March 07, 2014
Robert O'Callahan -- Fine-Tuning Arguments
I've been doing a little background reading and stumbled over this very interesting summary of arguments for fine-tuning of the universe. The cosmology is a bit over my head but as far as I understand it, it matches other sources I've read. It doesn't reach any conclusions about what causes the fine-tuning but it does pose some interesting challenges to the multiverse explanation.
March 07, 2014 12:50 AM
March 05, 2014
Robert O'Callahan -- Internet Connectivity As A Geopolitical Tool
A lot of people are wondering what Western countries can do about Russian's invasion of Ukraine. One option I haven't seen anyone suggest is to disconnect Russia from the Internet. There are lots of ways this could be done, but the simplest would be for participating countries to compel their exchanges to drop packets sourced from Russian ISPs.
This tactic has several advantages. It's asymmetric --- hurts Russia a lot more than the rest of the world, because not many services used internationally are based in Russia. It's nonviolent. It can be implemented quickly and cheaply and reversed just as quickly. It's quite severe. It distributes pain over most of the population.
This may not be the right tactic for this situation, but it's a realistic option against most modern countries (other than the USA, for obvious reasons).
If used, it would have the side effect of encouraging people to stop depending on services outside their own country, which I think is no bad thing.
March 05, 2014 04:05 AM
March 02, 2014
Robert O'Callahan -- Te Henga Walkway
On Saturday we finally did the Te Henga Walkway from Bethell's Beach to Goldie's Bush. I've wanted to do it for a long time but it's not a loop so you need multiple cars and a bit of planning. This weekend we finally got our act together with some friends and made it happen.
We dropped a car off at the end of Horseman Rd, at Goldie's Bush, and everyone continued to the start of the track at Bethell's Beach. The track goes over the hills with quite a bit of up-and-down walking but consistently excellent views of the ocean, beaches, cliffs and bush. It's a bit overgrown with gorse in places. After reaching Constable Rd, we walked along a bit and entered the west end of Goldie's Bush, walking through to the carpark on the other side. All the drivers got into our car and we dropped them off at the Bethell's end so they could bring their cars back to Horseman Rd to pick up everyone else.
Oddly, we were a bit slower than the nominal time for the Te Henga Walkway (signs say 3-4 hours, but we took a bit over 4 including our lunch break), but actually considerably faster than the nominal time for Goldie's Bush (signs say 2 hours, we took less than an hour). I would have expected to be slower on the later part of the walk when we were more tired.
March 02, 2014 04:56 AM
Q&A Panel At ACPC This Friday
This Friday evening I'm part of the panel for an open Q&A; session at Auckland Chinese Presbyterian Church. It should be a lot of fun!
March 02, 2014 03:23 AM
February 20, 2014
Robert O'Callahan -- 3 Mile Limit
Tonight I went the the premiere of the movie 3 Mile Limit. It's a New Zealand movie based on a true New Zealand story, the story of how in the 1960s four young men set out to break the government's monopoly on radio broadcasting by setting up a "pirate" radio station on a boat in international waters in the Hauraki Gulf. Lack of funds and government obstruction made their project extremely difficult but they were ultimately successful. This story is special to me because my father, Denis "Doc" O'Callahan, was one of the four and I am immensely proud of him. My father played an important role in the project, being the original radio engineer and also the first skipper of the boat, the Tiri. The movie's "Morrie" character is based on him.
You can tell from the trailer that the movie's a bit cliched, but I enjoyed it more than I expected. I found the production design evoking 1960s Auckland quite lovely --- parts of it reminded me of early childhood memories, and some parts remind me of Auckland today. A lot of the story has been rewritten for dramatic purposes, and the changes mostly work. The core theme of young rebels fighting to bring rock music to the public is completely true. The movie opens on March 6 and I hope it has a good run.
February 20, 2014 10:43 AM
February 18, 2014
Robert O'Callahan -- World Famous In Newmarket
The Newmarket Business Association has made a series of videos promoting Newmarket. They're interesting, if a little over-produced for my taste. Their Creativity in Newmarket video has a nice plug for the Mozilla office. Describing our office as a "head office" is a bit over the top, but there you go.
February 18, 2014 10:01 PM
February 17, 2014
Robert O'Callahan -- Implementing Virtual Widgets On The Web Platform
Some applications need to render large data sets in a single document, for example an email app might contain a list of tens of thousands of messages, or the FirefoxOS contacts app might have thousands of contacts in a single scrolling view. Creating explicit GUI elements for each item can be prohibitively expensive in memory usage and time. Solutions to this problem often involve custom widgets defined by the platform, e.g. the XUL tree widget, which expose a particular layout and content model and issue some kind of callback to the application to populate the widget with data incrementally, e.g. to get the data for the currently visible rows. Unfortunately these built-in widgets aren't a good solution to the problem, because they never have enough functionality to handle the needs of all applications --- they're never as rich as the language of explicit GUI elements.
Another approach is to expose very low-level API such as paint events and input events and let the developer reimplement their own widgets from scratch, but that that's far too much work.
I think the best approach is for applications to dynamically create UI elements that render the visible items. For this to work well, the platform needs to expose events or callbacks informing the application of which part of the list is (or will be) visible, and the application needs to be able to efficiently generate the UI elements in time for them to be displayed when the user is scrolling. We want to minimize the "checkerboarding" effect when a user scrolls to a point that app hasn't been able to populate with content.
I've written a demo of how this can work on the Web. It's quite simple. On receiving a scroll event, it creates enough items to fill the viewport, and then some more items within a limited distance of the viewport, so that browsers with async scrolling will (mostly) not see blank space during scrolling. Items far away from the viewport are recycled to reduce peak memory usage and speed up the item-placement step.
The demo uses absolute positioning to put items in the right place; this is more efficient than moving elements around in the DOM to reorder them vertically. Moving elements in the DOM forces a significant amount of restyling work which we want to avoid. On the other hand, this approach messes up selection a bit. The correct tradeoff depends on the application.
The demo depends on the layout being a simple vertical stack of identically-sized items. These constraints can be relaxed, but to avoid CSS layout of all items, we need to build in some application-specific knowledge of heights and layout. For example, if we can cheaply compute the height of each item (including the important case where there are a limited number of kinds of items and items with the same kind have the same height), we can use a balanced tree of items with each node in the tree storing the combined height of the items to get the performance we need.
It's important to note that the best implementation strategy varies a lot based on the needs and invariants of the application. That's one reason why I think we should not provide high-level functionality for these use-cases in the Web platform.
The main downside of this approach, IMHO, is that async scrolling (scrolling that occurs independently of script execution) can occasionally and temporarily show blank space where items should be. Of course, this is difficult to avoid with any solution to the large-data-set problem. I think the only alternative is to have the application signal to the async scroll thread the visible area that is valid, and have the async scroll thread prevent scrolling from leaving that region --- i.e. jank briefly. I see no way to completely avoid both jank and checkboarding.
Is there any API we can add to the platform to make this approach work better? I can think of just a couple of things:
- Make sure that at all times, an application can reliably tell which contents of a scrollable element are going to be rendered. We need not just the "scroll" event but also events that fire on resize. We need some way to determine which region of the scrolled content is going to be prerendered for async scrolling.
- Provide a way for an application to choose between checkerboarding and janking for a scrollable element.
February 17, 2014 01:38 AM
February 06, 2014
Robert O'Callahan -- Mozilla At Motuihe
Today was Waitangi Day in New Zealand, a public holiday. Since we haven't had our usual annual Mozilla office excursion, several people from the Mozilla office decided to go to Motuihe Island for the day with families/partners. Motuihe is a fairly small island between Waiheke Island and Auckland, recently cleared of predators and subject to a large reforestation and native bird repopulation project. In particular, little spotted kiwi have been reintroduced. This means I can see, from my desk, a place where kiwi live in the wild :-).
It's a short ferry ride from the city --- about 30 minutes --- but the ferry doesn't run most of the year; after this weekend it won't run again until December. (I've been to Motuihe lots of times but in the past, always on my parents' boat.) The weather today wasn't as good as forecast --- very windy, lots of cloud, and a spot of rain. Nevertheless I think we all had a good time. We walked around almost the whole island in a few hours, having a picnic lunch along the way at one of the smaller beaches (Calypso Bay). Then we walked on Ocean Beach a bit --- a very pleasant beach, generally, although today it was a bit wild with the wind blowing in hard. A few of us went for a swim, which was surprisingly fun, since the water was warm and the waves made it interesting. Auckland has also been experiencing a sequence of very high tides and the high tide today was no exception, which made it fun for the kids swinging on rope swings over the water.
Definitely worth doing if you're an Aucklander and haven't been there before. You can camp overnight on the island, and it's interesting to learn about the history of the island (which includes quarantine station and WW1 POW camp, which hosted the famous Count Felix von Luckner --- a most extraordinary man.)
February 06, 2014 11:28 AM
February 05, 2014
Robert O'Callahan -- Camels
The NZ Herald published a story (reprinted from the Daily Mail) about lack of evidence for camel domestication in the pre-1000BC Levant casting doubt on Biblical references to Abraham and his family using camels before that time. The report seems a bit off to me for a couple of reasons... Contrary to the implication of the article, this isn't by any means a new issue. People have been arguing about this precise question for over fifty years, albeit with a little less archeological data. (See this for example.) Secondly, the obvious rejoinder is that Abraham wasn't actually from the Levant; according to the Biblical narrative he was from Mesopotamia --- where camels appear to have been domesticated much earlier --- and travelled to what is now Israel, bringing his (considerable) household and possessions with him. It would have made complete sense for him to bring some camels with him for the journey, and for that small herd to be maintained and handed down for at least a few generations.
I admit it's a bit foolish to try to analyze data that's passed through the filters of press release and newspaper publication.
February 05, 2014 12:04 PM
January 24, 2014
Robert O'Callahan -- Lake Waikaremoana
This week I did the Lake Waikaremoana "Great Walk" with my children. This is a three-to-four day walk in Te Urewera National Park on the east coast of the North Island --- a range of low but rugged mountains covered in cold rainforest. We did it in four days, staying at Department of Conservation huts on the three nights --- Waiharuru, Waiopaoa and Panekire. These huts are cheap and shared with 20 to 40 other trampers depending on the size of the hut and how busy the track is. Since it's the school holidays and the middle of the summer, it was quite busy but the huts don't get overcrowded since they must be booked in advance.
This is the first "Great Walk" I've done, and the first tramp I've done over more than one night. Everything went very well. Tuesday was wet and also the longest day (eight hours including a side trip to Korokoro Falls, well worth it!) but everyone coped fine. Needless to say the lake and surrounding scenery are very beautiful.
The walk is around the western arm of the lake. Most trampers do it from the southern end to the northern end of the lake but we did it in the other direction, in the hope our packs would be lighter for the climb over the Panekire bluff at the southern end. It probably didn't make much difference.
For some reason I find it very easy to talk to strangers staying at tramping huts. Maybe it's because we're cooking, eating, talking and sleeping at close quarters, maybe it's because of the isolation or the shared challenge of the walk, or maybe it's something else, but it's the easiest place --- other than church maybe --- to strike up a conversation with someone I don't know at all. I've met a lot of interesting people from different countries and backgrounds. I've learned a lot about tramping from them, since of course many of them are more experienced than me. It's a good environment to learn to be more outgoing.
Everything was great and I highly recommend the walk. Panekire Hut is outstanding, perched on the top of the bluff with an incredible view over the lake, yet somehow in a pocket sheltered from the strong gusty winds just a few paces away. As it turned out, we could have easily done the walk in three days by ascending and descending Panekire on the same day, skipping staying at the hut, but I'm glad we didn't. I do wish we'd brought togs so we could swim in the lake while at the lakeside huts --- many of the other trampers did.
January 24, 2014 10:17 AM
January 12, 2014
Robert O'Callahan -- Web Specifications And The Frame Problem
I've noticed a pattern of mistakes when some smart people think about Web specifications. They think that a general rule in some spec does not apply to some specific situation that they're focused on, because the spec does not mention their specific situation. One example: someone suggested that we could make typed arrays returned by Web Audio APIs not be neuterable, arguing that this did not alter already-specified behavior because "nothing currently specifies how typed arrays work with Web Audio". Another example: someone argued that CSS does not specify how to determine the size of CSS content, padding and border boxes when the 'overflow' property is not 'visible'.
I hope it's clear that these are mistakes because when a Web spec states a general rule, that rule applies in all situations unless there is specific text contradicting it elsewhere (in which case, some spec should clearly indicate which rule prevails ... and I recognize that's not always true). Any other approach leads to madness; modularity and extensibility would be destroyed if, any time a feature is added to the Web platform, we had to explicitly reaffirm the behavior of all other features.
I think this is a form of the "frame problem" in AI, or "default logic". A kind of intertia requires previously specified rules to remain true until explicitly changed by another spec.
In typical programming languages, we tackle these issues by making every modifiable rule an explicit extension point (which could be implemented in lots of ways --- a virtual function call, a function value, an enum value, etc). Modifications explicitly utilize the extension point. This is sometimes done in specs, but rarely. One reason is that it makes your specs verbose and hard to read. Another reason is that it's hard to know the set of extension points ahead of time, so when you discover later you need to make modifications, you have to go back and add those extension points. That's getting easier now that more specs are using the "living standard" model, but it used to be hard.
There are programming languages that support this kind of dynamic extensibility. Languages with externally defined multimethods have a taste of it. CSS itself, ironically, orders rules by specificity and allows more-specific rules to override less-specific rules.
One problem I've been interested in for a long time is encoding the semantics of board games. Board game rules are often designed like Web specs, with some rules overriding others in special cases. Board games have extensibility problems, when expansions come out which lead to ambiguities in the context of the original game. (Munchkin makes sport of the problem.)
January 12, 2014 09:14 PM
Tiritiri Matangi Island
On Saturday our family took the ferry to Tiritiri Matangi Island for a day trip. Over the last 30 years farming stopped on this island and it was reforested, with intensive help from volunteers planting hundreds of thousands of trees and other plants. The island was also cleared of predators such as rats, never had many of the common New Zealand predators such as stoats and weasels, and is now an amazing habitat for native birds, many species of which are endangered on the mainland. Various rare species from other sanctuaries, such as takahes and little spotted kiwi, and even tuataras, have been introduced to Tiritiri Matangi. It is also an important nesting island for little blue penguins.
Our trip was excellent. We took a guided tour with one of the guides from the "Friends of Tiritiri Matangi" volunteers society. She was very knowledgeable and observant and the guided tour was well worth having. We saw a lot of rare birds, particularly saddlebacks, robins and whiteheads, and the birdsong was cacophonous. The bush is regenerating well. In open grass near the lighthouse, a highlight was seeing three takahe --- about 1% of the world's entire takahe population!
One of the best things about Tiritiri Matangi is that it is being used as a template for other Hauraki Gulf islands. In recent years, Rangitoto, Motutapu, Rotoroa and Motuhie have all been cleared of predators and reforestation of Motutapu, Rorotora and Motuhie (all formerly farmed) is in progress. Takahes have been released on Motutapu and kiwi on Motuhie. This will provide redundancy for the island sanctuaries and amazing places for people to visit when the forest grows up.
One interesting tidbit is that apparently rats can swim up to 3km and hence the 4km gap between Tiritiri Matangi is fortuitous. I wonder what would cause a rat to swim 3km towards an island ... desperation, insanity, or wanderlust and very good judgement of distance and tides?
Tiritiri Matangi is definitely a worthwhile day trip for anyone based in Auckland.
January 12, 2014 08:38 PM
For my entire life I've had the privilege of boating on the Hauraki Gulf. My parents are part-owners of a classic wooden launch built over 80 years ago, and throughout my childhood we spent weeks every year cruising the Gulf in it. They still take our family out with them for several days every year, for which we are very grateful. A lot of people, even those who live in Auckland, don't know what this entails so I thought I'd write about it.
The experience is a bit hard to describe to those who haven't done anything like it. The perimeter of the Hauraki Gulf is roughly the east coast of Auckland, running south and east to the Firth of Thames, then north along the inside of the Coromandel Peninsula, then north and west through the Great and Little Barrier Islands and rejoining the mainland at Tawharanui Peninsula. Its area is about 4000 km2. Inside that perimeter are many islands of various sizes, and a great many harbours and bays on the islands and the mainland. Even relatively small craft can go anywhere in this area. Often pleasure boats travel from bay to bay on a near-daily basis, anchoring in bays that are sheltered from any wind that's blowing. Common activities are fishing, swimming, going ashore via dinghy for swimming or walking, and generally just about any activity you can imagine doing on a boat, on a beach, or in a park --- much of the coastal land reachable by boat is public land of some kind, and you can almost always use the beach.
These boats are often equipped with everything you need to live for weeks --- sleeping, cooking, hot water, washing, etc. They're all different shapes and sizes, with the biggest difference being between the yachts that sail and the launches that rely on an engine, although yachts typically have a small backup engine too. These boats would have electricity generated from the engine and hence electric lighting, a refrigerator, and charging for your mobile devices. Most of the Gulf has pretty good 3G coverage.
Those sorts of boats are definitely an upper-middle-class luxury, but smaller boats down to large dinghies with outboard motors are used for day trips, especially for fishing. I read an estimate that one in three Auckland households have some kind of boat. A lot of Aucklanders live close enough to the water to make sailing classes a common extra-curricular activity for children; children learn to sail dinghies from the age of around 11. This partly explains why New Zealand produces so many world-class sailors.
If you don't have a boat, or have friends or relatives with a boat, it's very difficult to even approximate the pleasure cruising experience. If you're into sea kayaking you can kayak and camp at many of the closer islands. Many of the Gulf islands are reachable by ferry, but ferries to many of the less popular ones only run on specific days during the summer. Regardless, they're all worth visiting:
- Waiheke is basically a suburb at its western end, but a lovely island suburb with nice beaches and excellent walking tracks. Its eastern end is difficult to access, being largely private farmland, and you need a boat to really appreciate the bays of the "bottom end". People often visit Waiheke for the food and wine at its vineyards.
- Rangitoto is the newest volcano of the Auckland volcanic field. No more than several hundred years old, it's a unique ecosystem of plants colonizing bare lava, and the view from its top is exceptional. You can take the ferry from downtown, walk up and down, and be back in Auckland for a late lunch. This is my top recommendation if you have a half-day in Auckland.
- Motutapu is an older island next to Rangitoto, formerly used for farming. Has a campsite.
- Motuhie is a small island used as a POW camp in World War One. It has a campsite and the north-facing Ocean Beach is excellent.
- Kawau is at the northern end of the Hauraki Gulf. It has a lot of private land but the public area around Governer Grey's Mansion House is lovely.
- Rotoroa was a treatment center for alcoholics run by the Salvation Army which has recently reverted to a public reserve. It's nice.
- Tiritiri Matangi is a bird sanctuary. More about that in a future blog post.
- Great Barrier is a large island, reachable by light plane as well as ferry. Visitors will probably want to rent a car and it also has a network of walking tracks. It's at the edge of the Gulf, faces the Pacific and is more remote than these other islands. Highly recommended.
January 12, 2014 11:32 AM
December 26, 2013
Robert O'Callahan -- We Need A "Dumb Device" Movement
I'm habitually pessimistic about many things, and this year Snowden reinforced my habit. In the narrow sense of his obligations to the US government, he's a traitor, but to the human race as a whole he's a hero and a role model; he personally is inspiring, but what he revealed is depressing.
I think his most important lesson is that total surveillance is an explicit goal of the US and UK governments (and by extension other governments), and there's no real restraint in how that goal is being pursued, especially for those of us who aren't US citizens. Combine that with the cold truth that we are incapable of securing complex systems, and we're in a very bad situation. We have to start assuming that mass-market computing devices are compromised, or can be compromised at will.
When people talk about the "Internet of things", they're implying the situation is going to get much worse. Every device that is network-accessible and supports updateable software is a surveillance device ... if not all the time, then as soon as someone decides to turn it on. (Let's ignore for now devices that can be programmed to take hostile action against their users!) I am not in favor of the Internet of things in the present climate.
Unfortunately, factors of cost, convenience and cool will keep driving general-purpose, network-accessible computation into every nook and cranny of our world. It may help if a significant subset of customers (I hate the word "consumers", it's demeaning) prefer devices that don't have unnecessary computation jammed into them. I want to buy "dumb devices" --- meaning they are not unnecessarily smart, and don't talk about me behind my back. My refrigerator, clothes, and bicycle do not need network access or upgradeable software, and I don't want them. Of course, if my market segment's population is me, it's not economically viable. Therefore I need a mass movement.
One interesting product segment is cars. The computerization of cars is truly terrifying, and there is some great work detailing how modern cars can be subverted. I would pay a decent premium for a car that lacks any kind of over-the-air communications. A potential problem is that safety regulations require new cars to have sophisticated computers, and sooner or later a computationally secure car may become effectively illegal, if it isn't already.
I don't know what to do from here. Does this movement already exist? If not, I hope someone starts it, since I'm rather busy.
December 26, 2013 09:46 AM
December 16, 2013
Robert O'Callahan -- Blood Clot
I'm tagging this post with 'Mozilla' because many Mozilla people travel a lot.
In September, while in California for a week, I developed pain in my right calf. For a few days I thought it was a muscle niggle but after I got back to New Zealand it kept getting worse and my leg was swelling, so I went to my doctor, who diagnosed a blood clot. A scan confirmed that I had one but it was small and non-threatening. I went to a hospital, got a shot of the anticoagulant clexane to stop the clot growing, and then went home. The next day I was put on a schedule of regular rivaroxaban, an oral anticoagulant. Symptoms abated over the next few days and I haven't had a problem since. No side-effects either. I cut myself shaving at the Mozilla Summit and bled for hours, but that's more of an intended effect than a side effect :-).
I had heard of the dreaded DVT, but have never known anyone with it until now, and apparently the same is true for my friends. Fortunately I didn't have a full-blown DVT since the clot did not reach a "deep vein". Still, I can confirm these clots are real and some of the warnings about them are worth paying attention to :-).
I saw a specialist for a followup visit today. Apparently plane travel is not actually such a high risk so in my case it was probably just a contributing factor, along with other factors such as sitting around too much in my hotel room, possibly genetic factors, and probably some bad luck. (Being generally healthy is no sure protection; ironically, I got this clot when I'm fitter than ever before.) So when flying, getting up to walk around, wiggling your toes, and keeping fluid intake up are all worth doing. I used to do none of them :-).
My long term prognosis is completely fine as long as I take the above precautions, wear compressing socks on flights and take anticoagulant before flights. I will be given a blood test to screen for known genetic factors.
I did everything through the public health system and it worked very well. Like health systems everywhere, New Zealand's has its good and bad points, but overall I think it's good. At least it doesn't have the obvious flaws of the USA's system (the only other one I've used). In this case I had basically zero paperwork (signed a couple of forms that staff filled out), personal costs of about $20 (standard GP consultation), good care, reasonable wait times, and modern drugs. I was pleased to see sensible things being done to deliver care efficiently; for example, my treatment program was determined by a specialist nurse, who checked it out with a doctor over the phone. New Zealand has a central drug-buying agency, Pharmac, which is a great system for getting good deals from drug companies (which is why they keep trying to undermine it, via TPP most recently ... of course they managed to make the Pharmac approach illegal in the USA :-(.) Rivaroxaban is relatively new and not yet funded by Pharmac, but Bayer has been basically giving it away to try to encourage Pharmac to fund it.
Overall, blood clots can be nasty but I got off easy. Thanks God!
December 16, 2013 10:35 AM
December 07, 2013
Robert O'Callahan -- Why I Don't Worry About Global Warming (Much)
I don't worry about global warming or any other threat whose most important effects are several decades out. Technology is going to change everything by then: either we'll kill ourselves in more immediate ways, or at least destroy most of civilization (which would do a lot to reduce carbon emissions!) --- or we'll make a lot more technological progress, probably developing brain uploading, strong AI, or other game-changing capabilities we can't forsee yet. Probably the former.
People who worry about what will happen when the sun burns out in five billion years are the worst.
December 07, 2013 09:51 AM
One Day The Luddites Will Be Right
Whenever a person proposes that technological advances might reduce human job opportunities in the long term, someone responds with the Luddite Argument: "the Luddites thought the Industrial Revolution would destroy their jobs, and they were wrong, so you're wrong too" . Some go further and explain that the Luddites were wrong because technological productivity improvements are balanced by finding new uses for human labour. Wikipedia has a good summary. However, it seems obvious to me that at some point technological advance will --- or at least could --- be a net destroyer of jobs. All you have to do is imagine a world where robots can do everything a human can do, at lower cost than maintaining a human life. Clearly, there are no economically rational job opportunities for humans in that state , so at some point of technological advance short of that state, there's net job destruction.
The only question is whether and when we will reach that point. It seems inevitable we'll reach it unless something halts technological progress or some very strong flavor of Cartesian dualism holds. Economic arguments that human labour will still be worth something at that point are just wrong.
 Actually the Luddites were right; the Industrial Revolution did destroy their jobs, and drove them into misery. But they were wrong in that they did not forsee the net benefits to future generations.
 There could be sinecures to keep humans occupied, but they would not be economically motivated.
December 07, 2013 09:34 AM
December 06, 2013
Robert O'Callahan -- WebRTC And People-Oriented Communications
Tantek had an interesting blog post about making people rather than protocols the organizing principle of communication apps. I like his vision quite a lot. One neat extension of his post would be to introduce WebRTC. With WebRTC it would be relatively easy to have the "Robert O'Callahan" app check if I'm currently logged into the appropriate receiver app, at any WebRTC-capable endpoint, and if I am, establish a voice or voice+video session with me (with peer-to-peer transmission, naturally). If I'm not logged in, WebRTC lets you record a message for later delivery. This would be very cool.
December 06, 2013 01:53 AM
December 03, 2013
Robert O'Callahan -- Another Knee-Jerk Reaction To International Rankings
Predictably the OECD "Pisa" report ranking countries' education results has caused a stir in New Zealand. New Zealanders, or at least their news media, love international rankings of all kinds --- especially if they can be portrayed negatively for New Zealand. As often, the latest report, and the discussion around it, has some major problems.
For starters it's interesting to compare the initial NZ Herald story with the more nuanced reporting from the AP wire story. The Herald chose the completely fallacious headline Significant drops in NZ educational achievement --- fallacious because a drop in ranking does not necessarily mean a drop in actual achievement (and in this case, there is no evidence of a drop in achievement). (PPTA president Angela Roberts gets this right here.) The Herald story (and its followups) simply ignores the issues with the Pisa report which are touched on by the AP story, and better explained in Slate (mainly, it's invalid to compare city-states with entire countries, especially including Shanghai but no other part of China!).
Apart from that, some of the reactions to the report are ridiculous. There's this:
But Labour says any drop in the rankings should be sheeted home to an excessive focus by National on "testing" over the past five years. Although National Standards does not actually involve national testing, Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins said, "It shows that the last five years' focus on test-taking has been a disaster and it has actually narrowed the focus of our system and it has actually decreased the level of achievement within the education system".NZ's ranking drop is mainly due to Asian countries increasing theirs. Those countries' education systems are far more focused on testing than NZ's has ever been, which is probably why their ranking is increasing: if you focus on testing (and teach to the test), you do really well on tests, which is of course what studies like Pisa measure, since tests produce data and other educational activities don't. Chris Hipkins, if you really think Pisa is important you should advocate a big increase in national testing.
I actually think national standardized testing is important, but it's not the only important thing and the Asian education systems ranked highly in the Pisa report have massive problems despite producing good test results. My wife and many other people I know went through those systems and describe how they're focused on rote memorization and discourage any kind of learning other than school and after-school coaching on their core subjects. For example, I taught myself computer programming in my copious spare time after school, but for most children in Hong Kong that simply wouldn't have been possible. People talk about how in exams you "give it back to the teacher" --- cram for exams, do well, and then forget it as you prepare for the next one. I think it would be very interesting to re-test children three years after they left school to see what they've retained.
It's really important to avoid over-optimizing for the things we can measure at the cost of the things we can't as easily measure. It's also really important to not overreact to every international ranking report. We have to think critically about these things. I wish the media would.
December 03, 2013 10:33 PM
Does John Banks Only Do Good?
I read this rather unusual statement by John Banks:
"I've spent a lifetime of doing good, a lifetime of trying to balance my family ledger, a lifetime of making a difference for people, and a lifetime of contributing to this country. I only do good. I don't do bad things."Reporters like to take quotes out of context so maybe Mr Banks didn't really mean to say this, but for the sake of argument I'll assume it's accurate.
What strikes me about this statement is that in the past John Banks has portrayed himself as a Christian, and I don't think a Christian can make that statement or anything like it. A bedrock truth of Christianity is that we are all sinners, and bad ones. We've all done bad things and we all keep doing bad things. We generally don't realize it, because we're good at self-justification and our standards are lower than God's, but we are all desperately in need of forgiveness. This holds no matter where we are on our spiritual journey --- "forgive us our sins", as Jesus taught his disciples to pray.
So, for a self-professed Christian to say "I only do good, I don't do bad things" is an egregious error, no matter how it was meant. I hope that any Christian genuinely practicing their faith would try to steer away from saying anything like it under any circumstances, lest they give a false impressions of what Christians believe.
December 03, 2013 08:30 PM
December 02, 2013
Robert O'Callahan -- Wanaka
Last week my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary by taking a few days off in the lakeside town of Wanaka in the South Island. The weather was unexpectedly delightful. As is our wont, we spent a lot of time walking during the day and refueling at night.
We arrived on Tuesday. In the evening we walked through the town to Iron Mountain and walked up it (it's small). On Wednesday we ascended Roy's Peak. That walk has a 1200 metre elevation change but the views are definitely worthwhile. On Thursday we drove out to Mt Aspiring National Park through Matukituki, to do the Rob Roy Glacier walk. This is a really beautiful walk, through pasture, into the bush, up the Rob Roy valley, emerging in an alpine meadow at the head of the valley with stunning views up the mountain-face to the Rob Roy glacier --- snow gleaming in the sunshine, and about a dozen meltwater waterfalls streaming down the face. On our last day we drove out to Haast Pass and then back to Queenstown.
The whole area is very beautiful. It's quite special to sit by the lake and watch people sailing, swimming and fishing, surrounded by ice-capped mountains. The Department of Conservation's Mt Aspiring activity centre is in Wanaka and well worth a visit. The number of day walks and multi-day tramps in the region is just staggering; there must be a couple of dozen different huts. No wonder the town is beseiged by tourists :-).
December 02, 2013 09:20 PM
November 18, 2013
Robert O'Callahan -- Mozillians At The Tongariro Crossing And Orakei Korako
Last weekend some local and visiting Mozillians (visiting for a Gecko media work week), plus assorted loved ones (such as my children), drove down to Tongariro National Park to do the Tongariro Crossing on Saturday.
The weather was reasonably good --- cloudy, but mostly dry. As often, there was thick fog up on the mountain, clearing as we descended the northern flank. Even though the fog eliminates some of the amazing views, it's still very atmospheric and fun in its own way. It does help conceal the other thousand people doing the hike :-).
I've done the TC several times before but this was the first time I've done it since last year's eruption from Tongariro's Te Maari crater. That has made the TC even more interesting! On the descent past Te Maari you can now see large quantities of steam venting from the crater --- quite impressive. The Ketetahi Hut was hit by boulders from the eruption, and overnight stays are now forbidden there for safety reasons. Two decent-sized holes punched in the hut roof have been preserved and make an excellent argument for following the rules :-). An even better argument is just down the track from the hut: a sizable impact crater, with the impacting boulder mostly buried at the bottom of it. No-one was at the hut on the night of the eruption, but if they had been, it would have been a terrifying experience!
Near the end of the track, it crosses a stream. Lahar activity associated with the Te Maari eruption has blocked the original course of the stream, so the existing bridges are over dry streambeds. Now the stream spreads through the bush in other places and we had to splash across.
We finished the walk in just over seven hours, and a good time was had by all.
On Sunday some of us drove back to Auckland via Orakei Korako. I hadn't been there since I was a child, even though I really enjoy geothermal areas. I very much enjoyed Orakei Korako! It has an excellent mix of features --- geysers, silica terraces, hot pools, boiling mud, and a cave --- all in a lovely bush setting, plus you cross a small lake in a boat to get to it. This is my second favourite geothermal area in New Zealand, after Waimangu Valley. Waimangu's Frying Pan Lake is hard to top :-).
November 18, 2013 10:00 PM
November 09, 2013
Asa Dotzler -- moving blog to http://asadotzler.com
After more than a decade of blogging at mozillaZine.org, I'm moving my active blogging to http://asadotzler.com. Thank you, Kerz, for providing this hosting service to me and many other Mozillians for so many years.
If mZ is willing, this archive of articles will remain here for some time but new blogging will be happening over at the new domain http://asadotzler.com.
If you were subscribed to this blog's feed, the new feed is http://asadotzler.com/feed/.
Thank you all for your participation here and I hope to see you over at the new digs.
November 09, 2013 06:52 PM
November 03, 2013
Robert O'Callahan -- A Tale Of Two Cities
The week before last I was in Paris for the "Web rendering" work week. It went reasonably well. The Paris Mozilla office is as amazing as it looks. Benoit Jacob gave us an excellent walking tour on Sunday. Brian Birtles and I split off and attended Trinity International Church, which seemed really good. It's great to see what God is doing in different places and be a tourist in God's kingdom. The actual work was good. It was a mix of briefing each other on what's going on, brainstorming new directions, and thrashing out problems. It was particularly good to have Gaia and Shumway hackers there to talk about their issues.
Due to some combination of jet lag and God's grace I woke up at 7am sharp every day and went for a run, training for the Auckland half-marathon. It was a lot of fun to run from the hotel down Rue de Louvre to the Seine, along to the Eiffel Tower, back along the Seine, and then on a good day do a lap of Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis. However it was a bit strange to be running at 8am with the sun not having risen yet!
I got back to Auckland on Monday and had an extremely hectic few days before I head out to San Francisco today (Sunday). The biggest thing on my mind was the half-marathon, which was today, but I only had time for a couple of 10km training runs. There's a nice 10km circuit from my house to the summit of One Tree Hill and back. This takes me through city streets to the bucolic charm of Cornwall Park and One Tree Hill --- especially charming at this time of year, with cows and calves, sheep and lambs, verdant pastures, blooming trees, and excellent views from the summit of all of these, as well as the Waitemata and Manakau harbours. Entirely different from Paris but to my mind even more delightful!
I really enjoyed the half-marathon today. Not having done one before, I wasn't sure what to expect, but was pretty pleased with my result. I ran faster than I did during my solo runs; I think the crowd helped motivate me, especially towards the end. I didn't want to try it barefoot, at least for the first time, so while in Toronto last month I bought some Vibram foot-glove-type footwear, by asking for the closest thing to barefoot they had. These seem pretty good. Interestingly though, every other person I saw during the race had regular footwear on. In fact several people at the starting area were curious about my footwear and asked me various questions. It's a bit awkward since I don't really know anything about running!
Now I'm heading off to San Francisco for Mozilla's LEAD program. This is the last session so hopefully after this week my travel and the rest of my life will return to relative normality. Though we do have the media work week in Auckland in a couple of weeks, with a trip to the Tongariro Crossing thrown in, and after that a trip for our wedding anniversary, ... so it goes.
November 03, 2013 05:31 AM
October 15, 2013
Asa Dotzler -- A Mozilla Lesson from Mos Def
One of my favorite artists of the last couple of decades, Yasiin Bey, made a killer point about Hip Hop and the Hip Hop community back in his debut solo album from late 1999, a thought that resonates a lot with me and my involvement in the Mozilla movement over the last 15 years.
Talking about the Hip Hop scene at the turn of the century, here's some of what then Mos Def had to say in "Fear Not of Man", the first track on "Black on Both Sides."
It's a lot of things goin on y'all
21st century is comin
20th century almost done
A lot of things have changed
A lot of things have not, mainly us
We gon' get it together right? I believe that
Listen.. people be askin me all the time,
"Yo Mos, what's gettin ready to happen with Hip-Hop?"
"Where do you think Hip-Hop is goin?"
I tell em, "You know what's gonna happen with Hip-Hop?"
"Whatever's happening with us"
If we smoked out, Hip-Hop is gonna be smoked out
If we doin alright, Hip-Hop is gonna be doin alright
People talk about Hip-Hop like it's some giant livin in the hillside
comin down to visit the townspeople
We are Hip-Hop
Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop
So Hip-Hop is goin where we goin
So the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is goin
ask yourself.. where am I goin? How am I doin?
I've been feeling and saying this about Mozilla since before "Black on Both Sides" was released and I'm certain it's more true today than it ever was before.
If you're a part of the Mozilla community and you're asking other people where Firefox is going or where Firefox OS is going, take a minute to ask yourself, where am I going?
Mozilla has a bright future ahead of it, one that depends on all of us and the many, many more yet to join our movement. Where will you take Mozilla today?
October 15, 2013 07:30 PM
October 04, 2013
Robert O'Callahan -- Summit Day Zero
It was pretty good. Lots of fun talking to people old and new. A few embarrassing incidents where I didn't recognize someone I should have. I brought down Settlers of Catan from my room --- Rob Arnold won, but only because Doug Sherk kept stealing my road. I also brought down Citadels and some other people played that. I should have brought more games! If we're still short of games tomorrow night we can call in reinforcements from the Toronto office.
October 04, 2013 04:48 AM
October 03, 2013
Robert O'Callahan -- Prescriptive Vs Descriptive Frameworks
People love to create taxonomies. Just about the first thing that Adam does in Genesis is to name the animals. Classifying and naming things is valuable because it helps us to understand relationships between entities and communicate with other people about them. However, there is a common error where people come to believe that entities that don't fit easily into the taxonomy either don't or shouldn't exist, or solve problems by searching the taxonomy when that's not the best approach.
Design patterns are a great example. They are a very useful vocabulary for explaining code. However, it's usually a mistake to tackle a programming problem by finding the design pattern that best fits and applying that pattern to the problem. Instead, we should always analyze the problem on its own merits, applying all the information we have about the context, and come up with the best solution specific to that problem. (I'm assuming here that we're interested in producing the very best code for a solution, which is true for something like Firefox but not for throw-away code or for projects with a small audience.) But since design patterns are easy to teach, and selecting a design pattern is easier to systematize than finding the best solution ex nihilo, and it's easier to tell your boss that you're using the Fridge Magnet pattern than to explain a bespoke solution, it's easy to see why a lot of people made design patterns their Procrustean bed.
This observation generalizes beyond programming. In areas as diverse as personality tests and politics, there is a drive to describe complex entities with simple categories. Entities that don't fit easily into a single category are implicitly or explicitly discouraged, to disastrous effect. I find it extremely frustrating.
We need to make a clear distinction between descriptive frameworks, which provide vocabulary to talk about common features (often not mutually exclusive), and prescriptive frameworks, which demand that reality be describable with a fixed vocabulary (generally with mutual exclusion). A taxonomic framework is very useful for describing what exists. It should not be used as the search space for solutions to problems, although it may be useful by inspiring you with options you haven't considered.
October 03, 2013 12:21 PM
Mozilla has lost some good people due to burnout. I suspect working for Mozilla carries greater risk of burnout that working for "normal" organizations. A lot of people are motivated to work for Mozilla because of our mission. This motivation is powerful and persists through unhappiness. Thus, people drive themselves to work hard at the expense of their happiness and mental health. This is a recipe for burnout.
That is very true for me. There have been long periods of time when I have been frustrated with my work, feeling I would be happier doing some other work, and in fact feeling that I'm struggling to cope. But I've survived in this job a long time, I don't currently have those feelings, and in fact I feel pretty good even though I'm currently going through some travel madness. Here's a few things that have helped.
Acknowledging the ebb and flow. When I'm feeling burned out, I slack off. I think that is OK as long as it's temporary --- and as long as I'm not using it as an excuse to be lazy. For me, it's natural to have periods of time when I'm energized, followed by periods when I'm tired and I need to back off while I rest and rekindle my enthusiasm. Per my earlier post, this is not a sign I need to change jobs.
A sense of perspective. When I feel my job sucks, it's important to take a step back and think about what I'm comparing it to. Objectively, my worst weeks at Mozilla have been worldly bliss compared to most weeks of most people over most of human history. It is critically important to never lose sight of this fact. (There are a few Mozilla people for whom this is not true; you know who you are and I tip my hat to you.) Whenever I feel like a heroic martyr, it's simply ridiculous.
Changing focus. When I'm sick and tired of working on something, it's very helpful to work on something different --- "a change is as good as a rest" (which is mostly but not entirely true). Mozilla does a lot of important things and there are a lot of very different ways to contribute to Mozilla's mission, so it's not a problem to rotate people in and out of particular roles.
Family. My wife and children are a vital anchor for my mental health. My commitments to them --- and their policing of those commitments --- prevent me from going too far overboard with work. Spending time with them, giving and receiving love, is the best tonic I have.
The Sabbath. I often struggle to rest and relax because I feel burdened with work projects and guilty for not working; this contributes to burnout. I find that compulsory downtime, decreed and ideally enforced by an external source, is extremely helpful in dealing with that guilt: I don't need to feel guilty about not working when someone is making me do it. My family is one source of that compulsion, and my Christian convictions about not working on Sunday (not always observed :-( ) are another.
Relinquish responsibility. Feelings of being irreplaceable can be extremely draining and contribute to guilt, anxiety and the difficulty of resting. Therefore it's very important to break those feelings --- forcing oneself to step aside, at least temporarily, and see what happens. It's usually not as bad as you think. We also need to keep in mind that we are only responsible for what we do; as individuals we are not responsible for Mozilla's ultimate success or failure. We have to let go and not worry about what we, as individuals or as a group, do not control. Over the years I've developed a little bit of apathy, which has been valuable.
Remember the mission. Sometimes, when enthusiasm fails, I must ask myself whether there's any work I could be doing that's more important than my work at Mozilla. So far, the honest answer has always been no, and so I know what I must do. As I suggested above, this can be a scourge, but it can also be liberating. There's a certain exhilaration in knowing what one should do, and throwing yourself into it with nothing but grim determination.
Jesus. Sorry to my irreligious readers, but this true and important. Many times I have felt myself to be running on empty, and my only recourse has been to pray to the Lord for strength to do what I know I should do. Many of those times I have been quickly refreshed in a way that feels miraculous. Apart from that immediate relief, my identity in Christ provides logical and emotional support to many of the items above: my commitment to my family, my sense of duty, my sense of perspective, my sense that God is ultimately in control, and the obligation to periodically disengage from work. Had I not been a Christian, I don't think I would have survived.
October 03, 2013 11:08 AM
I am currently in the middle of the most intense travel burden that I have ever experienced. In the week starting September the 8th I was in California for the LEAD leadership training program. Then I was home for two weeks before flying to Toronto for 8 days for the Mozilla Summit. After that I'll be home for a week and a half before flying to Paris for the "Web rendering" work week. After that I'll be home for a week before flying to California again for LEAD.
I know a lot of people fly more frequently than this, even at Mozilla, but for me this is extraordinary. Also, because I live in New Zealand, the distance of these trips is especially great. For the nine weeks starting September 8, my average speed is over 65 kilometres per hour.
I still like travel! It's fun to visit different places and people. The problem with travel is that it takes me away from my family, my closest friends, and my church. It's not good for the environment either. Also I don't sleep all that well when I'm travelling. I'm not sure why; I think it's not so much jet lag as being away from the comforts of home, and tending to be too busy to do my normal work, so trying to catch up on my normal work at nights.
Fortunately this will come to an end soon. LEAD ends this year so next year I can expect things to return more or less to normal.
October 03, 2013 10:01 AM
September 27, 2013
Robert O'Callahan -- The Forge Of Disappointment
I think New Zealanders have reacted to Oracle's stunning victory in the America's Cup very well. There's very little opprobium or anger, but instead a lot of praise for Team New Zealand and respect for Oracle. A lot of people are bitterly disappointed --- hopes were, rightfully, very high when TNZ was 8-1 up --- but I don't sense the doom-and-gloom that descends whenever the All Blacks fail to win the Rugby World Cup. This is probably because TNZ was, in the long run, always the underdog, whereas the All Blacks never are.
Like Rugby World Cups, this event has been unifying for large swathes of New Zealanders. It's gratifying to know that many of your friends and neighbours, and people around you that you don't even know, are sharing this intense experience. Shared enthusiasm and disappointment, joy and despair, all contribute to building our feelings of community. This is old news: historians traditionally see World War I as a key catalyst in the development of New Zealanders' national identity, especially the ANZAC deployment at Gallipolli, which was a horrible disaster militarily.
Being much more cerebral than sportsmanly, I used to see professional sports as ridiculous and wasteful, but now I think I see one way they can be genuinely valuable. We need events, even artificial ones, to rally around. My Canadian pastor observes that Quebecois separatism subsides dramatically while the Canadian hockey team is playing during the Winter Olympics. This sort of thing forges people into nations.
September 27, 2013 09:13 AM
Last updated: March 08, 2014 11:30 PM