Recent blog entries for malcolm

Of Course, You Understand That This Means War

My apartment is not as clean as it could be (or has been). This has been bothering me more and more, so today — the first day of a three day weekend — I decided to fix things up a bit. This means cleaning. Not "clean your room before you go out to play" sort of cleaning either.

If I was the ruler of a small country, this would be a national program, requiring federal funding, periodic reports to parliament, motivational posters.. .the whole nine yards. It would have an imposing name like Operation No Dust Bunny Left Behind. This is war on mess and dust. Like spring cleaning, except at the start of winter (it may take until spring to finish).

Today was a case of two steps forward, one step back. Started on the office. Periodically, I permute the piles of junk in my office, dust around them and wave the vacuum cleaner at the exposed parts of the floor. Today, I moved everything out and off the tables. Vacuumed viciously and stared in horror at the still dirty carpet might need to get a man with high-powered carpet cleaning devices in at the end of this. Washed the desk down, moved things around so I have more room (brought in another table as well). Plugged everything back in, turned on the computer and ...

Aargh! It was making grinding/clicking noises. Repeatedly. And not so many blinkenlights as I might have hoped for. Pulled it apart. Dusted inside (Operation NDBLB knows no borders in its search for the enemy). Checked all the cables were plugged in firmly. Reconnected everything. No dice. :-(

It seems that plugging USB devices in was causing a short or something. Eventually got the machine started. Can happily plug in USB devices (important things like keyboard and mouse) now, but I'm a bit afraid if I need to reboot, which happens about once every few months, except there's probably a Fedora 7 kernel upgrade coming out in the next couple of weeks and I'll need to do it then.

I'm also at a fragile point in my setup where my backup machine has failed (fatally) and I still need to set up the replacement system, so I really don't need a main machine meltdown just now. Boy, am I going to be working on fixing that window of opportunity for disaster tomorrow! NSLU2 unit and new hard-drive waiting to be configured as we speak.

So more of this evening than I intended was spent working out how to restart the desktop machine and portions of the office still look like a mess. Operation NDBLB has made camp for the night and will need to resume the attack tomorrow. What started out in a fit of enthusiasm, rapidly regressed into swearing, self-recrimination ("how could be so stupid as to think you could clean house without punishment from the gods?") and mild panic/annoyance. The adrenalin rush has worn off now and things seem back to normal, but nobody is allowed to think less than happy thoughts, okay? My world might be holding together with string and sticky-tape. I'm just not sure, any longer.

Syndicated 2007-06-10 01:28:53 from Malcolm Tredinnick

Six Degrees Of Coincidence

Imagine if you were commenting in a forum and discovered one of your relatives was going to marry a relative of the board's moderator. Unlikely, huh?

(Note: not my relative; not at all about me.)

Syndicated 2007-06-09 18:28:29 from Malcolm Tredinnick

How Not To Recruit

Like most consultants, I get a reasonable number of requests to apply for one particular contract job or another. I try to give most credible e-mails at least a courtesy reply even if I'm not interested or too busy (and to those who may have thought they deserved one, my sincere apologies for overlooking your request).

This week, though, has set some new lows. It may because I have a head stuffed full of cold symptoms and medicine, so I'm alternately cranky and sleepy, but I've received three direct e-mails (i.e. I was one of the targeted recipients; don't get me started about the quality of mailing list advertisements) that indicate there is a new trend forming in position filling and it's not good.

People, give some hints about whether it's worth applying! This can't possibly be advice out of left field — I'm just not that creative. Help me to help you.

If your request for expressions of interest (effectively) only says "please send me your hourly or daily rate" and does not indicate the topic area of the work, geographical location of the company, length of work (even approximately), starting timeframe (immediately? when filled? when suitable for best candidate?), you are screwed right out of the gate. Or, at least, I am not going to be applying. Guess what? Typically for a consultant, my rates vary based on many things. Longer jobs means lower hourly rates (or, usually, not billing by the hour, but by the week or month). Starting timeframe is another variable: how much flexibility is there to fit in with existing work? Most of the time I prefer working on only one major project at a time, so I can't say yes to everything that crosses my inbox. For some arenas — be it geographical and target market — I am either not qualified or not interested for various reasons. Is the work onsite, remote or a mixture of both? Even in the telecommuting case, your location is important. The world has many timezones and whilst we can work around most of the barriers, it's good to know the full picture up front.

Secondly, who are you? If you don't tell me anything about your (company's) background and/or there is nothing about you on the 'net, how do I establish your credibility in the field or make a guess about what the work environment is going to be like? If you're a student trying to start up a business in your spare time, the whole job is different for both of us when compared to an approach from a section manager in a Fortune 500 company wanting to get some training for their staff. Reputation is important and losing a bad reputation is harder than losing a good one. So it is to be expected that a potential employee is going to check out the employer. If you turn out to be from We Love Deforestation, Inc, I might not want to work for you regardless of pay, interesting challenges or promotional opportunities.

This is naturally one of the occupational hazards of the consulting business and the idea is that in amongst the chaff are the few grains of goodness that are the jobs worth doing. Doesn't mean I have to like it. Might be why I want to get a "real job" again soon.

Syndicated 2007-06-08 09:38:46 from Malcolm Tredinnick

Reviewing The Hugo Nominees

A couple of months ago, I mentioned the Hugo award nominees. A post over at John Scalzi's blog reminded me that I'd been intending to write up something about each of the books nominated in the novel category. So here goes (everything here should be free from meaningful spoilers, I hope)...

The Novels

Rainbow's End (Vernor Vinge)

This was the only novel nominee that I had read prior to seeing the list. I picked this book up whilst travelling late last year and read it over the space of a couple of days. I can't say I really enjoyed this book a lot, but I've also thought about it a fair bit since reading it, so the themes must have been interesting to my subconscious.

Normally I like books set in the near future that extrapolate within reason from our current society. This time, though, the characters annoyed me a bit. It almost seemed a bit formulaic (guy trying to rediscover his memories, has hidden past, etc). The ending felt very unsatisfying and I've subsequently seen a couple of reviews that talked about confusing viewpoints in the writing and I guess that could be part of it. On the other hand, the universe that the story is set in (which is Earth in 2025, so not too fantastic) gives a lot of food for thought. I should probably get over my wish for less disturbing protagonists and admit that as an attempt to entertain as a story, I found it wanting, but as a comment on society and what could happen if we pull this thread over here a little more, it's nicely done.

His Majesty's Dragon / Temeraire (Naomi Novik)

In my original post, I somewhat flippantly quipped that I preferred the US (Tor publisher's) title for this book (His Majesty's Dragon). Having now read the book (and one of the sequels), I would like to revise my answer and say that Temeraire is a truly appropriate name for the books. Temeraire is the main dragon character in the novel (you learn this very early on; I'm not spoiling anything, trust me) and the name certainly conveys the noble nature of the animal.

I loved this book, but I'm not sure it should win the Hugo. It feels a bit lightweight in some areas and Novik certainly does better in the sequel (I'm yet to read the third book in the series, but I'm looking forward to it). I am not usually a big fantasy fan, so I approached this book with some hesitation. I was wrong (as usual); thoroughly enjoyed it.

The books universe is well thought out — what if dragons participated in the Napoleonic War between England and France as a type of air-force, with pilots and crews as well? And what if the dragons were intelligent, vocal animals? Some of the consequences of the assumptions are nicely done: a dragon pilot is devoted to their animal and, as such, practically withdraws from normal society. Women can be pilots in an age where a woman's role is much less liberated than today. The idea of women in the armed forces (and women in pants!) is addressed throughout, with intelligence and humour.

My main gripe is that the main human protagonist gets away with far too much. He starts out as a captain in the British Navy and seems to think nothing of punishing his crew for expressing displeasure in a meeting (a week of no grog), yet, later, in reversed circumstances, he is overtly impolite and seems to not care about finding out what expected standards and normal behaviour might be. No problems there — flawed characters drive a story but this guy never seems to have to suffer any real consequences for his actions.

Partly because of the lack of any real disasters happening to the main character, it's a fun story. I read this book in an evening and went out to buy the sequel (The Jade Dragon) the next day and read that fairly quickly, too. My criticisms, above, of the first book are certainly corrected in the sequel. The poor protag starts out behind the eight ball and it only goes downhill from there for a large part of the novel. The second book is a better novel, I think, but I would recommend reading the first one first (it's not bad, I just think it could be better in places).

Eifelheim (Michael Flynn)

I had forgotten that I had read any Michael Flynn novels before until I noticed he had written Firestar, which is a book I re-read every couple of years. Firestar runs on it characters, rather than the science fiction features and Eifelheim is not too different in that respect.

This is probably the book I would pick to win the Hugo for best novel at the moment, although it may be not be "science fictioney" enough for some people.

What would happen if space aliens crash landed outside a small village in Germany in the 14th century? What is that village contained a priest who, whilst being very devout, had an enquiring mind and was trying to reconcile the emerging scientific discoveries of the age with his religion? Throw in a bunch of other well thought-out characters and it's not a dull historical or religious novel. Don't let my previous paragraph mislead anybody into thinking this book is a religious debate or sermon in any respects. I found it to be a well-written examination of the conflict between belief systems through the eyes of a 14th century priest and some interstellar visitors (who also have a lot to learn about the alternate beliefs).

In parallel with this 14th century tale, there is a parallel 21st century story covering an historian trying to discover why the village has disappeared from the map and his girlfriend who is making a plausible-sounding breakthrough about variable light speed. At times, I found the 21st century storyline a bit of a drag, at other times it was a welcome break from life in the village. So I think the author has probably found a good mix. I am always a sucker for pseudo-scientific-sounding theories like the one Sharon (the physicist girlfriend) pieces together. Overall, though, my impression is that this is a 14th century story with some bits from the future, rather than the other way around.

Recommended as something to read and think about. I wasn't able to read this quickly for some reason (it's not the big words or anything; my brain just need to absorb things slowly), but I'm glad I persisted.

Blindsight (Peter Watts)

I haven't quite finished this (a few dozen pages to go), but it's another good book. It's probably the most overtly "Hard Science Fiction" book of the bunch (I guess Glasshouse is also close, but it felt less fantastical in some ways).

One thing I sometimes find hard about big Science Fiction plots (not thick books; big stories in big worlds) is that it's like the German sentence from Hell. You have to store up a lot of details as they go by, enjoying the scenery and then slowly piece together what you've scene when the necessary threads are all available halfway through the book. It's like finally reaching the verb(s) at the end of a German sentence: you can pop off all the subjects and qualifiers and work out who's talking about doing what). A lot of good novels of this form then give the reader a period of enjoying their hard work as they go for another ride along the narrative that is consistent with the model in their head. The last portion is good entertainment, rather than a puzzle.

Blindsight does it well. It's not necessarily an easy book to read, but the characters are varied enough and interesting enough to interact with each other through the book. The lack of knowledge we (the reader) have at the start does not hamper the storyline, but many things make more sense as you work out how the world works.

Probably not a good choice for My Very First SF Book, but recommended for fans of the genre.

Glasshouse (Charles Stross)

I'm sorry, I really am. I've tried hard to like this book. Charles Stross seems like an important author and I enjoyed Accelerando, one of his earlier novels. But I haven't been able to persist with Glasshouse through to the end and I've tried a few times.

The premise sounds sort of good, particularly the location choice: put people from the far future into an experiment that simulates late-20th century Earth life. I just haven't been able to like many of the characters and there's a lot of conflict from these fish out of water (in the 20th century environ), so the book doesn't fill me with happiness when I read it. The sort of detective-novel style of plot, with somebody or more than one somebody keep trying to kill the main character and he/she — sexual choice can change in this future — has their work cut out a bit trying to get through the experiment without it all ending very prematurely, adds some suspense to the story. Unfortunately, that doesn't outweigh my emotional reaction to the fine details of the story.

Maybe one day I'll be in the right mood to enjoy Glasshouse. Maybe it truly is a great novel. Right now, for me... not so much.

Summary

Except for my current dislike of Glasshouse and initial dislike of Rainbow's End, these are all good books. On an entertainment level, I easily enjoyed Temeraire the most. If I had to rank them in order of worthiness for a major Science Fiction/Fantasy prize, I guess Blindsight, then Eifelheim, then Temeraire, although the second two are pretty neck-and-neck.

One comment about buying all these: Australian book shops should be ashamed! I checked out a couple of large book shops in my local area and in Sydney City proper and none of them had all of these books in their not-insignificant SF/Fantasy sections. Thankfully, Galaxy came through (again) and I was able to walk in, spend an hour or so happily browsing the shelves and pick up all the Hugo nominees in one hit (along with Scalzi's Last Colony and three Scott Westerfeld books I want to try out, since Risen Empire was excellent when I read it recently).

Syndicated 2007-05-30 15:01:34 from Malcolm Tredinnick

How Much Supporting Evidence Is Appropriate?

A section heading from Wikipedia's style page on weasel words:

Offhanded references to the sky being often-blue will not necessarily demand a citation

Take that nit-pickers!

(Why do I always feel that "weasel words" should be followed by "...and the weasels who use them"? I may have some prejudices here, of course.)

Syndicated 2007-05-29 17:58:21 from Malcolm Tredinnick

Tommy Emmanuel

Mindlessly following browser links earlier today, I stumbled across this YouTube clip, showing Tommy Emmanuel fooling around with his guitar at a concert. I love this sort of stuff. It's like watching Tiger Woods do golfball tricks, or Michael Jordan play H.O.R.S.E, or Chuck Avery draw crazy doodles. A professional having fun with his skill is great to watch.

Turns out there is quite a collection of clips of Tommy on YouTube, of varying sound and video quality. For somebody who hasn't heard him before, recommended are

  • Angeline, a song he wrote for his youngest daughter (the sound is a bit poor on this clip, but it's a nice sampler),
  • Day Tripper/Lady Madonna medley, just to hear what he sounds like doing "classical" stuff, and
  • Countrywide, one of the many pieces he wrote and played that tries to capture the Australian country and outback environment in music.
  • Update At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, there's even a recording of Mombasa! Probably a must-see if you've never seen a guitar used as a drum set. The video/sound sync is a bit dodgy, so the initial percussion doesn't look as impressively hard as it should and the audio recording is a bit fuzzy in parts, but this is a nice piece.

I have a fairly large collection of Tommy Emmanuel's albums. Not all of them, but most of them. They are great background music for relaxing or doing stuff that doesn't require intense concentration. He's also a fantastic live performer and I've shelled out for tickets three times to go and watch him. Particularly in smalller venues (pub settings), he's great. His wikipedia page doesn't really do justice to his history. This page is probably a better musical history.

Syndicated 2007-05-26 14:36:32 from Malcolm Tredinnick

Poor Criticism

Straight out of the "cheap shot" basket, but I cannot resist: I saw this post go paste in my RSS feed earlier this evening (via programming.reddit.com). It's almost a textbook example of begging the question.

The author wants to make the argument that you shouldn't hire "rock star" programmers/developers and gives a few examples of IT advertisements looking for such. He then starts his case by definining "rock star" in a way that makes his argument. The problem is highlighted further down as he points out what a really good developer might bring to the table (not just coding, but documentation, testing, and working with and educating others). For some reason, they don't make his definition of rock star. After all, that would undercut the argument and render the post (more? less?) pointless. Such people really would (and do) bring a rock star effect to place in the sense that they perform well and others want to be around them and emulate them. Having a slightly less "glass half-empty" outlook could help here.

Really, people, if you're going to offer "look at the silly animals" commentary, try to make sure you're not inside the same cage.

Syndicated 2007-05-25 19:38:53 from Malcolm Tredinnick

Pirates: At World's End

I may have watched a longer movie at some point, but it doesn't come to mind. I'm pretty sure I went into a Friday session and when I came out it was something like Tuesday already.

This movie needs a meal break about halfway through.

On the plus side, I could sit and listen to the score for hours and the characters are great, even if the story drags a bit at times. Worth seeing.

Syndicated 2007-05-25 16:42:02 from Malcolm Tredinnick

Free Bike Loans

I hope a plan to loan residents bikes for free in south western Sydney works out.

Syndicated 2007-05-23 09:47:23 from Malcolm Tredinnick

A Cool Use For Flickr

Suppose you were a startup company trying to attract people to work for you. You wanted to sell yourself as a "cool place to work". One approach, taken by Exoweb is to have a Flickr group devoted to your company. Probably kind of obvious in retrospect, but I'm easily impressed.

I found this whilst mindlessly browsing through Flickr today and realising I hadn't checked out the Django/Python cluster in a while. Always interesting to see what people are doing there.

(I'm not associated with Exoweb in any fashion; I've never paid any particular attention to them until 20 minutes ago. Merely noting their cluefulness in this particular instance.)

Syndicated 2007-05-19 06:15:06 from Malcolm Tredinnick

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