Blog Archive — Page 28

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  • Multitasking, the new "Doing Things"

    I am beginning to wonder if it is possible for me to single-task anymore.

    Breakfast occurs to the backdrop of Twitter, Facebook and the most important overnight events as synthesised into Google Reader. Conversations occur against a background of web-surfing and social networking, and most often these days, these conversations themselves take place on the internet. There’s always time to check Twitter while something compiles. My phone sits next to me as I cook, flicking through the net as saucepans bubble away.

    And then there’s the evening, a dozen tabs open, some of them are playing video which seeps slowly into my brain as a background process while I blog; Twitter and Facebook on 5-minute refresh, push e-mail, Reader on “1000+ items unread”. I’m on the net if I’m watching TV. When reading a book, the ping of a new e-mail distracts me immediately. And there’s always background music.

    Every time I try for some reason to single-task, it’s as if the System Idle Process of my brain pokes my consciousness every so often and says “isn’t there something I could be doing?” I realise that many people, on discovering this, have the urge to ‘internet detox’, to cut down their online activities or try and go cold turkey and do without the internet for as long as possible.

    But I don’t. I like this feeling. I love filling my bloodstream with caffeine, opening my eyes wide, becoming one with my code and with the background buzz of the internet like some cyberpunk hacker kid. I don’t know what it’s doing to my head in the long run, but I don’t think it’s damaging - it feels just like it’s optimising itself differently. I’m by no means the first person to have encountered this, and with the increasing pace of technology and pervasiveness of the net, I am a long long way from being the last. In 20 years, or maybe 120, we might discover what happens to society when everyone’s brains parallel-process in a way that ours are only just beginning to grasp.

  • Breaking Out of Twitter

    Earlier this evening, @HolyHaddock linked to an entry on Brian Hurt’s blog entitled “Why I Quit Twitter”. In it, he argues for his leaving Twitter on the grounds that it is not a good place for debate and extended discussion:

    If you want to debate me, I’m open to it. But for the debate to not be pointless, that means it has to be held somewhere where ideas can be explored and complex arguments can be presented. In email, in blog posts, in comments, somewhere where there is room.

    Twitter Conversation Thread

    Which is fair enough. I would argue that Twitter has every right to be bad at conversation – that’s not what it was created for. Once upon a time, it asked a simple question: “What are you doing?”. The user base has shaped Twitter over the years, most notably in the formalisation of @usernames and #tags which began simply as trends among users. But it has stuck resolutely to its 140-character limit, without which I think the service would change for the poorer.

    I have no real argument with Brian Hurt here – his reason for leaving is a fine one, and he’s certainly not suggesting anyone else should necessarily leave for that reason. Personally, I didn’t come to Twitter for extended conversation, and I won’t be leaving for the lack of it.

    But ironically @HolyHaddock and I did discuss this problem on Twitter, and it was probably not long before the conversation became annoying to those that follow us both. (To double up the irony, I was also using a pastebin to reply in more than 140 characters.)

    I think the real issue here is that although Twitter does not well support conversations, people tweet things that are likely to start conversations, and there is no real way to break out of Twitter once the conversation has started. If we assume that Twitter has no intention of allowing long – even infinite-length – replies, then if there is to be any way to ‘break out’, it must be through another service.

    Now the friendliness of the Twitter API makes it very easy for other sites to integrate with Twitter, allow users to sign in with their Twitter credentials, and pull tweets across for display. But as I see it, there are a few issues that would need to be resolved with a potential service:

    • Pulling Across. If a conversation starts across multiple tweets, these would need to be pulled across to a ‘break out’ conversation so that things already said don’t have to be re-said. It’s easy to identify the tweet that started it all, but no way in the API to find all replies to it. Starting from the most recent reply, one can find what it is in reply to and follow the thread all the way up, but if the conversation has branched, you wouldn’t capture it all.

    • Branching vs Single-Threading. Multiply-branching threads aren’t too much of a problem on Twitter, but displaying them properly may become an issue on the ‘break out’ service. Reducing everything to a single thread – blog comment style – is the alternative, but this could lead to some very confusing conversations, not least if some users’ tweets are protected and thus not visible to certain other users.

    • Reporting Back. Should anything be passed back to Twitter to let other users know where the conversation is continuing? How would we do that in a way that’s informative but not spammy? Should we instead rely on the user that ‘broke out’ to let the others know?

    • Permanence. Would there be a slight mistrust of the ‘break out’ service, meaning that users would prefer not to use it in case it disappears from the face of the ‘net tomorrow? How would we overcome this, and how would we allow users to create some permanent archive (e.g. download) of the ‘broken out’ thread in case they have discussed something meaningful and worth keeping?

    • Wave. Someone must have already done a Google Wave bot that will pull in tweets and let people do this, surely?

    • Popularity. How would we let people know that this service exists, and how popular would it be – how many people want this kind of service? (Many could be as much of a problem as few.)

    Tagging onto the Google Wave point, is there a service like this that already exists, in Wave or otherwise? Any thoughts, oh great interweb hive-mind?

  • The Perils of Gas Supply

    So, I got home today to discover a nice polite letter put under our flat door. This enlightened us to the fact that representatives of the energy company E-on had tried to visit today “to discuss any problems [I] may have paying”, and that I should contact them as soon as possible, otherwise they would obtain a Warrant for Entry and return with Police and a locksmith if necessary.

    Ohhhhhkay. Nice introduction to your service there, E-on.

    Background time. When we moved into the flat, we were told that our gas and electricity supply was with Powergen. We were already with Southern Electric for both supplies in our previous house, so we called Southern Electric to let them know, and they moved over the account. Problem solved! They billed us by direct debit, without paper statements, and we payed what we thought was a reasonable amount every quarter for a year and seven months. Back in December, a British Gas rep reckoned they could beat what I thought we were paying for gas, about £30 a month, so I arranged to switch suppliers.

    Back to the present. We called E-on, and apparently, they were our gas (but not electric) supplier. For nineteen months. Without sending us a bill. They were supposedly billing Swaythling Housing, the housing association who own half our flat under a first-time-buyer’s initiative. And Swaythling had no information on who lives here, despite us paying them £200 a month in rent, and so weren’t forwarding the bills to us.

    The point at which E-on finally decide to visit the actual property is apparently Bailiff Time, not before.

    Next complication, the question of who the heck is currently supplying our gas - could be E-on, could be Southern Electric, could be British Gas. And the answer is… nobody knows. Because we don’t exist.

    E-on looked up our address, and our meter ID, on the central UK database, and we’re not on there. Our meter doesn’t exist and our property doesn’t receive gas, apparently. I’ve been having a lot of fake showers! E-on recommended that we call Southern Electric Gas, which we do. And guess what, we’re not in their database, and they can’t see us in the central database either. Their suggestion: call Northern Gas, who are apparently the Uber Energy Company.

    And naturally, they’re only open 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday.

    Also, they’re now apparently called Fulcrum. Wait, Fulcrum?!

    So in a delightful start to the weekend: we’ve just paid £280 to avoid the bailiffs coming round, we live in a house part-owned by an incompetent company, and our gas supply may be provided by any one of four separate companies – or maybe no-one at all. And we get to wait until Monday to figure out if Fulcrum can help us. If they can’t, er… who knows? Campaign for the re-nationalisation of the gas industry?

    Oh hey, does this mean I get to blame the Tories for this mess as well? Good-oh, I’ll stick them on the list too.

  • Semicolon Rage

    Yesterday, I had a simple if statement. It looked like this:

    if ((Frames.FramesLdPtr>Frames.FramesUlPtr) && (InterPFlags.RequestInitialisation==0))
        doSomeStuff(); // with function and variable names that might be classified =S

    This should not trigger under normal circumstances, but for some reason it triggered repeatedly, every second or so. Breakpointing inside the if block, FramesLdPtr and FramesUlPtr were always zero. RequestInitialisation was always zero. I was stumped.

    I spent several hours checking to see if LdPtr or UlPtr could be being changed by the other processor in the system – maybe LdPtr was flicking to 1 long enough to trigger the if statement, then going back to zero again. But no.

    I commented out the right-hand half of the if statement, and lo! It worked – i.e. didn’t trigger repeatedly – again! But there’s not even any code to set RequestInitialisation anything other than zero, and besides, it’s an AND statement, so removing the right-hand side couldn’t stop it triggering.

    I spent yet more hours figuring out if memory was being corrupted, or if the values could be being distorted by there being a breakpoint there.

    And then I’d run out of our own code to blame. I began to wonder if the chip couldn’t access its own external memory properly, or if logic itself was somehow broken in my compiler.

    Then I had a cup of tea. And through the wonder of caffeine, I beheld the truth. My code actually looked like this:

    if ((Frames.FramesLdPtr>Frames.FramesUlPtr) && (InterPFlags.RequestInitialisation==0));

    Now, I understand perfectly why that extra semicolon breaks it. And now I know why commenting out the right-hand side fixed it – I commented out the semicolon too. And I can almost understand why someone would want to put a block of code between curly braces without any kind of if/while/for/etc. attached to it.

    But why, dear compiler, why in the name of Xenu’s testicles does an if statement with no content not at least generate a warning?


  • Life Out of Rhythm

    With Joseph now spending a week and a half at his grandparents’ house, our lives are even more bereft of the enforced routine of being parents to a toddler. It’s not that I miss this routine - god knows, I hate routine more than most - but how strange it feels when it’s no longer present.

    Eric, who’s been at home all day, now sits in the corner reading a book, listening to music that my brain parses as depressing regardless of its actual content. She’s not hungry, I’m not really hungry, as the clock ticks onwards long past what would have been Joseph’s dinner time. I was instructed not to buy food for dinner on the way home, so we don’t have enough ingredients to make an actual meal - not that I can be bothered to cook anyway. I contemplate going out for fish and chips, though I can’t really afford it and can’t even be bothered to stand up from the sofa.

    A four-day weekend and a fragmentary reminiscence of University life have thrown my work life askew as well, and it feels odd to be there, like it’s a transient thing.

    For all that I normally yearn to be free from the yoke of parenthood, it sure as hell feels weird when I temporarily achieve it, as if I’m no longer adapted to a child-free life.

  • Behold, AutoMouse! [Product Announce]


    Apple, Razer, Logitech - you have nothing on this. Yes this, ladies and gentlemen, is the greatest advancement in input peripheral technology to date and - if I may be so bold - the best mouse you will ever see. Gone are the risks of RSI in your index finger, gone are the stresses of actually having to click anything. The AutoMouse Mk. I clicks for you!


    A set of tests I am currently involved with at work involve using a GUI app to transmit signals. This must be done repeatedly, hundreds of times in the course of a day, and there is no way to automate the procedure - for every signal you wish to transmit, you must press a button. After three days of numb hands and brains rotting through disuse, we came up with this. The most ingenious invention of all time.

    All credit to my colleague Daryl for building this. For some reason, whenever I pick up a soldering iron, someone restrains me before I can do too much damage…

    AutoMouse with Signal Generator


    Using the AutoMouse (TM) Mk. I is simple:

    1. Move it so that the pointer is over the button of your choice.

    2. Attach a lead to the BNC connector on the back of the mouse, and plug it into a signal generator*.

    3. Happily click away without moving a muscle!

    • Sold separately, for vastly more than the mouse.


    Yeah, you basically can’t use it without destroying every tendon in your hand. But once it’s set up and clicking, you can reverse any damage by visiting the doctor’s surgery while the mouse clicks away on its own.


    The AutoMouse (TM) Mk. I is not available anywhere except our lab. We may make you one for the sum of eleventy billion dollars, which I’m sure you’ll agree is an entirely fair price to pay for what may be the greatest single object ever created.

    In Other News

    Solitaire on an Oscilloscope

  • Unwholesomeness

    Maybe it’s a result of over-exposure to kids’ TV due to my own son, or possibly it’s due to the fact half the Blue Peter presenters of my generation spent their spare time with coke up their noses, but I can’t help but feel everything wholesome and good on television is secretly not.

    Now I can’t watch CBeebies without thinking that the presenters spend their off hours in opium dens, drinking absinthe and writing angsty poetry, or that after a show they all go back to the executive producer’s dungeon and have really weird sex.

    I am broken. =S

  • Fighting the Winter

    Bournemouth Tundra

    Icy roads delayed my lift leaving the house for an hour and a half this morning, whereupon he discovered that the ice had also broken his driver’s door lock, making driving impossible for today.

    At half past nine, I was finally on my way to work. Alone, trudging through snow and skidding across ice, getting there slowly. It was me - and Guns ‘n’ Roses - against the Winter, against the public transport system, against the world. I would be three hours late, but I’d get there. Or so I thought.

    Bournemouth Station, Deserted

    As it turns out, said public transport system failed me in the end. My bus made it to the station on time, but trains were nowhere to be seen. In fact, this morning is the first time I’ve heard the station announcements declare a train to be more than an hour and a half late.

    Faced with the prospect of not reaching work until 12:30, I aborted my journey and walked home again in the snow.

    As always, I find it amusing that Britain just shuts down whenever the temperature dips below zero. Surely if Canada and Norway can manage to have functioning rail networks, catching a train in the British Winter can’t be too much to ask? But apparently, it is.

  • Farewell, Noughties

    Ten years ago today, I was sitting in the house of a friend’s grandparents, drinking champagne that I didn’t really like, and watching some celebrity or other count down the minutes and seconds to the year 2000. We stood on the cusp of the third millennium, wondering what the future would hold for us personally, and us as a society, as a species. I was 14 years of age, and I was putting up with second-best as my parents hadn’t let me go to the town centre to celebrate. As fireworks burst around us, the four of us formed a tiny drunken conga line in the street.

    Times have changed.

    The Noughties, the decade with the most ridiculous name, are over. This ten-year slice of the future has brought us little in the way of flying cars and jetpacks, but in other ways, it has wrought immense change. Back then, I rocked a PC with a 333 MHz processor, and connected to the internet at 56.6 glorious kilobits per second. Now my cellphone has twice the processor and 30 times the bandwidth. Back then, search engines were in their infancy and social networks barely dreamed of; the internet was something we logged on to in the evenings for a few hours. Now we have push e-mail, Twitter and Facebook on five-minute refreshes, in our pockets every waking hour.

    We have high-res photos of Mars, from robots that are also on Twitter. We have sequenced the human genome, and now anyone can send off a swab of saliva and know all kinds of things their genetic code has in store for them. We have commercial spaceflight, and videos from those flights broadcast to every corner of the globe, not via centralised broadcast television but by YouTube and its kin, which are forever changing the balance between creation and consumption.

    I no longer see that friend, or his grandparents. I’m still not fond of champagne. In the intervening years I’ve had my fair share of New Years’ parties, but now I sit at home at midnight with a family of my own. The TV’s not on; we have the internet for that now. I’ll count down the seconds myself (from a desktop clock synchronised within milliseconds to an atomic clock somewhere out there in the world), and I’ll raise a glass of whisky not champagne, and hope the next decade brings as much hectic and unstoppable change as the one that dies tonight.

    Happy new year.

  • Book Review: The Book of Mormon (!?)

    Last night, in an attempt to rectify my broken sleep patterns, I sought out the most dull work of fiction in the house so that I could bore myself to sleep. My choice, understandably one might think, was the Book of Mormon, which we got from a couple of missionaries for the price of two cups of coffee and half an hour of pretending to care.

    Unfortunately, it seems that I was wrong about the boredom. It’s now the next day, and I actually want to read more. Wrapped up in 0 AD Judeo-Christian “and so it came to pass” rubbish is a story which could happily be renamed “Nephi’s Swashbuckling Adventure” and turned into at least a third-rate movie. So far, in the first twenty pages or so: Nephi and his dad have had visions from God and been banished from Jerusalem, but have snuck back in to grab some loot. When his brother tries to pay the bad guy for the loot they want, the bad guy beats him up and sends henchmen after him. So Nephi sneaks in, finds the bad guy drunk, kills him with his own sword after arguing with God, then steals the guy’s armour too. Once in the bad guy’s armour, everyone mistakes Nephi for the bad guy, so he makes off with the loot and one of the bad guy’s servants too, who I choose to believe is a ninja butler.

    Being horribly religious and thus male-centric there’s been a distinct lack of buxom wenches so far, but apparently in the next chapter they sail to America, so who knows, there might be pirates!