Monday, February 25, 2013

Weather.com Needs Improvement

Okay, this isn't necessarily hardware related, but websites qualify as something techy, right? So if I want to rant about a website with some stupid algorithms, I'm totally allowed to do so! Especially since this is my blog so I can do whatever I want. With that out of the way, let me talk to you a bit about Weather.com, or The Weather Channel if you prefer. Simply put, their forecasting is woefully inadequate.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to find good times to go outside for a bike ride. As any cyclist can tell you, riding in the rain can be a bit of a mess, especially when you're on a road bike doing 15-25 miles per hour. The tires kick up all sorts of spray, your face, feet, and hands can all get quite cold, and this is to say nothing about what all that grit does to your expensive bike! Long story short, I'm more of a fair weather cyclist that prefers avoiding the rain. As you can imagine, in the northwest (in Olympia, WA area), this can be quite a task.

During my quest for decent cycling weather, I have had quite a few mishaps of late. Three Saturday's back, the forecast was a 0% to 10% chance of rain for the next four hours; I got soaked. The next Saturday was the same story: 0% chance of rain got me 100% wet. Then on Wednesday I also checked Weather.com and was greeted with a 0% rain forecast that left me dripping wet. Hmmm.... So you can imagine my concern when I saw the following forecast for today:
Once bitten, twice shy as the saying goes...or, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Looking out my window also gave me further reason for concern, as the skies were alternating between sunny and severely overcast on a regular basis. If the weather was "partly cloudy", I've got some beachfront property I'm willing to sell at a great price!

But here's where it gets interesting: Weather.com has a satellite map available, which I haven't looked at much, so I decided to give it a shot. Upon opening the map, you have two options: Past and Future. I started at Future, thinking it would be more useful than knowing what had happened of late. Here's the prediction for the next 15 minutes:
Gosh, that's looking pretty good. In fact, looking at the next several hours of the map showed similarly clear skies. Was I potentially missing something? Maybe my windows were broken and it really wasn't as gloomy looking as it seemed? Then I thought I'd quickly check the recent past to see what that looked like. Umm, here's the most recent 15 minutes:
If you open those two images and flip between them, you'll quickly understand why I say that Weather.com needs to improve their prediction algorithms. As far as I can tell, that prediction is based on what they saw probably some time yesterday, and as you get farther away from the time the prediction was made, things become a lot more dicey. The fact that they have the most recent Doppler images from the satellites showing rain all around my area would lead me to think that the next couple of hours are likely to continue that pattern. Sure enough, not ten minutes later the rain started coming down so hard that I didn't even need to look out the window to know it was seriously wet. Bike ride: cancelled; time for a jog in the rain instead (since 6 miles per hour isn't nearly as rough in the rain).

This should be a reasonably easy fix; I mean, sure, if you're trying to predict the next 10 days of weather, or a month in advance, I don't expect extreme accuracy. For the next day or two, though, I want it a good prediction, and for the next couple hours you better get it right. A relatively simple script ought to be able to predict the next couple hours quickly and accurately -- far better than a complex calculation that was run 24 hours in advance.

Something else they need to do for their weather map is to stop using animated GIFs. Seriously, what is this, 1999? Animated GIFs are far more bandwidth intensive than a JPG image and using Flash to overlay the weather. But then, I don't think Weather.com has been substantially updated in at least five years other than to maybe add more advertisements. Blech. So here's the question: does anyone have a better website for getting accurate weather predictions for the next few hours? Because Weather.com just isn't doing it for me.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Please, DON'T Share!

My Facebook feed gets an all-too-regular feature: "Please share this to everyone you know, you might save one's life." Really? Are we talking about "save you from something that's really likely to happen", or is this more "please forward my spam"? 99.99% of the time, it's the latter. I wish more of my friends, family, and Facebook acquaintances would take just a few seconds to search Snopes -- or Google -- for details before sharing such "important" information. Here's one for you, though, including an awesome picture (note that all typos have been preserved -- FYI, bad grammar and spelling is another sign that something might not be entirely factual):
A couple lost their 25 year old son in a fire at home on June 4th. The son who had graduated with MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison two weeks earlier had come home for a while. He had lunch with his dad at home and decided to go back to clean up his hostel room. His father told him to wait, to meet his mother, before he went back for a few days. He decided to take a nap while waiting for his mom to come back home from work. Some time later their neighbors called 911 when they saw black smoke coming out of the house.

Unfortunately, the 25 years old died in the three year old house. It took several days of investigation to find out the cause of the fire. It was determined that the fire was caused by the laptop resting on the bed. When the laptop was on the bed cooling fan did not get the air to cool the computer and that is what caused the fire. He did not even wake up to get out of the bed because he died of breathing in carbon monoxide.

The reason I am writing this to all of you is that I have seen many of us using the laptop while in bed. Let us all decide and make it a practice not to do that. The risk is real. Let us make it a rule not to use the laptop on bed with blankets and pillows around. Please educate as many people as you can.
While a fire in the house is no joke, the likelihood of it being cause by an overheating laptop is dubious. Yes, it could happen, but hopefully we all have enough common sense to not try to suffocate our electronics. ever been to a data center with the massive AC units? That's all in the interest of keeping the servers running cool. If you're dumb enough to put a laptop on a pillow running full tilt and have it set to not go to sleep or hibernate, well, good luck with that. I doubt it will catch fire, but there's a good chance it will crash or perhaps even kill off some of the electronics and make it unusable. (Technical note: I haven't heard of a CPU or GPU catching fire since about 2003 or so, as AMD, Intel, NVIDIA, and others have all implemented thermal protection.)

The above image looks to me like someone was frustrated with a Dell laptop and took an acetylene torch to it rather than a laptop that caught fire on its own. (It definitely didn't go through a house fire, as the rest of the plastic would also be melted.) It's possible that the battery on that particular model was near the front and caught fire, though -- it's just attached to a message with a story that may or may not have been caused by a laptop.

Anyway, I mentioned Snopes before, so let me show you how it's done. Go to www.Snopes.com and pick out some prominent key words that are likely to only show up in a few places. For this particular incident, how about the school name and the event (University Wisconsin Madison Fire). Boom! Ten seconds and we've found this page. Now, this one is marked "undetermined" because it's possible that the laptop did cause a fire, but as Snopes points out, a bad battery or faulty wiring is the most likely culprit -- not a blocked vent caused by putting a laptop on your pillow. The latter might end up ruining your laptop, and in some extreme cases it's possible (though unlikely) that your battery might explode.

If you happen to not like Snopes, there are plenty of other places to search. Try Google, for example, and we get a bunch of other hoax and urban legend sites basically reiterating what I and Snopes have said. Maybe this is a bad example, but we can drum up any number of other options -- I just used this one since I happen to work with laptops on a daily basis (and have yet to have any catch fire, despite plenty of torture testing).

The key takeaway is this: if something asks you to repost and share to everyone, please take a second to think about why you would want to pass it along. Chances are, it has already been shared plenty, and even more likely is that it's mostly fabricated information, perhaps with a kernel of truth but a bunch of cruft getting in the way. Sharing half-truths only makes you look uninformed at best, or completely stupid at worst. And no one wants to look stupid, right?

(For the record: this laptop scare showed up more than once on my Facebook feed in the not so distant past. Considering that the event described happened over two years ago -- and the actual cause still wasn't listed as the laptop last it was updated -- I chose it as my target for this rant. The fact is, this is one of the least annoying spams going around; many are far worse. And let's not even get into the whole "please repost this to your FB page so that I'll know I'm loved" angsty posts.)

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The Hobbit: 3D or Not 3D?

Yesterday was Valentine's Day, and my wife and I got a chance to go out for the evening. We have three kids to watch, ages one, three, and ten, so it's sometimes a bit rough to get away for an evening. Anyway, we surveyed our options and decided going to a movie seemed like a good idea.

Now, I just finished saying how we don't get out all that much; we initially wanted to go to Les Miserables (I've seen the show in London, as well as listening to the music a whole lot during my late teens and twenties), but unfortunately all the local theaters seem to think Les Miserables is now only fit for showing during the day. What? Yeah, there were two showings at the local theater, at something like 11AM and 3PM, which was a bit too early for a babysitter on a school night (not to mention a weird time for a date). Plan B: The Hobbit.

Here's where things take yet another irritating twist. We had purchased discounted tickets from CostCo, so we were looking at going to Regal Cinema. The Hobbit was showing in two theaters...sort of. One was a regular 2D showing, but again this was only available for matinees. Grrrr.... But there was a 3D showing at 6:45PM, which worked with our schedule. We had to pay the $4 each surcharge to "upgrade" to 3D, but at least we got in to see the movie. So how was it?

There are two things I want to discuss: first is the 3D experience, and second is the movie itself. Let me be frank on the 3D aspect: it sucks. No, not just the Hobbit -- ALL 3D movies suck! Seriously, do people actually like this garbage? Yes, I can see the 3D effect, but it's definitely not perfect and worse yet, I see blurriness and ghosting like crazy when watching 3D films. I don't know if it's the glasses, the projection system, both, or something else, but the result is that everything looks okay when the scenes are relatively still, but as soon as the camera starts moving the edges all become very fuzzy. I closed one eye periodically to see if the blurriness was somehow just inherent to the recording; it wasn't! It was purely an artifact of the lousy 3D!

But the horror of 3D doesn't end there. As soon as movies started going 3D, just as we saw back in the 70s and 80s with the crappy blue/red glasses, you suddenly get these obligatory scenes that basically scream, "Look! We're in 3D! Isn't this great?" Case in point: flying butterflies, leaves floating in the air, the white beast's nose sticking straight out at the camera/audience, rocks being thrown at the camera/audience.... I could go on and on, but let's just put it simply: these are all completely stupid. Not only that, but due to the aforementioned blurriness they don't even look great -- suddenly you're trying to focus on this fuzzy object that's coming towards you, but most of the time you only get half of the effect or don't focus properly and see two of the objects, or whatever.

The short summary is that this madness needs to end. 3D is garbage in the current implementations. Yes, it's a lot better than when we used blue/red (or blue/green) glasses, but it's totally unnecessary at best and highly distracting at worst. It's this stupid marketing shtick that's being used to collect extra money: $4 for crappy polarized glasses that make you look and feel stupid and detract from the film. Hooray! Or you get even worse marketing like that Justin Bieber film (no I didn't watch it, but I heard about it) where the glasses had purple frames and they charged $6 extra -- with no choice to the viewer! The black glasses would have worked, and the theaters all had them for other shows, but if you wanted to watch Biebs you had to have purple glasses -- they're his favorite color after all! Ugh.

The whole 3D industry was basically built up for two reasons as I see it: first to get people to upgrade from their perfectly serviceable 1080p HDTVs to the new 3D models. The second reason was to get rid of the old film projection theaters -- 3D is only available for digital projection, and of course shipping the giant film reels around and managing storage for them is (was) super expensive. But upgrading to digital was really expensive as well and many theaters didn't want to do it; the result is that the movie studios forced them to upgrade in order to get new films.

Now the transition is basically done and we're digital, but we're left with the 3D cruft because it helps make more money. Oh, and $7 for a medium popcorn that would have cost about $0.25 to make. Yeah, they need to make more money! I wonder why people are feeling less inclined to go to the theater these days?

Okay, so enough about 3D and how it sucks -- sorry if you like it, but I don't know of anyone that actually says, "Oh yeah, I totally prefer 3D to 2D films!" What about the movie itself? As a long-time fan of The Lord of the Rings (I've read the books at least three times, which probably isn't that many compared to some but it's enough to be familiar with the lore), I was curious to see how it would go. My recollection of The Hobbit book is that it's a lot less serious than The Lord of the Rings -- it's the prelude, and it's not quite so dark. Well, the movie adaptation is, not surprisingly, far more like the LOTR movies in that it's quite a bit darker and more serious than I expected. Or, not really expected -- coming after the other movies, I figured it would follow their style and it does. That's either great or not, but stylistically I think it works well enough.

The music, setting, acting, etc. is all very well done I think, and if you're into Tolkien lore you'll probably love it. It's pretty cool to see the world brought to life in such a believable fashion; the Shire looks very much like you would expect. You also get a few cameos (hello Elijah Wood/Frodo!), and there's some fun to be had. The effects (outside of the 3D) are generally well done, the large battle/fight scenes are crazy to think about animating from a technical view, and the whole pomp and spectacle is quite impressive. But... there's always a but, isn't there?

The issue I have with the movie is that it's soooo slooooow! The book is shorter than the three installments of the Lord of the Rings, and each of those got a single movie. Why is it that we need to split the Hobbit into two parts? Oh, right: ka-ching! So to stretch things out, we have lengthy and totally unnecessary stuff added. Need some examples? Here are a few that come to mind.

First, there's the Radagast the Brown sequence. I think he was part of the book, but only a brief part right? In my mind, he's right there with Old Tom Bombadil (Tom Bombadillo!), who got rightly axed from The Fellowship of the Ring movie. But here, we get Radagast with a bird nest under his hat, a sled pulled by 20 or so rabbits ("Hello, physics? Oh, he's not here right now? Sorry... I'll call back later.", and best yet: bird poop on the side of his head. WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA!? I don't mind some humor in movies, but despite what my wife might say, I don't find bird poop on someone's head to be particularly humorous. It's lowest common denominator slapstick humor, and it feels terribly out of place.

Another sequence that was far too long: the stone giants on the mountain. "Look! Isn't this an awesome special effects sequence?" Again, I don't remember exactly how this all plays out in the book, but seeing it on screen rather than reading it just made it all a lot less believable. Here's the party, climbing a mountain, and suddenly they discover that "this is no ordinary storm -- those are stone giants!" The mountain splits apart, and somehow the dwarves and hobbit manage to stay attached. And at the end, when they slam into the side of the mountain, the tons of rock somehow avoid killing them and they continue on with their quest.

That's another one that was a bit irritating to me: the falling scenes were way too far. When I read about plummeting down a chasm and the character doesn't die in a book, I imagine a slope that's not as steep, a drop that's not as far, and basically come up with something in my mind's eye that I can at least live with. When Bilbo falls down a shaft that looks to be about a mile deep, bouncing off the walls, and all he ends up with are a few skinned knuckles!? Either he's made of some really durable stuff, or the rock walls are actually made of soft foam, or the director got carried away making a CG scene showing something that could never happen -- magic or no!

I recognize the need for some suspension of disbelief with movies, but this one just goes too far too many times. The bridge falling through the goblin warrens is the same thing -- and in fact, that whole battle is a bit too much. I think there was less killing in the book and more running, probably with less collapsing bridges and long jumps to safety. Or the climbing of the trees before the eagles rescue the company... did they really climb six or seven different trees, then have the trees all start falling sideways, and somehow everyone jumped from tree to tree and ended up in the top limbs of the final tree on the edge of a cliff? Wow... those are some amazing athletes...or are dwarves and hobbits descended from flying squirrels? Let me show you a quick picture of the problem:

This isn't rocket science; we don't need to make everything believable (e.g. the whole Gandalf doing magic thing). What we do need is something that can conceivably happen in the real world. If they had climbed up three trees and two had fallen sideways, I could at least say, "Okay, a bit crazy, but at least it could happen." Six or seven or however many trees that they showed in the movie, though? Please. It's insulting to our intelligence that we need such silliness. I don't complain that Iron Man's suit is "unrealistic" (it is!), because at least if you accept the arc reactor business you can sort of go, "Okay, whatever... let's see some action!" But little hobbits and dwarves falling forever and coming up with a few small scratches. Meh.

Anyway, it's not even the silly physics and such that made the movie not all that great. It was all just really drawn out. After the LOTR movies, Peter Jackson apparently has carte blanche to do whatever he wants with his movies, make them as long as he deems necessary, break stories into multiple parts to fleece us for more money, etc. This movie needed more editing and condensing and less 3D. Thanks for bungling things for us all, Hollywood!

And this is why going to the movies for me is a rare occasion -- I'd feel a lot better sitting at home watching this movie on a Blu-ray rental for $1.50 from Redbox, and I could pause the movie to make my $0.50 popcorn or take a potty break or whatever. At $30 for two people to see an okay film (I'd give it about a 5/10, mostly saved by cinematography -- maybe 8/10 if you really love Tolkien), that's just too much. This is a case of more not being better!

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Welcome to My Blog

Just to quickly introduce myself before I write anything else, I'm Jarred Walton. Currently, I'm the Senior Mobile Editor for AnandTech.com, a super technical and geeky website that reviews, previews, and in general writes about hardware. So you're probably wondering: why make a blog that overlaps with AnandTech if I already write there? Simple: not everything I want to blog about is really worthy of posting to AnandTech, so I thought I'd create a separate site for the less technical stuff (or highly opinionated rantings). That's what this blog will be, unless my boss (Anand) tells me to quit doing this and just post it to our main site!

Everyone clear on that now? Great... time for the first "official" blog post.

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