Monday, August 30, 2010

Tomorrow's GUIs

The concentration of web cam feeds in some "security office", where it's impossible to monitor in real time, is not the only sensible arrangement, when it comes to gluing work / study positions into co-functioning circuitry.

Imagine your dispatcher could watch the pallets pile up on the loading dock, as the truck backed into the bay. The trucker has a comm link that includes video. There's room in the rear cab for multiple feeds, for consulting when not rolling.

This video view of the warehouse loading dock could be in one of several HTML5 windows. The point is those web cams connect people who communicate with one another, aren't just for monitors looking for someone doing something wrong (which depresses morale, inspires anger at "big brother").

Web cams need not be about intrusive monitoring, invasions of privacy (although they might be), as many a video blogger will attest -- because they were in control. If that's your friend on the other end, watching your back, helping you manage, then you'll not have the same bitterness as when snooped on by enemies, unseen voyeurs behind one-way glass (the setting in many a movie, especially cop shows, also Bruno).

The "silent spy in the sky" model might stay in the picture, but it's selfish to hog all the warehouse video and not let people who work with the warehouse actually see what the scene is.

Civilians could be so much more productive if allowed to enjoy what some soldiers of fortune already get to play with. Viewing audiences know from sporting events, from the Discovery Channel, how routine it is to place multiple cameras around an event space.

Having a web cam on the truck, usually pointed at the road, would be an option. Some enterprises use that to match up with a maps view. Here's where the truck is, here's what the truck is looking at on the ground, in terms of traffic and weather.

In the case of Wanderers, we tracked a blip in real time but the Google Street Views were not updating in real time, were just a rough approximation (whatever happened to be in the database from the last time a Street Views car went through). We were sitting at our HQS in Portland while the Buxtons traversed middle America.

Looking at bio-diesel options for Blue House heating. The idea of an extended campus might include a college finding a heating oil supplier that met Keith's criteria (one of my advisors on fuel). Once again, trucks are involved. Or should we phase out heating oil entirely?

I used to write science fiction on one of the Physics lists about robot trucking systems (ZTSs) that'd extend DARPA's research into self-piloting vehicles. Some particular freeway might be set aside for testing, not shared with unsuspecting motorists.

Low volume studies in macro-sized packet switching using machine intelligence need not take priority over outfitting ordinary trucks with better GIS/GPS however. This was never about ending all the driving work out there. That would neither be practical nor desirable.

Speaking of GIS/GPS, NASA's concerns about a possible solar eruption, hard on satellites, is percolating to the top of the inbox as something to talk about in concert with other brands of 2012er.

This beats getting hit by an asteroid or invaded by ETs (new ones), in terms of realism.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Notes on Trucking

I've often exulted how knowing something about computers gains one entre to any number of disciplines, given they all have a need for computer services. Case in point: I've worked in transportation, summer camp registration, even in the cardiac operating room (after hours) testing my heart operations data collection application (CORIS).

These days, I'm learning more about trucking. Transportation Management Systems will help dispatchers organize shipments and hand them off to trucking companies. LTL stands for Less Than Load, meaning only part of the truck gets filled. Does one book a direct LTL delivery, a multi-stop, pass on to a pool? The experienced dispatcher needs a head full of geography and lots of experience. But what if that level of experience is unobtainable? Enter software assistants, the equivalent of part- and/or full-time employees.

Microsoft's Visual FoxPro (VFP) was a highly capable product but has fallen on hard times. VFP coders are being herded into .NET solutions, but feel their productivity dropping off. Although not a TMS, the trucking software I'm looking at is in VFP and the question is how to migrate it to something else eventually. The program is already running live, in production, with paying clients, so the mentality is one of gradually swapping in Python components, swapping out VFP components.

The hybrid (VFP + Python) might look pretty convoluted though. Imagine FoxPro accessing its own native tables through a Python COM server that in turn uses ODBC for its back end. Could this be ungainly? Will I be swallowed up in the trucking world and Earthling Math?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


MENWFZ = Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (not "men with fezzes" although that could be a mnemonic, unless one perceives an ethnic slur of some kind).

I just pulled up a bunch of articles on this idea, which is not a new one, but which "has legs" at the moment.

Many journalists say it's aimed against Israel, but that's to ignore the double-edged sword, as those signing the agreement would be opening themselves to disambiguation, versus following an "ambiguity" policy.

Iran wants to be on record saying it has no such weapons nor plans to develop them. Whether this is true or not is independent of the fact that nations without nukes enjoy disproportionate kudos and credibility these days.

If you want to be trusted, you won't be a source of WMDs, for anyone, not even yourself. Iran gains credibility every day that goes by without evidence of actual stockpiling of weapons grade fissionable materials.

IAEA does get to pry.

The same protocols apply to the USG as it goes with a "demand zero" policy and an across-the-board criminalization of these weapons. The focus needs to be on cleanup and safe storage, a whole other can of worms which the Obama administration has been facing. Cleaning up after nukes is no picnic, as the Hanford cleanup crews will attest.

However I understand those who say the verification process is still insufficient. Part of the problem is public education. What sorts of civilian nuclear power plants share the same food chain as weaponry plants? As with so many issues in our modern world, the definitive journalism on this subject actually has to contain quite a bit of science and engineering.

Beware of the "soap opera press" which turns every story into some episode of Dallas, or tries to pretend it's Team America (world police). If there's no science content, just intrigue and maneuvering, then you're more likely dealing with more armchair know-nothings and their comic book paranoias.

Nuclear power and nuclear weapons each have their own worlds. Where they partially overlap is where much of the action is these days. Stay tuned. The next meeting is in Washington, DC they tell me.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Philosophical Essay (2nd Draft)

In recent essays regarding how we've countered the knowledge explosion, in ways other than by simply narrowing our respective knowledge domains, I've come to a notion of Philosophy (as a discipline) as an incubator for glue languages.

A "glue language" is one that is deliberately designed to cohere multiple other disciplines. I would claim this is (a) not a new vision of what philosophy does and (b) is akin to some types of poetics, which stands to reason as metered oral tradition ragas & sagas were indeed a way for cultures to encode and transmit vital knowledge.

Another thesis, non-Wittgensteinian in the sense of arguable (debatable, either way), is that the recent chapter in philosophy (pre linguistic turn) namely the rise of analytic philosophy in the form of symbolic logic as a "mirror of the world" (Tractatus idea), was about the noosphere (zeitgeist, holy ghost) giving birth to computer languages, as dreamed of by Leibniz, Ada, Grace Hopper... a different lineage than those analytics like to own, but arguably more the main line, with the benefit of hindsight (a view of history).

Logic matured into that which runs most of our infrastructure by this time, at the low level record-keeping level, and even at the real time control level, where humans tend to spontaneously operate. Philosophy again appears in the driver's seat (as it might have been seen in trivium-quadrivium days) once we allow it to give birth to computer science as one of its own (as Athena from Zeus).

However, this computer logic is low level and largely content free. It gives us ways to store and retrieve, but is not spontaneously integrative except insofar as it allows us to sift through, synthesize and summarize super-human amounts of data (more than any one researcher could hope to personally collect and analyze).

The next level or challenge, is to develop more glue languages, designed as tools for human thought, that help us navigate these wilds, this new "cyberspace" ("steering place"), i.e. this new governing area (not to be confused with Area 51).

Wittgenstein's later philosophy opens doors to glue languages by leveling the playing field, providing a clean beginning. How could many languages be true at the same time? Isn't that just relativism? SWM and I used to debate this on wittgenstein-dialognet.

In focusing on the "doing" in symbolic games, rather than their "pointing" to some supposed "public object" or one true "in itself world", he turned language inside-out, made it seem more like what we see in the case of computer languages: a kind of executing or processing of energy, a vectoring of content this way and that. A strong religion is like an efficient FORTRAN program, in keeping memory working hard for the greater glory. A different ideology or religion would operate differently, yet still get work done. The "forms of life" approach allows for different reference frames that all share the same "c" ("c" for "certainty").

Lots of computer languages do the work, not just one, and we see no contradiction. We see "forms of life" connecting to "grammars".

A human glue language provides inertial guidance, a kind of homing device, a gyroscope, except this "glue language" is not monolithic or "the one true system" ala Hegel or the Tower of Babel -- both closer to the logical core / divine order than your average joe and/or structure, but neither the "last word" as the world keeps changing, which in turn requires upgrades (sometimes in answer to our prayers).

We're ethically precluded from calling "it" (our glue language) "finally done" and/or "instantly true" (as if "the truth" could be captured in a snap shot per the old "picture theory" of meaning) i.e. living systems are about becoming, adapting, not about "the end of history". One comes to see in a new way.

My final thesis will be that this Bucky Fuller gestated glue language called "synergetics" (not to be confused with its fraternal twin -- see Wikipedia for disambiguation) is one such post linguistic-turn philosophy. Its purpose is less to "corner truth" than to "orient and contain an outlook and overview" i.e. to organize a vista around some "me ball" (the observer). This is a legitimate service for a philosophy to perform and is what many a philosopher has sought to provide.

Synergetics explicitly glues polyhedra, long a source of fascination and insights for natural philosophers, to a "connect the dots" model of "thinking in the round" (i.e. systematically). A lot of "hard science" content is linked in by this model and glued together using a prose-poetic style. Jungian psychology would be another example of a prose-poetic style, another glue language.

A lot of geometry enters in as well.

In Synergetics, one gets a kind of "mnemonic brew" that might be considered toxic or corrosive if branded as a pure science (see the preface by Dr. Arthur Loeb), but refiled as a literary philosophy, this potion turns out to be benign, safe to swallow (or so I would report -- though others might say it has rendered me alien).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lyrikal Afternoon

No, not a typo. Lyrik is a neighborhood hangout in 97214, a place for networking, holding forth with one's peers. I'm thinking either Dr. Nick or John the Architect might join me, though I've made no special arrangements.

Mostly, I'm just wanting to stay out of the way, as Food Not Bombs is using our household's kitchen, might be using the meetinghouse next time. I offered to help, but my volunteering the facilities was apparently assistance enough.

I'm not widely known for my great cooking abilities, especially when it comes to large groups, although those Teresina Lentils are kick ass (not taking credit for those though, just following a recipe).

I'm supposed to contact the Property Management Clerk at the meetinghouse and see about transferring Thursday's operations to the more industrial strength kitchen on Stark Street, the former Electroscientific Instruments building. A lot of the food is uncooked, the same produce you'd find in a grocery store, so excessive use of energy, pots and pans, is not part of the picture. Indeed, the bike trailer comes with its own cooking equipment, such as it is.

I've suggested we take a look at Martian Math as a discussion list, over on the math teacher forum. So far no takers, so I'm upping the ante. We don't have "all the time in the world" to get to the bottom of some of this stuff. There's real work to be done and I'm under no illusions that it'll all get done in time if we're just looking to some small group of poor slobs at their workstations. Recruiting is the name of the game, has been for awhile.

To let off steam, I'm back to Punch & Judy on Synergeo, either watching or participating. Call it a mosh pit. Synergetics is steam punk, or at least punk, or at least... slam dancers R us. Rybo to me: "You full of whatson bozon poop.....what a lack of moral integrity.... :--( sad"

Speaking of which, we're also trying to torture the Yahoo! rich text editor into delivering up a radical math sign (trademark, whatever). It's sort of working, thanks to Alan's suggestion we switch to UTF-8. Let's see what a cut and paste operation does (remember, your browser has settings too, and sometimes "Western" is not what you need most): √я


Facebook profile is loading blank tonight. F~B didn't happen as I'd originally imagined -- hardly any cooking at all this time. Checking into bio-diesel for home heating after re-reading Hyzy's posting on that (old newspaper article).

The Willamette Week cover story on the open source cure for what's ailing health care, is somewhat encouraging, though the art is looking so retro. This thing about geeks being "old hippies" is maybe too much lore, too little technical detail. Will we go with something like Cassandra? Given all the problems Facebook is having (not just talking about my missing profile), that's probably not reliable enough a system for medical record keeping. Tokyo Cabinet? Thx to Laughing Horse for the tip.

For further reading:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

PPUG 2010.8.10

Our Portland Python User Group spanned several tables. Our spot at WebTrends was not available this month, so we repaired to Produce Row, newly remodeled. Impressive.

I took my place at the head of one table, making more room for Michelle to join Josh. They fed me beer and a piece of sandwich respectively, leaving me feeling the grateful circus seal. But did I have any worthy tricks?

I tried to bring up Visual FoxPro at one point, but the geek I was telling my story to drew a blank. I'm this old fossil I realize. At least "dBase" rang a bell, but I gave up trying to talk about anything PSU.

Another theme of the evening, for me anyway, was Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), its rules and regs. Some of our Python super stars are minors, coming to conferences from out of town. Where can they socialize and how late? At Produce Row, until 9 pm. I got back to our Chairman on that issue later the same evening, as Djangocon is coming up and these questions are relevant.

Having just completed Martian Math, I had some momentos in my bag to show around, including the new Flextegrity book. Some Python was used in the making of the two graphics I'm credited with. POV-Ray was my other tool of choice, for rendering.

Some of the things geeks are into sound like critical infrastructure. There's some switched messaging going on, serving those cell phones. Some Java application listens in real time on thousands of ports... sounded low level. Python does other tricks.

Monday, August 02, 2010

More Musings

Given my house mate's many years working a computer science job at the management level, we sometimes get into arguments about what a next move might be. I'm grudgingly respectful, as she did help me get my resume in better shape, having been tasked with reading them, and evaluating interviewees, before she transmogrified into her Portland incarnation. I say "grudgingly" because I'm reluctant to see the obsolete military-industrial way of doing things as superior to Portland's. I guess sometimes we still learn from one another.

As for myself, I made a career as a Portland-based applications developer mostly working for what we might call "public sector" entities: not-for-profits, county agencies, even a national government or two. My rates were relatively low, as I was idealistic about my work and wanted to be affordable to these types of clients. In the early days of the PC revolution, a solo coder slinging dBase, and later FoxPro, could handle a number of clients as an independent contractor. That's how I made my living, for the most part, though with some other gigs on the side.

Fast forward to today, and I'm somewhat won over by the idea of multiple coders using version control, coding within some framework that's not too twisted (a pun on Twisted, which I respect). The solo coder model is less viable -- one needs a team. FoxPro, in the meantime, is being phased out by Microsoft, with its developer community in the process of disbanding.

At least the computer science department within a university should be hacking on its own stuff quite a bit, eating its own dog food. What better way to learn, than to have access to these internals, organized according to whatever industry standards.

At the secondary school level, I have this vision that faculty and student apprentices could do their own IT, not outsource everything to the district or private vendors. Again, some measure of self-sufficiency, of autonomy, is the hallmark of a serious school.

That vision might be a pipe dream however, given how teachers are rarely compensated for anything much beyond direct teaching in the classroom. They don't grow in their experience this way, which is one reason so many schools lag so far behind: the relevant skills of are just not in demand within academe. Rhetorical question: is this healthy?

"IT is the giant blind spot within higher education" one consultant said to me the other day, having looked into the matter for a couple decades. At the level of dean or provost, IT seems too trivial and mundane to be concerned with. One or two levels down, and there's no longer enough sense of the big picture in any one office to make intelligent planning possible. At least that seems to be a common enough picture.

I tried to rope in another consultant whom I respect, to maybe help get something jump started in our "Global U" (a generic moniker). You'd think Portland, Oregon, an "open source capital", would have computer science departments ready to jump at the opportunity, to serve their own ecosystem, the statewide higher education system.

Well, maybe we do. But is anyone in the chancellor's office actively soliciting their help? Staff has been cut rather dramatically, and IT is something we outsource to Asia is it not? The brain drain appears to have reversed, or at least there's a leveler playing field (a cause for optimism for the future?).