Wednesday May 21, 2008

Eggs thrown at Steve Ballmer!

I have to confess that I think Steve Ballmer has done a good job... surviving an egg attack from a protesting student at the Corvinus University in Budapest.

The student follows a verbal accusation with a couple of eggs - Steve Ballmer ducks behind the podium and avoids getting tagged! You can see the incident on this video at the BBC website. You can see that he looks pretty angry at first but quickly gathers his composure to laugh it after the student has left the room.

Monday May 19, 2008

UK Government Considers Phone call and Email Database

Okay so here's an example of the sort of thing that gets my hackles up ...

According to this article on the BBC website, UK government ministers are to consider plans for a database holding details of every phone call made and email sent within the nation.

Aside from the fact that this presents an ethical dilemma between national security and reasonable individual rights to privacy (which is a separate rat hole in and of itself), this also illustrates just how poorly our government representatives understand technology.

I mean, unless they plan to capture every single octet of data on the wire, anyone wishing to make nefarious phone calls or emails to plot against national security can easily circumvent this. Do they plan to try and get the Skype P2P network updating their database? :) Do they have some clever way of detecting email that isn't sent over the standard ports? Nope - this is another great way to burgle the taxpayer. Dumb!!

Friday May 09, 2008

A wish for the people of Myanmar (Burma)

As a personal survivor of the 2004 tsunami and being involved in the relief work (thank you Sun for the compassionate leave), I know first hand the sort of devastation a natural disaster like the one in the Irrawaddy delta region of Myanmar can cause.

It's good practice to keep clear of politics in a Sun-badged blog but I'm deeply saddened that the Burmese military junta is preventing a free flow of urgent life saving aid to the affected people. The horrific loss of life and damage to homes, infrastructure and supply routes together with the despair that the apparent isolation and lack of help must be causing is, quite simply, unconscionable.

Folks in the region will probably never see these words - but my thoughts are with you all.

Monday Oct 29, 2007

Why video games could be damaging your children

Much of the controversy around the way video games affect our children has been around the violent nature of the games, in much the same way as violence in film has been accused of causing "copy-cat" behaviour amongst the impressionable young.

However, there is circumstantial evidence of a far more insidious effect, especially among younger children due to the use of video games as a form of "surrogate" for imaginative play.

It is widely accepted that mental faculties can atrophy with disuse, in much the same way as a lack of physical exercise can cause the body to weaken. One needs to exercise the brain to keep it sharp and agile.

The potential harm from video games comes less from the content of the game and more from the fact that it does the imaginative play on behalf of the child. The older generation may remember how we used to play with even the most simplest of toys, constructing rich mental landscapes of play and imaginary interaction.

Now, however, all you need to do is switch on a box and that rich landscape is graphically portrayed for you on screen. The child is drawn in to this artificial world without any need to use intrinsic mental imagination. I first observed this in my own daughter, who could play computer games for hours on end if we, her parents, did not intervene. I also noticed that my other daughter would happily play for hours with "traditional" toys, chattering away to herself in her imaginary world while her older sister seemed to have lost all interest in any real-world playthings.

The concern here is that when one loses the ability to imagine for yourself, you also start to lose the ability to intrinsically entertain oneself...turning instead to artificially induced entertainment in the virtual world of the video game. What happens when the child grows older and ultimately becomes bored of the video game? What do they do then?

This could be one of many reasons why antisocial behaviour in teens (and even pre-teens) is on the increase. It's not that we had a more entertaining environment when we were that age. Perhaps the inability to entertain oneself leads to a form of boredom that forces the child to seek out extrinsic stimulation from the surrounding environment, which in turn can lead to exactly the sort of antisocial behaviour we're now seeing?

Of course, it would be a gross over-simplification to lay all of societies ills at the feet of video games but I do think there is definitely a relevant factor here. I believe the lack of imaginative play results in the atrophying of the imagination, which in turn leads to a dependence on external stimulus and that can, in some cases, lead to addiction (and video game addiction is a very real phenomenon).

Now, I'm not calling for anything so extreme as a ban on video games or any such draconian measures. I simply think that rationing the amount of time our children spend playing games may be more than just sensible, it may actually be better for their mental health!

Tuesday May 08, 2007

Things that go bang in Beijing

It's been incredibly busy these days and the amount of work going on has meant that I've been attending a lot of late night calls while on my travels.

Currently, I'm in Beijing once again. This is a noisy and busy city. Personally, I enjoy this metropolitan melting-pot of experiences. It's amazing! As I sit by the window, I can hear a constant cacophony of assorted sounds floating in on the dusty, warm air.

Someone is angle-grinding and metalworking, various people are calling to each other. A few people seem to be competing for the "who can lean on their car horn the longest" trophy, one of whom has decided to go for an interesting rhythm - perhaps to get points for artistic interpretation? You never feel alone in Beijing, even when you're alone!

Every single day, at all sorts of random times, I hear something explode. I'm assuming it's some kind of firecracker but, good grief, they're loud! In fact, on some days, you can hear cracks, bangs and booms reverberating around the city - some in the distance, some close by.

Outside the apartment, there is a narrow road that is literally filled with hairdressing salons, little fruit and vegetable shops and the occasional small family run restaurant. I've never seen so many hairdressers and barbers in one street before - and they all seem to be busy with customers. This explains all those young girls with frizzy 1980's hairstyles strutting around.

On an adjacent road, there are some tiny little brick built structures, basically consisting of a room with a window at the front and a curtain. If the curtains aren't closed, you can sometimes see a heavily made up young lady, often provocatively dressed, perched on wooden stool staring out at the world with dull, soul-less eyes. Fancy a little "extra service" after your hair cut? No problem!

We have a little supermarket nearby, where the checkout tills use barcode readers that frequently fail to read the barcode and the operator would rather not sell you the product, as that means having to type that long string of numbers in. Even at the big Carrefour, I was told that I couldn't use my international credit card, despite standing right underneath a huge cardboard sign proclaiming how international cards were welcomed! Luckily, most food items are incredibly good value here in China - especially for a visiting lao wai (foreigner) so it's no problem to produce the required cash.

Don't get me wrong, this place is fantastic and it's a veritable roller-coaster of experiences. The food can vary from the truly delicious to the blood-curdlingly horrific. The smells on one street can make you salivate with hunger, but turn the corner and you've got a lungful of the unspeakable. Delicious fresh fruit is sold from cute little wooden stalls and most of the time you don't get to see the seller emptying their nose with their fingers prior to loading your strawberries into a little plastic bag by that same hand.

The countryside can be equally rewarding. Not long ago I went pony trekking up at 12000 feet in Sichuan. Wonderful, aside from some saddle-sores that I'll not dwell on now. Getting there by bus was an experience. It seems that virtually all men smoke in rural areas, and they don't stop when they're on a bus, except to cough up some phlegm onto the floor between the seats.

It seems that smoking on a bus isn't considered antisocial out in the boonies. However, opening a window twill result in you getting shouted at because, apparently, it's very selfish to let in that cold, fresh air while trying to breathe.

Laid back, open minded travellers will love China. Uptight, neurotic westerners will probably struggle. Frankly, I think it's a great place.

Sunday Mar 25, 2007

Daylight saving time isn't worth the trouble

Changing our clocks for daylight saving time allegedly saves energy but I haven't seen any data that supports that assertion.

I was in Menlo Park during the recent DST change in the US. Prior to the change, I would wake up to a warm morning but after the change, it was barely dawn and the night chill was still in the air...which meant I, for one, used more energy; lights because it was dark and heating because it was cold.

The energy saving claim just doesn't scan with me and it seems that I'm not the only one who finds this explanation dubious. Kellogg and Wolff of the University of California Energy Institute wrote this paper that digs into these claims and concludes that they're inaccurate.

Now, I don't have anything against DST in terms of the choice of hour, I just wish we'd stop tweaking the clocks back and forth - not to mentioning causing chaos by changing when we tweak them for, apparently, no genuine benefit. I end up having to re-adjust my mental clock in relation to all my colleagues and friends in different locations around the world, which drives me nuts.

Pick a time and stick to it. Please!

Tuesday Mar 20, 2007

Are you suffering from patch pain?

Patching is a hot issue for me right now. More and more of our customers are struggling to install ever larger and more complex patches, especially in a production environment. In this blog entry, I'll guide you through what's happened, why it's happened, what Sun is doing about it and how you can make your own life easier too!

Prior to Solaris 10, when a version of Solaris was released, the scale of change allowed in that release was very constrained. Usually the only changes we'd make to the code were for bug fixes and, very occasionally, support for a new platform. As a result, the Solaris patches released by Sun contained predominantly corrective code.

That all changed for Solaris 10.

Now we have significant features being integrated into Solaris, primarily intended for Solaris 10 updates...except, of course, many of these features also get delivered through the corresponding patches because they're built from the same Solaris 10 source code.

Unfortunately, there have been two serious ramifications from this approach...

  1. Some of the features touch a significant proportion of the code, creating a big web of dependencies that force all those dependencies into the same patch. That's why the kernel patch is so big!

  2. Some of the features introduce interface and/or behavioural changes that don't play nicely with the running system performing the 'patchadd', this makes it inordinately difficult for us to build a stable, installable KU. It's also the main reason for the 79 special notes at the end of the kernel patch README :(

So what are we doing about this?

Firstly, we're "rejuvenating" the kernel update which splits out all the dependencies so that, with the last KU installed, subsequent patches can be smaller once again.

Secondly, we're reviewing the integration review processes to ensure that appropriate verification is in place to ensure that features are tested in the "patch install" context prior to integration.

Thirdly, we're identifying enhancements and bug fixes to the patch and packaging utilities that will help them cope better with features being delivered in patches.

There's also something else that you can do for yourself - configure your production systems for Live Upgrade.

To be honest, Sun has not done a good job at encouraging the adoption of live upgrade and that's a shame. Anyone running in a production environment should be taking a very long, hard look at live upgrade because it enables you to apply patches or upgrade your Solaris release while still in production.

Because live upgrade applies the changes to an "alternate boot environment" (effectively an offline clone of your currently booted Solaris disk image), you don't need to be in single user mode to apply the KU - in fact, you can install a whole cluster of patches with your server still running in full production mode...just reboot into the updated alternate boot environment and you're away!

Furthermore, should you encounter any problems, you can reboot back to your original boot environment straight away - no lengthy downtime while you repair the damage. A huge amount of the pain associated with installing patches and managing your maintenance windows goes away when you use Live Upgrade.

I strongly urge everyone to reconfigure to enable Live Upgrade. You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday Jan 23, 2007

I'm still alive

Prodded by a reference from Catwoman I am forced back into the light to admit that I'm still alive.

I struggle with blogs because I find it hard to think about something interesting and worthwhile to blog about - it's not that my life's dull, it's just that the interesting stuff isn't really suitable for poking into my employer's online blogroll.

Seriously, who really cares what I think anyway? :)

Anyway, in response to the tag from Catwoman, I'll have to add an entry with the 5 things you didn't know about me.

You know one thing, though...blogging does not float my boat.

Tuesday Aug 24, 2004

Children: plague carrying rats!

I'm delighted with the standard of education my daughter receives from her nursery school. What I'm less enamoured with is the way she brings home virulent infections from the other children. After a few days of nursing and cleaning up after my children, I have spent the past couple of days shouting "Ralph!" into my porcelain bathroom furniture.

Yup, children are the modern day analogue of the plague carrying rats of the 1300's. Fortunately, they're not carrying anything as bad as the Black Death or Ebola but still, I feel absolutely rotten. Yes, I know I'll live but frankly it's only the hope of dying that is keeping me alive!

Yesterday I was supposed to be going to Prague to help interview a few candidates. Sadly, the rebellion taking place in my duodenal tract was having none of it. I briefly toyed with the idea of taking a chance and going anyway, as most of these bugs ease off after a good night's sleep. Luckily I didn't, because my colleague phoned me to let me know that Heathrow Airport was heaving with people as British Airways didn't have enough staff to handle the passenger load. They were delayed a few hours as a result and I am most glad that I didn't spend those few hours damp-kneed before the stainless steel altar of an airport lavatory.

Ah yes, I do wish I'd made it to Prague. Lovely city! I remember seeing a web page (inside Sun's internal network) on hints and tips for visitors to Prague. It was clearly written by one of our American cousins, judging by their comments about which beers to drink. Hey boys! The dark beers are the best! I guess it's an aquired taste for those more accustomed to the vaguely-beerish frozen swill that predominates the US beer industry. Yes, I know you have micro-breweries which I admit can turn out a palatable brew, although usually way too fizzy. The Tied House in Mountain View, CA, did a rather nice cinnamon-flavoured winter beer which I've sadly not seen there since.

Now, as for the wine - that's a different story...I'm particularly fond of fine wines, so I'll post a blog entry on that later. For now, I'd better attend to the urgent signals coming from my lower digestive system.

Thursday Aug 19, 2004

Rant: Why I Hate Wiki/Twiki/SnipSnap/etc..

  1. They are overused, often for no better reason than "because we can". As a side effect, wiki nazis are starting to crawl out of the woodwork and harangue people who don't use wiki for their own pages.

  2. I'm used to hand-authoring html and css. I hate the lack of fine control over my layout and structure.

  3. Ugly to look at, often horrible to navigate. I've seen some truly incomprehensible sites with hideous layouts where it's hard to find the information you're looking for, if it even exists at all (not that this is unique to wiki-like resources)

  4. Yet another grungy, nasty syntax to learn. Yeah I could learn it but I'm bored and fed up with learning new ways to do things slower and uglier than before.

  5. Come on, be honest. How many wiki pages have you seen where little or no collaboration actually takes place anyway? Yeah. Loads.

  6. Contradiction in terms though it may be, snipsnap both sucks and blows.

I'm sure there are good uses of wiki and friends out there. Do you know a wiki site on the web that is good looking, well structured, easy to navigate and genuinely useful as a collaborative tool? Add a comment and gimme the URL.

Monday Aug 09, 2004

Don't neglect your spouses!

Information Technology can be a lonely occupation, as it tends to attract the geekier of us. Worse still, due to the historic bias within societies for the conditioning of gender roles, the female population within IT is smaller than it should be. Too many of us fritter away our free time with our square-headed girlfriends instead of more normal human activities like eating, exercising and - heaven forbid - actually finding out what someone elses skin feels like.

As I right this, my beloved wife has stomped off upstairs while I finish my email (which could have waited) and write this blog entry (which, let's face it, you're probably realising that it wasn't a smart move to read).

Anyway, learn from my mistake! Don't neglect your spouses. (For some reason, I feel the plural of "spouse" should be "spice"). I'm going to go and spend time with mine now - hopefully, she'll still be pleased to see me.

Good night!

Thursday Aug 05, 2004

The fate of "hot patching" (DUKS) and a new way of doing it

Way back when Solaris 8 was being developed, I came up with a way to dynamically revector the flow of execution in a running kernel. This idea came about because a large number of the bug fixes we were producing for customers were fairly simple...not all of them but quite a few. Customers were being forced to install new kernel binaries and reboot to verify our fixes, which introduced additional delay into the time it takes us to produce a patch.

By being able to load a replacement bit of code (via the loadable module mechanism) and revectoring the execution flow, we could allow our customers to try out the fix without having to wait for their next scheduled downtime. Sadly, it was never possible to do this for formal patches because the dependencies in the patches were invariably too extensive. That's ok, because it was only really intended to get a preliminary bug fix or diagnostic code change into a live kernel quickly.

One of the biggest problems with implementing something like this is that the architectural design of the operating system software needs to have this facility designed in. There are a number of ways to try and "retrofit" the capability but none of them really work very well.

Anyway, that got me thinking about how we could implement such a facility from scratch - should we ever get the chance. Well, last December I was implementing a VM layer on an toy x86 operating system I was writing at home and it occurred to me that we could use a similar method to the way address translation is performed with page tables and apply it to this problem. In fact, it wouldn't take a huge leap of technology to hardware accelerate the translation process from 32-bit code to function (method) address because the ability to walk software maintained tables is already in the hardware. Woohoo! A high performance dynamically updateable software architecture!

I've had a paper on this published via the Research Disclosure Database so rather than go into detail here, if you're interested just read the paper.

Use the Source, Luke...(it's open)

Psst! Have you heard that the Solaris source code will be opened to the community? Yes, it's true and this was a topic of discussion at a recent OSCON.

There's enormous momentum within Sun to open up the Solaris source code and embrace the open source community. I'm a member of the OpenSolaris council (also known by it's internal codename "tonic") and I can tell you,the timescales are aggressive!

One of our blog readers, Yusuf Goolamabbas, emailed me with a great about having publically accessible build machines for OpenSolaris? We think this exactly what we need to do. I forwarded his proposal to the OpenSource council and so far, it's been well received. Hopefully, we will have Solaris 10 servers with secure "developer zones" where you can login, take a child of the source and start strutting your funky stuff! Watch this space - and don't forget to join the OpenSolaris developer community when it's launched. I believe a web site for this is in the pipeline already.

Of course, there may be some skeptics out there. How will we make money by doing this? Why will the community want to participate? Well, the answer is simply that the passion within the engineering community at Sun for both Solaris and the open source community is enormous, a fact that has been largely opaque to the outside world so far. Furthermore, the technology we've got in Solaris now is just too good not to share!

We will open our source. Will you open your mind?

Tuesday Jul 27, 2004

Viruses galore!

It's been a while since I updated this blog...yeah, well I've been busy.

Our email network has got loads of Window's viruses (virii?) flying about; mostly from infected laptops I believe. Of course, Sun/Solaris machines are immune but it's irritating to get a mailbox full of this stuff.

Microsoft are a cunning bunch of marketeers. They make a big song and dance about having a large team of engineers focused on security. Naturally, the message is spun to make it sound reassuring about how serious they take security. Well, maybe so. Of course, the main reason why they have such a huge security team (and we have such a small one) is because they're code is so atrociously insecure!

It's more than just security holes in the code; the architecture of their operating environment is vulnerable to virus infection. Mail readers like "outhouse express" that execute attachments for you (well, they know better than you what you want to do - right?) are a good example. Promoting an environment that makes ease-of-use for the user a priority is fine but there needs to be a secure architecture behind it. More and more of the security enhancements from Trusted Solaris are making their way into our "vanilla" Solaris operating system. Plus we have zones (a facility similar in concept to "BSD jails") in Solaris rocks!

Friday Jul 02, 2004

Shaking off the jet-lag!

I think I've just about recovered from my June travels! First I went to Prague with our director, Diann Olden, to see about maybe setting up a new team there. With the loss of the Moscow heads at MCST, we had some headcount to make use of and Prague piqued our interest. We also considered St. Petersburg, which is also more cost effective compared to western Europe, however there are some minor disadvantages; you need a visa to go there, it's three hours time difference as opposed to just one in Prague (and we already overlap with India) and I'm not yet sure about the state of the infrastructure. Prague is almost as inexpensive but is very well developed, easy to get to with no visa requirements with a good pool of resources available. Prague here we come!

After that, I had a few days at home before going over to California for our FY05 management planning meeting. It seems we've done rather well on the goals we set ourselves in our business plan from last year! How refreshing! :)

Finally, I had a week off in Hong Kong and Macau. Lovely! I had some air miles that were going to expire so I thought it best if I use them and I had just enough for an economy round-trip ticket to Hong Kong. Pretty girls, good food and stinking hot weather. Paradise!

Now, however, it's back to my blue and purple cage at Sun and I have to start wrestling with open source support strategies again. Joy!


Jimmo has been at Sun since 1994 and is currently a director within the software organization. This blog is infrequently updated with his thoughts, ramblings and observations. Enjoy!


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