BBC invents new SI unit

BBC News reports: “The Mars Phoenix lander touched down … after a 680-million-km journey”.

I’m amused by “million kilometre” as a unit of measurement. What happened to the gigametre? Why mix french and greek? Perhaps this is actually a clever new idea. We could start measuring hard disk capacity like “350 million kilobytes” to emphasise just how mindbogglngly large they are.


Squawk (simple queues using awk)

If you are easily offended, look away now …

Reliable message queues (ActiveMQ in particular) are pretty handy things. They make it a lot easier to build reliable systems which are able to network problems, hardware trouble and temporary weirdness. However, they always feel pretty heavyweight; suitable for “enterprise systems” but not quick shell scripts.

Well, let’s fix that. My aim is publish and receive messages to an ActiveMQ broker from the unix shell with a minimum of overhead. I want to have a ‘consume’ script which reads messages from a queue and pipes them to a handler. If the handler script succeeds, the message is acknowledged and we win. If the handler script fails, the message is returned back to the queue, and can be re-tried later (possibly by a different host).

STOMP is what makes this easy. It’s a ‘simple text-oriented message protocol’ which is supported directly by ActiveMQ. So we won’t need to mess around with weighty client libraries. A good start.

But we still need to write a ‘consume’ program which will speak STOMP and invoke the message handler script. There are existing STOMP bindings for perl and ruby, but I’m pitching for a pure unix solution.

In STOMP, messages are NUL separated which made me wonder if it’d be possible to use awk, by setting its ‘record separator’ to NUL. The short answer is: yes, awk can do reliable messaging – win!

We’ll need some network glue. Recent versions of awk have builtin network support, but I’m going to use netcat because it’s more common than bleeding-edge awks.

I also want to keep ‘consume’ to be a single file, but I don’t want to pull my hair out trying to escape everything properly. So, I’ll use a bash here document to write the awk script out to a temporary file before invoking awk. (is there a nicer way to do this?)

There’s not much more to say except here’s the scripts: consume and produce.

To try it out, you’ll need to download ActiveMQ and start it up; just do ./bin/activemq and you’ll get a broker which has a stomp listener on port 61613.

To publish to a queue, run: echo ‘my message’ | ./produce localhost 61613 /queue/a

To consume, first write a message handler, such as:

echo Handling a message at $(date).  Message follows:
echo '(message ends)'
exit 0

and then run: ./consume localhost 61613 /queue/a ./myhandler.

To simulate failure, change the handler to “exit 1”. The message will be returned to the queue. By default, the consumer will then immediately try again, so I added in a ‘sleep 1’ to slow things down a bit. ActiveMQ has many tweakable settings to control backoff, redelivery attempts and dead-letter queue behaviour.

I’m done.

If you want to learn more about awk, check out the awk book on my bookshelf.

Y’know, come the apocalypse, the cockroaches’s programming language of choice is probably going to be awk.

General Programming

Netscape; hindsight is foresight

I have been enjoying reading “Architects of the Web” (see it on my Amazon bookshelf), a collection of stories from the early days of Netscape, Yahoo and the like. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid the doom of repetition, I’ve been reading a lot of “software history” recently … Seattle Public Library has got plenty of cool books.

Chapter one follows the founding of Netscape, from the early days of NCSA Mosaic, the fortuitous meeting of Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark and the beginning of the browser wars. I remember this from first time around, but I didn’t really understand all of what was going on.

The book progresses to follow the start of the browser wars, AOL beginning to bundle IE, Netscape launching the communicator suite …

And then the Netscape part of the book ends.

What? The end? But what about the browser wars? Microsoft getting sued by their own government? The AOL buyout? The Time Warner merger? Open sourcing of mozilla? The doldrums of tangled source code? And finally the rise of firefox?

As I flipped back to the opening “acknowledgements” page, I suddenly understand.

It was written in December 1996.

OMG. This book is a history of the web from the world of 1996. They had no idea what was coming next. Napster was nearly three years away. iTunes and the DRM wars would wait another few years beyond that. Skype, blogs, Flickr and web2.0 weren’t even on the radar yet.

But then again, what would happen if I wrote a ‘history of the web’ book today? Twelve years from now, someone might pick it up and say “Wow, these guys had no idea that X, Y and Z were just around the corner”.

I remember during the early days of Napster, I thought “this is basically illegal and will get squished”. But it took me a while to understand that (although Napster itself would ultimately be doomed) a genie had came out from a bottle and wasn’t ever going back in. Napster itself would end up dead, but so would the “old way of thinking”. It maybe took over a decade, but now stores are selling DRM free digital music and making lots of money doing so. People voted with their feet and it’s hard to stop a crowd.

So it occurs to me that in order to have a chance of seeing the new X, Y and Z before they creep over the horizon, you probably want to try letting go some of your ‘immutable assumptions’ about the world, and see what’d change if the assumption didn’t hold any more. Here’s some which pop into my head: ‘you need to have a bank account to put your money into’, ‘computers are not disposable items’, ‘companies need to keep stuff secret from their competitors’. Coincidentally, I’m also reading a book about Einstein’s life (on my bookshelf) and he’s the posterchild for the the “what happens if we ignore this fundamental assumption” school of thought.

So I’m now wondering: which ‘truths’ will have their demise chronicled in the history books of the future?