Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Things I wonder...

If people with perfect pitch can tell what note they just farted...If every generalization comes from people's lack of ability or desire to see the fine details...If Apple put podcasting into iTunes 4.9 because of the name...If America is a real place, or just something invented for TV... Why modern cars seem to be designed from the headlights out...Why it is that software projects always cram more stuff into the schedule than reality will actually allow...Why matter attracts matter...Why it is water lilies have more genes than anything else...what to strive for next...If skill is just persistence plus luck...What disasters befell the testers of Preparations A through G...If people love celebrities because they don't have enough friends...Why I can't have references at the solution level in Visual Studio 2003...If Google can make any money when they're giving away things as amazing as this for free...If people who understand Kanji sometimes see words written in their poo...if blogging is really going to change the business world, or if it's just a bunch of people gibbering crap like this...

Monday, June 27, 2005

Why nerds hate sport.

Have your ever noticed that Nerds generally don't like sport much?
(and I use the term to refer to fellow nerds with nothing but affection. Go buy the T-Shirt)

For instance, it's diabolically easy to beat Stilly at ping pong.
(To be fair, the guy just learnt to ride a bike.)

Me, I care a little about sport. I can appreciate a great sporting moment - as an example, I fell out of my chair during the Rugby World Cup Final last year. I'll follow the Cricket, but only with a mild level of curiosity. I can remember enough about weekend footy to hold my own in one of those tea-room conversations. But if all the rules for all the sports in the world just spontaneously fell out of everybody's brain tomorrow, I wouldn't cry.

Let's face it - Life is really complicated. There are seemingly endless traps and pitfalls of responsibility and obligation, crazy people and weird unforseen, inexplicable events. There are thousands of different goals anyone could strive for, many with no clear indicator of success...

And so it goes that if you can understand the Linux kernel, or something as innately evil as emacs, then you must be able to do pretty much anything. Nerds wear their insight as a badge of pride - that's why they love things that are innately hard to grok. They love command line interfaces, and magic words and secret chord combinations, things that mere mortals can't understand. Nerds pride themselves on their mastery of extremely complex systems.
It's the thing that they have over the rest of us. For example I don't know who invented brainfuck, but I guarantee they were a card-carrying nerd. The heroes emerge as people who can demonstrate the most magical skill in this ultra complicated world. Like the guy who wrote this.

What's this got to do with sport? Well - sport is exactly the opposite. It's a reduced instruction set. Sport takes complexity out of life. You can't touch the ball with your hands. The goal is twofold. Get the ball in the goal, stop the other guys from getting a goal. There are only eleven of you. Time is limited.

This reduced instruction set makes it far, far easier to pick a hero. And people love heroes. Kids have posters of their sports heroes on their walls - when you're nine, most people can understand the rules of soccer. It's easier for more people to see who's good or bad when you reduce the rules. That's why sports analogies are so prevalent in the business world - They're easy to understand.

I guess that's why sporting heroes like David Beckham or Shane Warne have such huge followings, while nerd heroes like Linus Torvalds or John Carmack remain relatively unknown in the wider world.

What can we nerds learn from this? Maybe that sometimes, to advance our cause, we need to make things simpler. Make it easy to pick a hero. Make it so more people will understand.

Microsoft and Apple learned this, and that's why they have such influence. The threats for Linux to take over the corporate desktop haven't materialised, because it's too nerdy. Too commandy or chordy or emacsy. And don't give me that crap about all the great windowing systems out there. Not one Linux user I've met ever grabs their mouse when pressed to do something serious - it's always straight to the shell.

(Of course, it could just be that nerds suck at sport, and had to find something else to do....)

Sunday, June 26, 2005

We are the Taggers.

How cool is this: a single human brain cell can recognise a person.

In studies, it turned out that a single neuron fired in test subjects when they were asked to recognise famous people. Each time the test guys were shown various pictures of Halle Berry, the same neuron fired. The same neuron also fired when viewing the sequence of letters 'H-A-L-L-E-B-E-R-R-Y' or when viewing drawings of the star.

It turns out that the brain uses a whole lot less neurons than was previously thought to store information - not like bits in an array but more like individual computers in a network.

Now, I've done absolutely no study into this at all, and have no qualifications in the field (or any field, for that matter) but here's my half-arsed hypothesis.

Perhaps the brain's awesome power to store and recall things is tied directly to it's ability to imagine and create. Maybe when I'm recalling a picture of Halle Berry in a catwoman costume, I'm actually just triggering a switch that asks for the recall to occur, and then a few neurons get together to imagine and create the recall information based on some complex imagination theory. Throw in some ego and self esteem for good measure, and I 've got a pretty good recollection of what I saw.

I often feel that when I'm going about my day to day life, I'm really only seeing and analysing a very narrow field of view. My peripheral vision, all the things that I think I can see seem to me to be pre-rendered in my head based on some time in the past when I've looked at them. Of course as soon as I look at anything in my peripheral vision, I end up focusing my attention on it, and everything else becomes peripheral. Turns out that Neurologists call this the Attention Window ( I learned about it here) and that the image you see is generally built up over time, not rendered out all at once like in a FPS. That explains why sleepwalkers can go adventuring in their sleep, without falling over stuff.

All this reminded me how lame computers are by comparison, and of the eventual doom of metadata. Someday, people are going to think that it's cute that we spent so much time telling computers how to describe their data.

Eventually, a computer will be able to derive as much information from something as we can. It will be able to look at a webcam image and then say "The weather looks crap today", probably by firing a few silicon 'neurons' and 'imagining' the result. The metadata is inferred, not explicit.

Whereas we're all busy tagging everything so a computer can understand it. Nowadays, information management is all about explicit metadata, often for elements that aren't meta at all - they're just data:

<station fullname="San Jose" abbrev="KSJC">




if @forecast-high<18
puts "The weather is crap today"

Your brain doesn't need all that stuff tagged. If you just see the report, You'll figure out what's what. Surely someday a computer will do it reliably too.

Meantime, on with the tagging...

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Gord on Rails

Spent the day playing with Ruby on Rails. It's my first venture into Ruby, and the first bunch of serious programming I've done in ages. The Ruby syntax is really confusing me though. Everything's an object. No intrinsic types. Weird.

I have to say, the flexibility and innate power in the rails framework is pretty scary. I managed to get a database driven web app designed, built and connected and making AJAX style xmlhttp requests in about two hours. The scaffold feature means that you can get automatic generated templates derived from your data design, so your app just always works, even when you haven't written that bit of code yet.

Without really knowing it, I've always been a fan of the Model View Controller design pattern - it seems like a sensible approach to take.

It's cool that the pattern was invented in 1979! I was five.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

You've got Spam Poetry!

Outlook 2003 notified me today that "The universe was a figment of it's own imagination."

(SpamBayes does a great job of removing spam, but the little outlook pop-up toast thingy still displays it)

"That looks weird", I thought, as the blue notifier faded away.

But when I got to my inbox, there was nothing more than an ad for "ch3ap pharm3cut1cal's". Probing a little further, I found the following text at white 2 pt font on a white background. It looks to me like it's been randomly cropped and computer re-assembled from "The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" trilogy. I thought it was kind of pretty.

So I cleaned it up and added some punctuation and link words. Here's today's Spam Poem:

Street Theatre Grant, and went away.

Universe was only a figment of its own imagination we were eventually given.
That is, he would insult everybody in it.
His life --- simply because some pedantic adjudicating official noticed Improbability Factors.

Itself is simply a revolutionary new way,
people who leave when they see who usefully take that day,

Lux-O-Valves and Refracto-Nullifiers and Spectrum-Bypass-O-Matics,
he bills within the confines of the "Ah. And had anyone else noticed it?" series.

The men are leaving the pitch in the company of a police officer,
In other words, an unidentifiable little metal object with...

Imagine, and a lot of things.
One, quiet private lives in the marshes of Squornshellous Zeta.
Many of them past the mountain, round it, even over it,
and simply never have noticed, or get caught, slaughtered, dried out,

Not trip over, or break his nose on anything, and yet-
"(b) suspicious-looking ones were never tested under laboratory conditions."

The precise details are not important because - no!
Whole days would go on like, Simple...
Somebody Else's Problem field.

The technology involved in making anything invisible!
(Then people would have walked. )

It is so at about 2:55 when you breathe.

I think there's something in that for all of us...

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Virtually Gross

If you ever wanted to have a go at surgically replacing somebody else's knee, well, hurrah!
Now you can...

Get up, Stand up.

Ever since I can remember, I've been late for everything. Not overly late by much , but chronically, persistently late. As my friends and family will tell you, if you actually want me to turn up at your house at two o'clock, you should tell me to turn up at one.

As a junior retail loser when working for Target, I was always being given thorough dressing downs by spotty 23 year old retail managers for my tardiness. The closest I ever came to getting fired was during one of those "Serious talks". Now, it seems to me that people who've chosen a career in retail management are generally fairly strange people. My boss, who was a big, footy playing fellah called Peter was absolutely reveling in the fact that he could give me a "serious talk". It's fairly common among retail management to truly delight in their positions of power, and to take every opportunity to flex them.

Anyway, this one talk, I was doing the right thing, and nodding at all the appropriate places, and looking appropriately somber while Pete discussed my application to my 'career', and my attitude, and how it was all about appearances, and I couldn't just be late all the time. At some point reality must have kicked in, because when he said "What do you have to say about your behavior?" I was actually honest.

"Look man, " I said. "This is a shop."

Pete looked a bit taken aback.

"It's a big boring shop that generates millions of dollars every day for people who are already rich. People come in, they buy stuff, and they leave. I really don't think that anybody is going to give a shit if some spotty long haired automotive guy is ten minutes late for work every day. "

Now Pete was starting to go a bit purple, but I was on a roll...

"And you - you're getting paid 25 thousand bucks a year to work a sixty hour week bossing around guys like me who don't care because of some prospect of 'career advancement'. Have you thought about how futile that is? Doesn't it ever seem like a complete waste of time? All we do is devote our lives to selling people crap they don't even need! Don't you want to do something useful?"

Well. That was really, really not the right thing to say. There was lots of yelling and spit, and if Pete had had the authority to fire me, I'm sure he would've. As it was, I had a 'counseling' session with the HR manager, and I resigned a few weeks later.

I guess some people aren't cut out for the world of retail...

Anyway, the point of all this woffling is, this:

I've figured out how to get up on time, and it's making me less late.

I read Steve Pavlina's How to become an early riser, and this is what I did.

I downloaded a cheesy version of Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" for my mobile phone.

I set the alarm on the mobile to play at seven o'clock, every day, even on weekends.

Each night, I get my slippers and dressing gown, and lay them out on the floor at the other end of the house. Then I chuck my mobile on top, and go to bed.

Each morning, I wake up, pissed off and groggy, to the reggae tones of Bob ordering me to get up. Then I see my slippers and gown clearly laid out on the floor, like a sign from Nighttime Gord ordering Morning Gord to get on with it.

And as of today, I'm 21 days in a row getting up on time.

And perhaps a little proud of it, too...

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Glamour Software

Head down and busy trying to make the next deadline, I forgot how much everyone loves screenshots.

I said a lot of bad words about screenshots today, because we've spent so much time building the framework for our latest project, and not as much time (yet!) refining the interface. The main reason we've done this is because web interfaces are comparatively easy to build, once all the hard stuff is done. There are a bunch of well defined standards, like CSS and HTML and script that aid the process. Oh, it will look great when it's finished, no doubt. We've hired some excellent people specifically to make it look great.

But then, marketing and sales guys only want to see screenshots. Not the reams of boring technical documentation.

And you know what, I totally understand why. Screenshots are like the men's magazines of software (only without the articles.) There it is, in all it's naked glory, for you to peruse. Captured in a perfect moment of solving somebody's problems. Check out this one, or this one.

There are a grand total of zero bugs in a screenshot.

It lends itself perfectly to the imagination...

Oh, yeah, and then I'd click that button, and the screen would say :
"Hello there.. How can I help you do your work today? Perhaps you might like to play with my interesting looking control here? I bet you'd like to know what this icon does wouldn't you?"

You don't actually want to see the software. Reality would get in the way. You'd find out that the icon actually does nothing when you click it. That control might turn out to annoy you, it might even throw strange dialogs and ask you to do stuff.

In a way, the illusion is twofold - one, that's the software I want, and two, I know exactly how to use it. In a static, two dimensional world, it doesn't matter. It's like Jerry Seinfeld said about cooking shows on TV :

"..I can'’t smell it. Can'’t eat it. Can'’t taste it. At the end of the show they hold it up to the camera , 'Well here it is. You can'’t have any. Thanks for watching. Goodbye' "

Perhaps this is the same reason that a lot of ISVs use pre-recorded, canned demonstrations. (Then again, maybe they just don't trust their product...)

I guess it's all part of the storytelling. After all, a picture's worth a thousand words...

Saturday, June 11, 2005

That's not how you make coffee!

Walking past the shopping list, I noticed that the word 'COFFEE' was a valid RGB hex triplet (if you substituted the '0' for an 'o'). Colours in HTML are specifed in three hexidecimal values, each representing the amount of red, blue and green. By adding the '5' as an 'S',and the '1' as an 'l', I was able to make the following colour words: (Those viewing this post through an aggregator may be missing out on the colours)











What have I learned from this excercise? well, that randomly picking colours tends to generate fairly disgusting ones. Perhaps that's why strange banana makes such horrible designs most of the time...

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The height of Retro cool?

Like Rory, I grew up with a lame arse PC. I too was bitterly jealous of those amiga owners. With their fancy fandanlged-hand-holding-a-floppy-disk bios, and versions of Marble Madness that looked just like the arcade, they had no idea how lucky they were.

But, I'm not so sure that the grey box which evaporated my childhood, (while I'm very fond of it) was actually the height of eighties cool.

In fact, the computer I owned was far, far worse than the virtual boy of PCs - something that made those poor betamax owners laugh themselves into hysterical coniptions as to what a loser of a product this thing actually was, and they paid 450 dollars for a flashing digital clock.

My dad bought us a genuine, IBM PC-JX.

The IBM PC-Jr is widely regarded as one of IBM's dumbest decisions. What very few know, is that after the IBM PC-Jr flopped dismally in the US, IBM was left with a bunch of leftover hardware that nobody wanted.

I can hear the meetings now:

shimmery dissolve in

"Jones! What's the furthest away on the map?"
"Um. This pointy thing. Says 'Australia' on it."
"Right. Do they have television or radio in Ostralia?"
"Er. I don't know. Google hasn't been invented yet sir, it's only 1984"
"Right. Let's dump them there, I hear they're a bit backwards. Get the guys in marketing to replace the case with something black, add some stuff from the Japanese thingy and get them out of here!"

dreamy dissolve out

And so it was born. It had 512K of Ram, 16 colors, an infra-red keyboard, no hard drive, and two built in cartridge slots, which made it look a bit like the bastard offspring of an IBM Golf Typewriter and an Atari 2600. Sadly, I never could find anything that would plug into those slots. Nothing onboard was compatible with anything IBM ever made previously, or would make in the future. When My Dad rang up two years later to ask if it was possible to upgrade, IBM denied all knowledge of ever having created the machine, and abruptly hung up.

Still, most importantly to me, it had IBM PCJr Basic flashed into the Bios. Which meant that I could write the most amazing adventure games known to man...

Shimmery dissolve in

You are at a clearing in the forest. There is a well here, and some markings on a tree
You can go E,S,W

What will you do?
You can't go that way.

What will you do?
You can't go that way.

What will you do?
You can't go that way.
What will you do?
fuck off
I don't understand 'fuck off'

Dreamy fade out
Ahhh. Those were the days.
Now I've got to get back to working on the theme music for Stilly's upcoming podcast...

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Metascope good

Metascope , by Krazydad, might just be the coolest windows screensaver ever. At your command, it crawls image search engines, and combines the results into amazing kaleidoscopic visions. If you've got a permanent connection, you really should go get this.

So far, my favourite searches are "Teahupoo","Invader Zim", "Vincent Van Gogh" and "The Simpsons".

Things that made me smile today

A little Asian boy, who must've been barely 1, determined to try out his new-found walking skills, but who obstinately refused to take his mother's constantly outstretched, flickering hand.

A hardtop Suzuki Jiminy from about 1982, with a yellowed 'Free Tibet' sticker on the back, and the back seat chock full of bags of bean bag beans, making a wayward right turn towards the university residences in Turner, blowing lots of blue smoke on each gear change.

Two sisters, standing on their front lawn in shiny new pink plastic raincoats and gumboots, while their mother sprayed them with the garden hose. ( It hasn't rained in Canberra for over 2 months now)

My son Reuben, trying (unsuccessfully) to use the game of Simon Says as a sinister ruse to get his Dad and sister to jump into the swimming pool at the AIS with their clothes on.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Dishwasher Trout

No, it's not another obscure effort to win google fu, I just consumed the tastiest fish dinner, which I cooked in my Vulcan Dishlex Dishwasher. I remember reading an article about it on Salon ages ago (you can find it here ) and by some freak co-incidence the dishwasher was empty, so I just put it in there instead of the oven. Very satisfying results. If you're inclined to try it, here's my recipe:

Gord's Dishwasher Trout

  • 4 Rainbow Trout Fillets
  • 2 handfuls Fresh Basil
  • 1 handfuls Cherry Tomatoes,halved
  • 1 Clove finely cut garlic,
  • Unsalted Butter
  • Lemon Juice
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt and Pepper
  • aluminum Foil


Mix everything that isn't fish or butter together in a bowl, so you end up with a salad of basil and tomatoes and garlic all coated with olive oil and salt and pepper and lemon juice.

Take a big sheet of aluminum foil, and lay out a fish fillet in the middle. Put a knob of butter on the top , and add a bunch of the salad stuff. Roll everything up in the foil nice and tight so as to protect it from any potential leaks.

Put the little foil parcels into the top shelf of the dishwasher. Make sure you clean out the filter, and that there's no crusted on soap crud in your soap dispenser.

Run a standard cycle, including the drying cycle, right up until the dishwasher stops. Voila! Dishwasher Trout.

It's really tasty. I served it with salad and potato wedges. The dishwasher looks cleaner, too.

How not to impress an auditor

We had an ISO 9000 quality audit at work yesterday. ISO is a quality standard for business processes. I never quite understood the actual value of the accreditation, but I guess the theory goes that ISO certified companies are more efficient and reliable than non certified ones.

Anyway, the auditor looks at our software development process, and basically looks for evidence that we're following it. They'll read specs and test cases, but mainly they look for evidence that we've followed our plans and the outcomes are clearly visible, to make sure that we have a method behind the madness. Yep, Looking for evidence is what it's all about.

When I sat through my first audit, our development process was, well, (how to put this tactfully...) ..hard to find. I spent ages preparing stories and justifications to demonstrate that everything was fine. Nowadays, our process is well refined, followed and documented, and so a visit from the auditor is not scary at all.

So after I'd explained some of the newer things, like agile methodologies and persona based design to Tina (the auditor), She asked to talk to one of the developers on the team. I suggested she speak to Big-Headed Simon.

Simon is totally obsessive about having a clean desk. If any of the garbage from my end makes it onto his desk, he'll instantly shove it back. Did you ever have a fight with your brother and divide your shared room with a line of sticky tape? It's like that where our desks meet, becuase I'm a slob. Perhaps it's some weird kind of autism. Whatever. Tina opens the conversation with:

"My, you have a very clean desk here!"

And Simons reply: (remember he's talking to an auditor here)

"Oh. Well, that's because I never keep any records."

Same Difference

I thought that Stilly's post that pointed to Michael's post (gotta love these blogversations...) wasn't at all that different from mine. Which I think was what Mikal was trying to get across, but hey, he had a headache...

And I really liked the wellbeing manifesto. So I signed up. You should also consider signing up.

Go on.

You get a free iPod if you read all the way to the bottom....

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Just buy the goddamn muffins you slack-jawed dimwits.

Sometimes I feel terribly guilty about living in the first world. Over 64 per cent of Australians say that they can't afford to buy what they need. To me, that says that at least 50 per cent of Australians are suffering from a weird delusion where they tie their happiness to their material things.

People seem to gain this future perception that their lives will be content if they earn another 10,000 dollars, or buy a new outdoors setting, or an investment property, or whatever - that then, they'll be happy. It seems like the richer we get, the more stuff we want. And it's always in the future. Hardly anybody seems to be happy "right now".

Personally, I blame the marketers. By presenting a clear right/wrong view, and by telling emotional stories to us which capture our hearts, rather than encouraging us to think rationally about our desires, they keep us all on this consumer roundabout. And the stories aren't few and far between - they come thick and fast through every media outlet in the entire world.

Advertising wants to make us all depressed. People who are content and happy with their lives don't go shopping. In the same breath as making sure we all feel inadequate, mass marketing is telling us that they have the solution : buy more of their crappy stuff!.

And it's bullshit. What do you need? chances are, if you're reading this, you've eaten today. You have clothes and basic provisions for your family. You probably have a bunch of luxuries that you don't really need that make your life more entertaining. You don't need any extra crap.

I don't know where personal contentment can be found, but I'm pretty sure it's not at the mall. Maybe it's on the beach.