Computer names… what’s next?

For some years now we’ve named our home computers after characters in Tintin.

First we had Tintin and Snowy, both desktops.

Snowy was replaced with Haddock.

The two of them were joined for a little while by Nestor, which was called that because it was a server.

Tintin and friends greet Armstrong

Haddock broke down (probably a motherboard failure, I suspect), and has been replaced by a secondhand 2008-model Mac Pro, which given it’s much brainier, we called Calculus. (If you ever manage to get a secondhand Mac Pro, I recommend them. They make excellent desktop PCs, even if you run Windows, which the 2008 and later models do easily via BootCamp. This beast may be old, but the build quality is fantastic, it’s still fast and rock solid.)

I also got a laptop, which given it moves around and visits various parts of the world (well, okay, various parts of the state), I called Alcazar.

Now Tintin is set to be replaced, by another Mac Pro. The question is, what should we call it?

One idea is that, given the two Mac Pros will be near-identical, we rename the existing one and call them Thomson and Thompson, but let’s face it, that’d be too confusing.

Perhaps it’s time to start re-using names.

Ideas?

Oh, and while I’ve got you, can any Mac people recommend a TV tuner (preferably dual tuner) that will work with the Mac Pro in both OSX and Windows/Media Center?

Pics: How they fix mobile phone towers

How do they fix or upgrade a mobile phone tower? With a very big crane, that’s how.

It wouldn’t be a job for someone with a fear of heights.

Fixing a mobile phone tower (1/2)

Fixing a mobile phone tower (2/2)

In my family, my sister gave up her landline when she moved last year, and in her household now relies totally on mobile phones for making calls (plus naked DSL for internet). My mum has (without moving) just switched from landline to mobile as well. I moved to VOIP at home plus mobile earlier this year — it’s been pretty good, though occasionally the modem needs rebooting.

We’ve all given up the landline due to costs, and needing to have a mobile anyway. Are others doing the same?

New toy: iPad Mini

I was amused when I posted last week about using credit card points to perhaps buy an iPad Mini, the Apple-haters jumped in.

The post wasn’t really about technology; it was about credit card points!

But this post is about tech.

The choice of an iPad over an Android tablet was deliberate. Yeah yeah, I’ve fallen for Apple’s marketing hype.

Nah… After pondering buying an Android tablet, I decided that we should aim for some digital diversity in my house.

Thus, we have Android and Nokia phones, Windows and Mac computers (the latter running OSX, but also Windows via both Boot Camp and Parallels), and Jeremy’s dabbling with Linux via his Raspberry Pi.

I bought the iPad Mini yesterday, so now we also have iOS. We don’t have everything, but we have a pretty good spread.

First impressions? The usual nice Apple design and build quality. The interface is pretty easy to use, as was the initial setup.

It’s very responsive with operations like scrolling through web pages or lists of tweets — but noticeably one exception: clicking on buttons seems less responsive than the other touch-screen I’m familiar with, my two-year-old HTC Desire S mobile.

Typing isn’t too bad, but once again isn’t as nice as on the phone, with its force feedback.

The camera seems quite good, though you look like a dork taking photos with it.

Overall, enjoying it so far — and it’s nice to be able to use apps not available on Android.

Transport simulation games – will we ever see one that’s realistic?

I finally got around to playing a bit of Cities In Motion.

The game is fun, but in some ways is really not much better than the older Traffic Giant… though it looks nicer, seems to have more underlying complexity, and has more scenarios.

From what I’ve seen, my main beefs would be:

  • Trams and buses seem to only be able to terminate in a loop. Perhaps fair enough for buses, but in real life, many trams worldwide are double-ended, thus can reverse.
  • Adding more vehicles to a route is very restrictive. They always get added at the start of the route, which means you can’t easily space them out to even the loads or quickly address crowding at a particular stop. Worse, they get added just after the first stop, so if that’s the busiest, it takes ages for the new vehicles to make their way back there. So basically a fundamental of real transit planning (scheduling) is almost completely missing.
  • It seems hard to forecast demand from a particular stop. Playing the tutorial, one semi-remote area which only had a few houses seemed to generate a huge number of passengers for the bus stop.
  • There’s no control over things like bus and tram lanes and traffic light priority — this is a killer, as it’s the obvious solution to your vehicles getting stuck in traffic, without building enormously expensive railway lines instead.

Some of the underlying principles are unclear: for instance, as your network of routes builds up, does patronage grow as a result of good/useful connections, as in real life?

(The review on the Human Transit Blog makes a lot of good points as well.)

Cities In Motion

The bottom line is that it’s fun to play with, but — as with all the others I’ve looked at — not very realistic. And I’m wondering if we’ll ever see a public transport planning simulator (rather than just a “PT vehicles rolling around a city” simulator) that is realistic.

I’ll be interested to see how the Cities In Motion sequel, due out this year, goes… it looks like it will fix some of these problems. And the new SimCity is due out soon too.

There’s also an open source simulator called SimuTrans — I haven’t tried this; at first glance, like many open source programs, it looks complicated and seems to have little documentation.

The Java problem

I’d normally post something like this over on geekrant.org, but it’s worth mentioning here.

Java has suffered from a series of serious vulnerabilities, the most recent found just a couple of weeks ago.

This article makes a good case for removing it completely from your computer: Is Java the root of all evil and can you really live without it in the browser?

I need to verify I don’t need it for anything on my home PCs, so I decided I’d merely update it, to ensure it’s patched for this latest problem.

Should be no problem, right? If it doesn’t pop up by itself, go to Control Panel / Java / Update / Update Now. It asks for Admin access to update itself. Not as seamless as Chrome etc, but okay, let’s go with it.

Java update

An update — ready to install. Excellent. Click on through.

Java update

You’re kidding, aren’t you?

OK then. New plan. I’ll just remove it. I can always re-install it (looks like I’d have to anyway, to get the patch) when and if I need it.

To check if Java is installed on your computer and for your web browser, use the Java test page. If it’s installed but you don’t think you need it, consider removing it.

(Article link above via mgm.)

Google celebrates 150 years of London Underground – and could we have bought Oyster?

As seen at google.co.uk on Wednesday. Very cool.

Google Doodle London Underground

(Large version found via the Going Underground blog)

Note the subtle shading of fare zones, which reflects how they look on the official maps.

It’s been claimed in the past that in Melbourne we couldn’t adopt an existing smartcard ticket system like Oyster because Melbourne had specific needs. I disagree… London has zones, trains, trams, buses and ferries. We have zones, trains, trams, buses. A handful of ferries run in Melbourne, but aren’t part of the integrated fare system.

Myki and OysterNot so different.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have saved much money to buy Oyster (Sydney is doing so, and it’s costing a similar amount to Myki), but I bet it would have saved time getting it running, and from what I’ve seen, we would have got faster response times on the readers.

That said, Brisbane implemented Oyster as “Go” card, and has had some issues. And Myki’s ambition was to cover most of Victoria with fare zones – I wonder if Oyster could have handled that. (V/Line buses run to Canberra and Adelaide. Adelaide was going to be zone 73.)

But of course now Myki has been cut in scope to go no further than the V/Line commuter belt — 13 zones in all. I suspect it could have handled it.

And the rumour is some in the bureaucracy are beginning to realise the way Myki was built was a mistake. Too late now.

“data from all Vic govt agencies will now be supplied in a machine-readable format” – PT timetables expected mid 2013

Back in 2010, Victorian government timetable data was released to the public, as part of the App My State competition.

The PTUA submitted an app as part of a study that showed how bad train/bus connections were, which got some media attention — and also managed to progress the debate around connections: the government went from denial to excuses.

Predictably it didn’t win a prize in the competition, and the timetable data was subsequently pulled, and never updated or put back. Could it be they weren’t very impressed at the data being used to embarrass the government?

Timetable data

The release of data was something that then seemed to go pretty quiet until after the Coalition came into power. Then:

“As a default position, data from all Victorian government agencies will now be supplied in a machine-readable format”

Govt press release: Coalition to unleash the economic power of Vic data

Good news… But where’s the public transport stop and timetable data then?

Still not available — in fact the blurb provided hasn’t been updated since Metlink was subsumed into PTV:

As the Victorian Government is currently evaluating the arrangements for release of public sector information under the Creative Commons licence, any requests for train, tram and bus route, stop and timetable data must still be made directly to Metlink Victoria Pty Ltd, the custodians of public transport data on behalf of the Director of Public Transport. Each request will be assessed on its merits.

Hey gunzels, New #PTV logos on tram 2049.

As it happens, information flying around from multiple sources says PTV are now aiming to have timetable data released in mid-2013, in a format that allows not only Google Transit, but other developers (including small independent ones) to use it too.

This will be a good thing.

As Gordon Rich-Phillips said in the press release:

“In driving the release of useable, high-quality data, these new policies will stimulate significant innovation and economic activity, creating a platform on which to develop new technologies, new services and ultimately, new jobs.”

Personal geek history

My desk at work, circa 1994A piece of personal geek history: yesterday I had heard that a system I worked on when just out of uni in 1993 just finally got decommissioned.

Myself and my mate Brian got out of uni at the end of ’92, and looked for IT jobs. In early 1993 I landed a contract at a Big Company and Brian came on board too, and we wrote the first version of system “X”, using Visual Basic 2 (the application running on Windows 3.1), and a database backend using Netware SQL (virtually unheard-of now).

(It wasn’t really called “X”. It was a slightly-awkward backronym made up by the guy who thought of the whole idea in the shower, and who had managed to get us inexperienced graduates in to make it happen.)

The software was primarily used in a centre in Burwood, by several hundred users, many of whom had never used Windows and a mouse before. Being a small team, we were able to be very responsive to user feedback, and as well as being more productive, hopefully our user base enjoyed using the software, despite our garish screen designs.

It was an awesome sight walking around the centre watching hundreds of people using the screens I’d designed.

I do recall one funny moment one day when the power went out momentarily. Hundreds of PCs all rebooted at once, accompanied by a collective “ooooooh” from everyone in the place.

A less-funny moment was the day when one of the LAN administrators accidentally wiped the shared drive with all our source code… and then we discovered the most recent backup was several weeks old. This incident inspired Losing My Connection (sung to the tune of “Losing My Religion”.)

Later in 1993, or possibly the next year, the team was expanded and system got a re-write, which we unimaginatively called “X2″.

The re-write used Visual Basic 3 (still on Windows 3.1) with an Oracle database backend. We had some fun naming the Oracle server after computers from Red Dwarf — the main server was Holly, the dev server was Kryten, and the test/staging server was Hudzen.

I left the project towards the end of 1994. Brian left a little while afterwards. His experiences inspired an awfully funny superhero sproof called “ContractOr”, which exaggerated the different worlds of contractors and permanent staff for comic value. Alas most of it has been lost in the mists of time.

A permanent believes that…
Contractors are dangerous, mercenary, rogue coders who don’t take orders, make up their own rules and cause havoc for the fun of it. In addition they’ll happily switch to another job, regardless of the consequences, if they get a better offer. Oh, and obviously, they are vastly overpaid.

A contractor believes that…
A permanent employee is a lazy, unimaginative, shiftless, paperwork-following WIMP. They are only concerned with covering their arse and care nothing for improving work practices – only for making sure they don’t get blamed when things fail to happen YET AGAIN.

Brian went on to be one of the first employees of Sausage Software, who released the first major web page designer.

I did ask around about 10 years ago and was surprised that system “X” was still running. It sounded like it had undergone a re-write into Delphi, so I doubt by the end that there was any of our original code left. Perhaps only the name was still remaining from what we worked on. But it was still called “X2″.

Only this week did it apparently get decomissioned.

Given how fast technology moves, I’m still surprised the system lasted 18 years.