June 12, 2014

tech HP's Memristor-Based Computer

Memristor

Memristor (Photo credit: mtlin)

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article for Linux Journal, The Radical Future of Non-Volatile Memory, that talked about how RAM-fast persistent solid-state memory should bring about changes to almost all aspects of computing technology, from hardware, to operating systems, and languages. Today, there's news that HP is building such a system using their "memristor" NVM as well as photonic interconnects. As I've said, I don't know which NVM technology will win the market - memristor, spin-torque-transfer, phase-change or others. But the new technology will not only produce drastic improvements in system performance, it will help spark some fundamental changes in architecture and software. See Ars Technica and Business Week . Update: More news - Toshiba announces new STT-MRAM memory
Posted by netrc at 01:10 PM

May 30, 2014

arts JCVD

JCVD

JCVD (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Had a wierd movie experience this week for which I need to tell you a story as prologue. Back in the day, as movie reviewer at The Michigan Daily, I went to go see and review The Gods Must Be Crazy a movie about which I knew absolutely nothing. First, it was my job and vocation to go to movies, but also there was a faint buzz that it was a comedy.(Yes, there was something like "buzz" even before Facebook, twitter, and blogs). The movie was cheaply made (in South Africa), but delightful and amazing and I loved it. Its comedy was broad and slapstick and its themes were generous and heartfelt.

When writing the review I wanted to sing its praises, but I couldn't figure out how to do that without raising expectations. What I wanted was for people (especially people who cared about movies) to discover the film on their own. I ended up writing the review without mentioning the movie's name: I talked about its wonder and innocence and humor, etc, but I hoped that by not going in to the normal review factoids about cast and crew, I could keep the mystery alive a bit. There was just a large publicity still from the picture in the review to help people figure out what the movie was called.

So, speaking of seeing movies without any expectations....

The other night, while the downstairs TV was busy with celebrity dancing, I was upstairs flicking through channels and I came across an actor facing the camera speaking a monologue. Oh, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Never cared about him much, only disappointed he never really made a good enough action pic that was worth seeing as far as I was concerned. He kept talking and it seemed to be biographical. In fact, it was fascinating and heart-wrenching. Huh?

Of course, these days (as you all know), you just hit the "info" button on the remote to find out what the show is: In this case, JCVD, and the info said "Based on an incident in which Jean-Claude Van Damme is caught up in a bank robbery in Brussels...". Huh? JCVD was in a bank robbery? That didn't ring a bell, but why would it?

His monologue went on and on - an obviously personal catharsis of his rise and decline as a movie star, a plea to understand that he's just a regular guy caught up in celebrity. What the hell is this movie?

At the end of the monologue, his returns (as it were) to the present action of the plot, and resumes his arguments with the robbers and the police. It's coming across a bit of a Dog Day Afternoon, and the police aren't sure if JCVD is part of the burglary or not.

And I'm totally confused. The faux-documentary style and the "info" suggest this is a retelling of a real incident, but that seems pretty far-fetched. On the other hand, JCVD is acting far beyond what I would have expected; It's possible something like this did happen and that is the springboard or background to the film?

The movie ends with JCVD in prison, as an after-the-fact accomplice to the crime (or whatever) and has an emotional meeting with his mother and kid.

It's actually stunning. I finally picked up my tablet (which was all the way across the room getting charged) and started going through wikipedia's JCVD article - nothing about a robbery. It took me several minutes of IMDB and other googl'ng to really be convinced that the whole thing was, yes, just a movie. Whoever wrote the "info" blurb was definitely trying to trick the audience, and I fell for it.

Unfortunately, there's no way I can recommend the movie based solely on my experience, especially after you've read this article. But it was an interesting moment for me, a reminder that expectations of a movie, based on buzz about the plot, effects, stars, budget, can really get in the way of pure enjoyment. And also a reminder that surprises such as this are hard to come by and should be treasured. If the person who wrote the blurb was trying to trick me, thanks!

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Posted by netrc at 01:31 PM

April 10, 2014

arts Late Night Goodnight

No, I'm not a fan of Stephen Colbert, which doesn't matter of course, as I stopped watching Letterman over a decade ago. I loved getting my first DVR in the early 2000s as that allowed me to easily get back to watching his Late Night show. Sadly, when I did, I found a faded star, painful to watch.

I started watching him when he had his oddly-timeslotted 10am morning show, with Edwin Newman at a little news-desk. The show was a successful failure in that even the suits at NBC could see that Letterman's gifts were suited for something around a later hour.

Given that late night show, Letterman was able to focus his sarcasm and self-deprecation to reinvent the talk show format as a sit-com, totally irreverant and brash. The first night (along with Bill Murray), he had home-run king Hank Aaron on - after the chat at the desk, a faux-sportscaster interviewed Hank on his reaction to the interview. That show, and the eleven years that followed, could very well mark the invention of the hipster era with its smart-alecy break-the-fourth-wall meta-consciousness

Letterman was also the best interviewer of the talk show circuit (Jay Leno, sorry, can't even do a good interview on his autoshop web-site), but he always made sure to followup any star with his own talk-show-about-nothing wierdness. Let's do a pretend Top-10 list! Let's drop watermelons from a crane! Let's do anything but take this seriously! Next up, a man-on-the-street interview with Larry "Bud" Melman!

Brilliant.

Brush with greatness: When I worked in midtown Manhattan in the early '90s, I tried to get standby tickets to his show, never made the cut. Then, after he left NBC (and I loved the TV movie The Late Shift about this), I was walking down Broadway past the Ed Sullivan theater when someone passed out tickets to his new show. It turns out that I was able to see his very first rehearsal show for the new CBS timeslot. (Guests were the great David Brenner, The Blues Travellers).

The next week, I was on vacation in the wild backwoods of Maine, and had to watch the premiere show while sitting next to a 13" black-and-white TV, holding the rabbit ears the whole time in order to juice up the reception. Take that, you fancy-pants internet noobs.

So what happened? Some of it may be that the rest of the culture caught up to his shtick, so what was once irreverent just became grouchy. But for all that, he seemed to stop trying. Rather than being wide-eyed with wonder that he got away with antics, it was too hard to pretend that he was anything but hugely successful. The glitz of the tiffany network undercut his performance, and he began to phone it in.

Nothing can compare to the king, Carson, but Letterman had, at least, a great decade and a lasting influence. None of the current crop – your O’Briens, your Fallons, your Kimmels – would be here without Letterman. (Conan came close, but Kimmel may get the nod now).

Posted by netrc at 03:29 PM

February 05, 2014

tech Software Release

IMDB on the iPhone - Top 250 Movies list

IMDB on the iPhone - Top 250 Movies list (Photo credit: DanieVDM)

I'm a big fan of the Internet Movie Database. As you know, they tabulate ratings and publish the top 250. While the ratings are of course subjective, it's a fun list. I've put up a web site that digs in to this data a different way, finding out the directors with the highest average movie rating. To make sense of this, you get to input a minimum number of movies and also a minumum number of votes per movie, so as to (if you care to) weed out someone who made a film that only got rated by their friends. Anyway, the site is up, at http://bestdirectors.netrc.com/. (If you care, it's node.js running on heroku for now. I'm working on adding some additional text and graphs to show more info about the data).

And, one more: I've written a little chrome extension to help navigate web sites. If you can't find a button or nav-bar to work your way up a level or two or more in the URL pathname, this extension provides a button in your Chrome browser and pops up a list of all possible upward paths. Hope you find it useful. See "Up Url" in the Chrome extension store.

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Posted by netrc at 06:44 PM

January 08, 2014

tech Another tech rant

It's not just that we don't yet have flying cars or even perfect non-stick pans, it's that after being in the software industry for about thirty years I still get peeved that software is still stupid. More accurately, its just that software programmers are stupid. Or more accurately, that with multi-core three gigahertz processors, 16 gigabyte main memory, and 10 megabit networking, no one seems to care about software. Or that you can be knighted and even get a spot in the OlympicsT opening ceremonies for putting together a meager application protocol that does very little itself leaving it up to others to fill in the blanks. Or that arguably the coolest software company on the planet and the best implementation of that protocol's client just doesn't work. Or that as hip and trendy and buzzwordy and venture-capital-impressing as we are, we're still only at the point of hand-cranked automobiles in terms of software evolution.

Here's what set me off: From a banal article about Google's new favicon (http://googlesystem.blogspot.com/2012/08/googles-new-favicon.html): "If you don't see the new favicon when you visit google.com, try clearing your browser's cache."

Translation: If there's some sort of bug, you're on your own. "try" means no one knows if this will work, it may well not work, ever. And if it doesn't work, don't complain: we don't have any support available anyway. "clear your browser's cache" means that if you are a civilian (grandmother, businessman trying to make a real product) you aren't expected to understand this; it means that the only way we know of to help fix a hundred-some bytes of outdated data is to arbitrarily throw out millions of times more data; it means that after 20 years of playing around with this protocol, no one ever cared to try and get it right. It means we're all just cool hackers here, so who cares. Pull over to the side, open the hood, get out the crank, stick it in and give it a whirl.

Posted by netrc at 01:19 PM

arts Goldberg Gold

Open Goldberg Variations on iPad

Open Goldberg Variations on iPad (Photo credit: musescore)

Excellent online open-source/free edition of the great Bach's Goldberg Variations, along with a phenomenal performance by Kimiko Ishizaka available for download. The open process for peer review of the score is interesting, though from the online comments it's not clear whether this is a great advantage or just a neat one. I've also found lots of good classical recordings at the International Music Score Library Project - http://www.imslp.org/, that allows viewing/listening/downloading of sheet music and recordings.
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Posted by netrc at 01:12 PM

October 30, 2013

When you wish....

We're off to Walt Disney World. Updates will appear on my @netrc twitter stream and at Google+ https://plus.google.com/+RichardCampbell/

For the techies reading this, we're taking part in a beta-program for Magic Bands - RFID wristbands that unlock goodies (so they say) and more importantly enable the Disney Media Empire to track our activities big-data-style. For starters, they were delivered in great packaging with the renowned Disney attention to detail (e.g. first names imprinted on the underside). I for one salute my new corporate overlords!

 

Posted by netrc at 09:14 AM

September 18, 2013

arts Something Rotton

While going through my mother's collection of brass rubbings, I came across this very pretty memorial for Elisabeth Rotton, who died in 1638 aged 20, located in the parish church of Meriden, the town next door to Hampton-In-Arden, where we lived while in England.  

Elizabeth Rotton

The figure is quite large and detailed, especially for a person not of the clergy or nobility.  The inscription also indicates that Elisabeth must have been highly regarded in her town, for it includes an anagram apparently composed by herself:

The Text at her Funerall - Math. 9 24: The maide is not dead but sleepeth

Anagram {  Elisabeth Rotton // I to A blest Throne }

Friends weepe noe more, when this NIGHTS SLEEPE is gone I shall arise and goe TO A BLEST THRONE.

The anagram has a quite specific notation: it is marked "Anagram" and has the two versions, one above the other, surrounded by curly brackets.

While researching this brass, I found another mention of Elisabeth Rotton, this time a marginal inscription in an original second quarto edition of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, printed in 1599 by Thomas Creede. As you can see here, someone has written in to the side of the text at Act III, Scene V another anagram, with the same notation and curly brackets: Anagr. { Elisabeth Rotton // Her lot is to be neat }}. The text of the play nearby does not seem to have anything to do with neatness; it may be that it refers to various typesetting errors that have been corrected, such as is seen on the same page, where a line mis-marked for "Ro(meo)" has the name inked out and "Iul" (for Julia) is written in.

The quarto is currently owned by The Elizabethan Club at Yale. According to "A Census of Shakespeare Quartos", the earliest known owner was George Stevens, in 1800. 

There's no way of knowing but I'd suggest that the marginalia in the quarto was written by the real Elisabeth Rotton. It's easy to imagine that the girl was known for her intelligence and reading (and for her ability to create anagrams), and was lent or had the Shakespeare quarto in her hands when she added another of her anagrams.

Posted by netrc at 09:10 AM

September 17, 2013

arts Digital Cinema

Saw a neat documentary on digital movie making Side By Side, produced by the real (non-Matrix) Keanu Reeves. It was interesting to see Keanu interview dozens of well-known cinematographers and directors about the transformation of the movie-making ecosystem from celluloid to digital cinema. Only an hour or so long, it could have been a dozen different shows on film, lighting, aspect ratios, wide-screen, 3-D, animation, etc, etc. Still, a wonderful review of the revolution by the very people fighting the battles - both pro- and anti-digital. The producers did a very good job showing that the debate is still active, letting one person make a passionate argument on why something is better, then rebutting that with another expert talking head. (At one point, a new digital camera design is discussed with pride, followed by a cinematographer sarcastically noting that you have to remove the storage "magazine" before you can look at the take - most other digital cameras allow multiple output devices with live views). a DLP chip

I would have loved more of a discussion of the CMOS (whatever) chip technology business in contrast to the old school film companies (Fuji, Kodak, etc) with their alchemical formulas for emulsions and their artistic advocates who knew how to use that particular film to make a movie look great. The new digital tools are different indeed and it will still take some time to understand how lighting, atmosphere, sets and costumes look how you want them to look using a chip. On the other hand, they no longer have to reload the camera every 10 minutes with a new roll of stock.

The only lapse was not talking about projection and distribution. It's been an amazing journey and a confluence of technology to get not only an entire new universe of digital special effects, but to get the front end product made digitally, there's also the serendipitous rise of DLP projectors enabling theaters to show the movies correctly (and also to show special-event broadcasts (and targeted ads!)), and even home theater systems capable of high-definition display.

It's an amazing story, well told by the passionate people behind the camera.

Posted by netrc at 01:48 PM

September 07, 2013

tech Type-Woe

Unless you're a brilliant medieval scribe, initial capital letters are usually a bad idea. If you happen to be IEEE's Spectrum and have just put in a new design style for your magazine, they are ugly incarnate.

Init caps - q.v. Initials - were an artistic flourish used by scribes to enliven and ease the reading of their religious texts. In their hands, the hand-drawn script of the text was embellished with unique, specific, glorified initial letters, drawing attention to the beginning of chapters, and marking the entire book as valued.

In the modern era, when a magazine, newspaper, or online article, uses init caps, the results are usually humorous. While biblical texts are uniformly composed of an alphabet's letters, modern texts (and the desire for authors to have 'punchy' opening sentences), often begin with numbers, acronyms, punctuated abbreviations or even an emoticon. Any new style guide that mandates init caps will inevitably stumble on copy that just shouldn't use it.

Which brings us to IEEE Spectrum, the flagship (dead-tree) magazine of the international engineering society. In their quest to produce a novel and edgy (and expensive) design, the publishers got a designer to retool all aspects of the magazine style. I'm not going to go over everything, but just talk about the init caps choice. That does mean, though, I've got to talk about their display font.

IEEE Spectrum seems to have also paid for a new font to be used for various title sections. And apparently the font designer decided that for a 21st-century electronic engineering magazine, the font of choice would need to have the look and feel of electronics. What does that mean? Think bad 1970s Hollywood computer effects: What it means is low-resolution, badly pixilated retro-crap lettering. Doesn't this just scream non-artsy, nerd engineer?

This of course, totally ignores the work of real engineers and computer scientists. From the days of UNIX troff, and Donald Knuth's tex, and others in the '70s, to Jobs' Macintosh, and indeed year after year for the past 40 years, engineering technologists have worked long days and nights to produce better and better fonts. Both for printing and monitor display, there's been astounding advances in understanding what it takes for to produce beautiful and readable fonts.

And all this toil done specifically to get rid of the vestigial pixilation's and crude results of the earliest beta versions.

OK. So Spectrum has an insulting font choice. But when you compound that choice with the equally bad style choice of init caps you come up with the perfect storm of ugly text display. Here's the lead paragraph from the Aug 2013 edition page 23:

  • The pixilated "Y" is not merely rasterized, it is barely recognizable.
  • The init cap is set off in a simple blue square, with a strange amount of white space around it. An init cap is one thing - an init cap floating off the text is another.
  • So, finally, the capital "Y" and the rest of the word "ou" are barely readable as a single unit.

If the goal was to produce unreadable, ugly text, they succeeded. I would rather their goal was to use the latest technology to produce a beautiful magazine. And as Knuth points out the root "tech" comes from the Greek, meaning art and skill. A technical magazine should strive to be both skillful and artful

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Posted by netrc at 01:18 PM