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3. Life

History of Life on Earth

Up to now, my ramblings about everything have been rather tame. While there is a lot to discuss when it comes to the universe, and our little neck of the woods, it’s nothing that most people will get into heated arguments about. (Unless it’s about Pluto. In which case – watch out!)

But life is different.  Life is all around us, and it is what we are.  So we tend to get rather passionate about it.

I’m getting ahead of myself.  As I discussed in the last post, Earth is amazing – if for no other reason than the variety of life that has been able to grow and flourish here.  First it was the age of dinosaurs.  Then, after their mass extinction and an essential reboot of the planet, mammals took the throne – eventually leading to the dominance of humans today.

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2. Earth


Out of all the planets in our solar system, Earth is the only one we know of with life. Artifacts on Mars hint towards a planet that might have been hospitable in the past.  There are also theories about a couple of Jupiter’s moons having conditions suitable for liquid water – a crucial component to life, in our experience.

But, as of writing this, Earth stands alone as the only place where life not only exists, but thrives.

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1. The Universe

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
– Carl Sagan

No conversation about everything could start without a discussion of, well, everything. We are all born into this universe, and it is, without a doubt, the most compelling mystery we are presented with.

There are many things we don’t understand — life, nature, quantum mechanics – but ultimately these are all byproducts of the infinite expanse that surrounds us.

Well, all right. Technically, the universe isn’t infinite. But I’m sure you’ve seen one of those videos where the Earth is shown in all of its large, beautiful, blue and white glory.  But then it starts to pull back, showing Mars nearby, and Venus off closer towards the Sun.  Before the camera even manages to pull back from Jupiter, the Earth has become an insignificant speck.  But the camera keeps going – the solar system, the Oort cloud, the Milky Way, the local group of galaxies – and so on, until the Earth is nothing more than a dream, lost in a sea of stars. While eventually there would be an edge to the universe, it feels like we’ve reached infinity already.

And we’re stuck somewhere in the middle of it all. It’s difficult to observe our actual location, and our actual situation, because we’re fixed on this tiny grain of sand, trying to see to the other side of the Sahara.  And to make matters worse, the distances are so large, that it’s even a strain for light. By the time it reaches us, it is millions of years old. As a result, the images we see in telescopes are not only showing us things that are far away in space, but also far away in time.

This interests me greatly, but it’s also a little disconcerting.  On the one hand, our unique circumstance allows us to peer deep into the universe’s past and see how things existed in the early era of the universe.  But on the other hand, it means we don’t really know what’s out there.  We know what used to be out there.  What is likely still happening out there.  But we won’t know what’s happening right now until the light reaches us in another thousand, million years.

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0. Introduction


What is the symbol at the start of this post? Some would consider it a core part of the Western alphabet. Some would see it as a representation of a musical note. Yet others would take more abstract views – perhaps it’s the single hair atop a baby’s head.

But what everyone can agree on is that it is possible to derive meaning from an otherwise simplistic stroke of ink (or pixels, as the case may be).  That’s what makes humanity, the Earth and the Universe so amazing.

I’m a curious person. If there is something I don’t know much about, I will strive to become more familiar with it.  I don’t always have the time to go into great depth on a topic, but I like to learn what I can about its foundation.

This also means I form some rather strong opinions. It would be ignorant for me to say that my opinions are “correct”, but I do my best to form opinions that are logically consistent – or as logical as a human can be, anyway.

I am working on a series of posts that lay bare my opinions on various general topics. Why? Because I like to rant, ramble and discuss. While I know that people won’t agree with me, I’d like to outline some of my thoughts on this crazy existence we find ourselves in.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Part 1: The Universe >>

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The Trendy Food Cycle

Have you ever noticed how popular foods move in a predictable cycle?

It starts with a wonderful, tasty flash of inspiration from a chef. Experimenting in the kitchen, they come up with a new combination of flavors that works phenomenally well together. At this stage, the ingredients are fresh, sometimes hand picked by the chef. Each part of the dish is lovingly crafted to the artist’s strict specifications, using knowledge gained from preparing the same ingredients before.

Guests to the chef’s restaurant try the new dish on the specials menu, and immediately recognize the skill and effort that went into the innovative creation.  It seems so obvious, they’ll say. But they never thought to do it, and now that they’ve tasted it, it’s all they can think about! They tell their friends, and their friends tell their friends.

If this is sustained long enough, then it usually catches the attention of one of those food channel specials.  You know the ones.  The programs titled, “Amazing Foods that You’ll Never Get to Have” or “The Best Restaurants in the World that are too Exclusive for You”.  But, as a result of being on one of these shows, and exposed to mass amounts of people, there is at least one other cook who realizes the potential, and takes it a step further.

Now it moves into the next stage. Brave home cooks will seek out the ingredients needed to recreate the dish, given the information that they have.  It may not be a faithful representation, but they’ll either settle for what they’ve been able to cook, or keep iterating the recipe until it gets as close as possible.  At this point, higher end restaurants might catch on, and also add it to their specials menu, and will usually get pretty close to recreating the dish.

This stage is a gradual progression downward to respected, but not quite as high-end restaurants. This usually consists of smaller chain restaurants, where some of the quality of the original recipe is lost, but the integrity is still solid enough that the flavors, textures and sensations continue to amaze the diners.

But then, inevitably, it all falls apart.

Everyone realizes how popular and amazing this flavor sensation is, and folks trying to make a quick buck dumb it down to the simplest elements to attract the lowest common denominator.

Low cost, chain restaurants take whatever ingredients they have on hand that approximate the original idea, and add it to their menu.

Multinational companies create processed foods based on the original idea, but usually end up being only a salty approximation. In the case of potato chips, it usually ends up tasting like Sour Cream and Onion, Salt and Vinegar or Barbeque – regardless of what it actually says on the package.

At this point, it would probably be good to list some examples of once-great ideas dumbed down to oblivion. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Anything with Roasted Garlic
  • Something Tex-Mex with Fire-Roasted Tomatoes
  • Italian food that has either Pesto, Sun-Dried Tomatoes or a specialty Mozzerella – often simply referred to as “Tuscan Style”
  • Buffalo-style flavoring, which strangely does not always involve chicken.
  • Chipotle-marinated meats, or Chipotle mayo.
  • Balsamic reduction over fruit or ice cream.
  • Loaded Baked Potato flavored anything
  • Anything on small buns, commonly referred to as “sliders”.

A lot of these are great if done right. But they’ve been iterated and overdone so much that they’re tired and exhausted, and it takes something truly unique and lovingly crafted for these ideas and flavors to make your mouth water again.

And that’s when a strange thing starts to happen – in an act of desperation, chefs will “re-discover” one of these overused flavor tropes, and reinvent it back to its original glory. Usually it’s too late to change any of the mass-market crap derivatives.  But if you’re lucky, you’ll find a chef who truly cares, and reminds us all what made the dish so popular in the first place.

And the cycle begins anew…

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The State of Tech 2009

I like to take a look back at the end of the year to see what happened, if for no other reason than to keep a record for myself.  A lot seems to have happened this year.  Looking back, though, it seems more of an evolution than a revolution.


The thing I’m happiest about was the release of the iPhone 3GS, with 32GB of storage space!  Finally I was able to buy one, and for the most part I have been happy with it.  Now that the iPhone has been on the market for a while, it is showing signs of fatigue.  Certainly, the app infrastructure is going strong (as long as Apple’s approval process is sane that day…) but the general design is becoming tired and Apple’s staunch resistance to allowing multitasking is becoming more of an issue for its users.

A lot of this is in light of some (finally) competitive designs from the competition.  Slick interfaces on top of Windows Mobile, and a handful of innovations in Google’s Android, has shown what the next step in a mobile platform can be.  It will be exciting to see what Apple’s response will be.  Their iPod line has become stagnant — instead of focusing on music, they’ve moved on to video.  Which is a bit questionable.

I’m certainly intrigued by Google’s movement on Android.  They’ve made several nice additions to it, and their decision to include a native, free navigation app has interesting implications.  It’s still not quite a competitor to the iPhone, but it’s catching up awfully fast.  And speaking of iPhone competition (or lack thereof), Microsoft seems to think it has all the time in the world to release Windows Mobile 7.  They seem to be losing ground daily, which is a shame.  You start to get the impression that Microsoft can only put its attention on one thing at once — like several tall, shaky Jenga towers, it only tends to the one that is about to fall.  Recently it was Windows 7.  Next year — well.  Lets hope it’s Windows Mobile 7, or Microsoft won’t be a player in the mobile space for much longer.

Also in the mobile space, Microsoft released the Zune HD this year.  This is actually a nice device, and gives a few encouraging signs of what might be coming up in Windows Mobile 7.  The problem with Zune is that right now they’re mostly just trying to play catch up.  They’ve added a lot of very unique stuff in the Zune HD, but the underlying concept has been done with the iPod, and consumers are finding it difficult to have a reason to switch to it.  Strangely, the biggest thing holding me back is a lack of a robust rating system. I like iTunes’ 5 star rating system, and Zune just doesn’t have anything that compares.  Make no mistake, though: the Zune HD is a slick device, especially for music lovers.  The question is, can Microsoft raise the ante enough to really capture the attention of consumers?  And no, this does not mean Microsoft has to implement an app store.  Despite what the tech press seems to think, an app store is not the answer for everything.  Microsoft just needs to create a device that encompasses music in ways that Apple has only dreamed about.


And speaking of Microsoft, Windows 7 was released this year.  As was Apple’s Snow Leopard.  The fanboys on both sides had their usual fun, with the Windows camp calling Snow Leopard a service pack you have to pay for, and the Apple camp calling Windows 7 an expensive fix for Vista — what Vista should have been.

As usual, the reality is a bit more complicated.  I have not had the pleasure of using Apple’s Snow Leopard yet, as the 64 bit support needed further testing in our particular work environment.  That alone should make it clear that this was more than just a simple service pack.  Still, I think everyone can agree that the cost is relative to what you gain from it.  It is not, as Apple fanboy David Pogue suggests, Apple implementing App Store pricing to its core software lineup.

On the Microsoft side — well, there was a reason for it being the typical Windows cost and not discounted like Apple’s Snow Leopard.  Having said that, though, they did mess up a lot of the marketing and commercialization for this product.  The "time limited" sale earlier this year, and the "time limited" 3-pack of Windows 7 licenses were kind of a joke.  Why you would put a time limit on something like that — especially the family pack — boggles the mind.  This is a company that is eager to look past the perceived faults of Vista.  But they sure make you work to try and get a hold of it.

The OS itself, though, is very solid.  I dabbled with the beta a little, and ran the Release Candidate full time on my laptop, and enjoyed it a lot.  Not that I had many problems with Vista, but 7 does run smoothly and has several unique aspects that build on top of it.  The biggest change that everyone talks about is the new taskbar.  It borrows some ideas from OS X’s dock, but mercifully isn’t an exact duplicate, as I despise the dock.  You can tell something is good when Apple copies something from Microsoft — Apple added Expose previews to its dock, most likely in response to 7’s aero-based window previews in the taskbar.

If you’re one of those strange people who prefer less mainstream operating systems, Google announced ChromeOS after much rumor and speculation.  Details on the OS have been scarce, but the early preview release is essentially Google’s Chrome browser running on a custom Linux build.  All the usual computer tasks are handled via this browser interface, further blurring the line between local resources, and online resources.  My biggest concern here is privacy: I sometimes have to pause and consider how much of my life I’m letting Google handle — do I really want them controlling the OS and no doubt storing most (if not all) of my personal data on their servers?  I’m really amazed that more people aren’t hesitant about an OS where you don’t own the content.

The only other thing to note in the computer space is the rumors of the upcoming Apple Tablet.  I don’t understand what this is supposed to be for.  Everything that the tech press drool over for this device sounds exactly like the iPod Touch or the iPhone.  It might be compelling if it is a fully touch-driven version of OS X, but the rumors seem to be calling for it to have another custom OS that is more akin to "iPhone OS XL" rather than "OS X Lite".  Time will tell if these rumors bear fruit — and if they do, what Apple’s logic behind creating the device is.

Game Consoles

Probably the quietest field this year was in game consoles.  Sony came out with their PSPgo, but apart from that there wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy.

And what a mistake the PSPgo is.  It saddens me to say this, but Sony and Microsoft have a lot in common: companies that know how to be a marketing machine, but don’t really pay attention to the consumer.  The PSPgo is a marketer’s dream: no backwards compatibility, more expensive than the predecessor, desirable form factor, etc.  But for the consumer, it is a mistake from the start.  Especially if you already own a PSP, where any UMDs you may already own no longer work.

Microsoft has made similar mistakes with being a marketer’s dream but a consumer’s nightmare — the aforementioned "limited time family pack" deal for Windows 7 is such an example.

Lucky for Sony, the PS3 is becoming a more desirable device.  For now, I am not particularly compelled to buy one, but the arguments for getting one are growing stronger.  What I’m most surprised about is the failure of Playstation Home.  This was supposed to be the thing that put the PS3 on the map.  Last year, this was starting to be doubtful, and now this year there is no question.  I haven’t heard any major announcements for the platform recently, and when something new does come along, it is usually marketing driven.  It isn’t actually fun to use the thing.  And it appears as if Sony doesn’t know how to make it fun.  At least third-party publishers still know how to create fun experiences.

Then there’s the Xbox 360 and the Wii, which have both been rather dead this year.  The Wii released their MotionPlus attachment, which is neat I suppose.  I haven’t used it.  There have been a couple of new fitness games, and Super Mario Brothers Wii looks really nice.  On the Xbox side, Microsoft released Twitter and Facebook integration, which is useless, and Last.fm integration which is actually kind of nice — but none of this is integrated enough into the device to actually be useful.  There is only very basic functionality here.  If Microsoft is serious about these extensions, they will integrate game content with the social networks — at the very least, posting what you are currently playing or what achievements you’ve unlocked.  My instinct says that these dashboard "apps" will wither and die.  Microsoft is creating another of those Jenga towers in the 360, and they need to be careful.

Speaking of technology that might wither and die, Microsoft and Sony both announced motion control technology in the same vein as Nintendo’s Wii.  It is too early to draw any conclusions about this.  But if it isn’t as compelling as they are promising, no one will buy into it.  I think too many have already bought into the motion control technology in the Wii and no longer use it — they won’t make the same mistake twice.


Of course, no summary of the previous year would be complete without a mention of my new software project, Trowl.  While it is nowhere near the scope of other technology mentioned in this post, it is something that was a major focus in my little slice of the tech world.

Trowl started out as a simple way of forwarding Tweets to your iPhone. But, as people tried out the program, it became clear that a Twitter client hooked directly into Growl could be pretty useful.  Six months later, Trowl is now a decent lightweight client, and something I’m very proud of.  I don’t intend to make Trowl yet another Twitter client with all the bells and whistles.  I want to maintain the core functionality, for folks who just want their latest tweets, both while at home and on-the-go with their iPhone.

Besides the program itself, it has been fun learning about the Twitter API (one of my goals for writing Trowl in the first place) as well as interfacing with Growl for Windows.  Apart from some .NET UI nastiness, C# has made it quite painless to hook into these technologies, too.

I’ve had a couple of other programming ideas for 2010 — one of which is a Growl program — and I hope I have time to toy with them over the next year.  I want to get Twitter Lists support added into Trowl, and then I may take a break from it for a bit to pursue my other projects.


I think that is all there is to talk about.  This year has laid the foundation for an exciting start to the next decade.  Will Apple release its mystical tablet? Will Microsoft and Sony release their motion control technology — and will it be able to compete with the Wii?  Will ChromeOS address its privacy issues, and become more than just a glorified web browser?  Will Microsoft continue to make Zune a compelling iPod alternative — and perhaps put that knowledge to use in Windows Mobile 7?  As always, I look forward to finding out!

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Does Usability Come From The Users?

I’ve been watching the development of Windows 7 pretty closely, mostly because Microsoft has been relatively forthcoming on their development of it via their Engineering Windows 7 blog. It was particularly interesting in the few months before the beta dropped, because they talked about certain aspects of Windows in the abstract — how critical the taskbar is to the OS, how many windows a typical user has open, etc. It was sort of a smattering of theory which you could only assume was being used by Microsoft to mold the next iteration of the OS — but you weren’t really sure.

Now that the beta has arrived, and talk of the RC is rampant, it is all too clear that they were definitely molding the next iteration — almost to a fault.

And so the question I’ve come to ask myself recently is: what is the best way to create a new feature? In Steven Sinofsky’s very strangely worded post recently, he puts it like this:

A quick story from years ago working on Office, many years ago before the development of telemetry and the internet deciding what features to put in a release of Office could really be best described as a battle. The battle took place in conference rooms where people would basically debate until one or more parties gave up from fatigue (mental or otherwise)—essentially adrenaline-based product development. […] Fast forward to the development of Windows 7 and we’re focused on using data to help inform decisions we make. This data takes many forms and helps in many ways. I know a lot of folks have questions about the data – is it representative, how does it help fix things people should be using but don’t, what about doing new things, and so on. Data is an important element of making decisions, but not a substitute for clear product goals, meaningful customer engagement, and working across the ecosystem to bring Windows 7 to customers.

I think the first part is very telling about why Microsoft has a reputation of creating illogical and painful UIs. Putting a bunch of software engineers — who aren’t exactly UI experts to begin with — in a box to fight over features & design is stupid.

But the second part begs the question, is using telemetry data to shape your features and UI any better?
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