The Chaoszone Weblog

11 October 2004

Jonathan Strange and the Dog in the Night-time

9:48 pm Comment

Got some new books to read over the weekend:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: like many in engineering and science-related fields, I can relate to Christopher, the mathematically talented but socially inept protagonist of this tale. The best bit about Mark Haddon’s writing is that at no time did the book start to pall, it retained its Chapter One zest even during moments that lesser writers would have ruined with pathos – which, of course, meant that I read it in one swell foop and lost the better part of a night’s sleep in the process (Dang, Joel Spolsky had warned people about this).

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell is large, dense book written in a dry, almost pre-Dickensian style. Yet the six chapters I’ve read so far have been riveting, more so than portions of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. You may have heard this book described as “Harry Potter for adults” or even (rolls eyes) “a cross between Tolkien and Austen” (as a recommendation I saw pasted to a board in Madras’ Landmark bookshop put it), but it isn’t– it is fantasy, but it has its own distinctive voice and pace. Definitely a promising read.

8 October 2004

Flex and Laszlo

8:03 pm Comment

Though I have been skeptical about current approaches for rich net apps, I’ve been looking at Macromedia’s Flex and Laszlo for some time to see if they come up to scratch. Of late, both have been in the news – Laszlo because they open-sourced their app server, and Flex because Macromedia announced its giving away the software to qualified non-commercial users for $9. This is all good, however, neither of these two quite leave me satisfied.

Both currently compile to Flash. Flex (I believe) is wedded to it. Laszlo, while theoretically target-independent, currently supports only Flash. Flash is known to be fast (even though non-Windows implementations have typically been a tad slow) and is used widely for ads, animations and short games; however looking through simple demos like the Amazon store shows that the the UI is far more sluggish than a standard HTML interface.

Also, both approaches currently are lousy, accessibility-wise. Even considering the work done by Macromedia to improve accessibility in Flash 7, I cannot imagine Amazon converting every page on its store to this format (and if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be any point implementing the order/checkout process in Flash, since that would mean subjecting shoppers to two different interfaces).

Then there are the developmental hurdles of declarative programming (not necessarily a bad thing; but it is unfamiliar to many developers and needs a good WYSIWYG IDE to be productive) and a costly application server sitting between your data and your users. And what does all this buy you? Why, Drag and drop! Data binding! Platform Independent Fonts! Sigh – supposedly obsolete IE has handled all of this since version 5, and has 85% of the browser market. The Mozilla crew is catching up, and the WHAT-WG process will ensure Safari and Opera do, too.

I can understand there may be a market for these products among those who need rich net apps right now, but those looking at this from a strategic point of view would do well to either target IE only, or wait for XAML (which is going to be baked into IE in Longhorn), or work with other browser vendors and the WHAT-WG to ensure that Web Forms 2.0 ships ASAP (and withstand a diversity of UIs as browser vendors work to iron bugs out of their Web Forms implementation, as they did with CSS, for a while).

Bottom line: upgrading the browser results in a far superior user experience than hacking together kludges on the server that execute on the client via plugins. And because of this, Flex and Laszlo, while attractive, look like products whose windows of opportunity are closing – fast.

Update Oct 12: Dr Dreff comments; he says Rich Internet Apps (RIAs) have a future without MS – he specifically mentions Apple – and MS never ships on time anyway. True, but Safari developers have been active on Web Forms 2.0, and his points do not invalidate my proposition that delivering your entire UI through a “presentation server” and requiring a plug-in to view it has no future when HTML itself can be extended to support modern UI niceties like drag/drop, fonts and autocomplete. In fact, if Adam Bosworth’s Caching Framework ever sees the light of day, it could, in conjunction with a modern widget set, revolutionize the way web apps are done – web users can finally get the same experience current Lotus Notes users do when they work with their apps offline.

6 October 2004

Moving to Wordpress

11:33 am Comment

I’ve been meaning to move from Blogger to Wordpress for some time now. So I finally rolled up my sleeves, opened up a guide, and ran the Wordpress install. Even with the guide, it was easy, the biggest piece of work being tweaking Blogger settings in order to import old Blogger content. That didn’t take much time either. 700+ posts spread over 4 years, imported without a hitch – great going! Awesome work from the Wordpress folks.

Wordpress in its default configuration generates every page dynamically, something I wish to avoid. Until I take a good look at the Staticize plugin, I’m going to stick with this hacked-up arrangement that caches my main page and RSS feed. I’ll be tweaking the site frequently in the next few days, so excuse the dust for a while! :-)

4 October 2004

SpaceShipOne Wins the X Prize

5:12 pm Comment

[X Prize Logo]47 years to the day after Sputnik, SpaceShipOne touches down in Mojave and wins the X-Prize. Though the prize is no longer in contention, others, such as the Da Vinci Project, plan to follow, making the dream of regular, cheap non-government spaceflight many more steps closer to reality.

To place what has happened today in context, the Mercury missions in the early 60s cost $1.5 billion in 1994 dollars. SpaceShipOne’s flight, on the other hand, cost just under $25 million.

On the X-Prize webcast, I’m listening to Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation who’s talking about how one spaceship is not enough, how real space travel will depend on having a fleet of ships, each with competing designs offer the public increasingly lower costs. Right on. In fact, to keep the spirit of competition in space alive, the Foundation is planning an annual spaceflight grand prix called the X-Prize Cup that should become to space vehicles what the F1 Grand Prix circuit is to automobiles.

15 September 2004

Indiatimes Blogs Update

6:09 am Comment

Indiatimes doesn’t quite get blogging yet. While it’s great that they’ve been linking to several of their blogs off their heavily-visited home page, the blogs (quality-of-writing arguments aside) remain anonymous, with most having only a post or two. IMO this is the wrong way to boot a thriving weblog community. Here are some of the things I’d be thinking about if I was running O3.

First: encourage readers to identify – anonymous weblogs are about as interesting as random Usenet posts. Many users may wish to remain pseudo-anonymous, this is perfectly okay if like Belle de Jour they make clear who they are and what they’re writing about. Of course, many of Indiatimes’ visitors are net neophytes and unfamiliar with online etiquette, but this problem is likely to go away with time. Second: comment spam is a huge turn-off to would-be bloggers, so help them understand how they can crack down on comment spam. For example, the user who wrote this post hasn’t posted again yet – not surprising given the virulent reaction and comment spam he got. Third: use a “quiet period” to let bloggers “find their voice” and actually fill up those pages with something, instead of linking first-post weblogs from the front page merely because they have catchy titles.

That said, I think it’s great that larger numbers of Indian netizens are getting their feet wet with blogs. In a country whose citizens have been talked down to for far too long (by just about anyone with authority, including their elders and rulers) blogs provide an excellent way to reverse the flow.

14 September 2004

Firefox v.10’s Live Bookmarks

3:14 pm Comment

Firefox’s support for feeds via Live Bookmarks is great, but it’s support for the RSS 2.0 spec is wobbly, to say the least. For example, as of now (version 1.0PR), feeds without a link subelement within item will not load, with a message “Live Bookmark feed failed to load” that’s as unhelpful to the user as it is to the feed author who’s trying to figure out what’s going wrong.

This bug makes it impossible to use Firefox to subscribe to heavily-subscribed feeds like, for example, the Scripting News feed. The Firefox community really needs to expand their testcases for this feature if it’s to not look half-assed when 1.0 ships for real.

7 September 2004

Packetyzer

3:23 pm Comment

Packetyzer is a Windows-based packet analyzer based on Ethereal that’s much easier to use.

1 September 2004

Girlie Men…

1:02 pm Comment

Speaking of of girlie men… Detail from a potrait of King Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701.

24 August 2004

Indiatimes Offers Blogs

9:35 am Comment

I’m not a huge fan of Indiatimes, however now that they’ve added weblogs to the roster of services offered, I applaud their using the .Text engine. Dottext and Wordpress have to be the best weblog engines out there, for free or pay. This automatically means Indiatimes bloggers have a far better tool (and far better blogs) than, say, Rediffblogs. I wish Indiatimes would go easy on the advertising, though.

The quality of writing on Indiatimes’ weblogs isn’t anything worth writing home about, though – barring a few good ones, most are faux stream-of-consciousness textstreams.

Scripting News and the Kerry Campaign

8:09 am Comment

It’s sad to see Scripting News turn into a soundbite site for the Kerry Campaign. Weblogs are supposed to wear their biases on their sleeves (and Dave has laid his biases bare: this election has one and only one issue for him: Anyone But Bush); however, it is interesting to see which way a weblog turns when there’s a conflict of interest.

Regular readers of Scripting News know that the relationship between webloggers and journalists is a fairly regular topic here. Because of that, the silence on Scripting News about the Swiftvets and their (non-)coverage in the media was mystifying. Here was a story where the weblogs were getting all the action, and I for one expected Dave to point to it and rebutt it vociferously. However, the position on Scripting News was radio silence. Now, this could be simply a result of Dave having too much on his plate, however, given the things he is likely to write about I have to wonder if the silence was a result of a battle between his politics and his professional work (as a thought-leader in weblogging), a battle which his politics won.

A great counterpoint is Scoble’s point about who you should point to: to be an authority on the operating system industry and to become an authority you must point to ALL stuff, not just that that’s friendly. Substitute ‘integrity’ for ‘authority’ and ‘politics’ for ‘operating system’ and there’s a point the guru of weblogging could himself take to heart.

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