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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.

Posted at 23:15 Permalink

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reading List: Someone Has Blundered

Judd, Denis. Someone Has Blundered. London: Phoenix, [1973] 2007. ISBN 0-7538-2181-8.
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 subcontinent.

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:

Whatever happens,
we have got,
the Maxim gun,
and they have not.
            — Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc, “The Modern Traveller”, 1898
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 leadership.”

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.

Posted at 23:57 Permalink

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 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Posted at 00:27 Permalink

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 published in 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.

Posted at 20:31 Permalink

Friday, April 20, 2007

Reading List: Le mètre du monde

Guedj, Denis. Le mètre du monde. Paris: Seuil, 2000. ISBN 2-02-049989-4.
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 1788, soliciting 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 “livre”, 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.

Posted at 23:44 Permalink

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Reading List: The Design and Construction of Flying Model Aircraft

Russell, D. A. The 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 engine.

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 edition.

Posted at 22:21 Permalink

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Reading List: Floor Games

Wells, H. G. Floor Games. Springfield, VA: Skirmisher, [1911] 2006. ISBN 0-9722511-7-0.
Two years before he penned the classic work on wargaming, Little Wars, 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 Project Gutenberg edition, but without the illustrations and photos. This edition includes a foreword by legendary wargame designer 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 banned Lego blocks launch the next educationalism fad, it'll be up to parents to preserve imagination and individuality in their children's play.

Posted at 21:22 Permalink

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Reading List: Imperium

Harris, Robert. Imperium. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-6603-X.
Marcus Tullius Tiro was a household slave who served as the personal secretary to the Roman orator, lawyer, and politician Cicero. 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 (Fatherland, Archangel, Enigma, Pompeii) seizes, 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 peace. … 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 historical lessons.)

The novel comes to a rather abrupt close with Cicero's election to the consulate in 63 B.C. 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.

Posted at 22:24 Permalink