2011 (old posts, page 2)

Ivanka Majic on Working in Open Source

In a post describing her departure from Canonical, designer Ivanka Majic wrote this evocative description of what it's like working on a high-profile open source project:

Imagine walking into a room where a few hundred people are talking to you at the same time. You can’t hear, you don’t know where to start, the noise is overwhelming and you are just about to put your hands over your ears and scream when you notice someone catch your eye and smile; you notice another person pick up something you have dropped and put it where you can see it, a cup of tea appears in your hand and someone else starts quietly answering one person, then another. The desire to scream will come again, but the support is invaluable. What starts as a feeling that everyone is telling you what to do evolves into the sure knowledge that there are people who will help you catch a dropped ball.

kickingbear» Regarding Objective-C & Copland 2010

I read John Siracusa's "Copland 2010" article back in '05, and listened to his recent update of it on his podcast. I wasn't very convinced, but I couldn't figure out quite how to say why. Today I think Guy nailed it:

Siracusa argues that abstraction is the all consuming beast of computer science, I think he’s mostly correct but I can’t help but feel he’s more worried about abstracting yesterday’s issues than tomorrow’s.

via kickingbear» Blog Archive » Regarding Objective-C & Copland 2010.

The redesigned message view in Postbox 2.5

The Postbox team posted another tease for their upcoming redesign in version 2.5, this time the new message view.

I'm not going to re-post all of these, but I thought this one was worth pointing out because it shows some of the thinking behind the changes - and hints at an interesting design principle:

Detail views that don't change visual structure when the item they're displaying changes feel faster and more solid.

Do you agree?

Coyote Tracks - Text Editor Intervention

Text Editor Intervention by Watts Martin (@chipotlecoyote). A sane but kind letter to Mac users who loved TextMate but think they need something more, and assume it has to be something new.

I agreed with every point - in particular the point about tabs being terrible for keeping track of lots of files. I often keep hundreds of files open in Emacs, and with iswitchb-mode enabled, it's easy to visit the one I want.

I can certainly sympathize with the urge to improve everyday tools. I a few half-written "reinventions" of mail clients, terminal emulators, template languages, time trackers and weblog frameworks littering my filesystem. But you do have to stop somewhere. The only program that's been as well explored as the extensible text editor is the command shell, and once you're out of college, you shouldn't write a new one of those either.

Postbox 2.5's New Addressing Widget

Over at the Postbox blog, they're teasing the upcoming version 2.5 with a post about a New Addressing Widget. There's only a screenshot, but it looks like a nice usability improvement - it looks more Mac-like. To and CC are in separate fields, so it's easier to add a CC without using the mouse now, and they use the token field widget (the little blue lozenge introduced in Apple Mail in 2005) to make it easier to drag around whole addresses.

They do say they're working on some re-styling and finishing touches - so I'll reserve judgement until I use it. For now, it's still catch-up.

Handling Reference Emails

Sometimes you need to refer to your email. (I've written about this before).

Maybe it's to integrate comments from a bunch of people while you're editing a report, or it's a set of mails with instructions for something, like how to configure & install a source code package or submit expense reports in the new system. These emails could all be in one thread, but just as often it's a few mails spread throughout several threads and scattered in time.

A good mail client should make it easy to keep arbitrary groups of messages visible for reference. Since they're reference emails, you're just reading them, and the display shouldn't really be more than the text of the mail. You should be able to fit a few of these on screen without overlapping what you're actually working on, and you don't need a big toolbar with a bunch of actions that won't be happening.

When I'm doing something in another app, I want to arrange my reference mails in an empty part of the screen, then not click back over to the mail client until I'm ready to close them. The faster it is to set up this display and get on with things, the better.

Let's look at how a few existing clients support this kind of thing:


It's easy to open a conversation and refer to it, and you can hide the body of messages that aren't relevant. But you can't move things around, so if it's a really long thread, you might be in for some scrolling. If you want to refer to more than one thread, you will have to open each in its own window.

Apple Mail

Because of its lack of a conversation-style thread view, the way to do this is to just open separate windows for each message. You can't look at a single thread in one window - have to open N windows for N messages. Ugh.

Since Mail is what I use most often, when I have this problem I always end up with a flock of windows, and lots of clicking, scrolling and cmd-tabbing around to see what I need, followed by looking at all my open windows and trying not to close any unrelated drafts or accidentally send or delete something important.

Postbox & Thunderbird

The experience with Postbox is similar to, but a little worse than GMail. In Postbox, there's a thread view where I can hide uninteresting messages like GMail, but if I want to pop the thread out into a separate window, I can't - only single messages can be popped into separate windows. I can make tabs with the thread view by double-clicking on a thread, but I can't figure out how to get a new window. Of course, if I need to see multiple emails at once, tabs are no good.

Thunderbird is basically the same, except at least in 3.0.4, the default view when you select a thread is less useful than Postbox's - it looks more like a debug dump of the message's text than a well-designed display.


MailMate is similar to Postbox & Thunderbird - except that you get a nice linear conversation-style view with any selection, not just a single thread. (Postbox has a nice view but only for a thread, and TBird shows you any selection but not a nice view.)

Still, as with those others, the linear conversation view can't be popped into its own reading-oriented window, and it's strictly linear.


I don't think any of the clients I looked at have a good solution for this. Is that a problem? Is this actually important?

I think so. I bet if you think about when you actually look at an email, it's usually one of three times - when you first read it, as you write a reply to it, and when you're searching for it later. In both of the second two cases, I've found that I often have more than one mail or thread that I want to look at while I write or do something in another app, and a dedicated view to support that would be great. I could search through just those messages. I could minimize or move them all at once. Just think of the possibilities!

Finally, if it's easy to keep this set of emails around for later reference without cluttering up my screen in the meantime - and without actually moving the messages into some separate folder on my server - that'd be really great. Because you always have another expense report to file, and really, who wants to memorize that procedure?

Thanks for reading this far, and please feel free to leave a comment - am I missing something great in one of these clients?

Austin Restaurants

Last year, I wrote up a list of restaurants I'd recommend in Austin for an intern from California who was going to spend all summer here and needed to know what not to miss out on.

This is not just places around downtown. In fact it's weighted toward North Austin, if anything - only because that's where I live and work, not because the best restaurants are there. They're not.

This list probably won't help if you're just in town for a conference, but in case you're moving to Austin, or staying for longer than a week - here are some places you ought to try.

These descriptions might make more sense to you if you're from California, but I'd say the recommendations stand wherever you're coming from.

Since this is mostly just transcribed from an email I wrote last year while waiting for something to compile, I'm missing Hopdoddy (best burgers ever, on South Congress) and G'Raj Mahal (Indian food trailer with beautiful outdoor seating, near downtown), which are now in my top five. Or the pizza slice place that we just found. And I can't believe I've left out the Steeping Room tea house in the domain mall, which we visit about once a week on average. But the list is what it is. Maybe I'll expand it into a whole guide some day.

EDIT: David the intern also found his own gems to share -- including Noble Pig, a fantastic sandwich shop. I should also mention Gourdough's, a donut trailer on south Lamar that has to be seen to be believed. Fresh hot large donuts with mind-blowing toppings, some savory, some alcoholic!

I'm happy to hear suggestions in the comments. Meanwhile - here's the list:


I am guessing that coming from California, you'll be used to mexican food, maybe seafood-heavy baja mex food.

In Texas, good mexican food can be found but more common (and more uniquely Texas) is tex-mex. And it's good - please forget everything you might have learned about "tex-mex" from places like Chili's.

One of the hallmarks of tex-mex vs. cali mexican food is queso (aka cheese sauce) - the best stuff is pretty spicy. Also, you'll see more Jalapeños than other peppers. I think serrano peppers are more common in baja mex. There's more of a focus on enchiladas and tacos than burritos - you'll be hard pressed to find a "burrito place" like the ones all over California.

A few great local tex-mex institutions within a short drive of North Austin:

Trudy's North

  • Great fajitas
  • Try the migas - something I've only seen in Texas so far: it's scrambled eggs with queso and tortillas. Excellent comfort food for brunch.
  • You can mix the two and get the migas fajitas. worth a try.
  • Other things worth knowing about - their fried stuffed avocado, their lunchtime buffet that lets you sample from most of their menu (amazing, come hungry, leave Texan)

Chuy's: A chain, there's one on 183 in North Austin and a few others around

  • great enchiladas (try the ones called "chicka-boom" or something)
  • great chips and decent salsa
  • very good margaritas that work
  • good happy hour ($3.50 margaritas)
  • the place can get pretty crowded. Apply margaritas and wait.


Instead of burrito places, austin has taco joints. The two best are Torchy's and Tacodeli:


  • This place is a revelation, it's rightfully famous and is almost certainly better than you imagine a "taco place" can be - no matter how much mexican food you've had.
  • the one nearest North Austin is "torchy's spicewood". It's more or less along mopac (Loop 1).
  • try a couple variations. If you ask me, they don't make a bad taco.
  • their current monthly taco is always worth checking out - for example, an occasional monthly fave is a chicken-fried-steak taco called "the double-wide". Don't miss out.


  • This place is not the culinary star that Torchy's is, but it's a great option for lunch and has a couple of standout items, including the Molé tacos and the Tortas.
  • There are a few around - the one in North Austin is along Mopac, close to the Domain mall and IBM, National Instruments, etc..
  • More variety than torchy's - I've also never had a bad taco here.
  • A nice variety of salsas, but disappointing store-bought chips. Total missed opportunity. Just get the tacos.


You can find a lot of opinions about barbecue. I suggest you try as many places as you can find - and there are plenty. Rudy's is a large local chain that's visible along 183 in North Austin, and often recommended. I actually think that Rudy's, while good, is kind of the McDonald's of decent barbecue. OK, maybe better, because I'll still go there occasionally.


  • My personal favorite in town is Ruby's near UT. It's small, a little grungy, and fantastic.
  • great brisket, amazing ribs
  • Their sides are pretty good too - I like both kinds of their slaw, and their beans are good n' spicy

Salt Lick

  • Of course, if you want to take a trip, the salt lick is legendary. It's miles out of town in a dry county, and it's been on TV a bunch of times.
  • Their sauce is unique - kind of mustardy, really delicious.
  • Make sure you get a sampling of the different meats - their sides aren't that good, 'cause they're not the point.

County Line

  • Finally, closest to North Austin, the County Line BBQ chain has a restaurant near highway 360 and FM2222 called "county line on the lake" - and it is really right on the lake.
  • You can sit outside and order from a patio menu with a BBQ sampler.
  • The bbq is good (as good or better than Rudy's) but the ambiance is why I'd go.

Fancy date places

Eddie V's

  • really great seafood & steaks
  • there's one downtown and one in the arboretum (North Austin)

Shoreline grill

  • Downtown, good food, view of town lake and the bats coming from the bridge.
  • Once I ordered a caprese salad and I think they used chocolate sauce instead of balsamic. But the food there is usually so good that I wasn't sure it was a mistake. So that's saying something, right?


  • world-class sushi (really! I've had actual good sushi and this is it. I'm surprised too.)
  • expensive, but a real experience. We went there for our wedding anniversary and it was fantastic.

Paggi House

  • More excellent fine cuisine. Probably my favorite fine-dining restaurant in Austin that isn't Uchi.


  • A good tapas place in Central Austin.
  • They've usually got some inventive seasonal dishes, and usually something great for an appetizer.
  • I seem to recall lots of great cheeses.


  • A modern italian place by the same folks behind Asti. In a charming part of Central Austin called Hyde Park.
  • Really perfectly done food. Great place, crowded seating, always full - kind of feels like a hot new restaurant in a bigger city.

Texas comfort food

There's a style of "Texas home cookin'" restaurant that's really worth giving a try. Here are two off the top of my head:


  • Interestingly, also a historic music venue where Janis Joplin sang.
  • If you're up for it, their chicken fried steak is an excellent example of the genre. (Chicken-fried steak, also known as "CFS", sometimes painted on the sides of small-town diners along the highway, is a real texas staple)
  • Also, good pies, and cheap Lonestar beers.
  • They have a "Howdy Hour". Enough said?

Ice cream

Amy's ice cream A local institution. they have great ice cream, but for me the real draw is that their rotating flavors always include two with some kind of alcohol flavor - the beer ice creams are great (they have Shiner, Live Oak and Guinness ice cream. Live Oak is my fave of those)

Breakfast Tacos

For some reason, the california burrito bias extends to breakfast, so this was a new thing for me. It's a big deal here - every mexican place, coffee shop, lots of burger joints, and even a few BBQ places and gas stations will serve you a cheap egg n' something taco. They can be a delicious option for breakfast, and way less of a weighty decision than the breakfast burrito you might be used to in california.

But - maybe start with a known good place (Torchy's, for example), before trying out those gas station tacos.


As I mentioned before, burritos really aren't where it's at here. Not sure why.

If you crave a California-style burrito, the closest I've been able to find is Super Burrito in south austin.

Everything I had there was good, and it was exactly like I was back in pacific beach. A bit of a drive, though, and zero ambiance.

Volatile and Decentralized: The death of Intel Labs and what it means for industrial research

Volatile and Decentralized: The death of Intel Labs and what it means for industrial research.

Matt Welsh (ex Harvard Professor, now at Google) on the phasing out of Intel's "Lablets", which were a new kind of company-supported research center that was co-located with major universities. His blog post title notwithstanding, this doesn't seem to be about Intel moving away from research in general, just this particular model of heavy university interaction.

I don't want to comment directly on his post (see disclaimer below), but I'm posting this because there are a lot of interesting comments on his site, including some people sharing their views from inside other industrial labs. Welsh suggests that industrial research is on the wane and that Google's model of advanced development is the future, and others chime in to say that research is alive at many companies, some more directly focused on (read: paid for by) product groups than others.

Update: See also the comments on the post at Hacker News, in particular this long one by NY_USA_Hacker, who is continuing his (?) tradition of posting marathon irreverent comments about the value of a PhD, and advocating mathematics PhDs over computer science, even for tech folks.

The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle.

Cram & Simple testing for shell programs

Cram is a test framework for command line programs, originally written for mercurial's test suite.

I like the approach - it just reads a shell transcript and runs the commands it finds. If the output doesn't match, it shows you a diff. It's kind of like doctest.

It looks refreshingly simple to get started with, something that so many other test frameworks fail horribly at.

A while ago, I wrote something similar for work. After trying and failing to find a testing framework that wasn't over-engineered, I wrote a script that looks in ./test/, and runs every file named whatever.test, and compares output to files whatever.test.stdout and whatever.test.stderr, if they exist. If not, it just uses the return value to determine success.

I loved how easy it was to add a test. Just write a script! There is no step two.

(cram found via Titus Brown )

Merging mikechecksmail

About a year ago, I decided to start a separate blog called 'mikechecksmail' on Tumblr to talk about the details of mail clients on OS X.

I posted a few real articles there, then let things sit for a while as a dissertation, a new house, and a new baby have taken up my free time.

I've now decided to keep occasionally writing about email, just here at my good old personal blog. So I've imported the old posts from Tumblr, and anything new will be here. Hopefully having just one place for things will make it easier to actually write anything at all.