The frogs are fairly shouting

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Last night, when it was bedtime for my seven-year-old girl, I took her aside and said, "Put on your shoes and coat, we're going out to listen to the frog chorus!" This was our little secret, and she was bursting with excitement as we quietly sneaked out the door into the froggy night.

We all love frogs, and each of the children will have their turn, but tonight it was hers. Often we play at making frog sounds to each other. I'll start croaking, and she'll put her hand over my mouth and shout, "FROG!" and dissolve into laughter.

The singing grew steadily louder as we hurried through the neighborhood to the drainage pond, the chorus finally reaching a crescendo as we arrived. My little girl sat in my lap while the frog songs surrounded us and nearly overwhelmed our senses. Never have I heard an "opening night" when the frogs belted out their chorus with such abandon. Occasionally something would startle them and the song would instantly stop except for a few brave souls across the water. Then, slowly, new frogs would join in, including a particularly loud creature just a few feet away from us, until the full stereophonic frog experience had resumed.

The way I see it, frogs are like blackberries. (Hear me out!) A place where wild blackberries are so common and prolific that they're a nuisance tends be the kind of place I love--lots of rain and wet, beautiful trees, good growing season, close to the sea. Frogs thrive under exactly these conditions. Any place where frogs yell their throats out each spring is home to me.

We whispered back and forth about frogs, and why they sing, and how happy they are to awaken and be alive in the spring. She giggled about the unusually raspy sound of one frog in particular.

This morning my little girl told me she had dreamed all night about frogs.

[The title of this post comes from Muriel Blanchett's wonderful book, The Curve of Time, as she enjoyed the frogs with her little boy near their wilderness home on Vancouver Island.]


Cathedrals vs. pyramids

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I can't seem to escape from Phil Windley. His voice introduces each StackOverflow podcast. I worked for him briefly in 1998. I survived his programming languages class at BYU. (He made us learn Scheme and write mind-bending mutually recursive code translators, in spite of all the wailing and gnashing of teeth. This experience, along with Kelly Flanagan's computer architecture class, comprised 90% of the worthwhile content in the whole CS program. I can't seem to escape from Pareto either.)

So today (see, I'm already picking up annoying Pacific Northwest speech patterns) I stumbled upon Phil's writeup of a presentation by Alan Kay back in '06. I'm guessing you didn't read it either. It's awesomely thought-provoking. Here are a few highlights:

The Empire State Building was built in 11 months by 3000 people. We don’t know how to do this in computing.

"Americans have no past and no future, they live in an extended present.” This describes the state of computing. We live in the 80’s extended into the 21st century. The only thing that’s changed is the size. Windows XP has 70 million lines of code. It’s impossible for Alan to believe that it has 70 million lines of content. Microsoft engineers don’t dare prune it because they don’t know what it all does. Cathedrals have 1 millionth the mass of pyramids. The difference was the arch. Architecture demands arches.
I'm often asked to define software architecture. I like to think of good architecture as synonymous with Robert Pirsig's elusive "quality" in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Any code-monkey can produce a pile of code, but creating a cathedral requires real craftsmanship, nay, art. In the argument of whether programming is more of a science or an art, I fall firmly in the art camp. Which is a terrible segue into Kay's lament of the lack of science in computing:
We’re much better at building software systems than we are at predicting what they will do. There are no good models. If we were scientists, we’d be trying to build models.

We build finite artifacts, but the degrees of freedom grow faster than we can reason about them. Thus, we’re left with debugging.
I'm starting to think Lisp must be really important. Almost every seriously smart programmer seems to mention it lately. Sounds like it's time to go learn Lisp.
Lisp is the most important idea in computer science. Alan’s breakthrough in object oriented programming wasn’t objects, it was the realization that the Lisp metasystem was what we needed.
Finally, as a hardware/architecture/platform geek, this one really piqued my interest:
The secret of PARC’s success was to design the best virtual machine we could and then to build hardware that optimized that. We’ve got that concept backwards today.
I hope y'all enjoy the meat of Kay's presentation as much as I did.


Pointless meetings will kill you

Monday, January 19, 2009

Saw this today on svn:

It is certain that every organization has too many meetings, and far too many poorly designed ones. The main reason we don’t make meetings more productive is that we don’t value our time properly. The people who call meetings and those who attend them are not thinking about time as their most valuable resource.

~ Reid Hastie, Professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
Read the article. It's short. This guy nails the root cause of a lot of misery in the world.

Someone commented at svn that time-wasting meetings aren't your problem as an employee since you get paid the same either way. I wanted to punch the guy out. Here's how I see such rationalization:

That is how the living dead behave.

Never allow anyone to waste your life by claiming it's "company time". Time spent working for an employer is still irreplaceable time from your own life. Value each minute as much as any other. If you want to learn and accomplish anything meaningful you must value every minute of your life.

If you are unable to repair a culture destructive to your life, you either have to die inside every day or go find/create an environment worth living in.


The Windows7 betta

Saturday, January 10, 2009

You see, in a display of uber-geekness I installed the Windows 7 beta on this fine Saturday morning, and here's how it greeted me...

... upon which I freaked out. If you're surprised, you have something in common with the Microsoft marketing droids who chose the image: you haven't read Steve Yegge's thought-provoking and downright disturbing essay, A programmer's view of the universe, part 1: The fish.

I won't ruin it by trying to summarize. Besides, nobody can summarize the "master of verbosity" himself. ;-) But as a programmer, and an aquarium guy, his writing hit me like a cinderblock. If you're not a complete nerd you may want to scroll down to "My betta". You will be amazed, and probably a little sad, and I promise you'll never see the world quite the same way again.


Chris Sells takes Oslo to Portland

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The other night Chris Sells gave a cool talk on Oslo for the Portland Area .NET User's Group. His recent podcast interview on .NET Rocks was fascinating, in an abstract, intellectual sort of way, but I never grasped what this Oslo thing was actually for. I hoped attending his presentation would help me grok this stuff better. But to me, Oslo still looks like a hammer in search of a nail.

When I first heard of Oslo I couldn't keep the phrase "architecture astronaut" out of my head. It sounds like an interesting concept, maybe even a useful platform, but what's the killer app? What, specifically, can I do with this that makes me ten times more productive? I think I'd find it most useful for creating domain-specific languages. He demonstrated how easy it is to define a grammar, create a parser, and generate abstract syntax trees that you can process in C#. This would save a lot of time in creating "little languages" but it feels like the proverbial howitzer vs. mosquito.

Here's what I want to know: Is Oslo meant primarily for developers or business people? Is it about helping programmers and business people communicate? Is it hoping to evolve into a grand, unified theory of languages and data?

I'm going to give the Oslo guys the benefit of the doubt for a while. Too many people love to take a cursory look at everything new coming out of Redmond and declare it a big steaming pile. Sometimes they're right (Vista anyone?) but they often look like fools later. My very first reaction to .NET was "this is just a cheap clone of Java" and I couldn't have been more wrong.

Truly game-changing advancements always look crazy at first. My gut tells me they're onto something important.


Ice storm

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Last night I shoveled snow for over an hour. My northern Idaho DNA must still be intact. The bottom layer of snow was just wet enough to stick in the shovel, so I had to whack it against the concrete after every scoop. The cold must have addled my wits. It only occurred to me late in the game that a clear driveway was useless unless the road was plowed, and I would need a hammer and chisel to get my car doors open.

This morning I looked out my office window and wondered if I'd stumbled into the bathroom by mistake. Who ever heard of frosted glass in an office?

Other people have the sense God gave a head of cabbage, so they stay indoors on days like this. But I had to go out and see my first ice storm up close and personal. I ventured forth to take a few photos, then found myself walking around the neighborhood. The sound of each footstep cracking through the ice echoed like a gunshot off the surrounding houses.

For the uninitiated, here's what happens to trees on a delightful day like this. I saw things like this everywhere I looked.

"White grapes" are actually supposed to be green. I don't think this little shrub got the word.

This tree is encased in ice as thoroughly as Han Solo was encased in carbonite.

Here's some more holiday cheer.

I think these plants were once a variety of tall grass. Funny how I never paid much attention until now. I wonder what they look like without half an inch of ice.

As you can see, rhodies thrive here in Portland due to the mild, temperate climate.


Running update

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

First the good news. A few weeks ago I broke the "11-mile barrier". I'd been struggling for months with knee problems that forced me to cut my runs short to avoid further injury. But I did a 13-mile run with no problems. In fact, I felt awesome the entire time. I never felt the least bit sore or tired during or even after the run.

Then, last Saturday I ran my first 15-miler. (I'm following Jeff Galloway's training program where I increase my long run by two miles every other weekend.) By mile 12 I felt pretty drained, and the last few miles I was in bad shape. That evening and all day Sunday I felt like I'd been hit by a garbage truck.

So what gives? Why did adding two lousy miles add so much torture? My best guess is that I was short on sleep the week before this latest long run, and that made the difference. Any ideas?


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