Monday, 22 December 2008


My son Euan was born a week and a half ago.  Unusually, given his dad's a computer scientist, the Internet was among the last to know.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

The Parable of the Unforgiving Banks?

In the news today, the banks the UK government have been bailing out and providing emergency loans to are reportedly being less than helpful when small businesses approach them for loans, and the UK Chancellor and the Business Secretary are unhappy about it. An odd thought popped into my head that this sounds rather like an old parable playing out in real life (though I can't really imagine the UK government changing its mind about rescuing the banks). But I can just imagine Alistair Darling thinking "Maybe I should ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to pop round to RBS and have a word".

Wednesday, 15 October 2008


Coming soon to the Intelligent Book is an update to the way that content is edited to support real-time collaborative editing. If two people edit the same page at the same time, they will see each other's changes as they happen. (Well, with maybe a 30 second delay.) This is a way of editing that users have become used to with sites like Live Workspace,, and Google Docs.

The code is actually already in the Intelligent Book, I just haven't turned it on yet. One way of thinking about it is that it does docs with TinyMCE. The same code is also intended to go into the Sakai 3 content management system, so I've set up an open source project for it called Docwit.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

CSS, still not great

After being in the too-comfortable position of being able to develop and demo the Intelligent Book on a Mac, I finally had to bite the bullet and sort out the layout for various different browsers. Sadly, it seems that cross-browser CSS is still just as much of a pain as it ever was.

Some of the wrinkles (as "notes to self"):

Firefox 2 does not understand inline-block. IE7 does, but only for inline elements (not 'div's and 'li's). One solution to this is to make almost everything a span, and then:
display: table-cell;
display: inline-block;
Firefox 2 will default to table-cell (skipping the following inline-block). Most other browsers will use inline-block.

IE8, even though it has better support, gets things wrong with resized images in inline-blocks. Specifically, if you resize the image by setting just the height, although it readjusts the width of the image as it displays, it still uses the old image width when calculating the size of the block (meaning lots of excess whitespace).

Chrome (so perhaps also Safari) has an odd effect when you try to work around browser differences by lining inline-blocks up as
diplay: table-cell
A paragraph placed in the code above nested table content within the table-cell will often appear underneath the table-cell instead of above it. This can be fixed by setting the paragraph as
display: table-caption

Thursday, 18 September 2008


I don't use Google's Chrome browser very often, but today I did and I noticed that in the home page (that shows little square snapshots of your most visited sites), the square snapshot of the GMail login page is shown with the title "Redirecting" rather than Gmail. Just thought it was curious that happened for one of Google's own products.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Google Chrome

So apparently Google is working on it's own browser, and they have produced probably the least funny comic in history to let the world know. Apart from the technical reasons for the browser, that are trumpeted in the cartoon, I imagine the business types at Google are also interested in solving the little issue that while most of the world use Google's search platform, they mostly do it using their arch-competitor's browser (Internet Explorer). Despite extensive funding from Google, Mozilla have never had the brand presence to undo Microsoft's browser-dominance as much as Google would, no doubt, like.

Google's project is planned to be open source, make all the technical bloggers very happy people. But it's worth remembering that "open source" does not mean "democratic". We can reasonably expect Google's browser to be designed carefully around Google's services. This is a branded browser that it likely to be promoting GMail over, say, Hotmail or Yahoo, and GTalk over Skype, AIM, or Facebook's instant messaging.

But then, the chances are that even Google's brand presence will not push out IE in the near term -- how do you market a "better browser" to an end-user who doesn't know any of the technical reasons? Especially when you can't afford to stop giving the browser they're already using great support? However, a Google Browser probably could out-compete Mozilla's Firefox. (And for how long will Google continue to fund Mozilla? They are by far the biggest financial contributor at the moment.) That in turn could help Google dominate some of the competition in Web-based applications -- the losers from this might well be AOL, Skype, and Adobe.

And then there's the small matter of upcoming competition -- competing for the next generation of apps. Adobe AIR threatens to take Web applications out of the browser, and provides a rich application environment without some of the hassles of HTML. That could become a compelling story, and Adobe have a history of getting their product out to a large userbase (Flash has around a 90% install-base). And they have an online-documents suite that is a minor competitor to Google Docs, but that could easily become more compelling. So, it is very much in Google's interests to improve the HTML+Javascript experience of the browser, since that is where all of their business is based.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Width and readability

I've just switched the "theme" of this blog to a fixed width theme. As screens get wider, it can be awkward if lines of text are too long because it's too easy to lose your place when your eyes flick back to find the start of the next line.

Related odd thought: I remember reading (I forget where -- I think somewhere in the documentation for the LaTeX publishing system) that the Times font was designed specifically for narrow columns of text, as you get in the Times newspaper, and there was a warning that it could look awkward for documents with much wider single-column formats. However, it's been the default in Word for a decade (though they changed it in Word 2007), and probably most of the documents any of us have printed have used it, without it seeming awkward. Anything else looks unusual. So does that mean that the warning was wrong, or just that we've got so used to it we don't notice any more?

Saturday, 16 August 2008

"Prove it's unsafe"

UK Environment minister Phil Woolas has supposedly claimed it's now up to the opponents of GM to prove that it is unsafe. This seems like fairly disingenious phrasing -- either it has been proven safe or it hasn't. If it has, then surely that's what he should focus on. If it hasn't, then effectively saying "well, we're stumped; let's put the burden on proving there's going to be a problem" doesn't sound like a sensible approach. It was very difficult to definitively prove there would be a problem with feeding processed cow-remains to living cows (we can kill all the bacteria and viruses), until the BSE crisis hit (oops, we forgot about prions).

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

LaTeX, monospace, bold, computer modern, bera

This isn't exactly "general interest", but if any other person trying to format their thesis has hit the same issue, it's useful to have this up there for Google to pick it up:

I've just been reformatting my PhD thesis (approved and graduated last year) as a technical report for the Computer Laboratory.  It's formatted in LaTeX, which is the typesetting system lots of computer science graduate students still use rather than stretchy rubber. If you use the Times font package, you might find that its monospaced font (something a bit like Courier) is rather wide, and looks very odd if you put a keyword in monospace in the middle of some Times prose.  The Computer Modern monospace font is a much less clashing size, much narrower than the other monospaced fonts I could find, and so that's what I used in my PhD when I printed it for submission.  Only it doesn't have a bold.  There's a trick on the Internet to put a bold monospace (typewriter) Computer Modern font in – but it's only good for print documents because it ends up being a bitmap font (looks blurry in most PDF viewers when viewed at the wrong size on the screen).  So, no good for the PDF technical report.

After some hunting around – Latin Modern is very similar to Computer Modern and does have a bold typewriter font – but not a bold italic monospace font – so bold italic ends up looking odd compared to not-bold italic.

After more searching around, a solution.  The Bera (Bitstream Vera) package has a small note in its documentation, in a file called bera.txt, saying: 
\usepackage[scaled]{...}    selects a default scaling of 90%, which makes the Bera fonts approximately match the size of the Computer Modern fonts.

(Actually I find scaled=0.88 fits better with surrounding Times text)

In otherwords, if you do \usepackage[scaled]{beramono} you'll have a monospace font that doesn't jar quite so much with surrounding Times text, and does have bold and bold italics, etc.

Oh, theres also a note saying Bera only works with T1 encoding, so you need:
as well (I put it before the \usepackage[scaled=0.88]{beramono}.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

CUE Business Plan Grand Final

A few months ago, three of us (Ed Schofield, Wallis Motta, and myself) made a last minute decision to enter the Cambridge University Entrepreneurs (CUE) Business Plan Competition. It's a very successful competition, having spun out companies that are now worth more than £40-million, so we always knew it was going to be tough.  Our team was "The Idea Belt", a company to sell innovation management software to mid-sized companies.  It's a software category that is coming into vogue, there aren't many vendors (and they're mostly small), and we'd spotted a better way of doing it. 
Happily for us, we made it through to the Grand Final, which was last Wednesday night, appropriately enough just a few hours before Sir Alan Sugar picked his latest Apprentice on the telly.  We didn't win – we were beaten by some absolutely fantastic teams (if you have a few pounds spare, Microantenna looks like a fabulous investment!).  But I was very happy we made it into the final. 

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Richard Stallman in Cambridge

Oops, this remained unpublished for a while...
Richard Stallman, notable of the Free Software Foundation, was in Cambridge in April speaking at the Computer Lab's Wednesday Seminar. Stallman is one of computing's true eccentrics.  I bumped into him, only very briefly, a couple of times when visiting MIT as a PhD student, but even those short meetings gave me no doubt that he is a quite an unusual character – the last time I'd seen him, he was ever so pleased that by passing some wire over his neck and tying it to the sides of his laptop, he'd been able to arrange it so he could type standing up, a bit like a cinema ice cream salesman – the only tiny hitch being that the plastic coated wire he'd used kept unknotting itself, and the laptop kept nearly crashing to the floor!
But I have to say he's a very witty speaker, and someone it's well worth hearing speak if you get the chance – even if you disagree with everything he says, you will probably enjoy the talk.  In this talk, he had grand plans to change the world of copyright by categorising every book in the world as being a personal account, a work of art, or having practical value as a work of instruction (eg, a recipe book), and then giving everything but the artistic books away free.  There was a slight lack of realism to his vision – Gordon Ramsay agreeing his recipes are artless? Harold Pinter agreeing his "purely artistic" work has no instructive value?  And anyone agreeing to this regime in the first place?  But Stallman's humour worked in a way that seemed somehow reminiscent of Jimmy Carr, and the audience was entertained both by the content and his manner.
There were a few odd moments of course.  He was particularly irked by the projectionist wanting to dim the house lights for the talk ("do you want me to go to sleep?", he objected).  And at the end of the talk he insisted people should queue for the microphone rather than waiting for it to be passed to them, because it's so much more efficient.  Normally this might work, but with the very long benches and tight seats of the Computer Lab lecture theatre it meant audience members were having to climb over each other or ask half a dozen other people to stand up so they could squeeze past each other to reach the aisle.  Half the room was shuffling itself around and uttering "excuse me" like a regular chant, and Stallman was blissfully oblivious to it and happy with his efficient solution.  But, as I say, these turn out to be very humorous moments to watch rather than awkward.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Credit cycle

George Osborne made a speech at Harvard about changing the way we control the economy.  For the last decade or two, the UK and US have tried to control the boom-bust cycle by using one lever (interest rates) to try to control one variable (retail inflation).  When retail inflation goes up, the governments raise interest rates to bring it back down again.  But, Osborne says, there has been a second, hitherto ignored cycle: house prices ("asset inflation") and credit.  House prices and consumer debt has risen while inflation has remained low, and now the credit crunch is in a sense a credit-led-bust rather than an inflation-led-bust.  Osborne suggests trying to control this new credit cycle by controlling how much money banks are allowed to lend as a ratio of their assets.
Osborne seems to have missed a more general point: the credit cycle is partly an artificial problem.  It is precisely because the government (actually the Monetary Policy Committee) frequently changes interest rates that we get credit booms and busts.  The mortgages that are in trouble in the UK got into trouble because of six consecutive interest rate rises.  And the rush for credit was caused by so many interest rate reductions in the years beforehand.  If interest rates were generally constant, it would take a lot of the speculation out of the property market, and house prices would have a chance to settle at a level and growth rate that is determined much more by supply and demand.  Constant interest rates would remove the "fear of missing the boat" that when interest rates are lowered and house prices skyrocket, a house that is nearly affordable today will be far too expensive tomorrow.  And they'd remove the terror of negative equity from house price crashes when rates rise.  It is those sentiments that drive the booms and crashes in the property market.
It also strikes me that for controlling retail demand (in order to control retail inflation), interest rates are a very inefficient and inequitable lever to pull.  They disproportionately affect the people with the biggest mortgage-to-salary ratios (ie, first time buyers), and have fairly little effect on almost everybody else.  Renters don't see rent rises until six months to a year later, and those who have had mortgages for a long time have a much bigger cushion because inflation and career growth have raised their salaries compared to their repayments.
Surely rather than having a massive effect on just a few people, the lever to pull to control retail demand would be one that effects every consumer, not just homeowners with large mortgages?  Perhaps sales tax (VAT) or by varying part of income tax (which could be reflected in the PAYE system very quickly allowing short-term changes)?
Just a thought

Monday, 31 March 2008

BBC site redesign, px font sizes (edited - inaccurate)

The BBC news website has changed its style this morning, and now has the greyish text and increased line spacing that is all the rage on Web 2.0 sites.  
In an idle moment, I had a look at the stylesheet.  I'm not a web styling expert, but I need to sort out the stylesheets for  Interestingly, the BBC's font size and line height are specified in pixels – years ago that was said to be a no-no because 13px might not be so readable on a denser display or a handheld.  But trying to use "em" measurements or anything like that was horribly incompatible between browsers.  These days, Safari and Firefox still happily resize text smaller or larger when asked (Ctrl-+), even if it is specified in pixels.  So I wonder if the "old pixel" has become the new standard resolution-independent measurement: "how big would this have looked on an old SVGA monitor"?  
EDITED: Oops, as bods commented, it is mostly em-based after all (but with occasional stray px font-sizes for parts like ".storyextra h2" that I happened to hit in my initial idle look)

Monday, 18 February 2008

Northern Rock nationalised – what an opportunity

The government is going to nationalise Northern Rock, but the opposition think this is a "disaster" and takes us "back to the policies of the 1970s".  
I think it's a fabulous move, and a very capitalist one.  The difference between the 1970s and now is that in the 1970s, the government felt it needed to own industries as a whole and there was no private competition.  In the 1980s, the government changed plan and backed off industry entirely, relying just on regulation and competition.  I think now there's an opportunity to realise that governments can do something slightly more than just regulation: they can get their feet wet in the market and be competition.
What would this do for the everyday citizen?  It's a very effective way of ensuring consumer minimum standards in an industry – much faster than regulation, and potentially more effective.
For example in Australia there is a problem with bank fees – not just for overdrafts, but just for accessing your money.  And these bank fees, as always, hit lower income earners hardest.  The Australian government would have a hard time pushing through regulations to outlaw bank fees – there would be law suits for judicial review complaining loudly that it's "not a viable commercial model".  But what if the Australian government still owned a bank (it used to own the Commonwealth Bank), and told it not to charge bank fees?  The private sector, just to compete for customers, would have to drop their bank fees too.  And by running a profit-making non-fee-charging bank, the government would prove that it is a commercially viable model.
Competition can be more effective than regulation, but if the public wants to drive the industry in its direction, then the public sector has to get its feet wet.
And now that Northern Rock has had to be nationalised, I hope the UK government will realise just how useful it could be to them.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Quantum of Solace

My goodness, it's the most exciting name for a new Bond film, is it?

Apparently it comes from a short story that Ian Fleming wrote, which of course is why the producers chose it. On the other hand, the short story never had to stand on its own - it was published in a much more excitingly titled collection, and in a popular magazine (Cosmopolitan).

I keep imagining that gravelly American voiceover they always have on movie trailers trying to announce the title dramatically: "Danger... excitement... QUANTUM ... OF SOLACE". Will I be able to keep a straight face? Unless of course the villain is a very nerdy academic physicist in which case it all makes sense!