Children’s Literature

Childrens’ books we passed up recently:

H. P. Lovecraft, To Think That It Thawed Out on Mulberry Street

Marco sees a street corner fish-seller’s stall on the way home from school, but it is oddly shaped and has recently been abandoned. He has never seen a fish-stall there before, and so he imagines who could have been running it: From suppliers of extremely strange fish, to denizens of the deep who hold coastal towns of fishermen under their sway, to the drowned tombs of the elder gods themselves … he wakes from his walking reverie to find himself at the door to his house, with a strange clay seal in one hand and an ancient, worn knife in the other…

Dr. Suess, Horton Hosts the Egg

Horton is the space navigation officer of a mining ship whose crew is brought out of hibernation early by an alien distress beacon. Upon investigation, the crew discovers an alien ship, and Horton is attacked by a face-hugging alien. Hilarity ensues.

Department of Homeland Security and Dr. Suess, Oh, The Thinks You Can’t Think!

From the preface: “Children learn what is permissible to think, and where, as well as how to observe parents, take notes, and keep logs of family activities. The importance of reporting on schoolmates who play D&D or read unapproved books is stressed. A handy list of phone numbers at the back provides numbers to call in case of suspicious activity.”

Dr. Sues, Mr. Brown Can Sue, Can You?

Mr. Brown drives a nice car, but he’s always in a neck brace. If a tree branch has fallen or there is a patch of ice on the sidewalk outside your house, or if a toy has been left out on your driveway, he is sure to be writhing on the ground nearby. Find out the secret to Mr. Brown’s successful lifestyle. Useful table of medical terms in the back.

Old mac

Several years ago, in anticipation of my son’s wanting a computer, I bought a couple of cheap ($10) Macintosh IIsi systems (the original list price in 1990 was over $3000).  Last week I set one of them up.  I found a number of cheap childrens’ titles at local used bookstores (for example, “Just Dad and Me” for about $2), and a trip to RE PC in Seattle yielded a copy of System 7.6 for $5.

I’ve had to do a little refurbishment (replace the lithium cell and clean some tin contacts so the speaker would work).  But aside from that, the systems are 18+ years old and still working.

One of the bonus effects of using a near-vintage machine is that it’s simply impossible to hook up to the Internet (at least, not without me doing it — there’s no ethernet or modem on the machine, soo…).



Here’s a bit of Newton memorabilia I was able to scan in.  It’s nearly black in my notebook, and I had to clean it up to make it somewhat legible –


It’s a crash dump showing the CPU registers after Something Bad happened while I was scribbling away on a Newton; the unit was untethered from any debugger so this is all that was available.

I remembering spending a few minutes laboriously copying down the numbers when (duh) I realized that I could simply upend the Newton on our photocopier and paste a copy into my engineering notebook.  The print was a bit dark, but it sure saved time.

The only example of physical cut-and-paste on the Newton that I’m aware of.


Notebooks from the fringe of hell

Over 15 years ago I started using sketch books (and a fountain pen) for my note-taking and design work.  The notebooks by Strathmore come in various sizes, the paper is acid free, they are pretty cheap (compared to Moleskins), and you can buy them nearly anywhere.  I use paperback-size notebooks for to-do lists, bigger 9×11 notebooks for design work, and occasionally huge notebooks for big ideas.

In meetings, I’m usually taking notes (laptops are just rude, in my opinion), doing design work, or when things are boring and I can see the clock going backwards, I draw cartoons.

In really bad meetings the cartooning takes a “cry for help” flavor, like the following.

Here’s a message in a bottle.  I think that someone in the room behind the guy throwing the bottle is doing client-server technology on a whiteboard.  Sharks are circling for some reason.


This one is a little infantile.  The meeting must have been really bad.


(“Blind man with a short stick” = “Engineer without a spec” = “Meeting from Hell”)

This one is basically junior-high-school level artwork.  It makes reference to the building we were in at the time (the Landings Drive suites, just off 101 in Mountain View, and across from the main Google building, though it was SGI at the time this was drawn) –


Sometimes we’d sneak over to the SGI cafeteria.  They didn’t seem to care; they had their own troubles.

I imagine (I know) that some of you were in the Landings complex.  Anyone in 2047?  I know a few of you, too… 🙂


The name game

So here is a little game that takes some honesty, a little imagination, and (let’s be frank here) a fair amount of cynicism:

1) Think of a bunch of possible names of a web companies (e.g., “Zingit!” or “WhamWeb”). The honesty part is that you need to think of names you haven’t heard before.

2) Look up the names.

3) Score points. 1 point if the name was used, 2 points if the name is *still* being used, 5 points if the name was used, but the company is now defunct, 10 points if spammers have taken over the dead company’s web site. 50 points if the company logo was a sock puppet of any kind. Subtract 2 points for misses.

Oh yeah, and +100 points if you catch a drive-by virus while looking up the name…

For instance (and you’ll just have to believe that I wrote these down first, then looked):

Zingit! parked +1 point
WhamWeb hit! +2
WebZotz hit! +2
Zangle hit! +2
NetTips hit! +2
ScriptSynergy miss -2
FastPages hit! +2 (some company in NZ)
score 9 points

(If you comment on your own efforts, please do not include any full URLs — I don’t want this to become a linkback farm).


“I’m good at this game!”
[We got the board game Chutes and Ladders for our son this Christmas.]

“No, there’s no real strategy in it.  You just spin.  It’s all luck.”

I disagree.  The real strategy to learn in Chutes and Ladders is to figure out how you can successfully cheat

Who moved my thumbscrews?

Everyone’s been looking for silver bullets for so long they’ve forgotten what they set out to kill.

Practically everything has been floated as The Answer for solving the Software Crisis, a crisis that has been with us since the first hardware engineer said to the first software engineer, “Hey, I guess that all these gears, pushrods, pulleys and vacuum tubes and things are working now, so go do your stuff.” Hilarity ensued. From the very first time a software schedule slipped, methodologies for making cheaper/better/faster software have been surfacing and then going out of style like fad diets in trash Hollywood tabloids. You can’t open a trade magazine without seeing some article about how Co-Evolutionary Brisk BOHICA Design is going to take over the world next week and deliver everything on time, under budget and with fewer bugs than last month’s shining star, as well as making your teeth and underwear whiter (you don’t want to know how). Next month, Oprah will have her own methodology, probably based on deleting bloated source code after a binge of typing. You heard it here first.

Why are there no software methodologies based on suffering?

There are firms that practice ancient, mysterious rituals of development discovered during the time of Hammurabi. Peopled by cube farms packed with pencil-necked geeks, tracked by corridor-scale Gant charts and countless tons of obsolete documentation, and kept on the rails by people who have had their senses of humor surgically removed, these shops are no fun at all to work in, but you could do worse. Lots worse.

There are the Agile and Extreme folk, pixie-like and lighter than air, quick to pair up and argue politely over every semicolon. The basic model is to scrum and crystallize incrementally on a customer-guided path until the customer gets sick of all the churn, burndowns, velocity graphs, mocks and God damned flying Nerf rockets, cuts a check and tries to pick up the pieces once the fairies have been bribed to leave the building. These shops might be fun in the short term, but in the long term they’re about as stable as 60’s commune farming practices; you hear about the success stories, not so much about the ones felled by dysentery and bad drugs and unstable personalities. But you could do worse, lots worse.

There are the places using potent mixtures of CMM and Evolving Milestones and Comnet and RADiX and CORE and Accept and GenIus and Coherence and ABC and PAM and TSP and COMMIX and Jitterbug and whatever else fell of the truck and didn’t make it into a peer-reviewed paper in an ACM publication. If you lined all these methodologies up and shot one every second at the top of an ocean cliff, frankly you’d have a lot of people offer to help out, and probably make the world a better place, but have you priced ammo recently?

So: Suffering.

I maintain that this can be remarkably simple and straight forward methodology. No one likes to talk about it, but it’s already present to some extent on any project that matters. And look what it did for certain major religions. I think there is gold here, if you approach it correctly: You will suffer until the project ships, then you will suffer some more while customers bitch at you about what they got -vs- what they were willing to pay for. You will suffer bad tools and cheap hardware and arbitrary rules and abjectly miserable mail systems and mandatory weekend on-call times, and all the lunch places around your office will be clones of Der Weinerschnitzel and Hell Torito. Just shovel in food and soda and the occasional pep talk (“We’ll get you more comfortable manacles, better hammers and fresh batteries for the Happy Fun Tasers after the next milestone crushes what is left of your spirit”). But suffering with very, very good people in the trenches of the War Against Crap is not a bad thing, and I’ve had some of the best times of my career suffering and shipping just amazing stuff.

In short, the thing that the Silver Bullet proponents seem to universally lack is the simple ingredient of shared misery.

Perhaps this is implied?

And this, in a nutshell, is why I am not a manager. 🙂

Get ’em off me

Last year my dad sepnt some time in the hospital, undergoing some brain surgery [it worked out okay, though things were a little hairy for a while]. Dad is a bit irascible, and also likes to joke.

So when asked “How did you sleep last night?”, he responded with “Great, except for the insects.”


“The insects on the wall.”


“The tiny insects on the wall were bothering me.”

At this point they clearly thought he was a little crazy. (Heck, I thought he was a little off). And this got written down in his hospital record, something like, “Sees invisible insects,” probably.

His doc came in concerned the next morning. By afternoon they got to the bottom of it; They found a bunch of small insects in his room’s bathroom, and the cleaning staff took care of them.

Stages of toddler sleep

Judging by the behavior of our kid, falling asleep is apparently a learned behavior. Like many things about babies, this came as a complete surprise to me. Like many other things in life that occupy more or less all of your available time, I’ve come to (um) enjoy distinctions in the phases and qualities of a child’s sleep that I never knew existed.

Falling asleep –

Stage 1: Cranky. Much crying.

Stage 2: Eyes slowly getting heavier, ever heavier…

Stage 3: “Hey, I forgot to complain about…” More crying. The cat meows a little in worried sympathy (awww, that’s cute).

Stage 4: Eyes closed. Rapid breathing. Slowing, slows, maybe this is —

Stage 5: Blind panic. Arms windmill against the matress, feet pump up and down, head whips from side to side; it’s like he’s possessed by a jack hammer. Ear-piercing wailing. The cat bails to the other side of the house.

Stage 6: Utterly instantaneous transition to sleep.

It is frankly amazing that any of us lived to be grown-ups.