December 2008

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  • 10:24 PM

Neil Gaiman's Law of Superhero Films:

…the closer the film is to the look and feel of what people like about the comic, the more successful it is (which is something that Warners tends singularly to miss, and Marvel tends singularly to get right)

…Which, I suspect, is why Sin City and 300 worked. They were like having the comics happening up on the screen. The thing that people liked about it was there. With The Spirit, what the reader responded to is Eisner's lightness of touch and mastery of story, his humour and his humanity -- and a world that looks like Eisner drew it. The moment that it's obvious that that isn't there it almost doesn't matter what is there instead. According to Gaiman's Law, the more Sin City looked and felt like what people like about Frank Miller's work on Sin City, the more successful it was going to be with audiences, but the more The Spirit feels like Sin City and not like Will Eisner's The Spirit, the less successful it's going to be.

I don't pretend that this is exhaustive or even accurate (for example I demoted Cloud Computing to ‘honourable mention’ purely because writing the entry made me fall asleep), but it's the time of the year for end-of-year lists, and I wouldn't want to disappoint.


  • Distributed Version Control

    A few years ago I tried darcs and wondered why all version control systems didn't work like this. The only thing that stopped me using it full time were reports of poor performance, and the absolute lack of tool support. Today, both of those problems are history. darcs has been joined by git, Bazaar and Mercurial, and while no system has such an obvious technical edge over its competitors to be declared a deserving winner, it looks like git has the upper hand in mindshare thanks largely to github

    Meanwhile, at work, our system administrator lost weeks of productivity and large chunks of his hair trying to solve our cross-Pacific Subversion performance problems

  • jQuery

    Whenever I use jQuery, I am reminded of how much I disliked doing client-side web coding in Javascript before I had jQuery to help me. It is a superbly crafted library that makes what you want to do incredibly easy, and then (for the most part) gets out of your way.

  • Apple

    Apple just keep putting out good stuff. This time it was the creation of a mobile computing platform that despite its flaws has accomplished more in a year in terms of adoption and mindshare than players who have been in the game for most of this decade.

  • Twitter

    At the beginning of the year, I'd already written off Twitter as a pointless waste of time. So colour me surprised that by December, it's probably my most used web application (well, after Confluence). Twitter is a sea of little snippets of information, much of it banal, but once you've worked out how to swim it's both a fun toy, and an incredibly useful exercise in many-to-many communication. Now if only they could come up with a business model.

Honourable mention: Wikis, OSGi, Cloud Computing.


  • Ruby

    Ruby hasn't taken over the world as promised, and its status as ‘it’ technology is being threatened from one side by an emboldened Python, and from another by Java technologies such as Grails that offer the same kind of productivity benefits on top of a technology stack that CTOs might be a little more comfortable with. Still, a lot of the things that were wrong with Ruby—performance, wacky Unicode support—are being fixed and nobody (or at least nobody with a clue) actually believed Ruby was responsible for Twitter's instability.

  • Facebook

    On the plus side, Facebook seems to be halting the previously inevitable tidal effect of social networking services, where the next generation of ’net users all move somewhere else. A small subset of Facebook applications (mostly those that pull in content from other sites) are actually both useful and sticky, and we're yet to see what OpenSocial will do to enhance the experience.

    On the other hand, Facebook applications are still annoyingly needy, and they really, really need to sort out their woeful contextual ads.

  • Java

    The death of Java is kind of like desktop Linux going mainstream. Every year a bunch of people come up with well thought out, well argued opinion pieces as to how this is the year it’s going to happen, and every year they turn out to be wrong.

Honourable mention: Google, OpenID


  • Reddit

    As little as a year ago, Reddit was a reliable source of interesting links. Today it's what happens when Fark and 4chan users try to make believe they're all grown up.

  • Scala

    I really wanted to like Scala. I bought the book. I did the tutorials. Ultimately I ended up in the very uncomfortable position of being forced to agree with Steve Yegge. If Scala is the level of complexity you need in order to provide a strongly typed object oriented language, maybe that's a bad sign for type safety. Or maybe the Frankenstein approach needs refinement.

  • Erlang

    The lessons to be learned from Erlang with regards to concurrency are important ones. For one thing, it teaches us that no VM-based language can truly have thread safety until the VM can guarantee that one thread dying from resource starvation won't bring down the world around it. Unfortunately, Erlang-the-programming-language still looks frighteningly like it was designed in Sweden in the 1980s.

    Still right now, in the absence of anything better, it's possibly the best choice for large parallel systems.

  • Microsoft

    A comment thread on a blog post I can no longer find a link to saw a rosy future for Microsoft because they spend nine times as much on research and development as Apple. There's the problem. Microsoft pour R&D money into multi-touch interfaces and come up with a table that is relegated to tech demos and gimmicky election coverage. Apple put R&D money into multi-touch and produce the frickin’ iPhone.

    Of course, Windows 7 will fix everything. We've never heard that before.

Dishonourable mention: Perl, Web 2.0 pundits, Second Life

When I upgraded to the iPhone 3G, my biggest complaint was its battery life. What I forgot to add was that a few days after I wrote that review, it was pointed out to me that the network/radio usage of the iPhone's push synchronization accounts for a significant proportion of its standby power usage. So I turned it off, and have been far happier with the phone since.

  • Settings → Fetch New Data
  • Disable “Push”
  • Fetch Hourly

If you really, absolutely need your calendars and contacts to sync immediately, you can always force a manual sync. Otherwise, for me this makes the difference between having to charge more than once a day, and having to charge every other day.

Honestly, I think Apple should ship in this configuration by default. I dare say the number of people annoyed by the short battery life dwarfs the number of people who would even notice their calendars updated more than once an hour.

Bonus Tip

If you know you're going to be away from your charger for a couple of days, turn off the 3G radio in Settings → General → Network. This will (obviously) slow down your data connection significantly, but the effect on battery life is substantial and under the circumstances you'd probably rather have a working phone, right?

Christmas is almost here again, which in my family means the writing of ‘Christmas Lists.’ In an effort to make the season as straightforward as possible for our close relatives without being so crass as to give money, we all publish lists of the presents we'd like to receive. Nobody is forced to stick to the list in the event of a sudden moment of inspired shopping synchronicity, but neither is anyone considered unimaginative for sticking to the script.

What has struck me over the last few years is how much of all our lists have always been taken up by IP: CDs (once cassette tapes), DVDs (once VHS tapes, now Blu-Ray) and books. Which makes me wonder what we are going to do for physical gifts ten years from now? What happens to Christmas when buying a CD, DVD or a book in physical form is just so twentieth century1?

CDs are already on their way out. I still buy them, but only for two reasons2:

  1. Compact discs have no DRM, and thus will continue to function even if the manufacturer goes out of business or chooses not to support them any more.
  2. Digital files are a lot easier to lose than shiny plastic discs, and despite keeping careful, permanent track of your purchases, download services such as iTunes mysteriously lack the option to re-download stuff you've already bought.

Both these problems are temporary: the first because music publishers are realising that either you sell without DRM or you hand Apple absolute control of your industry, the second because backing up data is becoming a lot easier, and backing up your important stuff to the cloud will hit the mainstream any day now. So we'll give the CD 5-10 Christmases to fade away.

The DVD isn't going to fare much better. The Internet is eating video even faster than it is eating recorded music. Blu-Ray is fighting back the tide, but it can not last for long. The difference in quality between an HD show from a Blu-Ray disc and one downloaded onto an AppleTV is so slight that you would only care about it in the most visually spectacular shows, and there is no reason not to assume that bandwidth and compresion technologies will both advance sufficiently over the next few years to render BD's advantage non-existent.

Which leaves the oldest of all the technologies, the book.

Tweet from Nick Miller: “Saw a girl on the tram reading an on her iphone. Super nerd... Or the future?”

Christmas also means it's about time for my annual argument with my mother and brother about the future of the book as a physical medium. Don't get me wrong, I acknowledge books have a lot of advantages:

  • You don't have to charge them or replace their batteries
  • You can lend someone a book without worrying about the copyright implications
  • It doesn't matter too much if you get sand in them on the beach, or spill some of the recipe on the page of your cookery book
  • Reading a book is still easier on the eyes than any digital alternative
  • You can scribble in the margins, or if you're lucky have the author scribble on the title page
  • Many people are emotionally attached to the book as a medium. (Or to be a little less charitable, people fetishise the printed word)

Books are by no means perfect, though:

  • Printing a book and shipping it to its destination is expensive, and is only getting more so
  • At any one time, the vast majority of books are out of print.
  • Books are heavy
  • Even an occasional reader such as myself ends up devoting a ridiculous amount of living space to the storage of books

Ebook technology is getting better. The devices we have today are still not going to convince anyone but the hyper-enthusiastic early adopters, but technology has a habit of accelerating dramatically once there is just a little demonstration of demand. At the same time, the population of book-fetishists will start falling into the same niche as people who buy CDs because they like having the liner-notes.

It'll hang on longer than the rest, but I'm giving the book twenty years.


1 the question of what happens to record and book stores is possibly a more serious one, but really isn't my problem. So far, record stores attempts to "go digital" by installing mp3 kiosks, or putting little cards in the CD racks to represent digital albums are little more than cute ways of rearranging the deckchairs
2 To answer the unspoken question: “3. Because I feel that paying for music is the right thing to do.”

Happy Birthday to me
Happy Birthday to me
It's still a couple of years before
I can start making that joke again.

Bonus content: the USA franchise of Pret A Manger wins this decade's award for the most worrying overuse of scare-quotes:

this UK-based chain serves up 'wholesome' sandwiches and salads that are a welcome 'change from the norm', 'gracious' counter folk and 'crisp, clean' setups add to the experience, and while a few lament the 'London prices', most say the rates are 'reasonable' given the 'quality'