Monthly Archives: January 2009

Out of touch

In case you’ve been trying to contact me recently, I should let you know I’ve had a couple of minor disasters:

  1. Lost my mobile phone up on the moors while restraining a misbehaving dog.  Saturday afternoon.  Looking to replace; trying to haggle a decent deal with my provider or AN Other.  Corollary: I may have lost your details, if you’re a contact.
  2. An email accident led to my Sun mailbox being flooded with over 10000 crap messages, which I just deleted in batch.  I don’t think I lost any real email, but it’s just possible.  Sunday early evening.
  3. Other phone numbers divert to the lost mobile.  I think I’ve cancelled the diversions, but I may have overlooked something.

If you’ve tried to contact me and could have been caught up in any of the above, please try again.  In case of difficulty, an email or a comment here will at least alert me that you’re trying.

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At my time of life …

A man almost exactly my age is getting inaugurated as, by many measures, the world’s most powerful person.  I don’t know Barack Obama’s exact age, but I know at least that we were born in the same year.

Is it a milestone that should be looking reproachfully at me: here’s what a man your age can achieve?  Not really: in my line of work I’m already a has-been by some measures, with top role-models like Linus Torvalds having risen at a far younger age.  Fortunately that’s only part of the story, and geekdom is pretty egalitarian.

Nevertheless, this is a passing of another milestone.  In middle-age, they’re coming thick and fast, from getting cast as the young hero’s father in an operatic production, to seeing my real-life nephew go up to university later this year.  Etcetera, etcetera.

Is it time to grow up?  Help!!

e-books

Lots of people I know like books.  But many – including me – lack the space to keep as many as they’d like.  E-books offer a solution to that, accommodating a large library in less space than a single bookcase.

This year I’ve taken the plunge, and bought some, and given them as presents to my, erm, nearest and dearest.  Specifically, one to the girlfriend, and one to the parents.  The latter just got it yesterday evening, as I’m visiting for the weekend.

I was a little unsure about the parents: my dad is a bit of a technophobe, and could’ve turned his nose up at it.  But he’s also a huge bibliophile and laments bitterly the lack of space for a proper library.  The mother is happy with technology, but though she enjoys a good read she’s not such a bookworm as to suffer from only having a few hundred in the house.

Turns out I needn’t have worried: both parents love it, and I’m going to have to get them another, or they’ll be fighting over it!  Interestingly, they’ve previously seen and disliked an e-book reader: the one marketed by Waterstones, which I believe is by Sony.  So it’s just as well I’d selected the BeBook, though my choice was governed more by an evidently-enlightened attitude to Freedom, with a wide range of formats supported rather than a tie-in to someone’s restrictions.

The BeBook is indeed a nice product for its intended purpose.  For the size and weight of a slim paperback, you can carry a library of thousands.  It has a tiny battery with a long life.  It is indeed easy to use and comfortable to read, and offers some additional goodies like audio book support.  150 titles – works out of copyright, being mostly but not exclusively books – are bundled, and the BeBook website claims to offer another 20000 for free download.  Plus of course a rapidly-growing number of titles available for purchase, in both DRM-encumbered and unencumbered formats.

At the same time, this is clearly an emerging technology with a way to go.  Navigation is rather slow, and will doubtless be more smoothly and elegantly presented in future devices, though at the same time has some excellent features like well-designed automatic bookmarking of your place in a book.  There are quite a few mild to moderate glitches in the 150 free titles bundled with it, though nothing that’s a showstopper (so far as I’ve seen).  And it can’t download books directly: it relies on a USB connection to a computer to do the work.   Oh, and this is a device crying out for a touchscreen, though I’ve a suspicion that would require a much bigger battery or kill the battery life.

Still, a nice little device, and everyone likes it 🙂

Sun Webserver open sourced!

A little under six months from the original announcement, Sun has released its core Sun Java System Web Server source code under a BSD license.  You can read about it and download it here.  This brings us exciting new opportunities for cross-fertilisation with Apache and other web servers[1], and I intend now to spend some time in Sun’s newly-Free code.

The webserver is of course not Sun’s only product in the field.  Nor even the main one: Sun’s webstack supports Apache and other open source servers.  In the marketplace as a whole, it is by most measures an also-ran, alongside everything else other than Apache and Microsoft.  Nevertheless, it is reported to be quite substantially overrepresented at the top-end of the market, with a significant market share amongst Fortune 500 company sites.  I can’t quote statistics on the subject, but this makes sense based on high performance and the backing of a strong top-end company.

I’m not sure if it’s decent to say this from my position (working for Sun, though not on this particular software), but thanks Sun for another great contribution to the world!

[1] An example is Basant Kukreja’s sed filter module, which is already in Apache’s trunk.

Happy ending

As we headed towards winter, I had just one presentable coat. It’s a craghoppers, and about 10 years old.  My other coat is decent quality (Berghaus goretex) but over 20 years old and showing its age, as well as having been bought by a man with a smaller waistline.

So two months ago, I went to the local outdoor shop to look for a new one, and ended up buying two: one fully waterproof (patagonia), and a second ultra-lightweight paramo, designed to be wind/shower-resistant but not to cope with serious weather.

Within a week I was firmly in love with the latter!

Alas, another week and it was ripped right through.  It was hanging on the hooks on the inside of my front door, when a friend’s dog tried to open the door.  Failing to operate the handle, the dog grabbed the nearest thing, my beloved new coat, and had ripped a chunk out before I had time to stop him.  Aaargh 😦

Since it was such a new purchase, I took it back to the shop, and tried to ask if, in the circumstances, they would replace it at cost.  After all, they’d already made their margin from me on the two coats.  They refused, but they told me it could be sent back to Paramo for repair: they would replace the ripped section, and it would be as good as new.  So I accepted that.

Today at last, they phoned to say it’s repaired and back with them.  It is indeed as good as new, at £30 against a retail price of £80.  So this afternoon I picked it up and wore it for a brief walk over Whitchurch Down.  Nice!

I think that’s thanks to Paramo for a useful service, but alas not to our local shop, who not only refused my initial request, but also promised repeatedly to keep me informed (including quoting a repair price as soon as Paramo had seen it) but never did.  There wasn’t even any transparency about the £30, and whether they took a profit on that.

Enforced sitting-at-home

Package tracking details from delivery company's online tracking

The record shows an example of highly-efficient overnight distribution from one of our leading delivery companies.

So why is the last leg still so inefficient that it has to keep me sitting at home all day to take delivery? We had the technology to track a delivery van and display it on a map in real time 20 years ago[1]. Surely it shouldn’t be beyond the likes of DHL to make that information available over the Web, so I can at least see whether the delivery is far enough off for a quick visit to the shops or market!

[1] Dammit, my own job exactly 20 years ago was developing that technology!

Luddites or weenies?

Tim Bray: “here it is nearly thirty years into my programming career and I’m still debugging with print statements“. That didn’t jump out at me, but Ian Murdock saw it, and agrees. In such distinguished company as Tim and Ian, I think I can admit to my own luddite tendencies with a shell, vi, and a whole bunch of commandline utilities like make and svn. At the same time, I take much more advantage of a decent GUI than most, which is why I hate restrictive, labour-intensive desktop environments like Windows[1] and Mac[1].

As for debugging, yes, I sometimes use print statements. Where I can get away with it I prefer something more interactive like gdb, and even a level up from there a thin GUI is nice (whatever happened to xdbx? A google search finds no new version since 1992, a very long time before gdb could be said to be a serious competitor to dbx).

From time to time I do use a full-blown IDE. On Windows I use MS Visual studio, not out of choice but because there’s no half-decent commandline environment. While it has some useful features, I find these heavily outweighed by labour-intensive hoops I have to jump through to import a project into the studio, the lack of control, etc. I use cygwin (the primitive best-available shell) alongside it, and heartily curse the defective GUI that won’t let me have both visible and usable at the same time on any realistic size of desktop.

When I first programmed Java in the 1990s I used Sun’s studio and workshop projects, and they certainly helped bootstrap my knowledge of the language. But within a couple of months I’d reverted to the commandline toolkit for getting any real work done. The nice GUIs are good for playing with prototypes and (in cases like glade) creating some really useful skeleton code. But when GUI becomes IDE, it tends to get way too restrictive for real work.

Which leads me to wonder: where’s the middle-ground in development? There’s the choice of IDE or DIY toolkit, and of course there’s the DIY IDE (aka emacs). But what happened to the idea of a tool that simplifies things that can be simplified, without putting the programmer in a straitjacket? What happened to simple but useful productivity tools like xdbx, or is gdb (wrapped in a GUI or otherwise) really the only show in town?

Ho, hum. This feels like a “getting old” rant. On reflection, this middle ground is there, and I’ve even named some of the tools, and what I’m missing is an IDE I can live with on a regular basis. Wonder how I’d feel if I were thrown back to a 1980s toolkit and VT100 terminal? Or even the dyslexic teletype and line editor I had to work on in my first job after graduating?

[1] Just to list a couple of defects shared by both those platforms:

  • No way to use a window without raising it. If your reaction to that is “so what?”, see Steve Yegge’s explanation of what you’re missing.
  • No mouse-only cut&paste. Keyboard sequences like ctrl-c/ctrl-v mean you either tie up both hands in a simple operation, or abandon the mouse altogether. I can respect the latter (use it myself, in forms like vi’s y/p[2], though not across different applications and windows), but the former is just dreary, distracting, time-consuming, error-prone faff.

[2] vi’s keystrokes are also vastly less effort for clumsy hands than anything requiring multi-key combos like [alt|meta|ctrl]+action.