Everything you buy is instantly obsolete

No sooner do I get a Blackberry 8700c than reports appear of the Blackberry 8800, with several of the things that I really miss from my Treo 650 (camera, joystick trackball rather than thumbwheel, swappable memory card) and one feature whose time has come (WiFi). Plus it’s even thinner…. Oh well.


Chris visiting, furniture, and weird fruit drinks

All of the above are captured in this collection of pictures. Enjoy.


Linux WiFi… snarl…

Amazon uses Red Hat Linux for almost all of its servers and developer desktops – some lingering RH7.2, lots of RHEL3, an increasing amount of RHEL4 – and so I decided to play with the new Fedora Core 6 on my usually-WinXP laptop. Since my apartment network is entirely WiFi, I downloaded the 3.8GB ISO image to my PowerBook last night, burned it onto a DVD this morning, and tried installing it this evening.
So far, not so good.
As I mentioned, it’s WiFi only here, and I made the mistake of telling the installer to leave the Ethernet adaptor enabled. This caused the installer to hang, probably waiting for me to plug in a cable, and I had to power-cycle. Unchecking the Ethernet option allowed the installation to complete. However I wasn’t able to get the WiFi to work: I’m going to have to try again in the morning. The standard network configuration tool seems pretty lame: it doesn’t allow you to search for available networks, for example. A quick search just now suggests that there are some better tools out there; if so, I hope that they’re bundled, because I’m getting tired of sneakernet with CD-Rs.
Once it’s all working, I plan to install J2SE 1.5, NetBeans, and the full Spring distribution, and play with the sample Spring apps. I’m starting with NetBeans because it’s what I’m used to. Eclipse is more widely used at Amazon, but NetBeans is starting to get a little traction, mostly because of the profiler.


I guess I'm not in Boston any more….

Coyotes on Beacon Hill?


Essential viewing

Olbermann tells it like it is. 10 minutes of straight talk about the politics of fear.


The horror, the horror

Don’t watch this when you’re drinking or within reach of any sharp objects. As reported in Best Week Ever:

The cast of The Times They Are A-Changin, the new Broadway musical featuring the music of Bob Dylan, dropped by The View this morning to butcher perform the classic song “Like A Rolling Stone”.


Slouching towards a police state, one fingerprint at a time

I’ve been getting a bit behind with my blog-reading (and blogging) for the last few days, mostly because Chris has been visiting. This evening I spent an hour or two catching up on my regular feeds, and then wandered over to Buried among a piece on the return of the Transport blog and a rant about Kettering town planning, I encountered a story that provoked a classic double-take. It seems that an increasing number of British pubs and clubs are being required to fingerprint their patrons. Incredulously, I read the background material from the Guardian and the Register, then Guy Herbert’s analysis:

The fingerprinting is epiphenomenon. What’s deeply disturbing here is the construction of new regimes of official control out of powers granted nominally in the spirit of “liberalisation”. The Licensing Act 2003 passed licensing the sale of alcohol and permits for music and dancing – yes, you need a permit to let your customers dance in England and Wales – from magistrates to local authorities. And it provided for local authorities to set conditions on licenses as they saw fit.
Though local authorities are notionally elected bodies, and magistrates appointees, this looked like democratic reform. But all the powers of local authorities are actually exercised by permanent officials – who also tell elected councillors what their duties are. And there are an awful lot of them.
Magistrates used to hear licensing applications quickly. They had other things to do. And they exercised their power judicially: deciding, but not seeking to control. Ms Bradburn and her staff have time to work with the police and the Home Office on innovative schemes. I’ve noted before how simple-sounding powers can be pooled by otherwise separate agencies to common purpose, gaining leverage over the citizen. I call it The Power Wedge.
They are entirely dedicated to making us safer. How terrifying.

I’ve always hung on to my British passport, secure in the knowledge that if things turned pear-shaped in the USA I could always scamper back across the Atlantic to an oasis of relative calm and sanity. Time for Plan B, I think….


Ancient history (i.e. 12 years ago)

Alec has been doing the email equivalent of dumpster diving, and the result is this delightful piece, covering the launch of and the attempts by Sun IT to beat back the rise of WWW traffic. It all seems so terribly quaint, doesn’t it?


Andrew Sullivan's one-dimensional analysis

The two hottest books for thinking persons are Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (currently #2 at and Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul. I don’t have a lot to say about Dawkins’ book, beyond noting that I admire and agree with almost all of it. (Check out his website for various comments, pro and con.) So how about Andrew Sullivan?

I’d been thinking how best to frame my opinion of Sullivan’s core idea when I read David Brooks’ review in the New York Times. The following observation leapt out at me:

Sullivan’s next guide is Michael Oakeshott, the great British philosopher, who brilliantly exposed the limits of rationalism. As Sullivan says, “There is no way, Oakeshott argues, to generate a personal moral life from a book, a text, a theory. We live the way we have grown accustomed to live. Our morality is like a language we have learned and deploy in every new instant.”

Politics is not an effort to find solutions and realize ideals, in this view. It is merely an effort to find practical ways to preserve one’s balance in a complicated world. An Oakeshottian conservative will reject great crusades. He will not try to impose morality or base policy decisions on so-called eternal truths.

Of course neither would this kind of conservative write the Declaration of Independence.

Exactly so. Sullivan is so consumed with this single idea – an idealized conservatism – that he fails to recognize that creative genius is rooted in two great impulses: the conservative, and the liberal. Great political and social – and artistic – achievements spring from the tension between these two.

So obsessed is he with his one-dimensional view that Sullivan event tries to attribute to pragmatic conservatism such initiatives as the extension of the franchise to working men and then to women. As Brooks notes, this won’t wash. The great social and political leaps of imagination and courage did not spring from conservatism, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. Yet in Sullivan’s world view, liberalism is squeezed out: it’s either an economic aspect of conservatism (in the spirit of The Economist, perhaps), or a barely-restrained flavour of socialism.

Over the last two hundred years, we have seen plenty of examples of conservatism uninspired by liberalism, and of liberalism spinning out of control for want of the steadying skepticism of conservatism. The key is balance. However Sullivan keeps hopping on one bad leg, unclear on how to fix it. Blogging today about the Washington Post review of his book, Sullivan writes:

But he’s right on the second point. I see no easy political way to get the soul of conservatism back in the near future. McCain is, at best, a tenuous hope. But I do try and describe a positive, skeptical conservatism that is a vibrant alternative to what “conservatism” has now become: a “conservatism of doubt” and a “politics of freedom”.

Sullivan has misunderstood the situation. The problem is how to restore the soul of the polity, not the soul of conservatism. Fixing conservatism is a means to that end, but it cannot be achieved without confronting the larger question.

Sullivan and many others misdiagnosed the disease back in the 1980s: like Margaret Thatcher, they thought that there was no such thing as society, identified liberalism with socialism, and concluded that everything apart from conservatism should be flushed down the drain. What we can now see is that conservatism without liberalism cannot stand: it is too easily warped by the forces of reaction, just as it has been for the last two hundred years.

The challenge is simply this: how do we restore the creative balance between liberalism and conservatism: between compassion and prudence, between idealism and skepticism, between inventing the future and learning from history? Andrew Sullivan has grasped part of this. It is, perhaps, ironic that he pins his hopes upon a politician – McCain – who has not.

UPDATE: Sullivan’s response is here.


Using Flexcar

I just completed my first test of Flexcar, and I thought I’d write it up for fellow geeks. It’s a nice example of a business model that relies upon satellite data, cellular communications, and RFID technology.
At about 1 o’clock this afternoon, I decided that I ought to go out to do some shopping before Chris comes to visit. I logged in to the Flexcar website, picked my location, and saw that there was a car available all afternoon in the Uwajimaya parking lot. I selected a two hour reservation slot beginning at 2pm, and up came my reservation page:
flexcar reservation page
(I’ve obliterated the sensitive bits.)
At 2:01pm I arrived at the car, an anonymous-looking grey Honda Accord with a “Flexcar” decal on the trunk. Below the windscreen on the driver’s side was a small box with three LEDs; the red LED was illuminated. I held my membership card over the box, the amber LED blinked a few times, and then the green LED came on and the car was unlocked. I got in, retrieved the car key from a holder in the glove compartment, started up and drove off.
The car was fairly clean, though a bit dusty, and the tank was full. It handled like a typical rental car, although there was more tyre noise than I was used to. In any case, traffic was light, and I reached the Whole Foods at Roosevelt Square in about 10 minutes. While I was shopping, I used the regular car key to lock and unlock the car, not the RFID card. I got my groceries, then explored the neighbourhood for a few minutes, but I didn’t want to dawdle. I realized that I’d need to get back to Uwajimaya and unload the car before 4pm.
The only problem arose when I reached Uwajimaya around 3:40pm and found another car – a humongous SUV – illegally parked in the Flexcar space. I parked in a nearby spot, then unloaded the car, and talked to the parking attendant. She arranged for the offending driver to be paged, and eventually the (presumably illiterate) bimbo owner of the SUV emerged from the store and drove off in a huff. (In the 30 seconds that it took me to start the Flexcar and drive over to the reserved space, another clueless SUV driver tried to park there, but the parking attendant told him off.) And finally I checked to make sure I had all my stuff, got out, and held my RFID card over the sensor to lock the car. By the time I got back to the apartment, the reservation history was up to date on the website.
I expect that I’ll always want to leave a margin of at least 15 minutes to allow for parking and unloading, so that realistically a 2 hour reservation is about the shortest I’ll use. That’s OK for running errands, but before I decide whether this can replace my own car, I need to try at least one extended reservation, so that I can check out refuelling and other features. The plan I signed up for includes a bundled 10 hours a month, so I need to “use it or lose it”.
The bottom line is that the system just worked. I’m a fan.
UPDATE: I mentioned satellite data communications and RFID, but not cellular; let me complete the story. There are a bunch of failure modes in this kind of system, some partial (e.g. “vehicle is not in correct location, what’s the correct – nearby – location?”), some more serious (“I’ve had an accident, and the car won’t be available for the next user”). Managing these failures in real-time is only feasible if all of the users have cellphones