Software Engineering

This past week of February was National Engineers Week, and it’s always an excellent time to learn about different engineers today as well as those whose shoulders we stand on. I haven’t practiced engineering as a professional in over eight years, but I still work with engineers and structural engineering every day at Bentley Systems.

I wanted to post a bit on some of the history of software engineering and, in particular, just how much women have contributed and really created that discipline.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace pictured with her table of algorithms created as an example code

Lovelace is widely recognized as having created the very first computer code language, when transcribing in her shorthand some mathematics to use on Charles Babbage’s difference engine. Stephen Wolfram did some research on Lovelace’s life and wrote a fascinating article on her life and work.

 

WWII Computers

Prior to the general adoption of digital computers, a “computer” was actually a human person who sat and did calculations all day. These were almost without exception women, many of whom had degrees in mathematics but were not able to continue on in the field due to their gender. During World War II, when the US Army was researching the first digital computer — the ENIAC, a group of these women who had been calculating munition trajectories were hired on to encode the same calculations into that computer. They wrote the computer code and the debugging for the first computer.

The excellent documentary “Top Secret Rosies1 contains many first-person interviews with these women and the men who fought in WWII, using their work everyday in the war.

Katherine Johnson

She was a computer when computers wore skirts.

And Katherine Johnson was just about the best. So good, in fact, that when digital computers were being used to calculate the mission trajectories for the first moon landing, John Glen insisted that they be checked by Johnson first2.

Makers.com has a wonderful set of video interviews about her career.

Last year, Johnson was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom —one of the two highest civilian honor this country bestows— in honor of her accomplishments as well as her being a role model for women and people of color.

Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was an early computer scientist who is probably best known for having discovered an actual bug (a moth) in a piece of computer equipment (a printer). However, it was her contribution of creating the first digital compiler for taking human-readable code and converting it to machine language that was truly a remarkable achievement.

As a I told my after school coding club kids last Fall, anytime you are debugging code so a computer can understand it, think about Admiral Hopper!

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton standing next to listings of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) source code (Courtesy Wikipedia)

While Katherine Johnson and others had calculated the trajectory for the Apollo mission, the spacecraft itself now had digital computers on board. Margaret Hamilton was the lead software engineer —a phrase coined by Anthony Oettinger and then put into wide use by Hamilton— for the Apollo craft’s operating system. Her foresight into operation priorities saved the day when a radar system malfunctioned but the guidance system architecture still landed the lunar module. She founded Hamilton Technologies in 1986.

Today

I can’t help but wonder that men haven’t simply co-opted the role of software engineer from women once it became clear that software was a worthwhile endeavor. However, there are many great women engineers practicing today, in both software and other engineering disciplines. I have the privilege of working with many at Bentley Systems. However, we’ve done a great disservice to young women in creating a culture that fails to encourage women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. STEM programs go a long way to help right this, but I think we also need to recognize that women have managed to create much of the modern world we know today, particularly in the field of software. And this in spite of the uphill climb many of these women faced in just finding work at all!

So in honor of engineers week, let’s be sure to let young women know that not only is their a future in STEM for them, but there is also an amazing past to be proud of!

Coding is for girls” by Anne McGraw

Further Reading

  1. At the time of this writing, it was on DVD only and not especially easy to find. I was able to rent it from Netflix and it may be for sale on Amazon. I highly encourage anyone interested in tech, history, or warfare to watch it.
  2. Always check the computer kids! It’s only as good as the programmer.

Remembering Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy passed away earlier today. If you asked many people, they might tell you that they hear Morgan Freeman’s voice in their head when they imagine the voice of God. To me, it will always be Leonard Nimoy. That placid, chain-smoking-induced growl that, in part, made Spock such a wonderful character of his fills me with awe.

Hipster Spock

As a child, in addition to Star Trek reruns (both the original series and the animated series), I grew up watching Nimoy host Nickelodean’s Standby: Lights, Camera, Action!. That show was a wonderful look at how movies are made. Nimoy was a wonderful host, engaging in demonstrations of special effects and occasional gags. His love of movies was evident. In a time before the internet, Wikipedia, and movie blogs, it was a source for me to learn about movies, actors, and directors. In fact, it was there that I first learned1 that the original Star Wars were the middle piece of a larger trilogy, and someday there would be prequels (before the word prequel existed, even, I think) and sequels2. I also learned about Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and the Klingon language from the same show. Of course, that film was directed by Nimoy, who’s involvement in movies and television grew beyond acting.

It’s said to never meet your heroes, as they will only disappoint you. However, I do truly regret never having had to the chance to meet Leonard Nimoy in person. He truly seemed like a beautiful person in most every way and Gene Roddenberry once called him “the conscious of ‘Star Trek'”. A wonderful quote from Nimoy:

Whatever I have given, I have gained.

It’s very sad to have lost Nimoy but I’m so glad that he was able to continue to appear in popular television and films, even up until very recently. His character of Spock is a cornerstone of pop-culture and it’s due almost entirely to Nimoy’s acting. In a show that is remembered for some cheesy plots and hammy acting, as well as some rather uneven movies, Nimoy was a gem in Star Trek. Honestly, if you can watch the scene of Kirk and Spock in the radiation chamber at the end of Wrath of Kahn and not get choked up, you are possibly more Vulcan than human:

It’s hard to think of a better way to remember Nimoy that with a performance like that. Live long and prosper.

  1. Well, either there or my Mom, who perhaps also learned it on the same show!
  2. More recently, JJ Abrams &emdash;who cast Nimoy in his series Fringe as well as bring Nimoy back as Spock in the re-envisioned Star Trek films&emdash; has taken over those sequel films. In fact, in no small part does the willingness of Abrams to continue to use Nimoy as an actor gives me appreciate of Abrams’ taste and ability to pull off such a daunting role.

The End of RadioShack

RadioShack announced today that they have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They will close about 2,400 of their stores with many of the remaining locations being purchased by Sprint. This is more-or-less fitting, given that the brand has basically gone from the go-to supply store for electronics parts to a cell phone reseller. I honestly can’t say that they no longer carried any electronics parts, but I seriously doubt it’s something most of their locations carried at all.

Ball's TV

Ball’s TV by Mathew Warner on Flickr. These guys look like they could legitimately fix your old tube television, though.

It’s disappointing news for some. Wired has as a story on how influential RadioShack was in building Silicon Valley1. Steve Wozniak (Apple co-founder) recounts how some original telephony hacking got he and Steve Jobs to go on to build computers:

He used [a Touch Tone dialer purchased at RadioShack] for the now-infamous Blue Box, which he and Steve Jobs used to make their own free calls without interference from Ma Bell. Without RadioShack, there’s no Blue Box. And as Woz tells it, without the Blue Box there’s no Apple.

While it’s good to understand RadioShack’s importance in the hacker / maker / DIY culture that helped to spur innovators like Woz, it’s important to note that the RadioShack we all knew and loved died many years ago. They either didn’t see the rise of makers or simply ignored it, in lieu of chasing mobile phone buyers. Admittedly, that was chasing the money at the time. Of course, it’s not served them well in the long run. And they company that brought IBM Compatible PCs to many homes across the country (including my friend, TJ’s, when we were kids) got out of the computer manufacturing business early on.

Jason Soldering

The time my older brother & I fixed my washing machine with a kit I ordered off the internet.

Even so, I think there’s never been a better time to be a maker or a tinkerer. With a nearly endless supply of free how-to videos on YouTube, countless DIY and repair sites catering to anyone with a screwdriver and some time, and amazing online shops like Adafruit, someone today has far more access to get started building whatever they can dream up. So, for that, I can be ok saying good bye to RadioShack. Frankly, I wrote them off a long time ago.

  1. Also, they get it wrong about fixing modern tech & gadgets. I’ve repaired iPods and iPhones myself, with parts I ordered off the internet and by watching YouTube videos.

    iPod Battery Replacement

    Replacing the battery in an iPod Classic.

My FitBit and Me

In early January, Angela and I got matching his-and-hers FitBit One’s to start tracking our activity. Angela’s actually been wearing a pedometer for years now. But the FitBit does a lot more data tracking than a simple pedometer. I’ve been wearing it everyday since then.

There a few technologies I’ve adopted that I would consider life-changing. Maybe not the sort that change the entire course of my life, but certainly that have had a dramatic impact on my day-to-day behavior. DVR (TiVo), smartphone (iPhone), and a personal activity tracker (FitBit). As a professional, I’ve always been at a desk for a lot of my time. But when I practiced engineering, I was often going on site visits and moving around throughout the day. Now that I’ve been working remotely for a software company, that’s not the case. My activity level can vary dramatically from day-to-day. I had no idea just how much until I started wearing the FitBit.

Pocket Location

I keep my FitBit one clipped to the watch pocket in my Jeans.

One day I’d break 10,000 steps shortly before lunch (if I went running, typically). On another day, I might be lucky to approach 2,000 steps. What’s more, is my eating varied just as much. And my activity (i.e., caloric expense) had absolutely no correlation with my eating (i.e., caloric intake). So my body would one day get twice as many calories as it really needed and another not enough. I was essentially training my caveman-era/lizard-brained body to hold on to every scrap of calories it got because who knew what tomorrow would bring.

Daily Achievement Unlocked!

Meeting your daily goals comes with bonus endorphins!

Wearing the FitBit and carefully tracking my calories eaten has help to change that behavior. I now track my calorie intake using LoseIt1. Having a number of activity goals —steps, active minutes, stairs, and miles— all of which gamify my physical activity. Of course, I don’t meet the targets all (most?) of the time, but just having the goals points me in the right direction rather than stumbling around in the dark.

Of course, just tracking the data is one thing. It would be all too easy to just pile it all together in some useless place. FitBit’s web site and iPhone app are really exceptional. In fact, I sort of use my FitBit as just a recorder (and occasional timepiece) and rarely take it out of my pocket. I simply use the iPhone app. On an iPhone 4S or newer, the smartphone syncs directly to the FitBit via Bluetooth 4.

Power Walker

I must have gotten lost that day.

I also use the FitBit to track my sleep, although that’s more to make sure I’m getting enough rather than judging the quality of it. Apparently, I’m generally 98% efficient at sleeping, whatever that means. The velcro wrist strap is a pain and tends to come off my arm. I’m on my second wrist strap, as well as second silicone clip. As a result, I’m considering upgrading to a Force next year. The One has been great so far.

  1. LoseIt has a great iPhone app and syncs both ways with a FitBit account.

A DITA & DITA Open Toolkit Reading List

I was in the process of reorganizing my computer science and technical writing shelf today during lunch when I began to notice a pattern: I have quite a few books related to DITA and the underlying technologies of the DITA Open Toolkit. Well, this isn’t by coincidence. It’s a big part of my job and something I’m really interested in. But it occurred to me just how much time I’ve spent pouring through these texts of structured authoring and XML-based technology—all in hopes of grokking this for my job.

Some Light Reading on DITA

So, in no particular order, here’s a list of some of my books on the subject:

DITA

XML

A couple of books on Ant & JavaScript that I haven’t even gotten to yet:

And, some wider shots of my (sort of) organized bookshelves:

Non-Fiction Bookshelves

Office Shelves

  1. I have the first edition. I’d recommend getting the later edition.

Regular Expressions versus XSLT

Last week I came across an epic rant within a forum thread1 about why using regular expressions for parsing XML is a bad idea.

The <center> cannot hold it is too late. The force of regex and HTML together in the same conceptual space will destroy your mind like so much watery putty.

At first, I was a little surprised. I love using regular expressions to make bulk changes throughout an XHTML document or even across a project consisting of hundreds of files. But, after reading through the post several times and thinkng about what I’ve been able to accomplish with some (relatively) simple XSLT files and a XML parser, it occurred to me that it is absolutely correct.

You, see as great as regular expressions are, they are not aware of the context. They have no idea if your matching a pattern within a C++ routine or an XHTML file. They can only parse characters and short strings as they are, with no understanding of their meaning.

EXstensible Stylesheet Language Transforms, on the other hand, are solely for the purpose of manipulating XML content. By definition, they are aware of XML elements and their attributes. The entire purpose of them is high-level modifications. In fact, after having used them now to successfully convert some XHTML to DITA XML, I have to say the powers feel almost god-like.

RegEx still have their use with XML—particularly with badly formed SGML/HTML one might have had dumped in their lap. But if the need is actually manipulating XML elements or attributes within a file (or even across files), then it’s really foolish to try to accomplish something with multiple regular expressions when a single XSL template will do (and often without the unintended consequences of a greedy RegEx).

  1. And when I say epic, I mean it goes from making a case as to why RegEx is simply insufficiently high-level enough to deal with HTML parsing to opening the gates of the abyss and letting the deep ones in to your mind.

Space Dog

I have read numerous times how Gene Roddenberry—the creator of Star Trek—preferred the eyes and mouth of an actor playing some alien not be obscured by makeup. The theory goes that this allows the actor to actually, well, act and the audience better empathize with the character. This makes good sense on a series like Star Trek, where the interaction with aliens is often less shoot ’em up and more diplomacy and moral drama. However, I had never considered this point extending to dogs.

Windows Explorer in Windows 8

I read this post on Improvements in the Windows Explorer earlier today with quite a bit of excitement. There’s a lot to learn in here about the thought process that goes behind the Ribbon UI which was developed at Microsoft and is finally reaching the Explorer window. I, personally, welcome the changes and think it is great that they are exposing so many power features but with the ability to make the interface as minimal as needed for someone who won’t use them. As someone who’s getting into more UX design, particularly when it comes to Ribbon UI applications, this sort of stuff is invaluable.

Gruber mentioned it in an aside piece, pointing out that Apple and Microsoft are really diverging in terms of UI design1. This is certainly true when comparing the (still in Alpha) Windows 8 Explorer window with the UI changes in OSX Lion. While it is fair to argue that Microsoft’s UI is busy, I think Apple has gone a bit too far in the other direction. My largest gripe is that all the color has been removed from most icons, making it a bit harder to differentiate one gray square from another. The ribbon can be minimized in any Ribbon UI program—resulting in what are functionally just graphical menus. There is a tool (oddly, with a gray gear icon) in the Finder which is “Perform tasks with the selected item(s)” which generally accomplishes the same task. Of course, it is just a menu and limited to practical menus sizes (no different than a right-click contextual menu at all).

Context menu in the OS X Lion Finder, or, as I like to call it: the puddle of gray blocks

The Windows 7 Explorer dialog is similarly simple, with a menu-ish toolbar providing some context-sensitive tools along the top. This interface looks a bit like Internet Explorer 8, but that is still different enough to most Windows programs that I think many users just never got used to the controls. In IE, the main purpose is browsing. Hiding settings, etc. aren’t needed most of the time and I’d wager many users don’t even know about them. However, I think anyone using a file manager is often looking to do more than just browse those files.

Windows 7 Explorer
The relatively stripped down Explorer interface in Windows 7

Windows 8—assuming that many of these features don’t get stripped out or watered down by some larger committee (as has happened to Windows releases in the past; thus Vista)—seems to try to cater to both casual users by way of the collapsable Ribbon and even the Metro UI (which will prevent many users from even seeing the Explorer window) as well as to power users who think that reducing the number of clicks to show hidden items from five down to two is awesome. Trying to have it both ways may very well not work, as is too often the case.

But, right or wrong, the Finder in OSX Lion is still going to be nearly as lousy after Windows 8 as it was when OS X first launched2. At least the Windows team is willing to listen to criticism and make some drastic changes.

  1. Fair to point out that Gruber didn’t mention any criticism of either, though if I had to place money on where his preferences lie, I’d go with Apple.
  2. There seem to be nearly as many Finder replacements for OS X as there are Explorer replacement/add-ons for Windows. However, the popularity of the $40 Path Finder really suggests how cumbersome Finder can be.

Get Your Backup On

Today is World Backup Day. Now, before you start looking over your shoulder or throwing the car in reverse, keep in mind this means backing up your data.

As in hard drives.

The Problem

The fact that most people probably don’t really think about data when they hear the phrase back up doesn’t really bode well for such an awareness campaign. However, as more of our daily lives — even the non-geeks out there — become more digital than physical, it is important for all of us to think about this. How many photos of your vacations, videos of your kids, purchases of music and film, purchased software with download-only delivery, or important documents that are no where else but stored in a series of ones and zeros on a hard disk? I know that in our household, it is pretty much everything of any importance for almost the past decade.

As a result of all that digital content, we have an enormous amount of storage in our house. Among our three main computers — my iMac desktop, Angela’s laptop, and my work laptop — we have nearly 2.25 terabytes of storage1. That number alone is the sort of thing that would have sounded like pure science fiction a couple of decades ago. Today, it’s really not that much at all2.

What’s more, while today’s computers and their hard drives are fairly robust, these things do fail. Even when that happens, it isn’t the end of the world. Data can be recovered but it is far from cheap. In a world of Free, the price for data recovery is still dramatically high. It is much cheaper, much simpler, and less stressful to know that you have backups in place and that the data is just a couple of click away instead of waiting for something to happen and crossing your fingers.

Our Solution

The golden rule is that anything digital worth keeping should have three copies:

  1. one “working” (the one on your computer)
  2. one “local” (on a hard drive connected to your computer or on your home network)
  3. one “off site” (either a rotated hard disk system or backup online)

This provides physical separation of your backups and while this was the sort of luxury that only large companies could afford years ago, it is simple and (relatively) cheap today with the dramatic drop in price of large hard drives and high-speed internet connections.

We use a set of hard disks that I either purchases for this purpose or put together from old equipment for our local backups. We use a hodge-podge of software to manage these backups:

  • Time Machine on Angela’s laptop3
  • Shirt Pocket’s Super-Duper to perform a weekly backup of my desktop (physically connected). The main benefit of using Super-Duper is that rather than a file-by-file backup, the external backup is an exact clone. I use Super-Duper as a drive cloner anytime I need to swap internal drives on a mac, as well.
  • Maxtor’s Backup to perform daily backups of my work laptop (physically connected)

That covers our local backups, but it is extremely important to also keep a remote backup in case of physical disaster or theft. For that, we use

  • For both our home computers, we use Carbonite. It is dead simple and works constantly to ensure we have a remote backup. Additionally, Carbonite allows us to access our files from pretty much anywhere so it acts as cloud storage for pretty much anything. There are similar services available, but I don’t know of any that offer the ease of use couple with ease of retrieval.
  • For my work laptop, my company uses a similar online storage system. While I imagine it is even more robust, the interface seems needlessly complex and sluggish to me. However, it has saved my bacon in recovering some important work files and I’m very thankful that they provide this to all of us remote workers.

In terms of cost, our entire local storage system could be purchased for about $250 (going rate is around $100/ terabyte for external storage). Carbonite is $55 per year per machine, though it’s cheaper for longer periods and you can use some coupons to get a month or two for free. So, for roughly $500, it is possible to provide an extremely robust backup for our home computers (if your work doesn’t pay to back up your work computer, they should) for nearly the entire expected life of those machines. It’s far from cheap but the peace of mind and ease of use is really worth it.

Ask anyone who has lost even a fraction of their digital photo albums or music collection and I’m sure they’ll agree.

So, snap to it and do yourself a big favor.

  1. And, yes, over half of that is full.
  2. I should also note that I’m excluding the additional 2.5 terabytes in TiVo storage in our house. While hard drive failure on one of these would be a pain and I’d hate to not be able to catch up on Fringe, it is far from catastrophic.
  3. Time Machine on a Airport Extreme Base Station router is like magic. I cannot think of any easier to use and better performing local network backup system. The only drawback is that Time Machine requires a ton of space to keep backups for even a relatively recent backup time period.

Star Trek: The Animated Series Online

When I was a kid growing up in the eighties, in a very rural part of the country, my exposure to Star Trek was somewhat limited. I was too young to the original series that much, opting for Lost in Space reruns if they were on, instead. However, when Nickelodeon began showing reruns of Star Trek: The Animated Series
, I was very much into it.

Unlike the original series (and, for that matter, subsequent ST series), this show had very alien-looking aliens1. Though some of the stories were cribbed almost line for line from the original series, some others were new and even more fantastic than anything with live actors. My wife is a die-hard ST: The Next Generation fan and I’d venture most folks either go for the original series or TNG. The Animated Series has always been my favorite.

So I’m very excited that CBS is streaming all of the episodes on StarTrek.com.

Decent animation, good stories, and voice acting from the origonal series stars (including, the wonderful James Doohan as Arex as well as his more famous character, Scotty)

I just watched the first episode over lunch and I can’t wait to watch more with the family. Given the very different budgetary concerns of animation, where special effects are cheap but each frame costs a lot, the show has little movement in any given shot but the shots are often dramatic. In fact, rather than looking as dated as one might expect, much of the show looks like a modern flash-animated series for those very same reasons. The stories are excellent; on par with a good science fiction novel and with less techno-babble than many series in the genre suffer from2. Though

  1. I have read that part of this was Gene Rodenbury’s desire to never cover the actor’s features. He seemed to feel that a more realistic portrayal of an alien’s emotions and facial expressions was more important that make-up and prosthetics. Admirable, though there is absolutely no reason to believe that alien species would express things in the same way as us (or even have the same emotions or logic), given that pretty much no other species on Earth does.
  2. The jargon used in the first episode is actually all pretty sound science and very little of it is just science-y sounding filler.