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Being not a foodie in Southie June 30, 2013

Posted by Clint Foster in Food.
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I went to a place called Local 149 last night.

It was late and getting dark. Hungry and lost in South Boston, I got off the freeway hoping to find some kind of eating establishment (even a chain) close to the convention center nearby. But I was immediately routed through a complex system of ramps and chutes to a faraway place where my GPS reported water all around, and my eyes reported huge gantries (possibly nesting spots for escaped robots). When I found a place to pull off and engage the force field before checking my pocket computer, I was surprised to learn that there was a pub in my immediate vicinity that was well-liked by Yelpers. A few blocks later I found myself in a perfectly nice urban neighborhood with lots of humans out and about.

Reading further online from my comfortable seat at the bar, I learned that the chef is well-known in Boston. However, my dining experience reminded me that I’m not the foodie I once thought I was. So much fuss had been made over the piece of flounder I ordered that it was nearly unidentifiable and, frankly, downright yucky. Now that we have this thing called refrigeration, is fish really so unappetizing that it needs more than expert cooking and perhaps a little bit of lemon? The artfully-piled polenta did not save the dish (not surprising since polenta never saves anything). Some steamed vegetables or sautéed Brussels sprouts would have been just fine, thanks.

Thinking back over my career as a diner, I’m starting to notice a pattern: Some of the least enjoyable (and most expensive) meals I’ve eaten have emphasized either covering up the food (in the tradition of fancy recipes designed to mask spoilage) or “experience” (in the more modern tradition of food that is playful, but not necessarily enjoyable). Even a well-run chain restaurant can sometimes deliver a properly-cooked piece of fish with a side of steamed vegetables. Could it be that good food is also simple food?

Apple stock price January 29, 2013

Posted by Clint Foster in Uncategorized.
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What’s happening to Apple’s stock price? Why isn’t it continuing to go up?

Apple’s product quality, customer service and retail experience are arguably amongst the best of any company in the world. This is great for customers, but it doesn’t necessarily satisfy shareholders because they’re not particularly interested in those things. Shareholder aren’t even impressed by extremely high profit margins. Instead, shareholders want companies to grow infinitely without bounds. Since Apple is showing signs of not doing that, they’re unhappy.

Now that Apple has virtually saturated the upscale market for consumer electronics devices in various categories, some have suggested that the solution is to develop and sell cheap phones, both in the US and developing countries such as China. This would be a departure from Apple’s traditional strategy of selling upscale products at high margins. At least in the short term it might allow the infinite growth illusion to continue. But at best it would only make the stockholders happy for a short while.

As a customer (not a shareholder) I’m not particularly excited about Apple making commodity plays. I’d rather see them repeat the iPhone formula with a different product. When the iPhone debuted, phones were wretched devices that never seemed to change in substantive ways, despite steadily improving technology. Instead, manufacturers were only imaginative enough to compete on “bullet points”. Some have pointed out that the television set is an example of a similar product today. As a consumer I’d be happy to pay a premium for a device that re-invents TV in the same way that the iPhone re-invented phones. But that would require true innovation (unlike selling cheap phones to the unwashed masses).

Media spins the Higgs boson July 5, 2012

Posted by Clint Foster in Uncategorized.
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Yesterday the local NPR station in San Diego interviewed a physicist at UCSD who participated in one of two “competing” experiments whose results generated all the recent excitement about the Higgs boson. (As I understand it, both experiments independently produced similar results.) The interview itself was not as good as the written summary here.

If you haven’t already seen the Guardian’s “ping pong ball” analogy, it’s worth watching this video (mentioned at the end of the article). I don’t know how accurate the analogy is, but at least they gave it a shot.

It’s interesting to note that the equivalent article in USA Today is almost completely devoid of scientific information. It’s mostly just pictures and references to problems, costs and a baguette scandal. Nevertheless, it’s useful to flip through the timeline since it provides a quick history of the LHC.

It’s too bad that some in the media have latched onto calling the Higgs boson the “God particle”. You only need to understand a little bit of the science to see that this isn’t a useful analogy. For example, the Higgs has no effect on photons. Does that mean they’re godless?

 

Agile development: Keeping it fresh December 22, 2011

Posted by Clint Foster in Software develpment.
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Lest I seem too radical, I should state up front that I believe Scrum is an excellent process. It’s the best thing we’ve thought of to date. (“We” being the software development community.) But it’s important to keep our eyes out for opportunities to improve upon it. And it’s important to find ways to relieve the “grind” of focusing too much on Scrum as the sole means of directing technical energy in a software team. I don’t think Ken Schwaber, et al, necessarily meant for all software engineers to always be either planning for a Sprint, or in a Sprint, at any given time. But in many companies that’s the way things are today. The company where I am currently employed is an extreme example since they are literally always in a Sprint, with no accommodation for planning, holiday shutdowns, etc.

Of all the ideas I’ve encountered for avoiding “process grind”, Google’s seems to be the simplest and most likely to be effective. Although I believe nothing is more important to the success of a software team than a healthy culture based on trusting good people to do the right thing, I acknowledge that companies need processes, because structure truly is important, and visibility from the “bottom up” is quite useful. But when working with people it’s also important to acknowledge they are susceptible to process weariness. Google’s approach of allotting unstructured time will work with any process because it is, by definition, an anti-process. It doesn’t matter whether Google is directing their “planned” mainline development through Waterfall, Scrum or Kanban. If they allow their engineers a certain amount of time to develop their ideas using any process, programming language, etc., it will go a long way towards preventing weariness. And it may provide just the right number of small disruptions in the system to allow Google, over time, to be more adaptive to change than its competitors. Thought of in this way, it could be an approach whose effectiveness has no time boundaries. The best analogy I can think of in nature is the benefit of mutations to allow adaptation in genetic lines that would otherwise become extinct as environmental conditions change over time.

Configuring PulseAudio in Ubuntu to use the headset for specific apps (e.g. Skype) December 18, 2011

Posted by Clint Foster in Ubuntu.
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These comments apply to 64-bit Ubuntu 10.10.

Typically with applications such as Skype or the Google Talk plugin you want the audio (except ringing) to go through your USB headset. For all other applications you want the default “sink” to be something else (in my case the analog output port, which I’ve got connected to a Tivoli table radio). Although the standard Sound preferences application in Ubuntu cruelly taunts you into believing it can do this, I haven’t had any luck in 10.10 (or the prior two releases). This is disappointing since it’s exactly the sort of thing PulseAudio should be good at.

The problem apparently has to do with Ubuntu’s Sound preferences application, not Pulse Audio (or Skype). If you’re like me, you may have tried PulseAudio Volume Control (pavucontrol) in the past and assumed it was redundant. But it isn’t. Here are step-by-step instructions for configuring applications such as Skype to use a different sound device than other applications:

  1. Go to Software Center and install “PulseAudio Volume Control”. (In my experience you don’t need “Device Chooser”.)
  2. Start it up under Applications -> Sound & Video.
  3. Before proceeding with the per-application configuration, go to the Configuration tab and make sure the USB headset itself is configured properly.
  4. Go to the Output Devices tab and set the “fallback” output device to be whatever you want it to be for most applications. Generally this would not be your USB headset. For me it’s the internal analog output. Note: This also changes the default setting in the Ubuntu Sound Preferences application (which actually does a better job of indicating the current setting than pavucontrol.)
  5. Go to the Input Devices tab and set the fallback input device. (For me it’s the USB headset.)
  6. Go to the Playback tab and put the window in a corner where you can see it while you generate audio in other applications…
  7. Start Skype and make a test call.
  8. When the Skype application shows up in pavucontrol, make the USB headset the default (if it isn’t already).
  9. In Skype, go to Options -> Notifications -> Incoming Call Ringing, and click the Test Event button. While the sound is playing set the output device in pavucontrol to whatever you want (presumably something other than the headset).
Notes:
  • As far as I can tell, only applications that you have never run before will use the “fallback” (default) device that you specified above. So, for example, if you’ve been listening to RythmBox through the headset, and you now want it use a different output device, you need to start it up and explicitly associate it with that device.
  • Most audio generated by browsers such as FireFox and Chrome shows up as the “Alsa plug-in” application in pavucontrol. Fortunately Google Talk uses a different plugin. So you can still send Google Talk audio to your headset, and all other browser output elsewhere, e.g. Pandora, YouTube, Outlook Web Access notifications, etc.

Monoprice 3-way in-wall speakers November 18, 2011

Posted by Clint Foster in Audio.
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Although I was fairly satisfied with the 2-way speakers I reviewed in my previous post, the audio geek in me would not allow me to rest until I heard what the extra $30 for the 3-way versions would buy (if anything). Here is the review I posted on the Monoprice site:

Comparison of Monoprice in-wall 2-way and 3-way speakers

I posted a somewhat negative review of the 2-way version of these speakers several days ago, but it hasn’t shown up yet on the Monoprice site. The issue I cited was poor treble response and papery-sounding vocals in comparison to a reference pair of modest Boston Acoustics bookshelf speakers. In-wall speakers can be forgiven for unpredictable bass response, but they should be able to reproduce midrange and treble as faithfully as bookshelf speakers. After reading the other reviews here I thought I might be able to get some help from monoprice’s tech support people regarding whether the 3-ways have better treble response than the 2-ways. But instead I got into a long chat dialog with a support person who clearly had little experience with audio equipment. I would have been perfectly happy to cut the conversation short if he had simply said that he had not evaluated both speakers together. But he insisted that he had, and then proceeded to tell me repeatedly that it would be impossible for him to say even in the most general terms whether the 3-way speakers sound brighter than the 2-way ones. I asked him if perhaps he couldn’t remember whether there was a difference in the treble, but at that point he was in lecturing mode, and I was unable to get any further information out of him except for strange circuitous pseudo-technical babble.

Eventually I decided to order the 3-way speakers and evaluate them side-by-side with the 2-way versions. I did this by setting my amp to “mono” and installing both speakers in a wall in the same room as the “left” and “right” speakers, using the balance control to compare.

The 3-way speakers have much clearer treble and vocals. The best term I can think to describe the sound of the midrange in the 2-way versions is “papery”. The 3-way versions sound live and airy by comparison, especially when listening to vocals and delicate treble instruments. Even when comparing the speakers in separate rooms (not side-by-side) the difference would be noticeable to anyone who is concerned with audio quality.

I strongly recommend going with the 3-way versions instead of the 2-way. Both are competent, but unless you are only listening to talk radio you won’t regret spending the extra money on the 3-way speakers.

Monoprice 2-way in-wall speakers November 18, 2011

Posted by Clint Foster in Audio, Uncategorized.
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Those of you who are familiar with monoprice.com know that they have probably done more than anyone else to debunk the idea that paying a lot for things like speaker cables or HDMI cables somehow buys you something that you can tangibly hear or see. (On a side note, this has always made me wonder: When NASA builds spacecraft do they purchase the wiring from Monster Cable since it contains secret sauce that makes it better, or do they consult the rules of physics to determine gauge, shield type, etc. for the application, and run down to the bulk wire aisle at Home Depot?)

When I noticed recently that monoprice also carries in-wall speakers, I couldn’t help but think audio gear is another area where bogus esoteric marketing often wins out over science (in this case, the pure physics of how much you need to spend to make a transducer vibrate and accurately reproduce sound). When I saw that the price was $57.70 a pair, I decided to give these Monoprice-branded wall-speakers with 8″ woofers and 1″ dome tweeters a try.

Following is my review (which I also posted on the Monoprice site)…

Comparison of Monoprice in-wall speakers with bookshelf speakers

I’ve always heard even the best in-wall speakers don’t sound as good as mediocre bookshelf speakers because the baffle (air space behind the driver) can’t be tuned. I don’t have any other in-wall speakers for comparison, but here’s my comparison of these Monoprice speakers with a pair of inexpensive Boston Acoustics HS60 bookshelf speakers (6 1/2″ woofer, 1″ dome tweeter).

Bass: The bass on the Boston’s sounds punchier and tighter, but this could be because the ported enclosure is giving them a mid-bass peak. It’s entirely possible the 8″ Monoprice woofers with their “sealed” enclosure (the wall space) are providing better low-end extension. In that case I may be subjectively preferring the more forward bass of the Boston’s. (The only way to know for sure would be to check them with a microphone and frequency analyzer.)

Midrange/treble: Somewhat to my surprise, the treble on the Boston’s is what really sets them apart from the Monoprice speakers. By comparison, the high end rolls off so sharply on the Monoprice speakers that it even affects vocals (leaving them somewhat muffled). On the Boston’s, vocals are more realistic and airy. Delicate high frequency sounds (e.g. shakers) are almost non-existent on the Monoprice speakers when directly compared to the Boston’s.

I’m somewhat surprised by these results. The biggest difference was in high frequency response, yet bookshelf speakers shouldn’t have a significant advantage there because the baffle doesn’t affect the tweeter. Possibly the Bostons’ tweeters are simply better. (But, setting aside audiophile BS, how much should it cost to make a high-frequency driver that’s reasonably accurate?) Removing the “dust shield” behind the grills on the Monoprice speakers helped improve the treble response somewhat. Pointing the adjustable tweeters downward also helped. But these tweaks only resulted in a marginal overall improvement. Note: The 3-position tweeter switch is set to “-0 db”.

Would other in-wall speakers sound better? I don’t know. I hope someone will post a comparison. So far most of the reviews are from people who have only listened to these speakers by themselves (not in comparison to anything else).

Would I purchase these again? Considering the price and the application I’m using them for, possibly. They’re in a large bathroom where I often listen to talk (NPR, podcasts, etc.). Despite what you might conclude from the comments above, vocals are reproduced very intelligibly. I think that’s because there is no mid-bass boominess to muddy them up. Having said that, if I purchase another pair of in-wall speakers I will probably check out what Boston Acoustics has to offer. I’d also be curious to know how the 3-way version of the Monoprice speakers might compare.

64-bit Lucid Lynx June 17, 2010

Posted by Clint Foster in Ubuntu.
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I finally made the jump to Ubuntu 10.04 on my development machine at work. When it comes to Linux, I prefer to start fresh, so I installed it in a new partition. I ping-pong back and forth between two primary partitions each time a new release comes out, so it’s easy to go back to the old one from the grub menu if necessary. But so far that has not been necessary with Lucid. The nice thing about this modus updatus is that I can mount the other partition and copy over all my personal files and any applications that don’t require installers (which includes a lot of the Java applications I use for development, such as SoapUI, Squirrel and OpenMQ. The Lucid installation itself only took about an hour (if that), including updates. Then I spent another 6 hours or so tweaking my development environment.

The only big issue thus far is that a long-standing bug I’ve had with the Evolution mapi plugin changed slightly for the worse: Instead of simply leaving about half of the HTML messages I reply to in the local Outbox, it now sends them, and the recipient sees a jumble of HTML garbage. The workaround is to switch to plain text before sending replies, or start a new email and paste in the reply text if I need HTML.

The ATI proprietary driver worked perfectly the first time with my dual displays. That’s a big improvement over earlier releases.

Adobe removed the beta 64-bit Flash plugin from their web site, supposedly in preparation for a completely rewritten one. I copied the old one from my Karmic partition, and it works fine with Chrome and Firefox, except it seems to time out more easily loading Flex applications that make heavy use of interactive Flash features.

Non-squishy crunchy keyboard April 22, 2010

Posted by Clint Foster in Ubuntu.
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The keys on my crappy HP keyboard at work are so crunchy and squishy my fingers were starting to hurt. They aren’t as bad as the last generation squishy crunchy Apple keyboard, but they’re still pretty awful. The last straw was the left shift key getting extra-crunchy, so last night I made a trip to Fry’s Electronics. They had quite a good selection of keyboards on display, and I spent an hour touch typing for short periods on each of them. This Logitech model was the winner by a fairly significant margin:

http://www.logitech.com/en-us/keyboards/keyboard/devices/4740

I was judging solely by feel, not looks or features. As it happens, this one looks pretty clean. I ignored all the Bluetooth keyboards because I don’t think they make a lot of sense for a desktop machine in a work environment.

The key travel is fairly short (but slightly longer than the current Apple aluminum keyboard), and the keys “make” with a satisfying feeling that is just short of an actual “click”. I’ve been using it all day to write code, and so far it’s one of the best keyboards I can remember owning.

I’m running Linux so I didn’t install any of the crapware on the accompanying CD. Using the default keyboard driver that came with Karmic Koala, all the standard keys work perfectly, including volume and mute.

Second runner-up was this Gear Head model with no numeric keypad. I prefer not having a numeric keypad since it pushes the mouse too far to the right if you line the home keys up in the middle of your screen(s). Surprisingly, it was only $9.99, despite the fact that its keys felt more sophisticated than virtually all of the other keyboards (except the Logitech). Unfortunately, it had a smallish space bar, and some of the keys were in slightly odd locations, so I disqualified it. Also, I think I would have missed having an integrated wrist rest.

Third runner-up was this Kensington with “scissor-switch technology”. Its key action was quite nice, but not quite as subtle and urbane as the Logitech. The required force was slightly higher than the Logitech, which I think would lead to less satisfaction for long periods of typing. Also, a box containing a new one was nowhere to be found in this particular nasty Fry’s in San Marcos, CA.

Everyone wants to be able to resize a window? February 5, 2010

Posted by Clint Foster in Apple, Uncategorized.
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The iPad caught me a bit by surprise. I was expecting it to be something more revolutionary than an oversized iPhone. Then again….

  • I think about my parents: After all these years they are still often flustered and confused by their Mac. (Come to think of it, I often find it a sucky experience myself.)
  • I think about kids: They view desktops as things old people use at work. They do almost everything they need on their phones. Is this just a kid thing, or does it portend a move away from multitasking computers with overly-flexible windowed UI’s (including netbooks, which still use the same irritating desktop paradigm)?

I always expected the future of computing to come in the form of something like an awesome new version of OS X that starts over from scratch with the desktop interface. But what if it sneaks up on us from a simple cell phone UI?

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