Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Go to my new site, http://jeffkirk.online

Yes, I have a new site. I'm actually a little shocked that this site is still getting page views. The new site is http://jeffkirk.online. I also have a site promoting my forthcoming Silicon Valley science fiction technothriller, "The Prometheus Option". Shockingly, the URL is http://theprometheusoption.com. See you there!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Catching Up

So here's some of the news that's fit to print since my last blog post, in no particular order of importance.

I've been sick for most of the last week and am finally on the road to recovery. Head cold that morphed into a chest cold. The usual winter thing. Hopefully the first and last time I'm sick this year. I've burned six days of PTO trying to get over it.

In December, Zvents was acquired by StubHub (an eBay company). So now I'm a Stubber. I can't say I like the nickname too much (conjures up visions of a trauma ward filled with multiple amputees) but I sure like the company. StubHub is based in San Francisco and we'll be moving our offices up there by mid-year.

Also in December I met my new girlfriend, Valerie. We hit it off immediately and now are inseparable (at least on weekends, since she lives on the other side of the Bay). Being sick has not helped. Valerie is French, smart, petite, beautiful, and fierce. I'm crazy about her. I'm looking forward to relearning French and then traveling over there with her. Nothing beats having a native Parisian with you to be treated well when you visit La France. So I presume. She doesn't speak German so I'll translate for her when we visit that country.

I went to Nevada, Arizona and Southern California during my latest driving trip. Saw my old buddy Max for the first time in several years. We had a great time catching up. And I got to see the desert again. I love Northern Arizona, and Tucson and environs are nice, but I don't think I'll need to drive across southern Arizona again. Blech. Nor do I feel any grand compulsion to drive past Salton Sea again. Still, it was a good reminder of just how bloody LONG California is.

Okay, the bed is beckoning and I am still wiped out from my cold. I wanted to post something about Apple's new textbook initiative but that will have to wait until I'm feeling better.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My Take on Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion"

It's a very good upgrade, and well worth the measly $30. There are a few changes that will throw people for a loop.


The most important changes in Lion are underneath the hood. The security model has been radically upgraded. FileVault 2 is a massive improvement over its predecessor. It provides for full disk encryption at the block level. When I upgraded my 11" MacBook Air to Lion, I enabled FileVault and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it not only does the encryption in the background, but it's fully compatible with Time Machine, and seems not to affect the perceived speed of the machine to any significant degree. Granted, I don't usually do any serious number-crunching on the Air, but the UI was totally responsive and apps launched as quickly as they had before.

The toning down of the gumdrop-like Aqua interface is a nice, subtle improvement. And now you can resize windows from any edge. Thank God. If there's one Mac UI restriction I hated, it was having to grow windows from the lower right corner. It will take some people a long time to get used to the scroll bars disappearing when not in use. I like it, myself. More content = less space wasted on UI chrome = good.

The improvements to Mail (especially sorting email message threads and eliminating all the unnecessary quotes from previous messages) are good but not revolutionary. The search functions are considerably better, but I would still like to be able to directly enter a search with Boolean logic, regular expressions, and the like. It is nice to be able to revert to the old-style interface when necessary, but I suspect I'll adapt to the new interface quickly enough.

The biggest win with Lion is being able to get Mac OS X Server as an add-on package for a mere $50. Not bad considering that until Wednesday, you had to pay $499 for an unlimited OS X Server license. You do have to download and install the Server Admin Tools package in order to get access to some of the lower-level servers, like DNS and DHCP. The new "Server" app provides a much better (although still imperfect) interface for the more application-level services like File Sharing and the QuickTime Streaming Server.

At some point I'll probably get a Mac Mini, equip it with OS X Server, and use it in my house as a "master" server for managing my home machines, providing a central location for Time Machine backups, and perhaps for serving iTunes content, rather than relying on my iMac for that task.

I haven't yet used any apps that take advantage of the new document versioning and auto-save functions, but I expect those to be a huge boon.


The deprecation of Spaces in favor of Mission Control is a mixed bag. MC groups windows by application, which can be hugely useful, but having the virtual desktops confined to a single, circular horizontal band is not. Navigating by using a CTRL-Arrow key became a lot less useful. On the other hand, MC does make it possible to click directly on a particular desktop. I have yet to see how well MC will work on a desktop machine without a trackpad. I'm not about to give up my mouse in favor of a trackpad. The MC gestures work very well indeed on a MacBook, though.

That being said, the reversed scrolling direction for trackpad gestures takes some getting used to. I was on the verge of changing it back to the original settings but decided to stick with it to see if I could get used to it. Eventually I did, but I won't pretend the transition was an easy one. Is it worth it? I use iPhones and iPads all the time, and it's nice to have a consistent mechanism for scrolling across all the platforms, so I'd have to say yes.

I have yet to make up my mind about the changes to the Finder, especially the reorganization of the sidebar and the new "All My Files" view. It seems sorta-kinda useful.


The Dock has always been a clunky tool, especially for launching apps. The iPad-like app launcher in Lion was not an improvement. If you have a dozen apps, it might be useful. I have hundreds, and sorting all those icons into some semblance of order is a gigantic pain in the ass. Many of the apps shouldn't even be there. I don't need to see the myriad uninstallers from Adobe applications in LaunchPad—ever.

There should be a System Preferences panel for reordering the icons, similar to the App pane in iTunes which lets you move app icons around and group them by folders for iPhone and iPad devices. And REMOVE them without uninstalling the app. Until such a tool arrives I doubt I'll use this feature. It might be useful on my MacBook Air, but the size of the icons on the 27" iMac is insane.

I don't understand why the Find File command in the Finder is still so primitive. Why, if there is a metadata index of all the files on my machine, can't I use complex search terms like regular expressions? At least give the advanced user an advanced search mode. As it is I have to use "mdfind" in a shell more often than not, especially when I have to search paths that the Finder will not let me search, like Library directories. Irritating.

The worst omission is an upgrade to the decrepit HFS+ file system. I understand the need for backward compatibility and ease of upgrading, but holy crow, with the exception of journal files, HFS+ is an ancient relic. Regular users don't know what they're missing by depending on an antique file system, but system administrators sure do.

New filesystems have been developed for other operating systems that provide vastly greater functionality, resiliency, speed and convenience. It's still impossible to pool storage from external drives a la LVM or ZFS. Speaking of which, ZFS is nowhere to be seen. It would have been AWESOME to have ZFS, which supports massive volumes, pooling, automatic snapshots, and more. But ZFS succumbed to the patent battle between Sun and NetApp, and appears to have been drowned in the river like an unwanted cat. Depressing.


Don't get me wrong: warts and all, the Lion upgrade is absolutely worth $30. The best features are yet to be fully realized. When xCode 4.2 apps finally ship, apps will suddenly become much more stable and less prone to memory leaks (by virtue of the compiler level optimization of managing object reference counts). iCloud has yet to fully materialize, and I am sure it will become second nature to rely on it. Mission Control doesn't seem fully baked, but I think it will mature into a tremendously useful tool for managing app windows. And resizing windows from any edge? Priceless.

Thumbs up!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

In VIrginia

I was up at four thirty and out the door by five. There were maybe three open parking places in the long term lot at SFO, and it took me about twenty minutes of cursing to find one. Lucky me.

I was on the shuttle to the terminal when I suddenly remembered that my iPad was in the trunk of my car. For a split second I considered leaving it. I had a ton of books on my iPhone, after all. I could get by. But I'd transferred so many movies to it for my flight and idle evenings that I forced myself to get off the shuttle and go back to the roof of the structure to get it. At least it wasn't raining.

There were half a zillion people waiting for some airline to process them when I got to the International terminal. Fortunately I discovered that they were not waiting for MY airline. Virgin America had me in and out and through security in no time flat. Unfortunately I was wearing a leather coat and carrying a heavy backpack full of camera and computer gear, so by the time I got to my gate I was thoroughly soaked with sweat. Gotta tell you: traveling while fat is no fun. I began to dread the flight. No doubt the Fates would seat me next to someone with my kind of physique.

Fortunately I was wrong, or the Fates were merciful. The flight was great. The couple sitting next to me were lithe and young and in shape, and the woman who sat to my immediate right took a Xanax to ameliorate her fear of flying, so she was out like a light before we left the ground. Virgin America is a splendid airline. I wish they went everywhere. I'd never fly anything else. Decent sized seats. Seat-back entertainment systems with a Google map showing the plane's location among other things. Pretty good food, too, and more legroom since I was sitting in Main Cabin Select (a poor-man's business class).

Everyone around me put down their windowshades, which effectively prevented me from seeing anything the whole way across the country. I watched the extended version of "The Fellowship of the Ring" and occasionally glanced up at the seat-back monitor. States came and went. Our Great Circle route took us all the way north of Cheyenne, Wyoming before it began slowly to curve south again.

We landed five hours after departing at 7:30 AM, but the time zone differential meant it was already late afternoon when I stepped out of Dulles International Airport. The workers at the airport and the car rental agency were unfailingly polite and good-humored. I got a nice dusty black Chevy Impala at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. I hooked up the iPhone and turned on the Navigon software and plotted a route to the hotel. It's so nice not to have to rent a GPS unit. I was a little nonplussed by the car for a moment. What's this? A key that you actually have to put into the ignition switch? No rear-view camera? The steering wheel doesn't slide up and out of the way when you get out? How... quaint. (I admit I am spoiled when it comes to cars, and I don't know anyone who rents an Infiniti M35.)

This is a very relaxed part of the Washington metro area, I guess. The trees actually have colors other than green, which is a nice change from the Bay Area. Most of the leaves there are either green all the time or suddenly turn brown and fall off without much of a transition. I hope to drive in some of the more rural areas around here to get a sense of the countryside. I quite like what I've seen of Virginia so far. It feels comfortable. The Crowne Plaza Hotel is quite nice, and the room is freakin' huge. The hotel's restaurant, Houlihan's, is nothing to write home about. So I won't. At least they had a decent beer (Blue Moon) on draft.

I'm staying close to the airport, both for convenience and because I plan to take at least two rather long day trips (one to Gettysburg and another to Monticello and possibly Richmond) and thought a hotel outside the city center would be a good idea. My first stop will be the National Air and Space Museum, tomorrow!

I can't wait.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Tomorrow I start a week-long vacation to Washington D.C. and environs. I'm excited.

It will be nice to get out of town and not worry about work for a little while (though I expect I'll be checking mail and making sure my co-workers don't blow themselves and the service up while I'm gone), but even more exciting will be the opportunity to see museums and monuments I've only read or heard about up to now. I've never been to D.C..

I already know to avoid using the Beltway, so thanks in advance if you were planning to advise me not to.

I'm staying near Dulles Airport and plan to take the Metro into the city. Knowing that it's too easy to overdo it in the museums and become mentally burned out, I plan to alternate day trips with museum visits. Here's my current itinerary (weather permitting):

  • Sat Oct 30: Travel to D.C.

  • Sun Oct 31: National Air and Space Museum (the big new Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles)

  • Mon Nov. 1: Day trip to Gettysburg, PA (about 75 miles)

  • Tue Nov. 2: Smithsonian Natural History Museum

  • Wed Nov. 3: Day trip to Monticello and Richmond, VA

  • Thu Nov 4: Smithsonian American History Museum

  • Fri Nov 5: The Air and Space Museum on the Mall, then the monuments (maybe by Segway!) -- this will be a long day because I want to shoot the monuments at night.

  • Sat Nov 6: Arlington National Cemetery in the morning, and then return to the Bay Area in the afternoon

Depending on the weather forecasts I may juggle this schedule around a bit, or throw it out altogether if it turns out that I'm too fascinated by the museums.

I'm taking my camera and will be posting lots of photos on my PBase Gallery (http://www.pbase.com/jeffkirk1).

Monday, April 19, 2010

New Directions

I just realized it's been months since my last blog post. MONTHS! Astounding.

I've been busy, but not with writing, although I've managed to eke out three chapters in the rewrite of "The Book of the Talents." Most of my attention has been on learning iPhone and iPad programming.

I've been wanting to learn to program the Mac since the early 90's. It used to be a lot more complicated. You had to learn the Mac Toolbox and write programs in procedural languages like C, and the limitations of the OS made debugging and fixing them difficult. Although I did manage to write a couple of programs under the old Toolbox, I never enjoyed it. My job required me to spend more time in scripting languages like AppleScript and Perl, so I focused my efforts there.

My current job at Zvents is to support a data center and developers who write code in Ruby on Rails. Ruby is an object-based scripting language, and Rails is a framework for developing and maintaining web applications. You write applications using a design metaphor called "MVC," which stands for model, view, and controller. Simply put, the data, appearance, and business logic of the programs are separated out into separate modules, which makes adding new features and capabilities much easier. MVC programs are more maintenance-friendly. They're also much easier to understand, once grasp the logic behind the way they're structured.

It turns out that learning Ruby on Rails programming was an excellent prelude to learning how to program the Mac, the iPhone, and the iPad. Since Apple was acquired by NeXT (ha ha), the original clunky Mac OS was replaced with a successor to NeXTStep. Mac OS X programs are also written as MVC applications. That makes learning them far easier.

Since the announcement of the iPad, which I think will ultimately be a giant success for Apple (assuming good programs are written for it), I've been thinking hard about finally learning how to program it. In the last couple of months I've made big strides. I first studied Objective-C, which is a superset of the C language, which I already knew, although it had been quite a few years since I programmed in it. Then I moved on to an iPhone specific programming book by Dave Mark and Jeff Dalrymple. Great move. I'm now just about halfway through that book, having keyed in all of the sample programs, and I feel like I'm actually over the hump when it comes to understanding how Mac programs are structured.

Conveniently and not coincidentally, the same set of development tools is used for all three of my prospective platforms, although there are many differences in the libraries and frameworks used for each platform. They're fundamentally the same kinds of programs, though.

I'm focusing on iPhone programming at the moment, and I have a couple of ideas for useful applications. It's an interesting time to be an iPhone developer, considering the advent of the iPad and the impending summer release of iPhone OS 4. I have an iPad on order and am looking forward to using it as much as I am programming it. I hope it will be both interesting and profitable. At the very least I'll have learned a valuable new skill.

In the meantime, my book is on hold. I have to admit my enthusiasm for it has waned a bit. I have been thinking a lot about writing the back story to my previously-envisioned trilogy. It would set the stage for the other books while remaining a much more self-contained story. I would want it to be a satisfying read as a standalone. If it were successful, then I'd rewrite "The Book of the Talents" using "Lorian's Tale" as a springboard.

OK, back to work learning iPhone programming. See you in another few months.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ruminations of a Fanboy

Steve Jobs introduced the Apple iPad today. I just got done watching the video of the keynote. Here are my impressions.

The name: terrible. I mean, truly terrible. Tampon jokes were all the rage online and even in the office this afternoon. iPad. Seriously? I mean, yes, I get it, it's close to iPod-with-an-O, but really. It's as if Apple hired the supergenius at Microsoft who came up with such brilliant product names as WinCE and WinME. Urgh.

The physical form factor: very nice indeed, if rather unimaginative. Perfectly in keeping with the Steve's minimalist aesthetic, and purposely evocative of the iPhone, with which it shares an OS and an App Store. It's a bit more square than I was expecting, but then again it's similar in size to a sheet of paper, which is probably not an accident. 1.5 lbs is not a lot, though I suspect it will grow a bit heavy in younger or weaker hands if used for lengthy periods. Most of the people demoing the device have been seated with their legs up or crossed, and again, I don't think that's an accident.

I was a little surprised by the absence of a GPS or a camera, but Apple's not pitching this device as a big alternative to an iPhone. Having a GPS in an iPhone is a necessity, as far as I'm concerned, but I don't think I'd be checking for directions on an iPad (agggh). Nor holding it up to try to take substandard photos. It would've been nice to have a front-facing camera for web conferencing. Maybe the next version.

The display: beautiful, if the reports are correct. The iPad (gah, I hate that name) uses an IPS LCD screen with an LED backlight. IPS is also used in the top end photographic quality LCD monitors for its extremely wide viewing angle and excellent light transmittance. It's big enough to be useful, and it's full color. The bezel is quite large, which seems to be giving some people fits, but it's not a cell phone. There has to be a lip around the display area for your fingers to hold onto without intruding on the screen, after all.

The OS: a disappointment in only one (but profoundly important) area: no multitasking. I understand it to some degree in the case of the iPhone. It's a much more limited device with severely constrained resources, and Apple doesn't want third party apps degrading the performance of the built-in apps such as the telephone or the iPod player (which, unlike most iPhone apps, can run while in the background). Considering the much more capable processor in the iPad (yrch, that name!) I think the absence of multitasking is a real problem. However, I think it will eventually be rectified (more on this later).

The operating system seems perfectly capable in almost every other way. The hands-on demo I saw on Engadget's web site proved that the performance of an iPad-optimized app is very good—surprisingly good, in fact. I doubt anyone will have anything to complain about when using the iPad iWork apps (Pages, Numbers and Keynote). In fact, it was seeing those apps being used during Steve's keynote that convinced me that the iPad really is a fully capable handheld computer.

The lack of multitasking, though—it really stands out like a sore thumb when you can use apps like Pages or Numbers, and it will be missed all the more because of it. Unless those apps go into suspended mode when you switch to another (to Mail, for example, to get some figures for your nascent spreadsheet) and then come right back to where you left off, the absence of multitasking rises from annoyance to genuine impediment.

I'm guessing that we won't see multitasking as we know it until iPhone OS 4.0 is announced, if then. If Steve had shown an iPhone OS device with multitasking today, people would be smashing down the doors to get it on the iPhone as well. Previous Stevenotes give strong evidence that he doesn't like to pollute a brand new product launch with big news about other platforms.

I doubt iPhone OS 4 is ready for prime time in any case. I suspect they'll announce the next iPhone (with OS 4) in March or April. They debuted iPhone OS 3 on March 17 of last year, for example. I don't have any evidence for my belief that multitasking will eventually arrive, but I hope it will, and I suspect they'll release an iPad update with multitasking at the same time iPhone 4G (or whatever it'll be called) will ship.

I'm more confident that the iPad (blorgh) is a very good device after seeing the whole keynote than I was just hearing about it from blogs. Lots and lots of people seem to hate it, though, and mostly because it's "just" a big iPod Touch. Although it looks like an iPod Touch and can run iPod and iPhone apps, it's much more than that. It's far, far bigger, much faster, and altogether more powerful. It's like comparing an entry level MacBook with a Mac Pro tower.

And what the haters are decrying as a problem is really a big advantage, both for users and developers. Consider: if you can use an iPod Touch or an iPhone, you can use an iPad with no additional training. No complex gestures to learn, no new UI design metaphor save the additions of some pop-up menu elements and other bric-a-brac. Developers don't have to learn a whole new OS SDK to program apps for it. The demos shown by the third-party developers Apple invited to port their apps to the iPad (blech) prove that. Less than three weeks and they all had very functional-looking programs running.

So how did I do in my predictions from the last blog post?

There was no special emphasis on education, in spite of the demo of a book reader app. I guess Steve figures that the ed market will take care of itself. There was a demo of Brushes, which was quite impressive, and I think that artists will flock to the iPad (ugh) once even more spectacular drawing and painting apps make their appearance. No stylus (not that I ever thought the probability was high), and therefore no handwriting recognition. I guess it makes sense, considering how much faster and more accurate even an on-screen virtual keyboard is than handwriting.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Apple DID announce a keyboard dock for the iPad (aieeee). No mention of a mouse, of course. At first I was puzzled by the omission of a mouse, but there's just no mouse function in the Cocoa Touch framework. That's what your fingers are for. I suspect this will make certain operations on documents rather awkward at first, but I also suspect we'll get over it.

I quote myself: "Connectivity will be familiar: WiFi built in, with 3G as an option. There will be an iPod dock, a sim card slot, volume and mute controls, and a home button. And that's it." I forgot the built-in microphone, and I didn't expect a 16 GB cheapie model, but otherwise I nailed it. Maybe I should be a computer journalist.

I also expected iWork: "The iTablet will be able to play music and movies and run iPhone apps, but it must also be able to handle word processing and note taking and spreadsheet functions, too. I expect these apps to be available on the iTunes Store for a lower cost than their Mac-based predecessors. I also expect them to be optimized for use with a touch interface."

The iBook app is sweet. The iBook Store is very impressive, being on the "flip side" of the iBook's virtual bookshelf. Nifty UI, that. It's like the door into Victor Frankenstein's secret laboratory. It remains to be seen how readable the books are, but at least there won't be any complaints about lack of backlighting.

As an ebook reader goes, the iPad (ptui) is a mixed bag. Its UI is far superior to that of anything else I've seen, but the battery life of the device is much shorter than that of any e-ink reader. No surprise there. I'm wondering just how relevant that is, though. I think book reading will be a definite "also ran" application for the iPad (snort) compared to web browsing, game playing, etc. Recharging it rather frequently is going to happen no matter what. Still, ten hours of battery life while watching video is pretty impressive, and I imagine if you're just reading books on it the battery would last even longer. We'll have to see.

In summary, I think the gadget is very cool, wretched name notwithstanding. It's not an out-of-the-park home run. I'd call it a triple. I'd definitely prefer to take it on a trip than a full-fledged laptop. I've had occasion to use my iPhone to VPN into the office network and ssh into servers to do system administration work. I'm looking forward to the iPad version of iSSH.

Hey, I finally wrote "iPad" without twitching. Maybe I can get used to the name. Maybe.


Or not.