Douwe Osinga's Blog: August 2004

Sunday, August 29, 2004

A penguin saved my butt

A typical scene from a household in moving. Some stuff is already in boxes, a lot of stuff is not and more and more stuff is just randomly laying around. Switzerland is still more than 48 hours away and the ETBUP (estimated time before utter panic), the moment when you realize you'll never get all that stuff packed before the movers show up was still more than a night rest away, when suddenly mr Murphy made himself present: our main computer froze with that dreaded BSOD (Blue Screen of Death). Rebooting, fitting the drive in another machine or scandisk all failed. ETBUP suddenly minus twelve hours.

Who needs a stupid desktop, you say, don't you have a nice laptop? Yes. As a matter of fact the whole machine was going into storage just before I retrieved one little file - an eFax file containing the immigration papers that would allow for safe and official entry into Switzerland. I should have a copy of the thing on my linux box in the US, but I did not succeed in getting to it.

Finally I decided to try the Linux way. I downloaded Knoppix (50 minutes), burned it on a CD using my laptop (10 minutes), booted (3 minutes) and voila, all my data was there, readable without a problem. Victory I cried. Now to get to the data.

I have this portable hard disk. I plugged it in, Knoppix recognized it perfectly but then refused to write to it. No NTFS write support. Tried the Captive Microsoft Windows Driver Acquite thing where you use native windows drivers to do stuff under Linux, but no points. Downloaded service pack 1 for the same thing, but to no avail.

Then it hit me: writable cd's. Fired up whatever CD writer software Knoppix had and started burning the data. It failed too. I suppose because of the fact that when you put in the writable cd, you take out the Knoppix CD and thus the Operating System, which I imagine can be somewhat of a problem. But there is always Samba, which allows Linux to share hard disks with its Windows peers. Started it, and yes I could finally copy the data.

The fact that the hard disk was still dying meant that any time I copied more than 5 minutes worth of transfer, I got this nasty tick-tick-tick sound from the box and it was alll over, but after 5 attempts or so, I retrieved most of the important data but not the stupid .pst file. Every time I tried to copy that 700 mbyte file, it would freeze on my 5 seconds before completion. Damn.

When all other things fail, there is always Python. Wrote a small script to copy the file bit by bit so that I would at least get the first so many megabytes before the hard disk would fail me. Now I got everything save the last 15 Mbyte or so. Of course Outlook wouldn't read this mailbox, but there is the Inbox Repair Tool which I ran

Knoppix can read but not write NTFS partitions, so getting the data back to my portable harddrive was a bit of a challenge, but the Captive Microsoft Windows Drivers Acquire program should take care of that (it uses windows drivers from Linux).

Thursday, August 26, 2004

People doing strange things with Software

I made it to the conference and the first day was a bit of challenge, with the minimum amount of sleep I had, but after that it got a lot better. The conference is more an art festival and less of an scientific thing than I thought and as far as it is scientific, it is mostly about art critic, not so much about software engineering. Which is all fine and probably to be expected, but it did take me a little by surprise. Still, there are some genuinely interesting things going on here, things I probably should have heard of, but I haven't. Let's see:

On Tuesday there was a concert with live coding, which is not a fixing bugs in a system that runs, but is a way of making music. The artist types in lines of code that produce looping sounds and by changing his code, changes the music. A special programming language has been developed,  based on SmallTalk, SuperCollidor. The resulting music might not be for everybody, but it sure is interesting.

Casey Reas presented some of the stuff they had been doing with Processing, which is basically a preprocessor + library for java that makes art programming much simpler. You'll see something of that here soon. Then there was klippav, a way to do live audiovisual  breakbeat cutting, i.e. live video manipulation based on the sounds.

Popautomate is an interesting webapplication where Jean-Baptiste Bayle and Beatrice Rettig have collected over 3500 words as a number of samples from popsongs. You can enter a sentence and it will translate it into an mp3 of these samples. Aparently is used in some performances.

There is lots more and I'll be sure to blog about it when I have nothing else. One interesting thing is that this is an art-festival and I'm presenting some of my works, which would make me an artist. People ask me whether me joining Google doesn't undermine my integrity as an artist. It probably does to some extend, Google Hacks are somewhat suspicious when you work for Google. But it makes the whole question one does Software become Art a personal one.

May be it is really the other way around. Art == Hacking. Or at least for (post) modern art. You take something out of the context and use it in a different and interesting way, some way it was not meant for, but gives people interesting or disturbing insights.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Something rotten on the way to Denmark

So I changed the perfect weather of California for the more questioniable variant of North-Western Europe to go to the Readme festival in Denmark. The night train seemed to be a good option to get there, even though it involved a change of train in Duisburg with a wait of 2 hours. Or was it Dusseldorf? And there the trouble started.

The ticket said the train should continue at 11:29, but on the time table it said 11:13. Weird. But not weird enough to trigger an alarm. Also the Donnerplace around the corner was missing. Also not weird enough. There are always other Donnerplaces in Germany.

There's not that much exciting stuff to do around the railwaiy station, so we returned just before 11:00 and noted that our train was not posted on the big board, not at 11:13, nor at 11:29. Again not weird enough, but getting closer. We went down to the track and the train was already there. Not only that, the doors where closing and a guy was blowing his whisttle. Now we got to the point where it was weird enough to panick. We ran to the one open door where a conductor was standing, but he wouldn't let us in and we saw the train leave.

First we thought the train had left too early, but when we checked, it actually said that this train left on 11:13 Monday through Saturday and on 11:00 on Sunday. It was Sunday. Ah, but our ticket said 11:29, right? Ah, but that was from Duisburg and not from Dusseldorf. So we had less than 30 minutes to get to the other city. A taxi driver thought it would take 30 euros and 15-20 minutes to get there, so there we went.

Did we know a street close to the railway station, the taxi driver asked, while fumbling with the route planning thingy. Weird and we were still panicking. When the taxi stopped, the meter said 58 euro and the clock 11:02. We got out and started to run into the direction we though the station was. Also in different directions. There was no railway station.

When we did arrive at the station, the train had long gone of course.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Going home

Every party got the end sometime. This Friday I'm flying home. Google Zurich here I come. Google Headquarters is a wonderful place to work and I'm sure I'll miss it. The concentration of wonderfully smart people, the toys, the excellent food, the great weather, the interesting tech talks. Google is like Silicon Valley, only more so. But Zurich will be great too - like a startup from within. But first there are some other things.

I'll arrive in Amsterdam at 11:35 jetlagged and all and will be meeting some friends from 19:00 to 21:00 or so, if you want to come, it's in Gent aan de Schinkel. Then Sunday my wife and I will take the night train to Denmark, where I'll visit the readme conference and festival and present a paper on the mapped web. It should be fun, also the festival afterwards.

Then a week later, it is moving time and living in Zwitserland will start. Going home. The old Douwe Egberts commercial said: home is where you drink Douwe Egberts. With the Senseo being sold everywhere, this has taken a whole new meaning. Or maybe not.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Another Sunday at the Googleplex

Sundays at the Googleplex have a distinct post-apocalyptic feel to them. Three quarters of the population wiped out, with the rest trying to stick to the old patterns while society falls apart. To a large extend, this is due to the fact that there seem to be far less cleaners at Sundays during the week and also due to the fact that engineers are pigs. Not all of them, some are very anal when it comes to cleanliness, but most don't really clean up after themselves, which means that around 7 PM on Sunday the espresso machine looks like something out of a Japanese nucleair reactor.

Some always work on Sundays, since it is just another day of the week. Others only come to play a game, eat food, drink good coffee or do some laundry, but most come in just to finish something. On the one hand this means that things are more relaxed, since it is basically extra time you have for your project, on the other hand it really shows you don't have much of a life, if you work on Sunday. Luckily enough you only show it to other people working on Sunday.

Around 18:15 food droppings take place in this post-apocalyyptic world. The cafetaria is closed on the weekends, but somebody orders food at some delivery place so that the workers won't go hungry. Who the person is that controls the hand that feeds is unknown, at least to the people I speak to, but we're not going to bite. Indian take out. Hmmm.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

A warm gun for richer or poor

Happiness is a tricky thing. Not only being happy, but also measuring happiness. Robert Frank has an essay about money and happiness, How not to buy happiness. His basically says that yes you can buy happiness, but don't go spending money on large cars, houses & more stuff, but you can make your life better by reducing your commute, spend more time with friends and travel more. Yes, those things cost money too, if usually not directly.

The other thing from the article is that it seems from statistics that people on average don't feel more happy when a society becomes richer or when they live in a richer society, but they do feel happier when they become more rich relatively to the society they live in.

Now, this can be understood in two ways. Either the meaning of happiness changes when people become richer and happier, i.e. people in richer countries are happier than in poorer countries, or people are really always equally happy in whatever country, but if they think they're richer than average it makes them feel more happy.

But if people would really prefer being richer than their neighbour to being absolutely richer, it would follow that they would prefer to move to poorer countries (assuming they could take their riches with them). They seem to do that only seldom and only for the reason that the weather or the exchange rate is benign. In fact people poor people that are relatively well off in their own country, seem to be happy on average to move to richer countries where they would be relatively poor and absolutely rich. So it has to be the first way.

Thursday, August 5, 2004

Do the Google Dance

Once every so long, Google would push out a new algorithm to its servers and the rankings of sites would vary for a while, depending on whether you had reached a server that had the new algorithm or one that was still on the old. This period of instability, of dancing rankings was called the Google Dance. It no longer works like this, though the big changes are still called Google Dance. But once a year there is a real world Google Dance - people moving on music.

Of course most engineers believe in two things: Real men don't use Pascal and Real men don't dance. However throw in some beers and things start to change. Suddenly hardcore C++ coders will admit that actually Delphi, which is Pascal on steroids, is a pretty nice environment for developing applications and some will even start to swaying a bit somewhat congruent with the music. Add some females from the near by Search Engine Marketing & Optimization conference and the Google food and you got yourself a party.

For the die hard non dancers, there were some old-time computer games and a foosball table. A couple of bars kept dehydration at bay and for those who wouldn't feel right without access to the Internet at all time, there were a couple of tables with connected laptops. Gmail accounts all around!

An interesting puzzle came up: 5 pirates are sitting in a boat. They want to divide 500 pieces of gold in the tradional pirate way. The youngest gets to make a proposal. If his proposal gets more than 50% of the votes, the proposed way of dividing the loot will be accepted. If not, he will be thrown overboard and the next youngest pirate gets to make a proposal. This process is repeated until a proposal is passed. All pirates are rational and want to maximize their money, but like to throw others overboard all things equal and would like to avoid that fate. How will they divide the money? (I guess that gives away my position on the dancing/non dancing issue).

After the party some people went to Palo Alto, which hasn't that much of a night life, but it beats Mountain View and well, I had had a beer or two, so it seemed like a good idea at that time. It was, but when the bar closed our ride has gone. We were considering a taxi when it turned out that the girl standing next to us lived in Mountain View and more over was willing to take us there. She only had to pick up this guy with a bike.

When he brought in the bike I swear it was my bike that was stolen. But yeah, a ride is a ride. Still it was a nice bike.

Sunday, August 1, 2004

Not quite a google hack (7319)

I was playing around a little with Google (what else is there to do on a saturday night?) and I wondered what a top 1000 would look like if you would put the site that scores highest when you look for the number N at slot N? So I wrote a little script to find out: Google Top 1000. In case you wonder how high this site scores in that list, well at least at position 7319, at least after the GoogleBot pays a visit. Here's to Sexy Jim.