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August 30th, 2001

I’ve just downloaded the latest build of OpenOffice.org, the Open Source package that used to be StarOffice, and I’m thoroughly impressed. The quality of the software was always pretty good, but they’ve made important changes in the way users interact with it.

First, they’ve got rid of the most-hated feature in StarOffice: its attempt to provide a whole new desktop, including a Start menu, within a window on your regular desktop. Each document is now a separate window, as it should be. I knew they’d have to drop the Start menu when they started porting it to MacOS X. It would have been too ridiculous.

Secondly, they’ve removed two big features, which makes a wonderful change in this world of ever-increasing feature bloat. The web browser and email reader weren’t bad at all, but they were never going to be my browser and emailer of choice. There are good alternatives available, and abandoning these components concentrates effort on the more important parts. I certainly won’t mourn their departure.

The third very good decision was to switch to XML as the file format. Each document is actually a ZIPped set of files and directories – the contents are in contents.xml, the styles in styles.xml etc. If your document has embedded images, they will be in a Pictures subdirectory within the ZIP archive. This has to be the Right Way to do it. If something is broken, you can open the document with WinZip and fix things yourself with a text editor. I’ve done it. I changed the style of some text. I tweaked some colours, sizes, and positioning of items in a drawing. I then saved the files and closed WinZip, and reopened them in the word-processor and carried on. Try doing that with Word. Manipulation by other software, and conversion to and from other formats, should be very straightforward.

So, for the big question. Would I actually use it myself in preference to Microsoft Office? Well, I’m very tempted. There are still a few rough edges, and there is no ‘Help’ documentation yet, but the conversion filters are good, and the underlying philosphies are so sound that there aren’t many reasons not to switch. I can also run it on all the operating systems I use.

But if you are interchanging data frequently with Microsoft users, then however good the alternative, it won’t be as convenient as if you used Microsoft. If you’re to switch, you need incentives which make it worth the inconvenience. And the problem is that most users of Office don’t pay for it. It is provided by their employer. Otherwise, I think, the £350 price of Office would now be sufficient incentive for most people.

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August 28th, 2001

Have just returned from a long weekend in the Lake District, my favourite place on the entire globe.

As my brother, my 6-year-old nephew and I skimmed stones on the surface of Derwent Water, I wondered about this curiously male pastime. I don’t think I’ve known any women, young or old, who were enthusiastic stone-skimmers. Why is that? Is there something in it that harks back to our primitive male hunting role, when the best stone-throwers would probably bring home the best food, attract the best wives, etc? Or is it just that women have more sense than to partake in such a pointless activity?

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August 22nd, 2001

At 10.54 this morning, Dan Gordon, Martyn Johnson and I finally switched off the Trojan Room Coffee Pot camera, seven years and nine months to the day after it was first connected to the web.

The official website will be updated in due course, but since the Computer Lab is in mid-move, it might take a little while. Until then, you can read more about the life and times of the Pot.

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August 18th, 2001

Well, I wrote that ‘Zen’ piece on the 14th without much careful thought, and in particular before I had seen John Naughton’s pointer to Richard P. Gabriel & Ron Goldman’s remarkable essay “Mob Software: The Erotic Life of Code“, of which it is not worthy to be a minor sub-paragraph. And while a skeptic might say that the word ‘erotic’ is in that title more to attract attention than because it’s a major theme of the essay, the attention is certainly deserved. Recommended.

Recommended, at least, if you have the time to read over twelve and a half thousand words. There’s an assumption, built into most types of writing, that what you are saying is worth the time and effort of the person reading it. The longer the piece, the better it needs to be, either in terms of the enjoyment of reading, or of the knowledge gained by doing so.

Weblog entries tend to be brief. Quick to write, quick to read. While in general I dislike the trend towards a sound-bite culture, I would argue that weblogs are important chiefly because of their brevity, and this is not just because of the ease with which they can be jotted down and the speed with which they can be skimmed. It is because many of us are not sufficiently confident in the value either of our ideas or of our writing skills to feel comfortable imposing large quantities of text on our fellow man. By publishing just a couple of paragraphs we can try out an idea and see if others find it worthwhile, without imposing too great a burden on them if it isn’t. The timid publisher has had very few such opportunities in the past. Publishing pamphlets was too expensive, writing to the newspapers was too subject to editorial rejection, and creating websites required too many specialist skills. This, I think, is part of why weblogs are a genuinely interesting new medium.

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August 14th, 2001

Zen and the art of Bug Removal

We often think of programming as architecture or as engineering – the construction of complex working machines out of many small parts. Build it properly, and it doesn’t fall apart. Here’s a different view, which probably has limited validity and no useful purpose, but which I thought was interesting.

Computers can do things without any human intervention. If you power up your microprocessor and point it at a large chunk of memory containing random bytes, exciting things may happen. Your disk may whirr. Your screen may display colourful rubbish. If you’re lucky some lights on your computer might flash on and off. Or it may just stop dead. Whatever happens will probably be chaotic, unpredictable and, above all, not very useful.

Programming, then, is the art of taming this wild behaviour. Of imposing order on a system that would otherwise run wild. Of reducing the almost infinite number of possible actions to the relatively small number that are useful. Of producing order from chaos.

To pick an analogy suitable for this part of the world, you might compare it to digging irrigation channels so that you could reclaim agricultural land from a flooded plain. Programming languages provide the component parts – the ducting, the pumps, the weirs and sluice-gates – which make this process easier than simply digging with a spade. If you use higher-level programming languages, you might get complete viaducts and locks ready-made. But the natural state of the water is one of chaos. If you misuse the components or forget anything, you get bugs. One day, a high tide, combined with a westerly wind and an unfortunate usage of sluice gates, will allow the water in one channel to leak out and cause another flood.

The perfect irrigation system would use the minimum number of channels in the perfect locations with exactly enough sluices and dams to control the possible flooding situations, but no more.
The most aesthetically pleasing programs are those that provide the most complete and elegant order out of the chaos with the minimum amount of intervention from the programmer.

Enough for now – I have to go and tidy my desk…

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August 12th, 2001

Ahh, nostalgia! You can find some very elderly versions of Netscape still available for download on
Netscape’s FTP server. Still have a Windows 3.1 machine? No problem! Just grab a copy of Netscape 2 or 3.

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August 12th, 2001

Today’s Sunday Telegraph has an interview with Gore Vidal. Does he think there’s immortality in books?

“I would doubt it now. Do you see anybody reading anything in the near future? The book is almost irrelevant. Poetry has the best chance. Fiction, I’m not so sure. I see the essay as probably the last necessary form of prose. I can imagine Montaigne outlasting Shakespeare, who will have become too difficult.”

Weblog entries must be amongst the most transient of writings.

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August 12th, 2001

The auction of the Trojan Room Coffee Pot has closed on eBay with a bid of over £3000, which will apparently go towards purchasing a new coffee machine in the new Computer Lab. The coffee should be a bit better now.

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August 11th, 2001

I’ve just come back from a fabulous holiday in Austria, where I was woken each morning by cowbells, as the cows from the farm where we were staying meandered down the road to their green and pleasant pastures. Hiking in the mountains, we would sometimes come across large numbers munching away, and it would sound like a wind-chime factory.

It’s a wonderful thing that nobody has yet replaced these bells with electronic beepers, or even silent radio beacons. This is a fabulously appropriate technology, a location system which uses no electricity, is rugged and weatherproof, and actually enhances the environment in which it is installed.

So here’s a challenge to mobile phone manufacturers: Can you produce a phone which, as well as being small, light etc, has a ringtone which does its job of alerting the user, while actually being pleasant to listen to? By ‘pleasant’ I mean actually pleasing, rather than ‘not annoying’. You could use that built-in microphone to choose an appropriate volume level, too. Oh, and I’d like mine to play extracts from The Sound of Music, please.