Thursday, October 27, 2005


It started when I went to print some photos from a recent holiday. First, I printed a nozzle test, and sure enough I needed to clean the print heads. I've had a number of Epson ink jets; my current one is a wide format 2200. I love it, it produces awesome photo prints virtually indistinguishable from actual photographs. But every Epson ink jet has had this same problem, which I assume is caused by the print heads drying out. You'd think after so many years and so many million printers they would have come up with a solution to this problem!

So I run the head cleaning and print another nozzle check, still no good. (It often takes several cleaning cycles.) I go to run another head cleaning and it tells me one of the ink cartridges is empty. No problem, I have a spare for each color. Or not. I have every color except the one that's run out! So much for printing.

Since I'm sitting at the computer, I figure I might as well do something useful. I was running the free version of AVG at home even though we have a paid license at work. I don't think there's any difference in the software, but with the paid version you get access to better servers for the updates and I have had problems getting updates with the free version. I figure all I have to do is install the paid version.

The first problem is that the AVG installer tells me I have an old version of Roxio CD Creator that will cause problems with AVG and other programs. It helpfully provides a link to the Roxio update page. I download the update, but when I try to run it, it tells me it's intended for a newer version of CD Creator. It doesn't actually say whether it has updated my old version or not, so I try the AVG installer again, just to confirm that the problem isn't fixed.

So I get on the Roxio site to try to find an update for my version. After some digging I find it and click on the download link. But now it wants my login and password. I have no idea if I ever registered the software, but probably not since it came already installed on the computer. But it lets me type in my email address to see if I'm registered - and tells me I'm not. So I go through several screens of registration until finally it tells me I'm already registered under that email address! Next problem is I don't know the password, but they have a link in case you forgot your password and I follow that and eventually I get my download.

But when I try to run the update, it fails and tells me it's messed up my installed copy and I'll have to reinstall! How's that for a friendly update! Luckily I have the install disk handy and I start up the install. I get a big warning saying this version of CD Creator is not intended for this version of Windows. Huh? This version of CD Creator is what came with the computer, as did Windows XP. The disk even lists Windows XP on the label. And it's always worked fine. I shake my head, ignore the warning, and continue.

Now I'm back to AVG. I start up the install once more. This time I get farther - it tells me that I already have AVG installed and that if I want to install this version I have to uninstall the current version. Of course, it doesn't offer to do this for me; I have to abort the install (again!), uninstall my current version, and then restart the installer once more. During this process I have no virus protection, which makes me a little nervous, kind of like walking around naked in a snow storm.

To add to the "fun" most of these installs / updates / upgrades / uninstalls requires me to reboot. Remember when Windows XP came out and one of their big features was that you wouldn't have to reboot every time you touched anything? I guess everyone has forgotten about that "feature". Microsoft has gotten so big I guess you have to treat their promises as if they come from a politician - only good for the duration of the election.

The good news is that I finally got AVG updated. I'm not sure whether CD Creator is still working or not - I guess I'll find out the next time I try to use it.

I have a fair bit of patience with this sort of thing, I know how hard it is to make foolproof software like installers. But some of these things stretch even my patience level! I can only imagine what it's like for someone who has no concept of what's going on or why they're being asked (forced) to jump through a bunch of irrational hoops.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

AJAX and more

To start, a couple of good articles:

Ideas for Startups by Paul Graham

Set Your Priorities by Joel Spolsky

I don't always agree with everything Paul and Joel have to say, but they're usually worth reading.

I've been running into more and more about AJAX. It stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML. The name "AJAX" is recent, but the technology it makes use of has been around for a while. It's just that now people are discovering how to really take advantage of it. Things like Gmail and Google Maps use AJAX. AJAX applications promise to combine rich user interfaces with the advantages of a web client.

A recent blog by Jon Udell (and a previous entry) pointed me to Zimbra - an AJAX mail client, their screencast, architecture whitepaper, and AJAX toolkit. They're worth taking a look at.

There are many advantages of web based applications, but so far I've resisted because HTML user interfaces suck. But recent developments like AJAX and Lazlo are promising rich user interfaces for web apps. I still have some reservations - there's a shortage of tools and documentation and they require quite a mixed bag of technologies. All this means a steep learning curve at the moment. But it's making me think that maybe I should be looking at developing web apps. Maybe Suneido should have some tools for doing AJAX.

There are a bunch of recent AJAX books - a search on Amazon will find them.

Zimbra looks pretty cool and it got me thinking about Gmail (maybe not quite as cool, but still pretty good). I've been using Thunderbird for my email and for the most part I've been pretty happy with it. Searching is awkward and slow, but I solved that by using Google Desktop Search. I was excited when Thunderbird added spam filtering. After faithfully training it for a long time, it identifies about 90% of my spam. But the more spam I get, the more annoying that remaining 10% is. It also occasionally identifies legitimate messages as spam, which means I have to review the spam messages, somewhat defeating the purpose of filtering.

I was curious whether Gmail would do a better or worse job of identifying spam. I finally took the plunge and forwarded my main mail account to my Gmail account. It's only been a little over a day, but so far it's been a lot better than Thunderbird. Only about 2% of spam messages have slipped through and no legitimate messages have been mis-identified as spam.

And Gmail has other advantages. I can access my mail (including old mail) from home or anywhere. And I can still use Google Desktop Search.

Another book that I noticed recently was Cross-Platform GUI Programming with wxWidgets. wxWindows is one of the main cross-platform GUI toolkits. Several people have suggested it's probably the best way to make Suneido's GUI portable. In fact, there's a newcomer on the Suneido forum who appears to be working on this right now. I should probably pick up this book just to learn a little more about it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Slack, Quality, and Automation

I recently finished reading Slack : Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco (co-author of Peopleware). This isn't a new book; it was first published in 2001, but I hadn't got around to reading it. (I assumed coming from DeMarco that it would be worth reading.)

I've read a lot of software development management books, so a lot of the book wasn't completely new to me. But there were a few ideas that stood out:

The key role of middle management is reinvention.
Like many people, I bought into the idea that most middle management is unnecessary overhead. DeMarco challenges this, quite convincingly I think.

Product quality has almost nothing to do with defects or their lack.
I'm not sure I agree with him totally on this one. He claims that a product with a lot of defects could still be a high quality product and people would still want to use it. Hmmm. Some defects maybe, but a lot? I'd probably put it less strongly as "a lack of defects is not sufficient for high quality". This wasn't exactly new to me, but it made me think. It's been a while since I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (Arguably one of the most profoundly important essays ever written on the nature and significance of "quality" and definitely a necessary anodyne to the consequences of a modern world pathologically obsessed with quantity. - Amazon) It's very easy, in product development, to fall into the trap of thinking that defects are the only factor in quality - and it's just not true.

When you automate the mechanical stuff, what's left is harder.
DeMarco calls this "the paradox of automation" - it makes the work harder, not easier. He's talking about automation in terms of knowledge workers. But what struck me was how this might apply to "automating" application development. As we automate the easy stuff with frameworks, wizards, libraries, and tools, does it end up making our job harder instead of easier? Of course, we're accomplishing more, so it's not pointless. But it's still ironic that in trying to make our jobs easier we're actually making them harder.

I find it frustrating with Suneido that no matter how much it has, people always end up wanting to do something that isn't supported. I thought this was just Murphy's law, but perhaps it's a logical consequence. Everything that's already supported becomes the base that people want to extend from. And because most of the "easy" stuff is handled, the requests tend to be for harder stuff.

I'm not sure how to benefit from this insight, but I'm going to ponder it.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Handheld Wikipedia

I recently bought a new PDA, a Palm Tungsten T5, to replace my ancient Handspring Visor. Previously, I thought it was amazing that I could have a complete dictionary on my PDA. Now, I have the whole of Wikipedia, complete with most of the images!

I bought a 1 gb SD memory card, and plugged it into the T5. Then I downloaded a version of Wikipedia. It's in TomeRaider format so I had to download and register TomeRaider for Palm (it's shareware). (If anyone knows a completely free solution, or even better open source - let me know.)

At this point I ran into some problems with installing the Wikipedia file onto the Palm SD card. The Palm QuickInstall didn't like the .tr3 file so I used Drive Mode to copy the file. It took about 30 minutes to transfer the 1 gb file but TomeRaider on the Palm didn't show the new file. I thought the problem might be that I hadn't put the file in the right directory so I tried to move it, but that didn't work because it ran out of space - apparently to move files it makes a copy. The Documentation mentioned something about Palm not recognizing .tr3 files so you had to rename them to .pdb - I tried this, but it still didn't work.

A Google search turned up a page where it said simple renaming didn't work - you had to open the file with TomeRaider for Windows and then use File > Transfer to Palm and then HotSync. I tried this but HotSync didn't transfer the file. And QuickInstall didn't show the file either. Looking at the directories, I saw TomeRaider had put it in the CardInst directory rather than the QuickInstall directory. I dragged the file to the QuickInstall Expansion Card pane (which put it in the QuickInstall/ExpCard directory). This time when I HotSync'ed it started to transfer the file.

Sadly, after about 40 minutes, for some reason HotSync lost connection and didn't finish transferring the file. But at least I could see that it was trying to put it in the Palm/Launcher directory on the card. (Later I found this directory is a setting in TomeRaider.) So I tried again using Palm File Transfer. This time the transfer succeeded.

Voila, Wikipedia on the Palm! I don't actually have a practical purpose for this, it just seems like an amazing thing - to have an encyclopedia in your pocket. So whatever comes to mind, you can look it up. And the fact that's it's the Wikipedia encyclopedia makes it all the more amazing. 750,000 articles (in English) and counting - all freely contributed! It's an amazing feat. Unfortunately, the file I downloaded was created before I added the Wikipedia entry for Suneido :-(