Monday, November 29, 2004

Farewell to the NeXT world:

Steve Jobs has cut a swath through my life. Each time I have bought hardware, he has cancelled its production within a few months (or 'Steved' it, as it is known in the Mac/NeXT/Newton communities).

I bought my NeXT colorstation slab on April 3, 1992. NeXT ("black") hardware was Steved in October of 1993.

I bought my Apple Newton MP2100 in February of 1998. Newton ("green") hardware was Steved the same month.

I'm not sure whether to classify myself as an 'early adopter' or an idiot. Either way, the products still perform well. The NeXT, while slow, can handle most any attachment or compression scheme that my Macs or PCs cannot. I still use several Newtons.

...sigh. Now I'm just waiting for the axe to fall on my latest purchase, the iMac. I once thought of posting news of what I had recently bought so that everyone could stay away from it. At least I am confident that my other purchase, the iPod, is here to stay.

Why did I buy the NeXT in the first place? Well, I had just finished my Ph.D. at MIT, and I had a ton of UNIX tapes with my data and codes, a thesis written on a Mac, and I could see Microsoft's tendrils reaching out and choking out the future. So when I saw this cold, cool, black machine running Mac, DOS, and UNIX windows at the same time on a 4,096 color screen (and you could Cut & Paste between them!) I jumped. Here's my recreation of what I saw that day (remember, this is 1992...):

Sold! Posted by Hello

This ease of use and versatility is why Tim Berners Lee decided to develop what would become the world-wide web on a NeXT while he was at CERN.

In the process of finally packing up my NeXT machine, I came across some interesting memories:

Remember Mac 800 kb diskettes? Well, the NeXT came with a drive capable of reading 2.8 Mb Extended Density (ED) diskettes. I've got dozens of boxes of the 800 kb diskettes, and a couple of boxes-worth of the 2.8 Mb ones. And no way to read any of them, since none of my remaining floppy drives will handle anything but the 1.4 Mb standard Double Density format.

2.8 Mb ED diskette Posted by Hello

As I mentioned in my previous NeXT-lamentation post, I have enjoyed seeing traces of the NeXT in Mac OS X. Before I packed up the NeXT machine, I pulled off as many icons from the system as I could.

Here are four icons from the NeXT and Mac OSX that give away the heritage:

NeXT and OSX Home Folder icons Posted by Hello

This next one is a little more difficult to catch, since they are for different applications:

NeXT Prefs and OSX digital clock Posted by Hello

Jobs left Apple in the late 1980's to form NeXT, and it has been said that he wanted to crush Apple with a vastly superior product. He did create a vastly superior product, but the price was so high that he could not get NeXT unit sales to a sufficient level to satisfy creditors, and in a move oddly similar to last week's IBM sell-off of its PC manufacturing facilities to the Chinese, NeXT ended up selling its hardware manufacturing plants to Canon, one of its major creditors. This was the 'Steving' of the hardware I had just bought in October 1993.

NeXT now concentrated on its powerful operating system, which by now could run on other platforms, and it rebranded it as NEXTSTEP. This later became OPENSTEP, with WebObjects. Here's the graphical transition:

NeXT to NeXTSTEP Posted by Hello

To the OPENSTEP 'boxes' logo Posted by Hello

And finally...


OPENSTEP WebObjects to OSX WebObjects Posted by Hello

Incidentally, the largest website use of WebObjects is on the iTunes store site - one of the largest traffic sites on the web.

Note a small detail on the last icon - the rivets at the corners. These are characteristic of files from what was called the 'NeXT Interface Builder' (nib) - a graphical way of designing interfaces dating from the early 90's. You simply drew what you wnated to appear, and click-and-drag connected the code to the appropriate buttons and fields. Amazing. Here is the icon from the NeXT system for .nib files:

NeXT .nib file icon Posted by Hello

Applications in OSX are full of .nib files. NeXT lives on, albeit under cover (shades of Lt. Sullivan, a rumor monger with a column in the NeXTWorld magazine).

At some level, Jobs must relish the fact that he brought back the core NeXT OS, and replaced the Apple Classic OS - thus finally conquering Apple. It makes sense, since it really is an easier OS. But I bet he never anticipated that the item that would be the core money-maker for Apple would be the iPod.

Sigh.... Time to go into the basement. Bye-bye! Posted by Hello

That's all she WroteNow! Posted by Hello


 Sunday, November 28, 2004

Meadows, Randers & Behrens:

The other day on NPR there was a piece about the new MOMA in New York, and how they had greatly expanded their available space to exhibit art. What struck me was the fact that they had remodeled only recently (in the '70's , I think), and that this time they had made sure they would have space for a longer time before another remodeling/expansion was needed.

It made me think that there are certain institutions or pieces of social infrastructure that are particularly vulnerable to stress from exponentially increasing populations, and others that are more adaptable, and scale well.

Examples of things that scale well fall into a class of things that are easily (and sometimes unfortunately) replicable: roads, housing tracts, and shopping malls.

Other classes of things really only can exist as single instances: subway stations, heads of state, and collections of original art. All of these are individual organizations or institutions that are supposed to serve the whole community, city, or nation. The only way yhey can continue to serve an exponentially increasing population is by increasing in size themselves (and when I refer to heads of state, I don't mean to imply that presidents become portly, but to the fact that the Executive Branch, and specifically the Executvie Office of the President has to deal with more issues with more or less the same sized staff).

I suspect that it was vastly easier to double the number of malls than to double the size of the MOMA in New York.

 Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Le Blanc et le Noir:

...with apologies to Stendhal.

A sad day for me, as I let go of a big piece of my past. It is time to say good-bye to my NeXT machine. And hello to my new iMac G5.

Posted by Hello

At least the NEXTSTEP OS lives on in the Panther OS - I get to see little bits of it each day. Sometimes, the heritage is quite obvious, like alert noises, or the shake of the login screen when you get your password wrong, or the dimples for resizing. Heck, there's even on both machines, for all the good it has done - I still have not been able to get the NeXT or the iMac to recognize the other machine over the Ethernet so that I can rescue files without doing the floppy disk 1.5 Mb piece by piece transfer... sigh.

What is more stunning is the difference in specifications:

Modelcolorstation (slab)iMac G5
CPU TypeMotorola 68040PowerPC G5 (3.0)
CPU Speed25 MHz1.8 GHz72
RAM16 Mb1 Gb62.5
Bus Speed25 MHz600 MHz24
Display17 in, 1120 x 832, 12 bit colour20 in, 1680 x 1050, 32 bit colour
Hard Disk105 Mb250 Gb2380
Drives3.5 in DD/ED FDDCD-RW/DVD-RW
I/O10 Mbps Ethernet, (2x)RS-432, SCSI-2, DSP portUSB, FireWire, 100Mbps Ethernet, Bluetooth, Airport, Motorola Jump

Out w/ the old, in w/ the new Posted by Hello

 Monday, November 22, 2004

San José Nights:

On my last trip, I spent a night in San José, Costa Rica in a hotel that had lots of hummingbird feeders. Except that most of the feeding occurred at night. And not by hummingbirds.

At night, a gentle flutter at the hummingbird feeder... Posted by Hello

...led to my discovery of these fellows, about twenty of them, who emptied out the feeders in a flash. Bats. Nectar feeders, who were a little spooked by me, but quickly regained confidence as I remained frozen with outstretched camera arm on the veranda.

Bony little bugger... Posted by Hello

 Sunday, November 21, 2004

"Lime tree very pretty and the lime flower is sweet... huh?:

...apologies to P,P&M.

I know the picture below has crummy contrast, but one of the cans in it set off a cascade of memories.

Green, yellow... what's the diff? Posted by Hello

On the left, a can of diet Coke with Lime from the USA. On the right, a can of Coca-Cola light with Lemon from Brazil.

What's the big deal, you say? "The colour of the citrus on the cans!", I yell back. They're both green! What is missing of course is the third can - diet Coke with Lemon from the USA, which would have a yellow fruit, right?

When I was growing up, we could only get small green citrus fruits, called limones in Colombia. So we called them lemons in English. There were plenty of other citrus, including limas, but they looked nothing like this. I grew up thinking a lemon was a small green citrus fruit. When I came to live in the U.S. I was greatly confused by this enormous yellow thing called, incomprehensibly, a "lemon." People thought I was an idiot. It still throws me. So there, all you unbelievers - incontrovertible proof that lemons are green.

...well, OK, in South America at least.

Oh - and the two cans taste different, too. And dagnabit, I prefer the one I can't get.

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 Saturday, November 20, 2004

Goscinny & Uderzo:

Well, I was supposed to post this on September 29th, but I seem to have been a bit busy lately, and have over 20 draft postings piled up...

At 13:35 GMT on that date, we had a brush with fate. You didn't feel it, did you? Don't worry, not many people did, and it's below most of our personal "worry radars" these days (since there seems to be so much clutter on our screens lately).

A 4.6 by 2.4 km hunk of rock called 4179 Toutatis whizzed by within 1.55 million kilometers of us. Here's a schematic:

Diagram by Paul Chodas (JPL/Caltech) Posted by Hello

Now before you run outside, Chicken Little, this was Toutatis' closest approach since the 1300's, and no collision is likely for orbital projections over the next 500 years. Great, huh? "Errr.... you mean it's been this close before? ...and will be again?"

Why, yes, Chick Li, Toutatis is one of several hundred Earth Crossing Asteroids that, umm, ....well, are occasionally in the way as Earth trundles along around the Sun. Toutatis happens to be a particularly friendly fellow (in a gallic sort of way) because his orbit is almost coplanar with ours - that is good news and bad news. The good news: we get to have a good look at him every so often, and learn lots about asteroids. The bad news: one day he will be too close, and we will crush him. "We" being the Earth. If you are a mere human, well, then it might be you that is crushed. Or burned. Or drowned. Or starved.

...Chicken Little? Where are you? ...ah, there you are. That desk isn't going to give you much shelter against several hundred thousand tons of rock traveling at Mach 25, you know. There, there. Let's talk about risk. First of all, what does the picture above really mean? How far away was this bloodthirsty Toutatis thing, really?

Well, the picture shows that Toutatis' closest approach was about 4 times the Earth-Moon distance. The distance between them is about 384,000 km. Now - we can clearly see something that big. But how big are the Moon and Earth in this picture? The Earth is about 12,740 km across, while the Moon is about 3,476 km across. So the Earth would be about one thirtieth of the size of the orbit, and the Moon would be less than one-hundredth of the orbit. It's very likely that on your monitor, Chicken Little, the Moon is smaller than a single pixel. Now imagine how incredibly tiny Toutatis is - one-hundred thousandth of that orbit. About 0.1 micrometers on your screen. About the size of that bacteria's nucleus. No, the other one.

Now that you are pointing to the screen with your scraggly little toenails, Chicken Little, imagine how big your toenails are in that universe! As my mapping professors Clarence Allen and Leon Silver used to remind me mercilessly: "Always know how big your pencil is! How wide is your pencil mark in the real world?" So - your toenails are larger than Jupiter. (Here's a set of scissors, and don't leave the clippings on the rug.)

The point is that the real things we are referring to in that picture are actually very very very small compared to the distances between them. The distances between them are so large that we can't even use everyday objects to point them out properly - things like fingers, chicken toenails, and yes, even pixels, are just too huge. That means that what astronomers call a "near miss" is actually very far from being a "hit." Very far.

Let's look at some other near misses, past and future.

On March 31, 2004 FU162 missed us by between 4,000 and 11,000 km. Yikes! That's a lot closer than 1.55 million kilometers. But then FU162 is very small, only 5 to 10 meters across - small enough not to make it to the surface, but it would have been LOUD. We actually had a closer encounter than that - on August 10, 1972, something about that size or bigger missed us by only 53 km. more

In the "big hitter" category we have 2004 VW14, which on December 24, 2004 will pass within 1.8 million km (about 5 orbit radii away). Current interest centers around 1997 XR2 (0.23 km diam) and its approach on June 1, 2101 about a 1 in 10,000 chance of collision, or about 99.9903% likelihood of a miss. A little further on, on August 24, 2130, body 2004 QA22 will pass by between zero and 653,000 km away. Zero, of course, is a collision. This by no means should be entered in your calendar as the apocalypse - the orbital parameters for these bodies are updated frequently, changing these estimates by large amounts.

The only body for which a good degree of confidence exists for collision is 1950 DA, with a date of March 16, 2880. However the collision probablility is still only between 0 and 0.33%. (a 99.68% chance it will miss) more

Here is a decent animation of how we reduce uncertainties for asteroid postions with repeated observations.

JPL page w/ lots of Toutatis data:

A web page by one of Toutatis' co-discoverers, A. Maury.

JPL Close Approach page

So, my little C.L., I hope this calmed you down - you can stop shedding and sh###ing all over the carpet now. Just watch out for the cats.