Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Sunday, August 24, 2003

  Howling at the moon

I howl at the moon every birthday.
My last three blog entries came from my disappointment at never making it into the space program. I dropped out of college in the early 80s and went into programming computers for a living. I thought that maybe I'd work my way into space that way, but after the Challenger disaster, I focused on becoming a Delos D. Harriman. That hasn't worked out so well either... neither has my attempt at becoming Rhysling... I just managed to secure a press pass for the upcoming Planetary Sciences conference. Engineer, songwriter, businessman, journalist... If I could just break orbit then I'd be a wanted fan!

Occasionally you do have to take a step back, get some perspective, and restore your sense of wonder. Progress in my own field, favorite design method (open source), and OS (Linux) has been amazing. I take comfort in that.

A little over a year ago the web browser mozilla hit 1.0. Since then, the product has hit a release date, every quarter, and is now at a stable 1.4 release. It "just works", in every way an advance upon Internet Explorer, but I found myself bothered this morning that it seemed to be a touch slow. Well...

I'd been running this invocation of mozilla for 14 days straight. I had 41 browser windows open. As a guess, I'd say I had 15 tabs open, on average. That's 615 web pages all open at the same time! (and several thousand read - I've done nothing but research and write these past weeks) The browser was using 809MB of RAM to do this. Simultaneously I was running open office, and the graphics editing program gimp.

I had about four blog entries planned referencing many of these tabs, and I just bookmarked them all with a few mouse clicks... Rock on Mozilla! My Linux machine may be chugging but it keeps on working...

With better software, fewer space missions will fail due to bugs like missing semi-colons, priority inversion problems, mistaken metric/english unit conversions, or bits flipped the wrong way. These are all real examples of how bad software caused failures in the space program. A missing semi-colon caused one venus mission to miss, a priority inversion problem ate at the battery of one of the Mars landers, the Mars Polar Orbiter burned because of metric confusion, and the Climate Orbiter had a single bit sensor jiggled during re-entry that stopped the motor firing early, so it crashed. I wrote about these last two software bugs in Uncle Bill's Helicopter.

I hope that Linus's Law - "With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" - etches it's way into more minds.

I sat at my desk these past two weeks, flying from one web page to another, absorbing quantities of knowledge in a way that I would have never dreamed back when I first started working on the internet 18 years ago. To find the information - to find the information - to find the information - would have taken me decades had I started in the 80s. Sure, it took 809MB of RAM, but only a year ago mozilla would have crashed within a day, only three years ago my machine would have....

My sense of wonder is back.

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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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