Monday, July 30, 2007

Fun and woes with VNC

So, we are at a holiday in Palma de Mallorca momentarily. Unfortunately, we could only bring one of our Macs here - my MacBook Pro ' and had to left wifes 20" iMac at home for obvious reasons (it is not too portable, although I did lug it to UK and back once when it was my primary machine). Our hosts however have an oldie G4 eMac. Since both of us need a machine frequently, I tried to remedy the problem using VNC - Vine VNC server on the MacBook, Chicken of the VNC client on the eMac, so one of us can work logged on in their account from eMac while the other person sits at the MacBook proper.

It mostly works fine. But then, there are annoyances.

First annoyance - the system works on two desktops, except when the user of the remote desktop wants to use VMWare. In that case, using fast user switching hangs the remote VNC sesion. No big deal - we will just have the one of use not using it work remotely. (Surprisingly, that is me - Kriszti actually has some Windows-only software she runs).

Second, much bigger annoyance - keyboard incompatibility. I tried both an Apple keyboard plugged into the eMac as well as a Windows keyboard only to realize there's a deeper reason why I can't punch in many characters (curly brackets included - kills any attempt at coding). The reason is that the MacBook still maps keycodes accordingly to its builtin keyboard. I learned this after many futile attempts to press certain keys and evoke any kind of response, I finally brougt up the Keyboard Viewer, and it pretty much displayed the MacBook Pro uiltin keyboard layout... If I try to press keys on a full size keyboard that aren't present on the laptop's built in keyboard, theyre simply ignored. Quite a lot other keys aren't in the expected place. I guess it's partially to blame that all external keyboards in the house are Spanish and the laptop's is Hungarian... But even switching the keyboard layout in the remote machine to "Spanish ISO" doesn't help anything... I tried to plug in one of the USB keyboards in the laptop, to solve the keyboard mapping mismatch issue, as the OS would then try to map according to that. Didn't work.

So, it's far from being a perfect remote GUI solution, unfortunately. It's okay for casual checking of e-mail (mailbox being on the other machine) but really not much else. Sigh.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

First cut at the JVM dynamic languages metaobject protocol

You might remember I was musing about coming up with a framework library for extensible metaobject protocol to be used for dynamic language runtimes on JVM a while ago. The main thing it would give all those language runtimes is interoperability: you could write your program in mixture of JavaScript, Ruby, Python, etc. - using the best language for a particular subtask (or better yet, cherry-picking existing components regardless of their language), and still pass objects created from code in one language to code in another language, and have them all see those objects as being no different than their native objects.

Well, since talk is cheap compared to working code (and also because if I can express a concept as clearly as to have a computer execute it then I can probably make people understand it better too), I have a first version of the implementation, not yet fully complete, and first and foremost for the purposes of soliciting feedback from the community, available now.

(For the record, I blew several days of my vacation in Palma de Mallorca on getting this code into publishable state and suffered numerous scorns from my wife so far for doing so. Goes with the territory, both ways... ;-) )

The initial announcement was made on the JVM Languages group, go read the details (including where to find the code and documentation) there if you're interested.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Brief report from a Neil Gaiman signing event

I'm officially crazy in lots of ways. A particular kind of crazy I am is the one I demonstrated yesterday, when I went to a Neil Gaiman signing event in Budapest.

What's crazy about it? Well, probably nothing if you actually live in Budapest. I don't, so for one thing, it's crazy driving 2 hours to Budapest in pouring rain with near zero visibility. Then it's mildly crazy standing in a queue for two hours (part of it in rain outside the bookshop that was the signing venue. No umbrella). The final crazy (although strictly necessary after the first one) is driving home after the event in pouring rain with near zero visibility after dark. Of course, I'm really crazy because I still feel that spending six hours and about forty litres of fuel is a good investment in return for getting seven of my Gaiman books dedicated, and am totally happy about it.

Y'know, in my environment, barely anyone knows who this guy is (now that I think of it, this says something about people surrounding me. I also cannot lend my copies of his books to many folks around here to spread the culture 'cause they're all in English - I don't need no Hungarian translations, most of my friends however can't read the English originals). So I was fairly surprised when I arrived at the bookstore to find a queue extending into the street. The event itself wasn't even too formal - Neil announced it on his blog few days earlier citing as the reason lots of e-mails from local fans (yours truly included) who asked if he could please arrange a signing during his two-week stay in Hungary, seeing how he's otherwise not really often present in this corner of the world.

As for the venue itself, it was the Sárkánytűz ("Dragon Fire"), a bookstore specializing in fantasy books, card games, etc. I really couldn't help feeling that the signing was organized in a wrong location. I look with disdain at most of the contemporary fantasy literature. Most of it is just bad pulp fiction, its authors unable to free themselves from the cliché dominated by elves, trolls, halflings, dragons and knights. Ironically, a genre called "fantasy" really lacks authors that would have any real imagination. Neil Gaiman, on the other hand creates completely original stories, with completely original creatures, and the worlds he paints in his books intersect with our reality. Nothing could be further from the Tolkien-imitating cliché of elves and dragons permeating most of what the bookstore had to offer.

There's apparently a funny phenomenon associated with people queueing in the street in Budapest. Namely, it raises curiosity in strangers. While I was still standing in the part of the queue that extended out in the street, I was approached twice - once by a nicely dressed lady in her fifties, once by a guy resembling a hobo who tries to disguise it. They both inquired about the nature of the event, the wording of their questions implying they were hoping for some sort of a sale. When I told them it was a signing, the guy who looked like a hobo in disguise quickly lost interest. The lady asked who is signing, and when she didn't recognize the name, she asked (seeing how it's a fantasy bookstore) if it is "some sort of fantasy" to which I replied that it definitely isn't. "Then it is sci-fi, right?". This instantly reminded me of "we have both kinds of music" line. I replied patiently that no, it isn't sci-fi either. Then what it is? Well, how do you summarize Neil Gaiman in a single sentence? You don't. I tried to explain to her that she could think of him as maybe a modern day equivalent to Edgar Alan Poe (which I know you might disagree with, as it's both oversimplification and also plain incorrect, but that was the best I could come up with quickly at the spot :-) ) Anyway, she did leave after this...

So, after two hours of queueing I finally got in front of the man himself, got to shake the hand that wrote all those stories and look into the eyes behind them all those same stories were born. Yes, why, I was impressed, even though Neil is really a very friendly and approachable guy (well, approachable through standing in a long queue, but that's barely his fault. I mean, it's really my fault for not reading more obscure authors). Driving up on the highway I had plenty of time to imagine all kinds of witty dialogue I might get into with him, but the cruel reality was that there were still lots of fans waiting for their turn, so it would've been rude to hold them up for inappropriately long time, so we only did a bit of a politeness chat, and I handed over all the seven books I brought for dedication. It'd really be foolish to expect anything more from a signing event, really. I got a drawing of a cracked heart in my copy of Fragile Things - very appropriate. Also, the original printed dedication for Anansi Boys is actually made for easy personalization, which he totally exploited. I can almost see how Neil came up with it after signing his books for years, and felt very smart about it when he wrote it. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry, just buy a copy of Anansi Boys and read the dedication. Of course, you can also read the rest of the book if you're so inclined, but that won't help you in better understanding what I just said. But it might be worth your time for unrelated reasons, though.)

I also asked whether he has (or at least has a promise to get) a book of Hungarian folklore tales, to which he replied that he actually got one last week and is halfway through it already. If he didn't, I'd have offered to send him one, which was an idea I got while reading The Monarch of the Glen novella from Fragile Things, seeing how it incorporated a motive from Norwegian folklore (namely, a huldra), and Hungarian folk tales definitely have their share of marvels waiting to be incorporated into contemporary literature (I certainly know, I read lots of those to my kids). Anyway, getting Neil to read some of those tales is already been taken care of, hooray. We'll be waiting for the results :-)

A very nice touch at the signing was Neil's daughter Maddy, who was handing out cookies to people standing in the line and later also offering sandwiches at the signing desk. I really needed a bit of refreshments before hitting the road home, so I was really grateful for those as well. I asked Maddy when will she give back her Dad's blog to him, and she said it was her last day as his guest blogger, but she lamented that she can not write the entry because she's here at the signing. I remarked that she could use an exotic technique known as "pen and paper" and later type it up in front of a computer; I have no idea if she took the suggestion, however her goodbye entry was up at 10:01 PM, which I don't actually understand as I can't imagine the signing was over by then and even less that they could reach their hotel room by then - I left at about 9:15, and the queue of waiting fans still extended through the bookstore to the door (nobody waiting on the street anymore though).


So, Kriszti and me have been to Barcelona last week. Nominally, I went to speak at the TSSJS Europe, realistically I attended the conference just long enough to deliver my talk. That's what you get for taking your wife with you, who insists you spend the time going around the city and seeing places, instead of attending, say, Gregor Hohpe's talk about event driven programming (that one I really would've wanted to hear, but alas, I was stuck sightseeing Sagrada Familia instead; woe is me).

Barcelona must be one of the most joyful places I've ever been. The atmosphere of the whole city is amazing, the buildings, the people, everything is vibrant and alive. Architecturally, they have wide main streets with a very wide pedestrian area (usually with greens, benches, and fountains) in the middle, and lanes for cars surrounding it. Drivers are very mindful of the pedestrians and will wait for them to cross the street even when they (the cars) have the green light. Patiently.

Then there's Sagrada Familia. I don't think I've ever been as impressed by a cathedral as I was by it, especially since this is the first one that I can't view purely as a historical monument, main reason being it's still being built. You step into it, and it's full of construction workers. Cathedrals are always monuments to ages in which they were built, and this one is a monument to our age instead of some long gone one, making it even more easier to feel like it you have a personal connection to it. Y'know, like when you visit a cathedral and they tell you "... the XY cathedral has been built for 300 years..."; well, this one is still in its first 100 or so years :-)

Architecturally, it is also quite amazing, and departs from "traditional" cathedrals in quite a lot of places. Pillar structure is such that pillars branch at the top, giving the illusion of trees, further emphasized by the ceiling that also tries (quite successfully) to look like foliage.

Then there are various other Gaudi projects in the city: Casa_Milà, Parc Güell, and so on, all definitely worth several hours of one's time.

We also went to see an evening flamenco show with a dinner (courtesy Klaasjan) which turned out really great, both the flamenco performers and the dinner were terrific. And on the previous evening, we hung out at the hotel's "bierstube" (which is to say, a spanish attempt at emulating a german beer place). A funny moment was when the staff kicked out Kirk and Cliff because they attempted to come in with two boxes of externally acquired pizza. The attitude of the staff was especially rude considering we were otherwise on a table with few hundreds of euros on the tab anyway, so what does it matter if two pizzas are eaten without generating a profit for the venue? Anyway, the guys ended up eating their pizzas from their boxes on the street. Kriszti and myself joined in for a bite (no photos of this overly casual event, regretfully :-) ).

On saturday, wife and me also had the pleasure of meeting with Jon Revusky and his wife Nuria (they're long time Barcelona residents) for lunch. (We were treated to really copious amounts of really great tapas in Cervezeria Catalana.) Jon and me are collaborating on FreeMarker for about five, six, or even more years now, and this was the first time we actually met personally.

The only dark side of the trip was airline luggage handling. Needless to say, they (Lufthansa + Newco, their ground services provider in Barcelona) lost our luggage between our connecting flights. That in itself isn't that bad, but they didn't deliver it until the day of our flight back! So we went out to the airport on sunday, got our boarding passes (from a really helpful lady at the Lufthansa ticketing desk), then went through security into the transit area, found the baggage room, stood in the line at the Lost+Found office, finally got to the front of the queue, been taken to a back room with hundreds of suitcases, found our own, went out from baggage room, back to departures to drop off the suitcase for the trip home, then again through security into the transit area. Simple, huh?

When we arrived home to Budapest, we went to the Lufthansa office at the airport to file a claim for luggage delay. The ladies working there said they don't deal with it as they don't have sufficient capacity to handle all such claims (I can believe that. They certainly gave the impression they have no capacity for anything whatsoever) and they told us to contact their office in the city, for which they can only give us e-mail address and fax number. The lady at the desk then proceeded to jot down the e-mail address on a piece of paper: I respectfully noted that it seems unlikely that this'd be the e-mail address of the city office in Budapest, but she was insistent that it indeed is. I was too tired to argue. I spoke to Kirk on the phone today, and he said Lufthansa office at the Budapest airport is the "most useless place on the planet". I tend to agree.

All in all, the Barcelona trip was great. Got to see a marvelous city, met some new folks and met again some already known ones, eaten lots of good local food, drank some sangria and local wine, did one talk, watched flamenco dancers, seen a great sunset by the sea. What more to expect? (Well, on-time baggage delivery, maybe.)