Friday, October 29, 2004

29 October 2004: Explosion

Advent Reject Criticism Of 'Firework Laptops'

In a move timed to coincide with Guy Fawkes' Night on November 5th, computer manufacturer Advent yesterday announced that their 2001 model, the Advent 6412DVD, was primed to explode on or around Guy Fawkes day 2004.

Although the explosion is an undocumented feature of the laptop (as are most of its features, including the unmarked buttons at the top and the mysterious ports at the back), Advent today defended the built-in explosion as a "fun way to commemorate some prat who failed to blow up the King back along sometime."

"We're hopeful our customers will find it a cute and enjoyable way to celebrate the failure of the Catholic plot," said Advent spokesperson Fats Liar. "Any electrical explosions always come with a fun flash of blue light and plenty of smoke to entertain your kids or your co-workers, depending on where you are when it happens."

Advent laptop user McDuncan McRae-McSpencer yesterday was quoted as saying "flippin' 'eck!!" as his laptop went up in smoke with the trademark flash of blue light from the power supply area.

"I knew it was a piece of unutterable crud from about three weeks after I bought it," said an angry McDuncan, 29, whose other complaints concerning his laptop included an ever-flickering backlight for the screen, the constant failing of the PCMCIA slot, the need to re-install both Windows and Linux every few weeks due to file corruption and the noise from the fan that was matched only by low-flying aircraft.

"I don't care if the explosion was intentional or not," said McDuncan. "I'm pleased to be rid of the bleddy thing. Fortunately the fire didn't last long enough to set the fire alarms off, and the shrapnel all blew the other way."

McDuncan is currently considering options ranging from Dell, IBM, HP, Sony and Other [Please Specify], for his next laptop, and any suggestions are welcome to the usual address, or as a comment on this blog entry.

Advent are thought to be planning to include a small-scale nuclear device with their next generation of crummy hardware.

Friday, October 22, 2004

22 October 2004: Gibson

The Blog Is Back.

And don't you forget it.

Also, a discussion concerning the contents of said blog has emerged on the WGB, even though it's turned into something of a kamgod reunion what with Trogdor re-appearing on the scene.

And as I'm saying there, and in previous blog entries here, I'm discovering that I'm actually quite an a-political person. At least as far as party politics go. I've a number of socially-justicey-leaning bones in my body, and I'm in favour of inequalities being tackled proactively by government (this means I'm quite left-of-centre). But then, I'm anti-abortion, I believe in absolute definitions of right and wrong, and I drive a car (sometimes), things which (I'm told) make me right-of-centre. Actually, I'm neither, but I do get hacked off at one thing in particular.

Politicians who lie, and media who simply go along with it.

As I said before, both Fox News and Michael Moore are as much to blame as each other in this, and if elected, Al Gore would have been at least as slimy and spin-centred as Cheney et al have proved to be recently. Surely not, I hear moderates say.

"I took the initiative in creating the Internet," said Gore.

No you didn't.

But don't get me started on that.

Monday, October 18, 2004

18 October 2004: Basic

For my sins, presumably, I have been requested to help teach a programming lab this semester. No problem there. Except the language we're going to be using is Visual Basic.

Now don't get me wrong. I think VB has its place in the computer world (ok, that place is 'buried underneath a large stone with all its evil GOTO statements', but still it's a place), it's just that for me VB brings back too many bad memories of QAS. How many times would I do some nice, neat piece of programming in Java or C++, only to be asked "why didn't you do that in VB?" (Because VB doesn't do strings well, it has the astoundingly neanderthal 'END IF' statement, and I didn't need a tacky front-end when all I'm doing is a file-processing script.) And for goodness' sake, don't talk to me about VBA - Outlook's built-in VB forms functionality had more bugs than working parts. Gives me the shivers just thinking about it.

But I'm a forgiving type, and I know enough about VB to be able to teach some second years about its various nooks and crannies without being too cynical. The only problem is, in order to do this, I need to get Visual Basic installed on my machine, so I can run through the lab exercises before the actual lessons. Well, I'm running Windows XP on one of my machines, so no problems there, you may think.

You think wrong.

Firstly, VB doesn't exist any more. It was subsumed into Visual Studio 6 a couple of years ago, and thence into Visual Studio .NET, a package so large and unwieldy it won't actually fit on my laptop. But there's no VB without it, so off I go to the university self-install website and begin the process.

After wrestling with the Component Update section (which kept trying to install FrontPage 2000 for me, despite my continual clickings of the 'no, don't install that piece of poo on my computer' button), I eventually (after two DAYS, yes two DAYS) managed to both install FrontPage 2000 and convince the installer that I had done so, and it let me continue. Now I came to the install proper, and here is where things got too crazy for me.

The install takes about half an hour, if you're installing from CD or 'it-thinks-its-a-CD' network installation. There is an install program that goes through the CD and copies programs from there to the correct place on the hard disk. No problems so far, right? Except this: frequently, the installer would pop up a window saying it couldn't find some file or other on the CD, why hadn't I put it there, and did I want to abort, retry or ignore? Well, I wanted to abort a long time ago, but I had to keep clicking ignore. Eventually it installed and does seem to work, but with errors and warning messages everywhere over these files it couldn't find.

And here's the thing that gets me: this was a CD, made by Microsoft, and the install program (on the CD) had, clearly, a different list of files than were actually on the CD. The CD was incompatible with itself. This is a huge, major release by Microsoft, it's their flagship developer product, merging VB, C++, C sharp and all manner of other languages into one happy bundle. And it wasn't even compatible with itself.

This afternoon, as I continue to battle this remarkably lemsip-resistant lurgi, I shall begin feeling my way around VB.NET, the slightly-doctored version of VB I have to use in class tomorrow. I'll program the exercises and try to avoid horribly unstructured goto statements. But in my mind will be the battle I had even to get VB installed on my Windows XP computer, and it makes me think more and more that Linux is the only way to go.

The other thing is this: a number of people (people I respect) have told me recently that Microsoft aren't so bad, they're producing decent stuff these days, we shouldn't be too hard on them. I say nonsense. If you want to do anything other than write a letter in Word or listen to a CD on the Windows Media Player, you're in trouble. More security updates than you can shake a stick at, and when it comes to programming... forget it. .NET may well be more complete than PHP and simpler to use than J2EE, but it's such a bear in practice that I can't see myself ever wanting to go down Uncle Bill's road again.

Abort, retry, ignore? You decide.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

14 October 2004: Furcal

Short blog today as I'm in bed with the lurgi, but I couldn't let Mark Bechtel's weekly CNN column pass without comment. He argues that, despite his officially neutral position as a journalist, he wanted the Braves to lose because Rafael Furcal had been given dispensation to play to the end of the season before going to jail for a month for his second drinking-under-influence-of-alcohol offence in four years, instead of going directly to jail, do not pass 'Go', do not collect any celery. It sends out a bad message, argues Bechtel, when sports celebrities get treated differently in criminal settings than you or I would. And with that, I fully agree.

The problem was that his piece, which gets quite vicious and rhetorical at times, fails to represent the facts of the case. Furcal does indeed "clearly need help", which is why he's going on a drink rehab programme when the prison term is over. Bechtel doesn't mention this - he instead talks about how pathetic the judge was. But worse is the clear statement that Furcal was "on the streets" during the Braves post-season play - no he wasn't. He was under curfew, except when playing, which means the same thing as house (or hotel, on the road) arrest. Have a look at the official statement if you don't believe me.

Don't get me wrong, I have no desire to be an apologist for Furcal's actions, or to make any comment on how the State of Georgia justice system works. I simply wish to point out that, like a great deal of the US media in general, commentators exaggerate and even lie to get their point across, at which point it becomes polemics rather than reporting. Whether it's Fox News or Michael Moore, I'm sick of seeing it, and to see it begin to appear on CNN is more worrying.

On the flip side, that was why the BBC hired Andrew Gilligan in the first place. And look where it got them.

Happy birthday, Mum!

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

12 October 2004: Tumbleweed

There used to be three certainties in life, according to the great Todd Macklin. Death, taxes and the Braves in the NLCS. No longer is that the case.

Early October has instead become tumbleweed week. The Braves have developed a habit of, no matter how weak their team appears to be, winning their division with at least a week to spare. They then tell everyone that 'this is the year', they get home-field advantage and get drawn for the first round of the playoffs against a team with a worse record but who happen to be hot (Cubs, Giants, Cardinals). The Braves then proceed to roll over and die like a suicidal hedgehog on a motorway, usually getting blown away faster than tumbleweed on a warm desert evening in Joshua Tree. The Braves reached every NLCS from 1991 to 1999; since the years started beginning with '2', they've done it only once, beating the Astros in the 2001 NLDS before rolling over against Arizona in the NL Championship Series. With last night's defeat at the hands of those same Astros, the Braves have extended their losing record to three consecutive NLDS defeats, and indeed have won only one of their last seven post-season series, going back to that disastrous 1999 World Series 'Team Of The Nineties' decider against the Yankees, where the Braves rolled over in four straight games with barely a whimper.

What's caused all this? Is it that they are so relieved to win the NL East that they relax for a week and can't re-focus? Is it that they just come up against hot teams and are thus unlucky? Is it that they just don't care, having been in the playoffs for so many years?

That last explanation is one given by many people, but it doesn't hold true for the 2004 Braves. This was a team full of rookies and imports, many of whom had never seen post-season play before. Johnny Estrada, Adam LaRoche, Charles Thomas, Eli Marrero all came through their first full year with the club, and others like John Thompson, Paul Byrd and Chris Reitsma were new to the set-up. This was a team that had to fight for the NL East, and were a dynamic, exciting young side, one of the best defensive teams in baseball. The batting wasn't bad either, with Estrada, Marcus Giles, the ageless ancient Julio Franco and Rafael Furcal augmenting a sub-par but still not-too-shabby season from the Jones boys and an amazingly fit-all-year J.D. Drew. This was a team that had the excitement of the 1991 team, the maturity of the 1995 team and a defensive prowess unmatched by any of the preceding thirteen division champion teams.

But this was October, so they rolled over and died. There was a bit of fire, a bit of fight, but nothing to speak of. The pitchers kept giving up home runs, and that's not how you win games.

So, on to next season. No doubt the payroll will be slashed again and Bobby Cox will find a way to mould a bunch of high school seconds into NL East champions, before they blow it against the Padres or someone in the NLDS next year.

Death, taxes and the Braves in the NLCS. Oh that it were.

Postscript: Car has been in for five days now. Still no phone call from any car hire firms.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

7 October 2004: Garage

A word of advice to all drivers: don't get hit from behind by another driver. It's not worth the hassle.

Of course, it's rather hard to avoid, but if you can avoid it (for instance, by not driving) I recommend it. I myself was having a day off from the Citeseer process back in early September, and I thought it would be relaxing to drive to the beach and spend the day throwing nuts at the squirrels. I got halfway across town when matey bumped me from behind. That same day, I contacted the insurance company and even got the damage investigated, photographed and estimated.

A month later, my car is finally in for repairs, after insurance companies losing documents, estimates getting lost in the mail, garage managers being on holiday and forgetting to order parts, the usual stuff. And Tuesday I got call from the garage saying "um, sorry about this, but we won't be able to give you a replacement car as promised. Could you phone your insurance company and ask them to arrange one for you instead?" So I did. The insurance company told me I had to call their subcontracted legal company, which I did. They made 'mmm, short notice' noises at me (like it's my fault?) before saying they'd get a car hire company to call me. I'm still waiting for that call.

This morning, my car went in for repairs and I have no replacement.

Now, those of you who know my situation are well aware that I only use the car sporadically, mostly for lending to Canadians in fact, and a week without a car is neither problematic or even unusual for me. But it's saying something about bureaucracy when I have four companies on the case and somehow they still fail to fulfil the terms of my insurance contract, for which I have paid a lot of money. And I've also had to pay money in terms of phone calls, petrol costs to get to and from garages, and of course the excess on the repairs, which I may be able to claim back later from matey's insurance (given that it was entirely his fault). Given the way things have gone so far, I doubt it will be that easy.

So my tip: don't drive, or if you must drive, don't get hit. It's not worth the hassle.

Postscript: Atlanta Braves began the traditional tumbleweed roll-over-and-die approach to the post-season yesterday, losing 9-3 to the wildcard Houston Astros. Wildcard. That means they didn't win their division. The Braves did. I'm not bitter, I'd just simply rather lose in the NLCS instead of some divisional match-up. Or at least play the Dodgers, who aren't very good.

Goodness, I sound angry this morning, don't I? I'm off to get some more tea.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

6 October 2004: Fresher

At the AKT team meeting yesterday, Nigel said that while he and a few others were off at EKAW in Northamptonshire, those of us who remained should continue to push back the forest of ignorance. Another academic who shall remain nameless offered the observation: "Oh yes, they've all arrived now, haven't they?"

They have indeed.

It's easy to tell, particularly during the first two weeks of October. The Student Union shop suddenly begins stocking extra types of sandwiches, for one thing. But there are other, less pleasant, effects. Walking back across campus to the Computer Science building I was hounded - bombarded - with people wanting me to have a free bag of this, a free package of that, stuff encouraging me to bank with this one particular bank, go see this one particular insurance company, join this one particular section of the armed services. All around me eighteen-year-olds were looking bamboozled and wondering how to figure out that which is important (signing up for the Medical Centre and the Library) from that which is less important (joining the Medieval Nose-Picking Society). I just closed my eyes and blundered through the hordes, although in reflection there's usually someone or other offering a free year-planner wall poster, so perhaps I'll go back again this afternoon. To think, I'll be teaching labs and tutorials for this lot in a couple of weeks.

So ends the summer of peace and solitude. So ends weeks of being able to walk across campus and through the botanical gardens without seeing a single person. So ends the joy of going to the gym mid-afternoon and finding it almost deserted. I'll have to start going first thing in the morning again.

Elsewhere in the world, it seems Uncle Don Rumsfeld (bless 'im) has changed his mind yet again on the links between Saddam and Al-Qaeda. Uncle Colin Powell, as you may recall from the Blair blog, assured the UN of clear links between the two, despite a number of people pointing out that while Saddam perhaps didn't mind Bin Laden, Osama for his part loathed all things Saddam, especially his secular (ie non-clerical-Islamic) fascist government. Anyway, Uncle Don said on Monday that he hadn't seen any evidence linking Saddam and Osama, which came as something of a surprise to Uncle Colin presumably. Uncle Don later retracted his statement, saying he'd been misunderstood. Meantime, the UN Weapons Inspectors have concluded that Saddam didn't have any WMDs, although he did have them in the past (well, we sold him a bunch of them, and he must have either used them all or destroyed them as the UN told him to), and he was planning to get some more. He was planning to have a programme to get some WMDs. All inside forty-five minutes, presumably? Saddam was one of the nastiest, brutal dictators on the planet, and yes we're better off without him, but the whole thing is starting to stink quite badly. No WMDs, no link to Al Qaeda... and yet 49% of Americans and 21% of Brits continue to think Saddam was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. Were the public misled by their political leaders into supporting the Iraq war?

Tony doesn't think so. Tony says the intelligence convinced him of the need to invade, and that we should trust him (remember all that stuff about "if you'd seen the intelligence I've seen, you'd agree"?), despite the fact that Robin Cook, Clair Short, John Denham et al saw the same evidence and said they didn't think there were WMDs to be found. And there aren't any. So either Tony was incompetent, in which case he should resign, or he knowingly lied and misled Parliament and the country, in which case he should resign.

Tony Blair remains Prime Minister as of this afternoon, and nobody seems to mind, or even suspect there's anything wrong.

Talk about the forest of ignorance.