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December 09 2013

Ep. 324: Sun Grazers

Comets can spend billions of years out in the Oort Cloud, and then a few brief moments of terror orbiting the Sun. These are the sun grazers. Some survive their journey, and flare up to become the brightest comets in history. Others won’t survive their first, and only encounter with the Sun.

November 25 2013

Ep. 322: SOHO

As we’ve mentioned before, the Sun is a terrifying ball of plasma. It’s a good thing we’re keeping an eye on it. And that eye is the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO. Operating for more than 18 years now, SOHO has been making detailed observations of the Sun’s activity though an almost entire solar cycle. With so many years of operation, SOHO has some amazing stories to tell.?

Tags: Stars SOHO sun

November 19 2013

Ep. 321: Solar Flares

Sometimes the Sun is quiet, and other times the Sun gets downright unruly. During the peak of its 11-year cycle, the surface of the Sun is littered with darker sunspots. And its from these sunspots that the Sun generates massive solar flares, which can spew radiation and material in our direction. What causes these flares, and how worried should we be about them in our modern age of fragile technology?

Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

November 11 2013

Ep. 320: Layers of the Sun

Our Sun isn’t just a terrifying ball of white hot plasma, it’s actually a lot more complex. It’s got layers. And today, we’re going to peel back those layers and learn about the Sun – from the inside out.

May 04 2012

Developer Week in Review: Are APIs intellectual property?

Returning after a brief hiatus due to my annual spring head cold, welcome back to your weekly dose of all things programming. Last week, I was attending the Genomes, Environments and Traits conference (I'm a participant in the Personal Genome Project), when I got notified that WWDC registration had opened up. I ended up having to type in my credit card information on my iPhone while listening to the project organizers discuss what they were doing with the saliva I had sent them. The conference itself was very interesting (although I was coming down with the aforementioned cold, so I wasn't at the top of my game). The cost to sequence a genome is plummeting — it's approaching $1,000 a pop — and it has the potential to totally revolutionize how we think about health care.

It's also an interesting example of big data, but not how we normally think about it. An individual genome isn't all that big in the scheme of things (it's about 3GB uncompressed per genome), but there are huge computational challenges involved in relating individual variations in the genome to phenotype variations (in other words, figuring out what variations are responsible for traits or diseases).

While all the West Coast developers who slept through the WWDC registration period lick their wounds, here's the rest of the news.

APIs are copyrightable, unless they aren't?

These days, I feel like you need to consider a minor in law to go with your computer science degree. In the latest news from the front, we have conflicting opinions regarding the status of APIs. On the one hand, the judge in the Oracle versus Google lawsuit has instructed the jury they should assume that APIs are copyrightable. As the linked article discusses, this could have ominous implications for any third-party re-implementation of a programming language or other software that is not open source.

Over in Europe, however, a new ruling has stated that programming languages and computer functionality are not copyrightable. So, depending on which side of the ocean you live on, APIs are either open season, or off limits. No word yet as to the legal status of APIs on the Falkland Islands ...

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Code to make your head hurt.

For those of you who like to celebrate the perversities of life, it's hard to beat the International Obfuscated C Competition, which just released its 2011 winners. For your viewing pleasure, we have programs that compute pi, chart histograms, and even judging programs for obfuscation, all written in a manner that will have code reviewers running to the toilet with terminal bouts of nausea.

And speaking of C ...

We tend to focus a lot of attention on emerging languages, partially because many of them have novel features, and partially because the grass is always greener in a different language. It's instructive to step back sometimes and take a look at what people are actually using. The latest TIOBE Programming Community Index, which measures how much code there is out there in each of the various languages, has a new top dog, and it's our old friend C. In fact, when you factor in C#, C++ and Objective-C, C-related languages pretty much own the category. Java has now fallen to the second position, and you have to go all the way down to sixth place to find a scripting language, PHP.

Importantly, all the hot new languages, like Erlang and Scala, don't even make the top 20, and you only need half-a-percentage point to get in that list. As much as we like the new darlings on the block, the old veterans still are where most of the action (and money) is.

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Reposted bynunatak nunatak

October 21 2011

Developer Week in Review: Talking to your phone

I've spent the last week or so getting up to speed on the ins and outs of Vex Robotics tournaments since I foolishly volunteered to be competition coordinator for an event this Saturday. I've also been helping out my son's team, offering design advice where I could. Vex is similar to Dean Kamen's FIRST Robotics program, but the robots are much less expensive to build. That means many more people can field robots from a given school and more people can be hands-on in the build. If you happen to be in southern New Hampshire this Saturday, drop by Pinkerton Academy and watch two dozen robots duke it out.

In non-robotic news ...

Why Siri matters

SiriIt's easy to dismiss Siri, Apple's new voice-driven "assistant" for the iPhone 4S, as just another refinement of the chatbot model that's been entertaining people since the days of ELIZA. No one would claim that Siri could pass the Turing test, for example. But, at least in my opinion, Siri is important for several reasons.

On a pragmatic level, Siri makes a lot of common smartphone tasks much easier. For example, I rarely used reminders on the iPhone and preferred to use a real keyboard when I had to create appointments. But Siri makes adding a reminder or appointment so easy that I have made it pretty much my exclusive method of entering them. It also is going to be a big win for drivers trying to use smartphones in their cars, especially in states that require hands-free operations.

I suspect Siri will also end up being a classic example of crowdsourcing. If I were Apple, I would be capturing every "miss" that Siri couldn't handle and looking for common threads. Since Siri is essentially doing natural language processing and applying rules to your requests, Apple can improve Siri progressively by adding the low-hanging fruit. For example, at the moment, Siri balks at a question like, "How are the Patriots doing?" I'd be shocked if it fails to answer that question in a year since sports scores and standings will be at the heart of commonly asked questions.

For developers, the benefits of Siri are obvious. While it's a closed box right now, if Apple follows its standard model, we should expect to see API and SDK support for it in future releases of iOS. At the moment, apps that want voice control (and they are few and far between) have to implement it themselves. Once apps can register with Siri, any app will be able to use voice.

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Can Open Office survive? logoLong-time WIR readers will know that I'm no fan of how Oracle has treated its acquisitions from Sun. A prime example is OpenOffice. In June, OpenOffice was spun off from Oracle, and therefore lost its allowance. Now the OpenOffice team is passing around the hat, looking for funds to keep the project going.

We need to support Open Office because it's the only project that really keeps Microsoft honest as far as providing open standards access to Microsoft Office products. It's also the only way that Linux users can deal with the near-ubiquitous use of Office document formats in the real world (short of running Office in a VM or with Wine.)

The revenge of SQL

The NoSQL crowd has always had Google App Engine as an ally since the only database available to App Engine apps has been the App Engine Datastore, which (among other things) doesn't support joins. But much as Apple initially rejected multitasking on the iPhone (until it decided to embrace it), Google appears to have thrown in the towel as far as SQL goes.

It's always dangerous to hold an absolutist position (with obvious exceptions, such as despising Jar Jar Binks). SQL may have been overused in the past, but it's foolish to reject SQL altogether. It can be far too useful at times. SQL can be especially handy, as an example, when developing pure REST-like web services. It's nice to see that Google has taken a step back from the edge. Or, to put it more pragmatically, that it listens to its customer base on occasion.

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September 29 2011

Developer Week in Review: Android proves fruitful for Microsoft

The ball has finally dropped at Apple, and we know that October 4 is the big day that iOS 5 and some undisclosed subset of iPhone devices will be unveiled. Oddly, developers still haven't received the Gold Master of iOS 5, which means that Apple is cutting things close if it wants to give people time to update apps in the store, not to mention those of us who have to revise books once the NDA lifts on iOS 5.

So, while we wait for Godot Tim Cook, let's see what other mischief is afoot.

Royalties for Redmond

As we've reported previously, one of the big winners in the growth of Android has been Microsoft, as phone manufactures have been lining up to pay royalties to Redmond to avoid patent lawsuits. Samsung joined the fray this week, agreeing to pony up a reported $5 per phone to stay out of court.

In light of this, Google's purchase of Motorola Mobility is looking less and less wise. The widely held view was that the sale was intended to shield Android-based phones behind Motorola's rich patent portfolio, but every major player is caving into Microsoft anyway.

Between the squeeze play on Android and the long-standing siphoning of Linux revenues from companies such as Novell, Microsoft seems to be following a business plan reminiscent of a certain Monty Python sketch.

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders.

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SPARC? Oh yeah, I remember that ...

SPARC T4Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, the absolutely hottest thing you could have on your desk was a Sun-4. The SPARC-based systems were leaps and bounds ahead of anything else in their price range, except perhaps for some esoteric hardware from Silicon Graphics (remember them?)

Time has not been kind to the SPARC, alas. Sun's hardware market share shrank as people discovered that Linux on cheap hardware could give a better bang for the buck, and the entire venture was eventually swallowed by Oracle. The conventional wisdom was that Oracle bought Sun largely for its hardware line, and there was some confirmation of that this week. While much of the rest of Sun's holdings have been left to languish or spun off entirely, Larry's gang has evidently been busy with hardware. The SPARC T4 is the result.

The problem is, while the T4 brings some modern features like out-of-order execution to the SPARC line, these are things that other processor families have had for a decade or more. While it may staunch the flow of former SPARC customers defecting to x86 systems, it's unlikely to gain many new converts. And as any Harvard MBA can tell you, a business model based on not losing existing customers is not a formula for success in the long term.

Might want to rethink those voting machines (and the people who use them)

We've been hearing for years that direct recording electronic voting machines are potentially hackable. With a powder-keg election forthcoming, it was therefore not reassuring news this week that researchers at Argonne National Laboratory were able to totally subvert the voting counts on Diebold voting machines, simply by installing a $10 circuit between a ribbon cable and the connector. Since Diebold machines are not tamper resistant, this means that pretty much anyone with the technical savvy to create the device could hijack the polls.

I see this as part of a larger problem in the computer industry — an almost blind belief that technology can solve social problems in isolation. People seem to think that making government data transparent or turning to social networking can solve society's ills. In reality, the things that need to be re-engineered are the people. The best software in the world won't make people give up irrational belief systems, or stop hating others (be they red state or blue) because they're different. And as long as hate, intolerance and ignorance run wild, technology will be as likely to be used as a weapon as a solution.

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July 28 2011

Developer Week in Review: Linux turns the big 3.0

I have been informed by the contractors, currently starting in on bathroom renovation No. 3 at our house, that my official designation is "Houston." This is because, pretty much every day, they call me at work and say "We have a problem." If you think patching bugs in legacy code written by someone who has left your company is bad, try getting work done on a 215-year-old house.

While the rest of the O'Reilly family is out cavorting in the wilds of Portland at OSCON, a few of us must tend the fires back East, and keep the rest of the world informed on what's going on. Such as ...

The new Linux is out, the new Linux is out!

LinuxIt used to be, when COBOL developers roamed the Earth, that a new release of the Linux kernel was a cause for much excitement, especially something as momentous as a new major version. Can anyone every remember when Linux 1.x became Linux 2.0? Here's a hint, it was 15 years ago.

But times have changed. Very few people install a Linux kernel directly anymore. Most get them through the distribution they have chosen. And for people who have embedded versions of Linux, they may not have the slightest idea what version of the kernel they're running. Ask a random sampling of HTC Android users what kernel is installed, and you'll probably get a blank stare (here's a cheat sheet, if you're interested.)

Adding to the ho-hum nature of the 3.0 release is that fact that there's really nothing special in it, by Linus' own admission. He just figured it was time to stop endlessly adding to the 2.0 version tree, and get a clean start on the 3's. With the 20th anniversary of the famous Linux Letter coming up in late August, now is probably as a good a time as ever to put the terrible twos to bed for good.

Here's a fun question to ponder, though: How many build scripts that assume "2.6.X" or "2.X.X" as a Linux version number are about to break?

Hoist with their own petard

It behooves people to remember, in this day and age, that the things they say and write may come back to haunt them. Thus, when trying to make the case that the Android operating system is an unholy misuse of Java, it would have been good for Oracle to remember that there was a letter floating around from 2007 in which Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz offers Google a warm greeting, and pledged to work aggressively to cooperate with Google on Android.

There's a certain sweet symmetry in Oracle's battle against the search engine giant being potentially derailed by material from deep in the web's archives. It was legal eagles at Groklaw who uncovered the letter, but I'm sure there was much Googling involved in finding it.

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You have to admire Lodsys' ambition

Not content with suing the smaller fry of the iOS and Android ecosystem, patent "leveragers" (I'd use a less kind word there, but my editor would just change it ...) Lodsys has taken their patent fight to some truly big fish. In new legal action, Rovio (the makers of "Angry Birds"), EA, Take Two Interactive ("Grand Theft Auto") and Atari have found themselves in the defendant box.

The continuing suits, which revolve around in-app purchases, could prove an interesting line in the sand. Apple has licensed rather than litigated in the past, but the signs so far are that Apple (which already paid Lodsys once for the use of the patents) has decided that enough is enough. By dragging big players such as EA into the fray, Lodsys may be making the same mistake that SCO did when they dragged IBM and other large corporations into their Linux litigation. Big companies have large legal teams, and at some point, Lodsys may find themselves worse off than if they had just taken their money and run.

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January 20 2011

Four short links: 20 January 2011

  1. Ajax Code Editor -- MPL/GPL/LGPL-licensed Javascript code editor that can be embedded into web sites. This used to be Mozilla Skywriter which used to be Mozilla Bespin. (via Mozilla Labs blog)
  2. Sun A Year After: The Open Source Projects -- roundup of what happened to Sun's open source projects after the Oracle acquisition. It's like the plague struck: some are dead, some are dying, some are fearful, others plough on resolutely.
  3. libcpu -- open source library for emulating CPUs, built on llvm. (via a Stackoverflow answer on emulators)
  4. MIT Open Courseware Supports Independent Learners -- they've taken some popular classes and made sure the material stands alone, by writing new material to replace references to closed/offline/etc. textbooks. OCW Scholar is not a distance-learning program, but rather educational materials provided for free without the support of an instructor or teaching assistant. The trade-off for this content-based approach without interaction is that OCW Scholar can be used by a very large audience for only the cost of digital distribution. How long until cheap teaching universities spring up, offering the MIT courseware with on-site TAs?

November 03 2010

Developer Week in Review

Here's your weekly helping of developer info:

The sudden but inevitable Apple news

Several pieces of news on the Apple front this week. First up: the Gold Master seed (which either sounds like something you plant to get nice apples, or something out of a bad SF eugenics novel) for iOS 4.2 dropped, signaling the green light for iPad/iPhone/iPod developers to submit 4.2-ready applications to the App Store. Traditionally, the pre-release to developers is followed about a week later by the general release, and is identical.

Meanwhile, continuing to muddy the waters about what is and isn't allowed on the iPhone, Adobe gave a sneak peak of a tool that converts Flash movies into standard HTML5 movies, thus making them viewable on iOS devices (and HTML5 browsers without Flash installed.)

And evidently the iPhone will be coming to Verizon in 2011. I'm sure you've already heard about it, I just didn't want to be the last journalist on the planet to report it. Is there such a thing as a secret at Apple anymore? At this point, if Apple had been in charge of the D-Day invasion, the Germans would have been waiting on the beach with gift baskets.

Motivations behind Oracle's Sun acquisition get clearer

So far this year, Oracle has sued Google over Java on the Android and pretty much killed off OpenSolaris. So what's next for Larry & Co.?

The answer came when 33 contributors from the OpenOffice project jumped ship for LibreOffice. Evidently, Oracle appeared to have little interest in putting much effort into OpenOffice. Decoding the corporate-speak from Oracle's PR department, the reaction to the defections so far might best be summed up as "Don't let the door hit your butt on the way out."

As former Sun projects acquired by Oracle drop like flies, it becomes possible to deduce what Oracle really bought Sun for simply by listing what's left: mainly MySQL and Sun's hardware business. Bets, anyone?

Is IE slowly heading toward minority status?

No one browser can take the credit, but Microsoft's Internet Explorer continues to slowly lose traffic share to Firefox, Chrome, and the other hungry young punks nipping at its heals. Now down to 59.25 percent of total browser usage, IE is a far cry from the heady days of 90-plus percent dominance. For all you AJAX and HTML5 developers out there, it should serve as a signal that the days of "This website requires Internet Explorer" need to be laid to rest for good, unless you like alienating 40 percent of your potential user base.

Another week, another platform

So, you say that developing for OS X, Windows, Linux, iOS, J2ME, HTML5 and Android isn't enough diversity to keep your mind occupied. Now you can add Chrome OS to that list. Vendors will soon release an onslaught of Chrome-powered netbooks, smartbooks and notebooks. Conventional wisdom is that the world doesn't need another notebook operating system, but conventional wisdom said the same thing about Android, and now everybody laughs at him at the water cooler at work. In other words, ignore Google at your peril.

That's it for this week. Suggestions are always welcome, so please send tips or news here.

April 08 2010

Brian Aker on post-Oracle MySQL

Brian Aker parted ways with the mainstream MySQL release, and with Sun Microsystems, when Sun was acquired by Oracle. These days, Aker is working on Drizzle, one of several MySQL offshoot projects. In time for next week's MySQL Conference & Expo, Aker discussed a number of topics with us, including Oracle's motivations for buying Sun and the rise of NoSQL.

The key to the Sun acquisition? Hardware:

MySQL Conference and ExpoBrian Aker: I have my opinions, and they're based on what I see happening in the market. IBM has been moving their P Series systems into datacenter after datacenter, replacing Sun-based hardware. I believe that Oracle saw this and asked themselves "What is the next thing that IBM is going to do?" That's easy. IBM is going to start pushing DB2 and the rest of their software stack into those environments. Now whether or not they'll be successful, I don't know. I suspect once Oracle reflected on their own need for hardware to scale up on, they saw a need to dive into the hardware business. I'm betting that they looked at Apple's margins on hardware, and saw potential in doing the same with Sun's hardware business. I'm sure everything else Sun owned looked nice and scrumptious, but Oracle bought Sun for the hardware.

The relationship between Oracle and the MySQL Community:

BA: I think Oracle is still figuring things out as far as what they've acquired and who they've got. All of the interfacing I've done with them so far has been pretty friendly. In the world of Drizzle, we still make use of the Innodb plugin, though we are transitioning to the embedded version. Everything there has gone just along swimmingly well. In the MySQL ecosystem you have MariaDB and the other distributions. They're doing the same things that Ubuntu did for Debian, which is that they're taking something that's there and creating a different sort of product around it. Essentially though, it's still exactly the same product. I think some patches are flowing from MariaDB back into MySQL, or at least I've seen some notice of that. So for the moment it looks like everything's as friendly as it is going to be.

Is NoSQL a fad or the next big thing?

BA: There are the folks who say "just go use gdbm or Berkeley DB." What they don't fundamentally understand is that when you get into a certain data size, you're just going to be dealing with multiple computers. You can't scale up infinitely. Those answers come from an immaturity of understanding that when you get to a certain data size, everything's not going to fit on a single computer. When everything doesn't fit onto a computer, you have to be able to migrate data to multiple nodes. You need some sort of scaling solution there.

With Cassandra, and similar solutions, the only issues that come up is when they don't fit the data's usage pattern. Like for instance with data analytics. There is also still the "I need these predicates across a relational entity." That's the part where the value key systems obviously fail. They have no knowledge of a relationship between two given items. So what happens then? Well, you can end up doing MapReduce. That's great if you've got an awful lot of computers and you don't really care about when the answer is going to be found. MapReduce works as a solution when your queries are operating over a lot of data; Google sizes of data. Few companies have Google-sized datasets though. The average sites you see, they're 10-20 gigs of data. Moving to a MapReduce solution for 20 gigs of data, or even for a terabyte or two of data, makes no sense. Using MapReduce with NoSQL solutions for small sites? This happens because people don't understand how to pick the right tools.

MySQL and location data:

BA: SQL goes very well with temporal data. SQL does very well with range data. I would say that SQL works very poorly today with location-based data. Is it the best thing out there, though? Probably. I'm still waiting for someone to really spend some time thinking about the location data problem, and come up with a true location store. I don't believe that SQL databases are the solution for tomorrow's location-based data. Location services are going to require something a lot better then what we have today. Because all we have today is a set of cobbled together hacks.

MySQL's future:

BA: There hasn't been a roadmap for MySQL for some time. Even before Sun acquired MySQL, it was languishing, and Sun's handling of MySQL just further eroded the canonical MySQL tree. I'm waiting to see what Oracle announces at the MySQL Conference. I expect Oracle to scrap the current 5.5 plan and come up with a viable roadmap. It won't be very innovative, but I am betting it will be a stable plan that users can look at.

I see a lot of excitement about multiple versions of MySQL. I'm hoping to see this push innovation as the different distributions differentiate themselves. I believe that the different MySQL distributions will all become forks eventually.

In the Drizzle world, the excitement is in the different sorts of plugins that have been written, and the opportunity for more. There has been a bunch of work around the replication system, and how it integrates with other systems. We have plugins now that allow Drizzle to replicate into things like RapidMQ, Cassandra, Gearman, Voldemort, Memcached and other database systems. Having a replication system that was designed from day one to be pluggable is a game changer for some enterprises. Drizzle's future? Everything is open source, and we will see where the community wants to take it.

I would like to see more focus on data bus architectures, i.e. geographical replication. In the past, replication was a lot about how to scale out. That's dead and gone. Anybody who's doing scale-out with replication is creating a future headache for themselves. What I'd like to actually see is more attention to how we pass data between datacenters. I would also like to see more work done on shared-nothing storage systems. There's been a few attempts at that with MySQL, but thus far, the attempts have been failures. The reasons for this? Poor code quality and difficulty of use. I believe we'll see new shared-nothing solutions coming out that will work better then anything that's been written so far.

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