Raspberry Pi!

I’m pretty psyched about these little guys. Can’t wait to play with this one. Here’s why I’m so interested in them:

  1. It’s cheap – While it’s not as cheap as a TI MSP 430 Launchpad, it’s cheap enough that I could break one and not cry too much about it. That’s amazing if you remember when a computer was one of the most expensive things a person could own besides a house and car just a matter of years ago.
  2. It’s a familiar stack – The problem with the TI MSP 430 or Arduino is that they require working in an unusual environment for many/most people. Arduino is intuitive, it’s beautiful, it’s fun. But it’s hardly familiar. The MSP 430 takes me back to a time when I was too young to code. Linux on ARM is really Linux. The stack is familiar. You can run modern scripting languages we use every day. The learning curve is awesomely non-existent. Python, Ruby, Perl, Ruby, Bash? All can be run on ARM.
  3. It’s power efficient – I’ve been playing with Linux on ARM hardware for a while now. It fascinates me. The hardware is cheap, but it’s also power efficient. These little guys run on almost nothing. They require no fans, they generate almost no heat (which is energy remember). PC’s use lots of power. ARM doesn’t. Leave it on, run it like a tiny desktop server. Use it for tasks where it’s not worth leaving a PC on. It’s awesome.
  4. Encourages Innovation – Nothing encourages innovation like a low barrier to entry. $35, an Ethernet cable and a small cheap SDHC card and I’ve got a dedicated computing device that can hook up to any modern TV or display. For a few more dollars I could get a Bluetooth or USB WiFi adapter. In almost no time at all I can put something useful on there as it’s a familiar and well established software stack. Nothing encourages good or bad ideas like a low barrier to entry. Hardware wise, this is about as low as you can get right now. It’s the Cloud Computing or VPS of hardware.

Tiny ARM hardware can change the world. You could put internet enabled gadgets anywhere. Want to have a Twitter account that tweets every time the refrigerator is opened? That circuitry isn’t terribly complicated (essentially it’s a Hall effect sensor + a magnet) and writing a script that would read that input and post it to a Twitter account isn’t terribly hard it’s only been done a million times in every language ever written.

Technology Is At Its Very Best When It’s Invisible

Apple’s iPad 3 video starts off with what I think should be the guiding principle behind all user experience:

We believe technology is at its very best when it’s invisible. When you’re​ conscious only of what you’re doing, not the device you’re doing it with…

Apple is still a hardware company and selling iPads, so they used the word “device”, but it’s safe to change this to “technology” and not loose anything. Go ahead, read that sentence again before continuing.

That principle is the reason the iPad is dominating the tablet market. That principle is the reason the iPhone sells so well despite its high price tag (in a bad economy no less) and being so locked down. If it wasn’t for that philosophy Apple would be in trouble. That principle is the explanation for everything that technology implementors just don’t get about Apple. Same goes for Facebook and even Google (to a degree). That principle is everything in consumer technology.

This is why I disagree with the “learn to code” mantra of 2012. It’s well-intentioned, but it shouldn’t be necessary. It violates this golden principle. It completely flips this principle upside down. It makes only the technology visible and abstracts what you’re actually trying to accomplish. It’s the complete opposite of what users want and expect from technology. That is why programming never became mainstream. That’s why repairing your own car or home appliances isn’t mainstream. When you make the technology the focus, you loose.

We won’t have flying cars until the necessary technology is simplified to the point where it’s as simple as steering in the direction you want to go and some basic driving flying rules (which are etiquette more than technology limitations). You don’t expect people to understand lift coefficient (CL) or Angle Of Attack (AOA) to go grocery shipping. That’s why we have pilots and people drive cars. I expect a pilot to understand these concepts and avoid a stall. When it’s Jetsons simple, we’ll have flying cars.

Want to enable creation? Abstract the technology to the point where the user only focuses on content creation. There’s a reason why email didn’t take off until AOL made a pretty easy to use client (by 90’s standards). There’s a reason photo sharing didn’t takeoff when you could just email them to someone. There’s a reason why people aren’t creating content outside walled gardens. People only care about the activity and the goals they have in mind, not the technology that makes it possible.

The last major innovation in web content creation outside a walled garden was the WYSIWYG editor. Look around, few still exist. The ones that do are focused on FTP of static pages to a web server. Not one that I’m aware of would let a user generate for example a WordPress or Drupal theme without touching code. Purely WYSIWYG. It’s 2012 and it’s not possible to create a blog theme without merging markup and some server side code (PHP in this example). As a reference point support for a handful of CMS’s would cover a huge chunk of the web not owned by large companies. You shouldn’t need to understand CSS selectors to set a background color and you shouldn’t need to know #000 (or #000000) is “black” (which can also be used).

The suggestion that users are in the wrong for not being willing or able to learn is invalid. They shouldn’t need to.

Enabling content creation needs to be done the same way enabling content consumption is done: by making it so the technology is invisible and task at hand is the sole focus. Why should creating a spreadsheet with my finances be less technically complicated than publishing a paragraph of text on the web?

We’ve failed if the only way to participate on the web is to fully understand the technology. Walled gardens have manage to abstract it fairly well. Surely there’s a better way1.

1. I’ve got more thoughts on that, but I’ll save it for another day/blog post.

How the THX Deep Note Was Created

There is a fascinating piece of history regarding the creation of the THX Deep Note sound. Essentially the folks as the Lucasfilm Computer Division created it using an Audio Signal Processor (in the days before DSP chips) by writing 20,000 lines of C which generated a “sequence of parameters that drives the oscillators on the ASP. That 20,000 lines of code produce about 250,000 lines of statements of the form “set frequency of oscillator X to Y Hertz””.

That would make the deep note one of the earlier examples of computer generated sound.

Did The Nazi’s Try To Attack NYC Via Submarine Based Missile?

An interesting story about Andy Rooney’s WWII reporting on USA Today :

Amid the din, Rooney’s buddy, an intelligence officer, shared an astonishing story. The day before, which happened to be Election Day, Army Air Force radar had detected the Germans launching a missile aimed at New York City from a U-boat situated several hundred miles out into the Atlantic. Fighter planes up and down the East Coast had immediately been scrambled.

The officer swore he saw the projectile being tracked on a machine at Mitchel Field in Hempstead, Long Island. It was traveling 250 miles per hour when it disappeared off the screen, either falling short of its target or being shot down by an alert pilot. The enemy’s attempted attack on New York had not come as a complete shock, he told Rooney. War planners had long feared that Adolf Hitler would use one of his Vergeltungswaffen (“vengeance”) weapons against the continental U.S. It was not outside the realm of possibility that German scientists had armed a submarine with a variation of a V-1 buzz-bomb or a V-2 rocket.

This is pretty fascinating in itself. The war could have taken a very different turn had Germany attacked NYC. But is it possible this was true and not just a rumor?

At least as early as 1942 the Germans were experimenting with the idea of launching a rocket from a submarine. That’s two years prior to Rooney hearing about such an incident. They clearly had an intent to do so but didn’t make it in time if the historical record is correct. That’s a big “if”. When wars end the victor has the ability to control what goes public and what doesn’t. As well documented as it was, lots of WWII details are still unknown for various reasons.

Many Americans don’t know this, but German U-boats weren’t uncommon off the US coast. Several were actually sunk by US depth charges during WWII:
German U Boats Sunk Off US East Coast

The green points are major cities, the dark blue were sunk in 1942, orange 1943, light blue 1944, yellow 1945. You can see it’s a fair number and they were within reasonable distance. U-869 is the yellow one closest to NYC was sunk by it’s own torpedo. U-521 was sunk by US depth charges as were some others.

To protect ships coming out the Delaware from Philadelphia there’s actually a bunker in Cape May, NJ dating back to WWII. It was part of a network to help fend off attacks to ships leaving from the coast with some big guns. It’s still there to this day.

Could a U-boat have been within striking distance? I’d say that’s a safe bet. We had primitive ways of detecting subs back then and we found some quite close. Surely a few got close that nobody in the US ever discovered.

Here’s another curious note from the article:

“I have heard from my friends that they launched the first projectile before they were caught but they don’t know what happened to it,” he told Rooney, speculating that the attacking U-boats had been “immobilized” by radio beams that somehow disrupted their electric motors. “They (the U-boat crews) couldn’t move and they were all captured alive,” he said.

This is curious but unlikely as the V2 would not likely have been vulnerable to anything radio. It’s was largely analog with a few gyroscopes. I would guess magnetic interference would cripple the V2 guidance systems more effectively than radio jamming. There was no data link like a modern weapon.

A year earlier (1493) was the alleged, and largely discredited Philadelphia Experiment. Perhaps the origin of that story was some technology developed for this purpose. When the war was over Wernher von Braun and many he worked with were brought to the US under Operation Paperclip. By keeping this secret the US would have effectively gained a huge win in military superiority. The rocket knowledge as well as how to defeat it. It would take some time before the Russians could figure things out. The conspiracy theory the Philadelphia Experiment created would have been an effective cover for any little bits that leaked out.

Even more likely is the weapon simply malfunctioned and the US (at least internally within the War Dept) took credit for it.

Overall this story seems plausible to have actually happened. It would make sense for the US to have wanted to keep it quiet as an attack on the US mainland would have been very concerning to so many Americans. Even today knowing that something came close would be an amazing revelation. If I had to take a guess, I’d say it happened, it malfunctioned and the details were mixed up in history.

Even DHS Blindly Accepts Invalid SSL Certificates

Via Forbes:

On page 37, DHS instructs analysts to accept invalid SSL certificates forever without verification. Although invalid SSL warnings often appear in benign situations, they can also signal a man-in-the-middle attack. Not a good practice for the security conscience.

I think that’s grounds for termination by incompetence for whomever was behind that. DHS Phishing attack anyone? I’d expect better practices from a local library branch.

That said, it’s yet more proof that SSL as a form of identity verification just doesn’t work.

Why Airplane Bathrooms Have Ashtrays

Everyone has seen that airplane bathrooms still have ashtrays, despite smoking being banned on flights for almost a generation now. Engineering Infrastructures For Humans has a great blog post explaining why (spoiler: because some people will still smoke). Even greater is the takeaway for anyone who builds anything:

You don’t engineer your systems with the belief that none of your computers will ever break. That’s insane; you KNOW they’re going to break. So don’t assume that your users will never break the rules. Build in graceful failure as often as possible, whether you’re designing a user interface or a security policy.

Airplanes are actually quite redundant in almost every respect from human error to mechanical failure. They are, generally speaking the gold standard for engineering.

Profound Calvin and Hobbes Quotes

This Quora thread has some fantastic Calvin and Hobbes quotes. The older I get, the more I realize how profound and genius Calvin and Hobbes really are (or were).

Calvin: “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”

Calvin: “It’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.”

Calvin: “Why waste time learning, when ignorance is instantaneous?”

Mrs. Wormwood: “What state do you live in?”
Calvin: “Denial.”

Calvin: “In my opinion, we don’t devote nearly enough scientific research to finding a cure for jerks.”

Calvin: “Getting an inch of snow is like winning 10 cents in the lottery.”

Calvin: “There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.”

I might just need to eventually get the whole collection (I still need to get The Far Side too). I might love comics a little bit.

Bacon Tourism

CNBC reporting on the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival:

The festival features 10 different types of bacon, plus all things bacon — bacon sausage, bacon meatballs, bacon doughnuts, bacon butterscotch cupcakes — even a walking slab of bacon! There’s a bacon-eating contest, bacon lectures and a bacon song contest — and yes, there’s a crowning of the Bacon Queen! Contestants are asked questions like their favorite memory of bacon, their favorite kind of bacon and their favorite way to cook bacon (the most common answer is “naked,” incidentally).

It sounds magical.

IE 10 To Ship With Flash?

Apparently Windows 8 Internet Explorer 10 will ship with Flash. Rather than put a nail in the coffin they are putting the corpse on the hood and driving around the neighborhood.

Flash is today what ActiveX was about 10 years ago. A proprietary insecure nuisance.

It’s worth noting even Adobe is doing some interesting HTML5 stuff these days. Adobe isn’t totally ignoring the future. Playing with Adobe Edge is somewhat high on my todo list.

Quality Trumps Speed

Interesting perspective from Take Two CEO Strauss Zelnick reported by Ars:

During a conference call accompanying today’s earnings report, Take Two CEO Strauss Zelnick attributed the company’s inability to reach its revenue and profit goals last year to “slippage”—what you or I might simply call “delaying games.” He insisted multiple times that putting off marquee titles until they’re really fully ready is the best way for the company to ensure long-term growth, even though such delays might sometimes lead to disappointing-looking numbers in the short term.

He’s right. These days software (both the printed disks and the web) have shifted from a model of pushing a quality product out the door to pushing something out the door as quick as possible. The reality is customers only care about the quality products.

Truth is customers generally never know how long it took you to build something. It could be 10 years, it could be an hour. They just look at the quality and utility of what you’ve done to make their decision. If you’re short on time it’s because you’re too late to put a vision together, or you’re short sighted with your product. Shipping a poor product because of those failures doesn’t make up for it. Fixing strategy and vision to give enough lead time to construct it is the proper fix.

I can’t think of anything that succeeded because it quickly went through development. Ever. Even being first to market doesn’t guarantee success. Friendster went bust. Yahoo went bust. Customers have little loyalty beyond a few cult elitists (Apple fans, BMW drivers for example). I can think of quality products “years in the making” that succeeded. Being first doesn’t mean you win. Being the best means you win.

Perhaps it’s time to stop fearing becoming the next Duke Nukem’ Forever.