Monday, December 31, 2007

XO: the slowness

XO is so slow that if you open 5 applications (sorry, "activities") it slows down significantly. If you open 6 of them, it slows down to a complete grind. And I'm talking about such low-intensity activities as text editing and web browsing! I haven't even tried video or sound recording or editing yet!

Having a minimal number of activities open is also not a guarantee that the laptop won't slow down. If you copy a large quantity of text to a clipboard, it will slow the XO down just as effectively as opening 6 applications. By "large" I mean "about 2 pages worth". For me it's typical to copy / paste chunks of text this size as I write and edit my stories or blog entries.

An XO / OLPC laptop An XO / OLPC laptop.

Well then, perhaps I should clear out my clipboard frequently to avoid computer freezing up? Yeah, that's a step you don't have to do in a traditional computer, but what's some small effort for the honor of using this radically innovative machine? It should be easy given that all your clipboard entries are conveniently lined up on the left side of your workspace. Hmm... but now how am I supposed to know which of them are the "huge" chunks that are hogging the memory, versus tiny one-word chunks? In my writing / editing process I generate both kinds, but much more of the latter. When you move the mouse over each clipboard entry, it obligingly pops up a menu allowing you to choose to remove the entry, add it to Journal, or to open it in an activity (such as "write", if it's text). However, it does not show you what the entry is (not until you open it in an activity, I suppose. And I already said what happens when you open more than 4-5 activities). So there is no easy way to know which entries to delete. Would it have been so hard to program the clipboard so that moving the mouse over a clipboard entry would show the initial words of the text (if it's a text)?

I guess you can point out that poor kids in the 3rd world are not graphomaniacs like me (actually, very few kids anywhere are), so they won't manipulate large chunks of text. Yet, this laptop gives kids an ability to record video and audio, and video / audio objects are bound to be much bigger than segments of text! If the laptop memory chokes on text, how will it handle multimedia? I'm afraid to even try it.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

No X's or O's for this toy

It's not the chiclet-sized rubbery keys (though I suppose I wouldn't try to type a dissertation on this keyboard. I haven't had a chance to type out long text documents on it yet, because I am still trying to find out the how to do the basic functions I do on a computer. ) No, there are several other reasons why I think this thing is crippled.

I know, I know. I can hear a bunch of voices yelling back at me that I don't get it, that XO was not supposed to be a "regular" laptop, and the fact that it can't do a lot of things a regular computer can do was a design decision, not a flaw. But then you have to wonder if the assumptions the designers made about the target audience (children in poor countries) were any close to being realistic.

You don't realize how much you rely on this feature until you miss it

Suppose you regularly update a web site, and you do it via a CMS (content management software). CMSes have web-based interfaces; you update them via a web browser. Often you want to upload pictures. Web browsers have upload widgets where you click "Browse" and a dialog box comes up that lets you select a file to upload. So you go to your CMS URL in the XO web browser, and you see your usual upload widgets, and you click the "Browse" button, and your computer cranks and flashes its blinkenlights, and you wait, and wait... while the itching feeling it's not going to pop up a dialog window grows stronger. You can't say why, not yet, but you just know it's not going to happen. When, after a lot of grinding, the XO web browser fails to pop up a dialog window (with no error message or anything), you realize why.

There are NO windows on this system!

An XO / OLPC laptop An XO / OLPC laptop.

The damn operating system does not have a window manager! All popular operating systems, whether Microsoft Windows, Mac or Linux, use a windowing system as a basic user interface paradigm. Any application you open opens in a window. Not so here. In OLPC interface, an application (or "activity", as they call them here) occupies the whole screen. Sure, there are ways to get from your "activity" screen to the Home screen and other activity screens. But the windowing paradigm is about more than that.

If you are a very linear person, XO may be for you

For one thing, a lot of mainstream applications, such as web browser, require opening another window in order to accomplish routine actions (such as uploading files), and they can't do that on XO. But the significance of windows is more fundamental. You can lay them out side by side and overlap them, enabling you to see several sets of data, several applications, several... um, activities, at once. It lets you shift your attention from window to window whenever something interesting happens in some window (for example, a friend IMs you). Our computing activities are rarely linear. You may be chatting in one window, while waiting for a video to load in another, while checking email in yet another window. You need to be able to see all that's happening at once! And children these days are even more used to that than adults. Everything that's been said about the contemporary kids and teenagers emphasizes that they are embracing multitasking the way no generation has done before -- IM'ing several friends, watching videos, and doing homework all at the same time, continuously managing multiple streams of attention. I would add that this is typical not just to kids, but to programmers too, of all ages. It is inevitable for us. While a program compiles, we don't dumbly stare at the screen: we research some other issue for another project, or answer somebody's question in an IM window -- only to interrupt those "secondary" issues when our primary project finishes compiling. And it should be enough to glance at it to know when it finished -- we shouldn't have to Alt+Tab to the other window repeatedly. Similarly, we need to know immediately when a colleague or a friend sent us a new instant message. For that, one needs overlapping windows on the screen.

XO doesn't let you do that.

So like I said, it may be good for kids who haven't been around regular computers, but any kid who's grew up in a modern digital lifestyle will find it crippling.

But maybe a window manager would be too power-intensive? It is a computationally intensive feature, I'm sure, at least as far as memory is concerned. And I've just talked with a guy at a coffeshop who has been following the OLPC program closely and he said that all these design decisions were dictated by the need to make the laptop consume as little power as possible.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Laptop crushes

My broken laptop is at the Fry's repair shop, where they will keep it for a week just to run some diagnostics on it! The diagnostics will cost me over 100 bucks. And that's not counting the cost of repairs. There's no telling how much that will be. The technician at Fry's said "it may not be economical" for me to get this laptop fixed versus buying a new one. I don't know if there are laptop repair shops in town that do the job faster and cheaper, there may very well be, but I had already spent one of my vacation days running errands and didn't want to spend the second one searching all over the town for a cheap computer repair shop. So I thought what the hell. But I prepared to reconcile myself with the possibility that I may have to put my beloved laptop to rest. So while I was at Fry's, I started looking at other laptops.

Even if a relationship ends, you can say it was good if it taught you what is important to you in relationships. And so it is with computers. If a laptop taught you what is important to you in laptops, it was worth it. And this laptop taught me a lot. When I bought it, I was confused about what I wanted -- all I had from my previous relationships with laptops was a vague sense of dissatisfaction, of spending too much effort working around their quirks; there was no balance of give and take. But now I know. Portability is extremely important, because I carry my laptop everywhere -- in a way it is a life partner. And for me, portability means primarily weight, and only then size. So, a 10" screen is only a marginal win over a 12 " screen, but 1.5 pounds is worlds better than 2.5 pounds! Reduction in weight often comes at an expense of an optical drive. And that's fine by me. I use a CD / DVD drive so rarely that I'll be perfectly happy with having an external drive to plug into the lappy when I'm at home. I don't need one "on the go". On the other hand, since I type a lot and in all sorts of places, the laptop's keyboard needs to be decent-sized. Chiclet keysx won't do.

That said, I announce my newest crush: Fujitsu Q2010! I looked at it at Fry's, and it's full of awesome! 1.5 lbs, 12" screen, no optical drive, but a keyboard suitable for marathon typing.

I feel awful saying this. I still hope my old laptop can be fixed.

An XO / OLPC laptop An XO / OLPC laptop.

Where does the XO come into picture, you ask? (No, you didn't, but I can dream, can't I?) It's not really in the running. It's a boy-toy, a rebound relationship. No, it's more complicated than that. If I was single, it would be a wingman / -woman. Or a wingpet, as it were. For all its inadequacies, it's really good at starting conversations. The last couple of days, being on vacation, I camped out with my XO at various WiFi-enabled coffeeshops and eateries, and half the time guys come up to me asking what it is. Hey single women! The Give 1, Get 1 program has been extended until December 31st! For just $400 you can buy yourself a perfect guy magnet!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Lumps of coal

This Christmastime the universe brought me an assortment of small nuggets of anthracite in the form of annoying and disappointing events. None of them is big enough to justify a whine (so consider this an unjustified whine); they are rather like small, delicate chocolates in the box -- as you bite into each one, you wonder which shade of bitter taste it will leave in your mouth.

Perhaps I shouldn't blame the universe: some of these things were brought about by my own clumsiness. First, I damaged my beloved laptop: not just once, but twice. I spilled coffee on it at a coffeeshop. Only a tiny bit of coffee, but it was enough to do a lasting damage. My 3 years of being very careful with this laptop came to naught. I am usually very aware of the placement of coffee and tea cups within one meter radius of the laptop. I don't put cups with liquid on the table where the lappy sits: I put them on a chair or on the floor, so that there would be no chance of spilling them. But all it takes is one time. My hand trembled, or something, and a few drops of coffee ended up on the keyboard. As a result, the mouse pad stopped working. The mouse acts as if its button is permanently pressed. So if you move the mouse over any window, it will wreck havoc as it "clicks" everything within that window, opening files, launching applications you didn't know you had, etc.

So I took it to Fry's yesterday to see if it could be fixed. But when I showed it to a technician, the mouse worked fine. I brought it back home, and the mouse is back to being unruly. So another trip to Fry's is in the stars for me tomorrow. I just hope the problem won't temporarily go away this time, only to reappear at home.

What's worse, as I was taking the laptop out of the bag at Fry's, I dropped it on the floor! Some parts of it outer shell cracked and chipped, but the fall didn't seem to affect it... at least not yet. I still feel very bad about harming my laptop, as if I had harmed a child.

Or perhaps it's a way my sneaky subconscious was trying to get rid of the old laptop so as to make way for what was supposed to be my holiday present to myself: an XO laptop (also known as OLPC, or One Laptop Per Child). I bought an XO as part of their "Buy 1, Get 1" program (you pay for 2 laptops, and get 1, while the other gets shipped to a child in a developing country, which is what the OLPC program was intended for). It arrived yesterday. My Christmas Eve night was spent on figuring out the XO interface, which is, in Tom Lehrer's words, "so simple, so very simple, that only a child can use it".

An XO / OLPC laptop An XO / OLPC laptop.

And not just any child, but a child who's never been around real computers before. For youngsters in African villages it may be perfectly adequate. But a western child who's been using computers since preschool, may find it about as comfortable as tying her shoe laces with her elbows. Yes, XO is cute. I grant it that. But a cute lump of coal does not a diamond make.

That's my verdict for now. I'll write more about it after I take a few deep breaths and spend hours on OLPC forums and wikis to see if there is even a circuitous way (much less a direct one) to do my everyday computing tasks.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Neil Gaiman "American Gods": a CFI book club discussion

5 members of the CFI book club attended the discussion. 3 of them have finished the book, 2 haven't but were planning to finish. For some reason we didn't get much discussion mileage out of this book. It did not prompt discussions as lively as the two previous books the CFI book club read, "The Sparrow" and "Towing Jehovah".

Everybody agreed the story starts out interesting but loses steam towards the end. A reader who characterized "American Gods" as half mythology, half modern road movie, said this setup pulled him through the first two thirds of the novel, but then he started to lose interest. Everybody felt pretty much the same.

The best part of the book: details, subplots, digressions

What people found the most memorable about "American Gods" was not the overarching idea or characters, but the details: various little tidbits, plot snippets and sub-stories that made this book a rather unusual piece of work. It is full sub-plots and sub-sub-plots that sometimes threw the readers off course, even if in a good way. For example, a few readers wondered about the significance of the taxi driver episode. Or the life story of an African woman who was sold into slavery and brought to colonial America. What role did these interludes play in the plot? Was it just to illustrate various ways gods from all over the world migrated to the US? One reader observed that Neil Gaiman usually manages to tie the plot threads that seem disparate (for example, "Sandman" has dozens upon dozens of plot threads, but most of them have an effect on the story), whereas in "American Gods" a lot of plot threads didn't have a connection.

And the concept of importing gods does not seem to be consistently thought out. Someone in the group wondered: when people came to America and brought their gods, did they duplicate them, or did they bring the only instance of a god to America? At the time when they came, there must have been a lot of people in the home country believing in the particular god, so this would imply most of those gods had "forked" (if you put it that way). Actually, I think the afterword answers that question: the immigrants indeed brought replicas of gods with them. In that case the central conflict is a bit myopically American-centered. You would wonder why the originals of the old gods did not back up the duplicates in the final battle? (Unless they too were dying out in their home countries, which seems plausible.)

Neil Gaiman book reading at Book People in Austin, TX, September 2005 Neil Gaiman book reading at Book People in Austin, TX, September 2005.

The most interesting characters end up as "furniture"

Speaking about the uniquely American flavor of the book, its main redeeming quality, in my eyes, is Gaiman's pitch-perfect rendition of small town America and all the colorful weirdos that live in it. I was impressed how Gaiman portrayed each of Shadow's quirky, kind, mysterious neighbors as a distinct person, with unique patterns of speech; how he brought those characters to life with just a few details. However, until the very end it didn't seem that those secondary and tertiary characters were more than "furniture" in Gaiman's picture of small town America. Admittedly, it was an interesting picture, bleak and cozy at the same time, and worth of a book in and of itself, but still, it was hard to see how those characters were significant. Shadow's interactions with them appeared to be digressions an author resorts to when he doesn't know how to advance the plot. I amended my opinion somewhat after reading the last 20-30 pages, as it turns out that some of the subplots involving secondary characters get tied up in the main plot line. Still it is less than satisfactory to have them tied up after the fact, rather than organically woven into the plot.

The plot loses steam towards the end

The general opinion of our group was that you may have fun with the details, but the book lacks something... overarching. Well, you can't say it lacks a concept, because it does have a rather unusual central concept. It's the notion that gods exist only as long as there are people who believe in them, and that believers brought their gods along as they migrated around the world. But a good premise is not enough to make a good novel. For one thing, this idea is not entirely new: as one reader pointed out, Terry Pratchett played with it in "Small Gods". The execution is what makes a book worth reading, and the execution of this novel fell apart towards the end. None of the 5 readers that took part in the discussion thought the ending made much sense, or had a clear idea of Shadow's role in the resolution of the central conflict. The way the plot petered out towards the end made it hard for me to sustain interest. I'm not sure if this testifies to my degree of sleep deprivation, or to some real flaws of the book, that I fell asleep while reading what was supposed to be the climactic scene, the battle of the gods.

I also wasn't sure what was even the point of a battle between old and new gods, given that most of the old gods were dying anyway. The conflict, as it was presented in the book, had little relevance to the world at large. Most people, unaware of those gods' existence, would not have noticed their disappearance.

I'm also surprised that neither old nor new gods tried to make an alliance with Jesus or Allah, as the latter two are still among the most powerful imaginary entities on the planet. However, introducing players of this caliber into the plot would have made it much more complicated, so I can understand the reason for this omission.

The book is oddly in favor of religion?

I guess this book may feel rewarding is if you are among people who bemoan lack of spirituality in the modern western society. Such a person may find themselves sagely nodding their head in agreement. Gaiman's observations about America's lack of soul, lack of spiritual places and a need to create artificial spiritual places would certainly seem poignant to me... if I believed that "spirituality" is a definable notion, and that there was more of it in the past (or in less advanced societies) than there is now. But since I don't believe that, those observations, while witty, sounded hollow to me. CFI being what it is, most of our group members did not identify with that sentiment either. "The book is oddly in favor of religion," concluded one of our readers.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"The Golden Compass": movie review

A couple of days ago I saw "The Golden Compass", based on Philip Pullman's book by the same title, the first one in "His Dark Materials" trilogy. We read and discussed this book at the Science And Religion In Fiction book club, and I'll write a report sometime soon; in this post I will mention some differences between the movie and the book. Of course, that's not what a proper movie review is supposed to do. But, being artistically challenged, I'm not in a position to judge things like acting or director's skill. To me the most important factor is how good the story is.

The movie sticks very closely to the book. It hits all the key plot points (except one: see later); no major characters were sacrificed for the sake of brevity or simplicity. That's more than one can expect from most movie adaptations. And yet that's not to say the story has not been simplified for the movie. It has been, and the result is a bit disappointing.

The most interesting thing about the book was the world Philip Pullman created. Since his goal was to write rational fantasy, one expects that the magical aspects of his creation -- daemons, Dust, parallel universes -- are all manifestations of an underlying order of his world, rather than memes / cliches an author pulls out of the hat whenever they are handy. In the book, Pullman does not immediately reveal what Dust or daemons are; he gives us a chance to put the puzzle together. For me that was the main intrigue of the book. Doubly so because those mysterious forces are ambiguous; even at the end of the book it's not clear whether they serve more good than bad.

But the movie deprives us of speculation, since it gives a simplified explanation of those things at the beginning, in a form of an infodump. In the same way, the scenes of Lyra reading the aletheiometer were too simplistic. In the book the deeper meanings of aletheiometer symbols came to Lyra gradually and after much thinking, not instantly or magically. The reader is invited to speculate along with her what those symbols mean. In the movie, she takes one look at the device, and the images appear in all their glory among psychedelic swirls of Dust.

I can see, though, how complexities of Pullman's world do not lend themselves easily to a visual format. It makes me wonder if the reason this book appealed to movie producers at all was because armed bear fights provide some majestic cinematic sequences. :-) And the hot air balloon flights don't disappoint in that department either. All that shiny, steampunky brass!

Speaking about the movie not being completely faithful to the book: there is a plot twist at the end of the novel that's missing in the movie. It involves Lyra's parents and it totally makes you reconsider who the good guys and the bad guys are! You have to wonder why they cut off the ending: to fit under a certain time limit, or did they think it made the story unnecessarily complex?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Towel animals

I must mention one neat experience I had during the cruise, something that offset the flashiness, gaudiness and noise. Towel animals! When making up guests' rooms, the housekeeping crew folded towels into animal shapes and placed them on beds. They did it while guests were at dinner. There was a different animal each night: a seal, a dog, a cat, a frog.

Coming from dinner, it was fun to wonder what kind of towel animal we'll find that night.

Towel seal seen on a cruise ship, November 2007 Towel seal, sitting on the bed
Towel dog with sunglasses, seen on a cruise ship, November 2007 Towel dog with sunglasses
Towel cat seen on a cruise ship, November 2007 Towel cat
Towel frog seen on a cruise ship, November 2007 Towel frog

Then on the last day of the cruise there was a workshop on how to make your own towel animals. It was only 30 minutes long, so we only had time to make a dog and a seal. Not because they take that long to make, but because the instructors had to explain the same steps over and over to a million people. Here are the pictures from the towel animal-making workshop, as well as pictures of several kinds of towel animals (including a swan and an elephant).