They Called It a Streak…

Previous Trivia Answer: Pete Sampras
Today’s Trivia Question: In a diner, when someone asks for “axle grease,” what are they asking for?

The Evil Petting Zoo streak is over. We had more than 6 people show up to play on the team last night for the P&H Trivia Tuesday, and so we split into two teams of 4, with one time taking the Evil Petting Zoo name, and the other team calling itself Evil Petting Zoo East (I played on that team). Well, long story short, we really ended up splitting the best trivia talent, and as a result, we both barely missed placing.

The streak consisted of at least placing (coming in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd) during each of the past 10 weeks. That means that you needed to go back to end of April to find a week where we weren’t in the money.

Oh, well. I guess it is time to start building a new streak!

A Lack of Value

Previous Trivia Answer: Brazil (which is the answer to just about any World Cup question)

Today’s Trivia Question: What men’s tennis player has won the most Grand Slam titles (14)?

Today, I meant to write about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a new movie Kath and I saw on the Giant Screen at the Muvico Peabody 22. There actually is a lot to say about this movie, which I really liked and goes a long way to illustrate what is right and what is wrong about today’s mass media culture (of which, this site is but a totally insignificant part). However, I’m forced to put off my thoughts on the movie to address something more annoying: the lack of apparent value provided by mobile communication providers, at least in Memphis. Kath and I went to investigate getting a second cell phone after the movie, and the experience left me shaking my head.

We all know that cell phones are a ubiquitous part of modern life. Everyone has one, even young people who have few other possessions, and many people have careers that depend upon them. Over the past few years in the US, the number of mobile communication providers has been shrinking, as the larger fish have been buying up the smaller fish. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, as it is part of the normal part of doing business. Consumers have come to accept the benefits and drawbacks to consolidation in various marketplaces. In Memphis, this consolidation has slowed somewhat, and there are really only a few providers of mobile communications that people have available to them: Cingular (which is really owned by BellSouth, and now, ATT), Verizon (the monster baby bell), Cellular South, Sprint, and a few other smaller players, such as Cricket.

I’m going to focus on Cingular, as I have the most experience with that company since coming back to live in Memphis in 2002, but I think my criticism actually touches each of the larger companies. And, while I actually like the service they provide, I don’t like the direction things are moving. Yes, my calls actually get through. They very rarely get dropped, and it is almost always a problem with the person I’m calling’s carrier. They provide good billing feedback, and they have a decent website to allow for as much self-service as I would like to do. But, I’m starting to wonder, are we all getting screwed anyway?

Cingular offers two kinds of service: pay-as-you-go service (called Go) and service tied to a time-based commitment (which can expire, but you are still tied to the terms of the previous commitment when it expires). The pay-as-you-go service only makes financial sense for a very limited number of people, and most of the people that use that service are only doing it because of poor credit or a lack of understanding of what they are paying for. But even people in a time-based commitment should really give some deep thought to what they are buying and why they are paying so much for it.

Here is a fact of retail: Most companies selling you products or services make most of their money from the middle of their product offerings. What this means is that, if Company X sells one widget for $10, a slightly better widget at $25, an even better widget for $50, and a top-of-the-line widget for $200, then Company X is going to make most of their money on the $25 and $50 widgets. The $10 widget will be widely purchased, but the profit on it will be so low that it won’t make much money. The $200 widget will make a good profit, but there is only a limited number of people that can afford it over the other widgets, which largely accomplish the same goals.

The mobile communications business is a shining example of this business in action. However, unlike other businesses, when even the savvy mobile communications consumer stays away from products they don’t really need or would be paying too much for, they are increasing getting screwed. It all comes down to how you use the device. If you get the most basic phone, you are committing to essentially $50/month for 2 years (once taxes and other fees are added in), which comes out to $1200, and that is only the case if you don’t go over the limited number of minutes you are given (currently 700 for the most basic plan). Plus the cost of the phone, which is about $50. If that seems like a lot of money to simply be able to have quick conversations with people for the next 2 years, that is because it is. That is a lot to pay for what is, regardless of what people have come to think today, a convenience.

More annoying is the fact that the high-end offerings really don’t offer much beyond what they offered a few years ago. Despite all of the talk of “3G” networks and quick Internet access in the palm of our hand, the reality is that high-end mobile devices continue to be (1) too expensive, (2) too proprietary, (3) too slow, (4) clunky to use day-to-day, and (5) more designed to separate you from your money than offering real value. A Palm Treo 650 with full service from Cingular will cost you at least $90 per month, just for voice and data, which comes to about $2300 for 2 years. Plus you have to buy the device for $350.

Can you check you email from anywhere (well, from most large cities)? Sure, but with a small laptop and a wi-fi connection, you can do it much more easily and be able to better reply and deal with attachments. Can you talk on the phone? Well, sure you can do that with a much cheaper device. Can you surf the web? Sure, but the experience on such a small screen and relatively slow network (when compared to cable and DSL) is painful. A lot of Treo users just don’t bother except for very specific things. Can you keep your addresses and other contact info in the phone? Sure, but you could do the same in a cheap $100 Palm PDA for whole lot less.

In short, the pace of mobile technology, considering both the devices and the speed of the network needed to utilize them, has not kept pace with computer-based technology over the years and continues to fall behind. This is largely because of the increasing control the ever-shrinking mobile communication companies have over the marketplace. These companies dictate what kinds of devices their manufacturer partners will make for consumers. In addition, mobile communication companies maintain a pretty strong grip on how their network is used. You aren’t likely to see a problem with file sharing on a mobile network, largely because it is more efficient to do that on a standard, wired Internet connection, but also because mobile companies don’t have to put up with it. In fact, they don’t have to put up with anything that doesn’t tie their customers to them for a long time, providing them just enough features not to transfer their service to the shrinking number of other providers in the immediate area.

Unlike areas like computers, we are unlikely to see positive disruptive technologies to shake up the marketplace and make mobile communication providers give more value to their consumers. This is why Cingular and other companies turn off the wi-fi capabilities of the Treos they sell: if you use your device on another (better) network and aren’t eating your minutes, you aren’t contributing to Cingular’s bottom line. This is also why, though the branding and retail marketing of mobile devices by mobile communication companies, you aren’t likely to see any kind of truly useful unified device any time soon. You know the kind of device I mean, one that will let you communicate how and when you want, in the way that you want, and provides hooks into other types of technologies (such as GPS) that will allow you to do more with less effort.

The potential exists, technologically, for a reasonably useful and affordable unified device to be made available in about a year. However, I don’t expect them to become widely available in less than 5 years. Too much money can be made in making all of us pay through the nose for upgraded features we really don’t need while we stay in line, waiting for the marketplace to provide the answer to our prayers. But, much like the electric car, it simply isn’t in the best interest of the the shrinking number of companies that sell mobile products and services to give us what we really need, especially if we are more than willing to pay for stuff we don’t need and will reap those companies a bigger reward.

Like most of the times the marketplace fails the consumer, we have only ourselves to blame.

In the end, Kath and I walked away from getting a new mobile phone. We may look again later in the year, but I won’t get my hopes up. We simply need many more people to say, “Enough! I’m tired of paying more and more for the same old thing. Give me something new and better or I’m not going to pay you anything.” Until then, we should all just be prepared to wait.

Do You Want to Play a Game?

Today’s Trivia Question: What was the first country to win two consecutive World Cups (1958 and 1962)?

I’ve learned something interesting about blogging, namely, that it is like a lot of other useful things that you might do on a computer: Any activity for which you can get paid for doing with a computer, such as programming, will trump any non-paid activity, such as blogging.

I’ve been burning the midnight oil a lot over the past few months working on various for-hire programming efforts. I’m trying to develop a strategy to that will allow me to write on this site daily, in spite the fact that I spend too much time in front of a computer anyway.

Speaking of computers, as any reader of this site might note, I’ve talked in the past about the potential of the Intel-based Macs, and I’m writing this on a relatively new MacBook. In short, I can say that all of the hype wasn’t really hype at all; the machine performs wonderfully and is easily the best computer I’ve ever owned. More on that later.

The new format for my postings will involve a trivia question and then an update on what I’ve been thinking about, playing with, enjoying, or whatever. Each trivia question will be answered the following day, but feel free to post your answers to the trivia question in the comments.

Cringely Comes Around

It looks like Robert X. Cringely has come around, and his latest article seems to echo, in large part, some of my ideas for where Apple may take this new fangled virtualization thing. I even got my thoughts mentioned on Macintouch about it. (I’m the second comment on that day.)

The point that we seem to agree on is that Apple will try to make running Windows applications easier by making having a Windows “system” easier. There are several different ways they could pull this off, including everything from a full virtualization environment, such as what Parallels is trying to pull off to a WINE-like system that allows you to, virtually, boot into Windows if you want on top of your Mac but also allows for Windows apps to run in Mac OS X like they do in WINE.

One thing that I didn’t really emphasize in my easier prognostications is the work that Intel has done to bring virtualization to the PC. Intel has slowly been putting in place a roadmap that changes their system architecture and brings up the possibility for a very interesting future. AMD is also doing the same thing, guaranteeing that virtualization will be part of our collective futures, possibly very soon. If you are interested, read this outstanding article that discusses these changes to computing and how we will be saying things like “What ring are you running the OS in?” and “I moved it from Ring 0 to Ring 1 and everything started working.”

Regardless, the future will be very exciting, and I can definitely see an Intel Mac with a lot of RAM and disk space in my future. And, I suspect, quite a few folks will follow me down that road, as well.

Crying Uncle

My brother, Jaymie, and his wife, April, celebrated the birth of their first child, Jacob Avery Pennington, today, Easter Sunday, April 16th, 2006. Mother and child are doing fine. Here are some photos:

Jacob and truk Jaymie, Jacob, and April

Click here to view some photos of the new kid and his adoring family

This makes me, for the first time, an Uncle. For some reason, that’s a strange concept for me…

I was lucky enough to already be in Little Rock, visiting some relatives in northwest Arkansas, and was able to be near during the birth. (Well, not that near; rather, in the waiting room, silly…)

Congratulations, Jaymie, April and little Jacob!

Nope – the First Salvo in a Cold War

Earlier, I made the (crazy? rediculous?) claim that Apple is actually aiming for a world where you will buy their (excellent) hardware and run whatever program you want on it. In this installment, I will attempt to explain exactly why I think this is inevitable and what some of the repercussions will be.

Like a judo master working against a slower opponent, Apple has slowly been putting in place the technical foundation that will let them be the (and not the current “a) preferred platform for workstation computing during the next decade. The move to a stable (if slow) version of BSD as the core of their operating system, the move to Intel-based chipsets, the push into consumer electronics like the iPod that are largely neutral to the computing platform of the end user, the ties made with the creative content makers (both corporate and smaller), all of these moves and more have put them into an excellent position to do what consumers really want a personal computer to do: let them do whatever they need to do on a computer using whatever software tool they want on a single, easy-to-use device. And the biggest obstacle Apple faces is that, currently, people cannot run Windows-based applications on their Mac in an easy way. Apple is embarking on a journey that will make that happen.

There have been a lot of attempts to allow users to run Windows-based applications without Windows. Probably the biggest is WINE, an open-source Quixote-like effort to allow Linux/Unix users to run Windows-based apps without an installation of Windows, essentially trying to copy the functionality of Windows DLLs and their APIs. However, despite years of effort and some pretty big names behind it, WINE never really took off, since it trailed the development of Windows (like trying to hit a moving target) and was constantly measured based on its variable compatibility with the most used Windows apps. Darwin, the open-source core of Mac OS X, has had its own WINE effort, called Darwine, underway for years, with little to show for it. However, these largely failed efforts have not escaped the imagination of Steve Jobs, and I’m sure that his inner circle noticed one important thing about WINE: If the user has the real Windows DLLs on their system (not the attempts by WINE to emulate them, but the real thing), WINE actually works great.

I expect that, either in the next major release of Mac OS X or the one after that, Apple will support running Windows in several different ways. You will be able to boot into Windows natively (which will probably only be necessary for certain games and industrial applications), boot Windows in a full virtual environment that will let you run Windows apps at native speed within a private Windows memory space, or (the default) you can just run your Windows application right on your Mac, just like it was written for Mac OS X.

I think that Tevanian left because there was an internal struggle at Apple when they realized what was possible, with Tevanian in one camp thinking that allowing Windows apps to run on Macs will kill Mac OS X development and Jobs in the other camp thinking that developers, when given the choice, will actually prefer making their applications on Mac OS X instead of Windows over time, especially when Apple comes to own 30% or more of the PC market. On this one, the boss got his way, and Tevanian stepped aside. Now, geeks are already running specialized versions of Windows XP (Media Center Edition and Tablet PC to name two) on Macs, and virtualization will bring the billions spent by Microsoft on R&D over the past decade into a competitor’s environment, running side-by-side. Once that the majority of the home PC market gets a taste of life on Mac OS X, there is a chance they will prefer it. They will gladly pay the Microsoft Tax for Windows and Apple’s high hardware prices for something that just works.

There have been a lot of rumors that Apple will sell a version of Mac OS X for Intel PCs that will not require Apple hardware. Those people have been smoking crack. What I do expect is for Apple to consider releasing an emulation layer that will let Mac OS X applications to run on XP and Vista. Why would Apple want to mess with the horrors of PC hardware drivers and configuration disasters? Let Microsoft worry about that stuff. As long as Microsoft collects their OEM tax from PC makers and the PC still leaves running Windows, Microsoft will be happy (at least for a while). But this is down the road, so I will leave this thread as something for you to ponder.

To the consumer, Apple will be known as the company where you can select from simple options to buy a computer, and that computer will be able to run just about any application you want. The computer may cost a little bit more than Dell or HP, but it will be well-made, look cool, and perform well on whatever you want to do. Since the Mac will not, by default, boot a full Windows environment but just use the installed Windows DLLs to allow Windows apps to work, most Windows viruses/spyware/malware will not work – most of these depend on a full version of Windows to operate, and the full version of Windows will not be running. Instead, I expect a microkernel written by Apple to broker the connection to the Windows DLLs, and it will protect users from bad things that Windows software will want to do. The consumer won’t see any of this, though. All they know is that don’t have to buy antivirus software (for Windows) or run Windows Update every 3 minutes or rebuild their system every 6 months to wipe off all of the junk.

But what does this mean for PC makers like Dell and HP? They will be fine. Corporate IT will largely ignore this development, and they will continue to pump tens of billions every quarter into traditional PC purchases, which will not (at least at first) be able to run Mac OS X apps. Apple will grow quite a bit and claim a lot more of the PC share, but it will probably be at the expense of smaller PC makers.

What about Mac OS X applications? Are they doomed? Probably not. After all, users will still have to pay for Windows if they want to run Windows apps. Over time, with more users being in a position to buy Mac OS X native apps, users will probably do so, especially if they only run 1 or 2 Windows apps. Apple will make running Windows possible but not as desirable as running only the Mac OS. You have to remember that Apple has some experience with doing this. Anyone remember the Classic environment running in Mac OS X? They were able to cajole millions of their users into the environment they wanted, even though a lot of those users were happy with the old environment. The move away from Windows will take a long time, possibly a decade, but the steps are in place.

Apple will become a computer company known for flexibility, which is ironic, considering their history of maintaining such as a strong grip of control on their hardware and operating systems.

Think it’s a pipe dream? Time will tell. Please feel free to comment…

Boot Camp, then … Detente?

Apple Computer’s unveiling of Boot Camp, the beta software designed to make it easy for Macintoshes to boot into Windows, has generated a lot of interesting prognostication about what else Apple holds up its sleeve. After reading Cringely’s column, and being one not worried about being wrong in the future, I think I understand, though imprecisely, where Apple’s emerging tactics are going to lead, and I think I also understand some of the implications. I agree with Cringely that it is a “whole new ballgame,” but think things will shake out a little differently.

Forget dual-booting, the functionality provided by Boot Camp on Intel Macs.

Forget virtualization, rumored to be a feature of the next version of the Mac OS X operating system, version 10.5.

Apple is actually heading toward a world where you will be able to run any Windows, Java, or Mac application, on your Intel Macintosh, all within Mac OS X, seamlessly. This is the reason that Apple’s lead software engineer Avadis “Avie” Tevanian left the company at the end of March. Unlike others that think that Apple with become yet another Microsoft operating system OEM, I think they believe that they will become the OEM for Windows, while driving Macintosh users that know and love Windows applications to Mac OS X applications.

What am I talking about? I think that in 3-4 years (and possibly sooner), you will boot up your Mac into Mac OS X. You will then be able to click a Microsoft Outlook (or whatever they call Outlook then) icon in the Mac OS X dock, and it will just load, just like any other Mac OS X application. Only that it’s not. It will use a Windows sub-system of software to work, just like any Windows-native application, only that the user will not see Windows booting and they won’t see any other connection to Windows on the screen. Or beneath the hood, because a full version of Windows will not be running, and viruses/spyware/malware cannot run.

More on this later.

A Couple of Interesting Photo Sites

I found a couple of photo sites that captured my eye:

Riya – This site lets you upload photos (like a lot of sites do), but Riya is special, because it allows you (as well as your friends) to annotate the photos, including identifying people and things in the photos. You can then search for these annotations. This is a great example of the emerging world of user-entered metadata, where people that don’t know anything about classification can help enter additional information about a particular thing simply by providing straightforward feedback about it in the interface in which they view it.

Border Film Project – These folks gave Minutemen militia members, as well as illegal immigrants trying to cross the border, disposable cameras and asked them to take photos with them and turn in them. (Click on the “B” in the home page to view the photos.) I found the Similarities page particularly interesting, considering none of these people knew that the other group was taking similar photos. Regardless which side of the ideological fence you stand, this was a really good idea, and I hope that other groups in conflict will be asked to do a similar thing.

Another Win for Evil Petting Zoo

The trivia team I’m a part of, Evil Petting Zoo, came in First Place last night in the P&H Trivia Tuesday Trivia contest. Chris Matz, a founding member of the team, calculated that it is the 26th time we’ve won the weekly event over the past 2 years:


2004 (8): 6 July, 13 July, 20 July, 14 September, 21 September, 12 October, 23 November, 30 November

2005: (15): 4 January, 11 January, 8 February, 8 March, 15 March, 29 March, 5 April, 12 April, 10 May, 14 June, 26 July, 23 August, 30 August, 8 November, 29 November

2006: (3): 10 January, 28 February, 28 March

That’s pretty cool… And it doesn’t count all of the other times we’ve come in 2nd or 3rd Place, which is still in the money. Of course, I didn’t join the team until beginning of 2005, and I am definitely not directly responsible for any of those wins. In fact, I often contribute to pushing us toward the wrong answer during a guess. Still, it is an honor to participate in something that is rather consistently successful. A lot of nights, I get to play trivia, drink beer, and walk out with at least as much money as I brought into the place. Now, that’s a great deal.

Here are some of the better questions from last night:

1) At what battle did Stonewall Jackson die? Chancellorsville

2) Which two US Presidents are buried in Arlington National Cemetary? John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft

3) Which three US Presidents died on the 4th of July? Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Monroe (strangely, Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4th)

4) What childrens book was GW Bush reading when Andrew Card interrupted him to tell him about the 2nd plane hitting the World Trade Center (only for Bush to continue reading to children for 5 more minutes)? “My Pet Goat”

5) Which famous Tennessean died of blood poisoning after damaging his toe from kicking a safe after forgetting the combination? Jack Daniels (no kidding)

Post a comment if you have a good trivia question for me…

The End of Milosevic: Good Riddance?

Milosevic Poster Covered in MudThe former President of Serbia and Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, died last Saturday and currently lies in state at the Revolution Museum in Belgrade.

Who cares about a washed up dictator near the end of a 3-year trial (and 5 years in prison) for war crimes? We all should. First of all, the world was robbed of the ability to hold a leader responsible for his vicious and dehumanizing actions, not terribly unlike the situation with Hermann Goering in the Nuremberg Trial, as Milosevic was only about 50 hours of testimony away from the case being sent to a tribunal of judges for a final decision. A properly-held, public trial is one of the best ways to assert that a set of actions was wrong and should not have happened, and many of Milosevic’s war crimes were beyond dispute.

Milosevic’s death before a judgement in his trial prevents us from publicly reviewing why he was considered such a bad man and a flawed person, one that acted according to his nature upon being placed in power. So, in a small way, I thought it might be a good idea to go over some of his most noteable acts:

  1. Milosevic deposed and eventually murdered (using secret police) his own primary political patron, Ivan Stambolic, in order to claim the Serbian Presidency.
  2. Milosevic headed the Serbian government during the Srebrenica massacre, directing his generals to take part in the massacre and worked extensively to cover it up. (If you want to view something really sickening, watch the execution video of these 6 men [RealPlayer link – go to the 2:35 mark in the video], which occured during Srebrenica.)
  3. Milosevic led his country into crippling sanctions, hyperinflation, and “a drastic worsening of living standards.”
  4. Milosevic took part in a joint criminal enterprise for the “forcible removal of the majority of the Croat and other non-Serb population from the approximately one-third of the territory of the Republic of Croatia that he planned to become part of a new Serb-dominated state through the commission of crimes”.
  5. Milosevic provided “financial, material and logistical assistance to local Croatian-Serb bodies, including paramilitary groups.”

Well, the list goes on and on. There is no way that I can list all of the major charges here. There simply isn’t time.

On a personal note, I know that, unlike most of the other despots around the world, I was directly impacted by the policies of Milosevic on two different occasions. First, while travelling on a bus through Sarajevo with my friend Dave Hanson in 1995, we were pulled off of the bus by Serbian policemen and had our belongings throughly searched, simply because we were Americans travelling (legally) through the former Yugoslavia. After not finding anything, the policemen verbally abused us and finally let us back on the bus.

The second time was almost much more serious. While on our honeymoon in July 1997, Kath and I were on a train from Prague to Istanbul when we go the word, while changing trains in Budapest, that Milosevic had closed the border to Americans (as retaliation for Clinton’s recent bombings of key Serb military targets). It was a Friday evening, and if we had not gotten this word, we probably would have been stuck at the border for the entire weekend. In order to dodge Serbia, we threw away the rest of our tickets and got on a train for Romania, which eventually took us to Bulgaria, where we got a bus (and a ride by a guy named Jonis) into Greece.

Of course, nothing I’ve experienced is even remotely close to the thousands and thousands that died from direct actions due to Milosevic’s policies. However, I’m no less sad to see him go. I only wish he could have stuck around to allow for some semblance of justice. But, I guess that was never his style…

Word for the Day – Capacitance

Reading a pretty interesting How Stuff Works article on how the 5th-generation video iPod works, I came across what has to be a word for the day: Capacitance.

In the article, capacitance is defined as the “build-up of an electrical charge between two conductors,” and it is used in relationship to the way the human finger can move along the arc scroll wheel of an iPod and make the wheel scroll in one direction and then the other. This is possible because the finger is a conductor of electricity, and so is the grid of metal channels beneath the plastic of the scroll wheel cover. The scroll wheel works by having your finger conduct electricity on the other side the non-conductive scroll wheel cover, causing the greatest build up of electrical charge at a particular spot on the grid below the scroll wheel, which can be turned in a precise location. The direction of the locations as you move across the scroll wheel allows the interface on the iPod to, well, scroll through menu options or songs.

The most impressive thing about the word capacitance is that it can easily be compared to popular notions poetry or art or philosophical thought. Think about it: capacitance requires that the two electricial conductors never meet. Otherwise, it is not capacitance. Imagine two forces that strain to touch one another but are prevented from doing so by an immutable obstacle. And it is precisely this obstacle than makes these two conductors two different conductors. Otherwise, they would be a circuit.

They are hopelessly eternally separated, but it is through that separation that they provide something meanful to the rest of us.

Free Emulator Software for Mac OS X

Q LogoVia a link on Macintouch, I’ve stumbled on some very interesting emulation technology that is open-source and runs on Mac OS X. Q is a Mac OS X-port of Qemu, a emulator (with an optional virtualizer) that is gradually gaining steam. I got Windows XP SP1 running on it pretty easily, and there are number of free operating systems that you can download and run immediately on Q, without needing to go through any install of that operating system. You just download the image of the hard drive with the operating system already installed on it from Free OS Zoo, point Q to it, and start up that virtual machine.

But let’s step back a minute. What is an “emulator,” and why would I want to run it? Well, an emulator uses software to emulate a processor (CPU and surrounding chipset) so that you can run software on your computer that will not otherwise be able to run on that computer because it does not have the required hardware support. For Mac users, this mostly means that it will allow you to run Windows, and therefore Windows applications, on your Mac. The Qemu project is actually more ambitious than that; they actually have the goal of creating an emulator that will allow any platform (operating system plus underlying hardware) to emulate another platform. This means being able to not only run SPARC-64 operating systems on my x86 PCs, but also running embedded applications (like those used on cell phones) on my Mac, if I want. It could (and has) allow people to run Mac OS X inside of Windows, after a bit of hacking at it. Here is a photo of Q running FreeDOS and a copy of Doom, the classic video game:

Q with Doom

I should state at this point that X86 emulation has been around on the Mac for a long time; people have been wanted to run important Windows applications on their Macs for well over a decade. Perhaps the most well-known emulator for the Mac was Virtual PC, written by Connectix and eventually sold to Microsoft, which has basically killed it off for Intel Macs. The problem with Virtual PC is that was written to specifically emulate an X86 environment on PowerPC chips, which were the CPUs used before Apple’s move to Intel chips, announced in June 2005.

The ability to run any application on any platform obviously brings up a lot of interesting possibilities, but Qemu even goes further than that by offering virtualization. This is where, instead of emulating another type of hardware, you actually run multiple operating systems, at the same time, on your current hardware, and Qemu is the application that actually connects these multiple applications to the host operating system. This allows you to run, say, 4 different Linux servers on the same computer at the same time. To the outside world, they would look and act like individual machines. Of course, VMWare has offered a similar capability for a while in a commercial application, and there are several other companies that are getting into this business. Qemu does it for free (beer, at least) and isn’t trying to support a limited number of host operating systems, like these commercial solutions. As multiple core chips become the norm later this year, this will become a bigger deal.

Q recently released a Univeral Mac binary, which could already be a big deal. More and more Macs being sold today have Intel dual-core CPUs. As Q doesn’t need to emulate X86 code when running on an Intel chip, then the speed of the emulator is much, much faster. Supposedly, Q running on a Intel Mac is about 50-70% of the speed of running Win XP on that same hardware natively (not using an emulator). This means that you could, on an Intel Mac with enough RAM and disk space, run Mac OS X and also run Windows applications at the same time. Most importantly, they would run fast enough to actually be useful. My use of Windows XP through Q was largely unsuccessful, because the speed of the emulation (particularly video and hard disk access) was so slow that it wasn’t actually useful – I would use the PC I have instead if I need to use Windows. However, if I can run Windows XP at something close to native speed on a Mac, it opens a lot of doors.

My brother recently got an Intel iMac. I wish I could give Q a try on his computer, but he lives in a different city. As it is, I will just have to wait until someone else nearby gets an Intel Mac before I can give Q a spin and see how real this opportunity really is.

Panoramic Stitching Software

Hugin LogoA few folks have asked me about the software I used to create the panographic images linked in earlier posts on this site. This question has a short answer and a longer explanation. The short answer is that I used a free (as in beer and speech – it costs nothing and the source code is freely available) tool called Hugin, which is actually an interface upon a collection of underlying panographic imaging tools that has been around for some time. In other words, Hugin simply provides an easy interface for you to use some other tools, which, while powerful, were never designed to be easy to use by themselves. Hugin runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, and I can strongly recommend it. I can also strongly recommend carefully reading through the FAQs and other documentation available with it, because it will save you a lot of aggrevation when you are making your final panographic images.

Making panographic photos is pretty straightforward, once you figure it out or someone is able to show you. There aren’t a lot of good tutorials on the Internet for this, and I think is probably due to the fact that the user-friendly tools, like Hugin, are so new. We will probably see more tutorials and examples appear over time.

All panographic images start with picture taking, and most digital cameras sold today will work fine to create panographic images with tools like Hugin. My old but trusty Canon PowerShot S40, like most Canon digital cameras (my favorite brand for digital imaging), includes a feature called Stitch Assist that helps you line up each image so that you can just take one shot after another, rotating in a circle, until you have a 360-degree view. Canon Stitch ModeThe LCD screen in on the Canon displays half of the previous image so that you can use it to make sure that the new image you are taking lines up and overlaps the previous image. Each of the files created using this feature are named differently compared to standard images, so that they can be easily linked to one another when you are ready to stitch them together. It is highly recommended to use a tripod when making these images, because you can make sure that the horizon lines up for each photo and you don’t have use the stitching software to compensate for the camera turned a few degrees either way.

It is worth noting at this point that you do not have to make a 360-degree panographic image. I’ve made a few of those, but you can can make an impressive 180-degree or less panographic image out of only a few photos. This is what I did with the Wanaka panographic image.

After you have pulled the images that will make up your panographic picture off of your digital camera to your hard drive, fire up Hugin and drag the images into it’s window that will make up one panographic image. After you are sure that all of the photos are loaded in the right order, you need to start making control points, or links that stitch one photo with the next photo. You might select a particular peak on a distant hill or a big rock in the foreground. As long as you set the control points that refer to the same item that appears on two images and are pretty exact about it, everything will work fine. You will need to set about 10 control points for each image. Importantly, you should also set a horizontal control point that marks the horizon for each image. This tells the stitching software to keep those two images on the same horizontal line and is critical when it comes time to optimize the image. This is what the stitching process looks like on Mac OS X:

Control Points on Mac OS X

Once you are done stitching, you should optimize the image by clicking the Optimize button in the Optimize tab, and then you should bring up the Preview window to set your borders for the image, and well as designating a center for the image. At this point, you are ready to stitch together an image and see how it turns out. If it looks bad, you can go back to Hugin, change some settings or control points, re-optimize, and create another image. The whole process to create a panographic image from stratch is about an hour, and re-creating final panographic images from your Hugin settings only takes a few minutes. This process is computationally intensive, so make sure your computer is up to the task.

I got started with panographic photography with QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR), which was something Apple introduced in the 1990s. While living in Australia during 2001-2002, I worked as consultant on a project to create a panographic service website for real estate pros. While that project didn’t end up going anywhere, I learned a lot about panographic imaging, including using what had become the standard free toolset, Panorama Tools, originally created by Professor Helmut Dersch of the University of Applied Sciences Furtwangen (yes, that’s an actual city name). I used the PTViewer, originally written by Dersch, to display panographic images on a web page.

In a lot of ways, panographic software is a great example of the promise, challenge, and opportunities associated with open source software. Dersch developed some fantastic, free software that made making and displaying panographic images much easier. Thankfully, he released the software under an open source license (well, most of it), which gave other geeks like me the ability to see the source code, necessary to build new copies of the software, fix bugs, and make improvements. However, Dersch was forced to shutdown his website and development due to the threat of a lawsuit from iPIX, a company already doing panographic images. (More info on this is available here.) However, while Dersch was stopped from doing development, the source code lived on, and while the threat of a lawsuit hung over developers, after a while, a number of polished tools started to appear. Today, you have the choice of using a free tool like Hugin to use the Panorama Tools, or you can choose a commercial software package that gives you some technical support, such as PTgui. Both of them build on the excellent work of Professor Dersch, and they wouldn’t be possible without the original open source development of the core utilities.

Cold Air Over Memphis

Wow, it’s cold in Memphis! A cold air mass moved in on Friday, bringing with it sleet and ice overnight, and by Saturday, we woke to a strange scene. Outside everything looked beautiful and white, but the air was so much colder than normal, and the ice seemed to melt in direct contact with the ground, though the ice above it stayed frozen in the cold air.

The low temperature was not a record (16 degrees F today – Sunday – while the record low for February in Memphis is -11 F – yikes!), but the wind chill made everything seem much colder. We actually moved out of our bedroom, which only has an electric portable radiator for heat, and started sleeping in the guest room, which is connected to our main boiler system. In the end, that almost became a very expensive mistake, as we had some pipes freeze in our back bathroom. This bathroom faces north, and it received the brunt of the cold air. The pipes that froze were not on an external wall, but they were close enough. Strangely enough, the drain also froze, and once we finally got the pipes unfrozen, it took a while to get enough hot water down the drain to clear the frozen blockage. It was even hard to walk around on our hardwood floors with wool socks on; the floors were frozen, and there was a layer of cold about a foot deep that made walking around very uncomfortable. Our boiler had a hard time keeping up, and I dread the gas bill for next month.

The real problem really wasn’t really the cold. Rather, it is that the walls, heating systems, clothing, and basically everything we use in Memphis to protect us from the cold weather in winter, is not made to deal with this type of cold for very long. When a cold weather system sits around for a few days, held in place by 10-20 mph winds, it can be pretty rough. It was the coldest I could remember Memphis getting, and the rest of the country was not spared, with L.A. getting snow and bands of sleet making it across Mississippi.

While we were iced in this weekend, I did finally get around to posting some photos from our trip to DC to see Aaron, Carrie, and Molly. That’s quite a cute kid…

Kath and Molly truk and Molly

More photos from the trip are available at the Expats photos area.

Wellington and Kaikoura Panographic Images

OK, no rant today. Rather, this post will be short and sweet. I’ve (finally) finished two more panographic images from the New Zealand trip.

Panographic Image from Mount Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand

View from the top of Mount Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand

Panographic Image from Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand

View from the eastern edge of the Kaikoura Peninsula, Kaikoura, New Zealand

Both of these links load a Java applet that will give you a 360-degree view from the place where I took the picture.

Post a comment if you have any thoughts of these images. Thanks.

Fighting Illness and Dreaming of Wanaka

I’ve got some sort of pretty resilient bacteria infection, and after seeing the doctor yesterday, I’m now on a collection of antibiotics and other medicines with the goal of giving the sickness the boot, once and for all. I usually don’t have a lot of good things to say about the medical system in the U.S., having observed it (and sometime used it) all around the world, but yesterday’s experience wasn’t too terrible. Now, just if drug pricing seemed more rational…

Well, that’s not really fair. Drug pricing in the U.S. is rational. Very rational. That doesn’t make it fair or affordable, but I should say that it makes sense. Simply put, Americans really don’t mind paying many times the amount the rest of the world pays for the same drug. We complain about it, threaten to do something about it, build layers of bureaucracy to try to make it more efficient, and use it as a talking point of what must be done to build a better society, but we really don’t care about it. Why? Because compared to most of the world, we’re rich. Drug prices, even stupidly unfair drug prices, hurt, but they don’t hurt enough for us to demand systemic change to the pharmaceutical industry.

I’m not talking about nationalizing the pharmaceutical industry. I’m a libertarian (little “l” – libertarianism is best realized as a philosophical outlook rather than a political party), and I would not nationalize any industry like that. Rather, I think that most folks haven’t given the pharmaceutical industry’s advances per their cost much thought lately, because they have been too busy yammering on about high drug prices. The facts are that, with very few exceptions, the pharmaceutical industry hasn’t cured very many illnesses in the past 50 years. What they have done very well, along with the medical supply industry, is provide decreasing percentages of improvements on existing drugs that treat mostly chronic maladies, allowing them to patent the marginally different chemical formula and create another wave of demand for what is essentially the same drug, only it help 2-3% more patients with a particular disease now.

Were this any other industry, I wouldn’t advocate a re-think of what we should expect from them. After all, aren’t they basically doing what the car industry has been doing for about a century now? Every year’s model is basically the same as the last, with slight improvements. Occasionally, you see a totally new model or a body style change on an existing model, but not very often, and the end result is basically the same: the ability to charge much more while your experience as a driver and the effect (getting from point A to B) doesn’t change very much. The problem with applying this model to the pharmaceutical industry is that people occasionally need drugs to stay alive, and the survival instinct will push them to pay more and more money for even the chance that they 2-3% improvement in the “new” drug will be more beneficial to them than the “old” drug, when actually they are pretty much the same.

This business model of low value for the consumer in matters of life and death also can be seen in hospitals and clinics, which struggle to purchase the very latest MRI machine, which can image only slightly better than the previous one but costs 4-5 time more. At the bottom of it all, hospitals, doctors, pharmacists, and everyone else in the health care industry knows that people will clamor for the very best equipment and chemicals, even if the treatment available from those medical tools is only very marginally better than the previous generation, which may have only been released a few years ago.

Eventually, I hope that we will wake up and demand true value from our health care industry. If a pill only gives a slight improvement over something that has fallen out of patent and is now available as a generic, just use the generic. Most people get the same medical problems, many of which have a treatment that hasn’t fundamentally changed for decades. I would gladly live with 1980 medicine if I could pay 1980 dollars to get it. As it is, the entire system only gets more and more complicated, and as more money flows into it, there are more and more cracks for money to seep out, into the pockets of middlemen, efficiency “experts”, and government bureaucracy. We should demand more for what we pay, and we should pass on the latest and greatest if its cost can’t justify its performance.

OK, if you’ve read through that entire rant, I’m sorry, and you deserve a lollipop. Or at least a picture.

Lake Wanaka Pano

I’ve been messing around with creating panographic pictures from freely available tools on the Internet, and here is the first one I have to show off:

South End of Lake Wanaka in the South Island of New Zealand

I’m still working on producing a couple of 360-degree images, and I’ll post them here when they are ready.

Stay healthy out there, for all of our sake…

Google Maps Tour of NZ Sights

One fun and cool thing we did on our recent New Zealand trip was take along a hand-held GPS device, loaned to us by our wonderful friend Frank Campagna, so that we could mark locations we visited. The GPS came in very handy when driving, as well, as we did have any other New Zealand maps with us, other than those in the guide books or tourist magazines we picked up along the way.

eTrex LegendFrank’s GPS is an eTrex Legend, which is a good, solid, basic GPS available from Garmin. The device has US maps burned into it, but you can also buy additional maps and load them on the device so that it gives you more than the basic longitude/latitude/altitude info when you leave the US. I picked up a copy of the Garmin WorldMap CD on eBay for about $50, which I loaded on to the eTrex. These maps did not give the detail of the US street level mapping, but it was enough to help us get around cities and get between towns. Overall, the system worked really, really well and made the trip much more enjoyable.

Along the way, we saved particular long/lat points on the GPS that we wanted to look up later. Using Google Earth, it is actually pretty easy to find a lot of the locations of the highlights of the trip. However, using the GPS, I’m able to find some locations that are not really clear on Google Earth, given the current low-resolution of most of their New Zealand image data.

Google Earth logoFirst, a word about Google Earth. Chances are, if you are reading this, I’ve probably had a chance to tell you in person how much I love Google Earth, especially as a fun, basic, fast GIS tool. If you don’t already have it installed on your computer (and your computer is less than 3 years old), go to the Google Earth website, download it, and install it. They have versions for Windows and Mac OS, so there’s really no excuse for not using this wonderful free tool.

Once you have Google Earth installed, there are quite a few things that you can do with it. One of my favorite is saving a location to file (Google Earth calls them KMZ files) that you can email to someone or post on a web page, and someone else can open it up and Google Earth will take them to that location. You can also chain locations together in a KMZ file to create a virtual flying tour from place to place within the Google Earth interface.

Below, I’ve posted links to a few KMZ files that will take you to locations where I took photos in New Zealand. Using Google Earth, you can see the view from space of the place where I took the photo. Previously, you could show someone on a map where you were when you took a particular photo, but now, using Google Earth, you can give them a different perspective on the same landscape in the photograph.

Note: You have to have Google Earth installed on your computer and have your web browser configured to pass KMZ files to Google Earth in order for these links to work for you.

icon Jaymie’s Tree in Blenheim – This is the tree that Jaymie picked out before we went on the trip and that we visited when we got to Blenheim.

Jaymie Tree in Blenheim

icon Interislander Ferry Moving Through Marlborough Sounds – This location came froma GPS coordinate (S 41 14 30.6, E 174 03 28.2) pulled off of the eTrex. Right after I took this coordinate with the eTrex, I shot these photos of Picton as we pulled into port.

Picton at a Distance Picton Close-Up

icon Kaikoura Panographic Photo – This is the location where I took a panographic photo I hope to post soon. In the meantime, these are more basic photos of the same area.

Kaikoura Left Kaikoura Right

icon Te Pukatea, Abel Tasman National Park – This is the beach Kath and I hiked to on the Abel Tasman coastal trail.

Kath at Te Pukatea Te Puketea Beach Shot

icon City of Westport, Western South Island, New Zealand – This is the mouth of the river, near the hostel where we stayed.

Westport Hill Westport Hostel

I’ll post some more of these, eventually, if it turns out anyone enjoys them. Leave a comment if you want me to post more.

EPZ in the Money, Again

Well, Evil Petting Zoo finished in the money again in the P&H Trivia Tuesday contest, barely grabbing 3rd place with a score of 49. This makes the 4th week in a row we’ve finished in the money, though Kath and I weren’t able to make the first 2 contests. Last week’s 2nd place finish felt good, because it marked the debut of the tiki statue we brought back from New Zealand, which is designed to scare the other teams with its spooky reflective eyes. So far, the reviews are mixed, but he is hanging in there.

The best questions from last week:

1) What year did the Miss America contest begin? [1921]

2) Who was the last ruler in the line of Ptolemy in Egypt? [Cleopatra]

3) What is Paul McCartney’s first name? [James]

4) Other than New Year’s Day, what is the only other U.S. federal holiday that can fall on the 1st of the month? [Labor Day]

5) What does the D. H. in D. H. Lawrence stand for? [David Herbert]

6) Which famous explorer fought in both sides of the U.S. Civil War? [Henry Morton Stanley]

7) Which native Tennessean held all state and federal offices available during his lifetime? [Andrew Johnson]

The questions tonight were just about as good. Some of the best ones include:

1) What is the first name of Anne Frank’s father? [Otto]

2) Which country hosted the 1994 World Cup? [USA]

3) Who was the first natively-born Israeli Prime Minister? [Rabin]

4) Who was the first U.S. President to appear on a coin? [Lincoln]

5) Which U.S. President was the only one elected to two non-consecutive terms? [Grover Cleveland]

6) McDonald’s hamburgers in New Delhi are made which what kind of meat? [Lamb]

Evil Petting Zoo will be asking the questions on April 14th. It remains to see how many folks will show up on Valentine’s Day to provide trivia answers in order to chase a few bucks.