Thursday, 29 January 2009

Spring break: the bad kind

Our car is just 5 years old, and has had no problems at all so far, but two weeks ago something weird suddenly happened. When you made a sharp turn, upwards of 90 degrees right or left, there was a sound as if a coil was being stretched, until it abrubtly went "goioinggg!" so loud that bystanders would dive for cover. Apart from this "cosmetic problem", nothing seemed to be obviously malfunctioning apart from the steering wheel pulling to the right. It didn't match any kind of car problem that I had heard about before, and nobody I talked to had any idea (apart from the usual helpful but wrong random guesses).

Yesterday, I got it back from the mechanic. The reason for the ruckus: a snapped suspension spring. (I didn't know this could happen.) Total cost: about $500 - they had to change on both sides. Sigh.

Monday, 26 January 2009

The final vinyl

As I wrote in a previous post, I did some extensive audio restoration of an old live recording by Brainbombs, that eventually got published as an LP by the small American punk label Richie Records, in a limited run of 500 copies. Well, in the end, one of those copies made its way back to me as a thanks for my efforts, and I'm very glad for it. It is actually quite a strange feeling, to hold in my hand a vinyl disc that holds the same recording that I mailed to the States on a couple of master CD:s over a year ago. The main thing, I think, is that this is so obviously a finished artefact, while mostly everything else that I create tends to be of a very fluid and nonphysical nature: digital representations that one can always pick up later and resume working on. This one, however, is very much "done". (Yes, you could remaster it and cut new vinyls, but the point is that this particular record isn't going anywhere. And no, burning a CD does not give you the same feeling.) In fact, it's probably the most finished thing I've ever been involved in making (to the despair of my PhD supervisor...).

Of course, the transfer to vinyl didn't make the sound better per se, but the surface noise adds even more "authenticity" to the experience.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Acronymously

While reading yet another book that presents one or more acronyms as an aid to remembering important points (this time, in "Pragmatic Unit Testing in C#"), I came up with my own acronym to express my thoughts about this. I call it Richard's CRAP rule of didactics:
  • Can't
  • Remember
  • Acronyms
  • Psomething... oh crap, where did I put that book...
My point is, that if you are able to remember not only what each letter stands for, exactly (is the I in ACID1 for Independence or Isolation...), but you can also give a detailed explanation of what each short bullet point really means (e.g., how is Atomicity different from Consistency and why are both needed), it means that you already have a very firm grasp of the subject. So while acronyms may be a useful device for not forgetting things once you understand them, they are fairly useless for the beginner.

However, it's worse than that; if they were only useless, they could simply be ignored. But the fact is that acronyms are quite often used precisely in texts for beginners, and more often than not they are used as the basis for the presentation of the material: first the list of bullet points is presented, and then a section or chapter is dedicated to each. I contend that this is exactly the wrong way to present any subject. It wastes pages (and the reader's time) on what becomes a mere shopping list, forgotten as soon as we move on to the next chapter, instead of using that space in a more constructive way to actually help the reader build an understanding of the subject to the point that he may invent his own acronyms if he needs them. (Finishing the chapter by suggesting such an acronym is quite OK.)

So here's a new year's promise: following this, I will never again (except for comical effect) use an acronym as the starting-off point for a text.

1) The ACID rule for databases: Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability. (Even I could not remember the last two verbatim without peeking, and I am quite familiar with database theory.)

Friday, 2 January 2009

...the devil in Helsinki

My goal was to process all my pictures taken this year before the year ended, and I almost made it, but not quite: yesterday I uploaded the last pictures from our little excursion to Finland in June. An old friend of mine who lives in Japan these days was going back to Sweden with his wife for the midsummer celebrations, and had booked their flight to make a stop in Helsinki for a couple of days. We decided to meet up with them there, so we got rooms at the same hotel, Helka (warmly recommended), and brought our car on the ferry from Stockholm. That way we could both walk around Helsinki on our own for a day, and after our friends showed up, we made a day trip by car to see some sights outside the city, in particular Hvitträsk, west of Helsinki, and the sleepy town of Borgå to the east, with its old wooden buildings. The next day we said our goodbyes and drove westwards to spend midsummer on Åland, stopping in Åbo on the way to do some more sightseeing.

This was a great opportunity for us to do really touristy things in Finland (as the pictures show), and we had a lovely time, with sights ranging from the latest in Finnish furniture design in Helsinki, to the over 700 years old cathedrals of Borgå and Åbo.