Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Space Food Sticks

A few blasts from the past:

If you were a kid in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, you probably yearn for space food sticks (and remember this advertisement), washed down with Tang. Yes, space food sticks are available again. NPR did a "beyond Tang" story last summer.

Boingboing reminded me how kooky television was back then. It inspired me to find the Willie Mays warning that must have run daily after school, I think right after Gilligan's Island. I've still haven't seen a blasting cap.

A couple of things that aren't ancient history: I was surprised to see a paper in the January/February 2008 issue of Transactions on Software Engineering ("Applying formal methods to a certifiably secure system") describing techniques similar to what we were doing in the mid-1980s at UCSB with formal specification of critical systems. I've always liked the approach of formally defining a top level specification (TLS) and the critical properties, then showing that the TLS maintains the properties. The authors also talk about specifying "no changes", which was the topic of my first professional paper, presented at HICSS in 1986 :)

Speaking of formal specifications, at JPL we worked on formal specs in John Kelly's group. This is how I met PVS and John Rushby, whom the authors of the recent paper cite several times.

In any case, John Kelly has moved on from JPL and is at NASA headquarters. He is quoted in an interesting two-page article "Inspecting the history of inspections: An example of evidence-based technology diffusion" in the January/February issue of IEEE Software. Here's an excerpt:
“What was really convincing was the personal testimony and experience of people at JPL, plus they had data. Data is what speaks. If you’re going to take things to engineers, you have to have data." A common theme throughout our conversation was the need for both hard, quantitative numbers and anecdotal experience reports to convince potential adopters. Both data types played a role throughout the dissemination story.
Fresno State people can click here and Hawaii people here for the article.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The wild life of working at NASA JPL

I saw deer at the Jet Propulsion Lab, late one night after working on a presentation, but never a mountain lion. Nice picture and article. Here is a quote from someone who lives near JPL:
"You don't leave the kids alone in the backyard unattended -- ever," he said. "But the dog is really the canary in the mine. I figure it'll go for the dog and not the kids."

Here's another take on JPL wildlife, but I thought the characterization of JPLers the most interesting:
The JPL Engineers seem to really love what they do so it's fun to learn about their projects and help them with the best tech toys. Plus, they are so smart - it's like they glow with intelligence. Oh yeah, they love UNIX and OS X so I appreciate this as well.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Let's share

Recently we've been looking at desktop recording software, particularly cheap or opensource, and multiplatform. We're going to bring up Panopto (a CMU spin-off) and are examing Berkeley's OpenCast. And, this afternoon I was playing with Jing (I read about it on Michael Feldsten's blog). Jing is free, multiplatform, and good quality. It reminds me of Camtasia, but has a five minute recording limit. Wait, both Jing (free) and Camtasia ($$) are owned by TechSmith. I don't understand the business model I guess :)

Speaking of sharing, Software Joel is allowing use of the Copilot ("remote control someone's computer over the Internet") free on weekends.

More interesting, Joel uses a recent downtime to discuss reliability. I talk about "four nines", "five nines", "six nines" reliability in class, and try to give good examples, but unless you've been knee-deep in a situation, you don't realize what those nine really mean. Here is a quote from Joel's post:
Think of it this way: If your six nines system goes down mysteriously just once and it takes you an hour to figure out the cause and fix it, well, you've just blown your downtime budget for the next century. Even the most notoriously reliable systems, like AT&T's long distance service, have had long outages (six hours in 1991) which put them at a rather embarrassing three nines ... and AT&T's long distance service is considered "carrier grade," the gold standard for uptime.
Finally, Tufte has a short analysis of, and suggestions for, the iPhone user interface in this video (scroll down a little for the link).

While you are visiting Tufte, you might want to think about data sonification, something we tried to do at Fresno State back in the NeXT computer days. We never got farther than a proof of concept system, but you can listen to one of Tufte's favorite graphic devices, sparklines. Very cool to listen to (the entire sonification discussion thread on Tufte's site is here.

Finally, there increasing interest in "evidence based" software engineering (here's an article from IEEE Software -- Fresno Staters click here) inspired by "evidence based medicine". Bob Sutton (you've read about him here previously) looks at infant mortality from a management perspective. Very interesting:
Their findings are intriguing. As proponents of the quality movement would predict, when there was greater input from non-physicians in developing treatment plans and more communication among all members of the units, infant mortality rates were lower... Similarly, these researchers also found that when front-line workers collaborated more on making process improvements in the units, mortality rates were also lower... BUT the big surprise is that collaboration wasn’t all good. One kind of collaboration was linked to higher mortality rates. When front-line employees became more involved in unit governance -- doing things like being involved in decisions about who was hired and fired, the creation of new positions, scheduling, and budget allocation decisions – mortality rates WENT UP.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Disturbing images of buildings, and feet

MIT made a big splash with a crazy-cornered building for Computer Science, Philosophy, and Linguistics? Frank Gehry, the building's famous architect sounds like he is talking about software while defending his work :
“These things are complicated,” he said, “and they involved a lot of people, and you never quite know where they went wrong. A building goes together with seven billion pieces of connective tissue. The chances of it getting done ever without something colliding or some misstep are small.”
The February 2008 Fast Company talks about MIT's lawsuit against Gehry.

Maybe they should have asked Christopher Alexander to design the building, since he's revered in the software design pattern world :)

There's been at least one attempt to compare Tufte and Alexander: "Edward Tufte Meets Christopher Alexander" (Fresno State people can access the paper here and Hawaii people can click here).

The 9 October 2007 Radio Lab show, in addition to talking to Oliver Sacks about magnets, had an interesting segment about phantom limb syndrome (cured using a $2 mirror) and about how brain and body experience emotion. The interesting part isn't really about phantom limb syndrome, it is the lead-in about experiencing emotion including provocative questions about male-female differences, and whether quadriplegics experience emotion differently.

In the phantom limb segment they talk about a civil war photograph of a pile of feet. It's from the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) in Washington DC and if you want to see it, click here.

Bonus thought-provoking things: first, an online exhibit of bezoars from NMHM, including "Rapunzel Syndrome" requiring surgical removal of a trichobezoar.

Second, Duncan Watts takes Malc's tipping point to task: "Is the tipping point toast?"

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Have a Happy Organize Your Home Day

Not only is 14 January Organize Your Home Day, it is also National Dress Up Your Pet Day, and National Hot Pastrami Sandwich Day, and the anniversary of Elvis' 1973 concert from Hawaii. I am not making this up.

Two things I omitted from yesterday's post:
  • You have almost a year to learn your part for Messiah sing-alongs. This is one of the strangest learning aids I've heard -- pick your part (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and the chorus. You'll hear your part on the left channel and the rest on the right. The strange thing is it's all MIDI (I think). If you are the book-learnin' music-readin' type, you can follow the score. Here's Beethoven's take on it.
  • After coveting the computer science departments nixie clock for a couple of years, I decided to order my own. That new dishwasher will have to wait.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Don't tase me, bro!

  • Can't we all just get along? The CSU trustees and the UC regents have taken a position against Proposition 92 which would guarantee more funding for community colleges. The community colleges are already under the mandated funding umbrella of 1988's infamous Proposition 98, so it seems a bit cheeky to ask for another constitutional amendment to guarantee funding. You might be thinking "wait, why is Proposition 92 a decade after Proposition 98?" It's because California's numbering scheme adopted in 1998.
  • In news of the economy, Gene Simmons talked to Honolulu business group last week. You can watch "highlights" and hear why he wears sunglasses.
  • I learned a new word for the next time I play Scrabble: parablepsis. I got to the word in a roundabout way: I was searching for something in IEEE Spectrum magazine, but ended up at in a book review of Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman (professor at Univerisity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). I'd read that book a while ago to learn more about how errors creep in. Anyway, the writer of the review is someone from Fresno.
  • Speaking of IEEE Spectrum, here is everything you need to know about tasers.
  • Two things in the What-were-they-thinking department:
    • Powdered peanut butter. I just ordered a four pack from Bell Plantation :)
    • Wired says that the Boeing 787 isn't physically separating the public and business data networks? What?? Here's a rebuttal, and Bruce Schneier's initial take.