knuth

I often say professionally that I did a compsci major (though can never claim it officially) yonks ago but decided against becoming a programmer. That’s not a decision I regret mostly, though it must be said I continue to have strong leanings that direction. Scarily, it’s been over 25 years since those compsci days. Still, I learnt good stuff.

I recall in the second half of first year compsci, we had an older lecturer at the time who was actually a maths lecturer who seemed to have come across into computers. I can say “older” as I’ve just found this bio which sums up very briefly a rather fascinating career. He may even have been one of my favourite lecturers as he liked to play with new ideas and introduced stuff he knew about from maths into computing. I was a very rare beast in compsci in that I was enrolled under BA and not directly in Compsci and I did no math. I had done first year math but it wasn’t quite my bag. Doherty was very big on mathematical ideas and assessing efficiencies of algorithms.

I recall him talking some weird algorithm for encrypting data and he worked through the basic idea in a lecture, I think it was based on some sort of fractional encoding model. At the end of the lecture, he said the next assignment would be to implement it. I found the idea of it fascinating. The next assignment came out and sure enough it was on encryption so I implemented the algorithm in Pascal that he’d talked about based on my lecture notes. The idea was you’d write code to encrypt a paragraph of text, and code to decrypt the text. I was mostly successful but because it relied on decimal conversion of larger numbers, it rapidly lost accuracy on the 8 bit macs we were using at the time. Out of a sentence of 10 words, it started losing letters by the end of the first word.

Turns out, I should have read the back page of the assignment. Doherty had decided that the technique was a little too experimental for first year compsci and had instead instructed everyone to use a hashing technique. I handed my assignment in and discussed with the class tutor what I’d done. He wasn’t familiar with the algorithm at all but was impressed that it worked and understood why it failed where it did. I got full marks and first year compsci was one of my few high distinctions at uni.

mini computers on top of computer books.Anyway, Doherty would often quote Knuth as the foundation of modern computing. Knuth was all about the development of algorithms and understanding their efficiencies. Algorithms are really important as they represent techniques for solving particular sorts of problems eg what is the best way to sort a random string of numbers? The answer varies depending on how many numbers are in the string, or even whether you can know the number of numbers. For very small sets, a bubble sort is sufficient, and from there you move on to binary searches, binary trees, and so on. I wasn’t always across the math but really appreciated the underlying thinking around assessing approaches to problem solving. Plus Doherty was a fab lecturer with a bit of character.

So Knuth. He is best known for his series, The Art of Computer Programming, which has gone through a few editions and I wonder if it will ever be actually finished; the fourth volume is actually labeled 4A: Combinatorial Algorithms Part 1. Volume 4 is eventually expected to cover 4 volumes: 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D. 4B has been partially released across several fascicles of which 6 have been released. Volume 3 seems to be the most relevant for where I’m at today and where I’m looking to play; #3 is around 750 pages devoted specifically to sorting and searching. So much of what we do online is reliant on being able to find stuff and to find stuff well, it helps if the data has been ordered.

Knuth has this been this name in my head though my life has gone in other directions. A few years ago, I did a google and found that not only were his books on Amazon, there was even a box set of Volumes 1-4A. I bit the bullet about 3 years ago and bought the set, cost around US$180 at the time and looks really, bloody good on the shelf. I haven’t read a great deal yet but dipped in a few times and planning to get into volume 3 properly at some point. I’ve recently being moving stuff around at home and don’t have a lot of space for books next to where my computer gear is these days. However, it turns out, the mac mini sits nicely on top of the set, and my newest computer, the VivoMini sits nicely on top of the mac. I sorta like the idea of these small computers sitting on Knuth’s foundation.

random mutterings

Following a tweet this morning:

I’ve fallen down something of a rabbit hole. I made references in my response to that tweet to usenet and newsgroup creation groups. Of course, I popped into google groups and found usenet posts of my own from the early 1990s in aus.net.news and aus.sf, some of which are a wee bit cringeworthy. Oh well, it’s all about the learning…I tell myself.

Tonight, I revisited one of my earlier blogs, 2002 this time, and found an entry that I could turn into a tweet:

as sure enough, it’s still running and is in its 23rd year. I am saddened, but unsurprised at how many links no longer work. Yet shocked to discover that my link to mutt, an unix based email program, not only works but is still being updated in 2017. The link still works for pine, another email program, but development ceased in 2008. Even slrn still exists (last update in 2016) and can be grabbed in linux via apt-get.

a shipping crane by the waterSpeaking of apt-get, a tool for installing software on linux, I am liking having linux running as its own machine. Been a long time since I’ve had it on a dedicated device. I’ve set up my new box as dual mode with windows but I’m barely touching the windows side and I’m already musing on wiping it altogether. Running it in a virtualbox always had an edge of frustration, it was slower, a little clunky, and some things just never worked as you were dealing with linux and virtualbox. Now it’s just linux and stuff mostly works; muscle memory in my fingers seems to guide me through.

In other news, I am conscious I should blog more on whisky stuff. I’ve been learning lots in the last year and have a good sense of what I like. The most important lesson however is to keep trying new things and being open to things that you might otherwise expect not to like. I’m very fond of whisky matured in sherry casks, but port casks not so much. Yet I am currently sipping a delicious drop from McHenry’s in Tasmania, matured in ex bourbon barrels and finished in a port cask. So utterly delish. Also I think I need to dedicate a post to Highland Park as I’ve had so many of their releases, yet know there’s so many I haven’t had. Have also been enjoying their new 10 year old Viking Scars which is a relatively cheap whisky at $75.

Here’s my blog entry from October 2003 that I suspect includes my first mention of eating seahorse. I had a busy month in December 2003 with much to think about including the dreaded digital divide and longevity of URLs ironically. A year later, my final post noted that of the then top 100 movies screened in Australia (by box office takings), I’d seen 92. I know now that it’s not 93 as I have definitely not seen Ghost. Whereas December 2004 is full of thoughts regarding my first NLS, and my first attempts at live blogging. I think I live blogged using a psion 5mx (which I still have) connected via infrared to my mobile phone which in turn handled a dial up connection to my ISP. Also thoughts regarding how to set up some sort of group blogging thang for the following NLS though I think we ended up using ALIA’s forum for discussion in the end. December 2004 was also when I finally registered my own domain that now points here.

I continue to enjoy browsing the casualness of my blogging in those early days; blogging was about random bits and pieces, content in response to links I stumbled upon. A sentence here, a paragraph there; mutterings on this and that. Was fun. Is still fun.

rabbit holes of adventure

Dinner table conversation tonight ended up chatting about Mystery House, that my partner played occasionally when she was younger. Mystery House is known as the first graphical adventure game. That of course led the conversation into interactive fiction, referencing the top shelf of my bookcase which contains pretty much all of Infocom‘s text adventures. I remember Zork II was my first text adventure and fiendish it was. I relied on adventure columns in computer game magazines of the time for clues on how to solve difficult puzzles including the horrible baseball diamond puzzle, also known as the Oddly Angled Room.

In those days, I couldn’t google answers and would spend months stuck on a problem. Sometimes that could be a good thing but mostly it was bloody frustrating. While there was a certain sense of achievement in solving puzzles, it meant I couldn’t advance the story. Solving puzzles was essential to accessing further parts of the game. These days I think I prefer story telling and plot development though solving puzzles is nice too. Happily most games provide decent hint mechanisms and if I get desperate I can google for answers.

Much to the shock of my partner, I commented that I usually have my text adventure collection stored on all my active machines as they are part of my central core of files that migrate across my various computing environments. This sounds substantial until you realise that text adventures, having little graphics and don’t take up a lot of space. My entire interactive fiction archive is a little over 100MB, of which the complete works of infocom account for 95%. Come to think of it, they were the only ones I was able to buy as a box set later, the Lost Treasures of Infocom, and load in a system independent format.

interactive fiction games

The other key adventure game company of the time was Level 9. Infocom were American based, while Level 9 were from the UK and I had several of their games. Regrettably, while I still have the boxes, I no longer have the equipment to read the discs. Later on, graphic adventures developed further with Magnetic Scrolls commencing with their first game, the fantastic The Pawn. I have several titles of their titles on my shelf too. Methinks I need to investigate further as to whether I can get these on my current machines. Come to think of it, I’ve barely mentioned Sierra Online who were responsible for Mystery House and later developed the King’s Quest and SpaceQuest series. Oh, and then there was Ultima…yet another rabbit hole…

5 bits

Having started with 5 articles a week or so back, I thought it might be worth aiming for 5 articles each time. Was tempted to go with 7 but whittled it down to 5. This is a bunch of articles I’ve read and tweeted in the last week.

That’ll do.

all the lolz

So like, I’ve discovered recently that people actually say “lolz” and not spell out the acronym…and they’ve been doing it for years. I joked about this on twitter and immediately thought of a counter example as I’ve always worded BOFH (as in “bof” with a silent “h”) myself. Other acronyms are difficult to word eg HTH or RTFM. At the same time, I continue to be amused that acronym speak is still a thing.

Acronym speak was really common back in the earlier days of the internetz (pre webz – all the zzzz) and usenet. I have little doubt that was because the early net was largely IT type folk who loved using, and abusing, acronyms. You could craft entire sentences with acronyms. Then SMS happened, then twitter happened and there continues to be a need for character economy ie reducing everything to as few characters as possible, while remaining vaguely readable.

Even ASCII art has staged a minor comeback!

BTW. HTH. HAND.

what’s in a name?

I’ve become very fond of my moniker over the years. “snail” has been my self chosen nickname for over 20 years. Initially, it was online only in those days, these days I tend to wear it as my name everywhere and more folk know me face to face as snail than by my real name. I have occasionally considered changing my name officially however that would get a little expensive as I would need to get a bunch of legal documents changed including my mortgage contract. Perhaps I can revisit if I ever pay off my mortgage. The other issue with name changes, is that I would have to retain my surname as too many online forms require both a first name and a second. I think having a single name would simply create too many headaches for too many people.

One of the reasons I chose the moniker initially was to distinguish myself in online forums, such as usenet, by having a name that was unique and that others were unlikely to use. This was fine for many years, though these days it’s a different story. I’m generally finding it hard to get “snail” as a username on many systems. Sometimes, it’s because others have beaten me to it, occasionally there’s a 6 character minimum. I am reluctant however, to sign up to every system that comes along simply to preserve access to my preferred name. I have a few backups including vvsnail (some email) and snailx (twitter, wordpress). I have a personal domain, snail.ws, and even then I had to go through several domains before finding one with “snail” available.

With much thanks to a good friend, I do at least have a unique avatar which has proven useful for some folk who find me in other forums. Though it must be said that I have a lot less hair these days, nor do I dress entirely in black anymore. The glasses and coffee cup remain constant.

As to why I chose “snail” – when I first got online via electronic bulletin boards in 1984, I’d just read Lord of The Rings and chose the nickname, Gandalf the Grey. Needless to say, as many folk online in those days were ITish and into SF, it was a rather common nickname. A few years later, when I got to uni and discovered usenet, I decided to start again with a new name. I have a vague recollection from school days of doodling snails in the margins of my school exercise books. I doodled snails because they were easy and my drawing skills were, and remain, poor.

another day

This is a tricky time of year for me with sad anniversaries on Dec 31 (4 years) and Jan 8 (6 years – can’t believe it’s been 6 years) and I suspect that I hate Christmas too…which is doubly sad as I am a christian. I find no joy in the day. The last few weeks have been busier than usual, though for good reasons, but it has meant I didn’t quite get the downtime I needed. Consequently, I’ve needed to shut out the world a little longer than usual. Thanks to those that expressed concern; I take the time I need.

I need to rethink things somewhat to avoid going down a dead-end. For example, I’ve spent 6 years blocking out the Sydney Festival as dad died near the start of it. It’s always hard to look January in the face. I avoid all things festival-y though I used to go to lots of stuff…I remember enjoying the ACO at the $10 Proms (with dad and his partner if I recall correctly), not to mention the Taikoz drummers and other acts. Indeed, I got the news of dad’s passing just as I was about to bolt out, hoping to get a ticket at the door for some concert or other.

I need to work through this, as the festival is a bloody good thing; full of interesting pieces. Due to my reticience for the period, I’ve only discovered in recent days that one of my favourite composers will be in town, Philip Glass. The downside is that his big show has sold out. Oh well, hope remains for a better show, that being Dracula, the 1931 movie, with music performed live by Glass and the Kronos Quartet. Oh my, be still my beating heart. The only choice, though it’s not really a choice, is whether to see the 7.30pm session or the session at midnight. Will book my seat shortly.

While locking yourself away from the world is a good thing to do, it remains important to keep up with the world and somehow seek a way to find happy moments around sad times.

a day in the country

As I’m travelling a fair bit the next few weeks, I extended my weekend slightly and had Monday off. A mate and I went for a drive down the Hume to the township of Berrima. I’ve only been there once and that was a couple of years ago. For most of my life, I would hear tales of the delights of the Berrima Book Barn – a barn full of secondhand books, many treasures to be found. As a young bookworm, it sounded like Aladdin’s cave. Many years back, the folk that ran the barn, expanded into Sydney and now have a few shops under the name of Berkelouw, for indeed, it turns out that the barn in question was the wonderfully alliterative Berkelouw’s Berrima Book Barn.

Berrima - a view of the town
Berrima - a view of the town

We spent a lovely day meandering about, having got there for brekky around 10. I wandered through shops and even bought  a jar of Rhubarb & Ginger Jam from Mrs Oldbuck’s Pantry; they did a nice limoncello based jam too, with a nice kick in the aftertaste. Oh geez, I sound like an old fart. Anyways, in the afternoon, we finally made it to the barn. Much to my surprise, and no doubt to that of most folk who know me, I emerged with only 4 books, and kept it under $70 too. A valiant effort. Though there was a rather nice leatherbound edition of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet in the cabinet. It was a bit yum, though I think substantially overpriced at $300. There are much nicer books to be had for that sort of money. By nice, I’m referring to the container, as the content is good regardless. Then there was the lovely, leather bound set of Manning Clark’s “A History of Australia” – they were in really good nick, though an asking price of $1,850 put them firmly out of reach.

As to my purchases, they were an interesting bunch. I have, for some years, been collecting the Penguin wine guides. I like their style, the language used and the down to earth sense of engagement. I’m particularly fond of Huon Hooke’s contributions, not to mention Mark Shield; these days, the annual tome is authored by Nick Stock who seems well suited to continuing the tradition. On my first visit to the Barn, the first book I found was one of the few remaining omissions from my set. So too, this time and I now have the 1995-96 volume. I think this means I need only find one or two volumes to complete the set.The numbering has been rather erratic over the years, which does not help, but I now have these years:

1991
1992-93
1994-95
1995-96
1996-97
1997-98
98|99
1999|2000
2000-2001
2001-2
2002/3
2003/2004
2004/2005
2005|2006
2007
2009
2010

It wasn’t published in 2008. The 1991 edition makes reference to a 1990 edition which I don’t have and there is a 1993-94 edition. The 2005|2006 edition was published in 2005 and the 2007 edition was published in 2006 so there’s no gap there.

My second find was also interesting and fits another area of my interests, and that is the history of language and dictionaries. Side by side on the shelf, were copies of the 1945 and 1966 editions of “The Australian Language” by Sidney J Baker. I was somewhat fortunate a year or two back, to pick up a reprint of “A Dictionary of Austral English” by Morris and as Baker builds on his work, this was a nice continuation. Moreso however, due to a minor controversy, or rather that a work was referred to as being minor, the 1945 edition had additional interest. Acoording to clipped newspaper articles, that someone had placed inside the front cover, a paragraph was to be censored as it referred to the Weekly Bulletin as a “minor weekly” – this upset a few folk though I think the context was clear. So it was decided, according to the clipping, that the reference would be deleted from all unsold copies of the book. This copy was one of the uncensored versions, and the 1966 edition had a differently worded version of the same paragraph. So I grabbed the 1945 edition and left behind the 1966 edition; though I wouldn’t mind tracking down a censored version of the 1945 edition so I could have them sit side by side.

update: As I was adding my new acquisitions to my bookcase, I discovered that I have a paperback reprint of the 1966 edition of The Australian Language. In other words, it was just as well I didn’t buy it today. Yet another reminder that I need to get all my books catalogued into a portable list, if only to avoid potential duplication further down the track.

The remaining two books covered yet another of my interests, that being the history of libraries. The first is entitled “Early Public Libraries: A History of Public Libraries in Great Britain Before 1850” by Thomas Kelly. This looks intriguing and traces the history of public libraries in the UK and the blurb notes that the first public library in Great Britain was established in 1425. The reason this book covers the period prior to 1850, is that was the year that saw the passing of the first Public Libraries Act. The second book is “Australian Libraries” by John Balnaves. This book, published in 1966 purports to be a brief history (90 pages) of libraries in Australia and the author himself acknowledges such.