Friday, September 26, 2008

Got an old iMac!

The nice ACM guys handed me an old iMac today! Thank you so much! :-) So now I can finally add a (permanent) PowerPC machine to my park of weird architectures for the compilers course.

Future students beware: You'll have to write a backend for a *real* machine, and we'll roll dice to determine the architecture you'll have to do it for. So far I have MIPS, SPARC, PowerPC, ARM, and of course x86. I need to find at least one more so I can roll a D6. :-)

I'll try to install NetBSD on it tomorrow, I just have to find a USB mouse somewhere that I can use for a few hours. The harder thing will be to cross-compile NetBSD-current and get it on the box, we'll see how long that'll take.

Update 2008/09/29: They actually handed me another iMac last Friday, I just forgot to post about it. I've not played with the new one yet (actually it's older than the old one, but anyways :-)).

The one I got initially now works fine under NetBSD 4.0, still working on getting NetBSD-current on it. Two problems: First the console driver sucks, so text output to the console is super-slow. Second the screen doesn't blank off, so now I need to find some way of at least moving a textual cube around to save the screen. Also, since the screen doesn't switch off, the thing gets pretty darn hot. Oh well...

Update 2011/10/09: Turns out that I got rid of most of these old PowerPC machines during my recent move from the 3rd floor to the 2nd floor of NEB. In the meantime I had replaced most of my physical machines with virtual ones anyway, so there was really no reason anymore to keep them. Also, I still have some trusty G5 servers, so there's still PowerPC hardware in my new office, just not any of the machines I talked about in this old post.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Why all economists should downgrade to a real job...

I just ran across this /. story and read the linked Stanford article as well. I probably shouldn't have, because now I got myself into all kinds of trouble by writing the authors of that rant the following email:

Dear Professors Mendelson and Lee,

It is nice to see that in times where many people try to free themselves from the clutches of closed-sourced and closed-minded applications, you jump right into the breach and make a wonderful little theoretical case helping out the poor beleaguered millionaires. The fact that "embrace and extend" has been wreaking havoc for decades for engineers all around the globe who just want their standards to be adhered to certainly doesn't matter when yachts are on the chopping block. Oh no, that mustn't happen, can't let the "dumb masses" take over those precious slices of market share. One of these days, pay the computer science departments at your respective schools a visit. Maybe to give a talk on this very subject? They'll help you out with a slightly more educated perspective about what's good for whom. Of course, I doubt that you care.

Warmest regards,
Dr. Peter Froehlich

Only time will tell whether they will mobilize enough support over in the new business school to run me out of here for saying such bad things. If I ever hear back from them in any way, I'll let you know... :-)

Update 2008/09/26: I actually got a reply from Haim Mendelson, sort of predictable but not quite. Here it is in full:

Dear Dr. Froehlich,

We try not to let our social or political beliefs affect our science. If you don't like commercial software firms, don't buy their software, but please don't try to silence researchers who analyze their optimal strategies. In fact, a cold analysis of these strategies may be more helpful to you than ranting.

Best
HM

Maybe you want to let that sink in for a second. I of course totally agree that I sent a ranty email, but the rest of his reply is almost as ludicrous as raising cattle on the moon would be for the next, say, 100 years. In my reply, I properly quoted his pieces and interspersed mine, but that won't work well here so I'll just post it in one fell swoop:

Hi Professor Mendelson,

First, thank you for writing back.

Why did you end up in business school? Why did you write this paper and not one of many other possible papers? Of course your "social and political beliefs" have affected your work, just like they have affected mine. Hiding behind some veneer of objectivity like FOX news may work when you chat with freshmen, but not here.

Your positive position on "embrace and extend" and associated network effects is based on the hope that I won't have that choice anymore, is it not? If I still had it, the commercial vendor couldn't possibly win. Even if I am not a programmer, I can easily find someone to add the feature I need, probably with a quicker turnaround too.

You know very well that I am not silencing anyone. If I was in a position to control what you publish, what your salary will be next year, where you can live based on what your write, then you'd actually have a claim. But I am in no such a position. In fact, I think it's great that someone can actually get paid and make a career based on this kind of research.

I may have couched my email to you in a nasty rant, but the central point that the things you encourage are bad for everybody *except* that one company and it's subsidiaries stands. The prime example for "embrace and extend" is Micro$oft, and if you dig a little you can find out that it has mostly succeeded in making things like the web or collaborative work a lot more difficult for everybody by violating established standards or not publishing specifications for their own. That's why I encouraged you to spend some time with engineering types in your respective computer science departments. Even people who agree with you in terms of "social and political beliefs" will, if they are honest engineers, explain to you what the problems are.

And regarding your "cold" analysis: I don't know too many people who needed to be told what you write about. Did you think it wasn't obvious that big company can outspend a bunch of part-time hackers in the short run?

Let me close with this: I am giving you a hard time about all this because I have a glimmer of hope that you'll follow up and reflect on who really needs your help. I know I may not get anywhere with this, but I had to try. If I upset you with my original email I am sorry about that. In my defense, I wanted to make sure I get a reaction.

All the best,
Peter

I did not receive another reply yet, and I doubt I ever will. He already threw a lot of the "default" academic dirt my way, and while he could follow up with something like "you don't understand economics, you're an engineer after all", or the ever popular "you're just a communist and I have no time for your lunacy," I probably won't hear anything ever again. Good riddance, too. I am just glad he didn't have a substantial defense, otherwise I would have had to spend the time to construct a more comprehensive attack. :-)

Friday, September 12, 2008

What's up with blogs.jhu.edu?

When I first found this site a few weeks ago (yeah, I know! :-)) I thought it's a really cool idea to have blogging easily available for people all around JHU. But apparently I am the only one using this thing right now? Come on, write up some random stuff! Start conversations about something of interest to you at JHU! I am feeling a little too lonely with my silly posts dominating the aggregator!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Nothing's ever set in stone...

I started this semester thinking I'd teach 600.490: Software Development for Scientists and Engineers to a bunch of eager graduate students from outside the CS department. Fail! :-( Then I thought I'd teach 600.328: Compilers and Interpreters to a bunch of eager graduate students from inside the CS department. Fail! Again! :-( Now I finally have a third course: I'll teach 600.226: Data Structures to a bunch of eager undergraduates from all over the place. Woohoo! :-)

Seriously, I love that course! And since Joanne Houlahan is handing it to me, she'll stay around to keep tabs on my tendency to give too much homework. So to the students I'll meet tomorrow: Relax! It won't be a "full dose" of Peter-style homeworks this semester. That may well be a good thing, I just might learn how to cut down the workload in my other courses as well. Probably a good idea since I am scheduled to teach 600.107: Introduction to Programming next semester. Wouldn't want to scare too many people off after all. :-)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Letter about Greener Johns Hopkins

I sent this "Letter to the Editor" to the Johns Hopkins Magazine after their September 2008 Green Idea special. In case it doesn't see print there, it'll at least be here.

Dear Johns Hopkins Magazine,

I have to admit that I read the repeated claims about JHU becoming greener in your last issue with somewhat mixed feelings. Since July 12, 2008 I have been trying to get someone to switch off a useless air conditioning unit in the Stony Run parking lot, so far (September 5, 2008) without success. This is particularly sad because we have a security person sweating in the summer heat about 100 feet away from the useless unit. Someone needs to either move the unit to the occupied booth, move the security person to the empty booth, or switch off the unit and apologize to the poor guy for not keeping him cool.

Regards,
Dr. Peter Froehlich
Senior Lecturer
Department of Computer Science

So there you have it. I would venture a guess: This is simply a sad example of administrative gridlock. There are too many hands to coordinate, and even more hands trying to do the coordinating. If I could just identify the right person responsible for that booth (which I can't!) I am sure that thing would have been switched off in a matter of days.

Guess what?

I now have a silly blog to do silly things with. We'll see what happens with it, for now I am mostly testing it out.