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Archive for January, 2012
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Two weeks ago, the excellent Building Windows 8 blog posted an in-depth look at the upcoming operating system’s new file system, ReFS. It reminded me of the promise of so many years ago that OS X would be changing its file system from HFS+ to ZFS. Not a promise many remember or even cared about at the time, but it was, in fact, important.
ZFS support was dropped amid development and legal problems, but Don Brady, who was heading up the file system transition team at Apple, left to pursue it independently. And now he’s releasing a piece of software, Zevo, which finally adds ZFS support to any Intel Mac running 10.6.6 or later.
Most of you are probably wondering why you should even bother about something as invisible to the average user as the file system. It’s a fair question, and the short version is that HFS+ has its roots in very old computing practices (think PowerPC processors running OS 9) and is missing some features that are becoming more critical every year. The long version is here in John Siracusa’s 10.7 review on Ars Technica, where he breaks down feature by feature where HFS+ falls short.
Zevo comes in four flavors: Silver ($20), Gold ($40), and Platinum (no price yet), plus a Developer edition that isn’t fully detailed yet. Each adds more features, but many basic benefits of ZFS are there to begin with, like bit-level error detection. Unfortunately, you can’t boot from a ZFS volume right now, so you’ll need to create a ZFS partition and keep your data there. This isn’t surprising, but it is a little disappointing. It’s not the full conversion people were hoping for, but only Apple can provide that, and they don’t seem to want to.
Should you buy it? You should probably at least ask your IT guys. But it’s nice to see this little gem of geekery resurface after so many years in limbo. If I get a new MacBook Pro this year (a high-res one, naturally), I might just stick this on there for kicks. At this price, it’s really not much of a hit, and it’ll be great for my cred.
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Investors seem pretty disappointed with Amazon’s fourth quarter results (as of 3pm Pacific, the company’s stock is down 8.6 percent in after-hours training), yet for most of this afternoon’s analyst conference call, that disappointment was largely hidden in the normal stream of numbers and financial terminology. Finally, a few minutes before the call ended, one analyst asked CFO Tom Szkutak to directly address the concern that earlier questions had hinted at — namely, that the company seems to be seeing “diminishing return” on its spending.
Szutak’s initial response? “I’m not sure how to answer that.” Yes, he said Amazon is investing heavily (for example, he said Amazon had opened 17 fulfillment centers during the quarter, bringing the total to 69), but that’s because the company is seeing so much growth — in its own retail business, in fulfillment for third-party retailers, in Amazon Web Services, and so on. As evidence, he pointed to Amazon’s 46 percent growth in overall unit sales. (He talked in more detail about media sales earlier in the call.)
At the same time, he acknowledged that there have been some challenges this quarter, including the economic crisis in Europe and supply issues caused by flooding in Thailand.
“We’re incredibly excited about the opportunity that we have and that’s why we have invested as we have and why we’re continuing to invest,” Szutak said. Asked if Amazon will be changing its strategy at all, he said, “We’re continuing to look as we always do. We learn every week and every month and every quarter.”
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Nikesh Arora, Google’s SVP and Chief Business Officer, will run Motorola once the Google acquisition closes later this year, according to rumor published by Business Insider. Arora ran the company’s international business for Eric Schmidt, taking over the global business after the former CEO stepped down. Arora has reportedly been “agitating” for a CEO position and was included on a short list of candidates to head Yahoo. It is possible, however, that a promised CEO slot at Motorola could have prompted Arora to continue with Google. The rumor further notes that Dennis Woodside, Google’s current head of U.S. sales, will take over Arora’s current position.
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Amazon CFO Tom Szkutak offered more details this afternoon during an analyst earnings call about the company’s disappointing fourth quarter
When it comes to physical media, Szkutak said the biggest hit to revenue came in the area of video game sales, which includes both console and game sales (but not games sold digitally, say from Amazon’s app store). Even though he didn’t offer specific numbers on that front, he noted that video games sales are seasonal and normally take a big leap in the last quarter of the year — and that happened this year, but it wasn’t enough to match 2010 revenue. In part, that’s because more of those sales are going to Amazon’s third-party sellers, rather than Amazon itself. So video game sales, as measured in units, were up, while revenue was down.
As far as the Kindle goes, Szkutak would only repeat Amazon’s previous statement that Kindle sales (including the Kindle Fire tablet) grew 177 percent compared to the same period last year. When asked if the Fire might be cannibalizing sales of Kindle e-readers, Szkutak said, “Both devices, meaning the readers and Fire, did very well.” And if you’re curious about Amazon’s original staple, physical books, those sales saw double digital growth too. As Szkutak noted, that’s “impressive given the shift to Kindle.”
Meanwhile, digital content sales were up across-the-board, he said.
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Apple has long been rumored to include support for the ZFS file system designed by Sun, with rumors dating back even before Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz announced in 2007 Leopard would utilize ZFS as its file system. It even made an appearance in Disk Utility in a beta of Mac OS X 10.5 (pictured right). Although ZFS support was never included in Leopard, it was also initially hinted in Snow Leopard Server documentation in 2008 before the final public release.
In 2009, Apple had seemingly ceased all work on ZFS. Today MacRumors pointed us to a 2011 Ars Technica article profiling an Apple engineer named Don Brady who worked on the ZFS team at Apple until 2009. The report noted, “Apple couldn’t reach suitable license terms with Sun” at the time, and Brady eventually left to form his own company in 2010 called Ten’s Complement. Two years later, Brady and Ten’s Complement are bringing ZFS support to Mac OS X with the company’s latest project, ZEVO Silver Edition.
The Silver Edition is just the first product from Ten’s Complement and includes basic ZFS support for $19.95. Other products will follow including a $40 Gold Edition and a Platinum Edition with support for RAIDZ and other advanced features. A Developer Edition will provide devs with “conventional ZFS command line tools,” GUI options, and customization options. As MacRumors pointed out, the MacZFS open source project is also continuing development on the original work done by Sun and Apple.
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You might remember the scene in The Hurt Locker where some soldiers are ambushed by a sniper and must do a little return sniping. That process of spotting, adjusting the sights, and altering the bullet’s ballistic trajectory bit by bit and degree by degree may soon no longer be necessary: Sandia Labs has developed a bullet with a built-in processor that guides its own flight via tiny adjustable fins.
The idea is that the bullet would go exactly where it was meant to go, and not deviate from the target because of wind, gravity, or other factors. They say that at the range of a kilometer, a normal bullet might be off by almost 10 yards, while this guided bullet would get within 8 inches.
It’s a similar principle to that used in guided missiles, but the small mass and relatively short path of a bullet necessitate a different approach. They moved the center of gravity forward, put an optical sensor in the nose, and added fins to prevent the bullet from spinning — normally a stabilizing motion, but in this case it would make flight path adjustment difficult. And because the fins stabilize the bullet only after its initial wobbles, a gun firing these would actually be more accurate at longer ranges.
Inside the bullet is a tiny 8-bit processor that can adjust the position of the fins up to 30 times per second, keeping a lased target in front of it. Check out this night shot of one of the bullets, with an LED attached to the back, firing down a range:
Fascinating, and at the same time slightly disturbing. More accurate bullets means higher lethality — but a researcher speaking to the BBC said that improved ground munitions would be extremely useful to troops, allowing them them not just to hit the bad guys better, but to avoid civilians. If you can be sure your bullet will go exactly where you’re aiming it, you can take the shot and not worry about a pocket of turbulent air nudging your bullet into the house next door.
There are still engineering challenges, and Sandia is looking to partner with another company to continue development. So these won’t be coming to an ammo shop near you any time soon.
It’s strange to think that every bullet fired might one day be intelligent, in a way. In the meantime, these four-inch bullets would likely be very expensive and require special hardware to fire, so they’ll be a specialty item for some time.
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