Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Solaris Puzzle

I wrote about issues installing an operating system on some new hardware a few days ago. Since then I've done more exploring. A subsequent attempt to install Ubuntu 10.10 on the same box was a success, right up to the part where you reboot from the newly-installed system. That was a total failure and required power cycling to escape.

Then, several restarts later (due to my lack of speed on the DEL key), I managed to get at the BIOS. I decided to start from scratch, and loaded the safe defaults. Then I went through and tweaked it carefully (and very conservatively). After that, it booted fine. To be sure of this, I rebooted it (both warm and cold) about 30 times. All good. Then I left it to its own devices with a bunch of stuff running for a couple of days. Still good.

Then I tried again to install my Solaris-11 system, hoping that it would work on the new setup. No joy at all. The installer crashed, several times, in exactly the same place as before (i.e., long before getting close to actually installing anything). I really wanted to be able to use ZFS, which I think is a wonderful file system, but it seems impossible for me to install Solaris on any reasonably up to date hardware that I have available. I think I'm over this now and will wait for some other operating system that I can bear to use offering native ZFS.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Computers Can Make You Mad

I've just put together a new computer. It starts up fine. It reads a CD with an operating system I want to install just fine. The installer runs fine until we get close to actually doing something. Then it crashes. This is repeatable. I re-burned the CD in the drive on the new machine and tried again. Same deal.

I'm now running memtest86 over the 24G of memory in case the problem is there. So far, it has made seven complete passes without detecting anything. I will let it go until it says it has completed a full test sequence, but I'll be surprised if it finds anything now. If it's not memory, it's a bit hard to guess where the problem is. Since we never get as far as writing on a disk, it's not going to be there. Nor do we use the network.

The machine is certainly almost OK. Maybe even quite OK. It certainly seems to run Linux as I'd expect, although I haven't attempted exhaustive tests yet. Testing is so slow and so boring and gets in the way of everything else I'd like to be doing. And it's Friday.

My spouse has decided that we need a weekend away in a luxurious place far from the normal world. This seems like an excellent plan. Maybe the computer will reveal something useful next week. I'll be running out of time to claim DOA status for the bits by then, so that might affect my sleep tonight. On the other hand, losing sleep over a box of bits is probably unwise. Consider this as a muted scream.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

There's Somebody at the Door

My spouse has had a hard start to the week and announced last night that she wanted a nice easy start today because she did not have any clients until 10:15. I was happy to go along with this plan and so the morning began peacefully.

At 7:30, just as I delivered the first cup of coffee to the bedroom, the doorbell rang. Spouse looked alarmed and asked questions that were hard to answer. However, I speculated that the caller might have been one of her 7:30 clients arriving on the wrong day. Much quiet cursing followed this thought and spouse dashed about the room grabbing the minimal clothing that she could wear to the door to face a client.

By the time she opened the door, the caller had backed away and was digging in her backpack. She found her diary, looked at it, turned to spouse and said, "Oops, I'm supposed to be here next week." And off she went.

Spouse returned looking like thunder, threw her clothes on the floor and flounced back into the bed. By then the coffee was cooling. That seemed like a good moment for me to go out to the kitchen to make fresh coffee.

I guess people who need psychotherapy because their life is in chaos can be expected to make this kind of mistake, but some days it really would be great if they could look in their diaries before ringing the bell.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sandfire Roadhouse

Armed with one hugely costly spare tyre, I headed north. The next leg was a wee bit daunting: 560 km of dirt road with nothing at all along it, according to my new map. I was a bit anxious about the tyres, but felt I had to press on. It was hot and getting hotter. About half way along this barren stretch, one of the front tyres exploded. It's tricky to deal with this on dirt at 200 km/h and the wheel itself and parts of the brake were junk by the time I stopped.

It was the middle of the day. The road was so hot, it hurt to kneel down to undo the wheel nuts. Eventually, I got the front right corner of the car jacked up enough to remove the wheel. By then I was exhausted and mildly panicky. I threw a towel under the car and slid underneath to get some shade. The heat from the road below and the hot exhaust above was grim, but the shade still seemed better than being out in the sun. I might have been slightly irrational at this point.

Half an hour later, a truck going south stopped to see if I was dead. When the driver understood what I was doing, he said, "Come on, let's get your spare on the car and then you can stop about five miles back there for cool shade and cold drinks and people to chat with."

I found that hard to believe, but he was insistent that there was a new place for travellers to rest at. He did most of the work getting the wheel on and the tools packed away and headed off on his way south, and I drove gingerly north. And it was true, there was a place to stop. My memory says it was called Sandfire Lodge, but either my memory is wrong or they changed its name later. There is a place called Sandfire Roadhouse marked on current maps of Australia in the right place, so it's still there.

I was one of their first customers and they asked me to sign their visitors' book and their petition to be granted an alcohol licence, which I cheerfully did. I doubt if they still have those records from 1970 and my name has been changed many times since then, so tracking that down would be tricky now.

They had a spinifex shelter with water running down the walls to cool the wind blowing through. It was better than heaven for me that day. And they had cold soft drinks on ice which made the whole experience seem magical. A lot of my angst over the Dunlop Tyre Service at my previous stop evaporated at Sandfire Whatever. Although I was still aware that I once again had no spare tyres and a long way to go before stumbling on civilisation again, so I took things easy when I finished my rest with the kind people in the middle of nowhere.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Easy Does It

Back in the present today, for a look at some software that I was wrestling with yesterday. I often whine about issues with free software that is hard to use or configure or that crashes messily. But it's rare for me to complain about commercial software. I'd hate people to think that was because commercial software is better when the real reason is simply that I avoid using commercial software as far as possible. But yesterday I spent some time with three of Atlassian's products (for which I have the cheap Starter Licenses).

Why? There are times when friends tell me I should use the Atlassian software rather than wasting my time with less-capable or otherwise deficient free software and I finally thought I'd combine two things by contributing a few dollars to the charity that Atlassian supports and trying out their software.

I downloaded Confluence, Jira and GreenHopper and installed Confluence first on a bare Ubuntu box. Along the way, I carefully followed every step of the instructions, including installation of additional software packages that were required. I configured a brand new MySQL installation as instructed. Then I started Confluence and began to step through its config screens per the instructions. Somewhere along the way, I encountered an error with an insane diagnostic.

Always willing to assign blame to myself in the first instance, I blew away the entire installation and began again. Again, I was meticulous about following the instructions. Again I got the same error.

I mention my following the instructions because this is a big deal for me. I'm one of those sad people who reads the owner's manual for a new car or a new mouse from cover to cover before using it, even though there is virtually no chance that I'll learn anything from my reading. But I am confident in my ability to follow written instructions perfectly. When I can't get a piece of software to work after carefully following the instructions, the problem is with the software. The instructions are part of the software, which is why I say the problem is with the software.

I'm sure I could probably get somebody at Atlassian to step me through the setup for Confluence, but I'm not interested in doing that. I've learnt all I need to know. That means that I won't use any of the Atlassian products, nor will I suggest that other people try them. I'm really documenting this here so I can point to it any time somebody suggests Confluence or Jira to me in the future.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Service With a Smile

As I drove into Port Hedland on my way north, I spotted a Dunlop Tyre Service and thought about the four blown-out tyres I was carrying. Perhaps it would be smart to stop for some tyre service. The place was quiet, the workers all wearing nice clean white overalls, and I was pleased to see that I could expect swift service and a chance to be on my way with little delay.

My illusions were shattered when I finally got one of the men to acknowledge me. "Sure, mate, toss them there. Come back on Thursday." I don't really remember which day he said, but it was about three days in the future and I could spare an hour or two at most. So I pleaded with him. No dice. I grovelled. Eventually, he told me they'd sell me tyres and tubes but I'd have to fit them myself if I was in such a hurry. With my tools, not theirs.

This didn't suit me at all. I hate tyre irons and car wheels. And it was hot, seriously hot. So I sat on the ground, lit a smoke, and fantasised about nasty things that could happen to the fine folk at the Dunlop place. Before I gave in and submitted to my fate, a shiny new ute arrived with a flat truck tyre in the back. The driver was wearing a suit, which was something I didn't ever expect to see in that part of the world.

He went through the same routine with the helpful men in white. But his grovelling was more intense than mine because he had a team of men waiting out in the sticks for him to get back with the wheel. He had no more luck than me and was on the point of tears.

Seeing a possible win-win situation, I approached him and asked him if he knew how to fix a car tyre. He said yes. So I offered to fix the truck tyre if he'd do mine. This wasn't completely altruistic, as the only hard part with truck wheels is knowing what to do. But it's much easier than a car tyre. He was ecstatic and offered to pay my bill as well as do the work on my tyre. I said OK, because I expected to be paying a couple of dollars for a new tube.

I put a new tyre and tube on his wheel. He put a new tube inside my old tyre and mounted it. Then he went to pay. Luckily he had a business cheque book, because my tube cost over $100 (in 1970). I don't recall how much they gouged him for his truck tyre and tube, but I do remember being shocked.

I'd actually got to be 23 years old and driven almost all the way around Australia before I saw my first real proof that the rumours I'd gown up on telling of the kindness and generosity of the people in the bush were not to be relied upon. Although I was soon to learn that not everybody was like that Dunlop place.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The End of Civilisation

Life, some awful lurgy, and a couple of family crises got in the way of my plan to write stuff every day this week. But eventually most of that settled down and now I can look back at the week.

For the past few years, my wife has worked on Monday mornings at Southport on about a three-weekly schedule. I drive her down, then go for a walk for an hour or so along the seafront before finding a cafe in the shade where I read. That walk from the Sheraton Mirage towards Surfers has always pleased me. It has a nice wide path, there is plenty of shade from trees, the sea is just there with its endless music, and a nice cooling breeze makes for comfortable walking.

When she finishes her work, I collect her, and sometimes we find a restaurant for lunch or drive back to Brisbane and go out for lunch there. Overall, it works out nicely for us both.

But the last few times I've been for my walk, I've noticed disturbing signs that things are not as peaceful and pleasant as my picture would have it. There are increasing numbers of nasty racist slogans painted on various structures along the path. "Destroy Evil Islam," "Gooks Out", "Muslims Out" are probably the most popular.

The council does regular maintenance of the path, collecting litter (which is a big job), mowing the grass, and so on. But they appear to have no interest in the signs.

I find myself less and less able to enjoy my walk in this normally peaceful place when it is the new place for this hate speech. It makes me sick. It must make the targets pretty upset too.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dusty Roads

Before setting off on my drive from Perth to Darwin, I got a few words of advice from my truckie mates who went up and down the west coast. After loading all my possessions, including tools, several jerry cans of fuel and four spare wheels in my ute, I set off full of confidence.

The first day, I got to Carnarvon comfortably. Stopped at a pub to have a beer with some truckies going south. Probably had a couple of beers, because I was still there three days later and now had only three days to cover the remaining 2,300 km (of which only the last 270 km was sealed). It was mid summer and long before the days of air-conditioning in cars.

But I was not really concerned. Not until I came to a fork in the road that was not marked on my map. Nor was there a signpost. At least there was a Volvo stopped at the fork, so I pulled in to ask for directions. He'd been sitting there for 12 hours waiting for somebody to come by and tell him which way to go. According to my maps and my knowledge of my fuel consumption, I could afford to go not more than 50 km down the wrong road. The guy in the Volvo couldn't even go that far.

We tossed a coin and took what turned out to be the correct road. After a while we drifted apart because the infinite supplies of fine dust made close following impossible. That night, after a brief stop for food, I headed out of whatever ghost town I was in to continue my journey but discovered that both my headlights had fallen out of the car while pounding over the corrugations during the day. All that was left were sad little wires dangling from where the lights should have been.

I waited for a road train going north and flagged him down. He eventually agreed, after sighting my road train licence, that I could drive in front of him and use his lights. He didn't need to tell me, but he did, that I shouldn't even consider slowing down once we were up to 110 km/h, as he would not be stopping. And off we went. The night drive was cooler and once my mirrors had all fallen off his lights didn't bother me too much. But I did start getting tired by the morning and I started to worry about him falling asleep behind me. Fortunately, we both survived until daybreak and I was able to accelerate away from him and get back into my 200 km/h rhythm.

Every two to three hours, I would catch up with another road train's dust cloud. At least the daytime wind was constant from the west, so they could see my approaching dust in their left-hand mirrors. As I got close, they'd swerve across to the wrong side of the road to allow a pass in the dust-free zone on the left. I knew what to do: keep going flat out past the truck. They wouldn't stay out there forever, so timid or law-abiding drivers never passed them. I hear that road is sealed now, so those ancient courtesies have no doubt been forgotten.

It's strange looking back on that trip 40 years later. Despite the great emptiness of the west, so many interesting things happened on that brief journey that it would take fifty thousand words to tell the story. Luckily for everybody, I don't have what it takes to write that much today.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Mistakes Were Made

During my student days in Melbourne, I got a job as a barman in a Carlton pub. I was too young to work there legally, but got around that by pointing out to the publican that I'd been drinking there for years when I was even younger. He took me on.

There were some tough guys amongst the regulars. One of them was a good middle weight boxer with a volatile temper. One evening, I did something wrong, maybe put three atoms too much air in his beer, and he lost it. Threw the glass at me. I ducked just in time, but then the boss also lost it because my lack of balls meant a lot of breakage when the glass of beer hit the wall of glass objects behind me. For a brief moment, I thought my customer was going to start throwing more stuff, but he took a deep breath, leaned over the bar and shared a thought with me. "You'll keep, you little shit. I'm gonna punch your lights out when you go home."

The rest of the night went slowly while my mind conjured up thousands of scenarios of the after work horror that awaited me. There were brief moments when I thought he might be falling down drunk by the time I left, but since nobody had ever seen him in that state and since everybody who knew him called him a mean drunk, I mainly thought about being too young to die.

When the pub closed for the night, there were the usual chores to do cleaning up the bars, washing the last glasses, cleaning out the beer lines, counting the cash, drinking free beer, mindlessly chatting. But the time came when the boss had had more than enough of my company. He sent me home and no doubt went up to bed.

I tip-toed to the side door, waited for some minutes, very carefully turned the handle. I pulled the door back slowly, ready to slam it shut in a flash. Nothing happened. I stuck my head out slowly and looked around. By a nice miracle, there was nobody in the street at all. I managed a breath, stepped outside, and closed the door behind me. And headed off home feeling quite relieved. As I stepped around the corner of the pub onto Lygon Street, Gavin stood up from a doorstep and stepped in front of me. I died.

Then he laughed and said, "Jesus mate, you look like you shit your pants!" I didn't know the right answer and managed to say nothing. He stuck out his hand to shake and said, "Sorry I was a prick before, let's be friends again. OK?" I reached out for the handshake and said, "Sure, friends is good." The handshake felt as though it broke all the bones in my hand, but it seemed like a fair escape.

So we stayed friends for a few weeks and then he died in a drunken car crash in the city.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gambling Lesson

A few years after my fiasco with Galilee in 1966, I was living in Perth and playing pub pool in just about every waking moment. I got hooked when I teamed up with Keith, a workmate who claimed to have been Scottish snooker champion. I can find no evidence of that, but he was an outstanding player. When he was thirsty, he was capable of breaking and clearing the table without giving the other three players a single shot. Once he had his eye in, he enjoyed performing trick shots and entertaining the crowd. In those days in Perth pubs, you always played for the cost of the table and a beer. We drank for free for about a year.

Despite his ability to drink free beer as long as he wanted, Keith had a taste for expensive spirits and for backing losers at the races and those two failings had him almost constantly in debt. We were paid fortnightly and Keith always ran out in about three days. He would borrow from me until the next payday. On payday, I'd collect what he owed me before he had a chance to pay anybody else or to put a bet on any new sure thing. And I was careful never to lend him more than his usual pay packet in any fortnight.

I went to his home once, but his wife clearly held me responsible for his financial failings and threw me out on the spot. And after a while, I started to get itchy feet as I became increasingly aware that I had only put 3,400 km between me and my parents in Melbourne. I moved on to Darwin and I lost touch with Keith. But at least I was by then confirmed in my attitude to betting on horses.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Horse to Remember

A weedy little bloke from some runt of a town in western NSW walked into a pub on a Carlton street corner one spring day. The regulars at the bar gave him the stare, but he went ahead and ordered a beer. His name was Kenny and he became a regular and some of the men started to recognize him. He bought beers for me and some mates and we got to ask him why he was in Melbourne.

This was not something he wanted to share with everybody, so he almost whispered it. "I'm here to back Galilee in the Cups," he said. This theme was constant for a week or two. He was an odd punter, always in the pub rather than at the racecourses or even the TAB. This was 1966, and this pub had never had a TV in the bar. But he kept having enough money to buy his share.

He disappeared on Caulfield Cup day, but was back with a major hangover and a lopsided grin the following Monday. Galilee had won and Kenny had won with the bookies. Over the next few days, my mates decided that Kenny knew something and decided they had to back Galilee in the Melbourne Cup. I was a student then, so the other guys elected me their representative to back the horse on Cup Day. I'd never been in a TAB or bet on anything, so this was a shock.

I did some reading and found that only five horses had won the cup double in the past 90 years. It seemed unlikely that it would happen this year. So I kept the money, avoided the TAB, drank as much as I could hold and discovered too late how treacherous horses and gambling can be when Galilee came home first. We never saw Kenny again, and I was lucky to see anything at all when my excited mates came to collect their winnings. I vowed to avoid horses and betting for the rest of my life. And I had to find a new pub.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fine Day for a Holiday

Days off work are good for everybody, whether they are workers or employers. In my family, we're mostly self-employed, but we still take days off on public holidays. We have our little rituals of parties and fun. Unfortunately, most of the public holidays in Australia are either religious holidays or celebrations of nationalistic ideas or wars.

Melbourne Cup Day just celebrates the crooks in the racing industry, who can easily be ignored by those of us who don't actually care about horse racing, leaving us with a fun day off at a good time of the year. I'd like to see more silly holidays, scattered through the year, as a sign of good will towards the mental health of the entire community.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Last year, I saw people talking about NaNoWriMo and was smart enough to take no notice. This year, I'm going to play. But I'm making up my own rules. It's certainly not the year to add to my collection of unpublishable novels and it's almost certainly folly to imagine that I'd write something every day.

But, having had a small victory with the project I've been working on today, and having found myself with a few minutes to spare before I head out for my last Italian lesson of the year, and having noticed that it's the first day of NaNoWriMo, here is my initial contribution.

Faced with a splendid piece of written homework that I had crafted around 1962, my English teacher, Brother Monagle (who must be dead by now), told me that I would never be a writer. This encouraged me to try to prove him wrong over the intervening decades, but the record of my writing achievements seems to show that he was right. I still think he was a bit of a bastard for saying that and I'm not quite ready to forgive him for it, although I will always take some solace from the revenge I took not long afterwards involving unauthorised use of the large car that his brother had loaned him.

The prime fault with that homework was the length of the opening sentence which meandered well on to the second page before bumping into a full stop. I was made to read just that first sentence aloud to the class for their amusement. They were duly amused. I was happy that it turned out to be readable, although the humiliation of that day remains fresh.

My mother was inclined to say that I never learned. This was in relation to my failure to comply with all of her rules, something I never attempted to learn. But it's probably true to say that I have had trouble learning to reign in my long-winded story telling. I'd like to blame Brother Monagle for that too. Or my genes.

Since this post is almost content-free, I'll do the right thing and stop here. But I may be back tomorrow, or some other day.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Public Goals Revisited

Some time ago, I wrote about my hope that stating some goals in public might assist me in achieving them. In particular, I mentioned a desire to shed 10 kg in 100 days and invited people to keep on my back about it.

As it happened, this wasn’t interesting for many people and just one friend did remind me and ask me how I was going at suitable intervals. I’m very grateful for that. The sad thing is that it doesn’t seem to have worked for me. The 100 days ended at the start of this month and my weight is unchanged. To be specific, the day I started it was 78.8 kg and it was 78.8 kg this morning. In between, it has fluctuated between 76.7 and 80.0 kg. I think it’s fair to describe that as “no change”.

So what’s next? I still wish to lose that weight, but it is clear that I will need to adopt a better strategy to accomplish it. While I was away in Sydney recently, I managed to get in some decently long walks and thought I might be able to make a specific time for walking every day back at home. I have now been getting up at 5:00 every morning and immediately going for a brisk one hour walk. It is too soon yet for that that have made any impact—as the scales make clear. However, I am hopeful that, by doing this walk regularly, I might make some progress.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Gmail Makes Another Step

I’ve whined previously about gmail’s “conversation view”, claiming that it’s too broken to use for non-trivial email. Recently, I was pleased to discover that Google have finally—albeit reluctantly—acceded to the requests of thousands of users who don’t want it. It can now be turned off. I have turned it off for me and my wife and we both prefer it to the old gmail way.

Of course, gmail is still broken in that the non-conversation view is less useful than what was provided a dozen or more years back by software like exmh or mutt. But at least we can avoid Google’s peculiarly inept idea of email threading. There is still room for improvement, but I’m finding the low level of maintenance of gmail to be a compelling reason to stick with it. For now.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Where Now?

As I write this, we still don’t have an election result—although I imagine that will change some time today. I have no idea where the country will go once the result is settled, but today I’m thinking of my own immediate future.

I’m about to have a few days off with my sweetie, partly to do some family duties, but chiefly to have a break from our routine. Most of the vague big ideas that I had for 2010 have borne only minimal fruit, so I’m hoping that this time of recharging my batteries will allow me to see what I really want to do in the last third of this year.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Gmail Priority Inbox

After wrestling with various Gmail extensions with similar aims, I was pleased to hear about the new Gmail Priority Inbox which I have now turned on for my Gmail. I don't think they have it quite right yet, but I expect it will evolve over the next few months and that it might just become so useful that I end up feeling that I did the right thing moving all my email to Gmail.

I’d be interested to see what other people think about this feature as they try it out.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Giving Chrome Another Chance

Back in February, I reported my intention to try Chrome as a replacement for Firefox. A week later, although most parts of the experiment went well, I reported that Chrome was useless for printing in Australia (or anywhere that uses A4 paper).

That was a blow, but I hoped that Google—despite their complete contempt for bug reports from their users—might one day rectify this issue. Naturally, when they did fix it, they did not announce that in any place that was useful to me and so I discovered the fix by accident. If I was cynical, I might even think they had fixed it by accident. But I won’t go there.

At any rate, now that Chrome appears to be able to do almost all the things I need, I’m going to drop Firefox again and see if I can manage with just Chrome. That’s where I’ll find out if “almost all” might really be “all”—if Chrome can manage with 12 windows and 180 tabs open, which is what I currently have going on this desktop. In fact, if it’s at least only half as clunky and slow as Firefox, that will be wonderful.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Coles Puts Customers Last

For ages now, all the Coles supermarkets I use have had a nice simple EFT setup. While the cashier is scanning your purchases, you could swipe your loyalty card if you had one and you could swipe your credit/debit card and select your account. At the end, you could quickly enter your PIN, wait a few seconds for the receipt to be printed and be on your way.

Today, the local Coles introduced a new "improved" system that finally took into account the chip on your debit/credit card. And, at the same time removed the little bit of streamlining that everybody has become accustomed to. You can no longer do anything with the card reader until the cashier has finished, and you can't swipe your loyalty card at all—that difficult task is now reserved to the cashier. So you wait, then you insert your card, then you wait until the machine is ready, then you select your account and wait a bit more. Finally, you get to enter your PIN. This all adds a noticeable delay to the checkout process.

Coles, it's not an improvement at all and there's just no excuse for it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Gmail Spam Detection Is Good Enough

In the past 30 days, Gmail has successfully tagged 8712 spams with a mere handful of false positives (which have now been flagged) and only three false negatives. I'm happy that this is good enough for me—as of now I will no longer review the spam folder.

If you email me and get no response at all and think you should have got a response, this may be a result of your message being flagged as spam. In that case, feel free to follow the advice in the Contact tab of this blog.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Is Oracle the new SCO?

I avoided Java for many years, partly because I thought it was a failure in language design and partly because I found Sun's tight control disconcerting. I avoided Solaris because of Sun's tight control and because there were plenty of satisfactory alternatives.

When OpenSolaris appeared, I began to experiment with it. It still felt risky, but operating systems are much easier to change than the languages you use to create software with, so the risks seemed acceptable. When Sun made moves to open Java up, I began to consider using it or, more likely, other languages that built on the JVM.

Then Sun fell in a hole and I put things on hold. I had some hopes for a takeover by IBM, based on my belief that that they might continue the Sun stuff of interest in a way I could live with. That might have been unduly optimistic, but is now irrelevant. IBM went away and Oracle stepped in. Oracle is not a company I have ever admired in any way and it is run by a man I find even less admirable than Bill Gates. But many analysts, who claimed to have better sources of information than I have, seemed to think that Oracle would probably continue with OpenSolaris and would certainly nurture Java.

Now it appears that OpenSolaris is dead. And Larry Ellison has decided to tackle Google over Java. I have no idea how that will unfold. I do know that Google have the money to withstand a legal challenge. I'd like to see Oracle do a SCO and collapse under the legal mess, although I fear that they might survive. I am certainly going to avoid OpenSolaris and Java for the next few months or years. I'm also starting to think about alternatives to OpenOffice. I'd love big Oracle customers to announce that they are going to walk away from Oracle because they can't rely on Oracle's ability to survive.

At least database technology is pretty much a solved problem and alternatives to Oracle exist and others can be created. So it will be possible for people to drop the Oracle database money pit. Getting everybody to walk away from their Java investments will be much harder, but I'd like to see people considering that too. At least I have nothing to lose, having no investment in either Java or Oracle. But I will be cheering for anybody who helps to cut the ground from under Oracle.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why I will vote for the Greens

I've voted Labor all my life, not because I like their colours or the dress sense of their leaders, but because their policies have been generally in accord with my own principles. I've never voted for the two big conservative parties because their policies have been (and remain) focussed towards meeting goals that I believe to be unethical.

And, until now, I have never voted for a minor party—mostly because their policies are either single-issue or unethical (or both). However, the continuing drift of Labor to the right and the abandonment of policies that are of fundamental importance (the environment; the treatment of women, minorities and refugees; the education and health systems, to name several) has made me look harder at the alternatives.

In the past, I was not impressed by the narrow focus of the Greens or by their lack of real policies beyond their principal focus. And I have been unimpressed by some of their preferences decisions. But they have come of age at a time when the major parties have descended into irrelevance. The Greens now have real and ethical policies on most of what I see as the important issues of 2010.

Obviously, the election on 21 August will return us a government controlled by one of the two major parties. But now seems like the right time to tell them something about how people really feel. So, if you think the Greens are right about at least some of the important issues, do what I'm going to do—put them first in both houses of parliament and then give your second preference to the major party of your choice. If you're lucky enough to find the Greens' preference allocation meets your needs, then vote above the line. Otherwise, do what I do and take the time to number every box below the line. It's not hard and we only get to do it once every three years. Seems like a small price to pay to put pressure on whoever is the government to start doing the right thing.

LCA 2011 — Call for Papers extended to 14 August

BRISBANE, Australia – Sunday 15 August 2010 – Good news everyone! Due to a large number of requests, the deadline for the LCA2011 call for papers has been extended for an extra week.  They will now close on Saturday, 14 August 2010.  Unfortunately, no further extensions can be granted after this date.

The organising committee is pleased with both the quantity and quality of proposals that have been submitted to date and are still accepting proposals for

  • Papers
  • Tutorials
  • Miniconfs
  • Posters

Please read the Information on Presentations page before submitting your proposal, to give yourself the best chance of being accepted.

Call for Papers Deadline is now: Saturday, 14 August 2010

Friday, July 16, 2010

In Which I Yield to Powerful Forces

As long ago as it was possible, I began running my own mail servers. Over the years, I employed a variety of software and hardware and for the past decade or more I've had to run antispam software as well. I did it partly to avoid the alternatives (which were pretty unsatisfactory in the early days) and partly to understand the process in case clients needed help with their mail servers.

Happily, I am now without clients. And the alternatives might not be so bad. But I am stubborn, so I decided to solve my most recent problem by setting up some new software on a VM in the USA. The problem I was solving was the increasing unreliability of my ADSL connection—not through any fault of my excellent ISP, but because Telstra appears to have a policy of letting the copper infrastructure decay sufficiently that any successor won't be at all glad to be saddled with it. At any rate, there have been no spare pairs in my street since we got the last pair five years ago. Since then, we've had line faults after every heavy rain and it takes between three and seven days to fix things, where "fix" means find the wet joint, dry it out, patch it up and say "she'll be right now mate."

So I looked at all-in-one solutions for email, in the mistaken belief that there would be something out there that I could more or less just drop into place on a VM, do a bit of DNS magic and sit back happily. I looked at Horde, Zimbra, Zarafa, Courier and a couple of others whose names escape me now. They probably are all capable of doing the job, but all require a great deal of dedicated setup and they look as though they need a fair bit of care and feeding once they are operational. None of them looked like what I wanted and I started thinking that if these were the answer to my question, I must have asked the wrong question.

So I considered Google. I've had a bunch of gmail accounts ever since it was launched. I don't particularly like it, although that's mainly just me. And, for various reasons which I can't talk about here, plain gmail accounts don't work for much of the email I have to provide. But Google Apps offer a bit more than just gmail, so I thought I'd spend a little bit of time investigating. I gave myself a maximum of one day to complete this and in fact needed much less. I now have all email addressed to my 11 operational domains going to Google Apps accounts for me and my wife. Nobody has to change the email addresses they use, and the outgoing email looks as though it still comes from where it always did.

And Google's antispam stuff is awesome. So far, we've had a few thousand emails arrive and every spam has been caught without a single false positive. It's so good that I'm going to stop checking the spam folders now. This is so simple that it's a total no-brainer for me. The only possible downside is storing our email with Google, but that is easy to fix via their nice API that allows you to download it all for storage wherever you like.

Well, the other possible downside is that my wife might spit the dummy when she returns from seven weeks in Europe on Monday and discovers that she is not using exmh any more. But it will be too late and I hope it won't end in tears. At least she has been using one of the ordinary gmail accounts every day while she's been away, so she is familiar with how it works.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Filter Stubs Toe Again

This is all over the news and the blogz, so I won't clutter the place up with URLs. The Conroy train to idiocy has been declared late due to some purported efforts to get it right, which appears to mean delaying it until after the election at least.

That counts as good news, although it's only a tiny step. Perhaps they will quietly abandon it after the election. Somehow, I don't think that will happen. So I suppose I'll have to start thinking about the cleanest way to opt out, as there seems little likelihood that Conroy will do a u-turn and switch it to opt-in.

When you consider that none of the bad guys will have to think about this—since all but the utterly insane ones would have opted out of showing their illegal habits to the government years ago—it's a bit annoying that the good guys now have to bestir themselves in order to opt out of the filter. At least there's no real rush and this can just go on my long todo list.

Part of the problem for me is that my spouse is a psychotherapist who has to deal with victims of child abuse and, less often, with the abusers. She has good reason to look for materials that, while in no way exploitative or deserving of special classification, could easily trigger imperfect software that was supposed to be "protecting" us all from the evil ones.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Politicians and Pimps

Most politicians give me the same icky feeling that I get from the pimps in red light areas and they seem to come from the same part of the intellectual spectrum as well. A local candidate has letterboxed me asking me to tick the four issues that most concern me from a list which has no mention of the environment or detention centres or refugees.

The old graffiti on a wall near my childhood home that exhorted people with the slogan Don't vote—it only encourages them seems more and more apposite as the years go by.

To link my little political rant to the ostensible topic of this blog, it would also be nice to see politicians get a clue about the evils of things like software patents, internet censorship via technical means, copyright and so on.

Rant over. Here's hoping they get the election done promptly.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Foursquare Privacy Fail

I've been seeing a number of friends take up with foursquare and I've seen quite a few mentions of their service in the blogs, so yesterday I thought I'd have a look at it and signed up. Bad timing. They chose to get embroiled in a story of a privacy policy that describes something quite different from what they deliver.

That's not the bad part. All of us make mistakes. Rapidly-growing startups probably make more than most. I like it better when people don't make mistakes, but I can live with it—unless it's a matter of life and death. And I can live with the mistakes if the same people don't make a point of repeating the same mistakes all the time.

The thing I can't abide is people and businesses who make mistakes and refuse to admit them or try to conceal the mistakes from the affected people. A recent story in Wired claims that Foursquare Puts Money Before Privacy and backs that up with plenty of data. Read it.

I'm getting sick of companies that don't even pretend to care about their customers and my policy has hardened in past few months. I had already cancelled my Facebook account because of their behaviour—not that you can cancel with them. They just treat you as if you're having a little time out and maintain your account regardless. Major fail. I'm not planning to do anything with foursquare now.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Comments Policy

After six years of blogging on a platform that did not provide comments, I now find myself with a blog that does do comments, so I thought I should alert existing readers who might not have noticed this change and take the opportunity to mention what passes for a comments policy.

All comments will be submitted for moderation and will appear next time I'm awake and can review them. The obvious evil things will be discarded. Abuse will be discarded. Anything really off-topic, as perceived by my fairly loose definition, will be discarded. Anything else will appear.

I'm hoping to see some interaction now that I've taken this plunge.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Programming Languages

People who know me will be aware that I've been exploring the suitability of various programming languages for some software that I want to work on. Abetted by my ADHD/Aspie brain, this has been a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into a world of weirdness. As the weeks go by, my collection of potential languages has grown much faster than my ability to do any of the evaluation that I was planning.

For the record, the list now consists of x86 Assembly Language, C, Python, Lua, Scheme/Racket, Common Lisp, Clojure, Erlang, Haskell and Javascript (in no particular order). And, if Clojure is involved, that would also mean learning Java—something I have assiduously avoided for the last 15 years. The more I add to this crazy pile, the more sure I am that I must be missing the perfect answer, even though the sane bits of my mind know that there is no perfect answer. Of course, the longer I amuse myself in this pseudo-analysis, the longer I am safe from having to put any work in on any of the real projects on my list.

It would be nice to be able to say that this insight has freed me from analysis paralysis and that I'm just going to start on something. After all, I am good at telling other people that any decision is better than no decision and that even a wrong decision can be easily fixed once it's clear that it was wrong. I'm less capable of listening to my own good advice. However, it has occurred to me that I could just decide on one step right here and now. So, for no reason other than that it's the language I know least about, I'm going to do some work with Clojure over the next week or two to see if it's a real candidate or not. The others can wait.

Monday, June 28, 2010

LCA 2011 is not far away

To be more truthful, LCA 2011 is not far away if you're planning to present a paper, because the all-important call for papers will be going out soon. Time to start thinking about the killer presentation you might want to make. Final conference dates are 24-29 January, 2011 and it's happening in beautiful Brisbane.

I understand that the invitations to keynote speakers will also be going out any day now, so hopefully there will be more to say about that before too long. Having not had a chance to attend an LCA since the last time it was held in Brisbane, I'm really looking forward to this event.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Public Goals

That title has nothing to do with football, just to get that out of the way. I have seen many people in the business of helping the rest of us to sort our lives out who advocate setting goals and committing to them in public as a way of focussing attention on the pursuit of those goals.

I've avoided that for most of my life, but today I'm going to dip a toe in the water and declare a goal of shedding some weight. Forty years ago, I weighed a little under 60 kg. Now I weigh a little under 80 kg. I have added the weight in teensy increments over the whole forty years, at the rate of about half a kilogram per year, and have hardly noticed it happening. But that's heavier than seems healthy for a boy of my build and height, so I have a plan to reduce it.

I have no illusions of getting back to the trim 58 kg of twenty-year-old me. But it seems feasible to aim for 70 kg. To make this concrete, my goal is to lose 10 kg in the next 100 days. If anybody wants to hold my feet to the fire over this, make a note in your diary and we'll see how I go.

I plan to announce some other goals here over the next few weeks, but I also have plans to talk about software before long, so maybe I can combine the two.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Constant Improvements

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a customer service failure at FooBar Motors. I did not identify the company because they generally do a pretty good job of looking after their customers and that's why I keep buying cars from them and why I keep getting those cars serviced by them. The thing I was getting at is that, even when the culture is to provide great service, it's not always easy to get all the details right.

That brings me to my domain—software. We creators of software probably make more painful hoops for our customers to jump through than even the worst car dealership. And, in some ways, we have much less of an excuse: software is infinitely malleable, so we just have to fix it when it's hard to use. But we don't always know that it's hard to use. When we test it, we're kind to it and treat it the way we meant it to be treated. When it resists us, we understand it well enough to gently persuade it to go where we want. When it tells us lies, we don't feel too concerned because we understand why it lied. Besides, it's our baby and we don't like to be told that our baby is ugly, so we resort to that ever-reliable solution—denial.

And of course software is difficult to test. There are so many ways to get where you think you want to go that it's almost certain that a user will find pathways that we neither intended nor perhaps even noticed and which we certainly did not get right. Lots of people have written papers and books and given presentations about the business of software testing and I'm not going to try to push any particular approach on you today. But I think it's really important for all of us who create software to recognize that we are far from getting the testing right and that it's something that we must pay better attention to in the future.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What's Wrong Here?

Recently, I needed to contact the service department of a local car dealer. Knowing that I could instantly put my hand on the previous service invoice from them, I grabbed it and saw a little box that said "BrandA service" with a phone number. I rang the number.

It rang for quite some time and was eventually answered by a receptionist who said, "Good morning, FooBar Motors, how can I help you?" I asked for the BrandA service department. She said, rather impatiently, "Which dealership?" Not expecting that question, having got the number from that dealership's invoice, I hesitated a moment. She then said, "SuburbM, or SuburbN, or SuburbO, or SuburbP?" So I said I wanted SuburbM and went through the wait for the next receptionist to answer.

Again, I heard, "Good morning, FooBar Motors, how can I help you?" I was on top of things now, so I said I wanted the SuburbM service department for BrandA and quietly congratulated myself on having short-circuited at least one step in the process. The next receptionist who answered said, "Good morning, FooBar Motors, how can I help?" I imagined I was talking to the right person now, so started to ask my real question. She interrupted and said, "Are you after the service department?" I admitted I was, and waited once more for the next receptionist in the stack to answer.

FooBar Motors have many signs posted up in the local premises talking about how seriously they take the issue of providing great customer service and, as a matter of fact, the people who you meet face to face there are polite and helpful. But the pain of ringing them is really a bit much.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Tea Parties and Unicorns

Not so long ago, I overheard somebody say that life is not all tea parties and unicorns. That's probably true, but it seems a bleak view. My plan here is to make sure that there will be enough of both to go around.

I started my first blog, on the edge, six years ago as an experiment to see if I wanted to get into the blogging thing. It was built on simple software and was always intended to have a short life. My habitual farting about in search of the perfect blogging software platform once I decided to continue has resulted in the temporary thing living for so long.

I've decided to tackle some of my imperfections head-on and so, rather than find the perfect software (which seems not to exist, surprise!) or (even worse) write my own blogging platform, I decided to just adopt something that's already out there and at least partly functional so that I can go ahead and write rather than do the teenage angst thing.

I also decided to stop fretting about the exact niche for my blog. This will continue to be a place where I write about the things that interest me. That probably means there will be quite a bit about software—the writing of software and the languages and tools associated with that. If I manage to make a few more of the decisions like the one I made to start this new blog, the software articles will probably make up a fair bit of the content. Failing that, there are always the tea parties and unicorns.