Category Archives: Editorials

Gee, thanks, Uncle Sam

It’s fairly obvious someone’s head is going to roll for the Dept. of Veterans Affairs foulup. This laptop theft and its implications are horrifying – especially to me, since I’m one of those 26.5 million veterans.

I don’t know how many others in our business can say that, and I don’t care too much. But I’ll tell you this: having just in the last two years started to get my life in order and moving in the right direction, I really don’t need the personal and financial trouble this implies

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. Never mind it hasn’t happened yet. It just became a lot likelier.

26.5 million. Think about that. That means somewhere between five and ten percent of the U.S. population. Chances are if you’re not one of the people affected, you almost certainly are friends with one.

A skeptical eyebrow raised

Slashdot points us to this Seattle Times article. Two quotes here that caught my eye:

“AdCenter will give advertisers sophisticated information about consumers, including their location, age, gender and sometimes, their level of wealth.”

“AdCenter will not give any information that can allow advertisers to personally identify a person, he added.”

Uh huh. Suuuuuuuure

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. If you “locate” me at 1255 Foo Street, Apt. 355, in Santa Clara, and that I’m a 28 year-old male, it’s pretty easy to identify me. Even if it isn’t quite that specific, just mentioning my income will subject me to a barrage of car ads, home mortgage ads, etc. I’m already sick & tired of the Capital One “No Hassle” mail in my postal box (if it’s “no hassle”, why do they keep hassling me to sign up?)

Pardon me for not believing a convicted monopolist.


No OSCON for me this year

ManyOne Networks submitted a proposal to speak at the Open Source Convention 2006 in Portland, Oregon. It was rejected. Personally, I’ve been to the last four OSCON’s, and I didn’t really want to go to this year’s. Nothing against the Convention; it’s a really wonderful experience, as close to a series of Vulcan mind melds as we can get. I’m just not personally inspired to go this year.

It’s not money; this year, I actually can afford a full admission. No, I just don’t have any urgent reason to go. Verbosio is progressing slowly, and it will require Gecko 1.9, so there’s no point to trying to rush it to completion. There are no other projects I’m working on of that great importance (except for the Gecko patches, when I find a bug that sufficiently interests me — like DOM stuff)

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. I could pick up a lot of knowledge at OSCON by going, but it’s just not right for me this year. The truth is, I need to take a break from it.

Tim, Vee, thanks for holding it the past eight years. It really does kick byte, and it’s a genuine pleasure to go. I’m writing this blog entry to remind people about it.

I haven’t closely looked at the list of offerings this year. I may change my mind… but I don’t see that happening.

O’Reilly Open Source Convention 2006

We really need a XPCOM debugger

A few weeks ago, I was wondering about the possibility of debugging C++ and JS at the same time. Venkman’s a nice JS-only debugger. I’m using Microsoft’s VC++ 2005 Express Edition to debug on the C++ side. (Mind you, I’m really not that great at C++ debugging.) I wondered, on a theoretical basis, how I would debug a problem that happened somewhere in between two JS frames, amid several C++ frames.

As I started pondering potential solutions, it was pretty obvious that I couldn’t even get a good stack of the JS and C++ frames at the same time. Components.stack from Venkman returns a nsIStackFrame object. This object has partial info about the JS stack, and none about the C++ frames. For example, I could get the filename and line numbers of stack frames in JS, but I couldn’t get the source line. I’m running a debug build of SeaMonkey trunk, and there was no information to be had at all about the C++ code. This is no better than what Error.prototype.stack returns.

Read on for more details, including the reason why a XPCOM debugger is now necessary. Or feel free to blame me for not knowing how to really use a C++ debugger.

Continue reading We really need a XPCOM debugger

The line-item veto: A constitutional amendment?

Having jumped off a cliff before on religion (and regretting it), I’m going to do something similarly inflammatory. I’m going to discuss American politics.

If you care, go ahead and read the full article.

Continue reading The line-item veto: A constitutional amendment?

The dumbest phishing spammer I’ve heard from so far

Spammers try to look smart to fool us, but they really aren’t. Reference this little gem that got past GMail’s filters:

X-Gmail-Received: 7027b24f257865b549f0520a5e00633c137aa01b
Delivered-To: *********@*********
Received: by with SMTP id y5cs41366qbl;
Tue, 21 Feb 2006 12:23:38 -0800 (PST)
Received: by with SMTP id h19mr1741150qbo;
Tue, 21 Feb 2006 12:23:38 -0800 (PST)
Return-Path: <>
Received: from DM ([])
by with SMTP id e14si27530qba.2006.;
Tue, 21 Feb 2006 12:23:38 -0800 (PST)
Received-SPF: neutral ( is neither permitted nor denied by domain of
Received: from %RND_HOST (8.8.8/8.8.8) id XAA59962; Tue, 21 Feb 2006 14:23:46 -0600
Message-Id: <>
From: "Nikhil Ball" <>
To: *********@*********
Subject: Concerning February Account Details
X-Mailer: Opera/7.02 (Windows ME; U)
Date: Tue, 21 Feb 2006 14:23:46 -0600
Nikhil Ball, Account Rep. %CUSTOM_REP_NUMBER

Mr. Ball — or whoever you really are — when are you going to realize:

  1. I see a bunch of these every week, and it’s getting old
  2. I don’t have an account at %CUSTOM_LINK (or whatever bank you’re trying to psyche me out on)
  3. My banks don’t contact me by e-mail
  4. The wording on these bank-account-theft e-mails is largely the same
  5. I can read the status bar at the bottom of the page and see where the link is really going
  6. RTFM, an acronym you’ve never heard of

On the plus side, you did get past the filter

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Where are the good chrome dev examples?

I spent a big part of today trying to fix a bug in xpistubs, with regard to flat chrome. I went through the XPInstall API docs for hours today, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing wrong. Hours. The code examples are sparse. It’s not clear to the untrained eye which arguments refer to content inside a XPI (or JAR), and which arguments refer to the target applications. A few visual examples would have saved me a lot of trouble. Example:

Suppose this is the contents of your XPI file:

- foo.xul

This is the contents of your target chrome directory:

- browser.jar

To copy and register the content directory into chrome/content/foo, use the following:

var targetDir = Install.getFolder("Chrome", "foo");
addDirectory(null,        "content",      targetDir, "content/");
registerChrome(CONTENT | DELAYED_CHROME, targetDir, "content/")

Note the second argument does not have a trailing slash, but the fourth argument does.

I’ve never seen anything like this level of detail in any XPI guide, not even “Creating Applications With Mozilla”

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. This sort of example is short, very self-contained (you don’t need to read prior chapters), and can be inserted into the addDirectory API documentation without any trouble. (Even then, it’s not entirely a good example. Which “content” argument is which?)

There’s another reason I wrote the example above as I did. It’s not jarred chrome, it’s flat. Flat chrome is useful. Flat chrome means you can edit the files raw in your objdir, and when you’re done, you just copy the files into your source dir. No dealing with jars at all.

Jar files are great for finished products. But when you’re doing dev work, you want to play with flat chrome. Ideally, you want to keep all your files isolated so that things are relatively obvious. If you can build jar, you can build flat, and vice versa. Mozilla reacts happily to both.

We have a serious lack of good chrome examples, flat and jarred. Oh, I could dig through the archives of and eventually find a bunch of XPI packages. But it’s not clear to me as a developer what’s inside these things, and what makes them tick. These tests would be a lot more useful if there was a guide to them. “This is what that XPI is supposed to do. This is what each XPI has inside it. This is what the install.js file looks like. This is what each line does.”

Every time I try to start a new project, I go through this hassle. Every time I start playing with XPInstall, I go through this hassle. It’s insane. I know I could (and probably should, given how frustrated I am) write a nice bunch of addendums to current XPInstall docs. Is that what will solve the problem? Or can I wake someone up and say, “Have you ever tried to use these docs to actually do something?”

I really miss writing sci-fi (and reading it)

A little over a year ago, I submitted a story to the Strange New Worlds VIII contest. Apparently Dean Wesley Smith, one of the three judges and the editor for the contest, liked it, but it didn’t quite make the final cuts. Other times I’ve written amateur sci-fi or fan-fics, and generally, they were well-received. Unfortunately, I’ve not done very much in that field since.

It’s a trade-off. I’ve been a software engineer professionally for a while now, and I’ve not spent any time writing science fiction. Certainly I haven’t studied it as a field enough to see what others have done. One regret is that over the last several years my knowledge of sci-fi has been mostly limited to the classics, a few interesting novels and authors, and Star Trek.

Still, I sort of miss it.

One of the cardinal rules for writers is that you must write. It’s true for blogging, it’s certainly true for programming, and it’s true for science-fiction writing. Having a non-fiction book under my belt is quite an achievement, but I never want to lose my appetite to be an artist. I never want to stagnate.

In terms of literature, I’ve stagnated. Just today, I asked myself two questions I’d want to base stories on. The first is, “What if a military grew so large that no officers could live long enough to learn how to command it?” I remember reading in a book by Tom Clancy and Gen. Fred Franks, Jr., (ret), “Into The Storm”, that it takes twenty years to develop a senior army commander. Suppose the military got so big that no one man could gain the experience he needed to direct it? What would the military do to get the most bang for the buck? (Pun not intended.)

The second question is, “What uses can a naval force be put to in a war against a space force?” I don’t believe I’ve ever read a sci-fi story that tried to answer that question. My first thought is, “Very little.” But that almost certainly ignores what centuries of naval history have taught us. My own understanding of naval warfare is somewhat limited, but I do know that I didn’t need a space suit in my two years in the U.S. Navy. The closest glimpse I got of this was from Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series, and naval technology had not nearly advanced to the point we have now.

I’m not stating my opinion on war here, but science fiction combat is one of the biggest fields for sci-fi. Nor am I trying to actively capitalize on my talents in sci-fi

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. I write fiction as a hobby, when I feel like it. If I spent several years at it, I could probably become a decent professional writer. First, though, I’d need to do my homework — both in what’s been written and in what’s plausible. Finally, I always try to remember in sci-fi writing that it’s not about the gadgets and the gizmos, but about the people in the stories.

I would really love to make friends with a retired military strategist. Just to poke his (or her) brain about both history and tactics. No one can write about anything they don’t understand the basics of. Anyone who tries inevitably fails, as I’ve learned time and time again.

Also, if I was ever to go to college, this would be a big reason: to learn more about the world (and universe) we live in, to express it to people. Assuming, of course, that I ever budgeted the time for the writing. Because ultimately, I determine my schedule aside from work hours.

Me and my big mouth…

People who know me know I don’t drive. They know I’m a big fan of public transit.

So I was a little annoyed Wednesday morning

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So, Microsoft starts over… good for them

An article in the Wall Street Journal (thanks to Slashdot for the link) explains about Microsoft’s decision to scrap their current work and start over.

This is probably a good thing. In fact, scrapping and restarting is sometimes necessary. For example, Netscape open-sourced their codebase for Netscape Communicator 4.x. The idea was open-source contributors would help them get to version 5.0.

That didn’t happen. I can’t find the exact article explaining the reasons why, but I recall reading the team decided to scrap that codebase and start over with Gecko. As I understood it, the codebase for Netscape 5.0 was just not amenable to doing what people needed done. The result was Mozilla 1.0 and Netscape 7. (Netscape 6 was a forgettable experience.)

I’m having experience with scrapping and restarting myself. Abacus, you may recall, was intended as a MathML editor for Mozilla

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. Ideally, it would be embedded in Mozilla Composer. That’s not going to happen. I’m going to scrap Abacus and rewrite it for Verbosio, which is a much more extensible architecture (and is designed to support XML, which Composer is not).

I can get away with this, though, because Abacus has such a small customer base (effectively zero). With larger projects such as Firefox or Windows, I’d be a little concerned about backwards-compatibility. Netscape 6/7 decided to deliberately not support certain bug-features of Netscape 4, and that was probably wise. Be careful what you break when you scrap and start over.