Friday, July 30

This is why the Internet was invented

Unbelievably cool: check out eMachineshop. Link courtesy of Survival Arts.

Just what I needed: more to read

I just read a nice essay called Great Hackers and saw again an old Orson Scott Card essay about how programmers are like bees. I got these pointers from Perry Metzger's blog, Diminished Capacity, which seems worth following.

I don't know why I haven't come across Paul Graham before, he seems to be the kind of Lisp wizard that I've always found simpatico. He's apparently written a new book Hackers and Painters which is now on my wishlist.

Thursday, July 29

Dead Commie Defends Property Rights

I may be the last blog to link to Jibjab's This Land campaign song, but check it out anyway.

After you see it, you should see this article in ReasonOnline regarding the potential copyright suit from Woody's estate (thanks to lessig blog for the pointer).

No kidding — he fought in Vietnam?

Actually, I thought Kerry did pretty good tonight. Chris Suellentrop in Slate said that in Tuesday's speech Gore hit the third gear he usually skips between robot and mental-patient. The appropriate driving metaphor for Kerry's speech tonight is: he stayed on the road.

It's often observed that a presidential re-election is a referendum on the incumbent. So, Kerry has to not seem risky or erratic and keep his negatives down. This is what kausfiles calls the Eddie Yost strategy (after the Red Sox player who became an All Star by leading the league in walks and hence time on-base).

If Kerry manages it, though, with any luck G.W. will defeat himself.

Ron Reagan, Boy Scientist; OR, Give Pro-Lifers a Choice

Did anybody listen to Ron Reagan pitching stem cell research to the Democratic Party Convention on Tuesday? He, like his father, can harness his own delusions to create simple and compelling visions:

Now, imagine going to a doctor who, instead of prescribing drugs, takes a few skin cells from your arm. The nucleus of one of your cells is placed into a donor egg whose own nucleus has been removed. A bit of chemical or electrical stimulation will encourage your cell's nucleus to begin dividing, creating new cells which will then be placed into a tissue culture. Those cells will generate embryonic stem cells containing only your DNA, thereby eliminating the risk of tissue rejection. These stem cells are then driven to become the very neural cells that are defective in Parkinson's patients. And finally, those cells with your DNA are injected into your brain where they will replace the faulty cells whose failure to produce adequate dopamine led to the Parkinson's disease in the first place.

In other words, you're cured. And another thing, these embryonic stem cells, they could continue to replicate indefinitely and, theoretically, can be induced to recreate virtually any tissue in your body. How'd you like to have your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital? Sound like magic? Welcome to the future of medicine.

Not that stem cells are chopped liver, but — way to overkill, Ron-boy. I know the Demo leadership wanted him up there to show that the Reagan kids hate G.W., but couldn't Ron stick to something he knows about? Like, uh...Ballet?

And, I don't know about you, but with the "personal biological repair kit" thing I thought he was talking about keeping a clone of me in a hospital drawer, ready to bin-out for spares whenever I need them.

Later, he tries to sell the "its only a bunch of cells" POV to the right-to-lifer-but-scared-of-Altzheimers:

It is a hallmark of human intelligence that we are able to make distinctions. Yes, these cells could theoretically have the potential, under very different circumstances, to develop into human beings — that potential is where their magic lies. But they are not, in and of themselves, human beings. They have no fingers and toes, no brain or spinal cord. They have no thoughts, no fears. They feel no pain. Surely we can distinguish between these undifferentiated cells multiplying in a tissue culture and a living, breathing person — a parent, a spouse, a child.

Uh, yeah, but viable embryos in the womb likewise "...have no fingers and toes, no brain or spinal cord. They have no thoughts, no fears. They feel no pain." What's your point? You might be able to trick the right-to-lifers for a while, but they'll remember soon enough that they are in the business of not drawing lines between fertilized eggs and squalling babies.

I say: don't dodge the issue, sharpen it. Tell the anti-choice lunatics that they can live forever, but they've got to mince-up teensy unborn babies to do it. They'll take that deal (they never gave a damn about babies anyway), and that'll put a stake through the heart of the abortion issue once and for all.

Sunday, July 25

Poor girl. But now we can see you in the dark!

Tropicana and FriendWe noticed some time back that Tropicana seemed friskier than ever despite her 15 years. She had also lost a fair bit of weight, without any loss of appetite, but that seemed like an improvement — she had always been overweight. But when she seemed to be vomiting too frequently we decided to take her to the vet who, after a blood test, diagnosed her with Hyperthyroidism.

We might enjoy a friskier, skinnier Tropicana, but the condition is quite dangerous, leading quickly to heart disease and other serious conditions. The immediate treatment is multiple daily doses of Methimazole, from which we have learned that she really does not like to take pills.

Unless we want her to keep taking these pills the rest of her life (the pills have a high incidence of side effects) we have two treatment options. The first is a partial or total Thyroidectomy, which has a high rate of complications and is contraindicated for older animals and may require subsequent lifetime dosing of thyroid hormone pills.

The other alternative, and an attractive one, is a single dose of Iodine-131 which is calibrated to kill the overproducing portion of the thyroid. Quite a simple procedure, but it has some consequences. Basically, the patient becomes too radioactive for the NRC to permit us to take her home in less than a week (the half-life of I-131 is 8 days). Tropi isn't going to like being away from home, and in isolation to boot.

Also interesting is the fact that for two weeks after she comes home, we'll have to treat the contents of her litterbox as radioactive waste. Hard to believe, but at least one cat owner was fined for improper disposal in these circumstances.

There are quite a few clinics that perform this procedure; we may take Tropi to Radiocat in San Mateo next month.

Saturday, July 24

Like the Soviet economy, only less rational

Last week's issue of The Economist (June 15th) had a survey of health care economics (registration required for some articles). They note an agency problem from hell:

In this third-party-payer market, doctors play an ambivalent role: they both supply medical care and demand it on behalf of their patients. This can create “supplier-induced demand”. Victor Fuchs draws an analogy with the car market. Suppose, he says, car dealers had to certify whether you needed a new car, and you were not paying for it directly out of your own pocket: there would be a lot more luxury cars around.

Stalin didn't bother with proper price mechanisms or labor incentives either, but at least he would shoot the managers of factories that were not productive.

Monday, July 19

Yeah, but at least he's not Bush

Jesse Walker in Reason Online on Ten Reasons to Fire George W. Bush; reason #10:

He's making me root for John Kerry [who]...voted for the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, McCain-Feingold, and the TSA; who endorses the assault on "indecency"; who thinks the government should be spending even more than it is now. [...] True, Kerry doesn't owe anything to the religious right, and you can't blame him for the torture at Abu Ghraib. Other than that, he's not much of an improvement.

Yet I find myself hoping the guy wins. Not because I'm sure he'll be better than the current executive, but because the incumbent so richly deserves to be punished at the polls. Making me root for a sanctimonious statist blowhard like Kerry isn't the worst thing Bush has done to the country. But it's the offense that I take most personally.

Well, maybe Kerry's a sanctimonious statist blowhard, but he's my sanctimonious statist blowhard. And don't forget: he's not George W. Bush!

Saturday, July 17

You like me! You really like me!

Uh, OK, maybe not. But that's the way it feels when Recondite gets hits. Problem is, some days are much better than others.

I only today decided what it correlates to: my hit count goes up a half day after I post (I usually post late at night). I refused to believe this at first: how could readers decide to visit only when there's a new post unless they visited first to see if there was a new post?

The answer: one can check for a new post without triggering my hit counter. Via RSS, for instance. So, here's a post. Why don't ya come up and see me sometime?

Friday, July 16

Law by Categorical Imperative

On learning that Martha's being put away for some months for lying to FBI agents, I got to thinking: is there any law against FBI agents lying to a suspect during an investigation? I suspect not.

There seems to be a lack of symmetry in the legal treatment of citizens with respect to government officials. Another example: it's against Federal law to assassinate people holding high Federal office, but if a Federal official murders an ordinary citizen, they'd have to be charged under state law.

Kant would not have approved, I think.

Monday, July 12

Say it ain't so, Little Joe!

The boys on horseback
Not of significance to you, perhaps, but I live only a few miles from the place those heros rode smiling through every week during my childhood.* So it is with some sadness I note that Tahoe's Ponderosa Ranch is closing.

[*] Well, at least it looked like it. Actually, the background was composited-in.

Saturday, July 10

More Memoir: Chemistry for Software Engineers

In 1978 I worked in the northwestern corner of the Fairchild Mountain View campus, not far from the Rust Bucket, in Transistor Plant #2. I didn't make transistors; I was a computer programmer. Most Fairchildren knew a lot more about chemistry or physics or even soldering than I did, but very few of them knew anything about programming.

On my first day of work, I show up at Transistor Plant #2 and I'm stopped at the guard shack. They're expecting me. I'm to go the the badging office, then personnel, then to orientation.

Orientation involves going into a little makeshift theatre; 16mm projector and a few chairs, but I'm the only hire today. The first movie is mostly cartoon, something like "The World of Chemicals" or "Our Friends, the Chemicals". Probably made by DuPont or Dow and shown to middle school students. The second movie has lower production values and is much more serious. Guy in white coat with clipboard doing a lot of talking:

At Fairchild, in your job you'll be around chemicals. You should know about them: such-and-such gas is odorless and tasteless and is poisonous to one part in seven zillion. Such-and-such liquid is odorless, no one knows how it tastes, is too corrosive to be contained by any material other than so-and-so. Next gas, another liquid, etc.

OK. We have a bunch of safety equipment around here. Learn how to use them. Here's what an eyewash station looks like; here's a map that shows where they are. Here's what the emergency showers look like; pull on this chain and water dumps on your head. Here's what the oxygen man-packs look like, here's how you put one on. Here's a decontaminating suit, but they're hard to find and you may not have time to put one on. Here's what the gas leak panic button looks like; try not to hit one unless you mean it.

Uh, let's see. If you see a spilled liquid in your area, don't move and use one of the red phones on the wall to call extension 44673428. If you see a leaking pipe call 44764328 unless it's a gas pipe, and then you call 47643843. If the liquid is flowing towards you and your route is blocked you'll need one of these pails of vermiculite...

The room is kind of dark but I try to scribble down the numbers and otherwise make the notes that might save my life when the movie ends. The orientation lady detects my panic and tells me that this safety stuff is just a formality. I should report to work now.

Apparently my office is 17-273; I have to go to the end of this hall, turn right, then left, go through the double doors, end of hallway, left, right, etc. I pass glass walls behind which people in gauze smocks and showercaps are rolling carts which have salami-sized glass tubes or blue plastic lunchboxes on them. Other rooms have fat ladies in the smock+showercap outfit sticking something small into a hole in a box that has one big red and one big green light on it. I get lost, but there is some logic to the numbering. I'm in hallway #12 now, next to office 12-782. Left here, right there, I won't be all that late.

I come upon an enormous puddle of some colorless, odorless but doubtless foul-tasting liquid. Not seeing a red phone anywhere nearby, I turn around and look for another route.

Friday, July 9

Tall Latte with no Volatile Organic Compounds, Please

It turns out that the place for lunch nearest CommerceNet is the Veritas headquarters cafeteria, which is open to the public. I went to the place with all the other new guys who are, of course, considerably younger than I. A nice cafeteria it seemed, and after we collected our food we moved outside near a very pretty pool and fountain among shiny tall buildings with shiny people scurrying to and fro. Fork to mouth I suddenly realize that I am sitting in the phantom shadow of the "Rust Bucket". I worked nearby from 1978 to 1981.

The Rust Bucket was, from the early '70s to the early '80s, the intergalactic headquarters of Fairchild Camera & Instrument Corporation (aka Fairchild Semiconductor). It was a gigantic, hideous lump of CORTEN® steel with Wilfred J. Corrigan (CEO) at the top, hundreds of confused and terrified executives in the middle, a dysfunctional and uneconomic semiconductor fabrication facility at the bottom and, deep underground, a large number of leaking storage tanks holding sundry unpleasant liquids.

You won't be surprised to hear, although my lunch companions possibly were, that Veritas and its cafeteria are at the location of what the EPA calls the Fairchild Semiconductor portion of the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman Superfund Site.

The new guys had a thought for the history of the location — Netscape had lived and died just down the street. But Silicon Valley was born right where they were scarfing their wood-fired personal pizzas.

Tuesday, July 6

Two Little Words

I've always admired Christopher Hitchens. Not for his politics; a reconstructed Trotskyite may as well be an unreconstructed conservative — there's no place interesting to go when you start from there. Rather, I enjoy the master polemicist responsible for a superb hatchet job on the fanatical Mother Theresa (see the book).

Most recently he traces the roots of modern discourse to the subtle influences of the British Empire.

Monday, July 5

Demiheros of Computer Architecture

Unsurprisingly, in designing a new trading card series there is strategy involved. In our case, the Heros of Computer Architecture series may need some cards with players less fundamentally valued than others to assure a dynamic market. We need less interesting, albeit equally famous, computer architects.

Therefore, for the fourth in our series we pick Michael J. Flynn. Professor Flynn didn't invent any computers anybody ever heard of (he did work on some important ones), but he was the first to note that a system could have one or more processors which could work on one or more sets of data. This stunning observation yielded the SISD/SIMD/MIMD acronym triad known as the Flynn Taxonomy. He also made an observation now called the Flynn Limit, to wit: it is very hard to execute more than one instruction per clock cycle. Three acronyms plus one slogan equals immortality.

Mike Flynn taught me the lesson that has always guided my career: if you can't be great in your field, be early.

Saturday, July 3

Help Wanted

Programmers only: Don Knuth, you may know, has been for some time writing Volume 4 of The Art of Computer Programming. This, he says, should be available in 2007 with Volume 5 following in 2010; in the meantime you should own the first three volumes. Much has been written on Knuth, such as this 1999 piece in Salon.

For the new volumes, Knuth decided to retire the hypothetical MIX computer used for programming examples in vols 1-3, in favor of a brand new, modern (but still hypothetical) RISC processor he calls MMIX. This change motivates a significant porting project:

All of the MIX programs in Volumes 1--3 will need to be rewritten in MMIX, before I finish the ``ultimate'' edition of those volumes that I plan to write after Volume 5 is completed. The current target date for the ultimate volumes is the year 2011, so there is plenty of time to do the conversion. But I think it will be an instructive undertaking if different groups of students from around the world try to do the necessary translations first, perhaps in friendly competitions, long before I get into the act.

If you want the job, you'd better hurry-up — lots of the positions have been taken. Apply at MMIXMasters.

If recoding algorithms from one machine language to another doesn't interest you, perhaps you'd be interested in:

...a level-50 exercise that asks a highly motivated reader to ``Write a book about operating systems, which includes a complete design of an NNIX kernel for the MMIX architecture.''

Ken Thompson, call your office.

Happy Anniversary!

Recondite is one month old today. In that time we've amassed a readership numbering in the ten's of people; people who, mind you, have shown themselves to be among the most sophisticated and well-informed of all the digerati. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Friday, July 2

Instant Immortality

I've come up with an aphorism that captures my feeling about where the effort in building secure systems needs to go. Echoing the old saying about the importance of tactics versus logistics in military studies I say:

Amateurs study cryptography; professionals study economics.

The Tokens on the Bus Go Round and Round

Well, I said yesterday I was going to say more about Dataflow computing and how that has lead to new features in modern microprocessors. Turns out, someone has written a paper on the topic.

So for the third* in our series of Heros of Computer Architecture trading cards, we include the name of Jack Dennis, the originator of the Dataflow concept.

[*] The first two in the series being Burton Smith and Arvind. Collect them all!

Thursday, July 1

Arvind, call your office

Computer Architecture Department: I was planning a blog entry which could have been called Sun's Throughput Computing is Warmed-over Intel Hyper-Threading Which is a an Uncredited Ripoff of the Denelcor HEP. But I couldn't think of a title. Well, I could, but it would be Shame On You, Sun Microsystems, If That's the Best You Can Come Up With.

In researching that topic I found a more interesting instance of the wheel of reincarnation. Dataflow architecture is back, at least at the University of Washington's Wavescalar project. More tomorrow. Meanwhile, you can look at home page of the Annette of Computer Architecture.