elliot's blog

OSCON 2005 (part 1)

In Portland, Oregon for OSCON 2005. That was one long journey: 1 hour in the taxi from my house to Birmingham airport, 2 hours in the airport, 7.5 hours from Birmingham to Newark, 2 hours in Newark airport, then 5.5 hours from Newark to Portland. At Portland airport I got on the shuttle to the wrong Holiday Inn; so they shuttled me back, and I caught the right shuttle. Arrived here at about 10:00 p.m. local time, after roughly 19 hours travelling. I was knackered. On the plus side, I went to sleep around 11 p.m., and woke up this morning at 7:30. So hopefully my body clock is roughly on the right track.

Portland is a great city - some of the friendliest people I've ever met, very accommodating.

Holiday Inn is supposed to have free wireless in all rooms, but the signal is exceedingly weak. Air conditioning in my room, which is much needed, as Portland seems to be having a heatwave (apparently it normally rains a lot here).

Enjoyed the Saturday Market (also open Sundays) - nice, hippy-ish vibe throughout; sweet smells of incense, tie dye, stained glass, bonsai, candles. Even a bloke selling this game he'd designed called "The Real Game of Life", which included sections where you have to avoid getting sucked into a drugs nightmare. Had felafel with salad and yoghurt, plus real lemonade, for breakfast, sitting on the sidewalk. Very nice. Had a beautiful iced, blended coffee for elevenses. Lunch was iced tea (seems very popular here), potato salad, banana and a "food bar" (like a flapjack). There's even a wholefood supermarket here, which I may explore later in the week if I get a chance.

Nearly fainted when I went into Powell's book shop: it is enormous. I stayed there for about two hours. Bought lots of classic 70s sci fi. Mainly US, some US publications of British authors (John Brunner, Michael Coney); lots of Barry Malzberg I didn't have. Also got some second hand sixties Dr. Seuss books (actually Berenstain Bear books by the Berenstains, which Madeleine loves). Round the corner, I visited the technical section: I'll go back there once I've registered for the conference, as I can then get 20% discount off any purchases.

I had planned to go to the Japanese garden, but it was extremely hot, and I spent too long browsing for books. Also had to go and buy a power cable for my laptop, as I neglected to bring a US plug adaptor. I tried a couple of places in the city centre (the Powell's technical books people were extremely helpful in suggesting where I might get one), but without any luck. So I went to the Lloyd Centre mall, the biggest mall in Portland, so big it even has an ice rink in the middle. It was interesting to watch Americans at rest, out shopping for the afternoon. Managed to get a Compaq lead in Radio Shack there (again, really helpful sales people) which is 100% compatible.

While I was there, I had yet more iced coffee (it is extremely hot). I asked the sales assistant in Starbuck's "Could I have a receipt please?" and he replied "You betcha!", which made me smile. Then, on the way out of the mall, I held the door for someone who was pulling a big trolley load of boxes and he said "'preciate it, dude". Like I said, very friendly.

Later on, and I've hooked up to the free wireless in the conference hall. I have got my goodie bag, the most exciting element of which is a pocket Etch-a-Sketch, which I'm sure Madeleine will love. I saw someone with one of these on the plane on the way over, and was thinking of getting hold of one, and providence has seen fit to land one in my lap. (Another coincidence: I started reading "The Lathe of Heaven" by Ursula K. Le Guin on the plane over. I picked it almost at random before I left the UK. Turns out it is set in Portland, Oregon.) Other conference goodies: a mug, a Firefox sticker, some free magazines, conference schedule of course, course materials, a free book ("Open Source for the Enterprise": I'm sure Jono will love that one, he likes anything with "enterprise" in the title), some Yahoo! mints, and a couple of CDs. Plus a rucksack. Hurrah! I love free junk.

The worst advert on US TV: the one for Urine Gone. A spray which has "an appetite for urine"; eliminates urine stains and smells from carpets, eating it out of the lino and the wooden floor underneath it. Demonstrated by showing urine splashes on toilets using ultraviolet light, which disappear when Urine Gone is sprayed on. Surely they could have thought of a better name? Wee-Be-Gone? Piddle Away? Piss Sucker? - maybe not that one.


Cake is a pretty nice MVC, Ruby on Rails-like framework for PHP and MySQL. I've written a very simple CD manager application using it, which took me about a day; I then spent about another day writing some authentication code which plugs into it to do simple authentication against a MySQL database. I need to refactor the code a bit (e.g. make it configurable via a file) but it works OK as a first pass. (I would like authentication and authorisation to be in the core of Cake, so if I'm feeling brave I might submit my code.) If you're used to Rails, Cake is not too hard to pick up; or, for that matter, if you're used to MVC more generally. As it's in PHP, it's also fairly easy for me to extend. However, it is far less mature than Rails, and doesn't support the full set of Rails features. Plus the documentation is nowhere near as good. I think I'll stick to Rails for now, but Cake is worth keeping an eye on, and it's something I can mention to PHP programmers we work with at OpenAdvantage who are looking for a decent MVC framework.

Bits and pieces

As I have the house to myself this week, I am spending the evenings tidying up stuff I've been meaning to do for months. Namely:

  • Experimenting with using DOSEmu to run my old DOS games, including Ascendancy. (I plan to put together a howto explaining this as the DOSEmu documentation is far too complex).
  • Putting up photos of our holiday in the Scilly Isles, holiday in York, and latest pictures of Madeleine; then adding captions to as many as I could manage.
  • Fixing a few bugs in my music manager script and putting it up for download. Here's a description of the script plus links to download it.
  • Getting the latest source release (0.9.4) of gtkpod and compiling it, so Nicola (my wife) can use it with her iPod Shuffle (this version of gtkpod is the first one I've noticed which supports the Shuffle).

Ruby on Rails installation guide

I've just put up an installation guide for Ruby on Rails on XAMPP with FastCGI on Ubuntu Hoary (phew!). I thought it was worth writing this up, as I had my first enquiry from a client about Ruby on Rails last week, and get the feeling that some of OpenAdvantage's more adventurous clients might be interested in it.


TiddlyWiki is a one HTML page, Javascript-based wiki engine, which requires no server-side scripting. You basically edit a single page which constitutes the whole wiki, save it to disk, then upload it to your website (if you want it to go onto a live site). It works pretty well, though when I deleted the title for a "tiddler" (the name for a wiki entry), it disappeared into limbo, so I could no longer edit or delete it, at which point I abandoned TiddlyWiki. Could be useful for people with no server-side scripting to enable them to create a dynamic site, though. Also a good example of the pretty things you can do with DHTML.

Tagged filesystems

A friend of mine has long hankered after a filesystem with metadata. This is an interesting first pass at the problem.

Dr. Who Technical manual and Horror Top Trumps

I would have loved this when I was a kid. And why did I never have these Top Trumps? Who can resist Top Trumps where you compare "killing power" and "fear factor"? I got to these via Slashdot, where someone posted about the Ladybird computer books: funnily enough, I have a near-pristine, 1971 edition of this which someone bought me for Christmas. It's a great read.

I didn't realise I was so short

Went to hospital today for a liver test, and they decided to measure my height to work out my body mass index. I am 174 cm tall, apparently. I did a quick conversion, and it turns out all my life (since I've been about 16) I've been telling people I'm 5' 10", when in fact I am 5' 8 1/2". Either I've been labouring under a misapprehension for most of my life, or I'm shrinking. Depressing, really.

Birmingham bomb alert

Just heard on the news that police have carried out controlled explosions in Birmingham city centre. They are also evacuating the city centre, starting with Broad Street (where I work). Just hearing on the news that a suspect package was found on the 105 bus, in Corporation Street, and was detonated in a controlled way by the police. I've been a bit nervous since the London bombings, especially since I go to work on the bus and work on one of the highest profile, most conspicuously decadent streets in Britain's "second" city. Also a bit nervous because my wife is travelling back to the city tomorrow from London by public transport. But this won't stop me going on with my usual business next week.

Why do people suffer Windows?

I finally got round to installing Ubuntu on my OQO (thanks to Jono's external CD drive - the OQO is fussy about external drives and didn't like mine; and Paul finding an invaluable FAQ). The only issue I had was bizarre: when the wireless disconnected, the mouse went haywire. Got it sorted now though. Installed all my essentials: Thunderbird, Googlebar and del.icio.us extensions for Firefox, RealPlayer and Flash plugins.

The interesting thing is, I used my OQO with all these applications for several months, but running under Windows. And already the Ubuntu experience outstrips Windows. Here's why:

  • Wireless is far more reliable and drops out far less often. Also, if the wireless does drop, Ubuntu picks it up almost immediately. On Windows picking up again sometimes took 30 seconds. Plus the wireless monitor in Ubuntu shows signal strength, so I can tell when the wireless is losing signal. This is a big winner for me, because the wireless drops in Windows annoyed me almost to the point of launching the OQO at a wall.
  • I've got all my developer/networking tools to hand without having to go and download them: zip, tar, ssh, ftp clients, Python, Ruby, messaging clients.
  • Good lightweight multimedia programs are there already: PDF readers, audio players which can handle ogg files, video players, rippers, CD burners galore.
  • If I plug USB devices in, I don't have to hunt for driver discs.
  • The unit runs much cooler than it did under Windows, and the whiny fan starts up far less often.
  • Although I probably won't use it much, I have a full Office suite available, capable of handling any Microsoft Office files.

Why on earth would I want to use Windows? Admittedly I am reasonably adept with Linux, but Ubuntu and other modern distributions are in my opinion on the verge of overtaking Windows for ease of use and value for money. Sometimes it seems criminal that so many computer users can't see what they're missing.

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