May 2007

This Thing’s Gonna Make Porn AWESOME!

by Joey deVilla on May 30, 2007

Somebody had to say it about Microsoft Surface; I just thought it might as well be me.

Microsoft Surface Spousal Swap

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“Microsoft Surface” logo.Microsoft’s Midnight Surprise? It’s Microsoft Surface, a large-area screen-and-multi-touch-surface computer. Here are some places to get started:

It’s pretty nifty technology, the sort of which we’d been waiting for since Bruce Tognazzini showed the world (okay, maybe not the world, but a couple of really interested people at Sun and whoever bought Tog on Software Design) his “Starfire Project” concept back in 1992, in which he showed a theoretical multi-touch surface computer hooked to a global network in the far-off year of 2004.

That’s all I’m writing for now; this Global Nerd’s gotta go beddy-bye.

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Microsoft’s Midnight Surprise

by Joey deVilla on May 29, 2007

Box in a plain brown wrapper with a question mark.

One minute after midnight tonight, Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices division — the folks behind the XBox and Zune — will announce “something totally new…and it’s going to change the way people interact with technology.”

Here’s what Gizmodo has to say
:

The timing is good, since tomorrow is when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs get to point fingers at each other under the grandfatherly gaze of Grand Vizier Walt Mossberg, and in these heady iPhone days, Gates needs all the ammo he can get. But what the heck is it? We’re convinced Zune 2.0 is still a ways off, but then again, what else would this division be up to? Stay tuned, and we’ll get back to you with the details right around midnight.

PC World takes Gizmodo’s point and runs with it a little farther:

…while the two will likely talk about the last three decades of computing, when it comes to current tech Jobs is walking in armed with major-league cool. I’m sure Gates is hoping this new techno-thingie will let him talk about new Microsoft developments without audience members snickering.

Whatever it is, it’s not likely to be worth staying up for, but I’ll be up at midnight anyway, so I’ll report on what it is they’re unveiling.

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Cyberwar Ain’t What It Used to Be

by Joey deVilla on May 29, 2007

Cover of the 1984 paperback edition of “Neuromancer” by William Gibson.

In his “Sprawl” series of short stories and novels, William Gibson made many references to World War III’s “cyberwar” component, especially in the novel Neuromancer. Willis Corto, an important character in that novel, is the sole survivor of a particularly important but forgotten operation in WWIII called Screaming Fist, which I’ll let Wikipedia summarize:

Operation Screaming Fist was an American military operation aimed at introducing a major virus into a Russian military computer. One of the main characters of the book, Corto, took part in the operation as a colonel. The operation was significant in that it involved dropping the team assembled for it by flying them across enemy lines on light gliders, with each member plugged into the first prototype cyberdecks. Unfortunately, the operation had been grossly mismanaged and had not taken into account certain aerial defenses. As a result, Russian EMP weapons were used against the gliders shortly after they entered Russian airspace. In the ensuing chaos, Colonel Corto escaped in a Soviet helicopter gunship and was the only survivor.

While it wasn’t as visually dramatic as soldiers and hackers on ultralights descending on a Russian military computer installation in a daring night raid, the denial-of-service attack on Estonia is just as Gibsonian, judging by the way the news outlets have been tossing about terms like “cyberattack”, “first war in cyberspace”, “cyberattack” and “digital Maginot Line.

What I find really interesting is that the only futuristic thing about the whole affair are the “cyber-” terms used to describe it. The actual attack itself isn’t anywhere as exotic or future-tech-y as Neuromancer and all those other cyberpunk novels of the ’80s and ’90s made such things out to be. In fact, a lot of it seems so damned ordinary:

Cyberpunk stories Real world
Cyber-attacks often required physical infiltration of a heavily-guarded site by a team comprising crack paramilitary troops and “console cowboys”. The cyber-attack didn’t require anyone to physically go anywhere; it was all done online.
Cyber-attacks often required specialized viral software (“icebreakers” in Gibson’s novels, where “ICE” stood for “Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics”) that had to be written by AIs and were available only to the military or from specialized black market dealers like The Finn. Cyber-attacks do make use of specialized viral software, but they’re written by humans — often teenagers with plenty of spare time — and are relatively easy to obtain if you hang around the right online circles (or wrong ones, depending on your point of view).
Cyber-attacks were typically pulled off using very specialized hardware built by hardware gurus. Here’s a line from hardware specialist Automatic Jack from the short story Burning Chrome:

I knew every chip in Bobby’s simulator by heart; it looked like your workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the `Cyberspace Seven’, but I’d rebuilt it so many times that you’d have had a hard time finding a square millimetre of factory circuitry in all that silicon.

This cyber-attack was carried out by a botnet, which is essentially a lot of ordinary home computers — stock machines and “commodity hardware” — whose spare cycles are being harnessed by a virus that probably found its way in there via spam, malware site or some other rather ordinary vector.
Cyber-attackers interfaced with their machines by “jacking in”; that is, linking themselves to their machines through electrodes, through which they’d operate in a virtual reality-like environment.

If they ran into “Black Ice”, a deadly form of anti-malware countermeasures, their nervous systems would get fried.

Cyber-attackers interfaced with their machines by “logging in”; that is, linking themselves to their machines through a keyboard, mouse and monitor, through which they’d operate in a command-line environment.

If they typed too long without a break, they’d get carpal tunnel syndrome and their wrists would get fried.

Cyber-attack targets were fancy-pants specialized computer installations accessible to few, such as military supercompters in Neuromancer’s backstory or the AI complex in its climax. The cyber-attack target was the Estonian internet, which people used for everyday activities, from banking to email to looking at pictures of other people’s cats with funny captions.
Fashion: Many hackers wore leather, black jeans and mirrored shades. Hey, this is also true in real life! Score one for Gibson!

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Shut Up and Play

by Joey deVilla on May 29, 2007

In Ars Technica article titled Meet the “users”: We don’t talk, we don’t like you, we just want to play, Ben Kuchera writes:

I’d like to introduce you to one of the more unknown tribes in the online community. We rarely talk about them because they’re not as annoying as the griefers or as rampant as the “I have to take a bong hit now” people on Xbox Live, but they’re out there. I’m ashamed to say I’m one of them. We’re users. We don’t hook up our headsets, we mute your voice, and we just play the damn game. We’re not here to make friends, and if you extend an invite, it will just get rejected. We rarely leave feedback. For us online gaming isn’t social; most people on Xbox Live aren’t worth being social with. You may be on the other end of the line chattering away about the game, but we’re not listening.

Part of the problem with a system where you can play with any idiot out there is just that: you can play with any idiot out there. How long would you be able to tolerate these guys yelling into your headset?

In a Facebook/MySpace/Twitter world, it’s easy to forget that there are reasons why gamers go online other than social networking. Before the internet became a household world, people played networked games for a very simple reason: human opponents are far more interesting than AIs.

Ben Kuchera’s article is something that game designers should keep in mind, but it’s also something that developers of social networking applications should also consider. One of the reasons that social networking applications are popular is that there are ludic or game-like aspects to many of them, and as with games, sometimes we’d rather you just shut up and play.

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LOLCODE, the LOLCat Programming Language

by Joey deVilla on May 28, 2007

Cat at computer: “I can has programming language?”

The moment Anil Dash published his now-famous blog entry on the grammar used by lolcats, Cats Can Has Grammar, the door to studies that were equal parts silly and serious was opened. Not to be content with mere lexical and semiotic analysis of lolcats, some folks have taken it to the next level: the LOLCODE programming language.

LOLCODE is your standard Algol-style programming language (Algol is the grandfather of just about every popular current programming language) married to the lolcat captioning style — that is, ALL CAPS and I CAN HAS SILLY CAT GRAMMER AND SPELING KTHXBYE.

Here’s HAI WORLD, the LOLCODE version of “Hello, World!”:

Here’s something that outputs the numbers 1 through 10, a classic beginner’s exercise:

And finally, here’s a program to print the contents of a specified file:

If someone’s working on an IDE for this language, I have very important stylistic advice: it should make heavy use of the Impact font, just like all those lolcat captions. Bonus points if it’s Impact with a white fill and black stroke!

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A Million Fools and Their Money Have Been Parted

by Joey deVilla on May 28, 2007

Somehow — Mind control? Bribes? “Buy this Zune or we’ll kill this puppy”? — a million Zunes will have been sold by the end of June, according to Robbie Bach, president of the Entertainment and Devices Division of Microsoft.

As good as this news is for Microsoft, this is even better news for you if you’re about to do some dog-and-pony shows for investors. You can simply pull out this story and say “This is why we’ll be able to find customers: somewhere, out there, are at least a million people who’ll buy anything.”

1 Million Zune Fans Can Be Wrong
My apologies to the King for riffing on his album design.

Over at CrunchGear, Vince Veneziani put these numbers in context:

I can understand maybe a smaller company getting excited over selling a million devices, but Apple in Q4 of last year alone sold 14 million iPods. Yeah, 14 million people bought iPods. Now those Zunes seem pretty dinky in comparison, eh?

Other esteemed colleagues in the tech blogosphere are equally unimpressed. Engadget says:

While Bach sees that as a “good start” he admits that the Zune hasn’t quite gotten as social as the company would like, saying that “when your installed base is a million, the benefits of sharing, frankly, aren’t as wide as we hope to see in the future.” Unfortunately, Bach didn’t get very specific about any future Zune plans, choosing instead to talk up the pink and watermelon-colored Zunes, which’ll surely make all the difference.

Dan at UNEASYSilence:

This weekend I made a conscious decision to give my iPod a week off and go Zune only. Come on, the thought of access to unlimited subscription music, and FM radio (not a fan of the brown, but whatever). So, I kicked my second laptop into BootCamp, made the Vista plunge and installed the Zune software.

Long story short; the software installation process was quite possibly the worst experience ever, but that was quickly eclipsed by the HORRIFIC ass backwards annoying Zune software/syncing experience. After HOURS of coaxing I think I have the damn thing working. I’ll report back at the end of the week on how the rest of the experience was, but I am left puzzled HOW Microsoft sold a million of these to suckers customers?

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