Thursday, April 30, 2009


It's officially called the "Cloud Gate" but everybody calls it "The Bean."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Buckingham Fountain

Some pictures of Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park in downtown Chicago.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Easy Peasy Breathes New Life Into Old Netbooks

Easy Peasy is a Ubuntu-based Linux distribution for netbooks. One of the challenges with the original Netbooks like the Asus EeePC was that not only were they severely underpowered, they shipped with a virtually unusable version of the Linux operating system. I suspect that the current popularity of Windows XP on netbooks is at least indirectly related to the poor custom Linux distros which sort of looked like Windows but ran quite differently and were even clunkier and buggier than Windows. Unfortunately XP is also poorly suited to the very lowest of low end netbooks. I have an old Asus EeePC 4G with a 4GB solid state hard disk. Windows XP can quickly outgrow a 4GB disk.

Easy Peasy was better alternative with relatively modest hardware requirements. Installing it on my EeePC was easy and it ran much better afterwards. Now there is a new version of Easy Peasy out which promises to fix bugs, upgrade applications, and update the icons and color scheme. It looks like a promising piece of software and it is certainly better than the default operating system that usually runs on these little computers.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

New Windows 7 Hack Sounds Familiar

A recent Engadget article on a supposedly "unfixable" hack devised for Windows 7 had me scratching my head a bit. While the article was short on details, it seemed to have a familiar ring to it. So I looked over GRC's archive of Security Now episodes and found the podcast entitled "Blue Pill." Blue Pill was a hack that attacked early Beta versions of Windows Vista running on AMD processors. It took advantage of a relatively new features meant to support "virtualization" which, among other things, allows a computer to more easily run multiple operating systems at the same time. A good example of this are programs like Parallels and Virtualbox which allow Mac users to run Windows. Blue Pill was a root kit which like this supposedly unfixable hack, installed itself at boot time and bypassed the hard drive.

In order to support virtualization technology, Windows Vista introduced a "hypervisor" to control the operating system. Blue Pill essentially set itself up as a hypervisor for Windows. This new hack is probably doing the same thing. Which probably points to the way that this unfixable hack will be fixed. Windows will need to be running its own hypervisor at boot time. Of course, most people assumed that this was what Windows would be doing this ever since Blue Pill showed up. Oh well.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

PBS Video Goes Into Overdrive

Boing Boing Gadgets reports that PBS is now streaming episodes of its shows online. Actually, PBS has had a strong web presence for years and has been posting its shows for years. But they were always clunky and weird with programs split into segments which required Quicktime or Windows Media to view and would often crash your browser. Those pages are still around and provide valuable supplemental information. But the new PBS Video page is much slicker and features good ol' flash video in a smooth interface which allows viewers to see the shows in much the same way that you would on TV. As a big fan of Nova and Frontline, I find this to be great news.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Dinosoaur Roams Free

Here are some pictures of a dinosaur sculpture in Millennium Park in downtown Chicago.

The "Made in China" is what makes this high art.

Monday, April 20, 2009

CompanionLink to Bring Palm Desktop Sync to Palm Pre

One of the concerns for PalmOS users (at for this user) about the Palm Pre is data migration from older PalmOS devices. CompanionLink which for years provided solutions for syncing Palm devices with Outlook is now showing demo video of how syncing between a variety of desktop PIMs, including Palm Desktop and Outlook, and the Palm Pre will work.

This isn't a perfect solution for everyone I suppose since it uses Google as an intermediary but for those of us who have to use Google for their Android phones anyway, it makes migration to the Pre fairly natural. Now the biggest question is how much all this will cost. The Pre itself is likely to command a premium price when it debuts and MotionApps' PalmOS Classic emulator will likely be a separate purchase. Now we have CompanionLink's new desktop conduits as yet another potential expense. While a healthy eco-system of third-party applications will be necessary for the Pre to catch on, Palm also needs to consider the expense of upgrading from an existing PalmOS device to a Pre as well.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Here's game by Discover Magazine which can be both entertaining and educational. Create stars by setting off supernovas in a gas cloud. Level 3 is very challenging.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

PdaNet—Tethering For Android

One of the great untapped potentials of smartphones is the ability to tether them with a laptop and use their high speed connection to surf the Internet when there is no other kind of connection available. Unfortunately, the phone companies don't like this idea and tend to try cripple any tethering on their phones. Users often have to resort to measures like Jailbreaking in the case of the iPhone and rooting in the case of Android in order to get around phone company restrictions. Unfortunately these methods are difficult, unreliable and sometimes even dangerous to the phone's hardware. It's not uncommon for Jailbroken iPhones to be bricked by official Apple updates. And the Android rooting process makes Google's over the air updates impossible. As a result, I've tended to shy away from these tactics with my Android powered T-Mobile G1.

Luckily PdaNet, a tethering application that was popular on PalmOS and Windows Mobile smartphones has now come to Android. It is not, as far as I can tell, available from the Android Market. In fact there has been some controversy surrounding the Android Market as Google has apparently removed some tethering applications from the Market recently. So I had to install PdaNet the old-fashioned way. I downloaded it to my computer and installed it like a normal Windows application. Then I attached my T-Mobile G1 to it with its USB cable and let PdaNet install itself onto the G1 and as a modem for Windows. Finally I turned on PdaNet on my G1, turned off my netbook's wifi, and connected the PdaNet modem. I was connected at 2.4 Mbps to my phone, considerably slower than what my wifi connection allows, but plenty fast for most purposes.

The best thing about PdaNet is that it requires no dangerous tricks like rooting. It installs as a normal Android application and works without having to revert to an older, buggier version of the Android operating system (this is essentially what rooting does even if rooting can be used to unlock features which would otherwise be blocked on the phone). PdaNet has traditionally been fairly pricey for a phone application but for users who spend a lot of time on the road with no wifi, it can be worth it.

So We Meet Again Yahoo!

I like to play around with different browsers. Yahoo! Mail doesn't like that. Currently I'm playing around with the new Firefox 3.5 Beta, which for some reason was named "Shiretoko" by Mozilla, when I try to read my email. And Yahoo! Mail blocks me. This isn't the first time something like this has happened. Yahoo! Mail lets certain versions of Opera log on and then sends them into a constant redirect loop when you try to access your inbox. Yahoo! Mail also complains that the 1024x600 resolution on my Acer netbook is too low.

Ironically enough, the error screen that Yahoo! Mail throws up at me lists the browsers that it supports and one of them is Firefox or higher. Guess what Yahoo, Shiretoko is Firefox 3.5. That makes it Firefox or higher. Your own splash screen is locking me out of Yahoo! Mail even though I'm using a browser which technically is on your list of supported browsers. Another irony? Chrome which is not in Yahoo's list works just fine with Yahoo Mail!

Granted, Yahoo! Mail does let you go to its "classic" mail page but it's nowhere near as nice as the one that they are locking down so zealously. I have been using Shiretoko on a spare laptop for about a week and I haven't had a single crash. Google applications like GMail and Google Reader work just fine with it and I suspect that Yahoo! Mail would work just fine with it too. Yahoo! needs to get its act together or it will continue to fall behind Google in terms of web app functionality.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tree Style Tab

Steve Gibson has been promoting some of his favorite software and utilities on his podcast and he's just uncovered a really nice one. Tree Style Tab is a new Firefox extension which allows you to change the position of the tab bar and customize it in various ways. It also makes you tabs hierarchical, when you open a links from one page in new tabs, their tabs are displayed under the original page's tab in a little tree-like structure (hence the name Tree Style Tab). This is great for organizing your open web pages. It also adds some nice features to your right-click menu like the ability to highlight several and open them all at the same time which is good for viewing image galleries or for those annoying websites break up their article pages into six or more parts to serve up more ads make them more "readable."

Another nice feature of Tree Style Tab is that it allows you take advantage of the recent trend of "wide screen" displays on laptop screens and desktop monitors. By moving the tab bar to the sides, this extension reclaims vertical space on your screen and replaces it with horizontal space which is more plentiful on most people's screens these days. This is especially true with netbooks which usually have 1024x600 screens. Finally, Tree Style Tab can be set to automatically shrink or even hide the tab bar which reclaims even more space on your screen.

Overall, Tree Style Tab is one of the best Firefox add-ons I've seen.

Update: After a couple days using Tree Style Tab, I've found that while it's a bit rough around the edges, it fits very nicely into my browsing style and really complements the way I use Firefox. For example, I use Google Reader to read blogs and it has a rather convenient "Popout" feature which allows me to open embedded videos in their own window. While this is a nice feature, Tree Style Tab can also force this new window to open as a tab which expands to the size of my existing browser window. This is good as it allows almost full screen video for older computers with flaky video drivers which sometimes gag on full-screen video. (I have an older laptop which resembles that remark. Tree Style Tab can also this for almost any kind of pop up window and I tend to find pop up tabs preferable to pop up windows.

For Firefly Fans

Quantum Mechanix produces sci-fi memorabilia, including a lot of Firefly stuff. I'm not affiliated with this company in fact I don't even own any of their stuff. Having said that, I do follow their blog and was very interested to see their Map of the Firefly/Serenity universe. It's pretty elaborate and they also went to the trouble of creating this guide (PDF file) to the history of the Fireflyverse as a companion.

It makes for some pretty interesting reading. They postulate the Firefly system is a small star cluster of five stars and seven brown dwarfs. They also introduce the concept of "helioforming," by which brown dwarfs and very large gas giant planets are compressed and ignited to form artificial stars. It also talks about the terraforming process for the planets on this show suggesting that it would be necessary to compress planets and moons to make them dense enough to raise their gravity to that of Earth's and give them a second rotational axis to simulate the change of season that comes with Earth's 365 day revolution around the sun. It has some pretty interesting and attractive ideas to me and makes for interesting reading for fans of the show.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Apple Store Irony

I was watching yet another iPhone commercial telling me about all the applications available for the iPhone when a thought occurred to me. Really more of a memory. I was at the Apple store a couple of weeks ago buying VGA adapters for my Mac Mini. (I'm still wondering who was the genius who decided that the new Mini only needed a mini-DVI to DVI adaptor which was incompatible with the old Mini's DVI to VGA adapter.) One of the most ironic things about the visit, really the only ironic thing about the visit as the Apple store is a wonderful place to shop, was that the clerk who rang up my order used a Windows CE handheld scanner to scan my adapters. Amazing that after all these anti-Microsoft commercials, Apple still needs Microsoft powered hardware to sell their products....

Sad Little Flower Pot

Every spring, Chicago lines Michigan Ave. with beautiful flowers but not all of their arrangements come out so well. This little spinach, flower, and miscellaneous plant ensemble in a flower pot outside the Cultural Center for example has a rather odd and sad quality. I can't quite put my finger on it but it doesn't look right to me....

Scoville Park

Some monuments from this small park in Oak Park.

The fountain didn't work but it sure was pretty....

Sunday, April 5, 2009

From Seinfeld to Lauren to Giampaolo—The Irony to Microsoft's Madness

Microsoft has a new ad out. It follows the same pattern as the recent ad with "Lauren," the woman who decides she's not "cool enough to own a Mac" and opts for a cheaper, more sensible PC. It also includes the "I'm a PC" tag line which Microsoft has proudly adopted for its users of all ages. The current ad continues a campaign which began bizarrely enough with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates in a shoe store. Throughout the campaign, one point has remained constant—Apple is elitist and Microsoft is the computer for the "common man." Like a shoe bought at a discount shoe store, Windows is familiar and sort of comfortable and much, much cheaper than those hip Macintoshes with their fancy tassels and candy colored user interface.

I hadn't picked up on this message at first until last November's election when I was being bombarded by this message not by Microsoft but by John McCain who thought he could become president by branding Barak Obama as an elitist. Things didn't quite work out that way and I doubt that things will work out much better for Microsoft. If anything, it makes Microsoft look desperate for attention. This is ironic since despite Apple's growing popularity, Microsoft still dominates the personal computer market. But it's no longer as relevant as it used to be. As smartphones and web applications become more popular, people don't necessarily need to use a PC or a Mac to do many of the tasks that were once only possible with a personal computer. And even when these tasks are done on a personal computer the computer's operating system, the object of all these ads and counter ads, suddenly matters a lot less because of web apps which run in your web browser which itself does not need to be tied to specific operating system. That is the other irony, as Apple and Microsoft bicker over which computer you should buy, they do so from a position of weakness because Google is quietly (when was the last time you saw a TV commercial for Google?) usurping their place in terms of power and influence. It's as if in the last election after hearing Obama and McCain talk for months we'd all gone to the polls and elected Ron Paul president. It seems that advertising, like politics, is more about creating perceptions than it is about facts. This is shocking, I know.

Things get worse for Microsoft as its ads are essentially telling users that software doesn't matter, that style doesn't matter. The only thing that matters according to Microsoft's ads is price. So what if a Mac Mini can easily be hooked up to your HDTV and fits perfectly into your home entertainment center? An eMachines mini-tower is cheaper, surely the money you save is worth the extra effort of setting it up as a Home Theater PC, you can probably hide it in a cabinet or something. So what if a MacBook Air is thin and beautiful, netbooks are tiny and cost a third the price. Sure they're a lot less capable but for the price of a MacBook Air, you can buy three netbooks!

This is the final irony. Microsoft is not the cheapest game in town. While people like to complain about the "Apple Tax" which comes with every Macintosh, there is also a smaller but still significant Microsoft Tax which comes with every Windows PC. Linux distributions like Ubuntu are almost easy enough to use for most people and are getting better all the time. And they are free. Who cares if Ubuntu has a bland, mostly brown, color scheme with ugly fonts? It's free! Who cares, if that new HP computer comes in pretty colors? If you're smart and reasonably handy, you can just buy the parts, stick them in a generic case, throw Linux on it, and save yourself a few bucks!

By highlighting one virtue, price, Microsoft may be inadvertently preparing its users to eventually abandon it. Surely there are other virtues that Microsoft can extol. I've used Windows PCs for most of my adult life and it wasn't because entirely because of their price. I've used Windows for years because it was easy to use, well organized, because it has thousands of applications (and is backwards compatible with thousands of older applications) available for it. Those seem like pretty good reasons to prefer Windows over Mac OSX. Of course, I can also run Windows on a Macintosh fairly easily. In the past this was difficult and slow but nowadays it's easy and fast because the truth is that when you crack them open, a Windows PC and a Macintosh are basically the same machine. They both run on Intel processors and surround them with the same basic set of components. That is the zeroeth irony, one that is so obvious that it should have come before all of the others. At one time, PCs and Macintoshes were built around completely different architectures. But now, they are nearly identical except for the software that runs on top of them. At time when the PC versus Mac debate has become more heated than ever, it has become more irrelevant than ever.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Robots Go To War

I found this TED Talk particularly compelling. Part of it is probably just withdrawal from the end of Battlestar Galactica. Since the presenter talks about modern-day battlefield robots, it's easy to imagine these machines becoming more and more like the Cylon "toasters" in the future. Beyond the sci-fi becoming reality angle, the talk goes into some very interesting issues of how people react to the use of war robots. When the warriors are expendable, they are more likely to be used to wage war. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the talk, is the quote from an official who fells that there is no moral quandary with the use of robots on the battlefield, "unless they kill the wrong people. Then, it's a product recall issue."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

MotionApps Brings PalmOS Apps to Palm Pre

One of my misgivings about Palm's upcoming Pre smartphone with its fancy new webOS and way cool Synergy with all of your Internet based information was that it was not backwards compatible with PalmOS applications. Now MotionApps is creating an emulator for running PalmOS apps on the Palm Pre's webOS operating system. This is pretty good news for me even if it means I have to shell out more money for the application. I've depended on PalmOS applications for a decade and I still haven't found better alternatives for many of them on other platforms. So I'm a little more excited about the Pre than I was yesterday.