Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The rise of the netbook

Several weeks ago, my brother-in-law decided that he was tired of lugging his full-size laptop to his classes at the University of Houston. So he entered the market for the small, simple, lightweight and cheap computers known as "netbooks." After carefully pondering his options, he decided to get an HP Mini: it wasn't as powerful as a full-size laptop and it didn't have a lot of storage space, but it didn't matter because he wasn't going to be using it for anything other than taking notes in class and surfing the web. And he got it for less than four hundred dollars.

I didn't think too much about Danny's purchase that the time, but then I stumbled across this February article from Wired.com about the advent of the netbook and the effect it could have on the computing industry. The article explains how the netbook concept was originally intended to be a cheap, simple computer for people in poor and developing countries to use, but has instead become popular as a second computer for people in developed countries who already have larger, faster and more expensive machines.

The netbook, furthermore, might end up being the only type of computer that a lot of people need. As long as it is connected to the internet (they're all equipped with built-in wi-fi), people can use them to do the same web-based activities they'd do from a larger machine, from getting the latest news to checking their e-mail to updating their Facebook profile. The utility of the netbook is further enhanced by the availability of free, web-based applications: instead of writing a letter using Microsoft Word and saving it to your hard drive, for example, you can write it with Google Docs and then save it in the online "cloud:"
Netbooks are evidence that we now know what personal computers are for.Which is to say, a pretty small list of things that are conducted almost entirely online. This was [Taiwanese laptop manufactuer] Asustek's epiphany. It got laptop prices under $300 by crafting a device that makes absolutely no sense when it's not online. Consider: The Eee's original flash drive was only 4 gigs. That's so small you need to host all your pictures, videos, and files online—and install minimal native software—because there's simply no room inside your machine.

Netbooks prove that the "cloud" is no longer just hype. It is now reasonable to design computers that outsource the difficult work somewhere else. The cloud tail is wagging the hardware dog.

The emergence of the ultra-cheap netbook could have a significantly negative effect on the home computer market as a whole, because as more people discover that a $400 netbook with internet access is all they really need, it could mean fewer sales of more powerful (and more profitable) products.

But what interests me about the netbook phenomenon is not so much what it means for the computer industry as what it says about the internet. Not only does its versatility - in the form of web-based applications, for example - threaten to challenge and even replace what has up to now been the exclusive province of hardware, but the relationship between the computer and the web itself has been reversed. For so long, the internet was something that "served" our computers. The netbook, on the other hand, exists to service the internet.

Fact is, the internet has long since stopped being a mere novelty or a luxury item and has now become a utility just as critical as running water or electricity. I was especially made aware of this during the weeks following Hurricane Ike. What bothered me was not so much the lack of electricity (he had a generator, after all), but the lack of internet access. During that time I truly felt disconnected; our links to the outside world during that time - radio and broadcast television - seemed as quaint and as inadequate as the evening paper or the telegraph.

The internet will celebrate its 40th birthday this fall, and it's only been in the last fifteen years, give or take, of its life that it has been accessible by the general public. Yet it is now a normal and, in many cases, indespensible part of our everyday lives; the rise of the netbook makes that fact even more evident.

It's really quite remarkable. Especially when we consider that we've only just begun.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The collegiate equivalent of a participation ribbon?

Somebody on one of the UH message boards took this picture of the marquee in front of Hofheinz Pavilion:
On one hand, it does look sort of, eh, underwhelming. "We're number seventeen!* Woohoo!"

On the other hand, if the football team had ended the season ranked in the Top 25, we'd all be ecstatic.

Moreover, UH diver Anastasia Pozdniakova won the one-meter diving event, becoming the national champion in that category (an award that should look nice next to the silver medal she won in Beijing last summer; she also placed second nationally in the three-meter event).

Perhaps that accomplishment would have looked better on the marquee?

(*48 schools participated.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Layoffs, Michael Murphy and the beginning of the end of the Chronicle

Hopefully, everyone who read it enjoyed Michael Murphy's entry on his Chronicle UH sports blog last night. As it turns out, his entry about the departure of backup quarterback Blake Joseph and the start of spring football practice was his last. The Houston Chronicle is trimming its workforce by 12%, and UH beat writer Michael Murphy was among the casualties.

Rice beat writer Moisekapenda Bower and TSU beat writer Terrence Harris were also cut, meaning that the Chronicle has essentially eliminated its local college coverage. (I'd normally say something here about this being evidence of the Chronicle's longstanding bias against the local schools and towards Texas and Texas A&M, but the paper got rid of their beat writers for both of those schools a while back; Longhorn reporter Mike Finger and Aggie beat writer Brent Zwereneman are actually San Antonio Express-News employees and, according to Forth and Fifty, the Chronicle is going to drop them as well anyway.)

It's no secret that the newspaper industry has fallen upon hard times; even before the current recession, newspapers were struggling. Not only did the internet change the way people got their news - usually, free of charge - but the rise of websites like craigslist also took a huge bite out of lucrative newspaper classified revenue. The Chronicle's owner, Hearst Communications, has been especially hit hard: one Hearst publication, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, went to an online-only format earlier this month, while another Hearst asset, the San Francisco Chronicle, is in serious financial trouble. Other recent developments, such as the death of the Rocky Mountain News or the decision by the Detroit Free-Press to eliminate home delivery for three days of the week, suggest that the newspaper industry, at least as it currently exists, is essentially gasping its last, dying breaths. (An excellent take on the impending death of the print daily industry, its causes, and its effects, can be read here. Another article worth reading is here.)

Without knowing for sure the true financial situation of the Chronicle or whether these cuts were initiated at the local level or at the behest of their Hearst overlords, I can't help but wonder: does this retrenchment mark the beginning of the end for the Chronicle? Anybody can cover the HPD police blotter or city council's weekly agenda, after all, but it's the specialized local beats that make a local paper relevant. By getting rid of not only their local college sports beat writers, but also other worthy local beats such as NASA (Marc Carreau) and Continental Airlines (Bill Hensel), the Chronicle is decimating the unique, specialized and locally-generated content that makes it relevant. Less specialized content means less readers, which means less revenue, which means that, well, you follow the spiral to its logical conclusion and that conclusion does not bode well for the Chronicle's survival.

In the interests of full disclosure, I grew up an avid and partisan Houston Post reader and I have no special interest in the survival of the Chronicle. But as somebody who is at least sympathetic to the importance of print journalism - I wrote extensively for my high school paper, was a columnist at my college paper, and wrote a few articles for a national architecture student publication - I can't help but wonder: if the Chronicle goes away, then what? Who or what is left to take a local newspaper's place as a reporter, as an informer, as a watchdog?

At any rate, I'm sorry that people like Murph are out of a job tonight. Although I could have done without some of his gratuitous antagonism or his continual useless complaining about UH's attendance problems, he was a good journalist who did his job well and provided UH athletics with excellent coverage. Best of luck to him.

UPDATE: Steve Campbell appears to be the new UH beat writer. Megan Manfull is taking over the Rice beat.

Cat question of the day

Why do cats rip open holes in bags of cat food even when a full bowl of food is sitting right in front of them?

Do they think that food directly out of the bag tastes fresher or better than the food in the bowl? Do they think that it's more fun or challenging to rip open a bag to get their food than it is to just eat it out of the bowl? Or do they do it just to annoy the crap out of their owners?

I'm thinking it's the last of the three.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Portraits of springtime in Texas

The state insect meets the state wildflower:

Time for Tom Penders to move on

Wednesday evening, I watched what could only be described as a joke.

The University of Houston Cougars were playing a postseason basketball game. Not in the NCAA Tournament (it's been 17 years since the Coogs, a team that once went to the Big Dance with regularity and have five Final Four appearances to their name, last went to the NCAA tourney), or even the NIT, which has traditionally been the "consolation" tournament for schools that had decent seasons but who weren't quite good enough to make it into the 65-team NCAA tourney, but in a third-tier tournament called the "College Basketball Invitational."

The Cougars, 21-11 going into the game, were playing Oregon State, a team with a losing record, on the road.

And the Cougars, who could only manage to shoot an abysmal 28 psercent from the floor, lost to this Oregon State team with a losing record in this third-rate "tournament," 45-49.

That's right. The final score was 45-49. High school girls' basketball games usually manage to score more points than that.

I wont even go to the amateur video production and the utterly clueless announcers. Why was this crap televised to begin with?

After five years of head coach Tom Penders (and his scatter-brained "throw up the three!" offense, his lack of anything resembling a defense, his lack of team continuity from one season to the next and his plethora of excuses every time his team loses), this is what UH basketball fans (those of us who still exist) get: a 21-12 record that's not nearly as impressive once all the out-of-conference cupcakes the Coogs played are considered, and a 45-49 loss to a 13-17 Oregon State team in the first round of an dubious basketball "tournament" for teams that couldn't even make it into the NIT.

In other words, a joke. A big, fat joke.

While it is technically correct to say that the program is better now than it was when he got here, to compare Penders' "success" with the abomination that was the Brooks-Drexler-McCallum Era of Suckitude - i.e., the worst stretch in the history of the UH basketball program - is to set the bar really, really low. It's damning with faint praise. Especially when one considers that the program is no closer than going to the Big Dance today than it was after Penders' first season at the helm. There's no reason to expect any improvement next season, either, as Chron blogger sarcoog2010 writes:

Next year will be no different. It doesn't matter if we return everyone and the water boy, we'll still have the same issues. We still take too many three-pointers and we don't have a guy who can consistently hit them. Our post players will never be consistently involved and Qa'rraan Calhoun will remain as afraid of contact as an 8 year old ballerina. Our half court offense will remain as nonexistent as a diet in the Rosie O' Donnell household.

The fact is that we will not be a tournament team next year, or if Penders sticks around even longer (God forbid). The fact is that we will continue to lose the games that matter and some we should not if some radical changes aren't made. I don't foresee any changes, which is truly the modus operandi of this staff.

Your Houston Cougar basketball program is becoming less and less relevant every day under this staff. If you want to give me the attendance or facilities excuse then you're seriously part of the problem too. I refuse to believe that the best I can expect as a Houston fan is 21 wins and an appearance in a made up tournament.

While Penders did take the program from "bad" to "mediocre" and deserves recognition as such, he has not gotten, nor will he get, the program from "mediocre" to "good." Tom Penders has long since reached the plateau of what he can accomplish here at Houston. It's time for him to retire and for UH athletics to move on.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Barbara L. Ward

Back in November of 1996, as my days as an undergrad at the University of Houston came to a close, I wrote a column for the Daily Cougar (archives aren't working right now, so no link to the actual column) thanking all the people - professors, friends and family - that made my time at the University of Houston so special. I made a point to mention one person at the College of Architecture who especially deserved recognition:
The most important person at the college, however, is not a professor. Barbara Ward, the college's secretary, is truly a second mother to all architecture students. Without her, the college would simply not function. We love you, Barbara!
Yesterday, I learned that Barbara Ward passed away in Austin last week. Her funeral was held here in Houston last Saturday.

When I say that Barbara Ward was a "second mother" to the students at the University of Houston College of Architecture, I am not exaggerating or otherwise being hagiographic. She truly loved the students in her college as if they were her own children, and she treated us as such. When we needed anything: a stamp to mail something, or help in tracking down a professor to discuss a project or assignment, or help with a job lead, or even just a sympathetic ear, she was there for us. We, as students, loved her as much as she loved us. At my graduation ceremony, when they presented the college's faculty and staff, the person who received the loudest ovation was not a professor, but rather Barbara.

Barbara Ward was a wonderful human being, and the world is a lesser place for her passing.

Thank you, Barbara. I'll miss you.
BARBARA L. WARD, loving Mother, Grandmother and Great Grandmother, was called to be with her Lord on March 11, 2009. She was a third generation Houstonian and was preceded in death by her husband George H. Ward, parents Howard and Ruth Mann, and great grandson Cameron Clanton. Barbara is survived by her daughters Linda Mader, Georganne Logue and husband Miles, and Janet Bailey and husband Lynn and cousin Nick Grivas. She was also blessed with six grandchildren, Jason Barnes, Kristy Clanton, Danyelle Khaled, Sheri Carey, Courtney Tompkins, and Kelly Sweetin. In addition, Barbara has 13 great grandchildren and another due in September. Barbara attended the University of Houston and spent 28 years working at UH with the majority of the years in the Dean's Office of the College of Architecture. Visitation will be held at 5:00 pm on Thursday March 12, 2009 at Thomason Funeral Home in San Marcos, Texas to be followed by a visitation at 6:00 pm at Forest Park Lawndale located at 6900 Lawndale in Houston, Texas on Friday, March 13, 2009. Services will be held at 1:00 pm on Saturday, March 14, 2009 at Forest Park Lawndale with burial to immediately follow the service at the same location. Pallbearers will be Miles Logue, Lynn Bailey, Jason Barnes, Greg Clanton, Mike Khaled, and Doug Carey. The family would like to extend a special thank you to Hospice of Austin for the excellent care they provided our loving Mother. Truly, Barbara has given us a legacy built on faith and family - She will be greatly missed.

Less-than-memorable moments in popular music

Apropos of something Steve wrote: if you're a fan of early-80s electro-pop, then you probably like "Vienna" by Ultravox.

The song never charted in America, but in February of 1981 it reached the number two position on the UK pop chart and stayed there for several weeks. The song that kept it out of the #1 position?

"Shaddup You Face" by Joe Dolce.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Houston 2009 football schedule released

Last week, the University of Houston released its fall 2009 football schedule. Here is the slate, hurricane-permitting:

Sep 05: Northwestern State
Sep 12: at Oklahoma State
Sep 19: bye
Sep 26: Texas Tech (ESPN)
Oct 03: at UTEP
Oct 10: at Mississippi State
Oct 17: at Tulane
Oct 24: SMU
Oct 31: Southern Miss
Nov 07: at Tulsa
Nov 14: at UCF
Nov 21: Memphis
Nov 28: Rice

This looks like a pretty tough schedule. Not only do the Coogs have to play three tough BCS programs (Oklahoma State and Mississippi State on the road, and Texas Tech at home in a game that should easily sell out), but they also have to play C-USA divisional foes UTEP and revenge-minded Tulsa on the road. In fact, the team has two extended road trips on their schedule: a brutal three-game stretch in October and a two-game trip in November. Although the placement of the bye week between the Coogs' two toughest opponents will give the team time to regroup and prepare, I kind of wish they got the week off a little later in the season. At least the Coogs get cross-division goes Southern Miss and Memphis, who have traditionally given them fits, at home this fall.

It's still too early for me to make predictions about the Coogs' chances this fall - spring practives haven't even begun yet - but for a team that has to replace its offensive line and virtually all of its defense, this is a really tough schedule in terms of both the quality of the opponents as well as the placement of the roadies. With the exception of FCS opener Northwestern State and maybe Tulane, there are no "gimme" games on this schedule, and Oklahoma State - the Coogs's second consecutive trip to Stillwater - is probably a sure loss.

What it all means is that the Coogs could very well show improvement on the field, but that improvement might not get reflected in the win-loss column.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Television, young children and reality

Another study has come out suggesting that infant-oriented educational DVDs have no beneficial impact on children:
Watching television does not make babies smarter, according to a study released this week in the journal Pediatrics, adding to existing research that challenges the usefulness of baby educational videos and DVDs.

Researchers from Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and Harvard Medical School reached this conclusion after monitoring more than 800 children from birth to 3 years of age.

"Contrary to parents' perceptions that TV viewing is beneficial to their children's brain development, we found no evidence of cognitive benefit from watching TV during the first two years of life," the authors wrote.

Educational DVD and videos geared towards enriching babies and toddlers, such as "BabyGenius," "Brainy Baby" or "Baby Einstein," which proclaim to "encourage discovery and inspire," have no benefits, researchers said.

In the interest of full disclosure, Lori and I did buy several "Baby Einstein" DVDs for Kirby to watch when he was a baby. They were recommended to us by other parents, and while we never harbored any notions that watching such videos would make Kirby, well, an Einstein, we did think that the soothing music and vivid colors in these videos would stimulate him. Perhaps we were wrong.

That being said, I'm a bit annoyed by this quote:

Pediatrician Dr. Michael Rich, a co-author of the latest study from Boston, calls baby educational DVDs and videos "just wasted time."

"At the very best, they steal time from much more productive cognitive developmental activities," he said. "Ultimately, what it's about is to make parents not feel guilty about an electronic baby sitter."

I have no doubt that child development experts make statements such as this with the best interest of our children in mind. But let's face it: while it's very easy for a Harvard-educated academic physician to make this pronouncement, it simply ignores reality. Odds are that Dr. Rich, like a majority of pediatricians, makes enough money to hire a full-time nanny or sustain a single-income household such that he doesn't have to make use of an "electronic baby sitter." But that's just not the way things are for the average two-income family. While any good parent would like to spend as much time as possible reading or playing games with their child, there are also other chores - cooking, cleaning, balancing the checkbook - that require attention. Sometimes that "electronic baby sitter," problematic though it may be, comes in rather handy.

But Karen Hill Scott, a senior fellow at UCLA who works in the field of child development, said the criticism ignores real life. "To me, as a scientist and parent, we can't hold on to completely demonizing screen time when parents are really very determined to use it."

Modern parents "want kids to be literate on computers. They don't see the screen media as evil," said Scott, a consultant for Baby Einstein."The net effect that it's not harmful is a relief to many families who have been made to feel guilty or awful that they use screen time."
On one hand, children ideally should engaged in activities other than passively sitting and watching television. Parents should not rely on the television to keep their children occupied and should not believe that "educational" programming will really make their children smarter. But on the other hand, maybe it isn't a good idea to have the medical elite pass judgment upon the millions of parents out there who simply cannot provide their young children with an alternative to television viewing all of the time.

Is there room for some sort of compromise here?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Daily Show takedown of CNBC

In case you missed last night's Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

CNBC was a cheerleader for the entire mortgage-and-securities bubble. As the bubble popped, they downplayed the seriousness of the situation. They unquestioningly swallowed the crap being fed to them by crooked CEOs and regurgitated it back to their viewers. They gave their viewers lousy stock advice. And now that the network's credibility has been otherwise shattered, screaming CNBC lunatics like Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer want to blame the crisis on an administration that's been in power for a bit over six weeks now. Props to Jon Stewart for calling CNBC out on its bullshit.

The entirety of last night's show is worth watching.

Dubai Creek wharfages to be closed

(note: see UPDATE at the end of this post as well)

This news makes me sad.
The historic dhow harbour, one of Dubai’s most popular tourist attractions, is to be closed to long-haul dhows because of growing concerns about the difficulty of maintaining security in the heart of the city. For the past 100 years, the dhow wharves on the east bank of Dubai Creek have played a key part in the expansion of the city and the development of trade with East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Tourists flock to the Creek for the colourful and often chaotic spectacle of hundreds of workers loading and unloading goods from the traditional wooden dhows that ply their trade on age-old routes to destinations throughout the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Now, however, the pressures of the modern world are rendering the traditional site unworkable. Dubai Customs is to relocate all dhow shipping to the expanding Al Hamriya Port in Deira, seven kilometres away by water on the coast at the base of the Palm Deira development.

The dhow wharfages on the Deira side of Dubai Creek are indeed a major Dubai tourist attraction, if for no other reason than their rustic, bustling and rough-edged nature contrasts nicely with the rest of the city's modern sleekness. Both the Big Bus Company as well as the creek cruises make the wharfages a key component of the tours they offer.

The move is part of a wider strategy by customs aimed at improving the security of the city, which includes increasing the inspection of trading vessels and monitoring sailors who enter the country, particularly from Iran, Pakistan and India.

The attack on Mumbai in November, in which the assailants were landed by boat, emphasised the vulnerability of cities with busy waterfronts at their heart.

I completely understand the security rationale for closing the creek harbor. These wharfages are essentially located at the heart of old Dubai and, to be honest, I'm kind of surprised that this action hadn't been undertaken sooner.

But on another level, I'm disappointed. The closure of these wharfages represents the loss of a piece of Dubai's history - seatrading, after all, is Dubai's history - and the dhow harbor truly is a fascinating sight. Here are some pictures I took a couple of years ago:

As the article notes, no date has been set for the closure of these wharfages but the improvements to Al Hamirya Port designed to acommodate these dhows is expected to be completed in a couple of years. So enjoy the history, sight and bustle of the traditional wharfages while they last.

UPDATE: apparently the Dubai government has decided to shelve plans to close the wharfages, at least for right now. Businesses surrounding the historic dhow harbor on Dubai Creek reportedly protested the plan because they feared that they would lose customers. I have a feeling that this issue hasn't been put to bed, however.