Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Separating work from play (Also Ubuntu on a PC)

My mac has hit end of life. I can no longer upgrade the OS (thanks, Apple.) Given a lifespan of 6 years, not including upgrades, my mac has cost me about $300 a year, give or take, and I can't replace it for what I spent on it. With upgrades, that figure goes to about $500. The upgradeable mac no longer makes sense. I can buy a mini for $700 and if it lasts me two years, I come out ahead. The minis can do everything my Pro can do, right?

Almost. I play exactly one high powered graphics game. Until now I've been running it on my mac. No mac except the pro has the video oomph and upgradeability to keep up. PCs, by contrast, do it much, much more economically.

To that end, I've put together a junk box pc, literally made up of stuff purchased at very low price from other peoples' junk boxes and slapped together with a new HD and a new power supply. It's noisy, it runs pretty hot, and it smells. (New power supply insulation volatiles cooking out, I hope.) The junkbox PC's video card is a Geforce 9600, running in a pci-express 2.0 slot behind a 3ghz core2duo CPU, running Ubuntu 12.10 (no stupid names here). This, as compared to my mac pro 1,1 with a Radeon 5870, pci-express 1.1 slots, and a 2.6ghz quad-core xeon running OS X 10.7.5

Results: Despite its video card having about 1/4 the graphics horsepower of the one in my mac (according to the specs I've read), the junk box linux machine consistently outperformed the mac, both in terms of out and out framerate, and in graphical options turned on at the same framerate. This, despite the notoriously convoluted Linux graphics stack and the fact that I'm running the geforce drivers from Ubuntu instead of the latest and greatest from Nvidia. (Perhaps on a card as old as this, it doesn't matter so much.) I think, as Adam Savage once said, that's a result.

Will I leave the Apple fold? Not any time soon. Literally all of my paid-for software runs on my mac. My family uses macs, so it behoves me to have at least one of them around so I can see what they're seeing for support purposes. And there's a real question whether I can be comfortable with my computing world slung across two completely different machines with very little software overlap. Right now I'm having a bad case of "it's on the other machine," which is annoying. There is also the usual total lack of polish in Linux. Sorry Linux guys. When you're used to OS X, everything else feels crude and sloppy. Especially if it's based on Xwindows. Especially if it has no safe mode mechanism, and you have to twiddle config files in the USB and Xserver to get your mouse to behave sanely. (One little mistake and you'd better pray you have SSH server running and another machine.) Especially if it takes a separate app to add applications to the Unity launcher. (Unity is pretty, but awful.) Still. For a gaming machine, it might just be enough. We'll see.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why Ebooks Need Pages

An interesting retweet from Lightspeed Magazine wandered past my Twitter reader today: yet another pundit demanding that the old paradigm of books and pages be abandoned in favor of ebooks, and their ability to handle text. Specifically, this person wanted to see pages go away. Implicit in that argument is the assumption "Everybody reads like I do, and pageless reading works better for me." My hypothesis is that it ain't so, and pages are the best compromise for different readers.

Like that author, I read in streams. I don't pay much attention to what page I'm on with a given book. I locate myself within a body of text by ideas and phrase sound. I can't tell you what page a given idea is on, but it's right after this other idea and way before that one. By contrast, M, my wife, is very visuo-spatial in general. She does remember where a given thought is pagewise, and where it was on the page. It's on a left side page in the first third of the book, about halfway down the page.

Why is this? Well, an extremely cursory search of the intertubes doesn't turn up much direct research, but in psychology there is a phenomenon called chunking - the units in which we divide up things we need to remember. Why is your phone number broken up into area code, exchange, and number? Partly for historical reasons (the POTS was organized that way much more than the modern one) and partly because it's far, far easier to remember three chunks of three and four numbers than it is to remember ten digits all at once. (719)555-1212 is easier to parse into memory and hold there than 7195551212. I'm going to hypothesize, despite finding no literature to back it up, that the same is true for reading. I'm going to further hypothesize that there are several different styles of chunking going on: by page, by idea/event, and perhaps by sound.

In light of these hypotheses, pages have turned out to be an effective compromise. For those of us who chunk by sub/super-page units like ideas and sound, pages don't get in the way. They're a convenient method to put the words in close proximity. For those who chunk spatially, pages provide a vital division of the text, a third dimension of location (the thickness of the book), and a physical place where a given idea resides.

Ebooks are never going to have useful thickness – that's one of their selling points – but they can and should have pages. Ideally those pages should never reflow, either. This is impractical given the huge variety of screens, so if they can reflow /once/ when the ebook is loaded on a given device, that's probably the best compromise. But for heaven's sake, don't throw out the pages. They're a highly evolved compromise, present even in the era of scrolls (most of which seem to have been read horizontally rather than vertically.) For some people they're absolutely vital.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

mouse setup

Mouse: Rat7 adjustable gaming mouse. http://www.cyborggaming.com/prod/rat7.htm Driver: USB Overdrive. http://www.usboverdrive.com/USBOverdrive/News.html Lack of wrist pain: priceless. Rat7 is a great mouse, full stop. You can tailor it to suit /your/ hand, in my case, quite large. The mac drivers that ship with it are an abomination, however. Unstable, poorly documented, idiosynchratic. USB overdrive to the rescue, as usual. :) -JRS

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Curious Lightness of Spirit

I've been thinking about my (late) father a good deal lately. The Brass and Steel novel(s) and short stories are set in the late 19th century, a period about which my father, a former museum director, professional researcher, and historian had considerable expertise. Alas, I hadn't even thought of the series by the time he passed. Most of my regular readers (all three of you) are likely aware of all this.

My father was a nautical buff. He grew up along the Hudson River in New York. The story he told was that when he was in his late teens (I want to say 17), he'd tried to run away to see as an assistant to the engineer on a freighter. Alas, his family found out and was able to drag him back before the ship departed. (As with all his stories, one must take a certain amount of salt - the man had serious memory problems. He believed, in any case, and that's what's important here.)

Instead, when he was old enough, he went to college, he joined the Army and the National Guard, got married, raised children. In the process, life took him further and further inland. He read about the sea, talked about the sea, thought about the sea, all the way up to the last few years of his life. He never got there.

He will.

My father has begun the first leg of his final journey. In a few days he will arrive at the Naval base in Portsmouth, and from there he will board a Navy ship, and somewhere out in the open Atlantic, he'll finally, finally, become one with the sea. The parting of ways that began five years ago when he died reaches its end. He goes the way of the dead, and I, the way of the living.

Bon Voyage, Dad. The wind be at your back.

-JRS The Navy's (free) Bural at Sea program.
Medcure (Final arrangements for the cost of donating your remains to science)
Having a funeral/wake for a loved one for the cost of coffee and cookies: priceless.

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