Tom West, RIP

Tom West, the engineering manager that Tracy Kidder wrote about in The Soul of a New Machine, has died at age 71. Obit in the Boston Globe.

I read Soul before I first used a Vax, then re-read it years later after using both an MV/8000 and then having a my own personal Vax 11/780 for a while (and hacking its hardware a bit). I was impressed with the MV/8000 and how usable it was, though I still preferred bsd Unix on the Vax.

Doing a new machine is hard.

There’s a great scene in Soul of a New Machine where one of the people working on the MV/8000 obtains slightly shady access to a newly installed Vax; he takes the covers off, counts chips and estimates how much money DEC makes on each 780. I didn’t have much appreciation for this until I also started getting interested in how competitors designed their machines.

I like West’s “pinball machine” analogy: Winning at one level gives you the opportunity to play at the next level, where it’s harder. That’s definitely true.

Kindle and Sony comparison

I’ve had a Sony PRS-505 book reader for three years. The battery on is dying (it will hold a charge for maybe 300 page turns now) and it is developing bad pixels, but on the whole it was a champ, and I carried it everywhere.

Yesterday I bought a Kindle 3G, and the difference is like night and day.

In comparison:

  • The Kindle is tons faster. Simple page turns are fast, and every operation that “went to data” on the Sony and took ages (opening a book, going to a bookmark, etc.) is virtually instantaneous on the Kindle. The Sony would also spend five or ten minutes re-indexing stuff. No more of that nonsense; the people who wrote the Kindle firmware appear to understand how important it is for a UI to be responsive (I’m guessing the Sony stuff is perl scripts or something equally awful).
  • The Kindle is seriously connected. I was reading a “free” book on my phone in the Kindle app, and when I brought it up on the Kindle it went to where I left off on the phone. I’d heard about this syncing, but not experienced it. The ability to download books away from a computer is fantastic. (I have to say that I don’t trust Sony with my credit card info now, while Amazon’s track record here is very good. Later versions of the Sony came with some kind of wireless, but I never tried it).
  • The Kindle’s screen looks better. I’m guessing that the 505 has a first generation screen, and that the technology has improved in the past couple of years. Sony went down the path of making their devices touch sensitive, which made their screens look even worse. I don’t know what they were thinking.

I still don’t like the idea of “renting a battery” for another three years; the batteries on these sealed devices ultimately degrade to the point of uselessness and require expensive replacement, but I’m guessing the bet is that people will buy new models at that point (this seems to work for Apple).

I am also not sanguine about the Kindle DRM. I like owning books. On the other hand, many books I have I do not read more than once, so this will probably be unimportant unless I need to lend a book to someone, or re-read one 20 years from now when the DRM landscape has changed (as it always seems to).


John McPhee is one of my favorite writers. This is his esssay in the New Yorker on the control of the lower Mississippi: link. (Also in The Control of Nature).


It depresses me to learn that the Coyote in later Warner Bros. cartoons . . . talks. This isn’t supposed to happen. He is voiced by Mel Blanc, but still . . .




Charles Stross will be in the Seattle area . . . sometime soonish.

The Usenix talk sounds pretty neat. (I’ve been doing a lot of reading on security recently. God damn, there are a lot of clever people out there. Honestly, the Sumarians had it right with cuneiform: Bake the valuable info into tamper-evident clay balls and bury them for millennia).

I’d love to see a panel with Stross, Vinge, Rucker and Plauger [yeah, he wrote SF back in the 70s], and maybe Gibson.

That’s fast, daddy

Our son has his own computer. I can’t really believe I’m typing that: He’s in Kindergarten and he has a computer that would have been the envy of anyone on the planet when I was his age. Hell, in the mid 60s, it would have been an instantly classified national asset, with more disk space and memory than every other machine on the planet put together for maybe the next decade. He uses it to play web games, mostly.

We live in the future.

For some reason he likes typing numbers. Like, “1, 2, 3 … 1320”, in Microsoft Write, and he was up to the high 1300s when something happened and he lost his file. I think he saved an empty version of his “numbers.txt” over his earlier efforts.

“What happened, daddy?” No tears, just wondering.

I refrained from asking him if he had made a backup. Then I cranked up Python and in a couple lines of code I regenerated his file.

“Want to see a million numbers?” And in seconds we were paging through the numbers 1 through 1,000,000, and his eyes got a little big.

I think he’s done typing numbers the hard way. I’m hoping I can teach him Python and get him hooked on writing some simple games or something.