Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Who ever heard of Dennis Ritchie?

When I was in college, my bible was the thin C primer by Kernigan and Ritchie.  I just found out that Ritchie passed away a couple of days ago - with a lot less fanfare than Steve Jobs.  However, the C programming language, and the resulting UNIX operating system, have perhaps had as great an impact on everyday life as Steve Jobs.  So I want to delve a little into it, so we can all appreciate how incredible Dennis Ritchie's contributions have been.

First, let's look at C.  After A and B (yes, really), C represented a huge leap in capability of writing computer software.  The constructs were concise, yet powerful and flexible enough to represent anything.  Over the years, C has evolved - and morphed (some might say polymorphed).  (Yes, hold the groans.)

C represents the base language for C++, C#, Java, JavaScript, Perl, PHP...and the list goes on.  In case you were wondering, what products run these?  Just about everything.  Almost every smartphone, of course every computer manufactured since, what, 1990?  Many embedded devices (cable boxes, parking meters, stoplights, you name it).

The UNIX operating system was the first one developed in C.  It is also probably the most widely used computer operating system in the world - if you include Mac OS X and all Linux flavors under the UNIX umbrella.  You may not realize it, but handheld devices, even computer printers, and more often run some flavor of UNIX.  The list is literally endless.

As one of the inventors of C and UNIX, it is extremely difficult to overstate Dennis Ritchie's contributions to all things electronic at this day and age.

So I think, in retrospect, that 2011 will go down in history as the true end of a large part of the second era of electronic computers.  The first era, of course, is the vacuum tubes up until the electronic transistor and silicon chips - the second would represent the proliferation and "ubiquitization" of computing devices.  As I look around my room, what computing devices do I have?  iPhone, Macbook Pro, Comcast remote control, Motorola Comcast cable box, NEC TV, Sony iPhone dock clock radio, Panasonic VCR, and Toshiba DVD player, plus our Panasonic cordless phones.  That's just in the bedroom.  You would find that many such devices run an embedded UNIX, and even if not, that the software/firmware for the devices was written in a language with C roots.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The New iPhone 4S - Groundbreaking no matter what they say!

Although many people in the press are complaining that the new iPhone doesn't have a different shape, the truth is that this phone - again - totally changes the meaning of what a Cell Phone is.

First, about the kvetches.  Why did it take Apple longer than usual to come out with this phone?  Yes, it's true I am not an insider and not in the know, but with some knowledge of what it takes to bring a product to market, I can speculate.
  • New camera redesign - this is totally redesigned not only to perform, but to perform well.  It is fast - the time it takes to snap 2 photos is less than to take 1 with the next closest competitor phone (in speed), with amazing clarity and beauty of picture.  For example, what's the difference between my Canon EOS digital rebel with 6MB, that it can blow away pictures taken by a newer 10MB Panasonic camera?  Optics - it's all in the optics.
  • Complete redesign of the interior - this means a LOT of testing to meet quality standards.  It has to work, and work flawlessly, or they will catch a lot of flack.  All the internal changes, means they have to test it out thoroughly.
  • Siri.  In one word, this is revolutionary.  Think about it.  It is not just voice recognition ("command: Text Julie Come pick me up" ala Vlingo).  It is speech recognition - it understands when you say "do I need an umbrella today?" to check and see if it is raining.  Did you see the guy jogging, and saying to move the appointment to 12, no 2?  This is not the spoken command recognition we've had up until now, this is truly futuristic technology.
  • Think about the advantages of NOT changing the shape - all the accessories built for the iPhone 4 will work with the 4S.  Truly, what's wrong with keeping the shape?  One little thing, I would like a bigger screen, but then again - pretty soon it becomes an "iPad Mini".

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Terra Nova

I watched the pilot and second episode of the new show Terra Nova.  Have you seen it?  A bunch of people from the future - where the world is dying from environmental disasters - travel 85 million years back into Earth's past and set up a colony?  Cool idea - good characters, even a good plot, great special effects.  However, there is one huge thing that sticks in my throat, prevents me from swallowing the whole thing.

The story follows a family - a cop who was imprisoned for breaking the 2-child limit law, a doctor, and their 3 children as they break their dad out of prison and sneak him into the 10th pilgrimage through the discovered time rift into 85 million BCE.  There is an encampment all set up, housing built, and a good start - weapons, vehicles, self-generating power, etc.  Did I mention weapons?

So the part that bugs me is this.  Of course, they have to fight off the vicious dinosaurs that come looking to make humans their new repast.  In the 2 hour pilot, I think I counted at least 5,000 rounds of ammunition fired - often point-blank - into the dinosaurs.  A few times, the big one like Allosaurus did falter, but after firing a vast quantity of munitions, the score is Dinosaurs: 6, Humans: 0.  That's right.  0.  WTF?  I mean, either these people are the worst shot ever, or dinosaurs are impervious to bullets (unlike all other creatures big and small throughout the 200+ year history of firearms).  OK, cool, futuristic weapons.  The machine guns were pretty heavy-duty.  But you would think, if they are cut off from the mass manufacturing of ammunition, they would consider it precious and wouldn't waste it.  If the dinos are impervious, then why bother?  Dump them in a ditch!

(Some may wonder, why post about a Science Fiction show on a tech blog - well, it is techie...)