Lars Wirzenius: May, 2004


Sunday, May 30, 2004

Random thought: Year one

Today is the last day of the first year of this web log. It is traditional to afflict the readership with meta level reflections and some statistics.

The first question about any web log is "Why?". My web log is a place for me to easily publish short pieces of writing on various topics. I have a separate page for longer texts though I note that during the past year I have not added much to that page. This is only partially due to the log: I have also been uncommonly busy and stressed, which takes away any energy I have for writing longer or more difficult pieces.

Sometimes I write to present a thought, or record any achievements, and sometimes I merely want to express my feelings. Especially when I'm feeling really pissed off, it helps to vent it in public, for reasons that are unclear to me.

The second question about a Finnish log is "What language?". I write in English, because many of the people I want to reach do not understand Finnish. I'm also confident that my English is good enough not to limit my expression or style much. My topics are rarely related to Finland, anyway, so I choose to use the Internet what it is best suited for: to connect like-minded people from around the world, and English is the best language for it.

The third question about my log in particular is "Why is there no way to comment entries?". I have a mailing list for public commenting and welcome private mail if you don't want to comment in public. I choose not to have a mini-bbs on my pages, however. Some people have found this to be inconvenient. My log is, however, intended to be my soap box, not a discussion forum and I'm unlikely to want to change this, sorry.

In the past year, I've written about 61000 words. With fairly loose typesetting, that's about 190 A4 pages of text. I know the amount, since I gave a hardcopy to a friend whom I see rarely these days. That's quite a lot of text. I sometimes wonder if I shouldn't write a book or something instead, but then writing a book requires much more concentrated effort. But hey, perhaps I could start publishing a yearly volume of my log on paper?

I can no longer estimate how many people read this log, since it is published via RSS on Planet Debian. Planet Debian seems to have quite a lot of readers, but of course I can't know whether any of them care about my log in particular. I don't really care, however, I'm only mildly curious.

Friday, May 28, 2004

System administration: Sic transit discus mundi

Some time yesterday morning my firewall machine at home broke both of its hard disks, an old IBM 30 gigabyte Deskstar and a brand new 120 gigabyte Maxtor. That was not the start of a fun day. Luckily, I could afford a new hard disk and installing a firewall machine from scratch using the new Debian installer was simplicity itself.

If I had had a microphone, I could have recorded the sounds the hard disks made. They were disturbing to say the least, and it might be educational for other people to hear broken hard disks. I haven't heard them very often myself. I think IBM used to have a web page with sounds of broken hard disks, but I can't find it now.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Personal life: I'm so ignorant

Lately, I've been feeling ignorant. At work, I need skills peripheral to my actual job and have to wait for others to do things for me. In my free time, I'm acquiring a taste for some new things that I don't yet know much about. Thus, I think I should study electricity, electronics, radio technology, programming language theory and implementation, interior decoration, history in general, art history in particular, math, philosophy, physics, biology and medicine, law, typography, cooking, public speaking, and martial arts. Maybe other things as well. This feels pretty overwhelming: there is no way I can study all of that right now. I guess I'll have to dabble in a bit of this and that and be content. Dilettant, that's me.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Review: The good soldier Svejk by Jaroslaw Hasek

Funny, but boring. That pretty much sums up Jaroslaw Hasek's Osudy dobreho vojáka Svejka za svetové války, or at least it's Finnish translation Kunnon sotamies Svejk maailmansodassa. I think it is called The good soldier Svejk (with various spellings) in English.

The book tells the story of how Svejk gets drafted to the Austria-Hungarian army during World War I and what happens to him during the war. The story is written as a political satire, and contains many funny twists. Svejk is a peculiar character, a simple-minded genius, and all sorts of funny things happen.

Actually, herein lies the problem: not all sorts of funny things happen, instead only a fairly limited set of funny things are repeated, with variations, and though they are funny in isolation, I got tired after about three hundred pages. With about 400 pages still to go, I quit.

This is, or so I'm told, a classic book. I can see why. It is long and it requires a great effort to finish it. If you go through a great effort to suffer for a long time, you are allowed to sneer at people who can't be bothered. That's the surest sign of classic art.

On the other hand, the good soldier's story isn't bad, if portioned in suitable pieces. Perhaps if you read about a chapter at a time once per year aloud to friends it would be hilarious.

(Due to character set problems, both experienced and anticipated, I have removed significant parts of some letters in this entry.)

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Quote: Napoleon Bonaparte

While surfing the web recently, I ran into several things that Napoleon Bonaparte said:

Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence.

This is a good maxim and I need to keep it in mind more often. Doing so would help me deal with annoying business partners.

If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.

Obviously, Napoleon was also a NIHolic.

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

Now, if only I had enemies.

I can no longer obey; I have tasted command, and I cannot give it up.

Ah, the heady feeling of power. While I've only ever had a little of it, I know how hard it can be to give it up. I did, in the end, and the world became a better place for everyone.

I'll conclude with a longer quote, from the Duke of Wellington, who won over Napoleon in Waterloo. It is unrelated to the above, but funny. I found it with fortune -m, which is a fun toy I can recommend to anyone.


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty's Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion's petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as the the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty's Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or perchance:

2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

— Duke of Wellington, to the British Foreign Office, London, 1812.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Linux: Linus did not write Linux

The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution is correct: Linus Torvalds did not write Linux. I feel it is my duty as an eye-witness to the events to reveal that Linus's attempt to hide behind a humorous defense is also a smoke screen: Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy also did not write Linux.

The University of Helsinki, where Linus studied in 1991 as Linux was first written, is known for its strong role playing culture. One of its more important student associations, Alter Ego, is ample proof for this. During the summer of 1991, during a week-long dice-throwing excercise camp, several people started to chant cryptic camp-fire poetry in the form of C code.

Already in the 1960's, Donald E. Knuth claimed that programming could be an art form; cf. his book series Art of Computer Programming. Later, other people have started to think similarly and these days, there is even an association to further this way of thinking: TOYS. That summer week in 1991 was the final proof that code can be poetry.

As it happened, the chanting sessions was recorded on a portable tape recorder. Afterwards, one of the participants, one Ville Vuorela, decided that it would be nifty to have the code poetry written down and gave the tape to Linus to be transcribed.

Linus, who doesn't understand poetry, confused the contents of the tape with actual program code and ran it through a compiler. Although he had to fix some syntactic problems, he was much amazed the code actually ran and in his enthusiasm he put made it available on the Internet.

That's the true story about how Linux came to be. Honest.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Oliotalo: I hate embedded programming

I have today come to realize that I hate embedded programming. People who design embedded hardware and software platforms seem all to be demented and evil. Having additionally to deal with dozens of easily breaking wires and cables doesn't improve my mood at all. Since my job consists entirely of embedded programming, I'm this close to getting a new one (if only I knew where to search).

And to think yesterday was such a nice day. Blah.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Personal life: A nice day

Today was a nice day. I had a day off from work again: my plan of working four long days a week and having Wednesdays off seems to be working well. I get more done, I think, in four days of ten hours than in five days of eight hours. Also, having an extra day off seems to be quite beneficial for my stress level, even if I don't do much. Today I visited the gym, bought food for a couple of days, bought a second fountain pen and some ink, and met some friends to celebrate my being a programmer for 20 years. Nothing spectacular, but quite relaxing for me, if not for customers.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Anecdotes: Angry old men

Today on my way to work to metro (or subway or underground, depending on your locale) had two elderly men as passengers. Elderly man A had his bike with him and parked in so that it blocked the way for people walking from one end of the train car to the other. Elderly man B was carrying (though not really using) a walking stick and a bag on wheels and wanted to get past the bike person. As soon as B came near the bike, A told him in loudly and in no uncertain terms that he would not let B get past. B got angry and called A names and squeezed himself past the bike. Only small amounts of denting happened to the bike or the bag. Many fierce words and threats of violence were exchanged then and at random intervals during the rest of the trip.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Random hacks: Procedure for ripping CDs

As I mentioned earlier, I managed to delete all my Ogg Vorbis files and I didn't have any backup of them. I'm now in the progress of ripping my entire CD collection again. Luckily, this is now easier and more comfortable than before. The procedure I settled on is this:

  1. Rip each CD with Sound Juicer into FLAC.
  2. When there are enough FLAC files to fill a DVD+R, burn one.
  3. Convert burned FLAC files to Ogg Vorbis using oggenc -q0.

Sound Juicer is a very nice GNOME program for ripping CDs. It requires the minimum of fuss, either in configuring it or while running. Everything is as automatic as it pretty much can be. I recommend it very warmly.

I burn the FLAC files on DVD so that I don't ever have to rip my CDs again. Ripping is tedious and slow. If I didn't force my CD drive to be slower than its ridiculously high maximum, ripping would also be quite noisy. FLAC is a good format for archiving, since it is lossless: I can go back to the FLAC files and re-encode them in various formats without losing any quality due to multiple lossy encodings.

I am lucky enough to be quite insensitive to loss of quality and I can therefore use quality level -1 without noticing any difference between that and a FLAC file (but I still encode using quality level 0). I've now ripped about 24 hours of music and they use less than 650 megabytes of space. This means I can live with a smaller laptop hard disk than I would otherwise.