Andy Weir’s The Martian

I’ll just say that Andy Weir’s book The Martian is the most fun read I’ve had in the last year or so. I’m not to the end yet, but I’ve been simultaneously on tenterhooks while laughing. I’ve wanted to play hooky from work to finish it. You should read it.

(And if you haven’t read John W Campbell’s The Moon is Hell, then that’s another great one. A similar problem, but set on the moon. Written in 1950, so it’s a bit dated, but still pretty darned good).

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Klackity Klack

I make my living by typing stuff on a keyboard, all day long, so it makes sense that I use the best equipment I can find for the job. Keyboard manufacturers have other ideas, and for the most part just seem to be throwing junk against the wall to see what sticks. I’m convinced that the majority of keyboards not really designed, but rather simply mutated to test what sells. And most people don’t know how to type, so we’re in a vicious cycle that’s going to wind up with me being unemployed because all available keyboards will have degenerated to F1, arrow keys and a “Goto Porn” shortcut button.

So to help stave off this bad eventuality, a while ago I created an objective point-based system for evaluating keyboards, and I thought it would be useful to share it.

20 points. Where is the capslock key? Yeah, I already know where capslock is going to be, so except for exactly one keyboard I’ve ever used this is always -20 points, but hope springs eternal that keyboard designers will finally get a bloody clue and put capslock where it belongs, wayyyy up there on the right, next to those keys that nobody knows what they do (SysRq and PrtScn, natch). Illuminate the fucker and when it’s enabled make it strobe fast enough to give you an epileptic fit because you NEVER want that thing on.

10 points. Is the ESC key a first-class citizen? Or is it a diminuative nub located in the hinterlands, hanging its head in shame because keyboard designers (who went to art school or had their minds broken up for parts and sold in MBA school) were afraid of its mystery? “Escape from what? That sounds subversive.” I can see the conversation in marketing: “Who ever types ESC? Why would we trust them? Do any of YOU ever use escape? Apparently we need it for legal reasons, but we don’t have to like it.” Naturally none of these people would be caught dead using EMACS or vi or really anything other than PowerPoint, so they’ve never been acquainted with the joys of hitting ESC every third of fourth keystroke. ESC needs to be right around squiggle, or the keyboard can go to hell.

20 points. KLACKY keyboards feel great but they will get you knifed in the back by the people who work near you. The opposite — mushy — will get the keyboards broken in half and thrown into the microwave on DEFROST. TWO POUNDS. KEYBOARD. I prefer something with a slightly klacky feel, enough that I know that the key was registered, but not noisy enough to get me pushed into the elevator shaft onto some bullets.

5 points. Utility in an emergency. Can you paddle your canoe across the newly created Lake Server Room to reach the UPS control panel and still get all the servers back online by hitting ESC at the right time? If so, you’ll be a hero. Be prepared!

5 points. Inverted-T arrow keys, thanks.

5 points. No shifty magic. Page up, down, home and end without involving some arcane FN shifter (which is always colored blue for some reason).

30 points. Split Ego. A sensible “split” ergo angle or I can’t type on you. (I can’t paddle across Lake Server Room with one of these, but then again I have a set of nunchucks. Life is full of trade-offs like this).

5 points. No funky modes (e.g., “alpha mode” or “F-key mode” or “mysteriously type random shit without any way to turn the mode off other than rebooting the computer, unplugging the keyboard and jumping up and down on it in shitkicker boots” mode).

10 points. Comfy when used as a pillow? Unfortunately no keyboard has ever passed this test. 5 points for being drool-resistant, then.

5 points if there are no helpful bullshit MAIL and WEB or WEIRD ICON buttons (“that looks like three Lego minifigs having wild and uninhibited . . . brunch”).

100 points. Longevity. Keyboard will last at least a decade, and I’ll be able to buy another one then. I need to specifically exclude the Microsoft keyboard division, since it hasn’t made a worthwhile keyboard in over a decade (and I’ve exhausted my stockpile of classic Microsoft Natural keyboards).

—-

This was typed on a Kinesis Freestyle 2 split ergo keyboard, with only a couple critical key remappings (capslock, and duplicating ESC onto F1).

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And lo!

And on the eighth day, God said, “I need a really good symbolic debugger.”

[apropos of nothing]

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Defection

[tl;dr; I got a new phone. Most boring blog post ever.]

After using a Windows phone for three years, and generally happy years at that (except for the last 6-7 months), I finally ditched it and went to an iPhone [sorry, Jack, but an Android just wasn't for me].

I really liked the Windows phone UI. It was easy to use, nicely customizable  in terms of tile layout, and for the most part I had all the apps that I wanted. The cameras on the two Nokias I had were great, and the build quality was excellent. I’ll miss the mail client.

However, the Nokia 920 has some problems, the worst of which are some bits of the system software which refuse to sleep, spin like mad and make the device grow hot to the touch. After months of waiting for updates to fix things I was running out of battery mid-day and running out of patience.

Last week I talked to some AT&T storefront sales types about the sad, sad state of the Win8 phone’s low-level software and AT&T’s utter inability to address it, other than financially. And they weren’t interested in doing anything. Calls to multiple levels of managers went unanswered.

Turns out that if you go into an AT&T store with a fresh quote from T-Mobile and say, “Are you interested in keeping a customer? This is your last chance!” the sales types become a lot more reasonable. I got a replacement iPhone 5S (which I paid for), but kept my decent plan and didn’t pay the bogus early termination penalty. I did some research; they didn’t lose any money on me, nowhere near.

I’m sad to see the WinPhone go, but it really had to. The patch rate for such a new product (WinPhone 8) was pretty miserable, and not improved by AT&T’s foot-dragging. If Microsoft/Nokia fixed this and started releasing updates and fixes on a rapid schedule (I guess that every couple of months would be “rapid” in comparison) without fanfare, that would probably do a lot to improve their image through word of mouth.

Also, that “customer feedback” they gather? It should include device temperature. I’m just sayin’.

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Minecraft / Brainfuck Computer

This description of a Minecraft-based computer implementing Brainfuck had me laughing:

The program code is stored using villagers with different names for each command. While the program is running they are moved between three compartments …

[These] are the 8 registers that store the data. Each consists of two droppers and two hoppers that exchange dirt blocks

Not unlike some web frameworks I’ve seen, quite frankly. Someone needs to implement PHP in Minecraft hardware.

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Windows audio shenanigans

I just spent about an hour two hours twisting knobs trying to get my Windows 7 desktop machine to listen to a microphone jack. I have a relatively nice USB-based audio thingamy (yes, it’s by Creative Labs, but the USB protocols are dead simple, right?) There’s a jack there, it’s got something plugged into it that’s emitting sound, but my recorder app can’t even open it.

So:

1. Get the latest drivers from Creative Labs. Suffer the usual 100MB download (I care about maybe one megabyte of it). Install. Reboot. Cringe at the full screen bullshit that Creative inserts in the boot process. Go ahead, Creative, I don’t use my computer for anything other than running your glorious software, so have your way with it. Uninstall and reinstall some other software that the CL stuff is unhappy about coexisting with. Reboot again; this is Windows.

2. Still doesn’t work. Continue to twist knobs. After about 20 minutes I realize that enabling the “Listen” option (buried two or three nested and tabbed dialogs deep) on an input makes it impossible to select any other input as a default. The failure mode is, shall we say, not obvious. I think I know the guy who “fixed” this stuff from Vista.

3. Don’t get me started on the iTunes user interface. Apple can afford to buy whole countries but apparently they can’t afford an engineering team that can design UI. Maybe it’s just my familiarity, but the Zune UI is way better, guys. Shouldn’t that shame you into doing something with iTunes?

I had to do this on my desktop because the Linux laptop I wanted to use has incredibly crappy audio circuitry. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t realize how jaw-dropping miserable it was until I saw the noise floor. Really don’t buy Lenovo hardware.

Why do we make things so hard?

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Dear Newspapers

Dear Newspapers with your “ten articles a month and then we’ll shut you off unless you pay us” model:

I have no idea why you think that’s going to work, or why you think I’d give money to you over a dozen different papers all over the world just like you in order to read a random link. You might as well have a hard paywall.

(We /do/ pay for one newspaper access, our local Seattle Times, because, well, it’s local).

They need to band together and make a pool of readers and a single login; this one-off subscription thing is never going to work for them. Maybe this exists?

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Assassin’s Creed Black Flag

I’m pleasantly surprised. After the train-wreck that was Assassin’s Creed III (and I heard that AC Brotherhood was about as much fun as a sucking chest wound), about two hours into the fourth one (pirates!) I’m happy to say that the fourth iteration doesn’t suck.

AC I - Okay, but grindy and mostly the same after the first few hours.

AC II – I played the hell out of this.

AC Brotherhood – Stay away.

AC III – I wish I had never played it.

AC IV, Black Flag – Looks promising. The controls are a bit sensitive — I find myself leaping onto crates and climbing walls when I want to stealth — but on the whole it’s fun.

 

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Forthcoming books

2014, the SF books I’m looking forward to are:

  • Steven Gould, Exo (in September)
  • Joe Haldeman, Work Done for Hire (in January)
  • John Varley, Dark Lightning (in August)
  • Charles Stross, The Rhesus Chart (July)

That is all.

 

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Dear SOAP

Dear SOAP,

Please drop dead.

Sincerely,

/s/ an engineer frustrated with over-designed, under-implemented and uselessly complex, bloated and generally fucked-up “standards”

 

SOAP replies

Dear Dadhacker,

I’m here to stay. Suck it.

-Sudsy

 

Dadhacker’s response

Dear SOAP,

My name is Dadhacker. You killed my whole day. Prepare to die.

Sincerely,

/s/ Your Nemesis

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