9/27/2008

Sunspots. Ready to Chill Out?

Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
  - Sir Arthur Eddington

You probably haven’t heard much about Solar Cycle 24, the current cycle that our sun has just entered. However if Solar Cycle 24 becomes a household term, our lifestyles could be taking a dramatic turn for the worse.

Solar Cycle 24 could mark a time of dramatic long-term change in the climate. According to geophysicist Philip Chapman, a former NASA astronaut, scientist and former president of the National Space Society, "It is time to put aside the global warming dogma, at least to begin contingency planning about what to do if we are moving into another little ice age."

In recent months the sun has lost its spots. By this point in the solar cycle, sunspots would ordinarily be present in significant numbers.  If the sun does not soon revert to its "normal" behavior, and the speculation in the scientific community is growing that it won’t – we could be entering a major new global cooling period.

This happened during the Little Ice Age, a period starting  around 1625 and lasting for centuries, says NASA’s Goddard Space Center, which  claims that the absence of sunspots is linked to the cold that then descended on Earth. During the coldest part of the Little Ice Age, a time known as the Maunder Minimum, astronomers saw only about 50 sunspots over a 30-year period (see chart below), less than one half of 1% of the sunspots that would normally have been expected. Other Minimums  also corresponded to times of unusual cold.

ssn_yearly

During the Little Ice Age, the Thames froze over. In what had previously been a warm Europe , growing seasons in England and Continental Europe generally became short and unreliable, which led to shortages and famine. But these hardships were nothing compared to the more northerly countries. Glaciers advanced rapidly in Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and North America, rendering vast tracts of land uninhabitable. The Arctic pack ice extended so far south that several reports describe Eskimos landing their kayaks in Scotland. Finland’s population fell by one-third, Iceland’s by half, and the Viking colonies in Greenland were abandoned altogether -- as were many Inuit communities. The cold in North America spread so far south that  in the winter of 1780  New York Harbor froze, enabling people to walk from Manhattan to Staten Island.

In the same way that the Earth cooled when sunspots disappeared, the Earth warmed when sunspot activity became pronounced. The warm period about 1000 years ago known as the Medieval Warm Period — a time of bounty in which grapes grew in England and Greenland was colonized — was also a time of high sunspot activity, called the Medieval Maximum. Since 1900, Earth has experienced what astronomers call “the Modern Maximum” — the 20th century has again been a time of high sunspot activity, accompanied by cries of "global warming" a - la Al Gore.

But the 1900s are over, along with the high temperatures that accompanied them. The last 10 years have seen no increase in temperatures — they reached a plateau and then remained there — and the last year saw a precipitous decline. How much lower and for how long the temperatures will fall, if at all, no one yet knows — the science is far from settled on what drives climate.

Several renowned scientists have been predicting for some time that the world could enter a period of cooling right around now, with consequences that could be dire. “The next little ice age would be much worse than the previous one and much more harmful than anything warming may do,” says Dr. Chapman.

The four major agencies tracking Earth’s temperature, including NASA’s Goddard Institute, report that the Earth cooled 0.7 degree Celsius in 2007, the fastest decline in the age of instrumentation, putting us back to where the Earth was in 1930.

John Casey of the Space and Science Research Center: “The key difference for this next Bi-Centennial Cycle’s impact versus the last is that we will have over 8 billion mouths to feed in the next coldest years where as we had only 1 billion the last time. Among other effects like social and economic disruption, we are facing the real prospect of the ‘perfect storm of global food shortages’ in the next climate change. In answer to the question, everyone on the street will be affected.”

As global cooling affects crop output and commodity prices, it also affects the global economy, causing a general global contraction in GDP’s, swings in interest rates, and other more subtle effects. I’m not about to propose that it was the solar cycle that caused the recent seizures in the commercial paper markets that frightened the Fed into coming up with their current $700 Billion emergency bailout package, but I would not be surprised if it did. At any rate I have serious doubts that it was “the failed policies of the Bush Administration”. There are far greater forces at work here. See here for more on this.

Theodor Landscheit, whose research on the effect of the sun’s interaction with the center of mass of our Solar System has enabled him to make some uncanny predictions, had this to say over 10 years ago:  “We need not wait until 2030 to see whether the forecast of the next deep Gleissberg minimum is correct. A declining trend in solar activity and global temperature should become manifest long before the deepest point in the development. The current 11-year sunspot cycle 23 with its considerably weaker activity seems to be a first indication of the new trend, especially as it was predicted on the basis of solar motion cycles two decades ago. As to temperature, only El Niño periods should interrupt the downward trend, but even El Niños should become less frequent and strong. The outcome of this further long-range climate forecast solely based on solar activity may be considered to be a touchstone of the IPCC's hypothesis of man-made global warming.“

Unfortunately, Dr. Landscheit died in 2004, so we no longer have the benefit of his potentially astute research.

So with the recent appearance of a solitary sunspot very late in the game, we are now at the beginning of Solar Cycle 24 (the scientific designation). Chill out, fire up your 10MPG gas-guzzling SUV, and take a nice drive in the soon to be cooler countryside.

9/26/2008

Silverlight 2 RC0 : Important Considerations for Developers

There are hundreds of “Me Too” blog posts about this, so I won’t bore you with more of the same. There are, however, two of what I think are very important considerations about Silverlight 2 RC0 that developers need to know about. You can only find out about this stuff if you take the time to RTFM carefully. In this case that would be the info on Scott Guthrie’s blog and possibly on Tim Heuer’s blog as well.  Pete Brown also does a great job of covering details, and he writes well. Finally, another smart person to follow would be Mike Snow, who is a Senior Software Design Engineer in Test (SDET) for Visual Web Developer Tools.

 

1)  RC0 is a developer release only. You cannot deploy RC0 applications to the web. They won't work. It's only for test environments where you want to ensure that existing or new applications will work with the final Silverlight 2 release.

To repeat: there is no end-user installable runtime for RC0, only the developer runtime with the developer tools.  If you deploy an RC0 application to the web, your users will be greeted with unfriendly install messages taking them to installs for Beta 2, and will make them confused. That's no good for you or for Microsoft.

2) The Blend SP1 update that all the announcements point to is for Blend 2 – the product – NOT the June 2008 Blend Preview. This means if you decide to install all the RC0 bits you’ll either need to be an owner of a licensed copy of the product (through MSDN Subscriber downloads for example) or you’ll need to install the free Trial of Blend 2, and then apply the SP1 update to that. Of course, if you have it, you will also need to uninstall the June 2008 Blend Preview.

3) As with any Release Candidate, spending 30 minutes carefully reading the Release Notes and Breaking Changes Word document can and will save you hours of frustration. R-T-F-M!  It’s taken me years to learn to do this, and I still occasionally slip up, but I gotta tell ya this is the best way to save time: Drop everything and Read The Friggin’ Manual First!

One recommendation I’ll make for a lot of developers who want to continue to work with BETA 2 and still be able to work on their code for the eventual Release version is to put these RC0 bits on a VPC image and do all your experimentation there; leaving the BETA 2 stuff on your regular development machine. I’ve got a VPC of Server 2008 on two of my machines. I can do anything I want with it, and if I don’t like what I’ve done or screwed it up, all I have to do is extract the original 7Zip self-extractor of the image from my USB stick and I’m like “it never happened”.

 

Have fun with Silverlight and remember to practice Safe Development – especially if you’re doing PDD (Pajama Driven Development).

9/18/2008

Learning Experiences: What Developers Want

“The last update to the Hypertext Markup Language — the lingua franca of the web — was the 4.01 specification completed in September, 1999.” –Digg Post

Recently I read a post on Jesse Liberty’s blog about getting flamed by some commenter who didn’t like what he was publishing. I responded in a comment that I thought he was doing just fine, and that you cannot expect to please everybody. But I also recommended that he put up one of those free poll “thingies” that would allow his visitors to vote on what they did want to see, and Jesse took me up on it.

He put up a comprehensive poll that allowed write-in suggestions. I thought it was very well designed. The preliminary results of some 250 responses (including mine) is quite revealing, I think:

“The results have held steady from the very beginning – Webcasts have overwhelmingly been the "last choice" for over 2/3 of users and in-depth tutorials have been the first choice; with short videos and short tutorials splitting the middle position.  In any case, there is almost total unanimity that all presentations should be at the Intermediate (300) level except for tutorials,  which nearly 2/3 of you think should be more advanced”


What this is saying is something that I myself have known and stated many times: Developers, when looking for learning resources on the web,  overwhelmingly prefer to read in-depth tutorials (preferably with downloadable code too) rather than viewing Webcasts or downloading Podcasts. And, at least as far as reading Liberty’s material on Silverlight, they prefer that the tutorials should be at the advanced level. Your “basic” level stuff usually comes from the articles and FAQs at the main silverlight.net web site.

For example, you can make a very nice screencast of “How to create a Silverlight Custom Control” (and people like Mike Taulty have done excellent ones, with pretty good voice narration). But the point is, you can also create an article / tutorial with screenshots showing the important stages and text explanations, and downloadable code -- and according to Liberty’s poll, this is what developers prefer. Oh, and did I mention that PODCASTS SUCK?

Item of Note

My “playground” short url and social tagging site, ittyurl.net, now has over 600 links on Silverlight! That’s right, over 600 user-submitted links, all searchable by tags, with nearly 30,000 clickthroughs to date. Thanks to all who have contributed. And a big thanks to my eggheadcafe.com site partner Robbe Morris for agreeing to host the site and get me out of “gate.com hosting company hell”! Boy did that company go down the crapper!

9/17/2008

Virtual PC (VPC) techniques for developers

I’m starting my studies of Sharepoint and MOSS, so it occurred to me that creating a Microsoft Virtual PC image of Windows Server 2008 along with SQL Server 2008, Visual Studio 2008 SP1, and other useful tools would be a good idea. I’ve used VMWare and it’s great. But for a single developer who just wants a portable image that you can zip up and store on a USB stick, where you don’t need a whole virtualization infrastructure, VPC is ideal. One of the reasons I like it is that VPC doesn’t install a bunch of network drivers and Windows Services like VMWare Workstation or the free VMWare player.  VPC is nearly 100% “Self contained”, and doesn’t install any baggage at all on the host OS.

Also, Shawn Wildermuth told me that VPC runs faster, so I took him at his word.

The nice thing about all this is that the entire VPC control file and VHD expandable hard disk, with all of the software enumerated above,  7Zips down to just about 3GB – small enough to put on my  $7.99 Kingston Data Traveler 4GB USB stick that I got from buy.com (with the Google Checkout $10 rebate) – and leaves plenty of room for other stuff!

You can snag VPC from here. and the SP1 update here. Sorry, I don’t remember if the SP1 is a full install or whether you have to install VPC first.

One of the common mistakes developers make is to assume that a dynamic VHD hard disk will expand indefinitely. Nope! It will only expand to the initial maximum size you set when you created it. However, don’t despair! VHDResizer is a free tool that will take care of it!

VHDREsizer

HINT: After using VHDREsizer, you have to extend your C partition to include the new space!   Go to Computer Management --> Disk Management. You should see the extra space you added to the right of the C:/ drive.  Right click on the C:/ drive, then select Extend Volume. It should automatically add the new space.

My copy of Server 2008 on the VPC image is fully activated, and all the latest Windows Updates are applied. I’ve put it out on a network share so any of our devs who want this can simply install VPC, unzip my “thing”, and they’re good to go!  One neat thing I did was to modify the login policy to display the Administrator password right on the login message, so nobody who uses this will have to worry about finding the password to log-in. This will run on either Windows XP or Windows Vista.  You can even drag a file from the Host OS over into an Explorer window on the VPC and it will copy right over.  Plus, don’t forget that VMWare is capable of reading MS VPC VHD disk images. Have fun!

Codeplex SVN support

Recently my eggheadcafe.com site partner and I installed VisualSvn Server (free) and the newest AnkhSvn VisualStudio 2008 SCC –compliant plug-in (also free) and things have been working out famously. Coincidentally, I just saw that Codeplex now supports TortoiseSvn out of the box with no “bridge” or other installs.  That’s a real win!

9/08/2008

Silverlight: Handy Dynamic Javascript Debugger Favorite

Often you need to be able to View Source on a page that has injected dynamic javascript to see what you did, and,surprise – it’s not there. Here is a neat way to view source (including any dynamically generated elements or script):

 

 

 

What this does is simply using the <xmp> (“example”) tag to literally render  your “stuff” without parsing. You can add this to your browser’s favorites as an A-HREF link and that way you can simply choose the favorite to view the complete source on any page.  This is extremely useful when using the Silverlight Browser classes to manipulate the DOM of the underlying Page. Here’s a sample like (this may not work as Blogger does funny stuff, but you can still mouse over it):

Debug Js

9/01/2008

Twitter - Social Microblogging Experiment (and Google Chrome)

I started out on Twitter maybe a year ago, then decided it was a waste of time. Then, for some reason maybe 4 months ago I picked up again. It might be that  Witty (a very nice WPF Twitter Client) came out, then I found the JAVA TinyTwitter app for my virtually prehistoric AUDIOVOX SMT5600 smartphone (which only runs compact framework 1.0) . At any rate, I currently follow some  88 active Tweeters (Twitterers? Twitterinoes? Twitterheads?)  and have some 62 or so following me. What I've done from the start is try to concentrate on following only people who I know (either personally or through other communications) plus some extras whose work I am familiar with and who may or may not necessarily be familiar with me. I've found that a good many of the people I follow return the favor by following me. I've focused mainly on the .NET developer crowd. If you cast too broad a net, you are likely to be disappointed with the incredible amount of noise you've generated for yourself.

The net result for my efforts, which haven't taken up much time at all, has been a Twitter timeline that provides me with very current information about subjects that I am really interested in, e.g. most of these people are .NET developers like me. I'm really not interested in following the "gurus" - you know, the people who have 9,999 followers, most of whom they don't know from Adam.  I also use the Twitter API to post new IttyUrl.net links to a special IttyUrl Twitter account programatically. IttyUrl.net focuses mostly on Silverlight resources currently.

Certainly there is a signal to noise ratio in that there's a lot of garbage -- but there is also some pretty good information that gives me leads on stuff I want or need to follow up on. Another benefit is that you can post a question and often you'll get a very quick answer from somebody. You also find out about what other people are interested in and to me, that is a big bonus, since besides being a traditional full-time .NET developer,I also write articles for eggheadcafe.com which we've had up now since 2000.  And of course, you have the inevitable "fembots" - users who follow you with a racy avatar of some hot female whose sole purpose is to promote some spammy MLM program about a useless get - rich -quick scam.

The key thing with Twitter is that as a microblogging platform you have to learn to compose your thoughts into a 140 character deal -- kind of a Hemingwayesque lesson in writing. There have been several times when I was excited or wasn't thinking that I "went over" and sometimes the result of what you post becomes kind of comical.

But all-in-all I have to say that so far, except for the constant "Fail Whales" (outages) Twitter is a success.

twitter-whale

 

As I've UnBlogged before, the thing that is missing is a comprehensive API that not only provides twitter - but also access to more traditional forums and IM, social tagging, and more.

What's been your experience with Twitter?

 

Google Chrome Download

Is Google really gonna take over the world with its new Gears- integrated “open source” browser, “Chrome”? The download page didn’t work when I visited today, but it was relatively easy putting together the download link by simply viewing source of the page and inspecting the javascript:

http://dl.google.com/update2/installers/ChromeSetup.exe

Interestingly, I had read that Google pulled the download link out of their cache, and sure enough (at least for me) the installer executable did nothing – it didn’t work. You can see the executable appear in Process Explorer for about 4 seconds, and then it disappears. Maybe later?

Hmm, got a copy from another developer who isn’t running Vista – and his appears to be working.  Meanwhile, Kaspersky Labs has disclosed the presence of a serious security flaw in Gooogle Chrome...

Google's Matt Cutts on the Chrome EULA fiasco....