Wednesday, May 27, 2009

computers: William Gibson nailed avatars and online worlds, missed with cyberspace

I just set up a Mii and wandered into PlayStation Home (and quickly out again).

It reminds me how prescient William Gibson was about avatars in an online social space. In an almost throwaway passage in his masterpiece Count Zero
A square of cyberspace directly in front of him flipped sickeningly and he found himself in a pale blue graphic that seemed to represent a very spacious apartment, low shapes of furniture sketched in hair-fine lines of blue neon. A woman stood in front of him, a sort of glowing cartoon squiggle of a woman, the face a brown smudge.

“I'm Slide,” the figure said, hands on its hips, “Jaylene. You don't fuck with me. Nobody in L.A.” she gestured, a window suddenly snapping into existence behind her “fucks with me. You got that?”

“Right,” Bobby said. “What is this? I mean, if you could sort of explain.” He still couldn't move. The "window" showed a blue-gray video view of palm trees and old buildings.

“How do you mean?”

“This sort of drawing. And you. And that old picture.”

“Hey, man, I paid a designer an arm and a leg to punch this up for me. This is my space, my construct. This is L.A., boy. People here don't do anything without jacking. This is where I entertain!”
This was from 1986, a year before the Habitat video game and a decade before Neal Stephenson got all the credit with Snowcrash. Wow.

Instead Gibson gets infinite credit for cyberspace, but that article's "Visionary influence and prescience" section doesn't seem to admit that Gibson's cyberspace isn't remotely how it has turned out. We don't fly between geometric representations of data hubs by frantically tapping access code on a hot-rod deck, we simply type in a URL or click a link. We don't see any representation of cyberspace during navigation at all. We don't jack in at all, we watch a conventional screen. Even when we use Virtual reality, it is something that takes place within a URL or site. Here is Bobby the wannabe's understanding of the matrix from Count Zero a few pages earlier:
He'd used decks in school, toys that shuttled you through the infinite reaches of that space that wasn't space, mankind's unthinkably complex consensual hallucination, the matrix, cyberspace, where the great corporate hotcores burned like neon novas, data so dense you suffered sensory overload if you tried to apprehend more than the merest outline.
To give you an idea of how different navigating the internet is from the mechanisms of Gibson's matrix, here is someone guiding Bobby to hack into the Yakuza via a back door
“When you punch out past the Basketball,” Jammer said to Bobby, “you wanna dive right three clicks and go for the floor, I mean straight down.”
“Past the what?”
“Basketball. That's the Dallas-Fort Worth Sunbelt Co-Prosperity Sphere, you wanna get your ass down fast, all the way, then you run how I told you, for about twenty clicks. It's all used-car lots and tax accountants down there, but just stand on that mother, okay?”
Bobby jacked.
He followed Jammer's instructions, secretly grateful that he could feel Jackie beside him as they plunged down into the workaday depths of cyberspace, the glowing Basketball dwindling above them. The deck was quick, superslick, and it made him feel fast and strong.
(these "clicks" seem to be distances, not buttons).

Labels: ,

Monday, May 18, 2009

skiing: always learning

With global warming looming, any season with snow is a good one. I got to ride powder day after day on two occasions, so 2008-2009 was really special. I'd have my best tree run ever, a short shot of untracked powder through a grove of trees, steering on the edge of control until the trees would spit me out onto Shirley Lake or Squaw Creek, and the next day I'd have an even better tree run.

Anyway, on the last day of skiing I was playing around with crossunder, where your skis move from one side to the other under your body. Expert skiers say "just get your skis out to the side and on edge", but do that and nothing else and you fall down. It's a dynamic motion in response to the forces that build up in skiing, and despite spending hours leaning against the wall in classic ski racer poses I've never been entirely sure what I'm trying to do. Back in 2006 I thought
The key seems to be keeping hard pressure on the tongues of your boots to make your skis work during the transitions.
but that only takes you so far and I remained frustratingly upright. I realized that to keep the skis moving across the hill while my upper body continued down the fall line I'd have to twist my knees as well, and then to bring my skis back I'd have to twist them the other way. Adding the twist let me face down the hill more and anticipate the next turn as Dan Ray was telling me, which counterintuitively let me get the skis further out to the side and more on edge.

So I'm forward with my hips and shins, but also twisting my knees to direct the skis under and across, then pushing the skis out to the side, then twisting my knees the other way slightly, while flexing my ankles to adjust my front-rear balance. ?!??! It worked pretty well for a few turns, then the season ended. It'll take years to get the hang of it. What a sport!


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

computers: sort-of switching to Linux

My key software applications, the Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail client, are cross-platform. I do all my command-line work in a Cygwin bash shell, which implements UNIX command-line tools in Windows. I've used Linux and Solaris at work for years, and occasionally fiddle with my Linux-based One Laptop Per Child XO-1. I don't pay the unneccessary Microsoft Office tax. I'm not playing any computer games right now.

So I should be a perfect candidate to switch to Linux. Knowing this, I've left unused partitions on my Windows computers for an eventual Linux install.

I took the plunge a week ago on this desktop PC. At boot I can choose to start up Kubuntu Linux running KDE 4.2.2! It's handsome and full-featured, and it's easy to install thousands of free programs. But I'm typing this from Windows XP.

Installation went OK, nearly everything worked, and after entering a complicated command once I can access documents and music from my Windows C: drive. But getting from 90% working to 95% took several evenings, and I may never get to that final 5%.
the desktop made sound, but Flash videos were silent
(I found the magic incantation to make low-level audio prefer my sound card.)
no cutting-edge Firefox
(I finally found a special 64-bit nightly build.)
no Thunderbird 3
Supposedly there's a 64-bit build somewhere.
no Quicken
I guess I have to install WINE windows support
display corruption
install a different video driver?
background music or Flash sound turns into horrible screech the moment I load a new window
don't use my fancy sound card?!
locks up about once a day
more to come
I wrote separately on my choice and installation of Kubuntu; the gory details of the problems I continue to overcome are at http://userbase.kde.org/User:Skierpage.

My biggest let-down from my theoretical love for Linux and open source software to the reality was in software installation and update. Virtually everything that runs on Linux is freely redistributable, so as I've noted one installer can install any piece of software from a choice of thousands, and keep everything you've installed up-to-date! But the graphical installer lacks features, there are literally dozens of package installation programs (people on IRC told me to use apt, aptitude, dpkg, synaptic, adept, ...), and nothing keeps a history of "Thursday at 1am you installed package random_lib.3.14 because a stranger on chat thought it would make sound work." The killer feature is a maze and a mess.

Labels: , ,

software: installing Linux details

I could have compiled the Linux kernel and utilities from scratch, but decided to start with a distribution: a compiled set of programs with an installer that people have tested and believe work well together.

Linux allows a choice of window system environments. I've followed the progress of the K Desktop Environment for years. I've even installed it on Windows (which brings to mind Samuel Johnson's quotation, it “is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well [yet]; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” So I knew I wanted KDE.

Ubuntu is known for being a popular GNU/Linux distribution, and it has a variant Kubuntu that ships KDE as its desktop.

The good I downloaded the CD-ROM image for Kubuntu 9.04 in mere minutes over BitTorrent, burned it onto CD-ROM, and rebooted. The CD-ROM lets you run Kubuntu from the CD-ROM or install it onto your hard drive. I chose the latter. But the installer itself is a full Linux installation! You're running a graphical desktop, your mouse works. I clicked the link for _Release notes_ and a web browser started up and went to a web site. So if the installer works you can be confident that graphics, input, and networking are going to work.

Woes I had left an empty partition for a Linux install, but at some point formatted it for Windows because I got tired of Windows' disk check complaining about it. That confused the installer, I couldn't tell it "Put Linux on D: and give me a dual-boot system." But I was able to fire up an IRC client in the browser in the installer and visit the #kubuntu IRC channel to ask strangers for help, where an insanely helpful person named "firefishe" took me through configuring /dev/sda1. My disk problems meant that the alleged migration assistant that would transfer my settings from Windows didn't run.

GoodUpon reboot I was running KDE! The desktop is handsome and rich.

OK I was able to access my Windows C: drive and all my document, though the installer didn't set it up and the command to do so is very arcane.


Labels: ,

Monday, May 4, 2009

music: Max Tundra's wealth of ideas

Nobody will ever again have the microscopes turned up to 100x as Scritti Politti did on "Provision" :-( , but Max Tundra's got his at 10x. I'm a sucker for generosity of ideas, and Max Tundra pours them out.

Also give Number Our Days a few listens. I need better nearfield computer speakers (come back Eminent!).
Ultimately, different coloured fabric sewn together would be
Many times more useful if they taught me to flirt
But instead, inanimate, they hang there, inert
Waiting to encumber me

This jumper was bought for 20p