Dear Parallels

Since you keep hitting me with these spammy popups no matter how many times I click on “Do not show again”, you leave me no choice but to switch to VirtualBox (much better software in any case, and less Windows integration means less chances a virus breaking out of the virtualized Windows ghetto.

Oh, and installing MacFuse without asking permission (unlike VMware Fusion): not cool.

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Will Adobe ever learn?

In a triumph of hope over experience, I recently “upgraded” from Adobe CS3 Design Standard to CS5 Design Standard. I hardly ever use Photoshop any more since I started using Aperture and Lightroom (originally a Macromedia product, no matter what the lame “Adobe Photoshop Lightroom” face-saving branding may try to claim), the main driver for the purchase was actually InDesign CS5 and its ePub functions.

Of course, this is Adobe. Previous versions gratuitously included crud like a full Opera install (an older version, insecure, naturally) just to display a splash screen, or a full MySQL install to power Acrobat search. I never install Acrobat, of course, since that bloated and bug-ridden piece of garbage managed to steal the crown for most insecure software from Internet Explorer, no small feat.

Adobe does not want to confuse users with streamlined and efficient software, so they decided to include the mostly useless Growl on-screen notification program to nag you into registering. Increasing bloat and attack surface for malware is not a good idea, nor is interrupting creative people’s flow with interruptions. Of course, helping clients Get Things Done is a low priority at Adobe, as evidenced by their product choices.

You have to pity the Growl developers, whose reputation will suffer from guilt by association. I dislike interruptions and do not find it useful, but many people do and rave about it. They installed it by choice, not as a sneaky drive-by install for slimy marketing purposes.

Some more annoyances in CS5:

  • The pricing for the suite is more than the sum of its parts: $200 each for Photoshop, InDesign or Illustrator, $700 for Design Standard. I suppose they must think Acrobat and their online tie-ins have a value of $100 (hint: they forgot the negative sign).
  • Of course, they won’t let you upgrade individual component applications.
  • On the plus side, they now have the decency to include Acrobat on a separate CD, so you can discard it immediately and not risk installing it as a side-effect of installing the apps that are actually useful.
  • The icons were designed by the world’s laziest and most creatively bankrupt designer, just as with CS3 and CS4
  • Performance on a high-end 8-core or 12-core Mac is actually slower than on a lower-end configuration, thanks to legacy cruft and incompetence.
  • It is slower to load on my wife’s MacBook Pro. Each successive version of OS X is faster on the same hardware, Microsoft and Adobe deliver software that gets progressively slower.

In other words, unlike Lightroom, CS5 is designed to be endured, not to delight.

Incensed at Mozilla

One of the greatest features in the Webkit-based browsers (Apple’s Safari and Google Chrome) is WebSQLdatabase, the ability for a web site to store information in a SQLite database on your browser accessible via JavaScript. This allows web developers to build database-enabled applications that run entirely in the browser, without requiring a server. This is very useful for mobile devices, which in the US enjoy flaky network connectivity at best. One very handsome example is the iPad-optimized Every Time Zone webapp.

SQLite is probably the most important open-source project you have never heard of. It is a simple, streamlined and efficient embedded database. Firefox stores its bookmarks in it. Google distributes its database of phishing sites in that format. Sun’s industrial-strength Solaris operating system stores the list of services it runs on boot in it—if it were to fail, a server would be crippled so that is a pretty strong vote of confidence. Adobe Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture use it to store their database, as do most Mac applications that use the CoreData framework, and many iPhone apps. In other words, it is robust and proven mission-critical software that is widely yet invisibly deployed.

WebSQLdatabase basically makes the power of SQLite available to web developers trying to build apps that work offline, specially on mobile devices. No good deed goes unpunished, and the Mozilla foundation teamed up with unlikely bedfellow Microsoft to torpedo formal adoption of WebSQLdatabase as a web standard, on spurious grounds, and pushed an alternate standard called IndexedDB instead. To quote the Chromium team:

Q: Why this over WebSQLDatabase?

A: Microsoft and Mozilla have made it very clear they will not implement SQL in the browser.  If you want to argue this is silly, talk to them, not me.

IndexedDB is several steps backwards. Instead of using powerful, expressive and mature SQL technology, it uses a verbose JavaScript B-tree API that is a throwback to the 1960s bad old days of hierarchical databases and ISAM, requires a lot more work from the developer, for no good reason. To add injury to insult, Firefox 4’s implementation of IndexedDB is actually built on top of SQLite. The end result will be that web developers will need to build a SQL emulation library on top of IndexedDB to restore the SQLite functionality deliberately crippled by IndexedDB. If there is one constant in software engineering, it is that multiple layers add brittleness and impair performance.

Of course, both Mozilla and Microsoft are irrelevant on mobiles, where WebKit has essentially won the day, so why should this matter? Microsoft has always been a hindrance to the development of the web, since they have to protect the Windows API from competition by increasingly capable webapps, but I cannot understand Mozilla’s attitude, except possibly knee-jerk not-invented-here syndrome and petulance at being upstaged by WebKit. WebSQLdatabase is not perfect—to reach its full potential, it needs and automatic replication and sync facility between the local database and the website’s own database, but it is light years ahead of IndexedDB in terms of power and productivity.

I am so irritated by Mozilla’s attitude that after 10 years of using Mozilla-based browsers, I switched today from Firefox to Chrome as my primary browser. Migrating was surprisingly easy. Key functionality like bookmark keywords, AdBlock, FlashBlock, a developer console, and the ability to whitelist domains for cookies, all have equivalents on Chrome. The main regressions are bookmark tags, and Chrome’s sync options are not yet equivalent to Weave‘s. At some point I will need to roll my own password syncing facility (Chrome stores its passwords in the OS X keychain, which is also used by Safari and Camino).

Forbidden functions

When I first read Asimov’s Foundation as a child in 1980 or so, I was blown away by the idea that a mathematical operation could be forbidden.

“Before you are done with me, young man, you will learn to apply psychohistory to all problems as a matter of course. – Observe.” Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt. Men said he kept one beneath his pillow for use in moments of wakefulness. Its gray, glossy finish was slightly worn by use. Seldon’s nimble fingers, spotted now with age, played along the files and rows of buttons that filled its surface. Red symbols glowed out from the upper tier.

He said, “That represents the condition of the Empire at present.”

He waited.

Gaal said finally, “Surely that is not a complete representation.”

“No, not complete,” said Seldon. “I am glad you do not accept my word blindly. However, this is an approximation which will serve to demonstrate the proposition. Will you accept that?”

“Subject to my later verification of the derivation of the function, yes.” Gaal was carefully avoiding a possible trap.

“Good. Add to this the known probability of Imperial assassination, viceregal revolt, the contemporary recurrence of periods of economic depression, the declining rate of planetary explorations, the…”

He proceeded. As each item was mentioned, new symbols sprang to life at his touch, and melted into the basic function which expanded and changed.

Gaal stopped him only once. “I don’t see the validity of that set-transformation.”

Seldon repeated it more slowly.

Gaal said, “But that is done by way of a forbidden sociooperation.”

“Good. You are quick, but not yet quick enough. It is not forbidden in this connection. Let me do it by expansions.”

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, Chapter 4 (emphasis mine)

Later, I learned in a Byte article on Karmarkar’s algorithm for linear programming that AT&T had patented it. The idea that mathematical algorithms are patentable was just as absurd for a 17 year old. Not quite as absurd as patenting living organisms’ genome still seems to me, but close. Forbidden mathematics seemed like something from the Middle Ages, or Stalinist Russia.

Of course, this is exactly what happens when our governments try to outlaw cryptography, or the media industry tries to ban algorithms like DeCSS, or even public discussion by academics of flaws in their poorly designed cryptosystems. There is an apocryphal myth that Pythagoras’ mathemato-mystical cult tried to assassinate the man who first proved the square root of two is an irrational number. Mathematics can be an inconvenient truth at times.

RapidSSL 1 – GoDaddy 0

My new company’s website uses SSL. I ordered an “extended validation” certificate from GoDaddy, instead of my usual CA, RapidSSL/GeoTrust, because GoDaddy’s EV certificates were cheap. EV certificates are security theater more than anything else, I probably should not have bothered.

Immediately after switching from my earlier “snake oil” self-signed test certificate to the production certificate, I saw SSL errors on Google Chrome for Mac and Safari for Mac, i.e. the two browsers that use OS X’s built-in crypto and certificate store. I suppose I should have tested the certificate on another server before going live, but I trusted GoDaddy (they are my DNS registrars, and competent, if garish).

Big mistake.

I called their tech support hotline, which is incredibly grating because of the verbose phone tree that keeps trying to push add-ons (I guess it is consistent with the monstrosity that is their home page).

After a while, I got a first-level tech. He asked whether I saw the certificate error on Google Chrome for Windows. At that point, I was irate enough to use a four-letter word. Our customers are Android mobile app developers. A significant chunk of them use Macs, and almost none (less than 5%) use IE, so know-nothing “All the world is IE” demographics are not exactly applicable.

After about half an hour of getting the run-around and escalating to level 2, with my business partner Michael getting progressively more anxious in the background, the level 1 CSR tells me the level 2 one can’t reproduce the problem (I reproduced it on three different Macs in two different locations). I gave them an ultimatum: fix it within 10 minutes or I would switch. At this point, the L1 CSR told me he had exhausted all his options, but I could call their “RA” department, and offered to switch me. Inevitably, the call transfer failed.

I dialed their SSL number, and in parallel started the certificate application process on RapidSSL. They offered a free competitive upgrade, I tried it, and within 3 minutes I had my fresh new, and functional certificate, valid for 3 years, all for free and in less time than it takes to listen to GoDaddy’s obnoxious phone tree (all about “we pride ourselves in customer service” and other Orwellian corporate babble).

I then called GoDaddy’s billing department to get a refund. Surprisingly, the process was very fast and smooth. I guess it is well-trod.

The moral of the story: GoDaddy—bad. RapidSSL—good.

Update (2012-08-26)

I switched my DNS business from GoDaddy to in December 2011 after Bob Parsons’ despicable elephant-hunting stunt.