Another look at (old) Distributed Systems

Remember watching this talk by Michael Bernstein many years ago, and some good things are worth revisiting, so I re-watched it today.

It’s backed by some reading material too.

Part 1

These days I’m re-reading a lot of earlier papers, and this added some items to my list.

Licklider’s story has, in the years since this talk, become part of a book by Stripe Press, The Dream Machine

Minsky’s Society of the Mind has also, since this talk, become freely available online

However, “ Viewing Control Structures as Patterns of Passing Messages was new to me, and is probably worth re-reading along with the classic actor paper.

Of Noogler times

Found this while spring-cleaning:

Must have got this on my first day at Google, 12 years ago!

Resolved not to hold on to things out of pure nostalgia (or there would be more of them than ones I use), so it’s off to the “Goodwill pile” now for this T-shirt.

Ye Olde Linux

An account of “Linus-as-Martin Luther” from an article in Salon, 25 years ago:

Linus Torvalds is an information-age reformer cut from the same cloth. Like Luther, his journey began while studying for ordination into the modern priesthood of computer scientists at the University of Helsinki — far from the seats of power in Redmond and Silicon Valley.

Also like Luther, he had a divine, slightly nutty idea to remove the intervening bureaucracies and put ordinary folks in a direct relationship to a higher power — in this case, their computers.

Dissolving the programmer-user distinction, he encouraged ordinary people to participate in the development of their computing environment. And just as Luther sought to make the entire sacramental shebang — the wine, the bread and the translated Word — available to the hoi polloi, Linus seeks to revoke the developer’s proprietary access to the OS, insisting that the full operating system source code be delivered — without cost — to every ordinary Joe at the desktop.

While the rise of Linux no doubt played a central role in the last two decades, the “programmer-user distinction” hasn’t gone away as the author’s (or an early SVLUG zealot’s) giddy excitement would suggest. In fact “free software” was largely co-opted by the cloud giants of today — they wouldn’t exist without it.

Building big

"Cenotaph for Newton"
“Cenotaph for Newton”

There have always been “mega-building projects”. In the past, these were large hydro-electric projects, and more recently skyscrapers competing to be the tallest building.

Today one such mega-project is “the line”, which aims to cut across the desert in a narrow strip blanketed by sheer glass walls.

I find this ridiculous, but hey I’m not the one spending half a trillion on it, so I’m happy to watch them try.

I want humanity to build something gigantic, but my desires had tended towards something functional, like a large space station, or a space elevator, or some such.

Then I discovered Étienne-Louis Boullée.

None of his buildings were ever realized1, but his are the sort of ideas I can get behind.

My favorite2 is the “Cenotaph for Newton” (image above), but all his buildings exude some sort of quality I cannot name.

This is something I wish would be made in the world today. It can be.

These are all within our ability to make, lacking only the will to make them. I don’t particularly care who makes them, as long as they exist and are accessible.

  1. Well, except for residential work, like this, which still shows his influence.
  2. Biased by having recently read an astonishing account of his life. If someone deserves a monument like this, it’s him.

TIL (thanks to Ed West)

Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government in 1917, was born in 1881 and lived until 1970, having escaped Russia following the Bolshevik takeover. He died in New York where he held a chair in War, Peace and Revolution Studies and would see anti-Vietnam protests outside his office.

What’s in a name

Three years ago, the New York Times published this article.

It was about “the fourth spy” at Los Alamos (in addition to the previously known ones, Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, and David Greenglass)

What’s funky here is this line, right out of a movie:

In July 1945, the study reported, he was “part of a unit monitoring seismological effects” of the first detonation of the atomic device. His Soviet code name was Godsend, and he came to Los Alamos from a family of spies.

In case the “family of spies” bit seems far-fetched:

In 2012, Mr. Klehr obtained newly declassified F.B.I. files on informants who had successfully penetrated the Communist Party of the United States. Suddenly, he started seeing references to the Seborers, and major parts of the atomic puzzle fell into place: Oscar was Godsend, Stuart was Godfather and their older brother Max was Relative.

There you go. Like the Incredibles, just the … opposite, I guess.

The making of a friendly robot

Learnt more about the “origin story” of Roomba from an article in the WSJ this weekend.

  • First sold as a product 20 years ago
  • Joe Jones joined the AI pan 20 years before that
  • Various hiccups: lab lost funding, he was fired from the next gig
  • Rescued from irrelevance by a serendipitous Pepsi ad
  • First prototype was made with Lego (!)

The solid world

Interview with Bertrand Russell, from 1952

Interesting perspective on the changes felt in the world, speaking a century ago, about the century before that.

The contrast, or irony, or whatever the feeling evoked by these contrasts was so strong that I couldn’t help myself, and took some screenshots of particular quotes.