Longhorn arrives with a whimper

A friend recently attended a demo of Microsoft’s latest operating system, Longhorn.  This is the long-delayed replacement for Windows NT, which was introduced in the early 1990s and has been improved into Win2000 and WinXP.  The main risk for a project like Longhorn is Second System Syndrome.  A group of programmers is given an existing product and a list of 100 things that people have said they don’t like about the product.  They boldly plan to build a Second (new) System from scratch that will solve all of the problems the First System solved plus have the 100 new nice-to-have features.  Traditionally Second Systems are late and often, on balance, don’t solve any more problems than the First System.  Longhorn was particularly at risk due to the fact that a larger challenge was attacked with very similar tools to those used to build Windows NT circa 1990.  Programmers haven’t gotten any smarter since 1990; how can we expect better results than were obtained back then unless there is a shift to radically new tools?

Longhorn has in fact been running quite late (two years?) and Microsoft has been reducing the scope of its ambition.  My friend was underwhelmed by the result.  One of the big features of Longhorn is a more searchable file system, something that WinXP users can get right now by downloading Google Desktop Search.  Longhorn will let you create a virtual folder that represents the results of a persistent search, e.g., you can have a folder with all files containing the word “Samoyed” and it will be updated quickly when a new matching document appears anywhere in the file system.

Does Longhorn have a versioned file system?  No.  I.e., you can’t ask the system to show you what a spreadsheet or document looked like two months ago.  Probably the vast majority of user-created documents in a file system are there because of this lack of versioning in WinXP’s NTFS file system.  You have “Whizco Contract”, “Whizco Contract pre-lawyers”, “Whizco Contract post-legal-review”, “Whizco Contract with comments from Whizco”, “Whizco Contract 20050510”, “Whizco Contract Final”, “Whizco Contract Final Signature Copy”, etc.  If Longhorn had a versioned file system, as became available for commercial Unices in the early 1990s, there would only be perhaps 1/10th as many user-created documents on the typical system.

The hierarchical file system with its folders and subfolders was created for mainframe programmers in the early 1960s.  Let’s call it a Multics-style file system to pay homage to this pioneering system built in the 1960s by MIT and Honeywell.  Alan Cooper, one of the creators of Visual Basic, and a perennial consultant to Microsoft, has persuasively attacked the idea of exposing this hierarchy to end-users.  It was built by programmers for programmers but somehow leaked out into consumer consciousness with the Apple Macintosh and the original DOS on the IBM PC.  Do we need this?  How many documents can one person create?  Even a professional writer such as Stephen King hasn’t generated an overwhelming number of stories and novels.

Why not start with a versioned file system?  Then we can get rid of the “save” and “save as” commands in word processors and spreadsheet programs and replace them with a “name this version” command.  When you’re done working on a document you close it.  If you want to go back a couple of months you ask for the version circa 20050301 or a version with a specific name.  Given a versioned file system we provide access to documents via a chronology.  If you’re looking for something related to your 1999 taxes, scroll back to April 1999 and it will probably be there.  If that doesn’t work resort to a full-text search.  If we need to organize a bit more let us aggregate documents in named folders, as in a mail-reading program, most of which don’t allow or don’t encourage subfolders.

There is nothing wrong with the hierarchical file system as a tool. Assuming you know a file’s name, it provides O[log N] access to a corpus of N documents.  This makes a hierarchical file system great for computer programs and computer programmers but why should users have to see the innards?

Apple and the Linux folks aren’t doing any better in this area than Microsoft.  For years I have been hoping that Google or Yahoo! will show the way with a replacement for Microsoft Office and the underlying desktop file system.  The average household user of a personal computer doesn’t need anything with many more features that the Palm OS or Microsoft Outlook and probably has far fewer megabytes of documents than he or she has of archived email.

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Flying over Scott Peterson’s House

Doug Kaye, whom most people know as the creative force behind IT Conversations, turns out to be an accomplished Bonanza pilot.  He graciously invited me out for a day of goofing off in the sky on Monday.  Under rainy skies we departed Marin County’s Gnoss Field in the Bonanza, a “machine invented to make sure that the world didn’t become overpopulated with doctors and lawyers”, and retracted the landing gear before climbing 1000 feet-per-minute up through a hole in the clouds.  Thanks to a turbonormalizer the engine maintained good power right up to 15,500′ where we had to stay to remain clear of the ice-filled cumulus clouds.  We landed on the 12,000′ runway at the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, California.  The base closed 10 years ago, devastating the town’s economy, but an airplane museum remains with a collection of WWII and Cold War planes.  The largest is a B-52 and the weirdest is an enormous B-36 with 6 huge pusher propellers on the mid-wing-mounted piston engines and four turbojet engines slung under the wingtips for takeoff assistance.

George W. Bush’s F-104 is represented among the fighters as well as one of the F-111s that Ronald Reagan sent to Libya in 1986 to demonstrate our irritation with its owner’s attacks on American interests.  (Young folks: this incident was notable because Ronbo went to sleep after ordering the bombing of Libya; he terrified Qaddafi by not caring enough about the operation to let it disturb his sleep).

We decided to return to the Bay Area underneath the 5000′ overcast. Before departing the Castle area I practiced some chandelles and lazy-eights from the right seat.  These precision maneuvers are required of applicants for a flight instructor rating and I’d only done them in my old Diamond Star and the clunky Piper Arrow trainers. A chandelle is a maximum performance climb while turning 180 degrees. The Bonanza has so much power and so little drag with its gear retracted that this turns out to require a much more extreme pitch-up attitude than in the Arrow.

As we steered our way around the heavier downpours I noticed that we were coming up on a large town and asked Doug what it was.  “Modesto, home of Scott Peterson,” he replied.  For any man who has been dumped or divorced by a woman reflecting on Scott Peterson ought to be a humbling experience.  Consider that Scott was beloved by both his wife, a beautiful and kind person, and his massage therapist girlfriend.  This despite the fact that Scott was an adulterer and murderer, both black marks against a person’s character.  So the only reasonable conclusion that a rejected man can draw is that he is less attractive, as a package, than Scott Peterson.

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Computer Programmer appears in a New Yorker story

The May 9, 2005 New Yorker magazine contains the final installment of Elizabeth Kolbert’s series of articles on climate change.  The series started off with interesting accounts of scientists at work and people living in the Far North.  It ends with boring government officials negotiating and a prediction that the human race will go extinct due to climate change.  Kolbert’s lack of faith in human adaptability stems perhaps from her not seen Peter Ginter’s show at SlideWest 2005 in which he documented the life of folks living in one of Manila’s flooded ghetto.  The Filipinos in the photos don’t seem to enjoy wading through knee-high water to get from house to house but the cycle of birth, education, marriage, and reproduction seems to continue unabated.  Even if one isn’t despairing for the survival of the species, however, it might not be wise to buy a beach house 10′ above sea level with the expectation that one’s grandchildren will enjoy it…

The good news from the rest of the issue is that a computer programmer makes it into a story as the main character for the first time in memory.  “Along the Highways” by Nick Arvin starts with Graham, a “thin and bald” thirtysomething guy who “studied computer science in college” and is in love with his brother’s widow Lindsey.  Graham is disturbed to find Lindsey riding down the highway in a convertible with a big pudgy guy named Doug.  He pursues them for many hours, punctuated by mobile phone conversations among the parties, and finally the story ends at the side of the road with Lindsey encouraging Doug to beat up our programmer protagonist.  Graham ends up in a heap by the side of the road while Doug and Lindsey drive off.

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