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November 12 2013

Four short links: 13 November 2013

  1. ISS Enjoys Malware — Kaspersky reveals ISS had XP malware infestation before they shifted to Linux. The Gravity movie would have had more registry editing sessions if the producers had cared about FACTUAL ACCURACY.
  2. Big Data Approach to Computational Creativity (Arxiv) — although the “results” are a little weak (methodology for assessing creativity not described, and this sadly subjective line “professional chefs at various hotels, restaurants, and culinary schools have indicated that the system helps them explore new vistas in food”), the process and mechanism are fantastic. Bayesian surprise, crowdsourced tagged recipes, dictionaries of volatile compounds, and more. (via MIT Technology Review)
  3. Go at 4 — recapping four years of Go language growth.
  4. Las Vegas Street Lights to Record Conversations (Daily Mail) — The wireless, LED lighting, computer-operated lights are not only capable of illuminating streets, they can also play music, interact with pedestrians and are equipped with video screens, which can display police alerts, weather alerts and traffic information. The high tech lights can also stream live video of activity in the surrounding area. Technology vendor is Intellistreets. LV says, Right now our intention is not to have any cameras or recording devices. Love that “right now”. Can’t wait for malware to infest it.

August 01 2013

Four short links: 1 August 2013

  1. Tindie Launches Open Designs and Kickbacks (Tindie) — businesses can manufacture the open design as is, or create products derived from it. Those sellers can then kickback a portion of their sales back to the designer. Tindie will handle the disbursement of funds so it’s absolutely painless. For designers, there are no fees, no hosting costs, just a simple way to reap the benefits of their hard work.
  2. HackRF (Kickstarter) — an open source software-defined-radio platform to let you transmit or receive any radio signal from 30 MHz to 6000 MHz on USB power.
  3. Twelve Best Go Practices — to help you get the mindset of Go.
  4. US Code for Download — in XML and other formats. Waaaay after public resource showed them what needed to be done. First slow step of many fast ones, I hope.

May 04 2012

Four short links: 4 May 2012

  1. Common Statistical Fallacies (Flowing Data) -- once you know to look for them, you see them everywhere. Or is that confirmation bias?
  2. Project Hijack -- Hijacking power and bandwidth from the mobile phone's audio interface. Creating a cubic-inch peripheral sensor ecosystem for the mobile phone.
  3. Peak Plastic -- Deb Chachra points out that if we’re running out of oil, that also means that we’re running out of plastic. Compared to fuel and agriculture, plastic is small potatoes. Even though plastics are made on a massive industrial scale, they still account for less than 10% of the world’s oil consumption. So recycling plastic saves plastic and reduces its impact on the environment, but it certainly isn’t going to save us from the end of oil. Peak oil means peak plastic. And that means that much of the physical world around us will have to change. I hadn't pondered plastics in medicine before. (via BoingBoing)
  4. web.go (GitHub) -- web framework for the Go programming language.

March 22 2012

Developer Week in Review: The mysterious Google I/O machine

We're in the countdown days to the two big annual developer conferences (not counting OSCON, of course ...). Google I/O will open registration on March 27th, and if past history is any guide, WWDC should also start (and end) signups around the same week. So, get your credit cards warmed up and ready. Last year, both conferences sold out in less than a day (Google I/O in under an hour!).

And speaking of Google I/O

Google IO game

Just what is the purpose of the Rube Goldberg-esque physical puzzle that has gone up on the Google I/O website. Does it have something to do with a puzzle that potential attendees will need to solve to register? Will attendees be flung around from session to session by giant pendulums? Is it all just a cool demo of Chrome? And does it have anything to do with ancient Mayan prophecies?

In any event, it's a fun (if simple) game, worth a few moments of your time, but unlikely to absorb more than 15 minutes of your attention. Now, if they added achievements and a Zombie mode, that might be something.


So much for sandboxing

Reports of a successful exploitation against the Chrome sandbox appeared recently, and now word has broken that a new Java exploit not only breaks out of the sandbox, but manages to install itself into system memory, where it can mess around with privileged processes. Worse, unlike the Chrome exploit, which was reported to Google and not in the wild, this new Java hack is being actively distributed on popular Russian news sites.

Since the entire point of a sandbox is to keep malicious code from getting access to system resources, it is truly disheartening to see how frequently sandboxes are being penetrated these days. If there's one piece of code that needs to be rock-solid, it's the bit that keeps the bad guys from doing bad things. That it fails so often in reality either indicates that developers aren't doing a good job, or that it's a really hard problem and it may be time to rethink sandboxing as a valid security approach.

Go is almost a Go

For those who have been eagerly awaiting Google's attempt to reinvent the wheel new programing language, Go, the wait is almost over, as RC1 has just hit the street. According to the developers, this is very close to what the final 1.0 release will look like. If you've been waiting for a stable version of Go to kick the tires, now is probably the time.

As with most new programming languages, I am maintaining a healthy degree of skepticism as to the long-term viability of Go. This is not because of any inherent faults of the language, but because of the institutional inertia that new languages have to fight to gain acceptance. Whether Google's influence will be enough to get Go ensconced in the pantheon of mainstream languages is yet to be seen.

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December 22 2011

Developer Year in Review: 2011 Edition

This year brought us triumphs and tragedies, new companies born and old ones burning out. Before DWiR takes a holiday hiatus, we're going to look back on the high points of the year that was.

Mobile gains ground

Smartphones

Lost in all the news about lawsuits, patents and speculation was the overarching theme for mobile this year: it has become the primary software platform for many users. The desktop may not be dead, but it's definitely showing its age, and as smartphones and tablets become ubiquitous, the amount of time the average consumer spends in front of a keyboard is declining rapidly.

The good news for software developers is that the maturing app store model has opened up software distribution to a much larger pool of potential software makers. The bad news is that it has also drastically reset the expectation of how much consumers are willing to spend for apps, although prices are climbing marginally. A $1 app can make you a lot of money if you can get millions of users to buy it, but it won't even get you a nice night on the town if you're writing for a niche market.

With RIM's Blackberry market share doing a good imitation of an Olympic high diver, and the new Windows mobile platform not yet gaining significant traction, 2011 was essentially a two-horse race, with Android passing iOS for the first time in new sales. Apple is crying all the way to the bank, though, as the profit margin on iOS devices is pushing Apple's bottom line to new highs and overall unit sales continue to climb steadily. At least for the moment, the smartphone market is not a zero-sum game.

This year also marked the release of Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) for Android and iOS 5 for the iPhone/iPad/iPod. ICS is the first version of Android that is making serious efforts to tame the tablet situation, but there have been widespread complaints that carriers are slow to pick it up, even in new models. Objective-C developers are finally getting to say goodbye to old friends like retain, release and autorelease, as Apple rolled out the automatic reference count compiler. Few tears were shed for their passing.


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The year of HTML5

In future years, 2011 will be remembered as the year Adobe put up the white flag and joined the HTML5 bandwagon, which started an industry death-watch for Flash. Microsoft also sent out signals that Silverlight was being put out to pasture and that it planned to embrace HTML5 as well.

The stampede to adopt HTML5 was prompted, in part, by the increasing robustness of the standard and the implementations of the standard in browsers. It also didn't hurt that it is the only Rich Internet Application platform that will run on the iPad.

Dru-who and Ha-what?

Two packages with funny names became the hot skills to have on your resume this year. Drupal continued to gain popularity as a content management platform, while Apache Hadoop was the must-have technology for data crunching. By the end of the year, developers with experience in either were in short supply and could basically write their own tickets.

Languages emerge, but few stick

It seems like every year, there's a new batch of languages that promise to be the next Big Thing. In past years, the crown has been worn by Scala, Erlang, Clojure and others. But when it comes time to start a project or hire developers, skills in new languages are rarely high on the list of priorities for companies.

This year, Google joined the fun, promoting both Go and Dart. Like most new languages, they face an uphill battle, even with Google's massive resources behind them. Few have what it takes to fight the institutional inertia of existing development decisions and to join winners such as Ruby in the pantheon of well-adopted emerging languages.

Some general thoughts to end the year

The computer industry, more than most others, can make you feel very old at a relatively young age. I've been hacking, in one form or another, for nearly 35 years, and the technology I used in my youth seems like it belongs in another universe.

The flip side of this is that I'm constantly amazed by what science and technology brings forth on a seemingly daily basis. Whether it's having a conversation with a device I can hold in the palm of my hand or watching the aurora light up the heavens, seen from above by occupants of the ISS, I often seem to be living in the future I read about as a kid.

As a species, we may be prone to pettiness, violence, willful ignorance and hatred, but once in a while, we manage to pull ourselves out of the muck and do something insanely great. Let's attempt to honor the vision of an admittedly imperfect man we lost this year and try to make 2012 insanely greater.

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September 15 2011

Developer Week in Review: Windows 8 Developer Preview goes public

As automobile engines get more complex, the software that runs them has a correspondingly greater chance of doing something bad. Case in point, in summer 2009 I got a check-engine light on my Civic (also known as the $400 light ...). When I brought it in, I was told my catalytic converter was shot, and I'd need a new one to the tune of $1,250. Fast forward two years, and I receive a letter in the mail informing me that there was a tiny lil' software glitch in the oxygen sensor routines, and I didn't really need a new catalytic converter after all. I can send in the bill, and and they'll refund me for the service.

Embedded software engineering is a particularly demanding discipline since it usually involves making complex things happen in tight spaces with little power under extreme environmental conditions. As my catalytic converter incident demonstrates, it also can be a very expensive one for a manufacturer if done incorrectly. Props to Honda for stepping up and making good on the snafu, however.

Of course, not all software runs in confined quarters. Take for example:

Get yer Windows here

Since the dawn of time, the only way to get early releases of Microsoft software (and especially operating systems) was to be a member of their somewhat pricey Microsoft Developers Network (MSDN). If you joined, of course, you got pretty much everything in the world shipped to you on DVDs, but the rest of us had to wait for the official release to get our paws on the products.

Not surprisingly, this has led to a lot of bootlegging of early releases, many of which had malware slipped in as an added bonus. Perhaps to head this off with Windows 8, Microsoft has taken the surprising step of making a publicly downloadable version of the first early release available. That's right, anyone is free to grab a copy and install it or stick it on a VM, and take it for a drive.

Making a public alpha available also serves to drum up excitement for the new release, something that Vista and Windows 7 lacked. So did I install it? Silly question, children, of course I did. I'd give it an initial grade of "meh." Microsoft gets points for radically changing things, including better full-screen app support (that looks surprisingly like Lion ...), and changing the Start menu to something more like Launchpad. But on the other hand, I found it pretty garish, and some things seem to have been changed just for the sake of change, like putting the address bar on the bottom of the browser.

You don't need to take my word for it. Grab a copy and see for yourself.

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Yet another emerging language ...

Somewhere, deep in the bowels of Google, a cabal of developers is trying to overthrow the world by promulgating so many new languages that we descend into madness. Remember Go?

Well, the latest in their mad scheme is Dart, which will be offered up next month as an intended replacement for JavaScript on browsers. Never mind that we've just started to get enough standardization of JavaScript that you can write meaningful AJAX code without having it be 90% conditional logic for the various browser dialects, now Google evidently wants to throw the whole thing out and start from scratch.

At some point, isn't it time to step back and ask someone to stop the madness? It seems like a new language springs up every week these days, and I have to ask what is so bad with the ones we have? You know, the ones that Portal 2, Photoshop, Eclipse and many other outstanding software products were written in? The continual fragmentation has got to stop. Unless, of course, Dart is really cool ...

Patent news that's not about a lawsuit

In a perfect world, a developer news summary should never have to deal with the patent system. In the one we're stuck with, though, patents have become the sledgehammer that software concerns use to beat each other around the head and neck with. The proliferation of bad patents has made software development a minefield, where any new product almost certainly infringes on some junk patent.

It is with great joy that I report that a new patent reform bill is about to be signed into law, and it will solve all of our — oh, never mind.

The legislation heading to President Obama's desk does pretty much diddly over squat to fix the broken United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The major change is a shift from "first to invent" (where companies get to dig through their engineering notebooks to prove that they came up with the idea first) to a "first to file" system, where the first person to get the patent through the door wins.

What's missing is a provision allowing the USPTO to keep the money it raises so it can pay for enough personnel to actually do the job properly. Instead, patent fees will continue to flow into the general fund, while overworked patent office examiners rubber stamp questionable claims and make life interesting for those of us who create code.

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