Archive for August 2009

I’ll Meetchoo In Pichu

Well, the day has finally arrived. We’re off to hike the Inca Trail and visit Machu Picchu. Extended forecast for Cuzco: rain, rain, thunderstorms, rain, rain, rain.

Inglorious Basterds: The Celluloid Is Mightier Than The Wehrmacht

Saw the latest Quentin Tarentino movie last night. I actually quite liked “Death Proof” so I didn’t see this as any kind of “comeback,” as the critics seem to be labeling it.

For 7/8ths of the movie, I was queasy about the trivialization of the Holocaust: a movie about a squad of bad-ass Jews and femmes fatale battling an impossibly calculating SS officer (forget Brad Pitt’s top billing, Christoph Waltz is the real star). But then the curveball comes in right over home plate — rather than dodging the “revenge fantasy” elements, Tarentino puts it up on screen in slow motion. And in the midst of this B-movie sequence, the entire theme of the movie, about the power of stories (and movies, in particular) crystallizes. The movies literally kill the bad guys (even as the Nazi’s screen their own triumphant movie).

There are things that Tarentino does as a director that I don’t like (the “Putting Out Fire With Gasoline” sequence, the comic-book character cards), but as a story-teller, he’s fantastic.

Brilliance From Siggraph: Bokeh-Based Tiny Barcodes

Bokeh” is a term used by photographers to praise the out-of-focus areas of a photograph.

Researchers at MIT have figured out how to exploit bokeh so that they can read 3mm barcodes with 2.5 micron elements at a distance of 4 meters with an off-the-shelf camera!

The “bokode” dot uses a lenslet to create lightrays which, when captured by a large aperture lens focused at infinity, reconstruct a pattern. The orientation of the bokode to the lens is highly recoverable. As a guy who just spent some time prototyping an augmented reality application and being foiled by the challenge of capturing exactly this information, I’m blown away.

More generally, I’m blown away by the transformation of “optics” into information processing. In my newfound hobby of astronomy, guys with 4″ telescopes are creating images better than observatories could produce a few decades ago.

Inca Trail T-7

Did a final training hike around Lake Geneva the other day. Five hours in the rain with full packs, 14 miles or so. Felt fairly good about it until realizing: “So instead of around a lake, it’s 4000′ of vertical. Take a break, put your pack on and do it again in the afternoon, racing against dark when the temperatures plunge towards freezing. Sleep in a tent, wake up at 5AM to do it all over again. For 4 days. Oh yeah, at 10,000′.”

Can you be tone-deaf, but love music?

Researchers say that tone-deafness has a physiological basis: few neural connections between … uh … the frammitz and whatzitz lobes.

I think I may be tone-deaf. On the other hand, I may just have been lazy in music classes (I was lazy in all my other classes). I absolutely love music but I cannot play any musical instruments (laziness again being the likely factor). I’m pretty good at Guitar Hero, but if I anticipate the upcoming buttons I’m just as likely to guess wrong about whether a riff is high-to-low as low-to-high.

I can definitely tell “high and low,” at least with pure tones. But if you were to play a “C” and a “D” on a guitar or a piano, I could probably not say with certainty which was higher, much less say “that was a ‘C.'”I certainly cannot match up a note played on a piano and a note played on a guitar.

But again, I absolutely love music. Am I tone-deaf, or just lazy?

Update: Consensus is “tone deaf but don’t fret.” (See what I did there?)

I’m fascinated by new-found limitation! I’ve often wondered what being color blind “would be like” (I can hear Daniel Dennett say “It would be exactly like the experience of being color-blind”). But now I’m on the opposite side: here’s this sensory experience I love and I find that others have a richer (Necessarily? Well, if it’s like blue and green, yeah, that’s a big deal.) experience. How romantic! O Cruelle Neurons!

220 Billion Lines of COBOL? BS

Update: The first time I read the post, my take was that Jeff Atwood took at face value the claim that COBOL is by far the most common programming language in the world. Subsequently, comments have pointed out he was skeptical. But I still read the post as ambivalent to the claim. (FWIW: I’ve known Jeff for the better part of a decade and he and I are both judges for the Jolt Awards. I’m hardly ‘hating on him.’) The “statistics” say that there are 220 billion (b for bill-yun) lines of COBOL in production out there.

Bull.

The COBOL vendors have been pumping that number up for two decades (at least). It was “30 billion lines of COBOL can’t be wrong,” when I was a magazine editor and, for all its verbosity, COBOL is not a language that is prone to cut-and-paste expansion of its codebase. (The only conceivable way that 200BLoC of COBOL have been written in the past two decades.)

Jeff “digs in” and finds a “big” COBOL application: “Read says Columbia Insurance’s policy management and claims processing software is 20 years old and has 1 million lines of COBOL code with some 3,000 modifications layered on over the years.” That’s supposed to be impressive? An insurance company (the classic mainframe industry) has a significant codebase in COBOL? Wow. Well, just 219,999 to go! (And by the way, the specifics of the codebase are curious: not a lot of COBOL codebases started in 1989.)

The great reality check on the prevalence of COBOL was January 1, 2000. A day utterly hyped (never mind the crazy end-of-the-world nuts, the “statistic” was that Y2K software disasters were going to cost more than half a billion dollars in catastrophic damages) and utterly uneventful (the “reality” was  … what was it? Some bus ticket vending machines  didn’t work).

Is there a lot of COBOL in the world? Sure, but not nearly as much as you probably think. Many legacy systems have been ported to (primarily) Java and run on modern hardware; it’s kind of shocking to encounter a “green screen” mainframe system running on blades, but such systems are probably every bit as common as COBOL on Big Iron.

You know what programming language is much, much more popular than visible?

C

You can embed LaTeX in WordPress?

\pi r^2

Huh. Must be only on WordPress.com
Update: Requires the \LaTeX plugin

Bob Amen: RIP

My coworker Bob Amen was killed in a motorcycle accident on Thursday night, leaving behind a wife and child. He was the IT Director at one of my client’s and I spoke with him daily. We’d never met in person, so the only way I really knew him was as a voice on the phone, or a presence on IM and email.

Preliminary investigation appears to be that the driver of a refrigerator van drifted into the oncoming lane at a curve. I can’t help but think that had he been in a car, he would have walked away from the accident. I know that Bob loved riding his motorcycle and I’ll hold on to the thought that he was happy in the minutes leading up to his death.

Life’s short.

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