Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    A Green Train Of Thought


    It's safe to assume that nobody could accuse me of being an eco-warrior. I buy cars that have more engine than I need, and computers with more power than is required to run any software I might ever use. And I quite happily squander electricity on a waterfall in the pond and lights in the trees, just to make the garden look nice. The trouble is that the electricity company seems to think that I should pay an increasingly exorbitant price for it.

    We've all seen those TV programs where people build eco-friendly houses that generate their own electricity, collect and re-use rainwater, and suck heat out of the ground instead of paying for gas. Meanwhile the government is gradually covering the entire countryside with huge windmills and solar farms in an attempt to meet some green target, yet all this free electricity just seems to cost more every month. The electricity company just sent me an estimate of my next year's bill, and they reckon it will be over 1,500 pounds. It's time I figured out how to either use less, or pay less, or even get some for free.

    Working on the "no free lunch" principle, you'd guess that the only people who would benefit from the current fad around solar panels on the roof would be the installers and panel manufacturers. However, talking to some neighbors who have taken the plunge, they have seen a considerable reduction in electricity bills and get a payment for feed-in four times a year as well. So it's probably time I took the plunge and turned our south-facing roof into a miniature power station. At least it should generate enough to run my servers for a few months in the summer...

    But where you have to wonder is that, in a country that will supposedly be unable to keep the lights on beyond 2016, we are planning to throw huge amounts of money we don't have at a project that will eat electricity and blight thousands of people's lives. Nobody can produce a realistic rationalization for it, yet it will probably cost the best part of a hundred billion pounds by the time it's done.

    At a time when the world is moving towards driverless cars, all-encompassing digital communication, increasing home working and localization, and the need to lead a green lifestyle, we're going to build a high-speed railway to connect the North and the Midlands with London. Yet we can't afford to build a high-speed broadband fixed and mobile system that would cost a tiny fraction of that amount.

    OK, so I'm lucky because we happen to have cable here, but half a mile away our local post office is struggling to use modern retail technology over a 1MB ADSL line. My ADSL provider just sent me a beautiful color leaflet explaining how I will soon be able to watch loads of new sports channels over their Internet connection. At the bottom in very small writing it says that all I need is a 2MB ADSL line. Yes please, when can I have one? What's that? You're planning to have fibre-to-the-cabinet installed sometime in 2015? Super.

    In the meantime I suppose I can just go to London on the high-speed train and watch it live instead...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Peeping Out From The Microsoft Matrix


    I suppose it's a bit like that film The Matrix - you realize that you live in an ethereal and closed world only when you actually get to step outside of it. Or, like some people who have never been to another country, your view of the rest of the world is shaped just by what you see on TV. I guess I've been like that with open source stuff, and particularly Java; looking out incredulously from my little village of Microsoft technologies and products at the wide world beyond.

    I started my computing days with what we euphemistically called a "home computer" (basically a games console with a keyboard), and progressed via a series of Amstrad computers to real PCs. At the time I was doing statistical and reporting work for a large manufacturing company, and had played with several MSDOS-based databases until I finally found nirvana with Windows 3.1 and Microsoft Access 1.0.

    OK, so I'd learned a lot of computing theory in the meantime (such as a mixture of languages and programming theory), and I'd even written and sold technical, commercial, and business software. But most of it, especially after drifting deeper into the Windows way, was aimed at Microsoft operating systems and integration with Microsoft products. Gradually I'd been drawn in and captured by the Redmond magic.

    It's only since I began work on our current HDInsight project that I've had to navigate deeper into the dark and scary jungles of open source; slashing away at the undergrowth of bewildering terminology with my virtual machete (Bing); wading knee-deep through murky and meandering streams of sometimes conflicting advice and guidance; and peering in amazement at the vast array of previously undiscovered wonders of nature such as ants, pigs, hives, zebra, and even a strange yellow elephant.

    Sitting inside my nice comfy and well-defined Microsoft technology world, it's un-nerving to realize that until recently I never knew that all of this even existed. OK, so I've had dealings with Java, though mainly only under duress, and I've read about and even learnt a bit of other languages and frameworks such as Python and Ruby. In fact my first serious attempts at creating Windows DLLs were with Pascal (mainly because I could never get my head round C++). So Java code itself isn't really an issue.

    No, where it all gets complicated is that almost all of the docs I read about Hadoop and the associated technologies are written by experts for experts. It seems like you need to know all about a whole range of topics and technologies before you can start learning about them. It's a bit like letting someone watch a medical drama series on TV and then giving them a scalpel, an operating theatre, and some (currently) live patients to practice on.

    For example, I read endless articles about testing and debugging. It seems I should start by mocking out my objects (makes sense) and use a test runner to execute them within a single node local installation of Hadoop and with the Java virtual machine in advanced debug mode (I think). So I read about PowerMock, but it says I should use it with Mockito, but that says it's an extension of EasyMock. And I probably want to do it all from within Eclipse.

    And to set up a local cluster I need to install Hadoop directly, although I have the HDInsight single node development environment already installed on my laptop. Can I use that instead? And if I want to run the Java VM in debug mode I probably want to use another program called ant to configure it. I'm sure I'll work all this out in time, though at the moment I'm wondering if it's going to be easier just to phone a friend (or ask the audience).

    What's clear, however, is just how adaptable, configurable, and interoperable all this stuff is. I suppose I'm used to a strict product hierarchy and road map, nice dialog boxes and configuration web pages, and reams of beginner documentation for the Microsoft technologies that make up the confines of my own little world. Now I've strayed outside of the Microsoft Matrix, and discovered a whole wide world out there, I can't find a map. I'll probably spend the rest of my writing days blundering through the undergrowth, peering hopefully at every new edifice of civilization I can find, until - hopefully - it all start to fall into place. Or until some kind soul (aka Program Manager) taps me on the shoulder and mutters the equivalent of "Dr. Livingstone I presume."

    Yes, the adventure is fun at the moment, but I'm quite looking forward to going home again...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Wot? No Webcam? And No Rock Music Either...


    So this week we had another digital failure in our household. At least I'm happy about the fact it was much less embarrassing than some other technical discrepancies that seem to have befallen the worlds of science and engineering recently.

    The rather expensive Soundbridge Internet radio I purchased a few years ago, in response to my wife's requirement for more "proper" rock music stations in a location where Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) cannot reach, has curled up and died. And it did so in the usual disappointing digital way - no puff of smoke, loud bang, or any external sign that something had gone wrong. It just refuses to turn on or do anything at all. No doubt following the modern failure paradigm for electrical goods that I've described before (see Why Doesn't Stuff Go Bang Any More?).

    Of course, my local disaster doesn't by any stretch of the imagination compare to that of Queensland University's Pitch Drop Embarrassment. This fascinating experiment, complete with live webcam view, is now so famous that it got a mention not only on TheRegister.co.uk, but also a half-page spread in one of our national newspapers - which happened to mention that the last time anything exciting happened, several years ago and unseen by any human eye, they rushed to watch the video and only discovered at that point the webcam had failed. I notice in the pictures that they now have three webcams watching for the burst of activity that's confidently expected to occur sometime this year.

    But a faulty webcam can't get near to competing with the issue at Sweden's Ringhals power station last year, where they could have saved a lot of money just by installing a webcam. It seems that someone accidently left a vacuum cleaner inside one of the containment vessels, and nobody noticed when they started a pressure test. The resulting fire reportedly caused hundreds of million dollars of damage. At least the boss of the plant, Peter Gango, was able to quickly pinpoint the root cause of the event by telling reporters that "those items aren't supposed to be left in the containment when testing."

    And another nice use of language to disguise webcam-related disasters has come to my notice recently. It seems that, before being abandoned altogether a couple of years ago, the wandering camera-equipped Spirit rover NASA sent to Mars had become permanently stuck in a sand drift. At which point it was re-designated from a "rover" to a "stationary research station." Maybe I should just re-designate my Soundbridge radio as a "non-audible listening device."

    But instead I've taken the plunge and replaced the Soundbridge with an equivalent from Roberts Radio. It actually seems to work better than the Soundbridge (which doesn't appear to be available any longer), and has some neat features such as integration with Last.fm, and it even connects to a UPnP stream exposed by Microsoft Media Player. Though where we live it can't manage to drag a usable FM station out of the ether, and only finds a single DAB channel with enough meter bars to be usable.

    Probably I should save money by avoiding all these high-tech devices, and use the cash to move house. Somewhere that gets radio and TV reception without needing huge aerials and signal boosters. Maybe somewhere like this...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Evolution Through Technology Selection


    You have to wonder whether the increasing use of tablet computers and touchscreens means we'll soon be back to the equivalent of a world that depends on stone axes and making fire by rubbing two sticks together. At the moment I'm doing my utmost to hang on to some semblance of advanced device interaction technique but there's a good chance that, in time, I'll also succumb.

    This musing began when I noticed the gradual change in proddy-finger technique used by my wife with her new Nexus tablet. Previously, her frantic interactive facebooking and emailing sessions were rudely interrupted every few hours by the fact that the text on the screen became unreadable through a layer of greasy finger marks.

    However, the fancy cover she bought to protect the device came with a neat pen-shaped, rubber-tipped stylus, and within days she'd become completely dependent on this. Now the screen is pristine after even the heaviest sessions of online social interaction. She tells me it's not only easier than using your finger, but more accurate and faster as well. And I have to admit that, after trying it out on my Surface RT, I can only agree.

    But here's the thing. While I'm not the fastest or most accurate typist, I do manage to employ several fingers most of the time, and even a thumb or two for spaces now and then. And I can do it quite easily with the onscreen touch keyboard (in fact I'm doing it right now). However, watching my stylus-converted wife I realized that she was back in the world of one-fingered pecking using the equivalent of a pointed stick, rather than actually typing.

    I suppose you could use a combination of fingers and stylus in the appropriate places, but that doesn't solve the greasy finger problem. Maybe the answer is gloves that have rubber tips of the correct flesh-matched consistency on all the fingers. Or just keep some wet wipes handy. Perhaps somebody already makes a cover for popular models of tablet computer that has a special holder for a packet of wet wipes.

    Of course you could apply the "horses for courses" argument and say that some tasks should be carried out on a tablet, and others only on a real computer. During a recent discussion about applying Microsoft's Accessibility Standard (for example, you can't say "right-click" because there might not be a mouse) to a Hands-on Lab document we are creating, a colleague suggested that "nobody in their right mind would use a touch-screen device to run Visual Studio." OK, so basically I have to agree that writing programs in VS on a 7" tablet wouldn't be my idea of fun.

    But many new laptops and convertible devices have a proper keyboard, a mouse track pad, and a touch screen. So I could just as easily be tempted into some proddy-finger action after typing a Lamba expression, rather than reaching for the mouse. Comments I'm already hearing from converted users of convertible devices is that it's a real shock going back to a computer where finger-on-screen action results only in greasy fingerprints. Jabbing at onscreen buttons with an index finger is much quicker than grabbing a plastic desk-bound rodent, or scratching around on a track pad to find where you left the mouse-pointer last time - and then manoeuvring it around the screen.

    And maybe this transition to touch-screen interaction is becoming more obvious through its impact on the industry as a whole. I recently read that Logitech, best known for its keyboards and mice, went from a profit of $37m a year ago to a loss of $24m last year. That's a lot of unsold mice. Though it's likely that the difference was also caused by a reduction in sales of other traditional accessories that we no longer seem to need.

    For example, instead of a monitor riser stand we now crouch uncomfortably over the tiny screen of a desk-located or knee-bound laptop or tablet. We don't need an ergonomically designed keyboard with soft-touch keys any more, we just get finger-impact injuries and stiff shoulder muscles. No requirement for a carefully designed mouse means additional wear on elbow joints as we scroll and point all around the screen. And the lack of a cushioned wrist rest is certain to speed the development of RSI.

    Of course, evolution will soon resolve these problems for us. In only a few thousand years the successful members of the human race will have developed a long cranked neck, thin pointy grease-free fingers, and even a much larger nose to support our Internet-enabled glasses.

    Those of us with small noses and fat fingers who fail to evolve will, of course, be easy to identify. We'll be the ones searching Amazon for sharp stones and abrasive sticks...

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