technology

Frank Zappa and Linux

In a ha-ha-only-serious investigation, Robin 'Roblimo' Miller explores the link between the music of Frank Zappa and the GNU/Linux operating system, the Free Software (free as in freedom, not (necessarily) as in price) alternative to corporate bastards like Microsoft and Apple.

And this is why he can say, with total authority, that Zappa's "Dinah-Moe Hummm" is totally about Linux, at least in spirit, while the song "Montana" with its talk of zirconium-encrusted tweezers and dental floss, "is obviously about Mac users."

...

In the early 70s Zappa wrote and performed a song called "Penguin in Bondage," a foretelling of the various anti-Linux lawsuits and threats from SCO, Microsoft, and other evildoers.

Zappa was also a heavy user of the Synclavier, an electronic music-machine that was a precursor to today's "studio on a computer" recording and sound editing software. Today, I strongly suspect Zappa would be using Linux and Ardour for most of his recording and composition.

letters and numbers for computer progammers

Computers, as many people know, at root work with numbers in the binary (base 2) system. This is because the on-off nature of digital circuits maps very easily to a series of 1s and 0s.

How, then do we get letters (and other symbols), and fractions, and very large numbers, out of the thing? We need to have ways of encoding them in binary.

For example, we might all agree that 01000001 represents 'A'. It wasn't too hard back in the days when we only let Americans use computers (I kid, I kid) and so had a relatively small number of letters, numerals, and punctuation marks to account for; but as we started to deal with accented characters, and typographical symbols like ©, and then Chinese and Japanese and Arabic and...well, it got complicated, and it's something that programmers often get wrong. Gobbledygook all too often shows up in web pages and other documents.

And on the math side, rounding errors continue to be a problem in many applications.

So here are two useful guides that everyone who writes software ought to read:

another energy-related leak, this one radioactive

As advocates of nuclear fission use the Gulf oil drilling disaster to claim that nuclear is a safe alternative, we ought to keep in mind the latest news from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, where a leak containing thirteen different radioactive substances was found on Friday -- in a pipe in a hole workers dug to find the source of an earlier leak.

Vermont Yankee officials admitted that they had misled state regulators and lawmakers regarding the use of underground pipes to carry radioactive substances.

According to the plant's owners and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the public faced no danger. Whether you believe that the NRC is providing better oversight to nuke plants than the Minerals and Mining Service was to offshore oil drilling, is for you to decide.

Radioactive tritium was discovered around the plant in a monitoring well back in January. According to watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, there is evidence of 15 radioactive leaks at 13 different reactor sites between March 2009 and April 2010, and at least 102 reactor units have had had recurring radioactive leaks into groundwater from 1963 through February 2009.

Controlled nuclear fusion, and "energy amplifier" designs using thorium, may eventually provide practical and safe nuclear power. But waste, safety, fuel limits, and weapons proliferation concerns make uranium and plutonium fission poor choices. We should instead focus our resources on making good use of that large fusion reactor that Providence has located just 93 million miles away.

on Flash intros to web pages

href="http://www.marketingsherpa.com/sample.cfm?contentID=2529#">Some words of wisdom on animated "splash" intro pages for websites, from Jared Spool, of Macromedia' User Interface Engineering group. Yes, this article is old enough to mention Macromedia, not Adobe; and yet some people still haven't got the message:

Jared said, "When we have clients who are thinking about Flash
splash pages, we tell them to go to their local supermarket and
bring a mime with them. Have the mime stand in front of the
supermarket, and, as each customer tries to enter, do a little
show that lasts two minutes, welcoming them to the supermarket
and trying to explain the bread is on aisle six and milk is on
sale today.

"Then stand back and count how many people watch the mime, how
many people get past the mime as quickly as possible, and how
many people punch the mime out.

"That should give you a good idea as to how well their splash
page will be received. That's the crux of it."

bullet-proof t-shirts on the way?

At first hearing it sounds like something straight of Snow Crash: researchers at the University of South Carolina took a cotton t-shirt, treated it with boron, and ended up with a fabric reinforced with nanowires made of boron carbide -- a material used in tank armor.

Sadly, a bullet-proof t-shirt is probably some ways away yet. But the technique produces a strong, light material that could be used not only in body armor but in the manufacture of lightweight fuel-efficient vehicles.

a Turing machine

If you've never studied computer science -- move on, nothing to see here.

But if you have, you'll appreciate Mike Davey's realization of a Turing machine.

A Turing machine, for those non-geeks who still with me, is a theoretical entity that models the process of computation. In 1936, Alan Turing -- one of most brilliant mathematicians ever, who helped break the Nazi's "Enigma" code and save Western civilization, and for his reward was prosecuted and sentenced to "chemical castration" via hormone injections for his homosexuality, but I digress -- proposed a mathematical model of computation that every CS student still studies today.

Imagine an infinitely long tape, divided into cells, where each cell can hold one symbol. This tape moves back and forth under a read/write head (or the head moves over the tape, it's equivalent), which can read the symbol under it and/or write a new one. The machine has just enough memory to hold one number, its "state", and a finite set of rules that tell it what to do when it seems a given symbol while in a given state: for example, "in state 17, if you see a 0, move the tape 23 places to the right and write a 1".

Anything that can be computed, can be computed by a Turing machine. You might think, for example, that a machine that used a two-dimensional grid of cells could do more than a Turing machine, but it can be proven that a "TM" can simulate such a 2-d machine, and so compute anything that it can. I wrote a lot of proofs involving TMs when I was in grad school.

Of course this is not a practical thing to build. Turing meant it only as a sort of thought-experiment. That's part of the beauty of Davey's construction: it's absolutely useless, completely a work of math art.

today's minor rant: credit card number fields and lazy programmers

This is minor, but god(dess)(s/es) how it annoys me...

Look at one of your credit cards. Notice how the digits of the card number are displayed in groups of four, something like "4111 1234 5678 9011".

Now, try entering the digits in just that way on some website where you want to buy something using that card. Odds are 50/50 that the site won't accept the input, that it will require you to type them in as the much less legible "4111123456789011".

There is absolutely no reason for this other than laziness or incompetence. Telling the program to remove spaces or dashes is trivial -- a decent program should be able to accept either format. (I've done it for my employer.)

Modern programming languages have a rich array of functions and methods for string manipulation. Learn to use 'em or go home and leave the programming to the grown-ups, kids.

how Verizon lost a FiOS sale

I've got a fairly slow DSL line out here at the Secret Headquaters: a 384k symmetric DSL line. Now that's faster than dial-up, but a lot slower than cable or other DSL services. (I have my line with Cavalier, and other than the speed have been generally satisfied.

I'm just barely close enough to the CO (the telephone company "central office") to get DSL service, and because of the distance have been told I can't get a faster line. So I've been looking at options.

There's cable, but a) Comcast sucks, and b) a cable connection is shared with everyone on your block. There are performance and security concerns with the whole setup.

So I was thinking about Verizon's FiOS. Now, yes, Verizon also sucks, so I was reluctant to consider it, but I figured I'd at least check it out.

So I sent them an e-mail with some questions: technical ones like the availability of static IP addresses, and billing ones about the fees they might tack on. (I do not understand how it is legal for telcos to advertize a $49.95 price and then add a whole bunch of unmandated "fees" on top of that, as much as $20 more. Not taxes, mind you, that their competitors would also have to charge, but "fees" that they choose to charge but don't include in the price you sign up for. How is this not fraud? Grrr.)

The response from Verizon? "In order to provide you with the best customer service, please contact our Verizon FIOS Sales and Customer Service department at (800) 837-4966 Monday through Friday, between 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM Eastern Time."

Uh, no. I took the time to write out my questions so that we could have precise communication. I do not want to wait on hold to talk to a salesdroid in your customer service department. If you are not willing to answer my questions in writing, if this is how you treat a potential customer, then thank you, but no, we will not be doing business.

(So now I'm considering Sprint's 4G wireless. Not as fast as FiOS, but they did get right back to me when I e-mailed them questions.)

Slate recalls "the giddy futurism of Omni magazine"

I have fond memories of Omni magazine -- I think there might be some old issues up in my attic. Slate looks back at Omni's look forward into the future world of 2010:

For anyone who was raised in the '70s and never had a date in the '80s or who thought the 2000s would look like a cross between a Yes album cover and Journey concert T-shirt, Omni magazine was essential reading—one with a ready answer to all your robot and rocket questions. And to a 10-year old getting a subscription for Christmas in 1979, Omni was The Future.

The magazine was a lushly airbrushed, sans-serif, and silver-paged vision dreamed up by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione and his wife, Kathy Keeton. It split the difference between the consumerist Popular Science—which always seemed to cover hypersonic travel and AMC carburetors in the same page—and the lofty Scientific American, whose rigor was alluring but still impenetrable to me. But with equal parts sci-fi, feature reporting, and meaty interviews with Freeman Dyson and Edward O. Wilson, Omni's arrival every month was a sort of peak nerd experience.

Y2010 bug cropping up

There are reports of POS credit/debit card terminals and cellphones jumping from 2009 right past 2010 to 2016. The problem seems to be the interpretation of what's intended to be a BCD value, as a hexadecimal one.

(For non-geeks: remember way back in school when you learned about different "bases" for numbers? Because computers use on-off signaling -- two possibilities -- we need to use base-2, "binary" arithmetic a lot. But because base-2 is a pain, we often use base-16, "hexadecimal", which is easy to convert to and from binary. In hexadecimal, the string of digits "10" actually means the value sixteen: instead of the ""one times ten plus zero times one" that we usually mean, we read it as "one times sixteen plus zero times one".)

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