Saturday, December 13, 2008

Happy 40th, Computer Mouse

This week the iconic computer mouse turned 40. On December 9, 1996, the first prototype was unveiled. This ancestor of the modern mouse had only one button on top of a notably non-ergonomically shaped, yet still not bad looking, wood case. Motion of the mouse was detected by two rolling wheels on the bottom set at right angles to each other. Since that early design idea, the mouse has developed additional buttons, a rolling track ball in place of the two wheels, a scrolling wheel (on some models) and the option of a cable-free mouse.

Clearly the mouse’s emergence has empowered the emergence of graphical user interfaces, like Windows, and productivity software that can offer functionality far beyond that of the DOS era. Indeed, one can only speculate about whether the personal computer would have developed its immense popularity had the mouse not become a standard part of all systems. For that matter, had the mouse not have been invented by a British group of outside the box thinkers in the 1960's, then Microsoft might have found it necessary to invent one themselves. Given their track record with Windows, I shudder at that idea. Let’s see, had that happened, would we have progressed through MS Mouse 3.1, MS Mouse 95, MS Mouse 98, etc up through MS Mouse Vista? Ugh.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and, as a thought experiment, envision a world in which the keyboard is the only means of interfacing with a computer. In this world, all commands would be entered only through keyboard shortcut keystroke combinations. In this world, could monitor color choices have progressed beyond 16 colors, given that each available color would need its own keystroke combination?

I will admit I qualify as a technology old timer, if not outright dinosaur, despite only being in my early to mid 50's. When I started my college career as a chemistry major, the highest tech calculating device I used was a pocket slide rule. A year later, when I took a FORTRAN IV programming class, a keypunch was used to record program instructions and test data on 80 column Hollerith punch cards. These, in turn, were entered into the school’s NCR Century 50 small mainframe computer (which filled most of a small room) with a main memory (the term RAM didn’t exist in those days) of 16k of hard-wired ferrite core memory. The impact printer sat on the floor, and generated black capital letters, numbers and a few standard typographical symbols a line at a time on the very wide, green and white striped paper commonly seen in those days. Color printing with multiple fonts and special symbols? Only in science fiction. The university I attended later on used an IBM 370 mainframe, and its 8 platter, 12" wide removable disks held (at that time) an impressive 600 megabytes.

Contrast that with today: instead of discussing main memory in terms of thousands of bytes of true physical memory, now memory is contained in sets of small chips capable of holding billions of bytes of information. Just a few years ago, the debate about the ideal amount of RAM centered on 256 MB vs 512 MB. Now, with the release of Windows Vista the debate over how much RAM is needed has shifted to “which works better: 3 gigabytes or 4?” (Or is that question actually: What is the largest amount of RAM that Vista can still crash?”)

In the late 1990's, typical hard drive capacities topped out in the hundreds of megabytes, and a one gigabyte drive was still in development. Now, hard drive capacities in the hundreds of gigabytes are commonplace and a one trillion byte capacity hard drive is on the market. When the emergent solid state memory technology achieves commercial viability, over time, even one terabyte mechanical hard drives will become obsolete, replaced by solid state drives (SSDs) that will offer storage capacities far beyond mechanical hard drive technology capabilities. By being moving part free, this emergent technology will also be able to provide significantly faster response times. This, in turn, will either challenge engineers to significantly increase front side bus speeds, or develop an entirely new internal data transfer technology capable of keeping up with the SSDs.
My mind feels boggled at times whenever I pause to reflect on the extent to which computer technology has developed and grown since I studied FORTRAN IV. That first computer I successfully programmed lacked the ability to print in color, did not have a monitor, used disk packs the size of a large pizza, and filled a small room. This blog is being revised and finished on a Sony Vaio laptop with a back lit TFT color monitor. Instead of having to go to the computer, I am parked in my easy chair, with this computer parked on my abdomen.

So the question remains: how much of this computer technological growth would have happened in the absence of the mouse?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Nativity Scenes on Public Property: Conflict Begins Anew in Olympia, Washington

This is December, which means it is time for rampant consumerism (normally), office parties, Christmas seasonal music old & new, and Christian Nativity scenes on public property. Every year, somewhere in the United States these public nativity scenes evoke challenges and protests of one kind or another. This year is going to be no exception.

This past week a Nativity scene has been set up in Washington State’s Legislative Building in Olympia. Early Friday morning the Freedom From Religion Foundation posted a rather heavy metal sign near the display. Its top sentence, to me, makes a lot of sense: “At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE [caps are in the original] may reason prevail.” In the spirit of fairness, where Christian displays are allowed, other faiths, other viewpoints possess an equal right of access to space for equally tasteful displays.

Still, groups such as the Christian Coalition ceaselessly fight against this access fairness by arguing that such displays, no matter how tasteful, attack religion. Even though the Olympia sign concludes by describing religion as “myth and superstition that hardens the heart and enslaves the mind”, in my opinion, it does not attack religion. Rather, it expresses an opinion, a viewpoint. Under the US Constitution’s First Amendment, public expression of this type of opinion is, or at least should be, Constitutionally protected speech.

What the Christian Coalition and similar groups fail to recognize is that, by maintaining what strikes me as an exclusionary expressive right of public sphere access, they are increasingly proving observations such as the one that concludes the Olympia sign right. The near universal blindness of the more radical Fundamentalist groups never ceases to amaze me. What concerns me is the increasing extent to which many of these groups are diverging from the teachings of the Judao-Christian Scriptures in general, and the Christian New Testament in particular.

I grew up in a strict Christian faith so from childhood on I read the King James version of The Bible on my own. Thus, through the years, I have read, and thought about, the entire text of both Testaments several times. The positions on a number of positions they maintain do not mesh with my readings of Scripture.

On this Olympia flap, I find it amused that one or more local Christians became so incensed over the Freedom From Religion sign that they felt justified in breaking one of the Ten Commandments (Thou Shalt Not Steal). The sign installation was completed by 6:30 am; an hour later it disappeared. A few hours later someone spotted it in a ditch outside town, and dropped it off at a local radio station.

This situation in Olympia strikes me as an extension of the disputes over displays of the Ten Commandments in public places. generally such displays are challenged on the grounds that they promote Christianity to the exclusion of all other faiths and beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, the Ten Commandments descended to Christianity from Judaism, thus they predate the birth of Christianity. For another thing, similar expressions are found in many, if not all, wisdom traditions both east and west. I don’t have access to a Qu’ran, however I suspect that a similar set of commandments appears there as well. Similar guidelines for how to live also appear in Buddhism, the Tao, and probably Hinduism as well. Thus the Ten Commandments need to be seen as universal in nature, which means they promote no specific religion.

Personally I don’t have a problem with tastefully designed displays of the Ten Commandments and Nativity scenes on public property as long as the displays minimize the name of the sponsoring Church (or Churches). Equally, as long as such displays are set up so that viewing is voluntary by all passers by, then I fail to see how they differ from monuments honoring veterans or pioneers mounted on public property.

Perhaps, too, these disagreements during the holiday season underscore the extent to which Christmas has digressed from what it technically is about: the virgin birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Is it time for US society to reevaluate the meaning of the entire holiday season?

Monday, December 1, 2008

NaNoWriMo Update: I Did It!

The subtitle of this post says it all: in less than thirty days I wrote slightly more than 50,000 words toward my first novel. This is a notable accomplishment, given that I reached that level in 23 days of actual writing. Now that I have ascended to the top of Mount NaNoWriMo, my mind feels lost since I no longer have the deadline driving me forward. Even so, this accomplishment feels really, really nice.

Now comes the challenging intellectual weight lifting: editing and polishing this initial draft into a publishable manuscript before the end of next August so I can have a clear desk come September 1st when I will launch a personal challenge: write at least 50,000 nonfiction words on Transgender Civil Rights within the month of September. That will give my mind one month to sketch out what fiction manuscript (or manuscripts) I will tackle when NaNoWriMo 2009 kicks off next November.

So, some in the reading audience may be rightfully wondering, how hard can it be to edit and polish a work of fiction?

The answer: with this project’s challenging goals yet to be addressed, very. I visualize this novel’s overall structure as a woven tapestry made from warp and woof fibers that meet at right angles throughout the cloth. The novel’s background is a fictionalized transsexual autobiography, with flashbacks to earlier generations as appropriate, that forms the warp fibers. The woof fibers will be composed of insights and information from transgender studies research already completed and additional research as needed to fill in the holes. Where appropriate, the autobiographical elements will illustrate the research supported points contained in the woof threads, thereby adhering to the “show, don’t tell” rule of thumb that, when properly applied, produces readable, gripping fiction that is a joy to read.

Now that I have joined the winner’s circle in my initial NaNoWriMo challenge, what new personal challenges exist for next year? It’s true, I could once again shoot for the 50,000 word goal, or, now that I have shown that I can do it, I can up the degree of expectation I place upon my fingers. There are some writers this year who go well beyond the general 50,000 word mark, and a thread on the NaNoWriMo Shoutouts forum provides a place for word counts above 80,000 words to compare notes and encourage each other. Joining that determined group is my target next year.

I’ll admit that the idea of spinning out that many words in one month on one (or two) manuscripts sounds impossible, yet I can see that it is easily attainable. Consider: an average pace of 2,000 words per day produces 60,000 words in one month. This year I found that writing 3,500 words in an evening is an easy pace. Sustained over 30 days, that pace yields 105,000 words. Thus, by limbering up my creative juices next fall, 75,000 to 80,000 words or more will be easily attainable.