Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Japanese PS3 commercials  

Everyone knows Sony's marketing can be, uh, interesting. Most people have seen the US commercials for the PlayStation 3, but not so many people have seen the Japanese commercials.

Since the Japanese launch of the PS3 is scheduled for November 11th (aka 11/11), most of them involve people seeing 11/11 in odd places. They're short and interesting and there aren't any creepy babies.

Here are some YouTube links for your viewing enjoyment.

Concent (The Socket)

Foku (The Fork)

Entotsu (The Smokestack)

Taikan (The Sensation)

Friday, November 03, 2006

Blogger: Condensed Label List  

This is a continuation of the series about customizations I made to my Blogger template after switching to the Blogger beta.

This time I'm going to talk about the condensed list of labels that I've put in the sidebar. Synonyms for "labels" used by other blogging tools include "categories" and "sections". For user navigation I like "sections", personally, so that's what the sidebar says.

Why customize it?

The default list of labels is a standard bulleted list that displays vertically.

The problem with vertical lists is that, well, they're an inefficient use of vertical space in the sidebar. If you have a lot of labels, you'll wind up with an extremely large portion of your sidebar devoted to this list. The vertical space that the list occupies will be far out of proportion to its importance.

Frankly, the list of labels isn't that important to me. It's a nice touch, and I would like them to be there, but I wouldn't say that it needs an entire screenful in my sidebar. So I set out to fix that.

Widget modifications

Here are the modifications I made to the default "Labels" widget to accomplish this.

<b:widget id='Label1' locked='false' title='Sections' type='Label'>
<b:includable id='main'>
  <b:if cond='data:title'>
  <div class='widget-content'>
    <ul style='padding-left:10px; margin:0; text-indent:0;'>
    <b:loop values='data:labels' var='label'>
      <li style='display: inline; list-style-type: none; padding-right: 5px; line-height: 140%;'>
        <b:if cond='data:blog.url == data:label.url'>
          <a expr:href='data:label.url'><data:label.name/></a>&#160;(<data:label.count/>)
  <b:include name='quickedit'/>

Widget explanations

Since the styles here are very highly specific to this single list, and unlikely to be re-used, I decided to mix CSS with HTML here by assigning the styles via the style attribute on the tags. This isn't normally good practice, but Blogger templates do it a lot already, and it's actually kind of convenient here.

The display: inline; style on the LI tag makes the list horizontal. Adding list-style-type: none; removes the bullets.

That's almost good enough right there! But during testing I found that the original template used normal spaces in between the label and the numeric post count. Since I am expecting the list to wrap -- it wraps five times at my normal web browser size -- I need it to wrap cleanly. With a normal space, you often get the break in between the label and the post count, which doesn't look right. So I converted the regular space into a non-breaking space (&#160;).

Why '&#160;', rather than something like '&nbsp;'? Because I'm still shooting for XHTML eventually, and XHTML does not recognize '&nbsp;' as an entity. The Unicode code point '&#160;' is the direct equivalent.

After all that was done, padding, margins, and line height were adjusted to my personal preference. Your needs may vary.

Dead ends

Although this looks simple, I tried a couple of other things before settling on this solution.

  • Putting the list in a paragraph - I considered this as an option, but was unable to get Blogger's template language to do it. You could do it as a space-separated list, but as soon as you add separators of any sort -- like commas -- there's no apparent way to avoid putting a separator in at the end. Blogger supports an "isLast" property on labels when used in the post widget, but it does not do so in the labels widget. On further consideration I decided that this was probably a bad approach, anyway, since it's not as accessible as using real lists.

  • Changing font size based on post count - This is a relatively new twist in Web design. Flickr's tags are a popular example. However, I couldn't figure out a way to do it without resorting to Javascript. Blogger has a very minimal expression language for templates, but I haven't been able to find any detailed documentation for it. The closest I came was doing something like this:

    <font expr:size='data:label.count'> ... </font>

    But that didn't cap the maximum font size -- potentially leading to problems as I write more posts in each category. For now I've tabled this idea. It would still be interesting, but I think the best way to do it in Blogger would be to leave the base template HTML as-is, then dynamically modify the HTML with Javascript on the client side.

  • Adding some interesting CSS decoration - I considered doing this too. But the only decent decoration I could think of was a rounded button look similar to what Safari uses in its Bookmarks toolbar. That would have been possible, but I'd need to create and edit some images and use this method to get the rounded corners. Worse, it wouldn't display correctly in Internet Explorer so I'd need to do a CSS hack to hide it. So I tabled this idea too. Even so, I might look back into this in the future.

More template tips

Other entries in this series:

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Blogger: Image as Blog Header  

I'm going to do a brief series about how I wound up customizing my Blogger template (styles and widgets) after switching to the Blogger beta. First up, how I replaced the header with an image.

Why customize it?

Like a lot of people, I prefer to use an image instead of text for the header of my blog. I also want it to be clickable and always be a link back to the "home" page of the blog, which is a widely-adopted convention.

But I do not want to simply encode an inline image. For reasons of accessibility, I prefer a normal H1 tag that gets translated to an image by CSS.

Since I've been trying to keep the look-and-feel of my old template, I started with this image from my old template. It's 790 pixels wide by 105 pixels high.

Widget modifications

Here are the modifications I made to the default "Header" widget to accomplish this. Data that is specific to my blog, and which you'll want to change if you copy this code, is displayed in red.

<b:widget id='Header1' locked='true' title='Header' type='Header'>
  <b:includable id='main'>
    <div class='titlewrapper'>
      <h1 class='title'>
        <a href='http://drewthaler.blogspot.com/'><span/><data:title/></a>
    <div class='descriptionwrapper'>
      <p class='description'><span><data:description/></span></p>

Widget explanations

The original Blogger template had a conditional so that the header was only a link if we weren't on the main page already. I removed the conditional because I think it makes more sense to always make it a link.

The original template also used 'data:blog.homepageUrl' for the link, but this resolved to 'http://drewthaler.blogspot.com/index.html', which is redundant. I wanted the shorter and more future-proof URL 'http://drewthaler.blogspot.com/' so I changed the link manually.

I left the description code as-is, because I don't use it. You may want to do something different.

You'll notice a single <span/> tag in the middle. That's required for CSS image replacement.

Stylesheet modifications

Here are the CSS additions that go with it. These are additions to the original stylesheet.

/* Replace the header with a graphic on computer displays */
@media screen, projection, tv {
  h1.title {
    width: 750px;
    height: 89px;
    left: 0;
    top: 0;
    padding: 15px 0 0 40px;
    margin: 0;
    border-bottom: 1px solid black;
    z-index: 0;
  h1.title a span {
    background: url(http://homepage.mac.com/drewthaler/images/blog-header.gif) no-repeat;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    left: 0;
    display: block;
    width: 790px;
    height: 105px;
    z-index: 1;
  #sidebar {
    z-index: 2;

Stylesheet explanations

The @media directive means that these styles should only be applied for certain types of media. For screen, projection, and tv renderers I prefer the nicer look. But they will not be applied for screen readers and printing.

I'm using the Gilder/Levin Method for CSS image replacement. In this method, the span does all the work: it gets resized and repositioned, and the image is displayed as a CSS background image for it. The image is clickable because it's on the span, and the span is inside the link tag.

The span is given a z-index of 1 so that it sits above the original H1. The H1 text is still there, hiding underneath at z-index 0. Then the sidebar is given a z-index of 2 so that it will float above the header image if the two overlap.

The pixel sizes (790px by 105px) are from the size of my image. The padding (15px 0 0 40px) and bottom border are in there to make CSS-on/images-off browsing still look acceptable. It's a personal preference and based on the size of my image and text, so you might need to tweak it for your setup. The H1's width of 750px is the image's width (790px) minus the horizontal padding (40px), and the H1's height of 89px is the image's height (105px) minus the vertical padding (15px) minus the one-pixel bottom border (1px).

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

When Benchmarks Attack  

In my professional life I've found myself measured by an external benchmark many times. One time that comes to mind was when I was writing disk drivers for Mac OS 8.

The disk driver's job in Mac OS 8 was simply to pass requests from the filesystem layer to the underlying storage medium. Requests would come in for such-and-such amount of data at such-and-such an offset from the start of the volume. After some very minimal translation, we'd pass this request onward to the ATA Manager, or USB Manager, or FireWire libraries.

(Sounds easy, right? Well, yes, but the devil was in the details. USB and FireWire supported "hot-plugging", i.e. attaching or removing the drive while the computer was still running. Supporting this in an OS that was never designed for it was a big chore. CD and DVD drives were also much more difficult to handle than regular hard drives, for similar reasons.)

But we ran into a problem as we were preparing our drivers for release. The hardware manufacturers that were buying our drivers wanted to make sure our drivers were "fast". So they ran disk benchmarks against our drivers. Not an unreasonable thing to do, you might say, although as I've stated there really wasn't a lot of code in the critical path. The problem is that most of the disk benchmarks turned out to be inappropriate as measures of driver performance.

Measuring weight with a ruler

One common disk benchmark of the time was to read sequential 512-byte blocks from a large file. In Mac OS 8 these reads were passed directly down to the disk driver.

Remember, the disk driver's job was supposed to be to simply pass the incoming requests on to the next layer in the OS. The vast majority of the time would be spent accessing the hardware. So no matter what the requests were, in effect this test should have returned almost exactly the same results for all drivers, with code differences accounting for less than 1% of the results. Right? Wrong.

As we ran the tests, we found out that on this particular benchmark, our drivers were much slower than existing third-party drivers (our competition, more or less). Dramatically slower, in fact -- if we ran the test in 100 seconds, they ran it in 10 seconds.

Upon further examination, we found out the reason why they did so well on this benchmark. They had already been optimized for it!

We discovered that the other drivers contained caching logic which would cluster these small 512-byte sequential reads into larger 32KiB or so chunks. Doing so would decrease the number of round-trips to the hardware needed, which increased their performance on this benchmark.

Do what sells, not what's right

Now, it's important to understand that this tiny-sequential-read benchmark doesn't even reflect real-world use. The fact that larger I/O requests perform better than smaller I/O requests has been well known for decades, and almost every commercial application out there used large I/O requests for this very reason. Buffered I/O is built into the standard C libraries, for pete's sake. In the real world, requests that came into the disk driver tended to be either large or non-sequential.

Modifying our drivers to do the same thing would basically be pointless -- a lot of work for very little performance difference.

(It only gets worse when you realize that our disk driver was directly underneath the Mac OS disk cache. A driver-level cache was almost completely redundant. And the right place to do this sort of readahead caching would have been there, in the existing OS cache layer, not in each individual disk driver.)

But ... sigh. The real world doesn't always make sense. These small sequential reads were a well-known benchmark, even if it was a disk benchmark and not a driver benchmark. And that simple fact elevated this atypical scenario into the eyes of a lot of people who didn't really understand what it meant. To them, if our driver didn't do the same thing as the competition, we wouldn't measure up.

De-optimizing to improve the benchmark

So in order to make sales we were forced to burn another month adding and testing driver-level caching so that we'd perform better on this benchmark.

The irony? The work we did to improve this atypical benchmark actually increased the amount of time we spent in the driver code, and sometimes increased the amount of data we read, which in turn decreased real-world performance by as much as 1-2%.

But hey, at least that benchmark got faster.

And we sold our driver.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Switched to Blogger Beta  

Yesterday I moved this blog to the new Blogger Beta.

I went whole-hog and switched to a new template as well. I'm still tweaking it, and XHTML compliance is temporarily gone. But for the most part things should be back to normal. RSS readers may see that every post has been modified. This was a side effect of the switch, although in fact I added categories/labels to all posts once I saw that they were going to be touched anyway.

Why switch? The mainline Blogger service (1.0) has been having boatloads of problems over the past month or two. It hasn't been very well maintained and it seems like it's just barely holding together. All the Google blogs are using the beta now, and in fact there are some very nice features in the beta that I was tempted by.

Cool stuff that you get from the switch:

  • MUCH faster publishing. 1.0 generated a zillion static HTML files, the 2.0 beta uses a database.
  • Labels, aka categories.
  • Backlinks, aka trackbacks. Better than MT's, since these are automatic. (Presumably filled in by Google crawls?)
  • Comment feeds, both global and per-post.
  • Better template management. It's more powerful and exposes more, and it's smart enough to let you add and rearrange certain things on your page with no effort.
  • Widgets, aka server-side directives in your template.

Downsides of the switch:

  • RSS reset. Everything in my RSS feeds got reset when I switched. Not a huge problem.
  • Porting customizations. To get some of the nicer features you need to upgrade your template. If you had your blog moderately customized, and change your template like I did, then it can be kind of a chore to port your customizations over. For me it took about a day.
  • Limited Safari support. Posting from Safari works just fine. Template editing seems like it has to be done in Firefox.
  • It's a beta. And knowing Google, it will probably remain a beta for another three years or so. Dude. Can't you guys commit?

I haven't seen any other major downsides yet, but I'll let you know.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Video Game Tips for Parents  

I want to talk a little about a couple of lessons that I've learned from several years of experience with my daughter and video games.

If you haven't done so already, I'd also recommend reading these other tips from an earlier post, where I describe the things I went through trying to figure out which PlayStation 2 games would work for my 6 year old daughter.

Here's what I've learned:

  • Never, EVER buy a game without reading a review first. It's just a bad idea. That brings us to our second rule:

  • Never, EVER buy a game without reading a review first. Seriously. I mean it! If you're new to video games, you might assume that most games are all about the same and it doesn't matter what you buy. Not a chance. Would you say the same for books and movies? There are some steaming pieces of trash out there which have been slapped together with spackle and duct tape, and they still sell a few copies because they're put in the store with fancy box art.

    This rule has several corollaries. Here's a list of very bad reasons to buy a game "cold" (i.e., without reading a review) that people can fall victim to:

    Bad Reason #1: It uses the name of some great game that you remember. Many classic video games have been resurrected into horrible zombie caricatures of their former greatness. Frogger is one of the worst offenders.

    Bad Reason #2: It's a sequel to a game you or your child liked. Often the sequel changes the gameplay. And sometimes the rights to a game are transferred to another studio, and when that happens the second studio usually does a ham-handed job with the sequel. (Movies are the same way. Consider Grease and Grease 2.)

    Bad Reason #3: It's a TV or movie tie-in. TV and movie tie-ins are very often poorly made. Sometimes they just whip them together with no concern for gameplay or difficulty. There are some terrific games which are exceptions to this rule, of course -- many of Nickelodeon's games are pretty good -- but you won't know unless you read a review.

    Bad Reason #4: The box art and description makes it sound interesting. Um, yeah. Every game is a "great adventure" and "exciting" and "fun" by the time the marketing people are done with it. The box has no relation whatsoever to the actual game.

  • Look for the Greatest Hits titles. This is one place where the box can actually tell you something about the game. Sony's "Greatest Hits" are titles that have sold particularly well -- they are the gaming equivalent of a record going platinum. The nice thing is that the games get a lower price when this happens. So even though these games cost around $20, they're often much more fun than newer games which cost $50. Of course, brisk sales don't necessarily mean the game is age-appropriate, so you should still check reviews.

  • Don't be afraid of older games. Quality is far more important. The age of the game really doesn't matter: a fun game will always be a fun game. It doesn't matter if the game is "new" or not; it will still be new to your child! Any parent who's watched their kid get hooked on The Cosby Show or Full House or some other unexpected sitcom will understand how the same logic applies directly to games. Younger kids aren't hooked on fancy graphics and don't care about what's latest and greatest; they just want a game that's fun. As an extra bonus, older games are cheaper -- often by a lot!

  • Buy games used, and trade in old games. Most dedicated game stores, such as EB Games, offer used games for sale and offer you store credit on trade-ins. This is a great way to save a lot of money. The used games will be literally as good as new. Trading in is also a useful lesson for your kids; I've made it a point to help my daughter pick which games she wants to trade in. We keep some old favorites around because she still plays them, or because they are good for sleepovers, but most eventually go back. Then we shop for new games, trying to see how much we can get without spending more than $10.

  • Consider renting games. It's up to you to decide whether this approach works for you. I don't do it with my daughter, because she simply doesn't play games enough to justify it, but some people do. It can be a fun way to try out a game without making a $40-$50 commitment. Just watch out for late fees! These days you can avoid them completely. Blockbuster now offers no-late-fee rentals (online and in-store) with their GamePass service, and there are a ton of NetFlix-like online rental services, including GameFly, GameLender, GPlay, and others.

  • Swap games with friends. Your child might not even consider this unless you suggest it. Loaning games to friends is a nice way to socialize and it saves money, too. And it gives the kids something else to talk about!

  • Play the games with your child. Especially with younger kids, but even as your child gets older this is important. It's a lot like reading a book together. It's a way to have fun and share an experience. When your child is particularly young, you might find that he gets stuck and gives up on a game quietly without really saying anything. If you help get past the tricky spots, he can go on having fun for longer. Or perhaps your kid will be like my daughter, and get (happily) scared when you reach the big, intimidating "boss" monster together, and she'll shove the controller over to you and want you to take over for a while. I usually play just long enough to show her how to do it, and then pass it back to her to try. Sometimes, if she asks, I'll get her past the hard part to the point where she wants to take over again. It's fun for both of you, and can be a great confidence builder.

  • For big games, consider a hint book / strategy guide. Don't do this all the time, of course. But there are some larger games (such as Kingdom Hearts) where I found it to be very useful. What's great about these guides for kids ages 5-7 is that it can encourage their reading skills. My daughter wasn't really motivated to read much when she was 6, but the game strategy guide really got her going! It sounds silly, but it worked.

Any tips that you want to share?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Great PS2 Games for Young Kids, Part Two  

Well, it's been (ahem) about a year and a half since I promised a "part two" to my earlier post on Great PS2 Games for Young Kids, Part One. And it's time for the next installment. Three more games this time:

[This post used to contain a lengthy list of tips. To trim it to a more manageable size, I've moved it to a new entry: Video Game Tips for Parents.]

Okay. With that out of the way, let's get to the games! Three more good ones here. Although Olivia is now age 10, I'll talk about some games that she loved between the ages of about 7 and 9.

Monster Rancher 3

This is actually a series of games, ranging from Monster Rancher 1 to 4, plus the relatively new (and very different) Monster Rancher EVO. At the time we got it, the fourth game was out but I'd heard more favorable reviews of the third game. Following my own advice -- don't be afraid of old games! -- I went with number three. It might be hard to find the third game these days; I hear that the fourth one is also good, but I can't say for sure since we've only played this one.

You play as a monster trainer. The game starts by creating a monster, either from some pre-made guys or -- the better choice -- from a "saucer stone", which is a code name for "any old random CD or DVD you have lying around the house". (You'll have to swap discs manually, at which point you should pause and take a moment to teach your child about how to put CDs away properly when they're done with them.) Each disc will create a unique monster with different looks and abilities, and the same disc will create the same type of monster if used again. Your monster starts as a baby, and you feed it and train it to help it grow stronger. Over time it matures, grows old, and eventually dies, at which point you can start over again. There is a little bit of anime-style story, and there is a tournament where the monsters can optionally fight (without blood, and losers aren't really "killed", but there is cartoonish violence -- monsters chomp each other, whap each other with giant cartoon mallets, etc) to gain levels and prizes. And that's pretty much it.

What's fascinating about this game is the way that kids just love it. But it's the kind of game that can drive an adult crazy! Why? Because it's cute, and there's a lot of repetition. Kids that are 10 and under love repetition; just like they enjoy watching the same video over and over, or reading the same book over and over, they don't mind doing the same thing in a game over and over. There is a lot of repetition in the game as you train your monster. You'll see the same animations over and over (sigh, and over) again. And yet there's still some variety -- you can train in different ways, or use different monsters, or go to a completely new area to train in.

The controls are menu-based, but pretty simple to figure out. There is some text that your child should pay attention to. For example, the game will suggest that it's time to feed your monster, or to let it rest. Perhaps the trickiest part is saving the game and continuing after your monster dies (which is necessary to open up new areas). Olivia had a tendency to just start new games, since she got attached to her monster and didn't want to save over it after it had grown old and died. But doing that meant that she never got to train anywhere other than the first area.

The game can also help build the skills your child needs to keep a pet. Monster Rancher isn't quite a "virtual pet" simulator, like a Tamagotchi or Nintendogs, but it shares some of the same elements. If you treat your monster nicely, he'll be sweet and lovable and grow stronger. If you spoil him too much, he'll get fat and temperamental. If you punish him too much or don't feed him enough, he might get mean. And even though it can be very sad when a monster grows old and dies, that's part of life too. The game handles it well and you can quickly start over with a new baby monster -- which gets a boost from the "heart" left over by the previous one.

Kids also really love the "saucer stone" part. Since you don't know what any disc will give you, you'll have to try a bunch of them and see what you get. It's surprisingly entertaining, and kids love it because it's something they never thought might be possible. It's a really unique gameplay mechanism that I've never seen anywhere else. Just be careful: unattended, your kids might quickly make a mess of your CD collection! We gave Olivia permission try lots of CDs but always made sure that she was careful with them and put everything back as soon as she was done.

Some people might be concerned about the whole "raising animals to fight" part. That's your call. Personally, this wasn't a problem for us. First, we make sure our daughter is able to distinguish fantasy from reality (always a good thing) and that she knows how to behave in real life. Second, the monster fighting is very much treated as a sport in the game -- just like boxing, karate, or amateur wrestling might be. There are tournaments, prizes, and so on. So it's not as if you're teaching your kids to enjoy cockfights or the WWF. It's an extremely mild game.

Dance Dance Revolution

This is another game that appeals to people across all ages. You've probably seen the arcade version in a mall. It's the one that has people stepping on four arrows while dance music plays, often drawing a crowd when the better players are "on stage". There's no real gender bias to the game, but my impression is that with younger kids it's more popular with girls, while among teenagers it's more popular among boys. I don't know this for sure; that's just the impression I get. Somebody could probably write a PhD thesis dissecting the relationship of this game to gender roles. :-)

First of all, you absolutely need to get the special "mat" controller that lets you dance. Some versions come with it bundled, or you can buy it separately. They sell some very expensive ones, but the regular old cheap one works well. Once you have that the game is very simple, but challenging. You're given a wide variety of songs to choose from, each with its own dance moves. All you need to do is just step on the arrows at the right time.

Sounds easy, right?

You wish. The guys at the mall may make it look simple, but DDR is very physical and can be challenging both for you and your child. You'll want to start out with the difficulty dialed all the way down to the lowest setting. It's okay to screw up -- and you will -- as long as you keep trying. Stick with it! After a while you'll start getting the hang of it. When you're first starting out, it's not unusual to have to stop after a few songs because you just get too tired and sweaty. I've found that taking turns of either one or three songs works well.

What's great about this game is that it's a very physical thing, and it's something your child will want to practice. It's not very mentally challenging, but it can be tricky trying to figure out how to do all the moves you need to get through a song. It's sort of like puzzle-solving with your feet. It's not a game that you'll "beat" any time soon; you will be able to continue playing and improving for a long time. It's also an easy game to pick up and play; there's no story, and nothing gets in your way. You just start it up and go. And it's great at parties as long as you make sure the kids share.

There are a lot of versions of this game. Some come with the "mat" controller bundled, some don't. As mentioned before, you'll really need the controller. We chose to get the Dance Dance Revolution Extreme Bundle, which included it. (NOTE: The preceding link lists a price of $199.95, which is insane. It should be about $40, which is the price you'll find for the almost equivalent DDR Extreme 2 Bundle. I e-mailed the seller and he said, paraphrased, that the price is deliberately high because it's new and unopened and someone stupid might buy it at that price.)

The primary difference between the versions is really the song lists. They tend to be techno dance music, and more or less appropriate for everyone. You might hear any of these songs on the radio. Your standards may vary, of course, but we really didn't find anything that we were concerned about in the game.

Kingdom Hearts

Kingdom Hearts has a special kind of magic. It turns Disney movies into three-dimensional worlds that you can run through and play around in, and that's just fantastic. Since it contains a lot of characters and stories that your child will already know, it really is a lot of fun, and unlocking the game's worlds can be really rewarding. And if you look at the top of the box you'll see that it's now become a "Greatest Hits" title, which is why it's gotten so cheap.

This is a tricky one to put on the list, but it's just so good that I had to do it. Despite its Disney theme, this is definitely not an easy game for a young child. It's very long, complicated, can be very difficult, and has a few scary points. I would say that it's probably targeted a little more at the tween to teen market. Olivia and I started playing it when she was only 7, but we didn't finish for months and months! It definitely shouldn't be a child's first exposure to video games, and you should be prepared to help your child play it almost the whole way through. In fact, I would strongly suggest getting a hint book like the Kingdom Hearts Official Strategy Guide ... these can be a lot of fun, and can encourage your child's reading skills.

You play Sora, a young boy who lives on an island with his friends. After some lengthy training and a series of opening sequences which seem to take forever, eventually your island is ripped apart. You land in a central hub called Traverse Town, and eventually meet up with Donald and Goofy -- who have been sent by King Mickey to find you and then deal with the problem of "Heartless", shadowy monsters which are invading all the Disney worlds. Eventually you'll visit the worlds of (and fight the major villains from) a lot of different Disney movies: Little Mermaid, Hercules, Nightmare Before Christmas, Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin, Peter Pan, and more.

There is violence in this game: fighting monsters is most of what you do. Fighting involves swordfights with a "Keyblade" that looks like a giant key. You're rarely fighting people; most of the fighting is against Heartless, who look like shadowy insects. Otherwise the content should be fine for all ages. Not all of the characters are Disney characters; some are Square-Enix characters (from other games made by the same game studio) and some were created just for this game.

The controls are moderately complicated. The basic moves are just running around, jumping, and hitting the attack button -- easily mastered by most kids if they've played a few games before. But there are a lot of menus, and even items that you can optionally buy and use (healing potions, magic, and so on). Saving goes through a menu as well, and must be done at a save point. There's no autosave, so your child must remember to save or else lose her progress.

The worlds you run around in can be big and complicated, and it's not always clear what to do next. But I've found that because it's a Disney theme, kids are very highly motivated to explore and look around. They will probably get stuck a lot, and the game makes it worse by creating certain situations where you just can't make forward progress and you have to give up and go to another world. For example, the Colosseum in Hercules isn't open for a long time, and there's no obvious reason why. That's why I'd suggest a hint book, with maps and strategies. When your child gets stuck, help him figure out how and where to look up the answer. You'll be helping him with his game, and very sneakily teaching him valuable skills like "how to use a reference book"!

There is also a sequel, Kingdom Hearts II, which is very similar to the first game. It's also long and complicated, but almost as good as the first game. I found that Olivia's enthusiasm ran out after a while on the sequel, but that might be because it didn't come out until two years after we finished the first one.


I still believe that the most important thing you can do as a parent is to read reviews of games before you buy them. Games can be expensive, and you don't want to buy bad ones.

There are a few places I go to find reviews. Amazon frequently has reviews written by kids and parents. I like GameSpot's reviews, although as a parent you sometimes need to translate a little: the criticisms of "too short" and "too easy" often mean the game will be just right for kids. IGN also has reviews, but the reviews aren't as well-written; sometimes it feels like they are written for gaming insiders who follow every little bit of news.

I hope to write more in this series, but I encourage you to write your own experiences in the comments. Let me know what you've tried, and what worked and didn't!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

New Parallels Desktop Beta  

A new beta update of Parallels Desktop has been released that updates Parallels Desktop for Mac to Build 1862 Beta.

This update fixes the disk caching policy problem that PD Tweaker was created for. If you were wondering, PD Tweaker is perfectly safe to run with the new update and doesn't conflict with it at all. But it will be unnecessary once you have configured your VM properly.

Curiously, instead of just fixing it they decided to make it an option under the virtual machine settings -> Options -> VM flags:

Choose virtual hard disk cache policy for better performance of:

[X] Virtual machine
[ ] Mac OS X

"Virtual machine" is the default setting. For the technically-minded among you, this is like having a radio button to select between two behaviors: "incorrect" and "correct", and defaulting to "incorrect".

In this case the correct behavior is to select the second option, "Mac OS X". There are rare scenarios where you might want the other behavior, for example if you were setting up a dedicated server box that does nothing except run virtual machines. But in almost all other cases the second option is correct. I'll blog more about this later.

There are several significant other improvements, including video acceleration -- which completely eliminates the display-update lag when you're typing in Windows, hooray! All in all it seems like a very worthwhile update so far. Remember to re-install the Parallels Tools on your client OS after updating so that you get the new drivers.

Friday, June 30, 2006

CLImax 1.5d2 re-released  


Any old-school scripters out there might be happy to hear that I've re-released CLImax 1.5d2, which I recently rediscovered on a long-lost backup.

CLImax is an AppleScript command-line interface for the Mac OS. It was originally written in 1996 for System 7.5, and development was stopped in 1998. Ten years after its first release, version 1.5d2 can still run under Classic today. It's not as convenient as it was under 9.2.2 natively, but it's not bad either.

I've received a bunch of positive comments about CLImax from people including Bill Cheeseman (of AppleScript Sourcebook), Ray Barber (of MacScripter), and Peter Hosey (of Adium X). Peter was the one who actually got me to re-release it.

CLImax 1.5d2 is now FREEWARE and available at no charge. Be sure to visit the CLImax homepage for more information, including screenshots.

I'm currently soliciting feedback on whether it'd be worth porting it to Mac OS X and creating a modern version. Thoughts?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

PD Tweaker 1.0  

For all you fans of Parallels Desktop out there, I've released a quick little hack to fix some problems in their initial release (aka: build 1848). It's called PD Tweaker.

It's very simple and only does two things.

  • Optimizes caching for HDD and SAV files

    Caching large files is actually harmful to your Mac's overall performance. HDD files do not need caching because the client OS will already have a cache layer. SAV files are streamed in and out and don't need to reside in the disk cache.

  • Always writes HDD and SAV files all the way to disk

    Your data is precious. Especially data like a HDD file that took you hours to install and configure. Shouldn't you treat it that way?

I wrote it primarily because although Parallels Desktop is a great product, I got fed up with the way it wasted my entire 2GB of RAM with the HDD file and made my machine virtually unusable. With PD Tweaker installed, you will not only notice greatly improved performance from your Mac as a whole, but your HDD files will be safer from data corruption as well. And best of all, it's entirely free and the source code is available.

Download Now!

It uses Unsanity's Application Enhancer 2.0 to do its thing.

More information (including some rationale and a technical explanation) is available on the PD Tweaker website. What are you waiting for? Go there now!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Delaying the xnu-x86 source release  

[Updated Aug 7 2006; see below.]

Tom Yager at InfoWorld points out that Apple has released the source code to everything in the x86 build of OSX Darwin except for the kernel, xnu.

He also makes what appears to be a completely and utterly unsubstantiated statement about why:

Thanks to pirates, or rather the fear of them, the Intel edition of Apple’s OS X is now a proprietary operating system.

First of all, what? That's a bold statement. Got any source for that claim? That seems like sheer FUD, deliberately sensationalized to create a stir and bring people to the site (and therefore sell ads). From everything I've seen, and I've worked with these people, Apple's security team and upper management know better than to rely on security through obscurity. And to date I don't know of any official or even unofficial statement from Apple about xnu-x86 -- just the fact that several people have noticed that the source still hasn't been released.

[Update 5/22 via John Gruber: Apple's Product Manager for Open Source reiterates that Apple has not made any announcement yet, and drops what sounds like a big hint that xnu-x86 will eventually be released.]

Let me offer two guesses at the real reason why we haven't seen source to xnu-x86 yet:

  1. The xnu-x86 source might leak information about a future product. The obvious candidate is the only missing link in the x86 line, the pro desktops. You know, the ones that will replace the "PowerMac". Let's call them "Mac Pro" for lack of a better name.

    For example, if the highest end Mac Pro desktop machines were planned to have, say, 4 CoreDuos packed into them for a whopping 8 CPU cores, then chances are you would see traces of that support show up in several parts of xnu. And when Apple releases a major rev of xnu, there are always some people who pore over it looking at the diffs.

    Apple does have ways to keep prerelease stuff out of the source release, of course, but it adds a layer of complication and risk to go back and hack that up after the fact. Maybe this time they decided it was just simpler to drag their feet for a while until the entire new line has been announced.

  2. The xnu-x86 source might currently contain a small amount of licensed proprietary code that does not belong to Apple. If that's the case, they simply might not be legally allowed to release it in its current form.

    Maybe it's virtualization code from Intel, or some sort of Trusted Computing gobbledygook which is currently dormant. If they can't negotiate terms to release it, then they might have to factor the sourcebase somehow to link that other code in separately. Factoring that out seems like it would be totally possible, but kind of a messy task since it's at such a low level in the kernel and they can't sacrifice any performance to do so.

Personally I think #1 fits Apple's modus operandi perfectly. But #2 is also the kind of real-world consideration that could delay a source release for an unknown period of time while the lawyers work things out. I will grant that "fear of pirates" is another technically possible reason why we haven't seen the source, but then again the same could be said for "fear of ninjas".

We'll see what happens. Either way my gut feeling is that this is just a delay in the source release, not a permanent switch to a completely closed-source kernel.

[Update: Aug 7 2006: xnu-x86 has now been released. According to Kevin van Vechten's post at kernel.macosforge.org:

Several changes were made in order to publish the kernel (xnu) sources. As a result, the kernel built from these sources differs from the one found in the 10.4.7 software update. In order to accommodate these changes, several kernel extensions were also modified and must be downloaded and installed in order to run a kernel built from these sources on Mac OS X 10.4.7 for Intel.

Based on that comment, it sounds like the answer is #2 and for the xnu-x86 release they moved some code from the kernel into a kext.]

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

What the hell is going on here?  

I don't often write short posts, but this May 12, 2006 article from one of my favorite op-ed writers, Richard Reeves, really struck a chord:

The only way to restore constitutional checks and balances in Washington before 2008 is for the opposition to win one house of Congress and have the power to call witnesses at public hearings and ask, under oath:

"What the hell is going on here?"

What is going on in the White House? The Defense Department? The CIA and the NSA? With gasoline prices? Along the border between California and Mexico? In Baghdad? In New Orleans? With Jack Abramoff and the K Street Gang? In Congress itself?

Or, who is listening to your phone calls? Are your taxes being used to teach torture techniques to your sons and daughters? Are the glaciers melting?

We'll be the last to know.

The nation flies blind when we have determined one-party government. That can and has happened in both parties over the centuries, but this White House is a particularly tough bunch, talking freedom around the world and taking it away at home. President Bush essentially has veto power over the Republican automatons in the Congress....

The rest of the article is worth reading, but that's really it in a nutshell. And it summarizes the entire problem that we face today.

The entire Republican Congress, including our own Ohio Senators Mike DeWine and George Voinovich, have thrown away all pretense of holding the President and the executive branch accountable. They are nothing but a rubber-stamp for the President's bad policies.

God forbid that anyone suggest the President might possibly have made a mistake! They can't admit to even one.

We are in that most terrifying of states where virtually every single decision that's being made is wrong, but nobody is willing to stop. It's like the worst death spiral you've ever seen from a meth addict, or a horror movie where you are yelling at the screen: "No, DON'T split up! The killer is taking you out one by one!" And yet we are powerless to stop it.

Democrats speak out daily, but it's the Republican majority that controls all the committee chairmanships and sets the agendas for both houses. And it's the Republicans who make sure that no actions that force accountability ever make it to the floor. In the past year alone I've seen video of at least five instances of Republican chairmen overruling perfectly valid objections from Democrats, silencing debate, and completely ignoring accountability.

If you wonder why Congress doesn't do something to stop the President, you are really asking why the Republicans won't do anything to stop the President.

You know what? That's a damn good question.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

High-Resolution Images Could Choke Internet  

Perhaps you've seen this article, entitled High-Definition Video Could Choke Internet, already:

Every day, it seems, a new service pops up offering to send you video over the Internet. "Desperate Housewives," Stephen Colbert heckling the president, clips of bad dancers at wedding parties: It's all there.

You may be up for it, but is the Internet?

The answer from the major Internet service providers, the telephone and cable companies, is "no." Small clips are fine, but TV-quality and especially high-definition programming could make the Internet choke.

Man. That just sounds really familiar to me for some reason. I've been online for more than a decade now, and this has been bugging me all day. So I started searching through my old floppy disks for news articles that I'd stashed away back in my university days. It turns out this argument isn't new at all! Check it out (sorry, no link to the original -- all I know about the origin is that I saved it off Usenet as jpegbad.txt):

High-Resolution Images Could Choke Internet
By SVEN PETERSON, Microcomputer Technology Writer
Sunday Mar 24, 1996

NEW YORK - Every day, it seems, a new service pops up offering to send you images or software over a new service called the World Wide Web, or WWW. Astronomy pictures of the day, ESPN.SportsZone.com, the Internet Movie Database, DOOM wads, Info-Mac archives: It's all there.

You may be ready for it, but is the Internet?

The answer, from major Internet service providers such as Prodigy, Compuserve, and eWorld, is "no." Small pictures are fine, but GIF animations, full-color JPEGs, and especially high-resolution images could make the Internet choke.

Most home Internet use is in brief bursts: an e-mail here, a gopher session there, followed by some Telnet activity. If people start browsing the World Wide Web like they watch TV -- for hours at a time -- that puts a strain on the Internet that it wasn't designed for, ISPs say, and beefing up the Internet's capacity to prevent that will be expensive.

To offset that cost, ISPs want to start charging content providers to ensure delivery of large JPEG files, for example.

Internet activists and consumer groups are vehemently against those plans, saying they amount to deliberately fouling the Internet's level playing field, one of the things that has encouraged communication and collaboration and may, in the future, provide a much-needed boost to the US economy. They want legislation to guarantee a "neutral" Internet, but prospects appear slim.

At the heart of the debate is a key question: How much would it really cost the Internet carriers to provide a couple of megabytes of JPEG-laden WWW pages over their networks every day?

The carriers are not telling, but there are ways to get close to an answer.

One data point: As a rough estimate, an always-on, 1000 kilobit-per-second connection to the Internet backbone in downtown Cleveland, purchased wholesale, costs an ISP $100 to $200 a month, according to the research firm GeoTelegraphy Inc. An ISP's business is carrying data from that connection to the customer.

One thousand kilobits per second is obviously a lot of bandwidth, so ISPs have to spread that bandwidth out over their subscribers. That connection can serve about 30 users who are using every bit of their 28.8 kilobit-per-second dialup connection. But analysts estimate that ISPs sell around 30 times more bandwidth to their end users than they can connect simultaneously to the Internet, meaning that these thousand kilobits are often shared by roughly 900 users.

In a way, dial-up internet service is like an old-fashioned telephone service, where there are always more lines leading from homes to the local switching station than there are going from the station out of the neighborhood. If everyone picks up the phone at once, there won't be enough outgoing lines for every call to go through. But the system works because that rarely happens.

Oversubscription doesn't present a problem as long as people are only using the Internet for e-mail, telnet, and the occasional FTP download. But if everyone in a neighborhood is trying to "surf" the WWW at the same time, it's just not going to work.

"The simple truth is that today's networks simply don't have the capacity to deliver all that customers expect," says Timothy Taker, Prodigy's top lobbyist.

The solution, of course, is to make the pipes connecting to the Internet fatter. To illustrate what that would mean, Compuserve's chief architect, Franz Kafka, uses the assumption that the cost of providing a month's worth of data to the average user, about 2 megabytes, costs the company $1. That's a fairly small amount compared to the $25 to $47 a month Compuserve charges for dial-up, but then the company has to pay for sales, support, maintenance and a host of other costs.

If that same user were to start downloading twenty print-quality high-resolution JPEGs per month, Compuserve's data cost, not including the cost of maintaining the dial-up line, would go up to $4.50 a month. Higher, but perhaps not high enough to break their business model.

But if the customer starts browsing the WWW like the average household watches broadcast TV, 8 hours a day, Compuserve's cost would go up to $112 a month, enough to inspire nightmares in the corporate accounting department according to Kafka.

"We don't expect to get to the point where we're charging anyone those kinds of prices for Internet service, but it does reflect the kind of impact that high-resolution JPEGs and GIFs could have on the network and business models for the Internet," Kafka said.

To deal with that, Kafka says Compuserve might put caps on the amount of data that a residential user gets for free, and charge extra if the user goes over. Other options include charging content providers extra for guaranteed delivery of JPEG images and GIF animations, which has raised the hackles of Internet content providers and activists.

However, Kafka's estimates for these costs aren't really Compuserve's. Like other ISPs, they don't disclose their actual costs. Instead, Kafka's base figure of $1 for 2 megabytes of data per month is based on an estimate by Dave Tricklestein, sysop of the Dial-Up Prime BBS, and Tricklestein thinks Kafka has it wrong.

"Traffic just isn't growing that fast," Tricklestein said. "It will grow and it will even accelerate, but not fast enough to turn into dollar amounts that really matter." The new WWW service is still just a small fraction of the total amount of internet traffic out there, and that's unlikely to change overnight, in Tricklestein's opinion.

In fact, he said, it will probably be at least two more years before the WWW takes off in a big way. Prices of network equipment like switches and routers have been falling, and that trend is likely to continue.

Tricklestein believes the danger of letting the carriers charge extra for guaranteed delivery is that they'll put the spending for upgrades into creating that extra "toll lane," and won't reduce oversubscription in the rest of the network even though it would be cheap to do so.

Both Compuserve and eWorld have said they won't degrade or block anyone's Internet traffic. But it's impossible to tell what goes on inside their networks.

So what's the message? Stay tuned, and watch your modem connection speeds.

Funny. Whatever happened to Compuserve and that short-lived dial-up business model where you got charged extra for overages? Oh yeah, consumers ran away from it in droves in favor of unlimited-download services so that they could browse the Web without restriction.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Apple's new laptop  

It's now been two days since Apple announced the first machines ever to ship with Intel processors, due to ship in February. (See my earlier post: Apple's future with Intel.) Steve said something about a new Intel-based iMac or something, I guess, but nobody cares because he also announced a new pro laptop that uses an Intel chip.

The usual flurries of oohs and ahhs, glowing reviews, playful cynicism, and plugs from unexpected directions have all played out. Now people are starting to look a little more closely at the offerings.

Missing Pieces

Finally, for the first time I have no connection whatsoever to Apple and I can talk about a new release without the fear of getting arbitrarily fired. So I'll dig in from my new perspective as an Apple outsider and take a look.

Rosyna examines what's not in the new laptop in his enigmatically titled Lost in Transition: Overcane of Antflower Milk. Don't worry about the title; he's just like that.

To sum up: no S-video, no FireWire 800, no modem, slightly lower resolution (1440x900, when the previous laptop was 1440x960), no dual-layer DVD burning. And from looking at the battery and the power brick, it seems likely that power consumption is actually higher on this machine than the previous iteration. (Not a big deal to me, since that's the natural progression anyway -- but worth noting.)

I'd add two things to that list:

  • No PC card slot. It was traded up for an ExpressCard/34 slot, which will ultimately be a good thing... but first, people will have to start making cards that fit it. To call the current offerings sparse would be generous. That'll be fixed in a year, but it may be a concern for a handful of early adopters who need PC cards for one reason or another.
  • No two-button trackpad. This doesn't matter when you're running Mac OS X, because OSX uses control-click. But tough luck if you were hoping to dual-boot into Windows; you simply can't run Windows usefully with a one-button mouse.

Many people have noticed that Apple is being suspiciously quiet about battery life. No statements on battery life are available, which is very odd for a laptop announcement. My sources suggest that they're simply not done with the final power management code, so they don't want to release actual metrics yet. If I may insert a side comment here, my own experience and tendency toward cynicism suggests that they will ship a half-assed version of power management with the machine, then patch it later with a couple of system updates to get to a version that actually works. Call it a hunch.


As the saying goes, "There are lies, damn lies, and benchmarks." Apple is claiming a whopping 4x speed boost over the previous PowerBook G4. But take a look at this breakdown of the benchmarks from Apple themselves:

MacBook Pro Benchmarks

Notice how only Modo -- an application that is heavily tuned for Intel chips -- is listed as about 4x faster, and everything else gets in the neighborhood of 2x. From Luxology's site:

The modo rendering engine deeply leverages various Intel Technologies to improve scalability and performance. Our bucket rendering provides near linear scales in performance with multiple processors and Intel® Pentium 4 processors with HT Technology.

Everything else that hasn't been hand-tuned quite as much for Intel chips only gets a boost in the neighborhood of 2x. Funny thing, really... 2x is just about the performance boost you'd get going from a single G4 to a dual G4.

From examining those benchmarks, my professional opinion is that it looks like a single core of the new Intel chip runs a little faster in these tests than a comparably-clocked G4, or roughly equal to a comparably-clocked G5.

The real performance boost comes from the fact that there are two cores. It's like the laptop went from a single-processor G4 to a dual-processor G5. That's a real boost, of course -- the machine really does seem to be twice as fast as the old machine, which is awesome and worthy of praise. But it's not because it's Intel vs PowerPC; most of the boost is due to the upgrade from single-processor to dual-processor.

As for people getting over-excited about Intel's SSE vs PowerPC's Altivec, my personal opinion -- as someone who's written code for both -- is that in the final analysis they're really quite similar. Sure, there are differences. Each is good at different things, and optimizing for one is not the same as optimizing for the other. Altivec has more registers, but then again you pay for those extra registers during context switches. Switching to SSE is more of a lateral move than a step back. It'll take a while for Apple and other vendors to convert everything that was Altivec-optimized to be fully SSE-optimized, but they'll get there.

Update: Ars Technica comes through with a hands-on look at the new iMac, and had a chance to run some benchmarks. Since they use the same CPU, the iMac probably has performance very similar to the new laptop. Check it out for more details.

Dreams of Dual-Booting

One of the reasons I was really interested in the new laptop was the possibility of dual-booting into Windows, and later, when the software became available, running Windows in a VMware-style shell.

My current work (contracting for Sony on PSP/PS3) requires me to use Windows XP on a daily basis. While I've mostly managed to customize my Windows system to the point where it satisfies my needs, I still really miss a lot of the nicer little features of the Mac: iChat, iCal, iPhoto, even AppleScript. And when I'm traveling I can't really work on Mac software without bringing two laptops along -- which is obnoxious both because of the extra weight and the extra hassle at the dog-and-pony show that passes for airport "security" in this country.

A single dual-booting laptop would have been a great solution for me -- I'd sign up to buy it right now if I thought the new laptop would deliver on that front, even without a two-button trackpad.

But it's been reported that Windows XP won't boot the laptop, because it uses EFI rather than a BIOS to boot. Longhorn, aka Windows Vista, should work... but who knows when that's coming out? Right now it's supposed to be the end of 2006, but it appears to be even money on whether Microsoft will actually make that date. The Longhorn schedule and magical ballooning feature list has looked a lot like Copland's so far, which isn't very heartening.

In summary, don't get this laptop for its capability to run two OSes; it will be a while before it can. Perhaps once there's a consumer VMware product for Mac OS X that boots XP I'll take a second look at it.

Update: In an interesting twist, Intel has firmly stated that you can definitely boot Windows XP with an EFI Core Duo system if the vendor provides a BIOS compatibility shim. Interesting! However, Ars Technica reports that they had no joy installing either XP or Vista on the new Intel iMac, so the shim is either not there right now or just not provided with the iMac.

But now that it seems at least technically possible, I bet we'll see a BIOS shim for the new laptop -- either factory installed, or as a download. Keep your eyes peeled; it may not be over yet!

The Good Stuff

So far this has seemed way too negative. That's not really how I feel. Overall I have to say I really do like the laptop as a Mac.

Things like lack of S-video and a modem don't bother me personally. Now that wi-fi has really taken off, it's not the crisis it used to be to be stuck in a hotel room without a modem -- you just have to find the nearest Starbucks. If you are one of the 2% of users who really need to use S-video or a modem regularly, you can get an adapter dongle. No, it's not as nice. But it works fine, and it helps bring the price of the laptop down for the rest of us.

I think the built-in iSight is nice; while not always useful, it's one of those things that's nice to have standard. Video chat and other applications of the camera (think Flickr) will increase dramatically if the iSight is now going to be standard on every new machine. I don't like bringing my iSight with me when I travel, but I'd definitely use a built-in one to video chat with my wife if I had it.

And the speed, ah, the speed. This machine really is fast. If you are looking for a fast new Mac laptop, this is what you've been waiting for.

What's up with the name?

I haven't even talked about the name yet. Apple used to sell the PowerBook. I guess they still do, at least for a while. The brand had good name recognition despite that awkward capital B in the middle that nobody actually bothered to type.

But this new laptop has been rebranded and is no longer a PowerBook. Instead, it's called a "MacBook Pro". Hardly anybody I've talked to likes the name, myself included. But I might be able to guess at the rationale behind it. Bear with me.

"PowerBook" is a brand name. A PowerBook actually has three unique brands associated with it: "PowerBook", "Mac", and the superbrand "Apple". Personally, I think it's a very strong name, and it has the benefit of 15 years of brand-building success behind it. People know what you're talking about when you say PowerBook.

MacBook Pro, on the other hand, is a brand extension. A double brand extension, really. "MacBook Pro" is an extension of "MacBook", which itself is an extension of "Mac". On the face of it, from everything the The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding tell us, this is a much much weaker name. Why on earth did Apple decide to make this change?

The only reason that makes sense to me is that Apple must have decided that they're going to start consolidating the Mac brand. Rather than having separate brands under the Mac umbrella, everything Mac is now going to include Mac in the name. If that's true, then the "iBook" name will going away to be replaced by just plain "MacBook". "PowerMac" will go away, to be replaced by something like "Macintosh Pro".

Why consolidate the Mac brand? Perhaps, and just perhaps -- this is wild speculation -- it's to get ready for a possible future move to OSX running on non-Apple PCs. Let me be clear here: I don't expect such a move of the OS to non-Apple PCs for at least five years or more. But Apple of course has to be thinking about the possibility of competing with Microsoft in the future.

If they were to start letting OSX run on non-Apple PCs, they might want to rebrand "Mac OS X" to "Apple OS X" to make a distinction between the high-end Mac computer brand and other non-Mac computers. But doing that would weaken the Mac brand, right? So that may be why we're seeing the brand consolidation now, years before any of these other changes take place. It's about strengthening the brand in anticipation of possible weakening later.

Just a thought.