Thursday, 13 April 2006

Dream Time

I have interesting dreams. Many involve the end of the world in various kinds of techno-apocalypse. Last night's was different.

Last night I visited a digital commune in Silicon Valley. Many people lived in a huge and lovely building, always online and connected to an all-encompassing wiki/blogs/social networking system. Cameras and sensors fed data upstream, and in turn the system regulated downstream behaviour, every action and interaction a shadow of an online transaction. I wandered around, disconnected, irrelevant to its participants.

Sometimes the feed from one camera seemed to catch the attention of the entire community, the people nearby would point to it, and there'd be a rush to see who could touch it first, no matter how inaccessible. People spontaneously formed structures, piling up to lift someone's finger to a great height. Now it reminds me of the Sistine Chapel.

The system broke down. On screens that tracked the status of community members, I could see people disconnecting, losing karma. A confused crowd gathered in a large hall and was addressed by a group of leaders. I looked on from a distance, discussing with another observer, inexplicably Andrew Appel. There was an air of finality, of an experiment that failed.

I'm not sure what it all means. It smelled like Google, Orkut and 1984. It did, however, make a nice change from being hunted by robots.

Thursday, 6 April 2006


A while ago we turned off GTK themes in HTML content in Mozilla cairo builds because of some bugs and performance issues. I wanted to get them turned on again and fixed some of the bugs, and then ran into a fundamental problem in the Clearlooks engine (which Novell's new theme is based on), and which probably applies to other themes.

The general problem is that the Clearlooks design simply isn't suitable for use with HTML. The immediate problem is that it wants to render the borders of buttons, textboxes and other widgets with a gradient based on the colors of their containing window (from the window's inset_dark to inset_light). This is no good for HTML because in HTML the widget could be (and often is) drawn over any color background, or an image, or any combination of anything, so one can't just "set the right colors" and be sure to get good results. This is not a technical problem, it is a problem with the design of Clearlooks ... it wouldn't look good even if you had a pure GTK+ application using Clearlooks widgets over complex backgrounds.

I'm not sure where to go from here. I think we need theme designers to think about what they want for themes in HTML content, and then we can figure out the best way to implement it. Certainly, Web uses will have to be taken into account during theme design. I plan to talk about this with Novell's theme artists when I get a chance.

Monday, 3 April 2006

Asiana IV

One of the things that struck me when I first got back to Auckland last year was how great Auckland's Asian food is. Over the last year it has continued to impress.

Sunshine remains the best yum cha in town in my opinion, and would be ranked among the best in North America. But there are many other quality places in Auckland. Just a short walk from our house is Hee's Garden on Mount Eden Road, which despite being a lone Chinese restaurant in what's practically the suburbs, and despite being of modest size, serves quality yum cha seven days a week. The selection isn't huge but what they do, they do well. Dragon on Eliot Street in town is also good.

Recently some friends introduced us to Hansan in Mount Wellington. Among car yards and strip malls, this place offers a big menu of cheap and really excellent Vietnamese food. They also have great milkshakes. Highly recommended.

Our family has been working our way up and down the dozens of restaurants along Dominion Road. There are a lot of cheap grease pits and MSG dispensers, but there are also places where you can have a good meal at a fair price and get free soup and dessert if you're lucky. We like Love A Duck and Sum's Kitchen.

In Newmarket we really like Crazy Noodle, which along with Chinese food offers Hong Kong style Western food. Toasted sandwhiches with condensed milk, baked fish on rice in curry sauce, that sort of thing. Sunnytown and Sun World are acceptable places for yum cha or dinner. Gengy's is a fun Mongolian BBQ place but either it's going downhill or we're tiring of it.

I still haven't made it to Empress Garden, which used to be a regular stop in my university days (12 years ago ... erp). I've heard good things about Yum Cha on Quay St. And ... something ... Pearl in Newmarket, which we didn't like, has reopened as a steamboat restaurant so we'll have to check it out again. The one thing we haven't found yet is shabu shabu as good as Minnie's in Flushing, New York.

Read My Lips

Over the weekend I completed my last set of US tax returns (God willing!). This is an occasion for great rejoicing.

I've always found the US tax return system very poorly designed. There are so many rules, categories and exemptions --- presumably due to the sheer breadth of citizens, territories and activities the system covers, compounded by endless Congressional modifications driven by special interest lobbyists. The need for file one or more state returns along with the federal return, each with slightly different rules, exacerbates the pain. I'm never really sure that I've gotten my returns right, especially whether I've claimed everything I could have.

This situation is actually really bad. The compliance burden on the economy must be significant. But worse, it favours those who can amortize the cost of a good accountant over a large income and obtain every tax benefit available. Such a complex system must also contain anomalies --- bugs ---- at any given time that can be further exploited by those accountants.

As far as I can tell, this situation is not really fixable. The US political system is too broken for for anyone to pursue successful comprehensive reform, and in any case the system is so large and has so many requirements that it resembles one of those software systems that can never be successfully rewritten. And of course some of the big problems, such as the existence of state taxation, are constitutionally fundamental.

In smaller countries like New Zealand this is not true, and indeed, over the years there have been successful efforts to simplify our tax system. What we have right now could be improved, but it's far simpler for most people than the US system. This ability to reform and simplify is simply an advantage that I believe comes easier to small countries then large ones. Of course it's merely one part of the size tradeoff, and large countries have many advantages over small ones ... probably much greater advantages, all told.

Having A Miserable April Fool's Day

Each year I find the first of April to be really unpleasant. For an information junkie like me, it's the one day a year when everyone conspires to pee in the water supply.