Saturday, 27 February 2010

Hoofdpijn, Rheumatiek…

Some thirty-odd years ago, the late Dutch artist-cum-singer, Tol Hansse, wrote and recorded the number Hoofpijn, Rheumatiek, in which he complained in his usual tongue-in-cheek melancholy fashion, about the way we treat our milieu (he was a man before his time). The chorus could apply equally well to growing old: Headache, rheumatism, water-pipes and gas-works.

This getting old business is a bit of a lark, isn't it?

I mean, I don't feel any older than I did when I was young, so what are all these tricks my body's playing on me? Pills, potions and pomades, that's what life is all about nowadays. You go to the doctor and the answer to all the aches and pains, the gases and all other complains remains the same, "It's the age!"

I started aching some fifteen years ago, but after several years of poking and prodding, it was discovered that I had severe osteoporosis. Fair enough, that at least was an acceptable explanation, even if no real reason (other than it being in the genes) could be given. But now it seems that anything and everything is age-related.

Drops in the eyes against glaucoma, high doses of calcium and additional vitamin D, together with a medicine called Protelos, to combat the effects of osteoporosis, various other concoctions against gout, or trout, or something, along with creams against irritation in places best left unmentioned.

I eat food and my nose starts running; I've lost my sense of smell almost completely; my back aches when I sit too long, or stand too long, or lie too long, or… The hair stopped growing on my head years ago, but now grows in my ears, for heaven's sake.

My body goes out where it used to go in and goes in where it used to go out. Running for anything is a past art. I come into the living-room intending to do something extremely important and haven't the faintest idea what it is I intend to do.

Exercise is limited: I tried jogging some years back and that caused split shins (presumably because of the osteoporosis); gentle tai-chi resulted in a compression fracture of the vertebrae. At least I can walk a lot more here in Spain than I could in Belgium, but it is not something I am particularly fond of. I do, of course, have the vibro-platform that I wrote about earlier, so at least I get to shake it all about now and then. I use the platform every other day, in fact, though am still not at all sure if it actually does anything useful!

Alcohol, you say?

I don't drink alcohol and haven't done so since 1982.

Smoking, you say?

I have never smoked.

Diet, you say?

She Who Must Be Obeyed provides me with what she insists is a well-balanced diet, containing all the vitamins, roughage, proteins and whatever else that a healthy lifestyle requires. Who am I to argue?

So perhaps the doctors (and Tol Hansse) really do have a point about this getting old business: it's not good for you.

What key am I supposed to press now…?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Shame, Shame, Shame

Rugby (the only real sport).

Wales played arch-enemy England on Saturday. England won the match by far too many points to not enough (30 - 17).

The score did not adequately reflect the less than mediocre spectacle provided by both sides. After the match, the players, coaches and managers should have been made to stand with heads bowed in front of the posts, begging the Great God Rugger for forgiveness for such a pathetic display.

Welsh lock Alun-Wyn Jones should have been red carded for his unsportsmanlike, ruthless, callous, and quite deliberate trip. Such behaviour has no place on the rugby pitch, no matter how much it is condoned by namby-pamby soccer players. But apart from Jones's unforgivable tactics, the two teams provided nothing more than a pathetic display of handling errors, unnecessary kicking, poor ball skills, and lack of insight. The players could just as well have stayed in the changing-rooms during the first half, leaving the ref to jog up and down the pitch, perhaps co-ordinating his movements with those of the linesmen—the spectacle would have been just as exciting and enthralling as that put on by the players: a pathetic display of hopelessness.

These are supposed to be professional rugby players? The best of their countries? I went to a rugby-playing school (Woolverstone Hall) in the 1960s. Our sports master was, thankfully, a Welshman called Mr Evans (well, I never), who stood for no nonsense and knew his rugby inside out. If Mr Evans were alive today, he'd explode, seeing such a collection of basic handling errors, lack of vision, and quite unnecessary kicking. The two teams would be down on Orwell Field, practising passing, dummying, side-stepping and all manner of other things rugby, up and down the field for hours on end until they can do it blindly. And no dinner, either.

And as for Alun-Wyn Jones, he'd never play again.

It seems that those who guide the sport have got their knickers in a twist, thinking that rugby is all a question of power. Sumo wrestling it's not, for heaven's sake! Okay, the forwards need to be big (well, big-ish), but the halves and three-quarters do not need to be the large and often muscle-bound entities so often seen nowadays. They must be agile, fast, able to run with he ball, to side-step, to dart in and out, to sell a dummy… Oh, and for this to occur, the ball has to be passed out from the scrum, via the scrum half (who really must know how to pass) to the fly-half and on via the centres to the wing. And line up! And back up! And do all the basic things that rugby requires. And forget the idea that brute force alone will win a match.

Come back, Mr Evans. All is forgiven.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

12 BiP (Before iPad)

On Friday 27 February 1998, Apple Computer announced that its Newton handheld computing platform was dead.

If you don't know the Newton platform, you don't know one of the finest, if premature, platforms ever.

A prototype of Newton was shown to the press in May 1992 (18 BiP) by John Sculley, CEO of Apple. In August 1993 (17 BiP) the first Newton MessagePad was launched. That's a very long time ago in computing terms.

The Newton Messagepad was ahead of its time with its wireless communications ability, its approach to data handling, its intelligence, and its use of handwriting recognition, all packaged in an easily held and highly usable device.

Well, to be honest, the original MessagePad was perhaps a little difficult to hold and could not really be carried easily in a pocket. Furthermore, its handwriting recognition was dodgy at best and there were other software problems, too. But Newton was something completely different, something wonderful, something you just had to have—if you could afford it—even if it did seem rather like a beta version.

The Newton operating system was highly advanced and protected the user from its inner workings almost completely. In addition, the user was basically unaware of any file system and just worked away, with the Newton itself providing exchange of data between applications, or, more precisely, between tasks.

The shortcomings of the original MessagePad 100 were addressed to some extent in the MessagePad 110, which was released in early 1994. Unfortunately, the price remained prohibitively high, but now at least third party software was beginning to arrive and the Newton platform seemed to be sound.

In late 1995, the MessagePad 120 was released, along with a new version of the Newton operating system (Newton OS 2.0). This was followed by the MessagePad 130, which included a backlit display and still more memory, providing performance improvement.

Then, in early 1997 (13 BiP), the MessagePad 2000 was released. With a much faster processor, a larger backlit screen (320x480 pixels), an extra PC card slot, as well as the ability to perform digital voice recording and to attach an external keyboard, the MP2000 seemed to be the ultimate hand-held computer. Web surfing, e-mailing, Works applications, vastly improved handwriting recognition… Who needed a laptop?

Well, Apple thought that someone did, for at the same time, Apple released a sort of clamshell version of the MessagePad, called the eMate 300 and it looked like something out of science-fiction, with its strange shape and its translucent green plastic cover. It was basically the MP2000 in a case with a built-in keyboard. The eMate was aimed primarily at the education market, but found favour in other areas, too.

With four times the memory of the MP2000 and better networking capabilities, the MessagePad 2100 was released in late 1997. It's a sweet machine, even now.

By that time, however, Steve Jobs had been called back to Apple and he decided to kill off the Newton. Why? Nobody really knows, though Bastiens believed it was a simple business decision: cut costs and make Apple profitable again.True, Newton had been unprofitable, with huge development costs and relatively little in profits.

In any case, Apple dropped a product that was years ahead of anything else. Perhaps it was too far ahead to be fully understood by its potential customers at the time (and, indeed, most commentators seemed to have a fixation with the hand-writing recognition, while ignoring the more important aspects of usability, connectivity, data persistency…).

But Newton lives on in the hundreds, probably even thousands of users who still use the machines regularly, from the MP100 to the much loved MP2100. They are used in WiFi environments, for emailing, for everything they were originally designed for and for a lot more (for example, I and many other users have set up our Newtons to act as Web servers). Enthusiasts continue to develop software for Newton OS and even a Newton OS limitation that causes it to interpret the date wrongly from 2010 has been overcome by a recently developed patch. Search the Web and you will find plenty of sites devoted to Newton, including whole deposits of software and mines of useful information. The NewtonTalk Mailing List keeps fans informed about new developments and the more experienced members of the list are always willing to help newbies.

Newton might have been killed off in 12 BiP, but it certainly didn't die.


Now, 12 years later, a new sort of MessagePad has been announced by Apple, called the iPad. Maybe the name is a nod to the MessagePad, but that is certainly not where the similarities end. The iPad is similar in weight and size to the final incarnation of the MessagePad (iPad 242.8mm x 189.7mm, 680g.; MP2100 210.3mm x 118.7mm, 640g.) and its operating system also shields the user from the its complex innards—perhaps even more so than Newton OS. Applications are presented and activated in a very similar way, though the MessagePad used a stylus, rather than a finger, and the file system is almost as vague, though this is still a rather unclear area. The iPad is a master communicator, just as the MessagePad tried to be; advances in and convergences of technology give the iPad an advantage in that area, without a doubt. Other technological advances have provided the iPad with a dream of a colour screen and other capabilities that were clearly beyond the reach of the MessagePad in 13 BiP. Interestingly, the idea of an external keyboard has been maintained.

Strangely, the operating system of the iPad seems less intelligent than that of the MessagePad, even with the additional memory, the faster processor and the years of intervening development. Newton OS would automatically create links between, for example, a name in a calendar appointment and a name and address entry, to facilitate sending a fax.

By the time the MessagePad 2000 and 2100 came along, Newton's handwriting recognition had been improved to give a high level of accuracy (though it still had to be "trained" to achieve this). Because of this, Newton lovers are sorely disappointed that HWR is not a part of the standard features of the iPad. Indeed, the iPad is operated solely by finger "gestures," rather than with a stylus, so all input must be achieved through either a virtual keyboard (with what looks like an excellent implementation of such a keyboard) or with an optional external physical keyboard.

(The photos in this article are of some of my own Newton collection.)

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Veni, vidi, iPad

You can't have missed the fact that Apple recently announced that its new iPad will soon be available for purchase.


iPad. A "tablet computer"—a sort of hand-held computer without a physical keyboard.

Since Apple's announcement, made about a week ago, the computer geeks and freaks have been discussing the new baby all over the Web and, I'm sure, in printed form, too. They, of course, have been looking at it from anything but the point of view of the "normal" end-user, for these pundits, like myself, have been using computers for years (in my case, since 1968) and tend to see things "through a glass, darkly" (with thanks to 1 Corinthians 13). They moan about:
the lack of MacOS X (an operating system);
the lack of multi-tasking;
the lack of sufficient storage;
the lack of connectability;
the lack of a camera/webcam…

They fail miserably to look at the usefulness, audacity, and daring of the iPad.

It is particularly brave of Apple to present such a daring design, based to a very large extent on that of the much smaller iPhone and iPod touch. Apple has not had a happy history with hand-held computers, and Steve Jobs, the guiding guru of Apple, was some 13 years ago responsible for the ending of the Newton MessagePad product line (the Newton MessagePad was perhaps an even more daring step towards handheld computing). Jobs had no personal input into the Newton development, which took place during his forced absence from Apple and he had no problem at all in axing it, despite its extremely advanced features.

This time, however, Jobs seems to have been actively involved in the iPad development and certainly seemed pleased with the result when he presented the machine to an expectant audience. The presentation was the subject of much speculation prior to the event, with most pundits predicting a MacOS X based tablet, presumably thinking that Apple would follow Microsoft's attempts at releasing tablets with various flavours of Windows as the operating system. Silly boys! Since when has Apple followed Microsoft? And even if MacOS X is still the easiest and most stable operating system for desktop and laptop PCs, Jobs audaciously decided that something even simpler and less prone to error should be used on Apple's iPad. As a result, the iPad runs with a version of the iPhone operating system (also used on the iPod touch).

The result is a machine of incredible usefulness and ease of use. The user is completely screened from the operating and filing system. Applications start immediately with just a tap of the finger. The size of the machine and the quality of the LED screen is such that reading e-books will be a breeze; looking at photos, a dream; watching video, a real experience. And, of course, the iPad can handle email, web browsing, third-party apps (including those written for the iPhone and iPod touch), contacts, music… and so on and so forth. But there is even more, for the iPad will also be able to create presentations, using the app Keynote (far superior to PowerPoint), do page layout with Pages, and create spreadsheets with Numbers.

The iPad has a built-in virtual keyboard (it is displayed on the touch-sensitive screen and you simply type away on it), but can also be connected to a physical keyboard, if the user prefers (this setup is shown in the accompanying photo).

In some respects, the iPad doesn't go quite as far as the Newton went all those years ago: there is no handwriting recognition, for example, and the "intelligence" that the Newton operating system displayed seems to be absent in the iPad. Nevertheless, the iPad appears to be a good step towards being "the computer for the rest of us." Do you remember that slogan? It was used when the first Macintosh was released over twenty years ago, providing a graphical user interface (GUI) on a commercial desktop computer. The Mac made the use of a personal computer far easier, but it still required (and personal computers still work in this way) the user to have some idea of file organisation, to keep away from some areas of the computer, and to generally be more careful than is perhaps fair to expect of an end-user.

The iPad hides all the ugliness (sweetness to us computer people) and complexity of the operating system from the end-user. The iPad takes away any necessity to worry about file organisation. The iPad blocks access to the more delicate areas. The end-user need only worry about the thing that they are concerned with: which app?

This is an ideal computer for the majority of people who (think they) need a computer. What do most people want to do with a computer? Well, email (tick), web surfing (tick), names and addresses (tick), play music (tick), diary and appointments book (tick), perhaps some text processing (tick with Notes, bigger tick with Pages), look at photos (tick), look at videos (tick)… The iPad does all this and more, and you don't need a special table, cables, tower, complicated setup, etc. Lie on the sofa, sit in an armchair, sprawl on the floor, sit in the train… wherever you are, the iPad can be used. For me, it could replace my PowerBook when I travel to Belgium from Spain, or to anywhere else for that matter.

So where does this leave the moaning groaners? Nope, there is no multi-tasking. Not that multi-tasking is high on the want-list of the majority, for heaven's sake. Lack of sufficient storage? Well, I've got a 32 giga iPod and it has plenty of space to spare with over 3,500 pieces of music and several hundred photos, as well as a couple of videos, an e-book, and 24 apps in addition to the standard ones; indeed, I have over 13 giga free. Admittedly, there will be some people who will require more space and there is the 64 giga version for them. And you can bet your boots that if the iPad is a success, there will soon be versions with even larger capacity. Connectability? Yes, at the moment the options are limited: to all intents and purposes, you need another personal computer (MacOS X or Windows) to load iTunes music onto the iPad, for example, but you still have what will probably be a shared space to exchange data (as opposed to external storage) and will be able to access Apple's on-line storage service. In addition, the iPad has an input-output port, which can be used for a keyboard, or to attach a camera for transferring photos, but the full extent of the use of this port must still be explored. iPad also has bluetooth and WiFi capabilities, so there seems little doubt that apps will soon be developed to make use of these capabilities. The lack of a built-in camera or webcam is, indeed, a peculiar decision. The operating system is not the problem, as the iPhone is equipped with a camera, so why did Apple (Jobs?) decide not to include such a device in the iPad. I honestly have no idea. I can do perfectly well without either a still camera or a webcam, but I can see that a lot of people would prefer to have one or other (or both). A still camera would, admittedly, be rather out of place on the iPad (imagine holding up the iPad to take a photo), but the webcam could serve a function for videoconferencing, or simple chatting (the iPad would, however, need a more sturdy support than merely being held in the hand).

Whatever its shortcomings at the moment, I have little doubt that they will be addressed in what will perhaps be a "Pro" version of the iPad, which will appear only if the current version proves to be a commercial success. Personally, I have little doubt that the iPad will be a huge success, for it really does look like the computer for the rest of us.