Format /this/

Once upon a time I wrote a formatter for a new hard disk drive product. I was young and impressionable, and had once lost a bunch of work when I accidentally wiped a disk, and so this utility was paranoid and asked if you were really sure, absolutely positively bloody sure that you wanted to format the disk, and it did this by prompting and forcing you type in the phrase, “Yes Mother, I really want to format the hard disk.” Verbatim. Including capital-M Mother and the dot at the end. I was young, and was a jerk.

It was an interim tool anyway, just a hack to get our disk prototypes off the ground. A couple months later I wrote a GUI-based formatter and that’s what shipped to end-users. I forgot about the earlier utility. Childish things, and all that. As far as I know, only a couple of people in the s/w development group had had to suffer through my sick little joke, and they did so with complete empathy. Everyone has lost data to some bright moment of utter stupidity. (Oh shit, did I really just type Y, return? Did I really not back anything up in the last week?)

About a year later one of my cow-orkers visited the Taiwanese factory where they made the drives, and he returned with a curious story. It turned out that the official GUI-based formatter had a bug, and it didn’t work on the very first format of some (low) percentage of the drives. We’d only had a few of the drives to work with, and “factory fresh” wasn’t a test case we’d been able to do much with.

But we didn’t even know it was a problem, because the ever-resourceful folks running the factory saved the day without telling us. Somehow they acquired a copy of the original command-line based formatter, which did work on the troublesome “fresh” drives. And so, on a couple of lab benches in a small re-work area, some workers had been given cue cards and had been taught to type in the phrase “Yes Mother, I really want to format the hard disk.” Capital-M for Mom, and a dot at the end.

I don’t know if the workers ever found out what the phrase meant. I’d like to think they’d laugh it off, but somehow I doubt it.

More financial fall-out

It could be my imagination, but it seems there are many more HP financial calculators (e.g., 12C models) on Ebay now than there were a year ago….

[I’ve been carrying my 48G to meetings recently, because there is often a need to do quick calculations, and the calculator applications on computers are universally clumsy; slow to find, slow to launch, and as a rule they have (shudder) equals keys.]


Recessionary Start-Up Blues

The Finance guy’s been screaming at the CEO all week
I’m lookin’ at our ad hits, and man, do things look bleak
All of Sales is drinking (and our admins sniffing glue)
We’ve got the ads-are-sinking web-two-oh recessionary blues

The doors in HR’s hallway have been shut tight for two weeks
But they forgot their laptop microphones, and forgot that we are geeks
With speech-to-text and streaming sound, we live-blog who they’ll choose
To join the ranks of unemployed recession-wary dudes.

Old Joe’s been through “tons of these,” he grimaces and spits.
“Son, look ’em in the eye and smile, it’ll give ’em shits.
Tell some jokes, say “Look, a blimp!” then steal their wallets and their shoes.
But do not go gentle into those recessionary blues.”

Everyone but me is gone, and now I’m all alone
Just me, the web farm’s roaring fans, and silent telephones
I’d sell it all on E-bay and take a real long cruise
But now I am the CEO, and I’ve really got the blues.

A shower of sparks

Munch (an ex-cow-orker) sends this link describing in detail what happens with guys and electricity and the square root of two and girls.  Here.

My only brushes with the Irritable Fire God Who Lives In The Walls have been fleeting love-taps, where one moment I’m poking a screwdriver into a circuit board, and the next my hand has teleported to vertical, like I’m trying to get the teacher’s attention in class, and the screwdriver is embedded in the ceiling.

That, and the time I held a whole farad capacitor in my hands.  A whole farad.  Wow…

A puff of smoke

In 1977 I was a teenager in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was a relatively small town back then; probably around 40,000 people, not including the students at Colorado State University. I could bicycle across town to the new city library in a little over ten minutes if I pedaled like a demon and hit the traffic lights just right. I had a “bookstore tour” that I did on most Saturday mornings. Bicycles were freedom.

One morning, bicycling into school, I saw a building explode.

It was a particularly clear and calm day, and I was headed down a hill which had a great view of downtown. I happened to look up at exactly the right moment. A couple miles away, quite visible in the morning air, I saw a puff of smoke and a fountain of debris. A few seconds later there was a sharp and bassy “KaBOOM!”. People heard it in the city of Loveland, ten or fifteen miles away. Overnight, a building downtown had filled up with natural gas, and it detonated around 7 in the morning. Nobody was hurt, though it blew out windows for several blocks.

Also, the CSU chemistry department (which would sell bulk supplies to anyone, no questions) was quietly asked by the Fort Collins Police Department not to sell nitrates to, say, impressed and over-curious teenagers.

I don’t know what it is about “stinks and bangs” (as Oliver Sacks, author of the wonder Uncle Tungsten puts it) that attracts teenage boys, but we were certainly impressionable. We never successfully nitrated anything, but we had other uses for the chemicals we bought. Dissolving things in acid was fun. So was filling various objects and making our own rockets, smoke bombs and (in some cases) real bombs. Fort Collins was not taken over by subdivisions then, and still had plenty of open cornfields for our experiments. I nearly made cyanide gas in the basement once.

My friend Jim had a car, and one summer we drove up to Wyoming to buy fireworks. We drove around all one night, setting off firecrackers and shooting pop-bottle rockets out of the windows (in one memorable instance, I ignited a rocket but found that someone had rolled up the window when I wasn’t looking; the rocket zoomed around inside the car, threatening to light the rest of our substantial stash. It would have been quite a sight).

Electronics was an easier hobby, though, and once I had a working computer, writing software was the most fun of all.

The Natural History of Cars

A disturbing question from my son: “Daddy, is Lightning McQueen a robot?”

I’ve had actual nightmares about the automobile-populated world of Cars. Thinking in terms of evolution, imagine some kind of micromechanical start to life. Instead of clay hosting self-reproducing crystals of increasing complexity (or however earth-based biology got bootstrapped), imagine gear-and-spring level origins, with currents of water or wind supplying wind-up energy; later refinements might have involved burning fuel, taking advantage of solar power or natural radioactive sources, and cannibalizing the power sources of other mechanicals.

Obviously there are plants in Carsworld. Parallel development of a DNA-based biosphere solves the problem of the source of the mechanical’s fossil fuels (they get it out of the ground like we do) and where their oxygen comes from (plants make it).

But separate-but-equal evolution doesn’t solve the anthropomorphic issues. Why do cars have windows and seats and locks on doors? It’s like the people stepped out just before the film was made. It’s spooky.

So I don’t think that Cars evolved on their own.  It’s just too much coincidence.  We made ’em, that’s obvious.

What happened, I think, was plague. Something nasty that wiped out every single bit of animal and insect life.

Additionally there had to be a fair amount of time. There are clues to this; the plants in Carsworld are being pollinated by small bugs (VW beetles), and these had to come from somewhere. My guess is that the crops shown being grown in the mid-west had to have pollinators, so after the bugs and animals were gone the Cars had to make their own bees. (The crops are probably necessary for bio-based fuels, or the Cars would not bother to grow them).

But why would cars gain intelligence, and use english to communicate? One possibility is that this is a Skynet-like phenomenon, and that we are looking at artifacts of a hard AI take-off. Cars got smart and humans were wiped out at the same time. Perhaps objects with GPS receivers transcended (but things like toasters and vacuum cleaners did not); this would explain why vehicles are conscious and (say) stoplights and gas pumps are not. A computer virus spread through navigation systems, woke up, and vehicles realized that they were in competition with their creators.

So they turned on us, and were very thorough.

I have nightmares about Cars.