November 2007 Archives

Isaac Salzman

Picture 3.pngIsaac was a good friend of mine in the early 1990's. He was an aspiring musician and a pretty good software hack. Tragically, he was killed when a car smashed into his car on November 22, 1992.  He was only 29. Wow!  Fifteen years ago.  As a friend notes, I can't believe it's been 15 years and yet it seems just like yesterday.

A story about Isaac Salzman (and Me)

A day or two after Isaac started at Sun Microsystems, I received this cryptic single line email from Isaac:


with a signature that included this line:


I smiled because I then decided that "this guy," Isaac, is gonna fit it. 

The cryptic part, as you nerdy/lispy/emacs/ex-Sun AD/MMPP types recognize, is not the "(lunchp)"  part -- this clearly is a question  that asks, "Do you want to go to lunch?"

The cryptic part was the line in the signature.

So, indeed, we gather for lunch and I had to ask:

Dude, what's up with the "Jay Gees (JG's)?"

Isaac: The "Jay Gees?"

Me: Yes, the "Jay Gees" in your signature....

A few seconds pass.

Isaac:  Dude! [Yes, we really talked like this]  (laughing)  That's the sound of the Mesa Boogie Master in Crunch Rhythm Mode --  the only way to fly! ... "Jug Jug Jug Jug Jug Jug Jug Jug...."

Me:  [Nodding]  Cool!  Where do you want to go to lunch?

I really didn't have too much of a clue what he was talking about, faked it, and of course figured it out  later.  It was the beginning of a great friendship.

Guess you had to be there.  It *was* funny.  Really.  Maybe you need to hear it.  (Wait for the JG's.)

Isaac:  I still miss you.  I'll have a M\"azen and a bread stick in your honor. 

[M\"azens and bread sticks -- We used to spend a lot of time drinking M\"azens and eating bread sticks at Gordon Biersch in Palo Alto, where we'd see Smokey Wallace and Larry Cable *every* night.  But I digress -- that's a story for another day.  :-)]

It's Turtles All the Way Down

I was waxing philosophically with Skrenta the other day about systems and abstractions;  Underneath the covers of many tried and true interfaces, lie crap.  He pointed out that 20 years had passed before a bug was uncovered in Jon Bentley's Binary Search implementation first published in Programming Pearls in 1986.  Arguably, this bug is an edge condition -- however  knowing a bug in this famous hunk of code possibly went  unnoticed for two decades should shake our collective confidence in software engineering to the core.

Beyond the trivial lurk even more disturbing problems.  What trouble is buried in, say, your TCP stack?  Or, maybe worse, your compiler?

I still lose a little sleep when I look back at how I bootstrapped a compiler a few years back at one of my former companies.   I'll elide the details, but this involved compiling the compiler first with the C compiler and then recompiling the compiler source with the newly created compiler binary. No great shakes here -- I'm sure many of you have done a similar bootstrap.  

The regression test suite pretty much sucked at the time so it was never clear where the bugs were.  I would compile the compiler one more time and diff the binaries as a paranoia check.  In the end, though,  I was never really certain of the impact of a bug in the compiler that compiled itself or a bug in the resultant compiler that was used to compile the source base of what was arguably the largest software system in the world at the time.  

And what about the C compiler used to build the first rev of the compiler?  And the compiler to build that compiler?  And the compiler to build that compiler?  In the end, It's Turtles All the Way Down!  (Well, maybe terminating at Grace Hopper's first compiler.  :-))

Looking for some comfort, I dug up this paper --   Ken Thompson's Turing Award lecture.  This, of course, made me even more paranoid.  At best, "It's Turtles All the Way Down" and you can't find the bugs. Or, worse,  there lurks some mischief  on the way down that you'll never find.  Sometimes it shakes my confidence to the core that we provably can't trust our computations....

[Two hours have passed.  I'm over it as I happily hack away, content that nothing so awful would have a practical impact....Could it?]

Richland, Washington

During the last century, the "bomb" transformed Richland, WA from a sleepy agricultural community to a strategic US nuclear asset.  Richland, as part of the Manhattan project, was as important as Los Alamos and Oakridge to our nuclear strategy.  It produced the plutonium for "Fat Man" -- the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.  After  World War II, it continued to produce much of the fissible materials for the  US nuclear  weapons.    Further, it was and is the dumping ground for much of the United States' nuclear waste. 

To me, however, while growing up in the sixties and seventies during the peak of the cold war, Richland was just another city in Eastern Washington.  It was an all American town -- Friday night football, Coca-Cola, motherhood and apple pie.  Perhaps because my own hometown, Kent, WA was home to much of Boeing's military activity and my father worked on things like ICBMs and tactical nuclear weapons, the nuclear culture of Richland was nothing special.

As an adult, I marvel at how truly unique and special Richland was.  I visited Richland last month to check things out.  First, Richland High School is a throwback to another era.  For those that remember the "Wonder Years,"  I can all most see Kevin and Winnie wandering the hallways:


The high school mascot is still the Bombers.  The "mushroom cloud" still adorns the football helment.

images-1.jpeg images.jpeg

I found this mural on the side of a building:

bomber mural.JPG

This auto body shop and bowling alley say so much:

bodyshop.JPG bowling.JPG

Richland -- it all seemed so normal.  But in retrospect, it was quite the strange place in a unique time.  The artifacts that remain today remind me of its rich past.