Saturday, April 28, 2007

Web standards are important

Unless you like the idea of a small number of corporations controlling how you use your computer, web standards should be important to you.

I got this warning page when I accessed YCP's on-line courseware system today:

Using Mozilla Firefox on Linux evidently doesn't count as a "supported" browser.

[The website of the company that makes the courseware system, SunGard Higher Education, is full of lots of pop-up menus, flash animations, Javascript, stuff that doesn't quite render properly in my non-Windows browser, has a layout too wide to fit in my preferred browser window dimensions, etc. From looking at their HTML source, at least they're doing their page layout using CSS. Gotta give 'em props for that. But not the most usable page I've seen.]

Come on, guys. Firefox works just as well under Linux (and other OSes) as it does under Windows. Put some effort on making your stuff work everywhere. The web is the new desktop and it runs on non-Microsoft platforms too.

I think a theme is emerging for my blog: software problems that annoy me.

Friday, April 27, 2007

OpenOffice is a nannying piece of ****

From the "preventing the user from ever making a mistake by relentless confirmation dialogs every time he/she tries to do something" department, here's a screenshot from 2.0's spreadsheet. All I did was select a cell and press the "delete" key to delete its contents:

Yes, for the the love of God, I do want to delete the cell I just told you to delete, you ****ing [long chain of expletives deleted].

Honestly, what is this dialog supposed to accomplish? If I decide afterwards that I didn't want to delete whatever was in that cell, I'll use the Undo feature to restore it. (Maybe undo doesn't work in OpenOffice?) Even Microsoft Excel gets this right! Yes, software from Microsoft! It makes me want to vomit with rage (to borrow a line from the Simpsons.) Don't even get me started about the gratuitous incompatibilities between OOo Calc and MS Excel.

The only reason I was even using OOo in the first place was that the Windows version of Gnumeric was having trouble with the =chitest function, and I'm too much of a cheapskate (and open source weirdo) to buy MS Office for my laptop.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Goodbye Perl, Hello Ruby

I think I've finally kicked the Perl habit. Perl was a great language in its day, and (as with most CS people who have done empirical research) it played an important role in the data munging aspects of my research and professional life. However, simpler and better languages---Python and Ruby---now exist.

I've been working on learning Ruby for a while now, and using it as a case study in a programming languages class I'm teaching provided the final impetus to learn it "for real". Ruby takes the Perl features I know and love and fits them into a simple and elegant object-oriented model. I think this is the essential distinction between Ruby and Perl. Ruby has objects as a unifying concept, while Perl has no unifying concept. I can explain Ruby to students and feel I'm showing them how to think in terms of objects. Explaining Perl to students feels dirty by comparision.

I know Perl6 is going to appear at some point, and will contain such goodies as a real object model, but I think the ship has sailed.

Speaking of Perl6, I looked into the Parrot VM a while back, since I'm interested in the implementation of dynamic OO languages. All I can say at this point is it's a surprisingly complex design. In comparison, YARV, which is slated to become the official Ruby interpreter, looks much simpler. From a quick glace at the YARV instruction table, it looks quite a bit like Java bytecode.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


In the soundtrack to my mental life, the effect that plays during moments of disbelief and shock is Gibson Haynes's opening scream to the song "Helicopter" on the B******* Surfers' 1990 EP "Widowermaker". (Good song, BTW.) You'll have to mentally substitute your favorite sound effect as you read the rest of the post.

Anyway, I saw this bumper sticker on a car in the parking lot of Grantley Hall today:

Few things depress me as much as the general lack of understanding of science in our society. The evidence for the factuality of evolution is profound and overwhelming; see any book by Stephen Jay Gould, for example. The theory of evolution by natural selection is a fruitful one. We can use it to explain evidence, make predictions, and all those other good things that allow us to test the worth of scientific theories.

I could speculate on the reasons why people deny evolution, but what's the point? What really concerns me is not so much the denial, but the feeling that these people are so fixed in their views that nothing could convince them that their views are wrong. And how can you argue against that?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Should Microsoft control your PC?

Saw this linked from a story on
It's an email from 1999 in which Bill Gates comments on the (then) emerging ACPI standard for power management and other system information/control for PCs. In the email he says:
One thing I find myself wondering about is whether we shouldn't try to make the ACPI extensions somehow Windows specific.
He goes on to say
It seems unfortunate if we do this work and get our partners to do the work and the result is that Linux works great without having to do the work.
So, I guess the idea behind industry "standards" is that they should reinforce one company's monopoly position? Perhaps I'm taking these statements out of context, but it seems clear that Microsoft is working towards a world in which PCs can run only Windows. In other words, you might own your computer, but you shouldn't have the right to choose what software you run on it.

It's easy to be an alarmist these days; witness the controversies over DRM, DMCA, etc., etc. However, as consumers we need to exercise our power to choose the ways in which we use technology. Otherwise, we run the risk of having that choice made for us.

Friday, April 13, 2007

No more dual booting

Today I installed Ubuntu 6.10 on my main home machine, replacing a dual boot Ubuntu 6.06/WinXP setup. As I type, WinXP is installing into a VirtualBox virtual machine. These days, the only Microsoft software I really ever need to use is Visual Studio. We'll see how it goes...

So far, Ubuntu 6.10 ("Edgy Eft") seems to be quite nice---Ubuntu just gets better and better. Getting the nvidia-glx drivers to work was a bit of a pain, however; for a while X wouldn't start, but after some random fiddling I got it working. (I still don't know exactly what I did.) It's really my fault for buying an nvidia card, although frankly I don't know what graphics card you're supposed to get if you actually want it to work under Linux.