 seconds on the new one and I took an instant dislike to it.

One of the three stopped working some time ago, and this one is showing signs of wear: some of the keys are just sitting loose after several disassembles for cleaning, and some keys aren’t contacting as well as they should be (a well-used and worn shift key chief among them), so I’m finally taking the plunge.  This is fuelled by a couple of things: first, I’m starting to find other keyboards that I like (despite what it looks like, the new thin Apple Mac keyboard is quite nice), and switching back and forth is a still a little jarring. Second, the connector is still the PS/2-style and computers with those ports are getting rarer to find; I’d rather adjust now before being forced into it. I’m not going too far though: I’ve chosen the Logitech Desktop Wave. Even though the two halves of the keyboard aren’t physically separate, the keyboard is still curved, which I think (hope) is the main reason I like the Natural (I’m a little fearful that part of the reason for my affinity to the Natural *was* the physical split, but like all things, it’s probably just a matter of getting used to it).

One last note: the upper right-hand side of my Natural has an interesting feature: a “linux inside” “sticker” (ok, not a sticker, it’s stuck on there with 16-year-old scotch tape).  Around the same time I got the keyboard, my friend and mentor PJ had come across a postscript file with nice renderings of “linux inside” done in the style of Intel’s “intel inside” logo that they were using.  The keyboard had, of course, the Microsoft name stencilled in the upper corner, and we couldn’t have *that*, so I seized the opportunity.  I think I might miss that as much as the actual keyboard!  Oh, one other thing I will miss: the look on most people’s faces when they come to my office to change their passwords, look down at my keyboard, and realize they’re going to have to try to type on this thing! I’ve had several comments over the years although everyone seems to manage ok.

I’ll probably follow this post up at some point with an update on how things are going, especially as the new keyboard has a bunch of special keys and controls on it, so it might be interesting trying to get this to work on Linux, but I’m thinking I may be pleasantly surprised…we’ll see.

My Thoughts on the New Star Trek Movie (Spoiler-free!)

“Come, come, now, Scotty. Young minds, fresh ideas.”
“Aye, and if my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a wagon.”

Kirk, Scotty; Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
(line order reversed deliberately)

The new Star Trek movie by J.J. Abrams was always intended to be a so-called reboot of the franchise, an opportunity to take the Star Trek universe in a direction that would allow for new ideas in a familiar setting. I went into this movie really excited at the potential of this, but came out pretty disappointed: as a long-time, details-oriented fan, there were too many changes for me to accept, and for reasons I can’t yet put my finger on, it didn’t quite *feel* like a Trek movie.

I grew up watching the original Star Trek series (in reruns: I’m not quite *that* old!), and from there, moved into the novels which fleshed out the characters, and especially their pasts (many of the novels in my collection deal with the time before the 5-year mission). From there came the first 4 movies (Star Trek V? I’m pretty sure they didn’t make that one…), and then it started: The Next Generation (TNG). At first I was skeptical: “that’s not really Star Trek”. But it grew on me, and they did a pretty good job of referencing things that had come before. I watched (and re-watched) every TNG episode. When Deep Space Nine started, I was watching, and liked what they did with it, but I don’t think I saw much of the last season. Then came Voyager, and I watched some episodes, mostly in the first season. While they had a great concept, the execution didn’t really hold up for me. I saw even fewer episodes of Enterprise (a show I really wanted to like), mostly because they started to take liberties with what had come before.

What has to be understood is that there isn’t just the shows, the movies and the novels. People invested into this universe in a big way (geek alert!): there were time-lines, technical manuals, and lots of meta-information that either pulled from canon (the accepted authoritative body of work), or became so. At that point, for the people who were paying attention, there was an enormously detailed universe available. Of course, that can be a curse too: there were inconsistencies, and it becomes increasingly difficult to write well in such a universe.

So while one might not blame Mr. Abrams for not wanting to bring along all this baggage, the trade-off is throwing out 40 years of world-building, and throw it out he did. Interestingly, the one thing that would have saved this movie for me (and I honestly sat through more than half the movie hoping this would happen) was if they had employed the classic Trek (and others!) device of a reset of the original time-line once the major plot-point was resolved. Of course, that would preclude sequels using the world that was built for this movie.

As for the film-making itself, I went in prepared for the shaky camera and the lens flares. The shaky camera I didn’t really notice, but the lens flares were way over-done, and became annoying after the first few minutes. I think they (overly-) contributed to portraying a bright, shiny future, but the movie failed to capture the traditional, idyllic Utopian setting which characterizes early Trek. (Oh, and Mr. Abrams? With all of those easter-eggs/references/in-jokes you put in there, to have *that* many pipes in engineering, and *not* label any of them “GNDN” was just a major oversight!)

One quick note about the characters: even accepting that this is a new Trek universe we’re dealing with, and there will be changes to the familiar characters, I really didn’t like the new histories of Kirk and Spock, especially Kirk – something just felt wrong, even if it did serve to explain later motivation, and trying to reconcile this with the fact that these were supposed to be familiar was … jarring.

This movie is an opportunity for a new generation of fans to experience Star Trek, and that’s not a bad thing. I do feel sorry for them if they then want to go back to experience the last 40 years: they’re going to be a little confused. For me, when they make the sequel (and that’s pretty inevitable), I won’t be going to see it, and I’m not at all happy about that. I wanted to like this movie, wanted to have an excuse to get back into Star Trek. But I can’t help wondering, was this movie really necessary? I think about all of the wonderful, unexplored science fiction material out there, begging to be transformed into other mediums, and wonder if the money put into this film wouldn’t have been better spent bringing something new.

And This is Why I Don’t Use GUIs…

I just read that NetApp (a company that makes file servers that I have used and administrated for over 10 years, and really like) is yanking their current Graphic User Interface (GUI, which is web-based, and therefore usable on a wide variety of platforms), and replacing it with a “more modern interface”: a Windows application. This would normally be the point where you’d be expecting me to rail on Windows, but I’m not going to this time. The point here could have been made if they’d picked MacOS or something else: in going with a single platform (yes, ok, given the corporate norm, a platform representing the vast majority of NetApp admins), they went from allowing everyone to play, to making it inconvenient at best for people like me to use the interface.

Of course, the *real* point here is that I don’t use GUIs (assuming an alternative), so I will continue to administrate my filer the old-fashioned way, via a command line and config files, annoyed at NetApp’s decision, but unaffected by it.

More Social Networking For Me, Thanks to OSCON

Looking through my blog’s archive, I never did blog about my getting started with Facebook, but I’m blaming, er, crediting the 2008 O’Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON). They had put up a note that Facebook was to be the social network of choice for that year. Previously, I had been avoiding Facebook, but with that final nudge, I relented and created the account. And Facebook has been great for reconnecting with people, and glimpsing little bits of peoples’ lives you wouldn’t necessarily see.

There’s a new social networking concept that I’ve dabbled with, but never really got into, called “microblogging”. This is where you make short posts, usually only a sentence or two, or a link. The site that’s been around the longest and is the most successful is Twitter, and no, I do not have an account there. Yet.

I just finished reading an interesting entry on the TED Blog called “How To Talk While People are Twittering“, and it discusses an article on how, as a speaker, being aware of the backchannel communication of your audience can benefit both the audience and you. The point for me is that I’ve been going to OSCON for several years now, and it was only a few years ago that I discovered the traditional OSCON backchannel: IRC.  From that, many of the points this article enumerates, I know first-hand to be true.
So, going to the 2009 OSCON site, seeing that the very first icon in the list of social networks and media to be used this year is Twitter, I have very little doubt that in addition to IRC, Twitter is going to be heavily used and will be another great source of commentary and information (we *are* talking about a group of notorious early adopters).

I know I can easily follow the twittering without an account: there are lots of aggregators out there, but I’m guessing that I’ll create an account for 2 reasons: the first is to be able to participate in the discussion, and the second is that I’ve been saying for the last few years that I’ll blog the conference, and while last year I did ok, I don’t have the greatest track record. Twitter might not be great, in-depth prose, but it will be (micro) blogging, and it will provide a trail that will serve as a memory aid should I then go back and write real blog posts.

Look for me on Twitter. Coming Soon. Summer of ’09. Maybe before. 🙂

iPhone Update

Well, I’ve had my iPhone 3G a little over 2 weeks now, so I figured it was time for an update. There’s a few specific areas I’ll talk about, and finish with my fairly-short list of gripes.

Battery Life I’m going to go with the fact that my old devices were getting so bad, both in battery life and functionally, that a lot of the criticisms that people have about battery performance is not impacting me a whole lot. Yes, I have to plug it in daily, but one, I was already doing that for both my Blackberry and Palm, and two, I have power in my car, and I usually have it plugged into my laptop at my desk during the day, so that’s not usually an issue.

3G In addition to being in a pretty well-blanketed 3G area between New York and Philadelphia, my experience is that 95% of the time, I’m near a friendly access point, so the phone usually spends it’s time on 802.11g, rather than 3G. I’ve used EDGE only to test, and that was today (yup, I used EDGE for the first time today). The small amount of time I *have* been on 3G, the performance was adequate that I didn’t really notice a problem.

Typing I’ve already talked about this one in my last post, but I will say that I’m getting better, and it’s mostly alright.

Ok, I have to say (again) I’m really happy with this device, and am using it a lot. But nothing’s perfect, and here are a few of my major gripes. Cut-and-Paste is still the top of my list: I have needed this more often than I thought (but you usually notice absent things more, right?), and this really, really needs to be in the next update. Please? I’ve seen some great concepts for this.

I’m really not a fan of the newly-upgraded apps “forgetting” where the icon was, and putting it in the first available slot once the install finishes. Upgrading several apps at a time means spending the next little bit re-arranging everything again. Oh, and yes I know there are work-arounds, but there has to be a more efficient way to perform the backup when your syncing, right? I think my phone takes about 1/2 an hour to perform the backup.

For location-aware apps that provide a handy button to locate you on the map, why is there no hook in the Maps App to be told by what app is was called, and provide a “return to calling-app” button? Or if there is a hook, can that be documented so developers can start using it? I have several apps that suffer from this, and it’s kind of annoying.

One small thing, which kind of surprises me that either Apple or someone else hasn’t written: why is there no app that displays a summary: date/time, next appointment (or all remaining for the day), unread email/SMS message count, weather, etc? Even better would be to make it options for the lock screen. I’d love to see something like that.

This is a minor thing, but when you need it, and it fails, it fails badly: there are several instances where an app will display a list of stuff with a little round, blue icon with a white right-arrow in it. Two notable examples of this: the phone’s call list, and YouTube’s search results. The gripe is this: the target area for that button is *so* small, you’re almost always going to trigger the main function which, for the above two examples are “call the number”, and “play” respectively. Not great if you’re say, creating a new contact from your call list at 7am, or looking to simply bookmark a video slitting in a quiet auditorium (see my major rant about sound next). This target area really needs to be enlarged: I mean, how bad can it be to do so? The *entire rest of the line* is the trigger for the call/play function…

And now for my biggest gripe: sound. My Palm Pilot had different sound categories an app could be in, and when you pressed the speaker icon, you got a mixer that would allow you to individually control the volumes of each category, including a mute button for each one, and a master mute. As I’ve experienced, there does seem to be different categories for things that make sounds: the ringer/alerts (including SMS and mail), games/3rd party apps, YouTube, and the iPod. So why is it that when I switch the “ring/silent” switch (yes, I do realize it’s the “ringer” switch) to “silent”, it doesn’t mute everything? Expecting that, I was annoyed to hear a YouTube video make sound when I didn’t expect it to. Oh, and both the iPod and YouTube don’t even seem to remember the previously running volume state, resetting to 95% of full. I wonder if it would be possible for a developer to write a mixer app that covers the various sound-making apps.

The last thing I’ll mention has nothing to do with the hardware, but rather providers. Volumes have already been written on this subject, including the guy who got hit with a multi-thousand dollar data roaming bill, but why is roaming (and in this case, I’m limiting myself to traveling from the US to Canada, where I’m going next week) so expensive? I did a small test, whereby I put the phone on the EDGE network only, reset the usage counter, and for 10 minutes, used it “normally”: a couple of emails came in, I answered a couple, I used the Facebook app to update my status (which downloads my friends’ statuses as well), I used the Maps with GPS for a bit (including looking at some satellite imagery), I took a picture and uploaded it to my Flickr account, and there was probably some web access in there too. At the end of that, I checked the usage counter, and calculated, based on the “preferential” rate for roaming in Canada at $0.015/Kb, that that would have cost me $45. Excuse me? That basically makes the thing useless on my trip, and the “Enable 3G” and “Data Roaming” sliders will be firmly remaining in the “Off” position. Nice device, too bad I can’t use a lot of it traveling…

So that’s it: 2 weeks in, and I’m hooked: I’ve been playing with some quality free apps, the overall performance of the device is good, and even the most major of my gripes can be fixed in software, and not even necessarily from Apple. Oh, and not having to carry four devices is *wonderful*.

One final, amusing note: I tried to call AT&T today to inquire about international roaming. I tried several numbers (two 800 numbers and 611 from my phone). Each time, I navigated to a different part of their menu tree, and every time I got to an option to speak to a human, there would be a pause, some clicking, following by the “number not in service” tri-tone. I could not find a way to actually speak to a human there, and it would seem that the telco couldn’t configure their phone systems properly. Ah, who am I kidding – it was probably deliberate.