Wednesday 19 September 2012

Stephen Fry on dancing

Stephen Fry on his fear and loathing of dancing, from his podgram - "Bored of the dance":

I hate dancing more than I can possibly explain. I hate doing it myself, which I can’t anyway, but I loathe and resent the necessity to try. [...]

If I listen to music, I like either to do it completely alone, so that if I am taken by the desire to move my feet and body (which is inevitable with so much music) I can do it unwitnessed, or I like to LISTEN to it, to hear the line of it, to follow the lyrics and to allow it work inside me. [...] I do not want to use music as the medium for a mating or courting ritual. No one would ever select me as a sexual partner on the basis of my ability to froth, frolic and gibber in time to music anyway, and nor would I ever choose a partner by such desperate and useless criteria.

I can’t dance. It may well be true that guilty feet have no rhythm, but it is also true that perfectly innocent feet can also be unable to move persuasively or happily to the beat. I can’t dance and I SO do not want to. Or is it that I don’t want to because I can’t? No, I don’t think so. I can’t play football, golf, cricket to anything like a human standard and I want to desperately. Desperately. It really isn’t a question of being truculent and captious about it.

The unhappy self-consciousness of the adolescent on the dance floor at school, or in the village barn dance or local disco is too well known a standard hero of rueful dissection for me to need to describe myself in that guise in too much detail. Here were boys and girls my age twisting, spinning and jumping at each other and they all seemed to know what they were doing. Had I been confined to the sick room with an asthma attack the day disco dancing was covered in the syllabus? How did they know which way to move,when to fling up a hand, when to spin, when to jump? When to look into their “partner’s” eyes, when to look at the floor? There was nothing written down, did it accord to some chord change or eight bar measure that I, in my hot discomfort And pop illiteracy simply could not hear?

[...] So let me be absolutely clear about this. This is all a weakness, failing, problem, phobia, hang-up with me. It is something to do with physical shame, clumsiness, self-consciousness, pride in privacy, lack of co-ordination, all of which have culminated in a huge and insuperable hatred of losing physical self-control, in jumping in and joining in. The once sappy bendy young tree is now too old for anything to be done about it without his gnarled distorted shape cracking with a puff of dry dust, so it is too late to change.

A man after my own heart.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

When Daddy Was a Little Boy - revisited

It was with much bombast here that I intended to transribe my PDF copy of When Daddy Was A Little Boy.

Sadly, a combination of too many things to do in terms of both work and pleasure meant that such mundane activities kept getting relegated to the back of the queue.

So, here's the next best thing: my copy of the PDF. Read it and enjoy, as I know you will. (Well, really this would be the best thing, and the transcript would be the next best thing, since the actual book has really nice illustrations and looks brilliantly quaint.)

Note that I do not own the copyright to this work of brilliance - anyone who does can let me know, and I will take down the link.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

How programming lets me know I'm getting older

You're hammering away at a particularly hairy bit of code (or any other problem). You know exactly what you want it to do, but are just struggling to translate it into the right language. After hours of wrangling with convoluted logic and endless cycles of edit-build-debug-rinse-repeat, you throw your hands in the air, give up and walk away.

And then suddenly, while cooking dinner, or watching a movie, or in the shower thinking of what manner of pasta to snarf down for lunch, or simply just on the can focussing on your business -- it hits you. A brilliant solution to the hair-puller-outer, so elegant and so bloody simple you wonder how you never thought of it in the first place.

You scribble a quick note in your head (or Evernote, or a notepad, or whatever) and suddenly nothing else will do except firing up vim and set things straight right away. You do it.

The final turn on the safe -- maybe something audibly goes "click" in your head -- and it's done. You step back and marvel in the beauty of it. You can feel the mystery briefcase glow on your face, a la Pulp Fiction. All is right in the world again. You are the master of all you survey - there is no mystery you cannot solve, no stream you cannot ford.

You are also not me.

Maybe I am slowly gathering up enough work experience, or maybe I'm just getting older and my mind is atrophying, but while the initial frustration and subsequent elation are still very firmly in place, the "eureka!" appears to be happening a lot less these days. Instead, what I find works most of the time is just plugging away at the issue, continuously breaking it down into smaller bits, and gradually piecing the solution together from these little digested chunks.

"Solution epiphanies" strike about two or three times out of ten, down from 6-7 out of ten from back in the day [when we wrote our code with styluses on papyrus and prayed to Ra to compile it into machine code via heliography]. The adrenaline and oxytocin rush is still phenomenal, but I find myself needing them less and less, since I can be more objective about the side effects and just more productive overall.

I still end up getting celebratorily hammered over the next weekend though.

Monday 2 July 2012

You're doing it right

Dear Maciej Ceglowski: You're doing it right.

It is quite a breath of fresh air to see someone who's built a product, marketed it to the right audience, charged money from the outset (and thus not falling into the "users first, money later" trap).

I signed up for Pinboard (just out of curiosity, and wanting to see if my shiny new credit card did USD payments) pretty much the same day it was launched on Hacker News, and it became the first ever online service I paid money for. A mammoth sum of ~$1.

And since then, for this one-time joining fee, Pinboard has continued to add numerous features -- both asked and un-asked for -- while stamping out bugs nearly as quickly as they were discovered. And because it was making money, there wasn't a need to slather it in advertising or the atrocious amounts of social gunk that seem to crawl across pretty much every "Web 2.0" site now.

The Pinboard blog sees some brilliantly detailed posts and insights on technology (both site- related and otherwise), the site itself offers a spartan, uncomplicated and flexible API, and now -- this is what motivated me to pen this screed down -- the database schema behind the site!

This is how quality products are built - the real secret sauce is the execution; the actual idea and technical implementation detail can be at any point in the simplicity-complexity spectrum. It really is quite awesome to see someone basically give you everything you need to clone their product/service. The level of confidence in your own execution and delivery capabilities underpinning such candour and openness is a refreshing departure from the current clusterfudge that is "intellectual property".

Once again Maciej, you're doing it right, and I thank you.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Switching over to Ubuntu 12.04

Ubuntu has certainly come a long way since the days of the Warthog, and Precise Pangolin (commonly known as 12.04, to appease the suits) seems to be the slickest out-of-the-box experience of the lot. Unity seems mature and quite snappy on my 2.5 year old laptop, and the most common bugbears, audio and wifi, got set up in perfect working condition during the install itself!

Personally, what I liked the most was that GParted will happily re-partition your drives without data loss during the installation. This was the biggest sticking point earlier - having to 'source' shitty bloated tools from Acronis or PowerQuest, or struggling with boot disks and FIPS. And of course, the murky middle ground of Ranish and the Windows Disk Management tool. Bleurgh.

Not any more.

Not only do you not need to burn a CD any more (I think my CD/DVD drive has lapsed back into virginity...), you don't even need to hunt up a USB flash drive!

A combination of the Universal USB Installer and EasyBCD means you can install Ubuntu in a dual-boot configuration without needing to use Wubi at all. Simply use the Universal USB Installer to pick up your downloaded ISO and 'install' to an existing (non C: drive) partition on your hard drive. Then create a bootloader entry via EasyBCD that points to the newly set up Ubuntu 'live USB' location. Reboot, et voila. You can boot into the 'live USB' Ubuntu setup that resides on your hard disk.

Some people might want to leave this in place (dual-boot setup without re-partitioning! Hooray!), but I went ahead and installed Precise anyway. For one, I'm not entirely comfortable with having Windows manage my bootloader, given its tendencies to gobble up the MBR occasionally. Also, there was a nagging need to rid oneself of the Microsoft-centred ecosystem. And a desire to use a real terminal and solid command-line tools without resorting to nice-try-but-no-cigar solutions like Cygwin, Gow and Console2.

After a friction-less install process, all that remained was to mount the old D: partition into the current /home directory to retain access to old files and the media libraries.

Unity + Compiz is pretty sweet, and once you paper over some of the lesser annoyances with ClassicMenu Indicator (for a real applications menu) and Ubuntu Tweak (to smooth out some fiddly bits of the Unity interface), Precise Pangolin completely shines through in day-to-day computing. A few hours of sudo apt-get update/upgrade for Flash/Java/MS fonts (ugh), and an Aurora Firefox sync later, it was bye-bye Windows 7. Except for when iTunes is required. Ah well, one can't have it all.

Friday 10 February 2012

"When Daddy Was A Little Boy", or, why book publishers need to stop being stupid

Once upon a time, there was this publishing house called Raduga Publishers.

A brief blurb on them:
The Progress / Raduga Publishers was a Moscow-based Soviet publishing house founded in 1931. It specialised on output of the books translated into foreign languages. The children's literature was only a part of its production. They also published scientific, arts, political books, books for people studying foreign languages, guidebooks and photographic albums. [...] The Progress Publishers stopped the existence after dissolution of the Soviet Union.
If you go on to that link, you can see some of the covers of the books they put out - they look quite delightful.

A big part of my childhood was reading, and one of my most cherished books of that time was this hardbound collection of stories called "When Daddy Was a Little Boy" by Alexander Raskin (originally in Russian, and translated into English by Fainna Glagoleva).

Here you have a 10-year-old's review, which tells you everything you need to know about the book, really. But sadly, pretty much every book put out by Raduga is out of print. The only copies exist in the hands of a few people lucky enough to come across those books, and amidst library collections.

Until today.

I managed to find a scanned PDF from a library website, and intend to transcribe it into a document with the original images/artwork and put it someplace for download.

This experience has given me a renewed respect for Google's book-scanning efforts, and I'd like to - in my own humble way - tell all the publishers that opposed this: You all are giant, flaming idiots. Let there be a way for the books to live on long after you're dead and buried.

To give you a taste of what the book is like, here are some of the initial images, and the author's foreword.

Cover Image & Publishing Info

Table of Contents

Artwork accompanying author's foreword

Author's Foreword


Dear Children,

    I want to tell you about how I came to write this book. I have a daughter named Sasha. She's a big girl now and often says, when speaking about herself, "When I was a little girl –" Well, when Sasha was a very little girl, she was often ill. She had the grippe, and a sore throat, and an infected ear. If you've ever had an infected ear, you know how painful it is. And if you haven't, there's no use explaining, for you'll never understand anyway.

    One Sasha's ear hurt so badly that she cried and cried. She couldn't sleep at all. I felt so sorry for her that I nearly cried, too. And so I read aloud to her and told her funny stories. I told her a story about the time I rolled my new ball under a car when I was a little boy. Sasha liked the story. She was surprised to learn that her daddy had once been a little boy, and that he'd gotten into mischief and had also been punished sometimes. She remembered the story, and whenever her ear would begin to ache, she'd shout: "Daddy! Daddy! MY ear aches! Tell me a story about you when you were a little boy." And each time I'd tell her a new story. You'll find them all in this book. I tried to remember all the funny things that had ever happened to me, because I wanted to make a sick girl smile. Besides, I wanted to my girl to understand that being greedy, boastful, or stuck-up wasn't nice at all. That doesn't mean I was always like that when I was a little boy. Sometimes, when I couldn't think of a story, I'd borrow one from other daddies I knew. After all, every daddy was once a little boy. So you see, none of these stories were invented. They all actually happened to little boys. Now that Sasha is a big girl, she's hardly ever ill and can read great big books all by herself.

    But I thought that perhaps other children might like to know about a daddy and the things that happened to him when he was a little boy.

    That's all I wanted to say. But wait! There's something else. There's more to this book. Each one of you can discover the rest for yourself, for your own daddy can tell you about things that happened to him when he was a little boy. And so can your mommy. I'd love to hear their stories, too.

With very best wishes,
Your friend,
A. Raskin

Who wouldn't want to read the book after all that?

And since it's only about 160ish pages, it only takes about an hour to read. I can use these reading credits to offset a similar amount of time wasted on frivolity like Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

UPDATE: See here.