Do ya want yer ould data washed down?

Your quality of service depends on the quality of your data just as much as on the quality of everything else

We’re constantly being told that organisations “must go digital” or die, and experts like @damienmulley run courses to get you started or bring you up to date. Which is all very well, but there’s little point in tweeting or facebooking your organisation’s finer points if your services fall over because your data doesn’t flow.

Right now, one organisation I am involved with is in the middle of a web site revamp, so the developers are looking for things like pages which are supposed to be under revision but aren’t (yet), and for the page sources to index for a new search system.

This weirdly requires JSON, not HTML, probably for the convenience of the indexing engine rather than the convenience of the customer (always a bad idea). Not that there’s any problem in generating it: anyone equipped with wget, tidy, and lxprintf can rattle out document metadata and normalized text, which is all they apparently want for indexing. As all inline markup gets dropped, there won’t be any faceting except by source directory, so it will at least be able to distinguish pages about training courses from those about supply contracts; but like Google and others, it won’t otherwise have sufficient context to tell a cookbook from a novel or a product brochure from a password reset page.

Ironically, the organisation’s data is actually fairly good in web pages: it’s in areas like corporate administration that it falls down. For historical reasons, custody of the email address list is handled by a different office from the one which handles custody of the internal phonebook data, and ne’er the twain shall meet. This means a search for the person you want to contact requires two separate and unconnected searches, and returns two separate and unconnected results, one from the email list and one from the phone list. It’s inefficient and unnecessary, and JSON ain’t gonna fix this kind of problem.

Americans tend to have this touching faith in the efficiency of corporations. You come across it most often in discussions of government and state-run enterprises, where they really do believe quite religiously, hand-on-heart style, that everything would be sooooo much better if it was handed over to private enterprise. Their reasoning is that private enterprise is motivated by profit, so if something doesn’t work, it will cause a loss, and so will get fixed quickly. It’s become an article of their faith in capitalism, and it skews their judgment heavily, and sometimes disastrously.

Quite where they get this view from is a mystery, but like all myths, once promulagted, it’s impossible to stop the uncritical believing it. Both state and private organisations are equally bad at data governance, in my experience, although probably in different ways. I have dealt with government offices who seem to be living in the late 1800s, and not only have no clue what they should be doing, but don’t have the data to do it with anyway. I have also dealt with government offices who do a spectacularly brilliant job, clearly understanding what they are at, and having all the information right where it’s needed. The UK’s Opening Up Government project is a good example of How To Do It Right (OK, I’m biased, I know several of the people working there, because they’re in the same field as me, but nevertheless).

In businesses, there are those who likewise have a seamless flow of information, and you can visit their web site and order their goods or services, and it all works fluidly, with everything in its place. I ordered a micro-USB OTG charger hub the other night, and I was done in a few clicks, and it arrived today. There are also those who quite clearly have no clue what they are doing. You order goods and the form either asks for information you cannot possibly have, or fails to ask for something which you know they will need. They then don’t pass all your address to the shippers, who in turn claim that your address doesn’t exist, so delivery fails. I’m still waiting for an item I ordered back at the start of the summer, and it’s now October. I think it will eventually arrive, but ‘clueless’ doesn’t even begin to describe the company. JSON won’t fix their problems any more than XML will.

Another favourite trick is from suppliers to my local university, who take purchase orders from many departments, but for shipping labels they just pop up the name of the university and pick the top address from the list. So your box of four borosilicate 500ml lab retorts gets delivered to the project office for humanities research in a different building the other end of campus, while their order for a dozen 1TB hard drives gets sent to the zoologists at the wildlife park 12Km away, because theirs was the most recent address used, and the individual in charge of packing labels either can’t be bothered to get it right, or doesn’t realise there is a difference. Some of this is human, but most of it is simply bad data in the wrong place. JSON won’t solve this problem either.

Programmers tend to love JSON and hate XML, usually for the wrong reasons. Neither format will solve the problems of bad or missing data, only expose the data for what it is. Programmers are used to dealing with two-dimensional data: database tables, row-and-column spreadsheets, and CSV files. Go deeper, and you use relational algebra to handle n-to-m joins, but the data is still rectangular. Both JSON and XML can handle this with ease, and it’s not important which one you use. Text document markup with mixed content (think HTML) is messier: stuff is perhaps present, but there again, maybe it’s not; raw text is intermingled with more elements, sometimes nested arbitrarily deep. Yes, there’s life in the tree, but not as we know it, Jim. JSON may possibly be able to represent this, but not meaningfully, and all statements to the effect that this is human-readable are from now on inoperative. There’s a fascinating thread over on xml-dev about the pros and cons of JSON vs XML but it’s clear that the message about using the appropriate format for the task has yet to penetrate the murkier recesses of corporate development. And if the data simply isn’t there, or is in the wrong place, neither format will do anything to help.

Friday 2017-10-06 09-55-02 Up

Down the slippery slope (again)

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

The human race has probably been down this particular slope in one form or another many dozens or hundreds of times. Just in case anyone has missed it, the politics of western civilisation in parts of Europe and north America have taken a hit from the disgruntled, disenfranchised, dispossessed, disregarded, and disconnected (perm any three from five). It shows up in the UK as a vote to leave the EU, in the USA as a vote for the so-called President Trump, and in France as a vote to return to fascism with Marine Le Pen.

Depending on your stance, of course. In the UK, it was dressed up as a vote to get rid of Johnny Foreigner, which appealed to the latent xenophobes. Or as a claim to return British sovereignty, which boils down to a dislike of EU law. In the USA, the xenophobic card carries a different weight, but was just as useful, as was the dislike of Federal law. In France, it’s the same as in the UK (one of the hallmarks of Franco-British relations over the last 300 years has been that the reason they dislike each other so much is that they’re so alike).

But if you remove the layers of humbug and snake-oil which Trump, Farage, Le Pen, and others used to mask the smell of outright lies, what’s underneath is a large part of the population who used to be able to afford a reasonable standard of living, no longer being able to do that; and a very small part of the population who have made (or are making) stunningly large sums of money from morally repulsive activities.

In Len Deighton's spy novel Horse under Water (the title refers to cocaine retrieved by a diver), the pro-Nazi baddie reminds the spy to bring a message to his government: ‘Don’t destroy the middle classes!’ Neglect of this simple mantra lies at the core of the current set of defections from decency. It's not important that ‘middle class’ in the USA means something slightly different from ‘middle class’ in the UK, nor that in many cases the phrase in fact better describes the rural poor or the urban working class rather than the newly-dispossessed white-collar classes. What’s significant is that it’s a lot of people who are very pissed-off at being forgotten about, while the politicians and those able to take advantage of them are treated as if they were important.

It’s unclear if the US Democrats have even begun to realise that their perpetual underhand dealings, from the rigging of laws to the use of political correctness to mask Federal expansion, actually upset a lot of people who then didn’t vote for them — or indeed for anybody. Nor has the equivalent thought occurred to the UK Conservative or Labour parties (with, apparently, the exception of Jeremy Corbyn, apparently the only MP left with any shred of decency). And you may be sure than when Marine Le Pen wins in France, it will be for the same reasons, and her competitors will have missed that particular cluetrain as well.

So what of our own locally-trained collection of gobshites and jackasses in Ireland? Again and again they and their appointed minions attempt to circumvent normal standards of behaviour in order to preserve the continued employment of their venal, criminal, or incompetent colleagues or subordinates. They then attempt to cover up their misdoings, and inevitably botch the job (remember, I said ‘incompetent’), so the Press gets hold of it, it all gets officially denied, often via a ludicrously expensive Enquiry, the miscreants are free to return to their troughs, and the people originally affected are left by the wayside.

So why do those who remember the last time allow it all to happen again? The answer seems to be selective memory. Those who remember are not in positions of power; those who are, don’t remember. The reasons could be chemical, genetic, sociological, or David Icke’s 9' green space lizards — we don’t know. We do know how to fix it, though: as we don’t do wholesale slaughter of the ruling class any more, we have to use a vote. So it comes back to politics again: if what has happened in the last year offends or upsets you, as it does me, remember that enough people voted for it to make it happen.

Friday 2017-02-10 13-27-42 Up

Useful for kindling

Online technical books need constant curation

OK, so it’s been a year since I put finger to keyboard on this. Mea culpa. Trying to reconstruct a life after so long with my head below the parapet took over 12 months, far longer than I anticipated.

Anyway, back to business. Kindles suck. Yes, they were among the first; yes they look pretty; yes, if all you want to do is read a novel (or any continuous text), they work pretty well. If you write tech doc, they suck.

First, there’s the binary file format. It used to be Mobi, now it’s KF8, and it’s not unmanageable, but the EPUB3 zip is way easier to handle, leaving aside the DRM (Digital Restrictions Management), which I’m not involved in.

Next, the HTML. It’s like writing for a late 1990s browser written by a student on acid. Not just that the devs never read the spec (hey, the Mosaic devs never read ISO 8879 either), but that they picked and chose what to support as if they weren’t going to have time for all of it. Like there’s soooo much in HTML?

Then there’s CSS. Version 1 by the look of it. Bold, italic, maybe both. Spacing? A little. Selectors? A class if you’re lucky. Size? Within limits. Yes, we know the syntax sucks, and it would have been so much easier to do it like Panorama, but browsers didn’t parse HTML properly either, so why expect Amazon to do so?

Gripe over: not my circus, not my clowns. Calibre does a reasonable job of transforming my EPUB3 code into a MOBI, and the file size is acceptable. Kindlegen does a slightly smoother job, on first appearances, but then drops the ball with a splatt on monospace blocks of code, links, font changes, embedded images, and — worst of all if you’re writing about LATEX — no control over raising and lowering, nor on tighter kerning. I suppose that’s a step too far for a system that can’t even hyphenate properly.

So LaTeX it will have to be for Kindle folks (including my emulator on the Note). Mac users, of course, have jam on it with the Apple eBook Reader, and even the otherwise fairly crummy selection for Android manage to represent most of the content. Now if there was just a version of the Calibre Reader for Android, I could toss the Kindle in with the cipíní and watch it burn.

Sunday 2016-04-03 22-15-20 Up

Settling down nicely

Despite the odd hiccup, Android and apps are stable

Three's connection circus seems to have resolved itself. At least, the nonsensical shenanigans seems to have died down of disconnecting and reconnecting to a lower-grade signal and then refusing to reconnect to the higher-grade signal when it comes back 10 seconds later.

True, their coverage is still patchy, but they seem to be trying, and I haven't lost coverage in any meaningful way for about six weeks now. I'll be travelling a bit more in the coming weeks, to the UK, Dublin, and France, so I'll be able to test their UK signal on the new phone, and see what roaming has to offer in France (not data, that's for sure!).

During all this, I finally tired of trying to write proper emails and especially replies with MailDroid, which I started using over a year ago to replace K9. MailDroid did at least offer an Exchange connection that worked — not that I'm any fan of Exchange, but using IMAP meant using my own SMTP server to send mail from another address.

Authors of mobile mail face a number of problems when designing the edit and Reply interfaces: most untrained or inexperienced users automatically assume that top-posting is the only way to reply, so mobile mailers put the cursor at the top of the edit window and add the replied-to text below. They do usually provide a button to get rid of it, which most people ignore anyway, but only a few allow interleaved style replies, which is both recommended and more courteous; and virtually none provide quoted line markers — but AquaMail does, so that's now my preferred mobile MUA.

The missing feature, however, is keyboard support. I have been through half a dozen mobile keyboards over the years, from the wonderful Stowaway to the initially attractive but ultimately appalling rubber one from UKHDMI. I now have a flatpack Perixx and a concertina-style unbranded one very like the old Stowaway very like (but not actually) this. But I want to use them for email, which means editing with the Note 4 propped up in front of me, which means I want control-key editing commands.

That seems to be beyond the makers of mobile mail for the moment, which is a pity.

Friday 2015-04-17 13:03:04 Up

Mobile not again, sad to relate

Android connection algorithm does seem to be the problem

Unfortunately, the way that Android handles failover connections does seem to be the problem at the root of my lack of data.

To summarise: if you're happily connected to Three's 4G or 3G service, and you wander out of range (in my case, go up or down a few floors in the lift), Android will quite rightly seek another connection. Three has a failover arrangement with Vodafone, but only for voice, not data, so Android picks up the Vodafone connection and pops up the R for roaming. So far all according to the book.

But the problem is, when I get back in range of Three's 4G or 3G signal a few seconds later, Android fails to poll for it, convinced that all you want is voice, and even trying half-heartedly to use an Edge service over Vodafone's voice connection.

So every time Three's signal fades, I get a non-data connection that I have to manually get rid of by going to Settings and searching for all signals and picking Three's 4G offering again…and again…and again. As I leave my office several times a day to go to meetings in other buildings, this is a royal pain in the ass. And using the stairs doesn't fix it — there's a blank spot half-way down which is where Android drops the connection and searches for another one.

There really isn't a solution to this one. Ideally, there would be a setting to tell Android not to bother finding an alternative connection if you lose the line for less than a specified number of seconds. I can do without data for a few minutes, but it would need to be smart about re-establishing the connection silently and seamlessly.

And ideally, Three's deal with Vodafone for a failover connection should include data. Come on guys, either that or beef up your signal. Or do I need to find another provider? I've been through O2, Vodafone, and Meteor over the years, right from my earliest cellphone, and they all sucked. I picked Three because they seemed competent and honest and technically savvy. I hope they'll prove me right.

Thursday 2015-02-05 22:02:12 Up

Mobile again, I hope

Android connection algorithm may be defeating cellphone provider fallback

I was the lucky recipient of a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 this year. My previous phone was the Note 1, which has given good service but which revealed an annoying problem.

To explain this, you need to understand that my provider, Three, has rather patchy coverage, and has an agreement with Vodafone (recently switched to O2) to allow the use of their masts when a Three user goes out of range of Three's own masts. This first came to light a couple of years ago when driving to a wedding in Kerry: as I crossed the border from Co Cork, the Note beeped to tell me I was roaming! Fortunately there is no extra charge for tis fallback.

Cellphones test the ‘visible’ connections for strength of signal, that being the only metric available. What makes this suck even more is that once connected to the failover network, Android won't reconsider Three even when it reappears as a connectable signal: it regards the O2 connection as continuing to satisfy the requirements. However, you don't get data on the failover connection, only voice. That sucks, because once connected to the failover network, you won't get data back until you manually reconnect to Three.

I had been doing this up to a dozen times a day, as my work moves me around from building to building, and Three's signal comes and goes like the Loch Ness Monster. I had hoped that trashing Samsung's version of Android (along with all its useless and intrusive Samsung crudware — can you imagine a chat app that only lets you chat to other Samsung users? Oh, yes, sorry, there's FaceTime, isn't there :-) I installed the CyanogenMod ROM (which is a wonderful piece of work, guys), but the problem persisted.

So far, the Note 4 hasn't demonstrated this behaviour, and I've been more interested in seeing where there is a 4G signal. But I suspect most users would prefer a continued data connection even if it meant a worse voice connection, and it would seem that it could easily be fixed by providing an additional option on the Search For Networks screen: Switch Back To This Network When Available Regardless Of Signal Strength. That would make the manual monitoring and reconnection unnecessary (at a small penalty in repeated scanning).

And while we're at it, Three and others, how about providing plans for tech people who use mostly data, and make no more than a dozen phone calls or texts per month? Now that I have a nice up-to-date phone it would be a great service.

Monday 2014-12-29 22:25:07 Up


A blog? I have a blog? I know I had a life once…

Letting a blog go stale sucks. Really. Not only does it smack of neglect, but it implies that the digital life isn't important to the author any more. It's also rude to your readers, and generally Not The Right Thing To Do™.

Actually, it is important to me, but it suddenly became only relatively so — in the last year^H^H^H^Htwo years (good grief) there have been other things which took on a life of their own, and the effort of writing about them, in addition to writing them (at the same time), was just too meta a task.

So there's finally been a PhD, which I'm happy to report was a success. It also spawned another research note in the process, for which Balisage was indeed essential, as I noted earlier. An unrelated sideline was a report on using XML to generate LATEX classes, which won the title of most meta paper.

2014 was therefore largely spent with my head down, writing. Once it was all finished, the major events of the autumn took over, both sad and joyful (my father's death and my elder daughter's wedding), amid which the XML Summerschool also happened.

So now it's nearly the end of 2014, and I am emerging like The Mole in the Wind in the Willows blinking into the sunlight, and I wish you all a very merry Yule.

Tuesday 2014-12-23 10:25:14 Up

Catching up

The value of conferences is that information passes faster and more efficiently than anywhere else

A Tweet by Tim Bray reminds me that tomorrow (2013-01-01) sees the 30th anniversary of the replacement of NCP by TCP/IP and the [re-]birth of the Internet as we know it today. I barely remember the pre-1983 Arpanet, having only used it sporadically while working for an American corporation, but I know that even then, compared with using a ‘network’ limited to one's office or company, it was like entering the maze of twisty little passages, all alike (not different!). Passing information in those days wasn't as easy!

The TUG meeting in Boston was full of information, however, from the tricky little details of using \csname to the tricky little details of changes to updmap. With the speed and power of modern interfaces, even textual interfaces like Kile or TeXMaker, it's easy to forget that under the covers of every system there is still an engine at work, which needs programming in some way or another. I was there largely to discuss and present about automation in thesis document classes, and this proved to be a lively topic,as virtually everyone there, whether academic or not, had been through this particular mill at some stage, and therefore had something to contribute.

The summer brought a family wedding which was held in virtually the only patch of warm, sunny weather we got (I don't know which spell the couple used to invoke this).


It was held in two conjoined tepees in a field in a remote corner of Herefordshire, with a bouncy castle and ice-cream van for the kids, and a hog roast for the feast. Everything went wonderfully, and we enjoyed the break immensely. Oddly, a friend's daughter's wedding back home the next week also featured a hog roast: in my absence from weddings in general over the last few years perhaps this has become the standard. Mmm, pork…


The XML Summer School in Oxford in September was also enormously productive. The publishing industry is at a crossroad, as I have said in several earlier posts, and the classes and discussions on e-publishing and ebooks were ample evidence of this. If you're in any way involved in the field, get in touch, or look at signing up for 2013 when registrations open in the spring.

One of the most significant innovations (which has actually been under development for some years) was announced in October: the ORCID system for assigning every author a globally unique ID. This will, with any luck, finally put the nail in the coffin of the mutually-incompatible and proprietary systems, and let us have a single way to identofy this John Doe from that Doe, J. Get yours now.

Thought With all this going on (and my parents' diamond wedding anniversary) it was too much to expect to be able to make either either Balisage or Worldcon, but next year Balisage is going to be essential: the way to avoid information overload is to get to the information before it gets to you.

Monday 2012-12-31 21:15:42 Up

Busy year

Feet never touch the ground and yet I still don't seem able to fly

This is nearly as embarrassing as last year, having neglected this blog for so long. I won't even start to explain the excuses (no boss, no thesis, no time) as it seems a much better use of the remains of the holiday to just log what's been happening…

The misery of Winter 2010 (broken boiler and frozen pipes on Christmas Day) finally passed, and a new boiler and much better thermostats were installed to replace the 30-year-old system that had in turn replaced the original ducted fan hot air heating (possibly the stupidest imaginable way to heat a house, and yes, I am aware of how the Romans did it).

Spring passed in a flurry of LATEX courses: our biggest workload is now courses for publishers and people in non-science-related fields — I carefully avoid saying ‘Humanities’ as academia is only a part of the user base. Fortunately, most clients' competitors have not come across the idea of automating document production, so the competitive advantage is still there, to say nothing of the improved quality. Several clients have been so public-spirited as to allow us to create public versions of the styles and classes we have written, thereby increasing the choice available to everyone…we haven't done so yet, but it's on the list for 2013. The same applies to the academic thesis classes we have been writing, but more of that later.

April saw the Open Courseware Consortium's conference in Cambridge, where I met the nice folks from the Shuttleworth Foundation to talk about open source XML editing and some of the interface changes I am testing (more on that later, too). They seem to have picked Aloha, which looks like a good choice for the ‘first-cut’ HTML5 but still suffers from the conflict between the need to maintain structure, and the authors wanting to make the document look pretty too early in the cycle. Whatever the results of my tests, it's clear that the last 30 years of WYSIWYG hav led authors to believe they have a right to create an arbitrary appearance and an arbitrary document model at the same time, and still have people take it seriously.

Monday 2012-12-31 19:11:17 Up

Celebren, publiquen

The Kraken waketh

For most of my working life I have looked on in apprehension as the printing and publishing industries plunged from one chaos scenario to another.

In the late 70s, the ‘new technology’ (new to publishing, that is) was the either the Salvation of the World or the Whore of Babylon, depending in which side of the managment/union divide you stood. When we (the PPITB) presented our conclusions on the effect of computerisation on employment to PIRA, the NGA were speechless with rage that programs like TEX should allow not just non-union, but wholly untrained people to create typesetting; and even management looked unnerved at the thought that technology might have got the jump on them.

In the 80s they were proved right on one count anyway: quality went down as companies equipped with smart but untrained people used DTP to do what had needed a journeyman with a 5-year craft apprenticeship behind him to produce a decade earlier. Companies with a reputation for quality gritted their teeth and started printing customer-generated material that would never have made it through proofing before; but Maggie Thatcher had done her work, and the unions could only whimper.

In the 90s, publishers started using origination from non-experts, and they too began the long trek downhill. It had been done many times before, but never on this scale. At the same time, proofreading suffered a decline, and in newspapers was largely abandoned. While this was going on, the industry was being urged to adopt something called SGML (and half-way throught the decade, XML instead). Some of them did, flinching at the cost of the software, and burdened the poor typesetter with the job of producing film first, and reverse-engineering the SGML from it. This must rank as the best example of failing utterly to grasp the point of a technology that I can think of.

In the first decade of the new century, however, there was a change of heart. Publishers (and even some printers) began to admit that there might be some merit in using XML as the master source format, and generating all other output from it. A few of the more wiley souls had quietly been doing this for a while, but the payback was regarded as a very long-term investment. The speed of development of both delivery and interface technologies is now providing opportunities for this investment to be realised well ahead of time, although the speed of back-end implementation is failing to keep pace.

All of which bodes ill for the unequipped publisher and typesetter. A client brought me a book which he said his publisher couldn't open or read. Despite being a scholarly work of some complexity, with passages requiring Greek and Hebrew as well as sean-chló Irish, it had been done in Word 2003, and the publisher's toolchain was equipped with even older (Mac) versions of Word and DTP software. Neither of them were aware of XML yet, and not even of the significance of .docx files: not the author, despite the excellent work done by the DHO; and not the publisher, seemingly at all.

Light is on the horizon, however — the XML SummerSchool has a new Publishing and XML session (which I'm chairing), and we have an excellent set of speakers and a lot of enthusiasm from publishers. Publishing has survived the past decades by adapting — perhaps not always as fast or as sure-footedly as they might — but there are always opportunities for those prepared to grasp the live wire.

Wednesday 2011-06-15 13:22:29 Up

Still no passengers for the Clue Train

…igitur ex fructibus eorum cognoscetis eos…

In an article on industrial design in the 1970s, James Pilditch describes when EP Taylor, a Canadian multi-millionaire, bought a brewery in the North of England. Pilditch asked the Company Secretary what, in his opinion, was Mr Taylor's gift. ‘His grasp of figures’ was the immediate reply, ‘He can read a balance sheet in two minutes and know all about the company’.

With the greatest of respect to Mr Taylor and Mr Pilditch, that may well have been true in 1970s Britain, but ways of doing business have changed significantly since then, and much of what was once evident through a balance sheet is now hidden by creative accounting and the series of blinds that can be erected to divert inquisitive eyes from what's going on.

One of the most obvious signs of trouble, and one that was not in existence in Mr Taylor's day, is the deterioration of the corporate web site. It's not a secret by any means: it has been well-known since the publication of The ClueTrain Manifesto. When Chris Locke invited me to sign the manifesto over a decade ago, it was a sub-second decision, but I didn't think it could get much worse.

Now we know it can, but the one thing that sticks out of a web site more than a cash shortfall does out of a balance sheet is the skewed emphasis on priorities. When you see protuberant links to ‘Our Investors’ and ‘Our Partners’ taking up more real estate than links for customers or links to products, then you know the company is headed down the tube.

While I'm all for investment (and partnerships can be interesting as well), there is no substitute for selling the goods or services to paying customers, and no amount of peddling your tail to the VCs is going to help if you can't. The current pox of ‘partnerships’ is a particularly Good Clue, because it means management is spending more time schmoozing on the golf course than down on the shop floor making or selling.

The recent Nokia/Microsoft deal is a case in point. Nokia make good phones: the user interface has become a quasi-standard, and in some parts of the world, ‘a nokia’ is the word for a cellphone. That kind of market penetration, like Hoover or Walkman or Google) is worth a lot, and Microsoft knows it…when did you last hear someone refer to their PC as ‘my microsoft’?

Microsoft make some quite good software. They also make some unutterable rubbish, but the flagging fortunes of their pocket-sized version of Windows needed a platform with a much wider coverage and reputation to survive. Hey Presto! and a little low cunning and an injection of Microsoft blood into Nokia, the two are joined at the hip, with six years' and more of OS development tossed into the trash (actually, Microsoft's distaste for Open Source software had something to do with it as well).

To be fair to Nokia, their ‘Investors’ link on their home page is low-profile, but it's there. It remains to be seen how much they remain a phone maker before the Borg assimilate them. Funny — when I was in the printing industry, Nokia was known as a paper manufacturer, and a very good one.

The loss of the Maemo and Meego operating systems is disheartening, but Nokia never really grokked the fullness of an Open Source operating system on a phone. They have some excellent engineers, but their management had blinkers. Regular readers will remember my pæans of praise for my old N800, now living out a retirement in Belarus. That wasn't a phone, of course, but Nokia consistently failed to spot the obvious: that it wasn't a ‘tablet’ either, but a fully-fledged pocket computer, capable of doing everything a laptop could (and I did).

Its successor, the N900, didn't get the support it deserved, but by then I was already jumping ship, largely because Nokia had failed again to provide the device with a fully-working suite of applications, even though they had made the same mistake with the N800. Those who do not remember their past…etc.

Which brings me back to the topic of this post: as one of my co-signatories said, ‘The clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery’. Nokia's balance sheet may be as white as the paper they once made, but the clues have been there for everyone to see.


Thought Pilditch, James: ‘The new power of people’. In Talk about design, Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1976, 0214202631.

Friday 2011-02-18 21:46:00 Up

Android comes calling

Flossy OSs for phones have a little way to go

My old Sony Ericsson flip-phone started to crack up earlier this year, so I took the plunge and went for a HTC Hero. That also involved changing provider, which was a welcome break, as O2 have become a pain in the butt to deal with (of which more later).

The Hero isn't exactly new, but Meteor were offering a good deal to switch, and weren't going to penalise me as a new bill-pay customer by demanding €100 up front to enable my phone to work in the UK, like O2 did. And the Hero runs Android, which was an added attraction. My iPhone-using friends sniped at it as the poor man's iPhone, but I see them changing their itune recently :-)

First impressions were very good: it's robustly made, reliable in operation, and hasn't dropped a bit in six months. The HTC-suppied apps were adequate to get started, although like the Nokia-supplied apps for my old N800 they showed all the signs of manufacturers' must-jump-on-the-bandwagon knee-jerk reactions. They would have done better to pick some good apps from the Market and ship them instead. But that's easy to fix — just install them yourself and forget about the HTC ones.

The Android Market has an amazing selection of apps, ranging from complete garbage to fantastically good. I installed K9 email to replace HTC's mail (I do all my mail via IMAP, as web interfaces are useless on a handheld, and don't provide enough facilities even on the desktop). Android meshes faultlessly with Gmail and related Google apps, of course, and shifting my contacts into Google was a snip, thereby finally breaking the last tie (file format) with my very first contacts list on an Atari Portfolio :-)

Other essentials were soon tracked down: BlueRSS for newsfeeds; Groundhog Newsreader for Usenet; Deluxe Moon (well worth it); Golden Weather (replaces the HTC app which HTC screwed up in the most recent update); NeoReader for all those QR codes; Evernote for taking notes; Twicca for Twitter (Twitter's own app has some serious problems, and HTC's client is even worse); and the Kindle reader (although I haven't bought a Kindle book yet). Some of the dodos were the OpenTable restaurant booking client, which fails every lookup; and the WW PointsList (not WW's own, but only has tables for US foods). Among the bells and whistles are the LOLcats app; TheFuelApp for diesel/petrol prices; Currency Converter; and Pocket IKEA :-) So far, so excellent. The biggest glitches, however, were Google's.

The Android wireless config does not provide settings for proxy servers, which makes all Android devices useless on corporate and campus networks, effectively cutting out half their entire potential market. No students anywhere will be able to use Android on their university wireless network, and no business user will be able to access their company wireless if either of them uses a proxy, which must by now be close to 100% of them. Quite why Google let this happen is unknown: there have been widespread complaints, but not a whisper of explanation or apology. The rumour is that it was a ploy to get vendors to accept the device, because they would then be able to charge their ridiculously high data charges in those locations. The charges have come down now, of course, except for roaming, but Android remains without any way to use proxied APs. Weirdly, the configs for IP connectivity via your provider's 3G network do have proxy settings, precisely where they are never needed, but not in regular wifi, where they are. Go figure. This is unlikely to be fixed: Google don't see it as interesting.

The other Google problem is Bluetooth. Again for unfathomable reasons Android ships with no Bluetooth support except for pairing. No file transfer, no OBEX, no remote control, zilch. There isn't any excuse for this except laziness: the code is freely available, but no-one seems to have felt it necessary to do the job. OK, so Bluetooth is a bit long in the, but it has its uses: headsets, remotes, and especially for handhelds, keyboards. The remote problem can be fixed with the wonderful RemoteDroid app, which runs a server that needs installing on the slave machine (a little jar file: should work anywhere), although it needs to be on the same network, as it's IP based, not Bluetooth.

I used a Bluetooth keyboard with the N800 for years and it worked perfectly. Although LATEX isn't yet available for Android (I know some people interested), there is at least one LATEX editor (VerbTEX) which slaves the processing off to a server. And there are plenty of other text-input UIs which need a keyboard. I found a rubber keyboard at UKHDMI which looked great, but the supplied Android daemon fails to load. I've gone into detail elsewhere, so I won't repeat it here, but again the lack of BT support in Android means that keyboard manufacturers must write their own drivers, which is a retrograde step.

However, I'm not giving up: these are serious problems but not showstoppers, and the overall functionality of the device is a hands-down winner. Just mind how you go with that roaming data…which brings me back to O2: I bought a prepay SIM to resuscitate my flip-phone, thinking I could get it unlocked to go to the UK, and buy a cheap SIM card with a data plan there. O2 wanted me to top up with €150 credit before they would unlock the phone, so it goes into the WEEE along with their poxy SIM. Stay well clear of O2, and if you have one of their phones on billpay, get it unlocked for free now if you can, and then go sign up with someone more responsible.

I did end up buying a SIM for the UK, from Three, which works in the Hero just fine (very sensibly it was supplied unlocked in the first place), but although I can buy credit with my credit-card over the counter in a Three store, they won't register my credit-card for online top-ups because it doesn't have a UK postcode as my address. Other UK providers apparently don't have this problem, but Three had the better data plan. A pity they don't have better accountants.

Saturday 2010-09-04 18:25:12 Up

Publishing and corporate inattention

Find 'em, frame 'em, flog 'em, forget 'em

Publishers get a lot of stick from authors and vice versa. They don't get as much from the readers, because in general the average reader isn't much aware of what publishers actually do, let alone how they do it.

One area of contention is republishing. It's hard enough to get even a good book published to start with, given the publishers' incessant attempts to bring out ludicrously inappropriate volumes which get remaindered in a few weeks. The skill of choosing a saleable title has all but vanished from publishing houses, but even worse, the skill of knowing when to bring out a new edition is almost entirely absent.

Part of the trouble is the abandonment of copyright: if the original publisher is now out of business, and has no successor, and the original authors are dead and gone, even if copyright has not expired, there is no easy way to bring out a new edition without the risk of challenge from some anal-retentive who just wants to case trouble. Many good and useful books are no longer available, and probably never will be (unless scanned by Google). Yet publishers continue to moan about the lack of good material while first-class material languishes unrepublished for the want of a better law on abandonment, and for want of publishers with some guts.

I'm tempted to start compiling a list of worthwhile books which the publisher has adandoned even while they constantly complain that they can't find profitable books to publish.

There is a growing corporate amnesia in publishing: the older editors who remember a particular book are retiring, and the company is forgetting how to publish successful books. And the market has its own reward for forgetful companies: a slow and painful death is the accepted punishment for stupidity, ignorance, carelessness, and a failure to retain the intellectual resources of their staff while all the time carping about the damage to intellectual resources done by the Internet.

Neither of my publishers so far has had even the vaguest idea of what I was writing about. They asked me for estimates of volume when they were supposed to be the experts in publishing books in the field. The truth is, of course, that they knew virtually nothing about the field they were publishing in, and both were big publishers (Thomson and Kluwer), respected names but woefully ignorant. And there, I think, is the reason for the failure: both my publishers were nice, decent people, hardworking and honest, but they simply shouldn't have been trying to publish books without knowing what they were publishing: they were way out of their depth.

It's hardly surprising, then, that publishers are missing the boat every week. A brief trawl recently for a cookbook that was popular in homes and schools in the 1960s and 70s reveals that it is unobtainable even in second-hand outlets because its content is invaluable. A single used copy on Amazon is priced at £278, and owners of the paperback are publicly volunteering to photocopy it to give to others. This is a flagrant breach of copyright, but no-one will sue because there is no-one left to object, and those who ought to be paying attention took their eye off the ball long ago.

I'm going to be meeting some publishers soon, and I think I might raise this over a pint and see if they really are as unaware of what is going on as this seems to indicate. In the meantime, if you want to do something useful for humanity, and create some new jobs in the process, see if you can find a politician who hasn't been bought by big media, and explain why the law on copyright abandonment needs to be abolished.

Saturday 2010-08-28 21:58:22 Up

Finally all singing from the same hymnsheet

A uniform platform has significant benefits

After the (mostly) successful upgrade to Karmic nearly a year ago, I felt emboldened to try again on more machines. I should point out that last year's upgrade wasn't an upgrade: it was a fresh installation from CD. I had tried doing the network upgrade on a previous system (Red Hat, I hasten to add, not Ubuntu) and the resultant spectaular mess made it clear that inline upgrades were not an option. I have no idea what planet the Fedora upgrade programmers came from, but it certainly wan't mine.

However, with one fully working and up-to-date system, it was time to bring all the rest into line. But these are all production systems, and I badly wanted to preserve their users' home directories rather than have to restore them from the overnight backups, which take forever. I took a unanimous executive decision to use the online upgrade on one machine to see if it had improved, knowing that if it failed I did have a working backup, even if it would take all night to rebuild it. One problem: under Ubuntu you cannot skip a version. You have to upgrade stepwise, and these were all running Edgy.

Full kudos to Ubuntu, the upgrade worked from 6.10 to 7.04, and from 7.01 to 7.10, and right on up the chain to 10.4. I was duly astonished, and I take my (non-red) hat off to the Ubuntu folks for a fine piece of engineering. At each stage there was a list of obsoleted packages, all of which were correctly replaced by better ones, with the single exception of Okular replacing KDVI/KPDF, which I wrote about in the earlier article — a more spectacularly crass decision I have rarely seen.

Not Ubuntu's fault, of course, but KDE's, although a black mark to Ubuntu for not spotting this and raising a protest. I used to swear by KDE in the Fedora days, when Gnome was a nasty, obscure, and bafflingly difficult interface to use (plus I was a migrant from CDE on Digital Unix at the time, which made a difference). But KDE became more and more clunky, Gnome underwent a Road-to-Damascus moment, and when I moved to Edgy I realised that Gnome and Ubuntu were the way forward. There are many fine packages for KDE, and I would be lost without some of them, so when KDE brought in Okular to replace KDVI and KPDF I was shocked. Okular has the makings of a good program one day: integrating support for the various file formats is an excellent idea. But someone needs to take the designers out into the fresh air for a while and explain what they are doing wrong. Usurping screen real estate for an unremovable sidepanel is simply not on; and downgrading the print options by removing Print Current Page has an immediate and disastrous effect on productivity. Again, on their planet, perhaps this is acceptable behaviour, but not here.

Fortunately, although 10.4 also removed my carefully installed KDVI and KPDF, it equally carefully allowed me to put them back again afterwards, so I can continue working at full speed. I can't say the same for the Galeon browser, though. Another victim of KDE's overblown belief in their own superiority, they axed it in favour of a seriously degraded fork called Epiphany. After three years, Epiphany is still not even at the stage Galeon was five years ago: it is missing features, some of them important (like the option to specify ‘Never for this site’ when asked to save a password) and it crashes on any attempt to view video in any format. Galeon is installable, by forcing it past the one obsolete library it wants, and soft-linking that back in /usr/lib, but Synaptic believes it is broken, and nags you, and if there's one thing I cannot stand it's nagging software.

But having upgraded one machine, with all the data preserved, I went for the whole hog and did them all, joyfully allowing them to wipe the odd Windows partition in the process, as Windows has now become an obsolete embarrassment. Each system is now running 10.4 LTS, with all facilities (except Galeon!), and despite the older hardware, they are as fast as the brand new Windows box in the next office.

Unanimity has unexpected advantages, too. Having preserved and imported the essential configs from backups, the Firefox bookmarks and other preservables could be propagated to all systems, so the carefully-collected material of past years is not lost. It's a pity that KDE won't be worth preserving if they continue in the current vein of arrogance.

Friday 2010-08-27 19:22:14 Up

Canned responses from an ISP are not ‘Customer Service’

Is there intelligent life in ISPs?

Last year I switched from the ailing and incompetent ex-state telco because their crufty copper wouldn't support broadband in my area. I took the 3× package from my local cable provider: phone, Internet, and TV for the same price as a slower Internet alone would have cost with the telco.

Thus far, so good: a risk, but it worked excellently (still does when connected), and I got close to the claimed 20Mbit/s on a good day, enabling me to give away some of it via my FON router. Then it started losing both phone and Internet for hours at a time, at random.

At this point I should digress to explain that the local cable provider was once known as Cork Multichannel, back in the days when the only TV stations on air were the two state-sponsored ones — worthy in their own way, but unimaginative and hidebound. Cable provided the BBC, ITV, and S4C, and while they bungled a few things, the service was adequate. Then they became Chorus (what Marketing lamebrain thinks up these names?) and then they sold out to NTL, whose nest-fouling antics are well-documented elsewhere. Now they are now part of something called UPC, whose marketing and publicity is even lamer, and about whom, frankly, m'dear, no-one gives a toss.

Each time I report the fault, I listen through their Ovaltiney of an announcer prating on about how they are now UPC, and then get a very pleasant helpdesk operator with a canned script and about as much technical knowledge as a very small gnat (not her fault: theirs).

Each time, they ask me to wait while they remote-check my modem (it's working fine except it has no signal: I tell them this, because the fault is up the street in their cable closet).

Each time they claim the signal is going into my modem but not coming out. Yes, really: they claim to be able to read the input signal level inside the modem (ie from the other side of the demod circuit), remotely, and see the input waveform not coming out again. Right. Maybe this is possible with the right remote diagnostics, but I'd rather have it interpreted by a signals engineer than a helpdesk operator, thanks.

And each time, about 30 minutes after my call, the signal miraculously re-establishes itself, and everything is fine again. Only a nasty suspicious mind like mine would dream of suspecting that a fault call triggers an action on a controller to do a remote reset of the substation switch, ‘just in case that fixes it’.

So finally they send a cable guy, who did run the modem diagnostics and said it was just fine, but that the signal in my street was not what it could be, and that they'd send someone to fix it in a few days.

Nothing so far, but it failed again this evening, and again I listened to the snake-oil from Mr Smarmy, and explained my woes to the nice operator. Who went through the same script, tested the modem, told me it was being looked into, and for security she couldn't tell me when the engineers would come to my area to fix their degrading kit.

TV is unaffected throughout; and now, of course, the phone and Internet came back 30 minutes later, in the middle of a very fine Spaghetti Arrabiata and a glass of Aldi's Chateau Soussans 2006 Margaux, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this. There is life there, Jim, but not as we know it.

Monday 2010-07-12 20:35:26 Up

Away with the faeries

Keeping my head below the parapet while writing shouldn't have meant no blogging

'Twas a dark and stormy night when I wrote the last post here, and far too long ago. My excuse is that I've been writing my thesis, and while that really isn't a valid excuse for not keeping this page up to date, I'm afraid it'll have to do for the moment.

However, progress is being made: chapters 1 (Intro) and 3 (Surveys) are done and corrected, and 4 (Testing) is close to completion. That leaves the Lit Crit, which is ongoing (new stuff still being added), and then the actual tests.

In the meantime, there is still a thing called a ‘life’ out there, I believe. If you find mine lying around somewhere, please return it to the owner.

Monday 2010-07-12 19:45:15 Up

Upgrade, downgrade, upgrade, downgrade

Be careful what you wish for: it may bite you in the ass

Way too much stuff has passed over and under the desk. For years I have been extolling the virtues of my Nokia N800 PDA, which does pretty much everything my laptop used to do, but fits in my pocket. Nokia call it an Internet Tablet, but it's actually a pocket computer, which may explain some of Nokia's current difficulties: they are thinking like a phone company, not a computer company, and they've missed the boat so many times it's becoming boring.

I sat in a break at the Balisage conference last year, on a Skype conference call with the other organisers of the XML Summerschool, using the N800. Someone thought it was a phone until I showed them that it did all the PIM stuff, browsed the web, did my email and newsgroups, tweeted, IM'd, edited Word and Excel documents, ran Emacs and Saxon and LATEX (did my PDF slides using Beamer), let me ssh back home to fix a broken server, and still had space for my music and some videos for the plane home.

The only thing it wasn't, was a phone (although Skype made up for that) and I kept bellyaching about how I didn't want it to be a phone as well because you look such a fool trying to talk on the phone and read a spreadsheet on the same device. However, my cellphone eventually died, so I went looking for a new one, and followed a colleague's advice and went for the HTC Hero. I couldn't afford an iPhone, and didn't want a Blackberry, and — thank goddess — didn't even consider the Nokia N900 because every indication on the Maemo mailing list was that it was a turkey.

OK, so now I'm contradicting myself. No, the Hero doesn't run Emacs or Saxon or LATEX. No, it won't let me edit Word or Excel. In theory it will let me ssh, but I'm quite willing not to spend my own time fixing other people's broken servers remotely. What it does, though, is enough to persuade me to part with the N800: it's lighter, slightly faster, and it's a phone. The Android Market has plenty to keep me occupied, and if I'm away locally on business, I can still bring the old laptop on the train.

I haven't been away long-distance since changing over, so I'll need to consider what to do if I have to hop the pond, although with the economic situation as it is, that looks unlikely to recur for a long time.

Right now the N800 is ‘resting’: used but immaculate, fully loaded with all the above-mentioned software, depersonalised (no trace of me), and you get the nice black hand-stitched leather slipcase and the amazing Stowaway fold-out pocket keyboard. Offers by email, tweet, or text, please.

Monday 2010-07-12 19:50:03 Up

Happy New Year

I suppose Samhain (Hallowe'en to you) was a good time to install a new version of the operating system…

I have Ubuntu on almost all machines except a couple of big RHEL servers and the domestic Macs. The oldest desktop is a Dell something-or-other with a 1024×768 screen but it's been happily running 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron) — so why would I want to upgrade?

Partly I was getting tired of needing to use a new facility or test a new package, only to be told that it required more recent libraries than I could install without major internal surgery. Plus the upgrade tool was rather explicit that 8.10 and later were unable to support my nVidia Geforce4 graphics card because the existing driver had been obsoleted by changes in the Xorg code; but that my installer would automatically switch to the older (FLOSSy) nv driver which would at least get me running. Everything was backed up, so I took the plunge.

They either lied, or something went wrong that they were unaware of. The upgrade went right ahead and installed the new driver which it knew was incompatible, so the newly-installed system simply hung at the login screen. Several hours of poking at the drivers convinced me that they just hadn't bothered to check. Several more hours of emailing the CLUG convinced me that it wasn't worth repairing the damage. I was resigned to reverting to 8.04 until someone mentioned 9.10 — I'd been looking at it, but had assumed that if 8.10 had dropped support for my graphics card, there wasn't an icicle's chance in hell that 9.10 would have put it back.

Wrong. I wiped Intrepid Ibex and installed Karmic Koala and it came up first time, full graphics mode, and even Compiz is working (so eat your heart out, Snow Leopard). Lots of good stuff, a few stupidities (not Ubuntu's fault): no KPDF, no KDVI (KDE has integrated the first into KDEgraphics and apparently dropped the second on the floor; but they have removed the ‘Current’ [page] option from the Print menu, which is plain daft); and some prat has removed the list of current buffers from the Emacs ‘Buffers’ menu — what am I supposed to do, guys? remember all my files in my head? C'mon, put it back.

But there goes the doorbell; kids wanting another blast of the pressure hose, I guess…Happy New Year to you all.

Saturday 2009-10-31 20:02:00 Up

Honey, I shrank the chapter

Do we really want to allow authors to put anything anywhere?

We've been typesetting a book for a colleague of mine, a Festschrift for a colleague of his. As usual with these works, each chapter was contributed by a different author, and my colleague had the task of putting them together.

We consulted about it beforehand. He uses OpenOffice (perhaps NeoOffice, I can't remember) on a Mac, but he had taken in all the chapters and edited them and arranged them, and was pretty much ready to go, when the publishers reminded him that their policy was for endnotes, not footnotes. Not a problem: only Chapter One used them, and we were using XSLT to create LATEX code for the formatting, so no changes were needed except to switch in the endnotes package.

However, which checking Chapter One, my colleague observed that all bar one of the footnotes-now-endnotes just said ‘My italics’. The author was quoting extensively from other sources, and highlighting relevant words and phrases. My colleague agreed with his publisher that such repetitive notes really weren't needed, so he left the only ‘real’ one and deleted all the rest. But as he deleted the final endnote of Chapter One, all the rest of the book (twelve chapters) vanished.

Ever a man of cool mind, he hit Undo and brought them back. No harm done. But that final endnote of Chapter One was back as well. Assuming that he had slipped a finger, he again deleted it…and again all the remaining chapters disappeared. At this point he brought them back with Undo, and saved the file for me to look at.

Well, well, well. The first time I had had to dig into ODF XML in earnest. It's nowhere near as bad as OOXML (so no surprises there, then), but footnotes and endnotes are inside more multiple containers than a Russian doll, and that was where the problem lay.

ODF allows multiple paragraphs in a single footnote/endnote — perfectly reasonably; all general-purpose markup systems do that, from DocBook to LATEX. But in ODF, as in OOXML, everything is a paragraph. Neither system has any concept of depth, regardless of the repeated and redundant nested sections in Word documents and the Byzantine sewer of ODF's footnotes.1 That means ODF (and perhaps OOXML; I haven't tried it) allows anything at all in a single footnote, even twelve whole chapters because everything is a paragraph, and the only evidence of the text being in chapters is the style name, which is not checked because it's not a controlled vocabulary.

And that's what my colleague had unwittingly done. Having edited the first chapter, his cursor had been at the end of the last footnote, and had remained there while he pasted in twelve more chapters, which promptly and silently went into the footnote container and stayed there.

The reason is clear: OpenOffice believes that the cursor has no business being in element content at any point after the last text node, so there is actually no way (that I have found) to insert a new paragraph sibling to your current ancestor paragraph when your cursor is at the end of a footnote.

This slavish adherence to the WYSIWYG model is fine for shopping lists and business letters, which are short, transient, and not subject to any reprocessing. It's not suited to a serious editor, and if OpenOffice wants to be taken seriously by the publishing community it is going to have to change this, and preferably introduce a style margin like Word (or some other wide-angle style view) so that editors can see what they are doing. The last time I asked them, they said you could see the style by hovering the mouse over a paragraph (clearly not someone who had ever had to edit large documents), which is not meaningful when you need to see perhaps a dozen paragraph-level styled elements on a single screen.

It also makes a fine example of another technique I am researching for easing the burden on writers, and that's the distinction between ‘Insert’ and ‘New’. The first is for database programmers, markup experts, and ontology gureaux. It's meaningless for writers because with only a WYSIWYG view, there is nothing to insert into (and the interface won't allow the cursor to be in element content). ‘New’ is what writers use (new chapter, new paragraph, just like you were dictating), and when you want a new one, the editor should check its current location, scoot forward to the next place at the current level where one is permitted, and add it there, creating additional markup if needed to retain validity. If there is no place at the current level, go up a level and check there; lather, rinse, repeat.

The facility for an editor to click on ‘New Chapter’ and have the editor Do The Right Thing, instead of the wrong thing, would be a major step forward.

  1. One exception: ODF wraps lists in proper list markup. Well done, ODF.

Saturday 2009-03-07 21:41:00 Up

Narrow escape

When your ISP upgrades, make sure you don't get left behind

Every so often, ISPs have a major purge of hardware and software, and ‘upgrade’ their clients to the new service. You don't get a choice, and you're lucky if you get any warning, because alerting the clients that there is about to be a chnage might lead to some disaffection.

I've been with this bunch for over a decade, and they've given excellent service, with a responsive helpdesk and virtually no outage or downtime. The service was simple, and as most of my sites are generated rather than hand-coded, this suited me just fine.

Two weeks ago I got email that warned me about some small changes in their mail systems during an upcoming upgrade. No problem: I downloaded my mail folders and switched from IMAP to POP for a week (easy when your IMAP, POP, and webmail service all use standard mailbox files: goddess help those whose mail is buried in proprietary databases). After a week I uploaded the mailboxes and reverted to IMAP.

Suddenly this week everything stopped working: mail wouldn't log in, not by any protocol, and all my sites were inaccessible — but oddly, I could still log into their new site-owner page, and FTP still worked. I logged a support ticket and downloaded a few key files. No word of any changes, though.

Then the FTP access changed: I could still log in, but the entire directory structure was different, although all my files were still there, but in a different subdirectory. No response to the ticket. Phone calls met the usual disembodied voice saying that all their agents were busy helping other clients, and refusing to put me on hold, but offering to take voicemail. No response.

Fortunately, their web site gave local phone numbers (they're in California: I'm in Ireland, so an American 1-800 number is no use to me). A phone call early in the morning Pacific time got a harassed support person who explained they'd been having ‘a little difficulty’ in the move to a new hardware and software system, and claiming that they didn't have my alternate off-system email address (which they did have a week before because they emailed me on it). All was eventually resolved and the email and subdomains re-established (except I lost a dozen or so planned-but-nused subdomain names). Generally speaking, pretty good service, although it would have been better if they'd told me beforehand.

It was worrying that the move clearly squashed all record of my subdomains, all my contact details, and reset all my email passwords. But what was reassuring is that they had the good sense to put a non-1-800 number on their web site, and they didn't change my owner password. Everything is backed-up off-site anyway, so I wasn't worried about data loss, and because everything uses open file formats, a new environment is no big deal. To those of you who went looking for the XML FAQ, the Acronym Server, or the online book Formatting Information, thank you for your patience.

Friday 2009-03-06 21:26:00 Up

I am sailing (well, maybe)

Getting from A to B was never this difficult

One of the recurrent problems in living on an island off the coast of a bigger island off the coast of a continent is that you have to use boats and planes to get anywhere other than your own doorstep. Planes are not a problem: our local airlines do a reasonable job, and RyanAir terrifies the life out of bigger airlines worldwide.

But if you want to bring the car, you either have to drive for hours to get to a port for a ferry to Wales, or wait a week to get the ferry to France. Either way you pay through the nose for the privilege, because the shower who ended up running what was left of the direct ferry to Swansea lost their tub a couple of years ago and never found a new one. What a pity the proposal to the (then) EU by our former Foreign Minister Peter Barry for a bridge or tunnel to the UK never took off!

However, at last there is new hope: a local campaign to bring back the direct ferry service is making excellent headway. If you're interested in coming via the UK to visit, or the other way round, sign their petition and fill in their questionnaire, and maybe we'll soon be back in touch with the next chunk of land.

Monday 2009-01-26 20:35:04 Up

A new year dawns

Back on my feet and picking up the pieces

The recent XML meeting was in DC in December, and I was pleased to see more evidence of the developments I mentioned above, although the whole meeting has shrunk (as predicted) as XML becomes embedded into the wainscoting of IT development and ceases to be new. The next breakpoint is the Balisage meeting in Montréal in August (the week after Worldcon), and I hope to have available some results and conclusions from the work I have been doing on the usability of editing software for structured text.

The TEX Users Group meeting last July was well-attended, and went without any major hitches except one: the odd inability of the host institution to provide visitor wireless access. Curiously, this was not only of no interest to UCC, but they seemed to be unable to understand its importance to visitors. It does mean that organisations looking for a host site would do well to check wifi arrangements and do a physical test that it exists and works before committing to the site. Fortunately this year's meeting in Notre Dame is better-prepared in this respect.

There's a load of new stuff to go through in the next few weeks: an updated Maemo, some neat Yuletide presents, lots of books, and plenty of file-format weirdness.

Monday 2009-01-05 18-22-46 Up