Thursday, December 15, 2011

MacOSX Lion

Come out of things unsaid
Shoot an apple off my head and a
Trouble that can't be named
A tiger's waiting to be tamed

Only now, right at the end of the semester, have I dared to upgrade to the latest operating system (Lion) for my Macbook.

One reason is that it basically takes an entire day or two. And if everything is working fine, why disturb what ain't broken?

And as a university professor, I'm always working on slides, talks and papers. My life seems to revolve around show-and-tell, from teaching to academic conferences. Plus as a software developer, I hate instability. So downtime is not acceptable until the very last class is done.

Nevertheless, our high-tech world moves forward rapidly, and we must keep up if we are to enjoy new software functionality. Plus as older systems are deprecated, security and other bug fixes won't be available.

However, as any experienced professional knows, upgrades sometimes have unforeseen consequences. And some old software won't run anymore (here; anything that requires Rosetta). And upgrading those rarely used packages, e.g. Adobe Illustrator, sometimes will cost major bucks.

So I'm never an early adopter. I wait at least a minor revision or two until the cost/benefit ratio decidedly tilts in my favor. I'll let others be the guinea pigs. Being slightly behind the curve also means I can Google any minor issues I run into during the upgrade, and chances are, someone has documented and had a chance to work around them.

Even then, I commit only one laptop at a time to the upgrade, so I can punt the entire process without downtime.

MacOSX 10.7, aka Lion, literally takes gigabytes. Then there are gigabytes of incremental updates that Software Update will download after the initial install. Plus the Xcode software development environment.

Let us not do things by halves. I may hesitate and wait and see, but once I'm committed, I'll jump in with both feet. So I might as well go all in and upgrade all the applications as well. It makes sense to install the very latest versions of Apple's iLife and iWork software suites since they probably take advantage of any new functionality provided by Lion. And I'll upgrade to Microsoft Office 2011 also while I'm at it.
(Fortunately, due to site licensing arrangements, those packages I've mentioned above are freely downloadable for me.)

We still need a large and fat pipe to the internet. So I did this from my office. I achieved an impressive 1Mbyte/second download rate (equivalent to about 10Mb/s) when simultaneously downloading MacOSX Lion, iWork, iLife and Office 2011:

Even at this (sustained) speed, it still took hours. There's 8Gbytes of software to be downloaded before installation can begin. Those without fast broadband must have the patience of Job.

And although, we are downloading each package at around 250 KBytes/s, even when it's down to a single package, the download speed doesn't scale linearly. So it makes sense to download everything simultaneously. For example, at one package left to go, I'm only up to 440KBytes/s, see below:

Here is a graph of the bandwidth I experienced during the download orgy:

I also decided to purchase and install Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended. This is professional grade software and normally goes for $1000.

The university edition goes for $200. I'm using it more and more, so I think I can justify spending the money.

After a few more rounds of updates, we achieved fixpoint and I'm done.

Do I notice many changes to the operating system? Not really. Some user interface elements are different, when I hit F3, I see Spaces has been redone (see below).

Other changes, e.g. the scrolling direction and squared-off buttons, seems rather gratuitous.

Actually, I'm much more excited with the useful enhancements to application software. For example, Powerpoint has a neat new Presenter mode for talks. It also has a broadcast function now. And the full version of Photoshop does HDR (High Dynamic Range) images and also has content-aware fill/replace. Can't wait to try those out.

I notice the upgrade has nuked some of the license keys for other packages I own, e.g. AutoPano Pro, which now won't start. Fortunately, I have all keys saved in a special mail folder. And I notice I might as well grab the latest version of that application.

After 2 days of upgrading, am I up-to-date? Unfortunately, not. I notice Apple wants me to transition off MobileMe onto iCloud soon. But that requires iOS 5, and for various technical reasons, I'm not yet ready to upgrade to that on my iPhone.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Doha: CMU Qatar

After the social robotics conference in Amsterdam (see here), I spent a week at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Qatar.

I last blogged about CMU Qatar back in 2009 when I took a bunch of spherical panorama pictures (see here). This time I also brought my equipment but unfortunately had no time to take more of those special images. In particular, I had hoped to get a 360° shot of the following open seating area inside the building:

Unfortunately, this time half the space was set up with regular chairs instead of those awesome cushions. Maybe next time.

The building itself is quite opulent and certainly impressive, more reminiscent of an investment bank than a university. It has huge atrium-like open spaces that I find too big to be friendly. Designed to awe, I find it lacks human scale.

(I think of grand entrances on Arrakis designed to reduce the human to a mere mote, as described by Frank Herbert in perhaps the book God Emperor of Dune. It has been really many years since that read that series. Who has time these days to read a few thousand pages?)

My favorite room was the faculty lounge, not only because of the espresso machines but also because it has a nice friendly yet contemporary feel with proper wood floors instead of the echo of polished hard marble, artfully concealed indirect lighting and absolutely wonderful proportions. I'd love to have a house with a central living area like this. Dream on.

(Actually, if you look at houses like this one in California, you could make it work.)

Despite the luxury of having uniformed waiter service at my office, I often preferred to make the trek down to the faculty lounge myself.

The infrastructure is important, but in the end it's the personal touch that matters. My hosts made me feel supremely welcome.

For example, one of my sponsors drove me from the hotel to the university each morning until he got sick. After that, I rode in on the QIA Hummer H2:

I even met a ping pong enthusiast from Brazil, Prof. Marcelo Castier, a chemical engineer from Texas A&M University. An extremely busy man, but he managed to find one hour to hit a few balls with me at the brand-new student center the day before I left Doha.

They have three KillerSpin tables there:

Unfortunately, the polished floor is extremely slippery, the pool tables get in the way, and one is blinded by glare from the wall of windows from one end. But hey, these seem to be the only available ping pong tables.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Custom-welded furniture at a coffee shop

I do a lot of work after hours and weekends at a local coffee shop.

I grab a nicely decorated cappuccino (or three). Plug in my earphones to block out the music and distraction. And concentrate hard. The hours pass. I barely look up. Before I know it, it's closing time.

I'm not sure why but for certain kinds of non-creative work, somehow I am significantly more productive at a coffee shop than at home or in my office, where I'm more easily distracted. Instead, I get things done.

By far my favorite coffee shop for this purpose is the Cartel Coffee Lab. Not only is the cappuccino pretty good, but it has great custom-designed furniture that feels just right for working. Made of steel and wood.

This is my favorite location in the entire place. (Unfortunately, it's usually taken and there are only two of them.)

It looks like a simple one-piece desk and bench seat. And it is. But the proportions of this setup (despite the bare metal) just feels like it was designed for laptop use. It also has a footrest bar. In other words, ergonomically speaking, it hits all the right spots for me. Despite its non-adjustability, it simply feels right.

In fact, sometimes I've been able to sit at this desk for 6 to 8 hours without lower back, shoulder or neck trouble. Makes me want to learn how to weld up my own furniture.

A picture of the counter from my vantage point. (Notice the custom-welded iPad-based register.) So much cooler than a generic Starbucks:

Finally, a picture of the outside. I believe they're going to be moving soon to larger premises (a sign of success).

Monday, December 5, 2011

It matters where you sit (part 2)

Into the distance, a ribbon of black
Stretched to the point of no turning back
A flight of fancy on a windswept field
Standing alone my senses reeled
Fatal attraction is holding me fast,
How can I escape this irresistible grasp?

Back in October, I said it matters where you sit on a plane with respect to noise (see here).

Bombardier makes a regional jet, the CRJ700, with twin engines at the rear. So, more precisely, it matters where you sit in relation to the engines.

If you're someone who can sleep on a flight, it probably doesn't matter.

However, I was desperately jetlagged on the way back from Qatar (a brutal 10 hour timezone difference), tired but wired, utterly unable to sleep, and even listening to that mellow Pink Floyd album A Momentary Lapse of Reason (from which those lyrics above are drawn) couldn't help me, I took the opportunity to pace the narrow aisle with Etymotics' free iPhone App, which has a sound pressure meter. I took samples every two seats (which must have drawn strange glances from my fellow passengers) and in the only toilet at the back. Here are the results:

There is a large 20dB difference in sound pressure level depending on where you sit. The noise right at the back is seriously deafening, plus I notice the last row of seats are right up against the wall and do not recline. Do not take row 17.