Saturday, November 25, 2006

7th Week: on the Facebook Development Platform

There seems to have been a lot of controversy of late surrounding the mysterious and seemingly-misunderstood Facebook Development Platform. Is this a secret plan to sell your personal data to the highest bidder? Is it some way for people to view and steal your profile information? (For those who don't know, Facebook is one of these social networking sites - you know, the "I've got 17 more friends than you" type places. It's a complete waste of time, but (or possibly therefore) is brilliant.)

Let's look at what the FDP actually is. Above all things, it is for developers - computer geeks like me who like to write programs, and would like to integrate them with Facebook.

Here's a note that I found someone had posted:
Hey Kids, So apparently Facebook has started SELLING user information (surprise, surprise!) to third parties. They call it the "Facebook Development Platform." To restrict use of your information, do the following...
The same note goes on to make up "quotes" from the Facebook Terms of Service and Privacy Policy (Really! Go and look yourself, if you've seen the original note!). Facebook's own FAQ deals with this issue directly:
Facebook respects your privacy. We don't distribute your user information to marketers or spammers. We also do not allow crawlers from search engines on our site.
In fact, far from selling information, the FDP is free to make use of - anyone on Facebook can sign up and make use of the API in their own applications. The important point to make about this is that, in order to use applications that use the Facebook API and access any information, the user needs to log in to Facebook. At no point do they gain access to information they couldn't have gathered from the Facebook site.

The issue was raised again about an hour ago, when a friend of mine invited me to join the group "People Radar is an abuse of information on Facebook". People Radar, recently renamed from FaceRadar (because Facebook apparently own the copyright to the word "face"), is one of the myriad applications that make use of the Development Platform and its API. The basic premise of the site is: you go through and rate members of your preferred sex on how "hot" they are. You can also check your own rating (for some reason, mine seems to be 1. Maybe an overflow error?).

While I in no way think that this is a particularly brilliant idea (far from it), I disagree with the group's statement that it is an "abuse of information". Facebook is a site designed for sharing information. Any information you put up, you expect to be shared - and FB duly gives you control over how this information is shared.

The group also suggests changing your privacy settings to prevent your data being used for the FDP. This, though, is rather like using a nuclear warhead to kill an ant (Note to any American President reading: this is a Bad Idea). PeopleRadar itself has an opt-out, and I would recommend that instead of the kill-all approach. If everyone took this route, then some genuinely interesting, some intriguing, and maybe even some genuinely useful ideas would be rendered useless. (An extensive list is available.)

As a developer, I say that would be a shame.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

4th Week: The Legendary St. John's Fireworks

...were slightly disappointing this year.

Maybe it was the hype I was desperately trying to inject into the evening; recounting countless tales of previous SJC fireworks displays, from when they set fire to one of the trees encircling the Great Lawn, to last year's near-horizontal firework launch towards the crowd. Perhaps it was the fact that (mostly to prevent a re-occurrence of the aforementioned) a professional was called in. I mean, who wears a helmet when putting on a fireworks display? Perhaps it was the final two fireworks: Wheeeeeeeeee.... put. put.

Or maybe it's the fact I got to bed at about 3.15am last night...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

4th Week: About Time

BBC News has early coverage of a report, due out later today, with the Institute of Public Policy Research's report into a review of copyright laws. Read it at

From the article:
Copyright laws are "out of date" and must be updated so MP3 player users can make copies of CDs without breaking the law, according to a think tank.
Yes! That's exactly right! And, my favourite quote of them all:
It is not the music industry's job to decide what rights consumers have. That is the job of government.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

3rd Week: Good news from the world of broadcasting

At long last, BBC Parliament will be available in full screen format on Freeview from November 13, reports Digital Spy. (See the official BBC press release here.)

Unlike satellite and cable TV, Freeview has only a limited bandwidth available; there's a limit to the number of channels that can be broadcast. Until now, BBC Parliament has been broadcast quarter-screen, in the same video stream as the two News Multiscreen video loops; on both, MHEG text screens cover the other side of the screen.

With Parliament now in full-screen, this either means the end of News Multiscreen on Freeview, or else enough room for a few more screens. Or perhaps they've managed to squeeze out an extra channel's bandwidth by reducing the quality of the others (BBC Four/CBeebies, 301/302) But which is it to be?

The discussion of this has spread to eight pages on the DS forums...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

3rd Week: Food for thought for Linux geeks

This was written in July, but I've only just found it. Written by A Y Siu (a name I recognise from the Kubuntu forums, as it happens), it debunks the myth of "the year of the Linux desktop", while simultaneously destroying the myth that "Linux is not ready for the desktop". An interesting read...

Essential reading for anyone waiting for Linux to break through into the mainstream; and for anyone who's heard of Linux, has maybe been told that it's better than Windows (by some Linux geek like me).

Saturday, October 21, 2006

2nd Week: Latest Pictures - Anti-Lab Protest

These were the best shots I could get of the anti-lab brigade (it's no longer sufficient to call them "protesters" thanks to Pro-Test, which causes confusion) - I really didn't want to hang out of my (ground floor) window as the protesters marched past, waving a camera, in case one of the ALF decided to make good their arson threat. Anyway, here are the photos.

The banner reads "FREE SPEECH" and has a website address. I'm not going to link to it. :-P

There were quite a few of them - they took a full four minutes to pass by outside.

And finally they depart... many of them seem to be holding banners saying "REMEMBER GEORGE". Unfortunately, I don't, though apparently he's a miserable-looking chimp. (Because there are so many chimps being experimented on in the new lab.) Also, some people were carrying banners saying "SUPPORT SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH - STOP VIVISECTION" or something similar. These people are, presumably, either confused or misled. I'm a Computer Scientist. The argument that "computers can do simulations so we don't need real animals" doesn't wash with me.

Friday, October 20, 2006

2nd Week: OCaml

How to make the ML programming language, for beginners.
  1. Take all the worst parts of Haskell.
  2. Make all those Haskell error messages even more obscure.
  3. Add in the noisiness of Oberon.
  4. Provide contradictory documentation.
I have no idea what I wrote but, after 90 minutes of fiddling around with punctuation marks, the practical works.

2nd Week: MythTV Database Issues

OK, for the second time in my life I had to scour the internet for the solution to a problem with a new installation of MythTV (from CVS). I'm putting this here so I can find it again in future!

If you try and run mythfrontend or mythtv-setup and get errors such as the following:

QSqlDatabase: QMYSQL3 driver not loaded
QSqlDatabase: available drivers:
2006-10-20 11:14:52.435 New DB connection, total: 1
2006-10-20 11:14:52.436 Unable to connect to database!
2006-10-20 11:14:52.437 No error type from QSqlError? Strange...
QSqlQuery::exec: database not open
QSqlQuery::exec: database not open
2006-10-20 11:14:52.496 DB Error (KickDatabase):
Query was:
No error type from QSqlError? Strange...
2006-10-20 11:14:52.572 Unable to connect to database!
2006-10-20 11:14:52.573 No error type from QSqlError? Strange...

... then the solution is twofold. Firstly make sure you have the Qt MySQL drivers installed (Ubuntu people: that's libqt3-mt-mysql). Secondly - and this is the bit that always takes ages to find... You need an /etc/ld/so.conf file that contains the path to the said driver. Ubuntu people: /usr/local/lib.

That's it. That's what takes hours to solve. Not any more.

Friday, October 13, 2006

1st Week: Help! Help! We're being repressed!

TechWeb reports on the licenses for Microsoft Windows Vista, due out... well, some time. So just how much will you "own" of Vista, should you buy it?

Well, of course the answer to that is "none", and has been for some time thanks to the barely-legal End User License Agreement ("this software is licensed, not sold", among other things). As an end-user, though, Microsoft are trying very hard to control what do with their new baby.

Ever upgraded a computer, ditched the old one and installed Windows on the new one? You can now only do that once. Says the license:
The first user of the software may reassign the license to another device one time. If you reassign the license, that other device becomes the "licensed device".
Interestingly enough, this sort of limitation seems to be illegal, at least in America. In 2001, in a case between Adobe and SoftMan, the judge ruled that
...the terms of the Adobe EULA at issue prohibit licensees from transferring or assigning any individual Adobe product that was originally distributed as part of a Collection unless it is transferred with all the software in the original Collection. This license provision conflicts with the first sale doctrine in copyright law, which gives the owner of a particular copy of a copyrighted work the right to dispose of that copy without the permission of the copyright owner.
More coverage of that story was at Linux Weekly News and The Register.

It gets better, though it might take some explaining. Unless you're a techie yourself, then the following might go right over your head:
You may not use the software installed on the licensed device within a virtual (or otherwise emulated) hardware system.

"Virtual machines" or VMs are, as computers become more powerful, becoming more popular. Tools like VMware allow you to run an operating system within an operating system. You can boot into Windows, then boot up a Linux VM, and run both operating systems simultaneously. As well as being useful for developers, who need to test their products on a variety of different platforms, it has benefits for home users: Why worry about spyware and viruses when surfing the web, when you can load a VM with a browser, use that, and once you're done you can restore it to its initial state (including getting rid of stored personal data etc).

None of which violates the new EULA, as long as Vista is the "host" (that is, the real) operating system. Where this gets interesting is when you look to the developments that both Intel and AMD are making in the field of virtualisation. It's easiest to explain with reference to a diagram, so here's one from a presentation "Xen and the Art of Virtualisation":
What this shows is four different operating systems, running each as if they were the host OS, thanks to the Xen layer. Microsoft's EULA stamps all over this party (though it should be said, the same restrictions do not apply to the more expensive and undoubtedly more bloated versions of Vista, just Home Basic and Home Premium).

Oh - and if Vista decides to believe you've got a pirated copy of it, whether you have or not, it will severely limit your use of the OS and your computer. If you're one of the law-abiding people who buy Vista in the shops, you could find it not letting you use the internet, other than Internet Explorer for one hour at a time (gah, it's like my parents!).

Think you're safe with a genuine copy? Past experience tells us otherwise, as this article reports.
Scrolling through the posts on Microsoft's official WGA Validation Problems forum is like reading accident reports from a multiple-car pileup on Interstate 5. Many of the victims are completely innocent and have no idea what hit them, and cleaning up the mess can be a nightmare.

If you're a Windows user, and/or planning to upgrade to Vista if/when it is released, that should send a shiver down your spine. You have been warned...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

1st Week: A Conversation with Mel

This had me in fits of laughter for whole minutes at a time...

(13:11:31) Mel: dude
(13:11:44) Mel: were's te ceapest place I ca get a ew keyaord, do you tik?
(13:12:26) Mel: it's gettig aoyig ow
(13:12:31) Mel: it was oly oe letter yesterday
(13:12:42) Mel: ow it's 3
(13:15:40) Mel: aaaaa
(13:15:53) Mel: (tat was laugig witout cocosats)
... We then proceeded to almost order a keyboard from ebuyer, before realising that they would only ship to my billing address (Portsmouth) for my first order...
(13:39:02) Mel: or I could use my ousemate's!
(13:39:14) Mel: wy did't tat occur to me efore
(13:43:31) Mel: I've lost te questio mark as well ow
(13:43:50) Mel: sad

This, folks, is the sort of weird thing that happens in Oxford.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

1st Week: Famous people! Questions! And a textbook

Slashdot reports on Jarosław "sztywny" Rzeszótko's E-mail interview with some of the greats in the computing world, including Linux creator Linus Torvalds and C++ creator Bjarne Stroustrup. It's a very good read; here are my personal highlights...

- What do you think is the most important skill every programmer should possess?

Linus Torvalds:

It’s a thing I call "taste".

I tend to judge the people I work with not by how proficient they are: some people can churn out a _lot_ of code, but more by how they react to other peoples code, and then obviously by what their own code _looks_ like, and what approaches they chose. That tells me whether they have "good taste" or not, and the thing is, a person without "good taste" often is not very good at judging other peoples code, but his own code often ends up not being wonderfully good.

- Do you think mathematics and/or physics are an important skill for a programmer? Why?

Tim Bray (co-author of XML and ATOM specs):

In my case, I’ve almost never used my university-level math to support my programming.

- What is your favourite book related to computer programming?

Linus Torvalds:
I have a soft spot for Andrew Tanenbaum’s "Operating Systems: Design and Implementation". (This is on my reading list for next term! Good to know it has pedigree...)

Go, read the rest for yourself - and tell me if it was worth me doing all that Maths last year...

Saturday, October 07, 2006

0th Week: Customer Service

How's this for customer service...
I buy a secondhand book online from its Java In A Nutshell Deluxe Edition which is supposed to come with a CD. It didn't, and the book's been out of print for quite a while now.

One short E-mail to O'Reilly (the publisher), and a few days later I have a brand-new CD on my desk. Two thumbs up, O'Reilly!

0th Week: Tired!

Wow, I'm tired... I got to bed at 3am after the St. Aldate's half-night of prayer; Dave and I were both on the A/V team  for much of the evening, though we were able to take it in shifts. It was a really encouraging evening, and one that made me really feel (almost) as at home here as at my home church. I even got to use my nice Risky semi-transparent stuff (I think it's fast becoming my signature piece, quite worryingly). It's little touches like that that make the difference.

So, got in about 2.40, and really fancied a cheese toastie. Bed about 3, but (surprisingly, as I was exhausted) found it really difficult to get to sleep. Woke up about 11, and I should probably get dressed somewhen soon...

My ridiculously busy Freshers' Week continues... it's the SJC Freshers' Fair, and OICCU Churches Fair, both this afternoon. I'm sure Freshers' Week wasn't this busy last year... I'd better get dressed somewhen soon. And do some laundry. And find some lunch. And so on.

Edit: This blog has been going for a year yesterday! Go me!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

0th Week: Freshers' Fair

I helped out with the CompSoc stall at the OUSU Freshers' Fair this afternoon. Gave out some free Ubuntu CDs, and had a long chat with some of the guys on the Toshiba stall about Linux.

I'm really, really tempted to buy a laptop...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

0th Week: Consumer Warning

Please read this consumer warning. This stuff really exists and you should know about it. Please also pass this onto anyone else who may not be aware of what DRM is.

Warning: DRM! Digital Restrictions Management

This holiday season when you bring home a new electronic device, will you be bringing an intruder into your home? Will you and your family members end up being monitored and reported on by the software installed on these devices?

DRM is used to restrict what you and your family can do with the electronic devices and media purchased. It is an attempt by technology and media companies to take away your rights. DRM Means: No fair use. No purchase and resell. No private copies. No sharing. No backup. No swapping. No mix tapes. No privacy. No commons. No control over our computers. No control over our electronic devices.

DRM software and hardware monitors and controls your family's behavior.

Did you know that iPod users are restricted from transferring their music to other non-Apple devices because the music downloaded from iTunes is encrypted - locked with DRM? Apple allows you to write an audio CD, but will leave you with very lousy sound quality if you ever want to take your music to a new portable device in a compressed format.

Did you know that Sony Music was caught secretly planting DRM “rootkits” on customers computers. All it required was for you to play the CD you had purchased from them...

DRM is more than a nuisance. The film and music industry are setting the agenda to increase their control. They have demanded that technology companies impose DRM to deliver for them what their political lobbying to change copyright law never has: they aim to turn every interaction with a published work into a transaction, abolishing fair use and the commons, and making copyright last forever. By accepting DRM users unwittingly surrender their rights and invite a deeper surveillance. This will put your family's viewing, listening, reading, browsing records on file with them.

What gives them that right?

Stay away from DRM-dependent products like Blu-ray and HD-DVD, iTunes, Windows Media Player, Zune, Amazon Unbox...

Stay away from retailers who insist on making DRM part of the package.

Stop financing the people who want to restrict you.

Find out more at and find 10 easy ways you can help make others aware.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 02, 2006

0th Week: Every TINYINT Helps

Tesco are to launch their own-branded software, reports the BBC.

This new range, to be launched later this month, includes office software, "security systems" (presumably antivirus and firewall), photo editing, and a CD/DVD burning suite. Now, this is an interesting move... From the report:
"When it comes to software there is little choice and prices are high. Our new range of software changes this, bringing choice and value to the market that has offered little of either for too long." -- Tesco buyer Daniel Cook

I have no doubt that these aren't the real motives for the venture - rather, increased profits and market share are, quite understandably. But it struck me just how close the stated reasons are to those of the free/OSS movement. Providing choice in a market that's offered little? As for value, you don't get much better than free (as in beer).

Of course, Tesco haven't hired a vast army of programmers for this; rather, they've signed an agreement with Formjet PLC, which gives a clue as to exactly what sort of products we'll be buying with our cornflakes. (Don't delve too deeply on their website, though, or you'll end up with lots of "Untitled Document"s.)

Could this be a big blow for OSS in the UK? With cheap software available from the UK's leading supermarket, will fewer people turn to free alternatives like OpenOffice? Or will it make people realise that not all software is made in Redmond, and start looking for alternatives?

Tesco's software range launches in late October in about 100 stores.

Friday, September 29, 2006

-1st Week: Only for America

This could be quite interesting to watch: Facebook | Election Pulse (you might well have to have a Facebook account to see this). It's the runup to the USA's mid-term elections, and Facebook is keeping tabs on how many people are supporting each candidate. I wonder how accurate it'll be...

-1st Week: Back in Oxford!

Wow, it feels like years since I've been here last... and I have a nice new room.

Brilliant start to the Oxonian year - a few hours after arriving (and downloading ~500MB of updated packages) I was starting to think about dinner; then I got an E-mail from Flo at St. Aldates, saying that there was pizza on offer! The Lord provides. ;-)

Remember that installation of XP I talked about... well, technically two weeks ago, but the post only went live today...? Only 59 security or critical updates for it. Downloading those now.

Plenty more to talk about... plenty to organise, and still plenty to unpack... but that can wait, as it's gone 1am. Hooray for Oxford! (Happy birthday Bruce!)

-3rd Week: Why EULAs are bad news

This is a first for this blog: a post written at home - though only actually posted when I go back to Oxford in a few weeks. Here's the reason for this exclusive.

It cannot be denied that there are certain applications (OK, mostly games) that require Windows to run - they either don't yet run through Wine, or don't run sufficiently well. This is not a problem, since I have a licensed copy of Ecks Pee that came with the very computer I am currently using. With me so far?

I don't like rebooting my computer unnecessarily. (Don't install Windows then, the purists cry!) Hence, I have set my computer up so that I can either boot Windows normally; or, boot into Linux then boot the same Windows through VMWare.

The fact that it is the same Windows installation, and not a separate one, is important because of this clause in the EULA:
Installation and Use. Except as otherwise expressly provided in this EULA, you may install, use, access, display and run only one (1) copy of the SOFTWARE on the COMPUTER. The SOFTWARE may not be used by more than one (1) processor at any one time on the COMPUTER, unless a higher number is indicated on the Certificate of Authenticity.
Let's check this. Windows is only installed to /dev/hda6, with its boot files in /dev/hda1 because it can't handle not being first. There is only one (1) copy of the SOFTWARE on the COMPUTER, which is defined in this instance as being "the HARDWARE". That's key, since a virtual machine isn't hardware. Not that it's installed inside the VM anyway; it has direct access to the real, physical hard disk.

Right, so no problems so far... except of course Windows Product Activation. After activating Windows while booted as host, I rebooted into Linux and booted as guest. Windows thinks it's had a radical hardware change and gives me three days to reactivate. This I do (by phone). The question is - the next time I boot it normally, will I have to go through the same process again?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

9th Week: An Offer

Stolen from Claire's blog, in turn stolen from someone else's...

If you comment on this post:

1. I’ll respond with something random about you
2. I’ll challenge you to try something
3. I’ll pick a color that I associate with you
4. I’ll tell you something I like about you
5. I’ll tell you my first/clearest memory of you
6. I’ll tell you what animal you remind me of
7. I’ll ask you something I’ve always wanted to ask you
8. If I do this for you, you must post this on yours

To which Claire's reply was:
1. You have a very mean friend
2. you should try gnome or fluxbox, none of this KDE nonsense
3. oo i have no idea, colour of icecream
4. you use ubuntu
5. you telling me that if i didn't use windows things wouldn't break, and me protesting that i dont
6. a giraffe - you don't really
7. how do the buttons on the sound desk actually work?

Any takers?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

9th Week: Goodbye Greg (I)

We're going to miss you...

Maths exam tomorrow. Eep. Let me see... "Let T be a linear transformation from V to V, where V is a finite-dimensional vector space over the real numbers..." - and that's before you get to the question!

Friday, June 16, 2006

8th Week: The Longest Day

No fewer than six exam-hours today. CS3 this morning went OK, though Logic and Proof was scarily nasty (most of us had planned to attack all three L&P questions, based on the collection we did eight weeks ago). Managed to answer two of the Models of Computation questions (I hope) quite well. Since you have to answer five out of nine questions, I managed to not have to answer any Discrete Maths questions at all. Which was nice.

CS2 this afternoon was a bit of a mixed bag, but generally good. Some easy PP questions (apparently the easiest was Q2, though I didn't go for it), and it's always theraputic to be able to just write down elegant solutions to problems. As for DH - some really really badly set questions. It wasn't the content or the theory that was the problem, it was a third of a page taken up by a table that was mostly irrelevant and actually complicated things a lot. It took me a good five minutes to work out that it was describing a pedestrian crossing! Add to that all the signal names were in CAPS which GAVE ME A HEADACHE and it wasn't the most elegant or subtle of questions I've seen. And my method of using JK flip-flops? Wire them up like D-types! So much easier. Thanks, Brian!

Today's Star Wars Exam Reference: X-Wings/ TIE Fighters - talking about type extension in Oberon.

It occurred to me today that I haven't yet mentioned the Galactic Empire (GE) on here. At the start of this month, I reached five years with the club; in that time, I've made my way up the ranks from Ensign to Commander, where I am today. It's a whole different batch of problems - not least Zeta Squadron, who resolutely refuse to hold down a squad leader. Applications are open...

Thursday, June 15, 2006

8th Week: On Windows Vista (rescued from Google Cache)

This is good stuff. The OP took it down after a few hours of it being online; I've retrieved it from Google Cache. The following words are not mine: they are the words of someone who was a Windows team manager for five years. Slashdot link to this article (which is no longer there). The server is also now "too busy" - but then, it is an IIS...

The World As Best As I Remember It - Broken Windows Theory

Vista. The term stirs the imagination to conceive of beautiful possibilities just around the corner.  And “just around the corner” is what Windows Vista has been, and has remained, for the past two years.  In this time, has suffered a series of high-profile delays, including most recently the announcement that it would be delayed until 2007.  The largest software project in mankind’s history now threatens to also be the longest.

Admittedly, this essay would be easier written for Slashdot, where taut lines divide the world crisply into black and white.  “ is a bloated piece of crap,” my furry little penguine would opine, “written by the bumbling serfs of an evil capitalistic megalomaniac.”  But that’d be dead wrong.  The truth is far more nuanced than that.  Deeper than that.  More subtle than that.

I managed developer teams in Windows for five years, and have only begun to reflect on the experience now that I have recently switched teams.  Through a series of conversations with other leaders that have similarly left The Collective, several root causes have emerged as lasting characterizations of what’s really wrong in The Empire.

The Usual Suspects

Ask any developer in Windows why is plagued by delays, and they’ll say that the code is way too complicated, and that the pace of coding has been tremendously slowed down by overbearing process.  These claims have already been covered in other popular literature.  A quick recap for those of you just joining the broadcast:

  • Windows code is too complicated.  It’s not the components themselves, it’s their interdependencies.  An architectural diagram of Windows would suggest there are more than 50 dependency layers (never mind that there also exist circular dependencies).  After working in Windows for five years, you understand only, say, two of them.  Add to this the fact that building Windows on a dual-proc dev box takes nearly 24 hours, and you’ll be slow enough to drive Miss Daisy.
  • Windows process has gone thermonuclear.  Imagine each little email you send asking someone else to fill out a spreadsheet, comment on a report, sign off on a decision – is a little neutron shooting about in space.  Your innocent-seeming little neutron now causes your heretofore mostly-harmless neighbors to release neutrons of their own.  Now imagine there are 9000 of you, all jammed into a tight little space called .  It’s Windows Gone Thermonuclear, a phenomenon by which process engenders further process, eventually becoming a self-sustaining buzz of fervent destructive activity.

Let’s see if, quantitatively, there’s any truth to the perception that the code velocity (net lines shipped per developer-year) of Windows has slowed, or is slow relative to the industry.  is said to have over 50 million lines of code, whereas XP was said to have around 40 million.  There are about two thousand software developers in Windows today.  Assuming there are 5 years between when XP shipped and when Vista ships, those quick on the draw with calculators will discover that, on average, the typical Windows developer has produced one thousand new lines of shipped code per year during .  Only a thousand lines a year.  (Yes, developers don’t just write new code, they also fix old code.  Yes, some of those Windows developers were partly busy shipping 64-bit XP.  Yes, many of them also worked on hotfixes.  Work with me here.)

Lest those of you who wrote 5,000 lines of code last weekend pass a kidney stone at the thought of Windows developers writing only a thousand lines of code a year, realize that the average software developer in the US only produces around (brace yourself) 6200 lines a year.  So Windows is in bad shape – but only by a constant, not by an order of magnitude.  And if it makes you feel any better, realize that the average developer has fallen in KLOC productivity since 1999, when they produced about 9000 lines a year.  So Windows isn’t alone in this.

The oft-cited, oft-watercooler-discussed dual phenomenon of Windows code complexity and Windows process burden seem to have dramatically affected its overall code velocity.  But code can be simplified and re-architected (and is indeed being done so by a collection of veteran architects in Windows, none of whom, incidentally, look anything like Colonel Sanders).  Process can be streamlined where inefficient, eliminated where unnecessary.

But that’s not where it ends.  There are deeper causes of Windows’ propensity to slippage.

Cultured to Slip

Deep in the bowels of Windows, there remains the whiff of a bygone culture of belittlement and aggression.  Windows can be a scary place to tell the truth.

When a vice president in Windows asks you whether your team will ship on time, they might well have asked you whether they look fat in their new Armani suit.  The answer to the question is deeply meaningful to them.  It’s certainly true in some sense that they genuinely want to know.  But in a very important other sense, in a sense that you’ll come to regret night after night if you get it wrong, there’s really only one answer you can give.

After months of hearing of how a certain influential team in Windows was going to cause the Vista release to slip, I, full of abstract self-righteous misgivings as a stockholder, had at last the chance to speak with two of the team’s key managers, asking them how they could be so, please-excuse-the-term, I-don’t-mean-its-value-laden-connotation, ignorant as to proper estimation of software schedules.  Turns out they’re actually great project managers.  They knew months in advance that the schedule would never work.  So they told their VP.  And he, possibly influenced by one too many instances where engineering re-routes power to the warp core, thus completing the heretofore impossible six-hour task in a mere three, summarily sent the managers back to “figure out how to make it work.”  The managers re-estimated, nipped and tucked, liposuctioned, did everything short of a lobotomy – and still did not have a schedule that fit.  The VP was not pleased.  “You’re smart people.  Find a way!”  This went back and forth for weeks, whereupon the intrepid managers finally understood how to get past the dilemma.  They simply stopped telling the truth.  “Sure, everything fits.  We cut and cut, and here we are.  by August or bust.  You got it, boss.”

Every once in a while, Truth still pipes up in meetings.  When this happens, more often than not, Truth is simply bent over an authoritative knee and soundly spanked into silence.

The Joy of Cooking

Bundled with a tendency towards truth-intolerance, Windows also sometimes struggles with poor organizational decision-making.  Good news is that the senior leaders already know this and have been taking active steps to change the situation.

There are too many cooks in the kitchen.  Too many vice presidents, in reporting structures too narrow.  When I was in Windows, I reported to Alec, who reported to Peter, to Bill, Rick, Will, Jim, Steve, and Bill.  Remember that there were two layers of people under me as well, making a total path depth of 11 people from Bill Gates down to any developer on my team.

This isn’t necessarily bad, except sometimes the cooks flash-mob one corner of the kitchen.  I once sat in a schedule review meeting with at least six VPs and ten general managers.  When that many people have a say, things get confusing.  Not to mention, since so many bosses are in the room, there are often negotiations between project managers prior to such meetings to make sure that no one ends up looking bad.  “Bob, I’m giving you a heads-up that I’m going to say that your team’s component, which we depend on, was late.”  “That’s fine, , but please be clear that the unforeseen delays were caused by a third party, not my team.”

Micromanagement, though not pervasive, is nevertheless evident.  Senior vice presidents sometimes review UI designs of individual features, a nod to Steve Jobs that would in better days have betokened a true honor but for its randomizing effects.  Give me a cathedral, give me a bazaar – really, either would be great.  Just not this middle world in which some decisions are made freely while others are made by edict, with no apparent logic separating each from the other but the seeming curiosity of someone in charge.

In general, Windows suffers from a proclivity for action control, not results control.  Instead of clearly stating desired outcomes, there’s a penchant for telling people exactly what steps they must take.  It’s creating a generation of McDevs, few of whom enjoy the monotony.  (For more on action control vs. results control, read Kenneth Merchant’s seminal work on the subject – all $150 of it, apparently).

Uncontrolled?  Or Uncontrollable?

We shouldn’t forget despite all this that Windows Vista remains the largest concerted software project in human history.  The types of software management issues being dealt with by Windows leaders are hard problems, problems that no other company has solved successfully.  The solutions to these challenges are certainly not trivial.

An interesting question, however, is whether or not Windows Vista ever had a chance to ship on time to begin with.  Is merely uncontrolled?  Or is it fundamentally uncontrollable?  There is a critical difference.

It’s rumored that VPs in Windows were offered big bonuses contingent on shipping by the much-publicized August 2006 date.  Chris Jones even declared in writing that he wouldn't take a bonus if slips past August.  If this is true, if folks like Brian Valentine held division-wide meetings where August 2006 was declared as the drop-dead ship date, if general managers were consistently told of the fiscal importance of hitting August, if everyone down to individual developers was told to sign on the dotted line to commit to the date, and to speak up if they had any doubts of hitting it – mind you, every last one of those things happened – and yet, and yet, the August date was slipped, one has to wonder whether it was merely illusory, given the collective failure of such unified human will, that Vista was ever controllable in the first place.

Are Vista-scale software projects essentially uncontrollable by nature?  Or has Microsoft been beset by one too many broken windows?  Talk amongst yourselves.

Published Monday, June 05, 2006 8:00 AM by philipsu

Filed Under: Software

8th Week: Hayfever

There's revision to be done (there's always revision to be done!) so I'll be brief - this morning I had a doctors' appointment at 19 Beaumont Street Surgery about my hayfever. The appointment was for 10 o'clock. At 9.58 I saw Dr. Schuman. At 10.03 I was walking to Cornmarket Street with my prescription. At 10.14 I had my prescription (thanks to Boots).

Whatever the media reports about the NHS, it's good to give time for stories like this. Be it thanks to or (rather I suspect) despite the Government, on the ground there is still an excellence that we should be pleased with.

Oh - and it was all free (I'm still 18). :-)

Monday, June 12, 2006

8th Week: You are being spied on

If you are using Microsoft Windows XP and have gotten any of the online updates: you are being spied on. GROKLAW have an article that completely rips apart Microsoft's handling of some software known as "Windows Genuine Advantage". This supposed "priority update" connects to a Microsoft server as much as once a day and report back to Big Brother Bill:

The genuine validation process will collect information about your system to determine if your Microsoft software is genuine. This process does not collect or send any information that can be used to identify you or contact you. The only information collected in the validation process is:
  • Windows product key
  • PC manufacturer
  • Operating System version
  • BIOS information (make, version, date)
  • BIOS MD5 Checksum
  • User locale (language setting for displaying Windows)
  • System locale (language version of the operating system)
  • Office product key (if validating Office)
  • Hard drive serial number
Hard drive serial number? What in the blazes? Also, this list has been revealed to be incomplete: they also receive "IP address and date/timestamp data relating to systems' booting and continued operations". So they know where you are, if you've turned on your computer today, and if you've bought a new hard drive of late.

It gets better... Microsoft are also calling this software a beta - or, in their words, "This software is a pre-release version of the software intended to
update the technological measures in Windows XP which are designed to
prevent unlicensed use of Windows XP"
. It's not finished. They're using you to test their software for them, in many cases without asking your permission.

They go on (this is in the EULA) to say: "By using the software, you accept these terms. If you do not accept
them, do not use the software.
As described below, using some features also operates as your consent
to the transmission of certain standard computer information for
Internet-based services.

If you do not accept them, don't use the software. Fair enough. Sadly, though, there is a problem here... See, you only get to see this EULA after the validation software has been installed (it comes in two parts, and this EULA is shown when you install the "notifications" part). And, just to ice the cake, "You will not be able to uninstall the software but you can suppress the reminders through the software icon in the system tray."

To summarise: You have to install it (in fact, if you have Automatic Updates turned on, it's already installed). Once installed, you are then asked to agree to it telling Microsoft far more than is really necessary; if you don't agree, tough, because you can't remove it.

By Microsoft's own definition, spyware is "deceptive software
that is installed on a user’s computer without the user’s consent and has some
malicious purpose.
" I'm guessing that if you're reading this while running Windows (and please say you're using Firefox), you both have this software installed and were unaware of its presence and function. So we have deceptive. As for malicious: firstly we have no sure knowledge of what it does (which is dodgy enough for me). Second, it allows Microsoft to collect more data from you than they say it can (by their own admission). Third, it uses resources on your computer without your permission (someone posting in reply to the Groklaw article uses the analogy of someone taking your car for a joyride without you knowing). That, in my book, puts this "critical update" firmly in the category of spyware.

There are a whole load of other issues that contribute to this argument: the legality of any EULA, for example; what security holes are opened up by this beta-test software, based on Microsoft's track record? And just how many of our rights and how much of our privacy are we prepared to give up - are companies - are governments prepared to give up to Microsoft?

The inevitable conclusion to this article is: why put up with this? "If you wish to remove the Windows Genuine Advantage tools, and I
expect most of you do," it reads, "why not go the whole hog and remove the entire
software package, replace it with GNU/Linux, and find out what it feels
like to be treated with respect and to breathe free?"

I am a free man.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

8th Week: Love Oxford

It was a first for Oxford: Forty churches joining together on a gloriously sunny and hot Sunday morning to worship God and declare His name to the city. The stage could barely hold all the leaders of the churches; the crowd of worshippers stretched back almost to the Bodleian, and easily from Baliol and Trinity to the shops across the street. Just a few yards behind the stage, the cobbled cross where Bishop Latimer and others were martyred; today, Anglican, Catholic, Baptist and more joined together in one voice to celebrate God's love.

I managed to drink a litre of water in about an hour - that's a lot. Charlie invented a new theological term - "prophetic ambiguity" - while purples and reds are "the rainbow God wants to see" (in a rather funny introduction to the offering - though I was slightly worried it wasn't as tongue-in-cheek as we all took it to be!)...

Vaughan Roberts was completely on song as he preached the Gospel - "We preach Jesus crucified" - as was OCC's Steve Thomas - "You need more notes for a short sermon than for a long one" - and Martyn Layzell was as spot-on leading worship as ever (although, in a dramatic break from tradition, only one of the songs we sang was written by him!). He couldn't help but deviate from the service plan though (I always said they needed a screen... and me operating it... ;-) ) for the chorus of "How great is our God, sing with me..." - but, what better words to worship God to - He is great!

A slight rewrite of the words to Father of Creation allowed us to sing "Let your glory fall in this town, let it go forth from here to the nations..." as opposed to the usual "room". But we couldn't sing that outside anyway, could we? Standing on Broad Street, singing On Holy Ground's "Where saints have walked this road before / Carried their cross through heaven's door" took extra poignancy.

OICCU President Greg Tarr read from 1 Corinthians, and Martin Smith's call to "Open up the doors and let the music play / Let the streets resound with singing" (Did You Feel The Mountains Tremble) was just the right choice of song to close with. Well, almost close with, followed by a unique arrangement of Amazing Grace (because, you know, no Christian gathering is complete without it...)

Plenty more I could blog about, but it's tomorrow already and I have less than seven hours in which to sleep. Plus a tute arranged for tomorrow without me having done any work for it... and less than 37.5 hours until my first exam... eek...

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

7th Week: 666, 6.06 and 158...

In the immortal words of Granny Weatherwax... I ATEN'T DEAD!

Don't worry, I haven't converted to numerology - but the three numbers in the title of this post all have a certain significance. Firstly, 666... If it were written in hex, then its value would be 1638. But, it seems, there's a lot more to it than that (so people think). From BBC News: BBC NEWS | Have Your Say: Superstitious date: 06/06/06 ...

Hmm... 666... the Number of the Beast... the anti-Christ child... the end of the world... and Vladimir Putin, apparently. Where does this come from, what does the Bible actually say, and what does it all mean? All worthy questions, IMO.

Firstly, 666. This occurs (in fact) four times in the Bible (NIV at least) - twice referring to the amount of gold King Solomon received in a year; 666 exiles from Adonikam in Ezra 2:13; and the famous "number of the beast" verse in Revelation. Let's build some context here. John is having a vision. He sees "a beast coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon... He also forced everyone... to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead...which is the name of the beast or the number of his name." (from Revelation 13 vv11-16) Then comes the famous bit, I'll quote it here in full: "This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the
number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666."

And... that's it. (Well, obviously the book goes on for another few chapters yet, but that's as far as the whole beast thing goes.) If you haven't looked at this before, you might be slightly disappointed. Where's this little brattish kid that's supposed to be destroying the world? etc. But this is what's actually there in Revelation.

What of this 666? There are two main (sensible) theories about this. For more see the IVP New Testament commentary from, from which I will paraphrase briefly.

One theory runs: The number "666" (programmers will hate me for citing it like that!) is a numbers game in which each letter of the alphabet is assigned a numerical value. The number, then, is the sum of the values that make up a person's name. Trouble is, with a little bit of fudging the figures, it can work for quite a few names (including Adolf Hitler, whom I'm sure John didn't have in mind).

Another theory, and the one that I prefer: The number 7 is regarded in Revelation as the number of God, of perfection. Thus, 666 falls short of the magic seven three times over. The beast falls short of God's power, His majesty, His wisdom, His strength, everything - "Failure upon failure upon failure". At any rate, it's usually safe to consider that the minor details of apocalyptic writing can be secondary to the main themes that are portrayed. The main themes of Revelation? "God is powerful. Jesus Christ reigns forever. Those who suffer for Christ will ultimately share his victory." (from the Youth Bible)

And what of this "anti-Christ"? The media tends to jump on the bandwagon of showing the antichrist as a person, inevitably an American brat called Damien, and with "666" somehow adorning his body. This doesn't come from Revelation at all - in fact, it comes a couple of chapters before (not necessarily chronologically) in 1 and 2 John. Who is the antichrist? In John's words: "Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the
flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver
and the antichrist." (2 John 1 v7). Even if they're not called Damien.

That's 666 down. Now, 6.06.

Dapper Drake - Kubuntu 6.06! - was released on the 1st June. It is no coincidence that my last blog post was on the 31st May. Suffice to say, the upgrade wasn't as simple as all the instructions suggested. After three failed attempts to upgrade packages, I was left with an X that wouldn't load and a kernel that wouldn't boot. I managed to scrape back to a loosely-functioning GUI and regrouped to #CompSci (there's another story in there, but that's for another - distant - time. If you're reading this, Claire - I'm still sorry...) where we agreed the easiest course of action would be for me to back up as much as I could to Alex's computer, repartition and reinstall. And it was easy... until I realised a few crucial little things that I'd forgotten. Like a website I'd spent about 90 hours working on. And all my E-mail. Apart from that, things are now looking very rosy - and in the next few days I'm hoping to take delivery of a nice 12" TFT monitor I found on eBay. Just right for watching TV while I'm working on the other screen. I've always fancied a dual-monitor setup, ever since we got one at church.

The last of these mysterious numbers - 158. That's greater than the number of hours I have left to my first exam.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

6th Week: Microsoft and Babies (two disjoint thoughts!)

Some fairly random thoughts tonight. It's 6th Week, I'm allowed to be random!

Firstly, some news reported by the BBC: Microsoft debuts security package. The essence of the story is: Microsoft are releasing a commercial software package dubbed "Windows Live OneCare", a combined firewall/antivirus/antispyware kit.

Now, let's think about that a bit more closely... Why do you need anti-virus software? Why is it that spyware is a problem in the first place? Yes, that's right... because of flaws or omissions in Microsoft's Windows coding. Not only are they now asking you to trust them with some more coding to (in theory) cover up these holes - but they're also charging you for the privilege!

A few weeks ago in an IRC conversation, I predicted that M$ would start charging for updates to Windows at some point after Vista's release. The question now arises: surely there is a conflict of interest within Microsoft? If the Windows coders do their job properly and create a secure and stable OS (there may still be some hope! I'm reserving judgement on Vista until it comes out!) then they'll make OneCare obsolete. As OneCare is only just launching, I'm guessing they're not expecting it to become obsolete any time soon. Do you see where this is heading?

The conjoining of "Windows Live" in the title is ominous, too. This is Microsoft's move (to be fair, copied by many of the big players) to further blur the online/local divide. How OneCare fits into the same umbrella as having your contacts and appointments stored on a website is slightly baffling at this point. One theory put forward - I think this was in PC Plus - was that a basic Vista OS would be released with certain features disabled until you activate them online - for a cost, naturally. They even went as far as to suggest that Vista would be the base for all Microsoft OSs for the foreseeable future, with just modular updates available for (priced) download. Like sudo apt-get dist-upgrade, but with money involved, it seems.

The idea of paying extra (on top of the ~£200 for the OS to begin with) to get your computer to do the things it should be doing anyway seems wrong in a number of ways. I think it's also planned to be a monthly subscription-based thing, though the site seems to have stopped responding so I can't be sure. One thing I will predict confidently, though: You'll see a one-(or perhaps three- or six-) month trial of OneCare installed by default on Vista, thus in a stroke hitting companies like Norton and F-Secure hard - despite their products being (probably) superior. And despite free alternatives being available, people will happily fork out - why? Because it's easier that way. Fair competition? Microsoft don't know the meaning of the word. They also don't know the meaning of "interoperability", but that's another story.

I mentioned babies in the title. This was no coincidence! Yesterday morning my tutor Joel's wife gave birth to young Mathias Ouaknine. Congratulations to them! And I don't have to finish that tute work for tomorrow after all...!

Back to OneCare... after nearly ten minutes, the site decided to serve me a web page. The clever thing worked out that I wasn't using Internet Explorer (while trying to install OneCare on Kubuntu!) but refuses to give me any information about how much the thing costs - the Beeb do: "OneCare costs $49.95 (£26.50) to protect three computers for a year.". And it looks like a 90-day free trial is available. Vista, here it comes. And the free world doesn't even notice.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

5th Week: The saga is complete...

STAR WARS Marathon .:. Tuesday 23rd May (5th Week)

It had to happen... I had foreseen this! Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design! And now, young blogwalker... you will die. And other miscellaneous Star Wars quotes.

Yes, yesterday was the day I finally got to watch all six Star Wars films in sequence, one after another, in one day and with minimal breaks between them. And it was gooooooood. In fact, it was go{o}*od. Kudos to Masha for being the only one other than myself to stay for the full course of things - Alex was next with one film missed, and Tim with the equivalent of one film missed - Adam missed one and a half - Sol missed three! And, thanks to Mel for visiting, even if it was only for five minutes of Episode III. ;-)

Now, I'm square-eyed, tired, probably malnourished (though it was a great pizza from ASK), and unfortunately my love for Star Wars has been rekindled... so much so that it has to be time to resurrect the mothballed Star Wars.tar.gz project - to film a condensed version of the sexology* complete with our own CGI shots. An example of such a shot is currently (very slowly) being uploaded to YouTube for your general viewing pleasure... No sound yet, just the video. Matt, if you're reading this, it's time to get this thing restarted. At least, it will be once I've finished my exams...

Great stuff today. I've just realised that it's half one, and I really do need to go to sleep. I also feel really guilty for having a whole day without doing work... Time for bed.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

5th Week: St. Aldate's Live Album, Take Two

A fantastic evening of worship - just pure and powerful seeking the heart of God and praising Him, for a good three hours. No chairs, no sermon, and no doughnuts (contrary to what we were promised...) - just an amazing atmosphere of praise. It wouldn't be a shock if this sort of evening (albeit minus the expensive recording equipment!) became regular at St. Aldate's - as Gordon Hickson (or possibly Anita Cleverly) said, "Sunday evenings will never be the same again!"

A new song that was introduced for the CD is "Hosanna" by Brenton Brown and Paul Baloche (full lyrics and chords are up at

'Cause when we see You, we find strength to face the day
In Your presence all our fears are washed away
Washed away

Hosanna, hosanna
You are the God who saves us
Worthy of all our praises
Hosanna, hosanna
Come have your way among us
We welcome You here, Lord Jesus

An amazing song about an amazing God. Hosanna - save now! Worthy of our praises, we welcome you, Lord Jesus. Amen!

5th Week: Gah! 5th Week!

It is raining in Oxford.

There's plenty else afoot, too, but the rain is persistent. It's been raining solidly all day. Enough of that; what else is happening?

This evening is the second of two evenings of recording a live worship album at St. Aldate's Church. The couple of hours on Friday night were brilliant: they'd taken the chairs out completely - just a group of people coming together to focus on God and seek His heart in worship. Even more technology than usual was employed to make all this possible; it continues this evening at 6.30. The CD, the second Aldate's album, should be released in November-ish.

In other Aldate's-related news, Charlie brought us the news on Thursday (and again this morning) that Greg Downes, student pastor at the church, is leaving at the end of the term. This was a real shock to most of us. We'll be praying for Greg and his wife, that they would know what God is calling them to next; and also for the rest of the leadership team at Aldate's for God's guidance at this time.

Wow, the last time it rained this hard my roof started leaking.

The SJC CU is going well - things are a little strange with exam season upon us, so all the finalists (except Tim!) and many of the others are rather busy. Still, we had a brilliant Bible study on Wednesday, and the thrice-weekly prayer meetings continue to be a real time of blessing. Exciting plans for the next four weeks include a joint CU punt-and-Bible-study down the Cherwell river, and a trip to see The Da Vinci Code (followed by plugging some of the many events put on by OICCU and local churches to remind people that it is, actually, fiction...)

Looks like the rain's stopped. I hope it's better weather than this in three weeks' time for Love Oxford - it's going to be fantastic...

Oh yes, and it's 5th Week. And there's a Star Wars marathon happening on Tuesday. Do I know you? Are you in (or can you possibly be in) Oxford on Tuesday? This site should tell you all you need to know, and probably some things you don't.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

4th Week: 24, 10pm-11pm

24 WatchThis post may contain spoilers for up to the fifth series of 24, to the end of the specified episode - hour 16, 22:00-23:00! Anything else is speculation.

Body Count: 7? / My guess: 4

In fact, this post contains such a big spoiler that you'll have to highlight the hidden words to read. That's how big the spoiler is.

So, Jack's about to find out that President Logan is the mole inside the White House, masterminding the whole events of the day, from the assassination of David Palmer to the nerve gas, and all the time feigning incompetence! OK, hands up who honestly suspected the vice president - though, I see now, that would have been too obvious. And I never liked him anyway - the corpse of Palmer would be a better President, but now we know why, at least.

But what possible purpose would it serve him to try and bring down the President's administration? Surely that's shooting yourself in the foot, and it can only pave the way for the VP to take over instead. This is deeper than the political differences between him and Palmer. Why would he aid terrorists in his own country against his country?

So many questions... so many blanks... and once more Henderson escapes. He's doing really well, for a man whose central nervous system had completely shut down less than three hours ago. He may have trained Jack, but Jack's grown since those days.

Am I the only one who remembers the start of Season 1 seeing Jack having to deal with the fallout of whistle-blowing against the former head of CTU - Henderson? Or am I making this up? I still haven't seen the last third of Season 1. I should do that sometime.

4th Week: More Punt Photos

This time, with the more experienced crew, we were able to actually go where we wanted the punt to go (mostly), and even overtake some other punts, as the photographic evidence below suggests. Apologies for the many sci-fi references. Hey, it's me...

We navigate a low bridge (we went under lower!)

Hostile craft at 2 o'clock! Red alert!

Stay on target...

All your base are belong to us! (Later on, we had to shout at these people "MOVE YOUR POLE!" as we almost knocked it into the water... we were shouting for quite a while before they heard, just in time...)

All batteries, fire! Fire!

Another one bites the, uh, water

Even I had a go at actually wielding the pole this time... and I was just getting used to it when we arrived back at the boathouse. Next time, folks.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

3rd Week: Lightning, power blip and Avenger

We had a thunderstorm about half an hour ago. I was in the kitchen cooking - pan-fried chicken with tomato and basil pasta, and very nice it was too - when the lights flickered.

Yes, you guessed it. My computer cut itself out and rebooted. As far as I can tell, the only damage was to a MySQL database, which just gives me the excuse to upgrade to the latest Myth (I managed to salvage the channels table, which is the bit that takes hours to sort out) as there are no programmes I've set to record until tomorrow. I'm out this evening, which gives it the chance to compile.

That's if the processor (or I) don't melt... It's apparently 27 degrees in my room, and the processor is sitting at round about 60. And, typically to thundery weather, it's humid, too.

Tonight is a novelty for the CU: Our "links" group - that is, the joint CUs of St. John's, St. Anne's, Keble and Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) - are all meeting together, rather than as college groups. Dan Blanche is giving a talk on evangelism. And I get to do the notices! What fun.

Incidentally, Performancing seems to work brilliantly. It gets a second day in charge of posting my blog.

3rd Week: A wonderful advert for my home city

BBC NEWS | England | Hampshire | World's most travelled bike found

Well, really... What a wonderful piece of publicity for Portsmouth City! At least he got his bike back. I like a happy ending.

Incidentally, I have no idea how this post will appear - I'm trying out Performancing for Firefox. It lets me blog while I'm browsing - in this case, while I'm reading the aforelinked article. So you might well see a few more posts than usual appearing here. Or, at least, the same number; work is really ramping up now. I need to get to bed, I have three tutes and a lecture tomorrow, and they're not the sort of thing to face on less sleep than is physically needed.

Well, Performancing... your first test... here goes nothing...

Monday, May 08, 2006

3rd Week: 24, 9pm-10pm

24 WatchThis post may contain spoilers for up to the fifth series of 24, to the end of the specified episode - hour 15, 21:00-22:00! Anything else is speculation.

Body Count: 9 (I think) / My guess: 6

Well, well, Jack's in a spot of bother here... and getting slightly hot under the collar. And indeed above the collar, as the gas distribution centre explodes around him and Vladimir Bierko. (Surely Jack must survive!) But if that was truly the last of the Sentox nerve gas going up with the rest, what are they going to do to fill the remaining nine hours?

Well, we still have a lot of loose ends... Firstly, the assassination of America's greatest President, David Palmer. Was Bierko behind this? Why was whoever it was behind this trying to kill everyone who knew that Bauer was still alive?

Next, what does Wayne Palmer know that Bierko doesn't want CTU finding out? He looked in a bad way when we last saw him. Can Aaron get him to safety and find out what Wayne wants to tell him? Surely it must be related to all the above. Someone high-up in government, perhaps, with links to the terrorists? Perhaps the Vice-President?

I'm sure Kim is going to be important in the next few hours, as well. I can't believe that the short "arrive, nearly get killed by nerve gas, have semi-emotional scene with Jack, leave" that we had a few hours ago is all that we'll see of her. And surely that psychiatrist bloke is a baddie? Quite honestly, I'm expecting Kim to get herself into trouble again. And the whole breakup with Chase? There's something more there. There must be.

And do we believe Audrey's innocence? Back in Season 3, Gael was a goodie playing a baddie playing a goodie. What's to stop Audrey from being a baddie playing a goodie playing a baddie playing a goodie? If you want to get to Jack, then surely she and Kim are the people to do it. Speaking of baddies, surely that new girl with the attitude problem is bad, or at least going to be a thorn in everyone's sides. Like Chloe was in her first series. Sexual harrassment, my bottom (not hers, that'd be sexual harrassment).

Let's take a moment to remember Tony Almeida. CTU are running out of experienced personnel fast today. Tony was one of the best. And why is nobody hunting down the guy who killed him?

Do I really have to wait another week for the next episode?

3rd Week: Punting Photos

A few CompScis went punting on Saturday evening... click for a 640x480 image. It was about halfway through the trip before I realised my phone, which I had on me, had a camera on it, so you don't get to see the marginally dodgy start to the journey.

<< Tim and Ben at the front

Masha and pole at the back >>

<< Only a few minutes in, and it feels like we're miles away from the city centre

Look out for the trees, Masha... Masha, the trees! TREES! >>

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Friday, May 05, 2006

2nd Week: Local Elections and stuff

Morning all!

I'm very impressed that I'm actually up at this time in the morning. Seeing as it was local election night last night, I stayed up until 3am watching the results come in. Actually, I would have watched for longer, but something went wrong at the BBC and they had to show News 24 for a bit, at about 3, so I decided to go to sleep instead.

It was Maths Dinner last night. Surprisingly, with such a high concentration of mathematicians in one place, the universe seems to continue largely unaffected... And if you're wondering what I was doing at Maths Dinner, it's because there aren't enough Computer Scientists to have their own. Here are some of the many jokes that were bandied around:

Q. Why did the Computer Scientist take forever in the shower?
A. Because he was following the instructions: Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Q. Why do mathematicians rarely visit the beach?
A. Because they have sin and cos to get a tan.

In other news... this morning's 8AM prayer meeting was moved to Dave's room, after someone else had checked out the Graves Room key. Thanks to Second Year Dinner on Wednesday night, we had more people at the prayer meeting than at the main evening meeting!

The two results that affect me (Portsmouth and Oxford) both came out NOC, with the Lib Dems the largest party in both. Most amusing story of the night is the ballot box in Winchester, which caught fire when trying to remove the sealing wax... the Fire Brigade then added water... and we're still waiting for the ballot papers to dry out.

My analysis in a nutshell: A bad night for Blair, though perhaps not as bad as it should have been. A good night for the Tories, though perhaps not as good as it could have been. "Modest gains" for the Lib Dems. And a worrying night for British politics, with 15 BNP councillors elected.

Monday, May 01, 2006

2nd Week: What happened to 1st Week? And May Day Morning

"Oh, to see the dawn..." If it weren't so darn rainy at dawn this morning... not that you can tell from this photo, which shows the St. John's choir atop the tower at about 8.30am. But my day started at 5am, when it was indeed raining. OICCU had organised a mass doughnut-and-tea-and-coffee-giving-out based in Radcliffe Square.

I'm getting ahead of myself... This is all based around an Oxford tradition. On May Day morning, Magdalen College choir sing in the dawn at 6.00, heard by hundreds of people who flood the High Street from about 5.30. Once they have finished, two things normally happen:
  1. Everyone jumps of Magdalen Bridge into a very shallow river, causing mass injury.
  2. Every single belltower in Oxford rings constantly until about 7.45.
This year, the police (possibly with horses of strictly heterosexual persuasion) closed of Magdalen Bridge, thus preventing (1). (2) was still possible. And, while all this was happening, a large and merry (and damp) band of Christians from across the University were distributing doughnuts, offering tea and coffee (all free) and asking lots of people about their beliefs. And getting wet.

Well, about 7.45 we packed up, and I ended up in Trinity College by 8 listening to their choir (after only my second cup of tea of the day). After this, I fought my way past the Lancre Stick and Bucket Dancers (OK, not really) outside the SJC lodge, and listened to our own choir, before heading up to my room, completely failing to go back to bed, and writing this.

Oh, yes - I'm back! It's now 2nd Week of Trinity Term. At some point, hopefully at the other end of the term, I will have exams (Mods). This means I need to do work towards them. This means doing past papers, as well as finding the time for the 13 tutorials we need to squeeze in. The exam timetable isn't out yet, but the rumour mill suggests they're in 8th and 9th Weeks.

Ah, what fun! After us all getting rather soaked, it's now gloriously sunny in Oxford.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

8th Week: The End, again

Well, it's about half past midnight as I write these words: term is officially over. The second of my Oxford life, Hilary Term seemed about three times as long and at least twice as hard as Michaelmas. The OICCU mission, "Love, Actually" (note the comma) was a whole month ago, and the last time I got to bed before 2am seems just as long (actually, it was Tuesday).

None of which has stopped me from playing around with the design of this blog, sharpening up my web skills for a project I have lined up for over Easter. Watch this space. Hope you like the new template.

So, what plans do I have for the immediate future? Aside from sleep, I'm staying in Oxford for a few days, as my parents can't pick me up until Thursday. I'm using this time to go and visit Andrea in Loughborough, as well as make sure all my notes are in order and present (and, perhaps, finally buy a folder for Logic and Proof...)

At the other end of the "vac" (shaken or otherwise), the OICCU Reps' Conference is in Ledbury. In case I've failed to mention it previously, I'm one of the two new CU reps (with Dave Howie) for St. John's College. It's going to be a big year... I've already been given moderator privileges to the mailing list, and of the two major E-mails I've sent out so far, both have contained at least one major reference to food.

So, sleep, end of term, pizza, Andrea, what else? Oh, yes, I've yet to conclude the ChoicesUK at War saga.

A long time ago, on a website far, far away...

It is a grave time for the ChoicesUK website. Rebel agents, striking from a hidden base, have won their first major battle against the suppliers.

During the battle, trade disruption led many users to order from other companies, such as the excellent CD-WOW. Angered by these defections, the ChoicesUK Emperor made an express effort to deliver the orders before such users could cancel them.

Now, with two copies of Empire at War on my desk, I must choose which one to send back, and return peace and order to the galaxy...

In fact, as the CD-WOW one was a) 2CD, rather than DVD, and b) £3 more expensive, that's the one that's going back. Plus the ChoicesUK one had a seven-day return window, rather than a thirty-day one. Useful, as it's been about two weeks already... Time flies when you're in that peculiar part of the Trousers of Time that is Oxford.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Friday, 8th Week: 1.27AM - Nova-T Linux Howto

As posted on the Hauppauge UK forums - but I thought I'd post it here, if only so that I can reference it in future. Nova-T Linux users, ever wanted to get your remote control working just like (in fact, better than) it does in Windows? Here's how.

OK, Linux-babble ahead.

The kernel recognises some of the buttons and generates keyboard events for them. However, the keymap in the kernel is incomplete for the Nova-T remote. Fortunately, the remote's events are also sent to /dev/input/eventx for some x.

Right, so how to go about getting the remote working?

The key is: lirc. This wonderful (if confusingly-documented and fiddly to set up) piece of software can listen to the /dev/input/eventx device, and turn them into keypresses.

I compiled from source, which in this case is probably easier (if you're comfortable with it). Download from the website at and follow the included instructions to compile - the important bit is to select "Linux input layer" as the driver when you run Find it in Driver Configuration -> Other. Then sudo make install.

Lucky for you, I'm able to save you the whole irrecord/getting a config file working trouble. I've attached my lircd.conf file - copy this to /etc, without the .txt extension. Once this file is in place, you can start lircd: but, there's a trick here.

$ cd /dev/event
$ cat input3
(you may need to use sudo)
Then press a button on your remote control. With any luck, you will get something like
Yup, rubbish, but it means that you've found the right device. If you just get a number, then Ctrl+C out and try a different number. REMEMBER THIS NUMBER.

You can now start lircd (again, you may need to be root).

$ lircd -H dev/input -d /dev/input/eventx

where x is that important number I said to remember.

Next, install IRKick - this is the interface between KDE and lircd. With lircd running (eg after you've run the above command), start IRKick, and it should (after perhaps a few seconds delay) give you a message that it's found the lircd server.

Now, the fun begins! You can right-click the IRKick icon in the system tray, and choose Configure. Then you can configure all sorts of fancy functions for your remote - have a play. Kaffeine is one of the apps it recognises and will let you configure especially.

Sorry for the slightly bizarre tone of this howto - it's the second night in a row I've been working until gone 1am, and it's starting to affect my sanity.


It's probably possible to automate the starting of lircd. However, I use Kubuntu, which has the habit of assigning everything in /dev/input different event numbers each time the computer loads. And so, occasionally, I put the wrong number in and lose control of the keyboard. I guess that playing with udev(?) may help, but I haven't fiddled yet.

I've got this working under Kubuntu 5.10, with kernel 2.6.12-9 and -10. I think the DVB support (or at least, Nova-T support) was broken in 2.6.10 and 2.6.11.

IRKick is a KDE program. I don't know if it'll run under Gnome, or if there's an equivalent available.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Saturday, 6th Week: In Pictures - Pro-Test

11.30am, Broad Street: and there's a pro-test in progress. News and media reporters abound too - note the boom mic

Strictly heterosexual police horses watch from a distance

Young and old - from students waving placards to gentlemen in suits, the Pro-Test drew the crowds

Note to SPEAK: This is what co-operation with police means... you might like to try it sometime.

What a pun it turned out to be... my throwaway gag becomes immortalised on T-shirts

Final score (according to BBC News) : Pro-Test 600 - 150 SPEAK. Build the lab, and ALF leave us alone.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Thursday, 6th Week: A Happy Bunny

I am not.

The ongoing ChoicesUK at War saga continues to be ongoing... In fact, their latest estimate is the 6th March. Did they politely E-mail me to tell me this? No. I phoned them up. Thankfully, there were no automated phone systems to contend with; in fact, the support department at ChoicesUK are brilliant, some of the best I've encountered. It's a shame the stock control department don't match them. So, "problems with the distributer for all the games" mean I have to wait...

THE 6TH OF MARCH! I'll almost be leaving Oxford by then! So here's what I'll do: I'm cancelling my order with ChoicesUK. I'm ordering instead from CD WOW!, who have been reliable in the past. It's a few quid more expensive, but at least I'll get it while I'm still at the delivery address.

Thursday, 6th Week: HAZOP

As promised, an extract from an earlier conversation on IM. Edited slightly to keep it on-topic. Pay close attention to the timestamps: yes, this conversation really did last that long.

(16:23:02) A@LU: what does 'HAZOP' stand for anyway?
(16:23:22) A@LU: you can tell i love hazard analysis lectures :P
(16:23:36) James@SJC: "Have A Zany Organised Party"?
(16:23:45) A@LU: hmm
(16:24:08) James@SJC: "Hello All, Zebidee's On Painkillers"?
(16:24:26) James@SJC: "Here Are Zee Other Plans"?
(16:24:40) James@SJC: Shall I go on?
(16:24:46) A@LU: no
(16:24:59) A@LU: i shouldn't have got u started... :P
(16:26:17) James@SJC: Hand a zoo over, punk.
(16:26:36) James@SJC: Hot and zticky? Oh, please!
(16:26:46) A@LU: eeew
(16:26:53) James@SJC: OK, so that one doesn't really count.
(16:27:16) James@SJC: How about, zoos on parade?
(16:27:33) A@LU: it's 'Hazard and Operability' apparently
(16:27:45) A@LU: and u haven't covered zebra yet
(16:27:55) James@SJC: I was just getting to that
(16:28:13) James@SJC: Hey! Alarm! Zebra over perimeter!
(16:28:30) A@LU: indeed
(16:29:10) James@SJC: Hey, Andrea. Zee omnipresent parallelepiped.
(16:29:50) A@LU: hmm
(16:30:20) James@SJC: How are Zeke's only parents?
(16:31:19) James@SJC: Hit a zebra on Parks Road. (Ish.)
(16:33:10) A@LU: bored yet?
(16:33:43) James@SJC: No
(16:34:50) James@SJC: Has any Z-axis only points?
(16:35:32) James@SJC: Ha, although zoologists ordinarily perish.
(16:35:59) A@LU: Has a zebra orthoganol pointers?
(16:36:08) James@SJC: lol
(16:36:41) A@LU: rather 'orthogonal'
(16:37:36) James@SJC: Her awful zpelling omits plenty.
(16:37:50) A@LU: indeed
(16:38:01) A@LU: but that's no a proper word either
(16:38:46) James@SJC: Has anyone zoomed over Portsmouth?
(16:38:52) A@LU: not me
(16:38:54) A@LU: :(
(16:39:40) James@SJC: Favourite character in Neighbours?
(16:39:47) James@SJC: Harold and Zeke, or Paul
(16:39:58) A@LU: Harold accidentally zipped over Percy
(16:40:00) A@LU: :P
(16:40:04) James@SJC: OUCH!
(16:40:11) James@SJC: That *IS* a hazard!
(16:40:20) A@LU: hehe
(16:40:48) James@SJC: Holistic anthropologist zookeepers own Paris.
(16:42:10) A@LU: Hungary's airspace zone owes precipitation
(16:42:28) James@SJC: Has anyone zeen our penguin?
(16:42:58) A@LU: me is too cold
(16:43:07) James@SJC: That doesn't fit with HAZOP
(16:43:14) A@LU: i know
(16:43:26) A@LU: was just telling you :P
(16:43:47) James@SJC: Hot? A'z oppositely placed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Wednesday, 6th Week: Room Ballot

It's a political, tactical, "sexually frustrated" (as the Kretch put it) time of the year... the JCR Room Ballot is concluding this evening with the Remainder Ballot - that is, anyone who's not a finalist or in a house.

I wanted a nice North Quad B-grade. I got a nice North Quad B-grade, with the bonus that it's a JCR grade C+, giving me a critical edge in next year's ballot (when I'll be on the Finalists' Ballot... scary!) - I told you it was tactical!

Well, a brief check suggests I will indeed have a mobile phone signal there; whether or not I'll get a DTT signal is undecided. I can always rig up a MythTV backend somewhere high up, if a friend has a higher room... try doing that with your Media "Center" PC without getting a headache or a nasty letter from your bank manager. It's ground floor, which should stop Mum complaining about having to climb lots of stairs.

More later, including an interesting conversation about HAZOP... wait and see...

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Saturday, 5th Week: The End Of 5th Week - Almost!

Well, last time I made an "end of 5th Week" post, it all went downhill from that point... not taking chances here, though so far 5th Week Blues haven't arrived.

Speaking of things that haven't arrived: am I happy with No. No, I am not. On the 21st January (that's nearly a month ago) I pre-ordered a copy of the excellent-looking Star Wars: Empire At War PC game, which was released yesterday in Europe (Thursday in the States).

Now, a bit of back story: originally, ChoicesUK has the release date as the 10th February. No idea where they got this from, everywhere else in the known universe was correctly giving the 17th as the right date. So, lo and behold, on the 10th I receive an E-mail telling me that "due to circumstances beyond our control, the despatch of this product has been delayed." Fair enough, though they don't tell me when they expect it to be dispatched.

ChoicesUK's pre-release policy says that "when you pre-order a title that has not yet been released we aim to deliver it to you on the release date." Which would be the 17th, right? Uh... no.

Seeing that my order had not been processed by mid-afternoon, I sent an E-mail enquiring as to when I might expect to receive the game. Credit where credit is due, the response was extremely quick (in fact, only three minutes!); but not the one I wanted. In fact, I learn that " The product is currently delayed until the 23rd of February." Why? They didn't say. Later that day, I received yet another generic "this product has been delayed" E-mail.

So, I wait for Thursday to arrive... and hope it doesn't get stolen by Rebel spies while in transit...

A scary moment earlier today when I used my last teabag. A quick trip to Sainsbury's relieved the tension, and I have a cup of tea on my desk right now. (Since I was ill during 4th Week, my tea consumption has been cut dramatically... time to make amends.

This last teabag was used to prepare a cup of tea for my mum, who came to visit with my sister today. Catherine seemed to be more impressed with the internet connection than with the architectural jewels of the City of Dreaming Spires. I have taught her well.

No tutorials in 6th Week; my tutor is away in Germany. Gives me a chance to catch up on the work I had hoped to catch up on during the equally tutorial-free 4th Week, which I was unable to do thanks to the "hyperflu" that Andy, fellow CompSci-in-crime, seems to now be suffering from.

Roll on 6th Week!