alan little’s weblog archive for february 2005

wyoming, germany

28th February 2005 permanent link

The first thing I needed to do for my new project (apart from telling the world about it so as to make it harder to back down) was, obviously, install Oracle. And in order to download Oracle software, you need to be registered as a member of Oracle’s “Technet” service – which I already was, but I hadn’t used it for so long I had forgotten what email address and password I used for it, so the path of least resistance was just to set up a new account. Lots of market segmentation bumph to fill in, including a “company address” that, when told you’re in Germany, still presents you with a list of US States and insists that you choose one.

So now I’m registered at Oracle Technet as Alan Little of Wyoming, Germany. Oracle isn't even particularly unusual in having this level of staggeringly incompetent web design. But it does at least hint at why getting non-English data in and out of their database product might be far harder than it should be.

getting started

28th February 2005 permanent link

Even without a day job, however, it’s hard to get started making a contribution to the “Cascade of Attention-Deficit Teenagers” development model when you actually have a life and things to do in it. By the time I’ve …

… it’s already eleven o’clock before I actually set finger to keyboard for Task Number One: set up the project weblog.

In a few hours it will be time to go and pick up Jack again. And go sledging.

new project

28th February 2005 permanent link

I am working on a new project. Since I’m between consulting gigs as of this week, I thought it was time to start making a more substantial contribution to open source development than reporting the odd bug and moaning about the state of the python infrastructure.

I’ve been looking at several interesting open source projects in other languages, but I already know and like python, and it would take me a lot longer to get to the point where I could actually do anything useful in ruby, smalltalk or lisp. So python it is, for now.

I wanted something where I could do something useful and substantial in a reasonable amount of time, on a project that already had some momentum. I didn’t want to wander off into the wide blue yonder on my own and build something that would be either hopelessly trivial and obscure, or wildly overambitious and doomed never to get anywhere. What I chose was an Oracle connector for SQLObject.

SQLObject looks like an interesting project that is quite widely respected in the python community. It’s part of two python web frameworks, Webware and Subway. The lead developer, Ian Bicking, seems to be competent and respected and is definitely a nice guy who I’ve already exchanged email with a few times. SQLObject already has working connectors for numerous open source databases and a couple of commercial ones, but nothing for Oracle.

I know about relational databases – I’ve earned my living designing and building them for the last fifteen years, and in particular have spent large chunks of the last five years designing and coding heavy duty financial calculations in Oracle. So I know Oracle quite well from the inside, and I know python reasonably well – so how hard can it be? Hard enough to be interesting, apparently: Ian says:

I wouldn't think it'd be hard, but seeing that everyone starts it (or at least says they have started) but doesn't complete it, maybe there's something mysterious and hard about Oracle support.

I’ve also been emailing with a guy in Russia called Oleg Broytmann who has already been looking at it and says yes, he is finding it hard. He seems to be particularly struggling with special characters – he’s probably using Russian data and so hitting problems early on that an American developing with English-language data wouldn’t find until later. Finding problems earlier rather than later is good. I will of course try to coordinate with him rather than going off on my own.

It’s a great pity, in a sense, that we’re still spending time on this kind of basic infrastructural plumbing when we’re already half a decade into the twenty-first century. The interesting and challenging things about databases should be how do you go about gathering heaps of potentially interesting data to put in them, and how do you then go about extracting actually interesting information from all that potentially interesting data. Not how do you go about the tedious mechanics of shovelling the stuff in and out. But since the tedious mechanics bit doesn’t in fact seem to be quite finished yet, somebody should get on and help finish it. And why not me?

related entries: Programming

23rd February 2005 permanent link

I’ve tried various things over the years for somewhere to keep quick notes & links. For a while I used blogger, but cut’n’paste, log on, open, edit, save, publish was just too slow and clunky for quick one-liners. Bookmarks are quick and easy, but keeng them backed up and in synch between different browsers on different machines (Safari on my home desktop and laptop, Firefox at work) requires time and effort, particularly given the quite astonishing crapness of bookmark management in Safari., despite its silly name, is easily the best thing I’ve used for this so far.

If you haven’t looked at it yet – well, just go and have a look. Once you’ve created an account, you get a little toolbar thingy (for most major browsers) that lets you add a link to whatever you happen to be reading. It’s similar to adding a bookmark – the URL and page title are added for you automatically, you can add a short comment/description, and you can add “tags”, which are just whatever descriptive keywords you want to use: similar to bookmark folders but quicker, easier and better. And instead of your link being saved to your browser’s bookmark file it goes in’s database. Where is is visible to all and sundry – the ambitious idea behind the whole thing is that becomes a voluntary, web-wide (one day) metadata accumulator. Somebody is trying here to go one better than/combine the strengths of yahoo and google. Good luck to them; I’m just interested in using it as a superior personal bookmark manager.

The website design is simple, clean and intuitive. The little toolbar thinglets for saving links work perfectly. So far it’s been reliable and mostly reasonably quick. I hope that will continue as it gets better known and the server load increases – I wonder how they are making money to pay for things like servers and bandwidth. It has limitations, the main one being that there are things i might want to bookmark that I wouldn’t necessarily want the whole world to know I was looking at – things that might be commercially sensitive to actual or potential clients, mostly. So bookmarks or text files still for those. For everything else, if anybody cares what I’ve found interesting lately here it is.

Now I really need to get round to writing a script to do back up my links onto one or more of my own machines, so that I’m not dependent on remaining in business and their servers staying up.

finally made it

22nd February 2005 permanent link

Dear Diary: a couple of weeks ago I walked through a beautiful snow-covered city on my way to a hot date with a beautiful exotic foreign woman, and the hot date consisted of hearing a major league German Symphony Orchestra on top form. This is what I came to Munich for.

Somehow the hot dates have never quite managed to coincide with the picturesque snowfall before. This could be related to the fact that I actually spent two of my German winters in India. The winters when I was in Germany and single, picturesque snowfall meant grab my snowboard and head for the hills. And for the last year and a half dates of any kind have been few and far between for Maria and me.

So I bought Maria concert tickets for Christmas in order to make sure at least one date would happen this winter. An all-Russian programme seemed like a good idea, so I opted for The Munich Philharmonic playing Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra with Han-na Chang, cello, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by Arild Remmereit. Who? Exactly – but read on.

It was great. I was worried when we arrived at the concert hall and Maria saw a notice on the door saying the planned conductor for the evening, Antonio Pappano, was sick and had been replaced by Mr Remmereit. I had never heard of Signor Pappano before either, but he made a very highly acclaimed recording of the Prokofiev with Ms Chang so I was looking forward to hearing them.

But if the guy’s sick, he’s sick. The first few minutes of the Prokofiev were a little uneasy – Ms Chang glancing over her shoulder a lot as if she wasn’t quite sure if she could trust the orchestra under an unknown deputy conductor and wanted to keep an eye on what they were up to. But it came together quickly, and we loved it.

Ms Chang and Signor Pappano’s CD of the Prokofiev was on sale in the interval; Ms Chang was even signing them in a very cheerful and friendly manner – rather than collapsing exhausted backstage, as I’m sure I would if I had just played something like that. Maria didn’t want to buy one, though, and she convinced me that she was right: music like that is best heard live. It’s a long, complicated and strange piece of music and neither of us could imagine how we would ever find the time, energy and inclination to sit down and listen to it properly without being in a concert hall.

So the concerto went well, given the very good soloist, after she had settled down and decided to trust the orchestra. What about the Tchaikovsky? Orchestra now with unknown deputy conductor and without very good soloist, playing a romantic piece I barely knew? It was stunning. It’s a big, obvious, unsubtle piece of music, but really rather fine if it’s played with enough enthusiasm. Remmereit and the Müncheners did it with real fire and drive – definitely up there with the Suisse Romande’s Mussorgsky last year as one of the most exciting orchestral performances I’ve ever heard. I see the Süddeutsche Zeitung was impressed too.

On a cursory glance through Arild Remmereit’s CV, he’s done a lot of work with relatively unknown orchestras but the Munich appears to be the biggest name band he has worked with. I hope there will be lots more – I would jump at a chance to hear him again.

related entries: Music


20th February 2005 permanent link

I told Maria I was taking her for a romantic weekend at a luxury hotel in the Bayerischen Wald for her birthday. Which I was [to the extent that it is possible to be romantic whilst keeping an energetic toddler amused] but that was just a cover. I will stop at nothing to stay ahead in the cutthroat world of Bavarian railway blogging, and the real object of the exercise was to get rare photos of the elusive Bavarian Waldbahn (“Forest Railway”).

Bavarian Forest Railway

space opera

18th February 2005 permanent link

I used to read quite a lot of science fiction in my teens – I was particularly fond of Larry Niven’s Known Space stories.

Then, however, I became a young man who took everything Far Too Seriously and disapproved of the idea of reading things purely for entertainment and light relief. I still read some science fiction, but only writers like Ursula le Guin and William Gibson whose stories could be counted on not to include interstellar battlefleets.

Later still, some time around my late thirties, I grew up and understood that there’s actually nothing wrong with a bit of intellectually unstrenuous relaxing entertainment, and for intellectually unstrenuous relaxing entertainment a good interstellar battlefleet is hard to beat. Two books I’ve read recently that I wholeheartedly recommend if you want good clean fun with interstellar battlefleets – not to mention wierd aliens and superhuman artificial intelligences – are Iain Banks’ The Algebraist and Charles Stross’s Singularity Sky.

Both books contain moderately interesting speculation about the nature of post-scarcity societies but this, I wish to make absolutely clear, is not why I was reading them. Nor, for some reason, does Stross’s Battle of Tsushima subplot irritate me like it would if Neal Stephenson did it.

going postal

16th February 2005 permanent link

One of the main reasons for the lack of writing lately has been having other things to worry about.

My current contract gig is finishing at the end of the month and I don’t have another one lined up yet. Nobody should work freelance if they can’t deal with that happening from time to time; nevertheless it’s not fun and customising your CV for each prospect is time consuming, especially if you’re doing it in a foreign language. Plus Jack and I have been trading the same virus infection back and forth for about four weeks now, meaning that all the time I’m either slightly sick myself or not sleeping because Jack is sick. Also meaning my yoga practice has been intermittent verging on nonexistent – and ask Maria about how I get when I’m not doing my yoga practice.

Then, putting those other things into perspective, last weekend a very dear friend was admitted to hospital in England with a (not immediately life-threatening but …) serious heart problem.

When you have stress about big things, small things become disproportionately stressful too. Sublimation? Straws that break the camel’s back? Whatever. On Monday I was late for a meeting because at lunchtime I was at the post office sending an express parcel to my friend in hospital in England. It costs a lot of money to send international express parcels. On Tuesday my laptop’s CD drive died (and you should have seen the original title for that blog entry). On Tuesday evening when I got home I found a parcel delivery slip from DHL waiting for me. Curious. The only thing I was expecting was a used Nikon lens that I bought on ebay on Sunday, and it would be very surprising if that arrived in two days. Particularly when this morning I had an email from the lens seller asking for my address. (Bloody great. Now I’ve bought a lens from somebody who can’t even read an ebay user profile. No. No. Don’t even think about worrying about that)

So what could the parcel be? I couldn’t think of anything else that I had ordered or was expecting. Except… no. Check the reference number against my receipt from Monday. No! Bastards! DHL have returned my very urgent and very expensive parcel for my sick friend in England.

Maria did manage to convince me that calm-but-firm would be better than incoherent spluttering rage, but couldn’t stop me immediately heading out to the DHL parcel office to seek Retribution. By the time I’d walked the ten minutes from the subway station to the parcel delivery office, falling flat on my back in the snow and winding myself en route, if DHL didn’t immediately give me my money back and have one of their directors personally hand deliver the parcel in his Mercedes I was ready to write such a such a screed as would teach them that arousing the Wrath Of The Blogosphere is a Big Mistake. Ha!

It’s hard to sustain that level of righteous indignation for long when you’re confronted with an actual polite, friendly, helpful human being – particularly when said polite, friendly, helpful human being is pointing out that you’re at the wrong parcel office and should have gone to the special express parcel office, which is on the same road but a mile away and right next to a subway station. As you would have known had you actually read the address on the delivery slip. Oops.

At the special express parcel office, when I eventually got there, another equally polite and friendly guy was very apologetic that no, he couldn’t actually explain why my parcel hadn’t gone to England because that office just handles deliveries in Munich. So now I had my parcel again, but to actually demand an explanation and my money back I had to go to the post office where I originally sent the parcel on Monday. By this time I was already late for work, but still fired up in the pursuit of Justice, so off to Post Office Number Three.

At Post Office Number Three I first spoke to a young man who appeared to be genuinely quite shocked at the idea of an International Express Parcel having been sent back without any kind of explanation. He called his supervisor. His supervisor turned out to be the guy who had originally helped me with the parcel on Monday, knew how much it had cost and appeared to take it as a personal insult that it hadn’t been sent properly. All they could actually do for me was call the internal DHL helpdesk, who told the guys in the post office I needed fill in a claim form and send it in. Which the guys in the post office promptly did for me, their German being better than mine.

So my friend didn’t get his parcel and I didn’t get my money back yet. But I’m a lot less angry with DHL as a company than I was at seven o’clock this morning, because the people I spoke to were clearly on my side and just as pissed off with the shortcomings of their own organisation as I was.

Now let’s see what happens when I call Apple technical support about my laptop…

Update: DHL called the next day to say they have no record of why the package was returned and will be refunding my money immediately. (I wonder if it was something as stupid as just somebody reading the sender’s address instead of the recipient?). Anyway: DHL screwed up, but they handled the complaint pretty well.

failure rate: 100%

15th February 2005 permanent link

The failure rate on my Apple laptops is now up to one hundred percent.

My iBook’s battery died within a year; then after a year and a half the screen went with a cable fault that is apparently well known and common, but which Apple refuse to acknowledge or fix out of warranty.

So last August I bought a Powerbook, thinking it might be not quite as shoddily built. The CD drive just stopped working. It’s still under warranty, but I deeply resent having to send the bloody thing away for weeks when it should just bloody work.

I like OS X a lot more than windows, but I’m really having second thoughts about whether I’m willing to put up with this crap. Can anybody recommend a Windows laptop that’s as small and light as a 12 inch iBook or Powerbook, reasonably priced and robust? (Or are laptops just inherently fragile? Am I expecting too much of equipment that gets shaken and rattled twice a day on the train?)

related entries: Mac


15th February 2005 permanent link

We make audio software, and it rocks. Because we rock.

… is the entire content of the home page of omg audio, which is therefore the world’s coolest marketing website.

Link courtesy of Wes Felter’s Hack The Planet.

I have no idea what omg audio’s products do, probably things I don’t understand. But because their website is so cool I’m going to download one of them and find out.

related entries: Music


12th February 2005 permanent link

The phone rang while I was doing my yoga practice last night. It was my yoga teacher, wanting to postpone a publicity photo shoot for her new website that we had planned for this morning.

I said fine, and apologised for taking a while to get to the phone because I had to escape from supta kurmasana first. She was appalled: “what! You interrupted your yoga practice to answer the phone? You should never, ever do that – just let it ring.” Oops.

related entries: Yoga

currently listening to …

5th February 2005 permanent link

Caught the end of a Seventies music show on TV this afternoon.

We had Marc Bolan in his pre glam-rock days; some guy called Tom Paxton with a comic talking blues about getting stoned in Vietnam that presumably some people found funny at the time, and Curved Air. I had heard of Curved Air but never actually heard them before, and they weren’t at all bad. They had an electric violin solo (just in case anybody was harbouring any illusions about all hippy era music being great), but the bit before the electric violin solo had a nice bass groove. And finally, Ike and Tina Turner performing River Deep, Mountain High and Proud Mary. Ike and Tina may not have been the world’s happiest couple, but did they rock? Yes.

I’m trying hard not to think They Don’t Make Musicians Like That Any More. They probably do, but they’re certainly not appearing on TV in Germany. I hardly ever, if I happen to stumble across MTV whilst flicking channels, think “ooh, this is good, I’m going to sit and listen to it for a while”. More often “how on earth can anybody possibly listen to this shite?”

related entries: Music

small world yoga (2)

4th February 2005 permanent link

I was talking to one of my Indian colleagues on the way to work today and mentioned that I’d spent a few months in Mysore. “You weren’t studying yoga with Pattabhi Jois were you?”, he asked. I said I was.

Turns out my colleague grew up in Mysore and went to school with Pattabhi Jois’s grandson Sharath. His father studied for ten years with Pattabhi Jois, was a yoga teacher himself and was a close friend of Norman Allen, Pattabhi Jois’s first ever American student.

Small world.

related entries: Yoga

practice, practice, practice

2nd February 2005 permanent link

Photos taken on my New Year’s visit to Maria’s family in Russia: about 500. Pictures deemed (mostly by Maria) worthy of putting on a CD for Maria’s brother in law: about 50. Deemed worthy by me of putting on a web page for my parents: 25, most of which are there for the subject matter and only a couple of which I think are worth anything qua photographs.

And one that is on my to-be-looked-at pile as possibly a quite interesting landscape photograph, taken whilst walking on the frozen River Volga on New Year’s Day(*).

River Volga, New Year’s Day

(*) Things I Never Thought I Would Say.

And, incidentally, of the two or three decent pictures out of 500 from this trip, pictures taken with the lovely-on-the-D70-as-a-mild-telephoto 50mm f1.8: all of them.

related entries: Photography


2nd February 2005 permanent link

I’m feeling the pace of blogging (or Lust auf Bloggen, as we say in Bavaria) slackening around here lately.

Reasons: I was right about all the household’s various illnesses spreading, at least as far as me. (Only as far as me so far, fortunately). I now have the heavy cough that Jack had last week. Maria said I couldn’t take the cough medicine that Jack does like, because he still needs it; instead I’m allowed the one that we have left over from his last cold that he doesn’t like and refuses to take. I now sympathise with him. Sinuforton – worth avoiding, folks. It might work, but it tastes like a mixture of paint stripper and bad whisky.

And I have a couple of projects I’m working on at the moment that are more pressing than blogging. Back eventually, probably.

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