Daily Archives: November 6, 2006

On Blogging: Wikipedia is your friend

If you read my posts you will often find a link to an article in Wikipedia. Indeed, just look at the last word in the previous sentence.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that is evolving over time due to the thousands of voluntary contributors and editors who create and manage the content. Anyone can write about anything, though there are of course some rules in place to avoid excess.

Wikipedia has grown so it has amazing breadth and depth. For example in my earlier posts today I found references to a Russian computer scientist named A. P. Ershov, and to the town he helped to create, Adademgorodok.

I wrote earlier of the death of Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. I saw the obituary this morning around 9AM and wrote my post about here a few hours later. By the time I looked up her name in wikipedia a couple of hours later the entry for her had been updated to include here date of death and a link to her obituary in the New York Times, an hour first published only a few hours earlier. Remarkable!

By using Wikipedia links you don’t need to explain in detail each person, town, idea and such that you mention in your blog post. All you need is to add a phrase or a sentence or two to set the context. By provding a link you provide a way for the reader to dig further on their own initiative.

Wikipedia is created using a piece of open-source software called MediaWiki that is open-source.

MediaWiki is an instance of a “wiki,” a way for a group to collaboratively develop content. Simply put, while blogs are the works of individuals, wikis provide a way for a group of folks to create and refine a blog post.

We’ll be looking at wikis down the road in this project. Just now our focus is on blogging.

On Journalism: Blogging, open-source, the internet, John von Neumann

I wrote a recent post “Kaddish” about a talk by Professor Ari Goldman of Columbia University. After the talk was over I sought him out to personally tell him how much I had enjoyed his talk.

I also gave him my business card. That’s because Professor Goldman is a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. He spent over twenty years as a reporter for the New York Times. I said that it might be possible to arrange for some sort of exchange between his school and IBM, especially IBM Research.

I did this because of the important role the internet and so many other computer-related phenomena are playing in the world around us. If our journalists are going to report on these topics, they need to understand them. For example, two stories in the the Business section of today’s New York Times caught my eye.

The article “Online Player In the Game of Politics” begins with an account of how Mr. Ken Avidor, a Democrat, managed to capture some video in which a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives gave a speech in which she said that only had God told her to become a tax attorney, but he had told her to run for election for Congress. (Why anyone would want to run for office in that god-forsaken place is another story.)

The article then discusses YouTube and Mr. Avidor’s blog. The article even contains the phrase “social networking.”

To write intelligibly about this you need to understand blogs, social networking, and the distribution of video over the internet. For example, how the availability of broadband access has made video distribution possible, the availability of many blogging engines, some of which, such as our WordPress, are available at no charge.

A couple of weeks the buzz was about Oracle and Red Hat. These days it’s about Microsoft and Novell. To understand these stories you have to understand Linux, open-source and their role in the internet.

Another article bears the title, “Newspapers To Test Plan to Sell Ads on Google.” Nuff said on that topic. The newspaper industry’s greatest challenge is how to come to grips with the internet in general, and Google in particular. An article in the Business section last week noted that the revenue of the nations’s newspapers fell markedly last quarter.

Another article has the title “Google Bombs Away.” It’s about a “google bomb,” in which those skilled in internet art manipulate links and such so that unfavorable quotes about a candidate show up near the front of a Google search on the candidate’s name and a particular phrase. For example, “rumsfield borrowed time.”

All these articles can be found in just one day’s edition of a paper. What will the stories be like next week? Next year?

As it happens IBM Research has some folks with an insight into what is coming down the internet pike. Indeed some of them are building that pike as I write this. That’s why I suggested some sort of joint relationship might make sense.

Indeed something along these lines has already been done. I can cite just one instance but I’m am sure there are many others.

In May of 2004 I got an e-mail from a professor at San Jose State University named Joel West. He said he was going to be in Armonk in early June. He said he had been a programmer and reporter before becoming a professor, and he wanted to talk about the Jikes experience. Indeed, we had a nice visit, during which he recorded over an hour’s worth of conversation with Philippe and myself. He kindly sent us a copy of his recording later, and it is to a me a priceless artifact of those wonderful Jikes days. While I have written of them often, to my knowledge Philippe never has. Moreover, this is the only audio record from those days.

That audio artifact reminds me that I saw a link in Steve O’Grady’s blog today to an article about computers and mathematics. That post mentions John von Neumann, one of the greatest mathematicians of the last century, and a seminal figure in the creation of the computer (I have read his famous 1948 report; it is an amazing work.)

Von Neumann died in 1957. The Wikipedia article cited above is excellent. While we do have his writings and even photographs, I saw a documentary about a few years back that said there exists only one recording of one of his lectures, in the form of a “wire recording” (the predecessor to tape). There is also only one video record. It shows him appearing on a science show meant for small children. You can see him, but the only words you are are from the following exchange:

TV guy: What’s that, Professor von Neumann?
Von Neumann: It’s a battery.

But I digress. The interesting part is not that Professor West came to visit us, but the reason he was in the area. He was on his way to IBM corporate headquarters to meet with some of IBM’s most senior executives. It turns out that from time these executives assemble a panel of thought leaders and bring everyone together so they share their insight on the current situation and their view of the future. Indeed, Smart Guy #5, Tom Friedman himself, was also on the panel.

So as open-source developers we should do what we can to help educate our journalists, and also let them educate us.

On blog posting: DUD? RERO? or BLOAT?

The software development models discussed in the previous post apply not just to software development but to blogging

For example, I try to use the RERO approach in posting. The DUD approach suggests that posts should be carefully designed and released in a targeted fashion. However, as I have often noted the The Future is Now effect makes is hard to structure blog entries in sequence.

So I just write posts as fast as I can and release them when they’re done. So I may make five posts in one day and none the next. No matter. I just push them out when they are done.

I’ve gotten some confirmation lately that this approach makes sense.

The recent “Kaddish” post had no readers for almost a day after it first appeared, yet during that time there were views of many other posts, some of them written weeks earlier.

Yesterday I posted in response to a requeste for “Thanks” from the folks at Redmonk. That resulted in 11 of the 54 views yesterday. Today so far it has accounted for 28 of 80 views. None of my recent posts has yet been viewed, yet I see views for the much order posts, including the first post that was a letter to Lockheed-Martin’s CEO, “Happy Birthday Alphaworks!” and “A. J. Liebling’s quote about the Press.”

So bloggers: release early, and release often. Take some time as you write, but don’t spend hours and hours fretting over each new post. The more you write the more you will learn.

On designing software: DUD, RERO and BLOAT

My previous post, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, 98, Author of Childhood Memoir, noted the death of Ernestine Carey. She was the daughter of Frank Bunker Gilbreth.

Frank Bunker Gilbreth was a seminal figure in the areas of motion study and industrial efficiency, and a man who had a major impact on the way things were built. He spent decades studying the ways people move to develop techniques that would let them become more efficient in their movements. His work was related to that of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor’s tool was the stopwatch. He would break a task into its components, time each task, and then seek ways to perform the subtasks more efficiently and more speedily. The best expression of this approach can be found in Charles Chaplin’s movie “Modern Times,” of which the cited Wikipedia article says:

“Modern Times” (1936) depicts the dismal situation of workers and the poor in industrial society. The Eating Machine scene depicts the dehumanizing effect of mechanization.

There is another famous scene showing Chaplin with a six-foot wrench trapped in some large machine.

Gilbreth and Taylor were among the founders of the notion of “scientific management,” the belief that scientific and engineering techniques can be used to improve management and manufacturing processes.

Some of these techniques have been applied to software design. Indeed, there is a whole discipline called “software engineering.”

While Software Engineering is a worthy discipline in its right and can provide useful insight, unabated belief that the way to progress is to improve the process is often unwarranted.

I was reminded of this in a discussion about 15 years ago, in the early 90’s, while Fran Allen and I were driving to an airport. Fran is one of those rare people about whom it is impossible — absolutely impossible — to say anything bad. She was my first — and best — manager at IBM. She was the first woman to achieve IBM’s highest technical honor, IBM Fellow. She is also a friend of close to forty years, though I haven’t seen much of her since her retirement a few years back.

We were discussing the problems IBM had developing software. She said her view was that much of the problems resulted from a belief that came out of the 360 days, perhaps first inspired by the work of Fred Brooks. the chief designer of the software for IBM’s System/360 and also the author of the wonderful book, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering .

Fran’s thesis was that the root cause of IBM’s problems was the belief that to write software was to manufacture it, that writiing software could be managed using the same techniques and methods that worked so well in building large mainframes. She felt that IBM was spending far too much time — and wasted time to boot — in the belief that each small increment in the process will result in an improvement in the software produced using the process.

The great fallacy in this, as every programmer can attest, is that the best programmers are much better than the average programmer. For example, I happened to be in my gym this past Sunday morning during the running of the NYC Marathon. I pushed myself a bit and managed to average just under 6 mph over a half-hour span, about 10 minutes/mile. The world’s best marathoners run about 5 minutes/mile. That is amazing but their velocity was only twice mine. But the best programmers are tens or hundreds of times better than the average programmer, and the best can do things that no average programmer can ever do. They can write code of such quality and at such a pace they have only a handful of peers in the world.

The belief that the secret of software development is in the design of the process is an example of a software development process discussed earler in these posts: Design Until it Drops (DUD).

I also wrote in the same post about another model, the model used in the open-source community: Release Early, Release Often (RERO).

But as it happens that post was about golf; see Woods Adjusting to His New Role: Helping Rookies, in which I made an analogy to software design approaches and learning how to swing a golf club.
Ken Coar later mentioned another model via a comment.

Here are the three software-development models so far mentioned:

DUD: Design it Until it Drops

The approach that the design must be perfected before coding can be begun, or that the design must evolve in tandem as the code is developed, with no release until the software has been perfected, though in practice this approach often results in no software, as designers and developers drop by exhaustoin.

RERO: Release Early, Release Often

The approach that softwar should be released early, so all in the community can see it and then work to fix and improve it, initiating a cycle of successive releases, as often as possible.

BLOAT: Bug Limitation through Optimised Audience Targeting

The Software Development Model BLOAT: Bug Limitation through Optimised Audience Targeting

Ken relates this is based on John Brunner’s “first type of fool1.”

The BLOAT model relies more on social engineering than actual code; while existing bugs may or may not be corrected, attention is drawn away from them with the equivalent of, “Look! Something shiny!” End-user reviews used for marketing purposes are collected from those who like the shininess rather than those who have been encountering the gritty, grotty bugs. Practitioners of this model hate to throw anything away, regardless of irrelevance. If it has been used before (under any circumstances), it might be used again — so include it as insurance against that possibility and/or just for completeness. New feature elements, or replacements to existing functionality, are added without the predecessors being removed. Sometimes this is done under the banner of “preserving backward compatibility,” sometimes out of ignorance, and sometimes from laziness. Occasionally the practice is institutionalised into a policy. Software developed under this model tends to exhibit a monotonic increase in size over time, leading directly to the observed behaviour of each new version requiring more disk, CPU, and memory resources just to lever itself into a running condition.

Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, 98, Author of Childhood Memoir

Today’s New York Times brought the sad news of the death of Ernerstine Gilbreth Carey at the age of 98.

She is best-known for her childhood memoir “Cheaper by the Dozen,” her account about growing up in a family of 12 children. The book was a best-seller and I can recall how much I enjoyed reading it as a child, when I was no older than ten. The book resulted in several movies and I recall seeing the first of them. It had the same title and starred Myra Loy and Clifton Webb, two of my favorite actors.

Having read and enjoyed her book I am confident that her survivors– two brothers, two children, six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren — have at least 98 years worth of happy memories that will help them honor her memory.

Her father was Frank Butler Gilbreth, a seminal figure in the areas of motion study and industrial efficiency, and a man who had a major impact on the way things were built.

Some of his work relates to the way software is designed today, as I will discuss in the next post.

Ernestine Gilbreth Carey — may her memory be a blessing.

In Memory of Academician A. P. Ershov

By chance a letter came my way today that made think of Russia, and thinking about the four trips I have made to Russia made me think about Andrei Petrovich Ershov, and thinking about him led to my writing this post.

Ershov was a pioneer in the field of computing in the U.S.S.R. In the early 1960’s he did fundamental, ground-breaking work in the area of programming optimization while constructing an Algol compiler. He did this work on his own, in isolation, and independently came up with many of the key ideas that were then being discovered by Western scientists in the early 60’s.

His work became known in the West because of the writings of my colleague and thesis advisor at New York University, Jacob T. Schwartz.

My wife and I made our first trip to Russia in November, 1973, just weeks after the “Yom Kippur War.” We went as ordinary tourists to visit her many relatives. Both her parents were born in Russia, and her relatives there were then living in the Ukraine, in the cities of Kiev and Lvov. Many of them later emigrated to the U.S. We also went to Novosibirsk, Siberia, during our stay to visit Ershov.

Ershov was a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, a position in those days that gave its owner about the power and prestige of a U.S. Senator. He was one of the founders of Akademgorodok, a community based on education and research that was established in Siberia to provide a foothold for such work in Siberia, in the hopes it would speed Siberia’s development. [1] I believe he was a native of Siberia. It is similar in many ways to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in that respect.

Not many Americans went to that city in those days. Indeed, I happened to have a “Q” clearance in those days as I had been invited to apply for a job at Los Alamos for a job in September, 1972, and having such a clearance was part of the process. [2] Indeed, I had to check in at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on my arrival, and was interviewed by a representative from the CIA on my return.

My wife and I were next in Russia in September, 1976. This was for a conference on SETL jointly sponsored by Ershov and the Soviet Academy of Scieces on the Russian side, and by the National Science Foundation on the U.S. side.

One of the presenters at the conference was a young academician whose first name was David. I forget his last name, though I think I have a copy of the conference proceedings somewhere and will try to find it when time permits. It would interesting to see if I can find trace of him today.

David was Jewish. Ershov was both a distiguished scientist and a committed Communist, yet he took David on as a student knowing that this would put him at risk. And he even went on to help advance young David’s career.

I learned during my first visit that Tsarist and then Communist Russia had spent several centuries mastering the art and practice of anti-Semitism. See for example Protocols of Zion, a cruel and deadly hoax by the Tsar’s secret police that led to the death of an untold number of Jews. My wife’s relatives left Russia because of that anti-Semitism. The ones we met during our 1973 trip were there because they or their fathers were men of draft age, and so were not allowed to emigrate.

My most vivid memory of this is that when we asked our relatives if they went to synagogue — when we in their own, private homes when we did so — they hushed us up and said they couldn’t even talk about it, though it was evident by their faces that to even speak of Judaism in those days was a risky business indeed.

I have since learned that it wasn’t only the Russians who were such experts. While on vacation in Austria last summer we visited a museum that had a time line of recent Austrian history. The part that mentioned the Jews and World War II had been defaced. A much richer account of this sad story can be found in the recent book “On Memory” by Erik Kandel. Kandel emigrated from Austria as a young man and went on to spend a lifetime studying memory, work for which he recently received a Nobel Prize. His book is the best scientific memoir I have ever read, and also includes accounts of his days in Austria, both as a youth and on trips back to Austria after he won the Nobel Prize.

A.P. Ershov was one of those individuals who are true volunteers, taking a risk that they didn’t have to take so they could help others.

Andrei Petrovich Ershov — may his memory be a blessing.

Notes:

1. “Gorodok,” which means “small town,” was one of the first words I learned in Russian during the two years I studied Russian during my high-school years. A famous story by Lermontov begins with the words, “Taman yeset malenky gorodok … ” — “Taman is a small town …”

2. I know the date because the Munich massacre of the 1972 Olympics occurred during our stay in Los Alamos.

A musical magic moment

Magical moments are waiting to be found. You can look for them. You can even arrange for them to happen.

I had a musical magic moment today, one that I arranged to attend. I didn’t even have to pay for it.

One of the little-known musical treasures of the New York metropolitan area is Caramoor: a garden of great music. Indeed, there is even a video, Caramoor: a magical place that they provide so you can learn more about it.

I had the great good fortune to be present at a concert this past Sunday by The Brentano String Quartet and Mitsuko Uchida, piano, that included a performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet.

We each have our favorite pieces of music. While I won’t attempt to pick one piece as the greatest, I do have a personal favorite in the chamber music literature. It is Schumann’s Piano Quintet, to me the summit of chamber music. Or, to use the words you can find in a prior post, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

It was a wonderful performance. Ms. Uchida was extraordinary. Though as an optimist at heart I usually tend to favor the more spirited movements of a piece of music, the centerpiece of the Quintet is the magnificent second movement, the slow movement.

It was not only a wonderful performance, it was a magical performance.

And I didn’t have to pay for it. That’s because I was there as a volunteer, in this case as an usher. In exchange for an hour of time from my wife and myself we were able to hear the concert for free.

That’s also one of the magical aspects of volunteer efforts. By voluntering your time and skills you can be repaid in ways way beyond mere financial gain. You can nourish your soul while helping others. Does it get any better than that?

Volunteer efforts can also provide a way for personal interactions. For example, since I was in the concert room before the performance, I noticed Ms. Uchida practicing. When she took a break, before she went backstage I approached her and said that I was a great fan of hers. I have a copy of here performance of the Mozart Piano Sonatas, and have heard her perform a Mozart Concerto at Caramoor a couple of years ago. I said I was looking forward to the Schumann because it was in my view the summit of chamber music. She smiled and said she enjoyed playing it. Indeed, seeing her delight while playing the piece only increased my delight in watching and hearing the performance.

And even when you aren’t a volunteer, it can always be rewarding to give thanks. I wrote a recent post giving thanks to the folks at Redmonk.

I am also glad that I had the chance to personally thank Ken Thompson and his colleagues for their work on Unix. This was at a lunch at Bell Labs in 1980 or so. [1] I was there because as it happens one of Rob Pike’s first jobs when he joined Bell Labs was to port to Unix some software I had written as part of the SETL project. [2]

Keep looking for those magical moments. You’ll be able to enjoy even more of them if you try to become more open to them.

Notes:

1. I should be able to identify the exact day with some help from Google. While at lunch, I head mention of an accident on the George Washington bridge. I left the labs around 2PM to return to NYC. While the trip should have taken two hours, I didn’t get home until 8PM, because it turned out the GW Bridge was closed because a tanker had overturned, thus causing total gridlock on the NJ site of the Lincoln Tunnel.

2. I’ll write more about SETL and Rob in future posts.

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