Aloha Gemini

Today, after 2 years, I am moving on from Gemini Observatory, where I worked as a Senior Software Engineer. Unlike most departures, this one comes with very little drama; it’s more a case of wistful “well, that didn’t work out.” This is the second time in my life that I have worked for a few years in a scientific operation and the second time that I’ve walked away.

Scientific organizations, I’ve come to learn, tend to be very conservative in their organizations and processes, as their funding is, at best, fixed and, more commonly, forever under a cloud of looming budget cuts. Also, they have byzantine governance structures and audits and restrictions: at Gemini there was a foo-faraw because they bought a few automated coffee machines with government funds and we had to switch to a $5-per-month coffee club to pay for the same. Yeah, that’s where the waste in government is: astronomers drinking coffee. (I’m sure the cost of the bureaucrats reviewing, chastising, and correcting this egregious waste was many multiples of the yearly coffee costs of the entire observatory.)

It’s not that the structure is egregiously wrong or stupid: it’s perfectly logical. But after spending most of my career in the world of startups and entrepreneurs, it’s an irritant to see an organization that spends effort perpetuating the status quo. And it’s a shame when an organization full of brilliant people spends their intellectual capital on incremental improvements and not on higher-risk, high-payoff ventures. The Big Island of Hawaii is home to 13 observatories and the amount of code shared between them is virtually zero: there’s no Open Source initiative between the observatories. On “astronomy row” in Hilo, I imagine that I had three or four colleagues working on the exact same problems that I was solving. Oh well.

I loved the people here: my team-mates were smart and engaged and it seemed like the right group to pull off a transformation, but it didn’t pan out. Meanwhile, I learned that astronomers, as a rule, like to stay up late: an after-hours bar in Hilo would probably do great business. Also, more people on the island play board games than I dreamt possible and if there’s one thing I’ll miss, it’ll be Tuesday night Battlestar Galactica / Civilization / Pandemic, etc.

So now I’m returning to the West Side of the island, Kona, and sunnier and dryer days. My relationship to astronomy will return to its old mode: hauling my 4″ refractor up to 9000′ on Mauna Kea on dark Saturday nights and staring at the rings of Saturn. But I’ll be looking wistfully at the Adaptive Optics lasers piercing the sky at the summit and wondering what they’re seeing next.

I’m insanely excited about my next position (details to come) but for the next 2 weeks I’ll be traveling to the mainland to visit relatives and relax.


Astak Security DVR on Mac How-To

I have a security DVR purchased from Astak. It’s software is Windows-only, using some proprietary plug-in, and although the DVR can FTP the .AVI files up to a server, they don’t display on the Mac.

So, long-story short, this line will convert the format into an Apple-friendly .MP4:

/opt/local/bin/ffmpeg -i "$1" -acodec libfaac -vcodec mpeg4 -flags +aic+mv4 "$1".mp4

I set the DVR to FTP to my always-on Mac server. On that server, I set up Hazel to watch that folder and run the previous conversion shell script on the incoming .AVIs. I toss the .AVIs in the trash and move the .MP4 files into Dropbox, where they will synch up with me wherever I am (and, helpfully, provide me local notifications when the movies are created).

Because The Programming Language News Cycle Is 24-Hours

Lede with MSFT’s unveiling of TypeScript today. Reiterate that it targets the Web and is a superset of JavaScript. Most importantly, mention Hejlsberg early, as he and Gosling are the only programming language designers that people have actually heard of. Refer to Dart, but don’t bother to mention Bak or Bracha (no one’s heard of them).

Well, duh, write a sentence about explicit typing. Throw in a brief digression on misapprehensions about strong vs. loose typing to establish your PLT bona fides. Don’t go too deep, though, lest you run afoul of LtU. What the hell, mention Dart again. And, what the hell, mention Bak and V8.

But more importantly, tooling. Explain IntelliSense. To be sure, dynamic languages have promised the same. Regretfully point out lack of shipped IDEs.

Segue into Windows 8. Profoundly state that this is all about that. Get a paragraph out of the past year and the whole JavaScript vs .NET languages vs C++ thing.

Which segues perfectly back to Anders. Praise for several sentences, boldly say “shoe-in for Turing Award.” Reiterate C#’s evolution and focus on mainstream programming, but really this is all just a setup to get to…

“Embrace and extend.” History lesson. Java. Consent decrees. Everyone will skip this part.

Bring things up with a round turn, stating that “what’s old is new again.” Insightfully say that MSFT no longer has the influence that it used to. But hedge your bets by praising the intelligence and experience of their language division, just in case.

End with the admonition that time will tell. Leave with a call to action: tell the readers to try it themselves.