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Petri Wessman's weblog

Typo upgrade

Upgraded to version 6.0.8 of Typo (the blog engine I’m using). I’m hoping that it will fix some of the annoying bugs the earlier 6.x releases have had. At least image uploads should work again…

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Apple getting more and more Big Brotherish

There’s a big fight brewing out there, between Apple, Google, Adobe and many other companies. Apple is slowly edging into the “big player” role and is fighting very dirty. Not that Adobe’s slate is totally clean either, and bad old Microsoft is infamous for stuff like this… but as I’ve said before, Apple in a monopoly position would be much worse than anything Microsoft did even during their worst periods of dominance.

The latest spate of control freakish dickery is a modification to the app developer agreement, in which Apple forbids iPhone/iPad app development with languages (and tools) which aren’t natively Objective-C, C, C++ or Javascript. This targets a lot of stuff, including (critically) all cross-platform tools. In other words, Apple is dictating the programming languages that apps need to be originally written in. Techically, in this day and age, this is fucking insane. Sure, Jobs has some excuses on the subject, but ArsTechnica nicely picks those apart.

Daring Fireball provides an analysis that sounds right on the money. Apple doesn’t want developers developing for any other platforms, and they are doing all they can to hinder any sort of cross-platform apps. The moment the iPhone becomes “just one more phone”, they’ll have problems. Apple wants apps only on their phones, not on competitors’ models. And hey, I can understand that, from a pure business perspective. It’s a ruthless move, but it makes sense.

That doesn’t make it something that anyone sane wants to support. The whole of Apple’s Disneyfied walled garden app ecosystem is something that makes me deeply uneasy. Also, I have zero doubt that Jobs would push the same model on the OS X computer front, if he could just figure out how. Walled gardens and a captive audience? Sure. It’s a license to print money, without all that nasty “competition” stuff.

It’s actually quite analogous to DRM in music. When that came out, the “geeks” and technical people were vehemently opposed. The ordinary “man on the street”? He didn’t care. He thought the geeks were overreacting. He just wanted something easy, “who cares about all that technical and ‘freedom’ stuff”. Then, slowly, he discovered what the geeks had figured out long before: the system was broken, the music was nonportable and often stopped working at some point.

I feel a bit the same way about Apple’s iPhone/iPad ecosystem. It’s not something I want to support, sending money in its direction would feel “dirty” in the same way as paying for DRM’ed music would. Voting with your wallet is, after all, still a valid form of expressing an opinion.

The other side of the coin is the fact that Apple does tend to do beautiful and very polished products. At some point I do want a portable PDF reader, and at that point I hope there is an alternative to the iPad available. Me, I’m hoping to see an Android-based tablet. Rumor has it that Google is working on such, but… well, rumors are just that.

I’m rooting for Google to kick Apple’s ass, somewhat. Jobs is both the best thing that Apple has going for them and the worst. His perfectionist attitude has resulted in Apple climbing out of the 1990s proprietary, ultra-expensive pit that they had sunk into. However, that same perfectionism manifests in a total control freak, “Jobs way or the highway” attitude. With the more and more proprietary and closed direction Apple is heading in, there is a real danger that they will repeat the mistakes of the 1990s all over again.

I’m sure that hordes of Apple apologists will totally disagree, and quote some tired old “well, don’t buy one then!” refrain. That’s fine. Instead of typing additional words, I’ll just link to iPad: The Disneyland of Computers and Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either), both of which are views I mostly agree with.

I’ll have to reiterate: I do like many of Apple’s products, and love the attention to detail in them. I just hate the more and more obnoxious walled garden restrictions that surround the iPhone and iPad. That’s also the reason I’m more and more interested in Android.

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Do No Evil & musical collaboration

A couple of interesting blog posts today.

First off, Tim Bray (the man behind this small thing called XML, in case you didn’t know), is now at Google. As such this is interesting, but his blog post about it is an especially fun read. He makes no bones about his hate for the Apple iPhone/iPad closed ecosystem:

The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger.

I hate it.

I hate it even though the iPhone hardware and software are great, because freedom’s not just another word for anything, nor is it an optional ingredient.

Amen.

I don’t own any Apple products right now, but I’m far from hating them. In fact, I have a definite love/hate relationship with the company. Like Tim, I really like their open(ish) products: Macbooks, OS X, etc. If and when I buy a “big” laptop (as opposed to my current nifty-but-limited netbook) it’ll quite probably be a Mac. Apple is really good at polishing products, and after years and years of fighting with various Linux desktops, you know… the idea of a desktop environment with a lot of polish and emphasis on the user experience is a nice idea. I like Apple computers and the OS seems decent enough (hey, it’s a Unix variant).

…but the new Apple focus on the ultra-closed iPhone/iPad ecosystem is horrible, for lots and lots of reasons. In this mode, Apple makes Microsoft seem like the Spirit of All Things Open; Apple is ridiculously control-freakish. While this has resulted in a lot of polish in the past, now it’s (imho) clearly going into areas I do not like. The idea of needing to (semi-illegally) hack my own device in order to get reasonable use out of it (“jailbreak”) isn’t a sane one to me.

So Android has been looking more and more interesting to me, as a platform. Will be interesting to see what develops, and above all: Apple needs something to give them competition and keep them in line. A future where Apple is the major player is not a future I want: they are well on the way to becoming the very same Big Brother their old 1980’s ads fought against. I suspect they’d be a lot worse than Microsoft ever was, given a monopoly position. “Think different”, my ass. “Think like Steve Jobs, or else…” more like it.

Things might become very interesting during the next few years, in this arena. Apple and Google are more and more set on a collision course.

The other interesting read this morning was a blog post by the great David Byrne about musical collaboration. While I’m purely in the “listener, not creator” box when it comes to music, I love music and find it fascinating to read “behind the scenes” stuff like this. Professionals discussing how they work is always interesting, and David’s discussions on how collaboration works for him, along with snapshots of his workspace(es), is especially nifty stuff.

I found this bit especially interesting:

The unwritten game rules in these remote collaborations seem to be to leave the other person’s stuff alone as much as you can. Work with what you’re given; don’t try to imagine it as something other than what it is.

This presents some musical challenges, of course, but the benefits generally outweigh them. The fact that half the musical decision-making has already been done bypasses a lot of waffling and worrying. I didn’t have to think about what to do and what direction to take musically — the train had already left the station and my job was to see where it wanted to go. This restriction on one’s freedom — that some creative decisions have already been made — turns out to be a great blessing. Complete creative freedom is as much a curse as a boon.

I’ve also found (in some quite different contexts) that some limits can greatly enhance creativity and productivity. It’s a weird thing, but… complete design freedom all too often result in “analysis paralysis”, too many good possible design choices start to overshadow the whole point of what you’re doing. Setting some constraints (internal or external) can smooth things, sometimes significantly. Well, it’s worked for me at least, YMMV and all that.

…and David Byrne collaborating with St. Vincent? Very nice. Looking forward to see what (if anything) results from that.

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iAmNotImpressed

Well, like a lot of other people I followed the iPad launch event, and came away more than a bit disappointed. It’s just a big iPhone / iPod Touch combo, with all the restrictions that come with those.

Now, I’m potentially in the market for something like this. I have a metric fuckton of PDFs that I’d like to read, and which are cumbersome to read on a computer display due to the landscape display of screens and the difficulty of curling up on the sofa with a computer (even a netbook). However, this current incarnation of the iPad isn’t quite there yet.

My main problems with the thing are:

  • The display resolution of 1024x768 is quite skimpy. According to my quick and dirty tests it’s probably just enough to read most of my rpg PDFs… but not with full comfort in all cases. It’s doable, but a bit more resolution would be very nice.

  • The absolute lock-down to the Apple App store. This infuriates me, and normally would be a total deal-breaker. However, it depends on how I think of this device. If I think of it as a computer or a netbook, it is a dealbreaker. However, if I think of it as an ebook reader of sorts, it’s much less clear-cut – Sony Reader, Kindle etc don’t allow 3rd party apps either, in fact they don’t allow “apps” in general, period. So, even though I find the tie-in to be a big minus, it’s potentially acceptable.

  • No multitasking. This is the big one. I mean, come on… you mean if I’m (say) reading an rpg rulebook on this thing, and suddenly want to check something online (or use the calculator, or…), I need to exit the PDF reader app first? What is this shit? Did someone roll back the clock to 1980 suddenly? Even my Nokia phone multitasks (and yes, I use the multitasking ability there quite often). You’re telling me that a tablet computer can only run one app at a time? Wtf?

  • No expansion options. I mean, come on, why can’t you stick a standard memory expansion card in here? Well, sure, we know the reason: so you are forced to pay outrageous prices to Apple for that built-in memory instead. Also: no USB. Wtf? And yes, I know the thing has a iPhone-style expansion port – so I can hook up various sorts of dongles and maybe get some expandability. Hooray. Not wild about having N different wires hanging from my supposedly-ergonomic and mobile tablet.

  • How you move files to this thing is as of now totally in the dark. If it’s iTunes-only, via cable, then forget it – iTunes is a bloated piece of crap, and I’m not going to use a cable to update a device that has both wireless and Bluetooth. On the other hand, there have been rumors of some kind of remote-mountable shared directory, which sounds much more reasonable. If I can drag+drop files from my computer to this thing, I’m reasonably happy. So the jury is still out on this one.

There are others (lack of Flash, lack of Java, etc), but the above are the main problems I’m concerned about for my own use. Together, they put this device firmly in the “meh” zone for me.

Maybe Apple will add multitasking to the OS at some point, and maybe moving files to and from this thing will have some simple solution. In that case, I’ll start to consider the thing, at least as far as test-driving it with some PDFs and other documents goes. Until then… distinctly underwhelmed.

Added later: I’ve been told that (at least on the iPhone), while there is no multitasking as such, the apps do save state – so you can hop between applications, and when you return you’ll be in the same application state. I’m a bit sceptical on how fast that can work if, say, I’m browsing a 65 megabyte PDF and enter/exit the app multiple times… but ok, will have to test with a real iPad once they arrive. The real limitation is apparently the fact that you cannot run multiple apps at the same time, so you cannot have an active app in the background and doing stuff while you’re working on something else.

So ok, the situation sucks, but it’s not quite as bad as I feared. It’s still bad, though, the lack of real multitasking on a tablet computer announced in the futuristic year of 2010 makes Sad Panda sad.

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Netbooked

Installed Windows 7 in my tiny Asus 1000HE netbook a few days ago, and frankly I’m surprised at how smooth the whole operation was and at how smoothly it’s running. I replaced the stock 160G disk with a new faster 320G drive and installed an OEM copy of 32-bit Windows 7 on it, using the helpful “Self-Upgrade Guide” provided by Asus. Most things worked out of the box, and installing some Asus-specific extra drivers as directed by the Asus guide made the rest work too. No real problems, and the system feels pretty responsive. Of course, some of that is probably due to the new faster disk, but still… the UI has a lot more eye candy now, and it doesn’ t seem to slow things down even on a lowly Atom-based netbook.

Compared to XP: the UI is a lot nicer-looking and generally better organized. Speed seems to be in the same ballpark. There are some weird things of course, this is Microsoft after all. Some configuration options can be tricky to find, for some reason the new Control Panel only shows a tiny subset of options and is missing lots of important stuff. Figuring out how to get it to show the full list wasn’t instantly intuitive. I understand that they want to make the control panel a bit friendlier, but… this one still needs work. Everything should be easily found in one place, but for now it looks like the bad old “configuration options all over the place in random places” is still the rule.

Anyway, surprisingly nice, for a Microsoft product. Installed easily, seems solid, look & feel is reasonably nice.

“Less Bad Than You Expected(tm)”

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DNS blackout

Seems my registrar’s DNS servers (nameresolve.com, via Dotster) were on the blink yesterday – they had to do an IP switch, and due to DNS cache propagation orava.org was unresolvable for a while. It seems to be working again now for me, but of course that depends on where you are and what nameserver you’re using.

Bit of bad timing there, the huge Ropecon VTES tournament is on Friday and I have a lot of prep (pre-registrations etc) to take care of. Here’s hoping things will be stable now.

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Water + electronics = sad car

I’ve been trying to get my Peugeot 306 Cabriolet roof to work for a while now. It used to work, though not quite reliably. Some months ago the roof stopped working for good, so I sent it to the dealer’s for some debugging. After poking around a bit, they charged me 200e to tell me that the control unit is probably shot and that an official spare would cost 1400e(!). So I said “no thanks”, and started gathering info for a DYI attempt.

The whole thing is an electro-hydraulic system, where a small control box in the trunk checks various inputs (are the windows open, is the motor running, etc) and if everything looks good tells a hydraulic pump (also in trunk) to do its thing. The dealership guys said that they had checked the wiring and contacts as such, so I took them for their word: the control box is the likely culprit.

Well, even though there aren’t many of these cars in Finland, turns out there’s a big user group in the UK and the thing is apparently pretty popular with hobbyists. Thanks to the kind folks at peugeot306cabrioletclub.co.uk, I quickly managed to track down a seller on eBay with a spare control box (ecu) for sale and some moments later I was somewhat under 200e poorer and had a new control box coming my direction in the mail. Something in that price range I can take a chance on, unlike the official spare part price… and hey, it’s not like it’s an especially complex piece of electronics. The users group also provided me with links to wiring diagrams etc, should I need those.

The thing arrived some days ago, and yesterday I opened up the control mechanisms in the trunk and took a try at swapping modules, since the weather was good and I felt like poking around. Due to the slightly cramped space, unscrewing the original module was a bit of a pain… but once I did that, I at once noticed something in the “hmmm” department: the old control unit was leaking water. In fact, the whole box was full of water, and surprise surprise totally corroded inside. Explains why the thing refused to work, and why it had been acting flaky for a long time.

Turns out that some Einstein had attached the box the wrong way at some point, with the wiring-side up. This makes swapping wiring easier, but it also turns the box into one big plastic cup. Combine that with torrential rains some time ago and some small leakage in the hood, and voila, we have a mini-swimming pool instead of a control unit.

All this has a happy end, for now: once I swapped the replacement unit in, the roof started working at once. I wasn’t quite expecting that, I was pretty sure I’d have to go through the wiring also… but hey, not complaining. I also attached the new unit the correct way round this time, so moisture should not pool inside. I’m not exactly sure where the trunk leaks, but it’s an old car and pretty much none of the seams are at 100% anymore. Moisture happens.

So, thanks to the wonders of the Interwebs (UK car group and eBay both), I now have a working convertible again. Whee!

Railscasts considered awesome

I have to give a shoutout to Railscasts, a screencast series by Ryan Bates, which is made of Awesome. As might be guessed, the subject is Ruby On Rails programming. In each episode, he talks about one specific subject (be it a technique, plugin, gem, or whatever) and shows how things work. I typically at least try out most of the things he talks about, often adopting them permanently for my own use (sometimes not; I’m not wild about Cucumber for example).

Many of the episodes are also available as “asciicasts”, for those without required video codec etc, and/or for those who want easy cut+paste access to code.

Without exaggeration I can say that at least half of the advanced Rails techniques I’ve learned (and sometimes forgotten) over the past few years have been due to Ryan’s screencasts. So… thanks, man. Keep on rocking.

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More Pink

I’ve never owned a laptop computer before, mainly because the ones with either decent horsepower or decently light weight have been pretty expensive – and I’ve always had better use for extra cash. With the new “netbook” concept, I finally found an excuse to get me something portable; where 1,500e would have been a big investment, 400e isn’t as much. After some pondering I settled on an Asus 1000HE, it seemed to be the best-rounded of the lot. A new (very!) slightly faster version of the Atom, the usual 1024x600 display, 160 gigs of HD space, wifi and Bluetooth integrated, lots of USB slots, a camera + mic… pretty much everything you might want on the road for normal lightweight tasks. A bit on the heavy side, but that’s mainly due to the 6-cell battery which makes 8+ hour battery life possible.

I specifically wanted it with Windows XP. Even though I use Linux on my workstation and at work, a lot of the programs I want to use when mobile are Windows ones. The Keep, Lightroom, etc. The new Archon (VTES tournament scorekeeper app) should now also run properly on OpenOffice, but in case there are still bugs it’s nice to be able to fall back on Excel. Plus lots of retro Windows games, which work nicely even on a slower machine. I still don’t like Windows and have limited experience with it, but what I need in a portable are specific apps… the OS isn’t that much of a concern, really.

I also specifically wanted a non-dull color scheme… so I went for pink, even though I had to wait an extra month or so to get one. I’m just so fed up with the normal white-or-black ones, I wanted something a bit more fun this time around. Naturally, I also got a red wireless mouse, a pink mousepad, and a pink external DVD drive. Watching peoples’ reactions to the setup is amusing.

I’ve been using it for a bit now, and I’m very happy with it. It works like a charm, the keyboard is surprisingly usable for a netbook, and it’s just so much more convenient than my workstation for quickly checking email or some web pages. I upgraded the memory to 2 gigs before I even booted up the thing for the first time, which helps performance nicely. It’s no speed demon, of course, and most games are a no-go. Also, the 600-pixel vertical resolution is problematic for some apps which have been written for a 768-pixel minimum. Fortunately the thing includes a taskbar-selectable 768-pixel mode, in which the screen becomes a virtual viewport. Not ideal, but much better than not being able to run some apps at all. Even the “heavyweight” Lightroom is surprisingly snappy on this thing… but of course, I don’t intend to actually do any real picture editing on a netbook: Lightroom is there so I can dump a memory card full of pics there and do an initial reject/keep look-through, update metadata, etc, on the road. Then when I get home I can export the new pics (via Catalog Export) to the “real” Lightroom on the workstation and get to work.

As noted, games are mostly a no-go, mostly due to the pathetic Intel 950 onboard graphics. It’s better than no graphics hardware at all, but not by all that much.

…however, it turns out that a netbook is pretty nice for running retro games, since many of those were written for lower CPU and graphics requirements, and for limited resolutions. Also, you can now get copies of old games which actually work on XP (or Vista/7) from Good Old Games. Love those guys: cheap prices, no DRM, no CD/DVD drive needed, great user support. I’ve already bought and installed Fallout and Fallout Tactics and both work great. The GOG forums have a download link for a resolution patch for Fallout which lets it run in true 1024x600 resolution, which is lovely. Fallout Tactics doesn’t have such patch available so the graphics are 800x600 stretched to 1024x600… but it’s totally playable. At some point I also intend to get Deus Ex from Steam and play that – it should work fine and there’s a widescreen patch available for that, too.

At some point I’ll probably upgrade the 160 gig drive to a (maybe faster) 320 gig one, so I can keep a copy of my 80 gig music library on the local disk (both for listening purposes and as an extra backup). I might also switch to Windows 7 at that point, we’ll see. Depends on pricing, I guess.

So far, I’m happy with the pink little thing. Nice improvements would be slightly more resolution (1280x760 or such would be nice) and some more horsepower, especially on the graphics side. However, the point of machines like these are to be reasonably small and cheap, with good battery life. I’m pretty sure that in a year’s time I’ll be able to buy something significantly better with the same form factor at the same price… and at some point, I’ll probably upgrade. Until then, this thing should be quite good enough for a lot of tasks.

I’m actually surprised at how much I’m using the machine. It boots up (or wakes from hibernation) so fast that it’s really convenient for quick email/web checks, and I’m also actually playing Fallout at the moment. I’ve never played any of the Fallout games to date, other than quick dabbles with demo copies; I know they are great, but again: so many games, so little time. So now I’m playing the very retro Fallout 1, and finding it pretty good. Sure, the graphics are extremely rudimentary and I’m given to understand that the “really good” game is the second one, Fallout 2 (sort of like Baldur’s Gate vs Baldur’s Gate 2). I could play the game on my workstation, sure… but playing it on the netbook seems more fitting. Besides, having some games on one’s portable machine is always a good idea.

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System Failure Imminent (have a nice day)

Yesterday Janka noted that the server “had been making funny noises”, and lo and behold, my email queue held a few notices about RAID1 disk failure. Seems that the older disk of the pair (a Hitachi 160G) had crashed hard, all partitions unusable. Still, thanks to the RAID, the system is up and running (in degraded single-disk mode). Put in an order for a new (larger) disk at Verkkokauppa, should be here in a few days – I’m betting that the single newer disk won’t also crash in the meantime. Did do some extra backups, though, just to be paranoid.

So… seems that the software RAID is working as intended and the email notifications are also working. Things could be a lot worse. Having suffered one big server crash in the past and lost quite a bit of data due to the backups also being corrupted, I’m now firmly in the group which refuses to run a server without a RAID disk (and reliable backups).

Lots of things I want to improve, once/if I get some extra cash. I want a separate NAS box to handle backups and other mass storage for our home network (D-Link DNS-323 is my current candidate), and I also want to upgrade the whole server at some point – the current machine is a low-end desktop box with a 1.8GHz single-core Sempron and only 2 gigs of memory. It works, but a multicore machine would make a lot of server operations snappier and more memory would naturally also help. The current machine only has 2 memory slots (low-end desktop, remember) and they are DDR400. I’m not sure if 2G DDR400 modules even exist, and if they do they are almost certainly very expensive – so might as well upgrade the whole machine at some point. No real hurry on that, though.

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