New job

Posted on Tuesday, 8 November 2005

After almost 28 years (bar some short spells here and there) I am leaving Brighton, because despite being a fantastic city, the jobs market for IT (especially Linux) really sucks here. The city depends on tourism, there's no space or reason for very much technology. I am therefore abandoning the insurance industry for the advertising industry, and Brighton for London; The job is similar, but with more headroom.
My current mission is finding a sweet house with a bunch of cool, interesting people to dampen the shock of moving, since I don't think I can commit my life and finances to an hour and a half commute a day if I stay here ;)


Firefox made me think, help!

Posted on Thursday, 13 October 2005

Since Firefox doesn't seem to make it very easy to import/export the data it creates (beyond bookmarks at least), I probed my profile and found a signons.txt file which seemed to contain the information, albeit encrypted. No problem I thought, that will be the password I set for the master thingy in firefox. Wrong was I.
A little googling turns up that you should copy the key3.db file too, which is fair enough, but I really think this kind of thing should be easier. That does have a nasty habit of tending to introduce a lot of complexity as more aspects of the program get more flexible, especially from the user's point of view. Interface designers are getting pretty good at making simple interfaces that do the right thing most of the time, with more advanced options hidden away for when they are needed and this is something I like a lot, but it's a shame that all that functionality is isolated with the user.

It makes me pine for the old days of ARexx on the Amiga. It was (fortunately) considered de rigeur for self-respecting applications to support it and it exposed the full user functionality of a program to automatic scripting. If that kind of thing were updated for the modern world and combined with bindings for the various scripting languages, a whole range of possibilities open up. Back in the Amiga days, Arexx was all about automating the hell out of graphical tasks for power users, but I have been thinking about another possible use.

The idea would be an alternative to traditional help systems which are tedious to compile, large to download, not always very helpful, etc. Instead, exploiting an Arexx-like ability to control applications, the "help" system guides users through the application without making them watch a stupid tutorial - it actually helps them.
That is to say, I click "help me export my data", it asks me some simple and sensible questions to figure out what to do, and actually opens the right windows and shows me what to do while it does it. In one feature you are training the user to do it for themselves (maybe they want to do it or they want to use more advanced options), and you are providing a simple, automated solution for the casual/new user who maybe uses this feature once a year at most and doesn't need to learn it. This has to beat writing reams of documentation and capturing thousands of screenshots. You just need a few text prompts to explain what is happening and what the results are, and the rest is scripting that is quite stable. The developers can do whatever they like inside their application, the "help" is controlling it at the level of UI widgets, effectively. It might even be possible to write the scripts and place the text prompts with some kind of tool, rather than write them by hand.
Perhaps it could be done by the UI designers in Glade-like applications - the same functionality could be useful to them for automated testing and they could write the tests, documentation and interface with the same tool into one XML interface file.

Does that make any kind of sense?

Randomly, I also think the next release of Ubuntu should have a little animated Jeff Waugh who pops up and talks to new users, cheers them up and helps them learn how to use Ubuntu Linux, preferably with the above help system ;)


The Ancestor’s Tale

Posted on Wednesday, 28 September 2005

While I was on holiday recently I went on a bit of a reading marathon, which included The Ancestor's Tale, by Richard Dawkins.
I just can't recommend this book enough - unless you are a wizened old Biology professor you aren't going to know all of the cool and fascinating things in this book, but you should! Especially in these times of madness where Intelligent Design creeps insidiously through the minds of many.
It is literally dripping with footnotes and references to Dawkins's other works and those of other authors (including, obviously, The Origin of Species).
The book starts out in the present day and traces back through time, examining each of the points where major groups of species join into our ancestry. This is an entirely arbitrary way to look at it, but avoiding going forward in time removes any problems with language suggesting that there is intent or purpose in Evolution; And it is more convenient to consider us as the main line because we are humans, but the early chapters make it abundantly clear that the structure is humanocentric because it has a human author and that there can be no suggestion that Evolution was leading towards us.
One of the most fabulous concepts in the book is actually quite generalised and applies to many areas outside Evolution; It relates to how we view things as discrete objects/groups and dislike gradiated scales (e.g. we like to label people black or white when in reality there is a full range of skin tones and a "black" person can have lighter skin than a "white" person). Dawkins refers to this as The Tyrrany of The Discontinuous Mind and I think it's a very interesting way of looking at things.
Sadly this book is not for the faint-hearted, it's a pretty weighty tome and isn't shy about using Biological terminology (almost always with an excellent explanation though). Trust me that it's worth wading through and buy a copy!



Mr Madonna, sorry, Guy Ritchie, is back with another film. This time it stars Jason Stratham and is generally about unpleasant londoner types; So no change there for Ritchie.
He has an impressive pedigree - Lock Stock is a very very good gangster film and Snatch was a worthy followup, but Revolver is largely nonsense unfortunately.
It has a pretty clever idea and some snappy dialogue, but it also has a lot of meaningless rambling and a very strange central message - other reviewers have suggested this is the influence of Madonna's crazy Kabbalah beliefs, which sounds entirely plausible to me.
So basically don't bother wasting your money, watch Lock Stock or Snatch again :)


Cascade of images

Posted on Friday, 26 August 2005

I've been up to things again and finally got around to putting the pictures up.

Jazz Cafe PicnicTo kick things off we have a gallery of photos from the Jazz Cafe Picnic at Marble Hill in Twickenham (London). It can be found here.

Science MuseumOn Tuesday I went to London to meet up with adie and we wandered around the Science Museum, saw a 3D IMAX movie and looked round an exhibition of costumes/props from the Hitchhiker's Guide movie. The gallery is here.

Finally, as a bit of fun, I found myself in some TV footage from Glastonbury (click on the images for larger and fullsize versions):

Me at Glastonbury Me at Glastonbury (captioned)

On the left is the original TV image with us circled, on the right is the same shot, but with us magnified (or rather, the back of our heads magnified)


Mark Thomas

Posted on Tuesday, 19 July 2005

Mark Thomas on stage at Concorde 2I saw Mark Thomas doing a stand-up gig at Concorde 2 in Brighton this evening with Alex, Simon, and Simon and jolly good it was too. The man can certainly express some righteous anger!
It wasn't all political ranting (which was still very funny), there was a good mix of humour, some of which went beyond the pale for some of the audience; Along with some excellent anecdotes from various anarchic protests he has taken part in.

Two thumbs up :)


SonyEricsson k750i

Posted on Tuesday, 5 July 2005

I just upgraded to a k750i from a t610 and my initial impression after a few days is that it's a very good phone overall. It's not perfect, but it many of the weaknessesof the t610 are gone or minimised, and new features have been added and integrated extremely well.
Visually the phone is quite simple, I have a mostly black one and half of the front is flat clear plastic for the screen, the rest is buttons, which are bigger than those on the t610, but seem like they are quite flimsy and may be easily encouraged to fall off. Time will have to tell on that.
The phone has plenty of hardware, too much really. There's a much more detailed display than on the t610, mp3 playback, fm radio, movie playback, movie recording, flash, autofocus... it's all a bit much really. I already have two digital cameras for different occasions, I don't really need a 2 MegaPixel camera in my phone; I do realise that these are "useful" to a lot of people though ;) The shortcut button between the two soft buttons is very nice, being able to quickly pull up the functions you most use can save a lot of menu diving. The thing has a MemoryStick Duo slot too, which is a genius plan really. If you don't already have a little digital camera to keep in your pocket and a little mp3 player to keep in your other pocket, this phone can realistically do the job of both, and save you having a third pocket used by your phone. The Duo cards are pretty cheap and I have seen suggestion that it can support up to 2GB (mine shipped with a 64MB card pre-installed, in addition to the 30-somethingMB onboard). It also seems to have some kind of 3D graphics ability - my Orange branded unit shipped with a Sega tennis game that is in 3D and Alex's one on O2 came with a 3D flight sim of some kind (I don't mean crazy red and green specs, it is rendering a 3D engine ;)
The biggest improvement over the t610 and probably the best thing about this phone is the software. It's clearly based at least in concept on that of the t610 (which in turn in herits from the t68 and earlier), but it's much, much faster. Speed has often been a problem for SonyEricsson, text message inputs regularly lag a long way behind even a moderate typer. I was often several menus ahead of mine in general use, which is a serious pain. No more, menus appear much quicker and are able to use the higher screen resolution to display more information, reducing the number of questions you have to answer to perform even the simple task of calling someone. The phonebook is wonderful now; if you start typing it jumps to the letters you press instead of waiting a second; instead of selecting a person and then getting a request to select the number, it now displays the default number and offers a direct call option, then offers horizontal scrolling to select alternate numbers/addresses. Very handy. Also nice is the text message recipient chooser keeping a list of recent contacts.
The browser seems to work well, the menus/notices are often animated and pretty, you can have an animated background if you really want. The media player is quite an interesting idea, I am investigating transcoding movies and putting them on memory stick - it'll be interesting to see how the battery stands up to such tests.
The supplied USB cable charges the phone; very handy and it also presents the MemoryStick to the host computer as a USB storage device, so it will work with pretty much anything that works with USB memory sticks. It's bloody fantastic to see mobile phone and camera companies adopting this more and more instead of proprietary communication protocols. It makes integration far easier for Operating Systems, as shown by the fact that I connect the phone to my PC running Ubuntu Hoary and it is able to mount the storage drive and notice there is digital camera data there, and offering to import the photos into my albums. Simple things like that make these devices much more rewarding in my opinion (and I'm pretty sure I'm right ;)


Glastonbury 2005

Posted on Wednesday, 29 June 2005

Woo! Ok, so the torrential rain and inches of mud were a bit of a pain, but didn't dampen many spirits and the festival was still a lot of fun :)
I saw some groovy acts play (Jools Holland, Van Morisson, Royksopp, etc.) and saw some funny sights (the guy in the tent near us who made a habit of walking around naked, for example) and generally communed with hippies for a few days.
I hope the 2007 festival is as good, if not better!

My pics are here, mooks's are here and Tam's are here



Posted on Sunday, 12 June 2005

I forgot to mention that I saw The Chemical Brothers live recently. They're touring at the moment, so a few of us caught them at the Brighton Centre (not the best gig venue in the world ever, it has to be said). They rock a bunch :)
Up and coming musical happenings are my trips to Glastonbury and Big Chill festivals - expect lots of photos unless some pikey half-inches my camera ;)


Zend Studio 64bitness

Posted on Wednesday, 1 June 2005

I'm quite a big fan of the Zend Studio development environment for PHP - I use it quite extensively at work and generally speaking it's a very capable tool and makes developing PHP a lot easier/quicker.
However, it's closed source and quite expensive, which is a bit of a downside, but at the same time it should give me some leverage to get the features I want into future versions, right? Probably not.
I've been bugging the Zend support guys about AMD64 support for near enough 10 months now, with little success. Now, this might not seem too surprising, what with it being closed source, but the important difference here is that Zend's Studio is written in Java.
Given that Java is supposed to be a platform agnostic virtual machine, precisely why is it that Zend only ship binaries for a few platforms? The answer appears to be that the installer they use to install said binaries on customer machines is a complete nightmare.
Specifically they appear to be using InstallAnywhere, which is becoming quite common for installing java programs, especially on Linux. Sadly it has some pretty serious flaws. Firstly it's one of those godawful self-extracting/installing shell scripts, so modifying the installer is exceptionally hard. It also knows almost nothing about AMD64, despite the fact that it ought to be really quite compatible with 32bit code (especially for something as library-free as java) and triggers a lovely glibc bug (set "LD_ASSUME_KERNEL=2.2.5" on an AMD64 machine and then try to run anything ;)

So basically that all sucks and anyone using InstallAnywhere is cutting themselves off from potential customers for no particularly good reasons. Obviously I can't accept that, so knowing that Zend Studio is really just a Java program I went at it with a copy of vim and a lot of scribbling notes until I figured out how InstallAnywhere's crazy LAX configuration system worked. With that out of the way I was able to determine that all you need to do to make this thing run *perfectly* on AMD64 is make two tiny changes to two not-so-tiny text files. Simple!

Here's how:

  1. Install Zend Studio somewhere (a 32bit machine or a 32bit chroot), copy the folder to your 64bit install

  2. Look in the directory Studio is installed in (e.g. "/usr/local/Zend/ZendStudioClient-4.0.2/") and edit "bin/ZDE.lax", you need to have "lax.nl.current.vm" point to your 64bit Java VM binary (e.g. "/usr/bin/java").

  3. Now edit "bin/ZDE" and comment out the line "export LD_ASSUME_KERNEL=2.2.5"

That should be it, fire up bin/ZDE and you should be hacking PHP in 64bits of goodness (be aware you may need to reconfigure where Zend Studio finds external binaries like cvs - see the ZDE configuration window).

I've spoken with Zend since writing this and although they are still not committing to supporting AMD64, they did provide me with a handy link to download the Zend Studio installer without the 32bit JVM in it, which (with some work) makes a native 64bit install possible. Hurrah!
So, what to do, well firstly you will need the tarball (I'm not going to link to it, ask Zend) and to extract it. This should leave you with a single file called ZendStudio-4_0_2.bin (in the case of 4.0.2, current release at the time of writing). Run the command:

cat ZendStudio-4_0_2.bin | sed -e 's/=2.2.5/=a.a.a/g' >ZendStudio-4_0_2.bin.1

Then run "sh ./ZendStudio-4_0_2.bin.1" and the installer should start. Once it has completed you still won't actually be able to start ZDE because the same LD_ASSUME nonsense is going on there, so edit "bin/ZDE". Above I showed the quick and hacky way to make this work - comment out the "LD_ASSUME_KERNEL=2.2.5" - however there is a way that is probably better, so I will encourage you to do this instead... Edit line 1326 so instead of reading simply:

if [ `uname` = "Linux" ]; then

it now reads:

if [ `uname` = "Linux" -a `uname -m` != "x86_64" ]; then

and all will be well :o)

Update 2
One thing I hadn't noticed because it was working transparently is that not all of ZDE is Java, for example the code analyzer binary in Zend's bin/ folder appears to be a native 32bit binary. These should still work fine if you have some 32bit compatibility libraries installed (Fedora should install these by default on AMD64, Debian based systems may need to install the ia32-libs package).


Last bongo in Brighton

Posted on Thursday, 21 April 2005

Last night I went to a DJ Format gig at the most excellent Concorde 2 here in Brighton, with Alex and Simon.
In short, it rocked!
Format is a great DJ and Abdominal is a great rapper. D-Sisive was ok, but doesn't seem to be as good as Abdominal.
They played some tunes off their new album, "If you can't join em, beat em" as well as some classics from "Music for the Mature B-Boy", including a very funny version of Vicious Battle Raps with most of the lyrics reversed from the original.
There was a bunch of crowd interaction, including getting a guy to race against Abdominal; he had to eat a breadstick and then whistle in the same amount of time it took Abdominal to rap out 8 bars at full speed (which isn't very many seconds). Personally I think he lost, but they gave him the CD anyway ;)

If Format and friends are playing anywhere near you (click here to find out), you should go see them :)


Clearing the Logitech jungle

I have uploaded a mini HOWTO into my techie documents section that covers configuring a Linux machine running Xorg to make best possible use of a Logitech keyboard and mouse (the Elite and MX700 respectively) and the bundles they are sold together in (the Duo MX and Cordless Desktop MX).
It requires a fairly recent distro because it uses some features/data only available in Xorg so far. Personally I am using these settings without problems on my Ubuntu Hoary machine.
A direct link to the HOWTO is here.


Quick GT4 review

Posted on Sunday, 6 March 2005

I should start out by saying that I am a big fan of GT3, but I only played GT2 a little bit and hardly played GT at all.
With that out of the way, I think GT4 is a fantastic game. To be fair though it is only really the culmination of what GT3 could have been and isn't a huge leap forward. That is ok though, GT3 was released 4 years ago and probably took a couple of years at least to write, so a lot will have been learned since then about exploiting the PS2 to the fullest. The addition of a huge library of cars and a good number of tracks only improves the experience. Disappointingly absent is online play, instead we get LAN play and a particularly silly photo mode.
Very few games have equalled even the performance of GT3, but GT4 goes better in looks, sounds and feel and will certainly be tough to beat.
I happen to have a Logitech GT Force wheel, which was the official GT3 wheel and it makes any racing game many times more fun than with a controller, but the Gran Turismo games get a particular boost because they are so technical. Snow and rally tracks are something of a challenge to whip the wheel round for opposite lock, but that tradeoff buys you exceptional control for drifting round the corners and seems to be well worth it. I just got a gold on the IA license snow track after getting a bronze first time and then two silvers, so the wheel must definitely be helping because I'm not normally that good ;)
Therefore, if you are looking for a really good, but quite serious driving game, look no further. If you enjoyed GT3 a lot, this would be a good time to refresh the memory with a slightly new twist :)
In addendum, it is said that engineering samples of the PS3 have been produced, so let's hope that one is on its way to Polyphony Digital so they can blow us away with a stunning evolution in the GT series to launch with the PS3 (including full and amazing online support damnit!)

GT4 - IA license - snow track
GT4 - IA license - snow track (Gold).
Click for a larger version



Posted on Tuesday, 1 March 2005

I got fed up of waiting for Gran Turismo 4, the very finest of driving games, to come out here so I ordered a copy from the States for slightly less than the recommended retail price here (although still more than the cheaper outlets); hurrah for the free market I guess. According to the scarily efficient FedEx, it should arrive by midday tomorrow. Woo!
Right now it's about an hour outside Paris, having come from California via Indianapolis. I'm really not sure why FedEx think I need to know this, but I can imagine it must greatly appease overbearing execs waiting for shipments ;)