On our inability to use Java to separate the sheep from the goats

Kate just drew my attention to a wonderful rant over at Joel on Software

When I started interviewing programmers in 1991, I would generally let them use any language they wanted to solve the coding problems I gave them. 99% of the time, they chose C.

And the problem with this is…?

[W]hat I’d like to claim is that Java is not, generally, a hard enough programming language that it can be used to discriminate between great programmers and mediocre programmers. It may be a fine language to work in, but that’s not today’s topic.

Essential reading, complete with Monty Python references and a picture of a card punch.



A couple of days ago we woke up to find that one room was without power. No lights, no power to the wall sockets. While we couldn’t think why that room should have been singled out, the fix was obvious – a circuit breaker must have tripped, so I went downstairs to reset it.
Except it hadn’t. All of the circuit breakers were fine. None had tripped. None was even a little bit wobbly. I became puzzled, and more than a little bit nervous – if the breakers were fine, this suggested a wiring issue. And wiring can mean arcing or heat…. It was clearly time to call an electrician. Specifically, it was time to log in to Angie’s List.
A couple of hours later a young electrician turned up. Initially, he was as baffled as I had been. Was there a secondary panel somewhere in the house? (None that I knew of.) We searched from basement to attic, without success. Which breaker covered that room? Ah, well, bit of a problem there: the 40-circuit panel was unlabelled, unmapped.
Since we bought the house six years ago, we’d only made two changes that involved electrical work: a yard sprinkler system, and bathroom extractor fans. The electrician identified the breaker that controlled the fans, and pulled it. This looked like it might be the culprit: there were several circuits connected to this one breaker. He added a temporary splice, reconnected the breaker, and everything came back to life. Excellent trouble-shooting!
But of course this was just a short-term solution. The next day the senior electrician came by, and we assessed the situation. The 40-breaker panel dated back to the 1970s; it now had at least 42 circuits coming in to it, and it wasn’t up to (current) code. So next month we’re going to replace it with two 30-breaker panels, which will give us some headroom. And this time we’re going to label everything.



Looking for stock pics for your team-building slideware? Look no further. And when you’re done, click through to here and here. Seriously twisted stuff. Shades of Ricky. But then this is one of the books I’m reading over the break, so what do you expect?


On the uncritical use of the term "commander-in-chief"

A couple of apologists for Bush’s warrantless wiretapping wax indignant in an op-ed in today’s New York Times. Yet when it comes right down to it, former DOJ lawyers David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey base everything on the following assertion:

Even if Congress had intended to restrict the president’s ability to obtain intelligence in such circumstances, it could not have constitutionally done so. The Constitution designates the president as commander in chief, and Congress can no more direct his exercise of that authority than he can direct Congress in the execution of its constitutional duties.

But this is nonsense. The US Constitution uses the term “commander in chief” only once:

Section 2
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States

This merely identifies the role of the President in the military command structure of the Army, Navy and Militia. It confers absolutely no powers with respect to any other agencies of government, nor does it specify that this authority is not subject to constitutional and legislative control. Indeed the Supreme Court ruled on this in 1952. The failure of Bush apologists like Rivkin and Casey to even consider this point is significant, as is their reluctance to come right out and claim that FISA is unconstitutional.
(This is a pretty useful background article.)
UPDATE: Marshall Grossman expresses it much better than I did.


The Meme of Four

I found this over at 10,000 Monkeys and a Camera:
Meme of Four
Four jobs you’ve had in your life: Software engineer,…. Hmm: that’s it, I think. Different employers (government, academic, commercial) in the UK and US, with many variations on the theme; but basically I’m a one-trick pony.
Four movies you could watch over and over: The Lion in Winter; Lost in Translation; My Fair Lady; Kiss Me Kate
Four places you’ve lived: Brookline, MA; Chesham, Bucks; Newcastle-on-Tyne; London.
Four TV shows you love(d) to watch: Monty Python; House; MI5; Absolutely Fabulous
Four places you’ve been on vacation: Toronto; Paris; the Greek Islands; Florence
Four websites you visit daily: Andrew Sullivan; ongoing; AlecM;Majikthise
Four of your favorite foods: Sushi (actually sashimi); avocado; roast lamb with mint sauce; lemon zabaglione
Four places you’d rather be: Oxford; Tokyo; Barcelona; Sydney
Your turn….


The perfect gift

The best gift this season came from Merry’s parents: a copy of The Illustrated Christmas Cracker by John Julius Norwich and Quentin Blake. It’s stuffed full of “quirky quotes”, of which my favourite is this book review from Field and Stream, November 1959:

Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been re-issued by Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English game-keeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional game-keeper.
Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeper.


Latest Tommy pictures

(Click on the picture to get to the photo gallery.)


Glenn Greenwald on Bush, FISA, and Youngstown Co. vs. Sawyer

Must-read piece by Glenn Greenwald, describing in detail how the 1952 Supreme Count decision in Youngstown Co. vs. Sawyer set out the limits on presidential power. And the bottom line:

If the President really believed that the Executive has full constitutional power in the area of surveillance on American citizens and that Congress has no power, he could have gone to a Federal Court and asked it to declare FISA unconstitutional on the ground that it usurps executive authority, or he could have publicly declared his right to violate FISA – just as Harry Truman did when he wanted to seize the steel factories and thus allowed the federal courts to rule on its legality. Bush did not do that. Instead, he just broke the law, hoped nobody would find out, and even tried to prevent newspapers from reporting it when they did find out.

In a comment to my earlier piece on this subject, Charlie from Colorado pointed out that two prominent legal authorities had argued that Bush did have the authority he claimed. But the first of these (Professor Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School) offers a very tentative assessment, without considering whether any SCOTUS rulings might establish any constitutional framework for evaluating Bush’s behaviour. The second, ex-Clinton associate attorney general John Schmidt, illustrates the problem of disentangling conflicting sources. He wrote:

But as the 2002 Court of Review noted, if the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches, “FISA could not encroach on the president’s constitutional power.”

It’s unfortunate that he didn’t identify which of the many FISC opinions this came from, because it seems to fly in the face of Youngstown Co. vs. Sawyer. In that case, as Greenwald puts it…

The Supreme Court said that even though the President may have a claim to some “inherent authority” [to act], once Congress has enacted laws making clear that he cannot do so, the President under our system of Government does not have the right to act outside of the law by violating Congress’ intent. In so ruling, the Court said that the where Congress has the power to legislate in a certain area (as it plainly does with regard to regulating eavesdropping on American citizens), the President is no more permitted to violate that law than anyone else is, even if he claims that doing so is necessary for him to carry out his Executive duties to protect the nation. It really does not get any clearer or more dispositive than this.

Indeed Sunstein seems to concede this:

On […] the question is how to square the AUMF with FISI. It isn’t unreasonable to say that the more specific statute, FISA, trumps the more general, so that the wiretapping issue is effectively governed by FISI.

(But then he starts waffling. Bad choice, Charlie.)


How I'm going to spend the next couple of days

This afternoon we went up to Lynn to visit our daughter, son-in-law, and grandson Tommy. When we got home, the postman had left a bulky padded envelope containing the DVDs of this summer’s thrilling Ashes cricket match series. Three DVDs, with eight hours coverage of one of the greatest sporting contests in history. So far I’ve watched the first disc: the First Test at Lord, when Australia got off to a wobbly start, destroyed England, and eventually won by 239 runs, and the thrilling Second Test at Edgbaston, when Australia put England in, stumbled, and then fought back to come within 2 runs of snatching victory. Tremendous stuff.
Two more discs… I know how I’m spending my time over the next couple of days.


Fillmore West 1969

Like many of my generation, I was a Dead-Head. I bought all the albums, saw them live on a number of occasions (the first being in Wembley on the 1972 European tour), and followed their chequered (but always interesting) journey to its conclusion. Since Jerry’s death there has been a veritable torrent of live concert releases, which I’ve mostly ignored: I don’t mind the survivors making an honest buck, but when we get to “Dick’s Picks Volume 35” things are getting seriously out of control!
When it came to their recordings, one LP defined the Dead: their 1969 double album “Live/Dead”. I bought it on vinyl when it came out, and almost wore it out; later I got a cassette copy; still later, a CD. I knew it note-perfect: in the days before Walkmen and iPods I could “play” the entire thing in my head – even the glorious drum duet in “Lovelight”. It’s one of the three greatest live rock recordings in my collection. The other two are the live disc of Pink Floyd’s Umma-Gumma” and Dire Straits’ “Alchemy”. It’s my musical Mona Lisa: quirky, but perfect.
A few days ago, I received an email from my friend Paul Smith in England. Paul’s the only fellow-student from RGS High Wycombe that I’m really in touch with, and our relationship has always revolved around music. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s we used to share our stash of imported American LPs, marvelling at the work of bands like Mad River, H.P.Lovecraft, and Captain Beefheart. Since we re-established contact a few years ago, we’ve traded info on progressive and metal music. (I wish Paul would write a blog, but he’s too busy doing “real” rock journalism. Oh, well.)
Paul’s email was very simple: did I still listen to “Live/Dead”, and if so was I aware of Fillmore West 1969, a triple CD from the same set of shows that yielded the material for “Live/Dead”?
I wasn’t. I bought it. And I was blown away. It was as if I had suddenly found that Leonardo had painted not just Mona Lisa, but a whole set of portraits of Mona and her sisters.
As for the music, I can’t do better than quote Thomas Ryan’s review at

During a four-night run from February 27- March 2, 1969, in San Francisco, the Grateful Dead were the perfect band in the perfect place at the perfect time.
The `Live/Dead” album was a two disk set, approximately eighty minutes in length. At the time, this was fairly lavish, but by necessity, it represented only a fraction of the music from this historic stand. “Fillmore West” is compiled from the best parts of those shows that did not `make the cut’ for “Live Dead”. The 3-CD package generously triples the playing time of the original album, and structures itself as if it were one incredibly long, exhaustive set. A 20-minute version of “Dark Star” is the centerpiece, and segues beautifully into “St. Stephen,” followed by “The Eleven,” all of which capture the rich, exploratory nature of a band that was at the nascent crest of its powers. A near-perfect 23-minute version of “That’s It For the Other One” precedes a 25-minute track simply entitled “Jam”.

I’ll never know these newly-discovered performances note-for-note, as I do “Live/Dead”, but that’s OK. In fact the intense familiarity with the original work makes it even more startling to listen to this new collection. One of my favourite classical works is Handel’s “Chaconne and 21 variations” for harpsichord; the same kind of exploration comes through in the way the Dead’s treatment of these pieces evolved. (Intelligent design? Hmmm.)
Anyway, if you’ve become jaded by the constant release of live recordings by the Dead, check this one out. It’s the real thing.