March 2002

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Den Whitton on Australian History

Did you know that 50,000 convicts were sent to the American colonies? The next yank who makes a joke about Australians being convicts will be told "And we didn't invent Budweiser"

For anyone stuck with evil databases, remember it sounds so much friendlier when you call it "Microsoft Squirrel Server". Try it.

Laurence Canter, one half of Canter and Siegel, the Internet's first large-scale commercial spammers, on email spam:


To some extent, we probably welcome advertising. The problem with the incredible volume of unsolicited e-mail that we get today though is that, unlike junk mail that you receive in your snail mailbox, it's not immediately apparent that something is junk mail. With e-mail, you have to at least read the subject or who it's from to determine that it's junk and you don't want it. And the fact that it's so easy and, for practical purposes, costs nothing to send is resulting in considerably greater volume.

Mark Pilgrim on Copy Protection:

Sonys and Broderbunds of the world, pay attention: the only long-term effect of copy protection is to ensure that those who defeat it are immortalized. Long after my Playstation console falls apart, long after all the original, legitimate, uncopyable Playstation discs have crumbled into dust, long after the no-doubt-teenager who cracked Spyro 3 has grown up and joined polite society and found better things to do with his time, Spyro the Dragon will be remembered. Unfortunately, it will also be associated with that damn ugly crack screen, because no other versions will exist. This is what the past will look like someday. And we'll just shrug, skip intro, and get on with it.

Small Pieces Loosely Joined (Kids' Version) by David Weinberger. Just a little over-done, I think, but the sentiment is nice.

This is a most peculiar thing. The Web is a web because of hyperlinks that connect the pages. But every hyperlink expresses someone's interests and recommendations. If you were to make a map of the Web, showing all the sites and all the links, you would be making a map of things the 500 million people on the Web find interesting.

That's a lot different than a map of the real world that shows where the mountains are and where the oceans end and land begins. The real world map shows what we humans have been given to work with. The Web shows what we have chosen to care about.

And that's exactly what's so special about the Web place. It is made not out of mountains, oceans, deserts and forests. It is made out of humans caring about things together.

Rest in peace, Grandad.

Advice for aspiring authors.

Someone on my friends list recently posted about possibly getting her book published, so I set off to find some good advice. I asked my mother, whose job it is to help writers in Western Australia with things like manuscript assessment, finding work and finding publishers. A few years ago, she was granted a Churchill Fellowship to tour the USA and investigate how publishing works there, as well.

One of the things she told me was that statistically, one in three people think they have a novel in them. Maybe this advice will be useful for the general public, too, so here's what I learned.

  • Your unsolicited manuscript will end up on the slush pile, and probably never emerge.
  • You can improve your chances of getting off the slush pile with research into the publisher, and a good, marketing-oriented covering letter.
  • Don't be too proud to get insider help from friends, if at all possible.
  • Your best bet is to get an agent interested in your manuscript.

The worst thing you can do is take your finished manuscript, slap on a covering letter, and mail it to all the publishers you can think of.

There's this thing commonly called the "slush pile". It's where your manuscript will end up if you mail it to a publisher. Manuscripts in the slush pile get read by a young recruit at the publishing house, straight out of college, whose job it is to look at the tens of thousands of unsolicited manuscripts, and recommend any good ones to someone higher up in the food chain. Common practice is for them to read the first four pages, or maybe the first chapter.

Two percent of novels in the slush pile get published. One in fifty. Look around and you can find stories of success, like the woman from South-West Western Australia who one day decided to write a Fantasy novel, and is now having it optioned in the USA for two million dollars. But they're exceptional stories. You don't hear about all the people whose really good manuscripts just sunk to the bottom of the pile.

One way to make a slush-pile manuscript more impressive is to pay good attention to the covering letter. Do research on each publisher you send it to. Your job is to convince the publisher that your book will sell, so you'll have to think marketing. Identify the target market of your novel. Who is likely to buy it? Think of putting in things like "Your company published foo last year, and it was number five on for three weeks. This novel is similar to foo in these ways, but better, because of this and this."

Your best bet, though, is to try to avoid falling into the pile in the first place. If you have any contacts in publishing at all, use them. Know any writers or journalists who may have contacts in publishing? Call in favours. Beg. You're trying to get your manuscript to skip the pile, and get directly to someone who might be in a position to do something more with it than pass it to his or her superior.

The best piece of advice is to get an agent interested in your manuscript. Agents are more accessible than publishers, and if one gets interested in your writing, they have the contacts in the industry that you lack. If you're really serious about getting published, get an agent.

iPod Review

  • 5:29 PM

iPod Review

Good Points:

  • It's tiny. The picture doesn't do it justice, because it's out of proportion with my head, and just makes my hand look really big. Remember my Nokia 8820 phone? It's the same height and depth, and only about a third wider. I'm pretty sure the instructions at Apple would have been "Make it the size of a pack of cigarettes". It easily fits in the pocket of my jeans.
  • It Just Works. Plug it into the laptop. As it charges, give it a name (Charles Miller's Funky Box 'o Songs). Watch it synch with iTunes. Go through the menus, and select by artist/album, or from my iTunes playlists. Simple.
  • Firewire. 400Mbps transfer speed, baby. Transferred about a gig of mp3s in a minute or two.
  • It's a portable 5 gig hard drive.
  • It means that now I can laugh at ellie's phone for its feeble mp3 capabilities. Ha ha ha!

Things other people have said are bad points, but don't really bother me much.

  • It's "only" 5GB. That's still about 100 hours of music. I can live with that quite easily, thankyouverymuch.
  • It's Mac only. This means I have to copy the mp3s to my laptop to transfer them to the iPod, that is, at least until I get a desktop Mac. This doesn't bother me, I'm already using my laptop more than I'm using the desktop machine anyway.
  • It was rather expensive.

Bad Points:

  • No remote-control on the headphones wire, which is annoying, because getting the thing out of your pocket to skip a track is a chore.
  • I tend to skip between straight and random play pretty often, and the toggle's in the options menu.
So this is how conspiracy theories start, hey?

I've come across Hunt the Boeing a few times this week - it's a site that goes through a bunch of photographs of the aftermath of the plane-bombing of the Pentagon, and tries to prove that there wasn't a plane at all, and something else caused the damage.

I also found (while doing my semi-irregular weblog trawl) a very good rebuttal from freelance journalist Paul Boutin.

What it leads me to wonder, of course, is whether in twenty years time we'll see an hour-long TV show "proving" that there was no plane. By then, eyewitness memories will have faded, so we'll be able to produce people who were there (or at least nearby) who can't categorically say there was a plane. Evidence to rebut the claims will be a lot harder to come by. Is this going to be another one of those we never landed on the moon things?

Conversation at work:

[Neil] So we store their short username in the database.
[Charles] Yeah. But then again it's only the database, we can always get the full name if we want it
[Neil] But usernames can change
[Charles] Hmmm, you're right. Then again, full names can change too. When you come down to it, names are a really bad way to identify people. What we really need is to ditch names, and have everyone go by an MD5 hash of their DNA.
[Charles] Of course, it'd suck going to a party, introducing yourself as "1825FC..." and trying to remember who "AF43E9611..." is.
[Neil] We could beam names to each other using Palm Pilots.
[Charles] Ah. Good point.

One thing I noticed about working here is that the decor is rather unhealthy. I was getting up to go to lunch last Friday and I looked around for my umbrella, because unconsciously I thought it must be overcast and raining outside. It turns out it was rather warm and sunny, but I couldn't see that. Even looking over the sea of cubicles, about a hundred metres to the nearest external windows, I couldn't see sunlight because there were too many tree branches just outside.

Add to that, the air conditioning that keeps the ambient temperature to that of cool day, and the grey concrete ceiling, the colour of an overcast sky.

I'm amazed they don't get mass suicides.

cringer is watching They Live. If I had more money than I knew what to do with, I'd buy a billboard in the middle of Sydney, and just put "OBEY" on it in big black letters.

Addendum: After posting this, I realised that this is probably one of the reasons I don't have more money than I know what to do with.

I'd just like to offer my profound thanks to The Apache Jakarta Project. They've produced an incredible amount of really useful code that works, and that makes my working life a lot easier.

On Sunday night after dinner, Denise noted that both my father and I tend to stand up and pace when we think.

Walking, I think, is the closest I come to meditation. I'm sure it annoys heaps of people at work, too - the first thing I do when I come up against a problem when programming is to get out of my seat and walk somewhere, maybe to the other end of the office and back, or downstairs to get a coke, or in extreme cases up the road to sit on top of Observatory Hill and watch the harbour.

You can put your feet on automatic pilot, and your brain goes into this strange mode where some part is devoted to navigation and making sure you don't walk into anything (cars, people, lamp-posts, trees), and the rest is free to think about anything you want. But the part that's doing the navigating seems to be the same part that gets in the way when you're just sitting down.

Also, uncharacteristically for a nerd, I like the Big Blue Room (although I don't go out in it as often as I like, partly because I'm lazy, but mostly because the people I'd most like to go out in it with are all tied to my computer). The best thing to jolt me out of a "sitting in front of the screen trying to solve a problem" rut is to feel weather on my skin, whether it's the warmth of the sun, the touch of the wind, or the rain falling on me.

Today's Task for Readers: Go for a walk around the block. Make sure it's a big block.

Another one from Mark Pilgrim. A quote from the vi tutorial

Q. How do I move the cursor one character forward in vi?

The correct answer is:


which works in all modes. Except at the beginning of a line, where the above command will move the cursor two characters forward. If it did anything else, it would not be vi. So at the beginning of the line, this answer is the correct one:


And of course neither will work at the end of the line. At the end of the line, the correct command is:


The topic of the next two lectures will be "how to move the cursor one character backward in vi''...

C++: an octopus made by nailing extra legs onto a dog. - unknown

For web designers, this nifty Javascript toy allows you to choose a foreground and background colour, and then see what it looks like to people with various kinds of colour-blindness.

Rick Ross replies to a Microsoft employee about why he doesn't wish to buy Microsoft products..

One point Rick missed out is that whenever you buy a Microsoft product, you are paying for an inordinate number of things you may never use. Outlook Express. Internet Explorer. Windows Media Player. Buy a Microsoft product and you're endorsing Passport. Buy a Microsoft product and you're helping to pay for Hailstorm.

My personal favourite hate is Hotmail. Every time you buy a Microsoft product, your money goes to pay for tens of millions of spam-filled Hotmail addresses.

It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Say you're a small business. It's pretty much impossible to survive these days without Windows and Office, at least if you want to be able to read the documents people send you. Even if your office has no Internet connection, you still have to pay for Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. Even if your computer has no sound card, you still have to pay for Media Player. Even if your company has a strict policy against web-based email, you still have to pay for Hotmail.

It's a mug's game, and I'm glad I'm clawing my way out of it.

Another person gets fired for what they write in their weblog. This leads me to a thought I've been having for a while now. When Dejanews came out, there was trend in certain parts of the tech sector to do a Dejanews search on a potential employee. Some of these searches were benign - to quote from memory one online friend, "Their posts in would give me a good idea of how much they know, and how they deal with people, and if someone hasn't shown themselves to be a participant in the xyz software community, why should I hire them?" On the other hand, the potential prejudice if someone found your posts to alt.lifestyles.furry, or the fact you used to troll alt.usage.english could be rather career-limiting.

Companies are getting more and more anally retentive about hiring. Drug tests are getting more and more common (I haven't taken an illegal substance since 1996, but I'd still like to think I'd refuse to work for a company if it required a blood test from me. Luckily this sort of thing is still illegal in Australia). HR departments make money coming up with weirder and weirder ways to assess your "capabilities". It's quite logical that firms will start to appear that specialise in "Internet Investigation". And I don't mean those shady deals that spam you with FIND ANYONE ONLINE, I mean serious professional organisations that hire themselves out to let potential employers know just what you've been up to on the Internet.

Heather Hamilton who got fired for her weblog, was probably asking for it because she apparently spent a lot of time talking about how much she hated her job (although she never named names). On the other hand, Mark Pilgrim was fired for his weblog last year, for writing a very good article on addiction based on his own personal experiences with drugs, despite the essay making it quite clear that he'd been clean for all the time he'd been in his current job.

Think you're safe because your online journal is written under an alias? Are you sure? Do all of your friends (who link to you) have aliases? Do you mention the names of your friends in your journal? Chances are, you can be found.

If you have controversial posts marked friends-only, how well do you have to know someone before you add them as a friend? A lot of people will tend to add someone who seems vaguely interesting by reflex if they get added themselves.

The moral of the story is that it remains true - you should never write anything online that you don't want your parents, your priest or your potential employer to see.

Jakob Nielsen: if you discourage deep linking, you'll lose 27% of your most promising customers.

Uncle Wally

  • 5:12 PM

I was watching the Formula 1 Grand Prix today, and after it finished I thought I'd look up on the web some information about my maternal uncle, Walter Hayes, who was quite influential in Ford's involvement in the sport (he was responsible for creating the project that produced the Cosworth engine. If you're curious, you can find out more here. He died on December 26, 2000.

I can only remember meeting "Uncle Wally" (although for some reason my mother calls him "Paddy") once. We were visiting England for my cousin's wedding, and I must have been eleven. He had a big fancy house and a swimming pool. He was nice. He gave both me and my brother a really cool black watch. I played the first few bars of Pachabel's Canon in D on his grand piano, but couldn't play any more because I hadn't learned it yet. (I can play the whole thing now, in fact I think it's the only piano piece I can still reliably get through)

He died last year, just after Christmas. He'd been hanging on all month - I'm told a lot of people do that, they hang on until after Christmas, or New Years, or whatever date is important, and then give up. I was visiting my mother at the time, and while she was trying to be cheerful, spending Christmas knowing that your brother is dying really isn't something you can smile through.

(Aside. A few weeks before Christmas, I also learned that one of the three people at the core of my "role-playing nerd friends" at school had driven off into the bush, piped the exhaust into his car, and killed himself. I still haven't really dealt with that, it just sits at the back of my consciousness sometimes.)

Anyway, I started off wanting to find out about what my uncle had done in his life, but of course all the information was tied up in obituaries - various motorsport websites saying things like "His loss will leave a giant gap in Britain's motoring and motorsports infrastructure." And all I can remember is going out with my mother the day after Boxing Day to buy a printer, so she could send the letter of all the things she'd meant to say to him over the years... and then coming home to find the email saying he'd already died.

XP update to go beyond mere fixes. Along with squashing bugs, as service packs normally do, Microsoft's first major update to Windows XP will add support for Tablet PCs and a fancier graphical interface. [CNET]

This is just plain wrong. You either fix bugs, or you add new features. Adding new features means adding new bugs. Providing someone no option but to get the features (and new bugs) with the bugfixes is wrong.

From a magazine I picked up while I was walking up the road.

In 1995, he [Paulmac] snatched the ARIA [Australian Record Industry Award] for Best Dance Release and thanked "all of Sydney's ecstasy dealers, without whom this award would not be possible".

Well, that's certainly more honest than thanking God.