Firefox 3 looking good

I thought I'd try out Firefox 3 for a bit. Part of my job is to stay up to date with the latest and greatest, and I was hoping the much-touted memory management enhancements would be a nice plus.

So far, I'm well impressed. AJAX- and JavaScript-heavy sites are vastly faster, so for example Gmail snaps open, Google Reader zips along. The CMS I use all day every day also flies. Most importantly, they really do seem to have plugged the memory leaks. By this time of day, I'd expect Firefox to be around 200 megs, having used a few AJAX sites quite heavily. Instead, it's around 115 megs with four tabs and two CMS windows open. It also seems to go down when you close tabs and windows, which is something that didn't happen before. It also remains quite zippy.

Haven't noticed any bugs or rendering weirdness yet, which is a good sign. Only problem so far is that Firebug isn't yet available. There's a version of it for Firefox 3, but it apparently has some issues. If I decide Firefox 3 is stable enough to use all the time, I'll try out the upgraded Firebug. Life without Firebug would be a much reduced life...

Inbox zero: the radical approach

There's been a bit of discussion recently about Inbox Zero, getting your email inbox empty. Well I just discovered a rather radical approach to getting there. I accidentally deleted everything in the inbox. Thought I was in another folder and deleted all.

I've got backups, so if I find there's anything vital I'll be able to recover, but for now it's strangely liberating. Will see how I go.

Where can I get Hogarth prints?

Street, William HogarthBeer
Street, William Hogarth

I've always loved Hogarth's Gin Lane and Beer Street engravings. The post-industrialized world's first moral panic was due to the flood of cheap spirits, coupled with a bored and concentrated population. "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence" was the slogan of the gin palaces. Hogarth contrasted the debauched Gin Lane with the prosperous and healthy Beer Street, where the pawnbroker is out of business, the populace engaged in edifying pursuits. Kinda like the current vogue for talking about "binge drinking".

I've always wanted to buy some prints of these classic campaigning engravings. Periodically I look online and I invariably find "Gin Lane" but rarely "Beer Street" in the same format from the same vendor. Anyone got any suggestions to get this?

Alternative would be to print these public domain versions taken from Wikimedia Commons. Not sure the resolution is good enough though. I used to live around the corner from Hogarth's House and never made it there. I bet they would sell prints!

Weekend in Hobart

from Mount Wellington

We spent the weekend staying with Scott and Katie down in Hobart. Had a really fantastic time hanging out with them, seeing the sights, drinking, eating, meeting some of their friends and catching up with our other mates who've moved down there, Martin and Jo.

Thursday night we were collected from the airport and taken back to their pad to be fed delicious mussels, rice paper rolls and pickled squid. Yummy! The seafood down there is spectacularly good and bloody cheap.

Friday we drove down to Cockle Creek on Recherche Bay, a gorgeous spot right down in the South-East of the state. The only sad part was seeing the moonscape left by clear-felling of trees by the rapacious logging company that owns Tasmania.

Amazing house in Hobart

Friday night we hooked up with some of Scott and Katie's for a few drinks, then ate a fantastic meal down on the docks with Martin and Jo. More brilliant seafood (I had the ocean trout with sumac) and some good Tasmanian wine. The beers at the place were the fantastic (but overpriced on the mainland) Moo Brew, especially the really rich dark brew.

initial view from Mount Wellington

On Saturday we went to the amazing Salamanca Markets, which are a long strip of stalls selling great local food, tourist nick nacks and the like. I picked up an luscious blackberry jam and a small block of the most amazing, richly-flavoured percorino that had been aged two years. Lots of fun and the bratwurst made a good breakfast. Scott and I dropped into Parliament House for a tour of this big old building. Nice to see where all the dodgy decisions get made.

Saturday afternoon we drove around town a bit, and up Mount Wellington where the initial view was obscured by clouds, but just as we were leaving the clouds cleared and I got some good photos. We had a look at the outside of the Cascade Brewery, though the tours were all booked out so we missed out this time.

Martin and Jo

Today was another great day. We dropped in to see Martin and Jo's house, which is really incredible. They've been very fortunate to find such a lovely house, all ready to go. Next we all drove into town for a quick late seafood lunch on the docks again before we had to head to the airport.

Boats in the harbour

Loads of fun and Hobart seems a beautiful town. Scott and Katie would love us to move down there, but I'm not sure I could cope with the cold so well. I'd miss the long, languid summers and the afternoons spent outside. I'm sure you get some of that down there, but not as much as in Sydney! On the plus side, it'd be the perfect place to grow all the fruit trees I want.

I took a bunch of photos as did Scott.

How much should we prop up the remote regions?

Australia has a long history of propping up the economies of the remote regions. You get tax breaks for living in remote areas, telecommunications providers are forced to provide phone services and we subsidise connecting them to the Internet. Australians have an emotional connection to the bush, despite the fact that most of us don't live there and a large proportion have never even been anywhere particularly remote.

I've been thinking about this recently after the new government's tender for a Fibre To The Node network stipulates that 98 percent of the population should have 12 megabit broadband. 12 megs is a pretty fat pipe, and you've got to wonder why they set the bar there -- was it based on any cost/benefit analysis or did they just pluck a number from the air? And where does 98% come from? What kind of density are those last few percent spread over?

What I've been considering is how much it makes economic sense to prop up all these places, and does it distort rational market incentives? For example, Australia has enormous farms in quite marginal land. Perhaps the best outcome would be to not farm these areas, given their fragility and the marginality of the business?

As another example, I once visited a family friend's enormous farm in South-West Queensland. Very dry, dusty land with a couple of sheep per square kilometre. The farmer had a main house on one side of the property and another small house on the other side of the property that was used only a couple of weeks a year. At the time, Telecom was forced to supply phone service to these remote areas at a maximum cost of $5,000 for installation. The microwave links to provision these services would have cost quite a few orders of magnitude more to supply. Because of this perverse incentive, the farmer had a phone installed at the little-used house, where previously they'd kept in contact with the main house via HF radio. So the taxpayer bore the cost of installing all this, when in reality it wasn't particularly needed.

The same idea comes in with this broadband subsidy. Now I'm sure every farmer out there would love to have metro-equivalent broadband, the ability to watch YouTube and the like. But do they really need it? I'm struggling to think of any business-essential application that would require the bandwidth and low-latency of broadband.

Telemetry from sensors would use very minimal bandwidth, and isn't all that latency-prone, so would be much more cost-effectively carried by other means. Access to weather reports and commodity prices isn't exactly high-bandwidth stuff: a 56k modem would do fine. Even having webcams strewn around a property so the farmer can keep an eye on things when away isn't going to use enormous bandwidth.

So what pressing issue requires a subsidy for this? It seems rather extravagent. The political sums don't add up either. These regions are almost all National voters, and would never elect Labor (despite the agrarian socialist Nats having more in common with the ALP than the reactionary, conservative Libs).

I've long argued that we should stop subsidising farming anything like as lavishly as we do. Farmers are business people like all others, so why do they qualify for such extravagent treatment, apart from some weird sentimentality?

Improving fridge efficiency

At some point over the next year we're planning to renovate our kitchen. We did a very minor renovation soon after we moved in, replacing the lino floor and swapping in an Ikea bench/drawer unit, but we want to do something much more extensive.

One of the things I've been thinking about is getting the best energy efficiency out of our fridge. I've always found it a bit odd the way they're designed. Fridges work by pumping heat from the inside out to the coils normally located on the back. Wouldn't it be much more efficent to arrange the fridge similar to a split air conditioner, with the heat-release coils in a cooler location? My basic understanding of thermodynamics makes me think the higher the difference in temperature between the liquid carrying heat from inside the fridge and the air around the coils, the higher the efficiency.

Along these lines, I was wondering if efficiency would be improved by getting cooler air flowing over the coils. Since our house has a raised, wooden floor, this could be done by putting a grill in the floor, so that the convection draws cooler air from under the house over the coils. Obviously there needs to be a way for the warm air to escape as well. This arrangement should result in something of a chimney effect, with cool air drawn in at the bottom, passing over the coils, then escaping at the top.

So I dropped a note to the Alternative Technology Association who publish the excellent ReNew: Technology for a sustainable future magazine. I expected, possibly, to get a response in the magazine at some point in the future. To my surprise, I received a response the same day from Technical Editor Lance Turner.

A number of people have suggested this mod over the years, however the most important thing is that air can escape from the top of the fridge - ie, the fridge has at least a 50mm gap between it and any of the walls of the alcove, especially the top of the fridge. So long as there is enough space for air to flow freely, you will get convection happening as the condenser heats up.

Lance goes on to suggest a forced-air fan to actually blow over the condensor, particularly if you can get it to work only when the compressor is on. Quite a neat idea, but I'm keen to go with a passive approach.

So it seems that my idea has some merit, but only if there's a good way for the heat to escape. I'll look into having the hot air vent into the roof space, as well as the vent at the bottom. I think that should result in some pretty substantial efficiency gains.

When abstractions attack!

Had an interesting little bug report today. Apparently someone has created an email address with an ampersand in the local-part. While this is perfectly, valid, it means we enter a world of pain when someone decides they want that email address published on a web page.

Anyone who's ever done web or XML stuff will know that & is a special character used to define other characters. For example, if you want to draw a greater-than character (>) in HTML, you have to type > rather than directly typing > as greater-than is one of the HTML (and XML) delimiters.

So noting this bug report, which was that when the user tried to use our drag-and-drool WYSIKCTWYG (What You See Is Kinda Close To What You Get) editor, adding the mailto: link resulted in & being inserted, and there didn't seem to be any way around it, including editing the source.

So I started thinking about the many levels of abstraction and translation in our application. It's quite staggering when you think about it, and any modern, complex application is likely to have similar layers.

Starting at the front-end, you've got the JavaScript editor control, which uses the browser's DOM to translate things into HTML in a GUI. Next the page is stored in XML according to schemas defined in the CMS. These, in turn, are stored in a database -- I've no idea if they're stored natively in XML or translated yet again.

When the content is published, the whole thing happens in reverse except that the HTML is generated by stitching together all the little snippets according to the templates. Finally we see for sure whether anything went wrong.

It's quite amazing how many layers of abstraction and translation there are. This is actually a pretty simple bug, and could probably be resolved in the JavaScript editor. Of course, given there's an easy work-around (change the email address to not have an ampersand) I'm unlikely to get around to having it fixed.

My justification for insisting they change the email address is that this system isn't likely to be the only one that has problems with the ampersand. I know for a fact that there are hundreds of broken email address validation systems out there that don't allow a whole stack of perfectly-valid characters in email addresses.

Virgin Blue confirmation doesn't print

Virgin Blue confirmation printing

Maybe I'm expecting too much, but if I were the web developer at Virgin Blue, I'd test that the itinerary lookup page printed alright. It's the kinda page your customers might think would be worth printing.

Instead you get this absolute dogs breakfast. WTF? Before you ask, this is what printing looks like in Internet Exploder 6 and 8, which probably accounts for 80% of your customers. I did try Firefox first, then reverted to IE to see if it fared any better.

I don't need fancy styling, but having the text I'm interested in reading all overlapping isn't what I had in mind.

What are Planets for?

Russell is discussing the purpose of Planets, the feed aggregators many of us enjoy. I don't think it's ever really been enumerated, and it probably should. But I bet it's different things to different people.

I enjoy the Planets for the rich and varied insights you get into peoples' lives. We're not all one-dimensional geeks, though I imagine those reading Planet Linux Australia might not have worked that out since I've been censored there.

Russell discusses etiquette for the planet operators. I strongly agree. I've found myself added, then censored from some Planets without any interaction from me -- yes Planet Linux Australia's operating cabal, I'm talking to you. Without some sort of policy, it seems these sites are just run at the whim of the person with the password.

The idea of separate Planet installs, one that's filtered to be solely on-topic and one that shows everything, is a good idea. I think that would resolve many of the complaints about off-topic posts for those who aren't interested in everything. Another thing I'd like to see is the banning of Twitter. The inane wibblings of people who are clearly deranged isn't something of any interest. And there's certainly nothing on-topic in there. Less coherence and thought than goes into a text message seems to be applied to average Twitter post. Enough already!

One thing I would recommend is to not run the official Planet software. It's breaks badly on perfectly-valid feeds, and seems to be abandomware. Try Venus instead, which has refactored much of the code.