A quote from Tantek Çelik

Presuming a precursor almost never pans out.

The key is to *nail* the simple case first before worrying about the complex case.

Tantek, on the paucity of OpenID adoption

A quote from Tim Bray

Item: Ben Ward writes Understand The Web which rambles all over the place, has an egregious grammar botch in the first sentence, but makes some really important points.

Tim Bray, writing on HTML5 and the Web. This is perhaps one of the most apt summaries of Ben I have ever read.

A quote from Ben Ward

This is why I like you.

Also why I hate you. Somewhere in between lies our friendship.

Ben Ward, on my being a pedantic git.

iPhone upgrade excitement

So, for those of you who don’t know – in which case, may I say what a nice rock that is you’ve been living under – last Friday Apple released the third iteration of the iPhone (which is either called the “iPhone 3G S” or the “iPhone 3GS”, depending on when and where you look). The differences from its predecessor – faster, more memory, far better camera, compass – make it an attractive option to 3G owners (especially the weakerwilled of them); to those who stuck with their original iPhones, it’s a fantastic upgrade. I am one of these people.

For existing iPhone 3G owners though, there’s a snag stemming from the fact that the original iPhone – unlike just about every other mainstream mobile from the last few years – was not subsidised by the network carrying it: in the case of the UK, this was O2. The way this works for most phones is that the network pays a large portion of the phone’s cost, in return for the customer signing up to an n-month contract with them. As the Macalope puts it, it’s a loan with the repayments baked into the cost of the service contract. As a result, when the iPhone 3G came out last year, existing iPhone owners had no outstanding loan payments to make, so O2 quite rightly allowed them an early upgrade. This time around, iPhone 3G owners, who had bought their handsets at the lower “loan price”, were somewhat put out to hear that they would either have to wait out their contract (tedious), buy out their contract (expensive, at a minimum of £35/month × 6 months == £210), or buy the new phone on a Pay and Go deal (seriously expensive, at a starting price of £440.40 for the 16GB model). Cue enraged rants, online petitions, threats of defection to other networks and other general foot-stamping.

In response to (or possibly anticipation of) these complaints, O2 have put up an Upgrade FAQs page on their site, addressing the concerns of the irate iPhone owners and explaining why they won’t offer the same terms that they did when upgrading last time. This page, however, did not answer my most pressing question: what are the upgrade terms for upgrading from the original 2G iPhone to the 3GS? There is plenty of spiel about how “the original 2G iPhone was unique as customers bought the device outright” and “contract terms of iPhone 3G are […] the same as for every other handset we sell”, but nothing about upgrade terms from original iPhones. So I popped into the nearest O2 store and asked them directly.

My answer? Exactly the same as if I were upgrading from an iPhone 3G. I would have to wait out or buy out the remaining months of my contract, or pay through the nose to buy the phone outright.

Not entirely trusting this (or perhaps not wanting to), I headed over to Cambridge’s local Apple store and asked them the same question. Same answer.

In short, O2 are not offering early upgrades to 3G owners, for which they give perfectly valid reasons. They are also not offering early upgrades to original iPhone owners either, for which the originally stated reasons no longer apply. The only reason I can think of that applies is “because we can; because you signed a contract, and we know you’ll probably be staying with us anyway”. I honestly can’t see how this makes economic sense from O2’s perspective: there are no loan payments to recoup, and original iPhone owners will have an absolute maximum of seven months left on their contracts (I don’t believe there was a 24-month contract available for the 3G). Given that they are turning up asking to sign up for up to two years, turning them away and pissing them off in one smooth motion seems to be a very bad plan.

For some reason, I have to say I’m feeling remarkably sanguine about the whole affair. Sure, I’d love to have a beautiful new iPhone at a price that isn’t batshit insane, and I’d love to have it right now, but I wouldn’t have signed up to my original 18-month contract if I wasn’t willing to serve out an 18-month contract. So I’m not incensed at the prospect of waiting until September or October to get a faster, shinier phone with faster, shinier internet access, a faster, shinier camera and a compass which, while not noted for being fast, certainly looks pretty shiny. I’m just a little disappointed that O2 haven’t thought to – or have decided not to – extend the same courtesy to original iPhone owners this time around that they did before. There’s a possibility that this will change at some point between now and September, and that I’ll be able to upgrade, but I’m not holding my breath.

Invisible Adium!

My IM client of choice (pretty much ever since I first bought a Mac) has been the excellent Adium. It gives me access to all my accounts, it gives me a shiny-shiny Mac-like interface with more keyboard shortcuts than I can shake a large keyboard-shortcut-shaking stick at, and it has improved greatly with every release, of which there have been many.

What it hasn’t offered me, at least until now, has been the ability to sign on in invisible mode. When you quit, Adium remembers the status of each of your accounts, and returns to that status when you next launch the program. Very useful, unless you want to sign on invisibly without everyone on your contact list seeing you online for a joyous but fleeting second.

There are several solutions to this problem, some more pleasant than others. There are solutions involving writing AppleScripts, there are solutions involving setting yourself into invisible mode before you sign off (although, as Ryan Tomayko points out in an otherwise unrelated article, The Thing About Git, solutions which involve the words “you should have” are dangerous things). None of these were good enough for me.

Today, after a bit of poking around on the Adium bug tracker, I found the solution I needed: if you hold down the Shift key when you launch Adium, it starts itself up but doesn’t connect any of your accounts. You are then free to select invisibility at your leisure.

On Authentication

I have a confession to make: I don’t like passwords.

To clarify that statement, I don’t like seeing passwords. A row of asterisks is fine: perfectly happy with that. A row of little black circles is even better: after all, it’s prettier. But looking at a monitor, sheet of paper or Post-It note and seeing a password staring back at me sends a little shiver running down my spine. Some cultures are reputed to believe that taking a photograph of someone steals a little piece of their soul; I tend to think much the same about writing down someone’s password. “Keep it secret”, as they say; “keep it safe”.

This, of course, is pretty much the standard geek attitude to passwords: they are to be guarded with one’s life. Offer a geek a Mars bar for their password, and they’ll offer you an angry stream of verbal abuse. Or possibly a lecture on social engineering and user account security. Knowing most geeks, it’ll probably be somewhere between the two.

All of this leads up to a discussion of two things: the OAuth protocol which aims, amongst other laudable goals, to help safeguard users’ passwords, and the distinctly unnerving trend which Jeremy Keith has christened the password anti-pattern, which really doesn’t.

Read on…


This weekend, I have been clearing out the house that Jo and I have been sharing this past year. As soon as is feasible, I plan to find a flat somewhere in or around Cambridge and shift all of my worldly possessions into it.

This week, Ben Ward has been clearing out the London flat that he has been sharing with David Singleton this past year. Tomorrow, he plans to emigrate to San Francisco and work for Yahoo! Brickhouse.

I wish us both the best of luck. It’s going to be interesting.

First Time

Well, things have been more than a little insane of late: I’ve gone from a fixed-term contract to full-term employment (with Hyperspheric), moved house (with Jo, giving me an opportunity to use XFN’s co-resident attribute) and engaged in a survival exercise whereby I had to cope for two weeks with neither fridge nor delicious internets (the latter of which has been solved by Be who, by and large, have been excellent).

The majority of the insanity, however, is now mercifully behind me (with the exception of my brand new copy of Bioshock, which seems to feature insanity fairly prominently), so it’s now time to look forward to the future. And to a new experience.

It’s quite a popular topic of conversation: those lucky people who have done it before talk about how fantastic it is, and many of those who have not yet had the pleasure think about what it would be like. Those in this latter category, such as myself, wonder who it’s going to be with, whether we’re going to be any good at it, and of course there’s the worry that it’s going to be over almost before it starts.

Not to mention all the fun that’s going to happen between sessions.

I’m talking, of course, about BarCamp Brighton, at which I lose my BarCamp virginity. As the aspects of last year’s South by Southwest which I remember most fondly were the sense of community and the bouncing around of thoughts and ideas, this looks to be precisely that, without the registration fee or the 12-hour journey time. For those of you who will be attending, I look forward eagerly to seeing you there.

Oh, and I’ve ordered myself a shiny new MacBook: after all, I hear these things can be much more fun if you bring the right toys along.


Recently I received something which was simultaneously both a compliment and an insult, and which was a source of both pleasant surprise and bitter disappointment.

A certain record label (which, for the purposes of this post, will remain nameless) decided that, as a marketing experiment, they would sent pre-release copies of one of their artists’ new albums (which, for the purposes of this post, will also remain nameless) to people who owned and maintained blogs. While there is, of course, no obligation for the blogger to publicise the album in question, either in a full review or simply recommendations to friends, that is clearly what the record label is hoping for. I have no problem with that whatsoever: if I think the album is worth buying, I will – in all likelihood – tell people about it.


When I got hold of my free bit of schwag, my first act was to rip it into iTunes: as I listen to the vast majority of my music in the office, and as I don’t really want to cart a load of CDs around with me, having a new album on my iPod as quickly as possible to give it a good few listens through is a Very Good Thing™.

Unless, of course, the record label has misaligned the tracks on the CD with the songs on the album, so that what iTunes thinks is a track comprises half of one song and half of the next. This is not simply a careless mistake: the record label has deliberately broken the pre-release copies of the album to discourage (so I have been told) recipients from sharing the tracks online.

The way I read this is as follows: “We value your opinion, we want you to check this out and tell your friends what you think. Oh, and by the way, we think you’re a criminal”. Not to mention a criminal who isn’t smart enough to get his copy of QuickTime and re-align the tracks to rip them properly.

This is all a terrible shame, as the album in question is really very good: so much so that, had it not come bundled with a free slap in the face, I would have made sure that anyone with a remotely compatible music taste to myself would have known how good I thought it was. Still, I truly hope that enough people take umbrage to provide a valuable lesson for record companies: if you want to market to bloggers, and if you want them to help you, don’t piss them off.

Good starts

Two events of particular note have occurred in the news recently: both of them are excellent news for consumers, both of them represent apparent shifts in attitude from companies I would have otherwise thought thoroughly intransigent, and both of them have put a smile on my face.

The first of these events is, as those of you who follow the news and know my stance on DRM may well have guessed, is EMI’s decision to provide DRM-free music from the iTunes Music Store. This is a thoroughly welcome decision for my part, and I truly hope to see more record companies and other “content providers” following suit. As a direct result of this, I now have an iTunes Music Store account: I don’t doubt that there are quite a number of other people who have done the same.

The other event which has me smiling is Microsoft’s decision to start up an Xbox Disc Replacement Plan, whereby damaged game discs can be cheaply replaced (£10 in the UK, $20 in the States). While other publishers have offered a service to replace damaged game media for a small fee (under the premise that the gamer is paying for a license to play the game, rather than the media itself), Microsoft’s returns policy up until now has boiled down to two words. The polite version of these two words is “go away”; I shall leave it to you, dear reader, to guess the impolite version.

As the proud owner of a stricken Gears of War disc, I’m very glad to see this scheme come into effect – of course, I would have been happier to see it come into effect before I bought myself a full-price replacement copy, but better late than never.

Do these shifts in policy, both related to DRM and companies deciding not to shaft their paying customers with it, represent a more global shift in corporate attitudes? Are they just isolated incidents which happen to have occurred within days of one another? Or should we just be glad that they’ve happened now, and not worry too much about where it will lead?

I think I’m going to go for the third one.


One of the predominant symptoms of depression is a complete and total lack of interest in the world around you; one of the predominant symptoms – some would say the defining aspect – of being a geek is an utter fascination with the world around you.

Isn’t it strange that the human brain is capable of accommodating both of these states at once?

SXSW Part 2: Return

So, I’m back in the country, my mind’s back in the right time zone, my girlfriend is 25 miles away instead of 5,000. My photos are up, and my new iPod is charged, synchronised and suitably road-tested. My desire to buy shiny new bits of tech has at least subsided to the point where it actually listens to my bank account (although the temptation to buy a MacBook is surprisingly strong).

In the year since the last SXSW I’ve started two jobs, left one, moved house twice and done a fair bit of freelance work in-between, so quite a lot has changed. What hasn’t changed is the overwhelming sense of community I’ve experienced from nine short days in Austin. I’ve come away with the sense that I’m a part of a large group of not only like-minded professionals, but like-minded friends. Somehow I doubt that there are conferences in many other professions which can induce that kind of feeling.

That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything during my time in Texas. Granted, some of the panels were just reiterating what most of the attendees already knew, but I gained some genuinely valuable insights at many of the panels – I also gained a genuinely valuable book in one of them, which is nice too. While much of the daytime programme was interesting, inspirational, informative or some combination of the three, I also learned a surprising amount from talking geek during the evenings: it’s a strange feeling, being able to talk about aspects of the .NET framework over Cuban food and mojitos without feeling like an idiot.

Ultimately, the point I’m trying to get across is that I feel truly privileged to be a part of this profession and to be able to swap ideas and thoughts with a group of people who are all working towards one goal: to make better websites.

And if we can do that while eating, drinking and, erm, making merry, so much the better.

SXSW Part 1: Rejuvenation

When I was in the process of applying for my current job (back at the tail end of last year), Jo mentioned to me that I would get home at the end of the day and not want to face staring at another computer screen.

Knowing quite how much of a geek I am, we both shared a good laugh over this. It was funny until it – or at least something in the same vein – started happening. I had about enough time, energy and concentration to catch up on my feeds and e-mails, and of course Gears of War, but out-of-hours web development has pretty much fallen by the wayside. Nowhere has this been more evident than here on my blog.

Enter South by Southwest. Being around geeks, discussing, lauding and celebrating all things geek has done wonders, even after two days, for my enthusiasm. The “taking a holiday” part of it doesn’t hurt either. The net result of this is that I spend most of my day feeling enthusiastic, proud of what I am and what I do, and glad to be alive. This is a big deal.

In order to prevent this from fading away the moment I return to the UK, I’m signing up to Anton Peck’s Project 52 initiative, pledging to post at least once a week between now (or, more accurately, the Monday after next) and next year’s SXSW.

You never know, I might even make it as far as starting a redesign…


Since December 4th I have had a job. My employer is a company based in Cambridge by the name of Hyperspheric Solutions.

Since November 2nd I have had an Xbox 360. My Gamertag is FatBusinessman.

Since August 19th I have had a girlfriend. Her name is Jo Anslow.

Since the winter of 2002 (and perhaps even before then) I have had depression.

The job helps make the depression easier. The Xbox 360 helps make the job and the depression easier. The girlfriend also helps make the job and the depression easier, but tends to leave the Xbox 360 alone. The depression is, by and large, distinctly unhelpful.

(Anything people want to say to me privately can be sent to the usual address: blog at fatbusinessman dot com.)


Today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, ye salty sea-dogs!

That be all.

Further fun with Flickr

I mentioned previously that Flickr has implemented a geotagging system to allow users to mark where their photos were taken, in addition to when (Exif data) and of whom or what (tags). I mentioned that this seemed to be a fantastically cool feature.

I have now used it, and can confirm that it is a fantastically cool feature. The only thing that lets it down is the Yahoo! Maps system. This point has been laboured to death on blogs and in comments everywhere, so I won’t spend too long on it, but the paucity of Yahoo!’s road mapping data in the UK and Europe defies belief, especially when compared side-by-side with Google Maps’ offering. This introduces something of a trial-and-error aspect to geotagging photos taken over here in Britain: a postcode or city name search will get you to a screen containing the area you’re looking for, but quite where on that screen you took your photo is something you either have to take a guess at or fathom out from the satellite photo; all of this makes the geotagging process much more complicated and frustrating than it needs to be, especially in those areas where even the satellite photo quality is poor (most of Oxford constitutes a notable example).

So that’s the problem: what’s the solution? One option is to badger the Yahoo! people to get their road maps updated, but they know about the problem already and are working on it (as the Flickr team have stated on their blog), so further badgering isn’t likely to help anyone. Another option would be to develop some kind of mashup, application or GreaseMonkey script to allow people to geotag their photos through Google Maps instead, bypassing Yahoo! Maps entirely: I don’t doubt that someone with more time and more experience than myself is already working on this. My current solution is a little more labour-intensive but allows for rather more precision than the hunt-and-hope approach affords.

For this, I use:

By way of an example, I am going to use a photo I took at the Carson Summit in London back in February:


A little bit of research reminds me that the summit took place in the Kensington Conference and Events Centre, the postcode for which is W8 7NX. Look that up in Google Earth:

Satellite image of the conference centre

Now I have a location for the photo, but I need to get its co-ordinates from Google Earth somehow. Right-clicking (or Ctrl-clicking on the Mac) and selecting the “Get Info” option brings up a panel supplying latitude and longitude.

Satellite image of the conference centre with co-ordinates panel

Now I have precise co-ordinates for the building in which I took the photo: so far, so good. However, to get them into Flickr, they need to be converted to a number of degrees only rather than a combination of degrees, minutes and seconds. One trip to a converter site later…

Converted co-ordinates

…and I have co-ordinates in a format Flickr will accept. One slight gotcha with this method is that the converter I’ve chosen will not deal with negative numbers (South for latitude, West for longitude), so I need to remember to put that back in later: in this case, the longitude is to the West of the zero meridian. It’s a small detail but an easy one to forget, and I have accidentally dumped more than one person in the North Sea by forgetting it.

In Flickr’s geotagging interface, double-clicking a photo within the reel at the bottom of the window will open up a dialog box with a number of tabs at the top: one of these is “Location”, and it contains fields to enter latitude and longitude manually (again, note the negative longitude).

Entering latitude and longitude in Flickr’s geotagging interface

Set up some permissions if necessary, save the changes, and have a check on the map to make sure that it’s correct.

Geotagged photo located on the map

Voilà! One accurately geotagged photo!

For single photos, this is pretty labour-intensive (although after the first few times I find I can get into a pattern and get up to a fairly respectable speed): for multiple photos, of course, it only needs to be done once, and subsequent photos may be dragged onto the initial marker in no time whatsoever. Is this a quick and efficient solution? Most assuredly not. Is this a good solution? Probably not even that. But it’s a good enough solution until Yahoo! Maps becomes usable for anyone not from the States.

Good idea, bad idea

In my latest burst of catching up on the news (NewsFire, I want to bear your children), certain developments have caught my eye: either for being particularly good or for being (in my opinion) particularly bad.

Pass the asparagus (part 2)

As I mentioned in my previous post on this subject, my employment with Torchbox is no more and this has had a rather profound effect on what I’m going to be doing for the next few months. I was originally intending to put up a post here detailing my plans: indeed I foolishly committed to doing so. That hasn’t happened.

I have also been planning to write a post detailing how pointless it can be to make nebulous long-term plans, especially when in such a volatile situation. This has been through several drafts, but ultimately sounded a little too grandiose for its own good and so hasn’t happened either.

So, assuming these were bad ideas for things to write, what’s a good idea? Well, there’s what I’ve been doing this past month. Which, from a certain way of thinking about it, is almost what I was originally planning on writing about, just from the perspective of having done it instead of the perspective of being about to do it.

Aside from that, I do have a few things planned over the next couple of months, but – with the exception of a few geek meet-ups and web conferences, most of which are likely to be listed on my Upcoming profile – you’ll know about them when I’ve done them.

Pass the asparagus (part 1)

We stand outside in the early Friday evening. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” I offer; “yeah, so am I” is his response. We shake hands, wish each other the best of luck, and I cycle off into the sunset.

Well, almost: the rear tyre of my bike is utterly wrecked and the sun isn’t due to set for another three hours and twenty minutes, but “I walk my sorry-looking bike off into the slightly faded daylight, sweating gently” hasn’t got the same ring to it. It also thoroughly ruins the poetic nature of the story if I mention that the story concludes later that night with a bike repair, a cycling pub crawl and my first game of bar billiards.

However you look at it, bar billiards just ain’t that poetic.

Sunsets and associated poncery aside, the date of this story is August 21st, the time is 17:45, and the event is leaving my first “real” job. As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been working for Torchbox in the Cotswolds for the past three months. As of last Friday, that is no longer the case. I shan’t go into details in such a public forum: suffice it to say that it wasn’t the job I thought it would be and, for various reasons, wasn’t the job I wanted.

This does, of course, leave my life plans in something of a state of flux: more of this in part 2. (See? Episodic content all the way. Next thing you know I’ll be releasing my blog on Steam.)

Alive and working

As you can probably see, I haven’t updated this blog in far, far too long: just in excess of six weeks, in fact. There is a reason for this. As most of my close friends and fellow Listers – that probably accounts for most of the people who read this blog – may know, I’ve started my new job, working for a company called Torchbox, toddling off to Oxford in mid-April to friendly cries of “Judas!” from my Cambridge-based friends.

As I have spent most of my time between then and now either working, pursuing accommodation or getting to know my new colleagues (with the aid of the odd beer festival here and there), this hasn’t left very much time for blogging, especially as my new house doesn’t have wireless internet access… yet.

Rest assured though, dear reader, that this blog is, while perhaps not particularly well, still very much alive and likely to remain so. I may write up a slightly fuller account of my experiences with the new job in due course, or I may just talk about the first really geeky thing which catches my eye. This may well be Django, as and when I get the opportunity to have a play with it; it may be something entirely different. Wait and see.

Oh, and I have a Mac mini at work: it’s highly gorgeous.

Suckswee retrospective

On Friday morning I returned from the States, from the South by Southwest Interactive festival and from a week and a half sharing a room in the Radisson with Steve “Nutcase” Marshall. It’s taken until Monday to wade through the swathes of news feeds and emails (the vast, vast majority of the emails being from a particular mailing list – you know who you are). With that finally out of the way, it’s time for the traditional “OMGSXSWFTW” retrospective blog post.

I’m not going to bore you with a panel-by-panel, geek-by-geek account of where I went and who I met: suffice it to say that the vast majority of the panels I attended were thought-provoking and interesting (with, I’m afraid, the odd notable exception) and the vast majority of the people I met were really friendly and enjoyable to be around. Even better, I have learned a couple of life lessons from my time in Texas:

To elaborate on the second point, I’ve realised that, while I met plenty of people who could be considered ‘A-listers’, that’s far from the important thing. What’s important is that I’ve met a lot of really friendly people: I originally wanted to do a shortlist of the people who most stood out for being friendly, but I couldn’t cut it down sufficiently, so I’m just going to give out a “Friendliest Person at SXSW ’06 Award” to Shaun Inman. Cutting the list down to one person was the only way to keep it from becoming twenty people, and who would ever want to name-drop like that? 😉

Faruk-mocking aside, there were lots of people who were very nearly as friendly as Shaun: if I met you then it’s pretty safe to say that it was a pleasure and I’d love to see you again next year (or even before that, although I’m not planning on going to any more conferences before then so it’s pretty unlikely that the opportunity will arise).

All in all, a wonderful experience. My photos are uploaded, I’m up to date on my feeds, and Jon Hicks doesn’t want to kill me. Life is good.


(Term shamelessly stolen from Steve.)

So, the “next one” I mentioned previously is fast approaching: my ten-and-a-half-hour flight to George Bush International Airport (I feel dirty) heads out on Wednesday morning, giving Steve and myself ten and a half hours to fight deliberate over which panels we’ll be attending – not to mention which evening events we’ll be attending apart from, obviously, ultimate geek bowling experience. The hotel – the Radisson, for those of you who are wondering – and the flights are all booked (as the result of precisely zero effort on my part), the travel insurance is bought, the dollars are purchased, the obligatory business cards are printed, the packing is not quite done yet not even started.

To anyone who happens to read this blog and is going to be at SXSW, try to find me before 20:00 on Monday 13th, as after that Faruk and Steve will have combined their powers and driven me insane.


As you have no doubt seen if you’ve visited my site , my site recently underwent a bit of a cosmetic overhaul (i.e. it stopped looking like shite). That out of the way, I’m now contemplating the prospects of another redesign. This one isn’t with the front-end of the blog – I’m happy with that for the time being – but with the software powering it.

As some of you will no doubt know from my incessant whining occasional criticism, I have certain issues with WordPress and the language (PHP) on which it’s built. I won’t go into them here for fear of this turning into another rant, but suffice it to say that I’m not entirely happy with my current choice of CMS.

As far as I can see, I have three choices:

  1. Stick with WordPress: it works well enough and my time might be better spent working on other projects.
  2. Switch to another CMS with a sharper focus on web standards, semantic HTML and clean design. Only problem here is that I don’t know what’s good: I’ve been immersed in the world of WordPress for too long.
  3. Roll my own. This is looking increasingly appealing, especially as it gives me the perfect excuse to play around with a clean language (Python or Ruby, most probably) with a clean framework on top (such as Django or Rails). Problem here is that it would be a pretty mammoth task, even with the help of one of the aforementioned frameworks, especially if I want to keep all the features WordPress offers.

So, thoughts? Which route do you reckon I should take?

Carson Summit

Yesterday I lost my web conference virginity by going to “The Future of Web Apps”. Considering I still don’t have a job, I probably shouldn’t be spending my savings going to web development conferences, but I don’t really care. It was marvellous. I’m sure everyone else who went there will be blogging about the talks, so I shall just link to the SubEthaEdit notes and provide some choice quotes from the event and from the post-event drinking.

Here’s to the next one.


As you may have noticed, I would seem to have made the deadline and got my new site up and running with a minimum of trouble, although when WordPress runs in UTF-8 and most MySQL tools default to Latin-1, you’re entering a world of pain. It also doesn’t help when the timezone support in PHP (which is highly dodgy) and the timezone support in WordPress (which is even worse) conspire against you.

That said, there will beare some bugs in the site (in fact, I found and fixed one while writing this post). The known issues are as follows:

If you find a problem with the site which isn’t one of these, or if you just want to comment on the new design, please do let me know in the comments or via e-mail. Constructive criticism is very much welcomed, in fact even more so than comments along the lines of “Seriously matey, that rocks” (no points for identifying the source of that quote). The address is mail at FBM dot com.


I currently have a shedload of UTF-8 data sitting in a MySQL database marked as Latin-1. If I tell MySQL to mark the UTF-8 data as UTF-8, the WordPress–PHP Gestalt Of Death throws a tantrum and gives me encoding errors. WordPress apparently needs to have mis-identified data in its database.

It is safe to say that this does not make me happy.

Four Things

(a.k.a. Yet Another Damn Meme)

Having been passed by Ben what I can only refer to as a quadriphilic baton, here we go.

Four jobs I’ve had in my life

Four films I can watch over and over

Four TV shows I love to watch

Actually, I don’t watch any TV to speak of. Next question.

Four places I have lived

When I get a job, it will not be in Cambridge.

Four places I have been on holiday

All within one month: I may have mentioned this at a previous juncture.

Four of my favourite dishes

Four websites I visit daily

Four places I would rather be right now

Four bloggers I’m tagging

Well crap, it looks like most people have already felt the touch of the quadriphilic baton. Well, I’m going to have to go for a mere two: Elly (once she’s got her internet connection set up) and Meri.

Gearing up

You may well remember that I put this blog on hold some number of weeks ago. That number, rounding down, is ten: far too long. Therefore I am starting to post again to get the site back up to speed. When it reaches the blogging equivalent of 88 miles per hour, three things will happen:

“So when is this going to happen?” I hear you ask. Well, I shall tell you: Wednesday February 1st. One week’s time.

Expect the shiny.

Separated by a common language

Cider glassThere are many differences between English and that language they speak in America: this has been documented sufficiently often that it would be superfluous to reiterate the more obvious nuances, despite the marvellously puerile humour of the word “pants”.

Sometimes, however, things just get too confusing, as this (American) comic amply demonstrates.

For those Americans who don’t understand, us crazy Limeys use ‘cider’ to refer to fermented apple juice; for those Europeans who don’t understand, those crazy Yanks use ‘cider’ to refer to, um, normal apple juice. I’m not sure which is greater: the potential tragedy of a Brit asking for cider in America and not getting his beloved liquor, or the potential hilarity of an American asking for ‘just a cider’ over here and getting unexpectedly trolleyed.

Aren’t languages wonderful?

More blogroll woes

The blogroll has temporarily disappeared from my site’s sidebar. This is due to some apparent up-cockery at blo.gs: the main page gives a singularly unhelpful “sorry, but the blo.gs service is temporarily unavailable. please try again later.” message. The actual blogrolling feature, however, kicks out some random feeds which I don’t know and wouldn’t necessarily want to have linked on my blog (screenie).

This is a clear violation of the Samurai Principle of “return victorious or not at all”: a corollary of this would be “when someone requests their blogroll, never return them an apparently random list of links”.

Does anyone have any suggestions for alternative services which could provide my blog with blogrolling functionality? Alternatively, I may just have to locate a handy Yahoo! employee and kick them until it gets fixed…

O2: avoid like the plague

O2 logoIn my previous post, I said that I may make the occasional post before then should something particularly interesting crop up. Well, something interesting has cropped up. A word of warning: while I will try to control myself, this post may contain words unsuitable for pregnant women or those of a nervous disposition.

I received a letter this morning from a company named Moorcroft Debt Recovery Limited informing me that I owed O2 the princely sum of £14.62 and that, if necessary, they intended to commence litigation to get it back. This is never a letter one wishes to receive, especially before one has had breakfast, and especially given the numerous unpleasant experiences one has had with O2 in the past.

Such a letter was also rather confusing since, to my knowledge, all my contracts with O2 have been based on a direct debit scheme, so any money owed should have been taken directly from my bank account. O2 had also not got in touch with me about this before, which would seem the sensible course of action.

After phoning O2’s customer support helpline (being transferred in the process between three departments and having to give my details and a description of the problem three times) it turns out that the final payment from my previous contract didn’t go through due to the direct debit ending. A slightly annoying technical glitch, but fair enough. What isn’t fair enough is that O2, despite having my name, e-mail address, home phone number, mobile phone number and home address, somehow didn’t bother to get in touch with me about this and instead proceeded directly to the “get your friendly neighbourhood debt collectors to threaten litigation” stage. This implies either extreme incompetence or a policy of treating one’s customers like shit. Neither would surprise me; neither is acceptable.

Were I a bad debtor, this might have proven an effective method of O2 getting their money back. As it is, it has proven an effective method of O2 losing a customer. This is the last in a long series of straws: when my contract comes up for renewal (sadly not for another 8 months) it will most definitely not be with O2. To anyone considering O2 as a mobile provider, I would strongly suggest that you consider someone else. Anyone else.

On hold

As of now, this blog is officially in a temporary state of hiatus. I have a job to obtain, inspiration to seek out and a life out here in the post-university Real World to get up and running. The site MAY be up and running again by the New Year, SHOULD be up and running again by my birthday (February 19th) and MUST be up and running again in time for SXSWi. I may make the occasional post before then should something particularly interesting crop up, but I’m not making any promises there.

Again I stress that this is only a temporary matter: the site will return with a new design, a new host and possibly even some AJAX-y goodness into the bargain (although anyone caught mentioning the Buzzword Which Must Not Be Named will get a stern look and will be referred towards a certain mailbag which reflects my views).

In the meantime I will continue to update del.icio.us with interesting sites which catch my eye and Flickr with interesting sights which I catch with my camera (apologies for truly awful punnage there). As my current RSS client of choice is NewsFire and blo.gs appears still to be reeling from its acquisition by Yahoo!, those of you hoping to follow my blogrolling habits may be out of luck. All the best, and I shall return to the world of bloggery soon.

CSS Reboot

As was perhaps to be expected (mainly due to spending a month in America) I shall no longer be participating in this November’s CSS Reboot. As it stands, I’m not going to be able to get my new theme up to a high enough standard in time for Tuesday. I’m afraid, therefore, that you will all have to put up with this theme (designed as a temporary theme back in 2004) for a little while longer.

Rest assured that a redesign is coming and that Jonty assures me it will rock.

The Great American Tour, Part 2

In my previous post I briefly covered my destinations and what I liked in each city. This entry is going to be rather less chronological.

One thing the Americans really know how to do (apart from eating, drinking and all the other things the Americans really know how to do) it’s commemorating things: this is especially noticeable if you wander around Washington.

Some people like squirrels, some like syrup sponge (as of the time of posting, all syrup sponge photos on Flickr feature syrup sponges cooked or inspired by my sister). I like pigeons. They have the advantage over squirrels that they are very slightly more willing to pose for photos. Read on…

The Great American Tour, part 1

Well, as promised, here’s a report on the more interesting points of my trip to America.

Firstly, the photos. The photos are now all uploaded to Flickr: you can either access them by city (Boston, Chicago, Philly, New York and Washington) or just view the whole lot. Read on…

Greetings from the States

'Stars and Stripes' by lildudeAs many of you know, as some of you don’t know but I really should have told, and as some of you would never have had any reason to know because you’re here as a result of searching Google for common terms such as “jesus”, “muppet animal” and “demon baby” (don’t ask me, I just work here) I’ve been in the United States for nearly a month.

I’m currently coming to the last few days of my little sojourn up and down the East coast of America and will have a fuller report once I get back home and have access to my lovely shiny iMac G5 (oh, how I miss you). I will also have what is known in the photography business as (and I quote from a professional photographer) “a shitfuckcrapload” of photos. For now, however, I shall just note some salient points: Read on…

Plan, spend, plan, spend…

My life has, of late, mainly involved two things: spending money (kinda fun, although somewhat expensive) and planning trips (rather less fun, mainly because I’m very bad at it). I think, however, that much of the really important planning is done, such that I’ll be able to get to America (transatlantic flights) and get between the different cities when I’m there (domestic US flights). I’m not going to get smacked by expensive medical bills (insurance) and I’m going to be able to take excessive numbers of photos (very shiny new camera). I’ve got accommodation sorted for most of my destination cities (although, crucially, not the first or second ones – something of a problem when I’m arriving in the former in five days).

From all this, I can draw two conclusions:

In spite of that, I’m feeling good about the trip: it’ll be good fun if I can actually think of something to do for each of the days I’m spending in each of the cities and actually get off my arse and book accommodation in Boston and Chicago.

Jesus is great

Matt Mullenweg has the honour of being the first Google result for his first name. Molly Holzschlag has the same distinction. Elly held, for some time, the first result for syrup sponge (not to mention having a monopoly on the Flickr tag).

I, however, hold the first Google Images result for Jesus. Booyah.

(The image in question is from T-shirt Hell, by the way: I’m somewhat tempted to get the t-shirt, other than the fact that my last order from them got slapped with some pretty hefty import duty, not to mention intercontinental shipping being somewhat expensive already. Damn you, customs!)

“The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry”

(The quote is from The Shawshank Redemption, in case you were wondering.)

In two weeks from tomorrow I shall be boarding a plane at Heathrow and jetting off for a month-long tour of the United States. This is going to be good, this is going to be exciting. However, this is going to be somewhat incidental to this particular post. The subject of this particular post is digital cameras.

My current camera is a Nikon Coolpix 775 (yes, I find the “Coolpix” name mildly offensive too, but that’s what Nikon say so that’s what goes). I’ve had it for somewhere between three and five years and it’s safe to say that it has served me well. However, while using this particular piece of kit I’ve rather lost sight of where the camera industry is going and quite how damn fast it’s getting there.

Good as my current camera was at the time, its two megapixels pale in comparison to the 5 or 6 of even fairly low-end consumer cameras. Not to mention that the 775 is dog-slow, taking somewhere in excess of a second to display each picture. My question to the floor is, therefore, whether I should buy a new camera and, if so, which one I should buy.

The case for this is fairly obvious, but can be summarised thus: massively better quality pictures. I’m planning on taking many many pictures while in the States, and I’d very much like them to be good ones. That roughly summarises the case for the prosecution.

Now the case for the defence: let’s say your average digital compact costs about £250–300. That’s a fairly hefty wodge of money, especially when I’ve already got a camera which is good enough (at least, for some definition of “good enough”). It’s also potentially not a good idea to be wandering around in a strange land (with rather loose firearms laws) sporting a brand-new piece of tech. Ok, so I’ll have insurance against theft, but still not a good idea to tempt fate.

The third and final argument against buying a new camera is that I’ll only have a couple of weeks at most to wear it in: should something go wrong with it (which is feasible, if not likely) I’ll be scuppered. Not a good thing.

Oh, and I recently bought a CompactFlash card, so if my new camera uses MMC or SD then I’ve wasted my money. That said, the money is £20, so I’m not really sweating that one.

So, next question: if I do get a camera, which one? Word has it the IXUS 50 is pretty good, but any other recommendations for brands or models?

(Before anyone mentions it, yes I’d love a digital SLR camera, but no way in hell can I justify the price.)

Browser wars

I am currently sitting on the horns of a dilemma (well, actually a trilemma, but let’s not get into that again). The source of my troubles is the choice of which browser to use for my day-to-day browsing needs.


Firefox logoYou might have heard of a little browser called Firefox: word has it that it’s fairly popular. What Firefox seems to have that recommends it over the other two browser is that

  1. It’s free, and
  2. Extensions

I shall assume for the moment that most of you know how useful Firefox extensions are, so I shan’t talk about them at great length. I shall merely point out that the Web Developer extension is invaluable for development work and, while I haven’t tried it yet, Greasemonkey looks very exciting.

So what’s wrong with Firefox? Sadly, as with the majority of open-source software, its main problem seems to lie in usability: not to anything like the same extent as some of the worst offenders (as previously discussed) it does lack some of the Mac Polish that I’ve come to know and love.


Ok, on to the next option: Safari. What makes Safari good?

  1. It’s polished
  2. It’s free (at least in practical terms: strictly speaking its price is included in the price of the operating system)

So far, so good. Unfortunately, what really lets Safari down for the power user is that it’s pretty lightweight on features. Want type-ahead find? Nope, sorry. Site-specific preferences? Ain’t gonna happen. That said, Pimp My Safari looks very interesting: I shall have to give it a more thorough look soon.


Omniweb iconNow on to the third browser: OmniWeb. The bad news first: it ain’t free. The good news: it’s got some lovely Mac Polish, integrates nicely with the Mac UI and has features coming out the wazoo (or would do if there weren’t remarkably few software-based wazoo implemenations). The tab drawer (complete with itty-bitty thumbnails) is lovely, the workspaces (think saved, switchable browser sessions) are lovely, the whole thing is lovely.

Sadly, the whole thing also has a number of performance problems and guzzles memory faster than a cry of “Who’s for shots?”. Even worse, there are a number of stability problems causing the browser to occasionally crash, which is awfully annoying (although, due to the browser’s ability to remember your session details, not devastating to productivity). I think, however, it should be taken as a Sign that any browser which repeatedly crashes when visiting Weebl’s Stuff has no sense of humour.


What, therefore, is my conclusion? My conclusion is that I have no conclusion. The problem appears to be “Feature-filled, polished, free and stable: pick two (where free and stable are a single item)”. Granted, it’s not the snappiest of posers, but never mind. I’m thinking my current plan is to see whether I can get Safari up to scratch on the extension front and, if so, stick with that. Failing that, I reckon Firefox is probably the way to go. Sorry OmniWeb, but the stability and performance problems really kill you off pretty quickly.

Addendum: looks like Jon “All-Round Web Design God” Hicks has been having similar thoughts and even done a little survey of which browsers people use. He also mentions Camino, which I haven’t talked about here because I’ve never tried it. Yet.

On plugins, warriors and women

I bring to you a tale of joy, of plugins, of bald women and a tinge of disappointment. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll shout out “Get on with it you lazy bastard, we’ve been waiting a week and a bloody half for you to post anything!”

I will be suitably reproached and continue with a little less bombast. Read on…

Blo.gs mess

As reported by Mr Haughey, Blo.gs has been having certain Issues™ since it was bought out by Yahoo!, most notably bringing up false pings. Just scrutinise my blogroll for a second (screenshot provided for posterity – hello posterity!).

My blogroll

As you can probably see, I have somehow picked up the comment feed for Mr Shea, the side-notes for Mr Hicks and the comments for Mr Herasimchuk. Much as I admire and respect these guys, I’m not sufficiently interested in their comments or linkrolls to have them pop up on my blogroll when I didn’t ask for them. Especially as Design By Fire last had a new post in 2004.

The point of my post? I want a new ping manager and/or RSS aggregator for my blogroll. I want something which does what blo.gs used to do before it all went south. Any suggestions?

New mouse. Cool mouse. Stupid name

Mighty MouseApple have released a multi-button mouse. They have called it…Mighty Mouse.

Yeah, just let that sink in for a few minutes. The company who brought us Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Exposé, Bonjour (né Rendezvous) and, of course, the iPod, now bring us…Mighty Mouse.

Getting past the enormity of the name’s crapness, the mouse really looks rather promising as, once again, Apple seem to have managed to add features without sacrificing the sleek design or the “oooh, so shiny” factor. The two-dimensional scroll ball sounds like a nice improvement on the scroll wheels of other mice (certainly a damn sight better than the “Tilt Wheel” present on some Microsoft mice, which I can personally attest is a right pig to use). The touch-sensitive buttons allow for a right mouse button without changing the now-characteristic “single shell” design of Apple mice, plus the squeezable sides acting as another button sound very interesting.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating so I’ll wait for the reviews to come along before I make my mind up about whether this mouse is good or bad: either way, I’m not planning on buying one any time soon. All I can say for the moment is that I’m impressed with the design and it certainly comes across as very Apple-y.

Still, Mighty Mouse?!

It seems…

…that O2 are not only screwing over their customers, but their employees as well. Makes me wish I didn’t have another 12 months of contract with them.

This is assuming, of course, that other phone networks are any better, which may or may not be true.

X11: Blessing or Curse?

(For those of you unfamiliar with what X11 is, it’s essentially the protocol Unix/Linux systems use to control their interfaces. For more information, as always, Wikipedia is your friend.)

As you may or may not know, Mac OS X includes an X11 server, no doubt in deference to its Unix roots. This is perceived by many to be a Good Thing™, as one can run all of one’s favourite graphical Unix applications on a Mac with the minimum of reprogramming required. The bevy of developers writing open source applications (free in whatever sense of the word you like) for the various Unices can produce Mac versions and we, the Mac users, can download and use them. The GIMP on your Mac: check. OpenOffice on your Mac: check. All through the beauty of the X11 server. You get all the fruits of open source software development right there on your Mac.

Unfortunately, you also get all the fruits of Unix open source interface designers right there on your Mac.

It is a well-documented phenomenon that interface design and usability in general of open-source software tends to be bad. Like really bad. Similarly unfortunate, albeit in a slightly different way, its conventions are very different to those of a Mac. On a Mac, you press +W to close a window: when running an X11 application, this tries to shut down the X11 server. While this does at least prompt you when you have applications using the server, it’s not overly pleasant.

So what’s my point with all of this? I suppose my point is that, while having an X11 server included with OS X is probably a good thing overall in that it allows me to get hold of decent (and free) image processing and office applications, it’s also something of a problem in that it makes it too easy for open source developers to produce lazy ports of their applications, leaving us with clunky apps which just don’t feel “Maccy” (both of the applications I’ve mentioned previously, plus many others). So my message to all the thousands of developers of high-profile Unix software (ahem) my message is this: if you’re going to produce an OS X port of your application, please take the effort to make it a good one, make it fit in with the OS X conventions and themes (look, Apple have produced reams and reams of documentation about this) and make it really feel like a Mac application. Do this and I will love you forever.

Are you local(host)?

As most of you who read this site will know, I’m planning a redesign for this site. As most of you know know me will have probably guessed, I haven’t got very far. I have, however, managed to copy this site over to my local machine, database and all, and get a copy of it up and running so that I can muck around with the layout without disrupting everything for you, the viewing public.

To anyone looking to do the same kind of thing on a Mac, I can heartily recommend XAMPP for Mac OS X: it’s an OS X package containing Apache, MySQL, Perl and PHP. Setting it up is a doddle if you’ve set up an Apache server before and probably not too tricky if you haven’t: the only problem I’ve found with it so far is that it still uses the Apache 1 style of configuration (i.e. all lumped into one big file) rather than the system used in Apache 2 where the configuration is split up into many files, each dealing with their own little bit. That’s pretty minor as quibbles go though.

In conclusion, XAMPP good, Napster bad.

Nokia 6680 thoughts

Nokia 6680So, I have a Nokia 6680. What do I think of it?

First off, iSync is lovely and wonderful and just plain wins. With almost no effort whatsoever (beyond pairing my iMac with the phone, of course) my calendar and contact list were synchronised within two minutes, contact photos and addresses and all. Very swish.

The main camera (yes, the phone has two of them) is also very impressive, as you can see in this photo: of course it doesn’t compare to the quality you’d get even with a fairly cheap digital camera, but it’s more than good enough for quick snaps, especially for someone who has a habit of taking pictures of inappropriate uses of everyone’s favourite font.

As regards the 3G features of the phone, I haven’t yet had much opportunity to try them out. In theory I get 300 free off-peak minutes I can use for either voice or video calling, other than the two minor problems that I don’t know anyone else with a 3G phone and O2 haven’t yet set up 3G coverage in my area yet (although they apparently have it planned for some time in the next three months). For the purposes of data I haven’t really dared to play around with it much, not when it costs a whopping £2.35 per megabyte. Cool as it was to take a look at my blog on my phone, I’m not sure that any site is worth paying about 10 pence per page to view. Without images. On a small screen. Ain’t gonna happen.

I’ve also had a problem this morning with the phone failing to start. It went something like this:

By a process of trial and error, I found out that this was due to some kind of problem with the memory card: while the phone would happily read the card once it had started up, starting with the card in the phone was a no-go. I reformatted the card (losing the bundled games, the QuickOffice suite and Opera, among others) and it now works fine. A somewhat inauspicious start though, considering I’ve only had the phone for four days.

In summary: many of the phone’s features are wonderful and lovely, the data rates are obscenely overpriced and I’ll hopefully tell you in a few months whether the video calling is up to scratch.

Another day, another brain-dump

So, again it seems to have been a week since my last post. A few things that have interested me in the past week:

Well, that’s about it for this week: I shall try to post more regularly over the next couple of months, but time does seem to have a tendency to fly by awfully fast…


iSync logoAs one does from time to time, I just ran Software Update to check if there were any updates kicking around that I hadn’t received. I wasn’t expecting anything, but boy was I in for a surprise. See, Apple have very quietly (as in no word beforehand from Apple Insider or Mac Rumors) released iSync 2.1 with

…compatibility for more devices such as the latest Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic and Sony Ericsson phones.

Needless to say I checked their compatibility list to see which phones they now supported, most notably to see whether they now supported my recently-ordered Nokia 6680. They do. Hence when my lovely shiny new 6680 arrives I’ll be able to synchronise it wonderfully with my address book (hopefully also synchronising contact pictures, which are astoundingly useful) and my calendar. All wirelessly over Bluetooth, of course.

All I can say to this is “w00000000000000000000000000000t!”, the only possible downside being that I lose my Mac’s uptime, which in half an hour or so will be clocked at two weeks. I’ve never fully understood why people get so attached to their uptime, but that’s a matter for another post, as is Apple’s uncanny sense of timing when it comes to me purchasing new kit (see this previous post for another example).

Now I just have to wait for the phone to actually get delivered…

Apple Mail identities

This is something I only recently (viz. yesterday) found out: thanks to Ran Aroussi and Justin French for posting about it, as otherwise I’d still have been in the dark. Hopefully writing about it will help give Google the hint that it’s kinda important.

It turns out that in Apple’s rather nice (but unimaginatively-named) Mail it’s possible to set up multiple mail identities for a single account: a somewhat useful feature when you have, say, an address which only forwards to another mailbox, such as my account with cantab.net (for Cambridge graduates only, don’t you know): a cantab.net address looks rather more impressive than a fatbusinessman.com address. Multiple identities can be achieved thus:

A comma-separated list of addresses in Apple Mail

Sadly, this feature is really not obvious, such that I had to ferret around on Google to find it. Maybe I’m being too technical for my own good, however: turns out that, in the help system, a search for “identities” returns nothing, a search for “aliases” returns something about .Mac but a search for “multiple addresses” returns exactly what I was looking for as the second result. Is this my stupidity, Mail help’s stupidity or a nice mix of both?

Reading matter

Jeffrey ZeldmanWay back in the mists of this time last year, I was awarded £60 of book vouchers from my college for being a smart-arse git and getting a First. I waited until today to spend the first £25 worth of them. I bought a copy of the orange bible. I also have a book on loan from my dad which I’d prefer not to have to read but which should be useful for the job I might or might not be getting: a copy of Inside Windows 2000 Server.

Any recommendations for something to buy with my remaining £35 of book vouchers? I’m tempted by The Zen of CSS Design by Shea and Holzschlag in the hope that it might provide some inspiration for my perpetually imminent site redesign or possibly DHTML Utopia by Langridge. I could always do something really wacky and buy a book unrelated to web development, but where would be the fun in that?

David Thompson BA (Cantab.)

Just a quick note to say two things:

  1. I’ve graduated.
  2. The photos from the graduation are up on Flickr.

That is all.

Marvel at my balls

So, after 16-odd years in education, I’m home. Primary school, secondary school, sixth-form college, university, and now … what? Either holiday then job or job, holiday then job, depending on whether I can get hold of a decent job first. As for the holiday, I’m planning on doing a bit of a tour around some places in America, because I’ve never been and would like to see the sights.

Anyway, enough of future plans: here’s a quick recap of what I’ve been up to the past few days. In two words: May Balls. Not easy to describe in words, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking, from Trinity on Monday and Queens’ on Tuesday.

All over bar results tomorrow and graduation next Friday. Now I just need to start exercising my geek muscles to get back into this web design lark.

General life update

So, no blog posts in over a week: what’s happened of note recently and what’s slated to happen in the near future? In rough chronological order:

Well, brain-dump over. Until next time, kiddies.


On Thursday 9th June I sat my last exam at Cambridge University, and potentially my last exam ever (unless I decide to get some really useful and well-respected additional qualifications). I have, of course, spent the time between then and now celebrating – finding out in the process that Lemsip is a fantastic hangover cure.

So what to do now? You may or may not remember a previous post in which I detailed four things I needed to do: I think I can safely say that I’ve completed goals 1–3 (although we shall have to wait and see whether the First is in the bag) and now I just have Goal 4 to do: redesigning this site. This brings me to my comment-encouragement question: how do people go about their designs? As you might have noticed, my designs tend to be fairly basic in nature, and I know there are a fair number of talented designers who read this site, so I’m going to commence brain-picking: do you tend to start with pencil-and-paper sketches, a prototype in the image software of your choice or just an idea in your head? Do you start with a basic layout and tweak it or plan all the measurements right from the start?


(P.S. San Andreas is out – it’s rather good.)

Updates (or lack thereof)

Apologies to everyone who reads this blog on a semi-regular basis (of whom there must be at least 10 or so) for the lack of updates in the past few days: I’m afraid I’ve entered into hardcore exam mode: first final-year exam was yesterday (that’s Tuesday for those of you who will get confused by me posting this at 10 minutes past midnight) and I have two more today and tomorrow, then I’m done. Forever. Scary.

Scariness aside, I shall hope to get back to more frequent updates as of Friday (or perhaps Saturday, depending on how bad a hangover I have on Friday morning) – there’s certainly plenty to talk about.

Too good to be true?

As reported by The Register, Neowin and (with cynical comments a-plenty) Slashdot, Microsoft are planning on using an XML-based format for its Office documents, the documentation to which they are making available for download. For free. And available to open-source developers:

Q. Can the licenses for the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas be used by open source developers?

A. Yes. Open source developers who wish to participate in a community development project can enter into the agreements and then work in a collaborative fashion on development of a program or programs.

I’ll admit it, I’m stumped. For a company such as Microsoft, who have for so long based a lot of their policy around vendor lock-in and “decommoditizing protocols” to turn around and open up their file formats seems like such a complete volte-face that it defies belief. I therefore have two questions:

  1. Is there a catch and, if so, what?
  2. Why are they doing this?

Firstly, catch possibilities. The first of these is that an XML-based file format is not a panacea for all things interoperable. By way of demonstration, this is (as far as I can figure out) valid XML:

<?xml version="1.1"?> <!DOCTYPE binarydata [ <!ELEMENT binarydata (#PCDATA)> ]> <binarydata> 01001000 01100101 01101100 01101100 01101111 </binarydata>

I’ll agree it’s a rather contrived example, but you see my point: XML doth not a good format make.

The next catch possibility is that the schemas appear only to be free in the beer sense: they have some kind of agreement attached to them (which I can’t get to, as they’re in an MSI installer). There is, however, a link to a Danish government website which apparently offers more information (more on that later). An interesting question is whether this license is compatible with the GPL, but I’m not a lawyer so I couldn’t tell you.

The Danish website is perhaps the most interesting connection here: while the site itself isn’t overly comprehensible (with mixed-together English and Danish even in the ‘English’ section) it would seem to suggest that perhaps the Danish government have stood up to Microsoft and said “Open up your formats or you will lose high-value government contracts throughout Europe”. If this is true, it would appear to be good all-round for everyone: good for governments, good for Microsoft, good for the hard-working chaps behind OpenOffice, good for Joe Customer.

I’m afraid I will have to remain sceptical, however, until such a time if and when it all comes together. Will Microsoft become some benevolent force for good in this world? Is this some sneaky trick to undermine the open-source community? Will something come out of Denmark which is even better than those sweet sticky pastry things? Comments please.

Mac OS X annoyance

Disclaimer: despite pointing out something I don’t like about Mac OS X, I still think it’s a wonderful operating system. And Windows is still crap.

This annoyance concerns the Apple menu (which itself is a silly name: would be like Windows having the ‘Microsoft menu’). For reference, here’s a screenshot of the ‘mighty blue Apple’:

The Apple menu, unactivated

Happily, this button (and, in fact, the entire menu bar) was designed with some consideration of Fitts’ Law, which essentially boils down to “the bigger a target and the closer it is, the easier it is for users to get a lock on it”. The menu bar uses the “mile-high menu” corollary of this, in that if you put something at the edge of the screen it is, in practical terms, infinite in size, hence users can just slam their mouse upwards/downwards/sideways and get there. In the case of the Apple menu, this target area is infinitely high and infinitely wide, hence users can slam their pointers up and to the left with gay abandon and be sure of hitting their target. This makes them happy users.

Unfortunately, this is where we run into a problem, as shown when the menu is actually activated:

The Apple menu, activated

As you can see, the highlight around the menu doesn’t extend to the left-hand side of the menu, so users (such as myself) don’t know that the target area is not only mile-high, but mile-wide as well (which Google tells me is an area of 2,589,988.11 m²). This is an especially serious problem as, when the user will usually be coming at the menu from an angle closer to the horizontal than the vertical, the effective ‘size’ of the button depends more on its width than its height, more or less nullifying the mile-high–ness of the target and forcing the user to spend rather longer than they would like getting their mouse into position.

In short, uncharacteristically poor design decision from Apple, especially as they do the same thing with the Spotlight menu in the upper-right of the screen. Apologies if I’ve spent too long labouring the point, but it does raise the important issue that user interface enhancements are only useful if the user is made aware of them.

I’ll open this up to the floor now – comments?

More geeky indecisions

Right, turns out getting an iMac sated my geek-style buying-shiny-things urges. For about a week. Now I want a new phone (partly because my contract is running out about now, partly because new phones are cool).

I’ve pretty much set my heart on a Nokia Series 60 smartphone, because they’re meant to be rather good and I love gadgetry (in case you hadn’t noticed).

However, I am struck by the dilemma of whether to get a 7610 (about a year old, but with good support from iSync, Salling Clicker and the like) or a 6680 (sufficiently brand new that most networks won’t have it for another couple of weeks, and no support as yet from iSync). I am faced with the choice of going with the known quantity of the 7610 about which I’ve heard very little but praise, which has good integration and plenty of features, or the 6680 which is more of a gamble with potentially higher payoffs (according to Loïc Le Meur, “it rocks”).

One thing to bear in mind about iSync support is that Apple have been historically rather bad at this, taking in excess of 6 months to support the aforementioned 7610, so is the gamble worth it?

Boys and their toys

On Monday my iMac arrived. I have only this to say about it:

Hoo baby.

It’s a bit good. If you’re already a Mac user, you will know this. If you aren’t a Mac user, you really really should be.

Highlights so far:

All in all, the computer and its OS are things of beauty. Wub ’em lots 😀

Musical baton

Looks like Elly has sent me one of these musical baton jobbies, so here goes:

Total volume of music files on my computer:

Actually, I’m writing this post on my new iMac, so I don’t have a single music file on here: I’m whiling away the time before I can transfer my music over from my iPod (as I talked about in this post) by listening to the shared music of other people on the Queens’ network. On my other computer I’ve got about 6.5 gigs.

The last CD I bought was:

Kasabian by Kasabian.

Song playing right now:

Minor Thing by Red Hot Chili Peppers

Five songs I listen to a lot, or that mean a lot to me:

Seeing as the songs I listen to a lot tend just to be my most recent acquisitions, I’ll go for the meaningfulness criteria:

Five people to whom I’m passing the baton:

I’m afraid it looks like all my blogging friends have got this one already, so it would seem that the buck stops with me.


Jesus Did it for the Chicks(Yes, that is a a real word.)

Way back in December of last year I wrote a post about offensive t-shirts which linked to, among others, the picture accompanying this story (a design from T-Shirt Hell‘s now-discontinued “Worse Than Hell” range). Today, five months later, I received a comment on an unrelated post indicating that someone by the name of “Kait” found the t-shirt design rather offensive to their beliefs. I assume the reason this comment was posted there is that the original post has long since been closed to comments for spam-prevention purposes. For the sake of completeness, the comment follows in its entirety.

hi david thompson……whatz with the picture that is connected to your website…..the one that says “Jesus did it for the chicks”…..that is absoulutely outrageous…..Jesus died for you on the cross and thatz the kind of picture you attach to your website….you seriously have issues…and i’ll pray for you because that’s just sick…..you’ve got issues….and unless you ask God to forgive you…….you have know future ahead of you……i feel sorry for you…because…a life without Jesus is no life at all….i hope Jesus opens your eyes one day….

I would first like to say that I am not one of those people who dismisses any religious belief out of hand – the people who say “Religion’s full of shit, dude” or some such. I have had sensible religious debates with a number of my friends, principally on the subject of Christianity, and have attended an Alpha Course (a course based around exploring the tenets of Christianity). I would like to think of myself as a tolerant person who would listen fully to another’s point of view before making my own decisions.

I am, however, going to have to disagree with the sentiment of your comment, Kait. Firstly, while it is an historically-documented event that Yeshua of Nazareth was crucified, I see no reason to believe that he died and was resurrected for me and the human race which is sufficient to overwhelm the apparently arbitrary nature of such a sacrifice combined with Occam’s razor that “the simplest explanation is usually the best”.

In addition to this, the intent of the t-shirt design as I see it is not to attack Jesus, his certain suffering and unlikely resurrection, but to gently mock those who take it just that little bit too seriously. It is quite clear from the sheer absurdity of the t-shirt’s premise that it is not meant to be taken seriously: I would suggest that, if you are unable to take a light-hearted jibe at your beliefs then it is you, not I, who has issues.

Cue debate.

iMac update

According to the TNT website, my iMac was last seen in TNT’s Northampton depot at 16:03 today. Google Maps tells me this depot is 52 miles away from Queens’ College, Cambridge.

It’s so close I can smell the Bluetooth…


Dear David Thompson,
Thank you for placing your Apple Store order. We are pleased to send you this order confirmation containing details of your order.

That is all 😀

Good news, bad news, good news again

Good news: having been essentially blog-spam–free for some time now, I decided to loosen up my rather Draconian “close posts to comments and trackbacks/pingbacks after 7 days”. It’s now four weeks.

Bad news: I’ve hence been getting more comment spam.

Good news: it’s all been caught by WordPress’ spam filters. Thank you WordPress dudes! 😀

iTunes Issues

In anticipation of my hopefully-imminent Switch™ to a Mac, I’ve been thinking about how to transfer my pictures, my music and my life (</melodrama>) over to a Macintosh. This causes me some small amount of consternation, as I’d really like to preserve as much metadata about my files as possible in the process – hey, if I’m going to be able to search it, I might as well keep as much as I can.

For my photos, this shouldn’t be too bad, thanks partly to EXIF data, partly to Flickr. Slight issues start when I start thinking about my music, however.

I use iTunes for my music needs whenever practical (when under Linux, I use amaroK). As you may well know, iTunes does loads of funky stuff with metadata, hence I have playlists for (say) all the tracks I rather like but haven’t listened to in the past month. As I’ve found out from a couple of corrupt library files, however, iTunes isn’t very good at remembering play counts, even when you explicitly give them to it in a library file. This neatly kills off the functionality of some of my more useful playlists.

Enter a solution: iPodRip. This little beauty lets you pull all your music data off your iPod (which, naturally, synchronises its play-counts with iTunes) and saves your metadata along with it.

Except (and I’ve just thought of this) my iPod is currently FAT32-formatted: my Mac isn’t going to read that, is it?


Any suggestions?

How’s my timing?

This just keeps getting better and better: literally days before I’m planning on buying an iMac, they upgrade the whole line, neatly fixing all the (small) problems I had with them.

I was worried that 256 MB wasn’t enough memory: they upgrade it to 512 MB.

I was upset about Bluetooth and 802.11 add-on cards were expensive: the new models include them as standard.

Plus they upgrade the bits that didn’t even really need it, taking the CPU up from 1.8 GHz to 2 GHz, the hard disk up from 160 GB to 250 GB (that would be twice the size of both my current hard disks combined).

Hoo mamma – I’m in love.

Quadrilemma resolution

We have good news: I’ve decided which Mac I wish to buy. This decision follows a fairly extensive discussion with Ben while wandering around the botanic garden (it’s a standard geek self-defence mechanism – when surrounded by plants, talk tech). The reasoning goes somewhat like this:

  1. My choice is between an iBook, a PowerBook, an iMac or a PowerMac.
  2. Fun as it would be to be like the guys in this astounding photo, I really don’t need the portability that a PowerBook or iBook would offer me. This quite neatly halves my choices.
  3. The PowerMac line gets very expensive very quickly: essentially once we get into the territory of dual-processor machines things get prohibitively expensive for no real benefit other than satisfaction of my “power-whore-age”. As we’re talking £1350 minus student discount plus price of a new monitor, this is probably out of my price range.
  4. This leaves me with just the different iMacs to choose from, which basically boils down to lower-end 17″, higher-end 17″ or higher-end 20″. Being the resolution whore that I am, it’s going to have to be the 20″ jobbie.

Money-wise, this works out at £1300 – student discount + cost of more memory (from Crucial, as Apple’s prices are obscene) = £1100 or so – I can’t give you an exact figure because the Apple Education store is kinda broken at the moment.

Anyone got any thoughts on this? Want to congratulate me on finally making a decision? Want to convince me I should go for a different Mac? Want to try to convince me I should stick with my x86 box, Jonty? We got over 20 comments last time: let’s see if we can beat it.

Why I love my college

My college provides 10-megabit internet access to the room of every student who wants it and is willing to shell out the princely sum of £20 a term for it.

In addition to this, a lot of the students in my college have discovered the joys of iTunes. iTunes happens to allow you to share your music over your local network for others to stream. As you can see, this has very pleasant results.

Yup – that’s 34 iTunes shares, most of which are sharing somewhere in the region of 6 gigabytes. This adds up to what is technically termed a shitload of music.

The only downside of this is that Linux as yet appears to lack a decent DAAP client, so Windows is currently by far the superior music platform for me at the moment. This doesn’t help when I’m writing my dissertation in LaTeX, which is severely lacking in Windows support. Music or dissertation? Those of you who know me will know that I am likely to choose music most of the time. This is not a Good Thing™.


Things to do in the next eight weeks or so:

All this while attempting to keep my brain from melting and dribbling out of my ears. Deep breaths, happy place…

Mmmm, Flickr

My sister has a Pro account on Flickr. Flickr gave my sister two Pro subscriptions to give away. She gave one of them to me. (The other one went to Ben, but he has his own blog for talking about that.)

For those of you who haven’t heard of Flickr, it’s something along these lines:

In short, a bit nice. Sadly, the free account has a 20-meg-per-month upload limit. The Pro account has a 2-gig-a-month upload limit, which is rather better. You can check out my current photo collection if you like, and feel free to add me as a contact if you’ve got an account on there yourself.

Sadly, this Flickr account has made me realise how few photos I’ve taken recently. I think I’m going to have to dust off the camera (a Nikon E775 for the interested) and take more photos at whatever occasion crops up: with a JCR piss-up and two May Balls coming up this term, that shouldn’t pose too much of a problem…

The Great Mac Dilemma

Three different MacsThose of you who read Ben’s blog on a regular basis will know that he recently wrote a fairly lengthy essay on whether or not he should buy a PowerBook. His answer was a fairly resounding “yes”, with a side-note of “waah, so much money”. Up until very recently I haven’t even bothered with the dilemmas: I’ve known I want a PowerBook for quite a long time, for most of the reasons Ben suggested plus my vehement dislike of many Microsoft products. (I’m actually writing this from Windows, but only because I’m planning on playing a little Chaos Theory once I’ve finished writing this.)

I have, however, recently come across a dilemma of my own: the observant among you will have already seen the image to your right and guessed what it is. I’ve discovered that, for about the same price as a 15-inch PowerBook with a 1.5GHz G4 processor, I could get a PowerMac with dual 1.8GHz G5 processors. I may even be able to get something better if the rumours of imminent upgrades are to be believed. I could also decide to save a bit of money and just go for a single-G5 iMac (which the rumours claim will soon be clocked at 2GHz) with a nice 20-inch widescreen TFT.

What this really boils down to is the trade-off between portability and power, tied in with the question of how much benefit I would gain from the extra portability of a laptop. This is sadly a question for which I have no reference point, having never owned a laptop in my life. I also don’t really know how much power I’m going to need, seeing as I’m not planning on playing any games on my Mac (anyone who has seen the selection of games available on the Mac will know why) and will primarily use it for development work and, of course, wasting time chatting to people over my IM protocol of choice.

Yes, alright, it’s the MSN Messenger protocol. Stop bugging me.

So, in a nutshell, that’s my dilemma. (If you want to be pernickety, it’s actually my trilemma – “a syllogism with three conditional propositions, the major premises of which are disjunctively affirmed in the minor”. Obviously.)

Any comments that aren’t “just get a Windows PC, it’ll be much better” (yes Jonty, I’m looking at you) would be very much welcomed.

MSN Messenger addendum

Just to follow on from my last post (read: rant), there is a patch out already for the MSN Messenger 7 client at apatch.tk (hat tip to the Scadster) which does an absolutely stellar job of removing the shite that I complained about previously. Cue the necessary disclaimer that this contravenes the MSN Terms of Use and I’m not advocating that you go and install it because it’s probably immoral, possibly illegal and bloody useful.

The result of this is that I’m tentatively trying out Messenger 7 again – it’s sad, though, that such a drastic and illicit patch should be needed to render the software useful.

MSN Messenger, what hast thou dunst?

Microsoft today released MSN Messenger version 7.0 to the eagerly-awaiting public. As Messenger is an application that I use quite a lot (at least when I decide to boot into Windows), I felt I should try out this new version. So I installed it.

I shall start off by saying that this review is going to be less of a review and more of a rant. Needless to say my impression of MSN Messenger 7 is not a good one. I shall complain about a number of things I dislike about the new version, with screenshots no less.

However, I would not like to be thought of as unfairly antagonistic towards Microsoft products (hehe), so I shall list some of the advantages that Messenger 7 offers over Messenger 6.

Yeah, that’s about it.

Sadly, what it brings with this is possibly the most obscene amount of feature bloat and commercialised clutter that I have seen in any piece of software to date, including the famously-bloated ICQ. Let’s take a look at some of Messenger 7’s new features:

So, not looking particularly good on the feature front. The really annoying thing about this, however, is that it’s very difficult (verging on the impossible) to get rid of. For example, the big “Send” button has now been split into a combination “Send”/”Search” button. I’m no HCI expert, but this just seems to be inviting accidental clicking, all for the sake of a feature few people are likely to use. And there seems to be no way to turn it off.

This, combined with the new icons for all the new features you don’t really want, gives the user an astoundingly cluttered interface by default. Example:

The default conversation window which greeted me with MSN 7 (with Messenger Plus installed, hence the two icons on the far left): An example of the clutter present in the new MSN window

Of course, much of this can be removed: the display picture can be hidden, the icons along the top can be hidden, and the little switcher for handwritten versus typed messages doesn’t really get in the way. So this is annoying at first, but can be removed.

Not so the hideous amounts of advertising. There is still, of course, the obligatory advert at the bottom of the contact list, accompanied by advertisements to buy extra emoticons in the emoticon menu: MSN advertises smiley packages to you

the advertisements to buy extra content at the bottom of every conversation window (a hyperlink, of course, just begging to be clicked accidentally): MSN advertises smiley packages to you again

and the addition of links to MSN content right underneath my status indicator: MSN links you to its content

There. My spleen is vented. In summary:

No doubt hacked builds will turn up in a few days with the majority of the advertising removed, but I still doubt I will “upgrade”. It seems not to be worth it in the slightest.

Likes and dislikes

I currently like:

I currently dislike:

<stress />

Linux gaming

This is Tux. With a railgunI made a discovery today: Linux isn’t inherently bad for gaming. Two things have helped me realise this: the first is Darwinia, the second is Doom 3.

First off, Darwinia. You might have heard of it, you might not: it’s certainly not the huge headline-grabber that titles like Grand Theft Auto 3 are (seeing as the game came out in 2001 and is still courting controversy, even if it is just a cheap play for votes), but it’s an interesting game that’s managed to sneak in under the radar. If you’re into RTS games, download the demo and have a play: if you’re not, just take my word for it that it’s very original and worryingly entertaining. Even more impressive, it has a Linux demo. Assuming you’ve got 3D hardware acceleration enabled (which I achieved fairly speedily with the help of this guide) it installs and runs very happily and doesn’t require you to log in as the root account (he says, aiming a glare at Windows software).

Having thus introduced myself to Linux gaming, I remembered that a Linux binary for Doom 3 had been released (comprehensive documentation and everything) so I decided to have a pop at it. I downloaded the binary, executed it, created a few symlinks (that’s “shortcuts” to you Windows types) to the game data files in my Windows installation and set ‘er rolling. The game ran like a charm, even placing my savegames into a .doom3 subdirectory in my home directory in true Linux style.

What really impressed me was that the performance was on a par with (if not better than) the performance I was getting under Windows. I’m not fully sure why I was expecting poor performance: perhaps I was implicitly assuming that a more modular system would necessarily be a slower system: seems I was wrong. Sadly, however, the vast majority of PC games these days are written using Microsoft’s DirectX libraries rather than the OpenGL libraries, thus restricting the portability of those games: id and Epic are the only major companies who pay any great attention to Linux as a gaming platform. This is a great shame.

On the plus side, once this PC is no longer adequate for games I’ll probably replace it with either a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 2 – depending on which is better – and not have to worry about it any more. My work needs will, of course, be served by the PowerBook that I haven’t got yet.

More adventures in networking

I shall try not to make this too ranty, but in my further experiments with wireless networking I’ve found some issues. Will attempt not to dwell on them, but forgive me if I get a little tetchy.

So, I already had a wireless setup something akin to this diagram (which I quickly knocked up in Visio after discovering that attempting to explain networks to people in words is kinda tricky), where the wireless link connected the computers downstairs (including our cable modem and SmoothWall router) to my box upstairs. All well and good, you say. However, there are a couple of problems with this:

So, the plan was to arrange the network more like this diagram here, which should be reasonably transparent as a couple of standard wired networks connected by a wireless link. This has the advantages that:

I did encounter (as one always does with these computer things) some problems. The first one was that WPA doesn’t work when bridging (connecting one access point to another). I’m afraid I haven’t brushed up on my cryptography recently, but this strikes me as a spectacularly dumb effect. I am therefore forced to use WEP, which has been known to be broken for some time now. This problem was easily circumvented with the knowledge that at least two of my neighbours use unencrypted wireless networks, hence I only have to outrun the halfling. It’s harsh, it’s bordering on evil, but hey…

The other problem is an interesting one: at around 3 o’clock today, after a certain amount of tweaking the access points to improve security (telling them not to accept connections from wireless clients, that kind of thing) I suddenly lost connectivity. Assuming I’d broken the configuration somehow, I spent the next few hours fiddling with setting after setting to try and fix it, all to no avail. Later, with some help from my father and a lot of wires trailing around the house, we discovered that the problem was to do with a laser printer. It turns out that, when turned on, a laser printer makes a remarkably effective wireless jamming device (NSA take note). This is quite possibly the most random technical problem I’ve ever had the misfortune to have to fix. It’s fixed now, however, and I submit this epic blog post as proof.

Thank you.

Addendum: bouncing grannies!

I broke Molly

I think I’ve just broken Molly.com: I tried to post a comment on this article but it now returns a “The document contains no data” error.

So sorry about that Molly: I didn’t mean it…

Happy holidays

Ok, I’ve moved back home now for 5 weeks of Easter holiday. Things to do:

Accounting as well for fitting in enough time to visit friends and go to the pub as many times as is feasible, and we’re looking at a holiday that is more work-packed than term-time. How’s that for irony?

A quote

A quote from this guy, as quoted by this guy:

“PHP is like a beautiful woman… with syphilis.”

I just thought I’d share that with you. Also, here’s a quick consciousness >/dev/blog:

Ambitious goals

Black and White 2 screenshotIn an attempt to take full advantage of my ten megabits per second of bandwidth in college, I’ve been taking a look around at videos, in particular an interview with Peter Molyneux at GDC 2005. In this interview he says that he wants to “totally redefine the way we think of an RTS game” and claims his team is set to deliver “the best RTS game that has ever existed. Full stop”.

Two things strike me about this. The first thing is admiration at the sheer passion this guy seems to have about his games: not the overly showmanlike/stupid Ballmer-style passion which we all know and mock, but something much more profound. The second thing, I have to admit, is questioning whether or not Lionhead can pull it off. The original Black & White, inventive though it was, had some very severe failings (it got a bit boring after playing with your creature and teaching him not to eat his own faeces, and much of the voice acting was really atrocious) and I’m not entirely confident that Molyneux et al will be able to avoid that this time.

This seems to some extent to be a curse of Molyneux: that of having amazingly grand ambitions, but not being able to fully realise them and ending up with a product that, while good, leaves you thinking how it could have been better. This condition has also apparently spread to his former protégé, Demis Hassabis: his games (Republic and Evil Genius) have been respectively distinctly mediocre and entertaining, but faulted. I just find that these games give me the impression that they could have been so much more. I hope Black & White 2 will not.

Year of the DOM?

I’m going to start with a confession: I don’t like JavaScript. Whether this is because of unfortunate experiences in the past or unfortunate experiences in the present, I’m not entirely sure. I guess I’ve seen JavaScript used badly far too many times to trust it. In fact, I have even perpetrated some of those bad uses: I once wrote an entire quotation database in JavaScript. The things we have to do when our web hosting doesn’t provide any support for scripting…

Of course, not all misuses of JavaScript are quite so noble: I’m sure we’ve all come across those really annoying scripts which stop you right-clicking on a document (especially annoying when you’re using the All-in-one Gestures plugin).

So far we’ve got the noble-but-flawed uses, the just-plain-annoying uses, and of course the now-outdated uses (JavaScript image rollovers – yes, I’ve used them too). What, then, is JavaScript actually good for, and why are Zeldman (of ‘three-legged stool’ fame), Holzschlag and Willison all interested in it from the point of view of standards-based design?

To be honest, I’m not fully sure: as I’ve said, I’ve steered clear of anything JavaScripty for a long time, but it’s apparently to do with a Document Object Model which allows you to play around with the structure of an HTML document post hoc. It all seems like a horrible hack to me, but someone’s managed to pull off image-free rounded corners with it while leaving the document markup nice and semantic. Of course, there’s also Gmail, which doesn’t even attempt to follow standards but gets points for being really rather shiny.

So, in summary, JavaScript is a nasty horrible hack, but it looks like being a nasty horrible hack which can do some rather nifty tricks while letting you keep your standards intact.

Ooh ‘eck!

As you’ve no doubt noticed, I haven’t posted on this blog in over two weeks: in this age of e-mail, instant messaging and text messages, this would probably mean I’d died – or worse, lost my internet connection. I have, however, reached the milestone of my 21st birthday (on February 19th) with much partying, a fair amount of drinking and the odd thought of “But I haven’t even invented a massively popular blogging system used by millions”.

Due to this abnormally long period of silence, I feel some kind of explanation is probably due. Why have I remained silent for quite so long? In a word, work. You see, Cambridge isn’t the most easy-going of universities at the best of times, and I have recently discovered that in the penultimate term of the final year, with a project to finish and revision to worry about on top of the usual complement of lectures and supervisions, not a huge amount of time is left over for other pursuits.

The good news is that my term finishes in less than a fortnight, so I should be able to get back to a slightly more regular blogging schedule. In the meantime, I leave you with the news that the slides for one of my lecture courses (a series of five lectures on the architectures of various peer-to-peer systems) are written entirely in Comic Sans. I fully plan on staging some form of protest.

Hmm, upgrades

So, WordPress 1.5 (formerly WordPress 1.3, in an optimistic naming convention not entirely dissimilar to Sun’s Java 2, a.k.a. Java 1.2, and Java 5, a.k.a. Java 1.5) has been released, and I’ve installed it. As far as I can see there aren’t many major new features: most of the improvements seem to be in terms of modularity (the new themes system is rather elegant) and performance.

Upgrading was a moderately painless procedure, with WordPress’ allegedly famous 5-minute install not disappointing. I managed to port my page design over with an absolute minimum of fuss (with the help of a simple and helpful online guide. The only issues I’ve had have been with one or two of my plugins (spam-related) not co-operating entirely, so I’ve disabled them. Hopefully this won’t affect how much spam I get, but if it does I can always bolster my defences with a few new plugins.

In summary: good job guys, and bring on the next version!

Oh pants

Just a brief post here, on the topic of a rather silly news story which exemplifies the phrase “only in America” (cheers to Richard Rutter for the link).

It turns out that, in the state of Virginia, a bill is in progress to make it illegal for someone to “expose his below-waist undergarments in an offensive manner”, in reference to the fashion trend of “low-riding”. (Look it up if you don’t know what it is, I’m not overly keen on posting a picture here for fear of giving the wrong impression.)

Fashion opinions aside, this bill is just silly. Thankfully the bill can still be stopped at the senate, but this would appear to be a triumph of – I’m not sure, something – against good old common sense. You just don’t go around banning fashion trends, even the really horrible ones. It’s just a total misuse of the legal system.

Algie Howell, the man behind this proposal, says:

“To vote for this bill would be to do something good not only for Virginia, but for this entire country.”

Yeah. Sure.

Some doors are meant to stay shut

Alone in the DarkIt should come as a surprise to nobody that films based on computer games are, just about without exception, bad. From Street Fighter to Resident Evil to (it had to be mentioned) Super Mario Bros., they’re universally bad: there may be a counterexample somewhere, but I haven’t heard of it. The converse is generally also true: with a few notable exceptions, they’re generally lacklustre spinoffs intent on making a quick cash-in on the film. However, back to films. They generally range from bad (Tomb Raider) to astoundingly bad (the aforementioned Mario Brothers film).

You’d think we’d all be used to this by now, but occasionally a game-based film will come along which is so excrementally poor that it has to generate a smelly brown blip on our radars. Alone in the Dark is one such film – just check out the reviews and you’ll see precisely what I mean. Possibly the most definite danger sign about the film is that it’s directed by Uwe Boll, a director with an amazing record of taking game licenses and making them into shit films. So far he’s managed House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark, and he’s apparently working on a BloodRayne film (a game based on a Nazi-killing vampiress dressed in black leather – I think I sense a really bad film on the horizon) and has announced a film based on Far Cry (which is going to suck almost as badly). I think I can safely say this is one man who should never be allowed near a camera again as long as he lives.

I’m not really sure why abysmal game-based films grate on me so much. It may just be that they’re taking a licensed property and ruining it (which is also true of comic book licenses such as Catwoman or, going back a bit, Spawn), but I think it’s also the negative stigma they pin on gamers. I can imagine a “normal person” going to see one of these films and thinking “Damn, these ‘gamers’ like this kind of crap? What sad bastards”. Whichever it is, I think we can agree that some things should never see the light of day. Alone in the Dark is one. Uwe Boll is another.

Holy flying automobiles, Batman!

Taylor AerocarDisclaimer: this, contrary to appearances, is not an anti-Microsoft rant.

I saw a couple of stories on El Reg this morning regarding Microsoft’s latest R&D plans: a flying car!

(Précis for the lazy: some routing software produced by Microsoft has been found to produce some rather silly routes. For example, Haugesund (Norway) toTrondheim (Norway) via London (UK) and Brussels (Belgium), or Swansea (Wales) to Birmingham (England) via Cork (Ireland).)

From this, I draw three conclusions:

  1. Computers are stupid.
  2. Computer programs which attempt to perform some kind of AI are capable of making computers seem even more stupid, because we, as humans, expect the task of producing “obvious” conclusions to be easy.
  3. People who write commercially-available computer programs without testing them properly are also stupid.

Eat hot Google death, comment-spamming scum!

Good news: a small search engine company called Google – you may have heard of them – have implemented a system by which links tagged with the rel="nofollow" attribute don’t contribute to a site’s PageRank. This is a Good Thing, as PageRank-boosting is the main reason for comment spam. At least in theory, this should mean that comment spammers will have no more reason to post on blogs, although quite how long it will take them to figure this out and whether they’ll find some other reason remains to be seen.

Better news: a lot of people have signed up to implement this in their blog systems, most notably Matt of WordPress and Anil of Six Apart of Movable Type.

Better news than the first bit, but not quite as good as the second bit: Google, unlike some companies I could name, have (apparently) managed to implement this new feature without messing with the HTML specification, which explicitly allows for extra link types to be specified. It does, however, mention a profile attribute needing to be set in the <head> tag – I’m not sure whether this is something that needs to be added which points to some Google profile, but a test document I threw together without it seemed to get past the W3C validator. Something I’m going to have to look into at a later date, I feel, but at least it means people using nofollow will still be able to check their pages for validity.

In short, this is a very welcome development, and one I hope will help curb the glut of comment spam we seem to be seeing at the moment (especially for Movable Type users, causing some of them to move over to WordPress). In short, I’m hopeful – maybe we can kill off comment spam for good.

An Apple a day bankrupts you

Chances are you’ve heard of the MacWorld ’05 product announcements. You may even have watched all 2 hours of the streamed version. If you haven’t, here’s a summary:

In summary, it’s looking like this will be a good year for Apple, and the arrival of Tiger could well be my cue to switch. Along with this whole ‘graduating’ thing, which I’m planning on doing at some point, and this ‘getting a job’ thing. That said, I’m planning on ploughing through my savings for 6 months or so after graduation, taking the gap year I never had, so money may be a little on the short side. Of course, by then it’ll be time for the next MacWorld expo, so who knows what Mr Jobs will have up his sleeve?

Apache vs. Apache

Item 1: I use Apache as my web server of choice. I use it on the Queens’ JCR web server (which I built from scratch, fairly standard LAMP setup). My hosting provider uses it (I have no input whatsoever into this, but it’s worth mentioning). I also run it on my own box for serious development and general faffing (“faff” in the sense of waste time, not female genitalia).

Item 2: I use PHP as my current web scripting language of choice. Despite some problems I may have with it, it’s popular and it works. This unfortunately leads us to…

Problem A: PHP and Apache 2 don’t play nicely with each other. Up until recently the PHP site carried a severe warning saying “do not use PHP with Apache 2 or your computer will fall over and die in a myriad different horrific and painful ways” or words to that effect. This has thankfully been amended to the slightly more helpful “we do not recommend using a threaded MPM in production with Apache2”. A slightly more verbose explanation is also offered.

(Brief note: one of the main new features introduced in Apache 2 is the concept of a multiprocessing module – a module which allows Apache to run in whatever exciting combination of separate processes and threads it sees fit. PHP doesn’t get on with the default one of these, leaving the possibility of the aforementioned horrific server-death.)

“All well and good,” we say, “just use a different MPM. I’ve heard this ‘prefork’ jobbie works quite nicely”.

apt-get install apache2-mpm-prefork apache2 apache2-common works fine. apt-get install libapache2-mod-php5 doesn’t. This is because, as PHP5 and Apache 2 have been uncooperative for the life of PHP5, the Debian folks haven’t produced a PHP5 module for Apache 2.

Until now, when a friendly chap has popped up an unofficial apt repository supplying exactly what I’ve been looking for (thanks go to Matt Croydon for spotting it and to Google for spotting him).

I’m a happy geek. Now I just have to try installing it on the odd web server here and there and hope nothing cocks up in the process.


Happy new year, one and all. No resolutions, no ‘year-in-review’ retrospectives. Just hope you all have a great 2005.

Experiments in Linux

Tux, the Linux penguinHello everyone. My name’s David, and I’m a Linux user.

Yes, it’s true. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending the majority of time with The Other Operating System, only dipping my toes into the Teletubby-blue waters of Windows for an occasional play of Full Spectrum Warrior (the only game I know to be able to include the line “Charlie thirty-two, this is Charlie niner-zero, please confirm objective, over” and not sound silly). A significant chunk of the apps that I use regularly are cross-platform anyway (Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice…) and the rest have reasonable substitutes under Linux (AMSN for my instant messaging needs, vi for my text editing, etc). I may also have a shot at using Eclipse for PHP development, courtesy of Ben saying it’s rather shiny.

There is, however, one gaping hole in my Linux application portfolio. That’s a really good media player.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled a little under Windows – I’ve got Winamp and iTunes, both of which support nice things like a persistent music library with ratings, play statistics and, importantly, dynamic playlist generation. iTunes will stream music over the local network (astoundingly useful when at college) and Winamp has insane levels of customisability.

Linux has xmms. This is a media player which does what it does perfectly well – sadly, what it does is roughly comparable with what Winamp 2.8 did. This isn’t a good thing, especially when one has a 6 gigabyte MP3 collection and wants to play only a selection of it (say, anything less than 6 months old which I gave a 3-star or higher rating). Not easy to do.

I have, as a result, revived a past liaison with Last.FM. It’s rather shiny – in essence, it’s an Internet radio station which streams music to you. This much isn’t so special, as there are many other Internet radio stations. However, as you rate the songs it plays for you, it learns your tastes. This means that, while it will occasionally do something silly like play Macy Gray at you, it eventually ends up playing music which is attuned pretty damn well to your tastes. I shall keep listening to it until I get back to college, whereupon I will no doubt defect back to Windows for the purposes of listening to a selection of 30-odd iTunes network shares. I’m shallow like that.

What you can achieve

…with CSS-based design. If you’re really feeling masochistic.

Bruce Lawson’s GeoCities 1996 – created for the CSS Zen Garden.

I think the message we can take from this is as follows:

Just because a site is standards-compliant doesn’t mean it isn’t a festering pile of shite.

Addendum: this guy’s site now seems to have gone down due to exceeding his bandwidth limit. Here you go kiddies, proof (if you needed it) that good design can save you on bandwidth! 😉

Quote of the Moment

Quote from an interview with Linus:

I really can’t plan my way out of a cardboard box.

Looks like I’m in good company there then… :)

Invasion of the Morons

In helping my mother (who, bless her, isn’t the most tech-savvy person in the world) sort out her e-mail, I’ve discovered a contender for “most moronic software decision” in Microsoft Outlook 2002. I believe this has been rectified in the latest version of Outlook, but that’s really no excuse.

When browsing through one’s e-mail, Outlook offers the opportunity to group your e-mails by any of the fields. The most useful application of this tends to be grouping by sender, or perhaps grouping by which account you used to receive the message. These Outlook manages to handle reasonably well (with a few little niggles, but that’s forgivable). However, one might also conceivably want to group mesages by when you received them, by month, week, or even day. This would make things much nicer. However, Outlook decides to group them by minute.

This results (in this case) in approximately 5,000 message groups, very few of which have more than one item in them. I can only assume that the developers at Microsoft had assumed a braindead state before coding this up.

Oh, and storing all of the user’s mail, calendar information and address book in a single file is a poor design decision, especially as their mail backlog becomes larger and larger. Making this file not recover empty space (thus making it monotonically increasing in size) is just stupid.

Rant over – back I go to Thunderbird.

Spread the word

Today, a double-page advert was published in the New York Times. It advertises Firefox. My name is on it, albeit along with ten thousand or so other people’s names to fill up the space.

I feel all proud. Huge amounts of respect to the Spread Firefox team and everyone who donated for making this happen.

Addendum: if you’re feeling really interested or sad, my name is just to the right of the ‘x’ of ‘Firefox’, half-way up the letter.

Language barriers

I’m currently suffering something of a dilemma as regards choice of programming language for website development. For those of you who aren’t of a particularly geeky bent, this is probably going to seem incredibly tedious, so you probably want to skip on this entry. I suspect, however, that there aren’t many non-geeks reading my blog, so here goes. Read on…

Fame and glory

Imagine, if you will, a small-time author. This author hasn’t had any kind of publishing deals, and writes more or less to amuse himself.

Now imagine that Stephen King (or Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, or whoever your favourite author of the moment happens to be) publicly reveals that, not only has he read your stuff, but offers it up for others to read too.

Matt Mullenweg just linked to my blog. This is a Good Thing™.

(Addendum: for the lazy, a link to the article in question.)

I’m dreaming of a red christmas…

One copy of Full Spectrum Warrior: £15.

One copy of Manhunt (free controversy with every copy): £15.

The prospect of a session of blood-soaked Christmas gaming: priceless.

There are some things you’re allowed to do in real life. For everything else, there’s games.

So… T-shirts

I’ll let you all into a little secret – I have a rather twisted sense of humour.

What? You already knew that? Oh, ok. I just thought I’d mention it, because of my recent experiences with T-shirts. Over the summer, I decided to indulge myself and buy a t-shirt featuring the deeply misunderstood Mr Stabby. I felt this would be suitably humorous without being so offensive as to get the lynch mob coming around with pitchforks. Having had this t-shirt for a few months, I’m very tempted to go one step further and purchase some merchandise from T-shirt Hell, who specialise in twisted and offensive t-shirts. (Warning: portions may be unsafe for work and/or generally offensive)

The three t-shirts I find fairly interesting are as follows: laughter, Jesus and babies.

As you can see, the first one is a touch strange, and the other two are potentially rather offensive to the staunchly religious and to babies respectively. Here we come to my dilemma: do any of these cross my personal boundary of tastelessness? Here is what I think:

I’m not entirely sure why it took a whole blog post to figure this out for myself, nor entirely why I’ve got such a long post about items of clothing, but then again what are blogs for (other than external memory)?

This is news?

Just a little something to tide you over until I next get around to posting:

I came along this story while browsing the BBC News website. As far as I can see, the story is this:

A group of people didn’t didn’t win the National Lottery (a.k.a. The Innumeracy Tax) because they didn’t buy a ticket with the winning numbers on it, due to the fact that the person they send didn’t have enough change.

Excuse me, is this meant to be some kind of revelation? Am I meant to be shocked and amazed at a group of people who failed to win the lottery? In fact, not only that, but one of them has come up with the wonderful quote:

“I don’t know what to do now, but I won’t let the matter rest.”

What, exactly, were you planning to do? Just about the only course of action I could think of would be to lynch the person who didn’t buy the right ticket, and that’s hardly sharing in the wonderful community spirit, is it?

I marvel at the stupidity of some people…


Just a brief post – saw this sign on a bus on my way to a lecture a couple of days ago, and found it rather humorous. In true geek style, therefore, I took a photo of it with my phone’s camera, transferred it to my computer via Bluetooth, then uploaded it to my blog.

I’m such a Compsci.

Bus sign depicting a disabled (or rather headless) passenger

Edit: quite a number of people don’t seem to have got the joke, so here it is in short words. The person in the picture has no head. Someone with no head is, in general, quite badly disabled. This is funny. Ha ha.

Lovely spam, wonderful spam

Spam with cheeseI have just realised how fortunate I’ve been to have entirely avoided blog spam over the past 4 months. I don’t know what’s set it off (presumably I’ve got onto some spamming group’s list) but I’ve had somewhere in the region of 20 comments linking to porn, prescriptions and poker (and other things beginning with P as well, no doubt). As a result, I’ve turned on a few content filters, which should help filter out the majority of spam. It may, however, mean that a few legitimate comments get flagged for moderation, but they should get through pretty quickly.

To any of you who this inconveniences, my apologies. To those of you who are spamming me, leave now. Your spam will not get past me, you will not get a boost to your PageRank, you are not welcome.

Thank you.

Experiments in versioning

Recently, in an attempt to ease coding pains while also putting off doing any real work, I’ve experimented with versioning systems. My only previous experience of this was working on a group project back around Easter time, when I was appointed group CVS techie for having read through the manual more quickly than anyone else in my group. The main responsibility of being a CVS techie, I learned, seems to be to muddle around with it when the repository somehow manages to corrupt itself, and bitchslapping anyone who commits buggy code. Perhaps not the most appealing introduction to versioning there.

(For those who haven’t come across versioning systems, they work something like this: there’s a central body of code for a project, known as a repository. Different developers can get hold of (“check out”) a copy of this code, make whatever modifications are needed, and write back (“commit”) their changes to the repository. If someone else has made changes to the repository while you’ve been making yours, you can tell the versioning system to try to merge these changes together, usually with a reasonable degree of success.)

So anyway, fast forward n months to the present. I decide that, for my website development as well as a 10,000-word dissertation that I’m planning on writing in LaTeX, I could probably do with getting the hang of some form of version control. It would also make it easier to develop using my dual-booting Windows/Linux box.

Going on the experience of certain people, and going on my less-than-rosy past experiences with CVS, I decided to plump for Subversion, which was apparently designed to be “a better CVS” (or CVS++, if you’re feeling geeky). It also has a companion project, interestingly titled TortoiseSVN, which provides some rather nice integration into the Windows shell. Very handy.

To cut an increasingly long story short, I’m really feeling the benefits of version-controlled development. I can synchronise my Windows, Linux and ‘live’ copies, and still have another local copy for new developments and so forth. My only real problem with it (other than having to type in my password up to 3 times to connect to the server, which I can live with) is that Windows and Linux don’t co-operate very well, as we all know. This essentially means that my database backup and restore scripts don’t get marked as executable by default, and that I may have to do something horrible soon, like give them .bat extensions. In the meantime, however, my Windows development will just have to be inconvenienced a bit until I get myself a Mac (a plan which is still sitting around on the drawing board complaining that it hasn’t got any money).

Apologies for the overly technical/geeky nature of this post, by the way – I’ll no doubt get back to something a little less hardcore in due course.

The sweet sound of silence

As you may or may not have noticed, I haven’t made any posts for over two weeks. In a blog, this could conceivably be viewed as a Bad Thing™. I wish I could claim that I’ve been spending my days working so hard that I haven’t had time to post here. Which is almost true, but not entirely. I’ve been spending my days either working, drinking in the bar, or playing games, most notably the disturbingly addictive Evil Genius. (Think Dungeon Keeper meets Austin Powers and you’re about there.)

On the work front, most of my time has been taken up with thinking about my dissertation for this year, which essentially consists of implementing a piece of software (or hardware, if you’re so inclined) and then writing 10,000 words about it. My idea for the project (inspired mainly by my web development experiences) is going to be implementing an intuitive graphical manager for SQL queries (in a “dragging-little-boxes-around” way). The good thing about this is that I might actually finish my project with something that’s actually vaguely useful.

The bad thing about it is that, as part of my research into existing solutions, I’ve had to install Microsoft SQL Server on my computer (security holes and all) and am currently wrestling with it.

On second thought, I think I might just go and plot to take over the world for an hour or two instead.

The final stretch

Cambridge University crestSo, after an interminable summer holiday (best described as one week of excitement nestled in 15 weeks of excruciating boredom) I’m back at Queens’ College, Cambridge for my final year. Assuming that I don’t go on to do a PhD, of course. Which, seeing as the part of this year I’m fearing the most is my dissertation, is quite unlikely.

This return will probably have one of two outcomes: either I will post less often due to some fairly heavy work commitments, or I will post more often due to my finely-honed procrastination skills. It’s also possible that these two will precisely cancel each other out, causing me to post with precisely the same frequency as I do currently. We shall see.

Until then, roll on Freshers’ Week! :-)

Deep Voodoo

Just come across this on photomatt.net – a function to convert double line breaks to paragraphs, with various other niceties thrown in for good measure. Two thoughts on this: firstly, that is a very handy and shiny function. Secondly, it rather rams home just how crazy and unintelligible regular expressions can end up being, even to the experienced. Hell, even the documentation is confusing. Just take a look at it – sit there, stare, and marvel at its sheer impregnability. I was going to quote a short passage in this post, but it appears the sheer number of back and forward slashes has overwhelmed WordPress.

In fact, the only thing I’ve come across more voodoo-like than regexes is mod_rewrite. Which uses regexes.

Now, if you will excuse me, all this thinking is making my brain overheat…

Wireless, Linux and encryption, oh my!

Ok, a bit of backstory for you:

So, that’s most of the backstory. I’ve managed to get encrypted wireless access in the comfort of my own home (although my neighbours, it would seem, are rather less conscientious. All is well.

And then I boot into Linux.

I will admit it – I can be horribly naïve at times. I have this habit of forgetting how incredibly frustrating it can be to use Linux from time to time. This turns out to be one of those times. The main reason for this, however, is not actually the fault of the guys developing the various Linux distributions, but the fault of the people who make and sell wireless cards. These people, in a wonderful attack of benevolence, have produced drivers which work with the myriad versions of Windows.

“What’s that you say? You want drivers which work with Linux? Which version of Windows is that?”

So, no drivers. This is a pain. There are some people, however, who have produced a rather useful application which wraps around Windows drivers and allows them to be used under Linux. It isn’t an ideal solution, but it’s much better than nothing.

Unfortunately, however, I want to use WPA as well. This requires the installation of another piece of software called wpa_supplicant. I need to set up the configuration file, compile it, install it, and hope it works.

Which it doesn’t. This is all with Fedora failing to boot up half the time.

After many hours of frustration, I decide to forget the whole affair and go back to using Windows. I’ve decided I really like wires.

Another style note…

Just a quick note to thank Dunstan Orchard for his article on link design. If you examine my menu bar currently situated to your left, you will see that it is indeed inspired by this article.

So big up Dunstan :-)


Looky, new style! (If you don’t see it, try hard-refreshing your browser)

Those of you who have been following my exploits will know that I was originally planning to write my own all-singing, all-dancing, all-coffee-making blog system from scratch. Then I wussed out and went with WordPress, a decision which (other than for reasons of pride) I haven’t regretted.

My inner developer, however, was not satisfied with my pulling a package down off the great shelf that is the Internet and using that. Besides, I needed the practice at coding (read: working around Internet Explorer’s myriad misimplementations of every standard known to man).

So, enjoy. Please feel free to comment on the new design, as I’m still pretty new to the world of CSS-based design, so any feedback is encouraged.

Anyone for Gmail?

I have 6 Gmail invitations. Anyone want an account? Now you, too, can have adverts for bull semen in the comfort of your own home! :)

Thermonuclear War XP

I have commented in the dim and distant past about Windows’ strengths and weaknesses and the places where Windows does and really doesn’t belong. I have to grudgingly admit that Windows probably does belong (when reinforced with reguarly updated anti-virus software and a solid firewall) in the desktop arena. It might even belong in the odd server or two.

It probably does not belong in PDAs. It does not belong in cars. It definitely does not belong in ATMs. And it really does not belong in nuclear-armed submarines.

This is downright scary. I would have thought that, in the Royal Navy’s choice of technological systems, security would be the single largest priority, especially for systems which will be used in combat situations. It would appear I am mistaken…

Meep meep?

Bunsen Honeydew (right) and BeakerIt’s official – the UK’s favourite TV scientists are The Muppets’ Bunsen and Beaker, getting more than twice as many votes (33%) as the second-place Mr Spock (15%). This seems deeply righteous.

I think Beaker is also probably the coolest Muppet, although Animal and the Swedish Chef come close…

(Yes, this is a very random post, but…. Beaker!

Comic genius

On an entirely geek-unrelated note, I found this stall in Stansted Airport rather amusing. And, for those lucky few of you who haven’t met me face to face, the guy in front with the mucky expression is me.

Yes, I know – I have a sick and warped mind.

Schtopp, this font is not ready yet!

For those of you who have been wondering why I haven’t posted for the past week or so, I’ve been on holiday in sunny Amsterdam with my family (all food and drink paid for, but no chance to sample the Amsterdam night life). Even more impressive than me getting out of the house is that, for the whole five days, I barely touched a computer. The only exception was when, in a fit of “Oh-it’s-so-shiny”, I spent 15 minutes wandering around one of Amsterdam’s Apple Stores, trying not to drool over the 17-inch PowerBooks.

My other moment of geekdom was related not to computers as such, but to fonts. I was dismayed to find that I could barely walk around for 10 minutes without seeing a label, sign or menu written in the scourge of the font world, Comic Sans.

I knew before this trip that this font had achieved a certain amount of infamy through criminal overuse, but it wasn’t until I arrived in Amsterdam that the problem was really hammered home. Over and over again. Considering the anti-Comic-Sans movement appears to have been going on for a good couple of years now, and The Font is still spreading and being recommended in beginners’ computer courses (I speak from experience here), I worry for the sake of the world. While Comic Sans probably has places where it’s appropriate (although I can’t think of any right at the moment), it scares me how often it seems to crop up.

I may just have to join the Ban Comic Sans movement…

Longhorn evisceration

Snipped Longhorn logoThe little bird known as El Reg tells me that Microsoft are planning to slice features out of Longhorn (the version of Windows under development, for the uninitiated) to make a 2006 ship date. The most notable of these are WinFS and Avalon. WinFS was touted to be the filesystem to end all filesystems, allowing you to query your file structure just as if it were a database, and find exactly the file or files you wanted effortlessly. Looks like that’s going to be snipped, although it did seem a little too advanced for its own good.

The other feature, Avalon, is something I’m less keen on losing. Essentially, as far as I can tell, Avalon combines a rather nicer method of writing graphical interfaces (called XAML) with Microsoft’s amazing and revolutionary technique of having each application write its graphics out to an internal buffer, and then to use a DirectX graphics card to combine these windows together in a fully hardware-accelerated manner. This feature is so amazing and revolutionary that they appear to be cutting it out to attain release by 2006. I guess this is the technology of the distant future after all.

So why exactly does Apple appear to have already implemented it?

Sadly, it seems to me like the much-lauded, all-singing, all-dancing offering from Microsoft is slipping to be significantly less impressive. Ah well, by 2006 I’ll probably have a Mac anyway… :-)

Addendum: CNet has a slightly different story, claiming that not only will Avalon be part of Longhorn, it will also be released for Windows XP along with the third ‘big feature’ of Longhorn, codenamed Indigo. This seems rather strange, as it implies they are generating more work for themselves, which could hardly bring the ship date forward. I suppose we shall find out in 2006. Maybe.

Buzzword compliance

This year, for instance, a programmer can always tack the phrase “and I’m thinking of incorporating some XML functionality” onto a project summary to explain why he’ll need an extra week, account for a missed deadline, or impress a superior. (source)

I read this, and realised quite how true it was – XML is so the new black, darling. I myself have to confess that I’ve fallen to the allure of XML, as my JCR minutes system stores the minutes internally as XML documents, parsed and converted by the excellent SimpleXML library included with PHP5. No doubt Inkling (if I ever get started on it) will use XML in some shape or form as well. I’m not entirely sure why it’s so useful – probably because it’s simple, flexible and, while quite verbose, extremely compressible by your favourite compression method.

Ever more intrusive advertising

In the world of online advertising, a “new” phenomenon has recently started to rear its ugly head. Generally, for larger sites to keep themselves in business, some space needs to be set aside in the site to put little adverts up. Then the nice companies give the nice people a certain amount of nice money, and everyone is happy.

Well, except the users who have to trawl through advertising to read content.

It would be nice to have a world where no advertising was needed, where websites could just publish their content and we could read it, and no advertising would be needed. That would be nice. Very nice. However, the world doesn’t work like that, and I reckon most of us can accept that advertising is a necessary evil online.

However, as such advertising gets more widespread, people get more used to it and are thus less likely to click on it. So then more advertising is needed to generate revenue, and so the vicious circle continues. This has caused ever more intrusive techniques to be used, from pop-up adverts to inter-paragraph adverts to interstitials (pages that display an advert instead of the page you actually wanted) and more recently those annoying Flash adverts which pop up in front of the page you’re reading, and you have to search around for the elusive “close this” button which will let you get rid of it.

Unfortunately, the newest technique, known as IntelliTXT is even more insidious and annoying. For the detailed story, I’d encourage readers to study this Wired.com article (although you may want to be cautious of the fact that loading that page apparently causes Firefox to consume about 60% of one’s CPU resources – this seems to be caused, ironically enough, by a Flash advert). The basic story is that, instead of keeping the adverts clearly separate from the actual content, particular words (such as “developer”, “worm” or “sound card”) are converted into links which look just like “real” links, except they cause a little box to pop up linking to a sponsored site.

This technique claims to be 24 times more effective than other advertising methods, and I can tell you why in a second – it’s because it essentially revolves around tricking the user into thinking an advert is actually a legitimate link to something which might actually be of interest. While I do appreciate that websites need to make money to keep going, this seems to be taking it a little too far, such that it is pretty much deceiving people to do so.

Addendum: you may or may not remember that Microsoft tried to implement something a little similar into Internet Explorer 6, although that was on the side of the client rather than the server. That got dropped like a hot brick after people started screaming – hopefully IntelliTXT will go the same way.

Doom 3 impressions

Doom 3 Cherub MonsterWell, as you may have noticed, I haven’t posted anything for the past week or so. This is almost entirely due to playing large quantities of Doom 3.

If you’ve read reviews of Doom 3, you’ll have noticed that they say the graphics are abso-bloody-lutely gorgeous.

They are right.

You may have also noticed that some reviews say the gameplay is a little repetitive, that the AI is rather stupid (in a running-at-you-and-throwing-the-odd-fireball kind of way) and that there are a number of plot-holes (like how one marine manages to survive when everyone else is getting slaughtered).

They are also right (although to the people who ask about how one marine manages to survive I say this – did you complain when one geeky scientist with a silly beard survived?)

However, I agree with the general consensus that Doom 3 is a damn fine game – not least because it (quite literally, at times) oozes atmosphere. However, one main thing has struck me about the game: killer demon flying insect babies are really creepy.

Register this!

If you’ve spent any great length of time browsing round “the Interweb”, chances are you’ve run into one of these compulsory registration sites. And, if you have, it’s quite possible you’ve run into the rather lovely BugMeNot. (For the uninitiated, it’s a communal site where anyone can set up a phoney account with one of these registration-requiring sites, whereupon anyone can use it.) This often gets one around the problem quite nicely.

However, some other sites are a little more annoying in that they want to send you a confirmation e-mail with a password in it, or a link you have to visit to confirm your address. Sadly, this category of sites includes most of those which offer free evaluation copies of their software, such as Zend and NuSphere, both of whom produce PHP coding IDEs that I’m quite keen on trying out. Bit of a bugger to get round, you might think.

Not according to the public-spirited folks at Mailinator.com. Essentially, the idea is a very simple one – unlimited temporary accounts. You think of a suitably exciting name (anything from yourmother@mailinator.com to hobbledehoy@mailinator.com), and Mailinator will store any e-mail received for that account for a few hours – more than enough to reply to a confirmation e-mail. After that, the account vanishes into the ether.

Just so long as some corporate bigwig doesn’t start bombarding them with cease-and-desist orders, problem solved :-)

So hot…

ObjectDock Weather DockletHuman side: it’s really rather hot at the moment – my little weather checker tells me it’s 29°C (84°F) outside, and sunny. It feels hotter. Got a fan aimed right at my face, and I’m still boiling. Geek side: I’ve had to turn up the fan speed on both my case fan and my Zalman flower, and take out two front plates on 5.25″ drive bays to improve my airflow. And the motherboard temperature is still up at 47°C (116°F).

Crazy heat. Crazy, crazy heat.

Killer psycho game update

Manhunt screenshot - James Earl Cash prepares to strikeA few interesting developments in the “mothers vs. Manhunt” controversy:

Gettin’ codin’

Well, not exactly, but sort of… I finally got round to customising the blogroll plugin I got for WordPress. Not wanting to over-strain my coding muscles, I just put in a slightly fuzzier date system which reports the update as either “today”, “yesterday” or “n days ago”, giving the time of day as per usual. This is probably more use for me than most of the Viewing Public™, as I’ve currently not got a wonderful grasp of quite what day it is :-/ (Besides which, while the YYYY-mm-dd date format is useful, unambiguous and lexicographically sortable, it takes a little bit of thinking to work out just which day it’s talking about).

So – my first foray back into PHP for a couple of months (my last project being my College JCR site). With a bit of perseverance I can keep it going and get the Inkling framework coded.

We’ll see.

Guns don’t kill people, games do

ManhuntIf you’re keeping up with the news (as I’m sure you all are), you will probably have heard the news story about the 17-year-old who killed his friend after playing the game Manhunt. As a result, the victim’s parents have called for the game to be pulled from store shelves, and a number of retailers have apparently listened.

Now, with all the previous cases that have occurred (mostly in the States), this is something of a trod and re-trod argument, but I believe this is the first time such a tragedy has occurred in Britain (not to mention the first time such a tragedy has occurred since I’ve had a blog) so I feel an urge to say something vaguely relevant. I guess the first thing I ought to say is that I accept, fully and unreservedly, that Manhunt is not a nice game. It revolves around killing people in as gruesome a manner as is possible with all variety of implements. If someone was handing this out to kiddies in the local school, people would have every right to grab the nearest placard and get protesting.

However, I wish to draw your attention to the image on the right. It has a little red circle in the bottom-left corner. This little red circle has an “18” written in it. Last time I checked, that little “18” meant that anyone under the age of 18 shouldn’t be playing the damn game! Now, I am all for tighter control on these age restrictions (such as heavy sanctions on any store which sells an 18-rated game to a minor) but don’t deprive us adults of the right to play hideously violent computer games.

So, if it’s not the fault of the gaming industry (as, shockingly enough, I believe) who are we to blame?

First off, let’s blame the kid’s parents. As he’s a minor, his parents should have been checking up on him, making sure he wasn’t playing 18-rated games, and if he had become “obsessed” by a game, doing something to help him. This is their duty as parents and it appears that, to some extent, they failed in that duty. However, most importantly, we should be blaming Warren LeBlanc himself, for taking a claw hammer and a knife, luring Stefan Pakeerah to a park, and murdering him. The kid is 17 – the age of criminal responsibility in Britain is 10. As least give him the dignity of being responsible for his own actions. Don’t insult all of us by scapegoating.

In the spirit of randomness…

My likeness in LegoI know one of these things comes around every six months or so, but I’m afraid I’m something of a sucker for them (I’m sure I have a South Park one hanging around somewhere). Anyway, it’s a make-your-own-likeness-in-Lego tool – more than adequate for passing 15 minutes of your day :) (Cheers to Karen Vaughn for the link)

So, without too much further ado, here’s me. Enjoy.

Oh, and still no progress on Inkling design – I could really do with splitting it up into smaller sub-projects to make it less daunting, or I could just stop being such a lazy goit and get on with it.

Addendum – it would probably be clever to post the link, wouldn’t it? Here you go.

The Great Mac Shift

It seems that everywhere I look, more and more geeks I know are making the Switch™. Those few of you who’ve known me for a while will know that I’ve been a devout Mac-basher for a long time. At least until recently. Now I’m having disturbing urges to buy one.

“Disturbing?” I hear you cry. “Why on Earth would it be disturbing?” Well, the main reason is that, even with Apple’s student discount, they’re kinda pricey, especially for someone with a £-800 bank balance and no plans to get a job this summer. Also I’ve recently spent £130 on a new graphics card for my current machine (which is, at least in theory, a Windows/Linux dual-boot system) to let me play some of the shinier upcoming games, and don’t particularly want to waste that investment. So it’s not looking like I’ll be making the Big Switch any time soon.

However, when I next come to upgrade my computer, I think I may well get myself a Mac, along with some kind of console for gaming if necessary (although by that time I shall probably be out in the Real World with a Real Job). In the meantime, I think I shall just run iTunes, run a Tiger theme on my Windows box, and dream…


It would appear that my friend Ben has a nascent weblog on his site. If anyone’s wondering why they started within a fortnight of each other, it’s because we’re sharing hosting. This post about it exists for a couple of reaons:

Off topic…

I would just like to point out that this gentleman wishes to be your friend.

Aside from that, I’d like to say that, firstly, I’m really looking forward to Doom 3, and secondly I feel the need to curse my love of gaming. Strangely, it feels like one of those things which gets me marked out as “sad” by the public, and “softcore” by the computing élite. It’s also one of the major reasons which puts me off switching to a Mac (the other, of course, being my traditional student lack of funds combined with my traditional family tight-fistedness on my mother’s side). Damn you, gaming!

Creative juices update

Update on the blog system I’m planning on writing (yet have still got no further on than a few scribbling’s in the rather nice OneNote) – a techie friend of mine by the name of Jonty has suggested the rather better codename of “Inkling”. I like this name. I like this name better than “Smidgen”. Hence, I am adopting it. Muchos kudos to Jonty :)

You can tell I’m putting off actually coding this thing up, can’t you?

Microsoft software? Bad? Never!

I just read an article on The Register which is simultaneously humorous, relevant and worrying. For those of you too lazy to read it, the basic gist is that Excel is taking text used to describe genes (I don’t really know any of the theory, but the example given is “SEPT2”, which Google informs me “modulates the activity of GLAST, a glutamate transporter in astrocytes”) and “helpfully” reformatting it (in this case to “2-Sep-2004”.

I’m guessing that the humour in this is pretty obvious, so moving on to why it’s relevant – I had a similar problem when trying to get my contact information over from Outlook to Thunderbird via a tab-separated text file. In order to cut out some of Outlook’s insane gamut of irrelevant fields (including an astounding 18 possible entries for phone and fax numbers), I imported this file into Excel (fool that I am). Excel promptly changed all the phone numbers present into the singularly unhelpful form “7.73E+09”. How useful.

And finally, the reason why this is worrying – surely genetic researchers have better and more specialised tools available to them than Excel? This appears to be happening everywhere, from scientific papers being written as Word documents instead of LaTeX files to bank ATMs running Windows. I have, myself, seen a Halifax ATM with a popup informing me to “Please run VirusScan from the command line” – what the hell is going on there?

I’m not saying Microsoft software is universally awful (not in this post, anyway) – in fact Windows is my primary OS at the moment, partially due to lack of Linux drivers for most wireless cards, partly because of these “game” things. What I am saying, however, is that these things have their place. And for genetic research and banking software, there are better things out there guys. Please use them…

Minor stylesheet update

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve made a few little tweaks to the stylesheet here and there – essentially, I’ve taken the WordPress default and made it blue instead of green. I know it’s only a stop-gap measure, and I’m planning on doing an all-new shiny layout with graphics, sliding doors and everything else a geek might need. This is just a temporary measure so I don’t look like I haven’t a clue what I’m doing…

Hello PHP5!

Cheers to Simon Willison for the heads-up on this one – seems PHP5 has finally got past the Release Candidate stage and been released. This is quite a biggie for me, as I’m planning to write my weblog system (tentatively codenamed “Smidgen”) using plenty of nice object-oriented techniques, which PHP5’s Zend Engine bring in. (For your information, the majority of coding that I’ve actually been taught, as opposed to learned myself, has been in Java, hence the “clean coding is good, mmkay” mindset.) Oh, and quite possibly a nice bit of XML for extra buzzword-compliance.

I just hope that server admins can be persuaded to make the upgrade reasonably quickly…

I’m not stupid, I’m just lazy

A quick note for the thousands upon thousands of you who read this blog (yes, that’s right, both of you) – I am aware that my only effort at customisation is the blogroll to the right, I am aware that this is bad, and I am working on getting a new stylesheet/template up and working.

I’m just currently suffering from a combination of designer’s block and being too damn lazy to get off my arse and code up the CSS.

(Yes, I am aware that coding CSS generally involves actually being on one’s arse… it’s a figure of speech, ok?)

Gmail hilarity

A selection of Gmail sponsored linksI would be very surprised if you’ve managed to miss all the buzz about Gmail recently – seems everyone and his little sister wants an account. So, just to be ironic, I got hold of an account courtesy of my big sister, and have been poking it with a stick to see what it’s capable of. But I’m not going to be offering a review or anything here (it’s good, by the way) – my main point here is the mildly controversial advertising links that Google posts next to each message you view. According to Google:

Ads in Gmail are placed in the same way that ads are placed alongside Google search results and, through the Google AdSense program, on content pages across the web. Related information provides relevant information from sites in Google’s extensive index of web pages.

Which basically translates as “We’ll apply some fancy heuristic to your e-mail and pick out some adverts we think are related”. Recently, I decided to get in touch with an old friend of mine who is now studying Veterinary Medicine at Liverpool University. Obviously, her reply contained the occasional reference to farmyard animals, as vets are wont to do. Google decided to accompany this with the sponsored links to your right.

Take a look at the third one especially. Need I say more?

Three Questions

Chances are you will have three questions on visiting this site: who am I, what am I writing a blog for, and why should you care?

I’ll attempt to answer them, in rough order of difficulty.

First off, my name’s David Thompson (the origins of the name ‘Fat Businessman’ have been somewhat lost in the mists of time), and I’m one of these student types studying Computer Science (pretty much the geekiest of subjects) at Cambridge (pretty much the geekiest of universities). I do a bit of programming here, a bit of web development there. And, just to reassure you, I do have something approximating to a life – I just probably won’t talk about it too much here.

Which brings us on to the second question – why am I writing a blog? The answer to that seems to stem back to my habit of devising little ‘projects’ to keep myself occupied over the summer. My project at the end of secondary school was to write a website, complete with framed navigation, Javascript-powered databases, and all those kinds of things I would now not touch with a ten-foot barge pole (even if I had a tend-foot barge pole handy, which I don’t). My project at the end of sixth-form was more based around the need for money, as it involved getting a job. This ended up being with a company originally called Virata, then called GlobespanVirata when Globespan bought them out, and which is now called Conexant.

But I digress – I’m not planning on getting a job this summer, as I’m essentially too damn lazy. So I thought, as so many geeks I know are writing these blog things (most notably my sister) I thought a good project would be to maintain my own blog, complete with an all-singing, all-dancing, all-pingbacking custom-build weblog engine.

Then I realised this would actually be difficult, chickened out and am currently using WordPress. I haven’t given up entirely on rolling my own though, so expect a couple of blog posts about writing a blog engine.

And now onto the trickiest question: why should you, the reader, care?

Well, as you’re reading this, you either know me personally, know me through some other good-natured blogger who’s linked to me, or you were Googling for “fat businessman” (which brings up a number of singularly disturbing results, such as this one). If you know me, there’s a good chance you’re either a geek or have a little inner geek sitting around somewhere urging you to go into tech shops, so you might find at least some of my prattlings interesting. If you know me through another blogger, a similar argument applies. The rest of you, I’m afraid you’ll have to make up your own minds.