Jun 22

Reports of PC’s Impending Death Greatly Exaggerated

One Farhad Manjoo has attracted some attention by projecting in an article written for Slate that desktop PCs are headed for extinction, outcompeted by laptops and netbooks.

I have seen the future and I say “Balderdash!” It is undoubtedly true that computers will continue to get smaller and lighter and more portable. Indeed, I’m expecting that for most people, descendants of smartphones will become their primary computing devices. I am, however also certain that this does not imply the demise of “desktop” systems.

Manjoo, and other enthusiasts for the imminent death of the desktop PC, are missing a basic ergonomic point. Computers themselves could shrink to the size of a matchbox without inconveniencing anyone – but some of the things attached to them are scaled to humans and don’t shrink so easily. Of these, the two most significant are display screens and keyboards.

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Jun 19

A Specter is Haunting Genetics

Had my life gone a little differently, I might have been a molecular geneticist and hip-deep in what is now called bioinformatics. When I was twelve or thirteen or so I came to intellectual grips with the fact that I have congenital cerebral palsy; shortly thereafter I dove into the science of congenital defects, developmental biology, and from there into genetics. Eventually I taught myself a fair chunk of organic chemistry before becoming fascinated by linguistics and theoretical mathematics, and a few twists and turns from there got me into software engineering; but my interest in genetics and human developmental biology didn’t cease so much as become pushed into the background. I give this background to explain why I’ve been paying closer attention to genetics than most people do ever since.

In the wake of the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, I’ve seen three or four forward-looking articles about the implications of cheap genomic analysis (most recently a quite good one in The Economist) all of which are are haunted by a common fear. It’s almost like they’re written to a template; glowing projections of accelerated drug discovery, personalized medicine, and deep insight into the nature of humanity, ended on a worried note about what we’ll find when we discover just how much of human variation is genetically rather than environmentally controlled. Sometimes the prognosticator can only bring himself to drop hints, but the braver ones come out and ask the question: what if it turns out that genetic differences among races are real and actually matter?

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Jun 11

Hanging nicely: a practical tip for pistol-wearers

I made a minor but useful discovery about pistol holsters this morning. It may be something a million shooters have figured out sooner, but since it took me over a year of constant carry to notice there are probably at least as many who haven’t. Therefore the following tip.

I use several carry methods depending on conditions. One of them is a DeSantis MiniSlide, a smallish leather belt holster designed for concealed carry; my belt threads through slots in the holster’s side flaps. While this rig is generally satisfactory, it has shown some tendency to slide around, and adjusting the rig when it slips into an uncomfortable position is something I prefer not to do in public.

This morning it occurred to me that I could cut down on the shifting by threading my belt through the rear slot in the holster, under one of the keeper loops on my Levis, and then through the front slot of the holster. This does two good things: (1) it snugs down the belt between the holster slots, slightly increasing the inward pressure on the flaps so slippage is decreased, and (2) it prevents the weapon from sliding any further forward or back than the point at which one side will hang up on the keeper in the middle.

That is all.

Jun 10

Missing the point: The real stakes in the smartphone wars

The responses to my last several posts on the smartphone wars (The iPhone 4: Too little, too late; More dispatches from the smartphone wars; Steve Jobs’ Snow Job; Flattening the Smartphone Market; Now’s a bad time to be an Apple fanboy…; Android Rising) demonstrate that many of my readers continue to miss the real stakes in the smartphone wars and the real point of my analyses of them.

It’s not about whether or not Apple will be crushed. It’s not about who makes the “best” products, where “best” is measured by some interaction between the product and the speaker’s evaluation of the relative importance of various features and costs. It’s about what the next generation of personal computing platforms will be. Down one fork they’ll be open, hackable, and user-controlled. Down the other they’ll be closed, locked down, and vendor-controlled. Though there are others on each side of this struggle, in 2010 it comes down to whether Apple or Android wins the race to over 50% smartphone market share; after that point, network effects will become self-reinforcing until the next technology disruption.

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Jun 07

The iPhone 4: Too little, too late

As I write, the announcement of the iPhone 4 at WWDC is just a few hours old. See the Engadget coverage for details. The bottom line? This is too little, too late to stop the Android deluge.

There are some very cool individual features on this phone, no doubt. The two that stand out the most to me are the onboard gyroscope and the “retina display” – yes, 960 x 640 at 326ppi will be damn nice, and if I were writing apps I would seriously lust for that six-axis motion sensing. But the improvements are mainly in the hardware; Apple has conspicuously failed to address the areas where it has fallen behind Android 2.2 in software. There’s no progress on voice recognition, Flash, or WiFi hotspot capability. And even the hardware falls short of where it needs to be; while 802.11n is nice, the “G” after that “4” is conspicuously missing.

If I were an Apple marketing guy, I’d be asking “How the hell can I compete against the EVO 4G with this?”

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Jun 04

More dispatches from the smartphone wars

Well, it was fun carrying the most advanced smartphone on the planet. For a whole 32 days. But the Sprint EVO 4G launched today and its specs – especially the larger OLED display and WiMAX capability – put the Nexus One in the shade.

The bigger story today, though, is the ripple effects of AT&T consigning its unlimited-data plans to the dustbin of history. Gizmodo’s take, AT&T Just Killed Unlimited Wireless Data (and Screwed Everybody in the Process), is pretty representative.

Because I understand how network costs scale I’m more sanguine about the longer-term prospects than Gizmodo is. Unlimited flat rate will return when someone – probably Sprint, given the nature of their network buildout – decides it’s a useful competitive weapon. That will force others to follow suit; the market-equilibrium condition will be all flat rate, same as it is in voice calling today and for exactly the same reasons.

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Jun 01

AIS “security” considered harmful

One Kelly Sweeney is publicly advocating that public access to AIS ship information should be prohibited in order to foil pirates and terrorists.

I must respectfully disagree with the premise of this article. I’m the lead of GPSD, a widely-used open-source GPS/AIS monitor daemon, and I am thus both a domain expert on AIS and a systems architect who is required to think about data security issues all the time. Attempting to “secure” AIS data would harm the public and have no security benefits. In fact, the second-order effects would be seriously bad.

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