Category ►►► Techno Geekery
March 22, 2013
How Ya Like Them Apples?
Before we begin, I think it's only fair to say that I'm a bit of an Apple aficionado. Not a fanboy, mind you -- I don't spend my evenings trolling the tech sites looking to throw down with Android evangelists over who has the better mobile OS -- but I've certainly got my share of Apple products running in the Korso household. So it's been with great interest that I've followed the rise of Apple, admiring the way the company resurrected itself after the business world had declared it all but dead. The iPod, the iPhone, the iPad -- all of these products have become iconic, because they managed to accomplish something that none of Apple's competitors have been able to replicate: they made technology exciting and sexy, and left people breathless wondering what would come next.
So what happened?
A look at Apple's stock price would tell you that something is horribly wrong. From a high of over $700 a share, the price has tumbled down to around $450. The financial media constantly fret about how Apple has lost its magic and its ability to innovate. Analysts lament the loss of Steve Jobs, and how things just haven't been the same since he died. Where are the new breakthroughs? Where are the game-changing products?
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Problem is, it's mostly poppycock.
What we have here is yet another media narrative, willed into reality by the constant harping of reporters, pundits and a smattering of other business interests who all have their own agenda. In a way it's not surprising: the cult that Steve Jobs built for himself was the result of his very canny manipulation of the media, which grew to worship him like some Svengali who could do no wrong (I guess they forgot all about the G4 Cube and MobileMe). After building him up so high, it only stood to reason that the media would respond to Jobs' death by posing the question of whether or not Apple could continue its unprecedented string of successes without him.
And what could be more dramatic than a plunge from greatness?
So that's what the media decided to manufacture. Never mind the facts on the ground. Apple revenues? Their last quarter pulled in more money than any publicly traded company -- in all of history. Demand for products? New iMac orders had wait times of several weeks. How about revenue streams? Between apps, music and videos sold on iTunes, it's around $1.5 billion per year. Oh, and let's not forget the $150 billion of cash the company has in reserves.
But Apple is in trouble. Seriously.
Well, at least that's what the talking heads would like you to believe. Because it's not about objective truth -- I mean, what the hell is truth, really, but an abstract construct -- it's all about the narrative, the story that they want to tell. Never mind that this stuff has real world consequences (lost jobs, lost wealth, human misey, etc.). That only ratchets up the drama -- and if there happens to be a camera crew nearby to catch all the suffering in high-def, so much the better.
The reason I make this point is that the whole concept of objective reporting -- once considered the standard all reporters aspired to -- largely doesn't exist anymore. Pretty much anything you see on the "news" these days may or may not necessarily be true; even worse, however, is that it doesn't seem to even matter. Whether it's hyping Hurricane Sandy to advance the narrative of global warming or selectively editing the audio of a 911 call to make George Zimmerman sound like a racist, the truth has become irrelevant. And the scary part is how few people nary bat an eye.
It's one of the ironies of the digital age that we have so much access to knowledge, and yet the universe of what we actually know gets smaller and smaller. Call it informational relativism: one truth is equally as valid as any other. Aldous Huxley was more precient than he could have imagined.
August 2, 2008
Sitemeter Problem Should Be Fixed...
I was never able to rebuild the blog until today: This site gets so many hack attacks and spam and suchlike that our host server, Hosting Matters -- about whom I have no complaints -- keeps some piece of techno-wizardry in place to prevent much of this.
Alas, it also prevents intensive operations like rebuilding. I have to tell them when I want to rebuild, and they fiddle with the system somehow to allow it to rebuild while the shield thingie is still in place. Last night, I was unable to get a response right away (it was probably about three in the morning at Hosting Matters!), so was unable to rebuild then. This left some of the pages with and some without Sitemeter code.
But today, I looked and found that Sitemeter itself had fixed the problem (which was of course on their side, since it hit everybody from Instapundit to Big Lizards!)... thus, I took the commenting off of the Sitemeter code on Big Lizards. I'm now rebuilding, just on general principles... but you shouldn't notice anything different.
Full funcionality should now be restored. But for those of you who check such things as Sitemeter stats for Big Lizards, you might see a drop that is primarily attributable to the main page being without Sitemeter code for circa twelve hours.
August 1, 2008
Sitemeter Killing Internet Explorer 7
I just heard from a friend of mine that, as of sometime this evening, something changed in Sitemeter that caused Internet Explorer 7 to curl up and die when some poor fool was unlucky enough to try to use it to view Big Lizards -- or any other blog with a Sitemeter display.
You should be able to view the main page of Big Lizards via IE now; and you'll be able to see the whole thing using IE whenever the rebuild finishes.
Once this is all sorted out, I'll uncomment the script and rebuild again.
Apologies for the inconvenience.
August 18, 2006
The Predator vs. the Eagle... sounds like a new series from Marvel or DC. But really, we're talking about the great divide among Air Force brass over whether it's better to put more emphasis on actual warplanes, such as the F-15 Strike Eagle or the F/A-18 Hornet, or pour more resources into unmanned Predator drones, flown in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries, but piloted (according to Robert Kaplan) mostly from trailers at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas (subscription required to read this link, which costs $1 million, I think).
In this case, the "SF" in the title stands not only for Special Forces but also for science fiction, because this story is really about both: science fiction become reality for use by Special Forces in the war against jihadi terrorism.
In the Drone Wars, there are clear advantages to each competitor:
- Human pilots are actually present in the cockpit with the real attack planes, which always gives them an advantage in perception: they know what's going on better than does a pilot flying remotely. They can not only see better, they can hear and feel, or sense, the progress of the engagement.
- But that also means they are in danger themselves, obviously; and less obviously, the ability of the plane is held back by the limitations of the human body. It's easy enough to design a plane that can make a 14-G turn; but it's impossible to locate a pilot who can do the same.
- The drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs), besides the obvious advantage that they don't risk an American life, also have the advantage of being much, much smaller than an airplane, which must be big enough to house one or two human beings; thus, the Predators are virtualy invisible on radar and hard to spot even with the naked eye.
- However, they're also slow; they fly by propeller, not jet, and it can take them a long time to get where they're going.
Plus, being so much smaller, they cannot carry as many armaments as a full-sized plane can -- only a couple of Hellfire missiles or JDAM-equipped bombs, in the case of the prevalent MQ-1 Predator.
By contrast, the A-10 Thunderbolt II "Warthog" carries up to eight missiles or bombs, plus the devastating 30mm Avenger Gatling gun, which can fire depleted Uranium shells at a rate of up to 70 rounds per second (after the first, somewhat slower second)... that would be 4,200 rounds per minute, except that it only carries 1,350 rounds. Even so, that is considerably more armament than any UAV carries.
So the argument rages: Man, or machine? But as often happens, the philosophical debate is about to be smashed wide open by a technological advance: a German company, ESG, has developed monofiliment strap-on wings. Holy bat-wings, Batman!
Glidertroopers of tomorrow's war
Airborne units can use these wings in conjunction with a normal parachute to leap out of an airplane and glide for up to 120 miles before pulling the ripcord. In addition, the wings double as storage lockers, allowing the paratrooper to carry 200 lbs of gear to a safe landing.
Elite special forces troops being dropped behind enemy lines on covert missions are to ditch their traditional parachutes in favour of strap-on stealth wings.
The lightweight carbon fibre mono-wings will allow them to jump from high altitudes and then glide 120 miles or more before landing - making them almost impossible to spot, as their aircraft can avoid flying anywhere near the target.
The range means that the actual insertion aircraft need not get anywhere near the target dropzone, dramatically improving the survivability not only of the plane and its crew but the paratroopers themselves. In many cases, such a range -- which can be hugely extended by the addition of a small turbojet engine on the wings -- means that the plane needn't even enter the airspace of the target country; they can drop the paratroopers over friendly territory, allowing them to glide (or fly) themselves into enemy territory.
The radar signature is, of course, barely larger than the paratrooper himself... which means nearly as small as a UAV; but because the wings have human "pilots" (airborne troops), if the tactical situation changes, they can react on the fly (dang!)... I mean, they can just wing it (stop me, someone!)... well, they can respond to their own on-the-spot threat assessment.
One of the critiques that Robert Kaplan levels at the increased reliance of UAVs is that, since they're remotely piloted from the United States, there is too much danger that the top Air Force brass will over-supervise each mission and cause mischief, as in Vietnam; having "glidertroopers" carry out these missions avoids that problem, naturally, since the men making the decisions are the non-coms actually on the ground... or rather, in the troposphere.
It's not too great a jump to imagine a slightly more powerful engine with more fuel, and lightweight, mounted guns or missiles that the glidertroopers can operate. Those would just be minor improvements to what is already demonstrated technology, but the impact on future warfare would be colossal: invisible flying serpents with perfect night vision (NVGs) and a lethal dragon's breath? What would such a unit be called -- the Quetzalcoatl Battalion of the Smaug Regiment?
Swarms of flying monkeys could buzz in from an unexpected quarter, shooting Gatling guns and firing missiles; then disperse in all directions, silent, unseen, untrackable by radar, only to regroup and swarm back from a new angle. An individual man could range high above a city, using telescopic night-vision goggles to follow a small group of terrorists to their lair -- then swoop in and destroy it with a couple of well-placed JDAMs or bursts of gunfire.
There is no reason why slightly more powerful engines could not allow a man to take off from the ground, which would give special forces, even those not trained as glidertroopers, a perfect way to extract from a mission: they return to a pre-determined spot, where wings have previously been hidden (before the enemy is alerted to our presence), strap them on, and fly away to safe rendezvous coordinates; the wings would be equipped with autopilots that use GPS to fly their human cargo in to a perfect landing, all by themselves. This avoids the dangerous necessity of getting a helo into a combat zone now buzzing with enemy activity, following a SEAL or Ranger mission.
And now that I think of it, the same wings, packed with medical equipment, could have a huge impact on military or civilian search and rescue: individual paramedics could zoom across the search area at 150 mph, anywhere from fifteen hundred feet to ten feet off the ground. Once they find victims, if they can't get a helo in to evacuate them (due to proximity to a cliff, for example), they can request an airdrop of some fuel, strap the wounded into the wings, and program them to fly to a location where a rescue helicopter can land.
We could also use these wings to evacuate people trapped inside a burning highrise: skyscrapers could be required by law to keep some large number of such gliders in storage on the roof; a fire-department "smokeglider" flies in, helps victims to strap in, and sends them over the side, where the autopilot takes them a safe distance away and lands.
Unless we actually internalize a science-fiction mentality, we cannot analyze the future.
The one thing we can say with certainty about the future is that it will be very different from the past. It may not differ in just the way we imagine; but without developing the mental muscles of open-minded speculation -- and the sense that technology will do more to determine future society than any other trendline (because technology affects all of the rest!) -- we haven't even a wing or a prayer of being able to respond to that future when it arrives.
Which will be sooner than you think, but later than you wish.
December 9, 2005
EverQuest For Capitalism
I thought at first this was a typical New York Times gag article... like their articles rewriting urban legends, their left-wing polemics dessed up as news stories, or anything about an Al Gore comeback. But after reading to the end, I realized that it's actually rather profound. But as usual, the MSM grabs the pointy end of the sword, rather than the hilt.
Ogre to Slay? Outsource It to Chinese
by David Barboza
Published: December 9, 2005
FUZHOU, China - One of China's newest factories operates here in the basement of an old warehouse. Posters of World of Warcraft and Magic Land hang above a corps of young people glued to their computer screens, pounding away at their keyboards in the latest hustle for money.
Workers have strict quotas and are supervised by bosses who equip them with computers, software and Internet connections to thrash online trolls, gnomes and ogres.
The people working at this clandestine locale are "gold farmers." Every day, in 12-hour shifts, they "play" computer games by killing onscreen monsters and winning battles, harvesting artificial gold coins and other virtual goods as rewards that, as it turns out, can be transformed into real cash.
That is because, from Seoul to San Francisco, affluent online gamers who lack the time and patience to work their way up to the higher levels of gamedom are willing to pay the young Chinese here to play the early rounds for them.
Despite the viewing-with-alarm, what the Times has stumbled upon is capitalism in its purest form: a niche whereby the young unemployed in a developing country can make a few bucks, new entrepeneurs can start businesses, and the well-off can pay for goods or services behind the back of a Communist country determined to clamp down on the industry (in between machine-gunning rioters, of course -- tip of the hat to Hugh Hewitt). And we may be witnessing the birth of a virtual monetary exchange -- in the form of computer-game "gold" or "character levels." Capitalism is out of control... it's just busting out all over.
No wonder the New York Times views with alarm!
The market-based origin of the practice is easy to grasp: there are games called "massively multiplayer online games" (MPOGs), in which hundreds of thousands or even millions of players all over the world sign up, develop characters or "avatars," and play in the same virtual universe, interacting with each other and with in-game characters in various ways. As a character survives encounters with virtual danger -- fighting trolls or evil wizards in a fantasy game, engaging in aerial combat against the Nazis in a World War II game, etc. -- and achieves certain goals, it gains in power and abilities, often quantized by moving up to higher "levels."
The problem for many is that it can take a long time to work a character up to a very high level, and many experienced gamers find the early stages of a character's development tedious; they just don't have the time to play a character up to the level where gameplay becomes interesting to them.
Enter the free market. Unemployed Chinese youths have nothing but time; if they weren't just hanging in Beijing or Shanghai, they would be slaving away on their family farms, performing backbreaking labor for basically just room and board, since Communist policies prevent those small family farms from being profitable. Having so much time on their hands, many spend their small amount of money in internet cafes playing these MPOGs; and many have gotten very good at them.
So all of a sudden, people all over the world (not just in China) began to recognize that there was a demand for high-level MPOG characters and a ready supply of talent to create such characters... the perfect spark-and-tinder combination to produce a market:
The Internet is now filled with classified advertisements from small companies - many of them here in China - auctioning for real money their powerful figures, called avatars. These ventures join individual gamers who started marketing such virtual weapons and wares a few years ago to help support their hobby.
"I'm selling an account with a level-60 Shaman," says one ad from a player code-named Silver Fire, who uses QQ, the popular Chinese instant messaging service here in China. "If you want to know more details, let's chat on QQ."
The trend of outsourcing the lower levels of MPOGs began with individual "consultants," but it's starting to grow into actual small businesses:
That has spawned the creation of hundreds - perhaps thousands - of online gaming factories here in China. By some estimates, there are well over 100,000 young people working in China as full-time gamers, toiling away in dark Internet cafes, abandoned warehouses, small offices and private homes....
Now there are factories all over China. In central Henan Province, one factory has 300 computers. At another factory in western Gansu Province, the workers log up to 18 hours a day.
The operators are mostly young men like Luo Gang, a 28-year-old college graduate who borrowed $25,000 from his father to start an Internet cafe that morphed into a gold farm on the outskirts of Chongqing in central China.
Mr. Luo has 23 workers, who each earn about $75 a month.
"If they didn't work here they'd probably be working as waiters in hot pot restaurants," he said, "or go back to help their parents farm the land - or more likely, hang out on the streets with no job at all."
The Times thinks this is terrible, of course; they fret that wealthy gamers are just oppressing the poor again...
"They're exploiting the wage difference between the U.S. and China for unskilled labor," says Edward Castronova, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University and the author of "Synthetic Worlds," a study of the economy of online games. "The cost of someone's time is much bigger in America than in China."
But I say hallelujah -- 100,000 poor Chinese youths have jobs, when they would otherwise be hanging out on street corners and committing impulse-crimes. It's a small number in a nation of 1.3 billion people, but it's growing; and other industries are spawning in its wake: now a virtual contracting market is forming around the core market of "gold farmers":
Other start-up companies are also rushing in, acting as international brokers to match buyers and sellers in different countries, and contracting out business to Chinese gold-farming factories.
"We're like a stock exchange. You can buy and sell with us," says Alan Qiu, a founder of the Shanghai-based Ucdao.com. "We farm out the different jobs. Some people say, 'I want to get from Level 1 to 60,' so we find someone to do that."
The game companies and some old-school gamers are upset, rightly noting that the existence of so many "farmed" high-level avatars will change the game universe. But this is an inevitable result of the phenomenon of the MPOG itself: by throwing a single game open to such a vast army of players, you guarantee that gamers -- and gameplay -- will follow a statistical model. Bell-Curve city... the virtual universe will begin to respond to the same universal market forces as the real universe outside. In fact, in this case, they're inextricably intertwined: the demand for high-level characters causes the real universe to spawn mercenary players who create an artificial bump of powerful avatars.
Some companies have realized that they may as well play King Canute, ordering the waves in and out, as stand against this tide of capitalism (actually, I'm being unfair to King Canute, who knew very well he couldn't command the tides; he was demonstrating the folly of some of his flatterers); MPOG companies themselves have jumped into the fray, hoping to provide a branded alternative to the Chinese and other foreign markets:
Sony Online Entertainment, the creator of EverQuest, a popular medieval war and fantasy game, recently created Station Exchange. Sony calls the site an alternative to "crooked sellers in unsanctioned auctions."
Note that, because of Red Chinese animosity towards and overregulation of small business, most of these gamer "sweatshops" don't register with the government, don't pay taxes, and don't abide by all the various laws designed to stifle innovation. The "gold farms" are illegal... which is probably the only reason they can make a profit in a country like China. China attempts to crack down -- finding such "gold farm" factories and shutting them down as quickly as they can... which is much slower than new ones are created.
The market continues to grow and will doubtless spawn other industries. What interests me most is the possibility that the fictional "currency" of MPOGs (gold pieces, for example) may eventually work its way into actual currency exchanges. If pricing becomes very reliable, so that $10 of real money buys you a predictable amount of gold pieces in EverQuest, then it may make sense to simply trade EverQuest "money" as a real commodity. I picture commodity trading in magic swords, armor, and even high-level elves -- derivatives on dwarfs -- Hobbit hedge funds! (Actually, I don't play EverQuest or any other MPOG, so I don't know if they use the copyrighted term "Hobbit.")
"What we're seeing here is the emergence of virtual currencies and virtual economies," says Peter Ludlow, a longtime gamer and a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "People are making real money here, so these games are becoming like real economies."
But let us not be bad winners. Let's console those at the New York Times and other MSM organs who never fail to find the dark cloud behind every economic silver lining. The free market is proving damnably tough to control... even in a Communist dictatorship like Red China.
To paraphrase George R. Stewart, men may go and come, but Capitalism abides.
November 17, 2005
For Cranky Supporters of Technology
I love this AP story:
TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) - A cheap laptop boasting wireless network access and a hand-crank to provide electricity is expected to start shipping in February or March to help extend technology to school-aged children worldwide. [Emphasis added]
Here's a picture:
Sure, great for kids; but this same model could extend web connectivity to poor people in countries all over the world. Rather than having to string electrical wiring to every household -- nice but impractical in some areas -- you only have to keep power to a series of wireless relay antennas, a much easier task. This is the same idea as those hand-cranked radios survivalists are always touting (except you do need a wireless network).
For those worried about terrorists, I think we can just assume they have already rigged up generators and satellite uplinks on their own; this is for those honest folks who don't have hundreds of thousands of petrodollars to fund nefarious activities.
(Say, is it just me, or does it look as if that crank isn't going to clear the tabletop as it rotates around?)
Next step: the WiFi-access ready Etch-a-Sketch!
October 14, 2005
I try very hard to make Big Lizards as strict XHTML as I can in order that as many browsers as possible be able at least to read it. For example, whenever I post a link that includes dangerous characters ( such as <, >, &, =, and ?) I go through the entire link replacing them with the corresponding HTML character entities (Amazon.com is the most egregious felon in this respect). Note that some entities themselves may not display on older browsers, but I think these work pretty widely -- tell me if they don't!
So I'm distressed when things don't look right in one or another browser. I think the site looks fairly good -- rather, it looks as I intend it to look! -- in recent versions of Internet Explorer and Netscape. Firefox seems to do well (not surprisingly, since I think it and Netscape 8 use the same engine). I have less success with Opera.
And recently, Sachi (who uses a Mac) had a problem with the Mac version of Netscape 7.2. She wasn't picking up changes in comment display wrought by tweaking the stylesheet. At my suggestion, she deleted her cache, and then she was able to see the changes; evidently, Mac NS 7.2 didn't recognize a page being changed merely because the CSS file it linked was changed!
Some things to look for that I occasionally notice in some browsers:
- The lizard-scales background is supposed to go all the way down to the bottom of the page, not stop where the right sidebar stops.
- The parchment background of the sidebar should extend to cover all the links and such in the sidebar; there should be no place where the parchment ends but the words continue.
- The SiteMeter bug should be at the very, very bottom, below everything.
- The graphic navigation bar in the top section should work to link to other pages of the Big Lizards site; if it doesn't, I put a text version at the top of the sidebar.
- Oh, yeah: the sidebar should actually be on the right-hand side -- not below, above, or floating over your living-room coffee table!
So if any of you has a problem viewing Big Lizards properly in any particular browser, first try deleting your browser cache and reloading. If that all-purpose restorative doesn't work, then please let me know via the comments; I don't promise to fix it (it may be unfixable), but I'll look into it and do what my limited understanding of such issues allows me to do.
This is a standing offer; if at any time you have a problem viewing something, please comment to that effect in any post you happen to be reading at the time: I read all comments.
© 2005-2013 by Dafydd ab Hugh - All Rights Reserved