Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Installing OpenCV on Fedora 8

I've just finished installing and documenting this process on our company blog: OpenCV on Fedora 8

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Favorite Projects Series, Installment 1

I've been spending quite a bit of time these days thinking about what exactly makes a software project a good project to be on. Ever since I became a computer geek in 1980 with the purchase of an Ohio Scientific C1P from Commsci Corporation in Manchester, MO,

I've loved working with new technology, and using new, cool stuff. There are a number of projects that have been great experiences from that perspective, and I'll get to those later. But there's one that I always talk about when I'm asked what are some of my favorite projects, and we should look at that one first, and what it was that made it one of those most memorable projects.

In 1994 I was still working at Washington University, and more specifically, was doing some work for the School of Arts and Sciences. The plan was that I would sit and work in the department instead of being at a desk in the IT department. I had been up there for a little while, and we would identify different things that needed addressing.

So it turned out that there was this task that Cindy N. was responsible for that had to be done every year. It had never been automated, so she was spending two-and-a-half weeks every year manually completing the task. She dreaded it for weeks ahead of time every year, and made an otherwise happy job for her become miserable for several weeks.

Every year, Cindy had to review prospective students' records online, evaluate for what student aid they were eligible, then type up a letter inviting them to apply and detailing this information. As you can imagine with all of the manual work involved, there were going to be mistakes, and that's part of what she agonized over.

So, applying the technology at the time, we wanted to assemble the information available from an IBM mainframe to produce all of the letters and mailing labels needed. With today's technology, that's quite easy, given how everything's networked together. Even then, it was NOT rocket science. I had learned C, and wanted apply it to the problem of massaging the data into CSV format. We had a mainframe running the CP/CMS timesharing system (an early implementation of virtualization, which is in common use today), and that machine was the only place where we could run a C program.

We had to copy data from one mainframe to the CP/CMS mainframe, and if I recall correctly, we loaded the data into a FOCUS database, then extracted it from there onto the CP/CMS system. The mainframe with the data was not directly accessible from the Windows PC where we would run the mail merge into Word, but the CP/CMS mainframe was.

In CP/CMS we ran a C program that would extract the data and produce a CSV-formatted file, which we then downloaded to the Windows PC.

On the Windows PC, we wrote a non-trivial Basic for Applications script that would choose the appropriate paragraphs to include for each letter, depending on what aid would be received, and apply it to that letter, along with supporting detail. We would run the script to produce a single, long document that could be visually verified for accuracy.

Cindy would run this process, verify the results, and print the letters. What had been a painstaking, error-prone (no fault of Cindy's) two-and-a-half week process became a one-and-a-half day process that produced much more accurate and timely results. What had been a miserable, dreaded, yearly task became just another simple task to be performed.

Not surprisingly, this changed everything for Cindy. Though not technically the most challenging project I've worked on, it is one of the most satisfying projects I've ever done. Why? Well, like many people that get into software development (or many other careers), I want to change the world, and change it for the better. Realistically, I probably won't do that, but I can change my little corner of the world, and this is one project where I did change my little corner for the better. I worked directly with a user, understood the need, met the need, and saw the benefit that I provided, one human being to another. In some small way, one person's life was better because of what I did, and I got to see it happen.

One of the core tenets of today's Agile development processes is continuous, daily, user interaction. I've seen this be effective from 1983 when my software development career began at Washington University with my first user, Neldeane P.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cat Stove

Okay, so for all of you out there that thought, "mmmmm, cat," shame on you. They're not that tasty. ;)

I think this guy is the inventor: THE CAT FOOD CAN ALCOHOL STOVE I read his instructions, but then read and followed these to make my stove: SGT Rock's Hiking H.Q. - Cat Stove.

The instructions were easy to follow, and an evening's work resulted in a new cat stove that fits nicely into my backpacking cook pot. My stove weighs 68.5 grams, which is about 2.4 ounces. I could potentially reduce that by trimming the hardware cloth, since its squares are 1/2 inch on a side, and probably 1 inch on a side would do the trick.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Chaco Shoes for Backpacking

So, now that I'm getting back into backpacking after a long hiatus - like, decades - I've been trying learn from Ray Jardine's practices and apply what works for me. I've already mentioned about making his Tarp and Net-Tent kits.

Another piece of advice from Ray is about footwear. There's probably no more important gear choice you can make than what to put on your feet. Ray recommends hiking in trail running shoes. I agree. On the other hand, I don't push it, because some people genuinely need ankle support. But if you switch to trail running shoes, there are some advantages. One, obviously, is weight. Trail shoes beat boots hands-down. Another is flexibility, and that's very important. Again, trail shoes beat boots. Another is support, and again, shoes beat boots. Another is shock absorption. Again, shoes over boots.

So, about weight. The weight on your feet is more important than the weight on your back. Why? I think it's because you're constantly accelerating and decelerating your feet. Any weight there takes more of an energy toll than the weight on your back, which maintains a relatively constant speed. I'm a big fan of New Balance shoes. I switched to them for daily use some years ago when I found that a pair would last me a couple years instead of one year, like many other brands. I also like to buy Made in the U.S.A when I can, so I can ride my high horse when my job gets outsourced. ;) New Balance gives me more of an opportunity to do that. New Balance shoes are available in 2E width, which I need.

Given that background, I went and bought a pair of MT908's. They're advertised at about 12 ounces, which is close to Ray's ideal maximum of 11 ounces. They're made in China, unfortunately. I wore them on several hike at a parks nearby that sports woods, hills, and trail loops where I can get a 3 to 6 mile hike in fairly easily. I then wore them on an overnighter, about 15 miles. Total mileage on the shoes was probably less than 100 miles. And guess what? The soles started falling apart. Follow the link and look at the picture of the soles. You'll see that there are different colors. All of those different colors are actually pieces that are glued on. Duh. What were they thinking? Those pieces were starting to fall off. I'm going to go to the New Balance store, expecting a fight when I try to return them.

But let me tell you this - New Balance understands customer service like NOBODY else does these days. I take the shoes back to the New Balance store, and the employee there says that this is unusual, and they haven't had that problem with this model. She asks if I would like a total refund, would I like to try a brand-new pair of the same shoe, or would I like to try a different model. So, I like the shoe, it's light and comfortable, so I try a new pair. No charge. I love those guys, and they have a customer for life.

Within seven miles, the new pair is falling apart. That's right, seven miles. Now, I'm not huge. I'm a little over six feet tall, about 195 pounds. Heavy, but the shoes should be able to handle it. Back to the New Balance store. This time, by luck of the draw, I'm talking to the store manager. Same level of customer service. This time, I opt for a full refund.

So, I was disappointed in the shoe. They're made in China, and honestly, they know that Americans today are not like the previous generation. Most of us (not me) are happy to buy crap, and pay good money for it, so they sell us shiny crap at high prices, and we say thank you. Having said this, New Balance customer service is Made in the U.S. of A., the old-fashioned way. I WILL go back to them, largely because of their customer service. New Balance, please make all of your shoes in America. Why not outsource to small towns like Steelville, Missouri? You can still save money over big city labor costs, and those small-town folks remember what quality is. I guarantee it.

So now, what to do for a shoe? I went to one store, and the guy tried to jam Nikes on my foot. Nikes only come in narrow and narrower, and I need a 2E. Moron. I went to another store, and found the Chaco's Men's Redrock.

Here's what's right with the Chacos. Firstly, never in my life have I had a shoe where the arch of the shoe comes up and nestles in the arch of my shoe. I never knew they were supposed to do that! The Chacos do. Wow, arch support. So that's what they meant by arch support. Oooooh.

Second, one-piece soles, stitched to the uppers. That's way shoes are supposed to be made. There's no gluing in shoes.

The soles are some percentage recycled rubber from tires. Good for the environment, and that's a plus. And they've got good lugs for grip on the trail.

Also, all the standard stuff. Reasonable cushioning. Not as good as the NBs, but good. That's good for my knees. Breathable uppers, so that they walk dry after going through a creek. I also moved the laces so that the eyes closest to my toes are not used. This gives me the nice, floppy, barefoot feel up front without losing the heel-hugging feel in the back. The shoe laces could be better, but I might swap out for some of New Balance's bubble laces, which are great.

Okay, now the bad news. First, they're made in China. Not a show-stopper, but I'd like to keep shoe jobs here so that when someone's buying software development, my job stays here. Next, the weight. Chaco doesn't advertise the weight.I wear a men's size 9 in 2E width. My right shoe weighs 463.1 grams, or about 16.34 ounces. The left one weighs 472.2 grams, or about 16.7 ounces. Too heavy to be ideal for backpacking. They are noticeably heavier than the New Balance 908s. Finally, when I asked about the return policy, it's not as generous as NB's. They'd deduct from the refund for wear-and-tear.

The Chacos are for me, at least for the time being. Chaco, here's what I have to say to you. First, open a plant in Steelville, Missouri. Can you tell I love the place? It's not my home town, but it has a special place in my heart, for a variety of reasons. Chaco, if you build a plant there, you will be able to make shoes cheaper than in Colorado. Not as cheap as China perhaps, but it keeps jobs here in the U.S. Second, see if you can make a shoe that's just right for ultralight backpackers. Take the Redrock, reduce the weight by five to six ounces, if possible, while keeping as much ruggedness as possible. And third, think about your return policy. If you're making a quality shoe, and you are in the Redrock, then you can be more generous. See if you can match NB's policy.

Conclusion: I'm going to wear the Chacos for now, because they're the best shoe I've found so far.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Completing the Ray-Way Tarp and Net-Tent

Well, it's taken us a while, but my Ray-Way Tarp and Net-Tent are now complete, having finished the Net-Tent tonight. My wife Dot did the lion's share of the work - it's a fair bit of sewing, to be sure. It's really been a labor of LOVE on her part, too - she doesn't backpack.

So, every good ultra light backpacker (which I am not, but let's pretend) will want to know the weight. When I weighed the tarp before, I mis-weighed it by counting my 200 gram weights as 100 grams. Oops! Anyway, here are the correct figures.

ComponentAdvertised weightMy weight
Two-person tarp16.76 ounces
(before sealing)
17.84 ounces
(505.8 grams)
8 Stakes 2.87 ounces
(81.5 grams)
Net-Tentabout 12 ounces13.85 ounces
(392.5 grams)
TOTAL 34.56 ounces
(979.8 grams)

Also consider that with the Net-Tent completed, I no longer need the ground cloth, since the Net-Tent does double-duty, and that saves me 114.1 grams, or 4 ounces.

I added about 10 grams to the weight of the tent by swapping out all the brown flatlines for white cord. Why? Because I found that I absolutely cannot untie the broun flatline when wet.

PenWag and GWT update

So, I mentioned that I'm using GWT to develop my new web site PenWag. I ran into an interesting problem with GWT, so let's talk about that in case you run into the same problem. When you do GWT development, most of the time spent viewing your app is in "hosted mode," that is, using their custom browser. Your app runs there as a java program. Once you've made some progress, you might deploy it to say, Tomcat, and hit it with a full-fledged browser such as Firefox.

So, I'm tooling along throwing this app together, viewing it in hosted mode, and all looks good. It's looking the way I want it, so I deploy it to Tomcat and view it in Firefox. Hmm, no love. I can see most of the content, but there's a blank space where there's supposed to be a grid. I'll cut to the chase here - after a fair amount of digging, I found the problem in this method in a class used to populate the grid:

public List<T> getList() {
return hasNextPage() ? results.subList(0, pageSize) : results;

To my eye, it looks pretty innocuous. But no. Here's where the problem is. Apparently, not sure why, "results.sublist(...)" works fine in hosted mode as Java, but fails when it's compiled to Javascript and viewed with Firefox. Ah, well. The fix was to move this logic to the server side, and just store the desired value that we will return with getList(). So now, the method looks like:

public List<T> getList() {
return results;

and all is well.

This was something of a difficult problem to solve. There was no error message to point to the problem, so I used a divide-and-conquer approach to solving the problem. Took out all the code, and the other surrounding components began to show up. Started to introduce pieces until it broke, then narrowed the problem down to sublist. There ya go, hope this helps.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Global Warming, A Skeptic's View

Well, my friends, I am a Global Warming Skeptic. Is the Earth warming? I though it was, but the more I read, the more the data seems inconclusive. Does that mean I think we should go on polluting the Earth? Well, no. In practical terms, we will of course, continue to pollute. But I'll go out on a limb and say that less pollution is better than more pollution. There are enough valid reasons for this that I don't need your bogus Global Warming reasons to convince me.

After a unfortunately short conversation with a friend of mine who seems quite convinced of Global Warming, I sent him this email: Global Warming Letter It includes a link to the Junk Science article on Global Warming. If you're still one of those folks that think Global Warming's on the verge of destroying the planet, and you can only stomach one Global Warming Skeptic article, by all means make it this one. They've done some good study on the subject.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, "But there's a strong consensus among scientists that Global Warming is real!" There a many ways to achieve consensus. One is through reason, but there are other techniques available. Consider the many countries where "democratic" elections re-install presidents with 100% support. That's right. The Global Warming exaggerators may employ less-than-scientific methods of persuasion to change your mind. They may threaten to make you unemployable if you don't agree with them, effectively excommunicating non-believers from the scientific community. All while they're griping that one Global Warming Exaggerator might have been threatened once, according to a rumor from a credible source. Here's Dr. Cullen's threat. The Exaggerators are now making ties between skeptics and neo-Nazism by referring to skeptics as "deniers." The name-calling wouldn't be there if they had a valid case, would it? Read this one, too: The Real Inconvenient Truth About Global Warming: Skeptics Have Valid Arguments

There are also some interesting articles on Wikipedia. This one is biased towards Global Warming Exaggeration: Global warming controversy. You rarely hear about the List of scientists opposing global warming consensus. Who knew there were scientists that disagree with the consensus?

You might even remember dire predictions that 2006 would be the worst hurricane season ever in the Atlantic, surpassing even 2005, and that this would provide further evidence of global warming. In 2005 there were thirty storms, of which fifteen were hurricanes. In 2006 there were nine storms, of which five were hurricanes. That's right, nine storms. Hardly worth even getting the Hurricane Center all geared up for the season. Is that proof that there is no global warming? Of course not. It might be an indication that the exaggerators couldn't predict Christmas with a calendar, much less the average temperature in 2100.

Reuter's reports that the United States is "the world's largest greenhouse gas polluter accounting for nearly one quarter of all carbon emissions." That much may be true. What they're not telling you is that the U.S.'s "carbon uptake" matches our carbon output. The net effect? Zero. Contrast that with Japan, whose carbon output is seven times their uptake. Wow.

When I'm Not Coding

Sure, I'm a coder, but like many others, coding's not my only interest. Many coders are fine musicians. Not me, sadly, but there are a couple other hobbies I enjoy.

I've been bowhunting for deer for a long time. Unsuccessfully. And I mean a LONG time. For many years, the land I had access to was thinly populated with very smart deer. I had precious few opportunities. Sometimes I went a few years without even seeing a deer. For the past several years, I've been hunting with a friend whose family has well-populated land. They're nice enough to let me go up there, and I say thankya. Well, last year I got a new bow. A Mathews, actually, and they make a very fine bow. It's very quiet and smooth, not to mention which it's beautiful in terms of craftsmanship and artistry. I had four clean misses last year, all easily make-able shots. This year, I finally got one. It's been a long time coming.

Current Projects

I have a couple software projects underway that I do outside of work. The first is of interest only to developers of web applications, mostly, and it's called DonsProxy. I didn't name it that, but people started using that name for the original version which was developed over some years at a client site. The new version is a complete re-write, and is available at http://donsproxy.sourceforge.net/. I haven't made any updates for a couple months. The next big task on this is to do more work on the SSL/HTTPS side, and get that working better.

The project I've been active on lately is for a web site with somewhat broader appeal. It's for anyone who likes to write, but for whatever reason isn't diving in to a book project or short stories for some magazine. It's also for readers of those stories, and it can be found at https://penwag.com/. This site is in its early stages, so don't expect much yet. It's just that I wanted to share it while it's under development, so you can see the progress, much like the user on an Agile project would.

My Life with SOA

I was recently asked to write about my history using SOA technologies. I was asked to write a paragraph. I failed. :) There's a lot to cover, and here it is:

I got my start with service-oriented architectures well before SOA was a buzzword in 1995 at Southwestern Bell Telephone, on a project by the name of Datagate. At the time, there were really no tools or libraries to help with the process, so we built everything in C from the ground up. There are a number of elements that are immediately associated with SOA in today's world, such as SOAP and UDDI. In Datagate, there were corresponding technologies. The exchange protocol that we used was a proprietary format designed to be concise and limit bandwidth use. Today, industry standards such as SOAP exist to allow interoperation and tools development. Most SOA environments rely on a Directory Service to allow client applications to discover active service instances. In today's world, that's typically UDDI, and in Datagate we built our own directory service that complied with the X.500 standards of the time. Current SOA implementations provide services hosted by an application engine such as WebLogic or JBoss. Datagate services ran as independent processes, but were managed by a central Resource Manager that monitored and reported the health state of infrastructure and business services. Eventually, we added a PKI to the system, and again, there were few tools at the time, so much of what we did we had to build ourselves.

One of the keys to success within a SOA environment is that mentality, a way of thinking about services, that is different from building stand-alone applications. SOA provides opportunities for high-availability and scalability that standalone applications cannot provide. But the real power of SOA, the idea that makes it really exciting, is the idea that we can capture complex business rules one time in a service, and re-use that service over and over. If we have a service that captures, for example, the rules that allow a customer to buy a certain stock, we can capture that once in a business service. That business service is then responsible to guard the data. We can test that service to a high standard, and any client that wants to buy a stock will go through that service, using well-tested logic. If we then decide to create a new application that requires the same logic, we don't have to recreate the logic that's already there. We can re-use it. This is important because we already have a service that we've been using, and trust to do the right thing. It's also important because it represents a cost savings to the business. We don't have to re-write, re-test and re-deploy a new implementation. This lets us provide the latest flashy interface, while using the same business logic that we've come to trust over time.

I started at my next employer, Connectria, in 1998, and worked on-site at A. G. Edwards, Inc. for six-and-half years. We did a number of projects there using SOA technologies as they developed into what they are today. My first SOA project there was a project named ClientOne, which delivered a new Broker Workstation to all of the brokers around the United States. We mentored application teams as they wrote thin-client applications that were delivered through the Broker Workstations.

My next big SOA project there was AGEconnect - the project which delivered the website agedwards.com for many years. I was an architect on this project's architecture teams through a couple major iterations. In the first iteration, we delivered a SOA-based architecture using two application engines, Dynamo and Tengah (now WebLogic). In the second iteration, we completely re-architected the framework to be based in WebLogic. Many supporting technologies were required and included in the new architecture, including LDAP, Apache HTTPD, F5's Big-IP appliance, and WSD appliances. We hosted the system on Sun hardware. There were four WebLogic engines each on four Sun machines in the home office, with the same on the failover site. We rolled out with about 80,000 clients on the system, which eventually grew to 300,000 or more.

On my final project at A. G. Edwards, I was the team leader for the BLServer component of their Gateway project. The Gateway project was focused on migrating some key functionality to an external provider. This provider was using some dated technologies to deliver content over the network, specifically, proprietary protocols. In addition, this external client had a nightly four-hour update window during which we needed to continue to accept updates. BLServer was one of a collection of services designed to wrap those proprietary services with standards-compliant services. BLServer included at its core a clustered message-driven web service that queued requests into JMS queues (the provider was Tibco) and then applied them in order during the external provider's uptime. The throughput requirements (about 300,000 transactions per 8-hour day) and the ordering requirements that exist for updating clients' financial accounts made this a particularly interesting and challenging project.

I started at my present employer, Asynchrony Solutions, Inc., in 2004, where I have also been a member of SOA projects. On the first I was the team leader on a project to deliver a system that could both push documents near to point-of-use around the world, and to pull data from disparate systems and deliver it around the world. That is, a federated system. This system employed Model 2 servlets hosted under Tomcat and JMS to meet the demanding performance requirements on networks that are often slow or unreliable. The JMS provider in this case was originally ActiveMQ, but we replaced it with JORAM when ActiveMQ was found to have difficulty reconnecting after network failures.

The next was to demonstrate to a client in the healthcare industry how SOA might work for them. We delivered a pilot application that allowed clients to view their prescriptions, appointments, doctors and other information using a web browser. It allowed healthcare providers to review patient information using a browser on workstations, iPods, and Blackberries. This application demonstrated the capabilities of both SOAP-based and RESTful services, and both Java and Ruby clients.

The next project made available an opensource SOA stack for the Army that developers could use to implement SOA solutions, then deploy them within a production-level environment using primarily commercial implementations of SOA stack components, such as WebLogic and Systinet. The developers' stack included a service compliance tool that would alert them to possible governance violations before deployment, and a stack compliance tool that would allow them to replace components of the SOA stack and verify that they delivered the same functionality.


I'm now on my second project where we're using Hadoop/Hbase and the Google Web Toolkit, both of which I'm happy to get a chance to use at work. Gives me an excuse to play, er, work with tools I'd use at home anyway.

The first Hadoop project was for a client in the health industry. They needed to provide doctors with easy access to DICOM images using web browsers. This required a conversion process from DICOMs that browsers cannot display, in to browser-friendly formats such as JPG and AVI files. We used Hadoop to manage the conversion of large numbers of images from DICOM to JPG and to created varying sizes of images for thumbnails and such. We used Hbase to store the images. The use of Hbase on top of Hadoop greatly simplified the original approach where we stored the images on HDFS. Finally, we developed a snazzy GWT front-end for the doctors so that they could upload and manage images on the system.

The exposure to GWT was a great experience, and I was so impressed with it that I decided to use it for a web site I'm developing, PenWag. We use Agile-XP practices at work, and I try to follow those to the extent I can at home. So, yes, I have story cards, I have a continuously-demo-able product. PenWag is under development, go have a look at its current state. I'm just getting started, but thought I'd like to make it available all along the way.

The current Hadoop project is an R&D effort. Hadoop is relatively new to most companies. I'm starting to hear about opportunities to do Hadoop development on both coasts of the U.S. There are fewer such opportunities in the Midwest, but it's coming this way. Our company is preparing to be ready when it gets here. We already have some experience, but we're exploring the technology more thoroughly, because there's a lot we can do for our clients with this technology. Hadoop really, really simplifies the whole question of how to scale my app. Now, any problem I can express in MapReduce terms can be deployed to Hadoop. We can start with four or five commodity boxes, but could conceivably scale to 2,000 or 10,000 boxes if that's what the customer wanted. Assuming, you know, that they had a place for 10,000 Linux machines, and a way to cool them.