Monday, June 25, 2012

Minority Report: 15 Harmful Years Later

Wired took a look at the impact of the movie version of Minority Report, fifteen years later.

The year was 1999, and Steven Spielberg was preparing to turn Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Minority Report” into a $100 million action movie starring Tom Cruise. There was just one problem: The story was set in the undated future, and the director had no idea what that future should look like. He wanted the world of the movie to be different from our own, but he also wanted to avoid the exaggerated and often dystopian speculation that plagued most science fiction

...To mark the 10th anniversary of Minority Report‘s June 21 release, Wired spoke to more than a dozen people who were at the so-called “idea summit” that delved deep into the future. As participant Joel Garreau recalls, “I don’t think many of us knew what the fuck we were getting ourselves into.”

The tech from Minority Report that people remember most -- the scenes of Tom Cruise waving his hands to navigate a computer interface -- are probably some of the most harmful ever filmed.

Like voice control and television wristwatches, controlling our devices with three-dimensional physical gestures seems like a good idea. However, like those other technologies, its usefulness is limited.

While the image of Tom Cruise waving his arms all over the place like an amphetamine-boosted symphony conductor makes for dramatic cinema, it turns casual computing tasks into physical tasks exhausting for a healthy person and impossible for a disabled person.

The lowly computer mouse and its cousin, the trackpad, are marvels of efficiency. By moving one hand (or finger) a couple of inches, one can navigate thousands of pixels' worth of computer interface.

The precision of mice and trackpads is unparalleled as well. Mice and trackpads are precise to within several pixels. When considering touch interfaces, accuracy drops by an order of magnitude: Apple recommends that touch-based interface targets measure no less than 44x44 pixels. When considering three-dimensional, gesture-based, Minority Report-style interfaces, accuracy drops by another order of magnitude.1

Three dimensional gesture-based navigation clearly does have its uses. Microsoft's Kinect has shown that it can be very useful for specially-designed games, and low-precision tasks like simple media playback control.

Three-dimensional gestures are clearly a part of the future, but they are not the future. A variety of input methods (the command line, mice, keyboards, touch interfaces, gesture interfaces) will continue to be used, each fulfilling a role.

1 Speculation. I couldn't find hard data on this. It's tough to dispute, though.

Friday, June 15, 2012

This Developer's Life: Dinosaurs and Fortran

I've always had a weird semi-fascination with Fortran.

I don't even know what Fortran looks like, actually.

For years, I lumped it in with ancient languages like Cobol that are gone and not missed in the slightest. While there's always at least one weird guy living in a cave somewhere to prove you wrong, I don't think anybody misses Cobol.

Fortran, though, is apparently a different beast. It's not a general-purpose programming language, exactly. It's more like a thing that hardcore science and math dudes use to crunch numbers.

Apparently, Fortran has two interesting properties.

  1. Battle-Tested, Bulletproof Libraries. The kind of "bulletproof" you only get after a couple of decades of hardcore, NASA-launches-spaceships-with-this-shit, the-stock-market-runs-on-this-shit use.
  2. Disgustingly Parallel. Apparently it scales to about as many processors as you can throw at it, with no real extra work required. Hundreds, thousands. The kind of warehouse-filling computers that predict weather or whatever.

This episode of This Developer's Life features several segments, including one with a fresh-out-of-college kid found himself in a job learning Fortran. After laughing at it and attempting to convert their codebase to C#, he became a Fortran convert.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Doing It...

A Hacker News comment:

"I run Windows on my MBA for when I'm travelling. Apple make fantastic hardware; but their saccharine UIs make me retch.

One constant, though: over the past 10 years, I've moved my life further and further into the Cygwin command line, so that I'm insulated from the frippery going on at the edges; with my setup, I'm approximately as at home on Linux, Solaris, Mac and Windows. I'm not optimistic based on what I've seen of Windows 8's direction."

Hey, look. I do a lot of Windows development work on my Mac in a Windows VM too. And some of the recent OSX UI stuff is regrettable.

But running a VM in OSX (a real BSD Unix) so that you can run Cygwin (a sorta-Unix sorta-emulation layer) in a virtual machine?

Doing it wrong.