Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Back Seat Programming

Having an audience watch over my shoulder while I bang the keyboard looking for a solution to a tricky problem can be an unpleasant feeling. The unpleasantness ranges from a niggling feeling of self doubt after I make a silly typo to a hot itchy feeling when it becomes apparent that the peanut gallery knows a more elegant command prompt shortcut than the one I just used.

But back seat programming is so effective that is something I think we just have to learn to deal with. The reason it is effective, I believe, has something to do with our minds inability to operate on more than one scale at a time.

Stay with me here… the poor monkey at the keyboard is working on a fine grained scale, that is concentrating on syntax, pointers and file paths. While he is handling these details his audience is free to ponder in a more coarse grained manner on such things as system architecture. Combine the two scales and you have direction and implementation happening in real time.

I suspect that anyone who has worked solo on a project with an undercooked specification will know all too well how the code can spiral into unnecessary complexity. I believe this is a result of only working on the fine grained scale, and could be prevented with a regular back seat programmer.

I should qualify all of this by saying that it is imperative to have the right sort of back seat programmer. It needs to be someone whose technical ability you respect, someone who gives you a moment to see your own syntax errors before saying something and someone who keeps their damned fingers off the screen!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Take Your Time and Get More Done

I’ve been trying to adopt something of a life philosophy lately where I avoid multitasking in favour of solid concentration on a single task for a prolonged period. Whenever I find I’m starting to hurry I try to catch myself and slow back down. I seem to get much more done this way and what I produce is of a higher quality with the added benefit of experiencing far less stress.

The hardest part of implementing this life philosophy is protecting my concentration from interruptions. So far I am doing this by designating times of the day that I make myself slightly inaccessible. I do my best work before lunch, so I start each day by choosing  a single large, important or difficult task to work on solidly all morning while ignoring email and requests from colleagues as much as possible. My afternoon is then devoted to the backlog of small tasks that has formed during the morning that would have become distractions from my core task if I had attended to them at the time.

Losing Your Life in Half Hour Blocks

When I got home from work this afternoon I didn’t turn the television on for my daily blast of high intensity advertising. Instead I’ve just spent half an hour eating dinner with my wife before she went out for the evening, then an hour in the hammock with my laptop reading my favourite blogs, then half an hour doing some soldering on one of my projects.

I perceived time as moving quite quickly during my evening and felt that it must be getting late, but when I checked the time it was only 7:30. If I’d sat down to watch TV my evening would have gone in a flash and I’d still be feeling not quite relaxed with work on my mind.

A regular TV free evening might be a really good thing…

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Save the Planet, Take the Bus

I was catching up on my reading tonight and read an interesting article in the September issue of Engineers Australia on energy efficiency of different modes of transport.

Energy Efficiency of Australian Passenger Transport Modes in 2004-05The report showed a graph of passenger vehicle fuel efficiency from 2004-05 which I was unable to find online. I did however find the same graph (show here) from 2005-06 in an Australian Government publication Energy in Australia 2009 under the Transport and Infrastructure section. This graph highlights some surprising comparisons of efficiencies.

For example motorcycles and international aviation are nearly on par for efficiency in terms of passenger km/GJ. This is a measure of how much energy it takes to move one person for a kilometre.

And while the carbon footprint of travelling by plane was a hot topic recently, it is actually on par with light rail for efficiency. The Engineers Australia report notes that the surprisingly low efficiency of light rail is due to its dependence on electricity which is generated relatively inefficiently from brown coal. A reasonable conclusion from this is that electric cars are possibly not the environmental saviour that many claim them to be.

So if you were looking for a way to reduce the carbon footprint of your daily commute don’t bother buying a motorcycle. You may as well catch the train or even the plane. As can be clearly seen in the graph above, the best option by far is to jump on the the bus!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

iTunes Movie Rentals – Fix the iFreeze

I’ve had some long waits for the more popular movies in my Quickflix queue lately. When I heard that iTunes downloads are quota free for iinet customers I decided to give the iTunes movie rental service a try.

My first thought when I started browsing the movies in the iTunes store was that they are a little more expensive to rent than Quickflix at $6.99 each compared $15 a month for four movies. The instant (well less than 3 hours anyway) gratification of downloading almost makes up for this though.

So I found Seven Pounds and started downloading. Three hours later when I started trying to play my movie I hit a major showstopper. Playback lasted about two seconds then iTunes froze so badly I had to kill it with task manager. A quick search on the forums provided an easy fix though. I just had to change the preferences in iTunes to play movies in a new window and everything worked perfectly.

An added bonus was that iTunes just works with my MCE remote! The basic play, pause and volume functions work right out of the box. After running MythTV on my mediacentre PC for a couple of years I am terribly impressed when anything just works!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Brand New Second Hand

After nearly a year of saving $10 here and $20 there, I broke open my piggy bank this weekend and bought a brand new second hand waveboard from Windsurfing Perth.

2007 JP Real World Wave 69LI’ve been riding a 96 litre Fanatic Freewave for the last four years and love it, especially when I’m first to plane in marginal conditions. But at 72 kilograms I’m a lightweight and just can’t hold the rails down when the wind blows above 25 knots. So for when it blows I decided to go small, really small and got a 2007 model 69 litre JP Real World Wave (shown here).

I picked up two G10 Real World Wave fins with it, a 23” and a 20” to match my 5.8 and 4.7 sails respectively. The 5.8 may be pushing the big side for this board but with the right tuning I think I can make it work for me.

Now I just have to wait for a decent blow to try it out. The temptation to take it out in marginal conditions just so we can get to know each other is there. But I know if the wind drops the paltry 69 litres won’t even float me so it will be a long swim back to the beach.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Inspiring Reading

I’ve recently given up treating my Google Reader account like an inbox.  Every lunch time I would log in for a quick read and be stressed out when I saw that I had over 400 new posts to read! Now I just treat it more like a magazine rack in the waiting room and flick through an almost limitless number of awesome articles hand picked to suit my interests.

A couple of feeds that I am finding particularly inspiring at the moment:

  • Make Magazine features the work of a wide variety of eccentric inventors. I find an infectious joy present in these articles on making for the sheer creative joy of it
  • Boing Boing is an online magazine of technology, culture and fantastic quirkiness
  • Adafruit has regular articles on open source electronic projects and kits. A great source of inspiration for projects and diversions around the home

Now that I have stopped trying to apply a zero inbox philosophy to reader I can feel free to add more great feeds like the above so I always have something interesting to suit my varying moods.