blarg?

So, we’ve got these two clustered Oracle servers, right? And since they’re running Oracle, they must be for something big and expensive, so we’ve got to test them with our application to make sure that if some part of them fails, that our applications either handle that nicely or die as quickly and cleanly as possible. Because having bad data hit the disks as a result of some hardware failure would be bad, you know?

Bear in mind, of course, that this is end-of-day friday, and I’ve got to catch me a plane to get back home soon.

So, clustered servers have this “heartbeat” cable between them, so they can both feel warm and fuzzy knowing that the other one is right there next to them being supportive in a load-balanced, atomic-transaction, servery way. So, we reckon, what happens when you pull that cable while you’re running our super-important application?

Holy crap, it’s exciting.

So, I pull the cable, and one server very promptly dies. Over the course of twenty seconds or so the Oracle app locks up, then the UI locks up, and then the screen turns blue and tells me that 0x0000FFFF means something horrible has happened.

Then shortly after that, our cab doesn’t show up to get us to the airport, so we have to figure out how to cross six lanes of highway and flag one down on the other side. When we do, it’s already got a trunk full of luggage and a passenger in the front seat who looks extremely serious and doesn’t say anything. We pile into the back with our suitcases, the meter is never turned on, and we drive to the airport in silence, paying the guy the fifteen-dollar airport minimum.

Then we go the self-checkin, and the ticket-printer widget tells us it’s printing our tickets and then it crashes too. On our second attempt, the machine tells us we’re troublemakers, and to go see the counter, and now we’re a little behind, so we hustle.

Then we get to the plane on time, and I have just enough time to find out that my iPod and Gameboy are both out of juice before we get sent out to sit in the plane on the runway for an hour while we wait to be de-iced.

And the flight turned out to be one of the jitteriest, shakiest rides I’ve ever been on, bar none. Plane, boat, carnival, Canada’s Wonderland, mechanical bull, whatever. The landing was, in particular, the most exciting I’ve ever been a part of, and everyone on board was visibly a little shaken.

Then we almost got trapped in an elevator in Union Station, as it dropped half a foot and jerked us around for a few exciting moments before it consented to let us out at our floor.

So, anyway, I’m back home now, and with a bit of luck nothing else wi##.
@.!!%@
$#&#@
$#@$#@+++NO CARRIER+++

So, just days after I heard from person at an anonymous major canadian telco that they’re deliberately dropping modem-over-cellphone calls because that might give consumers a way around their ridiculous data-rate fees, Bell (to presumably preempt Rogers’ impending iPhone news) releases a $7 unlimited data plan that is:

  • Only available non-transferably on only the HTC Touch, and
  • that device has been deliberately crippled, so you can’t plug a keyboard into it or use it as a bridge for any other devices, so
  • you can use the internet, provided you scribble in URLs with their tiny-screen handwriting recognition or little tic-tac-sized on-screen keyboard.

It’s not even worth seven dollars a month, because it’s nothing more than a novelty.

Not to mention Bell keeps paying Norm Mcdonald to provide the voice of a computer-animated, anthropomorphic beaver, which is just completely unforgivable. Bell: get the fuck out.

And, of course, Rogers is holding off on the iPhone as long as possible, because if consumers got a sensible data plan then blackberry users might start insisting on one too, and golly, we can’t have that. Extortion rackets aren’t going to prop themselves up, let me tell you.

Then yesterday, I got this great news, which basically marks beginning of the end of the crappy cellphone situation in this country.

I got to watch some shill from Telus go on about how this was “undemocratic” and “bad for the taxpayer” and thirty seconds worth of other sky-is-falling harping, and it was the best thing I’ve seen on TV in months. In fairness, she wasn’t really wrong; if you’re a telco the sky is falling, but it’s only going to land on you.

Here’s some trivia for you: it turns out “best effort” and “best practices” aren’t the same thing at all. Not even a little.

How about that!

If you, like me, have been to a few restaurants in your life that have quite nice decor, exorbitant price tags and profoundly mediocre food (Canoe, I’m looking directly at you) and you’ve had quite enough of that particular brand of pretentious bullshit, then have I got a treat for you. Specifically, I have got the exact, precise opposite of that grim gustatory menagerie just described.

On the recommendation of some members of the relevant cultural group, we went out for Indian food Sunday night down on Gerrard. “Not a place you bring your parents, or a first date”, we were told, “but if you want great Pakistani food it’s the only game in town.”

I found that advice very, very accurate.

Toronto people: be aware of the Lahore Tikka House. Specifically, you should be aware that while it has every appearance of being a dive (and I do mean every appearance; an analysis was made, criteria specified, lists of dive-qualifications made and each item thereon implemented and meticulously crossed off) that it is also full of bumpin’ indian techno music and fantastic food. I understand they’re building a new restaurant next door to move into next year, featuring such frills as not-office-trailer decor, not-lawn furniture, not-plastic cutlery and not-styrofoam plates but honestly, with food that good, who cares?

So if that sort of thing offends you then get takeout, you ponce. But if it doesn’t, then run, do not walk; this is some good eatin’, right here. Sit down, soak up the beat and the smell of the place and fix that indian food craving that’s been nagging you for the last little while.

I enjoyed it quite a bit, is what I’m getting at here. It is a dive that serves great food, qualities that pretty much instantly make it My Kind Of Place, but I think you’d like it too.

I was travelling around in the Montreal Metro last night, just an hour or two after I first saw Terminus. A great, surreal experience, that was.

Le Metro here is a lot more interesting than Toronto’s subway system, a terrific place for retro gawking; built between the late sixties and early eighties it’s designed in a way that was intended to be futuristic back then, and if you’ve got a single milled-brass, piston-powered retrofuturist bone in your body then you owe it to yourself to take a look around. Everything was built to be futuristic at a time when futuristic meant decisive colors, brushed metal and lots of concrete and every station, as far as I can tell, has a unique plan, color scheme and decor.

At first a lot of it looks somewhat seventies-tacky and garish. Even vaguely Stalinist, if we’re talking about a somewhat more rounded-edged, kids-toy Stalinism with bright, pleasingly-contrasting paint colors, high-quality concrete and craftmen with more pride-of-ownership than fear-of-Siberia. A Stalinism where Tonka handled the tractor quotas, or something. At night, my trip felt a little bit dark and ominous, but once I soaked in it for a bit and took the time to look around, I got a sense that the architects were aiming in some sense to balance futurism against humility. As in, we know that the future won’t look like this, nobody has ever been able to make that trick work, but let’s try for futuristic but present-functional, and show some respect for the permanence of something that we’re building to last and the people who’ll be walking around in it every day.

And that approach, if I’m right about that, has really worked well; in a couple of different stations, I found myself thinking that while it turned out not to be the future, it’s definitely a future. One of the futures we wound up not using, frozen in an amber of concrete and ceramic. Very cool and often beautiful, in the way that well-made old TVs and clocks and radios are beautiful.

Despite my gripes about Montreal’s increasingly-jittery infrastructure I should tell you that I like the city quite a bit. I wandered around last night in the Quartier Latin, skipping out on the apparently B-for-Beowulf to lope about the streets in a manner that would appear random, to those not seasoned veterans of what is sometimes called “tradecraft”. The untrained eye would see only a tourist puttering around looking for something to do. But therein, of course, lies the ruse.

I wandered into the Cinematheque near the corner of Maisonneuve and St. Denis, and they had a great exhibit of several generations of antique televisions and animation techniques, which was pretty cool. Around the corner, I got to spend some time actually watching some classic animation, short films and old newsreels at the National Film Board’s Cinerobotheque, which translates roughly to “Automated Movie Gallery”, but that I’ll be the very first to admit that I investigated for other reasons.

The Cinerobotheque is a fantastic idea – it’s a bunch of chairs with decent sound systems built-in, and a collection of classic movies, old newsreels and modern, NFB-sponsored stuff that you can come in and watch on a pay-per-view, on-your-own-time schedule. There was a lot of great stuff in there, and even just looking over the best-of, we-recommend booklets that the staff have compiled made choosing what to watch difficult. And it’s in a neighborhood full of little restaurants and bistros, making it basically a flexible, highly personalizable way to go out for dinner and a movie.

One neat thing that gave me a very pleasant bout of the nerd-frisson was that since it takes a minute for the robot to pull and load up archived tape, instead of having you just sit there watching an hourglass while that happens, they’ve got a camera next to the robot, so you can watch it work.

Anyhow, how I’m back at the hotel, and giving thanks and praise for the internet connection here, because TV continues to be terrible. Has CSI always been this relentlessly, painfully expository? Is this what science looks like to your slower-moving remedial-fine-arts majors? I just keep cringing; winning quotes this evening include “nickel would indicate some kind of metal”, “what’s a webcam” and an expository bit about how with “wifi”: you can “surf the net using radio waves”. Verbatim quotes all.

(Honestly. The wifi bit featured an executive busting into a crime scene claiming to be “in charge of all the computers in the building”, only to follow that line up with “A wifi card? What’s that?” Sir, your shipment of fail has arrived.)

I’ve got it as even money that somebody had a good chortle in that meeting, saying that even though they’d dumbed it down that far, there would still be some yokel somewhere saying “Wow, you can get the internets on the radio now?”. Nobody really laughs, the comment hangs in the air, the moment starts to drag, and a few people in the room die just a little bit more.

I’m in Montreal for the next two weeks, working away. Not a lot of late nights at the office ahead of me, I think – they lock the place up tight at six – so I might get some walking-around-the-city in evenings, once I can figure out how to get somewhere interesting from the airport.

Getting around Montreal is always exciting. Every time I get here, I revisit an old idea I first concocted years ago, that the reason Montreal is such a diverse, broadly multicultural city is that it takes less effort for the average visitor to find a job, meet, court and marry a spouse, raise a family, put down roots, integrate into the greater community and finally assert your own unique voice in the greater urban discourse than it does to just get into a car and figure out how to drive away. I’ve said this before, but I’ve never seen more concrete poured with less forethought than the city of Montreal.

My accomodations are a little, er, vulgar. Harmless enough, but clearly trying to strike a balance between bulk-purchase costs and being reasonably inoffensive to people who’d rather be somewhere else.

The ratings for the hotel seem to depend a lot on which side of the building you’re on; options include “runway-facing”, “highway-and-industrial-park-facing” or “parking-lot-facing”, though I seem to have found some fortuitous balance by being tucked into a notch in the U-shape; the only geospatial shortcomings of my room are the icemaker and the hallway windows that afford passersby a broad view of my sleeping area.

I could though, as always, be worse. It’s an airport next to a hotel, which puts it on the same karmic plane as the off-strip parts of Vegas; won’t be good, could be OK. Could be bad, though, and all you can really ask for is to leave with the same diseases you came in with.

It looks like I’m going to get that plus a complimentary continental breakfast. So, you know, go me. Did they call it a “continental” breakfast out of some ex-pat fear that everything else would make you incontinent? I am prepared to believe that.

I’d like the record to show that I miss my wife very much. Are we agreed on that? Very well, the record will so indicate.

This sort of violates an important blogging rule, but it’s all about unconsciousness, so I’m hoping that the concerned party will let it slide.

An odd thing: just to try them out, two weeks ago we picked up some “memory foam” pillows. We needed to replace our old ones as you periodically do, they were on sale, what the hell, why not.

They weigh about five pounds each, and are the tactical nuclear weapons of pillowfighting. Not unless you want to actually kill somebody, is what I’m saying, because they hold a lot of inertia. And when you lie down on them, you think that you’ve put your head on a moss-covered rock; a little give, and then nothing. They feel impossible to settle into, tp get comfortable with at all.

But here’s the thing: once I manage to get to sleep on those things, I sleep like a dead man. This is wildly unusual. I’m confident that there’s no voice-in-the-head-quelling apparatus in those pillows, no mania-subduction-ray emitters or twitch-muting refractometric technologies in place. Not for thirty bucks, anyway. But here we are, with me sleeping all the way from midnight to seven uninterrupted. I can’t remember the last time I slept that long without sleep-performance-enhancing drugs of one kind or another. I seem to have skipped my regularly-scheduled staring-at-the-ceiling-at-3:00-A.M. completely.

Maybe asleep-comfortable is different from awake-comfortable? I wouldn’t have thought so, but I guess it’s possible.

“It took me half a lifetime to invent it. I’m sure you’ve discovered my deep and abiding interest in pain. At present I’m writing the definitive work on the subject. So I want you to be totally honest with me on how The Machine makes you feel.” – Count Rugen, “The Princess Bride”

So that OpenMoko phone that I wanted? Yeah, they’re not going to ship this year. Well, they’re going to ship the hardware, maybe. But with that UI, really, who cares?

I made the mistake of upgrading to Ubuntu 7.10 before my presentation, something that I’m pretty sure counts as a rookie mistake. It only took me three tries to actually get X working again, and if I didn’t have an extra wireless card around the whole thing would have been a complete write-off, but I weathered that storm, I guess. After a backup and a clean reinstall, the very first thing I had to do was fire up a console and hand-edit xorg.conf.

Again.

How many times have I done that, I wonder? How many times am I going to have to?

Power management is still a complete crapshoot, but hey, it’s only 2007. Sometimes it even works – it depends on which of my USB peripherals I’ve plugged in, it looks like. And I found out that after I’ve put an SD card into the SD card reader, my laptop will never suspend again, not until after a hard reboot. My first hint of that came when I closed the lid and put the laptop into its nice, insulated padded bag, zipped it closed, and practically burned my hand on it when I pulled it out an hour later. Those of you who thought I might have found that out the “easy way” can rest assured that my streak is alive.

Every time you close the lid on your laptop and it doesn’t go to sleep, just keeps on grinding away, do a shot. Every time you try to wake it up but the monitor won’t turn on, or the keyboard won’t work, do a shot. Every time your wireless card, in the finest binary-blob tradition, dies and stays dead until a hard reboot, do a shot. If I say it like that, it’s a game. Games are fun, right?

There was a talk at FSOSS by this fellow named Marcel Gagne, whose main thesis seemed to be that Linux is super-awesome and totally ready for everyone to use, and I just sat there and seethed for five minutes before I decided that it was time to choose between leaving and screaming. He was so far into sombrero-full-of-nails territory, and it was a room full of witnesses, and on tape, so if I was going to make that point in the manner and degree it fully deserved, that was the right moment.

I walked away, though. I’m not sure if I regret that or not.

It’s been the Year Of Linux On The Desktop every year, to my personal recollection, since 1997. Ten years, and if you think it’s the year of Linux on the Desktop yet here are some exercises for you:

  1. Plug in a second monitor, and
  2. Make it work.

Master-class-level exercises include:

  1. Plug in a second sound card, and make it work.
  2. Try connecting a bluetooth headset, and make that work, or
  3. Buy some peripheral at random off the shelf, because you like what the box says it will do, plug it in, and see what happens.

And once you’ve done all of that, wait a week for that special day that a software update makes all that work magically disappear, and you’re left sitting at a console again trying to figure out what part of your boot process lost its shit and kept you from so much as booting into a gui.

I think that free software is really important, fundamentally important. Important enough that I’ve used Linux exclusively for more than five years, now. Not being able to control the machines you ostensibly own, to control what they do, who they report to back to, and how they interact with you and the rest of the world is fundamentally antidemocratic, a subtle and pervasive abuse of freedom, privacy and general human dignity. I’m not overstating the case, here – automated processes get put in place that make decisions that affect us all individually, and if those processes aren’t accountable to, and changeable by, responsible human beings, then fundamental issues of justice and fairness are subservient to the whims and often-marginal competencies of whoever put the code in place.

It’s that serious.

But I can’t just buy things in a store. If I want a device that does a thing, whatever it is, I’ve got to spend an hour or four on Google trying to figure out which model, or device, if any, will work with my setup at all. And I usually don’t get to read the manufacturer’s’ website, or anything – I’ve got to wade through message boards full of jackasses just to figure out if the model I’m going to buy is the same one that some random guy got to kind-of work one time, and maybe there’s source, and maybe there’s not. And maybe it will work, but usually it won’t.

The built-in webcam in my year-old laptop doesn’t work, and probably never will. I have a PDA running Linux, and some of the time that’s great, but most of the time it just sits there running Linux. The GUI is OK, power management is the same issue it always is, and I’ll be damned if I can figure out how to make it sync with anything. I still file bugs when they come up, but nobody’s really interested in working on them. Web browsing with it works, some of the time, but that’s life; “Works in Linux” doesn’t reliably mean much of anything, except that one guy made it work one time, and maybe he’ll tell you how that worked, and maybe he won’t. Can you actually make phone calls with the OpenMoko yet? I heard that one guy managed to, kinda-sorta. You still need to leave it tethered to a power cable, so it’s basically a glorified landline with a shitty touchscreen UI, and oh, hey, here we are in 1997 again.

I haven’t played a video game on a PC since the last millenium. No WoW, no Half-Life 2, no Portal, no (and this one truly hurts) Cyan Worlds stuff. I’ve filed bugs, shared processes, solved problems and filed patches whenever I’ve been able to. And then I walk into an Apple Store and play with an iPod Touch, and I just want to cry. I’ve said this a lot recently but I swear that playing with the iPod Touch is like getting a postcard from the future. It is shockingly great – the touch screen works exactly the way you want it to. The physical model underneath the UI makes it simple, intuitive, flexible and gorgeous.

It’s technology that works exactly the way you want it to, on the first try, and it’s beautiful. And I kept thinking, why can’t I get some of that?

How about it? All this freedom is awesome, and I’ll be the first to admit that there are best-in-the-whole-world applications here, but I’ll be fucked if it’s easy to make them work with each other. How about some convenience for once? How about some fucking ease of home use and home administration, not just glossy icons and bigger click-targets? Because I’m getting pretty goddamn tired of feeling like I’m working on an antialiased imitation of OS9 with fancy icons, here. Of having to explain to my wife why Gimp won’t print and randomly, silently crashes out without saving her work. Of closing the lid on my laptop and never being sure what that’s going to do. Of OpenOffice being brittle, opaque and just unbelievably fucking terrible in general. Of having to do bullshit like run low-level scripts to get sound cards to, you know, make sounds.

But mostly, I’m tired of looking at other people’s beautiful toys and wondering why I’ve apparently consigned myself to an environment made up of shitty, dated user interfaces in front of second-rate software running on clunky hardware designed by people with elaborate technical explanations for their terrible taste. I’m tired of feeling like freedom is synonymous with thousands of little inconveniences and workarounds on technology five years late. It’s not like putting up with this shit is going to get me into heaven.

And the next jackass who tells me that the answer is to switch distros is getting punched in the neck. In fairness, that might get me into heaven.

If your machine doesn’t need a video card or a sound card, it’s still the year of the Linux desktop. Same as it was last year.

See you in 2008.

So, somewhat inspired by this, I borrowed a level map from here and this picture (and the sun sprite from here) to make this picture.

My home desktop is two adjacent 1680×1050 screens, if you’re wondering about the dimensions.

Incidentally, Super Mario Brothers (the low-fidelity video-game bit at the bottom, there) was released in North America about eighteen months after Bruce McCandless, the fellow in the space suit, went on the MMU-assisted spacewalk photographed there.