Lars Wirzenius: Anecdotes, 2004


Friday, December 10, 2004

Anecdotes: Embarrassment is good for the soul

It does good to the soul to share your embarrassing moments with others on occasion. So here's two embarrassingly stupid things I've done.

I was trying to fix a problem with the optical drive in my laptop. Specifically, I had trouble getting it to eject. Pressing the button on the drive didn't do anything and using Nautilus didn't work either. I went to the command line to try the command line eject tool and it too wouldn't do anything. I was getting really annoyed, and started trying different command line tools and options and reading kernel log messages and so on. At some point I noticed that the server in the other room had started making worrying noises, and this didn't improve my temper at all. Having one computer malfunction is bad enough, but having two do it at the same time is more than twice as bad.

Eventually, I did figure out that the laptop's drive wouldn't open because I had a movie player still running, and that I'd misinterpreted Nautilus's error messages. Also, the noises in the server were due to my using eject in the command line window where I had logged in to my server. The server's optical drive would open a bit, hit the front panel, then close again because it couldn't open fully. For fifteen minutes I tried opening my laptop's optical drive, instead opened the server's one, ka-klunk, ka-klunk, and didn't realize what I was doing.

Yesterday, I finally realized why my bogofilter setup didn't want to learn that a few automatic e-mails I get from my mailing list manager are not, in fact, spam. I'd gotten the "unlearn spam" and "learn non-spam" options the wrong way around.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Anecdotes: On slow mail delivery

When I was moderating the comp.os.linux.announce newsgroup many years ago, I once received a mail that had been a year on the way. One of the relaying machines had been shut down before it had forwarded the mail and then a year later it was rebooted and the mail got to me.

I didn't notice the date and approved the message for the newsgroup. The company who had sent the announcement was confused as to why I sent such an old message to the newgroups, especially since they'd changed names in the mean time and everything.

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.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Anecdotes: Teaching binary searches and recursion

Many years ago, when I a teacher at the University of Helsinki, I found that a good way to teach binary searching and recursion is by teaching people to debug their programs.

I had a couple of students who had trouble with their assignments. These were their first non-trivial programs, a few hundred lines of code. They each had a bug and some trouble finding it, and I taught them how to search: insert a print statement in the middle of the program and then run the program again. If the error occurred before the print statement, it was in the first part of the program, and otherwise it was in the second part. Then they would insert a new print statement in the middle of the remaining part, and so on.

This is a natural and effective way of finding the location of a bug, and also made them also understand recursion and binary searching immediately. That was, after all, what they were doing themselves.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Anecdotes: Old man, young lady

Picture this: Sicily, er, no, Helsinki, about 1992. My student club is giving a boozing party disguised as a masquerade All the guys are to be dressed up as old men. I go and rent a false beard and buy a walking stick. I take the train to the party, and in the train I practise old man manners. I limp as I walk. I sit as if my back and limbs hurt. My hands shake randomly as I hold my stick when I'm sitting. You know how old people can be.

The train arrives at the final station and it's time to get out. I stand up, slowly, groaning, and start limping towards the exit. A young woman of about my own age comes up and asks if she can help. She opens the door for me. She helps me down the stairs out of the train by holding my arm. She even asks if I'm going to be all right.

I'm quite looking forward to old age.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Anecdotes: On remote debugging

I found a one year old IRC log snippet while cleaning up my files. It describes the development sitatution we had at Oliotalo. We no longer need to talk to England, but debugging things over the phone still happens, though less often, luckily. I've edited the log slightly, to remove expressions of sympathies and such, but the essence of the story is still there.

liw: sometimes I do hate being a programmer: for the past week I've wrestled with software that breaks in one way, then when that is fixed (one line change, e.g., serial port speed change) something completely irrelevant breaks (such as my garbage collection algorithm)

liw: it doesn't help that the embedded computer I'm debugging is in England and I'm in Finland, of course; now I have about four hours to sleep before England starts doing things again *sigh*

someone_else: using irc to get somebody in england to press reset? :)

liw: no, using phones to talk a Mac user through using wine to run a Windows program to download new binary images into the embedded computer and then through using minicom to download Lisp code into the same embedded computer

liw: my best plan so far is to switch careers and become a professional photographer, using large format, fully manual cameras (quite literally just a light tight box with a lens on one side and film on the other side - *no* electrical components)

someone_else: put the computer in a box. get Brown to pick it up.

liw: there is, of course, no time to transfer boxes, the customer demo is in six hours

liw: oh well, I'll go see if I can get some sleep now; if everything works in England in the morning, I'll even get to sleep all day, otherwise it's back to denting head with wall

I don't remember if things actually worked, unfortunately.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Anecdotes: LoTR addict

How do you know someone is addicted to the Lord of the rings movies? Consider the following dialog snippet:

liw: I'll watch the LoTR movies when I can borrow the extended editions to me on DVD. It'll probably take a year more.

Anu: 309 days, I think.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Anecdotes: Taxi drivers favor Linux

You know you're beginning to achieve world domination when taxi drivers start spontaneously boosting your product. Coming back from a visit to a customer site, I was feeling tired and miserable and my foot was wet, since snow was leaking in through a split shoe heel. I decided to take a taxi home from the Helsinki railway station and the driver was quite talkative, in a nice and positive way.

We were having a nice discussion on the relative merits of stop lights and traffic circles, when he suddenly started telling me how wonderful Linux is compared to Windows. He made the analogy that Linux is like a traffic circle (might slow you down a bit, but works smoothly almost always) and Windows is like a stop light (occasionally stops you dead without any reason at all and there's nothing you can do about it).

No, I hadn't indicated to him that I even knew about Linux.