A commentary about software in, from, about or somehow remotely connected to the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Banishing a Renegade Ruler

While blithely browsing the web the other night, I was in the midst of entering a search term when an odd little window unexpectedly popped up. renegade rulerIt was titled “Ruler”, and offered some options to check, such as “Snap to X/Y axis” and “Hide Tick marks.”

I found that my keyboard was no longer responding, so I clicked the peculiar popup’s close box and continued typing. All was fine until I had occasion to enter an upper case “R,” then suddenly the strange ruler window popped up again. What the hack was going on?

An hour of experimentation and web research gave me some insight. The ruler box is a feature of the Internet Explorer 7 Developer Toolbar add-on that I had installed a couple months back, but hadn’t trotted out much. It turns the mouse into an on-screen measuring tape that displays the dimension in pixels of whatever you drag over, and can be useful for IE7 Developer Toolbarsizing web page elements. The IE7 Developer Toolbar contains a few other somewhat useful functions, such as the ability to easily examine the code behind individual web page elements (e.g. paragraphs, images, DIVs), simulate the viewable area for various standard screen resolutions, and display a report of all links on a page. But since its official release earlier this year, the toolbar has proven to have some bugs, and has generally been found to be inferior to a similar extension to Firefox called Web Developer.

What I found to be triggering the bad behavior in my IE Developer Toolbar ruler was opening the IE7 Feeds bar for subscribing to blogs. Doing this, either by selecting View | Explorer Bar | Feeds, or by typing Ctrl-Shift-J erroneously causes Shift-R to become a hot key for the Dev Toolbar ruler. I discovered that typing Ctrl-R disables the unwanted hot key.

A different sort of unruly ruler has been the focus of John Bonifaz, attorney, founder of the National Voting Rights Institute and candidate for the Democratic nomination for Massachusetts Secretary of State in 2006, who has recently moved to Amherst. In Warrior-King: The Case for Impeaching George W. Bush (Nation Books, 2003) Bonifaz has argued that Mr. Bush’s leading of the U.S. into war with Iraq was illegal and an impeachable offense. Daily Kos reports that 21 cities and towns in Massachusetts have approved resolutions to impeach President Bush. 16 are in the Pioneer Valley.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Track Meet Technology

I recently returned from a working vacation in Orono, Maine where I joined the Media Operations Team at the 2007 USA Masters Outdoor Track & Field Championships. I was there providing computer support at the behest of Media Director and old buddy, Bob Weiner.

Longtime valley residents may remember Bob as one of a string of democratic kamikazes who attempted to end
Bob Weiner and onlooker
Bob Weiner and onlooker
Sylvio O. Conte’s several decade stranglehold on the Massachusetts District One congressional seat.

Bob made a spirited run for the office in 1986. He was trounced but rebounded in a big way, moving to Washington, DC, where he used his political skills and penchant for promotion to direct the press operations for Congressmen Charles Rangel and John Conyers, then joined the Clinton White House staff as press secretary to Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey. When George W. Bush came to office, Bob left to form his own political consulting company, Robert Weiner Associates, and continues to issue opinion pieces on drug policy, public affairs and his favorite pastime, masters (over age 30) track.

At the meet I shared a tarp with the crew of Brewer Timing Services, and was quickly wowed by the array of technology that went into making sure the races were timed accurately and results reported quickly. The timing folks used a computerized system from FinishLynx. It was designed by Doug DeAngelis from nearby Orrington and is now used to time track, skating, cycling, swimming, kayaking, horse racing and other speed sports throughout the world. The starter's pistol automatically activates a digital timer accurate to better than one one-hundredth of a second, and when competitors cross the finish line they automatically trigger the firing of a high-speed camera that captures and uploads a digital image of the runner with a time bar superimposed below. In this way a photo reader from Brewer Timing can line up a straight edge along the torso of the finisher’s image and read off the exact finish time.

FinshLynx photo of the finish of the Men's 60-69 2000m Steeplechase
The image above shows the kind of photos that they work with. In fact the final runner in the photo, with arms raised, is Bob Weiner. He took fourth place in the men’s age 60-65 2000m Steeplechase with a time of 9:58.10.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Introducing Pioneer Valley Software

The Pioneer Valley Software blog brings together two themes that have pervaded much of my adult life -- software and the Pioneer Valley.

My fascination with software began in the early seventies when, to fulfill a course assignDigital Equipment Corporation PDP-10, 1969ment I developed a BASIC program that calculated the score of an arbitrary cribbage hand. The computational power of Bowdoin College's DEC PDP-10 which I was time-sharing was inspiring.

Continuing on to grad school in the UMass COINS (Computer & Information Science) department I was introduced to concepts such as artificial intelligence and multi-processing operating systems, and smart new programming languages like APL and LISP, and began gaining an appreciation for how computers can be used to solve problems that we meet in our everyday lives.

Now, with the experience of several generations of hardware and software behind me, I continue to find the task of taming computers fresh and challenging, sometimes frustrating, always exciting.

My university stint also enlightened me to another attraction. I found myself living in a place that offers the best of many worlds. Rural splendorAn early tribute to the Valley's beauty -- Thomas Cole's View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow), 1836, cultural diversity, intellectual vitality and political engagement are all strong traits of the Pioneer Valley -- the three Western Massachusetts counties enclosing the Connecticut River. I've been privileged to make my home here, first in Sunderland, then Northampton and today in Amherst.

So in these writings I intend to treat that place where the Pioneer Valley and software intersect. I hope to pass on lessons I've learned about building software solutions before a backdrop of the history, the people, the businesses and the beauty of the Pioneer Valley.