Saturday, December 29, 2007

Pondering a Solution to Creative Blocks

With a new year coming, a little reflection seems like the logical thing to do. And thanks to Lifehacker, I have a nice link all ready to kick off a topic: Jay Smooth of illdoctrine.com talks about "the little hater," that part of you and me that holds all of us back from our creative endeavors. It's a good video; y'all go take a look.

It's easy to recognize what Mr. Smooth is talking about. Back when I was studying Physics in college, computer programming was both a hobby and my creative outlet. To me, programming embodied both the logic and causality at the heart of science and the complete-freedom-within-constraints that is the hallmark of art. Physics certainly has a beauty about it; what study of Creation doesn't invoke admiration for the Creator? But that beauty wasn't my beauty, and I was never really going to understand it all. However, a computer is just a simple machine. They do only simple math. Programs are just sequences of instructions. In that, I found something I could understand. Something I could use to create. The bizarre synergy of technology, math, and creativity captured my imagination as nothing ever had before. And so what began as a hobby for me slowly evolved into the obvious choice for a career.

But there's a funny thing about careers: thy involve quite a lot of work. After a while my programming job overwhelmed what remained of my programming hobby. It's a common tale, one that I assume is shared to some extent by everyone who notices that they are growing older. While I am still fascinated by programming, still reading trade magazines and programming blogs, and still keeping up with the field as best I can, I find often I'm missing something. It isn't the job that changed, it's me. I am no longer as easily content creating ephemeral programs that do their work for a few days, months, years, or decades and then become obsolete and vanish into an archive somewhere, until entropy causes the storage media to decay beyond recovery. Somewhere along the path, I realized that I was that guy who still had a stack of punch cards that made up his first great program. (My "stack of punch cards" is actually a printout of C code, but I've got it all right, stashed in a trunk in my closet.) I was holding on to the memory of creating things, like a mother holds on to her child's kindergarten projects. And for the same reason: love.

Does it seem a little cheesy that I'm now going to write that the best way to beat the little haters is with love? Perhaps, but hang with me for a minute. I got into the programming business out of curiosity, but I stayed in it because I love it. Seriously. The problems I solve now are much bigger than any I solved back when it was just a hobby. And they can be both much more frustrating and much more fulfilling because of it. In fact, they are so big that I can't solve them alone any more. But that's good too, because it means I'm surrounded by people who, whether they realize it or not, love the art of programming just like I do. And since we are all different, we can learn from each other. And isn't that what life is all about? Not everyone gets to love their work, and it's a blessing that often gets hidden by the zillion stresses that come as part of the daily grind. But Mom never told me love was easy, she just said I would know it when it happened.

I've been talking about my job here because it's where I find frequent frustration and waning motivation most often. But whatever creative endeavor you find yourself blocked in, the philosophy is the same: we create out of love for the act of creation.* So when your little hater is yammering in your ear, remember the love. There are many techniques to beating stress, breaking through creative blocks, and finding motivation. None of them will work without first remembering that you love doing whatever it is you are trying to do. If you didn't, heck, you wouldn't be getting so worked up over it in the first place.

*There's perhaps a sermon in here along the lines of God is the Creator and God is Love so the act of a creator is an expression love. But I think I had best leave the sermons to those more eloquent than me. I'm being quite ham fisted enough as it is with this topic.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Last Solar/Battery Post of the Year (I Promise)

There have been several stories in the news over the past week about power generation and storage that caught my eye. The University of Copenhagen is studying a method to boost solar cell efficiency to as much as 30% using "nanoflakes." Meanwhile a well financed start-up has begun making solar cells out of material that is cheaper than silicon. Their stated goal is to make solar power cheaper than coal. (Which is basically the holy grail of the solar power industry, because they could really begin competing with the traditional players at that price.) And all of our new, cheap solar power needs to go somewhere, so Stanford researchers are working on a way to get lithium-ion batteries to store ten times the current amount of energy. Imagine for a moment an iPod that actually had enough battery life to play all the music it can store, or a cell phone with a charge that would last all week.

If solar power isn't aggressive enough for you, then look into Toshiba's new 20 foot by 6 foot nuclear reactor. The first one is expected to go into service next year. Yeah, I really need some sort of science fiction reference to go here, but nothing comes to mind.

And finally, after collecting all of these stories, I notice that Scott Adams wrote about the same subject today over on The Dilbert Blog. His post sums things up pretty well and has a more humorous tone than mine does...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Tale About a Mistake

While working on a computer program a little while ago, I made a mistake. That's not unusual; mistakes are part and parcel of a programmer's job. There are so many layers and so many details that we have to juggle that mistakes become statistically inevitable. However, the one I refer to falls into the category of things I should have known better than to do.

The problem was simple enough: I needed to read in a series of dollar values as text strings and convert them to text strings representing their value in cents. The solution I chose initially was to convert the input string to a floating-point number, multiply by 100, convert the result to an integer, and then convert the integer to the final string. And yes, if there are any programmers in the audience, I am terribly embarrassed that I actually did this... If you aren't a programmer, being confused at this point is OK, because it looks like the solution would work. What actually happens when I attempt to convert 0.29 using the above method is a result of 28. Yes, I had somehow forgotten that computers can't really do math.

Computers can only be precise when they are working with integers (and then only in a certain range). The steps where I converted the input to floating point values and then back to an integer cause a small rounding error due to the imprecise way numbers are represented in the machine. A little bit of trivia: all programs that work with money represent the money as an integer value, for instance by tracking in cents or tenths of cents. The example above is the reason why.

My first instinct was to change the numeric conversion to a semi-complicated affair whereby I read each digit individually and use them one at a time to construct the proper number. That turned out to be a pretty silly idea too, but at least it was an accurate one. I even had it implemented and tested before I had the typical smack-forehead moment. What I really needed was to change my approach. Instead of using math, I used a touch more common sense. What's the difference between a dollar written as 1.00 and one hundred cents written as 100? Yep, that little decimal point. All the inaccurate or overly complicated math gave way to a simple string manipulation to remove the decimal point. Viola, a simple, precise conversion from dollars to cents.

The wonderful, thorough people in quality assurance found my mistake before it could cause any damage. I diagnosed and corrected the root cause quickly once my attention was focused on the symptoms. But the situation serves as a good reminder that we should question what we are taking for granted. The lesson works on a grander scale too, especially this time of year.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Headlines in Spaaaaaace!

Man, there have been some great astronomy stories lately. I'll start tonight in near Earth orbit, where Virgin Galactic has declared 2008 to be the "year of the spaceship." Apparently, they are celebrating/hyping the near-completion of their newest launch vehicle. Virgin Galactic is interesting because they are a non-government entity trying to give some competition for NASA in the commercial space flight "business." That will work for me if it allows NASA to concentrate on science and the programs can compliment each other by trading technology, knowhow, and so on.

Moving outward about half an astronomical unit, we look in on the little-rovers-that-could, Spirit and Opportunity. Both have now been operational for more than fifteen times their designed lifetime, and even the breakdowns are now resulting in good data. Spirit's jammed and dragging wheel has uncovered silica deposits that could indicate there was once a favorable environment for life. I'm pulling for the little rovers to survive another Martian winter, even though dust on their solar panels is slowly choking off their power source.

Meanwhile, out in Saturn orbit, the Cassini probe has been looking at the rings and come up with some data that would indicate scientists' beliefs about their relative young age could be wrong. The new data indicates that the rings could have been around for as long as the solar system. While they still believe the rings are the result of a moon-destroying collision, the timing of that collision is now in doubt. It could have been four billion years ago or more, and the rings themselves look to be a feature in the Saturnian sky indefinitely.

Finally we visit a probe that makes the others I have mentioned look like upstart kids. Yes, Voyager 2, launched in 1977 and designed to last five years, has joined its older brother Voyager 1 beyond the confines of the solar system proper. Voyager 2's data gives us more information on the shape of the boundary that marks the end of our star's influence on the galaxy (the solar wind termination shock, where the interstellar currents overpower the out rushing gas from the sun).

NASA's fact sheet on this history of the Voyagers is an awesome tale of one of NASA's greatest successes, and not just because it includes this quote: "Voyager 2 encountered Uranus on January 24, 1986..."

Monday, December 10, 2007

It Was 77 Degrees Today

Sung to the tune of "Let it Snow" (and with apologies to original lyricist Sammy Cahn):

The temperature outside is frightful.
Though some snow would be delightful.
The Weatherman he says no.
He says no. He says no. He says no.

It doesn't show signs of cooling.
I guess Al Gore was not fooling.
I really would like some snow.
He says no. He says no. He says no.

Soon we'll all be needing a fan.
Everyone is going to catch a cold,
But we'll all have very nice tans!
It seems winter is on hold.

The sun in the west is sinking,
But iced tea we are still drinking.
Weatherman will there be snow?
He says no. He says no. He says no.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Look Ma, No Transitions

Google wants renewable energy sources to become cheaper than coal (the current market price leader). It's an admirable goal, and perhaps a world changing one. If they succeed, Google will save tremendous amounts of money on power, and that's just good business. Unless you are in the power generation business. (And because of that, I almost decided to put this story into the Watching the Watchers section. Certainly, Google is watching you at least as effectively as the government...)

Scientific American Mind magazine posits that focusing on the effort of learning will allow children to confront issues much more so than stroking egos with praises revolving around talent or intelligence. I like this article because it rings true to my experiences, and I wonder if what we usually call talent isn't just someone being unusually motivated to try and learn in a given field.

This Victorian music-box styled laptop may be the single coolest case modification I've ever seen. There is some serious craftsmanship going on there. Not to mention a large indication of free time...

Watching the Watchers

Oprah Winfrey has picked her candidate of choice: Obama. She's often called the most powerful woman in America, and with the female demographic always an important on in elections, could this mean that Hillary's ascent is not as guaranteed as some in the news outlets seemed to believe?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

This Copyright Story is Copyrighted and Links to Copyrighted Material

ArsTechnica brings us a couple of holiday week stories about copyright and what's going on with it. First up, a law professor estimates that he posts over twelve million dollars worth of copyright violations every day. For some reason, he concludes from this that copyright law has gotten out of hand. Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, the various presidential candidates are being asked for stricter enforcement and even stronger copyright laws.

And since it's kind of a downer to end a wonderful holiday by posting about this stupidity, I leave you with a link to the wacky lolcats.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Syntax Versus Solution

But which came first, the Word or the Thought behind the Word?
--Lorien, Babylon 5 "Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi"

Our language frames our thoughts, and this is as true for computer languages as it is for any other written form. Like everything else under the computer science umbrella, programming languages are evolving quickly. If you want to keep up as a programmer, you have to be prepared to evolve too. Today I'm going to show a trivial example of the sort of things that we run across, when moving from one language to another. For this exercise, I'll start off with a simple C++ program, and move it to Ruby.

Statically typed, compiled, and designed for efficient computer cycle usage, the C family of languages (C, C++, Objective-C, etc.) is the only game in town for whole classes of applications from tiny devices to huge online games to operating systems. A simple program written in C++ looks like this:


#include <iostream>
#include <cstdlib> //For random number generator.
#include <ctime> //To seed the random generator.

int d100(){
  return ( (rand() % 100) + 1 );
}

void main(void){
  srand(time(0));
  
  int roll = d100();

  char * type;
  if ((roll >= 1) && (roll <=5)){
    type = "stormy";
  }//if
  else if ((roll >= 6) && (roll <= 20)){
    type = "rainy";
  }//else if
  else if ((roll >= 21) && (roll <= 40)){
    type = "cloudy";
  }//else if
  else if ((roll >= 41) && (roll <= 60)){
    type = "mostly cloudy";
  }//else if
  else if ((roll >= 61) && (roll <= 95)){
    type = "fair";
  }//else if
  else if ((roll >= 96) && (roll <= 98)){
    type = "windy";
  }//else if
  else if (roll == 99){
    type = "snowy";
  }//else if
  else{
    type = "raining toads";
  }//else

  cout << "The weather today will be: " << type << endl;
}


Ruby's dynamic typing and interpreted code belongs to a very different paradigm than C++, but it is a testament to the pervasiveness of C that when changing the program to use the Ruby language, you can use almost the same syntax:


def d100()
  return (rand(100) + 1)
end


roll = d100()

type = nil

if ((roll >= 1) && (roll <= 5))
  type = "stormy"
elsif ((roll >= 6) && (roll <= 20))
  type = "rainy"
elsif ((roll >= 21) && (roll <= 40))
  type = "cloudy"
elsif ((roll >= 41) && (roll <= 60))
  type = "mostly cloudy"
elsif ((roll >= 61) && (roll <= 95))
  type = "fair"
elsif ((roll >= 96) && (roll <= 98))
  type = "windy"
elsif (roll == 99)
  type = "snowy"
else
  type = "raining toads"
end#if

puts("The weather today will be: " << type)


Whee, we have a program in two languages that works identically and looks pretty much the same too. What exactly have we gained here? Nothing, yet. Just as you can abuse a written language to produce grammatically acceptable gibberish (bureaucratized corporate memos come to mind), so too can a computer language be used less than efficiently. And this program isn't going to be considered good Ruby style by any regular user of the language. To get things done in a more Ruby-ish way, we use the language's more flexible case statement, built in range support, and statement evaluation behavior to knock the whole thing down to a single expression:


puts("The weather today will be: " << 
  case (rand(100) + 1)
    when 1..5 then "stormy"
    when 6..20 then "rainy"
    when 21..40 then "cloudy"
    when 41..60 then "mostly cloudy"
    when 61..95 then "fair"
    when 96..98 then "windy"
    when 99 then "snowy"
    else "raining toads"
  end#case
  )


And that is definitely not something I would want to try with C++.* Such a trivial example doesn't give anyone great insight into the languages in question. However, if you look at where we started and where we ended, you can begin to see how working regularly with either language could make you tend toward slightly different ways of solving the same problem. Luckily, programming languages are vastly easier to learn than human languages, but just learning the syntax of a language often isn't enough. As programmers, we should strive to be as aware of the mental trade-offs needed to make the best use of the different languages as we are of the technical trade-offs.

*In the tradition of lecturers everywhere, I note that it is entirely possible to write this program as a single expression in C++. Actually doing it, I leave as an exercise for the reader. (Feel free to post your solution in the comments!)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Power, Robots, Disruptive Tech, and also Zombies

I realize that I haven't had a post about my desire to see chemical batteries go the way of the dodo since switching over to Blogger. Well, it's time for that to change as ultracapacitors begin to come into use for some tasks.

In other power news, it looks like nuclear may be poised for a comeback. An application for the first new nuclear fission plant in three decades was submitted in (where else) Texas.

And with all the new power generation and storage technology coming, what better thing to power than autonomous, urban-driving-capable robots. Coming soon to a military convoy near you. Who knows, they may eventually even give truckers a reason to worry about their jobs.

Unfortunately, I don't have a clever transition to lead up to mentioning the awkwardly named Eee PC from ASUS. This book sized wonder is a pretty obvious example of the first generation of a couple disruptive technologies combining that could eventually lead to an ultra-mobile class PC that is inexpensive enough to undercut the laptop market. I don't recommend being an early adopter, but I for one will be looking hard at the second and third generations of this device as a possible second computer.

Finally, if all this high tech seriousness isn't good enough for you, the folks of the Archaeological Institute of America show they have a sense of humor by publishing the first historical evidence of zombie attacks. They included self-defense techniques for stopping zombies using equipment normally found at a dig site, just in case.

Headline Hunting

"Former pilots and officials call for new U.S. UFO probe." Now that's a good idea, ask the UFOs to probe us...

But seriously, the article states that having a government agency investigating UFOs would reduce anxiety. I tend to think that having the government investigate things under the UFO title just lends credibility to the UFO believers. What do you think?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Bullet List Considered Slightly Less Boring than Explanation

I had originally intended to write a nice overview of how Blogger templates worked, and how I was changing mine from the default. Luckily for you, I realized along the way why nobody writes about this kind of thing: it’s rather boring. But I don’t want this to be an empty post, so in case there is anyone out there who wonders about making simple modifications to a template, here’s what I did to get from the default Blogger template Scribe to what you see now:
  • Changed all non-link text colors to black.
  • Changed link colors to be something closer to the standard blue and red scheme.
  • Changed the default Georgia, Times New Roman, Sans-Serif font progressions to Verdana, Helvetica, Ariel, Sans-Serif.
  • Changed the body background to black with no image.
  • Removed the side borders from the outer-wrapper div and changed it to a relative width of 90% instead of a fixed pixel size width. Changed its color to burlywood.
  • Removed the background images from divs main-top, main-bot, and wrap2 and set the background color to antiquewhite. Changed their fixed widths to 100% relative.
  • Added text-align: center to h1 and .Header .description.
  • Changed #main's fixed width to 75% relative.
  • Changed #sidebar's fixed width to 25% relative.
  • Removed the background images from #header and #footer and replaced them with a burlywood border at the bottom and top respectively.
  • Removed all formatting for in-post lists (both li and ul).
In the process of making these changes, the Firefox plug-in Firebug was incredibly handy in both exploring the format of the template and testing changes. I used it to view the layout of the CSS and make temporary modifications in-place to see how the page would look. The tool is actually capable of much more, but even these simple functions were an enormous boon to figuring out the template and coming up with a decent (I hope) color scheme.

As always, there will probably be more changes along the way, but that doesn't mean I will subject you to having to read about them.

Also, in a fit of insanity, I have turned on comments for the 'blog. Behave yourselves.

Headline Hunting

"US seeks to remove pirates from ships." Yar. Ye ken try it, but we might keel haul ya.

But seriously folks, these are actual modern pirates endangering real people, and it isn't a joking matter. No matter how much comedy gold there is in that mine.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Watching the Watchers: May the Farce Be With You

With the next Presidential campaign season well under way, both sides are looking for political grist to mill. Democrats were justifiably interested in whistle-blowers in the Justice Department, especially during the tenure of its former head. It isn't surprising that the House Judiciary Committee would be in charge of sifting through any tips that came in from the web. And it isn't really even surprising that they haven't even started looking at them yet. What is surprising is when someone sends a memo to all those who used the anonymous e-mail tip line with all the users' e-mail addresses in the clear. And they copied the Vice President on the memo.

Only slightly less farcical is television personality Stephen Colbert's "candidacy" in the Presidential race. And his "campaign" may be getting a serious look by the Federal Election Commission. Colbert may have found a (clever and humorous) loophole around the difficulties of having an illegal corporate sponsor for his campaign, but he's going to have a harder time if Comedy Central gets prosecuted for allowing a candidate to have editorial control over a TV show. This ABC story goes into the details nicely. Colbert has so far walked the tightrope well enough to keep the stunt mere parody while at the same time garnering all sorts of media attention for his program. I have to think a man that can do that won't actually be running for President, but wouldn't it be an interesting story if he did?

Monday, October 22, 2007

One Reason Your Parents Will Be Calling You in 2009

I'm going to assume if you are reading stuff on this tiny corner of the 'tubes, you are reasonably tech savvy. So, you've probably heard about the impending shutdown of television's over-the-air analog signals. It's something that's going to make generations of televisions into junk almost overnight. Unless you buy a government subsidized converter box. Or, if you have cable, in which case you get to keep your analog signals until 2012. Since I read technology web sites, I've known about it for a while. Though I do keep getting the final date wrong. (It's February 2009.) But the truth is that there hasn't been much real publicity about the changeover. That is beginning to change. Best Buy has ended all sales of televisions without digital tuners, and the FCC has fined a series of retailers for selling analog-only televisions without the mandated consumer warning that it will soon not be able to get signals. The first places someone may see any real warnings are apparently the places that want to sell you a TV. Naturally, there will probably be something of a conflict of interest there.

In any case, it's going to be up to those of us who follow these things to be able to answer the questions put forth by our relatives, friends, church members, random people on the street, and dogs looking to watch Seinfeld reruns while they play poker. Yes, I myself was in a conversation a couple of days ago where the change was mentioned in passing, and half of the group were shocked. Ignorance is out there people! As alarming as it may seem, there are indeed folks who's lives don't center around television technology, and they are going to be mightily confused soon. It's amusing now, but it's probably going to get annoying before it's over. We who are known as "tech" types have a little over a year to study up. If you don't know the difference between TV, DTV, and HDTV, consider this the first pop-quiz.

I'm also considering coming up with some sort of consulting rate plan...

Headline Hunting

Normally for this segment, I pick headlines that are humorous due to something ironic or clever about the headline (whether intentional by the writer or not). Today's entry stands on its own, and it's an accurate summary of the article too. Without further introduction, I present, Monkeys attack Delhi politician. The story is quite interesting, and whether you find it humorous or sad could tell you quite a bit about yourself.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Situation Report

Posts may come more sporadically than normal for a while: the Combine is on the move.

Also, there are rumors of cake.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

This Week's Link Fest

Starting off in the land of the historical, details are beginning to come out regarding the real story behind the Sputnik launch. Vladimir Isachenkov has the byline of a really in depth and interesting AP story born of talks with the actual people involved in the project that created Earth's first artificial satellite. It's quite a story of engineering daring and political spin.

Meanwhile in Japan, the development of a new stealth fighter is under way and Slashdot provides the relevant links, complete with speculative images that bear a close resemblance to the US F-22.

If fighter jets aren't your style, perhaps the first commercial organic light emitting diode television would be more your speed. The TV itself is a relatively tiny 11 inches, and the $1700+ price is anything but small. However OLEDs are one of the primary contenders to be the future of televisions, replacing the relatively low contrast solid state LED and fragile plasma screens that have only recently become common. OLEDs may eventually enable flexible displays and print-quality resolution, but they will have to overcome the relatively short lifespan of the display materials as well as the usual hurdles of a concept moving from the lab to the store.

Finally, if all this talk of technology makes you weary (or if you just need a little boost), try doing some simple stretches to get the blood moving again.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

What is a Computer Programmer?

Not terribly long ago, someone asked me what I did for a living. This person knew that my title is Software Engineer, and that I call myself a computer programmer, but didn’t know what I actually spend my days doing. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give a good answer immediately. Obviously I need to work on my elevator pitch. So, what does a computer programmer do anyway?

Computer programming is a complex, largely mental activity, which has elements of math, science, and art so how should I explain it? I can’t just describe the actual writing of software. That’s not all of what I do. Heck, with tasks like requirements gathering, design, documentation, and communications involved, the actual writing of programs is not even the majority of it. Plus, the physical artifact that we produce is called “code” and nobody outside of the field knows what code is anyway. Talking about tools is an even more labyrinthine dead end. The myriad environments we use to design, write, find and diagnose defects, and produce documentation for the software don’t tell the whole story either. Not to mention that attempting to describe them to a lay person leads to conversations dying under the weight of a thousand acronyms. Simply speaking about my current task also doesn’t tell the whole story. Programmers change tasks often as we complete things or discover (or are told about) defects. Even within a given task there are layers upon layers of smaller tasks.

Actually, I’ve read something that defines a computer programmer as a creator of layered abstractions. That’s both fancy and accurate, but it doesn’t really tell you anything. The Wikipedia definition (at the time of this writing) is nicely circular: “A programmer or software developer is someone who programs computers, that is, one who writes software.” So a programmer programs, and a software developer develops software. There’s no help for me there. The Software Engineering Body of Knowledge defines software engineering as “...the application of engineering to software.” Hmm. With all these circular definitions floating around, perhaps I should step back and look at the individual words involved instead of the term as a whole. Us programmers call breaking a big problem down into discrete steps “decomposition.” It’s not as smelly as the name might imply...

The first part of computer programmer is the computer. What is a computer exactly? Originally, computers were people hired to do math calculations. The technology that we now call a computer was first known as an electronic computer. Thus a computer is a machine for doing math. Folks that don’t know the internal working of a computer may find that to be ridiculously simple, but it’s totally accurate. Even your fancy modern PCs are nothing more than glorified calculators with some special attachments. One of the most fundamental things about computer programming that can separate those-who-can from those-who-can’t is a grasp of the implications of everything going on inside the computer being simply numbers. And the numbers aren’t even that complex. The physical machine can’t handle anything but integers within a certain range. It can’t do more than the most basic arithmetic and logical calculations. Most computers can’t do much more than add and subtract, multiply and divide, compare two numbers to see if one is greater than the other or if they are the same, and move numbers around. However, the average computer can hold and manipulate quite a large quantity of numbers. And it can fiddle with them very, very quickly. This gives us a place to start when thinking about what programmers do.

We’ve already read that a computer programmer programs a computer and figured out what a computer is, but what’s a program? This time around Wikipedia is a bit more helpful: “A computer program is a collection of instructions that describes a task, or set of tasks, to be carried out by a computer.” That seems simple enough, but the devil, as always, is in the details. If you think about the things you do with your computer, you may notice something. Things like checking your e-mail, looking at digital pictures, reading Schlock Mercenary on the Web, or writing rambling ‘blog posts don’t sound much like basic integer math do they? You need computer programs to tell the computer how to do those things. In fact, you need layer upon layer of computer programs, all slowly building up abstractions to transform trillions of numbers being shuffled around into “send an e-mail to my aunt.” Thus, computer programmers are the ones who create the instructions for the computer that allow it to bridge that gap.

What do I do for a living you ask? That’s a very good question! I help design and build the instructions that allow machines that are only capable of doing very simple math very quickly to be used for all sorts of practical applications. It’s an interesting and rewarding field to be in...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Notable News

Finally, there has been some interesting news again, after quite a long dry spell.

First up, there's the bizarre case of people who visit a crater in Peru becoming ill. Nothing conclusive is really known about the crater. The speculation makes it either a meteor impact or an explosion caused by an upwelling of an underground gas pocket. I expect to see that this will become the plot of a horror movie any day now.

Second comes the "watchdog" report out of England that shockingly claims better, more interesting teaching leads to less truancy.

And finally we have a modern take on the 60's era space technology: the nuclear-pulse drive. The idea was basically (very basically), to replace the conventional combustion of rocket fuel with fission bomb detonations in the engine nozzle. The idea was never used for a real ship. It seems the basic concept may have some new non-nuclear legs with the idea of using magnetic compression to trigger explosions . The claim is that the drive can generate the same thrust as the Shuttle main engine with an order of magnitude more efficiency.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Pondering the Meaning of the 'Blog

Back in 2005 when I started this little experiment, I had this to say about what I intended.

So what exactly does one put for their first weblog post? Should this have been a manifesto staking out my claim to be an expert on some particular subject? Perhaps I could have written an elegant missive espousing my own personal philosophy? Maybe it should have been a detailed and well-sourced critique of the spread of yellow journalism.

Well, the first post isn’t any of those things because this ‘blog isn’t any of those things. I may touch on all of the subjects above, or I may spend hours writing about the wacky exploits my proverbial neighbor’s doctor’s cousin’s cat. See, it's all what I'm thinking about. Or just what looks shiny over in the corner.

Welcome to my bit-stream of consciousness. Swimmers beware, there are no life guards on duty…

As you can see, I didn't have much of a goal at the time. That will change, but only if I can make the time to actually create content. There's no way I'm guaranteeing good content.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The New Digs

After using Bloglines as my posting location for a while, I decided it was time to take a step upward in 'blog functionality. Say hello to Blogger. I'm going to be re-posting some old posts for a time, perhaps with some additional commentary. Hopefully, it will help me get used to how Blogger works. I'm also going to be playing with the look of things for a while before I settle on something permanent. So for my long-time readers (both of you), thanks for following me through the move, and for any new readers, bear with me for a while to get a feel of what the subjects are around these parts.


As always, the posting schedule will remain erratic, and it will be somewhat infrequent as I sink writing time into figuring out Blogger templates and such.

The 'Blog is Moving

My post frequency has dropped off lately, but not much has caught my eye in the news and I've been busy with other stuff. Among those other things was taking a hard look at my "work" flow for these writings. I've decided to move to Blogger as a hosting solution. I want to thank Bloglines for being an excellent feed reader (which I will continue to use) and for getting me started in the web writing world. I have long-term plans using the capabilities of the new platform (and by long-term, I mean it's probably going to take me forever to get things set up and prepared), so please bear with me during the transition time. And if I haven't mentioned it recently, thanks for reading!

From now on, swimmers in the Bit-Stream will have to paddle over to:
http://bitstreamofconsciousness.blogspot.com/

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Science Keeps Going

The space program isn't in vogue anymore. That's a shame because sometimes they do some really impressive stuff. Like having a 30 year old probe still sending data from beyond the solar system.

And what science post here would be complete without pointing out the discovery of yet another way to potentially boost the efficiency of solar cells.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Today in Irony

Anti-video game lawyer Jack Thompson has registered a complaint about the marketing of a violent video game (the upcoming, highly anticipated Bioshock) to an inappropriate demographic. That isn't ironic, it's typical. What is ironic is that the violence complaint came for ads which aired during... wait for it... a pro wrestling show.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

This Week's Battery Post

I've pointed out my belief that efficient solar cells and smaller, longer lasting batteries are the way to the energy revolution many times here. So it won't be a surprise that I found the creation of biodegradable, flexible batteries interesting. The biodegradable bit is more cool to me than the flexible part. Even the rechargeable batteries I use most of the time now will eventually have to be tossed. And even with a fairly accessible local hazardous waste facility, just being able to toss batteries in the trash would be easier. I'm still hoping for batteries/capacitors with nigh-infinite lifetimes eventually, but biodegradable is a good partial step.

Watching the Reporters

Ars Technica posts some interesting stats from a recent Pew Research Center study. Apparently us Internet denizens aren't happy with the mainstream media.

Continuing the delicious irony that is The Daily Show, one of their "reporters" will actually be reporting from Iraq. For reals. I already believe The Daily Show is a superior way to get news, because it contains as much or more news content as most news programs but treats it as the farce that so much of our news is today. (Note that I don't recommend The Daily Show as your sole news source, the jokes are funnier if you've read/heard/seen the people who are being serious about stuff.)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Quote of the Moment

"The odds of finding truly beautiful code in most production systems seem to be on par with the odds of finding a well-read copy of IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering in Paris Hilton’s apartment." Alberto Savoia in this 'blog post.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Caught Trying to Watch Those Who Watch the Watchers

Dateline has the tag line "News stories about crime, celebrity and health" on their web site. They are currently most well know for a series of dramatic confrontations with online predators. A noble cause handled in a perhaps not-terribly-noble fashion. But they recently tried to send a reporter undercover in the "hackers' conference" DEFCON. The reporter intended to violate the press rules for the convention and apparently had some hope of catching illegal, or at least nefarious goings-on on tape. For better or worse, the reporter didn't do a very good job of staying under cover. The story is both interesting and strange. The lesson? Apparently when you are trying to infiltrate a group for whom secrecy is name of the game, you better step your game up a notch.

For Your Viewing Pleasure

I've got two links for the visually minded today. First is "Sky and Telescope" magazine's "This Week's Sky at a Glance." They keep you up to date on the interesting visual happenings of the heavens.

If you prefer the glow of you LCD or CRT to venturing out where the mosquitoes live, Interfacelift is a source of widescreen (and other resolution) desktop wallpapers.

A Media Example

When I read this story about the negotiations going on between the UAW union and the major U.S. auto makers, I was struck by what a good job the reporter did in presenting both sides of the story and some of the intricacies involved in the issues. Indeed I consider this article to be a stellar example of good reporting. However, that's not where my observations ended. At first I didn't see the actual journalism, but it appears that the writer actually did go an consult a third party expert for an analysis of the financial issue. For all the tearing down of the media that people, myself included, it's nice to see there are still journalists out there working too.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Software Patents, Again

I'm not a big fan of software patents, or the U.S. patent system in general at the moment. Things have gotten much harder on the patent office as high technology leads greedy corporations to patent things like DNA and computer algorithms in hopes of preventing any competition. That is after all what patents are for. But the people that review the increasingly technical patents may or may not have enough qualification to understand them, let alone do a thorough check for prior art. As the number of patents being applied for continues to increase, it's only going to get harder for the patent office to do an acceptable job.

All that rambling is to introduce an article about software patents over on Coding Horror. If you are a programmer, or a technophile, you should be interested in what is going on with software patents.

On one hand, people have been warning of the danger of software patents for years with no real movement on the issue. On the other, we get stories about patent infringement all the time, such as this one. These are the sorts issues that programmers and hardware designers have to be aware of these days.

Let the Sun Shine In

Speaking of updates to old topics, slashdot has a story about a new solar cell efficiency record. Come on guys, you are almost there! I want my energy independent house!

Watching the Watchers

This is an update to the old wiretapping story. A secret court actually struck down part of the Bush Administration's much criticized program, concluding that they exceeded their authority. The story is a bit deeper because the Senate has already taken up the issue. There was some rumbling on the radio late last week that revealing the information about the secret court's ruling might have itself been an illegal breach of secrecy. I can't seem to find anything about that now though. The politicians are slippery buggers and they just keep getting slipperier.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Duopoly vs. The Free Market

Linked via Slashdot, a New York Times op ed explores the consequences of lobbying efforts by big business in the growing divide between the quality of high tech services between the U.S. and the rest of the developed world. (If you didn't know, the U.S. is falling far behind quality of service and prices for things like cell phones and wireless service and internet bandwidth.)

Arr, That's Quite a Bounty!

Chinese police and the FBI have cooperated to break up a pair of Chinese software pirate rings. The software involved has an estimated retail value of almost half a billion dollars. It was mostly Microsoft and Symantec products. (To put the number in perspective, half a billion dollars would buy you on the order of 12,000 copies of Windows Vista Ultimate Edition.)

The UK Holds the Copyright Line

Copyright issues are hugely important to the entertainment industry around the world. Not surprisingly, the U.S.'s 95 year term is deemed to be a minimal baseline by them. Over in the U.K. however, the lobbying effort has failed. Their copyright term will remain fifty years. I consider it a good thing, but there are those who disagree. Notably, most of them stand to get less money due to the shorter copyright lengths.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Important Safety Tip

There hasn't been much to post about lately, so I would like to take this time to remind you of an important safety tip:

Don't cross the streams.

Why?

It would be bad.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Don't You Love a Good Study?

I didn't want to post about this study, I really didn't. In the end, I couldn't resist. This stuff doesn't take a scientist to figure out, just an observant high school or college student...

A Quick Look at Priorities

Apparently in England a concert remembering Princess Diana is worth three concerts to promote action on climate change. Is this a value judgment on the part of the people, a reflection of the musical choices, or a commentary on the hypocrisy of rock stars promoting conservation? I'm guessing it might be all three. I shouldn't really comment: I didn't watch either of them.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Rambling Commentary on "Children of Men"

"Children of Men" may be the purest form of the milieu story I have ever seen on film. Like the classic novel The War of the Worlds, there is relatively little dialog, and the plot of the movie exists as an excuse to move the main character through the world so that we can see it. And what a world they have created.

"Children of Men" takes us on a journey through a beautifully realized dystopia that in many ways exceeds even "Blade Runner" because of its sheer familiarity. The cars are not ones we have seen, but they look like real cars. The police look like police. The offices look like offices. In all cases the world is subtly different from our own, but only subtly. The clever vision of advancing ten years into the future and then having only decay for another ten years produced a very lived-in look that suits the film perfectly. It was shot in a documentary style without the silly tricks of shaky camera and artificially grainy film that some use to overplay that style. Instead what we get is a series of extended takes that really impart a sense of depth to the world while keeping the scope very personal.

There are political messages in the movie. It's hard to do a dystopian movie without some kind of overtone of warning, but the messages in this movie inform and create the world rather than being stated overtly. If you want to explore the deeper meanings, the extras on the DVD include a very good series of interviews that lay out the sources of inspiration better than I ever could. But the movie allows you to explore the themes yourself without any explanation. Theo, the main character, does very little overt emoting during the film, allowing us to project ourselves onto him however we wish.

I believe this movie will appeal to sci-fi fans of the more contemplative sort. If you liked either The War of the Worlds or "Blade Runner," you should give this one a try. Though it is darker than either of those two. Oddly enough I also think people who were as intrigued with the setting of the game Half-Life 2 as with its action elements will be right at home with "Children of Men." Ditto anyone who likes their post apocalypse stories served up gritty and dark.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Watching the Watchers

A few years ago, a vice president of engineering at my workplace jumped up out of his seat to yell me down in response to asking a question about cost of living adjustments to our salaries under a newly announced compensation plan. And in good Dilbert fashion the VP shouted me down with a line that was easy to document as a lie. Enough of my co-workers were shocked by the actions of that VP, that they actually pulled historical documents to show that I was not asking an off-base question. That VP is long gone, but the incident has continued to color my views of COLAs. Naturally the story about the automatic COLA for members of congress got my attention.

The adjustment is made doubly ironic by the continued lack of action on many of the pressing issues from big ones such as immigration reform to the smaller ones such as Internet radio royalty payments. (I should probably note that I actually favored the death of the immigration reform bill. I would instead advocate a real solution that does not give law breakers a thing, but makes entering the country legally easier.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I Thought You Were Dead... or, Rambling Commentary on "Escape from New York"

The other night I had four minutes to kill before leaving home. On a lark, I flipped on the TV and pulled up the channel guide. There sitting before me was a movie I had not seen in years, the 1981 cult classic "Escape from New York." Naturally, I set the DVR to capture it before heading out. "Escape" holds a special place in my heart as part of a trinity of John Carpenter movies that take the tone of fifties era B-movie sci-fi tales squarely into the eighties. (The other two movies in the trinity are the horror classic "The Thing" and the cult classic "They Live." The latter is perhaps even better than "Fight Club" as an expression of the frustration of the working class versus the American gentry, but that's another post altogether.)

The fifties movies, as typified by "The Thing from Another World," conveyed the dichotomy between an American utopia transcendent after the Second World War and the Cold War fears of communist subversion and nuclear annihilation. I would make a case that the eighties had a parallel dichotomy between the Cold War victory and the undercurrents of poverty, AIDS, and the lingering shadows of racism. "Escape" gives us the classic hyper-competent, strong, silent, loner, American anti-hero in the form of 'Snake' Plissken. Plissken's motivation is solely to stay alive, but doing so has put him at odds with the police state and made him infamous among both criminals and the police/military. However, the end of the movie puts him in a position to give his stoic judgment on the leaders of his society. It's a thoroughly satisfying jab in the eye of authority even as Plissken's disregard for the ongoing war reflects the same myopic attitude he's putting down.

"Escape," like its brothers "The Thing" and "They Live," holds up very well because its special effects are not computer generated rather than in spite of it. The depiction of a heavily computerized society, is notable for its near lack of jarringly unrealistic items. (The exception would be the lights on Snake's wrist tracker.). And unlike, say, "Tron" or "The Last Starfighter" the computer wireframe displays in "Escape" look perfect even today because they are a lighting trick on a model rather than a resolution-limited computer rendering. In today's world of GPS, Google Earth, and cell phones, Snake's equipment is too bulky, but otherwise completely plausible.

"Escape from New York" is not a literary masterpiece or a work of high art, but it is a thoroughly entertaining romp with a cynical attitude that fits perfectly into the eighties, and perhaps even better in today's world.

Watching the Watchers

John Edwards is once again under fire for hypocrisy. One of several non-profit organizations which were set up after his 2004 campaign had a rather interesting primary beneficiary: John Edwards himself. It's a glimpse into the power and money games that politicians play, and a depressing one.

And speaking of power and money, a Pittsburgh law firm is under fire after a rather incriminating video of it's attorneys telling companies how to skirt the employment laws governing foreign skilled workers. I'll link the Slashdot blurb which contains a series of apropos links.

Radio Silence

As I look over at my music collection, I can see the impact the Internet has had on my musical selection. I see CDs where I looked up an artist based on a song. I certainly never would have picked up The Wrecker's debut or Anna Nalick's CD (which has become a favorite) without the shady ability to get a full listen to the disk before putting money down. But it's Internet radio that has pointed me to some of the most off-the-beaten-path music that I have. I never would have heard of Flogging Molly if I hadn't got addicted to "Drunken Lullabies" thanks to a long defunct internet stream. I would never have known to ask my resident metal-head about Nightwish's brand of operatic rock. Pandora is a seriously powerful tool for finding stuff to listen to that you would never have expected. Radio Paradise is eclectic in a way you can never find on the dial. SomaFM provides a very unique set of sounds that play especially well as headphone fodder in the cubicle lands of the office.

But all of this could be coming to an end very soon thanks to legislation that will send the royalty fees unnecessarily through the roof. All of the stations I have linked above, and many more, are participating in a "day of silence" to call the attention of those that use them. It is hoped that there is still time to get congress to change course. One way or the other, we will know by the end of next month. And if something doesn't change, the Internet will be a quieter and much less interesting place.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Baby Monitor: Your Window Into Space

Technology glitches can be frustrating and even dangerous. They can also be harmless. But every so often you get one that is just kind of nifty. Such as a baby monitor picking up a NASA transmission from... somewhere.

Watching the Watchers

President Bush's popularity sits at a record low point, but Congress is even less popular. It seems we don't like the job they are doing (or not doing). An unpopular war is one answer, but I'm sure we all have our own dissatisfactions. It turns out that reality is more work than what a thirty second TV attack ad implies...

Meanwhile, the oil industry is upset about the sudden interest in bio-fuel and other gasoline alternatives. Many of the industry leaders have decided to scale back plans to increase refinery capacity. This looks dirty for the same reason it's a sound business decision, lower refining capacity drives up prices. And there in a nutshell is why I don't really like the way we do business these days.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Headline Hunting

"FBI tries to fight zombie hordes" Sure, they are talking about security compromised computers, but it's a great headline.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Watching the Watchers

Apparently, here in NC if you patriotically attempt to help our nation gain energy independence by converting your car to burn vegetable oil instead of imported gas, you don't get a pat on the back. Instead, you get slapped with a thousand dollar fine for dodging fuel taxes. Every year. Until you put up a two and a half grand bond.

Oh government bureaucracy, what wacky schemes to "make sure the playing field is level" will you come up with next.

Take That, Non-NC Beaches!

Ocracoke Island is not named for a fried veggie dish and the local soft drink of choice, but it has been recently picked as the top beach in America.

Headline Hunting

"Butts charged with stealing toilet paper." It has been a while since I crossed paths with a good headline, but that brings it nicely.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

On Orange Juice and Toilet Paper

There are two things one should never try to save money on: orange juice and toilet paper. In my experience the difference in quality between the low end and high end for both of these products is so overwhelmingly vast that spending a little extra can make your whole day better. But quality is a funny thing; we all say we want it but only to a point. Real quality costs money, sometimes big money. And it can be hard for consumers to tell the difference between quality features and luxury features, and it is even harder to get someone to pay for quality that you can't see versus luxury that you can. (The car market is the perfect example of this in action.) In the business world high quality often is put alongside rapid delivery and low cost of production as desired goals. But quality is far, far harder to measure and tends to make the other two metrics get worse. Naturally, the quality target quickly becomes "good enough."

There are even times when quality shouldn't be a concern. In his book Keys to Drawing, Bert Dodson points out, when you are learning to draw, quality is just an adjective. Really, doesn't that apply to learning in general? When you are at the stage of trying to learn how, trying to create high quality can be counter productive. Attempts to achieve high quality always involve more complexity, and as a result time and effort, than just doing the minimum necessary. The additional frustration involved can lead to heightened self-criticism, which easily translates into giving up. Computer programmers have a maxim, "build the first one to throw away." This acknowledges that for any complex undertaking, the first step should be to learn how to do it at all. Doing it cleanly and/or robustly can wait.

Judging when to pursue quality is a big factor in life as well. When Nike tells us to "Just Do It" there is some irony. After all, their shoes are of notably poor quality. However, the athletics they support require one to get out and practice, strive to simply start doing and get better through the learning process rather than be good immediately. One can't, just for instance, wait to become a good writer before starting a 'blog. We have to write volumes, consciously evaluate ourselves, and apply the feedback to improve. What does the word quality even mean if we try to apply it to our personal relationships? Is not "quality of life" the most elusive of all pursuits?

To the business world, quality is a key differentiator and a huge factor in the value equation. Deciding how much quality is necessary and how best to achieve it can make or break a product, a company, or a career. Business is all about competition, and quality is extremely important when there is a competition going on. Luckily, life is not business. At a personal level, collaboration and cooperation is usually much more important than competition. The difference between someone who can't dance and someone who is a poor dancer is far vaster than the difference between a poor dancer and a good one. In life as in art, quality is often just an adjective.

But there is no excuse for subjecting anyone to cheap toilet paper.

Watching the Watchers

David Pogue takes a look at some of the Internet sites that are trying to make the public information about lawmakers financial contributors, voting records, and the correlation between the two truly public. This is exactly the type of thing that the Internet should be good for, and the way politics is going, we can't get the information fast enough.

DVR Owners Watch TV Too

This past television season Nielsen Media Research "overnights" showed a decline in overall viewers across the board for the major networks. Naturally, this was of great concern to the executives looking for continued ad revenue. But Nielsen has been slow to adopt the tracking of time shifting, which is a technical term for taping or DVRing a show and watching it later. This has recently changed, and when you factor DVRs in, the ratings slump vanishes.

Personally, I never watch anything that comes on at ten or later live. Having a DVR has changed my viewing habits by making it much more convenient to fit TV to my schedule rather than the other way around. Judging by the number of shows I watched last season, that should eventually be good for the networks.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Pondering the Meaning of the 'Blog, Again

Writing has never been a consistent practice of mine. It isn't that I don't like it. I do. In theory, I should want to be writing as much as possible to help hone my communications skills for career purposes. But if you follow that theory there are quite a few things that I should be doing to help my career. "Because I should" isn't exactly a good motivator for me. "Because it is interesting" is better. Which brings up the question, is this 'blog interesting to me?

I started this little exercise almost a year and a half ago. This tells me that I'm interested on some level, because if I wasn't I wouldn't still be posting things. Admittedly the posts have been largely quick comments on news stories or other items which interested me. Since I learn best by reading and summarizing, this has served as a memory stimulator. That's great for me, but this 'blog is published on the Internet rather than being stored on my personal computer. That has implications. Or at least it should.

I recently told someone that the problem with public places is that's where the public hangs out. Jeff Atwood has written that without the ability for user comments you can't have a 'blog. I don't think I'm anywhere near ready to try and create and police a community dialog. Bill Harris's blog and those of writers like him are a counterpoint to Mr. Atwood's argument. As are 'blogs such as Mike Wieringo's, where he publishes his warm-up work. These things we call 'blogs may be publicity and self-brand-building, simple hobbies, catharsis, undirected narcissism, or all of the above. Consciously or unconsciously, every 'blog has its purpose. It's high time I spend some energy deciding what will happen in this little corner of the internet.

Ideally, I would write original content on a daily basis for the entertainment, edification, and enlightenment of the denizens of the 'net. Don't hold your breath. As I continue to ponder about these things and others, I may express some of them here. Perhaps this place will become more than just an exercise in helping me remember the trivial links of the day. Perhaps it will not. As Doctor Who is fond of pointing out, "Time will tell. It always does."

Normally, this would be the place where the writer of a real 'blog would ask for your opinions via e-mail. If there is anyone out there reading this but me, feel free to offer any opinions you have. The e-mail address is there for that purpose, and I will read anything I get (eventually). Just remember that at the moment, this is still simply my bit-stream of consciousness...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Force Will Be With You, Always

Star Wars turn thirty this weekend. Slashdot's coverage contains some fun links. And I'm looking forward to the History Channel's look at the legends that informed the Star Wars universe. While Star Wars no longer retains its title as my favorite space opera franchise, its cultural legacy is unquestionable.

Patents, Innovation, and Grills

A key patent on infrared heating technology has expired. The results are an interesting study in market driven innovation and a look at how patents affect the business landscape.

Gene Therapy to Combat Arthritis

Early tests of a new gene therapy could provide hope for a large swath of humanity (and no doubt big bucks for administering companies). The therapy shows promise for nearly eliminating arthritis pain and even a reduction in joint damage. It will be interesting to watch gene therapy spread over time. The Human Genome Project may be complete, but much work remains to be done.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Just When I Thought I was Out, They Drag Me Back In

My computer gaming habit has dwindled greatly in the past couple of years. Consoles still don't do it for me (excepting the wonderful Nintendo GameBoy DS which is the king of thirty minutes of free time gaming). Unfortunately the primary hard drive in my PC failed earlier this year, and Microsoft decided to artificially kill off Windows XP at the end of the year. Suddenly I find that I will have to build a new PC this year. And that's when it hit me.

I thought I was out, but they are going to drag me back in.

Watching the Watchers: North Carolina Style

Unfortunately for my sanity, the political scene is heating up again as the still-distant presidential race begins. John Edwards is closely watched in these parts since he's a fellow North Carolina boy. So far he's managed to make headlines for his haircuts and his spending proposals. Since I'm looking for a little restraint in government these days, neither of those stories endears him to me.

Our state senate has joined a movement to have the North Carolina electoral college voters throw their votes behind the candidate who wins the national popular vote instead of the state's vote. I find this proposal to be clearly insane. To me it is a complete disenfranchisement of the voters of North Carolina. If you want to get rid of the electoral college system, I can understand the arguments. Even if you wish to have the electoral college delegates vote along the same split as the state votes, that's fine (but you might as well get rid of it at that point). But this proposal seems to me to be a complete disenfranchisement of North Carolina voters.

And finally we have a national story that has local implications. North Carolina has one of the fastest growing Latin American immigrant populations in the nation. Those brave people who are trying to immigrate to the U.S. legally have something to say about the President's immigration proposal. And I am totally in agreement. Stop rewarding illegal behavior and start making it easier to join our country completely legally. The current situation is beyond stupid.

It's Amazing What Real Competition Can Do

Compact fluorescent lights are good alternatives to incandescent bulbs, but they have drawbacks. The most obvious of which is their not exactly environmentally friendly mercury content. But the falling out of favor of incandescents has led to a market opportunity that is causing innovation in a long stagnant area. White LEDs are the latest entry into the race, and while they aren't competitive yet the time will come soon where low efficiency lighting goes away.

Speeder's Cars: the Axels of Evil

I hate driving, and it's largely because of the other people on the road. Recently, I had started wondering if I was becoming more of an old codger than I thought because it seems like speeders were everywhere and going faster than ever. It turns out I was not imagining it. Speed kills, but speeding is largely ignored. Everyone who speeds has a dozen reasons why it is OK, and the laws have been skewed to support them. It has gotten to the point where driving at the speed limit is considered dangerous.

I have no idea how to fix the situation, but slowing the nut-jobs down would go a long way toward increasing safety on the roads.

Leading Car Maker to Go All Hybrid?

Toyota continues to bet on its hybrid technology. One executive is being bold enough to predict that all the cars in Toyota's line will be hybrid by the end of the next century. Is it a way of garnering headlines or a sign of a true long term vision? Either way, it's nice to see environmental concerns becoming more and more mainstream.

Corporate Follow Up

The rumors of massive layoffs at IBM I commented on a couple weeks ago are still percolating through the writings of Robert X. Cringely. The past two weeks' columns both contain more on the subject, but it was a quote at the bottom of this week's that really caught my attention. The quote describes almost exactly the situation I face at work at the moment. Sadly this situation seems to be endemic to the large corporate players in the IT field. (With the possible exception of Google.)

As one IBM employee told me, "It is hard to say if it will be worse to be laid off or be stuck working your ass off in a demoralized, understaffed environment in which benefits, training, and pay are shrinking and NEVER increased. The real cuts need to occur at the management and executive levels, which are bloated with clueless business school types whose benefits, training, and pay are constantly increasing. This is really a class issue: the executive class constantly reaps benefits while the bottom feeders do all the work. The bottom line is that the people writing these memos are protected and don't care."

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Enough Serious Stuff, Let's Talk Webshooters

The biggest physical difference between the Spiderman of my childhood the hit movie franchise was the origin of Spidey's web. (Yes, I'm ignoring the translation of fears that moved the spider from being radioactive to being genetically engineered.) Back in the day, Peter used his chemistry skills to invent the web fluid and he used a mechanical delivery system. Apparently the folks responsible for the movies did take a look at the idea, and here is their rather nifty take on the mechanical web shooter.

Wall Street: Optimizing Callousness

While the latest Cringely column has some speculation in it, the analysis of the proposed thesis is a good one. It is a clear indication that businesses are lying to everyone and Wall Street has failed the U.S. worker.

I have had the feeling for a while that the market as it exists today was selecting for the wrong variable. Every time profits soar, but stock prices fall because they didn't soar enough, I wonder. When high tech firms complain of not enough workers, but salary averages stay flat, I wonder. If the story about IBM plays out as Mr. Cringely predicts, I don't know how people will react. The only certainty is that in Big Business today, neither the employees, the product, nor the customers matter. Stock price and perception from an increasingly detached group of economists and business types are all that count. And that can't be good for us in the long run.

The Silent Majority Speaks Again

Perceptions are hugely important in this world. John Amaechi, the former NBA player who publicly announced that he is a homosexual, had his own perceptions of what would happen to him when he came out. He was afraid of "the wrath of a nation under God." He was hoping for some support from his former colleagues. He was baffled by the NBA's non-reporting. He was braced for a wave of hatred, and it never really came. While some people did express the negative side of life, on the whole he said, "I underestimated America."

There are many things about this story that illustrate how the fringes of opinion, politics, and religion have taken over. When did Christianity become known more for its hate than its love? When did America become something to be feared rather than the embodiment of a dream? Our history is full of examples of selfishness, bigotry, and all the demons that haunt humanity. But every once in a while, it's nice to see the Light shining.

The silent majority is still here. We are surrounded by shades of gray, and respond as best we can with common sense and love. And we really, really need to figure out a way to take back the world from the ideologues.

When Home Isn't Where the Heart Is

A government report claims that for the better part of a decade more people have left Mexico for the United States than have died. I can't imagine this is a good thing for Mexico. What we should be asking, but no one seems to, is why is Mexico so much worse a place to be than the U.S. It seems like a chance for the U.S. to generate some actual goodwill and solve two countries' immigration/emigration issues.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Difference Between Greatness and Perfection

Scott Adams nails one right out of the park. He has written the best analysis of the Imus situation that I have heard. In the process he points out something that is a stark deficiency in the world today.

Public Opinion is Against Us

A recent poll conducted in several middle eastern states shows some pretty bad scores for the U.S. It seems that on average one in a quarter don't believe al Qaeda was responsible for the World Trade Center attacks, more than half believe we are there to maintain control over oil, and nearly as many think we are trying to spread Christianity. This leads me to wonder if many people in that region view Christianity as the fomenter of violence that many here see in Islam. The poll notes that sixty percent believe suicide bombings were never justified and sixty seven percent believe that Islam was opposed to attacks against civilians. Sounds good, but those numbers are still a bit small for my tastes.

I would love to see how Americans would poll. What percentage of Christians in America would say that suicide bombings are never justified? I would predict, and hope, that the number would be significantly higher than sixty percent.

A New Boat With a Proud Old Name

A new USS North Carolina was christened last weekend. The fourth Virginia class submarine SSN 777 is also the fourth American naval vessel to carry the state's name. The previous possessor of that name is the WWII battleship that remains open to the public at Wilmington. The sub has a proud name to live up to, but is actually already contributing to U.S. naval strategy by reportedly helping keep the only two shipbuilding companies that can construct nuclear vessels in business.

[Editorial note: That bit about keeping the shipyards in business is something I can't find an original source for, so it relies on my notoriously bad memory. Also interesting, is the Wikipedia article at the time of this writing contains an inaccuracy about the sub being the fifth USS North Carolina. The sources cited by the article state that it is the fourth. Mark one up in favor of the print sources...]

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Quote of the Moment

"Software development is only like bridge building if you're building a bridge on the planet Jupiter, out of newly invented materials, using construction equipment that didn't exist five years ago." By Jeff Atwood, in this post.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Horror Story Ends in Cliche

We were all shocked and saddened by the insane shootings at Virginia Tech today, and the BBC reports one of what will surely be many stories of fear and courage on the campus. Unfortunately, at the end of the story, they also trot out the same old specter, ending with a reference to the Columbine killings. As yet, the shooter is not identified, so we don't know whether he or she was a player of Grand Theft Auto or Doom. I'm sure by the end of the week, we will have been told. I would plead that we not reduce the insanity of one person's act of barbarism by comparison or implicate millions of innocent people just to redirect responsibility away. But somehow I don't think the news organizations will listen.

Watching the Watchers

For once, this isn't a politics post. It's about the police and firefighters. These are the heroic men and women who protect, serve, and put their lives on the line for us. And for some of them, that means they can violate the very laws they are supposed to enforce. Automated monitoring systems in the form of "red light cameras" can't tell if you are in a squad car. While the obvious exemption for emergency situations applies, why is it not enough? Is one of the draws of being an enforcer of the law that one can circumvent it? I surely don't know, but it's an interesting reaction nevertheless.

Good Guys Don't Lead

Here's another look at the always fascinating world of mental pathology of leaders. Without resulting to my normal lament about the jerks getting ahead, I will say that the leaders are not empowered unless they have followers. It is a wonderful catch-22. And those who break it, or manipulate it, have interesting potential.

The Effect of Smoking Bans

Having lived with and near smokers, I can certainly attest to the results of this study. A smoking ban in Irish pubs results in a more than 80% reduction in particulate matter in the air and a noted improvement in non-smoking worker's lung performance. If you are smoking, please consider quitting, for yourself and those around you.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Today's Old Question: What is Art?

The Washington Post presents a long article that could be classified as leading and emotionally manipulative or even simply pretentious. It about what happened when a world class musician played in a subway during rush hour. While I find the premise artificial, the sentiment resonates with me. We are all artists, when we let ourselves be. And I for one think that if we, and our bosses, let ourselves be more often, the world would be a much better place to live.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Statistics of Ignorance

Well, here's a link to some scary stuff. Note in particular the USA Today/Gallup poll that gives a "generally well-qualified person for president" paired with a completely superficial attribute (race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) and asks if you would vote for that person. It's a freaking setup! When was the last time we even had a "generally well-qualified person" running for president? But man, did people answer.

Apparently America would rather have a homosexual president than an atheist one. I hope the Daily Show picks up on this poll. I would really like to find it funny rather than just sad. Whatever happened to deciding an election based on a candidate's position on issues anyway?

Complaints of Not Enough Trained Tech Workers, In India

Could this be more evidence for the inevitable outsourcing pendulum swing? As market forces continue to increase salaries in the new economy poster child India, the country's trained work force is quickly reaching its limit. Naturally that raises the specter of other countries becoming the new outsourcing targets.

It seems to this ignorant observer that the "information economy" could go one of two ways: either it will rapidly create middle classes around the world the way it did in India and cause a fundamental leveling in global technology salaries, or it will parade around the world in a series of boom/bust cycles in different countries.

Frankly, not all that many people have an aptitude for technology jobs such as computer programming, and even less actually enjoy it. This should result in increasing salaries as demand for their skills increases, but the pointy haired boss types managed to work around the market by outsourcing. Books have been written about the good and the bad effects of outsourcing, but no matter where you fall on the debate, you should be aware that it's a temporary solution at best.

The question that remains is whether technology outsourcing will be hailed as capitalism's greatest success or one of its greatest failures.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

H-1B Feeding Frenzy

Is this evidence that there are not enough high tech workers, or proof that corporations are more interested in cheap labor than giving market salaries? Either way, the limit on H-1B visa applications was reached in one day. Yeesh.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Not Your Usual Militant Islamism, or is it?

Hostage taking, missing persons, claims of rights under Islamic Law... These things are common place in our news right now. But this is a slightly different kind of story, women forcibly shutting down an alleged brothel. Very similar tactics to those that we call terroristic, but with perhaps a subtlety different moral twist perhaps? Your views on this article may tell you something about yourself.

'Tis the Season for Sneezin'

Spring means pollen and for those of us with allergies, either drugs or staying inside to avoid the drifting yellow and white ickyness. Or both. This year has been a record year so far. Ugh.

Writing Down Guitar Chords Legal Again, With Royalties

Internet sites hosting guitar chords and tabliture (two simplified notations that are extremely useful to hobby players [such as myself, caveat reader]) have been illegal in the U.S. under copyright grounds for a while now. I personally believe that this falls under the reverse engineering provision, but I'm not a lawyer. There will soon be a site hosted in the U.S. again, but they will be paying royalties to the labels.

Outsourcing Without the Cover of Actual Foreign Workers

The global economy continues to have its affects on America. Circuit City is laying off a chunk of it's sales force. The chunk that is the highest paid. These things are almost bound to happen in the current business climate I suppose. The part that annoys me is that instead of directly giving people the option of a pay cut, they will offer them the opportunity to get their old jobs back for less pay in a little while. Stupid from a team building standpoint. Stupid from a customer point of view. And it honks off your employees. In otherwords, it's standard business practice these days. (That's a slashdot link so you can read the comments, if you dare.)

Chronic Pain = Fear

This is an interesting article on a subject I'm immensely unqualified to comment on. But I will anyway, naturally. It appears that chronic arthritis pain activates the same areas of the brain that fear does. Could this be at least a partial explanation of why long term pain can be so detrimental to health? Does it affect the level of "stress" the body feels? I wish I had the answers.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Some Analysis on What Makes the Outcasts Tick

Being a nerd myself (I've got a 'blog don't I? And a no-content one at that!), I enjoy coming across these types of articles. First is a psychologist showing that for many fans of heavy metal it's not the satan content, but the complex political and social issues expoused in the music. I'm sure it's a little about the music too, but that's neither here nor there. The other one is a bit more targeted at IT types, but it makes a point worth considering: creativity is helped by having some constraints. And it uses Dungeons & Dragons as the example.

Patently Rediculous

Computer science students will be shocked (and those with homework assignments may be relieved) to learn that the linked list has been patented. So if you are in violation of the patent, be prepared to pay some license fees.

Quote of the Moment

Eternity is a very long time, especially towards the end. --Stephen Hawking.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Bill Gates Makes Headlines

The legal fight between Microsoft and AT&T has the potential to dramatically change the landscape for software patents. And it really, really needs to happen.

Of course, Bill Gates is also a big proponent of increasing the caps on foreign skilled labor in the U.S. This practice was loved by Big Business even before outsourcing, and Ars Technica has a nice summary with rebuttal of Mr. Gates's latest arguments.

Watching the Watchers

In a report that shocks nobody who has actually been paying attention, we now have confirmation that the Patriot Act lead directly to abuse of the ability to secretly obtain personal information about U.S. citizens by the FBI to the point of possible violations of the law.

Things That Make You Go Poof

Solid state LASERs are quickly approaching militarily useful power levels. This is a big deal because the electrically powered LASERs are much easier to deal with than chemical LASERs which currently hold the power output records.

While less sci-fi leaning, the other weapon news from the last couple of weeks is probably more significant. The U.S. government has selected a design for the next generation of nuclear warheads. Because current warheads are quickly aging to the point where the half life of tritium will affect their yeild, watch in the coming decade for them to be refurbished or replaced with new devices.

This Just in, Boys Like to Look at Porn

In what will surely be a surprise to parents everywhere and men nowhere, young teen boys have a tendency to watch explicit media. Don't worry ma'am, not your little boy.

Let the Lights Shine

In an effort to decrease overall power use, Australia has enacted new effency standards that would essentially outlaw incandescent light bulbs. California has a similar proposal that would specifically outlaw incandescent bulbs, but they may want to rethink the bill to address efficiency rather than specific products because GE has announced incandescent bulbs that rival the power savings of fluorescent lamps. Supposedly, they will cost less too. That would make me happy, as I much prefer the light from an incandescent bulb to that of a fluorescent one. (I have both in my house.)

Monday, January 22, 2007

This is What I Want All Houses to Be

A combination of solar power and hydrogen power storage system yields a house that produces 100% of its own electricity. Aside from saving untold amounts of money and environmental damage extracting, refining , and burning fossil fuels, it's the first step into a future where the U.S. doesn't care all that much about Middle East politics...

Science Fiction Wars are Becoming Reality

From tales of a suit of bullet-proof armor, to an eight megajoule rail gun designed to replace tomahawk missiles, up through missile defenses on commercial jets, it has been quite a week for previously science fiction weapon systems.