Friday, October 31, 2008

It's Like West Side Story For Nerds

Crunchgear brings us a violent Mac vs PC musical. Very well done. Caution: extremely violent.

Open Congress Voting Record Comparison Tool

Open Congress has a new tool for comparing the voting records of House and Senate representatives side by side. Another great tool for voters in this election.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Acer Aspire One—Small is the New Black

I have been using the Acer Aspire One for about a week. It is one those "netbooks" that are so hip these days with the techie set. Although netbooks themselves as are a new category, the concept of a tiny notebook computer isn't that new. Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba were all making tiny laptops for sale ten years ago. But usually these little notebooks would cost upwards of $2500 and were for the most part only available in Japan.

Originally uploaded to Wikipedia by Rico Shen

But things have changed recently. As computer hardware prices have fallen and the Linux operating system has improved to the point where it can be seen as a viable alternative to Windows, it has become possible to build a really small and really cheap laptop computer. My Acer Aspire One cost me $399.

A Little History

The netbook trend has been building for about a year and a half. It sort of started when Palm, looking to revitalize its line of smartphones, announced the Foleo, a simple Linux-based laptop which was meant to be a large keyboard and screen for its Treo smartphones. Palm is primarily a cell phone and PDA maker not a computer company—and it showed with the Foleo. Equipped with wi-fi and a lightweight Linux operating system, the Foleo was capable of being a useful computer in its own right but Palm had primarily meant for it to be an accessory and marketed it as such. Because of this, the Foleo was woefully underpowered and had very little storage of its own. It was also very expensive for a phone accessory—$600, about the same price as a big clunky laptop. While its small size (which it achieved despite having a keyboard and screen which were larger and more useful than what has become the standard on netbooks) was attractive, the Foleo lacked the functionality to justify its price and Palm pulled the plug on it days before it became available for sale. I personally suspect that if Palm had tried to sell the Foleo at half the price they originally intended (in other words for $300 instead of $600), it would have been reasonably successful.

After Palm's embarrassing face plant, Asus came out with a little notebook called the EeePC. Running a lightweight version of Linux and powered by an Intel Celeron processor with a tiny screen and keyboard, the original family of EeePCs cost just $300-$500 and they were a rip-roaring success selling 355,000 units in six months. This just opened up the floodgates with competitors coming from MSI, Acer, Dell, HP, and others.

And that brings us to the Acer Aspire One which I am using now. Over time, netbooks have gravitated to a common set of specs and the Acer Aspire One is no different. It has an Atom processor which is Intel's new mobile friendly chip which has become almost ubiquitous in netbooks. It has a small but above average for netbooks 8.9 inch, 1024x600 pixel screen and a fairly small but usable keyboard—you won't be composing any novels on this keyboard but it's fine for e-mail. What separates this particular version of the Acer Aspire One from other netbooks is its 1 GB of memory and 160 GB hard drive. This is enough storage space to comfortably run Windows XP instead of the sometimes quirky Linux distributions which other netbooks use. As a result, my Acer Aspire One feels more like a normal laptop than like a "netbook."

Size Versus Speed

Without a doubt this notebook's number one feature is its small size and weight. At only about 2.5 pounds, lifting and carrying it is effortless. Here are some pictures of my 8.9" Acer Aspire One together with a 15.4" HP Pavilion dv6000 notebook and a Palm Treo 680 smartphone for comparison.

The small size of this notebook mitigates a lot of its shortcomings. I've heard people complain about the heat produced by the Acer Aspire One but I've never had a problem with it in part because it's too small to cover my entire lap. I can just prop it up on one knee for hours and barely feel any heat. This is in start contrast to my larger HP laptop which runs at least as hot, if not hotter, than my Acer netbook and because of its heat and weight quickly becomes uncomfortable in my lap. While in its default configuration Windows XP runs a bit slowly on the One, turning off its visual styles and other eye causes it to speed up considerably. (I never cease to be amazed at how much useless, performance-choking crap Microsoft adds to its operating systems.) Turning off Windows XP's visual styles also allows you to make better use of the One's small screen as XP's default styles tend to take up a lot of room on your screen.

The One also has some other useful little tricks. Intel's underpowered but useful graphics hardware comes configured with keyboard shortcuts which allow you to rotate the screen. Normally this would be a useless little trick but on the One, the screen rotation allows you to comfortably read long web pages and documents like a hard cover book. Unfortunately, when you rotate the screen, the keyboard and mouse axes remain the same which makes anything other than scrolling text awkward.

Despite all these nice little tweaks, the One still feels a little slower than a typical full sized laptop. Note that by full sized laptop, I'm referring to my two beefy HP laptops which run on dual cores and have 2 and 3 GB of ram respectively. So the One is about as fast a single core laptop with 1 GB of ram. Having said that, web browsing does "feel" a little slower on the One. I'm not sure exactly why that is, maybe its the Atom processor or maybe it's the wi-fi chipset. Or maybe it's a problem with Windows XP.

When I installed Ubuntu on the One, it detected two processors. Since most personal computers have only one processor this is usually a sign that you have a dual core processor or a processor with hyperthreading. In fact, it does appear that the Atom processor is hyperthreaded. But does Windows XP handle the Atom processor's hyperthreading? I'm not particularly knowledgeable on the issue but if I'm not mistaken, Intel abandoned its hyperthreading technology in its desktop processors in part because Windows didn't handle it well. If this is the case—and I don't really know enough about the issue to say that it is—then it might be the part of the problem. (If someone actually reads this blog and does know about this issue, I'd appreciate an e-mail on the subject.)


Like most Windows laptops the One comes with a lot of crappy third party software although it comes with less than what is preloaded on HP laptops. In any case, it's nice to have PC Decrapifier around to get rid of the cruft. (Why did Acer include a copy of InterVideo WinDVD on a laptop with no DVD drive?) The idea behind netbooks is that they are lightweight both in terms of size and software and rely on Internet-based "Web 2.0" "cloud computing" to get work done. I am actually finding that I use much the same software that I would use on a normal PC. In fact at least one Web 2.0 application, Yahoo Mail actually complains that my One's screen resolution is too low even though I think that it looks just fine. Another Web 2.0 application, Google Groups gives you a full, unfiltered view of Usenet which is a little like giving you unfiltered sewer water to drink. Sorry cloud, I think I'll stick to the same e-mail and Usenet application that I've been using for over a decade thank you very much.

I was expecting that Google's Chrome browser with its minimalist interface would be ideal for a netbook. In fact I've found that good old Firefox when used in full screen mode is the best choice for me when browsing the Internet. This is great for me since I can use Foxmarks to synchronize my bookmarks between the One and my home computer which is just a really big laptop.

Beyond that, I use the One very much the same way that I would use a normal laptop. I use Firefox to surf the web, Agent for e-mail and newsgroups, GOM Player to watch video, TightVNC to log into my other computers, and Synergy to seamlessly share my mouse with my bigger computers.

Final Notes

I've only been using my Acer Aspire One for about a week but I'm already very comfortable with this little notebook. It has a glossy dark blue finish which looks great when you take it out of the box but which is also a magnet for fingerprints. It has a six cell battery which delivers about five hours of battery life. This changes the way I use my laptop. I don't worry much about battery anymore. I keep it next to my bedside for use on sleepless nights and lazy weekend mornings. It slips easily into my backpack when my older HP laptop needed some elbow grease to fit. I can take it anywhere that I expect to be able to find available wi-fi access.

This computer certainly isn't perfect. It's a little slower than what I'm used to. The touchpad has awkwardly placed buttons and is bad even by touchpad standards. The keyboard is usable but can't be recommended for long typing sessions (I'm typing this review on my big HP laptop). I've seen netbooks positioned as computers for younger people—college students, teenagers, even children. Well, with their smaller hands and sharp eyes, younger people will almost certainly be less bothered by the shortcomings of netbooks than older people.

But the bottom line is that its small size and long battery life give this computer a degree of freedom that bigger laptops can only aspire to. So as one of the first netbooks that seems to really hit the sweetspot in terms of usability for me, the Acer Aspire One is aptly named.

Atlas of Cyberspace

A Usenet posting alerted me to a blog post which alerted me to the Atlas of Cyberspace, a colorful book which visualizes and explores the infrastructure of the Internet. If you are curious about the design of the tubes which bring you your cat pictures and spam, this free downloadable e-book is a must read.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Media Is In The Tank For Mad Men

John McCain is wrong. The media is not in love with Barack Obama. It is actually in love with AMC's show Mad Men. The show's star John Hamm recently hosted Saturday Night Live and they eagerly promoted his show with not one but two skits (on a side note, it sure looked like Hamm and the SNL cast were having a great time during these skits which also featured other members of the Mad Men cast). And now TV Squad reports that The Simpsons will do a parody the show. All this comes after Mad Men won a fistfull of Emmy Awards.

I have always felt somewhat cold towards Mad Men. I've seen most of the first season and plan on eventually watching the second but I'm in no hurry finish. Yes, the acting is great, the production values are great, and the women on the show are beautiful but I still can't get into this show as much as the media wants me to. And it's not like I'm being a contrarian here, I've fallen in love with critically praised but low-rated shows before. But not this time. I just can't identify with Don Draper, he's far better looking and more charming than I can possibly ever be.

Oh well.

Google Quotes the Candidates

Neatorama links to a neat new service from Google which tracks quotes by the presidential candidates and other politicians on the issues. Just choose a pair of politicians and type in an issue like the economy and Google pops up quotes from each of them along with links to the news articles which quote them. An excellent tool for voters.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Carbon Dating

A rather snarky post by Millard Fillmore's Bathtub reminded me of an excellent post over at Aardvarcheology explaining the ins and outs of radiocarbon dating. It's a must read for anyone who is interested in archeology or simply in how scientists come up with the dates for ancient artifacts that you read about in the news.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Conflict Between Google Reader and Firefox?

So I fire up Firefox to read my blogs and what happens? Google Reader comes up as a blank page. I'm not sure exactly why this is the case but I do know that Chrome and Firefox 3.1, Beta 1 are not affected by this problem. Just Firefox 3. This is disappointing as many of my Firefox extensions still haven't been updated to work with the new Firefox Beta.

It's weird and disappointing but on the bright side, the new Firefox Beta is very nice—fast and stable.

Updated: In the end, I just cleared my private data and Google Reader came back. I must have had a corrupted cookie or something.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Death of a Meme

Watching Rocketboom's Know Your Meme segment on the word "FAIL" and it's use on the Internet, it occurred to me that it has become so common use this word to express contempt on the Internet that I am beginning to reach a point where I grit my teeth every time I read it. FAIL is everywhere, on every blog and on every large posting site like FARK and slashdot. It has even begun migrating to Usenet. It has its own blog and it has numerous images to illustrate it. All that's left is for a major New York Times columnist to use the word FAIL in the same context that people use it on the Internet.

This is leading me to a single conclusion: FAIL has Jumped the Shark. It has reached a point where it has peaked and can no longer be considered interesting or creative. It has become a cliche. It is used by people who simply disagree with what someone says but are too lazy to explain why. Keep that in mind the next time you use want to use FAIL on the 'net. You are no longer being cool, clever, and funny—you are being lame.

This is nothing new. Memes become used up all the time. The phrase "Jump the Shark" itself jumped the shark years ago.

There's only one thing left to do, pay tribute to the fallen meme and move on.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Debate Deja Vu

Somebody on Youtube seems to think that The Penguin from Batman was a Republican. Looking over this clip, I'm definitely seeing some similarities between the talking points of the Penguin and of John McCain.

OnionMap Looks Cool. But Is It Useful?

The Red Ferret Journal links to the coolest looking map website I've seen in a long time. OnionMap gives a great-looking 3-D overview of a number of cities, highlighting tourist attractions and showing hotels, restaurants, businesses, transportation, and local events. The cities are not complete yet but the tourist information seems good. 

Checking out my own home town of Chicago, I was a both impressed and disappointed by the completeness of the map. OnionMap only shows a few of the city's tallest historic buildings and some buildings are hidden behind taller ones because there doesn't seem to be a way to change the angle of the view. OnionMap does however give a surprisingly good overview of Chicago's downtown "El" train system and the 3-D view makes it easy to locate train stops.

But ultimately, all these features are fairly meager compared what you'd see on Google Maps. OnionMap's 3-D view gives you a good way of orienting yourself in relation to well-known landmarks. But Google's street view seems to make more sense as a tool for helping lost tourists and even locals find their way around. 

All-in-all, OnionMap seems like a great idea whose time came and went a couple of years ago. Today with Google Maps and its competitors being so richly featured, it's hard to see where OnionMap fits in as anything more than a pretty toy. But it sure is pretty.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Politics Just Got a Little More Negative...

...and a lot more hilarious. As much as I keep telling myself that I hate negative campaigning, I just love For all your hockey mom bashing needs.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Political Ads Got You Down? Take a Break

Here's a great idea. A Youtube channel full of completely apolitical ads which let you take a break from the usual partisan mudslinging.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Web Therapy

Boing-Boing links to a new web series called Web Therapy starring former friends star Lisa Kudrow as an online therapist who finds herself treating an old boyfriend. The first episode feels a little long as it sets up the show's premise but overal it's a very amusing show.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

On John McCain And Earmarks

In his recent debate with Barack Obama, John McCain took him to task for his earmarks. He specifically singled out "$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois." This isn't the first time McCain has mentioned the earmark and a number of science bloggers have complained about McCain's complaints.

There's an insteresting twist to the earmark story. The Adler Planetarium recently released a statement (PDF link) on the debate and it turns out that they never actually received an earmark:
To clarify, the Adler Planetarium requested federal support – which was not funded – to replace the projector in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the Western Hemisphere. The Adler’s Zeiss Mark VI projector – not an overhead projector – is the instrument that re-creates the night sky in a dome theater, the quintessential planetarium experience. The Adler’s projector is nearly 40 years old and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer. It is only the second planetarium projector in the Adler’s 78 years of operation.
However, the Adler has never received an earmark as a result of Senator Obama's efforts. This is clearly evidenced by recent transparency laws implemented by the Congress, which have resulted in the names of all requesting Members being listed next to every earmark in the reports that accompany appropriations bills.

It's interesting to see how the presidential campaign has unfolded over the years (that's right, people have been running for president for two freakin' years). John McCain seems determined to find specific examples of government waste that to attack. Besides the planetarium, McCain has also complained about an earmark for studying bear DNA. But we are talking about relatively small amounts of money compared to the overall federal budget. $3,000,000 may seem like a lot to you and me—and to John McCain but it's nothing compared to the almost $3,000,000,000,000 total federal budget. All of the total earmarks in the federal budget amount to exactly $16,501,833,000—a large number to be sure, but only a fraction of our country's entire federal budget. 

I think that earmarks are a lot like the Mad Magazine cartoon which I've inserted in this post. Most people have trouble visualizing really huge numbers. I certainly do. Earmarks are smaller but nevertheless large chunks of cash which often turn out to be wasteful. They are also highly visible because they are often spent on a things like museums, roads, and bridges. Because of this, earmarks are easy to visualize and can be easily turned into symbols of government waste. But ultimately, they are little more than symbols because most of the federal budget is spent elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Usenet, From Past to Present

PC World has a nice article on the history of Usenet and its current state as many ISPs use the New York Attorney General's crusade against kiddie porn to drop or significantly water down their Usenet service. It's a good read and nicely explains that the elimination of Usenet service by ISPs has less to do with protecting children from porn and sexual predators and more to do with side-stepping legal challenges related to porn and copyright infringement. Binary Usenet newsgroups which allow users to exchange files are usually full of copyrighted music and movies (not to mention porn) and by eliminating them, ISPs avoid lawsuits by copyright organizations like the RIAA which love to sue people for "stealing" music and movies.

Removing binary groups supposedly also helps ISPs save on bandwidth but I don't think that this is the case. Most heavy binary users—the ones most responsible for driving up bandwidth usage on Usenet—will likely move to a third party Usenet provider if their ISP cuts their newsgroup service. And because these third party services tend to be better and faster than their ISPs service, these people will use them even more heavily than they ever used their ISPs Usenet service. And ultimately, the ISP will still have to move all of the bits to the end user even if they don't reside on their servers. My own intuition suggests that bandwidth usage will increase instead of decreasing.

But at least they won't get sued by the RIAA....

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Transformers

IO9 recently put up the pilot of the original Transformers cartoon, a show which I loved as a kid. It brought back some good memories. Even if the toys were kind of lame, I loved the show so for no reason at all here it is:

Friday, October 3, 2008

Google's CAPTCHA Cracked?

Slashdot reports that spammers are now claiming to have cracked Google's CAPTCHA system. This comes after reports that Microsoft's CAPTCHA system has also been cracked. And here I am always needing two or three tries in order to read Blogger's CAPTCHAs. It's a depressing state of affairs. It is now almost easier for spam-bots to send out penis enlargement ads and get rich quick scams than it is for legitimate users send each other pictures of cats....Now that I think about it, no one will ever notice the difference anyway.

Harder, Better Barack

I guess it's no surprise that Barack Obama supporters would be hipper than John McCain supporters. But this is probably the coolest of the pro-Obama videos I've seen so far.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Firefox Extensions: An Embarrassment of Riches

One of the great things about the Firefox web browser is the rich mosaic of extensions which are available for it. I recently excitedly installed an extension called Hyperwords which promises to pop up a wealth of references from any word which you highlight. It looked awesome but once I restarted Firefox and had a chance to play with it, I realized that I already have several extensions which already do much the same thing. CoolPreviews does the same thing on a smaller scale—it only pops up results from Google, Google Images, The Free Dictionary, and Wikipedia while the list of references is Hyperwords pops up is too long for me to list. But CoolPreviews also pops up a minimalist window on top of my current one with a preview of any url without opening seperate page. This is a huge time saver for me which allows me to go through web pages more quickly but it's still a duplication of functionality.

And it's not the only one. Ubiquity is also an extension which I installed enthusiastically and it too replicates a lot of the functionality of Hyperwords. But it is also one of the most ambitious extensions ever created for Firefox. Essentially a command line for the web, Ubiquity can bring up everything from maps to the weather and email, twitter, slice, and dice them in many different ways. It's tremendously fun to play with and useful and it promises to grow more sophisticated as it continues to develop.

But in the meantime, I have a growing list of extensions (twenty four in all) and Firefox no longer loads instantaneously as it did when I first installed it. In fact, it actually takes about thirty seconds to start which doesn't seem like a lot but it means that Chrome, which is Google's web browser, loads instantaneously but it lacks the powerful extensions to which I've become accustomed to on Firefox. It's an interesting conumdrum, speed versus power. It's compelling enough that I often run Firefox and Chrome side by side. But that's life on the modern Internet I guess, tons and tons of information and tons and tons of ways to use it and manipulate.