Blog Archive — Page 27

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  • Morality, the Defense Industry, and What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

    My recent foray into publicly declaring my support for a refresh of the UK’s Trident missile capability has got me thinking once again about personal morality and the ethics of the defense industry.

    Working in this industry, it could be said that my job is dependent on the existence of war, or at least the threat of it. And, you know, War Is Bad. So that’s not exactly a great situation. If war became a complete implausibility, I would lose my job but humanity would be vastly better off as a whole.

    However, that’s not going to happen. Realistically, no chance, but even theoretically – human brains seem to thrive on a ‘them and us’ mentality. From chavs and emo kids fighting in the school playground, to us and whichever group of brown people we’re bombing this week, that kind of mindset drives us to conflict. You and I, we can raise our mental view above that and see wars and playground scuffles for how stupid they often are. But can society as a whole? (Incidentally, I don’t mean that other individual members of society can’t do this and that you and I are special – far from it. I’m referring to our society itself, often quite a different beast than the people that comprise it.)

    To eradicate war completely would be changing what it is to be human, and there’s no way to do that on the scale of millennia, let alone years. Attempting it is well within the realm of dystopian science fiction, far removed from reality.

    With war inevitable, I feel no guilt for my profession – it’s not as if, if we all resigned tomorrow and found ourselves other jobs, we’d all go over and hug al-Qaeda and ride off into the sunset on sparkly unicorns.

    Did I grow up wanting to be in defense? Hell no – I explicitly decided at about age 10 that I really, really didn’t want to be an engineer. Whoops.

    Do I specifically want to be in the defense industry now? No, I’m pretty much indifferent. But when I look around at the alternatives, they just don’t stand a chance.

    What do I want to be when I grow up? Assuming I should leave out the virtually impossible (best-selling novelist, Michelin-starred chef) and the still monumentally unlikely possibility of becoming extremely rich through sheer geekery a la Bill Gates, I’ll pick this:

    I want to make users delighted.

    I want users to sit down in front of a computer, or pick up a phone, or sit at the controls for an autonomous vehicle, whatever, and think “this feels great.” “This looks great.” I want them to use software I’ve created and think “this device is so complex, how can using it be this easy?” “I’m doing what should be such a boring task, how on Earth am I enjoying this?”

    What jobs are available locally?

    I could work in finance, porting some vitally important COBOL app to VB.net for a £10k pay rise and a 90% loss of sanity. I could do embedded telecoms stuff, never delighting users, only annoying them when it fails.

    Or I could create some good-looking, usable control systems for autonomous vehicles. Then blast around the harbour at 40 knots in a boat I helped to build.

    Sure, in a war-free utopia I’d be handed my P45 on day one. But while nothing we can do will achieve that utopia, I can find nothing wrong with being one of those rare people that loves their job and is all the happier because of it.

  • The Lib Dems and the Case of the Trident Missiles

    Last night, regarding the Liberal Democrats’ somewhat negative opinion of the Trident programme, I tweeted:

    Goddamnit Lib Dems, I so nearly voted for you. :S http://is.gd/bd7B3

    This, and the ensuing debate on Facebook, got me thinking that I should probably elaborate on my point of view.

    I work in the defense industry, specifically the naval part of it, and my main interest in a potential refresh of the Trident system is that it means upgrading or replacing our existing fleet of Vanguard-class submarines, and that potentially means more work for me and for my company. That’s the only part that concerns me – I don’t really give a hoot whether they have nukes on them or not.

    However, I do believe the nuclear deterrent is important, and if the Lib Dems really are angling to get rid of it, I’m not too impressed. It’s expensive, yes, but in my opinion it’s a regrettable necessity. Disarmament’s a nice goal, but I’m not sure we will or even should get there. If we lose the nuclear deterrent, we must then maintain a large enough conventional force to deter nations from developing nuclear weapons in the first place – and looking at Iran and North Korea today, I don’t think that’s going to work.

    It also gives us a guarantee of being taken seriously on the world stage. These days we’re increasingly being seen as America’s lackey, and dismantling our own deterrent would inevitably come with an agreement for the US to ‘cover for us’, which wouldn’t help the situation there at all.

    If we are, then, to keep our own nuclear arsenal, submarines are the logical choice simply because we have the infrastructure already. Even if the Vanguard fleet needs to be replaced under the Successor programme, we still have Faslane and Rosyth, we still have all the expertise in submarine building.

    A land-based ballistic missile system is something we don’t have the expertise in yet, never having done it before, and there’ll be the additional problem of NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard. Missile silos don’t make great neighbours. And an air-delivered bomb is just not as good a tactical solution as the ballistic options.

    So, certainly I think the Trident refresh should be included within the Strategic Defense Review – the Lib Dems are right to suggest that leaving out the country’s biggest defense programme kind of defeats the point. However, I can’t see a way forward that makes more sense than modernising or replacing the current Trident missiles and Vanguard fleet.

  • The In-Between Devices

    Saturday’s launch of the Apple iPad, and the ensuing fanboy circle-jerk, have thrown into the public eye yet another category of device to further muddy the gadget waters. It is by no means the first tablet, nor will it be the last by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s probably the device that’s most widely spread the idea that “hey, tablets exist”.

    It’s another category on the increasingly analogue spectrum of communication and computation gadgets. As far as I can tell, we now have:

    • Dumbphones – phones that just call, text and have a web browser for light mobile site use. Most of Nokia and Sony-Ericsson’s output.

    • Low-end PMPs – dedicated media players, such as the iPod nano and classic.

    • High-end PMPs – media players with smartphone OSes, capable of everything a smartphone is except being a phone. iPod Touch, Archos and Cowon players.

    • Smartphones – phones with good browsers and support for user-installed applications. e.g. iPhones, Android & WinMo-powered phones.

    • MIDs – a largely unsuccessful category, pretty much large QWERTY smartphones without a phone radio.

    • Smartbooks – netbooks with less powerful and less battery-hungry processors and smartphone operating systems.

    • Tablets – handheld touchscreen devices with no keyboard, smartphone or laptop OSes.

    • Netbooks – laptops scaled down in size, weight and processing power.

    • Laptops

    • Desktops

    Is that too many categories? Probably not, since they all seem to be successful (with the exception of the poor MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices)). But increasingly the job of the gadget-lover is to pick points on this spectrum at which to buy devices.

    Too few, and something will have functionality you wish you had. Too many, and you waste money.

    I have a smartphone, a netbook and a laptop, and the netbook hardly ever gets used – it’s not fast or comfortable enough for long browsing sessions, and for short ones my phone is always on and much more rarely runs out of battery power.

    My first thought is naturally that if my netbook doesn’t get a lot of use, there’s no way a tablet would. But the more I think about it, the more I think one would have a place - if I gave up my smartphone. This is, of course, crazy talk. But I shall explain:

    My phone is bad at everything.

    That’s not to belittle the the achievements of HTC or Google in creating it – it’s a device that was barely imaginable ten years ago. It’s so close to being able to surf the ‘net, but it just can’t quite handle JavaScript, large pages or Flash sites designed for normal desktop browsers. And it’s taken 10 months to find a ROM for it that, when I receive a phone call, actually lets me answer while it’s ringing, rather than spending the entirety of the 30-second incoming call time trying and failing to load the ‘Phone’ app.

    Is the answer to replace smartphone and netbook with dumbphone and tablet? That would resolve the main smartphone problem, providing a good internet experience and a good phone experience by separating the devices. This creates one more problem: as most of what I do with my phone is using the internet, I’d have to carry the tablet around with me all the time. How stupid is that going to look? I guess if the iPad is as popular as Apple hopes, we’ll get ample opportunity to find out over the next year or so.

  • An Ode to Sharepoint

    At a loss for other, more pleasant subjects to blog about, I will instead write about my nemesis, that being that has brought naught but pain to my life. I speak, of course, of Microsoft Sharepoint.

    To upgrade one’s version of Windows – Vista to 7, say – is by and large a pretty painless experience for the home user. Office, likewise – there’s no dread that your Office 2003 files will be completely unopenable in Office 2007. So why is the poor sysadmin not afforded the same easy upgrade path?

    In order to move an existing SharePoint Services 2 website to a new network with Microsoft Office Sharepoint Services 2007, one must:

    1. Learn more than is healthy about the workings of Sharepoint and IIS (2 days, d10 SAN)
    2. Back up the original site to disk (using stsadm.exe not smigrate.exe, as the latter is broken) (5 hours, 13 GB)
    3. Install Windows Server, IIS, SQL Server and Sharepoint Services 2 on a new machine (1 hour)
    4. Configure said IIS, SQL and Sharepoint (1 hour)
    5. Restore the Sharepoint site from disk onto the new machine (>8 hours, >120 GB, d10 SAN, fails unrecoverably when out of disk space)
    6. Perform an in-place upgrade to Sharepoint Services 3 (Several hours, 40 GB, may fail unrecoverably)
    7. Back up this site to disk (5 hours, 15 GB)
    8. Configure MOSS 2007 on the destination server (2 hours, 24 Google searches, d10 SAN)
    9. Restore the disk backup to the MOSS 2007 server (5 hours, 40 GB, may fail right at the end if previous step performed incorrectly, d100 SAN if this occurs).
    10. Manually recreate permissions on every Sharepoint site since all the users are now part of a new domain (8 hours, d10 SAN)
    11. Perform a ritual to offer Great Cthulhu the souls of Microsoft’s Sharepoint development team (d30 SAN, remarkably quick by comparison)

    I began this task on Tuesday afternoon as a mildly knowledgeable Sharepoint user with virtually no admin experience. By Thursday afternoon, I may have been our company’s most experienced Sharepoint-wrangler. On Friday morning, I started the above procedure. We are now on Step 5. 200 people are expecting to have Sharepoint access tomorrow. They have not a snowball’s chance in R’yleh.

  • Reply from MP to "Please Demand Debate on the Digital Economy Bill"

    This is my MP, Sir John Butterfill’s (Conservative, Bournemouth West), response to this e-mail.

    Dear Mr Renton,

    Thank you for your email about the Digital Economy Bill.

    I note the various concerns you have expressed which are shared by the Conservative Party and can assure you that the Conservative spokesman for Culture, Media and Sport has taken them up with the Government. The Government have said that they will bring forward some changes for the Report Stage of the Bill and we shall be examining them closely to ensure that they address these concerns.

    My Party and I are keen to move amendments that address the problem of people stripping out identifying information from a digital image. We want to clamp down on this and ensure that the Bill does not encourage such activities. We also want to see in the legislation specific requirements for a search for the rights holder and a system in place if that rights holder comes forward at a later date. In no way should this Bill actually harm content creators.

    I am very hopeful that we can get this right, as sorting out the current system will unlock a whole host of content that can be used for the public good. I really believe that the BBC and British Library archives for instance will be much easier to access under these proposals.

    Yours sincerely,

    John Butterfill

  • E-mail to MP: Please Demand Debate on the Digital Economy Bill

    This e-mail was sent to Sir John Butterfill MP (Conservative, Bournemouth West) on 17th March 2010. Read his reply here.

    Dear Sir John Butterfill,

    Since a number of websites have pushed the issue of late, I’m sure I’m not the only constituent writing to you about this, but nevertheless I am writing to you to register my concerns regarding the Digital Economy Bill.

    The contents of the bill worry me on many levels, from the possibility of disconnecting innocent users from the Internet without proper investigation, to the technical challenges that will be faced by the ISPs, the cost of which will naturally be passed on to their customers.

    But regardless of these issues, I am more alarmed at the possibility that the Government and Lord Mandelson may be attempting to force this bill through before Parliament is dissolved prior to the election, without proper scrutiny and debate by the House.

    I would like to know your and your Party’s views on the content of the Digital Economy Bill, but moreover I would ask you to do all you can to ensure that this important and far-reaching bill gets the scrutiny it deserves rather than being forced through by a desperate Government.

    Yours Sincerely,

    Ian Renton

  • Momentary Reminiscence

    Four years ago, what dominated my mind most was that I was running out of time. The end of my time at University loomed large in front of me. I didn’t have a job to go to, my final year project was dead in the water and my relationship was painfully long-distance, but those weren’t the most weighty issues. I was troubled far more by the fact that three months from then, I’d be leaving the city that defined my transition from childhood to adulthood, losing that constant contact with friends that defines University life.

    And come June, the inevitable happened, and off we all went.

    There’s a lot I don’t miss about that time – the pressure of coursework and exams, the phone calls every night until my head felt ready to burst, the having very little money – but there’s one thing I really, really do.

    I miss the drama.

    At the time, I was pretty conflicted about the giant morass of drama that got dropped on us in what was my third year – I hated it, but it was almost enjoyable in a weird ironic sort of way. And now I miss it.

    I miss the burning feeling and the anguish of developing crushes on completely inappropriate people. I miss all the knowledge of other people’s lives that comes from being so regularly in contact with them. I miss trying to fix other people’s bad situations, I miss succeeding, and I miss failing. I miss having breakfast at KFC, though only two people know why. I miss baring the contents of our hearts until deep into the night. I miss the secrets and the gossip. I miss friends becoming lovers, and I miss friends becoming enemies. I miss finding the right things to say to the right people, and I miss failing at that too. I miss falling in love for the first time.

    None of that is coming back, and perhaps I should be glad of that. After all, I just confessed to hating it. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all (or was it Absinthe?), so it’s probably for the best that it’s all safely confined to the past. But once every so often, just like now, I’ll reminisce about those times long ago.

  • All Bugs Are Shallow... Except This One

    In his essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, Eric S. Raymond coins the phrase “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” – meaning that with enough testers and enough programmers, it is possible to diagnose and fix any software bug.

    So why can’t my computer suspend and resume properly?

    The concept of ‘suspend’ – or ‘sleep’, or ‘standby’ – mode, whereby the computer dumps its internal state to RAM then enters a low-power state with its processor and other hardware turned off, is not new. The ACPI standard has been kicking around for 14 years now, a very long time compared to the life cycle of an operating system. These days, with laptop use on the rise, it’s a very common thing for users to want to do. And yet resuming from suspend is still hit-and-miss.

    Why do I find it more reliable in Ubuntu than openSUSE for the same base kernel? Why does GNOME fare better than KDE? Why does my WiFi sometimes not come back? Why, with Microsoft’s million- if not billion-dollar operating system budgets, with Intel and AMD and nVidia’s decades’ of driver experience, is suspend and resume still frequently an issue even on Windows?

    Only Apple, with its closed hardware / software ecosystem, seems to have cracked it.

    I’d hate to think of that as the only way to a bug-free existence – I’m very fond of the idea of an open ecosystem where I can run whatever software I want on whatever hardware I want. But I’m worried. Is the range of (IBM-compatible, ACPI-supporting) hardware out there just too diverse and too widely different in its support for suspend-and-resume? Is it just infeasible for software to perfectly implement it on all devices?

    Has hardware created the one software bug that, for any reasonable number of eyeballs, isn’t shallow?

  • The Web's Syntax Problem

    As @aefaradien notes, the web has a syntax problem. It’s this: A user wishes to post something complicated - text with links, formatting, even inline graphics. They go to a website and are faced with a text box and a flashing cursor. What do they type? What syntax will help them achieve their goal?

    It depends entirely on which website they’re on and what powers it. With any luck the text box itself might have an area below explaining how to use it, but chances are, the user won’t read it. The knowledgable user has a whole bunch of questions:

    • Can I use HTML? The internet is made of HTML (and cats). Once the post is submitted, it’ll be sent to everyone else’s browser as HTML, so can I just write in HTML anyway? But HTML is complex, am I restricted to a certain subset? Do I have to worry about breaking the website’s formatting? Is the site using some weird CSS that’s going to distort my post? Could I introduce security vulnerabilities?
    • Is the syntax HTML-like? Am I using a phpBB-powered forum, or others that support its syntax? Something else HTML-like but not true HTML? To make something bold, do I write <b> or [b]?
    • Is the syntax Wiki-like? And what even is Wiki-like? MediaWiki, which powers Wikipedia, probably has the most popular syntax out there, but each wiki is subtly different. If I CamelCase words, will they become links? If I surround a word with asterisks, will it become bold? What about apostrophes? Forward-slashes?
    • Is it something much stranger? Could it be something like Markdown, which could interpret some unintentional meaning from my text because I don’t know its syntax?

    To my mind, there’s no simple solution to this problem. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and developers of each web platform, blog or forum app have their own preferences. BBcode has some traction, but it’s so close to HTML – why not just use HTML? Wiki markup’s great for linking to internal wiki pages, not so great for anything else. And Markdown and its cohort of technically superior solutions just don’t have any traction in the real (non-geek) world.

    I think if this problem were to ever be solved – and I must say I don’t think it’s likely – we have no option but to pick the lowest common denominator, because nothing else will ever have enough traction.

    And here’s where I make myself unpopular: the common denominator is HTML. But HTML used with some intelligence:

    • Auto-link URLs, but deal with it if users want to use <a> tags. Nothing’s more annoying than having to copy-paste a URL into your location bar because it’s not actually a hyperlink. Also, it breaks the web.
    • Deal gracefully with special characters. If a user doesn’t know HTML, they should be penalised as little as possible for using triangular brackets in their text.
    • Limit HTML as little as possible. Sure, don’t allow <IFRAME> or <SCRIPT>, but if there’s no way a user’s HTML could be harmful (including to layout and design), let them use it.
    • Don’t use weird CSS. If you don’t want users to use <h3> because your <h3> is 72px high, change your CSS. You design a website for its users, and that includes giving them what they expect when they use their own HTML in their posts.

    And that’s that. By auto-linking URLs and gracefully dealing with triangular brackets, we’re giving users that don’t know the syntax what they expect. For users that know HTML, we’re not making them learn some other new syntax that offers a slight improvement. And for users that want to learn the syntax so that they can do more complex things, they’ll be learning HTML, and that opens up far more of the internet to them than knowing BBcode or Markdown syntax.

    Thoughts, as always, appreciated!

  • The Public Human

    One of the greatest trends in technology over the last decade seems to have been the erosion of privacy, and I don’t see this changing in the decade to come. Our greater dependence on the internet, social networking, blogging, sharing, status updates – they are all leading us towards a world where nothing is private anymore.

    And I think that’s great.

    By and large it’s not some insidious corporation or government that’s doing it – the NSA may have their wiretaps and Google may datamine your search history, but aside from targeted ads and somewhat dubious “protection from terrorism” neither has had any real impact on our lives. There’s no scapegoat for most of our loss of privacy, because we’re doing it to ourselves.

    Everything interesting we do, we tweet. Everything we feel, we post a status update. Everything we think, we blog. Everywhere we go, we check in. Everything we listen to, we scrobble. Every minute of every day, half the world is shouting at the internet, “this is who I am, this is where I am, this is what I’m doing, this is what I think about it”.

    Why do we do it? We don’t really achieve anything by it; there’s very little to gain for the amount of privacy we lose.

    We do it because it feels good and because privacy isn’t worth anything.

    We put our thoughts and our statuses and our locations out there because they’re essentially inconsequential. It’s spoken about in some circles as if it’s some great risk to your personal privacy if the internet knows that you’re in McDonalds and you don’t think much of the fries today. But no-one’s going to exploit your Twittered fondness for Starbucks or John Meyer. No-one’s going to wait until you check in on Foursquare before breaking into your house. 99.99999% of the world isn’t listening and doesn’t give a damn.

    But the tiny fraction that is listening, and the even smaller fraction that has something to say on the subject, gives us all the impetus we need to post. There’s that little endorphin rush that comes with every comment on your blog, every retweet of your amusing status, that spurs us on. Even though it’s trivial interaction, often with people we don’t know, it’s compelling enough.

    And that’s why our loss of privacy will continue unabated – most people just don’t value it that highly compared to the increased level of human interaction we gain by sacrificing it.

    When it’s put like that, does it seem that bad? Human interaction, knowledge of our existence within society, makes us feel more fulfilled and ultimately happier. If that’s the net result of this trend – if the constantly-connected, sharing-everything Public Human is a happy one, why fight it?

    (At this point I should probably apologise to the more privacy-conscious of my friends, to whom this post will seem awfully like I’m trolling. That’s certainly not my intention, though you are of course welcome to reply and lay into it nonetheless! Rest assured, I get my comment-buzz when I’m being disagreed with too. :P)