New Feature - Words Of Wisdom

And by Wisdom, I mean "hilarious." If I find something funny on the Interwebs, and I don't want to write a whole post about it, I'll put in that little sidebar widget you see to your right. It could be a quote, a picture, sometimes even a video (a tiny one, though). It'll be updated whenever I feel like it.

So don't freak out or anything.


Peronal Supercomputers - Kinda Missing the Point

I always found the term 'Supercomputer' to be a bit odd. The geeks, those who revel in exactitude, decided one day that they were going to build this computer that will out-compute all other computers. In my mind, one geek gets up out of his chair, puts on a cape and leotard, raises a fist in the air, and yells "Supercomputer!!!" It's a very childish moniker for a highly technical and difficult machine, a machine that typically is thousands of times faster than the modern PC. Just as an example, the IBM Roadrunner is the fastest supercomputer as of this writing. It is heterogeneous, meaning it involves cluster computers, where multiple computers are joined together to run processes together. Roadrunner has 3240 computers, each with 40 processing cores, working together to compute very quickly. PC laptops only recently acquired the ability to run on 2 cores. So, Roadrunner is the equivalent of around 100,000 laptops running in tandem. IBM has plans to unveil a newer, faster supercomputer that will rival the speed of 2,000,000 laptops. Now, just in case you want some more perspective, even budget, low-end, computers, are capable of billions of calculations/second. Our frail human minds can't really understand what kind of speed that is, but supercomputers are increasing that speed by many orders of magnitude.

So, when Silicon Graphics International Corp. announces plans to release a 'personal' supercomputer in the near future, it bothers me. I'll tell you why (only because you asked so nicely).

The PC industry is always talking about speed. How fast your boot-time is, how fast Microsoft Office loads, how fast your network is, transfer rates, etc. many people, especially the geeks, are tweaking their systems to get every last drop of computing potential from their system so that they will load Windows a few seconds faster. There's nothing wrong with that. I am guilty of the practice myself. However, the industry in general is highly misleading when it comes to what actually makes your computer speedy. It tends to come in trends. At first, memory size was the deciding factor in PC speed. After the size of PC memory became big enough and cheap enough for everyone to have the ideal amount, CPU speed became the bottleneck that needed to be upgraded. Once optical media became widespread, the speed of your CD drive became an upgrade target. It circled around a few times, CPU speed took the attention for a long time until the dual-core movement began, and RAM was once again the target when Vista shipped. once 3GB became standard for new computers, and dual-core was common, a new target was in order. The current fad is Solid State Hard drives.

These fads aren't arbitrary. They are simply the industry's way of getting rid of bottlenecks. In order to take advantage of a RAM upgrade, you need a CPU to process all that information. And so on and so forth. This has created the upgrading culture that leads people to worship supercomputers. People upgrade because the college student at Best Buy said so. And if the Geek Squad tells you something, you better listen. If you don't, your computer will spontaneously explode.

However, the bottlenecks that the industry leaders encourage you to upgrade are not necessarily what is slowing your computer down. When computing was at a simpler stage of life, it was pretty easy to determine causes of sluggishness. Today, it could be one of a hundred different things. The worst words an IT tech can hear are "Help! My computer is slow!" It's like someone going to a doctor and complaining of a runny nose. It could be anything. many people will just tell you "You need more RAM," or "Your CPU is too slow." Well, let me give you a little reality check. On my computer (Intel Core 2 Duo, 3GB RAM), I have multiple instances of Office open (Word, Excel, and Access), 4-5 other applications, 15 tabs in my web browser, iTunes, Adobe Acrobat, and 2 remote desktop sessions open. I am using between 10-20% of my CPU power, and 1.5 GB of RAM. That's nothing. And I abuse my system more than most. If a non-geek user is using a computer and it is slow, it is not because they need an upgrade. It's because they are users, and they break things. The use the Interwebs irresponsibly, they install random software, and users always break everything.

Now, SGI wants to sell this personal supercomputer. It's going to start at a cool 8 grand, and it will have an Intel Xeon processor (used on higher-end servers), the ability to run 80 CPU cores, and memory up to 960GB. Now, based on what you just read, what is the point? If I can abuse my system, trying to reach the limits of its capability and failing, what 'personal user' would ever need 80 processor cores. I'm doing plenty, and I'm using a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that. If a user would sit at a personal supercomputer for a few days, it would be just as slow as their normal computer. Aside from scientific use, supercomputers, personal or otherwise, have no place in the public market. They are super for a reason.

That being said, the industry is on the ball this time when they say that hard drives are the current bottlenecks to speed. After all, they are the last moving object in the PC system. Of course it's going to slow the whole thing down. if you really want to see how fast a computer can go with the hard drive bottleneck removed (and fastest parts for just about everything else), watch this video.

This is just 4 cores (not 80), and 6GB RAM (not 960).

Case Closed.

SGI needs to go away.

Black And White, and Read Almost Nowhere

President Obama says he is going to look into a plan to start bailing out the newspaper industry (Source). This is dumb.

I partially understand bailing out industries like automobiles, insurance, or banks. These are services that should be thriving because people need them, and they need to thrive because much of the financial system in this country is based on those companies succeeding. I may not agree with the method, but I understand where it comes from.

Newspapers are dying because capitalism favors the Interwebs. People have found a better alternative to print news, and they are flocking to it. It's not only the quality of Internet news sources that are drawing away subscriber; most Internet news is free. Free is a powerful marketing tool. Newspapers are therefore put in a situation that every Internet-affected industry has been in: Adapt or die. If you can't be free, you need to find reasons for people to pay you for your services. At this point, there is nothing in my local newspaper that I wouldn't be able to find online, free of charge.  Until my newspaper provides a service I can't get somewhere else for free, they don't deserve my subscription.

That being said, why on Earth would you bail them out? It would just keep them afloat for a few more years, and they would still eventually sink. It's a perfect example of a situation where throwing money at something doesn't fix the problem. The only way to save the newspapers is to improve the service provided. As of now, aside from a few papers offering online subscriptions, I haven't seen any novel ideas that will revitalize the industry. I'm not sure there are any. I believe that the print media is an old model that will fall out of the public interest naturally. It is the job of the executives to find profit elsewhere. Bailout money won't stop the Interwebs.

Some say that this is Obama repaying the paper media for largely supporting him in the elections. I say that it is a much less juicy issue. Newspaper magnates are simply in denial that paper is going out of print, and that newspapers will soon be old news.


Post-Photorealism and The End of High Definition

Before I continue my ultra-intellectual sounding post, watch this video of the Ferrari 548, pre-rendered in the video game Gran Turismo 5 for the PS3.

It's beautiful stuff.

Ask yourself this (not out loud, please) - If that video was actually real footage of a real Ferrari, would you be as impressed? I doubt it. The wonderment that videos like this cause comes from the fact that we know it isn't real, and that it looks real. That's where the 'cool' factor is. If that video looked so much like a real video that we couldn't tell the difference, our interest wouldn't be nearly as piqued. It's just boring old reality.

That being said, what is the goal of modern CGI and what will happen when that goal is reached. If the goal is to emulate reality as much as possible so that we can no longer tell the difference, then it's not worth the effort. If we can't tell the difference, nobody cares. The same question could be asked of the HD indudtry. what's their endgame. A picture so sharp it mirrors the quality of human vision? What happens when that goal is reached? Is that the end of innovation for graphics and high definition. You can't make a picture look more real than our eyes can comprehend. Is there even such a concept of something being higher definition than eyesight?

I walked into a Best Buy once, and I walked over to the TV and Entertainment System section. They were displaying an HDTV at the time (This was when 1080p and BluRay/HDDVD was just becoming big), and I started watching. They were showing a BluRay movie of some nature scene, with water and sunset and boats and other pretty things. I kept thinking to myself that this actually looks better than it does in real life. I was captivated by it because it was showing me vision that my eyes alone would likely never experience. I couldn't tell you why, but that was what it felt like. Even though it was real, the super sharp picture made it look so real as to be fake. Reality is not the goal of High Definition. The goal is to make reality look more enticing than it actually is. So there is a place for HD to go after it mirrors reality. It can make the most real reality a mesmerizing fiction.

The same thing can be said for CGI. Looking at that Ferrari, understand that there are no scratches on the car. There are no nicks, no tire wear, no garbage in the front seat. There are no bird poop stains, and all the lighting is perfect. This is the flaw that CGI will always suffer from. It always looks too perfect. Even defects look too good. In the real world, damage and defects are natural, random, and persistent. There is no pattern and no sense to it, it just happens. Replicating that quasi-randomness on a computer is a near impossible feat. It's ironic, but the real challenge in CGI is not making photo-realistic worlds, but making the random wear and tear of reality into a mathematical construct that can be portrayed graphically. It's not about lighting effects, anti-aliasing, resolution, or action blur. Physics is easy. Physics is just math. It's about transforming the bland, uninteresting parts of life into concrete numbers.  We will never believe a car is real until a bird can realistically defecate on it. Then I'll be convinced.

I remember when Pixar released Toy Story, the first fully CGI animated feature film, and it was amazing. Everything looked so lifelike and real, it made the story better somehow. The symbolism is no coincidence either: The story of fake toys "coming to life" was very similar to the idea of making a fictional world "come to life" with CGI. Nobody wants to see reality in CGI. That would defeat the purpose. CGI enables an artist to make fantasy and fiction look real enough that we can have a suspension of disbelief long enough that we can identify with the story being told. Buzz Lightyear may have looked like a real toy come to life, but I never wanted to think "Wow, that's a real toy!"

I don't know if there's a conclusion to this post, but I do know this. The closer we get to emulating reality on a computer, the more exciting it will be. That is, until we actually achieve that goal. Then we won't be able to tell the difference anyways. My brain hurts.


Scribblenauts - A Revolution In Gaming Has Never Been So Cute

You remember the original Mario Bros. on the NES, right? The gameplay was very simple. Run to the right, jump over obstacles, jump on enemies to kill them (or squoosh them, if that makes you feel better). If you played the game well, and hit the right bricks, you got access to some powerups, the Super Mushroom and the Flower. Or an invincibility star, if you were lucky. That was it. Use those tools, and get to the end. Now, imagine the same game, but you could arm Mario with whatever you mind can dream up. And by anything I means anything. Flamethrower, bazooka, stink bombs, grenades, snot, napalm, a frying pan, a piranha. The possibilities would be endless. If you came across a chasm too large to handle, you could just summon the Hindenburg to carry you over. Bowser bothering you? Arm mario with a gatling chain gun and have at it.

It's the stuff of a gamer's paradise, otherwise known as Scribblenauts for the Nintendo DS. This cute, unassuming, 2D sidescrolling platformer wants you to get to the end. Using anything you can dream up. And by anything I mean 22,805 different objects you can summon and use to achieve your goals. The list (as uncovered by an anonymous cartridge hacker) is here. Just looking at the first hundred or so entries gives you an idea of the insane amount of potential and wackiness this simple game provides. If you really think an Aardvark is what you need to finish the level, go ahead. If you'd rather summon an Abominable snowman to do your bidding, that's there to. I don't even know what an absconder would look like, but that'll work too.

That's just the first layer of the onion. You see, if I'm really feeling adventurous, I can summon an Aardvark (or an Aardwolf) and an Abominable Snowman and see what happen when they interact. That's right, every object can interact with every other object. And intelligently. At the Scribblenauts booth at the E3 gaming convention, one of the developers was demonstrating the engine by typing in whatever people wanted and seeing the results. One person summoned a stegosaurus. Then next guy summoned a kraken, which killed the stegosaurus. Various ideas were concocted to try and get rid of the stegosaurus, including summoning a gryphon, Obama (not in the dictionary), and a velociraptor. Eventually, someone suggested that G-d be summoned. Lo and behold, a man in a robe with a white beard came down and opened up a can of whoopass on the Kraken. Unfortunately, you can summon Death, and Death can kill G-d. Interesting. Before death was summoned, Albert Einstein was summoned. He ran away and cowered from G-d. Once again, interesting. Oh, and you can summon Rick Astley. And Your Mom. Just saying.

That's all outside if the puzzle parts of the game. There is a goal, and you can use all these things to accomplish that goal. For example, in one level you have to knock down a bunch of stuff. You can be boring about it, and just bazooka the stuff. Or you can summon a kangaroo, attach a stick to its head, attach some lettuce to the stick, and let the kangaroo destroy everything in its path.Or you can summon Cthulhu to wreak demonic hellish destruction upon the objects. Or you can just throw a baseball. Or a hand grenade. Or a tax collector. Or you can build an Abortion Clinic on top said objects, destroying them. Or you can throw some pentachloronitobenzene at it and most likely make something explode. Or you can use a Nuclear Recoilless Rifle. There's always G-d. Are you starting to understand the immensity of this simply drawn, cutsey game? 

The ability to do whatever you want with whatever you want whenever you want, has been a holy grail for developers since the beginning of games. Scribblenauts is a gigantic leap forward in that regard, and a great game as well. It only makes me wonder what the next leap is going to be.

It also makes me wonder what would happen if I launched a real estate agent out of a human cannon and hit a fighter plane in midair.

That Feels Dangerously Good

This video needs no introduction. Just know that the world is now a better (if slightly less cheery) place. Also know that this game originally featured zombies as the enemy. Whoever created this mod (modification of original game, for the uninformed) wins. Everything.

Do you feel better now? I do.


I'm Obviously In a Webcomic Mood Today

Just had to share this one, from Rock, Paper, Cynic:

Geek Squad Up To Their Usual Scumbaggery

I'm convinced that the leader of the Geek Squad has horns, a tail in the improbable shape of a pitchfork, and red-tinted skin. every time I walk into a Best Buy store and look at the forlorn faces of the black-shirted Geek Squad members, underpaid and overworked, charging 200 bucks for a "PC tune-up" that takes all of 10 minutes, I cringe (looks kinda strange in public, but I can'thelp it). It only makes things worse when I'm trying to return my wife's camera on warranty, and the expert Geek proceeds to insert the battery the wrong way, wondering why the camera won't turn on. They are an embarrassment to the geek establishment, and they need to go away.

Just when I thought the Geek Squad couldn't be any more evil, someone on the Interwebs posted this ad:

Just in case you're curious, the sound of a jaw dropping on a carpeted floor is not as awesome as some cartoons would make it out to be. It really just hurts more than anything else.

130 bucks?! Manufacturers have worked tirelessly to make sure that consoles are easy to set. Setting up a console today is so user-friendly that the level of friendliness displayed toward the user is causing my Gaydar to flash all kinds of overload warnings. It's as simple as "Take this shape plug and place it into this shape socket." Done. Turn it on, and you're now in console heaven. They make the whole "Local User Account Setup" seem like this daunting task with menu upon menu of indecipherable "geek" jargon. Honestly, all it means is telling the console who you are. Typing a name in. That's it. Setting up an online account is as easy as giving them a credit card number. No "configuration" required. Installation of the latest firmware is an update process that happens seamlessly and automatically. Ok, so maybe you don't know how to setup parental controls. Are you going to pay 130 bucks for that?

The targets of this ad are clueless parents and grandparents buying this console as a gift. They'll walk into the store, pick up their console, and pass this sign. Just when they thought they were safe, just when they thought they were home free, the Geek Squad reminds them politely that Sony doesn't make their console usable by anyone other than trained geeks. The message of Geek Squad is that this "techie" stuff is still living in the dark ages. Nobody actually designs products so that "normal" people can use them. This stuff is made by geeks for geeks, and you have no chance of figuring it out or learning how to do it yourself. Trust us, we're geeks. We'll decipher this dangerous mess of electronics and horrible design for you so you don't have tarnish your image as a "normal" person.

Oh, and a little aside here. Notice the wording of the pitch. If you buy the console here, we'll give you the setup for "only" 129.99. Does it really cost more if you don't buy the console? If I walk into to best buy and ask "I just bought this console. Could you send over one of your geeks to come set it up for me?", will they say "Sure, that'll be 200 bucks"? Yes, they probably will. And the sad part is that there are plenty of people who are dumb enough to take that "deal."

When I look at their tagline ("Go ahead. Use us"), the irony just explodes and splatters all over the place. I'm gonna need a cleanup in my office, please.

Some Chuckle For Your Monday Morning

This subject came up in conversation over the weekend, and thus I give you this XKCD strip. If you don't find it funny, you obviously lacked a childhood.