Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Setup

(Photo: Kenji Rikitake, taken by himself, at his home workstation, 30-MAY-2013, while watching Joe Armstrong's article of The Setup)

Disclaimer: this post has been inspired by the following website: The Setup.

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Kenji Rikitake, network and software engineer. I'm a developer at Basho Japan KK, a group company of Basho Technologies, since February 2013. People expect me to write Erlang code and I like doing it, but I also write programs in C, Python, and other languages, documents, corporate blog articles, and doing almost everything I can to help my coworkers, and of course for helping our customers and friends.

I've been working on computer networking, internet, and the distributed systems since 1988, from VAX/VMS SMGRTL screen management library development, to the campus network security management as a full professor at Kyoto University. I decided to get back to where the action is on November 2012, when I experienced a mental breakdown, after spending 12 years at the research and academic ivory towers. I became a professor dropout spending unrewarded time of 2-year-and-10-month non-tenured full professor from April 2010 to January 2013.

I am also an amateur radio enthusiast and electronic device builder since 1976. My Twitter handle @jj1bdx is the Japanese primary callsign. I also have the US FCC amateur radio license with the callsign N6BDX. Morse code telegraphy and shortwave long-distance contacts (DXing) are my favorites, and I'm also interested in digital radio communications technologies, as I did in the late 1980s with UHF TCP/IP links.

What hardware do you use?

Since February 2013, Apple MacBook Air 11" on the move and Mac Mini at home, both with SSD, are my workstations. Before then I hadn't owned any Apple Macintosh computer since 1980 for myself. My first computer was Apple ][ in 1979 which I abandoned in 1982; I now realize many things have changed. I have even bought an Apple TV for my living room display and it's quite entertaining.

I've been solely using PFU's Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB) and the family products since 1997. Prof. Eiiti Wada, who was my advisor when I barely got out of University of Tokyo Graduate School of Computer Engineering, designed the keyboard. Currently I use both HHKB Pro and HHKB Pro 2. I'm a conservative guy and still stick to my Logitech/Logicool Anywhere MX wireless mice, both on the move and at home, while I'm quite satisfied with MacBook Air's trackpad with a click.

Recent addition to my desk is Ergotron's Workfit-S Sit-Stand Workstation, combined with EIZO EV2436W 1920x1200 pixel monitor. Being able to work both on standing and sitting positions, with adjustable keyboard and display heights, makes my legs and shoulders much confortable and reduces a lot of stress. While this desk attachment is not the perfect solution, this is definitely worth trying. I also add a small Home Erecta metal rack to change a sitting desk to a standing writing desk; this is also good when you want to write on a paper at the standing position.

I still have Windows 7 and Ubuntu 13.04 dual-OS notebook client PC, which was the main workstation before I joined Basho. For the software experiments and development of both work and play, I rely on FreeBSD PCs since 1990s; now I run two 9-STABLE machines. I've got rid of tower PCs, and the recent Intel DC3217IYE micro desktop is working smoothly with the FreeBSD OS.

I'm not an audiophile fanatic, but I like good sounds and music. Styleaudio's CARAT-PERIDOT is one of my favorite USB headphone amplifiers. AKG K240 Studio is so far the finest headphones I mostly use at home, with a custom cable from Oyaide in Akihabara. I also use Sennheiser HD580 and Etymotic Research ER-4P. My spouse Kyoko wants to play her Super-Audio CD (SACD) disks, so I also set up a Pioneer D6 SACD player at our living room. Mackie 1202-VLZ3 is also one of my favorite audio mixers.

While on the move, a 6th gen iPod Nano, and Audio-Technica ATH-CKS90NC noise-cancelling earphones (available only from Japan) are the must, both in the airplanes and train cars. Recently I start storing music without compression, that is, with plain WAV files. The sound has got far better than those encoded in 320kbps MP3. I was carrying around a CD Walkman in 1987, and technology has made a lot of progress.

On amateur radio, ICOM IC-7200 has been my favorite shortwave transceiver, rock-solid to stably pump out 100W to the antenna. I also use Idiom Press K-5 keyer for sending Morse Code with the paddles. I sometime hand-send the code with a Czech Morse Straight Key made in 1950s. I only use a temporary antenna system at the balcony of my house, with a 6.5m-length vertical telescopic fiber pole with the antenna wire attached, and ICOM AH-4 antenna tuner. I can still work the six continents and many remote places in the world. The ionosphere is always amazing.

And I also have a Sony Ericsson Android smartphone (but not used as a voice telephone in Japan due to the subscription clumsiness and legal hyper-restriction towards SIM-card-only sales), and a Sony Ericsson feature phone for the carrier au (by KDDI). They have replaced most of the needs for a dedicated camera, but I still have a compact digital camera called Nikon COOLPIX P310.

I like pens, pencils, and papers, too. Moleskine is good, though not so good for writing with fountain pens. LAMY ballpoint pens and fountain pens are very good. Pentel's PRESS MAN 0.9mm mechanical/sharp pencils are robust and my favorite since 1980s, with JIS 2B-grade lead refills.

And what software?

I've been a BSD UNIX fan since 1986. Some of the real BSD-based UNIXes I've used are VAX 4.2/4.3BSD, DEC ULTRIX, SunOS 4, BSD/OS, and FreeBSD. BSD always rocks and rules, especially since AT&T finally loosened up the license for the general public (and accepted what they stole from the Berkeley CSRG team) in 1990s. I really admire FreeBSD core developers and the port maintainers. While I do not register myself as a committer, I still occasionally help maintaining Erlang/OTP port for FreeBSD.

Linux is not bad, and Ubuntu is a nice distro, but I think the kernel is cluttered with too many drivers, though this is inevitable when thinking about how many devices it has to support. And the lack of usable man pages is the primary reason why I don't want to use Linux for programming unless absolutely needed.

I had long been a serious hater of Macintosh computers before Apple decided to introduce Mach/UNIX kernel onto it. I believe Mac OS 9 and older kernels were practically useless for any real-world production systems. And I also had long been a hater of Windows, before the multi-tasking stability was realized in Windows 2000. Having said those rants, I have very little problems on using Windows XP and Windows 7, and Mac OS X Mountain Lion (10.8.3), so long as I don't write native programs on those machines. I intentionally stayed away from Windows Vista and I'm very happy I didn't have to touch it at all. And I will not touch Windows 8 either, because Mac and the OS X look much better as a desktop.

I still have some nostalgia towards OpenVMS, which has a very consistent and rigid command line interface and internal system service architecture. I would get one if Hewlett-Packard would make it an Open Source operating system, which I also believe what would never happen.

About editors, I use both vim and Emacs. I don't want to commit to the meaningless wars of editor preferences. Currently I don't use other dedicated programming editors, though for writing this article, I solely use a web application called Writebox, which is nicely designed to avoid distraction as possible. Windows' Notepad is not bad either, provided choosing the appropriate font and screen size.

For Japanese input system, I solely use SKK, since 1990s. OS X has AquaSKK, and Windows has SKKIME. Emacs has DDSKK, and vim has skk.vim. Until recently I was using EUC/Japanese for the internal encoding system; I decided to convert to UTF-8 finally after I decided to leave Kyoto University on November 2012.

On web browsers and services: Chrome is almost always used at any time on OS X, Windows, and Ubuntu. Or even Chromium on FreeBSD if needed. Diigo has been my primary bookmarking service. GitHub is extensively used for both work and play. Also Google Drive, Calendar, and Mail, though I still maintain a primitive mail processing environment at home. Recently I'm using Feedly as an RSS reader. Music services: Soma FM and SoundCloud. (YouTube and the Amazon sites are intentionally excluded from this list :))

Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Excel, and Powerpoint) are necessary evil. I install them on my Windows 7 machine and the Macs. I believe you cannot substitute by non-MS products, if you have to deal with the Japanese governmental agencies and large corporations, who are solely dependent on the MS products (and know virtually nothing about anything else.)

I still feel LaTeX does much better than MS Word.

Apple stuff: iTunes is not bad, especially for OS X. Keynote looks very good and easy to use.

Adobe stuff: Acrobat is installed on my Windows 7 machine, to proofread/check the PDF document structure and embedded fonts. I once used to play around with the Photoshop Elements, but now I feel OS X's Preview software is enough for playing around with the photo files.

Social services: Twitter: @jj1bdx - no need to explain, isn't it? Tweetdeck is also nice. I quit Facebook and LinkedIn because those two services were too socially demanding (and attracting too many spammers.) HipChat and Yammer are two nice things at work, and I feel those services should be outsourced as much as possible, because the providers are almost always doing better than us. And about blogging: Blogger and Tumblr.

Finally on programming languages and environment: Erlang/OTP for the obvious reason - Riak runs on it. kerl is a good stuff to switch between different Erlang/OTP execution environments. Python (with virtualenvwrapper), Perl, and awk are my favorites too. And of course, C, for fixing the FreeBSD kernel code. Programming tools: rebar, git, make, and other trivial ones (e.g., GNU Autotools). Shells: /bin/sh (NO bash assumption please though I use it too) and zsh.

What would be your dream setup?

Systems that don't need regular human intervention for maintenance. Period.

Frankly speaking, I don't want to provide unpaid support or even paid support regardless of the price, especially to my spouse Kyoko, and other relatives, for broken computer and electronic systems. It takes too much time, very interruptive and distracting, and it is indeed a very stressful work. Of course this doesn't mean I want to leave them alone in panic - I want to help them, but doing so simply makes me weary. I believe the supplier and vendor of those products should also take the responsibility to build the systems self-recover, self-restart and self-fix, at least for the software.

While I'm OK with fixing systems and I think I like doing so by referring to my professional records of being a system administrator for more than 20 years, most of the so-called appliances are quite badly designed and have to have a lot of insider skills and expertise just to use them, let alone to fix them.

I believe in the hacker movement and I think hackers should be well respected in the society and that the status quo is quite against the well-behaved hackers by assuming all hackers are malicious which is absolutely incorrect, but this does not mean everybody has to be assumed to have necessary skills to repair a broken machine or system. Risk dumping of technologies or incomplete systems towards users by the manufacturers is not an ethically right thing to do.

I hope Erlang/OTP and the philosophy/perspectives on the general programming will make the world a better place, for building a robust system, not only for the servers but all software-based products.

On amateur radio: I want to have an unlimited time and access to a legal-limit transmission system and a broadcasting-station-grade shortwave antenna, at a place with the least man-made noise. I want to listen to my voice bounced back from the moon too.

About my disability: I've lost my right eye's lens for more than 30 years. I wish I can connect the mostly-working retina of my right eye to the computers so that I don't have to tolerate the optical blurriness. The Google Glass in May 2013 is not enough yet. And I hope things will get better soon.

Update: Fixing typo and adding product URLs (last update 1-JUN-2013)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Marunage - a dark side of omakase

If Rails is omakase, Japanese construction and IT projects are marunage.

When I first heard about the popular readout and the written article of Rails is Omakase, I immediately thought about another common Japanese word called marunage 丸投げ (pronounced mah-rue-nah-gay), which literally means passing everything onto someone else and completely getting rid of the things which you passed onto.

The actual usage of the word marunage is more vicious and exploiting; large corporations and government organizations often do the marunage to their contractors. When you do the marunage of a project, it means you are getting rid of all the responsibilities and liabilities from the project and letting someone else take care of the mess and the aftermath. In this sense, marunage is a form of risk dumping, or simply a bad form of delegation. The analogy of marunage is also quite common for the national projects. For example, the ministries do the marunage to the research subsidiaries.

I believe the word marunage originally comes from the construction industry, which is very popular in Japan for multi-level delegation from a large general contractor aka zenekon ゼネコン (pronounced zeh-neh-con) to the smaller and powerless contractors aka shitauke 下請け (pronounced shi-tah-ooh-keh). The business model here is that the shitauke companies do the most if not all the actual tasks, and the zenecon does little things other than taking brokerage fees. Multi-level sub-contracts are also popular; for example, in Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant cleanup project after the meltdown incident on March 2011, ten levels of sub-contracts were revealed.

The mindset of zenekons enslaving the shitauke companies is also common in IT industry in Japan. The IT zenekons, also known as shisutemu integureitaa ("systems integrator" aka "SIer"), have been historically accused of making questionable practices on winning large-scale project contract bids, such as winning a contract by proposing unrealistically budget. For example, in 1989, there was a case of major SIer repetitively tried to win bids by proposing one (1) yen (JPY) as the budget for a whole project of municipal governmental systems. Also, those large SIers or IT zenekons maintain strong relationships with the large-scale customers, and gain profits by doing the marunage of the projects to the shitauke companies. I won't dig deeper in this dark side of Japanese IT history here, but you may find many similar cases.

Getting back to the definition of marunage, I believe that the mindset of marunage represents the feverish risk-aversion towards everything among Japanese people. Still many if not most workers in Japan think a single failure means the professional death which cannot be recovered later, and the legal and economic systems are very harsh against people who have the failure records, for example, a bankruptcy. This kind of culture forces the decision makers to do the marunage to avoid risks. And I see the culture of marunage shows how Japan is more and more closely like the former Soviet Union, one of the most bureaucratic and stagnated nations, disbanded by the economic failure.

So when you hear about marunage, you've got to be very careful; don't become the victim, and try your best to avoid becoming an oppressor by doing the marunage to the powerless subordinates, colleagues, coworkers, or even your family members or bosses.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Computing with only one eye

My right eye has not been really functioning since 1982, when I was 17.

I wore cataract first in May 1982 while I frequently hit my right eye due to the strong itchiness caused by chronic skin allergy. Eventually I lost my sight from the right eye, and after a few eye check the retina detachment was discovered. I was immediately thrown into a hospital room, locked onto the bed with keeping my face up against the gravity (so that the gravitational force helped preventing further detachment) for three weeks, in June 1982. It was an awful experience for a young teenage boy.

I had to have another surgery on September 1982 because of the unfixed detachment again. Later I had another surgery to fix the squint in 1983, caused by the previous surgeries. And finally in March 1986, the swollen and white-colored lens cell (yes, the lens is a single cell) which had lost the transparency in my right eye finally got taken away.

Fortunately, the retina (not the Apple's high-resolution display) in my right eye is mostly functioning OK, though I really can't read anything with it, and I can no longer accurately identify the 3D depth any more. I usually ignore the sight coming from my right eye other than the level of the light.

I've been with the usability problem caused by the broken right eye for many years, long before I started professional programming. Fortunately I've learned how things get large and small when their distance changes, so I can sway to avoid getting hit from most of the things. I still can enjoy 3D movies, though I won't accurately focus anymore.

Things coming towards me from the right side, however, are hard to recognize. I've stopped operating any vehicles including bicycles; I don't have a driver's license either. You don't want to get into a trouble which you can easily expect, especially where the driver's seat is on the left side of the car, like in the USA or Canada. Japan is not, but that doesn't alleviate the problem.

During the age of 80x25 character terminals when DEC VT100 or VT220 terminals were popular in 1980s, my right eye disability didn't cause much trouble, because the whole screen fit very well in the visual space I could recognize. Even in the age of where 14" or 17" CRT or LCD displays, where the default aspect radio was 4:3 or 5:4, I didn't have much problem. I've written a lot of document and many pieces of code; fortunately none of them mandated me to tackle the three-dimensional loss of perception.

I have a few problems regarding my sight disability since the beginning of the 21st century, unfortunately. One of them is the color design; most web sites choose white as the background color, which interferes the black foreground characters I read. I try to choose darker background colors and brighter foreground colors as possible, but not all web applications allow to do so.

Another one of the 21st century problems is the change of default aspect ratio of the screen to 16:9; this is too wide for my rather narrow sight space. If you are watching a movie this wouldn't be a problem. I welcome high-resolution displays with crispier pixels and accurate positions. But when you write a text, this will be a serious problem, because you can't see everything at once. I always choose narrower horizontal size to keep the screen in my left eye's sight range.

So far I can manage the environmental change of computing in the past 31 years. I expect, however, the future computing models, including those require wearing glasses or assume three-dimensional recognition ability, may eventually reject me from the cutting edge of computing. Maybe I can ask Google to make a special Google Glass to compensate the loss of my right eye's lens and focus directly into my right eye's retina, with proper size adjustment so that I can see the things in two eyes again.

And I can assure everyone that you can write the code with sight disabilities; I know a professional programmer who has completely lost the sight too.

(Thanks Tyler Hannan, who suggested me to write this. I had been hesitating to write about my weakness on the web, but I thought this would be helpful to others.)