22 December 2013

Better storming

It is rare that I am invigorated by someone suggesting brainstorming as a means to solve a problem. (There is something worse, of course, and that's sitting around maundering about something and claiming that you're brainstorming.) Chauncey Wilson recommends a better way to use group collaboration to come up with quality ideas: brainwriting. As Wilson notes, brainwriting can even work when the group is geographically dispersed.

Perfect project, part two

Along with the nifty new features for the public-facing web site, ably explained by Patrick Cooper, last week we also pushed out a major update to the database schema that represents stories and their audio, along with their relationships to programs and their individual episodes. In radio-speak, the ordered segments of a broadcast are called the rundown, and the remodeling of how a rundown is stored was at the core of this past project. We can now handle rebroadcasts for shows like TED Radio Hour (like here, here, and here) without behind-the-curtain hackery.

We also caught up on MySQL versions, and enabled limited concurrent editing of stories by multiple editors.

This was the biggest effort since the massive redesign of 2009, and I am proud to have been a part of it.

14 December 2013


Babbage makes a video visit to Louis Pouzin, deviser of the Cigale packet-switched network. Cigale underlay the experimental Cyclades network, a would-be rival to ARPANET. Although Cyclades went away in the 1970s, Pouzin's datagram concepts found their way into Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn's designs for TCP.

12 December 2013

It's been a while since I dealt with that kind of overlay

So you think more RAM will solve your problems? The engineers writing flight control software for the Space Shuttle didn't have that advantage/hindrance.
...after a major computer upgrade in 1991, the primary flight system has a storage capacity of one megabyte and runs at a speed of 1.4 million instructions per second.

via things magazine

26 November 2013

No lockups

Jörg Hoh reminds us about the right way and the wrong way to set up and tear down JCR sessions in an OSGi service.

17 October 2013

Obscure Vintage Computers for $500, Alex

A season 5 episode of Perry Mason from 1961, "The Case of the Meddling Medium," features something called a Clary DE-60 computer, placed into service by Perry and ESP researcher Dr. Andrija Puharich (playing himself) as a random number generator. The Computer History Museum has artifacts and materials associated with the Clary DE-60, but the darn thing looks like a theater prop to me.
This was a very small computer with 18 bit word and 32 words of memory with up to 128 addition words. It was called an electronic computing calculator and was built into a 'beautiful desk.'

Object is a small wooden cabinet (not a desk), on top of which are a typebar typewriter (looks like an IBM Executive but not so labelled) and a 10-key adding machine, both seated in shaped cutouts in the top. The adding machine has a number of pilot lights and function knobs and keys. Inside the cabinet at the rear is a metal frame containing an array of sealed circuit modules, and a bank of PC boards with discrete transistor logic. Inside the cabinet at the front left is a frame for a programming plugboard (no plugboards are in evidence).

The Clary Corporation has kept a low profile since its incorporation in 1940. Its current specialties include products for military and other mission-critical applications. It has no Wikipedia entry. Maybe I've just been reading too much Pynchon recently, but... One never knows, do one?

26 September 2013

Faster, cheaper, more durable

Magnetic tape is making a comeback, reports Babbage. It's an important level in the archival storage hierarchy at CERN.
When a tape snaps, it can be spliced back together. The loss is rarely more than a few hundred megabytes—a bagatelle in information-technology circles. When a terabyte hard disk fails, by contrast, the result is usually that all the data on it are lost. The consequence at CERN, specifically, is that a few hundred megabytes of its 100 petabyte tape repository are lost every year. Of the 50 petabytes of data held on hard disk, however, it loses a few hundred terabytes in the same period.
300 TB/yr lost to hard drive failures?!

22 September 2013


Adding to my brief list of museums dedicated to the history of computing: Austin's Goodwill Computer Museum, which first opened exhibition space in 2005.

Not gawky at all

Arnold Robbins recaps the history of AWK (and its GNU version, gawk), and introduces the new features to be found in version 4.1.
The new implementation [of the extension mechanism] provides the potential for Awk programs to do anything that can be done from C or C++. The simplest example is an extension that provides chdir(), so that Awk programs can finally change their working directory!

19 September 2013


John D. Cook gives us a handy mnemonic for remembering that logs in all bases are proportional to one another.
...a up to x = a up to b down to b up to x.
I swan, every time I have to use this fact (about once a decade), I have to go back and prove it to myself from first principles. Usually takes me an hour.

04 August 2013


Andrew L. Russell explains why today's internet doesn't have seven layers: the good-enough, interoperable TCP/IP eventually won out over the more ostensibly open, standards-based OSI.
OSI was devised by committee, but that fact alone wasn’t enough to doom the ­project—after all, plenty of successful standards start out that way.

28 July 2013

Screen shot

What is a screen? A thing that divides. A thing people undress behind. A thing every computer has, in fact a thing computing has distilled itself increasingly into. A thing we all carry around with us in our pockets, a thing fundamental to western-world human information-gathering and a feature now fundamental—unimaginable this, only ten years ago—to a telephone. A thing that has an appearance of transparency and that divides us from bankers, ticket sellers, post office workers, people with money. A thing people project onto.
—Ali Smith, Artful, p. 121

10 July 2013

Fun with CQ5: 4

I picked up a new (to me) CQ5 site, and as I walked through the authoring instance, I noticed that the pages loaded into the editor without the Content Finder. In URL terms, that fussy little /cf# wasn't there. How did this team disable the Content Finder by default?

Well, at least part of the answer is that the content pages have this property defined: cq:defaultView="html". The opposite setting is cq:defaultView="contentfinder". Here's the Adobe KB entry on the topic.

19 May 2013

Back from the store

Ellen Ullman takes an unvarnished look at her ups and downs as a "woman programmer:"
...the prejudice will follow you. What will save you is tacking into the love of the work, into the desire that brought you there in the first place. This creates a suspension of time, opens a spacious room of your own in which you can walk around and consider your response.
I was hooked by her lede, which uses a musical simile to describe the sort of work I've done for most of my working life:
I was an ordinary computer programmer. I wrote code that ran at the levels between flashy human interfaces and the deep cores of operating systems, like the role of altos in a chorus, who provide the structure without your taking much notice of their melodic lines.
Tamara Shopsin provides a clever illustration, too.

08 May 2013

Sister act

The new look for AARP Health, a sister site to one we launched earlier this year, is on the air. With a sweet mobile microsite as a kicker!

29 April 2013


Laura Sydell profiles Sarah Allen, founder of Blazing Cloud and co-founder of the RailsBridge workshops, "born out of a desire to improve the gender ratio in the San Francisco Rails community, and ... expanded to try to improve the diversity in open source and in tech companies, too."

20 March 2013


Some of the most interesting questions that I try to answer on Stack Overflow are "dusty deck" problems.
"I inherited this program to maintain/emulate/port and I don't understand it. Heck, I'm not even sure what language it's written in!"
Usually, the questioner's first guess is COBOL. (It's old and incomprehensible, so it must be COBOL, amirite?) Such was the surmise of user1381537, who offered this source file. Other posters and I quickly disabused him of the notion that it was written in COBOL; Gilbert Le Blanc figures that it's Caché MultiValue Basic.

I amused myself by pointing out some of the less obvious aspects of the program, and by flipping through the documentation to understand some of the peculiarities of this BASIC dialect. In a 1970s-vintage program, just finding the main processing loop can be a challenge. GOSUBs are a feature that is, Fox be thanked, no longer maintstream. I like the compactness of the bracket syntax for performing substring operations. And I envy user1381537's innocence that he/she has never encountered a zero-suppression format string that looks like "ZZ,ZZ9".

14 March 2013

A stopped clock is correct twice a day

Reminds me of the time I was asked in an interview how to optimize the path of an aircraft that had to make a bombing run: Ineffective Sorts. Though the idea of using Stack Overflow as input to a genetic algorithm is intriguing.

12 March 2013

Where are the women?

Leaders and commentary, book reviews, and news features in Nature's special package of stories dedicated to the conundrum of women in science.
Science remains institutionally sexist. Despite some progress, women scientists are still paid less, promoted less frequently, win fewer grants and are more likely to leave research than similarly qualified men. This special issue of Nature takes a hard look at the gender gap — from bench to boardroom — and at what is being done to close it.

01 March 2013

A PiLe of fun

Len Shustek reacquaints us with APL, which started its life as "A Programming Language," Ken Iverson's algorithmically-inflected conception that somehow found its way to an implementation. Shustek's post links to source code for one of the versions of APL that ran on System/360.

The software/IT core requirement for MBA students at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s consisted of a 2/3-semester MIS introduction (systems analysis, drawing pictures, sizing hardware, but no programming) and a 3-week non-credit course in APL. So I learned this occult language (it only worked on interactive terminals where characters could be overstruck) out of Gilman and Rose's APL: An Interactive Approach on a DECSystem-10, or at least learned it well enough to get a job interview with one of the consultancies that specialized in it when I arrived in D.C. (I didn't get the job). Matrix-friendly APL was wicked concise if you needed to sum up a table of sales results by product line and region—exactly the sort of tool a new MBA could use, that is, until VisiCalc came along. I enjoyed the short course well enough that I was induced, in my callowness, to write a short piece about it for the Wharton Journal, the student newspaper.

Only in Shakespeare and the APL reference manual is ravel a word.

05 February 2013

It's been a while since the last one

Well, no project goes as smoothly as you would hope. But we can say that the new look (and content) for AARP Financial has been launched.

15 January 2013

When maintainability and reuse just don't matter

Andrew Binstock reports on a agile software development project with the ultimate timebox: the re-election of Barack Obama.
To sort through the massed tangle of conflicting requirements and desiderata, the team did the Agile thing: It put Post-It notes on a wall and called back the users to identify features that fit these criteria. Did the feature contribute directly to getting the president reelected? And would it be needed in 12 weeks...?

07 January 2013

But still cute

Aaron Souppouris gets a quick look at the XO-4 convertible at CES. Dan Lyons isn't impressed.
We now have an actual hundred-dollar computer. Loads of them, in fact. They're called smartphones and tablets. Many can be had for well under a hundred dollars.

This is more than can be said for the XO machine, which even now, eight years after [Nicholas] Negroponte first dreamed up the idea, still costs a lot more than a hundred bucks.

That's right. Nearly a decade into this they still can't hit their original price point.