Monday, January 31, 2005

Creative Testing

Had a nice dinner with a former colleague whom I have not seen in a couple of years. He works for a Canadian company, and their QA department lead expects software to be "shipping quality" by the time it leaves engineering. His department would not be responsible for functional testing (also known as making sure it does what it's supposed to do), but only for "creative testing". The term apparently refers to just playing with the product randomly to see if anything breaks.

Brilliant! This is in about the same league as a former boss of mine scheduling unit testing for Friday, subsystem integration testing for Saturday, system integration on Sunday, and shipping on Monday. Ignoring the expectation that we work through the weekend, his rationalization for the demand consists of the observation that if we had done our jobs right, there wouldn't be any bugs to find. Of course, if he already knows that no bugs would be found, why bother even testing?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Chain Letters

An old classmate from high school just forwarded yet another chain letter to the batch mailing list. Could it be that in 2005, people still don't understand that these things are annoying? Just because it takes only a few seconds to send and a few seconds to delete doesn't mean that you're not building your own superstitious hopes of getting something for nothing upon inconveniencing other people.

This particular one even threatens: If you delete this after you read it .. you will have 1 year of bad luck! Oh, so there's a curse in it as well? Why, thanks, friend.

Look, if this thing doesn't work, then you're just wasting all your friends' time. If it actually works, then you're getting something without having worked hard for it, so you hardly deserve it. Where exactly is the upside? While I'm well aware that I've spent far more time writing this post than ignoring the chain letters, why is it so hard for us to be more considerate of other people?

Anyway, as Louis Pasteur observed, Chance favors the prepared mind.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

New Expression

I learned a new expression today from Paul Murphy: "like throwing water on a duck", as in:

Pointing out to him that the Linux administrator could accurately predict his next service shutdown several weeks in advance while the Wintel people can barely limp through a day without a reboot was like throwing water on a duck -- it generated vague resentment but no behavioral change.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Unmoving Company

A friend of ours recently moved to North Carolina, and made use of one of those cheaper movers who leave a small crate for you to fill. They apparently picked up the crate without even telling her (a call would've been nice, since most of her belongings were in there), and just called her to let her know that the crate has arrived.

They informed her that they can place it in storage, she can pick it up at their warehouse about two hours away, or they'll deliver it to her for an additional US$450. Regardless of what the fine print says, I think most customers expect that when they deal with a moving company that picks up the cargo at your old place, they will deliver it to your new place. Legal or not, this is a scam. Caveat emptor.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


We just donated some money to UNICEF's relief fund for the tsunami in Asia. It took us a while, because I wanted to make sure that my company will match the contributions.

Deciding to give was easy. Deciding how much to give was not. There's the question of "saving up" money in case some other bad thing happens, and there's the question of how much you can afford. But how much can we afford? We're not quite ready to donate all our worldly possessions and go live in the mountains, so just how charitable are we? Is $100 enough? Is $1,000 too much?

A while ago, I realized that Mabel and I were making decisions that our parents used to make. I took my first real job in 1996, but those decisions seemed like pretty obvious choices. Objectively evaluate the offer, the nature of the job, the location, and all that. It was just like deciding which school to attend. Later on, we started making some decisions like whether to fly back to Asia to visit family this year. A friend we haven't spoken to in a while gets married, so should we send a gift or maybe just a card? The answers to this sort of questions are surprisingly non-obvious. Where do they teach you how to answer these?

I guess we could all give literally every spare dime we have (and maybe take a second job on the weekends) to the tsunami victims. We could also spend literally every waking hour and every penny to try to be with family and friends. But at some point we probably have to say this is all we have to give, and it's really pretty hard to decide how selfish - for lack of a better word - one is to be.

Bad Code of the Day

Spent perhaps half an hour struggling with StuffIt Expander. The app would launch, but would appear to hang with no error messages or indications on what's going on. The tech support site is either non-existent or very slow. StuffIt is freeware, but it's important freeware that people rely on. I went through downloading the newest version, deleting preference files using the command line, and finally...

It turns out that StuffIt checks automatically for updates on start-up, and hangs if something goes wrong. The solution was to switch off networking, start up StuffIt (coming on instantly), and disabling the automatic update check. This is lousy programming. Never assume that network servers will be available, and if you really must, at least let the user clearly know what's going wrong. StuffIt failed on both counts.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

MacWorld SF 2005

Surprisingly, all the rumors were true. Apple unveiled a US$499/US$599 headless G4 Mac, a US$99/US$149 flash-based screen-less iPod called the "iPod shuffle", and a word processor now bundled with Keynote to form iWork. There was a lot of excitement on the floor, and we even spotted a guy wearing the iPod shuffle around his neck on the BART train home.

The iPod shuffle is very light, and comes in 512 MB or 1 GB (about 240 songs) varieties. It doesn't have a screen, so you mainly have to rely on the "shuffle" feature. Because of its solid-state construction and light weight, this will likely be a hit among joggers, even those who already own iPods. The white cord around the neck will probably be the next iPod status symbol. Surprisingly, the computer interface is USB 2.0, which distances itself from older Macs like ours. It doesn't come with an AC adaptor, so it'll generally charge off the computer.

The Mac mini is the computer you would've bought your mom. Even the $499 model has a 1.25 GHz G4, 40 GB hard disk, and 256 MB of RAM (which is surprisingly large, given that Apple gives the low-end PowerMac G5 the same default amount). The catch is that the price doesn't include keyboard and mouse, but the software bundle easily exceeds those of cheap Dell boxes in both quantity and quality. I was half expecting it to come with an infrared remote control. It is just a little bigger than a hard disk and a CD-ROM drive stacked on on top of another, and doesn't seem to be noisy.

The new word processor, dubbed "Pages", is no Word killer. The emphasis of the product seems to be template-based content creation, and probably lacks some of Word's more professional features. However, when bundled with the computer, this can relieve the need of many users from having to buy Microsoft. Following many years of silence on the AppleWorks line, this descendant neither blows everybody away nor disappoints. I think it will be a solid addition to the Apple software bundle, since the $79 price tag for both Keynote and Pages is even lower than what Keynote used to sell for by itself.

The interesting thing is that many of Apple's apps are beginning to look alike. Pages looks like an iDVD targeted at print, while Keynote is looking more and more like it can just become iDVD's menu creation front-end. I wonder if Apple will head in this direction.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Belkin Camera Link for iPod

Before leaving on our three-week trip around Asia, we realized that we would need a solution to store all the digital photographs we were planning to take. We would be staying at six different places, and didn't want to bring a laptop.

The competitors for our needs were:

  • More Memory Sticks, which cost about US$50 for 128 MB.

  • Belkin's Media Reader, which has a list price of about US$100.

  • Belkin's Digital Camera Link, which has a list price of about US$80.

The professional portable hard disks for cameras were not really in contention, because they typically cost several hundred dollars each. In terms of storage capacity per dollar, getting more Memory Sticks was not a good deal, although it would be the solution with the least hassle.

It came down to the Media Reader versus the Digital Camera Link. The Media Reader supported CompactFlash, SmartMedia, SD, and MMC cards in addition to Memory Sticks, but it was a feature we did not need. Our camera is a Sony DSC-F717, which supports only Memory Sticks. The Media Reader is also about 50% bigger than the Digital Camera Link. In the end, after going through various on-line reviews, we chose the cheaper Digital Camera Link because we didn't need the Media Reader.

Over the trip, we transferred over 400 photographs in roughly a dozen "rolls" to the iPod, and experienced no problems. The device worked as advertised, and there were no real surprises, since we already knew about the serious downsides:

  • Transferring 128 MB takes about five minutes. On the camera-side, the link is limited to 650 kbps to 750 kbps, depending on the format of the iPod.

  • Transferring 128 MB consumes about half of the iPod's battery charge.

Because of these limitations, the device only really works at the end of the day, when you can immediately recharge your iPod. Belkin failed to provide a Firewire plug through which the iPod can be powered by a wall socket, which would have made the transfers less worrisome. The battery life supplied by the two AA cells lasted the device through the entire trip, and the battery consumption at the camera end was not a real concern.

In the end, this was a good purchase for us, first of all because Mabel already has a 3G iPod. The iPod itself costs at least US$300, so at a total cost of US$380 you may as well look for a professional solution if the iPod's music-playing features are not important to you. Secondly, we didn't mind not being able to transfer in the field (speed and battery life are both serious concerns for that need). Thirdly, our camera was listed as being compatible. Absent any one of the three, you will not be happy with this product.