Thursday, December 13, 2007

Student's Review of B4 Revision of OLPC XO Laptop

Back in July I wrote about a 12 year old who reviewed the B2 revision of the One Laptop Per Child's XO Laptop, the so-called $100 laptop. The student appreciated the ruggedness and aesthetics of the design but lamented the system speed and battery life. "SG," the 12 year old, was fortunate to receive a model B4 unit for revision from the OLPC people after her or his first review and the student gave it a thorough workout and review.

The design between the B2 and B4 has been tweaked: the antennae are now rubberized and the handle is textured to help students keep a better grip. There are additional keys along the top row as well.

The student loved that it booted much, much faster than the previous model. Additionally, there are more "projects," or applications on this model. The system speed and battery life have been much improved, too.

The student gives a great summary of working with the projects and you should read them. The student concludes that the OLPC project has succeeded in creating a "perfect laptop."

It is great to read first-hand accounts of how students are using them. Hopefully similar narratives will soon emerge from the students using them in large-scale deployments.

The Death of Checkers

checker board.jpg
Originally uploaded by Camera Wences

The New York Time's Magazine's 7th Annual Year in Ideas includes an article on the Death of Checkers. Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer, a computer scientist at the University of Alberta, concluded an 18 year study in which he used computers to play to the endgame of this 400 year old board game.

Unfortunately, with 39 trillion possible endgames, all end in a draw. He used massive amounts of computing power in his quest; my favorite quote:

The data requirements were so high that for a while in the early ’90s, more than 80 percent of the Internet traffic in western North America was checkers data being shipped between two research institutions.

You can visit Dr. Schaeffer's site and test your wits against Chinook, the computer program he developed from his research. Just don't expect to win.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Graphic Representation of UNIX Processes with Hulk Hogan

A trove of documentation related to Apple's A/UX 3.0, codenamed Hulk Hogan, has been scanned and uploaded to the internets. Of particular interest to this nerd is the documentation for Finder 7.0 and its inclusion as a binary with A/UX 3.0. The Finder environment, taken from Apple's Macintosh operating system, was the means by which the A/UX and Macintosh user could interact with the files, folders, and storage devices on the computer. It was meant to be intuitive and easy to use, a real boon for a UNIX-based system like A/UX. In fact, this was the approach Apple would return to after acquiring NeXT and Steve Jobs and refining the Rhapsody OS into what became Mac OS X.

An optional feature in the no-longer-confidential Apple A/UX 3.0 Confidential Beta Release document is the UNIX Processes Icon, represented above. This cute little daemon would be installed on the Finder's Desktop environment and would function as a folder, or directory.

When the user opened the UNIX Processes directory he or she could see all the UNIX processes currently running in a graphic representation of the UNIX process state, be it running, idle, or sleeping. How cute! The developers also proposed that looking at the same window in list view could provide a dynamic ps listing.

Getting Info on a particular process would present a dialog box that allowed the user to adjust the process' scheduling priority:

Furthermore, a process could be killed by dragging its icon from the directory to the Finder's Trash Can, though it was still under debate among the developers whether it would be an outright "murdered with a sure kill" or a SIGTERM, which promised "less malice."

Mac OS X chooses to insulate the user from the UNIX underpinnings than did A/UX. The reason for this, I believe, is that way back when people purchased A/UX systems they did so because they liked the ease of the Macintosh Finder environment but needed a UNIX workstation for the type of academic or professional work they were doing with their machines. The A/UX user wanted to be reassured that they were using a UNIX machine, not just a Macintosh, so felt more familiar and comfortable with encountering the UNIX underpinnings that power the system. For ease of use Mac OS X hides the BSD cogs and wheels that power the system but does provide users access to all the directories from the Finder environment.

The graphic representation of UNIX processes was a fascinating User Interface consideration that the Apple A/UX team considered early in the development cycle. It did not make the final 3.0 release, but was an interesting diversion.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Jason Rohrer's "Passage" Video Game

Jason Rohrer released, as part of the Kokoromi Collective's gamma 256, a very interesting video game unlike any other I have played before, Passage. I am no gamer, but I do appreciate old consoles like the ColecoVision that I own, and I really appreciate arcane lo-res computer fun. As part of the gamma 256 challenge, programmers had to fit their creations into a playing field no larger than 256 pixels by 256 pixels. Mr. Rohrer reduced his viewable area even more, providing the player with a narrow "window" through which you can view the world in which you navigate.

Mr. Rohrer wrote a fascinating and insightful Creator's Statement that explains his choice to "limit" the large-scale view and the emotions behind the game, but he (and I) suggest you play the game before reading the Statement.

The image above is taken very early in the game. I have just met and fallen in love with a woman. Notice where my character is located in the frame.

I really enjoyed the lo-res art and sounds Mr. Rohrer created for his video game, and the Creator's Statement added a layer of complexity and reflection that I have never seen before in a videogame. Download it from his Sourceforge site and try it out for yourself.