When I'm looking at a new open source project one of the first questions I ask is "how good is this software?". Unless you know something about the reputation of the author or the code it can be remarkably difficult to tell whether something is good or crap. Caveat codor.

This is another reason why unit tests are so important. They're like a badge of quality. The fact that there are tests at all is a good sign. Run them, do they pass? Scan through the test code; does the coverage look good? The tests are usually a handy API example, too.

Mark and his feed parser are famous enough that I figured it was good quality code. But seeing 1882 tests pass sure is reassuring and it's quite interesting to read the tests.

For the bad side of this see the tests for pywebsvcs. Many of the tests don't work last I looked. It's not clear which tests are even useful. I don't mean to slag the pywebsvcs developers — they're doing great work — but I'd sure feel better about the code if it had a test suite I understood.

  2004-03-28 00:19 Z
I was all excited to relax a bit this weekend playing Far Cry, a clever new first person shooter. I made a special trip to buy it on the way home and everything. But instead of installing the game and enjoying virtual battle I first have to have a real-world battle with my computer. Or, as the box says in tiny print:
Notice: This game contains technology intended to prevent copying that may conflict with some disc and virtual drives.

I use Alcohol 120% to create virtual CD drives. It's great for saving the trouble of finding the actual CD and it's able to emulate a bunch of the crap that copy protection schemes look for. Ubisoft has decided to punish their paying customers by refusing to run if you have Alcohol installed. It's almost enough to make me join the 12,938 other people who are downloading a fixed version of the game off of BitTorrent. I'm not even trying to run the game with an emulated CD; just having Alcohol installed is enough to break Far Cry.

Fortunately the software engineers aren't any smarter than the decision makers at Ubisoft and upgrading from Alcohol 1.4.3 to 1.4.8 fixed my problem. But I had to waste an hour of my life figuring that out.

Palladium, the uber-DRM system Microsoft is pushing, will make it impossible for me to work around crap like copy protection. With "Trusted Computing" Ubisoft will have more power over what my computer does than I will.

  2004-03-27 03:47 Z
Valuable listening: Terry Gross interviews the man whose job it was to protect America from terrorists. Clarke says George W. Bush ignored his urging to protect the US from Al Qaeda in favour of attacking Iraq. There's a lot of discussion of Clarke's book now, hear the center of the argument direct from the source.

KALW is having a very unintrusive pledge drive now. If you listen to KALW, why not donate?

  2004-03-24 18:02 Z
Looking for a nice weekend vacation in the wine country of California? Forget Napa; too crowded. Sonoma County is a good alternative; more rustic than Napa, more laid back. But still quite cultured and beautiful with great wine.

I spent most of the weekend in Healdsburg, CA, about an hour and a half north of San Francisco just off 101. It's a cute little town with an upscale tourist infrastructure but still relaxed. The Hotel Healdsburg was pleasant (but not perfect). The real highlight was Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen, a fantastic restaurant concentrating deeply on local food and wine. Healdsburg is full of good looking restaurants: Bistro Ralph, Madrona Manor, Zin, etc.

As for wine, the guide you need is the Russian River Wine Road, particularly the maps. We concentrated on Dry Creek valley, a long narrow valley with a great little road on the west side. Lambert Bridge is an old favourite there. This time we dropped in on Raymond Burr and Yoakim Bridge, both small wineries that only sell direct. Excellent wines, very full flavoured with some refinement.

The best wine of the weekend was at the restaurant sommelier's recommendation, a Hafner Vineyard's 1993 Alexander Valley Cabernet. The elegance of a proper aged Bordeaux at a price that wasn't wacko.

Alas, the housing prices are wacko: nice homes in Healdsburg are $700,000 and up, and a little 1800 square foot vacation home in the hills with a few acres of land is $1.5M or so. So much for the fantasy of a weekend place.

  2004-03-22 00:48 Z
As I sit here listening to a bootleg rip of the soundtrack for Rez I find myself pining to play it again. Rez is one of those games that is hugely exciting to anyone who's ever seen it, yet such a commercial failure that it never got proper distribution and has no hope of living on. Worse, it's in the netherzone between obsolete hardware and contemporary emulator capabilities, so unless you have a PS2 or the actual Dreamcast with the funky grey market disc to let you play PAL games you can't play it.

The gameplay itself is unremarkable, a simple linear shooter. But the hallucinogenic graphics and fantastic mellow techno soundtrack make this a fantastically engrossing game. The cleverest thing is the way that reactive sounds (shots fired, explosions) are looped in sync into the soundtrack. The graphics are astoundingly beautiful and innovative and the trance vibrator is rumoured to please all the senses.

My favourite thing about Rez is the way the game is like a journey, a relaxing trip that has a bit of challenge but isn't too demanding. I wish there were more games like that.

  2004-03-19 04:57 Z
I'm thinking about getting some proper web hosting via User-mode Linux. UML is a cheap virtual server system, like IBM VM or VMWare only lower tech. Each user has their own virtual system image with full root access, but it's only $20/month instead of $50/month or more. Also known as Virtual Private Server (vps). The downside is you share CPU and RAM, although the numbers below are worst-case scenarios.

Here's what $20/month gets you on a few hosting sites:

Disk GBRam MBCpu MHzXfer GB$/GB Xfer
TekTonic ($15)364150502
Quantact ($15)364100202
That's really cheap. Of course, this table doesn't capture important things like how reliable they are, how good their peering is, what kind of backup (if any) they offer, or how good the support is.
  2004-03-14 19:17 Z
Way back in 1994 I wrote an undergraduate thesis for my math degree at Reed College. It was a fun project, studying a discrete dynamic system that was an extension of the Ising model. Sort of cellular automata meets statistical mechanics. It's the only significant thing I've written that's not online (too lazy).
A few years ago my colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute wrote a preprint from that work, Vortex Dynamics and Entropic Coulomb Forces in Ising and Potts Antiferromagnets and Ice Models. They were kind enough to list me as an author even though I barely understand half the paper! I do have the pretty pictures, though, plus a healthy appreciation of the complexity of discrete systems.
I've never met one of the co-authors, Cosma Shalizi. But thanks to his having a weblog I now know more about him than the other guys.
  2004-03-14 18:57 Z
The months after Christmas are the doldrums of the PC game industry, but we're just about to emerge in the light. Three things I'm looking forward to:
Rise of Nations: Thrones and Patriots
Expansion pack for the most satisfying RTS I've ever played, Rise of Nations. I'm not sure this is going to add a lot to the original game but I'm hoping it facilitates a second wind for RoN.
Hitman: Contracts
Sequel to the fantastic Hitman 2, the stealth FPS. Hitman 2 was just the right mix of silly and intense with a gameplay that could be easy if you wanted or hard if you were careful. Hitman: Contracts looks to be a bit more serious and dark, but I think it will work out OK.
Thief: Deadly Shadows
Sequel to the groundbreaking Thief: the Dark Project, the game that invented the stealth FPS. Thief is the nexus of a lot of game development talent: the original was made by the late-lamented Looking Glass Studios who also developed System Shock 2 and whose alumni have gone off to do great things. Thief 3 is Ion Storm and Warren Spector's chance to recover from the disappointing Deus Ex: Invisible War.
The Sims 2
Sequel to the genre-busting Sims. I haven't heard much buzz about this game. But just adding modern graphics to the Sims formula will make for a pretty entertaining product.
All of these games are sequels! So are the other two highly anticipated games coming out - Half Life 2 and Doom 3. I wonder what the next really original game will be? Maybe Peter Molyneux' The Movies?
  2004-03-14 01:53 Z
Kim Stanley Robinson has a thoughtful article in today's NYT about the interplay between science fiction and science in our conception of Mars. From the humanistic civilizations of earth 20th century writings to Robinson's own terraforming trilogy, Mars science informs scifi writers which in turn inspires science.
  2004-03-13 21:16 Z
Habeas thought they had a clever idea: copyright a little haiku, consider any mail that has the haiku to be not spam, then sue any spammer who violates their copyright.

What a dumb idea! The problem is spamassassin treats this mark as strong evidence of not-spam (-8.0: +5.0 required to be spam). So of course a bunch of spammers are including it to slip past spam filters. My carefully tuned spam filters started failing recently because of this. Sure, some day maybe a copyright lawsuit will bring some relief, but that's years away.

I'm not the only one with this problem: Anders Jacobsen, no such weblog, truerwords, uncle dirtae, etc. The problem is that spam is an arms race: as soon as the spam filters impolement a technique the spammers find an exploit. 'Test for this magic string' is awfully easy to exploit.

Solution? score HABEAS_SWE 0.0.

Update 2004-03-15: a spamassassin developer contacted me. They are working on a fix that sounds good.
  2004-03-12 15:44 Z
In today's NYT, an article about people speculating on the Martha Stewart verdict. Apparently they guessed wrong. The interesting part of this story is how the NYSE specialist intervened to slow trading in MSO; the more automated markets just let the price fluctuate wildly on rumours. Compare to the story on spraying NASDAQ.
I should start a Floyd Norris fan club. The market is a complex and surprising system; Norris' articles covering it are consistently interesting, insightful, and innovative.
  2004-03-06 18:03 Z
Following on the controversy around the Grey Album, a shadowy group of people have released the Jay-Z Construction Set that includes all you need to make your own remixes. It has the original Black Album, the vocal tracks, 14 remix albums, and all the old school samples and high-larious clipart you need to build your own project.
I love the optimism in construction sets, the idea that if you give ordinary people some raw material they'll produce art. In computer games, Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set set the standard.
As seen on MetaFilter
  2004-03-05 16:18 Z
Jose Padilla met with his lawyers for the first time since being locked up without charges in June 2002. His lawyers, Andrew Patel and Donna Newman, met for about three hours at the Navy brig in Charleston with Mr. Padilla, who is accused of plotting with Al Qaeda to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb." Mr. Patel said they mainly gave Mr. Padilla news of his family and did not discuss his case because the government was closely monitoring the meeting.

Does this sound like America?

  2004-03-04 15:50 Z
The blog world today is full of links to Edward Tufte's sparklines, a design element to display time series data in text. Read the article, it's interesting.
sorry about the fuzziness and scaling,
your computer screen isn't 1200dpi
But as nice as the device of a tiny graph is, I don't think it works the way he suggests. I object to his emphasis on "word-size graphics" that "enable them to be embedded in text and tables". The last thing I want when reading a paragraph is a tiny little data display breaking the flow. The sparklines look fine when they're by themselves as part of a tabular display. But in the middle of a paragraph they call too much attention to themselves. And how are you supposed to set a line when one of the "words" is half the line length and the spacing doesn't break well?

I occasionally worship at the Church of Tufte and have taken a lot of inspiration from his emphasis on simple and clean design. But many of his ideas seem awfully hard to apply well. A particular frustration is that many of Tufte's design elements rely heavily on 1200dpi multi-colour printing on fine paper. That's great, but these days all of my design is for 100dpi computer screens.

Tufte has written amazing and comprehensible books that have had a good influence on everyday design. But often when people cite Tufte it's just "oooh, pretty" without really thinking about where the ideas are applicable.

  2004-03-02 16:42 Z