Alien Day

For the past few years, each April 26th I have to look up why it’s “Alien Day”. The date is named after the plan­et LV-426, where the xenomorphs are first encoun­tered in the orig­i­nal, 1979 Rid­ley Scott film. Well, I’ve been a fan of the hor­ror-sci­fi fran­chise since I saw the sequel, Aliens. I’ve since watch any film in the series (good and bad) and read a lot of the comics. So, any­way, hap­py Alien Day to my fel­low sci-fi fans.

Aliens
Some comics, graph­ic nov­el col­lec­tions, and my attempt at draw­ing a xenomorph from cir­ca 1996.

Computer Graveyard

I’m tak­ing my old iMac in tomor­row for one last time. That is, I’m drop­ping it off at FedEx to have shipped off to the recy­cling cen­ter. That was my first Mac and it served me well. I had it upgrad­ed a cou­ple of times (remem­ber when you could do that to a Mac?) and even had to use Apple­Care once to replace the video board. That com­bined with a cou­ple of fam­i­ly moves, and I’ve kept the orig­i­nal box around all these years so I could box it up and take it some place. See, as much as I love the design of the Intel iMacs, they’re pret­ty awk­ward to lug around (at least the 24″ mod­el I have — I know, sad sto­ry). I even put the orig­i­nal foam cov­er back over it from the first unbox­ing.

iMac re-boxed

I had the orig­i­nal dri­ve replaced with the first 1TB dri­ves on the mar­ket: the Hitachi Deskstar. Between that and the 8GB of RAM and giant screen, this thing felt lux­u­ri­ous… for about three years or so. After the last OS upgrade or so, it got real­ly slow to use. Then final­ly, that Hitachi dri­ve gave out. I had an exter­nal clone of the dri­ve I could boot from and run, but that seemed even slow­er. So I ulti­mate­ly decid­ed to get a lap­top (by then Angela was on her third Mac lap­top).

Back in 2007, the idea of stuff­ing 1,000,000,000 bytes into a dri­ve was pret­ty new

So it end­ed up sit­ting on the floor of my office for sev­er­al years. I had meant to swap out the dri­ve and restore it, but hon­est­ly it would­n’t even real­ly run the games my kids want to play (Minecraft rec­om­mends OS 10.12, which this machine could­n’t come close to run­ning). So, the com­put­er I got before my daugh­ter was even born is now head­ed out the door. I’ve recy­cled many, many com­put­ers over the years. In fact, Angela does­n’t have any of those three Mac lap­tops any­more, even (she’s gone full iPad). But this machine is the one I’ve had the hard­est time get­ting rid of.

As Marie Kon­do would have me do, it’s time to thank it for its ser­vice and send it on its way. So I final­ly got around to crack­ing open the case. Since I can’t boot off the dri­ve, it’s not very easy to for­mat it (and remov­ing it is eas­i­er than run­ning DBAN for hours and hours). If you work on Macs, then you have to have a Torx dri­ver set. I’d aug­ment that to say you should have a mag­net­ic Torx dri­ver set, as I had to pull and replace the eight screws around the mon­i­tor with tweez­ers. It end­ed up not being such a ter­ri­ble task as I’d feared all this time, but I could­n’t guar­an­tee that the screen still works, either.

Hard dri­ve pulled out of the iMac. That’s the screen in the top-left cor­ner, turned back­wards
A less fun ver­sion of Oper­a­tion with eight Torx screws

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.