All posts by Matt

The importance of being willing to ask stupid questions

Last week I spent a day interviewing candidates for a programmer position. One of the candidates discussed things that he looked for in an organisation. Two things in particular struck me: He wanted to work in an organisation that, if he was making good progress, didn’t slow him down and that, if he asked a stupid question, didn’t call him stupid. The first question revealed the candidates lack of experience (not a problem in this case btw) but the second one is very important to a career in software engineering.

Continue reading The importance of being willing to ask stupid questions


I configured my docked Ubuntu laptop with an external screen to have an extended desktop using Xinerama. It works (almost) nicely. I have a wide desktop that I can drag screens around on now, but unfortunately the pointer isnt rendering properly on the external screen – instead of a clean pointer I have a 2cmx2cm square on the external monitor.  Even with a clumsy mouse pointer, this is an improvement on my previous dual monitor setup which used aticonfig’s bigdesktop setting. I found that bigdesktop configured two separate desktops which meant that I was unable to run firefox/thunderbird on both desktops, or drag windows from one screen to another.

These two references were useful:

Wiki mind mapping

Sweeney Todd mind map

On Friday the excellent information aesthetics feed pointed me to, an Adobe Flash visualisation of a wikipedia topic as a mind map. The image above shows the wikimindmap visualization for Sweeney Todd – the main character in the musical/opera of the same name by Steven Sondheim (chosen for it’s compact size, and because I’ve just been to see it performed at the Royal Festival Hall). This is very nice. It combines the “at a glance” loveliness of mind mapping with the collective wisdom of wikipedia. It may provide a way for humans (as opposed to machines – that is another story) to scan topics more quickly than scan-reading them.

Hackday London

Its the end of the Yahoo/BBC hackday weekend. The atmosphere at the beginning of the first day was really good and the weekend looked promising. But I left that day early and frustrated. I wanted to try out some of the cool tools being talked about but I couldnt get started because the network was too unreliable. It was a shame. I did meet some interesting people and I saw a great talk on machine tags by Aaron Straup Cope and Dan Catt though. I hope they got the network stabilised later on for the die hards and I’m intrigued to find out more about the final submitted hacks. It was always going to be difficult for me to attend the second day, due to family commitments, and I suppose this means I didnt fully prepare or get into the spirit of things. Looking at the blogs, the vast majority of the attendees got a lot out of it, and only a few lightweights who left early, like me, felt let down. If there is a next time I will both prepare more in advance and ensure I can attend the whole event. Oh, and come with a 3G card in my back pocket.

You lied to me when you said this was a program

A Dutch colleague introduced me to a while ago – an excellent software engineering resource. I hadnt noticed it before* but today I was most tickled by a quote he has on his code page:

A friend of mine in a compiler writing class produced a compiler with one error message ‘you lied to me when you told me this was a program’


* Maybe I did notice it before and didnt get it. Since I first looked at that site I’ve done some work with the RACC, JACC and JavaCC compiler compilers (of the two Java compiler compilers, I prefer JavaCC).

WordPress theme

I fell in love with this styleshout web template and decided to hack it into a WordPress theme. Someone else had done it before, but their license was a little too restrictive for my liking. It took a few hours but was well worth it. It’s not widget friendly yet, but it will do for now.

This was almost my first encounter with PHP and definately my first encounter with the WordPress codebase but the task turned out to be fairly straightforward. The files in the WordPress themes were intuitively named and the code was easy to read. The only problem I had was tracing the location of some of the core functions that are used in the theme, but this is quite normal for this sort of application I feel.

Java status bar

This might save someone else a little bother. I’ve been building Java Swing demo’s in the last few months and one thing that has slowed me down is building a status bar. A status bar is the strip at the bottom of a window that contains useful information about the status of an application. As an example, here is the status bar for my skype client:

skype status bar

There is no standard swing control (container) to do this so you must roll your own. Searching for “java status bar” didnt get me very far. Initially I just used a JLabel, but this is too simple. I really wanted something with multiple recessed panels (as in the skype example). I considered using an unfloatable JToolBar but I dropped this idea because a toolbar’s default background doesnt look like a status bar and because its not easy to make the recessed panels this way. Finally I realised that the best way to build my status bar is to nest JPanels. Continue reading Java status bar