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Sunday, April 29, 2007
The Hacker's Diet Online: Beta test begins
If you've wondered why postings here have been so sparse over the last couple of months, it's because I've been almost exclusively focussed on getting the Web application implementation of The Hacker's Diet
computer tools beaten into a form that's ready to invite “bleeding edge” early adopters to try it out and report the flaws they find.
Well, I think it's about as ready as it's going to get for this first baby step. The Web application is documented here
, and may be accessed directly
in read-only mode for experimentation using a User Name of “Example” and a null password. If you'd like to become a beta tester, just send a feedback message with a brief description of your experience (if any) with The Hacker's Diet (both long-term users and those just beginning are welcome as testers), and I'll mail you a Beta Test Invitation Code you can use to create a new account.
As I note in the documentation
, this Web application is on the order of twice as complicated as the initial release of AutoCAD in 1982, and that's just a measure of algorithmic complexity, not taking into account security considerations of public access on a global network. Bottom line: there are likely to be a lot of “issues”, as the public relations types refer to them or, as we engineers prefer to say, fall flat on the face stone stupid bozo blunders in this code. Folks who volunteer as beta testers can report problems with a special, within the application, Feedback Form which requires no sentience test. Resolving the problems reported and moving this application to public launch will be my highest priority until that milestone is achieved.
When this application emerges from beta and is opened to the general public, the complete source code, implemented in Literate Programming
Perl will be released into the public domain. This will permit anybody who wishes to host their own Hacker's Diet Online
server (even just for themselves, on their own machine), or use its underlying stand-alone Web application framework for other projects.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
Reading List: Someone Has Blundered
- Judd, Denis.
Someone Has Blundered.
London: Phoenix,  2007.
One of the most amazing things about the British Empire
was not how much of the world it ruled, but how small was the
army which maintained dominion over so large a portion of
the globe. While the Royal Navy enjoyed unchallenged
supremacy on the high seas in the 19th century, it was of
little use in keeping order in the colonies, and the
ground forces available were, not just by modern standards, but
by those of contemporary European powers, meagre. In the 1830s,
the British regular army numbered only about 100,000, and
rose to just 200,000 by the end of the century. When the
Indian Mutiny (or “Sepoy Rebellion”) erupted in 1857,
there were just 45,522 European troops in the entire
Perhaps the stolid British at home were confident that the
military valour and discipline of their meagre legions would
prevail, or that superior technology would carry the day:
but when it came to a
fight, as happened surprisingly often in what one thinks of as
the Pax Britannica era (the Appendix [pp. 174–176]
lists 72 conflicts and military expeditions in the Victorian era),
a small, tradition-bound force, accustomed to peace and the
parade ground, too often fell victim to (p. xix) “a
devil's brew of incompetence, unpreparedness, mistaken and
inappropriate tactics, a reckless underestimating of the enemy,
a brash overconfidence, a personal or psychological collapse, a
difficult terrain, useless maps, raw and panicky recruits, skilful or
treacherous opponents, diplomatic hindrance, and bone-headed
All of these are much in evidence in the campaigns recounted
here: the 1838–1842 invasion of Afghanistan, the
1854–1856 Crimean War, the 1857–1859 Indian
Mutiny, the Zulu War of 1879, and the first (1880–1881)
and second (1899–1902) Boer Wars. Although this book
was originally published more than thirty years ago and its
subtitle, “Calamities of the British Army in the Victorian
Age”, suggests it is a chronicle of a quaint and
long-departed age, there is much to learn in these
accounts of how highly-mobile, superbly trained, excellently
equipped, and technologically superior military forces were
humiliated and sometimes annihilated by indigenous armies
with the power of numbers, knowledge of the terrain, and the
motivation to defend their own land.
we have got,
the Maxim gun,
and they have not.
— Joseph Hilaire
Pierre René Belloc, “The Modern Traveller”, 1898
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Autodesk: Incorporated twenty-five years ago today
As with so many things involving the State of California, the date on which Autodesk, Inc. was originally incorporated in 1982 is somewhat ambiguous. The articles of incorporation were filed on April 9th, 1982, and the certificate of incorporation, including “The Great Seal” (ork, ork
) of the State of California dates from that day. But the actual transaction in which the founders purchased their shares, paying in the meagre sum which constituted Autodesk's Day Zero treasury balance, was April 26th, 1982. I have always dated the foundation of the company from the latter date, because, notwithstanding my being the president of the company at the time, I don't recall even being aware of the event on the 9th. The closing of the stock purchase on the 26th was, however, a momentous event, with issuance of stock certificates to all founders, which I accompanied with this note
Here are the original incorporation documents from a quarter century ago: pages
Saturday, April 21, 2007
Safetyland: US$2000 to Clean Up Broken Fluorescent Bulb
Last March 13th, thrifty Brandy Bridges of Prospect, Maine was changing lightbulbs, all by herself. She had decided to replace two dozen incandescent bulbs with screw-in Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) replacements “in an attempt to save money on her energy bill”. Disaster!—when changing the bulb in her daughter's bedroom, it slipped from her fingers and broke on the shag carpet. Aware of the hazards of broken fluorescent bulbs, she called Home Depot where she had bought the engine of destruction, and was successively referred to the Poison Control hotline, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Environmental Protection, which sent a “specialist” to measure the mercury levels at the scene of the accident which, indeed, plunging the sensor down into the carpet at the site of the impact, read more than six times higher than the “safe level” of mercury: 300 ng/m³. The ambient air in the room was, however, below this level.
The specialist advised Ms. Bridges not to clean up the disaster site herself, and referred her to Clean Harbors Environmental Services, which duly submitted an estimate of US$2,000 for the job. One month later, Bridges is “gathering finances” for the clean-up; her daughter's room remains sealed up with plastic, the tyke forced to sleep in another room. According to a
news story on the calamity
The Ellsworth American
, Ms. Bridges is “worried about her daughter staying in the same house for the next 11 years, potentially having long-term exposure to mercury. She’s worried about the rest of her family’s health.”
For further mercury madness, see this earlier posting
; sadly, the story linked to from that article has disappeared into the legacy media memory hole. Tip o' the hat to “jomath” for the pointer, via Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor Musings
Friday, April 20, 2007
Reading List: Le mètre du monde
- Guedj, Denis.
Le mètre du monde.
Paris: Seuil, 2000.
When thinking about management lessons one can learn
from the French Revolution, I sometimes wonder if Louis
XVI, sometime in the interval between when the Revolution
lost its mind and he lost his head, ever thought, “Memo
to file: when running a country seething with discontent,
it's a really poor idea to invite people to
compile lists of things they detest about the current
regime.” Yet, that's exactly what he did in
cahiers de doléances
(literally, “notebooks of complaints”) to
be presented to the Estates-General when it met in
May of 1789. There were many, many things about
which to complain in the latter years of the
Ancien Régime, but one which appeared on
almost every one of the lists was the lack of
uniformity in weights and measures. Not only was
there a bewildering multitude of different measures
in use (around 2000 in France alone), but the
value of measures with the same name differed from
one region to another, a legacy of feudal days when
one of the rights of the lord was to define the weights
and measures in his fiefdom. How far is “three leagues
down the road?” Well, that depends on what
you mean by “league”, which was almost 40%
longer in Provence than in Paris. The most common unit
of weight, the
had more than two hundred different definitions
across the country. And if that weren't bad enough,
unscrupulous merchants and tax collectors would exploit
the differences and lack of standards to cheat those
bewildered by the complexity.
Revolutions, and the French Revolution in particular,
have a way of going far beyond the intentions of those
who launch them. The multitudes who pleaded for
uniformity in weights and measures almost unanimously
intended, and would have been entirely satisfied with,
a standardisation of the values of the commonly used
measures of length, weight, volume, and area. But
perpetuating these relics of tyranny was an affront to
the revolutionary spirit of remaking the world, and
faced with a series of successive decisions, the
revolutionary assembly chose the most ambitious and
least grounded in the past on each occasion: to entirely
replace all measures in use with entirely new ones,
to use identical measures for every
purpose (traditional measures used different units
depending upon what was being measured), to abandon
historical subdivisions of units in favour of a purely
decimal system, and to ground all of the units in quantities
based in nature and capable of being determined by anybody
at any time, given only the definition.
Thus was the metric system born, and seldom have so many
eminent figures been involved in what many might consider
an arcane sideshow to revolution: Concordet, Coulomb,
Lavoisier, Laplace, Talleyrand, Bailly, Delambre, Cassini,
Legendre, Lagrange, and more. The fundamental unit, the
metre, was defined in terms of the Earth's meridian,
and since earlier measures failed to meet the standard
of revolutionary perfection, a project was launched to
measure the meridian through the Paris Observatory from
Dunkirk to Barcelona. Imagine trying to make a precision
measurement over such a distance as revolution, terror,
hyper-inflation, counter-revolution, and war between
France and Spain raged all around the
savants and their
surveying instruments. So long and fraught with misadventures
was the process of creating the metric system that while the
original decree ordering its development was signed
by Louis XVI, it was officially adopted only a
few months before Napoleon took power in 1799. Yet
despite all of these difficulties and misadventures, the
final measure of the meridian accepted in 1799 differed
from the best modern measurements by only about ten metres
over a baseline of more than 1000 kilometres.
This book tells the story of the metric system and the
measurement of the meridian upon which it was based,
against the background of revolutionary France. The author
pulls no punches in discussing technical detail—again
and again, just when you expect he's going to gloss over
something, you turn the page or read a footnote and there
it is. Writing for a largely French audience, the
author may assume the reader better acquainted
with the chronology, people, and events of the Revolution
than readers hailing from other lands are likely to be; the
chronology at the end of the book is an excellent resource
when you forget what happened when. There is no index.
This seems to be one of those odd cultural things; I've
found French books whose counterparts published in
English would almost certainly be indexed to frequently lack this
valuable attribute—I have no idea why this is the case.
One of the many fascinating factoids I gleaned from this book is that
the country with the longest continuous use of the metric system is
not France! Napoleon replaced the metric system with the mesures usuelles in 1812, redefining the
traditional measures in terms of metric base units. The metric system
was not reestablished in France until 1840, by which time Belgium,
Holland, and Luxembourg had already adopted it.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Reading List: The Design and Construction of Flying Model Aircraft
- Russell, D. A.
Design and Construction of Flying Model Aircraft.
Leicester, England: Harborough Publishing, [1937, 1940] 1941.
British Library Shelfmark 08771.b.3.
In 1941, Britain stood alone in the West against Nazi
Germany, absorbing bombing raids on its cities, while
battling back and forth in North Africa. So confident
was Hitler that the British threat had been neutralised, that
in June he launched the assault against the Soviet Union.
And in that dark year, some people in Britain put the war
out of their minds by thinking instead about model
airplanes, guided by this book, written by the editor
of The Aero-Modeller magazine and published in
that war year.
Modellers of this era scratch built their planes—the word
“kit” is absent from this book and seemingly from
the vocabulary of the hobby at the time. The author addresses
an audience who not only build their models from scratch, but also
design them from first principles of aerodynamics—in fact, the
first few chapters are one of the most lucid expositions of basic
practical aerodynamics I have ever read. The text bristles with
empirical equations, charts, and diagrams, as well as plenty of
practical advice to the designer and builder.
While many modellers of the era built featherweight aircraft powered
by rubber bands, others flew petrol-powered beasts which would
intimidate many modellers today. Throughout the book the author uses
as an example one of his own designs, with a wingspan of 10 feet,
all-up weight in excess of 14 pounds, and powered by an 18 cc. petrol
There was no radio control, of course. All of these planes simply
flew free until a clockwork mechanism cut the ignition, then glided
to a landing on whatever happened to be beneath them at the time.
If the time switch should fail, the plane would fly on until
the fuel was exhausted. Given the size, weight, and flammability
of the fuel, one worried about the possibility of burning down
somebody's house or barn in such a mishap, and in fact p. 214
is a full-page advert for liability insurance backed by Lloyds!
This book was found in an antique shop in the British Isles.
It is, of course, hopelessly out of print, but used copies
are generally available at reasonable prices. Note that the
second edition (first published in 1940, reprinted in 1941)
contains substantially more material than the 1937 first
Saturday, April 7, 2007
Reading List: Floor Games
- Wells, H. G.
Springfield, VA: Skirmisher,  2006.
Two years before he penned the classic work on wargaming,
H. G. Wells drew on his experience and that of his
colleagues “F.R.W.” and “G.P.W.” (his
sons Frank Richard and George Philip, then aged eight and ten
respectively) to describe the proper equipment, starting with a
sufficiently large and out-of-the-traffic floor, which imaginative
children should have at their disposal to construct the worlds of
adventure conjured by their fertile minds. He finds much to
deplore in the offerings of contemporary toy shops, and shows
how wooden bricks, sturdy paper, plasticine clay, twigs
and sprigs from the garden, books from the library, and
odds and ends rescued from the trash bin can be assembled
into fantasy worlds, “the floor, the boards, the
bricks, the soldiers, and the railway system—that pentagram
for exorcising the evil spirit of dulness from the lives of little
boys and girls” (p. 65).
The entire book is just 71 pages with large type and wide
margins filled with delightful line drawings; eight
photographs by the author illustrate what can be made of
such simple components. The text is, of course, in the public
domain, and is available in a free
Gutenberg edition, but without the illustrations and
photos. This edition includes a foreword by legendary
James F. Dunnigan.
While toys have changed enormously since this book
was written, young humans haven't. A parent who
provides their kids these simple stimuli to imagination
and ingenuity is probably doing them an invaluable
service compared to the present-day default of planting
them in front of a television program or video game.
Besides, if the collectivist morons in Seattle who
Lego blocks launch the next educationalism fad, it'll be up to
parents to preserve imagination and individuality in their children's
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Reading List: Imperium
- Harris, Robert.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Tullius Tiro was a household slave who served as
the personal secretary to the Roman orator, lawyer, and
Tiro is credited with the invention of shorthand, and is responsible
for the extensive verbatim records of Cicero's court appearances and
political speeches. He was freed by Cicero in 53 B.C. and later purchased a farm where he lived to
around the age of 100 years. According to contemporary accounts, Tiro
published a biography of Cicero of at least four volumes; this work
has been lost.
In this case, history's loss is a novelist's opportunity, which
alternative-history wizard Robert Harris
bringing the history of Cicero's rise from ambitious lawyer
to Consul of Rome to life, while remaining true to the documented
events of Cicero's career. The narrator is Tiro, who discovers both the
often-sordid details of how the Roman republic actually functioned
and the complexity of Cicero's character as the story progresses.
The sense one gets of Rome is perhaps a little too modern,
and terminology creeps in from time to time (for example,
“electoral college” [p. 91]) which seems
out of place. On pp. 226–227 there is an extended passage
which made me fear we were about to veer off into commentary
on current events:
‘I do not believe we should negotiate with such people,
as it will only encourage them in their criminal acts.’
Where would be struck next? What Rome was facing was a threat
very different from that posed by a conventional enemy. These
pirates were a new type of ruthless foe, with no government to
represent them and no treaties to bind them. Their bases were not
confined to a single state. They had no unified system of command.
They were a worldwide pestilence, a parasite which needed to be
stamped out, otherwise Rome—despite her overwhelming
military superiority—would never again know security or
Any ruler who refuses to cooperate will be regarded as
Rome's enemy. Those who are not with us are against us.
Harris resists the temptation of turning Rome into a
soapbox for present-day political advocacy on any side, and
quickly gets back to the political intrigue in the capital.
(Not that the latter days of the Roman republic are devoid
of relevance to the present situation; study of them may provide
more insight into the news than all the pundits and political
blogs on the Web. But the parallels are not exact, and the
circumstances are different in many fundamental ways. Harris
wisely sticks to the story and leaves the reader to discern the
The novel comes to a rather abrupt close with Cicero's election to
the consulate in 63
I suspect that what we have here is the first volume of a trilogy.
If that be the case, I look forward to future installments.