Friday, November 23, 2007

Typophile Temper Tantrum

Leopard has a bunch of neat new APIs that us developers can have fun with. There are also some nice performance improvements under the hood.

When it comes to usability though Apple has either moved every last person with even a smidgeon of design sense to the iPhone or the programmers took the designers out back, shot them, turned around and found these new, shiny APIs much like a child finds a mother's jewelry and makeup case for the first time.

Click me! - image originally from:

In particular, the built-in dictionary has a nice addition - searching of Wikipedia. I've wanted this for a long time so there was much rejoicing when my office mate clued me in. Whoever worked on this did at least 2 things right. The first is actually including Wikipedia search. The second I'm saving for the punch line.

There are a couple technical issues (like doing the search on the main UI thread) but the main issue that essentially made this feature unusable for me was the choice of typeface. Baskerville! Seriously whoever chose Baskerville should be taken out back with the rest of the designers. If it wasn't consciously chosen then shame on you - you should always choose your fonts with care. Baskerville is cool for the first few seconds, giving the dictionary and thesaurus parts of the app that old, leather-bound book feel. I put up with it because there were never large amounts of reading to do when grabbing a definition now and again so there wasn't much of an effect on my reading speed. For Wikipedia-length articles, Baskerville enough to make the feature unusable for me (1).

This needed to be fixed!

After a bit of poking around though I discovered thing-that-was-done-right # 2. renders its content using WebKit and simply grabs the Wikipedia results and applies an XML transform on them.

Bingo! It was only a matter of time before I found the right switch (2).

Turns out everything I needed was in 1 css file. Also turns out I was waiting for something of just the right size to attack with my new Python skills (3). Enter grotesque!

> open /Applications/ > grotesque > grotesque --revert

The script is pretty straight forward, well documented, and should be non-destructive (4). The script is also written in a way that if you wanted to not use 10pt Verdana you could parameterize that.

1) For those that don't know I have slow visual processing speed so I normally read much slower than the average person (I'm in the 4th percentile). When displays are visually cluttered others might slow down by a constant factor whereas I'll slow down by an order of magnitude.
2) And since I new it was Baskerville from the minute I looked at the thing grep was my friend. I must admit I even went as far as patching the binary but it seems the 2 instances of 'Baskerville' in the binary now control nothing at all.
3) Yes, yes I know, I'm late to get on this Python train and Ruby is the new cool kid now.

4) I've tested it well on my machine but if you're really paranoid you can make a backup of

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Waterloo you... amuse me!

So I've now been at the University of Waterloo for 5 years and a month. I've interacted with our retarded PeopleSoft course registration software for about 7 months longer than that. More-so, I've known I wanted to go to Waterloo since about grade 9. For the sake of it though let's just say that I seriously did research about the university starting in grade 10 (Jan. 2000). I know where to go on their web site to get info, I've been doing it for nearly 8 years now. None of the important landing pages or resource pages have changed in that time.

Why oh why then did I get this email late last week:

Hi Shawn,

We want to let you know about our three information websites.

The Quest website at offers information about enrolment appointments, deadlines, unofficial transcripts, etc.; the Registrar's Office website at offers information about convocation, final examinations, ordering official transcripts, undergraduate calendar, etc.; and the Student Awards & Financial Aid website at offers information about scholarships, bursaries, OSAP, Work Study, etc.

We recommend that you bookmark them for future use.

This mailbox is not monitored; do not reply using your mail "reply" feature.


Office of the Registrar

University of Waterloo


Monday, September 17, 2007

Sunday evening design shenanigans

I was thinking lately about how to write a blog entry to summarize how everyone always has an opinion on design. Why is it that so many people will always have an opinion about how something should be designed? Software engineers certainly don't have random people walking up to them suggesting how they should architect their next framework. You don't see people randomly telling civil engineers and likewise construction workers how to place the trusses on that new bridge. Better yet, when's the last time you saw a patient tell a surgeon how to perform the procedure (OK I suppose the patients are under... maybe that's what more designers should do with their clients while they are working to come up with a polished idea).

But why bother writing about it... I just stumbled on this tongue-in-cheek song about the most common phrase a designer is likely to here:

If you don't get the song then maybe it's a clue that you should stay out of the way of the designers you are paying so much money for and let them do what they do best.

Monday, August 06, 2007

generalAvailability(VMware Fusion) && num(VCPUs) != numRunning(VMs)

Because every geek needs to post a blog entry with a title written in predicate logic every once and a while :)

Fusion 1.0 is now generally available! Woo Hoo

This post links to a ZDnet article (though there are many others) because I wanted to make a slight correction. I don't have anything against ZDnet, thanks for the coverage. I can see how VCPUs and VMs might be confounded and this little error seems to have spread beyond the land down under; the tubes must have been particularly empty during the last week.

VCPUs, or virtual CPUs, are what Fusion (and other VMware products) expose to the virtual machine (VM) to allow the VM to execute instructions. In other words when you run programs in a virtual machine they think they are running on a real computer and running instructions on a real CPU. To greatly simplify things, a VM uses the abstraction of a VCPU to confine the execution of a single virtual machine and ensure that it can't wreak havoc on the rest of the system that it's running on (including other VMs).

Just like a real computer can have 1 or more processors (CPU) a VM can have 1 or more VCPUs.

How many VCPUs can a VM have?
In Fusion each VM can have 1 or 2 VCPUs. This is the same as Workstation 6. We actually create new VMs with a default of 1 but allow people to set it to 2. Why you may ask? The more the merrier right? Well it turns out that's not quite the case. There are certain things that will run "faster" given the extra parallelism but some things actually run slower. This is because of our dependence on a host operating system; OS X in the case of Fusion and Linux and Windows in the case of Workstation. Because the programs running the the VM have no idea they are running inside a VM they assume they have full control of the hardware. In particular they can ask that certain instructions be run simultaneously on certain CPUs. One of the main tenets of virtualization is that execution in a virtual machine should behave the same and yield the same results as running on a real computer. This means that Fusion can't turn around and run the requested instructions at different times; they must be run at the same time on the different CPUs. This turns out to be rather hard to do efficiently on most systems.

So if it's sometimes slower why run with 2 VCPUs?
The main reason would be to actually test out multithreaded code. It's hard to guarantee that you've written thread safe code. Most problems will arise when running stress tests and going from 1 to 2 CPUs.

OK, so how many VMs can I really run then?
In theory, we set an (artificial) upper limit of 24 VMs. In practice we will never let you start a VM if the computer you are running on doesn't have enough resources. For example if you have a limited amount of memory and you are trying to start a VM that will consume much more than the memory available (to the point that your entire system, not just the VM, would become unusable) then we won't let you start that VM. This means that even if you have an XServe maxed-out at 16 GB of RAM you might not ever reach the 24 VM limit.

Long story short, we don't limit you to 2 VMs (we limit it to 24 but that won't really matter in practice given the current state of hardware), we do limit you to 2 VCPUs since more just wouldn't effectively run faster. Load up that system with RAM and run the VMs you need to get your work done :)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Back to sleeping a little more... for now

So at Macworld last January I talked to a bunch of people who all wanted Fusion to have better Mac integration. A lot of these questions at the time were prompted by Parallels announcement of Coherence. My answer to all of you at the time was "We (internally) have a bunch of ideas of how to make the integration better. What exactly is it you would like to see; we're listening." Well, we listened: I've been pretty quiet on my blog lately. In January I had to go back to school. Then, because of a turn of personal events I ended up taking some time off from school (sort of). That meant I had more time to work with the rest of the team on Fusion. Well it turns out that timing was just right; I ended up doing a bunch of work on what came to be know as Unity, which all of you can now play around with in the latest beta. You can also get a sneak peak of Unity in a youtube video that Regis and I put together: We still have a bunch of ideas about how to keep pushing the integration even further. If you'd like to give us suggestions about how we can do even better find us at WWDC.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


I've been back home for the last few weeks so I've fallen back in to some of the good old Quebec culture. The reference is to one of the more recent Quebec movies: Bon cop bad cop. A bilingual movie where a murder scene set on the Quebec - Ontario border opens the story of both provincial police forces working together.

For those of you who know a bit more about me you may also notice that if I'm back home (proverbial stepping stone) and not in Waterloo right now it's because I'm getting ready for yet another move. A few personal circumstances came together in an odd way; I'm about to head back down to California to work at the VMware mother ship on something really really cool (tm). No, I'm still not quite done school yet. Yes, this really really cool (tm) thing is Mac related. Can't say more right now but you can be sure I'll keep you posted the minute I can :)

What prompts this post though is an interview synopsis I just came across: I've criticized executives and companies for ignoring competition on this blog before. Some of those companies I've worked for. Also, less on this blog but definitely if you have me at a dinner table with a glass of wine in hand, you can see me in a very passionate speech about the sad state of the music industry. I've had variations of the "fix that shit" talk with friends of the family and even high-ups at Sony Music for at least 3 years now.

Well, for the first time in a while and most notably since Sony's root-kit debacle I've started to have a bit of restored faith in the company. If they have a CEO that truly can mix passion, humility, determination, and humour the way he seems to in the interview then things can't be all bad. To be an occidental CEO at the head of Sony is also no easy feat. This guy seems to get how software should play with hardware and he gets digital media. Hopefully some of that can trickle down to Sony BMG (their music business).

Just like "Bon cop bad cop" is very close to home for more than just superficial reasons so is Sony. I'll be keeping an eye out for them. They did after all invent the Walkman and I kind of sort of remember that being a big deal (I wasn't around when it first came out and very young still in the hay day of it's popularity).

Friday, March 16, 2007

Daring Fireball on Thurrott & Paul Kedrosky on Jobs on DRM & Music

Over the last couple months I was beginning to loose faith in Gruber's ability to present a good solid argument. In one of his more recent posts Gruber does an excellent job at addressing key issues concerning the open letter from Steve Jobs about removing DRM from music:

He does a better job than I could have at getting at the crux of the matter. I still really wish he would do away with calling people jackasses. You hear me John, you are a better writer than that and can do a much better job by convincing people with solid research and well composed arguments.

It's well worth the read.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bone Chilling Beats

Hot off the presses at TUAW is a new way to enjoy your tunes.

The author seems skeptical but I would definitely go for one should it be sold in North America (for biking not running in my case). When your heart is pounding at 170 BPM and you're breathing heavy the last thing on your mind is the quality of the sound. If I'm sitting at home enjoying some jazz or house it's a completely different matter. When I'm running or biking though if I could just have a nice beat going in the background and still be able to hear oncoming traffic I would be more than happy.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


No matter how I say this I'm going to come off as a pompous prick and an Apple zealot. This really has nothing to do about Apple and all to do about product design so here goes.

The link is to an article about a new laptop design by Samsung for their Aurora model. Before I go on let me give kudos to Samsung for a great effort. This is a very nice laptop design; right up there with the Toshiba Qosmio series. If anything I find the Qosmio even sexier than the Aurora. I tend not to bash a company that is at least trying to embrace industrial design; especially when they're in the learning stages.

The author of this article though I think needs a lesson in aesthetics.

But now the Samsung design team has pushed the boat out and created the new Aura series of notebooks, which look set to go head to head with Apple’s ultra-stylish MacBooks.
The first Aura out of the gates will be the R20, which Samsung will be officially announcing next week. The R20 really does look the business with its glossy black finish and minimalist styling.


I would say the R20 is the epitome of Rocotechno design*. There are numerous conflicting lines and curves ornamenting** the laptop's profile. There is a very prominent latch mechanism. There is no attempt to conceal the various ports to blend with the ID (Industrial Design) of the laptop. Rather, each port is prominently displayed in a way that pronounces its unique shape and distinguishes it from all the other ports. Samsung felt that people were comfortable enough to understand that USB ports where still USB ports even though they were black. By the same nature, why are the consumers of this laptop NOT smart enough to know that the D-Sub 15 port is for an external monitor; why the PC '97 blue colour coding when there aren't even any serial ports.

ASSIDE: I like to use the example of when I was a kind I used to play with this toy that had you stick pieces of a certain shape (square, star, moon, circle) into holes that matched that shape. Toddlers are doing this with PC peripherals now. When you remove the element of fear of technology you allow the natural mechanisms of learning by interacting with our environment to kick in. Consumers are slowly coming more an more from the generation of digital natives so why no embrace that in our designs.

I'm not necessarily saying there's anything wrong with ID that is not minimalist (though in many cases it tends to be my preference simply because I am a romantic modernist at heart). Just don't call something minimalist when it isn't

In fact, if you placed it next to a black MacBook you’d be forgiven for thinking that they share the same DNA. That said, you could say the same about a Nintendo DS Lite!

Come again? If you don't know anything about art, art history, aesthetics, or product design then please don't talk about it as if you do! The article would have had much more merit if the author would have left it at the nice technical specs and a note that he thought the laptop was pretty and stylish and given a kudos to Samsung for joining the growing number of manufacturers that are concerned with the aesthetics of their products.

*As far as I know I just invented the term Rocotechno (Rococo + Techno) and I think I like it.
** I use ornamenting in the pejorative sense here. Added visual complexity but useless in function.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Reflections; cybernetics and augmented living

I was just browsing some of the products offered by Jabra and it hit me; cybernetics is going to be one of those quick and quiet revolutions. Ten to fifteen years from now we won't know what hit us and our value systems won't have adapted at all because we won't have seen it coming. It reminds me of the frog swimming in boiling water analogy.

In particular I was looking at the Flash promo for one of their new headsets: the JX10. It starts out like a nice piece of promotional techno-fetishism although I don't particularly like the design of this piece for a few reasons that I won't get into.

Right about when they show the man and woman both wearing the headset I'm assuming the goal was to invoke feelings of a sexual nature to make the desire for the headset stronger (a rather common practice). The image invoked a completely different emotion in me; a glimpse of how we will embrace being cyborgs without ever realizing what we are getting into until it's too late.

I suppose to put things into perspective there are a few really good TED talks:

I'm at odds with my feelings on this one. I'm morally against full blown human cyborg augmentation for similar reasons that I'm against doping in sports; it's a slippery slope and then if you even want to stand a fighting chance you need to jump on board to. At the same time I'm more than OK and probably would be an early adopter of most of the products and social phases that would form the stepping stones to that possible future.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Longing for the end of University


This post won't have much techno-design content but bear with me.

If a day like yesterday can't help me break out of a SAD cycle I don't know what can.

Waterloo this time of year can be really hard on the soul. It's my first Canadian winter in 2 years; I was in California at the VMware head office all of last winter. Let me tell you can get used to a winter in Silicon Valley really fast. To make matters worse Waterloo had a crappy warm month of January. It was really grey and raining without an inch of snow and a miserable 10 degrees (that's about 50 for the other fraction of the world). Then my birthday comes along at the end of January and the temperature drops to -30 (-22 Fahrenheit) WTF mate! Since then Waterloo has been having a record cold streak. I've been stuck with too much school work to help out my team in any meaningful way; not to mention that most of what I have left to learn in class is pretty insignificant compared to what I'm able to learn on my own at this point.

So back to yesterday. I wake up feeling a little more energy than I have had in the last couple days and decide to finally tackle that essay that's due later that afternoon. I'd been mulling it over for about 5 days on and off in my head but in about 2 hours time I put out a pretty kick-ass 5 pager on the impact of electronic forms of communication on the value systems of youth and how academia should change the way it evaluates how youth are impacted by technology. Then I have a bunch of really good interactions with people all day, guitar lesson, finished off with an amazing yoga session (Ashtanga is my medicine of choice for the curious).

I was ready to come home, cook myself a really good meal, shower and take it easy checking up on email etc.

So I start checking work email when what do see. People are talking about this Youtube video of a leak of a really sweet feature we have lined up for Fusion: that's right 3D acceleration in a VM. Since I've been working remotely on my own little features and bogged down with school I hadn't had a chance to see 3D in action on my own computer yet; I was seeing it for the first time like most of you. My jaw literally dropped!

Then I thought my day was really done... NO! I continue checking email and see that they had a synopsis of our quarterly all hands meeting. VMware is going IPO!!! Here's the link to the press release.

I want to be done with school... last week!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

iPhone... Industry Impact

How could I not write something about the iPhone?

Considering my last post directly challenged Palm and Palm CEO's inability to fully appreciate that a company is always capable of surpassing itself; to assume that a competitor will execute in the same way and make the same mistakes years later is a little naive and short sighted.

On another related note the launch of the iPhone marks (almost to the day) the two year anniversary of my death proclamation on RIM. A little more background is clearly needed here. You see, the University of Waterloo has a Co-op program (they pretty much wrote the book on Co-op actually) and RIM hires a LOT of UW students since their campus is right next door; quite literally, I'm not kidding. Probably half the students walk through RIM's campus to make it to class every morning. Anyway, I did two Co-op terms with RIM (January-April and then September-December 2004). I always made jokes with family and friends because shortly after I joined RIM's stock soared and then shortly after I left it tanked: going from roughly $34 to $92 (that's with adjustment for a 2:1 split). Come March 2005 they were down to about $60. Stocks really aren't what I care about because they say very little about a company. Rather they tend to be a completely different game that is played in tandem to a company trying to innovate and deliver products; they are a game to allow others to make money and that might just impair the company's ability to execute and deliver the products they would like to.

To get to the point: mid December 2004 I decided not to go back to RIM for a third Co-op term and try my luck with another company. Try explaining that to parents who are helping your through school and up until that point think RIM is doing fantastic because their stock is still soaring (it was at it's high point then actually and has risen above that since). Basically at that point I had come to the realization that RIM was now surfing a 10 year old wave about to crash on shore; the top brass just kept saying how cool it was that RIM did wireless email. To add a bit to the context Good was just starting to offer some interesting services that included wireless email but also full integration into company intranets. Sybase (more precisely their iAnywhere subsidiary) was releasing a solution to wirelessly connect to their back-end databases; imagine being able to query sales reports and place customer orders all from your handheld (unheard of at the time). Finally, Microsoft was readying a free component that integrated with exchange server to push wireless email ie: the equivalent of RIM's blackberry enterprise server; a crucial part of their financial mix at the time though that has changed somewhat now. RIM in the mean time is busy settling a bogus law suit with NTP that it told its employees that they would never settle and boasting about doing wireless email.

Long story short when people asked me about RIM I told them I had a great time, worked on an awesome team and learned a lot but that if the execs didn't realign their strategy within the next year (possibly two) that within five years RIM would essentially be gone. Clearly it will take longer than five years to completely destroy a company like RIM, heck even Nortel is still kicking around and look at Sun's recovery and SGI now out of bankruptcy. But from a technology and innovation point of view RIM would be insignificant within five years and that's as good as dead.

Sure RIM will keep having corporate contracts for some time to come since they are so well established there. That really doesn't matter; Apple isn't going after the corporate. This might be one of the few times that we get to witness a reversal of the buying power. For the last several years techno-fetishery like the BB was left in the realm of the C level and top execs; and companies could justify the cost for it. Regardless of what people are saying about the price of the iPhone right now people bought an iPod five years ago at similar prices. The iPhone's price will drop with volume and variations on the base model. It will be consumers buying this device; mid level management and the likes buying it for personal use, expensing the carrier service fees and asking their IT departments to make their email work with the device. There are privacy concerns remaining about exposing corporate email to iPhones compared to BlackBerries but there is so little information about how to access email beyond Yahoo!'s free push based email on the iPhone at this point that I won't even bother speculating. For a brief moment (two years or so) we'll be able to see a shift from corporate buying power to consumer buying power shaping the landscape of tech toys.

I have more to say about the iPhone design itself. That will be for another post