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We Need to Have a Talk about Software Troubleshooting

So today, my Internet connection went out. The router got stuck overnight, and I rebooted it, and no big deal. Windows, however, still shows this, even though I have a perfectly fine network connection:

Sure, Windows. Whatever you say.

If you Google it, you’ll find lots of people have the problem, across multiple versions of Windows, going back years. The solutions vary from “just reboot” to complicated registry hacks to “reinstall Windows.” πŸ€¦β€β™‚οΈ

I can’t even.

I hear anecdotal stories about “weird problems” like the one above all the time: My friend’s father can’t get the printer to work without reinstalling the drivers every time he uses it. Your cousin’s word processor crashes every time she clicks the “Paste” button and there’s an image on the clipboard. My colleague’s video glitches, but only in a video call with more than three people. And invariably, the solutions are always the same: Reinstall something. This one weird registry hack. Try my company’s cleaning software!

So I’d like to let all of the ordinary, average, nontechnical people in the room in on a little secret:

This is bullshit.

All of it is bullshit. Start to finish. Nearly every answer you hear about how to “fix” your bizarre issues is lies and garbage.

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We Don’t Talk about Semicolons

Seriously, we don’t.

I was asked on Discord today why some languages require semicolons and others don’t, and this is one of those surprisingly deep questions that to the best of my knowledge hasn’t been answered very well elsewhere:

  • Why do some languages end statements with semicolons?
  • Why do other languages explicitly not end statements with semicolons?
  • Why do some languages require them but it seems like the compiler could just “figure it out,” since it seems to know when you’ve forgotten them?
  • Why are they optional in some languages?
  • And, of all things, why the weird shape that is the semicolon? Why not | or $ or even β˜… instead?

So let’s talk about semicolons, and try to answer this as well as we can.

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What’s a Computer Scientist?

I wanted to answer this using only the ten hundred words people use most, so here we go πŸ˜€

I work with ideas about computers. I think about the things computers can do, and I try to find ways to make computers do those things better or faster, and I write all those ideas down. And I try to find ways to stop computers from ever being slow, so that we don’t have to make them faster. I also think a lot about if there are things that computers can or can’t do, and if it’s important that computers can or can’t do them. It’s bad for people when computers are slow or when computers can’t do things because we want computers to help us with things we want to do. But making computers do things that they can’t do is hard, and making computers go faster can be hard too. So sometimes I use ideas from other people to make the things computers do faster or better, and sometimes I find my own ideas too, and then I write those ideas down and tell everyone about them so all of us can make computers do more things better.

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Linear Partitioning (Part 2)

<< Part 1

Lately, I’ve been growing increasingly obsessed with this problem. While my solution is very fast (O(n) is pretty fast!), I’ve been concerned about a few possible issues with it:

  • First, I wasn’t certain it was anything better than locally-optimal. It’s guaranteed not to produce a bad result, but will it produce a good result? I couldn’t be sure.
  • Second, it relies on floating-point arithmetic, while most other solutions don’t.

It has the nice upside of being able to operate in constant space (not including the O(k) output space), and linear time, but those two caveats are potentially problematic. If it turned out to be a really bad solution, who’d use it? And the floating-point numbers felt too fuzzy to be safe. So I started poking at it again.

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An Efficient Solution to Linear Partitioning

Being a computer scientist is a funny thing. You live on the edge of knowledge in a weird realm that’s not quite mathematics and not quite physical machinery. Like most of the sciences, of course, anything you “discover” was likely already discovered several decades before. But every great once in a while, you bump into a problem that seems to have received very little attention, and you see the existing solutions, and you think, “Huh, it seems like there must be a better way.”

I did that, once, a long time ago: I discovered a really neat technique for computing treemaps on-the-fly for arbitrarily large datasets, and that’s why SpaceMonger 2+ have such incredibly fast renderings. I don’t know for sure if it’s a novel solution, but I haven’t seen anyone else do it. One of these years, I need to properly publish a paper on how that works: I haven’t been intentionally keeping that algorithm private; I just haven’t gotten around to writing up a really good description of how it works.

But today, I’m going to talk about another algorithm entirely: Linear partitioning a sequence of numbers.

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Happy to Be Wrong β€” But I Almost Wasn’t

So 14 months ago, I wrote an essay about what Donald Trump would do to tear apart this country. I’m pleased to say that I was wrong. -ish.

Let’s go down the list and see what my score was:

  1. βœ“ Trump will send servicemen into a city that doesn’t want them to quell the protests. This happened in both Seattle and Washington, DC.
  2. βœ— A shot will be fired by a serviceman, and somebody will die. Well… not really. January 6 doesn’t count.
  3. βœ— The protests will switch to “The government is out to get us.” Maybe in some places, but again, not really. Certainly not like the protests of the 1960s.
  4. βœ— The protests will get bigger. Actually, they didn’t, after the summer of 2020. If anything, they got smaller.
  5. βœ“ COVID-19 will get worse. Well past half a million dead in the US, and counting.
  6. βœ— Trump will double down on the protests. The protests settled down, so that didn’t happen.
  7. βœ— People will fight back, and the summer of 2020 will be violent. The summer of 2020 was the calm before the storm, actually.
  8. βœ— Trump will declare Martial Law. Apparently he considered it, and some of his friends were advocating for it, but he didn’t actually do it.
  9. βœ— The election of November 2020 will be suspended. Thank God it wasn’t. There was a giant mess following it, but we had the election on-time, and it went surprisingly smoothly.
  10. βœ“βœ— Trump will declare himself president “until further notice.” I think we all know that Biden is the President, but some of Trump’s die-hard supporters are convinced he’ll somehow still be reinstated, and I’m not entirely sure even he believes he lost, even though, y’know, those pesky facts say he did. But I’m gonna claim half-credit on this, since, y’know, on January 6, he did try to commit a coup d’Γ©tat.
  11. βœ— The year-zero rule will take out Trump. Didn’t happen. And here’s hoping President Biden stays safe.
  12. βœ“ Historians will rank Trump as the worst president ever. Okay, there’s debate on this, but among respectable historians, the only real question is whether he’s at the bottom or just in the bottom five. I’m still claiming it, though.

That’s 3Β½ out of 12! I officially suck at predicting the future!

Of course, Trump did try to commit a coup d’Γ©tat, and he is still tearing apart the country, and the hard right is still so far off the crazy deep end that every day I expect those lunatics to march on the Capitol again β€” but at least as regards the “Trump becomes the American Dictator” timeline, I’ve never been happier to be wrong.

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Redesign?

WordPress annoys me.

It’s not a bad piece of software. It does its job. But I’m a coder, and I like having control over how things end up, and ever since I installed WordPress here years ago, I’ve been doing things its way. I don’t really love the look and feel of this site right now, but I do like how little I have to do to maintain it.

But there’s a growing movement of blogs and websites that are pure, static content, like I used to do back in the day. Once upon a time, my website was just a bunch of text files, mashed together in interesting ways by the m4 macro processor to produce static HTML as output. I started doing that in 1996, and 25 years later, the rest of the world has started doing that too, using Go and JavaScript and Ruby, among others: Static content has made a real comeback, now that modern JavaScript and CSS can fill in the interactive parts.

What I liked about using m4 back in the day was that the code simply did what I wanted: There were no database or administrative tools to get in the way, just powerful macros that constructed HTML from single sources of truth. I ran a lot of websites on that technology, for years, and I miss the elegance of it.

So I don’t know. I may spend some time hacking my website into a new shape. I haven’t redesigned things in some years, and maybe it’s time to export all my old content and rebuild this site in a brand new way.

Food for thought, at least.

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Firefox Tip

I switched from Chrome to Firefox about four or five years ago, and I generally haven’t looked back. Firefox has its issues, to be sure, but Mozilla’s pretty open about them, and Firefox is free in a way that Chrome isn’t, and runs everywhere in a way that Chrome doesn’t, and the work they’re doing on Rust in it is nothing short of amazing. I wholeheartedly endorse using Firefox, and I only open other browsers for those bad pages out there that insist on being “designed for Chrome” (shame on you, what year is this, 2002?).

So a pro tip for all you Firefox users out there: Like so many browsers, Firefox can get a little twitchy if you leave it up and running long enough: Its memory footprint grows over time, and sometimes its CPU usage will creep up until it’s eating the universe, especially if you typically have forty to a hundred tabs open (like me!).

So here’s a way to easily put a safe “Restart Firefox” button in the corner of Firefox’s window, without installing any Extensions or Add-ons β€”

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Now with 100% more robots!

I’m leaving my role at Suvoda. I’ve enjoyed my time there, and I made some good stuff, but thanks to fairly strict nondisclosure policies, I haven’t been able to talk here much about my job like I could when I worked at HomeNet and Cox. I made some new friends at Suvoda, and some of us will stay in touch after I leave. I’ll still be rooting for Suvoda from the sidelines: There’s a need for well-run clinical drug trials, and society is the benefactor.

But β€” !

IAM Robotics reached out to me a few weeks ago, and after some whirlwind interviews, I accepted a new role with them as a software architect. I’ll be starting in June, and I’m really excited: I have a big responsibility to help scale their robots to the next level, and I absolutely intend to deliver on it. They have really complex challenges for the kinds of software work they do, and that’s absolutely my kind of problem: Crazy sky’s-the-limit challenges where there’s no perfect answer and every option is on the table. I’ll be doing substantial coding for them, but as the title implies, it’s a lot more design-focused than my job has ever been: I always did architectural work in all of my jobs before, just never as my official title.

I hope in the coming months that I’ll be able to post here more often on topics of interest. I’ve been doing a lot of interesting things, and I have a lot to say about them. As always, stay tuned β€” the best is yet to come!

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Decaf

I’m apparently a person who now drinks decaf.

I didn’t drink coffee at all for most of my life, and honestly for a long time I couldn’t stand it. But back in 2016 when my daughter was born, the options were “learn to drink coffee and survive having two kids,” or “die now.” Wisely, I chose coffee, and now, I can’t get through a day without a hit of caffeine in the morning.

This morning, after my first cup of coffee, I wanted something to sort-of maintain the alertness, but I didn’t want yesterday’s jitters from coffee, so I dared to brew a cup of decaf. I’m drinking it now, and it’s actually pretty good. This is a revelation to me: Not only have I taught my taste buds to tolerate coffee, but now I drink it just for the flavor.

Young me would be aghast. But young me isn’t young anymore. And here we are.

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