Monday, 25 June 2012

Linux on the desktop and cheap hard drives

Why isn't Linux more popular on home desktops? A question many people are asking. But I'm not going to answer it yet. Instead, I'll ask: Why are hard drives not cheaper?

Go to Officeworks, or to Budget PC, or Dell, or anywhere, and find yourself the cheapest new computer you can get. How much does it cost? Probably about $300. How much was a cheap computer last year? What will a cheap computer cost next year? Probably about $300. Why?

Cut it down to one simple component: primary storage. A while ago, you could buy a decent new 500MB hard drive for about $75-$125, and that was quite a decent size. (Windows 98SE, for instance, wanted to enable "large disk support" because I was putting it on something >512MB.) A couple of years ago, a 20GB drive was a decent sized piece of storage, and it cost... about $75-$125. Today, I can pull up MSY's price list and see drives ranging from 500GB to 2TB, and the cheapest of them is a 500GB for $72. Same at Budget PC. (There will always be more expensive drives available if you want high speed, high capacity, SSD, etc. I'm looking at the bottom end.)

So why can't I buy a 100GB drive for less than $72? Why can I not build an entire low-end computer for a fraction of what they cost five years ago? Because it's just not practical to do that. It's far more efficient to keep the cost where it is and give you more for it.

When you use a computer, there are costs, too. Back in the earliest days of programmable computers, the user was the programmer was the technician. Then we got real UIs, then graphical systems with cool video effects that don't improve anything, and finally now we have a world in which Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe compete to make the most stunningly useless visual appearance. (How else can you explain Aero?) So much work has gone into user interface construction. Surely by now they ought to be so easy to use that any idiot can use them? Well, yes they are, but that's a separate problem. But no, computers haven't exclusively become easier to use; mainly they've become more powerful. You still need to grasp certain concepts, like the mouse (sometimes you have to grasp the mouse literally, too) and the notion of a button that you can click on.

This phenomenon is even more pronounced when you try to shift from Windows to Linux. On Windows, the predominant philosophy is that one application should do everything. You get a program for burning CDs, and you expect it to be able to make a burnt copy of a set of directories off your disk. It should do the whole job by itself; you configure it through a set of menus and hit a button and it goes. Very nice. What if you want to compress your 1GB of emails so you don't need to put them onto a DVD? (Or if you prefer, your 5GB of emails so you don't have to use blu-ray.) You poke around in the menus and hope that the author thought of that. Scheduled, automated backups? It might have that too. What if you want to retrieve stuff from another computer? Set up file sharing, with the security implications thereof. Want to take a stable snapshot of your database? Out of luck.

The Unix philosophy, in contrast, is that a program should do one thing and do it well. The one that burns CDs isn't responsible for making ISO images (though they're a definite pair and are generally installed together). Simple glue code in the form of shell scripts or pipes can marry that with compression (gzip, bzip2), network transfers (ssh/scp), database dump (mysqldump, pg_dumpall), anything else, and scheduling can be done with external tools (cron). Each piece does its own job and nothing else. You want better compression? Replace gzip with bzip2. No other component needs to know or care.

It takes work to get to know an application. That work does not change, whether you're on Windows, Linux, or some other platform altogether. There's an inherent complexity to the task, and unless you already know the program's interface, there's going to be some that you have to learn. This is a big cost of switching to Linux; partly because there's a whole lot of already-known interfaces that are now different, and partly because there's so many little tools to learn.

But for the same cost, you're given far far more. Instead of knowing how to make your burned CDs use compression, you now know how how to make _anything_ use compression. Instead of just knowing how to run your backup automatically, you can now run _anything_ automatically. Your investment in tool knowledge pays off in myriad ways, some of them quite unexpected.

You're never going to get that $10 hard drive, nor that instant-learn UI. But learn the philosophy of a new system and it'll reward you well.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Scientific research into Cadbury Roses

Last week, I bought a kilo box of Cadbury Roses from the newly-opened branch of Sweet As in Fountain Gate. It was not, as some might think, just because Roses are awesome; it was for important scientific research. (Honest!)

What ARE the proportions of the different types? With our 1000 metric gram sample, we employed a straightforward technique of heap-sorting and utilized Homo Sapiens aggregators to establish the distribution frequencies of the twelve subtypes of theobromide confection. (In other words, I and members of my family sorted the chocolates into piles and manually counted.)

Our data showed a nearly 2:1 difference between the extremes, with a mean of 7.9 and a standard deviation of 1.7. (In other words, I keyed some numbers into a calculator and got some meaningless results. But check out the appendix below for the real data.)

Clearly (meaninglessly), this evidence is in support of the original theorem (hopefully nobody will notice that I never posited any theorem), though further research is required for conclusive proof (please provide funding so I can do this some more).

Appendix I: Table of data.

* 6 Dairy Milk
* 6 Hazelnut Praline Crisp
* 6 Hazelnut Whirl
* 6 Orange Chocolate Delight
* 8 Classic Fudge
* 8 Chocolate Supreme
* 8 Caramello Deluxe
* 8 Turkish Delight
* 8 Cherry Heaven
* 10 Vanilla Butter Caramel
* 10 Peppermint Cream
* 11 Strawberry Cream

Total sample size: 87 items weighing 1000g collectively

Panny's Chocolate Factory

Public holidays are, to us, a time to schedule odd family events. Today we're celebrating the Queen's Birthday by visiting a chocolate factory. There's some kind of logic there, I'm sure, but it might be more suited to Alice Liddell than to anybody with intact sanity... anyway. We came today, that's what matters, to the Phillip Island Chocolate Factory.

First, the bad news. The shop prices are... less than compelling. If you want excellent chocolate at a reasonable price, there are many places that I would recommend ahead of Panny's. But for a day-trip themed around the world's most awesome food? Definitely. For a pretty reasonable $12/head, you can mooch around in their exhibits as long as you like - allocate at least an hour, multiple hours if you're a fan of chocolate. A tip: Arrive early. The place got busier toward the middle of the day. That might be different on a non-holiday, but allocate yourself enough time to wait for things if it's busy.

The displays are awesome fun. There's the usual collection of informative and infotainment elements, plus a variety of chocolate sculptures, chocolate-themed carnival games (done with foil-wrapped solid chocolate balls, and when you win, you keep the ball), and specifically chocolate-factory-aligned activities. For anyone who's played the Baumeister Confections trilogy of Chocolatier games, the third game will come very much to mind: Panny's have a design-your-own facility, where you pick from a couple dozen flavors, a dozen or so scents, and a reasonable number of textures, from which you could pick 2-4 of each, giving rather a lot of combinations. The computer describes your creation for you (unlike in Chocolatier), and if you give them your name and email address, they'll add yours to a monthly competition: one invention gets produced in real chocolates, and the creator gets a box free. Yep, that's the Chocolatier game IRL!

A'many years ago, when I was young, Mum used to take us on excursions that were awesomely fun and somewhat educational, with a feeling of being "right there" with the action. Shepparton Preserving Company (a cannery) used to let you walk across the factory on a mezzanine catwalk, with just a cap over your head to prevent loose hairs from falling. In later years, I learned that such tours have disappeared some ages since. Even those places which did do tours, thanks to new health and safety legislation, had a perspex mask on Nature's face, as Lady Sophy put it, preventing the unwashed masses from getting too close to the sterile environment of the production line. But of factories of fairy lore, one, at least, is in existence! Not quite inviting you to the production line, but there's real chocolate that you can, for instance, draw into a design (five seconds to draw, twenty seconds before the next person can draw) and chill and then eat, and the entire 'production' is right in front of you.

The staff are extremely competent and unflappable. Everything's well maintained and efficiently handled. When the carnival games "play up", which is quite rare, their techs sort them out. It's a pleasure to work around such competence!

There are times when, quite regardless of expense, you want to enjoy a day. Panny's Chocolate Factory is an excellent way to do that.

Kondanapanny Letchumanan, the Panny after whom the factory is named, provided some additional information which is pertinent to the early paragraphs.
Thank you for writing about the Chocolate Factory.
The Chocolates are expensive, because 1. They are real & pure chocolate( no preservatives, no gluten, no eggs, no palm-oil, no hidden numbers such as 492 or 476, no colour). 2. it contains 12 % more cocoa content and 7 % more cocoa butter. 3. they have 10% less sugar than any other chocolate in the market. 4. It is handmade, and it labour intensive.

If buy a chocolate bar, it last longer than any other chocolates. If you had bought one, please try and see for yourself.

Please do not [chew] the chocolate, just leave it in your mouth for 40 seconds, and it melt by itself, and your mouth will be full with chocolate, and after the second piece, you will not take another one for at least 1hour.

Try them and tell me that you have found something better.
There's no denying that quality costs, and hand-made chocolates (the whole production line is visible from the tour) are something special. And as I write, I'm tasting a block of cola wasabi chocolate, enjoying a square of it by the method she advises (which, I might mention, is the same method that other master chocolatiers espouse), and it is excellent. It's something to be eaten in small quantities and savoured as a luxury.