Monthly Archives: June 2006

Bird’s nest

At the intersection of highways 169 and 62 in Eden Prairie (that’s a Southwest suburb of Minneapolis) there are giant light poles which illuminate the cloverleaf intersection. I don’t know how tall they are, but they are several times taller than standard highway light poles. At the top of each pole is a circular metal platform. A ring of gymnasium-style lights dangles from below each platform. I don’t know how big any of these are, since at these heights, all sense of scale is lost.

Covering the top of one of these platforms is a nest. I can see birds in the nest during my daily commute. I can’t tell what kind of birds they are, nor is it safe to take too close a look while driving. But suffice it to say they are big. I don’t know how big, but I would imagine somewhere between huge and giant. I haven’t seen them flying. They are probably eagles.

I often see hawks sitting on highway lamp posts. Most drivers never notice the raptors that are a part of their commute. But nothing compares to the giant nest.

GNU Hurd kernel is written in Lisp!

Non-technical readers, just skip this post. Completely. Trust me.

I can’t believe this. According to a note at the end of this Wikipedia entry:
“The GNU Hurd project… currently have decided on the Coyotos kernel.”
Coyotos is a kernel based on EROS (Extremely Reliable OS) written in the BitC language. Looking at the latter page, sample source code looks like this:

(define (fact x:int32)

(cond ((< x 0) (- (fact (- x))))

((= x 0) 1)


(* x (fact (- x 1))))))

which is to say, Lisp. And it will have a Linux-compatibility layer. Insert Emacs joke here.

(Since they describe ML as one of their inspirations, they could have at least used a C-like syntax, so that other kernel hackers won’t loose their sanity trying to count parentheses.)

Answering machines have gotten worse

My old answering machine, which I’ve had since I graduated from high school, needs replacing. It was the first digital answering machine, an AT&T Model 1339, which competed with tape-based machines. It had a limit of one minute per message, and could store less than 20 minutes of audio total. But other than the memory restriction and an on/off button that was too easy to hit, it was flawless.

So we got a new one, a GE brand. GE is one of the only companies that still sells stand-alone answering machines. (Actually, from what I can tell, GE just lends a brand name to an importer.) It has an annoying synthesized voice (versus a professional, recorded voice on the old one) and it sometimes cuts off messages in the middle. I could live with it if it were actually capable of reliably recording messages.

We returned it, thinking it might just be defective, and replaced it with an identical one with the same problem. We’re ordering another (also a GE, but maybe actually from a different company) and with luck it will work.

These days, answering machines aren’t considered high-tech. A standalone answering machine is going the way of the standalone spell-checking program. As a result, even though the chips inside it have gotten a hundred times more powerful and there have been a dozen years to refine the design, a we-don’t-care attitude from manufacturers has resulted in worse technology.

For $100 I could get a card for my computer that would let it take messages, redirect calls, and act just like one of the computers I program at work, just with 23 fewer phone lines. I could play chess or Adventure over the phone with it, if I took a day to program it. But then I’d have to take a weekend to set it up, and I’d either spend far too much time playing with it, or be disappointed that I don’t have the time or creativity to do all the neat things I could do with it.

Why Net Neutrality Won’t Matter

Congress recently voted down a bill to enforce net neutrality. Net neutrality means that when you pay for your Internet connection, your provider doesn’t double-dip by charging Google or others an extra toll to be able to reach you at full speed. Right now you pay your cable company for a connection at a particular speed, no matter whose websites you visit. Soon, you might get high-speed for select services, and low-speed for everything else.

The reason for this is not, as cable and phone companies claim, because they can’t afford to give you the service you are already paying for. Rather, it’s control. Companies like Google, YouTube, and Apple are offering video that competes with cable. And companies like Skype (as well as free software like Asterisk) are letting you make phone calls over the Internet. If these catch on, fewer people will want regular phone and cable.

But I don’t think this will make much of a difference due to another technology called peer-to-peer (P2P) networking. Using P2P, you can already download all the bootleg music and movies you want, and at high speed. Or you can download legal, free stuff, such as Linux software. Time Warner has already signed up with BitTorrent Inc., a maker of free P2P software of the same name, to distribute their movies and TV shows.

The way BitTorrent and other P2P software works is that you don’t just download, you simultaneously upload as well. If you’re downloading a movie, you start out with a few random pieces of the movie, and then you trade your pieces with others until you have thw whole movie. It’s like a scavenger hunt where everyone shares their clues.
But by working together, the original host site for that movie just has to send out one copy, and thousands of copies of the movie end up being downloaded.

Unless (and that’s a big unless) the cable and phone companies manage to block P2P, companies like Apple, Google, and YouTube will be able to avoid toll charges by getting your friends and neighbors to help to distribute movies. It could turn into a cat-and-mouse game between the P2P software and the Internet companies’ P2P filters. Just as spam evades spam filters by pretending to be normal email, the movies you buy from Time Warner will pretend to be email, IM, or some other traffic.

As for me, I’ll be signing up for St Louis Park’s municipal wireless Internet access, so I can ditch DSL just as soon as Qwest stops allowing my DSL provider to use their phone lines. (Yes, the phone companies lobbied for– and won– the right to get rid of competition. With what excuse? That competition was “anti-competitive.”) The DSL speeds are lousy around here and cable is overpriced. And I trust my city council to be net neutral– since unlike cable or Qwest, they can be voted out if they annoy the public.


Last weekend was Jordan’s 10th college reunion. We were happy to discover that the Back Table is still around, despite rumors of its demise. The Back Table is a bunch of folks who dine together and work hard to be over twice as eccentric as the rest of Grinnell College.

The table itself, situated in the Quad dining hall, is going away. Next fall a huge new building will replace both old dining halls, the mail room, and the old student center. It’s designed by a famous architectural firm, and it’s named after the Grinnell graduate and financial wizard under whose guidance Grinnell’s endowment ballooned to over 4 billion dollars. No expense is being spared on this new building.

When Jordan and I toured the new building, we couldn’t help but think “spoiled rich kids.” But that is unfair. Like always, most students will be getting financial aid. At the same time, even though the college doesn’t need to, they are raising tuition steeply next semester. Why? To bring tuition more in line with so-called peer institutions. Which is to say, they don’t want to look cheap. (Not that this would be an issue to anyone visiting the campus.)

Sometimes I think my chances of getting super-rich would be better if I lived in a socialist country. There, they just take 60% of your income.  Here, if your nest egg is smaller than your kids’ college tuition, the financial aid department takes it. And if current trends continue, soon you’ll have to be a billionare to avoid being at the mercy of financial aid.  Thus, everyone can just barely afford college.