August 2008

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Today was Donna’s birthday. The original plan was to go out to a restaurant somewhere, but seeing as I woke up feeling like I’d been run over by a bus (or at least by the latest virus to be going around) we shelved that idea.

“Aha,” I thought. “I’ll cook dinner. Sure-fire brownie-points.”

Well, maybe not entirely sure-fire. I’ve not had the best of records cooking for girlfriends. Provided I don’t screw this up entirely, though, I should be home free.

Still there was the problem of that run-over feeling. I needed something that tasted nice but that I could make easily, using ingredients from no further than the deli round the corner. Thankfully, my mother had provided the solution a year ago in the form of a present, namely the Bloke’s tasty no-fuss recipes cook-book.

I found the one meat-free recipe in the book (anchovies don’t count as meat), staggered to the deli to source the ingredients, and then decided to brag to Vidya on IM about what a good boyfriend I was being.

Vidya: So what are you cooking?
Charles: Oh, spaghetti with this tomato-and-stuff sauce.
Vidya: No, what is it called?
Charles: I don’t know, I never really looked. I could go get the book if you really want.
Vidya: Go on, I want to know.
Charles: OK, it's… er… spaghetti puttanesca.
Vidya: You realise what that means, right?

Yes. I had carefully prepared to cook, to celebrate my girlfriend’s birthday… Whore’s Spaghetti.

For the record, it was delicious.

Lachlan was recently interviewed for the Sydney Morning Herald about what was exciting on today’s Internet, and graciously threw the questions to the public. I thought I might give them a stab.

What are the three things online that are exciting you the most?

“…the thing that Usenet did, the important thing that Usenet did that put everything else to shame, was that it provided a way for all of the cool people in the world to actually meet each other.” — Russ Allbery

There is really only one thing on the Internet that excites me, and that thing hasn’t changed since I first got my free1 University shell account and logged onto Usenet.


It’s no coincidence that most of the cool Internet apps that have been developed since that time have been about people. People finding other people. People communicating with other people. People sharing their knowledge, their passions, their enthusiasm with… people.

Sure, on the way the Internet has given us ways to buy things without having to talk to annoying salespeople, has given the music industry a much-deserved kick up the arse, and is in the early stages of delivering the self-same kick to broadcast television. All that means is we're going to need more people to recommend good stuff to buy, listen to and watch.

What gadget do you never leave home without?

Hands down, my iPod. Back when I was four, our parents bequeathed me and my brother their old record player. A month or two later, they had to confiscate The Beatles’ Help for fear that I would, in fact, keep it on 24-hour rotation until I was seven.

I’ve always been surrounded by music. I think if I were forced to go without it, I’d go completely insane.

What will be the Next Big Thing?

Do you remember what life was like before the mobile (cell) phone?

I suspect quite a few of my readers won’t, so let me give an example. Say you’re going to meet somebody for lunch. How do you find each other? How do you tell them you’re running late, or cancel at the last minute because something came up? How the hell did we cope back when the mobile phone was a brick-sized yuppie accessory we couldn’t afford?

It sounds trivial. It is trivial. But it’s just one of a hundred different ways that the simple fact that you, and everyone you know has a mobile phone has changed the way we go about our daily business. Ways we don’t notice until we point at them because they’re second nature now.

(Aside: Have you noticed how popular culture is cleanly divided into stuff that's new enough to be reliably documented on Wikipedia and YouTube, and stuff that happened before 2002? Anyone experiencing their childhood today will find the whole thing still pristinely archived online for them when they're nostalgic adults.)

Right now, mobile data is making a similar transition from clunky novelty to ubiquity. Mobile phones changed the world in a hundred little ways because they made the people you know always a few button-presses away. Mobile data puts all the world’s information (not to mention all the people you don’t know yet) in your pocket too.

This is why our data is moving into the cloud. We're going to access our data through more, more specialised devices, but we want them all to be able to interact with our digital lives. But more on that later.

Oh yes. As almost-mentioned earlier, broadcast TV as we know it is dead. It just hasn't realised yet. More on that later too.

1 Given the ratio of time I spent in the UCS labs to the time I spent in lectures, one might more accurately say that the University charged several thousand dollars a year for an Internet account, and threw in tuition for free. Sorry Dad, but it seems to have worked out perversely well in the end.

Artistic License

  • 10:19 AM

I found a link to Where is Bob? on Reddit, a WTF-style blog about an incompetent IT manager. It is decently written and I was enjoying the latest article. Then I came to this bit:

And that is the long story (the short story is always simply “Bob is an idiot, and here we are”) of how I found myself stuck in a conference room with four Jira sales-people, a small wall clock ticking away the minutes of my life, and a large pot of coffee.

Er… huh? We would send four guys out to a “small university IT shop” to sell a product that costs at most $5k? We even have four sales-people? Sure, in really special cases where there's a lot of money involved (and you’re within half an hour’s drive of San Francisco or Sydney) we might send two guys out for a chat, but for most customers our entire sales process consists of slightly weird automated emails.

Granted, most blogs of this nature have a large fictional component. Giving the author the benefit of the doubt, one assumes she took two stories that on their own wouldn't sustain a full article — “stupid boss wants to replace Bugzilla with commercial issue tracker” and “stupid boss didn't turn up to early morning meeting he scheduled himself” — and melded them together. Still, the artistic license really doesn't help with the suspension of disbelief.

Back in 2002, I wrote “Five books I think you should read if you hack Java”. I was a much more novice developer at the time and the book list reflects that. Still, such a list makes a great baseline, and there are very few changes I would make today. With the recent release of the second edition of Effective Java, I thought I'd revisit the list.

If I were writing it today, I would reluctantly remove Refactoring. While the advice on what refactoring is and when it should be applied is still gold, most development environments support refactoring natively these days, so the detailed manual processes described in the book seem rather archaic six years later.

In its place I would put Java Concurrency in Practice. Every new Atlassian developer gets handed this book and ordered to read it immediately. Writing multi-threaded code is hard, and a number of the things Java does under the hood to make its multi-threading more efficient makes it even harder. Unless you understand the subtleties described in this book of how Java shares data between threads, you will screw it up in some almost-impossible-to-debug way.

Speaking of Effective Java, a book so essential that we ordered ten copies for the office as soon as we knew there was a new edition, I decided to give it a read. Of course, I have over half a decade more Java experience than I did when I read the first edition, and I was really only reading it to see how Java 5 had changed some of the book's recommendations.

Wrong. In just the first chapter I learned three things I really should have known already, but didn't, at least one of which I'd probably read in the first edition and then forgotten. I guess it goes to show that you never stop learning.

'Usul' is good. We could all become addicted to spice, then harness the power of sandworms and fremen to defeat the Sardaukar and hence achieve our quarterly objectives.

— Melanie, during a discussion on the internal Atlassian wiki over what to name our newly re-org'd internal services team

Why is it that, in absolute opposition to the last fifteen years of software industry trends, there's no way to try an iPhone app before you buy it? How do I know which of the six dozen different Solitaire apps I want to buy if I don't get the chance to play any of them first?

You'd think it was a no-brainer. Every App Store application is wrapped in DRM1 anyway. Presumably, it would only take a minor software update and Apple could wrap downloads in 30-day time bombs, just like they do with rental movies, without any need to change the apps themselves.

1 I know I should get up in arms about the closed-source, walled garden, DRM-wrapped, "it's not your phone it's ours" nature of the iPhone, but I can't muster the energy. It's a shiny toy that in a few years I will replace with another shiny toy.

Flickr photograph link

One of the mild amusements of having a C-list blog is that you find yourself on the mailing-lists of one or two clueless PR firms -- enough to be occasionally amusing, but not enough to really rise above the noise of the rest of the spam.

From today's mailbox, a quick quiz. You are announcing the launch of a new hard-hitting investigative political blog that promises to tear the roof off the establishment, breaking the kind of news that the mainstream media is too shackled with biases and conflicts of interest to attempt.

For fifty points: which font do you use for your announcement?

Comic Sans. Your font for hard-boiled journalism.

Please, stop the lunacy.

In the news this morning, US Department of Homeland Security regulations allow them to confiscate laptops at the border, or duplicate any data, without any suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of the laptop's owner.

It's a very timely move by the DHS. You never know when someone might invent a global, unregulated data network that could allow evildoers to entirely bypass such checkpoints, making them nothing more than a sham way for border police to rake through people's private data and copy their mp3 collections.

"But this would only happen to bad people!" you say. "If you haven't done anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about."

You see I really like America. I visit it a lot. And most of the times I've been there I've had no problems, beyond the invasiveness of having to provide my fingerprints and mugshot at the border, and the general assumption by everyone in immigration that their country is so wonderful that any visitor must be planning to dodge their visa and never go home.

(These border agents must never have visited Australia.)

Last time I was in the USA, though, things had changed. I learned how annoying air travel can be. Every single checkpoint I went through, I was dragged to the side for some kind of special search treatment. Finally, at one airport that had kerbside checkin (woohoo!) but that refused to let me use it (d'oh!), a helpful employee told me it was because I had a "common name", and this doomed me to special attention wherever I might travel.

Then I thought back to when I was going through customs to enter the country. The DHS agent there was very curious to know whether I'd been in the Caribbean lately. At the time I thought it was just because the cricket World Cup had recently been held there, and it wouldn't have been uncommon for travelling Aussies to have passed through that port. But in the light of subsequent TSA attention, I'm not so sure.

You see, there's this Carribean drug trafficker called... Charles Miller. Or at least there was. He's sufficiently "old news" not to have an entry on Wikipedia, and the most recent media mention I can find of him is from 1998. I have a sneaking suspicion that when they dumped the contents of the Wanted list onto the Suspected Terrorist list, his name (and thus mine) was there.

So next time I go to the States, I fully expect my laptop to be taken away and scoured for evidence that I am a fugitive drug trafficker from the West Indies who hasn't been heard from for twenty years, and is dumb enough to travel under his own name.