Before You Criticize the Cloud for Downtime

cloud_computingWhenever cloud services like EC2 or Google Docs experience downtime, there are always plenty of comments about the dangers of relying on the cloud. While it’s true that depending on third parties (both your ISP and the provider of the cloud service itself) for basic computing tasks like document editing can be risky, it’s also important to look at and understand the entire equation before evaluating cloud services. Here are some things to consider:

  • First and foremost, when you work 100% locally, you have to worry about the integrity of your own storage solution. I’ve had drives fail and/or files become corrupt several times over my career, and I lost much more time than I probably would have during a Google Docs or Amazon Web Service outage.
  • When you run everything locally, you need to spend time and money on a backup solution. Although there are a lot of great ways to back up data seamlessly and unobtrusively, there is still overhead involved in the form of configuration, maintenance, and even computer performance. Additionally, local backup solutions like Apple’s Time Machine and Time Capsule are insufficient; if you really want to be secure, off-site backups are imperative. (Take it from someone whose office recently sustained water damage after we got 12″ of rain in four days.)
  • If you work in the technology industry, you probably use more than one computer and/or go through computers faster than a typical consumer. Keeping data synchronized across computers, maintaining workstations, and configuring new machines all requires overhead which can be dramatically reduced by using more cloud-based services.
  • Although using cloud-based services puts you at the mercy of both the service itself and your ISP, I think you can make a pretty good argument that your ISP usually isn’t all that much of a risk. Even if I’m working 100% locally (writing code, editing video or image files, etc.), I am much less productive without an internet connection. In fact, I’m so dependent on various sites and web-based services that when my connection goes down (which is very rare), I’m more likely to walk away from my computer entirely than to continue working with local files.

All this is not to say that relying on the cloud doesn’t have risks associated with it, or that cloud-based services are always superior to working locally. In fact, although I’m hugely invested in, and dependent on, cloud-based services, I’m not convinced the day will ever come when I do all my work in the cloud. Additionally, aside from downtime, there are other things to consider when choosing to store data in the cloud — chief among them being security. However, before one criticizes cloud services for downtime, it’s important to understand that periods of time during which you cannot be productive come in many different forms, most of which are actually alleviated by using cloud-based services.

Mechanical Keyboard Roundup

mx_keyswitchesUpdate (2/11/2013): Added a review of the Realforce 87U with Topre switches.

Update (1/14/2013): Added a review of the Filco Majestouch-2 with Cherry MX Red switches.

Update (2/1/2012): Filcos (my favorite mechanical keyboards at this point) are now available on Amazon!

Update (1/27/2012): Added a review of the Leopold Tactile Touch.

After sensing something profoundly lacking from the modern typing experience, I decided to delve into the world of mechanical keyboards. As is the case with most fetishes, I discovered that there are entire online communities, cultures, and movements surrounding the magic of the mechanical keyswitch. I could have easily spent many months and several thousands of dollars acquiring, experimenting with, and reviewing all of the mechanical options out there, but with both time and money in short supply, I decided to focus on five specific models: the Das Keyboard Model S Professional, Filco Majestouch-2, DSI Modular, Matias Tactile Pro 3, and the Unicomp SpaceSaver M.

There is a lot of personal preference involved in picking a mechanical keyboard. Factors like key travel, clickiness, tactile feedback, weight, force, build quality and more all contribute to the typing experience, and all of these things mean different things to different people. Keep in mind that the reviews below represent my own opinions, and I tried to differentiate between things that personally appeal to me (clickiness, for example), and more objective characteristics (like build quality). The upshot is that there is no clear winner, and you will probably just need to try a few of these out to see which ones inspire you to get out of bed in the mornings and begin your day of typing.

If you know you want a mechanical keyboard and you’re just here to see and hear about some different models, skip on down to the video reviews. But if you’re wondering why in the world someone would buy a relative expensive mechanical keyboard when you can get a membrane or scissor-switch keyboard for far less (and sometimes for free), read on.

Continue reading

Artificial Photosynthesis Becomes Reality (as Predicted in “Containment”)

My science fiction record is getting better. Last week, scientists theorized that it might be possible to use the LHC as a time machine (which is the premise of my story The Epoch Index), and this week, artificial photosynthesis, one of the themes of my novel Containment, becomes a reality.

Check out the article on the ACS website for more details, but the general idea is that Dr. Daniel Nocera, a scientist at MIT, says his team has successfully developed the first practical artificial leaf. In his own words:

A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades. We believe we have done it. The artificial leaf shows particular promise as an inexpensive source of electricity for homes of the poor in developing countries. Our goal is to make each home its own power station. One can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic power system based on this technology.

In Containment, the concept is called AP, or artificial photosyntheses, since the scientists are not so much interested in creating an artificial leaf as mimicking (and improving on) the chemical processes that happen inside the leaf. Interestingly, the scientists’ objective in Containment isn’t the energy that photosynthesis creates, but the oxygen byproduct.

Here’s a quote from one of the lead scientists studying the problem from Ishtar Terra Station One, humankind’s first permanent outpost on Venus:

The Agriculture Department has perfected stemstock, or meat without the animal, and now we need to perfect photosynthesis without the plant. As much as I love our ferns, the day is coming when we’re going to need more oxygen than they are able to provide us. Without more oxygen, V1 is as big as it’s ever going to get, and it will always be vulnerable to things like pathogens and any number of other events that can unexpectedly destroy plant life.

If this is the kind of thing you’re into, give Containment a try. It’s available in all digital formats, and for this much hardcore science fiction, you can’t beat the price.

containment_350x525

My Science Fiction May Become Fact: The LHC and Time Travel

lhcMy friend PolyGeek forwarded a story to me this morning that completely caught me off guard. The article is called Atom Smasher Could Be Used As Time Machine, and it describes a proposal put forth earlier this month by two physicists that the Large Hadron Collider could be used to send particles — and hence message — forward and backward in time.

Other than being incredibly cool, why was I so intrigued? This is precisely the premise of a story I published in August of last year called The Epoch Index.

An excerpt from the article:

The scientists outline a way to use the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 17-mile long (27-km) particle accelerator buried underground near Geneva, to send a hypothetical particle called the Higgs singlet to the past.

And an excerpt from The Epoch Index:

But the LHC ended up finding something which most people consider to be far more interesting. As the data analysis algorithms parsed through the petabytes of recorded data, they began to uncover very regular patterns in the spins of newly discovered particles. While the direction of the particles’ spins initially appeared random, the analysis began detecting a repetition which looked increasingly like sequences of bytes, and which were eventually decoded into various forms of digital data: text, images, audio, and even simple video. When it was determined beyond a doubt that the encoded information referenced people, events, and dates that did not yet exist, the site was immediately secured and the project promptly put under the control of a small team from the UN. The name of the mysterious particles whose spins had turned out to be tiny windows into the future was changed from “saxions” to “tachyons” — a term derived from the greek word takhus meaning “swift.” The LHC had proven for the first time and beyond any doubt that it was possible for matter to travel faster than the speed of light. At least at the particle level, time travel was possible.

I’ll let them take the Nobel Prize for physics as long as I get the one for literature.

Review of the Apple Magic Trackpad

I know there have been a lot of posts and reviews of Apple’s new Magic Trackpad already, but most of them lack one critical element: actual experience with it. After using Apple’s newest pointing device exclusively for two weeks straight both at work and at home, here are my impressions:

Pros:

  • Very large surface — much larger than the trackpad built into your MacBook.
  • Great click action. Clicking works through the rubber feet on the bottom and feels great. Just like with the built-in trackpad on my MacBooks, sometimes I tap and sometimes I click.
  • Good gesture support. I’m a big believer in gesture and touch-based computing (which is only in its infancy), and the Magic Trackpad is definitely a step in the right direction.
  • Good battery life. I use rechargeable batteries for my mice, remotes, and other devices (the Energizer Family Battery Charger rather than Apple’s), so I don’t worry about having to replace batteries, but I also don’t want to have to do it weekly. I’ve been using two Magic Trackpads extensively for two weeks, and the batteries are still strong.
  • Integrates nicely with Mac keyboards. The size and shape make it a natural extension of your Apple bluetooth keyboard. I use a USB keyboard (fewer batteries to have to keep charged), but it still integrates well. (Note that if you prefer “tap to click,” keyboard integration can also be a con as noted below.)
  • Looks brilliant. As we’ve come to expect from Apple, the design is great. And unlike some other Apple devices I’ve used in the past, functionality wasn’t sacrificed for aesthetics.

Cons:

  • When too close to your keyboard (its form factor suggests that it should be positioned as a keyboard extension), it’s way too easy to inadvertently tap which means your cursor jumps away from where you’re typing. For this reason alone, I experimented with turning off “tap to click,” but eventually ended up just moving the trackpad further away.
  • No USB version. Although the battery life seems good, I would have probably bought a USB version for $10 or $20 less if it had been an option. I actually find USB peripherals more convenient since you don’t have to keep batteries in the charger at all times and in your bag when you travel.
  • Still not as precise as a mouse. Of course, this isn’t really the fault of the Magic Trackpad itself. In my experience, this is simply the nature of trackpads. They’re excellent for when you don’t have a mouse, and I’m happy to use one all day or even for several days in a row while on the road, however eventually, you start to realize that you’re just slightly less productive than you are with a mouse.

mouse_trackpad_workspace

Conclusion:

I’ve gone back to using the Magic Mouse (by far the best mouse Apple has ever made, and probably my favorite mouse of all time — if you’re not convinced, read my review) for most things simply because I’m more accurate with it which means I’m more productive. However, I’ve also incorporated the Magic Trackpad into my workspace, as well (along with my Hexbug Nano). I use the mouse as my primary pointing device, and I use the trackpad for gestures and for scrolling. Maybe I’ll experiment with having one on either side of the keyboard at some point so that I look like I’m piloting a macha rather than just moving a pointer.

In general, I really like the new Magic Trackpad, and I’m glad to see Apple move us one step closer to touch-based computing. But don’t put your Magic Mouse up on eBay just yet.

If You Want to Know the Future of Software, Just Look at Email

I’ve often said that if you want to see the future of software, look no further than email. It may seem odd to think of email as a killer app since most of us don’t like it very much and because it’s been around for so long, but I firmly believe that email is actually one of the best models on which to base future technology. Here’s why:

  • The data is separate from the client. While my email lives safely on a server (in the cloud, as we’re fond of saying these days), I can access it from any number of device-specific clients. On the desktop, I use Mail.app. In the browser, I use Gmail. On my phones, I have clients optimized for touch and small screens. On my iPad, I have a mail client optimized for a slightly larger screen and a virtual keyboard. Email is available from almost every device I own, and every device has a client which is optimized for its particular characteristics.
  • Data is seamlessly synchronized. For many years, I used POP3 simply because it was so widely supported, but my life changed the day I switched to using IMAP. Suddenly all my mail, mail boxes, and the state of individual messages was synchronized across all my devices and clients. I currently access my email from no fewer than three devices (sometimes more) every day without even thinking about it.
  • Email protocols are simple and widely supported. One of the reasons we can access email from just about anywhere using just about any device is the fact that POP3 and IMAP are relatively simple protocols. Libraries are widely available in just about all languages, and where they’re not available, they aren’t hard to write. Nobody owns the protocols, so everyone is free to implement them, and to build any kind of client on top of them that they want — everything from massive enterprise solutions, to simple notification widgets.

Now think about what life would be like if everything worked like email. Imagine if all your music, videos, documents, contacts, source code, preferences, etc. lived in the cloud, and you could access all your data not just from any device, but from clients specifically designed for the strengths of particular devices. Imagine everything being perfectly and seamlessly synchronized, and imagine if accessing all your data on a brand new device (or through any web browser) was as simple as configuring a new email client: just type in a user name, password, and maybe some server information, and within a few minutes, everything is there, and everything is perfectly synchronized and customized for the device that you’re currently using.

I’m certainly not making the claim that email is perfect, or even all that good, for that matter. And I certainly don’t believe that email itself is the future since things like text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Google Wave, etc. are decreasing our dependency on email every day. But the model that email represents — data in the cloud, device-specific clients and experiences, synchronization, and open protocols — is almost certainly the future, and the irony is that it’s been right under our noses all this time.

The Apple tablet can save comic books

As I was reading V for Vendetta the other night, it occurred to me that if this Apple tablet device is real, it could reinvigorate comics and graphic novels even more than all the recent film adaptations. Imagine reading Watchmen and other graphic novels on a big, bright, interactive screen, and having new issues of comics automatically and wirelessly delivered (like newspapers on your Amazon Kindle). Imagine zooming in on panels, listening to voice-overs, and reading comments left by other readers.

Hopefully both Apple and the comic book industry are pursuing this opportunity without any of the obsolete preconceptions of traditional media. I believe if this is done right, the Apple tablet can revolutionize comics every bit as much as the iPod revolutionized digital music.

Although the last thing the internet needs are more rumors of what Apple is going to release, while I'm on the topic, I might as well present my predictions:

  • 10" – 13" multi-touch screen.
  • iPhone OS.
  • App Store, naturally (which, as a side note, I expect to come to the desktop eventually).
  • Focus on music, video, magazines, newspapers, hopefully comics, web browsing, and gaming (both 3D and simple virtual multi-player board games).
  • Nice "page-flip" animations and gestures to make you feel like you're reading physical media.
  • Wireless delivery, probably through Verizon rather than AT&T.
  • On-screen keyboard and voice commands.
  • No optical media, and perhaps no way to connect a keyboard (after all, Apple can't allow it to replace your MacBook).
  • Remote control for your iTV, perhaps.
  • Accelerometer, GPS, and camera (although these could come as upgrades in later models).
  • 64GB of storage capacity (must be bigger than the iPod Touch, but not so big that they can't sell you higher-capacity models in the future).
  • Non-removable battery (naturally — now that they've gotten away with it, why go back?).
  • Name: the Apple iPad.
  • Price: $800.

Anything I left out?

Buran-Energia: The Soviet Space Shuttle Program

Did you know the Soviet Union had its own Space Shuttle program in the 1980’s and early 90’s? The Buran-Energia was the Soviet response to the America Space Shuttle program which they viewed as a major strategic threat. The term Buran (meaning “snowstorm” or “blizzard”) refers to the orbiter itself, and Energia (meaning “energy”) refers to the rocket system used to launch it into orbit.

Visually, the Buran was almost identical to the American shuttles, but there were several key differences:

  • The Buran could carry larger payloads (30 metric tons as opposed to the Space Shuttle’s 25). Since the Buran had no main rockets (all the propulsion was provided by the Energia), it could carry more cargo. Additionally, it could return to Earth with a payload of up to 20 metric tons as opposed to the Space Shuttle’s 15.
  • The Buran had jet engines which could provide thrust on reentry meaning it could actually fly (as opposed to the Shuttle which only glides).
  • The Energia system could deliver payloads to the moon. The Shuttle is confined to low-Earth orbit.
  • The heat shield on the Buran was more robust.
  • The Buran could operate entirely autonomously requiring no astronauts or pilots. In fact, the manual system was never installed.

The Buran’s only launch occurred in November of 1988 (ironically, during a snowstorm). It completed two full orbits, and landed automatically only a few meters off its intended target. It was transported on the back of an Antonov An-225 airplane which was designed specially for this purpose, and is still the largest aircraft in the world.

The program was canceled in the early 90’s due to lack of budget, and tragically, the Buran was destroyed in 2002 when the hanger it was stored in collapsed due to lack of maintenance.

The video below shows the evolution of the Buran project. Especially interesting is the animation showing it launching several nuclear warheads from space and destroying most of the United States.

buran-energia

Credits and additional resources: