Archive for January, 2009

that thing about ruby

February 1st, 2009

Ruby is a great language, but one thing it needs is process. And what seems to suffer most from this is documentation.

  1. Ruby’s not ready
  2. Ruby 1.9.1 released

by a show of hands

January 30th, 2009

Tell me how many times you've seen this. A guy is talking to a room full of people. He wants to do a quick poll, like "how many people are familiar with..". So he asks his question, but while he's doing that he raises his hand.

What the hell is this about? I mean what is the message here? "I don't know where *you* are from, but around here we raise our hand in a situation like this." Is that what it means? What else could it be? Is the guy really thinking 'Well, in case there are some people here who have never been among other people before...'? Is he worried everyone is gonna yell out all at once?

What does it say about us if we really need this cue? Is this mode of response really that hard to figure out? Are there people in the room thinking "I want to give a positive response, but damn if I can figure out how to do it"? If a guy is sitting in the room who doesn't know how to respond, and he sees people around him raising their hands, does he need this additional confirmation?

The strange thing is I don't remember seeing this in the past. Somehow we all seemed to know how this works in the past. I mean if anything you would expect everyone would know this "new thing" by now. Next thing you know, the guy is gonna start saying "See my hand in this position? This is what I want you to do if you want to give a positive response."

Van Lustbader's Jason Bourne

January 27th, 2009

With Ludlum's passing in 2001, Eric Van Lustbader has taken up the mantle of writing more Bourne books for the fans. As it turns out, he does this surprisingly well in that his voice is very similar to Ludlum's. To date, he's put out three books, with a fourth on the way. Interestingly, Ludlum left Bourne when the character was 50 years old, so to the extent that Van Lustbader wants to keep this going, he'll have to equip Bourne with the characteristics of a James Bond, or... Donald Duck. Characters that never seem to age, merely appear again and again in successive episodes.

Legacy

Nevertheless, The Bourne Legacy certainly does add to Jason's life story, as the title no doubt implies. Sadly, Van Lustbader kills off the lovable characters Alex Conklin and Morris Panov right off the bat. I suppose after three stories we've had it with them? This sets the stage for Jason, who is implicated as the suspect through a set up. Strangely enough, the CIA takes the bait without ever considering the possibility that something is amiss. What's mind boggling about these people is that they never seem to know what the people working for them actually are capable of. First they train a Bourne, and then they're astonished that a simple hit squad can't take him down. The agency director, a long time friend of Conklin's, puts a price on Jason's head without thinking twice about it.

It's odd that a man with no connections into the agency is able to execute such a plot, sending the whole agency after one of its agents. But that's what Stepan Spalko, on the face of it a well respected leader of a humanitarian organization, has done. His hired gun is a man called Khan, a superb assassin whose main asset is to never betray his emotions, no matter the situation. Van Lustbader lets it slip quite early on that Khan is actually Jason's long lost son Joshua, presumed dead, from his first marriage. But it takes us until the end of the story for Jason to accept this truth.

In the meantime, there is a scheme to execute a bacteriological attack on the participants of the terrorists summit in Iceland, that is leaders from the US, Russia and Arab states. Naturally, the plot is Spalko's, with the help of the puppeteer's favorite puppets: Chechnyan rebels. In the end, Khan has an unlikely soul cleansing moment with one of Spalko's betrayed Chechnyans, Zena, through which (although Zena is dying) he's able to gain some fresh perspective on his father who supposedly abandoned him back then in Phnom Penh.

Betrayal

I'm starting to resent Van Lustbader. He is systematically destroying everything Ludlum built up. First he killed off Panov and Conklin, and now Marie. Marie was shockingly absent from Legacy, and now she's met her end in the most trivial and un-Bourne like way, to pneumonia. Imagine, the strong and resourceful Marie to wither like this? It's absurd. I can think of two reasons. Either Van Lustbader doesn't like Marie or he doesn't have it in him to write her part.

The more I think about it, there's something bigger going on here. You don't just kill off the second most important character without reason. But it isn't just her. Van Lustbader's characters are different. They are exaggerated, caricatures almost. Conklin first appeared every bit the single minded, firing from the hip kind of guy, but he turned out to be a wonderfully nuanced character. And Panov had great personal warmth. Then it was Marie, the most complicated of all of Ludlum's characters. She was never a flat character instructed to repeat the same concerns in the same words. On the contrary, there was much growth, and you could always sense that Ludlum had a lot more in store for her, he was never finished with her. A wonderful aspect of the Bourne stories was precisely the unpredictability of Marie.

Contrast Conklin, David Abbott and Peter Holland to the nameless director of the CIA. Ludlum's characters are flesh and blood, they feel guilt and remorse. Van Lustbader's director, in contrast, is Pointy Haired Boss. And he barely has a handle on the job, consumed in the struggle to maintain his political position and that of the company. He knows little about the ongoings and understands even less, least of all about Bourne. It struck me how odd this was. Surely the CIA chief would be a highly sophisticated character, surely he'd be clever enough both to protect the agency and run it, or how else would he have risen to the highest position? Strangely enough, Van Lustbader uses him a lot, but then he doesn't bother to build him a decent character.

But that's the thing about Van Lustbader, he can't do characters. Ludlum would never motivate killing or terror with anger or hatred. Hatred is a complicated emotion, with forays into many other states of mind. Furthermore, a character who's hateful is not hateful all the time, he undergoes moments of weakness, of shame and doubt. Meanwhile, the CIA chief orders Bourne's execution more or less because he's sick of him. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Van Lustbader's one honest attempt at creating a character was Kahn who, agonizingly, doesn't reappear.

Van Lustbader's villains are also altogether different. They go under the common banner of "terrorists". First Chechnyan rebels and now Saudi jihadists. Their objective is a rather vague scheme to disrupt US-Saudi relations. Compare that to the mesmerizing plot of the Taiwanese magnate who wanted to seize control of a fragile Chinese state, now that was a plot! Van Lustbader's villains can said to be more or less "crazy", but in a more shallow sense than, say, Carlos. There is endless rhetoric about Western decadence, but what exactly are they trying to achieve? At least Carlos had his reasons, and there were reasons why he had them. Spalko too was a stronger character. If nothing else at least it was clear that he was a puppeteer, and a puppeteer never reveals his cards to his puppets. But Fadi and Karim spend 20 years planning a "Face Off" reenactment only to detonate a nuke in Washington DC. Well, so what? What does that accomplish?

Ludlum believed that life can twist you every which way, but it does not ultimately possess you. He used a lot of older characters, he believed in redemption and forgiveness. With Van Lustbader, there are three options. You are corrupt from the start and eventually meet your end. You start out good, then become corrupted. Or, you remain good, but you'll be put through the very harshest episodes in life. That's the complete set of human experience with Van Lustbader.

A final, smaller, matter is Van Lustbader's courageous stab at computer security. I understand his motive, but he should keep it to a minimum. That scene where Karim runs a virus on the mainframe and brings down the entire network is quite sad. So the CIA, one of the most technologically advanced organizations (as every spy fiction writer insists) only has a single mainframe? He completely betrays his ignorance of the computer networks present even in small businesses, let alone huge organizations. The insistence on portraying "the firewall" as some kind of fantastic artificial intelligence is also rather tedious.

Sanction

As much as the previous Van Lustbader novels were sub par, this one just didn't grip me at all. His lack of imagination is tiring.

Tiring is also his reliance on recycling the same themes again and again. CIA gets a new female director. None of the men respect a woman in charge. Yadayadayada. And it drags on and on. Come to think of it, this feminist angle has been present in all of his books. Yes, we get it, don't you have anything else?

The plot this time is convoluted without being especially interesting. Which is an odd thing to say for a Bourne story. But lo and behold, another Van Lustbader favorite theme: muslim fundamentalism. A group calling themselves the Black Legion is planning a large scale attack on the continental US. Their motive is typically weak. "We can not accept the Western way of life so we must strike." Another pointless motive that can't possibly accomplish anything, this is starting to feel familiar. Let's see, all of Van Lustbader's villains are muslim terrorists.

The other half of the story is the CIA vs NSA power struggle. This is what Van Lustbader loves to write about, the hard man in charge. Again in stark contrast to Ludlum's characters. Yes, Luther Laval is clever, but he's not as sophisticated as Ludlum's characters. He's simple minded, one sided, flat. At least the two agencies fighting it out is somewhat interesting, but Van Lustbader completely fails to imprint Veronica Heart's character on the story.

So how does it go? Pick some tried and true themes. Add a few locations, some exotic names (preferably Russian or Turkish), shallow characters and wrap it up with Bourne. Oh, and add a lot of politics. Yeah, that seems to work well enough.

more bad ui from Adobe

January 27th, 2009

Found this Adobe ui bashing blog today. I really think we need more of this, our standards for ui aren't good enough. We do a lot of criticism for bad code, because we're technically minded. But bad code is less harmful sometimes than bad ui.

There's a reason ui critique is so hard to do without getting into a fit of fury. It's like a guy standing over you saying "no, don't tie your shoe laces like that, do it like this". And then he forces you to do it his way every single day for the rest of your life.

Of course, this isn't the first time we've seen Adobe, the tool builders for the designers of the world, complimented on their ui.

what is smalltalk today?

January 26th, 2009

So Smalltalk is one of those languages that gets thrown around a lot in discussions about languages. After all, it is where the object oriented paradigm pretty much originated (although I suppose Simula sort of had a version of that without that explicit name), and so many languages have drawn on it for inspiration, even if most have gone a completely different way in realizing the OO idea.

As historical reference, Smalltalk is big, no doubt about that. And as a language it is pretty clever. Dynamic and self reflective, it just runs the whole time, objects are live and can be altered on-the-fly with a change to the code.

But what is Smalltalk today? Is it worth learning? From what I can see, and I should say I haven't really spent that much time looking, it seems pretty dead. There is Squeak, where you get the whole image and you do everything inside the virtual machine. From what I understand this is the way you're supposed to use Smalltalk. But frankly I'm not interested in an application that only runs inside a VM. For the same reason that noone really wants to run apps in VirtualBox or VMware.

Most of the Squeak tutorials seem to be 404. And I have yet to see anything that's really interesting. In the end, programming is about programs, and without shiny programs to show off, what is left for us? The Smalltalk website, sporting a 1997 kind of look, has a list of apps on show. Based on that it's hard to get excited about the language.

Okay, so there is something called Seaside, a web framework. And I can kind of see how it's cool to have a web application that has to run 24/7, and meanwhile you can do live updates to the objects. But I'm not shopping for a web framework anyway, and there's a ton of them already.

So is Smalltalk merely a historical curiosity at this point?