Time and Memory

Your child fusses with his uniform for a few moments, then goes around to the back of the car to get his bag. You watch him walk away across the car park towards the school buildings. He looks back only once and gives a gesture that might be a wave. You rest your chin on the steering wheel and watch him in the bright, cool autumn day with the leaves on the ground and try to fix the moment in your mind. It occurs to you that in a few decades time, when they are both grown and gone out into the world, you’ll remember moments like this. And then you think: what will it feel like to have carried such memories over such a distance? And then you realise that you’ll also remember thinking about that too: the anticipation of an understanding not then available to you. Time is so strange. The child is gone and you drive away to your work and the world’s new day.


Perhaps God has many more seasons
in store for us —
or perhaps the last is to be
this winter
that guides back the waves
of the Tyrrhenian Sea
to break against
the rough pumice cliffs.
You must be wise. Pour the wine
and enclose in this brief circle
your long-cherished hope.

— Horace, Odes

On Oracle

Bryan Cantrill on Oracle:

As you know people, as you learn about things, you realize that these generalizations we have are, virtually to a generalization, false. Well, except for this one, as it turns out. What you think of Oracle, is even truer than you think it is. There has been no entity in human history with less complexity or nuance to it than Oracle. And I gotta say, as someone who has seen that complexity for my entire life, it’s very hard to get used to that idea. It’s like, ‘surely this is more complicated!’ but it’s like: Wow, this is really simple! This company is very straightforward, in its defense. This company is about one man, his alter-ego, and what he wants to inflict upon humanity — that’s it! …Ship mediocrity, inflict misery, lie our asses off, screw our customers, and make a whole shitload of money. Yeah… you talk to Oracle, it’s like, ‘no, we don’t fucking make dreams happen — we make money!’ …You need to think of Larry Ellison the way you think of a lawnmower. You don’t anthropomorphize your lawnmower, the lawnmower just mows the lawn, you stick your hand in there and it’ll chop it off, the end. You don’t think ‘oh, the lawnmower hates me’ — lawnmower doesn’t give a shit about you, lawnmower can’t hate you. Don’t anthropomorphize the lawnmower. Don’t fall into that trap about Oracle.


That is all.


A couple of weeks ago I moved this blog from its old home on a Windows-based virtual server at EasyCGI to a dedicated Linux server running as a “micro instance” on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform. Herein some notes on the move.

Overall I’m pretty happy with the move. The EasyCGI hosting was cheap but painfully slow and seemingly getting slower. Although I have no illusions that many people read this blog (although it does get some incoming traffic from Google) I do object to paying for a poor service.  I also needed an excuse to play with AWS.

Since I have never used AWS before, and haven’t used Unix in any significant way for about fifteen years, I needed some help. I started with this tutorial [1]; which is a good idiot’s guide to signing-up for AWS, creating an EC2 micro instance, and installing WordPress and its dependencies. The article is a year old, though, and is out of date in several respects. The most important is that AWS no longer provides Fedora-based machine images. They do offer something called Amazon Linux, which did the job for me. There are some minor differences between this and the tutorial, but noting serious.

Signing up for AWS was as smooth as I expected – kind of like an extended Amazon checkout process.

After I had an instance built and launched, the first problem I encountered was that the default Amazon Linux EC2 image does not allow root user login. This is explained here [2]. The effect of this is that you login as “ec2-user” and is you want to use any privileged commands then you have to use the sudo command. At this point I discovered this [3] tutorial, which is a bit more up to date. Despite the title it is not specific to Apple Macs.

Installing Apache and MySQL was easy: just a few simple ‘sudo yum install’ commands. I still carry the scars of installing software in SunOS and Solaris back in the early nineties (only if you have to, plenty of coffee, allow a whole day), and this yum stuff impressed me a lot. (Must take a look at NuGet when I have the time). You can’t install phpMyAdmin using yum because its not in Amazon’s yum repository, but the tutorial [3] explains how to do this. There’s also an informative SuperUser Q&A about it here [4].

I installed a fresh copy of WordPress as described in the tutorials, then copied over the various config files and a database backup from my old site to the new one (via http using wget). No surprises there, but there are some instructions here [5] that might be useful (or at least reassuring). Make sure you have backups! Since I had installed WordPress in a subdirectory below /var/www/html I had to put a php redirection script in that directory. There is an example of how to do this here [6]. I found this [7] cheat-sheet useful throughout when driving the vim text editor.

Finally, I assigned a public “elastic IP address” to the instance and changed the DNS for the andrewjohnson.me.uk domain to point to it.

And that’s it really. It didn’t take long, I enjoyed it, and I learned some things. My thanks to those who took the time to write the various tutorials – it would have been much harder without them.


[1] http://www.2bit-coder.com/2010/9/wordpress-in-the-cloud-amazon-ec2

[2] http://imperialwicket.com/aws-default-root-password

[3] http://calebogden.com/wordpress-on-linux-in-the-amazon-cloud-with-mac/

[4] http://superuser.com/questions/291230/how-to-install-phpmyadmin-on-linux-ec2-instance

[5] http://codex.wordpress.org/Moving_WordPress#Moving_WordPress_to_a_New_Server

[6] http://php.about.com/od/learnphp/ht/phpredirection.htm

[7] http://www.cs.colostate.edu/helpdocs/vi.html


Some time ago, while explaining the concept of virtual memory to a work colleague, I remembered something I’d seen about twenty years earlier…

Between July 1988 and September 1989 I worked at an IBM research lab in Winchester, Hampshire. This was the industrial placement part of my four-year computer science degree. I was about 20 at the time. The industrial trainees inhabited a basement room with small, ceiling-level windows that were at pavement height in the street outside. High up on one wall, near the ceiling, someone had blu-tacked a piece of paper that (from memory) read:

If it’s there, and you can see it, then it’s real.

If it’s not there, and you can see it, then it’s virtual.

If it’s there, and you can’t see it, then it’s transparent.

If it’s not there, and you can’t see it then it’s gone!

Someone had crossed-out the ‘ne’ part of ‘gone’ and written a ‘d’ above it. I never felt the slightest inclination to correct this.


The paper seems to have been a home-made version of an 70’s-era IBM poster explaining virtual memory. The lab was the IBM UK Scientific Centre, a really fun place to work, and which seems to have closed in the early 1990s when IBM was having financial problems. While the world thinks that these global problems were the responsibility of the then-CEO John Akers, I can exclusively reveal that they were entirely caused by UKSC management allowing induistrial trainees unrestricted access to the stationary cupboard. I still have a stapler.

Economy. Stupid.

I love it when this thing forces me to think.

The blog post that would have been here – about the economy no less – is sitting safely in the drafts folder until I figure-out a way to express my opinion on that subject without it being full of logical holes and arguments that are just… well, wrong.

Its probably because I know next-to-nothing about economic public policy, but it would be nice if I could realise that without having to write 300+ words first…


If you want some useful perspective on the economic situation then you could do worse than read about how Barclays Bank got a senior High Court judge out of bed in the middle of the night to prevent the Guardian from publishing Barclays internal memos detailing systematic, large scale tax avoidance by Barclays.

Despite the efforts of Barclay’s clueless corporate lawyers, and the probably equally clueless judge, the documents are up on Wikileaks. The one about Project Knight (PDF) is particularly interesting. I wonder how many schools the tax that they avoided would have paid for? While you’re there, check-out the Guardian’s extensive investigation of corporate tax avoidance.

Me? Angry?

Ten years of MSDN Magazine could be yours!

I have ten years of Microsoft Systems Journal / MSDN Magazine (Oct 1997 to Feb 2007) taking up space in my house. The local universities have (wisely) declined my offer to donate them. If you want them and Google has brought you here then you can have them. You collect. I’m in South Manchester (UK).

After this I’ll try freecycle and then (reluctantly) they go in the recycle bin.

Being Mobile

Yesterday I bought a T-Mobile G1 – the “Googlephone”.

I haven’t had much time to play with it yet, but it seems like a great piece of technology.The broadband access to email and maps, the user-interface, and the general build quality are very good. I hear it also does phone calls. I hope to have more to say about it later.

But there’s a story here.

Some time in early 1998 I read the following on David Bennahum’s (now long-defunct) Meme mailing list:

8:30 am, mid-April, standing on the platform of Track 3, waiting for the Times Square shuttle to take me to Grand Central Station. About six hundred people are queued up, clustered in blobs along memorized spots where we know the subway doors will open. Most are just standing. Some are reading the morning papers. I’m downloading email through a metal ventilation shaft in the ceiling. I point my wireless modem like a diving rod toward the breeze coming down from the street above. I can see people’s feet criss-crossing the grate. If wind can get down here this way, I figure packets of data can too.   (Link)

He was describing his experience of mobile, wireless internet connectivity using Palm Pilot with an attached (bulky) Novatel Minstrel modem. This image stuck in my mind. I had had net access since the late eighties as a student, and limited access at work (I’m a developer) since about 1993, but always tethered to a desk. This mobile internet idea was cool. I decided that I had to get some of this.

In late 1998 I bought my first mobile computing device – a Philips Velo 500. This was pretty curring-edge at the time: about as big as a thick paperback, it ran Windows CE 2, had a monochrome LCD display with a green backlight, and a “chicklet” keyboard. Crucially, it also had a built-in 19.2kb/s modem, and built-in browser and email client. I had great fun plugging it into phone lines and showing people “look… email… web…!”. It wasn’t all that impressive, though, and it was too big and heavy to fit into a pocket.I didn’t yet have a mobile phone, and the Velo wouldn’t have connected to it anyway. All in all, not really what I’d imagined.

In late 1999 I bought a Palm Vx. This was a significant improvement. Even with its tiny 33.6kb/s modem clipped on it would fit comfortably in a jacket pocket. I bought some third-party brower and email software. Then I got a mobile phone with an IRDA modem, and suddenly I could sit in Starbucks downloading my email like a proper alpha geek. For a couple of years that was my primary personal email system. It was slow, though – GSM data runs at about 9kb/s. Also, making sure that the phone stayed in line of sight with the Vx was awkward. But it worked.

By 2004 I had acquired an HP 4150 PDA and a GPRS phone. This was more like it! The 4150 had a colour screen with decent resolution and the Bluetooth/GPRS connection was quite fast. It was annoying that that I had to fiddle with both devices to turn bluetooth on before accessing the net, the data charges were pretty steep, and I now had two devices to carry around. The main problem, though, was that Windows CE was just plain awful to use. Hmm. Still not right.

So now I have this G1. It has a high-resolution screen, okay keyboard, always-on broadband, and its fairly small. Its my fourth personal generation of mobile internet device, and it finally seems that it might be what I wanted back in 1998 – although I didn’t know what that was at the time. We’ll see.

(I still have the velo and the Vx.)