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Bad Lieutenant (the band, not the movie) October 25, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in whatever.
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Went along to see Bad Lieutenant, Bernard Sumner’s new band, at Heaven under Charing Cross last week. I was curious to see whether Barney is (like me) one of the few people left in this country who still pronounces the “f” in “lieutenant”. I think he is, though both times he announced the band’s name he mumbled it and the acoustics were dreadful, so bit hard to be sure.

bad lieutenant

Those once-cherubic looks haven’t gone entirely, meaning he has now begun to rather resemble Alan Bennett. Though of course Barney wouldn’t be caught dead wearing specs, let alone thick framed ones; more’s the pity. Think what a coup it would have been if he could have got Alan B in to deliver a rap, something in the style of Neil Tennant on West End Girls!

In fact, he did have somebody to help out on vocal duties. One of those young wispily-bearded slightly-modelly looking guys who can hold a guitar well enough to pick up university girls; you know the type. Bit of an odd choice for this audience though, which tended to the middle-aged bloke end of the spectrum. At least he could sing well enough to remind us that part of Barney’s attraction has always been that his singing and songwriting are both a bit rubbish, ie. and therefore “real”.

The new material isn’t bad. Yes, some truth in the “New Order with bits missing” reviews, but still. Sumner himself seemed unconvinced, somewhat apologetic about playing new songs at all. That was just before launching into a handful of New Order and Joy Division classics: Temptation, Crystal, Bizarre Love Triangle, Transmission and even Love Will Tear Us Apart. Storming stuff, despite a rather anaemic bassline coming out of the shadows at the back of the stage. Hm, maybe a better name for the band would have been “The Long Shadow”.

The content management supertanker September 18, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in whatever.
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At a conference yesterday, heard Chris Thorpe from the Guardian’s Open Platform describe content management systems as being like supertankers, great at regular delivery of similar-sized packages of content, but not quick-moving enough for anything else (I paraphrase, probably badly). Hence “use the right tool for the job”; which in their case mostly means Django, but if I’d hired Simon Willison it would mean that for me too.

Well, I do think WCM can be more agile than it has been up till now—but really, I couldn’t agree more. The “big science” approach to WCM, which assumes you have this monolithic system that you use to implement everything, is kind of stupid. Content management should be a component, not a system.

I’m with Jakob: Stop password masking! June 24, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in coding, ux.
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Latest Alertbox from Jakob Neilsen is Stop Password Masking

Nielsen is completely right on this one, and I’ve thought so for a long time. The thing is, there’s nobody looking over your shoulder. There’s never anybody looking over your shoulder. And if there might be, well, put your hand over the screen or something.

But unfortunately it’s one of those idiocies that has become so ubiquitous that people have been trained into expecting it and will complain if you don’t do it.

Why I hate democracy June 20, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in whatever.
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Ok, I’m being slightly linkbaitish there. What I really mean is, why I hate “democracy”.  The word, not the concept.

Because actually, there are two quite distinct concepts covered by this word.

First, there’s “democracy” meaning a sort of fuzzy ideal of power by the people for the people, where each individual holds as much sway as the next.

Then there’s “democracy” meaning a system of government practiced in one form or another across much of the world.

It ought to be pretty obvious that these two concepts have very little to do with each other. Oh, they did back when the Greeks came up with the notion (if you discount women, slaves and foreigners). But they parted ways a long time ago. As far as I know, there is no country in the world that practices democracy in the 1st sense, though no doubt the technology exists to make it possible even with large populations.

Let’s take the specific case of the UK, where I currently live. In the UK, we have a multiple-choice election once every five years. Generally speaking, it’s a multiple choice without any correct answers. We don’t get to vote for the prime minister (the ruler). We don’t get to vote for who’s in the cabinet (the ruling body). Technically speaking, we don’t even get to vote for the governing party: all we get to vote for is our local representative, who may or may not toe their party line (mine doesn’t). What if you like the party but don’t like your representative, or vice versa? Tough. Most people (me included) live in safe seats, so the result of our particular vote is anyway a foregone conclusion. But here’s the killer: we don’t get to vote on any specific items of policy.

It’s hard to conceive of a voting system where your vote counted for less (unless the vote is actually rigged—more on that later). It would be much better if we all used a different term for this system of government, say “elective government”.

This reached farcical proportions for me in the last election. The key issue as far as I was concerned was ejecting Tony Blair, a man I regard as a war criminal. But my local MP is a noted “maverick” who no doubt felt much the same way. So, if I voted for him, was I voting anti-Blair (my MP), or pro-Blair (my MP’s party)? I couldn’t find a resolution to this puzzle so I didn’t vote. But that’s an extreme case. The norm is, I’m in a safe Labour seat so my vote is anyway worthless. Hey, once I lived in a safe Tory seat! Then my vote was worthless in a different way.

Some countries have slightly better systems than the UK, eg. with an element of proportional representation. But still, none of them are real democracies in that 1st sense of the word. They are all about allowing for minor, periodic changes in the ruling elite.

Would it be a good idea to introduce democracy? I’m not sure. I’d like to see some country give it a whirl, but preferably not Britain, which I expect would effectively end up ruled by Rupert Murdoch with the connivance of a slew of celebrities. The truth is (or we suspect it is) that our ruling elites are more progressive and liberal than the population at large: yes, even the rightwing elites (Bush the 2nd is maybe an exception here, which is why we in the rest of the West found him so disturbing). The poster child here is minority rights, where governments have lead the way and populations followed. Look at the rise of gay rights in the UK, pushed forward by the government while the general population was perhaps rather doubtful: but some years later, and the opinion polls show a big shift in public attitudes. If we introduced direct democracy now, I doubt these changes would be rolled back. But other liberalisations, down the line? Who knows.

What annoys me about all this is that people constantly confuse these two usages. They start waxing about democracy in a way that implies it is both this idealised good AND our system of government (random example from memory: the last chapter of Wikinomics was an offender)

OK, so yeah, I’m working my way round to Iran. Looks like the current elite rigged their election ineptly (though weirdly, it seems as if it was an election they would have won anyway). I find it hard to care much. Yes, it’s bad that they rigged the vote. You should at least abide by the rules of your farce: but that doesn’t stop it being a farce. I’d like to see Iran have a better government, just like I’d like to see our good allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt have better governments (hey, I’d like to see the UK have a better government, come to that). Specifically, I’d like to see Iran with a less religious government.

But it’s got nothing to do with democracy.

Three interesting web apps June 12, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in design, webapps.
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Recently seen:

Hemlock: Flash/XMPP-based framework for building multiuser real-time apps (well, games). Clever stuff.

Layers: Another crowd-sourced website annotation tool. It’s not that I think this kind of thing is a terribly good idea, but it is rather smoothly executed here.

Wagn: mutant love-child of wiki and Hypercard. Execrable design, though oddly they don’t seem to think so; and rather ludicrously, it claims to be a CMS(!) but still, it’s an interesting idea.

Ballard watching over my desk April 20, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in whatever.
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People coming into my office often ask whether that framed portrait hanging over my desk is a picture of my dad. Er, no. It’s JG Ballard.

I will miss Ballard. One of my favourite writers, both for his distinctive stylistic voice (a matter of cadence as much as anything) and for his often remarkable and original subject matter. He wasn’t, mostly, a science fiction writer, but it’s easy to see why he was so often mistaken for one—like them, he worked in the literature of ideas. Just this year in the Guardian, a caption to a picture illustrating a piece on exoplanets used the phrase “some alien world JG Ballard might have dreamed up”. But he wasn’t in the business of dreaming up alien worlds, believing the psychopathology of our own was interesting and bizarre enough.

Going by today’s obits, journalists by and large only read the (fictionalised) memoir; but that was not The Work. If by chance you’ve never read any Ballard (or ONLY read the Shanghai memoir), then the beginning is as good a place to start as any. The Drowned World is his first novel. It’s one of a series of “apocalypse fiction” novels from his early period. Like Philip K Dick, a writer with whom he much in common, Ballard’s work went through a number of “periods” where he would obsessively explore a set of themes and ideas, almost rewriting the same book multiple times. 

I’m guessing Ballard’s work will outlast that of most of his British contemporaries. He wrote engagingly and thoughtfully about contemporary subject matter that nobody else would touch, and that will trump any amount of elegantly written social realism.

Ricardo Baeza-Yates “People don’t want to search” – The Next Web April 16, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in whatever.
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Ricardo Baeza-Yates “People don’t want to search” – The Next Web.

This is true. But at the same time, we haven’t come up with a better solution for navigating very large datasets.

“Things are a little complex in Java” April 7, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in whatever.
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Oh yes. Always.

In this particular case, it’s retrieving gravatars:
Gravatar – Globally Recognized Avatars.

Motherapp – because nobody wants to learn Objective C April 6, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in coding.
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The dilemma du jour for developers: the iPhone is where the app action (ie. revenue + distribution) is. There’s a gold rush on! But come on… Objective C? We have to learn Objective C? This seems like a step backwards into some kind of dark ages. 

Which is why we’re seeing things like Motherapp and PhoneGap. No doubt we’ll see more.

Settlers of Catan and other games March 27, 2009

Posted by Michael Kowalski in play.
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There’s a nice piece in Wired about Klaus Teuber, inventor of Settlers of Catan, and about “German-style” board games in general:
Monopoly Killer: Perfect German Board Game Redefines Genre

I’ve always liked board games, in fact I like them more than computer games. When people come around to our house and see the pile of games in the living room, they raise eyebrows, and I don’t have the heart to tell them there are many more squirrelled away in cupboards. Here’s the current list of games stacked by the sofa:

  • Risk
  • Settlers of Catan
  • Ra
  • Pirate’s Cove
  • Odin’s Ravens
  • LotR Risk (more different from standard Risk than you’d expect)
  • Labyrinth
  • Carcassonne
  • Alchemist
  • Scrabble
  • Monopoly (not really a game, but looks a bit like one)

When I was at university, the game I liked most was Dune. That was a nicely crafted game, where each player had a different set of special abilities. Some players had more chance of winning in the end game, some were stronger in the beginning. It was fixed duration, ending after 15 rounds if nobody had achieved outright victory by then, and had a cute battle system. I liked to play House Atreides. On the face of it, not the strongest player—during battle, you could ask a single yes/no question which had to be answered truthfully. But I was cunning enough that games soon developed a pattern where the other players would spend the first couple of rounds beating me into oblivion before getting on with the rest of the game (or that’s how I remember it). I would still sometimes make a late comeback, and anyway had a lot of fun trying to get there.

Dune was a six player game though, so a bit impractical once out of university. That’s one of the reasons the German games have been so successful: many of them work OK with very few players, and don’t take hours to complete. E isn’t really into board games at all, so mostly I play 2-player games with our daughter (if I had thought it through earlier, maybe I would have had more children). The main exception is Pirate’s Cove, which E doesn’t mind for some reason (ie. she usually wins), and Settlers. Even then, she can only be talked into playing a few times a year.

The social aspect of board games is certainly part of their appeal. Or sometimes, the antisocial aspect—gaming the other players can be a lot of fun. otoh, I don’t really like social interaction in online games at all. I play WoW, but I don’t belong to a guild and I don’t much play with other people except my daughter. I don’t know them! I can’t see their faces! With my daughter, we sit together in the same room chatting and interacting as we play.

OK, heading off to boardgamegeek now in search of something new.