Web Droppings

I’ve been hoarding some of these for a while… time to linkdump!

Low threshold links

Some people have them in a sidebar and call them “Further random reading“, “sidelights“, “trinkets“, “oddments“, or “obLinks“. Other people post occasional blog entries filled with links, more links, and nothing but links.

But the best and most descriptive name I’ve seen for them for them comes from Cameron Marlow who calles them “Low threshold links“:

“…My threshold for what to post was way to high to catch many of the sites I was laughing at, engaged by, and sending on to my friends. Instead of losing these links thanks to my imperfect brain, I decided like many others to create a separate weblog just for the ephemeral sites that didn’t deserve discussion.”

There’s an abundance of information around on how to set up a sidebar with low threshold links on your blog; Anders Jacobsen has a particularly simple way of doing it for Movable Type.

(My sidebar’s a bit crowded right now, so I’m just going to stick to linkdumps in the body of entries for the moment.)

Going Analogue

Since buying a digital camera in 2000 (an Olympus C3000 Zoom) we haven’t really looked back on analogue photography. Although we had bought a brand new APS camera in 1999, it disappeared into a dusty drawer as soon as we’d tested the digital waters. Earlier this year we even bought a second digital camera, a superslim Casio Exilim EX-S2.

The Olympus is a great all-round camera, and takes superb landscape shots, but it is quite bulky to carry around. The Casio is a snapshot camera. It’s great for people pictures, it’s tiny enough to slip into a pocket without spoiling the line of your trousers, and it turns on almost instantly. It’s rubbish at doing landscape or architecture shots, but that’s okay, because that’s not what we use it for.

A couple of months ago, however, we had a little accident with the Casio. The result was a cracked LCD screen, an £80 repair bill, and about four weeks without the camera.

Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, as we still had the Olympus, but it so happened that in those four weeks, Abi was away on her own for a bookbinding conference, and Alex and I were up in Aberdeen visting my grandmother. Abi ended up taking the Olympus down South with her, and Alex and I brought our quaint old APS device: a Canon Elph 260Z.

Now, when APS (“Advanced Photo System“) first arrived on the scene, I thought it was pretty cool:

  • Instead of a normal roll of 35mm film, APS cameras take a little film cartridge. APS cameras all auto-load these cartridges, so there is no messing about with threading film through a series of rollers.
  • The cartridges are asymmetric, so there is only one way they’ll fit in the camera. There is also a visual status indicator on the cartridge itself to show whether the film is (1) new, (2) in progress, (3) finished, or (4) developed. If your camera allows it, you can even swap cartridges in mid-roll.
  • At the time of taking a photo, you can specify a “framing mode” for the photo. The three modes are “Classic” (4:3 ratio), “HDTV” (9:5), or “panoramic” (about 10:3). The camera will actually photograph as much of the scene as the lens permits, but the framing mode will determine how the picture is cropped when it is printed.
  • When you get your pictures developed, they don’t come back with strips of negatives. Instead, you get back the cartridge itself (with the roll of developed negatives nicely tucked away inside it) and an index print, showing thumbnails of all the pictures on the roll. (And the prints, of course.)

The down side of APS is that it doesn’t have the same picture resolution as 35mm film. The negative is only about half as big, which means (in digital terms) that it has half the pixels. It’s like taking a picture with a 4 Megapixel camera vs a 2 Megapixel camera: you’ll be able to blow up the 4 Megapixel image to a much greater size before the individual pixels become visible. (The “grain” of the film, in analogue terms.)

To be honest, we never took enough pictures with the Canon for this downside to become noticeable. Migrating from 35mm to APS seemed like a step forward.

Moving from digital back to film photography, however, is an enormous pain in the ass:

  • No LCD screen. Some sophisticated film cameras now have LCD panels as well as optical viewfinders, but on digital cameras, LCD screens are the norm. Unless the lighting conditions are really bad (i.e. too much light), I would much rather hold the camera away from my face and watch the LCD, than hold it up to my eye and look through the viewfinder.
  • Every photo you take has to be developed and printed. Getting two rolls of APS film (65 shots) developed at Boots costs £16. If you factor in the cost of the film itself (£3-4 per roll), that works out at about 35 pence per photo. With our digital cameras, it’s not unusual for us to fire off 65 shots in a couple of hours, and that costs us exactly nothing. Note also that APS film and developing is more expensive than 35mm.
  • If you’re used to working with digital, you’ll probably want to get your analogue photos digitised. That means letting the developer stick them on a CD (at additional cost), or scanning them yourself (time and effort). Scanning from the negatives will give you better results, but APS really falls down here because the negatives are hidden inside that formerly convenient cartridge. And they’re not easy to get out.

All this adds up to one result: if you’re used to digital, you won’t ever want to go back to APS. 35mm, despite being the older technology, is actually much more suited to the digital age.

Mailinator follow-up

After I had grasped the concept behind Mailinator, one of the first things that came to mind was, won’t companies start blacklisting mailinator.com email addresses?

Paul Tyma, mailinator’s creator, has answered the question:

“1) Its likely that registration sites will start banning mailinator addresses. The definite first on the list are the ones that already ban yahoo and hotmail addresses and such. The trick is that they already have an infrastructure for banning. If their system has none, its a pain to add and may not be worth the trouble.

2) We have a few aliases set up, but as you can imagine, those just prolong the life. Its possible that enough aliases could become such a chore to track that most registrations will still get through.”

It’s the traditional problem with blacklists. They’re a cat-and-mouse arms race where the “attacker” always has the upper hand, because it always takes the “defender” a finite time to respond. The list of domains that will redirect to mailinator is growing steadily already. If you discover that some site has blocked mailinator.com addresses, don’t worry–there are plenty of alternatives by now.

Turns out that Paul Tyma is also one of the guys behind Dash-O and Dotfuscator, the popular Java and .NET code obfuscation tools. Interesting guy. Have a look at his home page for some recent articles he’s written:

The “Is programming…?” article dovetails with two recent articles by Bob Cringely: “Body Count: Why Moving to India Won’t Really Help IT” and “May the Source Be With You:
IT Productivity Doesn’t Have to Be an Oxymoron, but Outsourcing Isn’t the Way to Achieve It
“. Long-distance outsourcing worries me. It makes me think that there won’t be much of a market for programmers in the UK in ten years’ time, and that I’ll have to do yet another career change. I’ve tried teaching; maybe I’ll become a plumber instead.

His Java article is interesting because I’m start starting to learn Java. He addresses the performance issue, which is something that I’ve always disliked about the language. Server-side Java has never bothered me, but GUI apps have always felt…sluggish. Now I understand some of the reasons behind this.

He does, however, point out the SWT (Standard Widget Toolkit) libraries, which are a set of platform-specific GUI widgets that drive the underlying OS at a much lover-level than Swing does, with a resultant increase in performance. The Eclipse IDE is based on SWT, and it certainly feets nice and snappy. (Unfortunately, SWT seems to be severely under-documented, which is going to make it tough to learn.)

Failing the arm test

When Alex was younger, we used to use the “arm test” to tell whether he was really asleep, or still just on his way to dreamland. While he was lying on the sofa, or in our laps, we would lift up one of his arms, and then let go. If he was no longer conscious enough to pull his arm away, so that it would just flop limply to his side, we’d say that he had “failed the arm test.” That was generally the point where we considered it was safe enough to move him up to bed without disturbing his sleep.

I’ve been failing the arm test a lot myself lately. While awake.

Even now, two weeks after I first became ill, small amounts of effort still exhaust me. I took Alex into town for a few hours yesterday late afternoon. We did a little bit of walking around, but mostly we sat around on the High Street and watched the street performers. (Festval time–the city is abuzz.) I then came back and slept for twelve hours.

Today, the three of us went into town just before mid-day. We walked around for a little bit, then took a bus back by three o’clock. I collapsed into bed and had to sleep for an hour. When I woke up I felt thick in the head, dizzy, and nauseous.

The humorous cliché to use would be that I’m getting sick and tired of being sick and tired. But that doesn’t actually feel terribly funny right now.

I hate feeling like this. I want to be better.


Mailinator is a wonderful little service that helps protect your privacy, reduce the amount of spam you get, and minimize the number of useless user names and passwords you have to remember. Sounds great? It is.

But what does it actually do? Well, the concept behind it is so simple that it’ can actually be a little tricky to explain. Fundamentally, mailinator is just a big ol’ web-based email system. The difference is that you don’t have to sign up for its service, and you don’t use a password to log in:

  • No signups mean that I don’t have to register with mailinator to start using “martin@mailinator.com”. I can just give this address to anyone–and that includes annoying web sites that want you to register before reading their content, and any subsequent email they send to that address will be delivered to the mailinator mailbox.
  • No passwords means that all I have to do to access the mailbox for “martin@mailinator.com” is go to the mailinator web site, and type in the name “martin” in the login box. I will then be shown a list of all the email that has recently been sent to that address. Go try it.

The final part of its simplicity is that the service is disposable. Mail doesn’t linger in the mailinator mailboxes. I think they keep it around for ten hours or so and then flush it automatically; it gets flushed sooner if the mailbox sees heavy traffic. There’s no way for you to save your mail, and no way for you to forward it. It’s there, and then it’s gone. If you don’t check it quickly enough, it’s gone. If you have no interest in checking it ever again (perhaps because you wanted a quick, throwaway address to give to a site you knew was going to spam you), you don’t ever have to go back there, and nothing will touch your personal mailbox.

Simple scenario:

  1. Go to the LA Times web site
  2. Try to read a story.
  3. Find out that you need to register to read the story
  4. Learn that “Registration is FREE and offers great benefits.” Uh huh. Heard that one before, spam, spam, spam.
  5. Register for a new account, providing a false name, useless street address, and a mailinator.com email address.
  6. Find out that they have just sent you a confirmation email, with an “activation link”.
  7. Check the mailinator mailbox for the spurious email address you supplied
  8. Click the activation link.
  9. Read the article you wanted
  10. Forget about ever having registered. Forget the password, forget the username. Don’t worry about getting junk mail, or singing christmas cards, or telemarketers calling at 3am. It’ll won’t happen.

Cool, huh?