Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Heroes Happen Here- Microsoft Launch Event

Today I attended the Microsoft “Heroes Happen Here” Launch event for Server 2008, Visual Studio 2008, and SQL Server 2008. In general, it’s what I expected- the usual hour-long continental buffet breakfast, with a partner pavilion. So you grab a glass of juice or coffee, a few baguettes, and circulate the partner pavilion, which you can see here. It literally looks like it’s an aircraft hanger- it’s huge.

Circulating around the partner pavilion is always fun. You generally have a couple of major partners with big booths (In this case, it was Technet, Xbox Arcade, and the Microsoft User Group) and then a handful of smaller booths; Dell is a classic, followed by CDW, MDG, CGI, and so on and so on. And of course, you circulate the booths, they scan your badge so as to send you stuff and that automatically enters you in a draw. I entered for a 250GB external HDD, a Nintendo Wii, two or three Xbox360s, and $500 in giftcards, more or less. You can also pick up stuff if they’re handing out swag. I got a scarf, a shot glass, four pens, and a yo-yo. I’ve had better days, but I’ve also really had worse.

Then there was the keynote- an hour long presentation by the head of Microsoft Canada (and in fact they had the chief-operating officer of Microsoft as a speaker). The usual marketing, mostly.

Unfortunately, I missed the first session (or fortunately, depending on your tolerance for relevant but entirely too shallow goings-over of material) but I did grab lunch. Of course, they give you a lunch ticket, which you trade in for a drink and box with a sandwich, banana, and cookie. Microsoft, however, always provides way too much lunch. As a result, after about half the time is gone, you can go get another lunch or drink if you’re still hungry. I stood around and watched a gentleman from Microsoft play Guitar Hero at the Xbox360 pavilion. I’m not sure if he was on the Xbox platform team or whether he just really loved Guitar Hero, but his freakishly high 86% accuracy on Expert difficulty on an expert song did garner a round of applause.

In two ways, this “Heroes Happen Here” event did things I had never before seen at a Microsoft conference. Firstly, there was the jousting. Yes, I said jousting. An inflatable ring was set up at one side of the hanger, and there were helmets and pillow-ish things. And people got into the ring and whacked at each other with them. Also, the Xbox Arcade was odd. They often have Xboxes at this sort of thing- it is, however, rare that they set them up with 56” LCD TVs, couches, guitars, drum sets, racing wheels and pedals, and it’s rare that they have more than one or two.

The third thing provided was free ice cream at lunch. As much as you wanted while supplies lasted (and they lasted almost the entire hour). That alone would probably have been worth going for. Free, unlimited ice cream!

One of the other things I found interesting was this sign- a sign that’s saying Microsoft is buying green power for this event. Good corporate governance or another sign of the evil menace? You decide.

There are two more sessions in each track today- this one is Security in the Architecture track, and they’re talking about Network Access Protection. Admittedly, I appreciate some of the things Microsoft has done. The latest version of Terminal Services supports remote usage of just a single application as opposed to an entire desktop, for example. Vista has a rebuilt audio stack which I am pleased with. The problem with this sort of seminar is not that; and often, the demos are well done. The problem is that the great majority of Microsoft configuration is done via GUIs. We can all read the options perfectly well. It’s no great architecture mystery as to how to enable NAP, for example. Instead, there is, I feel, more relevance in talking about how to update architecture designs to cope with some of the new technology. Of course, that’s very system dependant, and further, does not make for flashy demos.

They are at this time building the goody-bags; we are supposed to receive a copy of Windows Server 2008 Standard, Windows Visual Studio 2008 Professional, and Windows SQL Server 2008. Perhaps interestingly, when they were demoing Visual Studio 2008, they were using it to write HTML webpages; the last version of Visual Studio I’ve used was six, (So three generations behind: Visual Studio 6, Visual Studio .NET, Visual Studio 2005, Visual Studio 2008) but I was not aware at the time that it could be used as an HTML editor.

The presenter talked about how the ‘split-screen’ (combination WYSIWYG/Code) interface was a new and upcoming thing- I found this ironic, because Dreamweaver MX had an identical interface for maybe five years. However, admittedly, Dreamweaver MX is not a programming IDE; I’m not sure how the programming component works against split-screening. I found it very interesting, however, that the VS2008 IDE integrated its own web-server for doing on-the-spot testing of pages you’re designing. I do plan on slapping VS2008 onto my laptop and testing it extensively; the WS2008 I may keep. I’ve heard exceptionally good things about using WS2003 as a gaming machine, when very tweaked, and I am wondering about using WS2008 in the same manner.

It is interesting that during the demonstration of Windows Server 2008 Core, there is a mouse and in fact a GUI. This may not surprise the wide variety of people who are used to all Windows OSes released in the past ten years. However, one of the things touted about WS2008Core is that it does not have a GUI. Technically, that’s not really true, though. WS2008Core doesn’t have explorer.exe, and the associated garbage that goes with it (Outlook Express, etc, etc, etc). Instead, when you start the system, you get a blinking white command-line-interface over top of the standard blue Windows background. You have a mouse, and using it you can do things like right-click, copy and right-click, paste; if you type ‘notepad blah.txt’, a notepad window will pop up over top of the console that can be used classically.

Even if logging into WS2008 via Terminal Services, you won’t get a desktop, and the OS should be managed through the command line (although you can manage it with a variety of GUI tools loaded onto other systems.) One of the most awkward parts of it is that WS2008 Core doesn’t support the local powershell, which is designed to be an advanced version of the command line that supports things like object-oriented functionality. Rather, you appear to be stuck with the standard Windows Vista/WS2008 command prompt. Admittedly, I have not actually set hands on Windows Server 2008 as of this writing.

The software included was a bit of a let-down, though; Windows Server 2008 Enterprise, 365 day trial and Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 Standard.

However, I'm glad I went anyway.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Microsoft DreamSpark

On February 19th, Microsoft began its DreamSpark program. Essentially, DreamSpark is a program for students- a program that allows students who are interested in development (web development, software development, and game development, although the three of course may overlap) to use Microsoft software, for free, to do so in a non-commercial manner.

Major software, too- Visual Studio 2008 Professional, XNA Game Studio, Microsoft Expression Studio, Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition, SQL Server Developer Edition, and so on, as well as Microsoft VirtualPC (which of course is free for everyone). They claim that the program will expand to incorporate new tools as those tools are released (Windows Server 2008, etc).

Many technical news commentators have, like most of Microsoft’s latest moves (especially towards interoperability) panned the DreamSpark program. There is a lot of sentiment in the development world, especially the professional development world that Microsoft as a corporation engages in unreasonable, unfair, and in many cases, distinctly harmful business practices- and that this is only an extension of those practices. Specifically, they argue, the DreamSpark program encourages students to use Microsoft software, to accord to Microsoft practices and measures, and will therefore ‘lock them in’ to Microsoft technologies (which they will have to buy if they are going to release them commercially).

As a rule, I don’t agree with this view. I do believe that some of Microsoft’s policies are negative for the industry as a whole; I specifically reference the SMB/Samba debacle, where Microsoft’s extensions to the Server Message Block standard were, it is accused, specifically made a ‘moving target’ so as to make it more complicated and difficult for the Samba open-source group to re-implement it as free software. While it might be good business practice, I don’t know, it’s certainly not particularly good for interoperability. However, as a general rule, I do support Microsoft. I use Microsoft Windows. I use Microsoft Office. Both pieces of software, like any software, has flaws. However, both pieces of software have served me effectively and relatively well. I often find Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office to be better, for me, than their Open-Source equivalents.

In that respect, I fully support this movement by Microsoft. The release of these tools opens the opportunities available to students, and I can only support that. Furthermore, I expect that I will get my hands on these tools because they’re now available for my own interest.

If you’re eligible, check it out; you might find it interesting.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Courts, Certiorari, and Public Perception

One of the things I find most aggravating, not only about public policy and the media but about public perception in general, is the seemingly enormous misapprehension the public generally labours under about what the Courts are supposed to do, and how.

One of the most concise examples I have seen fairly recently is this one, regarding the Writ of Certiorari. A little bit of history; the writ of certiorari is one of what are generally known as the prerogative writs, (the primary being Certiorari, Habeus Corpus, Mandamus, Quo Warrento, Prohibition, and Procedendo) which were orders, issued by the Courts in the name of the Crown or Sovereign, commanding one of the sovereign’s statutory delegates (Individuals whose governmental authority derives from a specific section of law) to perform a certain task (or, of course, to refrain from performing a task).

The general history of prerogative writs can be covered elsewhere; suffice it to say that a writ of Certiorari issued by an appeals court commands a lower court to send it a case for review. Courts are broken down in a variety of ways, but one of those ways is via jurisdiction; courts of the first instance are courts in which a petitioner, known as a plaintiff, may file, whereas courts of appeal are courts where a petitioner, known as an appellant, may ask for review of a lower court’s decision.

The way that a court, as a rule, grants this review is by issuing what was often called a writ of certiorari. In the modern day, especially in American courts, the writ is often named something else; a writ of review, leave to appeal, or whatnot. Often, the denial of certiorari is entirely at the discretion of the court one is appealing to. (This is not always the case; there are a variety of areas where an appeal must be granted, of course, but there are always exceptions).

One of the places where laypeople feel so confused is on what conditions a court of appeal tends to issue a writ of certiorari. Often, they believe that the writ is issued because the higher court does not agree with the lower court or has found a flaw in it; conversely, they often generally believe that the denial of a writ of certiorari means that the appeals court agrees with the lower court or believes its judgment to be sound.

This is false in both instances; but to understand why, one has to refer to two elemental judicial principles. Stare Decisis is the Latin maxim “To stand by that which has been decided”, itself akin to the famous “Let sleeping dogs lie”. More practically, a lower court may not overturn the decision of a higher court (if a case similar to one that has been decided by a higher court comes before a lower court, the lower court must obey by the holdings of the higher court; this is called precedent) and that a court of the same level should not, unless there is a good reason, overturn what it has previously held. The second principle is that of deference- that a higher court should not overturn the decision of a court of first instance unless there has been a mistake made- specifically, it should not overturn the decision because it would have ruled a different way, so long as the process by which that judgment was arrived at was legitimate.

As a result, the denial of a writ of certiorari does not mean that a higher court agrees with a lower court; it may simply defer to the judgment of the lower court and decide that there are no substantive grounds for review. In the alternate, the granting of a writ of certiorari does not mean that a higher court disagrees with the lower court. It may simple believe that the process was flawed (but that the outcome was correct) or that review is necessary to standardize, via stare decisis, the judgments of a series of lower courts.

The best example of the latter reason is illustrated in the United States Federal Circuits; there are eleven of them (actually thirteen, but eleven primary geographic ones), and each covers a separate physical area; the first covers the north-east, the second covers the New York area, the third covers the Pennsylvania area, the forth the middle of the east coast, the fifth the south, and so on. As a result, and as a result of the wildly varying public policy and public perception differences between the areas of the circuits, it is relatively common that the circuits differ in opinion. One of the most important reasons for an appeal to the United States Supreme Court is so that the Supreme Court may standardize precedent across all the circuits.

As a result, the denial of certiorari is not exceptionally unusual, and "…imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case, as the bar has been told many times." (Missouri v. Jenkins, SCOTUS, 1995) 7500 petitioners, for example, ask the United States Supreme Court for certiorari each year- and the court grants it in only a hundred or so cases. Appeals courts are by necessity smaller than courts of first instance; were they to hear every decision, the process would drag out immeasurably. But they do serve an important purpose and a check against gross error by lower courts.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hydrocarbons and the Fischer-Tropsch process- the myth of peak oil

It often bemuses me when environmentalists speak of ‘peak oil’ as the mythical time when our planetary oil reserves will suddenly vanish.

It does this for two reasons. Firstly, the oil reserves ‘available’ vary wildly depending on the current price of oil. For example, the cost of extracting oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands is between $36-40 dollars per barrel for a new operation. Given the historical price of oil, (as seen here, for example; note this does not show the current rise to almost $100 a barrel) one can see that a new operation was only economically viable in the period between about 1973-1985, and of course now, from about 2003 to present.

As the price of oil continues to increase rapidly in a process that shows no immediate signs of slowing or stopping, the economic viability of recovering hydrocarbons through other methods will increase as well; and more oil will become 'unlocked'.

Secondly, consider- what is oil? In its most basic form, oil is a hydrocarbon. A hydrocarbon, of course, is an organic molecule consisting solely of varying amounts of, you guessed it, hydrogen and carbon. Among other things, these two elements are some of the most common in the universe. By mass, the proportion of elements in the galaxy (in parts per million) is 739,000 hydrogen and 4,600 carbon. By mass, approximately 11% of Earth's oceans consist of hydrogen- or about 1.48*10^17 metric tonnes- 148 quadrillion metric tonnes. Carbon appears in a multitude of forms- not only in enormous quantity in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but also dissolved in water, in biological entities, and of course in various carbonates (and hydrocarbons) in the Earth's surface.

Consider this- we are concerned about running out of the first and fourth most abundant resources in the universe; a concern that when taken in this light seems somewhat silly.

The difficulty, of course, is that these reserves of hydrogen and carbon are not stored in reserves that are easily converted to hydrocarbons. But note that proviso- easily. As early as the 1920s, Germany, poor in oil, but rich in coal (itself a great source of carbon) had discovered a process (the Fischer-Tropsch process) by which it was possible to create synthetic liquid fuels from other substances.

More importantly, consider global warming- the primary culprit of which, we are told, is carbon dioxide. In fact, many organizations and governments are considering carbon capture as a way to slow or reverse global warming.

It seems inherently obvious, therefore, that the process by which we generate energy, (Fuel+Oxygen -> Heat+Water+Carbon Dioxide, or in other words, Hydrogen+Carbon+Oxygen -> Heat+Hydrogen+Oxygen+Carbon) can be reversed to generate liquid fuels from the byproducts- water and carbon dioxide.

Of course, thermodynamics must take its cut; the energy retrieved from the combustion reaction is extracted primarily in the form of heat, and sufficient energy must be injected into the constituent parts to recreate a feasible liquid fuel. But we have had a free lunch with all the pre-created liquid fuels so far; and power is not, in the grand scheme of things, something the universe lacks for, especially when liquid fuels are used primarily in mobile applications where larger, power-positive generation techniques may be unusable (solar, wind, nuclear; imagine your car covered with solar panels, a nuclear power plant in the trunk, and a large wind turbine on the roof.) However, this is in theory very similar to what proponents of 'hydrogen-powered cars' are trying to accomplish- creation of a new liquid fuel source. In fact, what they really should be doing is figuring out how to make the processes we can use to make more of our current liquid fuel source more efficient.

That is not to say, however, that our current carbon-based economy isn't full of holes- it is. You see, to generate these liquid fuels, power would be required- power that is currently being extracted in great amounts from hydrocarbon fuels, which is obviously a losing prospect when one attempts to use it to create hydrocarbon fuels. For an effective hydrocarbon creation system to come into effect, surface-based power stations would need to convert almost entirely or entirely to a different mechanism- both hydropower and nuclear power are of course key candidates. Fusion, if it ever stops being 'just around the corner' and steps into the main stream (I'm not sure whether to cheer for Bussard or ITER in this respect) will play a key role- both environmentally and technologically.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Difficulties of Writing a Novel...

I've been writing for a long time. It started with role-playing with friends over instant messenger, morphed into fan-fiction, mostly Harry Potter fan-fiction (I am not embarrassed to say; my fan-fiction was often highly commended) and resulted in perhaps a dozen short stories, a poem or two, and half a dozen novels in progress.

Of these, I have tried to spread the writing around- a single science fiction novel, a thriller, a fantasy novel, a drama, and one that can best be defined as essentially vampire teen angst-lit.

The novel that is the furthest along is the science fiction novel. I laid down the idea about a year ago, but I only actually started writing in earnest about eight months ago and took a two month hiatus during December and January; today, I have approximately 45,000 words or so laid down, and the stringent story-planning and outlining has been set down for, I imagine, close to 40,000 more, and, when on my stride, I can write between 2000 and 3000 words an hour, although I rarely sustain this for more than two or three hours at a sitting, as the effort is exhausting and it tends to come apart at the seams- the tone fluctuates and the consistency fades.

One of the most difficult problems I run into while writing is consistency; this is especially true in a science-fiction context. I spend an inordinate amount of time making sure that sizes, ranges, weights, masses, and various other figures given do not conflict with each other and fall inside the realm of possibility or even probability. I similarly attempt to ensure a consistency of context- if a piece of technology does A once, it should continue to do A, and nothing but A, unless a good reason exists for this ability not being shown or referred to previously- especially if it would have been helpful before.

However, this can be crippling at times. For example, the Pride of Albion, a vessel in the novel, is approximately 1100 meters long by 360 meters across the beam and 360 meters in 'height'. What is an acceptable mass for this vessel? First of all, one would have to determine the volume- no small task when the object doesn't exist in the real world or as an accurate 3-D model. Then, one has to determine the density of components that don't exist. It is in some cases possible to base a density off of real-world ships, but various in-universe explanations (like wide-empty spaces) must also be taken into account. The amount of work involved in ensuring that the mass of the vessel, a figure that may only be used once or twice in the book is consistent not only with itself but with the wider universe as portrayed is perhaps an hour, or two- or even more, depending on whether or not one accepts a very rough approximation for volume or attempts to model the figure precisely.

The second leading problem is tone. I often find that it is a struggle to ensure the tone is consistent throughout a work (unless I write it in one sitting, which is possible for shorter works but not for entire novels). Rather, my writing will have a specific tone on one occasion and a slightly different tone on another, depending on my mood; and more importantly and disconcertingly, if I am attempting to force myself to write (generally by giving myself a quota of 1500 words per hour) the tone often tends toward the flat and uninspired, with lots of description but no flair. Attempting to ensure that I am in the same frame of mind that the tone of the story requires is sometimes difficult.

This is specifically important because different novels have, as a rule, different tones. A fantasy novel is told, in my writing, in a different way than a science fiction novel, in much the same way as an academic journal article is written differently from a letter to a friend or colleague.

This is specifically a difficulty, I find, of trying to tell a story over many different sessions; it's not an issue I tend to have with official works, because they have a consistent tone that should be adhered to.

Despite the fact that classes are coming to a crux at the moment, when classes end at the beginning of April I hope to dive back into writing with a vengeance. It's an excellent creative outlet, and the best way to get better is just to do it.

Moral Panics...

Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon, I was writing an essay for Sociology class on racial profiling. During the research phase (and these things never turn out the way you would hope- despite doing an outline and researching sources, during the actual writing phase I ended up referencing almost twice again as many additional sources that I had found to reinforce specific comments) I came across a series of interesting pieces of information that combined and clicked in my head.

Specifically, I was reading an interesting article about 'moral panic', which seems to be more prevalent then ever among today's societies; and how it relates to racial profiling (specifically of Arabs and Muslims.)

The article specifically used as an example school shootings: in it, it called to question the myth that there is an epidemic of violence. Quite the contrary; incidences of youth crime (in the United States) in all aggregate statistical indicators, has dropped by almost 35% in the past twenty years. There is now and always has been a greater chance of being killed by lightning than in an act of school violence.

This follows hot on the heels of a study in which large population segments in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada all claimed increasing crime was of vital concern, when in Canada crime is at a thirty year low and in the United Kingdom it is at a fifteen year low and in both cases on a decreasing trend.

In fact, one of these studies pointed out that (and I am quoting from memory, so I may have the figures slightly off) while 4/5 individuals felt that all the Muslim individuals they personally knew were no more or less trustworthy or moral or law-abiding than anyone else, less than 40% felt that Muslims in general were equally as trustworthy, moral, or law-abiding.

A book I sourced for a paper earlier in the year reinforced this- it was entitled The TV Arab, and it studied mainstream television programs over the past ten years. In more than a hundred television programs, the vast majority of Arabs were portrayed as terrorists. In fact, this book was published in 1984; the view is not new.

An article in the 2003 Osgoode Hall Law Journal by Reem Bahdi pointed out the disturbing trend of conflating Arabs and Muslims as the same stereotypical group, while according to the latest census data available at the time of that writing, 60% of Canadian Arabs were Christian, not Muslim. Another source suggested that 35% of Canadian Muslims were not Arab, while a third suggested that globally, the figures were very different- suggesting up to 75% of Muslims may be other ethnicities, specifically East Asian, African, and Eastern European.

Indeed, it quite appears that the situation has every hallmark of a moral panic- a widespread public fear of a certain group or occurrence, often without any logical or reasonable justification for the efforts made to 'crack down' on whatever is supposedly causing the moral panic and to re-establish the 'moral order', whatever that may be, and in doing so, appears to have linked together two groups which appear to be quite different.


Late last night, (it was approximately two thirty AM), I decided that I needed a blog. Now, I have more than one, specifically; however, I thought that one which specifically dealt with my main tracks of interest would be helpful.

Essentially, I am:

A law student.
A medical student.
A political-science student.
An aspiring novelist.
An artifex.
A network engineer.

Hopefully the postings here will reflect that; in that, each category will have its own label (plus main, of course, for posts like this one.)

And so I say to you, begone!