Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Under stress, the inner self flourishes

I just read this regarding New Orleans:

"It's like being in a Third World country," Mitch Handrich, a manager at Louisiana's biggest public hospital told the AP. <link>

So all of a sudden this kind of situation is like being in a third world country. Because, you know, just imagine: any given third world country is like New Orleans now. It is so bad, so unbearable, it doesn't even have air conditioning! How ugly it must be to live in a third world country!

Man, what an unfortunate, uneducated, insulting, and bigoted comment to reproduce.

And this bugs me even more because this was uttered in a country that, unlike poorer regions of the world, has always had the resources and the opportunity to address issues like those that affect New Orleans today --- and in this case, with more than plenty of warning before the disaster happened.

Just like with what happened with the Shuttle. Fifty-plus flights with foam problems? It's so easy to think of Dilbert's manager going "la-la-la-la"... until Columbia is lost.

Then what do you say? I screwed up big time, therefore I quit? Of course not. Just pull emotional chains to save yourself. Poor astronauts!

Same deal here. Even when New Orleans has been flooded more than once already, even when everybody knows what will eventually happen, the decision was made to install a half-good solution.

Isn't a city with more than one million people worth a few more feet of reinforced dirt in the right place? Isn't it worth it even if you want to look at it cynically, from the point of view of the oil facilities?

What I hate the most is that amidst all these horrible yet avoidable losses of all kinds, there is zero accountability. Wake up and realize that some people put everybody and everything on the line, against available evidence placed a bet saying there would never be a higher-than-category-3 hurricane in the area, and lost it all!!!

When you deny the facts and make crap up under the influence of arrogance, you get stuff like Columbia and Chernobyl, the Kursk and Challenger, global warming and nuclear winter. We are much more humble and modest than we think. Now face reality and deal with the consequences.

Let's make sure we remember our lesson and build the thing right next time.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Night full of art

See this is the kind of stuff I really like... to enjoy the art of the masters, not the students.

First, I listened to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, this time with Spanish narration. Very very nice. What a masterful arrangement of instruments, rythm and melody. Fantastic, fantastic.

Then I watched, for like the third time, a movie that I cherish very much: Being There. What an incredible performance by Peter Sellers. What a fabulous portrait. I wish there were more movies like Being There, or The Party.

As I look back at the movies I really like, I see that it is usually the case that I like the performance of artists who usually perform in a theater. How would it be possible to compare any of the so-called good actors of today with someone like Peter Sellers? There is no point in trying, in the same way that Karl Leister makes any "good" clarinet player sound bad.

Now I remember something from a short story called "You will have to forgive me". It says that time is unfair in that it does not stop when it should, and that it has a tendency to break the perfect moments and to avoid preserving things and people at their best.

And yes: how unfair that the production of the great people that have lived on Earth is so explicitly bounded by their lifetimes, and especially so when we consider how little we usually do to support creativity. In that regard, we should consider these artistic expressions as valuable as a fortune because they are so much more than the random noise we are fed everyday.

Thank you so much Peter.

The master of the clarinet

And I thought I had heard good musicians playing clarinet... no way! If you like the clarinet, then there's one dude you have to listen to: Karl Leister.

How is it possible that he extracts such stable, perfectly defined and colorful notes out of his clarinet without any spurious sounds? All the time? I didn't pick up a single glitch! Amazing.

Good stuff, Karl, really good stuff. Thank you so much for all the effort you must have put towards playing like that!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Well, excuse me!

So exactly why should I shell out tons of money in a new powerful computer I need so badly when, while cpu shopping, I discover this article? In short:

The Pentium M runs cooler, draws much less power, is faster, and is cheaper than most state of the art x86 cpus!

And with the help of an adapter, you can stick this lovely cpu on some desktop motherboards, even overclock it a little bit and... wow. Take a look at the article.

I knew P4s weren't that great. I was hoping AMD processors would be significantly better. But no, none of the above, because a slower P3 on steroids running on slower memory is better than both!!!

That super-size-everything dope really bends our perceptions out of shape, man...

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Games people play

I play computer games. Two interesting things happen.

I only play games which I've had the patience to master. This usually takes me considerable time, so I am picky in what I invest my time. This means I play few games.

The other thing is that, after I've had the patience to try to master the games, I only play games in which I enjoy watching myself play as I play. I become my own spectator and my own fan. And... as with great moves you always remember from your favorite sports stars, I also remember my great moves.

For example, how could I forget that amazing game against that dude "Petre", who had the annoying habit of insisting I played a soccer game rather badly? I finally convinced him to play against me. I even played on the right-to-left side, which is more difficult since you usually play left-to-right. I was winning 1-0, and at one point I found myself in what seemed a dead position. He even asked me "now what?". And then I invented something new. I created a play out of thin air for the 2-0 lead. His friends, behind, grew more silent. But there was more.

I got the ball close to midfield with #8 and ran away, his #8 player running behind mine. And I did many things I never do: I started describing the play aloud, how #8 was escaping the other #8, how mine stopped to raise the ball in the air by tapping it from below a couple times, and how he kicked the ball towards the goal from far away, all calculated so that the other #8 could not do anything but watch.

Players know from experience that trying to score this way against a good goalkeeper is useless. That's why it's not even attempted. But the ball went and went, through defenders and attackers who had been taken into consideration, and all of which had to watch it go by. The goal was not in the screen for me to measure the shot, but I didn't need that. Because the ball went right through this very narrow gap between the stretching keeper and the post from what would have been 35 yards out.

And then the silence, the faces of amazement, the gestures of astonishment, mouths half open and eyes staring into space. These were guys who knew the game, and they could not believe what had happened. My own spectator couldn't either. Fantastic.

I play for moments like this one. Not because of the defeat of others or the computer, but because I enjoy watching myself create. I remember many others moments very well. Petre's 3-0 subsequent loss on the second match. A 9-3 win on aggregate (6-2, 3-1) against another dude who knew the game very well. The victories with bad teams, against all odds. And that -19 round of golf.

Smalltalk is more of the same for me. I spent a lot of time perfecting, distilling the style. After the initial disappointments and the times when I wouldn't enjoy myself, came the time of my own spectator's approval and cheering because of what he was watching.

This led me to think this could be why people who program in more mainstream languages find Smalltalk so strange and foreign. Because of its tendency to give you very clear feedback on what you are doing, mastering it requires an effort for which our culture does not prepare us. And since we're not prepared to understand it, it is difficult to enjoy it.

There are so few development environments, so few instruments as expressive as Smalltalk, out of which you can extract so much by doing so little with so much elegance. How unfortunate we are conditioned to become First Triangle instead of First Violin, or an expressive Piano Virtuoso. What a loss to all of us.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Large directories and NTFS

Use case:

  1. Create new directory.
  2. Put on the order of 55 thousand files in it.
  3. Do dir directoryName >someTempFile.txt
What, you expected it to finish quickly? I don't think so. On this machine, with a fast hard drive, it takes several minutes.

Excuse: it's because the directory is fragmented. Good observation! Chances are that directory is big time fragmented now. Solution: defragment the whole drive and try again.

It still takes over a minute.

Excuse: it's because the hard drive does not have anything cached after that defragmentation run. Ok, fine. Solution: try again immediately so everything is still cached.

It still takes 17 seconds.

No more excuses now. For extra pain, try to add a new file to that folder. The time it takes is much longer than a blink.

Think of the implications for file server work. It means that a hash-bucketed folder approach will be way cheaper than a large folder, even paying the price of having to hash all filenames to find them.

And the slowdown doesn't occur all of a sudden, no sir. It will creep in, hiding from plain view until it's too late. Put 1000 files in a folder and you will notice that adding files isn't fast anymore. Remember all those dollars you spent on the newest hardware upgrades? Well, by 5000 files, you will have remembered 300bps modems.

Quick: which are the largest folders in your system? Really? Does it hurt now?

So in the extremely rare cases when folders larger than "small" change, users should implement a hash-bucket folder structure because the OS is unable to deal with the exceptional case efficiently.

BTrees sure sound cool now...

Monday, August 08, 2005

Mr. Franz

Franz Schubert lived for a very short period of time, dying still quite young at age 31. But he still managed to compose 1,000 works! How in heck did he do it? How fantastic. I wish today's world was more supportive of people like him.

I remember The Shepherd on the Rock (D. 965) very well. My mom (piano) and my uncle (clarinet) played it a lot at home, rehearsing for concerts with my mom's repertoire students...

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Desensitizing the public opinion

If we didn't have all the cultural baggage, both spontaneous and manufactured, how would our typical TV broadcasts appear to us?

For example, here's the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima's destruction. Do we ever stop to contemplate the fact that a rather "small" bomb as atomic bombs go managed to vaporize on the order of 100,000 people, mostly civilians without military value by the way, in about the time it takes to blink? And after doing it once, then we go and do the same thing with Nagasaki.

But here is all this programming talking about the honor of the air force pilots, or the sense of duty to go vaporize civilians, about how a couple survivors dealt with it... as if it hadn't been that bad after all.

Take a look at Hiroshima after the bombing, and pay special attention to the scale. This is the real impact of the first atomic bomb some people seem to be so proud of. I do not know how is it that we even dare to speak about "ground zero".

I really hate the fact that we miss the point here. It's not about "oh, we saved our soldiers' lives", because Japan was more than defeated already. We committed two horrific acts against civilians, comparable to what happened in concentration camps for some weeks but distilled down to a fraction of a second. And since we took these extremely cheap shots on them and it didn't happen to us, it's ok somehow.

If we had really wanted to win, it would have been much better to take out the leadership. But after all those hundreds of thousands of civilians vaporized, most of their leaders were still alive. Those that were powerful, those that encouraged crazy acts, were still alive so they could be embarrassed and humiliated by us: the arrogant people with big bombs and a Dukes of Hazzard mentality.

How about those lovely documentaries about the Bismarck and the Hood? Never mind that people on both ships wanted to gut each other out without anesthesia when they were shooting each other, as pathological such an artificially implanted knee-jerk reaction may seem. Never mind that those ships were purchased with tax money. Because you have to feel awe, you have to worship those killing machines we so proudly built. And while you sit on your leather couch, you have to pay respect and learn to justify how necessary is that those big gun muzzles shoot their deadly juices. You must be inspired by the honor of those chosen to use the long projectiles to penetrate others and inflict pain. Right?

The mentality of those programs is so sick, so beyond screwed up, that I can't completely describe how much it is disgusting to me.

Back at home, how about those "manuals to deal with radioactive fallout" given to civilians in Las Vegas back in the days of nuclear innocence? I also heard, from second hand sources, that if you take a laptop with you and drive towards certain places in the state of Nevada, the closer you get the more often the computer will crash. Is that nuts enough for you?

We're not at a time when stick'n'stone management will do. We proudly proclaim we have the largest geni I mean missiles and bombs. Like the chimps we are, we can mou I mean bomb anybody we want! We are the alpha male!... the point we miss is that all those weapons are regularly used to kill people that for the most part couldn't care less about what we do with our pretenses of democracy.

But our so called leaders, both politicians and shareholders, do all they can to drive us into believing this is normal, that there's nothing to worry, that it is us who are right when everybody else is wrong, and that everything we do is perfectly fine because it is regularly rubberstamped in the heavens of choice.

And regardless of the physical location, we answer the call to behave like this. Like the docile yet deceiptful sheep we are, and subjecting our own humanity to death by self-inflicted torture, we listen to what they have to say with the intense desire to be duped, to have an excuse to believe in something that deep down we know to be false, to be accomplices of the crimes we are about to commit against some vaguely defined "them" for our own benefit, and to let others be blamed when the truth comes out and a scapegoat is called for.

And our kids and our so called moral guardians, unable to do math and think properly for the most part, will decide our future.

As much as I cherish the product of real artists, as much as I think being aware of our place in the universe is extraordinarily precious, I just don't think we can deal with the responsibility that comes with the horrors we regularly inflict each other. We deserve evolution's axe. We're so much asking for it, it's almost pathetic we haven't wiped ourselves from the surface of Earth yet.

The final call to our self-destruction is being announced on the speakers. And as if we were invited to some fantastic party, we behave like lemmings and other animals we usually regard as stupid. We are unable to help eagerly jumping on board with excitement, feeling full of anticipation.

This, my friends, is bullshit.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Just in case it wasn't clear already...

Take a look at this quote (and follow this link for the whole article):

"I found that if you made men more insecure about their masculinity, they displayed more homophobic attitudes, tended to support the Iraq War more and would be more willing to purchase an SUV over another type of vehicle" --- Robb Willer

Would we dare to look in the mirror and perform this kind of study on developers while measuring source code traits? We could induce intellectual prowess insecurity and see what happens.

In that scenario, how much could unnecessary complexity be seen as a compensation mechanism to deal with accomplishments that appear smaller than they ought to be?

Sigh... such a sad state of affairs.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Headphones

I listen to my favorite music many many times. I take it apart, I study it, I play it slower and faster than it really is, and I memorize it down to the most subtle details. I wouldn't be able to do it without a decent pair of headphones.

When I was younger, I used a pair of good Aiwa headphones until the head band mount broke down due to wear. That is very unfortunate, because those headphones had an aluminum transducer that sounded really really good.

After some time, I started hunting for a decent replacement. After finding that everyday electronic stores did not carry neither knew anything about what I was looking for, I landed in a pro music hardware place with a cd full of my favorite music. I asked, quite directly, for the real set of headphones. The guy immediately reached for this almost funky looking pair and told me to stop looking around, that I had found what I was looking for. The thing is that they were about to close, but the guy was nice enough to start up his personal cd player and old amplifier from the back room so I could give them a try.

He warned that it wouldn't be the ideal setup because the hardware wasn't that great, but that it would give me an idea of what they sounded like. So the cd starts playing and to my surprise, I couldn't recognize the music!

All this time I had listened to this stuff and hadn't noticed that? Or the arrangement in the background over there? All the instruments were so clearly separated by this fantastic piece of hardware that for me, those five minutes I was afforded to test them were a one way trip. I left the store without them as they locked the door behind me.

But that weekend when I got them... that meant a rediscovery of all the music I had listened to for such a long time with lousy equipment. All the richness hidden in what I guess was double-figure total harmonic distortion came shining out of the mud, pristine and crystal clear.

Not only that... but these headphones are also the most comfortable I've ever worn. I can use them for hours and hours, and even with the arms of my glasses behind my ears, they don't hurt or squish one bit. Their adjustment mechanism is brilliant, because they have no mechanism at all. You put them on, you make yourself comfortable, they adjust themselves to you, and that's it. Great stuff!

So if you are into headphones, please... look no more and get yourself a pair of AKG 240s.