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The Northern Spy
January 2009

Review and Prognostication 2009

Rick Sutcliffe

Remember When

the old IBM platters held 30M and worked with a 30ms access time, giving rise to the 30-30 designation, and the moniker "Winchester", something that has stuck to hard drives to this day? Remember the earliest hard drives available for small computers? The Spy's faulty memory recalls a 5M capacity for an early Apple product.

Now we have USB memory sticks with capacities of 16G and 32G, and Intel recently released a 160G version of a two-and-a-half inch form factor solid state drive. This is one time when the Spy won't need his future-pointed time-machine-enabled telescope to predict the obvious future. At some point not very far away, the price point of SSDs will cross that of the mechanical drives, driving the clunky old technology into rapid oblivion. Not may technology years afterwards, optical-mechanical drives will also be replaced by a version where the lasers move (are directed) but the medium does not--a solid state optical system. Mechanical drives are going nowhere, storage without moving parts is coming on fast. How fast is it coming, old man? The Spy sees gradual adoption in 2009-2010, followed by a landslide in 2010-2011.

Once upon a time, there was an OS named Vista,

the MS-OS that supposedly replaced XP and other previous versions of Windows-cum-MS-DOS. Unfortunately for "progress" XP has better legs than a Longhorn, and a sturdier reputation than its putative successor, which has proved in practise every bit as shorthorn as pundits claimed it was in theory (not that the two always line up; see the Spy's third law). So many sellers of W*nd*ws boxes have ditched Vista in favour of installing XP, so many customers have demanded the older and more reliable product, that MS has now extended XP's lifetime, possibly allowing it to survive as an officially marketed product right up to the debut of Win7, now expected sooner rather than later this year. There is, unfortunately, no substantive indication that the new product will have anything but cosmetic differences from Vista.

Among other factors, the Spy's fifth law is in operation here. As a single product, Windows is simply too large to be a practical software engineered project (if indeed it ever was). Mac OS X, however, is a pretty face on a Unix core, which for all its faults, is modular, is mature, is maintainable, is reliable and can therefore be regularly upgraded by Apple even as the MS product falters. This is all predictable; it reflects a universal relationship between monolithic and modular software projects.

Now comes word that MS is contemplating significant layoffs in the wake of disappointing financials. The rumoured date is January 15. The Spy won't be held to someone else's rumour, but feels a downsizing at the dinosaur vendor is overdue. When it happens it will mark the beginning of the passing of an era. Among the inattentive who didn't see this coming, it is likely also to send new shockwaves through parts of the economy.

Not that all of Apple's own updates have been flawless,

for many users (the Spy not included) have had issues with the recent 10.5.6 update stalling and being unable to complete. Apparently the stall is a symptom of an incomplete download of the actual update. The only way to recover from this is to quit, force quit, or even force restart the computer, then delete the files in/Library/Updates, re-run Software Update, downloading the update again and finally doing a fresh install. Only when working with computers is the right thing all over again to do to try exactly the same procedure as has already failed, hoping it will work the second time. In most endeavours, that is a decent working definition of insanity. Aren't update archives supposed to check themselves for completeness when opened for use? Whoops.

Forward to the past,

could be a good slogan for MS right now (see above) but it isn't one the Python developers have adopted. Version three of the language will have Print () as a function rather than a statement, thus requiring different syntax and breaking all existing code. This will upset some practitioners, even while encouraging purists among language designers (people like the Spy IOW). Mistakes in language design should be changed, not supplemented and deprecated. The maintainers of other programming languages need to learn that they should not continue to support old errors just because merely for the sake of an existing code base.

Mayhap the time will soon archive when a brave new Niklaus Wirth will arise to design a new programming notation in the spirit of Modula-2 (KISS)--one that will sweep aside the accumulated junk the C notations saddle us with and effectively press a reset button for programmers. Fond hope that.

But speaking of Modula-2, the Spy notes a new version of the p1 compiler for the Mac was recently released. Version 8.3, adds better support for building universal binaries, has a reworked C back end, several new features added to the genmake tool, and syntax coloring definitions added for Xcode integration. IHHO, Modula-2 is still a superior tool. Try it.

The Spy bought a new refrigerator lately,

to wit, a (non_Profile) GE, when the compressor on his 16-year-old Amana overheated and fried some of the electrical insulation, filling the kitchen with acrid smoke, and causing him to reflect on both the transience of life and the state of the market in the appliance world. A refrigerator is hardly high-tech--just an insulated box with shelves, a heat pump and a minimal primitive controls. Despite the illusory plethora of apparent model names, there are only a couple of North American manufacturers, the only variants being the location of the freezer (top, bottom or side), the door style, and the number and quality of shelves.

The price range is vast ($500-$5000+), the markup steep, the parts fragile, and the expected life under a decade (better than a computer, but not much for so simple a device). Extras can cost a fortune, as the Spy discovered when he wanted to add a freezer shelf for which the side glides were provided (same body molding as the GE Profile models that come with the extra shelf) and found the simple wire basket would cost over $100 and was backordered at least eight weeks. GE does appear to stand behind its products, and has agreed to supply the missing levelling feet and a new bottom grill to replace the broken one it came with.

As with automobiles, cosmetics and trivial options can make a difference of 25-50% in the price, and commission sales people are often empowered to knock up to 20% off the listed price to make a sale (and to ensure they can buy more than a can of beans for supper that night--what a cruel way to live).

Some stores sell computers the same way, but the markup at retail is much less, the technology far richer and somewhat more varied, the competition steeper, and the options (read software and hardware addons) nearly unlimited. That's because computers are general purpose machines capable of doing many things, whereas an appliance is a specific purpose device of extremely limited capabilities and even more restricted options. A refrigerator can make things cold; a toaster makes them hot. Indeed, the only thing a refrigerator and a computer share in common is a susceptibility to failure due to power brownouts, which are just as hard on compressors as they are on chips. All these observations are to the point of reinforcing the Spy's tenth law--computers are not appliances, they are compound mitre saws. Fearless prediction: this fundamental fact of electronic life is not about to change.

Speaking of predictions,

the Spy doubts that Elevation Partners' latest infusion of $100 million in equity to beleaguered Palm can make much difference in the long run. He well recalls what happened to Miranda camera in the early 1970s when it was unable to deliver on a new model of the Sensorex camera in a timely way. Announcements of new product notwithstanding, the inventor of the SLR technology faded and died when others made it to market more quickly with improved models and ate their lunch. Palm appears to be living the same film as it desperately tries to bring to market new models to challenge Apple, RIM, and Nokia. Despite that he owns a still-functioning Palm Treo 600, the Spy can't see Palm as one of the survivors. Pity. The company once brought much to the table.

This, by the way, may be an illustration of a broader principle. Bailouts seldom work. GM, Ford, and Chrysler are in a similar position--making obsolete, overpriced, and over-optioned products no one wants. One or more will surely die, bailouts notwithstanding, and the only hope of survival for any of the big three is the ability to retool to something better within six months at the outside, an outcome that seems improbable. A $40K electric-gas hybrid is not the answer BTW.

iSteve's little company, by happy contrast, is in the position of making products that people do want, recession notwithstanding. Consequently, the company's future, for this year at least, is easy to predict. In order of priority, refresh the mini, the other desktops, then some of the iPod lineup, and perhaps bring out a smaller iPhone variation. If there are to be new and innovative products, they would have to fit into the price and functionality niche between the iPhone/iPod and the MacBook Air. An ieBook reader? Perhaps, but Apple insider proponents will have to overcome iSteve's distinct lack of enthusiasm before making a device that would necessitate adding this new section to the iStore.

On a related note, the Spy observes with interest claims that laptop sales now exceed those of desktops. He expects this trend to continue, but foresees a continuing demand for the more powerful and more customizable desktop machines for some time to come.

Books of the month

are drawn from the "Head First" series from O'Reilly. This is an innovative concept--an attempt to engage the student in a thinking process about the book topic rather than simply take her through a standard presentation. The two books sent to the Spy feature a head's up shot of a teenage girl on the cover, and are laced inside with shots of other teenagers "lookin' groovy" with the technical subject of the book. Cartoons, line diagrams, fill-in-the-blanks, cut-and-paste, dialogue bubbles, extensive illustrations, and examples worked in exhaustive detail with plenty of side notes, summaries, and repetitive explanations are all used to spice up what could be an otherwise dry subject in a most unconventional manner. Engage the brain is the motto.

Can such an approach work? Maybe, and no. For Head First Physics" by Heather Lang, the Spy's judgement as a former teacher of grade eleven physics is that this material could work with a good teacher at this level. The coverage is about right for a beginning high school course on Newtonian mechanics, and the explanations appear to be correct and reasonably complete.

However, physics, like mathematics and computer programming, can only really be learned through the fingertips, not by mere presentation, however clever and engaging the latter may be. That is why no lecture or book, however excellent, or even the two taken together, ever teach a subject well. Thus, Head First Physics, though it does succeed in its goal of engaging the brain, is a mere one third of a text and one quarter of a course. It needs supplementation on the one hand with several thousand practice problems, such as those found in Schaum's Outlines or a conventional textbook, and on the other by a lab manual for hands-on experiments with the typical equipment found in a high school physics lab. On the third hand, it needs a human teacher to hold the students' hands, make up additional exercises on the spot, assign, supervise, and evaluate labs and problem solving, and add other resources and projects as the class situation, student interest, and local curriculum details demand.

An additional potential drawback is that the material is unabashedly pitched toward sixteen to seventeen-year-old girls who are assumed to have a highly visual approach to learning. Male students, or women who approach things verbally, might therefore not care for the presentation.

The second instantiation of the HeadsFirst object class sent to the Spy for review is "Head First Ajax" by very well known writer Rebecca M. Riordan. This one is about half the size of the physics text, and somewhat less dense (busy) on a page-by-page basis. Ajax is presented in much the same manner, with lots of teenagers making queries, being assured there are no dumb answers, and being led step-by-step through a number of Web 2.0 topics grouped under the general heading of Ajax. These include asynchronous queries, interactivity, security, the DOM, form validation, JSON, XML, and POST vs GET (the latter by the way a very good explanation). The Spy doesn't necessarily buy the proposition that these are all Ajax topics, but that's a minor quibble.

The problem with the Heads First approach in this instance is that it seems quite unlikely many teenaged girls will have much need for Ajax, or any of the other topics covered here under that rubric. What we have in this book is a mid-level to advanced topic being handled as though it were introductory. Audience is paramount in selling a text, and that for Ajax is people who have already done basic HTML design, created some ECMAScript (JavaScript) forms, perhaps played around with database queries and PHP. That is, they have already built static pages, and want to get into dynamic ones. Thus, although one of the book's slogans is "don't annoy your users", the useful target audience for this book is likely to be annoyed by an approach it considers too introductory and simplistic to suit its expertise--at least in the Spy's HO.

Still, in all, the "heads First" approach to teaching has some interesting possibilities, if used in the right context by the right teacher and for the right student. Conditionally recommended.

Now, all that remains

is for the Spy to wish his vast audience a blessed Christmas (this was written before, but we'll back patch the blessing) and all the best the Lord of Heaven offers in His grace for 2009.

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Bowker's Booksurge.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

The Spy's Laws collected: http://www.thenorthernspy.com/spyslaws.htm

The Spy's Shareware download site: http://downloads.thenorthernspy.com/

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

nameman : http://nameman.net

opundo : http://opundo.com

Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org

Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

p1 compiler: http://www.awiedemann.de/compiler/index.html

Palm: http://www.palm.com/

O'Reilly Head First books: http://www.headfirstlabs.com/

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Last Updated: 2008 12 24