Less than zero

IT Managers, if you learn nothing else in your entire career, learn this:

An unskilled programmer is radically worse than none at all.

A programmer with twice the skills of another will probably get TEN TIMES AS MUCH DONE!

Even with good programmers, adding people to a project doesn’t always help, and it can harm. A lot.

That’s all.

Learn only this, and in my experience, you will already be a better-than-average IT manager.

Geocaching for Nokia Symbian phones!

This post has been a long long looooong (longcat) time in the making.

I tried a vast multitude of Symbian GPS tools. I found a plethora of mapping tools which don’t quite do the job. I found tools which do the caching part, but not the GPS part. I spent numerous futile dollars on tools which are actually long dead and utterly unsupported ‘ghost-town-projects’. I even began writing my own J2ME tool, with frequent pauses to despair at the grotesque complexities involved.

Compass Rose

Finally though, I came back to a tool I had seen before, and ogled from afar: It was only available for phones on US networks Sprint, SouthernLINC, Nextel and Boost Mobile, at the time. Now though, it is free for Series 60 – 3rd-edition Nokia phones, such as mine!

And lo, it is everything I could hope for: you put your details in, link it to your geocaching.com account, and say ‘show me the nearest ten geocaches’, and it does. :)

The only tiny hitch I would war of (so far) is for those who, like me, have a compatible phone with no GPS built in: the ‘download directly to phone’ mechanism won’t work for you; it will spuriously say ‘unsupported device’ or some such. You will need to download the app to your PC and install it to the phone from there.

Laptop convergence idea

On a very geeky note, I have been following a number of rather cool new trends in laptop, phone, PMP and PDA design in the last year or so: tiny laptops, cheap laptops, highly sophisticated smartphones, crazy UMPC/PDA crossovers, the relentless rise of increasingly huge Solid-State-Disks, and, of course, the whole iPhone thing.

Just this morning it struck me that there’s a relatively simple way in which one could combine all of these things!

If your modern laptop is going to have a touchpad, a solid-state-disk and a comprehensive set of radio comms gear (wifi/mobile broadband/bluetooth) and so is your uber-phone-PDA, why would you need more than one of each of these things? They’re all relatively expensive bits of electronic kit, you can only use one at a time, and there’s a bunch of very strong reasons why the data in particular should be shared: keeping your music, your calendar, email, etc. in sync between your PC and your PDA is a pain, so why not just have one copy?

Briefly, the idea is to plug your iPhone-like PDA into a hole in front of the keyboard in your otherwise hard-drive-less, radio-less laptop.

When unplugged, your PDA runs some dinky little PDA OS on the same disk you run your laptop from, using the same organizer database, email storage, web-browser cache, contacts database, etc. When you plug it in, the PDA becomes a rather nifty touchscreen with built-in second display. The disk hooks up and boots into your real OS, or restores it from a sleep-state, or whatever. It runs and recharges off the great big battery in your laptop, provides all the wireless comms functions for your laptop, and so on.

Problems:

  • There is some serious software development to be done for an idea like this, but the hardware is patently already with us, but for a little matter of chassis-fabrication and one hell of a docking-plug-connector.
  • The release which disconnects the PDA from the laptop chassis is going to need some manner of software-controlled lock, to ensure that the ‘big’ OS can suspend or shut down before handing over to the PDA. Likewise, the PDA OS will have to have control after it’s plugged in, to get itself packed away before the ‘big’ OS takes over.

Benefits:

  • Only paying for one SSD means you can afford to have a much larger chunk of storage in the first place. I like the idea of my cameraphone having a fast 120GB+ disk in it.
  • Your PDA can plug into more than one chassis! You can plug it into your laptop at work, into a PDA-slot on your desktop PC at home, your friend’s PC at their place, and so on. You carry the canonical copy of all of your data with you wherever you go, and access it at full fast-disk speed.
  • You only need one account/ID with all your various communications providers. One 3G data account for your PC, your PDA and your phone. One wifi-MAC address for your laptop and PDA. One bluetooth device ID to bond your headset to.
  • Your laptop gains a snazzy new UI device, a big (multi-touch?) touchscreen.

I would so buy such a device!

disclaimer: I lay absolutely no claim to this idea whatsoever. If you like it, I wholeheartedly assign all rights to you, go nuts, patent it, call it yours, whatever, I don’t care.

…CHANGE THE WORLD…

Screen-capture from YouTube: Google Tech TalksI am frequently guilty of ranting, panic, and gross hyperbole on this blog. I get carried away with some ideas, especially political ones, and make a bigger noise than is in any way warranted. I’m not sorry: This is my blog and I’ll rant if I want to, because it’s fun.

In my opinion, this post is not hyperbole and not a rant:

In my considered opinion, I honestly believe that I have just watched the dawn of a new age.

WARNING: This video is blurry footage of a wizened old physicist with lots of charts and diagrams and high-energy-physics jargon. If you’re not into the physics (which are seriously funky if you are into that kind of thing) then the ramifications of this system are beautifully summed up in the ten minutes from 59:30 to 1:10:00, and the practical considerations and somewhat embarrassing politics of the matter are well discussed in the questions after 1:10:00.

For those disinclined or unable to do the streaming-video thing for ten minutes, I would sum it up thus:

Dr Robert Bussard’s research group have been looking at a lateral approach to the magnetically confined fusion problem for the past eleven years. They have been doing this in a DARPA-funded laborotory in relative secrecy because their approach is practical, feasible and relatively cheap, making it anathema to the dual vested interests of conventional Tokamak-based fusion research and fossil-fuel economics.

Their system uses a spherical magnetic containment field to produce a clean (radiation free) fusion reaction, without molten lithium or multi-billion dollar building-sized toroids.

The important point of the video is that they’ve already done it. They made it work in a machine the size of a domestic oven, on a shoestring budget, with a team of five people.

Some weeks ago, when I started reading Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla I was struck by the attitude of the great minds of the time, one which saw physical science as malleable and controllable, a field in which one brilliant idea in one ordinary human mind in one brief human lifetime could reshape the world.
This attitude, I recall saying to PFH at the time, is something which seems to be missing in modern science: That kind of glory is seen as being firmly beyond the reach of individuals, or even individual research groups. Everything is to be refined and tested in infinitesimal steps, and there will never be another great revolution like Tesla’s AC power system, or so our scientific community is expected to believe.

Seeing this talk has convinced me that I was wrong, or at least partly wrong. A lot of Dr. Bussard’s concluding comments say exactly the same thing: he’s been closeted with his research group behind closed doors for eleven years, and now it’s very rare to find anyone experienced in this kind of science.

I was wrong though, because Bussard and his team exist. As he says during the questions, somewhere, somehow, the concluding research is being done. A viable fusion power source is being perfected, and I will probably live to see it come to fruition.

It’s hard to be calm in the face of such things.

A spot of idle futurism

There’s a lot of speculation on the net, all the time these days, about the Next Big Gadget. People seem to be constantly photoshopping up new fake images of the next model of iPod as they want everyone else to believe it will look.

I am not immune to this: I still occasionally sit down and try to work up a plausible design for an unobtrusive, powerful, useable wearable computer. I also ponder the profusion of technologies like the iPhone’s screen or the latest stab at stylus-based input, and think to myself: what is the ideal handheld interface, anyway?

Today though, a news article about a display that functions as an image sensor, courtesy of Slashdot, has collided with something I remember reading a long time ago, about flat, lensless 3D image-capture devices, and a real, marketed 3D display technology I’ve seen more recently.

The collision of ideas is obvious if you think about it:

  • A possible future iPhone, courtesy of the gimp, CC, and flickrThe camera on your camera phone mostly captures images for transmission and/or electronic display, even if you don’t have a videophone.
  • Transmission of images is helped by good compression. One such method of transmission (presently infeasible) would be to break a real-world image down into a 3D mesh or similar abstract vector-based model. If I understand the ScienceDaily article aright, this is precisely the kind of data that your lensless camera gives you first! Making that into a 2D image would take work, but why bother if your display is 3D anyway?
  • A common way to look at those images, especially on a videophone, is on the screen of the same, or another such phone.

The potential phone-of-the-future that this presents is really obvious: It looks just like an iPhone; a flat little tablet with a screen covering its entire surface, except that there’s no little port for a camera on this one, the screen is the camera. So long as phones continue to be used as cameras as well, there will probably be a screen/camera on both sides of your future-phone. If you like, the screen on the back can display a precise 3D rendition of your head when you hold it up to your ear, so that it looks transparent. In fact, why not do that all the time, so that the phone always looks transparent? Take that Aqua! To take a photo you just hold up your empty phone-frame, and press the button on the side…

And that’s just a nifty side-effect. The main reason for doing this would be the 3D video-phone functionality! Not to mention crazy little tricks like each surface being an image scanner. You want to show someone an article you’re reading, or save it for later? You don’t need to line up a photo of it and hope your camera resolution doesn’t give you blurry text, you just slide the phone over the page. Either way up, it doesn’t matter.

This is, of course, wild speculation, as these things always are. I can think of half a dozen reasons why this might not work as suggested just off the top of my head.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t buy one if someone were to build it. :)

Prettified, Unified, Gnarlified

Those who check here with any regularity will notice that things have changed lately:

  • First, I updated WordPress MU to the latest version, thereby bringing a number of WordPress 2.0-isms into availability.
  • This broke about 2/3 of my existing themes for some reason, including the ‘grass roots‘ one I was using, so I failed back to the default WPMU theme for a few weeks.
  • As a result, my duplicator script, which makes this blog page appear in similar form on my homepage, broke.
  • I was already cranky about the ugliness of the code underlying my old homepage, so I duplicated all the sub-pages off it here, in WordPress, and put up a ‘nobody home!’ message on the old page.
  • I wasn’t totally happy with the default theme either, so I downloaded K2, and went a little bit mad playing with the infinite variety of customizable gadgets.

Now, as you can see, this page looks far more like a page where someone actually lives. :)

Next, I intend to diddle Apache into displaying the same page at /~thorin/ and /blog/thorin/ (just for me, although if other people turn out to want it, it can be copied).
O ye who have blogs here (or want a blog here), be advised that if you want the full scope of K2 magic for your own blog, ask me. It is not 100% automatic, owing to the nature of WPMU.

I do wibble, quietly to myself about the sheer colossal mass of code that now underlies this page, but hey, it doesn’t seem to have hurt performance. YMMV. Please complain if it’s bad for you…

Word Pressure

A word of apology: if anyone’s wondering why my blog looks odd at present, it’s because my former favourite wordpress theme, ‘Benevolence’ died when I upgraded WPMU, and I cannot find a new up-to-date copy of it, so I have reverted back to the default for now.

I have a long-standing to-do to help E brighten up her wordpress theme, so there is a bit of work to be done. If anyone has WordPress (especially WPMU) theming expertise they would like to contribute, please comment or mail me or sumfin’.

Kthxbye :)