Sunday, January 25, 2015

New Toilets!

England's F.A. Cup may be one of the most unusual sporting tournaments in the world. It is "open to all teams who compete in the Premier League, the Football League and in Steps 1 to 5 of the FA National League System, as well as selected teams in Step 6."

Which is well more than 100 football teams, from all levels of the sport, including the behemoths of the Premier League, with their multi-hundred-million-dollar annual payrolls, but also including teams, from, well, Bradford.

Bradford, which is somewhere near Leeds, which is just sort of in the middle of England and not really near anywhere, have a team: the Bradford City Bantams.

Who are, this weekend, famous:

  • Mourinho bemoans Chelsea's disgraceful FA Cup drubbing
    A bemused Jose Mourinho described Chelsea's performance as unacceptable and a disgrace after the Premier League leaders slumped to a 4-2 home defeat against third-tier Bradford City in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday.

    It was an old-fashioned Cup tie, full of noise, tension, rip-roaring goals and a thrilling comeback victory for the brave underdogs on a chilly afternoon in west London.

And yet, Bradford City wasn't even the best F.A. Cup story of the weekend:

  • Soccer-Cambridge flush with cash ahead of Man Utd replay
    Cambridge United are flush with cash after securing a lucrative FA Cup fourth round replay at Manchester United and will spend their Old Trafford windfall on new toilets, the fourth tier club's chairman said.

    Cambridge, promoted from the minor leagues into the professional pyramid last season, held Louis van Gaal's expensively assembled squad to a 0-0 draw on Friday.

    The club are set to earn upwards of one million pounds ($1.50 million) from shared gate receipts and TV revenue from the replay on Feb. 4.

    Cambridge chairman Dave Doggett said they will use the money to update the run-down Abbey Stadium, which has been their home since 1932.

    "Hopefully we can get the stadium done and start putting in some proper toilets," Doggett told The Sunday Mirror newspaper.

Ah yes, let's see: Abbey Stadium. Indeed, it looks like it would benefit from a bit of a spruce-up.

Well done, Cambridge; well done, Bradford!

Now that is why sport can be fine entertainment.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Just because it's on a computer, doesn't mean it isn't boring

As everyone knows, I got really excited about the whole "MOOC" concept a few years ago.

I investigated a number of the providers, and signed up with lots of them: Coursera, Udacity, edX, Stanford Online; you name it, I created an account there and looked at their catalog.

Side trip, and confession: reading college course catalogs has always been an addiction of mine. I remember when I was younger, I liked nothing more than to get the latest catalog (back then, they were enormous printed books), find a nice quiet corner somewhere, and curl up for simply hours reading through course descriptions and titles, thinking about just what it was they they were going to discuss in that course, and whether I could imagine myself in that class.

In the intervening years, I've signed up for a number of classes, and some of them have been simply superb. The one which stands out the most is Dan Boneh's phenomenal series of courses on Cryptography, but others have been very good as well.

So this fall, I envisioned myself having a bit of time, and since I happen to be on the mailing lists for various MOOC providers, I saw (and signed up for) a half-dozen or so courses I thought I'd like.

Ugh.

Duds.

In some cases, institutions have simply placed a low-quality video camera into a classroom, taken the result, and put it online.

In other cases, they've made an attempt to design material which works well in an online format, and have made some attempt to invest in decent studio equipment, and so forth, but the results just don't work.

I suspect that, often, the issue is that the tools, techniques, and processes that instructors learn for working with a live audience of students are completely different than those that they need in the distance-learning environment.

And either no-one bothered to teach them those skills, or it didn't occur to them, or they just had no interest in attempting to develop those skills.

Let me tell you: sitting at my computer, looking at a motionless head, droning on in a monotone, reading from some prepared script, passionless, is a 100% sure-fire way to put me to sleep and inform me of nothing.

These are smart people.

And I'm sure they mean well.

But boy oh boy is the MOOC world suddenly filled with piles and piles of complete rubbish nowadays.

Did NoSQL suddenly stop being trendy?

It seemed like, two years ago, you couldn't read 3 articles on the web without reading about the wonders of some new NoSQL system: MongoDB, Cassandra, DynamoDB, Riak, CouchDB, ...

Was that trend really just a hot flash that came, flamed, and burned out?

I think a number of NoSQL installations in fact became solid production systems, running regularly and powering the web.

But nowadays it seems like mostly what you read about is how people are taking traditional databases and incorporating interesting ideas from those NoSQL systems into the legacy database technology.

Am I misreading things?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Knuth on history

OK, this is a bit complicated.

So we'll take it in pieces.

  • About a year ago, Don Knuth (yes, that Don Knuth) gave an invited talk at Stanford. It was the 2014 Kailath Lecture, and Knuth entitled his talk "Let's Not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science".

    "Computer programmers have a term for what I'm about to do: it's called 'flaming'," said Knuth, to laughter from the audience.

    Knuth spends the first half of his talk describing what he *likes* about the history of science, which he sees as a strong and well-established field. "But the good news," he says, "comes mostly from the history of other fields, such as the history of Mathematics, while the bad news comes from the history of Computer Science."

  • We pick up the story with Thomas Haigh's essay in the January Communications of the ACM: The Tears of Donald Knuth. Haigh notes that "The online video eventually showed something remarkable: his lecture focused on a single paper, Martin Campbell-Kelly's 2007 'The History of the History of Software.'"

  • You can find that manuscript here: The History of the History of Software. It's a pretty interesting paper, full of observations about the difficulties of trying to write about the history of software, such as the fact that much of that software no longer runs, nor even can be run, and the fact that often what we have left is software documentation, which isn't the same as the software itself.

  • Haigh makes his own attempt to crystallize and summarize Knuth's concern:
    In his lecture Knuth worried that a "dismal trend" in historical work meant that "all we get nowadays is dumbed down" through the elimination of technical detail. According to Knuth "historians of math have always faced the fact that they won't be able to please everybody." He feels that other historians of science have succumbed to "the delusion that ... an ordinary person can understand physics ..."

    Haigh proposes that one important distinction between computer science and fields versus mathematics or physics is the extreme youth, in a relative sense, of computer science, which leads to a limited amount of support for the history of computer science:

    Thus the kind of historical work Knuth would like to read would have to be written by computer scientists themselves. Some disciplines support careers spent teaching history to their students and writing history for their practitioners. Knuth himself holds up the history of mathematics as an example of what the history of computing should be. It is possible to earn a Ph.D. within some mathematics departments by writing a historical thesis (euphemistically referred to as an "expository" approach). Such departments have also been known to hire, tenure, and promote scholars whose research is primarily historical. Likewise medical schools, law schools, and a few business schools have hired and trained historians. A friend involved in a history of medicine program recently told me that its Ph.D. students are helped to shape their work and market themselves differently depending on whether they are seeking jobs in medical schools or in history programs. In other words, some medical schools and mathematics departments have created a demand for scholars working on the history of their disciplines and in response a supply of such scholars has arisen.
  • What can be done about this problem? Lance Fortnow considers the problem in his recent essay, The History of the History of the History of Computer Science.
    what can we do about the History of Computer Science, particularly for theoretical computer science? We live in a relatively young field where most of the great early researchers still roam among us. We should take this opportunity to learn and record how our field developed. I've dabbled a bit myself, talking to several of the pioneers, writing (with Steve Homer) a short history of computational complexity in the 20th Century and a history chapter in The Golden Ticket.

    But I'm not a historian. How do we collect the stories and memories of the founders of the field and tell their tales while we still have a chance?

  • Campbell-Kelly, himself, is well aware that the history he is writing is not the history others would like to have written:
    The book I wrote was a fairly standard, competent if undistinguished, business history and most business historians would recognize it as such. Nonetheless, Perkins is surely right in characterizing the kind of software history we would all like to see.
  • Haigh, meanwhile, defends the field, stating that:
    Contrary both to Knuth's despair and to Campbell-Kelly's story of a march of progress away from technical history, some scholars with formal training in history and philosophy have been turning to topics with more direct connections to computer science over the past few years.

So where does that leave us? From my own perspective, I've never been a great student of history. I'm not sure why, it just never has been my thing.

But I do agree that recording a true and accurate history of computer science is a worthy goal, and I'm glad such a distinguished roster of thinkers are trying to make it happen.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Stuff I'm reading, mid-January edition

Everybody came back from their holiday break with new things for me to read.

  • One year into the Ebola epidemic: a deadly, tenacious and unforgiving virus
    One year after the first Ebola cases started to surface in Guinea, WHO is publishing this series of 14 papers that take an in-depth look at West Africa’s first epidemic of Ebola virus disease.
  • HC26 Full Program
    Hot Chips: A Symposium on High Performance Chips; Sponsored by the IEEE Technical Committee on Microprocessors and Microcomputers in Cooperation with ACM SIGARCH
  • Why does a single integer assignment statement consume all of my CPU?
    Many processor architectures are less forgiving of misaligned data access and raise an alignment exception if you break the rules. When such an exception occurs, the operating system might choose to terminate the application. Or the operating system may choose to emulate the instruction and fix up the misaligned access. The program runs much slower, but at least it still runs. (In Windows, the decision how to respond to the alignment exception depends on whether the process asked for alignment faults to be forgiven. See SEM_NO­ALIGNMENT­FAULT­EXCEPT.)

    It appears that the original program is in the last case: An alignment exception occurred, and the operating system handled it by manually reading the four bytes from m_data[0] through m_data[4] and assembling them into a 32-bit value, then resuming execution of the original program.

    Dispatching the exception, parsing out the faulting instruction, emulating it, then resuming execution. That is all very slow. Probably several thousand instruction cycles. This can easily dwarf the actual computation performed by Calculate­The­Value.

  • GoGo does not need to run "Man in the Middle Attacks" on YouTube
    I use GoGo a lot. I’ve discovered that their system architecture suffers from “bufferbloat” (the same problem that caused Comcast to deploy Sandvine DPI gear to discover and attack bittorrent with “forged TCP” packet attacks, and jump-started the political net neutrality movement by outraging the Internet user community). Why does that matter? Well, if GoGo eliminated bufferbloat, streaming to the airplane would not break others’ connections, but would not work at all, with no effort on Gogo’s part other than fixing the bufferbloat problem. [The reason is simple - solutions to bufferbloat eliminate excess queueing delay in the network, thereby creating "fair" distribution of capacity among flows. That means that email and web surfing would get a larger share than streaming or big FTP's, and would not be disrupted by user attempts to stream YouTube or Netflix. At the same time, YouTube and Netflix connections would get their fair share, which is *not enough* to sustain video rates - though lower-quality video might be acceptable, if those services would recode their video to low-bitrate for this limited rate access].
  • Tintri: We have ZERO interest in adding compute to storage
    Currently a VMware-focused storage supplier using VMware storage abstractions, such as virtual machines (VMs) and virtual disks instead of LUNs and RAID groups, Tintri is expanding out its virtualised server remit to support KVM comparatively soon and Hyper-V around the end of the year.
  • Five recent results in high-performance data paths.
    The sum of these two facts is that we are currently in a period of systems design in which I/O performance is in its ascent: it is becoming proportionally faster relative to computation. This environmental change is demanding that systems researchers and designers reconsider the parameters in how they architect systems. As evidence of this trend, here are five spectacularly interesting papers that have been published at top systems and networking conferences over the past 12 months.
  • The little book about OS development
    This text is a practical guide to writing your own x86 operating system. It is designed to give enough help with the technical details while at the same time not reveal too much with samples and code excerpts. We’ve tried to collect parts of the vast (and often excellent) expanse of material and tutorials available, on the web and otherwise, and add our own insights into the problems we encountered and struggled with.
  • Why Docker, Containers and systemd Drive a Wedge Through the Concept of Linux Distributions
    There’s been an unholy war raging through the Linux world over systemd for some time. Pretty much everything on a system gets touched by what is selected as the first process on a system and how that impacts everything getting started up. People care a lot about this stuff, and the arguments have been passionate. Nevertheless, Mark Shuttleworth conceding defeat on behalf of Ubuntu marked the last major distribution going all in on systemd. Unless forks like Devuan become successful it’s going to be pretty hard to get Linux in a couple of years time without getting systemd as part of it.
  • OVN, Bringing Native Virtual Networking to OVS
    OVN is a new project from the Open vSwitch team to support virtual network abstraction. OVN will put users in control over cloud network resources, by allowing users to connect groups of VMs or containers into private L2 and L3 networks, quickly, programmatically, and without the need to provision VLANs or other physical network resources. OVN will include logical switches and routers, security groups, and L2/L3/L4 ACLs, implemented on top of a tunnel-based (VXLAN, NVGRE, Geneve, STT, IPsec) overlay network.
  • PCC: Performance-oriented Congestion Control
    Performance-oriented Congestion Control (PCC) is a new architecture that achieves consistent high performance even under challenging conditions. PCC senders continuously observe the connection between their actions and empirically experienced performance, enabling them to consistently adopt actions that result in high performance.
  • What Doesn't Seem Like Work?
    If something that seems like work to other people doesn't seem like work to you, that's something you're well suited for. For example, a lot of programmers I know, including me, actually like debugging. It's not something people tend to volunteer; one likes it the way one likes popping zits. But you may have to like debugging to like programming, considering the degree to which programming consists of it.
  • A Non-Programmer's Introduction to Git
    This is all well and good, but how can I (as a non-programmer) use a tool like Git? Here are a couple examples.
  • Do elite software developers exist?
    We should consider the possibility that someone could have 10X talent (whatever that means) without necessarily generating 10X output volume. Maybe the 10X shows up in quality instead of quantity. Maybe this is why elite developers are not paid 10X the average developer.
  • University Of Chicago's New Free Speech Policy Actually Protects Free Speech
    Rather than actually deal with speech issues on a case-by-case basis, universities have instead enacted broadly-written bans on campus speech.

    The University of Chicago, however, isn't jumping on this particular bandwagon. Its new speech policy is more of manifesto than a policy. It's assertive and it's comprehensive -- not in its restrictions, but in its liberties. It's the outgrowth of a study performed by the school and the conclusions it reaches are decidedly contrary to the prevailing collegiate winds.

    The committee behind the report and policy is chaired by Geoffrey Stone, a professor specializing in constitutional law (and member of the administration's intelligence review task force). Stone is a fierce defender of civil liberties, previously having taken Arizona legislators to task for their First Amendment-steamrolling cyberbullying/harassment bill.

  • Linus Torvalds on why he isn’t nice: “I don’t care about you”
    Following his keynote speech at the Linux.conf.au Conference in Auckland, New Zealand, Torvalds opened a Q&A session by fielding a question from Nebula One developer Matthew Garrett that accused Torvalds of having an abrasive tone in the Linux kernel mailing list. "Some people think I'm nice and are shocked when they find out different," Torvalds said in response (quoted via multiple Twitter accounts of the event). "I'm not a nice person, and I don't care about you. I care about the technology and the kernel—that's what's important to me."
  • But Where Do People Work in This Office?
    I see a lot of awesome stuff, but where is the quiet area where your big brains go to make world-changing software? Oh, jeez.

It looks like the entire month of January may pass with no rain at all. December's rain is just a distant memory now.

It does mean that I get to continue riding my bike.

But I would rather have the rain.

The Name of the Wind: a very short review

At some point late last fall, I was anticipating having some time to spend with my Kindle, so I bought Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind

As usual with me, I am about 10 years behind the times, as this book came out some time ago.

But I was looking for a page-turner (is it fair to say that, when you are reading an e-book on an e-reader?)

At any rate, I turned the pages.

And kept turning them (there are a lot of pages...).

And I turned them all the way until the end.

Which is not always the case with me, and a book. I have too little time and too many distractions, and many is the book that I nobly start yet do not finish.

Rothfuss's style appealed to me, because he knows how to take his time with his story. Sometimes books rush along, hurrying to force the tale to be told, cramming adventures and villains and escapades willy-nilly into every page.

But Rothfuss is trying to tell the story of a boy growing up (even though that boy may become a mighty wizard).

And, as every boy knows (and surely, every girl as well), growing up takes its own time, and proceeds on its own schedule.

So, the long and short of it is: I enjoyed The Name of the Wind, and felt it lived up to my expectations.

Rothfuss has written a sequel, and promises that he will complete his story.

Eventually.

When the time comes.

And, down the road, when I find that I again have some time with my Kindle, I expect that I will continue reading Rothfuss, moving on to The Wise Man's Fear.

And see how I like turning those pages.

Modern TV: a very short review

We've been watching some very good TV recently.

A few that stuck out to me:

  • Vera follows Detective Vera Stanhope, following the books of Ann Cleeves. It's set in Newcastle, England, and it is wonderfully compelling. It's gritty yet human, and the sights and sounds of Newcastle fit the show perfectly.
  • The Fall is a police procedural set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as an English policewoman is brought in to take charge of a case that has gone cold. The astonishing thing about The Fall is its pace: it takes two full seasons, about 15 hours of watching, to tell a story that many other shows might spend 90 minutes on. By really slowing down and digging in, the series becomes riveting; you simply cannot stop watching it once you start.
  • Jack Taylor is a strong show made from the books of Ken Bruen, set in Galway, Ireland. The character of Taylor is heart-breakingly self-destructive, but oh! the shows are so strong.
  • Longmire is based on Craig Johnson's Sheriff Walt Longmire books. It's set in rural Wyoming, on the Wyoming / Montana border (though actually filmed in New Mexico, I believe), and although the lead character is good, what makes the show is the superb richness of the supporting characters and cast.
  • In Plain Sight is sort of a one-woman show. Mary McCormack plays Marshall Mary Shannon, an inspector in the Witness Protection Program who is stationed in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Again, the wild west feel of the show is great, but we've also grown to love the supporting cast of this show, even through its rough edges.
  • Continuum is a fascinating Sci-Fi Channel show that riffs upon the time travel concept with some great writing and an interesting plot. It's got it's flaws, but we've certainly enjoyed it.
  • Orphan Black is another fascinating science fiction show, with a completely different plot. Most of the attention gathered by Orphan Black is hard to reveal without spoiling it, but the reality of the show is completely timely and believable, leading to lots of interesting discussions while you watch.
  • The League is a comedy about a group of friends who stay close by participating in a fantasy football league. But that gives such short shrift to a wonderfully funny and human show.
  • And Community is simply the funniest show you've never heard of. At least 5 laugh-out-loud moments in every 30 minute episode; great writing combined with a cast who clearly are having a delightful time with the show.

A friend commented to me recently that he barely watched movies anymore, because the TV series quality has become so high.

Perhaps it's just a burst of activity, but it's nice to get such great entertainment at the touch of the button at the end of a long hard day.