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Category Archives: Computers

Some kind of dystopic stuff is afoot from Tom Wheeler and the FCC. I mean hilariously awful. A lot of people are writing Tom.Wheeler@fcc.gov and openinternet@fcc.gov to let their feelings be known. I figured I’d tap something together and hopefully make a new buddy while I’m at it! Neat huh?

Mr. Wheeler:

You must be an intelligent, thoughtful man. You were certainly smart enough to leverage your relationship with companies like Comcast and Verizon into getting the Chairman’s seat at the Federal Communications Commission. Bravo sir. I too aspired to civil service. Good gigs, usually.

Now the agency for which you work is chartered to “regulate…interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.” says so on fcc.gov. That’s your mandate.

Your proposition for “net neutrality” does not follow that mandate. Not even a little.

It will allow a cadre of massive companies–like Comcast and Verizon–to do the regulating for you by essentially selling their services–high-speed internet access–to the highest bidder. Only those that will be able to pay their outrageous levies will be able to get their content to end-users.

And this will be the most beige dreck there is. The most inoffensive, mediocre pap that companies like Disney and Fox can shovel out there in the name of capitalism.

But wait! There’s more!

Because we at the other end of the wire are also paying outrageous levies to use these services, you are allowing these massive companies to essentially “double-dip” for the same lousy service.

So we’re paying, they’re paying too. My, but they must all *love* you now, your former clients. You’re going to make them obscenely rich–richer than they already are, which is perhaps the greatest obscenity of all.

That might actually be your goal here. It sure looks like it.

And by the way, *none* of these companies are investing in infrastructure improvements, or in increasing broadband speed and reliability. Not at all. There are actual third-world countries with faster throughput than we have in the United States, and are getting it for less money.

Tom, that’s just embarrassing. I can call you Tom, right? You’ve read this far after all, we’re almost buddies now!

Anyway, these companies are essentially a cartel, cornering a market and using their money and influence–influence you helped them get–to stifle innovation. If a town wants to set up a public broadband utility, for example, these companies buy the votes and the lawyers necessary to squelch that so they can continue to offer their crappy overpriced service.

You’d know that of course, That was your old gig. Helping your pals at Comcast and Verizon (and AT&T,etc.) keep making their money while offering nothing in return but their monopoly.

If your intention was to con your way into this public office for the purpose of making companies like Verizon and Comcast disgustingly rich at the expense of the American people, then you’re doing a fabulous job by the way. Kudos.

I’m not saying it *was* your intention, but it sure *looks* that way from here Tom.

Real Net Neutrality means that these companies get regulated like electric and gas and water utilities–actual public utilities working in the actual public interest. Because only in that way can “an appropriate competitive framework for the unfolding of the communications revolution” (from your site again!) actually exist.

That is your mandate Tom. Says so on the website.

Here’s the thing Tom. You know you’ve stepped in some poo, right? This is just uncool. But you can do the right thing here. You can actually defend Net Neutrality and let real innovation and real competition happen.

Because if you let your old pals have their way Tom, then you are *not* actually working in the public interest. You will be working *against* the wishes and needs of your real bosses, the American people, in favor of money-grubbing corporations who are anti-freedom, anti-creativity, anti-competition and, thus, anti-American.

You will have violated your agency’s charter. You will be removed from your job sir. We will petition, and protest, and do all that is necessary to have you removed from that comfy chair.

But you, me, we’re all cool people right? It doesn’t have to get ugly does it?

You’ve got the opportunity to be kind of a hero here. You have the opportunity to let the future actually happen. Support real, actual Net Neutrality. Be brave.

 

Thanks Tom.

So last Saturday night, one of my big storage hard drives died. It was from an accidental fall, but I lost over a terabyte of data.

I’ve been working with computers on and off since I was maybe twelve. In the last twenty years, it’s been pretty exclusive. One of the appallingly normal things that happens of course is when a hard drive goes tits-up on you.

At this point in life, I am goddamned tired of it.

I didn’t lose much. 95 percent of what was on that drive is recoverable because it’s stored someplace else–On Apple’s iTunes servers in this case. I replaced the drive with a NAS (Network Attached Storage) unit and will spend the next week or so putting the contents back together.

The reason for this is that Apple started making purchased iTunes content available online. “Stored in the cloud,” in the modern marketing vernacular. When you buy something, it downloads to your computer, and is also available from them directly.

So, when you think about it, what would be the point of storing the media files locally? Part of it is in order to have the content available in a network outage. Sure, we live in an era of robust bandwidth and fast access, but we’re a clipped fiber-optic line away from the dark ages even now.

Also, it’s because there’s part of me that still lives with the old way of computer thinking. All the content I own, I want “near” me. It’s all intangible, but I still gotta have it close. It’s really one of the minor absurdities of this current internet age.

I’ve been dabbling with the whole “life in the cloud” thinking since 2002 when I got my first wireless card for my Dell. When I went back to Macs in 2007, part of the impetus was that much of the software I wanted to use was available online, and open-source. Plus the computer was leaner and lighter than the Windows machines of the period.

Hard drives are finally superfluous, and SSDs are cheap enough to get and throw into your machine, if it didn’t already have one. Back in 2007, I figured most of my crap would be stored online by 2010. It took a little longer than that, but it’s true enough now.

The Macbook Air was a hint of that life to come. The 11-inch machine I got in late 2010 had a 64 GB SSD, 2 GBs of RAM and was in a package smaller and thinner than the last PS/2 keyboard I owned. Astoundingly small. It still gets me how thin and light that computer is.

When Google introduced Chrome OS and the Chromebook concept, the Macbook Air felt like the hardware counterpart of the impossible dream Chrome OS represented, a life lived online. No more computers with vast amounts of storage on spinning disks ready to fail. In fact, the hardware was supposed to become essentially irrelevant.

This video from Google back when the CR-48 prototype was introduced demonstrates this concept in appalling detail. Made all the more sickening when I think Google could have sent ME one of those pilot computers! I signed up and everything. Damn.

Yesterday, Google introduced its newest reference model Chromebook, called Pixel. Now to this point, all extant models of Chromebook followed the example of the CR-48: A modest amount of RAM by current standards–from 2 GB to as much as 4 GB–and a small SSD, no more than 32 GB usually. An internet appliance disguised as a laptop. Acer introduced the C7 which, intentionally or not, was the real steal among Chromebooks, in that you’d buy the hardware for $199 and upgrade the RAM and storage easily and cheaply with off-the shelf components. This was because it was essentially a low-end Windows machine retooled slightly.

Lenovo, Samsung and HP released models of Chromebook that hewed closer to the CR-48 concept than Acer, but all with the subtext that the hardware was not so important.

Enter Pixel. At first glance, it looks a bit like the CR-48 crossed with a Retina Macbook Pro. Gorgeous, well built, faster that the rest of the Chromebook brand, and with a sinus-clearing pricetag. For $1299, you get a laptop with a 12.85 inch touchscreen in a 3:2 orientation (harkening back to the days before wide-screen laptops became all the rage), backlit keyboard, aluminum body, 32 GB SSD, WiFi and an i5 processor. For $1449 you get all that, a 64 GB SSD and LTE access. You also get three years of one terabyte Google Drive space, which if bought separately of course is more expensive than this machine.

The blogosphere and commentosphere have not been kind to Pixel. Those who are unclear on the concept deride this machine as a $1200 web browser. Others actually go so far as to recommend Apple computers as better buys than this machine. Astounding when you realize comment trolls HATE Apple with a passion usually reserved for Obama. Or atheists.

The haters are stuck in an old way of thinking about their computers and their data–that your machine must be completely autonomous, able to handle e-mail, coding C++ and video editing with nary a sweat, whether you actually do any of that or not. In that paradigm, RAM and storage and running native apps are the only things to consider with computers.

This is the mindset that Chrome OS would supplant. Nothing is kept on the local machine. Nothing. Everything is online, so viruses and software bloating are not an issue.

Among those who actually get Chromebook, the pricetag on Pixel is still an issue. Chrome OS was supposed to make the hardware irrelevant. It’s hard to sustain that argument with a $1200 computer. It’s a valid point.

My take on it is, Google brought out a proof-of-concept with basic hardware–an oversized netbook really–with CR-48. It was offered for free because those who received the computer were volunteer testers, and the OS still needed tweaking. The first Acer and Samsung models were pretty much built on the same hardware profile, save for the Samsung Series 550, which was billed as the top-end model with more RAM and a faster processor than the Series 5.

The next generation diverged in various ways from the CR-48 reference. Acer’s was probably the most radical, and definitely the cheapest. Lenovo and HP both brought out machines that also diverged from the original in variously interesting ways.

The common denominator in all of them though, they’re cheap. Build quality is variable, but acceptable for the price.

Pixel is Google’s example of the high end. Most every aspect of this machine, based on the specs, is something we as adopters of the Chrome OS have wanted in a “dream Chromebook.” As I think about it, I believe most all the specs on Pixel were mentioned in Google’s Chromebook forum as things that would make the experience better.

I am using an Acer C7 myself. I got it back in November with the tacit understanding I was going to void the warranty and open the case, upgrading it as much as possible as soon as possible. This now has 16 GB of RAM and a 64 GB SSD. The upgrade took only a few minutes and required twisting five screws (four for the SSD). It also has a larger battery, answering the main painpoint for the C7, its short battery life.

As I read the specs of the new Pixel, my only concern is the RAM. In Chrome OS, the more RAM you have, the more tabs you can open and leave open in Chrome. On previous models you could have as many tabs open as you wanted. After a period of inactivity however, the OS would purge some tabs in order to open up space, so when you returned to a tab it would end up needing to reload. Also, in my experience with the Series 5, there were also instances of stuttering video which may have been RAM or CPU related (it used an Atom processor).

Well with 16 gigs of RAM, that ain’t a problem. I have 20 tabs open here, of which I access maybe half to two-thirds every day, whether here or on another device running Chrome–a real benefit of Google’s ecosphere. None have needed to reload as yet. My usage is not too different from other Chromebook users, except for the number of tabs. Apparently more than five is aberrant behavior.

Most of my data is online now, spread among several sites for various purposes. Their access is platform agnostic, as it should be. Apple’s is not, as you’d imagine. I am, for all intents and purposes, a denizen of the online world.

Which is why that hard drive dying like it did galled me so much. “Aren’t I past this? Aren’t we all past this?” I asked myself as I ordered its replacement.

Almost, but not quite.

 

One morning some years ago, I sat in a coffee shop in town and poked out a screed about what was up that day, which I re-read to re-fresh. I got some nookie earlier that morning, apparently–nice to hear that that used to happen to me sometimes. But I was also going on about not having internet access at home and hitting up the various wireless hotspots in the Old Pueblo to bumble around online when I wasn’t at work or trying to sleep. Which led me to talking about tha few-chaaah! “The Cloud” is a big deal right now, but has been a long time coming. I am not going to claim prescience or anything like that. I will simply appreciate the hell out of this Mercury Aura Pro.

In October 2010, Apple did a refresh of the fabulous Macbook Air into two models: A 13-inch like the original and, most excitingly for me, an 11-inch model–the portability I always needed. Also, SSD was not merely an option but was standard on these foxes. Plus, the prices were much more realistic. Small and light too. Two annoyances typical of Apple: the RAM was soldered directly onto the motherboard (no upgrade path possible) and the SSD was a non-standard design, though it was removable. Plus they used these funny Pentalobe screws to fix the bottom plate to the machine. Clearly upgradability (and thus longevity) was not in Apple’s design philosophy anymore.

No matter. I obsessed over getting one of these, especially the little 11-inch. No question I was going to get that. I went for the $999 base model (1.4 GHz CPU, 2 GB RAM, 64 GB SSD) knowing that the 64 GB storage was going to be a problem, but only a small one as long as I kept a 2 TB drive handy and looked seriously at online storage, which by now was improving in availability and options. I’d already spent eight months experimenting with the iPad as a computer replacement (no dice), and really wanted a real frickin keyboard again. And not to have to deal with iOS on a day-to-day basis for all my computing needs.

Not too long later, Other World Computing came up with a solution: The Mercury Aura Pro. They’d come up with a line of SSDs exactly like the ones in the new Macbook Airs, only much higher capacity. The low-end was 180 GB–slightly more, mind you, than my black Macbook Marlena‘s hard drive, but much faster in terms of access. Just lovely! Expensive as hell, but worth the bother if you really need/want the space. Almost six months into my sojourn with this Macbook Air, I routinely maxed out the storage thanks to iTunes. I kept an eye on the Aura Pros though. The 180 GB model was my target, if only because that would bring this computer more into line with what I had with Marlena. Plus I could swing the $400-plus price tag if I was really careful, but no more than that.

So I placed the order yesterday (Friday) and put in for Saturday delivery since the price on the 180 model had dropped by about $60 from what it was back in January. It showed up this morning. Took me longer to get it home than it did to install it. OWC was kind enough to include in the box the two screwdrivers needed to perform the install: A Torx for the screw that holds the SSD in place in the computer and a Pentalobe to get at the ten screws holding the bottom plate in place. Those little bastards were a pain, but once you got them off, the plate just popped right out. If you’ve ever looked at tear-downs of this model of computer, it’s mostly battery inside. I took a couple of pictures I’ll try to include here. Like I said, it took longer to get the thing home than it did to get the drive in, even with the tiny little screws and the funny screwdriver.

Performance tests of this drive are just a Google search away if you’re curious. I am not writing this as a review of this SSD anyway as such is not necessary. I am writing this as an appreciation. In terms of speed, the SSD is an obvious win over any hard drive. The 2010 Macbook Air has the fastest boot time I have ever seen in a computer–even counting the DOS days. The OWC upgrade doesn’t improve upon that, but it’s also no slouch. This is still as peppy as it was, only now it has some lebensraum! The $400-plus price tag might give an indication of why Apple did not add substantial storage to these computers. The size and the apparently underpowered CPU have been criticized by various haters out there, but this was a pretty brisk seller for Apple when it came out so the compromise was worthwhile.

What it means to me though is that I can hold on to this computer for a long time–which you might say I’d have to in order to justify dropping a hunk of change into this little honey. I bought this originally with the idea that I could upgrade to a 13 inch Macbook Pro next year while at the same time retiring my black Macbook Marlena (if Mom ends up finally buying a new computer at that point), maybe selling both to underwrite the upgrade. I don’t hold on to old tech anymore out of sentiment. If it’s not useful, out it goes.

As I’ve been using this computer though, and keeping a weather eye on the developments with Chrome OS, I realize that this computer is damn near perfect for what I need right now and for the forseeable–even more so than Marlena was. It’s lighter, smaller, and in some ways faster than that computer–though not really up to resource-heavy tasks given the slower CPU. My computer use right now is practically at thin-client level. I use this to watch TV shows and movies with Hulu and Netflix (and iTunes). I also use it to sync my phone and drop in the occasional audiobook. I also use it to write, and am trying to increase that usage wherever possible. With Zoho Writer out there (at the moment more feature-rich than Google Docs), I don’t really need a heavy-duty computer for writing, trolling websites–I mean research–or for “multimedia,” to use an outdated word. I don’t game and if I do it’s on my iPhone, so I don’t need the latest and the fastest. Besides, I’m tired of heating up a room with my computer.

The Chromebooks look interesting, and if one can make a few habit changes would be viable for most computer use. I still believe that the Chrome OS will make a far superior tablet OS to all the alternatives out there right now, including Android, once web designers make the distinction between mobile and touch (and stop using fucking Flash!). Inertia and habit are the main reasons why anyone would want a physical keyboard at this point, including me. The keyboard/pointer paradigm of human-computer interface is clunky but no one has come up with a truly compelling alternative. The iPhone OS and what we’re seeing so far from “Windows 8″ are really innovative ideas, but the iPhone OS is a powerful smartphone operating system–not meant for heavy lifting–and “Windows 8″ is an intriguing idea grafted on top of the biggest pile of baggage outside an ex-girlfriend’s head, the MS Windows OS.

So what I’m getting at is that there aren’t many options on the horizon for your forward-thinking tappity-tapper here. As I said, I’m intrigued by the Chromebooks–even if Google didn’t send a CR-48 to yours truly when I really REALLY could have used one. Damn you all. However, if the Chromebooks were about the size and heft of this very Macbook Air–and maybe had a little more generous SSD inside (16 gigs? Really? Not everything is in the cloud yet Google…), I would scoop up one lickety-frickin-split. And love it. Each time I think about it though, I realize I’ve got it pretty good with this little Macbook Air. And the Mercury Aura Pro has made it even better.

Good Looking out OWC. Good looking out.

“Would you like WorldView to save this password?”

As always, his answer was Yes. It’s not that his memory was particularly bad, it just saved time. Time was a fluid quicksilver thing in his afterwork life. Tickety-tack on his Cloudbook keyboard, clickeratick of the trackpad on one hyperlink or another. Suddenly six o’clock was twelve-thirty, and he was bushed. enervated. Tonight it was surprise nudes of the latest RealiTeeVee sensation, an article about the myth of free will, all the news that was fit to tweet, down the hypertext rabbithole from one blogpost to another.

Just another night. New episodes of his old favorites, his attention span spanning ten open tabs at once in his WorldView browser. He rarely made it through a half-hour TV show non-stop anymore as he wandered with his wayward mind to the movie database tab to see who the tight twenty-two year-old with the thirty-four cees was in this scene, or to peek under the dress of Hollywood to see the hairy legs and other behind-the-scenes secrets posted to keep the mythmaking moving.

Just another night. and another sleepless fight to enjoin the dark and invoke the restful he craved, as he led the animal into the abyss with him waving the carrot of some thread of thought to distract the idiot sparking ideas in his head like so many shiny beads.

The dream was the same. At least, the deja vu hit him like that, even though even that might have been a conceit of the dream, dreaming that the dream is one you had before because the dream itself said as much and implied such. He was in a lovely room lit with natural light from windows above and beside him. An easel held a half-finished painting, a self-portrait. He was prettier there than he actually was–thinner, more defined, optimized even. And as each brush-stroke brought the creation to life, he himself felt diminished, diffuse, defused. He awoke weary bleary, too young he swore to feel this tired, too old to work this early for so little money.

His Cloudphone has its own WorldView browser, mail app and news reader, just like its bigger self. He sat on the shitter tapping the news and the mail of the world, both of which were just junk and spin of course. Same shit, he might as well peer into the bowl and read his fortune from the floaters. Ah well, people dying in Africa, people dying all around, as much an abstraction as anything else. He had fifteen minutes to shitshowershave and hit the road.

“Would you like Newsie to save this RSS feed?” He tapped Yes. Reactionary paranoia dotcom. All these sites have a spin, but he loved the spin this blog put him in. He loved ranting to his workfriends about how shockingly stupid the site was, it was like fiber for getting time moving between eight and five. All the better to be elsewhere.

Tonight the dream was same but different. Same lovely room, same easel, same picture-him gaining definition, coming clearer from the canvas. His hand moved the brush unbidden, under its own control until finally it finished. He gazed closer closer, taken by the expressioned eyes more real than reality. And found he was looking back at himself, picture pixel-perfect.

Closer closer. The picture devolved into individual bits, each stroke a rendering revealed. A choice made and confirmed with a Yes/No. “Would you like WorldView to save this to your favorites?”

So anyway, the big-ish news this last week has been the CR-48 Chrome OS laptop. Google had (and still has) a sign-in program where you can sign up to be considered for their pilot of the Chrome OS. This little black laptop is bare-bones (a proof of concept basically), but it is a cutie patootie, reminding me of my MacBook, er, which is not mine at the moment. Ahem.

Anyhoo, yours truly wants at this golden ticket something fierce. Not the least because I don’t have an actual primary computer at this time. But also because I want to try this OS out, and really really get into a web-based existence. They had a little contest today I found out about at lunch. So I entered the following screed by typing it into my iPhone.

Google, goddammit, I want one of these machines. I pecked this in with my own fat fingers using my iPhone. MY IPHONE FER CRISSAKES! I’m your man! Come on!!

Anyway, read and enjoy.

The web has promised platform neutrality since the coming of Java in the mid nineties. Since then we have seen this convergence in fits and starts with ground-up movements like mp3′s displacement of physical media for music–assisted by the development of the iPod but succeeding in spite of that device and its limitations.

The web has developed quickly from a curiosity to a source of entertainment and learning to someplace where everyday work can get done, without your hardware getting in the way (unless you’re mashing your fingers into an iPhone virtual keyboard!).

We have also seen examples of “server-side computing,” and its strong advantages and disadvantages. However, the greatest promise of this concept is now manifest in the Chrome OS from Google and its centering on the web and a browser as the focus.

Hardware can finally be irrelevant, as it was supposed to be. As it was promised to us so long ago. Our experience of the internet and its full promise can be delivered seamlessly, without any one company or platform coloring that experience. And it’s midwifed by the plain search engine that became its own verb.

Ah, finally.

It was inevitable, I suppose.

I mean, it was a foregone conclusion I would drop the considerable sum and get an iPad. It was always a question of when.

Well kids, it was tonight. As soon as the 3G version finally became available, I blacked out all of a sudden and when I came to I was wandering in the La Encantada parking lot with a lot less dough and a fucking amazing little toy in a cute little bag. The line (oh yes, there was a line of about fifty or sixty people there by the time they opened the doors to bleed us) reminded me of a movie premiere. They let people in a few at a time and had.a salesperson there with you the whole time. Well-orchestrated indeed.

Once I got home, I set it up and yes, am typing this entry in the WordPress app.

No two ways about this, it is a toy. But what a toy. Wow.

It is, in essence, a logical progression from the iPod Touch, this device’s direct ancestor more than the iPhone. All three share the same OS (iPhone 3.2 as of this writing), but though this has a 3G antenna in it as well as 802.11 it is not a phone. It’s not an iPod either. and frankly it’s everything a netbook isn’t. Including cheap.

Apple is touting this as sort of a companion device. It’s not meant to replace a computer (unfortunately) but it is meant to handle much of what you’d use a computer for–and what many use netbooks for: Web browsing, e-mail, some productivity. The fact that it lacks a physical keyboard and looks like an overgrown iPhone has caused derision, but nothing so much as its name. Really guys, iPad? Christ.

Dumb name, but a sensational device. It’s bigger than I would like, but at the same time the larger size means that the keys on the virtual keyboard are almost exactly the size of the ones on my MacBook. Definite plus. Right now as I type this the iPad is in my lap and I am actually typing faster than I would have expected. To give an idea of it’s size, it’s roughly 6 1/2 by about 9 1/2 inches (go to the Apple site for details). It’s about the size of an average netbook’s screen.

But the things that evolved from the iPhone are what makes this so extraordinary. First off, the responsiveness of the touch interface is what you’d expect if you’ve spent time with the iPhone. That is, it’s better than any touch screen out there. Also, the OS is optimized for using fingers, not a stylus or mouse. Which is something I didn’t get at first until I did some reading and observed life with my iPod Touch. Like I said, this is a logical progression from that device.

Long and short is, this is also a logical progression for what I ask of my computer experience at this point in life. Only beefs so far: The placement of the headphone jack in relation to the volume control is bloody awkward. The dependence on a PC of some kind is. A little irritating. Connecting wirelessly to the computer or (even better) to a cloud source would be nice.

The web experience is just fine thank you. Fuck Flash.

The Kindle and Netflix apps are pretty spiffy, and while I haven’t hit the 3G yet I look forward to using it. That was a major pain point with the laptop and the Touch: Dependence on a wireless access point. Sometimes they’re not around, and using my cell phone for internet access is, well, not desireable.

Which leads me to my big reason for taking the plunge on this device in particular. Somehow Apple has wangled a special fucking deal with AT&T as far as a data-only plan for this device. That was most compelling. Wireless access points are not as ubiquitous as we’d all like, and the alternative is peering into the tiny screen of a cell phone in a scenario where internet access is a costly option. With my particular internet jones that’s not even on the table. I’ll wait till I get home to check e-mail or use the iPod Touch’s infuriatingly tiny virtual keyboard if I’m someplace where I can get the access or steal it. Having it on demand is worth the monthly charge.

There are other benefits that don’t have to do with me. A computer is now mostly freed up for someone who could really use the experience of a relatively modern machine and a superior OS. Myself, I am going to see how this thing and me get along.

I am not kidding though. This is the future.

So it appears that Microsoft will have to shit or get off the pot on the i4i issue. I threw down some remarks on this a few months ago.

Here is the latest word. Basically, MS has lost their appeal, and Microsoft Office (and Word especially) will not be sold after January 11, 2010.

Who here thinks it’ll come to that? No one? Good. I don’t either. I think MS will either pay up or will write some update to break the functionality. Or so they’ll say, and so the code written to satisfy the language of the inevitable settlement.

What i4i created is something that I saw a lot working for Modern Age Books/Books24x7. There were companies approaching us back then with packages similar to what i4i offers. Basically, their S4 package consists of a storage method (their proprietary storage format I suspect) and “a set of Word macros that allow the use of MS-Word as the composition engine.” I pulled that from here, by the way.

Reading their press release brings back a lot of memories. The price point would have been ludicrous to us. Never would have bought it. Books24x7 ended up designing something of its own. I don’t know what they use now, but back then it was all home-grown. I wrote some of it, in fact. It was brutish but it worked, and that’s what mattered. All it cost them was my salary and I was definitely not paid developer money. Not complaining, it was one of the best experiences of my life.

Anyway, what they describe really isn’t that hard to write. I don’t know what approach they used in the writing of their Word macros, but I know what approach I and Mike Henkle used when conceiving our application and what I used when I wrote and maintained it. Not that hard, and not specifically patentable. But then I’m not a lawyer. I’m a problem solver.

So Microsoft either reverse-engineered or pilfered the DLL code from i4i and doesn’t want to pay for it. Used to be they’d simply buy up the company in question, absorb the assets and fire everyone they didn’t want. i4i sues, like they all do, and won, but suddenly Microsoft doesn’t want to pay up. The recession has made the mightiest company of the 1990s into cheap pricks.

Certainly Word’s DOC format appears to be exactly the sort of separated format and data that the i4i patent describes. I looked at a DOC saved in Word 97-2000 format in a hex editor and saw pretty much that. The file header, followed by a block of unformatted text, including carriage returns, line feeds and form (page) feeds. After that block all the metadata, including formatting, footnote placement, etc., all rendered in a proprietary way.

Sounds like the i4i description to me.

Now I am all for Microsoft getting nailed for stealing software written by smaller companies. By the same token I am all for any big company getting nailed for it. But I think what we’re seeing here is what companies of Microsoft’s size usually do when faced with innovation by a smaller company. They didn’t steal the code, they set up a team of developers who went at the concept and wrote their own iteration of the idea.

That’s how Microsoft made all their major innovations happen–except DOS of course. That was flat-out thievery.

The real question in my mind is, who thought up the data storage method used in the DOC format first? At first glance it appears to be what i4i describes, but did they think of it first or are they trying to claim prior art on something vague, like the idea of separating data from metadata? i4i’s patent dates from 1999, their press releases from 1997. Word 97 was when the DOC format made a major change. Certainly the addition of Visual Basic as the macro language and the adoption of the Document Object Model made it much more usable than Word 95 was, at least for my purposes at the time.

Something tells me that the truth of the i4i issue lies somewhere in there. Meanwhile the stars lined up for the little company with the interesting dead-end product, and has left a software giant in a pickle. Whether it will remain that way remains to be seen.

A couple of things at the outset. I love to read. I love books. Depending on what’s going on, it could be an audiobook or something I picked up at a used bookstore (around here at this point there’s just Bookman’s to fill that niche). Also, I have this idealistic vision of portability and versatility offered by electronic books. I worked for almost nine years for a company that did electronic publishing so as a matter of course I saw the inherent strength of reading without paper. It fits perfectly with the same way of thinking that had me transfer my entire CD collection to MP3 many years ago, followed by my DVD collection. Part of it could be letting go without fully letting go, I don’t know. Such is the story of the last five years of my life.

Anyway, back to the point. E-books to me have always made sense. Microsoft’s e-reader format was an early favorite, I read several books on my old Dell Axim that way. And of course there was HTML and plain ASCII (Project Gutenberg). But electronic books could not sufficiently pass the Crapper Test. That is, can you comfortably do it while on the crapper? Ten years ago wireless ethernet barely existed and no one wanted to park a laptop of that era on their lap in the bathroom. Just silly.

It was a matter of time before the technology caught up to the promise though, and it did eventually with Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle a couple years ago. This was all coming in increments of course, the biggest innovation being the e-ink screen which is capable of showing a passable greyscale image while needing only enough juice to create the image and practically none at all to maintain it. Amazing. Add to that faster processors and, of course, a tiny rendering of Linux for the underlying OS.

The biggest innovation that Kindle brought though was its infrastructure. Kindle and especially Kindle 2 take advantage of the iTunes model of transaction, only Kindle 2 makes this tighter by augmenting it with something called Whispernet, basically a cellular modem whose purpose is to send and receive small bits of data, whether its tracking your progress in a book or downloading a book to the unit. Nothing fancy or data-intensive, hence it’s being wrapped into the cost of the unit. That cost has come down a lot in the last year. Currently Kindle 2 comes in two flavors, one with a U.S. Only wireless plan for $259 and one with U.S. and International for $20 extra. Amazon also has the bigger and costlier Kindle DX, designed for the rendering of textbooks primarily and is scaled up in size for that purpose.

Barnes & Noble are trying to one-up Amazon with something called the Nook. At the moment I’ve only seen pictures of it myself, but it is adorable. it has an e-Ink screen like the Kindle, but where Kindle has a hardware keyboard Nook has a color glass touchscreen that can display a keyboard and spiffy bookcovers as well. The price-point is similar to the Kindle, though no international plan is available at the moment. Nook also has WiFi (wireless ethernet) built in where Kindle does not. Nook also has the advantage of being able to render PDFs without the conversion (and subsequent fees) that Kindle requires. Barnes & Noble is also trying to leverage its physical locations to foster Nook use with the WiFi (finally free at B&N and soon also at Borders) and with exclusive content, though they haven’t been clear on what that content will be. Nook will also have all the accessories that Kindle has, though not exactly the same given the structural differences between the two. Nook will also be expandable via micro-SD cards, which Kindle painfully is not.

Both devices feature some form of audio support, though Kindle has the advantage of supporting Audible’s 4 and enhanced formats. This is an advantage if you are a regular Audible user. Which I am.

Of the two I am drawn to the Kindle, mainly because of the Audible-ready aspect, but also because of the Kindle app for the iPod Touch. That was itself a matter of pure timing as it was available with a wide selection of books I wanted when I wanted them, whereas the Barnes & Noble eReader did not. The Kindle app works very basically, and after the enhancements of the latest version is quite workable as an eReader. The Barnes & Noble version, which is a rebranded version of the very robust Fictionwise app, is much more feature-rich than the Kindle app and has the distinct advantage of a well-entrenched e-reader format with a selection of free books readily available online. Kindle is going to port its reader app to Mac and PC soon, and one wonders if a Linux version will appear somehow or someway (without needing WINE of course).

Thanks to the apps and the ubiquity of the iPhone/iPod Touch, I can move from one realm to the other without having to commit to a single format. As I said above though, of the two my leaning is toward Kindle, though I won’t be making a purchase for another few months (here’s to hoping the tax refund is there and reasonably substantial). The closed-in nature of Kindle/Amazon is a concern to me, and the Chump Factor here is immense, especially given the fickle nature of Amazon’s cell providers of late and its disturbing lack of WiFi.

E-Readers are the future, like it or not. Reading is wonderful beyond words (an odd expression sure, but here it is), and books are lovely bulky smelly things. The notion of a library in one spot and within reach is tantalizing and satisfies my habit of reading several books at once. The absurdity of formats and competing devices and gestalts is annoying, as it was with Beta/VHS, HD-DvD/BluRay and Mac/PC, but it will harmonize eventually to be sure.

Just as long as I get my money’s worth out of whatever device I get before it obsoletes on me.

So this morning, waiting to start work, I cruised through the sites I can actually visit at work, and came upon this article on cNet.

The headline is alarming…ly funny. Back in 1998, this tiny company out of Toronto called i4i patented a most interesting method of data storage that, it seems, Microsoft uses (allegedly) in Word 2003 and later for its XML export.

The news reports I’ve seen so far make a big deal about this, but I must point out, this has nothing to do with XML. Pure and simple. It’s also nothing like XML. At all. Two separate concepts. XML is a language, this is a mechanism for more efficient parsing.

The patent describes a “method and system for manipulating the architecture and the content of a document separately from each other.”

XML (eXtensible Markup Language) describes the structure of a document. It’s a human-readable language for rendering text-based data. The actual tagging that describes this structure can be whatever you want, but it has to follow a few very strict but simple rules in order to be parsed (read and interpreted) correctly by a machine. It’s a subset of SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), which was developed years ago to provide a general way of noting structural data in the text stream of a document.

Which brings me to the need to explain why this patent is so full of awesome. To me, anyway. And maybe also to give an idea why I think Microsoft might have exploited this for more than just XML exporting, for which it’s perfect.

Consider an average document containing, say, colored text. What you see in the previous sentence is exactly what the colored words in the sentence describe: Text that is of a certain color. In order for that color information to survive quitting the program running the document, the information about the color has to be preserved somehow. How that happens in HTML is that there are tags placed before and after the words in question. So, <span style=”color: #ff6600;”>colored text.</span> is how the information is saved in an HTML-formatted text file.

When you want to open the document, the program doing the opening has to parse (read and interpret) the text in order to find any instances of, say, colored text, in order to render it properly. So, it has to literally pick up each letter and space in the document and check each letter and space to find tagging. in this case it’s looking for text that begins with a less-than character, <, and ends with a greater-than character, >. Whatever falls in between those characters is considered “tagging,” and is then dealt with by the program. Incidentally, if it so happens that you want to use a < or a > in your document, the program has to store those as &lt; or &gt;, so the heft of the file gets greater and greater. This is why plain-text is so much smaller than its styled counterparts: All the extra heft is to save this kind of extra information. It gets even more involved when you start considering styles.

This is me getting real elementary kids, so forgive me. I’m not sure how much you know.

Right now, we’re talking about a document with colored text. If that colored text is supposed to mean something–like it’s supposed to denote the beginning of a chapter–then other tagging exists that would need to be parsed for in order to denote structure. That’s why XML came into being: A simple, robust (mostly) way of rendering structure. But that’s all that XML does.

So what does all this have to do with the patent, and where pray tell is the awesome?

The bitch of opening a document with style and/or structure is the parsing. When you open a document, whatever the format, the parsing step happens first. For DOC files and other such proprietary formats, the mechanism and the file structure are optimized as much as possible (hence the proprietary part) to make that parse happen quick. For open standards like HTML or XML (or semi-open standards like Rich Text Format (RTF)), there are really two operations that happen. The first one is to chug through the file character by character to find the tagging and the text–which takes forever from a programming standpoint–then to load that information into whatever internal model you’re using for navigation and manipulation.

This patent describes a way of structuring a file so that the tagging does not have to lay in the text stream with the text. Literally, instead of having to chug-chug-chug through a file to find the tags and then create your internal map to keep track of where the tagging is in the text, the map is kept in a separate location in the file from the text. For example, in a document that reads…

Wildcard!

The text portion of the document would just be

Wildcard!

A nine-character chunk of data like you’d find in a plain text file. The map would basically say that at character zero (before the first letter in this case) the tag <span style=”color: #ff6600;”> would exist, and at character ten (after the exclamation point), the tag </span> would exist.

The beauty of this is that, without having to add any special characters to the text stream itself, or any extra characters at all, you can map out all kinds of descriptive information related to this chunk of plain text. You could, conceivably, put mapping in the document that tells us that at character zero would be a structure tag like <para> and at character ten another structure tag like </para>.

That’s where the XML wrinkle comes in. What the suit alleges is that, when Microsoft (fucking finally) added an XML export to Word in 2003, they basically used either i4i’s engine or their concept in making that export process happen. As this cat states, this method of data storage is a “logical thing to do.”

Which brings me further into the awesome. This mapping method is pretty ingenious, and frankly, it’s how I thought Word’s file structure actually worked in the first place starting back in Word 2000. A lot of stuff changed at that time, you see, and the Document Object Model (part of the apparatus to programmatically navigate Word and its documents) changed especially. Scanning through a DOC file using a hex editor (a tool to actually look at a file as it exists as raw data), I remember noticing that the text part of the DOC seemed to be a block of essentially plain, unformatted text.

Now I remember thinking that it was odd that there should be this block of plain text in the middle of the DOC file. There’s really no good reason why such a thing should be there, because here I was thinking the text content of the DOC was embedded somewhere in all the other mess that is a DOC file in its true form.

Reading the patent presentation this morning, it clicked. That parsing mechanism would work nice for XML, sure. Or HTML or SGML or whatever, really. If I can tell you one type of tag is somewhere in a document, why not another type of tag? That’s nothing.

But why can’t I use that same mapping method to tell me where activedocument.paragraph(1) begins? Or to otherwise make the job of populating the Word Document Object Model easier and faster?

Just a thought. One that for me contained a lot of awesome.

Note: Two relics of my past life still fascinate me to this day: XML (and relating structure in a document), and automating Photoshop. One day, maybe I’ll share more about the other one.

As I said in my last entry, Macintoshes are more than mere personal computers. Fifteen years ago, I believed this as a matter of course. I was a rabid fan of Macs, mainly because I was unimpressed by PCs. I started working with computers back in 1980, when Mom would bring a computer home to play with/learn on over the weekends. One of these, incidentally, was one of the original Compaqs, which were early “portable” computers similar to the old Osbornes but bigger–about the size of an inconvenient briefcase, and about 40 pounds, as I recall.

Anyway, other than forays into BASIC on various TRS-80s, I didn’t do much with computers. They didn’t click with me, though the early work with BASIC would pay me huge dividends career-wise later on. I mean HUGE.

In the interim, there was the rest of my days. I went to a couple of computer shows with Dad back in 1982 and 1983, and saw the Apple Lisa, the Macintosh’s immediate predecessor which was targeted toward corporations. I will admit that at the time I was so inured with the command line concept, it was so soaked into me, that I thought the Lisa interface was interesting, but I just didn’t get it. From a computer standpoint, it didn’t have a command line, so I couldn’t see how you could talk to it. How to program it.

Of course, this was an early example of that hackneyed expression paradigm shift. Fans of the dot-com era will remember that one fondly. At the last Macworld I went to, back in 1996, that term was flying around thick and fast. By then I was a true believer in the Mac. Windows was a hopeless rip-off of what Apple did first and so much better, and Bill Gates was a filthy thief.

Now while I still believe the latter notion, that Gates is a filthy thief, I know now that the former idea was nonsense. Apple and Microsoft both took their interface cues from Xerox, such is the stuff of history. But again, I was a true believer because everything I ever asked from the various Macs I owned and worked with at that point, they could do. Pink cloud here.

Anyway, let me introduce you to some of my old girlfriends.

Sheena 2, circa 1999. Complete with awesome trackball, 2x CD-ROM drive with cartridge feed and ZIP drive.

Sheena 2, circa 1999. Complete with awesome trackball, 2x CD-ROM drive with cartridge feed and ZIP drive.

Sheena 2 started life as a Macintosh SE. The first Sheena was a computer I used where I worked at the time. When I had the chance to buy a Mac of my own, it seemed logical to go after something like what I worked with. The original machine was purchased for $400 from a kid at Harvard. By the time this picture was taken, the only piece left of that old machine was the back plastic shell. I’d upgraded it to the vastly superior SE/30 first, given it 32 MB RAM (the maximum it could hold, if I recall correctly, though you had to install a piece of software to make it read all that RAM), then upgraded it to a faster processor and a grayscale adapter so it could show 256 shades of gray on that little screen. This was ostensibly so that, if necessary, I could assemble the Seacoast Times on this machine if the main production machine died (which it nearly did thanks to the fool who did layout for the paper before I got there). To fit all that equipment in that little box took some doing, and if I’d thought about it I would have photographed the process. It was not supposed to work. But it did. I had to throw in some tape and jury-rig things, but damn if it didn’t work!

I had a case for this beast and lugged it to and from Antrim, NH and Hampton, NH, every weekend for the time I was editor of Seacoast Times. After I was canned along with the rest of the staff, I used this old girl to get my resume together and to get on the internet for the first time via AOL 2.0.

A beauty shot of an unpretty computer. Read on to get an idea of our time together...

A beauty shot of an unpretty computer. Read on to get an idea of our time together...

Later, November, 1995, came the machine that tested my faith in the Macintosh. It was called Marlena, and was my first laptop, a Powerbook 5300cs. Look this computer up on the internet and you will read how it was and is still considered one of the worst models Apple produced. I can attest to every piece of this. The screen was an awful passive-matrix (the top-end model had an active matrix screen that would be considered somewhat acceptable now, this one did not), its chipset had no level 2 cache, meaning that it was going to be slow no matter how much RAM you had, and no matter how well the OS was written, which was another problem. Plus, the plastics that make up the case just simply broke after less than a year of  normal use. When this picture was taken the hinges and the plastics around it were all broken, making the screen hard to open. Hinges were a problem on a lot of Apple laptop models until the Powerbook G3 Pismo came out years later.

In spite of all this, this computer and I did a lot of travelling together. I hauled this computer down to Washington, DC, to use with my digital camera (upgraded to a color camera by this time) because the camera could only hold 16 little pictures and thus needed to be emptied out a lot. I created my old website on this computer, I remember working on the index page sitting in my hotel room when Modern Age Books moved to Massachusetts from Vermont in 1996. I also used this to test Connectix Virtual PC 1.0 and 2.0 to try to have a Windows presence alongside my Mac.

Out of necessity, I had to constantly open this machine to repair and replace parts. At the end, I combined the parts of two Powerbook 5300s together to make Marlena continue to work. I also upgraded the screen to a superior active-matrix screen near the end of its life. I was trying to get the machine into some workable condition to sell it, though I never did.

There was a last straw with this machine in February, 1999, when I brought this out to Arizona from Massachusetts for my grandmother’s 80th birthday. No matter what I did, how I tried, this computer would not boot up. Essentially I brought a brick with me that didn’t work well until I had it back home where my tools were.

Like Sheena, I could do so much with this that I couldn't with any PC. It restored my faith in Apple.

Serenity. Like Sheena, I could do so much with this that I couldn't with any PC. It restored my faith in Apple.

…And then there was Serenity, a much better Macintosh. Serenity’s original name was Victoria, and was a Powerbook G3 Wallstreet model. I was in a position to buy a new computer in 1999, and was going to buy a Gateway PC, since I was using PCs most of the time at work. I decided that, since I could afford a Macintosh, I would buy a new Powerbook. The G3s were big, pretty and were getting great reviews.

My first foray into MP3s was with this computer, right after I bought it, that was its main job. I also used it to edit video and watch DVDs (using the DVD kit that you had to buy separately). I nicknamed it the “World’s Biggest Rio” because I used to hook it into the tape deck of my truck to listen to music on road trips.

As I said, this was originally named Victoria until I got it signed by the adult film star Serenity. When I’d asked her to sign it, she was confused at first, but signed it beautifully, as you can see from the picture.

By April, 2002, I needed a PC much more for work, and needed a Mac less and less. I had more Windows software at that point than Mac, and needed access to Visual Studio for programming. So Serenity was supplanted by Houston, a Dell Inspiron 8200. As with Serenity, I’d gotten the computer autographed, this time by the adult star Houston.

I took Houston cross-country many times, almost had it stolen in Vegas, rebuilt its plastics (same hinge problems seen in the Apples), burned through three hard drives losing hours of video and MP3s, and went head-to-head with the worst tech support in the industry, that of Dell. THE WORST.

And for as much time as we spent together, me and that computer, I have no pictures of it. No fond memories of that computer, though I had it for over five years.

Fast-forward to September, 2007. For so many reasons, I was ready for a new computer. I was never getting a Dell again, and never ever will. My short list included Toshiba and IBM for different reasons. IBM/Lenovo computers had great tech support and are really well-put together. At least the IBMs were, I can’t speak for Lenovo except that they were the actual company building the ThinkPads for IBM, so I knew what they were capable of building.

Marlena. In fifteen years of Mac use, I've never fallen in love with a computer till I saw this one.

Marlena. In fifteen years of Mac use, I've never fallen in love with a computer till I saw this one.

Then I saw the black MacBook. So tiny, so well put together. So slick! And black, which to me is the best color for a laptop. All of my laptops have been black.

This MacBook has been the easiest computer for me to work with. I’ve had it for a year and a half so far and it’s just been amazing. I was able to do the setup on it in ten minutes sitting at Beyond Bread using its free wireless.

This MacBook does everything I hoped the Inspiron could do, only this machine does it effortlessly. All the video editing I want to do I can do here. All the internet, all the wireless roaming, and all in a little light-weight package. And, I can run Windows on it. Effortlessly.

In giving this computer a name, I gave it Marlena. I love that name, and it’s a way to connect back to that troubled old 5300 I loved in spite of the pain it put me through.

So if you’ve made it to the end of this screed, I applaud you. I am no longer a computer freak. I’ve built many computers for work and personal use, repaired and rebuilt many laptops as well, both for work and for myself. I love looking at computers and technology but have absolutely no desire anymore to build the perfect beast. This MacBook does what I want it to, and makes it effortless. In the fullness of time it will likely be replaced, but I don’t foresee that anytime soon.

I am no longer a true believer in Macintoshes, having replaced childish things, but Apple makes good computers and hopefully they’ll continue to do so, as they’ve always set the bar for computers and technology.

And so goodnight.

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