Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

What’s the business plan for computing in the future?

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Back 40+ years ago one of my college professors told me that we would get to the point where software cost more than the computers it was running on. That seemed a stretch back when computers were in the $375,000 and up (way up) price range. But of course he was right. Things change though and software is getting less expensive. A lot of people these days use Free Open Source software for computers.. Even with what I pay for software (Office 365 mostly) the cost of that software is low enough that I probably pay more for the computer. So maybe some people (at least as consumers) pay more for computer hardware than software.
We seem to be at the edge of a new huge drop in hardware prices though. Make magazine recently ran an article comparing sub-$10 dollar computers Of course to make them work as development machines you need to add more money but the real under $100 computer is clearly coming. It sure does sound great.
And then what? Everyone has a cheap computer. No one wants to pay for software. What is the incentive to do more development?
If you can’t make good money selling computers (thin margins, saturated market) who wants to spend money developing smaller cheaper computers? It’s not like you can make money on disposable accessories like ink cartridges which is where printer companies make most of their money. With all most everything you need in software on the Internet local performance becomes almost a complete non-issue so maybe you don’t need a faster computer.
How do you make a living off of giving software away? Support contracts? Those are no different from paid subscriptions which many people object to.
Ah, advertising! That’s been “the answer” for making money on the Internet. Will that work? Oh please no. There is too much of that already. At least for me. Others may disagree.
We’re in a race to make computers and software less expensive. Great for people looking to buy or use either of those items. Possibly not so good for people looking to make money. If there is no money to be made who will make the hardware/software people want?

Easy Coding

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

I’ve been playing around with a toy program just for the fun of it since yesterday. I keep adding little things as I think of them. Sometimes I have to look something up because my memory isn’t always so great but really its all trivial. Its no tour de force by any stretch of the imagination. Its just fun.

While working on that I remembered (amazing how long forgotten things come when short term ones don’t) how occasionally in college I would get frustrated and feel inadequate so would write a simple program just to feel like I could make something work. back them my task of choice was to write a program to print out multiplication tables. Even then that was pretty easy but I know I wrote it a couple of times.

Today I like to think I am creating simple demo programs that I can use with students as either demos or assignments for beginners. And that is true. Mostly. But I am also having fun doing something easy. It relaxes my mind.

Occasionally I miss the days when I worked on hard projects. But I am not ready to go back to coding full-time. For now programming for fun is more rewarding. Well not financially but in most other ways.

Vacation for an Hour

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

I last took a real vacation back around Christmas – so six months ago. It was good. I feel like I need another one but have no time scheduled until late in July. Things are just really busy. And busy is good. I’m not complaining about the work. I do need a mental break from time to time and frankly that is hard to get when you work at home.

I visited a real office yesterday and that was great. People interaction, a change of venue, free soda and ice cream. (OK the ice cream was unusual but it was still good.) But it is easy to fall back into work even when I am home because, well, because that is where I usually work.

I need a mental break at the end of the day. TV does not cut it. It is too mindless or perhaps I should say it takes up too little of the brain. It is so very tempting to get on the Internet while watching TV. What does work is to read. And by read I mean read for fun.

I love non fiction but that isn’t giving me the release these days. I have to think about it. There is no suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t take me away from reality but rather closer to it than I want to go. So I have taken back up reading Science Fiction. And oh is it wonderful.

I read a cartoon once where a wife is saying to her husband “when you said you wanted to retire to finish a book I thought you mean writing one not reading one.” I want to write a book (a novel) some day but for right now reading books is as good as a vacation. I wish I could spend a week just reading light fun reading. When I am rested enough I will write.

Until then though for a couple of hours a night I am somewhere out in the universe with larger than life heroes, impossible “science”, and as far from work as one can get. And that is good.


Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Suppose you run a data center. You have lots of personally identifiable information and a lot of other data that is is critical to keep safe. You have a vendor who has a software package that you have thoroughly tested and decided after careful evaluation that it is secure. Then they come to you with a second piece of software and say something like “this is a subset of that other piece of software but we have added more security.” Do you –

a) retest the new software and make sure that none of the changes they made made things worse rather than better

b) take them at their word and put the software right into production

If I am your boss and you choose “b” why should I not fire you on the spot?

Note: Any similarity between this hypothetical question and recent events in the news is purely coincidental.

How to get really rich

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

Yeah, hard work. Sure everyone says if you work hard enough you can get rich. I’m not so sure. I think working hard is helpful but that by itself it is far from enough. I think there are three other things that are helpful – Wealth, luck and brains.

By wealth I mean more than the average amount of financial resources.  At one time a million dollars would have been enough. Today maybe a bit more. One is not “really rich” with a million or two in assets but it is a good place to start.

Luck is pretty self explanatory. Everyone has some amount of luck but some people just seem to have more than their share. Brains the same. Some people are below average, some average, and some smarter than average.

If you have one of those things you have a reasonable chance of getting really rich with a lot of hard work. If you have two of them you have a very good chance. If you have all three your future is as secure as you are willing to work at it.

Bill Gates is an example of someone with all three. Donald Trump has at least two. Wealth for sure – his father was fairly well off. I’m not sure if the rest is luck or brains. If he had both his wealth would have had less up and down. How do you take casinos into Chapter 11 if you have both brains and luck?

Sam Walton? Brains for sure. A little luck? Perhaps. And he did work pretty hard at everything.

I know that some would argue that with brains and hard work you can make your own luck and overcome not starting with money. I don’t dispute that but I think it makes things harder. Luck alone might not seem like enough but if you add hard work and your luck brings you the right partners anything is possible. A little wealth goes a long way if you work hard at it and make it work hard for you.

I think you need at least one of those three items though. How many of them determines how hard you have to work to overcome not having the others.

But poor, unlucky, dumb people are not going to get rich no matter how hard they work. Anyone have any examples to prove me wrong?

Education Professionals and Non Professionals Running Schools

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

So my thing to wonder about today is the various attitudes about non-education professionals in education. Specifically it seems that a lot of education professionals attack people like Bill Gates and other would be school reformers from industry and politics for their efforts. They say these are not professional educators and so should stay out of things. OK I can see that line of argument but here is the rub. Most of those same people are strong supporters of local school boards whose memberships are totally made up of, wait for it, non education professionals.

And in fact my experience is that most school board members do less homework and study about education that the big name non-education professional “reformers.” Anyone else see the contradiction here?

Now I have spent time on a school board, six years on the board of a private Catholic K-8 school, time on a public school budget committee (an elected position BTW), and 9 years as a classroom teacher. I’m not sure that makes me an education professional but I do think it makes me more aware of the issues than the average person. And based on those experiences I have concerns about the way we fill school boards for public schools. Some concern about private school boards as well but actually less because the process of selecting board members is very different. But that is a topic for another post.

What I want in someone who makes policy suggestions/decisions for schools is someone who knows what they are talking about. Ideally they read a lot, talk to a lot of people who are education professionals, and have some experience in the classroom – not as a student. This does not fit most school board members but except for the classroom experience does fit a lot of the business and political people who are interested in the issues. So why do people who oppose them support local non-professional school boards? I have a theory.

School boards get almost all of their information from the professional running the school/district. The control of information is the control of the agenda and for the most part of the decisions. The result is that the professionals largely control the board’s decisions. You can see why the critics of school reforms would like this. Educated free-thinkers are generally not welcome on school boards. By controlling information to other interested groups (the PTA can be a very powerful force especially in small town elections) superintendents can often help make sure that board members who disagree with them have a short tenure in office.

Am I being cynical? I don’t think so. I think that many educators who oppose outside reformers and yet support non-professionals on school boards do so only because they know that opposing any sort of outside control is doomed to failure. having ignorant school boards is the next best thing, in their eyes, than no school board at all.

Am I wrong? I’d love to hear (read) a better explanation.

Markup Languages

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

So there is nothing on TV and I am catching up on my blog reading. Eugene Wallingford had an interesting blog post from a conference (I think) he is attending. One of the things that came up, sort of on the side, was markup languages like runoff and troff. These were markup languages used for creating documents in the days before WYSIWYG word processing software. I used runoff and variations of in for a while at DEC. Later DEC developed a tool called VAX Document which processed a markup language called SDML – standard document markup language. I wrote a lot of documentation back in the day using SDML which was processed through VAX Document.

It was sort of like HTML is some ways but with a whole lot more options. If fact is was really a customized set of markup tags for creating computer documentation. It was particularly good at documenting DCL (Digital Command Line) instructions which is how most command line programs were run on the Digital operating systems.

One had to create their files using a text editor of course and enter tags manually. We were not near as sophisticated then as we are today. And as with any coding effort there was often debugging as nesting was wrong or end tags were forgotten or there were typos in the tags. The end results usually looked very good though. We were still getting used to proportional fonts back then and without WYSIWYG editors it was hard to manually format things. Markup languages and the processors that worked with them were much easier. Relatively speaking of course.

We had a markup language for specifying DCL commands. This language was used to help create code that would be used by programs for parsing command line input. For the life of me I can’t remember what that markup language was called. And I used it a lot. While I was in grad school I actually wrote a sort of compiler to input that markup language and then automatically create SDML for documentation purposes. I had to manually add some detail of course but I was guarantied that all of the commands, options and parameters that would be supported by real code were in the documentation. It was a big win for me.

The next step was to have it create more stub code that I could use in my programs. There were a lot of library calls one had to do and this also saved me a lot of work. Especially since I could create code stubs automatically in VAX BASIC, PASCAL, FORTRAN, COBOL and C++. I was using all of those languages on a regular basis at the time.

Eventually HTML came along and with previous experience with several other, more powerful, markup languages it was pretty easy to pick up. I still retain an appreciation of a good markup language. HTML is getting weird in some ways and going beyond a simple markup language. Simple is a valuable thing in a markup language. Oh well. XML is being used quite a bit these days but I am not sure that people whose whole markup language experience is XML and HTML can really understand the beauty of good markup like we old-timers. But then I may be full of it too.

The Education Party of No

Friday, September 24th, 2010

These days a lot of teacher groups (not just unions though they get the attention) are a lot like the Republican party. What am I seriously comparing the teacher unions to Republicans? Well, yes, in a way. They way they are the same is that they are all about saying “no” without offering real competing solutions to real problems. The Republicans are all over the news for obstructing anything the Democrats  and Obama try to do. There is no offering of alternative solutions just a list of why the solutions being offered are wrong/bad/miss the point or what ever. This is of course not helpful but it is working for them because people are angry that Democratic solutions are not working or at least not fast enough. The situation in education is similar and different.

I think there is pretty universal agreement that we have some problems with education in the US. There are groups (Bill Gates and his foundations, the charter school movement, DC school’s chief Michelle Rhee, and others) who are offering their own ideas about fixing things. On the other side are educators who feel that these groups are picking on them, blaming them, and trying to ruin them. So they say “no” to the suggested “solutions.” And they are right in many ways. Standardized tests are a lousy way to judge learning and teacher performance. There really are other problems outside teacher control like poverty, unsupportive parents, kids who are not motivated and more. These problems do have to be addressed for education to be improved. The problem is that they are not offering much in the way of solutions. Just “don’t do what you are suggesting.”

Part of this may be a feeling of powerlessness in the area of they themselves being able to accomplish these changes outside the school building. But teachers could, and I would argue should, be making suggestions as to how to improve the things they can control such as determining who the good and not so good teachers are. Teachers should be working to improve teacher assessment in real and authentic ways. They should be making positive suggests and not just reject other suggestions from outsiders.

And teachers need to make more suggestions about how to asses students. I hear over and over again that teachers do assess students and that they do a good job. The problem is that the end results of our educational system, in some ways, call into question the accuracy of many assessments. We see “honor students” who reach college and can not handle the work there. We see high school graduates who lack basic skills in things like math and English when  they get their first jobs. While we see many graduates with good education we see far too many who seem to have gotten their diplomas without actually learning much. The reason outsiders press for standardized testing is a lack of trust in the assessment job that too many teachers are doing. Fixing that credibility problem is the key to holding back on standardized testing. It has to come by improving assessment, improving teaching and teachers, and helping to clean house of the worst teachers.

There are many huge problems that good teachers can not completely overcome. No doubt about that. But we have to remember that there are few educational problems that a bad teacher can’t make worse.

[Note that these are my opinions and may not be shared by anyone else I know.]

Why Space

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Outer space is all but unreachable. Even close planets like Mars take months to get to and there isn’t much there. Other solar systems? Forget about it! Unless we discover a way around the whole speed of light thing – highly unlikely – we are never leaving this solar system. And yet we keep trying stuff?

It’s not like there are no challenges closer to home either. We have better maps of Mars than we do of the earth under the oceans. And the oceans have lots of highly valuable things like minerals, and metals and food stuff and what not that we really could use. OF source it is hard to get at which should be a challenge, like space, that we raise up to and try to solve. But for the most part we don’t.

We look to space. What is it about space that makes us want to strive for it? I don’t understand it. Honestly though if given a choice between a trip to the bottom of the ocean and a trip into earth orbit I’d want to go to space. Makes no sense. But there you have it.

Now I love the seas. Even as a young person I was very interested in undersea things. I read about it, I went to conferences, and I thought a lot about it. But my blood still raced more reading science fiction about space exploration. Is it the fantasy or something else? Or are we just foolishly acting against our best interests? What do you think?

Air Travel

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

I recently heard Bill Gates answering the question “how does being the richest man in the world effect your life?” At one point in his answer he got a wistful look on his face and said something like “Air travel. Air travel is really nice.” I can only imagine. The man has a very cool, very fast private jet. I suspect that it has a staff on board that tends to his needs in a personal way. I also suspect that he doesn’t go through the same security lanes that the rest of us go through either.

For most of us, air travel is not as much fun as it used to be. Check in is one of the few areas that have gotten better in my opinion. I like checking in with the machines and even if I check bags it goes pretty smoothly. Although having to pay extra for my bags to fly makes that less pleasant.

But then there is airport security. I try to be nice and most of the TSA agents try very hard to be nice as well. It’s not really their fault that the lines are long, that we have to take off our shoes, and that in some terminals we have to stand in front of these “x-ray” scanners. But the fact is that every time I wait on one of those lines and go through the hassle of making sure I can get through on one pass I think to myself “the terrorists have won another victory.”

This is especially true for people traveling with small children and babies by the way. I saw one family, whose first language was clearly not English, get so totally frazzled by everything they were going through that they left their baby behind in its stroller! Once they realized this the father ran panic stricken back to get the baby. This caused some concern on the part of the TSAs who were not aware of what was going on for a second. Big win for the terrorists in my book!

And then boarding the plane. Oh my goodness, rather than charge for checked bags can we charge for carry on bags? Really, some people have bags that are too large for overhead compartments. Even many of the people who have reasonable ones take forever to put them away. How about we make people pay extra for bags that don’t fit under the seat in front of you and check bags for free? Or just find a way to charge extra for being an idiot. Airlines would make a fortune on charging idiots more as a penalty for holding the rest of us up.

Its as bad unloading as well. People pull bags down with no concern for who might get hit by them. Or worse still (in my book) the wait until everyone in front of them has moved down the plane to start getting their stuff together. Not bad if they don’t step into the aisle and hold others up but you know what happens. Of course they step into the aisle and everyone behind them who is ready to move is delayed.

And don’t get me started on seats that are too small, passengers beside you who are too large, no foot room, and crying babies in front of you and seat kicking children in the seat behind you. Or cancelled flights, air traffic delays, and connections you could have made if they’d held the plane open a few more minutes.

Yeah, if I were really rich the one thing I would want to change the most is how I did air travel.