Monday Jul 14, 2008

Celebrate [good times, c'mon]

Today is the 14th of July, and here in France it's a day of national celebration (hence the title of this post). A celebration of the storming of the Bastille and the birth of the French nation as we know it today. The strange thing about this celebration is that when the Bastille was stormed to liberate all the prisoners held there the revolutionaries freed a grand total of four people. How typically French, especially when you find out they were all recaptured by the authorities later in the day. The real reason for storming the Bastille was to find ammunition for the weapons that had been obtained from the Hotels des Invalides (not really a hotel at all) the previous day. Sadly, no ammunition was found. [Note: all these historical facts were related to me by my partner, Elaine, so refer inaccuracies to her].

Since this celebration involves parades and large amounts of fireworks it got me thinking about major celebrations in other countries I've been to. Here are three I came up with.

  • Independence Day in the U.S.; It always amuses me when an American asks me if we celebrate this in the UK.
  • Diwalhi in India and Nepal. A religious festival rather than one of independence. This one is great fun, although the approach to the firework safety code is most definitely typically Indian (I remember seeing a chap looking for a particular firework in a bag filled with all sorts of pyrotechnics; since it was dark the obvious choice of light source was a cigarette lighter!)
  • Guy Fawkes Day in the UK: Since we can't really celebrate independence we needed to come up with something else as an excuse for lots of fireworks. Easy, let's celebrate burning someone at the stake for trying to blow up the houses of Parliament. Trust the Brits to be rather more eccentric

Technology gone too far

During my vacation we rented a car so we could drive around the Lot and Dordogne regions of France and then make the journey to Nice. The helpful people at Sixt upgraded us so we had a brand new saloon from a well known German manufacturer. I'm a big fan of German automotive engineering, my last three cars having been a Volkswagen Corrado VR6 and two Audi S3s. However, there were several 'features' of this particular vehicle that really got on my nerves due to the efforts of the designers to provide as many drivers aids as possible.

The first was just starting the car. Rather than the conventional ignition key I had a device that was inserted into the dashboard and then the engine was started and stopped by means of a button. Fine, no problem with this, since I understand that one of the main ideas behind this is to reduce the possibility of shearing your kneecap off on the ignition key in the event of a big front end collision. What I really didn't like was the fact that the engine refused to start unless I had the clutch depressed. In twenty five years of driving I'm pretty sure I've only ever tried to start the car in gear on maybe two or three occasions. I'd rather the car check the gearbox was in neutral than forcing me to put the clutch in whenever I want to start the car. Very irritating.

Not nearly as irritating, though as the 'auto start' function. At the first toll road I pulled up to the barrier, put the handbrake on and put the car in neutral. At this point the engine stopped. WTF? It seems that to 'aid fuel economy' and to 'reduce emissions' the car will just kill the engine when you stop and do what I did. The engine will restart when you press the clutch again, or after about a minute of sitting there doing nothing. Talk about irritating. The good news was that there was a button on the dashboard that would turn this 'feature' off. The bad news was you had to press the button every time you started the car; it didn't remember that I wanted to be in control of the car, not the car.

Which leads us to the next thing that irked me. When driving along part of the display would tell you when the car thought you were in the wrong gear. If I wanted the car to choose which gear I should be in I'd have got an automatic! Geez, what's wrong with letting the driver drive the car?

I remember Jeremy Clarkson doing a very funny bit on Top Gear where he test drove a very powerful German saloon car (of the same make as this). He tested the 0-100kph time which worked out at about five minutes by the time he'd selected the correct suspension settings, gearbox change speed and so on. This car was similar, just trying to get cool air to come out of the vents at a reasonable rate took forever going through menu options.

The last thing was that all of the controls seemed to be fly-by-wire which extended to the indicators and windscreen wipers. What this meant is that the stalk for the indicators would always be in the central position. Moving the stalk would turn the indicators on but not leave the stalk in the position that meant you knew where the indicators were indicating. I know it's a small thing, but it just didn't work for me. The 'automatic' mode for the wipers was useless since it never seemed to wipe the screen when I wanted it to and in this mode I spent more time activating the wipers manually than I would have done using intermittent mode (something I was never actually able to figure out how to make happen).

Another case of design gone too far without enough thought...

Wednesday Jul 12, 2006

Subjective analysis of innovation

Wired is one of my favorite magazines, since it is a very useful source of information about leading edge developments. However, it's obviously written by journalists and they, like everybody else, have subjective views of things. A great example of this is in this month's issue, which contains the Wired 40. This is a list of the 40 companies with "the X-factor – a hunger for new ideas and an impatience to put them into practice".

Obviously, I expected to see Sun on that list as, to me, that describes us perfectly. Innovation has always been a core part of Sun's ethos and with many of our recent announcements we continue to demonstrate innovation and products that nobody else has. Sadly, it seems the compilers of the list don't share this view and so we end up with a company on the list that "still designs white-hot chips". Hmm, isn't one of the biggest challenges in the datacentre today the problem of heat? Isn't that why Sun innovated in this space to develop the UltraSPARC-T1 CoolThreads technology? Another company's solution to one of its challenges is to "overclock R&D and leapfrog a generation of processors". What they're actually doing is designing multi-core processors. Again, we've been there and done that already (and even open sourced the design).

Not only are we not one of the Wired 40, but CNN have decided our CEO is one of 10 people who don't matter. Time for a bit more objectivity, surely?

Wednesday Jun 15, 2005

Life begins at 40 (I hope)

The problem with travelling so much is it takes up so much time. The other problem is that network access is very limited (non-existent on planes unless you're flying on some Lufthansa or Emirates routes), expensive in airports and prohibitively expensive in hotels ($25 per day for 512kb access, I pay less than that a month for 2Mb broadband!) Add to this the fact that they want me to work when I get somewhere and the net effect is it's been waaay too long since my last blog entry.

So what have I been up to I hear everyone ask (or at least the ten or so people who'll read my blog).

In May I reached a fairly big milestone in life: my 40th birthday. Given that the average life expectancy in the UK for a man is 78 this would mean I'm now officially past the half way mark and therefore it's all downhill from here. Of course, a lot of people say life begins at 40, although I suspect that that is spread by people who've past 40 and want to convince those under 40 they're not past it. Anyway, I spent my birthday in Tuscanny, courtesy of my girlfriend Elaine who organised for us to stay at a villa which also ran a cooking school. Very relaxed, great food, great wine and I finally know how to make gnochi. We also spent the weekend in Florence and went up the leaning tower of Pisa before returning home.

The next day I left for Bangalore in India where we had the last TechDay event of this financial year. It had been a while since I'd been to India and the enthusiasm of developers there hasn't diminished one bit. 2200 people turned up and it was a packed and enjoyable two days. I did one presentation on Solaris 10, focusing on DTrace and zones. The presentation was an hour long and I spent another hour aftewrwards answering a lot of in-depth technical questions, many of which really stretched my knowledge. The travel was pretty brutal as there is no direct flight from Heathrow to Bangalore. I ended up going via Chennai (or Madras as it used to be known). This wasn't too bad on the way out, but on the way back my evening flight that was supposed to leave Bangalore at 9.30pm didn't leave until 11.45pm. I'd booked a hotel in Chennai since the connecting flight didn't leave until 8am the following morning. This is the last time I trust a website that says, "conveniently located for the airport", as this one was a 40 minute drive (even at 1am). Needless to say I only ended up in the hotel for about 5 hours. The funniest thing about the delay in Bangalore was that this happened to be the day of the FA cup final in the UK. Due to the time difference the game was on while I was in the airport. All the monitors that were used to display the flight departures got changed to show the football, so you had to guess when your flight might be leaving. There we were, in the middle of the penalties, Arsenal ahead by one, two more to shoot. What do they do? Switch to adverts!! Talk about an unnatural break.

Having survived India and eaten a lot of great Indian food it was off to Russia for developer events in Moscow and St Petersburg. Great turnout in both cities, I think we had over 500 people in Moscow and about 300 in St Petersburg. Again, very keen developers with lots of great questions. When we were in St Petersburg we went out with some of the people from the Sun office who took us to a local micro-brewery. Very easy to drink too much beer here. I turned up at the airport to get my flight home and the man checking passports spent a lot of time looking at my passport and checking the four Russian visas in my passport very carefully. Eventually he looked at me and said, "Your visa has expired". When I had submitted my visa application I'd put the right dates on it and submitted all the appropriate paperwork. The Russian embassy, in their infinite wisdom, had ignored the dates on the form and the paperwork for St Petersburg and simply issued the visa based on the Moscow part of the trip. Stupid me hadn't though to check that, so the visa had expired two days earlier. No problem in the newly capitalist post-Soviet era. For the princely (and frankly outrageous) sum of ninety US dollars (various currencies and credit cards accepted) I could get my two day extension. Faced with a choice of paying up or spending time in a gulag, I paid up.

After that we had a few events in the UK talking to financial institutions about latest Java technologies. Thankfully the travel for that was using London public transport, which can actually be quite good so long as you don't want to travel at peak times.

This week and next I'm preparing for JavaOne. More on that later.

Monday Feb 07, 2005

Really broad broadband

I have to say I really like the people at Blueyonder who are my ISP. When I first got broadband the only option I had was BTs ADSL at 512Kb/sec. This was a major improvement over dialup, but the fact that the ADSL modem only worked on Windows, which needed to be frequently rebooted (with a new call to DHCP and almost without fail a new IP address) was far from ideal. When I moved house we got digital cable TV and shortly thereafter switched to a cable modem supplied by Telewest Broadband running at 1Mb/sec. Since this provides an ethernet connection the connection is not dependent on a stable Windows platform (not sure anything or anyone should depend on that) and can be hooked up to the router for simple shared access and firewall protection.

Not only is the connection rock-solid in terms of reliability (I can only remember a couple of brief outages in the last four years), the nice people at Blueyonder keep turning up the speed at no extra cost. Last year they bumped it up to 1.5Mb/sec and then at the start of the year it went up to 2Mb/sec. Downloading music from iTunes is a breeze.

Despite being a geek, I'm still amazed at the fact I can be sitting at home logged on via VPN to a machine in the west coast of the US and the response is almost instantaneous. As Arthur C. Clarke said in Profiles of The Future, way back in 1961: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." There's definitely some magic in there somewhere.

Wednesday Feb 02, 2005

Language: it's alive!

There was a very interesting piece on the BBC morning news yesterday about how Collins, one of the main compilers of dictionaries here in the UK for nearly two hundred years, had set up a new website. This site is intended to make the collection of words in common use easier, since anyone can submit a word they think is valid. Editors at Collins will verify the usage of a word, based on certain criteria (like, has anyone other than the person submitting the word ever used it). Assuming that the word passes the criteria it gets added to the next revision of the dictionary.

There were some interesting examples, many of which can be found here. Bimble, for instance, the definition of which is "Brit (Slang): a wander to pass the time, or to shirk responsibilities", is something I've used for many years since I do seem to do a lot of bimbling. Doofah, which is any small kind of gadget, especially a remote control is also something I'm familiar with, as in "there's too many doofahs in this house". One I hadn't heard of which was highlighted in the report, but interestingly isn't in the dictionary is spoota, an acronym for "something pulled out of thin air"; i.e. a convincing explanation for something with no basis in fact. A key requirement for being a Technology Evangelist is the ability to spoota without missing a beat.

Etymology (the study of the origin and development of words) has always interested me since our language is always evolving and the usage of words goes in and out of fashion just as much as anything else. For example, when I went to Canada for Christmas and stayed with my girlfriends family her three teenage nephews used English in such a way as to make me feel a) old, and b) completely out of touch with popular culture. Almost everything was referred to as "brutal" (I would agree that that was a good description of the weather, but not necessarily applicable to a shot made whilst playing pool). Anything that was deemed good was "sick", which seems somewhat counter intuitive, but is a great example of the way words evolve to have different meanings in different contexts.

Of course, it's not just human languages that evolve in this way; a quick look at the new features in J2SE 5 shows the addition of seven new language features that introduce new syntax and semantics. Thankfully, these changes don't occur at the same pace as in English and are carefully thought out before inclusion.

Friday Jan 14, 2005

New Years resolutions

OK, new year, new start. One of my first resolutions is to get back to my blog and make this a regular thing.

Of course, the observant amongst you will notice that the new year is already two weeks old. I got back yesterday from a vacation in Canada, spending Christmas with my girlfriend's family and the rest of the time ski-ing in the Rockies. One word to describe this trip: COLD. Almost all the time we were in the west the temperature was below -20C. The first day we went ski-ing at Banff the external thermometer in the car read -27C (and we did go ski-ing, albeit well wrapped up). Canada is a really beatiful country, especially the Rockies; hopefully sometime I'll actually get to see it in summer (I've been there three times, all in the winter).

One thing about my three week vacation was the total lack of internet access, which was a choice rather than a necessity. It was actually really nice to be offline for so long and have a chance to do some reading and thinking. I also went to possibly the best exhibition I've ever been to, which was at the art museum in Vancouver. Check out the website at Massive Change.

Let's see how long the resolution lasts.

Friday Oct 01, 2004

To live is to travel

It's Friday afternoon and so I really must write a blog entry, even if it is a bit short.

I spent last week in South Africa doing Developer Days and University visits. This was great fun and we got to meet a lot of very clued up developers. A big thanks to Heinz in Cape Town who took us for a ride along the coast and showed us a wonderful restaurant in Houts Bay (wonderful fresh fish). It also gave me a chance to eat in my favorite restaurant in Johannesburg, the Butcher's Shop. If you ever get a chance to go to Sandton (a suburb of Jo'burg) and you're not a vegetarian, you've got to try it. This makes me think that I am travelling too much; not only have I been to six continents in the last four months, but I actually have a favorite restaurant in Jo'burg.

The thing about going to South Africa is it's actually a really long way from the UK so it's an eleven hour flight both ways (easier for me than my US based colleagues who came through London and had a thirty hour trip). Both these flights are overnight. A quick scan through my diary revealed that so far this year I've spent twelve nights sleeping on a plane (all but one in economy class). Thankfully I find that with a couple of Nytol and a glass of wine I can actually get some sleep, but this is far from comfortable. Having spent this week catching up on things and doing a quick press interview it's back to the airport on Sunday evening for another overnight flight south of the equator but this time to a partner symposium at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. It's been over ten years since I last went to Vic Falls so it'll be interesting to see whether it's changed.

Hopefully when I get back from this trip I will actually be able to spend some time at home again.

Friday Aug 20, 2004

The journey begins (or ends)

Well, I've finally managed to start a blog. Despite being a Technology Evangelist (and therefore by definition at the leading edge) it's taken me quite a while to catch on to this. I will be most interested to see whether anyone reads this and comments on it, since I'm currently of the opinion that most blogs are write-only.

This week I've been working on new material for this years TechDays events, the Sun Technology roadshow that enables the Technology Evangelism group to travel the world and experience all the joy of many, many hours in airport lounges and economy class. The session I'm developing is Java and Games which means I get to go to work and play games (kind of, since I actually need to figure out how developers use the available technologies in this area). I'll post more on this next week as things start to fall into place.

I was in Brazil last week with some of my colleagues presenting the merits of Java to a number of financial institutions. This was a lot of fun as the developers we were presenting to were new to Java, coming from a mainframe background. It was nice to talk about the basics of Java for a change rather than the latest developments in EJBs or the specifics of generics :-). Brazil is also a great country to visit and the food there is just unbelievable. If you ever get there go for a Churascaria (hope I spelt that right). Truly carnavore heaven and vegetarian hell.

When I arrived in Brazil I realised that I've now been to six continents this year (only Antarctica is absent; there not being many developers there) and five continents in the last ten weeks. I've got to say I'm getting really tired of sleeping on planes and will be happy to spend a few weeks at home.




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