Lars Wirzenius: January, 2004


Thursday, January 29, 2004

Random hacks: Generating Finnish SSNs

Some time ago a friend was testing a database that included, among other things, Finnish social security numbers, and needed something to test it with. Instead of having to generate syntactically valid numbers by hand, I wrote a ten line Python script to do that. Might as well put it on the web, in case someone else needs it.

Review: 28 days

28 days is starred by Sandra Bullock and is basically a story about getting your life into order. Bullock plays the character of Gwen Cummings, a drunk, who eventually messes things up so badly she is sent to a rehabilitation center. The story of her path to recovery is not particularly surprising: there is the denial, the cataclysm that turns her mind, the rejection of her former life. What the story lacks in surprise, it compensates in the fine way it tells the story. The storytelling manages to stay away from being too romantic about the addictions or making the relationships of the character involve too much romance. This is not a romantic film. It is also not a comedy, though it contains a finely judged amount of warm humor.

This movie also manages to stay away from excess grossness and depression. While the subject matter is difficult, the movie leaves a hopeful feeling as it ends. Not exactly happy, but the confidence that happiness will happen.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Review: Laulu yön lapsista by Petri Hiltunen

Petri Hiltunen may very well be the reigning king of Finnish comics. One of his main series is Väinämöinen, a comedy featuring the ancient Finnish pagan god returning to his people in modern times. All sorts of hilarities ensue. The other main series is Praedor, a set of adventure stories somewhat in the Conan spirit set in the fantasy world of Jaconia. Praedor is not funny.

Laulu yön lapsista does not, however, belong to either series. Instead, it is set in actual history, in 16th century Russia. Hiltunen then takes some liberties with reality and introduces vampires. The story tells what happens when a Russian poet is taken to the king of vampires.

The vampire story is somewhat similar to Praedor and very much unlike Väinämöinen. Where the Väinämöinen stories are drawn as daily strips in a faily standard and light funny pages style, the Praedor stories and this vampire story are dark. They are dark both in the style of their drawings, and in their stories. What humor they have is black. It is pleasant to see that Hiltunen is not restricted to one genre, in addition to being rather productive.

Random thought: Living with NIHolism

Hello, my name is Lars and I am a NIHolic.

NIH is short for Not Invented Here. It is a phrase used about the attitude of programmers like me, who think that any code not written by them is not very good. NIHolism is not easy to live with, since you always feel you need to rewrite everything you see. For example, I have written my own editor, mail user agent, mailing list manager, Lisp interpreter, HTTP library, ... The stronger your affliction, the less software by others you want to have.

Luckily, I suffer from a fairly mild case of NIHolism. I do not want to write all the software I use. I have no interest in writing my own kernel, windowing system, desktop, and so on. While my interests in programming are wide, they have limits, and anything outside those limits I am very happy to let others take care of. I generally abhor having to write code that is very close to the hardware.

I have also learned to see when my own efforts are pointless because something so much better exists that it would be impossible to compete. Case in point: I much prefer to use Ximian Evolution rather than my own mail user agent.

Now please excuse me while I go write my own editor. Again.

Review: Miten sijoitan rahastoihin by Puttonen and Repo

I wanted to learn a bit about investing money and had the general impression that various sorts of mutual or open end funds were the thing to do. To learn, I read the book Miten sijoitan rahastoihin by Vesa Puttonen and Eljas Repo. It is in Finnish; sorry for any foreign readers.

This book starts with the very basics, and explains what funds are and how they work. They go through various kinds of funds and their operation, and the Finnish laws that govern them. They do not give advice on which fund to choose, but explain the process of choosing and the kinds of decisions one has to make. They explain some of the typical comparison numbers, such as Sharpe's index: how they are computed, what they mean, and how they are used.

All in all, this seems like a worthwhile book to have, if this kind of thing interests you. It does not go into economic theory very deeply, but being an introductory book, it isn't supposed to. It seems to have been written in a hurry, and at least the copyediting is occasionally very bad: there are paragraphs (possibly added late in the process) that are full of spelling mistakes, for example.

Random thought: Viruses in the news: Windows mentioned!

There is yet another virus attacking Windows machines, and meanwhile also causing trouble to innocent bystanders. What seems to be different this time around is that the Finnish news media actually tends to mention that the virus is specific to Windows. Not always, but usually, in the news items I've read or heard. This is a significant change from earlier cases when the usual reports made the ignorant think that all computers were vulnerable, not just Windows.

I take this to be one more sign of the crumbling mindshare monopoly Microsoft has in matters of computing. Every time a news item mentions Windows specifically instead of talking about computers in general is a win for everyone except Microsoft.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Personal life: Choosing a gym

One of my New Year's resolutions was to take better care of my health. As part of that, I'm supposed to join a gym and exercising there regularly. Since I'm lazy, the gym will have to be close to where I live, and there are two near here. One is crowded by women in tights, sweating, and the other has a sales person who does MLM stuff on the side. Both require you to sign up for a year, at a minimum, even if you can pay per month. I'm leaning on the one not filled with women in tights, if only so that I can concentrate on my exercises instead of drooling.

Oliotalo: Satisfied client

It always feels good to wrap up a project so that the client is satisfied and glad to pay the bill. Woohoo.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Lodju: GUADEC proposal sent

I sent in the proposal for the GUADEC talk on managing a digital photo collection. Read the abstract for more information.

Debian: Hello, Planet Debian! Come to Finland?

This log is now visible on Planet Debian. Hi! I'm occasionally rather verbose and my web log is not often particularly restricted to Debian and free software issues. If this bothers anyone, feel free to mail me.

On IRC I got the silly notion that some of the European Debian developers might enjoy a visit to Finland. Summer, very short nights, some sightseeing, possibly a cottage and a sauna at a lake, with possibly some hacking thrown in. Not exactly a Debconf/Debcamp like thing, mostly a purely social occasion. Call it a massively overorganized keysigning meet. Free sleeping place on the floor. One person on IRC showed interest, but would anyone else be interested?

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Lodju: GUADEC presentation?

I'm thinking about going to GUADEC this year, since it is Norway and that's relatively close and I might therefore be able to afford the flights. I'm even thinking about offering a talk on managing a digital photo collection, using Lodju as one example. Here's my current abstract:

Digital cameras are popular toys and photography as a hobby seems to be growing. Accordingly the number of photographs on people's hard disks grows really fast. This talk presents ways to avoid drowning in the flood of pictures.

The first step is to learn to delete pictures. Not all pictures are worth saving. For most photographers, most pictures are not worth saving. Learning to see the difference and to delete the unworthy pictures can reduce the flood to a manageable size.

Depending on the remaining volume various approaches can be taken to keep track of the pictures. The simplest one is to keep the pictures in suitable folders on disk, using a graphical file manager such as Nautilus or an image browser such as GQview to put them in the right folders and to find them as needed. For bigger volumes specialized tools are useful. As an example I present my own program, Lodju. Lodju is a tool for GNOME for organizing a digital photo collection and is used as example of what you can do with such software, compared to other methods.

Backups are made difficult by the large number of bits in digital photographs. Floppies are just too small. Perhaps something else would work: CD, DVD, internal or external hard disks, tapes, or even paper.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Anecdotes: On remote debugging

I found a one year old IRC log snippet while cleaning up my files. It describes the development sitatution we had at Oliotalo. We no longer need to talk to England, but debugging things over the phone still happens, though less often, luckily. I've edited the log slightly, to remove expressions of sympathies and such, but the essence of the story is still there.

liw: sometimes I do hate being a programmer: for the past week I've wrestled with software that breaks in one way, then when that is fixed (one line change, e.g., serial port speed change) something completely irrelevant breaks (such as my garbage collection algorithm)

liw: it doesn't help that the embedded computer I'm debugging is in England and I'm in Finland, of course; now I have about four hours to sleep before England starts doing things again *sigh*

someone_else: using irc to get somebody in england to press reset? :)

liw: no, using phones to talk a Mac user through using wine to run a Windows program to download new binary images into the embedded computer and then through using minicom to download Lisp code into the same embedded computer

liw: my best plan so far is to switch careers and become a professional photographer, using large format, fully manual cameras (quite literally just a light tight box with a lens on one side and film on the other side - *no* electrical components)

someone_else: put the computer in a box. get Brown to pick it up.

liw: there is, of course, no time to transfer boxes, the customer demo is in six hours

liw: oh well, I'll go see if I can get some sleep now; if everything works in England in the morning, I'll even get to sleep all day, otherwise it's back to denting head with wall

I don't remember if things actually worked, unfortunately.

Lodju: Heard about F-spot, talked to Larry Ewing

Jukka Rajala told me about F-spot, a new project of Ximian with goals very much like those of Lodju. I mailed Larry Ewing, the F-spot guy, and he agreed that it would be good to look at working together. He'll have time for this after Evolution 2.0 releases, perhaps a month from now.

Review: Evolution 1.4.5

I have been using Evolution as my mail program for over two years now, having used various others such as mutt, pine, Slime (Stupid little mailer, something I wrote myself), exmh, and mush. Of these, Evolution is clearly the best one, although that doesn't mean much when you compare to mush. Even Slime was better than mush.

I'm not totally happy with Evolution. I have version 1.4.5 and it still occasionally crashes on me, or behaves strangely. Mostly, however, it works well enough, which is more than most mail programs manage to do. There is something about Internet e-mail that makes all programs that process it be bad.

As a mail program, Evolution is competent enough in providing the basics: fetching mail, putting it in local folders according to various rules, showing the contents of folders nicely threaded, making it easy to move mails between folders, letting you send mail using various profiles, etc. As a nice touch, Evolution has a "reply to list" feature which works automagically without my having to configure any lists (mutt for example requires the lists to be listed). The automagic actually works most of the time, though it gets things wrong just often enough that it is you don't start to trust it and always remember to check whether the recipient addresses are correct. This is actually a good thing.

This version of Evolution does not have a built in spam filter, but it is easy to integrate, say, bogofilter with it, and that's what I have done. This works pretty well.

Evolution also contains a calendar, address book, and to do list. I don't much use the to do list: if something is important, I'll remember it anyway, and if it isn't, there's no point in putting it in a to do list either. Having an address book work well together with a mail program is, however, extremely useful. It becomes much easier to manage contact information for a large number of people when it can be done in the context where you have or need the contact information. The address book in Evolution works fairly well for my simple needs, though it is a bit slowish.

The calendar, on the other hand, could just as well be a separate application for all I care: my calendar stuff and my mail stuff do not mix and having everything in one program gives me no benefits. Also, the only calendar view I find usable is the one that shows a whole week at a time. I rarely have enough calendar entries to warrant a more detailed one. I don't even bother to tell Evolution the times for my entries, since it would be more work and give me no benefits. People whose calendars are more full would probably have a different opinion of Evolution's calendar. I use it mainly because it's there, not because it would be better than something else.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Linux: Kernel upgrade to 2.6.1: no hibernation, but Rhythmbox

Yesterday I upgraded the kernel on my laptop from 2.6.0-test3 to 2.6.1. I had hoped to get a working hibernation or suspend, but alas no. Swsusp will hibernate fine, but upon bootup it crashes reliably. PM_DISK doesn't even hibernate. Suspend-to-memory doesn't seem to work at all. Ah well.

On the other hand, on this new kernel Rhythmbox (and therefore GStreamer) can play music without brokenness. With the previous kernel, the music would play nicely as long as there was no CPU load, but as soon as there was, it would have stop playing until the load went away. This is nice because the Rhythmbox user interface is much nicer than that of XMMS. Hopefully I won't have to go back to XMMS, ever. XMMS is still slightly better at playing (shorter pauses between songs, and less affected by short load peaks), but the difference is small enough that it doesn't matter to me.

On the whole, this was an unusually painless kernel upgrade. The worst problem I had was when the Synaptic touchpad driver I'm using had to be upgraded. At some point they had decided to reverse the y coordinates so that up was down and down was up. But that was rather easy to do, luckily.

Oliotalo: Remote embedded development

I just realized today that it would be possible to build a development environment that would allow me to mostly develop things on the embedded side without leaving home. That would be nice on days like today when the temperatures are -19 degrees Celsius. I would need:

Not entirely impossible, I think, though perhaps a bit unlikely in our current financial situation.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Personal life: Bright light again

I stopped using the bright light during Christmas while I was visiting my parents in another city. When I came back, I didn't start using it again. I now realize that was a mistake: I've grown gradually more stressed after my vacation and a small part of that is probably due to the lack of light. I've now used the light again for a couple of days and I imagine it is starting to have an effect again.

If nothing else, it seems to help me switch from night mode to day mode. I feel less tired after an hour of bright light treatment than before it. Not a lot, but enough.

Random hacks: RSS

Well, someone requested that I add RSS, so I did it. According to the file I generate is valid, but since I don't use RSS myself, I don't know if it actually works in any useful way. Please tell me.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Anecdotes: LoTR addict

How do you know someone is addicted to the Lord of the rings movies? Consider the following dialog snippet:

liw: I'll watch the LoTR movies when I can borrow the extended editions to me on DVD. It'll probably take a year more.

Anu: 309 days, I think.

Random hacks: Log re-engineering

I decided that I wanted to provide permanent links to log entries and to implement this I had to abandon my old way of making the log. I started writing the log as a plain HTML file, at the end of May, and have only added a small script to create per-category page. For permanent links, I would have had to do unpleasantly much manual editing, so I decided it was time to do something fancier.

I don't want to run a "blog engine" on, for various reasons. I may some day write a log entry to explain this. For now, take it for given that I want to have the log as static HTML files.

After experimenting with a few things, I ended up converting the old log entries into one large XML file, from the the HTML files are generated. I made a quick prototype for the HTML generation with XSLT, but as usual, the expressive power of XSLT failed as soon as I wanted to do something non-simple. It's not that XSLT couldn't be made to do them, it's that it becomes a headache to do them. Instead, I wrote a 531 line Python program to read in the XML file and generate the various HTML files. You can see the result now.

Apart from minor changes in the visual design of the log, the new thing is a "Permanent link" link at the end of each entry. So, in the future, if you want to refer to a particular entry, use that link.

The front page will contain a couple of days' worth of entries.

Eventually there might be an RSS feed as well, if anyone shows any interest in such.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Personal life: Shoe shopping

I went shopping shoes today. I hate shopping shoes. My feet are of a seriously non-standard shape, which makes it hard to find shoes that fit well. They're wider and higher than they are long, as far as shoe makers are concerned, which means that shoes that fit as well as they can tend to have lots of empty space in front of my toes. This can make walking or climbing stairs a bit awkward. My shoes are variously of size 43 through 47, depending on the make and width of the shoe; the fortysevens felt like canoes.

I'd have custom shoes made, but that's always been too expensive, compared to the level of awkwardness. At least as far as hand-made custom shoes are concerned. For a few years now the Left foot company has been using modern technology to make custom shoes. Robots and whatnot, I'm told. They measure your feet and then send the measurements to the factory, where the shoes are made so they fit your feet exactly. And the shoes aren't even all that expensive, only about 50% more than I'd expect to pay for a pair of good mass-produced shoes.

Unfortunately, once I started looking at the company more closely, I learned that they don't actually make shoes exactly according to the measurements. Instead, they have an unusually large set of variations on their models for feet shapes and their computer chooses the closest one. This is much better than for mass-produced shoes, but not good enough for me. Unsurprisingly, they do not have a model that would fit me any better than mass-produced shoes, so there's no point in paying extra.

I eventually did find a pair of winter shoes that will hopefully last at least until next spring.

Debian: No longer getting security announcments twice

A year or two ago I started getting all mails from the debian-security-announce mailing list twice. Then recently this suddenly stopped. I'm glad it stopped, though I'd be more glad if I knew why. As it is, the list software Debian uses (a heavily customized SmartList, I think) is scaring me. I wish I could get them to use, say, Enemies of Carlotta, which at least is possible to understand.

I should hack EoC to be more what Debian needs, if I want that to happen.

Photography: Choosing a normal lens

I decided it was time to buy an additional lens. When I bought my camera in 2001, I could not afford to buy a set of good lenses and I opted for the cheapest one, the Canon EF 28-90 mm f/4-5.6 zoom. By several accounts, it is the worst lens Canon currently makes. I have, however, been fairly happy with it so far. It is a good enough lens for learning purposes, and I have not felt much restricted by it. It is very slow for autofocus, and not very bright, but I can live with that.

I also have the Canon EF 50/1.8 mark II lens, which on my D30 is effectively an 80 mm lens. It is quite nice, though also slow to focus. I use it for portraits, mostly head shots, when I want to have a shallower depth of field than the f/4 on the zoom lens allows. Mostly I use the zoom, because it is more versatile.

Next I wanted a "normal lens", something that is approximately 50 mm in (effective) focal length. After much browsing of and, I narrowed it down to either the Canon EF 28/2.8 or 35/2 lenses. They are both affordable enough, by all accounts optically good enough, and both are approximately 50 mm in effective focal length (45 mm versus 56 mm). I had decided on the 35/2 lens, since it gives an extra stop of aperture, but the camera shop had a used 28/2.8 cheaply, so I got that, instead.

I've only taken a few test shots with the new lens so far. It seems much snappier for focusing, but I haven't noticed any dramatic increase in optical quality compared to the zoom. Time will tell, I guess.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Photography: Secret of successful portraits, don't tell anyone

After almost three years of photography, mostly portraits, I have concluded that the way to get people to think their portraits are good is to use a filthy white backdrop and show them pictures printed out in a format larger than they are used to (I manage 20 by 30 centimeters).

Review: Miller's Crossing

I first saw Miller's Crossing in a movie theater in 1990 or 1991, when it was new, and I thought it was excellent. After that, I didn't see it in video rentals or as a DVD, though I occasionally looked for it, until I stumbled upon it in SF Bokhandeln on the recent trip to Stockholm. I didn't hesitate at all.

Miller's Crossing is a gangster movie. It is set in a town run by a gangster boss, during Prohibition, and tells about gangsters fighting gangsters.

Unlike many other films I've only seen long ago, this one is still as good as it was back then. It is a film by the Coen brothers, and in fact the first of their films I saw, and like later successes such as Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Man Who Wasn't There, it is basically a fairly straightforward tale told in a twisted yet most enchanting yet way. The photography is almost magically good in all its subtle simplicity, the acting is superb, everything just works.

This movie is one of the reasons why I love movies. Most movies are just fun entertainment. There's nothing wrong in being fun entertainment, but it doesn't touch you. Miller's Crossing touches me. It is not exactly a pretty tale, even if the movie is beautiful, but the way the Coen's and their cast and crew tell stories about human failings makes the world a better place. They let you emphatize with the bad people without having to feel dirty about it later. They make you understand humanity's negative side without making you a worse person. A movie such as Godfather paints a glorious picture of humanity's bottom feeders, and almost makes you want to become a mafioso yourself. Miller's Crossing is not glorious, not even particularly romantic, but it also avoids being judgemental or preachy. It has, in fact, just about the perfect balance between showing the intriguing and revolting parts of the dark side. You're fascinated by the dark side, but not enough to desire it.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Anecdotes: Taxi drivers favor Linux

You know you're beginning to achieve world domination when taxi drivers start spontaneously boosting your product. Coming back from a visit to a customer site, I was feeling tired and miserable and my foot was wet, since snow was leaking in through a split shoe heel. I decided to take a taxi home from the Helsinki railway station and the driver was quite talkative, in a nice and positive way.

We were having a nice discussion on the relative merits of stop lights and traffic circles, when he suddenly started telling me how wonderful Linux is compared to Windows. He made the analogy that Linux is like a traffic circle (might slow you down a bit, but works smoothly almost always) and Windows is like a stop light (occasionally stops you dead without any reason at all and there's nothing you can do about it).

No, I hadn't indicated to him that I even knew about Linux.

Oliotalo: Things about programming they didn't teach at the university

If I ever write a textbook for programmers, it will contain practical advice. I will explain in some detail the benefits of having your own ear protection and cultivating a tolerance of people indulging in generating recreational toxic fumes via fires in fire hazard locations. The cozy picture of programmers calmly sipping beverages in clean, quiet offices is a lie. A lie, I tell you!

Take today. We were dragged into a six hectare warehouse to debug one of our embedded boxes, which attached to a warehouse truck. There was oil, there was dirt, there were signs warning against fire and smoking, there were people smoking, there were people using power tools to shape metal, there was no ear protection except hands and fingers, there were three year old nude calendars, and, most importantly, there was nowhere safe to put a laptop. A huge electric motor is not very safe, even if it is supposedly mostly shielded against electric intereference to the external world.

Photography: Ninja girl

In December, I photographed Yoe dressed up as a ninja and a Japanese teenage girl. I've finally managed to make a selection of the frames I like best, and Yoe has graciously allowed me to make them public.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Oliotalo: Looking up

After a shaky year and half, the firm seems to be doing pretty well. The boss is, finally, optimistic, even if there are some bumps still ahead. I'm not doing so well, I'm heavily stressed out, and have trouble sleeping, but that will hopefully pass soon.

Customer installations are nice, because they indicate that systems are going into production and things are about done. On the other hand, there are always a bunch of loose ends and tying them takes time and effort.

Random thought: Linux progress

In 1992, Linux was not considered suitable for real use (whatever that meant) by most people, because most things just barely worked. A couple of years later, most things worked, but the general opinion was that they didn't work well enough: networking was too slow, SCSI drivers were unreliable, or something else, depending on who was complaining. Again a couple of years later, these things worked, but Linux still wasn't ready for prime time, because it didn't have the support of this or that major proprietary Unix application (usually Oracle). Yet another couple of years later there was Oracle, but Linux still wasn't any good, because it didn't have a graphical desktop. When it got that, it didn't have office software. After it got, we're now told that there's no point in switching to Linux because there are no games.

I think this sounds like progress, don't you?

Debian: Jeff Bailey taught me something

At Debconf3, last July, Jeff Bailey held a presentation on giving presentations. It has probably been the single most useful thing for me from the whole week I spent in Oslo: I've used what I learned there at several occasions since. I think, though I can't measure for certain, that my presentations have improved since. At least when I remember to talk slowly and breathe occasionally.

Review: Wikipedia

Wikipedia is an on-line encyclopedia being written using wikiwiki technology: anyone can edit anything. Occasionally this results in very biased or inaccurate information, but this is almost always corrected, at least eventually. It sounds amazing, but it does seem to work pretty well.

In its about three years of existence, Wikipedia has grown to contain almost two hundred thousand pages, which is huge for any encyclopedia. The quality of the pages is somewhat variable, but I've rarely seen really bad errors. (Perhaps I just don't look up enough pages on topics I do know something about.)

What's more, as Lauri Alanko put it, it is becoming difficult to ignore Wikipedia since it's popping up in Google search results every so often.

If you're looking for information on any topic, Wikipedia is now something you should search in parallel to Google. As with Google, you should evaluate the reliability of whatever you find: if you heard it anywhere on the net, you shouldn't trust it blindly.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Photography: History of photography at Diskurssi

With a group of friends we arrange a regular happening which starts with a 30 minute presentation on some topic on which the presenter (one of us) is knowledgeable. Aftewards there is large amounts of food and discussion, both on the topic and other things. Today's topic was the history of photography, and I gave the presentation. I'm not an expert on it, but that's OK. As usual, the 30 minutes stretched to 90, but that's also OK. I collected a few representative pictures and talked about them and events surrounding them. It went pretty well.

Next, I think I should start taking pictures again.

Friday, January 9, 2004

Review: Hercule Poirot

Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot with David Suchet in the leading role is simply the best adaptation of Agatha Christie's detective stories. Suchet portrays the little Belgian detective with perfection. The supporting cast, with Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings, Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp, and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon, is equally good.

It is not the fault of the makers of the TV series that the characters are somewhat flat, almost caricatures, or that the plots are simple and often predictable. They have stayed quite true to the original stories and it is part of the charm of the series (both literary and TV) that it builds on repetition of basic elements, none of which dives very deep into the human condition: Poirot's little eccentricities and mannerisms, his superiority over the police, the weird little clues, and the supposedly suprising choice of culprit. Poirot is entertainment, and succeeds in that quite well.

I watched the series (or 50 episodes of it) from a huge DVD box. The disks are very simple, and have no extras, not even subtitles in English. The picture quality were sufficient, however, to not prevent enjoyment. Not quite as good as those for typical movies, but then Poirot is made for television and the quality of the master originals is likely to be worse than for most films. Adequate, but not very good DVD version.

Thursday, January 8, 2004

Rant: Add a LED to your device

People who design electronic devices should always include a LED to indicate whether the device gets power and is functional. A LED costs almost nothing, but it can be immensely useful when debugging. For example, today we were trying to figure out why a Bluetooth device wouldn't talk to us over a serial port. Knowing that it at least got electricity would have been helpful and helped eliminate one common source of problems.

Not including a LED is, in fact, a sign of stupidity or malice on the part of the designer.

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Photography: Sanna

Made public the mini-gallery with the best shots of Sanna. Feedback welcome via e-mail.

Oliotalo: Hectic

Work is, again, hectic. Too much to do, too little time to do it in. On the other hand, this is good, because it means we've got paying customers. It should become easier after this month, hopefully.

Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Personal life: Sanna's birthday party

Sanna had her birthday party today. It was an early thing, starting as a brunch at 11:00, but I slept through most of it, not having been able to fall asleep until about 5:00. Still, there were many nice people at the party when I finally arrived. I gave her a couple of prints of photographs I took of her.

Review: Linux Weekly News

The best Linux-related news site I know is Linux Weekly News. They are subscription based: the last two or three weekly issues are restricted to subscribers only, but after that they become free for all. Subscription is cheap at 5 or 10 dollars per month. What makes LWN different from most news sites is that they don't just repeat stuff they find elsewhere, but they also analyze things and write longer articles themselves on topical issues. They have a clear and explicit bias towards free software, of course, and this is often visible in their articles, but they do a pretty good job at separating opinion and fact.

I also find that reading one issue per week is about the perfect pace for me. They publish (for everyone, not just subscribers) news items as they find them, but I don't follow those. The weekly issue is not just a compilation of all the news items for a week, it also includes analysis. By not having to comment on things immediately, the editors also have more time to digest things. As a result, the quality of reporting is much higher than on, say, Slashdot.

I highly recommend LWN to anyone for whom what happens in the Linux world is interesting or important.

Rant: Firstname.lastname@domain

Quite many people think that e-mail addresses should be of the form firstname.lastname@domain. I think that is a bad idea. In any big organization there will be clashes: people with the same name. More importantly, from my point of view, is that it makes the address next to impossible to communicate over a phone, or for most people to remember correctly.

My last name, Wirzenius, is not the most complicated one in the world and yet it is quite common for people to misspell it. My father and grandfather have collected a list of such misspellings, and it has over a hundred variants. Among my favorites are "van Breda" and "Lessick". I didn't get my matriculation photographs from the photographer until they searched through all of them and matched them with my face. When making the appointment, I had spelled my name, letter by letter, over the phone and they had written down "Wicksten".

The times when I have to tell my e-mail address over the phone are usually related to high-stress business situations: a customer screams at me because they think they have found a bug. It does not make things better if they can't get it right the first time.

Monday, January 5, 2004

Oliotalo: Back to work

I returned to work after about two weeks of vacation. I'm feeling much better about work now than before the vacation. Not at all burned out, as it happens. This is good.

Random thought: Spam will go away in two years

I predict that the spam problem for e-mail will be solved by the end of 2005. My reasoning is as follows: spam is getting exponentially worse, and it will not take very much longer for it to completely ruin e-mail. As a reaction, things will be done: legislation, enforcement of legislation, techinical measures, and so on. Eventually either most of the professional spammers will have been caught and stopped, or the e-mail system will have evolved technically so that spamming will no longer be feasible.

I'm not sure which kind of legislation is going to be most effective, or which kinds of technical changes are going to work. I fear that they will have unfortunate side effects, such as abolishing the possibility of using e-mail anonymously or preventing you from running your own e-mail server. But perhaps not.

Technical standards on the Internet tend to change pretty slowly. For example, after over a decade of use, there are still e-mail systems that have trouble with MIME. This is because there is not very much pressure to upgrade old systems or fix old software, and instead there is a strong pressure to be as backwards compatible as possible. This is good in many ways.

What spam does is provide a strong incentive to change. Systems that won't change will be flooded with spam and will become unusable and eventually die. The pressure is, I predict, going to be big enough that as soon as a sufficiently good technical solution is presented, it will be months, not years, before it is adopted by the majority of e-mail services on the Internet. Those left behind may well be effectively cut off at the same time.

The only way I can this not happening is if the spammers start regulating themselves: they limit their spamming so that it is barely tolerable, not bad enough to warrant a global change of protocols. I doubt that is going to happen.

Review: GQview

GQview is a tool for watching digital images. It has rudimentary support for copying and moving the images around the directory tree, but what it really excels at is showing a bunch of images. It is very easy to look at a series of images, perhaps flipping back and forth. As a digital photographer, I appreciate this very much, as it is something I do a lot. GQview does not get in the way, and requires the minimum of setting up.

I wouldn't use GQview as an image organizer. It is not what it is good at, and it doesn't need to be. For watching images, it is the best program I've found.

Sunday, January 4, 2004

Travel report: Stockholm

I have returned this morning from a trip on the ferry to Stockholm, together with Ville, Vera, and Mikko. For those not familiar with the custom: there are a few large ships, called ferries, that travel between Helsinki and Stockholm. Nominally, they are for transporting cars and travellers, but in reality, mostly they are floating restaurants and the only reason for moving between Finland and Sweden is to have tax-free shopping.

A ferry.

A ferry. This is just a decorative picture and has nothing to do with this trip. In fact, we didn't even take Silja line, but their competitor, Viking line.

The ferries can take thousands of people, plus cars and cargo. They have restaurants, pubs, discos, dance clubs, gambling, and so on. Oh, and tax free. It is fairly common in Finland to take an occasional trip to Stockholm and stock up on booze from the tax-free shop on the boat. Not that it is possible to stock up very much, since the Finnish import restrictions for alcohol are quite limiting.

That's OK for me, though, since my primary interest is Stockholm itself. I don't even drink alcohol at the moment, and I rarely enjoy sitting in pubs full of smoke and noise.

We visited the Royal palace. It was moderately impressive. Obviously much money has been spent to build and decorate it, over the centuries, and it certainly is big. On the other hand, everything felt like having been built primarily for display, not use. It seemed to me designed to impress visitors (previously ambassadors and heads of state, now tourists), not to rule an empire from. It is similar to swords: a sword glittering with gems and gold is never as impressive as one built to kill people with.

The building also showed some signs of, well, not exactly neglect, but less than perfect upkeep. There were some rooms with paint hanging from the ceiling and such. These may be quite deliberate, but they felt out of place.

Afterwards, we visited Science fiction bokhandeln, a bookstore that specializes in science fiction, fantasy, roleplaying games, and such. It was fun, though not particularly exotic. I still managed to burn away too much money there: I should probably be prevented from visiting bookstores.

Sleeping on the ferry was not very successful for me. The beds are small and the mattresses are bad. They're built for low total cost of ownership, not comfort. Accordingly, I didn't get much sleep and my back started aching. This isn't the first time that has happened. I may have to consider not going again because of this.

I still feel the gentle rolling of the ship. My sense of balance still thinks I'm on sea. I expect the return of dreams of living in a sail boat tonight.

Thursday, January 1, 2004

Random thought: New Year's resolutions

It is a new year. I went to a party at Talo, a commune where five of my friends live. The party was nice, and I only came back home at six in the morning.

New Year's resolutions are of course topical. I have not usually made any, but I thought I'd try this year. So, hereby I resolve that during 2004, I will:

If I continue this log a year from now, it will be interesting to see how well I've kept these.

Random thought: Saying thanks, giving back

I've read a bit today on the theme of saying thanks or giving back in the free software world. For example, the Advogato article on saying thanks or Kylie J. Veale's article on gift Internet economies.

Veale brings up the very good point that in a gift culture such as the free software world the givers of gifts (those who write the software, etc) need to get something back. For some people, seeing hits on their web site is sufficient: the more hits they get, the happier they are. That's why I get a daily mail with a graph of the hits to my log, for example. It is always rewarding to see the graph jump up after I make an update. That is also almost the only feedback I do get. (I might get more if this log had an online commenting feature, but for various reasons I don't want to add one.)

Dan Connolly, author of the Advogato article, lists several traditional ways to give back in the free software world:

These are all good ways, though not appropriate for all. Not everyone can write code, and even writing documentation can be hard, though every little bit helps. Most people are capable of at least spotting typos or pointing out unclear passages.

Saying nice things about a program you use, in a private mail to the developers or in a public place such as a mailing list, a newsgroup, or a web page, is something everyone is capable of. I would like to see a lot more of that. For example, if you participate in mailing lists or Usenet newsgroups, adding a few words of praise for something to your signature can be amazingly effective. Or write a review in your web log, if you have one.

Saying nice things in public is more effective about unusual programs than the most common ones. For example, a thousand more people saying "Apache is a really good web server" isn't going to make a very large impact, compared to the masses who've already said so. On the other hand, it might have a relatively large impact if the same number of people saying similar things of somewhat less popular programs: "GQview, by John Ellis, is a really nice tool for watching digital photograps".

In fact, authors of really popular programs, such as Apache or the Linux kernel, might not appreciate it if even one out of ten of their users would mail them.

I would add the following to Connolly's list:

For a developer, a good bug report is extremely valuable, since it helps them fix the problem. The need to say thanks goes both ways here: if someone reports a bug, they should be credited in the ChangeLog (or other relevant place). This encourages people to report more bugs and report them better.

In contrast to Connolly, I would advogate adding links to programs.

I'm less sure about getting money or tangible things as thank yous. If it becomes common, it could easily become an expected form of payment and then the software isn't free anymore. An occasional surprise gift is always welcome, of course.

I've written before (in July, 2003) about parasites in the free software world: parasites are people who don't give back and, in fact, harm the program or project they use by saying only bad things about it. Parasites are unpleasant people. Don't be parasite: send a "thank you" mail to the authors of your favorite programs.

Of course, I should now start practising what I speak by writing reviews of my favorite software. A theme for 2004 for this log, perhaps.

Lodju: 2.2

Released Lodju version 2.2. I meant to implement a search feature, but I've been too tired or lazy to do anything except fix bugs. That's good too, of course.