Older blog entries for pcolijn (starting at number 157)

[Originally posted Dec. 02, 2006]

On Macs, continued

pphaneuf: I complained about FrontRow and the iTunes album art stuff not because I find their problems incredibly serious flaws of OS X as a whole, but because they are touted by Apple to be great new features, when they are actually decidedly half-baked. The fact that you cannot play DivX with FrontRow makes it pretty useless, IMO. There already is a DVD Player app that works ok, and 99% of your other video media is likely to be DivX. I use MPlayer OS X for playing stuff on Mac, and it too plays most things just fine (except some obscure Windows Media stuff). But it isn't integrated with FrontRow, and as far as I know, there's no way to integrate it with FrontRow, so the whole "Mac as the thing to hook up to your TV" concept is kinda lost on me. It's no better than a Linux or Windows machine for that purpose. It would be if FrontRow actually worked.

The album art thing, fine, it's actually not a trivial problem, and they probably wanted better accuracy than some of the open source programs, whose accuracy is somewhat wanting, as pmccurdy observed. Still, it doesn't download art for a lot of albums that Rhythmbox gets, so, as a newly-hyped feature it's pretty disappointing.

I guess my overall point in noting these two shortcomings was that, as Apple launches go, these two were very weak and left me unimpressed.

And again, it's not that I don't like Macs at all. I think they're great for what they're primarily designed for. My problem is that the design goals of a Mac do not really intersect very much with what I actually usually do with a computer, so they're not very good for me.

[Originally posted Nov. 29, 2006]

DS Lite

A while ago my gainful employer sent me some gift certificates to Best Buy. They sent them to the wrong address, but due to mrwise's resourcefulness I got them anyway.

In any case, I used them to buy a DS Lite. I must say, I'm very impressed with it. It's beautifully simple, suspends and resumes seamlessly so you can play for a few minutes on the subway and then slip it in your pocket, and the variety of games is great. The wireless gaming works flawlessly too, and the fact that you can play games you don't own is really cool. I really like Nintendo's strategy of sticking to what they do best: gaming. I feel like with all the other systems out there, they just try to be too many things, and end up getting them all wrong.


I've gone from loving mine to hating it. When I liked it, I didn't have data at all, since Fido charges ridiculously for data. But one of my main reasons for getting a Tréo as opposed to something cheap and crappy was that I'd be able to read email on it, do Google Maps, etc. So after moving down to NYC, where T-mobile has a reasonable-ish unlimited data plan, I went for it, and promptly discovered that doing anything data-related on the Tréo sucks.

The non-data stuff, like the phone, contacts and calendar, are solid, so if you just want a fancy phone that you can also run Palm software on, I'd still say it's a good machine, but if you want to do email, web, etc. I would recommend strongly against it:

  • Their built-in web browser, Blazer, has about the worse possible design I can imagine. The entire UI blocks all the time. You can't scroll a loading page until it's completely loaded. You can't scroll the current page as soon as you click something. There are no tabs. This makes my usual latency-hiding techniques, of (a) loading stuff in another tab while I read current stuff, and (b) clicking a link and then reading the current page until it loads, useless.
  • You can get Opera for it, but only the non-native Java version, not a Tréo-specific version. It's somewhat better than Blazer, in that it's faster and blocks less, but since it's Java, it crashes left and right, and sometimes locks up the machine completely, to the point where you have to hit the hardware reset button.
  • The built-in mail program, VersaMail, is also a complete piece of junk. It completely fails to handle non-7bit-ASCII encodings, randomly decides to re-download your entire mailbox, blocks while downloading, crashes often, etc.
  • The new Gmail phone app is Java-only right now, meaning that while it runs, it exhibits all the crashing and lock-up problems that Opera has. Using Gmail in a web browser is also a no-go due to the above browser problems.

The one bright light is the Google Maps for Mobile app, which is Palm native and rocks my socks off. But I went to the tech talk, and believe you me it was no easy task writing that sucker. Apparently modern Palms run PalmOS on an Xscale processor which is emulating some old 16-bit Motorola CPU or something? Sounds godawful.

I suspect the next PalmOS with Linux and GTK will be a lot better. Hopefully it will also come with tinymail, which is all kinds of awesome.

Anyway, one of the reasons I went Palm instead of Crackberry is that I thought Palm had a larger software library. This is true, but it seems that most new mobile apps are Java, because it's a lot heasier to support a bunch of phones at once that way. All of Google's mobile apps supported Crackberry right away or soon after launching, because Crackberry does Java, for example.

So, dear LazyWeb, how are Crackberries for non-data stuff? Do the phone, contacts and calendar work well? Are there 3rd-party apps for stuff like reading ebooks? How well does the email work with Gmail? I'm unlikely to want to pay for the special Crackberry "push" email, unless I can con Google into paying for it :)


Microsoft still doesn't get it. Ars does:

To unseat a player like the iPod and to convince users to ditch any PlaysforSure tracks they might own, Microsoft needed to hit a home run on launch day.

According to the same review, however, the Zune locked up right out of the box and there are pretty serious problems syncing, in addition to the much touted iPod-killing wifi feature being so severely limited that it's next to useless. If anyone is seriously going to "kill" the iPod now, they have to have something that works flawlessly and smoothly, in addition to having some cool new distinguishing feature that makes it so tempting that users just might be willing to throw away all their iPod FairPlay tracks. In short, it's next to impossible to "kill" the iPod at this stage, and MS doesn't get it.

Unfortunately for them, their anger at this situation, which is not unlike the situation they've created with Windows and Office, does not an iPod killer make.

1 Nov 2006 (updated 1 Nov 2006 at 07:37 UTC) »

I just spent a delightful weekend with slatepelican in Montréal. We walked around in the ridiculously cold and wet but oh-so-Montréal weather, ate ridiculous quantities of unbelievably unhealthy food and saw some friends. So it was a great time.

But I found it a little odd being back. I remember when I first visited Montréal I thought it was such a big, modern city. And of course it still is a big, modern city. But after New York I feel "dirty" somehow, because the wonder was lost on me this time. Or if not lost, it was at least different. This time Montréal felt like a small, quaint town. Which is not really a bad thing; in some ways that's what Montréal's going for. But I was somewhat stunned with my own changing perception.

Nickel and Diming

In Montréal, slatepelican and I stayed in a fancy hotel. The room was very nice, and we enjoyed it a lot.

However, they charged ridiculously for lots of things. Access to the Internets, for example, would set you back $15 per day. The bottles of water in the room: $8.

Now I find myself in a somewhat less fancy (but still quite nice) hotel in Palo Alto. Fast Internet is included in the room, and the bottled water is free.

andukar and I had a similar experience in Seoul. We stayed at a hostel for a few nights and then moved to a fancy hotel. The hostel had free Internet access, lots of channels on TV (including a Starcraft channel!) and a modest, but free breakfast. The fancy hotel had neither free Internet nor free breakfast, and had a downright awful selection on TV.

Why is it that when you pay more for a place to stay, you get less? In both these cases it is true that the more expensive option had better location and better accomodation, but on the other hand there already is a price premium, so the nickel and diming seems obnoxious.

Random (potentially NY-related) Tangent

Ok, what is it with the giant sunglasses, people? The 70s are calling and asking if we got the memo that giant freakin' glasses are ugly. That is all.


I finally got around to purchasing a bike this weekend. Yay me! I had forgotten how fun it is to blast between lanes on gridlocked streets at 40kph. Whee! In other news, I'm in pretty bad shape these days, having not biked in a while. Need to work on that...


Not in the programming sense, but in the UI sense. IMO, notifications have become public enemy number one. There are way too many of them, and they're almost all for stuff I don't care about.

My music player just started a new song? You know what, I know that! I can bloody well hear it! No need to pop up a stupid, ugly yellow box in my face! My software update is complete? Who the fuck cares? Such-and-such program that I manually started needs to access the Internet, and you need me to click "yes"? Would I have started the stupid thing in the first place if I didn't want to use it?

No operating system is immune here: the above 3 examples came from Linux, Mac and Windows respectively.

The thing is, notifications are distracting to the user. If you're going to disrupt the user's train of thought and get in the way of what they're doing, it better be for a damn good reason. "Your battery is almost dead," for example. If I don't know that, my computer will die and that will be even more annoying than getting the notification. But if the notification does not help the user avoid something more annoying than the notification itself, it's not worth it.

BTW, Microsoft has an item about notifications in their new HIG. Though it recommends them for "non-critical" information; I strongly disagree with that. It does, however, say to use them "judiciously," whatever that means. As pphaneuf says, you can tell something is easy when it's done often, badly. Maybe vendors should make APIs that do annoying things like notifications exceptionally difficult to use :P

Shiny Thing

I became one of those people with a vanity domain recently. You can now reach me at caffeine@colijn.ca.

MTA Hates Me

The MTA (aka the NY transit people, aka the only people I know who actually use a .info TLD) hate me. The past few weeks, the train I take home (the L) train has not been running between midnight and 5am. For those who know me, you can understand that this seriously cramps my style. Bastards!

But now, to rub salt in an already painful wound, they've decided not to run the L train all weekend. So I'm essentially stranded in Brooklyn unless I want to spend an altogether rediculous amount of time taking the G and J trains. Grr!

Head First Design Patterns

I bought this a little while after GUADEC and being inspired by pvanhoof. It's pretty good. I've actually used most of the patterns in some way, shape or form before but it's good to put a name to them and get the formal definition in my head. However...

Rant: UnsupportedOperationException

So I touched on this a while earlier but today my hatred for UnsupportedOperationException got some more fuel when I was reading the design patterns book.

In the composite pattern they actually recommend using this exception so an implementation can avoid implementing some of the methods from the interface. They do mention that not implementing some of the interface methods is bad, it's a tradeoff, etc. Fine.

What's evil about UnsupportedOperationException is that it's unchecked. Meaning the compiler doesn't warn you about it if you don't try to catch it. So here you are, coding against some interface and unbeknownst to you some of the methods are just going to bail on you and your app will crash, and you would never know that this will happen by looking at the interface specification or from compiler warnings. Lovely!

Please, people: stop using UnsupportedOperationException! If you really need to leave some interface elements unimplemented make your own checked exception like UnimplementedException or something and explicitly indicate which interface elements are optional by using throws in the declaration.

Unchecked exceptions should really only be for serious runtime errors, like NullPointerException, ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException or ClassNotFoundException. IMO UnsupportedOperationException is a gigantic hack that should never have existed in the first place. And now we're all screwed by it.. sigh.

Another One Bites the Dust

My iPod just died. It's very sad. It just won't turn on at all, even if it's connected to my machine (so it isn't just that the battery's dead).

Either I've had extremely bad luck with my iPod, or they just plain suck. I bought it less than a year ago and it's already been replaced once. In addition, it skips on mp3s that xmms, mplayer, rhythmbox and my Rio Karma all manage to play just fine.

slatepelican also had her iPod die recently. And I notice that everyone seems to have a pretty new iPod around here; either the nano or the video. You don't see very many minis or pre-video full-size pods. Either people really love upgrading their iPods all the time (Apple's marketing is really good, so this is possible, I suppose) or I'm not the only one experiencing iPod distress.

Is it unreasonable to expect a gadget to last more than a year? Or are iPods and the like just the latest thing to become disposable?


Sometimes I feel like everyone in this country is this guy.

18 Jul 2006 (updated 18 Jul 2006 at 21:48 UTC) »
Reducing Suckiness

If you use Mac OS X try:

export CLICOLOR=true

In your .bashrc. Why this isn't on by default is a pretty huge mystery to me.


There's still lots of suckiness left. People often ask me why I don't like Mac OS X. I have some good reasons, but they're hard to articulate. I'm going to try anyway. Also note that I don't mind OS X for stuff like browsing the web, listening to music or managing photos. Since those kinds of things are where OS X is mostly targetted, I'm not claiming OS X sucks in general. I'm claiming it sucks for me.

  1. Not really a feature of OS X itself, but Mac keyboards and mice are annoying, especially if you use UNIX apps. ctrl and fn are reversed, so I hit fn all the time (ctrl is also the way more useful key, so it should be easier to hit). And one button mice.. yeah, lots of fun when you want to use an X11 app. On a non-laptop you can of course just plug in whatever keyboard and mouse suit your fancy, but you're stuck on a laptop.
  2. Window management. In short, it sucks. When you have 4 or 5 terminals, plus a few Vim windows, plus a few browsers, it's really hard to get around. command-tab helps a bit but its semantics for apps that have multiple windows (like terminals and web browsers) are never quite what I expect. Exposé was supposed to remedy this, but when I'm working away I don't want to make my machine swap to disk just so I can see all my windows. Plus, on my MacBook Pro it doesn't work for some reason. I setup the hotkeys I want and they just show some weird symbol I don't understand when I push them.
  3. The dock. Most confusing interface EVER. You can put files, folders and applications there. Some applications disappear from there when you quit them, some don't (yes, I know the rule governing this behaviour, but it's not intuitive). And if an application isn't in there it's a lot of effort to go and find it and run it. Some apps, if they're running and you click the icon in the dock, they will raise their windows. Some won't. So you can't depend on that behaviour from the dock (it does at least appear to be consistent with command-tab).
  4. Speed. This has gotten much better over the years as Apple's hardware has gotten faster and Mac OS X has gotten more efficient, but it still can be an issue. For example, Firefox takes 11 "hops" in the dock before displaying a window on my MacBook Pro after I boot. I have a gig of RAM.
  5. Notifications. When an app wants to tell you it's done something, it bounces incredibly annoyingly in the dock for a while, completely distracting you from whatever you were doing. This often happens for seemingly unimportant things, like "we finished installing your software update." You know what? I don't care. I'll reboot when I feel like it, thank you very much.
13 Jul 2006 (updated 13 Jul 2006 at 06:05 UTC) »
Ranty Ranty

This entry will be a rant. You've been warned :)

I finally got my new bank card from WAMU (that's Washington Mutual for those lucky enough not to know). This has been a long saga.

Step 1: learn from drheld that WAMU was replacing their VISA debit cards with MasterCard debit cards (which in itself sucks, since MasterCard is accepted in fewer places than VISA).

Step 2: have WAMU cancel the VISA part of my old card before I had received or activated the new card. Incidentally, this happened while slatepelican and I were in Spain. Not the best time.

Step 3: have WAMU assure me, very convincingly, that my card would continue to work in ATMs until I got the new one and activated it. Indeed it did work in an ATM. One more time. And then it stopped working entirely.

Step 4: receive my new card, finally, because Tony was nice enough to bring my mail from California when he was visiting drheld and Don in Vancouver.

Step 5: activate the new card! Yay, money! Order stuff online from Amazon and PalmOne.

Step 6: orders from Amazon and PalmOne not working. Call WAMU. I thought I activated my card? No, we cancelled it. Ah, so when I said "activate" you thought I meant "cancel." I see. Well can I get a new one? Sure, it only takes two weeks.

Step 7: get new card finally today.

Step 8: activate new card. We'll see if they actually did it this time.

The thing that infuriates me the most about this is that to get a new card with WAMU they have to send it in the mail. Pretty much any Canadian bank that I know of will give you a new card on the spot if you go into a branch. WAMU claims they can't do that because all the cards have to come from some central MasterCard place. They should at least be able to give you a new ATM card on the spot. Not being able to get money, especially in a city like New York, really sucks hard.

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