Wednesday, January 24, 2007

SOTU, Brute? It's Geek Wednesday!

So what's a soon-to-be-unemployed geek do on SOTU night?

Bemoan the state of the economy? Well, according to the Center for American Progress:

Tax cuts "have been the single largest contributor to the reemergence of substantial budget deficits." The Congressional Budget Office reports that tax cuts enacted from 2001 to 2006 were responsible for 51 percent of the deterioration in the budget. "Between 2001 and 2006, the passage of the Bush tax cuts without the offsetting savings have cost $1.2 trillion in lost revenues, or more than 80 percent of the cumulative deficit during this period..."

The President's bloated budgets have reflected skewed priorities and have not stimulated economic growth. Economic growth fell to 2 percent in the third quarter of last year, following 2.6 percent growth in the second quarter and a surprisingly strong first quarter growth of 5.6 percent.

Well, I could worry about all that and more, but instead I'll spend SOTU night writing...

Geek Wednesday

First and foremost, one erratum to report: last month, we reported on the new MacBook, and one of my few beefs with this marvelous machine was its lack of a right-click mechanism in the trackpad. Well, I found out in a rather roundabout way that I was wrong. I went over to investigate Alex Harper's Sidetrack utility, which adds right-click functionality to all Mac laptops, to see if it would work for me. I found out it didn't (it's not compatible with the new MacBooks), but I did discover that Apple has already set up the desired feature: you can program your trackpad to right click with the trackpad button whenever you have two fingers on the pad. Just open System Preferences, click Keyboard and Mouse, and then click the check box beside "place two fingers on trackpad and click button for secondary click". There—you've got yourself a right-clicking trackpad, and it's easy to learn and operate.

So I retract that criticism of my new, month-old MacBook, and now I have nothing substantive to complain about with this machine. I had a chance to compare it with a Lenovo Thinkpad, which I had to take home for work. As you can see, the Mac wins out for looks (what a difference!), display size and quality, keyboard (big advantage for the Mac there, especially for clumsy typists like yours truly), and, of course, the operating system. In fact, having spent lots of hours on the Thinkpad these past two months, the only area where it may appear preferable is in the weight department. It's about a pound lighter than the MacBook, but what I give up for that pound amounts to a ton of convenience, functionality, durability, and efficiency. American Express can take its Thinkpad and stick it where the moon don't shine.

I know I am frequently critical of Apple, and they deserve plenty of critical attention (more than they get from the often slavish Mac media). But when it comes to design genius and techno-wizardry, Apple hardware is the best in the world, hands down. Their operating system is the best commercial OS out there, though I still think Linux offers vast promise.

Oh, and speaking of operating systems, did you know there's a new one coming out next week? Pardon me while I yawnsta and go take a pista. Can't wait to see those midnight lines and Keith Jarrett roaming the streets singing "Start Me Up".

Now, time for a Webby Awards report. As you may know, I've been in the midst of my second consecutive year of reviewing sites for the Webby Awards. I've seen a lot of very bad websites, but a few beauties. Here are my favorites so far:

Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Web design and geekery just doesn't get better than this. This is the very first site I've ever given straight 10's (we mark on a 1-10 scale for elements such as functionality, visual design, interactivity, structure and navigation, etc.). You have to go see it to appreciate it, but it's the most creative use of Flash media I've ever seen: there is history, insight from Tilson Thomas, inline performance video, and beautifullly crafted sheet music "playing" in real time with the audio. Ingenious stuff. The design and geekery of the site have been done by Rolling Orange, and if the Webby folks set any store by what they've got from me, this site will be bringing home the trophy this June.

Gee Guides: This is a site that I actually tested on my daughter. It is a web-based set of modules in art instruction, featuring original cartoon characters, stories, and some remarkably creative teaching sets in color, design, history, movement, and more. The kid loved it for the fun and interactivity; I loved it because these people are teaching art in a non-pedagogical, dynamic way. This should also be a big winner this June.

Exploring Learning with Gizmos A terrific site that delivers interactive instruction in math and science. It's designed for kids, of course, but believe me, lots of adults will benefit from this stuff as well. Check out some of the sample "gizmos" they've put up for preview. I also like how they provided a workaround for those of us using Safari on Intel Macs: this shows that the geeks there care enough to sweat the details, and the results prove it.

I'll have more next week, because the entry deadline has been extended to Jan. 26, and that means there will be more to review! Last night I started getting some activism sites to look at, so I'm looking forward to seeing more of those.

What these sites show us is the promise of the web—to teach, communicate, and entertain. Technology often gets a bad rap, and for the same reasons that government, religion, and media do: because they're controlled by rapacious, greedy, shortsighted, narrow-minded people who look at it and see only profit and glory for themselves. But if you can cut through the thin veneer of fame and wealth, and seek out the people who do these things for the love of them, then you'll find truth and beauty both together. Search the media and you'll find journalists who haven't sold their souls for a seat on Air Force One or an embedded ringside jeep at The Big War; you'll hear the voices of spiritualists who have no thought of exclusivity or glory, but only an attention to the hidden world; you'll meet activists and local officials and even an occasional Congressman who loves his country and the world so much that he'll chase truth rather than power. And you will meet the geeks of the Open Source Society—the people who write the code and make the machines that help connect us all.

I will, in a few weeks, be 50 years old—that's AARP eligibility age, kids. So I imagine I may be eligible as well to deliver a few crumbs of advice for the younger ones. Of course, I have nothing useful to offer in that way, except perhaps this: find what you love to do, and hold it, follow it wherever it draws your heart along. Don't let anyone or anything separate you from it—not a lover, not an authority figure, not power, not money, not fame. Just stay with the pulse of your love, for that is your destiny. The money and the recognition will inevitably follow you down that path of light; just hold to it, for that is your treasure. Do this, and you will never know regret, and rarely sorrow. I have no better advice to offer.

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