diary at Telent Netowrks

I'd better write something about NotCon, then#

Mon, 07 Jun 2004 21:29:55 +0000

I'd better write something about NotCon, then. If you'd been to XCOM two years ago, it was sort of like that (telling the time with a prawn sandwich, full-motion video on a Spectrum), but actually not very (accoustics worth a damn - you could actually hear the speakers - and without the trestle tables around the edge manned by people with wooly beards and woolier ideas)

In no particular order:

I should plug http://www.theyworkforyou.com/, not that they need the meagre googlejuice I can channel their way. But in five words: "Hansard with a user interface". Glossary for foreigners: "The Official Report (Hansard) is the edited verbatim report of proceedings in both Houses [of Parliament] Members' words are reported with repetitions and redundancies omitted and with obvious mistakes omitted, but nothing is left out which adds to the meaning of the speech or illustrates the argument."

The prawn sandwich. Summary from memory: you take the sandwich apart and monitor the bread, prawns and mayonnaise separately. Bread and mayonnaise are basically a resistive load; the prawn is, I think, partly capacitive, and each component decays at a different rate. The whole thing needs to be about two days past its sell-by date before it becomes useful as a time source

I skipped everything between about 2pm and about 4pm to go skating. Which was fun, except that I was foolish enough to leave my rucksack at home thinking "I only have a pair of trainers to carry, I can just hold onto them". Indeed I had, and could, and did, but not having hands free seemed to cramp my style somewhat; also I forgot my wristguards and so erred further on the side of caution than was really necessary.

Tom Dolan's talk on managing people (also see this blog entry, which made me laugh). Right now I'm firmly out of the management game, but I listened to this and winced remembering things I had screwed up last time around. "When the going gets tough, what you should absolutely not do is retreat into your own job" (paraphrased) ... um, um. Conceded, that I was expected to continue doing my old job as well as managing didn't really make it easy.

And so to the Danny O'Brien talk, which was the one that really struck a chord. (He's given this talk before: if you google "life hacks" you'll find about a zillion people have blogged one of its instances, probably all linked to each other as well, and most of it utterly worthless. Cory Doctorow has useful , though)

As usual with a talk about which lots of people enthuse, there are a bunch of probably-contradictory messages you can take home. So instead of reporting what Danny actually said (if you weren't there, your local Iranian carpet weaver should easily be able to reconstruct it from the threads scattered across the aforesaid zillion blogs) I'm going to seize random comments and use them as ammunition to promote views close to my own heart: I refer of course to "habitable software".

The common thread with all of these allegedly productive people was that they had picked a flexible environment/platform (given that they're all famous on the interweb and therefore by definition involved with publishing their ideas on usually-unix-based boxen, it's no surprise that in 95% of cases this platform is the unix shell) and scripted it to do things that it might not even be the best tool for. Common example: instead of using a clicky graphical project management tool, manage your outstanding task list with a lightweight text editor and a file called "todo.txt".

What this means if you want to write software for these people, then: don't make it a platform unless it's good enough to displace their existing platform (and you can probably assume it won't be any time soon: it needs to be significantly better to be worth the cost of learning/unlearning).

There's also a relevant argument in the "scripting vs programming" debate thing. (many of) these people know how to write software, and indeed are famous for it. But the private scripts they write to manage their lives are typically not the kinds of things you would hold up as a good style example: they're often 80% solutions slapped together to meet a need which possibly doesn't even exist any more.

And while we're here, and because he mentioned them at the start of the talk, I'm going to say a couple of words about CRC cards. I'm not sure whether we were supposed to consider that small paper rectangles are also secrets of prolific alpha geeks or whether the connection was just to Kent Beck ("I'm an average programmer with very good habits") and hence the lead-in to the topic proper, but I'm just going to throw this idea in the air: maybe the friction imposed by using inflexible/unsuitable tools is part of what makes these people productive in the areas that they need to be, where they might instead be adding drop shadows to their priority 1 items? PhysicalCuesInSoftwareDevelopment (from Ward's Wiki) has more on that theme. Affordances, guys.

For entertainment, then, a sample of the scripts in my ~/bin and ~/scripts directories - though perhaps my .emacs file would better reflect the spirit of the endeavour.

attach-locally, attach-stargreen, attach-telent
attachtty invocations for connecting to detachtty instances for important servers
diffprep, diffcommit
Written sometime during the dotcom boom that i missed, and in probably near-daily use since then. diffprep runs cvs diff and prepends a # to each line. diffcommit reads this file, strips out the lines starting with #, and uses the remaining lines to form a commit message for each file that the diff touches. Usage scenario: diffprep > file; edit file to include a sensible commit message for each file, using the diff to remind yourself of what you actually changed; diffcommit <file | sh -s
set up a ssh tunnel to a news server I no longer use, and run fetchnews
Written after a keysigning party(sic) a few months ago. Takes a bunch of key ids, and mails the associated email addresses a form letter saying "someone with ID that associated themselves with the username on this key was in the pub last Wednesday asserting that the key was theirs. If this was you, please reply so that I know the email address corresponds too". Probably not an awful lot of use as it stands except for any future keysigning parties organised on Wednesdays in places called "the Lamb and Flag, Oxford". Still, it did a job, and I can hack it for the next one in less time than it took to write.
imap-metacircles, imap-zen
wrapper scripts so that fetchmail can collect mail via "ssh foo /usr/bin/imapd"
evil kludge (in Perl, natch) to connect to a remote host:port through an HTTPS proxy that understands CONNECT proxying. Written several years ago, probably used twice.
sox $* -t ossdsp -c 2 /dev/dsp
script to kill audio-using applications then rmmod i810audio and APM suspend. Given that it's approaching four years since I hacked the i810audio driver to suspend cleanly, that tells you something about how often i clean up around here
crashes my computer, mostly. It was going to back up my mobile phone, but usb blah blah linux blah pl2303 bla blah reverse engineered blah panic. So, it doesn't.

Oh, and this diary entry, like all the others, is brought to you by diarize; a shell alias for make -C $HOME/doc/telent sync $*. I like Makefiles.