Colin's Journal: A place for thoughts about politics, software, and daily life.

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March 31st, 2003

Unicode and databases

I updated my RSS Aggregator this weekend to make it distinguish between changes to posts and new posts. Originally it would compare the title and description of every RSS item that it read in with those already in the database (via a checksum for performance reasons). A problem I kept encountering was that some items would be updated several times after they first appeared, and so my aggregator would treat them as new posts.

Now I use the <guid> element if it is present to distinguish unique items, or if these are not present I use the title and link of the items. If the description of the item has updated since the last time it was read, I update the version in my database, but leave the date of discovery the same so that the reverse chronological ordering isn’t affected. While doing this I encountered a problem when pulling data out of MySQL.

The problem is that the python module I use to access mysql (MySQL for Python), while happy to accept Unicode strings as parameters, will present any data retrieved from the database as a plain string. When doing a comparison between the Unicode extracted from the RSS feed and the results from the database query Python attempted to convert the string to Unicode, treating it as ASCII, which would cause an error if it contained latin1 characters.

Unfortunately MySQL doesn’t seem to support the storage of Unicode (certainly not at version 3.23.49), you have to store your strings in a particular character set. This will work fine for myself (latin1 will cover everything I need), but I can’t see how it would work if you subscribed to two RSS feeds, say one in big5 and one in latin1. The documentation for version 4.1 states that it adds “Extensive Unicode (UTF8) support.”, so hopefully once it makes it into Debian stable this problem will go away…

March 29th, 2003

The passing of Citron

I carry bad news with these words. Citron, our favourite restaurant in Toronto, has passed away. It is no more, replaced physically but not culinary by a third version of the Butler’s Pantry. It’s friendly staff, great selection of new world and fusion dishes, and delicious deserts will be most sorely missed. Citron was a great little restaurant for spending the entire evening in, relaxing with a bottle of wine and conversing over great food, with no worry about the passing of time. They updated their menu a few times during the year with the passing of the seasons, making it hard to tire of their offerings as it is so easy to do with favourite eateries.

March 28th, 2003

SARS in Ontario

The spread of SARS is being particularly felt in Ontario this week. We have had the request for voluntary quarantine of all those that had visited Toronto’s Scarborough Grace Hospital on or after the 16th of March. It’s estimated that this will affect thousands, although how many will actually place themselves into quarantine for ten days is questionable. In fact it seems like the perfect cover for 10 days sick leave – “Boss, I got this tan in quarantine!”.

Today it’s been announced that starting this weekend there will be screening of passengers at the airport to try and limit the further import and export of the disease. The total number of cases around the world, broken down by country, and other interesting information can be found at the WHO site. Currently it stands at 53 deaths and 1485 total cases.

March 26th, 2003

Start of the week

It’s been a quiet start to the week, with work taking up most of my time. There are a few eager skaters around which is encouraging, and I’m thinking it’s nearly time for me to dust mine off and try and remember how to use them.

I seem to have got my aggregator working OK at this point, so at some point in the near future I’ll add some configuration options to it and look at releasing it to the world. I’m not sure how much the world will care, but someone somewhere might find it useful.

March 23rd, 2003

Reading the Tesseracts

I’ve started reading the Tesseracts, a collection of short science fiction stories by Canadian authors, that I received at Ad Astra (see Friday). I’m travelling back in science fiction time, having already read (most of) the fourth collection of the series, which I got last year. We now have the third collection as well, with just the second to acquire at some point, maybe next year.

The first story is a variation on the Blade Runner world, not badly written, but not particularly interesting. The second is hard to describe, but I’ll try anyway. Set in a far future with human immortality, the inability to reproduce, a decaying society, an automated baby factory, some off-worlders of indeterminate species, and finally the development of warrior children by encouraging them to fight to the death over Christmas. I doubt I’ve given the plot away somehow…

March 22nd, 2003

The French veto

This post can’t be classed as breaking news, but it’s an important subject from the perspective of how this war started. As pointed out here by Charles Dodgson the original French position was not a veto under any circumstances. The original position was that any resolution that automatically authorised war would be vetoed because the UN weapon inspectors had not given up on Iraq’s disarmament through inspections.

This statement was made on the 10th of March, and was reported fairly accurately by the BBC here. By the 12th however it was being spun by the British that France had threatened to veto under any circumstances. Unfortunately France did not act on this interpretation and issue a statement to clarify the position, a move that implicitly gave credibility to the British interpretation of their position. It wasn’t through lack of time either, the war started a week later on the 20th.

This lack of clarification is in my opinion the biggest mistake that the French made in handling the crisis. A statement to the effect that France will back a war, and commit troops to the effort, as and when the weapon inspectors declared that Iraq could not be disarmed peacefully would have turned the tables on the US/UK position. The public could easily have supported such a position, and the focus would have shifted back to whether inspections worked rather than the politics of France versus the US.

March 20th, 2003

Soul food filming

There’s another film being shot in our neighbourhood, apparently called Soul Food. It’s not in IMDB, so I can’t tell you anything about it, except that it’s shot in our part of Toronto.

Ad Astra starts tomorrow, and while I haven’t yet decided on going to the whole weekend, I will certainly be going to the con tomorrow for Jason’s show…

March 18th, 2003

Where did the images go?

I wonder why more people don’t use the image element of the RSS specification. It’s been available since version 0.91 and is still there in 2.0, yet of the 17 feeds that my aggregator is currently collecting only 1 (my own weblog) has an image present. The BBC RSS feeds have them, but that’s the only other place where I’ve seen them used. You would imagine, given the popularity of favicons, that more sites would be interesting in being able to associate an image with their posts.

As more of the major websites start using RSS we should hopefully see the use of images expand. By using an image in their RSS feeds a publisher can avoid the problem of loosing brand identity (one new article among hundreds a user my have aggregated), and it provides an easy way for a user to quickly identify the source of a feed. A good example of how this can work is the use of images on the friends pages of LiveJournal (LJ), where each post has next to it the image selected by the LJ user who made the post. It also shows a potential explanation for the lack of image use in RSS: even though my feed has an image, the LJ aggregator does not include it in the friends page.

If aggregators do not support the image element it becomes a chicken and egg problem of few tools to display it, and few feeds bothering to supply it.

March 17th, 2003

Robin Cook’s speech

I’ve just finished watching Robin Cook’s resignation speech, and it’s good. In fact it goes beyond good, it’s eleven minutes of a clear, rational, well argued description of exactly why the UK should not go to war. While there are additional reasons to oppose the UK participation in the war that aren’t mentioned in this speech, all of the reasons mentioned are strong enough to stand on their own. If you can spare more than eleven minutes on this subject then also read the news article, which accompanies the speech.

This snippet alone should show just how desperate the US is to wage war on Iraq, regardless of any justification for it:

Furthermore, he said, Iraq probably had no weapons of mass destruction in the “commonly understood” sense of being a credible threat that could be delivered on “a city target.”

While it still seems highly unlikely that parliament will rebel against the government on this vote, at least the cause now has someone that can articulate the argument forcefully and with credibility.

March 16th, 2003

Notes from near by

I’m back after a good trip down to Connecticut for the weekend, celebrating an 80th birthday and visiting some of Shana’s extended family. The weather was wonderful, as it was forecast to be here in Toronto, and the environment interesting. The countryside of New England, or at least the small part I saw of it, is very wooded with houses dotted throughout it in a strange semi-natural arrangement. Houses have plenty of land around them, which made it difficult for me to think of them as belonging to a village, and gave an impression of a continuous wood dotted with houses and roads. It was not my first trip there, and I’m sure I’ll be back again, so hopefully I’ll get to see more of the place and form a fairer impression.

The last thing I had expected on the trip was to see much evidence of any political debate going on, but there were a couple of instances where the current debate surfaced. It’s understandable that the issue was raised by people with either far-left (or what passes for far-left in the US) or far-right stances, but it was healthy to see first hand some of the internal debate going on in the US.

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Copyright 2009 Colin Stewart

Email: colin@owlfish.com