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Home or Away?

April 2, 2018 Leave a comment

Last night I went to a music concert featuring popular performer, Ed Sheeran. Now, I do have to say that I’m not necessarily a big fan, and it was really an event my wife wanted to go to rather than me, but he is a competent musician, and some of his material is quite good. Yeah, I’m sort of damning with faint praise there, a bit!

The small city I live in invested in a covered stadium – the only one in New Zealand – a few years back, and it has been a real asset in many ways, attracting many music events which would not have been likely to come here otherwise. Ed Sheeran was one, and I also saw Robbie Williams, and Black Sabbath there recently.

But what’s the point? Well I do have to say that live concerts featuring leading performers, like Ed Sheeran (and Ozzie Osbourne!) are quite special and there’s something unique about being actually at a real event. A similar argument applies to watching movies in a real movie theatre instead of at home. But at the same time the standard of entertainment experience I now have at home is pretty exceptional too!

I was listening to some music on my AV system today and a particular song played which was beautifully recorded in the old-fashioned way: without a lot of digital processing or fancy techniques but with just a few mics and directly onto a fairly high quality medium (probably analog). The sound was just so pure and true, and orders of magnitude better than anything I have heard at a live concert where the sound quality (especially in a roofed stadium where echo can blur the sound) is actually pretty poor.

I have a fairly sophisticated AV system with a good quality multi-channel receiver, speakers, and other components. It’s nowhere near as high-end as a true fanatic with plenty of money might have, but it is far better than the average system. Anyway, when the source is good it really can sound great. There’s plenty of power, good bass from the sub, and I have fine-tuned everything to optimise the sound. The biggest issue is that I have some items in the room which vibrate when the bass gets too extreme – but my wife won’t let me remove them. I mean, does the wood burner really need a chimney (especially one that vibrates at about 30 Hz)? I don’t think so!

I also recently upgraded my TV to a UHD (4K) model with HDR. The screen is only moderately big at 58 inches, but the room isn’t big enough to make anything bigger practical. But again, the picture quality can be magnificent. With a really good source, recorded in UHD, at a high frame rate, and optimised for HDR, it’s almost like the picture is a real thing you can reach out and touch. The blacks are really deep, the whites are super bright, and the colours can be really saturated but also be subtle and realistic. Again, I spent a fair bit of time optimising the many settings the TV has to get it working the way I like.

So my point is why would I want to go to a movie or a live concert? The system I have at home offers a far better experience. Even if I ignore the tedium of the tasks associated with the outside experience – like finding parking, buying movie tickets, and driving home through massive traffic jams after concerts – the home system still looks and sounds better. And, if you ignore the initial cost of the equipment (over $15000 original full price), it is far cheaper too.

As I said above, there is something special about live events, so I will probably continue going to them, but home-based AV systems are certainly a great alternative, especially when combined with services like Apple Music and Netflix.

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The End of an Error

March 10, 2018 Leave a comment

About 4 years ago my wife decided she would leave teaching (mainly because the school she taught at was managed by a bunch of incompetents, and the roll had reduced so much that some of the teachers were made redundant) and open a business of her own, in this case a cafe. Now, anyone who has been involved in owning or managing a cafe at this point is probably already thinking “bad idea”, and in many ways they would be right.

Why? Because it seems to be almost impossible to make any money from that kind of business, plus for the privilege of making little, if any money, the owner/manager has to work 12 hours a day – starting at 5 in the morning – 6 days a week.

But that’s not the worst of it either, because maybe an even more overwhelmingly soul-sapping aspect of owning a small business is the excess of mindless bureaucracy involved which results in very little of any value.

Of course, Inland Revenue is probably the worst offender, closely followed by other organisations like the local City Council. Then there are a collection of lesser parasites like insurance agents, body corporates, various health and safety organisations, lawyers, business experts, and advertisers.

I have a “real” job but also helped with running the cafe, especially with administration and accounting. Yes, you read that right: I helped with the tasks I most despise. While I felt as if most of them were a waste of time, at least I did gain a few skills in that area – but skills I hope I never have to use again!

On the other hand I did learn some more interesting stuff too. For example, at one point I was doing some baking and managed to make some pretty decent batches of scones and muffins. I never quite perfected making consistently good coffee though – that is a lot harder than you might think!

But getting back to the admin tasks. I had some major issues with those, so let me list a few of them here.

First, tax. Now I know that the two most onerous tax activities – GST and PAYE – are not actually costing me anything because I am just collecting tax for the government by adding an extra amount to prices and wages, but I do object to the amount of effort involved in doing that work. If the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) want to collect tax on sales of goods and services and on wages why don’t they do the work and collect the money themselves?

If I took the amount of time people spend on tax gathering activities (on behalf of the IRD) and multiplied by the number of businesses in New Zealand, it must come to a truly horrendous amount of time. How does IRD get away with this travesty of bureaucratic time wasting? Because they can. They can make whatever rules they like – whether they are fair or not – and impose them on whoever they want.

Note that I am not against tax, in fact far from it. It’s not paying the tax that worries me, it is the amount of time a person like myself, who is talented in many areas, wastes on doing IRD’s work for them.

And other government agencies are maybe even worse. We had to collect a payment from one employee, who had been incorrectly paid a benefit, and process the payment for the department involved. If we didn’t do this – even though it was nothing to do with us and had happened before we even employed the person – we would be fined. Again, this is an arbitrary and unfair law which was created simply because it could be.

Then there are the other forms of bureaucracy. The local council’s hygiene regulations are particularly silly. My wife took that very seriously and she maintained high standards, but I know that the inspection is more to do with paperwork being filled in correctly rather than any real measures designed to optimise food safety. I know other cafe owners who had terrible standards but kept the paper work up to date and achieved the top rating as a result.

My advice is to ignore the hygiene rating you see displayed at food premises, because that is just a measure of how well the person does documentation. Instead, have a look around any place you visit and search for signs of neglect.

It might seem to many people that running a small business is a truly worthwhile undertaking. Small businesses employee a lot of people and contribute significantly to the economy. And the government spends a lot of time talking about how important small businesses are, and how they want to encourage people to start one.

But they sure have a strange way of showing their enthusiasm. If they really wanted people to start a small business, why can’t the government and other authorities make the whole process a lot easier?

I’m sure that people running a cafe would rather make use of their talents in areas like baking, cooking, and hospitality instead of wasting hours every week on meaningless paper work. And I’m sure a struggling business where the owner is effectively making less than the minimum wage while working 70 hours a week would appreciate not having to pay provisional taxes on money which hasn’t even been earned yet.

I am contemplating becoming self-employed myself in the near future, but the advantages of being free of the stupidity of ignorant and dogmatic management decisions are at least partly negated by the dread I have of processing GST and other time-wasting accounting.

People might say that spending that time on tax calculations is just part of their “civic duty” as a citizen, but is it really? Would it not be better for the country if people spent their time doing what they’re good at? Why is accounting considered something everyone has to do, or pay an exorbitant fee to some accountant to do for them.

So yes, the end of our cafe means the end of processing payrolls, GST returns, tax payments, employer returns, hygiene certificates, building safety checks, and various other nonsense I can’t even bear to contemplate right now. It’s like the end of an era… or should that be end of an error?

Science and Art

August 29, 2014 Leave a comment

My loyal readers might have noticed that I haven’t written a blog post for a while despite the abundance of source material I could have used. There is a simple explanation for this: I am working on too many other projects just at the moment and have tended to spend time on those instead. Contrary to what you might think I do spend a reasonable amount of time researching, writing, and revising each blog post and they’re not just tossed together in 5 minutes!

Most of what I am working on currently are programming projects which all seem to have become critical at the same time. But that doesn’t really worry me because (and I’m sorry if this sounds really geeky) programming is fun. It’s one of those rare creative activities which results in something which is actually useful (well, at least in most cases).

When I create a new system (and my current projects all involve web-based databases and apps written using PHP and MySQL) I like to create something which is easier to use, more reliable, faster, and just generally more elegant than the alternatives. There are some pretty impressive web-based systems out there now but there is a much greater number of truly terrible ones, so in general I just hope to raise the average a bit.

It’s quite amusing using another person’s web system and noticing all the design and functional errors they have made and smugly thinking “amateurs! my projects never suffer from that problem!” Of course, I shouldn’t be too smart because every system has its faults.

As I have said in the past, programming is a great combination of art and science, or at least it should be because both are required to get the best outcome. The art component doesn’t just involve superficial factors like graphics and typography, it is deeper than that and requires creation of a friendly, logical, and flexible user interaction. The science component should be obvious: programs must be technically correct, perform calculations accurately, but also more subtly be fault tolerant, easy to enhance, and interact with other systems properly.

All of this is not easy to achieve and I have made plenty of mistakes myself, so it is even better when something does magically come together in a positive way. And that description is significant because the way I work a project is an evolving, organic thing which often changes form and function as it progresses. I always have a plan, diagrams for the database structure, flow diagrams for the general functional flow of the program, and technical notes on how certain functions should be performed before I start coding, but by the time the project is finished all of these have changed.

And I am often asked to write technical documentation while I am creating a new system but that is useless because I change the details so often that it’s better just to write that documentation when the project is complete.

When I look back at old projects I am sometimes amused at the naive techniques I used “back in the day” but more often I am quite amazed at some of the awesome, complex code and clever techniques I have used. It’s not usually that I set out to write really clever, complex code, it’s more that as more functions and features evolved the code became more and more impressive. But it is too easy in that situation to let things become convoluted and clumsy. In that case I toss that section out and start again. Sometimes my systems take a little bit longer to complete but they always work properly!

And that brings me to my last design philosophy. I don’t re-use a lot of code, I rarely recycle libraries and classes, and I definitely avoid using other people’s code. Also I don’t use rapid prototyping tools and I don’t use graphical tools to create markup code like HTML. No, it’s all done “on the bare metal”.

In fact that’s not really true, or course. I was recently tidying up some shelves in my office and found some old machine code programs I wrote back on the 80s. Now that was really coding on the bare metal! Multiplying two numbers together was a big job in that environment (the 6502 had no multiply instruction) so PHP and hand-coded HTML are pure luxury compared with that!

Well that’s enough talking about it, it’s time to get back to doing it. I’ve got a nasty bit of database backup code to debug right now. Some sort of privileges error I think, time for some science and not so much art.

Low Flying

April 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Last Sunday I did my usual biennial visit to the Warbirds Over Wanaka air show. I left about 7.30 in the morning and was there by about 10.30. Yes, I did a bit of “low flying” getting there (I won’t mention my maximum speed here) and got my first speeding fine for about 2 years. But I just see the occasional speeding fine as an added cost of driving. I know other people who have been let off with a warning for doing more than I did, so the whole thing is just not fair! (See my other blog entries for similar experiences of “Fred”.)

Once I got there I enjoyed the low flying of the various aircraft on display. I don’t think the show was quite as good as some in the past but it was still well worth attending, even though a lot of what was shown I had already seen in past shows.

One of my favourite planes is the Hawker Hunter and that flew at the show. I also saw a few planes I hadn’t seen before, such as the Avenger, Fokker D.VIII, Strikemaster, and Agusta 109 helicopter.

I did my usual photography, both still and video, and got some pretty brilliant photos (and I say that with all appropriate modesty). My report on the show, with photos, videos, and commentary is here.

It Worked!

May 19, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m not going to comment on the pathetic excuse for a budget our (New Zealand) government had the temerity to release today. I’ll think about it for a while and then comment. Maybe after that time I will have seen some merit in it, or more likely it will seem even worse than it does now!

No, in this entry I want to comment on something far more positive: how well my server transition went yesterday. For a few years now my main web server has been an old Power Mac G4 and I wanted to upgrade to something slightly more modern: a Power Mac G5 (yes, I did say it was only slightly more modern).

The problem is that my server runs 8 web sites, although only one is very substantial, and has many databases running in the background. There are also some custom configurations it requires to run. Of course I wanted the web sites to be down for the minimum amount of time during the transition. Oh, and to make things slightly more complicated I had to do all this in my spare time between doing “real work”.

There was one factor on my side though: I was using Macs!

As you can probably tell from my triumphant tone (and the title of this blog) it worked really well! All of the web sites are running correctly. The databases (including this blogging system) are all running as expected, and the new system is significantly faster than the old one (although the upstream speed of my internet connection is still a bit slow for this purpose).

So I installed new hardware, a much more modern operating system, new versions of PHP, MySQL, and Apache, and the latest versions of all the web sites, plus I maintained the data (over a million records) from all of the databases with a total down time of about 2 minutes. And now, 24 hours later, I haven’t found any problems.

So that’s my happy computer story. On most days I encounter enough weird computer problems which I have to waste a lot of time to solve, so it’s nice to win for a change!

Old Books

April 22, 2011 1 comment

Over the years I have bought a lot of computer books. I’ve bought books about programming and other practical technical subjects, textbooks I used when I was a computer science student, and lots of magazines and other material about general computer subjects. They have been sitting on a bookshelf in our spare room and I haven’t used any of them for years.

Today we needed to clear some space and I went through the books and realised that they were almost all useless. The hardware, the programming languages, the application programs, and most of the techniques have changed so much that practically none of the books were relevant any more.

Not only that but I don’t use traditional books any more. All of my technical documentation, my reference material, and my user manuals are stored on my computer as PDFs and other formats. And my fiction books and magazines are on my iPad in electronic formats like EPUB. I really do seem to have made significant progress towards achieving a paperless life.

Some simple calculations show just how efficient computer storage really is. A 1 terabyte drive (not huge by modern standards) can store 1 million average size books. Sure, I agree that is just text (based on 2K per page and 500 pages per book) and graphics would require significantly more storage, but the basic principle is clear: one drive can store a lot more than the total knowledge of the ancient world found at the Great Library of Alexandria – and I currently have 10 drives!

When I was looking through the old material I realised that things have progressed greatly in most ways but I also realised there was a lot of older stuff which was actually really good and is either no longer available or has become unfashionable in some way.

One example is Hypercard, Apple’s program which was extremely popular for making “stacks” which performed many varied tasks. Hypercard was a great fast development environment with a scripting language which was both easy to use and powerful. And while I’m on the subject of programming languages, I still think Pascal is better than C! But I never liked some of the other older languages much so the three programming manuals for COBOL I had never got much use!

I’m not sure whether electronic books are better than paper books from an environmental or sustainability perspective. I’m not sure whether ebooks are more natural or pleasant to use than paper books. But I am certain that ebooks are a lot easier to search and a lot easier to keep up to date. And they are certainly a lot easier to store!

I Have Nothing to Say

April 12, 2010 Leave a comment

I have been writing this blog for a long time – since before most people even knew what a blog is in fact. My first blog entry was written over 7 years ago in April 2003. Since then I have written well over 1000 entries which are the equivalent of about 900 A4 pages of text. Then there’s all the comments: over 2600 on my main blog (which I wrote about half of) plus many more on other blogging sites I publish the same information on.

So writing blog entries is a big commitment and one that I can’t keep up with at all times. There are so many interesting issues I want to comment on: from new discoveries that our universe might be part of a multiverse to the (inaccurately reported) news that Richard Dawkins wants to arrest the Pope!

But I have been blogging less recently and that will probably continue for a while because I have so many other commitments which I need to use my spare time pursuing. I’m afraid that most of them are work related: web sites, databases, and other geeky computer stuff, but hopefully that will lessen as time passes and I might get back to the “glory days” of mid 2008 when I wrote something almost every day.

So really it’s not that I’ve got nothing to say but more that I don’t have time to say it. Or at least not in a reasonably lucid form which has been reasonably thoroughly checked and is backed up with at least a basic amount of research. So I’ll get on with that work now and get back to the Pope being arrested later – hopefully in the near future.