Friday, December 26, 2008

Repair Your Gifts Before They Break

When Microsoft rolled automatic updating functionality into its operating systems so the system could download and install blessed patches and security fixes from Microsoft automatically, a lot of computer people were very worried that this could be used by bad people for bad ends. If the computer could be tricked into thinking that some other site was Microsoft, the computer would happily install bad code in the bowels of the operating system where nobody could find it, change it, or remove it.

Of course, it turns out now for me, the baddies I should have worried about was Microsoft itself. Recently my subnotebook updated itself to SP3, and then refused to start up. It would find the boot block, start loading up, and then bluescreen, and immediately reset and try to boot again. The blue screen would come and go so fast I couldn't read what the actual problem was. I actually had to photograph it with the camphone to get to read the error, trying repeatedly as the computer went through failed boot cycles so I could get a snap at just the right moment that the error was on screen. Which is why commuters on the train into London could watch this guy repeatedly take pictures of the screen of his laptop with his phone; fortunately for my ego they pretended not to notice. When I zoomed in on the picture on my phone, I could read the error was UNMOUNTABLE_BOOT_VOLUME . Somehow Microsoft sent me an update that rendered its own operating system unreadable to itself. Meanwhile Microsoft auto-update seems to not have made a dent in the swarms of compromised Microsoft-running machines that have been taken over to clog the Internet with spam. Things aren't working as planned.

The fix for this is to pop in the XP disk and run the repair console to start fdisk, a program that repairs the hard disk files. Alas, in the last move I lost my XP restore disks, and, well, I wouldn't be able to use them anyway. This is a subnotebook: no floppy, no CD-ROM. Just like so many netbooks that have been unwrapped under Christmas trees this season.

Well, I could boot from a USB stick, but all I had was a 1st gen iPod shuffle, the white one that looks like a pack of gum, and a Windows 2000 laptop in the corner. I now know how to make this stick bootable in Linux -- but that is no help to repair an NTFS system -- and then at last I found a program to format memory cards, floppy disks, and USB pendrives to bootable DOS systems with chkdsk on it. With this I managed to make the subnotebook boot off the iPod, run chkdsk a few times, and then restore my OS. I just condensed 4 hours of trying and Googling on Christmas Eve into a paragraph.

So, dear readers who ended up with a netbook, do yourselves a favor now that Giftmas is an extra long weekend: go rummage for one of those USB pendrives you have left over, and read up on your netbook's operating system how to make a rescue or boot disk on your USB stick. Then label the stick clearly and do not throw it in some drawer, but put it where you will look when problems arise, like the shelf with the manuals and warranty. You'll thank me when a hard knock or unknown update kills your operating system or drive, and you want to just rescue files or do a disk check. It's no fun to be unprepared for these, and finally all those extra USB stiks become handy.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Musings On Cameras

Another 'Hysterical Crying Girl' video clip is making the rounds, this time a US student who is, well, strongly reconsidering her idea of using the fire extinguishers to 'make it snow' in her house so she could delight her sorority sisters with snow angels.

Ok, if the idea sounds dumb, you should see the dignity with which she reflects back on her stunt. Or lack of it. What struck me is the editorial commentary on the Jezebel page around the video. Key phrase for me:
"Why it might be fake: Some of her mannerisms/utterances seem so over the top that they feel actress-y."
My thought to that is, well, at this point, somebody being 'actress-y' on video might just be what we should expect from people under 25, even when expressing genuine emotions.

The current tweens, teens, and twenty-somethings have basically grown up being registered on digital media. Not just digital snapshots anymore, all results being instantly uploaded to Facebook, Bebo, and other social sites, but moving pictures, yourself on TV. Being able to pose and look interesting on command when you see a lens for a static shot, no matter what the occasion, is only a basic skill nowadays. Whereas most people born before 1980 have grave problems just getting a passable yet still stiff, grin on an image, most everyone born after that knows how to generate a pose, a grin, a group or gang sign, a physical contortion to show the best curves or shape or social identifier, a group hug and pile-up to look like a happening team, the moment a picture might be taken. It's the result of digital cameras and their instant results becoming so ubiquitous, as well as a now relentless and ubiquitous celebrity culture of professional posers being available for these boys and girls and young men and women to model themselves on with regards to how to pose when you see a lens.

And now webcams are everywhere, built into almost every notebook worth the name, used to chat and show off and record, and constantly being used, including, and heavily, by the current teens, people in a stage of life where you are consumed with exploring yourself, and that has its effects. It's not just stories about kids snapping naughty shots of themselves getting into trouble, but the phenomenon is broader than that: I recently was told the anecdote by a father, currently on an extended gig away from his children, about how when he tries to have a video conversation with them on Skype, he can see his teen daughter looking more at the window showing the feed from her camera than at the window of him, turning her face and shoulders as she, almost compulsively but without consciously noticing, is trying out poses, exploring her face, exploring how she comes across, instead of paying full or even half attention to her conversation partner.

No outward expression of emotion is 'pure'; very early on children begin to model how to laugh and cry and be angry on their environment, which they are trying to communicate with after all. We change how we laugh and cry and show anger depending on what surrounds us, what the norms and manners are, what we get exposed to, and told is normal. I could see it in my nephews 5 years ago when they suddenly started being exposed at age 9 to animes, how they stomped their feet when they wanted to express frustration, jerked their shoulders or grimaced anger in what seemed really exaggerated cartoony ways but fit perfectly with the aesthetic of exaggerated cartoony emotional reaction shots as seen of what they were seeking out to watch on TV. The modeling isn't even conscious, but we are social animals: we do what we see.

So what would the model be for how to show your emotions on video? What will the YouTube Skype generation model itself on, without even noticing, to come across effectively during all their cam sessions? Acting. The results of what they see on TV. The short-hand to communicating internal emotional states effectively and directly they see every day. Most of it what we would call Bad Acting, no less. When you are emoting in front of a lens, that is how you project to look like, what we have been taught crying and laughing and angry people look like on a screen. Broad, and dramatic, meant to jump across technology. And that they model their expressions after having seen themselves on camera for years, and how other people 'act' on reality TV shows for years in a further round in this dialog between people and media, doesn't mean they don't have genuine internal feelings. It means they just have been influenced heavily by the technology around them, and internalized its messages.

If sorority girl is 'actress-y' in how she cries, it may indeed signify that she is a complete fake, a real actor paid by an ad agency to contort her face to relate this anguish for some commercial reason. (But no actor would cry that 'fake looking'.) It may also signify that this girl has already spent so much time in front of a camera she is unable to not adapt how she carries herself, unable to not be 'actress-y', when one is pointed at her.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Job Flash

I just saw on some digest the following job title go by:

Business Development Manager (Missile Defense + Secret)Omaha

and I briefly had images of trying to sell ad-space on the side of missiles. Meetings of men in pressed jeans and khaki pants talking earnestly on how to monetize explosions. The word 'impact' took on a whole new meaning.

Gawd has the .com revolution and culture done a number on us in it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Thoughts After A Monday

Mobile Monday London event this Monday. There are a number of Mobile Monday events in large cities with Mobile Software practitioners, and this one in London was two nights ago. We met for two panels in a lecture hall (they call them Lecture Theaters here) at the Imperial College in South Kensington. As I told the gentleman in the seat on my right to break the ice: "I haven't been in one of these in 14 years, and certainly not in this country, but they all look the same and I am having flashbacks. Most of them traumatic." It really sometimes does feel like all Universities and Colleges are the same building with some cosmetic differences. After the two panels, a mixer for drinks and networking.

The first panel was on Mobile Social Media, some panelists couldn't focus on anything but the 18-35 market segment, until I actually asked if there was any thought at all about whether the retired affluent segment might want something to do with social media. You know, the people constantly showing off their grandkids? Nothing, really. Simon Lawson did have the interesting comment that what was holding the older population back from participating in new media was: "It's taxonomy. As soon as you have to learn a bunch of new terms you put people off. When I explained twitter as "you can text me and my brother at the same time" she got it."

Which made me think of how technology always gets explained in analogies (to the point that no slashdot post about the social impact of technology is complete with a car analogy), necessary until the technology actually gets used and internalized. Still, there's an analogy for every new technology explained in old technology, which must have had an analogy to previous tech when it was new, and thus turtles all the way down until you can explain Facebook in very very very long terms of using a stick and lightning.

Still, we have to wonder if the older segment is underrepresented as users of mobile technology because they are not open for new things, or because they will not put up with  crap. Considering my 76-year-old father sends me plenty of SMSes and can't wait until I hit the Netherlands to show him more about his MacBook, it's not exactly the former. New technology that works is nice when it helps you stay in touch. Of course, the phone he uses is a big-buttoned, 4 lines of 20 characters black & green LCD indestructible Nokia from the late nineties, and he is happy with it. He 'gets' the phone, and the phone works. My current phones often don't even work fully for me, yet I put up with it because of the promise that the parts I do get will bring me cool experiences. Sometimes I think us early adpters are just too patient, that if we were more brutal manufacturers would try harder.

I am starting to think older set needs to be the new focus group to evaluate whether a new social technology is a fad or will have a lating impact. If it doesn't work for them, the whole idea and execution is just not robust enough.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Dear Sun

I tried. I really did. Based on the latest cheerleading on C|Net, and since I am not averse to coding a UI as well as specifying it, I tried JavaFX. I almost didn't when your first three 'Getting Started" videos I saw were of less-than-totally telegenic people cheerleading instead of showing me process or how to actually do something, but I went ahead anyway.

Downloaded your plug-in into the most popular development environment (yeah, it's not your own Netbeans) and in the most standard project configuration, and bam, it doesn't work. Turns out on Eclipse (3.3.2 Mac OSX) you have to select that projects should put output in the same directory as the source when defining a project, or you will get a "[filename].fx not found" error.

But then comes the killer. You want your JavaFX to be the new Flash, the new quick and easy way to make nice multi-media apps for the web. Except all the demos just end up as Java programs. You know, applets. Pieces of the web that, when your browser encounters them, make everything grind to a halt, worse than hitting a PDF, as the system tries to start the JAVA sub-system. Look, I have made user intefaces in JAVA. Huge ones. I coded 70% of every line and supervised the other 30%. Yes, JavaFX seems to make it easier to make pretty ones. But the end product is just going to be as bad to run inside a browser as anything else JAVA, and that is not what I want out of life. If I had a huge investment in JAVA code I might be more patient, but still... Oh ok, who am I kidding, if someone payed me I'd seriously take it up. What I want is to be able to make apps that run as fast and ubiquitously as Flash so I think I will try Flex for my project, thanks.

Also, that per-unit licensing fee for the runtime on mobile phones? Mobile-phone makers don't like per-unit fees. Makes development costs unpredictable.

Hey 3d-Party Android Coders!

Are y'all sure you didn't lock your applications to the screensize of the G1? You know, that big 480 x 320? Because if you did, they won't really work here on the world's second Android phone.

The Agora phone by Kogan. 320x240 touch screen. No, I have never heard of them either

Oh, some of you didn't? Some of you made a sort of dashboard one-glance app that is now cut in half? Or a game where the baddies appear at the edge of the screen? And you are thinking now, oh who cares, nobody will ever buy that phone, I will just stay with my G1 platform specs?

Probably a good decision right now. But all us WAP weenies from the WML / WMLScript days just want to say: "We feel your pain. Even as you are now trying to shrug it off."

Edit: Yup, I am not making this up. Android-app coders indeed weren't ready for multiple form factors. And this actually will make a difference when wondering whether to develop for iPhones or Android.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

N97 Follow-Up

First of all, for my US readers whose iPhone was their first introduction to a smartphone, yes, that is a camera on the front of the N97. You're supposed to use it for 3G video calls. I don't know if anyone ever does in any kind of numbers, certainly not in the UK. It is awkwardly positioned: you either have to hold the phone right in front of your face making your arm tired, or you are sending a lovely picture of your chin.

The real camera is at the back, a 5 megapixel sensor behind Carl Zeiss optics. 5 is considered a let down now in a flagship phone, especially since Samsung is shipping 8 and 10 megapixel sensors, but in reality, all those pixels just let you print bigger pictures, which nobody really does, and for the web all those extra pixels just mean you have to shrink the image even more to make it fit your Hyves / MySpace / Facebook etc. Plus a denser sensor just introduces more noise into the picture. Seriously, if device manufacturers want to offer making better pictures, camphones are going to have to be designed around bigger sensors and bigger lenses, and not continue to cram more electronics on the same size sensor chips. The shutter button for the back camera is on the side, so the whole phone works like a point-and-shoot camera.

As for an application download store like the iPhone and Android devices have, well, Nokia already has one. Has had one for years for the N Series, and it barely got any press. It's called 'Download!', and lives on the top level menu screen. It's totally annoying to use because every step drilling down into the hierarchy requires an explicit and long round-trip to the server, the round-trips often fail suddenly erasing half the store, items are organized by publisher which means you can't get a list of all games or all books, it all looks like somebody threw up tiny cartoony icons and cutesy names and expects that to be enough information to spend £5, there are no working previews, and in the US it actually asked me to enter my credit card data with the keyboard and in the UK makes the premium SMS billing really confusing (I get two SMSes per purchase). Right now on my N73 on T-Mobile, every single attempt to browse the catalog is failing. It's shameful.

If Nokia wants an app store to compete, they will have to

  • demand the N97 only gets sold with data plans where the user won't have to care about extra charges when browsing the catalog and downloading applications

  • have a back-end that allows the store to work reliably al the time

  • streamline the process so 3d party developers can get on the store

  • make freeware or try-ware possible

  • streamline the process to make the store global

  • make payments easy everywhere on the planet

Yeah, it will take some work.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Nokia Has Me Again

Yeah, the N97, announced today.

No wait, that rumor got it wrong It's this, now formally announced:

Nokia 97

The memory size of 32GB is indeed astounding, until you realize that is pretty much what Apple is rumored to do for iPhone 3 in 2009. Which is bound to come out at the same time, because Nokia has only committed to H1 09, and that ain't Q1 09. That means Q2. And from the arms length they kept the press crew at during the unveiling today, it's obvious for Nokia watchers this thing needs plenty of work done before release. On the other hand, do realize that phone software gets worked on to the very last moment, when it suddenly congeals from pieces into something, and in the last months suddenly becomes stable and great, where 6 weeks earlier you may have wondered HTF they were going to release this on time. It's just how that works.

Having a keyboard is great, I think it actually makes people who are heavy text users likelier to buy, because the skepticism towards on-screen keyboards always remains, and with a slider like this there's no compromise with screen real estate. Which, by my calculations, is around 190 to 200 ppi, pretty sharp, pretty high. It will make that dashboard of your online social life Nokia's pushing on these screenshots actually pretty usable while in the press shots on your standard monitor it looks like a blurry mess.

But is it any good? Will people flock to it? The only thing, IMHO, that decides that in Europe is cost. Seriously. I have seen so many people complain about their slow under-performing phones, to then hear that they just went for the free model because they didn't want to pay. If Nokia wants this to outsell the iPhone, it needs carriers to offer it for the same price, and the same plans, including Don't-Have-To-Think-About-It-Data. And only then will software quality matter. If the quality and integration and snappyness and consistency are abysmal, people will bring the phone back and buy something else. If it is acceptable, people will keep them.

Just make sure they demo well in the shop.