When it hurts...

Since the rise of comments on news websites I’ve seen more than a few asking how someone chronically ill can take holidays, or that they “look well enough to me”. Here’s my story.

I have an undiagnosed cronic illness. I’ve been suffering for six months now.

There are no outward signs of any problems, if you looked at me without specialist knowledge you’d have no idea that anything was wrong - and even then there’s only a few signs. I work regular hours, cook and clean my own house and drive a car when needed. Most of the time I’m a “normal person”.

However, some days my body decides to be different. Joints ache, muscles sieze up, my vision and hearing become fuzzy, and my limbs become weakened. At its worst I’m unable to sit or stand and have to take time off work, and stairs become hard to use. As I work in software development anything that affects my vision and ability to type is seriously crippling to me.

I’ve taken so many anti-inflammatories I’ve developed an intolerance to them, I have to take the non-subsidised meloxicam instead of the subsidised naproxen. Frustratingly enough my health insurance only covers subsidised drugs. I also regularly take the maximum dose of paracetamol (1 gram every 4 hours), which isn’t really good for you. At some points I’ve had to resort to codeine to manage the pain, but fortunately this is rare.

I’ve seen two specialists, had many blood tests and had an MRI. Nothing conclusive has been found, other than a slightly raised level of anti-nuclear antibodies. This, along with my symptoms, points to an autoimmune problem, but there’s normally one critical sign I’m missing that points to a given diagnoses.

I’m lucky - I have health insurance partially paid for by my employer. This means I’ve been able to bypass public waiting lists. I know some people get annoyed at this, but personally I don’t see the issue. I’m still paying for the public system through my taxes and I don’t intend to stop, but since I can afford to I’ll lighten the load on the overloaded public system.

That still doesn’t change the reality though, 95% of the time I’m able to do things like everyone else. 5% though I’m barely able to walk around my own house. If this increased to 50/50 I wouldn’t be able to work full time, but half the time I’d be well enough to travel.

So remember, just because somebody “doesn’t seem sick” it doesn’t mean that they aren’t, you’ve probably just caught them on a good day.

I don’t have comments on this blog, but feel free to contact me on twitter.


It's all about context

This is something that’s caught myself out over the years, and I’m sure a lot of other people have done the same. When writing code or documentation, or even an email we leave out details we think are “obvious”. What we don’t think of is our own specialist knowledge - the invisible knowledge we have of our environment, or our context.

These days I work on accounting software, but in addition to my software development degree many years ago I also started an accounting degree using my elective papers. This means I have more knowledge than a lot of new developers. I have to think about whether I’m applying programming or accounting knowledge when writing my comments.

For example, this would be obvious to someone with experience in both fields (in pseudo-code):

public enum DrCr { Debit, Credit }
public class AccountValue { Decimal Value; DrCr Sign }
public AccountValue GetAccountValue(Decimal value, DrCr positive) {
    if (value >= 0) { return AccountValue(value, positive); }
    return AccountValue(-value, positive == Debit ? Credit : Debit);

but for someone outside the accounting field this makes no sense - why not just use negative numbers? The reason is that accounting predates the acceptance of negative numbers, and history is hard to change.

I’ll also add a small anecdote I saw printed in the newspaper here a few years ago. Alas this was before online archives, so I can’t link to the source.

A couple was visiting my city from another city in the same country. They were planning to travel out to visit family on the train. In their city there is one rail line, so when they looked at the departures board and saw ‘Stopping at all stations’ they got on that train. Unfortunately we have four lines here, and the didn’t know to check which line they were heading for. A bad design of signage had these two critical pieces of information separated, and since everyone here - or from a city with multiple rail lines - instinctively knows to look for it this was rarely a problem.

Context is everything.


Swift vs C# - My take

Inspired by this comparison of Swift and C# I’ve put together my own list of my favourite features of each language.

My day job is a .NET developer, and I know C# and its pitfalls quite well. I’ve been playing with Swift as soon as it was released.

Throughout these examples I’ll be concentrating on the syntax, I may leave some details unimplemented.

Nulls / Nils

In Swift nil-valued objects are opt-in. You cannot pass a nil unless the function or property allows it.

C# - you’ll get an error at run time
public void DoImportantThings(string cannotBeNull)
    if (cannotBeNull == null) 
        throw new InvalidArgumentException(...)

public void SillyMethod() 
Swift - you’ll get an error at compile time
func doImportantThings(string : cannotBeNull) { ... }
func sillyMethod() { doImportantThings(nil) }

This is fantastic! So many errors are caused by unexpected nulls, and that whole set has been eliminated! Next I can hope for a language with built in data validation.


Lets pick list sorting as an example

myList.Sort((a, b) => a.CompareTo(b))
myList.Sort { $0 < $1 }

Personally I'm uncertain about Swift's implicit argument names, but I think it'll stick for small functions.

Now say we want to reuse that sorter. Idiomatic C# would break it out in to a method call

private int MySort(int a, int b) 

or you could use a function variable, but that breaks type inference

Func<int, int, int> mySort = (a, b) => { a.CompareTo(b) }

Swift does a bit better on the second count

let mySort = { (a : Int, b:Int) in a < b }

the return type is inferred, but since Swift lacks automatic generalisation (F#'s reference) it requires type annotations. Given the rest of the functional suite I hope auto generalisation comes to Swift

Data types

C# follows other C-based languages in data types. There are primitive types, functions, classes, structs and enumerations. Functions and closures are first class, which is great, but we're still stuck with the old C/C++/Java ways of grouping things. I won't go in to these here

Swift has a much richer set of types, and coupled with the pattern matching system this leads to better interaction


While C# has tuples they're just another class. This makes them somewhat hard to work with, for example C# to return multiple values:

public Tuple<int, int> GetTwoInts() 
    return Tuple.Create(1, 2); 
var items = GetTwoInts();
var item1 = items.Item1;
var item2 = items.Item2;

with Swift:

func getTwoInts() -> (int, int) { return (1, 2) }
let (item1, item2) = getTwoInts()


In C# enumerations are simply names for integers. They always have a numeric value you can cast from.

Swift's enumerations are really algebraic data types, also known as a tagged union. The values of an enumeration are not an alias for an integer, but a value in their own right. You can assign a number to an enumeration value you can also assign a string or any other value.

For even more power you can assign variable values to enumeration values. For example:

enum socketState {
    Reading(string : buffer)
    Writing(string : buffer)
    Waiting(int : timeout)

switch (s : socketState) {
case socketState.Reading(let buffer):
    return .Reading(buffer + readMore())
case socketState.Writing(let buffer):
    return .Writing(write(buffer))

You can attach any sort of type to an enumeration value. This example also shows off enumeration decomposition to extract values out of the enum - you can also do this with tuples.

Switch statement

While C# lets you switch on constant strings as well as enumerations, Swift lets you match pretty much anything, acting like an if...else if chain, but including decomposition of tuples.

func getHttp(url : string) -> (int : status, string : statusMessage, string : body) {}

switch (getHttp(“…”)) {
    case (404, let message, _) : 
    case (403, _, _) : 
    case (200, _, let body) : 

While there are other ways of accomplishing this it is easier to manage state machine dispatches like this.

Also instead of C#’s infuriating compulsory break; on each statement and complete inability to fallthrough after doing some work, Swift takes a more pragmatic approach and breaks automatically unless you use the fallthrough keyword.


One thing I love about .NET is LINQ, not just the nice operations on lists - which can easily be implemented in Swift - but also the ability to construct expression trees and interpret them at runtime. This allows a fantastic degree of expressiveness, especially when interacting with external systems.

Alas Swift doesn’t have anything like this so far, but with the algebraic data type as a first class member it’s easier to implement a DSL with an alright syntax. Hopefully this will be improved in the future.

Personally I’d like a fully metaprogramming model, macros rather than runtime interpretation.


In C# we have extension methods - methods that behave like they’re part of a class, but really are static methods that take an instance as the first parameter.

Swift takes this one step further, extensions can add protocols (similar to a C# interface) to an extant type even without access to the implementation. You can also add computed properties and arbitrary functions. This makes it easy to add other types to your own protocols, and to hide internal mucking around from outside influence.


Most languages have a concept of visibility for items - public, protected and private at least. So far Swift doesn’t have these, but it’s early days and I expect them to be implemented in the future.


Reddit emoticon text expander Safari extension

Since I’ve been spending more time on reddit I’ve been somewhat annoyed at how some subreddits hide conversations inside emoticon text, mostly because it takes so long to read with all the hovering.

Since Google didn’t bring up any leads, and the Reddit Enhancement Suite didn’t help, I created my own! Though when people find this they’ll probably tell me all about the much better solutions people have already made.

The code was inspired by, but not based on, the (Super Reddit Alt-Text Display)[] userscript.

Go from this


to this!


So here is the aptly named titletext.safariextz



There’s been a seal hanging around the Wellington waterfront, and I managed to get this shot of the contented seal face




So I’ve been moving in to hardware hacking rather than software. I’ve been working in IT software for 8 years now, so something new is fun! Plus if you get hardware wrong you definitely know about it.

First thing I noticed was lighting adequate for software work is useless for tiny hardware work, so I set about building a custom lamp for it.

So, I started with a cheap clip-on desk lamp, and with some components from eBay and a LED pattern laser cut by Ponoko I set to work (pics in full post)


CNC, the DIY way

A couple of months ago I decided to do a little DIY air conditioning, more for fun designing circuits and programming microcontrollers. One thing led to another, and now I’m making a mini CNC mill out of spare printer and scanner parts. This will probably take most of the year to complete, but the planning is fun!


Chrome dropping h.264, my take.

I’m sure everyone knows that Chrome is dropping h.264 video support for WebM. They claim it will enable “open innovation”. I have a few problems with this.

Firstly, VP8 is probably patented (though it may not be), the algorithms are very similar to the h.264 algorithms, so the MPEG LA may have a claim. Also Google haven’t offered any form of indemnification or analysis to show the patents aren’t infringed. In many cases we’ve seen companies wait for popularity then sue those who can’t defend, one reason GNU doesn’t use GIF.

Secondly, VP8 may be the future, but h.264 is here now. While looking to the future is all well and good, it shouldn’t be at the expense of current usability unless the two are mutually exclusive. The ‘for the future’ argument also falls down with quality comparisons, VP8 and h.264 are of comparable quality, with VP8 falling short at the moment, though that may pick up with more development. VP8 is not a next generation codec, it’s current generation. Arguably VP8 has better peak signal-to-noise ratio (PSNR), but PSNR doesn’t reflect visual quality.

I believe that Google can push WebM in more effective ways. They are working on VP8 hardware acceleration for mobile devices and presumably re-encoding a lot of YouTube content to VP8. I assume they’re also working on WebM support in Flash Player, as once that’s complete non-WebM browsers will have a fallback. All that’s happened in the short term is Chrome users will see h.264 content in Flash Player, rather than in native video, which gives awful playback on Linux. Given Firefox’s performance it seems I’ll be stuck with proprietary browsers if I want performant video playback. Thanks Google.


Comic Sans Be Gone does Arial

I’ve pushed a new update to Comic Sans Be Gone. Apart from fixing a minor Javascript issue I’ve added the ability to replace Arial, and to change the replacement font.

Comic Sans Be Gone Settings screenshot

If you have Comic Sans Be Gone installed the check your extensions updates, else grab it


Using ApplicationSettings with F#

While F# is a first-class .NET 4 citizen it’s not really a first-class Visual Studio citizen, even in 2010. A lot of the application setup tools we have for C# aren’t present in F#.

I was recently making a quick and dirty tool in F# that needed some basic user settings, so I went with the ApplicationSettings infrastructure in .NET, as it’s the easiest way to implement this. In C# this is easy, the GUI designer writes the code for you. In F# you have to do it yourself. Microsoft’s documentation is in C#, so there’s some adaptation to do.

You’ll need a type that inherits ApplicationSettingsBase class from System.Configuration, and then add some property members with the attribute UserScopedSettingAttribute(). You can also use ApplicationScopedSettingAttribute() for application-level settings, but these require editing the XML in your App.Config, something that I’m not that familiar with yet.

There’s a little boilerplate for each setting, but other than that it’s a breeze.

Here’s a sample settings class:

open System.Configuration
type MySettings() = 
  inherit ApplicationSettingsBase()
  member this.UserSetting
    with get() = this.Item("UserSetting") :?> string
    and set(value : string) = this.Item("UserSetting") <- value

  member this.AppSetting
    with get() = this.Item("AppSetting") :?> string