Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bookley - Year One

Almost exactly one year ago, I purchased my first-ever laptop computer: a MacBook Pro which I dubbed Bookley. I had been tempted to wait until the new product announcements at MacWorld Expo last year, in order to avoid buying a computer that would immediately be out-of-date, but desire overcame my caution and I ended up sauntering into the Apple Store in Southdale to make my purchase.

As it turned out, waiting wouldn't have made much difference -- the MacBook Pro line was announced for an update later in January, but only for a small increase in processor speed and a slightly larger hard drive. The 'Book I'd bought was hardly rendered obsolete by that refresh.

Now, after a year, if I had to describe my MacBook Pro experience in one word, that word would be 'convenient'. Though I could likely survive just fine without Bookley, he makes my life easier in a number of ways:


I work for a company doing application support, and once every three to four weeks have to be the on-call person for emergency weekend or overnight calls. Once I was able to configure Bookley to use the company VPN to allow remote access to my work PC, I no longer had to worry that any call would require me to hop in the car and drive to work just to see what the problem was. In fact, the ability to remote into work was more convenient than just connections from home -- I was also able to connect from activities like the Tuesday night bridge group or the Friday gaming sessions without having to completely remove myself from the event. The money, time, and gas I've saved just in the last year is probably enough to justify Bookley's cost right off the top.

Of course, all good things must end -- our new corporate parent, in accordance with their network policies, is going to shut down remote access for all employees at our site, so the single biggest advantage of having Bookley is about to go out the window, for no fault of mine or my laptop's. C'est la vie.


Bookley enhances my free time in a number of ways:

- My current desktop machine is a MacMini from a few years back, when it still ran the G4 processor. While this is good in a number of ways (it allows me to continue to use the backward-compatible OS 9 layer to run my really old Mac software), the bad part of using the Mini as my main machine is that many new games and other software programs are being released for Macs with higher end processors. (Civilization IV was one such title.) Bookley lets me run those programs.

- By setting up a partition on which to install Windows using Boot Camp, I can also participate in games with no Mac client. The main advantage this has been for me is in interacting with Wizards of the Coast's software development arm, who has tied themselves to Windows development as the smallest investment leading to the largest possible payoff. When I boot Bookley into Windows Vista, I can run Magic Online and the beta of the D&D 4.0 Character Creator with no problems. (I've also been playing City of Heroes on the Windows side, but with NCSoft's announcement of an upcoming Mac client, I'll be switching from PC to Mac for that game soon!)

- By using scanning and OCR software, I'm able to carry most of my D&D 3.5 reference books on Bookley's hard drive rather than in an arm-breaking pile of physical paper. This makes it a lot easier to find a relevent spell, rule, or other piece of gaming minutiae on demand in the middle of a fight at our Friday D&D sessions.

Bookley also helps me keep up with this blog, with the additional aid of the MarsEdit blogging package, a drop-dead worthwhile purchase if you plan to do any significant online writing. I use MarsEdit to connect both to this blog as well as put in my share of work on The AL Central Blog (though we'll see how that blog fares in the off-season).

I was even able to take Bookley on the road and make a few posts from far-away places, like GenCon 2008.

Not everything I've done with Bookley has been filled with win -- I got into the preview for MobileMe and discovered that I didn't use it nearly enough to justify the $100 per year price tag, for instance. On the whole, though, owning Bookley has been a great experience, and well worth the price.

Still, my resolution for 2009 is to do something so significant with Bookley that I'll feel compelled to finally set up some kind of backup regimen for him.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Another Linux Advocate Loses Grip On Reality

Even though I'm still a fully functioning Mac Bigot (TM), I've largely gotten out of the habit of arguing my chosen platform's superiority on Internet forums (fora, for those of you who still take Latin classes). Part of the reason why is that I've decided the very practice of arguing on the Internet is unhealthy -- it's geek-meth. It gets you completely wired and hyperactive, even to the point of missing sleep and arguing incredibly trivial points (was it the WA-150 or the WA-100 that first allowed you to use a non-powered stylus?), while the addiction slowly drives you away from friends and family and ravages your physical and mental health. In the end, you'll abandon your own sister's wedding for one more chance to defend the Apple Newton again on ZDNet.

Which brings me to the point of this essay -- there are some places where I just don't bother to go for tech information, but I can go to get a chuckle out of the natives. These places feature writers who are, for the most part, true believers, utterly unfettered by the bounds of reality as they defend their own pet opinions and activities as blessed by the Holy Writ of St. Linus, not to mention that it's healthy to realize that there people out there with less of a life than I have. Among the places I go solely to chuckle over the natives' misunderstandings of all things Apple*: Gizmodo, Wired, and ZDNet.

* - This is not to say that every writer at Gizmodo or Wired is an anti-Apple jihadist or ignorant Linux-worshipper; sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised at the intelligence of a given writer and end up following his writings even against my normal distaste for his home digs. Sometimes, as in the case of John Siracusa of Ars Technica, a single writer can single-handedly rehabilitate a site I thought was hopelessly awash in inanity and ignorance.

Today's spit-take worthy batch of self-delusion dripped from the virtual pen of Jack Wallen of ZDNet, in a blog entry entitled, "10 things Linux does better than OS X". Rather than going point-by-point, which would suggest a dangerous relapse into geek-meth huffing, I'll just hit the highlights:

- It may sound strange, seeing as how OS X is based on a Linux variant...

Um...excuse me? The problem with this claim isn't its sheer ignorance and easy disprovability, but that it's far from the first time I've heard it, which suggests that some Linux evangelist out there is deliberately spreading misinformation that the supposedly bright Linux community doesn't bother trying to correct.

Saying that Mac OS X is based on a Linux variant is like saying that the Ford Taurus is based on a Chevy Volt variant -- not only did Linux enter the scene far later than the UNIX flavor used at the core of Mac OS X, the two operating systems don't even operate on the same set of core code.

First, a quick history lesson:

While Mac OS X is a relative newcomer to the field of computer operating systems, having been first released by Apple as Mac OS X Server in 1999, its pedigree can be traced back quite a ways. Mac OS X's direct ancestor is an OS known as Nextstep, developed by NeXT, a computer company founded by Apple founder and Mac co-creator Steve Jobs after he was removed from the leadership of Apple in the mid-1980s. Nextstep was itself derived from previous 'Unix-like' operating systems, primarly the Berkeley Standard Distribution and variants of that 'flavor' of OS. The Berkeley distribution (also known as BSD) was the first alternate 'flavor' or distribution of the original UNIX operating system developed by Bell Labs during the 1970s; however, though BSD is often referred to as a UNIX OS, and one of the original creators of UNIX has suggested that many OSes derived from UNIX are effectively UNIX systems, the actual designation of an operating system as a UNIX system can, today, come only from the trademark owner, The Open Group, which requires any OS which seeks to use the UNIX trademark to abide by the Single UNIX Specification, an interoperability standard developed in response to the explosion of commercial UNIX systems after the then-owner of UNIX, AT&T, allowed the OS to be licensed for use by other vendors.

The origins of Linux rest in the foundation of the GNU project in the 1980's by free software advocate Richard Stallman, at least partly in response to the growing commercialization of UNIX itself. GNU is a self-referencial acronym, which supposedly stands for 'GNU's Not UNIX'. Though Stallman's goal was to produce a complete UNIX-like operating system based entirely off of free and open-source software, the hardest tasks in the process, the development of device drivers and the kernel -- those parts of the operating system that interact directly with computer hardware -- had not been certified nearly a decade after Stallman started the project. Because of this, Scandinavian programmer Linus Torvalds wrote his own kernel and released it under the GNU Public License. Though this release was not immediately accepted by all open source advocates -- Torvalds famously (in *nix circles, anyway) engaged in energetic discussions on Usenet with MINIX founder Andrew S. Tenenbaum for some time after the release of his kernel -- eventually the Linux kernel became the popular choice and was married to the rest of the GNU OS in a conglomeration that has become known to the world as Linux, but is properly referred to (and even officially referred to by some distribution vendors) as GNU/Linux.

So while Mac OS X is technically younger than Linux, the core pieces of the operating system existed as part of the Berkeley distribution before Richard Stallman even began GNU, to say nothing of Torvald's own development of the Linux kernel. Interestingly, while neither BSD nor GNU/Linux meets the Single UNIX Specification, Mac OS X 10.5 does, and as such can be referred to as a UNIX operating system -- something Linux cannot technically claim.

Mac OS X is no more a variant of Linux than Linux is a variant of Mac OS X. The two grew from completely different development trees, though the original UNIX was the godfather to both OSes.

- Although most OS X users would balk at this (saying they have no use for the command line), most power users know the command line is crucial to serious administrative tasks.

Here lies one of the biggest misconceptions that Linux advocates have about computers.

I will freely admit that, for people whose job is to operate and administer computers, the various flavors of UNIX and *nix are generally more powerful and effective tools in meeting the challenges posed in those jobs.

Here's the problem: most people don't operate computers for a living. Most people use computers in an attempt to perform a job that has little to do with computers themselves. They're salespeople, or administrative workers, or service workers. Even in a company whose reason for existence is to operate or administer computers, there will be numerous people who don't actually have that task in their job description. The receptionist at ORACLE headquarters, for example, doesn't need to know squat about how to program a SQL query, and Steve Ballmer's executive assistant at Microsoft doesn't need to know how to troubleshoot ActiveX.

These people don't need the command line and the 'power' it provides. These people need an operating system that simply stays out of the way of them doing their actual jobs. In other words, most Mac OS X users don't actually have any use for the command line, especially as learning the command line involves learning way more than is strictly necessary about how *nix computers work than those people need to know in order to do their actual jobs.

Here's an analogy that I like to use to illustrate where I think the computer industry is going:

In the early part of the 20th century, the automobile was invented. While the earliest automobiles were largely curiosities, some folks found them useful; most people, however, couldn't imagine doing anything with the very early cars that they couldn't do with their already ubiquitous horses. However, as manufacturing processes grew more sophisticated, eventually an explosion of manufacturers and models ushered in the automobile's first great era, the era of the Chalmers, lasting through the end of World War I. War and economic woes helped narrow the range of manufacturers, but the coming of peace and prosperity, and the deliberate development of the US Interstate Highway System, helped regenerate the automobile industry, causing it to enter its true Golden Age in the 1950's. In those days, it seemed that every family owned a car, and every man was at least a passable mechanic. As time passed and car ownership went from a family to a personal experience, though, the needs of car owners slowly began to change. American car companies were slow to pick up on those changes, including increased passenger room on the one hand and increased fuel efficiency and reliability on the other (the latter at least partly triggered by the oil shocks of the 1970s). Though the Chrysler Corporation declared bankruptcy during the 1980s, American car companies comfortably went back to what they thought they knew best, designing big, 'manly' cars and other vehicles they thought the public should want, rather than the kinds of cars that the public actually needed. Another economic sea change later, and all of the Big Three are lined up at the Capitol Building seeing handouts to stay in operation so that they won't finally fall, victims of their own hubris and presumptions regarding what a car should be.

Though the parallels aren't perfect, the analogy is pretty striking: the earliest days of computing were very much like the earliest days of the car, with computers being considered expensive curiosities except in limited environments. Once proven in those environments, though, advances in manufacturing allowed for the first great explosion of 'personal computers', including the IBM PC, the Radio Shack TRS-80, the Commodore PET and C-64, and the Apple II and even the earliest Macintoshes. Though they served the purpose of educating a generation of computer mechanics, most folks at the time viewed these early machines as little more than expensive toys (save for the few that could be used for serious business tasks), and it took the development of the Information Superhighway to kick-start personal computer adoption both in homes and smaller businesses. Today's computing society is much like the automotive society of the 1960's -- those who know the most about computers tend to assume that what they like about computers is not just what's good about them but what is actually meaningful and valuable about them, ignoring a growing segment of users who don't use or need to use computers in the same manner they do.

In the 1970's you could seemingly find a mechanic in every gas station. In the 2000's few gas stations have garages associated with them, and few drivers see the need to be able to tune an engine or tweak plugs and points themselves.

By the time the twenty-somethings of today posting and writing for Gizmodo and ZDNet about the wonders of open source software start considering their own retirement, they'll be wondering how the world of computing left them so far behind, and why it is that nobody cares what flavor of *nix is being run on the latest gadget.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

So much for that idea...wait...

I went to the D&D Experience in Washington DC back in 2007, and sat in the audience as Scott Rouse, head marketing maven for the D&D brand, told the assembled crowd at the designers' keynote that Wizards of the Coast was hoping to make the convention the D&D equivalent to the MacWorld Expo conference held annually in San Francisco. It would be a place where gamers could go to celebrate all things D&D, from the role-playing game to the then still-fairly-new tactical miniatures game. My main reason for attending the 2007 D&DXP was to try to win the Limited Championship in that miniatures game; though I didn't succeed, I did end up qualifying for the 2008 Constructed Championships, so the trip was still, from that perspective, a tremendous success.

Not quite two years later, and perhaps the plan needs to be modified, as Apple today announced that 2009 would be Apple's last exhibiting at MacWorld Expo. Some very smart Apple commenters have noted how this might allow MacWorld to become an even better convention, though the general consensus seems to be that MacWorld is likely doomed without the presense of Apple as a flagship sponsor, and that's probably not all bad.

(Aside: the Apple-centric blogs, as well as the Apple-centric media (MacWorld magazine, Mac|Life, etc.) are focusing on what this means for MacWorld Expo, but the MSM, so to speak, has decided it's more interested in talking about Steve Jobs' health rumors...again. *sigh*)

So what does that mean for D&DXP? Well, Wizard has already ended their official support for the skirmish game, handing the reins to a volunteer organization called the DDM Guild. So you might say that, in a way, Wizards beat Apple to the punch by a couple of months.

When the D&D Experience was primarily a convention supporting the Role Playing Gamer's Association's tabletop roleplaying games, it was called Winter Fantasy. Perhaps that name will come back now, given that RPGA stuff appears to be all that will appear at D&DXP beyond 2009.