Interview with Donald Knuth

Donald Knuth is one of the legends of the computer science community. Unlike most others in the computer science community, his contributions are recognized as meaningful to all of science. He doesn’t give interviews that often, but the NY Times got one and it’s great.

For the last 50 years, Knuth has been working on 7 volume work, “The Art of Computer Programming”. So far he has published the first three volumes, and part of the fourth.

Mass Expiration of Copyright

Glenn Fleishman writing in Smithsonian Magazine:

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, all works first published in the United States in 1923 will enter the public domain. It has been 21 years since the last mass expiration of copyright in the U.S.

We can blame Mickey Mouse for the long wait. In 1998, Disney was one of the loudest in a choir of corporate voices advocating for longer copyright protections. At the time, all works published before January 1, 1978, were entitled to copyright protection for 75 years; all author’s works published on or after that date were under copyright for the lifetime of the creator, plus 50 years. Steamboat Willie, featuring Mickey Mouse’s first appearance on screen, in 1928, was set to enter the public domain in 2004. At the urging of Disney and others, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, named for the late singer, songwriter and California representative, adding 20 years to the copyright term. Mickey would be protected until 2024—and no copyrighted work would enter the public domain again until 2019, creating a bizarre 20-year hiatus between the release of works from 1922 and those from 1923.

That’s My Boy, Lin

Shirley Wang writes about her dad:

When Charles Barkley’s mother, Charcey Glenn, passed away in June 2015, Barkley’s hometown of Leeds, Alabama, came to the funeral to pay respects. But there was also an unexpected guest.

Barkley’s friends couldn’t quite place him. He wasn’t a basketball player, he wasn’t a sports figure, and he wasn’t from Barkley’s hometown. Here’s what I can tell you about him: He wore striped, red polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts and got really excited about two-for-one deals. He was a commuter. He worked as a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa. In short, he was everyone’s suburban dad. More specifically, he was my dad.

“You know, it was obviously a very difficult time,” Barkley told me recently. “And the next thing I know, he shows up. Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the Asian dude over there?’ I just started laughing. I said, ‘That’s my boy, Lin.’ They’re, like, ‘How do you know him?’ I said, ‘It’s a long story.’ “

Ion Drive Airplane

Researchers at MIT have created a small airplane with no moving parts. It works via electroaerodynamic propulsion, which is fancy science talk for an ion drive (yes, the same ion drive from Star Trek).

Using very high voltages—in the plane’s case, 40,000 volts—the thruster generates ions in the air around two electrodes. The electric field created between these throws the ions from a smaller electrode over to a larger one. These ions collide with normal air molecules while traveling, creating the ionic wind and pushing the plane forward. Since the ions are moving between two stationary electrodes, no moving parts are required to power the plane.

Saturation Divers

Jen Banbury gives and in-depth description of the life of saturation divers at Atlas Obscura:

When it’s time to enter the chamber (Hovey calls it the “house”), the divers pass through a tight, circular hatch at one end, like one might see on an old submarine, that closes with a “tunk.” The hatch is sealed, and even though they’re on a boat, just feet from support crew and fresh air, the divers might as well be on the International Space Station. Even farther actually: It takes about 3.5 hours for an astronaut to make it back from space. Saturation divers have to decompress for days at minimum. On a dive early in his career, when Hovey was on a job at a depth of 700 feet, he learned that his wife had miscarried. It would have taken him 11 days of decompression to exit the chamber. They needed his salary (not surprisingly, saturation divers are well-compensated, up to $1,400 per day), so his wife told him to finish the job.

Getting the iPad to Pro

Craig Mod writes a brilliant assessment of the iPad: Getting the iPad to Pro

These new iPads may be gorgeous pieces of kit, but the iPad Pros of 2017 were also beautiful machines — svelte and overpowered. In fact, the iPad Pro hardware, engineering, and silicon teams are probably the most impressive units at Apple of recent years. The problem is, almost none of the usability or productivity issues with iPads are hardware issues.

On a gut level, today’s iPad hardware feels about two or three years ahead of its software. Which is unfortunate, but not unfixable.

At the recent October 2018 Apple Event where the new iPad Pro’s launched, the iPad Pro was repeatedly described as a “real computer”. The hardware is, but iOS is not. Extensions are brilliant, but you can’t open two documents with the same app. Split-screen is awkward at its best, and usually not worth the hassle. IOS is fundamentally application centric, Any workflow which requires multiple apps to complete is frustrating and inefficient, especially one which requires you to process multiple documents. There are dozens of small nits which you can’t work around because there aren’t tools like Keyboard Maestro or Hammerspoon. The emoji key on the Smart Keyboard is in maybe the worst possible location. My beloved ⌘-D to forward delete doesn’t work in iOS, even though ⌘-A, ⌘-E, ⌘-F, and ⌘-B all do.

Third party iPad software is slowly making progress, and there are some real standouts. I think OmniFocus 3 is better on iPad than it is on macOS. Fantastical, Outlook, GoodNotes, Drafts, and iA Writer are compelling and robust. PowerPoint on iPad is a mess, and not ready for serious work. Downloading files in Safari almost never works.

The major iPad focused enhancements in iOS 11 were a real turning point for my usage of the iPad. The Files app, the Dock, and the improvements to Split Screen were a major leap forward. I’m anxiously awaiting iOS 13 and hope it closes the gap between the software and the hardware.

Voices of Reason and Unreason

Peggy Noonan writes about the circus of the Kavanaugh confirmation. It’s mostly a tribute to Senator Susan Collins, who is worthy of tribute in this horrid affair.

She was one of two mostly reasonable voices in the Senate, the other being Jeff Flake, who tried to be somewhat objective. She even took the risk to explain her thinking when she announced her vote. After reviewing Judge Kavanaugh’s many legal opinions, and speaking with him at length, she judged him a well-qualified centrist. When speaking about the accusations of sexual misconduct, she had the clarity to say:

We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.

I haven’t read any of Judge Kavanaugh’s legal opinions. I am in no position to make a judgement about whether he is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. I intentionally avoided listening to the testimony of Ms. Ford and the other women who accused Judge Kavanaugh of sexual assault. In my view this was a political circus on both sides of the aisle, and I had neither the stomach nor the emotional energy to engage.

But amid the anger, rancor, accusations, and brawling over the confirmation, I am reassured that there was one brave Senator who tried her best to be fair, no matter the personal political cost. Which is more than I can say for her other colleagues in the Senate.

The Soccer Ball That Went to Space, Twice

Tonya Malinowsky, at ESPN

In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger stunned the nation when it broke apart 73 seconds into flight. This is the story of the soccer ball that survived — and the family that sent it into space, twice.

Soccer ball in space

As a middle school kid, I sat in the cafeteria at my school and watched the country’s first national tragedy to be broadcast on live television. This story gave me all the feels.

Everyone Is Selling Data

SalesForce Chairman and CEO Mark Benioff:

…in Europe your data belongs to you, but in the United States, your data belongs to all these companies that are collecting it, and they can do with it basically whatever they want.

He makes it sound like “all these companies” are slimeballs like Uber and Facebook, who he calls out by name.

SalesForce is one of those companies. They purchased Jigsaw, which crowdsources contact info, i.e. gets people to upload their acquaintances contact information, and then resells it. Now branded as, they still have the same fundamental business model. Their privacy policy states:

….the Company may supplement the Directory with publicly available information or with information from trusted data providers who are legally authorized to provide such information

SalesForce does the same thing as Facebook: take the data they collect from their users, supplement and enhance it with data they buy, and “do with it basically whatever they want.” At least Facebook can justify their position by not requiring their users to pay. SalesForce gets their users coming and going. They charge north of a thousand bucks per user per year, and still sell their users data.

Self Checkout Doesn’t Have To Be Horrible

Many retail stores now have self-checkout stations. A store employee oversees a cluster of four stations where customers can scan the barcodes of their items and pay. The appeal to the store is clear: less labor is required to operate the store. It should be better for the customer too, they shouldn’t have to wait in line as long. Great idea, but the execution has been terrible, and self checkout is generally a horrible experience.

First of all, self-checkout treats me like I’m an idiot. I’m greeted with a “Press here to begin” button on the screen. I know the barcode reader is on all the time, why turn it off until I press a button on the screen? So I press the button, and scan my first item. The kiosk refuses to scan anything else until I have placed the item in the bagging area, and it has confirmed the weight in the bagging area has increased by what it thinks the scanned item weighs. I’m not sure what bad thing they are trying to prevent from happening, but it drives me crazy. If you have a cart full of items and have to move a bag that’s already full, some control-freak computer programmer decided that I should have to wait for the attendant to let me continue. The attendant is usually not paying attention, or is helping another customer, so I stand and wait. Finally they come and do a careful investigation of my issue, ensuring that I am not shoplifting and have scanned all the items that are in my bags. Ha! What really happens is the attendant just pushes their magic button and I can finally continue scanning. A complete waste of both my time and their time.

When I’m finished with the scanning and bagging dance I’m ready to pay and leave. I often get asked about my loyalty club number, or frequent shopper number, or whatever they have branded their enhanced consumer tracking function. I hate those things, so I always skip them. Finally I’m presented with a bewildering array of options for how to pay. I search the screen looking for the one to pay with my debit card. I finally find it and am directed to complete my transaction on the credit card terminal. I insert my card into the chip reader, and it takes 15 seconds for it to decide to ask me to enter my PIN. I do so, wait 10 more seconds for it to say the transaction has been approved, immediately followed by a repeating, annoying buzz reminding me to remove my card. I put my card back in my pocket and wait another 8 seconds for my receipt to print. Finally I’m free from self-checkout hell.

Self checkout is supposed to be more convenient and more efficient, but it rarely is. If the regular lines are not super long, I almost always would prefer to wait for a person than endure the horrible self checkout experience. In many cases it’s faster to go through the line staffed by people than the line staffed by the machines. The worker at the traditional checkout line can scan items as fast as they can move them across the barcode reader. Their throughput is many times faster than anyone can do in a self checkout line.

Today I went to the Walmart Neighborhood Market near our house to pick up some snacks for a trip. I don’t usually go to this store, and since nobody was at any of the self checkout stations, and the attendant looked unusually attentive, I decided to give it a go. It was fantastic. When I looked at the screen it told me to scan my first item. I was holding a pack of skittles in my left hand and a package of beef jerky in my right. I scanned the skittles and immediately scanned the beef jerky. No complaining about the baggage area. I put the snacks down and pulled out my credit card and inserted into the chip reader. Before I could look over at the touch screen I heard an almost pleasant ding (it wasn’t as nice as the ding from my iPhone, but it was pretty nice) and I was done. I stared in disbelief as my receipt immediately printed.

It was hands down the best self checkout experience I’ve ever had. I don’t know if Walmart has rolled this out to all of their stores, but everybody who designs or implements self service point of sale systems should go buy some snacks at their Walmart Neighborhood Market and then make their system work exactly the same way.