on the edge

computers & technology, books & writing, civilisation & society, cars & stuff

Greg Black

gjb at gbch dot net
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If you’re not living life on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.

FQE30 at speed

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Worthy organisations

Amnesty International Australia — global defenders of human rights

global defenders of human rights

Médecins Sans Frontières — help us save lives around the world

Médecins Sans Frontières - help us save lives around the world

Electronic Frontiers Australia — protecting and promoting on-line civil liberties in Australia

Electronic Frontiers Australia


(Coming soon…)


(Coming soon…)

Software resources

GNU Emacs


The FreeBSD Project

Sat, 28 Jan 2006

Hard to be good

Late last year, while reflecting on the things I had accomplished (as well as the things I had not accomplished), I saw that most of the stuff I’ve written here has had a distinctly critical tone. So I decided that I’d make an effort this year to write at least some pieces with a positive pitch. Here we are, at the end of January, and I still haven’t found anything to fit this goal.

Today, however, I came across two items of interest in my reading and one of them seemed to fit the good news theme I’d been hoping for.

While waiting for my spouse to finish her business in the shopping centre, I picked up a book about C++ programming. This is not a subject dear to my heart, but the book had a cover that promised good things and the author was somebody with a genuine depth of experience in both the C++ world and the technical writing world. And, as far as I could tell from a 10-minute read, it was a pretty good book and encouraged what I’d probably describe as good practices for people unfortunate enough to have to work with C++.

The thing that was most apparent from the book, however, was what a bizarre dog’s breakfast C++ is. The entire book seemed to be aimed at providing guidance to the hapless programmer on the critical task of avoiding self-inflicted damage. Since nobody seems to be taught the important basics these days, junk like C++ is even more of an affront to sanity than it might once have been. Just Say No.

Now for the good news. I have had reasons in the past to visit Tim Bray’s blog. Something I read this morning sent me there again, and I took the time to look around beyond the original article. And I found three little gems, entitled Truth, Biz and Tech. They are great. And they come close to expressing my thoughts on those topics. Recommended reading.

Tue, 07 Sep 2004

Adrian, spot the mistake

I enjoy reading Adrian Sutton’s blog. It’s full of interesting stuff, even when I think he’s wrong. The thing that spoils it for me, however, is the regular misuse of the apostrophe. So here’s a little tutorial—it’s aimed at all the people who don’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s”, not just Adrian.

Taking a pair of examples from Adrian’s blog post on regexes, look at this sentence fragment:

I’ve been playing around with writing a mini-wiki that uses the full compliment of HTML as it’s syntax […]
There are two apostrophes there. The first one is correct—the apostrophe in “I’ve” shows that it’s an abbreviated form of “I have”. The second one is incorrect, as there’s no abbreviation there. The word “its” in this context is just like “his” and has no apostrophe for the same reason—it’s a word. The only time where you use “it’s” with the apostrophe is in the case where it’s an abbreviation for “it is”—just as is the case in this very sentence.

I know that it’s now common to put this incorrect apostrophe in all over the place, but it’s still wrong; and it certainly does detract from the reading experience. And I know that most people don’t care. But I do care and I end up just turning off from reading material where this kind of error is common. Just as we programmers have to learn to spell correctly when we write C or perversions such as Perl or Java, we should also be able to manage to write English correctly. Saying it right makes it easier to communicate our ideas effectively.

Fri, 20 Aug 2004

Olympic happiness

The ongoing television frenzy over the Olympics certainly makes it quicker than usual to scan the TV program looking for the odd item that might be worth watching—there are two full columns that I don’t even need to glance at. Cool.

To put this into perspective, the last Olympic Games I attended in person were in Melbourne in 1956. I was pretty young then, but happy to watch some of the best amateur athletes of the time do their stuff. In these days of rampant commercialism and the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs, I have to say that I just find the whole thing a waste of time.

Wed, 04 Aug 2004

Stupid banks

I guess everybody knows that banks are stupid and most of us have plenty of anecdotal evidence of that. Here’s one more item. Last week, I went to the bank to close my mother’s account. I explained that she had died so that they would just do everything in one go. We played with an endless array of forms and spent the best part of an hour on this simple task. One of the delays was to arrange for the necessary calculations for fees, interest, etc., to be incorporated in the final balance. Finally, a figure was pulled from the air and a bank cheque was provided (made out to the funeral directors as part payment of their gigantic bill). So far, so good.

Today, as promised, a statement arrived. However, instead of showing a nil balance and a closed account, it showed a debit balance of $5-49. What’s wrong with these people? Stupid question. Just about everything you can think of is wrong with them. And they can’t even count.

Tue, 20 Jul 2004

Locked out (update)

The dealer told me at 1630 that they could not get my car fixed before tomorrow afternoon. Not ideal, but there was little I could do. Then they rang at 1710 and said, “can you get here by 1730?” Amazing how fast they got the rest of the work done. Anyway, I said I could probably get there ten minutes after they closed if I had luck with a cab and so they said they’d wait for me. Cool. And when I got there, they handed me an invoice for $0.00—apparently it was felt that the alternator should not have failed on a car that had only done 130,000 km. I couldn’t agree more. Still, it was good to see that they could get it done the same day and that they were ready to do the job for free, on their own initiative. Thanks, guys. I suppose they deserve a credit: Sivyer’s at Moorooka.

Locked out

So I heroically drag myself out of my sick bed this morning to drive my wife to her office only to have the preferred car ignore all attempts to open it, either by its remote or with a key in the door. After I take Chrissie to work in my sister’s car, I call the dealer and describe the problem and offer my diagnosis which is that the battery is obviously flat and, since it’s new, there’s probably a fault in the charging system. “Oh no, it’s nothing like that,” says the expert. “It’s the locking bar in the door—they fall off and you get locked out.” This sounded wrong to me, but either way the car had to be towed to the dealer.

It was in the garage. It was locked. The handbrake was on and the transmission was in “park”. The street is narrow and divided, so there’s almost no room to manoeuvre a tow truck in front of the garage. The two favourable details were that the steering was locked in the straight-ahead position and the locked wheels were at the street end of the garage. I called the RACQ, explained all the above and asked them to send a suitable truck.

The tow truck arrived promptly and was indeed suitable. But the driver admitted that he’d only been on the job a few days and he’d never tackled a job like this. He was a pleasant young man, but it took quite a bit of guidance from me before he got the car up on the truck—just over an hour to load it.

I had asked the dealer to call me when they had diagnosed the problem so that I could plan the rest of my day. They promised to do that. Naturally, they didn’t call. I rang them at 1215, two hours after the car would have arrived and asked for an update.

The bloke who was supposed to be my contact was out, so I had to speak to a young woman with an attitude instead. “Your car needs an alternator and a battery,” she said. That, at least, was no surprise. “So when will it be ready?” I asked. “I can’t tell you.” “Is there some problem?” “You haven’t given us the authority to purchase the parts and if you don’t do that before 1230, you can’t get it done today.” “I sent it over there to be fixed; so yes, I would like you to order the parts.” This was greeted by some muttering that’s not worth reporting in detail and she ended up saying that the previously-mentioned bloke would call me when they had a pickup time.

I’m probably a bit hard to please today, what with the flu and the other stuff that’s going on, but somehow this little story left me feeling rather cross. Had I left it another few minutes before I called them, I’d have been punished with having to wait an extra day to get it back. And that’s despite being a regular customer and despite their assurance that they’d call me once they’d checked the car. Grumble.

Mon, 19 Jul 2004

A short whine

Had the flu over the past 36 hours. It sucks. Back soon.

Sun, 18 Jul 2004

Why are web designers so lame?

Brad wrote about CSS Zen Garden, so I thought I’d have a look. The first page appealed to me and “worked” in my Mozilla. Most of the rest rendered so badly that I had to go back to the first one to find the next link to click on; some rendered correctly, but were so slow that I could have made breakfast while waiting. In many cases, the rendering could be improved by dropping my font sizes down to almost invisible—this got a pretty layout, but was of course completely impossible to read.

I just don’t get it. If you’re doing print, then you can determine stuff like font sizes; after all, you can check the results. Even in the print world, designers often demonstrate astonishing stupidity with tiny fonts in ridiculous colours—I have a magazine on my desk now with dark grey type on a mid grey background for the first page of an article I wanted to read.

On the web, you simply cannot guess what your creation will look like on somebody else’s display. So it makes sense to assume that the user has selected a font face and size that suits their eyes and their display and their available fonts and to put all the body text that you want people to read in that default size and face. And then, for headings, you can use “+1” and the like and for minor stuff you can use “-1”.

The second part of the wrongness of most of these designs is that, not only do the designers work with their preferred font sizes in mind, but they force layouts that simply don’t work if larger fonts are used. In the samples referred to above, this results in several cases in lines of text superimposed on top of each other. I defy anybody to read them like that.

None of this is particularly complicated, and none of it is new; but so many would-be experts just can’t be bothered to learn the medium.

All of this rant is not intended to suggest that none of the CSS Zen Garden material is any good—some of it is great, but a lot just sucks.

Sat, 10 Jul 2004


I have previously mentioned that my mother was near death. She passed away yesterday afternoon. The only surprise was that she lasted so long. She lost the ability to recognise family members some years ago and gave up speech not long after.

Much of the past 24 hours has been involved with the minutiae of death—arranging stuff, informing people, making sure that those who have to travel furthest are given time to get to the funeral.

And there’s been a bit of the inevitable reflecting on the fact that I only have a limited span left. I’m OK with that, but I’m keen to make the next thirty or so years count. By which I mean that I don’t want to waste my time engaged in pursuits that I don’t care about and I don’t want to get to the end wishing that I had found time for something that ended up left undone.

This place will probably be quieter than usual for a while now while I travel to Melbourne, do my dutiful son routine and fend off the various relatives who will no doubt find fault with my care for my mother in her final years. That won’t be a surprise either; my plan is to try to let it go by without becoming engaged. I might even succeed.

Sat, 03 Jul 2004

Life, death and sales

I’ve been keeping my mobile switched on and by my side 24/7 lately because our daughter is about to give birth to our first grandchild in the next week or so and because my mother is going to die in the same period. This morning, I answered a very early call while we were having breakfast in bed. The heavily-accented female on the line sounded like one of the nurses at the nursing home where my mother is, so I was quite patient with her until I was certain that she was trying to sell me some kind of credit card. I just said, “Go away.” But I wanted to yell at her. As for how she expects to make a single sale with her almost complete lack of English is a mystery. Fortunately, that’s one thing I don’t have to worry about.

Wed, 02 Jun 2004

Quality workmanship, not

We recently paid a kitchen company a lot of money to put in a new kitchen. Part of the job included $250 for the installation of a range hood that we supplied. Chrissie has been complaining that the range hood is not doing as good a job as it ought, given its price.

I’ve just dismantled it and discovered why. The plumber failed to read the instructions. I know this because the instructions were still inside the unit, doing a pretty fair job of blocking the airflow and collecting a nice load of grease in the process.

Sometimes you get what you pay for; sometimes you don’t.

Mon, 31 May 2004

Service at Stamford Plaza

Took Chrissie to the Stamford Plaza in Brisbane for the weekend for her birthday. We’ve both stayed at lots of five-star hotels in Australia and many other countries, but this place provided the best mix of quality accommodation, good food and really excellent service that we’ve experienced. All the staff that we dealt with were well-trained and seemed keen to make a good impression, attending to all the little details with a smile and unfailing courtesy.

The star of the show was Ian, our room-service person. He was exemplary in every possible way and would, on his own, be a reason to return. When we mentioned his performance at checkout time, we were told that he had worked there forever and was highly regarded—so it was good to see that his contribution was recognised.

The single, rather minor, criticism was that they billed us for some free telephone calls at 90 cents per call—something that other hotels have never done. When challenged, they took the offending charges off the bill, but told us not to expect that in the future. Still, with this the only flaw in the weekend, I think we’ll be back before too long.

Mon, 17 May 2004

Sad new world / perceptual glitches

When I was in Shepparton a couple of months back for the 2004 Grand Prix Rally, I shared a motel room with my co-driver. One evening, I looked out the window across the main drag and noticed a large sign above a shop that said, “Sad New World”. Surprised by this, I called Andrew over to see it. Closer inspection and careful peering around the large horse on a stick that adorned the footpath in front of the shop revealed that the sign really said, “Saddlery World”. Since then, I’ve used “sad new world” as a shorthand for perceptual glitches of this kind.