Category Archives: Thoughts On Tech and More

The Benefits of Having Too Much Processing Power

Do an experiment: keep Task Manager or any other CPU activity monitoring program up on your screen for a few hour or days, glancing at it every so often. Do you see it EVER above zero (other than momentary spikes)?

Here’s mine, from a Google sidebar gadget:


I’ve got a Dual Core and 2GB RAM. Currently I have open two copies of Visual Studio 2005, Word 2003, Outlook 2007, Paint.Net, RSS Bandit, Adobe Reader, IE, MSDN help, Windows Live Messenger, and Google Deskbar.

So that’s using just over 1 GB of RAM. And ZERO CPU. I’m watching this. The CPU meter goes up a little when I type, open a new program, compile my source code, etc., but most of the time it’s zero, even when I think I’m actually working.

I used to eschew running apps like Google Deskbar, wallpaper helpers like Display Fusion, or other system utilities that continually run. But I had a realization–it doesn’t matter! I could run many more utilities concurrently and still not come anywhere close to creating a slowdown on my computer.

Of course, I’m only talking about non-interfering/non-processor-intensive programs. This immediately excludes anti-virus programs, which interrupt every process to examine system behavior continually, or running video compression (duh) in the background.

But things like desktop searching, system monitoring (if it’s not too intrusive), utilities, and any other independent process–yeah, just throw them on. They won’t make a dent.

They key word in that last paragraph is independent. Independent means they don’t depend on or interfere with other processes.

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Thoughts on Writers Guild of America Strike

This strike is a big deal, but it’s much bigger deal for Hollywood, the producers and writers than for the rest of us. I think they are facing some specific dangers that they had better think about before they drag on too long. The actual points the union and producers are arguing about are probably valid, some on both sides, but whatever–that’s irrelevant for my point. For the viewing public–I don’t think we’ll notice or care as much.

I’m thinking about hockey–they used to be the #4 sport, then they had a strike. Now, more people watch POKER on ESPN than hockey.

And airlines–when their workers go on strike, I think it definitely hurts the airline as a whole, because in the end we the people don’t get our service. We choose something else. And we might not come back.

I think Hollywood needs to examine some facts: TV viewership is going down, way down. There are only a handful of shows that really do well. The 90% of the others will be what’s hurt by this strike. People will come back to Leno, the Daily Show, The Office, and the Simpsons, etc. The other ones are in danger. TV has very stiff competition from the Internet, DVDs, video games (video game industry is MUCH larger than Hollywood), satellite radio, YouTube, ipods, and tons of other little distractions. Sure, lots of online content is derived from traditional content, which comes from Hollywood, but much of it is user-generated or at least independent. If TV goes out, it’s so easy for people to find other avenues for entertainment. I wonder if the same writers that are striking will lose their jobs a week after they get back to work when their shows are canceled because nobody’s watching them anymore. (Of course, they’ll just move on to the next project, but it’s still disruptive.)

I’m also curious (with any union)–how many of the members are really happy with how the union does things. I really don’t have any idea–but at some point a union might not be the best way to do business, especially in today’s global economy.

The strike by itself isn’t anywhere close to enough to doom the TV/movie industry, but put together with all of these other forces, they could be in real trouble. Meanwhile, we’ll just look for the next big star on YouTube rather than Hollywood… (more people watch Ask a Ninja than some TV shows, after all)

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Cell phones, water and wireless mice

I’m embarrassed to say that the link took me a long time to figure out. If you’re wireless mouse or keyboard is having connection problems, signal weaknesses, or similar signs of problems, make sure your cell phone isn’t anywhere around them!

I did this at work for a long time–it screwed up the signal strength, and caused weird problems like dropped keys, stuck CAPS, and more.

I have also noticed signals getting screwed up when I had a Nalgene bottle full of ice water sort-of between the keyboard and wireless receiver.

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The War on Being Different

Bruce Schneier has a wonderful essay on his site today about how our culture of fear of harmless people and objects is being propagated. I think this is my favorite essay of his.

I really like this paragraph about how this happens:

Watch how it happens. Someone sees something, so he says something. The person he says it to — a policeman, a security guard, a flight attendant — now faces a choice: ignore or escalate. Even though he may believe that it’s a false alarm, it’s not in his best interests to dismiss the threat. If he’s wrong, it’ll cost him his career. But if he escalates, he’ll be praised for “doing his job” and the cost will be borne by others. So he escalates. And the person he escalates to also escalates, in a series of CYA decisions. And before we’re done, innocent people have been arrested, airports have been evacuated, and hundreds of police hours have been wasted.

Please go read the full article and digg it, spread it around, especially to influential people you may know. It’s ridiculous, the things people are harassed for these days.

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Neo Must Die – Give us the Matrix

We don’t want to be free. Neo is our enemy, not our savior.

Most of us have seen The Matrix, or are at least familiar with the story. Neo is our hero in the movie, a virtual god in training, selflessly seeking to destroy the Matrix and free the enslaved humans therein.

Yet, curiously, one of the freed humans desires to get back into the Matrix. “Ignorance is bliss,” proclaims Cypher. Tired of the grit of the real world, he wants to enjoy his virtual steak in a comfortable booth in a nice restaurant in oblivion. Obviously the bad guy, he makes a deal with the Agents and betrays Neo and the crew.

Pointless to ask which character do you identify with more?

The ironic truth is that we humans are willingly inserting ourselves into the Matrix. We don’t need to wait for the Machines to come get us. We’re building them and strapping them on, plugging them in, and embedding ourselves within them.

Think of these trends:

  1. iPods – It seems like there are nearly as many pairs of white ear buds as humans. It is easier than ever to block out the deafening silence with music, podcasts, and tiny videos for the attention-challenged masses. Do I have an iPod that I listen to while cooking, cleaning, building Legos, driving, falling asleep? You betcha.
  2. World of Warcraft, Second Life, other MMORPGS – I think the resemblance of these to the Matrix is actually more superficial than anything else. They are obvious fantasy playgrounds. And yet…we read about WoW weddings, offline guilds, and more. Companies have virtual presences in Second Life. Real estate is bought and sold. Compare the experience of Mildred in Fahrenheit 451 and her 3-walled interactive-TV enclosure. Is that some way between virtual realities and alternate, livable realities? Does your Second Life avatar look just like you? Why not?
  3. 24-hour news – It’s cliché to rail against the 24-hour media, and I don’t want to do that specifically. But it is another aspect of being “plugged in” to the world. We always have to know what’s going on everywhere (ignoring for the moment that most TV news is now tabloid and worthless).
  4. Facebook, mySpace, etc. – These online communities have replaced many of the traditional face-to-face interactions we partake in. We count our friends, visit their pages, listen to their music, understand and comment on their thoughts, sometimes without ever actually meeting.
  5. Twitter – is there anything more Borg-like than being continually updated with the status of hundreds of other individuals? Once we harness this power we, in effect, become individual cogs in a great machine.
  6. Rise of Video over Literature – Books are still incredibly popular and probably will be forever, but the potential exists for books to be superceded by video-on-demand. We’ve always had a “Matrix” in our minds–a place to escape to, interpreting the words on the page however we like. With video, however, the vision is placed upon us and we become part of it, rather than it becoming part of us.
  7. Simplifying life by placing organization burdens on computers – PDAs, Getting Things Done, Outlook. Unburdening our crowded minds, allowing the computer to track our lives for us, freeing us for more important pursuits. Rather than mindless tasks that we all must do, we can focus our energy on our creativity.

What happens to the human race as our reality is supplemented so heavily by virtual realities, by computers, by constant flows of information, and yet coincidentally we have so many automated processes to filter and store that information for when we need it. Do we become hyper-productive and fantastically creative? Do we enjoy the fruits of nearly infinite resources like learning and exploration for its own sake? Or do we become lazy and unproductive, mere taskmasters over the computers which run our lives, stuck in fantasy worlds more exciting than our own?

It’s not that any of these things are bad. What is evident now is that the Matrix itself isn’t bad. Neo is the Luddite trying to hold us back, pull us out of the hyper-connected, multiplexed virtual realities of the 21st century into the grim shadows of “real” life. Real life–that which deals pain equally with joy, sadness with happiness, tough breaks with outstanding successes, where you’re paid to work, not play, not be a hero.

Of course, the Matrix portrays a world equivalent to our own, with the real world being brutally harsh for human existence. But the difference is only in degree. Either way, we’re happier being in a virtual world that is somehow more attractive than the one we physically exist in.

Neo must die. Leave us alone to enjoy our fantasies, our electronically-fueled dalliances in worlds unknown.

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The users are in control

I really enjoyed and appreciated this essay from Raganwald about the user experience at work versus that of their home PC environments (among other topics).

I particularly liked the point:

And meanwhile, the very same users could walk across the street and buy themselves a much better PC for less money than we pay and take it home the same day.

Ain’t that the truth. I put together my Core 2 Duo system for the same price as my crappy Pentium 4 hyperthreaded number at work. The time frames were not that far apart. The Core 2 runs circles around this sick puppy.

A company’s philosophy should be to get users (especially developers like me!) whatever hardware/software they need immediately. Within minutes or hours, not days or weeks. Of course, then you have to trust your employees to make good requests. But if you don’t trust them to know what they need, why trust them to do their job at all?

The essay goes on to talk about writing applications that take advantage of modern PC horsepower. I think I’m doing an ok job of this at work now. For example, we have a database of assets that is continually growing. It used to be we could view all of the assets on a single page that took about 30 seconds to load off-site.

Now that list will take several minutes to bring up. Yeah, we’re growing. So we need tools to help manage all of that information. One thing I’m building right now (as soon as I’m done writing this, as a matter of fact) is a quick filtering functionality on a desktop app that talks to the database. The list of assets is filtered as you type, taking advantage of the fast PCs we have these days.

That’s just one example. I can think of others that are immediately useful in business apps:

  • better visualization – it takes time and thought to develop good data visualization, but the results are usually worth it
  • drag & drop support – make sense to drag assets from a customer to another? I don’t know, maybe.
  • dynamic views – use all that processing power to show something more interesting than fields on a scrolling form. Graphics views that change in response to context
  • track history, undo/redo – might make sense in some contexts
  • attach more meaningful information – pictures, videos, documents, whatever. – with stuff like WPF, it’s easier than ever to display varied content

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What would the human race look like?

On my drive into work this morning, I heard an interesting story on on WAMU (sorry, can’t find the specific story link) about a Korean-American adopted by white American parents. While initially struggling against her Korean heritage, she eventually came to appreciate and be proud of it. The commentator, himself an adopted Korean in the same situation, was very grateful for the chance to grow up in such a mixed household.

Along with these thoughts, I there’s a set of novels I recently finished: Orson Scott Card’s Shadow series. In it, he describes an Earth that starts out a lot like the one we know today (maybe a few hundred years in the future), and is eventually unified under a single ruler. The novels are very good, despite the fact that they leave quite a bit of details about how this would happen, given the nature of humanity. On the other hand, maybe it’s merely evoking the philosophy that humans are inherently good, and given the right set of circumstances, they will choose to do good for all of us. I think I could believe that, despite what we see in the world today.

But these two stories together got me thinking: what if the entire world were open to us–no borders, easy  transportation, peaceful coexistence, interdependency, leading to high intermixing, intermarriage, etc…. What would we end up looking like as a human race? I initially thought of this question in terms of physical features, but it’s interesting to think about language, culture, economics, technology–anything at all. It certainly requires a great deal of imagination and taking things for granted to see this world, but I think it’s interesting in a futuristic, sci-fi sort of way.

The power of the blog to motivate corporate, societal, and government change

This is an issue that has been discussed many times previously–so many that I won’t even bother to link to those discussions. By now it’s well-understood that blogs carry a power stronger than most in the media initially assumed possible.

Not just blogs, but the entire “Web 2.0” phenomenon–MySpace, YouTube–the whole rotten bunch. 🙂 Would Patricia Dunn have stepped down as chair of HP were it not for the constant pounding brought on by the likes of Scoble? Maybe, maybe not. In some sectors, blogs are becoming as well-regarded, if not more, than traditional publishing. Maybe this is limited to the computer industry. Maybe I just read too many blogs. 🙂

Still, it seems that the nature of debate and information dissemination has changed. No longer are we fed what mainstream publishers tell us–even if it’s of better quality. We are now free to choose what and how we read–for good or bad.

We’ve already seen the effects on the corporations. Companies simply can’t get away with anything anymore. Somebody, somewhere, will jump on it.

Areas where I think it will get more interesting:

  1. entertainment – RIAA, MPAA, I’m talking about you. You have ZERO friends among bloggers. All of the bad things you’ve done in courts to innocent people, all of your extortion is shouted from the rooftops by people like those at TechDirt.  You can’t win this war. For now, the audience isn’t very general, but news spreads, and it’s spreading faster and further. Sooner or later, you will lose the PR battle completely–in the meantime, unless your companies drastically change how they do business, your business will be swept out from under you, relegated to the dustbin of irrelevance.
  2. corporations – Microsoft already can’t do anything without the blogosphere lighting up. In some ways, they’ve chosen to embrace this–witness the very high-quality set of developer blogs they host. On the other hand, they’re like any other large company–they have secrets and tactics they would rather not be public debate-fodder. Corporations will be forced to open the windows and let the light shine in on what they’re doing. 
  3. government – imagine if honest, whistle-blowing (or even dishonest whistle-blowing!) staffers ratted on all the corruption in Washington. Imagine if every backroom deal was publicized in embarrassing detail. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that yet, but there are signs that things are beginning to emerge. Look at the hilarity on YouTube about Senator Ted Stevens’ gaffe about the Internet’s tubes. How long as CSPAN been broadcasting, again? Our elected officials say dumb things about topics they don’t understand all the time–but now we can hear about it over and over again.

Overall, I think blogging will lead to more accountability of traditional structures of society. However, even with these possibilities, there are potential pitfalls:

  1. Overcrowded Medium — occurs when there are WAYYYYYYY too many people broadcasting that not enough people are listening. If everybody in the world blogged, who would read them?
  2. Loss of accountability – if there is accountability for things that are written online, than anything goes. The Internet is already the source of much bad information–it can become much worse if most of it is partisan, subjective, opinionated blather. Still, I’m not convinced it will really be worse than the status quo. The media now is far from infallible. Maybe part of me just wants to keep faith in people’s ability to reason. 🙂
  3. Undercrowded Debates – Broadcast media is a finite resource therefore it maintains its quality mostly by the fact that it has  to judge some things more worthy of discussion than others. Those topics are what people hear about. The Internet, on the other hand, is an unlimited resource. Anybody can have a blog on anything and most do. 🙂 This means that people themselves must choose what they follow, leading to some topics having far fewer meaningful discussions than others. For example, blogs about software and computers comprise a fairly large and active community. Politics has a large community. But what about small-interest, high-importance communities and topics? Where are the scientist blogs about global warming? I’m sure there are some, but is that kind of community ever going to gain a large enough population to affect societal opinion?
  4. Lack of participation – related to Undercrowded Debates, this means people don’t participate in all the areas that are pertinent to their lives. For example, how many of the US Internet users follow blogs discussing network neutrality? This is certainly an issue that could affect all of us, but from what I can tell it’s mostly debated on tech blogs, while the rest of the country misrepresents the entire issue. It works the other way around–I don’t read any political blogs at the moment. What issues am I missing out on? It’s too easy to become part of a niche community on the Internet and ignore the community as a whole.

Some of these problems stem from the anonymity of the Internet, others from the exponential increases in information available to us. Perhaps there are technologies in the pipeline that will solve these issues for us someday. They certainly aren’t going away.

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How to solve severe driver problems in Windows

A colleague at work recently got a second video card–a bottom of the barrel (or close to it) nVidia MX 4000 (PCI). He had an existing AGP nVidia Vanta. Well…the installation did not go well. It did something to Windows so that it consistently blue-screened during the driver load process (the progress bar moving in the startup splash screen).

Windows would start in safe mode, but removing the non-working drivers for the new card did not work. Removing both drivers did not work. Choosing last-known good configuration got us up and running in Windows (finally), but with only the bare VGA driver. Installing a driver from either CD or nVidia’s site ended in the strange error “Access Denied.”

Then I remembered what I had read in Windows Internals about the location of driver configuration information in the registry.  Driver info is stored with service configuration in HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services.

First we removed all hints of nVidia apps and videos drivers using Add/Remove Programs. Then we went into regedit, into the above key and deleted the keys “nv”, “nv4”, and “nvsvc” (I think they were those, but looking on my own machine at home, they’re a bit different, so I’m half-guessing). I’m sure there are similar keys for ATI chips.

In the meantime, we had found an unused AGP version of the MX 4000 just lying around (no joke), and replaced the Vanta with this. We reinstalled the drivers and everything worked great.

The hidden purpose behind private web browsers and history cleaners.

Does anybody else think that the real purpose behind the big movements in privacy, hiding web browsing habits, building anonymizers, and more… is really just a movement to allow everyone to view pornography without their SO’s finding out?

Come on, perhaps there really are people in a public library who need to look up an embarrassing medical question and don’t want the next user to spy on them and confront them about it, but let’s be honest–is that REALLY the motivation?

On a personal computer, what excuse is there really? To hide your browsing habits from your children? your spouse? What web sites are you visiting that your family shouldn’t know about? Maybe you should work on your honesty with them…

At work? I’ll cut a little slack here, but not much. You REALLY shouldn’t be browsing bad sites at work–that creates liability problems. On the other hand, maybe you have some dishonest coworkers who would stoop to spying on your habits…