Category Archives: Personal

The iPad Mini is for Cars

Yesterday, Apple launched the iPad mini. Apple events in the fall of 2012 may no longer command the social anticipation of only a few years ago, but they remain flash points for technology reporting. This release brought on more than its share of speculation that the mini is simply an overdue acknowledgement that Amazon got something right with Kindle, and that Apple has quietly slipped into following mode. Some pundits have seized on the angle that Apple’s new tablet appeared to contradict Job’s famous trashing of the 7″ form factor. But in all of the hullabaloo one observation seems to be missing. That is, a tablet of this size is tailor-made for inclusion into the dashboard of your car.

Nothing dates a car like its electronics. And nothing is more tragic that the UX of pretty much every single in-car navigation and music system. The luxury car segment can do Corinthian leather and wood grain appointments like no industry on earth. They can build a magnificent driving machine that powers through rain and snow like it was a sunny day in LA. But ask them to do a screen-based app and you get something that looks like it was designed on a TRS-80.

I didn’t renew the trial SiriusXM in my 4Runner because I couldn’t stand its programming compared with what I could stream from my iPhone using Bluetooth. Every time I rent a car I use my phone-based Navigon app over any provided GPS because my app is just better. I’m hooked on Waze despite how few people use it up here in Vancouver (you should sign up—the more people who use it, the better the traffic data is). The apps on my phone are always up-to-date and I replace the hardware every couple of years for the latest model (which is good enough for me; after all, it’s only a phone).

All cars need is a standard, lockable frame where you can plug in the device of your choice, plus a standardized connector. Then let free market competition and innovation prevail over Apps. Tomorrow’s gear heads aren’t going to be like the hot rodders of my Dad’s generation or the tuner kids of a decade ago. They are going to be geeks with Apps using APIs.

That’s what the iPad mini is for.

(It’s interesting to note that the wifi-only mini has no GPS, but the cellular version does…)


Space Exploration and the Trough of Disillusionment

Hype cycles may be a largely a marketing construct, but it’s easy to forget that a lot of important engineering work gets done in the heady days of an emerging technology. I was reminded of this today when I noticed these two news items side-by-side on CNET this morning:

Rocket science just isn’t what it use to be. Must have been an amazing 20 years…

Dilbert on Cloud Computing

Scott Adams nails it once again:

From January 7, 2011 Dilbert.


Fight Night at Interop

As CTO of Layer 7 Technologies, I attend a lot of conferences. There was a time when this was all exciting and new, but I find now I’m rarely surprised by anything on the show floor. By mid-spring, I’ve collected samples of all the swag that’s new for the season, and digested all of the latest product offerings. My kids have enough flashing balls and foam thumb rockets to open a daycare.

Xirrus, a maker of high performance wifi equipment, broke the cycle of conference ennui spectacularly this year at Interop Las Vegas. They hosted boxing matches in a ring set up in the middle of the show floor. Vegas may be the home of glitz, gambling, and excess, but it’s also an important center for boxing, and the city is full of fighters. Xirrus pulled in two clubs and squared off their fighters in 3 round matches, hosting several fights a day for the duration of the show.

The fights were so engaging that I found myself setting the alarm on my phone so I could drift back in time for the next bout. Years ago I was a member of the boxing club at the University of British Columbia, and these sessions really reminded me how much I loved the sport.

Xirrus hosted a great event. It really demonstrated how doing something just a little out of the ordinary can make your company stand out. This was definitely the highlight of Interop for me—and I’ll admit that it was even better than my own session at the Enterprise Cloud Summit!

Melee at the Mandalay 2010

Azure Broke My Booth

“Get outta the way—it’s coming through.”

I love the New York accent. I think it is at its most characteristic when roared by an irritated teamster, struggling with a near-undeliverable load that was late even before the scheduled pick-up time.  In this instance, the package is a self-contained Microsoft Azure Compute Center, on its way to its temporary home in the middle of the show floor during April’s Cloud Computing Expo in the Javitts Center. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but by this time it was the 11th hour of vendor setup, and just about everyone on the show floor was done, leaving very little room for heavy plant to deliver a package the size of a modest RV.

The coming of Azure.

Small vendors in the tech industry have few options when juggernaut like Microsoft moves into their space. Maneuverability is always the best defense. A similar strategy is to be recommended when Azure, well, drives down the main hallway of the show floor. Not surprising, it left in its wake a volatile combination of consternation, amusement, disorganization—and a healthy determination to still win on the new business front opened up in the cloud.

The wake of Azure.

Everyone says that cloud is disruptive, but this was a little too literal for my taste.

Once delivered, an army of Microsoft staff swarmed over the box and quickly packed it with a dense array of Dell servers connected by a thick tangle of red patch cables. When all was said and done, it was hard not to be impressed with this rapid marshalling of technological firepower.

Azure data center.

Techs who work in the cloud.

Microsoft designed the Azure data center to be modular, self-contained and very green. The trick the company has employed here is to make use of outside air-cooling running through the unit to avoid expensive conventional air conditioning systems, which can typically account for half of the power consumption in a traditional data center.

The Azure center has three rooms. The air flows passes through each one, cooling the racks of equipment that separate the second and third rooms. If ambient air temperature rises too much to make this effective, normal HVAC takes up the slack; but the overall power consumption is considerably reduced.

Air intake zone.

Middle zone, showing server racks.

I’m not sure that it was a wise choice to light the middle zone in blue.

Each data center is weather hardened because Microsoft intends it to be deployed out-of-doors, and ideally in a location offering a naturally cool climate. Each unit is small enough so that it can be easily deployed in farms that integrate vast numbers of commodity servers. This is as close to cloud-in-a-box as you are ever likely to see.

The Dust of Haiti

Yesterday I was asking Jim Brasset, our IT Manager, a few questions about monitors when I noticed the laptop open on his desk.

“What did you do to that laptop? It’s a mess.”

“It was in Haiti. I’m doing data recovery on it,” he replied.

The laptop belonged to his cousin, a nurse working in Port-au-Prince. She was evacuated on a C-130 to Montreal, and the laptop came with her as she found her way back to Vancouver. Now, only a week after the earthquake, it connects Jim to a terrible human drama.

I ran my finger across the keyboard, picking up the powdery residue of concrete smashed to ruin.

“The dust of Haiti.”

Despite all of the advances we have made in communication, there is a poignancy to physical objects that technology will never capture. Find a charity you respect, and give to help the people of Haiti.

Pirate Radio Evolves with the Times

I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of pirate radio. There’s a subversive glamour to the 1970s/80s-era image of a radio station run from international waters, not subject to the usual governmental controls over content (or, I suppose, royalties). It never really took off here, although I do have an acquaintance who taught a course in building, um, unauthorized FM transmitters.

According to New Scientist, pirate radio is still alive and kicking in the UK. Localized FM broadcast is still viewed by the pirates as critically important because it taps into the marketplace of people walking around on the street with FM capable cell phones. It’s a good reminder that conventional broadcasting  is still important and viable.  This will continue until bandwidth costs become so negligable that I can reasonably stream to my iPhone as I walk around. In many markets (hello, Canada) this sure isn’t the case.

Hayes Produces Apollo 11 Manual

Hayes, the venerable publisher of automobile maintenance books, has produced a manual for the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Like my earlier post on Lego’s architecture series, it’s nice to see a mainline company leverage their great brand and think out of the box to access a new market.

I have an old Hayes manual somewhere around for an 80’s Honda Civic which I owned many years ago, and at least one Series Landrover manual which I don’t own. Yet. (Fortunately my wife doesn’t read my blog.)

AWS Implementing a Drive Shipping Service

From the article here.

Looks like Amazon read the Berkeley cloud paper where they spent a lot of time dissecting the economics of physical shipment of cheap disk drives versus the still high cost and relatively constrained (compared to USB, at least) bandwidth of WAN links.

Never underestimate the simplicity and potential data transfer rates of sneakernet. I was reminded of this when I saw the Western Digital WDTV recently at Costco. It’s basically a digital media player with HDMI that you plug portable USB drives into. At first I thought it was dumb, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a pretty pragmatic solution. what they did right was keeping the price way down (they are something like $129 CAD at Costco). I’m trying to talk myself out of buying this and waiting for the inevitable cheap version with USB and Wifi plus the ability to wirelessly mount disks from various servers.

The 101 Electronic Kit

Remember these?

I spent hours pouring over Radio Shack catalogs thinking about which one I should get (calculating a careful balance between cost and potential). When I finally did get one of these kits (actually, I think it was this one–it looks eerily familiar), it was cool but very cookie cutter, and didn’t really teach anything about electronics. Somehow I never made the conceptual leap into circuit hacking that seemed so easy when confronted by a computer language. I don’t think I really understood circuits until I took 2nd year electrical engineering courses, and that was 100% theoretical–no soldering required.

I’ve always puzzled over why programming triggers such powerful attraction with so many people, but other disciplines, which are arguably similar, don’t. Electronics is one of these. Like programming, it’s component-based and consists of puzzles and features (relatively) instant feedback. But it doesn’t quite engage the same broad section of people.

A more extreme case is math. I’ve always been much more respectful of strong, natural math skills (which I have to work hard at) than of programming or general computing skills (which I find comparatively easy).

Check out the wired article about great 80s geek toys.