Software: April 2007 Archives


April 24, 2007

Picked up The Andromeda Strain at the library. Not as good as the book, though reasonably well done. [The book, btw, is extremely well executed, totally inconsistent with Crichton's subsequent descent into hackery. Crichton has (or had) a good sense for how science works as well as a good ear for how to generate convincing faux technical detail.]

One thing struck me, though. As with Asimov 25+ years earlier [*] the extrapolations of what computers can and can't do is strangely off. The movie includes the following gadgets:

  • An automatic medical analyzer with voice recognition (in the book)
  • A computer capable of fully simulating the growth of the Andromeda organism based purely on X-ray crystallography and electron microscopy (not in the book)

However, when they're studying the conditions under which Andromeda can grow, some scientist has to watch a CRT display the results of each growth plate one after another looking for anomalies. Better yet, the anomalous results display the legend "NO GROWTH". Of course, this sort of pattern matching is childs play for software. Why the computer can't detect these is not explained. Incidentally, this scene does not seem to be in the book. On the contrary, Crichton explicitly has the computer flag the relevant growth conditions, which is exactly what you'd want.

This blind spot about how to search for stuff on a computer would be echoed in Jurassic Park where the girl hacker navigates some 3D VR-style ile manager ("It's a UNIX system! I know this!") that no hacker would be caught dead using. (Though as I recall said file manager was a real demo on SGI systems of the time). Of course, both movies were made in time periods where not that many people had first-hand experience with computers and your average disk drive couldn't really hold enough files to make searching necessary. Now that nearly everyone has direct experience with search engine, I'd be surprised to see this particular mistake made in contemporary fiction. More likely screenwriters will assume that you can just type any random thing into Google and the information will just pop out. (I actually remember someone mentioning this about a recent movie but can't recall which one it was.)


April 22, 2007

One of the nice features of OS/X is that since it's BSD if you forget your password you can reboot single user and just change it. You just press Apple-S and boot. Or so I thought. I tried it today on the Mac Mini which I use as an ad hoc DVD player, only to have it come up normally. Natural thought: maybe it's the peripherals.

Step 1: replace the TV with a monitor. No joy.
Step 2: replace the wireless keyboard and mouse with a regular keyboard (no mouse). Machine comes up in single user but I can't seem to type anything. Or rather, I can type but nothing happens.
Step 3: scrounge an old USB mouse and plug it in. Hooray, I can type. Mission accomplished!

Now I just have to pull all that stuff off and wire it back up the way it was. I guess that's some kind of incentive to remember my password.