Monday, October 31, 2005

The Thousand Dollar Car Theory

Even though I do want a new car at this point, I have nevertheless always been a great fan of the Thousand Dollar Car theory. Here it is in a nutshell:
Cars cost money to buy and run. The more expensive a car you buy, the more money you will lose on it, by depreciation alone if nothing else. A good way to save money on a car is to buy an old beater for a meager sum, usually not exceeding the equivalent of USD1,000. If it is still capable of moving under its own power, it is statistically likely to stay mobile for more months than it would usually take you to spend $1k on payments for a new car. Once it requires anything more than a trivial sledgehammer-and-WD40 fix, you scrap it and get something new.
The assumption is that $1000 is just short of non-money, so the car will actually have some life left in it. You don't need to spend money on maintaining it, and you don't need comprehensive insurance. Plus, at that point the price of a car has very little to do with its class or prestige; you can buy a Mercedes W123 for the same money as a same-year Corolla. True, the Merc will use more gas, but other than third-party insurance it really is your only cost.

The obvious downside is reliability, but it's really not that bad. Unless you really don't pay attention when you buy the car, you'll probably get a fairly decent example - the ones that had major issues wouldn't have lasted this long. You don't need to worry about squeaks and bumps and grinds; get a RWD car and you'll eliminate one major source of trouble (front CV joints). Get a car with chain-driven cams instead of a belt, and you're rid of another.

I'm on my third car right now, and all of them have cost appreciably less than $1000. The first was a Volvo 245; a lovely machine by all accounts. It's something you fall in love with, and while some car nuts may ridicule it, anyone who's owned one will know just how special a Volvo 200 is. Mine was a 1977 estate, dull blue with the round headlamps. The tailgate wouldn't close, it just kind of hung there; the driver's door was opened and closed with a pocket knife instead of a key. The engine, a scrapped 2.3 injection unit from a later car (a 700, I believe) was retrofitted with a vertical carburettor; and the gearbox was a four-speed manual with electric overdrive. You simply pushed a button on the gearlever to swith from 5th to 4th, which was immensely useful when overtaking. Repairs for it were limited to 10 Euro for resetting the ignition tolerances; it also had an oil change and some new coolant, but that was it. Alas, I drove it into the back a panel van one morning.

The second was a 1982 Mazda 323 three-door. It had a 60bhp 1.3 engine with a carburettor that kept getting clogged up. I spent a bunch of money getting it cleaned, although the eventual fix was as simple as a fuel filter replacement. It also got a new battery, and a set of winter tires. It kept getting broken into, the rear hatch lock was torn out, so I just filled it with that hardening mass stuff - the one where you mix together two components, and it eventually becomes tough as stone. The carb thing was a proper pain, but otherwise it did a good job. At one point it got loaded up with five crates of spare parts for inflatable dildos! (Long story.) Oh, and it was nigh-on impossible to find windscreen wipers that would fit - it had this useless 80s Japanese attachment system with a pin that connected the blade to the arm. Anyway, the first proper snow day, I was driving it from Capital City to Campustown, saw a dog in a turn, swerved, lost control, slid down the Armco on the outside of the bend, and crashed head-on into a Mondeo. Thanks to seatbelts and the fact that the impact was on the passenger's side, I had no permanent injuries other than a bit of a recurring neck ache that limits my headbanging abilities somewhat. The Mondeo's driver, an older lady, had to spend over two months in the hospital, despite both seatbalts and airbags!

And now I have my third, a 1988 Honda Accord EX. Costs to date include welding the exhaust back together (it fell out twice, once on the highway), plus a new battery. Other than that, an oil change, new air filter and new brake pads. The oilpan has a leak in it (gasket, apparently) and it smokes a lot when cold, but hey - as long as it runs...

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Internet as an occult phenomenon

Can't be bothered writing a new article today. Here's an interesting little essay I wrote for a class on esoterics. Some points are rather corny, but hey - take it as an excercise in adjusting reality to a provided model.

Magic and supernatural phenomena in general are often believed to rely upon a greater force connecting every living and sometimes inanimate object in the universe. The Chinese call it chi; George Lucas calls it “the Force”. Proof of the existence of either is traditionally scarce, but we cannot deny that something so ubiquitous must certainly be supernatural.

The Western civilization, a technical civilization which denies the occult with great vigor, has in the meantime created an entity that strives to connect every single known sentient being in our world, and has had remarkable success in that mission. As the notion expressed in the prelude to Alistair Crowley's “Moonchild”, (the book we read for that class - FT) and other sources including the very modern and Western science of semantics, tells us that specific meaning can be uncovered in any object if one only knows how to look, we are able to trace influences of the supernatural in the very essence of the global network.

Indeed even a passing glance reveals exciting similarities. Information technology in itself is so incredible because it allows amazingly complex constructs to be created with the repetition of two basic characters. The central processing unit of a computer is in fact nothing more than a massive collection of transistors – mechanical devices which can exist in two juxtaposed states. We must not consider it accidental that these states have been dubbed “on” and “off”, 1 and 0. Herein lies proof that even the most artificial of man’s creations is based on the ultimate law of the universe – the duality of all things. Existence and nothingness, life and death, good and evil, God and Satan – the eternal struggle and alteration between these two provide the basis for the world as we know it.

A network that engulfs almost literally everything also provides its disciple with nearly limitless power – including the power to destroy the unwary zealot himself. Knowledge is power, and the Internet is the largest repository of data ever created; and the tools that come with the concept of a network connecting the administration systems of an entire civilization’s infrastructure allow a skillful artisan to find any information they may desire. Strip off our beliefs and prejudices, and how different is a power user from a shaman?

People have turned to the Occult for many reasons, but most of them grow out of the desire to improve their condition – physical, financial, social, etc. While there has been a lucky few that crafted obscene wealth from the Net, a great many more have been given an opportunity to create a virtual personality, a homunculus if you will, a representation of what they would like themselves to be. And if the falseness of these alter egos is apparent to any veteran, that doesn’t change the nature of the humanity that spawns them.

More peculiar similarities can be found when comparing the Internet to religious works, and particularly the Talmud, the book of teachings in Judaism – the oldest and beyond doubt the most occult of all major religions. In his book “The Talmud and the Internet”, rabbi Jonathan Rosen writes:
A page of Talmud bears an uncanny resemblance to a home page on the Internet, where nothing is whole in itself but where icons and text boxes are doorways through which visitors pass into an infinity of cross referenced texts and conversations. The promise of the Talmud is that it isn’t a book. It’s a sort of drift net for catching God, stretching out through time and space in ever-widening spools… We became the people of the book because we had no place else to live. The Talmud came along and offered a virtual world for an uprooted culture, and grew out of the Jewish need to pack civilization into words and wander out into the world. (Quoted via
Is this not what is happening to the world today – when technology and globalizm bring people closer than ever, thus destroying their connection to their homeland? And here is the Internet, a way for cultural groups to stay in touch, wherever they are physically.

All this, however, is much too vague. Significantly more entertaining is the analogy between the Internet and generally accepted supernatural symbols, even if it can be a little silly and far-fetched. For example, the peculiar connection between IT components and the Number of the Beast. While the Internet as a network has been developed by the US military’s research arm and the concept of the World Wide Web belongs to the mind of the recently knighted Brit, sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Net could not exist were it not for Bill Gates and Microsoft’s campaign to put a personal computer on every desk. The richest man in the world possesses the full title of William Henry Gates III. Since computers work with numbers, any alphanumeric character corresponds to an integer. The most widely used table of these relations is ASCII – the American Standard Code for Information Exchange. If we use this table to convert the letters in the name Bill Gates to numbers, and finally add the number 3 (as in Bill Gates the Third), we arrive at 666. This fact is made all the more entertaining by the wording connected to the Number of the Beast – that it shall be imprinted on the forehead and the right hand of the sinners; their minds and their mouse hand, perhaps? There is further proof that Microsoft is in fact the spawn of Satan: the Windows logo forms a swastika in the center of the four jigsaw pieces; and the company’s world headquarters are located in the very beginning of a street called Microsoft Way. Thus the address of the building is in fact “One Microsoft Way”! (Incidentally Microsoft’s nemesis, Apple Computers, is located at “One Infinite Loop”.)

So there is a supernatural influence in the nature of the Internet. How could there not be? Something so fascinating and culturally important will certainly be associated with a higher power, a power people call upon when they feel unable to control their own destiny. Still, in my opinion the Net is only paranormal to the extent that anything so vast and impalpable will be – supernatural, but very human.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Yet Another Formula One Rescue Plan

It seems that everybody these days is coming up with suggestions to make Formula 1 more interesting (despite the 2005 season being an enormous improvement). Now, I'm every bit as opinionated and vocal as the next guy, as I'm sure the regular AnTyx readers - both of you - are well aware. So there is no reason why I can't come up with my own fool-proof plant to save the Grand Prix circuit from boredom.

The ultimate reason why F1 is no fun to watch any more is because there is no overtaking. The little bit that is there, is under braking into a turn, which is certainly the most efficient way, but nowhere near the most scenic one. I haven't been driven to jump out of my chair and yell at the screen since Hakkinen, Schumacher and Zonta went three-wide into a reverse uphill hairpin two laps before the checkered flag, and that was years ago.

There are several factors why this is so, and there are a few things that can be done about it.

For example, the drivers today are pussies. I'm not questioning their talent, mind you; but racing has become extremely technical, with superiority provided by equipment, not by desire. Nigel Mansell was often said to be excellent when his car was behaving itself, but useless when it wasn't; and Michael Schumacher has proven time and time again that he is faster than anyone else on an open track, but nowhere near as hot when he has an actual battle for position on his hands. His little brother, Ralf, had refused to do the Indianapolis race after a crash in qualifying, because the doctors said that if he crashed in the race the same way he did the year before, he might die. If you're not willing to put your life on the line for glory, what the fuck are you doing in the supreme racing series in the first place?Compare this to David Coulthard, a man with balls of titanium, who survived an airplane crash and went on to win that weekend's Grand Prix!

Not that safety isn't important. I'm very impressed by the HANS device, for example. Unfortunately, the FIA has been going about this the wrong way. Their idea is that to make racing more safe, you reduce speed, and to reduce speed, you make the cars handle worse. So they banned active suspension, cut grooves into the tyres, and messed up the cars' aerodynamics. Technology does evolve, so the cars kept getting faster, but we've ended up with a situation where F1 has very safe new race tracks, but very unsafe cars!

Now they're limiting engine technology, cutting them back to eight cylinders and less capacity, etc. They're saying that as well as making things safer, it makes development cheaper for the little guys, the Jordans and the Minardis of the world.This is ridiculous. Formula One has never been about the Jordans and the Minardis; nobody comes to watch them race! They only get ad space because they get in everybody's way often enough to be picked up by the cameras. I say, if they can't cut it - let them die! There is currently an agreement that there cannot be less than 20 cars competing in a season; if the smaller teams die off, the front-runners are obligated to run third cars so the field is filled out. The powers that be are worried that if this starts happening, we will end up with a football match, 11 on 11, BMW vs Mercedes. There is, however, a solution that has worked before. The big F1 players used to have junior teams in Formula 3000, back when it mattered; and we all remember Sauber running last year's Ferrari. Now, Red Bull has apparently bought Minardi. So let every team have a driver farm on the grid, but only one! Allow team tactics (while leaving the radio channels open); farm cars helping out the varsity only makes the spectacle more exciting.

There are two fundamental reasons why overtaking is not popular in today's F1. The first is that, because of regulations on what you can do with the aerodynamics, a car running behind another car is very unstable. The airflow is completely messed up so you may be slipstreaming, but you have no downforce; and this isn't NASCAR, so you do need it for turning. The second is that it's much easier to use pitstop strategy to pass cars. If your opponent pits first, he's going to come out heavy with a full tank of gas, and these days he won't even have the benefit of new tyres. So if you can put in a few great laps, you'll make up enough time to pit and come out in front of him.

So here is my suggestion. Deregulate everything. Bring back full slicks (and for heaven's sakes, make the wheelrims bigger so you can use large brakes!). Bring back active suspension. Bring back traction control, stability control and fully automatic gearboxes. Let the designers do what they will with the aerodynamics. And bring back powerful engines. 3.0 liters naturally aspirated, or 1.5 liters turbocharged, as many cylinders as you want. As many swaps as necessary.

And then, ban pitstops.

These days cars can refuel, but not change the tires. Back in the 90s, they could change the tires but not refuel. Both are possible. The reason active suspension was so useful, was because it compensated for the way handling changed as the car got lighter. If tyre manufacturers are allowed to make slicks, it will be that much easier to get them to last a whole race.

If cars aren't allowed to go into the pits except to change to rain tyres, the drivers are forced to overtake. If you don't have a good starting position, you'll have to fight tooth and nail for each point. And to make sure that things stay interesting, do away with qualifying sessions. Simply use the finishing positions of the last race, and then reverse the grid. Award points for each position, so the losers still have the insentive to go after 19th place instead of 20th, but put the winner in the back. They'll have all the power and downforce they want - now let them show what they are made of!

Sounds radical? It is. But it would work. It would make the racing infinitely more exciting to watch. It would actually make the pack less diverse in their abilities, because if McLaren or Ferrari are off the pace in terms of engineering, they can always throw vast amounts of cash at the problem, which in this industry does actually work. Perhaps most importantly, it would bring unrestricted innovation back to F1, and make it a force to be reckoned with. As opposed to a farce.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

In defense of ready products, Part II

The phenomenon of developing functionality in-house against all logic is sometimes compounded with a trendy company believing its own hype.

The thing that Gawker Media has in common with IGN is killer content. I originally started reading Gizmodo because of a link from Penny Arcade. I've submitted a few tips they used (without crediting me, the wankers), and the guy at Jalopnik, Gawker's car department, offered me a contributing spot. You can see the pattern, can't you?

Anyway, the thing about Gawker blogs is that they all run on the same engine - occasionally they will even assimilate an existing blog - and all have something of an identity crisis. They're emergent, so they say they're a blog, but they aren't. Their format is that of a modified news ticker, a digest, and the idea of editorial commentary has been around forever. And until a few months ago, they did not even have comments. Now they do.

Except their comments are an obvious case of Insiderism. (IGN gets to spawn the name because they got there first.) To begin with, you can't just click a button and comment on an article. You can't even sign up for an account. You have to be invited. Now, it was bad enough when Google hyped up their webmail interface by only letting people invite others, but in that case you really did get something different and possibly useful for your effort; plus, invites were always in abundance. These days you can just walk up to any person on the Internet and ask for an invite - chances are they have one to spare. But with Gawker comments, invites are distributed sparingly by the administration. You can pass on your invite if you don't want it, but you aren't given new ones when you sign up. No, Gawker sites are much too precious to let just anyone in!

I got an invite from Jalopnik (although not from the editor himself). It took me a few tries to register, because the central website that Gawker has to maintain comment accounts is unreliable crap. Eventually I completed the process and decided to comment. Except I'd forgot which username I used ('Flasher T' doesn't get parsed well by all registration systems, so I have to use variants). So I clicked the Forgot Password button. Then I clicked it again.

The emails took twenty four fucking hours to arrive, and the Jalopnik guy admitted that it was Gawker's fault. Not to mention the fact that it resets the password instead of just sending it to the user's email.

And then, just to top it off, despite the account website claiming the contrary, my Jalopnik account only works on Jalopnik. Not on Gizmodo or any other Gawker site.


Tuesday, October 25, 2005

In defense of ready products, Part I

Corporate mentality can play cruel tricks on you. Again and again I see Internet projects fall victim to a curious phenomenon - that of developing proprietary functionality where a ready-made solution would be infinitely more appropriate.

Today's Joel article talks about how eBay bought Skype because eBay is a rich company with lots of spare cash but no ability to develop software. He gives credit the eBay MBAs for at least knowing that they're crap at it and buying a ready-made product instead.

Let me tell you a couple of stories where the MBAs didn't get it.

The first is the IGN messageboard system. Now, the thing about IGN is that they have killer content. Their bread and butter is video games, but even when I was introduced to it back in the summer of 2000, they already had sections for all sorts of things. I went to look at Machine, which was in those days run by a chap named Graham Strouse. He was an opinionated bastard, so naturally we hit it off; I commented on his articles a few times, he suggested I try to do a piece for him, and that was my first big journalistic gig that my dad didn't make happen. Strouse eventually quit and I ran IGN Machine for a while until I got pissed off at the guy in charge of it at the company. I'm forever grateful to G. for providing the first outside verification that I was actually good at this stuff (despite all the self-deprication, I am a writer and thus live for approval), but that's not really important right now. What's important is that I found my way to the IGN car board, and hung around.

Back in those days, the board software was weird but acceptable. It did have the feature of showing unread topics in bold and read ones in plain, which was impressive. This was the era of hierarchy-tree discussion groups, the mentality of which was carried over from Usenet directly (you can still this today in LiveJournal comments). Thanks to the killer content - not the Machine stuff, as much as I would like to think so, but the games stuff that brought people to the website - the boards were vibrant. An excellent community developed, and it was a great place to be.

Then, IGN came up with Insider.

Nowadays Insider only gives you an avatar and the ability to use tags. But when they introduced it, Insider was what gave you access to the boards. If you didn't pay, you couldn't go past the one messageboard they left open. This was infuriating. Fortunately, the Car board community got together, and we started our own place. It was called, or FCE for short. The guy who ran it went through a few messageboard software packages, eventually settling on Invision.

And you know what? It was awesome. Invision is at this point the default choice forum software. It's a snap to install and set up, and it just works. It has avatars, post uploads, statistics, moderator functionality, basically anything and everything you could want. It's customizable - I've seen a hugely modified board based around Invision - and free.

And the IGN boards? Well, they still show unread topics in bold. Unfortunately, they were thrown together in a hurry some time before Y2K, and the company is unwilling to either overhaul the system or kill it in favor of something like Invision. It doesn't even have emoticon recognition, for god's sake; it will parse the standard smiley face and the winking face, but if you want something more complicated, you need to enter the tag. And it's not a simple tag like :rolleyes:, which is what every InvisionBoard user is familiar with, it's a monstrocity like [face_rolleyes]. Until very recently, you couldn't click on anything to insert a smiley face. No, you had to go to the Help files, find the right page (a non-trivial excercise), look for the smiley you want, and then type in the tag that matched it. This was also true for the simplest text formatting - bold, italic, underline, hyperlinks, image insert (Insider only!) and everything else was tag-based. You couldn't even quote a post - somebody built a special plugin for Firefox, just to be able to quote on the IGN boards!

They've added a formatting bar now, but it is a very obvious and painful hack thrown on top of an antiquated system. And, of course, it doesn't work in Opera.


Join me in Part II, where the nice folks from Gawker are the morons.

Monday, October 24, 2005

In praise of progress

Along with my other Saturday activites, some typical (the drinking), some highly exceptional (the running), I also managed to have a test-drive of the brand new Suzuki Grand Vitara. Between that and my Sunday activities - a winter driving course where I repeatedly spun a late-generation Mazda 626 on an artificially slippery surface - I have come to the following conclusions.

1. My Honda is quite fast. In fact, through a combination of light weight and a decent engine mostly unphased by years of service (and recently, months of abuse), it is appreciably faster than anything I can conceivably afford any time soon - and a lot of things I can't. Let's just say, the dynamics of both the brand-new Vitara and fairly recent 626, both with 2.0 four-pots just like the Accord, singularly failed to impress.

2. Unfortunately, in all other respects it sucks. Oh, it moves, and I expect it to continue to move for some time yet, but driving something fresh does drive the point home rather clearly. I'm a great fan of the Thousand Dollar Car Theory, but I do understand why people spend money on showroom-shiny vehicles. The experience is incomparable.

3. Obsession with continuity is a detrimental factor in car design. I kept wondering why the new Grand Vitara had slats on the bonnet edges. Later that day I saw an old workhorse Vitara (non-Grand) three-door, and its flip-forward lid had slats on the edges so you could grab onto them and pull. On the old car, they're functional and therefore charming. On the new one, obviously intended as an overengineered urban SUV for the soccer dad who klings desperately to trail cred, it's useless and confusing.

4. There is hardly a need for automatics these days. The clutches on new cars are ridiculously light and short. I'm used to heavy, tricky and worn clutches on my cars, it's an expensive part to replace and I've sort of always crashed the car before I had to invest the cash. Compared to them, the Grand Vitara was effortless. The clutch has two positions, on and off, and you would need to make an active effort to stall it. Seriously, if you are buying a new mainstream car today and don't think you can handle three pedals, you're a twat and shouldn't be let anywhere near a steering wheel.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

A drinking club with a running problem

Saturday, October 22nd 2005 will now be forever remembered as the day that the Hash House Harriers came to Campustown (aka Tartu).

The gentleman on your left is Mutton, the one who introduced us to this lovely activity. (The guy in the background is Purple Header). The reason Mutton's knee is bandaged up is because he hurt it giving two people at the same time a piggyback ride.

The course twisted all around town, starting and finishing at what is rumoured to be the pub with the highest ceiling in the world (it's proper high!). Despite Mutton's heavy advertising, only nine people took part, and out of those I was the only local resident. Still, I'm told it was bigger than the Capital City runs usually are.

The participants included:

Mutton (London, hare)
Purple Header (London, hare)
Naked Gun in a Bush (USA by way of St Petersburg, acting Grand Master)
Nookie (Finland by way of St Petersburg, religious adviser)
Stains the Couch (Tallinn)
Short&Curly (Tallinn)
Slippery When Wet (London)
Giacomo (London, virgin)
And finally, me.

I wasn't even going to run! I just decided to check it out under the principle of "this I gotta see". Still, it was a pretty miserable bunch so I was forced to join in. Now, let me explain something: I am not athletic. At all. I am the antithesis of athleticism, you might say. Naturally I didn't do too well, especially since that wanker Mutton laid down the course through the hills. On several occasions he lied to our red, sweaty faces that this was as high as the course was going to get, and it'd be all downhill from there. Half way up the ruins of a church tower, I felt that I'd drained all my life juices and crashed back down to the pub, where I sobbed quietly into my cup of tea while the rest of them continued. I have to say, it took the hares an hour and a quarter to finish, which is somewhat shameful - you can walk four miles in that time!

We then continued on to the pub crawling half of the event, which was eminently enjoyable. I certainly intend to catch the next events, although Mutton, if you're reading this, no more hills!

Slippery When Wet and Naked Gun took a lot more pictures in much better quality than I can boast, so I'll try and post them later on.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Case study: cheap cars

Somehow it's happened all at once - several manufacturers have simultaneously released on to the European market their very cheap cars. Since I've been looking into replacing the old Honda (not quite yet, but within the foreseeable future), I'm interested in these things. I've been to the dealer presentations and the recent car show, and had a look at each. Now, I haven't driven all of them - if that was the case, this post would be called a test drive, not a case study - but I did get a distinct impression as a prospective owner.

The most important cheap new car is, of course, the Dacia Logan. Effectively it is a Renault, with an old Clio drivetrain, suspension designed for crap roads, and all-new sheetmetal. It does look boring, but at least it's inoffensive and the interior is positively huge. If I get fired from my tech writer gig, I might just get one of these and become a cabbie.

Interior materials are unassuming, and it does look well screwed together. What's under the bonnet is a sight for sore eyes, a textbook illustration of how cars work. The boot is big enough for not one, but two dead hookers. And the price? Around US$7500.

Except it's not quite that simple. The base trim comes with a 1.4 75bhp engine, which is quite adequate if not very inspiring, but little else. You do get a driver's airbag, an immobilizer and rev counter, but not power steering. The Logan is supposed to be a European car, even if it was designed for the Third World; a new vehicle sold in the EU without a passenger airbag or ABS as standard is, frankly, depressing. In fact you can't even specify ABS for a Logan Access, and this is a major fault: in my opinion, ABS should be as much of a mandatory safety feature on new cars as a seatbelt.

You can of course go for a higher trim level, which adds the air recirculation mode to the fan settings, plus basic central locking and a cigarette lighter. But once you spec this up with a second airbag, power front windows and steering, keyless entry and ABS, you're up to $9600 - and they'll charge you an extra three hundred bucks to have the car registered. I didn't spec an alarm or a stereo, because both are guaranteed to be overpriced crap if ordered from the factory. So with the Logan, you get an adequately equipped car for $10k.

Next up is the Toyota Aygo and its twins, the Peugeot 107 and Citroen C1. I had a look at the Aygo at a car show, and talked to a salesman. They're not really available quite yet here in Small Country, but he said it should cost around $11,500 for the one-liter petrol.

To be honest, I wasn't impressed. I went in with high hopes for the car, but the interior quality was a huge letdown. Top Gear praised the thing for being designed as a cheap car (as opposed to designed, and then made cheap), but I fear they've gone a bit far with it. Really, it's about atmosphere; the gearshift is sloppy, the sound of the door closing is unsatisfactory, and the plastics feel very - how should I put this? - Chinese. (Still, as Richard Hammond pointed out, it does have an auxiliary input on the stereo.) When you compare it to the Logan, you can't really justify the price increase. Gets excellent mileage though.

Then there is the daddy of cheap cars, the Hyundai Getz. It has been around for years, but there's just been a redesign, and it now comes with a 1.4-liter petrol engine making 98bhp - which makes it the most powerful car in this study. I've driven the old 1.3, and around town the engine was perfectly acceptable, nippy even. (Of course, that impression needs to be considered against the backdrop of what I was driving at the time - a 27-year-old Volvo estate.) The asking price for the 1.4 GLS three-door is $12,200, or an extra four hundred for the five-door version, which makes it almost rival the Logan on practicality. Not that I need much of that, being 21 and single.

The price is steep in comparison with the others, but you do get a lot for your money - four airbags, ABS, power steering, windows and mirrors - the latter are heated, as are the seats - a trip computer and even air conditioning! I imagine you can spec it down at the dealer, throw out the AC to bring the price down about a grand. I did find the seating position a bit awkward, mostly because the gearlever was short and low down, but then again I didn't play around with the height-adjustable seats. The Getz is a popular car, and deservedly so. It is the most powerful one, and quite roomy; it even feels nice inside. All in all, one of Korea's best efforts ever.

But there is a fourth contender. Brand new and looking good, it is the Suzuki Swift. Now, the five-door model comes with a great spec and a high price, so what I'm looking at is the three-door 1.3 GA at just under US$11,500. It comes with all the vital components, like ABS (and EBD!), two airbags, power steering, etc. Unfortunately what you don't get is a tachometer, and the windows are the wind-down kind; I'd also probably really miss the trip computer, as it is the thing that makes me feel like I'm in a modern vehicle. Then again, the interior is by far the best of the three, feeling like a proper grown-up car; and the door shuts with a very satisfying thud. It's not quite as practical as the Logan or Getz, but there's sufficient rear legroom and the rear seatback does fold down for more luggage space. The petrol four-pot makes 94bhp, which for a car weighing under a ton dry should be nice enough; I expect it to match the Honda's tired old 2.0. I also think it's the best-looking out of the group by far.

So, if someone gave me eleven and a half grand and said I could keep what I don't spend on a car, what would I choose?

Well, it certainly wouldn't be the Aygo. Toyota reliability is tempting, but then this is a choice between two Japanese cars, one Korean with a monster warranty, and one European that you can fix with a roll of tape and a can of WD40 (whatever moves and shouldn't - tape, whatever doesn't move and should - lubricant). Ultimately the Aygo doesn't justify the price as weighed against the interior quality.

It probably wouldn't be the Logan either, despite the fact that you can spec it up with a 1.6 engine (still weaker than both the Hyundai and the Suzuki) and all the necessary gadgetry while still keeping the price comfortably below any of the competition. I might as well stick to the Accord and not spend the money on a new car. The Logan does feel cheap, and the other cars prove that a vehicle at this price doesn't have to.

The Getz, minus aircon, is very tempting. It's a great car and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to everyone - especially considering the five-year bumper to bumper warranty and free roadside assistance. Ultimately though, the Suzuki Swift, even with windy windows and a hole in the center console where the factory stereo should be, feels like the most proper car here. I love the cubic looks, too. I am hoping that by the time I am ready to buy, they do offer some options for the bargain spec (or sell the packed GL in three-door form, which I'd be thrilled about), but even as it is - it's the one I'd have.

The one-click what now?

Got sent a link for a video file. Here's the process for getting the file:

  1. Click on the link
  2. Scroll down
  3. Choose between Free and Premium (which, I assume, takes you to a signup page)
  4. Load a page full of confusing text
  5. Look hard for your download link
  6. Find the 30-second countdown until it appears
  7. Click the link
  8. Marvel at the idiocy of the World's Biggest 1-Click Webhoster.

Like the famous Charles Babbage quote, I am incapable of understanding the confusion of ideas that results in such interfaces.

It's fine to provide a premium service for paying customers, but when your approach is "make the normal one Premium, and make the free one as hard to use as possible", you are doing something wrong. Not to mention the fact that the users of this website - people sharing video files - obviously have no intention of paying for anything. If they did, they'd pay for an FTP server.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Beyond Free Speech

Have you ever wondered why suicide is, in some legislatures at least, illegal - in fact a criminal offense?

Also, have you ever wondered why when a murder occurs, the police will always file charges and proceed with an investigation, even if the victim's family don't want them to, and don't want the murderer to be prosecuted?

The reason for this is that some crimes are not simply committed against a person. They are crimes against society, offenses to all humanity. And humanity, through its authorized representatives in the law enforcement community, must deal with such offenders promptly and decisively.

I have talked before about freedom of speech. I do think it is important - vital, in fact. The spirit of freedom of speech laws is the protection of different, often diametrically opposed opinions, because we really have no way of finding out for sure which opinion is better, which is right, which is wrong and which is useless.

Except there is a case where we do. One case where every decent, civilized human being on Earth - any creature that can be called a human being to begin with - knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is evil. And not not only is it undeniably evil, but it is by its very definition incapable of producing anything non-evil.

The case is Nazism. And I have recently engaged in a massive flame session with a couple of people from a country where Nazism is legal. Where the spirit of free speech laws has been stomped into the mud by nearsighted lemmings convinced of the virtue of their letter.

I often make fun of America's cultural infancy. I've witnessed Californians marveling at the authenticity of an 1830s mining town outside Sacramento, whereas I've shat in toilets over half a millenium old. The nation of Small Country in its present shape traces its roots to the early 13th century. And yet, it has not been an independent state until the 20th, and then not for long. Our current Constitution was passed in 1992; and the spirit of freedom that pervaded postsoviet republics in those days resulted in Paragraph 12.
Everyone is equal before the law. No one shall be discriminated against on the basis of nationality, race, colour, sex, language, origin, religion, political or other opinion, property or social status, or on other grounds.

The incitement of national, racial, religious or political hatred, violence or discrimination shall, by law, be prohibited and punishable. The incitement of hatred, violence or discrimination between social strata shall, by law, also be prohibited and punishable.
At first glance, the second part may seem quite oppressive to an American, taught since early childhood how noble it was that his country allowed the Ku Klux Klan and did not prosecute anyone for burning the Stars and Stripes. And yet, this is a document written by people intimately acquainted with a lack of liberty, with prolongued oppression, and the desire for freedom.

One person's freedom only extends as far as the tip of another person's nose.

If an ideology is evil; if it is based on the concept of justified, even desirable mass murder of all people who do not belong to a certain race; if it is demonstrably and singularly designed to promote and eventually achieve this purpose; if you know for a fact that nothing good can come of it but a lot of bad can; then this ideology cannot be allowed to exist.

Nazism is banned in every state that has had to deal with it, first and foremost in the state that spawned it. Its zealots are prosecuted, and free speech laws give them no protection whatsoever. The exercise of Nazism is a crime against humanity - and this is an actual legal precedent, as established by the Nüremberg trials. Humanity must not allow it to exist.

Nobody really gets prosecuted for thinking positively of Nazism, and I'm not advocating this. But in every reasonable country on the planet, the person who does, is not allowed to excercise his right to speak freely. Rather he is allowed to excercise his right to shut the fuck up.

And as for America, well, you just keep telling yourself about the First Amendment and what a great country you are for your free speech. Dulce et Decorum.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Backing up

So, the wiki is down.

Permanently. Crashed and burned. The guy who set it up did it in some half-assed way and now the database is lost.

A letter gets sent to the corporate mailing list telling people to look in their Temporary Internet Files directory, find the content they'd put up on the wiki and mail it to such-and-such address.

Me: (thinking aloud) Uh-huh. I've had a complete wipe and reinstall since then. That's that, I guess.

Coworker: Should've made a backup, man.

Me: A backup of what? The browser cache?

I love my job.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Killer feature: car stereo AUX input

Do you remember Aiwa? They're still around, you know. Still making all sorts of consumer electronics. They even make car stereos, and while I have no idea how those compare to Alpine or Clarion, they do have one tremendous killer feature.

Aiwa is the only decent brand left that puts an auxiliary audio input on the front panel of their car stereos.

Ever since portable digital audio players have become popular, we've been faced with the problem of how to get them hooked up to the car. The popular solution seems to be the FM transmitter, that you connect to the player and set to an unoccupied frequency, which you then pick up on the car stereo. This does work, sort of, but it is an unnecessary workaround that falls prey to the fact that you have a large amount of metal between the low-powered transmitter and the antenna that is supposed to pick up the signal. Plus you need to connect the transmitter to the player, and waste battery life on it. The other popular choice is the cassette adapter, which also works, sort of. Except you don't have a cassette player in your car. And if you do, it's because you still have cassettes to play.

The funny thing is that the problem has been solved a decade ago. The front panel AUX input is a standard 3.5" jack, same as a microphone line in on the back of your computer. In fact it works exactly the same way. You get a 99-cent cable from any electronics store, stick one end into your player's headphone jack and the other into the auxiliary input. Then when you select a source, between the CD or the radio, you have a third option - AUX. Problem solved. It's a two-bit wiring solution that costs basically nothing to put in, and I keep wondering why all but one manufacturer has forsaken it when they switched away from cassettes.

Except there is a third way. It's not necessarily the best - it's more intrusive than the others - but it allows you to eliminate wires. The auxiliary input can be wired right into the dash.

The company that markets these things the most is Alpine, and their iPod adapters are ridiculously expensive - plus I do wonder whether it's just a marketing ploy, or it really connects to the iPod's proprietary dock, making it perfectly useless for any other brand. But the other day I saw an absolutely brilliant thing on sale. It's an adapter made by Kenwood; and it goes into the back of a head unit, plugging in as a CD changer cable. On the other end is a pair of red/white stereo inputs; you'd need another wire to end up with a headphone plug, but again, it's a 99-cent item. The manufacturer's website says it works with most recent Kenwood stereos, but here's the thing: the CD changer interface is an open standard. They're interconnectable; you can hook up a Kenwood changer to a Sony head unit, so I expect the Kenwood adapter would fit any stereo that has a changer plug - which is just about any of them. It also costs about 20 Euro.

The advantage here is that, if you are not averse to a bit of handywork, or you don't mind getting a shop to do it for you, you can end up with the headphone plug in the glove compartment. Or some other useful, out-of-the-way place - the little storage bin on top of the dashboard in a Mazda6 comes to mind.

Unfortunately, it just doesn't work for me. My driving playlist is currently at 141 tracks; and I still need to keep the player under hand to skip over tracks I'm currently not in the mood for. So I just keep my Archos Gmini 400 in the passenger seat... while listening to it in my headphones.

Which works perfectly well at no expense whatsoever.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The value of getting it wrong

A recent Joel on Software article included the following:
Custom development is that murky world where a customer tells you what to build, and you say, "are you sure?" and they say yes, and you make an absolutely beautiful spec, and say, "is this what you want?" and they say yes, and you make them sign the spec in indelible ink, nay, blood, and they do, and then you build that thing they signed off on, promptly, precisely and exactly, and they see it and they are horrified and shocked, and you spend the rest of the week reading up on whether your E&O insurance is going to cover the legal fees for the lawsuit you've gotten yourself into or merely the settlement cost. Or, if you're really lucky, the customer will smile wanly and put your code in a drawer and never use it again and never call you back.

Oh boy, does that ever hit close to home.

An interesting thing about technical writers is that while they are officially considered part of the sub-development world - on the same level with testers, sysadmins and the "last line of defense" support people, if you have any - programmers tend to think of them in the same vein as marketing and design people, creative types that produce beautiful things through a magical process. I can see where it's coming from - a good technical writer must be a good writer, and doesn't necessarily need to be a good technician; and good writing is indeed a creative process. If you don't need beautiful text, you don't get a tech writer. If all you need is very technical documentation only meant for developers, well, developers really much prefer to take care of it themselves, because they get to keep their own indecipherable conventions (which do work in this case). Or if you don't want to waste the dev's time, you get an intern studying CS to do it, because he's much cheaper.

The upshot is that a technical writer is expected to produce what the requester had in mind. The requester, usually a project manager or one of those people who holds the client's hand, has this Platonic ideal of a document, which they somehow manage to put into words and fob off to the writers. Often enough these people, especially if you haven't domesticated them yet, will honestly believe that the writer will use voodoo magic to extract the ideal document from the ethereal plains of purest knowledge and put it conveniently into a Word doc.

So if you're a tech writer, you inevitably arrive at the singular effective tactic for dealing with such requests. What you do is look at it, get a rough idea of what the point is, and put together a very crappy pre-alpha zeroeth draft. You then take the draft to the requester and let them simmer over it.

What results is an angry email to you (progressively less angry as you house-train the PM) detailing exactly what's wrong with the document. This is the entire point of the exercise. As the requester holds an (un)deliverable in his hands, his mind will process the requirements against the tangible item, thus crystallizing the idea of what the end document actually needs to look like. You, the tech writer, will now get a proper, reasonable request that you can start working on. Result.

It's the writing equivalent of a programmer hacking a workaround for a weird bug in a dependency he has no control over - crude, ugly and annoying; but sometimes there isn't anything else you can do. And this? This works.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Late retirement

Back when I was in college (this spring in fact), I was watching a presentation that was part of the conference our department held once per semester. The presentation was about social security or something like that. At the end, one of the guests - an American professor - got up and asked the also American lecturer whether his models included the fact that a lot of baby boomers may not be looking forward to retirement to begin with. Actually, he and a lot of his peers could not see any good reason why they should retire - ever!

I spend a lot of time on JoS?off, listening to software developers drool about how they will retire early and spend the rest of their lives doing something interesting. If they're even considering it, I would assume that they are top-notch professionals who make above average salaries. That would make them computer enthusiasts, people who genuinely love programming. So why do they dream about a condition where they would never have to produce another line of code again? And even if the early retirement would leave them open to code for fun, helping out on Open Source projects and the like, why not find a good working environment right now and stick to it?

Is it really impossible to find an Awesome Software Employer in the US any more? Has the ASE become a mythical beast?

Maybe software developers are not a good example - they do burn out, and they do need to constantly learn new languages to stay useful. But what about other professions? My dad is a journalist, primarily a theater critic. He quit working for a newspaper fulltime a couple years ago; since then he's been contributing articles, translating plays and writing books, all from home. Why the hell should he ever quit and live off the state pension? Why should he stop doing the things he loves?

Why should anyone?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Sacred Cow: Creativity in car design

I've been rather negative lately, and while yes, it's true that criticising is much easier than suggesting an improvement (and much more interesting for you folks to read, as my journalistic background tells me), it would be good for me to engage in a little bit of praise. So here goes.

If you read the editorials of big car magazines, you will notice that an unlikely large percentage of them is on two topics: how things used to be better in Ye Olden Days, and how we have never had it as good as we do today. The authors seem completely unphased by the dichotomy, in fact because the editorial introduces the magazine, the slant depends entirely on whether they've managed to do a Gallardo vs F430 road test this issue or had to fill it up with mundane dribble like the exciting new Renault diesel. CAR Magazine, my personal favorite (well, I could only justify one subscription), has been changing editor-in-chiefs a lot recently. Every new person who was in charge of it, for however brief a time, made it his duty to publish one of each - a glory piece about how new cars are awesome, and a jeremiad about how there is no real innovation in car design any more. I suspect this is part of a class they take at college, or at least that every professional car hack has a copy of each in his desk drawer that he polishes to perfection in the wee hours of the night.

I can appreciate the sentiment that new cars can be dull. Both the new Golf and the new Focus are highly capable, but disappointingly bland. The MkIV Golf was quite possibly VW's best ever design effort, short of the outsourced Karmann Ghia. Then again the general shape of a Golf seems to last for two generations, introduced as average and then updated to very sharp. The MkVI may be quite good. The new Focus is just a betrayal of aesthetics. If BMW can make their cars flat-out ugly and still sell them by the hundreds of thousands, Ford really shouldn't have been afraid.

And that's the real problem: fear. There are still brilliant designers out there, producing brilliant shapes - Ian Callum has made the entire Aston model range, plus the new Jag XK, out of a single sketch photocopied to plus-minus 10%, and the result is stunning. Unfortunately the decision-makers don't have the balls to commit to innovation. Creativity gets channeled into side projects, which worked for a while in rich companies like DaimlerSomething, who could afford to produce niche vehicles. At this point however even Mercedes is fed up with diversification.

Beautiful cars do still get made. You just don't see that many of them. Bean counters and executives have this idea of the average family that wants an average car - in shape if not attributes - so they won't allow anything groundbreaking to threaten their bread-and-butter model (case in point - the new BMW 3-series: blandness in an exceptional range). But what made that model popular? It certainly wasn't conformity.

Mercedes made the current E-class bland because they wanted taxi drivers to buy it. Taxi drivers didn't, because it's unreliable, and they can get an Avensis instead. And then normal people didn't buy it either, because it was both unreliable (which they could almost live with in an emotional purchase like a Benz) and boring (with which they couldn't). Don't you think that if the CLS was the original E-class shape - none of this four-door coupe nonsense - it would have been a roaring success?

Alfa Romeo is in possession of probably the most incredible shape in recent memory - the Brera concept. It is simply beautiful, without relying on shock value or novelty. What do they do? They sit on it. Initially they said it wouldn't be built; then, that it would be built on the Maserati 4200GT platform; then, that it would be FWD and V6-powered, built in low volumes for a lot of money. Obviously they want high margins out of this one, but look: people will only buy this car for the way it looks. You don't need to invest in new technology or R&D or anything, the killer feature is already there. So here is your solution: make the Brera the new 147. Get a good graphic technitian to shrink the dimensions and keep the proportions in such a way that it fits on a Golf-class chassis. In fact you don't even need to shrink it that much - use the 159 platform; with a wheel at each corner, it will still be roughly Golf-sized, and you can save in volume if you don't bother cutting down the floorpan. Introduce the Alfa Romeo Brera with a 1.6 four-banger for 14,000 Euro, and you will sell a million cars a year. Guaranteed.

Interior space? Who gives a flying fuck. The people that do, buy MPVs. Everyone else hardly ever carries a passenger, let alone two or three. My 1982 Mazda 323, a positively tiny little thing, had more rear legroom than the current Mercedes S-class with the regular wheelbase. European cars are not bought as white goods, that's down to the Koreans and partially still the Japanese. These days even if you buy a Skoda Fabia, you're making a fashion statement. Functionality is actually not hugely important. If you still want to manufacture and sell your Golf Pluses and your Opel Zafiras, go ahead. But forget about the goddamn Mazda3 saloon, and give me the RX-8 body on a Focus platform instead!

I'm going to send this to CAR Magazine. Who knows, maybe they'll actually print it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

If you don't care, they don't care.

Read this first.

Yep. Your government doesn't care about you. Why should it? You don't care for your government. You don't vote, in all likelihood, and if you do, you vote for the guy with the better hair, or the guy you think is more sincere.

(I met an American girl in the UK. She seemed like a perfectly adequate human being, then I found out she voted for Bush. As I stood there, slack-jawed, she explained that she thought Kerry was an arrogant bastard. Ahem. That's a quality I'd want in my president.)

Could a Democratic administration have handled Katrina better? I don't know. There is a reasonable argument that yes, it could (google for Clinton's FEMA nominations). It doesn't matter though. The government cannot but be apathetic unless it's constantly being driven - by fear or by conscience, both of them work pretty well. If you don't think you can change anything about the way the country works, then you can't. People tell me they want the right to own guns because they might have to revolt against an opressive government some time in the future. How more oppressive can it get?

If the revolution had any chance of ever happening, it would be happening now. So shut the fuck up and eat your Chicken McNugget. If you behave, they'll give you a taste of the new LeBron James designer soda.

I've said before that America used to be a beacon of all that's good to me. The USA isn't the City Upon the Hill it thinks of itself as, but the image of the USA was just that.

What have you assholes done to my America?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Dulce et decorum est

Like all laws governing the freedom of speech, the First Amendment was not meant to protect people who say nice things. Its entire purpose is to protect people who say things so unpleasant that they actually need protection. Freedom to speak means freedom to irritate others.

A man was arrested in Florida recently for running a pornography website where he gave free access to soldiers in the war zone, if they could prove that they were by sending in a gruesome photo. The photos were then used on a separate website. The man was charged with, believe it or not, obscenity.

No matter how shocking the images are, they cannot be sensored. They need to be shown to the public, every bit as much as images of Smurfs being blown up. Someone pointed out that the US is by far the world leader in developing unmanned vehicles, smart munitions, etc - everything to get its soldiers as much out of harm's way as possible.

The problem with that is, it makes war much too cheap. If two thousand American kids die in Iraq, the public isn't shocked - "it's a war! Support our troops!" Banners and collages appear all over the place, depicting the fallen as happy young lads.

It is moral for the images to be shown. It is moral to display them along with the authors' captions, which are often beyond cynical, for this is just one more consequence of war. It is moral for the soldiers to trade for these images, no less moral than for a stringer to get paid by Reuters and Associated Press, who then charge their subscribers.

War is not a Tom Clancy book. War is a poem by Wilfred Owen:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Now in .NET!

Two things:

1) One thousand hits and counting! Yay! Although admittedly almost 200 of those are from a single day.

2) is now online. You don't have to change your bookmarks (I wish you didn't, the domain forwarding screws up my visitor logs), but it's still an easy URL to tell all your friends. Oh, and .com was taken.

Monday, October 10, 2005

An elegant solution

So, a number of vehicles actually completed the DARPA Grand Challenge, a race in which machines had to cover a particular distance over rough ground with no human interaction whatsoever - using only sensors and onboard AI.

Zypper: hey, 5 driverless vehicles completed the grand challenge. woot
Flasher T: yeah, that's pretty cool
Flasher T: Someone at the JoS?off boards commented that with this new technology, there is no need for suicide bombers any more.
Flasher T: Until I pointed out that suicide bombers are still a lot cheaper...
Zypper: the more desperate the poverty, the higher the birthrate
Flasher T: solution: emergency condom airlift.

Not so super

There used to be an old joke in postsoviet times and places. How do you tell an optimist from a pessimist? An optimist studies English; a pessimist studies Chinese.

Human kind is generally obsessed with dichotomies. Everything must be bipolar, and in global politics, there needs to be a force for good and a force for evil. Greece vs Troy, Rome vs the barbarians, Rome vs Bysanthium, Rome vs Constantinopol (religious thing), England vs France, Catholicism vs Protestantism (Rome was exceptionally confrontational), Napoleon vs the Sacred Union, Kaiser Wilhelm vs the Antante, Allies vs Nazis, Marshall Plan vs Warsaw Pact... and I'm sure I'm missing some important ones.

At this point, the dichotomy is broken (although it still works very well within the US, on a good vs evil scale no less). People are desperately searching for an opponent to America. You can read about the EU below - it's pretty obvious that at least part of the driving force, especially today, is resistance to America. Then there was that whole world public opinion thing, all very embarassing. Recently everybody is all worked up about China either being or soon becoming the new superpower.

Um, no.

The original superpowers - the countries for which this term was actually used, although Britain at the height of the Empire was a superpower beyond any doubt - were characterized most not by the opposite ideologies, but for the creation of First and Second Worlds and the proxy wars that followed. Few people these days remember that the popular term 'Third World' originally designated not poor nations, but nations that had not yet decided whether to be capitalist or communist. (Like I said before: in particular circumstances, Marxism made a lot of sense.) The Golden Billion became the First World, and the Socialist Bloc became the Second, for no better reason than that the Westerners invented the whole scheme. With the juicy bits split up in the Yalta pact, the superpowers went after the less important ones. Proxy wars allowed the opposite numbers to report successes to their superiors without risking an all-out M.A.D. conflict.

China will never become a superpower of this sort. Or rather, if it does, it won't be in direct opposition to the western devils. For one simple reason: the Chinese system isn't appealing to anyone. China is an industrial powerhouse and has a huge army, but it does not appear to be in the business of exporting ideology. Historically the Chinese people, while undoubtedly arrogant and self-obsessed, were never hugely confrontational (the way Russians were, and remain). Communism works well in China, but it is simply a wrapper for the underlying mentality. Best we can tell, the Chinese want our money and our luxuries, but otherwise just want to be left alone.

I'm fine with that.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Open source and the user model

I'm a hardcore tech writer. I don't use RoboHelp or whatever else "authoring tool" bastard consultants try to foist on unsuspecting vendors. I use Word, and I use Paintbrush.

So the other day I come up to a developer and ask him to explain a complicated thing that I am supposed to document. He opens his copy of OpenOffice and starts using the 'Draw' component to make circles, squares, cylinders and arrows. All the while I'm sitting there thinking how much prettier - and easier - Visio is.

Eventually he's done, and I ask him to email me the drawing so I can redo it in Visio and put it in the doc. I come back to my desk, find the email and open the attachment.

A copy of OpenOffice 2.0 that I'd forgot I had boots up. Damn, I hoped Pbrush would catch this one.

Guess what? OO 2.0 can't handle .odg files properly. The diagram is as mangled as any Word doc that some zealot from the development wing saved in OpenOffice and emailed back to me. I hate it when that happens.

This time around I got the guy to email me JPEGs. But this is a symptom of a great problem for open source.

Recently I've helped set up a wiki. After trying out several different ones, with varying degrees of discomfort, the powers-that-be settled on a specific one. My job was to document it - because the creators never bothered to, and the point of a wiki as opposed to an FTP server to dump all the Word files on, or better yet, as opposed to bothering a live human being until they go and get what you need, is to make it easy for people to use the damn thing. This above all else means that you remove as many reasonable barriers as you can. (Technical writers really do rule the world, in our own unassuming way.)

So I wrote a quick guide on how to make a new wiki page and how to use the built-in editor. Then I tried to put it under the FAQ section.

Then I asked the person in charge of the wiki how to do it.

Then I asked the programmer in charge of the technical side how to do it.

It appears that the way you add pages to the navigation area in this particular wiki is, you find a very specific document type, open it in the built-in editor, then play around with links to internal page numbers on a hierarchical tree until you end up with something approximating that which you intended to do. Very simple.

The problem with open source, in particular the enthusiast-driven minor projects done by one, or maybe three, developers in their spare time is - it doesn't conform to the user model.

Enthusiast-driven development is great for some things. One example I can think of would be some sort of highly specialized programming tool. Another would be a game. In both cases, the authors and the audience are the same; the user model can be disregarded, because things will simply fall into place. But when the open source ideology is applied to something of potential commercial value, or even something that regular people will want to use, you get a communication breakdown: the author doesn't understand what the user is trying to do, and the user doesn't understand how the author expects them to do it.

This is why Firefox is ultimately irrelevant and why the absolute majority of people who own a computer still struggle with Windows Media Player and codec packs, instead of downloading VLC which plays absolutely everything out of the box. In VLC, when you want to play a movie, you have the option of 'Quick Open File', 'Open File', 'Open Disc', 'Open Network Stream', 'Open Capture Device' or 'Wizard'. Seriously. What the fuck.

There is a saying: A camel is a horse designed by committee. I heard it first as applied to software development, and haven't stopped marveling at how appropriate it is.

Vindication is a bitch.

Well what do you know? I'm right.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Dream jobs

You know those jobs that you think would be really fun to do? The ones where you want to be on the other side, to step through the looking glass and see how the strings are attached?

It's not really fun as a "job", not something you'd be doing for thirty-odd years. But it certainly has its charm. When I was six years old, I did professional theater; my dad wrote an adaptation of Brothers Grimm tales for a big theater in Capital City and I got to play the little bastard in Emperor's New Clothes who screams "The king is naked!". I had two entrances and one line - took a bow at the end - but it meant that I got to blow off kindergarten and hang out at the theater. I was no stranger there, both my parents were involved, my mom even had a fulltime job for some time as a literary advisor. But it felt so good to be backstage, to be part of it.

And it was the same thing with newspapers. I wrote my first article for a mainstream publication when I was 11. (OK, my dad made it happen - but I was good! A hell of a lot better than some people with college degrees in journalism, even back then.) I never spent much time at the newsroom, and to be honest, it was nice but not that nice. No, what I loved about that gig is the authority. The way you could arrive at a venue and get in for free, take advantage of the hospitality stuff, walk around and ask questions... To this day I think photographers get the best sensation - the reporter needs to talk to people, to interact, and they might not be in the mood to talk to them; plus you need to think of something original to say, and that means anxiety. (I was never a fan of writing by a formula; in my mind, an article is only worth a damn if there's an original, or at least fresh, thought in it somewhere; if you have nothing to say, don't bother.) But the photographer can be indifferent. All the people around you are there for some important thing, but not you - you're just working. You get to wear jeans and a sweater as opposed to everyone in a suit and tie, walk out in front of the podium to get a few shots in, and most of the time you even have the power to stop an important person mid-stride and have them pose for you. I did a bit of photography for various papers, never had the equipment or skill to do anything outstanding, but by God, I loved every second of it.

But like any dream job, it's only fun if you're not serious about it. I was just watching The Paper, an excellent movie - Michael Keaton, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei - and it does capture the essence of the job very well. I actually felt nostalgic. I might end up in the journalism business again some day, but for now, I'm glad I got out of there. Not only because of the constant pressure of coming up with something good before the deadline.

In the movie, Duvall's character tells a story. It's about how he was covering the '68 Olympics in Grenoble, and a bunch of the reporters went out to a great restaurant. They had a really good time, invited people over, etc, until the check eventually came to nine thousand dollars. (1968 dollars, mind you.) They were starting to panic, and then... An old man in the corner of the restaurant called up the waiter, drew a couple lines on a napkin and handed it to him. Then he winked at the reporters. The man was Pablo Picasso, and with the napkin, he's paid their bill.

The moral of the story: "The people we cover? We move among them, but it's not our world. It's theirs."

What you see is what you get.

A wise man once said: Every nation ends up with the leader it deserves.

From a discussion on Jos?off, about the morality of paying taxes:
And places like the US aren't totalitarian like the Soviets. Being an active citizen is possible, starting with meeting people who share your interests.

I do wonder if this is entirely true.

It's pretty much undeniable that the US has been becoming ever more totalitarian in the last half a decade. Of course, it's nowhere near Soviet level, but is it really possible to combat something like this? By being an active citizen?

The last election was many things, but to me, most of all it was scary. It showed that the American people were, in fact, entirely prepared to give away their liberty for a little temporary safety. Even worse than that - they could be manipulated, and would love it. The scary thing wasn't that Bush won again - but that he did it fairly.

Totalitarianism doesn't appear out of nothing. The Soviet Union came about because the ideology made a lot of sense in those days. Not just in Russia, but all around Europe (and even in the US) communism was in fashion. Despite the fact that many parts of the Russian Empire became and stayed independent - some permanently, some were occupied after a time - and Soviet Russia didn't become the Soviet Union until years after the revolution, and years after the end of the civil war, this totalitarian state was formed with the full support of the people.

It's not scary that fifty million Americans actively wanted the Bush administration to be in charge of their country. It's scary that two hundred million Americans didn't actively oppose it.

In 1991, the Soviet Union fell. Not because of the war in Afghanistan, nor because of the Arms Race, nor because of an inefficient economy. It fell because the people who lived on 1/6th of all the dry surface of the Earth suddenly didn't want it to exist - and did something about it.

All the might of the KGB and the Communist Party could not save the Soviet Union. A totalitarian state cannot exist on fear and terror alone; it will only exist as long as the majority of the people support it. The Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, the goddamn Secret Service won't be able to do a single thing about it if the American people got off their asses and took charge of their own lives.

For now, you deserve what you got.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The birth of a nation: is the EU going to be the next USA?

As usual, it's Friday night and I can't be bothered writing anything. Here's an old college essay of mine to hold you over.

Several months ago, as our country held the referendum to decide whether or not to join the European Union, I engaged in a series of discussions with a politically-minded American concerning the subject. Although I could only vaguely comprehend his reasoning, this person was extremely pessimistic about the entire idea. I was quite surprised that a US native, a patriot with a love of history, would be so adamantly opposed to the notion of several independent states joining to form a federation. After all, that’s exactly how his country began!

The similarities are quite apparent. The thirteen colonies of the New World were significantly different in their lifestyles, beliefs, economic positions. The extreme puritan views of New England had already been softened by that time, but educated and enlightened northerners still had their significant differences with the agricultural South (mirrored beautifully in the recent skirmish between the Franco-German alliance and Poland, the largest and most populated of candidate countries and a nation whose economy is largely dependent on produce).

The formation of the Union in the 18th century was necessary because of a single threat in the form of Britain; over two hundred years later this union has been successful to the extent that some of the most powerful countries in the world consider it wise to unite their efforts in order to oppose it. In both cases the birth of a new state was fairly painless – the Empire did send troops to America but failed, and the USA, under NATO coverage, has already bombed a troublesome European country that is targeted for assimilation by the EU somewhere in the future. And let us not forget the recent tariff war between the two Unions.

The United States of America did not create a Constitution until 13 years after the formal birthday of the country; the European Union was formed in 1993 and a decade later it is still missing its ultimate legislation. The bickering around the EU constitution has been mentioned above; the US constitution was a subject of such heated debate that the creators actually didn’t include anything in it about human rights. Even the original 13 colonies of the USA included economies which were desperately below par; the EU channeled exorbitant amounts of cash into countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece to raise them closer to the central players’ level.

Subsequent events, those which shaped the USA as we know it today, also find interesting parallels today. If America expanded west, Europe moves east. The USA had a lot of trouble keeping Texas, a major player in those days, interested. In Europe the rogue nation, convinced that they can do a better job on their own, is undoubtedly Britain – not as large or wild, but equally stubborn. The problem of balancing out slave-owning and free states that led to the Missouri Compromise is mirrored in the great juxtaposition of ideologies in 21st century Europe – that of socialist democrats and laissez-fair enthusiasts. This in fact was one of the more coherent and powerful points that my American friend mentioned, and his confidence that the social issues inherent to post-industrial Central Europe, its ageing population and heavyweight welfare structure will be too much for otherwise potentially successful candidate countries to bear is quite reminiscent of the wild and wealthy West’s loathing of federal meddlers looking to exploit untapped riches. When, in the course of the creation of this essay, I mentioned the idea of comparing the formation of the two great unions to another US-resident acquaintance, he pointed out the seemingly crucial difference of the European Union not having been built on the blood of slaves and Indians. Well there are a lot of intelligent, influential people who will argue long and hard about the EU being built on the blood of East Europeans…

Thus I maintain that the unification of a continent is a process that is conducted in a similar manner on each occasion. As the only other continent besides North America and Europe to be united into a single state has become a stable and prospering nation, I feel that there are good chances for the EU. And may the Union of the New World and the Union of the Old World coexist peacefully, engaging in productive rivalry and developing both countries until that time when a better structure is dreamed up.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Customer is king

This is interesting.

Shortly before my trip to Sverige, I came across a website that sold some rare clothes, including old E-type concert T-shirts. They actually have the right to manufacture the designs, it seems. Since I've been to the Euro Metal Tour in 2003, but failed to get a shirt (they were out by the time, it was the tour finale), I jumped at the chance.

That was September 4th. The website said 5 business days to Small Country, which did occur to me as slightly optimistic, if doable. I used to work for an online retail business, a fairly successful one, and I knew how long it takes to send a package from Small Country to Sverige.

Two weeks later, nothing. I sent them an email, and the response was that they were late with shipments because they just returned from touring. The shirt was now supposed to be shipped this week.

Well, today's Thursday, it's been a month and two days, so I went and logged a complaint with Paypal. Immediately, I get an email from the guy, tangibly pissed off but trying to be courteous - saying that he had no choice but to refund my money through PayPal, although I would still get the shirt.

The best part? The Paypal claim form has a field for information about the transaction, that's visible to the seller. The guy took particular objection to the fact that I said he gave me no reasonable excuse for the shipment being late.

Now, if I had told a customer of mine that their package did not go out a month after we got their money because "we were too busy", my boss would have my hide - and be perfectly justified in doing so.

The moral of this story: just because a website has kickass merchandise, doesn't mean they know how to do business. Oh, and the site is - might as well give them a plug.
PS. Although free stuff and not taking any shit are both things I stand for - I do feel kind of like a bastard. The only reason for that though is that the guy knows a friend of mine from Sverige - and that person is one of a very select group; I actually give a shit about his opinion of me. So there you go.

Sacred Cow: Media Center

The world of IT is always in search of the Next Big Thing. Every department has its own, the new technology or concept that is supposed to instantly become a killer feature and make a lot of money for its makers by virtue of everybody buying one.

The one currently touted by the PC hardware scene is the media center. It's been around the block a few times, but was given a new lease on life by the announcement of the new generation game consoles. The idea is that these things will take over the living room, providing full functionality and replacing the DVD/DVR/audio stack. You may remember (vaguely) the Sony PSX, a PlayStation 2 with a hard drive and a broadband connection. It was released, too - in Japan. Now tell me: do you actually know anybody who owns one, or has at least seen one?

The PS3 and Xbox 360 are supposed to be good at this sort of thing because of their muscle. Games these days need kick-ass graphics, and consoles are at a significant disadvantage here because the initial architecture needs to account for five years of adequate output, which in IT terms is an eternity. With PCs, you can always release a game meant for the latest, greatest hardware: people may not upgrade as much as you'd think, but at any one time a significant percentage of the user base has just gotten themselves a new toy. So the consoles are using shiny technology which promises truly magnificent things. As gaming devices, the PS3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Revolution are going to succeed wildly.

As media centers, they will fail miserably.

Media center PCs have failed for the same reason. It has to do with the fact that you cannot make a universal device. You just can't. My Archos Gmini 400 is a half-decent mp3 player, although if I was really after music I'd probably get a Creative Zen Micro, because it looks better and sounds better. I got the Archos because it's also a functional - but not very good - video player. (Actually the real reason I got it was because it's got 20gb of storage and mounts as a generic USB drive. The killer feature has nothing to do with its primary or secondary functions. Go figure.) I was willing to trade off for the extra ability, but in the portable device market, the user faces an insurmountable constraint. Whatever you get, you need to be able to carry.

In the world of living room equipment, the manufacturer cannot count on something like that. Space is decidedly not a limiting factor; the sort of person who is truly distressed by fiddly knobs and messy wiring will be too embarassed to prominently display an Xbox; they probably own a Mac Mini. The market for game consoles that wish to transcend their natural boundaries is that of early adopters and gadget lovers, and in all likelyhood they already own specialized equipment whose capabilities far outweigh anything even the mighty Cell chip can conjure up.

Plus consoles are hugely expensive; for the $400 a proper Xbox will cost, you can get a decent DVD player and home stereo system which will be much, much easier to use. Even compared to a wireless controller.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Google vs Opera, Part II

Then on the other hand we have Opera. Now, Opera is doing the exact same thing: getting its customers to use Opera for everything. But it is going about this in a completely different way.

While Google is primarily in the business of running a search engine (and advertising on it), Opera is primarily in the business of selling browsers. But not to you. It is actually in the business of selling browsers to Nokia, and SonyEricsson, and Motorola, and people who make those devices that you hook up to your TV to use the Internet. (Do you know anybody who actually owns one?) Its core competency is making a browser that does a lot of things very well on crappy hardware. So when they get to play around with a full-featured PC, they make the fastest browser on the market, by a good margin. And because on a smartphone, the browser is expected to handle all the Internet stuff, their PC version handles almost everything you could ever want to do online.

Besides being a browser - one with tabs, session saving, a very smart popup blocker, a gizmo that fills in your usernames and passwords on sites you registered for two years ago, and other really useful things - it is also everything else. It is a mail client, albeit one that takes getting used to. It is an RSS reader. It is an IRC client. It's a PDF viewer. The last version is even a BitTorrent client, for heavens' sake! I am not sure why they don't have Trillian-like IM functionality built in, integrating with all the popular networks, but I suspect it is coming soon.

The result is that without making any extra efforts, simply by taking the path of least resistance, the typical user ends up using Opera not as an Internet browser, but as an Internet client! It is not the monstrous Google but the tiny Norwegian that is poised to take control of the Web. Forget about GoogleNet; think instead about OperaNet.

Not that it either will happen, of course. Real life has a way of ending up much more boring than you'd hoped.

I know what you're going to say. You're going to mention Firefox. Don't bother. Firefox is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things because it has a limited potential user base. Unlike Opera, which does everything out of the box, Firefox can be made to do everything by installing a bunch of plugins. Simple users have no idea how to find one, never mind how to install one. Firefox is an alternative browser for the advanced, and its users are the 10% who are unhappy with MSIE. Conversely, Opera's potential customers are the 90% who are perfectly happy with MSIE, and switch to Opera because their twelve-year-old nephew installed it on their PC while visiting over a weekend. It was so simple that they kept using it.

On real-life useage

So, The Reg is discussing the iPod Nano's scratch problem. Several of the letters state that once you've bought a $200 gadget, you really ought to buy a case for it and not keep it in your pocket.

I'm sorry? The iPod is supposed to be a portable music player, by definition a device I carry with me; and the Nano in particular is very small, so its selling point is one's ability to carry it in even the smallest pocket.

So why the hell is it considered appropriate for the manufacturer to make the case so scratch-sensitive? There are only two possible explanations as to why this happened: either the engineers were incompetent, or the product was engineered down to a price.

The most appalling thing about this isn't Apple's behaviour, but the lemmings that defend it. I've owned two portable music devices, plus countless mobile phones and other screen-equipped devices, and have not used cases with any of them. My Nomad Zen - aluminium body over a magnesium frame - was for all intents and purposes indestructible, and believe me, I've tried. My Archos Gmini 400 has been almost as faultless. Both cost me around $300, and it's a lot more money to me than to the average American (or Brit for that matter).

Defending obviously crap build quality with arguments like "you should love and cherish your precious iPod" are the height of fanaticism, and the reason why Apple's products are overpriced, inferior garbage.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Google vs Opera, Part I

There has been a lot of crap going around recently among emergent people and their sidekicks - unscrupulous, sometimes plainly ignorant journalists - about the idea of GoogleNet. This magical thing is supposed to replace, or at least supercede, the Internet. The base for these assumption is the small-scale testing of a Google-run WiFi network, but more importantly, the fact that Google has recently been releasing apps to facilitate every aspect of normal Web usage.

The assumption is that because Google has in the past become the default-choice search tool, users will stay infinitely loyal to the brand and continue to stick with anything Google-branded.

In reality, Google only does one thing well. Google is often touted as the anti-Microsoft, a people's champion to defend poor users against The Beast. In reality, the two companies are quite similar. Just as Microsoft gets its money from selling Windows and Office, and uses it to finance the Xbox and MSN, Google gets its money from advertising and uses it to pay for its forays into niche markets. The reason it has become the default choice search engine was because it worked so well. In the time of "portals", Google presented an empty page with a search box, and a bunch of text results out the other end. Add to this the fact that it really did find the most relevant results, and you will understand the key to the whole phenomenon:

It just worked.

Whereas the rest of the nascent GoogleNet doesn't. Gmail may give you a lot of storage, but you don't need a lot of storage; they can say thay they'll give each user 2.5 gigabytes of hard drive space (and more) because the overwhelming majority of users will never come close to filling up all that - especially since Gmail includes half decent spam filters. The whole minimizing letters and conversation management business is very neat, but it only works in Internet Explorer (people's champion, huh?) and anyways, for most users this does not make up for the fact that you need to wait for ten seconds once you log in for the whole mess to load.

Google Maps? Fancy, and maybe useful if you're in NYC, but I'm in Small Country. Google Earth? Not even my office workstation has the muscle to handle it properly, and that's got a gig of RAM. Google Talk? I haven't bothered yet, but the sources I tend to trust say that it is objectively inferior to both MSN (killer feature: you can see when the other person is typing something) and ICQ (killer feature: you can send messages to people who are offline, and they'll get them). Actually I haven't bothered with Google Talk for the same reason I haven't bothered with Skype - nobody I know uses it. ICQ got popular because it was the first one to market and MSN got popular because everyone with a Hotmail account tried it; the killer features don't help you get users, only keep them.

In fact the single useful thing Google has done in recent memory was to add the calculator to their core search function. So now I keep going back to every time I get in a flame war on a car messageboard, because it allows me to easily convert Euros into Canadian dollars, pound-feet into Newton-meters and miles per gallon into liters per 100 kilometers (that last one is particularly tricky, because the values are inverse, so there isn't a simple coefficient to multiply by).

To build a GoogleNet, Google needs a strategy that would get customers to use a Google app for everything - browsing, email, IM, etc. Unfortunately Google is an online company, so they are building online tools. This is not the best way to do things.

Just drive

Am I the only one who things that AC/DC's Highway to Hell is not actually a good driving song?

I mean, it's an excellent song, a rock classic, and would be one even without the driving connotation - but as a song to have playing on the road, it's fundamentally not fast enough. In fact, and maybe this is because I'm spoiled by Motorhead, AC/DC does not seem like a particularly fast band. Their sound is certainly dense, but speed is not the key factor.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Hydrogen Redux

Oh, one more thing. There is a great way to combine the advantages of fuel cell cars and petrol-driven cars:

The onboard reformer.

It's a gizmo that's fueled by any hydrocarbon - methanol usually. Methanol is timber spirit, closely related to ethanol which is vodka concentrate, but highly toxic. With the exception of drinking, it can be used just about anywhere ethanol can. So we can keep our liquor reserves for ourselves.

A methanol molecule is made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. When you do some exciting chemical things to it, you get pure hydrogen, plus CO2. The hydrogen then goes into the fuel cell, and you know the rest of the story.

You still have the CO2 problem to deal with, but you get a lot less of that per mile than with an internal combustion engine; and besides, CO2 isn't the biggest offender. What gets you is the CO, which is the reason people die when they breathe in smoke (it prevents blood from carrying oxygen to cells), plus various nitrogen oxides - collectively called NOx, which is really surprisingly appropriate. Additionally, you have to remember that the whole process starts with methanol, which you get from plants, which absorb CO2. And if you really want to do something about it, there are technologies like Volvo's concept car, which had a CO2 extractor that ran off a solar battery in the sunroof; they calculated that in a typical urban drive pattern, the car got rid of as much CO2 as it made. The extractor produced oxygen plus coal dust, which went into a separate bag. You can give that to your least favorite nephew.

The best thing about the reformer is that it's self-contained; you put methanol in on one end, and get a moving car on the other. Methanol is every bit as easy to handle as petrol, and it's easy to produce in mass quantities (see Part III). The technology needs polishing to adopt it to cars, but otherwise it works. Today.

Useful II

You know how you can tell a person who's been using computers regularly since Windows 95 at least, and maintained those cranky boxes of ill-fitting crap?

They have a habit of moving the mouse around the screen while reading something, or waiting for software to install, etc.

It's like a nervous reaction, actually caused by the fact that in Ye Olden Dayes, you could never count on the process to finish correctly. I'm sure it's much more frequent among people living in post-Soviet space - most of the software available to us in the 90s was cracked in Russia and sold for peanuts ("Everything ever made by Adobe on one CD" was a typical example - how much do you think it would have cost in licences?). Of course, the installer often malfunctioned, or the CD was scratched, and you couldn't return it that easily. So you nervously moved the cursor around on the screen, because it's the most expedient way to make sure Windows hasn't frozen. Yet.

You don't really see that sort of thing these days. Then again, you can't buy the latest Professional edition of Photoshop for three bucks, either.


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