Monday, November 9, 2009

New Toys

The past week and a half has been a bit more tech filled than usual for me. I upgraded to Windows 7 Ultimate, I got ATI's latest über DirectX 11 compliant video card the 5870 and I've become more active with Twitter on account of the slick TweetDeck client.

The combination of the 5870 and Windows 7 Ultimate has resulted in me essentially having a new system. Despite having a motherboard dating back to mid-2006 this is the second time I've wound up putting off a motherboard/CPU upgrade with a new video card (I'm waiting for ubiquitous USB 3.0 and PCI Express 3.0 before I upgrade my motherboard). My previous video card, the 4870 was an excellent performer but state of the art is a state of change. The 5870 is an amazing product and it definitely falls into the techno-sybarite category. With gaming consoles providing an extremely compelling experience in the form very large communities (XBox Live), large displays (HDTVs) and the ability to ensconce oneself on the sofa, it's not surprising many gamers have eschewed high end PCs for consoles.

The 5870 however proved its power when I pulled out my old Crysis disc. Crysis was a PC game that came out in 2007 receiving lots of press for a couple of reasons - amazing visuals and the fact that probably 99% of people did not have the kind of hardware needed to make Crysis a compelling experience. My guess is Crytek, the developer, had more in mind developing an engine that was capable of realizing the visions of game studios for several years into the future (a.k.a. licensing its engine) and the casualty was everyone that didn't have a PC of the future. I'm happy to say that the 5870 is capable of rendering Crysis @ 1920x1200 with Full Scene Anti-Aliasing (FSAA) and Very High settings. I cheated with my 4870 by playing Crysis on an old 21" CRT I had (since given away) and thus I didn't need to enable FSAA. You see, a graphics card expends quite a bit more cycles applying FSAA. Nowadays I use Dell's excellent 24"2408WFP LCD and my initial reaction to seeing Crysis running on it smoothly was a bit of dissonance as Crysis has had a long standing reputation of bringing hardware to its knees.

Moving along, check out the TweetDeck client, either you get Twitter or hopefully you will realize its utility at some point. I must confess I wasn't blazing trails with Twitter but my coworkers (I wrote about the light bulb going off in a prior post) made me realize how effective it was to ferret out information on a topic that while impromptu was also suddenly very important even if only ephemerally. I will close with an article from the NYTimes I just read that echoes my recent post on Twitter:

Thursday, November 5, 2009

OpenDNS - Your Robust Internet "Phone Directory"

On this late night (2AM) Comcast's Seattle DNS servers appear to be offline. For the layperson, DNS (Domain Name System) is the magic that happens when you type and you're automagically routed to a numeric address ( - in my case). Every device in your home or office ultimately talks to far off servers through such numbers and not with the text you're used to typing at your browser.

While writing this I received some IMs leading me to believe I've been offline for a couple of hours. Initially I thought it was perhaps hiccups I've seen in the past where power cycling the cable modem clears things up. That wasn't the case this time. I went into my router's dashboard and released my TCP/IP address and asked for a new one by way of DHCP. With each attempt (since I still wasn't getting anywhere) I promptly received the same IP address which gave me a hunch basic network connectivity was available. I then pinged Comcast's DNS server and promptly got a response

Pinging with 32 bytes of data:
Reply from bytes=32 time=55ms TTL=105
Reply from bytes=32 time=54ms TTL=105
Reply from bytes=32 time=57ms TTL=105
Reply from bytes=32 time=54ms TTL=105

Armed with that knowledge I setup OpenDNS. I had actually been running with OpenDNS under Windows XP for quite a while but I moved to Windows 7 last week and hadn't yet bothered. Well, suffice to say, the only reason I can even post this at this hour is because of OpenDNS. In short, OpenDNS rocks, use it.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Why Twitter Is Much More Useful Than You Think

Even if you could care less about micro-blogging, Twitter is an excellent tool for finding out what is happening in the world as it may immediately pertain to you. It is an observation/technique I picked up from one of the network engineers at work. We were observing what appeared to be a lower transaction rate in England. So a conference call was setup to find out what was going on and yet no one could find anything wrong within the network or backend services servicing England. Then, one of the network engineers searched on Twitter for Broadband England and found many people complaining that they had spotty broadband access by way of one of the equivalents of Comcast over there, i.e. a major ISP. The implications were immediately obvious - we stood a reasonable chance of seeing our transactions affected, i.e. a lower transactions/minute.

So at that point we knew to stop trying to find something wrong within the network as the problem lay externally.

Likewise this evening I was trying to load a game (I recently moved to Windows 7 so I've had to re-download titles) and the Valve Steam client was complaining that the Steam servers were too busy to service my request. This has been the case for a while this evening so I did a Twitter search. And sure enough, I'm not the only one. Click on the image above.

The point being that Twitter can be an excellent tool to feel the pulse of whatever topic you have immediately in mind.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Yeah, There's An App For That

So how many times have you heard a song on the radio, or a TV commercial (this happened last night) or even a video game (about 20 minutes ago for me) and you think to yourself, “That sounds really good, I think I'd like to own that.”

Well there's an iPhone application called Shazam that has been out for a while but I’ve had occasion to use it this past week across all the situations I just gave as examples:

Just hold up the iPhone to the music source (speakers), hit the “Tag” button on the Shazam app, let it sample the music for about 10 seconds and using the power of analysis (some far off servers across the Internet) it tells you what the answer is. In my case (just now it was):

Pjanoo (name of song). You can hit the Preview button on the latter Amazon page and listen in.

This song was featured in the latest trailer the latest Grand Theft Auto 4 expansion. I also heard it some weeks ago during my gym class - the instructor was playing it off her iPod during the cycling class. I heard it yet again in the GTA4 trailer and it crossed my mind “You know, I bet Shazam can help me figure out what that song is.” Indeed it did.

As for the song I heard last night during the TV commercial:

Walking On A Dream by Empire of the Sun.

Bill Gates used to say “Information at your fingertips” eluding to the notion of über powerful desktops (powered by Microsoft of course) housing gobs of information. While some would argue that indeed Microsoft Windows powers many a computer that fetches information off the Net (the host OS for a browser) considering that the HTTP protocol and implications of the greater World Wide Web were not envisioned or spearheaded by MS in any way, shape or form (even after the fact, e.g., cloud computing, no, MS isn't a vanguard there either) and that the iPhone from Apple has seen that dream, imho, take form for people living on the edge of the cloud, i.e., information at your fingertips (in a very, very compelling way), Gates’ vision while materializing isn't being lead by Microsoft.

As for “host OS for a browser” – in light of Apple’s latest quarterly results (best quarter ever; most Macs sold in a quarter), even that could significantly change over the long haul. Case in point, there’s 8 people on my team at work - 5 use Macbooks, 3 of us use Windows (2 XP users, 1 Vista user).

Yeah, there’s an app for that.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rainy (Computing) Clouds At Microsoft

Microsoft experienced an event that is not likely to embolden potential customers of its forthcoming Azure cloud computing platform:

In summary, if you had Sidekick device through T-Mobile, you have my condolences. Living and working in Seattle I'm aware of some of Microsoft's operations practices. Microsoft's desktop roots, i.e. affinity for shrink wrapped software, has seemingly induced a myopia in how it sees operations. Namely, the belief that if they toss things over the wall, aka contracting, things will get done. The failure of a robust backup process, a.k.a. operations 101, means Microsoft does not take operations seriously (which feeds into things I've heard here in Seattle). This embarrassing turn of events is not likely to instill confidence in Microsoft's forthcoming cloud computing efforts.

Friday, October 9, 2009

All Work & No Play Make Jack A Dull Boy

Today I went to Fry's Electronics to pickup an Arcade Fight Stick put out by Capcom when it introduced Street Fighter IV earlier this year. The link I've provided to the Arcade Fight Stick shows excellent pictures and is a review. I picked up the smaller one for the XBox360.What some folks may not know is the XBox360 corded controller is a standard USB device and Microsoft readily provides drivers for Windows PCs. More useful still is that game studios have assumed an XBox360 controller when providing joystick support to contemporary games on the Microsoft Windows platform. More specifically games falling under the Games for Windows Live banner. Gone are the days when there was no joystick/joypad standard, de facto or otherwise. A device from one manufacturer might have 4 buttons while another might have 6 and developers often went with the least common denominator making for a less than polished experience. Some games would be released supporting a mouse and keyboard only which is a combination that doesn't always work well. A particular title might afford better visuals on the PC but comes crippled out of the gate having been designed with a game controller in mind due to initially debuting on a gaming console platform. Thankfully those days are over. I had occasion to pick up Street Fighter IV during a weekend "50% off" promotion on Steam some weeks ago. Check out the picture associated with this blog post, I joined a a couple of pics I took with my iPhone 3Gs.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Duct tape" in six minutes vs. "Beauty" in six months

I've read Joel Spolsky's blog over the years and his latest post resonates with me in a big way, it's entitled The Duct Tape Programmer:

In short Joel says over-engineering dooms software projects and some individuals have a knack for avoiding this pitfall by leveraging disparate technologies, even if it appears to others as a mish mash.

I could not agree more. 

I have my share of anecdotes over the years but one of the best ones and most telling was when a coworker with a significant affinity toward Java who had been knee deep in applets for quite some time was asked to write a simple utility to show the differences between two files and send the output to a browser. This is a CGI that would take a duct tape programmer a few minutes to write levering the very common  diff utility. However the Java afficionado wanted to build this from scratch, i.e. read two files from Java, write all the logic in Java to compare them. No doubt he would have made a naive tack and his first iteration would likely have shown the first difference in two files not realizing that diff does a very good job of showing other information, not just the first difference. Then he would have spent a considerable amount of time trying to duplicate what the diff utility had already been doing for decades. 

Isaac Newton, the father of physics said it best, "If I have been able to see farther, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." Knowing when to leverage the work of others is an important skill in my view. All too often software developers, particularly early in their career have a propensity to see everything as a nail when they wield their hammer (favorite programming language, tool, etc., etc.).

Joel's missive in The Duct Tape Programmer also strikes a cord with me since it eludes to the reason I named this blog MasterCobbler. Specifically the fusion of what initially would seem disparate technologies to some higher end. As a simple example my bringing up Synergy in a previous post to provide one large virtual desktop when having one Windows XP system and a Mac OS X system is at a basic level a very good example of what I'm talking about. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

As for some of the examples Joel gave, some contemporary examples are in order. He and I share one thing - we both spent time at Microsoft. I can tell you beyond Microsoft's walls, virtually no one cares about COM, DCOM and that has been the case for quite some time. Once I left Microsoft, the general market had very few people who had zeal for the subject matter and with the passage of (D)COM's hey day, the examples are that much more likely to fall on deaf ears.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Apple Tablet, Windows OS X, Mac OS X

Apple’s Tablet is not out yet, but here’s more talk:

Given my experience with the iPhone 3Gs, very specifically, I’ve enjoyed having the ability to lay down flat on my back and read web pages, if the Apple Tablet is sufficiently light weight such that I can hold it like a book, there’s a very good chance I’ll wind up buying it when it’s out.

 On another note, I was at someone’s Vista machine last night trying to diagnose some issues for them. While I like the idea of having an underlying 64 bit Windows OS, more contemporary icons and Windows Media Center (for connectivity to the XBox360), I’ve gotten so accustomed to the appearance of what I've dubbed Windows OS X (see image) at home I don’t like the default appearance of Vista at all. Thankfully Stardock, the company that makes the customization possible, already has a beta of their software running on Windows 7.

I also happen to be in the market for a used Mac Mini, specifically the current high end model:

Except I am not paying $800 for commodity hardware (the parts would probably cost me $350). Lots of people build Hackintoshes but I don’t want to go that route since I’ve read people having issues when a new version of Mac OS X is released, i.e. Apple doing things to dissuade the use of Mac OS X on non-Apple hardware. I don’t need such hassles. I am hoping to find a 2+ GHz Mac Mini on Craigslist at some point, i.e., let someone else bear the cost of lining Mr. Jobs’ pockets with green. So far I have not seen one listed as the current models are relatively new (only a few months old).

If I got a Mac Mini I would setup Synergy and have Windows and Mac OS X be one large virtual desktop across two displays.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Brewing Storm for Microsoft

Apparently this nettop (netbook+desktop) from Acer is out now and readily available at Newegg for $200:

Here’s a more detailed article about the Acer AspireRevo from six months ago on Gizmodo:

If this kind of hardware becomes crazy pervasive, it could be a big problem for Microsoft in the long term, i.e. the cost of Windows and Office would be significantly more than the cost of hardware. Robert X. Cringely predicted this would eventually become a big problem for Microsoft and it seems with hardware being scaled down so much this is a portent of things to come.

Which is why I have often said that Microsoft made a brilliant move with getting into the gaming console market. Today the XBox360 is a low cost hardware platform whose storage makes it capable of running different programs and in my view Microsoft's entry into the gaming console market was a hedge against this transition. At least I would hope someone inside of Microsoft was sufficiently prescient and saw the potential problem of home PCs being displaced once HDTVs truly became pervasive. Simply because, the top three computing activities in the home are browsing, email and gaming. If you've had occasion to see the web browser that runs on the Playstation 3, it is functional on many web sites. Again, a portent of things to come. Unfortunately for Microsoft every shipped XBox shipped means no license for Windows and Office going alongside it. And Windows and Office accounts for approximately two thirds of Microsoft's revenues.

While the HD playback on the Acer AspireRevo is an issue, things are brewing to remedy this problem:

While this VIA daughterboard currently is too big to fit into the Acer AspireRevo it happens to be perfect for Netbooks. Now imagine when this VIA PICO hardware winds up being just a single die (chip). Then you are talking about having a $200 PC for your living room capable of delivering content off the Net that does not have the usual hassle factors – cost (the upfront cost and your utility bill going up because of your new space heater), noise (fans) and size (bulk).