Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2020-03-26
  Surviving in Florida.
So life in central Florida is pretty quiet now. With the spring-breakers spreading contagion across the country, we've gone back to getting by as best we can. Co-workers from up North ask me how we all cope, and I explain that we usually have a natural disaster come through here every other year or so. This is kind of like an hurricane, only:
Now thankfully, I'm able to work from home, and I know that's not the case for everyone.  And people in the medical field are dealing with a lot of stress.  But for the time being, we're getting by, cooking with the BBQ not because we have to, but because its nice out, watching the rocket launches, and just keep'n on.
 
2019-12-28
  Chemists help the world go round.
In high school chemistry, there wasn't a lot of time spent on how much Chemist actually have done to advance the bounds of knowledge when it comes to various molecules. How was super-conducting discovered? Chemists basically took every single element they could get their hands on and cooled them down to the coldest temperatures they could achieve, and then measured the various properties (including resistance) under those conditions. The book "Ignition" is full of lots of crazy chemists who studied the behavior of various "fuels" under less than optimum conditions. Spontaneous disassembly was a frequent outcome.

Even in modern times as we work to find ways to store and transport energy that doesn't involve carbon, chemists provide the map of the landscape. In a paper discussing the use of ammonia for hydrogen storage, they present a graph of all different compounds I had never even heard of, and plot out their hydrogen capacity and density:

hydrogen carriers

Does a good job showing that N is the next best thing to carbon if you just want to keep a lot of H around. My hat goes off to the chemists that sat down and classified all these various things over the years. Sure, there's probably different uses for things like Aluminium borohydride, so they needed to know tis properties anyways, but its probably not the kind of work that leads to a Nobel prize. Just filling in the details so that others that come after can build atop that, or avoid what's going to be a dead end.

Doesn't mean that this is the end of the story though. Just look at what Acetylene went through.

Acetylene (H2C2) is a welding gas, but is unstable in its pure form (ie, if you try to cram a bunch into a pressurized tank, it just explodes). Originally if you wanted a supply for welding you used a gas generated that combined water and calcium carbide. Finally, chemists figured out you could safely dissolve acetylene into acetone. So they started filling up canisters with acetone, and then pushing acetylene into that. Unfortunately, as you drew the acetylene out, you also got acetone vapor, which eventually depleted the acetone in the bottle, and again *boom*. Finally, they figured out you could lock the acetone in chalk, and it wouldn't evaporate; so a modern acetylene is actually full of chalk, which is full of acetone, which is full of acetylene.

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2019-04-20
  How I discovered my future
I learned about computers in the summer 1978. My father had used them previous at work, but I had no idea what they were, or that I wanted to spend the rest of my life playing with them. But thanks to a young school district that still had money after paying its teachers a pittance, the GATE program bundled me up in with 40 of peers on a school bus and sent me to Berkeley for a week. (GATE stood for Gifted ad Talented Education, a name they quickly had to come up with after we took the previous acronym: MGM and turned it from Mentally Gifted Minors into Mentally Gifted Morons, an insight that our slightly elevated intelligence was in some ways a hindrance in the social torture program society called school.)

So under the expert driving of our bus driver Dan "the oil pan man"*, we were whisked away to Lawrence Hall of Science for Astronomy, Earth Science, some other forgettable classes; and "Computer Lab". The computer lab was a giant concrete walled room, two stories tall, with rows of teletypes connected to a time share system, and a pen plotter at the far end.

teletype machine

We were shown how to log in, send messages to each other, access the central store and print out files (mostly ascii art), and create our own files. One of the files we could create, was a set of instructions for the pen plotter to draw a picture. Some of the other students drew their initials with it, or some interesting geometric shapes, but I had bigger ambitions.

Star was had come out the year before, so I wanted to draw space ships and laser fire. Major production value. Some how I got ahold of some graph paper, and drew out a ridiculously complex scene for a junior high school student with only a few hours to enter it in, and I spent every free minute I could typing in all the pen up/down and move commands to render my masterpiece. I get all the instructions typed in by the last day of the class, and command the printer to go, setting the pens to dance around and draw each segment painful step by step, when suddenly it all goes horribly wrong, and through some mistake in my instructions a large errant line is drawn across the entire page. There's less than 10 minutes left in the lab and the picture is ruined. I must have looked pitiful, because a sysop took pity on me and told me to follow him. We walked up the stairs to a mezzanine above where the sysops could watch over the room and do work. The sysop sat down and something completely strange which he referred to as a "glass teletype", opened up my file on the screen, pressed a magic key called a cursor key, and moved through the file to the line with the errant digit in it, which he replaced with the correct one I supplied, and then saved it.

glass teletype
I had never seen a mistake so quickly and effortlessly corrected. My picture printed out, correctly, though its since been lost to the sands of time; but more importantly after staring at that glass teletype, I knew with a certainty that I wanted to spent every possible moment of the rest of my life in that alternate universe where ideas could be constructed almost as easily as though, there was no entropy, and changes could be made in an instant. Looking back, it seems I have been fairly successful doing that.

* A story for another day, though I will give the hint that everyone on that trip learned that the lowest point on the underside of a bus is the oil pan, but he is the only bus driver who's name I can still remember 40 years later.

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2019-02-23
  Why we write.
I have written a number of stories, and have more still yet to write. Not expecting to become famous or rich, I write, as many others do, because its part of my nature just to want to tell these stories. As Ferris Jabr wrote in Harpers:
Stories sustain us: they open paths of clarity in the chaos of existence, maintain a record of human thought, and grant us the power to shape our perceptions of reality.
From The story of storytelling
 
2019-01-28
  Sanity
Some days will be good, a few will be great.
Some days will be a step backwards, a few will be disasters.
A few days will be memorable, many will not be.

rollercoaster

One must remember that no extreme will last forever, the market will not always go up, there is no such thing as the new normal.
Believing otherwise leads only to despair.

 
2019-01-04
  Digital Hoarding
While I avoid most social media, I do enjoy Twitter for a number of reasons.  Not the modern form, but the 12 year old original invention:  144 character text messages sent to your phone.  This is very convenient for reading in the elevator or subway where there's no signal, and I can ignore them for days and they just pile up in my inbox.

Unfortunately I have accumulated a number of people I follow who are too interesting, and even after reading the initial message, I want to save the info for later to look into further.  One of the worst of course is @donpark who seems to have a great deal of free time to look into curious and interesting technologies of all sorts.  Cleaning out a previous phone that still had over a hundred saved notes brings up cool things like:
And that's just one person I follow over the span of about six months.
 
2018-11-22
  The beauty of the proper design
After decades in the software engineering business, one can't read classic texts without getting mad.  Not because they were wrong, but because they were right, and nobody seems to have been listening.  This particular part about top level design from Mythical Man Month resonates with me dearly:
The process of step-wise refinement does not mean that one never has to go back, scrap the top level, and start the whole thing again as one encounters some unexpectedly knotty detail. Indeed, that happens often. But it is much easier to see exactly when and why one should throw away a gross design and start over. Many poor systems come from an attempt to salvage a bad basic design and patch it with all kinds of superficial relief.
Many a startup I worked on brought me in do just that kind of superficial patching.  At first I would present the need for deeper change to management, once I understood where the design had gone wrong.  Later I learned to avoid this waste of time, and occasionally succeeded in making the needed changes before the higher ups caught on.

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2018-07-02
  Changing habits, one key at a time.
I first learned to program on terrible square key calculator like keyboards, but back then the computer only had a few kilobytes of memory, terrible offline storage options, and no serious editor. We still wrote BASIC programs every hour we could get access to the machines, and considered ourselves lucky.

On a lark, I went over to the business department at high school, and signed up to learn typing. This involved pounding keys on a manual typewriter, and occasionally getting access to the high technology of an IBM Selectric typewriter. (You could change fonts, character pitch, and at it even had a backspace.) Still, it was mostly about the the letters and numbers, and a few standard symbols above the numbers. Nobody was trying to type a |.

In college, things progressed to the next level. Mainframes had hard disks (wow), and you could type something one day, and come back on another day and it was still there. Changing existing files became as important if not more, than creating new files, and so I buckled down and learned a few home grown editors, as well as the up-and-coming, vi editor. The control key, and the escape key became very important keys.

My favorite terminal at the time, a beastly thing, called the ATT DMD 5620 had the control key right to the left of the letter A, and the escape key right to the left of the number 1. Very easy to get to, and quick to punch. For years, I worked quite well.

Unfortunately, along that time came the IBM PC. This ruined everything. The computer was naturally seen as a successor of their popular typewriters (see above), and they wanted to make things as familiar as possible for people moving from typing on their typewriters to typing on the PC, so instead of putting the control key to the left of the letter A, they put CAPS LOCK there. For a while I fought a slow retreat, re-mapping keys in X windows with XModMap, or trying to find various utilities for Windows, but as I moved from startup to startup, it became too much trouble and I gave in to reality that I was stuck with that layout. So for almost 30 years I have been typing on computer where the control key is banished down to the row with the space bar, far in the gutter, and the back tick and squiggle have invaded the spot to the left of the 1, with escape key floating up in the sky with the function keys.

But the mass market machine came to my rescue--sort of. Since the keyboard had been turned into a $10 commodity with cheap switches and a terrible layout, it had actually created a niche market for people who cared about the device they were typing on. And it turned out that a great deal of them were programmers. So not only were there better buttons and switches, but a number of options let you re-arrange things in the firmware itself (usually with DIP switches, because of course that's what you'd use, we're programmers after all).

So I am trying to fight decades of bad habits. I have new keyboards with configurable layouts (and LED backlights, because again, of course you'd have that), and I have moved my control key back to where it should have been all along. At the moment, it is terrible painful. I either have to think first before typing a control sequence, or if using muscle memory, activate the Caps lock accidentally. But I will persevere. I will retrain myself, and rejoin the lost universe, where the keyboard is a finely tuned instrument for the programmer to create the program.

 
Life in the middle of nowhere, remote programming to try and support it, startups, children, and some tinkering when I get a chance.

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Blogroll
Paul Graham's Essays
You may not want to write in Lisp, but his advise on software, life and business is always worth listening to.
How to save the world
Dave Pollard working on changing the world .. one partially baked idea at a time.
SnowDeal
Eric Snowdeal IV - born 15 weeks too soon, now living a normal baby life.
Land and Hold Short
The life of a pilot.

The best of?
Jan '04
The second best villain of all times.

Feb '04
Oops I dropped by satellite.
New Jets create excitement in the air.
The audience is not listening.

Mar '04
Neat chemicals you don't want to mess with.
The Lack of Practise Effect

Apr '04
Scramjets take to the air
Doing dangerous things in the fire.
The Real Way to get a job

May '04
Checking out cool tools (with the kids)
A master geek (Ink Tank flashback)
How to play with your kids

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